Monday, December 31, 2007

The Best of 2007

So in a few hours, the year will have drawn to a close, and it was a pretty great one for movies. Though every one on this list deserves mention, like every year, there's one or two that deserve mention above all the rest, and this year, that's my #1 and #2. Last year had numerous movies I loved, but "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Children of Men" were clear the two that really MATTERED, and similarly, this year's efforts from the Coens and PTA were the big kahunas. This year, I've allowed my list to go on past my top 10 (it sprawls down to forty), just in case anyone was curious. What's most apparent is that my list is particularly testosterone heavy this year, and for that I apologize-- my top 5 in particular is an especially violent group of films. Just to clarify, it wasn't intentional, it just so happened that my favorite movies this year happened to have vicious subjects.

And also, in the performance categories, I've gone with ten "nominees" instead of five, and it was tough just to get it down to ten. George Clooney, James McAvoy, Ellen Page and Johnny Depp are just some who nearly made it but regrettably had to go. Anyway, it's with a wistful sigh that I say goodbye to 2007 and we re-enter the dog days of January, complete with "One Missed Call" and the like. Looking at the spring release schedule, I can only spot six movies I'm even a little bit excited about: "Cloverfield," "In Bruges," "Be Kind Rewind," "Funny Games," "Stop-Loss" and "Leatherheads." Eh, nonetheless, Happy New Year.

1. "No Country for Old Men"

At this point, it's almost an eye-rolling foregone conclusion that someone names "No Country for Old Men" their #1 movie of 2007, but there's a reason for that: this really is filmic perfection. Aside from just the astonishing mastery of the craft involved, the Coen Brothers give us an enormously sad lament of society going to shit, filled with amazing moments of intensity, pitch-perfect metaphor and one of the most viscerally frightening screen monsters ever. "No Country" singlehandedly puts to rest any doubt that the Coens aren't the most talented filmmakers working today.

2. "There Will Be Blood"

Whenever Paul Thomas Anderson decides to give us a new movie, it's a cause for celebration, and at seemingly the last second of 2007, he gave us yet another triumph. An epic portrait of a turn-of-the-century oil man consumed by greed and misanthrophy, Anderson gives us just enough to titillate and fascinate but not enough to feel like we have the man nailed down. Featuring the most memorable sequences of any movie this year, as well as the best (and most conversation-inspiring) ending, "There Will Be Blood" features more ambition in a single minute than most movies have in their entirety.

3. "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Coming out of nowhere, writer-director Andrew Dominik produced a lyrically tragic, fascinatingly strange western that had the tenacity to depict one-note historical figures with complexity, and create a disturbing game of one-upmanship with unequivocal beauty and ambiguity. Abandoned by its studio, the film is destined to find an audience of cineastes years down the line, but those with an open mind will be infinitely rewarded. Equipped with a glorious score and two of the best performances of the year, "Jesse James" was too long for some, but left a haunting impression on me that lingered for days.

4. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
Anyone who's ever met me knows the extent of my unhealthy obsession with Stephen Sondheim's musical "Sweeney Todd," and how much it means to me. So, when anticipating Tim Burton's film adaptation of the show, I figured, at worst he would fuck it up a lot, and at best he would only half-fuck it up. It was to my great relief and surprise that Burton didn't fuck it up at all, and never allows his macabre production design fetish to overwhelm the lyrical beauty of Sondheim's music and the inherent awful tragedy at the story's core. Sure, he may underplay the humor a bit too much and Helena Bonham Carter's singing voice may render certain lyrics unintelligible, but all the important stuff was retained and myself, and many Sondheim fans, were grateful.

5. "Zodiac"

Simultaneously maddening and electrifying, David Fincher's nearly-three-hour procedural documented four men's obsession with the Zodiac murders until it consumed them. For a film that is ultimately "Case Files: The Movie," Fincher keeps things remarkably well-paced and consistently fascinating. It's a testament to the filmmaking, and the exhausting attention to detail, that, even knowing the real-life outcome, you could be forgiven for getting your hopes up with each new suspect or piece of evidence. Dumped by Paramount in March (and marketed by them as a horror movie), "Zodiac" has remained sadly unheralded at year's end by anyone except the great Manohla Dargis. Despite a story that culminated in one of history's all-time unsatisfying endings, it's difficult to imagine any true lover of cinema not getting wrapped in what Fincher's woven here. At the very least, you'll never be able to hear "Hurdy Gurdy Man" the same way again.

6. "Ratatouille"

After disappointing with last year's "Cars," Pixar, armed with a borderline-brilliant screenplay and outstanding voice work from Patton Oswalt, Janeane Garafalo, and especially Peter O'Toole, regained their animation crown this year. Dispelling the idea that animated films can't be more than "cute" and serving as yet another reminder that Brad Bird is one of the great directors working right now, and not just in the animated world, "Ratatouille" took inspired storytelling to a whole new level. Not only saying substantive things about striving for greatness and the principles of artistic creation, "Ratatouille," more than anything, just makes me astoundingly happy each time I watch it.

7. "Once"

John Carney's Irish musical romance (budgeted at $150,000) would be impressive alone for boasting the best soundtrack of the year (by far) , but it also has the emotional nuance and offhand charm to go with it at every turn. Telling the simple, sweet story of a week-long relationship between two nameless people with a shared passion for music, "Once" makes your heart alternately swoon and break and does it effortlessly.

8. "The Darjeeling Limited"

Okay, so Wes Anderson may not feel up to trying radically different things aesthetically, but that doesn't mean it's not a pleasure to watch his latest. While his old familiar quirks are all here, there's a real definition and love for the characters here that was missing his last time out, and in several ways, I'd say this is Anderson's most mature work to date. Despite the light feeling and whimsy on display, there's weighty stuff being dealt with here, and it's a surprisingly difficult film to shake.

9. "The Mist"

Based on Stephen King's novella, Frank Darabont's nasty little horror flick delivered frighteningly grotesque creatures and even more frightening humans while raising provocative questions about how people react in times of crisis. While there was gore a plenty, "The Mist" was significantly(and refreshingly) more reliant upon atmosphere and character building than "boo" scares or carnage, and Darabont kept things perpetually clever, nerve-wracking and unpredictable. All of which leads up to an ending that is equally shocking and deeply unsettling.

10. "Gone Baby Gone"

Everyone officially has to apologize to Ben Affleck. In his directorial debut, Affleck delivered (from Denis Lehane's novel) one of the more gripping, surprising crime thrillers I've seen and filled it with terrific performances, tough moral questions and a stunner of an ending. Set in Affleck's native Boston, the beantown on display here feels realer and more intimidating than the one on display in last year's "Departed," and casts a suitable layer of grime over the quietly powerful and devastating content at its core.

11. Hot Fuzz
12. The Host
13. Rocket Science
14. The Bourne Ultimatum
15. Away From Her
16. This is England
17. No End in Sight
18. Sicko
19. Black Snake Moan
20. Southland Tales

21. Year of the Dog
22. The Savages
23. Eastern Promises
24. Lars and the Real Girl
25. Grindhouse
26. Bug
27. The Simpsons Movie
28. The Orphanage
29. Hairspray
30. Persepolis

31. Knocked Up
32. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
33. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
34. Sunshine
35. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
36. Into the Wild
37. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
38. Michael Clayton
39. Juno
40. Charlie Wilson's War


1. Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
2. Ryan Gosling, "Lars and the Real Girl"
3. Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
4. Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises"
5. Chris Cooper, "Breach"
6. Brad Pitt, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
7. Samuel L. Jackson, "Black Snake Moan"
8. Adam Sandler, "Reign Over Me"
9. Reece Daniel Thompson, "Rocket Science"
10. Sam Rockwell, "Joshua"


1. Laura Linney, "The Savages"
2. Nicole Kidman, "Margot at the Wedding"
3. Tang Wei, "Lust, Caution"
4. Ashley Judd, "Bug"
5. Molly Shannon, "Year of the Dog"
6. Helena Bonham Carter, "Sweeney Todd"
7. Belen Rueda, "The Orphanage"
8. Marion Cotillard, "La Vie En Rose"
9. Sienna Miller, "Interview"
10. Julie Christie, "Away From Her"


