Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Horrible Bosses (***)

Directed by Seth Gordon


Horrible Bosses totally works because it accepts how absolutely preposterous it is. Everything in this film happens in a way that's convenient to the characters and the story arc. In a way, that's part of the screenplay's charm. To say that this film doesn't take itself seriously is a gross understatement. It takes all thoughts of an efficient, more functioning structure and totally chucks it out the window. Why would it do that? Well, it just makes for a funnier movie.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Beginners (****)

Written and Directed by Mike Mills


There's a certain charm behind the kind of film that would give a dog subtitles for dialogue. This is an act that could always come off as campy if done gratuitously, and worse yet, could seem pretentious if done more tastefully. Beginners is a film filled with small details and motifs that could be construed as reaching and silly if not executed with very precise delicacy. Yet, director Mike Mills so expertly weaves through all the fuss, crafting a wonderful mosaic and telling a beautifully melancholy tale about a man reaching forty who still can't seem to find out why he's so unhappy.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Larry Crowne (**)

Directed by Tom Hanks


I feel like I can say this with certainty: anybody who doesn't like Tom Hanks is probably a very unhappy person. Growing up in the 90's, it was hard to miss him as he starred within some of the decade's biggest hits and won himself two Oscars. There's something noble about a star the size of Hanks willing to take on directing, and Larry Crowne is his shot at it since the surprisingly peppy and enjoyable That Thing You Do! in 1996. His debut was a good but not great film, while his sophomore effort is okay but not good. In many ways, Hanks is both the best and worst part of his own film.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Tree of Life (***)

Written and Directed by Terrence Mallick


I defy anybody to give any kind of definitive opinion on The Tree of Life based on one viewing. Anyone. The film is too slippery. Too unwilling to stick to its own narrative which so desperately hangs around the film like an unwanted child. No, this is not a film that is meant to be consumed and then dissected by intellectuals - though, there is no doubt that that is what is happening across the country as the film makes its steady expansion to different theaters - but it is instead meant to be marveled as one of the single most transfixing visual experiences in a very, very long time.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8 (***)

Written and Directed by JJ Abrams


The similarities are obvious. The allusions are there. There's a reason people continue to talk about Super 8 as if it's some hybrid of The Goonies, Close Encounters, and E.T. That's not just because of the content (group of child protagonists, unfamiliar - possibly dangerous - alien visitors, the late 1970's), but because of the atmosphere. There was a certain mixture of adventure and innocence that came along with all those films from the 70's and 80's and Super 8 does its best to capture that feeling. It's one hell of an effort, a story straight out of the early Spielbergian fantasies equipped with the more sophisticated special effects of today.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Midnight in Paris (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen


In the world of American cinema, there are two constants: over-saturated summer films and Woody Allen. The 75-year-old filmmaker has just about made one film per year since 1969. Through he 70’s and 80’s, he was the most proficient and consistent filmmaker of his time, continuously churning out modern classics like Love and Death, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Over the last two decades, it has been more hit-and-miss, with a lot of spectacular misses during the 2000’s. His latest film, Midnight in Paris, though, may be his best film in a very long time, with its return to familiar thematic material and its injection of great, dyanmic performances.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Hangover Part II (**)

Directed by Todd Phillips


I guess no one should ever question a winning recipe, and lord knows the filmmakers behind this sequel to The Hangover have any qualms with it, even though it tastes so familiar. The Hangover Part II is a near carbon copy of its predecessor in all types of ways, matching the smutfest humor of the original while still having the audacity to go even further. I'm not totally sure why director Todd Phillips decided this time to take minor detours into more sadistic material, but it almost kind of works since it's the only thing that stops it from being the exact same movie.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Everything Must Go (**1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Dan Rush


Will Ferrell has taken only a precious few ventures into dramatic territory, but Everything Must Go certainly counts amongst his darkest characters. There are no traces of Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby here, but instead the portrait of a drowning man. We are told that this film is based on a short story by Raymond Carver, but we've seen through various examples that Carver's brilliant but dry and internalized style rarely translate to visual medium of cinema. Everything Must Go shares a lot of the issues that those other films possess, but it does have a rather pleasing performance from its lead star and several other sweet moments.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bridesmaids (***)

Directed by Paul Feig


It seems like Kristen Wiig has been the funniest lady in the room for the last few years. Whether it be her consistently brilliant work on Saturday Night Live or her four minutes of pure comedic bliss in the 2007 film Knocked Up, she's always been able to be a stand-out, even when surrounded by comedy's heavy hitters. In Bridesmaids - a screenplay she co-wrote with fellow comedic actress Annie Mumolo - Wiig is finally given the opportunity to stand front and center and carry her own film. It's hard to come out of the film saying anything particularly negative about her, with her spot-on timing and overall likability on full display.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hesher (***)

Directed by Spencer Susser


There's something particularly sweet about how bizarre a film like Hesher is. Think about this: here, we have a movie led by a character that speaks in so many non sequiturs that we eventually just get used to it, as if we're reading a novel by Anthony Burgess. Also, we meet a young man, our protagonist, who tries to pry off his enemy's toe with a pair of pliers. I mean, what does this all mean? Throughout its story, Hesher gives the audience a dumpster filled with dots and no way to connect them all. Yet, somehow, with the some wicked funny dialogue and a slew of touching performances, the film is able to rise far above its rough, transgressive appearance to become a wonderful, sometimes touching tale about grief.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Sorry for posting so late about this great filmmaker. Sometimes you want to write so much and it's hard to meet the deadline.

Three weeks ago, Elizabeth Taylor - one of cinema's greatest in-front-of-the-camera talents - passed away. On Saturday morning, one of cinema's greatest behind-the-camera talents left us a well. Lumet, an incredibly accomplished and astonishingly prolific filmmaker, made movies for six decades and was responsible for some of the most Earth-shattering cinematic experiences this humble little blogger has ever had. I was shocked to find out that I'd only gotten around to seeing nine of his films in my life. Perhaps it felt like so much more because I've seen all of them (save for one) so many times. Perhaps an unfortunate run of mostly forgettable films in the late 80's and 90's has caused Lumet's name to fall out of the pantheon that included Scorcese and Coppola, but it's hard not to argue that Lumet's peak was not right up there with his greatest peers. If there is one consistent part to all of Lumet's films, it's a love for explosive drama and pyrotechnic-like acting, but his films never managed to feel over-the-top, even when they were the very definition of it.

Lumet did a lot of his early work in television, directing episodes for various television programs such as the murder mystery drama Danger and the historical re-enactment program You Are There. His breakthrough in movies came in 1957 when he released his debut feature, 12 Angry Men. It was nominated four three Oscars (Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay) and contained a phenomenal collection of performances from some of the top actors of the time. The story of jury meeting, it recalls how one lonely juror (played by Henry Fonda) is able to convince the other eleven men in the jury (to name a few from the stupendous cast: Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, and Lee J. Cobb) that a young teenager is not guilty of murder. The film was a powerful statement from the rookie director, showing his ability to handle incredible talent and hold tension and interest in a 96 minute film that takes place in real time.

