Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy Holidays

As usual, it has been a very hectic time period, both at home and at the movies. Updates are coming...lots of new reviews, including Avatar, Up in the Air, It's Complicated, The Messenger, Nine, Invictus, Me and Orson Welles, The Road, and more...

...We will also be looking at the widening spread of Top Ten lists, looking at the consistencies and contradictions...and eventually we will unleash our own Top Tens, both for the year and for the -- gulp -- decade, if you can believe it...

...And this very exciting time of year gives birth to another very exciting time: Oscar Time. Wanted to get some early prediction charts posted before the year's end, but that might have to wait until the first of the year...either way, charts are on the way soon. For an early preview, if I had to pick now, I would guess that Up in the Air, Up, Avatar, Precious, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, An Education, Invictus, Nine, and A Serious Man will be the Best Picture nominees in the Academy's newly-minted 10-nominee system. Movies like The Last Station and A Single Man could build momentum and wind up on the list as well. Charts to follow soon...

...The Holiday Box Office is over-the-top nuts, with Avatar continuing to chug along, on its way to being the year's top grosser, Sherlock Holmes continuing Robert Downey Jr.'s recent hot streak, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel adding one more sign of the apocalypse...

...And then, of course, there are the movies. Ah, the movies. Go see them. After all the top ten talk, the Oscar buzz, the box-office analysis, and the awards campaigning, the movies are still there, waiting to be seen. The movies are what this is all about.

See Avatar, because love it, hate it, or not too crazy about it, you must experience it.

Try to seek out The Messenger, as difficult as it might be to do so...it is a remarkable experience.

And see Up in the Air...because barring some random, out-of-the-blue miracle, it is the best film of 2009.

And see everything else that strikes your fancy, because it's the movies...and let's face it, when you are in love with the movies, at this time of year, even the turds are kinda wonderful.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Princess and the Frog


The Princess and the Frog is Disney's return to the traditional hand-drawn 2-D format that they made famous, and it is a welcome throwback to some of the wonderful Disney animated classics. Not an overwhelmingly great movie, but a sumptuous, lovely animated experience.

Taking a cue from 2007's awesomely clever Enchanted, in which the animated princess was "cursed" to the live-action world and became her own independent self, Frog takes a familar idea and twists it. Rather than retelling the traditional "Frog Prince" story, in which the cursed Prince returns to human form after being kissed, here the opposite is true: swanky Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) is turned into a frog after an unwise encounter with an evil conjurer New Orleans black magic, and when he solicits a kiss from the beautiful Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), she transforms into a frog as well. The two newly-minted amphibians embark on one of those tried-and-true Disney animal adventures, where they meet colorful characters, sing songs, and fall in love.

The twists don't stop with simply the premise, however. Tiana is actually not a princess at all, but a poor waitress who is saving her money to open a restaurant. Also, there are no evil female villains to counteract the positive force of the central heroine, another atypical story shift, especially for a Disney princess film. Sure, Tiana has an upper-class dim-witted best friend, but she is more of an air-headed supporter, not a villain. This film's bad guy is the witch doctor, Facilier (voiced by Keith David), who mingles with the "other side" and is a nearly unstoppable force of evil. That being the case, the film's plot must jump through labyrinthine hoops to explain precisely how the frog spell works and how it can be undone, a task that requires

The story heavily extols the virtues of hard work and sacrifice, so much so that Tiana literally states the film's moral more than a handful of times. It becomes mildly tiring after a while, especially since, for a film so desperately trying to break free from understood notions of "Princess Films," its story toes the line of on-the-nose messaging. But the film is still a lush, colorful, fun experience, stocked with several decently entertaining songs and couple of great ones (anything sung by Rose, a Broadway actress who was relegated to the third wheel in Dreamgirls, is a brilliant knockout). The Princess and the Frog is not brilliant, not flawless, not a world-changer, but it is a welcome return to Disney's time-honored traditional animated canon, and sets the bar high for future installments.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar Lives Up to the Hype...


More later...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Brothers


By the end of Brothers, we have been put through the ringer of human emotion, from love to fear to uncertainty to rage, and we have questioned the bonds of family and the merits of war. But that's nothing new. The most interesting segments of Jim Sheridan's new film invite fresher, more interesting questions. How does one learn to cope with committing unspeakable atrocities? Can a family that was already fractured use tragedy to piece itself back together? When faced with two equally dangerous companionship options, how should a grieving woman respond? And most interestingly of all, can an innocent person bring his/herself to continue loving a monster? Interesting questions all...and Brothers fails to answer any of them.

Not that I'm against open-ended conflicts and difficult questions; to the contrary, some of our most interesting films possess both qualities. Brothers is interesting, too, but it refuses to give us anything -- not merely because it wants to leave loose ends hanging, but because it's too bashful to dig deeper. Life is fraught with impossible hardships and situations that don't have easy answers...or complex answers, for that matter. But somehow we find a way to survive. No, there aren't any "answers," but there are many courses to navigate through the wilderness. Those courses are the stuff of great drama. Brothers stops short of choosing a course...it ends at the beginning.

If you've seen the trailer, you know the premise. If you have not seen the trailer, skip this section and jump to the end of the spoilers. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a responsible family man and decorated armed forces Captain who is about to head out on another deployment, leaving his loyal wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two young daughters behind. Sam's brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), is the exact opposite, an aimless, drunken troublemaker who has just been released from jail. When Sam is said to have died on the battlefield, Tommy steps in as Grace's helpmate, warming to the kids and building a new family dynamic in the process. But then...Sam returns. Alive. And he is...different.

The formerly centered Army captain has been through hell -- we know, since we witness his tortured journey. But the battle sequences distract from the natural flow of the family scenes, which are designed to set up complicated dynamics that the film can't pay off, possibly because the war material takes up too much screen time. As a result, Brothers becomes the most unfortunate of cinematic products: the film where the trailer reveals everything. We've seen this issue arise before, but never has the film in question been so potentially strong. I'm not sure who made the final decisions on what material was included in the film's trailer, whether it was Sheridan or producer Mike DeLuca or someone else, but there needed to be some responsible dissent in the room. It would have been a problem no matter what, but it's especially glaring with the knowledge that the film fails to push past the dramatic high points of the trailer in any significant way. I'm not asking for surprises, but I am asking that filmmakers understand the path their stories should take.


**END OF SPOILERS**

The acting is universally flawless. Maguire must chart a course from straight-laced soldier to battered soul to paranoid rage-a-holic, and he never misses a beat. He gets to unleash in one of the great movie meltdowns of recent years and unburden his soul is quieter, subtler moments. Gyllenhaal is a pitch-perfect "black sheep," a lost soul who we soon discover can dig deep to become a better person. Portman is wondrous as the would-be widow, who has what is possibly the film's most complex emotional quandary, but who is most hurt by the film's lack of guts to go to even more difficult territory. The filmmakers lock her into a solely reactionary state, when in reality the story should hinge on her character's decisive actions.

The revelation of the film is young Bailee Madison, a 10-year-old who has appeared previously in kid's TV and family films like Bridge to Terabithia, and who delivers the best child performance I have ever seen. As the Cahills' eldest daughter, she is a complete revelation, hitting emotional highs and quiet subtleties most seasoned thespians can't easily reach. Her work alone is reason enough to see the film.

