Monday, January 19, 2009

My FINAL 2008 Academy Award Predictions

Slumdog Millionaire – the only true 100% lock for a nomination. Mark my words, without any doubt or qualifiers, this is your Best Picture winner.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – seemingly safe, it's been in for all the guilds, it’s well liked, and now a $100+ million grosser, but it's losing momentum, and no one’s particularly passionate about it.
The Dark Knight – WGA, DGA and PGA noms are strong indicators, but snubs by SAG, BAFTA and HFPA are worrisome.
Milk –Has arguably the least momentum of the five, and—somewhat inexplicably to me—no passionate champions, with many deeming it unremarkable and a standard biography. I once thought this would swoop in for the win, but now, the nomination doesn't even seem assured, if likely.
WALL-E – the real wild card of the Best Picture race; was ineligible for the DGA and WGA, so its lack of placement there means nothing. In the negative column, Disney hasn’t been trying very hard to boost its chances/visibility, and the ‘Animated Feature’ category guarantees the film will already get some recognition, so that might be enough for many voters. Still, it’s the one film besides “Slumdog” that people seem to genuinely love and could earn many crucial #1 votes on ballots.

Very feasible possibilities:
Frost/Nixon – I’m probably underestimating it (it’s been nominated by every guild), and it’ll likely get the middle-of-the-road “Michael Clayton”/”Seabiscuit”/”Ray” slot. But I just have an odd feeling about “WALL-E” and I feel like the liked-but-not-loved “Frost/Nixon” will be the one to get the boot for the beloved little bot

Gran Torino
– It’s a genuinely awful, schmaltzy, overacted, horribly written piece-of-shit, but it’s beloved by critics, audiences and (I hear) academy members, and I’ve learned to never underestimate the gay crushes that older, heterosexual males have on Clint

Doubt – Much love floating around, but I just don’t see it

The Wrestler – As much as I love it, I never thought this had a chance at a Best Picture nod – it’s too dark, depressing, gritty, small – but it’s gotten strong support from a large number of the guilds. It’s still very unlikely, but stranger things have happened

Revolutionary Road – should be a frontrunner in a just world, but voters seemingly got vibes of entitlement from its Oscar pedigree, and a number of them have admitted off-the-record that it was too gloomy/”depressing” for their tastes

David Fincher, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Gus Van Sant, “Milk”
Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight”
DannyBoyle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
Ron Howard, “Frost/Nixon”

I can’t figure out who, but I think one of the above (could be anyone except Boyle) will get bumped out in favor of Woody Allen (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), Darren Arronofsky (“The Wrestler”) or Jonathan Demme (“Rachel Getting Married”)

Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino”
Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”
Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”
Sean Penn, “Milk”
Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”

Very feasible possibilities:
- Josh Brolin, “W.”
- Brad Pitt, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
- Leonardo DiCaprio, “Revolutionary Road”

Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”
Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Melissa Leo, “Frozen River”
Meryl Streep, “Doubt”
Kate Winslet, “Revolutionary Road”

Very feasible possibilities:
- Kristen Scott-Thomas, “I’ve Loved You So Long”
- Angelina Jolie, “Changeling”
- Cate Blanchett, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Josh Brolin, “Milk”
Robert Downey, Jr., “Tropic Thunder”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”
Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”

Very feasible possibilities:
- Michael Shannon, “Revolutionary Road”
- James Franco, “Milk”
- Eddie Marsan, “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Amy Adams, “Doubt”
Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Viola Davis, “Doubt”
Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”
Kate Winslet, “The Reader”

Very feasible possibilities:
- Rosemarie Dewitt, “Rachel Getting Married”
- Debra Winger, “Rachel Getting Married”
- Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
- Freida Pinto, “Slumdog Millionaire”

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
“The Dark Knight”
“Slumdog Millionaire”

Very feasible possibilities:
- “The Reader”
- “Revolutionary Road”
- “The Class”

“Rachel Getting Married”
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
“The Wrestler”

Very feasible possibilities:
- “The Visitor”
- “Gran Torino”
- “Happy-Go-Lucky”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Best of 2008

Well, yeah, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Here’s the deal: after graduating college in May, and floundering for six months, I got a job. “Okay,” you may say, “so you’ve been busy, but why no reviews at all?” Well, this job of mine, it makes writing film reviews a conflict of interest, let’s leave it at that. I’ve yet to determine if I can write the occasional review or not, but at the least, I thought I could right a semi-farewell (I’ll be posting things at least once in a rare while), and share my top movies of 2008. I’m also attempted to list my 10 favorite performances in each acting category, but in some circumstances, I wasn’t able to thin out the heard to any less than 11 or 12. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve yet to see “Marley and Me” and “Bedtime Stories,” but something tells me my list will remain intact. That said, all the ordering is tentative, and seems to change from day to day. If there’s anything you think I overlooked or missed, feel free to comment or chastise:

25. "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"

24. "Son of Rambow"

23. "Be Kind Rewind"

22. "Tropic Thunder"

21. "Reprise"

20. "Australia"

19. "Blindness"

18. "Let the Right One In"

17. "Young @ Heart"

16. "The Visitor"

15. "Shine a Light"

14. "Cloverfield"

13. "Slumdog Millionaire"

12. "The Wrestler"

11. "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father"

10. "Burn After Reading"

9. "The Fall"

8. "The Dark Knight"

7. "In Bruges"

6. "Milk"

5. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

4. "Synecdoche, New York"

3. "Revolutionary Road"

2. "WALL•E"

1. "Rachel Getting Married"

Josh Brolin, “W.”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “Revolutionary Road”
Colin Farrell, “In Bruges”
Brendan Gleeson, “In Bruges”
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, “Synecdoche, New York”
Richard Jenkins, “The Visitor”
Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”
Danny McBride, “The Foot Fist Way”
Sean Penn, “Milk”
Sam Rockwell, “Snow Angels”
Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”

Kate Beckinsale, “Snow Angels”
Anne Hathaway, “Rachel Getting Married”
Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Melissa Leo, “Frozen River”
Frances McDormand, “Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day”
Julianne Moore, “Savage Grace”
Meryl Streep, “Doubt”
Catinca Untaru, “The Fall”
Naomi Watts, “Funny Games”
Michelle Williams, “Wendy and Lucy”
Kate Winslet, “Revolutionary Road”

Russell Brand, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”
Josh Brolin, “Milk”
George Clooney, “Burn After Reading”
Robert Downey, Jr., “Tropic Thunder”
Ralph Fiennes, “In Bruges”
James Franco, “Pineapple Express”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Doubt”
Bill Irwin, “Rachel Getting Married”
Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight”
Brad Pitt, “Burn After Reading”
Michael Shannon, “Revolutionary Road”
David Strathairn, “My Blueberry Nights”

