Friday, December 31, 2010

Movie Review: Barney's Version

Barney’s Version ***
Directed by:
Richard J. Lewis.
Written By: Michael Konyves based on the novel by Mordecai Richler.
Starring: Paul Giamatti (Barney Panofsky), Rosamund Pike (Miriam), Dustin Hoffman (Izzy),
Minnie Driver (Mrs. Panofsky), Scott Speedman (Boogie), Bruce Greenwood (Blair), Rachelle Lefevre (Clara), Mark Addy (Detective O'Hearne), Saul Rubinek (Charnofsky).

Mordecai Richler was one of the most beloved of all Canadian authors. His The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was an hilarious and insightful look at a teenage Jew in Montreal and his quest to own land. It was made into a very good movie in the 1974. Barney’s Version also takes place in the Jewish community in Montreal - but spans many more years - from 1974 to 2010. It centers on Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti) and his three marriages. The first ends with the suicide of his wife, the second ends in divorce, which may have led to murder. But his third marriage - to Miriam (Rosamund Pike) is the one that shapes Barney’s life the most. She is the love of his life, but Barney is so self involved, to a certain extent no one can be the love of his life - he is too in love with himself.

The heart of movie is Paul Giamatti and his wonderful performance as Barney. We first meet him lounging around Rome with his friends, and his pregnant girlfriend (Rachelle Lefevre) who delights in insulting him. Things do not work out with the baby, and soon after their marriage, it is over. He comes back to Montreal, and starts his career as a TV producer of a horrible looking soap opera (that stars Paul Gross, being a good sport as he plays a Mounties, a reference to his show Due North). It is here that he meets the daughter of a rich man (Minnie Driver) and ends up married again. But at his wedding, he first sees Miriam and falls in love immediately. She pursues her mercilessly, but she refuses any contact because he is married - but he won’t be married for long. Eventually, he will have the woman he loves - and this time the marriage lasts, children are born, and it looks like Barney will be happy. But as with everything in his life, Barney will screw it up.

The film is enjoying and involving throughout. It is amazing that no matter how selfish Barney gets, no matter how unsympathetic his actions, we never stop liking him. We can’t help it. He isn’t exactly charming, but he does a certain charm about him - he wears us down. It helps that Giamatti is so good in his role, and he has a great supporting cast. Best of them all is Dustin Hoffman as his vulgar father, who much like Barney, has a gruff charm about him. Minnie Driver is also quite good as his extremely annoying second wife.

The problem with the film - what keeps it from being a great film - is that we never really know why Miriam loves Barney so much. As soon as he is divorced, they seem to fall into each others arms, and then the movie flashes ahead 20 years to when their marriage starts to have problems. What was it about him that she fell in love with - and why does she stick it out with him? It is a whole in the film. Pike is quite good as Miriam - it is easy to see why he loves her so much, so this helps a little bit, but it remains a hole that the movie does not fill.


Yet overall, Barney’s Version is an extremely enjoyable film - well written, well directed and extremely well acted. If it isn’t one of the best movies of the year, it is at least one of the best Canadian films of the year - painting a portrait of a community that we don’t see much in Canadian films. It is a worthy adaptation of one of our greatest author’s best books.

Movie Review: Little Fockers

Little Fockers **
Directed by:
Paul Weitz.
Written By: John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Jack Byrnes), Ben Stiller (Greg Focker), Owen Wilson (Kevin Rawley), Dustin Hoffman (Bernie Focker), Erika Jensen (Party Parent), Barbra Streisand (Roz Focker), Blythe Danner (Dina Byrnes), Teri Polo (Pam Focker), Jessica Alba (Andi Garcia), Laura Dern (Prudence), Kevin Hart (Nurse Louis), Daisy Tahan (Samantha Focker), Colin Baiocchi (Henry Focker), Thomas McCarthy (Dr. Bob), Harvey Keitel (Randy Weir).

Meet the Parents was an amusing comedy - playing wonderfully off of Robert DeNiro’s tough guy image, as he plays the father in law from hell, and capitalizing on Ben Stiller, then just emerging as a movie star, on his terrific slow burn of barely suppressed rage. It was a hit because it was well written and funny - and felt relatable to anyone who has ever had to meet the parents of someone they are dating (which is pretty much everyone). The sequel, Meet the Fockers, was less successful, relying on more zany characters as Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand joined the cast as Stiller’s new age, embarrassingly over loving parents. Yet, it was still an amusing comedy. Now we come to the third film - Little Fockers - and this time it seems like everyone is simply going through the motions. There is no logical movie why this movie needed to be made. With a cast this great - and it truly is a stacked cast - there are some amusing moments. But the movie is lazy writing, lazy direction and far too many of the actors seem to be phoning it in. It is time for the Fockers to go away.

It has been a few years since Meet the Fockers - Greg (Stiller) and Pam (Teri Polo) have had twins, and they are about to celebrate their fifth birthday. Jack (Denier) is concerned about what will happen to the Byrnes clan when he dies - he has had a mild heart attack, and his other son in law, is divorcing his daughter following an affair. Greg is the only choice left for a strong male leader for the family. Greg, of course, still wants to impress his father in law - still is looking for his approval, and does everything he can to win it. With the Byrnes coming to visit for a few days, Greg tries so hard - and of course everything that can go wrong, does.

Little Fockers is simply a lazy movie. Little effort seems to have been made in the writing of the movie - the jokes are stale and have been used far too often in the series to this point, and are simply being recycled at this point. The actors have played these roles before, and at times appear to be bored. DeNiro’s Jack Byrnes, which was always a caricature has become increasingly unbelievable throughout the series. And Stiller’s repressed rage has grown tired. The actors have some moments when they can still generate some laughs, but they are few and far between. A few new characters add little to the movie - Harvey Keitel is completely wasted as a contractor. Jessica Alba tries really hard, and is quite amusing at times - but finally goes too far over the top in what was supposed to be her big comedic scene (it isn’t really her fault, it was a very poorly written scene).

Little Fockers is hardly a painful experience. But it isn’t really an enjoyable one either. It plays like a sub par sitcom - one that you want to like, but simply cannot because the jokes are stale, and the performances don’t really do anything to make the material worthwhile. It just sits there on the screen waiting to end.

Movie Review: Night Catches Us

Night Catches Us ***
Directed by: Tanya Hamilton.
Written By: Tanya Hamilton.
Starring: Anthony Mackie (Marcus Washington), Kerry Washington (Patricia Wilson), Wendell Pierce (David Gordon), Jamie Hector ('DoRight' Miller), Tariq Trotter (Bostic Washington), Ron Simons (Carey Ford), Amari Cheatom (Jimmy Dixon), Tariq Rasheed (Neil Wilson), Jamara Griffin (Iris Wilson).

It is not a coincidence that Night Catches Us takes place in 1976, in Philadelphia, the Bi-centennial of America in the city where the country was born, where there were many celebrations designed to try and lift the spirits of Americans following Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. These celebrations are never seen onscreen - they are not even mentioned - but are relevant nonetheless. Just like the newsreel footage of the struggles of the Black Panthers of the 1960s that plays throughout the movie, not as a history lesson, but more like dreams or memories, they inform the action of the rest of the movie.

The movie opens with Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returning to Philly for the first time in four years for his fathers funeral. He left under a cloud of suspicion for his former Black Panther brothers, and it isn’t long before DoRight (Jamie Hector) shows up and tells him that it would be best if he left town - they don’t like snitches. But Marcus has no intention of leaving - at least not yet. He reconnects with Patricia (Kerry Washington), the wife of Marcus’ former best friend who was killed by the police, and a lawyer who cannot help but continue to help her husband’s former associates - no matter what they are doing. She is resisting the advances of one of more respectable colleagues who wants to leave the past behind. But she cannot let it go.

The movie relies more on memory than on action. These characters were involved with the Black Panthers in the 1960s and early 1970s, and even though by 1976 their relevance has waned, it still informs everything they do. At the same time, the legend of the Panthers has grown, and the younger generation who don’t remember the time have warped the lessons of the time into one where violence for its own sake. This is the start of black on black violence than would rise to epidemic proportions in the decades to come.

