Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tomorrow: Venice turns 67 with help from Natalie and Darren

Tomorrow marks the kick off of the star-studded Venice Film Festival, the most prestigious festival behind Cannes. But unlike Cannes, Venice (and even more so, Toronto) can actually be a good launching point for Oscar hopefuls. A number of major contenders will be premiering in and out of competition, including Julie Taymor's The Tempest and Darren Aronofsky's festival opener Black Swan. 'Swan,' is one that I'm particularly excited for, especially after the incredible first trailer that premiered roughly two weeks ago. This is Aronofsky's record at Venice is 1-1. 2006's The Fountain received many mixed and negative reviews and was even booed by portions of the audience, while 2008's The Wrestler was widely praised and won the top prize, the Golden Lion. By tomorrow afternoon, given the time difference, we'll finally have an answer as to whether Aronofsky racks up another win or loss.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Best and Worst: The Emmys

Last night's Emmy Awards, under the hosting of Jimmy Fallon, actually turned out to be a relatively solid show (it actually came in at exactly 3 hours, which is pretty impressive). However, not everything worked, whether it was in the acting awards or in Fallon's hosting job. Here's a look at the 62nd Emmy Awards' best and worst moments, along with a handful of things that land somewhere in-between.


The Opening: What started as a Jimmy Fallon-meets-Glee bit quickly expanded to include the likes of Tiny Fey, Jane Lynch, and Jon Hamm (who may have missed his calling in physical/slapstick comedy). After the taped segment ended, the group rushed on stage live to deliver a fast-paced and very funny song and dance rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" (I'll add a video if it ever pops up online).

Ricky Gervais presenting (oh I wish I could find a picture, believe me): After a slightly rambling (and increasingly funny) intro and a fantastic line about Mel Gibson ("he's been through a lot. Not as much as the Jews..."), Gervais then became obsessed with one of the nominees for Directing for a Variety Series named Bucky Gunts. After several jokes, Gervais opened the envelope, only to throw up his arms and exclaim, "And the winner is...BUCKY GUNTS!"

Modern Family takes Best Comedy Series: The other, less talked about, hit freshman show of last year deservedly took home the award for its consistently hilarious first season. Though I hope the cast and crew are prepared to receive hundreds of angry letters about how they "suck and OMG GLEE SHOULA WON!!!"

Mad Men wins for the third consecutive year: I was slightly hoping for a Dexter upset here, but this is more than acceptable. My only fear now is that the show's winning streak will end next year, even though season 4 has thus far been consistently superior to season 3.

Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family) and Jane Lynch (Glee) take home the Supporting Actor/Actress - Comedy: The rightfully deserving duo (though as I've said before, both of these categories were stacked with deserving winners) made for a great surprise and an expected triumph respectively, delivering sweet, albeit rushed, thank-you's.

The pre-taped segment about "how to improve Modern Family": Just more proof as to why this is the best (comedic) ensemble on TV. Video to come if it can be found.

Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) wins Supporting Actor - Drama: Against formidable competition (especially the Lost boys), Paul won for what was probably his best work on the show, and seemed genuinely delighted (make that "ecstatic") and in awe of it all.

Dexter's Steve Shill wins for Best Directing (Drama): That the show won an award for its wrenching season finale is fitting, though it can't quite erase the sting of the fact that Michael C. Hall went home empty handed.

George Clooney's humanitarian award: No, he really doesn't need to be exalted any further in Hollywood, but he did give a lovely, grounded speech, so kudos.


Everything else in Jimmy Fallon's routine: The constant singing in the audience (which at one point involved a duet with Kim Kardashian...why!?) didn't take long to grow old.

Top Chef wins Best Reality Competition Program: Project Runway is never going to win this award, apparently. And what exactly makes Top Chef so great when you can never truly judge what the contestants have made? At least with something like "Runway" or American Idol you can see/hear the contestant's work, but no matter how well you know food, you'll never be able to taste whatever the TC contestants come up with, which seems pretty weak to me.

The Mad Men girls lose out: I haven't seen The Good Wife, in all fairness, but Moss and Hendricks were both so good last season, and isn't it about time that this show actually took home an Emmy for acting?

Al Pacino's acceptance speech: For all the ups and downs in his career, there's no denying that Pacino is one of the finest living actors. That said, whenever he gives a speech, he becomes a very fast cure for insomnia.

Anna Paquin: I wasn't aware that the matador look was in style this year...


Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) wins Best Actor (Drama) for the third consecutive year: I'm torn here, because while his work is certainly strong, I think it's high time that either Jon Hamm (Mad Men) or Michael C. Hall (Dexter), who were both at career highs in their most recent season, took this one home. Maybe that will finally happen next year, considering those rumors that Breaking Bad's 4th season might be coming back too late to be eligible for the 2011 ceremony...

The order of presentation: While keeping the awards (save for best series) clumped together by category (comedy, reality, drama, miniseries/TV movie) kept the show from feeling scattershot, once the comedy awards were over (they were first) the show started to get a little sluggish.

John Hodgman's commentary: Though he would usually throw in something funny/false in about the most recently announced winner, Hodgman was often rushed and inaudible, rendering his quips useless (to be fair though, there were a few great lines in there).

Mad Men wins the wrong award: Congratulations to Matt Weiner and crew for picking up a writing award. It's just a shame that it was for the wrong episode ("Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency..." is one of the series' all-time best).

30 Rock leaves empty-handed: I hope no one had a rage stroke...

The Daily Show wins...again: I'm stunned that of the two men in the audience likely to benefit from sympathy (Michael C. Hall and Conan), that O'Brien didn't take this one. And for that matter, is The Colbert Report ever going to win this? It's not that Jon Stewart's show can't be funny and/or insightful, but he's not exactly miles ahead of his competition; this is one Emmy winning-streak that really needs to end.

