Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel)

Mathieu Amalric teeters on the edge in "A Christmas Tale." He plays Henri, the son of Junon (Catherine Deneuve) and Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), and the brother of Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, who played eye-stenographer for Almaric in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") and Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), and the cousin of Simon (Laurent Capelluto). These family members and their spouses and dates all come together for Christmas in Bordeaux. Henri has been cast out from the family for a few years by Elizabeth, and now he's back at the gathering.

Also coinciding: Junon needs a bone marrow transplant to survive and only two people in the family have the right blood type: Henri and Elizabeth's son, Paul (Emile Berling). This causes quite a bit of tension. Another subplot: a love triangle that includes Ivan, Simon, and Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, who voiced for Marjane later on in "Persepolis"), Ivan's wife but really a lover of Simon. All of these plots boil over in the well-orchestrated second and third acts of "A Christmas Tale." But the first half is insanity, and it really helps to have all the characters in the same room as opposed to scattered all over France. In the beginning, we are given some tension: we find out that the brother of Elizabeth, Henri, and Ivan, Joseph died at 6 years old. This is the foundation for a family on the edge of a breakdown.

Amalric does his part for the second year in a row, acting his best since his great performance in "The Diving Bell" (which I crowned the best performance by a lead actor). This year has been one of those big movie years for him: he's been in a lot of movies in 2008, most notably this film, "A Secret," and "Quantum of Solace." I haven't seen "A Secret," but I have seen "Q of S" which I believe he was a less than stellar bad guy. In this film, though, he puts in his all, and he helps add interest to a hard-to-follow plot. The film definitely thanked him, providing, as I said, two good rear acts to pull together into a very good foreign film, a possible nominee for Best Foreign Film, and one risky film that has earned an odd place in my heart. A-

The film has some sexual content, some language, and some disturbing images. Not for children.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Brad Pitt: How Is He Being Considered for Best Actor?

Brad Pitt does play Benjamin Button in "The Curious Case..." for at least 30 minutes. But to say that he "struggled" through the part at every age is a lie. He is assisted by Peter Donald Badalamenti II, Robert Towers, Tom Everett, Spencer Daniels, Chandler Canterbury, and Charles Henry Wyson. Six actors help Brad Pitt in this part. I found Pitt's short screen time less than convincing to say the least, and even if he was playing every single age of Benjamin, he would not have been any more impressive. I don't understand how he's overshadowing Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, and Josh Brolin here. He's just being considered on his status as a model here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Fall

"The Fall" relies on its visuals heavily, and its a great advantage that these images are fantastic. We are able to see jaw-dropping shots of spectacular nature: deserts, grasslands, and also grand structures. This is all courtesy of Tarsem, a genius of stylization, who creates a world within his second feature film (his first being "The Cell"). Actually, this whole spectacle is dreamed up by paralyzed stuntman Roy (Lee Pace), who meets a girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) at the hospital that he resides in. He makes a story as vehicle to get her to do a special task for him, an act of manipulation, yes, but Roy is desperate, because he is depressed because now he cannot walk and he wants to die. In his story, there are five characters, plus one villain (Governor Odious, played by Daniel Caltagirone): Otto Benga (Marcus Wesley), the Indian (Jeetu Verma), explosives expert Luigi (Robin Smith), Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), and the Blue Bandit (also Pace/Emil Hostina). Alexandria's imagination is amazing stuff: we are showed a number of wowing scenes and fabulous scenery, all encompassed in "The Fall." Speaking of Alexandira, Untaru delivers a magnificent performance here, definitely one of the best children actors of our generation. This is not the best film of the year: it sort of loses steam towards the ending. But it really is unique, mind-blowing, and visually mesmerizing. A-

The Fall has some brief, gory violence and a possibly disturbing animated sequence.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

F. Scott Fitzgerald's story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" gets put on the screen in an adaptation by David Fincher, the director of crazy thrillers like "The Game" (and most famously, the cult classic "Fight Club"). The film is epic, yes, but it really is in the wrong hands. The film has a score of interesting ideas. The thing is, they are trapped in a cliche-populated script by Eric Roth. Guess what he wrote: "Forrest Gump." Not such an original comparison; I've read an Answer Man column as well as an IMDB post about it (which got me thinking), but it has to be said. Roth's no stranger to the genre of Southern "folk lore." The movie drifts way closer to its predecessor than it should: there's a major connection in the sea in both movies, and the accents of Button and Gump are nearly identical. "Gump" is a better film in many ways.

