Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Year-End Wrap-Up

In 2009 I saw 214 movies that were theatrically released in New York City. In addition, I also saw 39 films from 2008 and 35 films from previous years, for a grand total of 288 films.

Of the 214, I saw 25 films on DVD, 22 films at the IFC Center, 21 films at my neighborhood independent cinema (the Cobble Hill Cinemas - they should offer me a discount, ehem), 21 films at the Angelika, 20 films at Film Forum, 10 films at Cinema Village, 10 films on OnDemand, 14 films at the Landmark Sunshine, 14 at my local Regal multiplex (filthy, terrible place), 8 films at BAM, 6 films at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema (such a wonderful neighborhood art-house) and dozens more around New York and the country.

Four movies got no stars and 57 movies got three stars or better. I think it's not a terrible year when I can say emphatically that I like a quarter of the movies I watch.

I don't think I will ever see this many movies in one year again. It was a ton of fun for me, but the pace is ridiculous (four new films each week).

I hope to have a best of the year list out very soon. There are still a few movies that I'm waiting to see on DVD, but I should be able to have the list out in the next few weeks. I also hope to come up with a best of the decade list soon.

Thanks for reading!

My Sister's Keeper (Wednesday, December 30, 2009) (214)

My Sister's Keeper is based on a Jodi Picoult bestselling book. In it, Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric have a daughter who is diagnosed with leukemia when she is very young. They decide to have another daughter, Abigail Breslin, so they can genetically engineer her to be a blood-type match and be a blood and organ donor for her sister. At some point when the sick girl is a teenager, Breslin refuses to donate her kidney and sues her parents for the right to control her own body, even as a minor. We see how the sister's cancer has an effect on the whole family, not least of whom is Breslin who has become a human-tissue supply store.

I never read the book, but it seems that the movie and the book differ rather substantially, especially in the ending. I must say that knowing the end result of the movie, I can't say the changes were unwarranted. From what I understand, the book was a bit more elaborate and the ending was more dramatically neat and tidy (but I really shouldn't comment more considering I've only read about the book, but never read it directly).

The movie is as manipulative as you might expect. Director Nick Cassavetes forces us to feel bad for certain characters, angry toward some and cry for others, leaving very little room for our own individual emotional experience. He is very straightforward in giving the emotional framework for a scene, boiling it down to its base sentiments: happy, sad, scary, etc. He is hemmed in, though, by his lead actress, Diaz, who is so untalented at her craft that she can only give big emotions with little nuance.

I really don't think that Diaz is a good dramatic actor and think she should stick to comedies. She feels overdone in every important scene and comes off mostly as a bitch, rather than a concerned mother. In one scene, when the family decides to take the sick sister to the beach, Diaz falls flat as she fights Patric for control over the situation. Patric, on the other hand is really great (I think he's always great) as a loving father who is somewhat overwhelmed by the situation he's in, but understands the argument his younger daughter is making. Breslin is fine, but she's not given much to work with. Alec Baldwin, as Breslin's lawyer, is funny, but it seems like his character might have been cut too in the adaptation, as he seems somewhat incomplete.

I think I got more out of this movie than I expected I would. I expected it to be totally trite and fake emotional, but it was actually somewhat smart and touching. Cassavetes deals very nicely and respectfully with the sick sister who is clearly suffering, but maintains a lust for life. I could do without the trite slow-motion, weepy song, tear-jerking montage at the end - but I think that's requisite fare for a movie like this. Overall this movie is pretty banal, but not anything terrible.

Stars 2.5 of 4

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The White Ribbon (Wednesday, December 30, 2009) (213)

Michael Haneke has made a career out of interesting and shocking films that never shy away from raw violence and frank sexuality. His masterpiece, The Piano Teacher, deals with repressed sexuality, self-inflicted torture and abuse. Cache speaks to a much more specific post-colonial French guilt, but deals with it by showing that children have the potential to do terrible, dark things. Funny Games (both the Austrian and the American versions) shows how evil and terribleness are sport for disaffected youth who are otherwise bored in their dull lives. The White Ribbon uses themes from all of these earlier films to talk about not only the limits and effects of bad deeds in a community, but also the causes of those actions.

The title of The White Ribbon refers to a band that the preacher of a small Austrian village puts on his children's arms to remind them of their innocence and inherent goodness. Throughout a year just before World War I, the hamlet has several unexplained violent acts committed mostly by unknown actors on the townspeople, including a few acts against some of the kids. The film opens when the town doctor is thrown from his horse after the animal trips on a wire strung between two trees near his house. At another point, the rich village Baron's small son is kidnapped and beaten in the woods. Later a special needs boy is also kidnapped and beaten.

As this happens, the townspeople try to figure out what to make of it and why it is happening in their village. What we see is that just about every child is out of control, rebelling against the rigid strictures of their parents. The parents are bad people as well, as they bicker and fight, punish and threaten and rape and abuse one another as well as their kids.

The idea of the white ribbon is very interesting as it represents an old-fashioned out-of-touchness that the adult world has with the kids' world. It suggests that the children's world is not real but just a series of symbols and lessons. It ignores that they might have lost their innocence partly because of the horrible things they see in the grownups. The uptight protestant preacher is a hateful man who seems to relish disciplining his kids with a belt or stern lecture but almost never a loving sign. He doesn't realize that his lessons are not getting through to his kids and that all they get out of it is the hatred he seems to express toward them.

There is no question that Haneke is a master filmmaker from a technical point of view. Each shot is perfectly composed and perfectly executed. Cinematographer Christian Berger's beautiful black and white photography ass well as the monochromatic costumes by Moidele Bickel create a suffocating environment for all the action to take place in.

I think the script (also by Haneke) has a lot of problems with it. For one thing, it sets up an interesting mystery where we don't know who is committing many of the terrible acts we see, but leaves these questions floating in the air, almost not trying to solve them at all. Haneke points at one answer, but this is not taken seriously by the characters and the question is then left open. I get that this is a more nuanced, European style of filmmaking - to leave questions unanswered and leave the audience guessing - but here I think he just walks away from the mystery rather than engaging in any real debate. The film ends rather abruptly, creating less of an ending to the story, than a cut to the credits and an end to the film with no resolution. This is a bit too elliptical for my taste and I would have preferred a bit more examination of the story.

Considering how well sketched out some of the major adult characters are, such as the preacher and the doctor, the children in the village are rather nameless and faceless and lack any real identity. I don't think this adds to our understanding of things, as much as it's just sort of sloppy. They are a mindless mob who move from one place in the town to another, almost like a flock of birds. This is an interesting idea, but it falls apart when we are supposed to feel any sympathy for individual kids, such as the preacher's two oldest. I think if a few of the children had been better flushed out, the story would have felt much more intimate and emotional for me.

The story is narrated by the village school teacher, a nebbish who tries to discipline the kids while they are in his control, but realizes he is a small pawn in a bigger struggle in the village with terrible parents. This character, however, is basically unnecessary and the use of a voice over narrator looking back at this point in his life is ridiculous (I especially hate real-world narrators who are able to tell stories that happen between two people in intimate situations. How do they know what goes on behind closed doors?). That Haneke wastes time showing the teacher's crush on a young governess is just indulgent and pointless. I think a good 30 minutes could have been cut from the film to make it a more powerful story.

Many people have been interested by this film because it's a criticism of Austrians and Europeans who treated their kids so badly that their children subsequently grew up and allowed unprecedented atrocities go unquestioned in the Second World War. I think this is overly simplistic. I don't think it was just evildoing by adults that led Germans to become mute in the face of fascism. I think there is a level of mischief and badness in all people and when that is allowed out in children at an early age, bad things can follow. But I also think that there is a lot of good in people too and that there are not communities where every person is evil (as Haneke seems to suggest here). I appreciate his argument, but I disagree with it fundamentally.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Tuesday, December 29, 2009) (212)

The biggest story with this film is that it is the movie that Heath Ledger was working on at the time of his death in 2008. Somewhere around a third or half of the film was already shot, so writer/director Terry Gilliam had to rethink the structure of the film to keep production going. What he came up with is actually a pretty convincing final product. Watching the film unaware that Ledger died, there is no clear evidence that the end result we see is anything other than what was originally planned.

In the story, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a mentalist and sideshow huckster who travels around in a time-worn wagon with a small troupe of freaks. He gets audience members to go through a magical mirror so he can control their imaginations and put them in a happy fantasy world. But everything is not as happy as it might seem when the entourage meets Tony (Heath Ledger) a mysterious man who seems to be on the run.

About a thousand years earlier the doctor made a deal with the Devil (a bald Tom Waits) to become immortal. Later he made another deal with him to be young again, but in exchange for this, he agreed to give the devil his daughter once she reached her 16th birthday. When the Devil comes to collect on the bet, Parnassus makes one last bet to see who can get five followers faster. Tony, in an effort to help the guru, exposes a checkered past of his own.

The worst thing about this story is that at it's core, it is a very simple idea - a man has to beat the Devil at a bet. But Gilliam doesn't stop at this basic idea and instead makes a very complicated, multi-layered story that is visually beautiful, as one would expect from him, but rather confusing. There seem to be too many characters with too many individual agendas totally separate from Parnassus' goals.

