Monthly Archives: September 2011

Gears of War 3 Review


[Gears of War 3
Developed by Epic Games
Published by Microsoft Game Studios
ESRB: M – For Blood And Gore, Intense Violence, And Strong Language]

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the Gears of War series. The series has very well-executed gameplay, really enjoyable multiplayer, even more enjoyable co-op, and extremely polished triple-A campaigns that have remarkable set-pieces. That being said, it’s also a series that embodies so many of the worst cliches in gaming, from the color-palette that has only one primary color which is used only for bodily fluids; the meat-head, alpha-male, locker-room banter of the protagonists, a cliche’d “aliens don’t like humans” story with no interesting themes or ideas enveloping it, and, of course, it introduced the industry to cover systems, and while Gears uses cover-combat well, its numerous, more poorly done imitators make it almost seem like it was for the worse.

That being said, my love-hate relationship has shifted trajectory into straight-up love with the latest installment in the popular franchise Gears of War 3, which is not only the best game in the series but also one of the best games of the year so far. The cliches are still there but they’ve been dialed down to a level that’s bearable, and whereas the combat was well-executed in the previous installments, this time, the gameplay is so polished you can see your reflection on it and it will always look like Brad Pitt.

Yeah, the plot is still cliche’d as ever. Humanity is nearly extinct and the newest additional threat of Lambent Locust aliens are just making things even harder for them to stay alive. You (and three other friends if you’re in co-op) are part of the last remaining soldiers of the COG army which sounds an awful lot like the COCK army, pardon my immaturity, though there are more X-chromosomes this time around with the addition of female Gears soldiers so props for that, I guess. Marcus Fenix, leader of this group of remaining humans, realizes that his thought-to-be-dead father is actually alive and perhaps has something that can defeat the Locust and the Lambent, and still not a single challenging, interesting, or original thought or idea is presented.

Yet the story is actually really good this time around. It obviously doesn’t have the complexity of masterpieces like Bioshock, or even Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for that matter, but what makes it work this time is that the team at Epic Games decided to make the characters not annoying macho-douches. The humor actually feels solid now and the banter actually inspired some genuine chuckles every now and then (Though there’s still the occasional groan-inducing one-liner), and the addition of female Gears soldiers, as mentioned earlier, keeps the over-masculine dudebro mentality from becoming over-the-top.

Epic also apparently learned its lesson from the second installment that emotional moments, namely the cheesy Dom-Maria back-story, do not work if they’re ham-fisted, melodramatic, or whiny. This time, the emotional center actually feels consistent and fits more fluidly into the big picture while still not interrupting the signature broseph nature of the dialogue or feeling like parody like the second game did.

To give you an example: There was one bizarre sequence in which one of the characters Cole, a former Thrashball player (Yeah, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds), has a flashback of his glory days on the stadium, and it was one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced in a game. Not because it was cheesy, over-the-top (which it totally was), but because it was also strangely effective and endearing. This is because it actually fit the character that they’ve developed over the course of three games, and I think that’s the main reason why the emotional flourishes work better this time around: It just fits more fluidly. Whereas the tone in Gears 2 was really inconsistent, Gears 3 keeps a nice balance between the humor and the drama. Rather than the characters just being archetypes, they’re archetypes that have actual motivations and characteristics about them.

This all culminates into a surprisingly touching and poignant moment with Dom during Act III of the game, which is odd considering that Dom is the same character responsible for one of the worst aspects of Gears 2, which was the Maria scenario. This time, however, Dom actually has an emotional arc throughout the game that resonates into an almost crushing high point. He begins the game whining about his wife as usual, watering numerous plants in her honor, but then begins to realize that Maria is in a better place and that he should make good use of his own life by helping his fellow Gears no matter the cost. And it actually works.

I never thought I’d say this, but a Gears of War game has actually emotionally resonated with me. I’m just as surprised as you probably are. Without spoiling anything, a visit to a graveyard followed by a sequence in which he drives a truck actually struck a real chord with me. I still wouldn’t rank it as high as, say, Shadow of the Colossus or Silent Hill 2 when it comes to games that are able to break me down into a pathetic sad-sack, but it is really effective.

But wait? Why am I still talking about the story? None of us, dudebro, bum-tumblers care about story! Let’s talk about the combat! Yeah! That’s what real penis-owners are all about, right?! And not unlike my penis, the combat is as solid as a god damn rock. The cover system in Gears 3 is perhaps the smoothest cover system I’ve ever experienced out of any game ever, allowing you to navigate from point A to point B with ease and fluidity, and I think I just found another stupid dick joke somewhere there.

The gunplay is still as strong as ever with a great variety of different weapons that bring some color to every firefight. The digger launcher adds some difficulty to the cover-combat since it is able to move past cover, the One-Shot rifle allows for some bloody explosions of gore, and as annoying as the recoil for the Retro Lancer is, nothing is more satisfying than executing a perfect bayonet charge.

There is also plenty of variety in enemies. Your typical Locusts, Boomers, Tickers, and Wretches are all there, in addition to armored versions of the Kantus that lead to really difficult and intense fights, the Lambent versions of enemies that explode upon death and can stretch their limbs out, Corpsers that have armored fronts, etc. Each firefight has a wide variety of these enemies bunched together and coupled with the unique weapons, they all feel fresh and fun.

Also, this is probably one of the most well-paced campaigns I’ve played in a long while. Whereas games like Call of Duty: Black Ops just bombard you with too much action and explosions that it becomes incoherent and messy to play, Gears actually takes its time to settle everything in before it bombards you with action and explosions, and even then, it never becomes too much that the player can’t handle. The final three chapters in particular have a remarkable crescendo that feels like the best blockbuster action finale to not come out of Hollywood.

