Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Our Idiot Brother

The familiar and welcoming coincide nicely with Our Idiot Brother, an ensemble comedy that's easily digestible as it cloyingly obvious.  Filmed in absolute TV-readiness, but with an assured and engaging ensemble of actors, the overly retreaded feels at times, almost refreshing.  For this is yet another in the long familiar canon of dysfunctional quirky family comedies that's meant to tug at the heart and at the funny bones of any and all.  What the film has going for it in strides is the gamesmanship of a group of actors that through some sort of alchemy or bribery or whatever the case makes the cliches upon cliches that pile up not feel so.  Directed by Jesse Peretz (The Ex and The Chateau, an improvisational comedy starring the titular brother, Paul Rudd) creates such a relaxed environment, likely not only for his actors, but for his audience as well that it feels hard pressed to judge to harshly on the films deficits.  The humor comes easy, but not exactly trailer\marketing-ready-- there's laughs, but in the subtle, easy going, nonchalant variety, rather than gang-busting guffaw.  For Our Idiot Brother centers around a not so bright guy named Ned, a super-chill dude, sweet, mellow and honest (to a fault), played with not a care in the world and with intelligent ease by Paul Rudd.

A farmer specializing in organic vegetables, Ned gets in a humorous run in with law, after he sells an officer (in uniform) some pot...he was coaxed and he's amiable...he's just a chill dude after all.  The aftermath turns into a Job-like follow-up of endless disappointments when Ned is released into the care of his family and traded off to live with his three sisters.  The sitcom-ready premise is set when we meet his family-- there's Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), the Vanity Fair journalist whose all career and bent on more serious stories, Liz (Emily Mortimer), the frigid, stay-at-home mother whose so bent on getting her children to sturdier foundations that she's ignored the fray it's causing them and her unstable marriage, and Natalie (Zooey Deshanel), a free-spirited lesbian with secrets of her own.  As the burden of Ned is handed off from one family member to the next, each of the his sisters, and their secretly unhappy lives become more and more unraveled, thanks to his buffoonery and simple-minded kindness.

And while flaky and utterly sitcom-ready (I kept waiting for the laugh track), there's little to argue with the small, twinkly charms of Rudd and company, who through either happenstance or what, make Our Idiot Brother a nice and breezy aside.  For Rudd, with Jesus hair, and hippie stance is such a peaceful and seemingly low-key film hero, his appearance is almost silly and daffy enough to keep the whole thing afloat.  It's just icing on the cake that his sisters are played by such warm, welcoming and funny women that have the same knack for making the overly familiar seem new and energized.  Added icing is an ace supporting cast that includes Adam Scott (Parks & Recreation) as Miranda's would-be suitor, Steve Coogan as Liz's obnoxious documentarian husband, Hugh Dancy as a flaky new-age artist and Julie White as a cult leader.  B

Thursday, August 25, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

I'm endlessly fascinated with this film, and I can't quite shake, despite the fact that not so much as a trailer has been unleashed yet.  It's that old Hollywood mystique, and that glossy mystique that keeps me intrigued.  I love it when films play homage to the old way...where as Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard proclaimed ever so profoundly, "They had faces back then."  I think the last time Hollywood really stood rightfully back into its heyday was in the first act of The Aviator, of which were the grandest parts of the film-- the legend of Hepburn, Hell's Angels and all that jazz, pure bliss.  Who knows what will turn about here, but it's clear they're selling "Marilyn" and her grand allure moreso than anything else, and why not?  Here's hoping that one day the wonderfully gifted and ethereal Michelle Williams matches that allure.  Perhaps the biggest question mark of the fall movie season...The film is an account of on the set antics between Monroe and Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Branaugh) while shooting The Prince and the Showgirl.

One Day

There's a drippy, utterly manufactured aura around One Day, Lone Scherfig's all wet romance based on the bestselling novel by David Nicholls (who wrote the screenplay as well), one that's cloying and manipulative, but also kind of a drag.  The great love stories, even ones (hell, especially ones) that end in heartache is the idea of a passionate and personal response and palpable relation to the fear and joy of first love.  That response, even in the wrong hands can send any sane man or woman into utter frenzy.  Then there's that other kind of love story, one that's so desperate for tears and moans of anguish, of the very unnatural, Love Story-variety that feels that it can get by on knee-jerk emotional gimmicks and that no matter the wobbliness or lack of sincerity of the storytelling, it will work because sad things happen.  One Day requests tears, it plays every trick to gut them out of you.  What's missing is interest.  The lovers are played by Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturges, both attractive, charming performances of high order and immense check bones, and while both perform adequately under an under-nourished script and sleepy direction, neither feel completely right or comfortable in their roles, and despite the films endless search for audience sobbing, the film is comes across too arbitrary, too incidental, and altogether too dreary.

The gimmick is clear, and perhaps even novel (it was shaped by one, and perhaps a fine one), we meet a young man and woman and chart their lives and relationship over one day over the course of twenty years.  It opens with the day our young, would-be, star-crossed lovers meet-- July 15, 1988, the day they both graduated from Oxford.  Dexter (Sturges) is a womanizing plutocrat for whom everything has come easily, perhaps mostly due to his check bones; he's also a bit of cad, and that trait comes more and more tiring as the film drags on.  Emma (Hathaway) is an inspiring writer, a dowdy, awkward chatterbox girl of middle class standing.  They meet in a drunken haze and decide to just be friends, only to spend the next day and next two decades pining and arguing and skirting around the issue that's obvious but hardly exciting: they're perfect for each other.  As the episodic journey goes onward, our would-be soul mates interact, fall for, and distance themselves from one another as seen through every July 15.  Dexter becomes a big shot (albeit arrogant bastard) television personality and enjoying sexual trysts with nearly everyone, while Emma hones her writing chops while working at a miserable Mexican restaurant and thwarting the advances of a dull wannabe stand-up comic.

However One Day read, it plays in such a soggy and inconsistent manner, it hard to ever really get a sense that we know Dexter or Emma at all.  Yearly glances are marked by hairstyle changes for Hathaway moreso than anything else, ah she's gotten a nice trim, things must be looking up-- shockingly in the span of twenty years (and perhaps medical science should get a hold of whatever these love birds were on), neither of them appear to age at all.  But more importantly, and what ultimately kills the film from generating the tears it so richly wants is that the mundane and supposed to be heartfelt moments are staged in the same arbitrary, whatever manner, like falling in love is not at all a big deal.  Like in her last feature, An Education, Scherfig seems to want to come off subtle, with the hope that grand romance will resonate more deeply through quietness, and while laudable, it's almost non-existent in One Day.  What An Education had going for it was a lived-in sense of world on the move weary-ness, that the quiet will soar into revolution-- even then, though, the romance itself was the phoniest thing about the film.  One Day is too soft, too quiet (though it features a far more talky script) and too passive to garner any steam.  Part of that is the fault of pacing...each year feels longer and longer as the film goes on, and part of the that is due to casting.

For instance, the gifts of Hathaway, which are many, are very reasons she's not quite right for the role of Emma.  Hathaway, the actress and movie star is charming and pretty, flirtatious and glamorous-- she's one of the few young starlets that recalls the movie stars of yore, based on timing, gamesmanship, and surprising depth (when she feels the need to show it, perhaps an actress' greatest asset.)  Yet for the first act of One Day, she's stuck in ugly duckling role, one that's hard to buy (it was hard to by even when she was in The Princess Diaries ten years ago), awaiting her time to turn into a swan.  One of the laziest gestures of the film is that Hathaway's dowdier beginning are physically marked by bad hair and a pair of glasses...it's funny, even the shiniest advances in movie-making magic and prosthesis and gadgetry, the best the filmmakers could come up with a way for Anne Hathaway to look frumpy was to put a pair of glasses on her.  Her accent is a little shaky as well.  In truth, it wouldn't have mattered, for in reality she would have ate up the narcissism of Sturges' Dexter any day.  For Sturges' credit, he too is a fine and capable young actor, but the script serves him no favors by making him a complete ass for the majority of the film, and there's a prolonged drunken binge on his characters part that feels like a different film altogether, even one that's so earnestly harvesting tears from every end.  And that's not even mentioning Dexter's cancer-ridden mom, played with her Americana-infused British-ness by Patricia Clarkson, or the twister that end this romantic dud.  D+

Monday, August 22, 2011

With a Little "Help"

It feels like the current cinematic conversation is all centered around The Help, myself included, but when there's little to pay much attention too, and a film comes around that stirs and plucks at the heartstrings, it gets some notice.  The notice now for the film, in its second weekend, must adhere to its telling and great standing at the box office.  In week two the ensemble dramedy about the relationships between white women and their black housekeepers in early 60s early Jackson, Mississippi is doing what an awards season hopeful should: attracting crowds, generating strong word of month and keeping itself in conversation.  The rest of this weekends returns are blah to say the least.