It seems as if Ledger had filmed all of his real-world scenes before passing away, so Gilliam cleverly has three actors play him when he goes inside the magical mirror. As a reflection of his deceitfulness (or three-facedness), Ledger becomes Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law as he steps into the imaginary mirror-world. I think this is an elegant way to deal with a difficult formal situation. It makes a lot more sense than just having an actor wear a mask to disguise himself (which is done a bit, but not very much). This not only works well for the story, but is also weird enough to fit into the rest of the film.

Of course because it is a movie by Gilliam, it is super weird and exotic looking. Much of the dream world looks like the previous Gilliam/Charles McKeown writing collaboration The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It is fun to watch, but is a bit annoying that we can't get some new aesthetic. It mostly feels like recycled outtakes from Baron Munchausen rather than something entirely fresh.

This is an OK movie, but it is not fantastic. I appreciate Gilliam's success at dealing with the difficulty of losing his lead actor well before filming had wrapped, but the problems with the movie are deeper than this. It feels like an inverted pyramid, precariously perching a heavy top on a small point. It doesn't ever topple over entirely, but comes very close several times.

Stars: 2 pf 4

Monday, December 28, 2009

It's Complicated (Monday, December 28, 2009) (211)

Recently an ad hoc committee of Hollywood executives and journalists met in a boardroom in the San Fernando Valley to name a filmmaker who would make movies for and about middle-aged women. Many people were nominated - Diane English, Penny Marshall and Nora Ephron all received a ton of votes, but they all lost to Nancy Meyers. She was named the writer director of films with women, for women, about women. Period.

What we get in It's Complicated is a totally easy movie that might speak to some sadness in the middle-aged American woman, but really is just silly and forgettable. In it, Meryl Streep (Omigod - it's Meryl Streep - I hope she gets another Golden Globe or Oscar - she's so wonderful!! gag) plays a woman who has been divorced for 10 years from her ex-husband, Alec Baldwin. They have three kids and their oldest daughter has a fiance, John Krasinski. When she starts to renovate her already-enormous Santa Barbara house, she meets Steve Martin, who is an architect. They two have some immediate chemistry. At the same time, Baldwin, upset in his own new marriage to a woman half his age, tries to re-seduce Streep all over again. She then has to choose between a return of her old husband or a chance at new gray-haired love.

The story itself is pretty banal. It is easy and doesn't really stretch too far - which it shouldn't for such a rom com. The writing is OK - not too dull but never especially funny. Most of the laugh-lines come from Baldwin who seems to be playing up his Jack Donaghy character from 30-Rock more than anything Meyers gives him (hey - it got him this gig, so why mess with it!).

Despite the requisite Golden Globe nomination for Streep (c'mon, Hollywood Foreign Press, you really think this is one of the best female comedic roles of the year?!), it is Martin who really deserves credit for his acting here. He is a fantastic, rather pathetic straight-man here with very little of his typical zaniness. He is one of the few people we can identify with and probably the most normal of everyone onscreen.

There are a lot of curious things about the story and the script. It makes no sense to me why it should be set in Santa Barbara and not Los Angeles. I'm sure there are some families who live there, but it makes no sense that Streep's oldest daughter and her fiance would move in down the street from mom. I don't think there are any single couples under 50 who live in Santa Barbara. The Streep/Baldwins (known in the film as Jane and Jack Adler) are among the richest and the whitest people on earth with their Porsches and their fancy coffee shops. Way to make the story relateable, Nance! (OK - this is petty of me - but I couldn't help feel the whole time that rich people like this deserve no sympathy. Set the movie in Los Angeles, at least).

I would imagine that Jack and Jane Adler would be Jewish (it's a hell of a Jewish-sounding name), but there is no sense they're religious at all (ok - fine) and they have three of the blondest, WASPyest kids in the world. Streep is looking to expand her kitchen so she can finally get her 'dream kitchen', but the kitchen that exists in her house seems gigantic already. In this case either find a location with a smaller kitchen to shoot in or scrap the line about wanting a bigger one. This only leads to me disliking Streep more than I already do. Finally, why is John Krasinski written in as the fiance and not the son? In what family is the fiance the most vocal of all the kids? Why wasn't he the son and the daughter his fiancee? Whatever - there are so many problems here.

I'm also sick of the fascination Hollywood has with white women who lunch and drink together? It's such a dumb cliche and was totally played out this year. Julie & Julia, The Blind Side and this all have totally interchangeable luncheon scenes where the protagonist is rational and her friends are either rude, out-of-touch, racist or just silly talking about sex. I guess I've never been a woman at a lunch, so I don't know what they're like - but these are all so tepid and predictable that I hope real women don't talk like this (what a terrible life that would be).

There is nothing entirely loathsome about this film. It comes to a nice, rational conclusion and ties up in a very adult way, if totally trite and neat. It is nice to see a story where a man is pursuing a woman who doesn't totally need him. It makes the woman less desperate and more sensible.

I think the fact that the film is getting attention as a *comedy for smart women* is dumb. It's a movie and it's about a woman, but there is no reason to think it says something that other films don't. I don't know why women who like movies shouldn't expect a smart drama or a smart comedy that doesn't try to pigeon-hole their lives into some sort of type... but then I guess Nancy Meyers gets to write the rules on what is acceptable film fare for women. We just have to sit back and watch.

Stars: 2 of 4

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Empty Nest (Saturday, December 26, 2009) (210)

This is a short, simple Argentine film written and directed by Daniel Burman. In it playwright Leonardo sketches out the plot of a new play that is a fantasy of his own future life. He imagines ahead 10-or-so years when his three kids will be out of the house and he and his wife will be left alone. He sees that they might have affairs and might try to stick together. All of this is done within the safe confines of his 'full nest' - his warm home's living room.

It is a very sweet drama, one that is mostly focused on very nice story-telling. Burman does a great job giving a rather mundane story in a way that keeps us interested throughout. Lead actor Oscar Martinez does a wonderful job as a doting father, a loving husband and a reliable man to all of those in his life.

This is not a particularly deep or important film, but it is totally enjoyable and easy to watch. It fits in well with a new tradition in Argentine cinema of every-day stories told well and straightforwardly.

Stars: 3 of 4

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (Friday, December 25, 2009) (209)

Robert Downey Jr. is just the latest in a long line of actors to tackle the complicated and wonderful character Sherlock Holmes. Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and Peter Cushing, to name a few, all had their time with the role in the past. Downey is a interesting fit, of course, because he brings with him a lifetime of self-abuse and drug use. This is perhaps the darkest and most unhinged Holmes we've seen in awhile. Director Guy Ritchie shows Holmes as a prankster and childish man, kept in line by his trusted friend Dr. Watson, who is always on the straight and narrow.

The story here is not much of a mystery. Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is killing people in London as part of a loose connection to secret society ritual ceremony. Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) have to catch the criminal before he can kill more people. All the while Blackwood's actions are being followed by Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty and his hired go-between, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams).

The two best things about the film are Downey and Law. They both look fantastic in the wonderful costumes and have snappy, fresh dialogue. They play off one another very well, giving a clear sense of long-time friendship, trust and companionship. Their banter is funny and enjoyable and makes the rather dull story seem incidental and painless.

As is rather typical in a Ritchie movie, there is a lot of style and a rather busy, complicated mise-en-scene. The industry of Victorian London explodes off the screen. The wet, grayness of the city seeps into every corner of the picture and mixes with the greasy, cold metal of factories to give a wonderful idea of place.

Sadly, this is much more of an action movie than a mystery. We know and Holmes and Watson know basically from the first scene that Blackwood is the culprit of the murders, so the film turns into a chase, where they have to use their wits to avoid his traps and find him. This is not terrible, but it is far from a traditional Sherlock Holmes film. It seems rather incidental that it is Holmes and Watson - the film could just as easily be about any two other random Londoners. Considering the story it totally original and not based on any specific Arthur Conan Doyle book, it is strange they went this direction. Why not just write a fresh mystery if you don't want to use a classic?

In spite of all of this, the feeling of the film, the relationship between Holmes and Watson and the beautiful art direction make this a rather enjoyable film. I say this with a big caveat, though, that Blackwood is a pretty dumb character and his part of the film is very stupid and dry.

Stars: 2.5 of 4

The Headless Woman (Friday, December, 25, 2009) (208)

The Headless Woman is an Argentine film about a woman who gets into a small car accident when she hits a dog on a quiet country road. She seems to suffer a concussion and is a bit out of it for several days. Her family seems unaware of her situation, not even realizing that the incident has left her nearly mute and aloof. She tries to go back to the scene of the incident, thinking she hit more than just the dog, but is unable to find any more clues as to what happened to her.

Typical of many Argentine and South American films of recent years, class issues and what seems to be an upper-middle-class guilt pervades the story. Neither the woman nor any of her friends and family are lacking anything they want or need. They drive beautiful cars and live in posh houses with large, healthy families. The woman is faced with her high level when she goes to a town near the accident to ask for any clues about the crash. There she sees people living modestly without all the excess that she enjoys.

