Sunday, January 25, 2009

The SAGS Tonight


The Screen Actors Guild awards are tonight, and they're going to be playing on TBS & TNT simultaneously at 8 p.m. eastern time. If you're lucky, you'll be able to see it yourself, and won't be working--like me. Either way, nothing to really say here, but here are some quick predictions to throw out at you:

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Sean Penn, Milk

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Slumdog Millionaire

I don't have much conviction behind any of these predictions. Slumdog has won everything, so why not this one as well? As for the individual awards, I find it hard to think anyone can beat Ledger, and I think Cruz wins to cement her front-runner status in the Oscar campaign. For the leads, Penn is lucky that his only real competition--Rourke--is the only person in Hollywood that has a worse public relations record than he does, and that helps Penn in the end, though that race is getting a lot closer. For lead actress, I really have no idea. Hard to bet against Streep, but she hasn't had a major win at all during the Oscar season; and it seems to be destiny for Winslet to win the Oscar this year, but she wasn't Oscar-nominated for this performance. I say Hathaway, for little reason other than its my favorite performance of the group. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Oscar Nominations: A Review/Rant


There is a reason people dislike the Academy Awards--even film people. There are times when the Academy can seem so out of touch with everything that's going on in the real world, and settle for conventional films. They always tend to say 'no, thank you' to genre pictures, whether they be action, animated. Hell, even Michael Clayton's nomination last year was a surprise cause they don't even care for legal thrillers. As always, the Academy gravitates towards the same handful of genres: biopics, epics, costume dramas, and the Holocaust is a plus. Perhaps I was just spoiled because the Academy truly nailed it on the head with last years nominations (There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men? There will never be another year like that), and I forgot that it's not like that every year. Let's jump in with some analysis:


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Despite the combined critical praise and populist adoration, neither WALL-E nor The Dark Knight were able to make it onto this year's shortlist. There was no film in 2008 that had the magnitude of The Dark Knight or the beauty of WALL-E, but alas, they're a superhero movie and a cartoon respectively, so they're out. Instead, they honored the laborious, much-more-shallow-than-people-seem-to-realize The Reader. Benjamin Button and Slumdog were locks, so there's no surprise there, but I really felt that the lack of commercial success--and an apparently absent passionate fan base--of Frost/Nixon would cost it a nomination, but I was wrong. Not to be all negative, I'm very happy that they recognized Milk, though I think that all of its buzz for the win has vanished in the wind behind Slumdog Millionaire.


Stephen Daldry, THE READER
Gus Van Sant, MILK

A five-for-five match with the Best Picture line-up. Once again, The Dark Knight's Chris Nolan is booted out, despite doing the best film directing of the year (nobody made a more full realization of his film's world than Nolan). It's important to state that Stephen Daldry is now three-for-three for director nominations--he was nominated twice before for his only other two films, Billy Elliot and The Hours. Fincher, Howard, Boyle, and Van Sant round out the other four nominees, and other than Van Sant's Milk nomination, it is a very boring, uninteresting short list. I was hoping for either Mike Leigh (Happy-Go-Lucky) or Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married), but I already knew that was too much to ask.


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

In the war between the screen legend (Eastwood) and the dependable character actor (Jenkins), it seems that Richard Jenkins won. In The Visitor, Jenkins subtly displays a wide variety of emotions, and its good to see a hard-working actor get his due. Brad Pitt, playing the virtual spectre at the center of Benjamin Button gets his second career nomination--and first since 1995. I won't hate too bad on Pitt (though its a very lazy performance), as he's a very talented, seldom recognized actor, but where's the love for Burn After Reading? Langella, Penn, and Rourke round up the rest of the nominees.


Angelina Jolie, CHANGELING
Meryl Streep, DOUBT
Kate Winslet, THE READER

Well, here's a surprise for you: the Academy does not succumb to category fraud, and Kate Winslet's performance for The Reader is recognized in the lead category. It bumps out her other--superior--performance from Revolutionary Road, but I'm sure it doesn't make a difference to Winslet, whose longing for the coveted Oscar has been well-documented. Much like Jenkins in the actor category, Melissa Leo scraps her way to an Oscar nomination for her wonderful turn in Frozen River; unfortunately, she bumped out the other indie darling, Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky. Jolie, fresh off last year's major snub for A Mighty Heart, grabs the nomination for Changeling. Lastly, Anne Hathaway gets the nod for Rachel Getting Married, and Meryl Streep stretches her Academy-record with her fiteenth career acting nomination for Doubt.


Josh Brolin, MILK
Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER
Philip Seymour Hoffman, DOUBT

The only real surprise in this line-up is the inclusion of Michael Shannon in his scene-stealing turn as the brutally honest, but deranged mathmatician in Revoltutionary Road. I guess the Academy couldn't help at least one category fraud nomination, as Hoffman is nominated for his lead role in Doubt. In a performance that is particularly brilliant for its anti-Oscar sentiment, Robert Downey Jr.'s hilarious performance from Tropic Thunder gets recognized here, while Josh Brolin's Dan White from Milk also gets noticed (doesn't it seem like they're recognizing him for all of the great performances he had last year?). One thing that surely wasn't a surprise was the posthumous nomination for Ledger's haunting Joker in The Dark Knight. A win for Ledger seems imminent.


Amy Adams, DOUBT
Viola Davis, DOUBT
Marisa Tomei, THE WRESTLER

Doubt doubles up here with nominations for both Adams and Davis. They're both great in the film, but that logjam was probably what prevented Debra Winger or Rosemarie DeWitt getting recognition for their wonderful work in Rachel Getting Married--not to mention the brilliant supporting turns from numerous actresses in Synecdoche, New York, Samantha Morton particularly. Penelope Cruz's fiery performance from Vicky Cristina Barcelona gets noticed, as well as the matriarchal, sweet portrayal by Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button--the one aspect of that film that doesn't chill you to the bone. Lastly, Marisa Tomei's stipper-with-a-heart-of-gold (Academy loves those types) gets the nod for The Wrestler.


Dustin Lance Black, MILK
Courtney Hunt, FROZEN RIVER
Martin McDonaugh, IN BRUGES
Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, & Jim Reardon, WALL-E

Both Martin McDonaugh (yay!) and Andrew Stanton (double yay!) are nominated for In Bruges and WALL-E respectively, which makes my day, but Jenny Lumet's wonderful script for Rachel Getting Married is left out (BOO!). The greatest-hits tour for Frozen River continues here, as the films writer-director Courtney Hunt gets recognition, while Happy-Go-Lucky gets its one and only notice for Mike Leigh's script. Finally, Milk, the category's sole Best Picture nominee, gets a nomination for Dustin Lance Black.


David Hare, THE READER
Peter Morgan, FROST/NIXON
John Partick Shanley, DOUBT

When Doubt is the one non-Best Picture nominee that gets noticed in this category, it makes you wonder how close it may have been to getting a nod. Other than that, nothing very interesting here, except that The Dark Knight is ignored once again.


