Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Top Ten: Films I'm Most Excited About This Fall (Part Two)

FILMS THAT JUST MISSED THE LIST (with the reasons they were nixed):

-Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger seems like a great filmmaker going back to the well to tackle the same themes he's tackled fifty times. Can't he slow down? One film a year is starting to get tired.

-No End In Sight director Charles Ferguson's newest film Inside Job is meant to be a muckraking piece that will get everyone upset about what really caused the economic downturn. I'm sure it's good, but do we need extra motivation to hate the recession. Knowing who caused it won't chance the fact that it's here.

-Nowhere Boy is a pre-Beatles biopic on John Lennon, one of my biggest heroes. Word has been good, and there's a lot of Supporting Actress buzz surrounding the performance of Kristen Scott-Thomas. But how can this film possibly do justice to such an iconic figure?

-Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go has a group of fantastic young actors including Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, as well as veterans Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling. I do become weary, though, with the concept of a film that spends nearly half its time creating flashback backstory.

-The Coen Brothers are reconnecting with The Dude (Jeff Bridges) for their remake of the 1969 western True Grit. With the Coens' current hot streak and Bridges fresh off his first Oscar win, what's not to get excited about? Well, I've actually seen the original True Grit and sitting through anything close to that again is not terribly appetizing.

-Barney's Version is a fictional biopic about Barney Panofsky, as played by Paul Giamatti. He plows through wives (one played by Minnie Driver), hoping to find some form of happiness, but never seems to be successful. He also has a witty, equally curmudgeoned father played by Dustin Hoffman. The supporting cast also includes Rosamund Pike, Bruce Greenwood, and Saul Rubinek. How did this miss the list? The chances of it actually coming out in 2010 are getting slimmer and slimmer.

Alas, I will most likely see all of these films anyway, so their placement (or non-placement) on my list doesn't really matter that much. Speaking of list, here are the top five:

5. 127 Hours
Release Date: November 5

Danny Boyle has been a great filmmaker for close to two decades, but never got his full due until he won the Best Director Oscar in 2008 for Slumdog Millionaire - his least interesting film, by far. Still, with films like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later..., and Sunshine on your resume, every one of your films should be considered required viewing. The trailer for this film has just come out recently. It stars James Franco as the infamous rock climber Aron Ralston, the man notorious for having to cut off his own arm when it became trapped underneath a boulder in the Utah mountains. This happened in 2003 and became one of those great news stories that everyone loved talking about around the water cooler, saying "Man, that would be an awesome movie, don't you think?". Well, here it is. Not sure how awesome 127 Hours will or will not be. It's going to be a particularly tough watch, I assume, if you just consider what it's about. And Boyle has all but said that he hopes that parts of this film will challenge audiences in ways they're not usually challenged. Boyle has always made films that were visual wonders, but what's understated is his talent with actors, and Franco is young actor whose been waiting for that one role to make a real statement with his talent (he'll have a double-shot this year, since he's also playing Allen Ginsberg in Howl - but that didn't make my list, so let's move forward).

4. Somewhere
Release Date: December 22

Sofia Coppola was supposed to be the next big thing in contemporary filmmaking after winning an Original Screenplay Oscar for Lost In Translation in 2004. Since then, it has been mostly quiet, with the exception of 2006's Marie Antoinette, which was appreciable in its audaciousness, even though it was a total mess. Considering that, it probably shouldn't be too shocking that Somewhere came to me as a surprise. I had no idea that this film even existed until the trailer popped up in iTunes. The film stars Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning as a father and daughter. Dorff is a fast-living party boy actor who finds Fanning sitting in his hotel room after his ex-wife (played by Michelle Monaghan) drops her off - for good. It's a pretty tired premise: former lousy parent learns to love his child after they're forced to spend more time together. It's the Kramer Vs. Kramer plot. Coppola, herself, was the daughter of a fast-living Hollywood icon (legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola), which may come as an advantage to her screenplay. Coppola is very good at showcasing personal connections, and it'll be exciting to see how well she works with Dorff and Fanning. Plus, it has Chris Pontius - who will also be in Jackass 3D this Fall. That film would've made the list if I was actually being honest.