Source Code (**)

Directed by Duncan Jones


I cannot say whether or not Duncan Jones is a fan of the 1993 Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day, but I may suggest to him to check out that film's screenplay. In it, Phil (a character played by Murray) has to relive the same twenty-four hours over and over and over. In Source Code, the film's protagonist has to relive the same eight minutes over and over. A large gulf in between those two allotted timeframes, I'll admit, but both films use similar tactics in order to convey the repetitive notion of the story. Yet, in Groundhog Day, the film takes the preposterous nature of this repetition and allows it to add a real charm to the story. Not the case in Source Code and I kind of wish it had.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Win Win (***1/2)

Directed by Tom McCarthy


When I originally saw the trailer for Win Win, I turned to a friend of mine and asked, "Does that movie look really good? Because I'm at a point in my life where anything that stars Paul Giamatti looks absolutely awesome." So, at least you know where I'm coming from. The film comes equipped with enthusiastic fanfare (not loud, but consistently positive) out of the Sundance Film Festival and is supplied with a terrific cast supporting a very funny, heartwarming screenplay. In case you wanted to just stop reading now, I guess I'll just tell you: I really liked this movie. Now, for anyone who wants to dive in a little deeper, follow me.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jane Eyre (***)

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga


Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is considered to be amongst the greatest of the Gothic-Romantic novels of its time. When you read it, with its underlying sexual tension chastising the hypocritical nature of 1840's culture, you almost have to scoff at the faithless attempts that books like Twilight take to imitate it. It's a classic tale about a strong-minded, independent woman who comes from emotionally abusive childhood, that Hollywood has been trying to fully recreate on film for many years. There have been several versions made on both films and television but this latest film version is an excellent visualization of Bronte's brooding tale.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

When you hear people talk about Elizabeth Taylor, there's one expression that is always brought up: movie star. No one better quantifies the role of American movie star than Taylor. Of course, 'Liz' Taylor was not an official American, herself, being born in Hampstead, London, but it's her breathtaking ability to captivate an entire nation both on and off the screen that has established Taylor as one of the greatest movie stars in American cinematic history. Now, when you see people like Ashton Kutcher and Megan Fox being labeled "movie stars" these days, it's hard to dispute how much the term has been depreciated after decades of watered down talent reaching the silver screen. There are very few true movie stars left, at least not in the vein of old school Hollywood, where slapping a name like John Wayne or Carol Lombard was just enough to send the audience screaming for tickets. Taylor was one of the last great ones, bridging the gap between the classical star and the modern day, publicity fueled celebrity. But all the while, she still managed to be one of the most devout, hard-working screen actresses for over six decades, producing several mesmerizing performances, while also taking hand in some of the most publicized Hollywood scandals of her time.

Like many larger-than-life stars of the past, the more eccentric elements of her life were what captured the minds of most people my age when they heard the name Elizabeth Taylor. They knew a lot of her eight marriages (including twice to Richard Burton), her several near-death experiences, and her reputation for being a difficult personality with the higher-ups at the movie studios. Her tumultuous relationship with English actor Richard Burton spanned for over fifteen years, and their level of public overexposure over the course of that time would put "Brangelina" to shame. Their affair propelled the careers of many a gossip columnist and spurned several films in which they starred together (most of them forgettable, but one of them an all-time classic - but we'll get to that soon enough). Then, of course, there is the tale of Cleopatra - the film in which she became the first screen star to gain a $1 million salary - a project that Taylor spear-headed where the budget became overblown and became one of the biggest studio flops of the Twentieth Century. Sure enough, the film is more remembered for establishing the beginning of the 'Liz & Dick era' (she met Burton on the set - he playing Marc Antony). Now, entire books have been written about Taylor's off screen fiascos, as well as her relationships with tormented stars Montgomery Clift and Michael Jackson, but I'd like to take several moments to discuss where she produced her greatest work, in movies.

Taylor alongside Monty Clift in A Place In the Sun. Their first of many together.

Taylor began her career as a child actor, starring in such films as National Velvet and the 1949 version of Little Women. Her star rose as she starred along Spencer Tracy in the classic comedy Father of the Bride and it's sequel one year later, Father's Little Dividend. Very early, Taylor showed a charm and a natural quality in front of the camera, performing effortlessly across from seasoned movie actors and standing strong. But it wasn't until George Stevens' 1951 film A Place In The Sun (which was released when Taylor was all but nineteen years old), that Taylor established herself as true, dominant film persona. Playing opposite Montgomery Clift (who she'd become great friends with), Taylor steps throughout the film, radiating sensuality and heart, captivating audiences with her great beauty, but also showing herself to be a matter-of-factual adult performer, an owner of the thoughts and minds of American viewers.

Throughout the 50's, she starred in many films including another George Stevens epic, Giant, alongside fellow movie legends Rock Hudson and James Dean in 1956. A year later, she was nominated for her first Academy Award for Raintree County, a Civil War drama where she played a Southern woman who captures the heart of a poet and teacher (played by Clift). In 1958, she starred alongside an up-and-coming Paul Newman in the film version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She received her second Oscar nomination for playing the sensual, but frustrated wife of an injured football All-American. It was a strict cementation of Taylor as the most glowing beauty in the movies, but was also a wonderfully controlled performance (in fact, Taylor and Newman's honest work in this film almost make up for the nearly unforgivable white-washing of Williams' controversial play). The very next year, she starred in another Tennessee Williams adaptation, Suddenly, Last Summer. She received her third (consecutive) Oscar nomination for playing the tormented young woman at the heart of this daunting tale, playing opposite of Katherine Hepburn and (once again) Montgomery Clift.

Taylor's sensuality was on full display throughout Suddenly, Last Summer.

One year later, Taylor finally won her first Oscar for playing the model/call-girl/man trap at the heart of Daniel Mann's Butterfield 8. What came after, was the infamous fiasco of Cleopatra. The film's disappointing performance at the box office did little to sully her stardom, particularly since it was the beginning of the public obsession of 'Liz & Dick'. They starred in The V.I.P.s and then The Sandpipers before joining together to star in the film version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The powerful couple fought hard to get the meaty roles of George and Martha, and then later were able to convince skeptical studio head Jack Warner to hire theater-savvy Mike Nichols to direct (despite him never directing a film before). Combining the famed stories surrounding Virginia Woolf's Broadway run with Taylor and Burton's overt fame, the film's production began a buzz. And when the film challenged the Production Code with its brash language, Taylor and Burton pushed Warner to push it forward, and even threaten to release it without the seal. They won that battle, winning a seal, while leaving the destruction of the Production Code in its wake.

Liz & Dick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The performances within Nichols' vision of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are something to wonder at. Keeping almost all of Albee's script intact, Taylor and Burton flourished while using their palpitating chemistry to construct a heartbreaking portrait of a fraying, middle-aged marriage. Playing a woman twenty years older than she was at the time, Taylor gained thirty pounds and wore a flustered, gray wig. But it was her performance, filled with crushed dreams and scowling anger, that disposed of any doubt that Taylor really became Martha. It's a virtuoso work, completely disposing of Taylor's previous image of only playing glorious beauties, capturing Martha without judgment, but still keeping the abrasive acidity at the forefront. Taylor won her much-deserved second Oscar for her performance, and it has gone on to be considered, generally, the star's greatest work (and on several occasions she has said that it was her favorite film that she'd worked on).

After that, Taylor's personal life outweighed almost all she did in films. Not that she didn't work. In 1980, she starred in the Agatha Christie adaptation, The Mirror Crack'd alongside Maggie Smith, and she even had a short stint on the television soap opera, All My Children. But between her second Oscar and today, people usually discussed her in respect to her relationships. She divorced Burton, than remarried him a year later, only to get another divorce months after that. She was married (and divorced) twice more after that, but has often stated that Burton was the true love of her life. The final years of Liz Taylor were marked by illness, staying out of the limelight due to serious heart conditions. On this morning, she finally passed away from heart failure. So, today, we toast to a beautiful woman and a tremendously talented actress. More than anything, though, we close the door on one of the most captivating lives in American history. We say goodbye to a true movie star.

