Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Review: Invictus

Invictus
**1/2/****

I was actually pleasantly surprised by Invictus. Pleasantly surprised in that it rarely made me think about killing myself, when I was expecting to use the cyanide pills I had brought along within the first half hour. This isn't a good film, but it's not painful.
Invictus chronicles the early years of Nelson Mandela's presidency. The economy is in the tubes, jobs are scarce, and ethnic tensions are at an all-time high. What better way to unite the country than by playing rugby? More specifically, spurring The Springboks, South Africa's rugby team, to win the 1995 World Cup. It would be laughably unbelievable if it weren't a true story. As fate would have it, it is a true story, and as such, I can't complain about how false the film feels. Miracles do happen, I suppose, and God knows that Clint Eastwood's going to be the first one on scene to bastardize them into feel-good cinema, assuming that Chris Columbus doesn't get there first, of course. (...Mind you, that's the director Chris Columbus, not the explorer.)
And bastardize he does. I feel like the political calculations shown onscreen were far more shrewd and planned than conveyed, as well as messier to execute. In Invictus, everything feels like it's been gift-wrapped for the camera. Inspirational montage is followed by stirring speech is followed by inspirational montage is followed by Big Important Symbolic Imagery. Such is par for the course, as far as Eastwood's newest films are concerned. The man isn't concerned with subtlety. Dammit, there is ROAD separating the WHITE people from the BLACK people, until MANDELA UNITES THEM, people. Eastwood will show this in the most literal terms possible.
Morgan Freeman seems born to play Nelson Mandela. Going into the film, I assumed that, at the least, I would see another fine Freeman performance. Strangely, I was mistaken. Freeman seems to have the mannerisms and physicality of the man down pat, but fails to delve any farther than skin-deep. What's on display is impersonation, not performance. Freeman looks and talks like Mandela, but he doesn't think like Mandela. He doesn't become Mandela. The same can be said for Matt Damon's fairly listless performance. How these two men have been nominated for SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Awards, and, in all probability, Oscars, is completely beyond me. The smaller supporting performances are, as expected, fairly awful. Eastwood doesn't take the time to instruct his actors, and it shows. The line readings by anyone whose last name doesn't rhyme with Speedman or Cayman are almost painful in their High School Drama Club feel. The original music by Clint Eastwood's brother Kyle is particularly galling and derivative. I swear, if I never hear another simple trumpet melody in another film, it will be too soon. And I have yet to even mention the film's worst mistake: it never tries to explain the game of rugby, assuming that all viewers can claim familiarity with the game. Thus, the sports scenes are well-shot and edited, but make no sense. One can only stare at so many close-ups of Matt Damon grappling with a veritable pigpen of sweaty asses before zoning out.
And yet, the film isn't terrible. There are a number of inspirational moments and pieces of heartfelt drama. Still, for every good moment, there are another two or three poor moments that have could easily have been lost; seriously, at two hours and fifteen minutes, this film is far too long.
So how on Earth did this film earn its two and a half stars? You know, I'm not entirely sure. It's easy to focus on the negative in a review, but while in the theater, the film isn't terrible. Not great, but not terrible.

Review: Nine

Nine
*1/2/****

I think Nine is fascinating for exactly one reason. The film itself follows the exploits of Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), a film-maker who has ten days before he starts filming, yet has yet to write a script, or even a plot. During the ten days, he seeks advice from the women in his life, including his dead mother (Sophia Loren), his leading lady and muse (Nicole Kidman), his wife (Marion Cotillard), the whore of his childhood home (Fergie, of the Black Eyed Peas. Really.), an American journalist (Kate Hudson), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), and his costume designer and confidante (Judi Dench). He doesn't quite many answers, but he sure finds a lot of vaginas. What's interesting about Nine is that is sets out to dramatize a director without vision or purpose, to convey his listlessness through images. Nine fails in doing that intentionally, but is a wonderful piece of film because it is a film by a director without vision or purpose. It doesn't dramatize its subject so much as exemplify it.
This film is just a mess. No other word for it. Director Rob Marshall obviously had no idea what he was trying to accomplish, so he just added more colors, more quick edits, and more musical numbers (two extra were written for the film), hoping that if he pushed more ingredients into the creative blender, there would be a better chance of something working well. Tragically, the exact opposite happened: nothing in the film works because so much is trying to work at the same time. The musical numbers are lifeless to begin with, but any chance of entertainment is stripped away by frenetic pacing. The cinematography can be gorgeous, but is mostly undermined by frantic editing and no proper sense of rhythm. The performances elevate themselves every now and again, but mostly stagnate in a soup of unfocused ambitions.
Speaking of which: The performances. I've never seen so many talented actors squandering their gifts in one place. Let's take a look at some statistics: Out of the major roles (Day-Lewis, Loren, Kidman, Cotillard, Hudson, Cruz, and Dench), only one actor (Hudson) hasn't won at least one Oscar. And hell, Hudson very nearly did. For those counting at home, these six people have six acting Oscars between them. So how on Earth did so many of the performances go wrong? Daniel Day-Lewis, normally one of the best working actors, suffers from terrible miscasting. He can't sing, and doesn't fit the part of Guido at all. He doesn't even seem to try to make it work: he stumbles along, slurring his words and looking at the floor, as if fully cognizant of his performance's inadequacy. The same can be said for Kidman, who fails to exude the charisma required of her in any of her scenes. Sophia Loren is sweet enough, but skin deep. Poor Kate Hudson gets very little to do, and doesn't even manage to do the little that she's afforded. Only Cruz, Cotillard, and Dench emerge unscathed. Cruz is wonderful; by turns sexy, vulnerable, and pitiful. Cotillard has a larger dramatic arc, and plays it well, always allowing herself audience empathy without pity. The acting laurels, however, must be taken by Judi Dench, whose costume Designer Lilli is a wickedly gleeful invention.
Perhaps some of the problems stem from the material itself. Admittedly, Nine has little in the way of plot, and as such, must propel itself through sheer energy and forward motion alone. Rob Marshall (who previously directed Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha) just isn't a skilled-enough artisan to make the film work in the way it needs to. It's as if he realized his lack of substantial material, and, instead of trying to fix it, just threw a bunch of colors together and crossed his fingers.
Overall, Nine is messy, drab despite its hectic color schemes, and a complete disappointment. Moments of competent acting can't save this film from its fate. If you have to see this one, rent it: it's not worth the theater admission fee.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review: It's Complicated

It's Complicated
**1/2/****

It's Complicated isn't complicated, by any stretch of the imagination. It's a familiar romp through uninspired territory, elevated by the paragon of cinematic perfection that is Meryl Streep.
It's Complicated revolves around Jane (Meryl Streep), a mother of three who has just sent her last child off to college. Facing a very large empty nest, Jane stagnates in her new-found freedom. On a whim (and by whim, we here mean "lots and lots of alcohol"), she finds herself hooking up with her now married ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin). She begins to have an affair with her old husband, which is made more complicated by her smitten architect (Steven Martin), and the confused paternal feelings of her brood of Aryan spawn.
Writer/director Nancy Meyers isn't exactly renowned for reinventing the wheel. Her previous films include The Holiday, Something's Gotta Give, What Women Want and the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap. Not exactly groundbreaking material. Still, she's a great success for the demographic to which she pitches: older, boozy women fresh off of menopause that like to think that romantic shenaniganry still occurs with regularity while on the darker side of fifty. And kudos to them, I suppose. If Nancy Meyers is what makes the baby-boomers happy, then I'm glad they've found someone who's willing to cater to their needs.
Alas, I am not an older, boozy woman, and, as such, have trouble enjoying Nancy Meyers. I'm willing to accept the cliches inherent in the romantic comedy genre, and, indeed, the end of this film feels bracingly realistic. Still, there are moments of scriptwriting sloppiness and general embarrassment that I can't ignore. I don't feel like divulging too many details here, but I do have a direct message for Nancy Meyers: Do not, I repeat DO NOT make Meryl F-ing Streep talk about how much semen she likes in your stupid, stupid little movie. She is MERYL STREEP. She owns Hollywood. Which is to say that she owns you. She does not need to bother herself with forays into jokes about jizz. So please, for the love of God, if by some miracle she decides to do one of your films, CLASS IT UP A BIT. Try not to aim for the gutter.
Which brings us to Meryl. Awww, Meryl. No matter what she's in, she's always brilliant. Streep is the shining beacon of light that keeps It's Complicated from being American Pie for older women. Everything she touches she turns to gold.
Can Streep save the film completely? Not by a long shot. But she makes it watchable, which is awfully nice. It's Complicated is enjoyable enough, amusing at times, and mostly painless, with another memorable turn by Meryl Streep, but it evaporates the second you leave the theater.

