Wednesday, September 30, 2009

DVD Releases: September 29, 2009

I plan to catch up with two of this weeks releases – Jennifer Aniston in Management and Kevin Spacey in Shrink – on DVD this weekend, but the three movies that I have seen that are available this week are all worth watching in their own way. We have the latest from Sam Mendes and Steven Soderbergh – two of the best directors in the world right now – and a fun little animated movie. So, there is no shortage of things to watch.

Away We Go *** ½
From Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road, makes this uncharacteristically sweet comedy. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play a couple in their 30s, who have never married, who travel around the country once they discover Rudolph is pregnant, to try and find the place that they should stay. They drop in on various friends and family members, and find dysfunction everywhere. Krasinski and Rudolph are wonderful as the “straight men”, but it’s the supporting cast - including Jeff Daniels, Catherine O’Hara, Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Melanie Lynsky and Paul Schneider - that truly shines. This movie did not receive the credit it deserved when it played in theaters, but should gain a following on DVD. For my original review please see:

The Girlfriend Experience *** ½
Steven Soderbergh’s first film this year, is this low budget movie starring real life porn star Sasha Grey as a high class prostitute. The film is really about capitalism, and how in this world we are all either pimps or johns. There is very little difference between Grey and what she does and what her boyfriend - a personal trainer does - they both trade on shallow, superficial vanity. I like it when Soderbergh does something this small and unexpected. While the movie is not one of his masterpieces, it is, like almost everything he does, very interesting. For my original review please see:

Monsters Vs. Aliens ***
This entertaining animated kids movie will certainly loose some of its effect on DVD (no matter how good your system is) as on the big screen in 3-D this was quite entertaining. But even on the small screen, you can appreciate its colorful look, and the great vocal work by Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Colbert (Rainn Wilson and Reese Witherspoon are also quite good, just not as good as the other three). This is a very fun movie that kids will watch over and over again. For my original review please see:

Oscar Update: Newcomers vs. The Veterans and the Academy's Bias

As with everything in life, getting your first Oscar nomination is often harder than getting nominated after that. Until you have that first one, you are an outsider, no matter how good you are at your job. After you’ve broken through however, you’re in the club, and all the nominations you get after are much easier. It is also much easier to win an Oscar if it’s not your first time being nominated. For the Academy, you often have to pay your dues before you can win.

Often times, the Academy is more willing to go with an old favorite rather than a young upstart. How else could you explain the nominations in the past few years of Peter O’Toole in Venus, Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah, Cate Blanchatt in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Judi Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents, Frances McDormand in North Country, Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, Jon Voight in Ali or Sean Penn in I Am Sam? Do any of these performances really scream Oscar to you? Or did the Academy play it safe and nominate people they have liked in the past, instead of honoring someone fresh and exciting.

It’s true that Academy have started to welcome in the new generation of actors in recent years. Philip Seymour Hoffman struggled for a long time to break through, but now that he has, he’s a favorite. Ryan Goslin, Keira Knightley, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Javier Bardem, Adrien Brody, Naomi Watts, Natalie Portman, Ellen Page and finally Johnny Depp have all made major breakthroughs with the Academy this decade as well.

But when you look at the nominees every year, for the most part you see 3 or 4 Oscar veterans mixed in with 1 or 2 newcomers almost in almost every category. Some are worse than others, but to a certain degree they all play by the same rules.

Look at Best Actor. Right now, my top ten candidates for the year include 7 past nominees – Daniel Day Lewis, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Viggo Mortenson, Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, (among them 4 winners) and only three guys who have not been nominated – Jeremy Renner, Colin Firth and Michael Stuhlbarg. While I can see two of those three newcomers breaking in, do you honestly believe that Renner and Stuhlbarg, two unknowns to most people, will be among them. If one gets in, the other one won’t.

The same is true for best actress. Although I have heard both An Education and Precious tossed around as possible Best Picture nominees (perhaps even winners), I have heard WAY more about the possibility of An Education’s Carey Mulligan winning the Best Actress Oscar (her nomination is now assumed) then I have even heard about Precious’ Gabourey Sidibe even being nominated. Is this because one completely unknown, young actress is all the category can fit? And what puts Mulligan over Sidibe? I haven’t seen either movie yet, but could it be possible that Mulligan has an advantage because he’s gorgeous, white and British, while Sidibe is overweight and African American? I don’t want to call the Academy racist, but sometimes they are. Would it make any sense for Precious to be nominated for best picture, and not have Sidibe get into for actress, while Meryl Streep gets her 16th nomination for her fine (but nowhere near great) work in Julie and Julia – a film not likely to be nominated anywhere else? You tell me.

The same holds true for directors though. Both An Education’s director Lone Scherfig and Precious’ director Lee Daniels, could find themselves on the outside in favor of more established Academy directors like Clint Eastwood, Rob Marshall, Jason Reitman, Peter Jackson, Terence Malick and the Coen Brothers. While Scherfig, a woman, have any chance at all if the Academy decides to nominate Kathryn Bigelow for her brilliant work on The Hurt Locker? Since only three women in history have ever been nominated for the prize, do we really think that 2 will be nominated this year? If you’re Mira Nair of Jane Campion this year, you don’t stand a chance!

Out of all the categories, I believe that the writers are the least concerned with a persons standing in the Academy. True, it used to be an ongoing joke that Woody Allen would get nominated for everything he wrote, but even the writers did not nominate him last year for Vicky Cristina Barcelona – opting instead for newcomers Courtney Hunt (Frozen River) and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). In the past few years, they have honored newcomers like Diablo Cody (Juno), Nancy Oliver (Lars and the Real Girl), Sarah Polley (Away from Her), Michael Ardnt (Little Miss Sunhine) among many others. The writers are among the only branch who has no problem nominating foreign or animated films for their major prizes, and not only that, they seem to be the most equal opportunity branch. Where there are still some categories where women nominees are rare, the writers don’t see, to care if you’re a man or a woman – if they like your screenplay, they nominate you.

