Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sundance '09: We Live in Public

You may remember Josh Harris, the subject of the wildly entertaining documentary We Live in Public, as spokesmen for the internet awakening during the late ‘90s.

Harris was a genius in predicting the way our society would live. His first real web investment was a site that had chatting, video downloads, and live TV, none of which had been around before. After that site came and went, Harris wanted a new project, something bigger, better, stronger, faster. His idea was so ingenious, yet equally terrifying, that it startled a nation, and predicted the future.

Harris recruited 100 people to dive head first into his experiment titled “Quiet: We Live in Public”. This venture saw all 100 people living in an underground bunker smack in the middle of New York City. They slept in little pods (which look like Holocaust-era bunk beds), ate, went to the bathroom, shot guns at the shooting range, watched the Millennium ball drop, and so on. They lived as a family, with one small catch. Every single inch of the bunker was under constant surveillance. Every second of every day was taped for Harris’s pleasure. The sex, the urination, the showering, the arguing, nothing was to be missed.

Ondi Timoner followed Harris around for over a decade, recording his lavish, multi-million dollar ideas. But Timoner’s camera never judges. While Harris was eccentric, and egotistical and probably a bit insane, his ideas were revolutionary. Watching clips from his bunker experiment is like watching your favorite trashy reality show. But keep in mind, reality TV didn’t exist when this experiment took place.

Harris couldn’t be a better subject for a documentary. His life-conflicts are gut wrenching to watch on film. Take, for instance, one of his final experiments. He brought his “Quiet” project to a much more intimate level when he asked his new girlfriend if she would like to be filmed in his apartment 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The catch this time: it would all be broadcast live on the internet. Users could even chat about what they were seeing. It’s a real treat to watch Harris on his computer, reading the chat comments as they come to him live.

The downfall, as it is inevitable, is excruciating to watch. We witness a perfectly happy couple wallow in decay over a few months.

This film is like no other documentary I’ve ever seen. Credit Timoner for sticking with such a tough subject. What we get to watch is sacred. Never private, always out in the open. A-

Sundance '09: Passing Strange

It takes a while to get used to the experience, but Spike Lee’s new “see it like your there” film is great fun. Lee, along with one hell of an impressive camera crew, taped the final Broadway performance of "Passing Strange", an all black musical about a confused young man and the years following his leaving home.

The film is shot in real time, so, for the most part, you feel like you’re just another audience member in New York. The fun of the film is that Lee privies us to dynamic close ups, swooping tracking shots and other great tricks. If you’re going to shoot a play, then you have to make the audience member feel like they aren’t missing out on anything, you have to give them more.

When I saw Scorsese’s Shine a Light, the concert documentary on the Rolling Stones, I was almost happier that I was seeing it on an IMAX screen rather than actually being at the concert. Yes, it would’ve been kick-ass to watch Jagger and crew rock out, but there is a certain intimacy to the camera that you can’t get from 40 rows back.

Likewise for Passing Strange. How else, for instance, would be able to see a tear strolling down a character’s face during a pivotal scene? No way you could catch that emotion from the second balcony.

The film itself (or should I say the play) takes a while to warm up. But once it gets going, you’ll be dancing in your seat. B

Sundance '09: Cold Souls

This is pretty cool: so there is an article in The New Yorker which explains a new procedure known as soul removal. For a fee, people come in, painlessly have their soul extracted and, if the results are positive, they live life with no worries or troubles.

Paul Giamatti plays an actor named… Paul Giamatti (bear with me), who hesitantly decides to get the procedure done by zany Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn, miles away from his Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck). Once it’s done, Giamatti feels better, sure, but he’s lost that fire that gives his stage acting so much allure.

Soon he tries the even newer procedure of soul replacement, where one temporarily takes the soul of another. I’m making this sound like a hyper sci-fi film where people inhabit other people’s bodies. It isn’t like that. Once you have someone’s soul, you inhabit only small details of what the original person had. There are no exorcisms involved, only a few confusing dreams.

The conflict comes when we discover that Russians traffic the souls using “soul moles” to transport the souls between the countries. The Russians can sell them for big, so they make a scary profit.

French director Sophie Barthes most have Charlie Kaufman embedded in her subconscious as this film is a reflection of both Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While the film is beautifully shot, it is clearly the work of a new filmmaker, one who’s a little rusty with her editing cuts. Rusty, maybe, but a director to look out for, definitely.

During the Q & A, Barthes described where the inspiration of the story came very with a highly amusing anecdote. She had a dream a few years ago where she was standing in a very posh, futuristic doctor’s office (as depicted in the film) and Woody Allen was standing in front of her, holding his soul in a glass jar. Allen explained the procedure to her and told her how he was upset that his soul looked like a chickpea (as Giamatti’s does). When Barthes woke up, she wrote the dream down and went to work right away. Assuming she’d never get Allen as the main character, she wrote the script with Giamatti in mind, sent him a copy, and made the film. She hasn’t told Woody Allen the genesis of her film, but if he hears it, I imagine he’ll be amused. B

Sundance '09: Five Minutes of Heaven

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven would make a great three act play. There are only three major scenes, each a great exercise in screenwriting. Thank writer Guy Hibbert for creating a screenplay instead of a stage play, because this is a film that knocks you right out.

Without revealing too much, devliguging the meaning of the title would be giving too much away, this is the story of two lads on opposite ends of the religious spectrum during Britian’s occupation of '70s Ireland. For the first half hour or so, young wannabe thug Alistair is recruited to kill a Catholic simply because he is Catholic. The message is sent with murder, so is his reasoning. During the brutal gun slaying, Alistair is caught red-handed by his victim’s younger brother. The two share long stare before Alistair runs off.

