Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 10 List of 2008

2008 - a so-so year. But enough about that. Let's look at the ten best films.

1) Man on Wire - In four years of reviewing film, I have twice awarded the number one slot on my yearly top ten list to a documentary. I've been known to say that if I had to show aliens one film as a slice of humanity, I might choose Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. Now I think that's a touch cynical; I would give them a two-fer with Man on Wire. I want them to see the best of us, as well.

The film captures all the details and the breathtaking accomplishment of Philippe Petit, a French daredevil, who illegally sneaked up the World Trade Center towers in 1974 and crossed the space between on a steel wire. The word artist is overused. And yet it's hard to say this stunt doesn't qualify. And director James Marsh brings it to full artistic fruition with energetic cinema.

For certain, Man on Wire is the year's best documentary. It's also the year's best heist film (my apologies to the very satisfying The Bank Job); the best human spirit story; the best New Wave film; and it uses Petit's eerie resemblance to Malcolm McDowell to recall an era when he was a primal, youthful force of nature. The film is a celebration of youth, an enconium for innocence, a song of memory and loss, and an ode to humanity.

2) Rachel Getting Married - "It's about sisterhood." Surely, this isn't true. You know it. Rachel knows it. Kym must knows it, too, even as it passes from her ever-moving mouth. And yet when the former family superstar turned career drug rehabber tries to swipe the maid of honor role at her studious sister's wedding, it might surprise you that Rachel gives in.

You won't understand it. Nor will I. Nor most of all will Emma, the deposed maid. And yet that is the beauty of Rachel Getting Married - the Buchman family relations field a current of the unexplained, the weight of an indefinable, unseen history beyond the page or the print. When I seek to praise Rachel Getting Married, I note that I can think seriously and easily about these lives, the pasts and the futures that technically do not exist.

History tells Rachel that Kym's coup comes from her neverending selfishness and need for attention. Yet it will slip past her, and perhaps you, that it stems from something more and deeper than vanity. For deep in her heart, Kym feels the desire to love and be loved, and the fear of being cast out, for a sin for which she cannot ever fully atone.

This is a film that makes it easy to hand out the praise. To an electric Anne Hathaway and the perfect bookend in Rosemarie DeWitt. To Jonathan Demme and Declan Quinn, for giving cinematic zest to a story that could settle for a normal outing; to Bill Irwin for his belief that hot dogs can save the world; to Debra Winger for being there. And to Jenny Lumet, for giving us a script of three complete women with distinct voices and desires. If she were a former stripper who wrote in blogspeak, we would be hearing more about the emergence of an exciting new screenwriter.

3) 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days - This year, I found myself with nine films for 10 spots. So in choosing the tenth from a list of slightly problematic possibilities, I decided to go with a film with a pinky toe (a one week run) in 2007. If you're going to break the rules, you might as well break the rules for the best film.

And among those contenders, 4 Months is clearly that. Reduced too often to the phrase "the Romanian abortion movie," director Christian Mungiu's Cannes winner is a jolt of unyielding realism crafted as a horror story. Every run-in for the terrifically earthy Anamaria Marinca smolders with understated tension, as she helps her roommate seek the services of a shady abortionist in Communist-era Romania. You expect the secret police at any second. And rarely have nighttime walks seemed like such life-and-death propositions.

4) The Dark Knight - Who said, "I've had, hell, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy."

So no, it's not Batman. At least not technically. The quote comes from President George W. Bush. That the statement recalls the final choice that Batman makes - to accept villification by society in order to save it - is a credit to the film's creators - the writer-director team of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Whether or not the film is a paean to the Bush presidency or a scathing critique remains an open question.

The Dark Knight is not only this year's box office champ. It's the best film of its genre. It's a meditation on heroism, the heros we want versus the heroes we need. It's an examination of vigilantism. And it's one of the few Hollywood films this year of real scale and ambition.
Through the pretense of its comic book masquerade, The Dark Knight asks the most important question of our time - how far can a civilized society go in fighting the most destructive threats and still consider itself civilized? A Dirty Harry for our times, and I mean that in the most complimentary way.

5) The Wrestler - It would be enough for The Wrestler to be an interesting character study about a down-and-out professional wrestler scratching out a meager post-fame existence. Yet Darren Aronofsky makes Randy "The Ram" Robinson a martyr for the modern world. All that and Quiet Riot, too.

6) Entre Les Murs - Never would I think that going back to school would be as riveting as in this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner. French director Laurent Cantet squeezes human drama from every sliver of school life, from routine staff discussions to raw-nerve teacher-student confrontations. Written and acted by Francois Beaugadeau, a longtime Parisian teacher, this near-documentary speaks clearly and closely to the truth.

7) Let the Right One In - Is Tomas Alfredsson's snowbound vampire flick a horror film or a dark comedy? Well, I laughed, anyway. Thank goodness for vampires who do suck. Blood, that is.

8) Speed Racer - I'd love to be able to tell you that the candy-colored Speed Racer is a devastating intellectual landmark about the relationship among men, machines, and monkeys. But it isn't. It's simply a flashy, exuberant cornucopia of the visceral joys of watching a movie. But if you need some artsy meat to let you sing its praises at a dinner party, I've got this for you: it radicalizes visual space and liberates the viewer from the camera to a degree rarely seen in a popular film. That should make the forks return to the fondue.

9) In Search of a Midnight Kiss - In a rebound year for indie filmmaking, this is the moment I'm supposed to salute a minimalist micro-movie, like Wendy and Lucy or Chop Shop. Nah. I'm going with Alex Holdridge's splashy little New Year's Eve Internet dating romance. Why this one? Because it embodies the best values of indie filmmaking - spunk and drive and creativity and energy.

10) Snow Angels - It's been a big year for David Gordon Green. The box office success of his Judd Apatow collaboration The Pineapple Express means the longtime indie auteur can now pick up the check at dinner. Meanwhile, his domestic indie examining the thrills and torments of love was a (dis)comforting winter blast in early spring. Sam Rockwell is King of the Indies for a reason, and people forget that Kate Beckinsale arrived as an indie critics darling.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Film Comment

According to AwardsDaily:

these are the top 20 films of the year, according to Film Comment.

1. Wendy and Lucy Kelly Reichardt, U.S. 580
2. Flight of the Red Balloon Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/France 564
3. A Christmas Tale Arnaud Desplechin, France 557
4. Happy-Go-Lucky Mike Leigh, U.K. 538
5. WALL·E Andrew Stanton, U.S. 534
6. Still Life Jia Zhang-ke, Hong Kong/China 521
7. Paranoid Park Gus Van Sant, France/U.S. 465
8. Waltz with Bashir Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany 424
9. My Winnipeg Guy Maddin, Canada 406
10. Milk Gus Van Sant, U.S. 356
11. Let the Right One In Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 351
12. The Duchess of Langeais Jacques Rivette, France/Italy 335
13. The Class Laurence Cantet, France 334
14. Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman, U.S. 297
15. Hunger Steve McQueen, U.K. 289
16. Silent Light Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands 286
17. Ballast Lance Hammer, U.S. 283
18. Man on Wire James Marsh, U.K. 282
19. The Exiles Kent Mackenzie, U.S. 257
20. Gomorrah Matteo Garrone, Italy 253

I've been railing lately against arthouse critics who seem to be retreating increasingly into a eliltist shell. This top 20 basically states my case. Even if I would agree with the brilliance of a number of these choices, this is a list of films headed to the My Dinner With Andre Land of Insignificance.

I worry about the increasing gap between the taste of the elitist critical establishment and the public at large. In the end, this is a public art form, and I think the desire to turn film criticism into an elitist pursuit is ultimately detrimental to the form.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Ben Lyons, quote whore

Did Ben Lyons really say that I Am Legend was one of the greatest movies ever made? That's not even quote whore territory. That's a parody of a quote whore.

Hudson and Hawn

Looking at the cover of Modern Bride magazine this month, I was struck by how much Kate Hudson is starting to look like her mom, Goldie Hawn. No biggie. Just a randon blog thought.

Ann Savage, rest in peace

Ann Savage, star of 40s B-pictures like Detour, passed away yesterday. She apparently, at 87, has a role in Guy Maddin's much-praised My Winnipeg.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Two box office notes

I'm sorry, while some critics are up in arms about Marley and Me, I just find it hard to hate a dog movie. I have better movies to spend my energy disliking.

Meanwhile, a strong box office showing for Benjamin Button (projected mid-40s) should be welcomed. Until this happened, if The Dark Knight were not to be nominated, it could have meant exactly zero hits among the Best Picture nominees. I'm glad to see a film pointed at an older audience with so many respected people involved do so well. And I think it's great that Cate Blanchett draws flies.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Counter-Revolutionary [Revolutionary Road]

Revolutionary Road [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates
Director: Sam Mendes

We’ll start our review of Revolutionary Road with something everybody knows – that half of all American marriages end in divorce.

Like many good statistics that everybody knows, it has one basic problem. It’s not true. Divorce rates have fallen in recent years, according to the AP, to the lowest levels since 1970, about the time they started to skyrocket. Meanwhile, the number of first marriages that succeed has always been higher. It takes seven Ward and June Cleavers to make up for one Larry King.

Once you control for other factors such as age, race, income and education, the numbers change again. Divorce rates are lowest among wealthy, educated white women. The modern equivalent of women like April Wheeler, the chafing 1950s housewife at the center of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road.

The 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, written by Richard Yates, arrived with the rise of the suburb and before the rise of divorce. At that time, a novel about the emptiness of the new mass suburban lifestyle would seem racy and prophetic. Give Mr. A a dull job and a mistress. Give Mrs. A a meaningless existence of child-rearing and community theater. Let them scream at each other about their vanishing youth and lost ideals. Add crushing insight, typeface and water. Presto, you have the great American novel, circa 1960.

