Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bad Orson

"In many ways, Lt. Terence McDonagh represents the ultimate Cage performance, full of unorthodox acting choices that work beautifully. Cage goes over the top all right, but it never feels like he’s simply hamming it up for the hell of it. Everything works in the context of the character, from his repeated dialogue quirks (dig his disbelieving chuckle whenever he mentions the henchman “G”) to the character’s outlandish behavior. It would be sort of unbearable if Cage appeared to be breaking a sweat, but he inhabits the character so fully that he seems completely in control even in the character's craziest moments."

Click here for the full review.

"It’s become something of an awards-season cliché that actors are bound to get plenty of hype for playing famous people. Frankly, I’ve gotten a little tired of it- yeah, I suppose it’s neat to see, for example, Jaime Foxx playing Ray Charles, but once the initial charge wears off, the idea of one celebrity playing another feels like a thespian parlor trick designed to grab the attention of Oscar voters. However, Christian McKay’s justifiably feted turn as the late Mr. Welles is an exception- a full-blooded creation that transcends the requisite mimicry. McKay’s work is spellbinding, and his Welles is the rare interpretation of a historical figure that would be just as compelling a character had he not existed in real life."

Click here for the full review.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tidings for Muriels Season

With awards season fast approaching, it’s now time to begin what has become an annual tradition for me- Muriels cramming. Having a limited amount of free time at my disposal throughout the year, I tend to find that there’s a decent-sized list of movies remaining come December that I feel compelled to watch before filling out my Muriels ballot. But while in the past I’ve felt a certain duty to take in anything that seems to be remotely in contention for awards, this year I’m getting a little weary of the process.

I suppose this feeling began last Friday, when I watched one of this year’s prime bits of Oscar bait, Lone Scherfig’s An Education. Here is a movie that has all the right ingredients to be a major awards-season player- a star-making turn from Carey Mulligan, a classy (mostly English!) supporting cast, and handsome production values, in the service of an adaptation of an acclaimed memoir, thereby carrying the attendant “based on a true story” cachet. It’s all so perfect- perfectly produced, perfectly performed, perfectly dull. There’s nothing in An Education to jolt the stereotypical arthouse crowd out of their collective comfort zone, but also nothing to make it memorable aside from Mulligan. If An Education makes a star of its leading lady, I certainly won’t complain, but one luminous performer doesn’t a worthy movie make. Compare it to a hard-edged movie like this year’s Julia, which features Tilda Swinton’s career-best work, and you see the difference between a film that uses its star turn as a crutch and one that actually makes it the foundation upon which everything else is built.

In years past, the idea that I would be with skipping a potentially “important” awards contender would have been surprising to me. But then, I had more time to watch movies back in the day. Nowadays, my movie-watching time has decreased significantly, so I have to make the most of it. So rather than sitting through anything that might have even the slightest chance of contending for my end-of-year honors, I’m forced to get more selective. With this in mind, I’ve come up with some rules of thumb I intend to observe this Muriels season, in the hope they’ll help me sift through the dross:

1. If I don’t think I’ll like something, I probably won’t.

In every cinephile, there exists a certain amount of hope that the movies we see will surprise us. But realistically speaking, this doesn’t happen very often. I’ve seen plenty of movies in my time, and this has shown me where my tastes lie as a moviegoer. Consequently, I’ve learned to trust my instincts when choosing what I’ll see. If I want to see something, I’ll find a reason to see it. If I don’t, I most likely won’t. And if I’m not sure, I’ll wait for the reviews. Of course, this method isn’t foolproof, but it works as well as any other I’ve found.

With the proliferation of movie blogs both professional and amateur, the amount of criticism (both positive and negative) can be overwhelming. Thus, trusting my own tastes has allowed me to eliminate the critical noise while making my decisions. The best recent example I can think of is the new movie Precious. By all accounts, this is one of this year’s Oscar juggernauts. But I’m just not interested. When I first read about it in this year’s Sundance coverage, it didn’t sound especially promising, and in spite of everything I’ve heard since then, it just doesn’t seem like my kind of thing.

As a fan of Charles Burnett and Spike Lee, I can assure you that I’ve never shied away from onscreen depictions of the lower-class African-American milieu. No, my lack of interest in Precious stems from my longstanding aversion to victimization stories. As doormats go, the title character in Precious is a doozy- poor, grossly obese, illiterate, raped (and impregnated) by her now-absent father, and perpetually abused by her mother. Factor in a mentally-handicapped baby and a terminal illness (what, no cute puppy?) and you’ve got a movie that practically dares you not to pity its protagonist and be uplifted by her eventual victories. Problem is, by encouraging pity from the audience rather than active sympathy, movies like this tend to reduce their pathetic protagonists into Others, comforting viewers with the idea that, hey, at least they don’t have it that bad. Or as Band Aid so memorably put it in that incredibly patronizing holiday mainstay “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” “be glad it’s them instead of you.”