This is one of my favorite clips of Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I apologize for the subtitles. Other than that, the video quality's quite good. Here it is:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cedar Rapids (***1/2)

Directed by Miguel Arteta


In Cedar Rapids, we are given a group of insurance rep misfits that couldn't be any more buffoonish, yet couldn't be any more sincere. There's a certain level of warmth within the people we meet in this wonderful little comedy that make them endearing, even when they're making lewd sex jokes, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and taking a seemingly wholesome insurance convention and turning it into a smorgasbord of excess. That this occasionally-rambunctious group of miscreants can reach into the audience and develop a seminal wisdom is a revelation I've rarely witnessed in a movie theater.

The film is focused on Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a Midwestern, forty-something-year-old man who works as an insurance agent at the Brown Valley Insurance Firm that is highly renowned for winning the coveted Two Diamonds award for excellence three years in a row. He lives in a world of befuddling innocence, and his only guilty pleasure is a weekly sex rendezvous with his former grade school teacher, Mrs. V (Sigourney Weaver). After his successful co-worker, Roger (Thomas Lennon), dies in a rather embarrassing fashion, Tim's boss (Stephen Root) picks him to represent the firm at the insurance convention in Cedar Rapids and bring home the Two Diamonds award for the fourth straight year. Tim's not sure if he's ready for this kind of job, but when he gets onto the plane headed for Iowa, he can't hold back his excitement.

When Tim arrives, he befriends three convention veterans. The first one is Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a soft spoken, eloquent teddy bear of a man who tells jokes that are as unfunny as he is black. Shortly after, he meets Dean "Dean-zy" Zeigler (John C. Reilly), a sharp-tongued, hard drinking troublemaker who quickly pounces on Tim's impishness and defeats all of his inhibitions in only two nights. Lastly, Tim meets Joan (Anne Heche), a married woman who uses the Cedar Rapids convention to free herself from her burdensome family. I'm sure that Joan looks at this weekend as the annual highlight of her sex life, tracking down various opportunities to further forget the suburban life that has forced her into the insurance lifestyle to begin with.

At first, Tim is hesitant to their devilish charms, but when Dean tips Tim off about a petition trying to strip Brown Valley of their Two Diamonds awards, Tim quickly realizes that these three are the only people he has on his side. The ultra-conservative convention is run by Orin Helgesson (Kurtwood Smith), a polished but self-righteous man who insists that God be at the forefront of all insurance companies, but his congenial appearance a much more sinister truth. There's nothing more Dean would like to do than expose Orin and his moral hypocrisy, and when Tim realizes the false virtue of the entire event, he decides to join him. As Tim slowly gets sucked out of his comfort zone, he finally begins to comprehend his self-worth, and Cedar Rapids becomes the greatest ever coming-of-age tale about a man in his forties.

When we look at our cast a protagonists, we have an alcoholic, a television connoisseur, an adulteress, and a man who frequently has sex with a woman thirty years older than him. That these characters coexist is a wonder on its own. That screenwriter Phil Johnston is able to take these people and make them an empathetic, Midwestern Wild Bunch is quite the achievement. This is Tim Lippe's story, but it's their partnership that really sets Cedar Rapids apart from other low-brow comedies of this ilk. We really believe that these people care about each other, that there's a real bond here. That Heche and Reilly play their parts without judgment helps a lot, as Joan and Dean are rather up front with their flaws and their sins, never allowing themselves to be one-note or empty.

The film was directed by Miguel Arteta, of The Good Girl and more recently, Youth In Revolt. We can see early that he has a gift within comedic films, not because of how funny they are (though they are that), but because of his attention to his characters. He never settles for the easy joke; and in the case of most of his films, it would be pretty easy to take a character like Tim Lippe or Dean Zeigler and laugh at him. But Arteta really cares about these people, and it shows. It helps to have some wonderful performances. Helms, always a talented supporting player in comedies like The Hangover and the TV series "The Office", really holds his own as a lead. He plays Tim with such brilliant naivete, we really believe him when he gives Mrs. V a promise ring for, you know, whatever happens. The film is also filled with wonderful small moments and minor characters, particularly a young prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat) who sways Tim with her charm and her crack pipe.

They always say that no good films come out in the first four months of the year. They say that because, for the most part, it's true. But Cedar Rapids - an independent film that is still stuck in limited release - is a gem among cobblestones, a truly great comedy filled with romance, fight scenes, and more than one reference to the HBO program, "The Wire". I'll admit that I'm a sucker for low-brow comedies with heart (when they're done well), but I do feel like Cedar Rapids was the first great film of 2011, even if it probably won't develop that reputation. But that's fine, the Tim Lippe's of the world never get the credit they deserve.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (**)

Produced, Written and Directed by George Nolfi


Somewhere within
The Adjustment Bureau is a very compelling romance, and even better, a wonderful farce. Furthermore, the film stirs serious moral questions about predestination and existentialism. These three aspects (the romance, the farce, the existentialism) are the most interesting parts of the film, but it never really divulges into any of the three too far or deep. They're left twisting in the wind while we're sucked into a more generic plot line involving a cat-and-mouse chase between chess pieces and the chess players. In this case, the pieces are the human race and the players are the Adjustment Bureau.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a hot-shot politician running for Senate in New York. After losing the race, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) in the men's room. Why is she in the Men's room? She says that she's hiding from a group of security guards that were supervising a wedding that she just crashed. In actuality, she was arranged to be there. She was meant to meet David, have a tender conversation with him, and inspire him to make a rousing speech that would spring board his political career toward the White House. Who arranged this? Unseen men who create the plan to David's (and everyone's) life. And it's important that David (and everyone) stay on the right track.

But David is not interested in the plan. He's interested in Elise. When he sees her again on a public bus, he makes sure to get her number. This is when the Adjustment Bureau steps in. A group of men in hats explain to David: he was supposed to meet Elise in the bathroom, but he is not meant to see her again. Any prolonged relationship that they have will have serious consequences on their plan, and change the course of their lives irreparably. These men can walk in and out of doors that seem to break natural physics laws and can always keep their eyes on him. If David dismisses them, they'll erase his brain. That there is room for tinkering in a system that's
supposed to be run by a larger-than-life being seems strange. Everyone's life has already been written, but when the Adjustment Bureau tells David that he must never see Elise again, aren't they suggesting the possibility of free will?

Small questions like this bothered me throughout. Not because they felt like holes, mind you, but because the film takes itself so seriously that it made me begin to question the logic behind an idea that is inherently illogical. It makes a lot of sense that this film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story. Dick never focused on the wonder of the outer worlds he created, but the horror, and
The Adjustment Bureau has some underlying questions poking mercilessly at the afterlife and the "higher power". One of the adjusters, Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie), openly questions The Chairmen - the ominous name given to the one who runs the Bureau - in a way that feels suspiciously like Loki questioning God for his delusions of grandeur. But director/screenwriter George Nolfi doesn't have enough interest in really upsetting anybody, and instead this question about the man upstairs becomes a red herring for the plot.