The worst offender for playing inside baseball is undoubtedly the musical branch. A new composer usually has to pay their dues for years before the Academy will even nominate their score. And if you’re not a professional composer – say you’re a rock musician moonlighting as one – then you don’t stand a chance at all. Only 11 of the nominees this decade for Best Score have been newcomers – the other 34 had all been nominated previously. I would submit that this number would be even lower if John Williams had not effectively retired earlier this decade. That man could far into a microphone, and they would nominate him for an Oscar for Best Score. Once you’re in though, you’re in for life, and your scores get listened to much more closely than the rest of them. Some of the best scores this decade – There Will Be Blood among them – have been ignored because they were guys the music branch did not like. Someone as brilliant as Carter Burwell is still waiting for his genius to be acknowledged.

But every branch has their favorites. Even if we most people do not pay attention to who the sound designers are, their fellow sound designers do when they fill out their ballots. The same goes for every other category out there. If you’ve ever sat around and wondered how a movie you didn’t think had particularly good cinematography or costume design got a nomination in those categories, look up the nominee on IMDB. Invariably, you will see someone who has been nominated for more Oscars than Steven Spielberg as the person behind the work.

I would certainly argue that getting your first Oscar nomination – in any category – is harder then getting any of your other ones. For every Hilary Swank out there, who seemingly swoops out of nowhere to win the Best Actress Oscar – there are many more people like Johnny Depp or Philip Seymour Hoffman who see a half dozen or more great performances pass the Academy by before they get nominated. Can you believe for example that Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Mark Ruffalo, Sam Rockwell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Paul Schneider, Evan Rachel Wood, Scarlett Johanson, Maria Bello, Audrey Tautou, Christina Ricci, Kevin Bacon, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jeff Daniels, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Zhang Ziyi, Rachel McAdams, Ray Winstone, Robin Wright Penn, Ashley Judd, Kelly McDonald, Leslie Mann, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vincent Cassell or Paul Dano have never been nominated for an Oscar – and that’s just off the top of my head.

Every year, Oscar announces a few breakout stars, but even more of them are left on the sidelines. Someone like Meryl Streep (who is brilliant, and I do not mean to keep picking on her) has half of her work done for her just by benefit of being Meryl Streep. To many people, the Oscars are simply a popularity contest, where the Academy rewards the people they like, and ignore the rest. To a certain extent, of course, this is true. There is nothing much you can do about it, except acknowledge it and move on.

Note: I have not decided what next week’s column is going to be about, but I hope to get into a little more specific details about this year’s race. It’s just in these early these first early weeks, I find little interesting happening every week, so we get these more general columns.

DVD Views: Deadgirl

Deadgirl *
Directed by:
Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Hadrel.
Written By: Trent Haaga.
Starring: Shiloh Fernandez (Rickie), Noah Segan (J.T.), Michael Bowen (Clint), Candice Accola (JoAnn), Andrew DiPalma (Johnny), Eric Podnar (Wheeler), Nolan Gerard Funk (Dwyer).

If you have sex with an unwilling zombie is it rape, necrophilia or both? That is the interesting premise behind Deadgirl, a film that disappointingly decides to address the issue in the most facile and uninteresting way imaginable. Throughout the film, which is thoroughly unpleasant, and not in a good way, I kept imagining how good the film could have been if only the filmmakers had done something interesting with its premise.

Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez) and J.T. (Noah Sean) are two high school seniors (although they look old enough to be university graduates) who are not popular. They are essentially losers - poor, unatheletic kids tired of seeing the rich jocks get all the pretty girls. Rickie is in love with JoAnn (Candice Accola), but she is of course dating the biggest, dumbest, meanest, richest jock of them all. One day, Rickie and J.T. decide to cut school, and go drinking at the abandoned mental hospital (why do horror movies all seem to feature an abandoned mental hospital? Does every town in America have one of these?). While running from a rabid dog, they wind up in a strange little room, where they discover something strange. There is a beautiful, young woman strapped to a gurney. She is not dead, as she is groaning. Rickie and J.T. disagree on what to do next. Rickie wants to call the police. J.T. wants to keep her as her own personal sex plaything. Rickie decides to leave, and of course not tell anyone. Why? Because if he did, there would be no movie.

J.T. calls Rickie back the next day to show him sometime interesting. The girl cannot be killed. He has tried breaking her neck, strangling her and shooting her, and still she keeps on going just as strong as she was before. They figure out that she is a zombie, and then J.T. really decides that there is no reason why he cannot use her as his plaything. She’s not human anymore, so who are they hurting? Things get weirder as J.T. brings their friend Wheeler (Eric Podnar) to see the dead girl. Rickie is no fun anymore, as he won’t fuck the dead girl, although he continues to come back to the basement time and again, once trying to save her, but after that simply to try and talk some sense into J.T. Things get worse when the girl starts to rot and smell, making it harder to perform. So J.T. and Wheeler decide to try and make another dead girl, but making the current one bite another hot girl.

Watching Deadgirl I kept thinking about two vastly superior films - River’s Edge and An American Crime. In River’s Edge, a high school student murders his girlfriend, and leaves the body in a secluded spot. He keeps bragging about his crime, and bringing all of his friends to see the body - none of whom report the crime for a surprisingly long period of time. Even the kids who eventually do report it (Keanu Reeves and Ione Skye) spend a long time before they do report it - and even have time to have sex in a field before doing anything about the crime. In An American Crime, an abusive woman (Catherine Keener) locks a teen girl she is supposed to be watching (Ellen Page) in her basement for offending her. Gradually, Kenner’s kids start venturing down into the basement and torturing Page. They bring in dozens of neighborhood kids down to the basement so they can get in on the “fun” as well. Again, no one reports the crime until it is far too late.

