December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes (12/30/2009)

Lettergrade: B+

I don't know much about the Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes books, honestly, but the early ads for Guy Ritchie's big budget Sherlock Holmes movie seemed to be pretty antithetical to them. Isn't Holmes supposed to be a stuffy know-it-all who wears stupid looking hats and hides a cocaine addiction? Casting Robert Downey Jr. as the guy seems appropriate as far as the coke head and self-absorbed asshole stuff goes, but what about all the shots in the trailer where Holmes is a super sexed-up, shirtless, kick-boxin' action hero who can outrun exploding fireballs and cause all sorts of mayhem and destruction? Was there anything like that in the original books? I don't have an answer to these questions... I'm just wondering.

Whatever the case, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed the Holmes movie regardless of how faithful or unfaithful it might be to the source material. This is another strange case where the advertising makes the movie look a lot less appealing than it really is. Although there's certainly a lot of action stuff in there (most of which is actually pretty solid), there's also a good mystery plot, some clever sleuthing, and a great deal of wonderful byplay between Holmes and Jude Law's Dr. Watson, who almost steals the movie as the calm, stable center in Holmes' world of constant chaos.

The movie revolves around a crime plot, of course, but the details of it are weirdly hazy to me. The snooze-inducing Mark Strong plays the villainous Lord Blackwood, who belongs to some kind of cult that has the ambition of taking over England's government so they can reclaim the British Empire, etc, etc... conquer the world... yadda yadda. Blackstool appears to be a dark sorcerer of sorts and may have even risen from the grave after he was publicly executed, causing the London public to shit its collective pants in fear.

I felt weird about the fact that so much of movie deals with a highly supernatural element, which I also believe to be sort of anti-Holmes (unless, of course, we're talking about Barry Levinson's 1985 picture Young Sherlock Holmes, one of the forerunners of Harry Potter). Of course, this new movie's silly cult business has a resolution that I won't talk about here, but I will say that it seemed out of place for a good deal of the picture. I had always thought that Holmes was supposed to be based more in shit that was sort of plausible.

In classic Holmes tradition, there are scenes-a-plenty where Sherlock does explain many of the film's mysteries using his quirky OCD observations and a heavy dose of pseudo science. The film is miles above those shitty Da Vinci Code movies where they would have Tom Hanks rattle through a puzzle so quickly that you barely had time to understand whatever the fuck it was he just said before you the conclusion is reached. Holmes actually chews on the scenarios for a bit before deducing anything, which is a breath of fresh air indeed (despite the fact that it all builds up to a lengthy "Scooby Doo" scene toward the end where Holmes lays out things that he could have easily told us way earlier). Also, the Tower Bridge gets such an important introduction early that one of the characters might as well look into the camera and tell you that it will figure prominently into the film's climax up front.

Although there are clear influences from Harry Potter as well as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, the producers really made use of the Batman Begins template more than anything else here. They even set up the villain for the next movie (Holmes' arch nemesis Moriarity) toward the end of this one, much in the spirit of how Lt. Gordon whips out the Joker card at the end of Begins, paving the way for Health Ledger to assume the part three years later in The Dark Knight. Similarly, Ritchie leaves Moriarity shrouded in shadows in this one so they can cast whomever they want as the odious super villain whenever the next one rolls around. I don't want to give away any secrets, but I'm betting it will be Andy Dick.

All in all, it may piss off some Holmes purists, but it is a highly engaging movie in its own right and one of the better ones I've seen in a while. At 130 minutes, I'd argue that they maybe should have lost 20 or so (which seems to be my comment about every movie these days!), but so much was well done that it's hard to criticize it for overstaying its welcome a little.

December 25, 2009

It's Complicated (12/25/09)

Lettergrade: B-

This isn't the kind of movie I'd normally go see (I couldn't talk my wife into Avatar or Sherlock Holmes), but it's actually not bad. It certainly is a weird one, though. It's an uncomfortable Midsummer Night's Dream / Blame It On Rio style sex farce involving two 60 somethings, Meryl Streep and Steve Martin, as well the 50 year old Alec Baldwin, who plays Streep's ex-husband / future lover as a psychotic mixture of his Jack Donaghy character crossed with an unnerving serial rapist.

While it feels like Steep and Martin are slumming a bit in this one, Baldwin, having long been identified with stage and film work until he began on 30 Rock in 2004, curiously feels like a TV actor giving a big, broad TV performance, laced with shameless Jay Leno style audience pandering. Nevertheless, the movie is surprisingly sensitive in places where you might not expect it to be, and although I wince a little at seeing a respected actress like Streep behaving like a boy-crazy school girl, it's hard to deny that the picture as a whole works.

Streep and Baldwin live a lavish, obscenely wealthy fairytale life in Santa Barbara, sharing custody of the children, the youngest of whom is getting ready to go off to college (or go from college to grad school or something - hell, I can't even remember what genders the kids are). The impending graduation causes Streep and Baldwin to spend more time together for the sake of the kids. That, when added to the pressure on Baldwin to have another child, as imposed by his freakishly manish 2nd wife (Lake Bell, soon to be seen in HBO's How To Make It In America), leads him to realize that he never stopped loving his first wife, and that it's completely appropriate to now hound and stalk her until she agrees to start sleeping with him again.

Now around this same time, Streep, who owns and operates a local bakery, decides that her amazing, unbelievable dream kitchen just isn't up to her standards, so she enlists a shy architect, played by the heavily be-cosmetic-surgery'd Martin, to design an even more ridiculously grandiose, cathedral-like one for her that's so goddamn big that they need to break ground on a new wing of her mansion in order to accommodate the fucker. Long story short... will she wind up with the terrifying, super-aggressive, crazy, adultering asshole who hurt her so deeply so many years ago, or will she finally forge a relationship with the thoughtful intellectual who understands and appreciates her? You'll have to sit through the movie's 2 hour, 15 minute running time to find out!

If the picture has some faults, they're all there in those last few sentences. The film's running time is painfully self-indulgent, particularly when you consider that this is a fantasy with only one clear outcome. Of course, the same is often true of most romantic farces, but the point is that the this picture could have easily lost 20 minutes or so of its total length and been much richer for effort. I firmly believe that the pleasure of watching a movie isn't so much in knowing what's going to happen, but in watching something that feels plausible and credible unfold, and really believing it. Again, this picture is largely able to pull this off (although the reactions of some of the children late in the movie felt a little bullshitty to me). There's a difference, though, between drawing something out for dramatic effect, and leaving the audience somewhat at sea, wondering when things will wrap up so they can go home or do something else. This movie skews toward the latter, of course, which is a real shame when you consider that there's very little to find fault with otherwise.

It's another movie from writer / director Nancy Meyers, who along with Something's Gotta Give has turned this kind of thing into a new sub-genre as well as her speciality. In spite of my tounge-in-cheek complaining about the fact that this is a movie about the romantic troubles of the repugnantly wealthy leisure class, I must say that in an age where movie stars seem to be getting younger and younger, it's nice to see a well-made picture about adults. That sort of thing only happens occasionally, and usually, for some reason, Jack Nicholson has to be involved: Something's Gotta Give, As Good As It Gets, About Schmidt, The Bucket List and even Terms Of Endearment, which was produced in 1983, back when Nicholson was only in his 70s. So to revise my statement, it's nice to see an adult movie about adults with adult problems, none of whom are Jack Nicholson.

Not being a 60 year old divorced woman (at least, not yet), I can't say that I fully understand what it might be like to be in Streep's shoes on this one. This picture probably wasn't green-lit with the 31 year old male demographic in mind. Nevertheless, the picture does get you to feel a great deal for the people involved and in a year where movies like Transformers 2 exhibit behavior that doesn't even get close to human behavior as I know it, it is something to be thankful for indeed.

December 24, 2009

A Single Man (12/24/09)

Lettergrade: C

A Single Man shows us a few days in the life of a 1960s lit professor played by Colin Firth who is coping with the recent death of his longtime boyfriend. It's the directorial debut of Tom Ford, who recently completed a wildly successful stint as the creative director of Gucci and is largely credited with saving the company. I mention this up front because although the film has no shortage of stellar acting, it suffers from being a little too stylized for its own good at the same time. For me that extends to several aspects of the movie... the bludgeoning score (which mysteriously got nominated for a Golden Globe!), the heavy sets and photography, and the long, brooding passages where people sulk and stare off at nothing. The picture is effective at what it sets out to do, I suppose, but it is deeply rooted in something of an old fashioned art house idiom that almost feels like a clichéd parody of what Awards movies are supposed to be these days.

One of the more talked about techniques in the film (at least among my film friends) is that the color will go from warm to cool and back again within a single shot whenever a character's mood changes. It's interesting, to be sure, but not much more subtle than having the actor look directly into the lens and tell the audience he's feeling sad now.

But gripes aside, Colin Firth really does do a stellar job and is very much deserving of all the acclaim he has been getting for the role. Julianne Moore chewed the scenery a bit as Firth's long-time friend Charley, whom he once boinked before coming to terms with his own sexuality. I don't know anything about Christopher Isherwood's novel, or what it might have been like to be a gay man living in that time period, but something about her callous lack of understanding about how real her friend's love is and how deeply he's hurting just doesn't have the ring of truth to me.