Written and directed by Tanya Hamilton, making her debut, Night Catches Us reminded me of the films of Spike Lee - not just because all of the characters in the movie are black, but because of the anger and rage that simmers beneath the surface, the racism by the police - and not just the white officers, but also the one black cop we see (played with profane brilliance by Wendell Pierce). Hamilton seems to have taken lessons for Lee in constructing her film, from both a writing and directing standpoint. It is a very impressive debut.

However, I could have done with the secrets that run through the film. The central question is who told the police about Patricia’s husband - which led to his death. Marcus has received the blame, but denies it. Patricia refuses to talk about her husband - even to the daughter they have together, and as such the secrets only slowly seep out through the course of the film. It is a rather cheap gimmick, and is not worthy of the movie that surrounds it.
But overall, Night Catches Us is a sold film - one that marks Hamilton as a director to watch. Her dialogue, with a few exceptions where it is a little too on the nose, is crisp and clean, and she gets wonderful performances out of her actors. Her visual style is subdued, but really does feel like a film from the 1970s, and has terrific attention to detail. Night Catches Us is an intelligent film about a turbulent time in American history - one whose implications continue to be felt today.

Movie Review: Film Socialism

Film Socialism no stars
Directed by:
Jean-Luc Godard.
Written By: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Catherine Tanvier (La mere), Christian Sinniger (Le père), Jean-Marc Stehlé (Otto Goldberg), Patti Smith (La chanteuse), Robert Maloubier (Personne de la vraie vie), Alain Badiou (Le philosophe), Nadège Beausson-Diagne (Constance), Élisabeth Vitali (La journaliste FR3 Regio), Eye Haidara (La cameraman FR3 Regio), Quentin Grosset (Lucien), Olga Riazanova (Agent secret russe).

Jean-Luc Godard is one of the towering figures in cinema. His films of the 1960s – starting with Breathless, which remains his best film – took film to an entirely different level. Without Godard, I wonder what film would look like now – because it would be remarkably different. Yet even in those films from the ‘60s, some of them masterpieces, others not – there was a healthy dose of pretentiousness. I’ve always got the impression from Godard’s films that he thinks he’s smarter than the rest of us – and likes to rub in our faces. In the 40 years since the 1960s ended, Godard has moved further and further away from narrative filmmaking – and now comes to what he has said will be his final film – Film Socialism. The film really doesn’t say anything meaningful about socialism – it doesn’t really say anything meaningful about anything. It seems to me that Godard has made a film that is impossible to understand. Perhaps that’s the joke – perhaps somewhere Godard is sitting and laughing at all of us who went to see his film and tried to assign some meaning to it.

The film is told in three parts – the first part takes place on a cruise ship going through the Mediterranean. The second part takes place entirely at the house, and gas station next door, of a family in the South of France. The third segment heads out to the “birthplace of our humanities” around the world, but is really just a jumble of images.

I suppose that the critics who have said that Film Socialism is about the death of language may have a point. Godard has certainly made a film where the dialogue is pretty much incomprehensible and doesn’t really matter. It’s more about how the people on the cruise ship do not communicate with each other more than that they do. We see familiar Godardian characters – the Nazi hunter, the Jewish banker, the beautiful young woman with a powerful older man, the thoughtful African woman, etc. They talk a lot, but we don’t understand what they are saying. The sound of the film is deliberately crude, and any scene film on the ship’s deck results in us only hearing the sound of the wind ripping past the microphone. Most of the dialogue is in French – and Godard has provided us with deliberately useless subtitles in what he describes as “Navajo English” – which is essentially broken phrases pieced together, so we understand the jist of what people are saying, but not the actual words used. What does become clear is that Godard holds most of these characters in contempt – he sees them as shallow and superficial (which is why apparently no one showed up at a philosophy lecture Godard announced on the ship – but allow me to suggest that people on a vacation may not want to hear a philosophy lecture, and may just want to relax – which I suppose according to Godard is a sin). The second section to me remains incomprehensible – I have no idea what Godard is trying to say, although it’s obviously something about the evil of oil companies since he has a llama tied to a gas pump for the entire segment. The family, it seems, is more successful at communicating with each other than the people on the boat – but not by much. An election is coming, a reporter shows up because the parents are involved in it, but ultimately, this segment felt pointless. I’m sure someone can explain it to me. The third section of the movie calls to mind Godard’s Notre Musique – in fact it almost plays like an outtake reel from that movie as Godard “visits” the birthplace of our humanities – Egypt, Palestine, Helas, etc – and assembles a group of images that recalls the horrors of the 20th Century (Hitler and Stalin can be both be seen at various points), and of course Hollywood (why Charlie Chaplin rates a notice, I have no idea). The film ends with a final title card that simply says “No Comment”. Perhaps this is Godard’s way of saying he will not explain his film – but I almost think it describes the film as well. Godard has not really made a comment on anything in this film – at least not one that is decipherable.

Perhaps I simply do not get Film Socialism, and so like Glenn Kenny suggests, I am not really qualified to give an appraisal of it. I admit that, but I will also say that I think if that is true, then there are very few people in the world that would be qualified to give an assessment if that is the criteria. I cannot think of a single person I know who would actually get something out of Film Socialism. Now, it is not Godard’s job to make a film those appeals to the masses if he doesn’t want to – but both he and Kenny have to admit that there are few people who want to watch this film.

The bottom line on Film Socialism for me is that it never engaged me in any real way. It didn’t inspire me to go out and learn more about what Godard is trying to say, because he has made a film that is deliberately indecipherable – that deliberately holds everyone at arm’s length. Who is the audience for this film? Perhaps only Godard himself. I hope he enjoyed it more than I did.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Movie Review: The Human Centipede

The Human Centipede no stars
Directed by:
Tom Six.
Written By: Tom Six.
Starring: Dieter Laser (Dr. Heiter), Ashley C. Williams (Lindsay), Ashlynn Yennie (Jenny), Akihiro Kitamura (Katsuro), Andreas Leupold (Det. Kranz), Peter Blankenstein (Det. Voller), Bernd Kostrau (Dirty Man in Car), Rene de Wit (Truck Driver).

The Human Centipede is a movie without a point. I think writer/director Tom Six simply came up with his horribly disgusting central premise, and then decided to build a movie around it - thinking that what he was doing was so shocking, that people would see the movie no matter what the rest of the film was like. In a sense, he was half right. There are few people out there who haven’t heard of The Human Centipede - and yet very few people actually bothered to watch the film. I myself put if off for months, before finally breaking down and seeing the film in my effort to see as many of the noteworthy films of 2010. I wish I had followed my initial instinct and skipped it.

Dieter Laser stars as Dr. Heiter, a psychopathic retired surgeon who specialized in separating Siamese twins in his career. Now, he wants to do just the opposite - and attach people instead of separating them. He already tried the experiment with his three dogs, and even though they died, he has decided that was enough of a success that he wants to try it with human beings. Essentially what does is attach them ass to mouth - the head - a Japanese man gets to eat, and then he shits in the mouth of the middle piece, who hen shits into the mouth to the third person. I will spare you the details of how he does it - but for what I understand, it is actually possible to do what he does. Why one would want to is left unanswered - although Dr. Heiter is clearly a violent psychopath, so reasoning is not at the top of list of things to think about.

Yes, the film is disgusting. No one needs to see the image of these three poor people attached to each other, crawling around on the floor like dogs and shitting into each other mouths. Yet, what is most shocking about The Human Centipede is how dull and boring it is. The first half of the movie is essentially a knock off of Eli Roth’s deplorable Hostel films, which in themselves were just Texas Chainsaw Massacre knock offs set in Europe instead of the backwoods of Texas. Two beautiful American girls - Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie) are traveling in Germany, and try to find their ways to some club, when they get a flat tire. Lost in the middle of nowhere, it is there bad luck that they simply stumble upon Dr. Heiter’s house. He drugs them, and when they wake up, he explains what is plan is. After an aborted attempt to escape by one of the women (and I have no idea which one, because I didn’t care enough to check, as both of the actresses were not very good). The second half of the film is essentially Heitet tormenting his new creation, until the police show up, and everyone dies.

The film is dull and predictable. The only twist it offers is that instead of murdering his victims, he attaches them as described above. Yet, that “novelty” is essentially used simply to try and shock the audience. I suppose on that level, this is the film that Tom Six intended to make. And it should be noted that Dieter Laser is actually quite good in the lead role. If a crazy German doctor ever really wanted to do what Heiter does in this film, I kind of suspect that they would act like Laser does in this film, How he made it through his whole life without the psychopathology ever surfacing to those around him isn’t explained - that would of course take away from the shock value.

