Sunday, January 30, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Jan. 21-27

Meet Dave (2008) *½
Director: Brian Robbins
Writers: Rob Greenberg, Bill Corbett
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Elizabeth Banks, Gabrielle Union, Austyn Lynd Myers, Ed Helms, Scott Caan, Mike O’Malley, Kevin Hart, Pat Kilbane, Judah Freidlander, Marc Blucas

The tag line reads, “Eddie Murphy in Eddie Murphy in Meet Dave.” What could possibly go wrong with all that? The thing I really can’t figure out about this preposterous movie about a spaceship shaped like Eddie Murphy and commanded by a little alien Eddie Murphy that lands on Earth is just who the hell they thought it would appeal to. It’s too juvenile to appeal to adults, and too filled with adult humor to appeal to kids. To call this movie stupid is to insult the people who already know it is just from its premise.

New In Town (2009) ***
Director: Jonas Elmer
Writers: Ken Rance, C. Jay Cox
Starring: Renée Zellwerger, Harry Connick Jr., Siobhan Fallon, J.K. Simmons

This is the second time I’ve seen this movie I never thought I’d want to see, and I still liked it more than I would’ve expected. Yes, it just a typical fish out of water storyline about a Miami executive who is shipped to Minnesota in the dead of winter to trim back on a factory for the main office. Yes, it’s also a Renée Zellwerger rom com, but neither Zellwerger nor Harry Conick Jr. are allowed to be as annoying as they might be. Most of the film’s success can be attributed to the wonderful supporting performances of Siobhan Fallon and J.K. Simmons as two of the Minnesota factory workers. It isn’t great art, but if you want to watch a nice movie with your sweetie, you could do much worse.

Alien Hunter (2003) *½
Director: Ron Krauss
Writers: J.S. Cardone, Boaz Davidson
Starring: James Spader, Janine Eser, John Lynch, Nikolai Binev, Leslie Stefanson, Aimee Graham, Stu Charno, Carl Lewis

Now, I don’t expect a movie entitled “Alien Hunter” starring James Spader as the only name involved to be any good, but I do expect it to at least try and infuse some action into its lame attempt at an X-Files style feature film. Instead, this movie offers about an hour’s worth of technobabble followed by the most peculiar alien contact scene I’ve ever witnessed. What the hell happened in this film? I’d ask someone to explain it to me, but that would just make me sad for the person who knew.

The 6th Day (2000) *
Director: Roger Spottiswode
Writers: Cormac Wibberley, Marianne Wibberley
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Rapaport, Tony Goldwyn, Michael Rooker, Sarah Wynter, Wendy Crewson, Rodney Rowland, Terry Crews, Robert Duvall

I don’t remember hating “The 6th Day” when I originally saw it ten years ago, although I doubt I liked it. Seeing it again, I’m shocked that I didn’t remember how terrible it was. Perhaps if they just played it straight it might’ve worked, but the screenplay continually tries to inject humor into its absurd sci-fi cloning plot. With Schwarzenegger’s flat delivery of all the humor and his unconvincing emotions about his family; the movie doesn’t stand a chance of not being laughed at. How did they get a legend like Robert Duvall to appear in a movie this bad? Perhaps they offered him the salary that Coppola refused to give him or “The Godfather III”.

Damage (2009) *½
Director: Jeff King
Writer: Frank Hannah
Starring: Steve Austin, Laura Vandervoort, Walton Goggins, Donnelly Rhodes, Lynda Boyd

I often wonder about the inspiration for movies. It’s a very hard thing to make a movie. It takes an incredible amount of money and effort. That makes these lower level movies hard for me to understand. Why did these people want to make a movie about an ex-con who finds himself in an underground fighting ring in Seattle to raise money for a heart transplant for the child of the victim he was sent away for? Was the writer and ex-con? Did he know someone who participated in these underground fighting rings?

For the actors it’s just a job. “I got a script. They’ve offered me money to play this part.” That could be the same situation for the director, but someone had to want to make this movie. And, I just don’t see it. Sylvester Stallone was personally invested in “Rocky”. I can’t see any strong personal investment in this movie. Maybe that’s why it stinks.

The Terminator (1984) ****
Director: James Cameron
Writers: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, William Wisher
Starring: Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Paul Winfield, Lance Henrickson

In watching “The Terminator” so soon after “Damage”, it’s easy for me to contrast the two movies in terms of filmmaking skill. “The Terminator” wasn’t just a matter of having an inspired idea, as James Cameron most certainly did. Although, he took much of his concept from two Harlan Ellison teleplays for “The Outer Limits”, he’s obviously connected to his material. But, beyond that he builds his screenplay in a way that makes his material less obvious to the audience.

After years of knowing about “The Terminator” saga, it’s easy to miss that in this first film, the audience really didn’t know much about what was going on. The mystery adds to the suspense of the film. He opens with this cryptic passage about how man is at war with the machines in 2029 A.D. He tells us the final battle, however, begins in the present. We see two men traveling from the future. That much we can assume, although it isn’t spelled out to us. But also, he waits a long time before he tells us anything about them. It’s obvious the Schwarzenegger character is not a good guy. Beyond that we don’t learn anything about what’s going on until both men find their target, Sarah Conner. We don’t even know that Schwarzenegger isn’t human, although he’s perfect casting when considering that he is supposed to be a cyborg.

To a good degree this mysterious type of plotting disappeared from American filmmaking for quite some time. It has recently started to find its way back into our films. The success of “Inception” is proof that American audiences are willing to watch with some degree of confusion. This is good for American filmmaking. It makes for better films.

