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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar & Inglorious Basterds


Avatar (2009)

Avatar is the first movie where I decided to splurge and see it in 3D, and I picked the right one. James Cameron spent somewhere between 200-400 million on this colossal movie (reports are a bit fuzzy) and every penny is certainly up on screen. While my eyes were tired when I was done, I do think the 3D adds to the experience.

First of all, I do believe that Avatar is a groundbreaking movie in the use of new technology to meld special effects and human subjects. Imagine Gollum from Lord of the Rings times 1,000 and you have some sense of this movie. Cameron creates a beautiful world called Pandora, an idyllic planet far away from the Earth that the humans have destroyed. There are 10-foot-tall blue creatures called the Na'vi, original animals, and trees that have magic powers. Everything is depicted in absolutely gorgeous details.

Now on to the story. I think the outlines of the story is good and very interesting. I really liked the way the humans became avatars and how they switched back and forth when they went to sleep or were unplugged. The central love story in Avatar is also good in the sort of broadly romantic way. While I have a few compliments, I can also definitely say that the writing is not the strength of Avatar. The dialogue can be clunky, the themes are a little too on-the-head, and the basic outline of the story is fairly predictable. The movie has a clear anti-imperialist, pro-environment message (no argument here), but it is extremely heavy handed. It's as if every theme has to be underlined 5 times for the audience to get it. I think the best parts of the movie are the battle and action scenes. There is so much to be seen, you can't help but be wowed. I thought the weakest part of the movie was actually the middle, when Sully (our hero) is shown the new world by Neyitri, the babe of the Na'vis. It reminded me a little too much of scenes from Disney's Pocahontas.

As I was thinking about how to grade Avatar, I came back to a few points. If this movie had used traditional animation, what grade would I give it, based on the story? Probably a C+ or a B-. But the effects, the spectacle, and the leap forward in movie technology are definitely something worthy of awe. I settled on giving it a B+. Not the best of the year, but definitely a spectacle worth seeing.

Grade: B

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino came up with a delightfully deranged concept for this movie. Take World War II history, alter the facts, filter it through decades of Hollywood movies, mix it with modern-day violence and humor, and spit it all out. The good news is, he comes up with scenes and images that are among the most memorable and powerful of the year. The bad news is, not all the parts fit quite as well as others.

For being the title of the movie, the sections of the movie featuring the "Basterds" were actually the least interesting moments of the movie. The Basterds are a group of Jewish-American soldiers who are on a mission to kill and scalp Nazi soldiers. While the movie has a loose and pulpy vibe to it, these scenes lean too much on absurdist humor, and I think Brad Pitt overplays his hand. Much more interesting is the story of Shoshanna (the fabulous Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman in disguise who runs the French cinema frequented by the Nazi collaborators. Now they want to have the premiere of a new German film, and she has other plans for the night....

Christoph Waltz has been pulling in every Supporting Actor award under the sun and he is terrific as a brilliant,multi-lingual Nazi commander Hans Lander who is called "The Jew Hunter." He is a magnetic force every time he is on screen. There are so many moments when you know he could snap at the drop of a hat.

There are numerous great scenes in this movie. I'll name my favorite 4: The extended opening, where Hans Lander visits a French farmhouse that has been hiding Jews; the meeting between Hans Lander and Shoshanna in a Paris cafe; a gathering in a French restaurant full of mind games and double crossers; and the brilliant closing minutes where Tarantino indulges in some revisionist history. Unfortunately, these scenes are interspersed with others that don't fully live up to the promise of Tarantino's vision. If Tarantino had kept the energy and film references but cut down a bit on the jokiness, I think it would have been a stronger film.

Grade: B

Friday, December 18, 2009

Oscar Precursor Stampede Part 2 (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, & Director)

Continuing my rundown of prominent recent awards.....

SUPPORTING ACTOR

NY Film Critics: Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)
LA Film Critics: Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)
Runner-Up: Peter Capaldi (In the Loop)
National Board of Review: Woody Harrelson (The Messenger)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Matt Damon (Invictus); Woody Harrelson (The Messenger); Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles); Alfred Molina (An Education); Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones); Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)
Golden Globe Nominees: Matt Damon (Invictus); Woody Harrelson (The Messenger); Christopher Plummer (The Last Station); Stanely Tucci (The Lovely Bones); Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)
Screen Actors Guild Nominees: Matt Damon (Invictus); Woody Harrelson (The Messenger); Christopher Plummer (The Last Station); Stanely Tucci (The Lovely Bones); Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)

What does it mean? Well, it looks like Christoph Waltz is locked and loaded for the Supporting Actor Oscar. Also, since the Globes and SAG nominated the same 5, those might be our 5. It looks like Stanley Tucci will be the only one to survive the Lovely Bones critical dismissal. I'm disappointed to see no love for Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker. He was terrific in his pivotal role.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

NY Film Critics: Mo'Nique (Precious)
LA Film Critics: Mo'Nique (Precious)
Runner-up: Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air)
National Board of Review: Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Marion Cotillard (Nine); Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air); Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air); Mo'Nique (Precious); Julianne Moore (A Single Man); Samantha Morton (The Messenger)
Golden Globe Nominees: Penelope Cruz (Nine); Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air); Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air); Mo'Nique (Precious); Julianne Moore (A Single Man)
Screen Actor Guild Nominees: Penelope Cruz (Nine); Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air); Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air); Diane Kruger (Inglorious Basterds); Mo'Nique (Precious)

What does it mean? It looks like Mo'Nique, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga are in for sure! All three performances are absolutely terrific, so good for them. The other slots look like a duel between the Nine actresses (Cotillard and Cruz), Julianne Moore, and Samantha Morton. While Kendrick has picked up a few wins, I still feel this is Mo'Nique's Oscar to lose (and I doubt she will).

BEST DIRECTOR

NY Film Critics: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
LA Film Critics: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
Runner-Up: Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon)
National Board of Review: Clint Eastwood (Invictus)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker); James Cameron (Avatar); Lee Daniels (Precious); Clint Eastwood (Invictus); Jason Reitman (Up in the Air); Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds)
Golden Globe Nominees: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker); James Cameron (Avatar); Clint Eastwood (Invictus); Jason Reitman (Up in the Air); Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds)

What does it mean? It means we could be looking at our first ever female director winner! And for a war movie. A great one at that. Otherwise it looks like Tarantino, Reitman, and Cameron are in I think. The last slot will probably go to Eastwood or Lee Daniels. But who knows. The Academy sometimes does interesting things with Best Director.



