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.