Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Informant!

Lies beget lies, and perhaps few people alive today know that better than Mark Whitacre, former President of the BioProducts Division of Archer Daniels Midland, a company that produces some of that stuff you can't pronounce in the ingredient listings of food you eat every day. Whitacre became an informant for the FBI and ratted out his colleagues (and himself) regarding an enormous price-fixing scheme, but the more the story unfolded, more of Whitacre's own additional criminal behavior revealed itself.

Right off the bat, I have to say that this is one of the more brilliant bits of screenwriting (mad props to Scott Z. Burns) that I've seen - not just this year, but frankly this decade or more. At first I thought I'd missed something or misunderstood the beginning, because we don't find out about ADM's real shenanigans until the scene where Mark actually tells the FBI. Usually in stories like this, we see the informant or whoever find out about dubious behavior or business practices, fret about it, and finally decide either to tell the authorities or not tell them. But here, you see something that you think might be the beginnings of something like this, and Mark fretting about it, but when he talks to the FBI he presents them with brand new information that we've never even gotten a hint of. And this happens over and over again; it's how the entire movie works regarding the Mark character. You think you know what's going on, you think you've reached the bottom of the hole, and then suddenly Mark opens a trap door and has even further to fall. I think this film must be even better on a second viewing, because knowing how deep the hole really goes would really inform how we see this character and how his story is told.

And the story itself, while it could have been a very straightforward story of business and personal corruption, is instead played for humor and fun. Instead of getting bogged down in details that wouldn't really help us understand this situation any better but would instead slow the movie way down, screenwriter Burns peppers just about every scene with Mark's random inner monologuing. He'll be talking to someone in the office and his mind will wander and start telling us about how polar bears cover their noses to camouflage themselves when they fish. It's endearing and funny, but totally irrelevant to the story. But as the story goes on and Mark gets further and further into a hole, we get less and less of that, and the content and tone of the inner monologue starts changing. He starts to coach himself on which lie to tell, which avenue to pursue, and eventually there's nothing left. He can't lie anymore. It's over.

The trailers and ads, while enjoyable, sell this movie way short. You'd think it was about this bumbling spy wannabe who frustrates the real professionals at every turn with his incompetence. Mark Whitacre is very smart, even about the secret agent stuff. There's a cool moment with a hidden camera where he plops himself right in front of the line of sight. The agents think he's just ignorant, but he soon moves, and then invites someone else who was out of the shot to another, more comfortable chair that just happens to be in the camera's view so that the agents can see everyone. He only sat in front of the camera to see, as close as he could, what the agents were seeing and to make sure everyone was visible in the shot. There's some funny naive stuff, too - the line from the trailers ("you don't have to narrate the tapes") isn't there, but the behavior that likely prompted it is. The first day he walks in with the wire, saying "entrance breached" as he walks through the automatic door and greeting everyone loudly and deliberately by name and by title, is priceless.

The cast is uniformly great, starting with possibly the best work Matt Damon has done to date. This is way more than gaining thirty pounds and putting on a fake nose ("the nose plays" - sorry, Ocean's 13 tangent) and a swirly rug. It's little things like the way he smiles as Mark, very different from the toothy brilliantine grin we're used to seeing from Damon. There are all kinds of layers in this character, which are periodically and systematically peeled back. Mark Whitacre is trying to be at least two different people, but is never - probably not even at the very end - truly himself. The extra weight and shlubby clothes might make this seem an over-the-top character, but it's actually quite subtle, and I've never been more impressed with one of Matt Damon's performances than I was with this.

Scott Bakula is perhaps the second most noteworthy performance in the piece, as FBI Special Agent Brian Shephard. He and his partner Bob (played remarkably well by stand up comic and "Soup" host Joel McHale) get attached to Mark; they carry a family picture around with them to remind them that he's a human being. They become very invested in his well-being, even after he bungles things by telling people things he shouldn't tell them, and even when the lies start coming out. But when Mark hits the bottom of the bullshit barrel, Brian is visibly hurt and betrayed.

