Sunday, December 20, 2009

You should see your faces


Ok so work is completely kicking my bum. Totally busy and the blog is going to have to go dark until after day job relaxes. Figure I'll grab onto a computer and blog it up after the 27th. I haven't even had time to see any movies. Wait, scratch that, I did see ONE movie. I want to cool down a bit and get it in my rear-view lest I bust out something I regret later. That being said the sheer spectacle is an absolute must see. Your mileage may vary but you've never seen anything quite like this, I guarantee. See it, see it on the biggest screen you can and see it in 3D. See Avatar, we'll meet back here in a week and we'll talk more.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reacting to the Nom Nom Noms

Ah yes, the Hollywood Foreign Press. Once every year the poke their heads out of a hole and try to predict whether we're bound to several more months of winter (or something like that).

No, actually its time for my Golden Globe nomination reactions.

First off I am very excited that Ricky Gervais is hosting as a Gervais appearance is inevitably a (if not THE) highlight of any given awards program he appears on.

As for the nominees themselves:

Best Motion Picture - Drama

Nominees:

Avatar (2009)

Up in the Air (2009/I)

Interesting mix. I was expecting to see A Serious Man, A Single Man and Invictus in place of Avatar, Hurt Locker and Basterds. I really have no idea whether Avatar is just a "well it seems like it ought to be on here vote" or not. I don't see foreign votes connecting with the life of an obese, illiterate, inner-city youth no matter how well made the movie was. Its UITA's to lose. However, Basterds could pull an upset as it casts a wide international net.

Should Win: Basterds or Locker

Will Win: Up In The Air (and Offer will be one step closer to owing me 5 bucks).

Snub(s): A Serious Man, A Single Man, Bright Star, Where the Wild Things Are

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

Nominees:

Nine (2009)

It still bugs me that these two categories are combined. Oh well. It really burns my hash that something like It's Complicated makes the cut because Nancy Meyers and her beige sweater movies ALWAYS do. I'd kind of love to see a Hangover win if only because it's such perfect alchemy to make such a big, dumb, successful comedy that connects with so many people. Also psyched to see (500) Days of Summer so high even though as I get further away from the film its more twee elements become increasingly pronounced. Nine wins because its the most awards bait-y. Still Frank seems to have given it the stamp of approval and he is the Fellini/Nine expert. Should win: I don't know

Will win: Nine

Snubs: In the Loop, The Informant!, Zombieland, The Brothers Bloom, Adventureland,


Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama

Nominees:

Tobey Maguire for Brothers (2009/I)

Very surprised to see Maguire on here (though the reviews I read of the film consistently singled him out). Haven't seen A Single Man or Crazy Heart yet but they're both likely to feature showier work than Clooney (Bridges especially has the age to get a "lifetime achievement" style award here so I'll say...

Should Win: Clooney

Will Win: Bridges

Snubs: Where's Jeremy Renner? He anchors an extremely riveting and well crafted film and helps put it over the top. It was never going to happen but Sam Rockwell in Moon would be nice too.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama

Nominees:

Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)


As far as I'm concerned the category begins and ends with Mulligan. Again, unless the foreign press connects with Precious which I don't think they will. Hadn't even heard of the Mirren and Blunt films before today and while I dig both they're going to need way more traction.

Should Win: Mulligan

Will Win:Mulligan

Snubs: Tilda Swinton in Julia is caustic and brilliant. Unfortunate snubbing there. Same goes for Abbie Cornish in Bright Star who prevents her character from sliding into cloying/obnoxious territory many times. Sorry not to see Melanie Laurent's Shoshana in here as she is quite striking in her transformation from victim to vengeance seeker in Basterds.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

Nominees:

Michael Stuhlbarg for A Serious Man (2009)

Cool list and makes me very excited to see Sherlock Holmes. The hardest worker here is I think Damon, though JGL is no slouch either. Stuhlbarg makes such a great debut, eh's like a more mainstream, less caricatured David Paymer.

Should win: Stahlberg or Damon

Will Win: Damon

Snubs: The huge snub here is Peter Capaldi in In the Loop and were he in the category he'd punch everyone in the kidneys. Oh and let me throw this at you; Adam Sandler in Funny People. Yeah, how do you like that?

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

Nominees:

Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia (2009)


Bullock? Really? Roberts is actually quite fun in Duplicity. I heard from Frank that Cotillard steals Nine (no mean feet considering who she's surrounded by). Streep is always great but I feel like voters may be getting tired of her, plus being slotted in twice divides her base.

Should Win: Cotillard

Will Win: Streep (oh who am I kidding)

Snubs: You know who gave a simple but funny and lovely performance? Maya Rudolph in Away We Go.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Nominees:

Matt Damon for Invictus (2009)

Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Ooooo good category. But this is such a no-brainer, frankly " It's a BINGO!"

Should Win: Waltz

Will Win: Waltz

Snubbed: Even though its all Waltz I'd love to see him competing against Alfred Molina's work in An Education or Christian McKay doing what I thought only Maurice La Marche could do (a credible Orson Welles impression).

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Nominees:

Penélope Cruz for Nine (2009)

Julianne Moore for A Single Man (2009)

Maybe the toughest acting race to call outside of Best Actor. You've got the universally praised Mo'nique (who didn't really show herself as dramatic heavyweight in Phat Girlz, Beerfest and a billion seasons of The Parkers), the pair of great perfs in UITA. Then there's critical darlings Moore and Cruz (Cruz is especially favored by HFP). So what to do?

Should Win: Farmiga, she really emerges as a bonnafide leading lady here and has the best chemistry I've ever seen Clooney have with another woman in a film ever.

Will Win: Mo'nique, I don't see them bucking the trend. Good for her if she does by the way.

