Sunday, January 10, 2010

Recent Reviews--Reader Beware (Extremely Stream of Conscious) Part 1

We shall return to our "Best of the Aughts" series later this week. It's been ages since I've written a full-length review. Over the holiday, I got insanely caught up on my 2009 releases, so much so that I only have about 3 films left to watch. I thought I'd write one big beautiful post summarizing my feelings about films I've recently watched in an informal fashion. The Academy is nominating 10 films for best picture this year--screw structure.

A Single Man
So replete with good moments and good ideas that one can almost forgive the fact that many of those moments don't connect and many of those ideas aren't fully or richly explored. I was so incredibly moved by Colin Firth's speech about minorities that I almost don't care that I wasn't moved at all by the loss of his lover. Julianne Moore is plucky and fun, though Oscar buzz is a bit of a stretch. I was unbelievably horrified by Nicholas Hoult's performance, then doubly horrified to discover that he's the kid from About a Boy (God, I'm getting old). Yes, it's beautiful but also terribly shallow and unrealized at parts, but I'm being generous because I have a hunch that it's surface-y nature is intended.
Grade: B- (very low B- inching backwards towards a C)

Where the Wild Things Are
Yes, it takes a while to get started and yes it's a little dark for the same youthful audience it desperately needed to attract in order to recoup its budget, but what a wholly engrossing, enriching and beautiful moviegoing experience it was. All of the little flourishes--Karen O's score, Spike Jonze's direction and Max Records pitch-perfectly petulant performance make for an imperfect but resonant piece of cinema that will be talked about for years to come.
Grade: B+

Sin Nombre
Beautifully acted, well-paced and heartwarming, in all the ways that Slumdog Millionaire tried and failed to be (whilst offending many in the process in its failure). It wisely never fetishizes its exotic locale, nor does it try to over explain or provide context into said locale, knowing that doing either would serve to suppress the realness achieved here. And yes, this film was written and directed by a Japanese American. Danny Boyle, take note.
Grade: B+

The Lovely Bones
Not the complete travesty that some are saying, but make no mistake--it's still pretty damn bad. Peter Jackson's direction, while never ambivalent, ranges from heavy-handed to really heavy-handed (every time I even think about thinking about the cross-cutting between Wahlberg smashing the bottle ships and the schooners crashing on the heavenly shore I want to projectile vomit). The characters are written without any semblance of depth or clarity, even Stanley Tucci's bewilderingly lauded supporting turn. Wahlberg suffers from being incredibly miscast and bogged down with a script that's less interested in mining the emotions of a grieving family than it is in allowing Peter Jackson to throw visual flourishes at the audience, like darts at a cork board, and see what sticks. Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli and Rachel Weisz are just some of the talent in this film who I hope took up knitting on set, because there sure as hell wasn't a whole lot for them to do. Seriously...the BFCA nominated Saoirse Ronan for this (and in two categories, no less)?
Grade: C-

I'm not sure if this is the worst film of the year, but it's pretty darn close. It's definitely the worst of my highly anticipated films of 2009. I'm bewildered and appalled by a musical film that is so disgusted and ashamed of the fact that it's a musical. It's like little Sarah Jane trying to pass for white in Imitation of Life. Its lead actor barely sings a note and when he does it's all in his head, because Rob Marshall is apparently in love with that framing device. Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz emerge with good and fine turns, respectively. Kate Hudson flips her hair and dances her ass off in the confines of a horribly atonal number called "Cinema Italiano" that (I'm not joking) had jaws on the FLOOR in the theater, it was so bad. What's more offensive is that said song will probably be nominated for best original song at the Oscars (yuck). I definitely enjoyed Chicago with reservations, and Memoirs of a Geisha is certainly not as bad as I judged it at the time. With his third outing, however, it's clear that Rob Marshall is an incredibly surface-y, haphazard and arbitrary director. He may be the worst person of the past ten years to hold a Directors Guild Award, and yes I'm including Ron Howard.
Grade: D

The Messenger
It certainly meanders in its final act, but never to a severe detriment to the film. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson do some of their best work in a film that is very stridently unafraid to be about what it's about. Every time these two soldiers go to tell a family about their deceased military loved one (and I counted about 5 or 6), it's felt deeply and unflinchingly. Samantha Morton proves, once again (was there ever a doubt?) that she's one of the most versatile and relevant actors working today. She easily gets best in show laurels for a performance in a role that could have easily read as miscast.
Grade: A-

A Serious Man
Funny, specific, uncomfortable, divisive and without and ending. Yep, it's definitely the Coen brothers. Could this be their pet project? Could this be the film that they've always wanted to make? It certainly feels like it. I know some are calling it too strange, too overpraised and too specific. I read all of that. But I found it to be richly satisfying and incredibly well-observed. And if this film isn't too Jewish for a black Canadian/lapsed Catholic, then it's certainly not too Jewish for anyone else (whatever that means).
Grade: B

Consider this my mea culpa. Even me, for all my cynicism, defenses and (yes) pretension can't deny that Avatar pretty much rocks. Yes, it's often atrociously written (seriously...unobtanium?) and yes, it's a retread of a story that's been told before. And it's a little racist. But it's also spectacularly made, wonderfully told and emotionally resonant (for me, at least). Moreover, it's making it cool to like Titanic again. And I know that the tide has been turning on that one, where it's grudgingly respected rather than universally ridiculed. But Cameron has still got it and Avatar is evidence that he never lost it in the first place.
Grade: B+

I rarely try to delve into the mind of the filmmaker and presume to know his or her intentions when making a film, even when I don't like it. But make no mistake--Clint Eastwood made Invictus to win awards. There's absolutely nothing about this film--how indifferently it's directed and written, how little it tries to do more than scratch the surface of the politics, Eastwood's own political leanings--that leads me to believe otherwise. Nathaniel over at The Film Experience often says it best, so I'll quote. "It's so ham-fistedly unworthy of discussion." That's ALMOST true, except for the fact that even though he lost out on the DGA nomination, Eastwood may still usurp Lee Daniels spot as a best director nominee at the Oscars. Even if I hypothetically hated Precious, one can never call Daniels's direction indifferent or arbitrary. It's such a singular vision, even when it missteps and is certainly more worthy of accolades than Clint Eastwood's rugby game, practically in real time (WTF?). And I know that Precious is viewed as an overwrought melodrama worthy of Lifetime, whereas Invictus is a prestige picture. But even so, a good hamburger is better than a terrible steak. And Precious is a great, well-seasoned hamburger with all the fix-ins on a focaccia bun served on a fluorescent beige platter. Invictus is barely Outback Steakhouse. I'm not one of those who thinks that Morgan Freeman is the best thing since sliced bread and I found this performance to be incredibly uneven and phoned in, as if he knew he would get an Oscar nomination no matter what. In his defense, he was right so why even try? I know this rant borders on excessive, and of course Invictus is not the worst film of the year. But it's just so offensively pedestrian that the acclaim it's receiving inspires rage in me not seen since the likes of A Beautiful Mind.
Grade: C-

And that's the end of Part 1. I'll post Part 2 in a couple of hours. After railing against Invictus, I am spent.

Peace, Love and Pretension

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