Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Film tragedy struck today as tremendously gifted film editor Sally Menke (56) died today.  She edited all of Quentin Tarantino's films, thus ended one of the great film collaborations of the last twenty years, and I'd argue all time.  Of the jolting, genre splicing delicacy of Tarantino's films, much of the credit of pace, tone, and performance sure must be credited to Menke.  She's received two Oscar nominations for editing Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds, and surely should have won the award for her achievement on either, or her un-nominated work for Kill Bill or Jackie Brown.  Allegedly it was the Southern California heat that might be the culprit for her death; her body was found while hiking with her dog in Griffith Park.

Here's the nifty "Hi, Sally" feature from the Inglourious Basterds DVD.

True Grit

The first tease of one of the few question marks of the season, Ethan and Joel Coen's True Grit.  Technically a remake of the the classic western which won John Wayne's his lone Oscar, but supposedly more faithful to the original novel than the original film.  I'm not really a western fan by nature, but the mixing of Coen Brothers\Jeff Bridges (he's The Dude!), the Roger Deakins photography will get me there in a flash.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rebecca Hall and "The Town"

For me the most entrancing and surprising parts of Ben Affleck's masculine, playing-by-the-rules heist flick, The Town, are the moments with promising young actress Rebecca Hall.  Hall plays Claire, a Prious-driving bank manager, recent transplant to Boston's crime-laden berg of Charlestown.  She's a bank manager held hostage by Affleck's gang of second-generation movie grifters, only to later embark on a romantic entanglement with Affleck's Doug MacRady.  Much of the press on The Town has been pointed on the media-bait hook of Affleck nicely calibrated career resurgence from Hollywood pretty boy and tabloid-magnet, to serious and committed filmmaker, and while that's all well and good; I agree the boy is doing well-- The Town is a nice companion piece to his first film behind the camera, the likewise Boston-set crime drama, Gone Baby Gone (2007), the prime motivation for me is the poise and subtle fragility of Hall's performance.  Certainly not set on making Claire a tragic portrait of a good woman done wrong, she anchors the otherwise well-made, if all-too conventional, film with a conscience; an adroit questioning of heart vs. brain desire, and delightfully serves the film with it's only non-movie-land cliche.

In the past few years, Hall has shown a great aptitude for impressing with her range and gameness in a variety of films.  From The Prestige (2006) and Frost\Nixon (2008), she may have only served as hangers-on to her more established male leads, but impressed as eye candy, essaying an intelligence and instinct her filmmakers perhaps weren't interested in.  Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008), netted Hall a Golden Globe nomination, and also a wonderful character portrait of a young, controlled woman who learns that perhaps what she thought she wanted wasn't so all; it's easily one of the better Woody Allen female characters in the past decade.  And earlier this year she brought such warmth and complicated humanity to the funny and smart Please Give (2010), a criminally under-looked chamber piece of guilt and pain, mixed with a remarkable sense of humor.  The Town gives her widest opportunity to shine, and see does, against a sprawling, well put together ensemble including Affleck, Jeremy Renner (whose "only in the movie" character benefits solely by the dangerous, unpredictable glint in his eye), Pete Posthewaite, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper, and Gossip Girl Blake Lively (slumming it, in a gritty and mostly agreeable way.)

I liked the film, I swear, and for lively, adult-driven entertainment it's likely the best bet right now, however, I hope the films success will net more showcases for the ethereal and wondrous Ms. Hall.  The Town  B  Hall  A-

Lovely Ladies

It's been reported officially that Focus Features will rightfully campaign both Annette Bening and Julianne Moore for leading actress for their tremendous work in The Kids Are All Right.  That's a sigh of relief for true believers, I'd say, especially since studios usually do the usual trick of mixing co-leads of the same gender into lead and supporting categories, respectively-- the numerous examples are staggering (Brokeback Mountain's Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal springs to mind.)  And if by some miracle both awesomely talented creatures were to get nominated it would be the first time two women in the same film were nominated for lead actress since 1991, when both Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis got in for Thelma & Louise.  It's a rare Oscar occurrence that's only happened five times before:
  • Thelma & Louise (1991)- Davis & Sarandon
  • Terms of Endearment (1983)- Shirley MacLaine & Debra Winger
  • The Turning Point (1977)- Anne Bancroft & Shirley MacLaine
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)- Katharine Hepburn & Elizabeth Taylor
  • All About Eve (1950)- Anne Baxter & Bette Davis
The drawback (and rational reason why studios are weary of it) is of course two nominations in the same category means at least one loss.  Of the ten women above, only one won the statue; that would be MacLaine for Terms of Endearment.  In some alternate ideal movie-land world I like to visit sometimes, I envision both Bening and Moore winning together-- it's unfortunate both sublime actresses are Oscar-less, despite loads of nominations (Bening has three to her credit-- The Grifters, American Beauty, and Being Julia; whereas Moore has four-- Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair, The Hours, and Far From Heaven), massive acclaim, and the fact that at this point both have to be assumed Hollywood royalty.  In this dream, I picture both accepting their Oscars in characters as Nic and Jules, gracious, but perhaps bored, as Bening eyes it to the bar for some red wine.