Thursday, December 17, 2009

Oscar Precursor Stampede: Part 1 (Picture, Actor, Actress)

In the past week or so, many many critics groups and awards bodies have released their awards and nominations for 2009. I'll take a look at how each category is panning out and what that means for Oscars. I'll look at the National Board of Review (first major awards) the New York Film Critics and LA Film Critics (the two most influential critics groups), the Broadcast Film Critics (fairly predictive of Oscar), the Screen Actors Guild (ditto), and the Golden Globes (biggest prize after Oscar).

BEST PICTURE

NY Film Critics: The Hurt Locker
LA Film Critics: The Hurt Locker
National Board of Review: Up in the Air
National Board of Review Top 10: An Education, (500) Days of Summer, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Invictus, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Star Trek, Up, Where the Wild Things Are
Broadcast Film Critics: Avatar, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Invictus, Nine, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air
Golden Globe Nominees (Drama): Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Precious, Up in the Air
Golden Globe Nominees (Comedy/Musical): (500) Days of Summer, The Hangover, It's Complicated, Julie & Julia, Nine
Screen Actors Guild (Best Ensemble): An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Nine, Precious

What does it mean? A few movies are obviously doing extremely well in these precursors: The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, and Inglorious Basterds. The Hurt Locker seems to be winning the most awards, but I still tend to think Up in the Air is our current frontrunner for the win. The Hurt Locker is probably a little small and a little unconventional for a Best Picture win. Precious missed the National Board of Review, but otherwise looks strong. Nine, Invictus, and An Education are a little spotty in their awards attention. Also, it looks like Avatar will be good rather than a bomb..... can't wait to see it!



BEST ACTOR

NY Film Critics: George Clooney (Up in the Air & The Fantastic Mr. Fox)
LA Film Critics: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)
Runner-Up: Colin Firth (A Single Man)
National Board of Review: Morgan Freeman (Invictus) & George Clooney (Up in the Air)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart); George Clooney (Up in the Air); Colin Firth (A Single Man); Morgan Freeman (Invictus); Viggo Mortenson (The Road); Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)
Golden Globe Nominees (Drama): Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart); George Clooney (Up in the Air); Colin Firth (A Single Man); Morgan Freeman (Invictus); Tobey Maguire (Brothers)
Golden Globe Nomineees (Comedy/Musical): Matt Damon (The Informant!); Daniel Day-Lewis (Nine); Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes); Joseph Gordon-Levitt ( (500) Days of Summer); Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man)
Screen Actors Guild Nominees: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart); George Clooney (Up in the Air); Colin Firth (A Single Man); Morgan Freeman (Invictus); Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)



What Does it Mean? If I had to make a bet, I'd bet our five nominees are going to match the Screen Actors Guild (Bridges, Clooney, Firth, Freeman, Renner). It looks like a Jeff Bridges vs. Clooney fight for the win. I'm super excited to see relative unknown Jeremy Renner get so much attention for The Hurt Locker. Here's hoping he goes all the way to Oscar nomination morning.

BEST ACTRESS

NY Film Critics:
Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)
LA Film Critics: Yolande Moreau (Seraphine) - HUH? had not even heard of this.
Runner-Up: Carey Mulligan (An Education)
National Board of Review: Carey Mulligan (An Education)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria); Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side); Carey Mulligan (An Education); Saorsie Ronan (The Lovely Bones); Gabourey Sidibe (Precious); Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)
Golden Globe Nominees (Drama): Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria); Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side); Helen Mirren (The Last Station); Carey Mulligan (An Education); Gabourey Sidibe (Precious)
Golden Globe Nominees (Comedy/Musical): Sandra Bullock (The Proposal); Marion Cotillard (Nine); Julia Roberts (Duplicity); Meryl Streep (It's Complicated); Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)
Screen Actors Guild Nominees: Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side); Helen Mirren (The Last Station); Carey Mulligan (An Education); Gabourey Sidibe (Precious); Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)

What does it mean? As someone who is particularly annoyed by Sandra Bullock in most roles, it pains me to admit that it looks like she has a likely claim on one of the five nomination slots this year. As with the actors, the Screen Actors Guild may have given us the same list that is likely to be Oscar nominated: Bullock, Mirren, Mulligan, Sidibe, Streep. I think it's definitely between Mulligan and Streep for the win, with my money on Streep. I loved both performances, so I haven't fully committed to a camp yet.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Up in the Air, Star Trek, and Julie & Julia

As Oscar season heats up, I'm doing my best to fit in all the 2009 contenders I can Hooray for my upcoming holiday break! Here are my latest viewings.....



Up in the Air

Up in the Air is probably the front-runner for Best Picture, and I can see why. It's a movie so carefully written, directed, and acted that all the pieces seemed to fit into place. This is no small feat since there are several narratives within the movie. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who goes to other companies to tell their employees they are laid off. So part of the movie is about that and is a commentary on our economy. Another part is about his casual (or not?) relationship with another business traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga). There is also his young protege (or nemesis?) Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). And by the end, you also learn a lot about Bingham's relationship with his family.

The fact that all these threads are woven together with laugh-out-loud and lump in your throat moments are testament to the great screenplay and the lead and supporting actors who pull it off. I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is George Clooney's best performance. He does always kind of play a similar suave character, but he plays it well, and in this movie he adds depth and complexity to the character. The two supporting actresses are absolutely outstanding. Vera Farmiga, best known from her great role in the male-centric The Departed, is great as a counterpart to Clooney's businessman. The two definitely set off sparks in their moments together. Anna Kendrick is also excellent as a young go-getter who finds her views widened in her time with Clooney. The female roles here always feel like fully formed characters, and not tools for Clooney's character development.

This is the kind of movie I don't want to tell too much about, because much of the pleasure to be found is in the directions it takes. Do I have quibbles? Sure, but they are few and minor. There's a little too much indie-rock towards the end of the film when it really doesn't need the extra emotion, and I would have appreciated a touch more closure on a plot point or two. But all in all, this is easily one of the best movies of the year. See it.

