Tag Archives: 2000’s

The Wackness (2008)

wackness The Wackness (2008)

 Director: Jonathan Levine

 Writer: Jonathan Levine

 Starring: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen

 Runtime: 99 minutes

 Rating: 69%

 Views: 1st Viewing

The short career of director Jonathan Levine has been a very interesting ride thus far.  One is never certain what his next project is going to be, and who he’s going to be collaborating with.  Having finally seen all four of his features, I can safely say that The Wackness is his stand-out film.  The film is centred on a young man by the name of Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), who has just completed his final year of high school and will be leaving for college in the Fall.  Luke deals marijuana out of an ice stand he pushes around New York City to make money for himself.  He is also in therapy with Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), whom he pays with said marijuana.  Luke forms a rather strong bond with Dr. Squires and eventually his step-daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), and also begins dealing more pot in order to help pay for his family’s possible eviction.  The Wackness takes place over the entire summer of 1994, with Luke falling in love with Stephanie, having trouble at home, crafting a friendship with the much older Dr. Squires, and being a lonely and unique teenager in New York City.

From a distance, The Wackness just looks and sounds like yet another coming-of-age film.  Luckily, the film is unlike any other coming-of-age drama ever made in the way that it studies its characters and settings.  The characters of Luke Shapiro and Dr. Squires truly elevates The Wackness from standard teenage romp to something truly special and even touching in some moments.   The Wackness’ soundtrack is filled to the brim with 1990’s hip-hop, perfectly complimenting the mid-90’s New York setting, and the character of Luke.  Jonathan Levine’s script is laugh out loud hilarious in some moments, and 01genuinely insightful and inspirational in others.  Levine’s sensitive and subtle direction throughout the film adds perfectly his his script, crafting a very underplayed and character-based film.  Jonathan Levine’s career highlights include 2006’s brilliant slasher film All the Boy’s Love Mandy Lane (which has been bogged down by release problems for years), 2011’s 50/50 (well-acted and fairly well-written, 50/50 didn’t quite connect with me on a personal level), and 2013’s Warm Bodies.  This impressive filmography proves that the Levine is incredibly talented at both writing (he also penned Warm Bodies), and commanding his actors to great performances.  To add to Levine’s direction and script, the acting in The Wackness is another highlight of the film, particularly in the characters of Luke Shapiro and Dr. Squires.

Josh Peck’s performance in the film as Luke Shapiro is one of the greatest things about the film, and one can see that he has evolved greatly as an actor since his early roles in Disney’s The Amanda Show and Drake & Josh.  Luke Shapiro could have easily been a stereotypical 90’s hip-hop drug dealer, but there’s so much more to this character.  He’s sensitive, shy, and far more interesting than the film leads the audience to believe in the beginning.  Luke’s relationship with Stephanie Wackness_610is brilliantly portrayed, and feels incredibly real throughout their time together.  The end of the film features one of the most touching lines I’ve ever heard, delivered by Peck.  Academy Award winning actor Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Sexy Beast) portrays Shapiro’s incredibly troubled psychiatrist, and he delivers a phenomenal performance in the film.  Squires’ personal life is given quite a bit of screen-time throughout, and it’s every bit as interesting as Luke’s story.  At times the character seems rather uneven and over-exaggerated, which could possibly turn off some viewers.  Overall, Jonathan Levine’s very talented direction and screenplay combined with a phenomenal soundtrack and great performances by the principal cast make The Wackness something truly unique.  If you’re looking for touching coming-of-age stories, this one is for you.  8.5/10.

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Stardust (2007)

stardustStardust (2007)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writer: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn

Starring: Claire Danes, Ian McKellen, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro

Runtime: 127 minutes

Rating: 76% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Director Matthew Vaughn started his career with 2004’s indie-crime film, Layer Cake, which was released to both widespread critical and audience acclaim, and has gone on to become a cult film in the same vain as Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  Since Layer Cake, Matthew Vaughn has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most interesting directors, and easily one of the go-to filmmakers for action and crime films.  Stardust was Vaughn’s sophomore directing attempt, and Vaughn again manages to hit it out of the park.

