Sunday, January 25, 2009


Today I saw Vertigo, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak.

I feel incredibly privileged that my first viewing of this (today) was on the big screen—70 mm no less, as part of the Seattle Cinerama's special series.

What a stunning film! From the opening scene that leaves its main character hanging over tall buildings to the sloped streets of San Francisco, this has to be one of the most beautifully shot films ever made.

The story begins with Scottie (Stewart) fretting over his case of vertigo with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), an artist who is clearly in love with him. But he isn't in love with her—at least not anymore—he's interested instead in the "ghost" of Madeline (Novak) a woman he (for lack of a better term) stalks and eventually rescues from the cold San Francisco Bay.

The plot thickens as Scottie finds himself immersed in a murder he's soon accused of, but nothing seems to bother him as much as his broken heart and longing for Madeline.

There is sympathy due not only for Scottie's genuine lost love, but also for his desperation. And Scottie is not the only one to be sad for—all of the women in the film deserve a bit of pity for their trouble, whether it be pining for a man in love with someone else, or being a pawn in an elaborate illegal and immoral scheme.

The way Hitchcock shoots Scottie's pursuit of these women makes the viewer feel as if they are the voyeur—peeking behind a sacred curtain of action the rest of the world is not privy to.

The colors come through almost magically; a calming mix of greens and blues, punctuated only by the leading lady's red lipstick. The lighting, of course: genius.

There is an especially amazing scene toward the end, where Scottie's woman is emerging from the bathroom to greet him looking a certain way. She opens the door and we see what looks like a thick San Francisco fog clouding her silhouette moving toward his reacting face. The viewer sees her as he sees her—mystical and majestic—until her presence comes into full light.

This is a film to be savored on a giant screen, in the dark, with a full audience reacting to its every hue.

I'm so glad that's how I experienced it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

New in Town

Today I saw New in Town, starring Renée Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr.

In every fish-out-of-water comedy there is a level of formulaic predictability, but in this film, that formula shoots right off the charts.

Lucy (Zellweger) is a single Miami executive sent to small-town Minnesota to assess the productivity of a plant making snack bars. Ted (Connick Jr.) is a widowed, single father who happens to be the union representative at said plant.

Can you guess what happens from there? I sure could—and I was unfortunately right on every count.

There are the obligatory "Oh my gosh, it's cold in the Midwest" and "look at the simple locals drinking beer at the nearby tavern" scenes, and just for good measure there are also ladies scrapbooking (instead of the usual quilting). Plus, everyone but the two leads have an annoying, exaggerated Minnesota accent, probably to remind us: they're in Minnesota!

Lucy is clearly more educated than anyone in the town (and the only one who dresses in the current decade); Ted is the obvious workers' hero who all of the women swoon for (yes, Connick remains sexy despite the blue-collar-beard and tired flannel).

Their meet-cute comes in the form of a dinner party hosted by Lucy's "executive assistant" Blanche (Siobhan Fallon), and results in Lucy and Ted immediately hating each other through Blatant Sexual Tension.

Lucy soon becomes a damsel in distress, Ted comes to her rescue and the plot continues from there (or doesn't, if you've seen any formulaic romantic comedies in the past 25 years).

The shame of it is that Zellweger and Connick are great actors and actually have a refreshing chemistry together. They sort of "fit" in a way, and that connection could have been put to such good use in a movie with a better screenplay.

One scene that showed potential has the two on Ted's couch after his teenage daughter leaves for a dance and the characters talk to one another as real people would. It's a romantic scene with both leads exhibiting more depth than they do anywhere else in the movie.

Sadly, it was the only one of its kind.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Wrestler

Tonight I saw The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #66, which is available here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Gran Torino

Tonight I saw Gran Torino, starring Clint Eastwood and Bee Vang.

Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) is an old curmudgeon who fought in the Korean War and apparently never got over it--the agony of combat or the racism. The film begins after he's lost his beloved wife Dorothy and her priest (Christopher Carley) attempts to solicit a confession from him (per the dearly departed's wishes). That fails miserably, as do his repeated attempts, because Kowalski is an unhappy, non-religious man.