Kung Fu Panda

What a shocker, the Academy reserves WALL-E for this little three-picture ghetto. Is there ever a year in this category when it isn't one great film nominated against two obligatory choices? Stop hating on cartoons!


"Jai-Ho" and "O Saya" from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
"Down To Earth" from WALL-E

Pardon me, but WHAT THE FUCK!?!?!?! Where on Earth is Bruce Springsteen's wonderful song for The Wrestler? Last year, there was the problem of Enchanted taking three of the five nominations, and this year the Academy explicably switches the nominations from five to three, and once again, one film grabs more than half of the recognition.

For a full list of all the Academy Award nominees, click here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

2008: Year In Movies (Part V: The JC Awards)

Well, I've exhausted everything I can say about my favorite films of the year, but this here is different. Here, I'll give out my awards for what I feel are the best performances, screenplays, etc. of 2008. There's an overall ballot of five, including one gold, one silver, one bronze, and two honorable mentions.


Gold: Christopher Nolan, THE DARK KNIGHT
Silver: Jonathan Demme, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
Bronze: Andrew Stanton, WALL-E

Honorable Mention:
Darron Aronofsky, THE WRESTLER
Gus Van Sant, MILK


Gold: Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER
Silver: Sean Penn, MILK
Bronze: Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT

Honorable Mention:
Richard Jenkins, THE VISITOR
Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON


Gold: Kristen Scott-Thomas, I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
Silver: Sally Hawkins, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
Bronze: Melissa Leo, FROZEN RIVER

Honorable Mention:
Penélope Cruz, ELEGY


Silver: Ralph Fiennes, IN BRUGES

Honorable Mention:
Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER
Eddie Marsan, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY


Silver: Samantha Morton, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK

Honorable Mention:
Elsa Zylberstein, I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG


Gold: Rachel Getting Married
Silver: Milk
Bronze: Burn After Reading

Honorable Mention:
The Dark Knight
Synecdoche, New York


Gold: Andrew Stanton, WALL-E
Bronze: Martin McDonaugh, IN BRUGES

Honorable Mention:
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, BURN AFTER READING


Gold: Peter Morgan, FROST/NIXON
Silver: John Patrick Shanley, DOUBT
Bronze: Justin Haythe, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

Honorable Mention:
David Gordon Green, SNOW ANGELS
Nicholas Meyer, ELEGY


Silver: Wally Pfister, THE DARK KNIGHT
Bronze: Mandy Walker, AUSTRALIA

Honorable Mention:
Salvatore Totino, FROST/NIXON


Gold: Nathan Crowley, THE DARK KNIGHT
Silver: Adam Stockhausen, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
Bronze: Chris Lowe, IN BRUGES

Honorable Mention:
Brian Rzepka, FROZEN RIVER


Silver: Daniel P. Hill, FROST/NIXON
Bronze: Lee Smith, THE DARK KNIGHT

Honorable Mention:
Jon Gregory, IN BRUGES
Dan Lebantal, IRON MAN


Gold: Michael O'Conner, THE DUCHESS
Silver: Lindy Hemming, THE DARK KNIGHT
Bronze: Catherine Martin, AUSTRALIA

Honorable Mention:
Danny Glicker, MILK


Gold: Thomas Newman, WALL-E
Silver: James Newton Howard, THE DARK KNIGHT
Bronze: Danny Elfman, MILK

Honorable Mention:
David Hirschfelder, AUSTRALIA
Hans Zimmer, FROST/NIXON

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Last Chance Harvey (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Joel Hopkins


When you think of that great crop of method actors that came out during the late 60's and early 70's, our minds directly go to Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and occasionally we think of Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman's name doesn't automatically roll off the tongue the way those other names would, perhaps because his love for whimsy has separated him from the cut-throat characters by the other characters listed above. There is nothing truly rebellious about Dustin Hoffman, and some people think that makes him less edgy, when the truth is he's probably more versatile than any actor since Cary Grant.

So we have Last Chance Harvey, which uses Hoffman in an apparently simple role, but brings out some of the best from him in decades. In Harvey, Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a commercial jingle writer who is standing on his last legs with his job. He has to fly to London in order to be at his daughter's wedding, but promises to come right back in order to close a deal for a client. When he gets to London, he feels greatly alienated by his daughter and ex-wife, finds out that his daughter would rather have her step-father give her away at the ceremony, and soon after hears that he's being let go from his job.

Meanwhile, we have Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), an airline surveyor who's life is constantly interrupted by her meddling, lonely mother and friends always trying to fix her up with single men. Kate's mother sees her being single, almost as a condition, and worries greatly about her when she sees men. On top of that, Kate herself has become increasingly frustrated with her lack of luck with men and life. She finds it harder and harder to meet men, or even talk to them, and much rather succumb to a life of disappointment.

Disparaged at the wedding ceremony, Harvey cuts out early to try and catch his plane. Bumper-to-bumper traffic causes him to miss his plane, and he's forced to stay in London until the next morning. He goes to the bar, hoping to drink away his problems, and finds Kate looking to do the same thing. At first they are slightly contemptuous toward each other, but once they realize that they're both going through the same emotional hardship, a bond is formed. Harvey walks Kate to her class, they stroll through London discussing various things, and Harvey even invites Kate to join him at the wedding reception. Seemingly downtrodden earlier in the day, Harvey now finds an opportunity to replenish everything that he's been missing in life.

There is nothing in Joel Hopkins' script that is unpredictable, and the characters never take a step outside of the usual romantic dramedy guidebook. But watching this movie, I was totally entranced by the work of Hoffman and Thompson, that nothing could have erred it. Surprise is certainly the most overrated aspects of good films--only a film that is thematically lackluster should have to depend on surprise in order to be entertaining, and this film is anything but stilted in its themes.

Certainly this film could have been a real clunker if any other two actors had been chosen. I'm sure a studio head would have much rather made a film in America with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer ("It would be a One Fine Day reunion!"). Certainly, actors like Clooney and Pfeiffer are more beautiful, but there is so much more to be said in Hoffman's or Thompson's face. There are stories to be told in those faces, and those stories go far beyond "I'm attractive". Not that Hoffman and Thompson are ugly, mind you, just that they know how to play subjugated using only their cheekbones, and that is not always very pretty.

Hoffman is really in his element here, with his best work since 1997's Wag The Dog. Playing a man who is simply never the star of the room, Hoffman does not reject Harvey's character detractions, but is full-on with charm and humor. Playing alongside fellow Oscar-winner, Thompson, the two create a wonderful chemistry, despite over a twenty-year age differance. It sometimes hard to accept that Thompson started off her career as a stand-up comedian, but it makes sense when you figure the vast range she has as an actress. Sure her character here is a little too needy and forseeable, but her warmth makes the perfect companion to Hoffman.

