Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This morning I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #65, so tune in on January 12 for our review.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Doubt

Yesterday I saw Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

It's a drama (with a hint of comedy) about a Catholic school in the Bronx, in 1964. Sister Aloysius (Streep) is the stereotypical "mean nun" who administers wicked punishments to the children and is quick to judge her colleagues. Father Flynn (Hoffman) is a kind, warm-spirited priest who pays special attention to Donald (Joseph Foster), who is the first black student admitted to the school.

After witnessing a few normal situations at the school (kids misbehaving in class, nuns breaking bread together in silence, etc.), the writer wastes no time in letting us know that suspicion looms over Father Flynn regarding his relationship with Donald.

Amy Adams, in a role tailor made for her expertise in playing innocence, is Sister James, a naive teacher who notices a behavioral change in Donald after he returns from a private visit with the father. She soon tells Sister Aloysius, who is immediately anxious to expose and expunge the certainly guilty priest.

From there the movie places its title into your reactions as an audience member. Is this miserable woman just making life difficult for a man because he is a man? Is this kind-hearted priest who has a natural rapport with his congregation and students capable of such unspeakable harm? Is Sister James too inexperienced to correctly read the signs of abuse in one of her students?

All of the doubts they weave into your mind will have you taking sides with yourself, or perhaps the person sitting next to you. But they won't definitely answer the questions, which is what makes the film good.

What also makes the film good are the performances. It's not shocking that Streep's accent is dead-on 60s New Yorker, and it's no surprise that Hoffman can be equally endearing and creepy, but the unexpected thrill is seeing the two battle it out on screen as if they were performing live theater. It's hard to take your eyes off of them.

Also great are supporting players Amy Adams as the sugar-sweet Sister James, and Viola Davis as the pained mother of young Donald. Both infuse their characters with mannerisms, expressions and speech patterns that perfectly illustrate their plight.

What makes the film bad is the ending. It betrays one of the characters they've crafted so brilliantly and makes no sense in the context of the resolution.

Shame it had to end that way.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Seven Pounds

Today I saw Seven Pounds, starring Will Smith and Rosario Dawson.

Why didn't someone tell me to take a box of Kleenex?

The story begins as Smith's character (though I won't mention his name in the film here; you'll understand why when you see it) is screaming at a blind meat salesman—a stranger, played by Woody Harrelson, for no apparent reason. His home is lavish, his clothing is expensive and he seems to "have it all."

Next, we watch him criticize a man who is somehow in charge of a nursing home and then fight with a childhood friend (played by Barry Pepper, who I'd like to have seen more of).

The first sign of 'nice guy' exhibited by our main character comes when he tracks down Emily (Dawson) who is suffering from congenital heart failure. He poses as an IRS agent and after meeting with her (and instantly liking her), promises to freeze all of the collections on her overdue taxes.

The big question: why is he doing all of this?

We learn in (somewhat predictable) flashbacks why, and the how is revealed much later in the film (impatient folks like me will think too much later).

The main themes I took away from this story were guilt, compassion and redemption.

Though you'll cheer Will's character along in his finer moments, one must realize they're all being contrived based upon a whole lot of judgment.

But that's not to say it wasn't good.

Smith and Dawson make a wonderful match, sparking with chemistry throughout (the makeup team should also be heralded for making Dawson so sick-looking—it exhausted me just watching her), and the supporting players in Pepper, Harrelson, etc. are also perfect in their unfortunately tiny roles.

The final act draws everything together nicely and leaves you wondering if it takes a monumental mistake to provoke such altruism. Or can we even call it that, if redemption is the ultimate goal?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Duchess

Today I saw The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.

Note: this review does contain spoilers.

Based on British history, the film tells the story of the former 18th century Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana (Knightley), who is coincidentally an ancestor to our modern-day Princess Diana of Wales.

Unfortunately, their blood was not the only thing these two women had in common.

They both had spunky, outspoken personalities; they both married young into the British Monarchy with every sincerity and hope for a loving union; and they both were cheated on, controlled, lied to and forced to remain in situations that made them miserable—the only difference is that Diana eventually got out.

The Duchess is a well-done exploration of Georgiana's sad life from the time she was married until the time of her eventual complacency to the husband (Fiennes) who was never good to her.

An excitable teenager when first joined together, Georgiana's biggest problems were that her husband didn't "talk" to her and intercourse was mere sex; not the lovemaking she craved.

After two daughters and two stillborn sons, the Duke was growing impatient waiting for an heir and had taken a lover in Georgiana's best (and only) friend Bess (Hayley Atwell). Although "G" (as they called her), had looked away at the Duke's countless other affairs, this one pained her greatly and she expressed her anger at the betrayal, only to be met with indifference on his part. After taking G by force, the Duke finally got his wish and produced a male heir.

The mistress, genuinely caring for her former friend, arranged for the real object of G's affection, politician Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), to reunite with her—and reunite they did. They also produced a child, daughter Eliza, which the Duke forced the Duchess to surrender to Grey's family.

Throughout this film, the performances are delivered expertly by all actors, not least of whom is Knightley herself—this is a role that feels as if it was tailor made for her, and after watching her, it's hard to picture anyone else pulling it off quite as well. Fiennes, as always is brilliant and Atwell as the conflicted Lady Elizabeth, is pitch perfect, commanding both sympathy and rage at her actions.

The real problems are plenty and scandalous, but at the end of it all, the Duke and the Duchess faced something that millions of people throughout time have faced: a loveless marriage. As the mother of the Duchess says at the beginning of the film, true love is identified instantly—it's a feeling you get that you can't escape.

The sad thing is that when you deny this magic, and gamble your own fate by doing what society (or merely your partner) feels is "right," you're most certainly going to lose. And lose Georgiana did.

It almost makes you feel guilty enjoying the film so much.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Milk

Last night I saw Milk, starring Sean Penn and Josh Brolin.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #64, which is available for download here.

I also recommend checking out this brilliant documentary about Harvey Milk's life:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Australia

Yesterday I saw Australia, starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

Baz Luhrman brings pre-World War II Australia to life by telling the story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), a British widow who has to relocate to the continent to save her husband's business and property after he is murdered. After many doses of typical movie-romance banter, she enlists the help of Drover (Jackman), a morally sound cattle rancher, who successfully assists her while consequently falling in love with her.

They also unofficially adopt Nullah (Brandon Walters), an aboriginal boy, who often appears to be the most resourceful and clever member of this dysfunctional, yet loyal, family.

To call the film a romance isn't really being honest—sure there are elements of it surrounding the main characters. And yes, Kidman and the ever-appealing Jackman have a respectable chemistry opposite one another. But the basis of the story is not merely their love; in fact, that part feels like more of a side dish in a meal that's more Western/war than anything else.

Because Director Baz Luhrman is in charge, that's all okay, though.

His stunning landscapes make for such a beautifully lit narrative, somehow even the hellish fires of war come out looking magical.

He also commands an almost supernaturally good performance from his youngest star, Walters, who brings so much character to Nullah, he steals the show.

Australia has all the elements of a traditional epic: deaths, rivalries, lovers torn apart, orphans, war and aristocracy, and each delivers in a satisfying, if not overwhelming way.