Patricia Clarkson, “Married Life”
Penelope Cruz, “Elegy”
Penelope Cruz, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Viola Davis, “Doubt”
Rosemarie DeWitt, “Rachel Getting Married”
Samantha Morton, “Synecdoche, New York”
Amy Poehler, “Baby Mama”
Emma Thompson, “Brideshead Revisited”
Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”
Debra Winger, “Rachel Getting Married”

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Four Christmases"

I admit, I entered “Four Christmases” ready to hate it, fueled by the non-stop bombardment by the awful, unfunny trailers, which made it look like an uninspired, stupid, made-by-committee, mass-appealing comedy with a wacky high-concept premise and two mismatched stars. So, I was more than a little surprised when the movie kicked off with a jarringly risque sequence of our lead couple (Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn) role-playing a pick-up scenario in public and then fucking in the bathroom. Even more surprising, the movie keeps up the kinda-funny, chuckle-earning momentum for about 15 minutes… before it devolves into exactly the sort of piece of shit you worried it might be. I’m sure you know the premise, but if you don’t, Kate (Witherspoon) and Gary (Vaughn) each have divorced parents, try to avoid seeing them, but after an unfortunate vacation cancellation, they must visit each parent/family for Christmas all in one day. Aside from how many legitimate, well-respected actors are involved here (Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Mary Steenburger), what’s most disarming about the movie is how mean-spirited and unpleasant it is (oddly reminiscent of Vaughn’s last holiday film, “Fred Claus”) , entirely consisting of mocking lower-class people and repeatedly reinforcing how miserable it is to spend time with one’s family. Cynical holiday fare could work if there’s a modicum of wit or a subversive take on things, but this is bottom-of-the-barrel, broad humor (much of it scatological) including every joke you could imagine that normally gets trotted out in such flicks, ad nauseum. It’s one of those movies where everything in the house gets destroyed and then a fire starts. Oh, and there’s a horny grandma thrown in the mix, of course.

Let me describe a scene to help give you the picture of how half-assed and forced the conflicts / wacky situations in this movie are. While going to the bathroom, Kate finds a pregnancy test, and out of curiosity if she’s pregnant, she pees on it. Her niece bursts into the bathroom (which always happen, right?) and snatches it out of Kate’s hands. “What’s this, Aunt Kate?” “Oh, it’s a magic marker!” “Mom says magic markers aren’t allowed in the house!” (What?) Niece then runs away and Kate chases her into an inflatable jump-jump. Kate gets severely beaten by multiple children and then the niece puts the EPT in her mouth, until Kate tells her that there’s pee on it, and she spits it out. Aaaaand scene. Sound funny to you? You’re in for an 80-minute treat. On the positive, it may not be funny, but I semi-admire the tenacity to mock religious fervor in a Christmas movie, and the movie does admittedly have one lone laugh: Jon Favreau, as Vaughn’s brother, and his wife playing Taboo (“This is the one man besides you I’m allowed to sleep with…” “John Grisham!”) But by that point, you can barely muster up a chuckle after the plethora of homophobic lesbian jokes, vomiting baby gags, jokes mocking fat people and general unpleasantness. Nonetheless, I’m sure it’ll still probably be a hit because it’s dumb, mass-appealing, and has a “nice” ending where the two make up (which is essentially a lame, less effective re-working of Vaughn’s apology to Jennifer Aniston in “The Break-Up”). I pray audiences will prove me wrong and prove smarter than we’ve come to expect, but somehow I doubt it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


It’s been a rather busy week (new job, apartment hunting, etc.), so I didn’t really get around to writing up an early reaction to Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” but in light of the reviews that have come into the fray now that it’s opened, I feel obliged to pipe up. I totally understand why this movie might not be everyone’s bag, and some might find themselves viscerally put off by it, but as a bigger-budget recreation of the classically romantic epics that thrived decades ago, it’s just about perfect. Far too much emphasis has been placed on behind-the-scenes shenanigans, such as the scrambling to finish the film, and Baz’s indecision on the ending (for the record, the ending here strikes just the right melancholy tone, neither too saccharine, nor an out-of-place downer); the proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and the finished product shows no sign of any sort of rushing or rough edges. It’s unsure whether American audiences will have any desire to see a nearly three-hour film about a foreign land, starring two actors who aren’t intrinsic box office draws (my money’s on ‘no’), but it’s an entertainment unlike anything out there at the moment, and it’s another example of why the release of a new Baz movies is a major event for those with any stake in creative expression.

Opening in September 1939 with a crawl about Pearl Harbor and Australia’s “stolen generations” (mixed-race children taken away from their families by the government, in the hopes of “breeding the black out of them”), “Australia” tells the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a well-off English aristocrat who travails to Oz to visit her husband at his cattle ranch, with the suspicion he may be cheating on her. Escorted by a man known only as “The Drover” (Hugh Jackman), she discovers her husband has been killed by “a black” named King George. After firing her supposed cohort (David Wenham) who’s been in cahoots with the business opposition, Sarah and Drover must herd 2,000 cattle and deal with the rough terrain, intolerant, wealthy opposition, and eventually, the Japenese’s bombing of Dawin in 1941. The whole film is narrated by Nullah (Brandon Walter), a half-caste child who, after his mother is killed, becomes the makeshift child of Sarah and The Drover, and is our window into everything that happens.

The fact that the movie is so overstuffed with ideas and genres made it a more exciting beast to watch for me, not less. Luhrmann goes out of his way to always make everything gorgeous to look at, but certain scenes – and predictably, the scenery – are jaw-dropping in their beauty, and that’s not even including scenes that are breath-taking for other reasons (a truly stupendous cattle stampede sequence, and a gratuitously exploitative Hugh Jackman shower scene). The costumes aren’t big and flourishy, but they’re noticeably lovely, and the the seemingly everpresent score and cinematography add to the gloriously romantic nature. Once we get past the first reel, the film lacks the freneticism and strikingly original visuals of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo and Juliet,” and understandably so, but despite the levels of homage of tributes to the past, the end result is always most emphatically Baz, with his cinematic love cranked up to 11 in every shot, wallowing in his occasional excesses and a clear passion for every shot dripping off the screen. Luhrmann is intentionally evoking a long-gone style of filmmaking here, and I think the reason he succeeds is that he doesn’t play it self-conscious or winking at the camera, nor is the delivery overly earnest; the cheeky opening minutes, including Kidman’s blood-curdling shrieks over her clothes being ruined and her beatific cooing of a kangaroo right before it gets comically shot to death, establish almost immediately that this is not nearly as self-serious as the trailers seemed to indicate.