But what am I still talking about the campaign for? None of us penis owners talk about that either! Let’s talk about the multiplayer! That way we can wave our gigantic willies around at each other! Whip out your Kinects/Vision Cameras, people!

In all seriousness, though, if all you want is a downright fun multiplayer experience without having to hand your money into Activision’s “It Prints Money, Bitch”-o-meter, you can’t go wrong with Gears 3. The smooth cover system and weapon variety translates nicely into multiplayer and everything is balanced enough for any remotely skilled player to gain the upper hand. Hell, I was able to get an MVP ribbon multiple times throughout the game, and I normally suck at Gears multiplayer.

This doesn’t mean that it’s been dumbed down, but the controls are no refined to a point that you can fluidly dispatch enemies and have a fighting chance againt more skilled players. Or you can just exploit the over-powered Sawed-Off Shotgun like me. Whatever works.

If you’re more into fighting WITH friends rather than against them, the co-op is pretty much some of the best you’ll play all year. Horde mode has an added layer of strategy thanks to some Tower-defense elements that deviate from the monotony of fighting wave after wave of baddies, and if you tire of the typical shooter combat, you can always jump into Beast mode for an almost completely new approach to Horde by taking control of the various Locust creatures this time around.

Simply put, Gears 3 practically has it all. A polished campaign with refined multiplayer and co-op. The only thing it’s missing is tits and it will viably satisfy all your nerdiest desires.

If I have any qualms with the game, they’re all pretty much nit picks. While the enemy AI is very well programmed, the same can’t be said for friendly AI. Sure, they can hold their own in a firefight, but when you’re bleeding out and crawling to a safe spot, they’ll get distracted by a butterfly and heartily ignore your wounded cries for help even when you’re kneeling down right in front of them.

While Epic has made more of an effort to add some color to the environments, they still unfortunately follow the Real Is Brown trope to a ridiculous degree. And yeah, improved as the plot is, it’s still riddled with the usual cliches and still nary a single challenging thought or idea is presented.

Still, though, I can’t recommend this game enough, and I won’t need to considering pretty much everyone and their grandmother is playing it.

Final Verdict: Gears of War 3 may not have the depth or complexity of classics like Bioshock or even Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but it’s the best you can possibly do with a big-budget blockbuster game. The campaign is extremely well-paced and remarkably polished, the multiplayer is the best out of any Gears game, co-op is a total blast whether it be in campaign, horde, or beast mode; the entire game is a huge variety pack of great and varied modes that anyone can enjoy, regardless of its cliches.

That is all.

See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to softly cry to myself in a fetal position while listening to Mad World for the eighty bazillionth time. “Hello teacher tell me what’s my lesson…” 

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Drive Movie Review

[Drive

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carrey Mulligan, and Ron Perlman
MPAA: R – For Strong Brutal Bloody Violence, Language, And Some Nudity]

Drive is a rare kind of miracle. It is an action movie that works because of atmosphere and mood. Does it have good action? Yes. Does it have kick-ass car chases in it? Of course. Are the performances any good? Abso-fucking-lutely. But Drive is a director’s movie, and director Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson and the Pusher trilogy) directs the SHIT out of it.

Drive is the story of the enigmatic hero simply known as The Driver (Ryan Gosling) who works as a burger flipper…okay that wasn’t funny, yeah he’s obviously a driver. By day, he’s a stunt driver. By night, he’s a getaway driver. While there may be a discernible difference in how he’s driving, who he’s driving for, and why he’s driving between day and night, all that really matters is that he drives, and that is it.

He ends up falling head-over-heels by his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who is going through difficulties raising her son Benicio alone while his husband (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. He makes a bond with Irene and Benicio, takes them out for rides across Los Angeles, and begins to find meaning in his life other than driving.

This all goes to shit when Irene’s husband is released from prison, which doesn’t go the way you expect, but still does end up causing a lot of trouble. Due to circumstances I will leave unspoiled (Though, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve probably already been spoiled enough), Driver gets a contract on his head after a heist gone awry, which could potentially bring harm to Irene and Benicio. The Driver will do everything in his power to protect them both.

The Driver is a strange character. In today’s age, most films have been trying to bring complexity to their protagonists, sometimes successfully (Iron Man, Spider-Man), sometimes disastrously (Terminator: Salvation, The Green Hornet), yet the Driver is a refreshing throwback of classic heroes.

He has no backstory, no family, no real name, no real friends with the exception of Bryan Cranston as a repairman for all his cars, and he hardly ever seems to have any emotions. All he does is…drive. That is his sole purpose, that is all he was born to do, and he does it well. He’s a hero of a different kind. He’s the embodiment of the Western tradition of the Man With No Name.

This gives Ryan Gosling a difficult job as the Driver. One false move and he could make the Driver as bland and forgettable a protagonist as humanly possible, but he doesn’t. Gosling brings all his leading-man charisma into the back-burner, and instead replaces it with an air of mystery and stoicism.

Paradoxically, by showing as little emotion as possible, the Driver becomes a more interesting and compelling character. He is a distant figure in the distance to look up to, defined only by his actions and his behavior. This makes the rare instances in which he does exhibit some emotion, all the more powerful. One of the posters bears the tagline “Some heroes are real”, and that’s the best way to describe the Driver. A hero from a storybook that’s leapt out into the modern world, and taken the form of a getaway driver.

Another thing that helps by having a minimalist protagonist is that he gets to be surrounded by some well-rounded supporting characters. The entire cast is terrific. Carrey Mulligan is sweet as always, Oscar Isaac successfully redeems himself from the wreckage of Sucker Punch, Bryan Cranston’s voice is still as sexy as ever, Albert Brooks takes on a darker than expected role, and Ron Perlman is at his Ron Perlman-iest.

