Monday, June 28, 2010
Remember this series? Yeah, I barely do either. I think the last one I wrote was either in late 07 or early 08, shortly after this blog was created. Anyway, since I'm keeping up with more TV shows than ever before, I figured that right now, while things are relatively low key and most shows are on summer hiatus between seasons, I'd get back to tackling my favorites week by week, episode by episode, if only briefly.
My disappointment for the weekend continued last night with Debra Granik's (curiously) acclaimed Sundance hit Winter's Bone. The definition of a bare-bones type film, Granik spends forever stuck in first gear, and never ends up going anywhere. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives somewhere in the Ozarks, quickly learns that her father is due in court, and if he does not show, the Dolly family could be out of a home. This is bad news for Ree, who at 17 is left to take care of her mentally ill mother and younger siblings. While Granik starts the film off just fine with scenes that do a nice, understated job of depicting the harshness of a world where life doesn't mean all that much, she forgets that her story actually has to, well, go somewhere. Winter's Bone is supposed to be a mystery, but by the time that nearly an hour out of 1 hr 40 min has passed, all that Ree has really done is try and find a first lead to try and track down her dad. And while the editing for those first 45-60 minutes is remarkable, it becomes slightly frustrating, even as more significant events take place, because there's never a feeling of growth in the story; we start in square one, and never for an instant move past it, resulting in a somewhat misshapen story. The film also makes the mistake of revealing a potential outcome too early on, only to have it come completely true without ever presenting alternatives, rendering the whole thing slightly aimless. Out of the cast, there's been much buzz about star Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes (as Ree's surly uncle), and while Lawrence is nice, it's hardly worthy of the awards attention that some are clamoring for. She's at her best when understated and tough, but has a few moments where there are hints that she's trying to add the slightest touch of theatricality to her delivery, and it doesn't work. Hawkes on the other hand, is totally mystifying. As uncle Teardrop, Hawkes is stuck in a one-note role that requires him to do little other than glower and speak in a gravely "serious" voice. It's a shame that Granik, who is perhaps best known for giving Vera Farmiga her indie-breakout role in Down to the Bone, didn't take the risk and raise the stakes of Ree's investigation. Whether from personal experience or simply hands-on research, Granik certainly captures the toughness of the Ozarks, but she fails to inject them with the ingredients for an engrossing story, as sparse as it is, rendering the more intense moments only mildly engaging at best. While its central character may be a tough-but-likable character, Granik's film doesn't have enough (beware the awful pun) meat on its bones to weave a tale that's actually engrossing.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Mr. Malick does like to take his time, doesn't he? At this point I think I'd be grateful if we saw this film by the end of 2015. I was really hoping to finally hear some official reviews of the film (y'know, something other than quotes of "OMG AMAZING" from people who worked on it) from Venice and/or Toronto. You can read the article HERE.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
As much as I hate to say this, and as much as I'm not going to enjoy writing this review after roughly three months of skyrocketing anticipation, I feel the need to start off with this statement: Luca Guadagnino's I am Love is everything that A Single Man's (2009) detractors accused it of being. For a film that Swinton and Guadagnino spent 11 years trying to bring to the big screen, it's amazing that it's so thoroughly lacking in such key departments. Set at the turn of this century, Guadagnino's film tells (well, tries to) the story of a wealthy Milanese family, and the wife whose affair causes chaos.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Monday, June 21, 2010
As much as we may like to think otherwise, there are certain hints of formula in the so-far unbroken Pixar track record. The most noticeable one involves characters on some sort of quest, usually to unite with something or someone they've lost or been separated with. What keeps this from feeling like formula, however, is that Pixar keeps changing the setting: futuristic Earth (WALL-E), the ocean (Finding Nemo), and a world of closeted superheroes(The Incredibles). This is part of the strange (sort of) problem with the otherwise well done Toy Story 3. The concluding chapter in the story of Woody and Buzz Lightyear treads some familiar ground with the same characters, robbing it of some suspense had this been a totally new setting, while also acting as something of a make-up (to some of us); more on that last bit later. In Toy Story 3, we meet the toys at possibly the worst time in their lives; Andy is about to leave for college, thus rendering them totally obsolete (his mother is in the process of cleaning house). An unfortunate mistake convinces the toys (save Woody) that Andy thinks they're junk, so they avoid being thrown into the trash compactor and sneak into the donation box, which leads them to a day care, where they'll presumably get to play with children forever.