Neither Kidman or Jackman are playing the most complex characters here, but I genuinely loved both of these potentially iconic performances. As Lady Ashley, who starts off ghost white and gets suitably tan and grimy as the film wears on (though oddly, her forehead remains immovable throughout), Kidman yells, coos, cracks a whip, and is just a whole lot of fun to watch, which we haven’t seen her be in a long while. She’s been the recipient of some backlack lately, causing brilliant, complex performances like her’s in “Margot at the Wedding” to be overlooked, but this role seems to be her attempt to get back in the good graces with the mainstream public, as an enjoyable, likeable presence. Jackman is pretty much perfectly cast as The Drover, a great rugged romantic lead if their ever was won. He delivers the emotional elements when he needs to, and he’s totally convincing as the saintly, tolerant do-gooder, transcending his blatant casting as eye candy. At the 95-minute mark, the visual of him with his scruff shaven and in a suit is almost comically played as a (rather effective) money shot, and his body is repeatedly and deservedly lingered upon by Luhrmann. Wenham plays the most villainous of villains here, and you know from minute one who the bad guy is. Even though he plays him without camp or garish cartoon theatrics, I kept wondering, “Shouldn’t he be off somewhere tying a lady to the traintracks?”

The film is often very sincere and employs stylistic decisions that could certainly be dismissed as ‘corny,’ most notably, a fantastic “Wizard of Oz” motif that’s used throughout the film, and a bit of magical realism flourishes wedged in at convenient moments. People at my screening openly, obnoxiously chuckled at certain moments, and some will certainly roll their eyes frequently, but I think the flick needs to be entered into with an understanding that it doesn’t necessarily have the same goals as every other modern film. In addition, anyone with any experience with Luhrmann’s past work knows he’s not one to curb emotional or thematic scales that others might find to be ‘going too far.’ “Australia” tries to be all movies for all people, and I found that thrilling rather than tonally inconsistent. The much-ballyhooed romance doesn’t begin till the 70-minute mark, and the war/action elements kick in 30-40 minutes before the film ends. True to his old-fashioned conceit, Luhrmann tries to deliver a show that can capture the imagination of all demographics, and it makes for a terrifically enjoyable 165-minute experience that should really be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Rob Epstein’s 1984 “The Times of Harvey Milk” is one of the most compelling, powerful documentaries ever, and while I’ve been eagerly anticipating Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” the narrative film re-telling the same story, this time cast with movie stars, it was more due to the power of the material than Van Sant’s involvement. No one questions Van Sant’s place in cinema history,but – like Spike Lee and Brian De Palma – his creative success rate is far outpaced by his reputation and name recognition. But with “Milk,” he more than simply delivers a standard presentation of unquestionably great material, his construction and delivery enhance what could have been. While the new film may not reach the heights of the doc, it’s one worthy of Harvey Milk’s story and, perhaps due to circumstances beyond its control, may resonate emotionally with audiences stronger than any other release this year. Ed Gonzalez’s comparison of “Milk” to “Kinsey,” in his review on Slant Magazine, is right on the money; both films refuse to hand-hold or wallow in easy emotion, while choosing to focus almost entirely on their subject’s careers and illuminating their revelatory reallignments of societal norms and hard-battled fights for understanding.

For those who don’t know, the film tells the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the first openly gay man elected to major political office, dubbed “the Mayor of Castro Street,” largely responsible for turning San Francisco into the gay mecca it is, and the first (at least most vocal) public proponent of gay rights, pride and sense of community. The film is narrow in scope, offering not a portrait of Harvey Milk the man (nor a “balanced” depiction, including his faults), but rather his deeds – the historic breadth of his political career – or rather, what he should be/is remembered for. Along the way, we share in Harvey’s relationships with boyfriends Scott Smith (James Franco) and Jack Lira (Diego Luna), allies CleveJones (Emile Hirsch) and Anne Kronenberg (Allison Pill), and political nemesiis Dan White (Josh Brolin), John Briggs (Denis O’Hare) and Anita Bryant (herself in archival footage). Those who know the story (for those who don’t, I won’t “spoil”), the “epilogue” of Harvey Milk’s life story isn’t included here, and while I initially questioned the decision, it allows the film to close on a note of hope and empowerment rather than despair, without feeling unearned or painting over tragedy (we do get a closing crawl telling us what happened).

I can’t put my finger on why, but something irks me about A-list stars being “daring” by strapping on their gay hat to win awards, and more often than not, I don’t really buy them as the genuine article. So, like me, you may bristle a bit when Hirsch or Penn first prance across the screen, but soon enough, I bought everyone (with one notable exception I’ll get into in a bit) as members of the community, and performances seem to have been given with utmost respect and lack of showiness of creative vanity. Like most of you, I’m bored by the (admittedly deserved) constant praise for Sean Penn; like Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s always stellar, so the acclaim quickly becomes redundant or tiring. With his portrayal of Harvey Milk, though, Penn’s performance is predictably great, yes, but staggering nonetheless, showing no signs of Penn himself, nor the dramatic intensity of any of his other performances in recent years. Whether or not this earns him a 2nd Oscar, this is one of his best performances and certainly his most appealing and tender.

As councilman Dan White, Brolin continues his amazing 13-month hot streak, imbuing a character who could have been played in a reductive manner or as a “villain” by a lesser actor with depth and complexity. He plays White as the deeply conflicted, ambiguous man he seemingly was, and doesn’t allow us to either laugh at him or simply hate him (sequences of White inviting Milk to his son’s christening and drunkenly rambling to Harvey at a party are masterstrokes). Franco is quite good and subtle as Smith, though I don’t quite understand the Oscar buzz. The character serves a purpose, but it’s just not much of a role; Franco’s Saul in “Pineapple Express” was a significantly more interesting character and performance. While the generally overvalued Hirsch gives one of his better performances (despite playing it up a bit too much in his first scene), Luna, regrettably, is to “Milk” what Thandie Newton was to “W.”: an out-of-place embarrassment. As a drunk, lispy, latin queen, Luna’s character is increasingly irritating, jarring, and whenever he’s on screen, you wish he wasn’t.

It’s perhaps unfair the significant credence Prop 8 passing has lent this movie, and it’s almost impossible to view it in an objective light; if nothing else, the discriminatory measure going through has significantly improved “Milk’s” Best Picture chances. Everytime Proposition 6 is discussed or whispers of foreboding “anti-gay laws,” one can’t help but note the relevance; some have cited Prop 8 passing as making this movie more timely than ever, but it would’ve been timely either way, just it could’ve been relevent in showing how far we’ve come in 30 years, rather than how little. But either way, relevance wouldn’t matter if the film didn’t work on its own merits, and whether in 2008 or ten years down the line, the poetic filmmaking, entertainment factor and emotional power will resonate loudly. The inevitable moden comparison will be how it stacks up to the merits and gayness of the last big gay movie, “Brokeback Mountain.” While I don’t think this quite earns that film’s ‘masterpiece’ status, in terms of content I think it tells its story in a more accessible and more overtly emotional manner (you won’t hear cries of ‘boring’ from the plebes this time), though it’s also more overtly GAY. Those who tried to make bullshit claims that “Brokeback’s” meditation on the stigma of the closet was somehow a “universal love story” will have no such grounds here.

