Friday, February 29, 2008

"Semi-Pro" -- * *

While watching "Semi-Pro," you keep waiting for when it's finally going to pick up and become funny, and then at a certain point, you realize it's just not going to happen. Scene after scene keeps building and building towards a punchline of a joke that never comes, and it just moves onto the next scene. I don't know about you, but I get a little depressed when a 90-minute comedy goes by without me laughing a single time. Which isn't to say "Semi-Pro" is awful; it's not. It's just insanely dull and uninspired, which is a pretty substantial problem when your movie is barely a movie to begin with. More than a coherent film, it's a series of tired Will Ferrell sketches that are frequently interrupted by an earnest sports drama starring Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin. With the combination of underdog story and stupid, over-the-top laughs, it's clear "Dodgeball" is what's being emulated here (it's even the umpteenth film to rip off that one's 'referees with oddball non-sequitirs' concept), and this doesn't even come close.

Ferrell is a mysterious fig. He stands apart from the comedy pack by clearly being an intelligent, hilarious guy with an absurd sense of humor, but without the proper creative team, he flounders. There has long been ongoing the conversation about people getting sick of him and specifically his sports comedies. Well, I'm not quite sure I'm getting sick of him-- I love him in too many movies to make that statement-- but I'm certainly starting to get irritated with how blatantly he relies on his trademark tactics when the material sucks. Uh, no comedic payoff here? Let me take off my shirt and run around! Nothing funny to say in this scene? Let me yell it as loud as I can! Ferrell is phenomenal in supporting roles in "Dick," "Drowning Mona," "The Ladies Man," "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" and "Zoolander," and his leading parts in "Elf," "Talladega Nights," "Anchorman" and "Stranger than Fiction" were not just funny, but brilliant bits of acting in and of themselves. But particularly with "Blades of Glory" and "Semi-Pro," he's very much sticking to a not-very-funny formula that's worked for him before, and I'd be lying if I said it doesn't reek of desperation.

As for it being in the latest line of his sports movies (after "Talladega Nights," "Blades of Glory" and "Kicking and Screaming"), I've got to say it's the worst and least funny of the four. "Kicking" isn't anything special, but it works on the level of a kids movie as it's supposed to, and I laughed more than a few times. "Blades" is not close to a good movie, and I think most of it falls flat, but at least I laughed at a few moments, particularly at Will Arnett and Amy Poehler. So while this movie doesn't outwardly suck as that one did at times, it also didn't ever make me laugh. I'd rather a movie actually try, and hit once in a while, than barely try at all and just leave me bored. A lot of this rests upon the creative team, always the key with Ferrell movies, I've come to learn. I tend to love Ferrell when teamed with his comedic partner, co-writer and director Adam McKay, as he was for "Talladega Nights" and "Anchorman" (and the upcoming "Step Brothers"). Here, helmer Kent Alterman is directing for the first time, and it shows. I've heard rumors that Ferrell has acquired the rights to the excellent comedy doc "The King of Kong" to be remade as a feature-film, but I really hope he doesn't go through with it. Someone needs to tell him his man-child sports shtick has run its course.

Taking place in Flint, Michigan in 1976, "Semi-Pro" is inspired by the real-life events of when the ABA (American Basketball Association) was in the shitter and was about to partake in a merger with the NBA. All the specifics on display are fabricated, but that little bit was true. Here, the film focuses on the Flint Tropics, and their coach, owner, star player and writer of the hit song "Love Me Sexy," Jackie Moon (Ferrell). Since the ABA has decided to only allow the top four teams into the NBA, Moon decides to take initiative and make the team step up their game on every level. Oh, lest I forget to mention, Moon has an afro and wears short shorts, as were the league requirements in those days. The bulk of the movie are Moon's wacky, zany ideas for gimmicks to boost attendance. Part of Moon's plan for improving the team's game was to bring on former NBA player Monix (Woody Harrelson). At least a third of the movie concerns Monix's reasons for joining/helping the Tropics, his old girlfriend/wife (Maura Tierney) who's still in town, and saving face after winning an NBA championship ring purely by spending a season on the bench. Monix also constantly butts heads with the team's best player Clarence, or "Coffee Black" (Andrew Benjamin) who keeps being told that he'll never amount to anything if he doesn't try harder.

The biggest element of "Semi-Pro" that just feels "off" is its jarringly incongruous tones. Ferrell's material is so stupid and irrelevant that whenever we abruptly shift back to Harrelson and Benjamin's 100% dramatic subplots, one could be excused for getting whiplash. The back-and-forth results in the movie never establishing a silly or absurd tone, making the Ferrell material seem as if it's taking place in an entirely different world than the rest of the movie. I'm not completely sure that the movie was even written as a comedy; no major characters besides Jackie are even supposed to be funny. I could be wrong about this, but based on the finished product, I would guess that Ferrell just liked the story/script and asked the makers to write a wacky character for him and adjust the script so it would revolve around that character. As for the dramatic material itself, I found it remarkably tedious and dull; I can't even imagine how Ferrell's drooling, guffawing diehards will respond to it.

But this would be less if a problem if the comedic content was significantly funnier. I know that scattershot comedies have an easier time getting away with being incoherent, but there are barely even segues here between set-pieces, and rarely pay-offs to said set-pieces. The movie relies entirely on his man-child persona and doesn't have any good jokes or lines to fill in the blanks. They genuinely feel like half-written jokes or ideas that never got completely finished before the movie got rushed into production to beat the writers strike. The one joke that comes the closest to being funny (I was waiting with bated breath, literally, to start laughing) is an extended bit involving "Jive Turkey" being the worst insult someone could be called in the 1970s and a supposedly un-loaded gun being thrown around the room. Again, it's a funny idea, but it never pays off or reaches an appropriate climax. I mentally chucked at one of the basketball players being named "Munson" (I assume in an homage to Harrelson's character in "Kingpin") but I don't know if that even counts as a joke.

Some, like me, may be semi-excited for this movie purely on the basis of it being rated-R, having the mindset of "Man, Will Ferrell getting to cut loose and say whatever he wants? He's so funny in PG-13, imagine how funny he'll be with no restrictions!" Well, "Semi-Pro" may have the edge on many similar comedies with its R-rating, but that doesn't make it any funnier, and it barely takes advantage of it. Yes, if you think you'll be prone to fits of hysterics at Will Ferrell simply saying "fuck" and "cock," you may like this movie more than I. But me, I need the "fucks" and "cocks" to be said in the context of something funny, not merely awkwardly shoe-horned into dialogue to give an otherwise bland comedy an R-rated "flavor."

Ferrell, as an actor/comedian, usually has a boundless engergy and infectious enthusiasm even in sub-par vehicles, but here, you can tell he's on auto-pilot. I'm not done with Ferrell in movies like this, but I'm well on my way if he continues down the same path. It doesn't help that even in the confines of the sort of movie it is, Jackie isn't even written as a character. "Talladega Nights," "Anchorman," and even "Old School," as silly as they were, were able to give us a protagonist we were able to understand and actually like within the context of its reality. Frank the Tank was given an interesting backstory about his old party days and his conflicting feelings about feeling a responsibility to his wife and family. Ron Burgundy was used to being the cock-of-the-walk and living the way he was adjusted to, and had to evolve to become a different sort of man through his love for Veronica Corningstone and learning to accept/appreciate women's rising power in the workplace. Ricky Bobby's arrogance gave way to having to live outside of the spotlight, allowing his best friend an opportunity to succeed, fell in love with Amy Adams, rekindled his relationship with his dad, AND learned to accept gay people. Now, I'm not saying any of these movies had poignance per se, but these lead characters were actually characters. Jackie Moon, on the other hand, is never a real person, we learn NOTHING about him, he shows no sort of emotion, he just shrieks and runs. His defining character traits are that he fights a bear and makes his team wear zany costumes.

Making things more depressing, Ferrell has assembled an astounding supporting comedic cast. Will Arnett, Rob Corddry, David Koechner, Tim Meadows, Ed Helms, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Kristin Wiig show up at various moments and really none of them get anything funny to do, try as they might. They get most of their laughs at the audience recognizing/acknowledging them, and not at anything they do. Amazingly, hot off his Oscar nomination last year for "Little Children," Jackie Earle Haley shows up as a constantly stoned fan, and I'm not really sure what he was directed to do, but I think I can safely say, it doesn't have the desired intention. I thought he deserved to win the Oscar last year, and I was rooting for the guy in a small role in a silly comedy, but he's only included here as yet another barely thought out gag that doesn't pay off and just left me staring at the screen with a confused look on my face.

