Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Punching The Clown (***)

Directed by Gregori Viens


'Punching The Clown' will be making its Central Florida debut at the Florida Film Festival on April 12th (9pm) at Regal Winter Park. It will play again on April 15th (4:30pm) at Regal Winter Park as well. It is a Narrative Competition selection. For more information, click here.

Did Robert Altman perfect the Hollywood satire with his biting film The Player? Probably, but it hasn't stopped many filmmakers from trying to top him. Punching The Clown is a film that gives it a shot. It's a modest shot, but an audacious one. From the music business to the stand-up comedy hierarchy to the sketchy cafe industry, the film covers all the dark corners of Los Angeles and reveals that everyone's struggling. But of course, these people's pain make for some great comedy.

Henry Phillips (playing himself) is a comedian who sings humorous folk songs about his pathetic life and bad luck with women. There is "The Bitch Song" in which he bemoans the tale of an ex-girlfriend who was a miserable human being without any particular influence ("And even though I tried to give her all the love she needs, somehow she's a bitch anyway"). There is also "The End of the World" in which he talks about doing cocaine off a transsexual hooker's ambiguous crotch. Not surprisingly, his act does not garner much traction, so he drives out to Los Angeles in hopes to make some easy money.

Henry crashes on the couch of his brother Matt (Matthew Walker) who is an equal failure--he performs as Batman at elementary birthday parties. But Matt is able to get Henry in touch with a talent agent named Ellen (Ellen Ratner in a hilarious performance), who makes up in optimism what she lacks in industry know-how (among seeing Henry's act for the first time, she declares that she'll promote him as "James Taylor on smack!"). He is able to find a consistent gig at a coffee bar where he starts to develop a loyal audience who dig his songs on road life and screwing up with women.

When Ellen is finally able to get him in touch with a record executive named Fabian (Guilford Adams), Henry seems like he will finally achieve the success he has coveted during all his trips across the country. That is when an incident involving some gourmet bagels (that is way too languid and hilarious to get into here) starts the ball rolling on a vicious, unfounded rumor that could threaten his shot at the big time.

There are numerous other subplots throughout the film, including a fellow novelty music artist who is aptly named "Stupid Joe" and an eccentric radio show host named Captain Chaotic (played with great wit by Wade Kelly). There are many times when Punching The Clown truly blurs the line between broad and unfocused, but there is never a moment where it is uninteresting. It never relents in its humor, but it does so without being aggressive or forcing laughs. If anything, the film's dialogue is drowned in mum subtlety that enhances the abrasiveness of the words. It has the movement of a Curb Your Enthusiasm, but all the characters feel so much more real.

I'm not sure the film succeeds as a Hollywood satire, but it does give a substantial peek behind the curtain in regards to the lower dregs of the comedy circuit. Basically, this is what Funny People wanted to be. By funneling the story through the near comatose voice of Henry Phillips, we are able to see it as a cautionary tale that is still incredibly watchable and entertaining. The screenplay (written by Phillips and director Gregori Viens) saves most of its venom for the music industry, which it dismisses as superficial and simply unintelligent (and wouldn't you have to be to sign an artist like Phillips?).

Of course, the success of the film hinders on the performance of Phillips. Sure, you could question the skill he displays since he is literally playing himself, but its that vantage point that makes Punching The Clown so lovely. I'm not a sure a more naturally responsive protagonist would work as well, and I certainly don't think it would be as funny. Surely, the film works on two levels: the one in which it tells the narrative of Phillips trying to make it in L.A. and the other level in which Phillips and his songs are showcased. The film's best moments are when Phillips is invigorating an audience with his clever insights on life and hilarious tunes.