3. Blue Valentine
Release Date: December 31

Everyone gushed over this film when it premiered at Sundance in January. Everything from the cast and filmmakers were championed as brilliant. It centers on a young, married couple played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. It showcases how they fall in love and how, over the years, fall out of love. In writer-director Derek Cianfrance's first feature film, he takes a page out of the Annie Hall playbook, showcasing a relationship by shifting through timelines erratically. This blueprint was used in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It may seem a bit dangerous to recycle a process used in two masterpieces, but all word has said that Cianfrance hits it out of the park. Then there is the combination of two young, very talented actors in Gosling and Williams. All notes have expressed nothing but unrelenting love for both of their performances, and early buzz has shown that either has a good chance at an Oscar nomination next year. It does bother me that the film's distribution company has waited till the last possible day to release it. It's very possible that no one will see it, as it gets swallowed by the titanic Christmas releases from the big studios. Perhaps, those are only trivial details, since there is no other film coming out later this year that has gotten more positive feedback.

2. Another Year
Release Date: December 29

Anyone who knows me knows that I am an overbearing fan of film director Mike Leigh (and if you weren't so sure, you can scroll down a couple of posts to see for yourself). His last two films (Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky) were two of his most brilliant, and all good things come in threes (or is that celebrity deaths? Oh whatever, don't crush my enthusiasm). When it premiered in Cannes earlier in the year, many reviews were very positive, with particular good words being written about Leigh veteran actress Lesley Manville. The film appears to center around an upper-middle-age married couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, and how they get along with their collection of friends and family members. Once again, Leigh is focusing on middle class England and the mundane lives that roam around it. There is a reason why Leigh's films are always exceptional, and it's because he has the ultimate trust in his actors and the ultimate belief in his characters. When you gain that kind of reputation, you're going to get a good effort from your cast, no matter how talented the actors may be. And this cast is good, including Leigh regulars, Broadbent, Sheen and Manville, as well as Peter Wright and Imelda Staunton. So, here's to another year with an excellent Mike Leigh film.

1. Black Swan
Release Date: December 1

I can't see any surprise coming here. My expectations for Darren Aronofsky's new film have no reached unreasonable levels. So, why am I more excited about this movie than any other this Fall? And why is it not even close? Well, it's a combination of several different things, since my enthusiasm has formed because of a perfect storm of timing and talent. Natalie Portman is probably me favorite young actress and the concept of this being her breakthrough adult role is quite tantalizing (Brothers failed in that regard last year). I've had my reservations about Aronofsky in the past, but since The Wrestler, I've gained new respect for him. If he can combine the visual ambition of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain with the stunning character development, then he will probably be the greatest filmmaker of all time - but that's not very likely, though it's something to aspire to. More likely, we're going to be greeted with a happy medium, but even that is something very good. And let's not forget a supporting cast that includes Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell, Barbara Herschey, and (gasp!) Winona Ryder. The film's plot is unique as well, since it's not too often that there is a psychological thriller about ballerinas - in fact, I'm confident in saying that this is probably the first one - and the self-destructive themes that the trailer suggests can be real meaty. One question what the hell is Natalie pulling out of her back at the end there?

I have to watch it, just to figure out what the hell is going on there, don't I?



Monday, August 30, 2010

Top Ten: Films I'm Most Excited About This Fall (Part One)

Haven't done this in a while. Here's a good ol' countdown list filled with films I've yet to see. Fall is near, and with that will be the big, bad Oscar contenders. It's a shame that they all come at the end of the year, these days. It used to be that all the smaller films would be more spread throughout the middle and end of the year (like this year's The Kids Are All Right or 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but distribution decisions are a bit muddle by dreams of golden statues. Most of the time, even when acting in the film's best interest, smaller films are placed in the middle of the Fall, prestige film quagmire and get swallowed hole. If there's one perk, Fall movie season is almost like a sports season, where you have to go out of your way to try and watch as many of them as you can. In that way, you really have something to look forward to. Here are the first five films I'm looking forward to the most:

10. Love and Other Drugs
Release Date: November 24

I'll openly admit that Edward Zwick's newest film does not seem like the most introspective movie of the year. It is refreshing, though, to see Zwick making a light romantic comedy, as opposed to the heavy, Hans Zimmer-scored, please-give-me-my-Oscar films that he makes bi-anually (this style has never helped him reap the benefits he cherishes - no Best Director OR Best Picture nominations). My main interest with the film stems mostly from the two leads, Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal. For those keeping track, this is a Brokeback Mountain reunion of Jack & Lureen Twist. When the trailer for Love and Other Drugs first came out, I wrote that this looked like Jerry Maguire if you cut out the sports and just added Viagara. While that comment smacks with sarcasm, I actually meant it as a compliment (but I guess whether or not that is a compliment depends on what your opinion of Jerry Maguire is). Early in the year, the word was that Hathaway had a good chance at a Best Actress nomination. The trailer doesn't exactly scream to be Academy material (Oscars prefer it when you tailor your marketing toward their sensibilities), but I'd like to think she still has a good chance. Since her astounding performance in 2008's Rachel Getting Married, I feel she is one of the most exciting actresses in Hollywood. All her films should be considered events at this point.

