Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Soloist (**)

Directed by Joe Wright


Steve Lopez has been a respected staff writer for the Los Angeles Times newspaper since 2001, and the most memorable thing he ever uncovered during his work there was revealing the stunning life of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Jr. The collection of columns he wrote about Ayers evolved into a book, which has now become a film with Jaime Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. Buzz was soaring about this film during its original release date in late November of 2008, but then it became all moot when the film was pushed to April of 2009.

Why? Many claim that the film's Oscar chances would have benefited from a bleak April opening, as opposed to coming out with all the heavy hitters during November and December. I don't believe that theory. No studio would release a film in April if they logically thought that the film had any chance of winning the Academy statue. The only time where films released this early become late-year awards' favorites are when the films are totally awesome (Fargo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Silence of the Lambs). Unfortunately, The Soloist is not totally awesome.

The film follows Steve Lopez (Downey Jr.), after suffering a rather violent face injury, when he stumbled off of his bicycle and landed face-first into the asphalt. Lopez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and even in his debilitated state, he continues to write about his troubles in ICU. His life is at a crossroads. His boss, Mary (Catherine Keener), is his ex-wife, he barely talks to his college-bound son, and the newspaper business is floundering more and more. The only functional part of his life is his writing.

While pacing around downtown Los Angeles, Lopez finds Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) playing a two-stringed violin in front of a statue of Beethoven. Nathaniel speaks rhythmically, but incoherently, and when he drops a hint that he attended Julliard School of Music in his past, Lopez finds that he could be the perfect story. After further research, Lopez finds that not only did Nathaniel attend Julliard, but he was actually an immensely talented wunderkind, whose cello playing was superb by his pre-teen years.

Lopez is fascinated by the concept of a former promising prodigy becoming a disjointed, homeless man. He tries to probe Ayers, to find out his history, and how his misfortune came to be. All he can find is that mental problems forced him to drop out of Julliard, and after running out on his sister, he lives on the streets, playing his music in the downtown tunnel. The film chronicles Lopez's attempts to rehabilitate Nathaniel, and help him realize his fullest potential as a musician, but its the friendship that forms between the two men that Lopez never sees coming.

This is Joe Wright's third film, and his first American, non-period film. Atonement was your typical late-year, prestige film, but his version of Pride of Prejudice was probably the greatest version of that story--other than Jane Austen's prose. I'm not totally sure what he's trying to accomplish with The Soloist, though. As the story of an anxiety-riddled writer struggling to balance morality with journalistic objectivity, The Soloist is quite interesting; but as the story of a man's crumble at the hands of mental illness, the film is merely mediocre.

Too many times, flashbacks and asides about Nathaniel interrupt the narrative flow of Lopez's journey. Not that Nathaniel's story isn't interesting, but the way it is told in this film is not unlike many conventional Hollywood showcases of mental illness. Lopez is the man that moves the story from A to B, but the melodrama of Ayers slowly going insane is too tempting to resist for these filmmakers. Its this confusion of theme and tone, I think, that pushed this film's release for nearly half a year--not its Oscar chances.

Luckily, the work of Foxx, Downey Jr., and Keener are occasionally enough to make up for it. Playing a possible paranoid schizophrenic (the film never confirms what his illness is), Foxx probably had ample oppurtunity to overact and be flamboyant, but he prefers the subdued confusion that makes his pain that much more aching. As for Downey Jr., he has quickly become an actor that I could literally watch in anything, no matter how uninspired. His Steve Lopez isn't so much a recreation of a real person, but the invention of a character so tormented and sad, that his constant sarcasm is that much more dejected.

