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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.

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.

Up in the Air (Release Date 12/25)
Nine (Release Date 12/18)
The Hurt Locker
Invictus (Release Date 12/11)
An Education
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!)


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.