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As if that wasn’t enough, the directing is pretty much some of the best direction you’ll see all year. Nicolas Winding Refn incorporates the film with a slight touch of surrealism that heightens the existential mood of the film. The way he shoots Los Angeles reminded me highly of the way David Lynch did so in Mulholland Dr., with a strange, dream-like quality that you can’t seem to put your finger on, with a strong emphasis on the city lights shining in the distance.

The sound design heightens this strange atmosphere as well. Cars whoosh past Ryan Gosling in an almost zen-like fashion whenever he’s behind the wheel, and Cliff Martinez’s score is one of the best scores of the year this side of the Chemical Brothers’ accomplishment with Hanna. Heavily ’80s inspired electro-tunes thump in the background and evocatively hum like the car engines that feature prominently in the film.

It’s like we’re fully immersed into the mindset of the Driver’s driving-obsessed mind. He lives behind the wheel, and as such, even when he isn’t in a car, we feel like we’re still behind the wheel, whether it be a pleasant Sunday drive, or a tension-filled getaway.

So far, I’ve said a lot about the mood and feel of the film, but let’s make one thing clear: Drive is still an action movie, and as such, there are still action sequences for the mainstream audiences to latch onto. And boy do they kick ass. The car chases are phenomenally well-done, tightly edited and coherently shot, and they are all choreographed exceptionally. Because we have an understanding of the characters, and because of the heightened mood of surrealism, there is some real tension while the car chases and shootouts come into play.

Also, this movie is fucking violent. It’s brutal, bloody, and inventive in its ways of dispatching people. One sequence that takes place in a motel room had my jaw on the floor. After coming out of the disappointingly bland Straw Dogs, I was surprised to learn that this week’s action movie has more gore and more tension than this week’s horror offering.

And I must say, I can definitely see Drive as a potential classic. It is full of imagery that feels iconic, and it has a feel to it that feels unlike any other film I’ve seen. Hell, if alpha-male douchebags begin wearing Ryan Gosling’s scorpion jacket, I wouldn’t mind. That jacket feels iconic, and it would be nice to see douchebags worshipping a movie that’s actually good after having to hear the dumbest audience cheer at the stupidest moments of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

It’s a unique blend of arthouse and action, which is a rare combination that we’ve been getting more of lately. The trend seemed to have started with the George Clooney vehicle The American, a film that I really like, but most audiences hated because it leaned more towards the art-house side than the action side. Then Joe Wright’s Hanna released, another one of the best films of 2011, which was more successful because it leaned more towards the action side rather than the art-house side.

Drive however, doesn’t need to lean more towards one over the other to work. It’s the first art-house action film that deftly balances art-house and action sensibilities into a satisfying package, allowing for a movie that anybody can enjoy, from cinephiles to mainstream auds.

Final Verdict: Believe the hype. Drive is one of the best movies of the year, and it’s certainly in my top 5, let alone my top 3. It has a striking mood and imagery to complement it, a captivating performance from Ryan Gosling, and some of the best action you’ll see all year. Terrible pun incoming: Drive to your theaters immediately for this one.

That is all. See ya next time, now if you’ll excuse me, I’m not going to post the trailer this time because it literally spoils almost the whole movie. Seriously, don’t watch it. Bye!

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Straw Dogs Movie Review

Warning: To get into great length about what makes Straw Dogs not work (Oh, and btw, Straw Dogs does not work) I’m going to have to get into full length about the plot and more specifically, the ending. Not just of the movie, but also the original Sam Peckinpah-Dustin Hoffman movie that inspired it. So..

SPOILERS FOR STRAW DOGS, THE REMAKE AND THE ORIGINAL

[Straw Dogs
Written and Directed by Rod Lurie
Starring: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, and Alexander Skarsgaard
MPAA: R – For Strong Brutal Violence Including A Sexual Attack, Menace, Some Sexual Content, and Pervasive Language]

Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs is one of the most controversial films of all time, and for good reason. In the original film, a newlywed Dustin Hoffman moves to his wife’s hometown in the rural England countryside, whereupon a group of locals, one of which being his wife’s ex-boyfriend, begin to harass the two of them in more and more extreme ways, leading up to a legendarily shocking rape scene and a violent siege scene.

It was symbolic of the intellectualism vs. aloof bruteness culture clash. It could also represent new vs. old ways, the modern world vs. the ancient world, and whatever the hell you can interpret. And apparently, writer-director Rod Lurie interpreted it as a “Blue State vs. Red State” sort of an affair, and for some reason thought that remaking it would result in the hearty discussion and moral debate that the original one inspired.

So now here’s the new and unimproved 2011 Straw Dogs, in which the mathematician Dustin Hoffman is now the Hollywood screenwriter James Marsden, the rural English Susan George is now the rural Southern Kate Bosworth, instead of the English countryside, it is a Southern hillbilly town, and instead of moral ambiguity, we get symbolism so heavy-handed that it nears outright ridiculousness.

Now, when I say that the symbolism is heavy-handed, I do not understate that. A scene in which James Marsden is shooting a deer is inter-cut with the rape of his wife by another man (Hey, I told you this is a spoiler review!), the hillbillies that represent Red State-ideals literally wave around a Confederate flag, and to top it all off, Kate Bosworth has two different colored eyes, one brown and one blue, which represents her indecision between James Marsden’s liberal lifestyle, and Alexander Skarsgaard’s more conservative-hillbilly lifestyle.

And it’s not just in terms of the themes. James Marsden’s character is a nerdy (Seriously, how do “nerdy” and “James Marsden” fit in the same senetence?) Hollywood screenwriter, and the villain that his wife used to date was once a huge football star in his high school. If that isn’t the most obvious author-insertion/wish-fulfillment fantasy I’ve ever seen, then it would only be so because it was fan-fiction.