Many of the scenes and outcomes are predictable, but nonetheless well executed. Overall, it's an entertaining and attention-keeping film.

The biggest criticism I have is in the work's length—at nearly three hours long, I couldn't help but make mental notes along the way of portions that should have been cut.

But I'll forgive an artist as great as Luhrman for seeing his vision through to the end. Despite its flaws, the movie is still a suspense-filled visual marvel, and for that reason alone, audiences should see it on the big screen.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Happy-Go-Lucky

Tonight I saw Happy-Go-Lucky, starring Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan.

I hate it when critics oversell a film.

Going into this one, I was excited about the prospect of being uplifted by a refreshing character that always saw the glass as half full. Instead I was met with an incredibly annoying leading lady and a string of scenes that don't really mesh, but are forcibly woven together like an unfinished quilt.

Poppy (Hawkins) is an elementary schoolteacher that makes it her life's mission to cheer other people up. Or, she's just goofy. It's hard to tell in the piece-y scenes that have her alternately bouncing on trampolines, falling in love, flamenco dancing and attempting to help a troubled student. Each bit could have merit if it were allowed the chance to develop, but none of them really do.

None, except for the series of bits about her taking driving lessons. Yes—she's supposed to be a thirtysomething in a big city in England, yet she doesn't know how to drive. Suspending that disbelief, she hires a company to teach her how and gets assigned the Worst Driver on Planet Earth (Marsan). Not only is he surly to her, he's dangerous on the road and many of their scenes are borderline disturbing (and if they're not disturbing, they're excruciatingly irritating).

Is the film 100% bad? No. There are delightful (and more realistic scenes) with Poppy's sister, roommate and other friends that make you feel that you're watching a Cyndi Lauper video (in a good way), and the love story near the end is actually somewhat sweet.

I just found it hard to root for someone I wouldn't be able to be in the same room with if she were real.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Changeling

Today I saw Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #63, which is available here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Battle in Seattle

Today I saw Battle in Seattle, starring Woody Harrelson and Martin Henderson.

As someone who lived through the event this movie is about, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have bias going into it.

So I'm just going to divide this review into the "good" and the "bad" and call it a night:

The Good

• The documentary-like way in which the film is shot gives it an organic, authentic feel, as does the real news footage of President Clinton, Pine Street, etc.

• The acting is good by Harrelson and Charlize Theron (who plays his wife).

• The writer (Stuart Townsend, who also directed) did a good job of not "taking sides" in the narrative and displaying the fiasco for what it was—a situation that got out of hand mainly due to a third party that refused to respect the agreements that were in place.

• The person they found to play our Governor was both physically and verbally a lot like the real guy.

The Bad

• They changed the mayor's name, age and appearance (the real mayor was an older, heavy set gentleman named Paul; in the film it's Richard Greico playing someone named Jim). Why change something that is easily Google-able? They couldn't find someone that looked like the real guy? I find that hard to believe.

• The situation they put Charlize's character in is a bit ludicrous. The riots were completely out of control, and innocent people did get caught in the crossfire. But the "action" they had the cop take was too over-the-top to be believable.

• They didn't explain enough about what the WTO was trying to accomplish.

• They included shots of buildings in Seattle that didn't exist in 1999 (Qwest Field, etc.)

All in all, it's nice someone (an Irishman, no less) felt this stain in our city's past worthy of a film; I just don't see why the accuracy was so hard to achieve. Interviewing anyone who lived through it, a real story could've emerged that was more interesting than the two forced stories that made up this film.

And I'd say that even if I didn't live here.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ask and you shall receive...

I enjoy chatting with many of you via e-mail about films and television shows, and I've found that I get a lot of the same questions asked over and over again, so I thought I'd answer them here, in one blog entry, and then if folks ask again, I can simply send them the link.

Here goes:

1) What are the podcasts that you participate in called?

Cinebanter (my movie review podcast with Michael Cummins of San Jose), @U2 (the U2-fan podcast produced by a site that I write for) and formerly the U2 Chatcast (created by a friend, Dan Eliot, who manages U2Source.com). They are all available on iTunes (and there is a Cinebanter link in the sidebar of this blog).

2) Do you write any other blogs?


Yes. In addition to this, I have a MySpace blog (also linked from the sidebar here) and as a staff writer, I contribute to the @U2 blog from time to time.

3) What is your day job?

I am a Public Relations/Marketing Manager for a gifted elementary school in Washington State. Before that I was a fashion advertising writer for 8 years.

4) Where are you from?

Originally, Portland, Oregon, but I've lived in several places (Columbia, MO, Mesa, AZ, etc.)

5) Did you go to college?


Yes. I hold a Bachelor's degree with distinction in English from Columbia College in Missouri.

6) Are you married?

No.

7) Do you have children?


No.

8) What is your favorite movie of all time?

This is a tough one. Sentimentally, I'd vote for Back to the Future or Before Sunrise, but on merit probably Gone With the Wind.

9) What is your favorite TV show of all time?

Family Ties

10) Do you like any bands besides U2?


Yes. The Beatles are actually my favorite band. U2 is my favorite "living" band. I also love Joe Jackson, Duran Duran, Cheap Trick and Billy Joel, in addition to scores of others.

11) If you went to the store to buy a DVD, what would it be?


My Amazon Film Wishlist is in the sidebar. See for yourself.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Tonight I saw Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #62, which is available here.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Transsiberian

Tonight I saw Transsiberian, starring Emily Mortimer and Woody Harrelson.

An American couple who has just completed some sort of religious or philanthropic mission is continuing their journey through Russia by railway to see the sites and experience a European adventure.

Roy (Harrelson) is the goody-two-shoes of the two, seeing life through a crystal clear pair of rose-colored glasses. His wife Jessie (Mortimer) is less trusting of others, which we learn is due to her own wild past.

All seems well on the trip until they meet Carlos and Abby—a Spaniard man in his thirties and his twenty-year-old American girlfriend. They all share a train car and become fast friends...or do they?

On one of their pit stops, Roy misses the train and the other three get a hotel room at the next stop ahead to wait for him.

Everything that happens after this point is a spoiler, so I can't go any further, but the twists and turns the story takes are not only unexpected, but alternately horrifying and thrilling.

I can't imagine anyone's blood pressure not raising upon a first viewing of this film. It's got action and mystery rolled into clear and present danger, topped off with a bit of love.

Mortimer is phenomenal in her most complex role to date, and Harrelson is oddly convincing as a Bible-bouncing do-gooder.

If you want to sit uncontrollably on the edge of your seat for an hour and 47 minutes, go see this film.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Tonight I saw Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist starring Michael Cera and Kat Dennings.

When you find your musical soul mate—the one who has the same concert pick for the inevitable time machine "what if?" and the person who understands why you tingle at the sound of certain songs, it's as if all is right with the world.

Searching for that soul mate is the hard part.

In this film, a heartbroken Nick (Cera) makes volumes of mix CDs for the ex-girlfriend who has dumped him, and they ultimately land in the hands of Norah (Dennings), who seems to genuinely appreciate them (though she doesn't know who Nick is).

