Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My newest movie

You guys have heard me pontificate enough about other people's movies, and now you guys have a chance to pontificate on mine. This is my latest film, entitled Octobeard. It's about a man who is convinced by his friends to grow a beard and how he learns of the magical force behind the best kind of facial hair. The film was produced for Campus Movie Fest, which is a college film festival that encourages students to make microbudget short films in the span of less than a week. This was my group's entry. Hope you enjoy!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shutter Island (***)

Directed by Martin Scorsese


There are some films that are just too clever for their own good. Such is the case with Shutter Island, which had me entranced through its first two-thirds before imploding upon itself and vomiting in the last third. There are so very many things to like about this film, but the end just leaves you distant, maybe even frustrated with its all-too-brainy stab at the macabre. When you have a filmmaker as heralded as Scorsese, you tend to grade on a curve, and Shutter Island seems to miss the mark at some points.

The film follows US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who travels with his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to Shutter Island. Shutter Island is a haggard mass of sharp rocks and deadly secrets--it is the epitome of a gothic setting. On the island, an old Civil War fort has been transformed into a mental hospital for the criminally insane, and when a child murderer named Rachel (Emily Mortimer) has escaped from that hospital, Teddy and Chuck are brought in to find her.

It seems like there is no way a prisoner can make it out alive, as the wards are surrounded by stiff cliffs and endless ocean. But somehow Rachel has managed to disappear. When Teddy meets the institution's medical director, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), he is met with passive resistance. Cawley respects his patients, even if most of them have committed terrible acts, and he is very weary of Teddy's possible philanderings. From the first moment they meet, these two men do not trust each other. For good reason. Their inspection starts off shaky. Rachel's lead psychologist was granted a vacation and Cawley's superior, a German Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow; yes, that Max von Sydow) refuses them access to staff files.

Worse yet, the island itself seems to be conspiring against them. A hurricane howls, roofs leak, and the murky circumstances give Teddy terrible migraines. He begins getting dreadfully realistic hallucinations of his dead wife Delores (Michelle Williams), and his dreams are lucid and frightening. He gets flashes of horrific moments he experienced on the battlefield during World War II. Then everything begins to blend together. Seeds of paranoia are planted into Teddy's brain, and before he knows it, he doesn't know who he can trust anymore. As he searches harder and harder for Rachel, he travels deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness that is Shutter Island.

And all of this is brilliant. Scorsese, always a master of showcasing character strife, layers the setting with distressing images and ominous sounds to showcase Teddy's inner torment. The institution felt not unlike the House of Usher, and because of that, the entire film is cast in a dour mood. It wouldn't be incorrect to call Shutter Island a noir in this way. Very dark in tone and theme. Lead by a deeply troubled, extremely hard-boiled protagonist. Even throwbacks to classic Hitchcock are woven in well. The aspects of obsession used so well in Vertigo seem particularly prevalent here. Scorsese is the king film homage within a film, and Shutter Island does it better than most of his others.

So, why did I sound so sour at the beginning of my review? Because this film drastically falls apart when it reaches its third act. For the most part, it walks its tight rope between horrific dreams and dreary reality quite brilliantly. But the film's final moments try to wrangle it in and put it on a straight path. Everything in the film, up until those moments, is fighting it. Yet, it seems that Scorsese enjoyed the coy way the film's resolution plays a trick on us. I'll admit that I'm not a fan of the twist ending, so I guess I walk in with prejudice. But what Shutter Island attempts seems to go against the entire structure of the story.

But in the end, is the film's conclusion so reprehensible? After some thought, I don't think so. I feel Shutter Island is a movie that works much better on a second viewing, when you're simply viewing the aesthetic and not focusing on such meaningless things as plot points. After all, you do have a tremendous lead performance from DiCaprio, and wonderfully-nuanced supporting work from Kingsley, Mortimer, and von Sydow. You do have some of the best shot work of Robert Richardson's career. And you have one of the creepiest auras within a movie that I've seen in a long time.