Honestly, I hope I’m wrong about Precious. If nothing else, the film’s fans are legion- hundreds of mainstream critics are falling over themselves with praise, and it’s become this fall’s Little Indie That Could, with major players like Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry in its corner. However, I’ve spoken with a number of people I trust who have seen Precious, and nothing they’ve told me so far has changed my initial mind about the film. Additionally, in a certain movie nerd poll (in which I’m a voter), Precious is currently ranked at a meager #104 among this year’s releases, well below such acclaimed titles as Monsters vs. Aliens, I Love You, Man, and Crank 2: High Voltage (that movie is awesome, by the way). I hate to get all J. Ro on my readers, but until someone can give me a compelling reason why I owe it to myself to see Precious, I think I’ll just give it a pass. At least, until it cleans up at the Oscars. Speaking of which…

2. Just because a movie is designed to win a raft of Oscars, that doesn’t make it good.

I’ve been following the Academy Awards for well over a decade, and if I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that not all Oscar contenders are created equal. Some movies that capture the fancy of the AMPAS voting body are legitimately great films, whether they’re works of epic filmmaking ambition or wonderfully crafted entertainments. But others are seemingly deemed Oscar-worthy less for their quality than by virtue of their ability to hit the voters’ sweet spots. When people talk about “Oscar-bait,” they’re referring to the latter. And over the past few decades, no one has been more skillful at making Oscar-bait than the Weinstein brothers.

At the peak of the Miramax empire in the late nineties, Harvey Weinstein (and to a lesser extent, his brother Bob) perfected the technique for crafting ready-made Academy attention-grabbers. Start with an acclaimed literary property or a red-hot script, pack it full of Serious Actors (no lightweight movie stars will do), and hand it off to a trusty in-house director like John Madden or Lasse Hallstrom. Then make sure the production values are impeccable, and once production’s over, sell the product film as aggressively as possible. This proved to be extremely successful, with Miramax garnering Oscars for a sweeping epic (The English Patient), a frothy period rom-com (Shakespeare in Love), and a hyperkinetic musical (Chicago).

Ever since they parted ways with Miramax four years ago, the Weinstein brothers have had some trouble finding their old groove. But this fall’s Nine has all the earmarks of a classic Harvey Special. There are no fewer than six (SIX!) Oscar-winning actors in the cast, and the direction is by Chicago’s Rob Marshall, who has brought back most of his Oscar-winning below-the-line team. In other words, after his baity The Reader got beaten by Slumdog Millionaire last year, Harvey’s leaving nothing to chance.

Sorry, but I’m not buying. For one thing, I’m a little sick of the prestige-ification of the musical genre in recent years. Musicals have their roots in light entertainment, but in their attempts to create the next Chicago, studios have turned a genre once categorized by light-footed entertainments into bloated, plodding affairs that are puffed up with self-importance and art-directed to death. Frankly, I could do without the stunt casting of big-name stars in these movies, as if the fact that Richard Gere and Helena Bonham Carter aren’t full-time singers somehow excuses subpar crooning (I say this as a fan of Sweeney Todd, by the way). And while I’m certainly not averse to serious musicals, it’s one thing for a musical to tackle heavy material, and quite another for one to feel heavy due to its sheer relentlessness.

But what I resent even more is how calculated Nine feels, from its conception on down. While I’ve learned to distinguish good Oscar movies from bad ones, there’s still a significant percentage of moviegoers who still equates Oscar success with quality. But a gifted cast and an impeccable technical pedigree isn’t enough to make for a movie that’s worth watching. It’s not that Rob Marshall is a bad director- he’s a moderately-talented company man who pulls off Harvey’s goals with a minimum of fuss- but there’s no vision there. In fact, I dare say that the only vision dancing in the heads of Marshall and the Weinsteins involves a mantelpiece full of little golden statues.

3. I simply can’t see everything.

One of the first lessons that I learned in Microeconomics was the concept of utility- the idea that, given a limited amount of money, time, or other resources, the logical person will choose the option that brings him the greatest relative pleasure or gain. To apply this idea to moviewatching, if I only have time to see a handful of movies per week, I’ll most likely go with the ones I think I’ll enjoy the most. Of course, there are other factors in my decision, including the location where it’s playing and how long it’s running. But generally, I’d say the idea of utility is applicable to my moviegoing habits.

