Friday, April 30, 2010

Please Give

Nicole Holofcener has made a name for herself as the writer\director of small, piercing independent films centered around very neurotic women. In films like Walking & Talking, Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money, she has shown a perspective and thoughtful voice that unique and relatable. Call her an estrogenized Woody Allen (valid-- she was an apprentice film editor on Allen's Hannah & Her Sisters), but there's always a trademark to her films-- astute writing, sharp acting, and a penchant for never embracing sentiment, even when the films plots seem to go there. She's always been a better writer than director, but the plain understated look to her films suit her subjects-- these are tiny chamber pieces, not big arias. She returns again with Please Give, one of her sharpest, and perhaps her strongest thesis to date. Returning with her muse, the glorious Catherine Keener, the star of all of her films, Holofcener again showcases her immense gifts for writing fully drawn, interesting, bracing characters, and yet there's a melancholy her that's been missing from her previous films-- it's a far more somber film, but harder a downer, since it's enshrined with her quick wit that earns deserved guffaws, if not laugh-out-loud hysterics. That would be unwelcomed in Please Give, as it centers around a group of characters all trying to restore civility in some way, if not in others, than in themselves.

Keener stars as Kate, a middle aged New Yorker (in a land where Manhattan seems fittingly real, not the romanticized Woody Allen one) who runs a furniture store with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt.) The store sells vintage, old-fashioned stuff that Kate and Alex buy off the descendants of the recently passed. Kate and Alex and also looking to expand their apartment, but are just waiting for the mean elderly next door neighbor to die first. Her name is Andra (delightfully played with real sting by Ann Guilbert, best known as Millie in The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Fran Drescher's grandma in The Nanny.) All this pillaging through the possessions of dead people for financial gain is providing quite the guilt trip for Kate. She's an upscale gal, but trying hard to be a good person, evident in her depositing of mad cash to every homeless person on the street (even one's who only look homeless), most the to chagrin of her 15-year old daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), who just wants a pair of jeans. Adding to Kate's anguish are the grand-daughters, and frequent visitors of Andra-- played by Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall. Peet plays Mary, an icy tanning bed frequenter\alcoholic; she's inevitably inherited her grandmother's disdain for everything and shows it off. Hall plays Rebecca, provider and enabler of her grandmother's dying diatribes.

That's the general plot of Please Give, but like in all of Holofcener's work the plot isn't really the point, it's the lived-in feeling that all the actors in the film express so deeply. It's not grand histrionic filmmaking, but quiet and just right. And the subject of liberal guilt is one not really found in films ever, at least not directly. The point of the film is that all these complicated and naturally evolved characters are basically trying to be good people, and we watch them succeed and fail, and that's the point of most people's lives I would assume-- trying hard to be a good person, whatever that means. Of course, it's fun to watch them fail, and Holofcener has always specialized in making awkward, yet real moments work and sting. In Keener's Kate, for example, sometimes her greed takes over her usual business-like politeness. like when picking up furniture for a deceased person, she turns to the daughter of which as asks how much the apartment is. And yet her empathy is true as well, such as when again, trying to be a good person, she breaks down while volunteering for special needs children.

Holofcener nails it when it comes to middle aged anguish, and makes for a biting soft satire of mortality and profit far more successfully than the social class system she was satirizing in Friends with Money. And the performances are truely what always pop in her work. She's always been adept at getting terrific performances out of her cast-- most notably, aside from Keener was Emily Mortimer in Lovely & Amazing-- her nude analysis scene is classic, a tangent but a must-see. Keener, as reliable and capable as ever, gets center stage again, after being hoisted off to the sidelines for Jennifer Aniston's fame in Friends with Money, and Peet is wonderful, always enjoyable as an icy beauty-- it's easily her best performance since the underrated Igby Goes Down. Hall, the Vicky in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona is understated and lovely. Holofcener doesn't have must interest in her male characters, all six of them that have speaking roles, but it's hardly slumming for Oliver Platt. Please Give, despite an awkward title is probably my favorite film so far in 2010. A-