Punching The Clown is an exceedingly under-budgeted film that creates great humor with nothing other than its own pure cleverness. After watching Avatar's trailblazing run toward box office history, sometimes it's hard to believe that a film can succeed without superstars and a grandiose amount of money behind it. Watching this film made me smile because it is obvious that there are still films being made with real energy and dedication, and without one eye looking toward the end gain.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Greenberg (***1/2)

Directed by Noah Baumbach


Noah Baumbach seems to have a soft spot for insufferable assholes. In an effort to expose the darkest, more honest aspects of the human condition, Baumbach exposes his viewers to pretty grotesque psychological images. In his 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale, this is executed impeccably; but in his 2007 film Margot at the Wedding, it was turned up to a level so high that the movie itself became unbearable. His latest film, Greenberg, does not ease up, but does have a more centralized storyline and it works in one of the year's more interesting films.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is forty years old and he is perpetually unhappy with his life. He's a carpenter in New York, but he has decided to travel to Los Angeles to housesit and watch the dog of his brother Phillip (Chris Messina), who is traveling to Vietnam with his family. Roger promises to build a doghouse before they return, but he only works on it intermittently. When he gets to the house, everything feels foreign to him and his anxiety begins to rise. The neighbors come over and use the pool whenever they please and that doesn't sit right with him.

He is told to call Florence (Greta Gerwig), the family's personal assistant, if he needs anything. Not a day goes by before he does. They meet and Roger is instantly drawn toward her, even though their initial meeting comprises of an awkward conversation about the song "It Never Rains in Southern California". Florence tells him that she could do some groceries and he asks her to pick up whiskey and some ice cream sandwiches. Roger also calls his old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), with whom he used to be in a band. Ivan has sobered up these days but is going through a solemn separation with his wife. All Roger can think about is how disappointed he is that his friend has changed.

The more people that Roger meets throughout the film, the more we discover the strength of his social anxiety. A stay within a mental institution is hinted at several times, but never explained. The only concrete fact that we get from his past is that he destroyed his former band when they were on the verge of a record deal. Why? He was afraid of how partnering with corporate America would effect their growth as a group. As people from his past and present continue to confront him, he is forced to confront himself and his elitist, self-loathing behavior. All this, while a relationship between him and Florence begins to grow. But will his overgrown neuroticism get in the way?

It's probably too simplistic to categorize Greenberg as a "mid-life crisis movie", but it certainly isn't broad enough to break away too ferociously. All in all, Roger is not necessarily disenfranchised with middle age. He's dejected because of a very blatant realization: the unique individual that he's tried so hard to become his whole life is real just a nasty curmudgeon. It takes a lot of negative energy to be a "curmudgeon" at the age of forty, but Roger is able to pull it off. All the depression that lingers around him seems to all be in his head, which may be the most depressing thing about it.

I teetered back and forth with my feelings on this movie as I watched it. There are moments that are brilliant and some that felt tedious. Some moments are sharper and funnier than others, and there's a motif of jump cut editing that felt inconsistent and distracting for me. But what really made Greenberg work for me was the film's final act, which made every part that precedes it--even the parts that meandered--feel needed. Sure, there are a handful of heavy-handed symbols/metaphors (including a particularly unsightly one floating in the pool), but Greenberg's best moments far outweighed the unwarranted ones.

And almost all of Greenberg's best moments have to do with Ben Stiller's performance. Stiller is a legitimate movie star, but he has dipped his toe into the auteur pool once or twice. The results have been middling. But in this film, it's safe to say, he may have the finest acting work of his career. Every line and every nuance screamed inner torment and insecurity, and it's done so effortlessly that it makes you wonder why we've never seen this from Stiller before. Particularly in his scenes with Ifans, Stiller shines comedically and dramatically. Which may be why I was turned off from Gerwig, who seemed a bit out of place here. I don't think she was supposed to be as flat as she seemed, and most of my issues with film have to do with how her character disrupts the rhythm. It's as if she realized how physically demanding the role was ten seconds before the camera turned on and decided to keep it all inside. Her character should have been a bit more explicit, and then I wouldn't debate her motivations so much.

I'm sure a lot of people will dislike Greenberg as much as I disliked Margot at the Wedding. It only tells the parts of the story that it wants to and doesn't seem to care a whole lot about what the audience wants. Baumbach is the one telling the story and he's not letting anyone dictate how he tells it. It's obvious with his three films so far, what Baumbach is interested in: the harsh, but fragile lifestyles of the once privileged. I'm not sure anyone in cinema is covering the market better (even for all it's horrendous qualities, the one thing you couldn't call Margot was "not risky"). I don't think Greenberg is quite as good as his brilliant Squid and the Whale, but it shows that he's not afraid to keep making the films that interest him. Even if there is a clunker thrown in once in a while. It takes a lot of guts and stubbornness to hold that track and it's something that I can appreciate.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Chloe (***1/2)

