Monday, June 28, 2010

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" theatrical trailer (both parts)

Three words: Suck it, Twilight.

Some more words: this is phenomenal. Of course, it's just a trailer, and trailers can be plenty misleading in regards to quality, but I hope that it's as good as this footage looks. The darkness that the films have been building up since The Prisoner of Azkaban has fully matured, and though I know that Warner Brothers won't allow for an R-rated film, I hope director David Yates takes us as close to an R-rating as the material allows (pretty damn close). Who knows, for this one, I might just have to go to the showing in full costume; after all, it's my last (two) chance(s).

This Week on TV

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.

True Blood, Season 3, Episode 3: The only off shoot of the recent vampire craze that I've actually bought into has been HBO's True Blood, and for two big reasons: the story lines are addictive and it plays up the camp aspect of the vampire mythos. With only ten more episodes remaining, I'll confess that I'm worried that the show is taking so long to unfold because they don't have much to work with. By the third episode of season 2, while there was still plenty of mystery, you already had a clear idea of several main plots, and where the focus was going. I'm hoping that something BIG erupts due to the conflict between vampire king Russel Eddington (Denis O'Hare) and vampire queen Sophie-Anne (Evan Rachel Wood), who has been doing some illegal selling of V (vampire blood). In season 3, Sookie's (Anna Paquin) supposed werewolf love interest, Alcide, has only just been introduced, and the two haven't really done much in their search for Bill (Stephen Moyer). That said, I'm loving the (brief) scenes with the sexually voracious Pam (Kristin Bauer), who's always good for a healthy dose of irony. I'm also liking the new dynamic with Sam's (Sam Trammell) biological family, although I hope they don't drag out the bickering blood-ties angle into tediousness. Sam is one of my favorite characters and I'd hate to see a sub-plot totally focused on him out stay its welcome. Oh yeah, and the ending of this episode...WHAT. THE. HELL. DO. NOT. WANT.

Grade: B

Entourage, Season 7, Episode 1: In its seventh season, Entourage is finally starting to show signs of aging. When Vince (Adrien Grenier) is asked to do a dangerous stunt himself on the set of his latest film (so wait, we're just glossing over the Enzo Ferrari movie that season 6 led up to? OK...), the typical ensues, but without much drama. And speaking of drama, are the writers ever going to give Johnny Chase (Kevin Dillon) a break that lasts? Enough already. The final subplot, involving Turtle's (Jerry Ferrara) new business (hello, where did that come from?) was a boring one, mostly thanks to the fact that it came out of nowhere and the drama regarding one of Turtle's employees thereby carried no weight. Here's hoping that season 7 can pick up the pace in the coming weeks, because I'd hate for the show to close out (it will most likely end next season) flailing around like this.

Grade: B-/C+

What I watched this week: June 21-27

Ghost World (2001) dir. Terry Zwigoff: A perfect little slice of uncertainty and insecurity, Zwigoff's adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name finds its strength in the quiet little oddities shared among its characters. Though initially off-putting, Thora Birch is delivers a nice turn as Enid, who's something like Daria, but without the premature wisdom/smarts. Poor Scarlett Johannson, though, doesn't get nearly as much to do as Rebecca, and I was surprised that the film ended up pushing Rebecca into supporting-player status. The real winner here, however, is Steve Buscemi as the record-collecting Seymour. Buscemi earned a well deserved Golden Globe nomination for the performance, which capitalizes on the actor's inherent quirkiness, while also adding complexity to the role, allowing it to rise above being simply "another weird performance from that Buscemi guy". It's just further proof that, like in The Messenger, Buscemi is capable of much more than being That Weird Guy. As a film, Ghost World also maintains interest, even though it had all of the potential to be as lost and confused as its protagonist.

