Friday, May 27, 2011

The Descendants Trailer

The first trailer to Alexander Payne's latest film starring George Clooney.  On first glance, it seems a bit generic for a filmmaker of Payne's infinite gifts, but hopefully this is just one of those hard-to-peg-down type of films.  Coincidentally, this is his first film that Payne didn't co-write with his longtime writing partner Jim Taylor; Payne wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy 70th Birthday to Bob Dylan

He will always be a legend of the counterculture, for more than just a singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan is an emblem of the chaos and ramblings of 1960s America.  With songs that seemed woven from just about everywhere-- rock, classical, rockabilly, jazz-- and a great many that still hold up achingly and vibrantly well today, the raw political and social unrest in his rambling, mumbling lyrics have always and will always be some of the greatest American storytelling.  And from hero to martyr to born-again Christian, whatever phase Dylan is in, it's always been engrossing.

Since this is site is about movies, and Dylan is a sometime cinematic fixture, it apropos.  In 2000 he won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song for "Things Have Changed," for the film Wonder Boys.
Dylan also wrote and starred in the 2003 failure Masked & Anonymous, a performance piece about a musician comeback that featured John Goodman, Jessica Lange and Penelope Cruz, and was directed by Larry Charles (Borat.)
The more interesting cinematic expressions of Bob Dylan, and the ones the truly devout should probably be watching at home tonight are two of the finer musical pieces (or meditations on music) the cinema has brought in the last decade.  One is the exemplary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), the documentary that's lovingly made by Martin Scorsese that dissects the Dylan legacy in the key early 1960s years that made him the "voice of a generation."
The other is a bit more frustrating, but nonetheless fascinating...Todd Haynes' decade-spanning, multiple interpretation, free-associative experiment film I'm Not There (2007), where six actors portray the musician in different stages of his life.  Cate Blanchett gets the juiciest period, and her grandstanding mimicry, and spot-on line delivery netted her a much earned Oscar nomination.  The film is a bit jumbled and chaotic (here is my take back then-- I've downgraded it a bit since; the ebb and flow of movies always changes...sigh!), and perhaps only truly appreciated by the Dylan cult, but even the flaws and messiness make it interesting, and perhaps, it truly is the perfect way to film the legend; a mere, three-act, standard issue biopic would never work.  Happy Birthday Dude.

Green With Envy, or...

The Descendants

First imagery of Alexander Payne's latest film; his first since his Oscar-winning Sideways (2004).  Sigh, I loathe that I must wait so long for follow-up projects from the filmmakers I admire.

The Last Bit About Cannes

As the 2011 Cannes Film Festival winds down, what's always left is what will become of the movies that played, both to rousing response and less so.  The big winner, The Tree of Life, will be released in limited release this coming week (with a wide release planned July 8th, which is a long time-- jump on it-- Malick fans wait long enough for gods sake), courtesy of the brave and rescuing warriors at Fox Searchlight Pictures.  Of course, they have a big awards victory as a major coup, alongside a major filmmaker and bona-fide movie stars in Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as collateral, but it's still a gamble; a cerebral art house mindfuck at the beginning of the summer movie season... and let's all set aside in thinking this film is going to coast itself all the way to the Oscars.

But there's other films out there too.  Winner of the Grand Prize at the Cannes Critics Week was the American film Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, which is being described as the good version of an M. Night Shyamalan movie.  Sony Pictures Classics is set to release the film some time this fall.  Trailer below:
Another hot button film that was in competition was We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton and directed by Lynne Ramsay.  The film was critically beloved, but unfortunately walked away empty-handed come prize time, which might have put the film at a disadvantage considering its sour subject matter (a high school shooting), however brave distributor Oscilloscope (the same company that saved small gems like Meek's Cutoff, Wendy & Lucy and The Messenger) has come to the rescue.  Perhaps, if seen, it will undue some the past Academy damages done in recent years and honor Swinton with an Oscar nomination.
Meanwhile, Drive, winner of the Best Director prize, and starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan will be unveiled this September from distributor FilmDistrict, an up and coming company fresh from a wonderful spring thanks to the surprise success stories of Soul Surfer and Insidious.

Finally, a finely tuned reaction to her Best Actress win from Kirsten Dunst.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cannes Winners & Losers

The Cannes Film Festival has always seemed like the exotic place in the world to me.  With the best and biggest and brightest in the world of cinema joining for two weeks in a paradise local.  Yes, there's always ugliness and politics involved (this year proved no exception with the Lars von Trier situation), yes, there's usually a debate over the overall quality of the festival, that must fight the same fight that Hollywood does, in trying to maintain a balance of industry and artistry, and yes, there's always that thudding feeling that the very best of the festival may never make it to a movie theater near you.  And so you can take their silly necessity to showcase drivel like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, there only to get flashbulbs and press at the possibility that Johnny Depp will show (he did), or you can leave it.  It's also the home, and beating grounds for Pedro Almodovar, the Dardenne Brothers, von Trier (he comes with baggage, but his films always surprise), and Woody Allen.  It's a place where Tilda Swinton is a superstar, and still the ultimate coup for every dreamy eyed filmmaker and every awe-struck fan.

PALME D'OR: The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)- the most talked about film going into the festival, and the most expected won the top prize, furthering the endless post-film chatter of the it's a masterpiece\it's a failure.  It marks the first time an American film has won the Palme d'Or since 2004's Fahrenheit 9\11 and the first time Malick has received the top prize.  Before everyone starts thinking that the Oscar will be calling, a bit of historical perspective: Cannes is a different climate than the Academy, and only twice in the history of both institutions have they agreed on their top pick: The Lost Weekend (1946) and Marty (1955), however The Tree of Life is clearly the biggest winner of the festival, and as the rest of us mere mortals venture into art houses next week, unfortunately, the expectations have risen...

GRAND PRIX (tie): Le Gaumin au Velo (The Kid With the Bike)- Dardenne Brothers (France) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia- Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)-- the second place slot was really a second\third place as the fickle Cannes jury awarded the Dardenne Brothers their fifth Cannes prize (including winning the Palme d'Or twice for The Child in 2005 and Rosetta in 1999); their latest humanistic drama stars Cecile de France (Hereafter) and received a good, if a bit of a been there\done that reaction; however one can never bet they won't receive a prize when their films are showcased's never happened.  Same goes for Ceylan also receiving his fifth Cannes prize; including been honored with the Grand Prix in 2004 for Distant, and Best Director in 2008 for Three Monkeys.

BEST DIRECTOR: Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive- the director of Bronson (Tom Hardy's real revelation, before Inception) the directors prize for his Hollywood stuntmen epic that stars Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan.  For a film that sounds very B-tacular, the reviews have been phenomenal.

BEST ACTOR: Jean Dujardin, The Artist (France\USA)- an early festival favorite revolving around an early-Hollywood tale of a silent screen star worried of fading as the invention of sound comes into play.  We well all become aware of this movie eventually, as The Weinstein Company snagged the film that also stars John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell.

BEST ACTRESS: Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia- Either as pity vote for an exemplary well received performance that soured as her director was making a fool of himself, or an act of good will for an under-appreciated actress trying to become a great one, this might be the most contentious victory; sight unseen of course.  Either way stock in Dunst (who was also tremendously good in last year's not so good All Good Things) will surely rise, and for the film as well.  Dunst is also the first American actress to win at Cannes since Holly Hunter did for The Piano in 1993, but not the first Lars von Trier victim to 2009, Charlotte Gainsborg (who co-stars here) won for Antichrist and Bjork won in 2000 for Dancer in the Dark...suffering for your art always helps.

BEST SCREENPLAY: Footnote- Joseph Cedar-- Cedar, born in New York, but raised in Jerusalem is best known for Beaufort, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007.

PRIX DU JURY: Polisse (France)- critically divided French film featuring the directorial debut of actress Maiwenn Le Besco (High Tension, 2003 and The Fifth Element, 1997) received a special jury prize.

CAMERA D'OR: Las Acacias (Argentina)- first time director Pablo Giorgelli won the best first film prize.