Stardust is based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, and is about a young man called Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox).  Tristan’s father crossed over the wall into the10stardust-600 magical kingdom of Stormhold eighteen years previous, and met Tristan’s mother, an enslaved princess named Una.  The King of Stormhold is on his deathbed, and after deciding to let his sons compete for the throne, throws a ruby into the sky for his sons to retrieve.  The ruby collides with a nearby star, sending both crashing back down to the earth.  Tristan Thorn travels to the star, and finds a young girl named Yvaine (Claire Danes) who he precedes to take with him.  A group of three witches, led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) learns of the fallen star and decides to find the young woman and eat her heart, thereby recovering the three witches’ youth and magical powers.  With the assistance of his mother and a flamboyant pirate of the sky (Robert De Niro), Tristan must win his true love and save Yvain from certain doom.

Going into a film like Stardust is always a very intimidating prospect, because most films in the fantasy genre simply don’t turn out very well in the end.  In the years 500fullfollowing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, many franchises and stand-alone fantasy epics were attempted, and mostly failed (with the exception of The Chronicles of Narnia), and Stardust looked to be no different.  Fortunately for audiences worldwide, Stardust is loaded with more than enough talent to make it work, and make it work well.  Director Matthew Vaughn knows how to pace a film of this proportion, and his direction is remarkable throughout.  His action scenes flow together incredibly well, and he commands his exceptionally talented cast to some very impressive performances.  Robert De Niro in particular puts in a very fun performance as Captain Shakespeare, the flamboyant sky pirate, easily giving the film it’s most heartfelt and tear-inducing moment towards the end of the film.

The only elements that don’t work for Stardust are its score, composed by long-time Matthew Vaughn collaborator Ilan Eshkeri.  It’s not that the score is particularly bad, just that it feels like and sounds very similar at times to Howard Shore’s score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  It took me out of the film in a few moments, and I felt that a less inspired composition might have worked far better.  Overall, Stardust is an incredibly fun and entertaining discovery for the fantasy genre, and a film that completely took many people by surprise.  A talented director and cast help this film rise from a mediocre and forgettable film to a cult favourite that will continue to entertain for years.  I highly recommend Stardust to anybody interested in epic fantasy films.  8/10.

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Last Days (2005)

ImageLast Days (2005)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento

Runtime: 97 minutes

Rating: 57% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Last Days was Gus Van Sant’s last (and most puzzling) entry into his “Death trilogy“, following Gerry and the Palme d’Or winner ElephantLast Days is a semi-true story that follows the last few days in the life of a Kurt Cobain-esque rock star.  In reality, Gus Van Sant and Cobain’s widow Courtney Love had decided that making an actual biopic about the Nirvana frontman would be far too painful for Kurt’s family and widow.  Van Sant decided instead to make the film semi-autobiographical, and mostly fictionalized (though, the similarities are most definitely there).  We follow Blake (Michael Pitt) as he stumbles through the woods one early morning, mumbling to himself and seeming generally disconnected from reality and from himself.  Blake eventually makes his way to a mansion (presumably his), where he creeps around the house and discovers that his bandmates and friends are all crashing at the house, as per usual.  Blake has an interaction with a door-to-door Yellowpages representative, and later tries secluding himself from his friends in his own home.  After attempting to help a bandmate with a new song, going to a club late at night, and playing one last song in the woods, the rockstar’s body is found by a worker early the next morning.

Gus Van Sant’s Last Days is a very curious film, and one can’t help but think that this was a huge missed opportunity for the filmmaker, and for a Kurt Cobain bio-pic.  We spend almost the entire film following a wordless Blake around the woods, around his dilapidated (or nearly) mansion, and then around a club.  The director’s camera is fluid and incredible to watch follow characters as they live out their everyday lives (as with his previous film, Elephant), but it simply drags on for much longer than it should.  The movie almost seems directionless at some points, and at 97 minutes long is a chore to get through because of these long periods of time where literally nothing happens.