My One and Only (2009) ***
Director: Richard Loncraine
Writer: Charlie Peters
Starring: Renée Zellwerger, Logan Lerman, Mark Rendall, Kevin Bacon, David Koechner, J.C. MacKenzie, Robin Weigert, Molly C. Quinn, Nick Stahl, Eric McCormack, Chris Noth, Steven Webber

This road trip movie about George Hamilton’s mother was one that came and went without much fanfare. It isn’t bad though. It has a surprisingly good script for what is not incredibly original material. A mother leaves her cheating husband and takes her teenaged sons with her on a cross-country trip to find a new husband. Renée Zellwerger plays the mom as classy, but not all that aware of her boys or the world in general. Through their trip she learns how to be a mom and live on her own, while the boys learn how to be a family. Like I said, not highly original, but well done and fairly entertaining. There is no mention that one of the boys will grow up to be George Hamilton until the final moments of the film. It works just fine as a real story or a fictitious one.

The Replacement Killers (1998) **
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: Ken Sanzel
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker, Kenneth Tsang, Jurgen Prochnow, Danny Trejo, Til Schweiger, Carlos Gomez, Clifton Collins Jr.

After most of the movies I saw this week, “The Replacement Killers” seemes like a masterpiece; but even by Antoine Fuqua’s standards, this one is pretty shoddy material. OK, so the hitman who’s the best in the business has only performed two hits before the one he refuses to do in this one? He shoots like he’s been killing people all his life. And if you hire a couple of replacement killers to do the hit that he didn’t, why send them after him first? Shouldn’t you take care of that important hit that required you to hire the best hitman in the business first and then send them after the original hitman? I mean the original hitman says immediately after the replacement killers try to kill him, “They’re not after me. They’re here to finish my job.” But they just tried to kill you! How can you say they aren’t after you? That’s some pretty bad writing. Maybe this was only Ken Sanzel’s second script. His third must be a magnum opus.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Best Movies of 2010

The year in film for 2010 was a lot like the weather. It was a strange one. Many critics have written about how it was a bad year for movies. Certainly the quality of the American output was not what it’s been over the past couple of years. This year marks the first time I’ve compiled a top ten list without including any animated films. I know, I know. How could I exclude “Toy Story 3”? Well, frankly, Pixar’s latest is a good example of how I felt about much of this year’s movies. It was fun, but didn’t offer the amount of substance I look for in great movies.

That’s not to say I was disappointed with the year in film. In fact, I can’t remember a year where I was as consistently entertained in the cinema. I think I saw more movies in the cinema this year than I have in while, if ever. I had trouble getting out of a glut of three-star reviews for much of the year, but I can’t say I didn’t like ‘em if I did like ‘em.

However, I had difficulty finding greatness from this year’s Hollywood output. For I time I thought my Top Ten list would be entirely dominated by foreign films. There are still four foreign films in my top ten this year, with three more showing up in the rest of my four star reviews of the year. I also have three American independents among this year’s entrants and three major productions. Although, none of them made my top ten, I also handed out four stars to four purely mainstream entertainments this year. It felt like Hollywood (and Sweden) were getting back to basics this year and some movies did it so well, I had to award them for it.

As always, there were a number of movies I missed at the end of the year that may have greatly changed the entire geography of my list. The most notable of which include, “The King’s Speech”, “The Fighter”, “127 Hours”, and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere”. There were also too many independent and foreign films to mention that might’ve made the list had I gotten around to them. Certainly, over the next couple of weeks I will get around to seeing some of these films, and I will regret that I cannot go back and change my list. Alas, this is the plight of an amateur (and unpaid) movie critic.

As it stands, these are the best films of the year.

1. The Square.  I was surprised not to see this intense Australian thriller on other critics’ top ten lists. Many lauded it when it finally made its U.S. debut in early spring of 2010. Its praise is well deserved indeed. It’s a modern film noir that brings its heroes mishaps and bad luck to a new level. I’ve never seen a movie so relentless in its negative treatment of its hero.

The plot revolves around a construction contractor whose company has been contracted to build a luxury resort. He’s having an affair with a younger woman; their dogs are sharing in the affair. The woman, whose husband is a fairly petty criminal, hatches a plan that will allow the couple to break away from their current lives when her husband stumbles upon a big score. They hire an arsonist to burn down her house after they steal her husband’s loot to cover their tracks. To say everything goes wrong is an understatement. More goes wrong than anyone, but the filmmakers it would seem, could even possibly imagine.

The plot plays like something that the Coen brothers might put together, but the writing and direction isn’t as flashy. This more basic approach works better for this movie, because the characters are not the eccentrics that the Coen brothers normally deal with. These people could be your neighbors, or your boss, or your co-workers. These are everyday people who involve themselves in practices that are more than over their heads, and they pay the price for it. So do their dogs.

2. Black Swan.  If “The Westler” was director Darren Aronofsky’s portrait of a performer’s reality, “Black Swan” is the portrait of the performer’s nightmare. “Black Swan” may be the best picture yet from one of America’s most gifted young directors. It plays like an exposé on the life of a professional ballet dancer who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when her company’s long time star decides to retire and the role of the Swan Princess in “Swan Lake” becomes available to a younger dancer to make her mark.

Although the movie does a very good job of submerging its audience into the world of professional dancing with countless harsh details about the life of a dancer, it is hardly a work of reality. It’s a dark fantasy at best, as its heroine, Nina, is such a damaged young thing that she hallucinates about seeing her own evil twin, and she may be quite mad. Between trying to decipher whether her director is trying to make her the best she can be or just trying get into her pants, breaking free from her mother’s over protective wing, or trying to figure out if the new dancer is friend or foe, Nina’s not sure if she is even still in her own head.

Just in its portrayal of Nina’s wavering sanity, “Black Swan” is a compelling thriller. Perhaps, what makes this movie so special though is the second level on which it works, for it’s not just a story about a ballerina losing her mind for a part. It’s also an incredibly moving and functional adaptation of the “Swan Lake” story itself, which tells the tale of a princess trapped in a swan’s body. When her lover starts to fall for a doppelganger black swan, she tries to free herself of her curse. When she can’t, she kills herself to gain her freedom.

3. The Social Network. David Fincher’s telling of the story about the founding of Facebook is one of the most fascinating histories I’ve ever seen on screen. The fact that it depicts such recent history acts as a sort of example of the high-speed society that made Facebook the phenomena that it became, in turn making its founders some of the richest men on the planet, all because they wanted to be included.

