Friday, February 26, 2010

Film Review - Coraline

Film #29 of 2010 - Coraline

Adapted from Neil Gaiman's book by Henry Selnick, who also directed the film, Coraline is the fantasy story of a adventurous Coraline Jones, (voiced by Dakota Fanning)who, with her parents (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) move to a new house in another state. Unfortunately, her parents, who are writers, are too busy for Coraline at the moment, resulting in her looking for her own fun and adventures in a new environment she clearly hates. Equally annoying to Coraline is her neighbor, Wyborne, the grandson of the woman who owns the house the Jones' live in, who likes to follow her around. When Coraline finds a small door in their living room that leads to another world, one that is like a photo negative of her current life, where everyone is fun and attentive, she has to decide if she wants to remain in that life, with her "Other Mother" who cooks for her and dotes on her, or if she wants to go back to her own world. Complications arise, and Coraline finds that she may not have a choice in the matter any longer.

I have to admit, my feelings about Coraline are conflicted. From a technical standpoint, I liked it because I have a great deal of respect for the art of stop-motion animation, which takes a great deal of time and patience to produce. I'm really glad that, though not seen often, this medium has not died out in favor of an abundance of computer animation. I also loved the character designs and the creativity of the sets. Not surprisingly, Selnick was also behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, a movie I absolutely love, and one can see definite parallels between some of the designs. I really like the surreal, almost grotesque artwork on the characters; for someone who is generally not a fan of the animation genre (an understatement with few exceptions) this makes the film interesting to look at and I'm able to appreciate it almost from an artistic perspective. (See The Triplets of Belleville if you want more of the same, only hand drawn animation.) I also have to give kudos for the use of some great voice talent that aren't so mainstream. Yes, there were big names with Fanning and Hatcher, but the use of Hodgman, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French and Ian McShane as supporting characters was inspired, and a lot of fun.

Having an appreciation for the process and design is one thing, actually liking what's going on in the movie is quite another, and I was bored and irritated for the first half of the film. Not realizing that animated characters could be accused of grossly overacting, I became really annoyed with Coraline's character and her wild gesticulating and body movements. Yes, I realize that technically this is a kid's movie, and perhaps kids respond well to that, but I simply found it completely annoying. It also seemed to take a really long time to get going with the story, but when it did kick in, about the time I was ready to check out completely, it actually got really good. Unfortunately, however, it was half over at that point.

So, I liked the production, enjoyed some of the story and despised half of the film. That's not an easy critique to sum up, and I'm put in the position of figuring out if liking one supporting aspect outweighs or even balances really disliking something overall. I guess I'll have to just go with the law of averages.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2009 Best Picture Rankings

Since I'm pulling into the home stretch in my Oscar push and I saw my last Best Picture nominee this weekend, I figured I would rank them - from best to worst.

1. The Hurt Locker (This one better win)
2. Inglourious Basterds (I loved this movie just a little less than THL)
3. Up in the Air (A great movie - really adult and enjoyable on a lot of levels)
4. An Education (A really fantastic, thought-provoking movie. I wish there were more like this one made nowadays)
5. Precious (Difficult to watch, but really well made and acted)
6. A Serious Man (Another strong Coen Bros. film)
7. District 9 (A Sci-Fi movie that I really enjoyed? Well deserved)
8. Up (I loved this movie but think it should only be up for - and win - Best Animated)
9. The Blind Side (A good movie - shouldn't be on this list)
10. Avatar (If this movie wins I just may boycott the 2010 Oscars)

Film Review - Coco Before Chanel

Film #28 of 2010 - Coco Before Chanel

Starring Audrey Tautou (Amelie) and directed by Anne Fontaine, Coco Before Chanel is a biopic of Coco Chanel when Coco had just become her nickname and she was better known as Gabrielle. Nicknamed Coco for a song she sang with her sister in a saloon after they left the convent-run orphanage where they were dropped off by their father, Chanel becomes the mistress of a rich, drunken playboy named Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde)who keeps her hidden from his friends at first, mainly for her background and unconventional manner, but grows to be more accepting, mainly by her sheer will. Though Chanel has affection for Balsan, she doesn't love him and wants to leave, but feels trapped because he can provide her with status and wealth. When she meets his friend Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola) she falls in love for the first time and feels able to finally move out on her own and finally open up her hat shop in Paris.

Having read a biography and countless articles about Coco Chanel, I was excited to see this movie, but was soon disappointed when many aspects of her early life were omitted, things that would have led an audience who may not be familiar with her life to understand how she became Coco Chanel. Even Boy, the great love of her life was relegated to about a half hour of the film, while Chanel's trials and tribulations with Balsan made up the lion's share of the film. Other than seeing her rip up some of Balsan's clothes to tailor them to her taste and making a few alterations to a couple of her own pieces, there was no build up to Chanel becoming the incredible clothing designer she did. It was as if she were making her hats and then there was about a 3 minute montage of her suddenly making clothes and voila, there she was on the grand staircase of her studio watching models parade into a fashion show wearing her creations. I think there was a lot more that could have been done with the film during the 105 minute running time (even extending the film as long as the previous scenes were edited to have better pacing) to make Coco Before Chanel more effective. Even the costumes, while kind of neat, weren't that fabulous, despite their recent Oscar nomination in that category.

I expected Tautou to do a good job, and she did; she was lovely, feisty and intelligent. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the rest of the film, and it truly left me with a feeling of, "eh." I think that I probably had the same posture and expression on my face as the picture of Tautou above while I was watching Coco Before Chanel. I'm glad that I've seen it, but, unlike Chanel herself, the film was completely forgettable.

2.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Film Review - The Blind Side

Film #27 of 2010 - The Blind Side

The Blind Side starts with probably one of the most gruesome sports clips of all time, Lawrence Taylor's tackle that snapped Joe Thiesmann's leg and ended his career. The narrator, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) explains the action on the screen, and why Lawrence Taylor may have single-handedly, at that moment, made the left tackle one of the most important and highest paid positions in football, after quarterback. I didn't expect a film as seemingly "harmless" as I perceived The Blind Side to be to begin with such a stomach-churning, violent clip, and that was just the first of a few surprises I experienced while watching the film.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, The Blind Side is the true story of NFL football player Michael Oher, who is homeless and emotionally damaged when we first meet him, but with the support and love of the Tuohy family ends up becoming a first round draft pick in the 2009 draft. After getting into a private Christian school with the help of a family friend based on his size and the promise of athletic greatness, Michael (Quinton Aaron), who has been staying with this friend, finds himself homeless until one day when he encounters the Tuohys while he is walking without a coat in the freezing rain. After finding out he doesn't have a place to stay, Leigh Ann insists he stays with them, where he continues to live for the next two years. During these two years, he becomes a member of the family, and Leigh Anne, along with husband Sean (Tim McGraw), daughter Collins (Lily Collins) and son S.J. (Jae Head) grow to treat him as a family member, helping him with his academics and the sport of football, which he has never played in his life.

