Monday, March 31, 2008


Watching Stop Loss, the new film from writer-director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) was a frustrating experience for several reasons. Both the talent and the story that are provided here had the potential for a much better movie, and yet the movie falls just short of being recommendable, which is almost as bad as if the movie were simply terrible, with no redeeming qualities. The movie tells the story of a group of soldiers coming home from Iraq and returning to their hometown in Texas where they are met with a warm welcome that serves as a calm before the storm—problems loom on the horizon for all of these young men in combat. Steve (played by Channing Tatum) gets home and seems determined to return to Iraq, obsessed with combat and even digging foxholes in his front lawn in the middle of the night, much to the horror of his fiancée Michelle (a magnificent Abbie Cornish). Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) can't seem to get his shit together, drinking and causing trouble, which leads to his wife throwing him out of the house. And finally, Brandon (Ryan Phillippe) has just been called back (stop-lossed is the name of the government order) for another tour of duty in Iraq, much to his dismay. This final story line, as you may be able to tell from the trailers, is the driving current for much of the narrative.

Let me stop for a moment and say that I am against the Iraq War, but I don't like to say it—or rather, I don't feel like anyone should have to say it. After everything that's happened over the last five years, anyone who thinks that the Iraq War was not a colossal mistake is either in denial, misinformed or blind (or you're the President, who is some combination of all of these characteristics). But the politics behind a movie like Stop Loss won't make it great. The writing and the pacing often seem heavy, with the characters bluntly driving home points about the war that I would hope most people would otherwise gather. This film came from a very personal place (director Kimberly Peirce's brother is in the military and was stop-lossed), but I know that Peirce was capable of making a more nuanced film that shows the politics without resorting to characters who are themselves political mouthpieces. I know this because I've seen Boys Don't Cry, which tackles the subject of homophobia and gay-bashing, yet manages not to be nearly as preachy.

The movie seems torn between telling the story of these soldiers and being a star-vehicle for Ryan Phillippe, who was been getting some press about his performance. He's good—very good, even. Does the film devote too much time to Brandon's story? It's difficult to say. His story is a compelling one. But the result was a great, yet underused ensemble, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Victor Rasuk (please, Hollywood. Give these two roles worthy of them). What's worse is that Channing Tatum inexplicably clocks more screentime than both of them. Not to say that Tatum is a bad actor (I remain undecided), but he could have been served with a little direction. The most impressive and surprising performance here comes from Abbie Cornish--her silence, her expression, her ability to communicate a lot with very little. If Cornish were more famous and if the film itself was better, she might have had a chance at an Oscar nomination come next year. I doubt voters will think enough to look back at Stop Loss a year from now, but who knows? I also never thought they'd be discerning enough to even nominate (let alone award) a performance as smart, quiet and subtle as Tilda Swinton's in Michael Clayton. Hopefully this will lead to more challenging work down the road for Cornish.

Ultimately, this film bites off more than it can chew, trying to cover too many subjects just as important and weighty as the stop-loss storyline, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, the military industrial complex, etc. Even the film's conclusion feels underdeveloped, even if it is inevitable. But there is a lot of good here. Good, not great. But more than anything, we need film's about the Iraq War to be unflinching, honest, even and, yes, great. There are always the ignorant who will somehow equate lack of success for these films with a hair-brained notion that the Iraq war is somehow a good thing. A frightening thought indeed.

Grade: B

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Random Thoughts...More to Come Later

Haven't posted in a while. I said I was going to do this, so I'm going to do it. Next week, I'm seeing Stop Loss (yay!) though early word on the movie is mixed. But I will reserve judgment and post my thoughts on the Kimberly Peirce film here. I just finished a short movie, working on another and trying to put together a feature project (halfway cast so far!) so I'm a busy little beaver. Combine that with the workload from my other classes and graduation coming in May and that leaves me with very little time to post here.

Anyhoo, just a few random thoughts that may or may not manifest themselves into full-blown posts in the days to come.