Directed by Atom Egoyan


There's a reason that psycho-sexual films don't do well in the United States. As a country, America is supremely sexually repressed and gawk at the sight of real, sincere perversion being displayed on film. It is not that Americans don't like sex. They love watching Megan Fox walking around in low cut shirts or the latest straight-to-video Van Wilder spin-off. But when it comes to realistic portrayals of human sexuality, they get afraid and they get turned off. Which is why Chloe is a film that won't succeed in this country. Atom Egoyan's latest film does have the benefit of a superb cast, but it's how he portrays the emotional human psyche, no matter how unsightly, that makes the film a unique, interesting watch.

Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore) is a very successful gynecologist, but it has been a long time since she has felt particular comfortable with her marriage to David (Liam Neeson). David is a brilliant college professor and rather charming man. He's open and friendly with all his students, particularly the young women. When he intentionally misses a flight home on his birthday, Catherine's insecurities grow even larger. She is overcome by emotional loneliness and paranoia, and that is when she takes notice of a young girl walking down the street outside of her office.

That young girl is Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a superb call girl who's excellence at her job is only surpassed by her precociousness. Catherine meets Chloe in a restaurant bathroom, and they are immediately drawn toward her. When Catherine returns to her seat, she watches Chloe return to hers and it is obvious that she is with a client. Days later, Catherine finds Chloe and asks if she can pay Chloe to do a favor. She wants Chloe to meet David and attempt to seduce him. Afterword, she's to report back to Catherine and tell her how David responds.

What follows is a series of episodes involving sexual intrigue and emotional manipulation. Catherine becomes surprised with just how smart Chloe is and how often she uses that intelligence in her work. Catherine figured that she could ask Chloe for this favor and simply be done with her, but Chloe wants to be a little more than just a service. The situation takes several turns, and every time Catherine tries to put out the situation, it just becomes more inflamed. Chloe knows exactly what to do and say to make Catherine vulnerable, and she uses those skills to her advantage in a very emotionally complex story.

I always admit that I bring baggage to any Julianne Moore film since she's not only my favorite actress, but I've found her to be the greatest actor I've ever watched in cinema (I didn't type that wrong). She is the utmost professional and possesses a screen presence that is unmatched by anyone of her time, aside from Meryl Streep. Surely, she is not as beloved as Streep, and it is because Moore insists on taking braver, sometimes un-commercial roles like the one she has in Chloe. There is nothing about this film that hints at box office success, and I sometimes feel Moore prefers it that way. Because it allows her, even at forty-nine years old, to still take chances and continue to challenge herself as an actress, and she may be the only one who can pull it off, with most actresses becoming obsolete by thirty-five.

So for many, it would be shocking to see her continuing to take on these kind of physically-demanding roles, and sometimes she does fall on her face (the morosely perverse Savage Grace truly wasted her greatness). But in Chloe, they utilize her skill wonderfully. Emotional transparency is her specialty, and Moore reflects sexual insecurity effortlessly in this film. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), the script is infused with noir-like suspense, but its totally character driven. Egoyan is a director who has never been shy of taboos, and like in his 1994 film Exotica, he gives the story as much sexual tension as possible, but never allows the events to become gratuitous.

But the greatest part of Chloe is how it lets its characters dictate the forward motion of the film. It slows down when they want it to slow down, and builds when the characters decide that it's the right time. Egoyan always puts his actors in places where they can succeed, and along with Moore, his cast works effectively. As the endearing, occasionally philandering David, Neeson does not have much to do in the film's first half, but unleashes some true gravitas later in the film, as the stakes get higher. Amanda Seyfried, one of Hollywood's best young actresses, does a rather amiable job as Chloe. She exudes sexuality, even if she doesn't always convince you that she's a professional seductress.

I'm not totally sure that Chloe earns its tragic conclusion, but its not a total cheat. This is not a movie that demands a conventional ending, and if everybody ended up comfortable it wouldn't have felt right. The film is a true study of human sexuality, and how it holds a more prominent space in our minds than we think. As I've exhausted throughout, this is not a film for the emotionally insecure and it will rub many the wrong way. Maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much, but it is more than just a statement of sexual rebellion, it's a real story about real people.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Ghost Writer (***1/2)

Directed by Roman Polanski


Roman Polanski is a person whose reputation precedes him on several levels. But for the purposes of this blog, let us just say that every time he releases a new film, it is a event (that's right, even Oliver Twist). In the case of The Ghost Writer, he's releasing what is probably his best film since 2002's The Pianist (for which he won his first Academy Award). I'm not sure this film will be that big of a smash, but with its superb cast and genuine suspense, Polanski created one of the best film noirs in recent decades.

