Friday, February 25, 2011

Winter's Bone


Director: Debra Granik
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes

Deep in the Ozarks, a teenage girl named Ree (Lawrence) is forced to be the primary caregiver for her younger brother and sister because her father has disappeared and her mother is in a weird, incapacitated state. When the town's sheriff informs her that her father, on the run from drug charges, put their house up for bond and if he doesn't appear in a week, they will lose their house. Already barely surviving with the help of some neighbors, Ree sets out to find her Dad, and finds herself embroiled in a really bad situation.

Winter's Bone is a good movie with a good story, especially considering its small budget and resources. Jennifer Lawrence, a relative newcomer to films, gives an amazing performance as Ree, a strong girl whose dedication to her family seems to know no bounds. Her co-star, John Hawkes also gives a good performance as her uncle Teardrop, who both hinders and helps her investigation.

There actually isn't a lot to the film, except a really scary social structure in the Ozarks that will pretty much keep me away from there for life. There's nothing particularly notable about the film, which is why this review is so brief, but I really liked the simplicity of Winter's Bone. It is a dark and depressing film, both in tone and setting, but despite its somewhat derivative plot, writer-director Granik's is able to give the film freshness and some originality.

3 out of 5 stars



Director: Giorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley

This is going to be one of the most unconventional reviews I've written, because Dogtooth is such a unique film that I don't want to give away any of the film's plot or any specifics because it is far more interesting to experience it from level zero like I did, not knowing anything about it, and letting the plot reveal itself naturally.

I can critique Dogtooth without giving much away, however, and I can certainly say that it is one of the most thought-provoking films I've seen in quite some time. Once revealed, the actual plot is simple, but the ramifications of the actions on the screen sounded some serious alarms in my head that I couldn't shake for a day or more. Soon after Dogtooth ended, I was sitting alone in my living room, playing back the film in my head, and became really creeped out, yet I couldn't stop thinking about the film, which was incredibly exhilarating to me. I felt like I was back in AP English class my senior year of high school when my teacher had just shown us Philippe de Broca's 1966 classic King of Hearts and then told us that in the 15 minutes left in the class, we were to write a 5 paragraph critical essay breaking down what we had just seen. There aren't a lot of films where you sit and think about them, whether you want to or not, for hours, but Dogtooth is a rare exception.

The execution of Dogtooth is quite good; director Lanthimos films everything in white and pastels, and though everything is bright, there is a matte finish to it, which made it all the more surprising to me that it was filmed in 35mm. It's sometimes hard to judge acting when it's not being done in a language you understand, but I think that bad acting is universally recognizable and that definitely wasn't the case here.

Dogtooth is shocking, disturbing and without having done a lot of digging, I would imagine it's been pretty polarizing. In a film full of disturbing events, both cerebral and visual, I will admit that there was one point when I completely lost it and almost abandoned the film because I was so shaken by what had just occurred. I still think that, though that scene was necessary the graphic nature wasn't, but I am profoundly happy I continued to watch the film because in the end I thought Dogtooth was outstanding. I think it is one of the best films I've seen in a while, yet I think if I recommended it to most people I know they would watch and then either think I'm strange for admiring it so much or just punch me in the face for putting them through the experience. I mean, I actually had to reassure a good friend of mine that liking this film didn't make us bad people - true story.

Regardless, I do admire Dogtooth for being so daring and once again it serves as a reminder that there is so much great work out there that doesn't come from the good old U.S. of A. And remember, I avoided specifics for a reason in this review - if you do decide to watch Dogtooth, the less you know about it going in, the better. Just don't punch me in the face afterward.

4 stars out of 5

The Fighter


Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams

Based on the true story of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward, David O. Russell's The Fighter features Mark Wahlberg as Ward and Christian Bale as his brother, Dicky Eklund, a former small-time boxer who splits his time training Micky and engaging in a serious crack habit. Ward is a stand-up, regular guy who struggles with pursuing his fighting career on his own and being tied to his dysfunctional family who hold him back, particularly when he meets and falls in love with a supportive and headstrong bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams).

Though I tend to enjoy sports movies, it really takes one with a different angle or strong story to impress me, and The Fighter completely exceeded all of my expectations. I didn't expect that the story would be nearly as compelling it turned out to be. The challenges that Ward faces are far beyond his actual fighting career; in fact, the fight scenes are practically secondary. It is the complicated relationships he has in his life, particularly with his family, that were really at the forefront. His mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), is the rough and mercenary matriarch of a family of 9 children by multiple men who clearly favors Dicky over Micky, her youngest. Dicky's golden moment was in 1978 when he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and has been planning his comeback since, only he's actually doing drugs all the time and becoming a shell of his former self. Though he is an unreliable trainer for Micky, he and Alice, Micky's manager, still won't cede any power to anyone nor will let Micky make his own decisions, despite their increasingly bad judgments that don't take his best interests into account. Micky's relationship with Charlene is the first healthy thing to enter his adult life, and though she is as opinionated as Alice, pushes Micky to do what he feels is best for him. There are so many rich story lines in The Fighter that it doesn't fit into a specific genre. Despite its sports themes, it's not a sports movie nor is it simply a family drama.