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"South Park" and the Censors: A Love Story

I just found this interesting, courtesy of Awards Daily:

The New York Times sums up the situation:

An episode of “South Park” that continued a story line involving the Prophet Muhammad was shown Wednesday night on Comedy Central with audio bleeps and image blocks reading “CENSORED” after a Muslim group warned the show’s creators that they could face violence for depicting that holy Islamic prophet. Revolution Muslim, a group based in New York, wrote on its Web site that the “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker “will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh” for an episode shown last week in which a character said to be the Prophet Muhammad was seen wearing a bear costume. Mr. Van Gogh was slain in Amsterdam in 2004 after making a film that discussed the abuse of Muslim women in some Islamic societies.

Stone and Parker had added more bleeps to the followup episode, but it seems Comedy Central went further and completely blocked the name of the character and his depiction onscreen. So there you have it. Clear advice for anybody who’s pissed about anything they see on TV. All it takes to get a network to cave to your extremist demands is to threaten violence. Great precedent to set, isn’t it?

I've never been an outright fan of South Park, aside from the hilarious movie. The show never really did anything for me-- I'd laugh for a second or two and the whole thing would be disposable and forgotten moments later, but I applaud the crew for making a show that still has the power to offend and mortify anybody and everybody. Which is the main conceit, right? It's about fourth graderers, who are by nature sneaky, immature, foul-mouthed brats-- how can that be offensive?

8: The Mormon Proposition

Perhaps this film is about two years too late! It opens in June.


In thinking about Kick-Ass, the flamboyant bloodbath from director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust), I think about all the colorful peripheral characters and ideas that really did kick ass, and yet, the problem is there's no center. There's no main course, just tasty appetizers. As any fan boy is aware the film is about a nerdy high school student named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who with the help of I really don't know, urban ennui, and luck of You Tube, becomes a wannabe superhero, named, of course, Kick-Ass. He's a fairly pathetic superhero, he has no tricks or special abilities, he's a just a handsome British actor made unkempt by a bad perm job. Of course we want to identify with Kick-Ass\Dave; he's going out there trying to be a vigilante and stand up against evil, or a mugger. There's always a sense of wish fullfillment with with the superhero comics\movies, and that's the attraction, and the hunger. But here we're stuck with Dave a little too much of the time, and he's not a very interesting character, rather lifelessly played by Johnson. He's really more worried about people thinking he's gay at school; and that gay joke is played out a little too much in my opinion.

Too me, the real star of Kick-Ass is Chloe Grace Moretz. You might remember as the wise-child\confidant of Joseph Gordon Levitt in (500) Days of Summer, and I'm sure she'll be all over the place very soon. For here performance here as Mindy Macready\Hit Girl is everything that Johnson's Dave\Kick-Ass should be, but isn't- fun, stylized and gleefully profane. Trained by her father, a jilted ex-cop out for vengance, played by a hammy and awake Nicolas Cage, Mindy has been trained since a kid to be a fighter; if anything she's probably what The Bride's daughter in the Kill Bill movies would be like. And Hit Girl's real abilities as a fighter give the movie Kick-Ass is real sense of fun and danger.

Hit Girl and Kick-Ass become entangled through a series plot contrivance surrounding nefarious drug pin, and bad guy Frank D'Amico (played by Mark Strong; Stardust), whose son is played by Christopher Mintz Plasse (McLovin' from Superbad,) and it's in his son's creation comes another superhero, one in which to trap Kick-Ass, whom D'Amico for some strange reason thinks actually isn't an awkward, harmless high school geek, but a real threat. I mention all of these, fairly bored with what I'm writing, because that's exactly how I felt watching it. There's a little too much D'Amico, who for the stature of a gifted actor like Strong gives to it, still felt like one of the weaker villians in superhero movie land. What might have made the film better in my opinion is if Vaughn had show the same interest and stylized glee to the rest of the film, that is bestowed upon Hit-Girl. If you're making a wannabe Tarantino splatter film, than go for it full-throttle, not just in stop and go sections. There's a brief segment toward to the end of the film where Hit Girl kills and slices and dices a bunch of big, bad men to the tune of Joan Jett's Bad Reputation, and it's probably the most fun part of the film. For the record that over-played but joyous song hasn't been put to better use since it was the theme song to Freaks and Geeks. C+

