Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nine

Okay, full disclosure: I can’t stand musicals. Most of them, anyway. Give me something that strays from the ordinary-Moulin Rouge!, the South Park movie-and I just might enjoy it, but for the most part, musicals fall flat. In fact, musicals are far more delusional and far-fetched than most science fiction films. Think about it: how often, in real life, does a person just randomly break into song and dance? The whole thing baffles me, I’ve never understood it. Are the characters in musicals singing in their real life… as their character? In the story? I just don’t have the patience for it, I suppose.

That’s why a movie, albeit a musical, like Nine is a great, refreshing taste of a wasted genre. Here’s why it works: the whole movie is told through the point of view of one man. All the musical numbers are purely in his imagination. The performances aren’t happening in “real life”, they’re in his subconscious. I’ve rarely seen that done in a movie before.

Based on a stage play that was itself based on Federico Fellini’s classic film 8 ½, the story is simple: Italian film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis, who did indeed learn Italian for the role), struggles to come up with an idea for his new, much-hyped film, while juggling the many women in his life. There’s his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his muse (Nicole Kidman), his confidant (Judi Dench), his whore (Fergie), his mother (Sophia Loren), and the reporter trying to get it all (Kate Hudson). But here’s the kicker: most of these women never meet each other, expect in Guido’s musical fantasies (his mother, for instance, is dead).

Jesus, what a cast (18 Oscar nominations and 7 wins among them). If there’s a musical standout it’s Kate Hudson (yes, I just said ‘standout’ and ‘Kate Hudson’ in the same sentence), but it’s true. Watching and listening to her sing ‘Cinema Italiano’ is a true delight. I had heard that Hudson could sing and dance, and bless director Rob Marshall for giving her the chance. In easily her best role since Almost Famous, maybe it’s time Hudson woke up: ditch the cookie cutter romantic comedies and start testing yourself.


While Hudson is the musical standout, it’s Marion Cotillard who steals the show. I’ve only seen Cotillard in three films: La vie en Rose, which she justly won the Best Actress Oscar, Public Enemies, which she stole scenes from Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, and Nine, where she, almost literally, lights the film on fire. Her classical, stunning beauty is enough to knock you off your feet, but her raw, emotional acting talent is enough to impress the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis. Cotillard has a long film acting career ahead of her. Look out for her in Christopher Nolan’s new flick Inception in July.
The rest of the cast, led by the always remarkable Day-Lewis, are extraordinary. Props to all of them for doing their own singing. Most of you know Rob Marshall as the director of that completely over-hyped, Best Picture-winning film Chicago. So let me put it this way: if you liked Chicago you’ll like Nine, and if you hated Chicago you’ll really like Nine. Take it from me, a guy who can’t stand musicals. Action.

Note: this film deserves two grades, Day-Lewis and Cotillard A+, the rest of the film A-.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar


Well well well. My my my. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we. No sense in beating around the bush. Avatar is good. Quite good actually. This comes from a guy who, one: thinks James Cameron is a wee bit of a douche bag, two: thought Titanic well… blew, and three: was actually rooting against Avatar (which, along with a friend of mine, dubbed it Fern Gully 3-D in the weeks leading up to its release.)

But no, seriously, this movie kicks hard core ass. I knew that Avatar would LOOK great, but I expected the story to be garbage. Such is not the case. Way in the future (2154ish), soldiers travel to a planet (Iraq?) where a war is being fought. The war, it appears, is simply taking place so the Earthlings can acquire a profitable mineral (oil?). Nine-foot tall blue creatures inhibit the planet and aren’t all too pleased that the pesky “Skypeople” keep ruining their sacred land.

More specifically: a paraplegic soldier, Jake (Sam Worthington), enlists in the Army’s Avatar program. Now stay with me. Scientists create an Avatar, a replica of the planet’s inhabitants, from a soldier's DNA. Then that soldier can “plug” into his or her Avatar and roam the jungles in disguise. Soon enough Jake gains sympathy (and love) with the blue people, and joins them. Sound complicated? Well, it is. But don’t worry, you have 2 hours and 45 minutes to figure it all out. It’s like The Matrix meets Fern Gully meets The Last Samurai.

But let’s get to the good stuff. The special effects in this film are literally breathtaking. Early in the movie, when Jake’s Avatar jumps off a cliff, I sat in my seat completely transfixed. “Whoa”, is all I could think to utter. And that’s just the beginning. It’s a very good characteristic that it is extremely difficult to tell what is computer animated and what is real. In fact, Avatar is the finest technological achievement in cinema since 2001: A Space Odyssey 41 years ago. This film will change the way we watch movies. I would be stunned if Avatar doesn’t walk away with at least four of the technical Oscars.
And that runtime? Don’t fret, it goes by quick, no bullshit. Any three hour film will have people shifting in their seats, but Avatar is an experience, one that made me, for lack of a better phrase, forget time altogether. There’s more depth to this film that I haven’t touched on, but believe me, Avatar is worth the hype and definitely worth seeing. I need to mention that I saw the film in 3-D. Those of you watching in a regular theatre surely won’t have the same exhilarating experience I did, so fork out the extra dough and strap on those glasses.

If you asked me a week ago what this review would be like, I would’ve guessed a lot of Cameron bashing was in store. But now, in ways I’m still trying to figure out, I say with complete sincerity: well done, Mr. Cameron. Well done indeed. A

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Up in the Air

Well, here’s a rare thing. Up in the Air is the type of Hollywood movie that you don’t see too often. It’s the kind where Hollywood gets it right. There isn’t a shred of plot in its wondrous 109 minutes. Instead we’re presented a character study of a very confident, very flawed man. It’s hard to see his flaws on the surface (given the actor that plays him) but they’re there, and it is remarkable to watch them unfold.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a corporate big shot who gets hired by businesses to come in and clean house. He fires dozens of people a day, knowing no more about them than what’s listed on their dated resumes. His life, you see, is consumed by travel. His home is the air. Soon enough his sleazy boss (a great Jason Bateman) brings in fresh, hot-shit college grad Natalie (Anna Kendrick) to go along with Ryan. They travel throughout the country, firing people left and right, before Ryan meets his female doppelganger Alex (a sultry Vera Farmiga).
There’s your basic premise, but this is by no means a plot. There is no agenda in the film, no three-act structure. It’s just… there. Which, I’m sure, may seem a little off-putting to some of you. But in fact, Up in the Air is a very hard film to critique because there is nothing, from what I can tell, wrong with it.

Ten years ago George Clooney proved his dramatic acting chops with his revelatory turn in Three Kings. In the decade since, he has done his damndest to shy away from his immense stardom, delivering solid work in the Ocean’s films, Solaris, Michael Clayton, and winning an Oscar for Syriana. But as Ryan Bingham, Clooney has never been better. From the first time you see him (or hear is witty narration) you can’t take your eyes off him. His slight gestures, his borderline-sarcastic firing, his delicate holding of a much needed drink; it’s all there. Everyone he fires reacts differently; some mad, angry, calm, crying, etc. Most of them start off hating him, but watch Clooney carefully in these scenes. Watch how, for instance, one recently fired person (the always reliable J.K. Simmons) slowly grows to respect Ryan in just five short minutes. It’s really quite incredible.

Kendrick (who a billion people have seen in the Twilight films) is a welcoming revelation. Conservatively dressed in tight business attire, she plays Natalie like a bewildered rookie champ. A seemingly confident deer caught in the headlights of corporate politics. As her character evolves, we get to know a great deal about her. Her insecurities, flunky mannerisms, and so on. She’ll have a seat next to Mo’Nique come Oscar night.

I’ve been a fan of Farmiga’s since her breakout role in the little-seen Down to the Bone. Most of you know her as the lone female in The Departed, but it is her role here that really lets her shine. Her Alex is a thing of pure confidence; with sexuality, with business, hell, with life in general. Clooney has had plenty of female counterparts over the years. Jennifer Lopez, Holly Hunter, Julia Roberts, and so on. But Farmiga is easily his best match yet. Their relationship develops like some kind of cosmic force. Their chemistry brings to mind the great romances of classic cinema. They’re that good.

This is Jason Reitman’s third film after the sardonic Thank You for Smoking, and the gimmicky Juno. All I can say is… third time’s the charm. Reitman, along with co-writer Sheldon Turner, have adapted Walter Kirn’s novel into something of a film miracle. There isn’t a forced moment, or spoken line of overacted dialogue to be found here. Mr. Reitman, and his film, are going to have a very, very busy awards season.