After a meet-cute at one of Nick's concerts (did I mention he's the only straight guy in a gay band?), the two end up in the same car on the same night with the same purpose: to find Norah's lost drunken friend, and later to find the band "Where's Fluffy?"

The rest of the film is formulaic fluff at its best (though I really could've done without the vomit scenes, even if this is meant for a teenage crowd), though the overall charm of the story saves it.

Cera is adorable in his usual nice-guy role (note: I like him so much I'd REALLY like to see him branch out a bit and try a different genre next time) and Dennings feels as if she's part Kelly McDonald, part Ione Skye, circa 1991—in a good way. They make a lovely couple.

New York City also shines in a raw yet welcoming light and well, the music isn't so bad either.

If you want to feel nostalgiac for that first love who "got" the Beatles (or whomever your band might have been) right along with you, see this film.

Just beware you may be the oldest person in the crowd.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Religulous

Today I saw the Bill Maher documentary Religulous.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #61, which is available for download here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Choke

Tonight I saw Choke, starring Sam Rockwell and Angelica Houston.

Victor Mancini (Rockwell) is a seemingly incurable sex addict who makes a living as a "historical interpreter" (a.k.a. colonial theme park tour guide) in between meaningless sexual encounters and frequent visits with his mother Ida (Houston), who is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's or both.

The film is billed as a comedy, though "tragic comedy" would be more accurate. Rockwell's disheveled appearance and quirky speech patterns have him resembling a thirtysomething rendition of Dana Carvey, which is distracting when we're supposed to loathe him or simply feel enormous pity for him.

The film isn't primarily about sex (darn); it's more about a man whose life resembles a jigsaw puzzle of mystery that we're led to believe is exciting, but unfolds only to reveal more darkness.

We find sadness in Victor's orphan past, sadness in his dead-end present, sadness in his bleak future—and I haven't even mentioned the girl he's fallen for.

Despite all of that, I can't say I was bored, or that the acting was bad, because really it was quite good. But so much of the main character's numbness (and so many scenes from which the film draws its title) was hard to witness, I can't say I enjoyed it either.

There were some very funny situations and clever twists, but for me that wasn't enough of a payoff for the depressing mood it left me in.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Ghost Town

Today I saw Ghost Town, starring Ricky Gervais and Greg Kinnear.

If you're in the mood for a lighthearted, clever-but-predictable ride, go see this movie.

A dentist who isn't so good with people, Dr. Pincus (Gervais), dies for seven minutes during a "routine operation" and returns with the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. And the ghosts have a lot of unfinished business they'd like him to attend to.

Frank (Kinnear) is guilty for being a bad husband in life, and wants to see his widow (Téa Leoni) happy, so he asks Dr. Pincus to intervene on his behalf and prevent her from marrying another man who he doesn't deem good enough for her.

Dr. Pincus reluctantly agrees to the plan, hoping all of the other spirits will go away after he fulfills this one wish, and ultimately falls in love with the widow himself.

Along the way, there are laugh-out-loud one-line jokes that only Gervais could deliver properly (which is why they work) and a tender love story that develops without being "too perfect."

It's the right blend of hilarity and heart, with a lot of redemption tossed in for good measure (even adulterers can go to heaven).

Ultimately, a pleasant alternative to formulaic meet-cute miasmas.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Humboldt County

Tonight I saw Humboldt County, starring Jeremy Strong and Chris Messina.

The story follows Peter (Strong), a bright medical student severely lacking in social skills, who follows a girl (Fairuza Balk) to Humboldt County and remains stranded with her family (though she disappears) for a long period of time.

The family is made up of hippie grandparents (Brad Dourif and the lovely Frances Conroy) who are raising their son and granddaughter, caring for random stray guests and harvesting large amounts of marijuana in the California forest where they reside.

Peter is a fish out of water in their carefree, illegal world, but soon acclimates to their casual lifestyle and befriends the son (Messina), who is more concerned about protecting his crops than preserving his life.

The film begins cleverly, with a very funny opening scene. And the strong presence of Fairuza Balk injects the landscape with a fresh dose of character but unfortunately lulls upon arrival at the hippie homestead (which could've been a set double for Aunt Sarah's pad in Six Feet Under).

The token child is charming and Peter's self-discovery is endearing, but overall, the writing felt too formulaic to be original.

The directors, however, did a fine job of framing the film and providing a very exciting climactic scene at the end. Just don't arrive expecting to see newness in the characters or the story.

Go see this instead for the gorgeous shots of Arcata, California and that beautiful nearby coastline.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Burn After Reading

Tonight I saw Burn After Reading, starring John Malkovich and Frances McDormand.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #60, which is available for download here.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Frozen River

Today I saw Frozen River, starring Melissa Leo and Misty Upham.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #59: click here to download it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Tonight I saw Tropic Thunder, starring Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #58, which is available here.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Pineapple Express

Tonight I saw Pineapple Express, starring James Franco and Seth Rogen.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #57, which is available for download here.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World

Tonight I saw the documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

All of the best elements that make up a Werner Herzog film are here—the humorous, yet seriously informative narrative; the long shots of nothing, which force you to believe they're something; and the eccentric pieces of a story that somehow come together without form.

This time the filmmaker takes us on his journey to Antarctica, where he studies the scientists that are studying the continent. Instead of focusing on the elements they're obsessed with (although we see them), his approach is to zero in on the freaks that the frigid temperatures attract. And let them tell their own stories.

What results is Errol Morris-like talking head masterpieces spliced in with breathtaking underwater shots of a world most of us will never dare to explore. And it's hard to take your eyes off of it.

One shot will demonstrate how dangerous the dives are (they go without tether, which means their instinct has to guide them back since compasses don't work that low), then another will feature a penguin who takes his own journey Into the Wild, a la Chris McCandless, which the humans realize will not turn out well.

It's all told with a clever, sarcastic-but-sincere delivery that leaves the audience wishing they were along for the ride—just so long as they don't have to go through any of that silly bucket-head training.

Note: the director dedicated this film to Roger Ebert, who was so touched by the gesture, he wrote him a letter of appreciation. To read it, click here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal

Tonight I saw the documentary Heidi Fleiss: The Would Be Madam of Crystal.

I love it when a film makes me think more of the subject—and that's what happened tonight when I saw this glimpse of Heidi's life.

For those living under rocks: Ms. Fleiss ran a very successful escort service in LA for years before she finally got caught in the 90s. Now she's done her time and moved to Nevada (where in some counties, the business she's good at is legal).

In the film, we see that she bought several acres of prime land in a scary wild-west-type town, she owns a laundromat (cleverly titled "Dirty Laundry"), she hired a homeless man to be her assistant (and then fired him), and befriended an elderly woman (Marianne) who was her neighbor, and fell in love with her pet birds along the way.

And did I mention? She wants to open a Stud Farm.

That's right—Stud Farm. As in a place where women would pay MEN to have sex with them.

Genius? Definitely. Risky? Could be that too, but that's not stopping her.

Like any public figure disrupting a small town, Heidi has friends and foes. A female saloon owner says behind her back and to her face she doesn't want the brothel built; other residents at a local swap meet greet her very warmly with smiles of support.

You want to shake the townspeople who are against it because they think "women won't buy sex."

