Friday, October 31, 2008

Changeling (***)

Directed by Clint Eastwood


The story of Christine Collins is the kind that is tailor-made for a filmmaker for Clint Eastwood. Powerful, long-winded, and profound, Changeling is not a huge stretch, thematically or stylistically, from the last couple of films Eastwood has made during his glorious emeritus years. His late-life boost as a director has produced Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, and several Oscars. Both of those films were grand in the size of their drama, and Changeling is much of the same model. It may not be as memorable as those other two films, but with a wonderful lead performance, Eastwood is able to create another masterful motion picture that punctures bare human emotion.

Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a skilled worker at the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Comp., working as supervisor of the telephone operators during the late 1920s. Her work ethic and dedication gets her many a compliment within her workspace. She is also a responsible single mother. Her son Walter is her main source of happiness, and other than work, her life is focused solely on his well-being. When she is unexpectedly called into work on the weekend, she is forced to leave him at home until she gets back, but when she finally returns that afternoon, Walter has disappeared.

Christine calls the police, but they refuse to handle any missing children cases unless they are missing for more than twenty-four hours, so she scours the town, finding nothing. When the police finally do contact her, they tell her that her son has been found after five months of investigation. Police Capt. J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) takes her to the train station to see her son, but who Christine meets is not her son. In fact, this boy is three inches shorter. Upset, Christine pleads with Capt. Jones to keep looking for her son, but he refuses, stating that a traumatic experience has probably effected the boy's physical features.

Christine is approached by an Episcopalian preacher named Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who is a progressive reformer, who feels it is his mission to bring out the corruption and ineptitude of the Los Angeles Police Department. He advises Christine to fight the police, and fight for her son, but his advice leads Christine straight into the claws of the police. She is lead under false pretenses into the police station, and commited to a psychopathic hospital, where she meets many other women who weren't in fact crazy, but just a pest to the police. After suffering the greatest injustice, Christine continues on, striving to find justice and hoping to find Walter through all of the corruption in the L.A.P.D.

Sure, this film outstays its welcome, and is perhaps thirty minutes too long. Sure, it is pretensiously aware of its own pretigious pedigree (a sequence which actually showcases an Academy Awards ceremony seems steemingly baity). All of that would probably be crippling to a film, if it wasn't be handled by the delicate hands of Clint Eastwood. Its hard to use Clint and the word "delicate" in the same sentence, but its that delicacy that is the reason he has succeeded so recently behind the camera. He has an eye for human emotion, and knows how to push his actors without allowing them to become preachy or melodramatic.

The L.A.P.D. has probably been the most skewered and criticized organization in film history, particularly in films from the 1990's on. The Christine Collins story is supposed to be based on a true story, but the actual famous event that the film is based upon cannot be concealed here, for fear of a spoiler. The reason I bring it up, is because I can't help but wonder how much more interesting the film could have been if the story was singularly focused on Christine Collins, and didn't take long meanderings focused on characters that are important, but not particularly gravitating.

The power of this movie does come solely from the performance of Angelina Jolie. Her performance in Hollywood commercial films has caused her to be somewhat underestimated. She is known for gaudy action films, where subtlety is left in the wind. Even her Oscar-winning performance for Girl, Interrupted was one of a large dramatic scope, where she is scene-stealing simply because she is the loudest force on the screen. In Changeling--much like her performance within last year's A Mighty Heart--she shows her talent for nuance and understatedness. Because it comes so unbelievably natural to her, it some times seems absent, but this film is certainly a soft performance of notice.

This film has nearly the same amount of endings as the final Lord of the Rings film, and that is the sole source of frustration when you watch this movie, but it is certainly crowd-pleasing. The twists do not unfold as smoothly to make them as shocking or surprising as they need to be, but Eastwood still allows them to feel profound. Much like his other films, Eastwood directed, produced, and wrote the musical score. He's a renaissance man of cinema, and with December's Gran Torino, he is becoming as prolific as Woody Allen. Changeling is certainly not the best of Eastwood's recent films, but it is satisfying either way.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (*1/2)

Written and Directed by Kevin Smith


Kevin Smith is a genius when it comes to writing smart, irreverent, and most of all hilarious dialogue. His films Dogma, Chasing Amy, and Clerks are brilliant exercises in the extremity of what "dirty words" are. Not only that, but he's also somebody who has challenged taboo themes, such as religion in Dogma and homosexual confusion in Chasing Amy. The weight of his material has never been said to be too heavy, but when you look at his latest film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, it is so light that it gets picked up by the wind and is blown away quickly after it starts.

The story follows Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), who are best friends and roommates. They've known each other since the first grade, and have never crossed the romance barrier with each other, because that would just make everything weird between them, wouldn't it? Miri has a job (but it is never seen or mentioned), but that along with Zack's measley salary at his coffee shop is not enough to keep the electricity on. After the embarassment of realizing their own mediocrity at their 10-year high school reunion, along with their dire financial straits, they decide that the thing to do is to shoot a porno.

Neither of them lose their jobs, but useless expenses have put them in this comprimising situation, so they decide to put a crew together for their super low-budget dirty movie. They recruit Zack's co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson) to be the producer, despite having no idea what the job requires. For actors, they get Lester (Smith regular Jason Mewes) to be the meaty male cast member, Stacey (Katie Morgan) to be the bubbly blonde, and the aptly-named Bubbles (Traci Lords) to be the mature, dominant woman character. Along with them, Zack and Miri themselves decide that they will hook up on screen as well.

They go to work, making the film with mics tied to hockey sticks and using the coffee shop as the shooting location. Production is going along swimmingly, until the dreaded Zack-Miri sex scene, where the two friends are brought face-to-face with their brewing sexual tension. The surprisingly tame sex scene is followed by a sloven third act that is both unfunny, as well as sappy. The film dwindles almost immediately from the beginning, and by the time we've reached the stretching end, it has completely bottomed-out on its sense of humor.