In my previous post, I was all the rage about Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Nelson Mandela. And while I still commend Freeman in that role, I cannot image better male acting than Clooney this year. Take this brief scene for example. Early in the film we learn that Ryan’s younger sister is getting married. He hesitantly decides to go home and attend. Watch when Clooney walks into the rehearsal dinner. His sister sees him, then gets up from the table and starts rushing towards him for a hug. Now pay attention. Watch Clooney as his sister approaches. A gushing smile bursts from his face. He is genuinely ecstatic to see her. All of his ideals, his lonely philosophies, are lost with that smile. It quite literally took my breath away. Blink and you’ll miss it, but that is acting. Making the audience believe. Up in the Air is without a doubt, one of the best Hollywood movies to come out in years. Enjoy the trip. A+

Monday, December 14, 2009

Everybody's Fine

Amateurish filmmaking at its finest. There isn’t a whole lot wrong with Everybody’s Fine on the surface, but its structure and narrative are lazy lazy lazy.

Here are a few tips: if your movie takes place from one character’s point of view, DON’T have lame voiceover phone calls between other characters. You’re telling us more than the main character of the film knows when we should know ONLY what he does. Next: if you choose to have a clichéd dream sequence, DON’T have the person gain new information in the dream. People don’t learn any new information from their subconscious. I don’t know that capital of Zimbabwe, and if I have a dream, I can’t learn the capital of Zimbabwe. Dreams only reveal to us what we already know. One last thing: if you are driving a point home (which includes a major plot twist) spend a little more time on the subject than just one 7-second tracking shot. I was left confused by the outcome of one character, and therefore stop giving a shit.

Okay, enough. You get the point. I wasn’t expecting much from this Robert De Niro family drama, about a widower who goes around the country to surprise his four children only to find that they all of big bad secrets, but I can say that it was worse than I thought it was going to be. Even De Niro, seriously hoping for some About Schmidt-type praise, can’t save this dud. Some of you may venture to it for your dose of sappy holiday film fever. Don’t. It doesn’t take place during the holidays. The Christmas stuff in the trailer and on the poster are just marketing ploys.

Johnny Boy/Vito Corleone/Travis Bickle/Jake La Motta/Rupert Pupkin/Al Capone/Jimmy Conway/Ace Rothstein/Neil McCauley.

Robert De Niro… where have you gone? D

Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus

As a film addict, I cannot describe how great it is to have a film exceed my high expectations. That’s my fix. And in a year like this one, where several films have seriously under delivered, a movie like Invictus is that much more triumphant.

It’s no secret: I am a Clint Eastwood fan. Ever since he made a drastic change to his filmmaking approach- indelible stories, steely hues, soft score- with Mystic River in 2003, he has excelled as one of our best living filmmakers. And the guy is pretty damn prolific, too. He’s directed six grade-A movies in seven years. Make Invictus the seventh.

Invictus tells the story of a just-freed Nelson Mandela and his struggle to unite the people of South Africa. It’s an interesting thought: how does one come to accept, and forgive, the people that kept him in prison for 25 years? Mandela decides that to bind his country he will enlist the nearly all white South African rugby team, and its capitan Francois (Matt Damon), to win the rugby World Cup. Here’s where I was a little shaky going in. How will the film show Mandela doing this? By cheating? Buying off the other teams? Using his "holy" power? The answer is simple: by casting Morgan Freeman in the lead role.

From his first moment onscreen, Freeman is Mandela. When he asks Francois over for tea, casually implying that a World Cup victory could be the answer to their country’s civil unrest, Freeman actually makes you believe in the power of Nelson Mandela. The conviction that the real man has with the soft use of his voice, the delicate phrasing of his sentences. It’s a tough role, and beautifully executed.

Morgan Freeman is one of the world’s most recognizable actors. He has a commanding presence that you notice right away. He’s proven time and time again of his ability to convince us as an actor. Roles in Glory, Unforgiven, The Shawshank Redemption, Seven and Million Dollar Baby are a few standouts. But as Mandela, Freeman delivers the best performance of his immaculate career. It’s the kind of acting that makes an Oscar seem like an afterthought. You may think that because Freeman is so identifiable he may not be able to pull off a real-life person of Mandela’s magnitude. Think again. Watch the way Freeman, as Mandela, raises his hand to a crowd, or slowly delivers his lines, as if picking through each word. From his walk to his smile, Freeman simply embodies Mandela.

Matt Damon, in a touching performance, delivers reliable work as Francois. From Good Will Hunting to Syriana, The Departed to The Informant! Whether he’s Jason Bourne or Private Ryan, Damon has always done an excellent job of shying away from his pretty-boy image. He handles one of the best scenes in the film with wonderfully restrained emotion. The whole rugby team goes to the prison Mandela was kept in. Francois walks into Mandela’s own cell and slowly spans out his arms. His span his larger than the cell. How did he do it? Survive for 25 years in here. Sleeping on the floor, breaking rocks in the yard? Damon asks all of these questions, without saying a word. Expect to see Damon’s name twice on the Oscar shortlist, Best Actor for The Informant!, Best Supporting Actor here.

Invictus unfolds like most recent Eastwood movies do: through slow progression and well-paced storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, the rugby scenes have a crisp, fluid appeal (Blind Side, take note), that will satisfy any sports fan. But at the heart of the film is a director (albeit a 79-year-old director) at the top of his game, two actors delivering career-defining work, a story told as tender as it is true, and a movie that exceeds even the highest of expectations. Bravo. A

Note: Some of you have asked me what Invictus means. It is Latin for ‘unconquered’.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Brothers

Damn you, 2009.

All you should know about Brothers is that seasoned war soldier Sam (Tobey Maguire) heads off for another tour in Afghanistan, leaving his cute wife Grace (Natalie Portman) to take care of their two young daughters. But once Sam is pronounced KIA, his younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) quickly steps in to… what? Help out with the kids? Remodel the kitchen? Get laid? All three?

That should be enough to get you into the theatre. But the trailer reveals much more, including a few scenes of Maguire flipping out, and a fireside kiss that looks like more than it really is.

So, here’s the problem: Brothers has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. They are far too many plot lines running around. There’s the ex-soldier suffering from PTSD. The screw-up younger brother. The son vs. father resentment. The love triangle. The brother as a surrogate father to his nieces. And on and on. If the film, and its very talented director, Jim Sheridan, picked just one of these plot points, the movie would be a success.

More issues: we never really find out why Tommy has just served time in prison. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about ambiguity of details, but this is absurd. The characters constantly discuss his crime, but they sidestep the real issue. So, instead of a Million-Dollar-Baby-type-question (I wonder what Eastwood did to piss his daughter off?), we’re left with a SHUT UP AND TELL US ALREADY feeling. Also, anyone who has a loved one that has survived a traumatic accident knows that you do not rush the person into explaining what happened. You have to let their feelings evolve and wait for them to tell you when it is comfortable for them. So Natalie Portman attempting to bully Tobey Maguire into telling her what happened in the war gets really old really fast.

Brothers is based on the much better, much grittier Danish film Brødre. The original is clearer in executing its story (for example, we find out why Tommy was in prison right away, boom, done), and it also gets more refined performances from its actors. Again, don’t get me wrong, Brothers is not all bad. Portman and Gyllenhaal do good work, and while Maguire doesn’t quite get there, his effort is still commendable. But you know you have an issue when the best acting in your film is done by a ten-year-old girl (Bailee Madison, who plays the older daughter).

Brothers is a mild disappointment; just like The Road, it isn’t bad enough for me to discourage you from seeing it, but it isn’t good enough to recommend, either. C+

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Road

The Road is exactly like I thought it would be. Although, I can’t say I’m surprised, given the bleakness of Cormac McCarthy’s prose. But maybe there is a lesson to be learned here: even if a book is a Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece, that doesn’t mean it will translate into riveting cinema.

McCarthy’s book was a rather odd phenomenon. A Man and Boy shuffle across a post-apocalyptic America, in constant search of food and in hiding from crazed cannibals. Although, the Father and Son’s story isn’t as thrilling as it is compelling. The text actually plays like a 300-page poem. It’s beautiful, transcendent, and undeniably powerful. But honestly, not a whole hell of a lot happens.

Director John Hillcoat’s adaptation puts Viggo Mortensen and newcomer Kodi Smith-McPhee in the roles of Man and Boy, with Charlize Theron popping up occasionally as the Wife/Mother in flashbacks. Right away, you notice that the film looks great. The barren, gray landscapes are captured seamlessly from McCarthy’s text. At times it’s hard to tell what shots are completed with special effects, and which are not, (always a good thing). But moving past that, we start to get into trouble.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Hillcoat is seriously amping up the terror factor in his film. The movie becomes more about surviving from the crazies, than it does about surviving in general. If I’m not mistaken, the Man and Boy only had a few brief encounters with people in McCarthy’s text. In the film, it is practically every other scene, which gets old pretty fast. Walk, find food, see scary people, HIDE. Walk, find food, see scary people, HIDE. Walk, find food, see scary people, HIDE. You get it.