Grade: B+

Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-3 (2008-???): AMC's other hit drama, about a dying chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth to help secure his family financially, didn't immediately grab me. Granted, it's interesting, well acted, and at times action-packed, but for the life of me I just couldn't get my self involved during season 1; it mostly felt like an obligation, with only a few moments of real interest/tension, with some black humor thrown in every now and then. That all changes in the show's current high point, season two. Though a little slow for the first few episodes, by the time it's over you won't know what hit you, especially the final minutes, which are cryptically alluded to throughout the series and left me gaping at my TV in horror. Season three goes the opposite route, starting off at the quality of season two's end, and slightly declining. The opening is mysterious, chilling, and hypnotic, introducing a pair of murderous cousins who blaze through New Mexico like the well-dressed, bald offspring of Anton Chigurh. But despite my complaints about some of the story arcs, the acting is uniformly excellent, and I can see why Bryan Cranston won the Emmy (Lead Actor - Drama) two years in a row as Walt and will likely win again for his work in the recently finished third season. Granted, it's not the second coming of acting, (I still prefer Michael C. Hall's work in Dexter) but it's hard to deny the strength of the work on display. Backing him up are Aaron Paul as his partner-in-crime Jessie Pinkman, Anna Gunn as Walt's wife, along with Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt as Walt's in-laws, and RJ Mitre as Walt's son with cerebral palsey. The only thing that has me worried now is the chilling season finale. On the one hand, it opens up possibilities for an even more epic story arc, but there are more than a few things that could leave the writers coming up with contrived ways of getting out of logistics loopholes. Series showrunner Vince Gilligan admitted to SlashFilm that the third season wasn't as planned out from the start as season 2, and it shows. That said, I'll be eagerly awaiting the show's fourth season, which should start up around March 2011.

Grades: Season 1 (B-), Season 2 (A-), Season 3 (B+)

Ran (1985) dir. Akira Kurosawa: I don't exactly have the best relationship with Kurosawa's filmography, and Ran is simply further proof of that. I mean, I appreciate the hell out of what he did in terms of developing certain story-telling techniques, but I can't quite bring myself to really love his work (save for The Hidden Fortress). Kurosawa's adaptation of "King Lear" is at times arresting, and filled with some stunning visuals and strong music, but, perhaps only the fault of history, the acting in Kurosawa's films has always struck me as too similar to Kabuki theater: an unappealing mixture equal parts guttural and shrill. Here, however, some of the characters actually do stand out, namely the King Lear figure, his Fool, and the wicked Lady Kaede. Unfortunately, the King's three sons, had it not been for their preference for different colors, aren't so easy to distinguish from each other. Still, it's probably worth any film fan or Shakespeare enthusiast's time to give it a go; it just didn't do much for me (that said, I am looking forward to renting Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, his adaptation of my favorite Shakespeare play, Macbeth).

Grade: B

"Winter's Bone" - REVIEW

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.

Grade: B-

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Disappointment strikes again

I can't remember the last time I had a weekend with a Movie Batting Average of zero. I really hate this. More tomorrow.

*sigh* Another "Tree of Life" delay

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

"I am Love" - REVIEW

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.

The biggest problem above all in Guadagnino's film is one of my least favorite techniques in film making: the themes/symbols/metaphors/etc are given emphasis to the point that they end up fighting the actual narrative, instead of supporting it, enhancing it, and giving it nuance. Case in point: Emma's (Swinton) affair with young chef Antonio arises over a supposed connection via food. While the scene where Emma has a near-erotic reaction to Antonio's prawn dish is wonderful, it ends up making no sense. This is tied into problem #2: thin characters. Antonio has absolutely no charisma, and no spark with Swinton, and what little they're given to do together doesn't exactly burn with passion. We have nothing to feel for either of these people, even Swinton, which makes the sexual-liberation angle collapse. And since there's nothing about Antonio that's remotely compelling, it kind of makes you wonder: how on earth did she fall for him through his food? Emma is extremely wealthy and lives in ITALY; something tells me that great food really isn't in short supply. I could understand if perhaps Guadagnino had added a slight element of fantasy/magical realism (a la Like Water for Chocolate), but he doesn't. And Swinton, always fascinating to watch, almost becomes slightly boring simply because there's little for her to really do amid the hollowness of the whole thing. The only character that has any emotional depth is Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), Emma's oldest son. Unfortunately, given the lack of passion in the love affair (John Adams' music can only stir you so much when the material on screen is this empty), nothing else really holds together, culminating in a ridiculous ending. After giving us too little to work with and remaining rather distant emotionally, Guadagnino suddenly rushes everything in the last five minutes in a ridiculous climax that wastes Adams' music even further, indulging in almost laughable silent close-ups. The conflict between narrative and themes finally launches off the rails at the end, leaving an ending that really doesn't make sense, especially given the lack of character depth. Even the photography ceases to impress after a while, save for a few tracking shots of Emma through her home. But the biggest crime of it all, especially with A Single Man still relatively fresh in my mind, is that unlike that film, Guadagnino and company are unable to take a limited narrative and turn it into something compelling. I'll admit, perhaps purely on the music I was left slightly shaken when it was over, but in an unfortunately unsatisfying way.