Kevin Smith is a filmmaker that has been dear to my heart, because I think he has a way to present deviant language and behavior in a very funny and appealing way. That being said, as a writer, he has always had one major weakness: the outside perception of his films--that are usually brazen with obscene and liberal images--are usually just coating for stories that can't withhold its own conservative sentimentality. Even in his best film, Chasing Amy, the cleverness spills over into melodrama, and nearly sabotages the film's entire structure. The same can be said for Zack and Miri, except that it is like that the entire time.

On top of that, Smith has never been a sharp director. His idea of visual comprehension is that of static shots and awkward angles. His focus is on dialogue, fair enough, but even Woody Allen knows how to make conservative camerawork look progressive. Smith has never shied away from his ineptitude behind the camera, but it's his paranoia that someone may harm his words that keeps him back there. What we're left with is a visual eye-sore which would be fine and dandy if the film's story and dialogue were enough to distract us, but instead it just helps to magnify all of the mistakes within its sparse 101 minutes.

The cast is a mish-mash of Kevin Smith regulars (Mewes and Jeff Anderson), former porn stars (Lords and Morgan), and a new crop of unfamiliar talent (Robertson, Rogen, Banks). One of the few bright spots within the movie is a cameo from Justin Long, who plays Brandon, someone who meets up with Zack at the reunion, and discloses his employment as a gay porn star. His confession helps influence Zack and Miri's decisions later in the film, but nothing else is as funny as his sparse screen time.

I will not say that there weren't parts where I did laugh, but they were few and far between. Like another unfunny comedy this year, Step Brothers, there is a lack of actual jokes. The movie depends on gross-out sight gags, where the level of humor reaches the lowest common denominator. I'd been tipped off that Zack and Miri was truly a warm romance, but I didn't expect the film to veer so close to overemotional scenes that are so far out compared to the rest of the movie's content. This film is not Kevin Smith's best day, and out of all his films, this is probably his least satisfying.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Open Letter To Larry Miller

Dear Larry Miller,

Not to be confused with the brilliant comedian, the Larry Miller who I wish to address is a noted philanthropist from Utah who is the owner the state's basketball team, the Utah Jazz, but most importantly (for the sake of this letter) owner of Megaplex Theaters which has a large string of movie theaters across the Salt Lake City area.

In 2005, you came under heat when you refused to show the film Brokeback Mountain in your theaters because you felt that it "crossed the line". This was a regrettable event, to be sure, but a reminder of just how blind many Americans are toward homosexuals. Now, in 2008, your theater chain is in the news again, because they refuse to show Kevin Smith's new film Zack and Miri Make a Porno because "it's very close to an NC-17 with its graphic nudity and graphic sex." That was a statement from the theater manager, Cal Gunderson, since I assume you, Mr. Miller, wished to ignore the limelight of being a complete ass.

Now, I'm almost certain that you have never taken the time to watch either film yourself--radicals of your nature never take the time to criticize something that you know anything about. I'm coming at you strictly from a cinematic point-of-view. Your same theater chain, Megaplex Theaters, that refuses to show Zack and Miri is probably making thousands of dollars in profits off of the recently released, and exceedingly violent Saw V. It's strange since the Saw films are essentially porno themselves--with hacked limbs and psychopaths. Let's flash back to 2005, when you refused to show Brokeback, but that same time, were totally fine with showing the revolting cesspool of deviant behavior that was Hostel. Exactly what message are we supposed to get from this, Mr. Miller? Homosexual relationships, stories satirizing pornography: bad. Someone hacking off their own leg with a saw, naked corpses and rape: totally cool and appropriate.

I hope I'm not t
he first, nor the last to say that your blatent hypocrisy and dogmatic behavior ruins cinema. Nobody like you deserves to own a theater chain. Provocative films are what makes the film industry beautiful, and if people like you continue to substitute them with "torture porn", then you are fundamentally adding to the systematic "dumbing down" of this nation. Not only that, but you are making a profit off of it. Shame on you, Mr. Miller. Turn your attention toward things that you are reportedly good at, like cutting checks for charities or running an annually underachieving basketball franchise. There is no room in the movies for bigots who refuse to accept the sexuality of others, and certainly no room for those who refuse to see the sense of humor behind a good-natured comedy. Open your eyes and your mind, and maybe you will see what a giant idiot you have been these last couple of years.

Yours Truly,

James C.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Rachel Getting Married (****)

Directed by Jonathan Demme


Jonathan Demme is an Oscar-winning filmmaker who has made such seminal films as Melvin and Howard and The Silence of the Lambs. The last few years of his career have been plagued by unneeded remakes (The Manchurian Candidate, The Truth About Charlie) and indifferent documentaries (Jimmy Carter Man From Plains). So, it suits his erratic nature that he would come out of left field and create one of the best, most beautiful films so far this year. A movie so tender and powerful that it brings out emotions from the deepest, purest parts of our souls.

The film centers on Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering drug addict who is allowed out of rehab for the weekend in order to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt). She arrives and is immediately overwhelmed by her caring, but overbearing father Paul (Bill Irwin), and getting perturbed by the constant judgement she feels from friends and family members who know so much about her troubled past. The two daughters get sparse visits from their estranged mother Abby (Debra Winger), who has remarried after her divorce from Paul and is nearly invisible.

The plot builds slowly on the concept of Kym's recovering neediness versus Rachel's wedding-infused self-involvement. Kym is the troubled one, she is the one who everybody's eye is on, and all Rachel wants on the weekend of her wedding is that people will give her a little attention as well. She is getting married to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), a gentle but towering man and former musician. He has numerous friends who are also musicians who play music seemingly non-stop throughout the entire film.

The main pawn who is shuffled around by the sister's struggles is Paul, whose need to make sure everybody feels comfortable is appeasing to most, but infuriating to those who know him best. The fact that he receives little to no support from Abby is not addressed much, and treated as a simple fact of life. The dysfunction doesn't necessasarily build to a stunning climax, because the point of this film is not the payoff, but the journey. Using mostly handheld camerawork and by extending scenes past the point that seems necessary, Demme infuses the audience into this bothered but loving family. By the time we actually reach the wedding, its such an emotional moment, because you feel like you know these people so well.