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Also, it becomes apparently obvious that Rod Lurie is just using the film as an excuse to bash conservative, Republican, Red-State ideals moreso than to make a morally-ambiguous dilemma like the original film did. The moral ambiguity of the first film has been replaced with a stereotypical view of the rural South that is almost insultingly pandering to view. Yes, I’m not a big fan of redneck hillbilly dildos either, but the way it’s portrayed in this film feels more like a parody than anything else, which is not the way this type of movie is supposed to be played.

Rather than comparing it to the original film, I could, however, just critique it as a home-invasion thriller, which is what the film has been marketed as by the cold, unfeeling, cynical studio system, but even the heavily advertised homestead siege scene is disappointing. Yeah, it’s kind of violent, and there is one memorable kill that I thought was kind of awesome, but aside from that, none of it felt brutal enough to start fawning over, and there were absolutely no thrills because I didn’t give a shit about whether or not Gary-Stu and Bitchy McBitchPants lived or died.

Before I get into the BIG FLAW of the film, let’s prepare things by being nice for once and talking about what the movie has going for it.

I appreciated that Lurie took his time to introduce all the characters and set up the small town of Blackwater, though it still doesn’t matter because you still don’t give a damn but SHUT UP I’M IN NICE MODE RIGHT NOW.

James Marsden and Alexander Skarsgaard do rather well in their respective roles. Skarsgaard is convincingly threatening without completely spelling it out to the audience, and though Marsden is miscast as a nerdy screenwriter, he still displays his usual charm and leading-man charisma even though the writing plays him off as a perfect, holy, liberal, Jesus Gary-Stu–OKAY THEN, NICE TIME OVER.

Now, here’s the big reason why the film doesn’t work.

In the original film, the most infamously shocking moment is when the ex-boyfriend comes in to rape Susan George silly. What’s shocking isn’t the rape, but what it represents, which is the neanderthal lifestyle that she used to live attempting (and succeeding) to take over her new-found civilized lifestyle with Dustin Hoffman …and also the fact that at the end of the rape you can see Susan George SMILING. Yeah, it’s a dark movie.

When the husband comes back, she doesn’t tell him because part of her is still enamored with her more masculine ex, and when they show up again in the third act for the big home-invasion sequence, she even calls to the ex-boyfriend for help at one point rather than Dustin Hoffman. In the end, Dustin Hoffman must sacrifice his intellectual, higher-moral-ground ways for his survival by taking the bad guys out, but in doing so, he loses his sense of identity and who he truly was to begin with.

In the remake, however, the wife clearly doesn’t enjoy being raped, yet STILL doesn’t tell anyone about it in the biggest dick move to “stay true to the original” to end all dick moves. And when the home-invasion sequence comes into play, yeah, it’s kind of entertaining to see a “nerdy” guy completely wreck up a gang of redneck hillbillies, but it’s all for naught because the moral dilemma of the original is replaced with the typical couple being brought together by extreme circumstances routine.

So, yeah, rather than being legitimately thought-provoking, it becomes cliche’d and derivative. What else would you expect out of a Hollywood Remake?

Final Verdict: Nonsensically written, heavy-handed in its symbolism, cynical in its stereotypical view of the American South, and removing all shreds of thought provocation from the original source, no amount of decent performances or well-shot home-invasion sequences can make up for that. These Straw Dogs need to be burned.

That is all. See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I just wanna look at Alexander Skarsgaard’s abs. Sooo dreamy…

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Revisiting Donnie Darko

The Following Contains Spoilers. Please Don’t Read This If You Haven’t Already Seen The Film.

Last weekend, I revisited an experience that I’ll never forget. I went across wormholes, met giant demonic bunny rabbits, flooded my school, attempted time travel, and followed a spherical energy field coming out of my chest into fantastical places. Then after that, I swore off shrooms for good after running my car into a tree and re-watched Donnie Darko to ease me off my crying fetal position of withdrawal and inadequacy.

Stupid joke aside, when I started getting into movies in the 8th grade, I watched Donnie Darko to disappointment. I heard tons of great things about it, how it was a cult classic, how it was a surprisingly deep sci-fi character study with existential themes wrapped inside it, all in the context of an ’80s coming of age story that uses the apocalypse as a representation of it’s title character’s angst. So when I finally rented it back when Blockbuster still apparently existed, I…liked it, but felt that all its promise and potential was thrown out the door in favor of confusion for the sake of confusion.

Today, however, my snobby-ness has grown to a point that I appreciate the medium of film much differently, as well as more substantially. Hell, when I first saw Mulholland Dr, I didn’t get it and even wrote a review at how much the ending pissed me off. Now, I love the movie and the way it warps with reality and fantasy so inventively, and even better is showing it to more people who have no idea what insanity they’re getting into.

But what exactly got me into re-visiting Mr. Darko’s strangely hypnotic world. well, I was showing my sister The Nines one day, a film that I included in my Top 15 Movies You Probably Haven’t Tried (That You Totally Should Try) List, and in the blurb, I said and I quote “If you love Donnie Darko, you’ll love The Nines.” Re-watching it, I started to compare it to my long, long-ago experience with Darko, and was thinking about how superior I thought The Nines was, until I thought to myself, “Do I really think that? Or is my memory of the movie fuzzy?”

Needless to say, I saw that the local library had the DVD available to rent a couple days later, so I whipped it up and brought it home for a magical night of hallucinatory weirdness (not gay).