I fear that with all the awards attention the movie is getting, winning almost all the major best picture awards and surely the picture to beat for the Oscars, that some people will look at it and say, “OK. It was good. So what?” Fincher’s film is sneaky though. It tells a deeply dark story about people whose motivations aren’t even clear to themselves. Mark Zuckerberg, as depicted here in a superb performance by Jesse Eisenberg, is vindictive and too smart for his own good, or the good of those around him rather. It isn’t so much that he wants to bring his enemies (or his one friend) down, as it is he just can’t let them win.

British up and comer Andrew Garfield (look for him as the new Spider-Man) provides perhaps the best performance in the film. He plays Eduardo Saverin, Facebooks first CFO, the man responsible for the original code upon which Facebook’s main concept is based, and possibly Zuckerberg’s only friend. He’s the audience’s entry into the Harvard world of geniuses who spout code and practice one-upmanship as a rite of passage. A girlfriend causes the first sting to drive Zuckerberg to create the world’s most successful social network, Saverin provides the second by being granted entry into one of Harvard’s elite final clubs.

Fincher’s moody and subtle direction shows how everyone wanted a piece of the Facebook pie without necessarily throwing anything into the recipe. What’s so great about Facebook is that this is what it allows everyone to do. While Saverin had to sue his friend to get the piece of the pie he earned, everyone else wanted in too, including Zuckerberg himself. It’s too bad he had to sell out the only genuine relationship he had to do it.

4. The Secret in Their Eyes. When “The Secret in Their Eyes” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last year, many said it was a surprise and even that it had stolen the prize from better films “A Prophet” and “The White Ribbon”.  I’m not sure the people who said that had actually seen this film. While both of those other films would put up a good fight against “The Secret in Their Eyes” (I did consider “A Prophet” for this list, while “The White Ribbon” received its U.S. Theatrical release in 2009 and was therefore ineligible for this year’s list), this thriller from Argentina is rich in detail, plotting, and character. Yes, it’s the most mainstream of the three, but its intelligent and romantic execution reminds us that the mainstream can consist of more than just the thrill.

Juan José Campanella’s splendid film is a wonder of cinema in the way it combines so many genres. It’s part legal drama, part whodunit, part political thriller, part romance, and packs a twist in the last few minutes. It follows a retired legal counselor who writes a novel about the one case in his career that he felt was never really solved. His research brings back all the old memories and feelings, passionate in his belief that the guilty party got away and passionate in his unrequited feelings toward his then superior.

The movie is an incredible technical achievement along with being an emotional and entertaining success. There is one sequence during a soccer match that contains one of the great long cuts in film history. That’s not to say it’s a flashy movie that draws attention to its technique. The mystery and the story are always at the forefront of Campanella’s direction.

5. Winter’s Bone. The independent masterpiece “Winter’s Bone” brings us back into noir territory, although not on the everyman level of “The Square”. “Winter’s Bone” is a backwoods noir that involves a 16-year-old trying to provide a life for her younger siblings. Jennifer Lawrence turns in one of the year’s most remarkable performances as Ree, a teenager older than her years, who is the sole provider for her younger siblings. Her mother is a vegetable and her father a criminal who has skipped his bail. Since he put his house up for bail, Ree must find him in order to keep the roof over her siblings’ heads.

Co-writer/director Debra Granik paints a grim picture of the Missouri Ozark Mountain setting. It’s a place where the peasants of the land live by rules and laws of their own making and they can’t have anyone poking their nose where it doesn’t belong, even if that person is family, and even if she’s only trying to keep a roof over two kids’ heads. Veteran character actor John Hawkes also provides a career best performance as Ree’s uncle, the only person who seems to have any interest in helping her on her quest. His love is just as harsh as any offered in these mountain backwoods, but he knows any wrongdoing is no fault of Ree’s.

Like so many great genre films of the past, “Winter’s Bone” shows us a specific world in which the rules are firm and the people adhere to a code of conduct that create a sense of order in their particular chaos. Ree is an outsider, like the audience, that must navigate this world and even go so far as to break some of its rules in order to survive it. Granik gives us the minutest of details to make this world real to us, and in doing so she creates a movie world that is as wonderous to behold as the planets of “Star Wars” and as tenuous as the Mafia lifestyle depicted in “The Godfather”.

6. Mother. The South Korean film “Mother” keeps us in noir territory with the story of a mother who will do anything to prove her mentally challenged son innocent of a murder. Director Bong Joon-ho made an international splash a few years back with his original and quirky monster flick “The Host”, a movie I erroneously omitted from my 2007 Top Ten list.  With “Mother” he enters more serious territory, but continues to operate within a genre with amazing originality.

After a girl is murdered on her way home from work, the police, in what looks to be a frame up, railroads a mentally challenged boy as the perpetrator. The boy’s mother, given the impression that the police aren’t even looking for the real murder, begins her own investigation into the event. In her obsession to prove her son’s innocence, she finds herself stooping to criminal acts of her own.

The plot may sound like something fairly standard, but Joon-ho’s approach is anything but standard. Like “The Host”, he finds peculiar quirkiness in all of his characters and their actions, and yet everything they do is also keenly observed human behavior. Nothing seems put on just for an interesting story, and even though this mystery unfolds in an unconventional manner, the movie never missteps or betrays itself merely for dramatic or comedic effect.

7. Inception. Crime seems to be a big hit with me this year. With Christopher Nolan’s visionary dreamscape movie “Inception”, we leave to world of noir and enter into a heist flick the likes have never been conceived of before. In this movie, the thieves aren’t stealing gold or bonds or anything so simple as money, these thieves steal ideas from people’s dreams. What Nolan does here is create a whole mythology about the control and manipulation of dreams, and he got audiences all over the world to follow it.