Both of those films looked at the moral decay in society, particularly among young people. They don’t really see the victim as a person, and so they do not feel bad about what they do. This is what I think Deadgirl was trying to do, but it fails miserably. It adds in lame attempts at humor, and subplots about Rickie’s mother’s new girlfriend, and the love he has for JoAnn, that simple cloud the issue at hand in the film. The movie simply goes nowhere, does nothing interesting with its premise. It does not help that none of the principal actors really know what they are doing. And after spending so much time setting Rickie up as the only moral person in this universe, his final act makes no sense whatsoever - it is simply meant to shock an audience who has grown bored by the movie by this point. What could have been an interesting film is instead one of the worst films of the year. It’s no wonder that after playing last year’s Midnight Madness in Toronto that the film was not really heard of again until the DVD release.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

DVD Views: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired *** ½
Directed By:
Marina Zenovich.

What Roman Polanski did to a 13 year old girl in 1977 was repulsive. I don’t care what anyone says about it perhaps being consensual, or questioning why the mother left him alone with his daughter or anything about cultural differences between America and Europe. The fact remains that Roman Polanski gave alcohol and Quaaludes to a 13 year old child and had sex with her. For that there is no excuse. However, like everyone else who is charged with a crime in America, Roman Polanski deserved a fair trial by a judge who wanted to see justice served, not his face in the newspapers. And that is what did not happen for Roman Polanski.

Polanski’s life is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Born in France to Polish parents who moved back to Poland when he was young, Polanski survived the Holocaust as a Jewish child in Poland. As a young man, he made a name for himself with his strange short films and his debut feature, the stunning Knife in the Water. He came to Hollywood shortly thereafter, and made some more great films, including Rosemary’s Baby. His beautiful wife, Sharon Tate, was one of the people killed by the Manson family, but Polanski had to endure months of rumors and innuendo that he had something to do with her death. The logic – anyone who could make a demonic film like Rosemary’s Baby was capable of doing anything.

Somehow Polanski soldiered on, and continued to make great films, none greater than 1974’s Chinatown, still one of the very best films ever made. He was one of the few directors who was also a celebrity. Everyone wanted to work with him, and everyone wanted to party with him.

Things change in 1977 when he was charged with a slew of crimes related to the having sex with a minor Samantha Gailey Geimer. Suddenly, this was the trial of the century in Los Angeles, which seemingly has a new trial of the century at least once a decade. The DA and the Defense Attorney met to hammer out a deal. This deal was agreed to by the lawyer for the victim, who didn’t want to see his client be put through any more than absolutely necessary. Everyone seemed happy with the deal, including the Probation Board, who recommended that Polanski be put on parole.

Everyone that is than Judge Laurence J. Rittenband. It would be one thing if the judge thought that Polanski’s crimes was too great to simply be put on probation. That would be understandable. But that’s not why Rittenband did what he did. As the senior judge in Santa Monica, Rittenband had first choice of the cases that he wanted to personally handle. Whenever one with a celebrity came up, he took it. He loved seeing his name in the paper, loved the publicity and attention it brought him. He liked being around celebrities, but was not star struck. He loved the limelight.

But what Rittenband did goes beyond that. He had the lawyers come into his chambers and work out deals, and then had them reenact these arguments in the public forum of his courtroom. He had decisions and sentences already written before any arguments were made. He made promises that if Polanski went to Chino state prison for a 90 day observation, and if they agreed that probation was best for him, that is what he would give, and then backpedaled when the media turned against him. Facing a 50 year prison sentence, Polanski fled the country. And even the DA and the victim say they understand why he did it.

All this, and much more, comes out in Marina Zenovich’s Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. The movie does not seek to excuse Polanski of his crimes, but simply to examine a justice system that didn’t work this time. Aside from Polanski and Rittenband, Zenovich gets interviews with all the key players, including the DA, the Defense lawyer and the victim herself. The interviews she does have with Polanski all come from the time period around the trial and his fleeing the country. They certainly do not really do him any favors, and he gives the impression that he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. In that Roman Polanski is wrong. But in much of the rest of the case, it was Rittenband who was wrong.

Roman Polanski

Over the weekend, Roman Polanski was arrested by Swiss authorities, who are no holding him waiting for America to officially request his extradition to the States to face criminal charges stemming from a 1977 incident, when the famed filmmaker drugged and raped a 13 year old girl. At the time, Polanski and his lawyers worked out a plea agreement with the prosecutors, who also consulted the victim in the case, and found the deal to be satisfactory. He did everything that was asked of him, and then the judge decided that Polanski deserved more time in jail then he initially said. Polanski was to undergo a 90 observation at Chino State Prison, where doctors would evaluate him and tell the judge whether or not he was a danger to society at large. The doctors cleared Polanski, who thought that his legal nightmare was over. But the judge in the case, a glory seeker named Judge Rittenband, decided to give Polanski substantially more jail time. Facing a sentence that was likely to keep Polanski in jail for decades, he fled America and returned to France, where the Polish born director also had citizenship. In the decades since he left, he has never returned to America – not even to receive his Oscar he won in 2002 for The Pianist – because if he did, he would be arrested.

I want to make it clear right off the bat here that I find what Polanski did to the girl in 1977 to be disgusting and despicable – certainly deserving of jail time. He fed a 13 year old girl Quaaludes and alcohol, and then had sex with her as she was in a drunken stupor – perhaps even passed out.