Don’t blame the cast, though. Mortensen, an actor of impeccable range and devotion, is excellent in the lead role, as is Theron in her brief scenes. Even a slew of spirited cameos by Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood), Michael K. Williams (The Wire), Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall, help move the film along. But eventually, the movie reaffirms our belief about the book to begin with: that it is an unadaptable novel.

But maybe I’m wrong. Across the board critics are loving The Road. They are even hailing Smith-McPhee’s performance (which I found… annoying at times). I waited over a week to write this review, in hopes that the film would have some lasting power in my mind; that I would like it better than I originally thought. Well, I don’t. There isn’t enough wrong with it to make it a disaster, but there aren’t enough good qualities about it to make it great. It’s just… there. (Which does not mean I don’t want to see Viggo nominated). C

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

And so it begins. Ahh Wes Anderson with his centered photography, snappy editing, playful soundtrack and immense attention to detail. Like other directors born from the ‘90s school of Tarantino, Anderson’s films have an instant recognizable look. You know what you are watching right away. Sometimes it’s gimmicky (The Life Aquatic, yawn) but most times it plays out flawlessly (Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums).

Put Fantastic Mr. Fox right at the top of Anderson’s best. In the PG-rated, stop-motion animated film, we follow a family of foxes (voiced to perfection by George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman) as Mr. Fox throws out his life of crime to become a newspaperman, only to be tempted back into the dark world of chicken stealing.

Now, anyone who reads this blog, or knows anything about my personal movie tastes, knows that I am not a fan of animated films. Wall-E and Up were good, sure, as is the South Park film, but for the most part I leave the genre to the kids. So, it comes with great surprise that Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the single best movie going experiences I’ve had this year. When I wasn’t smiling like a dumb fool, I was genuinely laughing my ass off. As with all of Anderson’s movies, the humor is never obvious. It’s in the pauses, the subtle glances, the repetition, and so on. This film is no different. The characters here are so well defined that you actually care about them. Seriously.

Getting into plot points isn’t really important because Fantastic Mr. Fox is about the experience. It’s a well-executed exercise in animated filmmaking. And for my money, it will give Up some strong competition for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

I want to point out a few interesting facts about this film. Notice the parallels to Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Both by young, accomplished directors. Both PG, although not for kids. Both based on animated novels. Thing is, Fantastic Mr. Fox actually has a clear vision, something Where the Wild Things Are lacked. Another piece of trivia: the actors lending their voices for this film did not record in a booth. They recorded their dialogue at locations similar to where the scene took place. Forrests, attics, stables, etc. That’s interesting.

Forget best animated film of the year, Fantastic Mr. Fox is not only one of the best films of the year, but it’s one of the best that Anderson has made. It’s true, Fantastic Mr. Fox really is nothing short of fantastic. A

The Blind Side

Here’s my issue with formulaic movies: they’re okay, as long as they offer you a fresh perspective on a tired genre. I mean seriously, how many times have we seen the rags-to-riches sports story? The down and outer gets the glory! The poor black kid overcomes life’s grievances and becomes a champ! YAY!

Million Dollar Baby, Antwone Fisher, hell, even Precious would all fit that mold, but these are all bold, original, and often shocking films. Now take a complete farce like The Blind Side, which offers you nothing, has no dramatic conflict, and makes zero effort to challenge you.

Here’s the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless black teen who gets taken in by a well-to-do white family, soon becomes a high school football star, and eventually lands in the NFL (Oher now plays for the BMore Ravens). True story? Who cares. That doesn’t make me appreciate the movie more. Not when it’s littered with clichés, laughable acting and football scenes that have as much flare as two cats sleeping.

My editor thought The Blind Side was “good for a Hollywood movie”. But that is total bullshit. I don’t grade films on a curve. I view each one as its own. I’d give an A+ to The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, and The Lost Weekend, to name a few. Every film I grade as A+, I honestly consider it as good as the pre-mentioned movies. I don’t think The Blind Side should be graded higher simply because it is a feel-good Hollywood film with a bankable star. No. I’ll critique this film as I would any other, which makes it easy to give it a solid D.

P.S. If a middle-aged white woman, all tarted-up with her blonde hair, low-cut dress, and perky breasts, shows up in the ghetto, calls a thug a “bitch” and threatens to put her NRA membership to good use… you will fear her. Give. Me. A. Fucking. Break.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

So... here it is. Perhaps it’s a bit presumptuous of me, but every year I wait (hope) for that one movie. The film that really gets me. The one where I sit in complete awe as the credits roll. The one that gives me the “holy shit” moment, if you will. As in, holy shit what did I just see, and more importantly, when can I see it again?

It was The Wrestler last year, There Will Be Blood the year before. I was fortunate enough to have that awe-struck moment in January when I first saw Precious at Sundance. And now, several months later, I can proudly admit that I am still in complete awe of this film.

Everything you’ve heard about Precious, the hype and all that comes with it, is completely justified. This is a film that aims to shake you almost immediately, and never let you go for a second. The result is brutal, unflinching, and poignant as all hell.

Who would be interested in spending two hours watching a movie about a morbidly obese, illiterate, impoverished black girl in ‘80s Harlem? One that’s been beat up and beat down both emotional and physically by her parents since day one? Not too appealing. But suck it up; you’re in for one hell of an emotional rollercoaster.

After Precious (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is kicked out of public school for being pregnant, she enrolls in an alternative school, taught by the charming, understanding Ms. Rain (Paula Patton). Her new school is her only escape, because at home Precious is subjected to things most of us cannot even fathom. Her mother (Mo’Nique) is a complete monster of a human being. Never hesitant to throw a frying pan at her daughter, or remind her how stupid she is. Their apartment is a ghetto hell that shocked me to the core. The kind of living situation that makes you thankful for what you have.

Her mother’s only concern is welfare money, but to get that, Precious has to sit in on sessions with a tough-as-nails social worker (yes, that is Mariah Carey) which, in addition to her new school, acts as therapy for Precious’ dismal life.

Moving away from plot, let’s get to the important stuff. As Precious, Sidibe delivers a performance of such candid disarray that it will leave you utterly heartbroken. Her face is often clinched in tight anger, never letting anyone into her world. When she smiles, as she often does in beautiful, fantasy-like daydreams, it’s as if we’re watching a different actress. This is as good a debut performance as I’ve ever seen.

You’ve heard about Mo’Nique in this film, I’m sure. But nothing can prepare you. From the first moment she is on screen, you fear her. This is a woman that makes you stir in your seat, just with a grimacing stare. Seldom times do actors “get there” in films. Where they reach a point where they are no longer acting. They are their character. I have no idea what Mo’Nique’s method for acting is, but she has created one of the most repulsive, vicious characters in recent cinematic memory. Simply put: this is the best acting I’ve seen so far this year. From any person in any movie. Oscar… please?

Supporting performances by Patton and Carey are not to be overlooked. Patton actually has one of the hardest scenes in the film. She has the task of reacting to Sidibe after Precious explains how worthless and unloved she is. Patton’s role could’ve easily been a clichéd mess. But not in these capable hands.

When I first saw Precious, I had no idea that the social worker was played by Mariah Carey. Stripped of any makeup, attractive clothes or nice hair, Carey is an astounding revelation. You sit there in a daze, shocked at the subtle intensity of her performance. If Carey can deliver like this, you can expect much more film work from her. She may very well have a slot in the Supporting Actress category with Mo’Nique.

Lee Daniels only has one other film to his credit as a director (2005’s poorly received Shadowboxer), but that matters little. With the help of screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who adapted Sapphire’s searing novel, Daniels has created a haunting masterpiece. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen. When reading about this film you may suspect that it is a gritty downer. Such is not the case. Badness happens to Precious, of course, but somehow you’re left with a sense of clarity, importance. It’s quite remarkable, actually.

Take these two brief scenes as an example. Early in the film, Precious does her hair in front of the mirror in her bedroom. We see her staring at the mirror, but the reflection staring back isn’t Precious. It’s a blonde haired, blue eyed, Caucasian beauty. Later in the movie, Precious walks in front of a giant mirror in the lobby of an office building. She stares for a couple seconds at her own reflection. She finally sees herself. (I’m tearing up just writing about it). This is what Precious is all about: finding yourself amongst insurmountable pain.

This is the best film of the year, folks. Step outside your comfort zone a little. Do yourself a favor and see this film. I promise you will not regret it. Behold a thing of absolute wonder. A+

An Education

Ahh what a delightful film. An Education is long and far the best romance of this year. There isn’t a scene void of curious charm. Every moment is genuine and heartfelt. Welcome to the bliss of independent movie heaven.