The speeches: Amidst the gushy, boring, and sincere acceptance speeches, none of them really sparked with wit, charm, or humor, (and there's usually one a year, if not more).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Chasing Emmy: Predicting the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards

The Globes, Grammys, Oscars, and Tonys were all months ago, and yet now, at the end of August, the Emmys, the odd man out of awards shows, is finally upon us. I agree with those writer who have pegged the 2000s as a new Golden Age of Television, and despite some terrible snubs from the 09-10 TV season, the Emmy voters made some terrific choices this year. Here's hoping tonight's winners measure up. One thing before we get started: it's easy to forget, but even when it comes to series or performances, the shows usually only submit one or two episodes for consideration, which can sometimes affect a nominee's chances (I've heard that Modern Family's producers made a poor choice for Sofia Vergara, submitting an episode where she does practically nothing). I haven't been able to find a list of submitted episodes (yet), so these predictions are based more on my knowledge and feelings towards the shows and performances as a whole, not on an episode-specific basis.

Outstanding Comedy Series:
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Modern Family
Nurse Jackie
The Office
30 Rock

Will Win: Glee or Modern Family.
Though 30Rock is still the funniest show on TV when it hits its mark, season 4 took longer than usual to find its groove, and people noticed. Expect the comedy champion's (it has won for its first three seasons) reign to finally end. The question is, what will take its place? Modern Family is more consistently funny and balances its ensemble better, but Glee really has been the "it" show of the season.

Should Win: Modern Family.
Right from the pilot episode, it's been funny, consistent, and known how to use every member of its ensemble to perfection. Some shows take a half season or a full season to really find their groove; Modern Family founds its immediately, with brilliant and hilarious results.

Outstanding Drama Series:
Breaking Bad
The Good Wife
Mad Men
True Blood

Will Win: Mad Men.
Unlike 30Rock, Mad Men still has a strong shot at keeping its winning streak going (let's hope it doesn't end next year though; season 4 has been amazing so far).

Should Win: Dexter.
As much as it pains me to say it, I'm not sure if season 3 was the best year for Don Draper and crew (though season 3 did have one of the best episodes in the show's history: "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency..."); at times it was almost too slow. Season 4 of Showtime's vigilante serial-killer Dexter Morgan, on the other hand, delivered some of the show's strongest moments by far, both in terms of acting (Hall, Carpenter, Lithgow), writing, and story-telling (the Trinity Killer case).

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series:
Alec Baldwin - 30Rock
Steve Carell - The Office
Larry David - Curb Your Enthusiasm
Matthew Morrison - Glee
Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory
Tony Shalhoub - Monk

Will Win: Tony Shalhoub.
I'm just glad that this show is finally over. I have nothing against Tony Shaloub, but the same cannot be said for Monk or his performance on the show.

Should Win: Alec Baldwin.
Can he win for the fourth year in a row? It's doubtful, but as part of the pair that holds 30Rock together, he's still fantastic on the show.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series:
Kyle Chandler - Friday Night Lights
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad
Matthew Fox - Lost
Michael C. Hall - Dexter
Jon Hamm - Mad Men
Hugh Laurie - House

Will Win: Michael C. Hall or Jon Hamm.
Both have yet to win an Emmy for their acclaimed performances, and this could finally be the year one of them takes home a statue. Between the two, I have a feeling the Emmy voters will pick Hall over the more understated Hamm, but that's far from a bad thing; both are excellent performances.

Should Win: Michael C. Hall.
He's made a serial killer likable and fascinating over and over again, without ever once delving into the obnoxiousness that pervades the character in the source novels.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series:
Toni Collette - United States of Tara
Edie Falco - Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey - 30Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss - The New Adventures of Old Christine
Lea Michele - Glee
Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation

Will Win: Edie Falco.
The show has received pretty solid support, though the one thing that could lessen her chances: Nurse Jackie is more of a drama with some comedy in it, not the other way around...will the voters notice, or will they only use that as a reason to vote for her?

Should Win: Tina Fey or Amy Poehler.
Two very funny women on two very funny shows. Fey in particular had a great, and she seems to blossom (as an actress) a little more with each passing season.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series:
Connie Briton - Friday Night Lights
Glenn Close - Damages
Mariska Hargitay - Law and Order: SVU
January Jones - Mad Men
Julianna Margulies - The Good Wife
Kyra Sedgwick - The Closer

Will Win: Julianna Margulies.
She's practically had this in the bad since the Golden Globes; the show and the role have been a huge comeback for her and people have taken notice.

Should Win: The only one I've seen consistently is Jones, and while she's perfect for Betty Draper, she's extremely limited as an actress (I'm still trying to forget that SNL episode).

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series:
Ty Burrell - Modern Family
Chris Colfer - Glee
Jon Cryer - Two and a Half Men
Jesse Tyler Ferguson - Modern Family
Neil Patrick Harris - How I Met Your Mother
Eric Stonestreet - Modern Family

Will Win: Neil Patrick Harris.
He already has an Emmy this year (for his guest stint on Glee) but Harris has yet to win for HIMYM. The men of Modern Family will likely split votes among themselves, I don't really see Glee winning BOTH of the supporting categories, and Jon Cryer already has an undeserved Emmy from last year.

Should Win: This is a tough one. The MF guys are all great in their roles, but then again, but I'm going to have to go with Burrell for being such a hilarious doofus desperate to be a "cool dad".

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series:
Andre Braugher - Men of a Certain Age
Michael Emerson - Lost
Terry O'Quinn - Lost
Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad
Martin Short - Damages
John Slattery - Mad Men

Will Win: Terry O'Quinn.
Lost's final season isn't leaving empty handed, and this is its strongest bet.