He dislikes his son and daughter-in-law's suggestions to move him to a retirement home, he dislikes the appearance and behavior of his teenage granddaughter, and most of all he dislikes the Asians who to him have taken over his tidy Midwestern neighborhood.

His Hmong next door neighbors have two teenage children: the outspoken, spunky Sue (Ahney Her) and the timid Thao (Vang). Thao is constantly harassed by a cousin who happens to be the ringleader of a gang, and is forced into attempting to steal Walt's classic Gran Torino one night. He doesn't succeed, but Walt still comes to his rescue days later when the gang is having somewhat of a riot on his lawn (hence, the already-famous "get off my lawn" line).

The neighborhood, so grateful for his heroism, begins showering him with gifts of gratitude, which he refuses or promptly carries to the garbage. He only softens when Sue charms him and invites him to a barbecue at a time when he's too drunk to refuse. Soon he gains a new appreciation for their food and their company, and even begins to take the former car thief under his wing.

The film is a lot sweeter than I expected it to be, and most of it moves along as a comedy with very inappropriate (yet admittedly funny) racial slurs. The characters address many issues: the effects of war, racism, gang violence, cultural traditions/repressions and poverty.

There are no "slow" moments, though Eastwood does pretty much growl through the first 45 minutes. If it were anyone but him it wouldn't work, but he pulls it off and still shines, playing his real age.

The performances by Vang and Her are also great and I have high hopes we'll be seeing more of them in the years to come.

I wouldn't claim the film as an Oscar hopeful, but I would recommend it as a satisfying piece of entertainment, based on real social dilemmas.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Tonight I saw Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #66, which is available here.

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Reader

Tonight I saw The Reader, starring Kate Winslet and David Kross.

Based on the bestselling book by Bernard Schlink, the story begins in Germany when Michael (Kross) falls ill on the way home from high school and is found by Hanna (Winslet), an older woman who works on the local trains. She cleans him up and helps him to his home—a random act of kindness not soon forgotten by the boy, who returns three months later when he recovers to offer her flowers in gratitude.

One thing leads to another and the two become passionate lovers. However, it's not just an affair based on sex; it's a meaningful relationship filled with endless lovemaking that's precluded by the young man reading to his partner. Hence, the title.

Before I go any further, I'm in agreement that seeing a film where a woman in her mid-thirties teaches a teenage boy how to make love may seem embarrassing, but let me reassure you that the scenes between Winslet and Kross are incredibly tender, yet sensual, and do the original book every justice (note: I read it years ago and loved it, so I was prepared to be let down by the film). In fact, watching them act so convincingly makes you want to grab a lover and re-invent foreplay with a couple of classic novels. But I digress...

The lovers part before the boy becomes a man and he doesn't encounter Hanna again until he is a law student several years later, sitting in on a Nazi crime trial in which she is a defendant. It seems she was once an Auschwitz prison guard.

From there, the film is a collection of spoilers so I will tell the story no further, but I have to say that if this isn't the year Winslet takes home the Oscar, for this role, there is a conspiracy brewing in the Academy.

She is beyond phenomenal as a tough, yet tender woman following suit in life, making bad decisions she knows are wrong in her heart but is not wise enough to correct. The amount of acting Winslet does in her expressions would allow one to turn off the sound and still feel the gravity of the emotion in the film. I've liked her in every role I've seen her in, but I don't know that she's ever been this good.

Also wonderful is the young David Kross (so young in reality, they had to wait for his 18th birthday to shoot his graphic sex scenes with Winslet), who shows the right balance of innocence and pain as their lives unfold.

Finally, I never thought I'd envision the man who played the most convincingly horrific Nazi 14 years ago, turn the tides and be just as authentic as a citizen shocked by the brutality of the Holocaust. Bravo, Mr. Fiennes.

I can't think of many ways this story could've been told better—and that's why for me it ranks as one of the best films of 2008.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


Today I saw Frost/Nixon, starring Michael Sheen and Frank Langella.

It's easy to see why this film is generating so much Oscar® buzz.

The story rewinds history to focus on the landmark interviews of Richard Nixon (Langella) following his resignation conducted by British talk show host David Frost (Sheen). We see more of Frost's side of the journey than we do Nixon's, but that makes the exchanges all the more compelling.