1. Peter O'Toole, "Ratatouille"
2. Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
3. Robert Downey, Jr., "Zodiac"
4. Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"
5. J.K Simmons, "Juno"
6. Ed Harris, "Gone Baby Gone"
7. Mark Ruffalo, "Reservation Road"
8. Kurt Russell, "Grindhouse"
9. Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"
10. Samuel L. Jackson, "Resurrecting the Champ"


1. Kelly MacDonald, "No Country for Old Men"
2. Marcia Gay Harden, "The Mist"
3. Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"
4. Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"
5. Allison Janney, "Juno"
6. Leslie Mann, "Knocked Up"
7. Samantha Morton, "Control"
8. Catherine Keener, "Into the Wild"
9. Sigourney Weaver, "The TV Set"
10. Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"

Friday, December 28, 2007

"The Orphanage" -- * * * 1/2

J.A. Bayona's "The Orphanage" (initially released as "El Orfanato" in Spain) is an extremely effective, often very scary ghost story that shows a remarkable level of restraint and packs a surprising resonance. There are dozens of moments where a certain level of tension or creepiness or dread builds up, but Bayona never goes for the easy payoff and more often than not lets these moments be their own entity and not merely a build-up to a boo scare. In fact, Bayona offers very few "jump!" moments, and instead prefers to make you uneasy. While this is rare for a film of this genre, what's even more astonishing about "The Orphanage" is how substantive and heartbreaking it is. Throughout, we're always caught up with our main character's struggle, and both the screenplay and the lead performance render this an incredibly moving work that, for all its frightening moments, it would never occur to me to brand a "horror movie." Bearing strong similarities to both "The Others" and "Dark Water" (of which I seem to be a lone fan), "The Orphanage" will not, I repeat, will NOT, play to the "Saw" and "Hostel" crowd, but will perhaps find support among those who like their genre films with some weight to them. It's the rare scary film whose scares exist to service the story and never feel undeserved.

Rather effectively setting up what's to come, the film opens with a sequence of a group of children at an orphanage playing a game outdoors that appears to be very similar to "Red Light, Green Light, 1-2-3."Soon after, one of the orphans, Laura, is picked up by her adoptive parents and taken away from the other kids at the orphanage. Now, about 30 years later, Laura (Belen Rueda) returns with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their young son Simón (Roger Princep) to buy the orphanage and turn it into a home for disabled/sick children. While she has relatively happy memories of her time there, she begins to become haunted by thoughts of what happens to the orphans she left behind when she was adopted. She's also disconcerted by Simón's creation of imaginary friends who he seems to play with non-stop. When showing Laura drawings of his friends, Laura disturbingly recognizes one of the images-- a child with a specifically-designed sack over his head-- from her memories, wondering if Simón's friends are really imaginary after all. When a creepy social worker (Montserrat Carulla) shows up to reveal to us that Simón is adopted and HIV-positive, things take significant turns for the worse. I think this is a story where surprise is key, so I won't reveal much more, just to say that a disappearance, a supernatural medium and numerous scares and revelations are to come.

The marketing for "The Orphanage" has been exploiting the horror element as best they can, with a lot of emphasis on screaming, ominous dark rooms and a scary voiceover guy. This tactic may get butts in seats opening weekend, but they'll be the "wrong" butts, and create poisonous word-of-mouth if all the audience wants is cheap scares. There are certainly frights to be had here, but not enough to justify being sold as a horror film. This is ultimately a psychological film about the ghosts we all grapple with, not just a in-and-out entertainment you can just completely disengage from. In other words, if you went in knowing this was a psychological ghost story or an eerie character study, you might be caught off guard by just how scary it is; but when you're going to see it because of the ads telling you how its one of the scariest movies ever made or "You'll have to calm yourself by saying its only a movie," that's all you'll be looking for and might find the movie coming up short in that department. I left completely satisfied, but that's because I was pleasantly surprised at how much there was to the film. The other facet of the marketing has been touting the film as "presented" by Guillermo Del Toro, who serves as producer and whose "Pan's Labyrinth" last year (my #1 of 2007) grossed a surprising $37 million in the U.S. alone. This aspect of marketing is far less deceptive. Without revealing too much, "The Orphanage" has numerous thematic similarities, and while it manages to carve out its own significant and original identitiy, it would make for a great double feature.

This is a really terrific debut by Juan Antonio Bayona, who shows with his direction here that he's a talent to be reckoned with. While he may resist it, it's only a matter of time before the American studios snatch him up, much as they did with Del Toro. Not only is every shot framed immaculately, he maintains a strong hold on the multi-layered, complex narrative and handles the balance of scary and emotional extremely well. And (until the final scene or so), everything is handled extremely subtly, wringing the maximum reaction out of just little hints and suggestions. The more jarring, obvious scary moments, such as a jolting auto accident and the slamming of a door, are so wonderfully staged they feel fresh and, unlike "I Am Legend" which just numbed you with its nonstop jumps, there are a handful of moments here that I defy any audience member to not be shaken by.; a chilling poltergeist exorcism sequence with the medium (Geraldine Chaplin) is amazingly tense but doesn't conventionally "pay off" with a big scare. But when Laura has more tender, vulnerable moments with Simón or... let's just say, others, it's as touching as can be, and Bayona directs in such an effectively non-obtrusive way that numerous viewers may find them shedding tears unexpectedly.

But I'd be remiss to underscore the power of Rueda's mesmerizing, emotionally wrenching performance as Laura. Also excellent in "The Sea Inside," Rueda is in almost every frame here, and has to play such a wide range of emotions without ever allowing herself to go for the obvious or over the top. She keeps every emotion in check, while exuding a strong sense of feeling through her eyes, and utilizing every line of dialogue for all its worth. As a woman in turmoil who doesn't quite know if she's going crazy or if the world around her is, Rueda delivers a devastating, emotionally complex performance that never really goes in the direction you'd expect.

Easily deserving a nomination for Best Foreign Film, "The Orphanage" is a rare sort of film, one that can just as effortlessly scare the shit out of you as make you cry. On top of which, it never allows things to get simple enough where you can draw an easy conclusion, even once its over. People can absolutely view aspects about it as definitive, but it could just as easily provoke conversation for hours afterwards. I don't know if the people who may actually appreciate the film are actually going to go see it, but it's an extremely well-crafted, entertaining genre piece that made me wish that American films of this nature had this much intelligence and respect for their audience. An often terrifying, frequently moving ghost story, "The Orphanage" arrives at seemingly the last second of 2007 to deliver goods that have gone mostly unseen in cinema as of late.

"The Orphanage" opens today in limited release in 19 theaters, expands to 69 theaters in major markets on January 4th, and opens on 500 screens nationwide January 11th.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"There Will Be Blood" -- * * * *

It's only when a film like Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" comes along that you realize how useless superlatives are. I really don't want to pile onto the expectation-raising ejaculatory mound of praise, but this masterpiece left me shaken like few other films ever have. Though until now Anderson's work has seemed influenced by Altman more than anyone (and this film is dedicated to the late, great master filmmaker), "There Will Be Blood" belongs in the company of Stanley Kubrick's best, most haunting work. There's so much going on here thematically that I won't attempt to boil the film down to one thing that it's "about" as some are doing (e.g.: it's about the evils of capitalism, it's about the battle and similarities between business and religion, it's a parable about our current geopolitical situation and obsession with oil), I'd rather just think of it as the story of a monstrous, fascinating man, and allow everyone to take what they will from it. I don't even want to think about how mainstream moviegoers are going to respond to it, but this is the Christmas present film aficionados of all stripes have been waiting for. As the film's closing credits rolled, I literally couldn't get out of my seat, and I think that's going to be the case for many others. It may or may not be my #1 of 2007, but it's the only film in recent memory that left me exhilarated, blown away, literally shaking.

