Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sometimes I Blog...

So, once again I allowed life to sweep me up and away and I haven't blogged in over a month. Grad school has been amazing and challenging (and quite the time-suck), so I have an excuse. Plus (ahem) I premiered my feature film in Atlanta. I'm not one for hyperbole, but seeing a feature film I directed on the big screen, as well as having the title of my film on the marquee of a theater that I've been going to for years made for the best night of my very young life. But enough about me...

So, awards season has already started. There's no point in even posting the BFCA, Globe, NBR or SAG nominees at this point. You've heard about them ad-nauseum elsewhere by now. I plan to post reviews/mini-reviews of films I've seen recently (Up in the Air, The Road, Invictus, Avatar, Brothers, etc). I have to run down my list, but I'm fairly certain I have a little under ten films left that I absolutely need to see. I'll be posting more in the next few weeks.

Peace, Love and Pretension.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Up in the Air with Reitman and other thoughts

I just saw Up in the Air yesterday. I can't talk about it too much (my thoughts are too fresh on it for the moment) but let's say...I enjoyed it. It's pretty much impossible not to. Let me just say, regarding the Oscar talk, people are right about...

Clooney. His very recent win for Syriana, plus the fact that some will read this performance as easy effortless for Clooney, PLUS the Colin Firth/Jeff Bridges factor will likely prohibit him from winning. But he should snag his third nomination, no problem.

Anna Kendrick. She's plucky and funny (two things that often get you noticed in the supporting actress category) and she brings layers to what is essentially a caricature. In a category that only seems to have one lock (Mo'Nique for Precious) and one "probably" (Julianne Moore for A Single Man) I don't see how Kendrick misses here, what with the Nine ladies causing confusion left and right with this Cotillard lead/supporting mess.

I'm less sure about...

Vera Farmiga. Her performance is a lot quieter than Kendrick's and she suffers (**spoiler alert**) the unlikeable character conundrum, which tends to hurt women more than men. I may be wrong, but I'm not thinking she gets nominated for this.

Picture. I know it's a ten-wide field, but I could still see Up in the Air missing. It's not the total slam-dunk it's being built up to be. The film's third act almost collapses under the weight of everything before it. The tonal shifts provide a sort of narrative whiplash. It's not going to be a massive crowd-pleaser like Juno (again, I could be wrong, and maybe projecting a little in this case). What could potentially help Up in the Air is its own perceived relevance to the current economic recession. Potentially. But (without going into too much detail), I'll say that that's problematic in and of itself and I'm sure a lot more reviewers will discuss this at length after the movie is released. All of these comments seems to suggest that I liked the movie a lot less than I did, by the way. It's a good film.

Other thoughts:

Reitman can light up a room. He speaks very honestly about his experiences as a filmmaker and I didn't detect one trace of bullshit or entitlement, even when people asked him incredibly stupid questions. He's also very charming and funny, in a way that's completely unforced and unaffected. Kind of like how I imagine Clooney to be, honestly (aside: I know people read Clooney's coolness as smugness, but I don't...or if I do, I'm okay with it. He has the talent in front of and behind the camera to back it up. And I believe that infamous 2005 Oscar speech came from a place of genuine sentiment about how proud he is to work in what he feels is an increasingly progressive industry. It's not his fault that the Academy underwrote everything he said by giving best picture to Crash a couple of hours later. aside over). Reitman has also managed to make three good feature films at a relatively young age. It may not be for this film, but if he ever gets a chance to get up on stage, I think we'd be in for a great Oscar speech. Specific, funny and personal the likes we haven't seen since Ms. Swinton. I hope he presses on.

Full Review to Come


****Apropos to nothing, I feel it prudent to publish a mea culpa regarding my post about Lady Gaga. What can I say? The gal is talented. I concede. Sure, nearly every one of her fans I've encountered is a culturally-anorexic queen who's also currently in line to buy tickets for the new Twilight movie. But I'm not going to hold that against her. There's a right way to be pretentious and a wrong way. I'm a firm believer in hate fanboys, not the phenomenon. Mostly, I just got caught up in the fact that Perez Hilton likes her in a "friend of my enemy is my enemy" sort of way. Je suis désolé, Gaga.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Maggie

May you stay just as you are.



I made you a little cake.


What? It's not "Magaggie's" birthday?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The worst trailer I've seen...this week

So, the trailer for Dear John, starring Amanda Seyfried, Channing Tatum and directed by Lasse Halstrom is up on Apple. Oh, and it's based on a Nicholas Sparks novel...
I am at a loss for words as to how unbelievably trite/stupid this movie looks.

"She's a good girl who's inexperienced in love. He's the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks with a sensitive side that only she can get to. Oh, and he's a surfer. And his father is dying. And then he's fighting in Iraq(?) for some reason. And...go!"

Seriously, doesn't it seem like they make this movie every year? Furthermore, hasn't Nicholas Sparks himself written novels that have inspired something like three or four movies EXACTLY like this? A Walk to Remember, The Notebook and now this. I'm forced to ask, is Nicholas Sparks even a real person? Perhaps he's just the name of a computer that's programmed to write the same stupid romance novel over and over again with slightly different character names and settings. I see the words "From the author of The Notebook" in a movie trailer and I just...deflate.

And then there's Lasse Halstrom, the director who hasn't given us a halfway decent film since What's Eating Gilbert Grape? With his almost preternatural penchant for hokum and syrupy-sweet dramatics, this is exactly the type of project Halstrom should be forbidden to work on for the same reason Robin Williams should be forbidden from any movie that forces/allows him to do a "funny" accent. This material only serves to further indulge all of Halstrom's worst impulses as a filmmaker.

All I'm saying is that when Amanda Seyfried can't even get my ass into a seat, then be afraid because I LOVE Amanda Seyfried. I have the Mamma Mia! ticket stub to attest to this fact.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Oscar Race...What's still up in the air?

Many months after the announcement that there will be ten best picture nominees, rather than the usual five and people are still in a tizzy. What will make it in? What won't? This is It and Star Trek are clearly locks, right? And what about Paranormal Activity? Surely they'll have room for that in a ten-wide field. These are all things I've actually heard from people who follow the Oscars, believe it or not. But one thing I've learned is that (even from myself) is the following the Oscars doesn't mean that you always understand them. There is still much to be discovered in the way of best picture fodder. If my top ten list were to come out today, it'd probably look a little something like this:

1. Up
2. Precious
3. Inglourious Basterds
4. The Hurt Locker
(though I need to see this again, and if they want a really good shot at an Oscar campaign, the people behind this movie better be planning a DVD release or a theatrical re-release very soon).
5. An Education
followed by a very VERY big leap. From there we have.
6. Moon
7. Away we Go
8. The Girlfriend Experience

9. Drag me to Hell
10. 500 Days of Summer

Being in grad school this past year, I have missed a lot of things. I missed Julie and Julia. Should I see it? I'm going be playing catchup this month. I still need to see Antichrist and Bright Star, probably in that order as they are both likely to be out of theaters soon (the former moreso than the latter). I need to see Where the Wild Things Are and A Serious Man. Pronto. I'll be seeing Up in the Air later this week for school, so luckily that's taken care of. Here's my thoughts on the majors.