Grade: A



Star Trek

When I was a young preteen, I loved the old Star Trek. I remember watching them with my brother on summer evenings and enjoying the kitschy trips to other planets and the sense of opportunity aboard the Starship Enterprise. I also remember being put off by Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was too modern-looking, too serious, and just not as fun.

The good news about Star Trek is that it definitely has the spirit of the old show and not The Next Generation. It's bright, fun, fast-paced, and shot through with a dose of good feeling. It basically sets up the backstory of how Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and the rest of the gang came to be aboard the Starship Enterprise. I really enjoyed seeing the origin and seeing Kirk and Spock's relationship develop. The time-travel plotline with Leonard Nimoy is also a lot of fun. The cast is young, attractive, and easy to watch.

All in all, it's definitely a fun popcorn movie. My biggest complaint is that is has a bit too much action near the end and not enough character development. The other quibble is that it sometimes seems more like a setup for future sequels (which I'm sure there will be) and less like a movie aware of its own strengths.

Grade: B


Julie & Julia

Meryl Streep hits it out of the park as Julia Child. You could call what she does overacting, with her whoops and mutterings and physicality, but when you watch videos of the actual Julia Child it actually feels like Meryl is dead on. The scenes detailing Julia's life in France with her diplomat husband (the wonderful Stanly Tucci) are also charming and delightful. You see Julia fall in love with food and find her passion, and Meryl takes you along for the ride.

Unfortunately, this charming story is paired with a pedestrian story of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a Queens blogger who attempted to cook all the recipes in Child's cookbook in one year. The concept is interesting, but the character of Julie is rather bland. Whenever the movie switches back to her story, you know it is going to move in predictable directions. It's not exactly "bad," and Amy Adams does her best in the role of Julie, but the story only holds so much dramatic material. The ending of the movie is also a let-down. You're waiting for some kind of climax where everything comes together, and it never really comes.

Still, this movie is definitely worth seeing for the Julia Child half of the movie, and especially Meryl Streep's performance, which may finally win Streep her third Oscar. If I ever watch it again, I certainly know which parts will get the fast forward button.

Grade: B-

Monday, November 30, 2009

DVD Review Round Up

With all of my recent theater viewings, I've fallen a bit behind on my at-home reporting. Here are the last several movies I've watched, three 2009 releases and one from a few years ago. As you'll see, they are a bunch of B's, all worth seeing but nothing that blew my mind....


Funny People (2009)

The first 2/3 of this movie were very very good. Seth Rogen plays a young comic who is hired as a personal assistant and writer to George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a washed-up and detached from life comic who has also found out he is gravely ill. The scenes with Seth Rogen and his young comic friends (Jason Schwartzman, Jonah Hill), are hilarious. The scenes between Sandler and Rogen are alternately very funny and somewhat poignant.

The problem with this movie was the last 1/3. It turns the movie from a comedy/drama of mortality and humor into a love triangle between Adam Sandler, Leslie Mann, and Eric Bana. Mann and Bana are good, but this part seems tacked onto a different movie. It also makes the movie about 20-30 minutes too long. A great premise and a great start, but definitely a step down for Judd Apatow from Knocked Up.

Grade:
First 2/3-A-, Last 1/3- C, so I'll give it a B

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

I'm not usually a fan of horror movies, but this movie got a lot of good buzz. I'm glad I saw it. The movies follows a loan officer (Alison Lohman) who is cursed when she denies to extend a home loan to an old woman. Sam Raimi, the director, has travelled from horror cult classics (Evil Dead), to critically acclaimed thrillers (A Simple Plan), to blockbusters (Spider-Man). Here he returns to his horror roots and makes a movie that relies on every horror trick in the book.... and they mostly work. I thought a few scenes fell flat, and there was a little too much gross-out material, but overall this was a really effective horror film. I jumped multiple times It was also fun to watch. I'll take this over any of the Saw movies any day.

Grade: B

Every Little Step (2009)

This documentary is kind of two movies in one. One is the story of the creation of the Broadway musical A Chorus Line. Another is a movie about a competition over who will be cast in the musical's recent revival. The first story (the history) was a bit dry, but the auditions were fascinating. I wish there was actually more audition footage and more backstory on those auditioning. It could have been like Spellbound with adults. Overall, though, a fun movie to watch if you like musicals or competitions.

Grade: B

Birth (2004)



I was intrigued by this movie since I know that it got fairly negative reviews when it was released, but I've also seen it listed as a cult classic on many of my favorite film blog sites.

The story is strange (and more than a little bit disturbing). Anna (Nicole Kidman) is a woman whose husband dies. 10 years later, she is about to get married when a 10-year-old boy comes to tell her that he is her reincarnated husband. Anna gradually comes to believe this is true, which leads to many surprising turns of events. The movie is told stylishly with a great score and a wonderful and mysterious performance by Kidman. What I didn't like is how it gave away almost too much at the end. Ambiguity would have been much more interesting. Worth a look mainly for Kidman's performance.

Grade: B-

Thursday, November 26, 2009

First Best Picture predictions

In a major change to Oscar protocal, this year there will be 10 nominees for Best Picture, rather than the standard five. Here are my (very) early predix for the 10 we are most likely to see. The biggest unknowns right now are the release of The Lovely Bones, Invictus, Nine, and Avatar. Will these films wow or bomb? I'm guessing at least one of these will flop, but which one?

Here are my predictions, more or less in order of likelihood. I'm fairly confident in my top 6, but after that it gets a little murky.

Precious
Up in the Air (Release Date 12/25)
Nine (Release Date 12/18)
The Hurt Locker
Invictus (Release Date 12/11)
An Education
Up
Inglorious Basterds
A Serious Man
The Lovely Bones (Release Date 12/11)

Or maybe?: Avatar, Bright Star, A Single Man, The Last Station

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Education

An Education (2009)



Any review must start, first and foremost, with talk of Carey Mulligan, who stars as Jenny, a 16-year-old girl in 1961 London who has a quintessential coming-of-age experience. Mulligan is absolutely charming and remarkably perceptive in the role. I may as well me the 300th reviewer to compare her to Audrey Hepburn, but the comparison is unmistakable. I'm sure this movie will lead to many more opportunities for this actress.