The inconsistency of The Soloist has to be blamed on Joe Wright, who seems to have had trouble transferring from English costume dramas to American stories of redemption. Sure, the shots are beautiful and inspired, and the visual storytelling is top notch, but the ACTUAL storytelling is lacking. Not to trivialize the troubles of Nathaniel Ayers, but his experiences in this film don't seem much different than your average schizophrenic movie character. The film's source material--Steve Lopez--should have gotten much more screentime.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Adventureland (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Greg Motolla


Greg Motolla's Superbad was an immensely popular coming-of-age story about two unpopular teenagers trying to get laid during one crazy night. The film was penned by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and contained some of the most inflammatory comedic dialogue I'd seen in a while. Now, Motolla is on his own as a writer, and what kind of story does he choose to tell? The coming-of-age story about an unpopular college kid trying to get laid during one crazy summer at one crazy amusement park.

Sure, the same formula is there, but what Motolla accomplishes with Adventureland is very interesting. His eye for sentimentality glimmered a bit in Superbad, but with this film it is quite obvious that he is not just another cog in the Judd Apatow machine. Bad taste is not celebrated, the film's humor is subdued (none of the manic expletive explosions from Jonah Hill here), and the events highlighted are poigniant expositions about growing up and falling in love.

The year is 1987, and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) just graduated from college and is looking forward to his graduation present: a trip to Europe with his best friend. After that, the two plan to move to a high-end New York City apartment as they attend grad school at Columbia. Unfortunately, when James' father loses his high-paying job, the trip is thrown out the window, and even his grad school plans are put into jeopardy. His only option is to get a summer job, and the only one available is at the notorious amusement park named Adventureland.

The low-end park has creaky rides, rigged games, and is run by Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), an optimistic married couple, who couldn't understand why anybody wouldn't want to work at a place where Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" is played every twenty minutes. James is thrown into games, and he is mentored by the grizzled veteran Joel (Martin Star). Joel is a rather awkward-looking man, whose apathy is only equaled by his sarcasm. The most important person James meets at the park is Em (Kristen Stewart), a grungy young girl with an eye for dysfunction and an ear for classic rock.

Em is a complicated girl: her father remarried soon after her mother died to an insecure bald woman, and she is caught in a secret affair with the park's married maintenance man (Ryan Reynolds). Despite all that, James is intoxicated by her, and spends most of his summer trying to get close to her. There are other stories which include Joel's unsuccessful exploits in love, and the emergance of Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the hot sexpot legend who has returned for the summer. The core of the story, though, deals with James and Em, and the evolution of their relationship.

What's most fascinating about Adventureland is its showcase of the comradery that arises at even the worst occupations. The friendships and bonds that are created at the strangest places are shown in a sincere and honest way. The script is supposedly based on Motolla's real encounter with Adventureland, and his summer job there. There's a real care with the way Motolla tells the story, and he treats it with a delicate manner. It doesn't matter that the ideas are hackneyed or unoriginal, because the connection that Motolla has adds to the film's charisma.

The film also has quite an amazing ear for music. The film's soundtrack contains songs from Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, The Cure, The Rolling Stones, and The Replacements. It's obvious that Motolla's actual affection for the music is the reason for their inclusion (I find it hard to believe mainstream teenagers in the 1980's were rocking out to Lou Reed's Transformer), but the songs are used effectively and are a treat for any fan of classic rock. You can see any film from Zack and Miri Make a Porno to Watchmen to see a film that has a great soundtrack but gravely misuses it.

The film's cast is loaded with comedic all-stars, including Hader, Starr, and Wiig, who carry most of the burden of making the film funny. As I've said before, this is not a movie about jokes but about becoming an adult. Jesse Eisenberg is fantastic as James, in his first major role since the fantastic The Squid and The Whale. His nebbish, sarcastic persona has shades of Woody Allen. The film's biggest star is probably Twilight's Kristen Stewart. The only other film I'd seen her in was a bit part in Into The Wild, where I found her absolutely captivating. In Adventureland, she's a convincing self-destructive young woman, and she may become the new face angst-ridden young actresses. Sure, I'd say Ryan Reynolds is miscast as the adulterous, but suave mechanic slash rock-n-roller, but that is just small nitpicking.

is a film being promoted as a zany, teenage sex comedy. I'm sure I wasn't the only one surprised to find out that the characters were college students. I'm sure the fact that the film is the antithesis of Superbad will turn a lot of people off, and its current box office takings reveal that. All that said, with this film, Motolla has established himself as one of the best new comedic filmmakers in the business.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Monsters vs Aliens (**)

Directed by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon


This review is actually from over a week ago, but due to plain busy-ness, I was never able to actually post it. Better late than never.