Proper British schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is young, innocent, daring and a tad precocious. Weighted down by her strict, well-to-do father (Alfred Molina) who wants nothing more than Oxford for his daughter, Jenny jumps at the chance to stir up a little mischief. Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard) and older, mature gentleman who falls head over heals for Jenny after a chance encounter.

The two begin a wondrous, consenting relationship, one of the best in recent cinematic history. David, while young, is mysteriously loaded with cash. He gives Jenny the world, full of expensive meals, far away trips, lavish gifts, etc. In essence, he’s educating her, hence the title.
The film playfully carries on for a while without introducing any real conflict. But be advised, An Education is packing one hell of a wallop, and that’s when the film really takes off.

It isn’t often that I simply smile for no specific reason while watching a film. When it does happen, I can usually credit an actor. Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky had me grinning like a fool last year. Give the honor to Mulligan this time around. In her early scenes, Mulligan carries herself with a bit of clandestine desire. We know she’s more mature than her friends, and we want nothing more than for her to lash out, bustle up a spot of trouble. So when she does, Mulligan takes her character to remarkable heights.

There are two scenes in particular that should make Mulligan a lock for a Best Actress nomination. Watch one of her encounters with the ever-brilliant Emma Thompson (as the school’s head mistress). In one startling monologue, Mulligan exclaims what it means to be a young, independent woman in ‘60s Britain. She stands up for herself, sure, but it also feels like she’s standing up for most of the other female characters in the film. It’s truly remarkable.

The next standout scene is even more impressive, and Mulligan doesn't have to utter a single word. After a spat with her dad, Mulligan locks herself in her room, as Molina talks to her from behind the closed door. Now pay attention to these actors. What Molina does here is nothing short of amazing. For the first time in the film, he gives his character a heart. He pleads with his daughter not condescendingly, but as an adult. It’s the single best scene of Molina’s impressive career, but made all the more endearing based on Mulligan’s emotional, silent reaction.

An Education is the kind of film that slowly nestles itself in you, delicately transfixing your feelings into sheer joy. Mulligan, an actress I’ve never heard of, has a grand career ahead of her. Her quiet, awesome power rocks you to the core. You’ll care about Jenny every step of the way. Forget the silly teenage vampires; this is the season’s real romance. A

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Who better to star in a Herzog film than Nicolas Cage? Werner Herzog, master of the eccentric, and Nicolas Cage, a truly fearless actor when pushed hard enough, have created an absurdist work of art. Not absurd. Absurdist. There isn’t a single scene in Bad Lieutenant that doesn’t teeter on the edge of being over-the-top. But somehow the film miraculously works.

Much has been made about the similarities between Herzog’s film and Abel Ferrara’s 1992, crime drama Bad Lieutenant starring Harvey Keitel. Cage and Keitel both play cops with a drug problem. Let’s move on.

Herzog’s film is set in The Big Easy, with Cage playing the delightfully evil, if not manically insane, Lieutenant Terence McDonagh. To say McDonagh has “issues” is to be very very kind. The dude skims dime bags of coke off a club-going couple, but not before hitting a crack pipe and banging the chick while her boyfriend watches. He pops Vicodin like candy and snorts coke like it’s nasal spray. He steals evidence, slaps around old women, gambles away money he doesn’t have, and so on. So what the hell is to like? Here’s the thing. Herzog, along with Cage, never take the film too seriously. In fact, Cage’s performance is filled such great, zany one-liners, that I may go as far as to call it the funniest performance of the year. How'd that happen?

Just watch him play McDonagh. The way his massive .44 caliber gun sits in the front of his belt, centimeters from slipping out. The way his voice inflection drops all over the place the more messed up he is. The way he laughs when introducing characters by their “street” names. Or how he delivers a seemingly cheesy line like “shoot him again, his soul is still dancing” with precise, frantic conviction. And there’s more. McDonagh gets downright serious when dealing with his hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend (Eva Mendes), and is troubled dad. So whether Cage plays McDonagh as a comic devil, or serious as Satan, he’s always believable. It’s a tour de force performance, easily Cage’s best since Adaptation.

The movie doesn’t really have a plot, it’s far more appealing as a character study. There are big-time drug dealers, low-life cops, and alcoholic family members to keep McDonagh going. (Yes that is Jennifer Coolidge, the MILF from the American Pie films, as McDonagh’s stepmother). But I was most impressed with how Herzog pulled off his Bad Lieutenant with such frenzied finesse. Herzog, who has never made a bad film, always manages to put his odd stamp on everything he does, without being overly obvious. There are a few scenes, shot with a camera-on-acid feel, where McDonagh is the only person in the room who sees creepy reptiles. What’s the point? I have no idea. But it’s sheer demented delight. This is Herzog at his absolute best. Oh yeah. A

The Messenger

When I got home after seeing this movie, my aunt asked me what it was about. I briefly explained story details, a young Iraq War hero, who with a little time left to serve, is enlisted in the Casualty Notification Office, meaning he’s the poor son of a bitch who has to go to family’s homes and tell them that their 18-year-old son (or daughter) just got killed.

“Really?”, my aunt asked, “they made a story around that?” Yes, I told her, that’s exactly what talented, first-time director Oren Moverman has done; he’s made a story. The Messenger isn’t bogged down by a gimmicky plot, there’s no silly motivation, it’s just two guys doing a very tough job that they both hate.

Ben Foster, who’s had throwaway roles in X-Men 3 and Alpha Dog, plays Staff Sergeant Montgomery like a quiet storm, ready to stir up trouble at any minute. With a bum eye, limping leg, and far-off girlfriend, Montgomery is a man looking for what? Purpose? Acceptance? Solitude? Probably a bit of all three. Foster is subtly striking, internally combustible.

If Foster is the storm, then Woody Harrelson, as the CNO veteran, is the hurricane. Harrelson’s Captain Stone, is a man so far removed from his inner turmoil, that it’s actually uncomfortable to watch at times (which is very, very good acting). Harrelson has always impressed. From The People vs. Larry Flynt to No Country for Old Men. But watch him in the scene when Stone and Montgomery argue outside a convenience store. At one point, Harrelson pushes Foster’s head into a wood railing. It's completely unexpected. And given Foster’s slightly bewildered reaction, I can only assume that Harrelson improvised that small bit of volcanic rage. Simply put: this is the best work Harrelson has ever done, watching his character progress throughout the film, as he becomes more at ease with his internal hell, is truly incredible. Expect a nomination.

The Messenger actually plays out as a successful study of the grieving process. There are a slew of notifications. Some end badly with screaming, some end worse with slapping, some family members deny their loss right away, others don’t seem the least bit swayed. How would you respond to such news? It’s a hard feat for actors to pull off. One father, played by the ever-incredible Steve Buscemi, completely embodies what it is to be overcome with instant fury. He takes the news fine at first, then erupts. Remarkably done.

Aside from the fine performances, of which there are several others, including an indelible Samantha Morton, the film holds up dutifully as an exercise in minimalism. There’s no fancy camera work, no popular music; the story is just… there. It’s one of the movies where you actually forget you’re watching a movie. And that’s what it’s all about. A-

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Here’s what’s gonna happen: New Moon is going to make a shitload of money its first weekend (like, more than The Dark Knight… maybe). But after that, its box office numbers are going to plummet faster than my attention span during this film.

Two reasons. First, every tween who is dying to see this movie will get it out of their system this weekend, after that they won’t need to see it again, which leads to point number two. New Moon will demand no repeat viewings or positive word of mouth because it is absolutely worthless. From start to finish, nothing… happens. I don’t even hate this movie, no not at all. Because there is simply nothing to hate. New Moon may even be better than its predecessor Twilight, I have no idea, because in the end, this franchise is as weightless as air.

Plot? Forgetaboutit. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year you know what a shitstorm of teenage frenzy Stephenie Meyer’s books have stirred up. But, I hate when people say they didn’t like a movie without explaining themselves, so let me cite a few specific reasons.

One of my biggest pet peeves with literary adaptations is when the director (Chris Weitz, American Pie, The Golden Compass, in this case) actually expects you to have not only seen the first movie, but read all the books as well. Just like the extremely overhyped Lord of the Rings films (yes, I do not like them, attack away) they do not stand on their own as individual films. I don’t need to see The Godfather to appreciate the awesome power of The Godfather Part II.