The Joneses

Every once in a while a high-concept film that feels like it could be transgressive portrait of modern American life. I thought that, albeit very briefly, in entering The Joneses, a twee satire about a fake family who moves into a wealthy neighborhood in order to sell their luxury items stuff around town. The films states fairly early on that they're selling not merchandise, but a lifestyle. And that lifestyle feels very much attuned to that of the American nuclear family. The father, mother-- both pretty and kind, a boy and girl. All that's missing from The Joneses is a dog and a white picket fence. It sounds like a novel setup, especially in a 2010 recession era, post-Bush America, where the middle class is evaporated. And so that's the premise to Derrick Borte's film, his directorial debut, and it's a fairly polished one at that. What needs improvement is the writing-- I kept expected the film to really show it's teeth and have real bite to it, but whenever the story got darker, Borte retreated and went soft. It's not really the problem of the actors, all of whom deserved better-- as the fake father, David Duchovney plays up his handsome charm. And in a surprise, Demi Moore as Mrs. Jones proves quite capable of earthy mother\icy businesswoman. The kids played by Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth aren't really given much to do-- she's basically a nymphomaniac, and he's a closeted homosexual-- they play their notes adequately, but that's all. Where The Joneses fails is in the ill-conceived plot contrivance of fake husband Duchovney and fake wife Moore falling for each other-- it's turns what could be bona fide delicious social satire into a sacharrine and false romantic comedy. Especially considering the relationship between Duchovney and neighbor Gary Cole, a victim who falls for all of Mr. Jones' sale pitches, is an even riper and far more relevant one. C

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cannes Film Festival

The line-up for the 2010 Cannes Film Festival has arrived, however expect late entries to announced in the coming weeks.


“Another Year” (Mike Leigh) stars Imelda Staunton-- the last Leigh\Staunton film was Vera Drake, a wonderful, beautiful film, very much excited
“Biutiful” (Alejandro González Iñárritu) Inarritu's followup to Babel starring Javier Bardem
“Burnt by the Sun 2″ (Nikita Mikhalkov) sequel to a film that won the 1997 foreign language Oscar
“Certified Copy” (Abbas Kiarostami) from the acclaimed Iranian director of The Man Without a Past, this one will likely win a prize, I'll bet my life on it.
“Fair Game” (Doug Liman) stars Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.
“Housemaid” (Im Sang-soo)
“La Nostra Vita” (Daniele Luchetti)
“Of Gods and Men” (Xavier Beauvois)
“Outrage” (Takeshi Kitano)
“Outside the Law” (Rachid Bouchareb)
“Poetry” (Lee Chang-dong)
“The Princess of Montpensier” (Bertrand Tavernier)
“A Screaming Man” (Mohamed-Saleh Haroun)
“Tournée” (Mathieu Amalric) Amalric starred in the Cannes favorite The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (Achitpong Weerasethakul)
“You, My Joy” (Sergei Loznitsa)


“Robin Hood” (Ridley Scott) (opening film)
“Tamara Drewe” (Stephen Frears)
“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (Oliver Stone)
“You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (Woody Allen)