What they don't realize is that even if they don't, they'll come and gawk at those who will, which means stops at all of the local restaurants, hotels and gas stations. They could make a lot of money off of Heidi's notoriety.

In her favor is her gift for business (this is a woman who started a babysitting ring when she was 14), her ability to research (she clearly does her homework), her political savvy and her genuine good heart (I think she actually has one).

Playing against her are her drug habits (you get the sense she's not done using), her manipulative tendencies and her self-imposed isolation.

She clearly wants relationships (though she claims not to) and anyone who witnesses her around her birds could see that she has love to give.

It makes you wonder if someone reached out to her, what she really could become.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tell No One

Today I saw Tell No One, starring François Cluzet and Kristin Scott Thomas.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #56, which is available here.

In the meantime, check out the book this film was based upon:

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

This morning I saw The Dark Knight, starring Heath Ledger and Christian Bale.

Listen for my and Michael's review of this on Cinebanter #55, which is available here.

WALL - E

On Tuesday, July 15, I saw the alleged second-coming of animation called WALL-E.

And as far as I'm concerned, WALL-E spells OVERRATE-D.

Sure, the animation is typical-Pixar-cool (the mounds of trash formed into would-be skyscrapers that the humans have accumulated over the years are especially impressive), and the story sends an Important Social Message (as most of these do), but I just wasn't as impressed with the delivery as most of my fellow critics.

Wall-E himself is a robot that was created to manage the trash crises that us obese, lazy, careless Americans...um...humans have created. We've basically trashed ourselves out of our habitat. Clever? Absolutely. But also slightly grim and more than a little in-your-face preachy at times.

The species has been beamed to a superheaven of sorts, where everyone functions from their lounge chair, eats cupcakes in cups and leads generally meaningless (though no doubt, fun) lives. "Autopilots" run the ship, so to speak.

So when another, prettier, more R2D2-like robot (Eva) comes along to keep WALL-E company on earth, it's no wonder sparks fly.

Put simply, there are very tender moments between the two hunks of metal that redeem the story somewhat, but aside from those rare moments, I was either bored or mildly offended at how blatant the moralizing was. And the "battle" scene at the end was painfully formulaic.

I had a much better time at Toy Story.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

On Sunday, July 13, I saw Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Brendan Fraser.

I have to confess that I've never read the Jules Verne book the film is based on, but the ride this family-friendly charmer takes you on is nonetheless a pleasant one.

The story begins with professor Trevor Anderson (Fraser) scrambling to save his failing laboratory. It slips his mind that his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) is showing up for a week-long visit, so when he arrives, he's unprepared for how to entertain him.

Miraculously, the atmosphere is doing exactly what it was doing years ago when Anderson's brother (and Sean's father) disappeared into a volcano, so he takes that as a sign they should go investigate the same land.

Passports in hand, they head for Iceland where they meet up with the daughter of another researcher. Her name is Hannah (Anita Briem), and aside from speaking perfect English, she's an off-the-charts hottie.

Before we know it, the three have embarked on a dangerous hike that leaves them...at the Center of the Earth.

There are many fun effects and beautiful scenes (I especially liked the shining birds) that made me wish I'd seen this in IMAX (I'm told there is a version playing in 3D), but the story is incredibly formulaic and predictable, which is what stops the film from being anything special. And the Indiana-Jones-like one-liners really don't work at all, even with Fraser's undeniable charisma.

That said, overall Journey to the Center of the Earth is a wholesome family film that keeps you entertained in a good way.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hancock

Today I saw Hancock, starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron.

Smith plays John Hancock, a reluctant and mysterious superhero with the power to fly, bounce bullets off his body and lift tons of weight. This comes in handy when the LAPD can't nail the bad guys.

The catch is that Hancock is also a sloppy alcoholic, who is sometimes more trouble than he is worth.

Enter Ray (Jason Bateman), an ambitious PR representative who is saved by Hancock, and wants to re-make his image to repay him.

Hancock is at first resistant to the suggestion, but soon grows warmer to the plan and agrees to adhere to his suggestions.

What unfolds is an action montage laden with special effects and surprise twists. Charlize Theron's character Mary, the wife of Ray, transforms from a supporting background character to a vital main character and adds her own dose of hero.

The movie sometimes feels like two different stories, as the transition is abrupt, but it's still an entertaining and humorous (if not at times vulgar) ride.

For Independence Day week, what more can Americans really demand?

Monday, June 30, 2008

Ganja Queen

Tonight I saw the documentary Ganja Queen about the gross injustice that's happened to Australian Schappelle Corby.

In 2004, 27-year-old Schappelle had begun caring for her father who was ill with cancer and was preparing for some upcoming rough treatments that he would endure. Because the family realized how difficult this was for her, they helped her pay for a short vacation to take in the weeks prior.

The destination was Bali, Indonesia and she would travel with a few friends to take advantage of the beautiful beaches and natural amenities of the area. In her luggage was a boogie board, which was packed by her and her friend. The only thing in the bag when they arrived at the Brisbane airport was the boogie board.

Upon their arrival in Bali, her bag was searched and 4.2 kilos of hydroponic marijuana was discovered. Schappelle was stunned and immediately claimed she had no idea where it came from.

She was then arrested and interrogated in the Bali customs unit, with her friends by her side also claiming her (and their) innocence.

There was no DNA testing of the plastic bag containing the drugs, or the drugs themselves, and there was evidence of a drug sting back in the Australian airport that same day (traffickers were paying baggage handlers to set up mules). But that didn't matter—they still held Schappele for seven months before putting her on trial.

I won't reveal the outcome of the verdict, but I will say it's not good news and documentaries like this make me want to crawl into a hole and never come out.

But for people like her, we have to continue having hope.

UPDATE: Chapelle is almost free ...



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The Third Man

About a week ago, I saw the classic 1949 film The Third Man.

It is the topic of Cinebanter #54, which is available here.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

Tonight I saw Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, a documentary by Marina Zenovich.

Thank goodness someone finally created a coherent timeline that is the mess of Polanski's life, because in all of my years I've never quite grasped what happened to him.

After seeing this, three things I suspected were confirmed:

1) Roman should be celebrated for the artistic genius that he is.
2) Roman should've undoubtedly been punished for the crime he clearly committed.
3) There was no way in hell Roman was going to get a fair sentence in the California courts with the corrupt judge that was assigned to his case.

If I'm correct in my assumption, Roman was just a typical party-scene Hollywood filmmaker in the 60s that loved his life and loved his wife until she was brutally murdered by a crazy man's cult.

Once Sharon was gone, his world seemed to tailspin, as often happens in times of desperate grief, and to endure the pain of the press crucifying him for having a hand in her murder (when really he was out of the country at the time and had nothing to do with it), he sought refuge in women, drugs and distractions.

One of the casualties of this distraction was Samantha, a California girl wanting to break into the business at the age of 13. They were alone, he was photographing her, clothes came off, drugs were ingested, sex resulted.

His actions were reprehensible. Inexcusable without question, but the way the system handled his case was also unfair. When the attorneys on both sides cry foul, you know something's wrong.