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Real people are tricky, that's no secret. Putting them on screen in the form of characters? That can be a nightmare. The result is often one that is so desperate to deviate from Hollywood norms, that characters often become uninteresting, unlikeable, and even repulsive, despite being supposedly "real". Such was the case with writer-director Nicole Holofcner's 2006's effort Friends with Money. With apologies to Ms. Holofcner, hearing one wife tell her husband that she can't believe her friend, "hasn't seen [her husband's] asshole," isn't the sort of dialogue that should be thrown out within the first 15 minutes. It's crass, it's irritating, and it's an almost instant turn-off. Thankfully, Ms. Holofcner has more than learned her lesson with her most recent feature, Please Give. Though it has moments of unpleasantness, Holofcner and her cast never go overboard, and whatever meanness may be inflicted verbally from one character to another there may be, it never feels as though it's somehow pointed at the audience. Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) are married a have a daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele). They also run a furniture store, where the merchandise comes mostly from the homes of the recently deceased. On the other end are Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), her sister Mary (Amanda Peet), and their grandmother Andra (Ann Guilbert), who happens to live next door to Kate and Alex. Though the main plot is built on the tensions between the two families (Mary and Rebecca feel that Kate and Alex are like vultures, simply waiting and hoping for Andra to die), Holofcner's film finds its strength in the funny little ways people cross paths and relate to different people differently. Kate, the best example of human contradictions, is a bleeding heart, constantly giving out money to people on the street, to the point where she's almost made it an obligation, doing whatever she can. This puts her at odds with Abby, who is obsessed with getting rid of her acne and longing for a new pair of jeans. Yet while Abby's parents feel slightly uneasy around the rather bitchy Mary, Abby has one or two moments with her...but also has two moments with Rebecca. Then there's Alex, who may or may not have been flirting with Mary over dinner. The ways in which Holofcner's characters bounce off of each other is surprisingly engaging, filled with moments of meanness, kindness, insight, and even great humor. And while indie queen Keener may get top billing and have the most outwardly expressive role, she's equally matched by Rebecca Hall (Vicky in Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as hardworking, reserved Rebecca. Every main character, from the Abby to Andra, is so wonderfully drawn, with flaws that actually feel genuine, to the point where the characters balance each other out, as opposed to Greenberg, in which the entire film was too focused on its protagonist. As a slice-of-life/intersection-of-lives story, it's also devoid of lagging moments, and ends strongly when at times you wonder if it can have a satisfying ending at all. Where other slice-of-life films often get too caught up in trying to create an atmosphere that doesn't fully materialize, Please Give is smart enough to focus wholly on its characters. The result is a strongly acted, well-paced look at the way people interact when put under a microscope, and what it really means to give, both physically and emotionally.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
When Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) tells BA Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) "Overkill is underrated," he's basically summing up the entirety of Joe Carnahan's The A-Team. While this update of the 80s TV-show certainly isn't on the same level as summer fare like Iron Man or Pirates of the Caribbean, it's an engaging and surprisingly funny summer actioner that certainly didn't deserve to flop like it did. Though the setting has been updated to the Iraq War, the premise is still the same: four differently skilled man are wrongly accused and must work to clear their names to the US military. After a slightly protracted prologue when the four men become acquainted, the film gradually becomes more and more fun. It remains fully committed to the fact that it is ridiculous, save for one or two moments when it tries to be something more (using to Gandhi to justify killing?). When a character (Jessica Biel's Lt. Sosa) acknowledges that the A-Team is "going to try and fly a tank" with a perfect sense irony, you know that nothing is meant to be too serious. The cast for the most part, seem game too. Though he occasionally lends the role too much gravitas, Liam Neeson makes for a suitable Col. Smith, while Jackson has some funny moments of outrage as the tough-guy brawler with a phobia of flying. Bradley Cooper also does a decent job with his character, and his status as a womanizer isn't overplayed. There's also Patrick Wilson, usually relegated to rather bland characters, having a blast as Lynch, a CIA agent with mysterious motives. But the real MVP of the whole picture, and by quite some margin, is Sharlto Copely (who made his acting debut in the excellent District 9) as Howlin' Mad Murdock. Not only does he get the best lines (a scene involving a Braveheart parody is hysterical), but he delivers them so perfectly, never letting on if the character is truly mad or just an eccentric having fun with people. It's a shame that the plot couldn't have been slightly better constructed (the first half feels too much like the first episode of a new TV-series). There's also the arc of Jackson's Baracus, who undergoes a phoned in philosophical experience that makes him not want to kill anyone, that's beyond unnecessary. Still, in an otherwise underwhelming summer (don't let us down, Toy Story 3. Same goes for you, Inception) it's refreshing to find a movie that, while mindless and loud, fully embraces its mindlessness to such a level of self-consciousness that it can be wholly enjoyable rather than irritating; it's a movie that the likes of Michael Bay and the Transformers 3 crew could stand to learn a lesson from.