The two biggest surprises once the awards were handed out were the snubbing of two the most acclaimed in competition titles.  One was Le Havre, a German\Finnish\French affair from Cannes favorite and acclaimed director Aki Kaurismaki, and the other was the American film We Need to Talk About Kevin, from director Lynne Ramsey (making a far too long return to film after the extraordinary 2002 film Morvern Caller.)  Her latest received amazing early reviews and stars Tilda Swinton as a mother of a boy responsible for a school shooting.

The less fortunate in competition titled include The Skin I Live In, the latest from Pedro Almodovar that stars one-time muse Antonio Banderas, which received mixed reviews, and no awards.  Julia Leigh's fascinating looking and Jane Campion endorsed provocation Sleeping Beauty also received mixed reviews.  Another potential dud might be This Must Be the Place, starring Sean Penn as an aging rocker, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo), as did Cannes favorite and past Palme D'Or winner Nanni Moretti (he won for 2001 for The Son's Room) whose latest, We Have a Pope flopped.

The jury was headed by Robert De Niro, and included director Olivier Assayas (Carlos), Argentinian producer and actress Martina Gusman, director and Chad-native Mahamat-Salet Haroun, actor Jude Law, Chinese producer Nansun Shi, actress Uma Thurman, director Johnnie To (Vengeance), and Norwegian author Linn Ullmann.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Ongoing Shenanigans of Lars von Trier

The awkward clip above is from the press conference at the Cannes Film Festival where director\auteur\provocateur Lars von Trier, sitting beside his latest actress\victim Kirsten Dunst, now infamously recalls his affections for Nazism and Hitler.  Whether as a lark, a merely nonsensical sarcastic rib, or who knows, his true sentiments, it's the statement that made me "persona non grata" and forced his exit from the storied film festival.  Strangely, just before this public meltdown, his latest film, Melancholia, (which is\was in competition, and has been described as an end of the world Rachel Getting Married) was favorably reviewed, and many early reviewers suggested it might snap a few prizes come festival end.  The speech itself is fairly disgusting, and poor Dunst's pained reactions make it even more uncomfortable.  But then again, this is Lars von Trier, a man whose work and reputation is built around discomfort and provocation.  A man who has publicly admitted many times over that he's unstable.  This is hardly the first time even he's made a ruckus at Cannes.  A longtime fixture of the festival, his 2000 musical Dancer in the Dark won the Palme D'Or, he can usually be counted on to bring in a fair share of controversy both inside and outside the theater.  His last venture to the film, for 2009's Antichrist, had another press conference meltdown of sorts.  A journalist questioned the violent nature of the film (of which that film had plenty of--including a fairly graphic display of genital mutilation), which turned into an outburst and war of words by our favorite nutty Danish-man.

In his films, including Breaking the Waves, Dogville, The Idiots and Antichrist, he's not shy about pointing fingers and causing trouble.  A longtime critic of both American and European values (even though his well documented fear of flying has kept his traveling at a minimum; he's never stepped foot on American soil), his films always raise eyebrows, either for the explicit sexual content, seemingly nonchalant gashes of violence, and implicit judgments of human nature.  Not to mention a severe brutality, usually directed at his female protagonists (Emily Watson, Bjork, Nicole Kidman, Charlotte Gainsborg, and Kirsten Dunst could likely form a support group.)  And while response of the films has always been all over the map, I would assume even from his fan base, there's always something eye-catching, revolting, interesting and endlessly fascinating about his films.  Which I suppose raises the question: Is Cannes being unfair in banning a known provocateur from its gates?  Should this not be a safe haven for films, and not the baggage that may come from its filmmakers?  The endless question of separating a man from his art, which will likely never be fully resolved.

In 1915, D.W. Griffith changed and morphed cinema into a modern age with Birth of a Nation, of course that film righteously endorsed the Ku Klux Klan, shameful message but the film did change the landscape of movies.  Elia Kazan named names in a fearful and silly era of American history, was that right?  Of course not, but the man is also responsible for A Streetcar Named Desire, Splendor in the Grass, and On the Waterfront, his ultimate apologia that still sparks nerves (including my own), but undeniably on of the most artful and important films in American history.  Whatever Roman Polanski did with that young girl was surely wrong, but does that make Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, The Pianist or The Ghost Writer wrong as well.  Ditto for Woody Allen-- his latest, Midnight in Paris is his strongest and most wistful effort in years.  And well, Mel Gibson...perhaps we should let sleeping dogs lie, although he played nice this year as The Beaver played not speaking, of course.

The point is that while the words spoken by von Trier are wrongheaded and silly, and at the same time it's difficult to judge the heads of the Cannes Film Festival for being too-sensitive (no matter how much time has passed, the subject will always be murky), there should perhaps be some considerations as too comments uttered by a self-described unstable man promoting his latest provocation.  No one will likely ever find out the truth behind the comments themselves...even his apologies after the fact must be read in quotation marks.  But the man's art (which is what it is) should speak for itself.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Opening This Week

With limited options this weekend, make the responsible choice fellow filmgoers.

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides- Johnny Depp returns with a new director (that would be Rob Marshall, he of Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha fame, that was not a typo), new cast (Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are out; Penelope Cruz is in) for the fourth (wtf?) installment of the never-ending seaside chronicles.  I stopped after the first movie, and I'm damned proud of it!

  • Midnight in Paris- The smarter choice this weekend, for those fortunate enough to be near the six theaters it will playing in this weekend, is Woody Allen's latest dreamy ode to Paris.  Forget the past few frustrated Allen fans, this one's actually good.

The Tree of Life: Part One Reconciling the Hype

Every so often, sometimes years in between, a film comes along that often sight unseen has the illusion to change, distort, and powerfully absorb the movie-obsessed population.  Often this comes a major filmmaker whose prior work has been analyzed, dissected and over-watched and seen as beacon and standard.  The filmmaking already exhibited by Terrence Malick, whose five previous films have been leisurely made throughout his four-decade career, proves that his movies are those rare celluloid creations to be treasured.  The challenge of course that in building an totally excusable fandom around his work requires a lot of patience.  Not just because of his snail pace in making pictures, lots has been said of his perfectionism, but the patience required in actually watching his movies, all of which are precise and delicate, meandering and slow.  His latest, The Tree of Life, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this past week (his first trip to the festival since 1998's The Thin Red Line; he's only made one movie in the interim, The New World, 2005) and was greeted with mixed results.  There were "boos," of course there would be, as well as solid praise for what looks like a beautifully intriguing and maddening piece of work exploring the meaning of it all, or something, all while distilling 1950s Americana.  As one not fortunate enough to be in France, I wait, an all too familiar feeling when dealing with Malick, but as the we get to the release, now within days-counting reach (unfortunately cinemaphiles not currently residing in major cities, will have to wait longer), there's that irritating question mark.  And one, and really this is just personal therapy I'm sharing, must take a deep breath and rationalize that no, The Tree of Life will not be the cinematic equivalent of the second coming of Christ (though many early reviewers have likened to a religious experience) and that no film could ever really live up to expectations set so high by the devotees of Malick.  Sure some all already proclaiming it's a masterpiece, and that will continue, others are more taciturn about distilling their acclaim, fully aware that cinematic experiences like I'm sure this is (and is true of the rest of body of work) are movies require more waiting and more patience.  His past films always seem to delight and haunt and linger long afterwards, while watching them can lull and confuse.  Taking a deep breath...