9. Biutiful
Release Date: December 17

Word from Cannes (where it premiered) was not that kind, with some even describing the film's unrelentingly dreary tone as downright pornographic in its dwelling in depression. They did like the film enough to give the film's star, Javier Bardem, the Best Actor award. On paper, this should be fantastic. Particularly if you consider the combination of recent Oscar-winner Bardem and the masterful Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarrítú (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel). After three films, Iñarrítú has shown vast upward progress, and he certainly is yet to make a bad film. In the trailer, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot in the way of plot synopsis - which is fine. I have no issue with the way today's trailers avoid explaining the story (must we have everything explained to us?), though I admit that I have very little knowledge of what the film's about. Of course, anyone who's seen an Iñárritú film would say that they cannot be accurately described in a short summary. They are not broad enough to support a short blurb, but in fact cover many themes and characters in great detail. It is because of this that Biutiful is one of few films I can get truly excited about without actually knowing what it is actually about. Combine that with the reputation of Bardem and I'd find it hard not to get excited about this film.

8. Rabbit Hole
Release Date: Unknown (Hopefully - for the sake of this list - sometime in 2010)

John Cameron Mitchell made two profoundly interesting and different films last decade in Shortbus and Hedwig and The Angry Inch (which I wrote about, in depth, about a year ago). The former actor has established himself as a formidable filmmaker, even if many will try to pigeon-hole him into being a great "gay filmmaker". In his latest film, he is adapting David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole. He's supplied with a cast that includes Nicole Kidman (also a producer on the film), Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest. Like Biutiful, this would probably be higher on the list if I knew more about the project (no trailer, only one screenshot). Most of my interest comes from the talent collected: proven actors, prize-winning writer, and a young filmmaker who, while brilliant, has yet to become a real name when talking about great contemporary directors. Of course it doesn't help when, as a director, you are the most famous actor to ever star in one of your films. Simply stated, this is the most exciting (certainly the most famous) cast that Mitchell has ever gotten a chance to work with, and it's exciting to see what will come of that collaboration. And let's not forget Diane Wiest, who makes any film she's in a real event. Why doesn't she make more films? Oh that's right, because she only works on the good ones.

7. The Social Network
Release Date: October 1

After The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008, I seriously considered never forgiving David Fincher. There are few pieces of cinema that are a bigger declaration of megalomania (it was kind of like the Heaven's Gate of the 00's, except a lot of people actually like it for some reason). That said, I'm done trying to convince myself that I don't want to see The Social Network. It's not that I'm particularly interested in the birth of Facebook - most involved here already said that the movie's screenplay is rooted in fiction - but I'm interested to see if Fincher has anything interesting to say about the crippling social effect this website has had on our society. I'm not sure how interested I would be to watch the actual birth of Facebook, anyway. Then there is the cast which includes nebbish, movie-dork extraordinaire Jesse Eisenberg, talented comic actress Rashida Jones, and inexplicably, pop star Justin Timberlake. Every thing about this film seems incredibly now in ways that are hard to explain. I hope Fincher is able to reflect that in the film in other ways beside having Radiohead's "Creep" in the trailer. I still have my reservations. Fincher has never been much of a "moment film director", but he did make Se7en and Zodiac. So, maybe I should quit my fretting.

6. The Fighter
Release Date: December 10

David O. Russell finished the 90's with Three Kings, arguably one of the best films of the decade. He followed that with 2004's I Heart Huckabees which, while intriguing and entertaining, is exasperating in its incessant need to be quirky. Since then, Russell has been fighting to get his film Nailed out of post production hell and fighting a serious image problem after some incriminating videos of him getting into a on-the-set screaming match with Lily Tomlin reached YouTube. Simply said, the guy could use a good movie right about now. The film is about famed boxer 'Irish' Mickey Ward and his relationship with his drug-addicted brother and trainer, Dickie. Mark Wahlberg is playing Ward and has been the film's biggest cheerleader as it struggled in pre-production. The film was dropped by Darren Aronofsky when he left to make The Wrestler, and both Brad Pitt and Matt Damon dropped out of the role of Dickie when production seemed far off. The role was eventually taken by Christian Bale, who dropped loads of weight (again) for the part. Point of the story, this is a real motivated Mark Wahlberg and, as evidenced by Boogie Nights and (full circle!) I Heart Huckabees, a motivated Wahlberg can be a real blast to watch.