Last Chance Harvey was released around Christmas time, though it wasn't really hitting any major audiences until this weekend. I'm not sure how big its target audience is, and unfortunately middle-aged romance isn't the hot ticket these days (I do realize calling the 71-year-old Hoffman "middle-aged" is stretching it, but I'll give him a bone here). Hit or not, the film is unbelievably effective, if sentimental. Certainly, its a film about groping with loneliness, and how that loneliness only gets harder with age.

Friday, January 16, 2009

2008: Year In Movies (Part IV: Top 10)


My Top 10 was delayed a bit this year, with all the studios deciding that late-December, early-January releases were the way to go (I've spoken at length about this in previous "2008: Year In Movies" articles). Alas, though, I've seen everything that I've wished to see--you'll notice that I'm doing this list before I see Last Chance Harvey or Defiance, please forgive me for that. So, that being said, here's the ten best films of 2008. (*note: You may notice the indie-heavy lineup. This is not meant to be a statement against studio films, but I think it's worth mentioning that they did very little work in supporting more personal films)


WALL-E is officially the most adorable robot in cinematic history--not that he's had much competition (perhaps R2-D2 or Jonny-5 from Short Circuit?). That alone, though, is not the reason why WALL-E is the best film of 2008. It captures that recognition because it is easily the most effective love story to hit the screen since 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It also earns it because it is the first film that truly breaks the barrier between animated and live-action, with characters so entrancing that the few live-action moments in the film blend in with no awkwardness. It is also the best because it is impeccably made, with director Andrew Stanton using astonishing visuals to add rich texture to the future world it takes place in. The film is simply intoxicating in all the ways a film can be, and even with its sub-plot dealing with human will and environmentalism, it never sacrifices its innocence.

2. The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's bare-bones film drips with torment and redemption. How do people live when their lives are comprised of abuse and pain? Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) knows about hard times, especially in the shadow of the good times. Rourke gives a punishing (literally) performance as Randy, a professional wrestler who can't help but crawl back to the only place that makes sense to him: the wrestling ring. With career-topping work from Rourke, and an equally astonishing performance from Marisa Tomei--as a stripper Randy falls in love with--the only thing that could make The Wrestler a better movie is a theme song written and performed by Bruce Springsteen. Oh, wait, it's got that too.

3. Rachel Getting Married

After a good deal of clunkers, Jonathan Demme has finally re-emerged into the film world with this beautiful film. As Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) prepares to get married, her only worry is that a visit from her troubled sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) might open some old family wounds. Using a documentary style, Demme's atmospheric filmmaking literally brings us into this dysfunctional family, including a meddling father (Bill Irwin), as well as a distant, secretive mother (Debra Winger). We become a part of this wonderful, entertaining, and particularly ethnic wedding, and find it hard to let go even when the characters do. Orchestrating a spectacular ensemble performance, Demme wins us over with a lovely film that has as much to do with guilt as it does about family.

4. In Bruges

Not since Pulp Fiction have two hitmen been so charming. After they foil a job badly, both Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent off to Bruges, Belgium to hide out until the smoke clears back home. What is there to do in Bruges? Well, according to this film, there really isn't much of anything, and as the two of them fight boredom--and guilt for their crimes--they encounter many strange people, including a drug dealing young women, a principled and pregnant hotel manager, and a bitter, racist dwarf. If things couldn't get any stranger, things go really hay-wire when their hot-headed boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), comes to Bruges to join in on the fun. Written and directed by the award-winning playwright Martin McDonaugh, In Bruges pulls off the perfect balance of hilarious dialogue and bleak, dark themes; and possesses wonderful performances from Farrell, Gleeson, and Fiennes.

5. Milk

What relevance a film like Milk has in this day and age. As gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, Sean Penn gives a beautiful performance, encompassing a man who spent the last decade of his life fighting to bring equality for homosexual men and women. After becoming the first-ever openly gay elected official, Milk was assassinated by another City Supervisor Dan White. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film has a real heart at the center of the character of Milk, but is careful not to lionize the man, always giving a careful eye to his exuberance as well as his neediness. With a handful of wonderful supporting performances--including Josh Brolin as Dan White, James Franco as Milk's lover Scott, and Emile Hirsch as the enthusiastic campaigner Cleve Jones--the movie is a testament to a great man. Luckily, the testament is a great film as well.

6. Tropic Thunder

Speaking of relevance, not since Robert Altman's The Player has Hollywood satire been so dead-on and so hilarious simultaneously. Directed by comedic guru Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder pulls off an impressive balance of biting satire, exciting action, and cramp-inducing hilarity. Dealing with a group of primadonna actors that are thrown into the jungle to shoot an expensive Vietnam picture, the cast includes Ben Stiller as pin headed action star, Jack Black as a drug-addicted comedian, and Robert Downey Jr. as an award-winning method actor who dyes his skin brown to play an African American. With particularly brilliant work from Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder is easily the funniest film of 2008. P.S. let's not forget the surprising turn from Tom Cruise as an overweight, excessively-hairy mogul Lex Grossman.

7. Reprise

Released in Norway in late 2006, Joachim Trier's debut film Reprise never saw US audiences until June of 2008. This film involves two young novelists--Philip (Anders Danielsen-Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Høiner)--and how each react to their separate literary success. Philip, dealing with a devastating break-up, has a nervous breakdown and becomes almost a recluse, while Erik seems to find it hard to separate his success with the mediocre quality of his writing. Documenting youthful exuberance and the enthusiasm that comes with brewing creativity, Trier's film is a stirring, excitable piece that takes full advantage of its cast of mostly amateur actors. With the pressure of success, sometimes comes your downfall--no other film sings that sermon better than Reprise.

8. Happy-Go-Lucky

In a world full of cynics, there is at least one person in the world who sees the sunny side of life, and that's Poppy (Sally Hawkins). Directed by Mike Leigh, using his usual blend of naturalistic acting and broad plo
ts, Happy-Go-Lucky is an expertly-crafted film about one person who refuses to let any one's sour mood bring her down. Guided by a superb performance from Hawkins, the movie noodles around the life and times of Poppy, not particularly sticking to any one particular aspect of its plot, but instead basking in the cheery attitude of its leading lady. The main sub-plot though, involves Poppy's volatile driving instructor Scott (brilliant Eddie Marsan). The complete antithesis of Poppy, the scenes between Marsan and Hawkins involves some of the best highlights of the film. Even when her cheekiness nearly reaches annoyance, there is no way that you could leave the film not wanting to be more... well, Poppy.