1. Best Picture

Although there are going to be ten nominees, and I'm aware they have to come from some place, these are the only three I've seen that I think are assured a spot:
Up
Precious
and
The Hurt Locker

I think anything else is vulnerable. An Education seems likely, but it's so slight. I could very easily see buzz, outside of Mulligan, drying up when its time to cast ballots. The word on Up in the Air seems to be "lock" but having not seen it, and having lived through enough Pay it Forwards in my day to be weary of early buzz, I'm reserving judgment. Call me crazy, but I think Precious might just win. Like Slumdog Millionaire, the people who like it love it. And unlike Sulumdog Millionaire, it has the benefit of being locked up for at least two acting nominations and a probable win. The only thing against it that I can see right now is Oprah's endorsement. She's so divisive outside of the housewife set, that Oprah. Of the yet to be released films, obviously Nine, The Last Station, The Lovely Bones, Invictus, etc, etc. These could all easily factor in. Having now seen two Avatar trailers, I must say there's a disconnect where I'm concerned regarding all this Oscar talk. Why? Because it's James Cameron? Am I the only one who thinks Avatar looks a little...silly? Call it a hunch, and I'll be reading my mea culpa if I'm wrong, but I don't think it will factor into the race in a major way.

Best Director

Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and Lee Daniels (Precious) are (probably) good to go. I can't say the same about Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) having not seen his film, but if it's as well received as the buzz is suggesting, he should have no problem here, being a former nominee. Outside of those three...search me. Can't count out Eastwood, I suppose, though he was overlooked (rightly so) last year for work that I'm not sure was all that much worse than the stuff he's been recognized for. Anything can happen here.

Best Actor

So, it's Clooney (Up in the Air) probably Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker). Then we have Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela in a Clint Eastwood movie. Unless Invictus is a total suckfest, I don't see how Freeman doesn't coast to an easy nomination here. Colin Firth is feeling the buzz for Tom Ford's A Single Man, but buzz for the film itself is mixed. Will that hurt him? Who knows. This category is still very nebulous as well.

Best Actress

Three of the five spots are already locked up. Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia), Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Gabby Sidibe (Precious) are locked and loaded, ready to go. Done. The question is, who will win? A lot of people are saying Streep. Having not seen this film yet, I cannot comment, but the word and the vibe I'm getting is that the movie is far too slight for her to win. Why give Streep the third Oscar for this film? Surely, she has another Silkwood or Postcards from the Edge left in her, right? I'm almost sure of it. Then there's Mulligan. Young, British and lovely...which means surely she'll be here again. Sidibe, as great as she was in Precious, will be nearly impossible to cast again in Hollywood. The precursors will tell us a lot in this race. Whoever ends up getting the trophy probably won't "sweep." Mulligan and Sidibe will be battling it out for those breakthrough awards and critical prizes. It'll be tight, but I think it's a two-way race between these two young upstarts, with a slight edge to Sidibe.

Best Supporting Actor

I won't even pretend as if I have any clue about this category. I loved Christoph Waltz and Alfred Molina in their respective films, but I'm not buying the buzz for either of them at this point. Wide open spaces.

Best Supporting Actress

Only one spot is locked up here and that's Mo'Nique for Precious. And she's going to win. Signed, sealed, delivered. It's hers. If Julianne Moore gets nominated for A Single Man, there will be talk of her as a potential spoiler. But alas, she'll only be Peter O'Toole to Mo'Nique's Forest Whittaker. Gone are the days when the Jaye Davidson shocker loses to the Gene Hackman snoozefest in the supporting categories. They want big, flashy and outlandish for the most part, particularly in supporting actress. Supporting actress winners generally come in these varieties:

1. There's the "Check out the mouth on her! Can she say that?" Bold, brash ladies who steal the show in their one or two scenes with their attention getting one-liners and moxy.
(See Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aprhodite, Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love etc. etc. etc.)

2. There's the "Everything (or much) about this film seems designed around me winning an Oscar" performance. Leads masquerading about supporting performances often win here as well.
(See Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls and Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain)

and 3. The bad seeds/villainess/otherwise monstrous performances.
(see Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton...an interesting twist on this one, Anna Paquin in The Piano...naughty naughty and Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain...I was terrified).

Mo'Nique arguably fits all three, n'est pas? The good news, she's actually deserving.

There is still much to see, and who knows how this whole thing will play out. I will say that I don't think the ten-wide best picture list will last long. They can't do away with it next year (they don't want to look THAT stupid) but I give it four, five years max before they're back to five.

Precious

written by Geoffrey Fletcher (based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire)
directed by Lee Daniels
starring: Gabourey "Gabby" Sibidbe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Sherri Shepherd

The nickname Precious, which has been given to Claireece Jones (Sidibe), presumably by her mother, almost serves as a sick, tongue-in-cheek joke that runs throughout this film. Very little in this film is precious (quite intentionally). Watching this film, it's hard for the viewer to even imagine Claireece's monstrous mother Mary (played with frightening bravura by Mo'Nique) gifting her with such a lovely nickname, reflective of her love for her daughter. Regardless of one's opinion of this film, it is certainly one of the most arresting moviegoing experiences in recent memory. I yawned and nodded off several times during Paranormal Activity, but I sat up with fear, feeling goosebumps form on my arm each time Mary yelled "Precious."

This story of an illiterate obese Harlem teenager in the 1980s, pregnant by her father for the second time, harangued and ridiculed at school, and verbally and physically beaten down by her abusive mother is not for the faint of heart, and is no movie of the week. The elements are certainly there. There's the saintly teacher at the alternative high school, determined to breakthrough to her (Paula Patton as Ms. Blu Rain) and the caring but tired social worker Ms. Weiss (played with aplomb by Mariah Carey). It easily could have been saccharine and hackneyed, if not for how beautifully it is made. Films like this are rarely a showcase for cinematographers, but Andrew Dunn manages to experiment, being imaginative and artful without being too showy. There are a few exceptions. Precious often escapes into her own fantasies, where she is a runway model, a movie star, a heroine in a Vittorio De Sica film along with her mother. If the film is ever treading too close to the edge of the cliff, it is during these sequences, but it is no matter. The stark, harrowing realism of the rest of the film jolts you back to reality so fast, much in the same way that I imagine it does for Precious.

Every performance in this film is absolutely pitch perfect. I read Push, the novel that is the basis for the film, weeks before I ever saw a trailer. I thought to myself, the only way they can find an actress to portray Precious, downtrodden, close-mouthed, eyes on the floor as if afraid to look at the horror before her, is to find Precious herself. Sidibe's Precious Jones evokes images of Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar. So terse, yet conveying so much pain and internal struggle. Every word spoken is labored, every smile a miracle, as if the desire or need to do either has been frightened and beaten out of her. And yet, Sidibe is not Precious. She's big, yes. But the comparison ends there. She's bubbly, friendly. She was popular in high school, and her voice and cadence are reminiscent of the girl at the beginning of the Sir-Mix-a-Lot song "Oh my God, Becky. Look at her butt. It is so big..." She delved deep into this character and navigates the emotions and archs that Precious herself lacks the language to communicate, eking out a rich characterization that never falters, never missteps.

Mo'Nique is terrifying as Mary, who has her daughter trapped in a sick co-dependent relationship. She needs Precious to make her meals, buy her cigarettes and to act as a punching bag to deflect the spectacular failure that is her own life. At every glimmer of potential, possibility and light in Precious's life, Mary seems sadly determined to snuff it out. She cannot and will not allow her daughter to rise above the conditions that trapped her. And her failure to stop Precious precipitates her emotional breakdown at the end of the film, which could have served to engender misplaced sympathy in a lesser film. Here, the character is so well understood that it only serves to reinforce to the reader how horribly, how pathetically Mary has failed and betrayed Precious both as a mother and as a fellow human being. She envelopes the film, even in the scenes where she is absent as a dark, ominous cloud. It is one for the ages.