Whether you were highly anticipating it or not, "Semi-Pro" is unquestionably a disappointment. Me, I'm disappointed that Ferrell has such a tolerance for mediocrity and that two disparate movies joined forces to create a tonally schizophrenic work that doesn't function successfully on either front. Rabid enthusiasts of the actor who will laugh at anything, and I mean ANYTHING, he does, will find some stuff to do so at here, but I can't imagine even them thinking it's one of his funnier/better ones. Will Ferrell in an afro and short shots alone does not make a funny movie, no matter how many times you show it.

"The Other Boleyn Girl" -- * 1/2

Justin Chadwick's "The Other Boleyn Girl" is an adaptation of a hugely popular and well-regarded novel, AND it happens to be a period piece, AND it stars the likes of Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana. And it's coming out in February. Yes, February, the dumping ground that is known for housing films like "The Eye," "Strange Wilderness," "Fool's Gold," "Welcome Back Roscoe Jenkins," "Jumper" and "Vantage Point." Shouldn't that tell you right off the bat that something went awry with this movie along the way? When a movie like this opens in January or February, it's like a giant red flag warning you to step away. Let me just say, this is NOT the exception to the rule. Despite a willingness to be engaged, and granting the film every possible allowance, I was, frankly, struggling to stay awake from minute one.

Announcing its tedium and faux-importance with its first frame, a yellow-tinted shot of wheat blowing, "Boleyn" is most noteworthy for how deftly it balances silliness and being really fucking boring. I admit I'm not the greatest fan of corset dramas, but I hoped this one's soap opera tendencies and focus on women's bitchery to one another rather than unrequited love might make it somewhat more compelling for me, even if it had to resort to campiness. But alas, the film doesn't embrace the over-the-top melodrama it so desperately is crying out to be, and instead, plays it "classy," rendering the whole affair with the faint whiff of pretension and blandness. Screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon") has a tendency to take subject matters I'm not terribly interested in, and make them compelling, but here, his words aren't nearly strong enough to bring this material to life, and in fact, sometimes do more harm than good ("She said WHAT?!?" is an actual line of dialogue).

Based on the novel by Philippa Gregory, "Boleyn" tells the story of the Boleyn sisters, Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson), and how they were thrown around as status symbols and pawns of power in the court of King Henry VII (Eric Bana). First, Boleyn daddy Thomas dangles the willing Anne in front of Henry to gain his family power and prestige. Though super-conniving Anne is totally down with fucking Henry, said dude is more interested in porking the ambivalent, kind Mary. After he does, Anne gets pissed; she wants the King's power and palace for herself. Various acts of jealousy, bitchery and back-stabbing ensue. I've just realized I've made this sound fairly fun to watch, and for that I apologize. Let me assure you, it's not.

Despite a storyline juicier than most movies of this type, the proceedings are just as bland and the filmmaking just as stock and repetitive as is par for the course for films featuring men wearing silly hats (and boy, does Bana get to wear some silly hats). I lost count of how many times the camera became fixed on the face of someone gazing maliciously/jealously at someone else, and there are so many shots of Bana marching angrily down a hallway that it eventually becomes an instigator for group laughter. The soap opera element also works against the tone because it becomes virtually impossible to take the movie seriously, which it really, really wants us to do. There are innumerable lines that were obviously written with the intention of provoking the mental equivalent of "Oh, snap!" The amount of dramatic stares and line readings alone would have made me laugh if I wasn't too bored to make any sort of facial movements.

While it's not the film's biggest, there's a substantial problem from scene one due to the blatant Americanism and blatant modernism of our two leading ladies. Johansson and Portman more often than not resemble two American teenagers playing playing dress-up and, well, me no takey seriously. I've got to be honest, I generally don't like Scarlett Johansson. I think she is consistently subpar in everything that she appears in, and often out-and-out awful (upon hearing my opinion, Ms. Johansson reportedly unconvincingly screamed "YOU'RE A LIAR! YOU'RE A LIAR!" over and over again).

Here, I was looking forward to the movie based on my affinity for Portman and Bana, but I dare say, Johansson does the best job of the three. Her performance may be totally hollow, complete with her dead-eyed stare, but at least she's trying and not totally embarrassing herself. Bana clearly doesn't give a shit and looks on the verge of falling asleep, even when doing those angry hallway marches. Portman, on the other hand, doesn't fare well at all with her one-note nastiness, and her "big" theatrical histrionics near the end just made me cringe. The supporting cast includes mediocre work from Kristin Scott Thomas, new "it" boy Jim Sturgess, and "My name allows me to appear in period pieces, and period pieces only" Benedict Cumberpatch.

It almost seems a cruel trick played on "Boleyn" producer Scott Rudin for Sony Pictures to be releasing this turd mere days after his triumphant Best Picture win for "No Country for Old Men." Where that film boasted tremendous filmmaking, unbearable tension and powerful commentary about our society's morality, here we get nothing more than pretty dresses and muddled English accents. If just the thought of looking at these attractive thespians in period garb gets your blood pumping, by all means go see "The Other Boleyn Girl." Everyone else, be prepared for an unrelentingly dull, melodramatic costume drama that'll make you wish you'd been attacked by an irate, airgun-wielding Javier Bardem instead.

"Penelope" -- * * *

Though forgettable it may be, "Penelope" is a sweet, little confection that provides the sort of fluffy entertainment that isn't currently being offered at the multiplex (at least until next week, when "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" opens). It'll be interesting to see if its pig-snout concept keeps audiences away, but if it does, it'll be shame. A charming, enjoyable modern-day fairy tale, there's not a mean bone in this movie's body, and I can't quite understand why it's sat on the shelf for a year and a half after playing at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall of 2006 (much like "Bonneville" and "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show"). In this extremely crowded movie weekend, this is the only one I would qualify in the "worth seeing" category.

Opening with a "Once Upon a Time..." insert card, "Penelope" announces its fairy tale intention right off the bat, following it up with a pre-credit sequence explaining the back story of our title character's predicament. Penelope (Christina Ricci) has been "blessed" with a pig snout rather than a human nose, due to a curse placed on her family from a witch many years ago. Horrified initially, though loving her in their own way, Penelope's pseudo-celebrity parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant) fake her death and keep her locked in the house, hidden from the public eye. Unable to be granted a human nose unless she marries a blue-blood, Penelope's parents seek suitor after suitor, most of whom throw themselves out the window after catching a glimpse at the aforementioned girl.

A humiliated suitor (Simon Woods) and a paparazzi (the always fun-to-watch Peter Dinklage) half-blinded by Penelope's mother, seek out a pathetic gambler Max (James McAvoy) to gain entry into the estate and snap a shot for them of Penelope's face in full-view. It doesn't work out. Max ends up falling for Penelope and rejecting her for unknown reasons. After this brief taste of happiness, Penelope decides to break free of her mansion, exploring the world for the first time (snout hidden away by a scarf, of course).

Though possibly credited to its 83-minute running time, "Penelope" has a breezy, light feel that moves the strong along fairly quickly and doesn't really have any excess fat. It's also consistently clever and smile-inducing without making a spectacle of its dialogue ("Geez, Banana..."). Mostly thanks to the direction, the movie wrings laughs out of little jokes like Penelope's family gathering around the monitors of her potential woo-ers with chips, popcorn, champagne and ice cream. The film also smartly handles its required fairy tale elements; at movie's end, the "moral" or message is literally spelled out, but it gets away with it in context. On top of everything, it's a movie you can take your kids to; except for one extremely mild boner joke/one-liner, the proceedings are extremely PG.

The movie's not perfect, however. Some of its questionable jokes (at one point, a newspaper headline reads "Pig Latin banned from schools"-- whuh?) aren't really substantially problematic; my one real issue with "Penelope" is the same one I had with John Cameron Mitchell's otherwise terrific "Shortbus:" it doesn't go far enough in testing people's tolerance levels. While, sure, that film was sexually explicity, all its cast members were very attractive and all the sexual acts performed were at least familiar to anyone with a healthy sex life. To really exemplify its theme about tolerance and broad-sweeping universality, we should have seen some fucked up shit, as well as some not-so-attractive people bumping uglies.