Now, I don't mean to belittle it. I just want to indicate that it wrestles with the social millieu of a certain time and place. In re-creating this world for the screen, Mendes mounts a handsome rendition. The British director scrubs the crassly sophomoric elements of American Beauty and effectively expands its humanity. Cinematographer Roger Deakins makes the leafy environs both sing and menace, haunted perfectly by Thomas Newman's simple score. And Mrs. Mendes, aka: Kate Winslet, delivers a magnetic performance as the story’s unhappy heroine.

Yet I mentally scrounge for any crumb of innovation, indeed anything revolutionary, that the film adds to the modern fictional suburban landscape. Revolutionary Road might succeed on its own anachronistic terms. If you consider watching two hours of the eternalized Titanic lovers going all Liz Taylor and Richard Burton entertainment. Yet I wonder if we should be making different suburban movies for a different age.

I also wonder whether these characters, Frank and April Wheeler, are the right ones to unmask the spiritual desolation of suburban culture. They would seem at least a regular fit – urban-dwelling bohemians who move out to The White Picket Wasteland due to pregnancy. Hitting the Big 3-0 (which no one thinks of as "big" anymore), they begin to take stock of where their lives are – Frank at a nowhere sales job in his father’s company, April in what she considers a suburban prison of unenlightened domesticity.

To save the family from its malaise, April dreams up a plan to move to Paris. Seeking a spiritual renewal for the couple, she’ll work as a secretary. That will give Frank time to "figure out what he really wants to do." Such a daunting prospect leads Frank to realize he has no big dreams. That leads April to realize Frank was never the special young man she thought. The Paris fantasy stabilizes the marriage for a while, before the reality of American life drags them back into unhappiness.

Mendes makes one genius decision and one tragic decision. Unfortunately for him, it's the same decision – to place his wife at the film's center. Genius because she lights up the screen. There isn’t a day that I wouldn’t pay to watch Winslet smoke a cigarette. That’s good, because there are moments when that’s all she's doing here. Her performance is one of false joys and suppressed anxiety, slowly hardening into a cold nothing.

Yet I agree with what others have noted - the film is in love with her, and that fact distorts its outlook. It has trouble admitting that April’s scheme is a delusion. An understandable and sympathetic delusion, yes. A delusion with reasons. Yet during one fight, when Frank looks like a cruel bastard for telling April she needs a shrink, I couldn't help but agree with him. All this raises an interesting question - how seriously should I take a message about the oppressive nature of marriage, Mr. Mendes, when your camera is so goopily in love with your wife?

As I watched the Wheeler marriage descend into chaos, I was reminded of a quote from the late author David Foster Wallace, a quote I admittedly can’t recite exactly from memory. In assessing an Updike protagonist from the same era, Wallace suggested maybe his misery comes not from some inherent sadness of life. Maybe he’s miserable because he’s an asshole. Perhaps the Wheelers would be more biting guides to our great wrong world if they had any social skills whatsoever. Sometimes the problem isn’t "the system" or "the culture." Sometimes the problem is you.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

On the Button [The Curious Case of Benjamin Button]

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast:Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Elias Koteas
Director: David Fincher

A deep premise with facile tendencies.

An emotional story at times detached.

An interesting character with only so much to do. I mean, besides aging backwards. Which is a pretty neat trick, if you can get it.

All these things are true about David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie inspired by a famous F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Everyone was rubbing the rabbit's foot to make it this year's great film. It settles for good, instead.

Abandoned at birth on the doorstep of a New Orleans old folks' home, Benjamin Button begins his curious case as a pint-sized old man, a white and white-haired child cared for by a black mother (Taraji P. Henson). The doctor diagnoses him with accelerated decrepitude and gives him only a short time to live. Instead, Button starts to grow younger and stronger with each passing year. He works on a tugboat, sees the war, inherits a textile empire, slowly finds love with Daisy, the woman he's always adored (a game Cate Blanchett), and soaks in life.

We learn of Benjamin's story from a journal he kept. It remains in the possession of his lifelong love, to her dying day (with Blanchett narrating the story under heavy makeup in a hospital bed). Daisy's daughter (Julia Ormond) reads from it, while her suffering mother fights for life. From the words, we join in on Benjamin's adventures. Yet their deeper meanings are left to the page.

From this premise, we should be able to gather pithy observations about life. Yet late in the film, we speed through Benjamin's twenties and thirties, when his motorcycle travels, his wealth, his youth and his lifetime of wisdom would most fully tell us about the world in which we live. Certainly, the story fulfills the George Bernard Shaw quote "Youth is wasted on the young," and touches on what it is like to age and to love. Yet the second and third levels of wisdom are not there. And while Button's heartbreaking story might leave the family short on dry eyes and dry hankies, many will awaken to its tender manipulations with time.

Among the film's curious cases is why Fincher, the director of Fight Club and Zodiac, would choose such a heartwarming project. Written by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth (and bearing a noticeable resemblance thereof), it would seem to go against his darker nature. Certainly his impressive skill with creating obsessively perfect images, lathered here in CGI effects, lends the movie the feel of a tall tale. And yet it sometimes seems like the year's second case of a dark-natured filmmaker moonlighting artificially in the world of happiness. Like Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky, it can seem like a person feeling around an emotion as an outsider.

So what can we take from Button? That more than any other high-wattage star, Pitt nobly never takes on less than interesting projects. That Blanchett is never less than good, even when she isn't quite the Great Cate. That Taraji P. Henson, playing Pitt's warm doorstep mother, has a very solid career ahead. That the Academy is likely to bestow upon Fincher a makeup call for the omission of Zodiac last year (as it likely will for that film's star, Robert Downey Jr.). In the end, I really can't complain about such a call. Even if I can't quite summon love, this is a respectable effort with a story that is difficult to convert to the screen. If it finds a place in America's heart, I would have no objection. It could age well.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

IndieWire ruins my dating life

Reading through the IndieWire Critics Poll comment section, I wonder it is possible to have a more distilled sampling of intellectualized stupidity and people who take themselves too seriously. Are these happy people? Why do people hate us? Could you all stop ruining my dating life?

Scott: Received Wisdom

The key words in AO Scott's review of this year's films is "received wisdom." I love his point about it - that even the allegedly thoughtful films operate on pre-pressed narratives and premises. I think that's the biggest ailment in the film industry at the moment. I can mention any number of films that his statement reminds me of. I'm not sure about the minimalist micro-stories being the solution, however. I haven't seen Wendy and Lucy yet, but having seen Kelly Reichardt's previous laconic outing Old Joy, and having seen Chop Shop recently, I'm just not convinced that's the way out. While I'm happy to see films like these, I wouldn't want every film to be like them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Love and marriage on film

[Possible spoilers]

After watching the marital strife in Revolutionary Road, I've been thinking, in nearly four years as a film critic, how many films have I seen with happy or at least loving marriages? I don't mean films that end in weddings. I mean films where mature main characters experience a significant length of the story as husband and wife. The ones I can come up with off the top of my head:

The New World (the last section)
The Fountain (although cancer keeps it from happiness)
Tell No One (but separated for most of the film)
World Trade Center
The X-Files: I Want to Believe (technically not married, and takes place in a rough patch)

I'm sure I'll think of more. But it's a rather distressingly small list. Mike Leigh has said that Happy-Go-Lucky was his attempt to see if you could make an interesting film about a fundamentally happy character. I've been wondering, can a modern filmmaker make a film starring a happily married couple? I don't know. But I'm surprised that few have tried.

UPDATE: The Namesake

Don't call it a comeback

I keep seeing "the return of Mickey Rourke" talk about The Wrestler. Which makes me wonder, when exactly was he gone? He was a highlight of Sin City. He was good as a bounty hunter in the terribly misunderstood Domino. That's not exactly Will Smith, but it's not exactly being idle.

Ten means ten

One thing I dislike intensely: critics who can't pare down their top ten lists to ten films. This is not exactly an onerous occupation. Why make one of the few semi-hard things you do each year any easier?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beyond the walls [Entre Les Murs]

Entre Les Murs (aka: Between the Walls; aka The Class)
Grade: A
Cast: Francois Begaudeau
Director: Laurent Cantet

If you’re Christmas shopping for your favorite film critic, give him three good films from a single country and let him declare a “New Wave.”

There is nothing a film critic more likes to do. Yet the recent proliferation of supposed New Waves obscures one fact – the majority of classic films have come from two nations, the United States of America and France.

While Italy and England and Japan pitch in, these two nations consistently produce the greatest share of excellence. They also seem to trade decades. When Hollywood was down in the early 1960s, the French New Wave filled the gap. The American indie shaped the nineties, a down period for French film.

In most eyes, that down period has ended, and French film is once again peaking. The French resurgence was consecrated this year by the selection of the classroom drama Entre Les Murs as the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. Root, root, root for the home team – it was the first Frog victory in more than 20 years. In film years, that seems almost as long as the French army’s last victory. Under Joan of Arc.

Portraying a year in the life of a middle school in a tough Parisian immigrant neighborhood, Laurent Cantet’s feature isn’t a documentary. But it looks like one. And it feels like one. The students are real students, chosen from volunteers at a real Parisian school. The teacher Francois Marin is played by Francois Begaudeau, a longtime educator who wrote the screenplay and the memoir on which it is based. The Socratian teaching methods that he demonstrates are the same that he used as a teacher. The situations often are based on real events. This is perhaps as close as one can come to real life and remain technically fictional. For verisimilitude junkies, it’s hard to get a more powerful hit.

Entre Les Murs literally means “Between the Walls” (although in English countries, it is going by the title The Class). We join Francois briefly at a coffee shop on the first day of school. Thirty seconds later, he and we enter the school doors. The camera never leaves. All drama is generated within the school grounds by its residents, and the resolutions take place there, as well.

We’re conditioned to the Stand and Deliver tropes of the high school film. This one only occasionally succumbs to those rules. It finds drama in what one might think are mundane details of school life – staff meetings, parent conferences, philosophical disagreements. Most of all, the drama comes from the interaction in the classroom, from the give and take between the teacher and 20 curious minds. Only towards the end does the film take on a traditional schoolhouse dramatic conflict, the disciplining of the school’s biggest miscreant. Yet the final showdown erupts not from drugs or guns or gangs, but from an overreaction to a teacher’s moment of weakness. Even the needed discipline presents unexpected moral questions for the teaching staff.