One of those extended scenes, in particular, is fascinating. Toward the beginning of the film, all of the film's characters pow-wow around the dinner table, some of them already introduced, but all of them at least seen in a glance. Every important character that we will know so well by the end of the film, has their chance to speak and congradulate Rachel and Sidney in their future ceremony. The fathers stand up and speak, then the mothers, the sisters, the friends, and the dedications are so pure and sincere, that it creates the aura which drives the entire story. Kym, of coarse, uses the oppurtunity to her advantage, and indulges in the fourth step of her "12-Step Program", by making "amends".

I feel like I've gone through this film's story and completely glossed over Kym, the rock on which this great film is built on. Truth is, Kym is the best and most compelling character of all, but the most endearing plot point within the story is this wedding. In a way, the wedding itself can be called the main character, as it drives the motivations of essentially all of the people on the screen. Demme's success in making a film that is so organic as well as tight, comes from the near-perfect screenplay by Jenny Lumet (yeah, Sidney's daughter), who presents characters and makes them unravel so successfully, its a surprise that this is her first script.

But to be sure, this is Demme's show. He takes this ball of putty handed to him by Lumet, and he, along with his cast, molds it into a work of art that exposes the demons of so many unsettled families and struggling recovering addicts. He does not shy away from the pain and guilt felt by his characters, and instead holds on it. He forces them to bare their souls, and come to grips with issues that have been ignored for years. A distressing showcase, sure, but it needs to be in order for Demme to tell the story he wants to tell, the way he wants to tell it.

Much has been said about Anne Hathaway's de-glam transformation into Kym, many predicting an Oscar nomination. There is little resemblance of the starlet from this year's Get Smart, as she chops of her long locks, and becomes as unnattractive as someone as beautiful as her can be. It's such a difficult performance because it works on two seperate levels. There is the Kym that is the center of attention, who is loud, feisty, accusing all of her family members of paranoia, and taking advantage of all of the kindness people present to her. Then there is the Kym that is ignored, the one who watches the current attention-getter. This Kym is quiet, pouty, crippled by insecurity and fear of falling off the wagon. To pull off this balance and still be the one who carries the majority of the story is a load most young actresses with less talent probably could not handle.

To be sure, though, the film's performances work in an ensemble. Rosemarie Dewitt, known mostly for her work on television's Mad Men is terrific as Rachel, wanting to be supportive of her problem-sibling, but wanting the spotlight as well. Bill Irwin, an accomplished theater actor, is fantastic as the worry-wort father Paul, always looking over his shoulder to make sure Kym is okay, and constantly refereeing the infighting and arguments between the people he loves. Debra Winger returns from a four-year, big-screen hiatus with a powerhouse of a performance. In only a handful of scenes, she plays a character that is a subdued powder-keg, with a breakdown scene so electric and tragic, that it brings down the house.

The perfect adjective to describe this film is beautiful. It is certainly the best film Jonathan Demme has done since his masterpiece in Silence of the Lambs. This is an entirely different film, in terms of themes and plot, but both contain Demme's ability to deconstruct the psychology of incredibly nuanced and disturbing characters. Rachel Getting Married is seminal film in a lot of ways, for Anne Hathaway's film career, and hopefully a Jonathan Demme resurgence. It's a bone-bare film, much like last year's Away From Her. It has such faith in its characters to survive its meandering story structure, and pulls it off. No other film so far in 2008 is as striking and pragmatic.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Orlando Slumming and Films being pushed

So yeah, both Rachel Getting Married and Happy-Go-Lucky are in the process of an ultra-conservative release schedule, obviously created to make people like me (in Orlando) suffer. I have confidence that I will be able to see these films eventually, but why must I have to wait so long? All Oscar marketing babble, I'm sure. I notice films like Sex Drive and Max Payne have no problem being slotted in thousands of theaters across the country. [scratches head]

In other news, The Road seems destined for a 2009 release, unfortunately. There's no official word from The Weinstein Company about it just yet, but seeing as its aimed at a Nov. 14 release and there has been no promotion whatsoever, it doesn't look good. Early test screenings and leaked studio information spell doom for the John Hilcoat picture. Another film, though, The Soloist is officially being lifted from Oscar contention, being pushed from its original Nov. 21 release to Mar. 13 of '09. Kind of shocking considering that the film had already started promoting itself on TV spots, but hey, Fall movies can do that occasionally.

One more thing, wrote this great article about how the Oscars are not the true measure of greatness in cinema, but a celebration of the film industry itself. The list of Oscar-snubbed films, actors, and directors may flat-out shock a few of you.

W. (**)

Directed by Oliver Stone


The administration of George W. Bush has been one of the most shameful in American history. It has everything: deceit, violence, religious fanaticism, essentially anything except for infidelity (And the Republicans call Democrats heathens just because they get BJs in the oval office, and sleep with Marilyn Monroe). It's plain to see why Bush has gone into complete isolation over the last few months of his infamous presidency, only popping his head out to convince Americans to approve a bailout plan that's only needed because of his failed economic policies. [sighs] I'm off on a tangent, I'll try and stick to the movie.

So, who else, Oliver Stone decides to put together a film about the life and times of Mr. President while he's still in office. It seems like just yesterday I first heard about this film being made, and in less than a year, it's already being tossed into theaters. Stone put this film together with an almost Spielbergian speed. Rarely does anything in cinema turn out well when it's rushed, and W. is no exception. The main flaw in this film, though, is not necessarily its sloppiness, but its indifference. Any film about Bush, especially one made by the liberal conscious of Stone, should have ten times the bite that this film has. Instead, we are left with two hours reliving the eight years of Hell this country has gone through with Bush at the helm.

The film moves in a non-chronilogical form, splicing his presidency with what led to it. We watch George (Josh Brolin) as he take part in a rather debaucherous hazing routine while at Yale, being forced to sit in a tub of ice, while force-fed whiskey through a funnel. His adolesense and young adulthood are plagued by constant boozing and womanizing, which does little to humor his father, then Congressman George Bush (James Cromwell). George is frequently living in the shadow of his more level-headed younger brother Jeb (Jason Ritter), and seems primed to become the son his parents would like to forget.