Nolan has both the vision to pull off the feat of showing audiences just how dreamscapes might be manipulated and navigated by his characters and the intelligence to make it all seem plausible and logical. On top of that, he even changes the very rules he’s established about this dream thievery by making the heroes’ mission to implant an idea into their victim’s brain rather than steal one. Another amazing aspect of the screenplay is that Nolan is able to create a compelling action thriller without providing any real villain. Yes, there are a few people who fill villain roles for a while, but in this day and age, it’s rare to find a movie that doesn’t really chose someone or some culture to fill the role of the enemy.

What makes this movie such an achievement, however, is the fact that it is pure cinema. It is a movie that uses every aspect of the art form of filmmaking to create something entirely original and unique that could only be achieved through film. A book couldn’t convey Nolan’s idea any better, music couldn’t, not even poetry. This is an exclusively cinematic piece of art.

8. The Kids Are All Right. Forget that the parents are lesbians. Forget that the children both have the same donor father. This is one of the funniest and most observant movies about what it’s like to be part of a family that I can remember. I laughed more watching this film than any other this year. My laughs were not just because the material was funny. They were vindictive laughs as well. I laughed because other people had to go through the same difficulties I did. I laughed at their pain be cause I shared it. Am I mean?

Beyond my ability to relate to the material, this movie probably contains the best ensemble cast of the year. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are excellent as the moms, one overprotective and the other too liberal. The children, played by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, are intelligent yet still teenagers. They aren’t the Hollywood anomaly of children that are more adult than the adults. Mark Ruffalo’s donor father is perfectly balanced as a figure compelling enough to fascinate this strange new kind of family into wanting to get to know him, but enough of an inappropriate jerk for them not to need him in the end.

Filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko has crafted an incredibly well-balanced film, where despite some pretty egregious betrayals, the family unit never fully breaks down. These are not only intelligent people, but they’re people who depend on each other and define each other in the way only family can. The ups and downs are more rewarding to the audience than they are to the characters of the movie. That’s because the movie doesn’t bow to Hollywood convention. It tells an original story that is supported by the elements within it rather than what convention dictates.

9. True Grit. In term of its revenge story, “True Grit” is merely a good western; but through the Coen brothers’ gifts of character and their ability to write amazing dialogue, they’ve elevated it to the ranks of great filmmaking. Equal kudos go to the cast for providing excellent performances to go along with the Coens’ mastery, especially the young actress Hailee Steinfeld, who anchors the film with her superb performance as the young lady with more gumption than anyone else in this harsh western world.

Much attention has been given to Jeff Bridges’ excellent performance as the drunken codger Marshall Rooster Cogburn, the role created by John Wayne in the original version. Bridges embodies the Coens’ character philosophy in this role by making a larger than life persona through his eccentricities and flaws. Matt Damon would steal the show with his Texas Ranger who develops a lisp in a weaker production. Instead he blends in with a performance that has been overlooked by most.

What the Coens do with “True Grit”, instead of focusing on the fairly traditional revenge elements of the plot, is present an intriguing character study of three very different heroes in the three leads. They each have their flaws, but each are able to rise to the occasion of exacting justice where others lack the heart to deliver it to men who deserve it. The Coens paint their western landscape with colorful details and dialogue to support their heroes, making this one of the most original westerns and remakes of recent years.

10. I Am Love. Tilda Swinton continues to prove her diversity in this Italian drama about a Russian woman living in an Italian family discovering that she is barely a participant in the life that was given her. She’s not unhappy in her life as the matriarch of a successful Milan industrial family, but when she meets a sensuous young chef, she discovers nothing she has done in life has been for herself.

In description, this tale of forbidden love doesn’t sound exceptional. Director/co-writer Luca Guadagino’s languid film might also fool its audience into wondering just how exceptional it is; but as the film builds, it evolves into a fascinating portrait of this woman with nothing to define herself. One of the keys to her existence is her reaction when she learns that her daughter is a lesbian. It’s obvious the rest of the family will take this news with great shock and protest. Swinton doesn’t seem to know just how to react. She accepts her daughter’s lifestyle with surprise at her own acceptance.

Guadagino’s movie sneaks up on its audience. The score by composer John Adams sounds like something out of a Hitchcock thriller. Somehow, that’s appropriate as Swinton discovers that her life has been stolen from her and every move she makes in her affair is like one of Hitchcock’s heroes running from the people trying to murder him. “I Am Love” is an elegant film that has a practical outlook in its final moments, with the main character shouting out in the very way an audience wants her to when the film reaches its climax.

Special Jury Prize

Most film festivals award a special jury prize as a sort of alternative winner. My special jury prize is a movie that could go anywhere on my Top Ten list, but it also has a unique quality that separates it from the other titles found in this year’s selection.

Exit Through the Gift Shop. The world’s most famous street artist, Bansky, has sculpted the most compelling movie of the year with “Exit Through the Gift Shop”.  Some have brought the legitimacy of this documentary into question, but it acts as both a document on the mysterious world of street artist and as a unique piece of street art itself.

The first half of the film unfolds as a much-needed exposé on the world of street art. A filmmaker named Thierry Guetta is able to insert himself into the incredibly secretive practices of street artists. Guetta shoots hours upon hours of footage of the world’s most infamous street artists, including Banksy himself. As it turns out, Guetta never does anything with his footage, so Bansky takes it upon himself to put together this documentary.

Then the documentary finds a twist when Guetta decides to become a street artist himself and miraculously finds success beyond that of what most street artists ever see. The film’s detractors claim that Guetta is merely a concoction of Banksy’s imagination, yet this type of trickery seems to encompass everything that Bansky’s art is all about. It subverts itself and manipulates its audience in a public forum in the way that all great street art does. It’s a masterwork of filmmaking, whether it’s all real or not.

The rest of my four-star movies of 2010.

The American. George Clooney finds his heart is no longer in the killing game in this 1970s European style thriller.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy will be coming to Hollywood in 2011, but the Danes got their shot at it first. The first episode of the series made for an excellent piece of movie pulp in the same vein as “The Silence of the Lambs”.

