Friday, October 24, 2008

"Saw V"

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

"High School Musical 3: Senior Year"

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Synecdoche, New York"

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

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

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


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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


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

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

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Sex Drive"

New teen sex romps aren’t regularly churned out like they once were, and when they’re good, they’re lowbrow delights, so I say kudos whenever a new one heads our way, especially when one attempts an old-school sensibility and goes balls-out with its debauchery. However, while “Sex Drive” may earn its R-rating, it’s also dispiritingly dumb and flavorless, sharing with the pathetic “College” the attribute of trying desperately to appeal to an audience too young to see the movie. Based upon the premise that conventionally good-looking, toned (if quite Jewy) Ian, played by Josh Zuckerman, is unable to get laid and only can find a girl who’ll fuck him via the internet, the flick finds him stealing his brother’s (James Marsden) hot car and driving cross-country to aforementioned fuckhole with his fat Casanova buddy (Clark Duke) and girl-friend-who-obviously-likes-him-as-more-than-a-friend (Amanda Crew). Along the way, they have wacky adventures, natch. There’s nothing hilarious here, but the closest thing to funny is Seth Green in his 10 minutes as a sarcasm-prone, passive aggressive Amish gentleman. Duke’s character verges on annoying, but that’s due more to how he’s written – you can tell the actor has comedic skill (also shown in the web series “Clark & Michael”), and he’s likely be an asset in a funnier part/film. Marsden is similarly hampered by his gay-bashing character, whose sentiments/actions the movie doesn’t seem to look down upon. These are the sort of gay jokes that are placed most emphatically in the “homophobic” classification, and a late-in-the-game “twist” doesn’t serve to undo them, though that’s clearly the intent (see: “Chuck & Larry’s” having-its-mocking-fags-cake-and-eating-it-too). But surrounding the homophobia is a brand of comedy reliant on people getting hit in the balls, people getting hit in the face, characters being walked in on while masturbating, characters getting erections in unfortunate circumstances, and similarly familiar, low-brow stuff (I didn’t even mention the scat jokes). While it’s refreshing to see a non Apatow-related R-rated comedy, this lame crap serves as a reminder why his domination of the genre over the last few years has been so welcome.


Look, I’m happy Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and its star Sally Hawkins, have received near-universal acclaim, but those who praise them purely for their effervescent upbeat spirit are probably not the most perceptive tools in the shed. The storyless flick, starring Hawkins as Poppy, a delightful, annoying woman who looks at everything in life with endless positivity, is a film about happiness and the way one chooses to live their life, but also about hardship and the perils of one’s choices, and what sort of environments can breed those decisions. If one emerges from the theater thinking it a simple crowd pleaser or feel-good romp, it’s fair to say they’ve missed the point. Leigh’s different movies tend to have varying degrees of reaction from different folks, and his most recent film – and most likely object of comparison – was the spectacular, and radically different, “Vera Drake.” “Happy-Go-Lucky” is light-hearted and insightful where that film was devastating and insightful, but while the lessened gravitas isn’t problematic per se, it does lessen the level of emotional investment or thematic weight.

Still, while the movie might not be hugely powerful, it’s perpetually interesting and absorbing (a major accomplishment considering the minimal narrative momentum), and creates one of the most loveable and fascinating characters of the year. It also features spectacular performances from Hawkins and Eddie Marsan, as the miserabalist Alpha to her Omega, that keep you involved throughout. Some critics have criticized a rambling sequence where Poppy engages in a dialogue with an incoherent, mad homeless man as superfluous or overlong, but in my opinion, it’s the movie’s brightest spot. The scene renders it impossible for us to dismiss Poppy as merely bubble-headed or thoughtlessly cheerful – it forces us to understand that she’s made a conscious decision to be the way she is, and witness the depths to which she’s willing to go to try to make others feel less down or alienated. Like this scene, and the movie, Hawkins’ performance is easy to simplify if one isn’t paying attention, but is significantly more complex than it initially appears, and deserves serious Oscar consideration in this very crowded year.