Bening and Moore, despite being completely deserving do have their work cut out for them in the long haul however.  2010 is shaping up to a rich year for leading actress, a welcome treat for a category sometimes bereft of solid choices.  This year appears on paper to be an embarrassment of riches from films already opened, film festival favorites, and speculative guesswork.  Here's some options:

  • Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right-- earned some of her best reviews for the arthouse hit, but faces internal competition from Julianne Moore.
  • Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole-- when the film premiered at this year's Toronto Film Festival, she received lovely notices and career comeback type press releases.  Lions Gate Films snagged the film up, readying it for an awards qualifying run.  Kidman plays a mother mourning the loss of her son.  Based on the acclaimed play that won Cynthia Nixon a Tony Award.
  • Anne Hathaway, Love & Other Drugs-- speculative awards worthiness here, but she has a lot of buzz right now, and the mixture of light romantic comedy\tragic love story\topical subject might work well within middlebrow academy settings. 
  • Sally Hawkins, Made in Dagenham-- the film, which seems sort of a British-Norma Rae, played really well at Toronto, and Hawkins, who previously should have been acknowledged for Happy-Go-Lucky, might be in the film hits the right the notes with the critics and public.
  • Diane Lane, Secretariat-- while this Disney racehorse film isn't exactly the hottest film of the year (the cool internet kids, which I would never identify myself as) certainly aren't looking forward to it, but Lane is a hard-working actress, who surely still has some academy good will from her wonderful nominated performance in Unfaithful (2002), and if the film (thinking on terms of Seabiscuit + The Blind Side) performs well at the box office, she may have a better shot than we believe.
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone-- the film did fairly well for a summer art film (over $5 million), and the reviews were blistering enough to think that the critics might bring the movie back come end of the year time with their awards and top ten lists.  But Lawrence is very young, and the dark indie flick (winner of the Sundance's Grand Jury Prize) might unsettle those you actually watch it, or might be too underseen.  Indie Spirit nomination seems like a lock however.
  • Lesley Manville, Another Year--  the latest film from Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky) which was very warmly reviewed at Cannes this year, many critics pointing out Manville's performance.  A familiar character actress in Leigh's work, it could be strong and awards bait, but rumor has it could be in the supporting category instead.
  • Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right-- great as Annette Bening's lover in the summer arthouse hit, but Bening received the majority of the best in show accolades; I fear as worthy as Moore is, it may not happen.  I strongly believe Focus will plan a big DVD release to raise it's dwindling profile, reminding the movie elites how good the film really is.  Focus is quite good at Oscar campaigns.
  • Carey Mulligan, Never Let Me Go-- she's strong in the divisive film, but I have a feeling if the older members of the academy respond well to the emotional story, than the film might have a better awards showing than most may expect at this point in the game.
  • Gwyneth Paltrow, Country Strong-- speculative guesswork here, as nobody has seen the film yet, and honestly the trailer was a bit nausea-inducing.  But Paltrow plays a fading, alcoholic country star, and that may well fit the academy just fine (ask last years winner Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart.)  I'm guessing if the movie is tremendously popular (like last year's nausea-inducing The Blind Side), it has a fair shot, and Paltrow is a movie star, that never hurts.
  • Natalie Portman, Black Swan-- has received the best reviews of her career so far (based on festival audience, not always the most reliable) for Darren Aronofsky's ballet freak out film.  While many have noted the film itself may be too cool or intense for general academy taste, Portman could well get in.
  • Emma Stone, Easy A-- okay, Oscar is definitely out of the question, but her reviews have been terrific, and the films is looking like a success, so a Golden Globe (musical or comedy) nomination is not out of reach, and one could make a point that she's playing one of Oscar's favorite types of girls, in the whore with the heart of gold, though she's a fake whore in the film.
  • Hilary Swank, Conviction-- Ms. Swank and myself don't always see eye to eye; Boys Don't Cry being the only exception, but she's playing to her strengths here, and the film might catch on, even if the early word out of Toronto is ho-hum, and members of the academy strangely have quite the affinity for her.
  • Naomi Watts, Fair Game-- playing ousted CIA agent Valerie Plame is a plum role, and Watts received kind words out of Cannes this year.  The real test will be when the film opens (courtesy of Summit Pictures, in November.) 
  • Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine or Meek's Cutoff-- Williams has been a film festival darling all year so far with Blue Valentine likely being her real awards bid.  She and screen partner Ryan Gosling got tremendous reviews at Sundance and Cannes, but I worry since The Weinstein Company is choosing to open the film at the very end of December if it will have enough time to build awards momentum (far more important that actual quality), especially for a small actors film.  Meek's Cutoff got nice notices too, and it is Williams' second collaboration with director Kelly Reichardt, following the lovely and deceptively simple Wendy & Lucy, early word however is that film may not arrive until 2011.
  • Reese Witherspoon, How Do You Know?-- speculation here as no one has seen the film yet, but it's from director James L. Brooks, who has a nice track record of getting smart, character based dramedies into the Oscar race (As Good as it Gets, Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment), expect when he doesn't (Spanglish), but this sounds on paper at least a good option for Witherspoon, seemingly playing to her strengths. 

That's 16 very real possibilities, and a nice mixture of young blood, on the rise gals, and proven acting aces\movie stars.  I'm kind of stoked...