Twenty three years later, Alistair (now played by Liam Nesson) wants a shot at redemption. A TV show wants to get Alistair and Joe Griffen (James Nesbitt), the younger brother of his victim, face to face for a first time encounter. Joe agrees, reluctantly, and the whole ordeal is to take place in a lavish home on a beautiful piece of property that resembles the home in the beginning of Atonement.

Once the film changes to its present setting, it takes a while to get settled. It doesn’t help that my flat, American ears have the damnedest time trying to pick out coherent sentences from all the thick Irish dialogue. Once our protagonists are nearly face to face, the film turns into a greatly compelling piece.

Both Nesson and Nesbitt are fantastic. Both deliver long unbroken monologues with just the right touch of delicacy (Nesson) and mania (Nesbitt). Nesson gives a performance of calm, regretful smoothness like a real pro, but it’s Nesbitt that steals the show. Nesbitt (Match PointBloody Sunday) unleashes his manic energy like a hurricane.

This is great character work, with a moving third act to balance out the heaviness of the rest of the film. It’s two actors at the top of their games. Enjoy. A

Sundance '09: Dare

What a delightful little film. Dare is a simply story told with very ballsy execution. Straight-edge highschooler and wannabe actress, Alexa (Emmy Rossum) quickly finds her life uneventful after an accomplished actor brutally throws all of her faults in her face. She decides to stop hanging out so much with her nerdy best friend Ben (Ashley Springer) and to “slut it up” with hot-shit Mr. Popular, Johnny (Zach Gilford).

It doesn’t take long with things to seriously heat up. Soon enough the three are involved in a steamy love triangle that really gets the blood pumping. But underneath its humor and booming musical score (a character in itself), there is real drama to this satire.

Johnny is a dick, sure, but it’s incredible how much we grow to care for him. Gilford, excellent in TVs Friday Night Lights, gives Johnny layer after impenetrable layer. He’s a seriously flawed guy hiding behind his temporary popularity. How many people did you know like that in high school?

Rossum (Sean Penn’s daughter in Mystic RiverPhantom of the Opera) delivers a star making performance as emotional Alexa. She’s funny, daring and so sexy it’s incendiary. I couldn’t take my eyes off her; she has a lasting conviction.

The movie doesn’t stumble down typical high school clichés, instead, it present a new look at how the rich kids live. It’s great fun, with a message.

Note: look out for the stage actor that puts Alexa in her place, it’s a great cameo from a tremendously talented actor. Don’t ruin the surprise. A-

Sundance '09: Taking Chance

Welcome to the festival’s biggest sniffler. When the lights came up, the only sound to be heard was the blowing of noses and daping of tissues against red cheeks.

Indie producer Ross Katz (In the BedroomLost in Translation) directs his first film, a true story about senior officer in the Marines escorting the body of a deceased Private to his home.

Kevin Bacon plays Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, bored with his desk work, he decides to escort the body of Private Phelps across the country, an odd request by a officer of senior status. Strobl’s reasoning is none other than Phelps was born and raised in the same Oklahoma town as he.

Taking Chance, the title has several meanings, is a different kind of Iraq War film. Not a single moment takes place overseas, but rather, in the buried remorse of the characters. There is a lot to be learned here. Katz, with vivid accuracy, shows each painful step of how a body ends up in its rightful place. The process is long, arduous and ever-so tedious. Every detail has to be perfect, from the cleaning of the soldier’s nails (which will never be seen because Marines are wearing white gloves when they are buried), to the saluting of the casket nearly every time it passes by.

I was facisinated by the process, but even more by the film. There are several moving, extended scenes during the travel home in which the story is told entirely with an outstanding musical score. Ten minutes will pass between words being spoken, all we have is the 60-piece orchastra to fill the sound barrier. The images, presented with beautiful fluidity by cinematographer Alar Kivilo, will dazzle you. I’ve rarely seen middle America presented so flawlessly.

Bacon arguably gives the best performance of his famoulsly underrated career. He plays Strobl to restrained perfection, hardly ever letting his emotions take over, even as they resonate deeply inside of him. Credit Katz for sticking to the story, rather than throwing in some fictional conflict to make the film more cinematic.

The film, while earnest and heartfelt, will lose some of its melodrama on the small screen, when HBO premires it in Feburary. This is a movie that, in a dark theatre, will cause you to care. But in your living room your mind may wonder. It deserves a bigger treatment.

When Katz introduced the film, he mentioned that most of us are desensitized to war images on CNN, himself included. He said he made this film as a way to re-sensitize himself and maybe a few others. After watching Taking Chance you’ll find yourself caring once again. A-

Sundance '09: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men falls under the exact same category as The Informers. A great book by a cult novelist (recently deceased David Foster Wallace), that fails when adapted to the screen.

This film is men speaking badly. Several different characters explain to a female graduate student (Julianne Nicholson) the nastiest little details about their sex lives. Some stories are amusing, but rarely heartfelt.

I feel like this film was just a way for first time director John Krasinski (Jim on The Office) to highlight his acting talent. He gets the second biggest role of the film which includes the longest of several breathy monologues from every character. Krasinski doesn’t pull it off. He delivers the lines of the speech in the same note, never cracking his voice, never sympathetic, never angry. It’s a problem when a character needs to be choked up and sympathetic and angry but the actor can’t get there.