Yet, I also believe that in America, they have a justice system where everyone is supposed to receive fair and equitable treatment. While many times when a celebrity does something wrong, people complain that they got off more lightly than any regular person would have, in this case, it seems that Polanski was going to get worse treatment because of his celebrity. This continues to be the case right up until he was arrested in Switzerland over the weekend. Why is it, that although America has had an arrest warrant out for Polanski since he fled the States in 1978, that they have only being actively asking countries for their help in arresting Polanski until 2005? And why is that Polanski was able to spend months in Switzerland earlier this year, and have nothing happen to him, and this time he gets arrested on his way into the airport? Do the Americans pursue ever criminal who committed a crime more than 30 years ago with the same vigor? Did someone pressure the Swiss authorities to arrest Polanski this time? Would they have done anything if Polanski was not famous?

The excellent documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired from 2008 (I will also be posting my review of that film later today) does an wonderful job of laying out the criminal case against Polanski, and everything that was wrong with it. After the movie came out, Polanski filed a motion to get the charges against him dropped due to the revelations that the movie produced. The judge who reviewed not just the movie, but also the case files, admitted that there was substantial Judicial Misconduct at the time, but refused to dismiss the charges because Polanski himself did not appear in his courtroom. A fugitive from justice has no standing to file any motions.

Does the fact that in the 30 years since Polanski was charged with this crime that there have been no other similar allegations leveled at him matter? I understand that legally, it does not matter very much, but I would think that the fact that he has stayed clean should count for something. I know there were allegations that Polanski had an affair with Natasha Kinski, who was 17 at the time, on set of the movie Tess. But I would argue that there is a significant difference between drugging and having sex with a 13 year old girl, and having a consensual affair with a 17 year old – who to this day has no problems with her relationship with Polanski.

Or does it matter that the victim in the case has repeatedly asked for the charges to be dropped, because she wants to put the entire matter behind her matter? Does the fact that she received a financial settlement from Polanski make her desire to put this behind her any less real? Perhaps these two facts should cancel each other out.

What Polanski did was wrong. Not only that, it was disgusting and sickening, and Polanski deserved what he got – and perhaps even deserved more jail time then the initial plea bargain called for. Surely other people who committed the same type of crime served more time in jail than Polanski ever did. The bottom line no matter what the judge did, or the Prosecutors are now doing, Polanski did fuck a little girl, and no matter what mitigating circumstances Polanski tries to make you believe were in play, he still did something repulsive and illegal.

I don’t really buy the argument that Polanski has suffered enough for his crime, as his career was hurt as a result of this conviction. Since 1978, Polanski has directed 8 films – starring some of the biggest names in Hollywood (Harrison Ford, Walter Matthau, Hugh Grant, Kristen Scott Thomas, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Johnny Depp and Adrian Brody). He has won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and Best Director Oscar. Had Polanski wanted to be more prolific during this time period, he surely could have been.

And neither do I believe that Polanski’s turbulent, tragic early life is an excuse for what he did. As a Polish Jew, he escaped the Krakow ghetto during WWII, and survived the war living with various families who took him in and sheltered him, as much of his family – including his mother – died at Auschwitz. In 1969, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was among the victims murdered by the Manson family, and by all accounts, he was devastated by her death. And this bullshit about there being different moral standards between Europe and America is absurb. I don’t know of too many cultures where it is permissible to drug and rape a 13 year old.

I don’t give Polanski a pass simply because he is one of the greatest filmmakers in history. Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cul De Sac, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, Chinatown, The Tenant and The Pianist are all great movies, and most of his other films are also pretty damn good. Polanski certainly ranks among the troubled geniuses of the cinema.

Yet I do believe that Polanski deserves the same treatment by the justice system as any other criminal would receive. That was not the case back in 1977-78, and it is not the case now. I don’t know what is going to happen next, but I do know that if Polanski ever does get sent back to America, the media circus surrounding this will simply get bigger and more intense. Whoever the judge in this case is, I feel sorry for them. What the hell are they going to do when half the people want to give Polanski a parade to his genius, and the other half want to string him by his testicles? I mean really what is going to happen? America should request extradition immediately, and Polanski should probably not fight it. True, this could go on for 6 months, but does anyone really want that? If the States are not ready to fully prosecute him, then they should just cut him loose and drop the charges. After all the hubbub about this, does anyone really see any possibility of Polanski actually getting any more jail time out of this? And if he does get sent to jail, who really is better off? What is really going to happen is that Polanski will get, at most, probation, and go back to living his life just as he has for 30 years. This whole thing is way too complex for me try and figure out what the right thing to do here is. While I have no sympathy for Polanski, I think it is probably best for everyone if this whole mess goes away – the quicker the better

Monday, September 28, 2009

Movie Review: Surrogates

Surrogates **
Directed by:
Jonathan Mostow.
Written By: Michael Ferris & John D. Brancato based on the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and
Brett Weldele.
Starring: Bruce Willis (Greer), Radha Mitchell (Peters), Rosamund Pike (Maggie), Boris Kodjoe (Stone), James Francis Ginty (Canter), James Cromwell (Older Canter), Ving Rhames (The Prophet), Jack Noseworthy (Strickland), Devin Ratray (Bobby), Michael Cudlitz (Colonel Brendon).

It is a central tenant of science fiction that sooner or later humans will eventually lose their humanity. That technology will get to a point where we can get rid of all the bad stuff in the human experience, and that people will jump on the bandwagon to live the “perfect life”, and not realize that they are losing something essential in being human.

The new film Surrogates takes the familiar premise, and does nothing new or original with it. Sure, the film is not bad, it is not boring, but it is not very involving either. It just sits there on the screen, and I waited for something to reach out and grab me, but nothing ever did.

14 years ago, Surrogates were invented by Dr. Canter (James Cromwell). The concept was that people with physical disabilities could control a robotic version of themselves and live a somewhat normal existence. But in the years since, the concept has taken off in ways Canter never imagined, forcing him out of the company he founded. Now, almost everyone in the world has a surrogate and they use them to avoid real life. No one leaves their homes anymore, they send their surrogates out instead. If a surrogate gets destroyed, it doesn’t matter. The person who controls the surrogate are fine. Regular humans have become pale, overweight and anti-social. But with surrogates, you can be whoever you want to be.