Yet, The Human Centipede is a movie without a point. I do not object per se to the movie on a moral ground - I have seen many, many more violent movies than this film - ones that take violence to another level than what we normally seen in a film. Yet, I do think that if you are going to make a movie like this, and subject the audience to this level of violence. Yet I do think that if you are subject an audience to this sort of material, you should have some sort of point in mind. And that is where Tom Six fails miserably. His point seems to be to simply show us these images, that for whatever reason, he simply wanted to film these images. And that makes The Human Centipede even worse. You don’t make a film like this if you don’t have a point. That’s probably why even people who like violent horror films have pretty much ignored The Human Centipede - and why I should have as well.

Movie Review: White Material

White Material ****
Directed by:
Claire Denis.
Written By: Claire Denis and Marie N'Diaye and Lucie Borleteau.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert (Maria Vial), Christopher Lambert (André Vial), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Manuel Vial), Isaach De Bankolé (Le Boxeur), William Nadylam (Chérif), Adèle Ado (Lucie), Ali Barkai (Jeep), Daniel Tchangang (José), Michel Subor (Henri Vial).

Depending on how you look at it, Maria Vial’s determination in White Material could be construed as brave, insane or just downright suicidal. She plays a woman in an unnamed African nation on the brink of Civil War. Early in the film, the French military flies over her plantation and tells her that she and her family should leave - they are pulling out and won’t be able to protect her anymore. But she knows everyone in the area - she thinks she has good relationships with everyone. This plantation has been in her ex-husbands family for generations, and she has run it for years. She is under the mistaken impression that this is her land - this is her country. The reality is that this country now belongs to the young men - children really - with the guns.

Isabelle Huppert, one of the bravest actresses in the world, gives a fearless performance as Maria in this film. It is quite different from many of her roles - yet what is shares with the best of her work, is the repression that she plays here. Throughout the whole film she is a study in repressed anger and fear. She ignores the warning signs that are clear to everyone else. She only needs a week to harvest the coffee, and damn it, she is going to see it done. Even when her entire staff walks out on her, she doesn’t give up - she simply heads to town and hires more people. And even though she has to go through road blocks, manned by gun toting men she thought she knew, doesn’t dissuade her. Everywhere she looks, things are changing - people are telling her to leave, but she simply will not go.

The career of Claire Denis has been an interesting one. To a certain extent, I’m sure some people will look at White Material as yet another movie about Africa told from the point of view of the white people in the area. Yet Denis has always concentrated on the outsiders - her last film was 35 Shots of Rum, and took place in Paris, yet was about an immigrant family. The two films are polar opposites in many respects, but are really the flip side of the same coin. The family in White Material is close - perhaps too close - but know that they will always be outsiders in France, so they depend on each other. The family in White Material doesn’t communicate with each other at all - and seem to not realize that they are not welcome in their adopted country. They are the last remnants of imperialism, and yet because they have always had “good relationships” with her workers, and the people in town, she believes that she will be safe. The reality is they have these relationships because she has money, and she has the backing of the French army, they had to respect her. But with the country descending into chaos, that protection is gone, and the reality of what they think of her and her family is becoming clear - at least to everyone except for Maria.

One of the interesting things about White Material is how Denis portrays the child soldiers, and the differing sides of the Civil War. Denis regular Issach De Bankole is the disposed soldier known as The Boxer, who is hiding out and waiting for help, and his enemies close in. He remains an enigma - as doe the politics of the situation - I had an impossible time telling what the differing sides were, and which side, if either was correct. The child soldiers are portrayed just as that - children with guns. They are still full of life and humor, but slowly becoming dehumanized because of what is going on.

The ending of White Material is a stunner - it is finally when Maria realizes what is going on, and more important, is able to admit it to herself. She finally lets out all that rage, all that fear and humiliation out of her. Huppert’s performance in this film is fearless - and should at least be in the Oscar conversation. She wanted to do this movie, and brought it to Denis, who then took the material and made it her own. This is a great partnership, and it produces one of the best films that either of these women has ever made.

Movie Review: TRON: Legacy

TRON: Legacy ***
Directed by:
Joseph Kosinski.
Written By: Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz based on characters created by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Kevin Flynn/Clu), Garrett Hedlund (Sam Flynn), Olivia Wilde (Quorra), Bruce Boxleitner (Alan Bradley/Tron), James Frain (Jarvis), Beau Garrett (Gem), Michael Sheen (Castor/Zuse), Anis Cheurfa (Rinzler), Cillian Murphy (Edward Dillinger).

I was born in 1981, so I obviously did not see the original Tron when it was released the following year. But watching the film a few months ago, to get ready for this movie, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. Yes, the film has aged quite poorly in many respects - and the once groundbreaking special effects now look cheesy. And yet, the basic premise - of a man who gets sucked into a virtual computer world that he has created, and has to try and fight his way out, was original back then, and worked quite well - especially because of Jeff Bridges performance which somehow kept the whole movie grounded. In the years since, the story has been copied countless times, yet if you can watch the original film in the spirit in which it was intended back in 1982, it is still an enjoyable little film. Now, 28 years later, for whatever reason they decided to make a sequel.

You don’t necessarily have to have seen the original film to get this new one. That film had a happy ending, and this movie recaps what happened AFTER that movie, when Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn, a rebel computer genius, gets sucked back into his virtual world, thus abandoning his young son Sam (Garrett Hedlund). Now, all these years later, Sam is a rebel himself - although he owns the majority of the shares of his father’s old company, Encom, he lets others run it - swooping in once a year to screw with them. But then he is contacted by his father’s old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxteitner), who says he received a page from Kevin’s old office in a now abandoned arcade. This makes little sense to Sam, but he goes to investigate anyway - and of course is sucked into the virtual world himself. Soon, the mysteries of where Kevin actually went are answered.

Much like the original film, Tron: Legacy relies more on visual effects than on plot or character to make the film worth watching - and Tron: Legacy delivers some of the best special effects you will see in a movie theater this year. I liked how director Joseph Kosinski respected the original film enough to stay true to the visual effects used in that film - and simply updates them. Fans of the light cycles, of the flying disks and the glowing suits from the first film, will not be disappointed - they are all here, and they look much better than they did back in 1982. Even better is the fact that they look more natural - and the humans are better integrated into the environments than before. As for the 3-D effects, long time readers will know that I typically hate 3-D movies - but Tron: Legacy is only the second live action film in the recent wave of 3-D films, following James Cameron’s Avatar, where the 3-D actually enhance the movie, not detract from them. Perhaps it’s because both films have pretty much no really scenery or backgrounds - it’s all computer generated.

I don’t necessarily think that Tron: Legacy has any real ideas behind it. In a way, it reminded me of the pseudo philosophy of The Matrix, with a virtual world that has come to rival the real one. But the plot or the themes isn’t really the point in a movie like Tron: Legacy is it? And it should be noted that the performances for the most part work. Yes, Garrett Hedlund is a little bland in what is really the lead role as Sam, but he’s fine. Jeff Bridges is fine in a duel role - as Kevin, who in his decades locked in this virtual world has become some sort of zoned out Zen hippie - or pretty much the computer genius version of The Dude - and his alter ego, a computer program that Kevin created to help him, but ended up overthrowing him (and the effects on this alter ego, which is made to look like Bridges circa1985 is creepy, yet effective. Olivia Wilde is blank as his sidekick - yet it works for her character - plus she’s is gorgeous eye candy to boot. Best of all maybe Michael Sheen in a glorified cameo as a David Bowie-esque program who of course cannot be trusted. He is having a blast in his role, which most be nice since he is usually so button downed and stoic.

Tron: Legacy is essentially just a really fun movie. If you can let yourself go along for the ride, then it delivers what it sets out to do. I don’t think it is quite as good as the original film - although I think it will certainly age better, as the effects won’t look so silly in 28 years. I wouldn’t mind revisiting the Tron universe again in the future.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Movie Review: Trash Humpers

Trash Humpers *
Directed by:
Harmony Korine.
Written By: Harmony Korine.
Starring: Paul Booker, Dave Cloud, Chris Crofton, Charles Ezell, Chris Gantry, Kevin Guthrie, Harmony Korine, Rachel Korine, Brian Kotzue, Brian Kotzur, Travis Nicholson, Page Spain.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I couldn’t help but think of that cliché when watching Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers - a film that has many passionate defenders, but is a film that I could never really get into. It isn’t really a film at all - but rather feels more like performance art or one of those video installations you see in museums. And yet while I somewhat admire the fact that Korine made precisely the film he wanted to make - I cannot really say that it is an experience I ever want to go through again. This crudely made film is pretty much insufferable - which may have been Korine’s goal, but I still have to wonder why anyone would want to watch the film.