And while others enjoy they're favorite sports teams, or television shows, or recreational drugs, or what have you, I have the cinema.  And those tingling with anticipation moments when a proven artist births something new, there's always that pre-euphoric panic of what if it all goes wrong. Perhaps the last time an auteur had this much at stake was last winter when Darren Aronofsky unveiled Black Swan, the time before that might have been when Paul Thomas Anderson released There Will Be Blood (2007), another filmmaker that keeps us waiting, thankfully he is allegedly going back to work with a film called The Master, slated for release in 2013, starring Joaquin Phoenix, oh boy.  But it's different with Malick, who in five films has exhibited such an uncommon eye for slice of life Americana, even when settled in different, scary and exotic locations.  There's a beatific naturalism and beauty, even in stories hardly beautiful.  An obsessively detailed place for dreams and nightmares.  Working on his must be exhausting, that's the only excuse for such little output.  And for that reason, he's likely one of the very few (perhaps the only one in our current climate) who could get away with what he does, for his films aren't at all accessible, four quadrant runaway successes; they require too much time, and typically multiple viewings.  Yet there's a strong and passionate legacy to all of his films, of which I truly doubt will change, whatever the initial, or long-standing reaction to The Tree of Life is.  Malick has been compared to Stanley Kubrick, and more than one early reviewer has compared The Tree of Life to 2001: A Space Odyssey; again taking a deep breath.

His first film, and I would strongly argue, his best, though that's not a fight I want have was Badlands (1973), which came out in a different movie world, likely the solar opposite to one today, or even the one a decade before it came out.  Malick was of the generation of other prominent New Wave American filmmakers that churned out the most challenging and biting of product during the late 1960\early 1970s, although Malick might have been the most unassuming of a bunch that included Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, et al.  And perhaps Badlands was kind of unassuming when it opened, for what a strange and beguiling film it was, and still is.  Starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the film was a dramatization of a real-life killing spree that took place in late 1950s.  I think the poster's tagline explains it best:

"He was 25 years old.
He combed his hair like James Dean.
She was 15.
She took music lessons and could twirl a baton.
For a while they lived in a tree house.
In 1959, she watched as he killed a lot of people."

And the film like the above words, is oddly settled, strangely beautiful, and a brilliant mixture of the innocence and violent.  With also a squarely American treatise that our country, like the young killers in Badlands, have always mixed the innocence with the violent hand in hand.  A more urgent comment on American mores came five years after Badlands with Days of Heaven, in which set during the turn of the century (his films were always looking back) starred Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as a couple trying to get out of poverty.  A bigger statement was raised, but truth be said, I myself have to revisit the film; it was the first Malick picture to win an Oscar, for Best Cinematography (all of films, except for Badlands, have been nominated for they're pretty pictures), and Malick himself won the Best Director at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival.

He sat the next two decades out, and returned with The Thin Red Line (1998), based on James Joyce's novel, a WWII epic that had the misfortune (or maybe not) of being released the same year as Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.  Featuring an all star cast that included Sean Penn (also in The Tree of Life), John Cusack, George Clooney and John Travolta, largely set during the battle of Guadalcanal.  The movie appears not at all interested in it's cavalcade of celebrities (all of whom, I'm sure jumped at the chance to work with the mysterious enigmatic filmmaker), for Malick is through and through always the star of films, even as the unassuming man himself will never do press releases, and rarely is ever photographed.  More challenging and cerebral than Speilberg's more popular epic, there's still an broader scope in Malick's meditative portrait of war.  Seven years later came The New World (2005), which went even further back in American history, focusing on the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas, and again showcased his gifts for a broader, serious story tapered into a poetic, prosaic way; nature and the outdoors are important in all of his films.  Distributor New Line Cinema botched the release of The New World so badly that it was quite clear which cut of the film got shown where...I still feel cheated, but whatever version I saw was meticulous and ripely beautiful, if perhaps for the first time, slightly missing the early magic.

Surprisingly, and perhaps most shockingly of all, the elusive filmmaker is already preparing his next film, a love story starring Ben Affleck, Rachel MacAdams, Javier Bardem, Rachel Weisz and The Tree of Life co-star Jessica Chastain.  Known now just as Untitled Terrence Malick project, with an IMDb release date of 2012, which means I'll give it five or six years to see the light of day.
 And now I wait.  Taking another deep breath...

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen's beguiling and romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris, his first film set in France in a continuation of his European travels that started with the London-set 2005 feature Match Point, Owen Wilson plays an aimless writer utterly awe-struck by the beauty of the Paris streets.  That same sense of wonder and imagination possibly struck Allen as he set about putting together his richest, wittiest and tenderest film in ages.  On one end a sort of throwback to his hit-and-miss days of whimsy and invention that marked his earlier films, especially in the 1980s-- The Purple Rose of Cairo seems like the best companion film to this one.  On another hand, perhaps a more deeply personal film that Allen has presented in quite some time, as Wilson's character, Gil, a successful hack screenwriter trying to gain artistic creed with his first novel who believes he was born in the wrong era, perhaps Allen is presenting something more closer in spirit to himself than anything the enigmatic iconoclast has shown.  For Allen, an auteur whose best and most impassioned work is likely long past, was always an artist seemingly living in the past, just as his early work represented a future to be copied and replicated in romantic comedy from then on and forever.  His films, even the ones more timeless, have always seemed to be looking back, and reflecting on a bygone era either directly or subliminally.

To sublime delight Midnight in Paris is smart comedy that represents the very best of both of vintage Allen, preserving his undeniably knack for witty and offbeat dialogue and again presenting an ensemble of actors, whom either consciously or not, at least appear in on the joke, and a lovely sense of joie de vivre that permeates the spirited ninety minutes of celluloid.  Our romantic dreamer Gil, played with minimalist Allen-esque tics with superb amusement by Wilson, is vacationing in the City of Lights with his finance Inez (Rachel MacAdams) and her capitalist parents, played with aplomb by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy.  There's a few other side characters, including Paul, a woo-er of Inez's past, a "pseudo-intellectual" type played humorously by Michael Sheen.  But the fun begins one drunken evening when an old school carriage lifts Gil out of his bored little rut into a wonderland.  He's taken exactly where he feels he fits, a Golden Age-era of art and romance, mingling with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

Is it a dream, or a hallucination, or a nervous's probably all and neither at the same time.  What's for sure is that for a lovely stretch of the film, the reality doesn't concern us a bit; instead we're lulled by a sense of sublime movie magic.  Gil meets a girl, a muse and flirt to various creative types, played by the always appealing Marion Cotillard, and while the role may appear a tad thin, the expressiveness of Cotillard's flirt radiates strongly with Gil's timidity and attraction.  And there it asks one of the oldest movie fantasy questions ever, either choose to live the fantasy where all may be golden and spectacular, but also artificial, or go back up the rabbit hole to the harsher, less golden real world.  This being set in Paris, lovingly filmed by Darius Khondji (Panic Room, The City of Lost Children) the choice may seem win win.  The spirit and pleasure of the film is however based in that it doesn't take itself too seriously embracing the pitter-patter of Allen's dialogue with nicely calibrated bits of French farce, that hopefully will appeal to both the most and least romantic of audiences.

The surprise, of course, and this might appear silly since it's happened many times before, but that Allen, after a few too many years of sub-par and painfully un-fulfilling films finds his groove in a movie that could have easily been made at any point in his career, and likely worked.  In recent films like Whatever Works and When You Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, it seemed like stale rehashes of works he did far better in the 1970s, and yet this one has a far more timeless appeal (there's really only one modern reference in the entire picture, when Gil and his soon to be father-in-law debate blue and red state ideals) and a gentler, less bitter take on his characters-- Wilson might be one of the more subtle talking mouthpieces for Allen-inspired neurosis to date.  There's an overall sense that by going back, and making this seemingly silly time-travel romantic travelogue, that Allen's career has come full circle.  Allen, once, and forever an emblematic staple of Manhattan, Midnight in Paris' opening montage has a brief reminder of the great one that started in one of the best films, Manhattan.  That one showcased his fair city while Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" provided the musical backdrop.  Here he showcases another great city with the same grandeur and affection.  Perhaps America's favorite old school neurotic has grown up.  B+