But then, something strange happens. Canter’s son has his surrogate killed while out on the town, and strangely, he dies as well. His brain seems to have been boiled from the inside out. There seems to be a new weapon that not only kills surrogates, but the people attached as well. Not only that, but the weapon seems to have fallen into the hands of the Dreads - the group led by the Prophet (Ving Rhames) - who disapprove of the very concept of surrogates.

FBI Agent Grier (Bruce Willis) is in charge of the investigation. He and his wife (Rosamund Pike) have been hiding from life ever since the death of their son. But in the course of the investigation, Grier’s surrogate is destroyed, and he cannot get a new one right away - so he is stuck going out into the real world in his human form. And he starts to hate what he sees.

Surrogates has a clever premise, but then does nothing with it. There is not a plot development in the film that you do not see coming a mile in advance. I have always preferred the everyman Willis to the superhuman action heroes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, or to the pretty boys like Damon. And he is still able to play this type of role convincingly. He keeps the film watchable. The rest of the cast is pretty much interchangeable - even great actors like Cromwell and Rhames.

I did like some of the special effects in the movies. The surrogates have a slightly waxy, plastic look to them, and I liked the way they movie somewhat unnaturally. Yet after a while, looking at cool special effects cannot replace an actual interesting plot or character development. Surrogates is fine if you do not expect very much out of it. It is certainly not a bad movie. Yet, I wish that someone involved in the movie had at least some ambition.

Movie Review: Lorna's Silence

Lorna’s Silence *** ½
Directed by:
Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne.
Written By: Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne.
Starring: Arta Dobroshi (Lorna), Jérémie Renier (Claudy Moreau), Fabrizio Rongione (Fabio), Alban Ukaj (Sokol), Morgan Marinne (Spirou), Olivier Gourmet (L'inspecteur), Anton Yakovlev (Andrei), Grigori Manukov (Kostia), Mireille Bailly (Monique Sobel).

Lorna’s Silence takes place where capitalism and crime meet. The criminals in the movie have seen a market that is being underserved, and have started to serve that market. That the activity is illegal does not really matter to them. They are all business. Most movie criminals are colorful or brutal characters. Think of the criminals in a Tarantino movie for instance. They are quick witted and funny, brutal and unforgiving. The criminals in Lorna’s Silence are the exact opposite. They are all business all the time. They don’t really care about anything except making money. As long as you don’t get in the way, you’ll be fine.

Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is an Albanian immigrant living in Belgium. There is no way that she can get Belgian citizenship, except to marry to a Belgian citizen. That is where Claudy (Jeremie Renier) comes in. He is a junkie who needs money. Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione) has hooked these two up. When the film opens, Lorna and Claudy are already married, and getting ready to get a divorce. Claudy received 5,000 Euro when they got married, and will get another 5,000 when the divorce is final. Lorna will then have to marry a rich Russian, who wants Belgian citizenship himself. When he gets it, Lorna will finally be free to marry her true love Sokol (Alban Ukaj), so that he can get citizenship, and the two of them can open their snack bar, which they have dreamed about for years.

The plan seems perfect, except for one hitch. Fabio has no intention of paying Claudy another 5,000 Euro upon divorce. Now that Lorna has got her citizenship, he plans on giving Claudy a lethal drug overdose. The cops don’t look into widows the same way they look into divorces involving a new immigrant into the country. Lorna knows about the plan, and seems ok with it. After all, Claudy is only a junkie right? No one is going to miss him.

Lorna and Claudy live in the same apartment, but she treats him like a nuisance. He is always after her to play cards or just hang out, but she’s too tired from working all day. Although it’s his apartment, she is the boss. Things all change however, when Claudy decides it is time to get clean, and asks for Lorna’s help. She is reluctant at first, but once he checks himself into the hospital, she starts to feel responsible. It is no longer right to kill Claudy if he’s getting his life together. When he gets out, and realizes that Lorna is getting a divorce and leaving, he starts to slide back into his previous life. To keep him from using, she seduces him. Everything seems to be going okay, but then Claudy ends up dead from a drug overdose anyway. Fabio did not want to make the Russian wait the little bit longer it would take for the divorce to be final. It is here where starts to suffer a break from reality.

The film was written and directed by the Dardenne brothers, who have become two of the most acclaimed and influential filmmakers in the world after only five films. Two of their films (Rosetta and L’Enfant) won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, another The Son, won the best actor prize at Cannes for Olivier Gourmet and Lorna’s Silence won the screenplay prize there just last year. Their influence can be seen in everything from the new Romanian films (like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) as well as the American Independent movement in films like Ballast. While their Bresson inspired neo-realism is nothing all that new, they have brought it back in a very real way.

Lorna’s Silence both fits in with the rest of the films on their resume, as well as marking enough of a departure to not qualify it as the same old thing all over again. In addition to neo-realism, this film also harkens back to another post-World War II genre - film noir. While crime is nothing new to the Dardennes, the world occupied by criminals is. The criminal conspiracy at play here is similar to the worlds occupied by film noir - right down the “hero” who falls in love with the “victim” - in this case Lorna with Claudy. But what makes it slightly different here is that Lorna does not actually fall in love with Claudy - she feels sorry for him, feels responsible for his safety, and feels guilty for entering into an agreement which is going to end with Claudy’s death.