Melanie Lynskey is wonderful as well, playing Mark's longsuffering wife Ginger, who in real life is still with Mark, even after his nine-year prison sentence (three times the punishment given to the people he informed on). And the rest of the cast is filled with familiar faces (such as Ocean's vet Eddie Jemison and Tom "Biff Tannen" Wilson - man, I bet he still gets that everywhere he goes ... I wonder if people still ask him to say "make like a tree and get outta here").

Special mention must be made of the fabulous - excuse me, that should be FABULOUS - score by Marvin Hamlisch, who hasn't written a film score in something like thirteen years (The Mirror Has Two Faces being his most recent until now). The man wrote the score for the musical "A Chorus Line." He adapted all that great Joplin ragtime music for The Sting. And he gave us misty water-colored memories of "The Way We Were." He is a bona fide legend, and this score is not just another score on his resume - it's right up there with his career bests. It's kitschy and cute, like a score you'd hear in a 1960s romantic comedy. And it's amazingly detailed. There's a moment when Mark is doing one of his inner monologues, and he makes a very short, offhand comment about Mexico. For just a couple of seconds, for just a blink after the Mexico comment, the theme that's been playing goes mariachi-style, and before you can say "Hah!" it reverts back as Mark continues his random musings.

I feel I ought to say something about Soderbergh here, but I'm not sure what. I'm not good at talking technical, and I know very little about the actual craft of directing. Soderbergh's record tends to stand side-by-side with each new film of his that you watch, and you tend to see each one in the context of what came before. This allows his admirers to defend him when he's being what other critics call "self-indulgent." That's such a carelessly used term, I think. What it really means regarding Soderbergh is that he makes the movies he wants to make the way he wants to make them. That used to be called daring and independent, but now I guess that's a dirty word if you feel out of the loop with his films. I'll concede that some of his films are less accessible than others (*cough*CHE*cough*), but if you don't "get" The Informant! I just feel sad for you. Because the only important thing to "get" is that it's fun. That Soderbergh is having fun. From the explanation point in the title (whee!) to the adorable score to Mark ruminating on the health dangers of being blotchy, it's an utter delight.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever..."

There's nothing really wrong with Bright Star, Jane Campion's new film about the ill-fated romance betwixt nineteenth century poet John Keats and a woman named Fanny Brawne. But I feel like I've seen it a million times. Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Boy can't afford to marry girl. Angst ensues. One of them dies. Lots of bonnets, corsets, and empire waisted frocks. This film is, of course, based on supposedly true events, and there's only so much you can do to liven things up without straining the bounds of artistic license, but most of the time it feels like "just another costume drama."

Thank goodness for Paul Schnieder, who plays Charles Armitage Brown, Keats's close friend and colleague. This is an element not often seen in films like this, and it's one that's perhaps borrowed from other formulas - the disapproving best friend. Brown has a deep love for Keats (portrayed in the film as surpassing normal friendship) and a great admiration for his talent. He thinks Fanny a flirt and an unnecessary distraction for Keats from his writing, not seeing Keats's perspective that she is the reason he has lately been inspired to write at all. His heartbreak at realizing how he has failed his friend is painful and wonderful to witness.

Ben Whishaw and Abby Cornish, as Keats and Fanny, both give tremendous performances and have a wonderful chemistry. And Campion is able to let them have a very passionate love affair, full of longing and desire, without crossing the threshold into a more literally sexual relationship.

While the movie as a whole feels a bit wanting, there are many other pieces that I loved. I'm very glad that the movie was able to include so much of Keats's poetry without letting it drag the pace. I also enjoyed how believably supportive Fanny's mother (eventually) was of her closeness with Keats, while still reminding her of the realities of her situation. Edie Martin defies the curse of roles for children and is quite an adorable little sister for Fanny. And perhaps my favorite scene in the film is the night before (if I recall correctly, that is) Keats leaves for Italy, in which he and Fanny lie next to each other, dreaming of finally being together in the marriage bed. Perfectly chaste, but brimming with sexual energy.