The King's Speech

The trailer arrives for one of the key movies of the moment.  And if nothing else on first glance it appears, at least to my eyes, a throwback to the 90s Miramax years.  Art house period piece, with middlebrow refinement embedded on ever layer.  Yet it also appears like The King's Speech could be that rare "prestige" film with equal parts important message and humor.  November 26th is the scheduled date of arrival, and time will tell.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is a picturesque and frustrating hybrid of Phillip K. Dick science fiction meets Merchant Ivory filmmaking.  Based on the highly acclaimed novel by Kazou Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), the film directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and written by Alex Garland (Sunshine; 28 Days Later)  tells a very-British tale, set in an alternative reality, one in which the human lifespan has elongated drastically, with bristling and pretty photography of the English county-side; it's one of the prettily admirable awards bait films that brims with respectability in every stroke.  Yet what may have come across thought-provoking or emotionally wrenching on the page has been nonchalantly transferred to screen simplified and a bit lifeless.  And what's left is a handful or very admirable performances, a teary, and overblown musical score, courtesy of Rachel Portman (a specialty of hers-- have a listen to The Cider House Rules music for further proof), and yet another refined piece of English filmmaking.

The maddening thing is that there's a few parts of Never Let Me Go, I actually don't want to let go from so easily.  The film starts, very promisingly, with a flashback to the childhoods of three friends-- Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), Tommy D. (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley.)  Through Kathy's narration were drifted back when the three were kids, and students at Hailsham, a prim and proper English boarding school, on an intense and rich estate-- at the first glance the school looks like a grand mansion, or possibly an insane asylum-- props certainly go the art directors and set decorators.  Hailsham is headed by Miss Emily (played mightily by Charlotte Rampling), a mysterious headmistress who holds a dark secret for her students, while simultaneously preparing them.  There's something odd from the start-- what with the health regiment and the freaking wrist bands the students wear.  We learn fairly early on the picture (courtesy of humane teacher, Miss Lucy, played with effortless grace by Sally Hawkins, what the real story is.)

I won't reveal it, even though I've read many a critic write it all up before me, however it is a bit spooky and sends the early scenes to definitive chill.  After the terrific first third, Never Let Me Go appears to stop to a halt.  It's as if right after the premise is revealed, they filmmakers kind of stopped trying, feeling that was enough.  Simply put, it's not-- the story delves into a sappy love triangle between Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley, where not much actually happens, but still prettily photographed countryside and beaches are shot for maximum quality.  It's a shame for the truly provocative film Never Let Me Go could possibly have been, and also to the gifted performers clearly giving the material their all.  And most importantly to the audience, that at first is given a film that seeks to demand our attention, only to turn into one that appears to only want to manipulate our heartstrings.  Subtle melodrama doesn't exactly go together; then again neither do Phillip K. Dick and Merchant Ivory.

Mulligan definitely makes good of the promise of last year's An Education; in fact I think prefer her Kathy H. to Jenny.  She, along with Garfield and Knightley are adept at cobbling together young adults who are so thoroughly maladjusted due to their mission at Hailsham, and for long stretches of the film, very subtly and nimbly adjusting to their inevitable calling.  The inevitable is what pulls the film down, as simply put the film meanders at a rather dull speed with sharp climatic pings every so often.  It's then when the score swells waking us up to remind us to cry-- an emotional scene ahead, get the hankies out.  Had the music stopped, and film were perhaps better paced, all I would have needed for a good cry was a look at Mulligan's fragile face, or hearing Garfield's painful scream, or Knightley's guilty beach-side confession.

It's a weird status to recommend yet dismiss a film at the same time, but Never Let Me Go doesn't make it easy to love, nor hate.  Ambivalence would be a good way to describe it; ambivalent with a few wonderful characteristics.  C+


Here's the short of the story on Catfish, the documentary (or "reality thriller" as it's interesting, if disingenuous marketing would rather it be referred to) that has sparked debate since debuting at this years Sundance Film Festival.  The debate is tricky to get into without spoiling the twist, or trick of Catfish, so I will try to tread lightly.  First we meet a man named Nev Schulman, a New York photographer who recently got published in a syndicated newspaper, he's young and attractive in a goofy sense.  Nev's slight notoriety earns him a young 8-year-old fan from Michigan-- her name is Abby.  She's a gifted painter, and through Abby, Nev meets her family via Facebook.  Her mother Angela, and older sister Megan, a virginal hottie where a bonafide viral romantic relationship starts to develop.

What starts off as a sort of a lowbrow sociological experiment of the ramifications of our computerized and Facebook culture turns into a fishier tale of cinematic manipulation.  The problem with Catfish is, who exactly is manipulating whom?  Nev is followed around by his brother Ariel (a NYC film grad) and co-director Henry Joot documenting the relationship for about eight months, and if in fact we the audience aren't exactly getting "Punk'd," then certainly liberties were taken in the editing room.  That's not exactly a crime in of itself, documentaries, like narratives, will always use filmmaking tools (camera work, editing, music, lighting) to manipulate "reality" in order to make their point.  Yet still, there's a bitter aftertaste after watching Catfish, and I'm quite sure where it came from, but it might have something to do the antithetical meeting of camera-ready Nev with the non-equipped and "real" Michigan family.  The folks at Rogue Pictures and Relativity Media seem intent on marketing the film as a thriller, which in it's own way adds to the bitterness-- the ending feels more sad than scary.  Then again, perhaps the whole experience is to feel duped.

That being said, even if Catfish is nothing but a prank, it's a well made one.  The filmmakers cleverly embed the online world as visual referencing points.  Making good cinematic use of GoogleMaps and YouTube.  C+

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The King's Speech wins...