  1. The Help- Breaking the trend of a film opening at number two in its first weekend, only to rebound to the top spot in weekend number two, The Help dropped a scant 21% and made $20 million for a total gross of $71 million so far.
  2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes- Still holding strong in weekend number three, Caesar and his grand rebellion roused an addition $16 million, down 44% for a total gross so far of $133 million.
  3. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World- Despite what the title suggests, the fourth film in the Spy Kids franchise likely won't have all the time in the world in theaters (presented in 4-D whatever-ness) as it earned $12 million in its opening weekend.  The last Spy Kids movie opened seven years ago, and perhaps its audience has merely just moved, a thought that distributor Dimension Films, perhaps should have learned from their spring disappointment Scream 4.
  4. Conan the Barbarian- Nobody cared about this remake either, as the Schwarzenegger-less swords and sandals trash only earned $10 million in its first weekend.
  5. The Smurfs- In its fourth weekend, it's made $117 million so far...how does everyone feel about this?  I hope American audiences think long and hard about the hard-earned dollars spent on The Smurfs...
  6. Fright Night- The other 80s remake that opened this weekend earned even less- $8 million...it's kind of sad (well perhaps only for studio execs) that three films opened this weekend, all of which presented in 3-D only to be crushed by a 2-D message drama starring a bunch of girl...I, on the other hand, am quite pleased.
  7. Final Destination 5- Already forgotten, in weekend two the film has made $32 million.
  8. 30 Minutes or Less- In its second weekend out, the Jesse Eisenberg comedy earned $6 million for a total gross of $25 million so far...good news (for Jesse at least), the stoner pic was made for cheap-- now let's urge him to reunite with David Fincher pronto.
  9. One Day- The poorly reviewed romantic pic starring Anne Hatheway and Jim Sturges opened to an anemic $5 million.
  10. Crazy, Stupid, Love- What do you know- the top ten is outlined with two movies featuring Emma Stone.  The ensemble romantic comedy will leave the top ten next week, but is doing solid, if unspectacular business...$5 million in its fourth weekend for a total gross of $64 million is none to shabby.
Other notables:
  • The Holocaust drama Sarah's Key is doing sturdy business in the art house sector, teetering in the top twenty, the Weinstein Company distributed, Kristin Scott Thomas starrer has earned a solid $3 million in five weeks in release.
  • Midnight in Paris has finally crossed the $50 million barrier, making it the highest grossing (unadjusted for inflation) Woody Allen film at the domestic box office ever...Sony Pictures Classics must be feeling mighty bullish about its awards chances.
  • The Devil's Double, the aggressive Middle Eastern Scarface is continuing to deliver modest returns-- in it's first month of release, the Dominic Cooper-headline feature crossed the $1 million mark.
  • Red State, Kevin Smith's latest made a killing for its one-week, awards qualifying run at the New Beverly in Los Angeles, earning an screen average of $25,000.  That figure is slightly skewed as it was a higher admission ticket, on the the account that Smith stuck around for Q&As at the most screenings.  Looking forward to this however, hopefully it gets a real release.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Before the Gates of Bedlam Open

At this point in the cinematic year, summer is over, and now we wait.  Hollywood will continue to release its forgettable nonsense for the next coming weeks, but the box office will stall, and we wait until the prime festival season (Toronto, Venice, Telluride, New York) unveil what may or may not be the ones to watch later this year.  Now the business rolls from money to accolades, which, of course, rolls (studios hope) from accolades to money.  But what to make at this point, as the decent cinema pauses, of the year so far.

I'm churlish when it comes to predictions (much too timid), but like to think of possibilities so far seen this year.

Good reviews and decent box office (it's take is on par with last year's Best Picture nominee Winter's Bone) will help propel the indie to it's only bet come awards season: for Christopher Plummer for Best Supporting Actor.  What helps is that Plummer is a legend (and an Oscar-less one at that-- his first nomination came in 2009 for The Last Station), but his subtle but beautiful work help grounds and stabilizes the film from falling apart from its own adorable-ness (the director is Mike Mills, married to Miranda July.)  His beautiful dignity in playing a role of an elderly man coming out of the closet is absolutely refreshing and should play well come Academy screening and when critics prizes are distilled.  The shame is that that's the film only real shot-- Ewan McGregor's graceful lead performance deserves acknowledgment as well, but due to the recessive quietness of the role and performance, that's not likely to happen.  The screenplay, too, deserves something, but again not likely.

While Oscar may seem like a stretch.  Think about it-- it's one of the only sleeper hits of the year with good reviews to boot, and with a handful of performances that feel rightly on their way to becoming classics.  Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are the stand-outs (and likely Golden Globe nominees, at the very least), but if things start to turn come years end, the good folks at the Academy could do a lot worse (and have many times over) than recognize them.  Both are longshots, but wouldn't be fun to image.  Plus, perhaps an Original Screenplay mention isn't completely crazy.

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part Two
Big question mark as to how well the last installment will play to the Academy.  What the film has going for is, well the strongest reviews of any previous installment, and the biggest box office.  Audience good will was never going to be a question mark however.  The previous films have only received tech nominations (Art Direction, Cinematography and Score.)  I'd bet, it at the very least wins something...it's a multi-billion dollar franchise on its last film, and the Academy (more often than not) exhibits itself as more pro-professionalism than pro-profound artistry more often than not.

The Help
Currently, The Help is killing at the box office, which if it continues, which is will, will only mean good things comes Oscar time.  For the film stands little chance of picking up steam with critics top ten lists or accolades.  What it has going for it is audience good will, coupled with decent reviews, and a cavalcade of women in the ensemble (all of whom, when you think about have an appropriate Oscar clip at their disposable.)  Acting is the primary disposal here, and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer seem primped for nominations this year.  If things turn hairy for future films, it may even open up slots for Allison Janney or Sissy Spacek, or who knows, maybe even, Bryce Dallas Howard or Jessica Chastain.  I imagine Academy screenings (especially for actors) will play very well.  Other than that, it kind of depends on box office and media support...if the film jumps into The Blind Side-level of money (not unlikely, actually), Best Picture, Screenplay, and maybe Costuming may happen as well.

Midnight in Paris
The top box office performer from America's favorite screenwriter will certainly get some attention come Oscar season, the question is how much?  Best Original Screenplay seems a gimme.  The problem with Midnight in Paris, is that no performer really stood out as 'best in show' and that will limit nomination tally, and likely merit zero acting nominations.  That being said, Best Picture and, possibly even, Best Director aren't out of the question.  Depending on how the rest of the year shapes up, coupled with the Oscar campaign that Sony Pictures Classics provides, alongside great box office and bona fide audience good will, it might end up have a great run.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
There's been a bit of fuss over the great acclaim of Andy Serkis' great stop-motion work here, and how it might relay into this years Oscar race.  The answer is that it won't.  Not at all.  The bias against stop motion\motion capture is too apparent in the Academy...it's too soon, otherwise Serkis might have already been acknowledged prior given his work on Lord of the Rings and King Kong.  Give up on that for now, it's not going to happen.  What will happen is that the wondrous effects wizards at Weta Digital will likely get a Visual Effects nomination this year, and might eventually become the frontrunner due the beautifully realized achievement of Caesar.  Perhaps a Special Achievement Oscar is due to Serkis at the very least.

The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick returned after a six year absence (noticeably short for him) with a confounding, challenging and beautiful looking film, winner of the top prize at Cannes this year (which means absolutely nothing...the last time Oscar and Cannes agreed on best picture was 1955, Marty), but the film merited good reviews, and will likely make a lot of critics top ten lists (and possibly play well in certain critics awards), and earned respectable box office for the film it is...over $10 million for an esoteric essay on the meaning of existence is not nothing.  That being said, Best Picture will be a hard sell (even harder with the new rules established...will 5% of number one ballots be allotted to The Tree of Life?)  And who exactly will the movie play best to...directors (probably), writers (maybe), actors (question mark...and again they are the largest voting branch of the Academy), tech members (?)  I think The Tree of Life will be in the conversation until years end, and will at the very least get a Cinematography nod, it might even be a frontrunner (Emmanuel Lubezki is long overdue and seemingly a genius in his own right.)  Brad Pitt and Hunter McCraken got good reviews, but Oscars might seem to bit too much out of reach.  Film Editing, Costumes, Art Direction might happen, and lo and behold, I think a directors nomination for Malick might be an easier get than Best Picture, since many assume the man's a genius, and I'm sure many won't get the film at all.