With its methodical commitment to getting things right, the film captures the routine joys and frustrations of teaching. It presents both the classroom and the emerging multicultural French society as organic entities. It gives us the most realistic, least sentimental sense of the true profession that we’re likely to find onscreen.

Sam Bottoms, rest in peace

Corporal Lance Johnson will either fight or surf in Heaven, as actor Sam Bottoms dies of brain cancer at an all-too-young 53 years of age. Aside from his memorable role going up river in Apocalypse Now, he also had significant roles in The Last Picture Show and The Outlaw Josey Wales. Coppola, Bogdanovich and Eastwood. Not a bad roster of seventies classics at all.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Passion of the Ram [The Wrestler]

The Wrestler [R]
Grade: A
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Darren Aronofsky

Using unorthodox strangleholds, filmmakers have long wrestled with the figure of Christ. Few achieve the full body slam as strangely as The Wrestler, an outstanding tag-team combo of professional wrestling, Rocky, and The Passion of the Christ.

The French director Robert Bresson presented Christ as a mule in 1966’s Au Hasard Balthasar. Here, Darren Aronofsky presents the Savior as a Ram – Randy “Ram” Robinson (a superb Mickey Rourke), a gentle-giant pro wrestling star of the 1980s. Left now in poverty somewhere in Pennsylvania, he scratches a meager living from a warehouse job and small weekend wrestling events, set in ill-lit halls before a couple hundred men screaming for blood.

We’re tipped to his holy bearing in his favorite strip club. His lone adult friend, an exotic dancer played by Marisa Tomei, gushes about The Passion of the Christ during a lap dance. She insists the long-haired Ram looks like Jesus. Ram pays the Son of Man the highest tough-guy compliment – “He was one tough dude.” Soon, Ram will suffer disgusting wounds in an all-out, hardcore wrestling match – courtesy shattered glass, barbed wire, and a staple gun – bleeding profusely for the audience’s lust and gluttony.

Sidelined permanently by health and given a small reprieve from fate, Ram is tempted with a normal life. He finds momentary satisfaction with earthly things – a new job that better fits his personality, a rapprochement with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), a possible normal future with his stripper Mary Magdalene. Yet Ram will instead choose to tempt death in the only manner that stays true to his calling –as a turnbuckle martyr for the sins of American violence and excess.

Much has been made of Aronofsky’s stylistic departure. He replaces the eyeblink editing style of Pi and Requiem for a Dream with long takes and character study. The down-and-dirty realism seems like a head-snapping change from those films’ hyperrealism, as well as the fanciful sci-fi surrealism of The Fountain. However, the differences are less than meet the eye, as The Wrestler shares thematic consistency. By misusing damaging steroids for temporary glory, Ram, like Requiem’s junkies, takes the drug-fueled, self-annihilating shortcut to the American Dream. The Wrestler also revisits The Fountain’s dilemma – whether to hold on to life as a medical miracle or to gracefully accept death on your own terms.

For Rourke, Ram is faintly autobiographical. A boxer before he was a thespian, few remember that the actor took a break for a brief boxing career in the nineties. A genre unto himself two decades ago, Rourke is a relic of a type of film, the racy erotic thriller, that fundamentally no longer exists. Thus, he knows what it is to be an athletic showman and a vicarious warrior for a snarling crowd. Likewise, he brings pathos to a decent man's search for dignity in the gap between obsolescence and death.

DFWFCA awards

The Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association revealed its year-end awards. The Organization has a longstanding track record of picking the Oscar winner as its number one picture. So this year looks like Slumdog Millionaire.

TDK, Emerson and Cinema Blend

So I was reading this disagreement between Jim Emerson, a talented critic best known for work on Roger Ebert's web site, and Josh Tyler, a Dallas based guy who run Cinema Blend. Here's the post sparking the disagreement. I find Emerson to be way off base. Here was my response.

The Dark Knight asks this question:

To what lengths can a "civilized" society go to fight the most destructive threats and still look itself in the mirror?

If a critic or a viewer doesn't appreciate that this is one of the central questions of our time, I can't help.

It is also a film of unusual scale and ambition, as well as the best film in its genre by a significant margin, a genre of which I am not a particular fan and certainly not a fanboy. In fact, I didn't think much of Batman Begins.

It clandestinely touches on generational issues, which makes it and its predecessor a favorite of those who follow generational theory. It's also a neat diagnosis of the Bush administration, which led to some of the most interesting film conversations I've had this year.

For these reasons in my little Top Ten list, nine out of ten will be indies and docs. And the tenth will be The Dark Knight.

I think some critics have difficulty appreciating that public taste has as much say in determining classics as critical support. There's a reason for this - often the public has its finger on the pulse of what's going on in society. For that reason, I think a critic ignores popularity at his or her own peril. You're an excellent critic, Jim, but I think it would behoove you to appreciate this, if you don't. Unless you sit around on holidays watching My Dinner With Andre rather than The Terminator.

As to Josh, I know him a little bit, from screenings and his work. Maybe he doesn't currently write for The New York Times, but he's hardly the death of film criticism. I find him a conscientious viewer and writer, and a guy who likes good films for the right reasons.

In fact, the real threat to film criticism comes not from its democratization but from the reactive desire on the part of the best critics to retreat into a cinematic monastery. The fact that common people love the medium enough to regularly sit in the dark for two hours and write about their experience is a sign of health, not sickness. If there isn't a space for the Josh Tylers at the film writing table, then film criticism deserves to die.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

DaMN, Startlegram to pool critics

Interesting. The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram are pooling their critic resources with plans for joint reviews. I assume this will apply to the film critics. It's smart. It beats as much wire copy as they run. The Morning News is down to one staff film critic, Tom Maurstad, as Chris Vognar is currently doing a year at Harvard. Still, they should hire me as a stringer. :) I wonder if the Denton boys are in on this. Belo owns them, too.

Hugh Jackman?

Hugh Jackman might be People's Sexiest Man Alive. But he's also the Leading Man of Last Resort. Whenever I see him starring, I wonder which actors turned down the role. Now I wonder who turned down the Oscar host gig.

Regardless of the job he might or might not do, I'm not sure who is going to tune in to see Hugh Jackman. Especially in comparison to my choice, Tina Fey. I'm guessing the AMPAS people are now really, really hoping for a BP nom for The Dark Knight. Because Jackman hosting a BP race with Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Revolutionary Road/Doubt ain't gonna draw flies to the telecast. It will be easily the lowest rated Oscars telecast ever.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Doubt, doubt, doubt, doubt [Doubt]

Doubt [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Director: John Patrick Shanley

What do you do when you’re not sure?

It’s rare that a film sums up its theme so neatly in the first paragraph. Such is the case with Doubt, in which writer/director John Patrick Shanley adapts his award-winning stage play to the screen. Despite a couple of natural warning signs – a pretentious subtitle (A Parable) and a writer who goes by all three names – Doubt fashions a certainly good story.

Doubt is a story of possible pederasty set in a Massachusetts Catholic church and school. It’s also a story about the direction of the Church in the 1960s, in the approaching era of Vatican II. Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the boyish new priest, believes in a friendlier church and a gospel of love. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the old-school nun who thinks ballpoint pens are the work of the devil. Their battle sparks over the Father’s interest in one boy, the first black child to enter the school. Is the priest merely putting his kindness into practice, or is there something more and improper?

Are those enough cultural flashpoints for you? The story is painstaking in developing a clash of old and new ways. Streep even symbolically uses the phrase “winds of change” to refer to downed limbs. We are spared the Scorpions showing up to perform their tune. But barely.

This subtle, hushed story is painstakingly intelligent, too. In our current movie climate, that’s a hard virtue to ignore. Unfairly jumping to conclusions that might be right, its hero might be the unlikable shrew, and its villain the lively, amiable sort whom we would normally warm to immediately. Or maybe not. It’s careful not to fully convict, thereby leaving actions and righteousness in a shroud of mystery. Cinematographer Roger Deakins adds much to the mood with drab colors and careful framing, although a film about church in-fighting could use a stronger dose of pervasive doom.

Streep in particular does an excellent job feeling out her character. Yet I thought she and Hoffman, two of our finest performers, lacked something during their all-important confrontation scenes. Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt feel like sisters in Rachel Getting Married. Leo and Kate feel like warring spouses in Revolutionary Road. Streep and Hoffman feel like actors, lost in their own individual orbits and methods.

Viola Davis adds power with a very small role that’s generating Oscar talk. Yet, her character’s motivation comes across as unrealistic. It seems like a dramatic curveball for the sake of a curveball. As a teacher, Amy Adams does well in her characteristically mousy role, but there’s no actress more in need of playing an edgy prostitute.

Still, if you’re looking for an intelligent late-year selection, this would be a hard film not to recommend, beyond all …. uh, yeah, you know.

Golden Globes and awards season inertia

I don't have much to say about the Golden Globe nominations, beyond my acceptance that I'm not going to have much to cheer for come Oscar time in the Best Picture category. Unless The Dark Knight is nominated, it's possible that not one of my top ten films this year will be in the race. This year seems like it has a serious case of inertia. Other than Slumdog Millionaire, these are the same films that have been talked up since the end of last Oscar season. It's like quality doesn't matter.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kate Winslet, sex kitten

One thing that has struck me in my nearly four years of writing film reviews - how few sex scenes there are nowadays in movies. And I would guess that Kate Winslet has been in about 1/3 of the ones that I've seen. One that I recall in Little Children (is there more than one?) and two in Revolutionary Road. I'm going to see The Reader this morning. Will there be one there, or just implied? We'll see.

Anyway, there's something reassuring in this. Winslet isn't the anorexic beanpole that some stars are.