Snubs: Rachel Weisz revealed ample comedic chops in Brothers Bloom and was a frequent highlight that should not be overlooked. Even though she's only in it for a moment Emma Thompson just destroys in her scenes in An Eduaction.

Best Director - Motion Picture

Intriguing line-up with a lot of fun stories behind each. There's Reitman's riches to riches story, the once married couple now in competition and coming out of nowhere the two grizzled vets. I'll be happy with whoever wins (unless its Eastwood or Cameron).

Snubs: Lee Daniels looks like he's done producing with the very solid directing of his actors in Precious. Rob Marshall makes directing a musical look easy on film. For this he should definitely get SOME sort of award. Lone Scherfig was an unknown to me but she does powerful work with what could be stage-bound material in An Education. Spike Jonze and the Coens also delievered amazing work that would not get nearly as far with their careful hands.

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture

Nominees:

Up in the Air (2009/I): Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner

Interesting mix but Meyers has no place in there. Let me also surprise my constituency and say that maybe District 9 shouldn't be there either. Of the remaining three I can see Up In the Air taking it because the script supports the material and builds its characters well. Basterds on the other hand is bold but even I'll admit its a very indulgent bit of writing.

Should Win: Basterds

Will Win: Up in the Air

Snubbed: The smartest script that arrived this year was Armando Ianucci's In the Loop, followed by the Pixar team's Up. Kind of surprised that the Coen's aren't here either.

Best Original Song - Motion Picture

Nominees:

Avatar (2009): James Horner, Simon Franglen, Kuk Harrell("I Will See You")

Brothers (2009/I): U2, Bono("Winter")

Crazy Heart (2009): T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham("The Weary Kind")

Everybody's Fine (2009): Paul McCartney("(I Want To) Come Home")

Nine (2009): Maury Yeston("Cinema Italiano")

Haven't really heard these yet though I'm looking forward to Crazy Heart and Cinema Italiano.

Should Win: Crazy Heart

Will Win: Cinema Italiano

Snubs: Where's The Princess and the Frog offerings?

Best Original Score - Motion Picture

Nominees:

Where the Wild Things Are (2009): Carter Burwell, Karen Orzolek

Maybe the best mix of genres represented anywhere.

Should Win: The Informant! Wild and surprising and funny and critical to the film's silly tone.

Will Win: Up. No slouch either.

Snubs: Alexander Desplatt gets better with each new score and his work in Fantastic Mr. Fox is no exception.


Best Animated Film

Nominees:

Coraline (2009)

Up (2009)

Very exciting to see so many legitimate contenders this year. But come on, who is better than Pixar?

Should Win: Up

Will Win: Up

Snubs: A Town Called Panic is supposed to be phenomenal though I'm yet to see it.

Best Foreign Language Film

Nominees:

Baarìa (2009)

La nana (2009)

Un prophète (2009)

Interesting mix of stuff here.

Should Win: White Ribbon. Haneke's new masterpiece?

Will Win:Broken Embraces. HFPA loooooves Almodovar (rightly so).

Snubs: Thirst

I was originally going to do TV too but you know what, this is not the Sickness TV so forget it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

It Ain't Easy Bein' Green


Can an old dog learn new tricks? Scratch that, can Pluto learn new tricks? Disney's first hand-drawn animated film in almost six years, The Princess and the Frog, makes a herculean effort to return to the glory days of the late 80's and early 90's and largely succeeds. Whats particularly fascinating about the film is it that in addition to replicating the feel of past successes (as well as the box-office to go with it) the film is also making a valiant attempt at pushing their film's degree of progressiveness and stepping away from the studios more conservative family-centered branding. It cops out in the third act but I commend Disney for making a concentrated effort to push in a different direction in a couple of areas.
The plot you know or can at least guess. In jazz-age New Orleans a young girl, Tiana (Anika Noni-Rose) scrimps and saves to buy her own restaurant. At her best friend Lotty's (Broadway vet Jennifer Cody) costume ball, where she, through happy coincidence, is now dressed as a princess, is approached by a talking frog. The frog explains that he is Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) a happy-go-lucky, broke, visiting dignitary who has been put under dark voodoo magic by Dr. Facilier (Keith David) and transformed. The twist here is when Tiana kisses the froggy Navine she turns into a frog as well. With that duo are off on a mad dash to become human again and acquire the typical animal sidekick types and learn valuable lessons on the side. My one major qualm is that Tiana doesn't really need to learn any lessons, or at least the lesson she needs to learn is unclearly presented and solved.
The film goes to great lengths to show Tiana's background, the child of hardworking, married parents (voiced by Terrence Howard and Oprah). The animators have a number of shots where the wedding bands our clear on both characters' hands. Now is this to show that there could be happily married African-American couples at this time? Is it so impossible to believe this as an actuality? Or do they want to paint these characters in an especially positive light? Most Disney heroines don't come from two family households to begin with so would it really matter if the weren't married? Would that be so morally indefensible? It's muddled. But either way Tiana's parents imbue her with a strong work ethic and the traditional Disney trope of wishing upon a star is upended. Tiana's mother tells her daughter early on that wishing will only take you so far, its Tiana's personal agency that will take her the rest of the way. Tiana also is shown early on to reject the conventional princess ethos. Its her friend Lotty that longs for dresses and castles and handsome princes (and this obsession is used to great comedic effect-aided by the marvelous animators and vocal performance of Miss Cody). Tiana has managed to succeed in spite of her socio-economic disadvantages and this is truly admirable. She has no interest in a man or frog for that matter. Her bliss is found elsewhere. Which is why the ending rings false. The story goes to such great lengths to make Tiana different from other Disney leading ladies but then forces her into a relationship that nothing previously established by her character would push her towards. Her biggest issue is that she is so busy waitresssing that she doesn't have time for much of social life. Big whoop. Tiana's I want song "Almost There" (beautifully conceived by modern legend Eric Goldberg in an alternative jazzy art-deco style) makes it clear her joy and satisfaction would most certainly come from the community that would emerge as a result of her work. So why does she need a husband?
That being said, you can't analyze a film for what it isn't, you must analyze the film for what it is. If you're not putting it through a pedagogical ringer The Princess and the Frog works. It's funny, moving and gorgeous. The animators have worked to bring back the grandeur of those modern classic hand-drawn films and the picture has a grace and fluidity that is distinct from CGI. The movie is big and grand and its swamps and cityscapes are rendered in lush detail. The music too is memorable as composer Randy Newman works in a variety of Southern musical styles. Each number is well sung and given genuine show-stopping power so don't be surprised if your audience breaks out into applause.
Even the side characters that provide the comic relief feel a little deeper this time around. There is Louis (another Broadway vet, Michael Leon-Wooley) , a trumpet playing alligator who craves validation for his extraordinary trumpet skills (the resolution of the characters doesn't quite go as one might expect). Then there's firefly Raymond. From the trailer and rather gimmicky posters I assumed this character was going to be one big butt joke after another. Boy was I wrong. Ray has the best conventional love arc of the film and is probably going to be the audience favorite when they close the book on this one. Voiced by long time voice -acting vet Jim Cummings (you probably know him as Pooh or Pete from Goof Troop) Cummings gets lots of laughs but very tender emotional beats as well since Ray is in love with Evangeline, the wishing star that he believes to be a beautiful firefly. The resolution of this character is going to move all but the most stone-hearted of viewers.
The film isn't perfect but it works in a lot of ways that count, first and foremost is that it is an extremely entertaining animated fairy tale that will delight all ages and likely make the older one's think a little harder about what they've seen before in Disney films. My highest compliment I can pay the film is that I can easily see it in a few years standing beside Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. I really would love to hear feedback on this film as there are plenty of other intriguing issues the film raises and some stuff that didn't fit in this review. Be our guest.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

