Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sabbatical

I will be taking a leave of absence from 'A Blogwork Orange'. If any updates are made (when it does return, it will probably be moved to a different blog site), you will find out here first. It's rather strange to stop in the middle of the awards season (my favorite time to write), but suffice it's to say: I'm no longer enjoying myself. When the time comes, and I begin to miss it, I will be writing again. Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you come again soon.

Au revoir!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus (***)

INVICTUS
Produced and Directed by Clint Eastwood

***

There are some people who, just by name alone, conjure up the thought: "That guy's life would make a terrific money." Even if you don't know anything about them as a person, just their name conjures up such an aura that creates visions of dramatic (or more precisely, cinematic) proportions. Jim Morrison, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Hitler are just a few of those names--some of them have had their own movie, some have not. Nelson Mandela is one of those people. Clint Eastwood's film Invictus is a story about Mandella, but not necessarily the kind you would expect.

The film begins as Mandella (Morgan Freeman) has begun his service as the newly elected president of South Africa, shortly after Apartheid. It is a moment of great cheer for most of the country's population, but for some of the more prejudiced (or white) population, Mandella is seen as a threat, sure to overrun the country with angry zealots looking to act out their vengeance. Mandella has no interest in that, though, and is only interested in heading a more peaceful nation. He insists that the white employees of the previous administration stay, and even hires white bodyguards. This raises a lot of eyebrows even from his closest followers.

As Mandella rises as a politician, the country's national rugby team is failing quickly. Captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the team is shackled by low moral, short on motivation, and while becoming drenched in numerous losses, they are heckled endlessly by public television analysts. Simply stated, they are an international laughing stock. Even when trying to stay level-headed, Pienaar has become undeniably frustrated with the team's mediocrity. As Mandella notices the team's downfall, he decides to have tea with Pienaar and asks him a simple favor: try to have the team win the 1995 World Cup.

It seems like an unfathomably tall order, and one Pienaar finds hard to take seriously. The team begins a hellish workout regiment in order to train. Despite trying to lead an apartheid-torn country, Mandella always finds the time to check in on the team from time to time. With Mandella's endorsement giving them a new-found confidence, the team starts to win. As the all-white team begins to climb it's way into the World Cup standings, the country begins to band together behind their scrappy, imperfect team. Known as the 'Springboks' by most black South Africans, the whole country becomes enraptured with this team, no matter the color.

I'm an American sports fan, which means I know absolutely nothing about Rugby. It seems a bit haphazard and dangerous, with men piling on top of each other and tackling with ferociousness. Kind of like American football, without the helmets and shoulder pads. That said, Invictus is still one of the greatest sport films I've ever seen. I find most sports movies callow and unmotivated. For the most part, they know that their sport will have its own audience, and fall back on sports cliche to tell the story. Invictus showcases sports in an enlightening way, showing that it is not the sporting event itself that is meaningful, but what that event does for the people who are watching.

It would have been easy to make a film about Mandella's thirty-year imprisonment and think that would have been enough to properly display Mandella's story. Instead, Eastwood takes a different view. He shows Mandella as a leader, someone whose impeccable intelligence lent itself appropriately toward diplomacy. Rounding out his spectacular decade as a filmmaker (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino)*, Eastwood has made what is probably his most generalized, populist film. Even though Mandella is lionized to an impossible level (a subplot detailing his estranged family does little to sway our sympathy), we still don't mind watching Mandella in this story, because we're not forced to worship him.

It's certain that Morgan Freeman looks a lot like Nelson Mandella in this film, but I'll admit that my ignorance on the man makes it nearly impossible for me to judge how well he nails the political icon. Freeman brings as much delicacy and cadence to this role as he does to all his roles, and its obvious that Freeman sees this as the role of a lifetime. As the Springboks' captain, Damon does a good job of showing South Africa's swaying allegiances. Raised by prejudiced white parents, Peinaar had to take risks believing in his new leader, and Damon manifests those conflicting emotions well.

I'm glad that Eastwood decided to tell this story, and not something more obvious. It's a real sports movie, and by that I mean it really tells a sports story, and not a movie about a bunch people playing that sport. Maybe that's why I was able to forgive it's imminent predictability. Nothing will surprise you, and some of the dialogue screams of "Please put me in the trailer! I can sell the hell out of this movie!" Just watching the trailer would cause film producers to hide all of their Oscars, though I don't how much of a chance it has now. You'll feel god walking out of this film, and if you don't know any better, you'll probably be inspired as well.

*Did I just conveniently skip over Blood Work and Space Cowboys when talking about Clint's 2000's filmography? Yes, I did...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Nat'l Board of Review is Looking Up

The National Board of Review prides itself on being the first awards service to grace the Fall Movie Season. You have to wonder about an organization that honors the best films of a given year when there are still four weeks left in that respective year. That said, this is the first award that can be considered a "big deal", Oscar-wise. After all, last year's NBR winner (Slumdog Millionaire) went on to win the Best Picture trophy. Here were there choices this year:

BEST PICTURE: Up In The Air
BEST DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood, Invictus
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up In The Air

Top 10 Films of the Year
(Well, Top 11 if you count Up In The Air):

500 Days of Summer
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Invictus
The Messenger
A Serious Man
Star Trek
Up
Where The Wild Things Are

Hmmm... No Precious is a bit of a surprise, and they certainly love Invictus more than other people seem to. The Messenger and Star Trek are also surprising, I guess, but the NBR always likes to be the first awards body to make an audience go "Wha???".

BEST ACTOR: (tie) George Clooney, Up In The Air
AND Morgan Freeman, Invictus
BEST ACTRESS: Carey Mulligan, An Education
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Anna Kendrick, Up In The Air
BEST ENSEMBLE: It's Complicated
BEST BREAKTHROUGH ACTOR: Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
BEST BREAKTHROUGH ACTRESS: Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

No Mo'Nique for Best Supporting Actress is a little bit of a shocker (but Kendrick was so good also, so I can't really complain), and the only attention they gave Precous at all was Sidibe's win for "Breakthrough Actress". Will The Messenger have as big of an awards' presence as the NBR seems to think it will? I don't think so, but that's what these early awards circles are about: leading us astray.

So here's what we know now: Up In The Air is now a serious contender for Best Picture, and so is Clooney for Best Actor. I still think Precious will hold on through this, but this wasn't a good start. I was excited that Carey Mulligan got some recognition (though it only cements that Tilda Swinton's work in Julia will get ignored), and I hope she won't get abandoned at the last moment like Sally Hawkins was last year (for her greatness in Happy-Go-Lucky). Glad the awards season is started!

Trailer Watch: The Last Station



This is the latest arrival of the Oscar hopefuls and possesses a tremendous cast of actors (Plummer, Giamatti, McAvoy, and Mirren). Michael Hoffman's latest film seems a bit stuffy on the surface, but if early word and this trailer seem to suggest that there is a lot more here. It seems funny and sexy, even without a performer that is either funny or sexy. I'm excited about it, and it could be a very serious player come January and February.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (***)

FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Directed by Wes Anderson

***

Wes Anderson has never made a film I have disliked. He's been working since 1996's Bottle Rocket, and has made six films overall. Each film has been touched with the same flavor of detachment, smugness, and a golden ear for classic rock. Many film lovers have become perturbed by Anderson's seemingly stunted creativity, stating that all of his films have become to similar in style and theme. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, we are given Anderson's first stab at animated filmmaking, and many see it as Anderson's opportunity to outgrow the similar nature of all his films. But Anderson's got another trick up his sleeve.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a world-class chicken thief, but when Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) declares to him that she's pregnant with their first child, Fox decides to give up his dangerous lifestyle for something a little more practical. Two years later (twelve fox years), Fox has reinvented himself as a columnist for his local newspaper and has a teenage son named Ash (Jason Schwartzman). The Fox family lives comfortably in their foxhole, but Fox refuses to live in poverty. Despite the imploring of his lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), Fox decides to move his family to an uptown tree.