When we first meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), it's 1898 and he's in the thick of things, going in and out of a deep well, scratching away for silver with primitive tools and ropes. When a fellow miner is killed in the process, Plainview grabs hold of the man's baby (recently baptized by oil) and raises him as his own. 13 years later, now an established "oil man," Daniel and son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) receive a tip-off from mysterious stranger Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) about a small town out West, Little Boston, where oil is bubbling under the surface of land. While attempting to claim ownership of the land, oil and hearts and minds of the townspeople, Daniel frequently butts heads with charismatic young preacher, Eli Sunday, Paul's twin brother (also played by Dano); their back-and-forth confrontations/humiliations become the driving force of the film. As Daniel achieves more and more success and greed consumes him, the more rapidly he loses any sense of humanity and reveals his misanthropic nature. That's about as much as I want to reveal (the trailer is much more spoilery), since, as a character study on an epic scale, the journey is key here.

For a film that is more character than story driven, "Blood" has at least a dozen sequences here that are jaw-dropping filmmaking at its finest. Though there are many coming to mind, including the grandiose finale (more on that later) and a scene where a character sustains a crippling injury, I'll only discuss the two that take place in the first hour. The first is a truly amazing sequence that opens the film, with Daniel still mining for silver. Lasting about 15 minutes, without any dialogue, the sequence initially puts you inside that hunk of rock and then you travel with Daniel through the day and night's activities without any dialogue for the entire first reel. The soundtrack is made up entirely of Jonny Greenwood's unnerving score, and the sound effects of the rough-and-tumble proceedings. This opening should clue in certain types that this bold, unconventional work may not be their cup of tea. The other one jutting out in my memory is the sequence of a burning oil well that is remarkable not only visually, but for all the things it says about Daniel, and how the issues of human life, family and wealth are sequenced for him in terms of importance. I hate to even pick out two, because almost every scene is astonishing for their shot composition and the way they utilize music, sound and dialogue. Even a shot as simple as Daniel swimming in the ocean inexplicably makes our jaw drop, and reminds us that five years is just too fucking long to wait for a new P.T. Anderson picture.

Operatically opening and closing with title cards displaying 'There Will Be Blood' in the gothic font on display in the poster, everything has been carefully orchestrated here, not least of which, every line of dialogue we're afforded. It's really a pleasure to listen to actors deliver lines here, capturing the foreign-to-us manner of artful delivery and simultaneous careful and wordy manner-of-speaking in these times. With Daniel (whose first words of the film, are deceptively, "Ladies and gentleman..."), it's extremely important to listen to every word coming out of his mouth, as they enrich our interpretation of the man. Anderson certainly doesn't give us any explanation or backstory for Daniel, so it's up to us to figure him out. On repeat viewings (and believe me, you will have repeat viewings), it'd be an interesting case study to look at every one of Daniel's lines, and decipher which ones are actually manifestations of real feelings, which he uses as verbal cannon-fodder (he tells Eli, after a particularly fiery sermon, "That was one goddamn hell of a show"), and which are a complete part of his bullshit facade and forced formality. My favorite of the latter is his response when asked which faith/church he belongs to: "I like them all." This is a screenplay that really digs into this man, and takes us further into him than many may want to go. I can't see anyone not being gripped, but I can certainly imagine some clamoring for escape from it (a major critic at my screening bolted for the door at film's end as if the theater was on fire).

Early ravers on the film have already commented that Jonny Greenwood's unsettling score is like a character in and of itself, and that couldn't be more true. Kicking off the film with a loud, insect-like buzzing, the score is unlike any I've ever heard before, and whether working perfectly with the events on screen or seemingly disparate from them, it always serves an ultimate purpose and enriches what its being paired with. I have the Soundtrack CD-- I can't stop listening to it-- and hearing it over and over only reminds me how unnerving it is, and how in the context of the film it completely amplifies one's sense of dread and foreboding. Reminiscent of the scores of both "2001" and early horror films, the music drives home the consistent theme that the events unfolding on screen are only going to get worse, not better. I was initially disappointed that Anderson elected not to utilize the brilliant skills of frequent collaborator Jon Brion for "Blood," but having seen the film, it's unquestionably the right decision, as it's a totally different style of film than anything he's done before. Though the scores are so wildly different, this is most definitely THE score of the year, as Clint Mansell's score for "The Fountain" was last year, and for the same reasons. They are wholly original, completely work in defining the film, and inescapably haunting.

It's completely redundant by this point to say Daniel Day-Lewis gives an astonishing performance. The man could single-handedly turn "Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem" into an Oscar movie. But Daniel Plainview may very well be the crowning achievement of his awe-inspiring career. Reminiscent of the best work of Olivier, and equipped with a John Huston accent that completely works for the character and doesn't come off as imitation, this performance reminds us that a new Day-Lewis performance is an event in and of itself. The fact that it comes in a movie just as amazing as it is just icing on the cake (he's mind-blowingly great in "Gangs of New York," but his awesomely cartoonish Bill the Butcher overwhelmed the movie itself).

While taking us deeply inside this man, we ultimately still don't learn a whole hell of a lot about Plainview; the movie apparently has the same views as the man himself, who proclaims, "I don't like to explain myself." For example, it's debatable whether Daniel actually ever feels any sort of love or fatherly affection for H.W. or is merely using him as a pawn to earn potential investors' trust (Personally, I think it's a combination of the two, and in a warped sort of way, Daniel actually does love H.W. and just doesn't know what to do with those feelings). Delivering lines like no other actor, and saying much more when he's not saying anything-- this performance is a masterpiece of stares, head tilts, and facial contortions-- Day-Lewis gives, no exaggeration, one of the all-time great performances here. It's really unfathomable to me that someone could prefer (no disrepect) George Clooney's performance in "Michael Clayton" or Johnny Depp's work in "Sweeney Todd" to something as epic and transcendent as this.

I'm still working my feelings out on Dano's performance. He's at least very good, and you never don't buy him as Eli (or in his one scene, Paul), but occasionally it does feel like he's ACTING to his absolutely limits and doesn't quite make it, particularly during his impassioned sermons. He also holds his own in scenes against Day-Lewis, if never quite seeming as much of a match for Plainview as he should. Still, it's an impressive leap from the work we've seen him do before, and he certainly does give his all to a part that I'd imagine was notoriously difficult to cast. While Dano may not have been perfect, I'm having difficulty placing another actor who could've done this complete justice.

As with "No Country for Old Men," it's virtually impossible to discuss "There Will Be Blood" without mentioning its nasty, balls-out ending. Like I did for that film, I won't discuss specifics, or the contents of the final sequence of the third act, but if you don't want the generalities spoiled, just skip past the next paragraph:


The last twenty-five minutes of "There Will Be Blood" jump forward sixteen years to 1927, where Daniel has finally gotten his wish of making enough money to get away from everyone else. Charles Foster Kane-like living in a mansion, crazy as a loon, Daniel has climactic, bitter confrontations with, firstly, a grown-up H.W., and secondly, Eli. Without revealing exactly what takes place, some have argued that the tone and events of this last segment are a jarring shift from what's come before it, but I disagree. While, yes, the film ends on a note of batshit insanity that brings things to an operatic, almost cartoonish level, the way this film builds, anything less would have been a massive disappointment. And in terms of the events that transpire, I found it to be keeping in line completely with everything we know about the character(s) by that point, and struck me as things reaching their logical conclusion; on top of which, we get a phenomenal/nuts monologue involving an analogy about milkshakes that is just perfect. P.T.A. has always crafted controversial, debate-inspiring endings ("Magnolia" particularly comes to mind), and "Blood" is no different. While borderline terrifying, this finale is also remarkably satisfying and fits perfectly. By the time the film cut to black, my mouth was agape and I was unable to move. Blackly funny while tremendously disturbing and haunting, and closing with a line of dialogue destined to become legendary, this is (take notes, filmmakers of tomorrow) how to fucking end a movie.