Should Win: Aaron Paul.
At times extremely unlikeable (though the same can be said of everyone on Breaking Bad), season 3 was Paul's best yet as Cranston's partner in crime. Those last few episodes were award-worthy on their own.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series:
Julie Bowen - Modern Family
Jane Krakowski - 30Rock
Jane Lynch - Glee
Holland Taylor - Two and a Half Men
Sofia Vergara - Modern Family
Kristen Wiig - Saturday Night Live

Will Win: Jane Lynch.
The easiest category to pick for tonight's show, Lynch's Sue Sylvester has been a sensation since's Glee's beginning. Throw in a handful of touching scenes involving Sue and her mentally handicapped sister, and the award is all but locked up.

Should Win: Any of them.
No seriously, any of them, with the exception of perhaps Taylor. This is an absolutely incredible line-up and any one of these ladies would be incredibly worthy winners.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series:
Christine Baranski - The Good Wife
Rose Byrne - Damages
Sharon Gless - Burn Notice
Christina Hendricks - Mad Men
Elisabeth Moss - Mad Men
Archie Panjabi - The Good Wife

Will Win: Elisabeth Moss.
She's been nominated before (in lead), and I don't think any of the others have enough buzz or support, whereas Moss was praised from early on.

Should Win: Christina Hendricks.
She's made Joan Holloway something of an icon (and not just for her figure), and taken a role that could have been a complete throwaway and made her an interesting role. While Moss's Peggy somewhat retreated in season 3, Joan stepped up to the plate on more than one occasion, and Hendricks deserves to be rewarded for it.

For the remainder of the nominees, jump on over to IMDb. The show starts at 7 pm (Central Time) on NBC; happy Emmy viewing, everyone!

"The Town" gets off to a good start

For those of you wondering whether Ben Affleck's second stab at directing would either be a disappointment or, worse, prove that Gone Baby Gone was a fluke, TotalFilm's Jamie Graham begs to differ. In his 4 star review, Graham has few negative things to say, to the point where he barely bothers to elaborate on them. He gives particularly strong praise to the cast (without pointing fingers at a weak link), especially Affleck, Renner, Hall, and even Gossip Girl's Blake Lively. The sections of the review that most caught my eye, though, were these:
Gravel-toned, pragmatic, it’s the voice of Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), the brains of the brawny crew who hit a bank. The commentary won’t appear again until the closing scenes. It doesn’t need to, its job is done: we’re 20 seconds into Affleck’s sophomore directing effort and we already know this is a hardboiled crime drama, a modern-day noir. And while The Town glories in genre tropes it also dumps any overt stylings or clipped, staccato dialogue, instead keeping the action alive and lithe. Keeping it real. The plot is conventional, clich├ęd even, MacRay trying to find that one last job, get out, “put this whole fuckin’ town in my rear-view mirror.” No one will let him.

Obviously, this is a great first "official" review for the film as both its theatrical and festival premieres approach. Gone Baby Gone received plenty of praise, but only managed a nomination for Amy Ryan, so if this allegedly conventional-yet-really-well-done film takes off, Affleck could have a major Oscar contender on his hands in everything from Picture, Director, and the acting categories, down to sound design. Obviously it's still too early to make hardcore "I'll-bet-my-house-it'll happen" Oscar predictions, but if other critics follow suit, you might want to start bumping The Town up a few notches on your list of contenders.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Animal Kingdom" - REVIEW

Somewhere in the second half of David Michod's Animal Kingdom, Janine "Grandma Smurf" Cody (Jacki Weaver) tells dirty cop Randall Roche (Justin Rosniak), "You've done some baaaad thing, sweetie. 'Aven't ya?" What we know about Roche isn't all clear: we know he's helped the Cody family in their criminal exploits, but are there other, even more sinister things he's done? Were those actions just done out of malice or was there justification? We don't know, as is the case with most of the film. This trait, while initially frustrating (especially if you've been misled into thinking that this is the sort of crime drama filled with raids and shoot-outs), in the end works in Animal Kingdom's favor, to create a top shelf slice of Australian cinema (all the more impressive that it's a debut).

As is opens, perpetually sullen teen 'J' Cody (James Frecheville) has just witnessed his mother die from a heroine overdose. Unsure of what to do, he calls and is shortly taken in by Grandma Smurf, the family matriarch. She lives with (or at least spends a lot of time with) her four sons: family man Barry (Joel Edgerton), mama's boy Darren (Luke Ford), increasingly unhinged Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), and creepy eldest son Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn). When it seems like this is going to go down the typical cops vs. robbers story arc, Michod throws a curve-ball: the first act of violence that we see comes out of nowhere, calling into question which side is really more corrupt. Michod's use of violence is sparse and lasts but a few seconds, more akin to A Prophet than Inglourious Basterds, and each time it sends a jolt through your system. And, like a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, its those brief little jolts of violence that move the plot along towards a finale that's bound to end badly.
Throughout it all, Michod and crew guide the film along with steady (occasionally too steady) pacing. This is a slow-burner of a film all the way through, though there are a few moments that let the flame die out completely due to pacing. Some of this, however, is countered by Antony Partos' ambient music, which keeps pace with the editing, and helps maintain your attention. Like the actual animal kingdom that populates our world, sometimes its those all-but-silent moments, those uneventful bits of calm before the flashes of violence, that are the most compelling. Still, Michod's screenplay keeps you on edge, never divulging more than it has to (and sometimes less than that) in order to keep the story together without playing all of its cards too soon.

