Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fall Movie Preview

Ahh the glorious movie season is among us. Behind us are the Transformers, the GI Joes, the talking mice and the generic RomComs.

This fall looks rather promising, but how do you know what to see? Here I’ve complied the top 11 films I’m looking forward to most this fall. I’m sure one or more of these will turn out to be duds, but at least for now, they’ve piqued my interest.

Click the title to view the trailer.

12. Shutter Island
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Okay this is a cheat because this got pushed to a February release. Which means it’s either bad (doubt it) or the studio wants to make money in an off season.

11. Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze
Because Jonze’s first two films are two of the best movies I’ve seen in the last decade (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). (Oct. 16)

10. The Informant!
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Because Matt Damon playing a dipshit, with Soderbergh behind the camera, is bound to be uproarious. I don’t care if it’s based on a true story, I’m game for anything. (Sept. 18)

9. Avatar
Directed by James Cameron
Because I guess I have to see what all the hype’s about. (Dec. 11)

8. A Serious Man
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Because it stars no one you’ve ever heard of, and because I’ve never seen a bad Coen brothers films. (Oct. 2)

7. The Lovely Bones
Directed by Peter Jackson
This is either going to be great, or just… too much. I’m not a terrible fan of Jackson’s, but I’m hoping it highlights the best parts of the book (and conveniently leaves out the novel’s overly didactic messages). (Dec. 11)

6. Brothers
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Because Sheridan doesn’t make too many films, but when he does, I pay attention. (See My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, The Boxer, In America). Plus, the trailer looks crazy intense. (Dec. 4)

5. The Road
Directed by John Hillcoat
Like The Lovely Bones, this is either going to be amazing, or just awful. I’m hoping for the former, anchored by the always solid Viggo Mortensen. It’s a real gamble, though. (Oct. 16)

4. Invictus
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Because Eastwood’s last seven films have been brilliant. Because Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela (Oscar, anyone?). Because Clint Eastwood is directing Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Get it? (Dec. 11)

3. The Tree of LifeDirected by Terrence Malick
Because Malick has only made four films in the past four decades. Which means he’s made four masterpieces over the past four decades. I’m hoping this one, which stars Sean Penn and Brad Pitt (who took over after Heath Ledger died), is his fifth. (Dec. 25)

2. Nine
Directed by Rob Marshall
Because I hate musicals, but this one looks (and sounds) incredible. Also because it stars people with names like Day-Lewis, Cotillard, Cruz, Kidman, Dench, and Loren. And you know your going to pay $10+ to see Daniel Day-Lewis sing. (Nov. 25)

1. Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Directed by Lee Daniels
I’m cheating again. In fact I’ve already seen Precious, twice, at Sundance this past January. But I couldn’t be more excited for everyone else to finally see it. The content is off-putting (an obese, illiterate, twice-pregnant urban teenager tries to discover if any good can come from her shit life), but the movie is, quite simply, one of the most empowering films I’ve ever seen. You’ll be hearing more about Precious from me in November, but keep this one on the brain. It’s a knockout. (Nov. 6)

And 10 more for good measure, listed chronologically.

Bright Star earned strong buzz from Cannes, with Jane Campion (The Piano) at the helm. (Sept. 18)

Capitalism: A Love Story is Michael Moore’s new documentary. Not a Moore fan? Me either, but he’s a damn fine filmmaker. (Sept. 23)

The Boys are Back may put Clive Owen in the running for an Oscar. (Sept. 25)

More than a Game is a documentary about LeBron James’ successful high school basketball team. Think Hoop Dreams with a famous person. (Oct. 2)

New York, I Love You won’t be as good as Paris, je t’aime, but I’m interested. (Oct. 16)

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a slight comedy starring Geroge Clooney, directed by his producing partner, Grant Heslov (the wiseass, Middle Eastern CIA agent from True Lies). (Nov. 6)

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a spot-motion film by Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson? Cartoon? I’m there. (Nov. 13)

Broken Embraces is the new collaboration between Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz. (Nov. 20)

Sherlock Holmes should bring some fun to the fall seriousness. Or it could be another Guy Ritchie dud. (Dec. 25)

Up in the Air is from Juno director Jason Reitman starring a mildly serious George Clooney. (Dec. date TBA)

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Final Destination

The Final Destination (aka Final Destination Pt. 4, but who’s counting?) grossed more money its opening weekend than The Hurt Locker, The Cove, Food Inc. and Away We Go… combined.

But why?