I went into this film with a few preconceived notions, and a couple of them were true, like, I had heard that The Blind Side is basically a big screen Lifetime movie. It actually kind of was, if I have to be truthful. A lot of things came pretty easily, and one has to believe that there had to have been more conflict in the real situation than was portrayed on the screen. With the exception of one or two incidents, it was pretty smooth sailing for Michael and the Tuohy family. However, the flip side to this is that there's actually nothing really wrong with its simplicity; I actually really enjoyed the film at face value and thought it was uplifting, and at times poignant and funny. Hancock obviously went into this project wanting to make a feel good movie, and damned if that's not what I felt 2 hours and 10 minutes later. I'm not always looking for depth; sometimes a transparent, decently made film is good enough, and The Blind Side delivers this in spades.

Another preconception was that Sandra Bullock was going to be good, but that a lot of the accolades are going to be misguided and overblown. This assumption was half right; Bullock (who will never make my favorite actress list if there were no other actresses in the world) was great. She played the no-nonsense Leigh Anne without stooping to caricature. But, while she certainly deserves the kudos and nominations she's received, it's ridiculous to say that her performance beats one like Meryl Streep's Julia Child in Julie & Julia. She's deserving of the nomination, absolutely, but there were better performances out there this year. I do have to note, however, that I listened to a short interview with Bullock on NPR recently where she mentioned that she was reluctant to take the role because she didn't know how she could play this incredibly strong-willed woman without resorting to a "Steel Magnolias disposition", and that kind of awareness was refreshing to hear, and it turns out that she succeeded in pulling that off, quite well.

I think it's worth noting, that in a cast featuring a couple of really strong female roles, (Kathy Bates plays Michael's tutor, Miss Sue, and I'm not sure she knows how to do understated) I have to give Tim McGraw some serious credit for being really good in a role where his sole purpose could have just been to sit around shrugging his shoulders and placating his alpha dog wife, but he transcended that and actually was an enjoyable, fleshed out character, who uttered my favorite line of the film, "Who would have thought we'd have a black son before we met a Democrat?" I had to check his filmography because I had no idea he acted (and up until now he's only been in a couple of things) but given this kind of material, he's a natural and I really liked his character.

Granted, The Blind Side isn't artful film making, and if you're looking for something intellectually challenging, you might as well skip this one. However, there is truly something to be said about presenting a well made film that doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is, and also making this film full-bodied enough to make it appealing to a mass audience. If the audience I sat with while I watched this film was any indication, it's a big hit with the mainstream, and that's sometimes perfectly fine. Does it deserve an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Probably not. There are a few other films I've seen either recently or in 2009 that could have taken its spot. But that doesn't take away from the film and the fact that it was a genuine, good film. I can always watch Fellini or Ingmar Bergman films to satisfy my inner film nerd; but finding a "Lifetime movie" like this one that I truly liked? That's a rare find indeed.

3 stars out of 5

Film Review - Avatar

Film #26 of 2010 - Avatar

Directed by James "I'm the King of the World!" Cameron, Avatar is a science fiction/fantasy film about Jake (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine who, after his twin brother is shot "just for the paper in his wallet", steps into his place in a scientific experiment on the planet Pandora, where humans are merged with the indigenous people, the Na'vi, creating avatars whose bodies they can control with their mind in order to gain knowledge of their customs (and for the mercenary ones of the group, where to find deposits of priceless "unobtainium".) The marine brass, Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) in particular is at odds with the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) due to their disparate philosophies of their mission, which leads to Jake being placed in the middle after Quaritch promises him new legs if he gets them the information they want. Jake finds himself conflicted the more he gets to know the Na'vi, especially when he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the one who teaches him the ropes.

Full disclosure: I really dislike science fiction films, and probably dislike fantasy films slightly more. The only reason why I saw Avatar was because it was Oscar nominated and I kind of had to, for completist's sake, because until now, I had avoided it like the blue plague. However, having said that, I had every intention of going into it with an open mind, not only because I had to pay $10.50 to see a matinee because they were only showing it in 3D (which doesn't work for me anyway because of my near-blind right eye), but I had to drive to an outlying theater to see it and endure the crowd of people around me excitedly seeing Shutter Island and, probably most important to me these days, invest a full three hours sitting in a chair watching the darn movie. So, believe me when I say that I really, really wanted to like Avatar, just for practical reasons alone.

Unfortunately, I still hated it. I wish that I could say that I was only bored for 95% of the film, but I honestly can't think of the 5% when I wasn't. The script, when not just plain bad (unobtainium, really?) was full of cliches, even borrowing from other films that I hate. (When the Colonel said, "We're not in Kansas anymore" about ten minutes into the movie the only thing that kept me from throwing something at the screen was the fact that I was not about to give up one of my smuggled-in cookies for this junk). I don't think anyone expects stellar acting in a big action movie, so I guess that my expectations were met in that affair. (And I'm just waiting for Sigourney Weaver's lips to fully recede into her face eventually. Maybe by the next Cameron film?)

I wish I could say that the story was the only thing that was derivative about Avatar, but that would be a blessing. The entire movie was a brightly colored cut-and-paste of other movies, but with better technology, culminating in what was basically Dances with Wolves starring the Thundercats. (I wish I could take credit for the Thundercats thing, but I actually read that in another like-minded reviewer's entry on this film and thought it was brilliant.) Even James Horner's music was derivative...of his own work! There were several times during the film where the score, and then eventually, in the closing credits song, where I busted into, "Near...far...wherever you are..." because it sounded exactly like the theme from Titanic. Yet this guy keeps getting nominated for Oscars. I can't even say the same thing about Avatar as I did about Titanic; that I didn't like the film and thought it was lame, but it was technically very well done. I don't think there was anything all that great about the production values in Avatar, despite some impressive CGI, which I can see in a lot of other films that are easier to sit through and not be subjected to pseudo-bestiality "bonding" rituals with big pterodactyls and faceless horses. (Seriously, I'm not even kidding.)