Fox enjoys the prestige of his tree, and he's particularly happy when his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) comes to stay with them for a while. Kristofferson is a world class athlete, practices yoga and meditation, and has all of the qualities that Fox needs in a son. Fox's love for Kristofferson only creates a bigger divide between him and Ash, who was unfortunately born without all of the gifts Fox and Kristofferson were blessed with. When Fox and his possum friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) decide to re-enter the chicken-stealing business, he brings Kristofferson along for the ride, further enraging Ash.

Fox begins barking up the wrong tree, though, when he decides to steal from the three notorious farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, who inspired this children's rhyme: "Boggis, Bunce, and Bean/ One fat, one short, one lean/ These horrible crooks/ So different in looks/ Were none the less equally mean". The three, particularly the cold-blooded Bean (Michael Gambon), plan furiously to kill the nefarious Fox. They use everything from bulldozers and dynamite, and before long, the entire animal society is threatened by the three men. With everyone looking to him for answers, Fox must find a way to outsmart smart these farmers once and for all.

The biggest trick that Wes Anderson pulls here is that he isn't pulling any tricks at all. There is nothing about Fantastic Mr. Fox that separates it from The Darjeeling Limited thematically or The Royal Tenenbaums stylistically--other than the animation, of course. It contains all of the dry, sardonic dialogue we've come to know from Anderson's films (he co-wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach), and while following the plot elements of the original novel by Roald Dahl pretty closely, there is really none of the essence that Dahl had in his book.

I don't know if Anderson is a fan of Roald Dahl (I know I am, but that's a story for another day), but he certainly isn't interested in recreating Dahl's vision. If anything, he's interested of telling Dahl's story in his own vision--which I'm sure will rub some people the wrong way. The biggest grenades that Anderson's critics usually lob is that he has not evolved his style, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is certainly an act of stubbornness in which Anderson so fully embraces the lackadaisical nature of his previous films. He's drawing a line in the sand here and we have to choose to follow along or just move on.

That said, it's a very quaint, funny movie. The dialogue runs sharp and ironic, and nothing ever seems out of place. It moves briskly, and has plenty of tension when it needs it. The characters of Ash and Kylie give the film its strongest laughs, while Kristofferson and Mrs. Fox give it some true heart. The food pillaging scenes are shot with great adventure in mind, and using his usual staple of British Invasion pop songs in the background, everything has an air of nostalgia and grooviness simultaneously. Essentially, you'll like this movie for the same reasons you liked every other Wes Anderson movie.

I said I've never disliked a Wes Anderson movie, and I stand by that statement. I will admit, though, that I probably enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox the least out of the six. It's a bit inconsequential in nature, and at times seems at odds with its own genre (children's films). There are moments of self-reflective mocking, pointing the finger at its own wholesome nature. The violent nature of the animals and "cuss words" are dealt with curiously. This film is the closest thing Anderson has ever come to an identity crisis. It must really mean something when you're least impressive film is not much worse than your most impressive. In Anderson's case, they've all been exceptional, so he's got that going for him.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Precious (***)

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE
Directed by Lee Daniels

***

There are some films that are so bleak that they'll make your head spin. They pile on the most harrowing aspects of life, and create a world so horrible that it barely seems like reality. Is Precious one of those films? Almost. But more times than not, it is able to keep its head above water and let in moments of sunshine. Precious has a heavy load of hype atop of it, which makes it hard to watch objectively, but it is certainly one of the most powerful films of 2009--even if I'm not sure if it's one of the best.

Clarice 'Precious' Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is morbidly obese, illiterate, and pregnant with her second child--both given to her by her faceless, incestuous father. She lives with her mother Mary (Mo'Nique), who is sad sack of bitterness and violence. Mary beats her, makes her cook all the food, and advises her to quit school so she can pick up some more welfare money. Few movie characters are more emotionally and physically abusive than Mary, and she has numbed Precious to the point that violence has becomes passe.

When her school learns of her new pregnancy, they kick her out and tell her to attend the alternative school "Each One, Teach One". There, she meets her new teacher Ms. Blue Rain (Paula Patton) and an assortment of degenerate young women hoping to get their GED. They learn to read, they learn to be civil, but probably most important, they develop friendships. In addition to her new classes, she is forced to meet with a social worker Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey--yeah, that Mariah Carey), and explain what has happened in her life and how it has effected her poor student work.

When Mary learns of Precious' new school and newfound ambition, she is instantly antagonistic towards it, explaining that Precious is too dumb to expect anything from herself. She should just go on Welfare, Mary says. After the birth of her second child, Precious begins to see the brighter aspects of life after befriending her classmates and a friendly nurse named John (Lenny Kravitz--yeah, that Lenny Kravitz). Precious realizes that she must try her hardest to rid herself of her painful past and try to start anew. To do this, she has to do her best to separate herself from the monstrous Mary. This is something that is much harder than it looks.

I mentioned earlier that Precious is a film that is so harrowing that it barely fits reality. Actually, there are a great many fantasy sequences throughout. The only way Precious can overcome her violent situation is to escape toward vibrant fantasies that embody all of her biggest dreams: to be a superstar, date a light-skinned man, star in a hip-hop music video. These moments comprise some of the very best moments in the film, but also draw upon its harrowing nature. The character of Precious is dealing with such a litany of psychological issues, that even a two-hour film can't properly explain it.

Perhaps Precious' biggest flaw is that director Lee Daniels (producer of Monster's Ball) tries a little too hard to visualize all of Precious' pain. Not only does this lead to rather sad movie, but it also lends to various sequences of over-direction. There is a mixture of flashbacks, surrealism, and musical intervention that clash so often, and I'm not totally sure how effective it is. Any visual motif used more than moderation can become distracting, and Daniels certainly runs his motifs into the ground.

It should be said, though, that Daniels does an astonishing job directing his cast. Dealing with mostly first-timers and non-actors, the actors involved create a world tragedy, while never falling deeply into melodrama. Patton and Carey are exceptional as the two women who choose to right Precious' ship, neither relying on obvious acting, just simply reacting as the events unfold. In her first film, Gabourey Sidibe is given a hell of a responsibility, and she doesn't totally hit it out of the park. As the performance has settled with me, though, I've realized that there couldn't have been a better way to show Precious' total numbness. With a angry glare glued to her bloated face, Sidibe wraps Precious in a sheet of self-loathing neurosis, and she does a good job of doing so.

The show-stopper is comedienne Mo'Nique as the vile, repulsive Mary. Mary hates Precious for "stealing her man", and makes Precious wait on her like a slave: cooking her food, even lying to social workers in order to get more Welfare money. When Precious' therapy leads to their Welfare getting cut off, Mary's ticking time bomb of contention bursts into a mushroom cloud of hatred and violence. In the film's single greatest scene, a defeated Mary tries to explain her horrid behavior to Precious and Ms. Weiss. I won't give away any more details of that particular moment, other than this: it may single-handedly win Mo'Nique a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

Precious is certainly the most talked-about film this year. It's being endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and has gotten serious Best Picture buzz. Much like Slumdog Millionaire last year, this makes it nearly impossible to walk in theater with the appropriate expectations. Everything has doubled (or even tripled) since this movie premiered at Sundance this January and everyone was calling it a sleeper pick for the Fall. I don't know, this movie just didn't blow me away. It didn't wreak me emotionally, leave me wanting more. It's a very good film, just not a great one.

Note: This film was originally named 'Push' after the novel it was based on. But when that horrific film of the same name came out earlier this year, Lee Daniels decided to change the name to 'Precious' to avoid confusion. Can't we make a law that forces us to forget all films as horrible as February's 'Push'? Seems strange that 'Precious' would have to conform for that piece of crap.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Trailer Watch: Crazy Heart



Is Jeff Bridges on the way to his very first Oscar? Too early to say, still, but it could be his time. This trailer certainly promotes the movie as 2009's version of The Wrestler, but Bridges is not carrying a load of "should've had a better career than I have had" baggage (the way Mickey Rourke was last year). No, Bridges has been just as good as we expected him to be, and a lot of times even better. Now, he's in a rather bait-y vehicle, starring as a grizzled country singer seeking redemption. Seems like the perfect equation for an Academy Award, since there's no gay performances up for anything. (Oh wait, forgot about Colin Firth...)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

For Your Consideration: Tilda Swinton in 'Julia'

Using my nifty Netflix instant account, I was able to see the Tilda Swinton film Julia. My initial reaction was shock (with how good it was), then there was reflection (about how good it was), and eventually glee (with discovering a movie that was so good). After all that hyperbole, I will make this one confession: I did not enjoy the movie itself, as much as I loved Swinton's spectacular performance.