This is probably the closest Scorsese will ever get to crafting a functional, effective horror film. In a way, it's like introspective horror, which deals with the minds of the characters and doesn't waste its energy on arbitrary action. Shutter Island is legitimately spooky. And now, as I finish typing this review, I realize that I'm not as angry with the film as I thought I was. Actually, I think I quite enjoyed it. You see, things are starting to change already. Now, if there was only something we could do to change that ending, then the experience would be perfect.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Top Ten of 2009

There was an interesting thing that happened as I was watching movies in 2009. Overall, I feel like there were a lot of good movies. Very few times did I leave a theater disappointed or let down. But there were even fewer times when I walked out truly wowed. Last year, I was blown away by instant classics like WALL-E and Rachel Getting Married. The year before, there were two masterpieces with No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. I don't think I saw any films last year on par with those four. This, more than anything, is what caused me to take such a long time working on my ten best list. How do you quantify a bunch of films that you essentially like about the same? I worked unreasonably hard on this (really, why is this even an issue in my life?), and think I came up with a satisfactory list that could probably be rearranged at some point in the future. Here's the list:

1. The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Point Break filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow created the best film of her career in this taught Iraq drama. Hurt Locker follows three soldiers in the Army's bomb squad unit. It's the epitome of a high stress workplace, and can only be lead by the most skilled and most emotionally stable technicians. Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is the perfect man for the job; he is able to walk into the most dangerous situations and perform with stunning efficiency. Better yet, he has an addiction to the adrenaline, and its this seeming death wish that causes his partner Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) to label him as "reckless". Lead by two spectacular performances from Renner and Mackie, Bigelow's film deals with tension better than any non-horror film I've ever seen. Every bomb disablement, every situation, continues to add to the stomach-turning anxiety. It's an anti-war film unlike any I've ever seen, and it's the closest any 2009 film came to that "great" category.

2. 500 Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb

Kind of a hipster Annie Hall or a level-headed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 500 Days is such a self-referential delight that it seems to take these kinds of comparisons with a wry smile. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a hopeless romantic, and when he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), he's convinced that she is the one. Only problem, Summer refuses to believe in love and is only interested taking Tom along for a good time. Tom plays along with the charade as long as he gets to spend time with Summer, but as time moves along, and he and Summer get closer, he expects her to return the same romantic feeling. Summer responds with disastrous indifference. This is a decade filled with interesting spins on the romantic comedy, and 500 Days is one of the most original voices within this sub-genre. The film has everything: comedy, tragedy, animation, and even a musical number set to Hall & Oats' "You Make My Dreams Come True". With a brilliant performance from Gordon-Levitt, 500 Days of Summer is a bittersweet, handsomely told tale about contemporary love that actually feels real. Few movie love stories do.

3. Julia
Directed by Erick Zonca

Much like The Wrestler last year, Julia is a film that's brilliance stems from one sole source: it's lead performance. In The Wrestler, it was Mickey Rourke, and in Julia, we are greeted with a career-best performance from Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays the title character, Julia, an alcoholic whose debts run deep and friends run thin. When she meets Elena (Kate del Castillo) at one of her AA meetings, she agrees to help the woman kidnap her son back from a meddling grandfather. Julia takes matters into her own hands when she kidnaps Elena's son herself and holds him for her own ransom. The already scatter-brained plan falls off the deep end as Julia continues to make the worst possible decisions in high-stress situations. Sure, the probability of some of the moments in the script can be questioned, but Swinton walks into the role with total sincerity, and created one of the most interesting film characters that I've ever seen.

4. Avatar
Directed by James Cameron

I find myself in an interesting position lately, where I find myself having to defend my positive feelings toward what is--box office wise--the most popular film of all time. No doubt, a film as large as Avatar is bound to get a thunderous backlash, but I've held firm: when I walked out of Avatar, I knew I had just watched something that I'd never seen before. So, is it just a special effects fireworks show with a simple screenplay? I give it a little more credit. The film, about a handicapped marine (Sam Worthington) who becomes involved within a primitive culture named Na'vi, has been said to rip off several films including Dances With Wolves and Fern Gully. But here's my personal feelings: how can you judge a film like Avatar by focusing on the film's single weakest point? It's screenplay. People forget that Avatar is probably the single greatest technical achievement in movie history, and while the story is near forgettable, the film isn't.