More bashing: who the hell do the kids in this movie think they are? It’s obvious that none of them have ever been in a relationship before, so why do the males walk around promising young women “if you are with me, I will never ever hurt you, we will be together forever” and shit like that? I don’t know, maybe 13-year-old girls buy into that, but when you’ve lived a tad bit longer you know that your first “serious” relationship probably won’t work out. So, before you consider turning yourself into a vampire and promising to spend the rest of your life with a dude, you may want to, I don’t know, play the field a little first. You’re a hot chick, Bella, go out and get laid. Oops, I meant kiss, hold hands, touch another’s face affectionately.

Holy shit this review got long, not my intention. To sum up: New Moon offers nothing; I actually think it’ll be a disappointment for loyal fans. But have no fear, another Twilight romp will be out next year. Instead of seeing this movie, stare at a wall for 130 minutes. That would be time better spent. D-

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Box

A creepy old dude with half his face burnt off shows up at your door. He offers you a box with a nice shinny red button on top. Push the button, you get one mil. But someone you don’t know will die. Don’t push the button, no hard feelings.

Pretty cool gimmick. Mix in a narcissistic, I’m-better-than-every-single-person-alive director (Richard Kelly), some horrible overacting (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) and a narrative that makes absolutely no sense from one scene to the next and voila! you get The Box.

(sigh)

This year is turning into a real disappointment. Sure there are a few standouts, but the way 2009 is panning out, the Razzie Awards will have more films in the running than the Oscars. F

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pirate Radio

I don’t know. I mean… is it a sin to expect a decent movie based on its talented cast, hip trailer, and rockin’ soundtrack? My hopes weren’t even that damn high, I was just hoping for a good story to accompany the classic rock tracks. Jesus, what is wrong with 2009?

Because it’s a formality: the plot revolves around a ship anchored just off Britain circa 1966. Pop music is illegal to play, you see. So certain “pirate” ships broadcast this music for people all over the country to enjoy. The powers that be want to shut it down, of course. because too many people are enjoying it. True story. Cool concept. Rock ‘n roll.

So where does this go wrong? I’m not sure. Maybe its complete lack of narrative. Maybe in its lead character, a kid who got kicked out of school and is sent to the ship by his mother as punishment. Punishment? To drink, smoke dope and get laid all day at age 17. That’s punishment? Huh?

Maybe it’s when the lame who’s-my-daddy subplot gets introduced, by which point, you don’t even give a shit about any of the characters. So somehow, Pirate Radio plays like a bad Almost Famous meets an even worse Mamma Mia.

But even though the plot is lame, the music makes up for it… right? Not a chance. Put aside the fact that it’s the same songs you’ve heard thousands of times, but music in film is supposed to complement images evenly. Better put: the film simply isn’t good enough for this music. I’d rather skip this dud and create a playlist on my iTunes: Great Songs from that Shitty Movie. Hmmm. D

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

2012

First big action scene: a limo narrowly escapes an earthquake swallowing Los Angeles. Second big action scene: a plane narrowly escapes a natural disaster. Third big action scene: a plane narrowly escapes a natural disaster. Fourth big action scene: a plane narrowly escapes a natural disaster. You following?

This is my issue with Hollywood clusterfucks of films. There… is… nothing… to… them. I’ve been accused, more than once, of not accepting blockbusters for what they are: mindless entertainment. But I disagree. Independence Day, the first film in which director Roland Emmerich destroyed the world, is great, cheesy fun. Get enough pizza and beer and Michael Bay’s The Rock is actually pretty damn cool. The Dark Knight, Jurassic Park, Iron Man; all exceptional action films.

But come on. 2012 is a farce, plain and simple. The action is excruciatingly repetitive, and resembles that of a high-quality video game. The acting is beyond horrible (Danny Glover as the President… really?), the climax is anti-climatic, and the running time (nearly 3 hours) will have you bored before the second act.

Emmerich said he doesn’t plan on destroying the world via film anymore. Yeah, right. Just like Michael Bay said he wasn’t going to do another Transformers farce. As I always say, with a movie like 2012 you know damn well what you’re getting yourself in to. So… if you’ve got three spare hours to numb your brain into oblivion, then by all means. D

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Fourth Kind

Originally, Paranormal Activity was going to be remade into a Hollywood feature film. Fortunately for all of us, it wasn’t. But if it was, I imagine it would look something like The Fourth Kind.

Okay, I have to give a little credit to director Olatunde Osunsanmi for trying his damndest to convince people that this movie is “real”. That it seamlessly mixes “real” footage with dramatized footage. That actress Milla Jovovich (as she tells the audience in the opening scene) is playing the “real” Dr. Abigail Tyler, who claims to have been briefly abducted by aliens in 2000.

So, yes, Osunsanmi does a good job intercutting in “real”, grainy, home-video footage with the pretty, steely Hollywood stuff. But come on. Seriously dude. Anyone with an internet connection can disprove this hoax via a simple Google search.

Okay, if it were real, what the hell kind of shrink would release footage of her patients levitating, breaking their backs, and screaming bloody murder… to a horror film crew? Also, wouldn’t we have seen the footage from the police camera that “caught” a UFO flying over a house on one of those WORLD’S CRAZIEST COP SIGHTINGS shows?

Clearly, I’m more concerned with bashing the film’s narrative technique than discussing its content. That’s for good reason, because, the content pretty much sucks. The “real” footage under-delivers because every time shit goes down the camera conveniently becomes fuzzy and distorted. So, basically, there is no payoff. The acting is as good as you’d expect (except by Will Patton, playing the Sherriff as a laughable caricature).

Those still suckling at the tit of Paranormal Activity, crazed for their next fix in horror fun, should skip The Fourth Kind. Maybe… maybe if the movie was only grainy, “real” footage it could’ve been creepy. Maybe. D

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats is just as bad as you would expect a movie titled The Men Who Stare at Goats to be. Which is a shame. With names like Clooney, Bridges and Spacey (10 Oscar nominations among them) it’s not unfair to expect something decent.

I’m wasting precious seconds of my life typing the next few sentences, but here is the plot. A reporter (Ewan McGregor) gets wind of a super-secret sect of the military, a group of soldiers who fight with their minds. They can walk through walls, turn invisible, put animals to sleep by thinking; real Jedi shit. McGregor goes to Iraq and meets up with Clooney, the main dude behind the Jedi mind tricks. Clooney is on a mission, I think. I don’t know. Jesus. This movie is so damn bad.

Honestly, I had no idea what was going on for most of the movie, and no I wasn’t tripping on acid like the characters do for a bulk of the film’s excruciating 93 minutes. Kevin Spacey shows up at some point, as a guy who is jealous of Clooney’s powers. But this is just pure, wasted talent.

I know why Clooney did it. The director, Grant Heslov, is Clooney’s production partner (Good Night and Good Luck) but you probably know Heslov best as the smart-ass CIA agent opposite Tom Arnold in True Lies. Either way, Heslov is saying nothing with his directorial debut.

I get satire, it’s actually one of my favorite comedy styles, but this is a mess. The film clearly wants to be compared to Dr. Strangelove but falls so flat that it’s nearly invisible. Perhaps I’m bashing too hard, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was actually excited about this movie. Having expectations shattered typically makes for a dreadful movie-going experience.

I’ll explain. I know Transformers 2 is going to be shit when I walk into the theatre. But a movie like Men Who Stare at Goats, with its witty trailer and powerful ensemble of actors, is the worst kind of film. You want it to be good, but it lets you down in every way. Because of that, this will surely be one of the very worst, most disappointing films of the year. F

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Antichrist

It all began in 1929 with Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou where we see a man slit a woman’s eyeball with a razor blade (actually a calf’s eye). Since then we’ve been given such brazen shock cinema milestones as Salò (Pasolini, Italian), The Night Porter (Cavani, Italian), Funny Games (Haneke, German), and Irréversible (Noé, French), but that’s just to name a few.

Hmm, no American directors there. That’s interesting. I may stretch a little to consider David Lynch’s Eraserhead, but that’s more surrealist than shock.

Each of these films are appalling, sure. But they’re also kind of brilliant, if you take a step back and consider the scope of film in general. However, a film isn’t poetic “art” just because it pushes the limits. The hipster-intellectual crowd may bow over backwords for a fresh slice of shock cinema, but just because a film has gratuitous sex and deplorable violence, doesn’t make it great, or even worthy of cult status.

Enter Antichrist, the next feasible step in Lars Von Trier’s personal shock factory. And may I say, the auteur behind bold, innovative films like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, has surely outdone himself this time.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as a married couple who in a steamy, bravado prologue lose their infant son in a tragic accident. Gainsbourg blames herself as she falls deep into the wallows of grief. Dafoe, a professional shrink, steps in with his very odd, hands-on tactics to “correct” her sorrow.

All is good and mundane while the two work out their issues in their trendy loft apartment, but once they head to Eden, their cabin in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, the movie starts to seriously drift into delirium.