  • How crappy is that new show with Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose? Seriously. I watched the pilot and I almost cried. As someone who adores both of these actresses, it's actually painful to watch at times. They both deserve so much better and I will definitely be addressing this subject at length in the future...
  • I re-watched the second season of "Big Love" this week. I've heard a lot of talk that this show is boring, which I understand. But I really love it. It requires patience and attention--so much of it is what's going on under the surface, what isn't said. Can't wait until season three.
  • Meet the Browns comes in second this weekend at the box office, losing to Horton Hears a Who! This causes me to ask the question, what do I hate more? Tyler Perry films or adaptations of Dr. Seuss books that in no way resemble their source material? Should I be happy or sad right now? Toss up, really. One should also consider the fact that this time last year, the #1 movie at the box office was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and this was after 300 was at #1 for two weeks in a row. Smells like March at the movies...
  • The cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer reunited to celebrate the series' tenth anniversary (which was actually last year, but whatever). Alyson Hannigan is notably absent. I wonder if there's anything to those rumors about her being pissed off at Sarah Michelle Gellar for quitting and not telling the rest of the cast. She was probably just shooting How I Met Your Mother, as David Boreanaz (also absent) was probably off shooting Bones (heh. Shooting bones. dirty). It's anyone's guess where Anthony Stuart Head was, or if anyone even remembered to call him. Photos can be seen here...
  • Why are there like fifteen trailers for Speed Racer?
  • Yes, I know I'm a terrible person. But "I Know My Kid's a Star" has become my new guilty pleasure. From the horribly aggressive stage parents, to the mortified kids with about as much talent between them to fill a thimble, I'm loving it all. Plus, a show in which Danny Bonaduce is the sanest person is a show I'm watching.
  • RIP Anthony Minghella, Paul Scoffield and Arthur C. Clarke.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Can the Academy Atone for its Sins?

As I look ahead to this year's schedule of movie releases, Gus Van Sant's biopic of slain openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk titled simply Milk stands head and shoulders atop my list of most anticipated films (I will have a more comprehensive list of my most anticipated films later). The film's cast is looking great on paper—Sean Penn as Harvey Milk (say what you will about the man, the actor is still top notch), Josh Brolin (criminally overlooked in the awards arena this past year for No Country for Old Men) as Milk's murderer Dan White, James Franco as Milk's lover (he was great on Freaks and Geeks...right?), with Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna (soon to be featured right here in my Can We Talk About column) to boot. And then there's Mr. Gus Van Sant himself, who at the very least, creates interesting, if flawed work (we're ignoring Psycho for the moment).

Could Milk be the critical hit of 2008?

It is almost impossible to looking forward to November 2008 and Milk without also looking back at 2005 and Brokeback Mountain. Confession time—I'm still bitter about Brokeback's loss to Crash, even though it happened more than two years ago. This is not simply due to my insistence that Brokeback was far and away the best of the five, certainly not to be unseated by Crash. Let me explain. More often than not, my favorite film of the year is not even nominated for best picture. When films like Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind and Chicago win best picture, sure it sucks, but I can get over it and move on because at least there was some indication leading up to the big night that these films would eventually be crowned. But in the case of Brokeback, where it seemed like the Academy might finally get it right and then decided, with no precedent whatsoever, to go so totally wrong, it felt like an incredible tease. Add to that the fact that Brokeback's loss was likely due to widespread homophobia in the Academy (we've all heard the infamous Tony Curtis quote by now) and you make for one very unhappy blogger.


Something's off about this equation...I call shenanigans

If Milk comes anywhere close to living up to its expectations, it may very well be where Brokeback Mountain was three years ago—raking up a slew of awards and honors, that is, not necessarily losing the best picture Oscar (more on that later). If the film does poise itself as a serious Oscar contender, I promise that you will hear talk of the Academy simply rewarding Milk as a means of atoning for the Brokeback loss (whether it does end up being the best film of they year or not). It occurred to me that the Academy is just like young Briony in Atonement. I can picture a bitter, homophobic Academy looking on with unease as Brokeback Mountain flirted dangerously close to being the first “gay” film to win the best picture Oscar, much in the same way that Briony spied Robbie and Cecilia by the fountain and eventually in the library. So a lie was told—the lie that Crash was somehow--in some backwards, fucked up universe--a better film, effectively separating Oscar and Brokeback forever. What a lie it was...