5. Inglourious Basterds
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

I had been waiting to see Tarantino's Basterds for close to seven years. It was a project that had been on-and-off since BEFORE the Kill Bill films. That said, I feel Inglourious Basterds came as close to meeting expectations as it could (nothing could've been the masterpiece I wanted when I walked into that theater). A spaghetti western/revenge film set in Nazi-occupied France, Basterds plays fast and loose with the facts of the time, and is probably the most fun I've ever had urinating on history. Tarantino's screenplay holds some of the best dialogue that he has ever written (which is saying something), which includes two scenes of twenty-plus minutes of people just talking--where the tension is thick enough to cut with a knife. The film also has stunning performances, including Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna, a young, Jewish Frenchwoman who seeks revenge on the Nazi who massacred her family. That Nazi is "Jew hunter" Hans Landa, played in a virtuoso performance by Christoph Waltz. In work that will certainly win Waltz an Oscar, he displays a smorgasbord of nuance and subtle menace.

6. The Messenger
Directed by Oren Moverman

There are war films about the battlefield, and then there are war films about the mental battle back home. The Messenger is one of the latter. After becoming an Army hero, Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is sent home and told to finish his tour as a Casualty Notification officer--basically, he notifies the next-of-kin when their loved ones have died overseas. He is coached by the veteran CNO Ct. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), but is never prepared to face the immense grief with each notification he gives. Lead by the two stunning performances from Foster and Harrelson, The Messenger is a stunning debut from filmmaker Oren Moverman. It displays the unmitigated destruction war can bring on the home soil better than any film since Coming Home. There is a weariness in the way the story is told, but the film itself never becomes dreary. The slow mental crumbling of Stone and Montgomery are showed with brash realism, allowing the two actors to take full advantage of some very chewy scenes.

7. A Serious Man
Written and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Oh, those pesky little Coen Brothers. Burn After Reading was considered to be a sign that they may be taking it easy after the masterpiece No Country For Old Men, but then they came out with this stunning film. A Serious Man is about Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college professor who has a litany of troubles throughout his life, including: a student trying to bribe him for a better grade, a son who acts up in school and smokes marijuana, a troubled brother who won't move off of his couch, and a wife who is leaving him for a close family friend. The world is falling in on Larry, and he does his best to seek philosophical help for everything that's troubling him. He can't find solace in anything; not in his family, not in his synagogue, and not in his attractive next door neighbor. A Single Man is said to be more personal then most of the Coens' films, and it is certainly their most existential. Searching through themes like the meaning of life and the power of spirituality and chance, A Serious Man is a stunning portrait of a spiritual crisis and a dastardly condemnation of trying to find meaning in mundane events.

8. Bright Star
Written and Directed by Jane Campion

In a true return to form, Jane Campion's Bright Star is her best film since 1993's The Piano. In the stuffy genre of Victorian-period drama, Campion crafted a story bursting with passion while still keeping hold of its chastity. It is the story of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a seamstress who is excellent at keeping hold of her emotions. When she is introduced to the young poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), their love grows quickly. Obstacles disrupt their relationship, including John's poverty, Fanny's career options, and John's friend Charles (Paul Schneider) who insists that a successful poet cannot be distracted by anything as fleeting as love. We all know the tragedy of John Keats, which makes Bright Star that much more melancholy. It's a pretty unique experience: a tragic love story that never manages to feel tragic. Campion's beautiful direction allows the film to be awash in color and vibrancy. With stunning performances from Cornish, Whishaw, and Schneider, Bright Star is one of the great unsung films of 2009 and one of the best.

9. An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig

In a fair world, Carey Mulligan's performance in An Education would make her one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Time may show whether that happens or not, but what we do know now is this: her performance in this film is something beyond special. Watching her wonderful work as the dangerously naive teenager Jenny, I discovered what it must have felt like to see Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. It obviously helps that the performance is the centerpiece of a terrifically crafted film. When Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming playboy who's twice her age, she allows him to take her out of her isolated world of studying and prudence. As the truth about David slowly reveals itself, Jenny learns about growing up the hard way. There is nothing original or surprising in this screenplay, but that is not the point. It's a wonderful study of maturation at various ages and told with delicacy and grace.