The latter four are great films, the former isn’t. At all. You know this. So… why? Maybe it’s because when we go to movies like Final Destination or Saw or Friday the 13th or Halloween, we know exactly what we’re in for. Which is basically the result of a bunch of dudes sitting around an office brainstorming new ways to kill people.

The spin in this case is that the film is in 3-D. So not only do you get to see lame teenagers (whose dialogue is a step above that of a soft-core porno) being ripped and pulled and gorged and dragged and decapitated, but you actually get to see it as if it’s happening right in front of you! Wow, what a treat.

Horror films are back in a big way, and I’d like to find out why. Because it isn’t even the fresh ones, like Drag Me to Hell, that are making all the money, it’s the shitty remakes and sequels. Maybe it’s the economy; people would rather see kids get killed than think about their financial woes (but, how much is that trip to the theatre costing them?).

Oh gee, I haven’t even talked about the film, which is directed by the critically acclaimed auteur of Snakes on a Plane. But do you really need a thorough plot breakdown? No, you just need to know that shit blows up, people get killed, and that there will be a sequel. Maybe they’ll call it THE Final Destination. D

Taking Woodstock

I suppose it’s fitting to have Ang Lee direct a film about (arguably) the most culturally defining 3 days in modern American history.  As a foreigner, he’s proven his knowledge of the Americana lifestyle with his powerful, 70s-set The Ice Storm, and his masterful Brokeback Mountain.  And lest we forget Lee’s immaculate foreign films; the commanding Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the equally good, but little seen, Lust, Caution.
So, a film like Taking Woodstock seems right up Lee’s alley.  But somewhere along with the way this gimmicky true story turns into a real film bore.
Elliot Teichberg was feeling no love in the summer of ‘69.  With his family’s dump of a motel close to being shut down, and his personal profession of interior design on the frits, Elliot soon put all his action into getting a troubled concert up and running.  The concert in question, you see, had been shut down twice, but with names like Joplin, Hendrix and the Who, Elliot’s interest was piqued.
That’s essentially what Taking Woodstock is about. Preparing for this slight concert that, overnight, turns into a half-a-million-turnout phenomenon.  (Why Taking Woodstock?  Why not Making Woodstock?).  We stick with Elliot (Demetri Martin) and his Jewish immigrant parents (Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman), as they prepare and quickly adjust to the hysteria. 
The initial fault of the film is its lack of focus.  There are several subplots that never fully play out.  We get tidbits of Elliot’s homosexuality, his mother’s obsession with money, the town’s rebellion of the concert, a troubled Nam vet (as played in caricature by Emile Hirsch), a security-enabled transvestite (Liev Schreiber) and so on.  Problem is, I really know nothing about these people, why they are the way they are, or what they are going to do after the lights come up.  And if I don’t know, then I don’t care.
Forced acting doesn’t help, either.  The film anchors on Martin, but it’s too much weight for him, as is evident in his few dramatic scenes.  Fine actors Hirsch and Staunton are both laughable and unconvincing.  Even the film’s few spirited performances, by Schreiber, Eugene Levy (as the neighbor that rented his land for the concert) and Jonathan Groff (as the bare-chested, hippie mastermind), aren’t enough to save the movie.
The real Elliot, even though he lived a mile from where Woodstock took place, didn’t get to see any of the show.  And while that’s ironic from an historical standpoint, it doesn’t make for compelling cinema.  So if it’s music you’re after, rent Woodstock, 3 Days of Peace and Music, Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 breathtaking documentary, because you sure as hell won’t get any from Lee’s film.
I know it’s only September but truth be told, Taking Woodstock will be one of the biggest disappointments of 2009.  And although it may not be fair to judge a director based on his previous films, it’s all we as an audience have to go on.  Hopefully Lee’s next venture will be a return to form.  D+

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Cove

There aren’t too many movies out there that I would actually call “important”. Films that can provoke such a deep level of thought, that they can directly influence you to do something. I understand full well that this issue of film importance is purely subjective. But that’s the essence of criticism in general, right? So, in my subjective opinion, you need to look no further for an important film because right here before us, we have the most important film in years.

The Cove is one of the most eye-opening films I’ve ever seen. On one hand, it does what every great documentary should do: expose an issue (or story) and make you care. Additionally, the film does what every great movie should do: elicit emotion.

Every year in the little Japanese town of Taiji, 23,000 dolphins are slaughtered in a well-hidden cove. But for what? Food? Sport? I’m not sure, and neither was Rick O’Barry, the world’s foremost dolphin and whale activist. When O’Barry learned of the slaughter he tried several times to expose it (through American and foreign media) but to no avail. Soon, he told his friend Louie Psihoyos of the annual slaughter, and Psihoyos responded by simply saying that they “would fix this.”