Friday, August 27, 2010

The Mike Leigh Ticker

There are few filmmakers as consistently good and consistently interesting as Mike Leigh. His films explore the nature of human dynamics by getting rid of the burdens of an overbearing plot, instead just letting the characters dictate the forward motion of the story. He's notorious for a process that involves precious little actual screenwriting and lots of rehearsing with actors and allowing the script to create itself. His latest film, Another Year, has been getting tremendous reviews since its premiere at Cannes earlier in the year, while getting particularly positive notes for actress Lesley Manville, a Mike Leigh veteran. The trailer has come out recently. Here it is:

It seems to capture the spirit of most Mike Leigh films and, also like most Mike Leigh films, seems to have a collection of excellent performances. There's a certain stripped-down quality to Leigh's films that will probably agitate American audiences, but fascinates me. He completely betrays the standard three-act character arcs that make up most Hollywood films. He instead allows the actors to live inside his characters, and in that way, they become real people. Not that this process will always produce the most interesting films, but it's a testament to the genius of Mike Leigh that all of his films are interesting. In his three best films (Naked, Secrets & Lies, and Happy-Go-Lucky), Leigh has three totally different stories about three completely different sets of people. What ties them all together is the incredible depth of the people being followed on the screen. Let's take a look at the three films to see how Leigh employs different techniques to bring the best out of his actors to create some of the most fully-fleshed-out character development in cinematic history.

Naked (1993)

In what may be his masterpiece, Mike Leigh gives the movie audience one of its greatest challenges. Naked opens with its lead character, Johnny (David Thewlis), raping a young woman in a disgusting alley. For the rest of the film, we have to follow Johnny and eventually - if we're going to sit through this movie at all - empathize with him. And more or less, Leigh is able to pull it off. The film continues as Johnny walks drearily through industrial England, meeting various people, some of whom he has relations with and others he is meeting for the first time. By allowing Johnny to hob-nob amongst so many of the middle class, we begin to see Johnny as more than a monster and more a human being. Not that Johnny ever gives us a reason to actually like him. He spends the entirety of the film abusing people with his words, and occasionally with his hands.

So why does Mike Leigh dedicate an entire film to this elitist rascal? Because over the course of the encounters that Johnny faces, we see that all of his outward aggression is based on an inner turmoil. No matter how much emotional and physical pain he may extract on those around him, it never compares the amount of anguish that he expels upon himself. For all his pontificating snobbery, Johnny cannot find away to enjoy himself. Leigh doesn't show this by giving Johnny some drawn-out, contrived speech at the end of the film about his inner torment. Instead, this realization comes to the audience gradually over two hours of him stumbling from place to place, yelling at some people and being kinder to others. Leigh shows us every dimension of his personality, and by the end we feel like we didn't even remember him raping someone in the opening shot. How many films can say they can successfully made a rapist watchable for 131 minutes?

Secrets & Lies (1996)

This is, if you look up all those meaningless statistics, probably Mike Leigh's most popular film. Getting him Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Picture, Secrets & Lies gained Leigh the biggest audience he ever had - and probably will ever have. Unlike Naked, Secrets follows a group of people. Particularly, the Purley family, an English middle class family that includes a portrait photographer named Maurice (Timothy Spall) who acts as the erratic family's patriarch, and the neurotic Cynthia Rose (Best Actress nominee Brenda Belthyn) whose constant emotional breakdowns and lack of propriety agitate everyone else in the family. Things become even more jumbled when Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an adopted African Englishwoman, goes searching for the mother who gave her up, which in turn, ends up being Cynthia Rose. Despite the oddity of this discovery, Cynthia and Hortense begin a rich friendship, and Cynthia even introduces her to the family, though she keeps her true identity a secret.