Similarly, "Penelope" should have made its titular character actually as ugly as the characters' reactions would indicate. When we first see Penelope, complete with snout, a woman near me loudly whispered "Oh that's not so bad!" Exactly, loud lady. This is the same Christina Ricci who sexily slutted it up in last year's "Black Snake Moan;" one little adorable pig nose ain't going to change that. If "Penelope" really wanted to say something about inner beauty, it might have helped if the the girl underneath wasn't so beautiful. This wasn't enough to keep me from enjoying the movie, but it crossed my mind whenever the movie shows us Ricci with the snout.

Ricci is sweet and endearing as our title character, even if she's not given very much to work with. I mentioned "Black Snake Moan" before and if you look at her performance in that film and then this one, it's startling the extent of the (often taken for granted) actress's range. Though she's playing a thinly written fairy tale archetype, we actually believe Penelope's alternating sense of wonderment and loneliness, especially in scenes where she literally has to act only with her eyes. I really genuinely and generally love James McAvoy, so I'll just say (a) this may be the least aesthetically appealing he's been in a movie and (b) his very affected American accent doesn't quite fly and lends all his dialogue a vaguely annoying smartass cockiness. Not everyone can be aces all the time, and I wish him all the best next time out. His performance in "Atonement" more than gives him enough leeway for one or two misses.

O'Hara, unsurprisingly, gives the best performance on display here. Not only are her staple shrieking hysterics hilarious, she plays up both sides of the character, illuminating for us exactly who his woman is. She is shallow in many ways, and largely just concerned about her family's reputation, but she makes us understand why, and also really cares about her daughter's happiness and well-being. O'Hara does a wonderful job getting all that across to us, delivering significantly more here than seems to have been on the page.

I'll not pretend "Penelope" is particularly weighty, or will linger especially long in the memory, but I'll take endearingly frivolous filmmaking that genuinely charms over the bulk of what we've been getting lately any day. Reese Witherspoon (who also appears in a few scenes as a Vespa-riding bar patron) apparently believe in this project enough to serve as a producer, but I'm sure the leading role was offered to her at some point. Perhaps Ricci was just more willing to strap on the pig nose than Miss Perfect Blond Oscar winner, but either way, the intent is what counts. A bit of fluff that doesn't pander, "Penelope" diverts in a cuter manner than most.

"Bonneville" -- * *

Christopher N. Rowley's "Bonneville" is a tough movie to get angry about, but it's hard to imagine anyone getting particularly enthused about it either. It's a nice enough paint-by-numbers movie for old ladies who just want to see genial fare that doesn't stimulate or provoke any real thoughts or feelings, but there's really no reason for anyone else to bother. I wish this wasn't the case, as I'm one of those people who complains there's not enough work for (at least two of) these leading ladies, but ultimately, the quality of the actresses only accentuates how bland the material is. To my understanding, the movie is only opening in a couple markets, and I imagine they're all ones with significant elderly women populations.
Jessica Lange stars as Arvilla (I swear I've never heard that name before), a mormon lady who's still mourning the recent death of her husban and plans on scattering his ashes, as the man asked her to. However, Arvilla's cunty stepdaughter (Christine Baranski) shows up and demands he be buried with her mother. Since deadie never got around to changing his will, stepdaughter threatens to rescind Arvilla's house if she scatters the ashes as planned. Arvilla obliges but insists on driving the ashes to Los Angeles/Santa Barbara herself, and we know some ashes will be scattered along the way. Arvilla's best friends, fellow Mormons Margene (Kathy Bates) and Carol (Joan Allen) end up joining her for the drive, and the three experience the joys and wackiness of life along the way. Yeah.

As you can imagine, no one is really playing an actual character here, everything is a "type." Lange is the sad but free-spirited mourner. Allen is the uptight one who needs to learn to cut loose. Bates is the fat, "sassy," horny one (my audience cackled at everything she said-- at least I think; they could have just been asking for peas). Baranski is the kind of cold bitch with ridiculous reaction-baiting lines you usually only see in Tyler Perry movie. As such, no one is really able to give a real performance, or at least not any worth noting. One has to imagine the three actresses liked the idea of working together (and getting leading roles for a change) more than anything in the script.

Filled with typical half-assed cliches and archetypes (e.g: the sexy young thing who knows how to change a tired, and the "dreamboat" trucker who wants to bone the fat chick) and feeling like a movie you've seen a half-dozen times before, "Bonneville" is admirable in theory but is really uninspired treacle that would fit more comfortably on Lifetime. While it'll play nicely to a certain type of audience, it never even goes for broke enough in terms of sentimentality or demo-targetting to linger in their memories. I'll grant you that I'm not this movie's target audience at all, but I love a good old ladies movie ("First Wives Club" is a particularly guilty pleasure of mine) if done right, and hoped this movie would fulfill the potential of its all-too-often unemployed cast. In a week where they just became multiple Oscar winners, one can't help but imagine what the Coen Brothers would have done with this fluff.

Monday, February 25, 2008

"And then I woke up."

Awards season is officially over. Well, at least for ten months or so. As for the Oscars tonight, well... I can't quite say they were exciting, but this is certainly the happiest I've been with the awards in my entire history of watching them (since I was about 5 years old). A scant group of minor disappointments, but at no point-- and this is, frankly, amazing to me-- in the evening was I genuinely pissed off by any of the winners, and it was a fairly breezy, enoyable show (only 3 hours and 18 minutes long). For the most part, the best of the nominees actually won, and occasionally, the best eligibile in that category, nominated or not. I didn't live-blog, nor did I take note of the time of certain occurrences, but find below (in italics) my random musings during the Oscar telecast that I jotted down.

Red Carpet

-- Jesus, Renee Zellweger looks disturbingly like David Bowie tonight.

-- Marion Cotillard is ridiculously beautiful

-- I hope Miley Cyrus gets assassinated on the red carpet and puts a polite damper on the rest of the evening

-- Jennifer Garner is looking a whole lot like Zac Efron with that haircut

The Show Itself

-- Jon Stewart is already doing significantly better than he did two years ago. "Tonight we look beyond the dark days to focus on happier fare: This year's slate of Oscar-nominated psychopathic killer movies. Does this town need a hug? What happened? 'No Country For Old Men,' 'Sweeney Todd,' 'There Will Be Blood?' All I can say is, thank God for teen pregnancy." Mmmm, hilarious.

-- Why the fuck is Patrick Dempsey allowed to sit in the second row?

-- Jon Stewart makes a joke with the phrase "make-up sex." Everyone laughs, Colin Farrell is noticeably stone faced.

Best Costume Design
"Elizabeth: The Golden Age"

Well, it certainly had the MOST costumes, didn't it? And the winning lady gave probably the best speech of the night, if only for the fact that it was eight seconds long. Eh, "Atonement" or "Sweeney Todd" kind of deserved this more, but "No Country" and "There Will Be Blood" weren't nominated here, so I can't really get worked up about "Elizabeth" taking it.

--At 22 minutes into the telecast, only one award has been given out. This is going to be a long one.

Best Animated Feature

While this half-billion dollar grosser didn't really need MORE support or accolades, and some recognition for "Persepolis" would have been nice (and helpful for the film's box office), I really can't quibble with this. "Ratatouille" may have been the most delightful film of last year, and endlessly clever, creative, funny and moving. It may be a financial and critical juggernaut, but that doesn't change the fact that it really WAS the best animated feature of the year and deserves every potential award coming to it (for my money, it deserves the Best Original Screenplay Oscar tonight as well).

--Hey, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill are here, looking nearly identical! Whoa, Katherine Heigl (presenting) is visibly nervous and her voice is quaking. Nonetheless, she's the second young starlet in a week to attempt to emulate Marilyn Monroe.

-- Man, Colin Farrell is really pissed off about something tonight.

Best Makeup
"La Vie en Rose"

Can't work up much excitement for this, other than saying it was deserving. I would have passed out had "Norbit" won an Oscar and "Pirates" didn't really draw my attention in the makeup department. If for no other reason than making a beautiful beautiful beautiful actress achieve so many different looks and various levels of deformity, this win seems just.

-- Wow, Amy Adams is singing "Happy Working Song" from "Enchanted" and she's just kicking ass. As much as I might dislike this movie, Adams is just so effervescently delightful and she's completely pulling this performance off. God, I love her.