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Perhaps not the feminist manifesto that it's being sold as, but in Bridesmaids, the first in the Judd Apatow-produced canon of naughty-but-nice R-rated comedies to be headlined as well as authored by women, does offer a generosity of spirit, and a witty and often blunt deconstruction of female bonding.  All the while, it's also perhaps the sharped comedy to come around in some time, mostly due to the infinite talents of its star and co-writer Kristen Wiig, demonstrating a single woman at her most pitiful and insecure, exhibiting such ugly (yet natural) behavior of passive aggressive self loathing, Wiig has that rare sparkle that despite it all, she's also undeniably appealing and utterly sympathetic.  And so it need not matter of the silly debate of whether the girls can out gross out the boys (Bridesmaids proves they can, but still have a shred of dignity left), but instead savor the riotous, if a bit over-extended, raunchy, but sweet, silly, but painful hilarity of what's likely the most memorable Apatow-ian affair since his 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Wiig plays Annie, a baker, whose shop closed down as a product of the recession; she also single, but partakes in meaningless sexual trysts with a rich cad (John Hamm, hamming it up as the worst bachelor in cinemas in some time) whose insecurities and demons are all unleashed when childhood friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces her engagement.  The already unstable Annie really starts to crumble as she's introduced to her fellow bridesmaids-- all of whom richer, and nuttier than herself.  There's Megan (Melissa McCarthy), a butch and blunt woman, who would be the brunt of a joke in any guys raunch-fest, but her is given an odd self-confidence.  Then there's Rita, played with a tough glare by Reno 911 vet Wendi McLendon Covey, a bored an unsatisfied stay at home mom, Becca (Ellie Kemper), a prim, recently married Charlotte-type, and finally Helen (Rose Bryne), a glamorous trophy wife who becomes Annie's rival.  There's a beautiful pained sequence where Annie and Helen make competing toasts at Lillian's engagement party that's gut-busting in it's hilarious, and naked truthful in it's spot-on portrayal of female one-up-man-ship.  The substance in Bridesmaids comes from its female relationships, and it makes witty asides on both romantic and class envy; the audience is bruised by Annie's immediate disadvantage.

Bridesmaids is hardly a comedy of manners however, it promises the same level of gross out shenanigans, a delivers them.  Two sequences in particular should please the Farrelly Brothers devotees-- one involving an ill-fated fitting session for the bridal party gone terribly wrong thanks to some bad Brazilian food; the best part of the scatological-enriched sequence is the extended shot of Wiig's embarrassed but sickly face trying to hold the whole thing together.  The other sequence, and the best of the entire film, is a comedic tour-de-force as the party heads to Las Vegas where Wiig's plane phobia morphs into a blisteringly funny and spiteful mania after a tranquilizer-induced diatribe, mostly at the expense of Helen.  The beautiful thing about the extended sequence, is firstly that the girls never make it to Vegas (thus ending it's silly comparison with 2009's The Hangover), and the wondrous showmanship of Wiig's manic timing as she tries so hard, through the entire movie in fact, to remain quiet and unassuming, but that's just a mask for the rage and jealousy and insecurity that slowly eating her up.  That Annie remains so likable and charming throughout such ugly and painful behavior makes it possible to see Wiig as a far more sparkling star.

And while Bridesmaids may not perhaps be the transgressive female driven comedy that well set the standard for a better and more equal tomorrow.  It's not, and no movie could ever leave up that kind of hysterical nonsense, it is irresistibly charming, even when it succumbs to genre cliches.  It is also a romantic comedy by trade, and Annie does meet a nice man in an Irish cop (Chris O'Dowd) who calls her bluff early, as she struggles to let her own guard down.  There's also a lessons learned finale in which as sort of sisterhood is established between the crazy bridal party.  But even the pricklier moments, there's enough fun and generosity between the actors and characters, that no one feels excluded and that warmth not only feels fleshed out, but finally earned, for these women, nutty and silly most of the time also come across as real, with insecurities that are as relatable and human.  Bridesmaids gets what the Sex and the City movies long forgot-- that the fairy tale is nice, but it come from some place real.  There might even be room for a brief commentary on female-centered films of the past as well, notable for the casting of the late, and great Jill Clayburgh as Annie's mom.  This was her final film, but many will remember Clayburgh as a defining actress of the moment during the late 70s and early 80s in such sexual revolution landmarks as An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Starting Over (1979.)  Stretching a bit perhaps, but Clayburgh's gentle rhythms of mixing the silly with the painful paved the way for people like Wiig.

Mostly however it the vehicle that hopefully will upshot Wiig to the top of the comedic food chain.  In slight roles in movies like Ghost Town, Knocked Up, Paul and Whip It, as well as countless SNL sketches, even the terrible ones, there is always this unassumingly gentle vivacity to her.  With a rich nuance of simple facial gestures, Wiig has the ability to seem absolutely cute and lovable and deranged within the same beat.  In short, this is her at her brightest and most unbridled, and shines in the best mainstream piece of entertainment so far this year.  B+

Monday, May 16, 2011

Weekend Box Office

It's the second semi-official week of the summer movie season, and the sluggish 2011 returns are starting to form, as Thor hammered its way to the top spot for the second weekend in a row, with a sizable, but relatively healthy drop in ticket sales.  The first surprise of the year may be unfolding in the runner-up slot, as the Kristen Wiig vehicle Bridesmaids, opened to strong numbers as well as surprisingly nimble critical response.  I haven't seen the film yet, but whatever good will can be centered to the singularly talented eclectic comedy of Wiig, I truly support.

  1. Thor- In its second weekend, it retreated 47% for a cumulative North American take of $119 million, which for summer blockbuster delusions of grandeur may not be what Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios wanted, but it's rather healthy for a film like this, especially based on a relatively minor comic book character, and a film that's decent, but far from spectacular.  It's international sales have already surpassed $200 million, further proving the point the American box office returns are starting to mean less and less. 
  2. Bridesmaids- Advertised as a female version of The Hangover, the publicly noted as the first Judd Apatow-endorsed comedy written and starring women, Universal should be very pleased with the $26 million haul it made over its first weekend.  Positive reviews and it's female audience will likely keep word of mouth fairly strong for the next couple of weeks, hopefully The Hangover: Part 2 won't totally squash it out.  That the film only cost $32 million to produce proves what motion picture studios should already know by now-- modestly priced movies can reap huge dividends-- just saying, not every movie needs to be pricey to be seen.
  3. Fast Five- The fifth, but likely not final film in the epic drag racing series dropped a stable 37% in it's third weekend, bringing its total gross to $169 million.  Internationally the film has taken in $277 million, making it the highest grossing film in the series; get ready for "Fast Six: Cruise Control".
  4. Priest- The first summer casualty failed to register anything other than bad reviews and a lukewarm $14 million opening weekend, and that's including ridiculous 3-D inflation.  I feel sorry for Paul Bettany.
  5. Rio- Dropping a scant 2.7% in fifth week of release, the family favorite bird feature has now grossed $125 million.
  6. Jumping the Broom- Surely taking a huge hit due to Bridesmaids, the ethnic-spiced romantic comedy dropped 53% for a total gross of $25 million.
  7. Something Borrowed- Ditto-- dropped 50% and has earned $25 million...poor Kate Hudson.
  8. Water for Elephants- The soapy circus tale may have failed to truly capitalize on its Twilight leading man, but has been doing respectable business, easing 30% in its fourth weekend, proving yet again that female-driven films tend to play out well in the long end, even if they're openings are modest.  It's made $48 million in it's first month of release.
  9. Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family- Perry's latest has made $50 million, easing 47% in it's fourth week of release.
  10. Soul Surfer- This springs "Little Engine That Could" dropped 20% for a total gross of $39 million.
Further down, Will Ferrell's latest attempt at serious movies, Everything Must Go earned nearly $800,000 on 200 screens, perhaps suggesting an ominousness to it's films title.  Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams crossed the $1 million mark, a rare feat for such a specialized documentary, the Joseph Gordon Levitt-headlined Hesher, which premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival was greeted with a sigh, earning $125,000 on 42 screens, while critical-favorite, and James-approved Meek's Cutoff continues to do respectable art house business; its earned $344,000 so far, which is good for a film that is accessible to nearly no one.