Psihoyos, co-creator of the non-profit organization The Oceanic Preservation Society, swiftly went to work, recruiting a kind of Ocean’s 11 crew to document the cruelty that occurs in the tiny cove. And boy do they go all out. The very best HiDef cameras, military-grade thermal imaging, underwater sound equipment, hell, they even hide cameras in rocks. What the efforts of this team produces, is simply shocking. And infuriating. And just plain sad.

So, that’s your movie. Peter Travers of “The Rolling Stone” has given the film its most accurate praise, saying The Cove is “a mix between Flipper and The Bourne Identity”.

O’Barry, you see, feels partly responsible for the dolphin mania that sweeps the globe. He was the main technical advisor on the Flipper TV series, in charge of capturing each dolphin and training them for the show. His breaking point came when one of the dolphins swam into his arms one evening, took a breath, and then didn’t take another one.

Wait, what?

Dolphins are, in fact, the only other mammal (aside from humans) that can commit suicide. You see, each breath for a dolphin is a conscience effort, if they don’t choose to breathe, then they die. I never knew that.

O’Barry says that dolphins are not creatures to be held in captivity. They need to swim 40 or more miles a day; wondering the vast, endless abyss of the ocean. Being confined to such tight spaces causes an insurmountable level of stress for dolphins, thereby producing their desire to die. In addition, dolphin’s main sense is their hearing. They see, feel, hear and touch, all with sound. So those whistles the trainers use at SeaWorld actually harm the animals a great deal. I never knew that, either.

“The dolphin’s smile is nature’s greatest deception, because it looks like they’re always happy,” O’Barry poignantly says. But I’ll get off my soapbox.

O’Barry (pictured below) proves to be a great focus character. His glossed eyes always on the verge of tearful resentment. But credit director Psihoyos with not only discovering an appalling annual tradition, but for doing it illegally (every crew member has a warrant out for their arrest in Japan).
I first saw The Cove in January at Sundance, and at that first viewing, during the final 15 minutes of the film, I was simply shocked. I mouth was literally hanging open; completely horrified by what I saw. At the second viewing, I was just angry, my heart pounding out of my chest, my inability to do something about the situation overtaking any other emotion. The third time around, oh how the tears were flowin’.

But, honestly, just seeing The Cove isn’t good enough. No. The film is too small to get any kind of mainstream release. So, much how An Inconvenient Truth started a new wave of eco-conscience hipsters, I only hope that enough people see The Cove and mold their feelings into action.

This hasn’t been a typical review, and for that I apologize. I haven’t even gotten into the other dangers that the film exposes. The mercury poising. The government coverup. The sideways bureaucratic meetings. I know I’ve said it before, but believe me, if there is a movie to travel dozens of miles to an independent movie theatre for, then this is it. Don’t really care about animals? See it anyway, the movie is thrilling as hell. Animal lover and don’t want to see the ghastly images? You’re the one that needs to see it, trust me, it will only add fuel to your fire. Whichever person you are, it’s utterly impossible to not be moved by O’Barry’s commanding entrance into a large conference room; demanding attention without saying a word. I haven’t seen many films that can do that. A+

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

When detailing the difference between thrill and suspense, Hitchcock summed it up best.  Two guys are in an office, chatting about baseball for nearly five minutes, suddenly, the room explodes; that’s thrill.  Same scenario: Two guys are in an office, chatting about baseball, suddenly we cut to under the desk, where we see a bomb whose timer reads five minutes, the guys continue talking normally for a while, suddenly, the room explodes; that’s suspense. 

To my deepest recollection, I cannot think of a scene from any film that fuses Hitchcock’s notions of thrill and suspense together better than the first scene of Quentin Tarantino’s marvelous, determined new film Inglourious Basterds.

Set in Nazi-occupied France, Inglourious Basterds is a fresh, albeit fantasized, version of the last Great War.  Brad Pitt is Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of a Jewish group of badasses set out to get even with Nazi scum.  Raine’s message, if you can decipher it through Pitt’s hilariously befuddled backwords-ass-redneck-chargin, is simple: their gonna be killin’ NAZ-ehhs. 