Christian Bale is amazing as Dicky, who is a complicated character, and there isn't a lot of sympathy one can muster up for him. He swings on an emotional pendulum that is nearly exhausting to watch at times because he looks and acts like he is constantly jacked up on 25 energy drinks. Only he lacks so much self-awareness that he has no idea that the HBO film crew following him around is filming an expose, rather than the "comeback documentary" he thinks it is. Though Bale's performance is flashy and front-and-center, I think that Wahlberg did a fantastic job as the straight man. It's not easy to play opposite a character like Dicky and still be notable, but Wahlberg pulls it off admirably. I actually think he's really underrated in general because he has proven that he can play a variety of roles. There are a lot of women in The Fighter, thanks to Micky's harem of tacky sisters, but the two main female roles were perfectly cast. Adams' Charlene is down to earth and foul mouthed, but has an air of respectability and goodness. Leo's Alice is a little more complex, torn between her allegiance to her deadbeat son and deep down, trying to be a good mother when all she has around her is chaos (much of it self-inflicted.)

David O. Russell, though rumored to be difficult to work with, has also proven that he can direct a varied genre of films, from a small independent film like Spanking the Monkey to a war film like Three Kings or even an "existential comedy" like I Heart Huckabees (incidentally, one of my favorite films of 2004). Regardless of theme or scope, he is able to take material that doesn't have a lot of flash and still make it seem epic; though with such a simplicity and richness of character that his films feel intimate and independent. Frankly, I think he is currently one of the best working directors.

I saw The Fighter on a three-film day and though I knew I'd liked Russell's previous films, still thought that, out of the other two films I was seeing, it would land in a distant third. Surprisingly, it was the last film I saw that day and the one I liked the best, and even beyond the obvious boxing similarity, The Fighter is a film I would compare in some ways to Scorsese's masterpiece, Raging Bull both story and performance-wise. I highly recommend it and encourage those who may write it off as simplicity a "sports movie" to give it a chance, because The Fighter is a lot more robust than one may think.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The King's Speech


Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter

Though he was often forced to attempt public speaking by his father, England's King George V, the future King George VI (Firth) was second in line to the throne behind his brother, and therefore did not expect (nor necessarily want) to be a king. When his brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne in order to marry his divorced lover Wallis Simpson, George VI becomes the king and must, after years of failed speech therapy, find a reasonable cure for his stutter with the help of a new and unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue, (Rush) in order to represent England and lead the people of England through World War II.

The King's Speech is a small, somewhat quiet movie with a lot of character. Shot with muted tones, it appears vintage without the usual camera and film tricks that accompany some period pieces that strive for authenticity. The story is interesting and fairly straightforward; there isn't a lot of exposition nor are there many (if any) flashbacks. Rather, the action takes place in the present, with any background narrative delivered conversationally, and with such subtlety to appear completely natural, thanks in part to a great screenplay by David Seidler. Director Tom Hooper previously worked mainly as a television director, but many of the films/series are period pieces, which certainly explains the exquisite detail paid to the look of the film.

The excellent performances by the three main actors in The King's Speech complement the film beautifully. Helena Bonham Carter's role, as George VI's wife, Queen Elizabeth, is reminiscent of where she got her start in films, in a bunch of Merchant-Ivory period pieces. It's sometimes hard to remember that she has the acting chops she does since she tends to play over-the-top characters now, but her portrayal of Elizabeth as a devoted, but strong and independent wife was wonderful. Geoffrey Rush probably had the role that was the most fun to play, as an eccentric, failed actor, somewhat derided (but proud) for being Australian rather than British, and above all, really good at what he does. Rush could go from chutzpah to reverence in a snap, and make it believable and natural. And in terms of believable, Colin Firth is superb as King George VI. He is sympathetic without being pitiful, and though his self-confidence and resolve were not high, Firth's performance enabled us to see George VI's gradual transformation into a leader. Never mind having to affect a frustrating stutter while doing it.

I really have nothing but good things to say about The King's Speech. It fulfilled all of my expectations and is truly my kind of film; small, independent, story and character-driven. Because of this, especially since I acknowledge that it is a really good film, I am unsure why it still proceeded to leave me a little flat, but it did. I didn't have excessively high expectations for the film, but maybe it was because I took it for granted that I would like The King's Speech yet wasn't excited by any aspect of it, that it didn't blow me away. Having said that, I will surely own this film and recommend it to most people. And now I have hopefully seen enough good Colin Firth movies where I can forget the image of him dancing around in front of the mirror in leather pants playing air guitar in the "film" What a Girl Wants.