But for all its glowing positives, Brothers' screenplay can't quite make it to the story's natural, rough-and-tumble emotional implications, as if writer David Benioff was reticent to explore the most challenging territory. Sheridan, one of the great directors of complicated family dynamics, is the right choice for this film, but for whatever reason -- be it the stifling of the material or the steep degree of difficulty this story represents -- his work seems a little awkward, as if it was hard to avoid melodrama and each scene was staged so specifically that it ultimately feels unnatural. A great shame, because this movie features some of the most powerful acting of the year, and presents what may be the year's most interesting and painful story conflict. But with material like this, it's all about taking risks, and Brothers fails to abandon the safety net.

Fantastic Mr. Anderson


I've been a fan of Wes Anderson since he debuted with Bottle Rocket in 1996. His talent is singular and unique, and his attention to quirky detail is unparalleled. Time and again, from Rushmore to The Royal Tenenbaums, from The Life Aquatic to The Darjeeling Limited, his work is continually touched with a hint of oddball magic. Some of his films are better than others, but they all range from nearly-great to totally great, finding unexpectedly touching humanity in the midst of a rigidly quirky framework.

All that said, I approached Anderson's latest, Fantastic Mr. Fox, with some trepidation. Sure, the stop-motion animation technique is a fun throwback, especially for a filmmaker like Anderson. But how, I wondered, could the film be anything other than a silly, animated lark of a picture? The film would easily be zany, weird, and fun...but can a goofy animated movie truly be a great film?

Yes.

Fantastic Mr. Fox proved all of my fearful suspicions incorrect. It is a truly wonderful film experience, and another in the extending line of dark, mature, challenging family films. Up continued Pixar's string of beautiful animated films that demand more from their young viewers, Where the Wild Things Are zeroed in on the unique emotional turbulence of childhood and invited kid audiences to identify, and now Fantastic Mr. Fox brings the dark world of classic storybooks to modern movie audiences. Children have long been the most disrespected of all film audiences, always talked down to and presented not much other than lame pratfalls and mild gross-out humor. But kids are not mindless creatures; they can think and feel just like everyone else. One can only hope that these beautifully challenging kid films become a mainstay on each studio's yearly roster.

This film is based on Roald Dahl's classic children's book, and Dahl has been a well-tapped source for interesting family films for several years now. The story here: crafty Mr. Fox (voiced by a pitch-perfect George Clooney) has a history as a wily, irresponsible thief, but has settled into a rut as a family man. Tired of his hum-drum life, he sets out to find a new home for his family by burrowing beneath the farms and factories of three infamously dangerous businessmen and swiping some valuable loot (turkeys, chickens, cider) in the process. The story is lofty fun in itself, but Anderson infuses his own unique charm into the film, somehow finding a way to make a movie that is completely, unmistakably his own, yet also make it entertaining and relatable to children. The trick is to not cheapen the material; Anderson still crafts characters who deal with hidden pain and insecurity, mask their feelings through surface quirks, and often hurt one another along their road to personal solace. Sometimes the characters are a little too biting both for kids and adults, a likely result of Anderson tapping Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) as his co-writer. Original writing partner Owen Wilson might have been a better fit for this story, but Anderson's dry charm overcomes any of the film's very minor setbacks.

Never has a film format been tailor-made for any one filmmaker quite like stop-motion animation fits Wes Anderson. Even his live-action films sometimes operate like stop-motion animation. Sure, the movements are fluid, but the environment and tone befit the mode of traditionally oddball stop-motion films of old. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the filmmaker allows a few of his jokes to skew slightly sillier than normal, but stays true to his typically dry, awkward, skewed view of reality, and the stop-motion format fits the material seamlessly.

As with any Wes Anderson picture, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a matter of taste. Anderson's style is not for everyone, and will likely turn off several moviegoers. But that would have been the case no matter what, whether the film was animated or live-action, whether it was rated PG or R. For this critic, I loved every second of the film, which represents a Wes Anderson movie that I could share with my kids, who loved it every bit as much as I did. Fantastic Mr. Fox is wonderful fun, and represents Anderson's best film since The Royal Tenenbaums.

Color Me Blind-sided


Very simply, I liked The Blind Side. The film's continuing box-office success is not surprising; the movie is a likable, easy-to-watch movie that can make the whole family feel good. Sure, that last line sounds like standard quote-whoring, but that's the kind of movie this is. It's the rare movie that proves the standard advertising one-liners true.

Lots of buzz has surrounded Sandra Bullock's performance, and it's all true. The real-life Leigh-Anne Tuohy must exude a lot of spunk, but Bullock turns her into a mythic screen creation, one of those great movie-star performances that every star wishes they had the oppotunity to sink their teeth into. For Bullock, this is one of her career highs, and to her credit she doesn't settle for just the "big, sassy" moments that we see in the trailer. She works the material to reach much quieter, more observant beats that one wouldn't expect after watching the trailer 300 times, bringing more depth to a traditional show-off role as a result.

The story is familiar: an upper class Tennessee family takes in a poor, uneducated, 350-pound kid from the inner city whose past is painful but whose size and protective instincts make him a natural football player. Over time, the young man learns the values of love and family, and strives to improve both as an athlete and a student, eventually becoming one of the High School football's best players. We've seen these inspirational stories before, but this one is true: based on Michael Lewis' nonfiction book, and inspired by the story of Michael Oher, who now starts for the Baltimore Ravens. The film shifts the story's focus to Oher's adoptive mother, Leigh-Anne Tuohy, in so doing retaining a lovable hero but also elevating a fascinating heroine to the forefront, and telling an unconventional mother-son story that really works.

The Blind Side was written for the screen and directed by John Lee Hancock, who has developed a career that has been consistently solid. His work isn't world-changing and is often conventionally heart-tugging, but he can always deliver an enjoyable experience. This film fits into that mold perfectly -- imperfect, conventional filmmaking, but infused with great acting and true-to-life inspiration that truly inspires.

A "Saga," Indeed...


It wouldn't be enough to just call the movie New Moon. No, that would be putting too much trust in the audience. Instead, let's treat them like morons who wouldn't be able to recognize some of Hollywood's hottest young stars -- not to mention the legions of fans who have already read the books -- by inserting the lame pre-title, The Twilight Saga in smaller font above the real title. I point this annoying fact out because by putting that line above the title, it shows who the real "above the title" star of this movie franchise is: the franchise itself.

Not the actors, who might have talent, but it's obscured by a mythic story that dictates they must not act, but simply brood. Kristen Stewart is a very talented young actress and has been proving it for years. But she is a moody hornball in author Stephenie Meyer's world. Robert Pattinson has become a heartthrob sensation since the original Twilight bowed last November, but this movie series will kill his future if he can't break free from the jaw-biting, sparkly-faced oddity of his characterization. Taylor Lautner worked out a bunch and ate a lot of protein in order to turn himself into this year's most sought-after young hunk...and if he works hard, maybe next year he can be the year's most improved young hunk actor. But probably not, because this franchise wants to turn all young talents into elevated soap opera stars.

Chris Weitz seems like a nice guy, but he is not a good action director. His best work remains 2002's About a Boy, where he worked with his brother, Paul, to create more visual flair in an earthbound film about real people than he's been able to muster himself in the disappointing double-feature that is The Golden Compass and New Moon. Weitz is not a special effects director, but somehow studios keep thinking he is, and that betrayal of reality fits right into this film's purposeful abandonment of logic and humanity. Humanity in this film is just another costume change.

I liked the original Twilight. Sure, it was melodramatic, but the actors had some freedom to do good work, and director Catherine Hardwicke had a true passion to bring the material to cinematic life. It wasn't perfect, but it worked. Then the "Franchise" took over...Hardwicke got the boot (because quality means nothing), the production of New Moon was rushed as if it were a Saw flick (the third film, Eclipse, will debut six months from now), and the melodrama became an unstoppable machine of brooding unreality. As a result, the moronically titled The Twilight Saga: New Moon is an insufferable mess of emotional vomit.