NYFCC awards

The New York Film Critics Circle made its award selections, naming Milk as Best Film to the sound of a collective "eh." At least it's a pretty good film. And it's something other than Slumdog Millionaire. But it's odd when their Best Foreign Film (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days)and their Best Documentary (Man on Wire) are both better movies.

Outside of that, I was surprised by both the selection and the quickness of selection of Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) as Best Actress. She's good, but the role of the ever-sunshiny teacher doesn't offer much range. Winning both LA and NY awards makes her seem like a lock for an Oscar nod. I'm guessing it will come at the expense of Kristin Scott Thomas, who has been blanked so far for I've Loved You So Long in a role that probably would need critical support for the Oscar nod.

I also liked the selection of Jenny Lumet for her Rachel Getting Married script.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Man on Wire, please

Why is it that all these critics groups are choosing Slumdog Millionaire over Man on Wire? Why are they choosing the phony human spirit movie over the real-life one?

LA Film Critics Circle awards

LA Critics are known to be funky with their annual awards. Sally Hawkins' Oscar fate was sealed and she will clearly not be getting an Oscar nomination after snatching the LA Film Critics Circle's Best Actress award. Melissa Leo was runner-up, so she still has a chance.

They chose Wall-E for Best Picture rather than Slumdog. I guess I can live with that. Although it's hardly 2001: A Space Odyssey or anything.

For the record, Hawkins was fine, but it's mostly a one-dimensional role.

Why wasn't ......

I informed?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

DC Critics

DC critics have made their choices, according to Ropes of Silicon. Slumdog wins. Sigh.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Tricky Dick [Frost/Nixon]

Frost/Nixon [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Matthew McFayden, Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones
Director: Ron Howard

Like the president at its center, Frost/Nixon has a difficult time being honest about itself. So it's a useful exercise to break down what the film is and isn't.

It is not a film about how BBC celebrity interviewer David Frost drove a confession out of Richard Nixon during a 1977 sit-down interview. It is the story about how Frost wrestled Nixon into enough of a half-assed apology to partially satisfy the American public.

It is not about the most important episode of Watergate journalism. We’ve seen that film. When it was called All the President's Men. It is a satisfactory anatomy of a widely watched media event.

It is not a “two men enter, one man leaves” confrontation, despite the film’s groin pull from trying to sell it that way. While deservedly never cleared of Watergate, Nixon went on to be a respected voice in foreign policy, a clandestine presidential adviser, and a riser in historian presidential rankings. Frost went on to a career of PBS interviews that Americans have to mentally squint to remember. Tell me who got the better deal, again?

Most of all, it isn't a legitimate Best Picture contender. Not in a sane universe. Which means it still is one on this planet.

Of course, that's the thing about dealing with Ron Howard films - separating the truth from the hype that inevitably accompanies them. For Howard lovers, it is not enough to have a nice film with interesting characters about a well-known event. It must be a soaring drama about one of the biggest landmarks in the history of broadcast journalism. Ever. Period. End of story. They only give out Oscars for that.

And if you fail to immediately grasp the enormous magnitude of the events found in this monumental cinematic achievement, don’t worry. Howard will do cutaway “interviews” with the characters, who will make dead certain you are completely aware of the importance of what you're watching. If you don’t believe it, just ask no less of a historical expert than Sam Rockwell. If Howard had directed Citizen Kane, it would end with an interview of Joseph Cotton. He would look right into the camera and tell you that yes, indeed, Rosebud was Kane’s childhood sled. And that its loss made him the man he became. And that it symbolized his vanished innocence. And that it was the single greatest sled ever made.

The Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe wrote about the first time he heard the emperor’s voice, how his childhood friends made fun of it, and how in the space of one day he had gone from a deity to a human. As the writer of the screenplay for The Queen, this seems to be Peter Morgan’s mission as he adapts his stage play – reducing even the most powerful figure into human size. Frost/Nixon’s goal is to show the power of television to level and democratize.

The film gives Frank Langella the opportunity to bring his well-regarded stage performance to the screen. Film people have been looking for a reason to hand him a small trophy for a while. This will be his best opportunity. Unlike the usual portrait of the paranoid schemer, he paints Nixon as almost fragile – a flawed man trying to outrun his misdeeds.

After losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, a seemingly retiring Nixon famously told the press, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet here we are, 15 years after his death, getting in a last lick. I’m not sure what this film has to say to people under 35 years of age. Some are trying to sell it as relevant to the Bush presidency. That shows the danger of doing historical analogy without a license. Nonetheless, for those old enough to remember, it is a credible re-visit to an earlier time.

National Board of Review honors

The choices of the National Board of Review, the mysterious organization that puts out the first round of end-of-year awards, came out Thursday. I'm sure venom is spreading, but Idon't think this is too bad of a list. Obviously, Film of the Year Slumdog Millionaire isn't my thing, but I recognize I am in the minority and hold no real hostility. The acting choices and Man on Wire are pleasing choices. I was surprised to see Anne Hathaway as the choice over actresses with longer track records. I don't mind the Josh Brolin selection for Milk, although Heath Ledger clearly was the top supporting performance of the year. The only major raised eyebrows for me are the top ten selection for for I Want My Son Back: The Christine Collins Story (aka: Changeling) and Slumdog's Dev Patel as "Breakthrough Actor." I haven't seen Gran Torino yet, so I have no opinion on its selections, although I'm skeptical.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Violin season

This Oscar season, there are a lot of emotionally manipulative moments, the type that take you out of the film. As a consequence, most of the Oscar contenders so far are a little underwhelming. Expect that to be an ongoing theme over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tina Fey

Tina Fey reveals the origin of the famous scar on her cheek. This is my excuse for saying something obvious - Fey is the natural choice to host the Oscars.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire [Slumdog MIllionaire]

Slumdog Millionaire [PG-13]
Grade: D
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Irfan Kahn
Director: Danny Boyle

At one point in the much-praised crowd-pleaser Slumdog Millionaire, the poor child siblings scratch out a small living by appointing themselves as tour guides at the Taj Mahal.

For a small fee, the young Muslims lead white tourists through India’s most famous monument. They tell them what they know. When they don’t know, they make otup. The reflecting pool, it turns out, has always been a nice place for a swim. When one couple asks to see “the real India,” they take them to the banks of a river, perhaps the Ganges, teeming with human ardor. As they walk to the beach, criminals loot the car. Welcome to the real India.

Do we ever see the “real India” in Slumdog Millionaire? Scripted and directed by two Brits (Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle, respectively), too much feels like a tourist’s version. The film never advances beyond a ripped-from-the-headlines level of Indian experience. Anti-Muslim riots, child exploitation, call center culture. One wonders who cut the tragic tsunami.

On the verge of winning the grand prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Jamal (Dev Patel) suffers shocking treatment in the custody of the Mumbai police. They do not believe that a poor Muslim orphan could possibly know the answers without cheating. As the interrogation continues, Jamal spins out the tale of a tough life and hard-earned knowledge. His mother dies in a religious riot. He and his brother come under the malicious care of a gangster using orphans as beggars. The pair later runs a gauntlet through the ancient and modern fa├žades of Mumbai. Jamal also pines for his childhood sweetheart Latika (Freida Pinto), whom a gangster takes as a wife.

While presenting itself as an authentic Indian tale from the slums of Mumbai, Millioinaire is rife with foreign cultural impositions. The storyline lifts the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – two drifting innocents, living on luck, pluck, and thrift, dodging the cruelties of the adult world. Others will say Oliver Twist. Its world of two young brothers – one righteous and one streetwise – also owes a debt to Boyle’s Millions. It’s true, it’s hard to question the authenticity of the depiction from a computer in North America, especially when it’s based on a book by Indian author Vikas Swarup. Yet it’s up to the film to convince me. And I don’t feel convinced in the way that I feel about Peter Weir’s Australia. Or Fernando Meirelles’ Brazil. Or Boyle’s Britain, for that matter.

In fact, Meirelles’ City of God is the most direct comparison, and in its deficiencies Slumdog Millionaire highlights the superb details of that film. City of God doesn’t just run symbolic innocents through the metaphorical evils of Brazilian favelas. It grasps the politics, the personalities, the histories, the rivalries, the secret deals, all the things that make its slum a distinctive place. When things happen in City of God, they feel like the nasty result of decades of buried psychology and history. When things happen in Millionaire, they feel like literary conceits.
That artificiality extends to the movie’s star-crossed romance. If you’re going to have an epic love story, it pays to have two young lovers who actually feel like they are in love. The phrase ”There are other fish in the sea,” should not enter your mind. Patel and Pinto are as spotty in delivering electricity as the nation of India itself.

Since his breakthrough with the Scottish druggie film Trainspotting, Boyle has found himself in the familiar position of trying to live up to early greatness. Since then, he’s bounced around that territory without fully realizing it. The zombie flick 28 Days Later has been tremendously influential. Millions is underrated. Sunshine is intriguing before falling apart at the end. If Slumdog Millionaire is his vehicle to greater acclaim, I don’t begrudge it. I just won’t be on board.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Women's pictures

This is a favorite topic of mine that has come up again with the box office success of Twilight - the new appeal of films generated for a female audience. Here's a London Times article on recent successes.

1) It's good timing, because right now, the number of talented young actresses outnumbers the young leading men significantly.

2) I like the fact that it potentially gives middle-aged actresses something to do. With the success of The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia!, this has been a big boon in Meryl Streep's career. She's gone from being thought of as the serious actress in serious roles to someone infinitely more relatable and likable. And in reverse, she gives these lighthearted films a stamp of merit that makes them harder to discount.

I would hope at some point that the Debra Wingers, Joan Allens, Barbara Hersheys etc. can get in on the action. And hopefully more of Toni Collette.

3) This article implies something that I felt at the time and have repeated ever since - The Devil Wears Prada ultimately is a more significant film from 2006 than about half of the consensus top ten movies. Not because it was a perfect. Because it was a trend-setter. It was the first true female-oriented box office success, and one with only female lead characters, at that. Not a rom-com, but a true woman's picture, in the old timey sense. Plus, it's a pretty good film. I thought long and hard about putting it in my top ten, because I thought this might happen, before going the conventional route. I wish that I had gone for it.

