Wednesday, December 30, 2009


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


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


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


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.