As for his directing, Krasinski doesn’t do much better. His editing is ridiculously hard to follow, not to mention choppy and distracting. I would’ve liked to see each character deliver their monologues in one take, without cutting back and forth, infusing one guy’s story with another.

“Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” is an almost inadaptable book, but I’ll give it to Krasinski for trying. He means well, and hopefully his next one will be better. D

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Best of 2008

TOP 10 OF 2008
This is the first time in several years that my best film of the year won’t be nominated for best picture (if I’m wrong, then that’d be great).

It was a year of simple, not sensational, films with the exception of a few, of course. Sensationalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but most of these films conveyed subtle, powerful messages by letting the audience become completely immersed with the characters.

I’ll dub 2008 the year of great character studies, and what’s better than that?

10. Happy-Go-Lucky
Mike Leigh, the often serious, always genuine British director crafted one of his best films yet with this peppy look at a girl full of impossible optimism. The film didn’t have a shred of plot, but it actually made me feel good. Good about myself, about others, about life in general. How many films can do that?

9. The Dark Knight
Because it redefined what a summer popcorn movie can be. Because it lived up to the hype. Because it didn’t insult your intelligence. Because it’s thrilling as all hell. Because Heath Ledger’s performance is better than any fancy adjective you can assign it. Because after multiple viewings of this two and a half hour movie, you’re never bored.

8. Revolutionary Road
Not nearly getting the credit it deserves, Sam Mendes directs this all-too-real film of a crumbling marriage in 1950s suburbia. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet give the best work of their respective careers. This is serious stuff, but well worth the melodrama.

7. Tell No OneThis little-seen French indie was some of the most fun I had at the movies this year. Its intricate and merciless plot is comparable to Hitchcock. The acting is top notch from every twisted character involved. Catch this multi-genre’d wonder on DVD in March.

6. Man on Wire
Picture this: as Philippe Petit finally takes his first steps on to the tightrope he has set up between the two towers of the World Trade Center, the film looses all sound. No narration, no musical score, no moving picture. Instead, director James Marsh makes the bold decision to let the still images in his documentary speak for themselves. No scene knocked the wind out of me more this year. The fact that the film does not once mention 9/11 is a testament to its individuality. When you watch this film, you watch them stand tall once again.

5. The Edge of Heaven
Released overseas in 2007, it blows my mind why this film was barely released in the US this year. Like Babel, this multilayered film fuses together a variety of people. The only catch is that most of these people don’t know the others exist. It demonstrates a great message (better than Crash did) on how something we do can change the life of a complete stranger, even if we don’t realize it. This is real, emotional stuff. If you can’t pick it up at Blockbuster, then just buy it from, you won’t regret it.

4. Slumdog Millionaire
Remember that thing I said about this year’s films not being sensational? That doesn’t apply here. Visionary director Danny Boyle presents one of the most sensational delights in recent cinema history. Flawless in its execution, this movie will make cringe, cheer, and most importantly, think. For the cynics that bitch that cinema is dead, that no original ideas are left, I present you with this breathtaking film that pulses to life with remarkable energy and fierce originality.

3. Rachel Getting Married
Perhaps the most emotionally accurate film of the year. Watching this movie, we are let into the lives of one very dysfunctional family. In the extended scenes of candid conversation I often felt uncomfortable. Not because what the characters are saying is disgusting, but because what they are saying is so real. You actually feel like you’re in the rooms of their house, sitting next to them on the couch, waiting for the perfect moment to sneak off into the kitchen unnoticed. If a film can make you feel like an eavesdropper, then it has done its job.

2. Milk
Sean Penn gives the best performance of an already perfect career in Gus Van Sant’s best film to date. The film is executed to subtle perfection, never making its dramatic scenes over the top. Boasting the best cast of the year, Milk is a film that touched a nerve with its relevancy. Pay attention to the often off-focus camera work, Danny Elfman’s beautiful, quiet score, and the crisp lines of dialogue from Dustin Lance Black’s original script. A new kind of bio-pic, one with a pulse.

1. The Wrestler
Picking the best film of 2008 wasn’t easy. For the longest time, it was a toss-up between Milk and Darren Aronofsky’s masterwork about a washed-up professional wrestler. I finally decided what film should get the number one spot by analyzing each film’s lasting power. Which one did I think about more? Which stayed with me the longest after leaving the theatre? I first saw The Wrestler on Halloween night at the Virginia Film Festival and was completely blown away. I tried hard to convince my girlfriend, who was off-put by the film’s violence, that it was a modern masterpiece. It’s true, The Wrestler may not be for everyone. The violence is sparse, but gut-wrenching. The body of Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is a canvas for pain. Not just physical brutality but emotional agony as well. Mickey Rourke gives the performance of his life, and the best acting of 2008, as a man who only knows one thing. He still lives in his ‘80s hey day. Listening to the same hair-metal music, playing the same video games, wearing the same outfits, the same hair, etc. He’s a little boy buried deep in a huge mass of a man. I didn’t care about any character more this year than I did for Randy, or should I say Rourke? The man is so synonymous with the character that it’s hard to tell the difference. Good movies stay with you, and believe me, The Wrestler has yet to leave.

And ten more for good measure, alphabetically:

Changeling, established Clint Eastwood as a great, period director.
Encounters at the End of the World, was a pleasant gem from visionary Werner Herzog.
Frost/Nixon, is Ron Howard's best film yet, completely enthralling.
Funny Games, may be the most haunting film I've ever seen.
Gran Torino, allowed Eastwood to fuse all of his best characters together.
In Bruges, was the funniest film of the year.
The Reader, showcased the ever-terrific Kate Winslet.
Redbelt, is Mamet at his prime.
Snow Angels, was a quiet but memorable little film with dynamic acting.
The Visitor, had one of the year's most tender performances in Richard Jenkins.