9. Revolutionary Road

Not since American Beauty has director Sam Mendes made a more fully realized film. Based on the famous Richard Yates novel, Revolutionary Road is the story of the dysfunctional Wheelers, Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet). At one time a young, ambitious couple, the Wheelers are now a suburban family, trapped in every way by the conventions of societal constrictions. Mendes' film is like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on steroids, not for a second relenting on the hellish trip the Wheelers take on their inevitable downward spiral. Sparked by a spectacular supporting performance from Michael Shannon as a deranged, but truthful man who reflects the Wheelers' disappointments back onto them, the movie is a warning sign to the trials of marriage, and the consequences of marrying someone who you don't truly know.

10. Burn After Reading

When the Coen Brothers decided to follow-up their Oscar-winning
No Country For Old Men with this farce, the common opinion was that they were just taking it easy; making a romp after their exhaustive work on the unbelievably serious No Country. Those people missed an opportunity to see an incredibly intelligent satire on the greedy, image-conscious American society we know all-too-well. The film tracks the various degrees of stupidity between two gym employees (Frances McDormand & Brad Pitt), their boss (Richard Jenkins), a CIA agent (John Malkovich), his volatile wife (Tilda Swinton), and a government officer (George Clooney) with an obsession with exercise and good flooring. Also, look out for appearances from the Russian embassy and a bizarre sex toy. Will there ever be a better dissection of Bush America? I find it hard to think so.

TIED FOR 11TH PLACE (other good movies from the year)

Both The Dark Knight and Iron Man did a wonderful job resuscitating the successful, but floundering comic book genre using wonderful performances and excellent thematic writing; James Marsh's Man On Wire was not only a compelling documentary, but a brilliant recall of overbearing vanity and impressive performance art; Frost/Nixon is an exceptionally-made picture about the deconstruction of one of the most notorious men in American history; Courtney Hunt's debut feature Frozen River was a powerful film about matriarchal struggle (with a superb performance by Melissa Leo); John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his own play, Doubt, has one of the more remarkable casting ensembles in a long time, and capatalizes on it; and Phillipe Claudel's ethereal and solemn I've Loved You So Long may be the best debut film of the year (if we're counting Reprise from 2006, that is).

The Wrestler (****)

Directed and Produced by Darren Aronofsky


A lot of people think that wrestling is fake. The soap opera between the good guys and bad guys are very fake, and so is a majority of the choke holds and punches. But when you see a pro-wrestler get body-slammed off of the top step of a 14-foot ladder onto a wooden table laced with barb wire, that is real. These guys beat themselves up more than any other people on the planet. Who would want to get into this kind of job; live this kind of lifestyle? Darren Aronofsky's masterful film, The Wrestler, is a document of the kind of emotional human being that it takes to receive the punishment you see in pro-wrestling.

In the 1980's, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was a pro-wrestling superstar, achieving the kind of success few in that profession ever see. Today, Randy is a broken down man, performing in small gymnasiums for a handful of people. He can barely pay the rent in his trailer park, and can't convince his boss at the supermarket to give him more hours. More than that, though, his body is breaking down. Not only does he need a very visible hearing aid, but he's forced to resort to steroids and other hard drugs to stay in shape. He reaches his limit, though, when he suffers a serious heart attack after a particularly grueling wrestling match.

His doctor tells him that his professional wrestling career must end if he wants to stay alive. All of the years of abuse has taken a toll, and now he must pay the price. With nothing else to do, Randy takes solace in a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). Cassidy, as well, has to deal with getting older in a profession dominated by youth, and visits from Randy are some of the few things she enjoys at her job. Cassidy convinces Randy that the main person he should be spending time with during this tormenting stretch is his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Some of the old wounds are hard to bond, but eventually Stephanie gives in to her charming father.

But alas, Randy's heart still reaches for the wrestling ring, and even life-threatening consequences can't stop his obsessive need for the spotlight again. Promoters set up a twenty-year rematch between The Ram and his arch-rival The Ayatolla (Ernest Miller), and Randy cannot turn it down. His crawl back into the professional wrestling lifestyle is equally exhilarating and heartbreaking, embracing the only place in the world where he feels worth a damn: the wrestling ring.

There is no other movie character in 2008 films that is more compelling than Randy "The Ram". Behind a career-reviving performance from Mickey Rourke, Randy is equal parts charming and sweet, as well as destructive and tormented. His quixotic compulsion to be the star of the ring is so emcompassing that his slow, inevitable decline is only redeemed by Randy's radiant accomplishment. A portrait of a man down-and-out, Rourke gives the performance of a lifetime, as we root for him even through his blunders.

The film was directed by Darren Aronofsky, the mastermind behind brilliant Requiem For a Dream and the inept The Fountain. He's certainly a fan of making fairly hard-hitting films, and while The Wrestler is not nearly as harsh as Requiem, it is relentless in shining light on the most unattractive aspects of these characters. Aronofsky really strips it down with this film, with incredibly bare cinematography, sometimes washing out the settings with light, sometimes using natural. It's an atmospheric film, not unlike Rachel Getting Married.

It's those astonishing performances though, that really makes The Wrestler a true treasure. As I've said, Rourke does career-defining work here, but is also supported by a wonderful job from Tomei. At the ripe age of 44, Tomei has never been more transparent, more beautiful, more moving. The two characters yearn for the times when they had their youth, when their beauty and strength was well enough to satisfy them in life, and when their only responsibilities in life were to themselves. The two seem on course for Oscar nominations and well-deserve it.

The Wrestler is one of the very best films of 2008, and it is too bad that the film has been kept away from general audiences for so long. As a sports film, it is not unlike Rocky with its heart for the underdog, or like On The Waterfront with a protagonist who just wishes to be a contender. It's a film about the fight for redemption, and how it affects us whether or not you are able to gain it. Randy wants to right all the wrongs that he's done in his life, sure, but more than anything he wants to be loved. He wants love from Cassidy and he wants love from Stephanie, but neither of those are even comparable for him to the love of the crowds.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Great Films: Se7en (1995)

Directed by David Fincher

As critics and audiences alike go ga-ga for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, lets take a trip back to 1995, when Benjamin Button director David Fincher's only job had been Alien 3. After a luke-warm response to that film, Fincher approached a moderately green screenwriter in Andrew Kevin Walker about directing one of his screenplays. It was a film about two cops tracking down a serial killer. Pretty generic stuff, it seems, but Walker's script along with the masterful cinematic eye of Fincher went on to become one of the best and most disturbing psychological thrillers ever made.

Walker's script is about William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a homocide detective in the gritty parts of New York City. Retirement is approaching in just seven days, and it can't come any faster for Somerset, who has allowed the grizzly murders that he witnesses everyday to effect his view on the world. He no longer wants to see the darkest aspects of humanity, but just wants to spend some time by himself. Det. David Mills (Brad Pitt) is the new transfer who will be mentored in NYC Homicide by Somerset before his departure a week later. Somerset does not trust Mills' confidence and impulsiveness, and does his best to convince him that working homicide in this town is different from working it any place else.