The other big highlight (with one exception) is the cast, who have their parts nailed. Mendelsohn is perfectly, unnervingly eerie as the strange ring-leader Andy, and Guy Pearce as Det. Leckie provides a solid turn as a good man working for a police force tainted by corruption (for god's sake, will someone give this man some more lead roles soon?). But in what is otherwise a boy's game, the winner is Weaver's Janine. With a Brenda Blethyn-esque voice, Weaver effortlessly navigates between her character's ambiguities towards her sons and her grandson. The result is a bizarre, unsettling, almost kitten-ish form of concealed malice that really comes through in the film's superior second half. The only weak link is Frecheville. While the character is supposed to be something of a fish out of water, Frecheville comes dangerously close to being a black hole for the film, instead of a compelling center. In some ways it works in the plot's favor, but I can't help but think that someone with more expressive features could have turned scene after scene of downcast, blank staring into a more effective performance.

But by the time Animal Kingdom burns through to its conclusion, even Frecheville's performance seems like a minor complaint. This is skilled film making that (thankfully) manages to avoid taking sides. Both cops and robbers have their singular "good guys" (Leckie and J, respectively), but everyone else is left up to the audience. The Codys are criminals, yes, but how can we know for sure that the cops and justice system aren't just as corrupt? Sometimes, when films leave you talking, it's actually not a good thing; you unearth things that either didn't make sense or didn't satisfy emotionally or narratively. Animal Kingdom, thankfully, is quite the opposite. Discussion simply reveals seemingly out-of-the-blue events to have a genuine purpose, all in the context of a story that never goes exactly where you think it's going to.

Grade: B+/A-

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Trailer for Danny Boyle's "127 Hours"

Why hello there, all but assured Best Cinematography nomination.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Get Low" - REVIEW

Somewhere in the first, more jovial half of Aaron Schneider's Get Low, Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) is asked by a radio interviewer, "How are you, sir?" to which Bush responds, "...I am." A similar answer is what best sums up this interesting but unremarkable film. Were someone to ask me directly "So how is Get Low?" I would simply pause and say, "...it is." Schneider's film, about an old hermit who wants to have a (live) funeral party so that people can tell stories about him has an interesting premise, and carries itself well for most of the ride. Duvall leads a cast of good and solid performances (save for Bill Murray, who sputters out into laziness two thirds of the way through), but neither he nor his co-stars (even Sissy Spacek) can make the film rise above its ordinary execution. Characters are put front and center here, but they aren't given a terrible amount of depth, especially Lucas Black's funeral parlor worker, who has a more prominent role than I expected.

Still, to the film's credit, its pacing is generally efficient and it never descends into territory such that it becomes bad; it settles into the category of a mildly pleasant diversion (with a few good laughs) and never strives to be anything else. The only hiccup is the ending, which feels strangely unsatisfying considering the build up. Upon further reflection, there's no reason for Felix to have his funeral party for a larger crowd of people, unless it's supposed to show us that he's eccentric. But Schneider and his writers never give us much insight into the other facets of the aging hermit; the entire film is built around Bush's confrontation with his past and his inability to communicate it in a normal way. I could make some snide remark about how the film "should have stayed six feet under," but that would be beyond overkill. This isn't offensive or poor film making/writing. It's just, to beat a rapidly dying horse, extremely ordinary and unworthy of any sort of acclaim, save for (just maaaaaaaybe) its lead performance.

Grade: C/C+

Friday, August 20, 2010

Back to square one, and I'm done.

I'm starting not to care anymore, because I feel that the more I talk/post about it, the longer the wait is going to feel. Another day? Well, it's time for another Tree of Life release update. Thompson on Hollywood posted an article regarding the elusive Terrence Malick's latest - and very mysterious - project. Two parts of the article here caught my eye:
Word is, Malick has not finished cutting the movie down from three to two and a half hours. (Back at the University of Texas at Austin, he lets film students take a crack at editing various scenes.) The film was submitted to the MPAA and received a PG-13 rating.

It’s a mystical exploration of the meaning of life, a journey in which a microcosm of a family mirrors the world; the differences between man and woman, husband and wife, are mirrored against nature and grace. It will change the language of movies. It’s a real event. People will say, ‘what the fuck is this?’”
On the first; well, now I wish I'd gone to UT for film school. The notorious recluse is letting students play around with his footage? That's just all sorts of awesome, and seems totally out of character. The second brings me to a much different point. If this film sees the light of day by the end of 2010, I think it might officially be time to take this one down a few pegs (if not completely off) on major Oscar predictions. While I expect the film to go over well with critics and cinephiles, I'm not sure if I see the Academy embracing something so ambitious. Remember, Malick's biggest (and only) date with Oscar was for The Thin Red Line, which despite its meditative nature, was still a war movie, a genre that tends to go over well with AMPAS. Regardless, the film is still one of my most anticipated, but for now, unless an official release date (ie: with a specific month and day) or festival debut date comes out, consider this the start of a moratorium on Tree of Life talk.

International trailer for "Another Year"

As I've mentioned before, Mike Leigh and I have a spotty track record. While I usually love the performances in his movies, his decision to give his actors (lots of) room to improvise tends to leave me underwhelmed, as was the cast with Happy-Go-Lucky. So while this appears to be (as indicated by this trailer and the Cannes reviews) another slice-of-life type film, I'm hoping that it will have more of the character engagement that made me like Secrets and Lies so much.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A musical breakthrough: How to make Justin Bieber sound good [Fake, but still cool]

J. BIEBZ - U SMILE 800% SLOWER by Shamantis

To see who [faked] it and how (and hear the song in normal speed), click HERE. Photon Wave Orchestra, by implication of course, is making epic tracks like these all on their own. You can all resume your typical Bieber-hatred and go about your day now.

It's not even funny anymore...