Best Visual Effects
"The Golden Compass"

[chokes on cocktail] What?!? Are you fucking kidding?? Look, I hated "Transformers," but even I had to admit its special effects were probably the best and most technologically advanced I've ever seen in a motion picture. Compared to the Coca-Cola polar bears in "The Golden Compass"?!?! Jesus Fucking Christ, has Michael Bay alienated this many people in Hollywood? I swore this was the biggest lock of the night, more than even Bardem or Day-Lewis. Hmm, this means either "No Country" or "Bourne" is taking the sound awards. If "Transformers" can't win this, it ain't winning shit.

Best Art Direction
"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

Grrr, Jack Fisk should have won this for his wonderful sets for "There Will Be Blood," but I loved the sets for "Sweeney" as well, so I'm not too pissed off. Ha, Paul Thomas Anderson is very emphatically, and noticeably, not clapping.

-- Am I alone in really loving Jon Stewart's material tonight? It's just a throwaway joke, but this bit about Cate Blanchett playing the pit bull chasing Josh Brolin in "No Country for Old Men" made me laugh really hard.

Best Supporting Actor
Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"

And the always astute Ms. Jennifer Hudson pronounced Javier "Harvier." Lovely. Anyway, we all knew this was happening. "You can't stop what's coming," and all that. Not necessarily my favorite of the five, but he was truly astonishing in this performance that's going to be referenced and imitated for years to come, ad nauseusm. Gave the second half of his speech in Spanish, and I have no idea what he was saying, but it seemed sincere.

--Ha-ha, Stewart "translates" for us using the Spanish he learned in High School. Apparently, Javier told his mother where the library was.

--Wow, this "August Rush" song is cringe-worthy. Myself and my co-watchers all get up and do various cleaning up, phone calls, etc. until the number is over.

Best Live Action Short
"The Mozart of Pickpockets"

As I predicted, the award goes to the one involving the cute little kid. I had a feeling from the moment the audience I saw this with responded well to it, laughing frequently and using words like "adorable."

Best Animated Short
"Peter and the Wolf"

Blech. This was my least favorite of all the animated shorts. It was "cute" and nothing more. Kind of pretty looking, but completely hollow artistically. Was hoping for "Madame Tuitli Puitli" but oh well.

Best Supporting Actress
Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"

Ahhhh wonderful! Best of the five performances, been so wonderful for so long with no recognition, and, she's just a delightful actress. I just love her and wish her all the best; maybe now she'll land a third boyfriend. Truly phenomenal speech too: "George Clooney, you know, the seriousness and the dedication to your art, seeing you climb into that rubber bat suit from "Batman & Robin," the one with the nipples, every morning under your costume, on the set, off the set, hanging upside-down at lunch, you rock, man." My god, can we give her another Oscar RIGHT NOW??

-- Announcer: "The always fantastic Jessica Alba." There are some phrases life just does not prepare you for ever hearing. How does one react to a statement like that? She stumbled pronouncing the "E." in "Gordon E. Sawyer," that's not easy to do.

-- Josh Brolin and James McAvoy are presenting an award together. My, my, what a dreamboat sandwich these two make.

-- I love these phony "I'm writing my screenplay" clips they're showing for the Best Adapted Screenplay nominees, and I love even more that Paul Thomas Anderson is obviously the only nominee to refuse to film one.

Best Adapted Screenplay
"No Country for Old Men," adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen

Not much to say really except I'm quite fucking happy. This is totally deserved, and I hope its the first of four for the Coens tonight.

--The President of the Academy (I think) presents and stars in a truly lame bit about how the voting process works. Jon Stewart follows it up with the most unenthusiastic face you can imagine and states, "Wow. That was amazing." Hilarious. Please someone post it on YouTube.

--Song number two from "Enchanted," this one the really irritating production number from Central Park. All I can think of while watching this is 'man, that's a lot of gay construction workers' and 'was Kristen Chenoweth always this bland?'

Best Sound Editing
"The Bourne Ultimatum"

Hm, "No Country" really deserved to win this. Me no happy. Whoa, but on the plus side, a guy named "Per" is accepting an award.

Best Sound Mixing
"The Bourne Ultimatum"

Repeat above sentiments. Minus the Per.

-- Wow, even Cate Blanchett seems appalled by the height of her theatrics in this "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" clip. Her "I have a hurricane in me" bit is what "Heeeeeere Iiiii aaaaaam" was for her last year. The fact that the Academy even nominated her for this shit just shows how much they love her, so she should be happy.

Best Actress

Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"

Yes, yes, yes, this is excellent. I called it, and I'm very happy she won over Julie Christie. Sure, Laura Linney would've been perfection (and I'm so delighted that they showed the "big. red. pillow." clip for her), but this is almost as good. Ever since I read her "I do not know this bummer" quote in Entertainment Weekly, I've been charmed by her, and she's asked to do so much in this showy role and completely pulls it off. And boy, what infectious enthusiasm: "Thank you life, thank you love! It is true there are some angels in this city!" Love it.

-- God I love "Falling Slowly." Better fucking win. And is it me, or does Glen Hansard look especially cleaned up and well-groomed? Glen Hansard? More like Glen HANDSOME. Har, har, har. I'm hilarious.

-- Hmmm, the audience does not seem to be clapping for Renee Zellweger. I can hear the audio of applause but when they cut to a wide shot of the audience, I didn't see anyone actually clapping. Perhaps a bit of dubbing trickery to make America think her Hollywood peers like her?

-- Ha ha ha, there's a drawn portrait of 'Roderick Jaynes' when his nomination is announced for "No Country for Old Men." Did the Coens draw it, I wonder?

Best Film Editing
"The Bourne Ultimatum"

Again, subscribing to the notion that "most" must be equivalent to "best." I'm not pissed off, but I'm not happy either. I still think it's going to win Best Picture, but it's very noticeable that "No Country" is not sweeping tonight at all.

-- Oh, Jon Stewart, how you tickle my fancy. "Film Editing! Someone just took the lead in their Oscar pool based on a guess." Belittling to the category, but so true.

--Wow! Nicole Kidman actually has breasts when she's pregnant!

Best Foreign Language Film
"The Counterfeiters"

Is it wrong that I've had a screener of this movie lying around for the last two months, and now that it's won an Oscar, I still don't have much of a desire to watch it?

-- Announcer: "The Versatile and Handsome Patrick Dempsey." Hm. I guess I know a few girls who find him handsome, but versatile?

-- Jesus fucking Christ, ANOTHER song from "Enchanted"?? How many must we be subjected to?? On a second viewing last week at a local three dollar theater, I realized how truly nothing-special all of the songs in this movie were.

Best Original Song
"Falling Slowly" from "Once"

Eeeexcellent. If this didn't win, I might have gone on a rampage. Aw, "T'anks," "T'ree," "T'ought." God, I love the Irish. Oh shit, Marketa Irglova didn't get to say her bit. What the fuck.

--Ahhh, Jon Stewart brought Marketa Irglova back out to say what she was going to before she got cut off. And it was lovely: "Hi everyone. I just want to thank you so much. This is such a big deal, not only for us, but for all other independent musicians and artists that spend most of their time struggling, and this, the fact that we're standing here tonight, the fact that we're able to hold this, it's just to prove no matter how far out your dreams are, it's possible. And, you know, fair play to those who dare to dream and don't give up. And this song was written from a perspective of hope, and hope at the end of the day connects us all, no matter how different we are. And so thank you so much, who helped us along way. Thank you"

Best Cinematography
"There Will Be Blood"

I kind of wanted one of Deakins' nominated films to take it, but Elswit did a masterful job on "Blood" so I'm still happy.

-- Colin Farrell continues to look completely fucking miserable.

-- Hilary Swank introduces dead people. She's certainly played enough of them. God, I'm awful.

Best Original Score

Still pissed "There Will Be Blood" was deemed ineligible, but this was an excellent, complex score and it probably deserved to win. Whuh, Dario Marianelli is British? Who knew. Man anytime "Atonement" is mentioned, they keep cutting to the mini-"Atonement" crew basically consisting of Saoirse Ronan, James McAvoy and his older-but-very-attractive wife.

--Jesus, give Tom Hanks the award for Not Aging Well. He looks like he just celebrated his 65th birthday, and then someone hit him in the face repeatedly with a bowling pin. Poor, poor (two-time Oscar-winning) man. Yeesh.

-- Laura Linney's fiance boytoy has been beatifically smiling all night. Noticeably.

Best Documentary Feature
"Taxi to the Darkside"

Hm, I did NOT call this one. I thought either "No End in Sight" or "Sicko." Either way, I can't say I'm not happy. "Taxi" was an excellent doc that really demands to be seen, and director Alex Gibney is a terribly intelligent guy who once rode in the backseat of my car while he was in town for the Maryland Film Festival (long story).