Grade: C

Friday, June 25, 2010

I wanted to like or love it, I really did...

But...not so much. More tomorrow.

Teaser trailer for David Fincher's "The Social Network"

Well aside from the cool music, there's not much to make heads or tails of. If anything, I'll see it for Fincher and star Jesse Eisenberg, although these sorts of based-on-very-recent-events films always make me slightly nervous. Let's hope is doesn't suffer the fate of, say, Oliver Stone's W.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Trailer for "Red"

So...Helen Mirren has a machine gun. I think I've said all that needs to be said.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

New "Inception" character featurette

It's amazing that considering the amount of footage available for viewing, that Inception has managed to keep its main plot shrouded in mystery. Obviously we have some vague idea that DiCaprio and crew are after "one last job" and that they can enter dreams, but there's nothing remotely spoiler-worthy about that. Rumors are that many of the cast members, if not all of them, didn't fully understand what the film was about during much of the shooting process; hopefully that means the film is simply a mind-bender and not an overly confusing mess. Long-time Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister's work here looks impeccable, bolstered by Nolan's insistence on shooting on-location and the vivid VFX work. My only real question actually worth asking is: why leave out Ken Watanabe? We know he's something of a villain, and we've clearly seen him in previous footage, so why leave him and his character title out?

Trailer for "The Green Hornet"

While I'm still not sold on Seth Rogen as an action hero, I'm eager to see what director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) brings to the super hero genre. That, and the presence of Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) as the villain is always a plus, even though the January 14th release date is slightly worrisome.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Only one more month...

"Toy Story 3" - REVIEW

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.

The weird thing, though, is that we've seen this before. It was called Toy Story 2. And like that film, Woody spends a decent amount of time with a totally separate group of toys, while the rest of the main batch try to deal with (and later escape) life at Sunnyside Daycare, run by an increasingly malevolent stuffed bear (Ned Beatty, still as scary as he was in Network). These elements, including the montage look at Lotso's (Beatty) past, are all vaguely recycled elements that keep Toy Story 3 from feeling as fresh and exciting as it could have been. There's tension, certainly, but not quite the amount that would have been if Toy Story 2 had either A) been a totally different story, or B) never existed. Thankfully, these issues, though they are worth noting, aren't enough to derail Pixar's latest; not by a long shot. The series still has Pixar's trademark combination of humor (though a surprising number of bits don't really stick), heart, and that classic Pixar appeal to all ages. And while this film may cover ground covered in Toy Story 2, this time around they really get it right, with a sequel that feels truly necessary as a means of looking at the journeys of these characters. By comparison, 2 looks like mere filler, whereas 1 and 3 actually present major changes for the toys. With the toys growing apart from Andy, the issues of mortality and change actually have some weight to them; it really is possible that Andy may not care about them anymore, because he's long past the age when kids playwith any sort of traditional toys. This also allows Pixar to take the story to surprisingly dark places, including one scene that, had they gone through with it, would probably have bumped the film up to a PG-13 rating for sheer emotional trauma. That said, following it up with the almost certain-to-get-you-misty-eyed-or-more ending is just as powerful, even if we are living in an age when kids are more likely to be playing hand-held electronics and video game consoles. That Pixar still has the ability to make us care for hunks of plastic in the electronic and digital age is only a testament to their tremendous talents, even if this effort doesn't necessarily rank as their finest hour.

Grade: B/B+

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What I watched this week: June 14-20

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) dir. Louis Malle: This is my first Malle film, but hopefully it won't be the last. Though at time leaning too heavily on the naiveté and/or stupidity of its characters, Malle's debut is a quietly tense little noir thriller featuring a strong performance from Jeanne Moreau, whose general lack of make-up only adds to the quiet expressiveness of her face, even she spends the first half of the film simply wandering the dreary, dark streets of Paris after dark. Malle makes great use of nighttime photography to help make the expanse of Paris seem much more confining. The film's dramatic high point arrives when Julien (Maurice Ronet) attempts to escape from an inactive elevator; the edits and shots combine to create the film's most overt "thrills." And while I won't spoil the ending, I'll say that it's great, save for one piece of information regarding the extent of punishment, which seems strange considering who did what and so on, but it's not enough to keep me from recommending this tight little noir film from anyone.