But wait, as is often with a Tarantino film, the “main” character is hardly main at all, in fact, Pitt is absent for several scenes at a time.  But not in vain.  In his place are a slew of other well-defined Tarantino characters.  A timid movie theatre owner who sees a chance to change the world, a German actress set on deceiving her side, and a Nazi officer so miraculously evil and comically menacing, that the actor playing him, Christoph Waltz, is destined to be remembered come Oscar time.  Waltz (who won best actor for this role at the Cannes Film Festival in May) is a name you’re going to remember.  He’s what makes that first scene work so seamlessly.

I don’t want to indulge too much of the plot, but needless to say, all of these characters will run into each other at some point, much to their dismay but to our delight.  Having said that, Inglourious Basterds is like, and unlike, any film Tarantino has done before.  Sure you can expect his long-winded dialogue that seems to go nowhere, then out of the blue, with one line or even a single word, the entire conversation comes into focus.  Sure it’s violent, but not nearly as gruesome as his previous work.  And yes, you can expect a pulp-pleasant soundtrack to fit the visual images perfectly.

But how this film differs form the rest of QT’s resume is what makes it a marvel. Be warned: the scenes in Inglourious Basterds are quite long.  Characters verbally meander about milk, movies, maps, scalps, and so on.  But it’s evident that for this film, Tarantino has taken direct influence from Stanley Kubrick.  Kubrick, known for his painstakingly long scenes, always knew the precise moment to end a scene.  Right after a brilliant, unassuming line of dialogue, BOOM, Kubrick would cut to a new conversation, with new characters, in a completely different setting.  It’s what made Kubrick, Kubrick.  And here, I’m happy to say, that's what makes Tarantino, Tarantino.

Is Inglourious Basterds better than Pulp Fiction?  Of course not (but for my money, most films aren’t.)  In fact, I’m not sure if Inglourious Basterds is the film to convert Tarantino novices into Tarantino fanatics.  (Case in point: this film isn’t a history lesson, you’re in Tarantino’s world, so roll with it).  But, if you’re already a Tarantino fan, get ready to have your socks knocked off.  Either way, you’re in for the most thrilling, enjoyable Hollywood film of the season.  A

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

District 9

A couple years ago the über successful, Oscar-winning Peter Jackson sought to make a movie version of the Halo video game. He picked friend Niell Blomkamp, who had never made a feature film, to direct it. After scrapping together 200 million bucks, the project fell through. So Jackson gave Blomkamp 30 mil and told him to make whatever movie he wanted. Not bad.

Blomkamp decided to adapt a short film he’d made a few years earlier, about semi-friendly aliens that land in Blomkamp’s hometown of Johannesburg, into a feature length production. Setting his film far away from the Hollywood hills, Blomkamp stretched the 30 million into the hype-worthy District 9.

As we’re told, in extreme cinema vérité style, an alien spaceship parked itself directly over the South African city decades ago. Soon after it appeared, the government went in and sawed their way through the ship, only to find a million malnourished aliens in desperate need of help.

They put the aliens, soon dubbed Prawns for their shrimp-like appearance, into a quarantined section of the city, known as District 9. Present day, a commonplace government worker Wikus (newcomer Sharlto Copley), is sent into the alien slum to inform them that they will be evicted to a new settlement, District 10. On his day-long spree of serving eviction notices, something goes very very wrong for Wikus, thus giving us our film. To tell you what happens is to ruin the fun, so I urge you to go find out.

District 9 turns from a gimmicky, humorous sci-fi delight into some serious drama with badass effects to boot. It’s a wonder how Blomkamp stretched that 30 million to deliver such awesome effects. Shit blows up, limbs are forcefully removed, guns are a-blazin’, the whole shebang, yet I can’t figure out why this film looks so much better than Transformers 2, and for so much less money. I suppose quality of film and quantity of money aren’t linked after all. Who knew?

You haven’t heard of anyone who stars in the film, but don’t worry, Copley is stunning in a desperate role, making great use of his bombastic range of emotions.

Not a sci-fi fan? Me either. Which is great, because Blomkamp has proved that you actually can make an intelligent science fiction film (which most contemporary filmmakers have forgotten). One that is multifaceted with noble causes and entertaining drama. Still not convinced? You may be in the dark soon enough, as I’m sure there will be a District 10. B+

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Perfect Getaway

Writing a review for a film like The Perfect Getaway is never easy.  On one hand, the movie is complete crap.  I mean, let’s be honest, there isn’t a shred of genuine, cinematic fulfillment in the entire movie.  The plot is recycled and boring.  The acting is over the top and forced.  The effects are lame, the setting is overused and on and on.  In short, it’s pure escapist “entertainment”.  Now, on the other hand, the fun of The Perfect Getaway is that it knows it’s pure escapist “entertainment”.  Its director, David Twohy, knows its plot is tired, and that the acting isn’t all that great.  The filmmakers aren’t trying to win Oscars, their just trying to have fun.