Almost certainly going to be taken as an issue movie due to the timing of its release, “Milk” is a film that doesn’t use its subject matter as a crutc, but uses it as an impetus for all involved to bring their A-game, and delivering the movie it deserves, easily one of the best of 2008. All things considered, it’s probably Gus Van Sant’s best film, and for those worried there’s little of his tough evident for this straightforward Oscar bait (a la “Finding Forrester”), it falls stylistically between “Good Will Hunting” and his protracted artiness in films like “Paranoid Park.” Not much pretentious here to alienate, but we got the odd insightful, beautiful shot (a murdered gay man’s body reflected in an alert whistle lying in the street), seemingly patchwork insertion of archival footage, and an appealingly murky, ‘70s documentary-style aesthetic that I really loved. With a tremendous performance from Sean Penn, and a time theme that works in tandem with its cumatively stand-alone poower, “Milk” is every bit the “important” work it’ll be praised as, but also tremendously satisfying as a moviegoing experience of any stripe.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Well, add “Twilight” to the list of things that makes me feel old and out of touch. Stephenie Meyer’s series of vampire romance books with Mormon undertones have taken tween girls and their moms by storm, and the phenomenon seems to have hit a new crescendo with the release of the movie version this Friday. Frankly, I just don’t get it. For a movie so hugely anticipated (yet I don’t personally know anyone who wants to see it), there’s not a whole lot to say about “Twilight,” except that I don’t quite understand what someone might find interesting about it. Like a tamer, lamer, chaster version of HBO’s “True Blood,” Catherine Hardwicke’s adaptation follows the PG-rated, sexless romance between human girl (Kristin Stewart) and vampire boy (Robert Pattinson) and their tortured, boring emo conflicts about what they should do. For a movie where not much happens – everything seems to be set-up – the movie takes forever to tell its story and feels epic (if I didn’t have a watch, I’d have sworn the 120-minute flick ran a whole hour longer). It takes about half its running time for Stewart to discover beautiful boy’s vampire origins, and then we get endless montages where pop music plays over conversations between the two where we don’t even hear the dialogue, punctuated by occasional reminders that boy has to fight his bloodlust when around girl so he’s not tempted to instinctively kill her (think that’ll play into the finale?).

Not much stuck out as “awful” here, but for a film that’s an encapsulation of such a phenomenon, I was surprised how flavorless and flat-out boring the majority of “Twilight” is, more often than not resembling a particularly generic WB pilot. As for Pattinson, the new heralded movie star gracing the cover of every magazine, he’s sure purty as hell to look at, but he seems completely bereft of range, and even worse, charisma; the most expression he musters throughout is his frequent, increasingly hilarious intense stares (his eyes bug so many times, I worried for his health). The passionate gazing all-around goes to such an extreme that I genuinely thought it was being played for laughs at first, but like dozens of other elements, they’re completely intended as drama; there are occasional moments of fun kitsch, made more amusing by the fact that they don’t seem to be self-aware, but there’s not nearly enough of them to earn this the tag of “guilty pleasure” or “unintended comedy.” Rather, it all comes off as a vaguely boring, bloated, familiar work filled with unintentionally goofy touches (how do the people living in this town not notice that everyone covered with ghost white makeup is obviously a vampire?). Fans of the books should be satisfied, if not ecstatic, but everyone else will be wondering what the fuck the fuss is about.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Though Pixar has admittedly upped the standards we once held animated films to, it's not really fair to criticize or dismiss the latest toon just because it doesn't stack up to the works within that company's catalog; few films -- live-action or animated -- do. But, Disney's "Bolt" is one of the few such flicks that actually merits a comparison to a Pixar film; unfortunately, that film is "Cars." Market-researched within an inch of its life, the thoroughly mediocre "Bolt" has been carefully made with the 4-10 demo in mind, from its inclusion of willing-statutory-rape-participant Miley Cyrus, to a by-the-numbers, easy-to-follow plot about a deluded TV-star dog (unenthusiastically voiced by John Travolta) trying to find his way home. We get even more insincere celebration of Americana from Disney, another "leave consumerism/Hollywood behind and embrace your inner fun/true self" subplot (a la "Cars") and a strategically inserted intended scene-stealer, this time an overzealous hamster who worships the ground Bolt walks on. The animation's very pretty -- especially if you see the 3-D version -- but the uninspired plotting, familiar jokes and phony emotional beats serve to make this feel like a movie you've seen many a time before (1985-born me was particularly reminded of "Homeward Bound," "Oliver & Company," "Bingo" and "Beethoven"; incidentally, all better films than this... well, maybe not "Bingo"). The smallest of tykes will be wowed and McCain-voting suburban moms will scream "Cute!" till they turn blue, but this is an inferior animated product, even before the paint-by-numbers plot leads to a laughably contrived climactic set-piece involving a fire. Between "Beverly Hills Chihuahua," "Madagascar 2," and this, it's enough to make any moviegoing parents long for this past summer, where "Kung Fu Panda," "Speed Racer," "WALL-E," "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2," and even "Space Chimps" sufficiently filled the decent kids-movie void.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire"

Rebounding extremely quickly after the undervalued-but-still-not-quite-successful “Sunshine,” Danny Boyle delivers a shot of heartfelt cinematic adrenaline with “Slumdog Millionaire,” the Barack Obama of the 2008 fall movie season (I’ll be neither the first, nor the last, to make that analogy). Don’t be put off by the vaguely unpleasant title – just saying it to my parents made them bristle – and run in the other direction; in doing so, you’d miss one of the more unique, buoyant, universal movies of the year, filled as it is with such a rich tapestry of styles, emotions, and visceral exubence. Showing little elements of each of Boyle’s past films (“Trainspotting,” “Millions,” “28 Days Later,” “The Beach,” “A Life Less Ordinary”) to make one perfect, cohesive whole, the film ultimately defies easy classification, though if pressed, I’d dub it a drama-adventure-fantasy-romance.

The Dickensian tale centers around Mumbai-born Jamal (Dev Patel), a call-center tea servant, who’s somehow made it to the final round of India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” despite being merely a “slumdog” (i.e. a kid from a slum). The film kicks off with Jamal being arrested before he can answer the final question, and being subsequently tortured and questioned by the police as to how exactly he cheated to make it so far on the show. This is all used as a framing device to tell Jamal’s story, taking us from when he was 7 years old till now, as he has one flashback explanation after another that led him to wear he is now. The structure of the movie (superficially resembling “The Usual Suspects”), allows Boyle to tell all these incredibly compelling mini-stories, ranging from the comic to the tragic, and employing so many different visual and thematic styles. It runs a full two hours, but never stops moving, and pretty much every moment hits on some level, somehow enriching whatever comes next.