Other possible contenders:
Captain America- Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Original Song
Jane Eyre- Costume Design, Art Direction, Actress (way longshot)
Kung Fu Panda 2- Animated Feature
Page One: Inside the New York Times- Documentary
Rango- Animated Feature
Super 8- Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Film Editing
Tabloid- Documentary
Thor- Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Transformers: Dark of the Moon- Visual Effects
X-Men: First Class- Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects
Win Win- Original Screenplay

Anything I'm leaving out...I want feedback!

The Soderbergh Experience

Perhaps there's not a more prolific contemporary auteur with a more varied resume than Steven Soderbergh, and that's just looking at what he has in store in the next year: three, maybe even four films that have absolutely no connective tissue, other than a huge, starry (and extremely varied) ensemble players.  Perhaps there's nothing surprising about that at all for a filmmaker that made waves, first in 1989 for exploring modern relationships and sexual insecurities and rightfully earned its place as a defining indie for a new generation (the film was sex, lies and videotapes, and won the filmmaker the Palme D'Or at that years Cannes Film Festival and went on to earn an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination and cultivate a fascinating reputation from actors), then eleven years later for earning two Best Director Oscar nominations for two highly different films, Erin Brockovich and Traffic.  One a highly respectable and rousing (if conventional, by his standards only) vehicle that earned a certain Pretty Woman an Academy Award, the other a gritty, intensely challenging ensemble epic on the drug war seen from the prism of the dealers, the bureaucrats, the addicts, and everyone else.  In the interim between his breakthrough and his second and third breakthrough, Soderbergh ran the gambit of nutty, sometimes surreal, tiny indies-- Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993), Gray's Anatomy (1996), Schizopolis (1996)-- anyone?-- to the critically appraised noirs Out of Sight (1998) and The Limey (1999.)  After the Academy acceptance, he seemed to be both iconoclast and company man at the same time with the enterprising (and lucrative) Ocean's Eleven franchise, playing alongside headier stuff like Solaris (2002), Full Frontal (2002), Bubble (2005), The Good German (2006) and Che (2008.)  Some of them worked, some did not, but the "keep going" aesthetic that's always been the foundation of Soderbergh's work is what's awe-inspiring and the ultra experimental vibe that's expressed nearly every time out is what keeps his films moving and interesting.  That rumors have surfaced that the famed, black-spectacle framed writer\director\cinematography (under the alias Peter Andrews) might be retiring soon seems like a shame and a loss.  If that's true, I suppose his making up for it by making a billion movies now, starring nearly everyone with a Screen Actors Guild card.

I normally reserve comment for upcoming movies because, really why be like everyone else and fan the flame of hype for something that's not going to reach cinema screens for months, or years, or ever.  But Soderbergh has always been a filmmaker on the move, it seems, so projects lined up soon, likely will have their day.

This September, he opens Contagion starring (gasp)- Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Jude Law in a Outbreak-style virus gone berserk film.  The kick, at the very least from the trailer and the marketing is that it looks like a sure hoot.  Quite possibly a state of Soderbergh doing on for them (the evil corporate bluebloods), or a pure popcorn, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-style ensemble disaster film, or perhaps both, or neither-- one never knows with Soderbergh.
Whatever the case, and we already can surmise the outlook does not look good for Paltrow, this is likely the next must see film of 2011.

Wasting no time, Soderbergh's follow-up is slated for release next January-- an action\revenge thriller entitled Haywire.  With another super starry cast-- Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton join the Soderbergh experience, along with Traffic alum Michael Douglas.  On first glimpse, the trailer seemed a bit too generic and a bit on the nose for a Soderbergh film, but again, this is an auteur whose films traditionally don't exactly have traditionally-backed marketing designs.  And who knows, it might all be a lark anyway.  Awesome poster art however-- surely not the final design...
It gets nuttier, as the follow-up to Haywire is potentially a comedy set in the world of male strippers entitled Magic Mike, with a cast of many a gay male's wet dreams-- Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer (model-turned-actor of I Am Number Four), Matt Bomer, Matthew McConaughey, and True Blood's Joe Manganiello.  That coupled with the rumored casting of Demi Moore (the kitsch factor of the Striptease debacle might be worth the price of admission alone), and this would single-handedly the strangest, most potentially embarrassing (or awesome) film to come out in some time.  Perhaps Soderbergh's main objective isn't to work with every actor living, but to work with as many Sexiest Men Alive as possible, surely he's set a world record for an Oscar-winning, respected filmmaker (Clooney, Damon, Pitt, now McConaughey)-- possibly he's secretly commissioned by People Magazine.  Then again, who knows, this could be his Boogie Nights...
That he's rumored to follow Magic Mike up with his long-awaited Liberace biopic (with currently attached actors Michael Douglas and Matt Damon), one may have to suspect that Soderbergh might just secretly be the most gay-friendly filmmaker currently working.

Whatever the angle, the most versatile auteur currently on good terms with mainstream Hollywood has, at the very least, my attention.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

First Peek at Carnage

The first glimpses of one the fall movie seasons most intriguing prospect-- Roman Polanski's take on the award winning play God of Carnage, shortened to merely Carnage.  The original play starred Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Bridges, Hope Davis and James Gandolfini have been super-movie star-ized and replaced by Foster, Rielly, Winslet and Waltz-- a formidable, if odd pairing.  The first glimpses note the tension, the comedy and mania, but suggest something hard to pin down, but could end up good fun no matter what.  Polanski is always good in tight corners, and as last year's The Ghost Writer proved, still is as canny and polished as he was in his heyday.  The big hurdle (for me) is Jodie Foster, an actress of undeniable (if a bit closed off) magnitude-- comedy has never been strength...but alas you can resist this.  The verdict will be weighed in when Carnage plays both the NY Film Festival and, in competition, at Venice...the rest of us will have to wait until December 16th...
If nothing else, 2011 might prove a fun (if potentially awards-less) year for Winslet (who based on the trailer looks interestingly rigid, compared to usual, yet radiant-boho screen persona), who also co-stars in another mega-starry ensemble from a world class auteur next month with Steven Soderbergh's Contagion.  Coupled with a sure-fire Emmy win next month for HBO's Mildred Pierce, a rather nice post-Oscar rebound.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cinematic Ennui

We've reached it, the time of year where no one really cares about summer movies anymore.  It's time for leftovers, spillovers and pure junk to corrode screen space until the meaty, beasty awards contenders start to overflow.  So if you haven't seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes or The Help, why not this weekend, you won't be missing much...

Opening this Week:
  • Conan the Barbarian- A 3-D remake of the swords and sandals trash that made Schwarzenegger a star thirty years ago...
  • Fright Night- Vampire horror remake starring Colin Farrell from Disney that's been noticeably kept away from critics...
  • One Day- Late summer romantic comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturges.
  • Spy Kids: All the Time in the World- The fourth installment (presented in 4D) of the James Bond-lite franchise.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Happy 25th Birthday, Pixar!

Today, well yesterday August 16 (I hate being late to the parade, but alas) marks the 25th anniversary of Pixar Animation Studios, and the birth of a production company that changed the cinematic landscape and possibilities of animated features.  On August 16, 1986, Pixar launched it's very first short, entitled Luxo Jr., a sprightly little ditty involving a lamp and a little lamp, and a definitive, iconoclastic logo is born.  Headed by Steve Jobs and launched by the creativity and ingenuity by John Lasseter, I wonder if back then anyone had a clue what would form.  Nine years later, the first completely computer generated animated feature, and instant, bona fide classic was made in Toy Story.  The film reaped huge box office, and Special Achievement Academy Award for Lasseter, as well as a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination; the first time the Academy ever acknowledged a cartoon for its writing.  In the years since, Pixar has become the leader and beacon of hope for original, creative storytelling, coupled with technological breakthroughs.  Let's all hope that the minor blip in credibility by this years release of Cars 2 will re-envision this grand dream palace for filmmaking for decades to come.  Happy Birthday Pixar!

The film that started it all-- Luxo Jr.

Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie

Glee, as a television show is a silly, insanely uneven piece of pop entertainment centered around a group of high school misfits who for the love of music, theater, or various chicanery came together to form a glee club.  For every plot-line that stalled or felt off key, for every performance that doesn't quite fit, for every joke that doesn't quite jell, there's a connective tissue that holds the show (that just ended its second season and is enjoying a butt-load of Emmy nominations) and that's for when the silliness stops and they all just shut up and sing, sometimes is magical.  Sometimes it's out and out awful too.  For the love of synergy and pure cutthroat corporate greed, the fine folks at 20th Century Fox have done pretty much everything in their power to exhaust the nation of the zeitgeist television, that truthfully (and even ardent fans must admit-- I myself was one for a brief time) lost its luster a while ago.  Putting the young cast in touring concerts during the off-air time now has been altered into a feature film concert, and while corporately cynical and without a care in the world for artfulness, Glee is a movie.  And while a complete waste of energy for any of the talent that's associated, the movie sparks because it does what the show should do more of sometimes: they all just shut up and sing!