May Your Days Be Merry and Bright


Since the blog has been resurrected one of my most fervent and enthusiastic supporters of the blog has been Football Chick. As a special holiday gift I asked if there was a particular film she'd like me to look at and after pursuing the list she gave me I thought it would be appropriate to look at the much beloved X-mas favorite White Christmas.

The film is directed by Michael Curtiz, a reliable Austrian-born studio hand who could ably tackle a variety of genres and is responsible for some genuine classics including Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, Mildred Pierce, Captain Blood, Yankee Doodle Dandy and some film about some lovers whose problems didn't amount to a hill of beans in this world. White Christmas comes towards the end of a nearly four decade career which included a couple of musicals. One of which, Yankee Doodle Dandy, the story of Broadway producer and star George M. Cohan is practically choked with patriotism. I raise this point as White Christmas is a film that also has decidedly militaristic in its origins.

The story begins unsurprisingly, with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye singing Irving Berlin's classic "White Christmas" behind a backdrop of a Rockwellian Americana winter. But the camera pulls out further and further to reveal that this is no scenic idyll but instead a backdrop and that the two singers are really entertaining a troop battalion in the middle of a war zone. Its a startling at first, eliciting a laugh but then Curtiz cuts to the faces of the men in the crowd and suddenly it becomes a deeply resonant moment to remind the men of happier times. Its interesting because the film as it progresses vacillates back and forth between how nice it is to be back at home while at the same time extolling the virtues of unit camaraderie and the honor that goes with the service. As the scene continues Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) have plans to celebrate their soon to retire General Waverly (Dean Jagger). Waverly's celebration, filled with much reverence is interrupted by cannon-fire and Phil saves Bob from a wall that is about to collapse on him though is injured in the process.

While in recovery Phil convinces Bob that the two should be performing partners. Its an odd dynamic at this point because unlike most musical comedy teams in films these two don't start as friends. There is a class difference at work here. Bob is the clear superior her and Phil is the more diminutive one. It's an unusual dynamic as it allows for the two to often be at uncomfortable odds with each other. Which in turn allows for all sorts of complications to arise once the plot kicks in. But first MUSIC:

This film is loaded stuffed to bursting with excellent Irving Berlin songs including "Heat Wave", "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy", "Blue Skies", "The Best Things Happen When You're Dancing" and a twice reprised "Sisters." The song is originally sung by a sister-act duo played by Rosemarry Clooney (the sensible one) and Vea-Ellen (the looser, better dancer). It's a nice example of how a song, even a classical book number, if staged properly can inform both plot and character. The first time the song is sung its almost a dare, to get the two stars interested. Each subsequent time alters the meaning a bit. The more goofy Kaye is immediately struck by Ellen and wants Crosby to pair with Clooney so the two aren't constantly bogged down with work. To this end Kaye convinces Crosby to head to follow the girls to a snow lodge in Vermont. Unfortunately the weather is unseasonably warm for Vermont and no snow means no business. Everyone is set to go until who should they discover running the hotel? The retired General Waverly of course. From this point on the story follows the standard boiler-plate lets put on a show/backstage romance with the typical farce complications and misunderstandings. Does it all end happily with a last minute snow fall and the lovers united? What do you think?