Trash Humpers is a deliberately crude film shot on VHS by Korine in his hometown of Nashville. The choice of VHS is made to make the film look even cruddier than it otherwise would - it has the same skips and tracking marks that an old VHS tape would have - making this seem an something found in the trash and put in an old VCR. It stars a bunch of old people - not really old people but young people in really, like Korine himself and his wife Rachel, in really bad old age makeup and masks. As the title suggests, these old people spend their days going into literally humping bags of trash - as well as posts, fences and anything else around. They also fellate tree branches and other objects. All of this is captured on tape by one of them - as the rest of them stand around and chant meaningless, repetitious catch phrases. Sometimes, in addition to these pseudo old people, there are some real old people who come in some time, and talk to the trash humpers. I assume these are real people, essentially playing a version of themselves, which does bring up some troubling questions about whether or not Korine is exploiting them or not.

I have read multiple interpretations of the film - that it is a quasi-sequel to his first film Gummo, which was a similar film but about teenagers not old people, that it represents Korine’s maturation, as his character and that of his wife’s actually grow out of their antics by the end of the film, and leave their friends behind - perhaps like Korine has had to do with his own films.

All of those things may be true about Trash Humpers - that may well have been Korine’s intentions when making the film. After his first two films - Gummo and julien-donkey boy - Korine suffered a nervous breakdown and took time off from filmmaking. This is his second film after Mister Lonely - another failure of a film about a group of celebrity impersonators who get together and live on an island together.

Korine is a real filmmaker, and a real artist. To me, julien-donkey boy, with its weird performances and style remains his best film. He is a unique filmmaker, with a strange vision of the world around him. And yet, his films to me remain pretentious exercises in abstract art. That is not a real problem if the film was successful, but Trash Humpers is repetitive to the point where the whole exercise becomes rather pointless. It takes a real artist to make a film like Trash Humpers. I just wish Korine would concentrate on something worthier of his talents.

Movie Review: The Exploding Girl

The Exploding Girl ** ½
Directed by:
Bradley Rust Gray.
Written By: Bradley Rust Gray.
Starring: Zoe Kazan (Ivy), Mark Rendall (Al), Maryann Urbano (Ivy's Mom).

There is an unforced naturalism to Zoe Kazan’s performance in The Exploding Girl that is both impossible to resist and impossible to teach to an actor. She plays a university student on break and visiting her small home town. She struggles with epilepsy, and has started dating a student at her college - although when she comes back home, she starts hanging out with her old high school friend Al (Mark Rendall). Theirs was a friendship where there was some sexual tension, but was never acted upon. Now perhaps after months apart, they can finally admit their feelings to each other.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of Kazan when she was onscreen - which is pretty much every frame of the film. She makes every scene interesting - whether she’s talking to Al, her mother or her boyfriend on the phone, she seems to inhabit this character completely naturally. She is the perfect choice to play a girl that seemingly every guy has in his life - that longtime friend that at some point you start to look at in a different way. It is a great performance.

The problem is that the performance is in service of a rather shallow, superficial indie film. There is nothing here all that different or unique - and without Kazan nothing would even be all that interesting. She makes the film work a lot better than it probably should. Without her, this movie would be pretty much unbearable.

Written and directed by Bradley Rust Gray, The Exploding Girl is ultimately rather superficial and shallow. It has a nice, laid back feel to it, but throughout the film I kept wondering if he really had anything to say with this film or not. I suppose it works on the level that he wants it to - he simply wants to make a laid back little film about a week in the life of these characters - and he succeeds in doing that. The question really is whether that goal is enough to make The Exploding Girl interesting enough to see. To me, it doesn’t - although you may want to see it solely for Kazan’s performance, which deserves a movie a whole lot more interesting than this one.

Movie Review: Howl

Howl ***
Directed by:
Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman.
Written By: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman.
Starring: James Franco (Allen Ginsberg), Jon Hamm (Jake Ehrlich), Mary-Louise Parker (Gail Potter), Jeff Daniels (Professor David Kirk), David Strathairn (Ralph McIntosh), Alessandro Nivola (Luther Nichols), Treat Williams (Mark Schorer), Bob Balaban (Judge Clayton Horn), Aaron Tveit (Peter Orlovsky), Jon Prescott (Neal Cassady), Todd Rotondi (Jack Kerouac), Andrew Rogers (Lawrence Ferlinghetti).

Howl is less of a narrative film than an essay film about the infamous, epic poem Howl by Allan Ginsberg. Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman use the obscenity trial in 1955, not of Ginsberg for writing the poem, but on his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing it, as a framing device, but the film is really an interesting reflection of the poem, its meanings and the controversy that surrounded it, Under animated sequences that are alternately beautiful and crude, much like the poem itself, we hear Ginsberg (James Franco) read his epic poem. Cut into this is an interview with Ginsberg, in black and white, where he talks about his life and what led to the poem and scenes from the trial itself where a series of literary experts discuss the value, or lack thereof, of the poem with lawyers and judges. None of the people in the movie can really be described as characters per se - Ginsberg comes closest, but he’s only used to further illuminate the poem itself. This means at times, Howl is dramatically inert - and yet it remains fascinating. I cannot think of another movie that structures itself around a poem in this way.

When you have a film like this, which is less concerned with dramatics than it is with style, obviously the direction becomes more important. I liked how Epstein and Friedman used different techniques at different times in the movie. The animation used during the body of the poem itself is crude and hand drawn, and at times perhaps a bit too literal for a poem, and yet it is also beautiful - and it adds a visual level to Ginsberg’s masterful use of language. The animation also solves the problem that someone reading poetry is not all that cinematic - the animation brings the poem alive in a way that a simple reading could not. And as a fan of animation, who is a little disappointed that even Disney seems to have abandoned the classic hand drawn look, its nice to see that style here - employed in an imaginative, surreal way sure, but hand drawn just the same.

I also quite liked the black and white scenes of Ginsberg being interviewed. Black and white provides a different perspective than color, and used infrequently, but here it works wonderfully well - not just in the interview scenes, but also in the dramatic scenes involving him as well. Franco does an excellent job as Ginsberg as well - he doesn’t much look like the real Ginsberg, but he does have a similar voice, and nails the mannerisms and makes him a fascinating person to watch.

From a visual standpoint, the courtroom scenes - shot in color - are the least interesting. And yet it is still fascinating to hear the experts argue with lawyers about the poem. Mary Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Jeff Daniels and Treat Williams are the experts, Jon Hamm the defense lawyer, David Straithairn the prosecutor and Bob Balaban the judge. Obviously with those actors, these scenes are well acted - and also rather humorous. Even though it has been just over 50 years since the trial, something like this would be unthinkable today. We have come a long way in our view of censorship during that time.

Howl is an interesting, unique film. Made on a small budget, it obviously attracted the talent in front of the camera it did mainly on the strength of Ginsberg’s poem itself. Yet you do not need to know the poem itself to like the movie - I didn’t know the poem very well at all (those infamous opening lines were familiar, but little else). This is a film that looks at one of the major literary works of 20th Century America, and makes it accessible to everyone. A very good little film.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Review: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole ***
Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written By: John Orloff and Emil Stern based on the books by Kathryn Lasky.
Starring: Jim Sturgess (Soren), Geoffrey Rush (Ezylryb), Helen Mirren (Nyra), Emily Barclay (Gylfie), Abbie Cornish (Otulissa), Joel Edgerton (Metalbeak), Ryan Kwanten (Kludd), Sam Neill (Allomere), Anthony LaPaglia (Twilight), Miriam Margolyes (Mrs. Plithiver), Hugo Weaving (Noctus / Grimble), David Wenham (Digger), Leigh Whannell (Jatt).