Review: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes
**/****

Y'know, I completely intended to start this tactfully. I would mildly extol Sherlock Holmes' virtues before citing its problems, and then finish with some succinct, not-quite enthusiastic final note. Well, the hell with that.
I can't love this movie. It's enjoyable, it has funny moments, but there's one very, very large problem that I need to address.
I hate director Guy Ritchie. No, I hate director Guy Ritchie. To me, he exemplifies all the worst possible things that could have been learned from the Quentin Tarantino style of film-making. Ritchie's films are full of sound and fury, but they sure don't mean anything. Ritchie is a whirling dervish of cinema: he thrashes around like a child in a temper tantrum, throwing explosions, colors, actions scenes, fast edits, and pithy one-liners at the screen in a perfect maelstrom of creative inanity, hoping that some form of entertainment will distill itself out of the mess he has created. And you know, he's not entirely unsuccessful on that front. He makes movies that entertaining enough. And I get it: I completely understand that anyone who goes to a Guy Ritchie movie looking for any form of substance deserves what they find. Still: it's just not enough to make things explode and throw in some fight scenes and repeat the phrase "ginger midget" enough times to make me want to eat my tongue. Film is one of the most powerful art mediums in the modern world, and it's borderline offensive that someone as clearly sophomoric as Mr. Ritchie has not only a career, but a veritable bevy of devoted followers who will go to the grave swearing that the man is a master.
Perhaps I should tone it down a bit. Right now, I'm assuming you think that I absolutely hated this movie. Not true. As stated before, I was completely entertained throughout, and the film isn't without its selling points. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are both wonderfully talented, charismatic actors, and both do as much with the material as humanly possible, creating characters that are both funny and (somewhat) plausible, though the level of bromance threatens to become more than angsty gazing. Seriously, if I were the future Mrs. Watson, I would be more than a little concerned about some of the goings-on at 221B Baker Street. The film itself looks rather lovely; I mean this in respect to the art direction and costumes, not as much to the cinematography, which is passable, but rather pedestrian. The music by Hans Zimmer is endlessly inventive and wicked--I haven't heard music this gleefully malevolent for quite some time.
Alas, the film also has its share of problems. Rachel McAdams is woefully miscast as the love interest. McAdams can be wonderful in the right circumstances. Such is not the case here, and her robotic line-reading may very well earn her a Razzie nomination before too long. The film itself is overstays its welcome; several scenes could have been cut with little to no effect on the plot, and trim the film's fat in several places (I honestly can't find a good defense of the underground boxing club sequences, and would love for someone to tell me why they were needed. I, for one, had to suppress more than a few giggles here).
And yet the film works, I suppose, on its own ridiculous terms. I realize that this has been a nutty review. I start ranting about how Guy Ritchie is the cinematic equivalent of the Antichrist, then I praise the film for its acting and humor, then I criticize it again, and then tell you the film works. I really don't know how to distill my opinions on this movie into some clear, easy-to-interpret sentence, so I'll give you this: if you're looking for an entertaining, forgettable experience, full steam ahead. If you're looking for a good movie, steer clear.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Review: Up in the Air

Up in the Air
****/****

Jason Reitman. I think I'd like to strangle him. At thirty-two years old, he's made exactly three films: Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air. Each perfectly tiptoes the line between comedy and drama, each show immaculate control of the medium, and they're only getting better. I'm jealous, Mr. Reitman. I'm very jealous.
Up in the Air follows the exploits of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate shark whose job entails flying around the country, firing employees for companies without the stones to do it for themselves. A self-described loner, in his spare time, he delivers motivational speeches on how to live without obligations. His world is shaken by the introduction of two women with whom he can't help but connect: Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow road warrior who describes herself as Ryan "with a vagina," and Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an up-and-coming business ingenue whom Ryan must teach. Both relationships come together to facilitate a completely believable character arc that lights the fire under the film's fast-moving two hours.
Director Jason Reitman is a master of balance. Up in the Air jumps easily between comedic interludes and taut relationship drama, all while being liberally spiced with contemporary relevance. All the tonal balance in the world, however, would be for nothing without the film's fantastically literate screenplay. The dialogue is consistently witty, incisive, and overall worth hearing. If this doesn't win the Adapted Screenplay Oscar, then something is very, very wrong with the universe.
The actors across the board take advantage of such a boffo screenplay. Anna Kendrick is particularly impressive as Natalie; her character attempts to be the consummate professional, but, every now and again, cracks begin to show. Kendrick's performance is subtle, beautifully controlled, and moving. Clooney provides her perfect foil: he's as jaded and quiet as she is optimistic and upbeat. The two will easily land nominations the morning of February 22nd. Vera Farmiga also turns in an interesting performance: the script doesn't give her as much to do as Kendrick and Clooney, but Farmiga runs with what she has (much like she did in The Departed), turning a character written with less depth into a singularly believable individual.
Up in the Air hits all the right spots in all the right ways: the laughs are big, the events are plausible, and the drama is engrossing. Some might complain about the open-ended ending, but I say this: Up in the Air isn't about events or plot. What happens to the characters in the end isn't that important. No, the film is about the people themselves; how they change, who they've become. Does it matter what they do after the movie? No. What matters is that they aren't the same people they were at the beginning of the film. Jason Reitman continues his solid gold streak: this is one of the year's best films.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog
***1/2/****

When I first heard about this film, I couldn't help but regard it with a little cynicism. Disney's last few films have flopped, so what better way to make money than to cash in on the nostalgia that a return to the hand-drawn musical would bring? Well, perhaps that was the motivation behind this film, but The Princess and the Frog plays the nostalgia card very, very well. More than that, it's an incredibly entertaining, humorous, and altogether memorable Disney experience.
Where else can one start but the songs? True to its roots, The Princess and the Frog packs itself with toe-tapping bayou and jazz-inspired ditties, making clear from the opening frames that yes, this will be a musical. On the whole, the songs were pleasant, though none will become Disney classics, and are, for the most part, integrated organically into the body of the film. My personal favorites were the by-turns joyful and bittersweet "Almost There," the sort-of theme song "Down in New Orleans," and the heart-wrenchingly sweet and romantic "Ma Belle Evangeline." The scoring in between the songs is a little sparse (with the exception of the gorgeous opening suite for brass), but I suppose we can forgive Randy Newman for now. He is, after all, only Randy Newman, and one can only expect so much of him out of any given film.
The vocal performances are stellar across the board. Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) is stellar as the titular Princess Tiana. She brings a warmth and drive to the role that is never lost. Equally good is Bruno Campos as Prince Naveen. He believably and accurately traverses the most complex character arc in the film. Watch out for cameos from Oprah and Terence Howard as well (they play Tiana's parents in the prologue).
The actors would be lost, however, without the fantastic screenplay, which doesn't leave them at a loss for words. The film is unusually sharp and witty for a new Disney film, as well as emotionally resonant and thematically mature. Indeed, watching The Princess and the Frog feels like a Pixar film; it's not afraid to tackle difficult 'adult' emotions. Plus, the film is filled with just enough bizarre throw-away lines ("Dance with me, fat man!") to make this writer downright giddy.
Overall, The Princess and the Frog is an immensely satisfying cinema outing sure to remind viewers of the old Disney classics and, one day, take its place among them.

Review: Avatar

Avatar
****/****

Every thirty-odd years, a film like King Kong or Bonnie and Clyde or Star Wars comes along and completely redefines cinema, changing the way that movies are made. As a budding film critic and avid film lover, I've always wondered what it would be like to have been on the ground-floor of these masterpieces' accomplishments; seeing them for the first time, having to scoop my jaw off the floor in response to a type of cinema I'd never seen. Well, dear reader, I now know what that feels like.
Let's just get it out right now: Avatar is like no other movie that has ever been made, and every movie that is made after Avatar will owe something to it. Everyone should see this regardless of its quality: it's not every day that one can take part in cinema history.
Luckily for us, however, the film's quality is not to be questioned. The first time I saw it, I had trouble articulating what exactly the film made me feel. All I knew was that I wanted it to happen again. Two more viewings (in two days, no less) later, I know now: Avatar makes me feel like a little kid. As a piece of cinema, it has the ability to strip me of all my preconceptions, my cynicism, my anger or bitterness, and replace it with something joyous on a primal level. Avatar touched a deep, resonant chord somewhere inside me, transporting me to a place that I can never return to in reality. Avatar reminds the viewer what it's like to look at the world for the first time.
Not that I need to state this by now, but Avatar is one of the prettiest films you will ever see. The world of Pandora, all created by James Cameron, is singularly unique and beautiful, and seeing this on a big screen (preferably in 3-D) is the only way to truly enjoy it. The visual effects, of course, cannot be adequately described. I have no comparisons to draw. Either you've seen this film, or you haven't. I can't capture what the film looks like with something as simple as words. Suffice to say that everything is photo-realistic, and the motion-capture technology allows the acting performances to shine through completely.
Admittedly, James Cameron is not the best writer in the world. No, let me rephrase that: James Cameron can create compelling, entertaining stories with the best of them. Writing them, on the other hand, seems to be more of a challenge. Such is the only complaint I can raise about Avatar: The story is moving, compelling, and supremely entertaining. Sometimes, though, the dialogue clunks. Not frequently. Not as much as it could have for a James Cameron movie. But every now and again, the dialogue can hurt. What a masterwork Avatar would have been as a silent film.
These are just tiny complaints, however, and only really noticed after exiting the theater. Avatar is a singular accomplishment, a technical achievement of unparalleled proportions, and an incredibly entertaining film. Anyone with any self-respect as a film-lover, or film-goer of any kind, needs to see this film. And you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Directors gone WILD

Maybe it's just me, but I find this video absolutely fascinating. So go take a look at it. Or, first, I suppose, I should give you some cliff notes. This video is a fast interview with six directors: Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Jason Reitman, and Lee Daniels. I'm assuming I don't have to tell you who Tarantino and Jackson are.
The Others:
Kathryn Bigelow: director of The Hurt Locker, K:19, Point Break, Near Dark, etc.
James Cameron: I shouldn't have to tell you either, but just in case: Avatar, Titanic, Terminator 1 and 2, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies
Jason Reitman: Up in the Air, Juno, Thank You For Smoking
Lee Daniels: Precious, Shadowboxer

Now, take a look:

http://video.hollywoodreporter.com/services/player/bcpid6555681001?bctid=57139948001