I think there’s a good chance “Slumdog” may earn the “crowd-pleaser” slot among the five Best Picture nominees in January, but regardless of potential award riches, it’s just a great “movie” movie (i.e. delivers on just about everything that mainstream audiences go to the movies for) and will likely benefit from colorful word-of-mouth all holiday season long. You’re going to hear the term “crowd-pleaser” applied to this movie quite a bit, and rightfully so, but that expression doesn’t quite do justice to just what this movie delivers. This isn’t an staunchly enjoyable upper, but rather an exciting, occasionally devastating, involving journey that’s always entertaining, but not always easy. There are tragedies and horrors littered throughout (we witness an anti-Muslim massacre, the blinding of young children and child prostitutious, among others), and the movie makes them sting – not just be footnotes along the way – but somehow, through it all, the film retains an effervescent “up” quality that’s infectious.

As patchy an emotional journey it all may be, there’s nicely parsed out humor (an early dive into a pool of human shit is hilarious rather than revolting) and a consistently awesome soundtrack, including multiple M.I.A. songs for those who dig that sort of thing (guilty), to get us through the tougher moments. The movie doesn’t strive for hyperrealism with its occasional knowing embraces of the perfect/convenient and sentimentality, but it’s difficult to quibble with even these moments as they always feel earned, whether by the characters, the film, or us. The movie’s a big believer in fate, and gets us to be too. It’s also a big believer in Bollywood sensibilities, tossing in a pinch here and there, reaching their apex in the irresistible closing credits sequence, the most joyful, transcendant catharsis I can remember in a film in recent years. While I positively adore Boyle’s direction, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography, and their use of music and visual poetry, “Slumdog Millionaire” mostly won me over by appealing to my most base instincts, putting a lump in my throat, and just thrilling me with its artful manner of entertainment. Get in on the ground floor now, because this is the “little” movie you’ll be hearing about all season long.

"Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa"

No one much beyond the age of potty-training thought "Madagascar" any sort of great movie, but I liked it moderately better than the critical reception it earned. It was entertaining overall, occasionally very funny, just unconventional enough to be unique, featured at least two hilarious vocal performances (Sacha Baron Cohen and Andy Richter), and brandishing just a pinch of dark humor. There was no real logical argument necessitating a sequel, though, beyond the obvious monetary reasons (the first made $500 million worldwide), but that's fine as long as the follow-up remains funny, entertaining, and justifies its existence. However, despite a $63 million opening weekend and inexplicably decent reviews, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" feels like a forced, tired sequel in every respect (think "The Whole Ten Yards" and "Nutty Professor II") that jumps through "Saw"-like narrative hoops just to extend things unnecessarily and further cash in.

Sure, there are some laughs to be had -- the penguins and Baron Cohen's King Julian can be relied upon for consistent funny -- but does anyone really care about Alex's (Ben Stiller) daddy issues, Marty's (Chris Rock) identity crisis or Gloria's (Jada Pinkett-Smith) love interest? It's all a lazy rehash of the first film that doesn't work nearly as hard to make us give a shit; it's the sort of sequel that just delivers the characters we liked the first time around and expects that to be enough. To be fair, the movie's just lazy, not terrible, and any animated kids movie featuring an Iraq War joke deserves some props for ambition, but the whole thing can best be summed up by its final shot: our four leads dancing away from the camera for no reason. There's no celebration happening, there's not even any music playing, they're just dancing because the studio thinks that's what we like and what we want, even if it's completely unnecessary and makes no sense.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"Repo! The Genetic Opera"

Some movies are just not for everyone, while others are for seemingly no one. I’m not actually sure who the audience is for “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” as I think I may be one of a dozen people who’s an equal fan of horror films and musicals. But at one point in the movie, during an on-stage performance, Paris Hilton’s surgically grafted-on face falls off her head; that’s just one of the sorts of images you can find in Darren Lynn Bousman’s “Repo!” that other movies just can’t rival. This horror-musical is complete schlock, and not fully successful schlock at that, but there’s undeniably pleasures to be had during its 90 minute duration, and it’s be tough to find much more interesting/ambitious projects in 2008. Based on an underground 2002 stage play (which Bousman directed) and taking place in 2056, an epidemic of organ failures has run rampant. A multi-billion dollar company called GeneCo, run by Paul Sorvino, begins to offer organ transplants via payment plans for those lacking sufficient funds to purchase the body parts. However, if you miss a payment, the repo man (Anthony Stewart Head) is sent out to reclaim the organ. We get about three related story strands, and all roads lead to the finale at the much-touted Genetic Opera, headlined by robotic-eyed Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman). As a rock opera, the entire film is sung-through, and while the songs aren’t BAD—they’re serviceable—they’re also what keeps this from being a totally recommendable experiment. There are traces of Sondheim – the music is as atonal as can be – but nowhere near the quality, and though occasional bars are catchy, rarely does an entire song warrant being remembered.

It is not, as Ms. Hilton proclaimed on Letterman, “Like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ – but better.” In fact, there are moments where one is tempted to look away out of embarrassment. The direction seems aimless, with Bousman having little idea where to point his camera, resulting in the film’s look varying between ‘music video’ and ‘porn flick’. Still, there’s an undeniably compelling visual element to it all, especially the production design, with so much to look it, all the more impressive for being done apparently on a smallish budget. Sorvino deserves points for camping it up the hardest in a film full of over-the-top B-grade actors, while leading lady (and former Spy Kid) Alexa Vega all-too-often employs the Hilton/Lohan style of singing, and it’s disappointing Brightman (“The Phantom of the Opera’s” original Christine) isn’t better utilized. Still, Hilton herself seems to be having fun here, even if she doesn’t seem quite aware what the movie she’s starring in is (nor did she on Letterman, where she described it as “a comedy”). It’s not a movie I can quite recommend or embrace – unsurprisingly, the reaction at my screening was brutal – but for those, like me, who rarely find ambition to be a bad thing, should at least find it tremendously interesting. Hell, you even get an awesome cameo by Joan Jett. Overall, I had fun, I was entertained, I’d watch it again; If only the music was any good, it’d really be something to see.

"Role Models"

The most accurate summation of David Wain’s “Role Models”: it has its moments. About a third of the jokes really land, while the rest seems as generic as can be, with the emphasis on story beats and familiarity making its 99-minute length seem quite a bit longer. The generic bulk is especially disappointing coming from Wain, who damn near reached the apex of absurd comedy in 2001’s “Wet Hot American Summer” and hasn’t come close since. The movie picks up with our protagonists, Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) – the sort of name you only see in movies – hawking their energy drink Minotaur to schoolkids. Soonafter, Danny is dumped by his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks), the Minotaur mobile has desecrated a statue, and our pair is in jail. Said girlfriend, a lawyer, gets their sentence traded for a stint at Sturdy Wings, a big brother mentorship facility. Run by a cheerful ex-addict (Jane Lynch), Danny is assigned to cape-wearing Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Wheeler to foul-mouthed Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson). As expected, both pairs teach one another about life and enable each other to grow a bit. Basically, it’s a mid-80s family film, only with lots of dick jokes. In this ensemble, Rudd and Lynch are the real heroes of the movie, nearly compensating for everyone else and picking up their slack.