Yeah, it was on hotel cable on vacation - enough said.

4 out of 5 stars


Biutiful (2010)

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Javier Bardem

Uxbal (Bardem) is a single father of two who makes his living through a number of illegal activities, including drug trafficking and illegal immigrant labor. He does have a legitimate gift of being able to connect with the recently deceased whose souls are having a hard time crossing over, and is sometimes hired to assist people's loved ones "let go". This connection takes on a greater meaning, and his need for income urgent when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer and realizes he has to look out for the futures of his children.

I have really ambivalent feelings toward the Inarritu-directed films I've seen. I had abject loathing for 21 Grams, and thought that while Babel was interesting and well done, it was a little heavy handed and didn't have a clear direction. I can proscribe that same description, almost word for word to how I felt about Biutiful. It was well done and amazing to look at from a cinematography perspective, and the story was decent, because it focused on a really interesting character. Uxbal is technically a bad guy - he's embroiled in the exploitation of immigrant workers and he's putting drugs on the street, to name just two illegal operations he's involved in. But he's also a stand up guy with his kids, and, if it's possible, tries to look out for the people involved in his illegal activities, to the best of his ability. Bardem is fantastic in this role, and his performance really embraces the striking dichotomy of his character, making the film more thought-provoking than I think it would have been without an actor as good as Bardem at the helm.

Unfortunately, an interesting character study and great performance doesn't absolve Biutiful entirely of its faults. With a more than 2 1/2 hour running time, the movie is often meandering and unfocused, but at the same time, like Babel, heavy-handed. The audience gets beat over the head with the repercussions of the bad acts being committed, and, like a similar film, Paul Haggis' 2004 movie Crash, confuses profundity and depth with oppressiveness and hackneyed themes. Though I don't mind looking at Javier Bardem - ever - I also tired quickly of his long, soulful looks out in the distance, and the long, soulful looks characters gave one another. The film could have been substantially tighter without these kinds of scenes, and frankly, would have trimmed the running time down to a less butt-numbing time frame.

I didn't dislike Biutiful, in fact, I thought it was decent. However, I left the film with such ambivalence it made me wonder how hard I really should have to work to come by a natural, gut-instinct feeling about it. A one word description for the film is "Meh", but I would encourage Inarritu to go back to the master of long looks, Sergio Leone, to see how it's really done.

3 stars out of 5


Nothing really needs to be said.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Well, my celebration upon completing the list of reviews I had to write came to a halt when I realized that the last review I had to write, for the horrible movie Salt, was actually written already. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that until after I'd posted the new review and was trying to add it to my review index on my web site, thecinemaphile. Not only that, but my original review was actually better than this one. Oh well, I posted it anyway. A movie so crappy, panning it makes me happy. (I guess)

So now it's full steam ahead with the Oscar push, albeit a couple of weeks late. Chris and I are traveling to Madison this weekend to clean up three movies in one fell swoop at the sublime Sundance theater, and then either before or after we are going to catch the Oscar Live Action and Animated shorts programs at the Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse and Times Cinema, respectively. Fun times ahead - now if I can just get through this work week.

One more wish - warm up a little outside, won't you? It's 2 degrees out and I'm sitting in my office with a long-sleeved turtleneck, but it's so cold I have my space heater going on full whack, which is just making me want to curl up and sleep.


So, after lamenting that I had one stupid review left to write, I go to post this on my web site and find out that I reviewed it already, months ago. Niiiice. Well, here's another review of Salt, no point in deleting this (Ironically, my grade didn't change, months later)

SALT (2010)

Director: Phillip Noyce
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber

After being accused by a defector of being a Russian spy, CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Jolie) goes on the run, followed closely by her boss, Ted Winter (Schreiber).

I wish I could add more to that summary, but I really can't. Salt is that shallow and dim of a film. Director Phillip Noyce has pretty much earned his bread and butter from mainstream action flicks like Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games, and Salt certainly is a mainstream action flick, but it is also ridiculously bad. The plot didn't make sense, the acting was terrible and the film was just generally a hot mess.

I don't understand Angelina Jolie. I think she has some acting chops, and she can practically carry a film with sex appeal alone, but she keeps making mediocre (and bad) films in between some halfway decent ones and I can't figure out why. I'm also becoming profoundly disillusioned with Liev Schreiber, who has been my "intellectual" crush for years since his days as an independent film guy. I'll grant him the desire for exposure (and money) with a movie like Wolverine, but there's no excuse for Salt. I couldn't even sit back and take in the eye candy, I was so embarrassed for him.

When one walks into an action film or a "popcorn flick", expectations have to be low otherwise you're just setting yourself up for a disappointment and you have no one to blame but yourself. When my friend I walked into Salt, we were expecting nothing but a fun action film that would probably be bad, but hey, he could ogle Angelina and I could drool over Liev. What we got was a terrible film that somehow fell below our already nonexistent standards, and the best thing I can say about it is that it had us hysterically laughing during several parts of the movie. Unfortunately, I don't think Noyce was looking for that reaction at any time during the film because Salt, even above all of its faults, commits a most egregious sin in film making: it's a dumb action film that takes itself too seriously. And as a result, it is an epic fail.