"Crash was the best. I know it was. I saw it with my own eyes"

Years later, with more time for contemplation, maybe there are Academy members looking back and saying “Good God, did we really name Crash best picture? And over Brokeback Mountain?!” After Ledger's death a couple months back, you had a sort of collective amnesia as celebrities (many of them Academy members) spoke up to pay homage to Ledger, and by extension, Brokeback Mountain, his most accomplished performance. Kind of makes you wonder where all these people were back in '05/'06 when both Ledger and his film lost that fateful evening, but that's another issue entirely. There's something in me that thinks there must be some Academy members who realize how Brokeback's loss almost rendered the Academy irrelevant in the eyes of many, including myself. How else would you explain them getting best picture right two years in a row (The Departed and No Country for Old Men, respectively) following the Crash debacle. None of this is to say that Crash is a bad film, because it isn't. Far from it, in fact. It is simply a film that cannot stand up under the weight of the title that is “Best Picture.” It is destined to join the ranks of Ordinary People, Out of Africa, Dances With Wolves and Shakespeare in Love—films only discussed in relation to the more superior films that were unseated so that they may take their place, undeserving in the pantheon of Oscar's best pictures.

Where does this leave the Academy three years after the fact? What is to be done about Milk? Well, let me just say that subject matter is not all. SUBJECT MATTER IS NOT ALL. I say this twice because it bears repeating and many Academy members (I'm sure they read this blog in legion) are likely to scratch their head at this sentiment, querying “Wait, so you're saying that films about mentally challenged people, female boxers with inhuman hearts of gold and biopics about anyone famous/beloved and or recently dead aren't inherently better? How are we supposed to come to a consensus about what is best?!” Like I've said, subject matter is not all. If Paul Haggis had created a film that was somehow better than Ang Lee's, then I would certainly have advocated for a Crash upset. After all, I was hoping that Sideways would upset the steamroll that was Million Dollar Baby or the complicated marital strife of In the Bedroom would pull through and knock A Beautiful Mind on its simplistic, reductive ass. If Revolutionary Road or Doubt or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or some film that hasn't even entered mainstream radar happens to be better than Milk, then by all means have at thee. If a film's subject matter, or more specifically a gay-related subject matter, is all it takes for a film to be considered “best” then I would have been rooting for The Birdcage, Breakfast on Pluto and Kinky Boots to be winning Oscars left and right in their respective years. Brokeback Mountain really could have gone either way. Its source material doesn't lend itself particularly well to film adaptation, but the fact remains that it was still the best film of 2005, whether people in the Academy who voted for Crash admit it or not—whether they are, as Briony stated “Very very sorry for the terrible distress [they] have caused.”

"I am very very sorry for the terrible decision I made. Seriously. Crash over Brokeback?!"

So what's my point? My point is that if Milk is the best, it should be rewarded accordingly. But IF it is the best (or even among the best), expect to see some combination of the following three scenarios.

1.) The film is rewarded across the board, ultimately winning the top prize, with several dissenters, bloggers, critics and pundits (most of whom will be conservative) stating that the only reason the film is winning so much is because of guilt over the Brokeback loss and a general bias in “liberal” Hollywood towards pushing the “gay agenda.” Yawn. Can't you just feel it coming and aren't you already bored?

2.) The film is nominated everywhere, but never wins because of all the reasons stated earlier in this article and many other articles profiling the Brokeback loss. Except this time, they have the excuse that “we don't want to make it look like we're simply trying to make up for Brokeback loss” to hide behind, further obscuring the real issue—widespread homophobia in the supposedly liberal Academy, Hollywood and the nation at large. This will make way for another frontrunner to sweep—possibly Frost/Nixon. It is, after all a biopic and we all know how the Academy is long overdue in rewarding biopics...especially those directed by Ron Howard. Except not. And not. Apropos to nothing, I'm hoping that the lukewarm response (as far as awards attention goes) to Ron Howard's post-Oscar-win offerings (Cinderella Man, anyone? No? Yeah, me neither) indicates that they're done with him for the time being. If by some twisted, horrific turn of events, Opie happens to win another Oscar, I swear I will projective vomit.