10. Where The Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze

Time will tell whether or not it was a good idea to give Spike Jonze a hundred million dollars to make Wild Things, but early figures show that it probably wasn't the most prudent choice. It's difficult to really form an opinion on a film like this, except to be specific and clear: this is something special and something that will stick with you long after you've finished it. Based on the classic children's book by Maurice Sendak, we are introduced to Max (Max Records), an unruly child who throws a tantrum and escapes to a fantastical world filled emotionally conflicted creatures. Sure, this is probably not the standard plot for a film aimed at children, but it does make for a very effective movie experience. The voice talents of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, and Chris Cooper are used to flesh out the wild things, and spectacular face capture special effects add to their liveliness. With the addition of a music score by Carter Burwell and Karen O., Where The Wild Things Are is a fascinating piece of audacious filmmaking and something that should be remembered for years to come.


Up In The Air was a very timely, effective film about personal connection; Anvil! The Story of Anvil was a surprisingly heartbreaking documentary on lifetime rockers; Precious was the film of the moment (three months ago) and holds some of the most powerful filmmaking of the year--as well as some stunning work from Mo'Nique; Up continued the excellent tradition of the Pixar studios; Whip It! was a super-fun, girl-oriented roller derby film that was not afraid to embrace its own estrogen; Moon was one of the best science fiction of the decades, with career work from Sam Rockwell; and Fantastic Mr. Fox was a great middle-finger toward animation and narrative purists, and a return to form for Wes Anderson.

A Week of Reflection: The Oscar Nominations

So, we've had a week now to mow over all of the films nominated for this year's Academy Awards. I've been avoiding most commentary on the subject. Not only because of my self-imposed sabbatical, but because for the first time in a long time, I hadn't seen all the films nominated for Best Picture. I guess that's bound to happen when they expand the field to ten--a decision I am still adamantly against, and this year's BP ballot only strengthens that feeling. But, since last Tuesday's announcement, I have gone out of my way to go see The Blind Side and District 9, and can give full analysis.


The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up In The Air

This actually isn't a bad list at all. But it is sullied by its inclusion of The Blind Side (which is not nearly as racist as I expected, but ten times dumber). The Academy hoped that the ten-wide ballot would include a few more commercially successful films, and they got what they wanted, at the cost of their integrity. If any Academy member says The Blind Side deserves to be on a plain anywhere with The Hurt Locker or A Serious Man, they're simply lying to avoid the shame. I was giddy though to see them throw a bone toward An Education, which seemed to be getting swallowed by the big December releases. I wasn't in love with Up In The Air or Precious, but their nominations don't bother me, if only because they were so expected.

When the high notes on your film are things like "not as racist as expected", you may have a problem...


Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER
James Cameron, AVATAR
Lee Daniels, PRECIOUS
Jason Reitman, UP IN THE AIR

This has been a two-man (or woman, considering James Cameron's new haircut) race for a long time now. Bigelow directed the best film of the year and Cameron directed the biggest. It's actually an intriguing showdown, particularly because of the two's personal connection (which you can read about on TMZ, not here). I guess I understand the Avatar backlash (no film that makes $2 billion is going to leave unscathed in the world of cruel internet movie dweebs), but it's hard not to credit Cameron with creating something most of us have never seen before. That said, I'm still on Team Bigelow, and find her work on Hurt Locker to be a brilliant balance of character, action, tension, and message. More of Bigelow's work effects us between the ears, as opposed to Cameron who only effects our eyes. As for Daniels, Reitman, and Tarantino: all good work gentlemen, but you don't stand a chance.


Jeff Bridges, CRAZY HEART
George Clooney, UP IN THE AIR
Colin Firth, A SINGLE MAN
Morgan Freeman, INVICTUS
Jeremy Renner, THE HURT LOCKER

I'm glad the Academy showed some mercy and decided to give little-known Jeremy Renner a nomination for his brilliant work in The Hurt Locker. That said, he, Clooney, Freeman, and Firth all have front row seats for Jeff Bridges' lifetime achievement ceremony. Not that Bridges isn't good in Crazy Heart, it's just that everything about it smacks of "Hey, I've paid my dues. If I sing a few songs and throw in some alcoholism, will you give me that damn Oscar already?". Fair enough, the dude abides. No objections, except for Freeman, who is obviously getting nominated for the role and not the performance. If this were an award for merit, Freeman would be nowhere to be seen.