Back?
I love this conversation. It's really a fairly simple question, a little bit stereotypical, fairly dumbed-down, but the personalities behind these directors shine through so well through it that it's easy to see where each of their films come from.
Let's look at the seating arrangements. I don't know if it was intentional, but it's perfect, and fits the conversation to a T:
On the right side, we have Lee Daniels and Jason Reitman. Both are directors of small, quirky-ish indie movies, both of whom rely on film festivals and Oscar buzz for critical success.
In the middle: Peter Jackson and James Cameron. Inarguably the biggest, ballsiest film-makers around. Both of these men understand the word 'epic' and convey that in their movies. Both fit seamlessly into the Hollywood studio system.
On the left side: Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino. Both film-makers whose goal seems to be making art-oriented auteur films within the constrains of typical genre fare.
In other words, they sat according to the type of films they make. (Funny side note: Kathyryn Bigelow used to be married to James Cameron; they're divorced now. Notice how Bigelow is sitting as far as humanly possible from Cameron. They're going to have to spend the whole award season competing. Love it.)
What makes this arrangement more interesting is that the subject of studio vs. independent film comes up; rather passionately, I might add. Look at James Cameron: when Reitman and Daniels are talking about their films he looks disdainful, almost angry. Their style does not sit well with him. He even goes so far as to insult Reitman's father; in the part where Reitman is talking about Kevin Smith and Ghostbusters, which Reitman's father directed, Cameron says, as an aside: "That's a good reason not to make movies." Reitman twitches a little, but keeps smiling. Jackson, too, seems a little aloof, but I'd say he's just not a fan of the schmoozing with the press scenario. He started as a quirky, indie film-maker, and I think he respects his roots. On the other side, Reitman is trying too hard to fit the role as indie director, and Daniels just looks uncomfortable. Watch Bigelow and Tarantino, though. Bigelow is utterly comfortably, almost serene, and Tarantino loves everybody. Of all the film-makers, they seem the most comfortable sharing the craft with their compatriots.
Odd. Jackson and Cameron have made millions and millions with their films, and Reitman and Daniels are both proudly off-center. But the only two film-makers at the table who seem comfortable are the ones who straddle the line between indie and studio.
Is this as telling as I'd like it to be, or are Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino just nicer, more confident people than the others?

Your Slice of Zen For the Day

"What are you asking? That we weigh the life of one man versus the future of mankind? Kill him."

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Decade of Oscar Winners: A Retrospective

This week, critics circles, guilds, and one group of drunken journalists all announce their nominees for various end-of-the-year awards. Suffice to say that, by Friday, we'll have a fairly clear picture of the Oscar race. I'll run a piece on that later this week, but for now, I'd like to just look back at the Academy.
And how often they screw things up.
Seriously. Rarely does Best Picture go to the actual best film of the year. Too often, the process becomes mired in politics, playing nice, buying votes, and scheduling woes. Which isn't to say that good movies can't win, of course. I'm just saying that the best films often don't. So, for your viewing pleasure, here are the best picture winners of the decade, along with the other nominees they built. I'll whine for a little about them (or compliment them, you never know), then offer up my own nominee slate. Fun times!

2008: Slumdog Millionaire
Other nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader
I'll be honest; none of these nominees get me too excited. Slumdog is definitely the best among them (though The Reader has some great moments, and, admittedly, I liked Benjamin Button), but that's not saying a whole lot. Slumdog won because it was exactly what our country needed at the time: something fast, loud, and oozing optimism. It perfectly tapped into the zeitgeist surrounding Obama's election. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a perfectly competent film. There just happened to be a bevy of other, more challenging, more advanced films for consumption.
My nominees, in order of preference:
1. Waltz With Bashir
2. Synecdoche, New York
3. WALL-E
4. Let the Right One In
5. In Bruges

2007: No Country For Old Men
Other Nominees: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood
How fantastic: We're only two years in, and I can't find anything to complain about! 2007 was one of the best years for film in recent memory; it would have been almost impossible to not nominate five great films, and any of the nominees could be a worthy champion in any other year. Essentially, 2007 was awesome. Nothing more so than No Country For Old Men; a film that showed the Coens at the absolute top of their game. Adroitly paced, almost unbearably taut, lean, and full of dark, cynical insight, No Country wasn't just the best of the year: it's one of the best winners of the decade. And I can't even complain about the other nominees. All of them are of the honor.
My nominees:
1. No Country For Old Men
2. Sunshine
3. There Will Be Blood
4. Away From Her
5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

2006: The Departed
Other Nominees: Babel, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen
This is tough: I can't say I agree that The Departed was the best film of the year, but it sure came close. It's certainly the best of the nominated films (though all of those, with the exception of Babel, carry my complete and total approval). Indeed, it's hard to deny the energy and forward motion of The Departed. Plus, it's Martin Frigging Scorsese. The Departed is a fantastic entry into the Academy Canon.
My Nominees:
1. Children of Men
2. The Departed
3. Pan's Labyrinth
4. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
5. Letters From Iwo Jima

2005: Crash
Other Nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Goodnight and Good Luck, Munich
Ahhh. Crash. Crash. This. Was. A. Travesty. I'm not saying that Crash doesn't have powerful moments, and I'm not saying that Crash isn't a very skillful manipulator. But that's just it: the movie is great at manipulating the viewer into thinking they're seeing something good, when what they're actually seeing is ham-fisted, obvious, and subtle as a sledgehammer. How it won out over ANY of the other nominees (all fantastic films) as well as other not-nominated greats is almost unfathomable. But especially winning over Brokeback Mountain or, to a lesser degree, Munich. Both are modern masterpieces, and are many heads and shoulders above Crash. The Academy certainly dropped the ball on this one.
My Nominees:
1. Brokeback Mountain
2. Munich
3. A History of Violence
4. Capote
5. Junebug

2004: Million Dollar Baby
Other Nominees: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways
Here's another year where the slew of nominees did nothing for me. It's once again the case that the winner is the best of those offered, but it's not a hard accomplishment. The Aviator was technically proficient but dead inside, Finding Neverland was shallow ant smarmy, Ray was all about the lead performance, and Sideways, though loved by some, was found by this writer to be misogynistic, slow, and utterly pointless. Million Dollar Baby itself is minor Eastwood. It's not his best effort, but is better than his worst efforts. It's a movie-of-the-week. Watch it, feel sanctimonious, forget it. End of story.
My Nominees:
1. Kill Bill
2. Undertow
3. Hotel Rwanda
4. Before Sunset
5. The Incredibles

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Other Nominees: Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, Seabiscuit
I have trouble arguing with this one. As a stand-alone film, The Return of the King is strong, but not strong enough to win over the others. As a piece of a trilogy, and as a cinematic accomplishment, The Return of the King (and, really, The Lord of the Rings) is staggering work that's nearly impossible to ignore. And that's what the Academy did here: the Oscar wasn't for Return of the King. It was for The Lord of the Rings, and it's hard to compete with three films, even if the competition is as fantastic as the other nominees (with the notable exception of Seabiscuit, which made me try to eat my own tongue).
My Nominees:
1. Lost in Translation
2. City of God
3. Mystic River
4. 28 Days Later
5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

2002: Chicago
Other Nominees: Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist
How the hell did Chicago walk away with this? I'll be the first to admit that Chicago is entertaining and well-made. But it's little else. There's nothing challenging or new about the film. It makes you smile for a couple of hours, then is promptly forgotten. Admittedly two of the other nominees were uneven efforts (Gangs of New York and The Two Towers), and the other two were too depressing and cerebral for most viewers, but that's no excuse. The Pianist or The Hours would both have made far more deserving winners than Chicago. And I haven't even mentioned all the films that weren't nominated that were better than Chicago. Geez.
My Nominees:
1. Y Tu Mama, Tambien
2. Minority Report
3. Adaptation
4. The Hours
5. Hable Con Ella

2001: A Beautiful Mind
Other Nominees: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge!
...I don't even want to talk to the Oscars right now. 2001 was a banner year for cinema, chock full of films that did new, bold things, played with content, form, style, films that revitalized dying genres, films that defied expectations, films with fascinating character studies, intense moments, and all general forms of greatness. And the winner was....A poorly made, slow-paced, shallow-minded biopic that has been seen 1,000 times before. Seriously, I think I saw A Beautiful Mind on Hallmark as a made-for-TV movie before it got a theatrical release. It's just embarrassing. All of the other nominees would have been incomparably better as winners than this perfect storm of retardation. (Side note, but where the hell was Black Hawk Down when it came to voting time? How did it not make the cut?)
My Nominees:
1. Black Hawk Down
2. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
3. Gosford Park
4. Moulin Rouge!
5. Memento

2000: Gladiator
Other Nominees: Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Erin Brokovich, Traffic
Not a strong start to the decade, really. 2000 had some great films. Not many of them can be found in the nominees listed above. Gladiator is large, loud, and well-made. A great film it is not. Though, I understand that, out of the nominees, it was the only plausible winner: Chocolat and Erin Brokovich were flukes, Traffic was too clinical, and The Academy will burn in Hell before they give their top prize to a foreign-language film. But see, the solution to this problem is not to choose the lesser of five evils: it's to nominate the good films in the first place. Oh well.
My Nominees:
1. Almost Famous
2. Billy Elliot
3. Requiem For a Dream
4. The Virgin Suicides
5. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The 2000s: A fantastic decade for films. Not a fantastic decade for Academy Award winners. If I had to list the winners by my preference, it would be as follows:

1. The Departed
2. No Country For Old Men
3. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
4. Slumdog Millionaire
5. Gladiator
6. Million Dollar Baby
7. Chicago
8. Crash
9. A Beautiful Mind

Honestly, only the first two have my first three have my complete approval. The next two are good enough, and then it's all downhill from there. And what's going to join this not-so-awe-inspiring list in March? The Hurt Locker. Please, please let it be The Hurt Locker. Finish the decade with a bang (pun not intended). Or who knows. I have lots of big, 'prestige' films left to see this year. Maybe Avatar. Maybe Up in the Air. Just...something good, OK Academy?