Celebrating Woody Allen's 42nd Feature

Woody Allen's latest film, Midnight in Paris, opened the Cannes Film Festival to favorable, it not ravishing reviews which is nearly enough to pose the idea that the film, which opens in limited engagements this week might be an above-average endeavor from America's most celebrated screenwriter.
Looking back on his past:
  • What's Up, Tiger Lily (1966)
  • Take the Money and Run (1969)- first WGA nomination
  • Bananas (1971)- first film to feature Allen favorite Louise Lasser; 2nd WGA nomination
  • Everything You Ever Want to Know About Sex But Were to Afraid to Ask (1972)
  • Sleeper (1973)- first to feature Diane Keaton; 3rd WGA nomination
  • Love & Death (1975)
  • Annie Hall (1977)- landmark and treasure; first Oscar nomination (won for directing and writing, also nominated for acting); 4th WGA nomination and 1st win
  • Interiors (1978)- 5th Oscar nomination; 5th WGA nomination
  • Manhattan (1979)- second landmark and even more glorious treasure; 6th Oscar nomination; 6th WGA nomination.  Meryl Streep played his bitter lesbian ex-wife in her year of discovery.
  • Stardust Memories (1980)- the 80s began a year of self reflection of Woody Allen-- a mixed bag critically, but perhaps even looser and more inventive than his landmark 70s achievements; 7th WGA nomination.
  • A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)- first to feature Mia Farrow, who received a Razzie Nomination for Worst Actress; sigh!
  • Zelig (1983)- 8th WGA nomination.
  • Broadway Danny Rose (1984)- two more Oscar nominations (8); 9th WGA nomination and 2nd win.
  • The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)- landmark and treasure featuring Jeff Daniels single greatest performance; 9th Oscar nomination and 10th WGA nomination.
  • Hannah & Her Sisters (1986)- cinematic treasure; 3rd Oscar win and 10th nomination; 11th WGA nomination and 3rd win.
  • Radio Days (1987)- 11th Oscar nomination; 12th WGA nomination.
  • September (1987)
  • Another Woman (1988)- featured Gena Rowlands.
  • New York Stories (1989)
  • Crimes & Misdemeanors (1989)- earned two Oscar nominations (13), 13th WGA nomination and 4th win.  Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
  • Alice (1990)- 14th Oscar nomination; 14th WGA nomination.
  • Shadows & Fog (1991)- co-starred Madonna, securing Allen's reputation as an auteur with the ability to get anybody to appear in his films.
  • Husbands & Wives (1992)- landmark and treasure and the last to feature Mia Farrow for obvious reasons; earned his 15th Oscar nomination and 15th WGA nomination. How Judy Davis (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) lost the Oscar is one of the Academy's greatest travesties.
  • Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)- a nifty, if slight re-teaming with Keaton
  • Bullets Over Broadway (1994)- landmark and treasure; two more Oscar nominations (17), one more WGA nomination (16); Dianne Wiest deservedly won her second Oscar here-- her first win was for Hannah & Her Sisters, cementing Allen as won the top directors for Oscar-winning performances.
  • Mighty Aphrodite (1995)- 18th Oscar nomination; 17th WGA nomination; Mira Sorvino won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her flightly hooker portrayal.
  • Everyone Says I Love You (1996)- This movie always makes me smile.
  • Deconstructing Harry (1997)- Divisive, but good film (his third best of 90s after Bullets Over Broadway and Husbands & Wives), earned his 19th Oscar nomination.
  • Celebrity (1998)- Awful film that swerved a downhill spiral to this point on unfortunately.
  • Sweet & Lowdown (1999)- Venerable showman preserved good will just a year later, featured Oscar nominated performances from Sean Penn and Samantha Morton.
  • Small Time Crooks (2000)- Featured Tracy Ullman.
  • The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
  • Hollywood Ending (2002)- First of his films to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Anything Else (2003)
  • Melinda & Melinda (2005)- Far from great, but Radha Mitchell's performance is a delight.
  • Match Point (2005)- Landmark and treasure- second Allen film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, first to feature Scarlet Johansson; earned his 20th Oscar nomination.
  • Scoop (2005)
  • Cassandra's Dream (2008)
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)- Perhaps minor, but a welcome modern Allen film; 3rd to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival; Penelope Cruz won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar; Allen earned his 18th WGA nomination.
  • Whatever Works (2009)- Dreadful film, but Patricia Clarkson is awesome.
  • You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)- Dreadful as well; 4th to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
For nearly four decades Woody Allen has brought a film every year, and while it's always difficult being a Woody-booster, one always has the hope and neurotic desire that the next one will be a classic.  He's already prepping his latest film, another European odyssey, set in Italy with Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg and Roberto Benigni called Bop Decameron.  As a follower, I suppose I'll be there next year.  In whatever form, it's undeniable that Woody Allen hasn't changed the cinematic landscape, or that romantic comedies could ever be the same without his influence.  Perhaps never before was they're ever an a more clearly defined version of the neurotic male psyche ever put to screen.  Yes, very Jewish, and nearly always divisive, but think of an American movie universe without Woody Allen...doesn't exist.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What's Your Number

A romantic comedy featuring Anna Faris.  Looks pleasant and cute enough, much like it's leading lady, and for a by-the-numbers, raunchy little ditty it could be quite good.  One has to think, however, of the wasted potential of the gifted Faris.  In movies as silly or nearly terrible like the Scary Movie franchise, Just Friends, Waiting and The House Bunny the petite, pretty blonde has such a willingness and almost preternatural joie de vivre that there's always been that looming thought of what magic could strike if she was in a film that used her charm and all-goes-out desire for mania and comic pratfalls to the max.  This may be that film, or maybe not.  For those who saw it, there was a small, nearly enchanting portrait of what that might look like in Gregg Araki's stoner comedy Smiley Face (2007), in which Faris as a plucky airhead, gave a nearly faultless comic performance of a girls hard luck day after ingesting very special cupcakes.  Mainstream Hollywood, I believe you owe this lady a commercial counterpoint.

Daydream Nation

There's a wistful and looming sense of danger in Daydream Nation, a well-made art house noir from writer\director Michael Goldbach.  There's also a massive assemblage of ideas, tones and narratives that both add and divert to the very strengths of the film.  Sadly, this dream turns out to be yet another precious indie oddity that succumbs to clever screenwriting tics, but there is something to this eerie, romantic teen comedy that can't be totally written off either.  Much of the credit deserves to go to leading lady Kat Demmings, whose almost graceful deadpan humor grounds the movie from the start.  Playing a bored teenage Lolita-type, both holier-than-thou and messed up tart (her hero is Monica Lewinsky), she makes a compelling flirt and plays Caroline, a newbie in a backwoods town; she's a postmodern femme fatale, albeit with all too clever, nearly Diablo Cody-ian dialogue-- best line: "This town has more incest in it than an Atom Egoyan movie," which might provoke agreeable guffaws to the three people you get the joke.  It's the layering of subplots and side characters that do a disservice to what could have been a crafty and nutty art house variant of high school angst and David Lynch level absurdity-- for instance, a random industrial fire burns in the background for atmosphere.

The story is fairly simple, before it gets really weird-- bored Caroline comes on to her hottie teacher Barry (Josh Lucas), a lonely wannabe novelist and begins an inappropriate tryst with little difficulty.  There's also a sweet, albeit messed up stoner boy pining for Caroline, an odd young man with some baggage named Thurston (Reece Thompson), and we're set for a quiet, but affecting love triangle.  However, there's also a serial killer hacking off pretty young things, a high school girl Caroline is giving an awful complex to for no apparent reason than her own amusement, an indictment of teenage drug use, and a little grown-up flirting for Andie MacDowell, who plays Thurston's riled up mother.  When the film settles and focuses on the nice, gentle crush between Caroline and Thurston, Daydream Nation feels pleasantly calming and even a tad ethereal, and there's a nice awkward chemistry between Demmings and Thompson that feels achingly natural, despite the least naturalistic dialogue to hit art house cinemas in at least a minute.  When the film focuses on Barry, it's unsettling because the more screen time he gets, the more we see just how much a nutbag he really is-- Lucas gives a high wire performance that unfortunately turns sour before any affection can really be bestowed.  The problem is there's too much stuff diluting the simple, dreamy pleasures-- too many subplots, too many uninteresting characters, too much gloom and arbitrary strangeness; that the film is only 96 minutes is fairly startling-- Lynch had less going on is a season of Twin Peaks.