I had my defense up going into this film. It was almost impossible not to. Firstly, the last time people went out in droves and raved about the little film that could, that film was called Slumdog Millionaire. And I'm sorry to that film's fans, but...I just wasn't there. It's strange to be on the other side of the hype, much as I was with Juno (an aside: Juno was a fine film. The problem is, once it got popular, it became uncool to like it, and heaven help you if your film choices make you look uncool. I still contend that the people who hated it and the people who raved about it are two sides of the same coin in that they both made way too much of a fuss). Secondly, I'm weary (probably unfairly so) of anything that gets Oprah's seal of approval. Maybe that's because I suspect that any movement or cultural phenomena led by Oprah mostly serves to call attention to Oprah. And Tyler Perry...don't get me started. I'm glad he recognizes that this movie is "so powerful," as he states in the film's second trailer. By the way, I think it's strange that Perry and Winfrey felt the need to stick their talking heads in the trailer. Their names are already becoming synonymous with the film. Then I remembered that Perry puts "Tyler Perry's" before the title of every movie he makes, and Oprah Winfrey is...well, Oprah Winfrey. Some people always need a stage, you know? Precious almost feels like a film that Perry himself would never have the balls to make, because it doesn't end with Precious forgiving Mary and the two of them going to church. But it is unfair to judge this film on these factors, very extrinsic to its quality and luster (although people will). I will say this. Oprah's insistence that Precious exists in all of us, while a sweet sentiment, is not what one should take away from this film. I think "For Precious girls everywhere," which appears at the end of the film, is a better and more accurate read of what this film is trying to say. We are NOT all Precious. Precious is someone that most of us don't see. She's someone we ignore. She's someone we dismiss and don't think about, possibly because we don't care, possibly because it's too painful to fathom. This is Precious's story, FINALLY. This IS for Precious girls everywhere.

Grade: A-

An Education

written by Nick Hornby
directed by Lone Scherfig
starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Cara Seymour and Sally Hawkins

An Education is highly enjoyable and serviceable on nearly every level, but is it more than that? My uncertainty is due to the awesome power of its central performance from relative newcomer Carey Mulligan. She plays Jenny, the young woman whose education (in more forms than one) is the central focus of this film. She is sixteen, British, intelligent and willful. Alas, it is the sixties and there are only so many suitable predestined paths for her to choose...and none of them look appealing to the young adventurer. In walks David Goldman (Sarsgaard) an older man determined to show her a different kind of education. One of culture, music, sex and excitement. But like so many things in life wrapped in a package like Peter Sarsgaard, all is not as it seems.

Mulligan is absolutely bewitching as young Jenny. She expresses the heroine's quick, acerbic wit with not just her words. What this young woman does with a look, a smile that seems to know more than she speaks, and a gesture as simple as smoking a cigarette speaks volumes. As stated earlier, so good is Mulligan's performance that it almost distracts from how...something...this film is. Oh, what's the word I'm looking for? Jenny, a whiz at English (though she detests Latin) wouldn't have trouble finding the words. Wispy? Wispy as all get out? That seems to apply here.

I saw this movie over a month ago, and while Mulligan's performance refuses to let go, still burning bright in my memory, the movie comes across as slight and almost feathery. The film's third act seems almost fairytale-esque in its tying together of all the loose ends. "Oh no...David's a thief and a liar and he's married! And I've dropped out of school to be with him! What's a girl to do?" Apparently there's nothing that a quick meeting with Emma Thompson (perfectly stiff and entertaining in a delicious cameo) followed by a studying montage with Olivia Williams can't solve. I say this not to be harsh. I enjoyed this film immensely, but I enjoyed it because of Mulligan and the other actors breathing so much life into their characters. Rosamund Pike shines as the girlfriend of David Goldman's partner in crime (played by Dominic Cooper, who's also fine). Alfred Molina has moments of genuine humor as Jenny's stale father. And Olivia Williams does hot school teacher with her hair pinned up like nobody's business. Even Sally Hawkins, in her one scene, reaffirms that she was robbed of an Oscar nomination last year as she spins gold with a few lines and five minutes of screentime.

In a ten-wide best picture field, An Education will likely ride Mulligan's coattails all the way to a best picture nomination. And in a year that has yet to birth many really stunners, it may be deserving in a field so wide. But this is all, once again, a testament to Mulligan. She carries the film on her back, sometimes in a school girl's uniform in the rain, sometimes in heals, sometimes while making the most horrible discoveries about the men she loves and she never once breaks a sweat.

Grade: B

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
starring: Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Eli Roth and Diane Kruger (among others)

This is a little late, I know. But this is a film that I cannot NOT write a review about, even if I did see it for the first time more than two months ago, and for the second time a little over three weeks ago. While there are some releases that I can merely slap a grade on, and otherwise ignore altogether (State of Play are your ears burning?) I cannot do that with this particular film. Regardless of your thoughts on Basterds and Tarantino in general, his films refuse to be brushed away and ignored, so audacious they are in their sensibilities. I'm not a Tarantino loyalist, but he has never made an uninteresting film. That's not a feat to which even many of my favorite filmmakers can lay claim (most of the good ones have a few Intolerable Cruelties for every Fargo they manage to crank out).

Inglourious Basterds begs in nearly every conceivable way to be polarizing, and I've yet to decide:
A. If that's a good thing
and
B. If that matters.

Several things are clear when watching this film. First of all, for all the accusations Tarantino receives for being a blowhard who is in love with his own writing, one can't deny his ability to write incredibly engaging and arresting scenes. The opening, a showcase for Christoph Waltz, scoops on tension like big mounds of dairy creme (not an arbitrary simile for those of us who have seen the film), until it all but collapses in on itself...in a good way (does that make sense?). And that scene in the basement? It read as mildly obnoxious the first go round, yet perfectly paced and beautifully acted the second time. It also made me think of Diane Kruger as an actress for the first time (actually it made me think of her for the first time). Secondly, Tarantino always surrounds himself with a good crew. The production designers should all receive a medal and maybe a cash prize for their work here, and if an Oscar nomination is not forthcoming, then they should rethink the entire ceremony entirely. Thirdly, the film's shameless rewriting of history serves as a great litmus test. Your response to the fact that it is not a factual accounts of events that took place "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France," very much informs your response to the entire film. When watching the trailers, this aspect bugged the shit out of me. Tarantino sticks to his guns, though. The concept, as ridiculous and farcical as it is, never wavers a little bit, even as the movie clocks in at well over two and a half hours. The result is a highly enjoyable, well-executed film that's not without its faults, of which there are several.

Melanie Laurent's Shosanna (a terrific turn) doesn't get a fully realized arc, as her character never gets to have her "big moment" that the film is steadily building to. Avoiding obligatory scenes is often refreshing and enhancing for a film (think of No Country for Old Men where the climax actually takes place off-screen). Other times, there's just nowhere else to go, so much so that avoiding said scenes feels obnoxious and patently false. Then there are the Basterds themselves, so smugly giddy and cool, for they are in on the joke with Tarantino. Am I falsely talking about the Basterds when I should be talking about the actors that portray them (Pitt, Roth, BJ Novak, Samm Levine, etc, etc, etc)? Perhaps. A better question: Is there a difference? I think the lines are quite blurred here, particularly in the case of Brad Pitt who has never been more distractingly Brad Pitt than he is in this film (and remember, I actually like the guy). Pitt's tongue is so firmly wedged in cheek, that he may as well be winking as he reads his lines. I laughed, certainly. But he mostly served as a diversion from the story, which is surprisingly rich and intricate (or rather moreso than the trailer would leave you to believe).