3.) The film suffers the same fate as Brokeback—perennially rewarded until Oscar night where it's viciously unseated, at which point this blogger will be forced to bid you adieu as I will most likely die of simultaneous shock, embarrassment and disappointment. Shock at the Academy's idiocy, embarrassment for how unashamed they are of the same and disappointment of what such an event says about the country in which I live.

Of course, number 1 is the ideal scenario, but if Briony's final monologue in
Atonement taught us nothing else, it's that what's done is done. No amount of fictionalization, apologies (real or imagined) and guilt will put right what is already so wrong. A win for Milk would be great, but make no mistake Academy—there is no atoning for what was done to Brokeback.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Octogenarians are Funny...Who Knew?

I recently stumbled upon a series YouTube movie reviews by and elderly twosome who refer to themselves as ReelGeezers. If you haven't already, check it out because it's pretty much the funniest thing I've seen and I'm feverishly trying to find any information that will tell me whether it's a joke. They are Marcia and Lorenzo, supposedly two aging industry insiders (a producer and a screenwriter, respectively). Apparently, they're also Academy members, which kind of makes their segment about the Academy Awards, where they reveal who they think deserves to win and who doesn't, in pretty bad taste. At any rate, in addition to being very funny in the way that they disagree with each other (and forget names and the like), there are actually some honest, insightful observations embedded in there. For instance, in their review of Superbad, Marcia comments that she found a lot of the language offensive and hostile towards women, but she doesn't completely write the movie off, nor does she fail to mention how much she enjoyed Jonah Hill's penile illustrations. She also points out how far we've come that a movie today is able to frankly portray menstruation. Days gone by, I guess. Lorenzo found Superbad to be an honest depiction of teenage male sexuality. Though he hated the penis drawings...go figure. Check it out.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Can We Talk About....Victor Rasuk?

D.O.B: January 15, 1984, New York

Where you know him from: Raising Victor Vargas, Lords of Dogtown, Haven

Ideal Career Trajectory: A continued slew of accomplished performances in good films, indie or otherwise, while doing the occasional “big” movie to keep himself afloat. It could happen, right?

Worst Case Scenario: Perennially forgotten and under-appreciated.

The Rundown:
It was 2004. I had just rented a little movie called Raising Victor Vargas, which was released in '03. To this day I don't think I remember seeing as spirited or as believable a star turn as Victor Rasuk's performance in the film's title role. It was his first credited role in a feature length movie. His performance was spot on—the over-confidence, the machismo, the boldness, all masking something else. And yet, no love outside of a little Independent Spirit Award nomination for “Best Debut Performance.” He was in 2004's Haven, with Orlando Bloom, Bill Paxton and Zoe Saldana. His next “big” film would be 2005's fictionalized portrait of the Z Boys, Lords of Dogtown, helmed by Thirteen director Catherine Hardwicke. The film was a flop, though Rasuk's portrayal of egomaniacal real-life skater, Tony Alva was spot on (even if he was kind of treading familiar territory here). After seeing him in a little-seen, too-cutesy indie I'm Reed Fish, I was fully convinced that the talent and screen presence were the real deal. And though I avoided Feel The Noise, yet another dance movie, I doubt it was worth sitting through, even just for Victor Rasuk. He deserves so much better.

The Solution:
Well, he looks to be on the right track (more on that later). Hopefully years of paying his dues will someday soon land him another leading role that allows him to showcase his talent. And as sickly political as this sounds, a biopic, preferably of someone ugly, gay, dying or some combination of the three is nice, juicy and attention-getting. But kudos to Rasuk, who (for the most part) continues to pick interesting projects, rather than the ones with the biggest payday. He's shown what he's capable of. The ball's in Hollywood's court.