Like many film enthusiasts, I have a sincere feeling of adoration towards Paul Thomas Anderson's work; "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights" are both on my all-time favorites lists, and I think "Punch-Drink Love" and "Sydney" are really great as well. I don't quite know where "There Will Be Blood" stands in terms of his work, except to say it's the most accomplished thing he's ever done (like "Zodiac" was for Fincher), and it's so radically different than any of his other films, so there's no real comparison. Anderson is one of the most continually surprising filmmakers around, as well as one of the most exciting. Almost every film geek I know is eagerly anticipating this, his latest, and there's a reason for that. I can't even possibly imagine what his next film could be like, and man, is that a great feeling.

Running two hours and twenty-nine minutes sans credits (which run about eight minutes themselves), "There Will Be Blood" is almost agressively compelling and unlike anything you've ever seen, though comparisons to Kubrick, "Citizen Kane," "Giant" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" are all deserved. Given its admirable devotion to the documentation of unpleasantness, I'm honestly extremely surprised at the level of universal praise its been receiving so far. While the film is a masterpiece, I'm genuinely shocked that SO many critics have recognized it as such; if anything, I thought the film would at least be divisive. Well, I guess it still has audiences to divide, if not critics. Either way, I'm grateful that films as remarkable as "There Will Be Blood" are still being made, and regardless of box office, awards, reviews, audience reaction, whatever, I don't care. I love it completely and unabashedly. To quote Daniel Plainview, it's one goddamn hell of a show.

"There Will Be Blood" opens tomorrow, Wednesday December 26th in 2 theaters nationwide (Loews Lincoln Square in New York and The Arclight in Hollywood), and will have a Sneak Preview showing at midnight on Saturday, December 29th in the following cities: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, Seattle, Toronto, and Washington D.C. It will open in 51 theaters in those markets on January 4th, expand further to about 200 theaters on January 11th and opens in 800 theaters nationwide on January 18th.

AWARDS POTENTIAL: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Best Art Direction are the only 100% locks. If it goes Best Picture, or even if not, I think we're also looking at Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor (Paul Dano).

"The Great Debaters" -- * 1/2

I completely admit, when it comes to Denzel Washington's "The Great Debaters," I am biased. I absolutely fucking hate inspirational true stories. They're, by far, my least favorite genre of movies. They're treacly, sentimental, homogenized, familiar, white-washed pap manufactured purely to make people feel good about themselves and provide phony uplift that still feels artificial despite having basis in truth. While there have been exceptions (usually when the filmmakers decide to avoid these things I don't like about them), the amount of times "inspirational" goes hand-in-hand with "interesting" is few and far between. So, it's my regret to predictably report that, while there are large segments of people who are going to really enjoy "The Great Debaters," I'm not one of them. To me, this story of a teacher (Denzel) who inspired his students to rise up against racial oppression through creating and succeeding as debate team, was about as engaging as its title, and I'll be terribly happy if I never see a gooey, music-swelling, inspirational true story like it ever again.

Sure, this is a nice story, and it has some nice messages for kids, but why do I care? I would've much preferred to read a detailed Readers Digest story documenting it than watch a bloated, two-hour long film version with what seemed like a dozen sequences of rousing speeches getting standing ovations. Like "The Bucket List," it feels like a TV-movie, despite the presence of Denzel and a very good Forest Whitaker. But the filmmaking just feels sloppy (aside from dull), with both a sleep-inducing score and a propensity for depicting all white people as inbred, racist rednecks, as well as treating its audience like idiots. A few such sequences are springing to mind, but most memorably, one where Denzel's wife makes him read a letter out loud for the audience's sake, even though she's already read it. I do recognize that this is an Oprah-produced feature, so perhaps it's not wise to be panning it so; but what can I say, I like to live dangerously. To be fair, "Debaters" isn't anything terrible. If you tend to like this sort of thing, it's fine for what it is. But for me, it was nearly excruciating. It's a nice, boring, treacly, inspiring movie.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: God, I hope not.

"Persepolis" -- * * * 1/2

A remarkable blending of the political and the personal, "Persepolis" comes off as "The Kite Runner's" cooler, older cousin. Likely to give "Ratatouille" a run for its Best Animated Feature Oscar, it's an alternately touching, funny and sad (but always warm) look at Iran's Islamic Revolution through the eyes of a young girl's coming-of-age. Simultaneously serving as a terrifically faithful adaptation of source material (Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels) and successfully exploring animation as an expression of ideas unable to be conveyed in live-action, it's a film that's likely to endear itself even to those who aren't familiar with the history behind or have an aversion to unconventional films. Though it will likely need across-the-board raves to get adults to go see a film both animated and subtitled, it's extremely likely to get them, and deservedly so.

Armed with a unique sense of humor and independence of spirit, "Persepolis" always feels like a work of originality from a very specific, independent perspective. In the opening minutes, I was appreciating it more than actually enjoying it, but it doesn't take long to warm up to what it's doing and allow its charms to wash over you. Rather than just a dour child's point-of-view of turbulent times, the film is made up of increasingly personal (and often very funny) vignettes about Marjane's burgeoning sexuality, worldviews and independence. My favorites were her journey to find the latest Iron Maiden album from black-market salesmen on street corners, and a profoundly witty sequence set to "Eye of the Tiger." But the film also does a terrific (if a bit one-sided) job of explaining the political upheaval at the time to those uninitiated, as well as delivering moments of graceful emotion; Marjane's repeated invoking of the memory of her grandmother's bra stuffed with beautiful-smelling jasmine flowers is particularly touching.

The beautifully hand-drawn animation is even more stunning in black-and-white. With more and more films being computer-animated, it's easy to forget that often the simpler the animation style is even more impressive, and the black-and-white also functions as a narrative technique, not just a stylistic decision. The film is framed with in-color sequences of Marjane waiting in an airport, with the middle section serving as a recalled flashback. Aside from numerous sequences that couldn't have feasibly been done in live action, the animation adds a sense of whimsy to the proceedings and feels tonally in line with the content of the story, even in its most somber moments.

A work of startling vitality and complexity that I'm having difficult processing in an articulate manner, "Persepolis" is a 90-minute breath of fresh air that captures a very specific time in history as well as what its like to hopelessly attempt to adapt your identity and social scenes (Marjane falls in with punks and hippies amongst others). Either one of these stories would have made for a fascinating film, so the two together is doubly so. I really don't know if something this warm, accessible and relatable can be dubbed "adventurous cinema" but there's so much here that's different than what we're getting from really any other film as of late, that one could be forgiven for the labeling. "Persepolis" is a film that genuinely caught me off-guard, but it had me by the time Marjane reveals her affinity for Bruce Lee and Godzilla movies. Working on numerous levels, it's the rare movie that appeals so completely to the heart and the head.

"Persepolis" opens today in seven theaters in Los Angeles (5) and New York (2), and the only expansion date I can locate is January 18th.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Animated Feature looks the most likely, but could also pop up in Best Foreign Language Film and Best Adapted Screenplay

"The Water Horse" -- * * 1/2

Jay Russell's "The Water Horse" isn't wildly entertaining or exciting, but it's just charming and enjoyable enough to make for a modest afternoon out at the movies. Telling the story of Angus ("Millions"'s Alex Etel), who discovers a small mythical creature known as a water horse, Russell imbues the proceedings with a seemingly personal touch, sense of nostalgia, and a fairy-tale like wonder that is almost enough to temper the familiarity and pacing. Personally, I liked the framing device of an old man (Brian Cox) in a tavern telling this WWII-set story as one long flashback, and I thought the dark turns taken in the last third were refreshing, but I'm not sure entirely how kids will react. The initially cute creature eventually grows into a full-blown massive, dangerous monster, which may frighten the youngest of the young, but things of course turn out okay in the end. While I was never terribly enthralled with the movie, I did appreciate its attempts to be more than typical, pandering kiddie fare. Rather than just a cute kid, Angus is struggling with the death of his father and the two men (Ben Chaplin, and Priyanka Xi) fighting for the affections of his grieving mother (Emily Watson). Though it could've been something special if the effects were polished a bit more, and there was a further attempt to veer from the expected, "The Water Horse" is still a watchable, semi-endearing family film that's better than its trailers would indicate.

