Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Away We Go

Each Sam Mendes film deals with the theme of isolation. The longing to escape, to flee, to become someone else. His latest, Away We Go, is no different. So it is with great pleasure to announce that Away We Go is unlike anything Sam Mendes has ever done.

What if Scorsese made a musical? What if Wes Anderson helmed a Holocaust drama? Their essence would be there, their tone and feel, but the subject matter and style would be completely different. That’s Away We Go. Instead of Thomas Newman’s smooth, cunning score, we get a slew of folksy (yet appropriate) songs from Alex Murdoch. Instead of Conrad L. Hall’s (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) and Roger Deakins’ (Jarhead, Revolutionary Road) shadowy, intense cinematography, we get Ellen Kuras’ open, bright lens.

The beauty of this film starts with Mendes’ bold choice in actors. Leads John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are known for television comedy (The Office and Saturday Night Live, respectively) but here, they both show remarkable depth and genuine heartfelt emotion.

“Are we fuckups?,” Verona asks Burt one cold evening. At first, you’ll think yes, but the truth is, they are anything but. The couple is excited about having the child Verona is six months pregnant with, but they long for something more. When they find out Burt’s hilariously bewildered parents are moving to Antwerp, the couple decides to trek across the country, in search of a new place to call home.

Their ventures take them to Phoenix, Madison, Miami and even Canada. We get the zany co-worker (Allison Janney, remember her as the emotionally dead mother in American Beauty?), the way-too-out-there friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and other family and friends that take Burt and Verona in for a brief stint of time. But the transcendental highlight of the film is when our sturdy couple goes to Montreal to visit some old college friends (Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey). There, we discover an impossibly happy, albeit mixed, family who all help take care of each other. But things aren’t exactly what they appear. In this chapter, Messina delivers a monologue inside a faux strip club that will leave you speechless. It’s poignant, perceptive and amazingly real. Messina (who you’ve seen as Rebecca Hall’s smart, conservative, and clueless boyfriend in Vicky Christina Barcelona) should get a Supporting Actor nomination based solely on the delivery of that one speech. Classic stuff.

Thank writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida for giving Mendes such a great blueprint. In all honesty, I can’t say enough about this picture. It kept me laughing, longing, and guessing until its last frame.

Away We Go is bound to be compared as the “Little Miss Sunshine of the year”, “the Juno of 2009”, “the little indie wonder that could”. Problem is, it’s better than those films; in fact, Away We Go is the most emotionally satisfying movie-going experience I’ve had so far this year. Let it take you. A

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Yes, I am aware that it is entirely too early to start talking about the race. But this is news that must be announced.

The Academy recently said that they will nominate 10 films for Best Picture this year. This goes back to an old Oscar tradition of the ‘30s and ‘40s when nominating 10 films for the top prize was standard.

I imagine this change comes after last year’s Best Picture race, which was heavily criticized for not accepting films from different genres, (The Dark Knight, Wall-E, etc).

How do you feel about this? Is 10 too much? Will it split votes? What surprises will we see that we wouldn’t see if there were five? I know one for sure: expect Up to make the cut.

And so it begins…


Is it possible for a person to win Best Actor, even though they are playing themselves, in a documentary? Watching Mike Tyson tell his story in his own unflinching words is no less exhilarating than watching one of his own fights. When Tyson recounts that he learned to fight out of necessity, talking slowly as he fights back tears, stating: “After that, I knew no one was ever going to fuck with me again,” I dare you to not be moved.

James Toback’s Tyson is a film of remarkable candor and depth. You may be suspicious that Tyson would favor himself and leave out details that would incriminate his character. Think again. After just a few short minutes into the film, it’s clear that Tyson’s biggest critic is Tyson himself.

With remarkably honest detail, Tyson remembers his troubled youth in Brooklyn, where he got picked on and beat up regularly. But after that first street fight (the circumstances of which involve a horrifying story about a pigeon), he knew he was out for blood. In and out of jail dozens of times before he was 13, Tyson was given a shot by Cus D’Amato, an old white guy who took Tyson in and treated him like a son. D’Amato taught young Tyson the ropes; the mechanics of fighting, the attitude, the hunger, everything to shape a brilliant fighter.

So as I’m watching the film, which uses swift split-screen and voice-over editing, my one thought was: when do things go wrong? If there is a moment that Tyson started to decline, it was with the passing of D’Amato. In the years following D’Amato’s death, Tyson became the youngest champ ever, slept with hundreds and girls, contracted STDs, blew millions of dollars, and became the vulgar, unstoppable Mike Tyson that many of us recognize today.

But prepare to have your judgments overturned. Tyson admits taking advantage of women, but denies the rape of Desiree Washington, which landed him a three year prison bit. He admits having anger issues, but still found it inappropriate when wife Robin Givens called him out on Barbara Walters. Hell, Tyson even makes you understand why he chomped on Evander Holyfield’s ear (well, sort of).

The point is, this is an honest account of a deeply misunderstood and conflicted man. And believe me, you don’t have to be a boxing fan to enjoy the picture. In fact, there were several older, white women in the audience with me, and our tears fell just the same. A-

Friday, June 19, 2009


How is it that the most adult films over the past few summers have been Pixar animated? This isn’t going to be a normal review. I’m not going to describe the plot or the awesomeness of the visuals (especially in 3-D). Instead I’m going to focus my attention on one particular scene. Because, quite frankly, that’s all you need to know.

Up is unlike any animated movie I’ve seen. Wall-E got damn close, but Up actually made me care. I actually got emotional. I was stunned. Here’s how.