MacGruber. The very overlooked big screen spin-off of the SNL sketch has finally got some attention with many critics citing its sex scenes as two of the best ever, but the entire show is filled with the irreverence that fueled the great spoof flicks of the 70s and early 80s.

A Prophet. This organized crime prison flick gives us a glimpse of what Martin Scorsese might envision if he sent his mob subjects to jail, but this French import goes a little further with its hero being driven by visions of the victim who got him started down the path of a crime power player.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974. “Red Riding” is a British TV mini-series that got a small theatrical release in the U.S. early in 2010 on the strength of its true-life serial killer case material. Although the entire series is worth a look, the first episode is by far the best with another amazing performance by “The Social Network” star Andrew Garfield as a reporter looking down the alley’s the corrupt Manchester police force don’t want him to.

Salt. The Cold War is rebirthed to great effect in this throwback to 80s espionage thrillers, with Angelina Jolie providing a powerful female heroine in a plot with more twists and turns than a Grand Canyon switchback.

Temple Grandin. HBO continues its tradition of excellence in biographical filmmaking with this fascinating portrait of the brilliant autistic inventor. Claire Danes turns in a career defining performance in this film that does an amazing job visualizing the thought process of a person who suffers from autism.

Unstoppable. A disaster flick for our current financial crisis, Tony Scott’s thrilling ride is his best picture since “Crimson Tide” and proves that it’s still possible to put together a crowd pleaser that also acts as a metaphor for our times.

Worst of 2010

1. Frozen. I can’t imagine how this awful, awful movie about three idiots who get stuck on a chairlift over night was a film festival darling.

2. I’m Still Here. Documentary or mockumentary, this dreadful look at Joaquin Phoenix’s failed hip-hop career could also be the death of his film career.

3. From Paris With Love. This is perhaps the most ridiculous espionage flick ever made, and I’m including the Austin Powers series in that assessment.

4. Cop Out. Even if the studio had kept this movie’s original title, “A Couple of Dicks”, it would still be a cop out for everyone involved.

5. The Expendables. I suppose it isn’t really a surprise that Sylvester Stallone was able to assemble an entire cast of major action superstars to make a terrible movie.

6. The Jenson Project. Thankfully there’s television around to make sure that sci-fi clunkers like this one never make their way to theaters.

7. Legion. Heaven sure has gotten angry lately. Does God know we produce such terrible things as this movie in his name?

8. Going the Distance. Isn’t Drew Barrymore getting a little old to be rehashing the same bad romantic comedy storylines over and over again?

9. Yogi Bear. “Hey, Boo Boo. There’s some pretty bad fil-um making going on here!”

10. The Girl Who Played With Fire. I’m sure there were other movies that were bad enough to go in this one’s place on the worst list, but this was by far the most disappointing movie of the year considering how good the first movie was.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Jan. 14-20

Going the Distance (2010) *½
Director: Nanette Burstein
Writers:  Geoff LaTulippe
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Christina Applegate, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Jim Gaffigan, Ron Livingston

Why, oh, why, oh, why, must filmmakers continue to make the same failed storyline over and over and over again? Yes, love is difficult, but never for the stupid insipid reasons that Hollywood believes it is. Why must lovers in movies insist on not telling each other the simplest of truths that would allow them to understand their love? Why would audiences want to watch them do it to themselves over and over, even when there are real obstacles right in front of them? Why, why, why.

What’s worse is that “Going the Distance” is a really bad version of all that same old romantic drivel. It’s dull. The jokes are bad. And, we’d all probably would rather these lovers don’t get back together in the end. I honestly think the only original thought that went into this movie was, “Hey, what if the scene where he runs to stop her at the airport comes at the beginning of the story?” And, I have the distinct impression that Drew Barrymore is desperately trying to hold on to her youth with this folly.

Charlie St. Cloud (2010) **½
Director: Burr Steers
Writers: Craig Pearce, Lewis Colick
Starring: Zach Efron, Amanda Crew, Augustus Prew, Charlie Tahan, Donal Logue, Ray Liota, Kim Basinger

I was surprised to find that many of the initial theatrical release reports on “Charlie St. Cloud” were actually correct; it isn’t all that bad. That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement. Its premise is preposterous, but damn it all if those involved don’t give it their best shot. Zach Efron isn’t bad as the titular character; a potential sailing superstar who all but gives up on life after his little brother is killed in a car accident. Efron blames himself as the driver of the vehicle, although it was a drunk driver that smashed into them.

The script doesn’t make a convincing argument that since Charlie died for a moment at the accident that he can see dead people afterward. Even after the accident, he continues to meet with his brother each day to play catch.  Soon he discovers his brother isn’t the only dead person he can have conversations with. Somehow the movie culls together some compelling dramatic scenes for Efron to work with even though it never convincingly defines his gifts or the rules of the afterlife. Its greatest strength is that it never gets too heavy on the melodrama, as so many films of this type are wont to do. I can’t get fully behind it, but it works as a tearjerker that isn’t overdone.

Nights in Rodanthe (2008) *
Director: George C. Woolfe
Writers: Ann Peacock, John Romano, Nicholas Sparks (novel)
Starring: Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Scott Glenn, James Franco, Mae Whitman

I’ll admit I didn’t view “Nights in Rodanthe” under the most optimum conditions. I was in a hotel room with a crying baby. I couldn’t really hear much of the dialogue and I spent some time attending to the child—though, not as much as my wife. I got the distinct impression from the fairly good amount of the film I did catch, however, that none of that really mattered. “Nights in Rodanthe” is not a good movie.

It encompasses the worst of all the romantic drama clichés. Starting from a Nicholas Sparks novel certainly doesn’t help matters. We find two damaged adults in a beach house bed and breakfast over a stormy weekend. If the melodrama ended there it might be bearable, but unfortunately we learn about the characters’ pasts and the film doles the information out like some sort of bad Mexican soap opera.

