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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+