What's intriguing is that the final scene cleverly inverts the first. General Carver is now again being honored only this time the artifice is of the war and the reality is the picturesque Americana. The film's through-line often seems more concerned with the idea of the bonds of military men. The obligation that one owes their unit is a point repeated again and again in the
film and the idea that our military leaders are figures of the utmost respect takes its place over the typical family bond one finds in holiday films. I was surprised by the film's military streak but it hardly upset my sensibilities. Curtiz as one of the group of key filmmakers that escaped Germany in advance of Hitler could certainly appreciate the value of the American military. As such, the film treats these subjects with the utmost respect and narrowly skirts sentimentality for genuine sentiment. The conclusion of the film is at once moving and tender and the film as a whole was a pretty enjoyable watch. Even when things get a touch maudlin toward the end of act three Kaye is always able to come in for a bit of deft comedic business (even the potentially un-P.C. number "I'd Rather See a Minstrel Show" comes off way better then it could turn out).
For this member of the tribe the barometer of a great Christmas film is one I'm happy to return to year after year (and is more about good feelings and cheer as opposed to, y'know, Jesus and Santa). I am happy to report that White Christmas should seamlessly slide into the rotation of A Christmas Story, Scrooged, A Charlie Brown Christmas, It's A Wonderful Life and Gremlins.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Linkvictus

Links HO!

Lists: Mr. Breaks continues his excellent list of the Best of the Decade here, here and here.
Cinematical provides a pretty thorough look at the best action films of the decade. This would be an excellent launching point for someone interested in this particular genre of the decade.
Here is a look at 100 Greatest Films outside the standard cannon, worth a look.
Time Magazine has posted its Top 10 of everything including films. You'll likely be shocked by their number one pick, but who knows, I haven't seen it yet.
Shock Till You Drop provides an excellent list of the Top 25 Horror films of the Decade.

Funny: Here is Disney's first movie featuring a JEWISH princess. Very funny.
An amusing music video on the plot-holes in Dark Knight.
Not everyone is a musical theater buff like me and thus been exposed to the theatrical and nerd train wreck that is It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, but thank to the internet now you can.
The ISS has a funnier take down of the dreck I was baggin' on last week.

Interviews: The great Tony Curtis, hipster essayist Chuck KlostermanAnd Roger Ebert reminisces when actors were VERY candid about their interview answers.

Analysis: Two wonderful pieces from The House Next Door and Kim Newman takes an intriguing look at Eyes Wide Shut.

Miscellany: That gang from down South; David Gordon Green, Jody Hill and Danny "Kenny Fucking Powers" McBride have gone and gotten themselves a production company. Keep an eye on it people, these are three extremely talented young guys.
This got a lot of play this week so you may have seen it but here is David Lynch explaining why he didn't take George Lucas up on his offer to direct Return of the Jedi.
Check out these very detailed maps of Jurassic Park.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Harry Potter Meme


Samuraifrog brought this meme to my attention.

Here we go.

01. If you went to Hogwarts, which house would you be sorted in?
Alexis and I would be in Hufflepuff and we'd make it COOL!

02. Have you ever been to a Harry Potter midnight book release?
Nope, though I know people who have.

03. What did you think of Deathly Hallows?
You could've saved a lot of tress and about 150 pages if she just wrote "Harry, Ron and Hermione hiked through the woods for several weeks getting increasingly cross with each other. Then all of a sudden Harry saw a stag."

04. How many times have you reread the books?
One time each.

05. Whose death was the saddest?
Spoiler alert: Fred.

06. If you went to Hogwarts, would you rather have a pet owl, cat, or rat?
Frilled Lizard. My power animal.

07. What did you think of the movie Half-Blood Prince?
Haven't seen it yet. In my netflix q, will probably come some time in the next few weeks.

08. What do you think of Deathly Hallows being split in half?
They better make a good chunk of the second movie the battle of Hogwarts.

09. Have you read The Tales of Beedle the Bard?
No, I've get plenty of other dorky shit to read.

10. When did you first become a Harry Potter fan?
A certain web/MTV celebrity lent me already borrowed copies of the first three books. I said "I'm only going to read one of these." He said, "No you won't."

Favorites
Female Character? Fleur Delacourt
Male Character? Lee Jordan
Professor? Professor Snape (because James Potter was a massive tool)
Death Eater? Lucius Malfoy
Magical Creature? Hippogriffs
Spell? Don't care
Quote? Dumbledore saying "it's our choices, not our abilities, that make us who we are."
Book? Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Movie? Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron baby)
Hogwarts House? Hufflepuff (we'd make it COOL!)
Place? Hagrid's cabin
Weasley? Molly Weasley
Couple? Hermione and Ron

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In the Red: Paper Heart & Gomorrah

Paper Heart is twee, but not so twee as to be unwatchable. Cute, but no so cute as to be lovable and clever, but not nearly as clever as it think it is. The film plays around with reality by having the film be a faux documentary; intermingling actual interview sections with Charlene Yi (who was less cloying and obnoxious then I thought she'd be), staged and improvised sections where Yi is starting up a reluctant romance with Michael Cera and finally staged paper doll retellings of love stories. It works but never really coheres. If you think you might find this adorable you probably will. I can't fathom why they attempted to try to make this seem real, what was the point? Why hire someone else to play the director? There's a lot of needless artifice here. I will admit though to laughing pretty hard when Yi was interviewing a bunch of young girl who volunteered that they were in love with Chris Brown (in hindsight that may have been a bad idea).
Gamorrah is Matteo Garrone's gritty, noisy, messy and uncompromising gangster drama set in Italy. We've come a LONG way from the attempts as civility and honor found in the Godfather.
Now would-be street kids quote the DePalma Scarface at each other unaware tha they're caught up in the game that's likely to get them all killed and little to no chance of ever reaching that level of wealth and excess. The film does a very through job of showing many different levels and rites of passage for young and old gangsters. From Don's to wannabes the film gives a sense of Wire-like depth to its world in its short (for a gangster epic) run-time. Its easy to get lost in this very busy world but attentive reviewers will be rewarded with fairly well developed characters and even the casual viewer will be struck by the powerful set-pieces (like a young boy's bullet test or testing out heavy weapons on the beach). Recommended for fans of more street level crime amongst the ruins as seen in City of God and La Haine.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Remember, remember the rest of December

Every once in a while I like to map out what's coming on the blog to give me goals to hit and something for readers to expect and look forward to. Work is going to keep me pretty busy from December 21-27 but before and after that expect lots of bloggy goodness.