As the title suggests, this family has a lot of buried secrets and Cynthia's masking of Hortense becomes just another on top of the pile, leading to an explosion of realizations when everyone in the family meets together for a party. The film pretty quickly glosses over the lunacy of a woman as white as Cynthia being the mother of someone as black as Hortense. This is probably for the best, since the relationship that ends up developing between Cynthia and Hortense is not much like a mother and daughter. It is this non-family dynamic that really disrupts the Purley family in ways that ruptures toward almost everyone involved. The story behind Secrets & Lies is notorious, with no script existing and most actors not knowing the nature of the family "secrets" until they are revealed to the characters in front of the camera. While this seems like a hacky way to bring out a realistic performance, Leigh really succeeds here, composing probably the best ensemble directing in all his films.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Mike Leigh's last film is probably one of his best and holds a lot of resemblance to Naked in how it follows one character through a series of seemingly mundane events. The main difference? While Johnny from Naked pines in his own self-loathing, the main character in Happy-Go-Lucky, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), is awash in self-confidence and happiness. Poppy is constantly going head-to-head with the cantankerous and combative people of middle class England (once again). At first, we don't really blame people for being turned off by Poppy, since her never-ending sunshine comes off slightly obnoxious and extremely annoying. When Poppy goes into a bookstore and meets with a grumpy bookseller at the open of the film, her need to bring a smile to his face seems almost antagonizing. Like Johnny, Leigh presents his main character in a highly unfavorable light, and now he will make us spend an entire film with them.

With Happy-Go-Lucky, though, Leigh actually does provide us with a scene that helps our opinion turn on her, and it comes fifty-five minutes into the film. As Poppy walks home at night, she hears a homeless man singing nonsense to himself in the middle of an abandoned warehouse skeleton. Poppy approaches him and it quickly becomes obvious that the homeless man is delusional and slightly crazy, but she stays with him, matching his nonsense words with meaningless answers. She gives this lonely man someone to talk to, even though he'd seem dangerous to most. She actually listens to him, even though he has nothing comprehensive to say, and she brings light to his dreary existence. Though there are many fantastic scenes in Happy-Go-Lucky, this is easily the best because it shows how strongly she wants to reflect her unbeatable happiness upon others. Many will criticize the character of Poppy and Hawkins' performance by saying that Poppy's attitude isn't any kind of realistic. Leigh does not give in to that criticism, trusting his actors and believing in the potential of his characters.

I was pretty upset when Hawkins' excellent performance wasn't given an Oscar nomination in 2009 (yet, Angelina Jolie was able to get one for Changeling. Cruel World), but Leigh did get a nomination for his screenplay, and while many will certainly downgrade how much he actually writes the screenplays for his films, I found it highly deserved. Like his other great films (Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, All or Nothing), Leigh forms the screenplay around his characters, and in this way they are able to actually be alive. This is why Leigh is probably the most unsung master filmmaker in America. I assume they appreciate him in England, though I don't know for sure. I certainly hope so...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Get Low (**1/2)

Directed by Aaron Schneider


I'm often decrying a film's lack of character development and how certain directors don't trust the actors to do what they need to do. Well, there's another extreme when discussing that argument. There are certain times when a film director depends on the strength of his actors so much, as to shirk the responsibility of executing their own filmmaking duties. With Get Low, first-time Aaron Schneider director does this, and I'd probably be a little more perturbed by it if he didn't have such a tremendous cast--and of course, it is his debut film.

The film takes place in nineteenth century Tennessee, in a small town where everyone is aware of the mysterious legend of Felix Bush (Robert Duvall). He's holed himself up in his woodland home, having no connection with anyone except for the few children who come by to throw rocks through his windows. After a friend of his passes, Felix strolls into town on his mule for the first time in decades, and his presence creates a stir. He asks the local preacher if he can have a funeral party while he's still alive, but the preacher refuses. He leaves in anger and on his way out, he beats an uppity townsman who provokes him. Felix leaves back to his home, ready to hermit himself for another couple of decades.

Felix's funeral party plight does catch the ear of Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the alcoholic owner of the local, troubled funeral home. Felix is not only offering a more-than-fair share, but is also holding a raffle for whoever attends the party, with the winner winning his home after Felix dies. Frank is opportunistic, and along with his young partner Buddy (Lucas Black), approach Felix and offer to put on his funeral party. Frank and Buddy grab Felix, shave off his wily beard and trim his hair, and put him on a local promotional tour for the town event of the year. Word spreads quickly about crazy Felix Bush's funeral party, and the money begins pouring fluently into Frank's office.

Felix requests all those who attend to provide one story they have heard about him. This isn't a particularly loaded request since Felix's disappearance form society has allowed his legend to grow toward folk tale proportions. There are only a precious few people who actually know the real Felix, including Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek) with whom he used to have a strong relationship with, and the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), who used to be Felix's best friend. Mattie and Charlie both hold keys to a secret that has sat inside Felix for the entire forty years of his isolation. What becomes apparent to Felix, Frank and everyone else involved with the party, is that what Felix truly wants with his funeral party, is for someone to help him tell his secret.