Oh, James Cameron. You and I have a love-hate relationship. You love to make mediocre blockbuster movies that make a bajilion dollars and, well, I hate you. I am genuinely bewildered at the success this film has had, and all of the accolades it has received, because even looking at it from the most solicitous, outside-the-box point of view, I don't see it, and I especially don't understand all of the repeat viewings, unless there is a new form of masochism in town that I'm unaware of. In the case of my assessment of Avatar, I'm happy to be the iconoclast and go against the grain and say that it's a complete waste of time and money, and I'll have to seriously consider boycotting the Oscars next year if it wins Best Picture this year, because that would be a sad state of affairs. The only positive thing I can say about Avatar is that it reinforces how good most of its competitors in the Best Picture category are. (Go Team Bigelow!)

1 3/4 stars out of 5
(And only because I couldn't give it the same rating as The Lovely Bones and have a clear conscience, no matter how much I disliked this movie!)

Film Review - The Lovely Bones

Film #25 of 2010 - The Lovely Bones

Based on Alice Sebold's 2002 book of the same name, Peter Jackson's latest directorial effort, The Lovely Bones is a complete mess. There's absolutely no other way to put it. The film tells the story of Susie Salmon, (Saoirse Ronan) a 14 year old girl in suburban Pennsylvania who is raped and murdered in 1973. She then spends the next two years watching over her friends and in particular, her family, who try to put the pieces of their lives back together, except her father Jack, (Mark Wahlberg) and younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) who are still trying to bring the person responsible to justice. The audience is told who the murderer is right away; a neighbor of the Salmons named George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), and, like a Hitchcock film, we are given more information than the protagonists and spend the rest of the film watching them "figure it out".

That is the one and only time that one can ever compare anything about this film to Hitchcock, unless it was in reference to a cruel joke or on opposite day. Having read the book several years ago, I went into this film realizing that the book to film adaptation may not be the easiest, but it could certainly be done. Unfortunately, I'm fairly certain it could have been done better by an ambitious high school student. If Jackson had stuck with fairly straightforward scenes concerning the aftermath of the murder, The Lovely Bones could have had potential. However, he decided to go ethereal and absurd and turn the film into a fantasy that just ended up being a complete mess.

The scenes in the "inbetween" (a space between earth and heaven) that Susie exists in during the two year span of the film is made up of bright colors, gigantic images from her life and a gazebo that she uses as her home base. I get the point of what Jackson was saying: This is a world that exists in Susie's mind and she needs to be there until she "passes over". But it was so lame and nonsensical that I found I just couldn't make any more excuses for it, despite the fact that just for the sake of the time and money I invested to see the movie I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. After a mere five minutes of the "inbetween" nonsense I just had to hang it up and hope for the movie to be over soon.

Though I mentioned that the scenes on earth were a lot better than the other scenes, (how could they not be?) there was a lot of fault that lied in them as well. Susan Sarandon, who played Susie's grandmother, was actually kind of likable and funny in the beginning, with her sharp tongue and ever-present cigarette. However, Jackson quickly turned her from a kind of straight talking slightly boozy type to injecting her into a "Grandma montage" where we had to endure a loud song while we watched oh-so-hilarious scenes of her trying to vacuum and clean the house while still drinking and smoking in an attempt to help keep the family together after Susie's mom Abigail (Rachel Wiesz) goes into a depressive state. Eventually, Abigail just up and leaves to go work in an orchard somewhere (I was yearning to follow her) and disappears for half the movie. Meanwhile, Jack stays behind and starts to put the pieces together, eventually finally honing in on Harvey. I can't really fault Wahlberg too much, nor really, any other actor in the film. They really did all that they could with the material they were given. When given crap, there's not much else you can do with it but flush it away.

Here Be Spoilers

I normally don't go too crazy criticizing specific chunks of a film when the overall film is so bad, but I can't help but call out several moments during the seemingly endless ending to the film. (Seriously, the ending of the film lasted about a half hour and I think there were about three endings happening.) First of all, when kid sister Lindsey finally decides to take some action and go look in Harvey's house for some evidence, she uncovers a book that not only lays out everything about Harvey's plans with Susie, but physical evidence as well. When he comes home while she's still in the house (like usual) she doesn't plan her escape from his upstairs room, but instead continues to page through the book. I couldn't believe it, and thought my eyes were going to roll out of my head from doing several full revolutions at that point. But no, that wasn't it. We are supposed to believe that okay, she somehow narrowly escaped him, runs to her house screaming for her Dad, and Abigail decides to choose that very moment to come back, stand in the living room and make up with her family, leaving Harvey a good ten minutes to pack his bag and get the hell outta dodge while Lindsay stands and watches her parents hug, while clutching the death book in her hand. She finally comes to her senses but oh, sorry, thanks for playing - he's gone and the police aren't going to find anything at this point because he's not only packed his bags, but somehow managed to lift a heavy floor safe containing Susie's body into his truck in that ten minutes Lindsay was making googly eyes.

There was another ending a few minutes later that involve Susie inhabiting the town's creepy girl for a moment so she could give the guy she had a crush on before she died a kiss (I'm serious, and it doesn't make any more sense if you have context, trust me) but I honestly am getting angry again rehashing all of this in my head, so I think I had better end this review soon.

I really liked Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures and then he did those epic fantasy Lord of the Rings films that were technically fantastic and well done but complete yawnfests, but it seems that he's really resting on his past films' cred because King Kong really sucked (and I would have walked out of it if I hadn't actually been the driver that night) and now The Lovely Bones, which is an uncompromisingly bad film. Yes, Stanley Tucci did well, and he was super creepy, but his performance doesn't make it worth it see this movie; nothing does. I picture Tucci's Oscar nomination like a Venus fly trap - you venture in to see the performance and you get ensnared in this stupid and egregiously bad film. Don't take the bait, seriously. I'm sure there's some wet paint on a wall you can watch somewhere that will be a better use of your time.

1.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, February 20, 2010


...My myriad typos in my last post - it was inefficiently typed out on my Blackberry and is actually pretty hilarious to read when I look at it again. (Irrationity)

Anyway, I can't edit it without hauling my butt out of bed and firing up the laptop sooooo... Forgive me.

Thoroughly Maudlin Shelly...

Maybe it's because I'm laying in bed right now feeling sorry for myself because I have a bad cold, or it could be the aftermath of sitting through Avatar, or it could even be the fact that I just heard that we are having ANOTHER snow storm tomorrow night in time for a crappy Konday commute to work.