Another Christmas Carol, Another Lame Zemeckis 3-D Effort


Robert Zemeckis is one of the most talented directors in Hollywood, and he is a great innovator. But his attempt to make one digital motion capture film after another has been one of the least successful periods of his career. In the last five years, the filmmaker who brought us Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Cast Away has delivered The Polar Express, Beowulf, and now A Christmas Carol. For Zemeckis, perhaps he was challenged by the technical innovation, and therefore saw it as an opportunity to have a lot of fun. And I would imagine these motion capture films would be a lot of fun to work on...but that doesn't always translate to a fun time for the audience.

Of all the classic stories to adapt for digital 3-D, A Christmas Carol sounds like a great idea, especially with Jim Carrey playing Scrooge. Indeed, Carrey is the film's biggest highlight, both in performance and presentation. The malleable actor can oftentimes be dismissed as a silly clown, but his talent is tremendous, and on full display here, where he buries himself into the Scrooge character with humbug-gusto. It is a great performance...Carrey's British accent at times sounds more convincing than his actual British counterparts, and Scrooge's emotional journey -- the heart of the story -- is effective because Carrey is so willing to travel from one emotive pole to the other.

Scrooge is also this Christmas Carol's technical highlight; the character is Zemeckis and Co.'s most pristine creation in the extremely short history of motion capture technology. Every facial tic, every subtle intricacy is vividly presented. The feat is a remarkable success...if only the rest of the film was rendered with such painstaking quality. If Carrey's Scrooge is motion capture's best creation, the remainder of A Christmas Carol is its worst, a hazy boondoggle of unappealing visuals that plays directly into most criticisms of the format. "Dead eyes" has always been criticism number one for most, and this film one-ups that unfortunate problem by also crafting characters that look like walking dough. Not remotely realistic, and not even believably fanciful...just ugly. As for the environment surrounding the characters, some scenes looks appealing, and others are transparent computer creations. The film looks as if the level of care put into the work shifted harshly from scene to scene and character to character.

The story is the story. If you've seen or read it before, there is nothing new for you here. One good Zemeckis addition (he also wrote the screenplay) is allowing each of Scrooge's ghost visits be scary. The film's marketing has wisely noted that "some scenes may be scary for young viewers," and it's true -- Scrooge was always intended to go on a frightening hypothetical journey, and if there is one element Zemeckis truly captures, it is the fright factor. But other than Jim Carrey, the Scrooge character design, and the occasional dark tone, A Christmas Carol is another unfortunate use of motion capture technology, one that never looks as good as it is supposed to look, and never offers anything new enough to make the story interesting. After more than five years and three movies, it might be time for Zemeckis to take a break from the motion capture stuff...or take classes from Peter Jackson.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

She Said: Why He is Wrong About Precious

Sometimes, a movie comes along that truly transports and moves people to a place they have never been to. Perhaps it is to a place they have no knowledge of, or to a place they have knowledge of but have never experienced first hand. Either way, to be transported, to see this place as real and be affected by it, they must have an open heart and a willingness to take the painful trek.

Precious is that transcendent film. However, one must open one's heart to take the journey. There are three main reasons that some (and it is few)critics will not see Precious for the heartbreaking, beautiful genius it is.

1. The "hype" soured the viewing. Sometimes, people love on a film so much that others just cannot go along for fear of "going along for going along sake". What they don't get is that in their "refusal to go along" they are not receptive to the power of the film. I know first hand that my partner, the "he" in this blog went in griping about how "with this much hype, I cannot imagine it can live up to it." He did not take the journey. He stood and watched from the periphery, scouring the film for something to latch on to to prove "the hype" wrong and to prove he is not a "follower."

2. The "hating" on and of Tyler Perry. Sure, it seems that fame has come pretty fast and furiously to Mr. Perry, and the envy among some can taint how a film with his name attached--in any form--is viewed. Make no mistake, although it seems nastily "cute" to write a line comparing Precious to other Perry melodramas, it is inaccurate and too easy of a punch. Lazy, really. Perry helped produce this film because it touched him, it transported him to a world that he knew all too well. That, is the only connection to Perry this film has.

3. The story is "too bleak". A few (scant really)critics--perhaps out of some sort of coping strategy--strive to be at odds with this bleak, harrowing story. They see the endless suffering as pointless, annoying, and melodramatic instead of realistic. The triumph of Precious is that for those who take the journey and begin to truly see the movie's protagonist and her plight, they witness the grim story as vibrant, honest, and real. If the "he" from this blog had ever read more than a few words by Richard Wright or Alice Walker, he would believe that both authors know Precious--she is afterall, a modern day Celie. He would see that these literary greats would embrace the film as a celebration of human courage in the face dismal circumstance.

Precious is more than an important film. I would argue it is groundbreaking. Films today rarely give us a glimpse into the lives of "others." Often, they are just re-hashes of the same angst-ridden white male who-hates-his-lot-in-life. Boo-hoo, you have to fire many people. Boo-hoo, the girl of your dreams never loved you back. Boo-hoo, you learned too late that being a cad means you may live alone. Or, we are met in the cineplexes with "serious-minded" history lesson movies revolving around important men and how they triumphed through adversity. Yada, yada, yada.

In Precious, we hear, we see, we witness another life, another story, another truth. For a few short hours, we--those who are open to the journey--live a "her" life. And hers is full of power, resonance, and humanity. What could be more magical or world-changing than that?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Precious


I'm disappointed to say that I didn't love Precious. Hype runs rampant in Hollywood, but every once in a while lightening is truly captured in a motion picture camera, and it is magic to behold. Precious is not magic -- not even morose, downbeat magic. It is a tougher, more realistic version of a Tyler Perry soap opera, with the additional invaluable advantage that it was made by people who know how to make movies. Perhaps the Perry reference is a bit harsh for a movie that is thoroughly solid with flashes of greatness...but as a whole, the film flirts with danger but plays it way too safe.

Not that it doesn't get down and dirty, mind you. The story stays true to its source material, the much more interestingly titled novel Push, by Sapphire, who reportedly refused movie offer after movie offer, and likely should have kept refusing if she wanted to maintain the power of her work. Business-wise, finally allowing her book to be adapted for the screen was surely a stroke of genius -- the film will rake in around $50 million and be nominated for countless Oscars -- but the emotional flavor the content is only grazed upon. I have only read a few brief snippets of Push, but it reads like the best sections of Precious played out for an entire piece. It is great African American fiction, reminiscent of Alice Walker and Richard Wright, and its cinematic spawn can only muster the same power in fits and starts.

Amazing newcomer Gabourney Sidibe plays the title character, Clarice "Precious" Jones, who can barely read or write, is pregnant with her second child (a result of frequent, brutal incestuous molestation), and who glides through bogus inner city schools because the schools themselves are too poor and neglected to succeed. Precious is incessantly abused -- physically, emotionally, and psychologically -- by her monstrous mother (Mo'Nique), who resides in her own private hell resulting from a lifetime of her own abuse. After years of oppression and abuse, Precious is offered a chance to enroll in an "alternative school" for troubled inner city youth, and it is there she begins a journey to improve her life for her kids and for herself.