Everything else that mattered in 2008...

Slumdog MillionaireTake the opening chase scene: it’s the best shot (with frequent slow-motion and fast-action pacing), best cut (with the action focusing on multiple subjects), best sounding (with its pulsing sound effects), and the best scored (with A.R. Rahman’s feverishly captivating song “O…Saya" booming over the soundtack), sequence of the year. Thank director Danny Boyle for your fascination.

Runner Up: Rachel Getting Married

Mickey Rourke as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in The Wrestler
This character breathes through the screen by Rourke giving him a pulse. His acting is phenomenal.
Runner up: Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk

Kate Winslet as April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road
Winslet gives the performance of her career as an anxious woman trapped in 1950s suburbia. She’s perfect in every scene, from her opening moments as a failed stage actress to her cooking a cleansing breakfast in the third act. Just try to take your eyes off of her.
Runner up: Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight
No explanation needed.
Runner up: Michael Shannon as John in Revolutionary Road

Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel in Rachel Getting Married
The little-known DeWitt comes on like a hurricane as the older, wiser sister to Anne Hathaway’s drug addicted Kym. Sweet as can be one moment then gut-wrenchingly honest the next, DeWitt drove me to tears like no other performance this year. She’s so real, you forget you’re watching a film.
Runner up: Kate Winslet as Hanna in The Reader

“The Wrestler” by Bruce Springsteen from The Wrestler
I was listening to this song on my iPod the other day, to the sad lyrics of decades-old solidarity. Suddenly I realized there was no music playing. How long ago had the song ended? How long had I been alone with my thoughts? Like the film, this song has some serious lasting power. I don’t know if it’s better that “Streets of Philadelphia” which got The Boss an Oscar in 1993, but it’ll get him to the big show once again.
Runner-up: “Gran Torino” by Jamie Cullum from Gran Torino

Revolutionary Road
No, not the one you’ve most likely seen 10 times already. But this little seen teaser:
Scored beautifully to a soft version of “Sea of Love”, with almost no dialogue from the film, it did a great job of setting the haunting pace that the film conveyed.

Slumdog Millionaire
Runner up: Encounters at the End of the World

The 5 (Biggest) Disappointments of 2008

Forget the worst of the year, you don’t need me to tell you that Disaster Movie is complete garbage, instead let’s focus on the movies that shattered our high hopes.

A tasteless movie from a master director. Fernando Meirelles, the visionary mind behind City of God and The Constant Gardener delivered this cheap exposé of a world gone mad. It was trite, and at times, repulsive.

The Happening
Every one of M. Night Shyamalan’s films are worse than the one before, but for some reason I still hold out high expectations for the man that gave us The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. This film was a complete mess. His first R-rated movie? Who cares, I wanted my time back.

Miracle at St. Anna
Spike Lee got too indulgent with himself in this true story about four WWII soldiers who get stuck behind enemy lines. I give him credit for making one of the only feature films to focus on black soldiers, but for the most part, the film was long, boring, not to mention tasteless.

Seven Pounds
Probably the most dreadful time I’ve had at the movies this year. I had virtually no idea what the hell was going on for a good amount of it, which doesn’t say a lot about talented director Gabriele Muccino and star Will Smith (both did The Pursuit of Happyness). It tried to make up for its inconsistencies in the last five minutes, but it was too late, I had already emotionally checked out an hour ago.

Synecdoche, New York
This visually stunning, marvelously acted film left many people with the same feeling: Huh? What just happened? Was it real? What was with that house on fire? Oddball screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) aimed to entice audiences with his directorial debut. Instead he left most of us scratching our heads.


Couldn’t these all go to The Joker? At the risk of being repetitive, here’s a varied list of the lines that most impressed me (package nicely between two of Mr. Ledger’s best quips).

10. “Well hello, beautiful.” Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

9. “Maybe if I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn’t… so it doesn’t.” Colin Farrell, In Bruges

8. “Get off my lawn.”—Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino

7. “There is no situation you cannot escape from.” Chiwetel Ejiofor, Redbelt

6. “I’m saying when the President does it that means it’s not illegal!”—Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

5. “It is written.”—Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

4. “We’ve got a hell of a way to go.”—Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky

3. “Without hope, life is not worth living. You gotta give ‘em hope, you gotta give ‘em hope.” – Sean Penn, Milk

2. “I’m an old, broken down piece of meat, and I deserve to be alone. I just don’t want you to hate me.”—Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

1. “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you… stranger.” Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Revolutionary Road

I’m at a loss. I’m having trouble trying to understand why Sam Mendes’ new breathtaking film isn’t getting the credit it deserves. For two authentic hours, audiences intrude on the lives of April and Frank Wheeler, a well-to-do couple in 1950s Connecticut. Frank works in New York City at a job he hates marketing electronics. April stays at home, watching their two kids, becoming envious of the life she could have had.

April comes up with a plan to rejuvenate their lives and put a little spark back into their marriage. The plan (which I won’t reveal) sets in motion one hell of a tumultuous movie.

Mendes’ new film is similar to his first, American Beauty, in the way that it depicts a side of suburbia that we’ve never seen. But it’s different in the way that it depicts how a marriage can quickly, and steadily crumble. Frank and April engage in long, ferocious arguments that feel almost too real to watch. And there, I suppose, lies the problem for some people.