While I’d like to see Rudd show some diversity, like his roles in “Wet Hot” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” he’s still hilarious playing the same character over and over again; his deliver is unmatched, turning run-of-the-mill bits of dialogue into wry one-liners. Lynch, on the other hand, has seemingly evolved into the preeminent character actress of her generation, taking her place as the woman to put in your movie to funny it up – the female Stephen Root, if you will. Scott was infinitely more interesting in against-type roles in “Southland Tales” and “The Promotion” than he is here playing Dane Cook/Stifler for the umpteenth time. As the intended scene-stealers, the kids grated on my nerves the more the movie went on. Little kids cursing up a storm consistently leaves audiences in hysterics (also see: old white women saying things like “for shizzle”), but Thompson is wildly annoying, shrill, one-note and false. As for McLovin, I’m one of the few who didn’t like him in “Superbad,” and I think it’s a disgrace for him to have a career beyond that one iconic role; be gone, Mintz-Plasse, please! Meanwhile, Banks gets about as much to do as she did in the “Spider-Man” films, sitting on the sidelines with nothing funny to do. The jokes tend to slide from one end of the spectrum to the other; high points include a brilliant running joke about KISS and anything involving Lynch (including a hilarious, incredibly stupid bit involving a hot dog), while the LAIR (live-action role playing) stuff starts funny and gets repetitive, and the streak of homophobia is even less funny in the wake of Prop 8. Clearly striving for the Apatow feel, “Role Models” might’ve been a solid, fun, R-rated comedy with sharper execution , but aside from the occasional presence of inspired absurd touches and good one-liners, a lot of this feels familiar and uninspired.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

"Quantum of Solace"

From its opening shots of 007 driving his Aston Martin while getting shot at with semi-automatic weapons and then getting rammed with a truck, Marc Forster’s “Quantum of Solace” makes no secret that it’s going to be a more adrenaline-fueled affair than the last outing, the much-beloved “Casino Royale.” As probably the most anticipated “big” film of the fall movie season, it’s a worthy (if not terribly memorable) follow-up that shouldnt really disappoint anyone. There’s something to be said for the fact that this is really the first continuing Bond movie, picking up immediately after “Casino” ends (the guy he shot at the end of that one is now in his trunk); in fact, the whole movie pretty much serves as an epilogue to that film, though only its beginning and closing 10-15 minutes are directly related. Daniel Craig reminds us again that he was the awesomely perfect choice for Bond, and the movie surrounding him is fun, fast, short, kind-of confusing (post-screening discussion revealed no one really followed the story) and never really gets stupid,though the explosion-filled climax straddles the line. For all its merits, “Casino” wasn’t really “fun” per se. It was a tad longish, with action sequences that seemed to be shoehorned in inorganically, while “Quantum” is practically kinetic. That was undeniably a better film, but this serves as a more successful “action movie;” There’s a lot of well-shot, brisk action and minimal pathos on display, for better or for worse.

What pushes the narrative forward this time around is Bond’s loss of love Vesper (Eva Green) in the last installment, and while he insists he’s not seeking revenge (of a villain, he scoffs “He’s not important, and neither was she”), he keeps frustrating M (Judi Dench) by killing people rather than bringing them in for questioning. After learning who was behind the circumstances that led to Vesper’s death, Bond sets his sights on Quantum, an elite organization so secret no branch of government even knew they existed. In a relevant bit of plotting, the evildoers’ schemes are dictated by the world’s running out of oil, and 007’s able to do much globe-trotting (with each location-establishing title card in a different stylistic font). Soon he meets up with with another chick who wants revenge (Olga Kurylenko), looks hot and gets minimal dialogue (and subversively, doesn’t sleep with Bond). If I seem a bit hazy on plot details, it’s because I am. While the convoluted nature isn’t the sort that frustrates or confuses you as you’re watching, it does result in you thinking things like “Wait, what was Bond’s mission in the movie?” or “Why did they go there?” on the way out of the theater. There’s noticeably less meditative stuff and emotional complexity this time out, but with Paul Haggis getting a screenplay credit again, maybe that’s a good thing (“I have no armor left! You’ve stripped it from me!”).

While the insane amount of action initially seems like a regression to the putrid, numbing Brosnan films, for the most part, the execution here’s pretty good. Another rooftop chase after “Casino” seems repetitive, and no less than three people throughout the movie are pulled out of trunks, but there’s at least a half-dozen extended memorable sequences that Forster actually pulls off really well (somewhat surprising, considering he’s never directed action before). The money shot of Bond falling through a skylight that’s been shown in all the trailers is thankfully, within the film’s first 15 minutes, and just as cool on a big screen. Just as impressive are a sequence where Bond jumps out of a plane without a parachute, and a score-less fight only punctuated by sound effects, where Bond brandishes knife and shoe, which recalls “Bourne” in a good way. But a set-piece during an avant-garde Opera, where the on-stage performance is cross-cut with information being exchanged between villains and, eventually, a shootout, is masterful and easily the film’s highlight.

It’s still startling what a fantastic 007 Craig is, and he’s about 75% of the reason this movie works. He’s always the coolest of customers, killing without emotion, or even facial expressions, but you can see sadness in those glassy blue eyes; this time around he’s a wounded animal, a killing machine with a broken heart. And yes, he doffs his shirt again in this installment. As M, Judi Dench is, as she’s always been in this role, one-note and delightful, commanding “Impress me” to Bond, and giving orders via phone while filling up her tub and applying face cream. As our chief villain, rogue environmentalist Dominic Greene (seriously, Haggis?), Mathieu Amalric bugs his eyes as wide as possible to compensate for the lack of a distinguishable villainous tic, but adds a seductive menace to his Omega role. Brandishing possibly the worst Bond movie title ever, “Quantum of Solace” keeps up the Bond tradition of hyper-stylized opening credits , and while I still am waffling on how I feel about “Another Way to Die,” Jack White and Alicia Keyes’ collaboration, I quite liked the sand-themed sequence, and Bond purists should enjoy a nostalgic closing note, and a midway nod to “Goldfinger.” After “Casino,” which many consider to be one of the best (if not the best) Bond films, “Quantum” may not reach the nearly-impossible expectations, but as long as you don’t expect that film’s equal, you’d be hard-pressed to not be entertained.

"Zack and Miri Make a Porno"

An old-fashioned romantic comedy with a double-shot of raunch, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” is not exactly a leap forward for writer-director Kevin Smith – I think we’ve seen the extent of his versatility – but it’s sweet, sincere, and frequently very, very funny. Skillfully employing raunchy exchanges that seem natural and not just out to shock, the flick focuses on friends/roommates Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) who, desperate to pay their rent, decide to try to make some easy cash by making an amateur porn movie to hopefully sell to those they graduated high school with (Zack’s rationale: “Everybody wants to see anybody fuck”). But as the days grow closer to the titular pair making the beast with two backs on camera, the more apparent it is they seem to have feelings towards each other that are more than friends. Smith may wade into pre-teen waters a bit too often here like usual, but the dude just knows how to write dialogue, and makes the mushiness at the center of all the debauchery feel earned; I just plain like the kind of movies he puts out there.