The film opens with an ominous shot of two-story house on fire, with an shadowy figure running away in a panic. We can only presume that this man is Felix, considering how quickly we learn of the violent legend of Felix. As we hear more and more about this supposed "secret", we know that eventually we will learn the story about behind this horrible act of arson. When you build such an obvious set-up throughout an entire movie the way Get Low does, it better pay off in a big way. It leads up to Felix's heartfelt speech at his own funeral party which, while beautifully delivered by Duvall, has nowhere near the emotional effect that we as an audience have been expecting for 90 minutes.

Get Low may have been unbearable if it weren't for the inspired performances from Duvall, Spacek, and Murray. Duvall, already established as one of the truly great American actors, does give Felix a lot of humor. Robert Duvall is one of the few actors who can imbue a character with legend just by stepping on the screen. Spacek, as Felix's former lover, brings her usual flow of sincerity. Bill Murray gives his best performance since 2004's Life Aquatic, giving the film some much-needed liveliness and snarkiness. Overall, the cast delivers for the first-time filmmaker, but mostly because he depends on them so much, with very little input from him behind the camera.

I liked Get Low enough. It moves at a slovenly pace, but I'm not sure if that didn't help the film's overarching thesis: life is certainly short, but sometimes it's painfully long. The film was supposed to come out in 2009, but distribution errors lead to it coming out this summer. I don't see many people going to see it, when most women can see Eat Pray Love and men can gorge on The Expendables. Many have been talking about Duvall's performance since it made the festival run at the end of 2009, and its certainly a good one, though its nowhere near his best work from the 70s. Most of the power of the performance comes simply from his presence on the screen. Few actors have earned that level of reputation, and Duvall is near the top of that list.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dealing With Expectations: Black Swan

It's funny how one film, The Wrestler, changed my entire opinion on Darren Aronofsky. While I found Requiem of a Dream and The Fountain to be well-acted and entertaining films, I thought they were both held back by Aronofsky's seemingly incessant need to step in with distracting visual trickery. Too often he felt compelled to awe the audience himself, as oppose to letting the story and the characters do it for him. This is particularly obvious in Requiem which had too many moments that felt like a techno music video for the Kronos Quartet. But after watching Aronofsky take a few steps back with his masterful 2008 film The Wrestler, I think he finally found out how to trust that his characters can bring the story home without having to step in. Alas, the trailer for Aronofsky's latest film has arrived...

On first impression, Black Swan seems like the old Aronofsky. This is certainly more visual than The Wrestler, but with such a good cast, I'd find it hard to think that he hasn't learned to let the actors do their job. I know some were turned off by how much of a psychological thriller this film seems to be; to which my response would be: Really? You were really interested in a straight film about ballerina competition!? I love the concept of a rivalry leading to obsession, and I think we've all been waiting for Natalie Portman to tackle that big adult role, even though she still has a twelve-year-old's voice. (NOTE: Her role in Closer doesn't count, since part of the charm of her character in that film was the fact that she was so precocious.)

But back to what I was saying about expectations. Before The Wrestler, I may have dismissed this trailer as another attempt by Aronofsky to recreate Kubrick without realizing how much Kubrick cherished character development. After The Wrestler, though, Black Swan is now the 2010 film that I can wait for the least. Part of that has to do with my ten-year crush on Portman, and my desperate hope that she will turn into the great American actress that I know she can become. Most of it, though, has to do with my new found faith in Darren Aronofsky. Imagine the visual savvy of The Fountain mixed with the character development of The Wrestler. Only with a mixture like that can you approach the level of a Kubrick, and Black Swan may be the film that pushes Aronofsky over the hill and into the great filmmaker territory that peers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne have already approached.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Trailer Watch: Love and Other Drugs

This looks a bit like Jerry Maguire if you cut out all the sports and put in Viagra, but despite it all, this is probably the most excited I've ever been about an Edward Zwick movie ever. The reasons are mostly because of the film's two leads: Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. This is their first film together since 2005's Brokeback Mountain (Hathaway seemed to be the forgotten player in that great film, which was a shame since she was terrific in limited screen time). Here, their chemistry looks great, and though the histrionics and melodrama seem to be laid on pretty thick in this true-story romantic drama, I'm willing to watch anything if their going to be exceptional in it. This looks like it could sneak in with some acting Oscar noms, though it looks like it will make a bigger splash in Golden Globes territory.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Expendables (*)

Directed by Sylvester Stallone


There's a certain level of stupidity and insanity within The Expendables. So much so that I feel like writing a one-star review for it is actually like giving the film a complement. The movie sets the art of cinema back about a century, while fully embracing its own racist, sexist, politically ignorant, dumb self to a point that you eventually have to shrug your shoulders and appreciate its lack of shame. Stallone was only interested in one thing when crafting this movie: devising a collection of (washed up) action mega stars to create a super team so badass that no one will give a shit that there literally are no redeemable qualities to anyone.