Based on Richard Yates’ famed novel, Revolutionary Road, isn’t for a faint heart. It slams its character’s problems right down your throat. If you want escapist film, you’d better look elsewhere. Having said that, this movie is an affecting triumph.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank, gives the best performance of his beautifully matured career. He’s long gone from that man-child he played on that giant boat with his costar. Frank is kind, dismissive, brutally angry and most of all, clueless. He has no idea what his wife likes, wants, or needs. He’s a mess of a man.

This really is Kate Winslet’s year. Her work in The Reader is astounding; unlike anything she’s ever done, and in Revolutionary Road, she excels even further. She stretches April’s emotions as far as any movie character this year. She’ll rack up two nominations this year in both female acting categories. I don’t know which one she’ll win but I say to hell with it, give her both. There isn’t one specific scene of hers to highlight in this film. From the first moment you see her, you won’t be able to take your eyes of her. The fact that she is married to Mendes in real life makes me appreciate her April that much more.

Likewise for scene stealer Michael Shannon, who plays John, the son of Kathy Bates’ real estate agent character. Recently released from a mental institution, John is the only “real” character in the film. He has no filter in his head that allows us to keep our mouths shut. He says what he wants, when he wants, often to shocking conclusion. I’m dumbfounded as to why Shannon hasn’t been getting Oscar buzz (although he wouldn’t beat Heath Ledger). As one of the best character actors around, Shannon will make you cringe in this film.

One thing that annoyed me during the film: the constant smoking of cigarettes and lunch-hour cocktails. But, I am young and clearly misrepresented the 50s lifestyle. As Roger Ebert said about the film: “Don't think they smoke too much in this movie. In the 1950s everybody smoked everywhere all the time. Life was a disease, and smoking held it temporarily in remission. And drinking? Every ad executive in the neighborhood would head to the bar at lunchtime to prove the maxim: One martini is just right, two are too many, three are not enough.”

Revolutionary Road is a heavy dose of melodrama, but a real one at that. Think it won’t hold up to our times given its ‘50s setting? You’re dead wrong. This is a timeless story told with vicious honesty. It showcases a class-act of people at the top of their games. Hold tight, you’re in for a ride. A+

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Wrestler

Like any great movie, The Wrestler opens with a bang. Only this explosion is far more subtle than what you’re expecting. For the first few minutes of the film, the camera stays tight on our protagonist’s back. The audience moves around in their seats, trying to get a glimpse at that battered face. When we finally do see Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, we’re reminded of the once Brando-esque good looks Mickey Rourke used to have. His fine features now buried under smashed cheekbones and a bruised nose. This is how you begin to care about a character. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is a 21st century masterpiece. It’s a simple story about a once glorious professional wrestler who is now a self proclaimed “broken down piece of meat”. Randy’s life has been wasted on women, drugs, booze, and all that comes with the price of fame. He has no real relationships to speak of, and barely enough money to pay the rent on his trailer. He gets wrestling gigs when he can, at elementary schools or community centers, but for the most part, he lives quietly and alone. It’s hard not to see the parallels in Randy and Rourke. Rourke exploded on the screen in the early 80’s, giving wrenching performances in Body Heat, Diner and Rumble Fish. Soon he became the sex icon of his generation, heating up the screen in 9 ½ Weeks, Angel Heart and Wild Orchid. In 1991 he quit acting to become a boxer, something he wasn’t good at given the amount of facial reconstruction he’s gone through. He’s recently found himself in smaller, but noticeable roles in films like Man on Fire and Sin City. But now, the notoriously difficult actor delivers the role of a lifetime. Rourke gives Randy more than a heart, he gives him a spirit. Randy is a kind man despite the pathetic circumstances in which he lives. When he’s not strapped in tights, battling other men, he works at a local grocery store, keeping to himself. He frequents a strip club where his only real “friend” is a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). It’s Cassidy that convinces Randy to get back in touch with his daughter that can’t stand him (Evan Rachel Wood). When he’s in the ring, Randy goes through the cheorgraphed steps that he and his competitor have developed beforehand backstage. But even though the moves are fake and expected, the pain is not. Think staple guns, chairs, windows and barbed wire. I can only say good things about this movie and the performances. In his scenes with Wood, Rourke is a tender revelation, wanting nothing more than to reconnect with a person he admittedly abandoned. Tomei has great chemistry with Rourke, their characters lead similar lives: sad, ashamed, and even using fake names that sound pleasing to customers. Aronofsky has always shocked. His Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain are great experiments in narrative filmmaking. The Wrestler is his most simple film to date, not to mention his best. He fought hard to cast Rourke as Randy (the studios wanted a bankable star), and man how it has paid off. An Oscar for Best Actor seems like too small a gift for Rourke. This performance is one of the best of this or any year. Years from now, it will be studied by film students and remembered by everyone who sees it. He, along with Tomei and Wood, give the best performances of their career. There is one downside to The Wrestler. Much in the way of The Dark Knight, The Wrestler is being overshadowed by a performance. People talk about the Joker more than they do about the movie. Everyone who sees The Wrestler will associate greatness to Rourke’s performance. But it’s a performance stuck in the middle of a brilliant film. Remember the camera shots used to highlight Randy’s physique, the grainy texture of the film itself, and the supporting performances that help accentuate Rourke’s. This is one of the best films of the year, which just happens to boast one of the very best screen performances of recent memory. A+ Note: Stay for the credits to hear Bruce Springsteen’s original, fantastic title song. It’ll be a sin if he doesn’t win the Best Song Oscar.
Listen to my podcast on The Wrestler:

Gran Torino

Who’s better than Clint Eastwood? I’ve said it before, but really, who has a better success story than he does? He said Unforgiven was going to be the last time he directed himself, a retirement he quickly gave up. He said the same thing four years ago with Million Dollar Baby and now again with Gran Torino. I don’t mind when Eastwood breaks his promises, as long as he keeps delivering such impeccable work.