The characters in Dardenne movies always struggle with guilt. From Rosetta, who just wants to get a job, and goes too far, to the father in The Son who feels guilty about his son’s death, to L’Enfant where the father feels guilty after selling his baby child. Lorna is no different, accept that this time, she feels guilty before she has really committed the crime. She feels guilty about Claudy’s death, even before it happens, and then after he does die, her guilt pushes her over the edge into delusional territory. She becomes convinced that she is pregnant with Claudy’s baby, and even when it is proven that she isn’t, she keeps holding onto the idea. If she is pregnant with Claudy’s baby, then at least she is able to keep a piece of him alive.

If Lorna’s Silence is not quite the triumph that the other Dardenne films are, it is because I’m not quite sure I believed in all of the changes that Lorna goes through. There is no indication that Lorna even considered having sex with Claudy until the scene where she seduces him, and her break from reality seems a little too quick and convenient to the plot.
Yet the emotional impact of the movie remains even though there are some problems with the movie. As played by Arta Dobroshi, in an amazing tactile performance, she becomes one the Dardennes most memorable creations. Like many films this decade, she is a woman trying to make a better life for herself, and is prevented from doing so because of where she was born. As long as there is such a disparity between the opportunities available to people in one country compared to another, there will always be people like Lorna. She becomes a criminal out of necessity, and everything else that follows flows from the fact that she was born in Albania, where she had no opportunity for a better life. It is people like Lorna that they don’t talk about when they talk about the new, united Europe.

Movie Review: Fame

Fame **
Directed By:
Written By: Allison Burnett based on the 1980 film.
Starring: Naturi Naughton (Denise), Kay Panabaker (Jenny), Anna Maria Perez de Tagle (Joy), Kherington Payne (Alice), Walter Perez (Victor Taveras), Paul McGill (Kevin), Paul Iacono (Neil Baczynsky), Asher Book (Marco), Collins Pennie (Malik), Kelsey Grammer (Joel Cranston), Megan Mullally (Fran Rowan), Bebe Neuwirth (Lynn Kraft), Charles S. Dutton (Alvin Dowd), Debbie Allen (Principal Simms).

Fame is a movie that takes itself too seriously to be fun, and yet is too clichéd and scattershot to be taken seriously. While I wouldn’t say that it is a terrible movie, it is a movie that I found hard to get too involved in. There are so many characters that appear and disappear constantly, that the film never really builds momentum. Yes, there is some good music and dance sequences, but it is not nearly enough to make it a satisfying.

I guess I should mention off the bat that I have never seen the original Fame - the 1980 Oscar winner for Best Song, and one of the most loved musicals of that decade. Musicals are the one genre that I have never fully warmed to, even if I do appreciate them a lot more than I used to. But, I still have a lot of them to catch up with, and this is one I have just never had the time to see. So, I cannot really compare this movie to the original.

This movie however, about four years in the lives of students at the New York School for Performing Arts tries to cram so much into its two hour running time that it never really does any of its storylines justice. The movie opens on “Audition Day” where a group of kids, who are supposed to be around 13 or 14 (but look to be in their mid-20s for the most part) try and get accepted to the school. We meet a group of them who make the cut. Denise (Naturi Naughton) a classical pianist who really wants to sing, but does not want to disappoint her strict parents. Jenny (Kay Panabaker) is an aspiring actress who needs to learn to loosen up. She has a crush on Marco (Asher Book), who is a natural performer. Joy (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle) is a cutie, and also an aspiring actress. Alice (Kherington Payne) is a bored rich girl, who wants to be a dancer. Victor (Walter Perez) is a musician, who really wants to be a producer and do his own thing. Kevin (Paul McGill) is an aspiring ballerina who just may just not have enough talent. Malik (Collins Pennie) is a black kid from the ghetto trying to express his anger. Finally there is Neil Baczynsky (Paul Iacono) who wants to be the next Martin Scorsese, and maybe slightly too trusting for his own good. These, and a few other, characters revolve around each other for two hours, fighting for screen time. Some of them get more than they deserve, and others far less.

The problem with the movie is that it tries to cram so much into two hours that none of the characters truly get a chance to develop. The closest the movie comes to a fully developed character is Jenny, the shy girl. She apparently learns to loosen up during the course of the movie, but the only real indication of this is that she starts wearing her hair down instead of in a the tight braid she had at the beginning of the film. But at least her and Marco’s relationship has a few stages to it. Victor and Alice apparently date for two years, and yet we only see them together twice - once when they get together and the next time when they are breaking up. It’s hard to care when you never feel like you truly know the characters. Another characters apparent suicide attempt is even less emotional, since we had barely seen him at all since Freshman year.

Yet, there are things to like about the film. There are quite a few fun dance numbers and even if director KevinTancharoen, over directs at times (way too much slow motion), but they still do some interesting things with them. The music is also quite good. The performances are, for the most part, are quite good given the limitations placed on them by the screenplay.

Fame is certainly not a boring movie. There is always something happening, and the individual scenes can be very entertaining. But they never really come together to make a cohesive story. I’m sure for people who want to see nothing more than music and dance, then Fame will be a popular movie. For anyone who wants a more complete motion picture experience though, Fame is going to disappoint.

Movie Review: Dead Snow

Dead Snow ***
Directed by:
Tommy Wirkola.
Written By: Stig Frode Henriksen & Tommy Wirkola.
Starring: Vegar Hoel (Martin), Stig Frode Henriksen (Roy), Charlotte Frogner (Hanna), Lasse Valdal (Vegard), Evy Kasseth Røsten (Liv), Jeppe Laursen (Erlend), Jenny Skavlan (Chris), Ane Dahl Torp (Sara), Bjørn Sundquist (The Wanderer), Ørjan Gamst (Herzog).

Has anyone ever made a movie about Nazi zombies before? I cannot think of an example off the top of my head, but you have to admit that the idea is pretty cool, right? I mean if there is anything that would make zombies more evil, it would to make them into Nazis.

