Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blue Valentine

This film has gotten a lot of attention since its Sundance debut nearly a year ago. Unfortunately, perhaps the thing it's best known for is receiving an NC-17 rating from the MPAA ratings board that was appealed and changed to an R rating, thankfully without the need for cutting any content. I saw this in a sold out theater - one of only two in New York - and the director, Derek Cianfrance, introduced it at our screening, having led a Q&A after the previous show. He was so excited to see a room full of enthusiastic people wanting to see this movie he spent the last 12 years trying to make that he took a picture.

I love living here. :) ANYWAY, the film.

If you're looking for the bottom line, I'd call this more of an actor's setpiece (and it's a truly extraordinary one) than a total package kind of movie. That's not a slight on the film or the director at all, but this film (for me, at least) is all about raw emotional power rather than stunning camera work and storytelling. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams do some amazingly heartbreaking work here, and they deserve all the accolades they're currently enjoying in this year's nascent awards circuit.

The first thing we see is the start of an average day in the home of Dean and Cindy and their daughter Frankie (who is possibly the most adorable and guileless child I have seen in any film, ever). Already you can sense some tension in this little family. This becomes a rough morning fairly quickly, and you can tell this is nothing new for Dean and Cindy. Over the course of the film, we'll follow them through two hellish days of their marriage, wherein they will try - and utterly fail - to keep things together and rekindle the magic. And the worst part of it is that there's no telling how many times this has happened before.

But that's only half of the film. The other half is set six years earlier, when Dean and Cindy first meet and fall in love. This is the sweetness that tempers the bitter of the other section, but it's got its own kind of sadness. See, Dean and Cindy aren't soulmatey made-for-each-other lovebirds. They're into each other, but you can tell from the beginning that they don't feel the same way about one another. Dean says early on in the film that he thinks men are more romantic than women. That men marry because they fall in love and have to be with that person, while women marry more pragmatically and calculatedly, because it's the right time and this is the right guy with whom to start the kind of life they want. This strikes me as rather childish and simplistic, but I definitely think that Dean is more romantic than Cindy about their particular relationship. Dean falls head over heels for Cindy, who is coming to this relationship with all kinds of baggage, and Cindy marries him because he's the most appealing option at the time. And that, to me, is the most heartbreaking thing about the entire movie. Because I don't think there is anything more soul-destroying than being completely in love with someone who ... well, they like you a lot, but they just don't feel about you the way you feel about them.

Of course, six years later, they're both a mess, because they're completely wrong for each other, which is not a deal breaker for every couple, but if you're not both willing to work on it, there's no amount of romantic chemistry that can make up for that. Dean is not the ideal husband. He drinks, for one thing, and is more of a peer for his child than a parent. But when Cindy asks him what he wants to "do" with his life, you can't not love him for answering that all he wants to "do" is be a husband and a father, and that what she would call gainful employment is just a way to make money so he can come home and be with them and do his real job.

Now, about Cindy. I was frankly disturbed by the slut-shaming mutterings of the girls sitting next to me during this movie. No, I don't think 13 years old is the ideal time to lose one's virginity, and yes, I do think that 25 sexual partners (which is only Cindy's best guess) in the space of about ten years is ... rather a lot. But every time the girls next to me said "slut" about Cindy, I wanted to smack them. Because we've been through this, people - slut is just a name for someone who's having more sex than you're personally comfortable with, and using it says more about you than the so-called slut you're shaming. *ahem* Moving on.

Though blame can be laid at both Cindy's and Dean's feet, I can't help feeling that Cindy ... well, no, I can't do that. Dean is trying harder than she is to make the marriage work, but she's trying to make their life work, and that's a huge, thankless job. And on top of that, she's trying to achieve something for herself. She's exactly the kind of woman that Dean described before, though. She married him because she couldn't bear to have an abortion and he was there and was so in love with her that he wanted to make a family with her, even though the child she was carrying was most likely not even biologically his. Dean is trying to make things work between them, but he can only do so much. Cindy is a dutiful partner, but it is obvious that this is a toxic relationship for her. There are moments, and I'm sure she's not the first person to feel this way about her spouse, where she just has to walk away and just be like "get out of my face, I just want to not have to see you for two minutes together."

A lot has been said about the sexual content in this movie, but I don't think it's gratuitous or excessive. It's realistic, rather than softly lit and romanticized, and it does what all sex scenes *should* do, which is inform the characters. It really underscores what it means for each character in a way that dialogue just can't. This is a good example of the MPAA appeals board doing the right thing with a rating. Because context matters. And I think if there is anything in the film that someone is too young to understand, they're probably not going to notice it anyway, frankly. That's just the nature of this film, I think.

Anyway, good, good movie, but if you're a Plot Person you might not be satisfied with it, because it's more of an intense character/relationship study than a traditional narrative film.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Top 10 of 2010

It's that time of year again! Time for all the real critics to post their much more meaningful Top 10 lists and time for me to mimic them, like a child playing dress-up in mommy's clothes and high-heels. Again, as in previous years, this is not my notion of "the best" or "most awards worthy" films of the year, but it's a little more complicated than just a list of my favorites. I genuinely feel that each of these films is a great total package and more than just a good time at the movies or a great performance or good writing.

"Did you ever want to be a proper politician in your own right?"
"Of course. Didn't you want to be a proper writer?"

10. The Ghost Writer (original review here)
It's past the point of cliche now to say that "They don't make them like they used to." But here is Roman Polanski, a filmmaker in his seventies, making them exactly like he used to, like he hasn't for decades. This is a real meat-and-potatoes thriller for grown-ups, without the frills and audience grabbing tactics of modern films of the genre but overflowing with the solid storytelling skills so many of those films sorely lack. This film excels on pretty much every level - writing, acting, and technical. Ewan McGregor gives the film its foundation with a modest, understated performance, but Dollhouse's Olivia Williams is the standout.

"Jessup and me run together for comin' on forty years, but I don't know where he's at, and I ain't gonna go around askin' neither."

9. Winter's Bone
A film that, like so many of its characters, keeps its cards close to its chest. Ree Dolly has a seemingly simple task - track down her missing father. But the reason she needs to find him and the obstacles in her way are eked out slowly and brilliantly over the course of this remarkable film. The most fascinating aspect of this film to me is the unique role that women play in how this particular subculture deals with Ree as a potential threat who happens to be female. This is a hard film to categorize (though the climax takes it almost into the horror genre), and that's kind of its genius for me.

"You're waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can't be sure. But it doesn't matter - because we'll be together."

8. Inception
I struggled with whether to include this, because I feel that once I got the hang of the mechanics of the movie - the dream levels and how they work - a lot of the magic was gone. I found myself less excited by my second viewing, and while everyone around me was hashing it out and discussing it, I just didn't feel like I had anything to say. But the more I thought about it, the more I found that what makes it memorable for me is not the mind-bending dream world - not even, as amazing as it is, Joey Gordon-Levitt doing his zero gravity thing - but the fact that, stripped of all its gimmickry, it's this moving love story. Sure, all these other characters are brought into it, but the impetus for the entire setup is Cobb's grief and guilt over his wife's death and his desparate need to get back to his kids.

"How do I get a hold of you?"
"You just contact the mayor's office. He has a special signal he shines in the sky. It's in the shape of a giant c**k."

7. Kick-Ass (original review here)
I will readily concede that part of my affection for this movie has to do with the amazing screening it had at BNAT last year. But while no screen audience comes close to the enthusiasm and appreciation of a BNAT audience, pretty much every "normal" audience I saw this with had a similar appreciation for it. It wasn't as successful as it should have been, but I think that, like Scott Pilgrim, this will gain a pretty substantial following in the coming years as people discover it at home. This is a movie that speaks to our culture's fascination with celebrity and what draws us to superhero stories in particular, and it does it irreverently, humorously, and intelligently (no matter what its detractors say). It might have been an even more compelling story if, as was originally intended, it had revolved around Hit Girl and Big Daddy. But its hard to argue against the focus on Dave/Kick-Ass. He's the viewer's proxy and the reason it's as thoughtful a film as it is.

"I hold out little hope for you winning your bounty ... My man'll beat you to it. I have hired a Deputy Marshal, the toughest one they have."

6. True Grit (2010)
It seems like every new film that Joel and Ethan Coen make feels like an odd decision at first, and this was no exception. Taking a classic that has perhaps been better remembered than it ought to be and remaking it seemed a bizarre choice, even for these unconventional filmmakers. Focusing the film on a precocious and wise-beyond-her-years child character was a bit risky as well, as those characters can so frequently be off-putting (*raises a knowing eyebrow to Dakota Fanning*). The result, however, is a genuine masterpiece and a noble addition to the ranks of The Searchers, The Magnificent Seven, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Shane, and other great westerns, in whose company this new True Grit need not be ashamed. Bravo, Messrs. Coen, Bridges, and Damon, and especially Miss Steinfeld.

