Saturday, July 31, 2010

Let The New American Version In

Sorry if I'm late to the party on this one, but it wasn't until recently that I was finally able to see the trailer for Let Me In. This is, of course, an American remake of the rather brilliant Swedish film Let The Right One In. The original film, by Tomas Alfredson, was unlike any monster movie I've seen: blending the blood and gore of the horror genre with a tale of two misunderstood children trying to get by in their drab, otfen depressing lives. The trailer for the American version (directed by Cloverfield filmmaker, Matt Reeves), looks all kinds of faithful to its predecessor, but I wonder if that's a good thing.

I'm glad they didn't go the usual Hollywood route of casting teenagers (which would have been such an easy decision given the Twilight and True Blood craze) in the lead roles. Most of the charm in the original was that it was the most innocent creatures in the world who were wrecking such havoc. I do wonder, though, if the film could get swallowed by tweens who are used to more shallow, commercial vampire stories. Either way, there aren't any other child actors whom I would recommend for these parts over Moretz and Smit-McPhee, since both have shown wisdom and sincerity beyond their years (certain people are so talented they disgust me). Oh, and having the lovely Richard Jenkins to play Moretz's loyal, but tormented caretaker is certainly an excellent decision. I doubt this will capture the power of the original--particularly since it looks like such a closely-followed remake. But I'd like to see what the Edward Cullen fans would think of a more intellectually stimulating film like this.

The Kids Are All Right (****)

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko


In a time when the multiplexes are filling with the complex, cyber-technology that leads to films like Inception, it's almost refreshing to approach a movie like The Kids Are All Right. Very seldom can a film so succinctly and accurately be about people. Sure, there are many people who will watch the trailer and swear the film's sole purpose is to push a strong liberal agenda, betraying the fabric of normal (conservative) family values. But what is perhaps the greatest quality about Lisa Cholodenko's latest film is that it refuses to take a convenient political stance or kowtow toward any demographic to gain sympathy. It is, simply stated, about people.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a long-time married lesbian couple with two children: Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). They each conceived one of the children using the same sperm doner. Eighteen years later, Joni is about to go to college with a National Merit Scholarship and Laser is excelling in various team sports in high school. Nic is a successfully practicing doctor, while Jules career path (even at her age) still seems unfocused, though she seems to have a sudden interest in landscaping. With the exception of a few valleys here and there, they've been able to create a fully-functioning family, despite their unorthodox make-up.

One summer, Joni and Laser decide that they're curious enough to try and get in touch with their biological father. Who they meet is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a restaurant owner and farmer of organic foods. Paul is initially timid with the concept of meeting his "children", but when he finally is able to have a sit down and speak with them, the idea of becoming acquainted with his own offspring becomes suddenly appealing. He actively wants to spend more time with them, and Joni and Laser feel the same way. This budding relationship does not totally sit well with Nic and Jules. After all, sperm donors are supposed to be absent, invisible beings, not practicing parents.

It doesn't help that Paul's laid back, easy-come-easy-go personality instantly clashes with Nic's stern perfectionism. Things become further complicated when Paul hires Jules to do landscaping work on his backyard, and before long, they begin having an affair. What follows is a series of actions and reactions that pick at the fabric of family and the complexities of human relationships and sexuality. Nic is threatened by Paul's forceful entrance into her family, and rightfully so. His nonchalance seems to highlight the ugliest parts of her formal need to keep things (and people) in control.

I think it's too easy to dismiss The Kids Are All Right as pushing a lesbian agenda (and many, including The New York Post's Andrea Peyser have made such a close-minded claim). When you read that the co-writer/director Lisa Cholodenko is a lesbian herself, it becomes like shooting fish in a barrel. "That crazy lesbian is trying to work around American morality!" Quite frankly, the conflicts that arise within the film literally could not happen to a straight couple and I think it's only logical to assume that Cholodenko would fall back on her experiences as a gay woman when she helped pen the screenplay. After all, we rarely criticize other Hollywood filmmakers as they produce hundreds of film each year supporting a straight agenda.

Not only is that mindset dismissive, but it unfortunately limits your ability to appreciate Cholodenko's fabulous film. She does not go through an effort to lionize the accomplishments of Nic and Jules. If anything, she excels in exposing their shortcomings. It's incredibly hard to craft this kind of screenplay; one in which five very different characters are given complete introspection without disrupting the forward movement of the plot. You can make a case that either Nic or Jules or Joni or Paul or Laser are the main protagonist of the film at various moments, but how they work together makes The Kids Are All Right a real treat.

Bening and Moore are both exceptional, as is to be expected. Bening is stunning in her ability to express subtext so effortlessly (in a lot of ways, she's able to come off seeming like a 'conservative lesbian'), and Moore fills the flighty Jules with a lot more heart than I assume appeared on the page. The film simply would not function if they were not able to mold the unconventional marriage so vividly. As for Ruffalo, this is probably his best performance since 2000's You Can Count On Me. His version of Paul (cool, scruffy hipster; but five years away from becoming creepy, old hipster) is both endearing and disarming. Ruffalo continues his tradition of being able to make ne'er-do-wells charming. Though it should be said that the work of Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland) is just as good as all three of them, perfectly reflecting the overachieving, emotionally-confused first child. We should be hearing a lot from this talented, young actress in the future.