Other supporting characters include Jon Kortajarena as a sultry latin character whom Firth meets in a liquor store, and Nicholas Hoult as one of Firth's students who holds an aggressive yet apprehensive attraction toward his teacher. Hoult is seriously channeling Jack McBrayer's "Kenneth The Page" character from NBC's 30 Rock in this film, a problem that's only augmented by the fact that his character is also named "Kenny." Shockingly uncredited, though is Drew Carey, who selflessly lent his horned rim glasses to Firth for the duration of the shoot, doubtlessly delaying Price Is Right tapings for weeks on end.

Ford reportedly put a good amount of his own money up in order to get the movie made, both because it is subject material that he identifies with, being gay, but also because he wanted a career as a film director. His gamble certainly paid off: He's got a good deal of acclaim now, and will assuredly get a second movie from this -- one that we won't have to bankroll himself. It feels like we're in an age where people rarely put their money where their mouth is when it comes to making a film they'd like to see. I respect that Ford dipped into his considerable savings to make this picture, but I still wish he had made one that felt a little less stodgy.

December 22, 2009


Ah 2009... While we still saw a good number of movies in the theater (35 or so, with a handful more on DVD), it was a lot fewer than we had in previous years.

2008 had a slew of wonderful pictures, both summer popcorn fare and those of the dramatic, award winnin' variety (plus exceptional entires like The Dark Knight which managed to be both). So plentiful were the great movies that the Academy Awards made the infuriating decision to expand the number of Best Picture nominees this year from five to ten, only to be met by the cruel irony of 2009's films being on the whole decent, but without nearly the same caliber of highlights. What the hell are they going to do now? Nominate Star Trek for Best Picture?

In any case, however, of what I saw, here's what I liked and what I didn't:


In the first 20 minutes or so, I was concerned that we were in for another horny teenager movie, but I was really surprised by how good it got as it went on. Excellent writing and directing that is as personal and as soulful as it is funny. Everyone involved gives great performances... Jessie Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Margarita Levieva (Lisa P), and Ryan Reynolds in a revelatory performance. Expert work all around. My list isn't alphabetical: I've put it at the top for a reason.

The Hangover
My theater experience with this one was so good that I'm hesitant to watch it again on DVD. I usually don't like movies (or life situations) where people are really f'ed up on booze or drugs and acting crazy, but this one was so insane and bizarre that I had to love it. A star making role for Zach Galifianakis... let's hope he learns a lesson from the sad stories of Seth Rogen and Jack Black and doesn't wear out his welcome fast via a mindless stream of lazy follow-ups.

A Serious Man
I have no idea what the hell this movie is about, but I really enjoyed it. My buddy Mike, more familiar with the Bible than I, argues that it's a retelling of the book of Job. Whether that's true or not, it's still a good movie.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
I had not liked a Wes Anderson movie since The Royal Tenebaums, and was really surprised by how much I loved this unique, imaginative stop motion romp based on the Roald Dahl short story. The most interesting thing to me is that the picture emulates Anderson's style perfectly without punching me in the face with its smugness and self-importance (I'm looking at you, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited!).

Inglourious Basterds
There are a lot of things I admire about this movie, in particular the cultural sensitivity and the unbearable tension in certain scenes. Nevertheless, something about it didn't entirely do it for me. It certainly felt a little bloated, and the dialogue, while always interesting with Tarantino, struck me as even more self-indulgent than usual. The violence was gruesome too (the scalpings in particular made me squirm), but all in all it's an excellent picture that leaves a hell of an impression.

Capitalism: A Love Story
I'm usually a sucker for Michael Moore and the various causes he advocates, but his arguments have gotten increasingly shaky and his recommendations for fixing the problems he addresses even more slim. Regardless of that, it is powerful filmmaking that still manages to make me laugh, cry, and think like no other films do.

The Princess And The Frog
It's formulaic to a fault, but what a wonderful pleasure to see a high-quality traditionally animated picture in theaters again. I love 1920s New Orleans jazz and believe Randy Newman to be one of America's best living lyricists and composers, which probably buttered me up considerably too.

I probably like this one more than I should as well. Not as culturally resonant as Office Space or as brilliant as the first half of Idiocracy, but a funny movie with the same wry observations that Mike Judge always brings to the table.

500 Days Of Summer
A sassier, very modern take on the When Harry Met Sally formula, but geared toward any guy who's ever liked a girl more than she likes him (which characterizes most of my teens and 20s). I felt the style of the movie really got in the way of the storytelling at times. As the movie skips around in time, it's quite easy to get lost thinking about what has and hasn't happened yet, but the whole thing was interesting and soulful enough not set off my date movie gag reflex.

Julie & Julia
My wife really loved this one (in part, perhaps, because of her own love of cooking and her recipe blog). Although "love" is a strong word for me, I was surprised by how deeply I connected to it as well. I liked Julia Child's story because, well, it was interesting and well acted. I liked Julie Powell's story because I know all too well what it's like to be in your early 30s, feeling creatively undernourished and that your friends have passed you by. A rare exception to my Nora Ephron embargo.

Marley & Me
A manipulative dog movie in which the dog meets the same fate that befalls the dog in pretty much every other dog movie, resulting in buckets of tears, no matter how unmerited. Against all odds and known logic, the dog story actually takes a back seat to an unexpectedly good performance by Owen Wilson as he goes through life and develops a career and family. From the director of The Devil Wears Prada. He doesn't make the kind of movies that I would normally go to see, but I have seen them both and must admit that he knows how to make good ones.

Sunshine Cleaning
Many signs of a troubled production: Choppy, weird editing. Certain subplots disappear mid-way through the movie and are never heard from again. Nevertheless, I love Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and the rest of the cast, and the movie had enough heart to stick in my mind for the rest of the year.

Up In The Air
I was harder on this one in my review than I probably should have been. My main beef with it is that it's a good movie that many people are mistaking for a great one, but that's certainly not the movie's fault.

THE AVERAGE (ranging from slightly above to slightly below)

Where The Wild Things Are
A movie I admired, but did not especially enjoy.

Star Trek
I liked this when I first saw it, but it doesn't hold up on video or when you... oh, I don't know... think about the plot for more than a few seconds. It relies on some biiiiiiiiig goddamn coincidences and events like the evil Romulans sitting around doing nothing in space for nearly 25 years in order for the story to stick together. It's a better Trek movie than we've had in a long, long time, but it bothered me that tonally it's much closer to Star Wars than the series has been before.

I've gotten a lot of flack for not loving this one, but I'll still maintain it feels like the folks at Pixar had a lot of unrelated ideas sitting around and decided to find a single movie to park them all in. Dogs with collars that make them talk? Why the f**k not! Coming after 2008's Wall•E and 2007's Ratatouille (which ties with Toy Story 2 as the best Pixar movie in my book), I just expected a lot more, and certainly a lot less shameful pandering to kids. My gripe might be similar to that of the similarly titled Up In The Air - it's not that it's bad, it's just insanely over rated in a way that makes me grumble.

Away We Go
I never got around to writing a review about this one. I thought the scenes between expectant parents Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski were realistic and endearing, but the highly episodic story structure kept having them interact with more and more ridiculous caricatures as the film went on, the most artificial and irritating of which was Maggie Gyllenhaal as some kind of new age earth mother. I have a major axe to grind against director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), whom I'm sure thinks of himself as an Artist with a capital 'A.' I usually find his movies to be beautifully designed and photographed, but condescending, pretentious and devoid of anything I would describe as recognizable human behavior. A healthy percentage of this movie actually works a little, which for him is a monumental achievement.

Origin story in which we meet Wolverine's even white-trashier brother played by Liev Schreiber. There are many reasons why this movie should be declared awful and skipped without a second thought. I will say, however, that Hugh Jackman is great in his signature role and the X-Men world is intriguing enough to help me get past how insanely stupid everything else about the movie is.

Angels & Demons
Exciting. Pretty photography and good editing. Certainly better than The Da Vinci Code. Still, though, it's kinda mechanical and by-the-numbers. This and Da Vinci are the only movies I can think of where Tom Hanks seems to be miscast and puts in a kinda sucky performance.

A cut down and repackaging of BBC's Planet Earth series with new, blood-thirsy narration by James Earl Jones (replacing the series' Richard Attenborough). It was nice to see something like this in a theater, but it's not especially noteworthy otherwise.

Whatever Works
My love of Larry David has me holding this in higher esteem than I probably should. David plays a weird amalgam of himself, Woody Allen (who wrote and directed), and Zero Mostel, for whom Allen originally wrote the script in the 70s. If Allen really had the script sitting around that long, it's a shame he didn't put much effort into making it more coherent.

The Men Who Stare At Goats
I almost put this one in the next category. A highly uneven movie with some actors that I really like. Otherwise, I think you can skip it unless it happens to be playing during an airplane flight.