"You better lawyer up, asshole, because I'm not just coming back for 30%, I'm coming back for everything."

5. The Social Network (original review here)
I don't think it's incidental that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin chose to title this film The Social Network, rather than use the title of the book on which the script is based (The Accidental Billionaires). This could not be a clearer attempt by Sorkin to mimic the work of his idol (and mine), Paddy Chayefsky, and Chayefsky's beyond brilliant script for the 1976 film Network. Few films in recent memory have dealt more closely with the kind of world we live in today. Not just our interactions on social networking sites, but the nature of the business world, where it's not so much being the first to have an idea but having the talent to take a good idea and make it bigger and better. And how lonely it must be to be that kind of person. People who aren't plugged in to Facebook and other networking platforms might not relate to a lot of this movie, but the final shot of the film is one of the most human moments I've seen in a film in this or any other year. Refresh, refresh, refresh...

"Please don't do that. ... I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you."
"My physicians say it relaxes the throat."
"They're idiots."
"They've all been knighted."
"Makes it official, then."

4. The King's Speech (original review here)
At first glance, this looks like an Oscar war horse. It's British, it's a period costume drama, it's set just before World War 2, and it features a character trying to overcome or at least deal with a disability. In other words, it's right in the Academy's wheelhouse. This film is much, much more than that. The Big Scenes in the film get all the attention, but they would mean nothing without the little moments that build up to them. This is not a movie centered on a disability (sorry, Harry Knowles, but you are wrong about that); it is a movie about a friendship and a king's duty as a symbol for his country during some of the most difficult times in our world's history.

"Now Woody, he's been my pal for as long as I can remember. He's brave, like a cowboy should be. And kind, and smart. But the thing that makes Woody special is he'll never give up on you ... ever. He'll be there for you, no matter what"

3. Toy Story 3 (original review here)
How - HOW - did Pixar take a movie trilogy about toys and teach us about our own lives and human frailty? The first film showed us a world where toys not only talked but had feelings; they could fear being mishandled by a malicious child and, most significantly, they could feel jealous of newer, cooler toys, much like a child feels jealous of a new sibling. The second film took it a step further, showing us toys who fear their eventual neglect as their child outgrows them. And the third film takes it even further, showing us what happens to these toys when they are eventually cast aside, in a setting that is somewhat analogous to a nursing home. Not only that, but having them face their own mortality and be, in a way, resurrected as they find a new life with a new child. As strange as it seems, though, the toy box is a rather perfect metaphor, since as children we act out what we know of life with our own toys. If this is what Pixar can do with sequels, I frankly can't wait to see what they can do with new chapters in the Cars and Monsters, Inc. universes.

"I just want to be perfect."

2. Black Swan (original review here)
The best High Horror film since Silence of the Lambs? Quite possibly. A critic I follow said that the two overarching themes of films this year (as far as his responses to them were concerned) were 1) art, and how artists create it, and 2) human frailty. This film is a brilliant meditation on both of those themes. Natalie Portman's struggle to play a dual role in Swan Lake and her eventual descent into madness vacillates from the humorous to the horrifying. We are appalled by the lengths she goes to to achieve her art, but we are nonetheless fascinated and full of admiration for her achieving it. The thing about art is that is it important enough for people to want to give their whole selves, their sanity, their health and well being, and perhaps even their lives in pursuit of it, and even though we might hate to see people suffer like that, the scariest thing is ... isn't it worth it to create something of true beauty?

And now...









"Such a beautiful place .. to be ... with friends."

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (scattered thoughts here)
I realize that for some people this choice may invalidate the entire list, but this is my list and there is seriously not one film this year from which I derived more joy or meaning. I am forever grateful that I encountered Rowling's books and these films precisely as I did, and whatever remakes the future might hold, these particular films will always be entwined for me with the books and my own fandom experiences. I think all of the films prior to this have their peculiar mix of virtues and faults, but as I said earlier this year, there is not one thing about this movie I don't like, even after five viewings. Every aspect of filmmaking has gone up several steps with this one, and kudos to them for just going for the best adaptation of this particular book that was possible, regardless of whatever setups and clues from the earlier books they neglected in earlier films in the series.


"You're a porn actor who wants to know what a porn film is about?"

A Serbian Film (original review here - by all means, click if you're curious, but DO NOT GOOGLE THIS FILM)
I could not, in good conscience, even think about giving this a number on any kind of list. But at the end of the day, no other film this year - in my life, I expect - has had a bigger impact on how I watch movies, how I think about them, and how I talk and write about them. This is a truly shocking, boundary-pushing film, but an intelligent and very well made one. I'm rather surprised at all the people calling shenanigans on the metaphor, because if you are paying attention to anything besides the shocks it is splattered all over the film, especially the dialogue. These filmmakers are mad as hell, and they express that feeling in a piece of extraordinary political and pornographic rage. I'm not sure director Srdjan Spasojevich and his co-writer Aleksander Radivojevich could ever top this (and I don't really think I want them to), but I'm excited and frankly a bit horrified to see what they do next.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Final Girl Film Club - Sugar Hill

Time for another round of Final Girl Film Club! This month's selection is the blaxploitation zombie flick Sugar Hill. Indicentally, the neighborhood in Harlem where I live is called Sugar Hill, so I felt a connection to this movie right off the bat. Also, this is a Samuel Z. Arkoff and AIP production (that's American International Pictures, not Amazingly Idiotic Productions), and if that name means anything to you, a) you probably watch too much MST3K, and b) this movie probably just jumped up several points on your AwesomeMeter.

The film begins with what appears to be a voodoo ritual - drums, dancing, chicken blood, you probably know the drill. The natives are voodoo-ing to the particularly groovy strains of "Supernatural Voodoo Woman" by The Originals - a song that's a bit too slow for what's going on, until - wait a minute. It's not an actual voodoo ritual. The lights have come up now and what we've just been watching is the floor show at the popular Club Haiti.

We meet Diana Hill (aka "Sugar") and her man Langston, who owns the club. They are a loving pair, which is good because this is the only opportunity the movie is going to offer us to be invested in their relationship at all. Some thugs come around, talking trash, and Sugar begs Langston not to provoke them - "I just don't want anything to happen to mah man," she says. But lo, something does happen to her man, and the thugs, all white men except for the pimptastic Fabulous (yes, that is his name) beat Langston to death.

Sugar swears revenge and goes to visit Mama Maitresse (which may, in fact, just be a fancy name for "mattress") to order up some zombie-style retribution. Mama Maitresses (played by Zara Cully, aka Mother Jefferson) conjurs up this guy, Baron Samedi (played by the disturbingly cheerful Don Pedro Colley)...

...who commands a gang of zombies who, when they lived, were plantation slaves who died of fever. These dead-heads, it must be said, are fairly awesome zombies. Sugar is told "Put them to evil use; it's all they know or want." These are happy zombies, and you can tell because they SMILE. CREEPY! Perhaps even creepier - they have shiny ping-pong ball eyeballs that make them look like bugs.

So Sugar summons the zombies, who are much more like Inferi than traditional zombies in that they don't just shuffle and eat; they actually do someone's bidding. The zombies kill the guys who killed Langston, and that's pretty much the story. The script, when not dealing with the zombies, is pretty painfully bad, though the actors do what they can with it. What sets this apart are the aforementioned zombies and some rather unique kills. My favorite is when Sugar uses voodoo to make one of the guys stab himself. And once it's down to just the main bad guy, we pan around the group of zombies and his recently killed cronies are among their number! So not only has Sugar killed them, she now commands them to do her will!

There are so many things to love about this movie, but the greatest and strangest is Sugar's two separate identities, the purpose of which is never really addressed. All I know is that Sugar looks like this when she's not doing zombie things.

And like this when she's an ass-kicking zombie queen.

There may be something metaphorical there, but that's probably giving the filmmakers way too much credit.

There are definitely problems with this movie, but what works REALLY works. Sugar Hill is, in 70s parlance, DYNAMITE!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Black Swan

I'm still working out exactly how I feel about this movie - meaning that I'm trying to figure out if I merely love it or OMG LOVE it. I'm leaning toward the latter. There was something about the very end that was ... I don't want to say unsatisfactory, but it wasn't quite the "woaaaah" I was expecting after the twenty minutes that immediately preceded it. Twenty minutes which, I must say, make up perhaps the most perfect movie climax I've seen on a movie screen this year. Period.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a professional ballet dancer in New York. She's been with the company for a long time, and you get the impression that if she were going to break out and get lead roles it would have happened by now. It's not that she's not a good dancer - she has great skill and technique - but she's not a Star. Still, when the company's prima ballerina, Beth (Winona Ryder) is pressured into retirement, the director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) needs a new face. He picks out a few girls to audition for his reimagining of Swan Lake, and he is going to pick one girl to play the dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan. He tells Nina, in as many words, that if he were only casting the White Swan it would be hers. But the Black Swan is supposed to seduce the Prince, and he doesn't see the seductress in her at all. She manages to persuade him, however, during a private moment in his office, and she gets the one role every ballet dancer dreams of.