Zack Snyder has made a name for himself directing ultra violent films like Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen. His films are largely visceral experiences that depend more on visuals than on writing or either logic. I admired Dawn of the Dead as a straight ahead horror film, hated 300 because it was overly repetitive and quite enjoyed Watchmen, even if it showed little imagination in translating Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel. What I did not expect from Snyder was for him to go from those three films to an animated film about owls. But now having seen the film, I can say with confidence that Legend of the Guardians is precisely the animated film about owls you would expect from the director of 300. It is much darker and more violent than most animated films aimed at children. But it is dark in the way that children’s films used to be dark - preying on the fears of children to get into their heads. When you think back to films like The Wizard of Oz or some of the early Disney films, they did something similar. Yes, this film is more violent and stylized than those films, but I was still reminded of them when watching this film.

As a young owling Soren hears tales from his father about the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a band of heroic owls who fought bravely against the evil Metalbeak to free all the owl kingdoms. His brother Kludd doesn’t put much stock in these stories, but Soren eats them up. It isn’t long however before their idyllic life is broken when both brothers are kidnapped and taken to the home base of Metalbeak, who is rebuilding his army of Pures, to take another run at the Guardians. These scenes are perhaps the most disturbing of any in the film - the images deliberately call to mind the Holocaust, with the “lower” owls being turned into mindless slaves of the upper class. Of course, it isn’t long before Soren escapes and goes looking for the Guardians to once again save the day. Kludd on the other hand, buys into Metalbeak’s philosophy hook, line and sinker - setting up a classic brother vs. brother climatic fight. When Soren does finally get to the Guardians, they are everything he dreamed of and more - especially the wise old Ezylryb, who takes him under his wing to make him a better owl.

Like all of Snyder’s films (and judging on the previews for Sucker Punch, this trend will continue), Legend of the Guardians is hyper stylized - perhaps too much so at times. He loves to use slow motion to heighten reality and violence and to try and make his films more visceral and impactful. It works here better than at other times in his career - after all, animation is all about style. Yet, to a certain extent I think Snyder will be a better director when he learns that sometimes less is more - you don’t have to direct every scene dialed up all the way to 11.

Legend of the Guardians is a dark film - a violent film - and it will likely not be good for really young children, who are going to be scared by much of the film - especially the evil Metalbeak. But older children will most likely eat it up - and fans of Snyder’s other films, which were all hard R rated action films, should give it a chance as well - it delivers what they want out of a Snyder film no matter who the main characters are. For the second time this year (following Toy Story 3), an animated film invokes images of the Holocaust for affect. When Toy Story did it, it made me cry. When it was done here, it was more disturbing.

Legend of the Guardians is a fine film. It was animated in the same style that Happy Feet used - by George Miller another director known more for live action than animation. It perhaps moves too quickly - never really settling down and instead trying to go for the throat at all times. But while I don’t think it’s a great film, it is a very good one, and a worthy film in Snyder’s continuing development as a director.

Movie Review: How Do You Know

How Do You Know *
Directed by:
James L. Brooks
Written By: James L. Brooks.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Lisa), Paul Rudd (George), Owen Wilson (Matty), Jack Nicholson (Charles), Kathryn Hahn (Annie), Mark Linn-Baker (Ron), Lenny Venito (Al), Molly Price (Coach Sally), John Tormey (Doorman).

How Do You Know is one of those horrible films that only really talented people can make. It is a film that goes so horribly wrong that it made my jaw drop, and yet I could sense that there were talented people, both in front of and behind the camera, trying really hard to make this work. Written and directed by James L. Brooks, who won two Oscars for writing and directing Terms of Endearment, and whose other films include Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, and starring an excellent cast including Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson, How Do You Know had all the ingredients of a great romantic comedy - but quite simply fails on every level.

Witherspoon stars as Lisa, who has been a jock her whole life - a member of the national Women’s Softball team for years now. But this year, she has been cut to make room for younger players, and is feeling lost. She is kind of dating Matty (Owen Wilson), a star pitcher for the Washington Nationals, who plows his way through one women after another, but senses that in Lisa he may have found the right girl. Matty is lovable and charming, but has no real substance and doesn’t have any idea how to be someone’s boyfriend.

Lisa also meets George (Paul Rudd) around the same time - and like her, he is going through hell. He is being investigated for financial wrong doing in running the company his father (Jack Nicholson) founded and passed down to him. He didn’t know what he was doing was wrong - he doesn’t seem to have any real business sense at all, and just trusted what everyone else told him. These two share a bigger connection than exists between Matty and Lisa - but is Lisa going to realize this in time?

I think the problem with the movie started in the writing stage - where Brooks was surprisingly too ambitious and too lazy at the same time. He wants to try and make a romantic comedy that brings in the current economic crisis, and also show the inequality of the sexes in portraying the difference in how male and female athletes are treated. And yet, having come up with what he wants to say, he figures out no real way to say any of it. The script is too lazy to really address the issues that it brings up - and as such there are far too many scenes that lay flat on the screen, that drag on for minute after agonizing minute after they should have ended. This isn’t the longest movie of the year, but it feels like it.

For the most part, the cast isn’t really the problem. Reese Witherspoon is not who I think of when I think of female softball player, but she is good enough here that I confidant that had she been given a decent script to work with, she would have pulled it off. Owen Wilson can do shallow and charming in his sleep, but to his credit, he doesn’t sleepwalk through this film - he actually tries very hard to make this all work, but it doesn’t come together. Paul Rudd can be a charming actor, but he’s better at being a second banana then he is at being the romantic lead - and his character is so underwritten, that it never really comes together. Worst of the major actors is surprisingly Nicholson who doesn’t seem to care at all. You really do get the impression that he is doing a favor for a friend in being in the movie at all, as he quite clearly doesn’t give a crap about his performance here. For one of the only times in his career, I can say with confidence that Nicholson is just plain boring in the film.

There are few directors who would even attempt to bring together the different aspects that this film attempts in a romantic comedy, so to a certain extent I want to praise James L. Brooks. But the truth is this is the laziest screenplay of the year. Had he scaled it down and just made a silly romantic comedy, he may have fared better. But he tries to get too much done, and as a result, he does nothing well in the film. Easily one of the worst of the year.

Moie Review: Alamar

Alamar ** ½
Directed by:
Pedro González-Rubio.
Written By: Pedro González-Rubio.
Starring: Jorge Machado, Natan Machado Palombini, Nestór Marín, Roberta Palombini.

Alamar is without a doubt one of the most beautiful films of the year. Almost the entire film takes place along the ocean in Mexico, where a local fisherman takes his son to work with him and his grandfather out into the deserted waters in the weeks leading up to when the boys mother takes him back to her home country of Italy following their divorce. The actors are essentially playing a version of themselves - this is certainly an echo of the neo-realist movement - yet it is the locations - the beautiful island hideaway where they live, the gorgeous, clear water they make their living on and in - that stands out the most.

Taken as a purely visual experience then, it must be said that Alamar is satisfying. Writer-director Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio simply sits back and observes the routines of these men on the water - the fishing, the cleaning, the selling, and the downtime that comes from life as a fisherman. These men are Mayan descendents, and they are part of a way of life that goes back countless generations, but is a way of life that modernism is slowly seeping in, and will eventually end it. This is personified by the relationship between father and son here - which is rather sweet and loving throughout. But for the first time in this family the generation after is not going to take over the family business as it were.

And yet, to me, Alamar, while being a very interesting film, is not quite successful. I’m not sure there is truly enough here to support a feature film - a short for sure, but even at only at 80 minutes long, Alamar feels stretched beyond its natural breaking point. As gorgeous as the film is, and as loving as the father-son relationship here is, it never really feels like this is a feature film with all that much to say.

I admire Alamar more than I actually liked it. I admired the beautiful photography but never really thought the movie really came together. If you admire neo-realist films, and want to know about fisherman in this area, than perhaps you will like the film more than I did. But the whole thing felt so slight to me that it never really felt like a necessary film to make.

Movie Review: True Grit

True Grit ****
Directed by:
Joel & Ethan Coen.
Written By: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen based on the novel by Charles Portis.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Dakin Matthews (Col. Stonehill), Jarlath Conroy (Undertaker), Paul Rae (Emmett Quincy), Domhnall Gleeson (Moon), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell), Ed Corbin (Bear Man), Leon Russom (Sheriff), Bruce Green (Harold Parmalee), Candyce Hinkle (Boarding House Landlady), Peter Leung (Mr. Lee), Don Pirl (Cole Younger).