4) Film criticism is a male dominated field. Other than Prada, the films mentioned in the article received general thumbs down from critics. It's going to take adjustments for male critics to really "get" these films. But it shouldnt' be enough to simply push them aside.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Spiderman, Spiderman

So last time I visited my family, I turned on the tube on Saturday night and found all sorts of good things - 2001, The Wild Bunch, etc. This time ..... not so much. So my dad and I sat down and watched Spiderman on TNT. A few thoughts.

1) At the climax, The Green Goblin is forcing Spidey to make a choice between saving Mary Jane or a trolley car filled with a boy scout troop. I'm sorry, but is this any sort of dilemma? The hot girl you are in love with or a trolley car of annoying children that you don't know and who are just going to go play video games later and forget about you? Easy choice, in my book.

2) You know those kids in movies who look up at the side of a falling building headed their way but freeze up and don't run so that the hero has to swing down and save them? I've decided it's best if we just let them go. They're obviously not going to be missed in the gene pool.

3) I know, we aren't supposed to care when a character can't figure out that the voices of the superhero and the alter ego sound exactly alike. But could they at least not make it so that Mary Jane hears Spidey and Peter's voices twenty seconds apart in the same scene and still doesn't have a clue?

4) In what world would a girl look at a rich James Franco and a relatively poor Tobey Maguire and choose Tobey Maguire?

5) Mary Jane goes from loving Franco to Spiderman to Peter Parker in the course of two hours. Slut.

No stale Milk headline pun available due to lack of inspiration [Milk]

Milk [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Allison Pill
Director: Gus Van Sant

If Gus Van Sant were French, someone would already have made a statue of him.

Starting with Drugstore Cowboy (or earlier) and moving through this year’s Paranoid Park, he arguably has created as many outstanding films as any American director of the indie generation (outside of that stretch from Good Will Hunting to Finding Forester when his films made money and every too-serious filmgoer considered him a sellout.) But he’s never really mentioned as an artist of that stature.

Van Sant's best film at balancing his mainstream voice and his avant garde tendencies is Milk, a powerful new biopic of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who in the seventies became the first openly homosexual public official in the United States.

Milk is a better gay film than Brokeback Mountain and a better political film than Sean Penn’s recent stabs like All the King’s Men. While it sometimes strays a little close to hagiography, Van Sant masters Milk's life and voice. Unlike many straightforward biopics, Milk captures its character in a melange of interesting cinema. The best moment has Milk discussing a murder with a police officer, shot as a reflection in the shine of a whistle. His effort is matched and then doubled by Penn, who gives us both his gentle and righteous soul and the hard-nosed politician at the core of this trailblazer.

The film has two weaknesses. The first half is in a rush to get somewhere. It glosses over events that looked like they would be interesting to explore. It's the rare film running more than two hours that should have taken a third. It also treats Milk’s love life as a matter of fact rather than an emotional reality. Consequently, when Milk's lovers depart, it doesn’t move as it should.

The film would like to portray his 1978 shooting death from the gun of fellow city supervisor Dan White as a martyr’s death. But the film sticks to the facts. Whatever White’s prejudices, it was more a case of White going postal than an assassination, the final product of political backstabbing. Perhaps that's a matter of debate. No matter. Josh Brolin’s tightly wound performance is wonderful, a marvel in a film with plenty of them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Dark Knight and Oscar ....

I don't understand the reported Hollywood resistance to the idea of The Dark Knight as a Best Picture candidate.

I'm not sure Joe and Gertrude Blow are sitting around the house barely containing their enthusiasm about an Oscar race with Doubt, Milk, Frost/Nixon, Button, and Slumdog Millionaire. These films aren't even generating that much consistent enthusiasm among Oscar followers. Stick The Dark Knight in there and everyone is talking about the race.

And it's not like it's just a ploy to get viewers. The Dark Knight is the best major studio release of the year so far (with a few to see). It's made a zillion dollars. It's filled with ideas and ambition. It would give the public a rooting interest and generate buzz for the show. It would grab viewers who otherwise wouldn't watch the Oscar telecast. What's not to like?

I was at a dollar theater last night catching up on Burn After Reading (good film), and for whatever reason, Apocalypse Now crossed my mind while waiting for the show. Some love that film. Some think it's bombastic overkill. But I was thinking, what director would even try one of those crazy set pieces, much less all of them? Think about the opening. You sit there looking at a village in the jungle in the distance. Suddenly you hear choppers coming from behind you. But you don't see them at first. Then The Doors "The End" starts. Then you start seeing the choppers floating around dreamlike. Then the explosions. And Martin Sheen's face. Upside down. then you have the bunnies scene, the two battle scenes with Kilgore, the Do Long Bridge, the French Plantation, etc. Who makes films like that anymore?

Then I watched the trailer for The Dark Knight, which just got to that second-run theater. And I watched just that one assassination scene with the hundreds of police officers lined up in the street. And I thought, well, at least one.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Twilight and film writing

One of the things that bothers me slightly in the reaction to Twilight is how many film bloggers who run in the same circles don't want to go see it. Many of them, I suspect, would like to be film critics one day beyond their own blog site. Having done that and continuing to do it, one of the important things is learning to write about films that are not up your alley. I understand the temptation to want to stick to films that give you intellectual red meat. At the same time, though, critics have to learn how to deal with all sorts of films. You have to be able to write an intelligent and/or witty pan just as effectively as a deeply intellectual rave about an art film.

Whether you like it or not, Twilight is a cultural phenomenon that says something about where we are. If it's not your thing, it's perfectly snicker-able material, so that it's entertaining either way. It's also tremendously fertile ground for writing a fun review. It also has some things that I honestly like about it. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all if I liked, or at least respected, the next outing. The ability to write about such a film is essential to the profession.

On the Button

So is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as good as the Oscar bloggers seem to think?

Allez-y Le France

It's a popular sign of alleged sophistication to find the film work of remote, exotic nations as hail it as the next big thing. Israel. Or Romania. Or Malaysia. Or wherever. It's not as hip to point out the more obvious point - that the majority of great films in history have emerged from two nations - the United States and France.

While each film industry goes through high and low periods. France, this Guardian article argues, is going through a revival at the moment, shaking itself out a relatively dry period over the past 10-15 years. The high point, Jason Solomons argues, was last May's crowning of Entre Les Murs (The Class) with the Palm d'Or at Cannes. It was the first win for a French film in 21 years. I've seen it, and it's terrific.

Entre Les Murs also inspired me to reach the same conclusion as I was pulling into a CVS a few days after seeing it. Then this article appeared arguing the same thing. It's always amazing when your thoughts in a drug store parking lot appear in print a couple days later.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cormac everywhere

After the Oscar success of No Country for Old Men, it's suddenly full speed ahead on Cormac McCarthy adaptations. I was tooling around IMDb, and found that Blood Meridian, long rumored to be in the Ridley Scott fold, is currently being credited as the next project of Todd Field (Little Children, In the Bedroom). If he brings that puppy home successfully, a classic American novel that doesn't lend itself easily to filming, Field's stock will go way, way up.

While reading through a Blood Meridian thread, I thought, Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) would probably be a natural for the material. That inspired a "What's he up to?" moment. It turns out Dominik is making Cities of the Plain. At least according to IMDb.

Add to this the upcoming version of The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen and directed by John Hillcoat ( of the McCarthy-inspired The Proposition), and you have the unusual occurrence of three books by the same author. Not a moment too soon. McCarthy is in his mid-seventies.

Friday, November 21, 2008

There Won’t Be Blood [Twilight]

Twilight [PG-13]
Grade: D
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Ashley Greene, Peter Facinelli

There Won’t Be Blood in Twilight. Nor will there be sex, either.

As if not to disturb the chaste sensitivities of its girly audience, Catherine Hardwicke’s mostly bloodless adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s popular vampire series plays on the swoony side, passing on vein-piercing horror in favor of a teen-age romantic vibe. Whether or not that has the planet’s undead population spinning in their non-graves is hard to say.

The story is so prim that its good-guy vampires, the Cullens, favor sucking animal blood over human blood. All the better to fit into society with, my dear, a necessity when the father vampire is a respected doctor. Yet for a vampire, not only is that like being forced to eat bran flakes when you’re coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs; it’s also kind of wimpy. I guess we can toss that whole Dracula sexual metaphor out the castle window.

That has got to suck in high school. So to speak. Of course, that doesn’t prevent the school’s undercover bloodsucker, Edward Cullen (played by your daughter’s new teen sensation Robert Pattinson), from drawing flies. All James Dean glances and sexy eyebrows, this is one vampire who definitely can see himself in the mirror. Yet he keeps to himself to hide his dark, dark, dark secret – he belongs to a vampire clan that, judging by its moussed-up hairstyles and liberal use of white makeup and lip gloss, must have been bitten on the way to a Duran Duran concert sometime around Rio. (Even better, the dreadlocked leader of a rival clan looks like Eddy Grant as he rocks down to Electric Avenue. Perhaps he made it for the opening act.) If Twilight offers useful makeup tips for its young female fans, it’s how the Cullens keep it from smearing in neverending rain.

Edward quickly catches the eye and imagination of Bella Swan (Into the Wild’s Kristen Stewart), the new girl in town. Awkward and quiet despite her beauty (a name like Bella Swan is a lot to live up to), she quickly develops a thing for her dark, dark, dark dreamboat of a lab partner. Who ever thought microscope slides could be …. huuuuusssssssssh …. so romantic! Soon, he’s saving her from those everday dangers of hydroplaning minivans and horny loggers. You see, he reveals his superhuman side … only to her! All of this despite the fact, we soon find out, that Edward’s instincts are telling him to eat beautiful Bella (Ohhhhh, but not in that way. Not in this story. Nuh-uuuuuh.). It says sooooo much. When the boy of your dreams. Resists his overwhelming urge. To turn you into his granola bar.