Best Original Screenplay
"Juno," Diablo Cody

Wow, Diablo Cody actually has emotions, and not just carefully scripted twee one-liners in her mental arsenal? Who knew. In all seriousness, I haven't really built up the ire for "Juno" some have and I'm genuinely fine with her winning this award. I wish her all the best in the future with all the money she should look forward to making. And props to the Academy people for playing "A Well Respected Man" on her way up to the podium, not the nice-but-irritating-the-more-you-hear-it-throughout-the-awards-season "Juno" anthem "Anyone Else but You."

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"

Again, it's hard to work up much to say when this was just SO expected and has been the performance winning every single award all season. That said, it really is the performance of the year, and one of the great performances of all time, so if it didn't win, it would've been sacrelige. I've heard one or two criticisms leveled against this performance as being the "biggest" or the "most" acting, but not really the "best;" and I understand the criticism in theory, I've leveled it myself many a time. But, sometimes, rarely, a performance is both. Day-Lewis's inhabitance of Daniel Plainview is a big performance on a grand scaler, but there's also so much there to dig away at, and so many levels to it. That "I've abandoned my child!" sequence we've seen ad neauseam certainly has the obvious awards-factor elements in there-- he's yelling!-- but it also involves such emotional complexity, and requires Day-Lewis to express about fifteen different things in the span of 90 seconds. This performance is astounding on every level, and the few who say otherwise just need to see the movie again.

Best Director

Joel and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"

At long last, they've won it. Let the pedestal-building begin! I remember when the Coens followed up "Fargo" with "The Big Lebowski" and the near unanimous assessment was that it was a "lesser" work of the Coens, and boy what a disappointment that they followed up their masterpiece with a trivial bit of silliness. And now, of course, "Fargo" and "Lebowski" are (or should I say were?) regarded by most as their two best films. So we shall see what happens with their next, "Burn After Reading." I've read the screenplay, and it's completely delightful, and off-the-wall zaniness, so I'm sure there will be "Lebowski"-esque disappointment before we look back on it as a modern classic. Anyway, I've gotten off track. Yay, yay, long live the Coens, for they are now Oscar-winning directors.

--Meh, Denzel's the best they could get to deliver Best Picture? Step it up, Academy.

Best Picture
"No Country for Old Men"

I've got to say, it still makes no sense to me that this movie is an Oscar winner for Best Picture. It's too challenging, too cerebral, too symbolic, too meditative, too cynical, too phenomenal. It doesn't make sense. This is the award that's supposed to go to movies that say racism is bad or wittily hypothesize the backstory of writing of "Romeo and Juliet" or commemorate the Holocaust. It's not supposed to go to morally murky, violent Coen Brothers movies with abrupt, thought-provoking endings that basically impart the message that society is quickly going to shit. What the fuck has happened to the Oscars? I have no idea, but whatever it is, it's something worth celebrating.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"Point bein', even in the contest between man and steer, the issue's not certain."

Hey all, been a long time since we've had a minute to talk face-to-face without the formal restrictions of a review format, hasn't it? How are you? I am well. It's looking increasingly likely that I'm *gasp* going to actually graduate in May (hey, one year late ain't bad). However, coming with that territory, my class schedule has been kind of crazy. While it's not all-consuming, I was sort-of forced to register for some required-to-graduate classes that fell on times where screenings generally happen. While I've still been able to attend most of them, the occasional problem has been posed; this past week alone, I missed the screenings for "City of Men," "The Signal" and "Vantage Point." So I apologize I occasionally won't have reviews up for films you may want to see; I, myself, was particularly anticipating "The Signal." This weekend, I headed home to New York and caught a couple shows (for those who care, "Sunday in the Park with George," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The 39 Steps"), so I still haven't caught up with "Vantage" or "Signal."

Also, I paid my hard-earned cash last week to see "Step Up 2 the Streets"-- another one I missed the screening for-- and was, frankly, astonished at how not-terrible it was. I did not like the first one, at all, and expected nothing from this one, and was pleasantly surprised. Granted, if someone just asked "hey, what's a good movie I should go see?," I couldn't in good conscience recommend "Step Up 2 the Streets." It's by-the-numbers, formulaic, and doesn't offer enough entertainment value for me to genuinely recommend. it. However, if someone experienced a modicum of enjoyment while watching the first "Step Up," there's no reason why they shouldn't see this one. It's quicker, more entertaining, less condescending, the leading actors were less wooden (and more purty to look at), and the movie delivers everything the first one did, only to a greater extent. I kind of jibed with the formula elements, and the dance numbers were surprisingly fun. It ain't quite a good movie, but it's significantly less of a slog than you might expect.

But most importantly of all-- and I regret having to make this segue from an analysis of "Step Up 2 the Streets"-- the Oscars are tonight. This was an extremely exciting awards season, resulting in the two true masterpieces of 2007 leading the pack for nominations, something that never happens. I'm, for one, sad to see it come to a close, but will be watching Sunday night with a rare giddiness. Here are my thoughts on who's going to, and who deserves to, win (I've omitted Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary Short Subject, since I've seen none of the nominees):


Like everyone else, I'm having a tough time envisioning a scenario in which "No Country" does not win the big prize, and that's the way it should be. It IS the best film of the year, and while yes, Oscar properly honoring such a distinction would be odd, this year it seems especially likely. The film has earned all around guild support (except for those pesky editors) and seems to have found itself in virtually everyone's favor. Almost all the prognosticators, even those with a tendency to rabble-rouse, seem to agree on this, and I'm content with the universal consensus. Now, if, if, if, if the two masterpieces ("No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood") can NOT win, the inheritor of the throne I think I'd most be able to deal with is "Michael Clayton." Sure, it's nothing particularly special, but it is exceptionally well-crafted, features at least two marvelous performances, and elevates the conventional genre to which it belongs. While I think I actually do like "Juno" better, the thought of it winning the Oscar for Best Picture just makes me angry. Actually angry, not just "grrr, that would suck." I can't really explain why, I guess the backlash has settled in for me, like it has for many others. Or maybe I just shudder at a movie with the line "Geez banana, shut yer friggin' gob!" winning over two masterworks of cinema. Could be either one.

I don't really want to think about the "Atonement" factor, but I really don't need to, as it's just lucky to be here. Personally, as much as I love it, I think "There Will Be Blood" has the least chance of winning things out of all the nominated films. I think many people find it off-putting, and I believe the Academy only nominated it to cave in to flavor-of-the-month aficionado/critical consensus. Also, I think its fanbase falls within the same group of "No Country," and any voters that may feel inclined to go for "Blood" will probably go for the Coens instead. That said, if there is an alternate winner I can be happy about it's "Blood." And industry extraordinaire Kris Tapley has predicted it as the only potential roadblock to "No Country's" triumph. While I would be truly elated if I heard "And the Oscar goes to... There Will Be Blood," I doubt it's going to happen.

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "No Country for Old Men"
Potential Spoiler: "Michael Clayton"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "No Country for Old Men"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "There Will Be Blood"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Michael Clayton"
Who would make me livid: "Juno" and "Atonement"


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
Potential Spoiler: Um, dare I say no one? I really can't envision any of the others taking this.

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
Who I would also be happy with winning: Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: George Clooney, Johnny Depp and Tommy Lee Jones
Who would make me livid: I mean, anyone except Day-Lewis would make me grumble, but all the nominees in this category are exceptional.