She is considering taking her husband back after he left her, and her teenage daughter blames her for everything. And low and behold, she gave up everything that defined herself to raise his family. The man is a surgeon who lost a patient in an unlikely surgical complication. The patient’s husband wants closure. Believe it or not the surgeon was a terrible husband and father, sacrificing family so “he could be the best surgeon he could be.” Oh Gawd!

Somehow they find each other and are trapped together in their beach house hideaway. I won’t even bother to go into how much worse it all gets. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for those who’ve read this and still think they want to see it.

Something the Lord Made (2004) ***
Director: Joseph Sargent
Writers: Peter Silverman, Robert Caswell
Starring: Mos Def, Alan Rickman, Gabrielle Union, Mary Stuart Masterson, Kyra Sedgwick

“Something the Lord Made” is one of those wonderful movies made by HBO because the American film exhibition market wouldn’t be able to sell it on the big screen. That’s generally because the movie involves some sort of important historical event that can teach us about our world and about ourselves. I don’t know why the Hollywood machine isn’t willing to invest in good filmmaking like this, but I’m glad HBO does.

This movie depicts the men responsible for breaking the medical barrier of heart surgery at John Hopkins University Hospital. The fact that one of these men was black and it occurred before the full impact of the civil rights movement had begun to free this country from its first shackles of discrimination against blacks is nothing short of remarkable. Alan Rickman plays the estimable Dr. Alfred Blalock, the surgeon who hired a black carpenter as a research assistant. Mos Def plays Vivien Thomas, that carpenter who was unable to attend medical school after losing all his school money in the Great Depression. Thomas was instrumental in developing the surgical techniques used in the first open heart surgery even though he was only paid as a maintenance employee and had to enter the hospital through its back door. This movie is an important and powerful picture.

Frankie and Johnny (1991) **
Director: Gary Marshall
Writer: Terrence McNally (also play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”)
Starring: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nathan Lane, Hector Elizondo, Kate Nelligan

Play-to-film adaptations are difficult, especially if the play is a two-person play and the producers of the movie decide to turn it into a multi-character production. The joy of Terrence McNally’s love story “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” is the way it places the two characters so nakedly on the stage before its audience. The movie isn’t like that. Instead, director Gary Marshall tries to turn it into one of those quirky work place comedies where you find a collection of eccentric characters that are all loveable in their own way. It distracts from the two leads, and misses part of the point of McNally’s play, which is to present two real people falling in love the way people really do, by simply talking to one another.

Although McNally provides the screenplay to the film, it feels like one of those legal things where they brought somebody else in to shape it in the direction the producers wanted, but the contract said McNally got sole credit. The biggest compromise was to cast Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of Frankie, which was originated on Broadway and was expressly written for Kathy Bates. This was before her “Misery” breakthough role, but that hardly would’ve mattered. They wanted Pfeiffer because she was pretty. Forget the fact that there are lines of dialogue that survived into the movie that speak of how plain Frankie is. Of course, at that time it was pretty hard to tell the director of “Pretty Woman” that he didn’t know how to make a romantic comedy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Jan. 7-13

Dr. No (1962) ***
Director: Terence Young
Writers: Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, Berkley Mather, Ian Fleming (novel)
Starring: Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Bernard Lee, Anthony Dawson, Zena Marshall, John Kitzmiller

I thought the original James Bond film, “Dr. No”, would be an appropriate start to my Caribbean film watching schedule with it’s Jamaican setting. It’s one of the Bond films I’ve seen the least, and upon my most recent viewing, I was surprised at how good it was. The second half of the film drags a little, but that’s made up for by the wonderful production designs by Ken Adams.

The first half moves right along, however, and reminds us there was a time when Hollywood assumed its audience held some sort of intelligence and could follow complex plotting and foreign practices without having to spell out every step of the process for us. I think this difference in philosophy is particularly noticeable in the espionage genre in particular, since so little of the lifestyle we are witnessing on screen is experienced in everyday life. It made the heroes more mysterious, the plots more sinister, and the action harder to predict. Its no wonder the Bond series so captivated audiences upon its launch.

The American (2010) ****
Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer: Rowan Joffe, Martin Booth (novel “A Very Private Gentleman”)
Starring: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacelli, Thekla Reuten, Johan Leysen

Anton Corbijn’s “The American” is a thriller the like that just aren’t made any more. I’ve heard it called “very European,” and perhaps that’s true. Certainly it’s deeply rustic European setting gives it a foreign feeling, but its plot and structure don’t seem exclusively European to me. Perhaps America was only making movies like this in the 70s, when European filmmakers were heavily influencing the Hollywood auteurs. It’s also most definitely a study in the difference between the European mind set, and those of America, with the European side looking at the big picture, while the sole American here lives only in the now. He has little perspective on the world around him and, more importantly, his own life.

But, it is also very much a thriller. Despite it’s slow pace, it has real tension. It’s foreign location and isolated hero adds to our sense of discord and anxiety. Video director Anton Corbijn’s first film “Control” was a perfectly structured and nuanced musician bio-pic of the isolated and troubled life of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. With “The American”, he’s created another perfectly structured and nuanced portrait in isolation. George Clooney’s custom gun maker/assassin is not a far cry from other similar characters he’s played, but the world he inhabits requires more caution, a harder edge, and less emotion than we’ve been trained to accept in our action heroes. Perhaps hero is the wrong word for this character. But through the close study we are given of his world, we come to understand and feel for him just the same. At least “The American” doesn’t perpetuate the notion that we’re loud and boisterous to the rest of the world.

The Groomsmen (2006) **
Director/Writer: Edward Burns
Starring: Edward Burns, Heather Burns, John Leguizamo, Matthew Lillard, Donal Logue, Jay Mohr, Brittany Murphy

I remember seeing “The Brother’s McMullen” after it’s Sundance success and finding it to be a good movie about a family, but not really anything special. Writer/director/star Edward Burns seemed to have a fresh voice; creating people we might want to know and that might even resemble people we do know. He showed an observational level of real details from everyday life, but his stories were too neat for the real world they attempted to depict. The character flaws were never deep or strong, and his romanticized views of the world led him towards a more typical Hollywood outlook on life.