Grade: B+

The Man From Elysian Fields (2001) dir. George Hickenlooper: Though its plot centers around a man lured into becoming a high-end male escort, there is a lack of emphasis on sexual exploits. The film's focus is how Byron (Andy Garcia) balances his new job while trying to maintain a connection to his wife (Julianna Marguiles), while simultaneously becoming involved with a wealthy woman (Olivia Williams) and her successful husband (James Coburn). While the story is well told enough, it's hindered by Hickenlooper's flat direction and the often over-eager score, not to mention the overacting from Mr. Coburn. It's these elements, and the route the story takes as it moves toward its conclusion (not to mention a weak sub plot involving Mick Jagger's lover) that leaves it feeling totally pedestrian.

Grade: B-

Moonstruck (1987) dir. Norman Jewison: Romantic comedies aren't the types of films known for aging well, but Norman Jewison's triple-Oscar-winning film (written by "Doubt" playwright John Patrick Shanley) has managed to remain enjoyable 23 years since its release. Bolstered by strong performances (even from Nicholas Cage), and a strong emphasis on family dynamics, the film is still quite charming, and in spots hilarious. Cher in particular is a delight to watch as she transforms from a level-headed woman who knows exactly what she wants into someone who isn't sure of anything, without ever becoming pathetic or grating. In an age when too many romantic comedy (female) leads are portrayed as shrill and selfish, Cher's Loretta reminds us that a woman can be independent and tough while still being likable.

Grade: B

California Suite (1978) dir. Herbert Ross: The problem with vignette films is that it's rare that all of them will be hits, and such is the major hindrance of this Neil Simon adaptation. Though the first two set-ups (Alan Alda and Jane Fonda/Maggie Smith and Michael Caine) are filled with wit (perhaps even too much), and strong performances and use dialogue to chip away the characters' exteriors, the film's second half all but collapses in on itself. Walter Matthau and Elaine May's segment is occaisionally tedious, but for the most part OK. It's in the final sequence, featuring Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, that everything goes to hell. Cosby and Pryor, two very funny men, are wasted in a scene that goes so far overboard with inflicting stunt gags on its characters (if it can break/hurt someone, it will) that it becomes as exhausting and miserable as the terrible vacation the characters are going through. That said, when it works, sparks fly, but all of the sparks get used up in roughly the film's first half, leaving it with a limp second half; that is, until the brief-but-funny ending.

Grade: B-/C+

Delirious (2006) dir. Tom Dicillo: A strange, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny film about the paparazzi and celebrity that's hindered by half-assed performances from Michael Pitt and Alison Lohman as a homeless guy-turned-paparazzo-turned-star and a pop starlet respectively. Steve Buscemi, god of all weirdness, does a good job with Les, the struggling celeb photographer, but Dicillo's film never delves deep enough into the conflict between the two, or Les' struggle with his career. It also doesn't bring anything new to the table when it comes to observations on our obsession with celebrities, nor does it present anything in a fresh way. It's a typical rags-to-riches Hollywood story with decent acting, and not much else to offer other than wonder what makes Steve Buscemi's features so oddly compelling.

Grade: C+

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Please Give" - REVIEW

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.

Grade: B+

Trailer for "The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader"

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Well it's finally here; I guess they had to release something to keep on track with The Deathly Hallows Part I. For whatever reason, as uneven as the Narnia film series has been thus far, they keep dragging me in. Maybe it's the promise of fantasy (especially after that movie that deserved a second chance and a better director for its sequel tanked), maybe it's the all-too-brief promise of Tilda Swinton reprising her villainous role (or is it a different one? I never read the books). And maybe, just maybe, it's the hope I have that, where Prince Caspian improved the battle scenes of Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, perhaps this third (and potentially final) adaptation can improve the general story-telling. I'd be worried though, if I were a FOX studio executive. Prince Caspian underperformed (maybe summer isn't where Narnia belongs?), and the film is being released mere weeks after the final Potter film bulldozes its way into theaters.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"The A-Team" - REVIEW

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.