Mooching off the success of “Cloverfield,” this remake of the handheld-camera-perspective Spanish horror flick “[REC]” bucks the trend of Screen Gems generic horror by actually being pretty good, and offering some effective scares and some stylistic flair. The horrific shenanigans focus on a wet-behind-the-ears television news reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) who visits a local fire department for a standard “day in the life” feature story. After receiving an emergency call to a disruption by an old woman in an apartment building, she discovers that some residents are slowly coming down with some form of rabies and mauling one another. When she and the firefighters begin to figure out what’s happening, they discover the government has quarantined the building and locked everyone inside. Needless to stay, the bodies begin to pile up. On the demerits list, Carpenter (so good on “Dexter”) has some noticeably weak moments, and in the last third, the shaky camera and high-pitched shrieks devolve the proceedings into mild incoherence. But the jumpy moments usually work, and some night-vision scares late in the game (reminiscent of the superior “The Descent”) really deliver in terms of incrementally ratcheting up tension. It’s a rare horror movie that actually gives a shit and tries to satisfy the audience’s desires rather than just luring them in for generic/tired conventions. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s a quite decent-to-solid entry that should play well with those who like this sort of thing. If only the final shot of the film wasn’t spoiled in every TV spot, trailer, and even the poster itself.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Body of Lies"

Shit blows up real good in Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies,” a purported attempt to make a slick, big-budget entertainment about our country’s ongoing war on terror and the futility/effectiveness of it. Somewhat surprisingly, though, the movie doesn’t seem to have much to say other than the mild imposition of “war is no good for anyone,” and it’s not anywhere near entertaining or compelling enough to compensate for the lack of thematic heft. Inexplicably written by William Monahan (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Departed”), the rote thriller focuses on Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), a CIA operative, as he globetrots throughout the Middle East, narrowly escapes explosions and gets shot at, all while getting orders barked to him via cell phone by his fat, Southern-accented boss (Russell Crowe). Oh yeah, and he, along with everyone he works with, is trying to locate and capture Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), an Osama bin Laden stand-in. The plot is plenty complex, verging on convoluted, throughout, but the movie doesn’t seem to be as morally conflicted and substantive as it wants you to think it is. We just keep waiting for it to get to its point, but instead get an overbearing score and two or three explosions too many.

DiCaprio is reliably strong, despite the fact that he seems to still be stuck in “Departed” mode, and his facial hair looks noticeably awkward (it’s vaguely Brillo pad-ish). As for Crowe, I have no idea why he chose to be in this movie. His character’s connection to the film’s story is tenuous as best, he doesn’t have much to do, and for all the public attention paid to his 50-pound weight gain for the part, his character’s girth serves no purpose and contributes nothing. I’m half-convinced Crowe just got fat and said it was for the role. In terms of the performance, he’s trying ever so hard to be a scene-stealer, but I found his peering over his glasses and inconsistent accent increasingly grating. The best performance in the movie turns out to be Brit Mark Strong (also currently in “RocknRolla”) as Hani, head of the Jordanian secret police. In the realm of geopolitical romps, “The Kingdom” is certainly a more mainstream, entertaining film than this, but despite “Body’s” best efforts, it’s also a more thoughtful, ambiguous one. Down to the truly lame, trite final reel, this all plays like a dumber, lifeless version of “Syriana.” The movie’s not particularly boring, but it’s also never exciting or the least bit provocative. The last thing a film tackling our country’s complex relationship with the Middle East should be is “forgettable,” but “Body of Lies” never does anything to distinguish itself from a dozen other geopolitical thrillers.

Friday, October 10, 2008

"The Express"

I don’t give a shit about sports, so when yet another sports movie comes our way embracing the same exact cliches with little or no differentiation (this time, there’s integration!), I tend not to flip my shit. I never really hate them, but I also don’t hesitate to flip the channel when I see that they’re on TV. However, "The Express," feels a lot more sincere, entertaining and well-packaged than most movies of its based-on-a-true-story ilk (much how I felt about "Flash of Genius"). Telling the story of Ernie Davis (a blandly solid Rob Brown), the *SPOILER AHEAD!* first black man to win the Heisman trophy *SPOILER OVER* Every redundant superlative you can think of (e.g.: inspiring, involving, emotional) applies to the end result here, but the cliches are strung along in a manner than never causes eyes to roll and makes for a surprisingly compelling two-hours-plus. Even the racial elements of the story – well-worn territory in this sort of thing – are dealt with in a fairly frank way that doesn’t feel overly familiar, and, if anything, are lent more of a resonance and emotional impact in an “Obama era.” The cinematography makes the film perpetually great to look at, and Dennis Quaid does especially fine work as the coach whose awkward growth into acceptance mirrors the country’s. The flick is no “Friday Night Lights;” it’s not subversive or genre-defining , but in the realm of conventional, check-off-each-expected-story-beat sports films, it’s one of the better ones I can recall in the last decade or so.