Clearly writer/director Lucrecia Martel is making a point that this woman can totally change and be barely verbal, but her life is structured in a way that few people around her are aware that anything is out of the ordinary. The woman lives in a place where despite the fact that she is a modern woman with hobbies and interests, few ask her opinion on things - or if they do, others will step in to answer for her. This detachment seems to be the center of the film and is the most interesting part of it.

Generally the film is too elliptical and rather frustrating. We do not know enough about the woman before her accident to know how she was then (was she not talkative then, so it's not a big change after the accident? Were her friends and family distant and did they never ask her any questions?). Nothing really comes together in the end. It feels like half a story, or just the beginning of one. I think this would have been an interesting opening to a larger story, but we never get more substance.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Police, Adjective (Wednesday, December 23, 2009) (207)

It is now clear that we are in the midst of a remarkable period of Romanian neo-realist film. In recent years, there have been a few Romanian directors who have released several remarkable films, each with their own individual subject matter, but each with a fantastic style and aesthetic that is totally fresh and remarkable in cinema. In 2006, there was Cristi Puiu's tragic The Death of Mr. Lasarescu; in 2007, there was Corneliu Porumboiu's bittersweet 12:08 East of Bucharest; in 2008 there was Crisrian Mungiu's frightening and frank 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days; and 2009 brought us Porumboiu's exhaustive and amazing Police, Adjective.

I'm not sure if there is a specific movement here per se, or if there is some sort of parallel evolution of style, but all of these films deal with reality in their country in the same, slow and pensive way. Each director uses extremely long takes with static shots and a minimal amount of cutting. Scenes take 15 or 20 minutes to develop as a standard and there might only be three shots in that period.

In Police, Adjective, beat cop Cristi is assigned to tail a high school student who is smoking pot after class with two friends. It seems that the police brass think that this kid can lead them to some big drug supplier into their town. As he follows the boy for days upon days, he gets more and more frustrated with the silly case and questions its value to his superiors. It's a very simple story, but this is not really about the narrative as much as it is an examination of post-communist Romanian culture and the texture of life in the country.

Porumboiu does a magnificent job here putting us in the bleak environment. Each scene in this film runs at least 15 minutes long and they are each composed of static shots that go on well past a point where it is comfortable to watch. The discomfort is what is amazing about this picture. You want to look away, but you cant. There is no score and what seems to be natural, dull, yellow lighting. The mundane qualities of the of each scene is what is totally beautiful about this film. There is minimal talking throughout, leading to a cold, isolating feeling - and when there is dialogue it comes in giant bursts like thunder.

In one scene, Cristi gets home from work and enters his modest flat. His wife is in the sitting room and tells him that his dinner is in the kitchen. He goes to the kitchen, gets a bowl of soup and some bread and begins to eat. As he eats, we hear a Romanian pop song being played by his wife on the computer. He eats the bowl of soup and then goes into the sitting room and sits next to his wife. This all takes about 10 minutes and is all one uncut shot. He then begins a long dialogue with his wife about the meaning of the song, getting somewhat silly about the imagery and symbolism the lyrics evoke. There is a definite Becket, Waiting for Godot element to this sequence.

The film also deals with the bizarre Kafka-esque elements of the bureaucratic Romanian police force and legal system. After intensely following the schoolkid around, Cristi goes to his office to write his report. Rather than have him read the report or have a character discuss the contents, we see the handwritten page onscreen and read it ourselves. It is an exhaustive listing of what we have just seen, and underlines the stupidity of his assignment. Seeing the report directly is an absolutely elegant touch that fits in perfectly with the tone of the film and brings us in even more intimately than we already are.

We then get two separate characters commenting on a small, inane spelling mistake in the report. There is a sense that even being as careful and detailed as he can be with minutiae, Cristi can never combat the vulcanized bureaucracy that pervades his culture. These moments are rather funny in their craziness and hopelessness - but it is clear that it is depressing to live amidst it. This discomfort is beautifully shown onscreen with the never-ending beige-gray interiors and graffiti-covered walls of the exterior around town. Everything is sad and overused and falling apart in this world.

Dragos Bucur plays Cristi beautifully as a smart cop who wants to fight back against the impossible system he finds himself in, but knows there's not much he can do about it. He is dejected as he comes to terms with his 'object-ness'. As the title suggests, he becomes less of a noun and more of an adjective. He's not a policeman, but a modifier of another thing. A 'police story', a 'police man'.

This is a totally magnificent, difficult film. It is one of the most thought-provoking works of 2009 and certainly among the best films of the year.

Stars: 4 of 4

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Adoration (Tuesday, December 22, 2009) (206)

Adoration is a very interesting, complicated film by Egyptian/Canadian writer/director Atom Egoyan. In it, he tells the story of Simon, a teenager whose parents were killed in a car accident about 8 years earlier. His father was a Palestinian immigrant and his white mother was a professional violinist. During a class exercise in school, he writes a fictional story about how his father was a terrorist who tried to send his mother on a mission to bomb an airplane. When this story gets out to the kids classmates, and ultimately his whole community, it churns up a tremendous amount of turmoil.

There is a lot to digest and get through in this story. It is told in a very choppy format, where the entire chronology is only visible near the end of the film. Flashbacks and fantasy sequences are mixed in with the present to a degree that reality becomes unclear and fact becomes somewhat conditional on a number of variables.

At it's heart, the film is a story of forgiveness and a search for truth. Simon's family life, which seemed clear and solid while his parents were alive (when he was a young boy) is turned into a nightmare in his memory, with help from his divisive grandfather and the fiction he writes about his parents. The story is also about the way that we can forgive the dead for possible transgressions they might have committed - even after they are unable to defend themselves.

Throughout the film, the acting is fantastic. Devon Bostick, who plays Simon is very good and believable as a vulnerable, inquisitive and experience-hardened young man. Scott Speedman does a great job as Simon's protective and exhausted uncle who takes care of the boy after his parents die. Arsinee Khanjian is also wonderful as the boy's teacher who pushes him a bit too far and then feels guilty for her experiment.

This film, strangely, did not have much of a release in the U.S. (I think it played for only a few weeks in New York), but it is very good and very interesting. It is a thinking film - one that is not easy to end and know what to make of immediately. It is possibly a bit too intricate considering the size, but I think this adds to the mystery of the story. I like the questions the film brings up and appreciate the care that Egoyan gives to the unusual story.

Stars: 3 of 4

Rudo y Cursi (Tuesday, December 22, 2009) (205)

Rudo y Cursi is a totally fresh and funny comedy from writer/director Carlos Cuaron, brother of Alfonso Cuaron and co-writer of Y Tu Mama Tambien. For this film, Cuaron teams up with the two actors who made Tu Mama so good, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

Here they play brothers in a poor Mexican town who play soccer on the weekends. One day, a scout for major league soccer teams visits their town and offers them the chance to play professionally. The brothers ultimately move to Mexico City and play for two different clubs, Luna as a goalie and Bernal as a forward. Both get wrapped up in off-field silliness (Bernal in a ridiculous Pop music singing career and Luna in gambling).

The two lead actors are fantastic. They are silly and work well with the rather gonzo nature of the story. They wear the ridiculous costumes well and are both totally believable as country bumpkin rubes lost in the big city with millions of dollars (tens of millions of pesos) at their fingertips. They work well together and it seems clear that the actors are friends off-screen and enjoy working next to each other. They really seam like competing brothers and that connection helps to push the story along well.

The writing is also hilarious and has a nice, easy, tight story. I smiled basically the whole time I watched the film and really like the simple device at the end, which could be a bit too neat, but worked well in this small movie. I give Cuaron all sorts of credit for writing something so fresh in a genre (sports, family comedy) that could be otherwise so overdone.

Stars: 3 of 4

Ricky (Tuesday, December 22, 2009) (204)

Francois Ozon is one of France's most interesting contemporary directors. Some of his recent films, Under the Sand and Swimming Pool, are very well crafted, if not always totally successful. In Ricky, he takes his beautiful narrative style and joins it with fantasy elements. Unfortunately this hybrid does not work well, and leaves us getting two separate half movies with no good synthesis or complete story.

In the film, Katie is a single middle-class woman who works in a factory in the middle of France. One day, Paco, a Spanish manager visits the assembly line where she works and the two immediately have sex in the bathroom. Paco moves in to the small apartment where Katie and her young daughter live. They get married and she gives birth to a baby, Ricky. A few weeks after the baby is born, they find out that he has wings growing off his shoulder blades. The small family is set upon by tabloids making their lives miserable.

The basic middle-class drama part of the film is actually very good and compelling. Katie, played by Alexandra Lamy, is a sympathetic woman who is stuck in a rather rotten, dull life. The lack of options she has and the general malaise is written all over her face. Her affair with Paco comes off as an understandable diversion. Her young daughter's worry about Paco being flaky and untrustworthy is also well-founded and believable. There is a beauty in the brutal realism to these scenes - and is very reminiscent of the frank style of the Dardenne brothers.