Grade: B-/C+

"Never Let Me Go" trailer

Last night was the debut of the trailer for Mark Romanek's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's (author of Remains of the Day) Never Let Me Go, and it looks like cause for celebration. The story isn't made entirely clear, though it doesn't seem too hard to figure out what the "big reveal" is. That said, what I've heard about the book is that, thankfully, it isn't all about the twist, which should hopefully keep the story from being one-note. Mulligan and Knightley seem really good, as do Charlotte Rampling and Sally Hawkins. The only one I'm not sold on is the only major male cast member: Andrew Garfield. He's got the only worrisome scene, which involves him SCREAMING at the sky. Depending on how it fits into the film, it could either be shamelessly melodramatic, or really compelling, but we can't really tell until the film comes out. Still, this one's on my radar for now, and I'm really tempted to run out and buy the book.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Trailer for Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" [embedded]

As someone who hasn't had the best relationship with Sofia Coppola's work (I found Marie Antoinette pretty-but-lifeless and Lost in Translation to be good, but nothing more), I'm wary about getting my hopes too high for it. That said, I am exited to hear the music (soundtrack? score? both?) from French band Phoenix. Coppola said that she was taken with the band's song "Love Like a Sunset," and asked them to write some music for the film, which is exciting. However, I don't know how much the band actually composed for the film, and how much of their presence will simply be songs from their albums. Either way, it's one of the film's biggest draws for me. The film could also be a return for Stephen Dorff, and a breakthrough for Elle Fanning (little sister of Dakota).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

On tour with Angie and Johnny

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.

What I watched this week: June 6-13

After a delay last week (unfortunately the first week after I promised to start this series), I can finally get this post underway. To sum it up, these posts are meant to recap any films/TV series I've seen either on DVD or on TV, since it's easier to go through a lot of films at home than make a bunch of trips to the theater (films seen in theaters then, are left out). So, what have I been watching at home this past week (well, two weeks for this post)? Let's take a look.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997) dir. Atom Egoyan: Before Atom Egoyan was making Amanda Seyfried snog Julianne Moore (and much more), he was making delicate dramas about human relationships. In this critically acclaimed film (a rare modern picture that holds a 100% rating on RottenTomatoes), Egoyan's focus is on a small town in the aftermath of a tragedy, and the lawyer who tries to profit by launching a class-action lawsuit. Though it's compelling and well-acted, I'm not sure exactly why it merits such stupendous acclaim. It has its moments of honest insight into people's reactions to tragedy, as well as the way people relate to one another, but a subplot involving the lawyer's (Iam Holm) daughter at time feels like it's trying to break away and become its own film. Strangely, the film's most riveting scene concerns the lawyer recounting a near-miss with death. It's mesmerizing thanks to the sparse editing and Holm's delivery, but after the movie was over, it was hard to look back and the moment without thinking "so what did that really add to the main story?" The moment works as a sort of look into the lawyer when he's not a man driven by profit, but feels shoe-horned in considering the movie around it. Again, this is the sort of scene that seems to beg for its own film, rather than one that flows and/or enhances with the main narrative. That said, it's still a quietly compelling watch, particularly for the acting (Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood) and delicate score. It just doesn't feel like best-of-all-time material.

Grade: B

Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, and Red (1993-1994)
When we think of triologies these days, we tend to think of "big" films. Big budgets, big stories, big stars, and big special effects. However, Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy proves that trilogies can work equally well with experimentation, intimacy, and barely connected characters. The working premise of the three is that each film examines the symbolism of a color of the French flag, albeit with some sort of irony. Blue, the first, examines liberty, followed by White (egality), and finishing with Red (fraternity). Such a set up had all the potential to be a pretentious exercise in tedium, but instead, Kieslowski's trilogy is an intriguing, beautiful examination of several lives in the modern world. Blue is probably the least accessible of the three, and certainly the slowest, but it is anchored by a quietly stirring performance by Juliette Binoche as a grief-stricken woman who seeks to liberate herself from human relationships. The occasional musical cues, somewhat plot related, can be jarring at first, but upon closer examination serve a well thought-out purpose; I wouldn't be surprised if Blue improved the most on a second viewing. Next is White, generally considered the "weakest" of the three (hardly an insult). Something of a dark comedy, it's the story of a man who has easily the worst day in his life, only to return to his native Poland to plot emotional revenge on his ex (Julie Delpy). A much brisker picture than Blue, White does occasionally lose some narrative focus (though I suspect certain details are left out on purpose), and the ending isn't as satisfying. However, it does provide a refreshingly light perspective after Blue, albeit at the risk of depth. Thankfully Kieslowski saved the best for last. The Oscar-nominated Red, combines the best of the previous installments: Blue's psychological depth with White's crisper pacing and twisty story-telling. Irene Jacob and Jean Louis-Trintignant form the compelling center of the story of a woman who befriends a judge who likes to listen in on his neighbors' phone calls. What starts as something potentially creepy becomes an engrossing, layered film that is both tragic and hopeful, with a magnificent ending bringing it all together. Think of it as proof that not all trilogies need to bottom-out in their third chapters.

