Thursday, October 29, 2009

Trailer Watch: Green Zone

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

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

Monday, October 26, 2009

How many times can Werner Herzog go crazy?

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

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

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

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trailer Watch: That Evening Sun

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

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Serious Man (***1/2)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2009

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

Up In The Air
Directed by Jason Reitman


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Women

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

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

Bigelow directing in the desert...

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Amelia (*)

Directed by Mira Nair


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are (****)

Directed by Spike Jonze


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Trailer Watch: Toy Story 3

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

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (***)

Produced, Written, and Directed by Michael Moore


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 5, 2009

Fall Oscar Predix (That Actually Matter)

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

George Clooney, UP IN THE AIR
Colin Firth, A SINGLE MAN
Morgan Freeman, INVICTUS
Viggo Mortenson, THE ROAD

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

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


Abbie Cornish, BRIGHT STAR
Charlotte Gainsbourg, ANTICHRIST
Carey Mulligan, AN EDUCATION
Gabourey Sidibe, PRECIOUS

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

Richard Kind, A SERIOUS MAN
Alfred Molina, AN EDUCATION

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

Marion Cotillard, NINE
Vera Farmiga, UP IN THE AIR
Julianne Moore, A SINGLE MAN
Susan Surandon, THE LOVELY BONES

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

Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER
Lee Daniels, PRECIOUS
Clint Eastwood, INVICTUS

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

Jane Campion, BRIGHT STAR
Scott Neudstadter & Michael H. Weber, 500 Days of Summer
Bob Peterson, UP

Dave Eggers & Spike Jonze, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh, THE LOVELY BONES
Damien Paul, PRECIOUS
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, UP IN THE AIR

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

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

An Education
Bright Star
The Hurt Locker
The Lovely Bones
Up In The Air
Where The Wild Things Are

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

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

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

Here are my early thoughts on the technical awards:

Barry Ackroyd, THE HURT LOCKER
Dian Beebe, NINE
Grieg Fraser, BRIGHT STAR

John Myhre, NINE
Sarah Greenwood, SHERLOCK HOLMES
David Hindle & Christian Huband, BRIGHT STAR

Chris Innis & Bob Murawski, THE HURT LOCKER
Joel Cox & Gary Roach, INVICTUS
Claire Simpson & Wyatt Smith, NINE

Janet Patterson, BRIGHT STAR
Coleen Atwood, NINE

**same thing, right?**
Sherlock Holmes
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

District 9
Star Trek

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
The Road
Star Trek

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

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

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

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bright Star (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Jane Campion


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Whip It (***)

Directed by Drew Barrymore


Within the theater where I screened the new film Whip It, the seats were filled with numerous women and small girls decked in roller derby gear: fishnet stockings, neon-colored shirts, short shorts, etc. My knowledge of the sport of roller derby grew about ten times before the movie even started, because I noticed that--like most any other team sport--there is a subsequent collection of team togetherness and bad-assery which produces a family atmosphere that is hard to envision if you're unfamiliar with sports. Most moviegoers won't have the same in-theater experience, which is a shame, because the movie may seem a tad more empty without it.

The film is based on the novel by Shauna Cross (who also wrote the screenplay) which follows the life of Bliss Cavender (Ellen Page), a transgressive teen from Bodeen, TX, who is forced into amateur beauty pageants by her micromanaging mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden). Her own moral code objects to parading herself that way, but she does not possess enough of an identity to stand up for herself. While she's purchasing a new pair a shoes, she sees a group of roller-skating, rebellious women promoting their roller derby tournament. Bliss is enamored by the women, and decides to visit the tournament.

Along with her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat), she enters a warehouse where a ring is set up, and a roller derby match is about to begin. There are various personalities on the ring, strapping on roller skates, all equipped with clever (okay, maybe not so clever) nicknames. After the match, Bliss approaches Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig) and tells her how much she admired the newly-discovered sport. Maggie advises her to visit new team tryouts the next day, and Bliss agrees, becoming the newest member of the "Hurl Scouts".

Bliss is renamed Babe Ruthless, and is brought in to be a jammer, or scorer, because she is super quick, and is able to score points more effectively than anyone else on the usually inept Hurl Scouts. The team consists of a rather rabble-rousing band of misfits including the temperamental Shashley Simpson (Drew Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and a committed, if apathetic, coach Razor (Andrew Wilson, brother of Owen & Luke). The Hurl Scouts improve rapidly with the addition of Bliss, but they still have trouble with their rival team, led by the megalomaniacal Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis). Can Bliss hold off her disapproving mother to help the Hurl Scouts finally pull off a win?

The movie is the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, who has had astounding moments as a young actress, but this is not one of them. Neither her performance in front or behind the camera is particularly impressive, with her Smashley Simpson character being glaringly two-dimensional, and the creative flow of the film seeming repeatedly stunted. Not that her visual eye is particularly inefficient, just clumsy, with many prospective shots (including a complicated one underwater) becoming a little disorienting. In disappointing fashion, Whip It follows the standard of most high school sports films, containing all of the obligatory scenes of overcoming obstacles, and uncharacteristically forgiving parents, that it should.

But the truth is that I would be lying to myself if I didn't say that I fell in love with this film. Its offbeat energy may not always be consistent, but the humor comes on strong and all of its actors seem particularly amiable on the screen. Particularly, Andrew Wilson and Kristen Wiig are able to bring a lot of laughs with their excellent timing (will Andrew be the next big Wilson brother? I'm not sure, but he's great here). In a supporting role, Daniel Stern (remember him?) plays Bliss' father, Earl, in such a wise and effective way, that he even overcomes the limitations of such a role and creates a caring, aloof father without becoming hackneyed.

The film's central player is Ellen Page, who has already established herself as one of the three or four best young actresses. Pre-Juno, Page was a staple within the transgressive, Canadian independent film circuit starring in the skin head picture Mouth To Mouth and the split-screen experiment The Tracey Fragments. Since Juno, Page is now a commercial icon, and Whip It is certainly her least "edgy" role, but what Page has been showing in her post-Juno career is her ability to shine, even in more commercial pictures. She's still as sincere as ever within Whip It, and still an actress I feel I can watch in anything (except for that X-Men movie).

I'll admit that I may not have enjoyed the film if I wasn't in a theater filled with roller derby enthusiasts, or if it wasn't starring Ellen Page. Those facts are irrelevant, though, because that was the atmosphere that I saw the film and it created such a wonderful atmosphere that it would've been impossible not to enjoy yourself. It's a bit discouraging when you think that most, less famous directors would never be able to release their debut if it was this ill-executed, but again, those aren't the circumstances. And most first-time filmmakers wouldn't have such a good cast, anyway.