And while not nearly strong enough to convert the un-devoted, Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie is swift and short, pain-free and, in a few beats of pop alchemy, kind of sort of joyous.  That's not to be said it couldn't have more swift and shorter-- there's a little too much of "Glee is the most amazing thing in the world-type pandering," in the side stories told by fans of the show, themselves misfits like the show celebrates.  It's all well and good, and the stories themselves are not without tenderness, but like the show itself, the stories don't matter-- it's the music, it's that tingly, vibrant thrill that a silly pop song can inform and set an emotion and in a matter of minutes reduce someone to pure euphoria, and that's the thrill of musicals to begin with.  Fortunately, such overly treacly moments can compare to Lea Michele (whose character on the show, Rachel Barry, is the overachieving alpha-theater geek\Type A ringleader) and her rendition of Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade."  However corporate and silly the idea behind this movie might have been, it matters little when she's belting, and like all great songs, you can somehow manage to forget everything and completely and willingly lose yourself.  B-

Gun Hill Road

Understated and admirable, if a bit too on the nose, Gun Hill Road is a familiar Bronx tale with a slight twist.  A father returns home from prison to discover that his teenage son is transgendered.  What follows is expected-- the father is pissed, a hot head, and a bit stupid, the long-suffering mother is caring, endlessly supportive and bit underwritten, and the son is conflicted and brooding.  The best aspects of Rasheed Ernesto Green's film is the assured handling of young Michael aka Vanessa, played with minimalist grace and natural expressiveness by Harmony Santana.  Fluidly written and developed enough to provide context and circumstance, but shaded with a mix of longing and curiosity, the story of the a young boy more comfortable as a young girl is fresh, sweet and poignant.  It's unfortunate, and a great disservice that the dithering parental strife gets most of the screen time.  For while well-intentioned, and mercifully, not too over the top, it makes Gun Hill Road bland and soggy, while the sturdier foundation of the film floats around in search of a clearer narrative, and more engrossing and braver story that should be told.  Green's freshman film (a graduate from the short film world) could have used a bit more aesthetic distinction in its own right-- the muted visual palette only makes the muted familial dynamic seem even more oppressive.

Esai Morales stars as Enrique, recently paroled but hardly calmed-- the first scene in the film showcases his blood lust and carnality.  Upon coming home to his wife, Angela (Judy Reyes, Scrubs) and son, it's more of a whimper than a warm welcome.  The family dynamic stays like this, and while there's a nice, little sense of a lived-in family that can't communicate, nor express, and that lack of melodrama differentiates Gun Hill Road from a typical Lifetime Movie of the Week, it also becomes a slow slog to sit through.  Minimalist is fine, hell even applaudable, but after enough time the film becomes too one-note, too inexpressive, and a little too boring.  Morales and Reyes are more than capable actors, but their both stuck in such stagnant, reactionary parts as written, that it defeats the purpose of the films trying-to-be-real aesthetic.  Thankfully, whenever Santana is on screen, Gun Hill Road picks up momentum, for Michael\Vanessa never seemingly asks for any sort of acceptance-- not from his disapproving and ignorant father, whose too seethed on pride, nor his peers, and there are moments of quiet gracefulness that make the film seem more revolutionary than it is.  She is realer than anything else in this faux-heartbreaker.  C+

Monday, August 15, 2011

Apes and Help Rule Late Summer Returns

The summer movie is pretty much over...really there's precious little to look forward to in the next couple of weeks (Conan the Barbarian, Spy Kids 4-D-- what does that even mean?), but what tops the box office charts this past weekend was a welcome sigh that while the season of mindless popcorn thrills is behind us, two late season surprises should hold out pretty well for a while.  Those surprises being-- Rise of the Planet of the Apes (nearly impossibly good) and The Help (soggy but graciously performed)-- both are well worth (or nearly at the very least) the outrageous price of a movie ticket these days.

  1. Rise of the Planet of the Apes- Decreased 49% in its second weekend of the release, a not terrible drop actually for a big summer movie, indicating that people might actually like the silly but potent apes in revolt reboot.  It's made $105 million so far, and should hold up fairly well in the coming weeks; that Caesar sure is a charmer.
  2. The Help- Following the late-summer best-selling chick flicks of the past few years (Julie & Julia, Eat Pray Love), The Help performed beautifully in it's first weekend.  Grossing $26 million (the film opened last Wednesday and has so far made $35 million), the film should continue to be a solid hit as it's a grown up movie, and that audience doesn't always rush out opening weekend.  The big question is: How will The Help perform as awards season approaches-- there was lots of sniffling at the screening I attended...
  3. Final Destination 5- The first Final Destination was a modest, grade-B schlocker that opened in spring 2000; it wasn't even terrible, but eleven years later and four more sequels-- isn't everyone dead by now?  The 3-D film opened to $18 million.
  4. The Smurfs- In it's third weekend, the blue things have earned $101 million-- how does everyone feel about that?  I suppose family driven entertainment will succeed no matter what (also see: Alvin & the Chipmunks, Hop, etc.)
  5. 30 Minutes or Less- Director Ruben Fleisher's follow-up to his surprise 2009 hit Zombieland starring Jesse Eisenberg (in a less than idyllic post-Oscar nom choice) attracted very few, making $13 million opening weekend.  The bright side-- it's $28 million production cost should be taken care of.
  6. Cowboys & Aliens- The sci-fi western that was supposed to be the lone cool original blockbuster of the summer has all but been forgotten in three weeks with only $81 million in the bank, against a $160 million production cost.
  7. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 2- At $357 million so far, it's the highest grossing film domestically in 2010, but now that Harry is apart of the elusive global billion dollar club, it's all just icing on the cake.  I'm sure eager and greedy studio execs are, as we speak, accosting J.K. Rowling into more follow-ups, or how about remaking the whole franchise with different actors?
  8. Captain America: The First Avenger- $156 million in four weeks isn't too bad, but does anyone really care about this, the last advertisement for next May's The Avengers?
  9. Crazy, Stupid, Love- In its third weekend (a likely taking a bit hit due to The Help) the romantic ensemble love fest dropped 41% for a cum of $55 million in three weeks.
  10. The Change-Up- In two weeks, the body swapping bromance between Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds has earned $25 million.  Rough summer for Reynolds, but he was great in last years underrated Buried...
  11. Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie- Made $5.9 million in it's opening weekend.  I'll reserve comment, for now.
Other box office news:
  • Horrible Bosses crossed the $100 million mark domestically.
  • Midnight in Paris is slowly starting to finish out its beautiful run (it opened in May) and well cross the $50 million barrier any day now.  That may sound like not much, but this would mark Woody Allen's highest grosser (unadjusted for inflation) ever.
  • The Tree of Life has earned $12.4 million so far as it too starts to finish its run; not a terrible number for such an esoteric movie (it's earned nearly $40 million worldwide.)
  • Senna, a Sundance favorite documentary about a Formula One rivalry made an impression on two screens in N. America, earning $73,000 for a per-screen average of 36,700.
  • The Future, Miranda July's latest oddity has earned $234,000 on 20 screens in it's third weekend.
  • Tabloid, the best movie so far in 2011, has earned $539,000 in five weeks-- come on people, demand to see this movie!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Help

It's hard not to be tad cynical when entering a film like The Help.  Based on a best-selling novel that mixes comedy, tragedy and social commentary all taking place at the birth of the civil rights movement-- the film, from it's abundant advertising is positing itself as a candy-colored crowd-pleaser, tear-jerking yarn, seemingly hellbent at manipulating every Steel Magnolias-fawning emotion out there, and maybe a few Oscar nominations in the process.  The kick and surprising effect of the film is, that while far from perfect, it nearly, almost always works in making the viewer forget about it, that the emotion elicited feels, more often than not, earned and not forced and crammed down our throats, that the heart-tugging character studies, again more often than not, feel lived-in and truthful, not just like make believe hokum, and that the talented group of actresses that embody The Help, are more often than not, engaging, believable, and mostly worth rooting for, makes this film a small miracle by Hollywood, paint-by-numbers message pictures.  There's an awful lot going on here, and an awful lot of movie at two hours and seventeen minutes, and for a film that relates the Upstairs, Downstairs moans and groans of well-to-do white women and their African American help in Jim Crow-era Jackson, Mississippi, it could have been a lot worse than the sprightly, eager to please version that novice filmmaker Tate Taylor offers.