And, surprisingly enough, my appreciation for the film has grown. I loved the movie, this time. I was able to get lost into its strange but true-to-life, fully-realized, Reagan-era suburb and the ending wasn’t nearly as confusing as I remembered it being. Though to be fair, after seeing all of David Lynch’s more abstract work, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Miranda July’s The Future, Richard Kelly’s own Southland Tales, and other more abstract and confusing work, Donnie Darko is just more accessible by comparison.

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Though, to the movie’s credit, unlike Richard Kelly’s later efforts, Donnie Darko gives the audience enough material to actually interpret the ending in your own way without being completely befuddled by it, which is what I think makes it much more than just Kelly simply “trying” to be incomprehensible to make himself look deep. He clearly knows what he’s doing and trying to say; hell, he knows it even in Southland Tales and The Box. But what separates Darko from the latter two films is a key element: Control.

Kelly, as a person, simply fascinates me, for some reason. He has crazy high ambitions, none of his films have ever made money at the box-office, Darko became a massive cult hit, he’s praised as Generation X’s David Lynch at the time, makes Southland Tales 5 or so years later, which, like it or not, is one of the most audacious to ever be made, and he becomes one of the most reviled men in movie-geek history.

I wanna know what that’s like in his shoes. He clearly is a smart guy, even his train-wrecks show flashes of brilliance in them. It’s just that he has a hard time with the word “restraint”. Either way, I’d much rather have a guy with tons of creativity and no restraint, than a man with testicles for brains and authoritative control. And I’d much rather watch Southland Tales ten times then see Cowboys & Aliens or Transformers: Dark of the Moon a second time.

The main reason why Donnie Darko works so well in comparison to Southalnd Tales and The Box (Both of those movies I actually like, but will acknowledge how terribly flawed they are) is that Richard Kelly doesn’t veer off too far into la-la-land. While there’s plenty of crazy stuff involving giant demonic bunny rabbits, time travel, a looming apocalypse, wormholes, and a mysterious jet engine, the film is still grounded in reality thanks to remarkable character development.

There’s a reason why everyone considers Gyllenhaal as “the guy who played Donnie Darko”, and that’s because it is probably his most defining work. Richard Kelly’s offbeat writing only works when good actors are saying his lines, and all of the actors in Darko are cast exceptionally well, with special mention to Gyllenhaal, who is convincing as a young adult who is completely driven by angst, and doesn’t wish to have the responsibility of saving the world.

As angsty as Donnie is, we still care about him. It’s hard to see why exactly he is as angsty as he is. He has parents that deeply love him, nothing truly traumatic has happened to him before the movie’s starting point, he even gets a girlfriend as the movie begins, and at school he’s…well, he’s kind of bullied by a couple jerk-asses (one of which being Seth Rogen), but his teachers at least are…oh yeah, his gym teacher is a total bitch. Well, even with those poos in the fruit basket (I can’t believe I wrote that, either), it isn’t really enough to bring him down, right?

Well, apparently not. Donnie’s problems stem more from the psychological front than anything else. There’s just something about him that troubles him. Perhaps it’s the fact that the world is closing in on him. That life has unreasonably high expectation for him, and he doesn’t know what to do in the face of the world. He wishes to destroy the world, “just to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They want to change things.”

That last line is important because it is a quote from a Graham Green short story called The Destructors that is referenced in the film, as well as mirrors the acts of vandalism that Donnie performs throughout the course of the movie. Richard Kelly does a good job at keeping things symbolic in a way that isn’t completely incomprehensible. Donnie’s actions mirror those of the short story, and also reflect the theme that destruction can become an act of creation which factors heavily into the whole “sacrifice” element that happens in the film’s ending.

Another thing that I didn’t notice in my first viewing was the setting, which takes place in an ’80s Reagan-era suburb that eerily evokes classic John Hughes films. I honestly couldn’t believe that I missed this factor when I first saw it. Though to be fair, as an 8th grader, your eye for politically historical contexts is limited, but the second Maggie Gyllenhaal said “I’m voting for Dukakis”, it boggled my mind for a bit that I didn’t notice that until now. Especially since there are title cards that deliberately give out THE DATE AND YEAR THE MOVIE TAKES PLACE IN. God I was stupid back then…

The movie brings back nostalgia for classic ’80s John Hughes films without completely aping from them. It finds its own voice, yet still allows you to remember a time when friends would ride their bikes to investigate the neighborhood recluse.

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Finally, there’s the ending. As I said before, I was able to understand it better the second time around, but it’s still an interesting enigma, pardon the name-drop. While I understood the time-travel elements well, such as where exactly the jet engine came from, how it leads Donnie back into his bed on October 2nd, allows him to undo all the bad things that happen with a sacrifice, death as an act of creation, the death of his mother and sister in the plane turn into the death Donnie that ultimately saves his mother and sister in another timeline as well as Gretchen, etc., etc.

What makes it work is not that it’s confusing or multi-layered, but that it focuses on the emotions in the center. We feel like we’ve experienced a significant portion of Donnie’s life, and we feel like we’ve come to know him, and in turn, care about what happens to him. This makes the ending work on a human level as well as a psychological level, which can be said for the entire movie.

This is why Southland Tales and The Box don’t work nearly as well. They forget that a midst the chaos of confusion is a person that we can understand. I am still waiting for Richard Kelly to make a truly great successor to Darko some time. It would be nice to see, after being ridiculed several times, he’ll come back on top and show us all the true genius that is hiding inside his ego. He just needs some restraint. And a rabbit named Frank.

That is all.

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Meek’s Cutoff Movie Review


[Meek’s Cutoff
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and Paul Dano
MPAA: PG – For Some Mild Violent Content, Brief Language, and Smoking]


When you think of a Western, what normally crosses your mind? I’d imagine six-shooters, standoffs on high noon, mysterious men without names going on heroic quests, outlaws, horses riding off into the sunset, etc. So it should be a little surprising to know that Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Meek’s Cutoff, has absolutely none of those. Instead, it’s practically a cinematic adaptation of the Oregon Trail video game, vouching for a realistic depiction of covered-wagon pioneers of the mid-1800s.