It looks like 3-D films have come back with a vengeance. Close to all major animated releases now are being optioned as 3-D pictures (and lets not forget IMAX, as well). Sure, these films due quite a damage on the box office, but they do even bigger damage on moviegoers' wallets (my eight-year-old sister's ticket alone cost $10). But then there is a rather large border between the films that take the imagination of their storylines and use the third dimension to further enhance that; and the films that are made specifically to exploit the agitating nature of 3-D.

Monsters vs Aliens can be VERY agitating. The film surely doesn't have much interest in coaxing the standard family humor of Disney, nor does it commit to the transgressive, pop culture-referencing nature of the Shrek films. This is a movie made for the specific purpose of being shown in 3-D. The very opening contains a scientist playing paddle ball--a big, red ball flying ferociously at the audience. All the gimmicks you need are there, and while there is still the sass from other Dreamworks animated films, there surely isn't the same commitment to superior storytelling.

The film is about Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon), who is getting ready to get married to her narcissistic weatherman fiance Derek (Paul Rudd). Everything is going to plan, before a giant meteor falls on her moments before the ceremony and turns her into a fifty-foot being with super human strength (re-named Ginormica). Without haste, the government takes her down and brings her to a confidential facility, where she finds out that her seemingly perfect world may never be the same again.

She's kept inside a steel-walled prison, and her only companions are Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a former mad scientist, whose mad experiments transformed him into a pint-sized insect; there is The Missing Link (Will Arnet), a half-fish, half-whatever, who has some pretty surprising strength of his own--and an ego to boot; and then there is B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a giant blue blob with one eye, who has no brain (but he does have wit). These are monsters that the government have hid from the population in an attempt to protect them and the monsters from hysteria.

Ends up the chemical from the meteor that made Susan such a giant freak is the envy of a sadistic alien named Gallaxar (Rainn Wilson), who travels to Earth hoping to extract it from Susan. After the asinine US President (Stephen Colbert) tries to create peace talks with the aliens, things quickly go sour, and they decide--rather spontaneously--that the only force they have to fight the aliens are the monsters. Four monsters against an alien army. Monsters Vs. Aliens; it's all in the title.

I don't mean to make the case that family films are above a plot like this; absurdity is a mainstay in most child-aimed animated films. Animated films are at a strange point in their history. WALL-E and Persepolis were both groundbreaking, beautifully made films, stylistically and thematically. Meanwhile, most film audiences are caught in the traction of more mainstream films like Bolt and Kung Fu Panda. People are always going to for the more mainstream film--that's why it's called "mainstream", but the execution of these so-called mainstream films are becoming poorer and poorer, to the point that audiences don't even realize that they should demand better (and these same people call WALL-E boring. *sigh*).

The good news? There are quite a few moments within the movie where the humor works, even if it is misguided. Like the Shrek films, there are many jokes that are meant to throw parents a bone. Most of these, though, are simply flat and unfunny, and since none of the kids understand them, it makes it much more frustrating for the adult viewers. No, the funniest parts of the movie are the low-brow, physically comedic moments. These characters are pure prototypes in monster form, and to see these hackneyed plot points taken from that perspective is sometimes intriguing.

I guess I've made no secret of the fact that I do not like the slew of 3-D films coming through the woodwork lately. Even Pixar's Up, which seems like more spectacular material from that studio, is being promoted as a 3-D film. The technique worked occasionally in the film Coraline, but that was a film that held many themes about dreams and the surreal. These newer films are purely exploitative, and I'm not sure if the fad will fold over like it did decades earlier. For now, we'll just be paying through the nose everytime a classic animated film is re-released in 3-D (a new Beauty and the Beast to be coming soon--no kidding).