As I said, there's nothing wrong with Bright Star at all. In fact, it's pretty wonderful. But it strikes me as rather sad that after a few years this will very likely blur together with many other films of this ilk that I have seen in my lifetime, and that the only thing that will distinguish one from another is the historical figures involved.

"Hell is a teenage girl."

This one has been dividing viewers left and right. Personally, on a bottom line level, I enjoyed it but found it a bit too ambitious for its own good. It's also so much of a genre stew that it doesn't really give you a taste of any of the particular ingredients. But then again that may be the whole point of the film.

This is a horror movie, to be sure, but not the kind you're used to. It's not particularly scary, but this is more the sort of film we used to see from David Cronenberg, along the lines of The Brood or The Fly. There's a definite sense of "body horror," hence the title. But there are a lot of other teen movie elements, too, particularly in the co-dependent relationship between Jennifer (Megan Fox) and Needy (Amanda Seyfried). Needy (an endearment for "Anita") tells us early on that people don't understand what a hottie like Jennifer is doing being friends with a nerd like her, but that they've been friends since sandbox days. Now, it's been a while since I was in high school, but even I know it doesn't work that way. Next to no toddler or elementary school friendships survive the transition to high school, especially when the two people are as socially different as Jennifer and Needy. Of course, Jennifer isn't really Needy's friend. Needy is the type of friend that lots of popular girls keep around to make them feel better about themselves. And sadly Needy still apparently believes the sandbox sentimentality, since the whole story is being told in flashback. In fact, what she does in the end is clearly for Jennifer's sake.

I like that the characters in the film never feel like stereotypes. The teens, that is. Needy is ostensibly a "nerd," but she's fairly socially functional. She's not dowdy, despite the glasses, and she goes to clubs and fools around with her boyfriend. She's cool, but a stark contrast to Jennifer, who by the way is not the stereotypical "hot chick" either. A lot of people have slammed the "Cody-speak" of the movie, and I agree that sometimes the desperately hip dialogue gets to be too much (would "move on dot org" really be part of a teen girl's lexicon?). But I also can't help observing that most of it is given to Megan Fox, and rather than making her seem cool, I think it rather undermines her, giving credence to Needy's later claim that Jennifer is no longer "socially relevant." Happy accident or brilliant subversion by screenwriter Diablo Cody? You decide. I'm leaning toward the latter.

Adam Brody and his indie rock band are a great element, but we don't see nearly enough of them. I do love the fact that they position themselves as heroes to the little town and have the bad taste to make it look like they're helping them (by donating a very small part of the profits on their single) when really they are just using them much like they used Jennifer. And the commentary on how they'll never make it big without making a sacrifice to Satan, because in reality they're just like all the other prettyboy indie rock bands trying to catch a break, is hilariously self-aware.

I never quite understood, and I'm fairly sure the movie never explains it to us, the psychic connection Needy has with Jennifer. We first see it in the beginning, when Needy knows Jennifer has arrived at her house before her boyfriend even hears anything. It's the most pronounced in a rather brilliantly cut-together scene of Needy and Chip having sex while newly demonic Jennifer is seducing and murdering goth kid Colin (played by Seyfried's fellow Veronica Mars alum, Kyle "Beaver" Gallner). Needy is somehow aware that something horrible is happening where Jennifer is, and she reacts with horror, which her boyfriend interprets as a pleased response to his efforts. I suppose what bothers me about it the most is that this connection is somehow malfunctioning while Jennifer is being sacrificed to Satan and Jennifer has to actually sit down and tell Needy everything that happened. I mean, I'm glad to find out what happened, and I can see where Cody would want to hold that back until later in the film, but it's just so randomly plopped in and expositiony that it feels really wrong.