“Adrienn Pál” (Ágnes Kocsis)
“Aurora” (Cristi Puiu)
“Blue Valentine” (Derek Cianfrance) stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, opened to much acclaim at this year Sundance Film Festival
“Chatroom” (Hideo Nakata)
“Chongqing Blues” (Xiaoshuai Wang)
“The City Below” (Christoph Hochhäusler)
“Film Socialisme” (Jean-Luc Godard)
“Ha Ha Ha” (Hong Sang-soo)
“Heartbeats” (Xavier Dolan)
“Life Above All” (Oliver Schmitz)
“The Lips” (Ivan Fund and Santiago Loza)
“Octubre” (Daniel Vega)
“Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs)” (Lodge Kerrigan)
“R U There” (David Verbeek)
“Simon Werner Has Disappeared” (Fabrice Gobert)
“The Strange Case of Angelica” (Manoel de Oliveira)
“Tuesday, After Christmas” (Radu Muntean)
“Udaan” (Vikramaditya Motwane)


“Blackhole” (Gilles Marchand)
“Kaboom” (Gregg Araki) Araki directed the amazing Mysterious Skin


“Abel” (Diego Luna) Luna starred in Y Tu Mama Tambien.
“Chantrapas” (Otar Iosseliani)
“Draquila: L’Italia Che Trema” (Sabina Guzzante)
“Inside Job” (Charles Ferguson)
Nostalgia for the Light” (Patricio Guzman)
“Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” (Sophie Fiennes)

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Already a festival favorite, as seen by it's enormous reception at this year Sundance and Berlin film festivals, this lesbian comedy has become one of the more interesting films of 2010. And I can't wait for it. Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) is an insightful writer-director returning for a several year break from films, and stars Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo seem like a perfect combination for lesbian couple\male sperm donor roles, respectively. Also, I'm curious about the casting of Mia Wasikowska (the single bright spot in the dullard Alice in Wonderland) as Bening and Moore's daughter. All answers will hopefully and happely revealed when Focus Features opens the film July 7-- it seems like their trying to attract the Little Miss Sunshine slot.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Women in Trouble

I just viewed this teeny-tiny film from 2009, one I'm sure few have heard's current box office is a measly pathetic $18,000. It was directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, and it's a collection of vignettes focused on women in trouble as the title says. It's a twee, very small, fairly absurd collection of stories that rate somewhere in the sub-Pedro Almodovar caliber. But it's also a fairly enjoyable, silly film. There's a woman who recently discovered her husband had an affair, a flight attendant having randy sex with a rock star in an airplane bathroom, a porn star who discovers she's pregnant, and a woman hiding a secret involving her niece. However what makes Women in Trouble noteworthy is that the film spotlights nice form-fitting roles to two superior actresses who really should be more famous, and who should be getting the lion's share of superior roles out there. There names are Carla Gugino and Connie Britton.

Gugino came to somewhat fame as the mother of Spy Kids (films I admittedly have never seen), and Britton can be seen on the television show Friday Night Lights. Ironically both actresses first appeared in the Michael J. Fox show Spin City. The point of this post is that I was engaged fully and foremost when these two actresses where on here, and there work, as in general for both them, is stellar. Gugino seems to have a preternatural gage on what she's playing and who she's playing to at all times, as evident in her terrific turns in Sin City, The Center of the World, and most recently in Watchmen, and here she's porn star Eletra Luxx-- she nails every punchline and has this wonderful ease, in that she plays up when required and plays down as well, but always feels comfortable and confident.

She's striking in her upfrontness, but still able to play poignancy and vulnerabilty. In short she's always a joy to watch, and in a fair world she would rank with people like Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett in the roles of non-ingeniunes, real female characters. Of course she's no where near as famous, and sadly getting to that age where Hollywood forgets about you altogether. Really was I the only one who felt it was shameful she had to settle for the mother role in Watchmen when she was 100% more vibrant and sexy than the stiff and boring Malin Ackerman. (Tangent) Britton has mostly done television work, but I personally, would love to see more of this beautiful, earthy creature on the screen. The high points of Guttierez's work here are the segments involving Britton and Gugino stuck on an elevator, and these two pros (mostly in sadly forgettable projects) act the hell out of it. And so I emplore and movie gods to keep these two employed for years, decades to come, because they have such a knack of creating interesting, completed characters out of basically nothing, and I pray one day that some miraclous filmmaker will bestow each of them a character worthy of their enormous talents.

