Monday, June 29, 2009

Away We Go (**1/2)

Directed by Sam Mendes


After the enormous success of American Beauty, filmmaker Sam Mendes has been biding his time on melodramatic froth and getting Kate Winslet pregnant. Road To Perdition was a beautifully-lit father-and-son drama; Jarhead was a poor man's Three Kings; and Revolutionary Road was, though underrated, so unbelievably emotionally repellent that most audiences decided to ditch their Kate-Leo love, and skipped the film altogether. Away We Go is quite the thematic departure for Mendes, and though it is quite a hit-or-miss film, it is an interesting direction which Sam Mendes has taken.

The story revolves around a thirty-something couple: the charismatic, man-child Burt (John Krasinski), and the reserved, but well-humored Verona (Maya Rudolph). When Verona becomes pregnant, they are not very secure with their current lifestyles. Their home is ratty and doesn't have any heat. Verona believes that their lack of any fluency may be due to the fact that they are simply not very competent in life.

The two hoped to use Burt's eccentric parents (Catherine O'Hara & Jeff Daniels) as a crutch during their child's infancy, but they decide rather spontaneously to move to Belgium, and rent their home to a random man named 'Fareef' before allowing Burt and Verona to use it. Burt and Verona decide that they'll take a cross-country trip in hopes of finding the perfect place to raise their unborn child. Their trip will include Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, and Miami, where they'll interweave visits with various former friends, bosses, and family members.

In Phoenix, they see Lily (Alison Janney), Verona's one-time boss and a volatile personality who tarnishes her family to their faces and seems to relish attracting uncomfortable situations. While in Madison, they see Burt's childhood friend LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal; pronounced 'Ellen'), who has become an eccentric, married to an idealist hippie, and passionately refuses to let any of her children ride in a stroller. In Montreal, they meet up with old college buddies (Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey) who seem to be living a euphoric existence, but a deep secret suggests otherwise.

There is a great sub-plot toward the end of the film involving Burt's brother Courtney (a wonderful, if limited Paul Schneider), and how he deals with his wife leaving him. I bring this up because this is a film about two interesting, if static characters waltzing their way through various sub-plots which are sometimes intriguing, and other times terribly uninteresting. Particularly, the sequence with Burt's parents and the Phoenix sequence which opens the film, set the story up for a bumpy start which makes it hard to appreciate all of the better moments which came after.

Rudolph and Krasinski are two actors for which I have true admiration for. I love Karisinki's work on "The Office", and Rudolph's comedienne work on "SNL" and other shows and films are excellent. It's not that they're particularly bad in this film, because they seem to have a well-established sense of what their characters actions say about them. They speak solemnly, and seem like a very comfortable couple. Unfortunately, these characters are so stagnant and unchanging that their travels don't seem to have relevance most of the time.

Of course, some of their journeys are more interesting than others, but even the good ones don't seem to come to anything significant. Gyllenhaal's eccentric character adds the film's first real flair, even though it comes almost halfway through the film. Within the Montreal sequence, Melanie Lynskey (where has she been since Heavenly Creatures?) shows some wonderful subtlety as a married woman with deep-rooted unhappiness. It's good that we like the characters that are guiding us through it all, but their static nature makes the film drag at some of the most important moments.

After such raw, abrasive films, Mendes has produced the cinematic equivalent of the Mendoza line. It's simply not a film which will work up any strong opinions in either direction. You'll like the film. You'll like Krasinski and Rudolph. You'll like the melodic, folksy soundtrack. You'll like seeing Jim Gaffigan with a mustache. Chances are, you won't love anything about it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

Something Non-Movie Related...

I'm not going to lie and say I worshiped Michael Jackson the way a lot of his fans did, but I grew up in a musical house which was dominated by three people: Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson. I've been listening to him since I was a little 90's baby. I remember being a toddler, too terrified to watch the music video to 'Thriller', and I also remember the megalomaniacal extravagance behind the 'Smooth Criminal' music video (which co-starred Joe Pesci and had Jack-O turning into some kind of transformer for some reason). He became more and more infamous in recent decades with his battles against child abuse accusations and beyond-bizarre behavior. Jackson never truly recovered his image, even if his fans stuck by him, but what was never debated was his brilliant stretch from the 70's till the early 90's, which included his days as a child star with the Jackson Five, and the single most commercially successful album ever: 'Thriller'. 'Thriller' is usually considered one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, albums of all time, and its astonishing how it lives up to its reputation--even today. So, in tribute, I will now give my personal (and quite frankly, random and subjective) list of Michael Jackson's ten greatest songs...