I would give you details about the plot, but unfortunately, The Expendables didn't seem to have one. IMDb and Yahoo! both explain that its about a group of mercenaries trying to overthrow a South American dictator, but to be honest, I didn't feel like I saw that movie at all. Perhaps I was too distracted by all the explosions and flying limbs. This movie is simply the ultimate man-venture, and trying to delude anyone into thinking there was an actual functioning screenplay is highly irresponsible. As one of the movie's stars, Dolph Lundgren, put it: "this is an old-school, kick-ass action movie where people are fighting with knives and shooting at each other." [citation needed]

There are a group of mercenaries, though, and they are named The Expendables. They are lead by gun-toting Barney (Stallone) and the knife-wielding Christmas (Jason Statham). Also within the group is Ying Yang (Jet Li), their martial arts expert, whose small stature and lack of a family make him emotionally-insecure for some reason. There is also Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Ceaser (Terry Roads), who don't appear for most of the film until the end and exist mostly just to be completely badass. In fact, I didn't know the characters had names until I looked it up on IMDb. There is also Tool (Mickey Rourke), an old school tattoo expert who used to be part of the gang until he developed what some people call respect for humanity. For what its worth, Rourke has a scene of stunning gravitas which kind of sets up the entire plot of the story and does its best to lend credibility to the movie--it fails. Good try, though.

Now, why do they go to this dictator-ruled, impoverished South American country? Because some guy named Church (Bruce Willis) offers them $5 million to do so; half up front, and the other half when the job's done. He also says that he will "fuck them" if they don't show results. By the end of the film, you realize that the Church character has completely vanished from the film, and despite the fact that they didn't seem to accomplish what he wanted them to accomplish, Church doesn't fuck anyone. The 'Church-fucking' plot hole would have probably been somewhat of a big deal to most audiences if we actually understood what it was that Church was asking them to do in his one scene of work.

Of course, in that one scene, anything that Church says is overshadowed by the appearance of Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Trench is Barney's former rival in the mercenary business, because obviously there are several competing conglomerates in that line of work. But surely, the appearance of Schwarzenegger as Barney's former rival is meant to be a duality of how Schwarzenegger and Stallone used to be box office rivals throughout the 80's and early 90's. I applaud the film for actually pulling off something that close to intellectual. It came as no surprise to me that Ah-nuld was originally approached to play Church, but had to ask for less screen time cause he was a little too busy, I don't know, being a fucking United States governor.

So, off they go to this third-world country. Things blow up, people get shot and decapitated. Terry Crews pulls out an automatic shotgun at some point and performs yard work on about three hundred people. They meet this girl named Sandra (Giselle Itie), who happens to be the dictator's morally-conscious daughter, and Barney does a terrible job trying to mask that he wants to bang her. Oh yeah, and inexplicably the main villain of the film ends up being played by Eric Roberts, and he has a henchman played horribly by Stone Cold Steve Austin. More stuff blows up and Jason Statham tries to prove an ex-girlfriend that despite having a body count higher than Hiroshima, that he's actually a nice, sensitive guy. There's a plot synopsis for ya.

It's not that The Expendables didn't have some enjoyable moments. In fact, I would say that I enjoyed the movie as much as you can enjoy one that is worthy of the dreaded one star. I just feel that in writing about it, I should show it the same amount of respect as a film that it showed me as a viewer. It accomplished its goal of being the the biggest, dumbest action movie of all time. Part of me wishes it would have gone further down the big, dumb rabbit hole (a la 2007's Shoot Em Up), instead of trying to insert moments and actors to try and legitimize it as a piece of cinema. But you get what you paid for with The Expendables. I just hope that Bruce Willis is out there fucking someone.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Other Guys (***)

Directed by Adam McKay


I know the films of Adam McKay are meant to be sophomoric and silly, but I sometimes wonder if he realizes how unfunny his films really are. I don't think I'm saying anything controversial when I say that his success is directly connected to his perennial star and super-funnyman Will Ferrell. I know that I can make distinctions between how funny Ferrell is in McKay's films, such as Anchorman or Talladega Nights, and how funny those actual movies are. I'm not so sure that McKay can, which has lead to him recycle a pretty hackneyed filmmaking formula, that is both inane and lazy, with his latest film The Other Guys. But alas, this film also has Ferrell, so there are more than a few redeemable moments that make the price of admission worth it.