Is it just destiny, then, an act of fate, the gods of love smiling ever down, that led young Bella to leave her Phoenix home to live in this small, cozy spot in the woods, Forks, Wash., with her stoic, distant father? As police chief, he spends most of his time enforcing the city’s ban on sentences longer than six words. He’s also looking into a mysterious chain of suspicious animal maulings. Judging by the peculiar use of fangs as a murder weapon, a serial killing critter appears to be on the loose around town. Not to mention dodging the authorities far more mastermindedly than you would expect from a rabid dog. Or a pissed-off wolf. Or a razorback hog hopped up on meth. Who’s to say, really, when we don’t have a description of the suspect?

Badly shot and cheaply made, Twilight labors painfully under its low-budget origins. Hopefully blockbuster status will rectify this situation in future chapters. At least it could improve the special effects to presentable. For instance, when Edward climbs into sunlight to reveal his glittering skin, we can barely see a difference. Meanwhile, like many first books going to the screen, Twilight gets bogged down in explanations. The dramatic structure comes unbalanced. It spends too long postponing the plot to work repetitively on the relationship.

I can live with the fact that, from a male adult perspective, the verbal declarations of love seem flat. Yet the limits placed upon the carnal impulses are stifling. In a book, younger readers are tricked into thinking of heated wording as passion, while older readers with greater sexual experience can read between the lines. Film forces choices. The result is too many sterile romantic scenes – two young lovers chatting and staring intensely, while the camera circles, desperately looking for a way to make the scene interesting. Hardwicke tries to use the lush environment to suggest deeper sexual rhythms– as Joe Wright did magnificently in Pride and Prejudice three years ago– but it isn’t strong enough. The swampy moodiness of the Pacific Northwest – mastered for various purposes in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files– too often seems impotent here.

I do like certain things about Twilight. The Coen Brothers’ man Carter Burwell delivers a nice score. The leads are friendly, if not scintillating. Maybe next time. Enough of the story remains intact that I could see why its fans have fallen in love with it. It does have one inspired scene, in which we learn that the only bats that interest these vampires have to do with baseball. The freaky family plays the sport with superhuman speed and spirit. Frankly, I wish the film would spend more time with the vampires and less with the humans.

Will Twilight satisfy its fans? Yes. No. Some. Not others. As always. Does Twilight work? As a man, I feel genetically insufficient to say. What I can do is compare it to similarly swoony romances. It’s certainly preferable to George Lucas’ goofy vocabulary in the Star Wars prequels or the waffles-and-bad-teenage-poetry of Spiderman 3. But I would rather re-watch Titanic or, even better, re-visit Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice. That film’s joy stayed with my secret girly side for several weeks. I don’t think Twilight is of the same caliber.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Twilight: Star hunch

So, a few years ago, when I first started reviewing films professionally, I found that me and my arthouse-loving cinephilia had a weird, completely contrary, completely unexpected talent for picking future stars out of movies. The most amazing story in this regard, is when, with less than two months of reviewing experience, I made a mental note of a young actor who had four or five minutes of screen time at the beginning of the Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine. I thought, "There's a guy who's going to be a star." When I checked the credits, it was polite of the young man to have an easily remembered exotic name. I'll never forget it. Shia LeBeouf. Don't ask me how I did that, because I still don't have a clue. :)

I had several more experiences like this. As I'm far too fond of mentioning, unaware of her Disney status, I had Anne Hathaway pegged as a future star from the moment she rode the horse into Brokeback Mountain. In this regard, I found The Devil Wears Prada doubly intriguing; one of the other future stars that I picked out was Emily Blunt, while watching her terrific work in My Summer of Love. That one was easier to see, since it was a co-lead role, rather than some five-minute supporting job. (By the way, whatever happened to Nathalie Press?)

So that's three. I've had two other such predictions. One was Alexandra Maria Lara from the Hitler-in-the-bunker film Der Untergang/Downfall. She's still a work in progress, although The Reader promises to introduce her to a wider American audience. And then .... where have you gone, Columbus Short? The world could use a charismatic black leading man. Especially one that can dance. Eh, four out of five wouldn't be bad.

Anyway, I haven't had that light flick on in a long while now. Then I watched Twilight, and it happened again. The name (hopefully) to remember:

Ashley Greene

Don't ask, but she has that "it" factor. That inner spunk. Watch for her. She plays Alice Cullen, the psychic vampire sister of our bloodsucking heartthrob Edward Cullen. Anyone could pick Kristen Stewart or Robert Pattinson for future stardom. But I'm sticking my neck out for Ashley Greene.

Looking at her IMDb page, her previous work consists of sparse television project appearances. Five episodes here, seven episodes there. The occasional "McDonald's customer" film role. But she's only 21 and does have a full list of apparently small films in the offing.

It's just a hunch, but it's always a fun adventure to make this sort of prediction.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Best Actress free-for-all

Unlike last year, when for Best Actress the Academy was fishing for warm bodies, this year's full crop offers tantalizing possibilities. Will Streep square off against Blanchett? Will Winslet finally win? Most gossiply delicious, which significant star is going to get left out of the party? Usually, it's the actor categories that are loaded. Not this year. Observe, the main contenders:

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road or The Reader
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Kate Beckinsale, Nothing but the Truth

That's seven significant stars. On top of that, there are at least a few more that have a chance, whose inclusion wouldn't surprise anyone, beyond the fact that they overcame such stiff competition.

Two are obscure critic's favorites:

Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky

One is a previous nominee:

Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy

And two more who are stars:

Keira Knightley, The Duchess
Nicole Kidman, Australia

Keep in mind, that I've only see Hathaway, Knightley, Hawkins, and Jolie. I need to catch up to Leo and Thomas, whose films have been released. The rest have yet to screen here. Those others mentioned are named on buzz from early screenings, or reputation, or on the theory that that actress will star in the year's most nominated film.

But the most likely scenario, at least in theory, according to "those who know," or rather "those who think they know," would go toward Hathaway, Thomas, Streep, Winslet, and either Blanchett or Jolie. I personally figure at least one of those performances won't be as good as hoped, and therefore might fall by the wayside. But anyway you slice it, except for maybe Thomas, those are big names. Between this and The Dark Knight, the Academy must love it. Imagine the buzz generated by, say, a competition involving Streep, Blanchett, Jolie, Winslet, and Hathaway or Beckinsale. Add to that a nomination for The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger. Stick in Tina Fey as the host. Suddenly you might hope that last year's Oscar ratings collapse can recover.

Personally, I would be disappointed if Hathaway's youth costs her a nod, and she's forced to wait her turn. You just never know about those things, do you, Gillian Anderson? If Jolie gets a nomination for I Want My Son Back: The Christine Collins Story .... Oops, I mean Changeling ... I don't know if I would actually barf. But I would definitely try. But she does have her promoters. And some think she deserved a nomination last year. So it remains a possibility.

I do feel for Leo, Hawkins, and maybe Williams, all of whom have generated strong reviews in small films. Last year, in a field with an unknown Frenchwoman (Cotillard), an aging ex-star (Christie), a teen-ish sensation (Page), an old reliable awards bridesmaid (Linney), and a filler nom for a great actress (Blanchett), they would have stood a very good chance. This year, they're facing stars in strong roles. While I wouldn't be shocked if one of the smaller names earned a surprise nomination, it's still an uphill climb.

Second thoughts on Synecdoche

Some have wondered about my feelings toward Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a film that seems to have hit a good spot with a number of critics for its intricate intellectualism. Since I respect the film, but find it failing in certain important regards, I thought I would write a follow-up of explanation.

Synecdoche is clearly an act of high intelligence and erudition. But that’s different from being brilliant. And that’s different still from being relevant. In my review, in consideration of its extremely inward world view and its interest in aesthetics, I compared Synecdoche to the works of James Joyce; I continue to think that is an apt comparison. Take Ulysses. There’s no question it is the product of high intelligence and erudition. It certainly is a landmark of literature. It’s also the moment that literature jumped the shark. Ten years prior, you could read a Joseph Conrad novel on multiple levels, as a sailing yarn or an intellectual masterpiece. After Ulysses, literature became increasingly academic. I mean that both ways – literally and in terms of real-life cultural relevance. Literature became the province of monastic intellectuals, huddling in academies, writing essays to each other that the non-believers in the outside world would never hear. Now, many novels are written with only that community in mind. Of all the people to stand against this trend has been Oprah Winfrey. If she has contributed one good thing for society, it's been pushing literature, sometimes very good literature, back into the public realm. the initial upturned noses that greeted her efforts were symptomatic of the problem.

A retreat into academia is a risk in a medium that works best as a public art form. The best Westerns, for example, can be combed for intellectual energy but ultimately can be - perhaps need to be - enjoyed as entertainment. We see a wonderful example of this in last year's Best Picture No Country for Old Men, itself based on what is considered one of Cormac McCarthy's pop-iest novels. I would argue that Kaufman’s previous work has been on the right side of the line, perhaps a little too much so, even. It has tended to play around with ideas rather than explore them. But this 100 percent dose of Kaufman crosses it definitively.

Second, Synecdoche is too solipsistic for my taste, and part of this distaste derives from my own experience as a minimally published writer. As a young writer, I wrote intellectualized surrealist crap. It was smart and uniquely creative. But I didn’t possess the life experience to make it relevant outside of my own head. Only when I started writing about my own outside experience, injecting my own personal creative take but maintaining a recognizable world, did I start getting published. When I watch Kaufman, while I respect the brains, I don’t think he has figured out how to do this yet. As a result, his work, and Synecdoche in particular, feels too smug and stuck in his own head. For that reason, I find its ultimate points, while intelligent, to be precious and lack a certain relevance. He sees the world as I saw it as a young man. But I’ve grown out of it, and I would like to see him do that, as well.