The problem, though, is that her persuasive moment in Thomas's office, was just that - a moment. She knows the steps, but she can't find the inner siren, no matter how impatient Thomas gets with her (or how many times he tries to kiss and grope her and bring that out of her again). Meanwhile, there's a new girl in the company named Lily (played by Mila Kunis). She's everything that Nina is not - she's confident and sexy but lacking in technique, she's got an attitude, she smokes, she eats hamburgers, she's frequently late for rehearsal, etc. Thomas points Lily out to Nina, though, as an example of the passion he wants to see in her Black Swan. Nina becomes paranoid that Lily is trying to steal her role, and the two of them have quite an uneasy relationship, but she's also kind of drawn to her (though not exactly in the way you might be thinking). The stress of trying to develop the dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan drives Nina to the brink (beyond it, actually) of psychosis and self loathing, pushing her to an opening night performance that starts as a failure and becomes an utter revelation. And that's where I'd better stop with regard to story.

The film's crowning jewel, without a doubt, is the last approximately twenty minutes, which involve the opening night performance. And I'll have to be vague as heck because this is spoiler territory. Most of these "backstage melodrama" films have the big performance scene or sequence and they can occasionally be thrilling but usually only serve to weigh a film down. Not here. Oh no. The whole film has been building to this climax of Nina's inner demons and watching what she goes through to be what she needs to be for each act of the ballet took my breath away.

For some reason, although I'm usually quite the spoiler whore, I was quite scrupulous about spoilers for this movie. I watched the trailer once, then immediately watched it again, and was so intrigued that I decided then and there that that was all I wanted to know about the movie until I saw the whole thing for myself. I'm still not sure whether that really made any difference or not. Possibly the thing I love best about this movie is that it's not a "Gotcha!" kind of movie. It's not a movie built on twists. There are reveals, to be sure, but they're not of that nature. There are clear indications early on that things aren't what they seem and that Aronofsky is engaging in some metaphor. I was reminded a bit of movies like Jacob's Ladder and The Shining, where you're never entirely sure what's real and what's not. And maybe the greatest thing is that a lot of the time there's not really a right answer to that.

This is, at its most basic, a horror movie. It's been compared to David Cronenberg's work (I think The Fly and The Brood are the most comparable), but there's a lot more going on here than a body horror comparison will cover. It's been compared to Dario Argento's work, but while it's about people in the arts (specifically, about ballet dancers, as Argento's Suspiria was), it's still more than that. Nina isn't just a ballerina dealing with the pressure of her first major role and the other struggles that accompany her career in general. She's a woman trying to claim her identity, and while we may not all be ballet dancers, that is something at least that we can all relate to. And I think we can all agree that it can often be scary as hell. Okay, maybe not quite as scary as Nina's experiences, but frightening nonetheless.

I'd love to talk about Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassell, and Mila Kunis, because the acting across the board is superb, but I'm afraid of making this even longer than it already is. So I'll leave it with a "These guys totally own!" and move on, because I have to say a bit about casting, particularly the casting of Winona Ryder and Natalie Portman.

Darren Aronofsky's casting choices can be downright uncanny commentaries on the actors themselves, perhaps none of them more so than Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. It's almost as if he wants an actor's baggage to add an extra layer to the character they're playing. I was especially intrigued by the choice of WInona Ryder to play the involuntarily retiring ballet dancer. She's not someone I can really imagine as a dancer, but that doesn't matter as we never see her dance in the film. What we do see are a few choice meltdowns. Ryder's real life drama a few years ago can't help but affect how you view her in the film, and I think this is at least half the reason she was cast. And having her play the fading star while Portman's character rises to take her place was kind of genius. Because in many ways Natalie Portman is, for her generation, what Winona Ryder was for hers when she was that age. And speaking of Natalie...

I don't think I'm alone in having found Natalie Portman's transition from child star to adult actor a trifle disappointing. She had a maturity beyond her years as a young girl. When she was in Beautiful Girls alongside Timothy Hutton, his character told hers that he was sure that when she grew up whatever she ended up doing with her life was going to be amazing. Audiences had a similar expectation for Natalie herself, I think, but her adult roles have been frequently flat (with a couple of exceptions). So it was only fitting for her to play this dancer who has skill but can't quite sell herself in a grown-up role. Any doubts on that score should be put to bed with this film. And yet what I love is that she isn't wildly different. She's not made up to look different, her voice is not suddenly more sultry or aggressive. She's not all of a sudden hardcore, like this gangster rapping self-parody she did on SNL.


She's simply using her instrument in a way that I'm convinced she's just never been asked to before. It's hard to even imagine something like "Hold me like you did on Naboo!" after seeing her in this. Her Nina in is a cut above every single lead female performance I've seen this year. (Yes, even you, Annette Bening. I know losing the Oscar to Swank twice has got to burn, but if you won this year, it would be an apology Oscar.) While still managing to make what she does look easy, Portman's performance is nevertheless a reminder that not everyone with a pretty face can be an actress. There's a fearlessness and a dedication to the role and the world of this film that I think have put her in another league of artistry altogether.

Excellent, excellent movie. Man, I love this time of year!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

December Movie Releases

Okay, here goes. The end of the year is nigh, and the studios have saved a lot of their best stuff for last and before the end of this week we'll start to get the first look at who the award show contenders are shaping up to be (*waves to the National Board of review*).


[MUST-SEE] The Black Swan - [limited] I've watched the trailer twice by my own volition (and a few times in front of films it's been attached to), but I am determined to know as little as possible about this going in. There is ballet, body horror, and psychological terror. The director said this and his previous film The Wrestler were at one point all one movie. That's already more than I want to know. This has gotten some incredible buzz coming out of the festivals, and I cannot wait to see it. Darren Aronofsky is fast becoming one of the all-time greats. Another one in my "most anticipated" pile. I'm hoping to make it a triple feature with two other ballet-centric movies, The Red Shoes and Suspiria.

All Good Things - [limited] Now is the winter of our Ryan Gosling (with this and Blue Valentine coming out this month)! I've seen the trailer for this a few times, and I still can't figure out what it's about. Is it a love story about people from opposite sides of "the tracks"? Is is a story about a man's career and family heritage coming between him and his wife? Is it about a woman giving up everything about herself for her marriage? Is it (and this doesn't even come up until the last couple of seconds) a murder mystery? I'm waiting to hear more, even if more is just "trust me, you want to know as little as possible."

I Love You Phillip Morris - [LA/NY] I am downright furious at the treatment this film has gotten in the last several months. I've put this on I don't know how many drafts of the coming months' releases and it has kept getting pushed back. I saw it written in my old calendar for JULY. And it's as clear as day why this has happened - studios don't know how to sell Jim Carrey as a man in love with another man. I hope THIS time it actually sees the inside of a theater.

Night Catches Us - [LA/NY/Phil.] I have literally never heard of this film (which apparently premiered at Sundance in January) until today when it suddenly showed up on IMDB's "coming soon" page. This also just got nominated for Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. Anthony Mackie, who made a memorable supporting turn in The Hurt Locker, gets top billing in this, alongside Kerry Washington, as a man accused of orchestrating the murder of a Black Panther. This looks very interesting and has (judging from the trailer) some amazing music by The Roots. Sadly, however, this is exactly the kind of thing that slips through the cracks of my movie-watching. Hopefully, it will be playing somewhere in January during the nadir of good movies.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale - [NY] Last holiday season I amused myself while listening to "Here Comes Santa Claus" that the lyrics could be the tagline for a slasher flick - "Hang your stockings and say your prayers, 'cause Santa Claus is coming tonight - MUAHAHAHAHA!" The good people of Finland seem to have heard my giggling and have made a film about Santa as the boogeyman. Which, if you think about it, is not far off the mark.

The Warrior's Way - The trailer totally had me at "Ninjas ... damn." Ninja assassins AND Geoffrey Rush? God bless us every one, it's Christmas after all!

Meskada - [LA/NY] What is it with these movies popping up out of thin air on the release schedule?! Buzz on this is not good, despite the impressive cast (Nick Stahl, Walking Dead's Norman Reedus, and Grace Gummer (daughter of Meryl Streep, and I'm sure she loves people calling her that)).


The Tourist - Something about Angelina Jolie's way-too-clean British accent is off-putting. But ... Johnny Depp. You know I'm there. :-) Also, the line about "upgrade it from room service" gets me every time I see the trailer.

The Tempest - Julie Taymor's film projects have been hit and miss, mostly miss for me. The film I like best of hers is Across the Universe, but it's still deeply flawed, in my opinion. This has not gotten good reception at all. I still think my favorite way of experiencing this particular Shakespeare play is the fantastic documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars. May watch that again instead and listen to the recording of Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald singing "Full Phathom Five."