 The Toronto Film Festival has come to a close, and with it, I think we have our first Oscar "frontrunner" in Tom Hooper's The King's Speech.  So far it's glowing reviews, and rarefied awards pedigree gives it an early edge in this odd 2010 movie year.  The film will come prettily packaged courtesy of The Weinstein Company, led by czars Harvey and Bob, and fits beautifully with the Academy's undeniable respect for royalty porn-- this one concerns King George VI (played by Colin Firth, a de facto award magnet himself after his wonderful turn in last years A Single Man) who must overcome his speech impediment.  Firth will be surrounded by a lovely (and completely AMPAS friendly) supporting cast, with Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, and Michael Gambon.  Plus director Hooper did the exemplary HBO mini-series John Adams, as well as last year's under-seen soccer triumph The Damned United.  Oh yeah, and it won the People's Choice Award at Toronto, which is no small token, given recent history.  Past People's Choice Award winners include:
  • Precious (2009)-- nominated for best picture; won 2 Oscar
  • Slumdog Millionaire (2008)-- won best picture, as well as 7 other Oscars
  • Tsotsi (2005)-- won foreign film Oscar
  • Hotel Rwanda (2004)-- nominated for 3 major Oscars
  • Whale Rider (2002)-- nominated for best actress
  • Amelie (2001)-- nominated for 5 Oscars
  • American Beauty (1999)-- won best picture, and 4 other Oscars
  • Life is Beautiful (1998)-- nominated for best picture; won 3 Oscars
  • Shine (1996)-- nominated for best picture; won best actor.
The Toronto Film Festival is a bit different than most of the bigger film festivals out there; there's no jury or handing out of regular awards, such as best director, or actor and actress; instead it's balloted from the public audiences that visit the festival.

All the film has to really do is not be a complete commercial failure, lest we hear more kvetching about the out-of-touch academy members...blah, blah, blah...

Friday, September 17, 2010

Easy A

As teen comedy send-ups of classic literature, Easy A is more of 10 Things I Hate About You (riffing on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew) than Clueless (the master class re-working of Jane Austin's Emma.)  A sunny, self aware trifling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Easy A also works as an amalgam of nearly every teen entry of the last twenty years, calling attention to it's very cliches, before honoring them with great reverence.  However, there's an ace in the hole, thanks to it's star, Emma Stone, who ponces and roars with terrific comedic timing and nimble charm.  If the films only works as a solid starring vehicle for a gifted young actress, there are worse cinematic crimes, and all the hogwash is easily and tastefully washed down thanks to the smart, husky voiced talent of an actress owning her silly film with such wit and aplomb.

Stone plays Olive, a high school wallflower who becomes a 21st century Hester Prynne when a little lie unleashes an scandalous reputation.  Soon the virginal Olive becomes a mark for unpopular, oppressed boys who happily fete her to service their own sad high school lives-- there's the gay boy, the fat kid, the "fill-in-the-blank" minority.  Olive obliges, loving the attention and notoriety at first.  She even wears her own "A" to school.  Things of course turn very sour, thanks to a very real high school scandal.  The cluttered Easy A spouts out screen time to an over-zealous Christian clique (headed by queen bee Amanda Bynes), which is not nearly as pointed or well-observed as Saved! (2004) was, as well as other teen comedy mainstays-- kooky parents (serviced and salvaged by the acting gods of Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci), and the dreamboat suitor-to-be (Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley.)  Thankfully these predictable, duller moments are set with cinematic quotation marks, and Stone happily and blessedly spins her expository dialogue with such unexpected humor and peppery off-kilter charm.

The one part of Easy A that's a uneasy, and more my speed involves the guidance counselor (played by Lisa Kudrow) playing an uneasy game of her own, of which Olive (being the dutiful servant to the oppressed and unhappy) gets the rap for.  It's here where I felt the film could potentially be heading into the pantheon of it's ilk, but director Will Gluck (Fired Up) and writer Bert V. Royal either lost their nerve or interest in that film, deciding it best to keep the sun-sunshiny 80s pastiche going full steam.  Which is a shame considering Easy A, could have really used the whole pious Christian\The Scarlet Letter act for a stronger, more effective beat than it is.  Surely Kudrow would have been game-- in her brief appearance, she keeps her offbeat, beautifully observed absurdest humor (a nice counterpoint to Stone's) flowing strong.  I would have liked to have seen that film a lot more.

That being said, it's a pleasant, diverting movie.  And if one can get over various movie touchstones, I see Easy A being a solid TBS flick for decades.  So if one can get over a few obvious issues, for instance, the unfortunate filmic tactic of portraying beautiful, young women as homely, and the sight of 20-somethings playing high school students (I'll give Easy A a free pass on that one, for reasons I'll refrain from mentioning), the silver lining is the experience of watching a young, talented actress making her mark in a flattering and fittingly commercial way.  After years of solid supporting work is similar material (Superbad, Zombieland, The House Bunny), I humbly request that casting directors across this great land make proper use of Ms. Stone in the coming years, for I see a mature, game, seriously funny future.  However, Easy A is more of B-.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Almost Famous" is 10 Year Old!

 I've been feeling nostalgic as of late, and as such thought it might be novel to write about one of my favorite films of the last decade.  Appropriately, this one, Almost Famous, is heavily steeped in nostalgia.  Cameron Crowe's autobiographical rock road movie is not only his warmest, and smartest, it's also his very best.  Today, September 13th it turns ten years old.  In it's time, I felt it was the best film of 2000, today my judgment regarding the best of is far more finicky, yet I still think of it fondly.  It works because it's a timely time capsule piece, therefore while motivated to the generation of the boomers, it's emotional capacity stretches far past that and appeals to those to love (or obsess) anything, while simultaneously feeling separated from it.  William Miller (surrogate to Crowe himself) worships the ground of his rock star demigods, and yet, he's also a 15-year-old kid with arrested development issues, whose very un-coolness, isolated and alienates far before it appreciates.  It works within the band (the movie uses the fictional Stillwater as a stand-in for Crowe's real-life adventures with Led Zepplin), the girl (Penny Lane, far and away the cinema's most iconic groupie), even to his family.