1 1/2 out of 5 stars (with an extra 1/2 for making us laugh so hard)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011



Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page

When one falls asleep, there is a general expectation that your subconscious secrets are kept safe until you let them out. Writer-director Christopher Nolan obliterates this sense of security in Inception, where a band of thieves-for-hire not only can invade your dreams to steal your secrets, but implant ideas as well. Led by Cobb (DiCaprio), the team includes Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), Cobb's right hand man who keeps the team grounded, Ariadne (Page), the architect of the dream, Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger who can appear as different people in the person's dream in order to extract information or move the subject along, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), the chemist who sedates and watches over them. Cobb has been on the run and unable to return to his children in the United States since being accused of the death of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard) but when Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires the team to implant an idea into the head of the son of his business rival, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), Cobb sees his chance to go home, regardless of the danger it puts his team in.

I loved this film for a lot of reasons, one of them being some really fine performances by a great cast. DiCaprio has shown that he can handle some really meaty material, and he really nails it in his portrayal as the extremely complicated Cobb. Also notable was Cotillard, playing Cobb's wife. With a simple look, she could swing from extremely sinister to pitiable in a second. I'm singling these two out, but all of the performances were truly outstanding, and it was nice to see some good character actors get some screen time in such a blockbuster film.

Inception is brilliantly and expertly directed by Nolan, who is no stranger to creating thought-provoking films, like the mend-bending Memento or his twisty debut, Following. With Inception, he creates an epic experience: it's an action-packed thriller, but it's also incredibly cerebral. It's also highly stylized and really nice to look at, with amazing special effects and enough gorgeous slow motion shots to put John Woo to shame.

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Inception is one of the things I most loved about it - its intelligence. I love cerebral films that encourage conceptual thought and require you to come to some of your own conclusions, but there is a fine line between being effortlessly intelligent and not only forcing the material down one's throat but then saying, "look how clever I am." I didn't exactly feel like I was being force fed during Inception, but intellectual revelations were not always natural. Coupled with some heavy-handed moments, the result was a slightly smug undertone at times.

These criticisms aside, I consider Inception to be a remarkable film that was truly exceptionally well done, if not completely accessible. Above all, I loved that a film this intricate could also be so gorgeous to look at and at times, be seriously kick-ass action packed.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Kids Are All Right


Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo

Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) have two mommies: Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore). When Laser asks Mia to help him try to find their sperm-donor father before she goes off to college, she reluctantly agrees. This is how they bring Paul (Ruffalo) into their family's lives, regardless of whether Nic or Jules were ready for him. As his involvement becomes deeper, thin cracks begin to appear in what seemed to be a strong and loving relationship between the two women, and their relationships with their children begin to change as well.

I went into The Kids Are All Right expecting a smart film with a lot of depth, and my expectations were met kind of half way. While I was delighted to see a well-received film about alternative approaches to family (both the lesbian and sperm donor angles) I really couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching a made-for-Hollywood family that is really whitewashed; kind of like saying The Cosby Show accurately represented African-American families in the 80's. Those families did/do exist, but they're annoying perfect and...easy.

I don't intend to downplay the conflicts in the film; for the most part, they are well played out and believable, with the exception of the Jules-Paul scenario, which could have been a really interesting conflict, considering it ended up being the crux of a lot of Nic and Jules' problems. Unfortunately, there were so many gaping holes in how it progressed and was eventually addressed that it left me more confused than anything, which made the believability factor go right down the tubes.

I thought the acting, primarily by the female leads was excellent, and I'm thrilled that Bening, who is not only extremely talented but seems to exude class and naturalness, got a great role and in turn, has received a lot of recognition for her work in the film. Mark Ruffalo - what can I say - he's always "Mark Ruffalo" and that's not a bad thing, but it's also not fresh either.

The Kids Are All Right was a decent film, but I guess I didn't see in it what a lot of other critics did. Perhaps I had higher expectations for it, considering the subject matter, and perhaps I thought it would contain a little more edge or depth to it, considering the conflicts presented, but it was a nice, somewhat vanilla movie that was enjoyable but not remarkable.

3 out of 5 stars

The Social Network


Director: David Fincher
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

A film about the inception of the most popular social networking site, its seemingly arrogant creator and the legal troubles he faces doesn't necessarily sound like thrilling and riveting entertainment, but with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, a strong cast and a talented and stylish director like David Fincher at the helm, The Social Network transcended all of my expectations.