Overall, this is an enjoyable movie. I don't ask for a horror movie to be that artistic or to even make that much sense, but I do think it was trying for something that it doesn't quite achieve. Still, I couldn't help being mesmerized by it, much like Jennifer and the rock band with the "salty" lead singer.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sometimes a title screen really says it all...

Fear the fringe, man. Fear. The. Fringe.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Final Girl Film Club - The Devil's Rain

This month's Final Girl Film Club selection is the 1970s satanist film The Devil's Rain. So let's get to it!

"Did I leave the oven on?"

There's "so bad it's good" and then there's "so bad it's gone past good and back to bad again." The Devil's Rain is decidedly the latter. Which is a damn shame, because it has so much going for it.

First, there's the cast. When you have William Shatner, Ida Lupino, Tom Skerrit, Keenan Wynn, Eddie Albert, AND Ernest Borgnine (as a goat-man devil worshipper - !!!), your film simply CAN'T suck, can it? Sadly, it can, and this one does.

Second, I'm a big believer in the notion that there are no bad ideas, just bad executions of ideas. If you look hard enough, you can see the potential in this story, and perhaps pieces that other filmmakers turned into honest-to-goodness decent films. The scary, powerful book reminds me of the Necronomicon in The Evil Dead. The reincarnation of Corbis was reminiscent of the reincarnation of Pumpkinhead. There's a good movie in here somewhere, but the writer, director, and Satanic consultant they hired for this film can't find it with two hands and a flashlight.

Third, this movie doesn't hold back on the gross. Not blood, but there are some rather cool and disgusting melty effects. I almost never get physically, literally sick at my stomach watching movies, but the extended meltyness at the end made me seriously queasy.

The main thing that's wrong here is the story. It's incomplete, first and foremost. It's like the screenwriters were telling the story in their own heads and only put half of it down on paper, and not even a cohesive half, but scattered bits that just add up to a half.

We start with a bunch of close-ups of Heironymus Bosch paintings and the sound of people moaning in agony over the opening credits. These take far too long, by the way, and if you're padding your film out in the credits, this is not a good sign for things to come. In the opening scene, Emma Preston (Ida Lupino) worries a lot and spills hot tea all over a man named John. Her son Mark (William Shatner, still carrying the Star Trek cuteness) returns home, having gone out to look for his father Steve, but without success. Steve returns, looking very waxy-faced, and tells the family to give "the book" (whatever that might be) back to Corbis (whoever that might be), before quite literally melting into a puddle of goo right before their (and our) eyes.

Emma wants Mark to take the book to Corbis, but he won't do it. So she tries to give him a huge, clunky amulet instead. Daddy's truck returns driverless, but there's a voodoo doll on the steering wheel that is presumably meant to be Emma. Mark goes back to the house to find John hanging upside down and screaming like a little girl and Emma missing, prompting him to scream "KHAAAAAN!" "CORBIS!" before heading off to face the whoever named Corbis, armed with his gun and the amulet. John will presumably have to fend for himself in Mark's absence.

Next there is some more movie padding. Landscape. Slow driving. Stopping to wipe brows and look at the scenery. More slow driving. Slow pulling into places. Church. Ghost town. House. I swear there is even some rolling bramble (it's the West, y'all!). Then he meets an incredibly winky Ernest Borgnine, who he doesn't realize at first is the latest incarnation of Corbis. Mark proposes a duel of faiths - his mother and father returned to him if he wins, the book and himself to Corbis if he loses. After lots of random satanic ritual stuff, Mark loses the battle, presumably too freaked out by the weirdness and Corbis's insistence on calling him some strange name to do anything but shoot panicky bullets from his gun and try to run away before finally being captured.

Random, sudden cut to Dr. Eddie Albert and his assistant Dr. Tom Skerrit, Mark's brother (conveniently named) Tom. There's some meaningless parapsychological babble, and Tom's wife Julie speaks psychically while having visions of what's happening to Mark. SCREEEAAM! End scene.