In New York City, the faces of the NYPD are the flashy rock star detectives P.K. Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Christopher Danson (Dwayne Johnson). They're the kind of officers that commit over $12 million in property damage just to find a group of people who possess a quarter-ounce of marijuana--a minor misdemeanor. Their irresponsibility and downright dangerous tactics in trying to catch everyday criminals has gained them more of their fair share of fame and notoriety. For all intensive purposes, they are 'Thy Guys' of the NYPD, but McKay's film is about the other guys.

Those other guys include Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). Allen is a highly-neurotic former accountant, who much prefers to do Highsmith and Danson's undone paperwork then ever getting in his car and performing any dangerous police work. Terry is Allen's partner and can't stand sitting around while Allen types on his computer and hums the theme song to 'S.W.A.T.'. Terry was stuck being attached to Allen after he shot Derek Jeter before Game 7 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. There are few worse things you can do in New York, and now Terry has become a pariah throughout the force and the city.

When Allen uncovers a pretty seedy operation involving a reckless, English investor named David Ershon (Steve Coogan), Terry convinces him to leave the office and start making some actual arrests. Unfortunately, Allen's lack of experience in the field leads to several missteps and him getting his gun taken away by the station's Captain Gene Mauch (Michael Keaton). Despite it all though, Terry and Allen continue to go out into dangerous territory, if only to prove that they are real police officers and not just pencil pushers. Allen's darker side appears slowly, particularly when he reveals to Terry his history as a college pimp named Gator. Together, they work to bring down the secret coup that Ershon is planning.

As the clumsy, impressionable Allen, Ferrell is probably doing his best work since he was Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. After Semi-Pro and Land of the Lost, it seemed like Ferrell had been losing a little bit of his shine--particularly at the box office. With The Other Guys, he seems to have returned to the more basic factors that made him the biggest comedic actor of the last decade. Listen to him explain how a school of tuna could win a war against a group of lions, and you'll realize why he was one of the most successful movie funnymen of all time. He's dismissed the overblown narcissism that had overtaken his act after Anchorman, and returned to the lovable doofusness that ran through most of his characters on Saturday Night Live (despite his success in films, Ferrell has never been able to match the comedic success of his days on SNL. Here's the proof.)

The film does have some great supporting turns from the likes of Keaton as the station captain who works a night shift at Bed, Bath & Beyond (with this film and Toy Story 3 just a few months ago, am I smelling a Keaton comeback?) and Eva Mendes as Allen's other-league, super supportive wife Sheila. The same can't be said for Wahlberg, who seems to be left on his own to blabber and complain, while everyone else is given the funny lines. McKay is pretty good at putting Ferrell in areas where he can succeed, but the same cannot be said for any co-leads that Ferrell has happened to have (just ask John C. Reilly after the explosion of mediocrity that was Step Brothers).

I guess the reason that I dislike McKay comedies so much is that he so often goes for the easy laughs, as opposed to crafting anything clever (though, I must say that the way he handles the fates of Highsmith and Danson is pretty hysterical). When you look at contemporary comedy masters, such as Kevin Smith or Judd Apatow, they're able to create true human elements in their screenplays, but more importantly, they believe in the talents of the people they're working with, and that leads to a comedy that is organic and flows smoothly without any need for sight gags or gratuitous gross-out jokes. McKay believes in Ferrell obviously, but I'm not sure how he feels about any of the other actors in his films. But I guess when you can shell out routinely okay films like The Other Guys, you should just stick to what signs the checks.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Trailer Watch: Barney's Version

I'm the kind of movie nut that gets more excited about good casts, as opposed to interesting plot lines or maestro filmmakers. It goes hand in hand with my theory that the most important part of film production is casting (the famous Robert Altman quote: "By the time a film is cast, about 85% of my creative work is finished"). So in that regard, Barney's Version is already one of the finest films of 2010. Not that there are any big movie stars in this one, but because of the quality of the actors. There's Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman, who are truly the epitome of consistency and professionalism in screen acting--and judging by this teaser trailer, they work very well off each other. But I'm probably even more excited with the re-emergence of Minnie Driver, whose career has been a rash of disappointing inconsistency since her Oscar nomination for Good Will Hunting. She seems to be doing some serious scene-chewing here, and I can't wait for it. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the film looks hysterical and personal, which is a winning combination if your effort is to get me to enjoy your film. After all, that's all contemporary filmmakers are concerned about these days, right?