The story is poignant, acted with ferocious passion, and rendered with a considerable amount of visual flair by director Lee Daniels (his only previous film: the universally-hated 2006 mind-boggler Shadowboxer). But Daniels' style is at times a little too ostentatious for the material, which begs to be played with utmost reality, not with smooth camera motions and over-the-top slow-motion sequences intended to underscore the pain of specific moments...as if the moments themselves don't earn the painful reactions. Daniels and writer Geoffrey Fletcher seem to waver in their trust of the material and occasionally feel the need to milk the audience's emotional reaction -- too bad, since Sapphire's source material is potent, and the film's cast is extraordinary from top to bottom.

Mo'Nique's performance has been the talk of Hollywood in the past several weeks, and her work is truly shocking, reaching notes of striking vitriol and utter despair. Her performance will likely win the supporting actress Oscar, which is a great story, though her "all about the Benjamins" purposeful deflection of praise makes it hard to root for her. Much easier is rooting for Sidibe, who literally came out of nowhere to give what is, in all honesty, the film's best performance. The actress' charming, giddy presence on talk shows is a true testament to the seriousness of her work here. There is not a hint of artifice in her portrayal; for the duration of the film, she becomes this tragic protagonist.

As for the film's Oscar chances, they remain strong. Hard to tell yet if the film has peeked early, ala-Brokeback Mountain, but at this point it seems maybe it has. Nonetheless, in a field of ten, the movie sits comfortably in the top 3 or 4 in its chances of winning. Sure to be nominated, with a decent shot at winning. It will depend on the forthcoming campaign.

As for the final analysis of the film, Precious is a strong and important film. Perfect, no. Groundbreaking, no. World-changing, no. And that's unfortunate, given what the filmmakers had to work with.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I Have Been Educated


I love the movies because every once in a long while, I come across one as wonderful as An Education. 

There is no one trait to zero in on when discussing the film. Why is the film great? Because it is. There are certain movies that find the perfect story, the perfect director, the perfect actors, and the perfect tone. An Education is one of those movies. It is, very simply, the perfect cinematic synthesis at the perfect time.

Nick Hornby has been a modern master of the witty, human, relatable written word for years and years, and his works have contributed some of the culture's best films of the last decade, from High Fidelity to About a Boy. The one subject he has never tackled: womanhood. The intricacies of femaledom abound, so it is often a smart choice for most male scribes to avoid it. But Hornby dares to paint a picture of youth flirting with adulthood, of intelligence flirting with stupidity, and most boldly, of feminism flirting with gender subjugation, and his gamble pays remarkable dividends. 

Granted, Hornby is working from a female memoir -- yes, for the first time in his career, Hornby is adapting someone else's work for the screen rather than another writer adapting Hornby's work for the screen. The switch feels fresh and intriguing, like Hornby is testing the waters of a new phase. Here the celebrated writer graces real-life material with his own unmistakable touches to create a filmic story that reverberates like the best cinematic fiction -- we feel the heartbeats of humanity flickering before us in all their funny, dramatic, vibrant splendor.

The advanced buzz on Carey Mulligan's breakout performance as Jenny, a very bright 1960s London high schooler who enters with both eyes open into a relationship with a much older man, was perfectly accurate -- Mulligan is a standout among a hugely talented cast, and a screen presence that sets the screen on fire with her mixture of world-weary innocence and knowing intelligence. As the much older man, Peter Sarsgaard is, once again, fabulous, playing a role that could easily become a sleazy caricature, but imbuing his character with real fears, dreams, and emotions. As Jenny's parents, Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour strike a perfect balance between overbearing father and warm, accepting mother. For Molina's stern, painful, but oftentimes humorous work, he will be in contention for an Oscar nod...and Mulligan is a shoo-in.

Lone Scherfig, a Danish filmmaker whose previous films -- among them Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself -- touched on the wonders of humanity much in the same way Hornby's writing does. She is a perfect fit for this story (marking her first English-language picture), which takes blends familiar frameworks (the period piece and the "young girl having affair with older man") but breathes new life into them by grappling with real issues and studying humanity in all its ups, downs, and everything in between. What makes a real woman? What makes a real man? What makes a real feminist? What constitutes a real "education"? We all know the answers, and none of us know the real answers...An Education is brilliant for understanding that simple fact.

Serious Moonlight


Now in select theaters and On-Demand: Come watch Meg Ryan drive the nails into her career's coffin! The movie is Serious Moonlight, and it spits all over the late, great Adrienne Shelly's legacy. Check out my review at filmcritic.com.

Those guys stole 90 minutes from me!


Look at these wonderful actors...all reduced to The Maiden Heist, now available on DVD. Check out my review at filmcritic.com.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Antichrist


I've always been a defender of Lars von Trier, even if I readily admit that a lot of times he doesn't deserve it. Love him or hate him (and there is room to experience both emotions at the same time), the man has crafted some of the most viscerally powerful film experiences of the last two decades. Europa is haunting and beautiful and vividly powerful. Breaking the Waves endures as one of the most painfully emotional experiences of the modern cinema. Dancer in the Dark is one of the most ambitiously surreal musicals ever created. And Dogville used a distinct lack of realism to expose the falsities of both American life and traditional filmmaking. There are many others, too, all reflecting the artistic preoccupations of their inimitable creator; von Trier lives on the line between provocation and inspiration, between manipulation and truth, between beauty and ugliness.

Antichrist, von Trier's latest descent into the horrors of the human psyche, is perhaps his most beautiful film...and his most infuriating. The most interesting aspect of the film is its extraordinary style; von Trier is always devising new stylistic strategies to challenge himself as a storyteller (in the very entertaining documentary, The Five Obstructions, von Trier challenged his favorite filmmaker, Jorgen Leth, to remake the same film five different times, each with a different stylistic obstacle standing in his way), and in Antichrist he seems to be exploring a glorious mish-mash of all styles. This is a far cry from von Trier's Dogma 95 days, when he vowed to eliminate all manner of artifice and deliver only "the real." Here he is combining vivid black-and-white photography with gorgeous color, using vivid HD cameras to create images of astonishing beauty. His cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, coming fresh off his Oscar win for Slumdog Millionaire, once again delivers some of the most beautiful filmic images of the year. As a director, von Trier has never been more interesting.

Content-wise, the film is an infuriating mess of horror and psychodrama, sometimes truly haunting, others off-putting and confounding. Much controversy has surrounded the film since its debut at Cannes, where jaws dropped over the film's graphic sexuality, grisly violence, and -- yes -- genital mutilation. A few clarifyers: the sexuality, save one 3-second penetration shot in the film's prologue, is barely graphic. The violence doesn't hit until near the end of the film, when it does get fairly nasty. The mutilation is obviously disconcerting, but it makes total sense in the context of the film's story. Most disturbing for me is the film's confounding internal logic, which touches on some powerful ideas but muddies them with purposely confusing tangents that speak more to von Trier's own psychological struggle than to the film's. Von Trier is an artist capable of putting audiences through the emotional wringer and leaving them feeling the profoundly disturbing pulses of the human soul. Antichrist doesn't wear you out as much as some of von Trier's other works, and that's primarily because when it veers closely to bearing its soul, it pulls back in a fit of pretense.

The story for the uninitiated: a married couple (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) make love in the shower while their young son escapes his crib and falls out their high-rise window. The mother goes into shock; the father, a counselor, remains cold and sets out to take his wife on as a patient in an attempt to "heal her." Big mistake. They retreat to a cabin in the woods, where the husband puts his wife through many psychological exercises meant to exorcise her inner demons...and in the process he awakens a real demon. Much torment ensues. And yes, there is one brief moment where a wolf speaks (it's one line: "Chaos reigns").