The fantasy and flying-baby part of the film, however, is not only silly, but also seems totally separate and under-examined. It feels totally arbitrary that the baby has wings and, aside from the light commentary that the vulture-like press would ruin the family's privacy, there is no commentary on why this happens or why it means. It is so elliptical that it could be in a totally separate film. Does the boy grow wings because of some sin committed by his mother? Is it a commentary on our modern culture? Is he supposed to be an angel (because he doesn't seem like one and that thread is never really pulled)? None of these questions are raised, examined or answered.

This is a very small movie and not really worth the effort to watch. I wish it had continued on as an examination of middle-class ennui with out the fantasy storyline - but I guess that would have been a different film entirely. At least such a story might have been more interesting and complete.

Stars: 1.5 of 4 stars

The Princess and the Frog (Tuesday, December 22, 2009) (203)

As a tribute to their classic 2D animation history, Disney made The Princess and the Frog, its first animated film to focus positively on primarily African-American characters (no comment on Song of the South here). The style is indeed reminiscent of classic Disney films, like Cinderella, Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, however this one lacks almost all of the charm and magic of those.

Tiana is a poor daughter of a New Orleans seamstress who dreams of opening a Cajun restaurant when she grows up. Her friend is Charlotte, the white daughter of the richest man in town (I'll clearly ignore the racial undertones here). Prince Naveen, a mysterious dark Europeanish royal, comes to town and meets with a voodoo witchdoctor who swindles him, turning him into a frog. Tiana meets the frog and is convinced that if she kisses him, he will become a prince again, but instead she is also turned into a frog - voodoo's a bitch, ain't it! The two frogs have to go into the woods to find another voodoo witchdoctor lady to turn them back to their human forms.

Typical of Disney animated features, the film has a bunch of music and songs in it (composed and written by Disney mainstay Randy Newman). Sadly none of these songs are memorable at all, even though there is a nice effort to include New Orleans styles of zydeco, jazz and blues. As I watched these songs, I think I mostly felt that they were a nice efforts, but just not as good as recent Disney fare (Under the Sea, Be Our Guest, Hakuna Matata).

Mostly, the story is pretty dull and stretched out way too far. Froggy Naveen and Froggy Tiana spend close to half the movie in the woods on the way to the good voodoo lady with almost nothing important happening. There is so much set-up to the story (Tiana's dream of a restaurant, Charlotte's greedy family, Naveen being swindled) that when the story finally kicks off, it's almost over.

There's another thing here, which is a bit more sensitive, which is the fact that it is the first major feature that Disney has done with primarily African-American characters. To me, it rides the delicate edge of being rather culturally insensitive too closely. That Tiana has to be the poor daughter of a domestic and that her best friend is rich and white might be historically accurate, but feels rather racist considering in a Disney fantasy world people of any color can be anything - why does the one black movie have to be so tied to historic Southern culture?

That the film takes place in New Orleans and features voodoo so prominently is also a bit too much, I think. Again, why can't black people live in a wonderful dream world of castles with good witches and bad witches? I think in an effort to combine political correctness with real-world based fantasy, Disney went a bit too far - or not far enough. I don't know why, after so much success with Brothers-Grimm-esque fairy tales Disney had to turn a story on its head and divert from the traditional Frog Prince story.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar- IMAX 3D (Monday, December 21, 2009) (202)

Avatar is the story of Lieutenant John Dunbar who moves to the Dakota Territory during the Civil War and becomes friends with the Native American tribe in the area. He ultimately marries the daughter of the tribe's chief and leads his tribe to a small victory in a battle against the American Army. Wait - that's not it... Oh, right - it's the story of Marlow, a sailor who is asked by his country to go up the Congo River to look into the actions of a crazy man named Kurtz. Wait - again, that's not it. Oh golly - oh right! It's the story of a hacker named Neo who goes into the Matrix, a reality below our own reality, and becomes *The One* for the people who live inside of it. They seem to be unable to take care of themselves, and despite talking like a surfer moron, he helps to liberate the people. Shoot - that's still not it.

OK - it is actually the story of how in the year 2154, there is a planet somewhere in the universe called Pandora where there is a special metal called 'unobtanium'. In order to mine it, a private contractor enlists the the U.S. Marines to secure the land from the thousands crazy alien animals that might come out to hurt the operation. Ex-marine Jake Sully is put into a scientific unit who is trying to help and learn from the giant blue humanoid people on this planet called the Na'vi. He is paralyzed from the waist down, but when he gets into a pod, he becomes an avatar - a Na'vi look-alike that can move in this world easier than a human can.

At some point he gets lost on a scientific mission and finds himself in the Na'vi world. He soon begins living with them and dating Neytiri, the daughter of the chief, who becomes his tutor for all things Na'vi. After some time, the mining operation wants to relocate, so it moves into the area where the Na'vi live. The natives, with the help of Jake, fight the humans in an effort to save their way of life.

This is one of the most over-hyped, over-reviewed worst movies of the year. There is basically nothing good about the film. The story is totally dumb and recycled, the writing is terrible with laughable dialogue. Lead actor Sam Worthington, as Jake, is a joke as an actor. The special effects of the film and the CGI settings of almost the whole thing are terrible - and the film looks worse than many other recent films (that were made for a much smaller budget).

It's been 12 years since writer/director James Cameron made Titanic - and I was under the impression that he had been working on this script for a long, long time. But what we get is a total rip-off of Dances with Wolves, Heart of Darkness and/or The Matrix. There is absolutely nothing new here plot-wise and nothing that is better than the originals it rips off. Every idea here is tired and every twist is predictable and visible from miles away. I mean, not to spoil the ending, but there is a Return of the Jedi-style Yub-Jub song and dance at the end.

Sam Worthington is terrible, clearly cast for his physical looks and muscle rather than his acting. He plays a dumb marine who doesn't know much when he arrives and doesn't grow all that much mentally throughout the story. Listening to him speak, it is hard not to laugh at how bad he is. (Also, curiously, in the second act, his looped-in voice over suddenly changes accents from American to Australian. Why this couldn't have been corrected is bizarre to me.)

Sigourney Weaver is much too overdone and comes off as too much of a bitch at the beginning of the film (she also asks for a cigarette in her first appearance... aren't we beyond that, James?). She seems basically unnecessary in the story as the scientific research she does seems to go out the window after the first sequence. Considering Jake had a better rapport with the Na'vi, it is unclear why she moves into their camp with him. (My favorite thing about her character is that in the avatar world, she wears a Stanford tank-top, as if the Na'vi would respect her more because of her top-level degree.)

At no point in the film did I think that I was in the world I was seeing onscreen - or that that world actually existed. It looks like a big animated world - not all that dissimilar from bad CGI one can find on many Saturday morning cartoons. The Na'vi look entirely animated - not even as good as Pixar toys or cars. This is a big problem as it was a constant cause of separation between the story and me. The Na'vi never felt like real things that I could sympathize with. They always looked to be animated, in a world filled with a few real-world things like humans and helicopters. I am told that this film cost several hundred million dollars to make - and that that money went into the technology and animation. But I don't see the results. To me it looks like any old CGI movie that could have been made 10 years ago. I don't get it.

On top of that, seeing it in 3D was frustrating because when you're wearing the glasses, you have to look exactly straight ahead or the picture will be out of focus. You cannot turn your head slightly and look out of the corner of your eye, for instance. In addition, you have to look at exactly what the filmmakers want you to look at. If they are focusing on something in the bottom right corner of the screen, but you are looking at the top center, what you are looking at is out of focus. I don't know why these faults are not getting more attention, but it was super frustrating for me. I think the 3D technology is not totally up to par yet. I also don't think it's worth the extra $3 to watch in 3D as I think the movie would have been just as good standard.

The most frustrating and insulting thing about the story is the tired suggestion that because they Na'vi are closer to the earth and more 'native' than we are, they are better. This is hackneyed and dumb. It's the old idea that Native Americans respect the land so they are better people or how Africans are more connected to the spiritual world. The Na'vi are all played by African-American actors, yet they seem rather Native American in their dress and ways. Of course, after telling us that more simple and spiritual is better, we then see the Na'vi using modern head-sets to communicated and machine guns to fire - because I guess human culture does have some good uses. Ugh.

This is really a total joke of a movie. Again - the ore they are trying to mind is called *unobtanium*. That's so beyond stupid it's insulting. This is a terrible script, it does not look half as good as it should and it absolutely 100% not fresh. What a waste!

Stars: .5 of 4

Nine (Monday, December 21, 2009) (201)

Nine is a movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Fellini's classic film 8 1/2. The story is pretty straightforward and pretty close to the original. Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a giant in the Italian film industry who is set to begin his latest film project (he's based on Guido Anselmi from the earlier film, who is in turn based on Fellini himself). As production is about to begin, Contini does not have a script and as he sets to write it, he looks back on his life as a boy, a man, a celebrity and a lover of women. As he reminisces, he looks back on the important women of his life. (Even though I always thought there were eight-and-a-half women in the Fellini film, here I can strangely only count seven women - so I guess the title means nothing actually).