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Marion Cotillard, "La Vie En Rose"
Potential Spoiler: Julie Christie, "Away From Her"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: Laura Linney, "The Savegs"
Who I would also be happy with winning: Marion Cotillard, "La Vie En Rose"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: Julie Christie and Ellen Page
Who would make me livid: Cate Blanchett,"Elizabeth: The Golden Age"


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
Potential Spoiler: Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
Who I would also be happy with winning: Javier Bardem, Hal Holbrook
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Wilkinson
Who would make me livid: None


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"
Potential Spoiler: Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"
Who I would also be happy with winning: Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: Cate Blanchett and Saoirse Ronan
Who would make me livid: Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Joel and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
Potential Spoiler: Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: Joel and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
Who I would also be happy with winning: Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: Jason Reitman, "Juno"
Who would make me angry: Julian Schnabel and Tony Gilroy


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Diabo Cody, "Juno"
Potential Spoiler: Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: Brad Bird, "Ratatouille"
Who I would also be happy with winning: Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Juno," "Michael Clayton" and "Lars and the Real Girl"
Who would make me angry: None


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Joel and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
Potential Spoiler: Ronald Harwood, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "No Country for Old Men"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "There Will Be Blood," "Away From Her"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Atonement," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Who would make me angry: None


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "Ratatouille"
Potential Spoiler: "Persepolis"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "Ratatouille"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "Persepolis"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Surf's Up"
Who would make me angry: None


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "There Will Be Blood"
Potential Spoiler: "Sweeney Todd"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "There Will Be Blood"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "Sweeney Todd"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Atonement," "American Gangster," "The Golden Compass"
Who would make me angry: None


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "No Country for Old Men"
Potential Spoiler: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "No Country for Old Men"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," "There Will Be Blood"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Atonement"
Who would make me angry: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
Potential Spoiler: "Sweeney Todd"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "Sweeney Todd"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "Atonement," "La Vie En Rose," "Across the Universe"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: None
Who would make me livid: "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"


Potential Spoiler: "No End in Sight"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "No End in Sight"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "Taxi to the Darkside," "Sicko"
I Have Not Seen So I Can Not Judge: "Operation Homecoming," "War/Dance"


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "No Country for Old Men"
Potential Spoiler:"The Bourne Ultimatum"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "No Country for Old Men"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "There Will Be Blood," "The Bourne Ultimatum"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Into the Wild," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Who would make me angry: None


Potential Spoiler: Um, "Pirates" I guess?

Who I would also be happy with winning: None
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"
Who would make me angry: "Norbit"


Potential Spoiler: Its only real competition was deemed ineligible on the eve of the nominations.

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "Ratatouille"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "Atonement"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Michael Clayton"
Who would make me angry: "The Kite Runner," "3:10 to Yuma"


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "Falling Slowly" from "Once"
Potential Spoiler: I don't even want to think about it.

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "Falling Slowly" from "Once"
Who I would also be happy with winning: No one
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: No one
Who would make me angry: The "August Rush" songs or any of the shit from "Enchanted"


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "I Met the Walrus"
Potential Spoiler: "Even Pigeons Go to Heaven"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "Madame Tutli-Putli"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "I Met the Walrus"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Even Pigeons Go to Heaven," "My Love"
Who would make me angry: "Peter & the Wolf"


WHO WILL WIN: "The Mozart of Pickpockets"
Potential Spoiler: "At Night"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "The Substitute"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "The Tonto Woman," "Tanghi Argentini"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "At Night," "The Mozart of Pickpockets"
Who would make me angry: None


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "No Country for Old Men"
Potential Spoiler: "Transformers"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "No Country for Old Men"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "There Will Be Blood," "Ratatouille"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Transformers," "The Bourne Ultimatum"
Who would make me angry: None


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "No Country for Old Men"
Potential Spoiler: "Transformers"

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "No Country for Old Men"
Who I would also be happy with winning: "Ratatouille," "The Bourne Ultimatum"
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Transformers," "3:10 to Yuma"
Who would make me angry: None


WHO I THINK WILL WIN: "Transformers"
Potential Spoiler: None

WHO I WOULD VOTE FOR: "Transformers"
Who I would also be happy with winning: I don't really care.
Who I wouldn't be happy about winning, but I could deal: "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "The Golden Compass"
Who would make me angry: None

Friday, February 22, 2008

"Be Kind Rewind" -- * * * 1/2

It's difficult to dislike a film that basically just extols the potentially transformative power of movies (even the worst ones) and tries to articulate why they're important and valuable to the human condition. But while a film having that message will always score it points, it wouldn't matter much if it didn't demonstrate those themes itself. Michel Gondry's endearing, funny, strange and often magical "Be Kind Rewind" is clearly made with a love for the art form, and practices what it preaches at every turn. Like other works of Gondry, this isn't a polished, carefully mapped-out piece of filmmaking; in fact, this is probably (and intentionally) his least disciplined film. The enthusiasm and "let's just try this" feel practically bounces across the screen, and ultimately helps to exemplify the film's points that art that comes from a place of passion or genuine feeling may be more valuable than the most pristinely-attuned masterwork.

The movie opens with our two Passaic, N.J.-based heroes, Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) painting a graffiti mural of late great jazz pianist Fats Waller (who figures more prominently into the proceedings later on). We soon find out Mike works in the local independently-run video shop, Be Kind Rewind, run by Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who seems insistent on keeping Jerry as far away from the merchandise as possible. When Fletcher leaves town on mysterious business, Mike is left in charge of the store. Through a series of complications involving a local power plant, Jerry is electrocuted, magnetized, and inadvertently erases all the VHS tapes in the store. Local zany woman Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow, in a role I hope and pray resembles what she's like in real life) is determined to rent "Ghostbusters," and not wanting to disappoint her, Mike and Jerry decide to shoot their own low-budget, 20-minute-long version, hoping she won't know the difference. After other customers come in seeking other films, and word begins to spread, Mike and Jerry ultimately have to make their own versions of dozens of movies, telling the customers they're "sweded" (from Sweden), thus explaining the high cost and why it takes so long for the films to be ready to be rented after being requested.

With "Be Kind," Gondry further establishes himself as an exciting filmmaker, a la Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze, Julian Schnabel, Julie Taymor, who's interested in using film primarily as a means of artistic expression and exploring (occasionally daffy, off-the-wall) ideas rather than adhering to what movies are "supposed" to be. He doesn't seem too concerned with awards or critics, and infuses every frame with elements that anyone who has followed his career could identify as profoundly "Gondry." He has a fanciful style of direction (lots of "Punch-Drunk Love"-esque strange sounds/score) that may infuriate some audience members, but just made me giddy. I particularly loved his movie posters and business signs made out of cardboard, establishing that this world isn't really supposed to be reality, but rather a sort of makeshift, slightly askew environment. Early on in the proceedings, soon after Jerry becomes magnetized, he gets a little too close to the camera, and the screen (our POV) literally shakes with static; Gondry throws a lot of similar quirks at us throughout, and I completely dug them. While some might say he's more suited for music videos and artsier forums, an extended tracking shot that moves from one homemade set to another shows that he's a born filmmaker.

While I was anticipating the release of "Be Kind Rewind," based on the trailer I assumed it would be compromised Gondry, or an attempt on his part to make something more "commercial." Happily, I can report that this is not the case. The opening sequence-- a fake old-style, grainy black-and-white jazz documentary that will only be funny to those who have seen ones like it before-- announces at the outset the movie's non-mainstream nature, and makes it clear that it isn't going to be a commercial endeavor. I still think it's probably the closest Gondry has come to making an "accessible" movie, but it'll still likely be too weird for, say, my parents, and a bit too "quirky" for those who've embraced Jack Black in some of his other works. New Line Cinema seems to know this, as they're semi-dumping it this weekend in only 800 theaters and not giving it much of a marketing push. While I can't say their worries are un-founded, this is a movie that could have really found an appreciative audience if put in the hands of a studio that could gently nurture it like Paramount Vantage or Focus Features (who are handling it internationally). In comparison to Gondry's other works, this is easily the most unabashedly "cornball" and good-spirited, and arguably the most unhinged. There's not the pathos and sadness here that was present in "Science of Sleep" or "Eternal Sunshine," but there's also a sweetness that was only hinted at in those films. Different though it may be, through it all, it's undeniably the work of the same artist.

The "sweded" re-creations make up substantially less of the running time than I think people might be expecting. The re-making shenanigans take up about 50% of the running time, with the first act dealing with the video store's situation and the magnetization of Jerry, and the third act dealing with the aftermath, repercussions, and the community coming together through Jerry and Mike's filmmaking. The madcap and zany nature of the first act is incredibly fun (there's a brilliant bit involving camouflage), and the third act extremely moving (more on that later), but the re-creations are the film's raison d'atre, and easily its high points. They may not make up a bulk of the running time, but when they come, they're fantastic. The first "sweded" film, "Ghostbusters," is the one we see in the greatest detail and length, and is most assuredly the movie's centerpiece and highlight. It's absolutely hilarious, but really all the re-makes have such an infectious sense of low-rent joy that it's impossible not to at least smile during them. The "sweded" versions of "Rush Hour 2" (with Jerry as an offensively-accented Jackie Chan), "Driving Miss Daisy" (which Mike initially pooh-poohs as "condescending") and "2001: A Space Odyssey" are also particularly inspired, though we glimpse numerous others. These re-creations also reward-- but don't require-- audience members who have a knowledge of the films, most notably, a hilarious whispering librarian gag during the "Ghostbusters" remake.