"City of Ember"

The post-apocalyptic childrens film “City of Ember” is not quite as good as “Monster House,” but you can very much tell it’s made by the same guy. That guy (or rather, boy), Gil Kenan, has a knack for ensnaring young audiences without pandering or assuming things will be too scary or convoluted for them. He’s also adept at creating fascinating, visually impressive environments for his occasionally superfluous characters to play around in. In this, his second film, based on an apparently popular young adult novel, the world has been decimated hundreds of years ago, and all the survivors live in the subterranean city of Ember (think “12 Monkeys” meets “The Goonies”), ruled by despotic Mayor Cole (Bill Murray, who I wish showed more energy here). The two kids who drive our film’s story, and dare to defy the mayor and save their city, are played by Saoirse Ronan, making a post-“Atonement” cashgrab, and Harry Treadaway, the dreamiest 24-year-old-playing-a-12-year-old heartthrob you’ll see all year. For a movie targeting the young adult set, there’s an unusual level of intensity and complications on display – it just occurred to me I’m not able to recount a detailed plot synopsis – but it’s always a lot of fun, and a kick to look at (David Letterman recommends it as “beautiful and strange in a very pleasing way”). Due to being surprisingly undermarketed, it might not get discovered until DVD, but Kenan jampacks the movie with such creativity and energy (a seemingly built-for-a-log-floom-ride set-piece closes out the film with a bang and will have many kids cheering), I’ll be eagerly awaiting his next.

Monday, October 06, 2008

"Rachel Getting Married"

A wedding is really, at heart, a perfect cinematic device. It’s the forced coming-together of family and friends, interacting and spending time with one another regardless of conflicts, proving either watchably combustible or blissfully integrated. Jonathan Demme’s return to his no-frills ‘80s filmmaking roots, “Rachel Getting Married,” may be the wedding film to top all wedding films, but not in terms of its size, scope or happenings contained therein, but rather its ability to capture compelling human authenticity, and never striking a false moment. Demme has described this as a “home movie,” and that’s how it feels, albeit a more intimate, revealing home movie than we’d ever actually see. Dramatic events don’t really unfold before us; we’re basically watching a family coming together for a wedding, and insights are for us to pick up on or notice.

Through it all, Demme employs no written score, allowing natural music – two members of our ensemble work in the music industry, and assorted wedding band members are rehearsing throughout the house – to set the scenes. It’s rare when a film’s intended naturalistic fimmaking techniques actually feel earned; the presence of a handheld camera can just as often feel distracting and intrusive. But here, every moment is infused with recognizable realism, that the handicam (wielded by Declan Quinn) and fly-on-the-wall approach feels organic, and necessary, to the proceedings. We don’t feel like an awkward eavesdropper to the events, but like an active, involved participant. It’s filmmaking that radiates spontanaeity (and I have no doubt much of the dialogue was actually improvised), but the character etchings and emotional tumult are too masterful to be mere happenstance.

However, all the naturalism in the world wouldn’t mean much if these weren’t characters we felt compelled to spend time with. While the whole ensemble does fine work, the four key components of this family – sisters Kym (Anne Hathaway) and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and their divorced father Paul (Bill Irwin) and mother Abby (Debra Winger) – are alternately sympathetic, frustrating, and above all, blisteringly real. There’s no one here that can be encapsulated in a one-line character description. Kym is the source of most unease at this particular wedding; she’s just gotten out of rehab to attend Rachel’s wedding at their father’s Connecticut house. Her love for her family is evident, but she’s also hindered by a mixture of self-loathing and self-obsession, feeling the need to steal the spotlight at every opportunity (she turns a wedding toast into a narcissistic, AA-style ramblethon, and demands Rachel replace her best friend and name her maid of honor), and unleashing cutting, unnerving remarks as if they were compliments.

