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:
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 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 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.


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
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 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 that argument sort of falls apart under a microscope, dontcha think?

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