Regardless of the reason, I'm feeling blue and starting to actually crack myself up with my irrationity; like, the reason I thought to write this short post - I am starting to feel bummed that my classic film viewing has all but disappeared during these 5 weeks between the announcement of the Oscar nominations and the awards ceremony. I've at least been tapig a couple of films off of TCM on the DVR for later, but it IS distressing to me that all of my reviews have been for current films lately.

I think after the Oscar dust settles I may do some fun classic film bundles or something; maybe watch all of the films I haven't seen by favorite directors, one at a time or something.

Okay, ending pathetic blog whining. Time for some "real life" whining.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Film Review - The Messenger

Film #24 of 2010 - The Messenger
The war film genre has been prevalent since film began, with a landmark film like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, to the recent film, The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. What can set a film in this genre apart from traditional “combat films” is exploring the war experience from another angle, which The Messenger does, with good results.

The Messenger is the first film directed by writer Oren Moverman, and tells the story of two men whose assignment is to notify the next of kin of recently deceased soldiers. Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) is a career army man who is a veteran at notification duty, and is asked to train newbie Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who has three months left on his tour after getting seriously hurt during combat. Both men seem to have will to do this wrenching duty, and Will in particular is able to use his steely demeanor as a defensive mechanism, though both men find themselves suffering in their personal lives, both with their health (not being able to sleep, drinking) and socially. When the two men notify a newly widowed mother, Olivia (Samantha Morton), Will finds himself drawn to her stoicism and vulnerability and begins to see more of her, all the while, battling his own demons and dealing with his mixed feelings about engaging in a friendship with Tony, who has his own set of problems.

The most accolades The Messenger has received has been about its acting performances, notably that of Woody Harrelson. Certainly, all of the primary actors in the film were very good, especially Harrelson, though I think that Foster certainly could have deserved a nomination for his portrayal, which started out almost annoyingly defensive and steel-jawed and became less caricature and more multi-layered. In addition to the fine acting, I think there is a lot to be said for what turned out to be a really well written script. The main characters were well fleshed out, and the multiple layers I alluded to earlier unfolded in a non-pedestrian way; there weren’t any expositional reveals that insult the audience’s intelligence. I loved that Tony and Will were both really flawed people, recognized that they were flawed, but still were able to reach out to one other, in a non-Lifetime movie kind of way. Looking at an example of Moverman’s past writing work, the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, I totally get how he was able to create a story that was straightforward and coherent, but still slightly abstract; a truly talented feat.

Though I am normally not drawn to the war film genre, I do find films that go outside of the regular John Wayne-cigar chewing-combat fare to be intriguing when they are done well. William Wyler’s 1946 classic The Best Years of Our Lives was daring for its time, not focusing on the war, but rather, examining the aftermath of the war on its soldiers and the awkwardness and displacement they feel when they rejoin their families. Even Stanley Kubrick’s films Full Metal Jacket (1987) and 1957’s Paths of Glory that include combat examine the psychological effects of war more than focusing on the action and anti-war sentiments themselves. The Messenger falls into this subcategory of the genre that tells an aspect of the story that transcends conventional terms and, because the film is credible and well done, gives the audience something more to think about than jingoism or traditional mores.

3.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Film Review - A Serious Man

Film #22 of 2010 - A Serious Man
The Coen brothers love to tell stories about journeys, usually helmed by hapless women and men. Sometimes their journey is tragic, and other times, their journey is tragicomic. (They are never quite completely harmless!) The latest film co-written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man, follows this formula, with a religious twist.

A Serious Man stars relative newcomer (unless you count his role as “Young Hassid” in A Price Above Rubies as his breakthrough role) Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor and patriarch of a Jewish family that consists of his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) who is leaving him for a family friend, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his pothead son Danny (Aaron Wolff) who splits his free time eluding a classmate to whom he owes money, and studying up for his upcoming bar mitzvah, daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) who is a typical self-absorbed teen obsessed with her hair, and finally, Larry’s brother Arthur, (Richard Kind) who is certifiably insane and doesn’t do much more than hide behind doors and take up space. The film begins with a scene between Gopnik’s ancestors which sets up the theme that the Gopnik family is cursed through the generations, and that Larry in particular is a modern day (well, 1960’s) version of Job in that the bad news, while none of it life threatening or earth shattering, maybe, (no spoilers in this review!) just keeps coming and he is continually tested.

There is a particular style to Coen brothers’ films, and while that style can vary among their films, it is almost always identifiable as theirs. Millers Crossing, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men were smooth and sleek, filmed in warm tones despite the setting. Then there is another style that falls into what I call the “colorful” category (as non-scientific and non-descriptive as that really is) where everything is filmed in primary colors, and almost garish at times; yellows are really yellow (think Frances McDormand’s shirt in Burn After Reading) and the mood is intensified by the setting, like The Ladykillers. A Serious Man is the latest addition to the latter category, and I think it really adds to the comedic spirit of the film. The darkly tanned, leather-skinned neighbor who Larry fantasizes about wears loudly colored clothing and makeup that is just as loud, and one can’t help but either cringe or laugh when she’s on the screen. Even scenes between Larry and whichever Rabbi he’s consulting with have a spark, albeit subtle, because of the photography. Roger Deakins, arguably one of the best cinematographers of all time, and certainly the greatest working today, is a long time collaborator of the Coen brothers, and his work, both fluid and beautiful (even in the face of ridiculousness at times) was a huge asset to the film. It may just be because I’m a film nerd (and in particular, a cinematography nerd because that’s what I was most interested in when I went to film school), but it’s apparent to me when the Coen brothers do not release a film with Deakins behind the camera, because that element just pushes the film a little higher on the “great” scale.