The new Norwegian film Dead Snow is a film that has a very basic premise. A group of young friends head off into the woods to a secluded cabin where they plan to spend their Easter holiday drinking, partying and having sex. Each character represent a different “type” in the horror movie - the geek, the horny guy, the cool guy, the hot slut, etc. This isn’t really a flaw in the movie, but a way to get things going quickly without having to go through the motions of setting everyone up. The characters even have a conversation about how many movies start out this exact way - a group of friends head off into the woods where there is no cell phone service. They come up with quite a list. One of the films they name in The Evil Dead, and that’s appropriate as this film is certainly a loving homage to Sam Raimi’s masterful series of horror/comedy movies with Bruce Campbell.

So the seven friends arrive at the secluded cabin, and are having fun. An eighth friend is planning on joining them the next day, but decided she wanted to cross country ski her way to the cabin instead of drive and snowmobile. We know that she is never going to make, because in the precredits sequence we see her get brutally slaughtered - by what we are not exactly sure. One of the girls thinks she sees something outside, and we think that the horror action is going to begin. But the film isn’t quite ready for that yet. First, they need to introduce the creepy old guy who will explain why they never should have come up here in the first place. Apparently, in the waning days of the second world war, the Nazis that were stationed in the area stole all the valuables they could from the local townspeople banded together and attacked them, killing most of the Nazis, but allowing some to escape into the woods - with the stolen loot - never to be heard from again. They assume that the Nazis froze to death out there, and that they certainly did. They just didn’t stay dead.

Soon the undead Nazis are attacking the house. Stranded 45 minutes away from their car, with no way to get there in the snow (one of them had left earlier on the snowmobile to try and find his girlfriend who never showed up) they don’t know what to do. Two of their friends were killed in the initial attack and the rest do not want to end up the same way. So what do they decide to do? Why split up of course!

Dead Snow gets away with trading on so many horror clichés, because it does it all with a wink and nudge. The movie knows that its characters are idiots and so it decides to do some entertaining stuff with them. We know, for example, that there is going to be a sex scene at some point. What we don’t expect is that one of the hot chicks (and they are all hot, but so ill defined that they never really rise above the level of hot chicks) will sleep with the chubby, geeky movie nerd. Not only that, we certainly do expect that they’ll do it in a frozen outhouse. But while I was happy that my brethren was finally getting some in a movie, I couldn’t help but wonder how cold it was in that outhouse, and how cold it would have to be before the two became frozen together at the genitals.

The final act of Dead Snow is one of the most entertaining finales to a horror film in recent memory. The two survivors, knowing that they are probably going to die - there are just too many Nazi Zombies - arm themselves with chainsaws, axes, hatchets and whatever else they can find and slash and hack their way through as many as they can. Limbs start flying, heads start rolling, and there is more blood than in any film in recent memory. When their friend shows up on his snowmobile, that he has outfitted with a machine gun, things get even wilder.
Dead Snow is an entertaining homage to the American horror films of the 1980s. Whereas most American horror filmmakers seem to reach back to the 1970s, and try to make extreme, disturbing horror movies (and fail miserably), director Tommy Wikola wants to have some fun. While Dead Snow certainly does not do anything new with the genre, it is one of the most entertaining horror films of the year.

Friday, September 25, 2009

October Month Preview

October Month Preview

September saw the biggest movie event of my year, The Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s a good thing, because most of the movies I had a chance to see in theaters that month were dull and duller. October kicks things up a notch, with more Oscar hopefuls being released, although, not as many as in years past. While in the past months, I focused only on wide release movies, this month, I decided to throw in several limited release movies as well. At this time of year, the studios open many of their films on only a few screens at first, before expanding them. They do this to try and build buzz of their awards worthiness. So while not all of these films will likely hit your area in October, they will probably being hit you at some point in the upcoming months. As per normal however, most of the big players will sit on the sidelines until November and December. Having said that, October offers many strong offerings, mixed with some films you’d have to put a gun to my head to get me to see. We’ll have to see how the month plays out.

October 2nd

Capitalism: A Love Story – Michael Moore’s latest documentary focuses on the problems with modern capitalism in America, particularly on all those bank bailouts last year where billions of dollars were given to huge banks so they can go on screwing millions of Americans. Moore is not a subtle filmmaker, and sometimes he is not even a fair filmmaker, but I always look forward to every film that he makes. Anticipation Level: 10

The Invention of Lying – Ricky Gervais is a comedic genius, who so far has had trouble translating that genius from TV (where The Office and Extras are two of the best comedies of all time) to the big screen. But in his big screen directorial debut, he looks to change that. He plays the only man in the world capable of lying, and he uses his new found ability to great effect. The reviews from TIFF were warm, if not spectacular, but I still cannot wait to see what he does in this film. Anticipation Level: 8

A Serious Man – The Coen brothers return with their latest masterpiece, a comedy/drama about a Jewish man in 1967 Minnesota whose entire life falls apart in front of his eyes. He is being tested in a way that no one since Job has, and as played by Michael Stuhlbarg, he is probably the most sympathetic character in the Coens brothers history. This is a superbly made, brilliantly acted masterpiece that was my favorite film of this year’s Toronto Film Festival. Anticipation Level: N/A, since I saw this already at TIFF, I cannot really anticipate it, can I, but it would have been a 10 had I not seen it.

Whip It! – Ellen Page returns to her first leading role since her smash hit Juno, and once again she plays a teenager trying to find her own path in the world, much to the chagrin of her parents. This time though, it’s not pregnancy, but roller derby, in Drew Barrymore’s riotous debut film as a director. Yes, it follows the Juno formula fairly rigidly, but I cannot say there were too many films at the festival this year that I had more fun at. Anticipation Level: N/A, since I saw this already at TIFF, I cannot really anticipate it, can I, but it would have been a 9 had I not seen it (I love Page).