Tom bickers with Sheriff Keenan Wynn and goes to the ghost town after his brother, after leaving a message with the clearly incapacitated John. Meanwhile, the ritual to bring Mark to the dark side has begun. Tom and Julie arrive and find the "church" where the ritual was taking place and Julie (I think) recognizes it (eventually) from her visions. Tom finds Mark's shirt, helpfully labeled "Preston," before they hear an explosion and go outside to find their car has blown up.

Tom finds a satanized John Travolta (in his very first film), and Julie looks into his black devil eyes to find a flashback to Pilgrim times, where some familiar faces let us know that the Preston family has betrayed Corbis by taking the book several hundred years ago and turning him over to a burn-at-the-stake mob.

Tom sends Julie back home in Mark's car, but newly satanized Momma is waiting for her in the back seat in what turns out to be the only real scare in the movie. Tom then inexplicably watches the last of Mark's ritual without saying or doing anything to help or even reacting much in any discernible way.

There is then some rather stunningly bland exposition with Tom and Dr. Eddie Albert, and the audience is left to wonder how the hell they know about any of this or figure it out at all. But it's too late for the story to follow any kind of logic, so we move on to yet another ritual, this time with Julie. While that's happening, Tom and Eddie find the eponymous Devil's Rain - a big jar that contains the souls of everyone whose name is in the book. This is a fairly good effect for 1975, I must say, with the window of the jar looking like a distorted television screen showing people clawing and moaning and reaching. Sadly, the rest of the movie is nowhere near this dubious calibre.

And then comes the climax, and if you thought the rest of the movie made no sense, you ain't seen nuthin' yet. I'd try to explain it, but I'd fail almost as badly as this film does in the end. I'd say if you want to watch this movie at all, though, the last 20 minutes are really the only parts worth watching. And probably 10 minutes or more of the last 20 are some of the grodiest, and definitely the waxiest, meltiest images you have ever seen. It ultimately takes too long, is not worth watching for the amount of time it lasts, and is definitely not worth sitting through the other 80 minutes of the movie, but it's pretty spectacular nonetheless.

Now, I've got nothiing against wacky movies that make no sense. William Girdler's The Manitou, for example, is pretty awesomesauce. But The Devil's Rain is like crack jelly scraped over too much bread. There's a little to enjoy, but not nearly enough to justify a feature length film.

Bonus Lameness: The tagline for this film, which is on all the posters and is even spoken in the trailer, is "Heaven help us all when THE DEVIL'S RAIN." There is so much grammatically wrong with that sentence, I can't even begin to explain it, except to ask "When the Devil's Rain what?"

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Movie Suspense - The "Don't Show Me" State

Film is a visual medium, a "show don't tell" enterprise, and as such the prevailing wisdom is that if you can show something instead of saying it, you should. But showing can be a wrong decision, too.

For example, I recently watched Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon, a great piece of 1950s British fright that bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam Raimi's recent Drag Me to Hell. Tourneur, who also made classics such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, had a reputation for using subtle suspense techniques instead of special effects, which made his films genuinely haunting and effective. And both Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie had a certain level of ambiguity about their scarier elements, leaving it up to the viewer to decide if what was happening was supernatural or not. Night of the Demon might have been along those same lines as well, but for an interfering producer, who insisted on adding a drastic special effect to the beginning and end of the movie. Namely, the sight of this guy.

Now, I like a good monster flick as much as the next gal. But I can't help thinking what the movie would have been like without seeing that bad boy. Especially as this is what Tourneur wanted to begin with, wouldn't it have been awesome to have to think about whether the demon was real or whether the two deaths that bookend the film are tragic coincidences? That's a much better fit for the skeptical protagonist and the line at the end about how it's better not to know - a line which, may I add, is utterly worthless coming as it does right after the monster effect (because even if the characters don't know for sure, WE do because we've been shown it).