Another strong point in most Coen brothers’ films is the story, whether original or adapted, and A Serious Man, an original screenplay written by the Coens is magnificent. Their treatment of poor, put upon Larry is reminiscent of watching a lone sock tumble around in a dryer: they just keep bouncing him around from one bad situation to the next, and confront him with more problems, but there is so much subtlety alongside the outright belly laughs that sometimes I found myself wondering why I was laughing exactly. It could be the use of a word, or in many cases, it was the outstanding performances by most of the cast, Stuhlbarg in particular. Though I’ve never seen him before in anything that I can think of, (though after checking out his filmography on IMDB I can only assume that I caught him on a rerun of Law & Order at some point!) he fit right into the Coen brothers’ cache so well that there was almost a familiarity about him not long after the film began. Whether he was silent, with a bewildered look, or at the end of his rope and screaming on the phone at the Columbia House debt collector who always seems to call at the wrong time (which, unfortunately for Larry, is all the time) Stuhlbarg was tailor-made for this part and really could have been a contender for an Oscar for acting. (I’m looking at you, Morgan Freeman - relinquish your spot!) The weakest element of the film was most certainly the role of Larry’s brother Arthur, who was not well fleshed out (we only saw glimpses of his craziness and eccentricities, which served as some comedic fodder but not enough) and kind of a waste of Richard Kind’s talent. I realize that he was partially there simply to be yet another burden for Larry to bear, but the whole Arthur concept was simply half cooked. I would also recommend that anyone who is not familiar with the Jewish faith and culture, and is seeing this film on DVD check out the short special feature that explains some of the Hebrew and Yiddish terms. Hell, even if you do get them, check it out because it’s hilariously presented.

A Serious Man starts with, for lack of a better word, a fable, and ends with a lot of uncertainty, as a lot of the Coen brothers’ films do, to great effect. When the film ended, I had a huge grin on my face, and the first thing I said to my companions was, “I have no idea why right now, but I loved it!” That’s one of the many things I love about their films in general: there is always an initial positive reaction, then all of the elements of the film kind of sink into my brain and my pores, where I can finally articulate what I liked and didn’t. As with many of their films in general, there’s exponentially more “like” than “didn’t”, and A Serious Man is no exception. There’s a reason that a new Coen brothers’ film is an event with my friends and I: the unmitigated nachas they bestow.

Four stars out of five

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

And so the Oscar movies continue...

Going to the Oriental tonight with Chris and Jay to see The Messenger, then I'm catching a last minute matinee of The Lovely Bones tomorrow before it disappears into budget theater hell. Friday is a matinee of Avatar with Jay and then I presume Chris and I will be seeing The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus over the weekend.

I managed to find one screening of The Fantastic Mr. Fox the day before the Oscars air. So, other than fitting in The Blind Side at the Times, (which I may just deal with tomorrow night if I'm up for it) the Oscar Shorts (which should be at the Times before the end of the month) and finding a reasonable showing of The Last Station, I think I've seen everything I possibly can in the theater. Then I just have to watch the few films I've gotten on DVD: Coraline, In the Loop, Coco Before Chanel and Il Divo, all of which I want to see anyway, other than Coraline. I'm just kicking myself for not having taken advantage of see The Princess and the Frog when it was at the Times. Oh well.

Once again, the foreign film category is completely left out due to lack of availability, which is a shame since I never go back to watch them months later. I think the one exception will be The White Ribbon. But, all in all I think this is my most thorough year in recent memory and it's been fun. It's also been fun watching Jay be so thorough with the list. At this point, I think he may have seen more than I have.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Film Review - Invictus

Film #20 of 2010 - Invictus

Some films about great men are not so great. Take Invictus for example. The story of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and his efforts to unite a broken and divided South Africa through the improvement and success of their rugby team, the Springboks, who were one of the worst professional teams in the world. With the help of their team's captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) the Springboks motivate themselves and their nation.

Yes, the film is that basic and simple. When Mandela decides that the Springboks' success could be a national remedy, he talks to Pienaar, they have a rigorous workout and have a one day camp with some impoverished kids and suddenly they are beating teams in the World Cup that they couldn't begin to compete with before. Perhaps there was more to the story, (as a fairly logical person I would like to think that this is the case) but perhaps director Clint Eastwood should have had less pointless scenes of security men looking at each other and talking in a small room for fifteen minutes, or even less ten minute speeches that, regardless of their inspirational value, started to make Mandela sound kind of like Grandpa Simpson on a tear, and more scenes that could make the actual plot of the film make sense.

Which brings me to Clint Eastwood's direction. I've always thought that Eastwood as a director is kind of like Ron Howard as a director: they are both adequate and make films that have some mainstream appeal, but there is really nothing great or challenging about them. However, this kind of adequacy just makes a film mediocre and not exciting; what is almost offensive is the eye-rollingly lame overly dramatic scenes that pepper the film and thoroughly dominate the last half hour of the film. Besides the fact that the film wasn't really making sense at this point in the game, I then had to endure about fifteen straight minutes of slow motion, a guy screaming "Noooooooooooooooooo!" not once, but twice before he kicked a damn ball and shots like a bunch of hands clutching a trophy, then finally there are just two hands holding the trophy - one black and one white. In case we didn't get the point for the first 223 minutes of the film, there was a "meaningful" shot for us to ponder for the rest of the film. Thanks Clint, for choking us with the imagery once again. I'll try to keep that down while I'm trying not to go deaf from the loud dramatic music you have to put in every scene of your movies.

Somehow this film has been embraced by some film critics, but it has mainly only been recognized for the lead and supporting roles. Though neither Freeman or Damon were objectionably bad, in fact, they were fine, there was nothing exceptional about their work at all. Mandela was simply Morgan Freeman with an accent. And Pienaar was Matt Damon with an accent and prosthetic nose. The fake nose worked for Nicole Kidman's benefit a few years ago, but then again, she actually did a great acting job as well. There's probably a lot more I can bag on Invictus for, but I think a good summary statement is that, while I am pretty expressive when I'm not pleased (there was a lot of eyerolling and shifting in my seat during the film) my friend Jay, who I saw this with, is not, and there were at least two times when we simultaneously burst into laughter because of corniness or the scene was just plain lame. Somehow I don't think that was Clint's intent.

2 out of 5 stars

Film Review - An Education

Film #19 of 2010 - An Education
Based on a memoir by Lynne Barber and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, An Education takes place in the early 1960's on the cusp of Jenny's (Carey Mulligan) 17th birthday. Her ambition, backed by her very zealous father, Jack (Alfred Molina) is to attend Oxford University, and in preparation, and out of general interest, Jenny surrounds herself in academia and culture. One day, while waiting for a bus with her cello in the rain, she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), an older man who offers her a ride home. After a couple of chance meetings around the neighborhood, David asks her out to the symphony with his friends, which, after beguiling Jenny's parents, leads to a full blown relationship that becomes quite serious, quite quickly. Jenny is left with the decision to continue her path to Oxford, or continue living the exciting life full of culture and travel she is experiencing with David.