Though the names are real, what is actually true and what is fiction in The Social Network is debatable. However, like Oliver Stone's brilliant 1991 film, JFK, after a while, the film is so good, you don't really care. The Social Network traces founder Mark Zuckerberg's creation of Facebook and its hysterically rapid growth in popularity and the subsequent lawsuits he encounters, both from those who sue him for intellectual property theft to the one person who supported him throughout, financially and emotionally, but was denied a piece of the pie.

Jesse Eisenberg is mind-blowingly fantastic as Zuckerberg, with machine gun-like speech patterns, a mind that is working in a million different directions at once and a disdain for most of the people he meets. His best friend, fellow Harvard student Eduardo Saverin (Garfield), shares Zuckerberg's intellect, but is his complete opposite; he's charming, outgoing and socially dialed-in. Garfield plays Saverin as sweet and soft-spoken, which makes his downfall all the more tragic. When the two begin to expand Facebook across the country, they end up meeting Sean Parker (Timberlake), the founder of Napster who wants to get in on Facebook, and though he is outgoing, possesses a crippling sense of paranoia. Though it honestly took me a while to get used to Timberlake in a dramatic role, I just finally had to realize that he's a total natural when it comes to the acting thing, and he really did a great job with Parker, who is a complex character, to say the least.

Sorkin's script is quick and clever, yet very compelling. Without being heavy handed, or beating anyone over the head with a sense of "See? This is what I'm telling you", he addresses the obvious irony of an incredibly socially inept person creating a social network with more than 500 million members. He writes Zuckerberg as someone unwilling to change or acknowledge his difficult demeanor, yet has a staggering desire for acceptance. Sorkin takes content that could have been nothing more than an article in a newspaper or possibly a featured article in a magazine and turns it into a sublime Greek tragedy rife with dishonor, regret and desire for redemption.

David Fincher, who I've admired back to his music video days, has such a strong aesthetic sense that I think has not been fully utilized in some of his feature films. Sure, his work has all been slick and, regardless of its content, interesting to look at. However, just looking at the Regatta scene in The Social Network, with its tight shots of elongated, straining, sinewy muscles and grimacing faces...I'm no longer watching a film, but looking at a Mannerist work of art. However, it isn't just the high style that is most impressive about Fincher's direction. He is able to not only keep up with Sorkin's quick pace, but turn a scene where a guy is hacking into a web site (without the cliche of security about to confront him) into a seriously action-packed sequence. Or jumping between multiple deposition scenes with the snap of a finger, but giving the audience enough visual clues to figure out exactly where they are at that particular moment within a second; it's kind of like watching a great tennis match.

Before I saw it, never in a million years would I have thought that The Social Network was not only going to be nominated for eight Oscars, including being one of the front runners for Best Picture of the Year, but appear on my Best of 2010 list. But it has surpassed all of my expectations and is truly a well written and sublimely directed film that, upon a second viewing for purposes of writing this review, hadn't lost any of the suspense or gloss in the three months since I first saw it. The Social Network is a supremely intelligent film that holds appeal for a wide audience, something that can be said about a shamefully few amount of films lately.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Mia Wasikowska

Based on the Lewis Carroll's book, and following many previous incarnations, Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland follows the adventures of Alice, who returns to the "underland" to revisit her friends, including the Mad Hatter, among others, and fulfill her destiny: to end the reign of the Red Queen.

I apparently only had a peripheral knowledge of the Alice in Wonderland story because I had no idea it was so surreal or that Alice was such a badass, what with the armor and the jabberwocky and all. This is a perfect story for Tim Burton to add his cartoonish and surrealistic touches to, but as a whole, it wasn't as fun or exciting for me as a lot of his other films.

As the Mad Hatter, Johnny Depp once again sinks his teeth into another eccentric role and does a good job of it, but there just seemed to be something missing. Perhaps when we're confronted with a cadre of odd characters it's difficult to shine, as opposed to being the head wackjob in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. That's not to say I didn't enjoy his performance; I did...ish. I also was oddly fascinated by the bizarre Red Queen (Bonham Carter) and was pleased as punch to see the grossly underused Crispin Glover as her henchman. In fact, the most disturbing character, in my opinion, was the White Queen, played by Anne Hathaway. Even though I knew she was supposed to be comically ethereal I still found her really bizarre, and not in a good way. Alice (Wasikowska) was just kind of there; not dynamic or even particularly charming or clever.

Alice in Wonderland is full of signature Tim Burton touches: surreal and angular landscapes, bizarre characters, bright colors and a fun (if not derivative) Danny Elfman score. But it just felt kind of hollow in the end, and as a whole, fell flat for me. Personally, I'd like to see Burton get back to making films that aren't primarily geared toward children (though I suppose it can be argued that this film and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory could be for children and adults) because it was films like Ed Wood and Big Fish that really cemented him as a brilliant filmmaker. Even an original "adult fairytale" like Edward Scissorhands had a lot more depth and, in my opinion, were a lot more entertaining than his recent remakes, which just kind of whimper to the finish line.

