Monday, September 27, 2010

2010 in Film (part 2)

Winter's Bone (dir. Debra Granik)
The critical narrative tethered to this title in its initial release had me entering fully prepared for a Frozen River or even an An Education experience. That is, a story containing an exceptional, star-making female lead performance practically crying out for a film deserving of such actorly talent. What I got was an engrossing, arresting movie-going experience that completely blindsided me. I can't really put my finger on all of the elements that I look for in a film I'm going to recommend. It's a personal and often nebulous thing, trying to saliently communicate one's cinematic sensibilities. I can say (don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this) that I have never enjoyed a film that felt dishonest. Winter's Bone is so lived-in and observant in terms of the world it occupies, and I'm not just talking about the Ozark mountain setting, about which I admittedly know little. I'm talking about the lives of these characters, which is established very clearly in the beginning, with every word uttered and every action taken speaking to that in a compelling way. Not to call Frozen River dishonest, but there was this lingering air of "let's evoke audience guilt" that hung heavy. Winter's Bone is stark and frank in a completely organic way. Much praise and ballyhoo has been heaped upon Jennifer Lawrence and (to a lesser extent) Dale Dickey, both turning in fabulous turns worthy of high accolade. The entire cast is in top form, as are the sound department (so atmospheric, yet not showily so), and Debra Granik's sure directorial hand. People seem to be cooling considerably, not on their reaction to the film, but about its award prospects (not to imply that a great film isn't its own reward, regardless of awards citation). I could be wrong, but I think the critics will take care of Winter's Bone come year's end. Look for Jennifer Lawrence to get a best actress nomination. Her name will be on the lips, (who is she even competing with for breakthrough citations at this point?). I wouldn't be surprised, especially in a field of ten, if Winter's Bone lands on the best picture list, though obviously it's not a slam dunk.
Grade: A

I Am Love (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Here is a film about which my initial effusiveness is cooling. I enjoyed it slightly less on a second viewing, though Tilda Swinton's work is still searing, convincing, peculiar and specific (as always). It's almost epic in its scale and splendor. However, a scene can be largely without dialogue and still overstate many of its greater ideas. It's very easy to get swept up in I Am Love that one almost overlooks how many of the visual cues verge on the obtuse--for instance, the first time Emma (Swinton) tastes food made by Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). This is not to say that it's not a lovely and in many ways accomplished film. It's very evocative, mostly when it's not trying so hard to be. The overwrought conclusion and the even more overwrought score (seriously, people are praising this score, but calling Never Let Me Go overscored? Both composers are a little wand-happy, but the latter, considerably less so...) keep this film from an A.
Grade: B+

The Kids Are All Right (dir. Lisa Cholodenko)
The ingredients for a great film (rather than the quite good, if far too tentative and easy result) are present. Great cast? Check. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore seem perfectly in their element here, as does Mark Ruffalo. The kids are great too. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are the unsung assets to The Kids Are All Right, gifting the film with aching, believable uncertainty and mortification at the behavior of the "adults" in their lives. Humor? Check. I laughed. I laughed quite a lot, actually. So, why does it seem like I like The Kids Are All Right slightly less than everyone seems to love it? Firstly, it's clear that screenwriters Cholodenko and Stuart Bloomberg love each of the characters they've created. That's evidenced by their need to protect them and their inability to put them into situations where they are required to make hard choices. Annette Bening navigates around the film's pussy-footing nature with aplomb. She will eke out a full-realized characterization and performance, even if it's not necessarily given to her on the page. Julianne Moore is given quieter notes to play, as is Ruffalo. Great performances often seem effortless and no one is phoning it in here. I'm always glad to see Moore breaking away from her impressive, yet morose "woman on the verge..." thesp-ing that often pigeonholes her and prevents her true versatility from shining through. However, the film's wispy keeps it from rising to true greatness or even memorability. Here is a story crying out for just a bit more shading, complexity and hardness than what is given.
Grade: B

Prodigal Sons (dir. Kimberly Reed)
Proof that I need to make more of a concerted effort to watch documentaries, and not just those that manage to creep into the larger consciousness, some based on merit and others based on accessible and timely (read: facile) subject matter. An aside: I've yet to watch Waiting for Superman, so I can't comment. However, the trailer, combined with reactions from those I trust, as well as Guggenheim's previous documentary (An Inconvenient Truth), which smugly masqueraded common knowledge as incendiary samizdat which "the man" doesn't want you to know about all have my expectations cold as ice (rant over). Prodigal Sons, a documentary about director Kimberly Reed's return to Montana for a high school reunion marries the piercing emotionality of Tarnation with the polished, formal elements of Steve James or even Errol Morris. It's a wonderful combination. We watch as she attempts to reconcile her relationship with her very troubled adopted brother Marc. I almost want to hold my feelings about this film close to my chest, as its such an arresting experience to watch the story unfold before you and become something completely different than what is promised, yet no less satisfying. It's strange...I tend to be repelled, at least on principle, by the prospect of personal documentaries. And yet, when done well, they are the most affecting.
Grade: A-

Machete (dir. Robert Rodriguez)
Whether being viewed simply as an exercise in B-movie cinematic excess, or as a mindless action film (or both), Machete fails to turn either trope on its head in a way that is memorable or interesting.
Grade: C+

Friday, September 24, 2010

2010 in far (Part 1)