Considering the scope and structure of the film, this is really a show for the performers - and the cast is pretty star-studded. Contini's wife is played by Marion Cotillard, the rising French star (look out Audrey Tautou!); his mistress is played by Penelope Cruz; his leading lady and artistic muse is Nicole Kidman; his most-trusted advisor and costume designer (really?!) is Judi Dench; his mother is Sophia Loren; some gypsy whore woman who taught him about sex is Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas; some American Vogue editor is Kate Hudson.

Generally the acting is pretty good. Day-Lewis is good as always (is he ever less than good?), but I don't think the role makes him stretch all that much. Each woman is in the film for a few scenes as almost none of them interact on screen at the same time. As a result, they mostly come on for a song and maybe a brief talking scene and then exit. Kidman basically doesn't come in until the film is almost over. Cotilard and Cruz are both pretty good with the limited parts they have. I think Cruz's role might be a bit more simple, as a scorned mistress, but she is generally good.

Kate Hudson and Fergie give easily the two worst performances of the film - and their two songs are both totally dumb. Fergie comes in as a homeless-looking whore who once upon a time introduced Contini to sex. Her not-very-showstopping song, Be Italian, suggests that in order to be a good Italian man, you have to screw a lot - and screw a lot of women. I am not all that into her voice and her casting seems more about getting a pop star onscreen than anything else. She looks like an evil witch an is sorta hard to watch.

Hudson is an actress I have never understood. I have never thought that she was ever all that good. She had a big role, I guess, in Almost Famous, but since then has not stretched too much, and has basically been blond and skinny (I don't think she's all that pretty). Here she's in way over her head and totally embarrasses herself with Day-Lewis (who, of course is seamless). Her character is *totally* unnecessary (she sings a song about how she likes Italian movies - who cares) and she looks rather fat (sorry - but she lost one of her two traits listed above).

As a musical, the biggest problem with this is that you never see a whole number run through all the way once. Every time the characters break into song, there is a cut to an almost-deserted sound stage (Contini's empty mind/memory, I guess) where they dance around the multi-layer set. As they are singing in some astral plane, there are then several cut-backs to the present, wherever Day-Lewis and his women are living in our world. This structure is very choppy, clearly, and frustrating when all we want is to hear the music. In the end, none of the songs are all that memorable or emotional, because we only get several-second snippets of them before they are cut away.

Director Rob Marshall has emerged in recent years as *the* director for film musicals, after scoring big with Chicago (which I found pretty dull). I do not like his style, which I think is generally too complicated and too full of stuff. He has his roots in Broadway and it shows in his movies where everything is very big and showy. The best thing about Nine is the skeleton of the story that comes from the original Fellini work. It is not terrible, but it is not great. It is fun enough, but just not exciting at all.

Stars: 2 of 4

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Sunday, December 20, 2009) (200)

Writer/director Marc Lawrence clearly loves Hugh Grant - and vice versa. The stuttering Brit star has been in all three of of Lawrence's feature films, Two Weeks Notice, Music and Lyrics and now, Did You Hear About the Morgans? They are all have three different female co-stars and all have Grant in about the same role in each: a nice and cute guy who the women try to hate, but can't. (I guess that's basically the same rose as Grant's who career.)

In The Morgans, Grant and ex-wife Sarah Jessica Parker live exceptionally well but separately in Manhattan. One night, when he is trying to woo her back to him, they witness a murder. They are immediately put into the witness relocation program and end up in Wyoming, where they stay with federal marshal Sam Elliott and his wife Mary Steenburgen. Being from the West, the cowboy duo like guns, rodeo and everything foreign and uncomfortable to the pansy New Yorkers. Grant and Parker learn to love and trust each other again as they deal with a simpler life in a small town.

There's not a heck of a lot of depth to the story - not that one would really expect that. Parker basically plays Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City - but in the Upper Mountain West rather than the Upper East Side. She makes foolish and hateful comments about common people being dumb and doesn't understand that you can buy a sweater that's not cashmere (um, Carrie/Sarah, you can actually shop at K-Mart in New York City too). Why she has decided to take her highest profile roles as a total heartless, affected bitch is beyond me. I have to admit I really hate the roles she plays. She's whiny and out-of-touch with reality (even reality below 42nd street).

Somehow this couple are the first significantly rich Manhattanites to have never been out of the city to know how pretty the natural world is. In one dumb scene, they look at the night sky in Wyoming and marvel at all the stars they see. Are you telling me they don't own a house in the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley? They've never been to Vail to go skiing or Bora Bora for snorkeling? This is dumb.

As with the other Lawrence films, Grant is given some of the best lines of the film - and he does really well with them (particularly the last line of the film). He really does have some magnetic charm to him and is a very good comedian. His performance (and some of his dialogue) as well as the Elliott and Steenburgen characters are the best things in the film. I guess I got out of this what I expected: a rather anonymous and recycled comedy. I would have rather had less aloof, rich New Yorker from Parker, but I'm happy with what I got from Grant.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

The Young Victoria (Sunday, December 20, 2009) (199)

Sometimes it feels like there's a new British royal biopic every year. Elizabeth, Elizabeth II, George III, Mary, Victoria - they're all great chances for directors to show off grand costumes and wonderful noble homes with manicured gardens and fantastic interiors. To this point, I've found most of them rather anonymous - that is, it's sometimes hard to tell one from another. They all blend together in their silk and gilt brocade, their stuffy accents and crystal chandeliers. The Young Victoria, however is a very nice movie - one that stands apart from the others by it's simple story and beautiful style.

Victoria (Emily Blunt) is a 19 year-old princess and is next in line to the British throne once her uncle William IV (Jim Broadbent) dies. She is also the niece of Leopold, King of Belgium. In order to consolidate power, Leopold introduces her to his nephew (and her cousin) Albert (Rupert Friend). The two have many interests in common and quickly fall in love, though they can only marry after her coronation. She stumbles several times in the first days of her monarchy when taking advice from a cagey politician, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany). She soon marries Albert and has to figure out the balance between being a loving, romantic wife and a strong and sensible leader for her country.

Unlike most of the recent movies about British royalty, this one has an interesting and beautiful style from French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee. He uses the camera very well in a clever, but subtle way. In one wonderful scene during a birthday dinner for King William, we see a deep shot of all the wine glasses set up on the table. Vallee uses a rack focus to show the successive crystal glasses down the line. One is in focus, then the next, then the next, leading our eyes into the picture in a visually playful way. He uses these racking shots throughout the film to point our view in specific places. It is clever and dynamic and really great.

Emily Blunt is getting a lot of attention for her performance here, and she deserves it. Her Victoria is sensible, naive, feminine and powerful. She is utterly modern and strong. The other actors also deserve attention, particularly Rupert Friend who does well with a Belgian accent and plays the line between husband and adviser to the most powerful woman (most powerful person) on earth and foolish lover very well.

This is a simple story with a very tight and smart script (written by Julian Fellowes). It is a biopic as well as a more serious romance and an interesting historical political drama. I like very much that it says what it has to say quickly (it's only 100 minutes) and shows the first chapter of a tremendously interesting reign and life. It shows Victoria and Albert as soul mates and world leaders who would go on to change the course of modern human history. But it does this very gently and subtly. I look forward to the next chapter in this story - The Middle-Aged Victoria, I guess. Yes - I'm looking forward to a sequel... how strange!

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Taking Woodstock (Saturday, December 19, 2009) (198)

This past summer marked the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock concert - and to celebrate that, Ang Lee made a movie about the back-stage production of the festival - about people we've never heard of or cared about. I guess a movie about the concert would be dumb, or something. Oh - and despite the fact that the anniversary fell on a weekend this year, the film was released two weeks after the anniversary. Brilliant!

Wry funnyman Demetri Martin a kid who works at his parents' ramshackle Catskills motel. Out of boredom and sarcasm, he becomes the head of the dumpy town's chamber of commerce where he gives a permit for a concert to the organizers of the Woodstock festival. Immediately the hamlet is overrun by hippies and freaks who come in from around the country to set up the concert.

His old-world parents and most of the neighbors are suspicious at first, but ultimately enjoy the money the out-of-towners bring. Eugene Levy plays the farmer on whose land the concert ultimately would take place. Max is a bit of a bumpkin who also sees the concert as a big money windfall for his dairy farm.

One nice thing that Lee does is to use split screen and montage elements showing a few shots at one time, referring directly to Michael Wadleigh's marvelous 1970 documentary Woodstock. It's a clever detail that shows that Lee watched at least one movie in advance of making this one. But that is about all the class and beauty we get in the whole film.

The writing is generally silly or dumb with long stretches of scenes where basically nothing happens. It feels much longer than its 110 minute running time. When the concert finally begins, we see absolutely no musicians and hear none of their music. There are a few songs on the soundtrack used throughout the film, but that's all the texture we get.