Gran Tornio is unlike anything he’s ever done. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a bigoted Korean War vet who meanders through life by staying angry and drunk. His once pleasant neighborhood in Detroit has fallen victim to gangs and violence.
Walt isn’t a guy you really like. He’s mean to just about everyone, doesn’t speak a sentence without barking a racial slur and has nothing but contempt for an honest, young priest. When he catches his neighbor, a Hmong teenager, trying to steal his prized Gran Tornio, Walt wants blood.

Soon he forges a friendship with the kid, while accidently becoming a protector of the neighborhood from a tough gang. Imagine the rest, because that’s all I’m going to give you. The joy of an Eastwood film is discovering the subtle surprises that he has in store for us.

The action scenes in the film come seldom yet quick. Most of Eastwood’s films have moments of extreme violence, but he is one of the few filmmakers who pulls it off tastefully. He doesn’t insult his audience by showing gratuitous acts of torture, instead he trust us enough to elaborate ourselves.

Walt is a bold move for Eastwood. He’s like Dirty Harry meets the Man With No Name, meets Frankie Dunn from Million Dollar Baby. A real contemporary badass that we aren’t too sure we like. As Walt, Eastwood delivers the best acting of his career. I’m a great admirer of his work and I can honestly say that I have not seen better. The film as a whole, while great, isn’t as good as Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby, but it does hold its own.

Listen to the first few bars of the title song over the end credits. Yup, that’s the old man alright, still going strong at 78 years old. If we don’t see Eastwood again on screen, then that’s fine by me, because damn, what a hell of a way to go. A


Based on his Pulitzer Prize winning play, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is as prevalent as ever, regardless of its setting. The year after JFK was killed, officials at a Catholic school in the Bronx started diving into some very bad things. Principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) begins to suspect Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of some serious misconduct involving the only black student at the school. Sister James (Amy Adams) is the one who first aroused the suspicion, after seeing the disheveled boy return to her class from a visit with Father Flynn. To say any more, is really giving too much away. This isn’t a great film, but it answers a lot of the questions it asks, only to have them raised yet again. You’re never really sure what to believe, a good credit to give the film. While the movie feels a little too slow with its deliberate pacing, the performances are top notch. Amy Adams brings a quiet complexity to her shy character, and Philip Seymour Hoffman goes pound off pound in the heated arguments with Streep, he’ll be Heath Ledger’s only real competition for Best Supporting Actor this year. (Note: Hoffman won Best Actor for Capote in 2005, beting Ledger in Brokeback Mountain). Meryl Streep has been nominated 14 times for an Oscar, with two wins. I’ve questioned sometimes if she deserves the nomination, but forDoubt, she deserves to win. This veteran actress will make your blood chill with her extended monologues and uncertain behavior. She is a heavyweight at the top of her game, what’s better than that? One, little, small thing. Doubt does drag a little, sure, but once Viola Davis steps on the screen as the boy’s mother, the fire of fury is ignited. A great character actor, Davis has stolen scenes in World Trade Center, Antwone Fisher, Far From Heaven, and on and on. She’s in only one scene in Doubt but that scene is the best acting she’s ever done. Watch Streep’s face as Davis really tells her about her son. It’s shockingly brilliant. She’ll be the front runner for Best Supporting Actress. Too bad the film can’t match its actors’ bravado. B

Listen to my podcast on Philip Seymour Hoffman


After Richard Nixon had disgraced himself by lying to the country and eventually resigning as President, he retired to his California beachside mansion to play golf. Years later, swanky British TV journalist, Robert Frost sought Nixon for an exclusive one-on-one interview. Frost’s road wasn’t easy, but after forking over nearly 2 million of his own money, he got the sit-down he wanted.

Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon is the most enthralling piece of cinema this year. At two hours long, you’ll be gripping the armrest in excitement. Peter Morgan (writer of The Queen) adapts his play using the same actors, a rare feat from a stage to screen adaptation.

Frank Langella, who won the Tony Award for playing Nixon on stage, is better than you may have heard. He doesn’t impersonate Nixon, he embodies him. You’ve seen Langella in Good Night and Good Luck and Superman Returns among other supporting turns, but as Nixon, he delivers a career best. He’ll get nominated for the Oscar, giving Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke some tough competition.

While Langella is a triumph, the real star of the film is Michael Sheen, who plays Frost. The trials and tribulations of Frost’s journey are at the center of the film. He played Tony Blair in The Queen, but we’ve never seen him do anything with this much spark.

Frost is helped by a few scholars to investigate Nixon, who are played with great comedic wit by Sam Rockwell, Matthew Macfadyen and Oliver Platt. The three take the project more seriously than Frost, which is strange given how much Frost has on the table.

The interview scenes are pulse-pounding, even though they were pretty boring in real life. Howard keeps the same exact dialogue of the original interviews in tact, but by having the film told from Frost’s perspective, we sympathize with his unpreparedness. Guided by a superb Kevin Bacon, Nixon coolly drags on answers and avoids key topics as Frost begins to realize that he’s in over his head.

The best scene of the film is one of the few that is completely fictionalized, when Nixon drunkenly calls Frost the night before their final interview. The ten minute phone conversation that will have you on the edge of your seat. Watch Langella, slightly off camera, yelling into the phone. He isn’t yelling at Frost, he’s yelling for both of them. It’s powerful filmmaking.