What do you think? Am I being too hard on these winners? Are these nine films a collection of cinematic gems that will resonate throughout the ages? Let me know.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Your mother's in here, Karras. Would you like to leave a message? I'll see that she gets it."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

Burke: Look, this is an emotional moment for all of us, OK? I know that. But let's not make snap judgements, please. This is clearly an important species we're dealing with and I don't think that you or I, or anybody, has the right to arbitrarily exterminate them.
Ripley: Wrong.
Vasquez: Watch us!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Some Very Pretty Pictures (for you!)

I started off the day intending to do a shot-by-shot analysis of the scene in which my favorite shot of all time takes place, but, alas, I couldn't find the clip on Youtube, and it would be silly to do an article like that without providing a way to see the scene. So, instead, I'm just going to rattle off the five prettiest movies I can think of right now (they'll all be fairly recent, as they need to be somewhat fresh in my mind for me to rattle them off) and extol their virtues a bit. I'll also provide the link for the trailer to each one (I wish I knew how to embed videos. If someone can provide a tutorial, or some helpful advice, I'd be much obliged). I highly, highly recommend that you watch each trailer; while you can't really appreciate a film's style when it's cut up like that, it will give you a good idea of the film, as well as provide the pretty pictures I promised you. It also helps that all five trailers are just excellent examples of trailers at their best.

(These are in no particular order, by the way. If forced to choose, I would give slight advantage to the first two films I mention.)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Cinematographer: Roger Deakins aka God)
Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp2ppYB9fDo
This film really, honestly defies description. Roger Deakins takes his characteristic starkness and emotive lightwork and kicks it into overdrive. He's lensing modern day gods, and it feels like it. Everything is large, grand, and ultimately bleak. His color palettes are unbearably gorgeous. Really, this film is stunning. See it. The film is poetry at its best.

The Thin Red Line (Cinematographer: John Toll)
Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCmlOhsIwBk
This film is a little more grounded in reality than the admittedly fantastical musings of the previous entry, but it's no uglier for it. Toll adroitly mixes beautiful nature shots with jaw-dropping tracking shots through battle, liberally spiced with surreal-feeling flashbacks and expressive underwater photography. More poetry here.

The Piano (Cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh)
Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3jUcEOWJO0&feature=related
Unconventional lensing for an unconventional film. Dryburgh does just the opposite of The Thin Red Line in that he excels at casting sharp juxtapositions between the characters and nature. The film feels cold and harsh, as if the landscape is aware that humans shouldn't be living there. He also goes for great unorthodox shots, as well as returning to shots that he knows works (the piano on the beach, framed by waves, for instance).

Brokeback Mountain (Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto)
(The shot that I was originally planning this article for is at the end of the trailer: Heath Ledger and fireworks. You'll know it when you see it.)
Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dc7Odty5MuM
My definition for a pretty film is this: I feel like I can stop the film at any given moment, print the frame I stopped on, and hang it on my wall as a piece of art. More than anything else, Prieto's work feels like art. Painterly, really. Every scene, every shot seems like a composition that I could hang on my wall.

Hero (Cinematographer: Christopher Doyle)
Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv3u8-Mq08Q
This film uses color like nothing I've ever seen. Every part has a particular scheme that works beautifully in the context of each location. Notice how all the characters seem to blend and melt into their surroundings, as if the world is swallowing them up, blurring the lines between self and whole. And it's very, very big. It beats everything else on the list in terms of scale.


So, it would seem that my favorite pretty movies all concern nature/human juxtaposition. What do you think? Are these pretty enough for you? What are some other movies that I could have mentioned? If you want me to talk about a film's look or style, I will: I love cinematography. Leave me some suggestions.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"They put her in a bag. That's what Katie looked like when I saw her in the morgue. Like they put her in a bag and then they beat the bag with pipes. Janie died in her sleep. All due respect, but there you go. She went to sleep, she never woke up. Peaceful. My daughter was murdered. They put a gun to her. As we stand here, she's on an autopsy slab getting cut open by scalpels and chest spreaders, and you're talking to me about domestic fucking responsibility?"

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Clint Eastwood. Good Lord, Clint Eastwood.

I have a problem with Clint Eastwood.
Let me rephrase that. I have a problem with Clint Eastwood as a director this decade.
Perhaps I need to rephrase this one more time. I have a problem with what people are saying about Clint Eastwood as a director this decade.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not here to attempt to take down his older films, many of which are respected classics, like Unforgiven, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bird, Pale Rider, etc. I have no problem with this incarnation of Clint Eastwood. What gets me is what he's been doing lately. More specifically, what gets me is how much people love what he's been doing lately.
For reasons that I can't fathom, the general consensus on the street ('street' here means the cutthroat, hard-knock world of film criticism) is that Eastwood has 'hit his stride' as a film-maker and is churning out unparalleled quantities of the finest movies Hollywood has to offer.
I'm sorry, but no.
I concede that, this decade he has made one flat-out masterpiece. He has also made one very good film, and three interesting near-misses. He has also made three steaming piles of horse crap. How does that record make people think that this is a film-maker in his prime?
Let's break his filmography down a bit.
The masterpiece: Mystic River. Laser-focused, intense, so well-acted it hurts. I have nothing to fault here: Clint Eastwood's signature sparse directorial style, as well as his simple music contributions (Eastwood composes all his own music, doncha know) work perfectly within the confines of the story. Hell, they don't just work: they enhance and elevate the material. This is one of the best films of 2003, and one of Clint's best films in general, including his earlier works.
The very good film: Letters From Iwo Jima. Brave, unsentimental, unflinching. There are a couple tonal missteps and pacing issues, but on the whole, this film is riveting cinema. Kudos, Clint.
The near-misses: Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Changeling. Here's where I start to take offense, because much of what's wrong with each of these films comes from Mr. Eastwood.
Million Dollar Baby. Everyone does seem to be throwing their heart and soul into this, and Clint's style is (mostly) fitting. His film avoids most forms of complexity, however. The main character, Maggie, is completely whitewashed, as is Morgan Freeman's omniscient narrator. Only the lead character, played by Eastwood, is allowed to be interesting. A better script and a sharper, less sentimental eye could have improved this film considerably.
Flags of Our Fathers. Just the opposite of Million Dollar Baby. Flags tries too hard to do to much, and ends up not doing much of anything at all. The battle sequences are astoundingly well-done; I'm surprised that Clint had never done a war film before, because he does it very well. The film flounders, however, when it returns to the home front and attempts to establish a larger social context. Funnily enough, his other Iwo Jima film, Letters From Iwo Jima, came out the same year and was a much better film precisely because he didn't try to do as much. How did he make two films about the same thing and get one of them right for all the reasons that he got the other wrong? Odd.
Changeling. Another valiant attempt, with some memorable scenes, but overall, it's a tonal and pacing mess.
Which helps me segue into Clint Eastwood's main problem: he rushes things. Eastwood is renowned for his 'one take' method, aka he only requires one take of most scenes. This is great for expediency, but it tends to hurt the film. With his style, the films he approaches must be the perfect storm of acting and screenplay elements (see Mystic River) to be effective, because the one take method leaves absolutely no room for error. And, frankly, Eastwood is just not genius enough to never make any errors. No one is, really. That's why most directors don't play so fast and loose with quality.
Which leads us to Space Cowboys, Blood Work, and, especially, Gran Torino. Gran Torino feels like a high-school theater piece. Its only "redeeming" element is its rampant racism and acceptable acting turn from Clint Eastwood. I know the bandying-about of racial slurs really endeared this film to some people, but just because a film is a dictionary of things to call your ethnic neighbors doesn't make it a good film. End of story.
So what am I saying? Currently, Eastwood's next effort, Invictus, is about to hit theaters. Early reviews cite, you guessed it, tonal and pacing errors, as well as a generally rushed feel. But what is Clint doing now? He's working on his next film, Hereafter, which will be released, you guessed it, next year.

Clint: take a little more time. You can make great films when you try hard. So please. Try a little more. I know you're getting on in years (he turned 79 in May), and could be feeling pressured to make as many more movies as you can before the end, but really: We would all prefer one more Eastwood masterpiece that takes three years to make than one mediocre Eastwood film a year. Seriously. We're here for you. We can help. Set down the camera, pick up your red pen, and improve your scripts. Then, take some time with your actors. Rehearse a bit. Play around. Go crazy. Then, take some time in the editing room. Do post-production right. And then take a break. Don't start shooting your next film while you're still editing your last. That way lies disaster. We've seen it. It's called Gran Torino.

Are y'all Eastwood fans? Should he take more time? Is he the genius that everyone says he is? Am I just being overly critical? Speak up, dawgs.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

Sulley: Mike, this isn't Boo's door.
Mike: Boo? What's Boo?
Sulley: That's what I decided to call her. Is there a problem?
Mike: Sulley, you're not supposed to name it. Once you name it, you start getting attached to it. Now put that thing back where it came from, or so help me...
(Mike pauses, realizing that he has the attention of the whole floor)
Mike: Oh. Hey. We're rehearsing a - a scene for the upcoming company play called, uh, "Put That Thing Back Where it Came From or So Help Me." It's a musical.
(singing)
'Put that thing back where it came from or so help me, so help me' and cut. We're still working on it, it's a work in progress, but hey, we need ushers.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Perhaps you're interested in how a man undresses. You know, it's a funny thing about that. Quite a study in psychology. No two men do it alike. You know, I once knew a man who kept his hat on until he was completely undressed. Yeah, now he made a picture. Years later, his secret came out: he wore a toupee. Yeah. You know, I have a method all my own. If you notice, the coat came first, then the tie, then the shirt. Now, according to Hoyle, after that, the pants should be next. There's where I'm different: I go for the shoes next. First the right, then the left. After that, it's every man for himself."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

American Beauty and Donnie Darko as companion pieces

The other day, I was speaking to a friend and fellow movie enthusiast. He told me that he thought American Beauty and Donnie Darko were perfect companion pieces, though he wasn't quite sure why. I asked him if he would let me take his idea and run with it, and here are the results.