Like most of the news regarding the release of Tree of Life, this isn't set in stone, but it's still disheartening. After a 2010 release seemed like nearly a sure thing, Apparition - the film's distributor - landed in financial trouble. This would have been fine, but according to this new article, Malick still may not be finished tinkering. So either those rumors about him being "97% done" from April were false, or the notoriously detailed director to going through his film with a comb for the one hundredth time. Has the man never heard of a "director's cut DVD?" Look, as someone who wants to be either a director or producer, I understand that when you have the time to really make a film as you want to make it, you want to do your absolute very best. At the same time, if Malick wants to go over his film until it's absolutely perfect, I doubt he'll ever be totally satisfied. Maybe it's time to stop trying find little things that need fixing, and leave that duty up to the audience. Given Malick's limited but devoted fan-base, something tells me that whatever criticisms people have will come paired with heaps of praise as well.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Fair Game" trailer

The film, modeled on the Valerie Plame story, received mixed reviews at Cannes, and this trailer isn't doing much to make me more interested. At the same time, I'm a sucker for whistle-blower stories (I looooooooooooove The Insider) and Watts and Penn (who co-starred with each other in 21 Grams) are pretty reliable performers. But Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) is more of an action director, and without action being the forefront (the explosions are all background noise), I'm curious to see whether he can pull off such a recent, hot-topic political drama.

"The Expendables" - REVIEW

Large, name-filled ensembles seem to be all of the rage these days, in genres ranging from musicals to dramas. Apparently, Sylvester Stallone caught onto this trend, and felt the need for a fully-locked-and-loaded action ensemble, and thus, we're given The Expendables, Stallone's gathering of almost every major action star from the 80s and 90s (and Jason Statham from the 00s). What could have been a lazy, embarrassing affair for the aging gang of action bad-asses, turns out to be a thoroughly enjoyable flick that delivers exactly what it promises, and does it in spades.

The film opens on the titular crew rescuing a group of employees from...a company, from a group of Somali pirates (10 points for being topical!). After Gunner (Dolph Lundgren) comes too close to breaking the group's rules about killing, the team splinters and awaits their next job. That comes in the form of a meeting with Mr. Church (Bruce Willis), who won't reveal who/what he works for. All he tells Barney (Stallone) is that he wants him to help take out a deranged general (Dexter's David Zayas) on the totally-not-made-up-loljk island of Vilena. From there, Barney and right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham) fly to Vilena to investigate, only to discover that they could also be up against an American presence, led by James Munroe (Eric Roberts).

And yet, for all of the potential for this to turn into a cheesy action flick, Stallone's film (which he co-wrote and directed) works because it never strives to be something more. The plot is set up efficiently, albeit with a few detours (Statham's awkward love life, Mickey Rourke's SAD SAD story), and only clocks in at a little over 90 minutes. And when people aren't talking or traveling, they're fighting, and even though some of the fights become slightly standard, they're just plain old-school fun. In bringing together so many action stars, Stallone was smart enough to give them enough variety of skill, meaning that combat is more than just a lot of shots of people shooting guns. Statham in particular is a blast to watch as he maneuvers through scenes that seamlessly balance gun play and knives. Then there's Terry Crews, who, along with Randy Couture, is kept in the back for the first half, but gets to shine with the most ridiculously destructive shot gun to grace the screen in some time (he also has a Sweeney Todd-esque razor...yup). With the exception of some pointless shots of Crews running in slow motion down a dark hallway, Stallone makes good use of low frame rate to give the fight choreography/photography a little extra zip. And I have to admit, I kind of wanted to clap when the camera flipped to first person and followed Barney's view as he fell to the ground, landed on his back, and took out a soldier with a shot to the leg.

As far as performances go, there's nothing worth mentioning. Everyone plays their respective notes to a tee, and the personalities, particularly among the Expendables, mesh well. Only a few of the big names aren't really utilized to their action potential: Willis (one scene), Rourke, and the governator himself, who enters a church with so much white light behind him that I expected him to start healing the sick and raising the dead. And for a reunion of action stars from the 80s and 90s, the film is thankfully free of overtly cheesy one-liners. The humor may not fire on all cylinders, but I'll take it over something out of Commando any day (sorry Ahnuld). And even though some of its plot details might not fully add up at the end, it's almost hard to fault the movie for its simplicity. It may not be "smart," but for lean, mean, BS-free action entertainment, The Expendables is well worth the time. And, like Nimrod Antal's Predator sequel, it actually makes me long for a bigger, better, more insane follow-up.

Grade: ???

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Black Swan" trailer

Well, in short, this looks...DAMN. Portman is one of those actresses who rarely grabs me, but this could be a really stunning turn for her. The whole thing looks like one dark, hypnotic, creepy fever dream. And that final shot, of Portman pulling out a small feather from her skin, makes me wonder how off-the-walls crazy Aronofsky has gone with his latest project. The film will open the Venice Film Festival, but let's hope that it will earn a reviews more like those given to The Wrestler than The Fountain.

"Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it."

That's just one of the better dead-pan lines in Edgar Wright's latest, which opened this past Friday. While it's not as strong as Wright's previous film (2007's Hot Fuzz), this is perhaps the best pseudo-parody of video games ever put on film. Even when it feels like a video game, it's not in a way that detracts. As usual, the edits are efficient and keep you on edge. The ensemble in particular are wonderful. Michael Cera is more or less playing the same role he plays everywhere else, only this time with a (smidge) more confidence. More fun are Kieran Culkin (as his gay room mate), Allison Pill (his former girl friend and current band mate), Aubrey Plaza (as foul mouthed Julie), and Anna Kendrick (as Scott's sister). But really, the star of the film is its screenplay and Wright and co.'s realization of it on screen. Dozens of tiny flourishes fuse the world of comic books, video games, and films together without so much as a bump in the road: sounds appear as words, music from The Legend of Zelda and Mario are used as musical cues, and people turn into coins when defeated. The only hindrance is perhaps the source material itself; if Wright had come up with this story and universe on his own, odds are it would have been even more dizzyingly satisfying. Wright does a solid job of incorporating visual effects into action sequences (a big change for him), save for a literal battle of the bands that ends with a giant attacking a pair of dragons. All in all, it's a funny, engaging film with good work from its young, talented cast. It may lack the fuller sense of satisfaction of Wright's previous two efforts, but its still one of the few films to really stand out in an underwhelming summer. One running event in the film is Scott's participation in a video game, that asks after defeat: "Continue?" as numbers count down. Were Scott Pilgrim vs. the World actually a video a game, I would eagerly answer, "Yes."