I’m not really sure how to describe the plot from there. Expect extremely slow-motion shots of a deer giving birth, talking animals, falling acorns, graphic masterbation, and a bit of the ol’ ultra-violence that would make any person squirm. By the end, I wasn’t really sure if the film was about anything in particular. As is the case with most shock cinema, Von Trier seems more interested in… shocking us, than delivering solid content.

But that argument goes both ways. On one hand, Antichrist deeply disturbed me. It is one, if not the, most gut wrenching movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. The violence gets over-the-top, sure, but it is definitely believable. On the other hand, Antichrist provokes some damn fine post-film chatter. There is a lot going on here, it just feels like Von Trier is the only one in on the joke.

So, all in all, I guess I can recommend this film. If for no other reason than the performances, both of which are brilliant (Gainsbourg won Best Actress at Cannes). But know what you’re getting yourself into. Antichrist is a test. A challenge. It just may not be one you’re willing to accept. B

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Afterschool

Whoa. Where do I begin? Afterschool, the super small indie that barely got a theatrical release, is a rare film that transcends a movie theatre screen (or a TV set) and knocks the wind right out of you. I watched this film via Comcast OnDemand because I liked its trippy preview. And damn am I glad I did.

Let’s get plot out of the way: a lonely teenager at a swanky private high school enrolls in an audio/video afterschool program. His first assignment is to create a nice promo video for the school. One day, shooting B-roll of a hallway, he videotapes the school’s two most popular girls dying from bad drugs. After, everyone has questions. The cops, the head master, the parents, the fellow students. Everyone.

So there's your brief dissection of the plot. But that isn’t really what the movie is about. No way.

Afterschool, better than any film from recent memory, successfully displays several pertinent teenage issues. Obsession with money, with drugs, with being popular, with getting laid. The need to feel wanted by your parents, be respected by your teachers, bend the truth for a little advancement, and so on. The film goes deeper, of course, touching on issues such as upper-class favoritism and the fascination (domination) of the internet over our youths.

While these themes may seem similar to other American-made films, I haven’t even started talking about how the movie is presneted. Its slow, deliberate beauty. Its delicate, off-kilter pace. Know it going in: this is an odd looking film. Young director Antonio Campos (he was 24 when he made it) often shoots out of focus, out of frame, out of mind. A face will be in extreme close-up, but we may only see them from the eyes up. Many shots are unbroken and extended, the camera lurking back and forth in conversation, never breaking away the tension. In writing, these shots sound annoying, but they aren’t at all. Campos has successfully found a way to deliver a simple story using unconventional methods. It’s Michael Haneke’s Caché, mixed with Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, mixed with Gas Van Sant’s Elephant. Pure indie bliss.

I’ve never heard of Campos or most of the actors in the film. But there isn’t one second of one performance that I did not completely believe. The film’s focus, Robert, is played by Ezra Miller, who gives one of the most haunting performances of the year. There’s a lot here, for both sexes, to identify with. Several times during the movie I thought to myself, “Wow, that is exactly how a 15-year-old kid thinks.” There are scenes that feel so personal that we actually feel like we are intruding. We are eavesdropping in on a conversation we aren’t supposed to hear, or an event we aren’t supposed to see.

You probably haven’t heard of Afterschool, and for good reason. It only made $3,000 at one New York theatre, it stars no one you know and it doesn’t have a scheduled DVD release date. This is a real shame, because this is one of the best movies of this or any year. Simply put: Afterschool is best, most realistic film about adolescence that I’ve ever seen. It’s an all-encompassing, unsettling, all together remarkable film that you’re likely to never see. If you have OnDemand, rent it. You won’t be sorry. This will be in my Top 10 of 2009. A+

Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself

I can’t even begin to describe how god awful this movie is. With its atrociously over-the-top acting, its horribly clunky editing and its amateurish dialogue, as is evident in the following passage, which took place during the film’s climax:

Man: I love you.
Woman: You mean like a buddy? Like a pal?
Man: No, I don’t want to make love to my buddies. I’m in love with you. I’m ready to love you but you have to be ready to give it back the right way.
Woman: I want to learn how to love the right way, will you show me?
Man: Yes, I will show you.

I respect Tyler Perry, I really do. He’s made like 40 movies in the past seven years, and asserted himself as the forefront filmmaker of African American-produced films.

But the fact that Entertainment Weekly called I Can Do Bad All By Myself Perry’s best film yet is beyond me. This is the first Perry film I’ve seen and likely the last. About 20 minutes into the movie I stated keeping track of all the ridiculous, laughable scenes. After a half hour, I had completely lost track. With a record like that it makes it all too easy to give this film a quick, hard F.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Michael Jackson's This Is It

Imagine watching your favorite musician half-ass song and dance numbers for two straight hours. It’d get pretty boring, right? The whole time, you’d want to hear them fully belt out a song, or break it down with some flashy moves. The whole time, you’d expect a payoff, something to make all the waiting worthwhile. If you expect that payoff with This Is It, Michael Jackson’s swan song of a film, then you’ll be waiting for a long while.

I get it. I understand all well that a singer can’t wear out their voice during rehearsal, they need to save it for the big show, for the fans that forked out all the dough. So my criticism is not aimed at Jacko at all, it’s more towards director/choreographer Kenny Ortega, for even wanting to release the film. Originally, as we’re told in an extended opening disclaimer, the footage for This Is It was shot for Jackson’s personal video library. So basically, no one was ever supposed to see it, and now we know why.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic set pieces here. The best of which has Jackson shooting it out with Humphrey Bogart via digital imaging. It’s a real treat to see Jackson dressed in ‘40s threads, running through lavish black and white set pieces. I’m sure it would’ve worked great as an opening to ‘Smooth Criminal’.

But don’t expect to hear the songs you love, the way you want to hear them. Instead, Jackson sort of croons on, or shuffles about; giving hints at his lasting greatness, but never showing us his all. Also, those expecting any insight into Jackson’s warped mentalities should look elsewhere. For the most part he comes off as earnest and tenderly controlling.

In the end, I was bored with the film but found it an appropriate end to a miraculous career. It leaves you wanting more, which of course, we’ll never get. Throughout most of the film I kept thinking, “Damn, I wonder what this would’ve looked like as a finished show.” That would’ve been a hell of a sight to see. C

Law Abiding Citizen

I’m not even gonna lie: the first act of Law Abiding Citizen is pretty good. I liked how things kicked off right away, no backstory, no tireless exposition, just send the goons in and get the movie going. I liked how the film subtly jumped ten years in one shot. I liked the fast pace and the dark tones. I was really surprised, at one point I thought, “Is this movie actually going to be good?” And then, sure enough, everything went to shit.

Gerard Butler is a loving family man who turns vengeful psycho 10 years after his wife and daughter are brutally murdered (that opening scene, by the way, is actually shot tastefully). Jamie Foxx is the assistant DA who gave one of the intruders a slim sentence due to cracks in the system. Foxx’s character is a noble guy, you see, but Butler could give a fuck. In his words he wants to “kill... everybody”.

This is where things go wrong. Okay, the dude spends 10 years masterminding this elaborate plan? I can roll with that. But why take it so far? The film may have been saved if, one: the guy only sought to kill the main people involved in the murder case (not dozens of innocent people). And two: Jamie Foxx either passed on the project or actually looked like he gave a shit. Foxx is a talented guy, as is evident in Ali, Collateral and Ray, but here it looks like he is remembering his lines at the last second, delivering them in an “ah whatever” manner.

Butler, one of the most overrated actors working in movies, caught a break with 300. But when are movie producers going to realize that 300’s huge box office draw had nothing to do with Butler? Anyone could’ve played that role. Watching him here as he desperately tries out an American accent is, to say the least, laughable.

And poor Viola Davis. An Oscar nominee for Doubt, and the scene stealer in World Trade Center, Solaris and Antwone Fisher is just wasted talent here as the mayor of Philadelphia. Someone give Davis her own movie.

But oh well.

Most young males want to see shit blow up, not analyze plot development or an actor’s timing. So as an action film, director F. Gary Gray (who’s done a much better with Friday, The Negotiator, and The Italian Job) delivers what the base wants. I guess. D+

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More Than a Game

A few years ago, film student Kristopher Belman heard that a local high school basketball team that was kicking ass and taking names. After managing to get in good with their tough coach, Belman soon found himself privy to all the footage he could tape. Games, locker room arguments, practices, road trips, sleepovers and on and on.

Belman had a sneaking suspicion that the team’s star player was going to make something big of himself. The player: LeBron James. The result of Belman’s taped footage: tender brilliance.

