Thursday, September 25, 2008

Late Summer Goodies

After No Country For Old Men, there was bound to be a setback from the brothers Coen, but those crafty genre-shifting clever than thou siblings have concocted a funny absurdest caper that proves a worthy antidote to dreary world of Cormac McCarthy. Burn After Reading, easily the Coen's most successful comedy since The Big Lebowski is nifty, strange little ditty, it's easily the cutest film they've ever done, despite all the violence in the second half-- it Coen-lite, but after proving their superior worth last year, it's refreshing. Centered around a scorned, middle weight CIA agent (John Malkovich) whose CD containing bits of a hopeful memoir turn up in a local Washington area gym winds up in the hands of dim instructor (Brad Pitt) and an image-weary, online dating obsessive (Frances McDormand), the two then in turn try and blackmail the agent in hopes of cash leading down a convoluted story muddled by the CIA agent's icy wife (Tilda Swinton) and her "male"- stress (George Clooney), Whew! It never quite makes sense and yet it does, and the lunacy becomes quite becoming. The joy of this strange brand of comedy that the Coen Brothers stage comes from the fact that each of the ensemble members is shaded just enough that an entire movie could easily be centered around any of them. Malkovich, that strange bald ball of Method is always interesting, never more so here than when he utters the word "memoir." Pitt is quite adorable in his first Coen role, playing dumb so earnestly-- he's easily the most likable character. McDormand, in a role that seems a little sick especially when you think her husband Joel wrote and directed this, as always is fetching, and a jolly counterpoint to the icy but ravishing Swinton. It's only Clooney who never quite jelled for me-- in a film where everyone is deadpan, he's just a clown-- he's biggest laugh in the movie (I won't spoil it) is funny, but nonsensical. But the ever generous Coens redeem with regular great supporting roles for Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons. Burn After Reading is a total lark and is a bit slow in the first half, but a diverting little ditty of screwball comedy. B

Woody Allen goes to Spain for the first time and the results are quite beautiful. Nothing can compare to his '70s gems, but this first one of the last decade seems to come the closest. Vicky Cristina Barcelona has a lightness, a romanticism, and a warmness one may have thought Allen lost a long time ago. The story or travelogue follows two young American girls spending the summer in the Barcelona. Vicky (Rebecca Hall-- you might remember her in The Prestige) is a studious uptight gal about to married to a professional type (Chris Messina, currently creeping out innocent moviegoers with a small role in Towelhead) readying her rational and conventional step into adulthood. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is a free wheeling adventurer trading men and career options on a whim, trying to find suits her, while probably more interested in the hunt than the result. Both gals on the outset are archetypes, but both actresses invest such vivid intelligence and longing into their roles that are by turns surprising and sexy and funny. Johansson is quite good more or less playing a kinkier version of her character in Lost in Translation. Along the way they meet suave painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who whisks the girls on a weekend getaway. At first, especially to Vicky, he comes across as a typical Latin lothario, but Bardem brings such an authentic tenderness to the role, it's convincing when both girls fall for him. There's a fourth main character too, and she arrives about halfway through-- Juan Antonio's tragic ex-wife Maria Elena (played with mad gusto by a never better Penelope Cruz,) and she changes the film, but keeps the rhythm going, if that makes any sense. Allen's latest is sensuous and lovely in a way most romantic comedies never are-- this is in fact a romantic comedy in which there really isn't any happy ending, but evocative nonetheless. My only quibble with the film was the vacuous narration that never added anything that wasn't already expressed by the actors working at the top of their respective games. A-

Monday, September 22, 2008

Friday, September 12, 2008

Doubt Trailer

Directed by John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck)

Stars: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis.

Meryl looks good...Oscar number 3? The source material won pretty much theater prize known including a Pulitzer, can the film expand that without being too stagey?

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Towelhead, written and directed by American Beauty scribe Alan Ball, is one of the most uncomfortable to watch movies, ever. The movie begins achingly squirm-inducing and manages to top itself scene after scene. Based on the novel by Alicia Erican, Towelhead centers around Jasira (Summer Bishil), a 13-year-old Lebanese American girl. After a disturbing incident gets her kicked out of her mother's (Maria Bello) place, Jasira moves in with her father Rifait (Peter Macdissi), residing in suburban Texas. So you think it's going to be another dissection of the messed-up suburban American values, like American Beauty, but Towelhead goes in far more disturbing terrain, exploring the racial and sexual intensity of this shy, conflicted teenage girl. This is far and away the heaviest film I've seen so far this year, and often times the most powerful as well, one that's bound to have a wide array of opinions. I personally respect the film and have a generally positive opinion of it, but still almost walked out a couple times. It's the kind of the film that demands an open mind, and will likely lead to discussion.

Upon arrival in Texas, Jasira already strikes the derision of her difficult to please father, the ridicule of her classmates not accustom to her skin tone, and the fancy of neighbor Travis Vuoso (oily played by Aaron Eckhart, in a role that could really only be played by him.) What's amazing is that in a film that seems so ripe for melodrama and tonal shifts, from awkward humor to piercing tragedy, the film plays it pretty straight, making the drama even more powerful. Much of the credit should go to Bishil, who in an extremely demanding role, keeps her performance composed and subtle. She's expressive, but economical in it, slowly revealing a layer to her character, without any of the histrionics that a film like this could easily fall from.

I going to go into a huge description of Towelhead because much of the power, icky power of the film probably is far more affecting with the a clear head, but it's a very heady movie. Sometimes intolerably so. There's the sexual factor in the film that's not-quite-explicit, but trying to watch, the racial tensions, in this film, no one is innocent and the prejudices come out of everyone. It's fortunate that Ball's scathing prose is handed to very gifted actors. Eckhart, Macdissi and Bello play fairly repellent people, but shade their characters subtly that while not enough to quite redeem them, at the very least humanize them. Toni Collette's character on the other hand is really the moral center of a film lacking one, and while Collette role (as Jazira's kindly and forgiving neighbor) is well played, it seems almost a like a flaw to the story that she comes across so saintly.

So, in the end there's a sort of respect I have for Towelhead, along with the need to take a very long shower to cleanse. And while I handily agree that many people will hate this movie, it's a film that's difficult to champion and fully praise, which will no doubt do little to upswing the current lack of popular independent films in the marketplace. Towelhead is being distributed by the now-defunct specialty arm of Warner Bros., and probably won't be the farewell ending they desired. But for those audiences looking for a film that challenges and provokes you in a way no other currently out can, here's the alternative. B+

Changeling Trailer

The debut trailer of Clint Eastwood's latest-- looks very Oscary, and like a possible good role for Angelina Jolie. The tired music in the background distracts me however.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Venice Film Festival Winners

GOLDEN LION (Best Picture)
The Wrestler
Darren Aronofsky's latest film starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood won the top prize.

Aleksei German, Paper Soldier

Silvio Orlando, Il

Dominique Blanc, L'Autre

BEST YOUNG ACTOR (Marcello Mastroianni Award)
Jennifer Lawrence, The Burning Plain


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Milk Trailer

This looks fantastic. An important subject, an esteemed director in Gus Van Sant, a great cast, a remarkable, yet sad story in the human history. For those interested there's a terrific 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, which won the documentary Oscar in it's day.
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