George Jr.'s life begins to change when he meets Laura (Elizabeth Banks), his future wife. With her, he begins a sincere relationship, and by the age of 40, George finds God and rids himself of alcohol. In an attempt to gain the respect of his father, he helps him in his 1988 presidential campaign, which leads to victory. With the confidence he finds in this (and the bitterness of his father's defeat to Clinton in 1992), he campaigns for the governship of Texas, his homestate. Lo and behold, George Jr. wins, and also works his way to becoming the owner of Texas Rangers Major League baseball team (the film seems to think that the team may be the biggest accomplisment in his life--though he traded Sammy Sosa).

As for the actual presidency of George W. Bush, Stone deals with it in an incredibly strange way. The notorious 2000 Election and the circus it became is only mentioned in half-quip, yet small details like Bush's reputation as a compulsive eater is exploited in great detail. The single most important event in his administration: September 11th, is only passed around in conversation well after the fact. Yet, we are previewed to graphic scene which dramatizes the well-publicized event of how Bush nearly choked to death on a pretzel. It's puzzling the way in which Stone distributes screen time to certain events.

I don't think I ever thought there would be a day where I would be calling an Oliver Stone film soft, but here it is. He seems to make the case that Bush is no more than an incompetent who was pushed on by outside sources (smarter, more conniving friends; his family; God) toward the presidency. By the last third of the movie, the film just regurgitates aspects of Michael Moore's incendiary documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore's film, though, is a masterpiece because it doesn't buy into Bush's "aw, shucks", country bumpkin persona, and holds him accountable for the decisions that he made. All presidents have advisers, but in the end, their administration is decided by what they do.

The film's one bright star is its performances, which are a hoot. The film is stocked with the usual suspects such as Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton), and Bush's main 'genius boy' adviser Karl Rove (Toby Jones). All the supporters are almost eerie in their precision, and the ones that are the most fun are Richard Dreyfuss' scathing reproduction of Vice Pres. Dick Cheney, who's obsession with becoming an American empire wholly represents the problems with imperialism. Jeffrey Wright is also good as the soft-spoken, but intense Colin Powell, who is merely brushed off when he speaks against the War in Iraq at a meeting of the heads. Also, Ellen Burstyn's performance as the explosive Barbara Bush is funny, sweet, and appropriately maternal.

Which brings us to Josh Brolin, who seems to be left on an island to play the titular character. His performance could have easily just have taken cues from so many SNL impersonations. Instead, Brolin manages to find the heart of Bush. Constantly stuffing food down his throat and minutes away from his temper flying off the handle, Brolin is a revelation. They say impression is the biggest form of flattery, and Brolin pulls off the impossible of making George W. Bush a funny, sympathetic character, who is a victim of the influences around him. Brolin, hot off the success of last year's No Country For Old Men and the anticipation of November's Milk is quickly reaching the pinnacle of a steady acting career.

In the end, the film that Stone created is little more than a fantasy. It's not that I'd have been more pleased with a 'meaner' picture, but something with a little more cojones. To pass Bush off as just a dim-witted good ol' boy is to underestimate the harm he has down to the prestine stature of America. He made the mistake of bringing personal problems into the White House, and let it influence him into a preemptive war that's still being fought today. I know the significance behind this film being released so soon: to put people's perspective in check about the last eight years, before they cast their ballot on November 4th. What this movie achieves, however, is creating a restlessness in an audience who thinks November 4th can't come fast enough.

Monday, October 13, 2008

100th POST!

This is my 100th post on this blog. This calls for some indulgence....

Greatest Movie Character Entrance ever? I'd agree with that statement...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

October Oscar Predictions

It is now October, and we are finally past the point of buzz. Wishful thinking films (Rachel Getting Married, Happy-Go-Lucky) are popping up in theaters, and the festival circuit has presented us with two unforeseen contenders (Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler). Now is when Oscar season starts, and when it becomes interesting.

Best Picture

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Rachel Getting Married
Revolutionary Road
The WrestlerBest Director

Christopher Nolan, THE DARK KNIGHT
Gus Van Sant, MILK
Best Actor

Richard Jenkins, THE VISITOR
Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON
Sean Penn, MILK
*Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER

Best Actress

Sally Hawkins, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
Angelina Jolie, CHANGELING
*Kristen Scott-Thomas, I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
Best Supporting Actor

*Josh Brolin, MILK
James Franco, MILK
Michael Sheen, FROST/NIXON

Best Supporting Actress

*Viola Davis, DOUBT
Marisa Tomei, THE WRESTLER

Best Original Screenplay

*Dustin Lance Black, MILK
Robert D. Siegel, THE WRESTLER
Andrew Stanton, WALL-E

Best Adapted Screenplay

Peter Morgan, FROST/NIXON
John Patrick Shanley, DOUBTBest Cinematography

Javier Aguirresarobe, THE ROAD
Wally Pfister, THE DARK KNIGHT

Harris Savides, MILK

Best Art Direction

Nathan Crowley, THE DARK KNIGHT

Catherine Martin, AUSTRALIA
Best Film Editing

*Steven Rosemblum, DEFIANCE

Pietro Scalia, BODY OF LIES
Dylan Tichenor, DOUBT

Best Costume Design

Catherine Martin, AUSTRALIA
*Michael O'Connor, THE DUCHESS

Ann Roth, DOUBT

Best Original Score

David Hirschfelder, AUSTRALIA

James Newton Howard, DEFIANCE
*Thomas Newman, WALL-E
Rachel Portman, THE DUCHESS

Best Original Song

"Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" from HAMLET 2
"All Dressed In Love" from SEX AND THE CITY
"Down To Earth" from WALL-E
*"The Wrestler" from THE WRESTLER
Best Sound Editing

*The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Best Sound Mixing

*The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Quantum of Solace

Best Make-Up

Peter Robb-King, THE DARK KNIGHT

Best Visual Effects

*Alexander Chaliovsky, IRON MAN
Nathan Madsuda, WALL-E

Best Foreign Language Film

The Class, dir. Laurent Cantet (France)
No One's Son, dir. Arsen Anton (Croatia)
Perro Como Perro, dir. Carlos Moreno (Colombia)
Three Monkeys, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)
*Waltz With Bashir, dir. Ari Folman (Israel)

Best Documantary Film-Feature

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, dir. Alex Gibney
*I.O.U.S.A., dir. Patrick Creadon
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, dir. Mirina Zenovich
Standard Operating Procedure, dir. Errol Morris

Best Animated Feature

Kung Fu Panda
The Tale of Desperaux

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Word About...