Zac Efron's and Vanessa Hudgens' Playlist

This has nothing to do with anything, but I just stumbled upon it in the Celebrity playlist section on iTunes, and it just made me marvel at how perfectly it epitomizes the vacuousness of certain celebrities. Merry Christmas:

August 10, 2007

"Bad Day" (Track 1): "This song is so catchy, it gets stuck in my head easily. - Zac Efron"

"Hound Dog" (Track 2): "I love this song cuz Elvis is da man. -Zac Efron"

"U Can't Touch This" (Track 3): "The video to this song is awesome. -Zac Efron"

"The Reason" (Track 4): This song is very relatable. -Vanessa Hudgens"

"Accidentally In Love" (Track 5): "This is such an awesome song. It always reminds me of the movie Shrek when I hear it. -Vanessa Hudgens"

Sunday, December 23, 2007

"The Bucket List" -- * *

In recent weeks/months, the trailer for Rob Reiner's "The Bucket List" has been a primary object of derision for film snobs everywhere. Most of my friends who know anything about film have commented to me that they're anticipating the film's release with dread. In the midst of all this shit-talking, I, almost defiantly, was its lone ardent defender. "It could be good," I said. "Sure, it looks super sentimental, but it has potential to be fairly entertaining and I'll watch Nicholson in literally anything." Well, I was wrong. "The Bucket List" is not entertaining. Not at all. Then again, it's not as bad as early reviews have indicated either. Despite the star power of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, it's a rather dull, mediocre, schmaltzy TV-movie that never cranks the sentiment up to vomit-inducing levels, but is content to follow its formula blandly to the end.

For those who've somehow managed to avoid the trailer (it's been attached to nearly everything I've seen in the last two months), "Bucket" follows two cancer-stricken geezers (Nicholson and Freeman, playing smirking wisecracking white guy, and noble narrating black man, respectively) who, facing death, decide to make a list of things they want to do before they die-- the titular "bucket list"-- and, using millionaire Nicholson's money, actually do them. This list includes such activities as going to the Taj Mahal, sky-diving, "laughing till we cry," and kissing the most beautiful girl in the world... actually, I take back the "not vomit-inducing" comment on that last one. I won't spoil it, but you'd have to be blind to not roll your eyes.

Despite the selling of it as a heart-warming comedy emphasizing the central conceit, the actual partaking in the list's activities only takes up the middle half-hour of the 90 minute running time. The film is most emphatically NOT a comedy, but rather a mawkish drama, with the first 30 minutes a fairly depressing series of sequences of the two men in a hospital recoiling in pain, and the last 30 minutes made up of phony uplift and imparting hackneyed life lessons (the most prominent one apparently being, if you're dying, try to get a millionaire as your hospital roommate). And even though this isn't a movie built on surprises, the revealing of the ending of the film in literally the first line of dialogue seems completely unnecessary.

The level of tedium and sentimentality would be a problem no matter what, but it's even moreso due to the fact that nothing here feels anything close to reality, nor do these guys seem like real human beings. Though Nicholson is the asset most closely resembling a reason to watch this thing, he's still just doing his same old schtick, only doing it while coughing up blood. Freeman is boring as usual, and completely on auto-pilot (shock!). Sean Hayes shows up to make the most out of his poorly-written role as Nicholson's assistant, and he seems to be the only one here trying to give a real performance; it's a crap part, but at least he infuses it with some life. Rob Morrow appears (invoking the question, 'Where the fuck has Rob Morrow been?') in a handful of scenes as the stock role of an inattentive doctor; This part could've been filled by a paid extra, and it's sad to see what the actor's doing for work these days.

It's become a cliche by now to complain about how far Rob Reiner has sunk. Yeah, yeah, he directed some of the greatest comedies of all time ("When Harry Met Sally" and "This is Spinal Tap"), but after "North," "Alex & Emma" and countless others, we just need to stop complaining and accept this is the kind of director he's become. "The Bucket List" isn't torturous to sit though-- it's fine, it's whatever, it's meh-- but it's certainly not worth your time. It'll play like catnip to the elderly moviegoers who eat up these sorts of bullshit feel-gooderies, but I can't imagine many other saps going for it.

"The Bucket List," inexplicably, opens in limited release on 16 screens on Christmas Day (i.e.: this Tuesday) and nationwide on Friday, January 11th.

NOTE: Speaking of emotional string-pullers, it just occurred to me I never got around to writing a review proper for "The Kite Runner." Since it's already dying a quick death at the box office, and I have about five reviews on the horizon in the next 2-3 days, I don't see the need to write one for "Kite" at this point. But suffice it to say, I thought it was coldly calculated, manipulative bullshit. While much of the blame might be laid upon the book, it's filled with ridiculous coincidences, ludicrous story turns, a bombastic score, the most G-rated depiction of an anal rape of a child you'll ever see, a phony sense of importance/relevance, convenient re-appearing villains, and just flat-out poor direction. People seem to be loving the shit out of this, so hey, what do I know, but you couldn't pay me to watch this thing a second time.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Charlie Wilson's War" -- * * *

In the interest of full disclosure, I read an early draft of Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for "Charlie Wilson's War" last summer. If a direct translation of that screenplay was made, "Charlie" would've easily been one of the best movies of the year. It was a very funny, dense, informative, morally murky account of a little known story in our nation's history, that perfectly encapsulated the complexity of the U.S.'s foreign policy. It told the story of an initially great thing this congressman did that eventually resulted in the creation of the Taliban. The way pared-down, 97-minute end result now making it's way into theaters is relatively streamlined, easier to follow, and substantially lighter and more "fun;" it's a very entertaining, clever romp that mostly dodges that pesky Taliban stuff. The "Charlie" being released is still smarter and zippier than most anything out there right now, and I absolutely recommend it, but it packs substantially less of a punch than this material should, and omits some of the most fascinating, complex aspects of this true story to deliver a brisker experience more palatable to the masses.

Opening with the silhouette of a turban-clad figure firing a missile at the camera, "Charlie" announces in its opening seconds it's not going to be your typical, dry political procedural. It follows the story of how boozing, coke-snorting, promiscuous Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and hardcore-Christian, Communist-hating Texas richie Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) collaborated to get weapons to the Afghan rebels, the Mujahdeen, behind the backs of a U.S. government who could not have cared less. For those not old enough to remember-- myself included-- at the time, 1980, the Afghans were the underdog, and floundering trying to defend themselves from the Russian Invasion. 21 years later, well... it came back to bite us in the ass.

Regardless of how trimmed down, this is an inherently interesting story, if not necessarily the feel-good romp Universal is selling it as. It truly is one of those stories that's stranger than fiction, and even simplified, it's fairly unbelievable and gripping. Sorkin's always had a way with smart, snappy dialogue and "Charlie" is no exception; most of the knockout lines go to Hoffman, but Charlie's rationale for only hiring young buxom women is one of the first real laugh lines in the movie ("You can teach them to type, you can't teach them to grow tits").

To be fair, while this "Charlie" is a bit de-balled (the script I read ended on 9/11 with Charlie looking out the window and seeing the Pentagon on fire)-- apparently at the insistence/ threatened legal action of the real-life Ms. Herring-- the sense of blowback/regret/ repercussions is dealt with here, if only in the last few minutes. There's a great scene of Gust explaining how a ball keeps bouncing even once we're done paying attention to it, and you can't always predict where it'll end up, and a metaphoric story about a boy and zen master involving the phrase "We'll see." The story is only punctuated (effectively) by the ominous sounds of a plane flying overhead, reminiscent of Spielberg's inclusion of the twin towers in the background of the closing shot of "Munich." Ending with a quote ("These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world... And then we fucked up the endgame") from Charlie Wilson, and book-ended with sequences of Charlie guiltily accepting an award with his eyes filled with tears and regrets, the sense of culpability and eventual results are still here and unmissable, but it's not quite enough. For a subject/theme that's arguably the only reason to tell this story at all, it deserves to not be relegated to the last 5-10 minutes.