Now on to the movie as a whole. I enjoyed An Education quite a lot. It's the kind of movie that is easy to watch, unpredictable in its turns, and strikes an balance between its light and dark sides. I The movie is mostly concerned with Jenny's relationship with a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard) and how that contributes to her "education." Sarsgaard has a very tricky role. He has to be charming enough for the audience to like him and see how Jenny could like him, but also questionable enough to raise doubts. Sarsgaard plays the role very well.

The rest of the supporting cast is also excellent, particularly Alfred Molina as Jenny's typically middle-class father and Rosamund Pike as a new friend. Emma Thompson is biting in a small role as well.

What I found most interesting about the movie was how initially it seemed to be a movie about the pull between Jenny's parents and her new boyfriend, but they actually don't end up being on opposite sides. If anything, they are all in a sort of unknowing collusion against Jenny's true promise. In order to grow she has to find her own way, with a little help. It's a good message, I think, and the movie tells it with effortless grace. It's not a groundbreaking film, but it's a story very well told. Easily one of the most entertaining films of 2009. And seriously, keep an eye on Carey Mulligan.

Grade: A-

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Precious Thoughts

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire



On Saturday, I sat in a packed theater to see the much-buzzed (Oscar frontrunner?) Precious, which most of you probably know is about a severely obese and abused young woman living in Harlem in the 1980s. It's won numerous audience awards at film festivals, and now it is here, and I predict it will be a film phenomenon. It has a sort of cross between arthouse/urban/tearjerker appeal that will serve it well.

But how was it? For the most part, I have to say it lived up to the hype. For me, the movie had a very personal connection. I spent 4 years as a GED/ABE teacher and a large chunk of the movie takes places in an ABE classroom. While inspiring teacher movies are begging to be cliched, this classroom rung true for me as a teacher. I definitely knew students like Precious, and others who had problems just as severe. I also knew students with similar personalities to every other student in the classroom. These classroom scenes are lively, inspiring, and give the viewer a break from the relentless intensity of the home scenes. Paula Patton does a really nice job as Blu Rain, the teacher of Precious who helps her seek her own liberation. I haven't even mentioned the deglammed Mariah Carey yet. She is quite good in a smallish role as Precious' social worker.

The powerful and disturbing home scenes are played between Precious (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) and her mother Mary (Mo'nique). Mo'nique gives an absolutely terrifying performance as a mother who subjects her daughter to monstrous things. She's a true force of nature of screen, and you can't turn away from her performance. The brilliance of the performance is that, while we never truly sympathize with Mary, Mo'nique allows the character to be a person and not simply a figure of evil. The grandmother shuffling about in the background of a few scenes also makes you wonder what Mary lived through as well. What's inspiring about the movie (spoiler alert) is that Precious' triumph is that she is gaining the skills to break the cycles of abuse for her children. Her future may be bleak, but there is hope in her empowerment.

Precious is also, with a few minor exceptions, well-directed by Lee Daniels. I think he knows how to suggest much of the brutality without being overly graphic in its depiction. In one particular scene, the fade to black is probably actually more powerful than showing the viewer what is about to happen. I do question a couple of his judgments. The movie often shows Precious' fantasies at times when difficult things are happening, and these are mostly successful at showing us how she would choose to escape. The foreign movie scene, however, felt forced and not something that would necessarily be in Precious' experience. My other minor qualm is about the details of Precious' life. Do we really need a scene where Precious steals fried chicken, has grease all over her face, and then gets sick? It struck me as overkill in a movie that is telling a compelling story on its own.

There's been some backlash of the movie along the lines of wondering if the movie should have even been made and if it isn't just trading in negative stereotypes. While I do question a few choices made by the filmmakers, I have to disagree with this general line of argument. What I like most about Precious is that it shows us a character who many would otherwise turn from. As much as it saddens me, I also don't think this movie is unrealistic. Should we refrain from making and seeing movies about people who are not shown in their best light? This seems, to me, to be a severely limiting view of art. In the end, I think the character of Precious truly comes through as an individual and not as a stereotype. In the end I think Precious is that rare thing, a tearjerker and inspirational that earns every emotion it elicits.

Grade: A-

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Serious Man.... Seriously Good (plus quick reviews of Sin Nombre and Julia)

A Serious Man (2009)

While The Hurt Locker and Goodbye Solo came close, I had not yet seen a 2009 movie I would call great. Until Friday. A Serious Man stands with the very best of the Coen Brothers films and is a remarkable achievement.

The brothers follow up their last, star-studded movie, the enjoyable if light Burn After Reading (with Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton) with a movie full of virtual unknowns playing a Jewish community in 1967 suburban Minnesota.

The movie stars Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, an upstanding man whose life if falling apart on him. His wife is leaving him for the horrifyingly soft-spoken Cy Ableman (Fred Melamed in one of the funniest performances I've seen in a long while), his children barely acknowledge him, a student at the college he teaches at is trying to bribe him, and his brother won't leave his house and spends all his time draining the cyst on his neck.

The Coens (along with their masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins) have created a world that feels specific and inhabited. This is a world of an insulated Jewish community (much like where the Coens were raised) that mostly stays to themselves. Some of the best scenes involve Larry's visits to various Rabbis, who attempt to give him some meaning. Throughout the movie, various questions of religion and meaning in life are raised (without ever sacrificing the comedy).

I actually don't want to tell too much about the movie because it would spoil its many surprises. The Coens are masters at setting up surprising scenes that milk the audience's expectations, and this movie is no exception. It also has an ending that I found brilliant, but will probably prove as divisive as the enigmatic finale to No Country for Old Men. While I have enjoyed just about all the Coen Brothers films (perhaps excepting Intolerable Cruelty), A Serious Man stands with Fargo and No Country for Old Men as one of their unqualified masterpieces.

Grade: A

I have also been trying to catch up on my 2009 releases on video. Here are a few quick thoughts.