Burns’s 2006 picture “The Groomsmen” only proves these already well-established notions about his writing and direction. In this film, he creates a “Big Chill” type plot where a group of old high school friends are gathered together for the first time years later at some big event where they will all rehash and finally work through all the loose ends in their lives that all stem back to their long ago friendship. It’s a model that’s been done so many times it’s tough to pull off anymore. Although, Burns assembles a great cast, their problems are too broad and too numerous for us to believe they could be worked out in a mere three day period before one of them is about to be married. As is always the case with Burns, there are some great observations about friendship and family here, but not really any that haven’t been explored before in better movies.

The Social Network (2010) ****
Director: David Fincher
Writers: Aaron Sorkin, Ben Mezrich (book "The Accidental Billionaires")
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, Justin Timberlake, Brenda Song, Rooney Mara, Rashida Jones

Seeing “The Social Network” a second time only confirms any feelings I originally had about the film and its excellence in filmmaking. Seeing the opening sequence a second time clarifies why it in particular stuck out for me the first time I saw the film.

Upon my first viewing, for some reason, the opening credit sequence stood out for me. I couldn’t pin point why at the time, but it reminded me of great credit sequences of the 70s, when credit sequences were simple but said something. Today’s credits sequences are often the stylized punch-ups that ironically are mostly inspired by “The Social Network” director David Fincher’s credit sequence for his movie “Se7en”.

The movie opens with one of the defining scenes of the year in which Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend breaks up with him during a conversation where he cannot stop talking about his personal obsession of getting into one of Harvard’s elite final clubs, the social outlets that claim to be based on the academic and character excellence of their members, but are really more about social partying and the degradation of those who are not members. Then, Fincher takes us into his opening credit sequence that seems to quite simply depict Zuckerberg making his way across the Harvard Campus at night back to his dorm room. What Fincher is doing here is so very subtle, but says so much more than it appears to. Zuckerberg is so obsessed with the social environment that he doesn’t even see it all about the campus around him. He remains isolated as he passes through various quads, libraries, parks, and students involved in various activities. None of these things penetrate his personal obsession. On another level, all of these elements of campus life are separate from each other, something Zuckerberg’s invention of that evening will change forever. Through the internet, Zuckerberg’s escape from the reality that he doesn’t belong to any of these real social networks, he will create a virtual social network that will connect all these outlets in ways none of it participants would ever dream possible.

Following the opening credits, we find Zuckerberg back in his dorm room on his now infamous drunken binge of blogging and creating the code that would eventually lead to the greatest internet phenomenon to this day. Fincher intercuts Zuckerberg’s cruel, revenge driven acts here with scenes of final clubs partying, and the sexist and elitist practices that are celebrated in them. Zuckerberg’s Internet invention cleverly appeals to the same mindset that leads to such clubs, yet he takes the elitism out of it by making it available for everyone.

This movie deserves all the credit it’s been getting throughout the awards season. Read my original review here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Black Swan / **** (R)

Nina Sayers: Natalie Portman
Lily: Mila Kunis
Thomas Leroy: Vincent Cassel
Erica Sayers: Barbara Hershey
Beth Macintyre: Winona Ryder

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Mark Heyman and Andrés Heinz and John McLaughlin. Running time: 108 min. Rated R (for strong sexual content, disturbing violent images, language and some drug use).

A friend of mine described Darren Aronofsky’s latest multi-award nominated movie “Black Swan” as “his masterpiece.” The only problem I have with that statement is that his 2000 multi-award nominated movie, “Requiem for a Dream”, was his masterpiece. Then in 2008, “The Wrestler” was his next multi-award nominated masterpiece. Even his debut film “π” was a masterpiece of sorts, considering that he was actually able to turn a movie about religion and math into a thriller. Even his less appreciated “The Fountain” was a cerebral masterpiece that meshed religion, romance and science into a slow, but visually stunning conundrum. I suppose the Aronofksy masterpiece that “Black Swan” most closely resembles is “The Wrestler”. But, while “The Wrestler” was a backstage look into an athlete/performer’s reality, “Black Swan” depicts a performer/athlete’s nightmare.

We’re introduced to Nina Sayers, a professional ballet dancer who dreams of playing the lead in “Swan Lake”. Portrayed as a fragile creature by Natalie Portman (“Closer”), Nina seems to live a fairly sheltered life that consists of little else but dancing. Her mom (Barbara Hershey, “An Unmarried Woman”) is a loving but overprotective and controlling parent, quick to call Nina’s cell phone should she be a little late home from rehearsal. A former dancer who abandoned the discipline when she became pregnant with her daughter, Nina’s mom warns her off any distractions from her career, yet seems unwilling to lose her daughter to it. A celebration with a cake turns sensitive quickly when Nina worries that she shouldn’t eat it. 

When her New York based ballet company announces that they will be performing “Swan Lake” to open their new season and that their long-time headliner will be retiring and will be replaced by a younger dancer, Nina sees her chance to become a star. Nina seems so isolated and timid that, although she’s a wonderful dancer, the creative director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel, “Eastern Promises”) doesn’t feel she has the emotional experience to perform the dual role of The Swan Princess and The Black Swan, the princess’s evil twin.

Like “The Wrestler”, the early scenes in “Black Swan” show the harsh details of the life chosen by these artists. Aronofsky shows with great detail the preparations and sacrifices dancers make for their craft. We watch as a new toe slipper is torn apart and sewn back together to help the ballet artist better perform her dance steps without regard to the physical damage these alterations will do to her feet. We see Nina crudely score the bottoms of her shoes with a knife. We see a session with a physical therapist working on Nina’s feet that induces a cringe. All these scenes very much reminded me of the backstage scenes of Mickey Rourke’s wrestler and all the physical hardship he forced himself to endure despite the fact that the wrestling game was somewhat of an act.