(note: Big spoiler warning over the whole article. It's impossible to tackle this subject intelligently without writing about the endings.)

American Beauty and Donnie Darko are startlingly similar pieces, both superficially (as concerning location, subject, etc.) and thematically. One key difference, however, sets these films travelling in tangential directions and makes them such fascinating mirror images of each other. That one key element is the possibility of hope.

It's easy to begin to draw parallels between the two films. Both take place in the suburbs; American Beauty in a suburb of Chicago, Donnie Darko in a suburb of Virginia Beach. Both follow stereotypically normal and reasonably well-off families. Because of the similarity of the environments the films portray, they can't help but touch on the thematic bases inherent in any suburbia film: lack of meaningful connection, the shallow wastefulness of a capitalist-motivated culture, etc. Another similarity, however, is that neither film makes suburban disillusionment the main subject (for an example of films wholly concerned with suburban disillusionment, see the lesser achievements of The Chumscrubber and Ordinary People).
No, the driving element of both films is the main character: a man who begins the film in a form of mental death (be it complacency or overmedication), finds a catalyst for change, acts on it, and dies in a physical sense because of his commitment to following through on his actions. Admittedly, the catalyst in American Beauty is a little more realistic than Donnie Darko (strangely, there's less time travel in American Beauty), but less noble. Lester Burnham sees an attractive girl and rearranges his life as a way to attract the girl (though I think we can all agree that the film isn't so much about an older man courting a younger woman as it is about the attempts to regain lost youth and vitality). Donnie Darko, on the other hand, sees a six foot tall talking rabbit that tells him the world is going to end, and sets him on the path to stopping it.
Interesting tangent: Angela Hayes and Frank the Rabbit are quite similar in their characterizations, purpose, and effect on the film. Both pop up intermittently to remind the main character of his quest, and both set the hero on the path to death, but aren't directly responsible for the death itself. Angela only inspires Lester to change his life which leads to his association with Ricky Fitz, which leads to, of course, his murder. Frank broaches the subject of time travel with Donnie, but it's Roberta Sparrow's book that leads him to make the conclusions he does about his role in saving the world. Also, both Angela and Frank are responsible for killing the main character's hopes at new love; admittedly, Angela less literally so. She tells Lester she's a virgin, Frank runs over Donnie's girlfriend. Maybe not the same ballpark of a scenario, but thematically similar.
So, it's ultimately the catalyst for change that kills both Lester and Donnie. Here's where it gets interesting. Here's where the films diverge and become entirely different creatures. As Donnie Darko's Jim Cunningham might say, American Beauty and Donnie Darko are on different sides of the Lifeline: one is fear, and the other is love. Here's what I mean: only one film allows the possibility for hope.
Both Lester and Donnie experience moral, emotional, and/or theological awakenings of some kind. Lester's path is different, however, in that his awakening allows him to see the world with optimistic new eyes, to find beauty in everything around him. Donnie's awakening helps him to see the underlying evil and shallowness of the world around him. Lester's awakening leads him back to happiness and contentment, while Donnie's awakening leads him deeper down the rabbit hole of emotional despair.
Here's the kicker, though: consider how each character dies, and what their death accomplishes. By now the films are complete inverse images. When Lester dies, his death throws everyone else's lives into chaos: his wife, emotionally broken in the closet, his child, looking at her father's body, her plans of running away to New York with her boyfriend dashed, her boyfriend, his chance at a happy escape ruined, Mr. Fitz, adding more things in his life to submerge, hide, and feel guilty over, and so on and so forth. So, the world around him is thrown off its axis, but Lester is content, and the film ends on a tentatively hopeful note. Now consider Donnie Darko. In his death, Donnie restores the order of the world, saving his girlfriend from vehicular homicide, saving his teacher's job, saving Jim Cunningham's reputation, though not his soul, saving his mother from the unspeakable horror of accompanying Sparkle Motion to California, etc. So Donnie saves everyone with his sacrifice, but the movie is one hell of a downer. So, one character throws his universe into chaos for the sake of his own happiness and the film ends optimistically, and one character saves his universe from chaos at the sake of his own life, and the film ends on a depressing note.
What does this say about the two films thematically? Is American Beauty a predominantly selfish film? Does it opine that individual happiness is more important than the good of the collective, and that the chance for Lester to die with dignity, having regained his soul, is more important than the harmony of the lives around him? What is Donnie Darko saying? That the death of one person is still a tragedy, regardless of the good that comes of it? That a world of rights can't change one wrong? Consider both films: both use violence and death as a way to create change. Or, perhaps, violence and death occur because of the attempt to create change. Could the films be suggesting that any change to the world must be paid for in blood? That altering one's circumstances creates an alternate reality in which the sin of change must be atoned for with human sacrifice?
Honestly, I don't have the answers for any of these questions, but I'm going to try to address them anyway. If you've got different opinions, I'd love to hear them.
Yes, American Beauty is inherently selfish. But so is human nature, and creating a film that deals so intelligently and accurately with human nature without portraying selfishness is impossible. Every person, when attempting to break out of their routine, does so with less regard for the people around them than for the eventual consequences that their thrashing about will bring. And yes: Donnie Darko does think that one death is a tragedy, regardless of the good that comes of it. That's one of the underlying themes of the film: that any amount of good can't eradicate the presence of something bad. It can offset it, or alleviate its effect, but it can't get rid of it. And yes: both films regard change as something dangerous. Not negative, mind you, but dangerous. They warn that for every reaction, there is an equal and opposing reaction. Lester and Donnie find themselves on the shit end of their opposing reactions.
Here's where hope comes in, however. Why does American Beauty end on an optimistic note? Hope. Yes, Lester dies. Yes, everyone else's lives get irrevocably screwed up. But during the process, they find moments of beauty. They realize the world for the place it is ('big, beautiful, and ultimately too exhausting to live in'), and are happier for it. Lester's last monologue (so much beauty in the world, he's grateful for every minute of his life, and so forth) balances the tragedy of his death by unearthing ways to see hope and beauty in any circumstance. Indeed, American Beauty hardly realizes something tragic happens at the end of it: it's too distracted by all the beauty in the world.
Donnie Darko lacks this capacity for hope. The theme that I addressed in the last paragraph (no amount of rights can right a wrong) is too strong to be denied, and quickly subdues the idea of an optimistic ending. Donnie Darko sees no beauty in the world: the beauty it finds, however rare and fleeting, comes from legitimate human connection, which it strives to introduce into its characters' lives. It sees death as the end of any possibility for real connection, and thus, for Donnie, beauty and hope are rendered irrelevant. There's nothing poetic or acceptable about his death, even if he saved his loved ones in the process. He's still dead, and he won't be around to see the good things that his actions wrought.

So there it is: hope. One movie has it, the other doesn't. I love these two films as companion pieces because they essentially address the only two ways to approach life: with hope, or without it. You see beauty, or you don't. You're afraid of death, or you aren't. You allow the good in your live to overshadow the bad, or you allow the bad in your life to usurp the power of good. Man is born crying: when he has cried enough, does he begin to see the world, or does he just die? I'll let you answer these questions for yourself.

Alright. Your turn. My philosophical monologue isn't nearly as interesting as a dialogue would be. Pipe up!

(I have to credit Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood for the quote about the world being 'big, beautiful, and ultimately too exhausting to live in,' as well as Akira Kurosawa's Ran for telling me that 'man is born crying. When he has cried enough, he dies.')

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

Kyoami: A serpent's egg is white and pure. A bird's egg is speckled and soiled.
Hidetora: This is a castle...Here's a wall.
Kyoami: The bird left the speckled egg for the white.
Hidetora: Strange...
Kyoami: The egg cracks. Out comes a snake.
Hidetora: Empty space above the wall. Why?
Kyoami: The bird is gobbled by the snake.
Hidetora: Where am I? Who am I?
Kyoami: Stupid bird.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Top 10 (which is to say all) Pixar films

It should be no secret by now that I love Pixar movies. No, not love. Love. That's right. It's earning that capital letter. Pixar Animation Studios continually churn out some of the most inspired, intrepid, and affecting film-making to come out of the studio system today. So, in the spirit of list-making and finishing a blog post before dinner, I'm going to run down Pixar's efforts from best to least best (I couldn't bring myself to say worst. Even the worst Pixar film is still head and shoulders over most of the crap that comes out nowadays). Enjoy!



(note: some of these reviews might sound a little critical; this is simply because I need to provide some faults to differentiate #10 from #1. Please remember that all of these films hold some place in my heart.)



10. Cars

Alas, this 2006 offering is Pixar's weakest feature. Its plot, continuing the 'anthropomorphic objects' theme, surrounds the derring-do of one Lightning McCloud, a hotshot young race car whose arrogance is taken down a peg or two when he finds himself stranded in a small 'average American' town. The world in which Cars takes place is, uncharacteristically, never fully realized. It appears that it's identical to our own world, save that cars take the place of humans, but is that it? A guaranteed feature of most Pixar films is that the world the characters inhabit feels real and plausible within the constrains of animation. The film is also, by far, the most unoriginal and conservative (arrogant young man learns error of his ways through studious application of small-town life). This isn't to say that the film doesn't offer up its own special pleasures: my favorite has to be the Italian tire-store owner and his hapless forklift assistant, whose pit-stops must be seen to be believed.



9. A Bug's Life

This second entry into the Pixar canon represents one of their most timid works to date, which is to say that the Pixar artists don't attempt anything new. So, A Bug's Life is familiar territory, but still does great things with said territory. Most notable is the gang of circus bugs who pose as warriors to pick up some extra cash; each character, from the uber-masculine ladybug Francis, to the joyfully gluttonous caterpillar Heimlich, are all carefully created and wonderfully realized. Unfortunately, not all the characters are so lucky. The villain, Hopper, is at a loss for interesting characteristics, and attempts to make up for it by snarling a lot. A well-known axiom: a grasshopper cannot be intimidating, regardless of how much he snarls. Indeed, his villain status makes him rare in the Pixar Pantheon: most Pixar films have characters with flaws, but few all-out villains that are given no humanistic traits. Oh well. Still a fun piece of work.