About ten minutes into the film there is a wordless montage that displays a man’s life. The scene, set to Michael Giacchino’s sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated score, is poignant, perceptive, genuine, heartfelt, sad, funny, and effortlessly beautiful. I saw the film six days ago and since then I have been trying very hard to think of a better, more accomplished montage sequence from any film. Ever. And guess what. I've come up short (the quiet, controlled boxing montage in Million Dollar Baby is close, though). The Up scene lasts for around ten minutes and deals with issues that young children won’t understand, and that I wouldn’t dare spoil here. It’s worth the price of admission alone. If this scene was in any live action drama, that movie would be nominated for Best Picture, without a doubt. In short, this is the best sequence I’ve seen so far in any movie this year. Behold a thing of wonder. A-

The Hangover

Todd Phillips, who made the frat-pack famous with Old School, returns with a similar, if not a slightly funnier version of thirtysomethings gone wild.

The plot for The Hangover couldn’t be more packed with clichés. Four buddies head to Vegas for a night of bachelor party debauchery. They wake up, remembering nothing, only to discover that the groom-to-be is MIA. Boring. But the fun of the film is when it deviates from your expectations.

The first hint that this romp may deliver beyond your prospects is that it starts with the end. Then conveniently retraces most of its steps. Another hint is the fact that not a single frame of this film is dedicated to watching the guys get wasted. Think of it as the Reservoir Dogs of drunken hysterics. By not showing us what actually went down, the film plays like a genuine hangover, as the audience tries to put the pieces together right along with the characters.

So, yes, there are a few things that stand out here, but the laughs, for the most part, are pretty plain. Bradley Cooper (the dick boyfriend from Wedding Crashers) cements himself as the next-big-thing, shooting to the A-list with his black suit and slicked-backed hair. Ed Helms (The Office) steals some laughs with a missing tooth, but it’s Zack Galifianakis as the dim-witted brother-in-law that takes the cake. Almost every line he has is delivered with precise comic timing. You’ll be rolling in your seats when Galifianakis questions the authenticity of Caesar’s Palace, or tries to justify his wearing a fanny pack.

If for no other reason, I’ll recommend the film for its closing credits montage. Those ending shots have been stealing most of the film’s buzz, and for good reason. They are easily the funniest moments I’ve seen on screen so far this year. Don’t leave early. B

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Tony Scott first started his now patented, zip-zoom, head-inducing style of filming with Man on Fire, a film I like very much. But he wore that style out with Domino and especially with Déjà Vu. Now Scott is back, toning down his blazing, repetitive cinematography, with The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a completely decent action thriller.

The film, a re-vamp of the 1974 cult classic, casts a sturdy Denzel Washington as a train dispatcher, who finds himself quickly, and violently, in the center of a hostage situation. You see, a badass John Travolta has hijacked a train, parked it in an underground tunnel and demanded $10 mil in an hour, or else people start to die. Basic plot, nothing new.

What propels this film above your standard summer flare, are the performances. Washington is great here, putting on a few pounds to really understand the desk worm. James Gandolfini, as the post-Giuliani, post-9/11 mayor of NYC is cunning and smart, leaving Tony Soprano way behind. The rest of the supporting crew is good as well, but it’s Travolta that steals the show. With his shaved head, prison-tattooed neck and manic energy, we totally believe him every step of the way. He’s a villain that talks the talk (as they all do) but he walks the walk as well (which many never do).

The camera may zip around a bit too much, and the music can be annoying (I mean really, how many different remixes of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” can you put into a two hour film). But I’d say that the Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is the best action fare out there right now. B

Friday, June 5, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

Welcome to real summer fun. Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is the best horror film in years. It’s got more thrills and genuine laughs than any movie I’ve seen so far this year. In a genre so etched-out that we always know what’s coming, Drag Me to Hell is one hell of a fresh slice of shock cinema.

Let’s face it, PG-13 horror movies almost always suck (The Grudge, The Haunting of Molly Hartley), and the R-rated ones usually rely too heavily on blood and guts (Saw, Hostel) instead of a good story. But Drag Me to Hell’s rating is almost a blessing. Sure, it’s PG-13, but you wouldn’t know it. No, Raimi does a brilliant job of going back to his Evil Dead days, delivering his violence in a tasteful, albeit gross, manner. Instead of blood, we get bugs. Instead of torture, we get great lines of dialogue (“Here kitty, kitty.”)

Did I mention how the wonderfully timed thrills are matched perfectly with humor? A lot of horror films are unintentionally funny. A cheesy line of dialogue or a completely bullshit method of murder can ruin a film-going experience. Not here. Raimi wants you to laugh. He mocks the film’s outrageous themes and actually makes them funny. Great stuff.

Christine (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer in desperate want of a promotion. She’s told that she needs to be tougher on clients. So when little old Mrs. Ganush asks for a third extension on her home loan, Christine turns her down. Big mistake. Ganush is out of blood, putting a curse on Christine which, if not stopped, will ultimately, you guessed, drag her to hell. But not before some seriously creepy shit goes down. Even her trusty boyfriend (Justin Long, doing good work), can’t stop the madness.

Sure this film has its typical horror-film faults. But roll with it. This is a movie that would benefit greatly from a viewing in a dark, crowded theatre, with hundreds of screaming spectators. I imagine some of its allure will be lost in bright living rooms via DVD. Regardless, Drag Me to Hell is the most fun I’ve had at the movies so far this year. You’re in for one hell of a ride. A-