There Will Be Blood – Review

I caught There Will Be Blood yesterday afternoon and I still have no idea what I think about it. I’m hoping that as I type out my thoughts, I’ll come to some conclusion by the end.

What I do know is that Daniel Day-Lewis is a man among men. The dude puts out one or two movies per decade (it seems) and every time I have a “Why doesn’t he do more movies” conversation with whoever I’m with. There Will Be Blood is no exception. He’s awesome. In fact, he’s up for an Oscar and I’d be surprised if he didn’t get it.

But what about the rest of the movie? Well, it’s up for eight Academy Awards (including Mr. Day-Lewis’s) so the critics love it. It’s entertaining to watch, but it does without a lot of traditional storytelling devices. There is no main villain and no major themes to explore. Greed carries through a lot of the story, as is religion (through the fringe, almost cult-ish elements of Charismatic Christianity), but I didn’t come away with any central point. It’s just a story about an Oil man in the early 1900s and the ups and downs of his life.

I’m not really sure how to recommend this. I was entertained through the entire thing (it’s over two and a half hours long), and I can’t think of a scene that wasn’t interesting. But this movie is up for Best of 2007. Really? Maybe I’ve watched one too many Die Hard’s or Rocky’s. Or maybe the critics have watched too few. Either way, their idea of a great movie and mine don’t match up.

It’ll be a few months before this one comes out on DVD, but it’s certainly worth a rental. If you check it out, let me know what you thought of it.

Grade: B-

Across the Universe – Review

Across the Universe should have worked. The brilliance of Once still lingered in my heart and here was a musical filled with Beatles songs. I should have got West Side Story with Paul and John. Instead, I got Rent without the AIDS. “But John,” you say. “Rent without AIDS is just a crappy New York love story set to song.” Exactly.

I should back up for those of you who have never heard of this movie. Across the Universe follows two main characters, Jude and Lucy (/rollseyes). There are five or so other characters that are central to the story, but those are the two you are supposed to care about. Hint: you don’t.

While most musicals make up their own songs, this one uses Beatles tunes (like “Hey Jude” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). I’d joked with a friend prior to watching that if the movie sucked, I could at least listen to it and be entertained. Wrong. See, I’d mistakenly thought the movie would use the Beatles’ original master tracks. Instead, I get a cast of Rent rejects trying to imitate the Fab Four. To be fair, some of them do an OK job — Jude, for instance. The rest made me wish John Lennon would raise from the dead as a zombie and devour their brains.

Another problem I had is that I’m pretty sure the director wanted to get all his favorite Beatles songs into the movie, even if they didn’t fit. There were several moments where the movie paused and a crappy music video was inserted. And by the end it seemed like they were running out of time, so you only get parts of a song. Sometimes, you get two songs mashed on top of one another. Two songs that have absolutely no similarities in rhythm, tone, or style. And don’t get started on the crappy, drugged-out songs where everyone gets naked. Mind you, I have no problem with drug-induced nudity, but only if it’s done properly in context… What?

I may have been too harsh on this one, but I expected so much more. There are some cameos that are funny and the cast isn’t horrible (well, most of them anyway). But if you’re in the mood for a musical, rent Once or even Rent. Both are better movies and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) their songs are better.

Grade: C

King of Kong – Review

Way back in 5th grade, I was Pente champion of Ranchwood Elementary School. In 6th, I came in 3rd after a brutal defeat to my brother. After my two years of near dominance, Pente is now just a topic of self-lifting conversation whenever I see people playing. Fortunately, those conversations end after I get beat in 5 rounds.

Now imagine if Pente had consumed my life from 5th Grade to Thirty-something (and beyond). And instead of Pente, it was Donkey Kong. You’d have a pretty good idea of what King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is about.

“But wait,” you say. “This is a movie about video games. By law, it must suck.” True, that is the law, but this documentary transcends Kong and offers a look into the lives of those consumed by some inner drive to win.

Back when I was winning at Pente, Billy Mitchell was winning at Donkey Kong. And he got famous for it, setting the world record high score. He was so good, no one touched his score for decades. Finally, some teacher named Steve Weibe decided he could beat that score. King of Kong follows Steve into the freaking bizarre world of classic arcade competitions in his attempts to beat Billy’s untouchable score.