Monday, June 14, 2010
Sunday, June 13, 2010
The first (official) still from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Tourist has emerged, and aside from the lack of visible equipment, it looks just like any previous stills. The film, Donnersmarck's first since his Oscar-winner The Lives of Others (2006), centers on Frank (Depp), a tourist in Italy trying to "mend a broken heart," who crosses paths with a mysterious woman named Elise, played by Jolie (source: IMDb). The film is slated for an early 2011 release, which isn't the best sign, and it feels like the filming process on this has taken quite a long time. That said, Donnersmarck is no slouch, not to mention the fact that he's working from a screenplay by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) and Chris McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), which only adds to the appeal. Depp and Jolie are two of the world's biggest stars, so it should be interesting to see how they play off of each other as romantic (?) leads.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Unfortunately, despite having some good early word, the film is only hitting the United States as a limited release (though I'm assuming it will be on the larger side of limited). Though the film reportedly lacks the epic scale of Gladiator or other recent sword-and-sandals films, it supposedly does a nice job of conveying the idea that neither side (Romans or Picts) is the "good" side, despite starting out on the side of the invading Romans. I'm excited to see Fassbender (quite the diverse actor as far as role choices go) back in period-action mode again, in material that will likely have more intelligence and gravitas than 300 to combat the lack of stylization. It will also be interesting to see Olga Kurlyenko (Quantum of Solace) back on the big screen, seeing as early reviews have given her standout praise. Centurion arrives in the US on August 27th.
Monday, June 7, 2010
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Sarcasm has a very special place in the world of American comedy, specifically television, and few recent shows aimed at teens put it to better use than this one. For those who don't recall, "Daria" ran on MTV from 1997-2001, lasting five seasons (13 episodes each) and two hour-long TV movies. The show centered on laid-back, pessimistic, realistic, detached Daria Morgendorfer, as she navigated high school, portrayed as a world of vapid classmates and condescending adults. If anything could sum up the series' protagonist, it was its tagline: Talks Slow, Thinks Fast. But while the show's protagonist could be contained in those four words, Daria Morgendorfer and the show around her was really so much more. Not only does it remain one of the best things to ever come out of MTV (which now spends its time making masterpieces like "Jersey Shore"), but it's a stand-out among animated series. It didn't play dumb, it didn't talk down to its audience, and it didn't go out of its way with gags involving stupidity or gross-out moments. And despite having a smaller following than "Beavis and Butthead" (of which it was a spin-off), it has an appeal that stretches from high school students to adults (I'll cite my parents as examples).
It's easy enough to see what made "Daria" such a treat for its fan base. At a time when pop-culture excess was really starting to blow-up among the high school set, "Daria" offered a refreshingly dry, witty, and often hilarious commentary on the dumbing-down of teenage life. And I mean hilarious. Though Daria delivers her lines in a monotone, she has the majority of the show's smartest, most cutting jokes, referencing everything from Dostoevsky to the Hanoi Hilton. And while the characters of
But like many teen-oriented shows, "Daria" also took on issues, and once again it surpassed the competition. As was often the case in the 90s and even early 2000s, when teen shows wanted to address an issue, you could see it coming from a mile away. I can't keep track of the number of shows that ran ads like, "this week on a very special episode of _____". So while many shows presented ham-fisted scenarios to address topics, "Daria" did it seamlessly, even if it was presented in exaggeration (Principal Li selling out the school to a soda company for funding). In fact, "Daria" almost never felt like it was making a huge deal out of issues, even when Daria herself had a chance to monologue, because it was simply THERE. The writers were smart enough to know that the show's audience didn't need to be beat over the head with a message.
But perhaps the greatest single strength of "Daria," amid all of the laughs, was that it never canonized its protagonist. Though the first season never put Daria in the wrong, as the show progressed it wasn't afraid to occasionally make Daria do something that required her to make amends. This culminated late in season four wherein Daria more or less lures away her best friend's boyfriend. This brings us
So how does "Daria" hold up 13 years after it first premiered? Well, after plowing through all five seasons on DVD, pretty damn well, even if 99% of the soundtrack is missing due to licensing issues. In an age when pop-culture seems to be increasingly headed in the direction of an Idiocracy (I'm looking at you, Ke$ha), "Daria" serves as a reminder that to discerning audiences, being a "brain" can still be cool.