The first character we meet in this sprawling weepie is Aibileen (Viola Davis), a maid for the decidedly un-maternal young Southern belle Elizabeth (Ahna O'Reilly.)  She's got a long tradition on her shoulders...her mother was a maid, her grandmother was a house slave (one assumes, though it's never mentioned, the family tree grows much sadder afterwards), and Aibileen herself might express that while times may have started to slightly chance, her situation is not that much different from her ancestors.  She's on her seventeenth household, and raising her seventeenth white child...the child herself refers her as mom several times.  Aibileen's best friend is a spitfire named Minny (Octavia Spencer), herself beholden to another, altogether more hostile white family headed by the vindictive and slight Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard.)  Both Aibileen and Minny find their world changed when a rebellious and free-thinking recent college grad nicknamed Skeeter (Emma Stone) returns to Jackson with grand plans to become a writer.  Skeeter herself was raised by an African American maid that raised her, and was held beloved by her...she was mysteriously let go some time earlier.  Moved by advice to write about what strikes and passions her, and already felt astray from her societal friends (like Hilly), Skeeter decides to write a tell-all account from the helps point of view.

This comes reluctantly, as first mentioned by an urbane book editor (played by Mary Steenburgen, in a thankless but generous performance that adds to the big, sprawling, game ensemble of the film) and from the maids themselves, afraid of what dangers might loom by telling their less than glowing accounts of lifelong servitude.  Goaded by anger, and crazed bigots like Hilly, Aibileen and eventually Minny agree.  Minny's story is further broadened once she's ousted from the Holbrook residence (for not adhering to Hilly's initiative to make the help use a separate bathroom outside the main residence) and finds work from a societal outcast from a white-trash vixen named Celia (Jessica Chastain, of The Tree of Life.)  Skeeter, herself is ostracized from her circle of friends and even by her family...her mother (Allison Janney) is a cancer patient longing for nothing but for her grown up girl to settle down and get married.  All of these conflicts, and side stories and over-stuffed arcs explain the over-bloated running time, and a great many of them (including a brief romantic aside for Skeeter) become overkill, but The Help, for what it's worth is perhaps greater as a whole, than the sum of its parts.  For when it works, and it may all be in a sappy, made-for-television sort of way, it works thanks to the commitment of its ensemble.

The words themselves may be slightly trite and are hardly subtle, but the range of talent expressed, especially in the three leading characters has that special, uncanny feeling of coming across achingly truthful and heartbreaking.  Viola Davis is at the center, through and through, and presents Aibileen with such poise, dignity and humanity that it's like a bullet through the chest when her real pain is revealed.  She's far too skilled an actress (which her resume should confirm) to lay it on too thickly, but in her stern consternation and quiet gracefulness, it's apparent from the very beginning this is her film.  Octavia Spencer has the showier part of the sassy Minny, but she's revelatory in the sense that in lesser hands, Minny would have been a cartoon, a smart assed manny; she gets the biggest laughs but only because it's so hard not to be affected by her strife and her will-- there's a particularly pointed and somewhat cruel scene where she serves her adversary her comeuppance, and while coarse, she owns it the entire time.  Emma Stone, for her part, and possibly the trickier part of the film for she must pave the moral compass without ill-advised earnestness, is affecting because of her dynamic screen presence...it's only late in the film that we get any sense of her pain, but Stone, with her cinematic charm is heartbreaking when her motives become more clear and palpable-- she connects to Aibileen and Minny because women like them were so much more apart of her upbringing than her actual parents.  As for Howard and Chastain, one must concede that they both go for broke in interesting ways, just this side of caricatures, broad and brazen...Howard seems to be channeling Cruella De Vil and Chastain a Marilyn Monroe type...whether good or bad, neither can held for lack of drive.  The rest of the starry ensemble is backed by Sissy Spacek, Janney, and Cicely Tyson, and while incidental or not, are provided for with possible Oscar clips.  Of those three, Janney wins.

And while The Help lags, sometimes in strides, sometimes in simple beats.  And while the over-eager stitching is a bit too apparent, and the Disney-endorsed, sunny aesthetic of sadder days is a bit hard to go down a few times, the humanity and generousness of the fine women anchoring this film make everything ever so easily-digestible, and in a few times, out and out heart-wrenching.  And while the real movement outside of Jackson is mostly shoddily viewed from a few, brief television clips that feel strangely disconnected to the soapy weeper that's front and center, it's difficult for me at least, a person mostly immune to such intentional manipulation, to neglect the small but effective pleasures of The Help.  Aibileen may have only started telling her stories because a scrappy, well-intentioned white girl called upon her too, but her voice has such a striking soul and vitality that makes The Help a better movie than it really should be, and Davis, hopefully, as its driver will be the one the reap the dividends.  B

Attack the Block

A nifty and swift alien invasion stoner romp, Attack the Block, takes place in a seedy neighborhood in South London and follows the adventures of a gang of pop cultural aware miscreants who rage war on some nasty extra-terrestrials.  Directed by Joe Cornish, making a stylish debut, and backed by nerdy Brit royalty Edgar Wright, Attack the Block appears anxiously awaiting it's eager cult status.  It helps that the writing is sharp, the violence is cartoonish, but also a lot of fun, and for the more observant viewer, there's even perhaps a hidden social commentary that feels ripe and right on target.  But who are we kidding-- in a film about bad boy youths claiming ownership of their neighborhood, only to be threatened by some nasty outer space creatures, what's expected is some zesty and fun alien ass-whopping, and in that respect, Attack the Block certainly doesn't disappoint.  The creatures themselves, made on the cheap, are big black bear looking monsters with neon razor sharp teeth, and while incredibly, also pretty terrifying.  Rhyme or reason matters little, though some exposition is given for filler-- the carnage is giddy fun.

After a coincidental and petty mugging on a new member of the block-- a pretty and tart nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a gang of teenage hoods headed by street smart hood named Moses (John Boyega) must battle the cops, a even badder drug dealer, and mysterious space dogs that start plopping down from the sky.  Yet really what matters most is ultimate street cred...and that's the slight, but pliable joke and nudge on real life bad neighborhoods that feel in a startling and strange way, sort of authentic.  Attack the Block is a grade-B schlocker (along with earlier summer monster mash TrollHunter, this is proving a good season for fun indie trash), but it's handily aware of that, and subtle and smart enough to sneakily transcend it's own genre limitations, while still honing in it's silly parodist humor and snarky dialogue.  Come for the bloody inner city youth vs. aliens absurdest violence, stay for clever banter.  B

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Future

I can't really tell what it is about Miranda July, that strange, ebullient writer\director\actress\performance artist creature.  She's by turns irritating and strangely alluring, full of depth and soul and almost passively empty at the same time.  Perhaps that's the appeal-- there's such a sense of free associative, almost blank expressiveness to her work, that it solely depends on one's personal perspective on what exactly it means.  And perhaps it means not much at all and she's just a flaky, arty hipster playing us for fools with her holier-than-thou preciousness.  Six years ago, her debut feature- Me & You & Everyone We Know- struck a small nerve on the arthouse crowd, not that the film, a small blip of modern connectivity and coupling was anything revolutionary, but it felt that it came from a strange and unique new voice that was quiet (perhaps too quiet), slightly witty, but sown together by its own awkward quirkiness.  Her follow-up, The Future, is even loopier oddball film centering around a couple who decide to adopt a cat.

July plays Sophie, a dancer instructor for small children-- a quiet, slightly pixie-ish gal who dreams of creating a new dancer every day for a month and post it on YouTube.  Her boyfriend is named Jason (Hamish Linklater of The New Adventures of Old Christine fame), a stay-at-home tech support guy.  Together they leave in bohemian paradise (or hell, depending on one's eyes) in a small Los Angeles apartment.  They decide to adopt a cat, but there's a catch-- the cat named Paw Paw (who actually narrates the feature, with a flighty\annoying\cherubic cadence provided by July) is a hobbled mess and needs a month of hospitalization before it's ready to be taken home; if Sophie and Jason decide not to take the cat, he will be euthanized.  Our weirdo couple come to the conclusion that they've got one month left of freedom.  Perhaps seen as a metaphor for child rearing, or mortality, or really, who the hell knows.  Both quit their jobs-- she focuses on her YouTube dance missions (a hard one, considering they decide to give on Internet for that month, resulting in an amusing last minute Google-ing session), he decides to become a door-to-door solicitor for a Greenpeace-like environmental group.  The difficulty with The Future, at least in my eyes, is that for a feature so alien and often times so preciously irritating, for nearly every frame it held up my interest, kept me alert and in it's own strange, flaky way, it's sort of life-affirming and slightly heartbreaking.