It’s actually more in line with a survival film than anything else, as a large group of people (One of which being Michelle Williams) travel across the endless prairies with little food or water and their entire lives packed up in their wagons. The plot is as simple as could be. Go from Point A to Point B without royally screwing up. And yet, Meek’s Cutoff is one of the most engaging films of the year.

Michelle Williams and six-or-so more people are traveling across the endless prairies with a man named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) as their guide. It’s been days, possibly even weeks, since finding any civilization and everyone is getting worried that perhaps Meek doesn’t really know where he’s going. Tensions escalate even further when they capture a Native American and begin to use him as their guide. Soon, everyone begins panicking even further, as they start thinking that perhaps their new Indian guide could be leading them into a trap. Paranoia starts to rise, their food and water are slowly dwindling, and tension between Michelle Williams and Meek begins peaking.

Meek’s Cutoff is the kind of film that I wouldn’t recommend to people who think of film as a mere pastime. To get full enjoyment–actually, that’s the wrong word. To get the full experience of the film, you’ll need to make a commitment to it, possibly by saving up to buy it expensive jewelry and fancy cars. If you even think about watching it in a noise room while your children/younger siblings are shouting in the background, or you stop halfway through the movie to get a sandwich and come back 20 minutes later, the effect is lost.

There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, Meek’s Cutoff, despite being a Western, rests solely on its atmosphere. No, not in the same sense as, say, The Shining, but a bit more along the lines of The Thin Red Line. For one thing, the movie looks positively gorgeous, making great use of the vast and empty wilderness that surrounds them and keeping up a consistent sense of loneliness and anxiety throughout the picture. Hell, when the movie was released in theaters, it was released in a 4:3 ratio. The letterboxes almost feel like they’re literally imprisoning and closing in on the characters. Roger Deakins certainly would’ve been proud. 

And on the other end of the spectrum, the use of sound does this even more effectively, with eerie and evocative violins humming away from a faraway place, bellowing our protagonists to find their way. It sets up a mood of slowly creeping dread that isn’t necessarily like a horror movie, but certainly gives you chills as you’re watching as you just know that something bad is about to happen.

The other reason you should fully immerse yourself into the film is because this movie is SLOW. To say that this movie is understated is an understatement in and of itself. There are many long periods of just watching everyone just walking across a valley with absolutely no dialogue at all. It’s effective, but it’ll test the patience not only of those who don’t give in to the movie, but also those with short attention spans. If you thought The Road was slow, than this movie probably isn’t for you.

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Speaking of The Road, I can actually seeing this film translating itself from a Western into a post-apocalyptic film easily. It really does have that feel of an epic journey across a desolate wasteland as the survivors try to find the last-remaining sanctuary. Kelly Reichardt, however, probably saw that opportunity, seeing how done-to-death the apocalypse is in movies nowadays, and it must’ve been a risk making a period-piece, which has less appeal, at a low budget.

Reichardt is an underrated yet important cinematic voice in our generation. Her slow, muted, restrained style actually brings about stronger emotions than most movies can muster. Her previous film, Wendy and Lucy (also starring Michelle Williams) had almost no plot, but packed a heart-breaking punch of an ending. Also, it had a cute dog. Hearing that alone, you know that it’s going to be sad.

She employs a strong sense of tension throughout the course of Meek’s Cutoff that I really wasn’t expecting. One sequence involving the group lowering their wagons down a steep hill is surprisingly intense and suspenseful, because there are real stakes involved. One slight, false step can render their entire lives, their whole journey, completely meaningless in a matter of seconds.

The characters are decidedly underwritten, which is both a good and bad thing, depending on your preference. You never get a clear backstory on any of them, which is effective because what matters isn’t who these people were then, but who they are now, and how they change throughout the course of their journey. Sure, it makes it hard to care about the more minor characters of the film, but what makes it ultimately work is the performances…or to be more specific: the performance.

As per usual, Michelle Williams brings her natural rawness and power with her in every scene she’s in. She’s determined, she doesn’t take shit from nobody, and she’ll do whatever it takes to make sure everyone is safe. She gives us a reason to care about what happens to these people, and the film is better for it. As for the rest of the cast, Greenwood is pretty chilling as the titular Meek, Paul Dano has one line that hilariously reminded me of his role in There Will Be Blood, and everyone else was fine but forgettable.

The acting isn’t what you go into the film for, though. And for what it is…

Final VerdictMeek’s Cutoff does something most films fail to do. It is really slow-paced and uneventful, yet it still captivates you thanks to a strong atmosphere, effective performances, and a surprising amount of tension with real stakes built into it. Not everyone’s going to like it, but to those who fully immerse themselves into the film’s ambiance will get a lot out of it.

That is all.

See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to deliberately grow a beard that resembles the crazy-ass shit that grows out of Bruce Greenwood in this movie. Now THAT’S what you call a beard. Bye!

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The Top 10 Best Ending Songs Of All Time

Well, I wasn’t able to see Contagion today, so here’s another Top 10 List!!

You know that moment in an awesome movie when the movie ends, and just when you think it couldn’t be more awesome, a kick-ass song that fits perfectly begins to play and makes you love it even more? This list is in honor of that moment.

Today, we look at the top 10 best movie ending songs of all time, not just because they’re awesome songs, but because of how well they complement their respective movies. Enjoy.