THE UGLY (I'll list the worst first)

Holy shit. 3 hours of solid agony and pain culminating in even more confusing, tedious blandness. The most memorable part of the movie was seeing Billy Crudup's blue, radioactive junk, and I don't mean that in a good way.

Year One
A comedy with zero laughs. I've been debating if this is worse than Watchmen, and I still don't know. It's an hour shorter, yes, but it feels just as long. I'm leaning toward this because when you consider the talented cast and the fact that it's Harold Ramis (director of Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation and Groundhog Day), you realize that there's more tragedy in a guy like that making something like this than if the asshole who made Dude Where's My Car? had done it.

Observe & Report
We went to a test screening of Brüno which filled up before we could get seats. Our consolation prize was a free ticket to Observe & Report, which, although we did not know it at the time, added significant insult to the injury. It's an unbearable movie about a mentally deranged mall cop on heavy medication. During the film I realized that whatever it was about Seth Rogen that made me laugh once is dead and gone. Christ, is it messed up, painful and torturous. We never did see Brüno, though, so maybe they did us a favor.

Funny People
I just saw this on DVD and it really rubbed me the wrong way. Feels like two or three movies smashed together, and is packed with nothing but loathsome, unlikable characters. Adam Sandler is playing Rodney Dangerfield or something, and doesn't seem to realize that the shitty movies his character has been appearing in for the last several years aren't all that different than the garbage he himself has been sleep walking through since 2000 or so. I think there's a problem with making a movie about people who are trying really hard to make you laugh. If you have a sense of how much effort they're putting in, you don't, which I didn't. And I didn't buy it as a drama either. I caught part of The 40 Year Old Virgin on TV last night. Apatow was so much better when he didn't fancy himself in the same league as Cameron Crowe or Paul Thomas Anderson (the latter of which supervised an uncredited recut of the move, which is probably part of the reason that I found it to be so goddamn drawn out and bad). Get your head out of your ass, Judd!

Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen
I stand by every word of my original review. I again want to emphasize, though, that the movie is every bit as head-ache inducing and nauseating as I knew it would be going in. It's hard to be too angry when I knew I was getting into.

Land Of The Lost
Shitty. Really shitty. The movie is simultaneously aimed at children (dinosaurs, little people in alien suits, etc), teenagers (action scenes, drug and sex jokes, Danny McBride), and 40 somethings who might have fond memories of the 1960s TV show. I can't imagine that any of those groups would like the end result, and I certainly don't either.

Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince
The books get better as they go along, but the films have steadily gotten worse. Such a curiosity is David Yates. He handles some aspects of the books better than any of the other directors have, but mangles others needlessly. His two Potter films are so goddamn dour and joyless, almost mechanical. Someone needs to remind him that this is still a fantasy story about teenage wizards, intended for children. It's not J.R.R. Tolkien, damn it, and it shouldn't be treated that way!

Black Dynamite
A great trailer for a movie that overstays its welcome by at least an hour (and it's only 90 minutes or so). It did confirm for me that Michael Jai White is an amazingly charismatic actor with some mean comedic chops, though.

Monsters Vs. Aliens
Dull and unimaginative. What kid is going to get the references to all these crappy 50s monster movies? What parent isn't going to think about hiring someone else to take their children to movies from now on?

Taking Woodstock
I like Ang Lee movies, and I like Demitri Martin. I found this lengthy, meandering movie to be pretty excruciating, however, and nearly unwatchable. Maybe if I had a background that included a lot of drugs and/or any particular affection for this era of music I'd feel differently. Also, this movie spoke to my extreme hatred of big crowds and long lines, neither of which existed at theaters where this sucker was playing.

The Informant!
I hated every second of this movie. I hate what it's about, how it's told, the quality of the photography, the chipper musical score by Marvin Hamlisch... everything. I liked Steven Soderbergh until he sold out as upsettingly as any gifted filmmaker can and started making unwatchable, tension-free studio shit-buffets that all had the word Ocean's in the title. This movie was the last straw. Not only will I skip any movie with his unholy name on it in the future, but I will avoid re watching his pre-2001 output that I used to like. Thanks a lot, Steven Soderbergh. Thanks for all the pain and the suffering for the whole decade, you asshole.
So, that's it! My list is, as always, incomplete. I haven't gotten around to seeing Avatar or Crazy Heart or Terminator: Salvation or Saw VI, all of which I'm sure are destined for multiple Academy Award nominations. On to 2010!

December 12, 2009

The Princess And The Frog (12/12/2009)

Lettergrade: B+

It's formulaic to a fault, but what a wonderful pleasure to see a high-quality traditionally animated picture in theaters again. I love 1920s New Orleans jazz and believe Randy Newman to be one of America's best living lyricists and composers, which probably buttered me up considerably too.

December 6, 2009

Up In The Air (12/06/2009)

Lettergrade: C

Up In The Air is a good movie, but a lot of critics are placing it atop their "Best of '09" lists, proclaiming it to be a film for the ages, and with that kind of praise I take some big exceptions. I hate to be the fun-buster here, but while it is a movie with no shortage of excellent actors and performances, the general storyline ultimately struck me as a little tired, and sort of emotionally "untrue" by the end. Again, I hate to bag on a picture that's generally pretty good and largely worth seeing, but I think that this one of those instances where a better-than-average movie is a victim of waaaay too much acclaim.

Let me tell you what I'm talking about: George Clooney works for a Nebraska based company that flies him around the country firing people who work for other companies when their bosses are too chicken-shit to do it themselves. He's on the road, living in hotels and airports, for all but a few days a year and that's just the way he likes it, as indicated by a series of witty voice-over montages. Anna Kendrick is a young upstart at Clooney's company who convinces the boss that firing people via Skype would be much more cost-effective than flying people like Clooney around all the time, which as you might imagine royally wanks Clooney's crank. The boss, played by Jason Bateman in full-on douche mode, asks the begrudging Clooney to take the new youngling on the road for a few months and show her the ropes (um... even though that won't happen anymore once they switch to her new plan?). In doing so, Bateman creates an unlikely comedic pairing in the grand tradition of Oscar and Felix and Tango and Cash, only without much of the comedy. Quickly, Kendrick learns that Clooney's job is highly personal and unpleasant - not nearly as much fun as when Donald Trump does it or when J. Jonah Jamieson repeatedly fires Peter Parker in the Spider-Man movies.

Mixed up in all the flying and firing is, of course, a chick, here played by Vera Farmiga. Formica is a fellow traveller whom Clooney picks up in an airport bar and begins a quasi romance that largely consists of brief liaisons whenever they happen to be in the same region. Is this the kind of love and companionship that Clooney has set up his whole life in order to avoid? Well... the movie has its pick of two standard plays on that front, and I can't say the one it chose was terribly surprising or even all that interesting. For that matter, I think you can say the same thing about what ultimately happens in the Anna Kendrick storyline too. Isn't it strange that this is a movie with such wonderfully handled personal moments but hardly any true surprises?

But back to the fact that Clooney's job consists of him firing people, which is my major beef with the movie. In the novel the film is based on, apparently, his character has a different job altogether. The "corporate downsize specialist" thing was an invention for the film, clearly because unemployment is so widespread these days, but also because of the fact that such a business is an industry at all is horrifying. Nevertheless, I don't think the movie actually does anything with Clooney's job other than attempt to wring a lot of cheap sympathy out of it. There are countless scenes of people being let go (sometimes they even come in the form of bizarre celebrity cameos like J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis!), and then later in the movie, there are several ham-fisted testimonies from real-life actual people who have been really, really fired recently!

Now... I've certainly been fired once or twice in my life, and while it does unquestionably suck, I will maintain that that aspect of Clooney's character has zilch to do with Clooney's problem... that he's constructed a nomadic life for himself that has left him without any real friendships or attachements. His job is a plot device to keep him on the road and cut off from anything permanent. It could be anything: He could be a regional office manager, he could be an insurance claims adjuster, he could even have the same job he had in Michael Clayton two years ago.

The thing that bothers me about the occupation they chose is again how they exploit the hell out of it. Director / co-writer Jason Reitman seems to be counting on the audience to be so distracted by the power and timeliness of how the movie deals with this devastating occurrence that they do not realize it is not germane to the rest of the movie at all. You could, perhaps, argue that because Clooney has to wall himself up in order to tell people they've lost their jobs, his chosen profession helps illustrate his desolate character, but I don't buy it. It's a bit unclear how we're supposed to feel about him or what he's doing. And I don't mean "good" unclear. He is played by George Clooney after-all, meaning that he comes off as charismatic and likable whether he's intended to be that way or not.

I watched At The Movies after seeing the flick, and frankly I was surprised that Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott kept referring to it as a romantic comedy. I think of it more as a drama punctuated with a little romance and a handful of good comedic moments. Maybe Paramount wants it described that way so people will not avoid it based on the subject material? Nevertheless, the classification kinda fits in a vague way, and sort of explains why several of the movie's characters fall into weird caricatures. Anna Kendrick's character is directly from the Tracy Flick mold, and contains shades of every buttoned up corporate attorney character from every movie made in the last 25 years, particularly the poor saps in Erin Brockovich who were there only to have Julia Roberts sass them. There's even the late-in-the-picture letter of recommendation ala The Devil Wears Prada which doesn't feel earned at all, really. The letter shows up as a surprise at a job interview... a logic minded viewer might realize that amazing psychic ability and/or CIA Intel would have been required in order for that to happen.