None of these elements act as such a detriment to the film as a whole, probably because they are excesses and the film is arguably one big exercise in cinematic excess. But it is a glorious one at that. The criticisms of this film are hard to have missed. Its celebration of violence, its rewriting of history (already addressed) and the presence of Eli Roth (about which I remain conflicted for reasons I won't divulge here). The most interesting I heard was that "it takes a serious topic, like the Holocaust, and makes it into something fun and exciting." And I've heard this from more than one person, believe it or not. Inglourious Basterds is no more a film about the Holocaust than Gone with the Wind is a film about slavery. In both cases, the larger historical event only informs the events in their respective films in the most tangential way...so that argument sort of falls apart under a microscope, dontcha think?

Grade: B+ (though I'm leaning towards A-)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Reviews to Come...

Wow...I haven't posted a movie review since July. That's shameful. I'm in grad school, and it takes up a lot of my time. Still...no excuse. I will be posting my thoughts on An Education and Inglourious Basterds (an oldie, I know) but both are films that I have strong feelings about. I'm also starting a new blog, where I will be posting my random thoughts, as they do NOT pertain to popular culture. So there is more to come. I promise...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lady Gaga...I'm not Buying it.


Lady Gaga bothers me...okay, that's not exactly true. I don't really feel one way or another about Lady Gaga. I don't love her. I don't hate her. What bothers me about her is very indicative of what bothers me with the modern gay rights movement in general. What bothers me is the way she's suddenly been appointed grand marshal of the gay rights movement. I wish the community was more capable of some complex, analytical though. I wish that all the gay men fawning over Lady Gaga were able to look at her, break her down into digestible parts and see her for what she is. Perez Hilton will publish photos of Lady Gaga in her crazy getups, and praise her being artistic and "ferosh." Really? Silly me. Here I was thinking that being an artist means having something to say that's intelligent/ culturally resonant. If slapping on some glitter eye-liner, a shimmery thong and an Indian headress made of dildos makes you an artist, then it's pretty easy to be an artist. Kind of diminishes it for the rest of the artists, that distinction that's been bestowed upon Ms. Gaga. I know that Lady Gaga has made several public speeches uplifting the gay community, and promoting gay rights. But that doesn't make her some great humanitarian. That makes her smart. No shit, Sherlock. You mean someone whose top singles are titled "Let's Dance" and "Paparazzi" can't afford to alienate the gay community? Stop the presses! Yeah, I know. Supposedly, she can actually sing and play the piano. I know she was accepted to Julliard. Props. But that's Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta we're talking about. Not Lady Gaga. I don't buy into the Lady Gaga myth. As "shocking" as her outward appearance is, if you listen to her music, you'll hear how innocuous and silly it is. She's not saying anything radical or important that warrants the facade she puts forth. It just comes off as laughably desperate to me. "Look at me! Aren't I outrageous?" No. Not really, actually. Bjork is outrageous. Bjork is a freak. She dresses freaky, she does freaky things and she makes freaky music that upsets some people. But if you take away the first part, she's still freaky. I don't really have a lot of patience for people who wear everything that makes them interesting on the outside. From Lady Gaga, to the hipster chicks in suspenders and vintage lunch boxes for purses in East Atlanta--two sides of the same obnoxious coin. Bjork earns her crazy appearance but you can kind of only pull that off if you're an artist in every aspect of your life. And most real artists don't need it. Look at Lenny Bruce, Cat Stevens, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, Richard Pryor, Ernest Hemingway. These people all dressed very plainly. Why is that? Perhaps because they were too busy turning heads with their IDEAS to worry about which outfit would turn the most heads at the Video Music Awards.

Her music sure is catchy though.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I'm Not Dead!

Hello all (and by all, I mean the three people who read this blog). Blog abandonment is a silly thing. I've done it before. I shan't do it again! I will continue to post here more regularly, even though I am now in grad school in sunny California. I hope to continue my usual postings (reviews, commentary and whatnot). I've seen a lot of movies since I last posted, and will provide grades along the sidebar as per usual. As for full length reviews...we shall see (I have a lot of catching up to do.) But I assure you, I am not dead!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

My Sister's Keeper


directed by Nick Cassavetes
written by Jeremy Leven (adapted from the novel by Jodi Picoult)
starring: Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin, Jason Patric, Sofia Vassilieva and Evan Ellingson

I cried during Silkwood when the soft sound of Meryl Streep's voice singing "Amazing Grace" is placed against the scene of her character's eventual demise, as a tearful Cher sits in the window of a diner. I cried during Sarah Polley's haunting monologue at the end of The Sweet Hereafter. I cried during Terms of Endearment when Debra Winger said goodbye to her sons because she was dying of (wait for it) cancer. I preface my review of My Sister's Keeper with all of this information to show that I have no problem with films designed (in one way or another) to evoke tears, nor do I have a problem with cancer as an agent for said device. I cried during My Sister's Keeper. But I didn't feel good about it. It felt cheap. The entire movie feels cheap, and manipulative. I'm not made of stone, but one of my friends who lost her father to leukemia less than a year ago leaned over to me and said "This shit is lame." So, there you have it. Surprise, surprise: The image of a girl with terminal cancer in a prom dress and a wig asking her father if she looks pretty is sad. But it's hardly more than that.

The film centers around the Fitzgerald family. Parents Brian and Sara (Jason Patric and Cameron Diaz) have devoted their lives to saving their daughter Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) who has leukemia and was not expected to live beyond five. She is now fifteen at the beginning of the film, thanks in huge part to the second daughter named Anna (Abigail Breslin) who they genetically engineered for spare parts. In the course of her young life, Anna has donated skin, bone marrow and blood to save her sister's life. Now Kate is in renal failure, and Anna is expected to donate a kidney. Tired of being an organ bank for her older sister, she hires a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) to sue her parents for medical emancipation, meaning that she would stay under their care, but it would be her decision whether she still wants to be operated on for the sake of saving her sister's life.

The premise itself sounds interesting enough, and I'm almost curious to read the book to see if the film is already behind an 8-ball from the start. The whole thing seems incredibly slapped together and unfocused. The film itself doesn't know what it's about. The film is told largely through flashbacks that I guess are meant to give us glimpses into the Fitzgerald's life. But they really don't put the lawsuit (which...isn't that meant to be the focus?) into any kind of perspective for the viewer. You know everything that's going to happen at least five minutes before it actually does. That's not a good thing.

I remember that Dakota Fanning got some flack after she dropped out of this film (she was the original choice to play Kate, along with her sister Elle Fanning, who was to play Anna). People said it was because she refused to shave her head for the role. Maybe that was only a half truth. Maybe she was unwilling to shave her head and put that much dedication into a project that, by all rights, was better off on Lifetime. I know that it's Breslin who has an Oscar nomination under her belt, but I think that with time, we'll find that it's Fanning who will emerge as the more interesting actresses with more longevity. This is due in part because of the roles she chooses to take and not take (save Push). She's more adventurous than Breslin, I think, who I'm worried about, especially after seeing this film. An early scene in the dining room when the family's talking about Anna's decision to sue sticks out like a sore thumb and an example of really labored thesp-ing where we catch all of the actors "acting" (especially Breslin). I've read review after review that tries to make apologies for Cameron Diaz's performance. I am not one in particular who likes to overlook the possibility that she's not a very good actress...some people with her staying power aren't. Granted, she suffers from an unlikable and underwritten character. That's fine. She's not the first person to encounter such a task. But look at the way Joan Allen tackles Terri Wolfmeyer in The Upside of Anger, or how Tilda Swinton tackles Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton. Those are two underwritten female characters, but those actress brought layers and notes to the table, fashioning fascinating character studies and the best female performances of their respective years. Cameron Diaz may simply be incapable.