In one scene when the concert is finally on, Martin walks through the crowd to see the show. Hearing no music, he asks what is happening and a stagehand tells him they had to stop the music because of the rain. This is totally lame. He then goes into a VW van with a hippie couple who give him tabs of acid and he trips out with them for awhile. But why was more was not done with this set-up? You're telling me the guy never actually heard music at the concert - even from a distance? What's the point of him having an acid trip if he's just going to be inside a car for it?

Martin as actually pretty good - and much more likable here than in his normal shtick on his show or the Daily Show. I don't know if this is because he's a good actor or because he's such a good comedian that he can fake good acting well - but I would be interested to see him in a more serious role again.

This movie basically made me dislike hippies more than I already do. In this film, they're rich and pretty and seem totally unaware of the hell they're unleashing on this little village. Martin and his family are nice, but they are not enough to hold my attention. This is a very boring movie and it seems like a big waste of an opportunity.

Stars: .5 of 4

Crazy Heart (Saturday, December 19, 2009) (197)

Every few years there's a movie that comes out with an actor in the autumn if his career that critics and Hollywood folks go nuts about because it is some sort of magnum opus, encapsulating his whole life and career and showing that old people are talented too. (The really sick thing is that this situation almost always happens with men and not women - I guess because actresses can't get much good work past 60. Sad.)

Twenty-some years ago, it was Paul Newman in The Color of Money (a highly underrated film that deserved more awards and acclaim than just the attention it got for Newman). A few years ago, everyone was talking about Frank Langella's performance in Starting Out in the Evening (meh - overall a very bad imitation of Philip Roth). Last year, of course, everyone was buzzing about Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (I am not a big fan - I think his performance is ok - but the film totally blows).

This year, the movie *everybody's talking about* is Crazy Heart and Jeff Bridges' *wonderful, amazing, fantastic* performance. I think the film is a big snoozer and though Bridges is good in the role, he is not better than good and all the praise is probably due to the easy story it is for lazy editors to assign than for anything he gives onscreen.

Bridges plays Bad Blake, a drunk, hard-living 50-something country music has-been. He's a musician's musician who has written some fantastic songs in his career - some of them made more famous when sung by other stars. When we meet him, he's on the road in the Southwest on a bar tour through all the back-woods one-horse towns his agent can book him into.

When he gets to Santa Fe, the bar owner asks him if he would do an interview with his niece, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Bad agrees and meets her in his motel room. He's drunk and sticks of cigarettes, but for some reason she likes his roughness. The two fall into a brief love affair. He continues to live hard - hopefully not around her young son - and she continues to look blindly at his clear faults. The movie goes on in predictable ways as a typical 'one-last-shot-omigod-can-the-old-fogey-turn-his-life-around' story.

My main problem with the film is the script, which fluctuates between totally unrealistic and complete Hollywood cliche. It is never clear why Jean falls in love with Bad. He's sweet, for sure, but he's disgusting. There is no reason to think that she's so down-on-her-luck that she would go for such a man - and that she has a son and tells us all the time that she doesn't want to make more mistakes with her personal life, it seems like a bit much that she would let her guard down in such an extreme way. (Honestly, the thought of Gyllenhaal and Bridges having naked sex is stomach-turning to me.)

The dialogue is really terrible and the story is ridiculous. Writer/Director Scott Cooper adapted the script from a book by Tomas Cobb (that's supposed to be pretty good, though I have not read it). At one point toward the end of the film, there is a scene that you feel coming from a mile away, but you hope won't happen because you've seen it about 150 times before in other movies - but it does happen. Ugh! It's just plain lazy and dumb. Are we really at a point when writers, directors and audiences are so immune to miserable banality that we eat it up and ask for more? It seems like much of what happens would lead to a failing grade in a screenwriting class (no comment on the Independent Spirit Award's nomination for Cooper's script)

The acting throughout is good. Bridges is good - but I'm not sure he does all that much. He looks exactly like Kris Kristofferson (interestingly, Kristofferson is also a very talented songwriter whose songs are also better known than he is) and drinks whisky and chain smokes - but we don't get a lot of range in his performance. Gyllenhaal is also good, though again she doesn't do all that much with the part. Colin Farrell is good as Bad's more handsome, more successful protege - and if that's his real voice singing, he should switch to country music, because it's great!

The music throughout the film is wonderful - much better than the movie itself. T-Bone Burnett does a fabulous job with the songs that feel like old classics, even though we've never heard them before. I would buy a Bad Blake album, if only the guy really existed. I would have much preferred a movie-long concert instead of a dumb movie that I had seen before. I don't know why Burnett is not getting more credit for his songs here - he deserves basically all the positive attention for the film.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

A Town Called Panic (Saturday, December 19, 2009) (196)

What's more snobby in the world of animation than claymation? French claymation, of course - and with subtitles! Actually, this is a cute, film along the lines of a gonzo SpongeBob SquarePants about a small village where toy humans and toy animals live and get into all sorts of hijinks.

For Horse's birthday, his roommates Cowboy and Indian (you see, in French, you can say things like 'Indian' and just be cute and foreign and not culturally insensitive! Bonus!) decide to build him a barbecue pit. They order bricks online, but when the delivery arrives, they realize they have way too many. They stack the thousands of bricks on top of the house, leading, of course, to a gigantic mess when the roof collapses and bricks go everywhere. This is just the opening to a bunch of wild and crazy things that ensue.

The style throughout it playful and funny. The characters move like toys rather than articulated characters typical in most animated films (like the Fantastic Mr. Fox), and the high-pitched voices are hilarious, even if you don't understand the French. We never know what to expect around the next corner - and directors Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier do a clever job throwing a few curve-balls at us.

The biggest problem with the film is that it's not totally a single storyline throughout. It is adapted from a television show where the scenes are each about five-minutes long. As a result, it's feels like a soup in a can, rather than something totally homemade. That is, the story goes in such bizarre directions (funny but weird) that it is easy to lose track of the thread and get a bit bored. I am not sure if the script was written as one story arc, or if this is just an amalgamation of a bunch of shorts (I could see it either way). In the end it feels like something that would work better as a bunch of shorts - even a few 15-minute shorts, rather than a feature. Still, it's silly and fun all around.

Stars: 2 of 4

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Lovely Bones (Tuesday, December 15, 2009) (195)

One of my most significant and important movie memories was in the fall of 1998, when I went to see the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come. I remember it mostly because it was the first time I watched a movie and realized before it was over that it was a piece of garbage. Up until that point I had passively watched movies and not really thought about whether they were good or not - but this one jumped out at me as being particularly bad.

As I watched The Lovely Bones recently, all I could think about was how much it reminded me visually and viscerally of What Dreams May Come. Director Peter Jackson uses similar CGI elements that are so contrived and Thomas Kinkaid-esque that they have no depth to speak of and are simply alienating. It also has a somewhat similar, boring story - one that never really connects to anything I care about and never really comes to a sensible conclusion.

Based on the 2002 Alice Sebold best-selling book, the story is simple, if rather foggy. The film is narrated by Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who tells us in the opening scene that she has was killed in 1973. We see a brief lead-up to how this happened and then a truncated version of the murder itself. Then we see her parents and police in her Pensylvania town look for the murderer.

Through the film, Susie exists in a middle zone between heaven and earth, but it is never clear why she is there. There are elaborate visual sequences showing her discovering this fantasy world where she can be on a sunny beach and look at snowy mountains ten steps away. For reasons that are never clear, she cannot move up to heaven and must stay in this dreamy limbo place.

Unlike the movie Ghost, say, it is not that she's waiting for her murderer to be discovered before she can move along. She seems to just be hanging out - and even she seems to not know where to go or what she's doing there. We also see the lives of her family (especially her father and younger sister) being turned upside-down by the pain they feel at her loss.

I think one of my biggest problems with this story is that there seems to be a beginning, and then there is what appears to be an end - but by the time we get there, it is not totally clear where we are or what we have just seen taking place. I can be sure that I've seen some action and some dialogue, but I don't know how it all connects or why I am supposed to care.

The script is terrible (maybe the book is too - but I haven't read it). Not only is the structure messy, but the dialogue is ridiculous. To make matters worse, the inclusion of a narrator is one of the most unnecessary elements I've ever seen. She tells us almost exactly what we are seeing on screen - so if she wasn't there telling us what we were seeing, we could understand it well just the same. I

n addition, Susan Sarandon, playing Susie's grandmother, comes in at one point after her death, when her parents think they need help keeping the house and looking after her siblings. It is never clear, though why she is there, as neither one of the parent's seems that busy or distracted that they can't keep doing their duties. There's a terrible comic relief sequence of Sarandon vacuuming and sleeping while drunk and smoking cigarettes. It's feels out of place and rather inappropriate tonally. For the most part, Jackson seems to put style over substance concentrating on lavish computer-animated settings in the middle-world and pretending that helps advance the narrative (which it does not do). These sequences are indulgent and pointless.

Throughout the film the acting is pretty terrible. Mark Wahlberg (who I normally like) is much too earnest and feels much more like Dirk Diggler playing Brock Landers in Angels Live in My Town (from Boogie Nights) than a concerned dad. Rachel Weisz doesn't seem to react in any particularly strong way. She gets very sad and then upset with her husband for getting obsessed with finding the killer, then leaves the house to go to California for rest and relaxation. She's not much of an emotional part of the story - and basically as unnecessary as Sarandon.