Hanks plays Wilson as a more flawed variation on his likable charmers in the past; sure, this congressman may do the occasional line of coke, and fuck strippers, but we sure do love him anyway. Though he plays the later scenes rather effectively, this oddly doesn't feel like anything particularly new for Hanks (maybe it would've helped if we actually witnessed him doing lines or having the sex, not just heard about it) and even with a Suth'n drawl, he comes off as the same old Oscar winner we know and love.

Hoffman is, by far, the best reason to see this movie. As a Russian-hating, mustachioed Greek CIA agent never seen without his aviators, the amazing actor is having a blast with Sorkin's dialogue, knowing full well he's walking away with every scene he's in (not the least of which is his killer introductory sequence). In his 2007 trifecta of "Charlie Wilson," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "The Savages," this is his least defined character and least complex/challenging performance, but the most fun to watch. There's no character definition on display here, for anyone really, but Hoffman makes what's on the page deliciously entertaining.

Despite her prominence in the publicity materials, thankfully, Roberts' Herring is only in "Charlie" as much as Amy Adams (as Charlie's right-hand girl), which is to say, not much. This is really the story of Charlie and Gust doing shit, with Joanne calling them on the phone every once in a while. Her broad accent is actually much more bearable in the context of the movie than in the ads ("Oh, Chaaaahlie!"), but with no more than 10-15 minutes on screen, it's not much of a role/performance. The Golden Globe nomination is a joke.

"Charlie Wilson's War" is ultimately intelligent, funny and extremely entertaining, but it's hard to overlook the unfulfilled potential. At the end of the day, this movie's not going to make much money no matter what, so they might as well have gone all the way with it rather than hedging their bets (likely due to all the geopolitical-related films this year bombing hard). For the snappy screenplay and Philip Seymour Hoffman's scene-stealing performance alone, it's worth your time and money. However, it really could have been a lingering, weighty film of substance, rather than slight political fare you'll have trouble remembering the details of the next day.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Best Adapted Screenplay

Insanely crowded weekend yields zany box office...

I guess it was inevitable, what with "Sweeney Todd," "National Treasure," "Walk Hard," "P.S. I Love You" and "Charlie Wilson's War" all going wide, "I Am Legend," "Alvin" opening huge last weekend, and "Juno" and "Atonement" both expanding, that there would be some casualties. I started to get the sneaking suspicion yesterday that "Sweeney," "Charlie" and "Walk" all could potentially bomb.

Well the numbers are in, and while only one did actually outright bomb, it looks like the rest will be a case of wait-and-see. Okay, we knew "National Treasure" would open big, and indeed it did; based on Friday, it's expected to do between $55 and 60 million for the weekend. Yeeesh. Second place, with an expected $40 million take this weekend (bringing it to $130 million after 10 days) is "I Am Legend," following by *cringe* "Alvin and the Chipmunks" with around $30 million in its second weekend.

In terms of the three major newbies, "Charlie" is on track to do just under $10 million for the three days, which is not as bad as some were predicting, but not nearly as good as it needed to do. Luckily, it's opening at this time of year, and may stick around and eventually turn a profit, but as of right now it looks like another (if smaller) casualty of the "Americans don't want to watch anything about the geopolitical situation right now" trend; I finally saw it yesterday, and I should have a review up soon. "P.S. I Love You" bombed, but sadly not quite as hard as it deserved to, with an expected gross of $7.3 for the weekend. Sadly, "Walk Hard" bit the bullet, as I thought it might, in 8th place, and likely won't get past $4 million this weekend. I saw this again last night, and it only re-inforced how fucking funny and well-made this parody is, and it's a shame it's dying at the box office. I don't know what's to blame exactly, but it might be that the advertisements never looked very funny.

My baby, "Sweeney Todd," should end up in 4th place with $12 million, despite playing on only half as many screens as all the flicks listed above. This is a very solid opening, considering the release pattern, indicating about a $10,000 average, but we'll see how it plays in weeks to come. I'm shuddering at numerous reports of aghast audiences who didn't realize it was a musical. Hopefully, this is just a small minority, and not substantial enough to kill word-of-mouth.

"Juno" expanded to 304 screens with pretty good results; it should make about $2.7 million by the end of the weekend, which would leave it with a $8,000-$9,000 average. "Atonement" expanded as well, though to a bit more of a middling effect; it'll do $1.6 million on 297 screens, giving it about a $5,000 average. Both expand significantly in the weeks to come, so we'll see what happens.

As of right now, with all the factors in play, it seems like "National Treasure" is the only one that can be assured its "hit" status. Sigh.

Friday, December 21, 2007

"Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" -- * * *

Parody is a rather delicate thing that can often just come off as scattershot, lame, and merely re-creating scenes rather than putting any sort of witty spin on them (e.g.: "Date Movie," "Epic Movie," and hell, most of the "Scary Movie" series). Rarely it reaches perfection ("Airplane!"), sometimes minor-classic status ("Top Secret!," both "Hot Shots!" films), and even when they're nothing special, they're occasionally worth a bunch of laughs ("BASEketball," "Mafia!"). "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," takes a stab at the musical biopic genre, specifically "Walk the Line," and for the most part, it's an extremely well-crafted parody that is frequently very, very funny. It's also the latest film to arrive on the must-be-reaching-its-last-legs-sometime-soon-but-still-riding-high Judd Appatow train (Apatow co-wrote the screenplay). Unlike "Superbad" which was about 40 minutes longer than seemed necessary, and "Knocked Up," which was nearly perfect but still felt bloated at 135 minutes, "Walk Hard" runs a brisk 91 minutes and never allows the pacing (or the jokes) to flag.

Directed by Jake Kasdan, "Walk Hard" opens with a concert lackey backstage looking for our titular musician, bemoaning "Guys, I need Cox," the first of many, many "cox" double entendres. After being informed by one of Dewey's band members, "Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life" before each performance, we're flashed back to Dewey as a small boy playing with his concierto-level pianist little brother, Nate. After joyously proclaiming "Ain't nothin' terrible gonna happen today!," the two proceed to whimsically engage in various death-defying acts, last of which is machete-fighting. In the event that will define Dewey's life, he accidentally chops his brother in half. Despite the town doctor's best efforts, Nate dies (the doctor regrettably confesses, "This was a particularly bad case of someone being cut in half"), resulting in Dewey's psychosomatic loss of his sense of smell, and his crotchety father blaming him for the death (about 90% of the character's dialogue is his repeated catchphrase, "The wrong kid died!").

We quickly jump forward in Dewey's life, as he begins his musical career at age 14, prompting a sexual revolution at his high school with his racey, promiscuity-inciting first song, "Take My Hand." After marrying a good woman (Kristin Wiig) at too young an age, who keeps producing babies ("I'm gonna miss some births"), Dewey goes on the road with his band (Matt Besser, Chris Parnell, never-funnier Tim Meadows), beginning a love affair with both drugs and a June Carter-like religious country singer, Darlene Love (Jenna Fischer). As we travel rapidly through the decades, Dewey's career goes through many phases-- at one point, he bemoans "This is a dark fucking period!"-- meets a multitude of iconic musicians and overcomes insurmountable obstacles, all with his trusty monkey by his side.

Meshing extremely nicely with Apatow's cruder streak (the film's R-rating is well-earned but not particularly raunch-driven), "Walk Hard" parodies the genre's conventions with pitch-perfect precision. Dewey has an extremely broad epiphany every time he says something that will evolve into a song title, including "Walk Hard" and "Guilty as Charged." Characters frequently announce their ages (Wiig has a particularly hilarious delivery of "I'm Dewey's 12-year-old girlfriend!") and famous people announce their name multiple times ("We're the Beatles. From Liverpool. The Fab Four. The Beatles"). Also, the continuous dark, drug "period" reaches its gloriously ridiculous apex with Dewey on a PCP-fueled rampage throughout the city, and even the "old age" makeup on display here is very funny, and amusingly fake.