I'm getting just a little bit frustrated with Nick Cassavetes. Everyone of his movies has just been so...deeply disappointing in one way or another. More baffling is people's reactions to his films. I'm talking about those people who loved The Notebook and insist it's a great film (an aside: those people should seriously watch Away from Her, which is what you would get if you performed reconstructive surgery on The Notebook and lipsuctioned out all the fat).

Apropos to nothing (like many of the plotpoints in this film, actually) the role of a brother (younger, or maybe older?) played by Evan Ellingson is a complete afterthought, and almost feels CGI'd into the rest of the film. Long, lingering segments of him sneaking out of the house and walking the city streets in the middle of the night pepper the narrative. Why? Is he a hustler? Has the stress of his home life caused him to whore himself out for attention, a la Severine in Belle du Jour? Now there's an interesting movie.

Grade: D+

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Away We Go

Directed by Sam Mendes
written by David Eggers and Vendela Vida
starring (deep breath now): John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Josh Hamilton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Carmen Ejogo, Melanie Lynskey, Chris Messina and Paul Schneider (and exhale)

There is a moment during Away We Go, the fifth film by director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) where I leaned over to my friend and said "this isn't winning me over so far." It was very early on in the film. Less than ten minutes later, my defenses started to wear down and I was swept up in the utter beauty, not of this film (which is often beautiful) but of the main characters Burt and Verona (played with endearing earnestness and soft complexity by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, respectively). Their situation isn't always ideal, but their placement in relation to one another absolutely is, without a doubt. Should I want love, that's the kind of love I want. This film has been called many things, an indie-101 dramedy, a road-trip movie, a tired retread. It is, at its heart, a love story. That's what drives the film. That's what makes it work, and it does, rather spledidly, despite all of the things that beg it not to.

Verona and Burt are an unmarried thirty-something couple expecting their first child together. After Burt's parents (their only nearby relatives played by Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) announce plans to move to Antwerp, Belgium, the couple (at Verona's urging) decides to go on a journey all over North America looking for the perfect place to raise their family. The result is several different vignettes, titled "Away to Tuscon," and "Away to Montreal," etc. Burt is a space, yet intelligent man and is fiercely devoted to Verona. He wants their unborn daughter to have what he describes as a "Huck-finnish" upbringing. Verona loves Burt fiercely as well. But she is nervous about what kind of mother she will be, and nervous about their lack of roots. Her pregnancy has also brought on feelings of sadness about the death of her parents when she was in her early twenties. Verona refuses to marry Burt, but we never get the impression that it's because she doesn't love him. She says "I just don't see the point" and we believe her. A lesser film, or at least a more obvious one, would have made this a source of conflict between Verona and Burt. But both the director and the screenwriters know and love these characters too much to swim into those predictable waters.

On their journey, Verona and Burt encounter many different incarnations of the family. They see Verona's younger sister (Carmen Ejogo) unsure about an impending relationship, much like Verona herself. There is a couple in Montreal who has adopted several children of all ages in races (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey). An alcoholic woman in Tuscon who demeans her husband and children loudly and in public for her own amusement (Allison Janney), and a new age childhood family friend of Burt's named LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who refuses to put her children in strollers. Many people are dismissing this film as cheap, smug liberalism--the kind that advocates for different types of family, shameless shoving its liberal, NPR, McSweeney's values in your face (writers David Eggers and Vendela Vida write for McSweeney's). These are the same people who likely said the same thing about the multiculturalism in Rachel Getting Married--those who were distracted by it. It's a real shame, because in both cases, you miss what's great by focusing on said aspect. And it doesn't shove the values of these people down our throats as necessary or better than the typical nuclear family. For instance, LN is a college professor whose New Age attitude is wrapped in pretension, ignorance and racism. There is a moment when she says to Verona "Was it hard losing your parents? Your people have such a rich oral history." Before I worked in Candler Park--a liberal hippie enclave of Atlanta, Georgia, I would have said that LN was overwritten and that people like her don't exist. But her character rings very true to me, and I'm so glad that someone has finally addressed (maybe not finally) that white liberal racism may not be "worse" than white conservative racism, but it's certainly more obnoxious. Or what of the Montreal couple and their mixed race brood? Are they happy that they have created their own "United Colors of Benneton" family? Perhaps. Clearer is their devastation that they cannot conceive children of their own. Then there's Burt's brother (the always welcome Paul Schneider) who had the traditional nuclear family, and whose wife has just left him alone to raise their young daughter. It may seem simple and obvious, but the ultimate point is that none of these situations or families are ideal for anyone, especially Burt and Verona. For it isn't circumstance and surroundings that create family. It is only the people.

The cinematograpy here is top notch, never distracting as it takes on different landscapes and vistas of North America. Alexi Murdoch's music underscores the film perfectly, adding a warmth to it, much in the way that a great garnish caps off a great dish. The film isn't dependant on Murdoch's guitar and vocals to drive home the higher emotional points of the film, unlike other films that utilize music in this way.

I loved these performances. John Krasinski ups his game considerably, and you never doubt his enthusiasm or his devotion to his family. But the real best-in-show here is Maya Rudolph, whose subdued, understated performance may just be the film's saving grace. Pregnant women on film are sometimes difficult to handle. They are often written and directed as being too stereotypically pregnant, and their pregnancy serves as the first and foremost character trait. It's clear that Verona is written, directed and played as a flesh and blood woman first, pregnant second. And yet, Maya Rudolph handles it all with aplomb. If one pays attention, there are a lot of different character details that she has to hold on to, from the pregnancy, to the death of the parents, to her insecurities about her financial situation, to her fears about life with Burt. She never loses focus or consistency. A role like this could have been handled disastrously by a less imaginative actress, or a "louder" actress--one who isn't very skilled at the intricacies of internalized emotions. Rudolph knows exactly what she's doing here.

There are moments when I cried during this film. But they weren't cheap tears, and the characters weren't necessarily crying with me. A lot of the emotion this film evokes is richly earned and never feels cheap. That is a rarity.

Grade: B

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Abbreviated Reviews -- "Drag Me to Hell" and "The Hangover"

Drag Me to Hell
directed by Sam Raimi
written by Ivan Raimi and Sam Raimi
starring: Alison Lohman, Lorna Raver, Justin Long, Dileep Rao and Adriana Barraza

Drag Me to Hell delivers on its title. Our heroine, Christine (played with rapt intensity, pitch-perfect for a horror film by Alison Lohman) is a bank clerk who refuses to grant a mortgage extension to a gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) and is cursed. She will be dragged down below in three days, but not before all hell breaks loose up on earth. This woman curses (and I mean curses) our poor little Alison Lohman (an aside: I'm so glad that they decided against first choice Ellen Page for the role. Alison Lohman is nearly thirty and she's still hard to buy as an adult sometimes.) This is about the most fun a diehard horror fan can have watching a PG-13 movie. It's very much a hearkening to the earlier days of Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead series being an obvious example), that mixes horror and off-the-cuff humor in a delightful blend that's sure to entertain. I was considerably...let's just say (ahem) altered while watching this film. But the details are still very vivid, and there are moments that offer up genuine scares. For instance, when Christine goes to see spiritual medium Shauna San Dena (Adriana Barraza), who saw the curse take a young boy to hell many years ago, watch how ominously the chanting of San Dena builds in perfect lockstep with Christopher Young's creepy score and Peter Deming's cinematography. Simple, obvious, yes. Creepy, still yes. Perhaps if the film had been rated-R, the audience would have finally gotten a glimpse of hell itself. But then again, we aren't the ones who denied some crazy old broad a mortgage extension on her house.