Pretentious? Absolutely. Allegorical? Almost entirely, I think, though von Trier always likes to toe the line between reality and artifice. Effective? Sometimes, yes; there are moment when the film is as viscerally and psychologically frightening as the best of Ingmar Bergman, and also just as emotionally wrenching. Then, at others, it becomes a jumbled mess of twisted exposition and labyrinthine backstory. Horror works best when there is no real explanation, and von Trier for the first time in his career seems at great pains to explain his story when it would be more effective to simply let it unfold naturally, no matter how wacky it may become.

The performances are fabulous, especially Gainsbourg's, who like most von Trier heroines is put through a torture chamber of emotions and makes every one of them feel horrifyingly real. And as a filmmaker, von Trier is moving in a direction in which he is openly discussing gender issues in his work. Female tribulation (and subjugation) has long been a primary theme in von Trier films, but in Antichrist it is right their on the surface, being discussed by the characters as a crucial element to the story. The film's final judgment seems to indict both sexes as being evil in certain ways; the husband is constantly viewed as a clinical bastard who is primarily responsible for his wife's deterioration, but the wife assumes sole responsibility for her son's death, and maybe she harbors more than one burdensome secret...etc.

As von Trier inches further towards fully disclosing his ideas about gender, sex, love, violence, and how they all intertwine, he himself seems a little lost, and we get lost with him. Antichrist is very intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful, worth ample discussion but not glowing accolades. Praise, after all, is not what von Trier is searching for anyway...but whatever he's searching for, I hope he discovers it, and that his discovery will be reflected in his future work.

Hideous Men...blah, blah, blah...


It would be tempting to spend a lot of time discussing Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, but the movie doesn't really deserve it. It is a valid attempt at a movie based on an infinitely more interesting piece of literature, but at the end of the day it doesn't really feel like a movie. Literature recited on film? Yes. A filmed play? Sure. A movie? Not so much.

Based on the late David Foster Wallace's 1999 book of short stories, the film is an ambitious first-time directorial effort by The Office's John Krasinski, who clearly displays intelligence but fails to devise a legitimate strategy for turning a collection of short stories into anything other than filmed prose. There is an inherent glass ceiling with films that merely compile vignettes -- individual sections can be great, but the entire piece can never fully sing as a great whole. Krasinski tries to work a half-assed narrative around his vignettes, but the effort is transparently thin and becomes distracting.

The conceit is promising enough: center the film on a woman who conducts the titular "interviews" as part of her doctoral thesis on exploring male views on sexuality and relationships. Julianne Nicholson plays the woman, Sara, who enters her project not just with curiosity, but with pain; she is coming off a messy break-up from a cheating boyfriend (played by Krasinski himself) and means to find some psychological solace in her studies. Of course, the intent is for the audience to discover something about Sara in the midst of finding out the obvious heinous shit about all these men, but Krasinski the filmmaker is a little too in love with Wallace's tome to stay far enough away from it to follow through on his own narrative off-shoots.

Oftentimes the first-time writer-director allows long soliloquies to play out again and again, thinking that inserting some jump cuts between sentiments will be enough visual stimulus to remind us that "this is a movie," but his efforts are more irksome than anything else. The use of jump-cuts to different moments in an interview or conversation can be used to great effect if there is a point and purpose behind the strategy, but after a while it seems like Krasinski settles into a rut in which he just inserts his cuts at random, just because the screen would seem too static without them. In addition, would-be creative flourishes like having conversations relayed while the events being discussed play out on the screen in a self-reflexive manner come across as desperate distractions rather than naturally inventive techniques.

I said all this to the wife, but of course she came back with, "enough about how the film fails...what did you think of the ideas?" And for the ideas, I say...they are what they are. They probably come across as more profound in the text of Wallace's book, where they feel more organic, and where the fits and starts of short stories make more sense. The problem with the film's ideas are that they aren't really true ideas at all, but simply interviews with jerks, as the title implies. "Aren't men terrible?" the film seems to be saying. But I already knew that. Give me something a little more interesting about men being terrible. Krasinski attempts to insert some external ideas in the form of a two-man Greek Chorus, who address the camera directly and wax poetic about women while Sara attempts to explore men. The equalizing strategy doesn't work because it turns Sara, the potentially-interesting central character, into a subject to be studied rather than a living, breathing being. Oftentimes she is just as much a subject to be studied as the "hideous men" being interviewed, which is cold and off-putting even if it is not intended to be.

Watching Krasinski on The Office, his intelligence is obvious. He is witty and human and endlessly engaging. That potential exists for his future as a writer and director, but Brief Interviews with Hideous Men offers little more than the sassy literalness of its title.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Coming Up This Week...

It's come out of nowhere to be the indie feel-good sensation of the year...and the year's most visible Oscar contender. Let's see if one of the most hyped films of the last few years can live up to it...










More Oscar buzz, this time for lead actress Carey Mulligan, whose magnetism is already the talk of Hollywood...












One of those really quirky comedies with arthouse cred and tons of great actors acting wacky...could be fabulous, or could be embarrassing.










And...

Some small movie no one's heard of. Word has it this one contains tons of naked male upper torsos. Have no clue what to make of it.

New on DVD & Blu-Ray: The Open Road



A young man in turmoil must reach out to his boisterous estranged father at the request of his ailing mother, and the two men are forced to sort-of bond over the course of their quirky journey together. "Haven't we already seen this before?" you might be asking yourself. Yes, you have -- we see this story portrayed about five times each year, and this film delivers about as much nuance and originality as one might expect for a motion picture generically titled, The Open Road. Therein lies the problem; there is nothing "wrong" with this movie, strictly speaking, but there is absolutely a whole lot of the lukewarm same.

Justin Timberlake and Jeff Bridges headline the film as offbeat father and son, the former a struggling minor league baseball player with not-so-secret literary aspirations and the latter a one-time MLB great who has devolved into a jocular alcoholic who roams from convention to convention signing autographs for naive fans. As the film begins, Carlton (Timberlake) receives a call telling him his mother (Mary Steenburgen) is in need of emergency surgery to aid her "heart condition" (the details of said condition are, perhaps mercifully, omitted from the story). Good ol' mom refuses treatment until she is granted one desire: that her estranged ex-husband, Kyle (Bridges) visit her bedside before she enters the operating room and that her son be the one to bring him to her.

A more belabored set-up is unimaginable, but The Open Road does everything it can to make the exposition all the more complicated. When Carlton finds his dad at a baseball memorabilia convention, Pops is surprisingly agreeable about making a trip to visit his ex, and makes plans to fly out and see her. But this is a road movie, right? So of course there is a hitch: the baseball great "loses his I.D." and is "stopped at the gate by Homeland Security," so obviously that means a road trip is necessary. Everybody accepting of this premise? Okay, moving on...

Father and son embark on a road trip from Ohio to Texas, a trek that seems oddly protracted for the sake of the film's uneven "beat the clock" framework, wherein Mom's condition worsens with each day our heroes spend on the road. Too bad it appears to take two days to travel through Kentucky and three more to get through Tennessee, when in reality it takes at best one full day to drive through both states combined. Maybe that's because the characters stop off at many different locations to share colorful moments or trade wounded sentiments that lightly touch on their rocky family history, sequences that might have been effective had the screenplay taken time to establish that history in a tangible way. Instead, we get would-be significant conversations between our grandly pontificating characters that take place at the 20-minute mark, after writer/director Michael Meredith's screenplay has raced to cobble together the central story and varying character motivations. Typically, the men unburden their souls to the film's de facto mediator, Lucy (Kate Mara), Carlton's on-again, off-again pseudo-girlfriend, who would herself benefit with more careful definition.