It could be argued that despite justice not being served, Polanski made the right decision deporting himself to France before his final sentencing. Assuming he's done no one else harm, he's certainly been more productive as a cinematic genius than he ever could have been eating up American taxpayers' money, rotting behind bars. Even his accuser didn't want that, and shouldn't she have a say in the matter?

I can't help but wonder what would've happened if he'd taken the offer to come back to the U.S. and had the case heard by a new judge.

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Saving Luna

Yesterday I screened the documentary Saving Luna.

To read my review, visit Cinebanter.com.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Rocker

Tonight I screened The Rocker, starring Rainn Wilson and Christina Applegate.

Robert "Fish" Fishman (Wilson) is a washed-up ex-drummer from an 80s rock band living a mundane life when he snaps one day at work (over the-band-who-dumped-him's new album), gets fired, and breaks up with his girlfriend. As a result, he's forced to move in with his sister's family in Cleveland (in a house that magically overlooks the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum).

Coincidentally, his nerdy nephew is in a high school band and their drummer gets grounded at the last minute, leaving them without a drummer to play the upcoming prom (you see where this is going?)...so naturally, they take the 40-something uncle over all of the kids their own age who audition.

Fish gets his groove back after an invigorating (or excruciating) rendition of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" and convinces the band to let him stay on full-time. They begin remote practicing via webcams and soon enough a YouTube leak leads them to astronomical manufactured fame.

Kind of silly? Sure. But hilarious too.

Christina Applegate plays the leads singer's hot mom who warms up to Fish after joining the band on tour and a tender side story stays less-than-cheesy enough to remain pleasant.

I actually had a really good time at this film—and the supporting characters of familiar faces (Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, etc.) were a welcome icing on the comedic cake.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Savage Grace

Today I saw Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore.

I will discuss it on a future episode of Cinebanter, so stay tuned.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Surfwise

Today I saw Surfwise, a documentary about the eccentric Dorian Paskowitz and his large, dysfunctional family.

The film chronicles the lives of Dorian and Juliette, a couple madly in love who married and raised their children as beach gypsies, offering them no education or permanent home.

They usually made their life on the beach—Dorian was a passionate surfer who passed along his love for the sport to all of his children. Aside from this, the children were exposed to music, books and endless travel. They slept "like puppies" according to Dorian, piled in next to one another in the camper, and ate nothing impure (mainly living on a gruel made up of berries, nuts, twigs, etc.). Exercise was important, as was a positive attitude and much rest.

Some may say that Dorian had it right to restrict social norms and create a utopian society for his family, but after seeing this, I can't help but be in the opposing camp.

The adult children, all of whom participate in the film, speak of being cheated out of an education (yet Dad was a Stanford-educated doctor before he married Mom) and forced unnecessarily to live in poverty throughout childhood. Most admit that once they were exposed to creature comforts most of us would take for granted, they begged for a sense of normalcy, which they never got. They also spoke repeatedly about being "scarred" sexually because their parents openly and freely made love in front of them on a nightly basis.

Instead of giving it all up for his children, the interviews with Dorian point to the fact he was doing it all for himself and acted as somewhat of a dictator in the household. There wasn't a lack of structure in their world, it was just one imposed by him rather than outside influences.

If Dorian and Juliette had not produced children, and chosen to live a gypsy lifestyle throughout their adult years, I would say power to them and perhaps even be a bit envious, but to bring children into this lifestyle was nothing short of irresponsible.

Thank goodness their love was enough to produce kind, thoughtful children who grew up to be adults that seem to understand they were "wronged," despite the fact they had some undeniably happy times growing up.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Sex and the City

Tonight I saw Sex and the City, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Chris Noth.

It was one of the topics of Cinebanter #53, which is available here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

An American Crime

Tonight I saw An American Crime, starring Catherine Keener and Ellen Page.

The story tells of the true 1965 torture and murder of Sylvia Likens (Page), a girl who was boarded, along with her sister, at the house of a crazy woman as her parents worked in a traveling carnival.

Keener expertly portrays the mother, Gertrude, who is equal parts righteous and restrained. You get the sense that in her warped head, she is doing the "right" thing by punishing a girl who supposedly talks trash about her daughter.

Of course Sylvia isn't really saying anything bad and the woman's daughter is the real whore of the house, but that doesn't stop Gertrude from beating, burning and humiliating her—and instructing others to play along.

The film is like a car accident: on one hand you can't stand to watch because it's morbid; on the other, you can't take your eyes off of it because it is so horrific.

The performances in this film are award-worthy and I hope both ladies get their due credit when all is said and done.

It can't have been an easy film to make.

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Recount

Tonight I watched Recount, starring Kevin Spacey.

It was exactly as I thought it would be—definitely painting a somewhat silly (if not deserving) picture of the republican party and the lawmakers in the election-challenged state of Florida.

Recalling the crises that was the 2000 presidential election, the film shows how both sides handled, maneuvered, fought, schemed, prayed and cried their way through the count, recount and all of the lawsuits in between.

It showed how our system was (is) clearly flawed and that politics were (are) well...ugly.

In other words, it didn't really tell us anything about the incident or about the country that we didn't already know, it just revived the stomach ache some of us still have from that fateful decision eight years ago (and when I say fateful, I do mean it—how many lives wouldn't have been lost if Bush never made it to office?).

And since we're in an election year now, it only makes those of us who are somewhat involved in the campaign all the more determined to see our part through, as well as reminding us that if we want our votes as Americans to truly count, we should stay out of Florida.

Ask Not

Today I screened the documentary Ask Not.

To read my review, visit Cinebanter.com.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Visitor

Today I saw The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #52, which is available here.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Promotion

This morning I screened The Promotion, starring Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly.

Ordinary people are always great subjects for films because nine times out of ten there is nothing 'ordinary' about them. Maybe that's why this movie works.

Doug (Scott) is the assistant manager at a chain grocery store hoping to be named the manager of a new store that is opening nearby. He and his wife (the adorable Jenna Fischer) are scrimping and saving to get out of their noisy apartment, and a manager's salary could afford them a house.

Also hoping for a promotion is Richard (Reilly), who recently moved to the states from Canada with his Scottish wife (the versatile Lili Taylor) and daughter. He is a recovering drug addict who frequently relies on self-help tapes to get him through the day. Unfortunately for Doug, he's also a marvelous worker with a positive attitude.

Their both pretty normal people, but their minor quirks make them interesting enough for us to care. The antics begin early on and carry the film to the very end—which is something you'll clearly see coming. The supporting characters you'd expect (worthless manager, devoted wife, stuffy corporate reps) are all present and predictable, but it's okay in this case because the dialogue is so funny.

It's not the smartest film that's ever been made, and no profound lessons will be learned from viewing it, but you sure will have a good time.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man

This morning I saw Iron Man, starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #51, which is available here.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Then She Found Me

This morning I screened Then She Found Me, starring Helen Hunt and Colin Firth.

I was quite pleasantly surprised by the depth and meaning of this film.

The main character, April (Hunt), seems to have everything going wrong in her life: her adoptive mother just passed away, her husband cheated on her and left her, and she desperately wants to be a mom as she feels her biological clock ticking out of control. She's 39, a teacher and alone.

Then out of nowhere, her obnoxious biological mother (played by a perfectly cast Bette Midler) swoops back into her life to complicate things even further.