Michael Pitt’s Blake looks the part of Kurt Cobain, and for what he’s given to work with seems to do a phenomenal job portraying a rockstar with the whole world behind him.  Much like Kurt ImageCobain, this is a broken, hurt man who just doesn’t want or know what to do with the superstardom that he has unfortunately acquired.  Last Days doesn’t seem to fit in with the Death trilogy, simply because it seems even more disconnected that the previous two films (where Gerry was easily the standout).  The very end of the film is what kills any attempt to take Last Days seriously as a piece of art.  We see Blake’s soul climb out of his body, and climb up to the “nirvana” above him.  It feels tacked on, and far too heavy-handed, which fits in perfectly with Elephant.  Overall, Last Days is a curious film, but unfortunately not a good one.  A definite miss for Van Sant, who many people claim to be a great modern filmmaker.  5/10.

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Elephant (2003)

ImageElephant (2003)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Writer: Gus Van Sant

Starring: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson

Runtime: 81 minutes

Rating: 72% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Gus Van Sant’s second entry into his “Death Trilogy” (which also includes 2002’s Gerry and 2005’s Last Days) has been a controversial film since its initial release in 2003 and its Palme d’Or and Best Director wins at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.  Elephant was a truly relevant film upon it’s release, coming just four short years after the Columbine High School massacre, and just one year after Michael Moore’s controversial Bowling for Columbine documentary.  Elephant is about a school shooting at its very core, but there’s much more to it than just a school shooting.  Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen) are two high school students who one day decide to shoot up the school, with targets including the “jock” kids, and their principal.  Along the way, Gus Van Sant’s camera is never not moving, and we follow the lives of a regular day in a pretty regular high school (even if nobody seems to go to class in this school, as everybody just kind of roams around the halls throughout the film).

Gus Van Sant’s roaming camera during the first half of the film is incredibly beautiful, giving the audience an idea of what a regular day at this high school feels like.  None of these young teens have any way of knowing about the horrible events that are going to happen to them in a few short hours, and it makes this film (and the reality of shootings like Columbine) seem even more tragic.  As far as filmmaking goes, Elephant is a fascinating and incredibly well-structured film.  The school shooting scenes are over as quickly as they begin, and are never once easy to watch.  Van Sant follows the two shooters with as much care and thoughtfulness as did while following the lives of the students during the first half of the film.  The cast is mostly made up of non-actors, and the realism of these performances really comes through while watch the film, adding that much more to the experience.

Elephant is an incredibly troubled film when you really dig deep into its themes and motivations.  Van Sant never delves into why Alex and Eric decide to shoot the school up, other than showing us some fairly minor bullying at the beginning of the film.  Elephant isn’t about giving us the answers, and one can definitely understand why the answers aren’t provided.  We still don’t Imageunderstand why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred their Colorado school in 1999, and we probably never will, which is why this works within the film.  The trouble with Elephant lies in the symbolism and some of the more subtle imagery Van Sant paints as Elephant wears on.  The first time we see Alex and Eric together, one of the them is playing a mindless first-person shooter video game on his computer, giving the indication that perhaps violence in the media is to be blamed for this.  In a scene soon after where the two boys are unpacking their brand new weapons, a documentary about the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini is playing in the background.  A lot of these things would feel like cute satire in most films, but Van Sant’s direction makes them feel unflinchingly serious in these scenes, to the point of distraction.  The point of all this is that Elephant is both heavy-handed and disconnected at the same time, and it simply doesn’t work.  I can’t recommend Elephant to anybody, unless they’re interested in truly great technical filmmaking.  It’s far too heavy-handed and flawed for me to look past, and I really expected more from a director and writer like Gus Van Sant.  6/10.

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Dogville (2003)

ImageDogville (2003)

Director: Lars von Trier

Writer: Lars von Trier

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt

Runtime: 178 minutes

Rating: 70% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Wow.  I can’t say that I went into Dogville knowing what to expect, but I left the film with an odd sense of joy, despite what the film is actually about.  Dogville is a very new, fresh, experimental film that will turn away many viewers simply because of how different it really is.  The brilliance of Lars von Trier’s writing shines throughout the film, and shows that his vision isn’t just a cute gimmick.  Dogville is a minimalist film shot on a soundstage, with little-to-no sets to speak of.  There are a few doors, there are a few windows, but that’s all that makes up the small town of the same name.  The sets are traced on the stage, creating something even more unique and minimal than a stage play.