The Open Road is a film with virtuous intentions and limp results. Sure, the "road movie" premise is very tired, but with the right spice it can work as well as any other story construction. Here, however, every detail is murky and every character is normal to a fault. Even the loud-mouthed baseball legend, which should be hugely engaging in the hands of the great Bridges, is an earthbound caricature whose story treads water for 90 bland minutes. Timberlake is actually a talented actor, even if playing earnest isn't exactly his strong suit, and his interactions with both Bridges and Mara have a good natural flow; these actors might soar if only the material wasn't such a burdensome slog through Sameville.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Opening up a Box of Worms


Richard Kelly's The Box is intriguing and mysterious almost in spite of itself. It is an entertaining carnival show even if the story is, in all honesty, a complete and utter mess. Kelly is a master at crafting mysteries that build with fascinating brilliance and then pay-off with almost complete fizzle, and The Box fits into that mold like the perfect missing puzzle piece. Donnie Darko, the filmmaker's first feature, was his most successful -- an endlessly engaging mind-bender with great period details and oodles of style. The long-delayed Southland Tales was an ambitious, overblown disaster and was justly pilloried as such. Now, The Box...

People are going to hate it. People have hated it. That opinion is not altogether wrong. For me, one who tends to enjoy the ride of being jerked around by a weirdo cinematic journey, I checked my sense at the door and just tried to go with it. For the most part, I was successful. But why, then, do I roll my eyes and groan every time I think back on the film?

If you've seen the trailer, you know the plot. A Southern couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) are visited by a mysterious gentleman with half a face (Frank Langella), who presents them with a strange button device that comes with a hefty choice: press the button and someone in the world will die...and then the couple will receive a million bucks. Don't press it, and no one dies...but no money. A simple concept, weighed down by a metric ton of over-complicated plot mechanics involving zombified secret agents, otherworldly portals, and inevitable fates.

For a film that pitches itself as a shocking mind-bender, the storytelling is straight-forward to a fault. There is no twist or revelation, no great secret unearthed -- we are informed of the central conceit literally two minutes into the film, and then the story plays out. Odd stuff happens, most of it unexplained, but understood enough to seem more ho-hum than revelatory. The film's overriding message -- that we as humans bear a great responsibility for the destruction of our world and our species, is valid, but has been explored in more interesting ways in better films. The film's one unique attribute, the titular "box," is a system by which we are simultaneously judged for our destruction and aided in continuing said destruction. The film presents a world of cyclical obliteration -- humankind kills humankind, and the machine helps. A very lofty sci-fi notion, indeed, but one that must be aided by focused storytelling rather than aimless tinkering.

Kelly, more than any other filmmaker currently working, is on the verge of becoming a complete industry joke. His films carry an aura of self-importance and grand doom, which only works if audiences buy into your illusion. They are not. In truth, the guy is so adept at devising a concept that any pay-off, no matter how well thought-out in his own mind, will come off feeling cheap and unworthy. I had to turn off the commentary on the Donnie Darko DVD because I was happier enjoying the movie with the explanation than to have Kelly go into labyrinthine description that demystified the entire enterprise and exposed the plot as flimsy. There is a reason David Lynch never explains his work -- he understands that art is a very inward experience and that his artistry is nebulous, playing to each viewer in a unique way. Kelly has that potential, but goes about his game too literally. 

A Serious Man? Not possible.


The Coen brothers always attempt to wring edge-of-your-seat tension out of thin air, to stir an audience into anticipation and give them an unexpected, almost non-existent payoff. It is one of the filmmaking duo's defining characteristics -- balancing heavy tension with pointless zaniness. That formula worked brilliantly well in last year's Burn After Reading, which took the Coens' penchant for silliness to the breaking point, making a film literally about nothing, where characters lie and conceal and kill one another over...absolutely nothing. Kinda brilliant, really.

Now, the brothers return with A Serious Man, which follows that formula a little too closely. This one skews a lot more cynical than Burn, and so it delivers its ironic oddities in a much drearier package. Yet the message remains the same: we are all wandering around this planet, dealing with trial after trial, adversity after adversity, and just when we think we have it all figured out, the next bomb drops. Whereas in Burn the filmmakers were just having balls-out fun, here they are being more philosophical, but the strategy is similar -- drama builds and builds and builds, and then BOOM...silly payoff. Surely the silliness has more of a point this time around, but while I loved every last minute of nonsense in Burn, it feels less organic here, as if the oddity is more a cop-out than a driving force. A Serious Man gives us a lot, but I wanted more.

Michael Stuhlbarg, a veteran stage performer, is fabulous as the Coens' leading man, Larry Gopnik, a professor whose life in the 1967 Midwest unravels a little more with each passing moment. He has a student bribing him for a higher grade just as he is being considered for tenure. His son is having problems at school as he nears the date of his Bar Mitzvah. His eccentric brother (Richard Kind) has invaded the house and may never leave. And his wife (Sari Lennick) has decided to leave him for a pontificating blowhard (Fred Melamed). There's also the intriguing ingenue next door who sunbathes naked and flirts with Larry. And, of course, the damn TV antenna keeps losing reception.

The Coens seem to simultaneously be swinging for the fences and checking their swing, like they have profound points to make but hedge their bets with a few doses of the same old schtick. Maybe that's because, as has been widely discussed, this represents the filmmaking duo's most personal movie, their first to truly delve into the minutiae of Judaism and growing up within its strict confines. The result is a very interesting picture that doesn't quite live up to its potential, a near-great movie with a few troublesome setbacks. But more than ever, the Coens appear to be inching slowly towards espousing a worldview, and boy is it bleak. In A Serious Man they seem to be saying, in a world full of this much folly, with this much daily, compounding, ridiculous struggle, there is no such thing as a "serious man." We all fumble around and try our best, but our best efforts invariably, inevitably fail. It is a futile quest...there are no serious men. Seems about right to me.

Catch-Up Capsules

As we prepare to enter the full swing of the vaunted Holiday Movie Season, wherein we will be bamboozled with every last major Oscar contender in an overwhelming cascade that won't let up for months, I thought it would be a good time to quickly re-cap some of the films we missed from earlier this fall. Here are some of the most notable ones, in short form...


District 9 is not the world-changing film many built it up to be. It is an interesting idea that was probably amazing in its original short form. Extended to feature length, some of it works and some of it just doesn't. There is a disconnect between the film's true nature and what it becomes...funny thing is, my biggest problem is with its true nature. The faux documentary format can be fun, but truthfully, District 9 is at its best when it abandons it and becomes a blow-out action picture. Nonetheless, the blending of the two styles is uneven and unnecessary, and keeps the film from reaching the greatness it aspires to. But one thing is clear: Neill Blomkamp is ambitious and talented, and what he has accomplished with this film, all flaws aside, is that wonderful feeling of discovery, the opening up of new territory that should get even better in the future.



Another film with "9" in the title that was originally made as a short...and even though the first one was slightly disappointing, it possesses more ingenuity and intrigue in its pinky finger than this one does in its entire screenplay. Director Shane Acker won the Oscar for animated short a few years back, but at feature-length, this story of ugly rag-dolls run amok is a convoluted mess. It is too dark and violent for young kids, too simple and soft for grown-ups, and too mindless and confusing for anyone, young or old, to engage with. It seems like the film exists for no other reason than to be an exercise in gothic animation...which is not interesting, not exciting, and not a worthwhile experience.