What saves the movie from being a complete downer is the lucky connection she makes with Frank (Firth), the father of one of her students, though she works hard to self-sabatoge that relationship too.

That's not to say that all (or any) of this is her fault—her persona is likable and sweet, if not pathetic, and you can't help but root for her. But what I liked the most about this intertwined story was that every situation could happen. April is not perfect, so when her character grows as a result of these experiences, it makes them all that more believable.

Hunt should be commended not only for her acting in this role, but for her directing, as she commands great performances from all involved.

The only elements of the film that bothered me were an early street scene between Hunt and Midler, which feels more like a theater performance than a conversation, and the fact that I found myself wanting to give April a hairstyle for the duration.

Otherwise, watching this movie is a great way to spend a couple of hours.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sunday, April 20, 2008

My Blueberry Nights

This morning I saw Blueberry Nights, starring Norah Jones and Jude Law.

I expected so much more from this film.

As a big fan of director Wong Kar Wai, I knew the movie would be shot beautifully, have a meaningful soundtrack and involve the topic of love. And I was right—all of those elements were present, but what was missing was the intrigue of his past films and actors who fit the parts.

Jude Law, who plays café server Jeremy, is the only one in this movie that seems to fit. He's a disheveled, lonely worker who genuinely misses his regular customer Elizabeth (Jones) when she suddenly disappears.

Jones, who has the voice of an angel and a stunning face to go with it, is sadly not much of an actress. I really, really wanted to like her in this role, but her delivery was so static and robotic, I couldn't be forced to care about her character.

Anyway, Elizabeth has just experienced a bitter breakup and is searching for something new to take away the pain. She begins a nightly ritual of visiting Jeremy in his café and eating blueberry pie with him into the wee hours of the night.

One day she decides the memories of her relationship in New York are too much for her to bear, so she sets out on a direction-less journey, which takes her to Memphis and Las Vegas. Along the way she encounters more poorly cast folks (Natalie Portman as a cheap gambler; David Strathairn as a possessive alcoholic) that are no more endearing than their caricatures would suggest.

The meandering nature of the film is somewhat of a hallmark for Kar Wai, but when it doesn't work it only forces us to look at our watch.

After leaving this long movie, which was actually quite brief, all I wanted to do was listen to Jones' hit CD Come Away With Me, watch Kar Wai's masterpiece In the Mood for Love and eat a slice of blueberry pie.

My own direction-less journey to take away the pain of this disappointment.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Life Before Her Eyes

Tonight I saw a screening of The Life Before Her Eyes, starring Uma Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood.

If you could see your future life before your eyes, would it change how you live and love in the present?

At the root of this story, that's what's being asked of the audience.

We see a rebellious teenage Diana (Wood) bored with classes, free with sex and cold to her mother. When a Columbine-like shooting happens at her high school, and the killer is a boy who told her the previous day he was going to do it, we're forced to watch Diana and her best friend lobby for their lives. The scenes (some may call flashbacks; others may not) are brutally tension-filled and well-acted, which makes them incredibly hard to repeatedly sit through.

In parallel frames of the film, we see a thirtysomething Diana, now played by Thurman, in an unstable marriage with a bratty daughter of her own. She's struggling to get through the anniversary of the massacre and live her life in a meaningful way despite its dysfunctions.

The hard-to-believe part of the film was the fact Diana became a teacher. If I were the victim of a school shooting, the last place I'd probably want to spend every day would be at a school.

That said, the character in question and all of her actions are completely up for interpretation, so that last paragraph there could be erased, depending on how you digest one of the twists.

Regardless of where you think the story goes or went, no one can argue that the two leads aren't superb. Wood is an actress so gifted, her eyes convey her character's intentions and her body and words simply follow; Thurman brings a maturity I've never seen from her to the role, portraying 'damaged' in a painfully authentic and vulnerable way.

I would recommend this film as food for thought, if nothing else. And those of you who have seen it—I'd love to debate the ending with you.

E-mail me at tekatu2@gmail.com with your theories...

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Snow Angels

Tonight I saw Snow Angels, starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell.

It is the topic of Cinebanter #49, which is available here.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Married Life

Tonight I saw Married Life, starring Chris Cooper and Pierce Brosnan.

I wonder why this isn't getting more press?

It's a woven tale of love, lies, lust and deceit, featuring brilliant actors, clever writing and solid direction. I was thoroughly entertained.

Harry (Cooper) is a man an an unhappy marriage (it's just based on sex) to Pat (Patricia Clarkson), who desires to marry his mistress for love (Rachel McAdams). It looks as though that will happen until outside interference throws everything out of sync.

Pierce Brosnan plays Rich, Harry's single best friend who narrates the story, and gives a charming Pierce-like performance.

There are a lot of twists and turns to all of the relationships (none I can mention without spoiling), some predictable; others not at all. This light and fast-paced journey has so much substance underneath, it's almost as if the audience is tricked into pondering life's big questions upon leaving the theater.

Very well done—anyone who's ever kept secrets from their lover (or had secrets kept from them by their lover) should see it. And then promptly get a divorce.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Young at Heart

Tonight I saw the documentary Young at Heart, directed by Stephen Walker.

What a refreshing change from the slew of war films permeating the industry!

In Northampton, Mass., there lives a spirited chorus called Young at Heart. This chorus is made up of 'mature' singers (average age: 80) who come together to practice, perform and tour throughout the year. And quite frankly, they rock.

Seriously.

They're not singing Gershwin classics or busting out ancient showtunes, they're singing Sprinsgteen and Sonic Youth—and they're pulling it off.

The story follows the group from the point that they begin learning their new lineup of songs to their first performance of the set. Like any group, they have a nervous leader who pushes them and loses his patience with their pace from time to time, but they seem to enjoy it all nonetheless.

As the filmmaker follows various singers home, we get a glimpse of what these individuals were probably like in their prime: spunky, daring, full of life. Kind of like now.

Watching them enjoy the process and the friends they make along the way is truly a pleasure and hearing them interpret modern music for the first time is somewhat hilarious.

Of course, since they're old, there are members of the chorus with health problems. The only hard part of watching the film is seeing those few struggle with their ailments. But overall, what could be terribly depressing is just a minor pause along the way of this fun, inspiring film.

Although the Sinéad and Coldplay sections made me sob, the rest of the movie had me smiling throughout. And as someone who felt her life sort of ended when she turned 30, I do feel slightly ashamed.

If these folks can get out of bed and to choir practice 3 days a week, then take their show on the road, what the hell do I have to complain about?

Only that there aren't more films like this one.

Note: to purchase Young at Heart merchandise, visit the chorus's official Web site at youngatheartchorus.com.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl

This morning I saw The Other Boleyn Girl, starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanssen.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #47, so click here to download the episode.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Om natten (At Night)

Today I saw Om natten, which is an Oscar® nominee in the Live Action Short Film category.

Set in a cancer hospital in Denmark, three young women bond over their "death sentences," their family problems and their hope for recovery (or lack thereof).

I always think one way to measure a good film is if it feels like the characters are still in existence after you leave the theater. With this one, I truly did.