Dogville is about Grace Margaret Mulligan (played wonderfully by Nicole Kidman), and the titular town she runs to in order to hide from gangsters who are pursuing her.  She is first greeted by Tom (Paul Bettany), who proceeds to show her around the town and to introduce her to its Imagevarious occupants.  The townsfolk eventually decide to vote on whether or not they should harbour Grace in their peaceful village.  Grace is given a two-week trial period in which she is to help each household with various everyday tasks, and to try to win over the reluctant settlers.  After a unanimously positive vote, Grace is allowed to stay in the town and continues working for each household.  She soon comes to find out that Dogville’s inhabitants may be more sinister than she initially suspected, and must find a way to leave the town.

Lars von Trier’s unique and visionary film is unlike anything ever captured on celluloid (or digital, in this case).  It features a cast full of famous faces including the legendary Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall, John Hurt as the narrator of the story, Chloe Sivigny, and Stellan Skarsgard.  The large cast of odd characters in the film interact perfectly with each other, with ImageNicole Kidman’s Grace, and with the unique set they’re giving to work with.  von Trier never makes the lack of sets or unique storytelling seem like a gimmick, and that is a massive benefit to the film.  The increasingly dark and disturbing script is told in 9 chapters (with a prologue), through a near 3-hour runtime, but Dogville never once seems overly-long.  John Hurt’s narration is brilliant, and never feels intrusive as narration sometimes can.  The direction, amazing cinematography (especially for what the film actually has to work with), and incredible ensemble cast makes Dogville a truly unique and unforgettable film, and one that I recommend to anybody who thinks they’ve seen it all in the world of film.  9/10.

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Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000)

ImageYi Yi: A One and a Two (2000)

Director: Edward Yang

Writer: Edward Yang

Starring: Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang

Runtime: 173 minutes

Rating: 96% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Edward Yang’s last and probably most widely-recognized film is one of great and subtle beauty.  It’s a film that not everybody will love, but one that has to be experienced because of the sheer number of small, elegant, beautiful moments contained within.  Yi Yi is about family and about everyday life.  The story revolves around a very conventional Taipei family, namely a father NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) who is unhappy with his job, and seemingly his life, his young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang) who is having trouble at school and who is being picked on by both his teacher and the girls in his class, and his daughter Tiny-Ting (Kelly Lee) who becomes intertwined in a love triangle involving her best friend, and her friend’s boyfriend.  After NJ’s mother-in-law goes into a coma following a stroke, his wife Min-Min leaves for a Buddhist retreat after experiencing a mid-life crisis, leaving NJ and his children to take care of their grandmother.  An old flame of NJ’s, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko) returns to the city and tries to come into his life after thirty years apart, leaving NJ even more confused about where his life is going.  The story also explores the life of NJ’s brother-in-law A-Di, who is married at the beginning of the film.  Edward Yang’s sensitive and Ozu-esque direction makes what could be an impossibly confusing multi-character story very easy to follow, flowing almost perfectly at times.

Yi Yi won the Best Director award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, and for good reason.  ImageEdward Yang’s camera is mostly still throughout the film, but manages to capture so many amazingly small moments through the movie’s 3-hour runtime.  The direction is very similar to that of Yasujiro Ozu‘s (a famous Japanese director whose career spanned nearly four decades between the 1930’s-1960’s) in that both filmmakers are able to capture the true beauty of day-to-day life.  The film moves at its own pace, which may turn off viewers who aren’t quite used to this style of filmmaking.  This is truly a film that you let play out in front of you, one that you must experience and take in very slowly.  Yi Yi isn’t a film that you immediately adore, but rather one that you come to appreciate and love after wrestling with its themes and images and pacing.  I will admit that I wasn’t immediately sold on the film after my initial viewing of it.  It’s pacing and length definitely hurt the end product for me, as did the fact that this is a film where you must work for any sort of reward.