Grade: B

Lisbeth Salander, meet...Lisbeth Salander

It's too big to ignore now. Stieg Larrson's "Millennium Trilogy" has exploded across America after becoming a sensation in Sweden (and the rest of Europe). As such, the much-followed American remake/re-adaptation (courtesy of Se7en and Fight Club director David Fincher) has been reported on to death with one question in mind: who will play Lisbeth Salander? Well, after rumors ranging from Carey Mulligan (huh?) to Ellen Page,

Fincher has at last picked his leading lady from a group of unknowns. The winner? Rooney Mara, sister of Kate (Heath Ledger's daughter in Brokeback Mountain).

While I wish Noomi Rapace (of the thus-far uneven Swedish films) had reprised the role, that's not going to happen. Still, of the group chosen to audition for Fincher (in full costume/make-up, no less), Rooney was one who caught my eye; she seems to have to right facial structure to pull of the somewhat androgynous punk-hacker. Of course, having a role in Fincher's upcoming The Social Network probably didn't hurt either. The film also stars Daniel Craig as journalist Mikael Blomqvist (who should be leagues better than the terrible Mikael Nyqvist) and Robin Wright as Blomqvist's co-worker and lover Erika Berger. It's due to be released next year (originally it was set for 2012), which means that even though the Swedish version of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is due in October, it won't be long before Salander-mania makes it back to the States. Here's hoping for the best; the films haven't done too much justice to the books (which aren't that great to begin with), so I'm hoping that Fincher will bring a much needed sense of energy to the story.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Epic first poster for Julie Taymor's "The Tempest"

I know it sounds silly to say that a poster has "energy" to it, but I really like the feeling that this poster gives off. I'm pretty enamored with Taymor's previous big screen treatment of the Bard (Titus), so here's hope that she brings the same sense of controlled chaos to her creativity. As a play, "The Tempest" is one of Shakespeare's fastest plays in terms of the time it covers (several hours at most). So while I don't expect the film to unfold in some sort of 24-esque real time, I'd love it if the film's editing contains as much fire as the poster. The ensemble is terrific (despite Geoffrey Rush and Jeremy Irons' departures from the cast), led by the generally reliable Helen Mirren. Mirren is just about everywhere this year on screen, so here's hoping that this is one of the projects that sticks when it arrives in theaters this December.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

"The Other Guys" - REVIEW

Will Ferrell has made a career out of playing idiots in films that spoofed film genres or professions. When this trend has clicked, it's been enjoyably stupid, and gut-bustingly funny (Anchorman). When it hasn't it's been painful (Semi-Pro). Farrell's latest comedy, The Other Guys, a send-up of buddy cop movies, unfortunately falls into the latter camp. While not without its funny moments, The Other Guys suffers from horrendous pacing and timing, along with a total misfire of a performance from one of its stars.

Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play Alan Gamble and Terry Hoitz, two NYPD officers who are stuck doing grunt work while the rest of the force, namely two star officers (Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson), grab the rest of the glory. After Johnson and Jackson's characters are killed by falling flatter than most of the movie, Terry senses an opportunity to grab some glory for himself. Yet Alan seems to have no interest, and prefers to stay behind his desk. I could spoil the rest of the plot, but I'd suck out what little interest the plot holds. Suffice it to say that deciding to place the villainy in the world of finance and stocks is beyond terrible, and results in a total waste of Steve Coogan as an irresponsible executive. The script also misuses Michael Keaton as the officers' captain. And speaking of a waste, Mark Wahlberg totally misses the mark as Hoitz, supposed to be the "straight role" with a few hidden loose screws. His performance suggests that, like his guest appearance on Saturday Night Live, that Wahlberg should avoid this sort of goofy comedy. Ferrell, surprisingly, is the only one who completely sells his character's oddity and idiocy, in a performance that feels tame and controlled compared to his other recent work. Wahlberg, however, seems thoroughly uncomfortable in his role, and some scenes feel too self-serious to really make the jokes work. Not that a better performance would have helped too much to begin with. The film'e editing seems driven to undercut the timing of jokes at any cost. That's not to say that I didn't laugh, but the laughs were hollow at best.

There's also the notable absence of music throughout most of the scenes, which only adds to the general sense of lethargy. When there is music, it feels tacked on, especially the use of the Black Eyes Peas' "Imma Bee" in a still-life shot of the two officers getting drunk. But what perhaps defines everything wrong with The Other Guys can be found in the end credits. Filled with facts about large salaries given to CEO's, and the disparity between the pay of executives and average employees, the film seems to suggest that it was something with a statement to make. Such information would be appropriate in material like say, Soderbergh's The Informant!, (although the subject matter doesn't match up), but to place it at the end of something as empty and dull as The Other Guys, feels like a tasteless plea for legitimacy. And for a film that's supposed to be a parody, there's just something that doesn't sit right. Here's hoping that the film stays as unrecognized as its protagonists in its first half.