When they find a 500-pound man dead, face first in a plate of spaghetti, Somerset is concerned that the bizarre murder (apparently "fed to death") will only be the beginning of a stretch of murders. His suspicions come true when he finds the word "gluttony" written on the wall of the fat man's home. The next morning, Mills is put in charge of a case involving an important defense attorney who was stabbed to death in his high-level office. The word "greed" is written in the office's carpet with the attorney's blood. Somerset is able to put it together, a man is going around murdering those who break any of the "seven deadly sins".

Even as they get closer and closer to the killer (they find out that his name is John Doe), the strategic murderer is still able to complete his works of extreme violence. Each time performing the next killing with more malice and perversion. They find a man that John Doe has literally strapped and bound to a bed for an entire year, nourishing him just enough to stay alive, but not enough to spare him incredible pain (Sloth). They find a prostitute stabbed to death in quite an untorthodox fashion (Lust). They find a pretty girl who commited suicide after John cut up her face (Pride).

Everything leads to the film's most powerful moment: it's third act. With still a half-hour left in the film, John Doe reveals himself. Covered in blood, he surrenders to Mills and Somerset, despite being only two murders away from finishing what he started. Unlike many thrillers, the film's killer is given equal ground when he's on the screen. We know that he is evil, but he is also articulate, and most of all, tired of the way people flaunt their sins in the face of everyone who can see. John Doe is played by Kevin Spacey.

Leading up to that reveal, the film is pulsating with suspense as each murder is unveiled with shocking detail, but the film's entire dynamic changes once Doe is on the screen. In a scene of brilliant writing and acting, Mills, Somerset, and Doe sit in a police car as John promises to drive them to the next two corpses before completely surrendering to the police. Mills chides Doe for being a psychotic, but the soliloquy that John then indulges in is one so poetic, you are very nearly moved by Doe's nihilistic actions. A strong case could be made that these are career-best performances from Freeman, Pitt, and Spacey.

The real star, though, is Fincher. He would gain a legion fandom four years later when he directed the cult classic Fight Club, but Se7en is the film that brought him to the forefront of formidable filmmakers. He washes the entire film in darkness, and dresses the movie's sets as if they were from the 1940's. A dark story already indeed, but Fincher is not satisfied enough as he fills the screen with shadows and the dampest, darkest corners of the world. Never before have I seen a present-day movie setting look more like Hell.

Despite the film's unrelenting violence (each murder is covered with incredibly graphic notice), the film became one of the biggest hits of 1995. It undoubtedly helped Spacey boost his profile before winning the Oscar the next year for The Usual Suspects (I'm sure there are many today who would rather have awarded him for this film instead). It was Brad Pitt's first real box-office success as a lead performer, and he would continue to be one of the biggest stars in the world (it's amazing the lack of commercial success a celebrity of his calibur has acheived). This is a film that is completely unrelenting, and set the bar for murder mysteries for the next decade.

*note: Unfortunately, the success of Se7en has done nothing more than inspire less than stellar murder mysteries like Saw or Hostel. These films lack any of the intelligence that Se7en possesses, and none of those films should be admired without watching Se7en first.

Monday, January 12, 2009

7 Awesome Moments From The Golden Globes


I've been particularly harsh when it comes to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's little celebrity get-together The Golden Globes, because they can be so shamelessly about celebrity and chic, and nearly ignore the more honorary aspects of an award show. That being said, the Globes have always been a rebel flag waving in the face of other Guilds and Academies, and for the first time this awards season, a major awards system made an effort to really shakes things up. Colin Farrell winning for Best Actor (Comedy/Musical) was a pleasant surprise, and so were these other seven moments:

1. Ricky Gervais introduces Happy-Go-Lucky and tells people to "Shush!"

Was I the only one terribly disappointed to find out that Ricky Gervais wasn't going to be the one to host the Academy Awards next month? Small moments like his four minutes on the stage last night is enough evidence to show that he's magic in front of an audience. In front of a notoriously rowdy group at the Globes, Gervais spilled out: ''How rude are you lot? Just because you're film stars? Shusssh!". He then went on a hilarious stint speaking about his disastrous attempts to get his film Ghost Town to be nominated for awards, and vowed to never "have sex with 200 middle-aged journalists" again.

2. John Adams continues to sweep EVERYTHING

I'm not much a mini-series kind of guy, but you don't have to be to understand that the seven part series John Adams is a true masterpiece and incredibly accurate story of American history. It's Globe awards included Best Actress (Laura Linney), Best Actor (Paul Giamatti), and Best Mini-Series/Made for TV Movie. Other than Tom Hanks' lightning speed acceptance speech (he was the film's producer), there weren't any particular magical televisions moments in any of their wins, its just nice to see something good win for a change.

3. Sally Hawkins tops Meryl Streep

Like I said, the Globes are an industry that cherishes star power, so the most pleasant win of the night was easily the little-known (in America anyway) Sally Hawkins for the splendid film Happy-Go-Lucky. Taking close to twenty minutes to approach the stage (cause her table was strategically placed at the far end of the ballroom), she stood in front of the microphone barely able to contain her own emotions. In a category where Meryl Streep (Mamma Mia!) seemed almost like a sure thing, a little, skinny Brit came out on top after all.

4. 30 Rock shows (in more ways than one) why it rocks

It's easy to get annoyed with the amount of critical success that the sitcom 30 Rock has achieved, especially compared to its dismal ratings, but with its three wins brought out the best in the show's recipients. Alec Baldwin chided Rumor Willis about handing her juice boxes years ago, while Tina Fey announced to all her Internet enemies that they can "suck it". Best of all, though, was unstable comedian (and 30 Rock star) Tracy Morgan accepting the statue for Best Series, and exclaiming "I'm am the face of post-racial America! Take that Cate Blanchett!"

5. The president of HFPA promises to keep it short... and does!

How often is the audience tortured by over-indulgent speeches from the presidents of, say, the Academy or the Screen Actors Guild? As HFPA president Jorge Camara approached the microphone after being introduced by Eva Mendes, he promised that he would spare us all from ramblings in his broken English, and went on to keep the promise as he then thanked everyone for coming and told everyone to have a great night, and took a quick opportunity to exit the stage. No boring soliloquies followed by laborious slide shows chronicling all the great stuff the industry has done. Simple... and awesome.

6. Kate Winslet wins twice, and is equally gracious

When Kate Winslet approached the stage after winning Best Supporting Actress for The Reader, it was good to see Winslet (a five-time nominee--no wins) go up to the stage overcome by emotion. More surprising, though, was her upending of Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in the Best Actress-Drama award. Winning for Revolutionary Road, Winslet actually apologized to her fellow nominees (though it took her some time to remember Angelina Jolie) for being such a surprise winner. More than anything, this throws a major wrench at all of the Oscar prognosticators who saw the Best Actress as two-woman race between Hathaway and Streep. Now, its all over the place. Congrats, Kate.