I will be seeing Animal Kingdom sometime this weekend, along with Catfish. Looking at the sidebar of 2010 releases which I have viewed and graded, it might seem that I'm a little behind the 8-ball. And yet...I don't see it that way. Yes, I'm aware that there are still many films I need to see from the former part of they year. But looking at the films that popular sentiment seems to be telling me that I "missed," I feel no great need to rush out and see them. Nick Davis over at Nick's Flick Picks described it perfectly in a recent article where he described his grading system. He gives a letter grade, then a VOR (Values, Originality, and Risk) rating from 1-5. Brilliant. This is exactly why I'm not particularly compelled to rush out and see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Based on secondhand reports and my reaction to the trailers, I'm sure that it's a film I'm going to at the very least enjoy on the most basic level, no matter how underwhelmed I am. Why the hesitation? Well, what is a movie like Scott Pilgrim, How to Train Your Dragon or even Toy Story 3 really going to tell me about the current cinematic landscape that I don't already know? Michael Cera seems frozen in time with his shtick? Non-Pixar animated releases can still rake 'em in? Pixar's the cornerstone of animated cinema? These respective nuggets are not enough to make me rush out to see these films in theater, rather than waiting to catch them on DVD, even if I am sure to like the films. It may sound pompous or pretentious, but with my limited time, I need a little something more.

Date Night (dir. Shawn Levy)
Often funny, but memorably so. I'm flirting with the idea of being done with Steve Carrell and this film certainly didn't help matters much. Tina Fey is delightful, as always, and I was immediately led to think about how much I'd really love to see her in a better movie. Now that Sandra Bullock is no longer attached to The Abstinence Teacher...maybe Fey? It's been so long since I've seen this film and there are singular elements that stick out in my memory. I do specifically remember thinking Date Night was overlong, which is not exactly to the credit of a film with an 87 minute running time. I also remember being baffled both by Taraji P. Henson's suggestion of a character/performance/purpose and her Veronica Cartwright circa Alien haircut. Completely missable.
Grade at the time of viewing: B-
Now downgraded to a C+

The Greatest (dir. Shana Feste)
One of the most odious movie-watching experiences in recent memory, which is kind of shocking, given the film's tentative nature and modest goals. It features Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon as bereaved parents and Carey Mulligan as the young woman their son knocked up the night he died. These three actors turn in uneven, yet not completely disastrous turns that clearly suffered from a nebulous direction and an even murkier script. The rest of the cast, particularly Johnny Simmons who plays the left-behind younger brother, is less capable. Zoe Kravitz is also featured and is limited, certainly, but the least of this film's problems. (I'll talk more about her when I'm talking about It's Kind of a Funny Story). Narrative storytelling has to allow for suspension of disbelief and most audiences accept that. But there are plot contrivances in this film so glaring, so nonsensical, so completely asinine that even the most casual, twice-a-year movie watcher (the kind who thought that Saw was clever and Crash was poignant) would scoff that neither a parse of the script nor a snip in post-production prohibited these flubs from worming their way into the final cut. It's simply grief-porn--cinematic suffering for its own sake without a shred of emotional motivation or honesty.
Grade: C-/D+

Mother and Child (dir. Rodrigo Garcia)
Flawed, but poignant piece of moviemaking. It is a broken ensemble piece that examines adoption and its effect on three different women. It's experiencing somewhat of a fade in my memory, but I remember being moved by its very believable character specificity that's not merely paint-by-numbers quirk. The three stars are all very much within their element here and doing excellent work, particularly Annette Bening and Kerry Washington (Naomi Watts suffers from an unknowable and inconsistent character whose real emotions Garcia seems reluctant to mine).

Iron Man 2 (dir. Jon Favreau)
I think I was in a bad mood the day I saw this movie. Favreau brought it to my school and even did a lecture afterwards. Perhaps it was my disposition, but after watching Iron Man 2, I slipped out of the auditorium quietly before Favreau arrived on stage. I have still yet to see Iron Man (should I?), so maybe I'm not the target audience for this film. I just felt myself underwhelmed, deflated, verging on annoyance at the film's smug, smarmy tone (and I do actually enjoy Robert Downey Jr. quite a bit). No, my impatience was not with Downey, but more with Favreau--his presence in his own film, which particularly self-indulgent in this case. I'm sure Favreau is a perfectly nice guy, but when I look at his directorial filmography (Elf, Zathura and the Iron Man films, to name a few) I can't abide nor can I justify sitting down for a couple of hours and listening to him speak.
Grade: C+

More reviews to come...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer -- Update

So, an impromptu interruption (nearly two months worth) in my blogging. But, alas, it is not without reason. Without getting too personal, living in a residence for the past month and a half without a reliable internet connection threw a bit of a wrench into the Big Pretentious Movie summer. However, I'm in swanky new accommodations, with new internet service and a brand new school year in which the AFI library is open week round with decent hours. But, I cannot make up for the time I lost. Thus, I am extending my deadline to watch the remaining films on my list until November (or whenever I finish). The project has been renamed The Big Pretentious Movie Project (as it has extended past its initial summer projections). I've decided to take the pressure off...watching films has never been a chore for me and I've discovered many great films this in this wonderful process that I somehow missed or had forgotten over the years. I'm picking things up this week again by diving headlong into the Coen Brothers, starting with Blood Simple. I cannot wait.

Other programming notes: As promised, I will be listing my 100 favorite films of the 2000s sometime before year's end. No, this isn't me being a year behind the trend. I purposely waited until well into 2010 to make this list because I don't want to leave any gems from 2009 off said list and these things sometimes need a couple of months to marinate. It is an eclectic list of films on the list, ranging from big blockbusters, to mainstream hits to more obscure fare and in true Pretentious Know it All fashion, the film at the top of my list is one that will likely garner scoffs, head scratches and eye rolls. However, I'm a firm believer in honesty when compiling my "best-of" lists and no film resonated more than this one (ah, the suspense).

Happy to be back at it.