I don't think there has ever been a movie character as wrong-headed, stubborn, or irresponsible as Julia (played by Swinton). If there has been, then I probably walked out of the theater in frustration. Falling down a slippery slope of kidnapping, extortion, and even murder, the story within Julia moves so quickly (well, as quickly as a film can move in 143 minutes) that we almost forgive her incredibly dumb decisions. She lacks forethought and empathy, but for some reason she is riveting and audiences won't be able to stop watching.

Swinton is a great actress, we all know. But with Julia, she is submerging into her truly transgressive core. In films like Orlando and Female Perversions, she took full advantage of her androgynous allure and vulnerability on screen. Even in Michael Clayton (for which she won the Oscar), she shows how unafraid she is to look unflattering. Yet, there is something incredibly enticing about her when she's on the screen, and Julia may very well be her greatest achievement. Her character is an alcoholic, sleeps with men precariously, has debts owed to various people, and decides in one moment to kidnap her neighbor's son. So why do we want to watch this woman for more than two hours? Because Swinton commits fully to this troubled woman and makes her tragic. As she digs herself deeper and deeper, we know that there is no way she'll be able to escape her situation, but we always hope that she'll find a way.

'Julia' is yet another Swinton performance that makes you rethink her position on the Great Actress Pantheon (yeah, I think about these kinds of things...)

The film was from 2008, but distribution problems prevented the film from being released before earlier this year. Because of that, most people have yet to see Julia—though those who have mention Swinton just as glowingly as I do. In a fair world, Swinton would be getting some serious Best Actress traction (and other than Carey Mulligan, Swinton is the only other actress who I would nominate today), but I don’t think she’ll be able to overcome the strong influence of veteran actresses like Meryl Streep (for Julie & Julia) and Helen Mirren (for The Last Station), or subvert the growing buzz for the newcomers Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe (for Precious).

So, I guess all I can say is this: watch the film. It’s a stunning piece of work by a filmmaker who I’m not familiar with (Erick Zonca) but has a concrete vision. Also, you get to see what I think could be the seminal performance from one of today’s best actors. FYC: Tilda Swinton in Julia.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Education (****)

AN EDUCATION
Directed by Lone Scherfig

****

Within the film An Education, there is a performance of spectacular grace and beauty. That performance comes from Carey Mulligan in her first starring role. It's the kind of performance that will make her a movie star, if we're all lucky enough. Of course, I'm not saying anything new. People have been praising Mulligan for her performance in this film since it premiered at the early film festivals like Cannes. What hasn't been said enough, though, is how fantastic the film is on the whole. Based on a screenplay by the superb novelist Nick Hornby, An Education is one of the best films of the year.

Set during the budding years of the 60's, the film is about Jenny (Mulligan) a sixteen-year-old school girl whose charm is only surpassed by her unbound work ethic which allows her to achieve exceptional grades in all her classes. Of course, this is something she has to do because her meddling father Jack (Alfred Molina) will accept nothing less than Jenny getting into Oxford. Jack makes sure that she does everything she needs to do to achieve: makes her study instead of listen to music, makes her take up the cello as a hobby, and even dismisses possible boyfriends who seem like nothing more than "wandering Jews".

Coming home from cello practice, Jenny gets caught in the rain and is approached by a much older man who offers to give her a ride home. This man is David (Peter Sarsgaard), and he takes an almost immediate liking to Jenny. He asks her if she would like to accompany him to a classical music concert, but she knows that her father will never allow it. David arrives at Jenny's home, and within a matter of minutes, he begins to throw his indelible charm at Jack. Not only does he get permission to take Jenny to the concert, but even gets permission to keep her well past her curfew.

Jenny meets David's posh friends: Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike) and they have a wondrous night on the town. They smoke, listen to jazz, and eat good food at fancy restaurants. For the first time, Jenny is experiencing life outside of her textbooks and she's become intoxicated with it. She becomes intoxicated with David as well, even though he is nearly twenty years older than her. When rumors of her "new boyfriend" begin to reach the ears of administrators at her all-girl boarding school, she is warned about the consequences of her actions. Jenny must decide between the conservative, safe path of books and universities or the dream life with David.

Hornby has always been a gifted writer (High Fidelity remains one of my all-time favorite novels), but this is probably his most polished effort solely as a screen writer. An Education is a much more entertaining film than its trailers seem to display. It goes beyond the ho-hum coming of age tale most audiences will expect, and instead is a fiercely emotional, legitimately funny story about the many lessons life can teach us. It never mulls around in sentiment or melodrama. It trusts in its characters and their personalities just enough that the audience falls in love with them--even if they are scoundrels (or turn out to be scoundrels).

This is the first film I've ever seen by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (though she has a film on her IMDb page--Wilber Wants To Kill Himself--which seems intriguing based on title alone) and what I believe is her first English language film. I appreciate the modesty with which Scherfig tells the story, never allowing the camera to get in the way. Not to say that the film isn't filled with visually stunning shots and exceptional work by cinematographer John de Borman. Visual work this subtle and unobtrusive very rarely gets acknowledged, but it's the prudence behind the camerawork which makes it so perfect for this film.

The film contains what is probably the greatest ensemble of performances so far this year. As Jack, Jenny's micromanaging father, Alfred Molina is allowed to express himself in histrionics at times, but always gives Jack that small glimmer of self-awareness that always redeems him. As the less-than-genius but glamorous Helen, Rosamund Pike is quite brilliant. Witty but simple, judgmental but sweet, Pike gives a performance which is just as star-making as Mulligan's. Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams both give small but effective performances as administrators at Jenny's school, both showcasing adverse reactions to Jenny's budding rebellion. As David, Sarsgaard is quite good as well, even if his accent isn't exactly stellar*.

But I won't kid you, this film is the undeniable showcase for Carey Mulligan. In a premiere performance, Mulligan's beauty and charm hearkens back to the performances from Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly in the late 50's. Perhaps it's better that Mulligan was twenty-two when playing the sixteen-year-old Jenny, because that transformation (that education, if you will) feels so organic. We feel for Jenny even in her moments of most naivete. Watching Mulligan in An Education is like watching the beginning of something that is sure to be great. Like seeing Brando in Streetcar or Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter. I will be shocked if she isn't given an Oscar nomination (and I'll be disappointed if she doesn't win it all).

I loved the practicality in this movie (which may be a round-about way of saying I simply love this movie). Hornby and Scherfig were a perfect combination it seems, and their collaboration lead to something not only beautiful but invigorating and impactful. Some could say that An Education is drab (that's what I thought when I saw the trailer), but its the meticulous nature with which the story evolves that makes it so entertaining. Sometimes the lessons we learn in life are hard, but they will not always be disparaging. I feel that most people will take the lesson Jenny learns in this film, if it required the same curriculum.

*I can't decide which was worse: Ewan McGregor trying to be American in "Men Who Stare At Goats" or Sarsgaard trying to be English in this film. In both cases, the accents are so bad that you eventually just shrug your shoulders and give up. Not worth getting worked up over those types of details.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats (***)

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
Directed by Grant Heslov

***

What do you think when you hear about a film with a title like The Men Who Stare At Goats? Certain things can be assumed: it will be well humored (probably silly), it will possess an ensemble cast (mostly men, of course), and it will probably be unlike most films that you've ever seen. Grant Heslov's latest film checks all of the items on this presumptive, make-believe checklist, but it's what the film does that isn't expected that makes it exceptional. An unforeseen human story and a spectacular cast helps the film rise above its goofy title, and creates one of the funniest movies of the year.

When journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) meets with an eccentric man named Gus Lancy (Stephen Root), he hears stories about reading the future and killing hamsters using your mind. Bob dismisses Gus and his tales of Jedi warriors, and is more worried about details in his home life: his wife is leaving him for his one-armed editor and he has lost that fire that once inspired his journalism. In an arbitrary attempt to impress his ex-wife, Bob goes into war-ravaged Iraq in hopes of finding a gripping story to write about. Instead, he finds Lyn Cassady (George Clooney).