Grade: B
(I'm really glad the movie resisted the temptation to turn into a meta-commentary on the recession and how it drives people to desperation to save their livelihood...or maybe it didn't. Once again..."altered")

The Hangover
directed by Todd Phillips
written by Scott Moore and Jon Lucas
starring: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms and Heather Graham

It is rare for me to find a comedy like this (frat-packy, very male, very heteronormative for its own sake) to be genuinely funny all the way through. The Hangover is already in the IMDB top 250 of all time (*sigh* what a reactionary list that is...) and probably doesn't deserve to be there. But it is a perfectly suitable and serviceable comedy, leagues better than I would have ever expected from the director of Old School, a film whose comedy is spotty and uneven at best.
No one is unaware of the film's premise at this point. Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms play a trio of groomsmen who, after a night of hard partying in Vegas, find themselves unable to remember the previous evening's events, and unable to find the groom. That's the setup. It wasn't destined to be funny, but it's dedication and commitment to comedy that saves this film from being another Jr. Fratpack entry. These are shallow characters, who may as well be wearing their archetypes as nametags on their shirts. Bradley Cooper is the foxy, narcissistic leader of the pack, Ed Helms is the straightman and Zach Galifianakis is the comedic oaf. That's about all we ever find out about these people, but it's to no major detriment to this film (or rather, the type of film it's trying to be). And the three leads play their roles so well (especially standout Ed Helms, who manages to actually be the funniest of the three, even though his lines and his character lends itself to that distinction the least).
There are a few moments in the film that led to more beard scratching than out-and-out laughter. The Mike Tyson vignette, for instance. I don't know that I can get behind Mike Tyson poking fun of himself in this way, when he is such a...terrible person, for lack of a better phrase. I'm not sure what it is. Maybe if the entire segmant itself had been written funnier, I would have been more forgiving. I chuckled a few times, but don't feel as if I would have been at any kind of loss had it been omitted. Also the flamboyant, effeminate(?) Chinese gangster, who garnered some big laughs from the audience, but also left me scratching my proverbial beard a bit. I couldn't really peg what they were going for there. I laughed, but I didn't feel good about myself. Just because something garners laughter doesn't mean it's always earned, if that makes sense. I feel the same way about tears in movies (I'll talk more about this when I review My Sister's Keeper.) Also, the bride to be, in the cutaways between the wedding preparations and the groomsmen riding back to LA for the wedding, seems to be getting assisted by some sort of mammy...though I may just be projecting. Funny movie, though!

Grade: B

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Big Ten

So, everyone who follows the Oscars is in an uproar upon hearing Wednesday's announcement that they will nominate ten films for best picture rather than the typical five. This hasn't happened since the days of The Wizard of Oz. In fact, Casablanca was the last best picture winner to be chosen from a pool of ten. The reactions have been varied. Some, like Sasha Stone of Awardsdaily are choosing to see the silver lining, arguing that this will mean greater inclusiveness. Films that are normally destined to be on the fringe are going to be invited to the party. Some think that this will lead to a best picture list padded with ten Oscar-baity films instead of five. The list will be packed to the rafters with Finding Neverlands, Chocolats and Benjamin Buttons.

I'm of several schools of thought about the whole thing. First of all, those who are saying that films like Star Trek are now in the running for a best picture nomination. Ridiculous. Banish the thought from your mind. Star Trek was...cute. I'll say very cute, even. Don't get me wrong. But best picture? Come on. While it's true that it's been a while since the best picture list has included 10 films, there is some precedent we can look to to see why a movie like Star Trek would never be nominated, even with that many films in the fray.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association, which has (for better or worse) become a fair predictor for Oscar nominees/winners, nominates ten films for best picture. The National Board of Review cites a top ten list. Last year, Iron Man was absent from both of these lists. That would seem like the film that is an apt comparison. It was a phenomenon, whereas the reaction to has been more along the lines of..."Wow, this movie isn't a total embarrassment." The notion that a film like Star Trek could ever manage a best picture nomination is baseless, knee-jerk and reactionary. It's silly.

My thoughts on the shift are as follows. Ultimately, it won't really change much. There are still only going to be five best director nominees. This pretty much does away with the "lone director" slot, which has previously gone to Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and The Butterfly and Paul Greengrass for United 93. Both of those films were BFCA nominees for best picture, and if the BP lists in their respective years had been inflated to 10, rather than 5, those films probably would have made the cut. I say "pretty much" because there are also lone directors, like Pedro Almodovar for Talk to Her and Fernando Meirelles for City of God whose films may have still have trouble making the list (see how Star Trek isn't getting a nomination?)

Even with ten films, having five best director nominees automatically cuts the list of legitimate contenders in half. Gone are the days of Grand Hotel and Driving Miss Daisy. No best director nomination pretty much means a death knell for your chances in best picture. And since most of the prestige pictures are adaptations, we're going to see a few best picture nominees with corresponding screenplay nominations either. That eliminates their chances as well, dontcha think?


Let's face it. Even when the Academy nominates five films, only two (sometimes three in a particularly weird year) are really in contention for the top prize. 2006 is a recent example of when people talked about any of the five contenders conceivably winning. The Departed eventually won, but it was probably only Little Miss Sunshine that gave it a run for its money. One comment that I keep reading is that its hard enough finding five films good enough to vy for best picture in a given year, let alone ten. And that came from an unnamed person within the Academy. What an incredibly cynical thing to say about the industry in which you work. Yes, if you search only among the "prestige" films and refuse to think outside the box, then yes, last year's best picture list would have included Doubt, Defiance, and Changeling as possible contenders. Or, it could have contained The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married or Wall-E. Lack of imagination on the part of the voters has always been a problem, and we'll likely see expanded mediocrity rather than a best picture list that invites strange new faces to the party. But, I am a pessimist...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Will Post More Soon...

Will be posting more soon. I will have reviews for Drag Me to Hell, The Hangover and Away We Go up in the next five days, all of which I enjoyed (some more than others obviously). Oh, I also forgot that I saw State of Play earlier this year...not a good sign.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Up

Written and directed by:
Bob Peterson
Pete Docter

Featuring the voices of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordon Nagai, Bob Peterson and Delroy Lindo.

I remember watching Beauty and the Beast as a child and being extremely excited and entranced. It was a feeling marked both by the majesty and the splendor of the film, as well as remnants of similar feelings from The Little Mermaid. I didn't necessarily have the language to express how I felt, but I know that I was living in a certain golden age of animation--one marked by crisp, tight storytelling, compelling characters and gorgeous visuals. It was great, then it ended. Most people like to point to Pocahontas as the film that marks the beginning of the end of said golden age. I'd go as far to say that it started with Aladdin, which marked a severe drop in quality between that film and its predecessor (Beauty and the Beast). Aladdin and The Lion King both have their moments, but they pale in comparison to Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

Now, as an adult, we are smack dab in the middle of another golden age. One need only watch the first ten minutes of Up (Pixar's tenth feature) to realize this--ten minutes of perfectly hewned storytelling, marked by rich, earned emotion. The movie opens with a young child named Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner) who watches newsreel footage of his favorite adventurer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who explores South America and other far off places. Carl wishes that was him, and so does Ellie, a delightful young girl who befriends Carl through this shared passion for adventure and exploration. They eventually marry, and in a beautiful, mostly silent montage, we see the simple beauty that is their marriage. They love each other deeply, and they vow to voyage to Paradise Falls, like Charles Muntz. Everyday expenses and sudden acts of God get in their way. They grow older. Time marches on. It was a heavy way to open the movie, and just the right note. It clearly confused a lot of the children in the theater, from what I observed, but the sniffles and gasps from the adults were audible and plentiful.