When a downtrodden writer (Ewan McGreggor) is offered the chance to be a ghost writer on a former prime minister's memoirs, he takes the job begrudgingly. He doesn't care much for politics or droning autobiographies, but he needs the money and the job is offering plenty of that. Amongst other things, he is told that he must finish the book in a month. The men who hire him explain that he's actually the second ghost writer hired for this particular project, after the original writer drowned. Even with all these details, the Ghost agrees to take the job... like I said, begrudgingly.

The prime minister being chronicled is Adam Lang (Pierce Bronson), whose anti-terrorism stance and pro-American policies have made him unpopular in England since his term ended. These days, Lang is holed up on his Long Island beach home with his cold, but devoted assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall) and his meddling wife Ruth (Olivia Williams). Upon arriving, the Ghost is immediately confronted with the uncomfortable relationships within the swanky home and it doesn't take long before he is swept up into Lang's latest scandal.

When one of Lang's former political colleagues blows the whistle on some of his past war crimes, outrage emerges and protesters begin camping out on the perimeter of his home. It puts the Lang residence in a state of great irritation and the Ghost is caught right in the middle of it. As the Ghost begins his version of the memoirs, he begins to discover insights into Lang's background that were left behind by the first writer. As he does further investigation, stunning realizations are made. All of a sudden, the first writer's death doesn't look like much of an accident.

My few problems with The Ghost Writer are nitpicky in nature, and I should probably just get them off of my chest right away. In an obvious scheme to gain the film a PG-13 rating, several instances of the characters using the word "fuck" were dubbed over with words like "bugger" or "shit". Also, in what is probably a consequence of Polanski's inability to enter the United States, the Cape Cod backgrounds are CGI-ed in many moments, as the character's faces are very obviously digitally placed over the scenery. The only reason I discuss such immaterial aspects of the movie is because they were so distracting and frustrating throughout, and they are the sole thing that is keeping the movie from approaching greatness.

But once the viewer is able to get passed those things (and I assume that most will), they are in for a great treat. What's most impressive about The Ghost Writer is its ability to possess film noir's most recognizable archetypes (femme fatale, morally ambiguous universe, hard-boiled protagonist) without seeming dated. Along with cinematographer Pawel Edelman, Polanski creates a wonderfully slick thriller that seems very much of its time and is still very aware of its own intertextuality. Not since Chinatown (another Polanski film) has classic film noir been produced so properly and seamlessly.

The film's plot is not nearly as complex as it tries to look (and one particular sequence in which a major character is able to find incriminating evidence on Google seems like an incredible case of screenwriting oversight), but there is never a dull moment. The performances hold the film together tightly, with especially good work from McGreggor and Williams. The actors do a good job of fleshing out the characters, while still allowing the plot to be the film's main star. Even in its slower moments, there are still images and pieces of dialogue that keep you intrigued. There is always something that seems a little bit off, and it isn't until the final reveal toward the end that everything makes sense.

As I've already said, there are things about this movie that hold it back from being a great film. All in all, though, it is hard to debate that it isn't a very good film. I'll admit that I come into this movie with baggage, loving film noir more than most specific genres; and to see a contemporary film capture that spirit so effortlessly makes me smile. But The Ghost Writer does work on a separate level beyond that, though, because it is a very effective thriller. It's a shame, though. It could've been even more effective if the characters were allowed to say "fuck" every once in a while.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The day after...