Bob remembered Lyn's name when Gus Lacey was talking about the best Jedi warrior. Lyn has a reputation: he can crash computers with his mind, burst clouds in the sky, and once murdered a goat just by staring at it. Bob decides to follow Lyn on his latest Jedi mission, which includes driving through the dessert and getting kidnapped by Iraqi criminals. Facing fierce characters and constant danger, Bob finds the adventure he was looking for only to decide he'd rather not be there. Tagging along with Lyn, Bob finds the perfect story in the perfect disaster.

Bob and Lyn's journey is inter-spliced with flashbacks detailing the US Army's First Earth Battalion, where Lyn was trained in his Jedi ways. A military division created to promote passive, sometimes paranormal actions in the battlefield, it was lead by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who preferred to have the men in his division meditate, collect flowers, and dance during training. Lyn was the main prodigy within this experimental division, but the jealous Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) was always on his tail. After Larry botched an attempted experiment with LSD, Django was fired and the First Earth Battalion was disbanded.

The film begins with the caption: "More of this is true than you would believe". I'm still a bit skeptical, but I don't think that really matters. The film is directed by Grant Heslov, a filmmaker (and character actor) who has worked many times with Goats' main star George Clooney. Heslov was the co-writer and producer on Good Night, and Good Luck and the producer on Leatherheads. Now, he is directing his own feature, studio film and has called on his buddy to help him out. These stories of friends helping friends in Hollywood always makes me feel fuzzy inside, especially when they produce such quality films.

Does the film stumble over its final act? It most certainly does. But the film's final moments only cement a whimsical exuberance that exists throughout the entire film. It's hard to take a film like Goats, which possesses such unrestrained playfulness, and resolve it with something that doesn't feel contrived. Heslov instead chooses to take that playfulness and push it even further by the film's end (which includes a deliciously hilarious closing line by Spacey which I will not reveal here), and I'm not sure whether or not that's a bad thing. But I enjoyed it, so take that and make what you will of it.

The film's cast is probably its strength. Clooney--who is in the middle of a busy season which will later include Up In the Air and Fantastic Mr. Fox--is certainly funny as Lyn Cassady, but what's surprising is how strongly Lyn becomes the heart of the movie, and we never even realize it till the end. As neurotic journalist Bob Wilton, Ewan McGregor gives his best performance in several years (and it includes several layers of irony, since the actor behind Obi Wan seems increasingly skeptical of Jedi warriors). Both Bridges and Spacey are great in supporting roles, particularly Spacey who gives his first meaningful film performance since his Oscar-winning work in American Beauty (I should probably be honest and admit that I loved him in K-Pax, but that's not the most popular opinion).

The Men Who Stare At Goats inspired a lot more laughs than I thought it would. It felt a lot like Three Kings to me (for obvious reasons), but it's not nearly as profound. I'm not sure this movie was meant to be profound, though it does have some identity issues. Jeff Bridges reinventing The Dude seems to suggest straight comedy, but there were moments where there was actual social commentary (though never fully exploited). All these questions/doubts, are nitpicky in nature, and don't matter in the large scope of things. Because this is a good movie, and those are pretty hard to come by most of the time.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Trailer Watch: Green Zone



A LOT of people are adverse to the style of director Paul Greengrass and his shaky, handheld camera movements. What's hard to dispute, though, is the quality of his films this decade (the last two Bourne films, and the brilliant 9/11 film United 93). This trailer seems a bit more "summer action flick" than I would like, but it has a great cast (Matt Damon, Amy Ryan, Greg Kinnear) and I don't think Greengrass has made a bad film yet. It's sure to be a taught thriller, and whether or not the story will be sound is still yet to be discovered.

P.S. Yes, I've seen the released trailer for Clint Eastwood's Invictus yesterday, but there's nothing that I learned while watching it. We've essentially known everything about this film for about a year.

Monday, October 26, 2009

How many times can Werner Herzog go crazy?

Who thought that Harvey Keitel's 1992 film Bad Lieutenant needed to have a completely unrelated sequel? Evidently, Werner Herzog does. It isn't surprising if you're familiar with the reputation of Herzog. This is the same man who once threatened to kill star Klaus Kinski and then threatened to kill himself on the set of Aguirre, The Wrath of God. He is an eccentric to the max, the kind of guy who always seems to be in middle of all kinds of chaos (including getting shot by a sniper with an air gun during an interview, seen here). So, all that said, it seems like an almost perfect decision that Herzog would direct the new film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.



The film seems to possess an almost manic energy and a complete dismissal of reality. In the lead role, Nicholas Cage seems completely let loose, playing a cocaine-snorting cop who's seeing images of iguanas and making jokes toward drowning inmates. It feels like utter anarchy, and though there seems to be absolutely nothing of substance within the film, it seems incredibly intriguing. I'm actually considering paying money to see Herzog and Cage combine for a nihilistic experiment in sadism. Why? Because Herzog is at his best when he has gone crazy--and he's gone crazy quite a few times.

**In total fairness, Herzog has directed two documentaries this decade: Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. Both are beautifully crafted and have a much more subdued feeling of "crazy".

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trailer Watch: That Evening Sun



Hal Holbrook built up a lot of good will with one hell of a performance in Into The Wild. He was only in the film for a small fraction of the time, but in that limited space he reminded most people just how good of a performer he can be. That was in 2007, and two years later, he is headlining That Evening Sun, and getting several good notices. I'm not sure how many people are interested in a film that has an eighty-four year old in the starring role, but I doubt this film was produced for the box office intake. The trailer exults a Flannery O'Conner-esque Southern Gothic, and who doesn't like that? (The Answer is: most people, but I'll still be in line to see it)

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Serious Man (***1/2)

A SERIOUS MAN
Written, Produced, and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

***1/2

If we are to believe that the Coen Brothers are the seminal filmmakers of their generation, it is mostly because of a style that they pioneered. A style that has stayed consistent throughout their careers and really defined them as true autuers. I feel that even the most zealous followers of the Coens may not know what to make of A Serious Man. Their careers are some consisting of almost twenty films that are the very definition of eccentricity. Yet, I feel that with this film they may have crafted their most mystifying, and most philosophical project to date. They are breaking the mold here, and trying something different.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having a lot of trouble in his life. He is a physics professor who is on the verge of being tenured, but their seems to be a few things still standing in his way. A clueless student of his tries to bribe him into giving a passing grade, and though Larry refuses, the tenure board begins to receive anonymous letters disparaging him. At home, Larry's family is becoming unglued. His troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch and won't leave. This burdens his entire family, particularly his harpy wife Judith (Sari Lennick).

One night, Judith tells Larry that she wants a divorce, and that she has been having an affair with his fellow colleague at the university, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). Judith is cold in her delivery, advising him to find a lawyer and move into a motel as soon as possible. Larry has a son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), who is weeks away from celebrating his Bar Mitzvah, but prefers smoking marijuana and listening to Jefferson Airplane on his transistor radio. His daughter, Sarah (Jessica McManus), only cares about washing her hair, but this task is made difficult when Uncle Arthur will never leave the bathroom.

Larry doesn't know why all this trouble seems to be simultaneously raining down upon him, and he seeks desperately for the answers. He visits several rabbis of various ages and one tries to compare life to a parking lot, while another tells him a meaningless anecdote about a dentist who saw Hebrew letters in a man's teeth. The most respected rabbi in his neighborhood refuses to even speak with him because he's too busy "thinking". He is becoming overwhelmed, and the only thing he has going for him is watching his neighbor Mrs. Samsky (Amy Landecker) sun bathe in the nude.

Beginning with No Country For Old Men and especially after Burn After Reading, many of the Coens' biggest fans began to wonder why their films were beginning to drift into incoherency (at least plot-wise). Yet, everyone was still behind them, putting their trust into their filmmaking abilities. A Serious Man will probably test Coen fans more than anything else they've ever done. It is something different then there usual work, something more personal. For the first time, they seem to be looking into a bit of their history, i.e. 1960's Midwest Jewish suburbia. And for the record, they are not looking back with a very kind eye.