Grade(s): Blue (B+), White (B), Red (A-/A)

All That Jazz (1979) dir. Bob Fosse: Though most people remember Bob Fosse (in the film world) for Cabaret, All That Jazz is nothing to shrug off. Fosse's reinterpretation of Fellini's 8 1/2 is a striking, energetic depiction of an artist whose life enters a free-fall as he struggles with his latest project. The best thing that Fosse did with All That Jazz is make it his own. One of the chief criticisms of Nine (a film which I do like, however) is that it lacks the spark of Fellini's original, and that comes down to one reason: Rob Marshall does not have the same personal life as Fellini. The story that Fellini created in 8 1/2 is so deeply connected to the director, that in order for it to work, it can't be re-told; it must be personalized and even updated, rather than try and totally mimic. Fosse's protagonist, for instance, is a director of stage and screen, like Fosse himself, and though there are women in his life (the wife, the mistress, the muse), some have been sacrificed and replaced (out with the whore; in with the daughter). The film also owes much to the staggering performance of Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon. It's not just in his expressions, but in his movements, that Scheider is able to communicate so much, so well. And then of course, there's the choreography. From the test-performance of a nudity-laden number to the parade of performances during the surgery sequence, to the finale, each song and dance is a stunningly constructed piece of work that only enhances the story. And even though Scheider is obviously not a vocalist (he never belts any notes, or tries to), his performance during the finale is sensational, as is the film itself. It's an interpretation that Fellini himself would be proud of.

Grade: A- /A

Well, that's all for now. See you next week (by that time I will have hopefully seen The A-Team and Toy Story 3 in theaters too).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

US poster for "Centurion" starring Michael Fassbender

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.

Behind the scenes of "Thor"

Okay, so the interview itself is kind of a joke ("How was the chemistry between you two?" "There was, uh, chemistry"), but Portman and Hemsworth are hilarious together. Portman especially seems so charming, it's a wonder she sometimes struggles to project charisma as an actress. Here's hoping Black Swan and Thor change that. That aside, I couldn't help but be distracted by Mr. Hemsworth (Kirk's dad in the opening of 09's Star Trek). We've all heard of stars bulking up for action roles, but JESUS CHRIST he looks friggin' HUGE; this makes fellow Aussie Hugh Jackman as Wolverine look puny. I think his biceps are larger than Portman's head.

Monday, June 7, 2010

"Get Him to the Greek" - REVIEW

Spin-offs are a tricky sub-genre by nature, in that they usually involve giving one-note supporting characters too much time at the center of the action. Surprisingly, Nick Stoller's Get Him to the Greek, a spin-off of 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall pulls it off, even though it's not a particularly strong film. Only two principal actors from 'Marshall' remain: Judd Apatow regular Jonah Hill, and comedian Russel Brand, reprising his role as rocker Aldous Snow. The plot is simple but effective: Hill's Aaron (strangely not the same character he played in 'Marshall') must get Snow to the Greek Theater in LA in time for a 10 year anniversary concert. The problem, though, is unlike any I've encountered in a film with the Apatow touch. The films he's associated with usually falter when they try and add too much "depth" to go along with the raunchy comedy. 'Greek' is the opposite, in that its humor isn't strong enough, but its attempts at nuance actually feel much more genuine than 'Marshall,' Superbad, or I Love You, Man. The laughs never really stick, though I did get one or two solid guffaws, and a handful of chuckles. Thankfully it's not boring, even with some atrocious editing and poorly executed staging/blocking (a bit about Snow's mother being an idiot is done lazily). Brand actually makes for a pretty decent actor, and he has a scene late in the game that impressed me more than I ever would have thought possible. Adding to the film are performances from P. Diddy (surprisingly funny, if a bit much), "Mad Men"'s Elisabeth Moss, and Rose Byrne, who shows a surprising knack for comedy in the film's opening montage. It's a shame that the leading pair, along with the supporting cast, are given such underwhelming material, at least in the comedy department. Kudos, however, to the team behind it for never making Aldous Snow one-note and boring, and for wrapping up this wildly uneven romp with a sweet little ending. It's often said that it's better to end well than begin well (hello, Nine) but Get Him to the Greek is a different sort of beast: it ends and begins well, it just needs a new middle.