Living in Columbus is something of a double-edged sword when it comes to my viewing choices. On the one hand, I have something of a limited slate from which to choose- limited releases make it here weeks if not months after they bow in NYC, if at all, and there are weeks where there’s next to nothing that interests me. On the other hand, I rarely find myself in a position where I’m unable to see every theatrical release I want to see. Generally, I’m able to catch up with every local release that strikes my fancy.

The exception to this rule is at the end of the year. Suddenly, after withholding them for most of the year, the Hollywood studios dump the majority of their alleged heavy hitters in November and December, all in an attempt to snag some Oscar glory (truth be told, I see that game plan backfiring this year, when voters find themselves with ten Best Picture slots to fill, but that’s neither here nor there). For someone in my position- having a life, in short- I only have time to see two or three movies per week at most, and if the number of movies that I’m curious about is greater than the number I have time to see, something has to fall by the wayside. Whereas I might have had time for these movies earlier in the year, by the time December rolls around, something, as they say, has gotta give.

Naturally, there will always be directors whose films I make a priority to see. I’ll always line up for new releases by Rivette, Malick, the Dardenne brothers, P.T. Anderson, Von Trier, DePalma, Desplechin, and the guys at Pixar, to name a few. But while I have an undeniable sentimental attachment to these directors, I also recognize that they’re good bets, and even if they don’t hit a home run every time they’re at the plate, their batting averages are pretty darn high . Among high-profile films coming out later this month, I’m pumped for the Werner Herzog/Nicolas Cage Bad Lieutenant sequel/spinoff/thingamajig, because duh. Also, I’ll certainly make time for Avatar and The Lovely Bones, since for all their flaws, James Cameron and Peter Jackson are two of the only big-ticket filmmakers in Hollywood who consistently imbue their big-budget productions with real vision and grandeur.

Clint Eastwood? Not so much. Although I’ve loved some of Eastwood’s films- Unforgiven especially- I wouldn’t consider myself to be an unconditional fan by any means. His films tend to have a workmanlike quality, and the good ones succeed primarily because they tell good stories. Simply put, the story for Invictus doesn’t really grab me. Those who’ve followed the blog for any length of time know that I’m not especially keen on the biopic genre, but of all the contemporary figures whose lives demand the biopic treatment, Mandela has to be near the top. So you’ve got a story about Nelson Mandela, complete with the casting of Morgan Freeman as Mandela (the great man’s choice, might I add!), and the best you can do is to put him in an underdog sports saga? Are you frickin’ kidding me?

Not even the presence of Freeman and Damon, two of Hollywood’s finest actors, makes me all that curious to see this. For my money, Freeman has too many Dreamcatchers and Bruce Almightys on his résumé to be a sure thing, and Damon is much more interesting when he’s playing screwballs than heroes (as in this year’s The Informant!). And I’m a little weary of Eastwood’s elder-statesman phase, with every story he tells getting bogged down with shadows and foreboding. Just once, I’d like to see Clint cut loose again behind the camera, make something just for entertainment’s sake (another Space Cowboys, perhaps?). It might not get any Oscar nominations, but it should at least be fun.

A few days ago, I received an e-Mail from a prospective Muriels voter, asking me whether he needed to worry about seeing all of the big awards-season releases before filling out his ballot. I told him that wasn’t necessary, and I suppose that this post is my way of telling the rest of you as well. To me, the Muriels have always been about recognizing the achievements from the past year that inflame our passion about cinema. And I’ve always found that nothing dampers my cinematic passion more than watching a movie out of duty rather than legitimate desire or curiosity. The Muriels have never attempted to be the Oscars, or even to follow them. If our tastes are different, well, that’s what makes life interesting, isn’t it?

Monday, December 07, 2009

"A crying woman is a scheming woman."

One of the challenges of reviewing a movie as visceral as Antichrist is that it’s difficult to see past the initial impact to the headier stuff on display. I saw Antichrist for the first time on Friday night, and since then I’ve been turning it over in my head, trying to puzzle out what Von Trier is doing with the film. However, my more immediate reaction to it was closer to stunned silence at the sheer force of the filmmaking and the often-shocking imagery. Make no mistake- Antichrist hits, and hits hard.

Click here for the complete review.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Accounting for Myself

Ever since Nerve dropped Screengrab like the proverbial bad habit this past May, I’ve struggled to continue my once-impressive output. Part of the reason for that is financial- I was getting paid for it before, and now that I’m working strictly pro bono it becomes that much harder to write for free than it was in the past. Consequently, it’s simply easier to occupy my time with other pursuits. As you know, I moved in with Angela and the Offspring this summer, and it’s been everything I’d hoped for. Not always easy, of course, but I’m certainly not having second thoughts about the decision.