The Company Men - I could have sworn this was coming out a couple of months ago, and I may have even had it on one of the other months' posts. John Wells, the television producer who gave us E.R. and (*choir of angels singing*) The West Wing turns his eyes to films. The trailer breaks my heart, and it actually looks like even more of a "movie of the moment" than Up in the Air, with the focus on layoffs and trying to pick up the pieces and start one's life again.

The Fighter - [limited] After screening at AFI a few weeks ago, this has gotten all kinds of Oscar buzz. It's the kind of crowd-pleaser that would do well, even without the expanded Best Picture field. Most attention seems to be going to Christian Bale, though, rather than Wahlberg, the film's star. What is it about boxing movies that's so darned captivating?

Voyage of the Dawn Treader - I confess that I have read none of the Narnia books save The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, so I have no idea what to expect here. Except that I understand what little there is of shipping to be had in the series appears in this book. I'm not sure what it is about these films that strikes me as disappointing, but this looks more in the same a-cut-below vein.


[MUST-SEE] TRON: Legacy - Possible BNAT premiere? It's 1982 predecessor screened at the very first BNAT. I appreciate the nostalgia for the original, and I do think it's rather cool, but I saw it relatively late in life, so I don't have the same reverence for it that the fanboys do. Still, it looks pretty wicked awesome. And how about that movie magic making Jeff Bridges look twenty-eight years younger?

Yogi Bear - No. I don't care who does the voices (Dan Ackroyd and Justin Timberlake, in this case). Thank goodness for Tron, otherwise this would make even more money than it probably still will.

Rabbit Hole - [limited] Nicole Kidman is apparently back in fine form in this grieving parent dramedy from John Cameron Mitchell (of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame). Everything I've seen and heard makes me want to see this even more. Perhaps no piece of marketing, however, is as brilliant as this poster. How amazing is that?!

Casino Jack - [limited] Wasn't there a documentary about Abramoff recently? This is getting pretty good buzz. I haven't seen a lot of Kevin Spacey lately, but it's good to see him ... back, I guess.

How Do You Know - It's hard to believe James L. Brooks has only directed five films before this in his entire career. He's been far too busy with "The Simpsons," I expect. But three of his five films are absolute classics - Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets. I look forward to seeing this latest directorial offering. Except that I resent that idea that a woman of 27 is "a bit past her prime," as the IMDB synopsis puts it. Hmph.


[MUST-SEE] True Grit - Now is also the winter of our Jeff Bridges. This looks so awesome it ought to be criminal, which usually means a movie is bound to disappoint, but the response to this week's secret screening has been incredible. I'll go ahead and say that I don't foresee it making a huge Oscar impact, since the Coens sweep for No Country for Old Men (another western) was just three years ago and Jeff Bridges won just last year. Honestly, though? I don't really care. This looks amazing and I can't freaking WAIT. *crosses fingers for a BNAT screening, though we'll probably get our Bridges fix with Tron instead*

[Side note: I was watching the first trailer recently that has the a cappella gospel song playing in the background. The song is "Where No One Stands Alone," as recorded by the Peasall Sisters, who provided the singing voices for George Clooney's three daughters in another Coens film, O Brother, Where Are Thou?. I just thought that was cool. And a great song, too. :) ]

Little Fockers - I have never gotten into these films at all (I think I finally, accidentally saw the first one a few years ago and found it mildly amusing at best). I'm impatiently waiting for this franchise to just go away.

Gulliver's Travels - Everything I've seen looks terrible, but I guess the studio has faith in it if they're putting it out this close to Christmas.

Country Strong - [limited] So ... Crazy Heart, but with a rich female singer instead of a washed up has-been? Seriously, the character even has a drinking problem, which of course is not unusual for the country music business, but still. And while I love me some Gwyneth Paltrow, her accent in this kind of grates. I think it's cool that she's getting another chance to show off her singing ability, though, because she's pretty darn good. And I have to say that setting it in Nashville is obviously pushing my hometown buttons. Also, YAY WOMEN FILMMAKERS.


The Illusionist - [limited] From the filmmakers who brought us the delightful Triplets of Belleville. That alone is enough to recommend it.

Somewhere - [limited] The latest from Sofia Coppola and the big Venice Film Festival winner. There's a thread running through most of her work regarding the loneliness of fame. This looks pretty interesting, but the name Fanning (even if it's not Dakota) makes me twitch.


Biutiful - [limited] Responses to this on the festival circuit have been all over the map. The trailer for this movie may in fact be the most pretentious thing I have EVER seen, and the director Alejandro González Iñárritu is sometimes brilliant, sometimes infuriating (I loved his 21 Grams, hated Babel). Javier Bardem, however, may be enough to get me to a theater to see it.

Another Year - [limited] I love Mike Leigh, and he's made some of the most interesting and complex character studies of anyone making movies in the last twenty years. I don't know that anything of his will exceed my affection for Topsy-Turvy, but this looks wonderful. Speaking of Topsy-Turvy, I'm always amused to see people who've played a couple (in this case, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert, played in TT by Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville, respectively) playing something totally different.


Blue Valentine - Another movie the MPAA ratings board has picked out to make an example of, this time slapping an NC-17 rating on what should by all accounts be rated R. The trailer is adorable (though I understand the film is heart-shattering), and I can't wait to see this.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Final Girl Film Club - The Initiation of Sarah

It's been several months since I actually participated in the Final Girl Film Club in a timely fashion. I usually either watch the movie too late (which is pretty much every month) or just can't bring myself to write something about it (Hellbound and the annoyingness of Jackson and the dearth of Chuck Norris ass-kicking depressed me to no end). But NOT THIS TIME.

Oh my gosh, you guys! I'm so enraptured with this month's pick, I can hardly express it! But I'll try.

The Initiation of Sarah was one of several "The [SOMETHING] of [SOMEONE]" movies from the 1970s. FinalGirl did a whole Awesome Movie Poster Friday post about them - The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Haunting of Julia, The Possession of Joel Delaney. Whatever else these movies were about, you know from the title that SOMEONE is going to have SOMETHING happen to them. Which I guess is fairly basic for a movie plot, but it just SOUNDS EXCITING, doesn't it?

This was a made-for-TV movie with a pretty HAWESOME cast. You've got Kay Lenz, who has been on pretty much every television show ever, was in both Rich Man, Poor Man (!!) and the sequel, and has the distinction of being the first Mrs. David Cassidy. You've got Morgan Brittany, who is probably best known as Pamela Ewing's half-sister on Dallas (!!!). You've got Robert Hays of Airplane! fame ("Surely you can't be serious."). You've got Morgan Fairchild, who is ... MORGAN FLIPPING FAIRCHILD. And you've got Shelley Winters, who is just plain rules the planet with her awesomely brassy and badass self.

This is very much a 70s movie, and you can see it from the first frame. The soft lighting, the credits, appearing in a font that looks like it's right off a package of Massengill. The disco music. Every frame of this movie looks like it was cut out of an old JCPenney catalog, and I LOVE IT.

We begin on a beach at dusk. It's the last beach party of the summer and Sarah and her sister Patty are having some fun, yo! Until the guy who takes Patty off for a swim turns out to be a rapist. We then get our first glimpse that Sarah is a little different. She's a good distance from Patty and her attacker, but a few jumpy camera moves and a "STOP IT!" later and Mr. Rapist is thrown back into the water so that Patty can escape. Yes, that's right - Sarah has some telekinetic mojo.

Because the other thing this film is besides a 70s-fest and a "something of someone" movie is a ... let's just call it an homage to Brian DePalma's Carrie. Unpopular girl turns out to have powers, so you'd better not mess with her or she will set the whole school on FIRE.

Sarah and Patty leave for college. It's clear that they're quite close. It's also clear that one of them is adopted, because while mommy gushes over Patty and gives her enthusiastic advice about how to pledge a sorority, she says farewell to Sarah as if it's an afterthought. Patty is excited about rushing, because Mommy was once a member of Alpha Nu Sigma - the hottest sorority on campus - which should mean both girls have a leg up in becoming pledges. But poor adopted Sarah is worried people will go digging into her past, a past which even she knows nothing about.

The girls go to sorority row, which seems abysmally empty considering it's meant to be Rush Week. Their first stop is the Alpha Nu house, where Patty is taken to meet some of the other actives and Sarah is taken ... to the refreshment table. Just when I thought I couldn't love this movie more, suddenly Sarah has like 70% of my college experience in the span of a few minutes. I RELATE TO YOU, GURL! The Alpha Nus are a special brand of snotty bitches, and their Head Bitch in Charge is none other than Jennifer Lawrence (Morgan Fairchild).

"Stranded at the punch bowl ... branded a fool.
What will they say ... Monday at school?"