The worst thing about the acting is that Jackson, a Kiwi, has a ton of non-Americans cast in small roles. Almost every single one of them struggles with their American accent at some point. This is terrible and something that could be easily fixed (I think) in post-production (with ADR dubbing). Stanley Tucci, who plays the creepy neighbor murderer (I'm not giving anything away - this is explained early in the film and in the trailer), has a bizarre creepy affect. Why he couldn't just speak normally is totally a mystery to me. Not only does he have to look and behave like a freak, but he hast to talk like one too. If Jackson is so deaf to American accents, he should not be making movies set here (he can stick to movies in Elvish instead).

After finishing the film, I had to think for awhile to figure out what I had just seen because it basically didn't make sense. Aside from being incredibly boring and much too long (it runs 135 minutes), I don't think much really happened beyond from the initial 'girl-is-murdered-in-a-cornfield' set-up. There is no story arc and no important character development. The direction is horrible and script is choppy and minor-league. The look of the animated parts is terrible, over-done and more nauseating than paradisaical. Overall this is a failure of a movie.

Stars: 0 of 4

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Big River Man (Sunday, December 13, 2009) (194)

I think the only way to describe John Maringouin's new film Big River Man is to say it is a 'gonzo' documentary. This is to say that it is hilarious and not traditional, frequently skirting standard practices and including narration that has such a particular point of view it becomes almost a narrative film in it's own right. Though most of the film is normal footage, there are scenes that are clearly scripted and acted out - re-enactments or fantasies of what could have happened.

The film tells the story of Martin Strel, arguably the world's greatest endurance swimmer. Strel is from Slovenia, which, as he tells us early on, is shaped like a chicken. Borut Strel, his son, is his manager and the narrator of the movie. Martin has made a name for himself by swimming some of the world's longest and most important rivers, including the Danube, the Yangtze and the Mississippi. This film is about his attempt to swim the Amazon from its source in the Peruvian Andes to its mouth in coastal Brazil. We see how he trains, how he raises money for the trip by pitching energy drinks and doing motivational speeches, and then once he's on the river, how he goes insane and his body begins to fall apart on the 4300km trip.

Borut is more fluent in English than Martin is, but he speaks in broken idioms and nonsensical approximations. He reminds me of Alex, the narrator in Jon Foer's Everything is Illuminated, who names his dog Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. Borut's narration is amazing and hilarious. At one point he and Martin go to the fast food restaurant, the Hot Horse in Ljubljana, Slovenia and Borut says, 'horse bourgers (sic) are like chicken bourgers - but they're made with horse.'

The Strels are joined on the trip by Matthew Mohlke as navigator on the support boat. Mohlke is a bright-eyed upper-Wisconsin man who basically knows as much about the Amazon as he can read on a map. He has no idea which back channels to take in the river and where there might be rocks or rapids, not to mention piranha and crocodiles ahead of them.

Only a few days into the trip, Strel begins to suffer from pain in his shoulders, any number of molds and mildew on his wetsuit, skin problems and sunburns. But he doesn't know the word 'quit' (he actually might not know it in English). He goes on - not because he is hell-bent on finishing as much as because he simply doesn't know that stopping early is an option (chalk that up to his communist upbringing or the fact that he says he was beaten as a child and can endure tremendous physical pain).

As he travels downriver, much like a character in a Werner Herzog movie (Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre: The Wrath of God), he goes insane. In addition, Mohlke goes insane as well, telling long stories about how Strel is Jesus and the morning mist over the river is the Holy Ghost there to witness the swim. As he goes along, he ultimately refuses to eat (not wanting to expend energy putting a fork or spoon to his mouth) and begins swimming at night and against his doctor's orders. Maringouin wonderfully uses actors at specific moments to act out some of Strels hallucinations or Borut's narration. This adds a wonderful phantasmagoric and, again, comedic, aspect to the whole story.

There is an amazing Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now element to this journey. He has a job to do and he cannot not do it. The journey becomes more important and more life-changing than the goal itself. When he finishes (after 66 days), there's a sense that it might not have been worth it as he is a shattered man.

It is unclear whether the voice of Borut is real or not, but it's hilarious. It either is totally real, or it's a constructed, rich persona. Either way it is totally entertaining and amazing to listen to. I guess it's not really fair of me to doubt him just because he sounds too-naive-to-be-true and because it is clear that Maringouin fudges the truth otherwise. All I know is that on Strel's website there is a poll that asks, 'Do you believe that Big River Man film (sic) is premiering at Sundance?' and the choices are: 'Yes, I believe', 'No, I don't believe it!' and 'Maybe, yes'. You can't write stuff that good!

Stars: 3 of 4

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Saturday, December 12, 2009) (193)

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, a film by Rebecca Miller, based on Miller's book by the same name, is a mess of a movie that seems like it wants to be more than it is. In it, Robin Wright Penn plays Pippa, a middle-aged woman who lately has begun sleepwalking around her house, into the kitchen to eat chocolate cake and also to the nearby gas station. We then see that was the daughter of a rather screwed up family, with her mother popping uppers in the 1960s; she ran away to her lesbian aunt's house where she was used as a model for sex fetish photography in her teens; she began using drugs and sex as an escape from the world. Ultimately she met and married a guy several decades older who was a calming force in her life.

The film is very choppy back and forth from the past to the present. On top of that, there are frankly so many blond actresses, it's sometimes hard to keep them straight. Aside from grown-up Pippa, Wright Penn, there is her mother, played by Maria Bello and the teenage Pippa, played by Blake Lively. They all sorta of blend together making it a big blond stew and making it hard to follow the story in the past or the present.

Wright Penn is pretty good as Pippa - though I think she is helped by a very knowing, sly voice-over narration (I still hate voice overs, but the voice here at least has some personality to it). She is convincing as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who loves her family, but struggles with the situation they find themselves. Keanu Reeves is pretty good as the screwed-up son of the neighbor who works in the gas station and becomes Pippa's lover. When he's not playing a moron or a much-too-earnest action hero, he's actually pretty good as a normal guy (as seen before in the godawful Nancy Meyers film Something's Gotta Give).

It's always strange when a director has to use one actor for a character in their teens and then another actor for a character in their twenties, but I think Miller does an especially bad job transitioning from Lively to Wright Penn. Lively plays Pippa through her teen years and into her early 20s or so, then Wright Penn becomes Pippa around 25 or so (assuming Pippa Lee is around 45 or so when the movie is taking place). This is silly and makes no sense from a developmental or a narrative point of view. If anything, the change should have happened around the time Pippa met Herb Lee (Alan Arkin) her older husband and changed her life. Also, the idea of Alan Arkin and Blake Lively being in a sexual relationship is so terrible, it really turns me off from the rest of the movie.

In the end, the story never really comes together well. I feel like this could be an interesting story about how one woman's life changed from one year to another with different men and different adventures along the way. Instead we get a rather vanilla story about a woman who did have a hard childhood (partly by her own making) and then had a nice life for the past 20 years or so. That she sleepwalks really has nothing to do with the story. After the movie was over, all I could do was wish there was more to it - more of a connection to something I knew or could understand or more of an interesting narrative. Alas, there wasn't anything more to the film.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

Invictus (Saturday, December 12, 2009) (192)

I don't get this movie at all. I understand that Clint Eastwood, who has become the wise old man of American cinema in recently years (especially with the passing of Robert Altman a few years ago), would want to make a movie about Nelson Mandela. I also understand that he would want Morgan Freeman to play Mandela as he looks an incredible amount like him. What I don't get, though, is why the hell he would waste his Mandela picture on a freaking rugby movie.

Americans don't care about rugby - we barely know about the sport. There are three baseball movies that Americans like: Field of Dreams, The Natural and Major League (I love Eight Men Out, Bang the Drum Slowly and For Love of the Game, but I don't think anyone has seen them). There are two football movies that Americans like: Rudy and maybe Remember the Titans. There is one basketball movie that Americans like: Hoosiers. There are no movies that Americans know and like - sorry Slap Shot. Americans don't give a crap about soccer - and no, Bend it Like Beckham is not a soccer movie and nobody has seen it anyhow. Americans couldn't tell a rugby scrum from try from a test if they were chasing them down a pitch.

At any rate, this movie begins with Nelson Mandela being released from jail where he had been for 27 years. Not-so-subtly Eastwood shows a car taking Mandela down a road, where on one side is a posh private school for white Afrikaners who are practicing rugby on their lush green grass and on the other side of the road, you see a bunch of black children in a burnt-out muddy field playing soccer. The Afrikaner rugby coach says to his boys something like, 'Remember this day, lads- this is the day our country went to the dogs.' Oh! Aha!
Thanks, Clint!