Carl, now a widower becomes somewhat of a curmudgeonly recluse, never venturing much further than his front stoop. He is very attached to his home, which views as a symbol of his late wife Ellie. And one day, rather than being banished to a nursing home, Carl decides to fill his house with thousands of balloons and lift off (or up rather) for a voyage towards Paradise Falls. Also in the house (unbeknownst to Carl at the time of takeoff) is a plucky young Wilderness Explorer (think Boy Scouts) named Russell who is obsessed with obtaining his "assisting the elderly badge."

And really, I think that's enough plot description that the movie needs. This is a film that definitely stretches the idea of film as a visual medium. Stanley Kubrick once said that a marker for a good film is one where you can take the sound off and still entrance the viewer, sucking them into the world that has been created. Conversely, a marker of a bad film (according to Kubrick) is one in which you can take away the visuals, leaving only audio and the audience still follows along just the same. In fact, one might even find it prudent in this case to focus away from plot. Then, one doesn't notice how tangled and cluttered (plotwise) the film becomes towards the end. This is, surprisingly, of very little detriment to the film itself. It isn't necessarily the plot, or even the dialogue that makes this film so special. It's the way that Carl, while still cartoonish in apperance, has one of the most expressive and emotionally etched faces in recent cinematic memory. It's the way that Michael Giacchino's score takes us on a journey through the aforementioned ten minute montage in the beginning of the film. It's how the light is reflected from the hoards of balloons as Carl's house floats by a little girl's bedroom window. That is what I remember, as I suspect it is what most young viewers will remember too. Especialy since many of the film's heavier themes will understandably be lost on many children (more on that later).

It's such a joy to see animated films released by Pixar, especially when compared to those of Dreamworks. One of the reasons that Pixar continues to run laps around Dreamworks is that they have truly recognized the opportunity for animated films to evolve, not just visually, but in the way they tell their stories. Computer animation is all well and good. Up certainly uses it. But it doesn't rely on it the way something like, Monsters vs. Aliens does. The storytelling is what sets Pixar into a wholly different class all its own, whereas other studios seem much more willing (or obliged to, rather) talk down to their audiences (not that that sort of filmmaking doesn't have its place. There will always be those who prefer Shrek over Monsters Inc.) Dreamworks, as well as all of the other animation studios that aren't Pixar seem to be very fixated on the notion of animated films being a medium for big showy voice actors. Which is why the choice of Ed Asner to voice Carl in Up is so inspired. It's definitely an example of restraint paying off. For instance, Up features talking dogs. But in a clever departure, the dogs themselves aren't talking. Rather, their thoughts are vocalized through inventive collars around their necks created by a human scientist. This is a really imaginative way to sidestep the old cliche' of the talking animal in animated films. It's simple, yet there's so much one can do (and the filmmakers did) do with this idea.

Ultimately, while very impressive, Up does fall short of the magic of last year's WALL-E. It almost seems unfair to compare the two. No matter what Pixar followed it up with, WALL-E was always going to be a tough act to follow. One thing I will say is that the themes in Up are less obtuse than the themes of enviromentalism in WALL-E. I was kind of left wondering how many children, outside of their relationships with their grandparents, can truly wrap their head around the notion of not having enough time to accomplish all your dreams, living your life to the fullest, and freeing yourself of vices (physical or otherwise) that will hinder you from doing so. I'm not even 23 and I'm just now starting to feel it. I say thank God for thematic subtlety and ambiguity in a medium that doesn't often lend itself to such characteristics. Of course, there's talk of whether Up will finally be the first animated film since Beauty and the Beast to land a best picture nod at the Academy Awards. Many skeptics are saying "absolutely not," especially since WALL-E, which is arguably more "sophisticated" couldn't even manage. I'd wager that Up is a more likable movie, even if I didn't actually like as much as I did WALL-E. It's more fun and could definitely appeal to the Academy, whose median age is like 68 or something like that (lifelong membership will be the bane of that organization's existence, but that's another conversation). I'm skeptical, simply because the "Best Animated Feature" film is like a ghetto in the same way that the "Best Foreign Language Film" is in keeping said movies from cracking the best picture top five. Regardless, Up is definitely one for the ages. The year's not even half over yet, but this is top ten material if I ever saw it.

Grade: B+

Monday, June 1, 2009

Up Up and Away...then Back down to Hell




I will be seeing Up and Drag Me to Hell this week (though not necessarily in that order). I suppose I should see Terminator: Salvation at some point. But based on everything that I've heard, plus my misgivings about the project from its earliest moments of pre-production...I can't even get motivated. When I even think about thinking about thinking about (you get the picture) paying money, and sitting down for two hours, give or take, to watch it, I just sort of...deflate. I am very excited about both Up and Drag Me to Hell (I wonder what it would be like to see them back-to-back). After seeing WALL-E last year and loving it, I'm over my bias against seeing animated films in the theater (I really regret not seeing Coraline in 3-D earlier this year. From what I understand, that's the best way to experience the film). I'm not sure how good Drag Me to Hell will be, but I'm just so glad that Sam Raimi is back doing horror.

Peace, Love and Pretension.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What Happened to "Rachel Getting Married?"

I know the 2008 Oscar season is long behind us. But the lack of awards attention for Rachel Getting Married outside of the Indie Spirits still baffles me. I have the DVD, which I've watched several times. The movie rewards repeat viewings and I'm now convinced more than ever that it will become one of my favorite films of this decade. But I have tried to analyze in my head exactly what went wrong here. It had an Academy-Award winning director at the helm (Jonathan Demme), a bonafide star headlining the cast (Anne Hathaway) and it was written by the daughter of a Hollywood legend (Jenny Lumet, daughter of Sidney Lumet). But the more one watches the film, and observes trends, it becomes slightly less confusing, if still baffling in the end.

1. Release date.
Rachel Getting Married got an October release date. Most of the time, films are released too late (Che, Revolutionary Road, and Children of Men being a few recent examples), but the October release date probably led to it being lost in the shuffle.

2. Law of averages.
2007 boasted one of the best (if not the best) Oscar best picture shortlists of the decade. It's a little unrealistic to expect two great years in a row. Once I saw how good 2007's shortlist was, I actually said to myself "Ooh...but this means 2008's shortlist is going to suck," which it more or less did, with a few exceptions. The best film of the year was left off the list. It happens sometimes.

3. Debra Winger.
Maybe people do still hate her...

4. It's not a tidy film.
There's no caption at the end that reads "Kim goes back to rehab because...it was written." The movie is wrenching, it's uncomfortable and often times, it's downright grating. Oscar is usually less forgiving of films such as these when they are...

5. Female-centered.
Oscar likes its complex men, but it doesn't like its complex women for the most part. So many layered and complicated women. And written by a woman. Juno was a bit easier to digest.

6. The dishwashing scene.
While I didn't hate it, I could definitely see how it would lose some people, and turn them against the movie if they were riding the fence. One of the people I saw it with said "All of that just so the father could find the plate? It seems a little bit roundabout." And maybe they were right.