In addition to the new demands of live-in boyfriend-hood and quasi-fatherhood, I’ve also been busy with some other pursuits. In January, I started taking college courses part-time, in the evenings and on weekends. I earned my B.A. back in 2001, but I have yet to do anything in my major field of study (Humanities, so duh), and now that I’ve got more financial responsibilities on my plate than I had before, I figured that it was time to go back to school to study something I can actually make a little money doing. So I’m studying Accounting, with the goal of becoming a CPA.

I hinted at this decision back in February when I resigned my post as head honcho of the Muriels- though I’m staying on in a consigliere-esque role- but I’ve kept mum on the details until now since I didn’t want to mention it until I was sure that I could actually handle it. It was a struggle at first, but I’ve been working hard and have gotten good grades to show for it, and it looks like I’ll be seeing this thing through to the end.

Since returning to school, I always hoped that I might be able to find time to keep the blog going as I once did, but seeing as how I’ve written only a handful of reviews since Screengrab folded, it looks like that isn’t going to happen. But in the interest of giving my fans some thoughts on the movies I’ve been seeing, I recently settled upon a solution- micro-reviews. That’s right- all of the 2009 releases I’ve seen will be compacted, processed, and packaged into an easily digestible ten-word format for your reading pleasure and critical enlightenment. In some cases, I’d like to think I captured the essence of these movies- or my feelings about them, anyway- with haiku-like precision. However, in others I couldn’t resist the urge to get a little silly.

Anyway, hope you enjoy. In a handful of instances, I've linked to longer piecesI've written about the films, or work by others that dovetails nicely with my own opinions. See if you can find them all!

In kinda-sorta-alphabetical order:

17 Again (Steers)- Remember, kids- follow your dreams, or you’ll become Matthew Perry. [5]

24 City (Jia)- Sorry, Jia fanboys. He doesn’t excite me. Maybe next time… [6]

500 Days of Summer (Webb)- Half insightful relationship tale, half cutesy bullshit. Good enough for me. [6]

Adoration (Egoyan)- Second-tier Egoyan, but in his classic style. I’m down. [6]

Angels and Demons (Howard)- Outpaces Da Vinci by embracing its ridiculousness. Still not great. [5]

Away We Go (Mendes)- Genuine emotion can’t overcome condescending script. Schneider almost saves it. [5]

The Beaches of Agnes (Varda)- A doodle, but by now I’d say she’s entitled. [6]

The Brothers Bloom (Johnson)- RJ’s ear for patois impeccable in Lesteresque romp with soul. [8]

Brüno (Charles)- Sometimes funny, occasionally probing, but man, the gag’s wearing thin. [5]

Capitalism: A Love Story (Moore)- See Brüno mini-review, only even more so. [5]

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Lord/Miller)- Hilarious with a chance of charming. Animated Mr. T FTW. [7]

Coraline (Selick)- Selick finds his way again. Dark stop-motion eye candy. [7]

Crank 2: High Voltage (Neveldine/Taylor)- “Statham makes England look ****ing awesome” ~ ZMF. In this, anyway. [7]

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Zemeckis)- Zemeckis’ best motion-capture epic thusfar. Decidedly not for kids. [7]

District 9 (Blomkamp)- Imperfect, but miles better than a Halo movie would’ve been. [6]

Drag Me to Hell (Raimi)- Will stop at nothing to entertain you. I wholeheartedly approve. [7]

Duplicity (Gilroy)- Trouble in Paradise for cynical times. Stellar turns all around. [8]

Extract (Judge)- Kind of a lazy, downmarket SERIOUS MAN. Lacks flavor (sorry). [4]

Fados (Saura)- One to let wash over you. Click for review. [7]

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson)- Just what you’d expect, but in the best sense. Hotbox! [9]

Funny People (Apatow)- Inconsistent, sometimes insightful. Still not taken with Serious Adam Sandler. Click for review. [5]

G-Force (Yeatman)- Muriel, Victoria & Charlotte could whup these CGI cavies’ asses. [4]

The Girlfriend Experience (Soderbergh) I’d hate to meet this dude in a dark alley. [6]

Gomorrah (Garrone)- Well-made, but eventually I just stopped giving a shit. [6]

Goodbye Solo (Bahrani)- Low-key friendship story mostly avoids cliché. Red West supercool. [7]