8. Ratatouille

Most top 10 Pixar lists have this one near the top, but, for the love of all that is good and holy, I just can't put it up there. I respect Ratatouille's technical proficiency, inventiveness, and joyous creativity, but, for whatever reason, it doesn't do too much for me emotionally. Suffice to say that I was entertained, but not moved. This isn't to say that it's a bad film: indeed, Ratatouille is great fun, with some very inventive and amusing moments. I respect it, but I don't love it. And, as you may remember me saying before, respect without love can only take things so far.

7. Up

I cry for the potential of this movie. The first two acts are wonderful, top-form Pixar, but the last act is a bit of a let-down. The first ten minutes (mostly silent) is some of the best film-making to come out this year: it chronicles the lifelong relationship of Carl and his wife Elly; how they meet as children, become sweethearts, create dreams together, get married, and realize that the realities of everyday life slowly suck their dreams away. The first bit is so bittersweet and heartbreaking: I thought the film was going to blow me away. The next part, which chronicles Carl's journey to the Amazon, as well as his burgeoning relationship with young boyscout Russell, is also fantastic. It's full of the right blend of warm humor, sharp characterization, and quiet empathy. Hell, even when they get to the jungle, and encounter the sillier supporting characters (Doug the talking Dog and Kevin, the gratuitously colorful bird), the film retains its original emotional core. Where it falters, however, is in the ending. We meet the villain, Charles Muntz, whose use in the film should be the masterstroke: He is the man who inspired a young Carl to have his travelling dreams. Carl meeting his hero and realizing his shortcomings fits with the rest of the film's themes wonderfully. Instead of something with a light touch, however, we get dogs in an aerial biplane battle and two octogenarians fencing. Why the sudden B-Movie action? It's completely incongruous to the spirit of the rest of the film. Sadly, Up trips in the last leg. What could have been one of Pixar's best is relegated to being #7. Oh well.

6. Toy Story 2
Rarely is a sequel this successful. Toy Story 2 isn't a rehash of the first film, or a sad attempt to continue the franchise. It's its own piece, full of light, humor, and surprisingly touching themes. The film is most concerned with loss and abandonment: as Andy gets older, and the toys start losing their lustre, they begin to contemplate what will happen to them when the person they love stops loving them back. The scenes with the new toys (owned by Crazy Al, the toy collector) are particularly affecting. Only someone with a heart of stone could be completely unmoved by the scene, told in silent montage set to "When Somebody Loved Me," that chronicles Jessie's relationship with her owner, and her subsequent abandonment. I'm making the movie sound like a terrible downer, but it's also full of great humor as well. Toy Story 2's take on Barbies is something for the ages. The only slight qualm I have with the film is that it goes a little overboard with film references; careful viewers can spot homages to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, 2001, This is Spinal Tap, etc. I feel it detracts from the film on repeated viewings. Other than that, this film is near perfect.

5. Monsters, Inc.

This is one of Pixar's great concepts. What if the monsters in your closet are just blue-collar guys trying to make a living who are just as terrified of you? Monsters, Inc. allows Pixar to create one of its most detailed and original worlds: the city of Monstropolis. Its inhabitants are monsters of such varying shapes and sizes that Darwin's head would explode after one minute of observation. The film's voice-cast is especially worth noting, comprised by the likes of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Tilly, and James Coburn. The film works as comedy, thrill-ride, and corporate satire, and its central theme is potent: love and laughter are more powerful than fear. the final shot, a Chaplin homage, is a beautifully realized ending.

4. Toy Story

It's hard for me to put this one all the way up at #4, but that's how it goes. This, the original film, the one that started over a decade of successes, is still a classic in its own right. It's rightly praised for its visual inventiveness and technical acuity, but to focus on its superficial aspects is to ignore its unusually perceptive and complex portrayal of jealousy, pride, and the simple desire to be loved. The film is stuffed to the brim with great comedic moments (my personal favorite: "You're a sad, strange little man, and I pity you") and moments that ring true emotionally (the part where Buzz discovers he's a toy, attempts to fly anyway, and falls and breaks, always gets me). Toy Story, upon its release was a bolt from the blue that revolutionized the medium of animation. Yes, I respect it for its contributions to film, but I also love it for being a great movie.

3. Finding Nemo

Sometimes the best stories are the simplest ones. This tale of a father trying to find his son is full of warmth, love, quiet insight, and sights of astonishing visual beauty. It also boasts some of the most well-realized characters in Pixar's history. A write has no choice but to give a shout-out to Ellen DeGeneres as Dory, in what may be, perhaps the best, definitely my favorite voice-over performance in the movies. The movie is filled with great stand-alone sequences with their own colorful cast: the Shark Support Group, the Sea Turtles, the Sea Gulls. And who could forget Darla, perhaps the only character since Norman Bates to earn her shrieking violin music. This isn't just great animation. It's great film-making, period. And, let's be honest: Who here hasn't tried to speak Whale at least once?

2. The Incredibles

Unarguably the most complex effort on Pixar's behalf, it's also one of the best and most intelligent. Brad Bird's film is a sharp-edged satire of contemporary values; its plot concerns superheroes who are forced to pretend to be normal in the face of lawsuits from people who didn't want to be saved, or objected to the manner in which they are saved. As Bob Parr, or Mr. Incredible, points out society "keeps finding ways to celebrate mediocrity." What on earth is that line doing in a children's film? The answer, of course, is that this isn't a children's film. The Incredibles also explores a recurrent Pixar theme, which involves characters meeting their god and becoming disillusioned (see Up, Monsters, Inc., and Cars for other examples...even if I didn't write about that aspect of them. Oops.). Only in this film, however, does the character in question (Buddy, or Syndrome, depending on whose side you're on) decide to commit the rest of his life to killing that god. The Incredibles speaks volumes about societal mistrust of the extraordinary, dissatisfaction with life, and the inability for ideals to live up to reality. Plus, it gives us Edna Mode, who is, for my money, the best character to come out of a Pixar movie.

1. WALL-E

It was always going to be this one at the top, wasn't it? WALL-E is a singularly unique and staggering cinematic achievement. In its first forty minutes, it establishes its world and its characters entirely without dialogue. Even when speaking parts are introduced, the prevailing interactions are actions, not words. This is the closest thing to a silent film release since 1928. If not for a certain animated Israeli documentary that I can't shake, I would call this the best film of 2008. Even so, I would lay money on the fact that of all films from last year, WALL-E will be remembered for the longest. Much of its power comes from its simplicity. Sure, there's plenty around the edges about wastefulness, laziness, and stagnation (Pixar does love to to show people whose dreams have slowly died, don't they?), but the central conceit is almost impossibly simple: boy meets girl, boy falls in love, girl does the same. The emotion in this movie is so palpable and tangible. What's more impressive is that it's done with a glorified trash compacter and an egg-shaped iPod. WALL-E finds something universal at the core of the human experience and plugs into it, channelling it to the greatest extent. As an added bonus, the "define dancing" sequence is Movie Magic at its best.

Well, there you have it. Have y'all seen all of these? Or at least some? Am I perhaps to lenient with Pixar? What ranks as the best effort in your mind? Don't be shy. I love arguing.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Some people feel like they don't deserve love. They walk away quietly into empty spaces, trying to close the gaps of the past."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Love in the Movies: a beginning

Love. What the hell does that mean? I think it's safe to say that no one really, fully understands the concept of love. Allow me to rephrase: love is something too fluid a concept to nail down with a fixed definition. It's too complex to be able to put into one conveniently arranged sentence. It's something that's felt, not quantified. Simply put, it's confusing as hell.
This, of course, has not stopped Hollywood from attempting to define it at every turn. I would hazard an estimate that at least 50% of films coming out today concern love in any of its various incarnations, mostly one of the 'big four' types as defined by the Greeks: Agape (sacrificial or romantic), Storge (familial), Philos (brotherly/friendly), and Eros (sexual). Sometimes more than one at a time. Sometimes all of them. Though that doesn't happen frequently, as incest is a decidedly taboo subject (I'm looking at you, Sweet Hereafter).
I don't think any movie can definitively say what love is. I do think, however, that if we put enough of these movie ideas together, we can create an interesting, richly detailed mosaic that attempts to showcase some of the many facets of that trickiest emotion. So, here begins what I hope will become a recurring series (though my other recurring series have yet to earn that adjective), in which I will attempt to take an analytical look at love (in any of its incarnations) in film.
To begin with? Moulin Rouge!.
(Note: I originally intended to write this about Hair, which has a wealth of ideas about this particular subject, but it occurred to me that none of my faithful readers have seen that movie. All of them, however, have seen and can claim some degree of familiarity with Moulin Rouge!, so I changed topics. This is for y'all. Go watch Hair.)