Beyond just coming up with non-sequiturs and incisive parody of the genre, there are also specific, recognizable homages to various musical movements/performers throughout rock history that aficionados will get a greater kick out of than the masses. Though its one of the more obvious ones, the interlude with Dewey aping Bob Dylan (though he offers that maybe Dylan ripped him off) was by far my favorite. Playing the same "Don't Look Back" version of Dylan Cate Blanchett plays in "I'm Not There," Dylan's "finger-point" songs are hilariously ribbed, from the song decrying the plight of little people to one, "Royal Jelly" mocking Dylan's more random, absurdist lyrics ( it includes the phrases "rimjob fairy teapots" and "inside the three-eyed monkey of his toaster oven life").

Where these sort of movies tend to have more misses than hits, I'd say at least 75% of the jokes here strongly hit their mark. There's a very, very funny running gag about Dewey's drug experimentation involving the phrase"You don't want no part of this shit!" that builds and builds. For every showstopping gag-- there's compensatory gratuitous male nudity, and a hysterical stint in a rehab facility whose treatment seems to consist of shouting "We need more blankets!" and "We need fewer blankets!"-- there's about five chortle-inducing throwaway lines. But the film reaches its high point in a bravura sequence involving Dewey meeting Paul McCartney (Jack Black), John Lennon (Paul Rudd) Ringo Starr (Jason Schwartzman) and George Harrison (Justin Long) in India. With wildly exaggerated English accents and forced references to their songs, virtually every line in the scene induces a belly laugh; I've seen the movie twice and I still don't think I've caught all the dialogue. Not every gag works-- a bit involving Elvis (Jack White) falls flat, and a violent sex scene between Dewey and Darlene tries but fails in its outrageousness-- but most of them hit enough to compensate.

Rather than throw-away jokes, the songs strewn throughout "Walk Hard" qualify as no less than excellent; this is what parody is supposed to be. The soundtrack (featuring 30 songs) is made up of songs that are hilarious if you listen closely to the lyrics, but also work remarkably well as actual songs within their respective genres. Of the 30, at least 15 of them are memorably clever, with the best ones being the double-entendre laden "Let's Duet" ("I'm gonna beat off... all my demons") and the protest song "Let Me Hold You (Little Man"), which begins, "All the elevator buttons / So incredibly high/ I stand here today for the midget / Half the size of a regular guy." As an owner of it, I can vouch, this soundtrack is worth a buy.

While maybe not deserving of a Golden Globe nomination, Reilly is hilarious here as Cox, delivering songs as deftly as his idiotic punchlines. Even if the filmmakers are trying a bit too hard to launch him into Will Ferrell territory (at one point, he is running around in his underwear), it's great to see him finally be put center stage in a mainstream Hollywood comedy. While I hope he doesn't stay away completely from drama from now on-- he's too good at it-- I'm glad he has his own showcase here, and playing Cox from ages 14 to 73, he wrings all the possible laughs out of the conceit. The only gripe I have with the cast is that the two hilarious central actress, Fischer and Wiig, are a wee bit underused, as it's strictly a Reilly-centric affair. There are a ton of cameos here, but not of the attention-grabbing big star sort. Instead they're ones that will put smiles on the faces of hardcore comedy fans; some of the very funny people given noteworthy moments here include Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Ed Helms, Jonah Hill, David Krumholtz, Ian Roberts and as record-producing orthodox Jews, Harold Ramis and Martin Starr.

In a season filled with murderous barbers, pregnant teenagers and Taliban-creating Democrats, "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" serves as the perfect stupid-clever antidote to Oscar season. In a genre that's been largely occupied by pieces of shit like "Epic Movie," it's nice to get a reminder what parody has the potential to be when actual funny people are behind it. It is not a perfect movie by any means, and doesn't provide any substance beyond a rapid-fire succession of laughs, but who said there's anything wrong with that? Simultaneously continuing the Apatow streak and giving the immensely talented Reilly a star vehicle, it's a terrifically entertaining 90 minutes.

"National Treasure: Book of Secrets" -- * * 1/2

If you're looking forward to "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," you'll like it. It's the first film's equal in almost every way. It's just as ridiculous, just as fun, just as bloated, just as cornball, just as watchable, just as unmemorable. It's not deep, realistic or particularly exciting, but it's a fairly enjoyable sit and there are certainly a lot worse ways you could choose to spend two hours in a movie theater. That said, if THIS is your first choice of what to see this weekend, there's really no helping you. Extra points for Ed Harris making for a more engaging villain than Sean Bean, but demerits for having Helen Mirren follow up her Oscar win with a movie where she's asked to jump from one big rock to another.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Holy Shit! SAG Nominations are INSANE.

Wow! Either these nominations are just continuing this season's trend of 'nobody knows anything' and every new award throwing things in a different direction, or we've been wrong all season till now. Oddly enough, in the 'Best Ensemble' category they seem to have actually used it to nominate these big ensemble casts of big stars, not just as a 'Best Picture' proxy; or at least I hope so. I would hate to even consider "3:10 to Yuma," "American Gangster" and "Hairspray" getting in for Best Picture over far worthier things. The biggest surprises here would have to be ZERO nominations for "Sweeney Todd" and "Atonement" (the backlash seems to have officially kicked in).

While I don't know how to feel about Depp getting shut out in the Actor category, I am delighted that once-extreme-long-shots Ryan Gosling and Viggo Mortensen (probably my #2 and #3 male performances of the year) now look like locks for Oscar nominations, after being recognized by BFCA, HFPA and now SAG! Fucking Awesome. On the gaining side of things, it looks as though *cough* like I've been predicting all season *cough* "Into the Wild" has clung onto peoples memories, not only getting nominated for Best Ensemble, Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener), Best Supporting Actor (Hal Holbrook) and, rather undeservedly, Emile Hirsch for Best Actor. In fact, without Hirsch, that might have been the best set of nominations I've ever seen. The film to get the biggest gain, "No Country," is the one that didn't really need it at all anyway. Tommy Lee Jones for Supporting Actor-- who knew? Awesome. And Ruby Dee for "American Gangster!" I don't love this movie, but I can't be angry with that nomination-- her last scene is a killer.

On the snub end of things, No Amy Adams in the Best Actress category-- thank God (I love her, but people have been fawning too much over this enjoyable performance), but still Cate Blanchett got in for "Elizabeth" yet again over Laura Linney in "The Savages." Oh well, it looks like this performance has no chance-- stupid awards people. No "Juno" in Best Ensemble, where I thought it was a sure bet. Jesus, I still can't believe they didn't go for Johnny Depp. And lastly, and most largely-looming, no Philip Seymour Hoffman for "Charlie Wilson's War," a universally jizzed-on performance. Will be interesting to see what happens to that category come Oscar time... but it looks like my boy Casey Affleck is nearly a sure bet now. Exciting.

"3:10 to Yuma"
"American Gangster"
"Into the Wild"
"No Country for Old Men"

George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"
Ryan Gosling, "Lars and the Real Girl"
Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
Emile Hirsch, "Into the Wild"
Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises"

Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
Julie Christie, "Away From Her"
Marion Cotillard, "La Vie En Rose"
Ellen Page, "Juno"
Angelina Jolie, "A Mighty Heart"

Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James"
Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"
Tommy Lee Jones, "No Country for Old Men"
Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton"

Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"
Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"
Catherine Keener, "Into the Wild"
Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"
Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"P.S. I Love You" -- * *

Though at the end of the day, it's a harmless (if shameless estrogen-baiting) crowd-pleaser, "P.S. I Love You" still has the most loathsome storyline in quite a while, a miscast leading lady, and matters aren't helped by its complete lack of a sense of pacing or structure. I thought the movie was plodding toward its conclusion about five different times, but instead, it has the gall to run over two hours, at which point those with either a penis or a low tolerance for syrup may have already slit their throats. Occasionally, while taking notes during certain screenings, I'll just jot down stream-of-consciousness thoughts, and when looking back on my "P.S." notes, the two largest-writ sentiments were "I HATE THIS PREMISE" and "THIS MOVIE WILL NOT END."