Written and Directed by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass

The Duplass Brothers are popular in the independent film community for their numerous hysterical short films, and their first feature film, The Puffy Chair, which was a charming, hilarious, and sincere feature debut. For their second feature, Baghead, they stay within their niche: simple, yearning characters who deal with regular everyday problems, but for them they just happen to be hilarious. Baghead takes a bit of a spin on it, though, and tumbles for moments into the horror movie genre, but what makes this film special is the characterization and smart dialogue.

The film is about four struggling actors who decide that they should spend a week in the woods and write their own screenplay. There's Matt (Ross Partridge), the good-looking leader of the group. Catherine (Elise Muller), who is Matt's ex, but still has more than a few feelings for him. Matt's best friend, Chad (Steve Zissis), who is the chubby, loveable guy. And then there's Michelle (Greta Gerwig), the gullible, youthful girl who catches Chad's eye, but wants to go to bed with Matt.

They go out to the cabin, but their screenwriting process is usually interrupted by congradulatory booze runs. The idea comes to them when Michelle dreams that she was attacked by a man with a bag in her head. Matt takes the idea, and decides to make it the plot of the film: a group of people in the woods being attacked by a man with a bag over his head. When an actual baghead-ed man starts appearing around the house, though, these group of 20-somethings have to figure how to escape the wilderness, and how to survive each other's volatile personalities.

The best parts about Baghead are not the ones that deal with suspense, though its dealt with pretty competently. The most endearing moments throughout the film are the interactions between the interesting characters. They are altogether funny, disturbed, insecure, and compelling, and much like The Puffy Chair, the Duplass Brothers unveil them so precisely, and so perceptively, it makes the film as delightful as possible. The film is shot on a hand-held camera mostly, and looks to have been made on a bargain-basement budget, which lends to the atmosperic tone, but this film is not cheap, it pays through its own authenticity.

This film was released sparingly at theaters throughout the beginning of September, but is no longer playing. It should be released on DVD soon.


Friday, October 10, 2008

GREAT FILMS: Network (1976)

Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Paddy Chayefsky

Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky swear that their masterful film, Network, is not meant to be a satire, but to be an honest account of how things were happening at the time. I cannot vouch for 1976, but for 2008, its safe to say that this film predicted more about the future than Sybil The Soothsayer. Scathing, hilarious, and most of all, honest, Network is not only the best film of Sidney Lumet's catalog, but one of the greatest ever. With a target on network television, the film is able to skewer social consciousness like no film was able to do beforehand, and stands as a beacon of filmmaking in the 1970's.

The story revolves around the fictional television network, UBS, where the news show is getting horrible ratings. They decide to fire their news anchor of eighteen years, Howard Beale (Peter Finch), in a coup to change things around. When announcing his "resignation" on the air, Beale loses his cool, and goes on an oscenity-laden rant that trashes society and the network for their shallow views. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), head of programming at UBS, is astonsihed at how Beale's outburst brings in viewers. She convinces the head of the station Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) that putting Beale on the air would bring in enough ratings to pull their lowly network out of the gutter.

Beale, who has now become completely unstable, is placed on the air. His asannine declarations are mistaken for profound criticism on social hypocrisy, and his madness is exploited to its peak as more and more people tune in to watch. Behind it all is Max Schumacher (William Holden), the head of the news division, and a personal friend of Howard Beale. When he refuses to go along with the charade, the show is taken away from him and given to Diana, who turns the Network News Hour into The Howard Beale Show, with numerous topics that have little to do with news.

A strong sub-plot throughout the film is the relationship between Diana and Max. As Max walks into the autumn of his years, he becomes enamored by Diana's youthful persistance. As a television wunderkind, Diana has had a long school girl crush on Max, and they delve into a sexual relationship which seems to have nothing to do with love, but all to do with infatuation. Diana cannot see anything without thinking of television. Even sex between the two is done to the soundtrack of Diana discussing the network's fall schedule and a new lesbian soap opera.

With the success of Beale's show, Diana has plans for other shows. One involving a terrorist organization that films itself commiting bank robberies, and has kidnapped an heiress and brainwashed her (a nod to the Patty Hearst scandal of the time). She wants to call it the "Moa Tse-tung Hour", and the group is led by a man who calls himself The Great Ahmed Kahn. The middle man between them is a feisty African-American woman named Eileen Hobbs who is a stool pigeon for the Communist Party, and can't stand for anyone to cut in on her "distribution charges".

For anybody who's never seen the film, it must seem like I'm throwing a whole lot of story at you, but Chayefsky balances out all of these threads brilliantly. There is definitely a lot going on, but the orchestration of madness showcases how this Oscar-winning screenplay is one of the very best ever written. This film has never been called a "director's picture", but credit must be given to Lumet. This was the thick of his career, he had just come out with Dog Day Afternoon the year prior to this, and for this film he continued his trend of masterful success with actors, and a natural lighting scheme (cinematographer: Owen Roizmen). In a film where he did the least amount of work, he had the most success.