10. "Thriller"

The title track from that groundbreaking album. Obviously, its music video did a lot to elevate the status of the song itself, but it truly is fascinating the way Jackson stretches such a gimmicky song and turned it into an unstoppable single.

9. "The Girl Is Mine" (feat. Paul McCartney)

This song should get an asterisk, because I'll admit that most of my admiration for it stems from its connection to my favorite Beatle (McCartney). All that said, the two came together to create a poignant, and humorous song about two guys fighting for the same gal. (P.S. either way, its way better then the time Jackson collaborated w/ Eddie Murphy to produce that atrocity 'Wazupwitu?').

8. "Black and White" (feat. Slash on guitar)

This rock hit prompted Jackson to go on the MTV Video Music Awards and dubiously announce that he'd "now be known as The King of Rock". This was one of many embarrassingly misjudged public moments for Jackson later in his life, but it never detracted from his music, particularly this great track.

7. "Off The Wall"

Using funk and sharp vocals, the title track from Michael's first solo album (which many consider his FIRST masterpiece) is such a delightful combination of dance beats and easily Michael's most intensely fierce singing.

6. "The Lady of My Life"

Despite the fact that there was rarely an actual lady in Jackson's life (Lisa Marie Presley doesn't count), he always knew how to deliver love ballads. This song, which caps off 'Thriller', is probably his best of that variety, with its aching emotion and gentle delivery.

5. "Baby Be Mine"

Quite possibly, Jackson's most underrated song. Following the long-winded 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'' on 'Thriller', 'Baby Be Mine' comes on like a breath of fresh air. It has standard pop sensibility, but under the eye of Jackson and studio whiz Quincy Jones, this song becomes one of Michael's most pleasant songs.

4. "Human Nature"

Another song from that great second side of 'Thriller'. 'Human Nature' is a quaint, lovely ballad which is highly elevated by some inspired synthesizer playing (much thanks, once again, to Quincy Jones). The song is really an epitome of everything that made Michael so good in his hey-day: sincere singing supported by such wonderfully-produced music. Probably the greatest lyrics he ever sang.

3. "I Want You Back"

The first one; the one that brought him straight into people's homes for the first time. Along with the rest of the Jackson Five, Michael became a superstar with this huge hit in 1969--easily the best from those early years.

2. "Rock With You"

When he danced in that emphatically cheap music video, it didn't matter that he had a cheesy strobe light flashing behind him, making him look like he was performing at a strip club. Why didn't it matter? Because this song is brilliant.

1. "Billie Jean"

I don't even think this is close. The quintessential Michael Jackson song. With its mysterious lyrics and its quasi-Film Noir music video, 'Billie Jean' rose to become one of the best songs of the 80's, and of all-time. The striking bass line, which riffs consistently underneath every line and beat strikes anyone who listens to it, and the mix of funk guitar to highlight the songs infamous themes pierces all listeners. It should be the song he's remembered by.

It's a tragedy that Michael had become a sideshow for the last fifteen years. It had gotten to a point where I'd hoped I wouldn't see him on the news, because for him, there seemed to be no such thing as good press. As hard as it may seem, try not to think of him dancing on cars outside of courtrooms, or playing a ghetto scarecrow in 'The Wiz'. Instead, try to think of all the great songs (perhaps some of the ones I listed?), and remember that he was one of the biggest pop stars of all-time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Ten

Big news in Oscarland: starting this fall, the Academy shortlist for Best Picture will now be expanded to ten nominees instead of the accustomed five. This is the first time that the Best Picture nominees will not comprise of five since 1943 (the year Casablanca won--not a bad choice). Why make this move? Academy president Sid Ganis has been spouting about returning to the Academy's "earlier roots", as if to say, that with five more spots available, there will be room for more traditionally snubbed fare.

It's obviously a reaction to last year's hysteria, when The Dark Knight was discarded for the more traditional (and brutally mediocre) The Reader. The idea here is that with ten nominees, they will not have that same embarrassment of ignoring the populist hit for the bait-y drama. Sure, with this change, there is more of a chance of Up getting a nod (when WALL-E was snubbed, I thought animated would never get a nomination again), but other than a difference of two or three films, the Academy has put itself in a very precocious position, in which they can embarrass themselves two-fold

When the difference is one film, and you add five spots, things can become a little haywire. Let's take a look at the last few years:

1999- One of the most disappointing films, in terms of Oscar. The line-up was American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, and The Sixth Sense. With the exception of Beauty, these were all big studio hits, that nudged out such indie classic fare, such as Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, and Three Kings. If there were ten nominees: would any of those three crack the list? In hindsight, it's easy to say yes, but in reality, the Oscar voters would have probably settled for five more Oscar-bait films to fill out the ballot. Films like The End of the Affair, The Talented Mr. Ripley, or The Hurricane would probably have been in the extra five.