I think in that respect I admire the movie more today than ever.  My obsession wasn't rock music, but film.  I was William Miller's age when the movie first opened ten years ago, and returning to my 15-year-old mindset, I felt in all concerns of movie whatever-ness, I ruled.  Ten years later, I've seen more films and hopefully have learned even more over my love, my obsession, and yet as time goes by, I feel as if I have been given the knowledge to readily admit I know nothing, not even about the thing I love the most.  This is something I would never have admitted ten years ago.  And so like William Miller, I am an outsider as well, but worshipful as ever.

Re-watching the movie, it still works and sparks and glows like it ever did.  The humanity, period specificity and good natured generosity of Crowe's Oscar-winning screenplay flows beautifully.  It works as simple character study and wonderful ensemble piece, ably played by game, and ever-eager cast.  Most of whom doing the best work of their careers.  Patrick Fugit, the young star commanded the screen with terrific naturalism, at once displaying the geekiness, but also the attractiveness of his junior rock journalist.  Jason Lee, the former troupe member of Kevin Smith, and future My Name is Earl star, brilliantly nailed the narcissism and naivete or burgeoning rock star; trying desperately to sound intelligent, while also stupidly and freely being quoted as saying, "and the chicks are great."  Billy Crudup, who had a banner year in 2000 with this film, as well as the drastically different Jesus' Son, was just as good as doomed rocker Russell Hammond, whose path of self-destruction was palpable as well as evident from the first glimpse; and yet Crudup's touch made the audience, or at least myself, still sort of respect him in the process.  One must never discount the the phenomenal, instantly quotable, "I AM A GOLDEN GOD!"  It's a shame that that Crudup touch seemed to vanish almost instantly after Almost Famous; sure he's had some success both on stage and in bit parts as varied as Michael Mann's Public Enemies, and most recently Eat Pray Love, but the magnetism dissipated.  Noah Taylor's grandstanding and charm as the loyal manager.  Anna Paquin's enchanting fellow groupie-- ironically her stock has only risen lately (True Blood.)   Even Philip Seymour Hoffman's over doing it feels right, here as his channeling legendary Lester Bangs.

The same appears sadly true to Kate Hudson as well, whose Penny Lane portrait, while likely very true to the daughter of Goldie Hawn herself, was also quite a revelation at the time.  Remember before all the umpteenth disposable (and annual) romantic comedies came her way, this role (and this one alone) made her the It Girl of 2000, as well as a Golden Globe winner, and Oscar nominee.  All of which was totally deserved.  Contemporary punching bag or not, if Penny Lane turns out to be Ms. Hudson's lone signature role, it's a great signature.  For like William, Penny was an outsider as well.  One of Hudson's competitors at the Oscars was Frances McDormand who played the role of William's mother, Elaine.  And in that inspired bit of casting, a thousand cliches were instantly broken.  What may have come across as brittle, or over-bearing, or god forbid, thankless, is a role, not only of great substance, and comedy, but authority.  She's as vulnerable and human as she is a bit frightening.  It's a testament to McDormand's supreme (potentially other-worldly) qualities as an actress that the role resonates so.  Lots of actress could very easily wail a line like , "DON'T USE DRUGS!" to a teenager in front of his peers, but it takes a woman like McDormand to utter said line with supreme authority, isolation, vulnerability, and perhaps a little jealousy.

Almost Famous received four Oscar nominations in 2000, two for supporting actress, film editing, and original screenplay, where it won.  I'm guessing merely as an observer of many Oscar telecasts that it probably was the first runner-up for a best picture nomination.  That despite generally being described as a box office flop, despite it's critical reviews and breathtaking quality that still makes my heart a-flutter a decade later.  I suppose a personal, nostalgic tale was always going to be more art-house than mainstream, but I don't care about that; I feel it's one of my movies, one of which doesn't have to belong to anyone else.  Sadly it appears, at least so far, that after digging deeper and more soberly than ever before, the film seems to have taken the best and most out of Cameron Crowe himself.  Both follow-ups- the ill-fated mindfuck Vanilla Sky (2001) and the nostalgia overload Elizabethtown (2005) flopped artistically; one for going potentially too far outside his limits, and other for not going far enough.  That makes me sad.  Boo!

Yet, just as Penny Lane picks herself up after bouts of melancholy-- her advice is solid, no matter what what one's love or obsession might be; go visit your friends at the record store.  And so journeying back ten years, even back to my 15-year-old self, I love going back on that bus, singing along..."Tiny Dancer," is queuing up.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Venice Film Festival

The winners:

Golden Lion: Somewhere- directed by Sofia Coppola
Silver Lion: A Sad Trumpet Ballad- directed by  Alex de la Iglesia
Special Prize: Essential Killing- directed by Jerzy Skolimowski
Coppa Volpi (Best Actor): Vincent Gallo, Essential Killing
Coppa Volpi (Best Actress): Ariane Labed, Attenberg
Marcelo Mastroianni Award (Best Young Actor or Actress): Mila Kunis, Black Swan
Osella (Best Screenplay): Alex de la Iglesia, A Sad Trumpet Ballad
Osella (Best Cinematography): Silent Souls- Mikhail Krichman
European Cinema Award: The Clink of Ice
Golden Lion Cub Award: Barney's Version- directed by Richard J. Lewis
Queer Lion (Best Gay Film): In the Future

Focus Features has much to celebrate winning the top honor from Sofia Coppola's latest dreamscape set on the Sunset Strip's famed Chateau Marmont, as seemingly muted, albeit mostly positive reviews came out in it's initial screening.  It may not be an Oscar contender, but this high achievement gives the film early bragging rights.