Frost/Nixon may very well be Howard’s best film as a director. The film is so good, you think that Howard just setup a camera and let it roll. A lot goes in to making a movie, and watching Frost/Nixon you’re so into the characters and the story, that you don’t once stop to think about what went into the making of it. A

The Reader

Here’s the anti-Benjamin Button. The Reader follows two people through the majority of their lives, discovering each other, uncovering mysteries, and ultimately discovering themselves.

Teenager Michael (David Kross) meets the icy-cold Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) by accident in post-WWII Germany. Their initial chance encounter leads to a few more until they start a passionate summer romance. Hanna is much older and much more domineering, she bosses Michael around as if she’s his mother, then invites him regularly to the bedroom. The two quickly develop a routine of Michael reading to Hanna, then engaging in passionate sex. The affair is kept a secret and then, she’s gone.

Years later we find Michael in law school where he has yet another chance encounter with Hanna, but this time, the stakes are far more serious.

I won’t divulge any more story except to say that the film cuts back and forth from Michael as a college student, to his life as an adult, where he is played with reliable intensity by Ralph Fiennes.

The Reader is often moving and sometimes shocking. Director Stehpen Daldry (The Hours) and writer David Hare do a great job adapting Bernhard Schlink’s semi-autobiographical book. Michael is the center of the story, but Hanna is who we find ourselves wanting more of. She is accused of some remarkably devious acts, yet we want to follow her.

Kate Winslet affirms her role as the very best actress of her generation. At 33 years old, she’s been nominated five times for an Oscar, expect that number to rise to seven after this performance as well as her turn in Revolutionary Road. If there’s a role that deserves her an over-due win, then it’s this one. Better than Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button, Winslet inhabits her aging in The Reader with great emotional balance. I believed every single movement of her performance, it’s quite a sight to see.

Fiennes is an actor of impeccable range, you’ll be hard-pressed to think of an actor that can deliver more emotion, simply by reading into a tape recorder.

My one problem with the film (a very small problem) is that I found myself trying to calculate the ages of the characters in my head too many times. At first I wanted to know how far apart in age they were, then how old they were when we jump ahead, and so on. Not a grand issue, but us mathematically deficient people could’ve used a line of dialogue stating their age gap.

Regardless, The Reader is a quiet, little film that stirs echoes in your mind long after you leave. You won’t regret it. A-

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

One of the best things I can say about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that it’s three hours long, and not a minute of it feels wasted. I wasn’t once bored, didn’t once inquire the time, I was completely taken into director David Fincher’s glorious fantasy.

Brad Pitt is remarkable as a man who ages backwords during a long, torrid life. Along the way, the ever-so-pleasant Benjamin meets a dynamic group of characters. Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) the woman who raised him, the people living with him in the old folks home, the wife of a spy that he has an affair with (the always brilliant, and recent Oscar winner Tilda Swinton), and of course, the love of his life, Daisy (Cate Blanchett).

Benjamin Button’s life is similar to Forrest Gump’s in the way that he progresses several decades doing what he wants, makes several interesting friends, and lives most of his life with peaceful resolve. Thank screenwriter Eric Roth who wrote both films (and won an Oscar for Forrest Gump).

Told in flashbacks by a middle-aged woman reading a diary, the film isn’t without its faults. It cuts back to the diary-reading far too often. Also, if I’m forced to find faults in Pitt’s performance, then I can pluck a few. I would’ve liked to see more emotions from Benjamin, as opposed to the same wavy, trance-like state that he seems to be in. He talks quietly, moves slowly and never gets angry. I suppose this isn’t Pitt’s fault, I’m sure it was written this way and positive that he was directed to act like this.

Having said that, lets point out the technical mastery of this film. The makeup and visual effects are stunning, easily the year’s best. You’re convinced in every single age-jump of Pitt’s appearance. Whether he’s 70 or 20, it’s absolutely exhilarating to watch. Fincher has always explored with new, innovation ways of filmmaking, hitting a high note with last year’s Zodiac, and my God if he hasn’t outdone himself this time.

Pitt’s performance, along with Swinton’s, are the film’s best. Henson is getting serious Oscar attention and Blanchett is reliable, but not superb. Pitt will no doubt be nominated, and for good reason, he’s an actor that has to overcome his own off-camera, tabloid-heavy celebrity. I’ve admired his work for years since he reached mega-stardom. From Ocean’s Eleven to Babel to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to Burn After Reading. He’s an actor that is hardly ever given fair credit.

Meet this film halfway and it’ll be a great ride. Of course the idea of people aging backwords is ridiculous, but have fun with it, the film surely wants you to. A-


I’ve never heard of a directing style quite like Mike Leigh’s. He gets an idea, rounds up a group of actors and dumps them in a room for weeks upon weeks of improvisation. Soon, a script is formed from the actors working through a theme and hashing out all the winded deatails.

Happy-Go-Lucky is easily Leigh’s most optimistic work to date. The film does not have a single shread of plot, but rather a story. We follow the characters around for a certain period of time, getting to know them through conversations, until Leigh feels it’s appropriate to end. It is great, whimsical stuff. Sally Hawkins stars as Poppy, an almost annoyingly optimistic grade-school teacher who loves life and everyone in it. She gets along great with her flat mate, her students, fellow teachers, younger sister and so on.