She’s also responsible for a family tragedy hanging over the affair that no one wants to talk about, and that the rest of the family seems (slightly) more willing to forgive her for than she does (at an AA meeting, she candidly reveals, “Sometimes I don't want to believe in a God that would forgive me.”). Rachel just longs to relish the joys of her wedding to a man she loves, but gradually begins to accept, once Kym comes into the equation, the diminishing chances of that happening. She’s long been acquainted with Kym’s self-absorption, as well as dad’s coddling and favoring of the “troubled” child, and her receding into the background whenever Kym’s around. Both Paul and Abby have found new lovers since divorcing; for all of dad’s attempts at soothing unpleasant incidents and placating guests with food, he’s the most emotionally expressive, occasionally letting loose with tears and unrestrained jubilation. Abby, meanwhile, is ball of repressed feelings, barely ever being open with what’s boiling underneath and not seeming terribly comfortable with her position as the “distant” parent.

I’ve never been a particular detractor of Hathaway before, I just rarely find her very interesting. She’s capable and possesses some form of talent, I just generally find her boring more often than not. Her performance at Kym is stunning, not simply for showcasing aspects of her that we’ve never seen before, but for etching a full, rich, complicated character that never for a second feels like an awards-baiting gimmick. Every family has at least one Kym, and depending on your relationship with them, you may feel alternately like slapping her or hugging her. Hathaway doesn’t instruct us to like Kym (in fact, she’s an outright pain-in-the-ass), but she also portrays her torment with enough unflinching honesty that it’d be almost cruel to deny her a chance for some sort of redemption or peace of mind. Oscar talk has been abound for the actress for months now, and I think such reward would be much-deserved. However, Hathaway wouldn’t make near as much of an impression were DeWitt not matching her every step of the way. She’s asked to pull off the “good” sister who’s also the “lesser” sister, and in every interaction, you can see the lurking resentment that only rarely gets expressed. The two may not look a ton alike, but they really feel like sisters, and their scenes together ring the truest out of anything in the movie.

Theatre veteran Irwin is unquantifiably loveable as the warmest character in the film as the parent who want to soothe all problems and forget the past, but can’t avoid his place as family mediator. It’s an excellent performance full of pathos, but it’s his drop-dead hilarious reaction to good news late in the film that I can’t get out of my head. Winger, who’s been largely absent from movies for over a decade now (only popping up in bit parts in “Radio” and “Eulogy”), is barely in the movie, so it’s even more of an accomplishment that she makes the impression that she does. Her screentime registers maybe a handful of minutes, but in that time she participates in both the film’s most explosive and most touching moments, while letting her eyes and in-check emotions do most of the work. While Winger carries sentimental "loved-but-missed" nostalgia baggage with her, this is a fantastic performance on its own terms, creating a complete, complex character in an extremely brief amount of time.

I can’t quite decide if the title “Rachel Getting Married” is misleading (promising a more upbeat, simple film) or merely an ironic joke (Kym is perpetually trying to steal the spotlight and take the focus off the fact that Rachel is getting married), but I certainly like it better than the original, “Dancing with Shiva,” which doesn’t really nail it either. Going in, one should be prepared for what the movie is, not what advertising is selling (a friend described it as “an emotional action movie”); so while it may be relegated to the ‘Comedy’ category for awards like the Golden Globes, and not without its funny moments, this is in no way a comedy. The inevitable comparisons to “Margot at the Wedding” are understandable and justified (they share a plot framework and thematic points), but while I like that underrated film, “Rachel” is open and inviting where “Margot” thrived on discomfort and detachment.

This is rough stuff emotionally – every bitter argument, painful memory and hurtful line of dialogue rings unsettlingly true – but somehow, there’s an abject feeling of warmth to it all from minute one. Demme mixes the bitter with the sweet, refusing to designate “sad” and “happy” story beats, and as a result, the film’s power sneaks up on you, never giving us a single “aww” moment or emotional wallop. Those impermeable to understatement may shrug off “Rachel,” and I have no doubt highly pitched recommendations or rave reviews will inevitably lead to some “so what?” reactions, but others will be unquestionably drawn in by its unmatched generosity of spirit and unfiltered levels of heart, pain and emotional truth. We still have three months to go, and about a dozen potentially great movies heading our way, but at this premature juncture, “Rachel Getting Married” is my favorite movie of 2008.