Which leads into another issue I saw. The adjusters, all equipped with trench coats and fedoras, are put into positions that are so preposterous that I feel that their very existence was prime material for a farce, a satire about predestination. But Harry is morose and questioning what it all means, while other adjusters, like Richardson (John Slattery), are despondent, not willing to challenge the system because they know that the towel has already been thrown. Then there's the appearance of Thompson (Terrence Stamp), a higher official who's brought in when David's constant search for Elise becomes out of control. Stamp is a terrific actor with virtuoso abilities, but he plays Thompson with such strict seriousness that it's almost hard not to laugh at how hard he's trying. That Nolfi is unwilling to make these adjusters a damning metaphor, nor make them exploit their comedic potential, is unfortunate.

There are some elements here that work. Almost all of them have to do with the combination of Damon and Blunt. They have wonderful chemistry, which makes you root for them. It's an interesting occurrence when you care for the racers while hating the race, but that's a testament to how good Damon and Blunt are together. In a less high concept screenplay, their natural connection could really be the basis for a love story that is very effective. Not that the love story in
The Adjustment Bureau isn't, but the obstacles that they face become distracting. Their tale feels like it's above running in and out of doors that lead to Yankees Stadium and The Statue of Liberty.

Trying to adapt Philip K. Dick to the big screen can be hard.
Blade Runner didn't work till it's director's cut was released, and outside of Minority Report, there wasn't another adaptation that really clicked (Total Recall works, but for other reasons, mostly having to do with Ah-nuld). That a movie studio would even attempt a cerebral sci-fi is commendable, but Dick's vision of the Adjusters is a lot more challenging toward a stubborn inland sensibility. The Adjustment Bureau is too tame, too happy to settle for being a thriller rather than raising questions amongst its viewers. It does have some fantastic work from its two lead performers, which may be all that most audiences will have wished for. I would have liked to see a little more balls.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The 4th Annual JC Awards

In celebration of the upcoming Academy Awards this Sunday night, I will unveil my 4th Annual JC Awards for the films of 2010. These are in individual categories, for my top films of the year, just scroll down.


Gold: Javier Bardem, BIUTIFUL
Silver: Ryan Gosling, BLUE VALENTINE
Bronze: Paul Giamatti, BARNEY'S VERSION

Filling out the ballot:
James Franco, 127 HOURS


Gold: Natalie Portman, BLACK SWAN
Silver: Annette Bening & Julianne Moore, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT*
Bronze: Michelle Williams, BLUE VALENTINE

Filling out the ballot:
Nicole Kidman, RABBIT HOLE
Tilda Swinton, I AM LOVE

*Two separate performances? Yes. But it's the symbiotic performance from the two of them that make 'The Kids Are All Right' a near masterpiece. I can't logically say that either one is better than the other. So... deal with it.


Gold: Mark Ruffalo, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Silver: Andrew Garfield, THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Bronze: Christian Bale, THE FIGHTER

Filling out the ballot:
Geoffrey Rush, THE KING'S SPEECH
Justin Timberlake, THE SOCIAL NETWORK


Gold: Lesley Manville, ANOTHER YEAR*
Silver: Olivia Williams, THE GHOST WRITER

Filling out the ballot:
Marion Cotillard, INCEPTION
Dianne Wiest, RABBIT HOLE

*True, Manville has stated that she is a lead performance, and I agree with that. To be totally honest, I wanted to give her the gold, and I couldn't do that in Best Actress. In the end, she was absent from the screen long enough for me to legitimize putting her in Supporting.


Gold: The Kids Are All Right
Silver: Another Year
Bronze: Black Swan

Filling out the ballot:
The King's Speech
The Social Network


Gold: Darren Aronofsky, BLACK SWAN
Silver: Danny Boyle, 127 HOURS
Bronze: Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION

Filling out the ballot:
Derek Cianfrance, BLUE VALENTINE
Luca Guadagnino, I AM LOVE


Gold: Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, & Cami Delavigne, BLUE VALENTINE
Silver: Stuart Blumberg & Lisa Cholodenko, THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Bronze: Michael Arndt, TOY STORY 3

Filling out the ballot:
Christopher Nolan, INCEPTION


Gold: Aaron Sorkin, THE SOCIAL NETWORK
Silver: David Lindsay-Abaire, RABBIT HOLE
Bronze: Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy, 127 HOURS

Filling out the ballot:
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, TRUE GRIT
Alex Garland, NEVER LET ME GO


Gold: Matthew Libatique, BLACK SWAN
Silver: Wally Pfister, INCEPTION
Bronze: Jeff Cronenweth, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Filling out the ballot:
Roger Deakins, TRUE GRIT
Yorick Le Saux, I AM LOVE


Gold: Lee Smith, INCEPTION
Silver: Rodrigo Cortés, BURIED
Bronze: Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Filling out the ballot:
Jon Harris, 127 HOURS
Andrew Weisblum, BLACK SWAN


Gold: Guy Dyas, INCEPTION
Silver: Dante Ferreti, SHUTTER ISLAND
Bronze: Jess Goncher, TRUE GRIT

Filling out the ballot:
Therese DePrez, BLACK SWAN


Gold: Antonella Cannarozzi, I AM LOVE
Silver: Louise Stejrnward, MADE IN DAGENHAM
Bronze: Amy Westscott, BLACK SWAN

Filling out the ballot:
Mary Zophres, TRUE GRIT


Gold: Clint Mansell, BLACK SWAN
Silver: Pasquale Catalano, BARNEY'S VERSION
Bronze: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Filling out the ballot:
John Adams, I AM LOVE
Hans Zimmer, INCEPTION


Gold: Inception
Silver: 127 Hours
Bronze: Black Swan

Filling out the ballot:
The Social Network
True Grit


Gold: Barney's Version
Silver: Black Swan
Bronze: True Grit

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

UPDATED! My Ten (er, Sixteen) Best Films of 2010 (now - finally - as a list)

As mentioned when it was previously posted, when I made my original list that I hadn't seen all of the films that I wanted to see for 2010. Having totally satisfied my list of films that I had wanted to see, I decided to update the list to include those that I thought should have made it in the first place. I decided not to remove any films because... why not? They're all stupendous films. And since I've had a chance to re-watch films, I feel a lot more comfortable placing them in the classic list format. So, mostly everything is the same as before, but if you're interested in the four (yes, four!) new entries, feel free to take a look.

Happy New Year, everybody! Like everyone else, I too am looking forward to 2011, but you can't move forward without taking a slight glance back. And what better way to do that than a good ol' 'Best of' list? Hope you enjoy.

Original Review Here

I hope that my inability to formulate a legitimate "top ten" list isn't being confused with me being unable to pick a "best film of the year". Blue Valentine is definitely that. No film in 2010 was more honest, more appropriately directed, and more complete story. That story is simple: Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) meet by chance and fall in love. Six years later, they're married with a young daughter, and with time, have fallen out of love. It's a transition from total devotion to total detestation, from seeing the hope in the future, to being in the future and not liking what you see. From the joy of blossoming love to the life-crushing sorrow of divorce. Directed by Derek Cianfrance - his first narrative feature film - the story swings back and forth between the budding and crumbling love, often juxtaposing the moods and feelings in a way that's sometimes poignant, sometimes heartbreaking. The film's gritty, handheld, Cinéma vérité style is apt as it strengthens its gaze on everything in love that is not beautiful. It has stark sexuality that really presents love making for what it really is, equal parts erotic and painful. There's sex of passion and then there's sex of routine, and Blue Valentine is able to show both in authentic fashion. Blue Valentine is, as I said in my initial review, a modest masterpiece; so carefully told, but still filled with such abrasive, unforgiving energy. It's not the most uplifting tale you'll see in theaters, but it sill make you think about love unlike any other film in years.