The girls then go to the Pi Epsilon Delta house, which the Alpha Nu girls have nicknamed "Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs." Yeah, it's lame, but it's still mean. They're an older house, the girls are more brainy than beauty, and they don't really do the tradition thing. Naturally, they love Sarah, and she feels a connection to them too. But more than anything, she doesn't want to be parted from her sister. Mommy, however, thinks it's time that Patty and Sarah went their own ways.

Soon it's time for the girls to find out which sororities want them, and, predictably, Patty ends up with the snooties and Sarah ends up chosen by only one sorority, the "Pigs, Elephants, and Dogs," which she calls "P.E.D." like it's a venereal disease. Jennifer and the other Alpha Nus forbid Patty to talk with any P.E.D.s. including her own sister, for the duration of pledging, leading Sarah to run off by herself and cause another strange accident. It's starting to get confusing, though. Does she actually cause these things to happen? Or does she sense that they will happen in time to save someone from getting hurt. I think we're meant to understand that she actually causes these things to happen, but a couple of times it's not clear.

Patty and Sarah move into their respective houses, and we get some generic spooky mood setting in the P.E.D. house. There's a room that's always locked that only the house mother, Mrs. Hunter, has ever gone into. Oh, and by the way, the house mother is SHELLEY WINTERS. This is ... not her finest acting moment, but she's Shelley Winters, so that's okay. She's supposedly very into the occult and has been working on a thesis on the topic for hundreds of years or whatever. She calls Sarah into her room to get to know her a bit better, and it looks like the writers meant to drop some heavy clues here that Mrs. Hunter is Sarah's biological mother. It's never resolved beyond this one scene, but I suspect it was originally meant to be and they just ran out of time or had to cut that particular subplot. In any case, Mrs. Hunter recognizes Sarah's special abilities and you can tell already that she's thinking of how to exploit them.

Sarah makes friends with her sorority sisters (and even, bizarrely, becomes their leader, even though she hasn't even been initiated into the sorority yet) and develops an almost-relationship with her cute Psych T.A., Paul. She has a standoff with the snooty Jennifer, using her powers to send her for a swim in a campus fountain, and oh honey, it is ON. Jennifer goes to Patty, pretending that she feels bad about how she treated Sarah and even hinting that she'd like to invite her to join Alpha Nu Sigma. She weasels some details out of Patty, including that she's been spending a lot of time with Paul, and Jennifer hatches her plan. It's very clearly inspired by the Carrie prank, but while it's not as iconic, it's still incredibly mean and sends Sarah into revenge mode (again like Carrie), egged on by Mrs. Hunter, who has a longstanding grudge against Alpha Nu Sigma and Jennifer's mother. The initial revenge is a bit lackluster - Sarah telepathically causes Jennifer (and inadvertently her sister Patty) to be trapped in a shower with scalding hot water pouring on them. (I will give the film points, though, for not only referencing the shower scene in Carrie but for giving an unexpected nod to women in prison flicks with the two chicks in the shower - you go, movie!)

Speaking of Carrie, though, here are some more parallels. Jennifer is quite clearly the Nancy Allen character - the leader of the mean girls who sets up the prank. Her boyfriend Scott (played by Airplane!'s Robert Hays) is a cross between the John Travolta character who helps her with the prank because he's under her sexual spell (they have some of the ugliest fake kissing I've ever SEEN, blech!) and the William Katt character who feels sympathy for her. Patty is the Amy Irving character who reluctantly participates in some (though not all) of the taunting, but is actually really nice. And Mrs. Hunter is kind of the inverse of Piper Laurie, an enabler rather than an abuser.

Everything comes to a head on the night of initiation, and here's where the film falls a bit short. It's not horrible, it's just ... I think the film takes on a bit more than it can handle given its limitations. If this were a theatrical feature and not a TV movie, they could have gone full on Suspiria with the crazy ritual stuff. As it is, it's kind of a jumbled mess. I do kind of love the jumps back and forth between the fairly innocuous Alpha Nu initiation (part of which includes feeding the blindfolded initiates peeled grapes and telling them they're eyes) and the more sinister P.E.D. ministrations (where the girls wear what can only be described as black KKK hoods - WTF?!). Mrs. Hunter wants to use Sarah to bring down the Alpha Nu house, particularly Jennifer (who becomes horribly disfigured), and restore P.E.D. to its former glory. For some reason, this involves a human sacrifice, and one of the girls (who has apparently already had blood taken from her for the ritual) is trapped-but-not-really under the table awaiting the fulfillment of this purpose. Everyone manages to escape, however, leaving Sarah to have a final showdown with Mrs. Hunter, ending with the two of them dying in a fiery flame of burning fire and leaving the viewer to think to herself "Well, that made no sense."

Um, what the--?

Even though the ending is a bit "bzuh?" I really loved this. It gets MAJOR style points, if nothing else, and there's some fairly good characterization. Nobody felt like a generic "bad guy" or "good guy." I adored Kay Lenz, and she really pulled off the girl-who's-pretty-but-so-down-on-herself-you-can't-see-it. Yet again, much like Sissy Spacek in Carrie.

Anyway, despite my misgivings about the plot and the very obvious influence of Carrie, I thought this was awesome. Would watch again.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Scary Scenes Made of Awesome - Zombie

Seven days into October and I'm finally getting with the program! I hope to do *something* spooktacular each day this month - probably not all (or even many) reviews, because those usually turn out to be quite time-consuming - but something.

Today, I offer one of the most awesome scenes in all of horror. For simplicity's sake, we'll call this film Zombie (though it goes by several others). This is an Italian horror film, made by one of the handful of great artists of gore to come out of Italia, Lucio Fulci. More specifically, though, this is an Italian zombie film, and those are a particular breed. Where most zombies are blue-faced or bloody or whatever, Italian zombies really give you the impression of having rotted in the earth a while. They're all oatmeal-faced and you can almost smell them coming. I mean, just look at this guy on the poster.


Italian horror films are also known for going all out in the departments that horror is best known for - blood & guts and T&A. Like almost all zombie films, including Italian ones, the plot of Zombie is incidental. People trapped in a blahblahblah, zombies come out of the ground and eat them, the end. Even Romero's zombie flicks, while rich in social subtext, follow this simple, fool-proof formula.

What sets zombie flicks apart from one another are the kills. It's amazing how creative filmmakers can get with a genre that could so easily be a one-note snorefest. Some of the best kills in the horror genre come from zombie flicks, and Zombie has two great ones. One is the famous splinter-meets-eyeball scene. The other is a zombie fighting a shark.

Yes, you read that right - ZOMBIE VS. SHARK. This is one of the most awesome things ever committed to celluloid. If you love Jaws and you love zombies, this scene is greater than anything else in the world, the end. Even if you don't love either of those things, it's still pretty awesome. You know what would make Shark Week the best thing ever? ZOMBIES.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Social Network

This is not a movie about Facebook. Let's just get that out of the way.

On the surface, The Social Network is a story about Mark Zuckerberg, the founding of his Facebook empire, and the lawsuits involved. But ... well, no it's not. This is a movie, not an episode of Biography or a History Channel special. And that's the main thing to remember going into this. Mark Zuckerberg and the other characters in The Social Network are just that - characters in a story. It's *based* on real events, but there's a good bit of fiction and connecting dots as well.

I need to do something substantial to get into the clubs. ... Because they're exclusive, and fun, and they lead to a better life.

The movie starts with a dizzying conversation between Zuckerberg (played absolutely brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica (played by Rooney Mara). Great acting aside, you should know at this point (if you didn't already) that this film was written by Aaron Sorkin, a fact which may or may not mean anything to you. If you remember the rapid fire, mega-smart dialogue in The West Wing, this is, if you can imagine it, even more intense than that. Imagine a much less charming Sam Seaborn on a date with a girl he likes but who he feels is beneath him. There are so many levels to the conversation in this scene, that it's difficult to keep up; I almost wish there had been subtitles, but they'd have gotten in the way. Mark, a sophomore at Harvard, is having about ten conversations to Erica's one. His voice is very clipped and controlled, but the conversation itself is spiraling out of control so fast that he doesn't even register when Erica suddenly announces that they're not dating anymore. I say suddenly, because I honestly think the decision was that quick - like, she went on this date with a guy who sometimes annoyed her but who she truly liked, and then in the space of a few minutes like turned to contempt. She shreds him with an epic burn that all the reviews I've read quote word-for-word but I won't here, because you need to just experience it. And Mark runs home to his dorm to take it out on her. On the internet.