However, “Black Swan” isn’t really about the realities of being a professional dancer, even though those details do enhance the experience. “Black Swan” is about Nina’s personal fantasies and delusions as she spirals down into the darkest corners of an artist’s psychological dilemma of perfecting a craft while playing a role. The early scenes between Nina and Thomas define the conflict that will eventually consume her. Thomas flatly denies the role to Nina, and when she doesn’t fight for it he starts to seduce her. But, are his advances genuine, or just a device he uses to get Nina to become the powerful performer he knows is inside of her? The filmmakers do a great job of keeping this a gray area, where we wonder just how far is too far to go for a role. Both Cassel and Portman provide amazing performances to pose this question while leaving the audience to ponder the answer.

What Thomas perhaps does not suspect is the notion that Nina has already gone too far off the deep end. The degradation of his former prodigy, Beth (Winona Ryder, “Star Trek”), would suggest that he is aware of the toll his methods take on his subjects. But, even before Thomas considers Nina for the part, she already seems to be a couple screws short. She has vivid waking hallucinations that grow more pronounced once a new dancer, Lily, joins the group and appears to be another contender for the part of the Swan Princess. Is Nina’s paranoia out of control, or is the apparently kind Lily just a more devious demon than Nina has ever encountered before? Again a nuanced performance by Mila Kunis (“The Book of Eli”) as Lily allows for only the question to be formed in our minds, while the answer remains elusive.

Only slowly does it occur to the viewer—if at all—that “Black Swan” is not merely a plot that involves a production of “Swan Lake”, but is in fact a modernized adaptation of the classic ballet. Nina, like the Swan Princess, is replaced in her reality by an evil twin. She must fight to retain her purity, but finds the evil twin has trapped her in a situation where death may be her only salvation. It is this final level of metaphor that catapults this movie from great filmmaking to the masterpiece status my friend spoke of.  “Black Swan” is filmmaking at its artistic zenith. It combines all levels of film—entertainment, visual artistry, performance, sound, editing, commentary, and metaphor—and handles them all at their highest level of achievement, delivering one of the best films of the year.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Yogi Bear / *½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Yogi Bear: Dan Aykroyd
Boo Boo: Justin Timberlake

And Starring:
Ranger Smith: Tom Cavanagh
Rachel: Anna Faris
Ranger Jones: T.J. Miller
Mayor Brown: Andrew Daly
Chief of Staff: Nathan Corddry

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Eric Brevig. Written by Jeffrey Ventimila & Joshua Sternin and Brad Copeland. Based on characters created by William Hanna, Joseph Barbera and Ed Benedict. Running time: 80 min. Rated PG (for some mild rude humor).

I’m going to be honest right up front. “Yogi Bear” was not made for me. First, it was made for kids, plain and simple. As an adult, I can’t hope to get out of it what a kid will. Second, I never liked Yogi Bear, even when I was a kid.

That being said, “Yogi Bear” isn’t a good movie. It may not be as bad as others made in the same vein, like “Alvin and the Chipmunks”. I really don’t know. It’s hard to tell. It seemed to entertain my two boys well enough. Better for them than many movies that are certainly of higher quality. For an adult, it’s hard to get around the ridiculousness of its premise, which is an element that children really don’t care about. The plot is just a machination to set up silly sight gags. The humor just isn’t good enough for me to recommend it.

The events take us to Jellystone Park where Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh, the television show “Ed”) runs a fairly small nature preserve that happens to be the home of Yogi Bear (voiced by Dan Aykroyd, “Ghostbusters”), who makes it his living mission to steal “pic-i-nic” baskets from the few campers that visit the place. Yogi has a sidekick bear named Boo Boo (voiced by Justin Timberlake, “The Social Network”), who seems to understand that Yogi’s plots to get his hands on picnic baskets are absurd, but goes along with them anyway.

A threat comes about when Mayor Brown (Andrew Daly, HBO’s “Eastbound & Down”) decides to close Jellystone and sell logging rights for its trees to balance the city’s budget, which is in the hole due to his personal spending of city money. Brown is running for the State Senate, so he will stop at nothing to balance the budget. He makes an absurd deal with Smith that if Smith can bring in $25,000 of revenue within a week, he’ll abandon the sale of the park. He enlists Smith’s inept cohort, Ranger Jones (T.J. Miller, “How to Train Your Dragon”), to thwart any plans Smith comes up with to raise the money. It’s always a good idea to get incompetents to help with your nefarious schemes.

Meanwhile, a nature documentarian named Rachel (Anna Faris, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”) comes to Jellystone to film bears in their natural habitat. She’s aware of Jellystone’s unique bear residents and wishes to use them for her hidden cameras. That’s because they wear ties and hats and things in which you can hide a camera, unlike other animals. Of course, Rachel’s presence offers a romantic interest for Ranger Smith, because every movie about a talking bear needs human romance.

Now, this whole set up is what really gets me. Everyone is sure that Yogi’s antics are what will bring down any of Smith’s plans to bring in the money on time. Smith’s grand plan is a fireworks show for the park’s 100th anniversary. Really?! Fireworks?! Really? Even though this horribly unimaginative attraction looks like it’s going to work; Yogi, certainly enough, destroys the fireworks display. But, all is not lost. Rachel has captured images of an endangered animal in Jellystone. This means the park can be saved from destruction if Smith can find the animal before Brown does. Really?! Is all that necessary? Or am I the only one who thinks having a talking bear in residence would attract a great deal of revenue and warrant saving his natural habitat from destruction? I’m just saying.

Now, I don’t expect these questions to occur to the film’s target audience members, kids ten and under; but it might give me more hope for our future if they did. There’s a great deal for young children to enjoy here. There’re some effective physical humor gags, mostly performed by the CGI characters. Unfortunately, there’s really not anything else to be gleaned from this thinly plotted clunker. While the kids may laugh at Yogi getting yet another wedgie, their parents will only find suffering here. You’d be better off to please all parties by watching one of the clever and enlightening films that Pixar has produced of late. You’ll fear less for our future.