In the week to come you'll see:
A plea to see The Room
Red Envelope Reviews for Gomorrah and Paper Heart
A special thank you post/review

In the week after that:
Very likely reviews for: The Princess and the Frog, Invictus and/or The Lovely Bones
Less likely to see reviews for: A Single Man (just don't know who I will get to see it with me)
Wish I could but probably won't see: The Slammin' Salmon (though you never know)

December 18-21:
Maybe (hopefully) an Avatar review and/or a Nine review.

I'll probably take a break for Christmas and New Years and then at the start of January you'll hear my takes on Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasus, Crazy Heart and Sherlock Holmes. Maybe It's Complicated.

Of course looking way ahead you'll get my best of 2009. I did one of these for 2007 and it was MAMMOTH. Expect a similar thing for 2009. I just want to make sure I see as many 2009 movies I can to really make sure it s a balanced, thorough list. I mean good lord, almost 12 months and I've only see 46 2009 releases according to imdb. Better step it up.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Of Swans and Sharks


How deep do you want to go? This is the question that faces all discerning film-goers as they sit down in their seats. When one begins to analyze and critique a film does one examine its success in being an example of formalism? Will you look at plotting and structure? At mise-en-scene? How the film's style informs its content? In these arenas Up In the Air is an unqualified success and for many audiences (and very likely Oscar voters) this will be more than enough. Its timely, well-made and well-acted and, to its credit, wears its symbolism on its sleeve. But as I left the theater I wondered, couldn't there be more?
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) lives his life in perfectly organized increments always on the move in order to live the most elite, hassle free life-style one can imagine. He is a man who not only lives without enduring human attachments, but actively works to promote his lifestyle as a motivational speaker. His day-job is also reliant on his unique ability to both inspire and detach as he is part of a firm that is hired by corporations to terminate employees. When a young upstart (Anna Kendrick) comes to the company with a concept of firing by webcam, potentially hobbling Bingham's jet-set lifestyle, Bingham protests and insists he take her on the road to teach her how to REALLY fire someone.
As an ingenue full of optimism Kendrick serves as a nice-counterpoint to Clooney as well as a solid comedic foil. He challenges her optimism and general world-view and while their lines are clever as they banter back and forth, they never carry any real weight. In the film one is either hokey and corny for wanting to settle down and maintain a relationship or is slick, cool and hollow while ultimately remaining detached. The film never really finds a middle ground between these two. This is a film of slick and polished surfaces much like Clooney and his erstwhile paramour Alex (Vera Farmiga) who describes herself as like Clooney's Bingham ("I'm you with a vagina"). The film turns, as one may expect a mainstream dramedy like this would, however it's message, something about how we all need a co-pilot, is ultimately being mocked by the characters as much as they eventually embrace it. Attempts at verisimilitude and timeliness are given gravitas by following on the tradition of Reds and When Harry met Sally by sporadically inter-cuttng with talking head segments with real people who've been fired. They're poignant but inessential. Ostensibly a good deal of the audience is now VERY familiar with the feelings that come with being terminated so the film isn't presenting anything new and it never really points TOWARD anything.

Mind you, there is a lot to like and enjoy about the film. I was very wrapped up in it as I was watching. The script, while surface, is sharp and compact. It lets us know the characters and then twists and reverses where appropriate. It hits its comedic and dramatic beats well and knows how to effectively transition between both modes. It also packs the film to the brim with reliable character actors all doing great work and bouncing off each other well. J.K. Simmons renders all the real terminated pointless with his great scene as Kendrick's first fire. Danny McBride and Melanie Lynskey make for adorable grounded relatives of Clooneys and Zach Galifinakas reigns it in but still manages to be hilarious in a brief moment. Sam Elliot is also used to great effect in a scene that relies more on iconography then anything else.
No matter what broader, trend or lesson that can be garnered from Up In the Air, one thing is clear; that Farmiga has better chemistry with Clooney than anyone he's been paired with onscreen outside of Brad Pitt. Farmiga may be familiar to viewers as the distinctly cat-less psychologist in the Departed (though she always be Mrs. Joey Gazelle to me from Running Scared). She wears her age and experience as a badge of honor and is effortlessly sexy and competent. She too wishes to avoid entanglements but can't help get caught up in her very adult (in terms of maturity more so than content) flirtation with Clooney. The film never riffs on her age or underlines that she's sexy in spite of anything, she just comes to the film fully formed and her confidence and innate sense of how she defines herself is very appealing. Similarly with Clooney, this part fits him like a glove. Virtually any other actor would be an abysmal failure in this role. Bingham, for al intents and purposes is an anti-social shmuck. He mistakes knowledge and status for for genuine human worth. Any number of actors would make the character unbearable but Clooney seduces everyone; from employees he's terminating to the audience. We even emulate him to some degree so that when the time comes when he lowers his defenses and has to be vulnerable it has that much more impact. Kendrick, the third part of the unconventional family unit, will be a revelation to audiences who missed her from her stage work, wonderful appearance in Rocket Science and as the most appealing thing about the Twilight series.
I've no doubt that audience and Oscar voters will leave the theater having enjoyed the film. Reitman as screenwriter and director has a firm grasp of his craft and has now made three film where protagonists eventually warm to relationships they once kept at arms length. I eagerly look forward for Reitman to bring the audience in closer and let us see deeper into his films beyond the slick, shiny veneer of his craft.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Cussing Good Time