Sandra Bullock, THE BLIND SIDE
Carey Mulligan, AN EDUCATION
Gabourey Sidibe, PRECIOUS
Meryl Streep, JULIE & JULIA

This shortlist, on the other hand, is abominable. Where is Abbie Cornish's brilliant subtlety in Bright Star? Ellen Page's wonderful, ensemble-leading, rollerskating work in Whip It? And what excuse can you give me for excluding Tilda Swinton's career-defining work in Julia? Only Carey Mulligan gave a performance of any real substance (I don't totally mind Sidibe's nomination, because its a startling debut, but I don't think I'm saying anything controversial when I say she's a bit stiff). Streep is now getting points for mediocre work, and while Bullock is the single thing about The Blind Side that isn't unbearable, it's still second-rate. As for Helen Mirren's work in The Last Station, I will get back to that later.

It's okay, Tilda. At least I know how good 'Julia' is...


Matt Damon, INVICTUS
Woody Harrelson, THE MESSENGER
Christopher Plummer, THE LAST STATION

I guess it's too much to ask, when they included Jeremy Renner, that they also include The Hurt Locker's Anthony Mackie. Those two performances work off each other so well, it's so hard to think that one is getting recognized and the other isn't. But alas, we're left with this mish-mash of unadulterated brilliance and exhausting blandness. Matt Damon does little to nothing in Invictus. Stanley Tucci's work in The Lovely Bones isn't even the best thing he's done this year (am I the only one who found him much more enjoyable as the rock of encouragement in Julie & Julia?). Harrelson and Waltz were both great in their films, and rightfully so, they're the two biggest contenders for the win--though I think Waltz has all but won this Oscar already. Then there's 80-year-old Christopher Plummer, getting his first Oscar nomination for The Last Station. Didn't I say I wanted to wait before talking about this film? More about it later.


Penelope Cruz, NINE
Vera Farmiga, UP IN THE AIR
Maggie Gyllenhaal, CRAZY HEART
Anna Kendrick, UP IN THE AIR

Holy Maggie Gyllenhaal! Probably the most legitimate surprise of the major nominations, particularly since it's a case of a great performance of a horribly written character. The Academy chose Cruz to represent the abominable Nine, though Marion Cotillard is much better. Both of them pushed out my beloved Julianne Moore, who I'm sure had less of a shot at a nomination (for A Single Man) than most of us thought (I was leading all of the wishful thinkers). The two Up In The Air girls got there much-deserved nominations, as well as Mo'Nique, who seems to have a tight grip on that front-runner status. What a surprise. Another category that has been all but decided.

Do you think they'll even have those Oscar morning jitters? Probably not...


Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, A SERIOUS MAN
Alessandro Comen & Oren Moverman, THE MESSENGER
Bob Peterson, UP


Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell, DISTRICT 9
Geoffrey Fletcher, PRECIOUS
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, UP IN THE AIR
A Shitload of People, IN THE LOOP

What happened to my beloved 500 Days of Summer? At the last moment, everyone decided they didn't like the script. Not that I could pick a nominee there that could be replaced--all very good films and good scripts. Even Adapted Screenplay had the pleasant addition of the hilarious, witty In The Loop. No real complaints here.

So what do we have? A bunch of predictable actor's categories, but all the other major awards (Director, Screenplay, Picture) are very much up in the air (good god, forgive that pun). Which brings me to me long-awaited feelings on The Last Station. Why on Earth have you refused to let any of the regular viewing public watch you? We are well into February, and its only playing in LA and New York. This is unacceptable, and quite frankly, reprehensible. That the Academy awarded this behavior makes me entirely frustrated. How can you nominate a film no one has seen?

Interested in getting nominated for Oscars without people seeing your film? Contact the producers of 'The Last Station'...

Trailer Watch: Fish Tank

The word on Fish Tank is that it is already the best film of 2010 (not that there's been much competition). It won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes, and director Andrea Arnold has already won an Academy Award for her short film Wasp. First-time actress Katie Jarvis is getting beyond fabulous notes for her performance as an angsty teen. Also, the cast has Michael Fassbender (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors after his recent performances in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds). Yeah, there seems to be a lot to get excited about. With the monotony of the recent Oscar nominations (more on that later), I'm already looking forward to the great films of 2010. Fish Tank seems like it may deliver.

........And We're Back!

Sorry to be gone for so long, my pretties, but I have returned. I haven't written here in close to two months, so it seems I have a lot of catching up to do. I'll do my best!