I will fight for this one any day of the week. It was very easy for everyone to join the backlash against Diablo Cody, even though she essentially defined a new style of dialogue (and won a well-deserved Oscar for her work), as well as the ongoing backlash against Megan Fox, even though most people can't take their eyes off of her. The haters succeeded in destroying Jennifer's Body's box office haul, but the film is way better than most would have you believe. Fox is actually a very talented actress, and she's great here, playing against Amanda Seyfried (who is always great) as BFFs torn asunder because one of them is, well, a bloodsucker. What rarely gets discussed is just how firmly Cody keeps her fingers on the pulse of young girl culture. Sure, the dialogue ultra-hip, but the insights into what makes teen girls act and talk the way they do is striking in its authenticity and heartbreaking in its commentary. Much more interesting than anyone would give it credit for...and awesome genre fun to boot.


The disparity between how excited I was for this movie and how deflated I was coming out of the screening is about 10 miles wide. For a film so colorful, with such an inspired concept and such talented voice actors, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is stunningly drab...an ultimate bore. Every time my eyelids felt heavy, I fought with all my might, for I wanted this to be the next great family film of 2009. But after more than five instances of the sleepy head-bob, it becomes undeniable that something's not right with the pictures flickering on the screen. For my kids, I'll probably try it again on video...but that comfy couch will make it that much easier to snuggle in for a nap.



Capitalism: A Love Story obviously has noble intentions, but no good intentions can disguise the fact that this is Michael Moore's weakest film ever. It is not, strictly speaking, a "bad" film by any stretch, just an unfocused one that feels slapped together without Moore's usual exacting gaze. To be fair, the subject is broad -- too broad, honestly, to be encapsulated by a single two-hour movie in which the filmmaker wants to also share personal stories that don't resonate and integrate his usual biting humor, which doesn't sting like it used to. Moore is a polarizing figure for a reason: like him or hate him, he is one of our country's foremost social critics. But this is the first time his commentary doesn't add anything to the conversation, the first instance where it seems he's following the trend of the times instead of defining it.



Oscar talk died down on The Informant! after the film failed to make a significant box office dent. But Steven Soderbergh's crafty comedy is one movie I'd love to see remembered during Awards Season. It is a small and sly movie, one that doesn't call attention to its intelligence, which is a welcome change of pace coming from Soderbergh, who is almost always a brilliant dramatist, but whose comedies often skew smug (i.e., this year's The Girlfriend Experience). The Informant!, though, strikes the perfect balance between winking humor and straight-faced intrigue. Matt Damon is brilliant as a milquetoasty chubkins who cons an entire industry by simply being himself, an identity which becomes delightfully more confounding as the film wears on. The story works the same way; like all of Soderbergh's best work, it will only get better with each subsequent  viewing. 


The only film this year for which the word "ick" is review enough, Astro Boy is unseemly, uncomfortable, and damn near unwatchable. The source material is intriguing; Astro Boy is a famous figure in the annals of anime history, and this story -- in which a the wunderkind son of a kooky scientist is killed and then remade as a robot by his grieving father -- would work better as anime, an artform that skews darker and is free to explore uncomfortable implications. But this American version seems to ignore the fact that building a robot to take the place of your son is psychotic! Instead, the film treats the plot as warm and fuzzy, which makes the proceedings all the more nauseating. The supporting characters are grotesque to the point of cringing distraction, and the animation is eye assault of the ugliest order. Astro Boy is yet another animated film I wanted to love, but I didn't fall asleep this time...I wish I could've.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Paranormal Filmmaking


Paranormal Activity has become this year's upstart indie-horror surprise hit. There is one every few years..you know, the movie everyone refers to as "this year's Blair Witch," much in the same way there is always an upstart indie comedy hit that people want to call "this year's Sideways" or "this year's Juno" (of course, when it was released, Juno was "this year's Sideways"). But enough of that...maybe I'm just treading water because the unavoidable point is that Paranormal Activity just isn't that special.

The film is a creative enterprise, that's for sure. It is absolutely scarier than most studio schlock that is released with the "horror" label but would more accurately be placed in the "porn" category. And in its way, it truly is scarier than a movie like Blair Witch, which was more cerebral about building an urban legend than Paranormal, which is about building fear. The movie will undeniably send some chills through your body, but they are almost always buffered by glaring logical lapses that shouldn't be so obvious in a movie that is already about the unbelievable.

Part of the problem is that the "filmmaker" is actually not a filmmaker at all, but a guy who has worked in multimedia for along time and then decided to make this piece of media as an experiment. Oren Peli has a lot of creativity, and should be commended for his lack of vanity in not taking a "Directed by" credit that preserves the eerie non-movie feel of this picture better than just about any movie ever made. But of course that's relatively easy, since the entire crew consists of Peli and his two actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (Mark Fredrichs and Ashley Palmer play the film's only supporting roles and also go uncredited). Taking a page right out of Blair Witch, the two stars play versions of themselves. Katie, we learn, has always been followed by some unexplained entity, and her boyfriend Micah is a blustering bundle of male bravado who taunts said entity until it comes...and comes...and comes again, each occurrence more intense than the last.

Featherston is the stand out; her fear is palpable and her character completely believable. Sloat is a decent foil, even though he is forced to play a real jerk of a character who cares more about thumping his chest than keeping his girlfriend safe (but maybe that was the point). The filmmaking itself is uneven, making it difficult to totally buy that the entire story was shot by the two characters at all times, but that is forgiveable. This is, after all, a small movie that no one ever thought would reach such a massive audience.

For the most part, Paranormal Activity works about as well as it can within its limited confines. It drags for a good long while in the middle, becomes slightly irksome in its story inconsistencies, and saves the truly chilling stuff for the end, which goes out with a big bang and then literally goes dark. And truthfully, it is that dark that is only truly scary moment. After 90 minutes of small-scale thrills, the movie ends with an uncharacteristic movie-movie moment that takes us out of the film's natural flow...but when the movie cuts to black and holds, without credits, there is a suspended sense of creepy wonder than permeates the audience. The film is admirable for its methods, but those methods are ultimately more effective when analyzed than when viewed on the screen.

I love Zombies


Zombieland is just pure fun, one of the many movies that peddles genre kitsch, and one of the few with enough wit and ingenuity to make kitsch truly soar.

Like Shaun of the Dead before it, Zombieland exists in a world suddenly taken over by nasty, lurching zombies, a world in which the only remaining humans are ridiculously funny. The major difference between the two films is that this one is all about kicking zombie ass, hardcore-style, from start to finish. Woody Harrelson plays the chief zombie basher, and he is a perfect fit for this movie, looking like he's having more fun than he has in years. The great Jesse Eisenberg, who along with Michael Cera is defining pitch-perfect geek hero acting, is the knowing sidekick whose survival rules are the creative framework for the film. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are the tough-ass sister duo who reluctantly join forces with the two men and launch a white-knuckle assault on the undead.

There really isn't a lot to say about this one...it is one of those movies where the word "awesome" is pretty much review enough. If it is more slam-it-home than a slyer film like Shaun, it also makes a more believable attempt at getting (ever-so-briefly) serious in its character development, and then brings it home with grindhouse thrills, wild ultraviolence, and the now much talked about bit of cameo perfection that completely seals the
deal.

Zombieland
was directed by Ruben Fleischer, who shows a ridiculous amount of confidence in his first feature, and was written by journeymen TV writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who will most likely be in pretty high demand from this point on. This movie is a much-needed shot of nutty adrenaline in a year that has felt -- no pun intended -- like the walking dead.