Zombieland – The preview for this film looks absolutely hilarious – a blend of zombie movie and comedy the likes of which we haven’t seen since Shaun of the Dead. I love Woody Harrelson, especially when he’s playing a demented character like this, and I also love Emma Stone who has a supporting role. While I may not be familiar with the director, Ruben Fleischer, this one looks like too much fun to miss. Anticipation Level: 8

October 9th

Couples Retreat – Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau and Jason Bateman can all be funny in movies. And Kristen Bell and Malin Akerman are at least good eye candy, even if they have not impressed me very much with their movies (Bell was good, but could have been better in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and has yet to find a role to watch her TV work on Veronica Mars). This one looks amusing, but I’m not sure about it. Anticipation Level: 5

Night of the Demons – I have never actually seen the late 1980s B horror film that this is a remake of, and the cast looks like this should have come out in 1999 (Edward Furlong? Shannon Elizabeth? Monica Keena? At least they’re still working I guess). Since I have yet to see a preview and had to go further than usual to even find a poster, this looks like it’s basically a studio dump. Anticipation Level: 2

An Education – This was one of the films I most regretted not being able to see at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. This had got wonderful reviews since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year, and its march to the Oscars seem to being going strong, with many people saying newcomer Carey Mulligan could easily win the Best Actress prize this year. This is based on a wonderful book, and I cannot wait to see it. Don’t know if I’ll get a chance this weekend, or I’ll have to wait until it opens wider, but this is probably my (second) most anticipated film of the month. Anticipation Level: 10

October 16th

Law Abiding Citizen – I cannot say that I really dislike Gerard Butler, but I have yet to see him in a movie that I actually liked. Jamie Foxx can be good, but he can also be quite bad. Director F. Gary Gray has had an interesting career though, directing good films like Set It Off, The Negotiator and The Italian Job (then again he also directed A Man Apart and Be Cool), so I’m sure I’ll check this out. Not really looking forward to it though. Anticipation Level: 5.

The Stepfather – Another remake of a 1980s B horror movie that I have never actually seen. With the cast of Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, Amber Heard, Penn Badgley, Sherry Stringfield, Paige Turco and Jon Tenney, and a director I have never heard of, shouldn’t this be going straight to DVD. Anticipation Level: 2.

Where the Wild Things Are – Spike Jonze’s long awaited for follow-up to Adaptation finally arrives in theaters this month. Based on one of my favorite children’s books, this movie looks inventive and delightful. I hope this means that Jonze can direct something not written by Charlie Kaufman and make a great movie (Michel Gondry can’t). I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while now. Anticipation Level: 10.

Black Dynamite – A hit at festivals around the country (although strangely, the film did not play Toronto), this homage to 1970s blaxpoltation movies looks utterly entertaining and fun, even if it does star Michael Jai White, Arsenio Hall and Tommy Davidson – actors I normally do not think are all that good. Anticipation Level: 8.

October 23rd

Amelia – Mira Nair is a fine director, and Hilary Swank is a fine actress (even if she doesn’t deserve to have two Oscars), but this Amelia Earhart biopic is so far leaving me cold. It could very well turn out to be wonderful – they certainly want it to be an Oscar player – but something about the film has me dreading it. I will undoubtedly see it, and I hope I’m wrong. Anticipation Level: 5.

Antichrist – Out of all the films this month, this is the one I want to see more than the rest of them combined. I have heard the debates raging about this film ever since it debuted at Cannes, and had to miss it when it played here in Toronto, but anything Lars von Trier does, I look forward to seeing. Even if I end up hating it, I desperately want to see the damn thing for myself. Anticipation Level: 11. (That’s 1 louder than the rest for you Spinal Tap fans).

Astro Boy – This update to the anime series classic is probably going to delight children, and since I have a wife who loves anime, I’m sure I’ll see it, but come on! It does look more than slightly stupid, doesn’t it? Anticipation Level: 3

Cirque de Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant – I am so sick of vampires right now it’s not even funny. What’s worse is that vampires have gone from evil villains to sexy bad boys all things to Stephanie Meyers (news flash for all those teen girls out there – fucking a vampire is like fucking a corpse – it’s just as cold and dead). I know this isn’t Twilight, and director Paul Weitz is actually quite talented, and I love John C. Reilly, but still, I cannot imagine myself watching this anytime soon. Anticipation Level: 1.

Saw VI – Since I have suffered through each of the first five Saw movies, there is no way I’m going to stop watching this series now (when they start going straight to DVD I will). I have stopped trying to figure out how Jigsaw keeps showing up in these movies, even though he’s been dead for the last two, and just go with the flow. Yes, I’m sure it will be shit. But I am also sure I’ll see it. Anticipation Level: 4.

Motherhood – Why does badass action chick Uma Thurman continue to insist on subjecting her fans to these lame romantic comedies that she is terrible in? Seriously, I do not want to see Thurman struggling to get her child’s birthday off the ground, and want to see her kick ass! Anticipation Level: 1.

Ong Bak 2 – Tony Jaa is quite an athetletic martial artist, and the original Ong Bak is worth watching just to marvel at his stunts. That he cannot act, doesn’t seem to slow him down any. I’m sure this will be dumb, but it could be fun. Anticipation Level: 4.

October 30th

Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day – Boondock Saints has become a cult classic for some reason. I did quite enjoy the film when I saw it years ago, but honestly have never really felt the urge to watch the film again. Now all these years later, they are making this pointless sequel. Yet, I know I’ll be there, so I don’t know why I’m complaining. Anticipation Level: 6.

Michael Jackson’s This is It – I am so sick of hearing about Michael Jackson that I cannot imagine any circumstances that I would actually watch this movie. A documentary about him rehearsing a concert series that he never did because he died? Seriously, who the hell wants to watch that? Anticipation Level: 0.