Films like this just are not made anymore. There is no longer demand for drama of this magnitude. An example of this is Lumet's 2007 film Before The Devil Knows You're Dead which seems maudlin and melodramatic by today's standards. But Network indulges in so many shouting matches and profound speeches that it practically relishes in its own preposterousness. It's considered a satire (no matter what Chayefsky says), but even under those circumstances the violent changes in mood and character chemistry is so whisping, it's enough to cause whiplash. Take the scene with CCA chairman Arthur Jensen (played remarkably by Ned Beatty). Jensen's outlandish behavior and operatic voice tone is hardly that of a composed CEO, but they make it fit perfectly within the film's structure.

And let's not forget the performances. The film is tied with A Streetcar Named Desire for the most acting Oscars won in a single year. One of those was for Faye Dunaway, whose Diana is one of those signature Dunaway performances. Strong, composed, but just enough insecurity and instability creeping below the surface. William Holden was nominated for his performance, which goes hand-in-hand with The Wild Bunch as his great late-career performances. Beatty was nominated for his glorified cameo (though it was well-deserved). Beattrice Straight, playing Max's wife, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her seven minutes of screen time--like Beatty, she chews the hell out of her one meaty scene where Max tells her he's leaving her for Diana.

The performance that no one will ever forget, though, is the one by Peter Finch. His Howard Beale is a cataclysm of madness and sadness. He is disregarded and thrown out the door, and then forced once again into the spotlight. Finch's portrayal of Beale's mental collapse is both stunning and hilarious. He is the life of the movie, and holds the film's signiture line: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!". That line has transcended movie mythology and has crossed over into the social consciousness, and the reason is the powerful way Finch delivers it. Finch died a week before the Oscar ceremony, but by then his award was already well-won.

I don't want to finish this piece without saying how important Robert Duvall is to the film. In a movie wall-to-wall with eccentric characters, Duvall carries the burden of being the one that is the most unlikable, and he plays it perfectly. The movie is an exciting 121 minutes, where the speeches are more thrilling than any car chase action sequence you could see in any other film. With a cast, director, and screenwriter with loads of pedigree (and seven Oscars between them), it's a textbook for intelligent and entertaining filmmaking.

Flash of Genius (***)

Directed by Marc Abraham


I don't really know how much significance the intermittent windshield wiper has had on our lives, but both the film Flash of Genius, and the film's subject Dr. Robert Kearns, feel that it has had tremendous impact. This particular windshield wiper has a pause in it that allows them to work more like eyelids, wiping the window according to the severity of the rain. So yeah, in the end, I think we can conclude that Kearns' invention isn't as profound as this movie suggest, but that's not the power of the story. What's fascinating about Flash of Genius is the David and Goliath tale, as one man decides he will not allow his work be taken from him.

Kearns (Greg Kinnear) is first a respected engineering professor, who lives happily with his wife Phyllis (Lauren Graham), and their six kids. Driving home from church, he begins to get annoyed by the constant dragging of the wiper on his windshield, and wonders why a window-wiper can't work more eyelids: wiping away only when excessively needed. It becomes an obsession of his, and with the help of his loyal children, he builds the first patent in his basement, using scraps.

His friend Gil Privick (Dermot Mulroney) is an automotives manufacturer, and tells Bob that he can introduce the patent to those who work at Ford. Ford, among other car companies, has been trying diligently, yet unsuccessfully, to create their own, so Bob's invention is something of great value. Bob enters the world of automotives, he shakes hands with important men, but his hubris grows strong when he demands that he manufactures all of the wipers himself. This cannot be done, Ford says, and instead of negotiating, they decide to walk out on the deal--with Bob's patent. In little time, new Ford cars are shown with intermittent wipers, and Bob gets no recognition for his invention.

What transpires after this is a fourteen-year battle for Kearns to prove his part in inventing the wiper. In all that time, his obsessive concentration on bringing the truth to light alienates his wife, kids, and Privick. Among other things, he suffers a colossal nervous breakdown, which sidelines his battle for close to a year. He hires a lawyer (Alan Alda), but is frustrated when the only thing he can get him is a settlement where they don't admit that they stole his patent. Kearns stubborness reaches its peak, when Ford offers him $30 million to settle, but he still chooses to fight them, so he can be acknowledged as the inventor.

All of this seems frustrating, and it is. In a way, that's what makes this film so intriguing. It does not show Kearns as a mesianic victim, but a pigheaded man who doesn't know when or how to pick his battles. After fourteen years, he loses his wife, his home, but still is headstrong enough to keep trucking along. I don't think I'd have the guspah to turn down $30 million flat for a windshield wiper, but there is something imbalanced in Kearns to make him do so. The film makes a point that, through it all, his kids for the most part kept on the side of their father in his long charge, and they are essentially the only ones.

The movie becomes very generic in parts, but it never insults the audience. In the tough times that we live in, a film like this becomes magnified. At its basest, the film is about the little guy being royally screwed by the major corporation, and I think most people can identify with that these days. It smacks of Capra-esque sentamentality, and we never really doubt what the end result will be (a film like this simply CAN NOT allow the little guy to lose in the end). What's captivating is the journey, the sacrifice, and the hardship Kearns takes in the name of what is right and wrong.

The source of the film's power comes from the wonderful performance from Greg Kinnear. Kinnear, the perfect Hollywood "everyman" fits into this role with ease, and showcases just enough emotion to make him sympathetic, but just enough instability for us to question his tactics. There are pieces of the classic James Stewart performances in this one, because it is so sincere. Notice Kinnear's face when he finally hears the jury read the verdict he'd been waiting fourteen years to hear, and the simplicity in which he displays such a flurry of emotion while barely flinching.

Films like this depend so much on its lead performance, and Kinnear is geared up for the job. Personally, I was rooting for Kearns all the way through, but that is how the film is supposed to make you feel. It would be nice if we could still consider films like this fables, products borne from the American mind which loves to see David slay Goliath. Truth is, all across the country there are many smart, creative people whose ideas are assassinated and then stolen by companies like Ford. Like Alda's character states in the film, justice in this nation is dished out "with a checkbook". It's a real shame.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Blindness (****)

Directed by Fernando Meirelles


Fernando Meirelles' new film Blindness was chosen to open up this year's Cannes Film Festival, which is a great honor in the film world. It was universally panned by all the critics there, and passed off as mishandled muddle. In test screenings, many woman walked out in protest of the harshness of the rape scenes (to be explained), so Meirelles compromised, and did some more work. He cut scenes, voice-overs, and made the film a bit more viable to the audience, but it is still being cut down by critics and movie-goers alike--even being ravaged by the National Federation of the Blind (how's that for irony? Protesting a movie you can't see). So why is it, that the film that I saw, was one of the very best I've seen so far this year?