If you ever want to truly know what difference directors make on their films, all you need to do is watch the two versions of True Grit. Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film, starring John Wayne, is a typical B movie western made in the days when the genre was dying. It was a classic good vs. evil tale, and most likely would largely have been forgotten by now had Wayne, who had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year, had not won his long awaited Best Actor Oscar for his performance for playing Rooster Cogburn, the one eyed US Marshall who gets hired by a spunky young girl to find the man who killed her father. The Coen brothers version, made 41 years later, tells the same story, and like the last film, takes much of its dialogue right from the great Charles Portis novel on which both films are based. But while I think the 1969 version is rather simplistic, this new film is steeped with subtext - and continues the Coens examination of morals in a world where there really are no good guys or bad guys. The critics, even those who have admired the film, who claim that this is Coen brothers light - a simple genre exercise, were not really paying attention. There is nothing simple about the Coens version of True Grit.

The plot of the movie involves the murder of a good man by an employee when the two are in town on business. Everyone knows that the murderer is Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin) - but no one really knew the victim, and Cheney has taken off in Indian country, and taken up with a brutal gang led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and no one wants to pursue him. That is until the victims 14 year old daughter, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) shows up in town. She’s the oldest child, and now with a dead father and simple minded mother, she will be in charge. But she wants vengeance for her father. She asks the Sheriff who the best Marshall to contact is. When she sees Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) in court - and hears first hand his shoot first ask questions never attitude, she knows she has found her man. He agrees to take on the job, and will eventually he joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBouef (Matt Damon) who has been tracking Cheney since he left Texas where he murdered a Texas State Senator. What neither realize is that Mattie intends to come along with them to catch Cheney - and she is not going to take no for an answer.

The casting in the movie is crucial for what the Coens want to do in this movie. Jeff Bridges is hardly the hero that John Wayne portrayed in the earlier movie. He plays Cogburn as a course, profane, drunken, violent man with no real morals. He was part of a violent group of Confederates during the Civil War, was a criminal in his past, and now that he is a US Marshall, he has found a legal way to continue to do what he likes - which is to kill people. Bridges plays him as a charming man - at times downright hilarious as he drunkenly mumbles his way through his performance. But there is depth here as well - as when he tries to ignore questions about his past - the bad part anyway - or as he comes to respect Mattie for her determination. For her part, Steinfeld, in her first major role, is a true revelation as Mattie. Kim Darby played the role in the original, and for my money was rather annoying and whiny. Steinfeld goes the opposite direction - making her a little more naïve and vulnerable underneath a tough exterior. This really is Mattie’s story, and she nails it. More underrated is the performance by Matt Damon - who we initially feel is an asshole, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that he really isn’t very confident, and is simply putting on a tough guy act. Brolin’s Cheney is kind of like Kurtz in Hearts of Darkness or Apocalypse Now where he is talked about for the entire film, but not seen until the end. However, unlike Kurtz, who is larger than life even when we eventually meet him, Brolin’s Cheney is a pathetic, slow witted man. Yes, he’s evil, but you almost feel sorry for the bastard - and Brolin is great in his few scenes. And like all of the Coens movies, they fill even the smallest supporting roles with great character acting - Barry Pepper, who really does seem to be channeling Robert Duvall who played the same role in the original, stands out the most - but lots of the small roles make an impression - especially Ed Corbin who plays a character appropriately named Bear Man.

As with all of the Coens films, the filmmaking here is impeccable. Roger Deakins cinematography could very well be the best of the year - this is a beautiful film, but one that also captures the cold, harsh landscapes, and drains the romanticism out of the genre. As they have done in films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Millers Crossing and Blood Simple - hell really all of their films - when the violence comes it is quick, brutal and bloody. This is not really a fun Western, but a brutal and violent one.

I think what makes the biggest difference between the two films - and really they are as different as two films with the same plot can be - is the ending. When Cogburn accepts Mattie, and admits that she also has “true grit”, it was a victory in the original film. But here, it really is Mattie’s tragedy. This is a film about the futility of revenge and a moral quagmire where the line between the good guys and the bad guys is so blurred that it is non-existent, but Mattie doesn’t seem to realize this. She ends up alone, just like Cogburn, with no self awareness about how they have wasted their lives. That is the major difference between the two films - and what makes the 1969 film a fun B-Western, and what makes the Coen brothers film a masterpiece,

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Year in Review: The 15 Best Posters of the Year

I love poster art. I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or a movie by its art, but I do anyway. A great poster will want to make me see a movie more, and a bad one will want to make me see it less. I want to make it clear however that not all of the movies whose posters I highlight here are actually good movies – at the point of this writing, I haven’t actually even seen all of them. But the art itself is great.

15. Tron: Legacy
I love the original Tron in all its cheesy 1980s glory. This poster though was the first image from the movie – and they have had a lot of posters out there – that I actually quite loved. It’s not just Olivia Wilde (I swear not all the poster on this list have a gorgeous woman in them, but quite a few do), but the whole package. The background, the grid pattern, the ring, which all play off the iconic images from the original film, but done in a way that lets you know this one is going to be different. Is it a little cheesy? Yes. But I love it anyway.

14. Machete
My wife was offended by this poster, and at my insistence that it stay on this list. But I can’t help it – I love it to pieces. Machete is a throwback to the exploitation films of the 1970s – pretty much all Robert Rodriguez seemingly knows how to do anymore – and they needed posters that reflected that. While I was largely unimpressed by most of the posters for this film, this one stands out – maybe it’s the nun costume, the HUGE gun that Lindsay is licking so sensually, but this poster works perfect for the movie it is selling. If you don’t like the poster, stay away from the movie.

13. The Wolf Man
I know it shouldn’t have, but this poster actually made me think that The Wolf Man may turn out to be a good movie (God good was it not a good movie). But I can’t hold that against the poster designer for this brilliantly constructed poster. I love how they keep the main attraction in the background, and focus on the gorgeous Emily Blunt in the foreground. It’s a daring choice that pays off. Now if only they put this much effort into the actual movie.

12. I Am Love
The image itself on this poster is lush and romantic – setting you right away to get ready to seeing an opulent, Italian epic in the vein of Luchino Visconti. But I think the writing takes it one step beyond into truly great territory – the letters block out the faces of everyone on the poster except for Tilda Swinton – she is the heart, the soul, the center of the poster and the film itself. It is simply a gorgeous poster.

11. Inside Job
It’s rare for a documentary to have a great poster – but I think that Inside Job truly does have a great one. The tag line – “The Film that Cost Over $20,000,000,000,000 to Produce” is perhaps the best of the year, but I also love the big pile of money in the foreground, and the man with his fingers crossed behind his back. Even using critic’s quotes, which I usually don’t like, works here because they are background, and adds to the marvelous clutter of it all. Doc posters are usually boring and straight forward – not this one.

10. True Grit
I liked the teaser poster as well – the giant wanted poster, but really, that was just a lot of words and rather obvious. The character banners – of which this is my favorite – were much better. Seriously, is there anything else you need to know about this movie after looking at this poster – it is about a one eyed man with a gun looking for retribution and punishment. Simple, yet brilliantly effective.

9. Megamind
This poster was actually used in the movie as well, and it was a stroke of genius. That Barack Obama poster “Yes We Can” has become so iconic and instantly recognizable, that it kind of has to be made fun of at this point – like the posters for In the Loop did last year. But this one is even better – with Megamind’s giant head, and evil glare staring directly at you it’s a great image. And of course, they picked the perfect tag line. I love it.

8. Greenberg
It didn’t surprise me when the DVD of Greenberg came out, and they replaced this stroke of genius poster with a smiling, happy Ben Stiller. I guess they want to draw in the rubes. But this poster truly is great – a perfect representation of the movie itself, where Stiller spends so much time obsessing about absolutely nothing. Normally, I find poster that are largely white boring, but this is that rare case where they made absolutely the right decision. Simple genius.

7. The American
I love the old posters from the 1950s and 1960s – especially old posters for Hitchcock films, of which I have quite a few decorating my walls (Vertigo, Spellbound, Rear Window). This poster for The American makes me think of those old posters – particularly I think because of the orange, which is a color you don’t see much anymore. On the surface, this looks like a regular poster for a thriller – you have the star, George Clooney, running with a gun in his hand, so you know what to expect. But I love the orange background with the close up of the woman’s face. This poster is definitely retro – and I absolutely love it.