Original Review Here

Marriage is hard. This is the thesis of Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. And just because Cholodenko's film is about a married lesbian couple, doesn't mean she pulls any punches. The original testament still stands strong. Following Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) as their children decide to build a relationship with their sperm-donor father, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), it follows these people with such careful grace that it feels pretty damn real. As Paul works his way into their family - much to the chagrin of the two mothers - his effect on all of them turns out to be larger than any of them could have imagined. The main cast shines brightest here with Bening, Moore, and Ruffalo all doing an extraordinary job encompassing these simple yet multi-faceted people. Nothing is exploited for dramatic effect, instead the veteran actors play everything with subtlety, making it seem like they are actually embracing the own characters' instincts. The film got some unfortunate, misguided publicity when certain writers claimed to be a politically-motivated piece, which couldn't be farther from the truth. The wonder behind The Kids Are All Right is how well Cholodenko (herself, a lesbian) is able to stay away from glorifying Nic and Jules, and letting them speak for themselves. Bonus points to Alice In Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska and future Spider-Man prospect Josh Hutchinson for playing the two children with the appropriate amount of angst and humor to make the unconventional family seem authentic. After all, this film's main theme is the American family dynamic. It will still have all the same issues, even without the standard patriarch.

Original Review Here

On initial viewing, Black Swan may baffle. The second time around, it will mesmerize. After that, Darren Aronofsky's ballerina thriller will leave you awash in some of the most courageous cinematic storytelling you will ever see. In his follow up (or as he would say: "companion piece") to 2008's The Wrestler, Aronofsky again focuses on a person's ugly inner struggle to find glory and beauty in her performance art. This time, it's not about wrestling, but the New York ballet. As Nina, the newly anointed Swan Queen in the Lincoln Theater reprisal of Swan Lake, Natalie Portman breaks hearts in a performance that is played with the ultimate intensity and physicality that the role calls for. As Nina faces performance pressure from her maddening mother (Barbara Herschey), sexual advances from her authoritarian director (Vincent Cassell), and sarcastic jokes from her rival dancer and understudy (Mila Kunis), Portman showcases her emotional disintegration in an agonizing, sometimes disturbing fashion. As Aronofsky shows Nina's journey from the ethereal, virtuous white swan, to the unadulterated passion of the black swan, he takes you on a ride of thrills, a few low-rent scares, and several moments where you cannot look away - even though you want to. But whatever you may think of Black Swan's reliance on hackneyed horror movie tricks, you cannot deny that its story unfolds with zeal and rebellious stubbornness. Now, all of this legitimized by the work from Portman, whose brilliance here cannot be understated, as she truly makes Black Swan what it is.

Original Review Here

With the kinds of protagonists that Mike Leigh has, who needs antagonists? From the well-meaning abortionist in Vera Drake, to the all-around naughty boy in Naked, Leigh always tends to endear us toward the most complicated (or more flatly, flawed) characters. In Another Year, we have Mary (played with fiery grace by Lesley Manville), whose connection with reality is so disjointed that she becomes horribly depressed when she finds that her nephew (about twenty years younger than her, no doubt) isn't sexually attracted to her. Mary is a train wreck, belonging in the pantheon of wonderfully dreary Mike Leigh creations. Leigh's striking ability to remove any judgment from his camera leaves us to our own devices and allows us to see these people on the screen for who they really are. But Another Year is mostly focused on the senior marriage of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and how their long, deliriously happy relationship is contrasted by the crumbling lives of their friends and family around them. When everyone is struggling to keep their head above water, they must do their best to latch on to that stable buoy, so that they don't drown. But Tom and Gerri are genuinely good people. They don't mind helping Mary and others in their time of great need, and it's that great wisdom that keeps them from sinking along with the others.

No Original Review (got lazy with this one)

Banksy is considered to be amongst the most revolutionary artists of his time, specializing in high concept street art, moving well past the low-rent graffiti that tattered the art form's beginnings. But Exit Through The Gift Shop is not a film about Banksy. It's a film by Banksy about Thierry Guetta, a French, former clothing retailer who has evolved into a budding filmmaker and an opportunistic street artist. Through Guetta (and is eventual alter ego: "Mr. Brainwash"), Banksy documents the evolution of the wondrous subculture most know little about and introduces us to some of the best artists of the genre: Space Invader, Sheppard Fairey, and of course, the notorious Banksy himself. All these artists thought Guetta was putting together the ultimate documentary to legitimize their work, but that wasn't achieved until Banksy got a hold of the thousand hours that Guetta compiled over the years. With Guetta, he instead hurdles toward an ego-driven explosion, changes his name to Mr. Brainwash and becomes his own kind of street artist. The film is startlingly funny; a scathing review on the bastardization of the modern art scene in America. With exclusive footage of all these reckless, felonious men, it's quite a feat that Thierry stands out as the biggest eccentric, but he's one of the most magnetic film characters I've seen in years. Like Catfish, there are many who think Exit Through The Gift Shop is just an elaborate hoax - Banksy's most expansive, ambitious project yet. If that were the case, it wouldn't surprise me, but Thierry Guetta would be his greatest creation yet.

Original Review Here

I can't remember the last time I saw a good "part three" of anything. So, needless to say, I walked into Toy Story 3 with some reservations. By the end, I concluded that it would've been difficult to make anything closer to perfect than this conclusion to the Pixar franchise. All the usual characters are back, but Andy is now gearing up for college and the whole gang is wondering what will become of them once he's gone. The stakes here have risen quite a bit since the days when Woody and Buzz had to find their way home from Pizza Planet. Addressing themes ranging from maturity to loyalty, even mortality is tackled in this supposed "kid's film" (including one powerful moment with the entire gang that will have you clutching the edge of your seat). Not that that laughs aren't there anymore. Watching Mr. Potato Head fit himself into a tortilla, or seeing Buzz get switched into "modo español", gave me some of the best laughs I'd ever had from any of the three films. But I'd dare anyone to keep a dry eye while watching this, especially during a particularly touching moment by the film's end where Andy has to make his final decision about what to do with his most cherished friends. It's fitting that Toys Story 3 ends up being the last film written about on this post, because watching this film was the moment that I realized that my childhood had ended. I am now an adult. The film perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the series - a series that freely encapsulated the spirit of my maturity up until then. With this breathtaking film, that part of my life was closed, but a new door was opened. Toy Story 3 opened it.

Original Review Here

Grief is something that is universal to everybody, but few films really visualize it better than John Cameron Mithcell's Rabbit Hole. Six months after the death of their young son, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are still struggling to cope. Through group therapy sessions and visits with various family members, we see how hard they try to make everyone think that they're doing alright. Sometimes, the harder you try, the more obvious you become. Credit incredible performances from Kidman and Eckhart for making Rabbit Hole sincere and honest, while still keeping the emotions explosive. Mitchell, known for his kinetic (if not eccentric) independent films, dials it down a bit here. He keeps the visual motifs solemn and intimate, setting the stage for his actors and letting them work. Which is a successful approach when you have such a great cast. Beyond some of Kidman's best work, the film gets great performances from Sandra Oh as a veteran in group therapy, Dianne Wiest as the wise, sometimes boozy mother of Becca, and Miles Teller as an artistic young man who has a lot more to reveal than we realize at first. The screenplay was written by David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play), and is filled with a lot of pain, but also has a surprising amount of warmth.