Again, the wacky celebrity cameos are distracting and seemingly more befitting of your standard bullshit Will Ferrel comedy than a movie like this (the omnipresent Danny McBride even shows up in a small role). In addition to McBride, Simmons and Galifianakis, Sam Elliot appears as an Airline captain late in the film, as the conclusion to a subplot that feels extraordinarily out of place and about which I had completely forgotten by the time it came to fruition. And as for the ultimate wrap-up for Clooney's character... well, it feels like the kind of behavior people only exhibit in movies. Maybe there are people like the three leads in this film out there, but they feel exaggerated and... well, fake.

And for that matter, it irks me a little that this is a movie peripherally about getting fired which has been made by the wealthy son of another wealthy filmmaker. If he has ever been let go from a job, I doubt it caused him nearly as much concern as it causes anyone who appears on screen. It feels like it was made by someone who understands that losing your job is one of the most horrible, demoralizing things that can happen, but who doesn't know what it really feels like.

One of weird tenants of giving decent criticism, I think, is that you've got to try to look at things in terms of what they aspire to be and put that up against what they actually achieve. After that, it's fair to say whether or not you liked it. Believe me, I understand how crazy it seems to be more enthusiastic about a movie like Wolverine than I am about this one, but Up In The Air aims a lot higher, meaning it should probably be held to a higher standard, which I am. In spite of my red-faced ranting here, it is still an interesting picture, and probably worth seeing. I know that it's on a direct path for a shit-load of Oscar nominations in the spring, but if it wins Best Picture or Screenplay, I might seriously lose it.

November 8, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats (11/08/2009)

Lettergrade: C-

George Clooney and Jeff Bridges give brilliant comedic performances in The Men Who Stare At Goats. Everything else about the movie is a little unremarkable. I was thinking I might give the picture a mild recommendation, but have since discovered that a great dislike for the film exists on the internet, and that my wife seemed to think it was sorta thin on quality too. Recognizing that my judgement isn't always crystal clear where comedies starring actors that I already like are concerned, I will adjust my thoughts ever so slightly in order to acknowledge that my vaguely positive feelings about the flick seem to be out of touch with the general public.

Ewan McGregor plays a reporter from Michigan (albeit with a vaguely Scottish accent) who leaves to cover the early phase of the current Iraq war after his wife leaves him for another guy. He promptly meets Clooney, a twitchy fucker if ever there was one, who eventually reveals that he once was (and may still be) part of a special division of the U.S. Armed Services called the "New Earth Army," a new-ageish unit created in the sixties with the intent of developing soldiers' psychic ability. In theory, these guys would use their ESP to spy on (or "remote view") enemies of the United States, they would have the ability to pass through walls, and a select few could, you guessed it, stare at goats and be able to stop their hearts, and / or provide the film with a title.

Clooney claims to be on a secret mission in Iraq, and McGregor tags along, thinking he's gotten his big story. He slowly learns about the group's history along the way courtesy of a series of well-themed flashbacks. A big problem I spotted almost immediately is that the flashback material is infinitely more interesting than most of what happens in the film's present. Additionally, the flashbacks are so lengthy and there are so many of them that more than once I sort of forgot that there was another story line going on.

Members of the New Earth Army call themselves Jedi warriors. On what feels like 30 or 40 occasions, Clooney accuses McGregor of not knowing anything about being a Jedi, and then the picture immediately cuts to the slack-jawed Star Wars actor looking nonplussed, a pause which I imagine the filmmakers built-in to allow for all the riotous laughter that would fill the theater each and every time the reference was made. Around the 15th or 16th time they did the joke, I became convinced that McGregor was only cast for the sake of making that one joke work. Sadly, I'd probably have trouble even remembering that he was in the movie otherwise, as I do with the underused Kevin Spacey, who plays one of Clooney's rivals.

Generally speaking, Clooney picks excellent movies to be a part of, provided, of course, that the word "Ocean's" doesn't appear in the title. He is indeed wonderful in the lead role here, but it is yet another movie where he is trading on his image as a heart-throb by playing a dorky guy with a poor sense of fashion. The thing is, though, that his film roles have been in an almost constant state of self-parody lately. Burn After Reading, Leatherheads, Intolerable Cruelty... When he actually plays with his type, as he did so well in Syriana and Michael Clayton, it's almost like the sighting of a rare white elk. Remember when it used to be a novel thing for Robert DeNiro to show up in a comedy? It was a rare treat that resulted in wonderful surprises like Midnight Run and Wag The Dog. His recent resumé, however, is littered with junk like Analyze This!, The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle, and of course, the Meet The Fuckers movies. Clooney hasn't been slumming like that, but it'd probably be wise for him to do a few more dramas before returning to this kind of material.

Goats was directed by Grant Heslov, who had a lengthy career as a bit part actor before becoming Clooney's producing partner, leading to him co-writing and producing Good Night And Good Luck with Clooney and doing the same on last year's highly disappointing Leatherheads. This picture is Heslov's debut as a director. He was able to use his Clooney connections to assemble an amazing cast, and he seems to have a good sense of how to stage highly amusing scenes that make good use of everyone's talent. Nevertheless, the individual moments that do work fail to coalesce into an overall picture that does the same, and therein is the real trick to solid directing: Seeing the picture as a whole, and recognizing a story with little to no pay off when you see it.

It's one of those movies that has a big ending that kind of postures itself in a faux feel-good way as being about liberation and believing in oneself, however misguided you may be. With most of those movies, however, as with this one, if you think about it for a moment, you realize that these are often wafer-thin, Hallmarky endings that don't make a lick of sense.

I'd say that it's an alright way to pass the time if you're stuck on an airplane or it happens to be on cable, but otherwise, you shouldn't really go out of your way to catch it.

November 7, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (11/07/2009)

Lettergrade: A-

A remarkable thing about Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's excellent stop motion adaptation of the Roald Dahl story of the same name, is that the style and attitude are very consistent with Anderson's live action movies. In fact, I'd probably grade it a bit higher than his last two, The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, both of which I felt lacked the heart and relatability of his earlier work. I give this one huge points for its style as well as for content. All of Anderson's trademark elements are here: The affinity for randomness, the adroit use of music, the uncomfortable close-ups, the lengthy wide shots in which the camera doesn't move, but the frame bustles with activity... Somehow, everything blends into a smooth cocktail that feels strangely familiar, and yet very unique and exciting at the same time.

A good comparison can be made between Fox and Spike Jonze's recent Where The Wild Things Are. Both are adaptations of beloved children books, made by established directors with highly distinctive styles. Both guys, who each happened to turn 40 this year, seemingly set out to make pictures in a slightly retroactive idiom that would appeal to their peers as much as to children, complete with killer soundtrack albums for each.

Mr. Fox (George Clooney) was a master chicken thief back in the day, but decided to give it all up for a relatively mundane lifestyle upon learning that his wife, voiced by Meryl Streep, was expecting. After a few years, Mr. Fox gets antsy and decides to slip back into his old profession, only this time he ups the ante by taking on three particularly cruel local farmers. Through his overzealousness and boastful nature, Mr. Fox brings down the wrath of Boggis, Bunce and Bean in a way that threatens the entire animal community (kinda like a traditional Bugs Bunny / Elmer Fudd story on HGH).

The several voices from Anderson's usual acting troupe round out the cast, including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwarzman, and from Life Aquatic, Michael Gambon and Willem Dafoe. Anderson was reportedly obsessed with recording the dialogue in groups and on-location (as opposed to the normal technique of recording each actor separately in a studio). The result is that no one in the vocal cast over-does it: The character interactions are natural and under-stated, and the recordings have an interesting quality in and of themselves. When Mr. Fox and his family are trapped in an attic, for example, Anderson stuck his cast in an enclosed, reverberant space as well, giving the audio an unusual vibe that no Pro Tools plug-in could replicate.

After story-boarding the movie extensively, Anderson apparently spent little time on the actual set itself, leading to a very public feud earlier this year with the film's cinematographer, Tristian Oliver, over how involved Anderson really was with the finished picture. I tend to side with Anderson on the matter: Many of the film's creative decisions bear his unusual signature leading me to suspect that he was indeed involved in many of the key details. Whether those decisions were made by Anderson himself or by someone attempting to imagine what Anderson would do based on his other pictures, however, I do not know.

This is an odd statement to make about a kiddie flick like this, but at times I found myself almost forgetting that it was animated in a weird sort of way. The great vocal performances as well as the vintage songs by Burl Ives and The Beach Boys in additional to the fantastic score by Alexandre Desplat just helped everything to feel sorta real after a while.