Trailer Watch: Moon

I'd like to make an amendment to my previous post of super early Oscar picks, and include Sam Rockwell in my Best Actor predictions (bumping off Javier Bardem). This film (directed by David Bowie's son Duncan Jones) looks absolutely amazing, and I'm usually not the biggest fan of science fiction. This will be my most anticipated movie of the summer.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What We Know In April: Who's ALREADY Pushing for Oscar?

It's impossible for anyone to know who's going to be nominated for the Academy Awards in April, but that never stops it from being fun. This early, the only thing we know is a cataclysm of movie stars and directors who may or may not combine to win the elusive gold. At this early stage, I'll take my own crack at who's already taken a bite at the front-runner status:

Best Actor:

Javier Bardem, BIUTIFUL
Morgan Freeman, THE HUMAN FACTOR
Viggo Mortenson, THE ROAD

I disappointingly go for an all-movie star line-up here, but not without good reason. Freeman plays Nelson Mandella in a film directed by Clint Eastwood (this is a perfect formula for Oscar. Mortenson is the lead in the film based on the hard-hitting Cormac McCarthy novel (if you've read it, you'd know why Mortenson is perfect). Damon combines with Stephen Soderberg and packs on the pounds. Depp combines with Michael Mann, and plays bank robber John Dillinger as well. As for Bardem, he's starring in a film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (isn't it surprising that these two have never worked together?).

Best Actress:

Carey Mulligan, AN EDUCATION
Michelle Pfeiffer, CHERI
Natalie Portman, BROTHERS

I'm going with two foreign-language performances, which isn't exactly the smartest move, but its hard for me to ignore Oscar's love of biopic (Tautou plays Coco Chanel), or Cruz once again musing Pedro Almodovar. As for Portman and Pfeiffer, those are both just educated guesses/wishful thinking. Portman is in a tragedy directed by Jim Sheridan, and Pfeiffer reconnects with Stephen Frears for a period drama. There's mush to be said about getting an early start (ask Richard Jenkins), and Carey Mulligan sure has all of the early buzz for An Education.

Best Director

James Cameron, AVATAR
Lone Scherfig, AN EDUCATION
Martin Scorsese, SHUTTER ISLAND

The 70's and 80's might have been Scorsese's prime, but the Oscars love him this decade (he's gone 3/3 with Best Director nominations for his feature narrative films since 2000). James Cameron may have been silent since Titanic, but he's amassed a great enough buzz for Avatar that this seems like a sensible pick. Michael Mann is a great director they've never fully loved, while Jackson is great director which they like... occasionally. Both have a strong chance this year. Which leaves me with Lone Scherfig, which means that if I'm right, she will be only the fourth woman EVER nominated as a director. Like I said before, it helps to be a front-runner.

Best Supporting Actor

Tobey Maguire, BROTHERS

It sure looks like a good year for Damon, and he does have very stong pull early for both lead and supporting categories. I think Crudup will ride some Watchmen momentum, and get a nod for the more conventional performance (he plays J. Edgar Hoover). Tucci plays a child murderer, which would seem extremely baity if I didn't wholly admire Tucci as a performer. I pick Maguire only because the early word is that he's great in the role (and I think he didn't totally rub out ALL of his good will with Spider-Man 3). As for Ruffalo, he has to get a nomination eventually, doesn't he? DOESN'T HE?

Best Supporting Actress

Patricia Clarkson, WHATEVER WORKS
Judi Dench, NINE
Lisa Kudrow, 17 PHOTOS OF ISABEL

This is really, truly a hopefest. Nothing would make me happier (at least at this point) than to see this line-up next January. Clarkson, Mann, and Kudrow are wonderful comedic performers, but they rarely get their due. These roles seem pretty good. Dench is an Academy mainstay, and is said to have one of the better roles out of all the actresses in Nine. As for comedienne Mo'Nique, her performance in Precious has been much talked-about (More on that here). Let's see if this long-shot nomination hopeful can stay ahead in the race.