Sin Nombre (2009)

A sort of cross between City of God, El Norte, and Maria Full of Grace, and unfortunately it suffers a bit in comparison to these great movies. Sin Nombre tells the story of a young gang member attempting to escape from gang brutality, and a girl who is traveling to the United States with her family. The movie is told with grace and simplicity, but I never felt as fully invested in the characters as I did in other movies that told a similar story.

Grade: C+

Julia (2009)



No, not the movie about cooking and Julia Child. This one stars Tilda Swinton as an alcoholic train-wreck of a woman who kidnaps a young boy in order to make some cash. The chief reason to see this movie, and its a good one, is Swinton's performance. In a role 180 degrees removed from her Oscar-winning supporting role in Michael Clayton, Swinton fully inhabits the role and doesn't make a play for audience sympathy. I admired the way this movie didn't go for easy sentiments or redemption. Its tough-minded about the way Julia acts, and yet the audience remains watching because we can't turn away. It's a little overlong, and a few elements of the plot are perhaps too far-fetched, but it's definitely worth seeing for Swinton's performance (easily the best female performance I've seen so far this year).

Grade: B

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Top 10 Retrospective: 2003

It's been a little while since I did this feature, but it's back! Looking back, here is my top 10 of 2003.

(Also, please see the side of my blog to get easy access to all my previous top 10 lists!)

2003

Runners-Up: 21 Grams, Capturing the Friedmans, Dirty Pretty Things, A Mighty Wind.

10. Cold Mountain: Despite Renee Zellwegger being a little annoying (albeit interesting) and Nicole Kidman being a little miscast, I thought this was a beautiful Civil War movie with a great performance by Jude Law and numerous masterful scenes by the late director Anthony Minghella.



9. The Fog of War: This documentary is basically an interview with Robert McNamara, the chief architect of the Vietnam War. Great documentarian Errol Morris is able to get fascinating footage from his interview, and McNamara engages in gripping scenes of self-doubt and (almost) apology.

8. Finding Nemo: Another excellent animated film from Pixar, the most visually stunning film they had made to date.

7. The Return of the King: While it had about 4 endings too many, there is no denying the scope and beauty of Peter Jackson's finale to the amazingly detailed trilogy.

6. In America: A lovely semi-autobiographical film from Irish director Jim Sheridan about a new immigrant family's adjustment to life in America. I dare you not to choke up.

5. Spellbound: This hugely entertaining and edge-of-your-seat documentary profiles contestants from various walks of life making their way to the National Spelling Bee.



4. Mystic River: Clint Eastwood directs a superb cast (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden) in a great drama about wounds of the past and how they follow people into the future.

3. American Splendor: Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis are excellent as comic-book artist Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, two misfits who somehow find love. This movie utilizes animation, documentary, comics, and fiction to tell the story of some of the most unique individuals I've ever seen in film.



2. City of God: I can still remember being absolutely riveted while watching this in the theater. Has the violence and energy of early Martin Scorsese, with the added freshness of its Brazilian-ghetto setting. One of those movies that's depressing, but also very invigorating because of the power of its filmmaking.

1. Lost in Translation: A movie I can watch over and over again. Few films have gotten the sense of loneliness and human connection so right as Sofia Coppola does. Bill Murray is astonishing and Scarlett Johannson also great (in a role that fits her perfectly) as Americans lost in their lives and lost in Tokyo. Easily one of my favorite movies of the decade.



Summing it Up: A strong year for film, especially my top 5. It had a wide range of genres that caught my love and admiration.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Away We Go (2009)

Away We Go (2009)


Like Where the Wild Things Are, this one was penned by author Dave Eggers (and wife Vendella Vida). If I did not know the director, I never would have pegged this as a Sam Mendes effort. The indie/quirky spirit of this movie is a far cry from the stylized American Beauty and Revolutionary Road.

The movie stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as a young couple about to have a baby. When his parents tell them they are leaving for a few years in Europe, the couple decides to visit a few places in the country to see where they fit. The movie is an episodic account of their journeys and the several people they visit. Most of the visits unearth some sort of horror the couple wishes to avoid, such as suburban alcoholics who demean their kids, inflexible New Age hippies, or broken marriages.

John Krasinski is likable enough as Burt, but to me he was really just playing a hipster version of Jim from The Office. I found Maya Rudolph much more interesting as Verona. Throughout the movie, her character is the more guarded one, and Rudolph does a really nice job at suggesting the layers underneath.

There were a lot of fun moments in this film, but also parts that seemed a bit mashed together. Some episodes could be from a Christopher Guest movie (the sections with Allison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal), while others seemed to be going for a much more sincere vibe. I think I actually would have liked the movie a little more if it had been a flat-out comedy with a little sentiment and not quite so many soft indie songs on the soundtrack. As it stands, the movie is an entertaining road movie with many funny bits, a lot of good actors, and a little bit of a message (find your own path in your relationships).

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wild Things....

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)



When I was a kid, there was once when I got mad at my family and rode my bike to a fort in the woods that my friends and I had made. This is just a preface to say that I get Max, our protagonist in Where the Wild Things Are, and I think the reason the book is such a classic is the emotions it evokes. Who doesn't remember the childhood moments when you wanted to be somewhere else?

So here comes the movie version of Sendak's classic picture book. In many ways, it follows the basic plotline of the book and just adds details. Max gets mad at his mom, escapes (instead of going to his room like in the book), and ends up on an island of Wild Things, where he is made their king. I thought the opening of this movie was extremely strong and poignant in giving us a view of the world through Max's eyes. When he gets to the island, viewers are in for a shock. Almost immediately, Max is beset by the human-like problems of the wild things. One has anger issues, one has acceptance issues, and they all lack a certain sense of purpose. The monsters reflect emotions that Max has been feeling towards his own mother and sister. In order to get back home, he has to somehow face and deal with these issues.

Sendak personally chose director Spike Jonze for the project, and I think he made a great choice. Jonze's only other two movies are the mind-bending Being John Malkovich (a personal favorite) and Adapation (another fascinating movie). What Wild Things has in common with these two movies is the way it uses fantasy to project elemental human feelings of desire, conflict, and inadequacy. Are Max's feelings of anger really so far off of Charlie Kaufman's (Nicolas Cage) in Adaptation?