Perhaps because I've read the source material. It is based on the Nobel Prize winning novel, of the same name, by Portugeuse author Jose Saramago. I'll admit that this makes me bias toward this piece of work, and it certainly makes the film easier to understand, but I'm still in shock by the film community's collective disdain of such a powerful, provocative film. Sure, Meirelles meanders in his experimental cinematography, but its all there to add to the disorientment this film requires.

The story begins when a Japanese man (Yusuke Iseya) goes blind while driving his car. Another man (Don McKellar) helps to drive him home, and uses the oppurtunity to steal his car afterward. The blind man's wife (Yoshino Kimura) comes home and takes him to a doctor (Mark Ruffalo), who sees nothing wrong with the man's eyes. The blind man sees a piercing whiteness, and the doctor is baffled by these symptoms, which he has never heard of before. The doctor goes home to his wife (Julianne Moore), and when he wakes up that morning, he has gone blind.

Cases of blindness start popping up all over, and the government's instant reaction is to round up the blind, and throw them into quarantine inside an abandoned mental hospital. The doctor's wife is able to join her husband, and they are joined by the first blind man and his wife, the car thief, as well as a woman with dark glasses (Alice Braga), a young boy (Mitchell Nye), and an older man with an eyepatch (Danny Glover). The population doubles and triples by the day, and while some try to create a diplomatic order within the different wards, one man finds a gun, and labels himself 'King of Ward 3' (Gael Garcia Bernal).

The King of Ward 3, along with his group of faceless minions take charge of all the food, and demand that the other wards pay for their rations. How do they pay? With their valuables and their women. What transpires is a horrific sequence of events that no doubt challenges the audience, but what people forget is the film's metaphorical message. Sure, metaphor is something for literature, and is not meant to be used often in the visual art form of cinema, but this film is so powerful in its depiction of human strength, that it is something that must be recognized.

Meirelles does not seem to be the kind of filmmaker who puts much stock into what people think about his films. With the masterpiece City of God and the compelling drama The Constant Gardener, he has already showcased his audacity and bravery with the camera. People say that he has backstepped his way into pretension with Blindness, and there are some aspects of the picture (heavy-handed images, long focuses on screens of pure whiteness) where its hard to argue against it, but Meirelles sticks to his guns in making a faithful adaptation of Saramago's brilliant book.

I've already shown how much I admire the work of Julianne Moore (if you don't know what I mean, you can read about it in this film review), but its hard not to commend her again in the work she does with this character. More than any other, even Meirelles to a degree, the film is solely in her hands. It is her intensity and sincerity that makes this film plausible. As the only one who can still see, the Doctor's Wife is a character that should be dealt with a great deal of subtlety, and Moore does not shy away from the oppurtunity. Her commitment and fearlessness allow the movie to stand tall above its overstated themes, and become a story of the human spirit.

This is not a film for the easily-disturbed, but after all the hollaring I'd heard about this film's authentic montrousness, I was surprised to find how much of the movie was told with descretion. Literature and cinema are two different mediums entirely, so I won't be upset if those who hated the movie haven't read the book, but it does help decipher what this film wishes to accomplish. Saramago's novel is a masterpiece, a harrowing piece of work meant to examine the way humanity always finds a way to overcome the most hellish of circumstances, and I would recommend anybody read it. As for the film, its power is not as awesome as Saramago's mystical prose, but it is not as far off as those would suggest.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (**)

Directed by Peter Sollett


Within Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, we see a prime of example of a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too. The film urges the audience to believe that these characters are edgy and hip, but borrows more Hollywood high school stereotypes than an Amy Heckerling film. The film is streamed with music, supposedly coming from the iPod of some self-righteous art student clamoring for the days when pop music meant Jackson Browne instead of Justin Timberlake.

The film opens with Nick (Michael Cera) as he lies in bed, still hopelessly heartbroken by his beautiful, but flighty ex-girlfriend Tris (Alex Dziena)--even to the point where he has taken a mental health day from school. His best friends Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Rafi Gavron) are the other two-thirds of their band The Jerk-Offs, and Nick is the only member of the band who isn't homosexual. They want Nick to come out of his month-long heartbreak, so he can join them in seeing an exclusive concert by their favorite band, Where's Fluffy?.

Tris goes to Sacred Heart High School, where she is friends with Norah (Kat Dennings). Well, if you consider friends people who are in a constant tense confrontation with one another, then yeah, they're great friends. The main reason they even talk to each other much is because Norah's best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) insists that Tris is "not that bad"--that's the only explanation. Just so happens, Norah's favorite band is Where's Fluffy? as well, and when she's clued in to the secret show, she convinces Caroline to join her to see them.

While they're out, within minutes, Caroline is hammered drunk, and Norah is left in a compromising situation. In a rouse not to be embarrassed in front of a chastising Tris, Norah randomly grabs Nick and begs him to pretend to be her boyfriend for only a few moments. For some reason unexplained, Thom and Dev decide that Nora is "the one" for Nick, at least to get him over Tris. So we are set up to a night of teenage debauchery, as Nick and Norah stroll the New York City streets, in part looking for Where's Fluffy? and in another, searching for Caroline who has drunkenly wandered off, unseen.

Let's forget how often this film promotes irresponsible teenage behavior, and the fact that there is never an adult around to police their abundant consumption of alcohol and erratic driving. It's not far outside the realm of belief that a group of teenagers could have a night like this, especially within a Hollywood movie. What I can't forgive is promoting this illicit behavior and trying to force into a cuddly, PG-13 storyline, where every character is a stock character and there are no consequences for your actions.