Putting on a more critical hat, the last third is plagued by some pacing issues (mostly in that it was starting to feel a bit sluggish before the big finale), and sometimes the bad guys come off as a little too theatrically evil. Additionally, I am probably hardwired to believe that some kind of moral lesson is imbued within the story that should be clear by the time the end credits roll. Mr. Fox is a remarkably self-centered dude early in the movie, not giving much regard to how his actions will affect his family and neighbors. I don't want to give much away here, but by the end of picture, it feels that while Fox might be a little nicer to everyone, he hasn't really picked up much wisdom along the way.

While watching the rerelease of Toy Story last month, I remember thinking what a shame it is that there hasn't been a sophisticated animated picture in a while that appeals to adults while not resorting to cheap lowest common denominator shit like big goofy faces, unmotivated flatulence, and Smash Mouth songs in order to keep the kids interested. And yet, here one is. In many ways, Fantastic Mr. Fox is exactly the kind of movie I've been wanting to see for several years now.

October 21, 2009

Black Dynamite (10/21/2009)

Lettergrade: D-

The trailer for Black Dynamite might be the funniest two minutes I've seen recently. The movie itself is about 10 times funnier... and by that I mean that it's funny for around 20 minutes. After that, the road gets a little rough and patchy, and after that still, the car veers off the road entirely and bursts into flames.

The flick is a parody of early 70s Blaxploitation films, and I don't mean the more respectable ones like the Shaft movies. Instead, Dynamite draws inspiration from the likes of Rudy Ray Moore's no budget Dolemite movies, with a strong allusion or two to other classics like The Mack, Coffey, and Superfly. The result is a crazy - and at times intentionally incoherent - farce in the style of the "Fist Full Of Yen" segment from The Kentucky Fried Movie. I cannot really recommend it to anybody, even to people who usually like this sort of thing, in spite of a handful of really big laughs.

I sought out a lot of the pictures that Dynamite mocks myself while in high school, and my reaction to each of them was almost always the same: I would initially laugh at all the cheesy 70s stuff and at the questionable filmmaking: the highly dated music, the grade Z art direction, the lousy camera work, the crappy editing, and of course the repetitive as hell dialogue that manages to be dazzlingly free of subtlety. Black Dynamite works hard to recreate pretty much every one of those elements, up to and including the moment about 1/3 of the way into the movie where it dawned on me that these curious cultural artifacts, while mildly amusing, really aren't worth the time it takes to watch them.

Michael Jai White co-wrote the script and plays the title role. He's had a number of small parts in big movies, and large roles in flicks that went directly to video. In spite of the fact that I can't really recommend the movie, White impressed the hell out of me, both with his charisma and comedic chops, but also with excellent martial arts skills. I'm glad he got to show off his talents in this movie, and I'm hoping it won't be too long before he's given the opportunity to do so again in a much better one.

Like the Robert Rodriguez half of Grindhouse, the film is fatally concerned with recreating a particular look. Deep down, I suspect that most audiences get little pleasure from films that are made to appear intentionally crude and crappy like this. I'm sure that even casual film goers get the idea, but there's a big "so what?" factor that comes into play after only a few minutes. Compare Dynamite's approach with that of another staple of my youth, Keenen Ivory Wayans' far superior I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, a picture which parodies the same source material to wonderful effect, but rarely targets the technical shoddiness. I think people tend to remember what movies were about and how they made them feel rather than what the film stock was like.

Another big assumption the Dynamite script seems to make is that the 70s Blaxploitation movies existed without much of a point, and that's not entirely true. Although there's plenty to laugh at in those movies, it is important to note that they were also some of the first movies made by the black community, featuring actual black actors who weren't appearing as thugs, or as waiters and butlers, or as dumb comic relief.

And by and large, they _did_ have a point. The lead characters, often wrapped up in some kind of detective / crime plot, were usually strong symbols of black empowerment. They were smart, tough, and knew how to outsmart the bigoted white guys who were trying to push them around. The story-lines frequently had them attempting to do good for the local community and fighting for some kind of worthy cause... trying to help orphans or attempting to rid the neighborhood of crack (or in the case of Black Dynamite, both: He's trying to help orphans who are addicted to crack!). In spite of the moral shadiness that existed in most 70s cinema of the day, they were still strong protagonists unlike most of cinema's African American characters that had come before.

The ethics, however, were always a little questionable: Drugs in the neighborhood were usually no-go, but being a pimp and having thriving prostitution business seemed to be a-ok. These pictures were clearly made with a buck in mind (let's not forget that it is called Blaxploitation for a good reason), but they were also about more than that on a social level.

Dynamite's aim is to celebrate the cheesiness of those movies, and perhaps aspects of African American culture, both from then and today, which whiteys like myself just might not be equipped to appreciate or understand. Nevertheless, I'm attempting to evaluate it purely as a movie on its own merits, and by that standard, I must say that I get the feeling that this is one of those films that was thought up while a bunch of friends sat around drinking and watching TV one night. Everyone involved seems to have had a great time, but the finished film, which knocked around for a year or two before finally getting distribution, tries to sustain itself on a series of bizarre jokes that I suspect are too insular for most people to get, and do not even come close to adding up to satisfying movie.

October 18, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are (10/18/2009)

Lettergrade: complicated.

Where The Wild Things Are is one of those movies that I have a ton of respect for, but did not especially enjoy watching. The look, feel, and style evokes a magical kind of retro 70s nostalgia which in many ways perfectly captures the emotional spectrum of what its like to be a kid who feels neglected and lonely. My issue is that the movie is almost all about feeling with very little story. I want to acknowledge that the approach that director Spike Jonze and co-screenwriter Dave Eggers took in adapting Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book is wholly appropriate and perfectly valid, but I guess I just need a little more from a movie myself for it to really take off.

My sister tells me that my grandmother had a well-worn copy of Sendak's book, originally published in the 60s, and read it to us often while we were growing up. Of that I have virtually no memory, and therefore I cannot really comment on how faithful Jonze was in making his adaptation. As I understand it, the basic story is the same, only with a few more illustrative incidents which were inserted to flesh out the characters more thouroughly. Another change, apparently, is that the wild things are named in this version and have more distinctive personalities which seemingly mirror Max's life and emotional spectrum more closely.

One thing I will heap tons of praise on the filmmakers for is the decision to have the Jim Henson Creature Shop design suits for real people to wear on the set, rather than do the monsters as all-computer generated entities. For one, it probably helped 12 year old Max Records achieve the excellent performance he turned in, but on another level, seeing actual, tangible things running wild through the forest instead of having been pasted in via computer added to the soul of the picture immeasurably. The faces are digital, however, and are expressive and emotive in ways that would be tough for any puppet to match. I think Jonze understood the value of both technologies perfectly and made the best possible use of each.

My father-in-law observed that the tantrum-prone Carol, the monster that James Gandolfini voices, has a number of interesting parallels to Tony Soprano, not the least of which is his penchant for taking out his anger violently and without much thought of the consequences. Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker provide the voices for the other creatures, although to be honest with you, I had a tough time identifying any of them before I saw their names in the closing credits.

Jonze actually shot his first version of the picture in 2007, but Warner Bros. freaked at the dark, impressionistic nature of the story and threatened not to release it all. After some extensive and recutting both Jonze and WB wound up with a picture they felt honored the book and calmed the nerves of the twitchy executives.

I don't have much else to say about the picture, frankly, but want to take a moment to acknowledge that the film's theatrical trailer is probably among the best I've seen. The use of the Arcade Fire song set against the beautiful design of the monsters and the tactile pleasure of seeing them all romp around the forest, simply combined into something almost breath-taking for me. With a trailer so good, perhaps it was only inevitable that the film itself wouldn't pack the same punch. Nevertheless, although it is a picture I didn't feel much for myself, I recognize that there's a lot of great stuff happening here, and I think the current state of family movies is better off with a movie like this around than without.

October 4, 2009

Toy Story 1 & 2 in 3D (10/04/09)

Lettergrade: A (for both movies, but not really for the 3D)

It's rare that I pass up the chance to see a re-release of a beloved older movie, and that's doubly true when we're talking about movies that are as much fun as much as the two Toy Storys. Disney / Pixar decided to convert the pictures for the recently resurgent 3D craze and have put them back into theaters for two weeks only, ending October 16th. The occasion, says Disney, is for the 15th anniversary of the first film, although some simple math reveals that the 1995 picture is only 14 years old presently (Toy Story 2 is celebrating 10 years, though). The real reason likely has more to do with the fact that Toy Story 3 is due out next June, and a release like this is probably a big boost to public interest and merchandise sales. Whatever the motives, it's a treat to get to see the movies in a big theater and with an audience again.

Now that Pixar has released ten theatrical features - each, it seems, more visually sophisticated than the last - it is interesting to open the time capsule, re-experience the first and third movies they made (A Bug's Life fell between them), and examine the spark that kicked off this monstrous computer animation wildfire that has dominated children's features for most of the last decade.

Ah, 1995... Tim Allen's comedic talent seemed limitless, Tom Hanks had just won back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and only the year before The Lion King marked the high point of Disney's traditional animation renaissance of the 1990s (arguably) and eclipsed Aladdin and Snow White And The Seven Dwarves as the highest earning animated film (a title it still holds!). What in the world was this all-computer-animated movie that this semi-obscure San Francisco company was putting out?