Women in Trouble didn't do anything in theaters, but it's worth a rental for these two alone, and some well-written absurdist humor, as well as a hammy performance by Josh Brolin as a Brit rock star. And kudos to Guttierez for giving a segment to Marley Shelton, my favorite performer from Grindhouse (Her three little friends were classic.) B-

Sunday, April 4, 2010

I Am Love

Last year my favorite performance from a leading actress was Tilda Swinton's riveting, ball-busting role in Julia, and as always I'm curious about her projects. Hardly ever is there an acting creature so endlessly and elusively fascinating, and this beautiful looking Italian flick seems to play right into that. I want to see desperately. I can already say that this is one of my favorite previews of the year-- the music, the style, the gorgeous cinematography, and Ms. Swinton looking just as confident in elegant attire as she did last year as drunkie Julia.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

International Cinephile Society

The International Cinephile Society, an online organization made up of 60 film historians have announced their favorites of 2009:

  1. A Serious Man
  2. The White Ribbon
  3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  4. Inglourious Basterds
  5. Tokyo Sonata
  6. 35 Shots of Rum
  7. The Hurt Locker
  8. District 9
  9. Bright Star
  10. Up in the Air
Ethan & Joel Coen, A Serious Man
runner-up: Michael Hanake, The White Ribbon

Colin Firth, A Single Man
runner-up: Michael Stuhlberg, A Serious Man

Tilda Swinton, Julia
runner-up: Abbie Cornish, Bright Star

Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
runner-up: Peter Capaldi, In the Loop

Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
runner-up: Mo'Nique, Precious

A Serious Man- Ethan & Joel Coen
runner-up: Inglourious Basterds- Quentin Tarantino

Fantastic Mr. Fox- Wes Anderson & Noah Bombach
runner-up: In the Loop

  1. The White Ribbon
  2. Tokyo Sonata
  3. 35 Shots of Rum
  4. Summer Hours
  5. Broken Embraces
  6. Still Walking
  7. Lorna's Silence
  8. The Beaches of Agnes
  9. Ponyo
  10. O Horten
  11. The Headless Woman
Fantastic Mr. Fox
runner-up: Ponyo

The Beaches of Agnes
runner-up: Anvil! The Story of Anvil

The White Ribbon- Christian Berger
runner-up: Inglourious Basterds- Robert Richardson

The Hurt Locker
runner-up: Broken Embraces

Fantastic Mr. Fox
runner-up: A Serious Man

A Single Man
runner-up: Fantastic Mr. Fox

In the Loop
runner-up: The White Ribbon

The ICS also recently released their top 100 films of the 1990s-- let's argue about that again. The top ten was:

  1. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick) 1998
  2. Short Cuts (Robert Altman) 1993
  3. Trois Coloeurs: Rouge (Krzysztof Kieslowski) 1994
  4. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier) 1996
  5. The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese) 1993
  6. My Own Private Idaho (Gus van Sant) 1991
  7. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick) 1999
  8. Trois Coloeurs: Bleu (Krzysztof Kieslowski) 1993
  9. The Ice Storm (Ang Lee) 1997
  10. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese) 1990
That's a divisive list right there, and I applaud it as much as I don't particularly agree. I think my disagreement comes primarly at the high placement of Eyes Wide Shut. While I feel in the minority of people that didn't detest the film, I still don't see it as one of the 10 best of 1990s, and rightfully perhaps the worst film of Kubrick's career, and sadly the final one as well. But I wish the ye olde Academy had a bit more the courage film scope to make decisions that may not be of the all pleasing majority rule.
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