Perhaps it is simply that the film is under-viewed (there are no stars in the cast, and I don't think there could be any above modest expectations at the box office), but I'm surprised that more Jewish representatives have not stood up in protest against this film. The religion is seen as shallow and nothing more than a romantic ideal. Of course, I feel the Coens are actually going after religion in general, and Judaism just happens to be what the subjects follow in this film. The character of Larry is searching the depths of his humanity to discover what in his life has prompted Hashem (God) to punish him so, and he can't find an answer.

Despite a rather large cast, the film is mostly a showcase for actor Michael Stuhlbarg. A Julliard-trained, Tony Award-nominated actor, Larry Gopnik is his first starring role in a feature film, and he will be an actor to watch. Stuhlbarg plays Larry with fantastic nuance, and is probably the single reason why A Serious Man does not come off the tracks. In the small role as Larry's conniving but slothful brother Arthur, comedic character actor Richard Kind gives the film some terrific strangeness and Fred Melamed's performance as the surprisingly softhearted "other man" has some of the best comic moments.

A Serious Man never lets up, and it never feels that Larry has had enough. In a lesser filmmaker's hands, the film could have become terribly disjointed (and to be completely honest, it still kind of is). That said, the film contains several flashes of brilliance common in a Coen Brothers movie. There's quirk and laughs, juxtaposed by the darker elements of paranoia and grief. On a single viewing, it's very hard to tell what A Serious Man is truly about, and many would say that the Coens don't even care. I would say that they care very much, and they expect you to work very hard to figure it out. It's hard to fault anyone who doesn't want that responsibility.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Up In The Air (***1/2)

Up In The Air
Directed by Jason Reitman

***1/2

I don't like flying in planes. The anxiety of being up in the air so high plagues me weeks before any planned flight. I actually lose sleep in anticipation of flying, so I try to avoid airplanes if I can help it. Up In The Air, Jason Reitman's latest film, is about a man who is the exact opposite of me. He adores planes so much as to consider them his home--actually more than that. He sees planes as a sanctuary which allows him to hover above (literally and figuratively) the confines that come with everyday aspects of work, family, relationships, etc.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a representative for a company that specializes in career transition counseling. In essence, he fires people, and the way things have been going with the economy lately, business is booming. He'll visit your office, and meet with sometimes upward of twenty people to tell them that they've been let go. Ryan has become numb toward the raw, sometimes violent emotion he has to face from hostile ex-employees, and is willing to endure anything at his job as long as he is able to continue his lifestyle in the air.

His lifestyle is threatened, though, when his company hires Natalie (Anna Kendrick). Natalie is fresh out of grad school, and comes up with a new, cost-cutting strategy: fire people over the internet. Using webcam-streaming technology, you can put yourself right into the room with the people you're meeting with and you don't even have to leave your office. Ryan is immediately hostile, defending what he considers to be the nuance of his job. There is an art to what he does, and all the charm is lost if his face is a computer monitor. His boss, Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), tells Ryan that he must take Natalie on assignment to teach her the ropes. Ryan is burdened, but is more than happy to explain to her just how useless her ideas are.

Off they go, and Natalie sees first-hand just how good Ryan is at avoiding human connection. He's charming and can get women, including Alex (Vera Farmiga) who is an equally disconnected frequent flier who likes to meet up with Ryan in between flight connections. But he is not tied down to anything, and though Natalie tries to explain to him the values of being with another person, he is stringent in his feelings against monotony. "The slower we move, the faster we die," Ryan says at his many conference speeches. Even his family, which includes a younger sister Julie (Melanie Lynskey) who is getting married soon, feels like they have no connection to Ryan at all.

The film is based on the book of the same name by Walter Kirn. Kirn's novel was quite idiosyncratic and had a story that stumbled over several conflicts that Kirn never commits to. Reitman really compresses the story, and unloads some of the many conflicts, which allows the story to flow more and have a real focus. Using a spectacular cast, Reitman takes a story that could have been tedious and makes it something truly refreshing. Containing serious wit and three-dimensional characters, Up In The Air is one pleasurable cinematic experience.

It is only Jason Reitman's third film, after Thank You For Smoking and Juno. The son of comic film legend Ivan Reitman, Jason has a great ear for humor, but an even sharper eye behind the camera. Like Smoking and Juno, there is a real delicate attention paid to the characters, and though their mouths were not spewing out Diablo Cody's loaded dialogue, they speak with swift effectiveness and never seem contrived. Much in the tradition of Robert Altman, or more directly Alexander Payne, it is the characters that are the driving forces behind the film's themes, and this allows them to unfold in a very organic way.

Of course, great characters are nothing if they aren't filled out with good acting. Even minor characters are supplied with wonderful performances--specifically, JK Simmons and Zach Galifianakis have great one-scene cameos as fired employees. Anna Kendrick (who I don't remember, but IMDb says I should have seen her in Twilight) is a revelation as Natalie. She looks like she's twelve, but rides an emotional roller coaster throughout the film that may have seemed a bit egregious if left in the hands of someone less talented. Vera Farmiga, an actress who seems to be forever a bridesmaid, is a wonder to watch as the catty Alex. She's a sexy seductress one moment, and then a shielded businesswoman the next. She may be on her way to an Oscar nomination.

Which leaves us with George Clooney, who I think is the very best movie star in Hollywood today. He's charming and funny, but has enough gravitas in his record to be seen as a serious actor. He has been a part of some great movies this decade, both in front and behind the camera, but Ryan Bingham may end up being Clooney's signature role and part of me feels it should be. Sure, Michael Clayton and Syriana expressed a darker side that many didn't see from him beforehand, but it is Clooney's playfulness that has made him a household name. Up In The Air allows him to flex his dramatic muscles, sure, but the performance reaches its peak when he is allowed to heckle and flash that wonderful grin. Ryan is an instinctively flawed human being, but that doesn't mean Clooney has to mope around the whole time.

Parts of the third act felt slow to me, and some moments were a bit more sentimental than I would have liked, but I guess this is part of the film's sensible appeal. The resolution will seem anticlimactic to some, but I didn't mind it that much. The film is filled with such break-neck poignancy and puts itself into a corner that is hard to get out of in the end. I feel that a less confident filmmaker would have punctuated the film with something more banal in fear that most of the audience would have felt jaded otherwise. I feel the ending is a good decision, one of many good decisions that add up to an exceptional film.

The Women

Could 2010 be the very first year that more than one woman is christened with a Academy Award Best Director nomination? In the history of the Oscar, only three women have been given the Best director nod (Lina Wertmuller, 1976; Jane Campion, 1993; Sofia Coppola, 2003), but none of them were ever considered serious contenders to win. This year, there are three women filmmakers who are serious contenders to get recognition for their directing. There's action film veteran Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), the Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (An Education), and a familiar face: Jane Campion, who made Bright Star, her best film in over a decade.

We all have the same feelings about Oscar: we all say that it doesn't have great significance in the long run of film history (Hitchcock, Kurosawa, P.T. Anderson, to name a few, have ever won one). The truth, within Hollywood circles, is that everyone wants one. But the golden statue could be particularly coveted by women filmmakers. Not because they want awards more than men, but specifically because they've never been given it. When Sydney Portier became the first black man to win a Best Actor award, it was considered revolutionary. When the first woman, white or black, wins Best Director, I assume it won't get the same amount of hoorah, but it should.

Bigelow directing in the desert...

I've seen The Hurt Locker, and feel that it was probably the greatest film made about the Iraq war. It was understated, methodical, and wondrously created. Bigelow, best known for her films Point Break and Strange Days, allowed the film to take its time which gave room for the characters to fully encapsulate the tension and obsession that comes with war. It was different from any war movie I'd ever seen, and I'd be very disappointed if she isn't recognized. I've yet to see An Education, but I've announced my love for Campion's Bright Star here. I won't delude myself into thinking that two of them, let alone all three, will be nominated (not with the big dogs like Peter Jackson and Clint Eastwood releasing films later in the year), but there is no denying that this year will give a lot of exposure to women filmmakers. Hopefully, Mira Nair's horrible Amelia won't set them back twenty years.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Amelia (*)

AMELIA
Directed by Mira Nair

*

There are a handful of people in history that you can just name and think "I'd like to see a movie about this person". Amelia Earhart is one of those people. Unfortunately, Amelia seems to be a film made by a bunch of people kicking around the idea about a film of Earhart, but with no idea how to execute it. The result is a stunningly boring film containing absolutely no characters, just caricatures.