Moulin Rouge! is a great starting point for this series because it offers such a rich tapestry of all different types of love. I'm sure most of you thought of Christian and Satine upon hearing that Moulin Rouge! would be the subject of interest, but I think spending time with the supporting characters will be more enlightening. Yes, Christian and Satine are in love (or believe they are), yes, it ends in tragedy, and, as much as I love the movie, it's nothing we haven't seen before, and it's something I'm sure we'll see again. Star-crossed lovers, maligned fates, etc. If I want to run with that angle, we'll talk about West Side Story. What I find of more interest is all of the conflicting emotions of the supporting cast, and how the film de-prioritizes them in the wake of Christian and Satine's more obvious machinations.
The most obvious choice for examination among the supporting cast is The Duke. This might be an unpopular statement, but I'm not willing to write his emotions off entirely. He is cast as an almost entirely sympathetic character, and I'm more than willing to admit that most of his ideas fall under the 'Eros' label, which, in my opinion, is by far the least noble and compelling of the types of love, but still: I believe there are moments in which he truly does care for her. He does a poor job of showing it, and works for all the wrong reasons, but the seed is there. Look at it from this perspective: had the writers been in a different mindset, Moulin Rouge! would have been about a courtesan falling in love with a Duke who loves her back, while a jilted writer plots to seduce Satine. It could have been. The major difference between Christian and The Duke's relationships with Satine is that Satine only returns the feelings for one of them. So, it can be inferred that Moulin Rouge! places a premium on mutual love; repressed or one-sided love is not as important as a duet.
Next: Harold Zidler, the impresario. His feelings for Satine fall entirely within the 'Storge', or familial, category. I'm not sure whether or not Zidler is Satine's father. It feels obvious, but, looking back, it's never stated one way or the other. Blood relation, however, matters not: if not her legitimate father, he has certainly taken the place as father figure. His character is one of the more heartbreaking aspects of the film: everything he does, he does in Satine's best interests. His actions may seem cold or distant at times, but he's only working to protect that which he loves. For this, I'm sure, he can be forgiven. Still, his paternal affections for Satine are no use against the full-on infatuation for Christian.
Moving on: I might catch some crap here, but I think that Toulouse-Latrec harbors a bit of a crush on Christian. Looking for proof? Watch the bedroom scene, right after Satine lies to Christian about loving The Duke: what Toulouse says is full of tenderness and repressed emotion. Watch how he speaks about how he knows about love, if only because 'he craves it with every fiber of my being,' but can't have it. Watch how he looks at Christian. You may not be convinced, but this is my ballgame, so I call the shots. I'm going to file repressed love under 'Agape' (romantic or sacrificial). Particularly sacrificial: it takes work to swallow your emotions day in and day out so the person you care about can be happy. This is what Toulouse does, and I feel like he's one of the more sympathetic characters of the film. Perhaps I'm biased because his definitions of love align most closely with mine: caring for someone more than you care for yourself. It sounds ridiculously simple, but consider it: acting without regard for yourself, because you aren't as important as the person you care about. And so Toulouse does that: he puts himself at risk to warn Christian about The Duke's plot to kill him. Indeed, he puts even more effort into guaranteeing that Christian can be with the woman he loves. And, by golly, it works.
So what are we to glean from the four types of love as demonstrated by Moulin Rouge! I feel that the movie's thesis in this area is as follows: romantic love trumps all other forms, regardless of intensity or legitimacy. Now, don't think I'm being critical of Satine and Christian. Far from it. This is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint. If we look at it from a purely analytical, non-biased perspective, however, it's impossible to ignore the bevy of other emotions that are trampled in the great romantic stampede.
Final conclusion, to be added to our film treatise on love, which one day I might compile?
Romantic love is the most important emotion, and must be purchased at the expense of lesser feelings.

Agree? Disagree? Is my interpretation too harsh? Let me hear it.
(Once again, I just want to stress that I don't intend to belittle Christian or Satine's feelings. They are perfectly legitimate. I'm just taking notice of the smaller issues that most people throw aside.)

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Don't know. Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going, then, I, like, forget everything, and sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I've got this fire in my body. I'm just there. Flying like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"The buses! The buses are empty and look almost menacing, threatening, as so many yellow dragons watching me with their hollow, vacant eyes. I wonder how many little black and white children have yellow nightmares, their own special brand of fear for the yellow peril...Damn it. It's got to be more...More positive. No, more negative! Start again. Yellow is the color of caution. No. Yellow is the color of cowardice. Yellow is the color of sunshine. And yet I see very little sunshine in the lives of all the little black and white children. I see their lives, rather, as a study in grayness, a mix of black and...Oh, Christ, no. That's fascist. Yellow! Yellow, yellow, yellow. Yellow fever..."

Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Antichrist

Antichrist (****/****)

It took me a while to decide what star rating to give this film. Eventually, I whittled it down to two options: 4 or 0. With Lars Von Trier's film, only the extremes seem appropriate.
Antichrist tells the story of a grieving couple whose child fell to his death out of a window while they made love. The woman, referred to only as 'she', blames herself, and the man, referred to as, you guessed it, 'he,' a psychiatrist, decides that he can cure her depression of his own accord. He decides to place her in the place that she is most terrified; their cabin in the woods, named Eden. What follows is almost impossible to describe. It's not a plot so much as a montage of horrific vignettes.
I'll be honest: I have never been so profoundly disturbed or scared by a film as I was by this one. Antichrist made me feel physically uncomfortable. There were times when I wanted to leave. The film is almost unbearably graphic and explicit, and its atmosphere, tone, implication, etc. are all terrifying. Not scary in the slasher/ghost sense of the word. Perhaps unsettling is a better word. This is the kind of film that crawls under your skin and dies there. It's the kind of film that finds any break in your psychosis, sneaks in, and grates on you psychologically until you want to die. I can't ever recall a more unpleasant cinema experience.
So why the hell did I give Antichrist four stars?
The answer is simple. One must judge a film based on what it intends to do: Antichrist clearly intends to shock, disturb, and cause despair. And my god, but it succeeds. I heard a great defense of this film which I will rehash: films are supposed to reflect the breadth of the human condition. This includes all forms thereof, not just the ones that elevate us, or make us feel sanctimonious, or improve the quality of life. Antichrist sets out to evoke an unpleasant and unpopular cinematic emotion: despair. Loss of hope. But, let's be honest with ourselves: despair and suffering are huge parts of the human condition. Rare are the films that attempt to tackle these feelings. Rarer still are the ones that do it with such laser-focus and determination.
This isn't to say that I'm only giving the film four stars because its intention was to make me feel sick, and it succeeded. The film incredibly complex and dense; indeed, far too dense to fully appreciate on first viewing (though a second or third viewing is almost inconceivable). Antichrist is a treatise on humanity at its worst. Some have interpreted it as an inverse reflection of the Bible story of the Garden of Eden: in the Bible, man and woman are born pure, but turn to sin and are cast out, forced to live in the real world. In Antichrist, man and woman begin as evil creatures, and retreat to Eden to enact their downfall in a surreal environment. I feel like I could write for hours about the messages, both implicit and explicit, in Antichrist. It's a work of staggering thought and power. Its apparent demonization of sexuality is of particular interest: the film is chock-full of very explicit sex scenes, but it can hardly be construed as erotic in any sense of the word. This is, in part, due to the fact that every sex scene is either juxtaposed with or immediately followed by an act of horrific violence. A couple has passionate sex, and their child falls three stories onto a concrete sidewalk. The couple makes love again, and then the woman beats herself senseless on the rim of the toilet. Later, sex will be followed by unspeakable horrors (I'll give you a hint: it involves lots of genital mutilation and witch-craft-punishing parallels). What point could Von Trier be making with this? The female character also makes a point to point out the evil inherent in every person, specifically (in her opinion) women. She has been studying gynocide (mass murder of women), and through it has concluded that "nature is Satan's church." She believes that nature is evil, and that nature is in every person. Thus, if nature is evil, and it's in everyone, then everyone must be evil. She falls into this archetype with little difficulty, becoming one with her darker nature. Though her actions are more severe, it's undeniable that her husband has already beaten her to embracing his darker nature. The two characters suffer a complete and total break from moral rectitude, and the film punishes them for it. One of the many points that the film might be making (I repeat, might. It's very open for interpretation) is that their downfall was facilitated by partaking in pleasures of the flesh. Perhaps it's when not in moderation, or perhaps at expense of others, but Antichrist is not kind to a healthy psychosexual mindset. Antichrist also makes compelling arguments about the nature of original sin. Some believe that, according to the Bible story, the original sins are pride and despair. All other sins have their root in these two: pride, believing that you can be better than God, and despair, believing that God can't change things. In Antichrist, the man's sin is pride (he thinks he can cure his wife on his own), and the woman's is despair (she remains mired in grief, and allows it to overtake her). Indeed, the film is divided into four chapters: Grief, Pain, Despair, and the Three Beggars (the Three Beggars being a constellation of grief, pain, and despair). Throughout the film, the three emotion's avatars make their presence known: Grief is a doe with a dead deer fetus hanging out of its womb, Pain is a fox who eats its own intestines, and despair is a crow that refuses to die. The Three Beggars appear throughout the film, finally uniting in the last chapter to provide the catalyst for the finale. Is Von Trier saying that all negative emotions can be boiled down to these three beggars? Is he saying that to allow any of them to find footing in life is to start the descent into moral turpitude? I can't know. No one will ever know for sure. The thesis statement of the film could very well be delivered by Pain (yes, the fox.) The Man has just stumbled onto Pain in the forest, and recoils. Pain rips its intestines out, looks up at the man, and says "chaos reigns." That could be the crux: Von Trier is creating a world that isn't fettered by the confines of ethics or morality.
Apologies for that tangential tirade. As I said, I could write for hours about this film. I suppose I must conclude, though I haven't mentioned the acting, which is phenomenal, or the cinematography, which is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I must finish the review with a warning: this film is incredibly worth seeing for being a completely unique cinematic experience of singular complexity and profound impact. It is, however, not for the faint-hearted. I mean it. There are acts of unspeakable cruelty and violence shown in gory detail, and there are moments of sexuality that would be pornographic if not for their incredibly gruesome nature. This is a film that, if you watch it, you will never unsee. I guarantee that you will be profoundly disturbed and unsettled by this film. Should you not watch it? I don't know. You can if you feel up to it, if you want to view a very thought-provoking look at man's darker nature. But it's going to cost you some sanity.