7. Mickey Rourke wins; gets one-finger salute from Aronofsky

It must have been a pretty bad omen for television producers when Rourke nearly stumbled over his own feet trying to walk up the stage, because that was just the beginning of the five minutes of destruction Rourke would then create. In a rumbling, scrambling speech which referenced the phrases "balls" and "son-of-a-bitch" several times, Rourke would thank everyone from Axl Rose to his pet dogs, but the highlight of the moment was when cameras cut to director Darron Aronofsky who took opportunity to flip Rourke a major bird on a national television. Only in America can someone with the issues and discipline of Mickey Rourke get a standing ovation for having a career renaissance.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bride Wars (*)

Directed by Gary Winick


Think of the plot of Bride Wars: two women who are best friends become mortal enemies as they both get in the way of the other's perfect wedding. Think about how dull that sounds on paper. Yet, all that aside, someone thought enough to bring that very plot to the big screen, and invest in the careers of two talented young actresses no less. Of coarse, Bride Wars is not a film made with the intention of winning Oscars or getting four-star reviews from Manohla Davis, so in that case, I probably forgive this film, but I can't excuse its blandness.

Liv (Kate Hudson) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) are very best friends, and have been so seemingly since the womb. When they were young girls, they attended a wedding at the Plaza in Manhattan. From that moment on, they both established their dream wedding: June, in the Plaza, with no particular preferance on the groom. First things first, though, they have to be engaged, and of coarse, the two are conveniently proposed to within days of each other and scamper to make plans for their perfect ceremony.

They get in touch with Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergan), a legendary wedding planner who tells the two girls that there are two seperate openings in the Plaza in June. Perfect! Oh wait, a mistake is made--a mistake which makes no sense outside of this movie--and now Liv and Emma have their weddings scheduled on the same day. The two come together rationally, and decide to take their time before one of them makes the decision to try a completely different venue.

When Liv gives out her Save-the-Dates before a decision is made, Emma decides that it is now personal and the Bride Wars begin, indeed. Within weeks, Liv and Emma have halted communication with each other, and mayhem ensues: including horrible pranks involving body tan and blue hair dye. Needless to say, the grooms take a backseat to these hijinks, seemingly as important to the brides-to-be as waiters.

I understand the point of this film as an attempt to satirize the wedding-crazed culture some women can be emersed in. The problem is that this film has less a mind to satirize that it almost comes off sounding like an endorsement. Worse yet, the film has no true grasp of the actual entertaining aspects of its own story, and instead we are left with hackneyed plot conventions and stock female characters that border on assinine.

I will say that I liked this movie about as much as you can like a one-star film, and that is because you almost feel bad for the talented actresses involved. Hudson is a former Oscar-nominee, and second-generation movie star; while Hathaway is a future Oscar-nominee (we're all hoping) that has been quite a bright spot in Hollywood films for quite a few years now. Both of these actresses are immensely skilled, but are nearly wasted in these roles, where the dialogue rolls out their mouths like potatos.

I know, I know, Bride Wars is an easy target for somebody like me, so I hope it helps to say that I have no personal grudge against the filmmakers, nor did I find the film as torturous as, say, The Reader. But here is the truth: there was no effort put forth for this film. The writing is lazy, the direction is uninspired, and Hathaway, Hudson, and Bergan all play down to the level of the screenplay. Its lowest-common-denominator filmmaking, and I expect better for my price of admission.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Magic At The Broadcast Film Critics Awards


Forgive me for not watching the "Critics Choice Awards" last night, but I find it hard to take it seriously when 1) it decides to broadcast itself on VH1 and 2) the BFCA makes the Hollywood Foreign Press look like the American Film Institute. I chuckle that they even have the gaul to call themselves the "critics choice" awards on their broadcast. But I digress, while seeing highlights of the ceremony, there actually was one magical moment I would have loved to see live...

That's right, it's a tie! There are so many things to love about this TV clip. For starters, there's the overflowing, yet hysterical acceptance speech from Hathaway ("I don't know how to win awards, I know how to not get nominated for awards"). There's the great wit and grace with which Viola Davis accepted the award for the missing Meryl Streep ("She would have especially thanked me"). But even better (and more memorable) is the metallic ice queen glare Angelina Jolie seems to be shooting at everyone when she didn't win for Changeling. Note to Angelina: pouting doesn't get you brownie points with the Academy.

More to the point, though: I know this was a tie, but this is a very big win for Hathaway. Not because the BFCA means anything, but because her youthful enthusiasm at the podium reminds me greatly of Marion Cotillard. Remember how well Cotillard played the press and later upended Julie Christie in the end? Don't be surprised if Hathaway is able to do the same thing, especially after Streep's soliliquy on refusing to campaign for her awards (like she has to). Streep is still the front-runner, but the wedge between her and Hathaway just got a whole lot smaller with that win last night.

The (Other) Guilds Have Spoken


Nine days into the new year, and we finally have the nominees for all of the Guild categories. I've already spoken at length about the Screen Actors Guild nominations, but here we'll discuss the Writer's, Director's, and Producer's Guild. Let's jump right in with some analysis.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire

If we're talking in terms of all the websites and TV shows that have been predicting a Best Picture line-up, this short list is spot-on. As you know, I think there will be a little more "animated" Best Picture list. That being said, it's seeming more and more likely that this hackneyed group of films will end up being the ones announced on Oscar nomination morning. I was hoping that the Producers Guild would cause a little stir, perhaps nominate Doubt, The Wrestler, or WALL-E, but this is certainly the most conventional five that they could come up with.

"We will be nominated! We're gonna make em' choke!" -Richard Nixon


Best Original Screenplay
Dustin Lance Black, MILK
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, BURN AFTER READING
Robert Siegal, THE WRESTLER

Best Adapted Screenplay
Peter Morgan, FROST/NIXON
Jonathan Nolan, Chris Nolan, & David S. Goyer, THE DARK KNIGHT
John Patrick Shanley, DOUBT

At least these guys mixed it up a little bit. In the original half, we have the emergence of Woody Allen, who despite being the most nominated screenwriter in Oscar history, was getting little to no traction for his Vicky Cristina Barcelona script; and the Coen Brothers get their first real notice for their Burn After Reading screenplay. These two surprises caused Jenny Lumet's Rachel Getting Married script to get bumped out, as well as Courtney Hunt for Frozen River. This could spell doom for the little indie films, though either can be swapped for Tom McCarthy's The Visitor script (Oscar rarely nominates TWO indies in the same category). As for adapted, the only thing these nominations do is lessen the chances for Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) and David Hare (The Reader).

Yeah, this movie is pretty irresistible.