The most striking element is Demmings, featured here in a film few will ever see, as well as a featured player in Thor, a film that everyone will see.  Hopefully this rare comic talent with genuine presence will be given a proper showcase and this Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist alum will scale the heights of precocious projects like this and attain the mainstream affection see richly deserves.  C+

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Moulin Rouge!: 10 Years Later

On May 9, 2001, Baz Luhrmann debuted Moulin Rouge! as the opening of the Cannes Film Festival.  The premiere, I'm sure a prim and opulent affair on the Croisette, was critically divided, some embracing the Spectacular! Spectacular! of it all, others dismissing it as mere drivel, which I suppose is the reputation it still has.  I remember the first time I saw Moulin Rouge!; it was a mid-June afternoon, and after such fanfare, such heartfelt passion, and awful derision, I wasn't sure what to expect.  The musical genre in film was long dormant, for decades in fact, and though Lars von Trier had given some art house revitalization a year before with Bjork tragedy Dancer in the Dark, this was a ballsy premise, and if it failed, would set back the Hollywood musical even further.  On first viewing I wasn't truly sure what I had seen, was it too much, not enough, something brilliant, or an utter fiasco...I was overwhelmed and my sixteen year old self, perhaps due to the fact that this was my Luhrmann de-virginization (it was only afterward that I sought out Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo+Juliet); I knew I had seen something, I just wasn't sure what exactly.  And so I ruminated.  And slowly after time, the silly pop romance between Satine (Nicole Kidman), the nightclub courtesan and Christian (Ewan McGregor), the spirited, but impoverished writer struck me as something utterly cosmic.  And it wasn't until I started watching it religiously on DVD that I soon realized that this was a once in lifetime film that needn't be analyzed, but worshiped, for it embodies everything that is bold and beautiful and magical about the cinema.

From the start, the grand 20th Century Fox logo plays with classical accompaniment, where a red curtain opens to a magical land-- 1899 Paris, from a purely mad Aussie perspective segueing into "Nature Boy," and a panoramic view of a bohemian paradise.  Period setting with pop songs...brilliant and mad.  We meet our characters, and they are a cinematic staple, and that's the's the grand statement of pop music that makes human emotion click, and Moulin Rouge! is not about plot or convention, it's about feeling...we need to feel everything that is going on.  From the beginning, a massive undertaking to watch, or endure, or to have filmed, I'm sure, Moulin Rouge! requires a lot of patience.  The ADD first third, where everything is set it motion in purposely cartoon, Looney Tones fashion, it likely loses more viewers in the first twenty minutes than most films do in the ninety.  But it's on repeated viewings that the proceedings make sense, and bother's all build up to the great tragic-comic show, the Spectacular! Spectacular!  The overbearing meta, pop music, postmodernism settles in, at least for me, about the time Christian starts singing the Elton John song "Your Song," suddenly the film slows down and takes rockets from the romantic beat of the a pop song telling you everything you every needed to know.  Perhaps it's McGregor's gentle crooning, or Kidman's worshipful glance, but there's a genuine pulse that starts to run it's way through your veins.  It's not just the opulent production values, or the nifty special effects, but a heartfelt beat that rockets the scene.  Suddenly the magic of love can lift one up to dance in the sky and the clouds will lift, being it's set it Paris, the Eiffel Tower would be an ideal setting for a moonlight dance in the clouds.  The film makes its ultimate musical gesture in the "Elephant Love Medley," where are young lovers realize their fates, while name-checking nearly a dozen love songs of the last fifty years, and the banality of pop songs makes its heartiest impression-- it would so corny, if it weren't so beautiful.  The later half of Moulin Rouge! is nearly all tragedy, yet with its emotion worn so warmly on its sleeves, it's hard to resist, and I nearly always succumb to the misty mush, for this is a movie that is felt, not contemplative.
Despite the mixed reaction, at years end, Moulin Rouge! received eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, and Nicole Kidman for Best Actress; it won two awards-- costume design and art direction (both of which were shared by Luhrmann's wife Catherine Martin.)  And while the awards momentum for such a nutty film is accomplishment in itself, for a film so widely acknowledged by the Academy, two were unfairly snubbed.  The first was for leading actor Ewan McGregor, who so charmingly and with such unbridled abandon played our dashing hero with utmost sincerity and vulnerability; his work is easily, I'd say, the best of his career, and one of the grandest emotional performances that any male has brought to the screen in a some time.  Kidman's work was acknowledged, and while wonderful-- I'd argue it's one the strongest pure movie star roles since the days of Marilyn; she has to be sex pot, muse, lover, and martyr nearly all at once-- McGregor's work is probably the more challenging.  The other unfair snub was for the man who created this wondrous descent into madness-- director Baz Luhrmann, without which the whole thing would never have been.  Nearly on a technical side alone (the opening shot had, I believe, the largest scale of visual effects ever for a sequence at that time) he was due, yet for the balance of comedy and tragedy, the influences that ranged from Nirvana to MTV to Shakespeare to classic French farce to La Boheme and Hollywood, it still strikes a nerve in me.

Just as it strikes a nerve that a year later, when Rob Marshall's Chicago opened to greater acclaim and bigger box office, as well as the Best Picture Oscar received much of the credit for reviving the musical genre.  That would be false.  Especially since only two months after Moulin Rouge! polarized mainstream audiences, John Cameron Mitchell debuted the even more transgressive and indie alternative with his Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And yet now we stand at a stalemate as to where the genre (one of the oldest cinematic staples since the invention of sound) stands.  In the decade since, many have come-- The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Rent (2005), The Producers (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007)-- and promptly left the cinematic consensus.  Dreamgirls (2006) and Hairspray (2007) were the two that were the most commercially and critically applauded, but since there's been very little in terms of updating and rejuvenating the genre.  We need another visionary like Luhrmann to dust off the cobwebs of old fashioned-ness and respectability and again let us savior the grandeur and audacity and emotion of the sound of music.

Until then, we can harken back to the tenth anniversary of one of the greatest films ever made.  It hasn't aged a bit.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Beaver

When discussing the long shelved Jodie Foster-directed film, The Beaver, there's really only one place to begin, and that's with it's star Mel Gibson.  The onetime matinee idol, Academy Award winning filmmaker who fell from grace within the Hollywood elite after years of erratic and upsetting behavior returns to headline a feature film.  It would be nice to think of a film being the ultimate redemption; it would be nice if The Beaver was that film.  However, perhaps the nicest thing about the project itself, an unstable mess of ideas and tone, is that it's leading man is surely the best thing about it.  In a performance that's odd and raw, almost unbearable in it's painful exactitude of mental anguish, Mel Gibson, perhaps playing a loosely veiled version of himself, or exacting some unforeseen Method-acting madness has never been so focused on screen before.  Whether in scenes of depression-induced lethargy or vodka-swigging mania, it's either a great performance or one hell of a train wreck; either way it's difficult to turn away.  There's a sad, and kind of sick desire to see how far this man-- he plays a hopelessly depressed man appropriately named Walter Black-- will go, and to what lengths Gibson will go.  That same intoxication however, cannot be said of the film itself, a relentless and often tedious mess that never quite knows what this is supposed to be: tragic drama, ultra dark comedy, after-school special, and it's difficult to know where the blame should be placed-- from first time screenwriter Kyle Killen, or director Foster, who co-stars as Gibson's long suffering wife.