In other news, Barney's Version, starring Paul Giamatti will come out later this year thanks to it's recent acquisition by Sony Pictures Classics.

The jury was headed by Quentin Tarantino (an ex of Coppola's), and included writer\director Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Babel), Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkunatite, director Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale), film composer Danny Elfman, director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), and director Gabrielle Salvatores.

Adventures in Oscar Prognostication

Early September brings about three simultaneous, and monumental film festivals-- Venice, Telluride, and Toronto-- where the studios trollop their prettiest and shiniest packages in grand hopes of catching the buzz to awards.  Awards, that's what it's all about, which as depressing as it sounds, and I whole-handily agree and outwardly complain.  However, it's also the only reason why a lot of very good films (and more than a few very bad ones) get made.  The unfortunate harsh reality of movie-land is that serious, adult-minded, non-superhero filmmaking will only get made in hopes of statuettes, which in hopes will bring in dollar signs.  As joyless as that sounds, I sooo very much I could split myself up and have been in Venice, Telluride and Toronto all at once.  My motives are simply-- I want to see these movies.

Namely Black Swan, which screened at all three festivals.  How I'm obsessed with the potential of Darren Aronofsky's nightmare ballet tale.  Early reviews have been favorable, even though Tomato-meters are as reliable as festival bloggers-- so far the only stinker on the RT side is from the Hollywood Reporter.  The point is I want it now, and love the conversation that this film could generate-- how I love that potential.  Career best reviews for Natalie Portman excite me as well; however I must remain skeptical for the sake of my own sanity, since I'm of the unfortunate breed that must wait two and half months for it's release-- boo world!  Murmurs have stated it might play a role in the Venice awards.  I want right now...

Somewhere, the new Sofia Coppola mood flick played at Venice to good, if muted reviews, again one I'm looking forward too.  Coppola in my opinion is currently three for three, whose artistry and cinematic language keeps expanding-- The Virgin Suicides begot Lost in Translation segueing into Marie Antoinette (a beautiful, and misunderstood period flick, I'd say.)  There's emphasis, especially from the trailer that this is Coppola doing the same thing; which to many might not be their thing, to me, flowing to her spirited moods is magical.  Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning might be less heralded than Bill Murray, but perhaps they're perfect.

Venice and Toronto boasts Ben Affleck's The Town, which appears to getting solid early world (EW gave it an A-, for what it's worth) and does The King's Speech starring Clin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, directed by John Adams' Tom Hopper.  Miral, director Julian Schnabel's follow-up to his terrific, and Oscar approved The Diving Bell & the Butterfly appears to be a disappointment, whereas Casey Affleck's oddball, wtf? documentary on brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, I'm Still Here has divided even the ones who appear to like the film (again EW gave it an A-.)  Never Let Me Go, which opens in limited release, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures, divided the folks at Telluride, Colorado, while Danny Boyle's 127 Hours (from the same studio), reportedly had people fainting with praise; further analysis states that the fainting had to do with the altitude and not the film!

From the little that is known, there's obviously so much not.  For one thing these films are merely abstract ideas right now, and serious criticism will ultimately be tested when the movies open outside the festival hangers-on, and critics looking to be the first to anoint an Oscar frontrunner.  Two hallowed and heavily anticipated films had their fates somewhat cleared over the last week or so: Terrence Malick's long-delayed (would it be any other way for the masterful Malick) The Tree of Life, as Fox Searchlight picked up the film, readying it for 2011 release-- the only drawback is that fateful and drooling fans must wait another year to be awed (allegedly); why is it the innocent filmgoer must always be punished.  The other film is Peter Weir's The Way Back (starring Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Soarsie Ronan) debuted rapturously at the Telluride Film Festival, to due distributed by Newmarket Films, which is currently planning a mid-January release, with a dangling chance of an Oscar-qualifying run this year.  The ugly side of the craving films is that said films are unfortunately part of a bigger business that cares not of audience cravings, but of solid bottom line returns.  A sadder fate of the smaller, personal, less audience friendly material, that sadly needs the lure of awards to capitalize on it's investment.  For what it's worth, The Way Back allegedly cost only $20 something million to make-- Vampires Suck made that in a week-- clearly a more nobler world would seek out a Weir film?  His resume is pretty awesome: Master & Commander, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show...

The Toronto Film Festival is currently just getting started, and within days we shall now a wee bit more about one and all will soon be given the talk of Oscar.  Lots of films will have a reputation cemented, including Conviction, the Hilary Swank Bah-ston legal thriller, Robert Redford's take on the Lincoln assassination, The Conspirator, Clint Eastwood's "thriller" Hereafter, and plenty more.  I'll try harder to vigilant about the stories that come out, but truth be said, I'd rather seriously ignore most of it, and just watch the damn things.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Going the Distance

I feel I must preface by stating that I, by nature, am not a lover of romantic comedies, or to clarify, not a lover of modern romantic comedies.  Hitchhiking lessons from Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are always welcome, but unfunny wish fulfillment fantasy is hardly what I would consider a pleasurable movie-going experience, which is the sorry state of the genre.  I can do away with the jam-packed-with-stars excursions based on self-help books as well (He's Just Not That Into You; Valentine's Day); it's lazy and joyless.  Also I can do away with high concept romances starring anyone named Jennifer-- hard to believe there's been three sperm donor films this year (The Back-Up Plan, The Switch, The Kids Are All Right), and the very best one made the least amount of money; a tangent, but a regrettable one.  And so, kicking and screaming, if not literally, I ventured into the Drew Barrymore-Justin Long coupling in Going the Distance.  And with the knowledge that this isn't my preferred genre, I bit my tongue, and god forbid, actually enjoyed large chunks of it.