OK - so the next scene is some four years later after Mandela has been elected president and is now taking office. There are hundreds of problems he has to deal with, from massive unemployment to bringing business investment back to his country after worldwide boycotts of South African products and industry to dealing with the aftermath of the Apartheid system. In addition to these issues, Mandela sees rugby as a key to bringing white and black South Africans together. The only problem is that the whites love rugby and the blacks prefer soccer - or if they know anything about rugby, they root against the national team, the Springboks, who were a symbol of the hateful system of the past.

The Springboks are not a very strong team anyhow. Their captain, Francois Pienaar, a nice middle-aged Afrikaner (played by Matt Damon), says the right things to the press about how they have to work harder, but is rather out of options on how to make his team good enough to do well in the Rugby World Cup of 2005, a year away. So Mandela becomes friends with Pienaar hoping he can inspire the man or his team to win. Mandela sees winning the World Cup as a way of bridging the white-black divide in the country.

Despite looking just like Mandela, Freeman really struggles with his South African accent. At times it sounds like a typical accent of any African man, and at other times, it gets weak and sounds either English or Southern American. For me, this was distracting and constantly reminded me that it was Freeman and not Mandela. I know this is something I shouldn't say, but I strongly feel that Freeman doesn't do a great job with this role. Damon is fine - though he's given so little to work with that it's hard to tell if his performance is good or bad. Mostly he has a solid Afrikaans accent and looks like he's internally struggling a lot.

The emotion in the film comes from sharp juxtapositions between an old Apartheid-era symbol or saying and the new era of Truth and Reconciliation. At one point, when Mandela goes to a rugby match, he walks out to the field and we see many fans waving the old Apartheid-era flags - the same flag under which he had done his prison time. Another time we see the Pienaar family (Francois, his wife and
parents) sitting around their living room talking about how much they don't like Mandela and his new government, while their black maid stands in the kitchen making them food, clearly loving the new administration. When the South African team makes it to the final match against New Zealand, Francois gives his parents and wife tickets to the event - and also gives a ticket to the maid. It all so easy and sappy - it makes me want to puke.

What I hated most about the film was the manipulation by Eastwood to make us think one way or another about characters and events. The most glaring of these devises was the choice to have the Springbok team only speak to one another in English - even though they all certainly spoke Afrikaans in the locker room or at home. This makes us feel somewhat warm toward the players. At the same time, Mandela's white security guards speak among themselves in Afrikaans - basically to make us not trust them. This is all ridiculous. Sure, there were lots of white South Africans who spoke English, but most Afrikaners spoke, and continue to speak, Afrikaans. It would be like having one group of Nazis in a movie speak German and another speak English - we would automatically like the English-speaking Nazis more than the German-speaking Nazis - regardless of what they were saying.

On top of all the crap in the film, what is really unforgivable is that the rugby scenes are so badly directed, you have no idea what is going on and what they are doing. I happen to know the general rules of the game, but I can't imagine many American viewers do. Yet, we are only given a very quick lesson about some of the rules (ham-handedly when the team goes to teach some poor black kids how to play) and never really find out how you score points. As a result, the drama is much lowered when we see the players in the final match running around passing the ball seemingly aimlessly.

We don't know what it means that New Zealand has a gigantic player who is hard to tackle; we don't know what happens when you get tackled or why players punt the ball to the other team when they're running; we don't understand what the hell is going on in the scrum or why they're doing that. The worst part is that considering the final match has an overtime period in it, we never know how much time is left in the game - so we see a clock at 9:51 and we don't know if that's 9 seconds left or 9:51 left (are they counting up or down) - or if it is a 20-minute period (which is what I thought). It's a big mess.

Overall the writing of this is clumsy and the direction is pretty awful. There are several times when Eastwood shoots a scene simply from the wrong angle or direction. There are some tear-jerking moments, as one would expect from such a movie. There is rising music and slow motion shots of guys hugging and celebrating. This is pretty banal and dull. I would much rather have seen a biopic about Mandela (with Freeman playing him, perhaps) or a story about his struggles in his first few years in office - or a movie just about the rugby team without the social/political back-story. In the end we get a bunch of half movies. A half sports movie, a half political history, a half Mandela story.

Stars: 1 of 4

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Single Man (Friday, December 11, 2009) (191)

Near the beginning of Tom Ford's A Single Man, protagonist Colin Firth, answers the phone expecting it to be his boyfriend/life partner, but instead gets the voice of his boyfriend's brother. For those who watch Mad Men, it is clear that the voice is that of Jon Hamm who plays Don Draper on the television show. That the movie also takes place in 1962 perhaps leads to the joke that Don Draper would be on the phone - but the reality is that Ford seems more concerned with the look and superficial feel of the picture than the story therein. At the end of the day, he gives us a highly stylized day-in-the-life story set on a very glossy Mad Men set with much less of a dynamic story than you'd get in one episode of the show.

Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay university English professor who has been living for 16 years with his partner Jim, played by Matthew Goode. One night George finds out that Jim has been killed in a car accident, but of course he is not invited to the family memorial ceremony (it's the early 1960s, after all). Instead he spends the day (or a few days) remembering and missing his great love. He seeks help from his long-time friend Charley, played by Julianne Moore, who is a sad, drunk single woman. Ultimately, he goes to the bar where he first met Jim and there finds one of his more precocious and handsome students, Kenny, played by Nicholas Hoult, who clearly is looking to hook up with him.

In his directorial debut, clothing designer Tom Ford, does a good job making this film look nice. The interiors look great and full of 1960s tchotchkes and cinematographer Eduard Grau does a nice job creating an amber, orangey color throughout. Considering how straight-forward the story is, the film really relies on the visual look on screen to hold the viewers' interest. Sadly these visual elements, combined with an overbearing score by Abel Korzeniowski are very superficial and don't really show any depth beyond the first blush. The style feels almost like Ford is trying too hard - like 'Look! I can make a pretty film just like I can make a pretty gown' - and the result is a big annoying and frustrating. I'd much prefer just a nice looking movie without so much flash.

Generally the acting is good. Firth spends most of the movie sulking and dealing with his internal pain. He's good, but it's such an interior performance that it doesn't come off as much more than a series of grimaces. Moore is very good as an English ex-pat now living in Los Angeles. She is drunk basically the whole film and comes across as a Marianne Faithful-type broken woman with a hard life. Hoult is very good as an American California boy with a surfer bowl haircut. His accent is wonderful and he is totally appealing.

I feel strange saying this, but there is not a lot here that I can really sink my teeth into. I appreciate that Ford is trying to make it look nice, but he doesn't give a lot to work with and think about. Basically George is a standard intellectual gay man who has lost the love of his life and is dealing with it. I can't say even the way he deals with is is particularly interesting. He goes to work, he is sad there, so he goes to visit a friend, then he considers a one-night stand. It's very banal as far as a story. I also can't figure out how it is at all relevant that the character is gay - maybe there is no significance in that - but it just feels so banal that maybe his homosexuality is supposed to convey something special to me. I don't think it does.

Stars: 1.5 of 4

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Friday, December 11, 2009) (190)

Because he's a mad genius and because Bad Lieutenant- Port of Call: New Orleans wasn't a long enough title for him, Werner Herzog made another movie this year - My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. The film looks like it was shot in a long weekend - on digital video - with a small, but impressive cast and a small story. Curiously, though, there are also scenes shot on location in Peru and Western China. This is not a great film - but it is very interesting and falls in line directly with Herzog's greater oeuvre.

The brilliant Michael Shannon plays a deranged man in San Diego who, in a fit of madness, kills his mother with a samurai sword. Based on a true story, the film follows the policeman, played by Willem Dafoe who is trying to piece together the background story by interviewing the man's fiance, played by Chloƫ Sevigny, and theater director, played by Udo Kier. We see that the man was never totally normal and was always prone to wild ravings and delusional visions.

Considering the digital look to the film, the cinematography by frequent Herzog collaborator Peter Zeitlinger is quite beautiful. He does a lovely job showing ordinary things (like a railroad car in the opening sequence, or a basketball in a tree on the side of a freeway in the closing shot) in a washed-out style, so our view is almost the same as that of the crazy protagonist. Herzog also does a beautiful job of cutting from the present to the flash-backs as people tell their stories. Some of these scenes are beautifully constructed and choreographed from elements in three points in time.

One effect that Herzog uses that looks smart, but is not totally effective is at certain points he has the actors pause mid-scene motionless, while the camera continues to roll for 10-15 seconds. This is not a freeze-frame, per se, though it has the same general look. It looks constructed as you can see the actors slightly twitching or breathing. The only way I could figure to understand this, is that it is how the madman sees the world - at times moments pause before his eyes. It's a camp element that didn't totally work for me. The score by Ernst Reijseger is also a bit too heavy-handed.

I have a never-ending amount of respect for Werner Herzog. I think he's one of the smartest filmmakers - if the the smartest - living today. That is to say he is smart in terms of general knowledge of the world and also in terms of cinematic style and history. He seems to make a few movies every year, documentaries and narrative films, and each one deals with some human element - but mostly about insanity and general loss of control. This film might be a smaller work - like a smaller, less interesting painting by Picasso - but it does tie into his greater body of film about madness and obsession.

Stars: 1.5 of 4