Every line in a back-and-forth between Zack and Justin Long as a gay porn star is a quotable killer (“What was the name of that film you were in again?” “You Better Shut Your Mouth or I’m Gonna Fuck It”), and for every scene that barely elicits a chuckle, there are two that will have you in fits . At first, I worried this was too much of an Apatow production to the point where it felt like Smith’s voice was lost (Gerry Bednob delivers a rant seemingly taken verbatim from one he delivered in “40-Year-Old Virgin”), but soon enough the Apatow cast members and adlibs merge nicely with Smith’s trademark dialogue and it seems very natural. I’m a little disappointed “Zack and Miri” has already bombed, since I was really hoping this would be the flick to make Banks a full-on star. Rogen and Craig Robinson (the doorman from “Knocked Up”) get the lion’s share of the laughs, but Banks is hardly the straight gal a la Katherine Heigl. Not only is she gorgeous and charming, she’s funny as shit and (as many of us knew from “Slither” and “Virgin”) she knows how to deliver a one-liner. Even if I don’t love shit jokes (the scat money shot we get didn’t gross me out, I just didn’t find it very funny), I think Smith has finally grown comfortable with his limitations, and so have I. His low-rent charm, natural, conversational filthy dialogue and group-of-friends cast assemblage paved the way for the Age of Apatow, and it hasn’t lost any of its appeal.

Friday, October 24, 2008

"Saw V"

Well, it took me five movies, but I’m finally done with “Saw.” I still say, in the creativity-bereft horror genre, the oft-criticized “Saw” movies offer consistently complex scripts with fresh ideas and truly inspired plotting, but with “Saw V,” this franchise has officially been bled dry. Watching the film, I was reminded what a remarkably consistent series this is; they all feel like they have the exact same production values, same director, same tone, same structure, same token twist ending. After this fifth entry, people (like me) will likely be jumping ship because they’ve had their fill, not because of drastic shifts in direction. While I admire the filmmakers’ inventiveness in finding ways to continue the franchise (and complicating things, ad nauseum) without repeating the same formula, they’re just bending over backwards to keep this cash cow going, and it all seems pointless from the get-go. It’s not boring, your interest will be kept, but the movie jumps through so many narrative hoops just to exist, that it’s tough to care. Jigsaw, the series' chief antagonist, has been dead for two films now, and as a result, flashbacks and storytelling trickery are relied upon entirely to keep this charade going. Starting with the third act of “Saw IV,” the series has just become too convoluted for its own good, and has reached its saturation point for ridiculousness. Viewing all the films in sequence, one realizes that the whole "revealing flashback that changes the meaning of everything that's come before it" thing has practically become a recurring joke by this point, being used about a half dozen times in each chapter thus far (e.g.: we'll flash back to a scene from the second movie only to reveal that a newly introduced character was hiding behind a wall or something). Hell, this one spends half its running time – whaddya know, flashing back – just to explain backstory for the twist from the last movie. And plotting mechanics aside, there’s just no excuse for a character that, on more than one occasion, vacantly stares into space and speaks aloud expository dialogue when he’s standing in a room by himself (“[He] killed him. And made it look like a Jigsaw murder!”) Those who are still happily turning out for these movies will not be terribly disappointed or elated, but I suspect most viewers will have finally had enough.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"High School Musical 3: Senior Year"

Clearly, the “High School Musical” series has been a phenomenon within its target demographic (i.e.: 6-12 year-old girls), and the latest entry, “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” (or as the kids are calling it, “HSM3”), knowingly caters to that audience. Whether you’ve been dreading it or eagerly awaiting it, prepare for a return to the Disney version of high school where the flamboyant, pink-pants-and-argyle-sweater-wearing choreographer is straight, and that muscley heartthrob sneaking through your daughter’s window is doing so to have a picnic with her. As the first in the series to obtain a theatrical release, the film mostly follows in the footsteps of the middle-of-the-road first two, and offers everything you’d expect in such a threequel. If you hate the first two, you’ll hate this, if you love them, you’ll love this. If you’re like me, and find them mildly entertaining and occasionally irritating, you’ll find this a slight improvement. Through it all, the cheese factor is cranked to ten, and though there hasn’t been some massive creative leap – things still feel fairly made-for-TV – it’s safe to say this is the best of the three. It’s also shot with a sense of competence and actual choreography, which is more than one could say for “Mamma Mia!” The jokes still aren’t funny, the songs are still mostly forgettable (though punctuated by some undeniably enjoyable ones), and Zac Efron still looks like he’s passing a kidney stone when trying to emote, but its good-natured exuberance and propulsive energy make it tough to not have just a little bit of fun (ironic or not).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Synecdoche, New York"

Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut “Synecdoche, New York” is going to get understandably criticized by some as pretentious (e.g.: the title itself is a verbal pun, and never referenced in the film), unpleasant (be prepared for shots of feces and gum surgery) and arty for arty’s sake, but I don’t give a shit, I fucking loved every minute of it. This is Kaufman turned up to 11, the result of his ideas not having gone through the filter of someone else’s vision; in other words, it’s weird as shit. The film starts off in a somewhat recognizable, real world, and grows increasingly more surreal. Kaufman has gone on record saying he intentionally crafted “Synecdoche” to benefit from multiple viewings, and from a certain standpoint, it’s kind of frustrating that the film is intentionally impenetrable on a first watch. However, those who like to be challenged and can work with it on its own level will find it the sort of film you can discuss with friends for hours afterwards. While it could all just be watched and enjoyed as Kaufman zaniness, metaphor is everywhere you look here, and you’re constantly engaged in a very real way. The audience is made an active participant in the story/ideas being delivered, and is required to analyze and interpret just to keep up. That’s either going to frustrate the hell out of you, or warm the cockles of your giddy little film dork heart. Take a stab at which camp I fell into...

Where “Southland Tales’s” strangeness was like a fun, exciting puzzle with debatable substance, there’s a lot of weighty stuff to be said and read into here. It feels like a manifestation of every idea Kaufman ever had about art and death, and he wanted to include them all, just in case he never got to make a movie again; the strongest thematic undercurrent here is art’s inability to represent reality, but there’s a plethora of subtext to latch onto. Our Kaufman stand-in this time around is death-obsessed, hypochondriac Caden Cotard (a predictably fantastic Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theatre director who’s just won a “genius grant” for his production of “Death of a Salesman” starring actors exclusively in their twenties and thirties. After his wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter flee to Germany, Caden finds comfort in his leading lady (Michelle Williams) and decides to devote his $500,000 grant to renting a massive New York warehouse, and stage a play about “everything.” This basically boils down to a play about his life and everything around it, but since life keeps going and changing, as does the production. Stand-ins are hired to play the important people in his life, and eventually there are stand-ins for stand-ins, warehouses within warehouses, and the whole thing gets so meta you can hardly stand it. Besides Williams and Keener, the cast is adorned with stellar actresses (Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Samantha Morton, Dianne Weist) in supporting roles, and every one is really something special here.