First, he posts to his LiveJournal about what a bitch Erica is, and this is one moment in the film that rang a bit false to me, because I have an LJ - I'd had it for over a month, in fact, when this scene was supposedly taking place, in late 2003 - and I couldn't concentrate on the next few minutes of the film because my brain was busy going "LJ DOESN'T WORK LIKE THAT, GAAAH!" But that's another post for another time. Anyway, his bitterness and frustration lead to an all-night coding session, where he, his roommates, and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (played by the new Spidey, Andrew Garfield) post pictures of most of the girls on campus two-by-two, so that people (read: douchebag guys) can vote on which girl is hotter in each pair. The site was known as "Facemash," and according to the film, it got 22,000 hits in 2 hours before crashing the Harvard servers. I don't know about the numbers, but the site was real enough, and the articles about it in the Harvard paper are still online.

This event draws the attention of the Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron (both played by Artie Hammer in one of the more amazing portrayals of twins that I've ever seen). The "Winklevi" ask Mark to help them with a campus social network called HarvardConnection (later, ConnectU) that was meant to start at Harvard and then expand to other schools, and the main appeal they saw in this was exclusivity. Mark makes an oral agreement with them to program the site, but while HarvardConnection is a good idea, Mark has a better one.

And thus "thefacebook" is born.

A million dollars is not cool. You know what's cool? A BILLION dollars.

It is, as I'm sure any of you who log on to it's current form at least once a day can imagine, instantly popular and highly addictive, and Zuckerberg is suddenly a campus celebrity before his sophomore year is even over. He and Eduardo Saverin, who is his CFO and provides the initial financial backing, make plans to expand to other colleges, including Boston University, where his ex-girlfriend attends. Most notably, however, they want to get the site to Stanford University, which just happens to be in Palo Alto, CA. Which just happens to be a significant corner of Silicon Valley. The Winkelvoss twins are livid that Mark stole their idea, though probably even more livid that it is successful, and they go to the university president to try and get Mark thrown out for breaking the school honor code. In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, the president essentially laughs them out of his office, with a hearty "why are you wasting my time?". They soon come to the conclusion that it's time to lawyer up.

Meanwhile, "thefacebook" has caught the attention of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who at this point has already become an internet rock star for founding Napster. He meets with Mark and Eduardo, filling Mark's head with stars and filling Eduardo with apprehension and distrust. Sean is against Eduardo's quest for advertising revenue (so is Mark), and while the site is already bigger than either Mark or Eduardo could have imagined, Sean's vision is even bigger. Facebook's current market value today, just so you know, is just over 25 billion dollars.

"Your best friend is suing you for 600 million dollars."

The story of The Social Network unfolds in a deceptively scattershot way. It is, in essence, a courtroom drama, consisting of two big lawsuits - that of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss against Zuckerberg and, most significantly and rather sadly, that of Eduardo Saverin against Zuckerberg. The rest of the scenes - the Harvard and California scenes - appear as flashbacks. The characters are telling the stories in a hearing and the movie is showing those stories to us. A good bit of attention has been paid to Justin Timberlake, who was kind of the perfect person to play Sean Parker, being something of a rock star himself. But make no mistake, the real stars of the show are Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield.

Mark in this movie, as I said above, is not meant to be the real Mark Zuckerberg, who could very well be a lovely person, but a fictionalized version - the version of Zuckerberg that works the best as far as telling this story. Here's a guy who founded a site that has 500 million members and counting, a site that's defined by the act of "friending," and yet he doesn't seem to have any actual friends at all. I won't spoil it for you, but the last scene in the film is a perfect encapsulation of who this guy is personally and the irony of that in the context of who he is in terms of Facebook. "It's lonely at the top" is not an original theme, but it certainly has an interesting twist when what you're the top of is the social business. In a world where millions of connections are made every day, the person who makes all this connecting possible can't make one himself.

The tension between Garfield's Eduardo and Eisenberg's Mark is palpable, but it's not a matter of hatred, at least not entirely (and not really at all on Mark's side). There's all kinds of flavors in it - betrayal, resentment, regret, sadness. Despite the fact that Mark does some shady things, you can't help sympathizing with him a little, and Eisenberg is a huge part of why that works. He really does seem to be sad that things with Eduardo fell apart. The thing with the Winklevosses has some nice layers too, because while what Mark did to them was pretty shady, their vision was just so small due to their focus on exclusivity.

What's interesting, though, is that Facebook has its own kind of exclusivity. Anyone can be a member, but you have to be "accepted" to have access to content. I can't help thinking that Zuckerberg was inspired by LiveJournal in this, though that may be the movie's artistic license playing with me (who knows if he ever even had an LJ account). And then there's the whole issue of the term "friend," which Facebook has basically made meaningless. I remember, in the dim and distant past when I started my LJ, "friend" was not such a virtual term. But that's yet another post for another time. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film, though, is that a moment of rejection leads to the creation of something that brings so many people together. In superficial ways, yes, and I think that's a point in the movie as well, but in spite of the illusion of exclusivity, Facebook is a pretty accepting, inclusive place.

This film has been compared to several greats of the past, and it's not hyperbole because we're not talking quality. It's like Citizen Kane in that it's about a human enigma at the center of a media empire. It's like All the President's Men in that it shows us a glimpse of the inner workings of a particular form of media. And it's like Network because it speaks to how people can be influenced by that media. And, like all three of those films were for their time, this is a Zeitgeist Film. It's a movie about who we are and how we relate to each other.

I think it's too soon to start talking Oscars, and by the way neither Citizen Kane nor All the President's Men nor Network won Best Picture (though all three were nominated). However, I feel confident in saying this will end up on a lot of Top 10 lists (including the Best Picture nominees) and almost certainly will end up on mine, possibly in the top 5. Aaron Sorkin's Oscar chances are inevitable. This is one of his more brilliant pieces of writing - maybe not above the best of his West Wing work, but it's definitely the best film writing he's done, period. And I can't imagine another film coming along in the next few months whose writing can even compare. There are none of the platitudes that often bring Sorkin's stuff down a notch (meaning down a notch from galactically awesome, which is still awesome), and I was struck as I've never been struck before - even on The West Wing - with how tight the script is and how efficiently and smoothly the story is told. The film is two hours, but it passes very quickly, and I was actually surprised when it ended, thinking it couldn't possibly have been two hours since the film began.

Director David Fincher deserves a whole lot of credit as well for how good this is. He does what great directors do, which is not get in the way by showing off. That said, there are some pretty stunningly shot scenes, most especially the boat race scene, which is exciting to watch without making it all about the "who's going to win" tension.

As I said before, this isn't a movie about Facebook, any more than Citizen Kane was about a newspaper or All the President's Men was about Watergate. It is also, again, not a movie about the real Mark Zuckerberg. The movie's Mark is drawn in a way that highlight's the movie's themes; real people aren't like that. Mark as a character has an almost Shakespearean ironic flaw for the story he is in. This is a *version* of Zuckerberg, a *version* of the events that led to Facebook, and it's the version that makes an awesome movie.

I hope this movie is huge and that everyone loves it, gets it, and wants to talk about it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Easy A, or Hester Prynne Goes to High School

Easy A is a movie I wish I'd written. I don't mean that in an "I could have pooped out a better script than that" way; I genuinely wish I had written something as clever and heartfelt and, for a genre that nowadays is either smug and superior or dumb and offensive, a breath of fresh air.

"We've had nine classes together since Kindergarten... ten if you count Religion of Other Cultures, which you didn't because you called it science fiction and refused to go."

It feels too easy to say "If you liked Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, you'll like this movie." I do think Easy A bears a resemblance to both those films, notably as another modern take on a literary classic (in this case, Nathaniel Hawthorne's short novel The Scarlet Letter). But in a way I find it more satisfying than either of them. Yes, even more than Clueless, which has been the standard bearer for cute and smarter-than-you'd-think teen comedies lo these (*gulp*) fifteen years. What Easy A brings to the table are some surprisingly nuanced performances and a knack for the dynamics of high school that is frankly unnerving.

Here are the basics of the plot. Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone, in what is sure to be a breakout role) is an average high school chick, practically invisible to boys. To avoid an uncomfortable camping weekend with her best friend and said friend's naturist parents, she makes up a college guy out of thin air and says she has a date with him that weekend. After her actual boring weekend at home, she forgets about her lie until the friend asks her how the date went. Through a series of unfortunate accidents in tale-spinning, she "confesses" to having slept with her sockpuppet boyfriend. She is overheard by her ultra-conservative classmate, Marianne (Amanda Bynes, in her last role before bizarrely "retiring" from acting at age 24). Marianne starts the rumor mill a-spinning, and pretty soon Olive has a Reputation. There's an almost chilling scene in which Olive walks the hall after the rumor spreads, and the reaction of the two genders could not be more telling, and it makes me sad that slut shaming is still a thing in this day and age. With her perceived virtue essentially in the toilet, then, she agrees to pretend to have sex with a gay friend of hers, so that he can get a reprieve from the homophobic bullies who are plaguing him. Things spiral from there, and soon she's practically running a service, selling her pretend sex favors to various guys for various reasons.