It’d be rough to edit down hundreds of hours of footage, and not have the focus be on the NBAs most popular player. But don’t worry, this movie isn't The LeBron James Story. Instead, Belman presents a heartfelt, honest portrait of five kids with immense talent, who still struggled with everyday adolescence.

Belman began taping the “Fab Five” of Akron, Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School basketball team during their junior year season, several years after they had already been playing together. You can guess what happens for the most part. The high ups of teenaged stardom, the lows of surprise loses and disqualifications. But beyond the basketball, what really moves you are the individual stories behind each of the five players. There’s the coach’s son, a short kid with a fearless temper, the pudgy guy who was just as good at football, the loner who never fit in off the court and the star-maker who soon let fame get to his head.

The star of the film, however, is not the players, but their loyal, stern coach, Dru Joyce II, who took over after the previous coach moved up to college ball. Joyce talks often with admiration of his boys, but sometimes ventures into regret. When he speaks of his son (the hothead player), Joyce’s tone becomes remorseful, knowing he pushed him too hard as a player, and was hardly ever there as a Dad.

This is genuine, passionate filmmaking. It’s taking a chance on an idea, and following through with it, outcome be damned. More Than a Game ain’t no Hoop Dreams, but it does a damn good job living in its shadow. A-

Monday, October 26, 2009

Good Hair

There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with Chris Rock’s new documentary vehicle, Good Hair, but there isn’t anything special about it either. People could say I wasn’t interested because I’m not a black female, and I have no idea what it’s like to live with weaves and wigs and hair relaxer and naps and so on. But that’s bullshit. A film is a film; I view each one objectively, no matter what it’s about.

In answer to his daughter’s question: why don’t I have good hair?, Chris Rock set out to trace the history of African American dos. Interviewing a slew of people, celebrities and regular barbershop attendees alike, Rock does his damndest to get a feature film out of a pretty weak premise.

One thing I found interesting: Rock travels to India and discovers that the source for most weaves and wigs is human hair from Hindu women, after shaving their head for God. But even with that information, Rock makes slight of the news by going from hair shop to hair shop trying to sell people “black” hair. The gag is lame, and besides… didn’t Borat already try a variation of the same joke?

I give Rock credit for seeming genuinely interested in what he learns. But I’ve always felt that Chris Rock thinks he is way funnier than he really is. Sure he’s had a few good stand-up specials on HBO, but here his jokes fall flat, and they make for a boring, unnecessary documentary. C-

Friday, October 23, 2009

Saw VI

What’s the tagline… if it’s Halloween, it must be Saw? Bet your ass. For the sixth year in a row, the torture-porn phemon is releasing another installment. The game is the same. Part six is just as bad as the previous ones (excluding the first, of course). I saw the movie 13 hours ago and couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you what the hell happened. I see these movies out of tradition, I mean shit, why stop now?

You may wonder why they keep making these. The answer is simple:
Total budget for six Saw films combined: 46 million.
Total US gross of six Saw films combined: 342.3 million (and counting).

Expect more of these (they’re already developing parts VII and VIII). Let’s take bets for how long this will go on. I’ll put $100 that it reaches Saw X. Hell maybe Saw XX.

Why would you see this? I have no idea. Go see Paranormal Activity instead. D-

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

So now then. Welcome to the most complicated film of the year. How do you adapt one of the most beloved children stories of all time - a 10 sentence, ascetically beautiful masterpiece - into a feature film? A better question: how do you bridge the generational gap of fans, so that everyone can enjoy such a film?

Spike Jonze, the director responsible for two of the best, most original films in contemporary cinema (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) answers both those questions with his bold, beautiful, remarkably told new film, Where the Wild Things Are.

Or.

Spike Jonze, the director responsible for two of the best, most original films in contemporary cinema (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) falls short with his aimless, misguided, beautiful-looking new film, Where the Wild Things Are.

Truth is, Jonze’s film falls somewhere in between.

At its heart, Where the Wild Things Are is a passion piece, plagued by eight years of production hell, that is a thrill to look at, but hard to comprehend. If I were making a pros and cons list - which, ahem, I have – both columns would come out about even. At the top of the pros list would be the look and sound of the film, which is flawless.

Cinematographer Lance Accord, a Jonze regular, creates a vision that is unlike anything I’ve seen in recent years. From its rambunctious prologue, to its smooth grace once the Wild Things show up, you’ll actually find yourself grinning at how gorgeous this film is shot. Sound is three fold. Thank the sound engineers for their crisp clatter, Carter Burwell for his delicate score, and Karen O for her rowdy songs.

Next on the pros is the brilliant, eclectic cast. In the lead role of Max, actor Max Records sets a new standard for child actors. Jonze made it his goal to form a close, personal relationship with Records, and the trust has paid off. It would be a difficult role for an actor of any age, but the fact that it’s an 11-year-old kid is astonishing. It’s a tough role, and Records nails it. He’s backed by Catherine Keener (who’s just that good) as his struggling mother, and a slew of actors lending their unique voices as the Wild Things. It’s standard for actors to record their dialogue separately when voicing an animated character, but here, Jonze had the cast, including James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Catherine O’Hara, sit in the same room and record together, as if they were actually in the scene. The difference pays off, as the Wild Things talk and argue over one other, while maintaining their individual identities.

Now the bad news. First off, even with its PG rating, Where the Wild Things Are is not a kid’s movie. At all. There are themes and situations that kids simply won’t understand (or enjoy). So that’s first: the film is marketed as a children’s movie, but it’s actually for adults. Next is the awkward (or sloppy) shifting in tones. I know what Jonze is doing, I think. He wants the viewer to feel like a child, where we’re happy one minute, sad the next, explanation be damned. It works initially, but grows old quickly. You’re still feeling moved from the scene before when suddenly everyone is screaming at each other over thrown dirt. It’s hard to follow, and harder to care.

I can’t call Where the Wild Things Are a “bad” film if it is the best shot, scored, art designed and sound engineered movie of so far this year. But I also can’t call it “great” if I am unable to find any distinguishable, coherent tone from one scene to the next.

Bad films leave your mind the minute you walk out of the theatre, but Where the Wild Things Are was a film I thought about for days after I saw it. This is a movie that demands your attention while you’re watching it, and refuses to leave long after you’ve exited the theatre.

Do I recommend it? Hell yes, it’s bound to be the most original piece of American cinema this year. But can I guarantee that you’ll like it? No way. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I must admit that it’s the only film so far this year that I’ve gone back to the theatre for an immediate follow-up viewing. That says something. B+

The Boys are Back

Here’s the kind of rare film that should work on every level, not fall just short of being a melodramatic soap opera. Put a respected director (Scott Hicks, who made Shine) in with a talented, ferocious actor (Clive Owen), give them a plot involving insurmountable grief, mix it with a seasoned crew, and you should have greatness, right? But instead we’re left wondering, “Where did it go wrong?”

Certainly not with Owen, who, like always, makes the best of whatever material he’s given. Owen plays Joe Warr, a talented British sportswriter living in Australia who suddenly loses his wife to a hellacious bout of cancer. Now Joe, who was gone on business most of the time, has to care for his young son, and keep his career going. (Who knew those pesky dishes were such a hassle?)

Joe’s ex wife hears of the recent tragic news and immediately demands that Joe’s older son come out from the UK to stay with Joe and his young boy. Now this is where things start to go wrong. I didn’t buy, for a second, that Joe’s ex would just ship their son off so that Joe, deep in the throes of grief, could take care of him. I mean seriously, what kind of bitch would do that? How could she possibly think that this guy could take care of a teenager, let alone a ten-year-old, after losing his wife?

Oh well, it is what it is, given its small release most of you probably won't see the film anyway. No worries, it’s not going to get any Oscar love. Which is a shame, if worked a little differently, Owen would be at the top of the short list for Best Actor. C-

Monday, October 19, 2009

New York, I Love You

I’ll never forget the closing segment of Paris je’taime, the wondrous anthology of short films that encapsulated the city of love. In that final vignette, directed by Alexander Payne, character actress Margo Martindale aimlessly wandered around Paris, independent of task and duty, her purposely poor-spoken narration fitting the tone perfectly.

Resting on a park bench after a day-long trek, she finds herself in the midst of a melancholy revelation. I won’t reveal anymore, but in those final moments, Martindale’s face expresses a lifetime of emotion. Her tender nuance, her subtle comfort; it’s all remarkably beautiful. Never have I seen six minutes of film fit together so seamlessly.

And while that segment helped make Paris je’taime one of my favorite films of 2007, I can’t say I’m surprised that its predecessor, New York, I Love You, doesn’t live up to the same standards.