What a phenomenal challenge for a director it must be to adapt a very distinct voice while adding your own particular voice to it. What a delight it must be one succeeds at it so spectacularly. Such is the case with Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Despite reports of a very tumultuous work environment Anderson and his masterful collabrators in the field of stop-motion have made a stunning world filled with great visual enchantment.
Anderson has always had a designer's eye, where even the most minute detail of books, board games, posters and utensils is properly framed and place in every room. Orson Welles once described movie-making as playing in "the world's greatest model train set" and Anderson is the sort who has given a great deal of consideration to his set's landscape. Anderson and his crew have created a breath-taking world for Mr. Fox, his family, friends and enemies to inhabit. Though if the film were just eye-candy it would not be nearly as satisfying. What Anderson has managed to capture is Mr Fox's beguiling wickedness and amorality. He never for a moment lets us forget that these are animals who are bound to unleash their inner-beastly natures no matter how well-tailored heir tweed or attempts at honest living. Dahl's work is peppered with such encouragement toward mischief and craftiness and that has been well ported into the film.
Helping this abounding sense of craftiness is the astute casting of George Clooney, the modern age's best movie star as well as a great actor. Clooney is no stranger to playing scoundrels and rascals and his most boffo box-office has come from playing the oh-so-slick Danny Ocean so just hearing his voice coming from the Mr. Fox stop-motion figure gives the character his chops. Anderson does equally well in casting voice talent whose voice make perfect signifiers for what their character is all about. Meryl Streep as a moral centered Mrs. Fox, Jason Schwartzman (easily the highlight) as the mopey emo son, Ash, Bill Murray as a cantankerous Badger and Michael Gambon as the surly leader of the evil farmers. Oh, I mustn't forget my personal favorite Willem Dafoe as a former compatriot of Mr. Fox who now works for the farmers. He's a knife wielding loony who moves like a West Side Story dancer accompanied by a scintillating bit of score by Alexandre Desplat channeling Ennio Moricone. Its these sort of oddball details that make each of the characters memorable and not just disposable would-be merchandise opportunities for a studio.
Indeed the film retains a creation of independent spirit. It mocks the popular children's film convention of advocating the bizarre and odd-ball. When Mrs. Fox tells Ash "Everyone is a little different" he flatly denies her "I don't want to be different." In a way the film succeeds in a way that Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are doesn't. Anderson has created a film based on a childrens' book that specifically appeals to adults but can be enjoyed by anyone, whereas I'd hard pressed to think of a child who could enjoy or appreciate Jonze film (which I would favorably describe as a Bergman film covered in fur with a blood transfusion from Jackass). Anderson has created a film full of charms to delight the senses for young and old.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Everything is Link

End of the year, end of the decade, that means a butt-load of links. How much of a butt-load? If one were to quantify it into a unit of measurement I'd call it a Kardashian.

Lists:
Anyway lots of lists. Which you gotta love. Especially from my beloved AV Club.

The AV Club produced several phenomenal, thoughtful lists. Of the main list of the 50 best of the decade I've seen 42. This is nice because of the bragging rights but ALSO eight AV approved classics for me to seek out.
Here's what you can see:
Their favorite scenes of the 00's.
The best bad movies of the 00's (which got me to FINALLY rent The Room).
The best film performances of the 00's (which disappointingly seems to be lacking major comedy performances).
The best films of the 00's.
The orphans and personal favorites of the 00's.


Phew.

Also here are 9 badass actors in wussy roles.

Not enough to think about, how about a list of 100 films outside the classical cannon.

Also that clever Mr. Beaks has started putting up a well thought out, very personal list for his best of the decade. Its not done yet but here is part one and part two.

Still not enough lists? How about the 10 best tracking shots of all time (VERY DEBATABLE)!

Analysis: Matt over at the House Next Door has a cool video essay about Clint Eastwood.
"The House" also takes a look at the majestic classic Lawrence of Arabia.
I warn you if you have common sense and good taste you're not going to want to see the content of this article. Ugh, makes my ass pucker in terror.

Interviews:
Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner have lots of funny and clever things to say here. A must read.

The National Board of Review named its best of the year. Its two previous winners (Slumdog Millionaire and No Country for Old Men) went on to win Oscars. Hmmm, I wonder what this means for this year's winner Up in the Air?

Whats on the agenda for the weekend/upcoming week: I finish my Fantastic Mr. Fox review and take a look at Up in the Air and The Room (Yes, THAT The Room).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

MY EYES!

Ugh. Just...ahhhhhhhhhhhh!

1. You can't spoof comedy, especially if it was originally funny.

2. Jokes require punchlines, especially if you're modifying pre-existing jokes.

3. A reference to a commercial is not clever...basically ever.




4. RESPECT THE APATOW YOU ASSHOLES!

If this fecal-matter spread on celluloid even made an attempt to say something REMOTELY insightful about this trend in comedy I'd at least applaud the effort, but this crap was clearly just farted out to make a couple of bucks off people who are proud of themselves for recognizing that a woman gave birth to the "Can you hear me now" guy.

Ha de fucking ha.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

So yeah, this is happening


I won't be the first one and I won't be the last to note that the blocking is similar to Gyllenhaal and Ledger in the Brokeback poster. Though I bet if you did some digging you'd find that its pretty standard poster composition.
You can see it in hi-res on yahoo.

Monday, November 30, 2009

"You're a..." "Say it" "Priest"


In 1922 German director F.W. Murnau brought the first vampire to screens in his partial adaptation of Dracula in the film Nosferatu. However, it is another Murnau film that informs Korean director Chan Wook-Park's newest film Thirst, this being Murnau's Sunrise. That older film, which looks at a relationship made fragile by the grim specter of lies and death is given a jolt of the extreme shock and awe that has made Park an international sensation in films like Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.