2002- The line-up was Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Pianist. Rather traditional stuff. Seven years later, films like Adaptation, Far From Heaven, About Schmidt, and Punch-Drunk Love have built strong esteem within the film community. If the best picture nominees were ten, I feel Adaptation would have had a good chance to crash the party (with its Meryl Streep/Nic Cage ties), but none of the others would have. Most likely, Frida, Road To Perdition, or maybe even the sleeper hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding probably would have grabbed a nom.

2008- The most recent list--the cause of this change. Best Picture nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire. Three pretty good films mixed with two lousy ones. The obvious snubs here were WALL-E and The Dark Knight, but what about the endearing indies The Wrestler or Rachel Getting Married? Not to mention, the comedies In Bruges and Happy-Go-Lucky. With ten, the first two would have definitely slid in, but none of the other four would have had a chance. More likely, the not-well-received, but still traditional Doubt or Gran Torino would have made it in.

My long-winded point is this: having ten available nominations doesn't necessarily open the window for more good films, it just opens the window for more seasonal, bait-y films. Pretty much any film with a serious campaign will have a shot at the list, and that's not what it should be about. We complain when our favorite films don't get nominated, but all that said, it should be hard to get it. Not every lauded film deserves to get special attention, and it stinks to see the Academy botch a stunt like this. This may make a few Dark Knight fans happy, but its those who watch this show annually and take it seriously, that will be disappointed.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Hangover (***)

Directed by Todd Phillips


Better late then never...

It has seemed that the dynamo mystique of Las Vegas has grown over the last few years. Many commercials barrage our screen with that all-too-familiar phrase: "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas". All that said, there are numerous films which go on to show the exact opposite, and much like real life, the debauchery of Vegas can sometimes find its way home with you. The Hangover takes a hilarious, if not refreshing look at this theory, and does it with much fervor.

When Doug (Justin Bartha) decides to have a bachelor party two days before his wedding, the only idea that he can think of is spending a night in Las Vegas with his two best friends. First, there is Phil (Bradley Cooper), a husband and schoolteacher, who steals money from his young students' field trip donations to fund his partying. Then, there is Stu (Ed Helms), a reserved dentist who is caught in a volatile relationship with a possessive and overbearing woman.

Unfortunately, Doug is nearly forced to bring along his troubled brother-in-law Alan (Zack Galifianakis), who kisses dogs and can't be within two-hundred feet of an elementary school. The three travel in Doug's father-in-law's luxury car from Burbank to Sin City, and when they arrive, they book themselves into a villa within Caesar's Palace. Before their night of terror, they get up on the roof, toast to each other, and toast to having a night nobody will forget. Instead, they have a night that no one will remember.

The next morning: they're villa is demolished, a chicken and a tiger are carousing through the room, there's a baby in the closet and Doug is nowhere to be found. The three men think rationally at first, but as time goes by, and their problems are compounded by revelations of the night they don't remember, all hell breaks loose. Phil at one point went to the hospital with broken ribs. Allan stole an Asian gangster's man purse. Also, Stu got married to a sweet hooker and stripper named Jade (Heather Graham--where has she been lately?).

I'm not sure if The Hangover is as clever as some people seem to claim, but it certainly isn't nearly as bad as some reviewers stated on its original release. The film has grown over the last three weeks into a mega-hit based on word-of-mouth, not because there are any movie stars in it (the closest thing to it is Cooper, who has never headlined a film, if I remember correctly). It has risen because it is funny. Director Todd Phillips has very much proven himself to be a master of rowdy humor (Old School, Road Trip), but this is certainly his most polished film.

Is the plot a bit hackneyed? Sure. The film is essentially Bachelor Party: The Next Day, but the reason the film succeeds is because it doesn't really have much interest in being safe. Whether it be a taser to the face, or a geriatric man's ass, there is no image which seems to push the envelope too far. Yet, the dialogue still has freshness, and they do not use the shock value as a crutch. Spot performances from the likes of Mike Epps, Ken Jeong, and (of all people) Mike Tyson weave fluidly throughout the film without disrupting its forward motion.

Phillips capitalizes strongly off of his cast. Cooper, seemingly always cast as a skirt-chasing looker, plays the part to the max. Helms, a veteran of The Office, is the brain of the group, but he perhaps has the most wit of anybody on the film. As for Galifianakis, this may very-well be his starmaking role. He is round and bearded in all the right places, and although his physical appearance lends itself to poking and prodding from everyone, he is still able to get off a couple of his own good lines. Galifianakis plays the part with such playful childishness, that it doesn't seem contrived when he asks the receptionist at the Palace: "Did Caeser actually live here?"