The movie consistently kept me hooked on an intellectual level. At times, I could hardly believe the heavy emotions that the movie was giving to the Wild Things. Throughout the movie, I was constantly finding the connections between Max's life and these wild things. I also loved the music and the cinematography (the fantasy sequences were shot in Australia). Unfortunately, I don't think this movie is the unqualified masterpiece I was hoping for (or that it could have been). While the problems of the Wild Things were fascinating, I would have liked a little more unadulterated childlike wonder, at least when Max first encounters the creatures. I also thought that there were a few too many creatures so that it was difficult to care about them all. The movie definitely began and ended good, and there are some truly great sequences, but also a few too many parts that begin to feel repetitive.

This movie is by far one of the most thought provoking of this year's movies, and you should definitely see it. It has so much going for it, I just wish it crossed the line into greatness.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

OK, so the makers of this film decided to put Sunshine in the title. And cast Alan Arkin as a kooky old man. A kooky old man who has a poignant relationship with a child. As I was watching it, I couldn't quite believe it. The choice to be so clearly derivative of a better and widely-seen movie (Little Miss Sunshine just in case you didn't get the references) was unfortunate for a movie with many minor charms of its own.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the movie on the whole, and it's mainly because of the lovely performance of Amy Adams. Does anyone play inherently good characters as well as her, as we've seen in Enchanted, Doubt, and Junebug (if you have not seen Junebug, Netflix it NOW. One of my favorite movies of recent years). Amy Adams plays a single mom working as a cleaner who is led into the crime-scene and hazardous materials business by her married cop boyfriend. She partners with her also troubled sister (the also enjoyable Emily Blunt), and the business begins. While the movie was marketed as a comedy, it's really more of a drama with some comedic parts. There are definitely some lovely moments along the way in this film, but it is definitely inconsistent. To sum it up, I'd say I enjoyed it, it was worth a rental, but I'm glad I didn't pay money to see it in the theater.

Grade: C+

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sugar & Two Lovers

So being a teacher has its perks, like being able to watch lots of movies and blog about them during the summer.... it also has its drawbacks, which I will blame for my woeful lack of blogging the past month or so. Anyway, here are a few thoughts on a couple of recent 2009 viewings...

Sugar (2009)
Directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Nelson, the forces behind the excellent Half Nelson, Sugar tells the story of a 19-year-old Dominican who comes to the United States to play minor league baseball. This is kind of an anti-sports movie. There is no real big game or big moment. There is really only one extended sports sequence. It doesn't really care who wins or loses, it cares about this young man's experience. Miguel comes as a wide-eyed innocent to the United States, and the movie does a really fine job of portraying things through his eyes. It's a very gentle film, with not a lot of obvious emotional highs and lows. Still, at the end, I was genuinely moved and enlightened by Miguel's story.

Grade: B+

Two Lovers (2009)



I saw this movie yesterday, and I knew that I enjoyed it but saw it as sort of a minor accomplishment. As I've ruminated about it today, though, it strikes me more as a cinematic version of a really good short story. It focuses on a few characters, has a basic plot that can be told in a few sentences, but the characterization lends the story its complexity. A great Joaquin Phoenix stars as a youngish depressed man who lives with his immigrant Jewish parents in Brooklyn. The movie basically follows him as he is torn between the Jewish nice girl (Vinessa Shaw) and the troubled girl (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). What makes this movie really engaging is the performances. Phoenix brings to mind a young Brando in his naturalism of his performance. Paltrow, playing a sort of "bad girl," is the best she's been in a long time. And Isabella Rosselini, older and now able to pull off matronly (funny to see... anyone seen Blue Velvet?) gives a great small performance as his mother. The directing, by James Gray, is also really solid. He give the audience time to absorb each scene, but keeps the emotional story moving enough that I never got bored. A movie many people probably missed but I definitely think is worth a look.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Adventureland & Duplicity

It's my current quest to catch up on all the notable (read: at least somewhat critically admired) movies of the first half of the year, now that many are out on DVD. Here are my quick thoughts on a couple of them.

Adventureland (2009)



The movie stars Jesse Eisenberg (who plays a sort of older, less pretentious version of his The Squid and the Whale character) as a Ivy League-grad who ends up working at an amusement park the summer after he graduates. He of course falls in love with a beautiful girl (Kristen Bell of, yes, Twilight, and she's good in this. The movie gets a lot of things right, including the period details. It really look and feels like 1987. I also thought the sense of early-20s ennui and searching was also well done. It's the kind of movie that's really pleasant to watch, very likable, but not necessarily one I'll go back to. I think it just lacked a certain umph for me. And I did have a little bit of a complaint about the ending. I'm kind of a stickler for endings, so a good one can probably make me overpraise a movie, and a bad one can make me knock it down a notch. The ending wasn't terrible, but it was predictable and cliched after a movie that seemed pretty natural and organic.

Grade: B

Duplicity (2009)


Those who enjoyed Michael Clayton (as I very much did) will probably also enjoy director Tony Gilroy's Duplicity. It riffs on many of the same formats and ideas, including jigsaw-puzzle construction and a cynical look at corporate culture. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are a lot of fun as a couple with a relationship we try to figure out throughout the movie. Do they love each other? Are they scheming with or against each other? They're working for rival drug companies, who have a nastiness that intentionally recalls the Cold War. Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti are great as the presidents of their respective companies. This movie is a bit of an homage to Hitchcock, Charade, and other movies of the past where the mood and sexual tension were just as important as the plotlines. The plotlines do get a bit convoluted here, but I enjoyed trying to figure everything out. The movie doesn't have any characters with the depth of George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, or Tom Wilkinson's characters in Michael Clayton, so Duplicity doesn't end up meaning as much to the viewer in the end. I like Tony Gilroy, though. I like the way he makes movies aimed at adults, not teen boys, and he makes the audience do a little work.

Grade: B+

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gran Torino & In the Heat of the Night

Gran Torino (2008)

I found myself torn about Eastwood's 2008 melodrama. There is so much I admire about Eastwood's contemporary directing work. The willingness to deal with emotion, the restraint of his filmmaking, and the way he lets his stories unfold.