I really loved a lot of things about An Education: the cerebral themes, the characters and the style of the film among them. I loved that Jenny came from a family where she's not only encouraged to succeed and achieve intellectual greatness, but this was the 1960's when a lot of women went to college for their MRS degree, and that was about it. I loved this bit of feminism and independence, especially since she was supported by her family, namely her father. The aesthetic of An Education was breathtaking. Though some of the hair styles were clearly from the 1960's (or present day Southern child beauty pageants) the costumes were mostly timeless and classy. There were so many times during the film where I sat there thinking, "Of course I know this is just a movie, but I want to be one of these people!"

Though An Education was entertaining and thought-provoking on its own merits, it could not have been as successful had it not been for Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan. Sarsgaard plays David as charming, respectful and doting, and he is really good at it. His complete desirability made his character evolvement all the more surprising. Much has been said about Mulligan's portrayal of Jenny; she was absolutely luminous and fantastic. Mulligan captures Jenny's maturity, cleverness and intellectual hunger, but she portrays her with such a fresh faced and innocent approach that she truly was one of the most fleshed out and well-rounded characters I've witnessed in a modern film in some time. She completely absorbs the character and is truly the greatest thing about a very good film. I am so glad that, after kicking around without a filmmaker for a while, the screenplay finally got made, because I really liked An Education a lot.

4 out of 5 stars

Film Review - Precious

Film #18 of 2010 - Precious

Directed by Lee Daniels, Precious, set in 1987, is about a 16 year old girl named "Precious" Jones who has experienced more misery in her 16 years than most do in their lifetime. Obese and pregnant with her second child (her first child has Down's Syndrome and both whom were fathered by Precious' father), illiterate and still in junior high, plus living on welfare with a mother who despises her for existing, but especially because she feels she encouraged her father's incest and only gets up from her chair in front of the television to beat Precious mercilessly or to get more cigarettes. When Precious is kicked out of school for being pregnant, her school's counselor recommends an alternative school where she will get a more personalized education, and Precious, being aware of her surroundings, and though guarded, clearly hungering for positive relationships agrees. In doing so, with the help of positive role models, she begins the process of education, confidence and true self-awareness, while struggling to deal with her life outside of the school.

I actually had the opportunity to see Precious back when I was covering the 2009 Milwaukee Film Festival because it was the closing night presentation. Even back in September there was a lot of buzz about the film, and it was the first film to sell out - a week early on opening night. Having a press pass enabled me to get in to the film regardless, but knowing the subject matter, and having been through kind of an exhausting 10 days, it wasn't really something I was up for watching at that point. When it was commercially released, the hype was still there and the critics loved it, but again, there was never any time where I was thinking, "You know what, I'm in the mood to see an African-American girl living in the ghetto who is repeatedly beat down by everyone who knows her", so I kept pushing it off, until it was nominated for a bunch of Oscars and then I suddenly "had" to see it in order to fulfill my bizarre mission to see as many Oscar nominated films as possible.

What I discovered, is that while the film is indeed hard to watch, and at times almost unbearable, Precious was actually really well acted, produced and directed, and that I was pleasantly surprised at how much I ended up liking it (as much as one can "like" a movie like this.) Daniels is able to capture the essence of Precious and show the audience what is inside her head, and was also able to skirt the fine line of conveying emotion and inspiration without succumbing to cliches, which was a big relief. There were a couple of really poignant scenes that were directed with an amazing amount of subtlety and power; one of them being near the end when Precious gives her scarf to a little girl and then looks at herself in the mirror. That image was immediately burned in my brain, and probably made my rating of the film jump another half notch.

Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious, is a newcomer to cinema; and gives one hell of a debut performance. She makes her way through so many difficult scenes with a clear dignity, and heartbreaking directness. Truthfully, I was getting a little sick of seeing Mo'Nique accepting award after award because I could only picture her as a really obnoxious comedienne in bad sitcoms, but damned if she didn't change my mind. Her turn as Precious' mother, Mary, is horrifying, disgusting and nothing like I would have thought she could handle. All of the accolades have been deserved, in my opinion.

Precious is not a perfect film by any means, and as I mentioned earlier, it really skates the line between cliche and believable activities more often than not. However, it comes up on the good side for the most part, and it really left me pleasantly surprised. A colleague of mine saw Precious at the 2009 MFF and told me that it actually is a very hopeful and positive film. At the time, I thought she was certifiable, but after finally experiencing the film for myself, I can't help but agree.

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I'm sitting in the parking lot of the Marcus Menomonee Falls theater waiting for Jay so we can see Invictus. Not looking forward to it but I may be surprised.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Film Review - District 9

Film #17 of 2010 - District 9

No one will ever mistake me for a fan of Science Fiction films. As a matter of fact, I tend to actively avoid them as a matter of course. There have been some exceptions, however; Pitch Black and The Matrix immediately come to mind, but I think those were "different" from most Sci-Fi films. District 9 can definitely be put into that "other" category as well.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp, District 9 is initially filmed in a documentary style, showing the history of the events currently occurring in 2010 Johannesburg, South Africa. Twenty years prior, an alien mother ship descended upon the city, and after the military was finally able to open the door, they found many starving aliens. After putting the aliens in an internment camp called District 9, which was essentially a slum, they were left to their own devices, but still were disenfranchised and not allowed to return to their home planet. Present day, the government has decided to conduct a mass eviction of District 9 and move the aliens out to District 10, which is farther away from the city (and by all accounts, has worse conditions.) Chosen to head up the operation is the son-in-law of the head of the company in charge, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) who seems to be amiable enough, but who covers up his lack of experience and confidence with bravado and prejudice. When he is exposed to some of the aliens' biotechnology, he has no choice but to reevaluate his actions and behavior in order to survive.

Though I knew the general conceit of the film and its underlying theme, I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I sat down to watch District 9, which I think is a really good way to experience the film, particularly if, like me, you harbor any kind of prejudice against the Sci-Fi genre. (Yes, I fully admit it, I do.) More an allegory about apartheid and genocide than a traditional Sci-Fi film, District 9 is extremely intelligent while not forgetting action and suspense elements. I loved that this film was thought provoking; that it made me think. I also found it profoundly interesting that regardless of the fact that the aliens were really ugly, and, for the most part, either by nature or because of their environment act somewhat savagely, I felt really sad about their treatment and actually sympathized. (Whereas, one of my film companions expressed confusion over who he thought he should have been feeling for.)