Term papers can and will be written about this movie; it’s thrillingly overstuffed with ideas, but against all odds, also an emotional juggernaut. We may not always be able to work out exactly how we’re supposed to take certain aspects of the film, but we go along for this journey with Caden (and Kaufman), and the destinations are often devastating. Though equipped with an undeniable cynical streak, everything is open to interpretation, and I was tremendously impacted by the film’s ending, even as I remain unsure whether it’s entirely grim or not. To wit: midway through the film, Caden has an emotional exchange with his grown-up daughter in a hospital room as he confesses to a homosexual affair he never actually had, as a real petal wilts off of the flower tattoo adorning his daughter’s arm. The scene had me choked up, but I couldn’t tell you exactly why, and that’s a reflection on the film as a whole. Even when you can’t quite grasp exactly what or why, the film remains entirely transfixing, fascinating and beautiful to behold.


Clint Eastwood has a tendency to evoke strong reactions from critics, and their reaction usually tells you more about the critic than it does about the film. His “Changeling” is neither the masterpiece his worshippers declared at Cannes, nor the piece of shit New York critics have denounced it as in their early reviews. Were his name not attached to it, I have a feeling the reactions would be a lot more tempered, and you might get a few more reviews praising it as the strong, compelling, 1920s-era drama/mystery it is. Early on in the proceedings (dubbed “A true story”), Christine Collins’s (Angelina Jolie) son goes missing, but is recovered by the corrupt LAPD a few months later. Unfortunately, the boy they recovered is clearly not her son. For one thing, he’s five inches shorter, and circumcised. The police repeatedly insist Christine is mistaken, and encourage her to take some time to come to her senses. When she continually refuses to accept Boy A as her son, the police do everything in their power to shut her up, including committing her to a psychopathic ward. Eastwood’s murky cinematography and minimalist score are his noticeable touches here, but he mostly avoids his two biggest pitfalls: latent sentimentality and bland stoicism.

From Christine’s imprisonment on, things get significantly more complicated, and the story jumps in two or three different directions, making us wonder how exactly what we’re being shown relates to our central storyline. I found the shifting of genres/story strands compelling and unpredictable rather than schizophrenic (as some have criticized); this is largely due to, in a refreshing twist, a trailer that’s less revealing than it seems (Christine’s imprisonment to the psychiatric ward occurs at the 40 minute mark of the 140-minute film). Jolie’s part is undeniably pure Oscar bait – her level of suffering is seemingly increased in each scene – but as limited as the character’s scope is, she plays it beautifully. Some will surely grow sick of her screaming or crying, but she made Christine feel real to me, and it’s the first time I’ve been genuinely impressed with Jolie in a movie. Where the film falters is in its use of the supporting cast (I would’ve liked to see more of John Malkovich and Amy Ryan), and in Jolie’s final line of dialogue, which rung tremendously false to me. This likely won’t register with audiences in the way that “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby” did – those are unquestionably better films – but it’s thoroughly absorbing serious fare with moments of real emotional power.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Oliver Stone’s “W.” has been on any filmic and/or politically savvy individual’s radar for just under a year now, and between early script reports, photos from the set and the movie’s marketing campaign, it was tough to know what to expect exactly. Regardless of the ultimate content, it is/was easily one of the year’s most controversial films, due to the subject matter, and especially considering Stone’s violently liberal bent and reputation for fudging with details. All those things considered, what’s most surprising about the finished product is how fair, even-handed and straightforward it is. It’s also endlessly compelling (if troublingly sloppy) from any standpoint, but will likely disappoint foaming-at-the-mouth liberals on the hunt for another hatchet job they can “boo” and feel superior during. The film does acknowledge the damage Bush has done and holds him accountable, but hypothesizes it all as a result of good intentions, blind selfishness, and a pathetic need for approval, not simply “evil.” The mockery of Bush is kept to a minimum (we do get to experience many a language-mangling sentence), and despite what the film’s marketing would have you believe, it is most definitely a drama (a docudrama more specifically).

However, this would all be merely an interesting experiment without the performances. Josh Brolin’s inhabitation of Bush – getting down the voice, mannerisms, tics and voice inflection – is impressive in its own right, but it’s a staggering performance for reasons beyond impersonation. It’s a tough character to play because there’s not much of a character there, but Brolin refuses to let W. be turned into a joke. From waging war to choking on a pretzel while watching football, he makes him into a sympathetic, human figure, just one whose daddy issues resulted in the fucking up of a country. Elizabeth Banks does fine as the Mrs., but sadly (and accurately), Laura eventually fades into the background and we don’t get to see much of her. James Cromwell is simultaneously authoritative and likeable as Poppy Bush, and Ellen Burstyn gives us a fiery, crotchety, mean Barbara Bush that, according to insiders, is much closer to reality than what we’ve seen in the public eye. Toby Jones and Scott Glenn as, respectively, Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld, are aces with their minimal material, while Richard Dreyfus is masterful as Cheney, rejecting caricature in favor of understated, articulate evil; his “war room” scene explaining his plans for global empire via Iraq is perhaps the most chilling sequence in a film this year. Jeffrey Wright looks and sounds nothing like Colin Powell, but gives a really moving portrayal of a man who fought the good fight, but inevitably caved and sold his soul. The one false note in the cast – and BOOOY is it a false note – is Thandie Newton’s garish, over-the-top, bad “SNL” impersonation of Condoleeza Rice. I kind of understand what she was doing, but I can’t believe nobody stopped her. With her face continually scrunched up, her head bobbing as she speaks, and her voice flatlining on the same shrill note, she’s a perpetual horror to watch.

While a part of me does want to see the manic “Strangelove”-esque farce the ads hinted at, I’m ultimately glad Stone avoided the easy, obvious mockery approach and chose to play things a bit closer to reality and humanization. However, what keeps the film at the level of “good, not great” is the messy, (presumably) rushed approach. Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser choose to focus on the 2002-2003 run-up to invading Iraq, punctuated by flashbacks to earlier in W.’s life and career(s) that made him the man he is. While it’s always interesting, the constant flashing back and forth keeps the film from establishing a coherent narrative, instead having the feel of “greatest hits,” so to speak. And if Stone wanted to use the approach of just picking the most interesting bits of this life/presidency, it’s curious (to say the least) that he chose to omit things like the 2000 election and, most glaringly, 9/11. Those looking for a enlightening historical account will not walk away satisfied, but as a character study and analysis, “W.” is fascinating.