July seems to stand in for a generation of artists post-Warhol, post-Dadaism, where irony is truth, and sentiment is merely inconsequential.  Yet there's seems like there's some emotional truth in the relationship between Sophie and Jason, even though they talk very little-- there's a small, melancholic speck of boho kismet, and the twee, cutesy dialogue and subtle, perhaps meant to be humorous, perhaps not, slight gags that in their odd, flaky way feel genuine lived in.  That being said, this is a very strange movie-- feline narration aside, the third act ventures into nearly science fiction terrain (featuring a talking moon no less), not to mention some of July's dances, which can only be described as bizarre.  I think, if nothing else, it's a credit that the film (at a brisk ninety minutes, though at times it feels twice that) that it's, more often than not, an interesting, well made oddity made with abundant heart; what it all means, I'm not sure.  B+

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Either by fluke, mere happenstance, a blessed and unusual bit of mainstream franchise artistry, or a bar set very low by the middling Tim Burton remake that bombarded movie screens a decade ago, the prequel, reboot franchise starter Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a refreshing, and fun piece of pop filmmaking.  Whatever the reasoning the film is a hoot to watch-- fast and to the point.  Rupert Wyatt, a novice to blockbuster filmmaking, directs the ape soap opera with a spark and fluidity that dusts off the cobwebs of the venerable 43-year-old franchise, that it hardly matters if one's a devoted and lustful fanboy of the series or not.  With a clear eye for the exposition that's required for more installments (that more often than not is more than tedious to watch in many summertime movies with similar missions), and also of the nuts and bolts of action and visual effects that summer audiences need, Wyatt, already on scope and pace seems primed to one day join the ranks of the Camerons and Nolans of the modern cinema world.  That may seem like absurd praise, but the film looks grand and flows spectacularly well.  The only weakness, one senses, comes directly from the script-- the story is mapped out well before anything really happens, and while silly sometimes, refreshingly there is kind of one to begin with. But it's not the selling point-- it's the visual spectacle, the joyously constructed action sequences, and the rare and unique charms of an ape named Caesar.

Set in modern day San Francisco, we first meet a young scientist named Will (James Franco) whose trying to save the world and everyone's brain with a formula that could hopefully cure most fatal diseases.  It's really an act of desperation, as his father (John Lithgow) is losing his to Alzheimer's.  His constant testing on chimps and stop and go successes leave him in the arms of a newborn ape that he begrudgingly takes into his care.  But this ape is special-- he's smart and quick and has the process to learn faster than most humans, thanks to the scientific something something lodged into his body from birth.  Over time (a very short period of time), the young chimp, now named Caesar and Will form a bond and chemistry more like father and son, than scientist and lab rat, and for a time in the beginning of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there's a feeling of sci\fi monster yarn meets Project Nim-like commentary on child rearing going on, but as the movie goes on, it becomes more and more clear that Will's plight is of little consequence and when the film finally decides to nearly focus on it's most interesting and compelling aspect-- the monkey of course-- it only gets better.

The humans in the story are all pretty much non-sequiturs, from Franco to his father to his feather-deep relationship to a supporting vet (played by Frieda Pinto.)  All the other human characters represents the species at their very worst-- greedy, manipulative, cowardly, violent and in the case of Tom Felton (he played Draco Malfoy for the past decade in the Harry Potter movies), who plays a guard with a penchant for tasers for a gorilla confine, outright sociopathic.  For Caesar is the heart and soul and spark of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and a small saving grace in a summer movie season seemingly bereft of grand characters.  Graceful, poised, agile, and surprisingly humane-- the ape that would go one to several more adventures later in the series is given a great service.  born in captivity, and raised by humans, only later to be shafted when his innate, instinctual primate genes kick in.  Sent to a chimp facility that's more like a prison than anything else, Caesar's feelings of abandonment, anger, rage and sadness grow until finally it bellows into a rousing apes in revolt, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," action ballet.  That Caesar is such an expressive and engrossing character relates to the wizards at the Weta Workshop, the same team that rendered both Middle Earth and Pandora to such pristine and much awarded perfection, deserve a great deal of credit for the wonderful effects, as does the great motion capture performance delivered by the team's reigning star, Andy Serkis, he of Gollum and Kong fame.

For through Serkis' performance, one that's hard to label but easy to admire, we get every stage of Caesar's young life, and the bravura, symbiotic pleasures of watching the cuddly young ape turned brave and stolid warrior feels almost Dickensian.  For if anything of depth of substance is in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and possibly there isn't; there's doesn't have to be) comes from the primate's corner, and the power of watching a superbly intelligent and extremely dangerous leader rise in what would lead to feels achingly apt.  For pure popcorn thrills the best moment comes near the end of the feature with a great, lengthy and thoroughly amusing battle royale atop the Golden Gate Bridge and one would be hard-pressed not to root for those stinkin' apes.  Perhaps that's the oddball joy of the film in that a villain becomes a hero, and the ultimate rooting source-- we the audience want the Planet of the Apes, not the planet of the greedy silly humans.

Whatever chunkiness of the script never fully distorts the great grade-B pleasures and the epic ape revolt.  Embrace the silly, forget the science and rise to one of the best surprises of the year thus far.  B

Friday, August 5, 2011

My Week with Marilyn joins New York Film Festival slate

It's announced that the eagerly awaited My Week with Marilyn (at least by me) will be making its world premiere and be the centerpiece film of this years New York Film Festival.  Starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, the films revolves around her relationship with Laurence Olivier (played by Shakespeare vet and Thor director Kenneth Branagh) will shooting The Prince and the Showgirl.  Whatever eventually comes from the films quality, I can't help but be excited for the prospect of what could be a grand, in-Hollywood tale revolving around two great Golden Age movie stars.  The rest of the slate at this year's New York Film Festival, celebrating it's 50th anniversary, is yet to be announced, except that the opening film will be another juicy looking looking film: Carnage, based on the Tony-winning play God of Carnage, directed by Roman Polanski, who for obvious reason will likely not be present for the films premiere.  Carnage stars Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Rielly and Christoph Waltz.  Why must I live in Los Angeles?

Like Crazy

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this years Sundance Film Festival.


Winner of the Best Directors prize at this years Cannes Film Festival, Drive stars Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks, and looks like pure genre heaven.

Oscar "Honorary" ies

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have announced how will be the 2012 recipients of honorary Academy Awards.  Two years ago, they made the decision to host a special ceremony for this tribute with the thinking that it ate up too much of the telecast, a silly conclusion for a ceremony that's always determined to be over-long and still found enough time this year to include a song for co-host Anne Hathaway and an opportunity for co-host James Franco to come out in a dress.  Sigh!  This years honorees:
James Earl Jones- A noble choice to reward a dignified, classically trained actor who will eternally be nerdishly lusted over for the deep breathing vocal chops he contributed to Dark Vader.  Yet it's striking that something so famous for his "This is CNN" voice is rarely mentioned as the powerhouse actor he is.  Nominated by Oscar just once, for 1970's The Great White Hope, this consummate thespian has a staggering body work-- Dr. Strangelove, Roots, Field of Dreams, The Lion King, endless stage credits, Guiding Light and Scary Movie 4.

Dick Smith- Make-up artist who won an Oscar for his work on the film Amadeus (1984.)  This is one of the things that always kind of gets to me in the terms of who the select for honorary statuettes-- sometimes there's a totally right on choice for a body of work that the Academy for whatever neglected before, sometimes it's the preservation of a legend, and that's enough, but I always find it a bit odd, and possibly a bit wrong-headed when a previous competitive winner gets an honorary Oscar.  Especially in light of the long list of overlooked actors, writers, directors, and technical maestros that have been ignored over the long history of the Academy Awards.  This isn't at all meant to be a stab at Smith, a true innovator and legend of his own right, but the odd nature of the selection process.  His body of work includes The Godfather, Midnight Cowboy, The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, Marathon Man, The Deer Hunter and Death Becomes Her.
Oprah Winfrey- It's a bit misleading here, Oprah isn't winning an honorary Oscar, but instead the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which honors a person in the industry for their philanthropic, humanitarian efforts, and not their contribution to cinema.  That being said it's totally deserving as Oprah, all powerful, is a force, perhaps the only force that contributes to book sales and presidential campaigns these days.  That being said, would it be all that surprising if she were receiving an actual honorary Oscar, for the powers that be in the Academy would likely worship her celebrity dust all over place.  Not to knock her cinematic cred-- she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Color Purple, and starred in Beloved, but movies are not and will never be her calling.