There's a good bit of homage to great teen movies of yore, particularly those of John Hughes, and there's a self-awareness that just works, as if the movie itself is saying to you that it wants to be as good as those other movies, while humbly aw-shucks-ing that it never will be. This is mostly achieved by Olive's webcam narration, and Emma Stone reminded me oddly of Robert Downey, Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - only more coherent and less scatterbrained. I've been a fan of Emma Stone's for a few years now - I guess since Superbad - and I sincerely think this movie could put her on the map in a big way. I've heard musings about her possible Oscar chances, which might sound ridiculous, but I'll go ahead and say that she's at least going to the Golden Globes. She's really incredible, and it's a strangely empowering female role. On the surface, Olive is sacrificing her good name, moving herself down the social ladder so that several boys can move up. But it's not really like that at all. Olive takes charge of her sexuality, without even having sex. She owns it and doesn't let what people will think of her dictate what she does (or falsely admits doing). Because, at the end of the day, it's nobody's business but her own. The whole controversy surrounding her is ridiculous, and every lie she tells is another riff in an epic joke.

Also, as a person of faith, I was pleasantly surprised at the portrayal of the school's little Christian clique. The prayer circle especially tickled me, because what a lot of Christians call "prayer requests" are really just gossip and group judgment sessions.

Performance-wise, in addition to the awesome Emma Stone, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci are wonderful as Olive's groovy and totally cool parents. Thomas Haden Church is pretty great as Olive's favorite teacher. Lisa Kudrow is delightful as the school guidance counselor who has serious issues of her own. And there are some really outstanding little parts, especially for Olive's, ah, clients. The script really explores sexual politics in fascinating ways, especially with a couple of guys who illustrate that a lot of times it's not the fact that a guy is a nerd that makes him unattractive. Sometimes the guy is just a jerk.

If you haven't already seen this, I highly recommend it. I think it has more to say about young adulthood and gender roles than just about any of its contemporaries.

October Movie Releases

We're getting deeper into Oscar territory. Only two movies that I've labeled "must see"s this month, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It leaves a lot of room for the "maybe"s and the "I'd love to see it if only there wasn't so much else coming out"s.


[MUST-SEE] The Social Network - Otherwise known as "The Facebook Movie." Definitely one of my most anticipated movies of the year and currently considered one of the Best Picture frontrunners. Written by Sorkin. Directed by Fincher. I challenge you not to be wowed by the full trailer and its strategic use of a girls choir's cover of Radiohead's "Creep."

[MUST-SEE] Let Me In - Horror geeks were appalled that anyone would dare remake the perfect Swedish vampire flick Let the Right One In, but everything I've heard convinces me this is one remake that does it right. The conversation may now, in fact, be turning toward whether this actually improves on the original. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road and Chloe Kick-Ass Moretz.

Case 39 - It is freaky to watch the trailer for this film and see a younger Bradley Cooper, before he got all buff (because the movie was shot four years ago and then shelved). It almost doesn't even look like him. I hate that this movie comes out on a weekend with such heavy competition, because it looks interesting and I'm afraid it might fall through the cracks. And even though I haven't yet seen Eclipse (waiting for the Rifftrax), I'm pretty sure that little girl is the same actress who played Bree "cheeseburger of pain" Tanner.

Freakonomics - [limited] I have not read the best-selling book on which this is based, but while the ideas seem pretty fascinating, I'm wondering how they're woven together into a film without it feeling too fractious. I don't even know how to explain this one properly, so click on the title to go to the IMDB page, which has the trailer. See what you make of it.

Hatchet II - I never got around to seeing the first Hatchet, but I loved director Adam Green's follow up, Frozen, immensely. *checks Netflix* Maybe I can check out the first one before this comes out. It might be better to see it closer to Halloween anyway (especially as there's jack-all coming out the second half of the month).

Barry Munday - [LA/NY] This was a pretty big hit at SXSW this year, and I'm kind of stoked to see it. And one of the main things that interests me is the prospect of finally seeing Judy Greer starring in her own freakin' film and not just playing the snotty/quirky/clingy "best friend type" to Jennifer Garner or Katherine Heigl or whoever.

Chain Letter - [limited] Eh. I feel conflicted. I know that some of my favorite horror movies have been cheap stuff like this, but there's just something about today's horror sensibilities that make me distrustful. It's good to see a fairly original idea in the genre, though, and not just another movie spit out of the remake factory.

Douchebag - This strikes me as unbearably smug, like a funnier but less intelligent Noah Baumbach movie. No.


Life as We Know It - Before you immediately turn your back on this because of the presence of Katherine Heigl, I've heard this is actually quite good. I still hate that poster with Josh Duhamel in a diaper, but that's marketing, not the movie. At least not the whole movie. Even the snarky blog boys seem to like it.

Secretariat - Didn't I see this movie like seven years ago when it was called Seabiscuit? I don't know. The cast is impressive, the director, Randall Wallace ... I'd like to have faith because his two other films as a director (We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask) were decent. But he also wrote the script for Pearl Harbor. My faith is not strong.

It's Kind of a Funny Story - [limited] Originally in the September post. Buzz has been horrible. This is a skip or a rental for me.

Tamara Drewe - [LA/NY] Will someone please tell me what is so special about Gemma Arterton and why I'm supposed to even know who she is? This is based on a graphic novel that is supposedly based on Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. I'm skipping this, though, because I'm not a fan of the plot where a hot girl goes to a small town and all the men fall all over themselves for her as if the women who already exist in their lives Don't Count and this is the first time they've actually seen a female. Bella Swan, much?

Nowhere Boy - [limited] The lovely Aaron Johnson (the eponymous hero of Kick-Ass) plays a quite young John Lennon. I have always been more of a Paul gal myself and there's always been something kind of off-putting about Lennon. I mean, he was a genius, but he knew it. This is, however, the most exciting thing coming out this weekend, so I'll probably see it. The music and Aaron Johnson will be worth it, if nothing else.

My Soul to Take - Wes Craven brings us a film that bears more than a passing resemblance to his genre-defining A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dare I hope for another truly awesome Craven horror movie? Waiting to see other people's responses to this.

Stone - The notion of Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton teaming up again is definitely enticing, and I'm hearing this is actually quite good. I confess, part of my interest is in seeing Milla Jovovich act in a movie not directed by her husband, Paul W.S. Anderson.

I Spit on Your Grave: Unrated - This movie, and the ungodly original film that it is a remake of, can kindly go and die in every fire that ever burned. I am curious, though - will there actually be a story this time? Or will they fall back on the original's more, shall we say, deliberate plot pacing and faithfully recreate the (I kid you not) THIRTY-FIVE MINUTE GRAPHIC GANG RAPE SEQUENCE. In case you were wondering, I'd rather eat my own face than see this.

Inside Job - Another doc about the economic meltdown and one that looks particularly infuriating. Love the moments in the trailer where people do not want to be participating in this or ask for the camera to be turned off. I don't think I can handle this, though. I'm still seething from the last doc these filmmakers made, No End in Sight.

Today's Special - A cooking comedy. I'm intrigued by the presence of Kevin Corrigan and Aasif Mandvi, but I'm not sold.


Jackass 3-D - Don't judge me, but I may be kind of pumped to see this. May. Also, I may or may not be contemplating checking out the two previous movies. The big hand high five gets me every time I see this trailer. I think this is what 3D was made for. *wipes a proud tear from eye*

Conviction - Hearing good things about this one. But am I a bad person for hoping there's no Oscar campaign planned for Hilary Swank? I really cannot take a third round of Swank v. Bening. Sam Rockwell seems to be the jewel in the crown here, though. I'm interested.

Red - Helen Mirren has a license to kill, bitches! I think this is a definite yes, for the awesome cast alone. Willis. Freeman. Parker. Malkovich. Mirren. 'Nuff said.

Down Terrace - [limited] Most of the trailer makes it look kind of boring. UNTIL one of the characters shoves a little old lady in front of a speeding car. Sadly, that alone is not enough reason to see a movie. Waiting to hear more about this. It's being touted as "Mike Leigh meets the Sopranos" but ... I don't know.


Paranormal Activity 2 - Unless I see some downright stellar reviews of this one, this is in my "no" pile on principle. The whole charm of the first one was that it was at least somewhat original and homemade. I'm glad it was a huge hit, though I don't see what the point of rooting for original content is anymore. It doesn't help new filmmakers with new ideas at all; it just turns original content into sequel factories.

Hereafter - The trailer is lovely, but I'm hearing mixed-to-bad buzz. However, Eastwood's Gran Torino had a similar response coming out of the festivals, and then a few months later people were wondering why it got shut out of the Oscars. Also, Peter Morgan wrote the script, so there's that. I'm also intrigued by the casting of Cecile De France, who was that crazy chick in Haute Tension. I'm determined to see this and make up my own mind instead of defaulting to critical opinion.