Keep in mind that I say this as an art film guy. As a lover of Tarkovsky. As someone who has read Gravity's Rainbow cover to cover. But I also recognize the risk of the medium becoming too academic. And being relevant to the public that pays for the films is an important part of keeping the medium healthy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Love at First Bite [Let the Right One In]

Let the Right One In [R]
Grade: B
Cast: Kare Hedebrant, Lena Leandersson
Director: Tomas Alfredson

Searching along the skin for a new vein in the vampire film, Let the Right One In finds it in the blood of a virgin.

Combining the arty European coming-of-age film and the schlocky American vampire tradition, this Swedish film tenderly examines those inevitable twin horrors of adolescence – puberty and parasitic bloodsucking. (Hey, I have my childhood. You have yours.) Amid a frozen Scandinavian winter, it slowly chills in a methodical intensity not seen since Carrie was trying on prom dresses.

From neck bites to snow drifts, the film possesses a strong tactile sense. The film’s subzero climate could form icicles on the cup holders in the theater. The snow banks in a small Swedish town are thick and permanent. Street lamps reflect palely for miles along the streets. Children play and pester in the snow.

For the awkward Oskar, most play consists of taking a beating. Things change one night while practicing that favorite childhood pastime – stabbing a tree and pretending it’s your enemy. The new girl next door drops by (I mean, like, drops by). From there, they create the best hesitant childhood romance ever formed over a Rubik’s cube. Be still my beating nerd heart.

Of course the new girl in town wouldn’t be the new girl in town if she didn’t hold a giant secret. She tends to an unusual diet. An unusual diet … OF BLOOD! No Tootsie Rolls here. Unless the Tootsie Rolls have BLOOD IN THEM! Funny the way she and her father cover their windows to blot out the sun. It’s Sweden. It’s winter. Don’t they get cold?

We get the picture. (Of course, if we got the picture, would she appear in it?) But a little slow on the ol’ Polaroid is Oskar. He’s just happy to have a friend, and a "girl"friend, at that. The strength of the film lies in the keenly observed friendship between our snowcapped Romeo and his well-fanged Juliet.

Could the film’s bite use braces? Only if you’re stuck in traditional vampire-ese. The coffins and stakes are left out in the snow. The father works with knockout gas and knives, stalking teen-agers dispassionately. When he drains his victim’s blood, you feel a drained soul.

But director Tomas Alfredson’s slow bleed of a film effectively nibbles the horror with comic glee. Our teeth sink in as terror, but the blood spurts out as dark humor. My favorite moment is a bleeding in the woods interrupted by a sweetly oblivious poodle.

While the film has a strangeness all its own, it does follow some of the horror playbook. Eli’s blood-hunting speaks to sexual awakening. The carnage-heavy swimming-pool ending feels like Oskar’s Carrie-esque dream of revenge. I left wondering if Eli is less a vampire than a specter, Oskar’s act of imaginary wish-fulfillment. Yes or no, the film itself adds up to a filmgoer’s darkest wishes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Minding our Qs [Quantum of Solace]

Quantum of Solace [PG-13]
Grade: B
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Almaric, Jeffrey Wright, Gemma Arterton
Director: Marc Forster

Yes, I know, there is no Q in the re-booted James Bond series. But we mind nothing but our Qs (not even our Ps) in this review of the new flick Quantum of Solace.

Quandary - Having so effectively re-booted its franchise with its last entry, Casino Royale, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson find themselves wondering where to go with Quantum of Solace. Royale mixed the perfect vodka martini of action-film zest and tough-guy noir. With an electrifying Daniel Craig, it looked like the series found the right balance between its traditional fantasy and the grittier modern style. So it’s kind of disappointing to see Bond going the New Coke route, a product of thinking too much about the competitor’s virtues( Jason Bourne) and not enough about its own.

Quick – Among the shortest James Bond films, Quantum banks on its light, quick editing. Action sequences are punchy and relatively short. The opening car chase really is intoxicating, but characteristically abbreviated.

Quirky – describes the direction of Marc Forster (Finding Neverland). The film looks artier than any other Bond film, as well as most action films. I appreciate the way he varies the action style from scene to scene. Some action sequences are designed for a traditional vicarious response. But a memorable opera house chase – with Bond fleeing and firing, intercut with a performance of Tosca – feels more like a dream sequence. It’s lovely, and unexpected.

Questionable – is the script partly from Paul Haggis. His script for Casino Royale played to his strengths – giving juice to the dialogue, working on character, and developing some solid themes. Yet Quantum has some unfortunate “Haggis moments.” Storylines are obvious. Motivations aren’t clear. And if you want to know the plot, Haggis will stuff it straight into the bad guy’s mouth. So much for spying, seducing, or having Goldfinger proudly blab over a diorama of Fort Knox.

Still, the plot itself is novel and intriguing. The new Bond enemy Quantum, led by a shady, bulgy-eyed businessman (Mathieu Almaric), tries to seize control of Bolivia’s water supply by staging a coup to insert their favorite general. Try selling a water domination plot to a Hollywood executive under other circumstances.
The film also treats Bond as an interesting enigma. Is he looking for revenge for the death of his beloved Vesper, or is he doing his duty? It also has its share of witty lines, with shades of dark humor, and Craig confidently delivers them.

Quietly – The film develops themes, but does so quietly. It plays Royale in reverse, walking Bond back toward humanity. Images echo those in the first film. In Royale, Bond ditched a bloody shirt out of guilt, rinsing his sin down with a drink. Here, he wears blood without a second thought. In Royale, he comforted his love Vesper by holding her in a shower. Here, he comforts a dying man, then tosses the corpse into a dumpster. Royale opens with Bond waiting in the dark for a kill. This film closes with Bond in the same place, but with a different outcome. The legendary Bond gunbarrel sequence even appears at the end, rather than the beginning.

There also is more character development here than it will get credit for. If Casino Royale is about the process of Bond closing emotionally, Quantum is a story of his return to some semblance of moral responsibility. At the end, Bond will be forced between to choose between taking life and preserving it.

Quality – Nowadays, the quality of the Bond series lies in its actors. Compare them to Bourne – Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Jeffrey Wright versus Matt Damon, Laura Linney and Julia Stiles. This is, by far, Bond’s greatest advantage. Some of the most sizzling scenes in Quantum involve their chemistry. The key is to take full advantage of this advantage.

The film’s biggest positive is Craig’s complete occupation of the role. While the new Bond formula seems uncertain, the new Bond is perfectly formed, a dead-eyed, ferocious killer with the glimmer of an inner life. Yet we do not get enough that lets Craig push his portrait, no scene like the-torture scene of Casino Royale, which tested the resolve of the character and the limits of the actor. To reduce Craig to Matt Damon-level stiffness is Her Majesty’s disservice.

Qualified – is my approval for Quantum of Solace. As an action film, it shouldn’t disappoint viewers. Yet Royale proved there’s more to this series than it is willing to give here. It’s a sufficient placeholder while the Bond powers-that-be hunch over their storyboards and work on the future.

Synedoche, New York

Synedoche, New York [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Hope Davis, Dianne Wiest.
Director: Charlie Kaufman

Does Charlie Kaufman have anything to offer the planet except post-modern rope tricks and fashionable misery?

In looking at his newest mindbender Synedoche, New York, has there ever been a more imaginative, provocative, surrealistic way to ultimately say, “Life sucks and then you die?” How can such a sharp, observant, vibrant mind find so much to say about the creative process and so little to say about life? So much in the intellectual playpen of his head and so little orbiting about the eyes and ears?

Having expressed displeasure with the directors who have brought his scripts to the screen in the past, Kaufman commits the ultimate act of filmmaking solipsism. He located the best director he could think of – himself. Freed of collaboration, Kaufman turns in a fascinating, irritating trip through the screenwriter’s mind. Yet missing are Spike Jonze’s accessible weirdness, Michel Gondry’s lovable insanity, George Clooney’s great eye, and anybody to tell Kaufman that he already has made his point. Kaufman is in pure, brilliant form but also in a rambling mess.

To describe the shapes and sizes of Synecdoche is impossible. Playwright Kaden (an unstoppable Phillip Seymour Hoffman) thinks he has cancer. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. He does have an unhappy artist wife (a sleepwalking Catherine Keener), who runs off to Germany with her best friend and their daughter. He also has a potential mistress in his community theater’s secretary, if he could bring himself to do it.

That’s where recognizable normality stops. Things get stranger and stranger. Kaden receives an artistic grant, which he uses to move his actors into a giant warehouse and create his magnum opus. But the opus keeps getting more and more magnum. They remain there for 20 years, as the stages multiply like rabbits, as Kaden tries to re-create billions of scenes from his past. For inspiration and catharsis, he piles through his relationships with other women (Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams stand out of a strong hen party). As his life continues, his play expands neverendingly. Soon, there’s an actor playing him on and off set, revealing his innermost feelings to others. And if you think that’s out there, that’s hardly the half of it.

But don’t worry that much. What something is is one thing. What something means is something else. The film is highly symbolic. Kaufman’s surrealistic memories of past loves recall Fellini’s 8 1/2. Most interestingly, Kaufman posits the writing process as the creative outlet for assessing and distorting a life – a mixture of past and fantasy, conjecture and myth, put forth as much for the author as the audience.

My greatest past criticism of Kaufman has been that he never completes his thoughts, that he uses them as a platform for metafictional horseplay rather than the full expression of ideas. That isn’t a problem for Synedoche. It completes his ideas. Then it completes them again. And again.

But I must ask you, do you like James Joyce? Do you know those long, dizzying passages in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man dedicated to incredibly intricate discussions of artistic ideals? Because the most worthwhile things here are Kaufman’s thoughts on the relationship among memory, drama, and life, about the way we create stories our past to wrestle and understand it. It’s interesting as long as it stays in his head.

Yet Synedoche wanders into the impenetrable mental jigsaw land that makes Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake so hated by undergraduates. While Kaufman does drop his pet masturbation scene for this film, his mental masturbation remains intact.