Another Earth

In the arthouse puzzler Another Earth, we're introduced to a young woman named Rhoda (Brit Marling), who on the night she learns she's been accepted into MIT gets in a nasty car accident, leaving a woman and child dead, and man in a coma.  On that same night, a new planet is discovered making this film (directed by Mike Cahill, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Marling) an indie oddity-- part guilt-ridden melodrama, part science fiction mystery, mostly meandering dither, but there's something intriguing and altogether interesting about Another Earth that I can't quite shake even though the film is without certain beyond flawed, there's something unique here that's hard to articulate.  Rhoda is busted for her crime, she spends four years in jail and re-enters society as a janitor at a local high school, full of ache and alienation for what she's done, and the beyond repair of her once thriving and noble potential.  She seeks out the man she's wronged, a one time composer and college professor named John Burroughs (William Mapother) and poses as his housekeeper in an act of cowardice and guilt, and an opportunity to hopefully right some of her wrongs.  All the while the strange undercurrents of another world are looming in the background-- in the four year jail sentence, it's given a name (Earth 2) and is later found to be inhabited, perhaps an alternate parallel universe.  I'm not sure I'm entirely sold on the premise, or the filmmaking or Marling as a leading lady, but there's something alluring going on while watching Another Earth, that will perhaps not completely emotional involving, is never boring.  The missing ingredient is purpose-- for all it's sad, angst-driven moodiness there's not much of a point to the relationship between Rhoda and John nor the Twilight Zone-like Earth 2, both strangely feel like subplots in search of meaning, but one gets the sense, and it might feel appreciative to a selective few, that the film is exactly what it was envisioned as-- flighty and pretentious, precious and slightly bold.  Marling gives an expressive, eternally minimalist performance as the grieving, hard to read woman, that while as shaky and on-the-fringes as the entire movie, has a certain lived-in authenticity.  For an actress that looks very much like your average pretty blonde ingenue, she's determined to make herself as ugly and timid as possible.  C+

Opening This Week

The big movie of the week is Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the what, like three-hundredth take on the apes-rule-the-Earth franchise.  A prequel\reboot\potential franchise re-starter (gosh, Hollywood filmmaking is so difficult to label nowadays) stars James Franco and Frieda Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) and Andy Serkis, continuing his great motion-capture essay on acting like everyone except people, he was the guy behind Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Kong in King Kong.  The shocking and startling thing is that the film, which for a while seemed almost invisible in marketing and general interest, in actually getting really good buzz, and strong reviews.  Perhaps a nod to the low expectations and general shrugs greeted by the movies arrival, or a tribute to effects branch behind (its effects come from Weta, the same effects company behind Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Avatar), maybe, just maybe a successful, bonafide good popcorn movie will come out on top this summer.  Then again, nearly ten years ago to the weekend, Tim Burton came out his dull interpretation to the ape legend that still leaves a cinematic grudge on the franchise.

Also opening this weekend:
  • The Change-Up- Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman switch bodies after urinating.
  • Bellflower- Sundance hit being described as an apocalyptic revenge fantasy (in limited release.)
  • The Future- Writer\director\actor Miranda July returns with her latest oddity (in limited release.)
  • The Perfect Age of Rock 'n' Roll- Pretty boys Jason Ritter and Kevin Zegers star is this grungy music road movie.

Opening Wednesday:
  • The Help- Based on the best selling novel about a young Southern woman who writes a book from the perspective of the African American maids in her community during the 1960s.  The performances of the sprawling ensemble cast-- Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastian, Cicely Tyson, Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek-- are already garnering awards buzz.

Horrible Bosses

Like The Hangover two years ago, the dark comedy Horrible Bosses has a set up that feels like a no-brainer, an instant relatable and simply premise.  Just as nearly everyone has a had a night of haze with little memory of the party the night before, nearly everyone has had a boss that you out right loathed; it's one of the those human condition rights of passage and one of the consistent things that collectively keeps a society together about bitching about.  But just as The Hangover took it's premise and made out with a crude, frat boy lark that became more and more grating and ugly as it kept going, Horrible Bosses follows the same course, only darker, less funny and in the end, irritating.  Directed by Seth Gordon, who made his debut with the superior (and quite funny) geeks in revolt documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and moved onto more sitcom commercialism with Four Christmases (2008), honing his TV-ready quirkiness on shows like Modern Family and The Office, Horrible Bosses comes with an uneasy built in feeling that it's funny because the world is supposed to hate authority.  The problem is there's so few precious laughs in the movie to start with, and the three protagonists come off as tools, nearly as vindictive and cruel as their evil, tyrannical superiors.  The film was written by TV vets Michael Markowitz, Jonathon M. Goldstein, and John Francis Daley, who will forever be remembered as Sam Weir, the head nerd from Freaks & Geeks.

Jason Bateman plays Nick, an over-worked, under-valued corporate slave.  Jason Sudeikis plays Kurt, a once happy book-keeper for a chemical company, whose world is shifted when his father-like bosses croaks and taken over by his evil son.  Charlie Day plays Dale, who works as a dental assistant under a boss that's prone to over-the-top (and nary believable) sexual ploys.  The three friends, whose bromance is collectively formed by their miserable work places (for lack of anything else), concoct a plan over drinks one night that their three evil bosses should be taken out.  They form a nutty, Strangers on a Train ripoff, type of plan to cancel out motive-- they even bring in a murder consultant as strategist, a badass type named Motherf***er Jones, played with not a care in the world, and a dash of spark the film really needed more of by Jamie Foxx.  What starts as a drunken joke takes flight, except that our nihilist heroes are pretty pathetic...not that a movie like this needs any sort of moral consciousness or anything, but presenting an idea of murder with people that we're suppose to root for should require a bit more hesitation or dimension.  Instead these three regular guys are nearly as awful as their targets.

The targets are Colin Farrell who plays Kurt's newly appointed supervisor, a coked up scoundrel with a bad haircut, Jennifer Aniston as the sexually hostile dentist, and Kevin Spacey as Nick's power mad executive foul.  For the record, Spacey is wonderful in full, crisp, Glengarry Glen Ross mode, his wit, urbanity and glittery Mr. Burns-like wickedness is despicable from the start, and he's but the only one in the cast who seems to be embracing the twisty, silly cartoon the film is trying so hard to be.  The film is less interested in Farrell and Aniston, who despite handsome screen time never come across as anything more than glorified cameos.  Farrell looks awful, and seems to be relishing the naughty behavior and disposition the film is allotting him, but there's little tension between him and Sudeikis, other than the fact that he's a total jerk.  Aniston is clearly relishing her chance to go against her Friends-doomed persona with her explicit and peppery dialogue, but never for a second does she convey sexual aggressor-- her scenes in particular have the feel of a fun table read that never progressed into anything more.

Horrible Bosses isn't quite horrible, but it comes fairly close.  I will the film one credit-- there's a brief joke in the film about the 1999 Ethan Hawke melodrama Snow Falling on Cedars (don't feel bad if you haven't heard of it or didn't see; it's nothing special), but the joke itself for the three people who get it was kind of funny, and absurd reference was a welcome respite for the relative snooze of the rest of the movie.  C-

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Even though Francis Ford Coppola hasn't made a good movie since, I don't know-- Bram Stoker's Dracula maybe, there's an endless curiosity with his work.  Now more than ever it appears he's just doing whatever the hell he wants, and while the results haven't made nearly as grand as during his prime, there's oddball sense of respect that he's earned it.  Hopefully his latest oddball creation-- an art-house noir about a writer embroiled in a real life bit or supernatural drippiness works out.  Stars Val Kilmer, Bruce Dern, Elle Fanning and Tom Waits.  His latest will unveil next month at the Toronto Film Festival.