Box Office Destruction

Funny little B.O. note: take just one second to look it over, and you realize this week's numbers are about as lop-sided as they've been at any week all year. The top two films hauled in a combined $87.5 million...the next eight took in around $35 million. In fact, you could scroll down to number 50 on the list and those bottom 48 movies still wouldn't match the top two.

I'm not trying to drag down any particular films, and I'm not going to pretend that most of the time it's always the top few movies on the list that take in the highest percentage of the weekly haul...that's just the way the business works. But it seems pretty glaring this week just where moviegoers want to put their money...and all the more glaring that a movie where an f/x hack systematically destroys all world landmarks can take in more money in a single week than Robert Zemeckis' latest innovative 3-D feature can in two weeks.

Of course, The Twilight Saga: New Moon may just take in $80 million by itself this coming weekend, so...

This Is It



It would be easy to be cynical...but it's much harder when you realize what an unmatched genius is up there on the screen.

Check out my review at filmcritic.com.

Spread 'em!



Kutcher possesses a certain Alex Rodriguez quality in this picture, don't you think?

Check out my review at filmcritic.com.

The Merry Gentlemen


Michael Keaton makes his directorial debut by selecting one of the lamest scripts of the year. He clearly had better offers than this, right?

Wayyyyyy Expired

Expired is one of those movies that is truly beyond description. Great actors, interesting subject matter...and some of the worst filmmaking you will ever see.

Yikes....check out my review at filmcritic.com.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Something Wild



Consider this review slightly premature, since at this writing I have only seen Where the Wild Things Are once. This film is the kind that demands, thrives on, and was made for multiple viewings. Its story is actually quite simple, its subtext clear, and yet there are nuances buried within this emotionally-charged, elaborately-mounted adaptation of Maurice Sendak's celebrated children's book that I suspect can't fully be appreciated in just one dose. The taste needs more room to breathe, the richness more time to work its way through the brain and make its way to the heart. I can't in honesty relay my full opinion until I see the film again, but I can tell you that movies that require multiple viewings are often among the best.

On the basis of this one viewing, I can tell you this: Where the Wild Things Are is a beautiful portrait of childhood, in all its restless, adventurous, sad, giddy, contradictory splendor. I can also say that the debate over the film's appropriateness for kids is a tad overblown. Yes, it's dark and yes, its emotions are real and intense, but while kids are innocent, they are not stupid. Their lives may seem simple to we jaded adults, but life is just as towering, fearsome, and anxiety-ridden for kids in transition as it is for grown-ups.

It's been written to death about the ten-sentence length of Sendak's original book, and the various differences director Spike Jonze took with the material, at Sendak's insistence. But the seamless power of Jonze's vivid world cannot be overestimated; this movie version feels like a psychic equivalent of the book's oddball world, and the story's added nuances unfold as one might imagine a longer version of the book might. And yet never does Jonze fail to deliver a completely singular, intimately personal picture. His film simultaneously feels just like the book and precisely like its own unique self.

You know the story: young Max (flawlessly played here by Max Records) is a kid having a tough time dealing with his parents' separation, and as an act of his conflicted emotions the kid escapes to a strange world populated with grotesquely intriguing "wild things." Max is obviously wary of the strange creatures, but in truth he is a wild thing himself, just as odd to the creatures as they are to him, and just as complex and contradictory in his behavior patterns. There is room for deep discussion on who or what the creatures represent -- each seems a mirrored representation of a member of Max's real life, and each sort of resembles the various struggling aspects of Max's own personality. What Max learns in his journey is up for the audience to determine, and what happens after he returns home is unknown. The power lies in the journey itself, the journey of a kid yearning for love, who journeys into the wild depths of his imagination and touches the even wilder depths of his soul.

Jonze, one of the most interesting filmmakers now working, spent years struggling to get this film made, and spent much of production and post-production butting heads with studio execs on the final product. In the end, Jonze got final cut, and his vision is uncompromising. The filmmaker has earned a reputation for being a big kid (a persona on full display in his hi-jinks with the Jackass crew), yet his films are all undeniably complex, creative masterworks. Where the Wild Things Are is the ultimate synthesis of Jonze's duality as an artist, a film that is the truest, most beautiful representation of childhood the cinema has seen in a long time.

Imagine how much I'll gush after the second viewing...

Let's Have an Intervention


Vince Vaughn may quite possibly be the last remaining raunch-comedy superstar who hasn't acquiesed to the R rating. In an increasingly graphic climate, in which the likes of Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith have pushed well beyond the PG-13 and in many cases are inching past the formerly iron-clad limits of the R (even inappropriate PG-13 raunch king Adam Sandler has relented to the R a couple times recently), Vaughn's films have remained content to operate in a (slightly) tamer environment. In the last few years alone, The Break-Up, Four Christmases, and now Couples Retreat -- three movies that appeared destined for R territory -- have been released in a watered-down teen-friendly format. Why? Could be box office, could be fear of audience run-off, but more than any other reason, especially in the case of this new film, that it's because Vaughn has grown-up instincts but can't muster the guts to produce fully grown-up material.

Couples Retreat is a film that would have benefitted from having the freedom to be an R movie, not because it's necessary to add any bonus "dirty" material, though that almost certainly would've been one side effect, but very simply because a higher rating would have afforded the filmmakers -- most specifically writer Jon Favreau -- a license to be more honest about relationships. It's common knowledge to the point of being cliched that marriage is simultaneously the most monumental and most difficult of human enterprises, but it is the tiny intricacies, the subtle nuances that makes the experience so profound. Watching Couples Retreat, I feel confident that Favreau understands those nuances, and disappointed that he failed to communicate them in any form other than punchy cartoon.

Favreau's original script was then turned over to Vaughn and Dana Fox (who gave us last year's hellatious What Happens in Vegas), and after a certain number of tweaks, this is the film now released in theaters: a comedy about four couples, each with a variety of problems, who somehow find the time to abandon their lives at the drop of a hat and go on a special retreat, where they are forced after an hour of goofy pratfalls (many of them funny, but lacking in substance) to confront those problems and decide their fate. The actors -- among them Jason Bateman, Kristin Davis, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Faizon Love, and of course, Vaughn and Favreau -- are all good, but their stories overlap to such a degree that we never really get a chance to connect with any of them. Vaughn and Akerman take center stage as the couple who appears to be totally happy and in love, and it takes 90 minutes for the movie to arrive at the decision that they really don't have any problems whatsoever. Favreau and Davis play the most interesting couple, but their story is presented with such a surface-skimming lack of complexity that the characters essentially become punchlines. All of these characters overlap each other to the point of complete disinterest, most specifically Love's bumbling divorcee with a gold-digging girlfriend, whose story might not have fit in even in a better version of this film.

Couples Retreat is the directorial debut of Peter Billingsley (ya know, from A Christmas Story), and while it was nice of Vaughn and Favreau to throw the guy a bone and give him a script to direct, the material would have been better served with Favreau behind the camera (but after finishing one grueling Iron Man picture and prepping another, the guy probably wanted a break). But in a film with this many obvious script-level issues, the director is the least of its problems. Those screenplay issues are unfortunate, because this movie does mark a move toward maturity for Vaughn, who still has great sarcastic timing but has added a nuanced straight-man quality that serves him well here. Had Vaughn and Favreau decided during the writing process to push this movie into tougher, more realistic territory, it would have been a hugely surprising film. As it currently stands, it is a funny, likable trifle of a movie. These guys are capable of more...and I look forward to seeing how they move forward next time.