The actresses that portray Stephanie, Sara and Mette deserve nominations of their own for their convincing moments as sick and conflicted women. The fact the film is set over the holidays only compounds the tears you'll shed as you dive into their world head-first, but you'll still be glad you spent time with them when all is said and done. After 39 minutes, I'm bargaining you'll feel grateful for your own blessings more than you did prior to seeing this.

If I could vote, this would easily be my pick to win.

Le Mozart des pickpockets

Today I saw Le Mozart des pickpockets, which is an Oscar® nominee in the Live Action Short Film category.

France's Philippe Pollet-Villard wrote and directed this comedy about two thieves that accumulate passports, cash and credit cards from unknowing victims and somehow along the way pick up a deaf-mute child. Their banter is borderline charming as they work to communicate with their new 'son' and continue the cons that make their living.

I enjoyed this film quite a lot—even though one scene made me grab my purse from the chair next to me where it was resting.

It takes a non-admirable practice and brings light to it in an Odd Couple spirit (and adding in the cute kid doesn't hurt).

You'll probably leave the theater smiling in spite of yourself.

The Tonto Woman

Today I saw The Tonto Woman, which is an Oscar® nominee in the Live Action Short Film Category.

For a short film, this sure went on for a long time.

The story is based on an Elmore Leonard work about a woman who is kidnapped by the Apaches and traded to the Mojaves, then returned 'tainted' to her husband. A friendly Mexican happens upon her bathing topless in the desert one day and becomes her confidant. He convinces her of her worth (which her husband seems to be ignoring), then something happens at the end which I won't spoil here.

I couldn't help but think that the only nominee in this category that is spoken in English would hold my attention more than the others, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Aside from the gratuitous (and non-sensual) nudity, I felt that what could've been a shocking story became very stale in this delivery. I wanted to care about the characters, but really didn't, and the ending was quite predictable.

It wouldn't get my vote if I were a member of the Academy.

Il Supplente

Today I saw Il Supplente, an Oscar® nominee in the Live Action Short Film category.

Italy's Andrea Jublin brings us rapidly into the classroom where all hell is breaking loose with the new substitute teacher. Usually when this happens, it's because the teacher has lost all control of the students. In this setting, the instructor is purposely wreaking havoc, chiming in with others to make fun of the fat kid, persuading one girl to hand over her diary and generally acting like an asshole.

This should be funny, but to me no part of it was. I thought the ending may redeem where the story had gone, but instead it carried the same cheap torch to the finish line.

It's disappointing this is even in the running for an Academy Award®.

Tanghi Argentini

Today I saw Tanghi Argentini, one of the Oscar® nominees in the Live Action Short Film category.

In this 14-minute wonder, Belgium's Guido Thys brings us the sweet story of a man desperate to learn the tango so he can impress a date he's met on the Internet (with a screen name like "Bing Crosby" you can't help but root for him).

After much persuasion, he convinces a co-worker to teach him the crucial moves and what unfolds after that is pure delight.

This easily earned its nomination.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Today I saw 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, starring Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu.

Who knew that a film could be both pro-life and pro-choice?

The time is the 1980s, the place is Romania. One college student, Gabriela (Vasiliu) is desperate to get an abortion; her roommate Otilia (Marinca) is just as desperate to help her. In their current society, it is illegal for Gabriela to have the procedure, so they learn through a friend of a man who performs them secretly.

After the maddening dash to secure a hotel room to perform the procedure in, we're introduced to the less-than-noble abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlod Ivanov), who scolds the girls for not following his instructions to the letter and maliciously makes them pay for it.

The story progresses in real-time from Gabriela's decision, Otilia's turmoil over the ordeal and the resulting emotional damage.

I won't say any further about specifics because I couldn't without spoiling, but I will say that as a woman, I had to leave the theater once because I thought I was going to be sick.

The things they choose to put the audience through (and the things they make you see) are so harrowing you can't help but envision yourself in place of the girls and wonder if you'd make the same decisions.

The film is pro-life because it truly shows the dangers and horrors of what an abortion can do, both physically and emotionally. It is pro-choice because most of those horrors are avoided by the option of legal abortions, performed by doctors in sterile, safe environments.

It's a travesty that this film wasn't nominated for several Oscars and also that it's currently only being shown in limited release. Everyone should see this. Especially those here in the U.S. that think Roe vs. Wade should be overturned. I can't imagine that after seeing this any of them could sleep at night picturing their daughter or girlfriend or sister in a similar situation.

The bravery of the filmmakers to bring us such a graphic, honest rendition of the controversial topic cannot be understated.

Go see this. But go on an empty stomach.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

I'm Not There

This morning I saw I'm Not There, starring Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger.

It's an avant garde approach to Bob Dylan's life, told through a series of sequences that feature a number of different actors portraying the folk legend. Really, it's over two hours of hits and misses.

The hits come in the performances, first and foremost. Blanchett is clearly the standout, brilliantly adapting the mannerisms, sound and look of the star while placing her own charismatic stamp on the story. The more we see from her, the more we can't help but wish the entire movie was only her. She could've easily pulled off all of the complexities the filmmakers were trying to convey. Particularly hilarious is a scene of her frolicking with "The Beatles."

Also great is the late Heath Ledger. He plays Dylan with a combination of sexiness and swagger that goes way beyond the charm of the real man. While vastly different from Dylan in both physique and spirit, Ledger manages to convince us in his first few moments on screen, just "which" Bob we're watching.

In addition to the major players, there are also a sprinkling of supporting characters that infuse great amounts of life into the narrative. Namely, Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams.

The beauty of the way the film is shot also contributes to its successes—the Dylans, etc. move freely between grainy black-and-white 'footage' and gorgeous, full-color frames. At no point does this become distracting or confusing, in fact, it actually helps move the story along.

And that's where the misses come in. As someone who is not much of a Dylan fan, I went into the film hoping to learn more about why he rose to fame (and stayed there). Unfortunately, this doesn't tell me much. I already knew he was a philosopher, a liar, a poet, a rebel, etc. but what I didn't know was why?

Although elements of his character are exhibited by the various actors (some miscast, by the way: Christian Bale), the movie seems so caught up in its artsyness that it can't quite connect to its purpose.

And the more I think about it, maybe that's why I'm not much of a Dylan fan.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Michael Clayton

Tonight I saw Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney and Tom Wilkinson.

Forgive me for being stunned, but how did this manage to rack up an Oscar® nomination for Best Picture? It's a solid movie with solid acting, but that's about it.

Clooney does fine as the title character, a legal 'fixer-upper' sort that seems to constantly be in more danger than he realizes. Wilkinson also shines as Arthur, a chemically imbalanced member of the same legal firm that is threatening to turn one of their big corporate cases upside down. Everyone else is gravy.

The story follows a damning memorandum in reverse to explain how the characters come to be (or not) four days later. I found these flashbacks irritating—not because I didn't understand them—because the same tale could've been told in a linear fashion with more exciting results. Once you catch on to the Same Old Corporate Argument, it's pretty clear who will reign victorious when all is said and done (allowing, of course, for at least one shocking death).