Original Review Here

When describing a movie like Barney's Version, I think it should be noted that it is so unapologetically Canadian that it never had a real chance of becoming a hit in the United States. Now that we've gotten that off of our chests, lets get to the movie itself: a brilliantly told, wonderfully acted tale about a man so grouchy that opening the flip on his cell phone feels like a burden. That man is Barney Panofsky (played with the brilliant wit we expect from Paul Giamatti), an Alzheimer's-riddled soap opera producer who had to marry two different women before meeting the love of his life. Based on the much-acclaimed novel by Mordecai Richler, the film is meant to represent Barney's version of a life story that has painted him as a lousy curmudgeon to everyone he has ever loved and cared about. Not that it means that Barney will show himself as a terribly sympathetic figure - far from it. Director Richard J. Lewis, along with Giamatti, combine to make the sinning Barney much more compelling than any saint could ever be. The film is with wonderful supporting performances, including Rachel LeFevre and Minnie Driver as the first two victims of Barney's hand in marriage. Dustin Hoffman plays Barney's father with great humor and provides the film with some unorthodox wisdom. But special attention should be paid to Rosamund Pike's performance as Miriam, Barney's true love. So beautiful and patient, Pike's portrayal of such open-heartedness helps you totally realize Barney's lovestruck feelings for her.

Original Review Here

Christopher Nolan is able to do something that sometimes feels impossible: he makes large, commercial action films that actually provoke introspective thought. When you consider that Nolan is behind the brilliant, non-linear psychological thriller Memento from 2000, you could see that intellectual approach early on. With Inception, though, the English writer-director is at his high-concept best, creating a labyrinthine plot centered around dreams, and dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams... do you understand the kind of movie we're dealing with now? On the surface, the entire idea seems over-the-top and too clever for its own good, but credit should go to Nolan and his all-star cast - led by Leonardo DiCaprio - that it is able to unfold without ever befuddling those watching. This is a talent that Nolan showed with both his Batman films, and here he is really at his element. It helps that the film is impeccably made, with career-best work from cinematographer Wally Pfister, and Nolan crafting some wholly dazzling fight sequences and car chases. But car chases are always more interesting when you care about who's being chased, and Nolan's screenplay is so invested in its characters, never allowing the strict rules of the film's universe to bog down their development. With a superb supporting cast that includes Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a particularly exceptional Marion Cotillard, Inception is the best studio action film in years.

10. 127 HOURS
Original Review Here

When I spoke to a friend about Danny' Boyle's 127 Hours, they complained: "If there was any film that was made to have all the credits in the end, it's this one. When you see 'Based on the Book by Aron Ralston', it kills all the suspense!" I respectively disagreed. A lot of the charm within this beautifully executed film with how it plays with our expectations. I had imagined that we were all aware (though I was surprised to find out otherwise) with the story of Ralston, an adventurous, sometimes mischievous mountain climber who had to amputate his own right arm after it became trapped underneath an immovable boulder in the Blue John Canyon in Utah. By letting us know at the beginning that he definitely survives, we're able to admire so many of the smaller things that this film does so well. Like showing Ralston as a man, and not a victim. Played with fantastic wit by James Franco, Ralston's bright, life-affirming attitude in the face of ultimate doom is infectious and something to behold. Franco does it right, displaying Ralston's glowing sense of humor without ever trying too hard or becoming contrived. But the main star here is Boyle, who followed the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire with a return to what made him so unique: creating films with frenetic energy and a breakneck pace, blurring though a screenplay that is composed mostly of Ralston being trapped at the bottom of a canyon. It could have been methodical and solemn and no one would have complained, but Boyle makes it a rambunctious, sometimes funny story of a man's will to live.

11. I Am Love
No Original Review (got lazy with this one)

In 2009, Tilda Swinton gave a virtuoso performance in a grossly under-appreciated gem of a film called Julia. A year later, the remarkably talented (and fearlessly ambitious) Swinton seems poised for the same fate. Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love is a highly-stylized melodrama, fraught with wondrous images and settings (beautifully shot by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux) and pulsating with a sexual ferocity that would put Leonardo Bertolucci to shame. There's very little that can disrupt the powerful Recchi's; an Italian family that heads a highly influential corporation in Milano. Emma (Swinton) is the heart of the family, a German woman who married into the business, and is a gentle and gracious mother to her three children. She has no problem fading into the background and taking the thankless role. But when her son befriends an intensely passionate chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), and introduces him to Emma, she is overcome with emotion for the first time in a very long time. What follows is a lucid affair that shakes the foundation of the Recchi familt unlike anything they've ever experienced. I Am Love is an impeccably made film in all the ways it should be. Like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, it references images from the early Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Mervyn Leroy, calling on the Golden Age of Hollywood to further impress its European austerity. But the biggest star here is Swinton, who continues her trend of taking a collection of eclectic, challenging roles and transforming into fully-fledged, compelling characters.

Original Review Here

I many ways, Catfish really embodied the kind of film that I had wished The Social Network would have been. So slick and ominous in showing how Facebook has really changed the way we communicate with each other. It has completely transformed our lives, but as this film shows, it also allows some to completely transform into a totally different person. The is a documentary effort from the two, young filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. When Ariel's photographer brother, Yaniv, develops an email relationship with a talented, eight-year-old painter named Abby, Schulman and Joost decide to document it. But the more interesting relationship is the Yaniv creates with Megan, Abby's older half-sister. Text messages and phone conversations are exchanged, but when the three young men try to meet Megan and Abby face-to-face, they are not prepared for what they find. Most of the thrill behind Catfish comes from not knowing what to expect, so I'll cease from telling anymore details, but suffice to say, it goes places and meets people you would have never imagined. Some have accused Catfish of a being a fake - to which I'll respond with how little I care. The story within Catfish strikes me as too uniquely bizarre to be made up, but it's captivating no matter how real or not real it may be.

Original Review Here

This is the kind of film that fits right into the Academy's wheel house: period piece, uplifting, respected cast, World War II (if only for a few brief moments). So, it has that going for it. It is also one of the most fulfilling cinematic experiences of the year. As the stammering, socially inept Prince Albert ("Bertie"), Colin Firth gives a captivating performance that perfectly dictates the film's formal, but off-kilter style. Directed by Tom Hooper, the film's sputtering (my friend described it as "constipated") visual approach is surprisingly arresting and executed exceptionally. It becomes smoother as Bertie's relationship with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (a terrific Geoffrey Rush), becomes stronger. As co-leads (I dismiss anyone who would consider the part of Logue a supporting one), Firth and Rush work beautifully together. With opportunities to exploit the more over-the-top aspects of their characters, neither actor takes advantage. Instead, they rely on - and expound upon - the words written in the exquisite screenplay (penned by David Seidler) that bridges this odd couple into a real friendship that does not feel contrived or put-on. Boosted by a wonderful supporting cast, that includes Guy Pierce, Michael Gambon, and a warm, humurous turn from Helena Bonham-Carter as Bertie's wife Elizabeth, The King's Speech takes full advantage of its talented cast and produces one of the year's better acting ensembles.