Best Picture

An Education
The Human Factor
The Lovely Bones
Public Enemies
Shutter Island

Pretty conservative choices here, I know, but I would go to war with this line-up (at this point of the year, at least). We've got the small film that no one saw coming (but everyone saw coming) with An Education. The endearing, mythologizing biopic with The Human Factor. A hard-hitting tragic drama in The Lovely Bones. An expertly made gangster film with Public Enemies. And then we also have a Martin Scorsese film (Shutter Island); nuff said about that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Trailer Watch: Taking Woodstock

If you really look at the filmography of Ang Lee, you'll see an assorted bag of period pieces (Sense & Sensibility), franchise action films (Hulk), provocative political films (Lust, Caution), high-brow kung-fu films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and a gay Cowboy movie (Brokeback Mountain). The man has won two Oscars already, and can seemingly tackle any genre thrown in front of him. With this movie, he seems to be going for light comedy, and actually casted a relatively green comedian (the very funny Demitri Martin) in the lead. Sure, its packed with veteran acting talent like Imelda Staunton, Liev Schrieber, and Eugene Levy, but what can you make of this film, really? Well, if Lee's behind the reigns, then I'm in.

Mo'Nique for Oscar?

The other day I was watching the Broken Lizard film Beerfest on television. I had no real interest in the film other than my inherent love for a previous Broken Lizard film entitled Super Troopers (one of the more underrated comedies on the past decade). I bring this up because the film had an interesting supporting role played by "big, loud, and proud" comedienne Mo'Nique, as a backstabbing woman who has trouble suppressing sexual urges. This is not outside the prototype for most film roles MoNique has had.

Nowadays, though, people have been talking about Mo'Nique a bit differently. As in: future Academy Award nominee. Sure, it's silly to be talking about future nominations in April, but the raves she's getting for her supporting role in the film Precious are avalanching quickly. The film had a spark at Sundance, and now buzz is growing as trailers were seen by anyone who paid money to see Madea Goes To Jail (yet another cruel trick played upon anyone who doesn't want to get sucked into Tyler Perry mania).

I don't know what to think of Precious, really. The film's plot is about a young, illiterate girl (newcomer Gabby Sidibe) who's pregnant with her second child. Details about the plot are sketchy, since so few have seen it, but other supporting players include Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz. The film was originally entitled Push, but because of an attrocious film which came out earlier this year, they've had to change the title to avoid confusion (smart move, who would want to get mixed up with that hunk of crap?).

The consistent reaction to the film, though, is that Mo'Nique's performance is a show-stopper. There's one of these every year: one actor nobody had any hope or faith in comes out and does something amazing. Last year, it was Mickey Rourke; a couple of years ago it was Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children. Could this year's surprise performance really come from Mo'Nique? Sure seems so. I eat these kinds of stories up, and I surely hope this performance lives up to the hype, cause I'd love to see her grace Hollywood's red carpet with all the industry elite--it's always fun to see someone crash the party.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Nine Retrospective

In my first blog poll, more people voted Rob Marshall's screen version of the stage musical Nine to be their pick to be the Best Picture winner of 2010. In April, this doesn't mean much more than the few people who happen upon this blog seem to think Nine is the Academy's type of film. And why not? Rob Marshall's last stage-to-screen attempt, Chicago, was able to take home the Best Picture prize. Also, this film is lined up with a heavyweight cast which includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Sofia Loren, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, and Penelope Cruz, among others. Any other tidbits, you ask? Oh yeah, the stage material is a musical version of Fellini's all-time classic 8 1/2.

So, all that being said, why am I not very interested in seeing this film? I was aware of it enough to include it in my poll, though it was probably the film I anticipated the least out of the quartet I chose. I adore Chicago, even if it isn't the best film of 2002, and it is a bit "stagey". The truth is, there's something to be said about films that rework classics. Surely, the stage version of Nine was a big hit, but there's a difference between reinventing a film on Broadway, and then taking that reworking and trying to recreate it as a film. Something incredibly redundant about it.