Hoberman on Tarkovsky

J. Hoberman's take on the great Andrei Tarkovsky. Andrei Rublev and Mirror are among my favorite films. The Bell portion of Rublev is simply amazing, as is most of the rest of it. IF I had to name my five favorite directors, he is easily among them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rebecca Hall

Has anyone come as far as fast as Rebecca Hall? Previously, I only recall her in The Prestige. This year, praise in both Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Frost/Nixon.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

In the jungle [Madagascar 2]

Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa [PG]
Grade: D
Cast: Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Chris Rock, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Bernie Mac, Alec Baldwin
Director: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath

Sitting down to watch Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa, I quickly realized that I remembered almost nothing about the original Madagascar.

After sitting down and watching Madagascar 2, I find that I already remember very little of it. If you’ve seen one group of animated animals, ultimately you’ve seen them all. This is a pedestrian sequel to a pedestrian original.

So a lion, a hippo, a giraffe, and a zebra hop into a plane …. If you’re expecting a punch line, I guess it’s fair to say that there are a few. But when this group of animals on vacation from the Central Park Zoo crash-land into the African savannah, it never quite finds enough good punch lines to earn its pride. Or its herd?
The greatest attention falls on the antics of Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), whose showmanship has given him the nickname The King of New York. His accidental trip to Africa plops him right in the middle of a power struggle in his old pride, between his father and his enemy.

While watching Alex, I kept thinking that he was the least interesting character. His showmanship, dancing, and diva act gets repetitive. But then we turn to the other animals – the hippo and her romance with the beefy hippo. The hypochondriac giraffe and his … what was he doing exactly, again? Fortunately, there are some definite chuckles with Chris Rock’s zebra, suffering an identity crisis in an endless herd of identical black and white stripes. The best thing about the films continues to be the musical sequences, which often are loopy fun.

The film does smooth out the look of the animation when compared to the first film. The original Madagascar was plagued by the uncomfortably angular nature of its figures. That problem fades.

If there’s one group of animals that have been consistently funny in the two films, it is the foursome of jaded, resourceful penguins. In this one, they steal a jeep, fix a plane, and conduct labor negotiations with monkeys. It’s like they‘ve flown in (well not flown - they're penguins) from a different film – the consistently funny animated adventure next door. Which raises a troubling question. Should a comedy need comic relief?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Does anyone know about ....

a new film version of Jesus Christ Superstar set for 2010? I came across this on imdb while downloading music last night, but the information is scant.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Are there going to be any good films this fall?

OK, it's not quite that bad. But this fall, so far, has been one onscreen disappointment for me after another. I saw one of the season's most hyped films this afternoon, and it did nothing for me. I actually disliked it. (Dude, just .... get another girlfriend. Please. She's not that special.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

My weekly "What the hell is the deal with Rachel Getting Married's distribution" post

This week, Rachel Getting Married is on 135 screens. For comparison, the unhyped Canadian Great War film Passchendaele, doing nice box office, is in 187.

Need a lift?

Yes, in America we call them elevators.

Top of the world, ma

Man on Wire reaches the top of the Rotten Tomatoes list of best-reviewed films ever - a 100 percent "tomatometer" with 129 reviews. Great news.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Quantum of dollas

I take it they don't have Halloween in England (Do they?). The new Bond film Quantum of Solace opens with the highest Friday box office ever there. Rumor is that it is slated for a zillion dollar opening in two weeks on these shores, as well.

My review is up in the usual non-Anti-D places. It'll be here at the US opening.

critics are a little mixed. But the fans seem to like it.

Rocked, rolled [RocknRolla]

RocknRolla [R]
Grade: C
Cast: Tom Wilkinson, Gerard Butler, Toby Kebbell, Thandie Newton, Mark Strong
Director: Guy Ritchie

With Keira Knightley and The Duchess having already knocked out the annual British costume drama quota for this fall, it is time for Guy Ritchie to show up with RocknRolla and fill the British gangster picture slot. Now the world of British filmmaking can feel complete.


A sweet-natured criminal in debt for a cool couple million.
A crooked businessman who runs London.
A druggie rock star who, by all accounts is dead. Or should be.
A vamp accountant with a taste for theft.
A Russian billionaire with a fondness for poisoned cocktails.
A reflective henchman.
Two hopeless record producers.
A lucky painting,
A stash of hot cash.
And a bad London land deal going badder every minute.

Drop them into a blender and see what kind of story comes out. These are the things that RocknRolla has going for it. And also the things that go against it.

Being overwhelmed with so much stuff, it’s just the law of averages. Some storylines and characters in Guy Ritchie’s hip, twisty new release are more exhilarating than others. And some are duller than others.

When it’s creative … like a car robbery thwarted by a stick shift …. a fresh, funny sex scene …. a fight to the death won by distance running …. It’s oh so good. When it’s not, it drifts so much, and there’s nothing that Ritchie;’s endless style and visual flair can do to enliven it.

The film features roughly every semi-famous British actor Ritchie could get his hands on (Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton, Mark Strong, Toby Kebbell). Very strong is the maliciously great Tom Wilkinson as Lenny Cole, a wheelchair-bound wheeler dealer greasing his own palm. Among the virtues of this film, one should not overlook the reminder that Wilkinson is actually English.

The words that have long attended Ritchie’s films still apply. Hip. Stylish. Flashy. Empty. Nothing really changes, does it?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Witherspoon located

Reese Witherspoon has been located! She has a film coming out in the next month or two, with Vince Vaughn, called Four Christmases. Judging by the trailer, perhaps Ms. Witherspoon would have been better off by keeping up the Greta Garbo routine.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

LAT buyouts

The buyouts by the LA Times of film critic Carina Chocano and entertainment reporter Sheigh Crabtree raises the troubling quesiton of whether the Times is discriminating against apparent babes. :)

But seriously ....

I've never understood the distaste you sometimes read on blogs toward Chocano. I'm not a religious reader of hers. But there are two occasions of importance where I know I agreed strongly with her. The first was in her overwhelming praise for Terrence Malick's The New World. The second was in her willingness to go against the grain of critical response and call out Judd Apatow on the sexism of his films while reviewing that stalker fantasy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Her reviews are extremely thoughtful and well-written. She'll be missed.

HIgh School Musical 3: We're doomed

High School Musical 3 made a gob of money this weekend. I'm reminded of a radio interview i once heard with Neal Howe, the generational theorist. He thinks of High School Musical as a quintessential example of positive, communitarian Millenial Generation entertainment. He said he once told a Gen Xer who was asking about HSM that if he were going to watch it, he'd better be prepared to go into a diabetic coma from all the sugariness. I think it's safe to say that it's Howe's view that this sort of thing, particularly musicals, is a future trend.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rachel Getting Married, second viewing

As it is one of my favorite films of the year, I paid to see Rachel Getting Married for the second time. These are some thoughts and things that I noted on the second viewing. I'm not sure if there will be spoilers, exactly, but there almost definitely will be some stuff in here that you might not want to know ahead of time if you haven't seen it.

1) It's an interesting question that some are asking: Who is better in the film - Anne Hathaway as the drug addict drama queen Kym or Rosemarie DeWitt as the quietly good daughter Rachel? There's been some disagreement about this topic, as some critics have favored DeWitt. On second viewing, I was more impressed by DeWitt than I had been the first time. Yet I think often, critics assume the less showy role is the more difficult and better acted. That's certainly true in a good number of cases, Demme's The Silence of the Lambs possibly being one example. I also think that it flatters critics to believe that, because it meams that critics are the keepers of some secret knowledge that only they can discern.

All that said, I still think Hathaway's is the film's true blow-away performance. It's the tougher role. It has much more range than simply uptight, upset sister. It requires and achieves sympathy where one might not expect it. And it simply lights up the screen.

2) At the beginning, as Kym and her nurse are walking to the car, Kym says something like, "You're not even going to give me your number?" The nurse answers, "That was one time and it was a mistake. I nearly lost my job for that." And of course, at the end of the film, the nurse picks up Kym and takes her off, presumably back to rehab.

Over on IMDb, that exchange has provoked a mini-contoversy with different interpretations. Some take the conversation to mean that the nurse had previously given Kym, a patient, personal contact information in violation of the institutional rules. But some think it's a reference to a sexual encounter, and that perhaps at the end, she isn't going back to rehab, but she is sneaking off from the family to be with the nurse.

I have to say, the sexual interpretation crossed my mind on this viewing. In the end, I think the evidence is against it. There's the obvious stuff ... Kym's sexual encounter with the best man and their farewell snogging at the end. But also, when they load Kym's stuff into the nurse's car, the nurse has a baby stroller in the trunk. And presumably, given the automobile wreck, Kym would need a lift back to rehab. So I think the non-sexual interpretation is the best interpretation. An interesting question, though.

3) In the post-rehearsal-speech argument, as Rachel, Kym and Dad head off into another room to continue their fight, there's a great little moment where step-mom Carol and fiance Sidney give each other a look that says, "Can you believe we're marrying into this?" Very subtle, but watch for it next time.

4) I'm not sure what to make of Kym's attachment to her dog, Olive. Perhaps it's the only family member from whom she feels only love and no tension. A reminder of an innocent time? A reminder of her brother?

5) One of the reasons that I go to a second viewing is to sample an audience reaction to a film I saw in a theater with seven film critics. It always amazes me how things I might find really funny fly over the audience's head, while something I find dramatic might seem comic. One example here is at the moment when Rachel reveals she's pregnant in the middle of a fight with Kym, and Kyn tells her that it isn't fair to reveal that sort of thing in the middle of a fight. I thought it was clearly a tense moment. The audience laughed. And it is kind of funny, looked at in a certain dark way.

6) How is it that if you want to watch an Anne Hathaway movie on Saturday night in Dallas-Fort Worth, the nation's fourth or fifth lagrest metro area, it's easier to find Passengers, the Hathaway film Sony is trying to bury, than it is to find Rachel, the film Sony Pictures Classics is trying to promote? This has got to be the most agonizingly slow platform release in history. HEck, it would be a shorter trip to go see Get Smart at the dollar theater for a buck-fifty, The good news is that the theater I was in was nearly full, with the movie showing on two screens in its second weekend. Impressive.