"Button"'s main flaw is its binding: the story is interspersed with Daisy (Cate Blanchett) at her deathbed with her daughter reading Benjamin Button's diary. The setting is New Orleans during 2005, when the biggest natural disaster in U.S. history swept through. This is a problem because without this the film would be seamless and graceful. Julia Ormond's stilted acting makes this the absolute lowlight of the movie. The story itself works well on certain levels: Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt, very miscast, with a couple of other actors playing him earlier on) is born as an old man, and ages backwards. All this is able to believed by the magic of cinema. The young/old Button is dropped off at the home of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson of "Hustle and Flow", who's very good), who runs a halfway home. She is the perfect mother for Benjamin, and she helps him into the world quite well. While he's growing up here, he meets Daisy at a party. She is his age (6 years younger, we find out later), but she looks her age. Their love affair is broken up mostly because of his age and also his job: tugboatsman.

He meets Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) in Russia on the job, and he has an affair with her that ends abruptly with a note: "It was nice to meet you." It reminded me of "Say Anything," where John Cusack is heartbroken: "I gave her my heart, and she gave me a pen." He gets back together with Daisy eventually, but she's off dancing at the Majestic theater, "living" the dream of the Wheelers of "Revolutionary Road." Then, while in Paris performing, her leg gets crushed and she can dance no more. She has Benjamin, though. The script is filled with these cliche epiphanies that together state "everyone's not perfect." Also employed is Forrest Gump's mentality: I remember his comment about Abbie Hoffman ("The man liked to swear a lot.") These things really don't help the movie; they actually make the movie predictable. What twists there were quite obvious to me. This also could have been helped.

The movie also had a tendency to jump at having images instead of words. One character describes himself being struck by lightning, and Abbott describes swimming the English Channel. There was a scene in "Rachel Getting Married," where Anne Hathaway described herself, drugged, driving her younger brother into the water and killing him. This scene had to be one of the most effective of the year, and a mini-movie would have lessened its impact. The lightning scenes are played for laughs, and although the rest of the audience thought they were great, I couldn't have disagreed more. I believe that Fincher was a bad choice in many ways for this gig, especially because he's innovative in his own way, and his vision here clashed with an excellent opportunity. The story's practically not able to be brought to the big screen, but it could with the right push and pull. Just not Fincher's. C+

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a scene of non-graphic violence, some brief sexuality, and some language.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Through the "magic" of digital effects, we are handed "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but repackaged as a disappointing rip-off. The film is horrendously diagrammed by the once creative mind of Steven Spielberg, which coasts down a plot where ends don't often meet, and when they do, they are way too obvious. This may not be your mother's Indiana Jones, but I appreciated the movie one generation back, the one that was original, well-done, and perfectly action-packed. This one very speedily cooks towards an awful ending, one in which there are punchlines aplenty. I just failed to see the plot there. There is one sequence that did help the movie save a tiny bit of face, and that was the Yale motorcycle chase. That was very well done, scenery-dropping, exhilarating fun. The movie it was in wasn't. Well, on with this review. Harrison Ford obviously checks in as Indiana nee Henry Jones, Jr, an action hero who is very truth telling: he is a parallel with Ford. Well, Indiana now is fighting in the Cold War, and trying to find a skull in some South American ancient tomb, so on, so on. We can see that Spielberg has gone on autopilot from the beginning, inserting Soviets for Nazis, but not actually changing much else. He does, though, introduce a younger character, Mutt Williams (Shia Lebeouf), typical motor-greaser who crosses paths with Indiana, and tells him that his mom has been chased by the Soviets and Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, usually very good, this time going through the motions). This sets up an emotional macguffin: Mutt is Indiana's son! So that means that Karen Allen makes an appearance as Marion Ravenwood, but I really think it was a bad idea. From her announcing of the family tie, the film heads in a downward spiral, often branching off of the relationship, but mostly just goofing around with CGI and Shia Lebeouf swinging like a madman through trees. We also get to see John Hurt looking gaunt for the umpteenth time, as Ox Oxley, the man who knows a lot about the crystal skull. The crystal skull controls minds, and needs to be returned to the cavern where it originally lay. Speaking of all this returning, I believe the script ought to have been returned to Spielberg's desk with a note: Why are we aiming for a grand slam? C-