It's not like the film does not have pedigree. It stars Hilary Swank in the title role, and has Richard Gear and Ewan McGregor in supporting performances. It also is directed by the visual seamstress Mira Nair, the filmmaker behind Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair. I'm not sure though, how much any of these people actually care about the story of Earhart, because what they produce is nothing more than a surface-y costume biopic that has no interest in telling a functional, engrossing story. Instead, viewers are forced to experience one of the most misguided film experiences of all time.

The film starts when Amelia is introduced to her future husband George Putnam (Gere), a feisty, opportunistic publicist who plans to make Amelia the female Lindbergh. She crosses the Atlantic (as a passenger, not a pilot), and is the first woman to do so. This does not satisfy her hunger for the air. George and Amelia fall for each other, and together they make her a public relations darling and product spokeswoman which supplies them with the money to fund her flying. After she successfully flies her own plane across the Atlantic, she becomes the most famous woman in America.

As she becomes a worldwide celebrity, she attracts the attention of fellow aviator Gene Vidal (McGregor). The two exchange knowing glances of passion, and before long indulge in their attraction. When George discovers the affair, though, Amelia quickly ends it, and realizes how much she has with George. Amelia convinces George to finance her next project: a flight around the world. She has the help of expert flight navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), who has a bit of a drinking problem. I think we all know what happened when she went on that flight.

If my plot summary felt vapid and unpoetical, it is only because the film itself is so completely convoluted and empty, that you're left with nothing but a fifth-grade picture book about Amelia Earhart. The film cannot focus on a central conflict. There is Amelia's struggle to thrive in a male-dominated profession (this includes combating the blatant misogyny of George). There is the romantic conflict, where she becomes torn between two men. Then, there is the conflict dealing with the difficulty of her flights--which, as we all know, was what lead to her demise. The film does not commit to any of these conflicts, and all are horribly underdeveloped. There is a scene where Amelia explains to George that she is free woman, who can't be held be "even the most attractive cage". The filmmakers expect us to just accept this as the major conflict, but it is simply too weak.

If we accept Amelia as an honest portrayal of Amelia Earhart, then we are also expected to believe that Earhart was nothing more than a unsuspecting adulteress who spoke in nothing but the most abominable cliches. She doesn't seem to possess anything in the way of emotion, which is interesting because she seems to smile and cry a lot--sometimes simultaneously. Perhaps most of the blame can be placed on Hilary Swank, who gives the most sluggish performance of her career, but she's not the only one to point the finger at. McGregor and Gere are equally mediocre, and Nair's direction is particularly lazy. There is absolutely no effort put forth by any of the filmmakers to capitalize on some of the more compelling opportunities the Amelia Earhart story presents. Which is a shame, cause its such an interesting story.

The last act has some punch, and Eccleston gives the only performance of substance, but the film never really encapsulates the aura of aviation I feel it should have. The Aviator kind of raised the bar for movies in that regard. The early word was that Amelia was going to be an Oscar bait film, and Swank was an early prediction for Best Actress. I could assume that the production of Amelia was probably rushed for its Oscar campaign, and I'd like to think that instead of simply that the filmmakers are mediocre. I wondered throughout the film why the characters of Amelia and George sounded like the Kennedys, but then I remembered: this film does not care about why something is, just that it is as much as possible.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are (****)

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Directed by Spike Jonze

****

I'll admit that I cannot be fair when reviewing this film. As a child, I was read the original story in beds, libraries, and classrooms. It was a seminal story of my childhood, and many others who I grew up with. It takes a lot of guts to make a feature-length film out of a much-celebrated, award-winning book that is all but ten sentences long. Where The Wild Things Are, based on the beloved book by Maurice Sendak, attempts to pull off this feat, and does it quite beautifully.

Like the book, the film follows Max (Max Records), a rambunctious young boy who thrives on adventure and mayhem. He finds solace in creating forts out of anything from snow or bedsheets. He's a very charming young man, but not all is going great in his home. His older sister has discovered boys, and could care less about hanging around her goofy little brother. His mother (Catherine Keener), though sweet and loving, is frustrated by a demanding job and Max's absent father. This all leaves Max alienated with his own wondrous imagination.

When Max's mother invites her new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) over for dinner, Max becomes indignant and rebellious. His mother wants none of it, and pleads for him to not embarrass her. "I'll eat you up!" Max declares, before jumping on top of her and taking a bite out of her shoulder. After a deep scolding, Max runs out of his home, traveling through the outskirts of his town (never discussed, but definitely somewhere northeast, maybe even Canada). He runs until he approaches a small sailboat, and jumps aboard.

Max rides the boat through a violent tempest, before landing on an island----this is the only pure break from the book, where the world is created simply from Max's room--crawling with large, idiosyncratic creatures, "wild things". Before the creatures have a chance to eat him, he declares himself king. They accept this fact without protest, and before long they are taking his orders happily and seeking the benefits of his rule. Being king of the island becomes troublesome, though, when small arguments turn into dissent, and Max must confront the tougher aspects of having responsibility over others.

The most fleshed-out aspect of the film version of Wild Things are Max's adventures on the island with the wild things. Wordless throughout the book, the wild things are now possessed by wonderfully neurotic characteristics and strong personalities. There is the woefully insecure but loyal Carol (James Gandolfini), the sassy, strong-minded Judith (Catherine O'Hara) and her mellow, hole-making lover Ira (Forest Whitaker), the persistent little guy Alexander (Paul Dano), the diplomatic Douglas (Chris Cooper), and the free spirit of KW (Lauren Ambrose). Each with their own specific quirk and endearing quality, they create a gripping heart throughout the film.

Together with Max, the wild things enjoy creating havoc, and their hobbies mostly consist of throwing dirt and building forts. It's a stroke of great subtlety that Max's life outside of the island is not described in explicit detail, instead allowing the wild things to describe the varying degrees of emotion a child must deal with when confronting the awkwardness of prepubescence. The wild things never stand as heavy-handed metaphors, instead playing there part consistently allowing everything else to be shown clearly.

Even when limited to voices, the performances from Gandolfini, Dano, and O'Hara are exceptional, providing some of the more poignant moments of the film. In limited time, Catherine Keener creates a mother character that is at times frazzled and other times warmly maternal. It's hard to be that mixed of emotions in such a short amount of screen time. The star of the show, of course, is Max Records who handles the role of Max with wonderful charm and energy. The performances of children are usually asterisked since its hard to judge their real motivations, but Records gives a performance that seems very honest and sincere to the character. A good deal of the film leans on his shoulders, and he never lets you down.

Those familiar with Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) will recognize that this is a shift in concept, but not in style. He has always been a bit of a wild thing himself, whether he was having Nic Cage playing the two brains of Charlie Kaufman or dancing in front of a building for a Fatboy Slim video. Partnered with Dave Eggers, they created a screenplay which perfectly encompassed the spirit of Sendak's work, even if it didn't exactly copy the plot. In retrospect, Jonze seems like the perfect candidate to rework Wild Things, and it is another film in what is already an impressive filmography.