Walter Black is hopelessly depressed, and in case that's too subtle with all of Gibson's acting tics, it's repeated endlessly.  The first lines of dialogue tell us so.  The narrator of this tale is "The Beaver", a sock puppet that Black finds in a dumpster who acts as his therapy to cope with his misery.  That misery also parades over his family-- wife Meredith (Foster), and sons Porter (Anton Yelchin), a teen who fears he's taking after his sad pop, and Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), the saddest little boy to hit cinemas in quite some time.  "The Beaver" speaks with a blunt Aussie accent and acts as surrogate for Walter, and for a while at least it seems to work, even though the idea itself is completely nuts, and nobody around him seems to question it for a second.  Which may be the biggest problem of The Beaver, in that outside of the over-sized, curiosity of Gibson's mania, none of the other characters appear to make much sense, no matter the pedigree of the performers; Foster as director, but especially as actor here appears lost and fairly flat; there's little sense of urgency or immediacy to her character.

Porter gets a parallel story-- a senior in high school, and a pretty depressed lad himself-- he, like his father, uses another voice to get by as he writes other peoples school papers in exchange for money.  His latest assignment comes in writing the valedictory speech of the Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), a pretty cheerleader with a 4.0 grade point average, and depression of her own.  Yelchin and Lawrence's scenes are nicely acted, but are in completely different film of their own, and again, there's the whole question of what kind of film is this supposed to be.  There's little comedic beats (neither of them particularly funny) splattered around The Beaver, only to be followed by several of painstaking discomfort. And what does it all add up to?  The answer is nothing.

It seems strange that Foster, a director who has made a few fine films before (Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays) appears to have lost nearly all her instincts here; it comes off strange and slightly amateurish.  And yet the only place to close would be with it's damaged star, and while that nice idea of a warm reception would certainly save a maligned career, it's that very damage that makes Gibson so fascinating here.  Another actor would never bring so much baggage to a part, and that's basically all there is to bring us in here.  There's little center to Walter Black, very little tangible relation to his character and the rest of the world.  All there is is that odd fascination between Gibson, the actor, a fine actor, and Gibson the target.  C  


Soulless, but still fun, the Marvel collection continues with Thor, the mighty God of Thunder, along with his mighty hammer.  Under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, in his first foray into the land of cinematic franchises and superhero whatsits, there's an odd schizophrenia to the film, one that takes place in two realms, one kind of close to ours, and another in some galaxy, or planet or Tron-inspired setting with Viking costuming and British accents, and while never quite jelling in an artful, thrilling way that one may have hoped, there's still enough spark and energy to moves the film forward in a serviceable, fairly entertaining fashion.  Of course, as was the case with the Iron Mans and Hulks that proceeded it, there's the cynical, nagging distraction that this is all build-up and filler to the grand movie franchise on it's way next year, of course being The Avengers.  Surely this is the longest and most expensive commercial in film history: I can't help but imagine the deluxe Blue-Ray collection set coming our way, inevitably, in a few years time.  Yet, even for the cynical and jaded, Thor offers enough to distract momentarily of the salesmanship being so strongly thrown in our faces.  Much of that is thanks to the charismatic brute at the center, Aussie newcomer Chris Hemsworth, whose mythic, muscular physique belies a soft, nimble comic charm; he's a warrior first and foremost, but also kind of a flirt.

Perhaps what appealed to Branagh, he of the Shakespearean creed, was the mythic qualities to the comic-- Thor comes from Asgard, a pristine intergalactic kingdom, where our hammer-wielding warrior is expectant to be it's future king.  Thor's father is Odin (Anthony Hopkins), a speech-heavy nobleman who tells tales of his epic battles with the Frost Giants, the baddies in the next realm over.  But Thor is impulsive and arrogant, all Norse warrior mentality, little rationality, and soon enough he's banished from his CGI-built kingdom, leaving his duplicitous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as the new king of Asgard and Odin falls ill.  This clearly isn't Hamlet, but Branagh seems far more in his element dealing with royal family dynamics as opposed with anything else in the film, and while a bit heavy-handed in times, the other dimension is given life by the performers and playfulness of the set pieces.  Hopkins, specifically gives Thor a bit of credibility by hamming it just right, laying the histrionics on for full effect.

Once banished from his home (he lands somewhere in New Mexico), Thor meets Jane (Natalie Portman), a flighty scientist type...actually she hits him with her car (twice) in a ultimate meet cute moment.  Jane is studying phenomena in the sky (which of course Thor is related to; he is a god of course) alongside comic relief cohorts Stellan Skarsgaard and Kat Demmings.  There's an awkward mid-section, as Thor adjusts to "normal" life, yet thankfully the fish out of water, Thor-meets-Jane moments settle in fairly early on.  Thor, for instance, must learn manners and anger management, and of course a costume change to accentuate his physique.  Portman, given the requisite, but thankless, girlfriend role plays Jane as an old school screwball comedy heroine, which is fine, but of course we don't particularly care-- there's no Tony Stark-Pepper Potts type of spark.  It's the modern setting that the film shows it's biggest weaknesses-- filmed starkly, with the camera typically angled it feels feel and barren, and contrast between the fantastical and seemingly bland always feels a bit off.  And the visual dichotomy of Thor between the mythic and ordinary never quite coalesces-- the influences seems as varied as cheesy 80s era science fiction yarns and wild west shows.  Greedily retrofitted to 3-D in post-production, the choice is not quite as distracting as in the past, but hardly needed.  The film gears up for an epic showdown between Thor and brother, restoring order in his kingdom, and with father Hopkins, and the inevitable kiss with Jane, as well as a truce between the evil Ice guys...admittedly the villains are sort of lame.  Thor goes down the predictable route, but thanks to Hemsworth's charm and his mighty hammer, a silly but mighty prop, there's an unexpected adrenaline rush towards the climax. 

It's in the obligatory through-line, all en route to next years big epic tentpole that nags...the omnipotent S.H.I.E.L.D., first introduced at the very end of Iron Man (2008) that makes its biggest appearance, and while we can all see where it's going, I can't help but wonder how it's all going to tie in, and the endless stream of build-up, now going on three years of films is starting to get a little old.  B-

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Allowed exclusive access inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France, director Werner Herzog has some incredible footage in Caves of Forgotten Dreams.  It's a wonder and kind of miraculous that this footage exists at all, not just because of site restrictions, but because up until recently, no one had any clue as to what was inside.  Filmed in remarkable 3-D, we see the caverns, the scope and detail of this mysterious site.  Inside there lies painting believed to be the first of its kind in human history, perhaps dating back as early as 33,000 years ago, and the effect, at times, is positively chilling.  That there is a link here between our most primitive past and perhaps even more primitive future.  It's one of the few movies in recent months (perhaps even years) that on a fundamental level feels like it should be obligatory viewing.  And yet, and I apologize in advance for my upcoming fussiness, it still comes across flat and a bit stiff, like an amazingly well-filmed Discovery Channel documentary.  There's precious little sustenance and fair amount of dilly-dallying.  Most of this comes courtesy of it's director\auteur\star Herzog.  For perhaps the first time in his eclectic, meandering, and often exhilarating career, this might of have the best time to show less of his personality.  There's lots of ponderous, off-kilter moments that instead of being enlightening, comes off arch and over-satisfied.  Herzog narrates the film as he journeys with it, and with his thick German intonation it's often difficult to tell what kind of tone he's trying to set: is he going for the dramatic or the ironic?  Often it feels like a bit of both, and it loses its meaning.  There's also a few too arbitrary, over-fussy shots that distract the phenomenal surroundings, alongside the dithering professional talking heads that Herzog travels the caves with, all of whom form a multi-national club of bores.  The discovery is amazing, the film is okay...and it concludes with albino crocodiles... B-

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The first trailer to Martha Marcy May Marlene, a hit of this years Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Best Director prize for Sean Durkin, and soon to be showing at this years Cannes Film Festival.  The tongue twister title concerns a young girl (Elizabeth Olsen) trying to re-assimilate after being taken in a cult.  Recent Academy Award nominee John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) continues his tradition of playing oily slimeballs.  We shall find out in July what the will come of this: Sundance hits don't always translate outside of Park City, but when they do-- Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are All Right, Precious, for recent examples-- well, they do.  And it doesn't help to have a canny promoter of potentially difficult subject matter with Fox Searchlight, currently in a small way saving the cinematic landscape, thanks to backing up tough sells like Black Swan and The Tree of Life, shocking isn't that the house that Rupert built has actually done a bit of good.