Unfortunately, I had some problems with the story and script, particularly in its attitudes towards race. While the movie is about a sort of reconciliation between Eastwood's racist old man and his Hmong immigrant neighbors, the movie kind of promotes a "good minority/bad minority" scheme. Also, is it just me or is Eastwood getting a little lazy in his growling performances? Worth a look, but definitely not up to the level of his earlier dramas Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby.

Grade: B-

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

One of the best books about movies I've ever read is Pictures at a Revolution, which uses the lens of the 1967 Best Picture race to look at a defining turning point in American film. In 1967, the police/race relations drama In the Heat of the Night beat two much better groundbreaking films, Bonnie and Clyde (one of my favorites) and The Graduate and two much worse films, the dated Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and the much-hated Doctor Doolittle.

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger are terrific as a northern Philadelphia cop who helps a Southern cop solve a murder in a racist and sleepy Southern town. After reading Pictures at a Revolution, I have a better sense of how incendiary certain moments are, such as when Poitier slaps a racist white man (see video below). The racial tension in the movie is still palpable, the performances are great, and the cinematography by the great Haskell Wexler gives a modern look to the film. Unfortunately, the murder story is frankly pedestrian and often left me bored. An interesting film for historical reasons, but no longer a great one.

Grade: B

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker



Yesterday I saw the much-heralded The Hurt Locker, and I was not disappointed. It's a tense, edge-of-your-seat, thought-provoking war movie.

A lot of what I liked about it are the things it didn't do, that war movies are prone to do. It didn't give a huge cast of characters, confusing the audience. Instead, it focused (mainly) on the 3-member bomb squad and their interactions. It didn't have a lot of shots of people on the home front reading letters and getting phone calls. In fact, it's not until halfway through the movie that we know anything of the backgrounds of the characters. The one extended segment in the U.S. was powerful precisely because the points weren't belabored earlier in the movie. It doesn't make cheap political points, on either side of the coin. I would argue that showing the reality of war inevitably makes a political point, but it doesn't hit the viewer over the head.

There are great performances in this movie by the two leads, Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie. The cinematography is great, and the movie is seriously suspenseful and engaging. One minor caveat I had is that I didn't really like the ending. It actually could have ended in about two different spots before the last scene and been a better movie. But that's a small criticism for a great movie. Expect to see it on many end of the year top 10 lists, and probably on Oscar's 10-deep Best Picture roster.

Grade: A-


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Coraline

Coraline (2009)

While I'm a bit sad I missed Coraline in its 3-D glory on the big screen, I was definitely glad to catch it on DVD. It's directed by Henry Selick, and I'm a fan of his past work on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.

The best part of Coraline is definitely the visuals. The movie has meticulous animation, and I think it would take several viewings to truly appreciate all that is within each frame. The story is also delightfully creepy. When watching the movie, I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland and Pan's Labyrinth. It's about a spunky preteen who finds a passage into an alternate world (where everyone has very creepy button eyes) that quickly turns from idyllic to horrifying.

I also liked how Coraline didn't feel the need to be overly heartwarming. While I appreciate the real emotion Pixar puts into its movies, I was pleased that Coraline chose frights and visual splendor as its main goals. While I enjoyed the transitions between the real world and the alternate world, there were a few moments where I thought the pacing seemed a bit off. That's a minor quibble, though, for a movie that was a lot of fun.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wizards and Romances: Harry Potter and 500 Days of Summer

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

To preface my review, I should say that I am a Harry Potter fan, thoroughly enjoy the books, but am not, perhaps, a "super-fan". I have read all the books once, seen all the movies once, and may read the books again one day. By the time the movies come out, I have usually forgotten most aspects of the books so I am not unduly upset if something is changed or different than I imagine it. I was so-so on the first two movies (a little too kiddie and conventional for my taste), but enjoyed 3-5.

So, as the fan I am, I heartily enjoyed the new movie, perhaps the best of the series so far. The 2 1/2 hour movie mostly focuses on three things: the rise of the Death Eaters, Harry's attempts to get information from the new Defense of the Dark Arts Teacher Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), and, of course, adolescent romance involving all of the leads. The movie felt about the right length to tell the stories without getting overlong or overtruncated.

I loved the set design and cinematography of this movie. Everything is shot in blues and grays, and Hogwarts seems scarier than it ever has before. The last 20 minutes or so of the movie are truly scary, and show that Harry Potter has grown up. The adolescent romance also provides a nice antidote to the darkness. The young actors perform well, and I loved the addition of Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Iris, Moulin Rogue). Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon also continue to be great in their key roles. The only reason that I don't grade Harry Potter higher is its limitations as a movie apart from the books. Without reading the books, I think the movies can only go so far as cinematic art. While I'm sure they are still enjoyable to follow as a film series, I think much of the emotional connection audiences bring to the films is from their devotion to the books (and, in this movie, knowledge of how the series will end).

Grade: B+

(500) Days of Summer



I was very excited to see this movie, since the buzz and reviews have been almost entirely positive. Here are my thoughts....

The good:
-First and foremost, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He is absolutely wonderful in this movie, and I nominate him as the next John Cusack. This is good since the movie is told from his point of view. He gives the audience a good entrance into the story.
-The style. The movie adds in musical numbers, foreign film parodies, animation, and split-screens. More often than not, this adds to the enjoyment of the movie.
-The format. I (mostly) liked seeing a relationship between two people distilled into certain days, and it was nice to have the counter handy on screen for the audience.

The bad:
-Summer. I'm kind of iffy on Zooey Deschanel (cute yes, a great actress I don't think so), but her character in this movie is very hard to understand. She is charming, yes, but what makes Josh obsess over her? It's a problem since the main arc of this movie is how much Josh learned from his relationship with her.
-The forced quirk factor. The Ikea shopping, the cute wisecracking sister, the greeting cards. It was all a little forced and artificial. A lot of times this quirk got in the way of real insight or emotion.

Verdict:
-I'm glad I saw the movie, I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a great future in the business, and there is definitely some talent behind the camera. On the other hand, many elements were too familiar and trite to be affecting in any way. Will I ever see this movie again? No. If I want to see a great movie about how a person grows through a relationship, I'll watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Annie Hall for the umpteenth time.