WARNING: Some Spoilers Abound In Some Of Them

#10: Bruce Springsteen’s The Wrestler from The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2009)

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The reason why this isn’t higher on the list is, to be perfectly honest, I’m not a big fan of this song, or this type of song in general. However, I can’t deny how effective it was when it played at the end of Darren Aronofsky’s fantastic The Wrestler. The lyrics themselves are wonderfully written, and are able to spell out the main themes of the film without feeling corny…that is, it doesn’t feel corny until they come out of Bruce Springsteen’s mouth. Still though, while it doesn’t really hold up on its own (to me anyways), it works really well when complemented with Aronofsky’s heart-breaking ending.

#9: Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes from Say Anything (Cameron Crowe, 1989)

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I really don’t even need to explain this one. It’s too iconic for an explanation. It’s been parodied in countless films, like The Puffy Chair and Easy A, but it still retains its universal charm. A testament to the fact that this scene still works to this day.

#8: TIE – Frou Frou’s Let Go from Garden State (Zach Braff. 2004) and Mumm-Ra’s She’s Got You High from (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009)

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Two charming romantic comedies, each one ending on a sweet note accompanied by a sweet song. Garden State‘s ending feels surprisingly effective as Let Go begins to play while the camera walks back from the kissing Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. And while (500) Days of Summer‘s ending is a bit on the “winky-winky” side of things, the burn is healed by She’s Got You High playing over the credits.

#7: Sigur Ros’s Festival from 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

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Sigur Ros makes some of the most strangely transcendant and life-affirming music today, making it a perfect fit for Danny Boyle’s transcendant, inspirational, and life-affirming survival film 127 Hours. It isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that Aron Ralston, after being trapped in a crevice for 127 Hours, ends up cutting his arm off as a means to survival, but as intense as the scene is, Boyle knows that it isn’t meant to be disturbing. In the end, Ralston’s will to live saved his life, and also, made it better as a whole, which Festival’s rising build helps accentuate.

#6: Rage Against The Machine’s Wake Up from The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999)

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The Matrix isn’t just a surprisingly philosophical sci-fi film, but a badass actioner with revolutionary stunts and action sequences. So what better way to close a badass action movie than with a badass song by badass band Rage Against the Machine. Say what you will about Keanu Reeve’s acting, but he delivered the final lines of the film in a way that was…er…badass, and the second Rage Against The Machine begins booming from the speakers, you just feel badass for watching the thing.

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#5: Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me from The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)

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Y’know how every ’80s movie had to end with a ridiculously ’80s song. John Hughes’ teen classic The Breakfast Club, is the grand-daddy of that trend, and one of the only times that it still holds up to this day. After a long day of detention, mischief, mayhem, and the revealing of emotional scars, these five teens gain an unforgettable experience that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. Many people still haven’t forgotten this movie more than 25 years later, meaning that the song by the Simple Minds that plays at the end was more fitting than we’d thought. Throw that fist in the air, Mr. Nelson .

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#4: Grizzly Bear’s Alligator from Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

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Blue Valentine is not an enjoyable film to sit through. As far as movies go that are really, really good, but also really, really difficult to endure, Derek Cianfrance’s directorial debut sits up there with Requiem for a Dream and Irreversible (Even though it isn’t nearly as shocking as either of those, it’s still just as powerful). And it isn’t really much of a spoiler to say that things do not end well for the main couple of the film played exceptionally by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. However, a small but still powerful ray of hope emerges when the ending song by Grizzly Bear kicks in, and boy is it powerful. With a beautifully understated final shot, the song is set to the crackle and pop of Independence Day fireworks, which are then accompanied by snapshots of the couple’s happier times in the credits. It’s a beautiful ending that softens the blow of a heart-breaking film.

#3: The Jesus And Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey from Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2004)

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Sofia Coppola is known for her gentle touch and subtle understatement, but uses that to provoke big emotions from the viewer. Her masterpiece, unanimously chosen so by critics and movie-buffs, is Lost In Translation, which has become infamous for it’s ending scene in which Bill Murray whispers something in Scarlett Johanneson’s ear and the audience doesn’t even hear a word of it, leaving it all open to interpretation. While we may never know what exactly is said to Johanneson while Murray gives his final goodbye, the accompanying song by The Jesus And Mary Chain lets you know that whatever it was, it meant a lot to the two of them. It’s a beautiful song that softens the blow of the ending’s poignant (but frustrating, for some people) ambiguity.

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#2: Gary Jules’ Mad World from Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)

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Richard Kelly may have gone as downhill as you can get for a once-promising new director, but his debut feature is still a deserved cult-classic. While I’m not as big a fan of the film as others are, I will never forget the haunting ending to Darko. Yes, it’s confusing and I didn’t really get it as much as I should’ve in my first viewing, but that was assuaged by the fact that Kelly takes a twist that could’ve just been used to shock or confuse the audience, and instead focuses on the emotiona and humanity of the situation. And the song fits that perfectly. Seeing Darko and all the lives he’s saved/touched while the haunting lyrics of Mad World echo in the distance is a powerful moment that has stuck with many viewers for 10 years. If only Kelly made a movie today that was as good as this was.

#1: The Pixies’ Where Is My Mind from Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

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Oh shut up, you all saw this coming a mile away.

There are honestly no words to describe how perfect this ending is. With Tyler Durden now defeated and the Narrator free of his influence, all he could do is just watch as Tyler’s product of anarchy lets itself loose into the world. How do you soften the burn of realizing your best friend was insane and ready to blow up every city’s huge banking building? Simple: Holding hands with your girlfriend whilst The Pixies plays in the background.

Everything just clicks together beautifully. The music is hypnotic, the imagery is unforgettable, it feels surprisingly emotional, and it has a brilliant last line. When I first saw the film, it already cemented itself as my favorite movie of all time, but this ending went from cementing itself, into plaque-ing itself with gold and diamonds as my favorite movie of all time.