The film, which would throw the fans of Twilight in a tizzy has built a complex artifice around a very primal morality play. In the film a well intentioned priest undergoes a radical treatment to aide in the curing of a rare blood disease. At first it appears that the disease is killing him but instead it has turned him into something beyond human. People having gotten word of his miraculous recovery and think he is truly blessed. The priest, Sang-Hyun (played by Sang Kong-hu) slowly becomes aware of what he truly is and in the course of his visits the sick he meets Tae-Ju (as played by Kim Ok-Bin). The woman is in an abusive relationship with her husband, or at least alleges to be in one. She's certainly very upset, something Park gets across in a scene that while the husband sleeps Tae-jun continues to jab cutting sheers towards the inside of his mouth and then removing them at the very last moment. A more conventional director would do this once and it would big moment. Park teases this out as she stabs down for almost a minute of screen-time. Park has always had an eye for faultless composition and artistic framing. He also knows how to produce a cut that is devastating to an audience. All these hallmarks are on display here. Though, I've no doubt Park could make a senses-shattering scary film, conventional scares is not quite whats going on here.

Instead of conventional scares Wook-Park is going for genuine human horror at what human-beings are capable of when morality is cast aside by the promise of power and lust. When Sang-Hyun's whose bloodlust is growing is asked for help by Tae-Ju he starts the two down a path that under Wook-Park's direction unspools into memorable moments of darkness. The film moves slowly, but this pacing lends power to Wook-Park's sudden swerves where characters behave in surprising ways and the plot rockets forward as our protagonists dig themselves into a deeper and deeper hole.
I'd like to go into more detail about the Sunrise comparison and the nature of these character's denigration but I feel it spoils a lot of the film's twists. I would be happy to go into more detail if its requested in the comments. Let me know.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

School Days

How comforting to know that at a time when the vacuous victim Bella Swan dominates the box office, the multiplex has room for a legitimate three-dimensional young woman. She may not be perfect, but she provides wonderful food for thought for the discerning film-goer. Meet Jenny Mellor, a young British girl growing up in an English suburb shortly before the Beatles made their first appearance and a new youth culture emerged. Jenny is incredibly bright (something she is never embarrassed or ashamed of) but yearns for more than just the stodgy world of academia where her every move has been calculated to get her into Oxford by her fuddy-duddy parents. But Jenny is conflicted. Once she pursues her life of letters then what? More academia. Living in a world where women haven't really transcended gender roles makes it difficult for her to see a life for herself beyond her schooling. Then, one day on the way home from rehearsing the cello she's caught in the rain and meets the dashing and much older David. What happens next gives Jenny an entirely new type of education in this well-crafted, very knowing character piece.
An Education comes to us from the festival circuit with much critical acclaim behind newcomer Carrey Mulligan who plays Jenny. When a performance gets this much hype one enters the film with very high expectations, or failing that, a mountain of doubt. Now this young ingenue must not only be good but defy my highest expectations. Miss Mulligan was going to have an uphill battle as some reviews have compared her to no less an iconic presence then Audrey Hepburn. What a relief and a pleasure that Mulligan not only meets expectations but surpasses them. From her first moments of the film, but especially once she is dripping wet in the rain, pins the audience to their seat with a battering ram of charisma and ethereal movie star looks. She also has that rarest of qualities in young actresses, a real life and intelligence behind her eyes. Mulligan is greatly aided in her portrayal by the deep characterization that author Nick Hornby imbues in each character in his screenplay. Jenny is bright and makes what she perceives to be good decisions. She's independent minded without coming off as whiny and immature, though she is not immune from behaving like a child. She is that wonderful swirling mass of well-realized contradictions that appears ever so rarely in films.
Mulligan may be the brightest light in this lamp, but she is hardly the only performer worthy of mention. Peter Sarsgaard is perfectly cast as David, who seems too good to be true. A cultured older man, always armed with the perfect quip, a cunning observation and a seemingly infinite number of opportunities to immerse Jenny into high cultures with trips to art auction, symphonies, night clubs and even Paris. Sarsgaard is well utilized here in that we in the audience can instantly see why he is appealing to Jenny while at the same time feel oddly uneasy about him. The same can be said for his companions as played by Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike. Good looking and pleasant but something vaguely sinister about them.
The film nimbly moves from coming of age story to a story of social mobility, a story of morality and living a fulfilled life. It would be easy to make the adults in this film simple archetypes; strict disciplinarians and easy-to-trick enablers but time and again Hornby's script peels back layers to the grown adults in Jenny's life. Director Lone Scherfig mines a lot of comedic moments from Alfred Molina as Jenny's father but as the film builds it becomes increasingly apparent that his actions and behavior don't stem strictly from a need to force Jenny into making defiant decisions. Emma Thompson as Jenny's headmistress is cutting and unforgettable in a few terse meetings with Jenny. The same goes for Olivia Williams who also shows up in a few brief spurts as a concerned teacher (and who has come a long way from the distant Ms. Cross in Rushmore). Hornby writes these characters with great panache and densely enough so that the film feels like a play, as would most stories that focus primarily on dialogue and ideas. However, backed by Scherfig, the plot is imbued with grand settings and sweeping moments to enable the audience to get swept up in the new world that seduces Jenny. Its a world I was glad to be taken away to and will likely be returning to it again in my end of the year list.

Ninja Links

Lots of cool stuff this week. Enjoy these links as you unbuckle your pants and sink into your food coma.