6. Inception
I could have picked practically any poster from Inception, as they were all pretty much brilliant. And perhaps I only fixated on this one because I think Marion Cotillard is one of the most beautiful women in the world, with eyes that are absolutely transfixing and mysterious, which we get a good look at here. I love the detail work that fades into the background here – of all those buildings, which makes the poster fixation on Cotillard’s face pop even more. This film had brilliant art work, but this is the poster I fixated on the most.

5. Black Swan
The artwork for Black Swan has been all been fantastic – I could have easily included any of those gorgeous drawn posters on this list, but I decided to limit it to one poster per movie, and this one, is my favorite. It’s not just because Natalie Portman is one of the most beautiful women on the planet – of course that helps – but it’s the whole design. I love the feathers, I love Portman’s stance, her red arm and her mysterious, sexual look in her eyes. This is a poster that makes you wonder what the hell you’re in for when you see the movie – and that’s why it is so effective.

4. Blue Valentine
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that a movie that initally got an NC-17 rating for the prudes at the MPAA should have such a sexual poster. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are both extremely good looking people, and this image certainly sends an erotic charge through you when you see it. But it also seems like an intensely private moment between these two people – a moment that are not expecting to share with anyone else, and that I think is what makes it a great poster. Just eliminate the quote at the top which is unnecessary.

3. The Social Network
This is a fairly daring poster when you think about it – the name of the film is off to the side much smaller than the rest of the font, it focuses on a single person – Jessie Eisenberg, hardly a movie star by any means. And yet, has there been a poster that has instantly become more iconic this year than this one? It brilliantly sets up the movie, puts the focus on the words and Eisenberg more than anything else, and for some reason I can hardly explain, just works perfectly.

2. Buried
I have mentioned the old Alfred Hitchcock posters already in this write up, and this brilliant poster for Buried is the best homage to those poster I can think of. It is a dizzying poster, but one that works brilliantly, trapping the barely seen Ryan Reynolds in layer after layer so he cannot get out – just like the movie itself. It is a simple poster, but often those are the most effective – and that is certainly the case here.

1. Let Me In
Such a simple image – but one that is devastatingly effective on every level. An innocent looking young girl, curled up in the fetal position, looking sad. It is the most haunting image on any poster this year by far – one that once you see, you will never forget. They also picked the perfect color scheme for the poster – dark crimson to set off her white skin. The great tagline – “Innocence Dies. Abby Doesn’t” is also great, but it is truly the haunting image of Chloe Grace Mortez that makes this far and away my favorite poster of the year. Simple genius.

Year in Review: The 10 Worst Posters of 2010

As with everything else, there are bad movie posters just like there are good ones. These ones were my least favorite this year. Like with the best gallery, it shouldn’t be inferred that the movies themselves are bad – they all aren’t – but just that they needed a different poster designer.

10. Extraordinary Measures
Man, don’t Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford look grimly determined to do something. What, I have no idea, but don’t mess with them. They’ll kick your ass. Seriously, doesn’t this look like a cheapo poster thrown together for a made for TV movie. Horrid.

9. The Back Up Plan
Maybe it’s just because I don’t like Jennifer Lopez (seriously, she has a lot of talent, but I haven’t seen any of it on display since The Cell in 2000), but this poster just rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps its Lopez’s aren’t I lovable look (she isn’t), or the way she’s manhandling the poor guy from Hawaii Five O’s face, but this poster made me want to see the movie even less than I already did – which was about zero anyway.

8. Charlie St. Cloud
One of my pet peeves in posters is to have people staring off into space – they unknown oblivion that lays beyond the posters frame of reference. And that is precisely what Zach Efron is doing here – it isn’t his fault that he looks more than a little stunned here – they were obviously trying to make the movie seem deep and moving. It didn’t work. I can’t help by chuckle a little bit every time I see this poster.

7. The Company Men
What the hell are all these idiots looking at, and why do they all look so stunned? Poor Maria Bello comes off the worst, but Kevin Costner looks mentally challenged as well and Chris Cooper looks like he thinks this whole looking up thing is just plain stupid. Why are there people walking on a tight rope. Just a horrible poster from start to finish.

6. The Last Song
I’ve never claimed that Miley Cyrus is the sharpest woman in the world, but surely she is smarter than she appears in this poster. Seriously, she looks absolutely stunned in this poster as if someone had just pinched her ass or something – and what the hell is over to the side where she is looking? And is the guy in the movie made of fire, or why the hell would they put his head directly on top of the sun. Seriously people, get your act together.

5. The King’s Speech
It’s not often that a movie poster is so bad it inspires the director and the star of the film to take shots at it themselves – but this one drew the ire of Tom Hooper and Colin Firth. It’s easy to see why. Firth looks constipated, Bonham Carter has a strange look on her face as if perhaps she is still playing Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd and Geoffrey Rush looks like he is the mentally challenged guy who will teach them a valuable lesson about life. One of the more acclaimed films of the year deserves better.

4. The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Trader
You would think that with all the money they were spending on the movie, they wouldn’t release a poster that makes the film look like a low rent animated movie from the 1970s. The image of Aslan the Lion may have been overused in the posters for this series, but it is till effective. This one makes the movie look cheap and cheesy – and never should have seen the light of day.

3. I Want Your Money
I have not seen this movie, so I have no idea if it is as offensive as the poster is, but isn’t the drawing of Barack Obama just one step this side of an ad for a Minstrel show? With his big lips and huge teeth this ad is just plain offensive to me. Dislike the man all you want, I don’t care, but at least show some respect – and hell how about some originality – when making a poster to mock him.

2. Hereafter
Did the people who made this poster actually know what the movie is about. It’s about the afterlife, so why the hell does it make it look like an alien invasion movie, with all those wavy lines, and the dark body emerging for the behind. And why did they make Matt Damon look like a creepy serial killer, and couldn’t they have found a better picture of the gorgeous female lead, and not one where she looks so horribly awkward. For a big movie like this, you expect a better poster to come out.

1. Sex and the City 2
If I were Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall I would seriously be pissed off about this poster. Parker looks like a not very convincing transvestite in this picture, and while I would describe her as the best looking woman in the world, I have never been one of those who have ganged up and mocked her looks – this is just an absolutely horrible picture. As for Cattrall, it almost looks like she wasn’t available for the shoot, and they subbed in some not convincing stand-in – who they tried to make look younger and skinner. Seriously, Cattrall is not that waif thin – that’s part of her charm but she has been so heavily airbrushed here that the result is truly distracting. I suppose Davis and Nixon look okay – but sweet Jesus, what they hell did they do to the other two? Far and away the worst of the year.

Year in Review Update

It's that time of the year again - one where every critic in the world releases their top 10 list. Loyal readers will remember that I tend to go overboard on this - I certainly did last year - and this year will be no exception. There will be a ranked list of my favorite 30 films of the year, as well as lists for the Best Documentaries, Debut Films, Best performances in each Oscar category, worst films of the year and worst performances. It will be a week long event. But unfortunately it won't happen until late January.

You see, there are simply too many films that haven't opened in Toronto yet for me to do my list at this point. I will be seeing True Grit tonight, but after that we still have Barney's Version (which opens tomorrow), Somewhere, Blue Valentine (both on January 7th), Another Year, Biutiful (both apparently January 14th, although Biutiful maybe as late as the 28th), The Illusionist and The Way Back (both January 21st). That is quite simply too many potentially great films by great directors for me in all good conscience proclaim anything the best of the year at this point. I have next week off, and will spend much of it catching up with a bunch of smaller films that were released earlier this year that somehow slipped by as well - as well as heading to the theater to catch up on films like Tron: Legacy, How Do You Know, Little Fockers and Gulliver's Travels (those waiting for my Yogi Bear review will be sadly disappointed as you couldn't drag me to see that). Hopefully, I will be able to start the week of January 24th - but if Biutiful really doesn't open until the 28th, then it will be the week of January 31st. Sucks, I know. But it should be worth the wait.

I will however post my lists for the Best and Worst Movie Posters of 2010 late tonight, so check back tomorrow for those lists. For now, it's the best I can do.