Grade: C

Sunday, June 6, 2010

New teaser for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I"

YES! They kept the Gringotts Dragon!!! Oh, and the rest of it looks pretty cool too. I'm loving the cinema verite shots in the forrest, and the lead trio really seems to have stepped up their acting for the last (two) film(s). After making the best (...second best? best?) installment in the series (Order of the Phoenix), I'm excited to see David Yates finishing out the series.

Tripping the Life Sarcastic

I understand that there's more than a little irony in getting nostalgic about sarcasm, but if ever there was a film or TV series that deserved some love, it's "Daria". In honor of the release of the complete series on DVD last month, here's a look back at one of the best cartoons from the past 20 years.

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 Lawndale may be exaggerations (the thick-headed jock, the dumb blonde cheerleader, etc...), the shows use of the characters and their relation to Daria was never taken too far. Consider Brittany, the aforementioned dumb cheerleader. While she's dumb as rock and occasionally says things indicating her support of the stereotypical "caste system" of highschool, she is never cruel to Daria for being a "brain". Brittany is even given her own shining moment. After saying stupid, vapid things throughout the first season, Brittany suddenly shines as a skilled military tactician when the school goes on a field trip to play paint ball. Then there’s Quinn, Daria's fashion-obsessed younger sister who tells her friends that Daria is a distant cousin. Like Brittany, she’s mostly distant or at odds with Daria, yet she shows some growth in the fifth season when Daria briefly takes over her English class. Another notable character is Jodi Landon, who lacked Daria's sarcasm but made up for it in being both smart AND active in the school community (student council president, president of French Club, etc...). An episode where the two girls talk about the pros and cons of their respective personalities is easily one of the most insightful, humbling moments in the entire show. And yet even the characters who remained the same, like the elitist, hilariously-voiced Fashion Club never grew stale, because the show's writers new exactly how each member of the Daria-verse fit in to the puzzle.

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 Jane Lane. Though I've already talked about the characters, I've saved Jane for last because she is one of the show's greatest strengths, and possibly even a better character than Daria herself. The fact that she actually has aspirations and is often shown working on pieces of art only add dimension to her, and keeps her from being Daria-lite. And while not as book smart as Daria, Jane is a more accessible, though often equally sarcastic, foil; she is the heart to Daria's brain.

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.

Grade: A

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Month in Review: May 2010

I'm not sure when it happened, but for a while now, I've only been reviewing or talking about films that I've seen in theaters, completely ignoring the number of films I've rented (recent and older). In order to keep more films in discussion, I'm starting a new (well, two) running posts, especially since Video of the Week has totally fallen by the wayside. The first, which I won't start doing until the end of this week, will simply cover everything I've seen outside of the theater for the week. The second, which will be detailed here, will basically be an end of the month wrap up, wherein I discuss my favorite movies on DVD and in the theater, and give monthly "best of" awards to my favorite films, performances, etc... The only real rule is that, like the Cannes Film Festival (as of last year), no film can win more than one award. Without further delay, I present the first installment of the Month in Review series:

Best Film (Theater): How to Train Your Dragon
Though it was released in late March, I didn't get around to seeing Dreamworks' latest until early May, which makes it eligible for consideration. Though at times overly simplistic or rushed in storytelling or characterization, the film was sweet, generally well told, and featured some of the best flying sequences I've ever seen, 3D or otherwise.

Runner(s) Up: Iron Man 2

Best Film (DVD/Rental): Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
If you were to ask people which "Once Upon a Time in..." film from Sergio Leone they prefer, it's difficult to say whether they'd vote for "America" or "the West"(1968). However, my vote easily goes to "America." In stepping away from his Spaghetti Western roots, Sergio Leone's final film is also his greatest. Even at a butt-numbing run time of 3 hrs and 45 minutes, it remains relentlessly engaging, bolstered by clearer story telling than "West," even as it occasionally jumps around in time. Though it can be grim and brutal, there are also moments of understated joy, whether it be when Noodles (Robert DeNiro) takes Deb (Elizabeth McGovern) on a date to a lavish seaside restaurant, or when a younger Noodles and his friends help recover sunken crates of booze from the Hudson River. Under Leone's direction, the moments are strangely touching and even a touch sentimental, but never to the point where it becomes syrupy. As with any Leone film, the production values are stunning, with the standout being Ennio Morricone's magical score. It is a staggering masterpiece on all accounts, and one of the best of 1984 (a year highlighted by films like Amadeus, A Passage to India, and Blood Simple).