An evocative mixture of film and music that always gives me the chills when I see it, this film greeted me in a very strange time in my life.

That is all.

See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, here’s a funny little poster. Bye!

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In A Better World Movie Review

[In A BetterWorld
Directed by Susanne Bier
Starring: Mikael Persbandt, Trine Dyrholm, and Markus Rygaard
MPAA: R – For violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language]

While everyone was expecting Biutiful to win the Best Foreign Language Academy Award last year, no one was expecting Susanne Bier’s In A Better World to take the top spot. Even stranger was the fact that after it won, it wasn’t officially released in America on DVD for months…until now.

Last Tuesday, it was finally available to rent, and the question remains: Did it deserve that foreign film Oscar? Short answer: No. Long answer: Yeah it’s a good movie, but nowhere near as good as some of the other nominees.

In A Better World is a Danish film directed by Susanne Bier, which I will admit, I’ve never seen any of her other works. The closest I’ve seen to a Bier film was when her film Brødre was remade into the American Brothers starring Natalie Portman, Jack Gyllenhaal and Tobey Macguire, and I really liked that film.

In A Better World is the story of two children named Christian and Elias. Christian is the new kid in school who moves to Denmark after her mother dies of cancer in London, and Elias is the bullied kid who is constantly teased for his rat-like teeth. Christian is fed up with Elias’s inability to fend for himself, and decides to beat up one of the bullies for him. This blossoms into a friendship of dangerous proportions.

When Elias’s father Anton, a ridiculously goody-two-shoes Doctor who works part time in Africa, is assaulted by a douchebag auto-repair shop owner, the two of them conspire to take revenge on him by making their own bomb using old fireworks.

The film is really dark, dealing with lots of mature themes involving the loss of innocence, the nature of revenge, father-son relationships, and then infuses all of these themes with controversial elements involving the kids brutally beating up bullies and making make-shift bombs. The main problem with In A Better World actually lies in these slightly controversial elements. It works great as a coming-of-age story, and the two kids who portray Elias and Christian are great actors, but there are tons of things that don’t organically fit into the story.

It’s like getting a stuffed bear that says “I Love You!” whenever you push its plushie paw. It’s a great stuffed bear, and pushing the “I Love You!” button is cool the first few times, but when you just want to play with it, you keep accidentally pushing the button and after ten or fifteen god damn times, you can’t stand the bloody toy.

In A Better World is a great coming-of-age story that has weaker elements added into the mix to make it more unique. The children making bombs is supposed to reflect the cruelty of human nature, but it could’ve been done in a much more subtle way. Why not just have more of Elias and Christian beating up the bullies that have pissed them off? It’s much more realistic, more subtle, and it still would’ve given Susanne Bier the end-result that she wanted. But no, having the children creating make-shift bombs will give it more attention, I suppose.

You don’t always have to make your film stand out if it’s good enough. Fish Tank is a very standard coming-of-age story, but it done so remarkably well and told so honestly that you don’t need any shock elements. Though to be fair, Fish Tank does have a few disturbing scenes, but they come through naturally into the story, whereas the shock elements in here are done merely as a ploy to get the audience’s attention.

I wouldn’t call the film “offensive” in that regard, but it’s definitely not as well-done as it could’ve been.

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Within that problem is the character of Christian himself. Again, he’s played really well, but it’s for naught when he’s written kind of poorly. We’re never given a full reason for why he’s as cruel and deranged as he is until later on in the story, and even then, it’s a pretty weak reason. Christian’s character is supposed to embody a certain archetype: the kind of person who can not experience empathy.

This is all well and good, except he’s written really over-the-top. The second you see him spying on the bullies you think to yourself, “Something’s wrong with that kid.” And sure enough, he beats him up, but not in the way you’d expect. He does it brutally, with a bicycle pump, and then threatens him with a knife. Take a chill pill, Christian.

Elias, on the other hand, is played remarkably well. He plays a kid who is almost the exact opposite of Christian, but still gets lost in his deranged influence. Just his smile alone has lots of character, and where Christian is over-the-top, Elias is more dimensional and sympathetic.

So yeah, I guess these little flaws can be forgiven thanks to the strength of the actors and derpy derpy doo, but there’s one main flaw that really broke the film for me. While the film’s main story involves Elias and Christian’s loss of innocence, a subplot is interwoven into the narrative that is about Elias’ father Anton going to Africa to work in a medical clinic.

If you thought the scenes with Christian weren’t subtle, you haven’t experienced anything yet. The scenes with Anton in Africa have all the subtlety of an ice-pick being hammered into your skull. Bier apparently believed that showing everything through the eyes of children wasn’t enough, so she decided to add this African subplot, which shows people who are killed in surprisingly gruesome ways. A pregnant woman is even cut up by a lunatic, and two of the twins inside her are killed. Smooth, movie. Smooth.

This wouldn’t be a problem if this was it’s own separate movie. Just like the scenes with Christian and Elias, it does have its share of effective moments, but the entire subplot as a whole feels merely decorative and unnecessary.

I love the idea of distilling tons of mature themes through the eyes of a child. It’s a viewpoint that more people need to see things through, and In A Better World has some effective scenes that explore it well. Contrasting it with the African subplot, however, cheapens this idea and takes us out of the more interesting experience with Elias and Christian.

Final Verdict: I’ll make it clear that In A Better World is not a bad movie. There are some really effective performances by talented young actors, and it deals with a lot of mature themes that I can see a lot of people really admiring. It just could’ve been split into two movies. We have two great, interesting stories that work great on their own, but together in the same movie, hamper the experience. Add that with some problems with subtlety, and you’ve got a film with noble intentions that doesn’t quite make it’s mark.

That is all.

See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch Fish Tank again. Bye!

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