Drag Me to Hell, of course, is set up very differently and seeing the horrible things that happen to that movie's heroine is the payoff, not something that spoils it. But it got me thinking about other movies where success or failure rests largely on whether we, in effect, see the devil. And how what we bring to a movie can be used to affect how we see it and what we believe it to be about. Night of the Demon, without the demon, is about a skeptic who is investigating a bunch of cultists, and the head cultist who tries to put the whammy on said skeptic as punishment for his disbelief. Is it for real? Or is it all in the cursed person's head? And aren't we better off, as Dana Andrews says in the end, not knowing?

Harvey is an excellent example of this, though the word "devil" doesn't apply, obviously, unless you have an irrational fear of rabbits. Harvey is supposedly a six-foot tall white rabbit, but we never see him (except in a painting). He's real enough to Elwood (James Stewart), eventually Dr. Chumley, and even occasionally Elwood's sister Veta. But we never get real confirmation that he actually exists, since everyone who claims to see him could be seen (by some) as unreliable reporters. This premise worked tremendously well on stage, which is where Harvey was first produced, and possibly even better on film, where the limited effects capabilities of films in 1950 would have made it difficult to use much more than a tall guy in a costume.

I have to wonder, though, what a modern filmmaker would do with such a character. Of course, I won't have to wait much longer, since Steven Spielberg is doing a remake of this movie. I find the very idea of Spielberg doing a remake a travesty, but a remake of Harvey seems even more of a crime. And my biggest fear for this project is that they're going to decide to show us the rabbit. It's more than just the fact the we don't need to see it. Seeing it literally spoils the magic and spoils the fact that two people can walk away from this movie having seen two completely different films. One about a crazy but endearing man who thinks he sees a giant rabbit, and one about a guy who has an amazing imaginary friend that no one else believes in.

We often call the movies magic, and a lot of that magic has to do with the wonder of what we see on the screen. But when it comes to showing real magic or the supernatural on film, sometimes the real trick is to present it to us without literally showing it. To pull the imaginary rabbit (*cringe* I know, I know) out of the hat, and instead of showing it to us, ask us if we see it or not.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What To See in September (as if I have a right to tell you)

It's the most wonderful time of the year, y'all! If you're a movie-lover, that is. It's the fall movie season - when the studios trot out their Oscar hopefuls and festival darlings for audiences who are ready for a little more meat on the bone after what is usually a french fries and ice cream summer movie-going season.

There are WAY too many movies coming out for me to lump them all in one post, so I'm going to do it month-by-month, starting with - you guessed it! - September. The list is culled from Entertainment Weekly's Fall Movie Preview and IMDB. Where there is a discrepancy in release dates, I have gone with IMDB. Neither source is infallible, but IMDB's dates are more likely to be up-to-date than a weeks-old print source.

Small caveat - There are likely to be many additions to the release schedule (though probably not for September), as some of the big festivals (Telluride and Toronto) are happening in the next few weeks and several independent films will get distributors (and hence release dates). Let's not forget last year's Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire, which no one really knew about at all until last year's Telluride screening at the end of August. I'm hearing all kinds of ballyhoo about An Education, for example, but it has yet to find a distributor to give it an American release date.

ANYWAY, here's what's coming down the pike this month.


All About Steve - This appeals to me, and what I've seen of it seems charming and not just another cookie-cutter romcom. Love the idea of an awkward female lead that doesn't fit the usual "awkward/unappealing" stereotype. Bullock's films tend to be better when she's involved in more than the acting (she produced this and developed the script) and can inject more of her real quirk instead of the fake, affected quirk of many of her other projects.

Amreeka - One of the darlings of Sundance. This is a movie I could easily see myself falling in love with eventually but which probably won't be high on my priority list.

Carriers - I was ready to blow this one off, but the trailer looks interesting, setting it up as very character-driven and twisty rather than just blood and guts on a stick. It also has Chris Pine in it.