Also, this film's cast may be a little too stacked. Kind of like the baseball team that loads itself with home-run hitters and forgets to address the pitching staff. As seldom as Day-Lewis works, anyone else would have preferred Javier Bardem staying on? He at least has a fraction of the sensuality that Marcello Mastonioni holds on screen. As for Cruz--who everybody says has the meatiest role of the actresses--my anticipation for her performance in this film is nowhere near as high as her reunion with Pedro Almodovar in Broken Embraces.

Above: Bad Math

Hate to be a sour grape, but I see Nine as the Benjamin Button of 2009. I will see it, as I'm sure that it will be a hit with many awards groups, but I don't hold its release in relatively high regard. I could--scratch that, I hope--that I'm wrong about the film (that's what happened when I saw Babel three years ago, and it was a very pleasant surprise). Just don't expect me to be first in line to see it.

P.S. In September, there is an animated film named 9 coming out, which looks absolutely amazing. Wouldn't it be very embarrassing if Nine isn't even the best film of 2009 named "nine"? I don't know about you, but I find this showdown fascinating.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Duplicity (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy


When you make a film as good as Michael Clayton, the expectation for your follow-up is obviously going to be very high. Tony Gilroy had been kicking around Hollywood for years as a scriptwriter, which is what made the success of his directorial debut, Clayton, that much more sweet--he'd worked for it. For his second film, Duplicity, Gilroy doesn't tone down the intelligence of his screenwriting, but does try to fit into a more mainstream package. The result is somewhat hit-or-miss.

The story focuses on two former government agents. Ray (Clive Owen) worked for MI-6, and at social gathering in Rome years ago, he met Claire (Julia Roberts), who was then employed by the CIA. They spend one steamy night together, but when Ray wakes up, it turns out that he was nothing more than an assignment, and Claire had completed it. Cut to present day, and both Ray and Claire have quit their government jobs to work as spies for conglomerate corporations trying to get the best of one another.

Routinely, Ray and Claire run into each other again, and now it seems their on the same side. Claire is now a spy, implanted as a counterintelligence agent within a rival company. This rival company, headed by the megalomaniac Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), has supposedly crossed paths with a new product that may become the next biggest thing. The company employing Claire, headed by an equally narcissistic CEO named Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), wants their hands on this mystery product, so they hire Ray to help Claire pull it off.

There are the usual pitfalls: Ray and Claire argue, Howard and Richard do a little more than that, and of course there is a whole lot more than meets the eye. The dynamic between Ray and Claire is the film's main plot point, but it is frequently pushed aside by long-winded flashbacks and complicated moments where we're expected to believe what the characters are saying, because we have no idea what they're talking about.

Now, is there some wit and charm to Duplicity? Surely. Owen and Roberts do have some chemistry--at least what they were able to scrap together, after those smolderingly damaging scenes they shared in 2004's Closer. It's not the intelligence of the script that has the most issues. Unfortunately for this film, it seemed to be aiming for Ocean's Eleven in tone, when it should have been going more for more black comedy. The twists within the Ocean's Eleven film are deceptively simple, where in Duplicity, the motifs of split screens and flashbacks can leave the audience in a tailspin.

Gilroy, for the second film in a row has been blessed with a highly enviable cast, and two legitimate movie stars in the leads. As I stated before, Owen and Roberts do have some spark together, and they use Gilroy's sarcastic dialogue well. Their relational arguments seem sincere. Arguably, out of this whole ensemble, Paul Giamatti is the best actor--at the very least you'd have to say that he has the most range out of all the performers. Duplicity's best moments are when Giamatti is allowed to let loose, and his one-liners are the only times when the comedy in the script truly succeeds.

Complication for the sake of complication gets to be tedious after a while, and Duplicity really stretches out its good will. After directing two films, Gilroy has already established himself as a highly-stylized filmmaker, using visual motifs and break-neck editing. This film doesn't take itself nearly as seriously as Michael Clayton, but I don't think it is expected to. You can't forget that Gilroy made his bones by writing films like The Cutting Edge and Extreme Measures. Gilroy is above those scripts, but not all the time.