So, after all the talk and the backlash, The Hurt Locker came out on top and took home six Academy Awards, including Best Director, Screenplay, and Picture. The long, droning ceremony was almost worth it to see Kathryn Bigelow's warm (if at times erratic) acceptance speeches at the end. There were no surprises in the acting categories with all the front runners coming out on top. Jeff Bridges took home his lifetime achievement Best Actor award for Crazy Heart, and gave a rambling speech dedicated to his long deceased parents. Sandra Bullock accepted her Best Actress award with the same funny self-deprecation that helped us forget that she was winning for a movie as horrid as The Blind Side. Christoph Waltz and Mo'Nique took home the Supporting Actor/Actress awards to no one surprise (or chagrin, they both truly deserved it, and it's hard to find anyone who disagrees). There were minor surprises in the screenplay categories, with Precious topping Up In The Air for Adapted Screenplay and The Hurt Locker defeating Tarantino's wordy script for Inglourious Basterds. Avatar only took home three technical awards (Cinematography, Art Direction, and Visual Effects), but I'm sure Cameron can dry his eyes on the $2 billion that the film has made worldwide. It was a disappointment to see An Education and Up In The Air go home empty-handed, but that's all in the way of anything particularly negative. As usual, the ceremony itself was overproduced, and a bit too methodical at times, but it's what we've come to expect from our Oscar ceremonies. All in all, on a scale of one to ten (ten being 2007 awesome and one being 2008 atrocious), the 2009 Academy Awards were about a six.

So, let's look forward to next year's movies. Maybe an Oscar for Anne Hathaway for the upcoming Love and Other Drugs? Does Shutter Island still stand a shot even after being released in February? What about David O. Russell's long-awaited The Fighter? These are questions which I'm sure will be exhausted throughout 2010 and well into the 2011 ceremony.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Awards On An Oscar Morning

I've already given my top ten films of the year, but these are my individual choices in specific categories. This was actually a lot harder than it looked. There were a lot more films/performances that I enjoyed than I thought.


Gold: Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER
Silver: Quentin Tarantino, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
Bronze: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, A SINGLE MAN


Gold: Jeremy Renner, THE HURT LOCKER
Silver: Sam Rockwell, MOON
Bronze: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER


Gold: Tilda Swinton, JULIA
Silver: Carey Mulligan, AN EDUCATION
Bronze: Abbie Cornish, BRIGHT STAR


Silver: Anthony Mackie, THE HURT LOCKER
Bronze: Woody Harrelson, THE MESSENGER


Gold: Mo'Nique, PRECIOUS
Silver: Rosamund Pike, AN EDUCATION
Bronze: Melanie Laurent, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS


Gold: Scott Neustadter & Michael Webber, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
Bronze: Mark Boal, THE HURT LOCKER
Silver: Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman, THE MESSENGER


Gold: Nick Hornby, AN EDUCATION
Silver: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, UP IN THE AIR
Bronze: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach, FANTASTIC MR. FOX


Gold: Christian Berger, THE WHITE RIBBON
Silver: Mauro Fiore, AVATAR
Bronze: Robert Richardson, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS


Gold: Chris Innis & Bob Murawski, THE HURT LOCKER
Silver: Alan Edward Bell, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
Bronze: Julian Clarke, DISTRICT 9


Gold: Rick Carter, Kim Sinclair, & Robert Stromberg, AVATAR
Bronze: Nelson Lowry & Francesca Maxwell, FANTASTIC MR. FOX


Gold: Janet Patterson, BRIGHT STAR
Silver: Anna B. Sheppard, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
Bronze: Odile Dicks-Mireaux, AN EDUCATION


Gold: Michael Giacchino, UP
Silver: Alexandre Desplat, FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Bronze: Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders, THE HURT LOCKER


Bronze: DISTRICT 9


Silver: DISTRICT 9

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Hurt Conspiracy?

Yahoo is reporting that the producers of The Hurt Locker are being sued by a Master Sgt. Jeffrey S. Sarver, who claims that they stole the entire idea for the film from his military experience. He even claims that he was the one who came up with the title. This comes only a day after Locker producer Nicolas Chartier was banned from the Oscar ceremony for writing an e-mail to Academy members pleading with them to vote for his film (and took a noted jab at a certain "$500 million movie"). It is not the lawsuit itself that has rubbed me the wrong way, but the timing. Doesn't this all seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who hate The Hurt Locker? It seems like Bigelow's film has gone from the small underdog in the media to the snooty, pretentious film that makes itself too high brow for contemporary audiences (who may have liked a film named Avatar).

Am I proclaiming an Oscar conspiracy? Well, I dunno. You make up your minds.