Tilda Swinton plays a minor role as a major player in the case, and she's good as usual, but almost underutilized for the amount of time she appears on screen.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I went into the film hoping to be dazzled by a smart thriller and unfortunately got a little bored.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

Tonight I saw Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Mortimer.

How often do devastation and hilarity find themselves in the same movie? Seldom. But here, we have a glowing example.

Lars Lindstrom (Gosling) is a lonely, single man living in the garage of his family home, next door to his brother and sister-in-law, who reside in the same house. He makes his way through life devoid of affection, by choice, which his doting sister-in-law Karin (Mortimer) finds troubling.

He works in a generic office, with somewhat generic people, and despite the attempts of a co-worker, he doesn't date. In fact, he rarely leaves his home, save for work and church.

One day, his cubicle mate shows him a Web site that sells custom-made 'real' dolls. He promptly orders one and is soon introducing everyone to his new girlfriend, Bianca.

His brother is so immediately horrified by this development, he tricks Lars into a therapy appointment by alleging Bianca needs a check-up. The doctor, Dagmar (played expertly by Patricia Clarkson) concludes that the best way to handle this delusion is to play along with the relationship and treat Bianca as an actual girlfriend. They schedule regular appointments for the doll, claiming she needs 'treatments' and she uses the time to counsel Lars discreetly.

What results is a hilarious journey the whole town soon embarks on, complete with invented jobs (the mall needs mannequins; the hospital needs volunteers), social engagements (Bianca doesn't drink, but attends parties) and marital-like disputes.

The entire plot and execution is positively absurd, but for some reason, it works. Instead of the situation appearing creepy, it's endearing, and once we learn why Lars needs to soften his pain with the help of this fictional friend, we're compelled to root for him.

Anyone who has felt hollow or lacked companionship for any length of time with empathize with the sentiment; those who have never been alone will weep for those who are.

And aside from his appearance strangely resembling David Arquette, Ryan Gosling does an incredible job manipulating his mannerisms and his speech to pull off this character.

It's just amazing that the only Oscar this film is nominated for is the screenplay.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Atonement

Today I saw Atonement, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.

This film has all the hallmarks of a Best Picture candidate: attractive stars, solid acting, sweeping landscapes, love, war, betrayal and dueling sisters. But what it lacked, was the 'it' factor that takes the characters to another (necessary) level.

In the story we briefly see Cecilia (Knightley) fall in love/lust with Robbie (McAvoy). Their chemistry isn't electric enough for the audience to feel the jolt of their passion, but their intentions are explained in a letter intercepted by Cecilia's mischievous younger sister Briony (played by three different actresses, to demonstrate each age).

Briony, also a budding writer, uses the letter and a glimpse of consensual intercourse that she interrupts, as her basis for pinning a rape on Robbie, though she knows he's not guilty. It seems she was jealous of his affection for her sister and would've liked him for herself.

This selfish action costs Robbie his freedom and Cecilia years of misery as she pines for him. It also eats away at the older Briony, who wrestles with coming forward to right her catastrophic wrong.

In the middle, we see Robbie go to war and both sisters become nurses. This is the part of the film that nearly put me to sleep. Maybe I'm an unabashed romantic, but couldn't there have been some steamy scenes of them fantasizing about one another? Couldn't we witness more correspondence between the two, or at least see more of the agonizing ways they passed time during their separation?

I believed that the younger sister really did want to atone for her sins, but I wasn't entirely convinced that a soldier and a nurse, a great distance apart from each other, were going to stay so true to their hearts. And I certainly wanted to.

At the core of the story is a beautiful message: true love is worth waiting for no matter what the cost in time.

This ending leaves pessimists satisfied that the lies added up to ultimate heartbreak; the romantics will believe their characters passed in succession so they could find harmony on the other side.

A great love story this is not, but at least it leaves us pondering.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Tonight I saw Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.

In this unconventional story of brotherhood, Andy (Hoffman) is a successful real estate mogul who is married to Gina (Tomei), the very definition of a dumb broad.

His brother Hank (Hawke) is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but is somewhat redeemed by his genuine love for his daughter. Unfortunately he also loves Gina, who he is having an affair with, unbeknownst to anyone but them.

For some reason, everyone is in need of cash. Andy for drugs and an escape to Brazil, Hank for child support, and Gina for...well...we assume shopping. And maybe upkeep of her most valuable asset (her body, which we see revealed throughout the film).

There isn't too much background on why neither son has a great relationship with their parents, but for what it's worth, they must not feel comfortable approaching them for a loan since they decide to rob their jewelry store instead.

It sounds ridiculous, but because I've read a lot of Dominick Dunne in my time, I know this sort of thing actually happens. That knowledge affords a special suspension of disbelief while witnessing the smart brother hatch the plan and impose it on the dumb brother (you'd think he'd just employ someone smarter to do it, to be sure they wouldn't screw it up).

What transpires at the robbery triggers a sequence of Babel-like events that basically all lead back to the moral of the story: don't lie, steal, cheat or shoot people.

The film is well-acted and the pace is comfortably fast, but I am a little mystified why this received such universal praise. The plot twists aren't surprising and there aren't a lot of characters to root for. What we learn is that people are basically rotten and the actions of smart people and dumb people are interchangeable when their intent is dishonorable.

What results is entertainment that resembles the nightly news: while compelling to watch, it can also turn your stomach.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

There Will Be Blood

This morning I saw There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano.

It is the topic of Cinebanter #46, which is available here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Here Is What Is

A few nights ago I screened the new Daniel Lanois documentary Here Is What Is.

My review can be found here at @U2.

To purchase Danny's new album and documentary, visit Red Floor Records.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Today I saw The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, starring Mathieu Amalric and Marie Josée Croze.

It's a tale told mostly through the eyes of the subject, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Amalric), the real-life former editor of Elle magazine in France. On the way to the theater with his son one day, he has a massive stroke that leaves him paralyzed save for his left eye. This "locked-in" syndrome is so rare the physicians at first seem as if they don't know what to do with him. But, with the help of speech and physical therapists, Bauby learns to communicate by blinking.

Marie Josée Croze plays therapist Henriette, who develops a revised alphabet arranged in order of use frequency to make conversation with the patient easier. This results in Bauby requesting that his publisher honor his existing contract to write a book and the company sending a representative to take his dictation. What transpires is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the book in which this film is based upon.

This memoir detailed the feelings of a formerly vibrant man who has been reduced to nothing more than a hostage in his own body. Thankfully (or perhaps tragically) he retains his wit, sadness, sexual desires and memory, which he examines throughout.

The film shows us crushes on his therapists, discontent with his ex-partner (he purposely never married the mother of this children), longing for his mistress and love for his father.

It spotlights an imperfect man in impossible circumstances with a necessity to express himself creatively by any means available.

It forces us to see how lazy we are by not accomplishing all we hope to in the here and now, and reminds us to treasure the time and people we have in our lives.

There is one scene where a well-placed U2 song illustrates the type of man Bauby once was and how he chose to live his life before the stroke. This scene in particular hit me hard because the normalcy of his world was so previously carefree. You got the sense that his status and charisma afforded him more leeway than regular men would be granted by their women, children, etc.

But he overcame the depression of his situation long enough to write the novel describing it and lived barely long enough to see it published.

We should all be so productive.