Grade: C-

Friday, August 6, 2010

"Salt" - REVIEW

Salt, the latest action-thriller headliner for Angelina Jolie, might best be compared to a high stakes race: after brief set-up, it's basically GO GO GO with the only stops being those that are required. In Phillip Noyce's (Rabbit Proof Fence) political-thriller, Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who is accused, by a Russian defector, of actually being a Russian plant whose plan is to kill the Russian president at the funeral of America's Vice President. Salt may not have the dark intricacies of The Dark Knight or the memorable characters of Pirates of the Caribbean or Iron Man, but it fits comfortably into that third tier of big-budget entertainment: wholly enjoyable, slightly silly fun that doesn't leave a lasting impression.

After an opening straight out of Die Another Day (did they use the same bridge?), Salt returns home to resume work at the CIA. After the accusation, in which the defector tells of a the K.A. Program designed to plant agents (sometimes for decades) to be activated to take out targets of the Russian government) she flees, which leads to a conflict of interests. Her co-worker (Liev Schreiber) tries to stay optimistic, never caving in to the idea that she could be a Russian plant, while a Homeland Security official (Chiwetal Ejiofor) seems more inclined to immediately proclaim her guilty. But after the set up, the movie pretty much becomes "See Angelina Run and Jump," and surprisingly, that's not a bad thing. Though the chases aren't necessarily inventive in their staging or choreography (kudos though, for finding the most out there way to incorporate a church organ into an action scene). All in all, it's relatively routine stuff, but the script keeps the film lean, without too many characters or subplots mucking up the works. Salt is all forward momentum, and it manages to be convincing enough even as the plot's magnitude expands by a factor of 100 halfway through, and feels like a mix between a 70s paranoia thriller and the most overblown of James Bond films.

As far as performances go, like the film, they're competent, engaging, and tough, though not terribly nuanced (not that they really need to be...). Jolie once again confirms my belief that she's best suited to these sorts of roles, and I think we should all be glad that Tom Cruise dropped out of the role. Jolie has the looks and personality to keep you guessing along with the constant revelations, whereas someone like Cruise would simply smile and we'd guess which side he's on. But really, out of everyone, perhaps the best thing about the movie isn't within the movie itself. It's actually the marketing for the film, which, as best as I remember, doesn't show as much as a second of footage from the film's second half, where the scale is upped almost constantly. After a scene in a crypt reached its climax, my friend turned to me and asked, "wait...so it's over already?" Oh no, far from it. Salt is, through and through, extremely ordinary, but it's ordinary action film making done with enough competence, and so refreshingly lacking in clutter, that it's hard to ding it for too much. It won't break your heart like Toy Story 3, and it won't warp your mind like Inception, but it will keep you entertained and engaged. And regardless of what your thoughts on this summer have been (as far as mainstream film are concerned), it's hard to deny that you'll have enough fun spending 100 minutes asking the question, "Who is Salt?"

Grade: C+

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Agora" - REVIEW (short version)

This is a weird one. While on one hand, I was never bored for a second, it does sort of struggle to balance whether it wants to be a broad, sweeping historical epic about religious clashes, or focus more strictly on Hypatia. Granted, you can't tell Hypatia's story without looking at the events around her, but the script seemed to wander in focus. Judging by her work in this film with seemingly split intentions, Weisz probably would have knocked it out of the park had the religious conflicts been kept further in the background, with the story centered firmly on Hypatia. That said, the production values are pretty fantastic (I never felt like Amenabar's film was confined to a set, even with the CGI-enhanced wide shots), the cast members are perfectly competent in their roles, and it's certainly engaging. But by the time it reaches its end, regardless of whatever may have been exaggerated/made-up/etc, it just can't seem to cross that line between "solid entertainment" and "great entertainment."

P.S.: This has to earn some sort of award for the strangest edit of the year. We go from people yelling, "JESUS was a Jew! JE-SUS was a Jew!" to...
Grade: B-

The "Burlesque" trailer is here...

And I still have no idea what to make of this movie. The next Cabaret? The next Showgirls? The next Glitter? While it looks goooooooorgeous (if I hadn't known anything about the film, I would have guessed that Nine and Chicago DP Dion Beebe was the cinematographer here), some of the set-ups and dialogue look a little weak, especially that "Alice in Wonderland" joke at the end. But the most unsettling part from what little can be determined from the trailer, is that apparently the showrunners felt the need to simply let Christina Aguilera use her voice for over-extended "WHHHHHAAAOOOOOAOAOAOAOAOAAAAOOOOOOOAAAAA's" instead of doing some more, er, singing. Burlesque hits theaters in November, so we still have some months to go before we find out what sort of masterpiece/trainwreck it really is...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"The Girl Who Played With Fire" - REVIEW

The second installment in a trilogy is usually hampered by its own position, as it's forced with introducing new characters and plot elements, without being able to fully resolve them. Granted, there are notable exceptions (The Empire Strikes Back), but as a rule of thumb, the second chapter is usually guaranteed to leave one less than satisfied at its conclusion. Surprisingly, this isn't entirely the case with Stieg Larrson's "Millennium" trilogy. The second book, "The Girl Who Played With Fire," despite ending on a cliffhanger, resolves enough of its own storyline before its cliffhanger to be a relatively satisfying middle installment that doesn't feel like it's all just...middle. Unfortunately, in the attempt to get Larrson's trilogy out into theaters, the trilogy's image takes a hit with the film version of the second novel, despite a few small improvements over the first.