As the endeavor seemed risky at the time, the Pixar folks latched onto the growing trend of getting well-known celebrities to lend their voices to animated characters, only on a much bigger scale than had been done previously. Not only did Toy Story count on Hanks' and Allen's popularity to drum up audience interest, but it also recruited highly popular voices like those of John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, and famed insult comic Don Rickles in order to both attract wide demographics and to give the very plastic-looking screen characters some built-in life and personality. Another unusual selection was that of Randy Newman to write the film's songs and score. In addition to his rock albums, he had only scored eight films at that time and nearly all of them were dramas. He had never written songs aimed at a younger audience prior to that, nor had he had a scoring assignment that required him to write busy, punctuational music the likes of which a picture like Toy Story needed -- attributes which have both come to define his career in the years since.

Watching the first Toy Story again for the first time in years, I was struck by the emotional complexity of the writing. Just in case you you're new to the movies, the idea is that when children turn their backs or leave the room, their toys come to life: They talk shop, complain about the job (sometimes), and they freak whenever a birthday or holiday rolls around as it means that new toys will be heading to the toy chest and might replace one of them. That's what happens to Woody (Hanks) who is pushed from his role as Andy's favorite and the leader of the toy family when the pompous and deluded Buzz Lightyear (Allen) arrives. After suffering indignity upon indignity, Woody's jealousy leads him to attempt to push Buzz out an open window, but a series of events winds up getting them both lost out in the real world.

While the picture as a whole is still undeniably solid, the first part felt a little unsure of itself to me this time, almost like the filmmakers had introduced too many celebrity toys and then didn't quite know how to balance them all. A curious thing I was reminded of is that Rex repeats several of Cripin Glover's lines from Back To The Future for no clear reason. Perhaps they attempted to get Glover to do the voice himself at one point, but in any case the final performance was done by The Princess Bride's Wallace Shawn. Also, I was struck by what a dick Mr. Potato Head is pretty much throughout the picture, but hey, it's Rickles.

During the first section, there are many rapid-fire jokes that wink at the camera a bit and feel like the product of a writer's room rather than an organic screenplay. The story really begins to work when Woody and Buzz get left behind at the gas station, go to to Pizza Planet, and then on to Sid's Room, a den of horrors for lost and mangled toys. The visual style seems a bit crude by today's standards, but there are still some stand-out sequences, like the whole rocket chase toward the end of the picture.

As good as the first picture is, 1999's Toy Story 2 manages to top it in nearly every category, above all, story. The jokes this time brim with originality and confidence, and the some sequences, like Jessie's song, are still as good as any the company has done. Although Pixar has since made pictures that have lapped it several times over in terms of visual beauty and sound design, I will maintain that they've never matched it in terms of content.

2 finds Woody having nightmares about becoming old and unwanted after a rip in his arm causes Andy to go to cowboy camp without him. Through a series of events, Woody winds up in the penthouse apartment of a toy collector with some other toys inspired by the same 50s TV show: Jessie The Yodelin' Cowgirl (the brilliant Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete (voiced by Kelsey Grammar, rehashing his Sideshow Bob persona a bit), and Bullseye The Horse, who does not talk. Each represents a different way of dealing with hurt and neglect. Bullseye goes after affection like a needy puppy, Jessie, having been owned and discarded by a girl in the 70s, is wounded and cautious about letting anyone else in again, while Stinky Pete, having been trapped inside his packaging for the whole of his existence and never played with at all, seethes with an unctuous rage that erupts in a startling way during the picture's third act.

Thematically, the picture quickly becomes a very philosophical look at the ideas of aging and, I guess, death. Will Woody choose to stay with the collector's items and have immortality behind a glass case in a Japanese museum, or will he decide to fill the purpose for which he was made, and risk being damaged or discarded someday? Pretty heavy stuff for an animated film for children: Let's see one of those crappy Shrek sequels try to get anywhere close. While Woody rediscovers his roots and lets his value go to his head, the other toys from Andy's room, led by Buzz, stage a rescue mission to go out into the world, Dirty Dozen style, and bring Woody back.

So many scenes in this movie are pure brilliance... Buzz encounters another Buzz toy in Al's Toy Barn who, like him in the first movie, has yet to realize that it's not the _actual_ Buzz Lightyear but a mere action figure. The movie further exploits the notion that the Lightyear toy line is a shameless knock-off of various Star Trek and Star Wars standards by introducing a maniacal Emperor Zurg toy who has a climactic face-off with both Buzzs late in the picture ala The Empire Strikes Back. Several sequences like the scenes where the toys cross the street under traffic cones, where Woody attempts to retrieve his detached arm from the sleeping toy collector, and the whole chase scene at the end, also still rank among the best that Pixar has done.

During the screening, I was thinking that there isn't anything especially enlightening about seeing the two movies back to back like this, and I believe that's true, but the comparison does highlight the advancements between the two like the much more thoughtful use of sound, and the more confident handling of the story material. By Toy Story 2 they really had the "secret world" formula down: A formula that they attempted one too many times in 2001's Monsters, Inc., which still holds the title of my least favorite Pixar flick, and awkwardly tried to modify again for 2006's Cars, although the sort-of twist in that one is that cars existed in the place of humans, ala Planet Of The Apes.

As I've written about previously, I'm very much _not_ a fan of 3D, particularly with older movies like these two which were not produced with the effect in mind. I find the 3D effect to be minimal and almost non-existent, and therefore the glasses only serve to make the picture dimmer and less-clear, and the colors less vibrant and effective. That opinion remains pretty much unchanged by this, although the opening of part 2 did kick five kinds of ass in 3D. Still, if given the choice, I'd rather see the movie in 2D, looking bright and crisp.

The two Toy Storys represent classy, expertly done CG animation at its best -- before everyone and his uncle starting making them en masse, junking the genre up with such disposable trash as the Ice Age trilogy, Space Chimps and pretty much every CG picture that Dreamworks Animation has put out (with the exception of Shrek 2 and Kung Fu Panda). In a way, Toy Story 2 ends so perfectly that I'm dreading the third picture's release. Regardless, however, these movies are a wonderful part of recent film history and getting out to see them in a theater is a lot of fun and a trip worth making.

My review of Up

My review of Monsters Vs. Aliens

My review of Kung Fu Panda

My review of Shrek The Third

October 2, 2009

A Serious Man (10/02/09)

Lettergrade: B+

A running motif in Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man is the long winded morality tale that ultimately has a puzzling, unclear meaning. In fact, that's kind of what the film itself is too. Although the dark blend of comedy and tragedy set in 1967 Minnesota is extremely entertaining, I'm not sure I've got much more than a long-shot suspicion about what, if anything, I'm supposed to take from it.

The movie centers around Larry Gopnik, a meek math professor who's life begins to unravel a few weeks before his son is to be bar mitzvahed. His wife announces that she's leaving him for another man, his brother (played by character actor Richard Kind - one of the few actors in the picture, along with Coen alum Michael Lerner and Spaceballs' George Wyner - that I actually recognized) has been living on their TV room sofa for months with no signs of departing, and a failed bribery scheme by one of Larry's disgruntled students is threatening his tenure.

Larry's response to much of this is pure inaction, a running theme in several Coen movies, but particularly reminiscent of Billy Bob Thorton's character in The Man Who Wasn't There. The morality tale motif pops up often throughout the picture as Larry tries to make sense of life's many turns of fortune, and what, if anything, God has in mind for us. He seeks the advice of all three Rabbis at his temple, but gets little more than complex metaphors that don't seem particularly enlightening.

Special attention in the film is given to Larry's son Danny, who is about the same age in '67 as Joel Coen would have been. He's not quite the main character, and the Coens claim that very little about the film is biographical, apart from its setting, but nevertheless his scenes preparing for the bar mitzvah, bored out of his mind in shuhl, and smoking dope with his friends seem to make up the driving center of the movie. Many a filmmaker, from Martin Scorsese to George Lucas to Rob Reiner, gets around to making a picture that captures the texture of their youth at some point, and this might be as close as the Coens will get.

As it's a Coen movie, the film is populated with a wide array of bizarre characters and odd looking people with deep eccentricities. The picture is impeccably well shot and has particularly amazing sound design, even by their standards.

A large point of controversy will likely be the film's conclusion, which rivals No Country For Old Men in terms of its abruptness and lack of closure. I must admit that I don't really find it all that satisfying myself. Would I have liked an ending that offered a bit more of a clue as to what the last two hours were supposed to add up to? Sure. An odd thing about Coen movies, though, is that even when they're a little antagonizing and difficult to access, as I found The Big Lebowski in particular to be when it was first released, I wouldn't trade the pleasure that I often have in watching them, and in watching them again.