Funny: Kevin Smith's merits as a director are certainly debatable (he'd be the first to knock himself, no question). But as an emissary for the Geek world, well, few are as eloquent and hilarious. Check out this recently dug up clip of him breaking down why Twilight is invaluable to the larger sci-fi/fantasy community.
Speaking of Smith, here is part two of an EXYTEMELY candid interview with the man himself.
Here are two very cool very handy guides to defeating movie villains as well as what you need to know if you ever find yourself trapped in the past.

Analysis: A marvelous video essay on Truffaut's 400 Blows. Those guys at the House Next Door never fail to impress.
With the release of Me and Orson Welles cinematical has provided this handy guide for Welles beginners. God I love Welles.

Lists: Devin over at CHUD made his own list for Thanksgiving. This one features his top ten turkeys (which is to say-absolute crap films).
Cracked has compiled a list of 7 popular chick flicks that secretly hate women.
Here's a list of top 14 fictional movies within other movies.

And with the holidays fast approaching you probably want gift ideas for the nerd in your life (you must have at least one in your life if you're reading this blog). No worries, Quint of Ain't It Cool News has your covered here, here and here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thankful in 09

In honor of Thanksgiving I've come to realize that whats great about this holiday is the opportunity it grants us to stop and realize all the little, subtle things we should be thankful for that we often overlook. Here is a list of cinematic delights that I'm thankful for in 2009. Warning VERY LIGHT SPOILERS to follow.

The dance number in (500) Days of Summer
I'm all for graphic, intimate sex in film but sometimes a clever cut can tell you everything you need to know about how the previous evening went. The number to Hall & Oates "You Make My Dreams Come True" is a highlight even if you thought the movie was too twee. Get Jospeh Gordon Levitt in a musical pronto.

Sy Ableman in A Serious Man
There are a number of Oscar worthy performances in this thought provoking Coen brothers flick. But anyone who saw the film instantly knows we're "talking about character" (to quote another Coen character) when you mention Sy Abelman as expertly played by Fred Melamed. Truly worthy of standing alongside Jesus Quintata. Big Dan Teague and Sydeny Musburger in the pantheon of great Coen antagonists.

The subtlety in Adventureland
It'd be so easy to make this into a dumb sex comedy with laughable losers, wry slackers and hiss-able jocks. Greg Mottola's script and direction never let it happen.

Paul Schneider's wardrobe in Bright Star
In this sturdy, period romance the moments of levity are few and far between. But every time Charles Armitage Brown makes an appearance you know something delightful is about to happen. If you ever wondered what it would be like if an un-mauled Joker let himself go in the time of romantic poets, look no farther.

That crazy vaginal canal/tunnel in Coraline
When Coraline is birthed into another world she is really birthed into another world.

The Godzilla fight in Crank 2: High Voltage
At this point the film had surpassed the original and was just now beating its predecessors corpse with sticks.

Cat food in District 9
Or as the Prawns call it...maise.

The goat in Drag Me to Hell
When I first saw that goat be led into the seance I turned to my man-date for the film and said excitedly "Oh man they are definitely going to do some crazy shit to that goat." I was not disappointed AT ALL!

The fun time for grown-ups attitude in Duplicity
Not all movies need to be marketed to thirteen year old boys. Sometimes a movie can just be cool and slick and tricky and fun. Duplicity is all this and more.

David Koechner in Extract
Has there ever been a better annoying neighbor in the history of cinema? No seriously, I'm asking, I may want to do a list.

Raaaaaaaandy in Funny People
Need I say more.

The Pit in G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra
Your inner ten year-old mind is blown. They've got a shooting range and an undersea training area, and a launch pad and a command center and a martial arts training area and an armory and....

The contents of the trunk in The Hurt Locker
Since the preview ruined one of the film's most arm-rest squeezing surprising, I was grateful for this reveal and the craziness that ensues.

NO PHOTO AVAILABLE

Greg Levine as Hailey's Date in I Love You, Man
This young actor won audience hearts because, to quote the director's commentary, "He looked like a guy who would be on a blind date."

The English Language in In the Loop
For being used as a brutal weapon, to deceive, to inspire and to amuse. Also for gems like; "You know, if I could, I'd punch you into paralysis!" and "It's difficult, difficult lemon difficult"

Colonel Hans Landa's pipe in Inglourious Basterds
Its brilliant, intimidating, outrageous and silly all at once. Just like the movie.

Adam Brody in Jennifer's Body
Really wish they'd beefed up this part because he just slays with every line.

Danny McBride and Jorma Tacone's chemistry in Land of the Lost
When McBride says "Come on Chakka, lets go work on our business model" you laugh because he really means it.

Amelia Earheartt's "keester" in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
The rest of the performance is the only worthwhile thing in the film (obviously) , but the movie's best special effect is au natural.

That you believe in the new crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek
The fact that Star Trek succeeds based more on cast chemistry and cinematic alchemy then the script is a major miracle that I am grateful for. I only ask that they build something a bit meatier and sturdier in the next outing.

The "What Do Tiger's Dream of" song in The Hangover
Sure "We're the three best friends" got featured in the commercial ad nauseum but Ed Helms takes a low point for the characters in the film and turns it into an audience high with his delightful voice.

The score of the Informant!
Perfect!

The fact that Russell is kind of a pain in the ass in Up
Just like a real kid, you still like him anyway.

Discovering that Larry David is an ideal Woody Allen surrogate in Whatever Works
Two great tastes that go surprisingly well together. Though the part was originally written for Zero Mostel, David plays Allen's greatest crank in some time like a pro.

The fort in Where the Wild Things Are
It's going to be a place where only the things you want to happen, would happen. Also its going to have lasers that cut off the heads of people you don't like.

Twinkies in Zombieland
Because he hates sno-balls. Its the coconut. Its not the flavor, its the consistency.

That's my list. What are the little things in movies you're thankful for in movies from 2009? Tell me in the comments.