2 1/2 out of 5 stars

Blog, Interrupted - Packers Edition

On a weekend when I should have been doing nothing but watching Oscar nominated films and catching up on reviews, the Packers had to go ahead and play a Super Bowl game. And I just had to go ahead and watch it since I'm a life-long fan.

No worries. I wrote three reviews, re-watched another movie so I could review that one as well and now have four reviews to catch up on. I'm hoping that I can get some time in on those today and then really push forward and watch more films this week. I kind of need to, since I have to send Inception back to Netflix and want to watch it again before I review it.

I guess my "to do" list could be worse. Not to mention the fact that our house is starting to look like a rat's nest and I/we should be getting some quality cleaning time in.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Director: Banksy

A documentary that begins as a study of one subject but turns into something much more abstract, Exit Through the Gift Shop is, at face value, about the renegade art movement of "street art", which has evolved from simple graffiti tagging to, arguably, masterpieces. It begins with Thierry Guetta, a French entrepreneur that settled in Los Angeles with his family, where he soon became obsessed with documenting every moment of his life with his video camera. During restless nights, he would walk the streets of Los Angeles, where he came across street artists who, after finding out he was the cousin of one of their own, Space Invader, granted him unrestricted access to their work and process with the understanding that he was making a documentary about them. This is how he comes to work closely with the elusive Banksy, one of the most prolific and famous artists to come out of the movement. Unfortunately, the film that Guetta produces is unwatchable, which is when the documentary takes an interesting turn, with Banksy at the helm.

As a documentary on street art, Exit Through the Gift Shop is fascinating. It features interviews with many artists and even better, shows their process, which is much more action-packed than that of most other artists. Personally, I'm a huge fan of this movement because its aesthetics, coupled with an enormous amount of cleverness, is a perfect representation of conceptual art. However, the film kind of screeches to a halt two-thirds of the way through, and while the rest was interesting, I couldn't shake the idea that there was something more going on in the film than was being presented; that Exit Through the Gift Shop was becoming less a documentary than a colossal mind screw by Banksy - a performance art piece as clever as one of his tangible pieces, only with a lot more complexity.

Exit Through the Gift Shop, as presented, could be seen as a straightforward documentary, but I really don't think it is. What is it exactly? I have no absolutely no idea - I've been turning it over in my head since I watched it and I can't come up with definite answers, or even full bodied theories. What it definitely is, however, is an exciting film that is more thought-provoking than I ever thought it would be, and though it wasn't as conventional, nor did I like it as much as some of the many other documentaries I've seen the past year, I'm still thinking about this one long after I'd forgotten about the others, and there's something to be said for that.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Toy Story 3

TOY STORY 3 (2010)

Director: Lee Unkrich
Voice Talent: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack

I'm going to preface this review with full disclosure: With a couple of exceptions, I'm not a fan of the Pixar film pantheon, and truthfully, really haven't liked any of the Toy Story films that have been released before Toy Story 3. Other than kind of saying, "Oh yeah, I had one of those toys growing up" a few times during the first film, I couldn't relate to it at all, nor did I enjoy anything about the second film. Having said that, as I've aged and matured, I've prided myself on my objectivity when it comes to movies, so I sat down to Toy Story 3 with an open mind.

Unfortunately, my mind was quickly numbed with boredom, once again, by the further adventures of Buzz Lightyear (Allen), Woody (Hanks), Jessie (Cusack) and the rest of the toys in the toy box. This time, their owner, Andy, is off to college and the toys are wondering what is going to happen to them when he goes, considering he hasn't paid much attention to them in years. Though he intended all of them but Woody to be stored in the attic (what the toys considered a nice retirement) they are instead donated to a day care center where they think they will be played with by happy children, which makes them happy. Unfortunately, as members of the low end of the totem pole, they end up being used and abused by some of the worst behaved children I've ever seen and have to find a method of escape.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the voice talent in Toy Story 3, as a matter of fact, the number of known actors who lend their voices to the smallest of characters is staggering, and they're all great at what they do. I would imagine this is the last film of the Toy Story franchise, since it hit a natural ending, but I'm kind of cracking myself up at my ridiculous optimism that the franchise won't get more played out. The story was okay too, actually, a lot darker than I expected it to be at some points. And, I got a glimpse of a toy phone that I played the hell out of when I was a kid and hadn't thought about in about 32 years, so that was cool. However, it wasn't the tear-jerker for me that it seemed to be for everyone else, including my boyfriend, who was snorfling at the end (which I always find kind of cute).