Opening This Week

  • Thor- With last week's early summer blockbuster Fast Five reviving the dismal 2011 grosses, it's come to that time-- the first week in May, where the summer movie season officially starts.  This year, it's a comic book superhero flick (check), in 3-D (check), and multi-purpose franchise starter all leading up to a the start of a mega-superhero franchise down the road (check-mate.)  Kenneth Branagh, he of his mighty Shakespearean creed directs newcomer Chris Hemsworth (you might remember him, albeit fleetingly, at the start of 2009's Star Trek-- he was Kirk's dad) as the Marvel-ian Norse warrior with the mighty hammer.  Natalie Portman, Kat Demmings, Rene Russo co-star, as does Anthony Hopkins as his pop.  Rather unexpectedly, or perhaps not (so hard to tell these days), early reviews have fairly positive.  The big question is whether it will break Fast Five's record of the best opening of 2011.  The bigger question, naturally, of course is if it's really any good, and worthy of wasting a few more hours of celluloid on waiting for The Avengers to come.
  • Something Borrowed- As the superhero antithesis of the weekend, there's a romantic comedy starring Ginnifer Goodwin (a superior actress in need of something stronger, now!), Kate Hudson, Colin Egglesfield and John Krasinki.  Something tells me the dire shape of romantic comedies will not quite be remedied by this one.
  • Jumping the Broom- Further superhero counter-programming, another romantic comedy, this one with a bit more of an urban edge centering around the wedding of two people from different sides of the tracks. Stars Paula Patton, Laz Alonso, Angela Bassett and Loretta Devine.

  • The Beaver- The oddball Mel Gibson starrer finally hits theaters (a few this weekend at least) about a depressed man who finds redemption through a beaver-shaped sock puppet.  Jodie Foster (returning behind the camera for the first time since 1995's Home for the Holidays) also co-stars as his concerned wife.  21st century Harvey or another shot in the arm for the PR-plagued Gibson-- only time will tell.
  • Last Night- A are-they-or-aren't-they cheating story revolving around a young married couple of the cusp of potential adultery.  Stars Sam Worthington and Keira Knightley.  Oh, pretty people, why can't you just be happy with what you've got.  Also available on VOD.
  • Passion Play- How's this for an oddball line-up: Passion Play stars Mickey Rourke, Bill Murray and Megan Fox-- curious what the casting director of this film's urine sample looks like.  Anyhow it's a story about an angel (Fox) who's under the wing of a gangster-type (Murray), who finds her savior in a trumpet player (Rourke.)  Okay...
  • Poetry- Winner of the best screenplay prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, this South Korean film from the writer\director of Secret Sunshine, Chang-dong Lee focuses on a sixty-something year old woman with Alzheimer's disease faced with a heinous family tragedy.
  • Daydream Nation- Kat Demmings fans can rejoice as she will be present in not able to most visible movie opening this weekend, but also the least visible.  In this indie, she plays a big city Lolita type in a small town making trouble with her teacher (Josh Lucas) and a townie (Reese Thompson.)  The trailer review blurb says it's "Juno by David Lynch," I can kinda dig that.

Monday, May 2, 2011

An Homage to Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick - a filmography - from mwoutisseth on Vimeo.
Simply beautiful.  What's your favorite Stanley Kubrick film.  I'm torn between Lolita and A Clockwork Orange, and on other days, Dr. Strangelove.


The first art for Lars von Trier's latest, Melanchlia has arrived.  It's kind of dreamy, yet again the print art for von Trier's work is always striking.

Love him or hate him...I've swung both ways...he's a bold, ballsy real nutbag of filmmaker, and bless him for that.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Numbers mean absolutely nothing, but it's notable that the summer season, nearly two months before the actual calendar change is nearly underway.  And for the first time in 2011, there's a bit of relief.  This sad movie year thus far, both critically, but especially commercially finally has it's first blockbuster, and it came from a ten-year-old drag racing series in it's fifth time at the bat.

  1. Fast Five- grossed $83 million dollars this past weekend, making it the highest debut of any film in 2011, easily doubling the second place victor, Rio, which grossed $39.2 million in its first weekend.  The highest grossing Fast and Furious starter ever, and biggest weekend opening in history (money wise, not attendance wise) for distributor Universal Pictures.  Strangely enough, it's also the most highly reviewed film in the venerable (and now, never-ending, I'm sure) franchise.  Yeah for movies; but I'm ready for some substance...who's with me?  Anyone...
  2. Rio- came in second with $14 million, raising its gross to $103 million-- it's now the third highest grossing film of 2011, just behind Rango and Hop, and only the fourth film so far this year to cross the $100 million barrier...the February Adam Sandler vehicle Just Go With It is the fourth film this year to do so.  An interesting fact pertaining to both Fast Five and Rio is that both films opened in international markets before opening in North America, and both have exceeded in grosses abroad, making it more apparent and crucial how worldwide box office is in today's climate-- next weekend's likely champion, Thor opened this weekend in both Great Britain and Australia, and has already made nearly $100 million internationally.  The times have changed...America is not the top anymore, and Hollywood has realized it!
  3. Tyler Perry's Medea's Big Happy Family- in it's second weekend, the four-thousandth Medea movie in a decade made $10 million for a $41 million total gross so far.  Anyone else have allusions that Tyler Perry swims around in a money vault a la Scrooge McDuck in Duck Tales...not at all comparing him to the cartoon billionaire, just a thought.
  4. Water for Elephants- the soapy Depression-era circus epic starring Elle Woods and the Twilight boy dropped nearly 45% in its second weekend out, but the beautiful looking, if oddly subdued romantic tale will make it out just fine.  With a production budget of only $38 million (which is hard to believe, considering how finely calibrated the production values are) the film has already made $32 million.  The elephant is very charming however, so fans of the book will likely embrace it.
  5. Prom- the Disney flick about the most important social event of any high schooler made only $5 million in its first weekend-- I guess people are more interested in actually going to prom, than watching a movie about it, and the people out of school (like myself) likely don't to revisit those days.
  6. Hookwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil- calling it right now...worst title of any film in 2011.  Apparently six years was too long for anyone to care about a sequel to the modestly profitable Shrek rip-off Hookwinked, as it only made $4 million opening weekend.
  7. Soul Surfer- too modest to really be called the sleeper hit of the spring, but in it's fourth weekend the Christian-themed inspirational surfer story has held up fairly well.  Easing only 39% percent, it has earned $33 million, off a production budget of only $18 million.
  8. Insidious- for a film that only cost $1.8 million to make, this Patrick Wilson-Rose Byrne haunted house film may be the true sleeper hit of the spring.  Opening very modestly ($13 million), the film has made $48 million in five weeks, losing very little each weekend, atypical for a horror film, and it's already well ahead of it's competition-- that already forgotten fourth chapter known as Scream 4.  I guess I should actually go see it.
  9. Hop- Easter is over, and so is Hop, as it fell 79% this weekend, but all is well as it has made $105 million so far.
  10. Source Code- dropping 50% in its fifth weekend, my favorite film of 2011 (so far, and really only by default...but it's still good so go see it if you haven't already) has made a respectable $48 million, as it makes it slow exit from theaters near you.
Out of the top ten this weekend are African Cats ($10.6 total gross), Hanna (35.9 total gross), Scream 4 ($35.4 total gross), Limitless ($76 total gross) and Arthur ($31.6 total gross), you are all gone, but not forgotten...

In limited release new, nothing was particularly eventful...both small time spring success stories Jane Eyre and Win Win continued their reach to modest commercial returns, as they rapidly lose theaters, while Meek's Cutoff continued performing reasonably well for the type of movie ain't going to cross over, and I say that with love as a firm supporter of the film.  The biggest new release was Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the first documentary shot in 3-D, which opening wonderfully-- playing on 5 screens the picture earned $127,000 for a per-screen average of $25,000.  Not too shabby for a documentary, and one of the best averages so far this year.

What did you see this weekend?
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