(I have to include a trailer, just to give you some sense of the film's aesthetic sensibilities. The trailer is appropriate for all audiences. www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw03QayJ2fU&feature=related

Review: The Road

The Road (***/****)

I've heard it said that The Road, Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic war novel, is unfilmmable. John Hillcoat's film attempts to prove this statement false, and succeeds to some degree. I suppose the question should not be whether or not the book is filmable; the worthier question is if it should be filmed in the first place.
The Road concerns the travels of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they travel toward the coast through a bleak, lifeless landscape, constantly harried by bands of roving cannibals eager for a meal. Their journey is peppered with flashbacks to the father and his wife, before the world destroyed itself, as well as many a campfire chat about carrying "the fire," aka goodness and decency. John Hillcoat's film is at its best when it is most bleak: the film is riveting and compelling when it details the day-to-day struggles of Man and Boy, or when it evokes the true evil roaming the world. In these passages, Hillcoat achieves something akin to post-apocalyptic neo-realism, bringing urgency and tension to an already extreme scenario. The movie falters, however, when it attempts become didactic. The conversations the father has with his son are admirable attempts, but ultimately feel rather hokey and contrived. Similarly, the scenes with the man and his wife (played by a seemingly disinterested Charlize Theron) appear compelling at first glance, but are unable to sustain the dramatic tension that is achieved throughout the rest of the film.
Technically speaking, the film is fantastic. Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography is starkly beautiful and mood-enhancing, while Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's score is a gorgeous exercise of simple, mournful melodies that lend more emotional weight than some scenes deserve. The production design, as well, as incredibly effective in its evocation of a world past its expiration date. The film feels, at times, like a documentary on a world after an apocalyptic event.
Performance-wise, the film has trouble sustaining its quality. Viggo Mortensen is fantastic, as always. He brings a quiet dignity and stoicism to his role, which makes his few moments of emotional breakdown to be all the more affecting. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as the child, is less proficient. It's not a bad performance, per se: he simply fails to reach the heights that the source material provides for him. McPhee is capable at crying and looking scared, but fails to delve into his character beyond that.
Overall, the film is a success, of a fashion. It's certainly proficient enough, it provides some striking visuals, and contains some harrowing moments. As a whole, however, The Road fails to live up to its origins. An interesting experiment, and certainly not a failure, but not the best that the year has to offer.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"Sometimes I dream about being a good father and a good husband. And sometimes it feels really close. But then other times it seems silly, like it would ruin my whole life. And it's not just a fear of commitment, or that I'm incapable of caring or loving, because I can. It's just that, if I'm totally honest with myself, I think I'd rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I had excelled in some way, than that I'd just been in a nice, caring relationship."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: Amelia

Amelia
*/****

Amelia is a godawful mess: acted by a poorly funded high school theater group, written by a collection of infinite monkeys at typewriters, and created without drive or passion. Mira Nair's biopic of the famous Aviatrix lacks almost any redeeming quality. If pressed to compliment the film, I concede that the costume design is gorgeous and inventive, and the cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh is sometimes (albeit rarely) inspired. Alas, here be the end of my positive notes.
I have trouble comprehending how so many actors who can be talented in the right hands strayed so far from the path of artistic quality at the same time. Hilary Swank is nigh-interminable as the titular heroine: she seems to be playing at accents, but only succeeds in sounding like a poor SNL sketch. Swank, however, looks positively godlike compared to the profoundly retarded machinations of Richard Gere. Enlightened viewers who have seen Singin' in the Rain will understand what I mean when I say that Richard Gere sounds like Don Lockwood attempting to act in his first film with sound. For unenlightened viewers, let me translate: the actors at the Renaissance Fair are Oscar-worthy compared to Richard Gere. Seriously, who let this man out of his box? Gere should be euthanized with all possible speed, so as to prevent him from ever profaning the screen with his inanity again. Only Christopher Eccleston, who plays Earhart's alcoholic co-pilot, manages to keep his dignity. Sure, he struggles with the accent from time to time, but I'm comfortable blaming that on the director, as well as his lack of a dialect coach.
The actors are just the beginning of the problems in this mess. The script is unbelievably trite and ham-fisted, and Nair's direction is uneven and uninspired. The worst sin of the film, however, is the treatment of it subject matter. The film is so desperate to love and whitewash its subject that it avoids all psychological and emotional complexity. Amelia is a constant parade of people paying obsequious lip service to Earhart. As a viewer who felt neither one way or another about Earhart, I confess that this movie left me knowing nothing more about Amelia than when I entered the theater, nor did it inspire in me any desire to know more. This is the worst possible sin of a biopic. Not only was it a bad film, but it made me wish ill will toward its subject. Thank God Amelia Earhart died in the Pacific: it's a fate far kinder than having to live to see your accomplishments bastardized by this shoddy piece of cinema.

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"What do they think I am? Dumb or something? Why, I make more money than, than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!"

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving

A giving of thanks. Here follows a litany of things that make me smile, things that I'm thankful for. I'll try to stick to movies, but I can't make any guarantees.

"One ticket to Morocco, please", Singin' in the Rain, "Define Dancing", "You're gonna need a bigger boat", "Son of a bitch, he stole my line", the final montage of The Fall, every single moment of American Beauty, "I ate his liver, with some fava beans and a nice Chianti", Jesse and Celine, Charlize Theron in Monster, not being able to hear the last lines of Lost in Translation, "A boy's best friend is his mother", "You're a star, a big, bright, shining star", every monologue from Synecdoche, New York, Shakespeare in Love, the use of Moby in Heat, the entirety of The Princess Bride, "That'll do, pig. That'll do", Buzz and Woody, Dory, WALL-E and EVE (not to mention MO and BURN-E), the shoe at the end of the credits for WALL-E, Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the humanity of Hoop Dreams, the lesser of two weevils, "Will someone please get this walking carpet out of the way?", "Those aren't pillows", Woody Allen, Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, "All those moments will be lost, like tears in the rain", Michael Nyman's contributions to The Piano, Jane Campion in general, the Cell Block Tango, The Elephant Rooftop Love Medley, Jesus Christ Superstar, "Jack, I Swear", hitch-hiking with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, the audacity of Lord of the Rings, "There's more to life than money. Don't you know that?", Claude, Berger, Jeannie, Hud, Woof, and Sheila, Tom Hulce in Amadeus, Captain Kong, Witt's spark, Bill and the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, Jamie Bell dancing, Gortoz a Ran, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, "Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea", Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Amy Adams and her love of meerkats...

Movies. Movies in general.
And friends. Loved ones. You know who you are.

I'm alive, the people I love are safe. Is there anything else?


I'll translate that block of text in the comments, if you want to know what something refers to.

A Special Slice of Zen for Thanksgiving

It's a little long, but it's worth reading. You've probably heard it before, but it's always a message worth remembering.

"I had always heard that your entire life flashes before your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all. It stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout Camp, watching falling stars, and yellow leaves from the maple trees that lined my street, or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper, and my cousin's brand new Firebird. And Janie. And Janie. And Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes, I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold onto it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry. You will someday."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Your Slice of Zen for the Day

"No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes, I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can't we keep it clean for, for ten minutes?"

Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie Review: Precious

Precious (****/****)

I'd like to think that Precious is about hope. Yes, the viewer may have to slog through nearly two hours of nearly indescribable sufferings to get there, but, in my opinion, the last note is one of elevation. Precious is an ode to the human spirit and its capacity for adaptation.
The film tells the story of Claireece 'Precious' Jones; an obese, illiterate 16-year old who is pregnant with her second child. Her school principal takes pity on her and enrolls her in an "alternative school," which focuses on bringing poor and uneducated women up to a GED level. At this school, Precious meets Ms. Rain, who encourages her self-esteem. At the other end of the spectrum in Precious's life is her mother, an abusive, angry shell of a woman played by comedienne Mo'Nique.
I need to stop the review right here. I can't go any farther without heaping loads and loads of praise on Mo'Nique. Much like she does every scene that she's in, Mo'Nique has stolen my review right from under my nose. Those most familiar with Mo'Nique from her stand-up or her roles in VH1 reality shows will most likely balk at the following statement, but it just happens to be true: Mo'Nique is going to win an Oscar for this role. And God, does she deserve it. She's incredibly believable as a terrifying woman whose anger stems from a well of injustice in her own life. Doing this well is difficult enough, but then she throws us the acting revelation that is the last scene. In it, she is given a monologue that doesn't make what she does acceptable (nothing could do that), but it does explain it and, perhaps, humanize the character, if only a little. Trust me, any humanization of this character is a near-impossible feat, and the fact that Mo'Nique pulls it off is absolutely incredible. Though I haven't seen nearly all the movies to see this year by any stretch, I'd already put my money down on this monologue for the best-acted scene of 2009.
Overall, this film is remarkably well-acted. Gabourey Sibide, in her acting debut, is spellbinding as Precious. Acting seems so natural to this girl that it must feel like breathing for her. She is effortlessly compelling and completely real. It's mind-blowing that this is the first time she's acted. The other supporting performances are also exercises in perfection: Paula Patton as Precious's teacher is wonderful as a teacher who refuses to give up on Precious, and Mariah Carey proves that she can act, as a realistic social worker who attempts to break through the pain in Precious's life.
The only (minor) detraction I can come up with concerns director Lee Daniels. There are times in the movie when you can feel him trying too hard to be a Director who earns that capitol letter. And, as such, he allows the style to preempt the substance, however briefly. Luckily for us, this fades as the film moves on. And even so, it's only a small concern. It's not nearly enough to make this any lesser of a film.
And what a film it is. It's gritty, shocking, and depressing at times, but ultimately elevating. Precious reminds the viewer that if Precious can get up every morning, hell, we all can. This is one of the year's best films.