Grade: B-

Friday, July 31, 2009

Top 10 Retrospective: 2004

Runners-Up: Hotel Rwanda, The Incredibles, Super Size Me


10. Dogville: Nicole Kidman stars (wonderfully) as Grace, a woman on the run who attempts to take refuge in a small Colorado town. Provocative director Lars Von Trier creates a sadistic inversion of Our Town, and it contains many chilling scenes, including an ending that I think is probably a bit over-the-top. Nevertheless, a terrific cast and a lot to think about and debate in this movie.



9. The Aviator: Martin Scorsese's biopic of Howard Hawks has great cinematography and art direction to evoke old Hollywood. Maybe a little overlong, but it's saved by a fascinating lead character, a good performance by Leonardo Dicaprio and a great one by Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn.

8. Closer: Obviously a filmed play, but a gripping one. The central foursome is great (especially Clive Owen and Natalie Portman), in this bitter movie about love gone wrong.

7. Finding Neverland: A poignant movie about J.M. Barrie and his creation of Peter Pan. Old-fashioned in a good sense, with lots of uplift and tears.

6. Kinsey: Like The Aviator and Finding Neverland, another biopic about an interesting man, this time the groundbreaking sex researcher (played by Liam Neeson), his research, and his relationships with his wife (the great Laura Linney) and staff. Evokes the time of the 1940s and 1950s perfectly, and contains plenty of contemporary relevance.

5. Sideways: A movie about relationships, wine, and finding something that has meaning in your life. Wonderfully written and directed by Alexander Payne. After Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, I can't think of another American director with three such strong movies in a row.



4. Million Dollar Baby: Clint Eastwood's mournful drama about boxing and relationships. For me, this movie actually improved on a second viewing. Great storytelling and a strong directorial vision keep this movie gripping until the final emotionally overwhelming moments.

3. Maria Full of Grace: A naturalistic, humanistic, and nail-biting suspenseful movie about Maria, a Colombian woman who becomes a drug mule to the United States. Catalina Sandina Moreno earned an Oscar nomination for pitch-perfect performance.

2. Before Sunset: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their roles from the great Before Sunrise and make a movie that adds notes of maturity and regret to the original movie. If you haven't seen Before Sunrise, see that first and then see this. I guarantee you'll be itching for the next installment (2014??).

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Movie of the decade? Definitely one of my favorite movies. I've seen it multiple times and I love it more every time. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are perfect, the script is absolutely brilliant, and there isn't a scene I would cut or change. I love it.

Summing Up: Aside from my top few spots, I think this was a pretty weak year in the movies. While I enjoyed all the movies, I can point to significant flaws for every movie beyond my Top 3.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Brief Break from the Movies....

Even though I run a movie blog, I have a dirty secret. Sometimes I like TV better than movies, and not only because it's often easier to find 45 minutes than 2 hours in a day. There are certain things it can do better. At its best, it can portray more nuanced characters and build more complex storylines than traditional films are able to do. So here are a few of my thoughts on contemporary TV.

Shows I've seen (almost) all of and loved....

The Wire: Hands down, without a doubt, my favorite TV show and I think one of the greatest works of modern media. This series started as a look at cops and criminals of Baltimore's drug trade, but it grew into so much more. A look at the crises facing modern American cities. I love all the seasons, but the peak for me was Season 4, which focused on urban schools. I could talk about this show for hours....



30 Rock: One of the only shows where I find all of the lead cast members (Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer) almost equally hilarious. My vote for the best comedy on TV right now. Guaranteed for some crack-up moments.



Arrested Development: A hilariously out-there show with another batch of excellent characters. Of course, with a show this good, not enough people watched it and it went off the air.



Six Feet Under: Ah, the crazy, messed-up Fishers. After watching this family of morticians for five seasons, I feel I know every dark secret they've hidden, and I still love them. Not the most consistent show in quality (a couple plotlines went a little overdramatic even for the Fishers), but still a wonderfully dark, funny, emotional show with truly memorable characters.



The Office: Another comedy that uses its great writing and cast to triumph. Since the quality lagged over the last season, perhaps this shouldn't be on my "loved" list, but this show is still capable of brilliance. I just hope it makes a good recovery this coming fall.

Shows I've watched some of, and my thoughts on them....

The West Wing: I don't know where I was, but I never even saw one episode of this when it was on. I'm almost done watching the first season, and I'm really enjoying it, particularly Allison Janney and Rob Lowe. Not as groundbreaking as some of the HBO series, but still a lot of fun to watch.

In Treatment: This show about a psychiatrist (Gabriel Byrne) and his patients is a quiet show that consists almost entirely of therapy sessions. Each season takes a look at four of his clients, and his own relationship with his psychiatrist (the wonderful Dianne Wiest). The watched the first season and was usually fascinated. The only plotline that didn't really suck me in was the bickering married couple. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to Season 2 when it comes out on DVD.

Friday Night Lights: I'd heard this was good, so I've been watching it on Netflix's "Watch Now." The first season was surprisingly compelling, since I have little to no interest in high school football. This show has some great young actors, though, and a superb performance by Connie Britten. I've seen two or three episodes of the second season, and I'm a little worried about where it's heading (soap opera territory?). I'll keep watching though.

Veronica Mars: Kristen Bell's high-school girl detective is a lot of fun. Witty, funny, and engaging. The first season was much better than the second, but I'm enjoying the third right now. Three seasons were it for this show.

Battlestar Galactica: The overwhelming acclaim caused me to check the first season of this show out, even though I'm not usually a fan of Sci-Fi. I liked it, but haven't quite fallen in love yet. I will probably check out the second season soon.

Big Love: HBO's plural marriage drama. The first season was good, the second season very good, and I'm looking forward to watching the third. The wives are the best part of the show. All three actresses are great at their roles.

Project Runway: The only reality show I watch, and its great. Great characters, Tim Gunn is great, and a competition that actually has to do with talent. I've seen the first 4 (?) seasons.

Weeds: I watched the first two seasons, but I have little desire to continue. I think I got bored and stopped caring about the characters....

Show I know I should see, but haven't yet....

Mad Men: Not sure why this hasn't made it to the top of my Netflix queue yet. Huge acclaim and interesting subject matter. I hope to see the first season soon.

Readers, any other shows I should check out?