As you might imagine, that world is a bit unusual. Cameras and natural light rarely make an appearance. And while it’s easy (almost too easy) to mock the denizens of this world, King of Kong looks deeper into their culture. I watched this like a Natural Geographic show on the pygmies, asking why these people continued to pour their lives into decades-old games the rest of the world had left behind.

And then it hit me. During a moment where the Guinness Book of World Records gets involved, Steve Weibe’s daughter asks a simple, innocent question that cuts to the heart of everything. This movie is not about Donkey Kong or classic arcade games. It’s about those meaningless things in our lives that consume us, for one reason or another. After that, the 8-bit shell encasing the movie crumbled to reveal a universal question about what we devote our lives to.

And it’s all brilliant. Steve’s determination and humility makes you root for him. Then, after the interviews with his wife, he gets your pity. Billy Mitchell is the definition of evil, complete with a cult of star-struck followers. He’ll make you swear at the TV, I promise.

This is a must see. You may even start to re-examine the priorities in your life. With a bit of wisdom, that’s a very good thing.

Grade: A

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut – Review

So I accidentally threw myself into a theme of director’s cuts. Like Payback, Superman II also got “the director is whining, so let’s give him his own version” treatment. I also recognize that in my review of Superman: Doomsday, I said I wasn’t the biggest fan, but this makes the second Superman movie I’ve seen in less than a month. I’ll humbly keep quiet while you point and laugh.

So here’s the story on Superman I and II. The original Superman (starring Christopher Reeve) was directed by Richard Donner and written by Mario Puzo, the same guy who wrote The Godfather. Donner had a two-part story in mind, so he filmed I and II at the same time. Superman II was about 70% done when Donner had to shift his attention to editing I because it was running behind schedule.

After Superman I was released in theaters (to outstanding reviews), Donner and the studio had a major falling out and Donner was cut from Superman II. In his place, the studio put Richard Lester in charge. In order to have his name on the credits as director, 51% of the movie had to be his, so he cut major sections of Donner’s version and put in his own. Lester, who also directed Superman III, had a campier (read: crappier) vision for the series, so Puzo’s more serious script was rewritten to include more “jokes.” Marlon Brando also wanted an insane amount of money for his scenes (already filmed) to be used in II. The studio didn’t want that, so Brando was cut out completely. The movie was released in theaters and started the downward spiral of increasingly bad Superman films.

Fast forward almost 20 years and people on the internets started talking about what Superman II would have looked like if Donner could have completed his vision. I knew nothing of this, so I assume these discussions were buried under the arguments about how much more awesome Batman is.

Anyway, after going back and forth on it, Donner settled the legal issues and restored/ re-edited his vision of Superman II. Or at least as close as he could get since he couldn’t go back film any more (Rest in peace, Christopher Reeve). He also didn’t want to Lucas-ize it and add today’s special effects into an 80s movie, so he just cut together what he already had.

So how is it? From a big picture perspective, it’s fascinating to see what happens when a studio gets in the way of a director’s vision. Donner’s version fits a lot more closely with the original Superman and expands some themes from it. Over half the movie is “new” and with Brando’s scenes back in, there’s a lot of added character development that helps set a new tone to the story.

Not all is perfect, though. Donner originally intended for the first movie to end in a cliffhanger with the three super-villains escaping from their mirror prison and wreaking havoc on the moon. That scene got moved to Superman II, so I ended with Superman rolling back time (remember Supes flying backwards around the earth?). However, that was supposed to be the ending to II. Since this is Donner’s version of how II should have looked, you have Superman I and II with the same beginning and ending. That’s odd, to say the least, but taking the series as a whole, it’s neat to see “what should have been.”

There’s not many of you who will be interested in this. And that’s ok. But for those of you who enjoy listening to the director’s commentary on DVDs, this is a must see. If you are a Superman fan, rent Superman I, then this. Or, if you have lots of spare time, rent Lester’s Superman II and watch it before this one. For everyone else, just read the Wiki.

Grade: B+