But while it works simply as a fun, funny entertainment, what makes "Be Kind Rewind" such a special piece of work is how successfully it demonstrates why movies are so important to so many of us. Gondry makes the argument that even the worst movies have some merit, and that whether a piece of art is life-changing or simply a diversion, they have a magic to them that is rarely replicated. This theme is present throughout the entire movie, but is perfectly encapsulated in its final sequence/image, one that unexpectedly brought to a tear to this cynic's eye. Perhaps it's because I'm a film dork, but I found Gondry's obvious love for the art form, and the culmination of Mike and Jerry's journey immensely moving. It's not really a "happy" ending, considering the imminent follow-up, but it's an immensely satisfying one. A substantial portion of the film is also devoted to giving props to small-town businesses, underdogs, and decrying gentrification, but it's obviously simultaneously alluding to low-budget films and expressing a preference towards anything that comes from a place of enthusiasm rather than those that are profit-driven.

Part of the movie's charm is that the actors don't seem to have been given much/any direction, and been allowed to do what they feel is right. This is just a guess on my part, but correct or not, the end result completely works in tandem with what Gondry's trying to do here. Jack Black has a tendency to irritate more high-brow audience members and delight stupider ones who like seeing fat men yell and fall down. Count me among the latter, though I'll admit my enthusiasm for the man has gone down a bit in recent years. Black may have his detractors and those who find him annoying, but the man has an undeniable energy and an apparent dedication when he's appearing in something he cares about (he looked like he was straining to muster up enthusiasm all throughout "Envy"), as he seems to here. He's having a blast and he's immensely fun to watch, even if Jerry never quite resembles an actual human being. With the combination of "Rewind" and "Margot at the Wedding," Black is obviously trying to branch out to more creative/interesting works, and not squarely focusing on potential cash cows.

Def is a little bit more of a mixed bag in my eyes. His propensity for mumbling, aimlessly wandering around and averting his eyes flies in the face of the supposed requirements for being an actor, but he's certainly always entertaining to watch, whether in "16 Blocks," during his concerts, or (especially) during his profane, paranoid rants in his appearance on "Real Time with Bill Maher." Here, he occasionally has some moments of enthusiasm or inspired mugging, but he mostly just shrugs, unenthusiastically mumbles and looks as if he just woke up, drove to the set and said "let's do this shit." Again, this is pure speculation, but he seems to just have an "eh, whatever" feel to him, and I was hoping for a little bit more, especially since I've always held out hope that he could be a very interesting actor with the right material.

A celebration of do-it-yourself artistry, "Be Kind Rewind" is significantly more complex and thoughtful than it initially appears at the outset, and some of the ideas contained therein are downright bold (such as Miss Falewicz's declaration about our right to re-invent our past through art). But lest I make it sound too stuffed with importance, I should make it clear that Gondry's vision is ultimately a love letter to films and the childlike wonder that they're capable of delivering, and often delivers the very sensation itself. Some audiences may understandably find themselves unable to go with it, but it's difficult to imagine anyone who truly and dearly loves the magic of movies not finding something to appreciate here. It's most emphatically a film more for the heart than the head, but really, how often do we get a movie, let alone a comedy, with this much genuine joy, appreciation and creativity? It may be mourning types of businesses, technology and filmmaking that are considered part of the past, but as long as there are still artists like Gondry out there making movies like this, there is hope for the future.

"Charlie Bartlett" -- * * *

A breezy, agreeable mixture of the fresh and the familiar, Jon Poll's "Charlie Bartlett" is an above-average teen flick that never condescends to the audience, even when it acknowledges the demands of its genre. Resembling a lesser "Rushmore" or "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," the movie is often funny while actually addressing the sort of issues usually avoided in like-minded films. It's not quite as subversive as it thinks it is, or as envelope-pushing as its R-rating had me hoping (there's no reason 13-to-17 year olds shouldn't be able to see this), but there's enough laughs, interesting ideas and worthwhile performances on display to merit a trip to the theater

Our titular character (played by Anton Yelchin) is a beyond-his-years, blazer-wearing 17-year-old who strives to be uber-popular. Despite that description, he's not an insufferable prick; he's an extremely bright, fairly sociable, and equipped with a keen wit. However, after being expelled from one too many private schools (he was manufacturing fake IDs), he finds himself in a public school and a wee bit out of his element. He's beaten up by the prettiest bully you've ever seen (Tyler Hilton) and rejected by fellow students, but Charlie isn't daunted. His too-understanding mother (an especially lovely and funny Hope Davis) sends him to the family's therapist-on-call, who promptly prescribes Charlie a plethora of Ritalin.

After a quick Ritalin-fueled freakout, Charlie sees the drug's potential to get one high, and begins selling it to the other students. This recreational drug-dealing soon becomes an attempt to help fellow students. Charlie plays psychiatrist in the men's restroom, takes his peers' symptoms back to his therapist and gets them the appropriate pills. A drug dealer with a heart of gold, so to speak. The school's well-meaning, alcoholic principal (Robert Downey Jr.) has a feeling something's going on, and has issues with Charlie spending an increasing amount of time with his daughter Susan (Kat Dennings), but can't prove anything.

"Charlie" tackles some pretty serious topics, including teen suicide, the price of teenage popularity, alcoholism and the importance of actually enjoying what it is that you do, but only rarely does Poll fumble with the tone. Mostly everything is handled with a light touch, and the broad laughs are deftly balanced with the grounded realistic elements. A potentially trite romance between Charlie and Susan, in particular, is handled with proper awkwardness and slow, unsure development. Some have latched onto the movie's skepticism of prescription-drugs-for-teens, but that didn't seem as fresh (or valid) to me after being covered a few times before, in similar films like "Thumbsucker." I wouldn't classify "Charlie Bartlett" as a message film, but it certainly has some things to say, and mostly does so successfully and unobtrusively.

Ultimately, the movie is more enjoyable and amusing rather than flat-out hilarious, but it's not without its genuinely funny elements. I particularly enjoyed Charlie's jazzy duets with his mother singing old TV theme songs, and his falsetto audition for a Shakespeare play, but there are similar moments abound. Poll offers us nice little touches like Mrs. Bartlett leaving a note "Ritalin in bag, dinner in oven," as well as bigger moments like the nonchalant (but honest) way he deals with the loss of our protagonist's virginity.

For such a young dude, it seems Yelchin has been around forever. For a while, it seemed like he would pop up in virtually every film I would watch. If "Charlie" was getting a stronger push, I have no doubt it would be the young actor's coming out party and his first step towards stardom. It's not a terribly complex performance/role, but it's an incredibly charismatic one,and Yelchin makes Charlie pop off the screen. It may strike some as occasionally over-antic, but he's an incredibly likeable, energetic presence, and with a bit more depth, it would likely be hailed in a similar manner to Ellen Page's turn in "Juno."

Truth be told, I love Robert Downey Jr. I have a tendency to dig him in everything he's in. At the worst, he's fun to watch ("The Shaggy Dog"), and at his best, he's brilliant ("Zodiac") or hilarious ("Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"). He is the sole reason I am supremely excited about a superhero movie (this summer's "Iron Man"), a genre I have a tendency to not give a shit about. Here, he's truly wonderful. Totally understanding the kind of movie he's in, Downey works with the tone and feel of the film, but basically plays the character completely straight and it pays off in spades.

He cops the elements that made Jeffrey Jones so perfect in "Ferris Bueller," but adds shades of sadness, pathos and complexity, rather than just a stark villain. Late in the proceedings, Downey manages to do the movie's best acting in what may be the movie's worst, most contrived scene. All I'll say is it involves a handgun and a bottle of liquor, and without Downey's performance, it would be eye-rolling. He single-handedly (a) makes the scene work, and (b) transforms the movie from a fun diversion into something worth making the effort to go out and see.

I don't think they're significant, but "Charlie" does have some problems. There are some broad high school caricatures that distract from the way some of the more recognizable elements are handled, and occasionally the shifts from comedy to drama are a little rough. The aforementioned gun/liquor sequence bears mentioning again because it does leave a particularly bad taste in the mouth, even if the film does atone for it with Downey's last appearance later on. And it's SO not a big deal, but it did nag at me how the filmmakers so blatantly pull a "She's All That" with Tyler Hilton's bully. Late in the movie, he receives a "makeover," but it's clear from the very first scene that he's hot, they just slapped a mohawk and a chain wallet on him.