The film does have some redeeming characteristics. Dziena is saucy as the narcissistic minx who plays peanuckle with Nick's heart, and Jay Baruchel makes an entertaining cameo as Norah's ex. The film is obviously geared toward the same demographic as those who loved Juno. The movie makes it obvious, from it's box, hand-drawn opening credits, to the casting of its main star. The only problem is that this film doesn't have nearly the wit or the bite of Juno. This film claims to speak for the voices of the indie-rock crowd, but ignores the rage required to do so. All this movie wants is for everybody to hug.

I'd say I'm a Michael Cera fan. There are things Cera is able to do with a glance, that many veteran actors can't do with paragraphs of dialogue, but he has been shoeboxxed into the same characters. He is never seen on a movie screen without a sweet face or a hooded sweatshirt, and with this film I fear he has already become typecast so early in his young career. Kat Dennings was pretty good in a bit part I saw her in within The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and she shows in this movie that she is clever enough to wrap her mouth around good dialogue. Problem is, good dialogue is hard to find in this film, and she is left to act more with her eyes and lips, not her strong point.

The film is sparse in its 90 minutes. Its last third is probably its most entertaining, mostly because it abandons all of the conventions, and focuses mainly on the relationship between Nick and Norah. I don't know if they are the kind of soul mates the film tries to make them out to be (I mean, how can you tell that kind of thing when you only know someone for ten hours?), but Dennings and Cera do have some chemistry which could be productive in a more creative story. The film is directed by Peter Sollett of Raising Victor Vargas fame, but he does a poor job handling this material, since it falls far shy of Vargas's authenticity.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Religulous (***1/2)

Directed by Larry Charles


Bill Maher is not someone who is confused about his ideals. He has spent a career in stand-up comedy, and most recently, hosting his HBO show 'Real Time with Bill Maher', blasting everything he could think of from politicians to sports. But he has notably come under fire for his attacks against religion. Particularly, he was vilified for labeling the Catholic Church as nothing more than a cult led by a former Nazi and child molester. People wanted him fired, and were even willing to cancel their HBO subscriptions to prove their point. Maher's response? An 100-minute doc which continues to lambast every religion he can think of, all with a smirk.

Maher has claimed he is not an atheist. Atheism, he says, is against his true belief, and that is that it is impossible for human beings to know the truth about the universe's creation, and it is even more absurd for them to make up stories about it. Maher doesn't know, and the way he sees it, there is nobody on Earth who is mentally superior enough to know. So he travels throughout the world, visiting various religious havens, and he asks people questions. These questions get varying responses. At a truck stop church, one man walks out in the middle of a Q&A, and later Maher walks out on a rabbi who doesn't recognize the Holocaust.

The film spends a good amount of time on Maher's own religious history. He was born from a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and attended church every Sunday--his mother usually absent. They stopped going to mass when Bill was 13, mostly because his father was using birth control, which was considered a sin. Even more interesting, though, was Maher's confessed connection with God when he was in his 40's (he's currently 52). He said he made a deal with God to stop smoking, and felt obligated to keep it, even feeling happy with his connection to God. Further proving that Maher is not totally atheistic in his thinking.

Realistically, this film is about as objective as a Michael Moore documentary--which is to say not very much. The two have a lot in common. They are both, at their simplest, comedians, and they both feel strongly about taboo issues, and don't mind rubbing people the wrong way. They both are manipulative in their editing techniques, and construe events to make the subjects look bafoonish, and when they are called upon, their reply is usually "I'm a comedian". In this film, specifically, Maher edits in questionable scenes from films and TV shows which add humorous but damning effect, and numerous times uses subtitles to undermine the speakers.

Not to mention, the way Maher conducts the interviews. He interrupts, talks over, and sometimes flat-out does not listen to his subjects--though sometimes you can see where he's coming from. He interviews a bevy of eccentric characters including gay Muslim activists, a formerly homosexual man who found God and is now married to a formerly lesbian woman, and a grand Vatican priest who reveals an interesting statistic: in Italy, when a poll was taken to see who most people pray to in times of crisis, Jesus Christ only placed sixth.

There are two particular locations that stick out in my mind. One being a Genisus Museum, in which all of the exhibits work to show history the exact way the Bible describes it. Among other interesting images, we are shown statues of toddlers playing with stones as dinosaurs stand idly in the background. Another being a religious theme park in Orlando. The park is themed completely on the New Testament, and involves a bi-daily performance of the Passion in front of crowds of Christians who clap and cheer as the Jesus actor is whipped, beaten, and pinned onto the cross. I guess now we know the audience which forked over so much money to see Passion of the Christ.

Maher is an equal party offender. He spends equal time on Christianity, Judaism, and Muslim, and finds time to research more obscure religions such as Scientology and another one which is based totally on getting stoned on marijuana (this one doesn't have a name). He meets a man who believes himself to be the second coming of Christ: a Puerto Rican man who preaches, among other things, that since Jesus died for our sins, we can now live free of fear of the fires of Hell, because come on, its just more convenient that way.

Okay, okay, I realize that all these people are easy targets for an intelectual the size of Bill Maher, and to be fair, he does go out to speak to people who are relatively sane, but he is able to find baffling contradictions within the Scriptures and the Koran to throw them on their heels. He points the finger at Christians for their constant judgement of others, which seems very un-'Christ'-like. Islam, in arabic, literally translates to 'Peace', but this same religion advocates serious forms of mysogyny and intolerance for others who are not members. Maher is searching for an explanation to all this but is unable to get it.

At the end of the day, Religulous is quite brilliant. For many people, these religions stand as something on which they've built their entire lives upon, and Maher blows down their house of faith like a big bad wolf with iron lungs. Sure, it's manipulated, but it cannot be called unfair, because every theology is represented. At the core of his argument, Maher claims that religion is dangerous, and has prevoked more genocide than anything else in written history, and it worries him that the powers that be (*cough*...the Bush Administration...*cough), continue to preach the ideals of Christian values. I don't know if I would have liked the film if I didn't completely agree with him, but I should have.