In our opening scene, we see married couple Holly (Hilary Swank) and Jerry (Gerard Butler) fighting, then cutely making up before the opening credits that alternate between photos of the couple together and shots of New York City in wintertime. After, we learn Jerry has died of brain cancer and poor Holly is understandably sad. Despite attempts by her two friends (Lisa Kudrow and Gina Gershon) and mother (Kathy Bates) to cheer her up, she doesn't get re-engaged in her life until she receives a package in the mail from *gasp* Jerry. You see, Jerry, lovable scamp that he is/was, pre-arranged an extremely complex plan to have Holly slowly receive pre-written letters from him (apparently all planned while one would assume he would have been weak and bed-ridden) where he encourages her to do things she's never done and live her life to the fullest. Cringing yet?

The script here is equally futile in its structure and its content. It shifts from Holly dealing with her husband's death, to a way-bloated trip to Ireland (one of Jerry's post-death requests), to an extended flashback of the two of them meeting, to a section of Holly bonding with her mom, to a too-soon romance for Holly, to (SPOILER ALERT!) her finding her life's purpose as a shoe-designer. And lo and behold, we're at the 125-minute mark. But it's not just the structure-- the jokes are particularly lame, shamelessly chasing the "Sex & the City" crowd with none of that show's wit or edge. Instead, it throws us forced life lessons, stripteasing Gerard Butler, an obsession with shoes, and hideous gay stereotypes lisping and shrieking about Mariah Carey (how long ago was this script written??).

There are good actresses out there who just aren't made for romantic comedies or fluffy feel-gooderies, and Swank is one of them. She's not quite "bad" here, just all wrong. Following her "Reaping" attempt at doing more popcorn fare, she shows her limitations as an actress here. While she actually does very well with the dramatic/emotional material on display, it's evident that comedy is not her forte. And in terms of the mushy romance stuff, she just can't pull off the "charming" thing. She's great at playing paralyzed boxers or girls conflicted with sexual identity, but when asked to star in movies where her character isn't not suffering, she seems to flounder.

For being billed above the title, Butler's not really in this thing very much, but when he is, he's all charm, smiles and abdominal muscles. It's clear the guy wants to do a bankable female-skewing flick to avoid "300"-driven typecasting, but this isn't it. With a filmography including "Phantom of the Opera," "300" and "P.S. I Love You," for a decent actor, the guy has very bad taste in scripts.

Gershon makes little-to-no impression other than "golly, she's pretty," but Kudrow fares particularly well. Though her running joke (the only real laughs in the movie) has been spoiled in the trailers, thankfully, its payoff hasn't. Her performance on "The Comeback" was one of the finest pieces of acting TV's seen in years, and with her marvelous performances in Don Roos's "The Opposite of Sex" and "Happy Endings," she proved she was/is the best actress of all the "Friends." This "quirky best friend" role is beneath her, but I'm just happy to see her in a movie, on the hopes that it'll lead to things more deserving of her talents (Mike White, write this woman a quirky/dark character piece!)

Poor Kathy Bates. Granted, she has a meatier role here than in "Fred Claus," where she played Santa's mother, but still. One of the greatest actresses of the last quarter-century, Bates received her last Oscar nomination only 4 years ago, and already her career has shriveled? Maybe she just wants minimal working hours and easy after after doing the heavy lifting for years (or at least I hope its by choice), but I miss her giving real performances.

Don't even get me started on the contrivances here, including Swank whoring it up in Ireland, a calculated fishing trip between the three women, and a structure based on seasons (comparing it unfavorably to "Juno"). On top of which, in what world would Hilary Swank, Gina Gershon and Lisa Kudrow be best friends? Three distinctly different character types fit nicely together in pandering studio-assembled movies, but not so much in the real world. Sorry, I just didn't buy it.

Equipped with set-pieces including a priest wackily cursing, three woman shrieking and falling down on a fishing boat, and Hilary Swank tripping and breaking her nose while singing karaoke, you should already know if "P.S. I Love You" is for you. If the promise of Moh Kushla learning to love herself through world travel and shoemaking has you salivating, have a blast.

"P.S. I Love You" opens nationwide this Friday, December 21st

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

2007's single best piece of screenwriting...

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.

We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core.

In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, "anyone can cook." But I realize only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau's, who is, in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau's soon, hungry for more."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"I Am Legend," "Alvin & the Chipmunks," et al.

This weekend, "I Am Legend" and "Alvin & the Chipmunks" made a combined $120 million in the span of three days. Jesus. So here I am, with my belated short reviews on each, after everyone in the country has already gotten around to seeing both of them. Oh well, no matter. Here goes:

"I AM LEGEND" -- * * 1/2

When will Hollywood learn that Will Smith guiding his way through a dark, abandoned warehouse armed only with a flashlight is much, much scarier than having creatures pop out with decibel-shattering screeches every 30 seconds? Scenes like the former in "I Am Legend" are so well-directed and tense that it makes one disappointed at the shortfalls that ultimately cripple the film. Based on Richard Matheson's classic novel about the last man on earth, the film version is better than it has any right to be-- it's a completely watchable time waster-- but it guts the novel of all its fascinating complexity, darker themes and its superb ending; disappointingly, it ends up just being "Will Smith fights vampires and saves humanity." Despite Smith's near-heroic efforts (giving a thoroughly impressive, emotionally demanding performance in a film of this genre is virtually unheard of), his attempts to make "Legend" a thriller of substance are ultimately undercut by preachy pro-Christian messages, some truly awful creature effects, and an irritating propensity for "boo!" scares. The film (which runs under 90 minutes) is always entertaining, and the environmental special effects of a desolate New York City are astonishing/disturbing, but these highs-- paired with Smith's performance-- only serve as a frustrating tease of what potential there was here to do something special.


Jason Lee stars as songwriter Dave in "Alvin and the Chipmunks," the second stop (after "Underdog") on Lee's steadfast mission to be a part of the destruction of all things I once relished as a kid. What's next, Jason? Your starring in a shitty, claymation version of my childhood visits to my grandparents? All joking aside, "Alvin" may be crap, but it's still better than you might expect. While it's never once funny, often irritating, and panders so completely to its pre-school audience while indulging in repulsive scatological jokes, it's far from unbearable and is no more intelligence-insulting than, say, "The Kite Runner." Though it initially registers as the year's most annoying movie with its opening moments of the chipmunks singing Daniel Powter's "Bad Day," the presence of David Cross and Jane Lynch bump the proceedings up to just 'sorta bad,' and it's worth noting that the movie does have the restraint to wait until the 12-minute mark for its first fart joke. For someone who displays fairly skilled comedic chops on "My Name is Earl" and in Kevin Smith's films, Lee is terrible at broad, kiddie acting-- his beatific smiles while playing the piano for the chipmunks' singing are just embarrassing-- and I, for one, can't wait for him to return to raunchier fare. It's mind-blowing to me that something with effects this cheap-looking and a script this lazy can open to a $45 million weekend, but at least we now have "Alvin 2" to look forward to.

So, there ya go. To give a quick idea of what's to come in the next week, I should be getting up reviews of "P.S. I Love You," "Walk Hard," "The Kite Runner" and "Charlie Wilson's War;" and by Friday or Saturday, I should have seen pretty much any movie this year that matters at all, so with any luck, I should have my ten best of 2007 posted by Monday morning at the latest. And if anyone noticed that I didn't have an Oscar predictions update this month, that's because this race is just so fucking hard to read! I think I have a vague idea of what I think will be nominated, but gah... I'll try to get that up in the next few days.