The Company Men - [LA/NY] John Wells, who produced two of the biggest ensemble dramas in the history of television (ER and The West Wing), turns his eye to films with what looks like an incredible - you guessed it - ensemble drama. I think the most exciting thing about the trailer is "Academy Award Winner Ben Affleck ... Academy Award Winner Chris Cooper ... Academy Award Winner Kevin Costner ... Academy Award Winner Tommy Lee Jones." This is a yes.

Inhale - [NY] This looks pretty awesome, I have to say, but I'm curious as to why I've never heard of it before. It seems like a movie that appeared at a festival and took a long time to get picked up, because while I can't find any official reviews, what I *have* found are loads of links to bootleg copies on the internets. I may balance out my Paranormal Activity Principled Boycott with a Principle Viewing of this film. I can't help feeling this just deserves to be given a chance. Not that my one ticket will achieve anything, but then my not going to PA2 won't put a dent in its box office either.


Monsters - [limited] I don't know, guys, this sounds an AWFUL lot like District 9, only with a different social subtext. Reviews I'm seeing emphasize the shoestring budget and the fact that the director did the special effects on his computer. Impressive to be sure, but I'm worried people are pointing that out in an effort to adjust audience expectations. Waiting to hear more about why critics are calling it so "original."

Saw 3D: The Final Chapter - No. A thousand times no. I'm afraid this kind of sequel cycle is the fate that awaits you, Paranormal Activity.

Welcome to the Rileys - [limited] I like the idea of this story, where a married couple takes a young stripper under their wing. But I'm afraid I can't watch Kristen Stewart in anything right now.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - [limited] The third and final chapter in the successful adaptations of Stieg Larsson's smash hit book series. I have yet to see or read any of these, but they're on my to-do list, I promise! I don't think I'll be caught up in time to catch this in theaters, though.

The Kids Grow Up - [NY] Documentary about letting go of kids who leave home for the first time. What little I've heard about this is not promising.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Never Let Me Go

This movie has been dividing critics for a few weeks. There are folks that really love it and folks that can't stand it. I'm on the "really love it" side, but I think I understand why some people aren't connecting with it. This was my favorite thing I saw this weekend, so without further ado, let's dig into...

Never Let Me Go

This is a movie essentially about death. It's kind of a downer, and it's very British, which is part of the problem I think people have with it. But I'll get into that later. Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate version of our own world, where scientific breakthroughs that our world has not yet made (or at least taken advantage of) have led to significant extensions in human longevity. But we don't hear much about that at first (or really, in much of the rest of the movie). Our concern is to be with Kathy H. and her childhood friends, Tommy and Ruth.

Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth attend a kind of boarding school called Hailsham. It looks like most other boarding schools, but there's something a bit different about it. Their new teacher explains to them the conceit that frames the film. These children are not like other children. They cannot grow up and be anything they want to be. They were created for a specific purpose. They will be adults, but not for very long. After they leave school, they will begin their "donations," and when their bodies can no longer sustain themselves, they will achieve "completion." In our own terms, these children have been cloned in order to provide organs for transplants. They are kept alive as long as possible, through as many organ removal surgeries as their bodies can handle, until they die, after which presumably the remainder of their organs are kept for future use. The teacher who tells the children this is either fired or abruptly leaves the school, but she is not really telling the children anything they don't already know.

See, unlike a lot of these "clone farm" plots, and there are several, where people are being raised in order for their organs to be harvested, these children are not being lied to. They are fully aware of what is in store for them, and that they will not live long past the age of thirty. They accept this and make no effort to fight it. They don't even seem to think of themselves as being the same as their "originals." They go to school and are never allowed to leave the property until they are 18, when they move to living facilities with others like themselves and await their notice for the first donation, after which they will be moved to a kind of hospital. They have an option to apply to be "Carers," which is not a medical position but rather one of moral support for someone through their donation process.

There is a sweet romance at the center of the film. Kathy and Tommy are childhood sweethearts, but Ruth comes between them and instead she and Tommy are the couple for several years. This is actually maybe my favorite performance that I've seen from Keira Knightley (who plays Ruth). It's refreshing to see her play kind of a bad girl - well, not bad exactly, but our sympathies are not really with her, at least in the love triangle plot. I'm becoming more and more intrigued by Andrew Garfield, who plays Tommy. I first took notice of him in the extraordinary Red Riding 1974, and his is supposedly one of the strongest among several strong performances in the upcoming The Social Network; and of course he's going to be a much bigger deal soon, when he takes on the red and blue tights of Spiderman. He's pretty wonderful here. His character as a child is very angry and prone to bouts of rage, but these urges are subdued as he gets older, which makes his one last outburst at a key moment in the film that much more emotional.

The jewel in the crown, though, as might be expected, is new Hollywood "It" girl Carey Mulligan, who plays Kathy. She gives the film its soul and there's such an understated peace to her performance that I found really moving. She makes the most of her circumstances and does try to get a deferral for the start of her donations, but she has accepted her fate. The realization she eventually has that makes up the last lines of the film is pretty staggeringly beautiful. I have to give props, too, to Isobel Meikle-Small, who plays young Kathy. Not only does she physically resemble Mulligan quite uncannily, she also gives a pretty great (and not child-actor-y) performance.

Whether you like this movie or not is probably going to depend on a couple of things. First, I think younger people may have a hard time identifying with this movie. The theme of death and coming to the end of one's life is one that is probably more easily accepted and relatable to older viewers. Second, this movie is most definitely British - not just in setting and regarding the cast, but in terms of tone. There is a distinct "stiff upper lip" reserve about it that I think a lot of Americans are put off by or at least have trouble connecting with. I noticed something similar in people who didn't like Gosford Park, another movie that is English Liek Woah. I think people want it to be more dramatic and conflict-heavy, but that's just not the point of this story. It's not that there's no conflict, obviously, but I think a lot of people just don't buy the quiet acceptance. That's totally their prerogative, but I don't share that opinion.

Very, very good movie. I wish it every success as it traverses the dangerous waters of Oscar season, and I have no doubt we'll still be talking about it when those awards roll around.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Town

Saw a few movies this weekend and fully intended to post about them sooner, but I've had a kind of weird weekend. Here we go, though, and I'll start with the one many of you have probably already seen, and which has taken the top box office spot. Gigli who?!

The Town

This was a pretty awesome movie. I've seen some folks say they wish it had just been an action thriller, without the "trying to be a better man" plot, but that plot was kind of the point. The story is set in Charlestown, Massachusetts - a working class subset of Boston. Charlestown is heavily populated by people who make their living robbing banks, and the trade is very often passed down through generations. You get the idea that being born into Charlestown is a trap, and that it's near impossible to get out. Doug McRay (Ben Affleck, who also directs) is the ring leader of a particularly successful robbery crew - they've done four armored cars and two banks. They report to "The Florist" (Pete Postlethwait), who is the guy who really runs shit and tells them what jobs to pull. Meanwhile, an FBI agent, Adam Frawley (Mad Men's Jon Hamm), is trying to bring down McRay's gang, with the help of a witness/hostage from their most recent robbery, Claire Keesey (the always amazing Rebecca Hall).

Things start to go screwy Doug introduces himself to Claire as just another guy and falls in love with her. He wants out of the life, but his best friend and partner in crime James (played by The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner) is reluctant to let him go. "The Florist" is even more reluctant to do so. Doug belongs with them, period, and they're not going to let him walk out on them.

There are loads of great character dynamics at play here, and both those dynamics and the general story remind me of Michael Mann's brilliant film Heat. Affleck, Hamm, and Hall all bring their A-game, but I found myself even more impressed with Jeremy Renner and (wait for it) Gossip Girl's Blake Lively, who plays James's sister and Doug's sometime girlfriend, Krista. James is a tough guy, and it shows on Renner's untypically weathered face, but you can't help loving his affection and loyalty for Doug. In one of my favorite scenes, Doug asks for James's help - he's found out that some thugs have threatened Claire while she walked to work and he wants to take James with him to kick some ass. Doug doesn't tell James what is really going on and asks his help on the understanding that he can't ever ask about it, and James amusingly agrees. It's a great little relationship moment, but it's also a specific character moment for James, to show us what a violent person he is and that he really doesn't care about "who"s or "why"s - he just likes to make people hurt.

I was pleasantly surprised by Blake Lively, though. Krista starts out as a kind of generic trashy, drug-addicted girl with cheap pick-up lines. She has a kid which may or may not belong to Doug (he claims not), and while you get the impression that she sleeps around a lot, she claims a kind of ownership over Doug and does not like it at all when he expresses his intention to beat a path out of town with someone else. Frawley uses this to his advantage, and while I hated that this had to happen, I still felt sorry for Krista.

The movie ends as satisfyingly as it can, and there's a certain inevitability about it, which I think ties into the theme of inescapability rather nicely. I don't know that it's better than Affleck's other directorial effort, Gone Baby Gone, but I like The Town immensely.