Original Review Here

Roman Polanski's taut, intelligent thriller The Ghost Writer, came and went in American theaters earlier in the year (to its credit, it was a success in foreign markets), but those who went out of their way to see it, were able to see something that hadn't been accomplished in decades: a ripe, well-told Film Noir. Ewan McGregor is ominously credited as "The Ghost", playing a downtrodden writer who decides to ghost write the autobiography of a hot tempered, former prime minister (an excellent Pierce Brosnan) who's caught in the middle of a political scandal. In the minister's Long Island home, that's when he's introduced to Ruth (Olivia Williams in a wonderfully nuanced, ferocious performance), the minister's abrasive, sometimes adulterous wife. As The Ghost is lead down the rabbit hole by Ruth, a complex conspiracy begins to reveal itself. Trying to write, The Ghost uncovers secrets that have been hidden for years, and in trying to find out the truth, a flock of oddball characters come out of the woodwork (featuring some nice supporting work from Kim Catrell, Tom Wilkinson, and Eli Wallach), and more complications present themselves as others are resolved. The Ghost Writer's greatest achievement is its ability to take formal Noir archetypes and present them as fresh and intriguing - and it helps that it's buoyed by a handful of excellent performances, including a mild-mannered, precise turn from McGregor, and the sometimes charming, often explosive work from Brosnan. But Olivia Williams steals the show with a performance that is equal parts allusive and creepy, dominant and dormant - and she has the biggest surprise for everyone.

15. The Social Network
Original Review Here

I have budged - and I have expanded this list long enough to include the zeitgeist film of 2010, David Fincher's The Social Network. It didn't feel right to talk about '2010 - The Movie Year' without including it. A film about Facebook - at least, on the surface. More specifically, it's a film showcasing the dynamo effect that Facebook has presented in our everyday lives. It's about Mark Zuckerberg (a wonderfully nuanced performance from Jesse Eisenberg), the computer whizz who borrowed an idea from twin, blonde, All-American rowers (both played by Armie Hammer), and creates the most popular website in the history of the internet. It's about the flies in the ointment; including Napster creator Sean Parker (played with deviant charm by Justin Timberlake) who bursts in quickly, wines and dines Zuckerberg, and steps in to cash in on the big prize. It's about the casualties of war, including Mark's best friend Eduardo (a brilliantly subtle, but complex performance from Andrew Garfield) who helped build Facebook as the CFO in its earliest stages, only to have it taken from him by the naive Zuckerberg and the conniving Parker. It's about the heartbreak of being rejected; being rejected by college Final Clubs, the popular clubs, and even Elizabeth Albright (Rooney Mara), a smart, beautiful girl who wants to like Mark, but struggles to keep her ahead above water around his smug. It's about a lot of things. But what's really fascinating about The Social Network is not the ascendance of Zuckerberg, but its display of the contemporary American construct and how much Facebook has contributed to the creation of that.

Original Review Here

Few films in 2010 were as funny, perplexing, audacious, or generally interesting than Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass. It stars Edward Norton in two different roles: the renowned thinker and classical philosophy professor Billy Kincaid, and his drug-dealing, Oklahoma-accented twin brother Brady. When Brady fakes his own death in order to get Billy to come back home to Oklahoma, Billy is already furious. When Billy discovers that he's really supposed to be a live alibi while Brady makes a high stakes drug deal, Billy cannot believe it. What follows is a stunning, sincerely unpredictable sequence of events that includes crossbows, literature, and lots of weed. The film bares little resemblance to Walt Whitman's classic book of poetry of the same name (though it does make an appearance in the film's final scene), except when you consider how thought-provoking both pieces are. Writer and director Tim Blake Nelson (who also stars in the film as Bolger, Brady's loyal but dimwitted best friend) crafts a screenplay filled with extreme eccentricities, and makes a film that fully embraces them. There isn't an over-the-top note that isn't exploited, but Nelson is able to take the film's tonal imbalance and make it work, because he believes totally in the story that he's telling. He never lets up and you never know what is going to happen next, and that's why watching Leaves of Grass is so fascinating. Add nice supporting performances from Keri Russell, Melanie Lynskey, Susan Surandon, and Richard Dreyfuss, and Leaves of Grass becomes an intoxicating movie experience.

There are still more films that I struggled with leaving off the list. Here they are.

-David O. Russell's The Fighter is a dynamic ensemble piece about boxer Mickey Ward and his tumultuous family. Combining wonderful performances and inspired direction, it is one of the more enjoyable sports films in many years.

-Noah Baumbach's Greenberg was a terrific comedy with a woefully under-appreciated performance from Ben Stiller.

-Buried was a wonderful experiment in cinematic storytelling - limiting the entire film to being inside a coffin.

-Debra Granik's Winter's Bone has an incredibly nuanced performance from soon-to-be movie star Jennifer Lawrence and creates one of the most eerie movie atmospheres in a while, set in the drugged-out shadows of the Ozark mountains.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Another Year (****)

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh


You may never see a film that appreciates faces the way that Another Year does. Not the kind of faces we're used to staring at in most Hollywood films, but a different kind. Faces with cracks and crevasses, absent of protruding chins or perfectly slim noses. The film opens and closes with two spectacular shots of faces that express such a bevy of emotions including: despair, heartbreak, loneliness, perhaps a slight glimpse of hope. Mike Leigh has never been interested in manipulated movie beauty, and Another Year's list of faces includes many English acting veterans like Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, and Imelda Staunton. Some may prefer the faces of Megan Fox or Chaning Tatum, and those certainly are more aesthetically pleasing faces, but Mike Leigh can't tell this solemn tale with those faces, because those faces can't tell this kind of story.

Tom (Broadbent) and Gerri (Sheen) are married, and we can tell that they have been so for many decades. Their dependence on one another is not needy or uneven, but complimentary. They garden and cook together. Tom is an engineer and Gerri is a behavioral counselor at a hospital. They have a son named Joe (Oliver Maltman) who visits ever so often and is filled with as much joy and charm as his parents. They are a happily married couple, possessing a sense of stability that seems almost impossible to most people. So, it makes sense that they have a lot of unhappy friends who latch onto them in an attempt to acquire some of that happiness; namely Mary (Manville), a secretary who works with Gerri, whose desperation to cure her loneliness constantly clouds any sense of reason she may have with reality. When invited to a dinner with Tom and Gerri, she comes prepared with a cleavage-blooming outfit... just in case.

After a few drinks, Mary usually will expound on her woeful tale on getting married too young and finally falling in love too late. But Tom and Gerri have heard this story before, so they just let her bottom out and send her to bed. Tom and Gerri also have a friend name Ken (Wight), who smokes too much and carries a belly in front of him the size of a wrecking ball. He can't seem to find a shirt that'll fit him. But he's a funny, jovial sort of fellow, and Tom and Gerri are more than happy to have him over. Ken likes Mary and his eyes light up when she arrives at the home. But Mary doesn't fancy herself someone who would demean herself with someone like Ken. Instead, she wastes her time trying to cozy up to Joe. It doesn't matter that she's known him since he was a ten-year-old boy. In several cringe-worthy moments, Mary embarrasses herself flirting with and grabbing Joe, and he does his best to humor her, but mostly because he doesn't want to hurt her feelings.

I can understand why these people would connect themselves to Tom and Gerri. Their modest home is like a haven for good spirits, and their own unbelievable chemistry and unflinching commitment after so many years seems like an ideal in a time where most marriages crash and burn. They are very similar, both incredibly warm and kind. But their slight differences make their relationship stronger. Gerri is more patient and its easier for her to stand Mary's advances toward her son, while Tom is more outspoken, never being able to buy into the B.S. that certain people like Ken and Mary display in their search for self-pity and compliments. They're a solid rock in a field of hollow stones. They're not walkovers either. You should see their seamless expressions of disappointment when Joe brings home his new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez), and Mary decides to use that moment to make an ugly scene. They're there for their friends, but never ahead of their family.