Christopher Nolan, THE DARK KNIGHT
Gus Van Sant, MILK

The DGA noms are usually the closest thing we can come to a Best Picture preview, as they consistently match the Oscar shortlist. I stand strong by my conviction that the lack of any real commercial success for Frost/Nixon will hurt it come Oscar time, but I'm looking stupider and stupider by the moment with that prediction. If this list does anything, it pretty much hammers the point home that films like WALL-E or Rachel Getting Married have seemingly no chance at crashing the high-brow party come Oscar time. It's not enough that 2008 was a pretty underachieving year as far as films go, but the monotony of the awards season has made it flat boring as well.

<---- I predict this will be Jonathan Demme's (Rachel Getting Married director) pissed, though not surprised face when he gets screwed over by Academy convention.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Some Films To Look Forward To In 2009


There are plenty of Hollywood blockbusters to look forward to in 2009 like G.I. Joe or Star Trek, and plenty of Oscar-grubbing Fall products like the Meryl Streep-hemmed Julie & Julia, but what I'm writing about here are films that I'm particularly looking forward to. These ten films are ones that I can't possibly wait long enough to see.

Feb. 13

With the sudden retirement of Joaquin Phoenix, it seems that Two Lovers will become the last time to see him on the silver screen if he follows through on his promise. The premise is about a young man (Phoenix) who is having trouble choosing between a strait-laced woman his parents adore (Vanessa Shaw), and the beautiful, scatter-brained neighbor across the street (Gwyneth Paltrow). Sure, Phoenix is the story, but I'm more interested in seeing Paltrow and Shaw. Gwyneth seemed to rejuvenate her career with the tender, but glorious performance in Iron Man, but Shaw is a talented actress who has always toiled in b-films like Corky Romano or Ladybugs, but she seems to be given a vital opportunity to show her gifts in this film. Directed by James Gray.

Mar. 6

The controversy revolving around the film's release is still alive and well (Warner has decided to let the case's judge decide the film's fate), but that aside, this is easily the most anticipated movie of early 2009. Adapted from the classic graphic novel, the early word is that the film is unbelievably faithful, behind the direction of 300's Zack Snyder, and perfectly encompasses the look and tone that made the comic such a masterpiece. The story deals with costumed vigilantes brought down by the government, and when one of them is murdered, an investigator named Rorshach (Jackie Earle Haley) uncovers terrifying facts. A chance to be a Dark Knight-sized hit.

Mar. 13

When you're told that you are watching a film from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine, there are certain connotations that go hand-in-hand with that. We are meant to believe we will be watching an unbelievably quirky dramedy, featuring emotionally scarred characters who defend themselves with their abrasive sense of humors. Okay, well Sunshine Cleaning doesn't seem to do anything to break that stereotype, but it does have a wonderful cast that includes Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, and Steve Zahn. We have two sisters (Adams and Blunt) who have underachieved at life, and have taken up a job cleaning up the mess after gruesome murders. Could be a very endearing indie nugget early in the year.

Apr. 24

This film was pushed back from an initial November 21st release, because they'd given up on the film as an Oscar contender, and thought April would give the film a better oppurtunity to be successful, box office-wise. It's directed by Atonement's Joe Wright, and is about a troubled journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) who takes up a friendship with schizophrenic homeless man (Jamie Foxx), who was an incredibly gifted cello player once upon a time. The film seems like a total sentimental weepie at first glance, but if you look at the film's pedigree (Downey Jr., Foxx, Wright), there is no reason to think that this film won't be anything less than a moving, wonderfully crafted tale of redemption.

May 29

When it was entertaining audiences in the film festival circuit last Fall most of the talk was about how director Rian Johnson's follow-up to the indie smash Brick was eerily similar to the films of Wes Anderson. That being said, nobody ever mentioned the resemblance in a negative tone, so I believe that he only borrowed the good aspects of Anderson--and when its good, its not a rip-off, but an homage. It's about two brothers (Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo) and their attempt to scam an insanely rich, but reticent heiress (Rachel Weisz). Supporting cast includes Rinko Kikuchi and Maximillian Schell, and the film overall looks like a wonderfully witty caper.

July 1

I've said repeatedly that Michael Mann, based on style alone, is the greatest film director in the business today. Heat and Collateral are modern masterpieces, while Manhunter and The Insider are wonderful films thematically and comprehensively. For the first time since The Last of the Mohicans, Mann is tackling a period piece in this film about the rise of organized crime during Prohibition, and the FBI's attempts to thwart it. The cast includes Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Channing Tatum, Giovanni Ribisi, and Billy Crudup as the various cops and robbers, and behind the keen eye of Michael Mann, I see little reason that this film will be anything less than the cinematic event of the Summer.

July 31

For those who saw Paul Thomas Anderson's romantic masterpiece Punch-Drunk Love, we saw a performance from Adam Sandler that defies description, other than beautiful. It was Sandler stripped down to straight adoration and unbridled rage, and it was THE performance of 2002. Since, Sandler has played around a lot in worthless films like Bedtime Stories and Chuck & Larry, or inspired groans in attempts at drama like Reign Over Me and Spanglish. Now, Sandler is giving the comedy-drama genre another shot, but this time he is working with the comedy guru Judd Apatow. Apatow, the best and most intuitive comedic filmmaker today, tells the story of a comedian (Sandler) who learns of his terminal illness, and decides to take a young comedian (Seth Rogen) under his wing. Objectively, the film looks sappy, but in the hands of Apatow, I trust the film will be a success and finally deliver on Sandler's potential.

Aug. 21

That Tarantino will have this film ready by Cannes--or by this Aug. 21 premiere, no less--seems like wishful thinking, but because this guy made Pulp Fiction and the two Kill Bill films, we could care less about his notoriously long-winded film productions, and just admire the work. This has been a film that has been long hanging around for Tarantino fans, even before that Grindhouse vacation he took with Robert Rodriguez, and the fact that it is even being filmed now is good enough news for most fans of the eccentric filmmaker. Basterds tells the story of American soldiers during WWII, who are famous for their brutal murders of Nazis. With a cast including Brad Pitt, Mike Myers, Cloris Leachman, and Eli Roth, the film certainly looks to continue Tarantino's half-brained filmmaking style, and hopefully is something to watch.

Oct. 2

When Martin Scorsese makes a movie, it is an event. When he makes a film with Leonardo DiCaprio, usually talks of Oscars arise. When he makes a film adapted from the brutal but brilliant novelist Dennis Lehane, you have the highly anticipated Shutter Island. In his first feature film since winning his Oscar for The Departed, Scorsese goes back to the well, telling a dark, disturbing tale that follows a troubled but heroic protagonist. Scorsese turns to his main-stay DiCaprio to play the film's lead Teddy Daniels, but also has a supporting cast with such names as Mark Ruffalo, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, and Max von Sydow. This film is not only anticipated, but it has enough pedigree to win awards without anyone even seeing.