I was surprised to find out that, other than the short film made a few years ago that inspired this film, that District 9 is Sharlto Copley's first feature film, as he did an excellent job conveying the various evolutions his character goes through; clearly this guy is a natural. From a technical perspective, I thought the CGI was nearly flawless; instead of being able to tell that the aliens were completely CGI, I simply assumed they were because of the minimal budget. Though the film was very good, it wasn't without its faults, namely that it kind of descended into a "buddy film" at some points, which kind of went against what I consider the philosophy of the rest of the film to be. There were also just a few small unnecessarily corny moments, usually surrounding the alien kid, but the positives of District 9 far outweigh the negatives, and it is causing me to do something I never thought I would do: not only give a great review of a Sci-Fi film, but also recommend one. With District 9 I do both, whole-heartedly.

4 stars out of 5

Another great movie weekend

Friday night I had plans to see District 9 after the Times closed (I love our special screenings) so since I had some time beforehand I figured I would knock down one of the Oscar movies I have on DVD, what became film #16 of 2010, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Though I'll concede that I probably should have seen the 5th movie first, I still was really bored and judging the film by its own merits, thought it was mediocre at best.

District 9, however, was good, as were Precious and An Education. (Film reviews forthcoming)

So now I have to edit my Oscar have seen/must see lists. Though we probably won't, I'm hoping that we have a snow day tomorrow. I can't think of a better way to spend a random Tuesday than by sitting in a comfy chair, bundled up and watching movies.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I've watched 4 Oscar films this weekend: Harry Potter, District 9, Precious and An Education. 3 out of 4 good movies aren't bad! Reviews hopefully Mon./Tues.

Friday, February 5, 2010

And By the Way...

In a perfect world, Turner Classic Movies would show their wonderful 31 Days of Oscar telecast the month OF the Oscars, because then I could actually sit home and watch these great movies. Instead, I'm out chasing the theatrically released current nominees.

Oh well, I guess that's what Netflix and a DVR are for.

Oh Oscar Oscar Oscar...

Well, the nominations were announced seemingly weeks ago, but it's actually only been 3 days, and I'm already mapping out my strategy to see as many Oscar nominated films as I can. Unfortunately, I live in Milwaukee, which seems to have an aversion to foreign films, and where documentary screenings are as rare as Minnesota Vikings fans, so I once again have to pretend that the Best Foreign Film and Documentary categories don't exist.

The good news is that the local theaters have decided to either go wider or in some cases, bring back some films that have been nominated, so I'll have the opportunity to see more than I thought I would.

What I've Seen
Crazy Heart
Up in the Air
A Single Man
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Julie & Julia
Sherlock Holmes
Bright Star (though I'll fully admit, I walked out of it because it was so lame)
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (LOL)
An Education
Harry Potter and the Whatever Who-Cares
District 9
A Serious Man
The Messenger
The Lovely Bones
The Blind Side
Coco Before Chanel
The Last Station
Animated and Live Action Shorts
Il Divo
In the Loop

What I Need to See (Based on what is going to be available in the theater or on DVD)
I saw everything!

Hopefully I'll have a significant number of films from the bottom list move to the top list, and that will begin this weekend when I see District 9 tonight and possibly An Education and Precious tomorrow. Next week Jay and I are going to see Invictus and I may make the trek to New Berlin to see The Young Victoria if I'm feeling up to it.

So, that's the charge for the next few weeks - see as many as possible. I always have big ambitions and fall short with a few, but once again, I'm aiming high. Look for reviews of these films in the near future!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Film Review - Death of a Cyclist

Film #15 of 2010 - Death of a Cyclist

J.A. Bardem's 1955 film Death of a Cyclist begins with a bang, literally. On an abandoned road, a man on his bicycle is struck by a speeding car, and as he lays dying in the road, is examined, then left by the culprits. The offenders are Maria (Lucia Bose) and Juan (Alberto Closas), who are afraid to help the man and risk being found out. You see, Maria and Juan are having an affair, and Maria is married to Miguel (Otello Oso), a powerful industrialist who carries a high position in society, a privilege that Maria is not ready to give up. Maria and Juan nervously await news of the accident over the next several days, until they are threatened by a blackmailer who runs in their circle. Juan, an assistant mathematics professor, and Maria must decide how they are going to proceed, and choose between morality and their current lives - a decision which ends up being easy for both of them, but their paths are not the same.

Death of a Cyclist is a cross between Film Noir and Neo Realism, in that it is dark and gritty, but also a searing social commentary about the greed and power of the rich. The depth of this film is immense; in fact, I watched it a few days ago and I'm still philosophically turning it around in my head. Maria seeks to balance her marriage of convenience to Miguel and all of the wealth, power and status that comes with it, with her relationship with Juan, an intellectual who isn't concerned about those things. Though both have opposing philosophies, their individual motivations end up being their undoing. Bardem, who also wrote the film, pulls no punches in his indictment of the upper class, invoking elements of Marxism and Socialism, another common theme Neo Realism.

Filmed in stark black and white, and containing some amazing imagery (particularly a short scene at a circus that was literally breathtaking) Death of a Cyclist was both thought provoking and beautiful to look at. Watching this film, I was reminded how much great cinema is waiting to be explored, and they just need to be sought out. Plus, it has a fantastic ending.

4 stars out of 5

Film Review - Crazy Heart

Film #14 of 2010 - Crazy Heart

Films about self destructive, down on their luck has-beens who seek redemption is nothing new to the film industry, from films like A Star is Born to 2008's The Wrestler. Crazy Heart is one of the latest examples of this genre, starring Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, a country musician who had some fame a couple of decades ago, but is currently relegated to playing small bars and bowling alleys. Though his audiences have greatly decreased, he still plays to a rabid fan base, and it's at one of these gigs that he meets Jean, (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a music reporter for a local paper who first interviews him, then begins a romance with him. Unfortunately, the relationship is tested as Blake, who is in ill health, continues to drink heavily, partly because of his fallen idol status, and partly because he has to watch the musician he mentored, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) enjoy stardom.

*Kind of spoilerish*

I wish I could say that Crazy Heart was good, but truthfully, it's no more than an average film. While it was not difficult to sit through, I could not help but notice the glaring mediocrity throughout. Blake is a complete mess for most of the film, but then things get really easy for him. The conflict between Blake and Sweet, which was a huge part of the film and a big area of resentment for Blake seemed to suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke after a brief and not so cathartic conversation between the two that didn't amount to much more than talking about "the good old days". And the romance between Blake and Jean, which, though there were some visible sparks, seemingly started out of the blue, didn't make any sense for most of the movie and then didn't really go anywhere. Gyllenhaal did a good job with the part that she was given, but the role, while necessary, was annoyingly superficial, a word which is a good overall descriptor for the film, especially the ending.