If the film has a theme, it is the impact of teachers. Poppy is a teacher, her flat mate is a teacher, her pregnant sister is a teacher, she is taught dancing lessons as well as driving lessons and so on. Her driving instructor, Scott, played with heated ferociousness by Eddie Marsan, is a great character. He’s something like a rouge fascist, yelling at Poppy for every little thing, yet scared shitless when two black boys ride by on bicycles.

Watching Happy-Go-Lucky I was reminded of Amelia. Both films don’t really have a plot, and they are essentially about the inherent goodness that people can have. Happy-Go-Lucky isn’t all laughs and giggles, it has a few very serious scenes that are handled extremely well. Watch Hawkins, in one of the year’s best performances, as she sits with a social worker, trying to communicate with one of her students. She interjects at all the right times, saying all the right things. It is a beautiful performance, placed gently in a wondrous film. A

Yes Man

You’ve probably heard that Jim Carrey’s new comedy romp is similar to his 1997 film Liar Liar, and for the most part, you’ve heard right.

Liar Liar had Carrey involuntarily tell the truth for 24 hours, Yes Man finds Carrey jumping head first into a new philosophy of voluntarily saying yes to any proposition that is offered to him.

This includes rides for homeless men, accepting every spam E-mail and pop-up ad, going out with his friends when they want to, etc. Most if it is all harmless fun, the point being that by saying yes, new doors are open up for him. This includes meeting a quirky singer, the always darling Zooey Deschanel.

The bad side is that Yes Man goes for a few too many cheap laughs. By saying yes to everything Carrey soon finds himself accepting felatio from an elderly neighbor (why, dear God, why). Yes Man is probably exactly what you’re expecting, a comedic escape from the heavy-weight Oscar material swirling around the cinema. Having said that, I’d say no to this Yes. D+

Seven Pounds

If you’re tempted to see a new film with aching emotion, a plausible story and dynamic acting, please skip Seven Pounds.

About 30 minutes in, I knew that I was being steered down a meandering mess of a film. The movie introduces Will Smith as Ben Thomas, an IRS agent that feels like he must give back to a select number of people. Why the need for redemption? No idea. Why these people? Not a clue. Why is it called Seven Pounds? Couldn’t tell you.

The movie barely answers any of the many questions it raises. It is a jumbled mess and one of the year’s most disappointing films. I had high hopes for Italian director Gabriele Muccino, who directed Smith with great emotional restraint in The Pursuit of Happiness. But alas, this film is nothing but a waste for good talent. There is plenty to see in the theatres right now, so do yourself a favor and save the weight. D-

Monday, January 5, 2009

My Favorite Scene: GoodFellas

Choose what you will: Joe Pesci’s manically brilliant “I’m funny how?” interrogation; discovering all the bodies to the piano-end of “Layla”; Ray Liotta’s coke-fueled, maddened day of demise scored by some of history’s greatest rock songs. Every scene of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mafia-crime saga is staged, pop perfection. GoodFellas is a film full of passionate sequences that have had a hand at influencing some of the best young filmmakers today.

I first saw GoodFellas when I was 12 and one scene in particular has been impossible to shake. A scene so shocking in its execution, that it has been known to ruin the rest of the film for some viewers. With a movie comprised of one startling scene after another, it comes as no surprise that its most breathtaking moment comes first.

The film opens with a car cruising down a dark highway. We cut to inside the car, Liotta behind the wheel, dazed and rubbing his eyes, Robert De Niro asleep in the passenger seat, Pesci dozing off in the back. Suddenly we hear a loud thud. Then another and another. Car trouble? Did they hit something? Suddenly a wave of disbelief forms over the characters’ eyes. “No,” Liotta exclaims, holding out the word in doubt.
They pull over in secluded woods. Lit by the harsh red glow of the taillights, the three Italian-suited men stand behind the car, looking at the trunk. De Niro motions for Liotta to pop the trunk. As Liotta moves closer to the car, Pesci reaches in his suit pocket, pulling out a devastatingly large butcher knife. The trunk flies open. It’s a nightmare.

A bloody mess of a man, beaten to a pulp, gasps for breath, pleading for his life. “He’s still alive!” Pesci yells as he moves over the man, stabbing him in the chest again and again and again (and again). De Niro moves in a shoots the man once, twice, six times. Liotta walks over to the trunk, suddenly his narration booms over the soundtrack proclaiming one of the best lines in motion picture history: “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” BOOM, he slams the trunk and Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” begins to play.

It happens so fast, that you’ll have to remind yourself to blink, let alone breathe. What the hell just happened? Who the hell was that? Who ARE these people?
When Scorsese was done writing the script with Nicholas Pileggi, he knew he needed something more. A kick to jolt the viewers and prepare them for the life he was about to present. He did a risky thing. He took a scene from the middle of the movie and put it in the beginning, knowing the audience wouldn’t find out what it was for another hour. But I’ll be damned if it didn’t pay off.

For the rest of the film, you won’t be able to forget that opening. Even after we find out who the guy is and how he got in the trunk, you’ll remember the nod De Niro gives Liotta, the way Pesci casually pulls the knife out, how Liotta slams the trunk shut.

Rarely does a movie set its tone so perfectly. Yes, GoodFellas is a violent film. But Scorsese never stylizes the violence; he never makes it “look cool”.
Instead he presents three accurate decades in the life of the mafia. This is the way it was done and this is how he wants to paint it, butcher knives and all. Unlike the Godfather films, Scorsese wasn’t interested in slowly developing the characters; ultimately, he wanted to get your attention right away.

Not only does he get it, he keeps our mouths dropped in shock, where it stays for most of the film.