Despite its flaws, "Charlie Bartlett" is a likeable, amusing, good-natured teen movie that is, unfortunately, going to get lost in the shuffle this weekend. Given the amount of releases, I'll be surprised if it even makes the top 10. It's consistently entertaining and sharply written, but the real reasons to check it out are Yelchin and Downey. As I mentioned, I think 13-to-17 year olds will love this movie, but anyone else with an appreciation for genre films that step above their required elements should have a good time as well. It won't change your life, but it's nice to see a movie that actually strives to be fun, say some important things without preaching, AND has the good taste to incolude a mini-musical sequence featuring Cat Stevens' wonderful "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out." The movie may not reach the heights of the film that song is intended to invoke, "Harold and Maude," but it makes me happy knowing at least some filmmakers are striving to.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"In Bruges" -- * * * *

Martin McDonagh has been considered by many one of the best young playwrights of modern times (he's probably my favorite), showing a fresh voice and a flair for violence, dark comedy and twisted manner of storytelling. When making the transition to film, I worried that to make McDonagh suitable for a broader audience, his voice would would be diluted or made more mainstream/palatable to John Q. American. Thankfully, his feature film debut, "In Bruges," retains virtually all of the best aspects of McDonagh's writing, and is, in fact, the first great film of 2008. Insidiously clever without ever shoving your nose in it, and infusing well-worn territory with freshness and exciting flair, this is a film I truly love and loses nothing on repeat viewings, even if (like McDonagh's plays) it might not be everyone's cup 'o tea.

After an assassination of a priest (Ciaran Hinds, currently appearing on Broadway as Satan in "The Seafarer") goes awry, resulting in a little boy getting a bullet through the head, hit men Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out until he can figure out what to do with them. The men are ordered to do said hiding out in Bruges. Ray, narrating, comforts us by letting us know he initially didn't even know where Bruges was either. He helpfully offers up, "It's in Belgium." Over the course of the first forty minutes of the film, Ray (wracked with guilt) and Ken (who's genuinely enjoying the trip) basically just wait for Harry's phone call as they see the sights, meet with locals and tourists alike, and contemplate what they've done and what they must do. What takes place beyond that point would be criminal to give away, but as anyone familiar with Mr. McDonagh's works knows, things are probably not going to turn out okay for anyone. Redemption rarely comes for his characters, and if it does, it's usually through death.

McDonagh's plays (particularly "The Pillowman" and "The Beauty Queen of Leenane") have been cited for their persistent tonal shifts, and while they're present in "Bruges" as well, he does a wonderful job here deftly balancing the humor, violence and emotion, often during the same scene. The dialogue is frequently hilarious, as is McDonagh's predilection towards the amusingly low-brow. He's just as prone to witty lines (Ray comments, "I grew up in Dublin, I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn't, so it doesn't,") as he is to broad comedy, like a memorable sequence where a fat American tourist repeatedly struggles to catch a dodgy Ray after he calls him and his family elephants.

However, it's surprising how genuinely affecting the emotional elements of the film are, particularly Ray's anguish over accidentally killing the little boy in the church. For a guy who has fairly terrible social skills and isn't very nice to many people he meets, his increasingly suicidal nature and frequents retreats to the bathroom to cry only serve to humanize him and draw us in emotionally. The ending especially, which I won't reveal, resonates rather strongly, particularly in what it means in reference to what's come before it. The humor and the violence may be what most people remember about "In Bruges," but it's the emotional depth that really enriches it.

There's been much talk/debate about the film's "offensive" content, particularly the supposedly racist/homophobic/sexist/intolerant nature of some of the dialogue, and McDonagh's decision to show the actual bullet hole in the boy's head, rather than mere suggestion. There's numerous references to race, "poofs" and other denegrations, with the most memorable being Ray's reference to something being as unbalanced as "a big fucking fat, retarded black girl on a see-saw with a midget" Not only does this sort of language give us an idea of the sort of men these guys are, it's also a fairly decent representation of how certain type of people actually talk, as well as it's just fucking funny. As for the bullet hole, I think it's fairly important for us to have a jarring image planted in our heads to recall every time Ray recoils at what he's done. With just a vague hint or suggestion, we might not get the full scope of what's taken place.

Our three leading men are all excellent in different ways. Yes, they perfectly deliver the dialogue, making very carefully scripted cleverness appear natural, but the real achievement is how complete the performances are. It's easy to imagine these men simply being delivery systems for Mr. McDonagh's witty words, but thanks to Farrell, Gleeson and Fiennes, they always feel fleshed out and it's easy to imagine their lives outside the events of the film.

Farrell has long been established as a pretty boy, initially declared the "it" boy and never living up to it. And beyond his leaked homemade porn tape, he's never particularly impressed me in much. But now, after seemingly going on a box office and critical decline, he's had to step up his game and it appears to be for the best. In last month's "Cassandra's Dream" (which, while not great, was unfairly shit on), he played a similarly guilt-ridden character, and he's really excellent in both films. However, he manages to be very, very funny and enormously sad-- often simultaneously-- here. It's a strange thing with popular actors, that we seemingly only get a look at their real talents as their public starts to turn against them a little, but perhaps it's just the impetus needed.

Gleeson, on the other hand, is more proven and established as an actor, so it might go without saying that he gives what may be the best performance in the film. He's really excellent here as a man who knows all the bad things he's done, and has to reconcile with the fact that he's killed people, but ultimately is a good man at heart and wants to do whatever he can to ensure Ray isn't consumed by what he's done. His final scene in the film is particularly well-played, getting across a lot of information with minimal amount of dialogue. Gleeson gives a rich, complex performance, but he's surprisingly just as adept when he's asked to be funny. His scene on the phone with Harry, trying to cover for an absent Ray, is truly hilarious, as is his interplay with Farrell and a particularly memorable look on his face when he pops up in the background during a bar scene. You'll know the one when you see it.

Out of everyone, Fiennes appears to be having the most fun, and is arguably the most fun to watch. He isn't actually seen until after the one-hour mark, but he's clearly having a blast here. It's apparent the extent to which he's savoring the quick, profane dialogue ("You retract the bit about my cunt fucking kids!") and the operatic heights to which he gets to play this principled killer who looks as if he could literally tear into anyone who dares to confront him. Fiennes is an established, respected actor, but dare I say, he's also frequently bland and none too interesting to watch. As Harry, he's amazingly enjoyable to watch, and gives definition, principles and shades of grey to a character who could've just as easily been played as one-note. Harry's a man you certainly don't want to fuck with, and serves as our "villain," but he's actually not an all-around bad guy and has more complexity than he may appear to at the outset.

Though McDonagh has directed shorts before (he won an Oscar for his short, "Six Shooter," also starring Gleeson), this makes for a startlingly accomplished feature-film debut; some of the shots here are really excellent, and the way certain sequences are staged are astoundingly clever. But what's most impressive about "In Bruges," at least to me, is the nearly perfect structure. The film is established very clearly as one thing, and takes us by surprise as it smoothly shifts its shape numerous times as it goes on (the opening credits set to somber music and church architecture don't prepare you for what's to come). This is to the credit of McDonagh's screenplay as much as his direction. The script isn't just excellent, clever, quotable dialogue, it's also impressive how economical it is. Every seemingly unimportant-- but still funny, enriching or entertaining-- scene serves a later purpose in ways that aren't obviously foreshadowed; Ken trying to dispose of excess coins/change pays off in a particularly effective manner. There's no excess fat here-- every sequence serves either a narrative or thematic purpose.

The film successfully avoids the playwright's curse; yes, the dialogue is excellent, but it's never the whole show. Whether cleverly acknowledging the genre expectations ("Don't be stupid, this is the shootout.") or reveling in its surreal nature ("They're filmin' midgets!"), the dialogue is just as important here as the visual cues, and I, for one, didn't expect as much action as there was. A superb blending of genres that's often howlingly funny, enormously sad and startlingly violent within the same sequence, "In Bruges" is the best feature-film debut in quite some time. I, personally, don't quite comprehend why such a strong piece of work is being released in the wasteland of February, but at least it'll be allowed more of an opportunity to stand out from the wretched pack. It's not often you get weight and substance from a film that features a racist dwarf getting karate chopped, but then, this isn't a film that cares about convention.

"In Bruges" expands to 112 theaters in major markets today, and expands further around the country over the course of the next two weeks.