Extract - This has been making the free screening rounds and getting lots of good buzz. Plus, it's by Mike Judge, who gave us Office Space and Beavis and Butthead. I definitely want to see this.

Gamer - The cast looks impressive (Michael C. Hall, YAY), but this looks way too much like last year's Death Race.

No Impact Man - I'm sure this might be quite good, and I know that it's important to have less of a footprint or whatever on the planet, but this looks a lot like the smug and gimmicky Super-Size Me.

Unmade Beds - Another Sundance darling, and like Amreeka, it seems like a lovely movie, but it's more likely to be one that I'm kicking myself for not seeing when I had the chance.


9 - This looks like one of those avant-garde animated short films, and whenever I see the trailer I can't help wondering how these machine-like beings come to life in the first place. But it looks like a genuine attempt to make an animated film for adults, and that is no bad thing.


Beyond a Reasonable Doubt - Remake! For those of you playing at home that's drink 1 of the Remake Drinking Game, Fall Edition. Personally, I'm more interested in checking out Fritz Lang's original.

The Other Man - Liam Neeson and Laura Linney are together again, playing another married couple (they were last Mr. and Mrs. Kinsey). This sounds a smidge like Unfaithful, and obviously there's going to be the issue of Neeson doing press for this film, which is about grief, so relatively soon after the death of his wife. This will probably be another DVD choice.

The September Issue - This will probably slip through the cracks of my schedule and wallet as well, but I'd really love to see it, as it's kind of the real version of The Devil Wears Prada, featuring Vogue editor-in-chief and suspected mutant Anna Wintour.

Sorority Row - This is probably a canker sore in the mouth of the original, and I'm a bit tired of Rumer Willis playing the geek in the big glasses. But Carrie Fisher is in this. I'll probably end up seeing it just for her.

Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself - Not on your life. Like the Twilight phenomenon, Perry's insane popularity is something I will never understand.

Whiteout - Kate Beckinsale's Antarctic thriller. I'll pass.


Blind Date - This seems to have been in distribution hell for two years. I really love the concept, almost as much as I love its director and star Stanley Tucci, and I sincerely hope I can find time to see it.

Bright Star - This is the movie about Keats with Ben Whishaw. Not sure about this one, though, as I have never been a fan of Jane Campion.

The Burning Plain - From the screenwriter of Babel. That is not a selling point, ladies and gentlemen.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs - I find the idea a little meh, and I know nothing about the book on which it is based, but I love all the voice talent. And that picture floating around of the guy reaching up an catching a cheeseburger demands a macro, doesn't it? It just screams "CHEEZEBRGR! I HAS IT!"

Disgrace (no US release date on IMDB) - John Malkovich in post-apartheid South Africa. This movie is one of the reasons I hate that fall has SO MANY great films jammed into one season. I love the Malkovich, but I only have so many disposable dollars, people!

The Informant! - Is Steven Soderbergh like the hardest working man in movies or what? I recently saw Damon in The Good Shepherd, and this strikes me as a Bizarro version of that movie. The trailer never fails to crack me up ("0014 ... because I'm twice as smart as 007"). This goes on my list for sure.

Jennifer's Body - I've heard the script is kind of sucktastic, which is a bummer because I really dug Cody's Juno. But let's face it - most people don't go see a monster movie for the fantastic screenwriting. I'll see this.

Love Happens - Romantic drama (dramedy?) with Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart. Co-written by the director, which tends to be a good sign. Is it sad that I find this whole genre of film depressing and uninspiring? I used to love this stuff when I was too young to relate to it.

Pandorum - I liked this movie a lot more when it was called Event Horizon.

Paris - This has Juliette Binoche AND Inglourious Basterds' Melanie Laurent. I want to see this if I can. Surely this will be my excuse to finally darken the doors of the Paris Theater here in New York.