Indiana Jones 4 has one disturbing scene, and also some action violence.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Gus Van Sant did the amazing in 2008: he made two great, worthwhile films. It doesn't sound like such a banner year, but you really don't know exactly how big it is. The first was a stylistic guilt drama called "Paranoid Park," and the second, a better film in a lot of aspects, was "Milk." Van Sant played his cards very well. This release doesn't only work as some premium Oscar bait, but also to help repeal the anguishing hatred of gays behind Prop 8, California's way of shutting gays out of having a good, married life. Here, Van Sant takes us back to the 70's, from 1970 to 1978, and shows us a world full of the same stereotyping and hatred, in San Francisco, where Harvey Milk ran for city supervisor. Van Sant's work is not only a retro slice of life picture, but also a activist piece, where the director captures the right tone. And who better to play Milk than Sean Penn, versatile actor who has tackled many parts, an Oscar winner and a four-time Best Actor nominee, and the perfect choice for this character, who he goes at full speed ahead, in such a way where the line between Penn and Milk starts to blur. Penn is not just fantastic in the role: he is mesmerizing. The supporting work is very well done also: Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones, a man who can organize massive crowds, Diego Luna and James Franco as two of Milk's lovers, Alison Pill as Anne Kronenberg, the woman who helps along Milk's campaign, and, most importantly, Josh Brolin as Dan White, who goes from pseudo-friendly to homicidal over the course of the film, in a performance that's taut, raging, and angering, that's not as good as his work in "W." as Bushie, but still a role worth noting in many ways. But I give credit to Van Sant here the most, crafting a film lover's film, one that melds archival footage so seamlessly, it is wowing. This film shows you Harvey Milk's story, and even though I don't think it is the best film of the year, it is in my mind the most important. I urge you to see this film. A

Milk has some brief sexual content, disturbing images (one of a hanging), and some language.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Four actors and great direction by Mike Nichols turn Edward Albee's play into a cinematic masterpiece, one of the most shattering, depressing, and exhausting films of our time. The movie revolves around a after-party social that goes massively awry, with humiliation and insanity in huge quantities. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, equally good, play couple George and Martha, who have an odd relationship full of horrible bickering. When another couple, Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis), show up for the wildest of nights. Everyone eventually gets drunk, and that reveals a lot of family history between the four that they wouldn't have given out with no drinks around. This very early on spirals out of control, and the party may have destroyed all the relationships by the end of the party. It is an excellent film, horrifying, witty, and the darkest and highest of black comedies. Both of the women won Oscars, and I think just Taylor should have, because although Dennis is pretty good, she is not a worthy second win. If there had to be two, it should have been Burton and Taylor. But the strangest thing is what's happened to Mike Nichols over the course of 40 years. His first film was top-notch, and his last film "Charlie Wilson's War," will be forgotten. At least he got a great start, and an inclusion on the AFI list not once, but twice (both this film and "The Graduate" made the current list). This film, though, is master class, one of the best adaptations of a play of all-time. A

Who's Afraid... is disturbing. Trust me.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Not One Less

"Not One Less" is a film of mixed proportions: it bathes in elegance and filth at the same time, and with moderate success. I enjoyed the film, but I do believe the only great scene in the film was the final scene involving kids coloring chalk on a chalkboard. But still I think: the film is very well done. It is the story of young substitute teacher Minzhi Wei (she plays herself, which I thought was a nice touch) and how she supports herself and teacher Gao (himself) as he goes away to tend to his mother. She is not a great teacher, not at all, in fact, but she's not a professional. She's loyal, but, in some ways, to her welfare: she must have every child that she started out with when Gao gets back, or else she will not receive a bonus ten yuan. Her loyalty is put to the test when Huike Zhang, a young troublemaking student, leaves to go get money. She goes after him, making her children move bricks to help her get fare, and even that won't work. She eventually hitchhikes there, and experiences the differences between small-town and citywide China. Her story touches so many that she gets enough money to build a bigger school, in a very inspiring ending. But the film struggles somewhat to hold it all together. Yimou Zhang, director of "Raise the Red Lantern," does a great job with the cinematography and score, but the writing and acting rely too much on reality to prosper on their own. If "Not One Less," was a documentary, it could work a lot better, but it pulls the more fictional aspects together as a feature film, some little details that couldn't be grasped in reality's films. The thing is that "Not One Less" is truly amazing, but I mean that more about the story than the movie. B