Going with the same concept he used before, producer Emmanuel Benbihy enlists a handful of talented directors to tell individual stories of love in the city that never sleeps. The first major problem is the shifting from one segment to another. In Paris je’taime, each segment began with the location of the city and the director of the short. But here, not only do we get no title cards, it’s actually hard to tell when one short ends and another begins. This is done on purpose, I think. And believe me, I’m all for experimental editing, but this is silly. At times, the film as a whole feels like it was cut by an NYU film student with a shitty GPA.

As with Paris je’taime, some segments are better than others. Highlights include Yvan Attal’s shifty short which has a sultry Robin Wright Penn teasing a kind Chris Cooper outside a restaurant. In the sexiest of the bunch, Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo separately recall their recent one night stand together. But the transcendent highlight is the segment I still can’t fully figure out. Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) casts Julie Christie as an aged singer in a hotel room with a disabled Shia LaBeouf. The outcome of their conversation is warmly haunting, yet mysteriously guided.

There are a few other slight delights, sure. But for the most part, the rest of the segments aren’t nearly as engaging. I’m surprised by a couple things. First, with such a racially vast assembly of directors, I find it hard to believe that 90% of them chose to make their films starring straight, white characters. Second, why didn’t more filmmakers venture away from Manhattan? I guess Brooklyn, I Love You, isn’t as exciting.

Although I have to admit, as tired as some of the segments feel, there is great reassurance in knowing that in a few minutes, you’ll be given a brand new story. I wonder what’s next. IMDB says Shanghai, I Love You is set for 2011. Benbihy says Rio will be next. Either way, I’m always in the mood for love. B-

The Stepfather

Okay, here’s the thing. I don’t expect The Stepfather to be cinematically on par with The Godfather. No. I know damn well to sit there with an open mind and low standards.

But seriously, come on. How can anyone actually believe that some 40ish dude has been going around for decades, getting in good with families, killing them, then heading to another state to start all over?

He has no form of ID. Ok, I can buy that, not that big of a deal. He only carries cash. I’m still with you, although I do wonder where he gets his money (since he apparently doesn’t rob his victims). But here's the kicker...the cops have no fingerprints, blood samples, or photographs.

Really? No pictures? Are you kidding? It’s pretty simple really. You interview friends of the family and have them try to remember the last time he went to a drug store, a Best Buy, a Home Depot, or any damn place that has a video camera. I mean Jesus, my face was captured by four different video cameras just from walking into the movie theatre. You’re telling me they can’t trace a serial killer?

But alas, we’re already stuck in the movie, so why not stay? If you do, you’ll see Dylan Walsh (Sean, the nice one, from Nip/Tuck) having a good time as a steely cool psycho offing innocent families for the hell of it.

The movie, as you might expect, is garbage. (I mean, if this guy is such a seasoned killer, how come a fuck-up teen can figure him out in a second?) But Walsh looks like he’s having fun. Which, I guess, is good enough (not for $10, but definitely for channel surfing on cable). D

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Serious Man

I’m writing this review three days after I’ve seen the movie, but it still feels too early. You see, A Serious Man isn’t a film bogged down by silly plot devices or Hollywood caricatures. No, the Coen brothers’ new dramedy is a genuine film propelled by a solid story. Not your typical, everything-spelled-out, mainstream mess.

And therein lies its beauty… or its problem, depending on who you talk to.

The film begins as philosophically as it ends. Which means, I don’t really think we’re supposed to take either at face value. Instead, examine what you see. Talk about it. What is its reference? Its point? My god how a love a good post-film chat.

Sorry, I guess I should tell you what it’s about.

Larry Gopnik is a regular man, with serious problems. His tenure as a physics professor is in question, even before getting blackmailed by a student. His wife is angry, even before wanting to leave him for his friend. His kids are full of angst, even before school troubles and unneeded nose jobs. His brother is lost, even before law troubles. His neighbor is spiteful, even before getting technical about property lines.

Nothing is going right. But why? Why can’t helpless Larry get advice from any of his Rabbis? Why is his wife’s lover so cool about everything? Why don’t his kids give a shit about anything? Why is this colossal shit-tornado happening to him at this exact point in time? I have no idea, and much to our delight, neither does Larry.

As Larry, stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg gives an Oscar-worthy, make-or-break performance. Never forcing too much or dismissing issues with a coy demeanor, Stuhlbarg plays Larry with much-recognized emotions. Regardless of who you are or where you live, you’d probably have the same dumbfounded expression and voice inflection that Stuhlbarg has through most of the film. He carries the movie on his shoulders, to great results.

Like most Coen films, the technical aspects are flawless. From veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins’ steely look, to Carter Burwell’s haunting score, to the period-appropriate costumes, everything fits like a corky, Coen glove.

Much has been made about the origin of the film, as it appears to be the only semi-autobiographical work the Coen’s have ever produced. That doesn’t really concern me. The fact that the Coen’s grew up in the 60s, in a small Minnesota town, raised by educator parents, in a strict Jewish home, doesn’t make me love or hate the film. Although I suppose it is interesting.

A Serious Man isn’t for everyone, but no Coen brother’s film is. I can’t promise that you’ll understand the whole thing, hell I can’t even promise that it’ll be in theatres next month. But if you’re remotely interested in the Coens’ work, you’re sure to enjoy Larry’s downfall.

A funny thing has happened while I’ve been writing this review; I’ve actually realized that I liked the film more than I thought. I love that. It’s one of the reasons I keep writing these. Mazel tov. A-

Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Favorite Scene: Leaving Las Vegas


There is Jack Lemmon destroying a greenhouse, like a ravaged animal, in desperate search of the liquor bottle he hid there hours earlier in Days of Wine and Roses. There is Ray Milland slinging two bottles of whiskey out of his window, hiding them from his suspicious brother in The Lost Weekend. There is Ed Harris flipping the set dinner table over in an alcoholic rage in Pollock. Or Jennifer Connelly smiling drearily as she clutches her huge bag of cut heroin in Requiem for a Dream.

Each of these scenes masterfully conveys the often misunderstand disease of addiction. And while these films are memorable in their own light, the most unflinching, brutal, realistic depiction of addiction I’ve seen is Mike Figgis’ modern masterpiece Leaving Las Vegas.

Nicolas Cage embodies alcoholism in a way I’ve never seen. As Ben, a helpless writer who moves to Las Vegas with the sole intention of drinking himself to death, Cage quite simply delivers one of the best acting performances of the ‘90s. His performance is unselfish, unrelenting, and immensely horrifying. It’s the type of acting film students study.

About an hour into the film, when Ben first arrives at Sera’s (Elizabeth Shue) home, they sit on the couch and discuss their awkward arrangement. Sera, a prostitute longing for some kind of human connection, has asked Ben to stay with her until he fulfills his life-ending goal.
After they talk, Sera gives Ben a few gifts, the first of which is a tacky, bright orange shirt, which Ben accepts in stride. Next, Sera hands Ben a small box, which he opens delicately. Moving the tissue paper out of the way, with the camera slowly closing in on Cage’s face, we see what he sees. A brand new, shiny silver flask. The camera stays on Cage’s face for the longest moment. He puts his hand over his mouth, fighting back tears. Then, with his voice cracking, he forces out: “Well, it looks like I’m with the right girl.”

He is completely dumbfounded. Never in his life has someone been as accepting of his disease. And that’s the power of the scene. Is it a nice gift? Of course. That’s what great gifts do, they fill a lack of want that we previously had (or didn’t know we had). But is it a noble gift? My god, no. It’s the same as giving a box of syringes to a heroin addict. Sera knows this. And she accepts it. She knows that by giving the flask to Ben, she’s only speeding up his untimely death. But there’s something tender and beautiful about the scene. Something… uplifting, but at the same time, devastatingly heartbreaking. In short, it’s the single greatest film moment I’ve seen involving addiction. It’s the scene that won Cage the Best Actor Oscar.
The underlying themes of Leaving Las Vegas are beautifully conveyed on that couch. Figgis, who has never made a better film, created a world that felt so vivid and real (thanks to his shoe-string budget and 16MM film stock), that you can’t help but fall in love with these battered characters.

I love recommending Leaving Las Vegas to people. I warn them that it’s heavy cinema and it stars a great Nicolas Cage. “What? Nicolas Cage? Great?” I know, it’s strange to hear. But it’s stranger to watch, because what we get is a performance free of any inhibitions. It’s the essence of acting: we don’t see Nicolas Cage, sell-out action star. We see Ben Sanderson, helpless alcoholic.

Watching Leaving Las Vegas is being thrown into a world that you knew existed, just not with this much severity. It’s a remarkable experience. You’ll end this favorite scene the same way you’ll end the film; feeling grimy, sad, deserted, but also terribly moved.