What does the Future Hold:
Victor Rasuk is a very busy man in 2008. Like Kerry Washington, he has a role in the upcoming Life is Hot in Cracktown—a movie whose cast simultaneously excites and frightens me. Big fat “yay” for Kerry Washington, Victor Rasuk, Illeana Douglas and Carly Pope! A slightly more suspicious “hmmm” for Shannyn Sossamon (I've yet to be impressed), Brandon Routh and Quddus(?!?!). Then there's The War Boys, a movie about vigilantes who chase illegal immigrants back to Mexico—intriguing. He will portray Rogelio Acevedo in The Argentine, the first of Steven Soderbergh's two films in 2008 about the life of Che Guevera (portrayed by Benicio Del Toro in both films). Personally, I don't really know what to make of the whole double biopic thing that Soderbergh is doing. I'm cautiously-optimistic at this point, but I'm thinking it'll be another Flags of Our Fathers/ Letters from Iwo Jima scenario, where one is a lot better than the other and they both end up getting screwed. Of course, I'm always hoping it puts Rasuk on the map. But my eyes are on Stop Loss, director Kimberly Peirce's long-awaited follow-up to Boys Don't Cry. Iraq-war movies have not fared particularly well, critically or commercially, but this one is looking to write those wrongs. It's hard to judge the movie's potential and the size of Rasuk's role just based on the trailer, but the cast (Ryan Phillippe, Rasuk, Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt pictured below) combined with Peirce at the helm seem promising enough. There are just two little words that make me nervous--MTV Films. 2008 could be a very pivotal year for Mr. Rasuk indeed. Will Stop Loss break the curse of the Iraq-war movie and make Rasuk a star? Here's hoping...

Will not Funny

There, I said it. It took me a while to come to terms with this, both as someone who until recently, hadn't thought about Will Ferrell in a very long time, and as someone who once upon a time, was an avid fan. I recently saw Semi-Pro, his latest offering under extreme duress. I was told I was a snob (heh, a "pretentious know it all" if you will) for not wanting to see this film. The only other people in the theater besides myself and my kidnapper were a group of boys, no older than thirteen, who had obviously snuck in (more on that later).

I don't know exactly when it was that Will Ferrell stopped being funny...wait, yes I do. It was sometime around here:

This was back in 2004, a year after Old School. I remember watching Anchorman and thinking that something The jokes were landing a bit heavier, the plot was feeling a bit thinner. The one good thing I can say about Anchorman was that it introduced the world to Paul Rudd as a comedic actor--and the payoff from that has been exponential for him. And yes, I suppose it gave Steve Carell a boost he needed, though truth be told, outside of an Office setting I'm getting a little sick of him too. I digress.
I wisely avoided his 2006 offering, Talladega Nights after hearing from a friend "It was kind of funny, but not as good as Anchorman." That was enough for me. The only thing that made Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory (again, watched it under duress) mildly watchable was pairing him against Jon Heder, who is quite possibly the only comedic actor in Hollywood more stale and one-note than Farrell.
After seeing Semi-Pro, I've sort of come to the realization that titles this
post...Will Ferrell isn't funny. It's a Will Ferrell comedy, so you know you're going to get the following staples:

  1. Ferrell yelling, and throwing/kicking/hitting things
  2. Ferrell playing an ultra-macho, blowhard with little to no grasp on reality AND...
  3. Ferrell at least partially naked, inexplicably, contextually or otherwise. I suppose this is actually an extension of #2, because seriously, is there anyone more obsessed with his or her own body than Will Ferrell?
There are probably more, but I won't bother with listing them all, nor will I bother even trying to explain the inane plot of Semi-Pro. It was like watching deleted scenes on the special features of a DVD for a much funnier movie. You kind of chuckle, but ultimately you say "Yeah, I can see why they cut that out." That, and every single scene in the film had almost nothing to do with the scene that preceded it. When a group of thirteen-year-old boys aren't even laughing, is it still pretentious to say that Will Ferrell isn't funny? Can we speak honestly and just admit that it's all getting a little old? Especially since we've seen films like Stranger than Fiction and Winter Passing and know that Will Ferrell can at least kind of act? This left me longing, not for the days of Old School (which was more of the same, we just didn't know it yet). But whatever happened to the Will Ferrell, who played the most popular high school boy in a little film called Superstar? The Will Ferrell who was inventing dances, and barely raised his voice above normal-speaking level (loud does not equal funny. That's painfully clear now). I'm not deluding myself into thinking that Superstar was a piece of comedic genius. But it has more charm than it's given credit for. More than any Will Ferrell movie released since then, and certainly more than Semi-Pro. I'll take Superstar, dance-inventing Will Ferrell over loud, kicking and screaming, retarded temper-tantrum Will Ferrell any day.

You know what, scratch that. I'll take neither.