It's not that I'm heartless. I was concerned about that at one point in my life, but for at least the last five years I've owned the fact that, just like there are a lot of movies that I think are fantastic and other people dislike, there are going to be a lot of well-reviewed, commercial success that people revere and I just don't like. It's not even animation that I don't like; I have loved every Studio Ghibli film I've ever seen (which is most) and count Persepolis and The Triplets of Belleville as two of the best films, animated or not, I've ever seen as a result of their Oscar nominations. I've just learned to brush off the comments of "Come on, you must be heartless" or "Are you serious? What's the matter with you?" since those are probably easier to digest than calling someone a philistine for not liking The Seventh Seal or a dullard for not appreciating the performance-art genius of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Besides, I'm not impervious to Pixar's charms. I bawled like a baby during Up, really got into The Incredibles and thought Finding Nemo was cuter than Hello Kitty's red bow. I didn't hate Toy Story 3, but it was boring and not my thing, and despite how apologetic this capsule review is starting to sound, I don't apologize for my opinions anymore and certainly don't take anything away from anyone who loved Toy Story 3, which seems to be everyone else on the planet.

2 out of 5 stars

Black Swan


Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

Nina Sayers (Portman) is a highly skilled, but reserved ballerina who has never had a principal role in her ballet company. When principal ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) ages out and is forced into retirement, Sayers is chosen by the ballet's director, Thomas Leroy (Cassel) for the dual role of Odette and Odile in The Black Swan. Though Sayers is ecstatic upon winning this coveted and challenging role, her happiness turns to fear and paranoia when she has to contend with Lily, (Kunis) a free-spirited and talented new member of the company who seems after her to take the role away, Leroy's constant doubts of her ability to bring passion to the role, and her mother's (Barbara Hershey) expectations of her.

Darren Aronofsky loves to put his actors through the wringer, and from all of the physicality and pain (both physical and emotional) he draws amazing performances out of actors you didn't know had it in them, or perhaps were past their prime. I never thought that Jared Leto or Jennifer Connelly were anything but pretty faces before seeing Requiem for a Dream (and I can't even express how surprised I was by the depth of Marlon Wayans' performance in that film), and Mickey Rourke had a celebrated comeback with The Wrestler with a performance that was better than anything he did in his heyday. Natalie Portman has always shown a precocious ability to act, especially with her first film, Leon (The Professional), but her career has kind of mirrored her character's progression in Black Swan. She was always competent, even good, but it took being pushed to the brink (she famously suffered injuries during a brutal rehearsal regimen) to get the outstanding performance she gave in Black Swan. Teetering on the verge of fragility and mania throughout most of the film, it was riveting and sometimes exhausting to witness Sayers' ascent/descent.

Black Swan boasts a very strong supporting cast as well, and again, I was surprised by the talent. Mila Kunis, primarily a television actress, brought a sexy and mysterious edge to her character that could have easily been overdone, but there was an ease and naturalness to the portrayal. Barbara Hershey's Erica isn't going to win Mom of the Year anytime soon, and her obsessive and sometimes menacing role made me temporarily forgive her for Beaches. Winona Ryder was both terrifying and tragic as an aging diva, and Vincent Cassel, who I thought was miscast before seeing the film ended up being perfect for the role.

This is not a film for the faint-hearted, and it's not pleasant to watch. Though the world of ballet is beautiful to an audience, when the layers are peeled back, there is a lot of pain, both emotional and physical, that achieve that beauty. When madness and obsession are added into the mix, that makes for a very dark film. My boyfriend and I caught a matinee on Christmas in between family parties during one particularly ghastly moment in the film I turned to him and said, "Merry Christmas honey!" However, there were also at least 150 other people at this screening, so obviously we weren't the only weirdos.

I can't think of a point during the film where my attention waned or I thought the pacing was off. If I had any complaints about the film, it would be some of the more graphic, kind of gross physical moments, but then again, they really worked in the context of the film, so I can't count that as a valid complaint, it's just my old, squeamish stomach. Black Swan was high on my Best of 2010 list during a year when I saw a lot of really good movies, because as a thriller, it really hit all of the right notes - just be prepared to not feel especially uplifted after.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 4, 2011

True Grit (2010)

TRUE GRIT (2010)

Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon

After the murder of her father, 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) travels to the town where he was killed by thief Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) to settle his affairs and to settle the score on his death. She attracts the attention of LaBoeuf (Damon), a Texas Ranger who has been on Chaney's trail for another murder, but Ross seeks out the help of Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (Bridges), a U.S. Marshall with the reputation of having "true grit." Cogburn is tough, but is also a drunk, which, among other things, impairs his abilities. Despite this, Ross hires Cogburn to take her into the Indian territory, where they are soon joined by LaBoeuf, on the hunt for Chaney.

True Grit is a simple story of revenge, but, like every one of their other films, the Coen brothers give it a layer of complexity. Unlike the original True Grit, starring John Wayne as Cogburn and Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf, which seemed outdated even when it was released in 1969, the Coen brothers' seems timeless, even epic at times, despite its simplicity. Never ones to shy away from unusual language, dialects or speech patterns (see The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo or The Ladykillers for just three examples), they made the really wise decision to go with the language of the time - 1880 - which turns out to be at times eloquent, flowery and above all, wholly without contractions. It's noticeable, and a refreshing contrast to movies that don't give a damn about dialect. Just watch Kevin Costner in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and you'll understand completely.