September 24, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (09/24/09)

Lettergrade: B

Capitalism: A Love Story is Michael Moore's screed on corporate greed and white collar crime with a strong emphasis on the mismanagement that led to last year's economic melt-down. Before I get into it, though, I should admit that in spite of the flaws, I'm usually a sucker for Moore's movies. Politically, I tend to agree with a good deal of what he says, and as a humorist, I greatly admire the way in which he goes about saying it. Love or hate him, he has consistently used his celebrity to shine a light on issues that he feels need public attention, and for that I have an endless amount of respect. His last few pictures have felt a little scattershot, ranty, and somewhat slim on tangible solutions, but nevertheless they're important, thought-provoking pictures that often feel like imperative viewing. How many wide-release films have you seen this year that actually try to _do_ something?

Capitalism stimulated two extremes for me: I found myself surprisingly emotional during sections of it (particularly the last part, starting with the story about the sit-in at the window and glass company in Chicago on through to the end), but at the same time I found myself a little atypically annoyed that Moore again seems to undercut his own objective a bit by omitting key points of view and by taking an overly harsh (yet populist) stance against those on the other end of his argument.

This picture opens with a cheesy educational film about the fall of the Roman Empire which details how corruption and tyranny ultimately led the people to rise up and overthrow the established order. If the implication isn't clear enough, Moore inserts quick shots of politicians of the present and recent past. Among the points he argues in this picture is that capitalism as we know it has been distorted and rigged to the point where the upper 1% of the US population controls nearly 95% of the wealth, and that they've conned the rest of us into fighting over the scraps that are left instead of recognizing the inequity. Throughout the film, Moore profiles families that have lost their homes in the mortgage crisis (and companies that prey on the acquisition and resale of them), the Wall Street phenomenon of derivatives and split derivatives (comparing the institution to an insane mega-casino), and makes a persuasive argument for how deregulation, Union-busting, and obscene greed in the 80s and 90s has led to the virtual eradication of America's middle-class.

Moore uses every tool in his arsenal to tug at your heart strings and sense of decency: He includes multiple devastating testimonials and portraits of families who have lost everything, he has the survivors of deceased loved-ones cry on camera, and he flashes to emotionally charged images, such as post Katrina New Orleans, whenever he feels he can get some juice out of them. A number of other Michael Moore classic bits reappear as well, such as having Mike show up at some corporate headquarters with a camera crew, and then act surprised when security promptly covers his lens and shows him the door.

Similar to his previous productions, the approach is designed to aggressively inform, to incite passion, and to get in a good laugh whenever possible in order to make the whole thing palatable to those who might not be inclined to sit through this kind of thing otherwise. As always, the editing is sharp and incisive, and the archival team located some hysterical retro film and music in order to enhance the picture's considerable wit. While it's effective, I also can't deny that it's propaganda in the most pure sense of the term and manipulative as hell.

During the middle of the picture, after around 45 - 50 minutes of hearing how hopelessly fucked we are economically, I found myself wondering where the film was going, but in the last section Moore shifts gears a bit and profiles a number of small businesses and individuals who act out of a sense a fairness, despite the fact that the law does not require them to do so. Toward the end of the picture, it feels like Moore is actually spending more time with people who go out of their way to do good for other people for a change, and the picture winds up being oddly inspirational in a way that I don't believe any of his other pictures have been.

I guess you can think of each of Moore's recent pictures as a call to arms for liberal causes, and while he's continuously chosen subject material that is very potent and relevant, again I worry that they're becoming increasingly unfocused. Bowling For Columbine had the clear objective of swaying public opinion on gun control, with a few awkward detours into why Americans are a violent lot to begin with. Fahrenheit 9/11, which I didn't much care for, was sort of about the craziness that ensued after the terror attacks, but largely felt like an inartful smear piece. I happened to agree with his main point - that Bush ought not be reelected - but I felt that the way he went about making his case was scattershot, mean-spirited, and somewhat non-persuasive. SiCKO really stokes both sympathy and anger like no other picture he's made has, but after detailing the contours of a very large problem (and the bullshit arguments against implementing some kind of universal coverage), the movie failed to really chart out a clear way in which the problem might start to be remedied. On top of that, Moore was guilty of over-romanticizing socialized health care systems in other countries, all of which, while better than what we have presently, come with their own problems. Overplaying his hand there, as he does somewhat in Capitalism too, gives his critics a convenient way to dismiss the really good points he's making along with the sloppy ones.

Minor bitchings aside, though, I will say that the other week while watching Obama's address on health care reform to congress, I was quite struck that several of the health insurance horror-stories the president recounted would have felt right at home in SiCKO. Now, health care reform might well have been an important agenda for any president at this particular point in time, of course, but I had the feeling that Obama's speech wouldn't have been quite the same had Moore's film never existed. Either Moore was a little ahead of the curve in terms of understanding how big an issue health care reform would shortly become, or it was his willingness to take the material on in the first place that led to more of a national dialogue about where we are and where we need to be. In any case, it's hard to deny that he does have a good bead on many of the critical social-political issues of the day, and even if you find the guy to be an utterly obnoxious, bloviating asshole, it's usually worth listening to what he's got to say about them.

My review of SiCKO

September 19, 2009

The Informant! (09/19/09)

Lettergrade: F

You know, "hate" is an awfully strong word, but it's the only one that really comes to mind when thinking about Steven Soderbergh's The Informant!. Oh, it's started off well enough: The cast, which includes Matt Damon and Scott Bakula, is fantastic, and the true story of a delusional, dimwitted guy who sold out his agro product company, Archer Daniels Midland, to the FBI for price fixing not realizing that he himself would very likely be implicated in multiple corporate crime and embezzlement charges, sounded like fertile ground for at least a passably entertaining evening at the cinema. Perhaps it would sort of be like a comedic variant on Michael Mann's The Insider?

Ultimately, though, I really feel this movie, while amusing for short bursts, doesn't connect... somewhat because of the writing, but largely due to the way in which it is told. Structure first: The movie has a highly irritating way of keeping the audience on the outside of some key plot points for several scenes before letting you know what, exactly, is happening. I want to make the distinction that this can often be used for good dramatic effect, but that's not what this picture does. The difference is that a movie needs to be somewhat deliberate about what it is being unclear about it. Too often during this one I felt like I had simply missed some critical information, which is when "suspense" turns to "frustration" and then ultimately "apathy."

Building on that escalating sense of apathy was the picture's wafter-thin character material. I found Damon's character neither interesting nor sympathetic nor in any way relatable. Giving him funny hair, a fake nose, and a little extra weight seems to kind of hardwire his screen-time for comedy and comedy alone. A problem with that approach, however, is that it's almost like you're watching a stage clown or a Saturday Night Live character instead of a serious actor giving a dedicated performance. Again, I don't necessarily believe that every movie has to have a character that you like or want to root for, but at least we need to care about what happens to the people we're spending two hours with.

I thought that Damon's crazy internal monologues were really entertaining, and being a long time film-score nerd, I found it interesting that Soderbergh picked music legend Marvin Hamlisch out of retirement to write the jazzy, kitschy score. As the movie ground on, however, both really wore out their welcome fast and only further underlined that this is a project Soderbergh somewhat mishandled.

Other technical gripes are that the picture was largely shot on Red Camcorders instead of film, meaning that the picture, when projected on a large theater screen, was quite fuzzy and soft... almost appearing to be out of focus for large segments. Another byproduct of this format is that bright light sources appeared highly misty, particularly during daylight scenes. During segments of the movie, I found myself wondering if my allergies had returned and were affecting my vision, but when I looked around the theater I realized that everything else was perfectly clear: It was only the movie that was not. Soderbergh has shot most of his own movies since 2000 (under the name Peter Andrews), and it's something he really needs to get away from. Part of the idea behind not having everything be a one-man show is that someone can be there to tap the director on the shoulder every now and again and say, "you know, choosing that lens filter for the camera might not be the best idea." Many other scenes are dark and muddy, and in others still it feels like no one even bothered to point some lights at the actors.

Once upon a time, at least, Soderbergh made pictures that I really liked, but I believe the last time I could say that was in 2000 or so when he was nominated for dual Best Director Oscars for his work on Erin Brockovich and Traffic (the latter for which he won). His first post-Oscar picture was the artistically bankrupt Ocean's 11, which was intended as a fun bank-heist picture, but contained neither fun nor tension. He had two more attempts at making an Ocean's picture that works, and came up with similar results each time. The interstitial pictures have either been bloated and dull (Solaris) or have emphasized style over substance in a way that's awkward and ineffectual (The Good German).

I think he's officially blown his credit line with me, and I'll have to start automatically skipping his movies in the future. I had high hopes for The Informant! as a film that might have been similar to Brockovich in that it would tell an entertaining-yet-true story about corporate crime and some of the interesting people involved with it. The thing is, this movie is a lot funnier if you already know the details of what Mark Whitacre did and where his story is going. In fact, the picture seems to depend on some of that knowledge in order to make any sense at all. If you know those things, however, you might come to the wise conclusion that you should probably just stay home and watch something else.

My review of Ocean's 13

September 5, 2009

Extract (9/05/09)

Lettergrade: B-

If you look at it purely on a story / plot level, Extract doesn't really have a lot going on, but then neither do Mike Judge's other pictures: 2006's underrated Idiocracy and 1999's cultural milestone Office Space. The pleasure of those movies (and this one) is not in what happens as much as Judge's warped perspective on the world and the people who populate it. His characterizations, usually made up of slackers, dimwits, and stoners, get huge laughs because they're not that far off from people you probably know or at least have met.