This film was recently nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award (as Leigh has been several times before), though Leigh's dependence on long-winded improvisations from his actors makes you wonder where the screenplay is. Does it matter? Maybe if this material were in other hands, but Leigh is a true cinematic master and he shows it with this film. Consider Secrets & Lies, Naked, or the more recent Happy-Go-Lucky. All films that were more interested in observing its characters than having them follow some hackneyed plot point, and Another Year follows that tradition. Do Tom and Gerri represent stability? Does Mary represent regret? Does Joe represent exuberant youth? If you're looking for that kind of stuff, I'm sure you can find it. But Leigh's films doesn't let that overtake what he's most interested in. Leigh is more interested in having Tom represent Tom and Gerri represent Gerri.

When the film premiered in Cannes in early 2010, most of the noise being made was about Lesley Manville's performance. And in a film that is wall-to-wall with tremendous acting from Broadbent, Wight, and everyone else, Manville is able to stand out. Mary is a total train wreck emotionally, doing her best to hide her real age, even to herself. She throws fits like a sixteen-year-old, but always comes crawling back like a haggard dog. It probably seems like quite the achievement to upset the mild-mannered Tom and Gerri, but she does have moments of charm. It's a testament toward the greatness of Manville that this pathetic person never becomes uninteresting or redundant, always making room for a bit of warmth to shine through. That Manville wasn't able to crack through for an Oscar nomination is a bit of shame, but its a rarely seen English film, and the Academy only likes England if its the England from WWII (**cough**The King's Speech**cough**).

The film is broken into four segments: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Each part with a different tone and visual look. With each rotating season, things evolve and people fall in and out of trouble. The only thing that stays the same throughout is Tom, Gerri and their lovely home. Another Year is so poignant and graceful in its swaying through themes of growing old and friendship. And my God, those faces. At the beginning, it's a tight scowl coming from a disgruntled insomniac (Imelda Staunton, in a very brief but effective appearance). Before the film's end, it's the wallowing, depreciating face of Mary. It's the kind of image that sums up this kind of film perfectly; the kind of film that tells the truth about life. As Gerri wisely says at one moment in the film, life is not always kind to people, but Tom and Gerri is a testament to one thing: if you look hard enough, real happiness is possible.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Barney's Version (***1/2)

Directed by Richard J. Lewis


Barney Panofsky is the kind of character that is tailor-made for an actor with the talent of Paul Giamatti. Grumpy, condescending, always quick to jump to judgment. How is it that Giamatti is able to dig so deep and find the inner charm, the shining humanity that's been hidden away? He's done so with films like American Splendor and Cold Souls, and more specifically in an incredibly dense performance in the 2004 film Sideways (one of my own personal favorites). Hell, he's probably the only actor that could have done so well in John Adams, the HBO miniseries that covered the life of one of history's greatest curmudgeons. He does it again in Barney's Version, a film that chronicles the perpetually rough-around-the-ages (and fictitious) life of television producer Barney Panofsky. We're talking about a man who can't even open his flip cell phone without making it seem like a burden. Yet, somehow, Giamatti makes him captivating.

The film is based on Mordecai Richler's 1997 novel of the same name - and bares a striking resemblance to his most beloved work from 1959, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. We get a snapshot of Mr. Panofsky's most formative years, as a man with a penchant for kicking back cigars and an obsession with professional hockey. When we first meet Barney, he's in Paris, he's there with his friends, Leo (Thomas Trabacchi), a provocative painter; and Boogie (Scott Speedman), a brilliant writer with a weakness for various vices. Barney's about to get married to Clara (Rachelle LeFevre), a crass, mentally disturbed woman with a flair for the dramatic and a talent with painting. He doesn't particularly love Clara, but he feels obligated because she's pregnant. This is a running theme in Barney's Version: getting married out of obligation and not for love. Needless to say, that marriage is short and taxing, getting off to a bad start once certain secrets are revealed.

Barney's second wife (Minnie Driver) is a verbose, obnoxious woman with an insanely rich father and a Master's Degree in which she's particularly proud of. This is an even shorter marriage (as far as commitment is concerned). At his wedding reception, he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike), a beautiful woman in a ravishing blue dress who is kind and smart. Barney thinks he may have finally fallen in love, and when she updates him on the Montreal Canadians hockey score, he knows she'll have his heart forever. So, he does his best to rid himself of his second wife, all the while sending flowers weekly to Miriam's office in New York. When the second Mrs. P decides that a sexual ran-de-vouz with Boogie is in order - an event that leads to Boogie's sudden, unclear death - Barney finally has a reason to get a divorce.

That Miriam is even able to warm to Barney is a testament to her unbelievable heart. This was a man who successfully sabotaged to marriages and professed his love to her on their first meeting - on his wedding day. But she is able to love him and marry him and Barney may have finally found the woman that can make him happy. We never question Miriam's decision to be with him, mostly because Rosamund Pike fills her with such grace and wisdom. Pike is a woman who is beautiful in a regal sort of way (which made her perfect casting for 'Jane' in Joe Wright's version of Pride and Prejudice), and it makes sense that Barry would fall for her so instantaneously. But credit must go to Pike for detailing Miriam with such patience and attractiveness. She loves Barney because she sees how she's able to bring the love out of him.

The film is told in a retrospective format, as an aging Barney, struggles with Alzheimer's Disease. He must deal with the publication of a dastardly novel written by a detective convinced that Barney murdered Boogie. Whether or not Barney did actually have a hand in Boogie's death is left fuzzy until the film's end, where Barney puts together a story that seems perfectly sensible to him, even if it might not to others. What matters in particular is that the audience buys this explanation, and this leads to the film's central achievement. Director Richard J. Lewis is able to make Barney endearing and fascinating. We don't groan when we see him make another bad decision or speak too soon, we genuinely feel bad for him as he steps on his own toes once again. Not since last year's Julia have I ever rooted so strongly for such a wrongheaded human being.

I've heard that Barney's Version barely scratches the surface of Richler's novel and I'm sure that may be true. It's swift and sudden in certain moments where a book is sure to be delicate and patient. From what I've read, the film's screenplay adds the character of Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), Barney's loudmouthed father who's able to have moments of wisdom slip through in between naughty stories about his younger days. It's no surprise that Hoffman is terrific in the role, providing mounds of comic relief and showing wonderful chemistry with Giamatti. Having never read the novel, I can only say that the film spans time in a way that's efficient and effective, glossing over the usual details that make books what they are: not films.

Paul Giamatti recently won a Golden Globe for his performance in this film and while it's not career best work, it certainly deserves to be ranked amongst them. What he does with Barney is so pure, often forceful, but with enough general reticence to make him bearable. When Barney begins to depreciate from Alzheimer's, it's a sequence that is truly heartbreaking, but not in the usual manipulated movie way. It's heartbreaking because watching Barney fade is to see someone we know ourselves fade. That's how well we feel we've known him by the end. Does the film's final act become a bit of a tear-jerker? Why, yes, but its earned that right. It showcases the illness in a way that's personal, but not merciless, and all the pain we feel comes right from the eyes of Giamatti who really makes you love this schmuck.

I don't imagine this film will hit it off with American audiences. Unfortunately, a man of Giamatti's physical specimen will probably never be able to lead a hit film. The film was just nominated for an Academy Award for its make-up, a nomination that is so just that I'm surprised that it actually happened. But the film was made in Montreal, so perhaps those Canadians care little for Oscar gold, since a formidable campaign was never really shown. It is the kind of film that is right up the Academy's alley: quirky and unique in its own way, but dealing with topics (disease, dated costumes, marriage) that they love to dig their teeth into. Well, like Barney, I don't exactly see Giamatti enjoying putting on the tux for a Sunday night.