Adding spice to the story like a well-crafted meal are the excellent cast of supporting characters: Kevin Bacon as Nixon's adviser Jack Brennan, and on the Frost production team Matthew Macfadyen as John Birt, Sam Rockwell as James Reston, Jr. and Oliver Platt as Bob Zelnick. All do a magnificent job of conveying the tension surrounding both of their players' participation.

The weeks leading up to the interview are similar to what one would picture as training for a boxer preparing for a fight. There's discussion of tactics (moves) and some obvious hitting below the belt once the two are in the ring.

The dialogue is smart, funny and—even if not verbatim to the actual events—entertaining. The sense of empathy you're made feel for the former fallen President is shocking, but not unwelcome. In rooting for Frost (as the script so desperately asks you to), you can't help but respect the authenticity of Nixon's convictions.

All in all it was a brilliant, blood-pumping spotlight into an intersection of politics and entertainment that may never be repeated. And in this sea of tear-jerking films that are showing this season, that's pretty satisfying.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Today I saw Slumdog Millionaire, starring Dev Patel and Irrfan Khan.

I have mixed emotions about this story, perhaps because I went in expecting too much or maybe because its distinction is earning it an exorbitant amount of praise.

The setting is an Indian ghetto so horrific it's hard to watch. Our main character Jamal (Patel) has just made it to a record high on the game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" and been arrested under suspicion of cheating. His interrogator, played by the always-great Irrfan Khan, repeatedly orders his policeman to torture Jamal until he finally realizes those tactics aren't doing any good, and decides to listen to what his captor insists is the truth.

This leads to the audience getting a virtual flashback into Jamal's entire childhood, which includes unspeakable suffering and eventually a forced separation from his brother and would-be girlfriend. Explaining why he's telling all of these life stories would somewhat spoil the film, but I can say that the screenwriter ties everything up in a very clever way.

There is also an unmistakable authenticity to the film because Director Danny Boyle risked his life (and that of his cast and crew) to shoot on location in the incredibly dangerous slums of Mumbai. There is no question that this helps the viewer sympathize with the characters and grasp their desperation.

Unfortunately, for me the weak link was the star—Dev Patel. We toggle between him sitting on the set of the game show and sitting in the police inspector's office, reacting to the questions he's being asked in both circumstances. Despite the vast contrast of these inquiries, his expression is the same: a confused "What's my name?" sort of stare that doesn't really suit either situation.

This lack of varied expressions made it even harder for me to believe Latika (Freida Pinto), one of the most breathtakingly beautiful women on the planet, would remain hopelessly in love with him throughout all of their trials and tribulations.

And speaking of Latika, I would've liked the love story to have more time to grow, even if it needed to be at the end.

All in all, it's an original story that moves very quickly toward a somewhat predictable ending that was diluted by its main actor.

Worth seeing? Sure. Best Picture candidate? I don't think so.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Today I saw Vicky Cristina Barcelona, starring Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson.

The writer and director of this film, Woody Allen, is to me the Prince (as in Artist-formerly-known-as) of the film industry: he has a writing style all his own, he's quirky, he's short, he's neurotic and he cranks out more material than the vast majority of his contemporaries. The material-cranking is a good thing for those who are entertained by everything he does; not so much for true film connoisseurs. But the law of probability does work in his favor from time to time, and this movie is no exception.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are American friends who spend a summer in Barcelona. Early in the trip they meet Juan Antonio (Bardem), a Bohemian artist who has eyes for both of them. Though Cristina is the one clearly suited for him, the soon-to-marry Vicky becomes conflicted by her feelings for him as well. And that's all before Juan's ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), who is prone to attempting murder and suicide, returns to her former home.

There are so many minor twists and turns that take place, it would be spoiling the film to reveal them, but I will say that in the true spirit of Woody Allen, there is plenty of sex, love, passion, confusion, indifference and unsatisfaction among the characters.

The movie moves at a pleasantly quick place, breezing through Spain as if on a cruise of the country, and the performances are excellent by all. Bardem is especially charming with his refreshing comedic deliverance during scenes with Cruz.

All in all, this dialogue-driven ride is just a story about a few friends and lovers, but it's certainly a fun tale to witness.