The Age of Stupid - I suppose this is what happens if we ignore the example set by No Impact Man. This doesn't excite me yet.


Capitalism: A Love Story - Michael Moore's (supposed) swan song to "documentaries." His movies aren't really documentaries, of course, but I'm a huge fan of the way he pokes and prods people who REALLY need to be poked and prodded. And this is the Big Kahuna of crap that needs crapping on. Friggin' Wall Street.


The Boys Are Back - My interest in this is mostly due to its director, Scott Hicks (of Shine). I also enjoy seeing Clive Owen playing something besides a sex god action hero.

Brief Interviews With Hideous Men - I can't find a decent clip of this anywhere, but I do like the idea (it's actually based on David Foster Wallace's book of the same name), and I'm jazzed about seeing how John Krasinski fares as a filmmaker. And the "hideous men" in the cast are pretty uniformly wonderful actors.

Coco Before Chanel - Chanel, the Early Years. Great fashion eye candy, if nothing else. Audrey Tautou and Alessandro Nivola are definite selling points, as well.

Fame - I'm sure this will be a huge hit, but I'm not interested. It looks like a complete bastardization of the original movie and series - though I'm glad to see there are a couple of consistencies, like the song and Debbie Allen (is she going to do the "here's where you start paying" speech?).

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell - Group of guys out for one last fling before one of them gets married. I've seen The Hangover, thanks, and I can already tell it's going to turn out to be the better version of this trope.

Pretty Ugly People - I'll take the festival circuit's word for it that this is good, but I hope it's better than the trailer.

Surrogates - This sounds a bit like the concept of Avatar, and it's directed by Jonathan Mostow, who doesn't do much for me. But the idea reminds me quite a bit of internet identities, where you can do whatever you want without having to worry about the consequences. This may wait for DVD, but I *am* interested in it.


The Horse Boy - Damn, this trailer made me cry. Documentary about Rowan Isaacson, an autistic child whose parents took him to Mongolia for treatment.

But obviously, I couldn't see ALL those movies unless I had a press pass and could see some for free. Therefore...

Top Five Six September Must-Sees (mine, anyway)

All About Steve
The Informant!
Capitalism: A Love Story
Blind Date
The Horse Boy

At the Movies, with Phillips and Scott

Obviously not Phillips and Scott.

I was always an huge fan of Siskel & Ebert's movie review show. They brought their enormous expertise about movies to the table and boiled their opinions about the movies they reviewed down to something most moviegoers could understand. If they gave it their "thumbs up," we knew it was good - or we at least knew enough about why they liked or disliked something to form our own opinions about whether it was worth our time and money.

The show was never quite the same after Gene Siskel's death. There was an interim time before Richard Roeper joined the show, where Ebert was joined by guest critics. It took me a while to trust Roeper's thumb when he joined, but he proved to be a good counterpoint to Ebert - a good amount of experience an expertise combined with a slightly more youthful perspective. And of course when Ebert had cancer surgery, the show was back in limbo for quite a while, with Roeper appearing alongside numerous guest hosts until he ultimately left the show in 2008.

Undoubtedly, the nadir of the show's reputation came with the addition of Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons in 2008. I'm not sure why anyone thought this was a good move. Mankiewicz is (barely) tolerable, but Ben Lyons was ... not. Both guys have a fairly impressive cinematic pedigree (Lyons being the son of noted film critic Jeffrey Lyons and Mankiewicz being on the same family tree with legendary screenwriter/director/producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz), but their film credentials were questionable at best. They seemed horribly miscast in - and a giant step-down from - the seats originally filled by Siskel and Ebert.

So color me thrilled that a new incarnation of the show is beginning this weekend with new hosts Michael Phillips (of the Chicago Tribune) and A.O. Scott (of the New York Times). Both critics subbed frequently for Ebert while he was recovering from surgery, and both have a long list of film credentials. They're highly respected critics, but they don't look down their nose at the mainstream.

Knock 'em dead, guys.