Films about family and marriage are a dime a dozen. It's become so easy--and lazy--to recycle the same plot points over and over again (hello, Woody Allen!) to express a simple point: marriage is hard and it's not supposed to come easy. This sentiment is expressed beautifully and simply by Jules at the end of this film, and I don't think I've heard it stated any more accurately than the way it's stated then. The Kids Are All Right is winning glowing reviews from everyone, and it deserves them. It's funny and engaging, but most of all it is honest. Mostly honest about this simple truth: you don't need a penis to know how hard raising a family can be.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Greatest Movie Mustache

I nominate Patrick Bergin's illustrious lip sweater in Sleeping With The Enemy for Greatest Movie Mustache of all time.

I know, this seems like blasphemy, since Sleeping With The Enemy is such a god awful film. But that works in my reasoning. Of all the terrible things that go on in this putrid film (Julia Roberts' stiff acting, the horrible screenplay, Kevin Anderson's hilarious, almost date rape-y hairstyle), it is Bergin's picture-perfect face caterpillar that keeps you watching. I say this because I literally turned on the film on HBO, and watched it the entire way through just for that glorious mustache.

Any other movie mustaches that you would put above this one? I dare you to try. Warning: you will lose.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Oscar Predictions That Are Too Early To Be Taken Seriously

Javier Bardem, BIUTIFUL
Johnny Depp, RUM DIARY
Robert Duvall, GET LOW
Mark Wahlberg, THE FIGHTER

Natalie Portman, BLACK SWAN
Hilary Swank, CONVICTION
Michelle Williams, BLUE VALENTINE

Christian Bale, THE FIGHTER
Colin Farrell, THE WAY BACK
Bill Murray, GET LOW
Geoffrey Rush, THE KING'S SPEECH

Keira Knightley, NEVER LET ME GO
Lesley Manville, ANOTHER YEAR
Andrea Riseborough, BRIGHTON ROCK
Kristen Scott-Thomas, NOWHERE BOY
Dianne Wiest, RABBIT HOLE

Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumber, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Keith Dorington, Eric Johnson & Paul Tamasi with David O. Russell, THE FIGHTER
Andres Heinz & Mark Heyman, BLACK SWAN
Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION

Michael Arndt, TOY STORY 3
Marshall Herskovitz, Charles Randolph, & Edward Zwick, LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS
David Lindsay-Abaire, RABBIT HOLE
Peter Weir, THE WAY BACK

Darren Aronofsky, BLACK SWAN
Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION
David O. Russell, THE FIGHTER
Peter Weir, THE WAY BACK

Another Year
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
Love and Other Drugs
Never Let Me Go
Rabbit Hole
Toy Story 3
The Way Back

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Menage a trois de Trailer Watch

Hey, oh! It is now July, which means that we have somewhat of a clearer pictures of what movies we're going to be getting excited about later in the year (I'm looking at you, Black Swan). Alas, we still do have a ways to go till the fall movie schedule takes its true shape, so we'll have to make with what it is we have: trailers. Here are three trailers for, what I consider, three exciting end of the year films:


The word from Cannes was that Inarritu made a film that was almost pornographic in its display of suffering, but then again, they gave Javier Bardem their Best Actor prize, so they must not have disliked it too much. This seems to be something a little different for Inarritu, whose previous three films were all exercises on multiple parallel narratives. This film seems to follow one character, Uxbal (Bardem), and while the actual details of the film's plot are still in the shadows, it becomes very apparent just by watching this trailer that whatever he's going through isn't very good. Well, harsh or not, Inarritu has built up enough good will in my book for me to get excited about this film--and let's not forget, this is his first collaboration with Bardem. Can these two masters make magic together?


So, in his latest film, David Fincher decides to tackle Facebook and the legal battle that followed site creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). After Benjamin Button, I considered turning my back on Fincher, figuring he had descended into bigtime Hollywood filmmaking narcissism. Then I gave Zodiac another watch and realized that nobody who could make a film that good is bound to make two clunkers in a row (well, Button did get about a thousand Oscar nominations, so to call it a clunker may be a stretch--actually, it's not. CLUNKER!). By the very nature of its plot, the film seems incredibly modern and topical, and who better to make a film about the now then Fincher? This appeal to the young is also evident in the casting, as the film stars two budding stars in Eisenberg, Rashida Jones, and--holy but fuck, is that Justin Timberlake?!