Compare that mentality to the thought process behind producing a Transformers sequel.  Michael Bay, the director of those robot-laden films, honestly thinks that his movies are genius.  He thinks the actors could win Academy Awards.  It is this pretentiousness that bleeds into Bay’s films.  But something that is clearly missing from Twohy’s.

I’m getting off topic, but I believe it is a point that needs to be mentioned, at least if you’re going to see this film.  If you walk into The Perfect Getaway expecting greatness, then you’ll leave bummed, but if you walk in with the sole intention of escaping, then you’ll be just grand.

A recently married couple (Steve Zahn, Milla Jovovich) honeymooning in Hawaii find themselves in uncertain danger when they decide to go for a rugged, three-day hike.  They run into another couple (Timothy Olyphant, Kiele Sanchez), he an ex-Army Ranger badass, she a loopy Southern gal.  The two couples make the best of their adventure, knowing all well that another couple was recently murdered on a neighboring Hawaiian island.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve already seen too much.  And while most of you will guess what’s coming pretty early on, you’ll probably still find a way to enjoy yourself. 

I got a kick out of Zahn, who is starting to grow as an actor, ditching his loud-mouth, man-child characters.  He’s managed to transform his fabulous comedic timing into subtle intensity (for more on this see Zahn in the Oscar-worthy Rescue Dawn).  But the real star here is Olyphant.  Always a pleasure to watch, Olyphant is brilliant at mixing menace with charm (see Go, The Girl Next Door, Live Free or Die Hard, and Deadwood).  So it comes as no surprise that he is easily the best part about The Perfect Getaway.  Few actors could convince you of the bullshit that Olyphant’s character lived through.

I’ll recommend this film, but with reservations.  The serious, indie lover in me says “stay away”, but the take-whatever-comes-as-it-is cinephile in me says “roll with it”.  The Perfect Getaway ain't perfect, but it's decent enough if you’re looking to get… away.  B-

Thursday, August 6, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Here’s a romantic comedy: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy and girl celebrate good times via a cheesy montage, boy and girl fight, boy and girl breakup, boy and girl get back together, boy and girl live happily ever after.

With a few minor discrepancies, this is usually the way the genre plays out. So how do you make an affecting, engaging rom-com? First, show as many of the delicate, honest moments that fall in between the moments listed above. Second, show all of those moments out of order.

(500) Days of Summer is the best, most original romantic comedy since Annie Hall. Its plot is simple: boy meets girl, office romance ensues; but it’s execution is far from basic.

When Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a failed architect student now working as a greeting card writer, gets his first glimpse of his boss's new assistant, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), he’s immediately infatuated. It doesn’t take long for sparks to fly.

What follows is one of the most tender, realistic screen romances I’ve ever seen. Director Marc Webb, working off a fresh, Oscar-friendly script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, makes several bold decisions in telling this tale. Much like Annie Hall, (500) Days of Summer uses several different narrative devices to fuel its story. These include, non-linear, song and dance, catchy animation, fourth-wall dialogue (when the actor looks directly into the camera), and so on. Although, I have a slight feeling that none of this would work without Webb’s wise choice of actors.

Gordon-Levitt, the best actor of his generation, simply astounds here. If you’ve seen his string of brilliant indie films (Manic, Mysterious Skin, Brick, The Lookout) then you know you’ve got an actor whose talent is way beyond his years (that’s a good thing). But as Tom, Gordon-Levitt may deliver his best role yet. From his initial lust, through his glee, all the way to his angst and eventual bewilderment, you’ll believe Gordon-Levitt’s every facial twitch, his every controlled nuance.

Deschanel, who has delivered solid, charming performances in mediocre films like Elf and Yes Man, is outstanding as the flaky, unimpressionable Summer. Deschanel’s big, blue eyes are enough to melt any man. Try not to fall victim to her charm.

Together, these two present a kind of screen chemistry that other actors work their entire careers to achieve. The believability of Tom and Summer’s tumultuous affair is utterly seamless. A true delight.

(500) Days of Summer will most likely take the title of “this year’s Juno” (dethroning Away We Go). Neustadter and Weber deserve a Best Original Screenplay Oscar simply for the title card that begins the film. It sets a marvelous tone. Enjoy the ride, Summer is in season for months to come. A