When we last left Michael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), they had just wrapped up a 40 year old mystery and gone their separate ways. In the year or more between Dragon Tattoo and Fire, they haven't spoken, and Lisbeth is only recently making her reappearance in Sweden. This coincides with Blomqvist's magazine "Millennium" decision to publish a massive expose on sex trafficking and violators in police and government positions. It's in these early stages of the plot that I was given false hope by director Daniel Alfredson and screenwriter Jonas Frykberg. To back track, one of my issues with the novels is that Larrson seems to spend unnecessary amounts of time in ordinary events before slowly lurching into the main plot, and then hurrying lots of action up until the end (this problem transfered over to the first film). With that said, I was glad to see that Frykberg dispensed with the lengthy set-up of Salander vacationing in the Caribbean (the film starts with her leaving), and that early on Rapace is given scenes that allow her to express a wider variety of emotions, albeit under the character's steely front. Cinematographer Peter Mokrosinki kept the camera moving more often, leaving the scenes feeling less static than the first go-round, at least initially.

The problems really start as the film moves into its main plot, which involves Salander being framed for triple homicide. Frykberg and Alfredson make a huge error not by nature of speeding up the story, but in how the story is condensed. The subplot involving boxer Paolo Roberto, already a bit odd in the novel, is so rushed on screen that what little impact it had on page evaporates on screen in a limply shot fight scene in a hidden shack(as does the tension for most of the action). Scenes with Blomqvist at the "Millennium" offices feel unnecessary, and the decision to limit Blomqvist and Salander's on-screen exchanges (via computer messages and hacking) to um, one, makes Blomqvist seem almost like a non-entity. That he's played so flatly by Nyqvist (who has an embarrassingly amateurish "ducking" scene at the end) makes you question why women are so attracted to him at all. Rapace fares better, if only because it seems like she's actually trying to improve upon what she's given, but that doesn't stop the film from mishandling the character, filming her quiet moments from a distance and without juxtaposition so as to make her seem vacant rather than pensive.

And as the film progresses, poorly juggling the balance among Salander's quest, Blomqvist's personal investigation, and the police investigation (which is really given the shaft), it becomes somewhat tedious, instead of more interesting. The stakes are being upped constantly, but there's no impact, especially in the revelations of information about the mysterious character "Zala." And by the time it limps through its conclusion, instead of leaving you enthralled and eagerly awaiting the final film (due in October), Alfredson and crew will most likely just leave you bored and disappointed, for they've sucked out most of the fire out of Larrson's work in what feels like a cheap cash-in, instead of a proper adaptation.

Grade: C

Monday, August 2, 2010

Watch the "Catfish" trailer...if you dare

No, it's not a horror film...I don't think. According to some who have seen this festival hit, it's best to have seen next to nothing about it. Call me a wuss, but when the tone of this preview started to shift, I fast-forwarded through the rest of it. Maybe I missed something in that 25 or 30 seconds that I skipped over, but I still have no idea what on earth is going on with this pseudo documentary, but I'm dying to know the big secret.

"The Kids Are All Right" - REVIEW

I'm having a little trouble processing my thoughts on The Kids Are All Right, not because it's some headache-inducing story or thematic puzzler, but because after all of the acclaim, it just struck me as, well, alright. Well, no, it's significantly above "alright," but it's not the masterpiece some have hailed it as since Sundance. Lisa Cholodenko's exploration of family values in relationships has its shining moments of humor and drama, and its buoyed by work from its cast that ranges from "nice" to "great". The biggest problem, of the two big concerns that I have, is simply that Cholodenko's script feels like a surprisingly good first draft that still has to undergo a fair bit of polishing when it comes to execution.

Nic and Jules (Annette Benning and Julianne Moore - Oscar, please take note), a couple in California, get a bit of a surprise when their two kids (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) track down the sperm donor who made their existence possible. That donor is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), and his involvement (specifically, the fact that both kids want to see him again after their first meeting) is what drives Cholodenko's film. Now, before I start sounding like a nitpicker with a grudge, let me say that I found Cholodenko's presentation of the lesbian family refreshing. This is not a political "issues" movie by any means; it's a matter of fact look at the fact that gay couples with children *gasp* exist and they go through the same highs and lows as everyone else (much like TV's Modern Family). For that, Cholodenko deserves praise. She never condescends to her audience, nor does she go out of her way to make her point. Leading the way (though the emphasis does seem to shift several times) are Benning and Moore, who turn in poignant, heartfelt performances as a normal couple suddenly caught up in an unexpected situation they hoped never to face. I won't play the "who's better" game, as that feels unfair; like Nic and Jules, Benning and Moore balance each other out, even though this results in a few clashes.

And like any normal family, the parents have both chemistry and discordance with their children. Wasikowska, who headlined the unfortunately flat Alice in Wonderland, actually gets to show what she's made of here, and radiates a quiet charm and likability. Hutcherson, unfortunately, is saddled with the less exposed role (for much of the second half he seems to be "there" and not much else), but he shows promise in what he's given. Ruffalo, initially grating, quickly settles into his role, even though it doesn't feel as well defined as the other four characters. In addition to the performances, the soundtrack and Carter Burwell's gentle music add energy to this well edited film.

But like Nic and Jules' family, Cholodenko's film has a few issues that need fixing. In addition to the aforementioned lack of polish (and why does it look slightly dingy on screen in comparison to the trailer?) in the script, there's the climax of Ruffalo's character arc. While I understand it, it does seem a bit frosty and slightly unfair considering the initial forgiveness given to another character. But maybe that's the point, family is family no matter what, and no matter how crucial Ruffalo's role, he'll never be family. Thankfully the film doesn't end there, with the full ending being a much more complete, satisfying one, but the treatment of Ruffalo's character seems a bit much, even considering what happens. Cholodenko's film may treat one character in a questionable manner, but she still treats her audience fairly and the film that unfolds is an insightful look at the ways families are both changing and remaining the same. And, like any family, the film is a little rough around the edges, but at the end of the day, maybe that's alright too.

Grade: B/B+