I'm not sure how much Where The Wild Things Are will succeed as a children's film, since most kids these days are used to being talked down to and treated as incompetents. The wild things are witty and endearing, but they do have moments where they could be scary to a toddler. I'm not sure Jonze is really concerned about the commercial potential for the movie, but I know that he has had to fight to make the film the way he wanted to make it (with an $80 million dollar budget, no less). You have to respect an artist who fights for his own vision, and it makes a great film that much more satisfying.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Trailer Watch: Toy Story 3



Much of my childhood was consumed by the first two Toy Story films. Both of them have grown in beauty with each subsequent viewing, and I could still watch either of them today without them feeling dated. I don't know what has happened within the last eleven years that they feel they needed to add a new installment, but the new film trailer seems playful enough. The first two films were revolutionary in establishing the standard of Pixar, and you have to wonder if a Toy Story 3 will exhaust the tradition.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (***)

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
Produced, Written, and Directed by Michael Moore

***

Michael Moore is mad as fuck, and he's not going to take it anymore. He's taken his bazookas and ICBMs, and he's pointing them square into the face of the American economy--or more specifically, our economic system: capitalism. The ultimate showman, Moore has pulled out all the stops with his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, and crafted what is perhaps the angriest movie he's ever produced. A combination of stock footage, senatorial interviews, good ol' American history, and the usual touch of humor comprise this riotous piece which is made for the American worker, but completely against the American CEO (who may end of being the biggest "American" of them all).

As the film opens, we learn the history and culture of the Roman Empire: an empire comprised of excess and debauchery, usually visualized in the history books through the immense violence of the Colosseum and the perversions of its many corrupt emperors. Moore inter-cuts this narrated history with images of modern America, an empire which was, until recently, visualized by the faces of George Bush (Jr. & Sr.) and Ronald Reagan. An empire that contributed to the de-regulation of Wall Street and banking, which allowed the the richest 1% of America to make more money than the bottom 95% combined. Our leaders, this sequence suggests, were not unlike the rambunctious Romans, with their insufferable need to have more.

It is that sequence which cements the tone of Capitalism, and that tone never lets up. Throughout the film, Moore narrates with his soft, lullaby voice, showing various aspects of the crumbling working class. We see a family who films themselves as seven police cars drive into their driveway and break down their doors to evict them. We see a family being forced to throw out all of their own belongings, in order to get a $1,000 check from the bank (so they could at least have something, since they have nowhere to go). We also hear from Airline pilots who get paid less than $18 thousand dollars a year, and need to pick up food stamps between flights.

How do all of these horrors occur? Moore sees various reasons, most of them influenced by the greed of unregulated Wall Street brokers. We are shown how various big-time companies take out life insurance policies on there employees so they can cut a paycheck if they die (this is known, poetically, as the 'Dead Peasants' policy). We are introduced to the concept of "derivatives", which is never clearly explained (Moore asks several experts who can never come up with a comprehensive definition), but is explained basically as a running gamble throughout Wall Street betting that your home will be foreclosed. How are things like this legal? Well, it's easy when some of the heads of these companies are rubbing shoulders with the president.

Moore is despised by many for not being fair and balanced, and he has welcomed that criticism. Some of his actions are questionable--who really cares what Wallace Shawn thinks is happening to the American economy?--but his motives always seem to be for the people. His views have expanded with each film. Roger & Me dealt strictly with how his town of Flint, MI was devastated by the closing of a General Motors factory. Bowling For Columbine attacked the gun crisis. Fahrenheit 9/11 tried to take down the Bush administration. SiCKO tried to convince America to reform its Healthcare policy. Each consecutive film, each encompassing a wider concept, and each possessing a Michael Moore who is more and more grumpy.

Capitalism is his most irate and savage. Throughout the film, Moore advocates fighting and action--not physical fighting, but intellectual. The film interviews Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur, who advises those who are being foreclosed to not leave their homes, because the banks cannot throw you out without the proper legal paperwork, and most of that paperwork has become snowed-in through all the Wall Street garble. There is also a sequence dedicated to a union stand-off, when a large group of laid-off factory workers in Chicago refused to leave the factory until they received the money they'd earned. They gained national publicity, and eventually got what little they had asked for.

Sure, the film has moments where Moore allows himself to become bigger than the message. It's definitely entertaining to watch Moore trying to arrest the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and other conglomerates, and it's a pleasure to see him wrap crime scene tape over all of the entrances to those headquarters' buildings. But none of those moments are as effective as when we see what is really happening: the families being forced out of their homes and employees being fired so the higher-ups can get a pay-raise. We are given a grave, televised address from Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who asks, a year before his death, to add a second Bill of Rights to the Constitution, which will guarantee livable wages and healthcare--things he felt were natural human rights. Things that the Founding Fathers really believed in.

There are many other topics discussed throughout Capitalism, including an excellent sequence of how Conservative pontificaters have used Jesus to push further their horribly misguided message (we're the side of God, so come follow us), but what the film mostly inspires is anger. It's hard not to get upset when you see some of things presented. I'll sum this review up by quoting one of my heroes--Roger Ebert--discussing the movie. Ebert wrote in his review of Capitalism: "Capitalism works great--when you have all the capital". And perhaps more effectively wrote later: "The film's title is never explained. What does Moore mean? Maybe it's that capitalism means never having to say you're sorry."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Fall Oscar Predix (That Actually Matter)

With the passing of the festival season, our views of what films may or may not be courting Oscars in February are a little clearer. Films like Precious and The Hurt Locker (Yay!) have certainly grown in stature, while others are either sputtering toward the finish line (Avatar) or moving to the next year, altogether (Green Zone, Biutiful). Not that a whole lot has changed, really, just become more defined. And with that, I will showcase my latest picks:

BEST ACTOR
George Clooney, UP IN THE AIR
Matt Damon, THE INFORMANT!
Colin Firth, A SINGLE MAN
Morgan Freeman, INVICTUS
Viggo Mortenson, THE ROAD

Lately, there has been a slew of buzz for older actors with twilight performances, such as Hal Holbrook for That Evening Sun, Christopher Plummer for The Last Station, and Robert DuVall for Get Low. Despite all of their pedigree (and in the cases of Holbrook and Plummer, the Academy may feel like they owe them), I don't see any of them cracking the shortlist. Though I wouldn't be surprised if any of them supplant Mortenson, who seems to be running on reputation alone when it comes to his buzz for The Road. The biggest addition here is Colin Firth, who won Best Actor at Venice for his performance in A Single Man, as a gay man mourning the death of his lover. As for adding Clooney to my list, see a previous post to understand how I came up with that inclusion.

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore involved in Oscar time = my wet dream

BEST ACTRESS

Abbie Cornish, BRIGHT STAR
Charlotte Gainsbourg, ANTICHRIST
Carey Mulligan, AN EDUCATION
Gabourey Sidibe, PRECIOUS
Audrey Tautou, COCO AVANT CHANEL

Nothing has really changed for me here, except for my feelings for Bright Star. Having actually seen the film, I can say matter-of-factly that Cornish is exceptional in the role, and Campion already has a reputation for guiding great performances from her actresses. I'm still standing behind Gainsbourg, even if Antichrist is completely anti-Oscar. Mulligan and Sidibe seem as close to locks as anything can be in October, and though I'm not sure many will see it, I still think Tautou has a great shot for Coco avant Chanel. I know it’s hard to vote against Meryl Streep in an Oscar race, but Julie & Julia just never seemed to be a role to take seriously. Forgive me, I can’t love her in everything just because everyone else does.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Jeff Bridges, THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
Richard Kind, A SERIOUS MAN
Alfred Molina, AN EDUCATION
Stanley Tucci, THE LOVELY BONES
Christoph Waltz, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Since his Best Actor win at Cannes, Christoph Waltz has received nothing but praise for his fabulous, whimsical, multi-lingual creation of Hans Landa within Inglourious Basterds. He seems safe, but everything else is tricky. Both Jeff Bridges and Alfred Molina are seldom recognized talents (of coarse, Molina much more than Bridges), and have very showy roles which always helps in this category. Stanley Tucci is a character actor everyone loves, and that the Academy will want to recognize for a serious role. As for Richard Kind, it’s my experience that this category always has one unforeseen performance (a la Michael Shannon last year in Revolutionary Road), and he’s said to very good in A Serious Man.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Marion Cotillard, NINE
Vera Farmiga, UP IN THE AIR
Mo’Nique, PRECIOUS
Julianne Moore, A SINGLE MAN
Susan Surandon, THE LOVELY BONES

This race has been mostly a one-woman show, with Mo’Nique hogging all the glory. Hopefully, the precursor awards will shake this up a little bit. Cotillard is said to have the best role in Nine, and the fact that she was very good in Public Enemies helps. Surandon hasn’t been recognized in a long time, and Farmiga hasn’t at all—in both cases, the Academy will feel like they owe them. Farmiga may have some in-movie competition, with Anna Kendrick’s performance getting particularly good notices, but Kendrick will probably have to wait, just like Vera did. Which leads me to Moore, who I’ll admit is more of wishful thinking than movie society wisdom. My favorite actor ever, someone who has always ended up on the short end of many Oscar nights, is in prime position for A Single Man. Oh God, I’m excited.