Dec. 11

What happened to the Peter Jackson that directed Heavenly Creatures? He got sucked into the vortex that came with directing three mamoth Lord of the Rings films. Six years, several Academy Awards, and one King Kong later, Jackson is returning finally with a much smaller, more personal film. Based on the best-selling novel, The Lovely Bones follows a young girl who is brutally murdered, and watches the developments of her family and her killer from heaven. With young Oscar-nominee Soairse Ronan playing the main role, and Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, and Stanley Tucci taking supporting roles, the film seems to be quaint, but hard-hitting. In other words, this has the chance to be a real beautiful film.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

2008: Year In Movies (Part III: The Most Disappointing)


Not necessarily the worst of the year--I don't usually go out of my way to see terrible prospects like Disaster Movie or 88 Minutes, though if I was choosing a "Worst of 2008", it would easily be handed to Righteous Kill. That's neither here or there, though, what hurts more for movie fans like me are films that come with high expectation and leave us kicking cans with anger as we leave the theater. Here are eight films I can think of:


I have nothing against this film in terms of its visual style. Its wondrous cinematography and groundbreaking visual effects may very well be the greatest of the year, but lets just call it straight: thematically, this film is a total train wreck. No other major film I can think of follows a more laborious, blank slate of a character than Benjamin Button does, and Eric Roth's script may be rich in heavy-handed mortality lessons, but its constantly straddled by unneeded cuts to an aging Daisy (both Blanchett and Julia Ormond are wasted in these pointless scenes) and futile parallels to moments in history (Hurricane Katrina? are you f***ing kidding me?). This movie and Slumdog Millionaire* seem like locks for a Best Picture nomination, and I've heard one of Button's biggest fans call it a "thinking man's Forrest Gump". Whether its smarter than Gump, I'm probably not the best judge of, but I know this, I rather watch Forrest run through life than see Benjamin Button plod around any day.

*note: I won't include Slumdog on this list, because I actually enjoyed that film quite a bit, but I cannot for the life of me understand the unbridled adoration that this movie has received from the awards circuit and audiences. I feel its a much more shallow film than its biggest fans would lead you to believe.


I know, I know, we should've known that this film was going to be a total stinker, but I'll ask you this: throw out the plot, if I tell you that you will watch a film directed by Steven Spielberg, with a story developed by George Lucas, and has a cast that includes Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, John Hurt, Ray Winstone, and Jim Broadbent, wouldn't you expect the film to be ten times better than the film that eventually reached the theaters? Watching Indiana Jones survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator and later see Cate Blanchett get destroyed by aliens (ALIENS!!), you can't help but just shake your head at how much of a bastardization of the Indiana Jones franchise Crystal Skull really is.


I heard a lot about how this film (based on the novel by Rachel Cohn) is true to teenage life and love. As someone who is still a teenager (19), I found nothing within this exhausting, sentimental film that really rang true to my high school years. Headed by Michael Cera in the same performance he's had in his last five films, and Kat Dennings doing her best to prove she's much more than a pair of exuberantly-sized lips, the film sputters as a romance and hardly inspires a chuckle as a comedy. Add to that a character so unfunny as Ari Graynor's future A.A. member character Caroline--who is featured way too often in this hapless film--and you have a film that does more harm than good when defining a generation of teenagers who could care less about anything unless it involves cell phones or gay jokes.


The most boring movie of 2008, The Reader really tries your patience as it strolls haplessly into the Nazi Drama category. Let me just start by saying that since The Pianist in 2002, the genre of Holocaust Drama has really degenerated into one that relies soly on shock and guilt. We have a nonsensical romance between first-timer David Kross and nudity-veteran Kate Winslet that spirals into so many sex scenes (which, to their credit, has produced the most controversy--i.e. promotion--for the film). Add to that, we cut to the future in which we see that David Kross has turned into the six-foot-tall Ralph Fiennes in only ten years time (??). Just a completely flat narrative, which wasn't able to capture the most interesting aspects from the literary treasure it was based on.


There are only two kinds of people who could actually find this kind of movie funny: immature teenagers who find punches to the groin and two-minute farts hilarious, and psychotic sexual deviants who enjoy seeing things like Will Ferrall rubbing his scrotum on a snare drum. The movie certainly holds comedic pedigree within its cast: headed by Will Ferrall and John C. Reily, and also containing performances from future Oscar-nominee (I hope) Richard Jenkins and former Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen. They all have comedic backgrounds, but they're all wasted in this jokeless film. The few times that this film's comedy depends on dialogue and actor improvisation, the movie is very funny, but unfortunately, the film spends too much time on gross-out gags that relate very little to the plot and are only there to appease shallow minds.


It almost hurts to put this film on here, as big a fan of Woody Allen as I am, and this is certainly a very traditional Woody Allen type of film. We have two women: one romantic and one conservative, and both swoon over the charm of a exotic male character, while the exotic male's borderline crazy ex-wife causes more issues. Standard Woody stuff. A fiery performance from Penelope Crúz* makes this film watchable, but this film is a total diagram of what has gone wrong with Woody's filmmaking in the last decade: his monotonous storytelling and visual style has become completely dull. Nothing within this film is remotely surprising or engaging, and without that, I'd at least expect the characters to be dynamic. Crúz is like lightning in a bottle, and Rebecca Hall's Vicky is certainly interesting, but two leads--Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johanssen--stand around vapidly, apparently under the idea that their characters are under constant sedation.

*note: To watch the ACTUAL great performance from Crúz in 2008, check out her beautiful work in the movie Elegy opposite Ben Kingsley.


Why make a two-hour film about a completely unpopular president still in office? Because Oliver Stone has absolutely no fear of the consequences that come with political drama. That being said, Stone's film lacks any profundity or bite, and save a title performance from Josh Brolin, is really inconsequential and passé. Add to that, the film is completely misguided as to what it's trying to be. Elizabeth Banks (as the First Lady) and Richard Dreyfuss (as Vice Pres. Cheney) suggest a high-brow chronology of a man in over his head, while Toby Jones (as the suave Karl Rove) and Thandie Newton (as Condie Rice) seem to think there within some biting, satirical Saturday Night Live sketch. The film never makes an effort to choose and we're left with a film as uneven as it is uninspired.


Days before I saw this film, I wrote a personal letter (via the blog) to Larry Miller, whose Utah movie theater chain refused to play Zack and Miri because it was "innappropriate", while having no issue showing Saw V. I personally defended Kevin Smith's new comedy, and I don't regret it. But I do regret having a mind to think that this film would be anything more than a lousy, one-note sex comedy, which takes its low-brow premise and doesn't deliver with anything useful or entertaining. Here's the deal: Kevin Smith acts like his films are anarchic and challenging, but the truth is, that if you take out the detailed sex dialogue, his films are really as soggy and sappy as an episode of One Tree Hill. Sometimes, Smith can hit a home run (Chasing Amy, Dogma), and sometimes Smith will ignore the sentamentality altogether (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Clerks). Zack and Miri Make a Porno does neither, and pays the consequences.