There are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of Yi Yi, especially concerning the characters of Yang-Yang, Ting-Ting, and A-Di.  The film explores their day-to-day lives with such precision Imageand detail, and then essentially drops them in the last 30 minutes of the movie.  Yi Yi isn’t about giving the audience answers, or exploring what happens to these characters after the events take place, but rather about exploring the wins and losses that everybody experiences in their daily lives.  The big and small moments that happen to us every single day of our lives is what Edward Yang is trying to cover with his film, and he is very successful in this exploration.  Family dynamics, love, heartbreak, and death are all things that every human being has to go through at some point in their lives, and Yang makes every minute look beautiful and memorable.  8/10.

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Dancer in the Dark (2000)

ImageDancer in the Dark (2000)

Director: Lars von Trier

Writer: Lars von Trier

Starring: Bjork, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare

Runtime: 140 minutes

Rating: 68% Fresh

Views: 1st Viewing

Dancer in the Dark is a film I’ve heard a lot about over my years of being an avid movie-goer.  I’ve heard it compared to Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, I’ve heard it praised as one of the greatest films of the 21st century, and I’ve heard others disregard it as being art-house trash. Whatever Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark is, it’s an incredibly original and fresh film, and a powerful one at that.  The film follows Selma Jezkova (played by pop diva Bjork), a young single mother who has recently located to from Central Europe to America in hopes of a new, fresh start.  Selma is plagued by a disease that will eventually (within the runtime of the film) permanently rob her of her eyesight.  Since the disease is hereditary, her young son will someday have to face the disease too, unless Selma can gain the money for the boy’s operation.  Selma takes a job at a local factory, and comes to learn that her new start in America may not be everything she was hoping for.  She copes with this realization by disconnecting herself from reality, and with her near-obsession of Hollywood musicals.

Bjork’s Selma Jezkova is both a beacon of hope because of her golden heart, and a devastatinglyImage flawed main character.  Her disconnection from any sort of reality is flawlessly pulled off by non-actor Bjork, who gives one of the greatest performances I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching on-screen.  Selma’s interest in musical films adds so much more to this disconnection because she expects her life to play out like a Singin’ in the Rain or Sound of Music-esque film.  When things get difficult or stressful in any way for Selma, she imagines everybody surrounding her to begin bursting out in song and dance.  Unfortunately for Selma, her naivety and desperation to save her young son gets her into the worst situation one can possibly get into, and things get very bleak for the young woman.  Bjork’s portrayal of Selma Jezkova earned her the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and has been universally praised by critics worldwide for good reason.

Von Trier’s exceptional direction makes Dancer in the Dark a near-perfect film in a lot of ways.  The performances of the supporting cast are nearly as good as Bjork’s.  Catherine Deneuve plays Kathy, Selma’s closest friend, David Morse plays Bill, a man who shares financial and marital secrets with Selma, who also confides in it, and Peter Stormare plays Jeff, a love interest of sorts for Selma.  The interactions between Selma and these characters are perfect in almost every scene.  One thing I didn’t know about before going into the film is that Dancer in the Dark is actually a musical (or anti-musical) of sorts.  There are expertly shot song and dance sequences that give the film a sense of magic, and really helped the flow of the film.  The main sequence “I’ve Seen It All” was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars that year, with good reason.  Hours after completing the film, I had the soundtrack on my iPod, that alone is a testament to how great (even if slightly ironic) the songs in this film are.  Had the film not contained these musical numbers, Dancer in the Dark might have been a much slower, much less interesting film.

Dancer in the Dark is truly one of Lars von Trier’s best films yet, and easily one of the best films I’ve seen from the early 2000’s.  It’s a bleak, dark, and powerful film with elements of the fantastic, and von Trier’s excellent direction and Bjork’s phenomenal performance makes this a film I believe every fan of dramatic cinema should see.  9.5/10.

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