The Devil's Double

The most controversial thing about The Devil's Double, an art house crime drama sudser about the debauched, decadent son of Saddam Hussein and his innocent doppelganger, is really that it's not in the least controversial at all.  That's not to say there isn't nasty bits of graphic violence and brutal killings, or even spicy bits of sex, but it's telling fairly early on that the film, directed by Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) is really trying hard, perhaps a bit too hard, to be the Middle Eastern Scarface.  History matters little, for The Devil's Double is only interested in classic Hollywood pulp in telling the story of a privileged sociopath, whose all cartoon and no dimension and the innocent stand-in brought in for his safety and entertainment.  Both are played by Dominic Cooper, the lanky young British actor of films like An Education and Mamma Mia!, and the most provocative and startling part of the feature is his performance.  The film itself feels cartoon-y and overdone with nothing but a half-baked story and lots of loose ends.  The film like Scarface is a too much in love with it's own seedy debauchery and ugliness, that one gets the sense that the movie wants Uday Hussein, the infamous son of Iraq, to startle and shake and ultimately become a villainous cinematic hero, in the same vein of Tony Montana, or the murders of Natural Born Killers, but the film has neither the spine, nor the gravitas, nor the conviction to truth to make Uday anything more than an ugly, overly-indulged brat.  Yet Cooper in the role of Uday is nothing short of spellbinding.  Cartoonish for sure, but deathly charming and assured that it makes up the only enjoyment of the ugly, violent experience.  He makes Uday such an immature, caddish flake that even at his most grisly or callous, he's almost like a kid in the candy store.  At the start of the film he brings Latif, a nobler fighter sort to his palace with an offer.  In actuality, it's an enslavement.  Latif, cursed with similar looks to Uday, is sent to be his double, his brother, his bullet-proof vest for the massive amounts of people who want him dead.  That's the premise of the film, and the set-up is nicely put together...but that's all the filmmakers appear to have.  There's lots of scenes of lavish parties, innocents being killed, Uday snorting cocaine all set in the world during the first Gulf War, but there's little substance.  All that's left is the career-elevating turn by Cooper to push the film forward, yet it's striking that his Uday is such a loutish riot, his Latif is so unformed and generic.  C+

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Somewhere down the road the nature of romantic comedies changed, I believe the shift occurred around the time Love Actually came in the fall of 2003.  Suddenly the simple story of boy meets girl became too old hat, or something, and instead all the romantic Hollywood tales that seemed to follow had to be big romantic epics.  With huge ensembles, why settle for one love story when you can get six for the same price.  The cynicism of the genre over the last couple of years expanded with romantic comedies based on self-help books (He's Just Not That Into You), and in an ever more desperate move at pure commercialism: holidays (last year's Valentine's Day and the upcoming New Year's Eve.)  So with a grain of salt, there's a slight respite to these bigger and starrier romances with the ensemble comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, a chipper, mostly agreeable Hollywood fairy tale that at this best has a wistful, sometimes melancholy spark that's lifted up by its generous and very famous cast.  The film has many of the same flaws that many other romantic ensemble comedies do-- it's a bit too long, the whole doesn't quite equal the sum of its parts, and there's a few too many subplots that run out of steam too early on, but there's also an energy, flaky romantic verve, and even a dash of hope.

Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the pranksters who co-wrote Bad Santa, and directed last year's raucous gay romantic fable I Love You, Phillip Morris from a script by Dan Fogelman (graduating to live action after writing films like Tangled and Cars 2), Crazy, Stupid, Love starts with Cal and Emily Weaver (Steve Carell and Julianne Moore), married for twenty-five years, sitting at dinner, when she turns and says, "I want a divorce."  Cal shuts down-- he even jumps out a moving vehicle to avoid talking about it, for Emily has admitted infidelity.  Soon he finds himself hanging out a posh pick-up bar drunkenly lamenting his sad state when a local lothario named Jacob (Ryan Gosling), out of pity or self-indulgence agrees to help the sad sack.  He trains the newly single Cal to become the self-obsessed, well-dressed, skirt-chaser he never thought he could be.  The first third of the film is ostensibly a remake of the Will Smith 2005 vehicle Hitch, but Gosling, in a pure movie star performance, does something refreshing and almost incandescently interesting with the role of Jacob.  He's a substance-free, fast talking ladies man, but with such a self-aware projection of confidence, it's also an essay on the caddish lifestyle in of itself.  He's aware that even when he's a jerk, he's also so magnetically charming that he's irresistible to almost anyone.  It's sort of sneaking Method-approach to old school movie star charisma.

There's several other tacked on romances on the side as well, as Cal's son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) has a mad crush on his babysitter that verges this side of stalker.  His babysitter on the other had, a comely and soft-spoken teenager named Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) has an even more inappropriate crush of her own.  Emily has her courtship with the office mate that made Cal a cuckold to begin with, played by Kevin Bacon, whose most interesting trait is his character's name: David Lindhagen (one of Carell's funniest scenes is a drunken dissection.)  Cal, newly free and on the loose for the first time makes an unstable middle school teacher his first target (in a nicely calibrated bit of craziness played by Marisa Tomei.)  While Jacob himself finds himself challenged by a game-changer of a girl, a lawyer played with disarming grace (if a bit of a lack of dimension) by Emma Stone.  All these stories comes together in a nicely muddled bit of chaos that's, well, a bit crazy, kind of stupid and sort of lovely.  That the film keeps going another twenty minutes is its ultimate downfall.  Yet even with certain lapses in pacing, and subplots that start to verge on the creepy (the babysitter subplot in particular wares itself out really fast), cliche staples (like Robbie as the wizened child distilling the best romantic advice), and uneven scripting, there's a freshness to the performances that feel sometimes real.  B

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Friends with Benefits

The difficulty of modern relationships, coupled with the increase of technological gadgetry, have made films like Friends with Benefits (and earlier this year's No Strings Attached) almost feel like avid indictments of modern coupling.  Forget the fantasy, and enjoy the sex.  The rules of modern courtship may have changed, as well as the slang, but the rules of romantic comedies have not, for the silly, sometimes engaging, quick and glib Friends with Benefits is merely and randier, R-rated version of the same movies Doris Day and Rock Hudson made fifty years ago, which isn't a bad thing.  Directed and co-written by Will Gluck, who brings the same pop screwball sensibilities and rapid fire verbosity here that he brought to last years high school comedy Easy A, may be aiming for a When Harry Meets Sally for the iPad generation, but missteps by trying to be earnest and ironic all at once.  For the uneven hurdle that Friends with Benefits never quite overcomes is that it wants to fashion a genuine love story centered around a casual sex romp that spends half the time making fun of love stories-- there's a very funny small part near the beginning of the film where Mila Kunis, after just being dumped, curses out Katherine Heigl after walking past a poster of a film of hers.  And at the films best, there's a smart, talky, randy tartness that's almost infectious, but just as in relationships themselves, there's a bunch of crap that corrodes it.

Kunis and Justin Timberlake play Jamie and Dylan, friends with benefits.  She's a New York headhunter who chases his Los Angeles blogger for a photo editor position at GQ.  Both were just dumped...she for being "emotionally damaged," he for being "emotionally unavailable."  Really, nothing is particularly wrong with either of them, and it's evident from their first only-in-the-movies, meet-cute scene at the airport that Jamie and Dylan are meant for each other, but in lieu of actual conflict they opt for just shagging, no emotions and therefore no heartache. Naturally, they're both full of themselves as Friends with Benefits, for all it's generous supply of foul language and ass shots must adhere to its formula. What Gluck forgot to add was any sort of conflict-- there's never really anything that ever stands in our lovers way.  For the majority of the film both Jamie and Dylan have good chemistry with one another, great sex, fun in and out of the bedroom, and also for the majority are single, so why does the film feel so much longer than it actually is?  Because in exchange for conflict, there's an awful lot of non-sequiturs. For un-needed gravitas both are given one unstable parent to deal with-- Patricia Clarkson hams it up as Jamie's flaky, stuck in the '70s party girl mom, and the always great Richard Jenkins plays Dylan's dad, going through the early stages of Alzheimer's. Neither presence is bad, both are actually quite good (same goes with Woody Harrelson's sideline role of a gay sports editor, who pops into mutter quasi-stereotypical rants and only-in-the-movies unasked for wisdom), but add little to the film, which is best when it's in naughty sex romp phase. At which Kunis and Timberlake have a lovely rapport; they nail and strike even the lamest jokes with committed conviction and generous comic timing.

Timberlake exhibits a confidence and handsome sturdiness that he's never shown on screen before, he makes Dylan a scruffy and goofy romantic, but it's Kunis who really shines. At ease with the films peppery dialogue and with the slightly more difficult role as the tough-minded, cynical and romantically jaded urban gal who both rejects and is beholden to the romantic fantasy; her presence distills Friends with Benefits, and perhaps the barren stock of modern romantic comedies with an ease, humor and charm that can't be written or manipulated.  And while reality is hardly ever at bay in the film, not that it has to be (for instance, for a film about people with serious, demanding careers, neither appear to ever be working, or really to have said competence in their professions), Kunis, while a beautiful movie star in the making, in a small way radiates the screen with a gentle, girl next door vibe.

Too bad so much gets in the way of the small pleasures that Friends with Benefits does offer fairly well.  The distractions of the supporting players (snowboarding champ Shawn White cameos as a sociopath hellbent on Timberlake?) and  the uneven pacing that feels too heavily strained on setting up it's own rules work against the small nugget of an idea and the game leads.  For possibly a nifty, even slightly transgressive romance, or anti-romance could have proved a nice commentary on the nature of modern relationships.  The idea of friends with benefits is nothing new, but the phrase itself is, and its grown into a no-strings-attached thing that has latched itself on its generation, a vivid dissection could have been ideal comic fodder for someone brave enough to really tackle it.  Instead, we're given an absolutely serviceable, sometimes highly pleasurable piece of paint-by-numbers romantic fluff.  B-
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