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Yates)- Mostly setup, thus kinda unsatisfying. #7 shows real potential though. [5]

The Headless Woman (Martel)- Fascinating enigma warrants second view, along with other Martel films. [7]

Hotel for Dogs (Freudenthal)- Clumsy, almost painfully square, but sunny and awfully good-natured. Click for review. [5]

Hunger (McQueen)- Less artsy stunt that I’d feared. Double-feature with Papillon. [7]

The Hurt Locker (Bigelow)- Only Beckham stuff holds this back from being a 10. [9]

In the Loop (Iannucci)- Deliciously salty as a big bag of pretzels. Cast awesome. [7]

The Informant! (Soderbergh)- “Man, I’d be invisible if it wasn’t for that thing.” [7]

Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino)- Watch first to marvel, then to relish. “It’s a bingo!!” [9]

Inkheart (Softley)- Decent family adventure, full of eminent thesps clearly enjoying themselves. [5]

Julia (Zonca)- Muriel FYC: Tilda Swinton. “Are ya shot?” Brilliant stuff. [8]

Land of the Lost (Silberling)- Obviously crap, but it’s so gleefully silly I hardly cared. [6]

The Limits of Control (Jarmusch)- Artsy slog, or poker-faced self-parody? Jarmusch ain’t telling. [6]

Lorna’s Silence (Dardenne bros.)- Dardennes: best bet in world cinema? They’re surely up there. Click for review. [9]

Monsters vs. Aliens (Letterman/Vernon)- Harmless, fairly amusing. Will inevitably see this a million times. [5]

Observe and Report (Hill)- Misanthropy curdles into sheer ugliness. Good thing it’s really funny. [7]

Paranormal Activity (Peli)- No Blair Witch, but effective LoFi horror all the same. [6]

Ponyo (Miyazaki)- Gorgeous, younger-skewing than most Miyazaki. Shame about the song. [7]

Public Enemies (Mann)- Solid, but please, Michael Mann- go back to film already. [6]

Revanche (Spielmann)- Trades action thrills for laser-like focus. Chop that log! [7]

A Serious Man (Coen bros.)- Compelling pieces, frustrating whole. Listless doormat protagonist. Coen naysayers right? [5]

Star Trek (Abrams)- My eyes are still reeling from the bright white bridge. Click for review. [6]

Sugar (Fleck/Boden)- More on its mind than baseball, usually to its benefit. [6]

Summer Hours (Assayas)- What he said re: Toy Story 2. Weep for furniture. [8]

Taking Woodstock (Lee)- Staunton’s arc made me want to punch something. Otherwise forgettable forgotten. [4]

Tetro (Coppola)- Operatic emotions, gorgeous style smooth over Freudian narrative. More, please. [8]

Three Monkeys (Ceylan)- All this ugliness gets stifling. NBC, you can do better. [5]

Tony Manero (Larrain)- Galling study of human train wreck, with Pinochet-era implications. [6]

Treeless Mountain (Kim)- Decent story of childhood hardship takes off in final third. [6]

Tulpan (Dvortsevoy)- Ethnographically awesome, otherwise pretty okay. So that’s a yurt. [6]

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Weitz)- Beats Twilight, that’s for sure. At least Weitz can direct. [5]

Two Lovers (Gray)- White Nights storyline still works. Come back, awesome actor Joaquin. [8]

Tyson (Toback)- Less enlightening than Toback seems to think it is. Pity. [5]

Up (Docter)- Still the filet of 2009. Cried at beginning, fer chrissakes. Click for review. [10]

Watchmen (Snyder)- “Meh” isn’t the emotion a Watchmen movie should warrant. Click for review. [5]

Whatever Works (Allen)- Allen/David pairing somehow not awesome. Wait- late Woody. Nevermind. [5]

Where the Wild Things Are (Jonze)- Bracing anarchy gives way to emo fuzzies. What gives, Spike? [6]

You, the Living (Andersson)- A Songs coda, but why complain? Andersson’s images still spectacular. [8]

Zombieland (Flesicher)- Prefab cult hit gets the job done. Guest cameo kills. [6]

Also, I’ll be maintaining a running tally of all the 2009 releases I’ve seen. The link can be found in the sidebar. On this page you’ll also see a list of movies which, for whatever reason, I haven’t managed to see yet. Some of them are still in theatres, others on DVD, and still others haven’t found their way to Central Ohio just yet. If you can hook me up with some of the harder-to-find titles, I’d be eternally grateful, so feel free to drop me a line.

Oh, and by the way- Famous Last Words kicks off again in January. So stick around a while, will ya?