The plot is simple-- 31 year old Erin (Barrymore) is interning at a New York newspaper when she meets Garrett (Long), a music label whatsit, they get along fine, a little sex in between bong hits, while geeking out on video games, Top Gun, etc.  The catch is that Erin is returning to San Francisco in six weeks, and long term romance is a no go.  Of course the pair fall hard in said time, evident by the 80s soundtrack playing over a montage of the couple laughing and frolicking.  Whatever are they going to do?  After admitting feelings for each other, they timidly agree to try the long distance thing, which includes a few lame attempts at phone sex.  Of course this can't continue and variations of the careers vs. love vs. distance come into play.  Admittedly, the narrative connects the dots where we predict it to, but refreshingly, either through the good graces of the leads chemistry and a somewhat surprising honesty to recession-era folks trying hard to succeed in dying professions, which thankfully the film acknowledges (journalism?, record companies?, how early-90s?), Going the Distance doesn't feel as generic as it sounds.  The film was directed by Nanette Burnstein, who directed by The Breakfast Club reality movie with the 2008 documentary American Teen; perhaps one reason why the film feels like a direct descendant of pop films from the 80s; not a completely bad thing.

And for a high concept romantic comedy, it's not nearly as convoluted or contrived as most, or as I fear it easily could have been.  No, Justin Long doesn't have to accidentally impregnate Drew Barrymore for her to fall in love with him (I haven't seen The Switch, so perhaps I should stop being so mean, but it's too much fun.)  Instead all he has to do is be a goofy guy with a good sense of humor and nerdy tendencies-- alright there is a bit of fantasy there too, but I suppose it's made believable by the duo's real-life coupling.  For the first time since I can remember, Long actually resembles a leading man on screen, and not a poor man's Tobey Maguire.

As for Barrymore, she is simply radiant, essaying a character who acknowledges at the very beginning she's too old to be an intern, and yet impetuous enough to fall for a boy despite the grounded intelligence she invests.  She's raunchy (a smart oral sex joke is film's biggest laugh), poised and altogether graceful in a uncommon step for female maturity in a genre in sore need of it.  However, one thought kept bogging me down throughout the film; that Barrymore can do this role in her sleep, and after the last year of  terrific, soulful work in Grey Gardens, and her smart roller derby directorial debut with Whip It, I want to see more of that Barrymore, to be beholden and surprised by her in that unexpected way.  She helps veer Going the Distance off formula ever so slightly, but make no mistake, it's still a formula piece of cinematic fluff, from an actress whose shone the ability to make art.

Going the Distance does have a few notches that keep it from really going the distance, partially the supporting cast that's given lazy, irritating parts.  Disappointing since said parts are filled by charming unique actors like Jason Sudekis, Christina Applegate and Charlie Day.  It's also incredibly oddly toned in that it's an R-rated romantic comedy with PG-13 attitudes of sex.  Sure there's a few naughty conservations, it's just the film is peppered with so many f-bombs it comes across odd and distracting, and not as real, which is a shame since it's the first piece of cinematic fluff in a while that details characters fairly fluidly, not excluding financials.  B-

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The American

Don't believe the marketing being employed for George Clooney's latest noir\espionage tale, The American.  The commercials might have you believe it's a Bourne-like action adventure, and that would be disingenuous, for it's really a relentlessly slow and rather tedious arthouse exercise; one that moves at glacial speed.  I credit Focus Features, the company behind this, for trudging along, hopeful of making as much as possible in the beginning before the stench of failure gets out fully.  For a more comprehensive view of The American, I suggest staring at your fingernails growing for about an hour and a half-- it's a similar experience, but far cheaper.  Which is all a shame really because the craftsmen behind this dreary film seem quite talented-- director Anton Corbijn (whose last film was the vibrant Joy Division biopic, Control) certainly has the visual prowess; the film looks beautiful.  It's just a shame it's a hollow shell of a film, completely devoid of anything resembling a beating pulse.

Clooney plays Jack, part time assassin, full time brooder, whose fully encapsulated into a paranoid existential funk.  The action begins (and seriously the two minute opening gunfight is about the only action in the film) when Jack and his prostitute friend are enjoying the void in Sweden, when the shots are fired.  Oh my, someone's trying to kill George Clooney, or Jack, because in this case the man who looks an awful like Clooney is completely lacking in any sort of discernible charm, emotion, or much human characteristics at all.  So unfortunately the pretty Swedish prostitute must die as well-- not a spoiler-- it's the first five minutes of the film.

What follows is an hour and twenty odd minutes of meandering through a pretty quaint portion of Italy.  Jack is paranoid.  Jack assembles his gun.  Jack disassembles his gun.  Jack meets new prostitute.  Jack drives his car.  Jack is prodded on the nature of God but a kindly prodding priest.  It's all quite torturous, but it's Euro-art house torture, I suppose meaning that it feels like one might have wasted three hours of their life.  All of which leads to an unsatisfying and fairly predictable conclusion, bristling with about a minute and a half of hot-boiled action.