Those who love Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels,” think he misfired with “Swept Away” and “Revolver,” and long for him to finally mature as a filmmaker will probably be about half-satisfied with his latest, “RocknRolla.” On the positive, it’s a return to form for Ritchie, and his most entertaining, compelling, convoluted film since “Snatch.” Not so universally pleasing, however, is that it emulates almost everything that worked, down to specific plot elements and character types, about “Lock, Stock” and “Snatch” (which some thought was already Ritchie repeating itself). That might be a roadblock in declaring it ‘original’ or ‘innovative,’ but when a movie is this rip-roaringly fun and filled with violence, plot turns, awesome rock songs and juicy characters, it’s tough to say that it’s not at least worth a watch.

The movie starts off with a handful of plot strands, keeps introducing characters, and then begins to spiral out of control – it’s only when you start to give up on following shit and just enjoy the ride that the movie, against all odds, ties things together and reveals there’s been a method to the madness all along. As per one of Ritchie’s proven specialties, there are fun characters abound, notably mob kingpin – a la Brick Top in “Snatch” – Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) and likeable criminal protag – a la Turkish in “Snatch – One Two (Gerard Butler). However, the movie is all but stolen by Toby Kebbell as hard-living, presumed dead rocker Johnny Quid; while mildly reminiscent, in theory, of Brad Pitt’s Mickey in “Snatch,” Kebbell is the movie’s single greatest attribute, lending to the character elements of danger, wit and sympathy, often within the same scene. At the end of the day, I may not love the familiarity, but I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of Ritchie’s sense of style. While it may not make for the most diverse oeuvre, and it’s starting to appear that this kind of movie is all that Ritchie knows how to do properly, as long as the quality doesn’t wane or get repetitively aggrandizing or generic, I’m okay with that.

"RocknRolla" opens this Wednesday in NYC and LA, and nationwide Friday 10/31.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"

Like a lot of people, I’m always a little unsettled and disheartened by projects like Peter Sollett’s “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” where big studios and massive corporations attempt to co-opt young, hip, indie-scene subjects and not only put them center stage, but actually attempt to market the end result TO them. Here specifically, the big company is Sony, and the subject is East Village-frequenting hipster kids, bursting with ironic detachment and desperate to latch onto the next hip band so they can lay claim to liking them before anyone else. Against all odds, Sollett manages to impeccably nail this scene (if whitewashing it a tad), and the movie is almost interminably adorable and endearing. Despite the presence of Michael Cera and the same colored-pencil opening credit font, this is no “Juno” clone (for one, the dialogue isn’t oh-so-cleverly overwritten), but rather a sweet, simple, frequently very funny young romance taking place over the course of one night, a la “Before Sunrise.” When dumped by his girlfriend, wet-noodle Nick (Cera) – the lone straight guy in a queercore band, The Jerkoffs – joins his bandmates on a bar-hopping night in the Village, desperately attempting to locate their favorite underground band, Where’s Fluffy. Along the way, he meets Norah (Kat Dennings), the daughter of a uber-powerful mogul, who struggles to just be liked for who she is, and the two keep getting sidetracked (by exes, amongst other things), despite the obvious fact that they’re made for each other. From its laidback handling of homosexuality (Nick’s gaymates are neither screaming queens, nor reduced to wacky comic relief) and low-key acknowledgement of Norah’s Judaism, to a somewhat surprising level of insight into the hipster music scene and fairly realistic depictions of drunk-friend-babysitting, “Nick and Norah” refuses to fit into the neat, contrived box that some might be eager to put it in based on the marketing materials. Some reviews have complained that the film doesn’t have much in the way of dramatic momentum or conflict, and they’re right – there are no huge roadblocks or big dramatic moments – but the movie has an effervescent, laid-back likeability that just kept a smile on my face for its short, sweet duration.