To finish off my trio of autuers, there is the latest film from Sofia Coppola. Lost In Translation was supposed to make her one of the top filmmakers in the business, and may predicted that she would be the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. Well, Kathryn Bigelow has beaten her to that, so that's no longer a burden she has to carry. When the disastrous Marie Antoinette happened, we decided to give her a pass. But where has she been since then? Somewhere is her latest film, and it seems to be a return toward what made films like Lost In Translation so successful. A dissection of personality and family dynamic. Focus on the mundane, to help us realize that those are usually the more magical moments in life. This may be my most anticipated film of the fall. Too bad I have to wait till after Christmas to see it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception (****)

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan


When Avatar was setting box office records and racking up Oscar nominations, a million people were asking the same question: "Doesn't anybody realize that the screenplay is terrible?" Now, imagine if the visual innovation of a film like Avatar was matched by a screenplay that was equally ambitious in its themes and character profiles. This is the status in which Chris Nolan's new film, Inception, lies. This is a film that is so intriguing and so beautifully told, that it may be something that is totally unlike all American summer-release movies: original.

What is 'inception'? I've watched the film only once, so I still don't have a complete grasp on the concept. At its simplest: breaching the subconscious of someone by entering into their dreams and planting ideas. Why would anybody want to do that? In the world of Nolan's film, not only are their crack teams trained to penetrate someone's dream state, but there are actually entire enterprises founded on defending the mind against such crack teams. Why would you want to enter someone's mind? Some of the most inspiring ideas of some of the most powerful people lie within the subconscious of their dreams, and grabbing hold of these ideas can give you a lot of leverage.

One of the best dream-breakers in the world is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). Cobb is now doing second-hand jobs, hoping one day he can make his way back home to his children--he is denied any chance of returning to them since he is being hunted, by what seems like the entire world, for a crime (we don't find out till much later what this crime is or whether or not he is guilty or innocent). The film opens on a riveting sequence, where Cobb and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), try to extract info from shrewd business man Saito (Ken Watanabe) by placing him in a "dream within a dream". Yeah, it's pretty confusing off the bat.

When Cobb and Arthur's job goes all kinds of wrong, Saito makes an incredible offer: do a job for him, and Cobb can go home and spend time with his children. The job? Inception. In other words, enter someone's dream, and instead of extracting information, you implant a contagious idea. The special someone? Robert Fisher (Cillian Murphy), a young, prodigious businessman and Saito's main competitor. So, Cobb collects people for his crack gang of dream-breakers, including Arthur as the "point man", a suave Englishman named Eames (Tom Hardy) as their "forger", a serviceable chemist named Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and lastly, a college psychology student who is tapped to be the crew's architect, named Ariadne (Ellen Page).

Sure, Ariadne has a very prominent purpose throughout the film: as Cobb explains all the complexities and dangers of entering the dreams of others, he is also explaining it to the audience. Not very often are vehicle characters, such as Ariadne, so watchable and interesting, continuing to reveal things about the characters until late in the film. Like, for instance, Cobb's torment when dealing with his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose spectre continues to show up and disrupt jobs, haunting Cobb's subconscious. Arthur, as well, seems limited to a character that is mostly an information dump, but it's a testament to Nolan's screenplay and the performances of Gordon-Levitt and Page that they never really seem that way.

Which brings me to the film's finest point: the screenplay. Not the loaded cast, not the beautiful locales, not the mind-bending special effects; but the screenplay. What Nolan crafts here is really unlike anything we've seen since 1999's The Matrix, but even that film had characters with limited motivations. Inception is a film that sees no boundaries, visually or thematically, refusing to let its high-profile summer-release make it shallow and obtuse. Yeah, there are plenty of high-octane chase sequences, but those moments become a lot more interesting when you actually care about those being chased. What is written here is a process that is so complex and difficult to understand (particularly on first viewing), but Nolan somehow manages to undermine all that by reflecting those complexities and those difficulties onto the characters.

Nobody does more reflecting then Cobb, so that makes DiCaprio's lead performance that much more important. Leo's character here is not unlike his character in Shutter Island, trapped in a world where reality is hard to decipher and tormented by a dead wife. Both performances work for the same reason: DiCaprio fills that well of grief with raw emotion, as opposed to histrionics. We never doubt Cobb's love for Mal (much like we never doubt Teddy's love for Delores in Island), but there is always that hint of uncertainty, that small drop of doubt that keeps that character in limbo. DiCaprio has become a master of walking that tight rope between sincere and devious, and even though we always know he's sincere, he gives us just enough to make it interesting.

Of course, when you direct the third-highest grossing film of all time (The Dark Knight) two years ago, it helps you get any kind of budget you want and any kind of cast you want. There are no unknowns in this cast (though a bloated Tom Berringer could probably pass for one), and I could only imagine what the effects budget was. Usually, these kind of details will set off prejudices for me, but it didn't here. Here is a film that dared to be commercial and daring when so often those words appear to be antonyms. There are many things I wish could have been stronger (mostly character-wise), but there are no visual cues that could have been better executed. With this film, Nolan takes a step away from the mindless spectacle of The Prestige and Batman Begins (and in many ways, I fear, The Dark Knight) and another step toward the mindful spectacle of his earlier films like Memento. It takes balls to have a budget this big and make a film so intellectually stimulating. I hope this starts a trend.