It's difficult not to find yourself enjoying The Hangover, even if it does promote irresponsibility as much as it demeans it. Does the plot unfold rather conveniently? Sure, but so do all movies like this, and most of those movies aren't nearly as funny.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Great Films: Short Cuts (1993)

Directed by Robert Altman

After a brilliant run in the 70's, Altman had a laborious run of mediocre films in the 1980's (realistically, his best film of that decade is actually Fool For Love by default). In 1992, Altman had just released The Player, which not only got him his third Best Director Oscar nomination, but re-injected Altman into the pantheon of great filmmakers. It was the next year, though, Altman released a nearly three-hour film, based on a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. Following the meandering, intertwining lives of numerous high-brows and low-lives in Suburban Southern California, Short Cuts is one of Altman's most fully-realized films, and one of the greatest films of the 1990's.

The story follows numerous characters, just like Altman likes it. There is never a point where one particular character takes precedence over the others, and they all flow together so smoothly, that it's 183-minute running time seems to breeze by. The themes throughout the film are as black as night, yet are told with such playfulness, that the film could almost be mistaken as a comedy. In the tradition of his films like Nashville and M*A*S*H, the insecurities and the terrors of the characters expose themselves through eccentricities and inadvertent dialogue, and never lend themselves to melodrama if they can help it.

Among the characters, there is television columnist (Bruce Davison) and his simple wife (Andie McDowell) whose son is hit by a car by a ne'er-do-well waitress (Lily Tomlin). The waitress has an on-again, off-again relationship with an alcoholic limo driver (Tom Waits), and she's constantly reminded by her daughter (Lili Taylor) that she should move on to someone better. That daughter is married to an idiosyncratic make-up artist (Robert Downey Jr.), and they're best friends with a pool cleaner (Chris Penn), and his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who does side-work as a phone sex operator.

There is also a tempermental police officer (Tim Robbins), who is having an affair with a single mother (Frances McDormand) who, herself, has a meddling ex-husband (Peter Gallagher). The officer is married to an apathetic woman (Madeline Stowe), who takes her husband's affairs in stride. The officer's wife has a sister (Julianne Moore) who is a painter, and married to an emotionless doctor (Matthew Modine). The doctor isn't happy when his wife invites another married couple over for dinner: a blue-collar fisherman (Fred Ward) and a kids-party clown (Anne Archer).

Among the other characters, there is the TV columnist's estranged father (Jack Lemmon), a meddling baker (Lyle Lovett), and the fisherman's two fishing buddies (Buck Henry & Huey Lewis). There is also the story of an aging jazz crooner (Annie Ross), and her troubled daughter (Lori Singer) who plays a rather melancholic cello. There all come together in this film, displaying all types of emotions--mostly despair.

The most interesting aspect of Short Cuts is the usual, cynical tone with which Altman chooses to let the plot points reveal themselves. Things happen, and plot lines overlap so conveniently, that even the most miserable aspects of the stories transition safely into the most hysterical. In a story about suburban malaise, the film does more than just present the boredom of uptown living, but reveals the sting that comes with everyday tragedy.

Of course, the performances within the film are extraordinary. With so many top-notch actors in one film, I'd find it hard for them not to overshadow themselves scene by scene. Instead, they rarely breach outside of the limits of their characters. Probably the biggest star turn in the film comes from Julianne Moore, as a passive-aggressive painter, who has a lot of trouble coming to grips with her crumbling marriage. In a scene of enormous bravery, Moore and Matthew Modine have a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style showdown, where all of the secrets in their relationship are revealed.

Certainly, I could spend all day talking about specific scenes within this movie. It's hard to imagine anybody else making this film as perfectly as Altman did. Under someone else's watch, this could have been a mess of convoluted themes and overdrawn performances. What Altman does that is interesting, is he says shutzpah to thematic storytelling, and forces the audience to think about the characters' actions. Look at what they do, don't think about why they do it, and let yourself drown in the great acting and storytelling.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Trailer Watch: Shutter Island

Hmm, kind of interesting route that Scorsese is going here. In terms of Oscar, Scorsese is 3/3 with his films this decade (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and the big winner The Departed). This is Marty's fourth consecutive collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, and for the most part, the results have been good. This film leans a little more towards horror and suspense than what we're used to with Scorsese, but with a cast that includes Leo, Mark Ruffalo, Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, and Max von Sydow (!), this is certainly a film to watch.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Shameless Promotion

If you're like me, and are equally as nutty about basketball as you are about movies, check out my Another Boring NBA Blog...

Finals analysis and other stories involving the NBA.