"An American Carol"

For those who haven’t heard, writer/director David Zucker brainstormed “An American Carol” as an antidote to Hollywood’s left-leaning fare, and giving Conservatives a satire to call their own. While the film is fascinating purely as a political-filmmaking artifact, at this point in early October, it may well be the worst film of 2008. Imagine, if you will, filmmaking and screenwriting on the slovenly level of “Disaster Movie” and “Meet the Spartans,” but injected with downright dangerous concepts and ideology. That’s right, people getting hit in the balls and smacked in the face, amid jokes about suicide bombers, slaves named “Barack” and yuk yuks about Hitler’s death camps and scenes taking place on the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. The plot involves a portly, unshaven, baseball-cap-clad Michigan-born documentary filmmaker Michael Malone (Kevin Farley), who is visited by the ghosts of General Patton (Kelsey Grammer), George Washington (Jon Voight) and the Angel of Death (country star Trace Atkins) to make him see the error of his ways, and show him that America is in fact great, and not a cause for evil in the world.

Look, obviously I’m not going to be naturally inclined to like a conservative satire, but I like to think I can appreciate funny of any political stripe. There are plenty of targets, angles and avenues on the left that are ripe for potentially vicious mockery, but Zucker chooses the most destructive, inbred, backwards thinking arguments that not only aren’t funny, but make it seem he’s not that well-versed in the subjects he’s attempting to skewer. For example, I can think of a half-dozen ways to attack Michael Moore, arguing that he disingenuously plays up his folksy persona, has more interest in himself than the little guys he purports to champion, and manipulates facts and subjects to suit his self-supporting needs. But no, in Zucker’s vision, he actually hates America, wants to abolish the 4th of July, and bashes the troops. Um, what? Is Zucker even familiar with Michael Moore, or is he just getting his information from the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly (who makes a flattering cameo as a restrained, non-rabid, sane – if slapping-prone – version of himself)? Zucker wedges in endless lines of dialogue about our treasured rights and amendments as Americans, yet repeatedly attacks Moore and liberals’ free speech as literally hating America.

We get the arguments (and really, who better to make them than the filmmaker behind “BASEketball” and “My Boss’s Daughter”) that war is almost always the answer, affirmative action is ridiculous, mere mention of Lincoln being gay is worthy of assassination, Ivy League schools will brainwash your kids into being liberal, criticizing America is the equivalent of hating America, the ACLU is a pansy organization that destroys the political process, and peace negotiations are the equivalent of appeasement. If you’re muttering “sing it, sister,” then have at it and enjoy. I may not agree with virtually anything in the conservative ideology, but I acknowledge that there’s a whole lot of incredibly smart (if devious) people making up the Republican party, and I refuse to believe that this movie is going to appeal to anyone but the lowest rungs of the uninformed elite. The modest audience members in my theater were clearly McCain voters (three elderly couples, two separate guys wearing three piece suits and an Indian gentleman wearing an oversize baseball cap with ‘these colors don’t run’ written on it – I shit you not), and I’m sure there’s a conservative base that’s eager to see their viewpoints represented on screen, but even this group seemed none too pleased. The level of discourse rarely rises above “Liberals hate America” and “Michael Moore is fat,” and if I were a conservative, I’d be embarrassed by this.

"Flash of Genius"

“Flash of Genius” doesn’t do much to subvert its inspirational, based-on-a-true-story framework, or do anything terribly original or unexpected, but within that sub-genre, it does more to distinguish itself than most, and is consistently involving and restrained. Inspired by Dr. Robert Kearns’ creation of the intermittent windshield wiper, and his subsequent 15-year-long legal battle for Ford Motors after they steal his idea and refuse to acknowledge that it’s his, the story is interesting – if not remarkable – but avoids feeling bland or generic via the casting of the perpetually underrated Greg Kinnear in a rare leading role, and the film’s embracing of the bittersweet, as opposed to sentimental uplift. It’s predictable, sure (Hollywood doesn’t really bring true stories to the screen where David is crushed by Goliath), but we’re never fed what feel like unnecessary exaggerations or bigger-than-life emotional browbeating. Kearns is a terrific surrogate for an audience that currently understands the fight of the little guy against massive corporation, but he’s hardly a saintly everyman; there are numerous points where we question whether or not he’s making the right decision, and moment where Kearns seems on the verge of mental collapse, and the movie’s better for the complications. The A, then B, then C, familiar brand of storytelling doesn’t make it the most exciting or innovative movie out there, but it’s really more compelling than it has any right to be, and Kinnear’s performance makes it always worth watching, even for those not automatically in the tank for “true story” fare.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