With few exceptions, the Coen brothers' films are well paced, clever and have their quirky moments, and True Grit is not an exception to what has become their norm. Oddball one-off characters punctuate the film, but don't steal the show from the full-bodied main characters, with perhaps the exception of Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), the feared leader of Chaney's gang who ends up being an interesting dichotomy of a murderous, but fair outlaw. Despite the fact that Westerns (followed closely by War films) are nearly my least favorite genre, there wasn't a single moment during the film when I wasn't completely interested and invested in what I was unfolding.

And Roger Deakins, god bless him. In my opinion, the greatest cinematographer in the business, hands down. Though his lush, breathtaking style wasn't there (or appropriate) for the first film I ever saw that he shot, Sid and Nancy, his work has transfixed me for years, and in particular, his many collaborations with the Coen brothers. I still remember walking out of a movie theater in Madison, where I'd just seen Fargo, realizing that, regardless of subject matter or content, I had just seen one of the most beautiful movies I'd ever seen in my life - thanks to Deakins. His photography doesn't disappoint in True Grit, and whether it is scenes peppered with snowfall, vast shots of the wilderness or a closeup of the flushed but determined Maddy Ross, his masterful work is recognizable and something to behold.

Where the hell did Hailee Steinfeld come from? When I did some research on her in preparation for writing this review, there wasn't anything of note, yet she gave what was one of the greatest performances I've seen on screen in the past year, and certainly the best by someone so young since Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. She was steely, but vulnerable, precocious and intelligent. She was up against two established and accomplished actors, and beat them both out as the most interesting person on the screen. Jeff Bridges was good, but wasn't really anything more than a meaner version of The Dude, but with a really bad mumbling problem. (Truthfully, I had a hard time understanding most of what he said without straining to translate it.) I'm not a fan of Matt Damon on any planet, but I actually enjoyed his supporting role and appreciated his effortless interpretation of a tough guy who's really kind of a buffoon. And though the film wouldn't exist without him, the character of Tom Chaney had very little screen time, but Brolin did a great job being the feared mean guy who is actually really uncool and whiny, but dangerous, nonetheless.

Despite a few missteps, I thought True Grit was nearly flawless. It's certainly not my favorite Coen brother film, but truthfully, the worst Coen brother films tend to be better than anything that passes for mainstream entertainment, so the scale is a little skewed. Though not epic in terms of scope or action, True Grit is full-bodied; kind of like listening to Rachmaninoff - it's not showy or garish but when you do experience it, it's exquisite.

4 out of 5 stars


I woke up with a sour stomach this morning that I can't seem to get rid of, and it's hampering any spark of motivation I may have right now.

This week has been a bizarre one. Like most of the country, we got smacked with some serious precipitation and after the initial hysteria it's basically done nothing more than cause a major slowdown and feeling of malaise. Everything is just so haaaaaard nowwwww..... (whiny voice).

Anyway, the Oscars were announced. I've seen half the movies nominated and probably won't get to see another quarter of them because apparently nominated foreign films are only seen via academy screener copies or in cities larger than Milwaukee. So it's a mad race to see the other quarter that are available. Well, not so much a mad race but a reluctant shuffle. I'm just finding it hard to be a completist this year - I am abjectly opposed to paying money for a film like Harry Potter just to check it off my list, and even though I actually would see Tron, I would only do it if it worked out in a perfect scenario and I didn't have to pay for the 3-D version since my blind eye doesn't allow me to experience that effect anyway. So I guess I'm not seeing Tron.

On top of all of that, I decided that I probably should put an Oscar section up on my web site so therefore, I probably should put some Oscar-related content up. That means reviews and that means ZOINKS! I'm looking at the list of Oscar-nominated films I've seen and therefore should review and I kind of want to drop into a snow bank. So that's why I'm stalling by complaining about my sour stomach and anything else I can think of off the top of my head.

In all seriousness though, I need to get my shit together so I can actually watch some movies without feeling like it's adding to my burden, even if it means working on reviews for nearly an entire day. Ugh. There goes my weekend.

Oh yeah: GO PACK GO! Now I've done my due diligence as a life-long Packer fan. Like every other workplace in Wisconsin (and probably parts of Arizona and Florida) today is "PACKER DAY!" at work. We were encouraged to wear jeans and our Packer gear, but, well I don't really do the group thing. I'm not a renegade, I'm just allergic to forced participation. Especially when I'm in my office and looking at people in their 40's with their hair in pigtails and green and gold hair ribbons who look like a played out Raggedy Ann after she got jumped by a mugger with a fetish for Packer paraphernalia.

So, I'm wearing a brown turtleneck and calling myself a representation of the football used in the game-winning touchdown...with a sour stomach.