What looks pretty in The American, feels cold.  There's no payoff in the least.  D

The Tillman Story

The story of Pat Tillman at this point feels like a legend-- NFL football star at the top of his game enlisting into the army for patriotic pride.  He was killed in April of 2004.  We were all lead to believe his death was an ultimate act of heroism; the Taliban had courted, and Tillman is ultimate American valor put his life in danger to protect his brothers in arms.  His family was even awarded the Silver Star.  However, as we would all soon learn, there was much more to that story.  In fact that story was complete fiction.  Amir Bar-Lev's thoughtful, angry, straight-forwardly compassionate documentary, The Tillman Story, tries to unravel the mystery of his death, as well as the truths of his life, with the participation of his family, army buddies and witnesses, and first commanding officer.  The fact that the film itself can't come to an answer calls into the question, what happened that fateful day in Afghanistan the day Tillman was killed.  It feels almost like a Cold War conspiracy tale than anything else.

What's prominent first off is the fuller, more complete view we get of Tillman himself, antithetical to the one that sold to all of us later.  A secular, adrenaline junkie, who enjoyed reading Chomsky and had a fondness for the f-word, Tillman is presented as a deeply private civilian, uninterested in doing public relations when he decided to enlist.  He did so with his younger brother, giving up his multi-million dollar job.  The first half of the documentary is more or less a paint by numbers biography of the man.  The rest is illuminating and insightful because instead of merely being a liberal attack on an unpopular war, it more about the humanity of the issue itself, the ultimate question being not so much why the American public was lied to about Tillman's death, but why was family lied to, repeatedly and vehemently?

Soon after the initial hero report was deemed false, it became apparent Tillman died as a result of fratricide, or friendly fire.  This realization occurred after the media had a field day covering Tillman's heroism, and conveniently after a televised service.  What sparked was an outrage from his mother and father.  Pat Tillman Sr., wrote an incendiary letter to the powers that be, while his mother Mary dissected nearly 3,000 pages of military texts regarding the investigation of her son's death.  In that dissection (a feat that its purported the military espoused in an effort to drain her), she noted the various inconsistencies of the report, and the ridiculous claims of many of the transcripts of the witnesses.

And whats the truth in The Tillman Story-- was his death a marketing tool in the ever-growing unpopularity of the war?  Was it merely an accident from a trigger happy con-patriot?  Or was it something bigger; reports surfaced that Tillman was outwardly critical of the actions taking place in Iraq-- was it comeuppance once it was revealed he wouldn't play right-wing poster child?  The infuriating aspect is, we, as alas unfortunately his family, likely will never know.  Small justice does prevail in the film however.  Especially in the archived footage of the Tillman's taking their case all the way to Congress against Mr. Donald Rumsfield and other powers-that-be.  The ridiculous proceeding provides no specifics, but in the the tentative no answers these powerful men give, I call there bluff.  Unfortunately Congress didn't.

Whatever the answer, the point is clear-- whatever happened that sad day in April 2004 is a small, but eventful litmus test for the entire war in general.  The cover up looked tacky and ever so desperate, and that Mr. Tillman, the man, not the myth was far more human and complex than any manufactured media story could ever proclaim.  B+

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Jack Goes Boating

Jack Goes Boating, a hit at this years Sundance Film Festival, is the directorial debut of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also stars.  It's at least on the surface a typical sort of Sundance hit.  It centers around the burgeoning romance between Jack and Connie (Amy Ryan), and offers an idiosyncratic, highly eccentric tragic-comic surroundings to their prelude into romance.  This small, fairly slight film was based upon a play, yet due to Hoffman's gifts behind the camera it feels opened up I can only assume far beyond what's expected into a cinematic charmer.  Mr. Hoffman, as a director, appears to have a reassuring eye in terms of tone and films the movie quite beautifully considering it's really a small chamber piece where the action appears in one location.  To his credit, it never appears stagey or claustrophobic, but wide and lovely.

At the beginning we meet Jack (Hoffman), a limo driver who agrees to be set up on a blind date with Connie (Ryan.)  This is all arranged by friends Clyde (John Ortiz) and his wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a co-worker of Connie's.  In a refreshing antithesis to the usual romantic comedy meet-cute scenario, they meet over dinner where Connie in great detail describes her past family tragedy, pointing out her social ineptitude.  And this being Hoffman in subdued form, rather than largely than life form, he himself is suffering from the same ailment.  From the get go they're a perfect match.  And so Jack in turn yearns to become a better man for Connie by learning how to swim (she's a fan of boating) and by cooking (no one's ever cooked for her before), and in so instructs the helps of his friends.

Really what had to be a four person play is opened up quite well, and Hoffman as director guides the three other principles to well-crafted performances.  Ortiz and Rubin-Vega (the original Mimi in Rent) are quite good a projecting a long married couple who mean well, only ultimately to fall.  The centerpiece scene of the piece revolves a dinner party Jack throws for Connie, and while many might be weary of the shift in tone the film takes during the rather long sequence, it's a nice journey to take with the actors, as each gets in a small way there own sort of Tennessee Williams moment to shine.

Jack Goes Boating is small, but kind of special too.  It plays and flows like one would expect a Phillip Seymour Hoffman indie too, but there's humanity and humor aplenty.  And as slight and indie-centric as it is, there was also a tad bit of magic incensed as well.  B
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