"Beverly Hills Chihuahua"

Disappointingly, “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” isn’t the garish, mouth-agape-inducing disaster that its trailer seemed to promise, but rather a benign and (mostly) inoffensive Disney flick that never even approaches the realm of interesting, creative or entertaining. Contrary to the much-mocked yet morbidly transfixing trailer, the film isn’t about dancing, singing Mayan Chihuahuas frolicking in decrepit temples, but instead a dull, by-the-numbers story of pampered Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore), who experiences an abrupt culture shift when her master (Jamie Lee Curtis, sleepwalking with a smile through her three scenes) goes on vacation, and her incompetent caretaker (Piper Perabo) brings her to Mexico and loses her. Wackiness and many dogs with stereotypical Latin accents play into the proceedings heavily. There are some mild attempts to grapple with stereotypes in a kidflick manner, but portraying Mexico as a hotbed of criminal activity, featuring lines like "hold your tacos!," and one Mexican dog who is actually (no joke) a landscaper, can’t quite be seen as progressive. Speaking of which, for those who wonder how, aside from parental units, stereotypes get implanted in children’s heads, you need not look further than Michael Urie – also known as “the fag from ‘Ugly Betty’” – lending his voice to Sebastian, a flamboyantly gay dog who uses words like “faboo” (more than once!). But despite the presence of such problematic elements, let me re-iterate: this is a wildly mediocre, uninteresting movie. The lame-ass soundtrack even spells it out for you (e.g.: “Rich Girl,” “Low Rider,” “I’m Too Sexy,” “Hot Hot Hot,” “Hero,” “Whoomp! There It Is”). Don’t be fooled by that horrific/fascinating teaser trailer; “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” is just another in a long line of unmemorable, pandering, generic talking animal movies.


While it doesn’t approach the transcendent heights of his “The Constant Gardener” or “City of God,” Fernando Meirelles’ “Blindness” is, in many ways, just as challenging as those films and continues to support the idea that he is one of the foremost filmmakers in terms of presenting both thematically and visually powerful material. Based on Jose Saramago’s novel, the film’s an allegory for post-9/11 mania, concerning an epidemic of blindness in the not-too-distant future in an unnamed country. When those infected are quarantined, soon enough, a “Lord of the Flies” type situation erupts. For months, the film’s reputation has been unfairly tarnished by putrid word-of-mouth from the Cannes Film Festival (where a drastically different version was shown). This was likely the first time Miramax realized they didn’t have a crowd-pleaser on their hands, resulting in the film getting the shaft with a moderate-wide dump release tomorrow, despite needing careful nurturing. What I don’t quite get among the criticisms is the dismissal of the film as a “mess;” there’s a cogent – if chaotic – narrative on display by Meirelles here.

What would be more understandable is the undeniable fact that the film is frequently, wildly unpleasant, as we witness the circumstances and environment within the containment center as its inhabitants begin to get raped, murdered, wallowing in their own filth and making horrific, unimaginable choices. I’ll admit the proceedings are difficult to watch at points – I predict scores of walkouts – but it’s all grounded by Julianne Moore, delivering her second great performance this year, as the one woman with sight amidst the madness, and experiences an unasked-for and almost unconscious metamorphosis into an altruistic universal caretaker. Besides staying remarkably faithful to Saramago’s novel, Meirelles collaborates with cinematographer César Charlone to put his oft-complimented visual style is put to effective use. I was transfixed from its opening close-ups of green and red signals on a traffic light, and was fascinated with the whole film’s faded, oversaturated white/light blue tint, and the frequent shots to an all-white screen (the POV of the infected) are increasingly effective. Where one could argue Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna” is a daring, interesting failure, I think the similarly ambitious “Blindness” succeeds tremendously, but its success is as a movie a whole lot of people will certainly not want to watch. If you can endure it, it’s ultimately a haunting, sophisticated apocalypse movie for those with high minds and strong stomachs.