The movie isn't likely to have the same cultural impact that Office Space did. Even the tag line of that picture - "Work sucks" - struck a deep cultural chord that even now, 10 years later, resonates with me and everyone else I know who has to work for a living. Nevertheless, Extract is a pleasant farce and certainly worth having a look at when time permits.

The schmucky every-man in this one is played by Arrested Development's Jason Bateman, who owns an a small flavor extract company in small-town California. He's in a sex-deprived marriage with Kristin Wiig, and thinking about selling his business to a larger corporate parent. That's complicated by an accident at work which claims an employee's testicle, followed by the arrival of con-artist Mila Kunis who secretly encourages said employee to sue instead of settling. Bateman immediately lusts after Kunis, but feels terrible about wanting to stray from his marriage. One night, his bar-tendin' buddy played by Ben Affleck (in what might be his finest screen performance) helps Bateman come up with a brilliant plan to hire a kid to seduce Wiig, thus freeing Bateman's conscious to lust after Kunis.

Bateman, Affleck, and Wiig are all expertly cast, but as with Judge's other movies, it is the many wonderful bit parts that often steal the show, particularly David Koechner as an annoying neighbor, Dustin Milligan as Brad, the faux pool-cleaner, and Matt Schulze as an intense pot-dealer who only has one scene.

I will say, however, that in spite of the incisive comedy the loose plotting does drag the proceedings down a little. If I think about it, I can vaguely recall that the last third of Office Space mainly revolves around a failed embezzlement scheme, and contains very few laughs. Idiocracy, after a killer first 30 minutes, falls apart much earlier - around the time President Camacho shows up. Extract is a bit more "even" than those movies... the laughs probably aren't as big, but at least they cover the picture from head to tail.

As with his other movies, the production value is a little sparse, and nothing about the way the film has been made feels terribly cinematic -- almost as if it's a movie that Judge decided to make around his neighborhood with his friends. Nevertheless, I think this serves as a good illustration to my continued theory that comedy is often a little funnier when it feels kinda cheap.

August 29, 2009

Taking Woodstock (08/29/09)

Lettergrade: D

We saw this one because my wife and I often love Ang Lee movies, but for a number of reasons I cannot really recommend Taking Woodstock. It wasn't that bad to start with: I really like Demetri Martin's stand-up comedy as well as his TV show, but had never really seen him in a dramatic acting role like this. Here he plays Elliot Teichberg, a very likable but sad aspiring artist who moved back to upstate New York in order to help his Russian Jewish immigrant parents manage their ratty motel in the country. For one reason or another, he never left. Ultimately, he uses his position in local government and his connection to nearby dairy farmer Max Yasgur (played by Eugene Levy) in order to allow the August 1969 event known as Woodstock to come together.

In spite of my admiration for Lee and his cast, I'm not really into Woodstock era music, I can't claim to really have a strong connection to hippie culture and what it might have been about in 1969, and I've never taken an hallucinogenic drug nor do I have any interest in doing so. Above all else, I hate crowds. All these things kind of conspired to create a great indifference within me over what happened during much of the picture's painfully sluggish running time.

But wait, there's more: I felt that the very winning characters who appear on-screen are woefully under-developed. Demetri in particular appears to be gay, but it's unclear how "out" he his to his friends and family in addition to how at peace he might be with his own sexuality. We see him kiss women and men in the movie... but is this the first time he has done the latter? Call me simple minded, but I kinda need a little more substance. And I sort of want details and clear internal struggles like this to go somewhere.

The movie was rushed a little in order to get to Cannes in May, and then rushed again to get into theaters around the 40th anniversary of Woodstock in mid-August. Maybe a little more time could have made this movie more meaningful? Maybe not. In any case, it's sort of a waste of time.

August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (08/22/09)

Lettergrade: B+

There are several really good sequences in Inglourious Basterds, but it didn't quite sizzle for me like some of Quentin Taratino's other movies have. In particular, I guess I'm unfairly comparing this picture to the wildly entertaining Kill Bill movies, which seemed to somewhat set the template for this phase of his career. By that, I mean that Bill was very self-conscious, stylized cinema that switched film stocks furiously, and liberally borrowed from the wide spectrum of pop-culture and classic genré movies on a ridiculously grand scale, right down to cannibalizing its entire film score from old Spaghetti westerns and obscure action / horror flicks.

The thing with Kill Bill is that it was able to do all this with a great deal of joy and heart -- something that was largely absent from Deathproof, his almost stogy half of 2007's Grindhouse double-bill that he shared with Robert Rodriguez. In that one, there was a lot of amusing chatter, but precious few moments that took your breath away. Somewhere among all the bulky dialogue and the kitschy cinema tricks, the heart of the picture got lost.

Basterds is considerably more subtle than those movies in terms of style, but lands somewhere between the two when it comes to emotional beats that really connect. The strong character moments and the trademark Tarantino kitch that he does inject work beautifully, but I found myself wanting much more of each. I'm in the rare minority of people I know who was really impressed that after Pulp Fiction, a brassy one-of-a-kind, in-your-face masterpiece with a ton of youth appeal, he chose to make Jackie Brown, a more traditional heist picture based on an Elmore Leonard novel with two obscure b-movie actors from the 70s in the lead roles. I admired that instead of hitting the same buttons that people responded to in his last picture, he chose to do something mature and thoughtful that his new audience might not necessarily like. Perhaps at long last, I can somewhat understand why fans of Pulp felt a bit let down by Jackie: Because he's recently struck a few chords that I really like, I guess I was left a little frustrated that he decided to slow things down a bit and try something new.

Among the elements that really work in this picture is much of the wonderful supporting cast, including, in particular, Austrian-born actor Christoph Waltz who steals every scene he's in as the charmingly vile Nazi Col. Hans Landa, otherly known as the "Jew Hunter." Another exceptional standout is Mélanie Laurent, who plays an escaped Jewish girl hiding in Paris after Landa murders her family early in the picture.

The Basterds themselves, a team of Jewish American soldiers who have been dropped into Nazi occupied France in order to savagely murder as many Germans as they can, are led by Brad Pitt. Although I generally like him as an actor, this felt like a rare role in which he was miscast. His accent is hysterical, but he's also one of the few characters on screen who never fully disappears into his role. Tarantino is so good at casting exceptional actors for key parts in his films, sometimes out of complete obscurity and/or career purgatory. Landing Pitt for one of the leads might have been enough to get the movie green-lit, but something tells me they might have been better off had someone else gotten the part.

But a lot of this is just minor bitching. It's a Tarantino movie: They're usually interesting and worth going out of your way to see, and this one is too. Many groups started complaining about this one already: Jewish commentators about the anti-Semitic undertones, historians about Tarantino's, um, liberal interpretation of the end of the war, and audiences in general about the horrific scalping scenes and overall violence. But like most Taratino movies, at it's best it's really remarkable cinema, and at worst... well, it's still a hell of a lot of fun.

My review of Grindhouse

August 8, 2009

Julie & Julia (08/08/09)

Lettergrade: B-

I probably wouldn't see Julie & Julia on my own, but my wife who, like the first half of the film's title, keeps a very entertaining food blog, wouldn't miss it. I've only attended Nora Ephron movies occasionally, and usually don't think much of them. Her filmography includes such instant classics as You've Got Mail, Michael, and most horrifically, that shitty Bewitched remake that Will Ferrell was in. Nevertheless I was quite surprised to find that there was a lot about this movie that I quite liked.

I've been a life-long plain eater, and as such I cannot say that all the French cuisine that Julia Child prepares throughout the flick had my mouth watering, but the real pleasure for me here, aside from the stellar acting from Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, was that I found a connection with the parallel stories of the two women in different time periods who arrived at points in their lives where they simply wanted something more than what was in front of them. Julia Child does it by learning how to become a master chef in 1950s Paris, where her diplomat husband is stationed, and then spending years attempting to get her future-landmark cookbook, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, picked up. Julie Powell, living in Brooklyn around 2003 or so, attempts to cook every single recipe from that same book within the span of a year while keeping a very detailed, entertaining blog about it. If you really love to do something, why not go after it? If you're lucky, you'll figure out how to make a living along the way.

Perhaps it's just where I'm at in my life at the moment, but another poignant element for me was Julie's feeling that her friends have run circles around her, both in career and in adult life. A lot of the criticism directed at the movie faults the "Julie" half for being considerably less interesting than the Julia Child material. That may be valid, but somehow I feel like this is a good marriage of subjects. I'm not sure I'd have a lot of interest in seeing a straight Julia Child picture by itself, and I don't believe Julie's story would hold up well if divorced from that of her beloved cookbook's author. The intercutting between the two story-lines evokes The Godfather Part II, but certainly I can think of lesser movies to borrow a device from.

The movie feels a bit longer than its runtime, but what the hell? It's an entertaining picture with great acting that's witty and meaningful without being saccharine or cloy. Do you think anyone's going to walk out of G.I. Joe this weekend saying that?