Runner(s) Up: TIE Amarcord (1973) and The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Best Director: Federico Fellini for Amarcord (1973)
In Fellini's long line of Academy Award-winning films, few have approached the level of nostalgia found in Amarcord. Beautifully shot (notably, in color), and filled with moments of humor, sadness, and strangeness, the film's greatest accomplishment is that it fully accomplishes its goal: a slice-of-life portrayal of one year in the life of an Italian village. Where so many slice-of-life films limit their focus, and as a result feel empty and even pretentious, Fellini is wise enough to broaden the looking glass, and the result is a sprawling, engaging, and stunningly mounted look at people's lives, that is handled with grace.

Best Male Performance: Sam Riley as Ian Curtis in Control (2007)
Despite Curtis' odd movements (no doubt a result of his fight with epilepsy) during performances with Joy Division, Riley never makes them cartoonish or over-the-top. Riley's work is a promising breakthrough (as is the film for director Anton Corbijn), as well as a nicely restrained portrait of a man who struggled to understand the condition that would eventually lead to his death.

Runner Up: Ian Holm in The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Best Female Performance: Arta Dobroshi as Lorna in Lorna's Silence (2008)
While I'm not crazy about the Dardenne brothers' award-winning Cannes entry, the one aspect I can say I liked was its leading lady. In a rather bare-bones, limited perspective script that almost leaves too much to the imagination of the viewer, Dobroshi manages to hold her ground as a woman caught between her duty to a Russian mobster, and the junkie who she's been living in a sham marriage with. Her gaze, while not always openly expressive, does have a quiet way of making you wonder exactly what's going on in her head, especially as she begins to doubt her duties to the barely-seen mobster. In an otherwise iffy (albeit interesting) film, Dobroshi is the only one to make the slightest impact.

Runner Up: Yolande Moreau in Seraphine (2008)

Best Screenplay: Reprise (2008)
For a film about struggling writers (one of whom is somewhat suicidal), Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier's film is surprisingly alive. Though heavily influenced by French New Wave, Trier's heavy use of lengthy hypothetical situations is invigorating, and injects a vitality into a style of film making that can often leave people cold. That said, it's not much of an actor's piece, but the cast does a nice job, especially Viktoria Winge as Kari, the estranged girlfriend of Philip (Anders Danielsen-Lee). The quiet music, consisting mostly of ambient tones, adds a nice touch as well, especially during a hypnotic sequence involving Philip traveling to Kari's office. As a statement on the artistic/creative process, as well as one on the way success and failure can irrevocably shift relationships, Trier's debut is undoubtedly a winner.

Best Ensemble Cast: Roman De Gare (2008)
Though the circus-sized cast of Amarcord would seem like the obvious choice, I'm going with the roughly three-person trio at the center of Claude Lelouch's twisty Roman De Gare. The title is thought of as an expression for a "station novel" (a book you read casually on the train), and Lelouch's film perfectly captures that aesthetic. The film is twisty, turny, and though not entirely memorable, it is wholly engaging. This is in part due to the three intriguing characters, each of whom are much more than they seem. Fanny Ardant and Audrey Dana are there for glamor (the former upscale, the latter more "girl next door"), but it's Dominique Pinon who leads the way as the mysterious Pierre Laclos, who may or may not be an escaped serial killer...or something else entirely. In a film that could have easily gone off the rails (ha), Lelouch's three co-leads help hold this enjoyable Gallic thriller together.

Best Cameo Performance: Steve Buscemi in The Messenger (2009)
Though the film is built on the performances of Foster and Oscar-nominated Harrelson, the stand out is Steve Buscemi as a grieving father who can't contain his fury over the rehearsed, borderline academic method of notification officers. Buscemi is an actor who is usually used for his quirkiness factor, so seeing him tackle such heavy material is a welcome change, and a reminder of his considerable talent.