So much has been said about Bridge's performance, and he's won all of the acting awards he's been up for so far this awards season. Frankly, I felt like I was watching a slightly more pathetic "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski through most of the movie, which is to say, I was just kind of watching Jeff Bridges be Jeff Bridges. He's a rumpled, easy-going and affable man, but performance was not a stretch, and honestly, I wasn't impressed. From all of the adulation bestowed upon his "tour de force" performance, I was expecting something at least a little better, and while he was good, I would actually vote for other performances that were better, namely Colin Firth's in A Single Man, which was light years better than Bridges'.

When we saw Crazy Heart, we were sitting in a large, sold out auditorium, and though I was confident in my initial assessment of the film, I felt a little better when I heard snippets of chatter about the film around me, namely that it just wasn't that good. Even the celebrated music was just okay, though I fault the film less than the fact that this kind of music isn't really my thing. Bridges and Farrell did a good job singing, however. When it all comes down to it, Crazy Heart is as formulaic and unchallenged as any average Hollywood film that, without the buzz about Bridges' overrated performance, would have normally gone straight to video. Maybe it should have.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Film Review - A Single Man

Film #13 of 2010 - A Single Man

Great romances have been documented throughout the first century of film, to varying degrees of effectiveness, with different levels of intensity and involving more than just the relationship between a man and a woman. The romance in Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man is beautiful, devastating and extremely memorable.

A Single Man stars Colin Firth as George, an English professor who has been spending the last 10 months trying to cope with the sudden and accidental death of his lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode). Though he is regimented about his day, and meticulous in all aspects of his life, his grief continues to be crippling, and along with the fact that he has remained closeted, he has completely cut himself off from every human relationship other than that of his best friend and former lover Charley (Julianne Moore), a boozy fellow Brit who is still clinging to the hope that their teen-era relationship will resurface, now that the “distraction” of Jim is gone.

The story takes place in 1962, and Ford completely nails everything about the era, without being “obvious”. I knew that as a fashion designer, Ford would have an acute visual eye for directing, but my expectations were completely exceeded. Though A Single Man is beautifully composed and artfully filmed, the key word in describing it is “subtlety”. Everything about the film is subtle: the attention to detail in the clothing, hair and even makeup, the muted cinematography that one may not even notice until George makes a connection with someone and suddenly the colors in the scene become more vivid; as if the sun came out for a moment or two, then is gone. Even the romance between George and Jim is subtle. They had a relationship that probably would be disgusting to most other people during that time, but it was sweet and loving, and no different from any other perfect, long-term relationship. They were like an old married couple, and were clearly deeply in love with one another; which makes the abrupt end of the relationship so much more devastating. Ford handles the romance with dignity and respect, and doesn’t make it a big deal that it’s two men; their gender is completely irrelevant.

Perhaps the most subtle aspect of the film is Firth’s performance. Though the film itself was amazing, and I can think of many elements to praise, it was Firth that sells it. He is the embodiment of sadness and quiet dignity, and relays all of the myriad emotions the character goes through; grief, loneliness, terror, even happiness, with absolutely no histrionics or grandstanding. His is not a performance that traditionally wins Oscars; there was nothing flashy about it, or over-the-top dramatics. However, it was his performance that made my heart hurt throughout most of the film, and it was he who had me in tears for about 10 minutes after the film ended.

Despite my personal reaction to it, A Single Man is not a huge tear jerker in the conventional sense, and rather than being really depressing it actually is kind of optimistic, if you look deeply into it. And the beauty of this film is that if you “get” the film, and see it for what it is – an amazing character-driven film, you will want to dig deeper. Firth should get the Oscar for this film. And I really hope that Tom Ford has decided that directing is his new calling, because he is a natural at it. A Single Man is one of the best films I’ve seen in months, and though I know it will be overlooked, it should be recognized as an Oscar contender for Best Picture.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

Film Review - Broken Embraces

Film #12 of 2010 - Broken Embraces

Films that are told in a non-linear style are nothing new, but it is always refreshing when it is done well. Director Pedro Almodovar does it really well in Broken Embraces. Starring Penelope Cruz as Lena, the mistress of an obsessive business magnate, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez) who lives in luxury, but dreams to be an actress. When she auditions for writer Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar) he acknowledges her acting limitations, but sees her potential and finds her beauty striking. The two fall into an inevitable affair, but have to contend with the wrath of seemingly mild-mannered, but powerful and terrifying Martel.

With Broken Embraces, Almodovar returns to a mostly serious film that can also be classified as a mystery and thriller. The viewer is dropped into the film in the middle of the action, and has to put the pieces of the puzzle together as Almodovar hands them out, and despite this unconventional delivery, the pacing is very good. Like most of his other films, the story is rich and intriguing, and extremely fulfilling as it unfolds. Though his standard strong and beautiful imagery is ever-present, Almodovar’s true strength is always in drawing amazing performances out of his actors, particularly his muse, Penelope Cruz. Cruz seems to be a somewhat polarizing actress; it seems that people either like her or really dislike her. I used to be in the latter group, until I watched her in Volver, Almodovar’s previous film. I’m not sure what it is about their partnership, but Cruz is luminous in the film, regardless of what abuse Almodovar puts her through. Almodovar has a troupe of actors that he surrounds himself with who act in most of his films; sometimes with starring roles, sometimes they have small parts. They are always really solid, regardless.

I have loved Almodovar films for almost twenty years, starting with seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988, my freshman year in high school. Since that film, I have appreciated some of his films more than others, and I would put Broken Embraces somewhere between Talk to Her and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!. It’s very, very good, and even though I don’t consider it his best film, I highly recommend it. Don’t be afraid of the subtitles, and experience this good movie.

4 stars out of 5

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Great Film Weekend

I had some great film experiences over the weekend: Chris and I drove an hour to Madison to visit the Sundance theater and saw three movies; Broken Embraces, A Single Man and Crazy Heart. One was better than the other two, and one ended up being a bit of a letdown, but my reviews are forthcoming.

Sunday was spent doing a general lounge-around fest, and then I finally watched Death of a Cyclist, which was amazing.

I hope to finish some reviews up today so that I can watch some more movies this week. I'm finding that if I make time to sit down and watch a film a couple of times during the work week, it makes things so much more endurable. Maybe I'll even be able to talk Chris into watching one with me - we'll see. :)