Update: It now appears that Biutiful may not open until Feburary 11, 2011. If that is the case, I'm not sure what I'll do. On one hand, I feel I should see the film, with its acclaimed performance by Bardem before I make up my list. On the other, pushing it that far back is a ridicilous move by the studio, and reflects their lack of faith in the film. I still really want to see it, but at some point, I need to a draw line. Still, I will probably wait until I see the film - but this is really stretching it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Movie Review: The Fighter

The Fighter *** ½
Directed By:
David O. Russell.
Written By: Scott Silver & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson.
Starring: Mark Wahlberg (Mickey Ward), Christian Bale (Dicky Eklund), Amy Adams (Charlene Fleming), Melissa Leo (Alice Ward), Mickey O'Keefe (Himself), Jack McGee (George Ward), Melissa McMeekin ('Little Alice' Eklund), Bianca Hunter (Cathy 'Pork' Eklund), Erica McDermott (Cindy 'Tar' Ecklund), Jill Quigg (Donna Eklund Jaynes), Dendrie Taylor (Gail 'Red Dog' Eckland), Kate B. O'Brien (Phyllis 'Beaver' Eklund), Jenna Lamia (Sherri Ward), Frank Renzulli (Sal Lanano), Paul Campbell (Gary 'Boo Boo' Giuffrida).

I’m a sucker for a good sports melodrama – and The Fighter is a great one. It tells the story of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts who gets one final shot at the big time – and makes good. Yet strangely, Mickey is the quietest character in the movie – the calm center if you will. He is surrounded by such colorful characters though, that it is good that Mickey is so grounded. There is only so much craziness one movie can handle – and The Fighter has just enough.

Mickey is the younger brother of Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) who once fought Sugar Ray Leonard – and brags that he knocked him down (although, it does kind of look like Sugar Ray tripped). That was in 1978 though, and now it’s 1993 and Dicky has fallen into crack addiction. HBO is following him around making a movie, and he tells everyone it’s about his “comeback” – but it’s not. It’s about his fall into drug addiction – a promising boxer who screwed himself. But he still trains Mickey – when he can remember to show up at the gym that is.

Dicky would seem to be enough for one family to handle – but poor Mickey has more. His mother Alice (Melissa Leo) is his manager, although she seems to care much more about Dicky and his problems than with helping Mickey and his career. To her, Dicky is an innocent victim – even when she watches the movie on HBO and hears him talking about his drug use, she wonders aloud if the camera crew set him up to look bad. There are also seven very loud, very angry sisters who almost seem to meld into one screaming banshee at times. It’s no wonder Mickey is so quiet – he never gets a chance to speak, and is always trying to keep the peace.

The Fighter ticks off the sports movie clichés one by one. A fighter who is getting one final chance at the big time. Check. Meeting a beautiful, supportive woman – Charlene (Amy Adams). Check. An injury that seems to end all hope (Mickey comes to the aid of Dicky who is being arrested and gets his hand broken in the process). Check. The Fighter has them all and more. Yet what’s strange is how organic the film feels, how natural. Yes, these are clichés, but they are also true and in the hands of director David O. Russell, who gives the film an intimate feel, captures the working class Lowell perfectly, and stages some of the most brutal fight scenes in recent memory, it feels true.

He is aided greatly by his cast – one of the best ensembles of the year. Mark Wahlberg has a rather thankless role – he has to remain grounded and quiet, because if he started screaming than the movie runs the risk of descending into chaos. But he keeps the movie grounded in his reality – and it’s a fine performance. Christian Bale gives one of his best performances ever as Dicky. Yes, it’s a great role – actors love to play drug addicts, and Bale is gifted at hitting all the notes we expect to see from a guy playing a drug addict, but it’s more than that. Dicky is a larger than life, gregarious person – someone who you cannot help but like, even as you watch him destroy himself. It is sometimes easy to forget just how good an actor Bale can be when he plays Batman (which he does perfectly, but he is not a very complex guy), but watching The Fighter I was reminded of that skill Bale has shown in movies like American Psycho, The Machinist and Rescue Dawn. This truly is one of the best performances of the year. Not to be outdone, Melissa Leo grabs hold of her white trash role as their mother, and doesn’t let go. With the big hair, a cigarette constantly dangling from her mouth, and that accent, it would have been easy for the role to descend into cliché territory – but like Bale, she finds the core of the character and delivers a performance of a woman who is both selfish and loving – she values family above all, yet seems to be willing to sell out Mickey for Dicky. Even better than Leo is Amy Adams – that adorable actress we all fell in love with in June bug and Enchanted, and played innocent so wonderfully in Doubt. I think Adams may have taken this role simply because it is so different than everything she is known for – in a movie that drops the F bomb seemingly every 15 seconds or so, I think Adams swears more than anyone else in the film. Like Bale and Leo, her role as the supportive girlfriend could easily have been a cliché – but Adams makes Charlene into a three dimensional character – I love the way she doesn’t back down from Leo or Mickey’s sisters when they insult her, and her profanity fueled tirade at Dicky is one of the best moments of the year.

So yes, The Fighter is a clichéd sports melodrama. It is very much like Rocky, with a lot more swearing. Yet the direction by Russell and the performances of the cast elevate the movie beyond where most movies of its sort go – and makes The Fighter one of the great entertainments of the year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Movie Review: Everyone Else

Everyone Else ****
Directed by:
Maren Ade.
Written By: Maren Ade.
Starring: Birgit Minichmayr (Gitti), Lars Eidinger (Chris), Hans-Jochen Wagner (Hans), Nicole Marischka (Sana).

Everyone Else is at times a painful film to watch. It is film about a relationship between two young people that has come to an impasse. There are very few movies that detail this time in a couple relationship – the honeymoon period where simply being with each other was good enough is over, but they have yet to figure out if they are really going to be together long term. They have trouble communicating with each other – both holding back too many secrets from the other one. At the end of the film, you cannot tell if it’s a happy or sad ending – because it’s not really an ending at all.

Chris (Lars Eidinger) is a young architect who is struggling to find work. He is ambitious, and has a lot of big ideas, but is too idealistic. He refuses to compromise on anything, and as such, the people who hire architects – who want some input into what they are paying for – are often looking elsewhere. He remains lost in his own head – reading constantly and talking a big game that is leading nowhere. On the other hand Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) is a somewhat flighty, impulsive publicist for a bunch of bands no one has ever heard of. She is more impulsive than Chris, and often cannot stop herself from rambling on and on – even though it embarrasses Chris. This German couple is vacationing in Sardinia, staying in the home of Chris’ wealthy parents, although they spend much time insulting their bourgeois surroundings.

The two, it seems, have a real problem with communication. Chris cannot bring himself to say “I love you” to Gitti – instead answering her words with only a kiss. He also cannot admit to her when he loses out on yet another contract bid, because his design was too complex. This doesn’t come out until a dinner with two “friends” of Chris’ from Germany – Hans, a former classmate of Chris’, who is doing well financially, and his wife Sana. These two seem to be a mirror of Chris and Gitti – and yet they are happy, and successful in their jobs and with each other, and are about to welcome their first baby. The tension at this dinner – and one later in the movie – is palpable, because it’s clear that Chris hates Hans, and yet yearns for his approval. He even gets mad at Gitti for defending him when Hans goes on a patronizing spiel about his career. This two scenes are the real heart of the film – they show the future of what Chris and Gitti could become if they choose to – and they don’t much like it.

There comes a time in everyone’s lives when a decision has to be made. At certain times, you have to compromise your ideals in order to get the job done. Chris seems unwilling to do this – he has his vision, and even if no one else out there agrees with him, he will stick by it to the bitter end. And this is the attitude he takes with Gitti as well – he knows what he wants in a girlfriend, and will not compromise his ideals for her. Gitti tries so hard to make Chris happy – but is reaching a point where she wonders if she ever will be able to – and whether she still wants to even try. She has her own issues – torn between wanted to be comfortable, and becoming too bourgeois, she fights hopelessly with herself about a dress she bought, and yet is embarrassed when Chris insults his mother’s love of knickknacks.

Everyone Else is not an easy film to watch. It really does lay these two people bare in front of us in way that brought to mind Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, about the years in the life of a couple who is married than divorced but are constantly drawn back to each other. This movie has that same sense of honesty – the same unblinking gaze and willingness to follow these two people further down in the mess they have created. It is an uncomfortable film to say the least. Yet writer director Maren Ade, with a great assist from her two great actors, has done something truly great in the film. Whether we want to admit it or not, at one point we were all Chris and Gitti.