BEST DIRECTOR
Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER
Lee Daniels, PRECIOUS
Clint Eastwood, INVICTUS
Peter Jackson, THE LOVELY BONES
Spike Jonze, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

I’m not sure if Daniels will get much credit for Precious, since it may be seen as more of an actor’s film, but it’d seem silly to ignore him since the film has the most buzz. As for Eastwood, the Academy may feel the cold sweats since they didn’t nominate him last year (and he had two films, after all). Peter Jackson is returning with what looks like a visually striking film, so he has a good shot. Kathryn Bigelow has a very good shot at being the fourth woman ever nominated in this category, and deservedly so, since The Hurt Locker is certainly the biggest critics darling of the year. As for Jonze, his Where The Wild Things Are is getting all kinds of good notices, but it will have to be a big hit. He’s put a lot of effort into telling this story.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Mark Boal, THE HURT LOCKER
Jane Campion, BRIGHT STAR
Scott Neudstadter & Michael H. Weber, 500 Days of Summer
Bob Peterson, UP
Quentin Tarantino, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Dave Eggers & Spike Jonze, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Nick Hornby, AN EDUCATION
Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh, THE LOVELY BONES
Damien Paul, PRECIOUS
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, UP IN THE AIR

All in all, the screenplay awards are tough to put your finger on, because they are so often a regurgitation of Best Picture nominees mixed in with some surprises. I feel 500 Days and Inglourious Basterds can get recognition here (and should). As for everything else, you’ll notice that they have something in common with this next category.

Clooney and Kendrick packing up for some Oscar noms...

BEST PICTURE
An Education
Bright Star
The Hurt Locker
Invictus
The Lovely Bones
Nine
Precious
Up
Up In The Air
Where The Wild Things Are

I could be misguided in thinking that Wild Things will get so much attention, but I just feel that it really has the potential to be something special. My original skepticism that The Hurt Locker would get ignored has waned a bit, though I’m still worried. Except for the addition of Up In The Air (and it’s recent snowball of buzz), this list is still similar to ones people had in the middle of the summer. Hard to really make fine predictions now that the field is this wide, but I feel secure with this list. **I will admit that The Lovely Bones has been nothing but hype since its trailer release a few months ago. Could it be a Benjamin Button situation, where so many people say it’s good before they see it, that they allow their eyes to lie to them?

BEST ANIMATED FILM
Coraline
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Ponyo
Up

Not that it matters, since Up has been a lock ever since it came out in May, but the early word is that this category will have enough qualifying films to expand to five nominees. May be a stretch to say Fantastic Mr. Fox makes it over the very successful Monsters v. Aliens, but that’s only hoping that Wes Anderson’s endless charm translates to animation.

Here are my early thoughts on the technical awards:

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Barry Ackroyd, THE HURT LOCKER
Lance Acord, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Dian Beebe, NINE
Grieg Fraser, BRIGHT STAR
Andrew Lesnie, THE LOVELY BONES

BEST ART DIRECTION
John Myhre, NINE
Sarah Greenwood, SHERLOCK HOLMES
K.K. Barrett, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
David Hindle & Christian Huband, BRIGHT STAR
David Wasco, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

BEST FILM EDITING
Sally Menke, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
Chris Innis & Bob Murawski, THE HURT LOCKER
Joel Cox & Gary Roach, INVICTUS
Joe Klotz, PRECIOUS
Claire Simpson & Wyatt Smith, NINE

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Janet Patterson, BRIGHT STAR
Coleen Atwood, NINE
Jenny Beaven, SHERLOCK HOLMES
Sandy Powell, THE YOUNG VICTORIA
Anna B. Sheppard, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

BEST SOUND EFFECTS/SOUND MIXING
**same thing, right?**
Avatar
Sherlock Holmes
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Up

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Avatar
District 9
Star Trek

BEST MAKE-UP
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
The Road
Star Trek

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Michael Giacchino, UP
Alexander Desplat, COCO AVANT CHANEL
Mark Bradshaw, BRIGHT STAR
James Horner, AVATAR
Elliot Goldenthal, PUBLIC ENEMIES

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
**After what happened with Bruce Springsteen last year, and the debacle that followed, I could care less about this category**

COMING SOON:
Capatalism: A Love Story
A Serious Man
Where The Wild Things Are

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bright Star (***1/2)

BRIGHT STAR
Written and Directed by Jane Campion

***1/2

John Keats died in 1821, when he was only slightly older than twenty-five years old. He left behind a rather vast and exceptional collection of poems, which established him as one of the greatest of the Romantic poets long after his death. The strength of passion behind his words is what separated him from most, and in Bright Star, Jane Campion's latest film, we are given the main muse behind all of that passion.

The film is in fact about Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a wistful young seamstress who is immediately taken when she comes face to face with John Keats (Ben Whishaw). Keats is a scrawny and scruffy young man, but Fanny is immediately drawn toward his cadence and grace. When Franny learns that his brother has taken seriously ill, she comes to offer some biscuits. She hopes to work her way closer into his heart, and soon after Keats' brother dies, Fanny and her family move into the house next door to his.

Before long, the two become romantically entangled. Though she doesn't know much about poetry, she enjoys letting Keats teach her. She wants dreadfully to understand, because she wants dreadfully to appreciate his art. Keats is charming, and he gets along well with Fanny's siblings and mother, but there is a rather large stumbling block preventing marriage between he and Fanny. Keats has not had success as a poet, and has no income--actually, he's in debt. He simply cannot afford to become a husband.

One other thing coming between their young romance is Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats' Scottish writing partner. Brown has invested a lot of time into helping Keats produce his best work, and the last thing he wants is Franny distracting him. Charles does his best to sabotage the relationship; he explains to both Keats and Fanny that their young love could only stunt the creative flow. Staunch and crass, Charles Brown is beyond indignant in his crafting of Keats, at the expense of Fanny's happiness.

Jane Campion is one of the more respected filmmakers in the business, renowned for her delicacy and a flair for bringing out the best in her actors. Both of those filmmaking traits appear in Bright Star, which is probably the best film she's made since 1993's The Piano. Period pieces about writers are rarely the most interesting of films, since the creation of art is never as exciting as the art itself (unless we're taking an anxiety-riddled, post-modern look ala Spike Jonze's Adaptation). What Campion does exquisitely, though, is focus on the romance which in turn, produces the writing.

In real life, Keats passed before he and Fanny could officially marry, and Bright Star sticks to that script. The two lovers never share more than conservative kisses, but through Campion's lens, they are showcased as passionate images of love. Of coarse, credit must go to Cornish and Whishaw who play their roles subtly and elegantly. Cornish, a soon-to-be movie star, gives the best work I've ever seen from her, injecting Fanny with much needed "steadfastness", as Keats would say, through her impish girlishness. Whishaw, certainly looking the part, does quite a good job of expressing the ultimate seriousness of the young, ambitious writer.

In his supporting role of Mr. Brown, Paul Schneider may very well be the best part of the film. He's callous and nasty, but still eloquent, witty, and downright irresistible. Brown is the main antagonist throughout the film, though he believes the whole time that he is working within Keats' best interest. In a scene I won't fully reveal, Brown has a riveting moment of self-reflection, which only seems non-contrived because Schneider plays the role so effortlessly and without judgment.

Is Bright Star a little long-winded? All you have to do is watch the trailer to realize that. Of coarse, it was a practice of the Romantics to be methodical and patient, trying to take note of all of the beauties that life had to offer. Well, Campion certainly notes all of the beautiful moments within this story, taking what was a rather tame conquest on the surface and making it an intense journey through young love. Containing some of the best shot work of her career, it's safe to say Campion is working in rare form, and it's good to see a woman filmmaker working well into her fifties--too bad the same couldn't be said for Keats.