7. I've Loved You So Long
Sony Pictures Classics put all of their steam behind this train early on in the year, especially when there was talk of Kristin Scott Thomas possibly WINNING best actress (she wasn't even nominated.) It was clear that this was the pony they were betting on. By the time Anne Hathaway emerged as the one more probable to get a best actress nomination, it was kind of too late to mount a serious, tasteful campaign for the entire film. Speaking of which...

8. The National Board of Review
Although they did name Anne Hathaway as their best actress, the absence of the film from their top ten list (especially since non-starters like Changeling, Gran Torino and Defiance made the list) suggested that the film was an awards vehicle for Hathaway and nothing more. Since NBR is first out of the gate and rarely makes inspired choices, they're fun to blame.

9. Lack of starpower.
Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger are the two biggest names in the film. Winger, while an accomplished actress took long absences from the screen and is not exactly what you'd call a "movie star." Hathaway, while definitely famous, is not an actress who has typically been associated with good acting in serious drama. For those who were paying attention, the greatness she accomplished here was hinted at in the past. For others, it wasn't so obvious and her name alone may have steered a few moviegoers and Academy voters alike. You wouldn't believe the number of people I've spoken to who won't see the movie because they "don't like Anne Hathaway."

10. The multiculturalism.
A friend of mine said she was put off by the "kumbaya" aspect of the film, which she (as a black woman) read as inauthentic. This has been discussed ad nauseum, but some people feel it's a valid concern. I disagree.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

TV Season Retrospective

Big Love
Man. What a great season. It dared to go places that previous seasons wouldn't, but not in gimmicky or attention-grabbing ways. It's kind of sad that it seems like they're running out of things to do with Sarah, as witnessed by her engagement to Scott, but I love the way Sarah's pregnancy/miscarriage was handled. Usually miscarriages for television characters who shouldn't be having children feel like copouts, but there were some hardfelt consequences and issues that arose as a result. Also, Nicki continues to both reveal and conceal more of her hand as Bill struggles between trying to hold on to her with all of her faults, or letting her go with dignity. Chloe Sevigny deserves an Emmy nod for how she handled such a complex character. She kept track of so many different things--Nicki's devotion to her family, which is genuine I believe. The lies, the selfishness and the lies to cover up more lies. Also, the revelation of her daughter. Is she earnestly trying to atone? Or is it a clever ploy to worm her way back into the sympathies of her husband and sister wives? Isn't it funny that season 2 dealt with how Barb was slipping away from him. Season 3 dealt with Nicki finally putting her resentments toward Bill on the table. And with Margene's new business ventures rearing their head, I think we'll see her slipping further away as well. I can't wait and I'll be back for Season 4. I just hope that Roman is dead for good this time.
Season Grade: A

Brothers and Sisters

I'm mostly pleased with season three of this show, which continues to be watchable, even in its more ridiculous moments (most of which involve Sally Field in some way). I was interested to see how they would handle the possible shark-jumper that was Rebecca not being a Walker and her romance with Justin, but they did about as well as expected. For the most part, the lack of chemistry between Dave Annable and Emily Van Camp isn't too distracting. My major criticism of season 3 was the ponderous way in which they handled Tommy's exit. I get that Balthazar Getty was causing shit on the set, and with his recent affair, they wanted him gone (which is fucked up, I think. I don't condone cheating on your wife, but it shouldn't get you fired). But both the setup (his embezzlement) and the result (Tommy working on some compound in Mexico to "find himself") feel contextually ridiculous and unsupportable. But I'll be back for season 4. Tommy's exit not only got rid of the least interesting character, it got rid of the second least interesting character (his wife. What's her tits? It doesn't matter).
Season Grade: B

Grey's Anatomy
Yes, I still watch this show. Shut up. This season was a mixed bag that had trouble finding its footing from the get go. Everything felt ponderous. Callie's lesbianism, Cristina's sexual frustration, Meredith and Derek dancing around the commitment issue. And of course, there was the whole "Izzie fornicates with a ghost" storyline that was...pardon my french, fucking ridiculous. But there was some good here too. Meredith has really come into her own as a doctor and a person, and is really a more likable character because of it. I loved the way she stood up to the chief this season on several occasions. Dr. Weber is my least favorite character on the show and his self-righteousness and pushiness (particularly where issues with Meredith and her mother are concerned) make him impossible to root for. I'm glad Lexie and George didn't hook up. I'll say that even though the writers would have us think differently, George is one of the bigger assholes on this show and I wouldn't be terribly upset if he's as dead as the last episode suggested. The Izzie/cancer storyline was also compelling, though I hate that people call Katherine Heigl a bitch for wanting to abandon "Grey's Anatomy." Yes, she's a bitch. Obviously (have you read any interviews with the woman?) But wanting to abandon a show that's probably on its downslope doesn't make her a bitch. Why should anyone participate in anything that they don't want to? It's like the people who want to drag Michael Cera kicking and screaming back to "Arrested Development" for a movie that may not even be necessary. I love that show, but a movie? Do we really need it? The show ended on such a perfect note. I rarely defend actors, but this ownership that fanboys/girls declare over stars is a little strange. Like any other profession, hell like anything in life, you shouldn't pursue endeavors that you aren't fully invested in. I don't know that I'll be back for all of season 6.
Season Grade: C+

Parks and Recreation
I initially had a lot of misgivings about this show, but like "30 Rock" it improved exponentially from its first episode. Amy Poehler is very funny here. I think some of the very early problems in the show's timing, etc. stemmed from the writers not sure what to do with Leslie Knope as a character. The comparisons to "The Office's" Michael Scott are obvious, but they managed to make her inept in a way that's totally unique and not just a Michael Scott retread. The supporting cast here is pitch-perfect, although maybe I'm just giddy because I get to see Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones AND Paul Schneider in the same place at the same time. Chris Pratt is also hilarious. Of the supporting players, Aubrey Plaza is a standout as bored college-aged intern
April. The restaurant where I work is right near the Emory University campus and I'm telling you that Plaza has purposely captured the unique mix of stupidity, apathy and entitlement that many college-aged girls exhibit. I'm very glad this show has been renewed for a second season and I will be watching.
Season Grade: B+

30 Rock
The most consistently funny and watchable show on television, even if I don't consistently watch it. I have no excuses, other than I work most Thursday nights. Plus, I love letting them build up, then watching them in a big hilarious laugh-my-ass-off block on my days off. Jane Krakowski is a comedic genius, not to undermine Tina Fey of course. But it needs to be said. Very loudly, and preferably in front of Emmy voters. Even Salma Hayek, who isn't funny or even a particuarly good actress IMO (yes, I saw Frida. It was a hot mess) didn't bog down the show's whip smart writing and great pacing. Of course I will be back for season 4.
Season Grade: A-

The Office
Man, this season was kind of uneven. There were high points and low points. A lot of interesting stuff, sure, but man it all made for a serious lack of connectivity overall. The show is still funny, of course (that's never been the problem). But it feels like it's on its downslope. I think the problem is that ever since Jim and Pam got together, the writers are struggling with what to do with these characters, since so much of the drama involved them not being together and the awkwardness therein. I was really annoyed that after Pam failed out of art school, that was the last we heard of it. One would think that her having to return to Dunder Mifflin after getting a taste of art school would stir up restlessness and more resentment of the paper business, Scranton and Jim (by extension). It may seem like a predictable direction to go, but based on everything we've seen thus far, I don't buy Pam NOT being restless. And now with the implied pregnancy at the end of the season...oy. I'll be back for season 6, of course. But I'm a little curious/pessimistic to see how long they can keep the show interesting.
Grade: B-