Sunday, March 29, 2009

Two Lovers

James Gray's "Two Lovers" is being hailed as "different" and even "one of the best films of 2009" but I believe it's only a matter of Gray choosing to be slightly more thoughtful (this observation has been made before than his Hollywood counterparts. He doesn't really try to force anything, and sometimes this works and sometimes otherwise. It's quite an oddly-paced film, but sometimes this is what we all need.

Joaquin Phoenix, who has supposedly quit acting completely, tries his best to anchor it all as heartbroken Leonard, whose attempted to commit suicide after his fiancee leaves him. The same day, he meets a new woman, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), who is the daughter of the man who's going to take over the family dry cleaning business. His parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov), charmed by Sandra's affection and tenderness towards Leonard, push for their son to get involved with her. He likes her, but he's more in love with his next door neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who's very unstable and also involved with her law associate (Elias Koteas). Michelle relies for him to take care of her, since she needs someone to latch onto. Leonard is split because of the two lovers' ideas of the relationships. Gray handles it all well, but ultimately, the film's overall nature is forgettable.

I do admire the film's altogether lack of a real payoff, but it could have helped to have some tinges of intrigue. In some ways, it seemed like it was going in a "Vertigo" sort of way, due to the scene with Phoenix and Koteas at the restaurant where Koteas tells him to "keep an eye on" Michelle. But still, this could have really been amazing. There were only a couple of restrictors, but these held back the film's full potential. Phoenix is very good and delivers with a nuanced feel, but there are moments of such idiotic silliness that seem like character breaks. These seemed like attempts for Gray to provide comic relief, but they obscured the film's tragic aspects. Plus, I believe the film's overall lack of an impact fractured its chances of any sort of real memorability. But the film has its definite strong suits. Shaw and Paltrow are quite good in their respective roles, and Gray actually does a real character study, unaffected by the long and influential grasp of Hollywood. B+

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I Love You, Man

"I Love You, Man," as noted by Ebert, could have been pretty run-of-the-mill. But it elevates to a slyly hilarious and constantly amusing comedy. Paul Rudd is pretty perfectly cast as a feminine real estate agent named Peter Klaven. He's engaged to Zooey, played by Rashida Jones in a more nuanced performance than anything of Tea Leoni's. Jones is able to fill that slightly annoying girlfriend mold with a variation that is quite enjoyable. Anyways, Peter has a great relationship with Zooey and has had luck with women all his life since he's not exactly macho. He doesn't have a lot of guys that he hangs out with, and the culture of dudes and mandates and such is quite foreign to him.

He's assisted by his gay brother Robbie (the always pretty funny Andy Samberg) around the gym. He's hooked up with a lot of characters, including one gay man (a subtly amusing Thomas Lennon) who thinks that Peter is involved with him. Then, Peter meets Sydney Fife, a totally macho broseph at an open house for the guy who played Hulk on TV. Fife is played by Jason Segel, in a wonderfully comedic performance. Sydney and Peter hit it off, very easily. This provokes Peter to try to be really macho, and he fails miserably. This is the movie's most colorful joy, I'll leave it at that. Sydney tries not to care, and invites Peter to his mancave where the two discover they both have a serious Rush fetish and bond and tell secrets. Soon, Zooey believes that Peter is spending more time with Sydney, and... well, the results are pretty great.

What's ironic is that Will Farrell and John C. Reilly, two pretty seasoned comedians, tried to do the same thing roughly in "Step Brothers," and it was horribly immature. I couldn't finish it. Here, the childishness is part of the fun. Rudd and Segel, free to control the screen, do quite well and prove to create many, many good laughs. John Hamburg, who wrote the screenplays for a few Ben Stiller vehicles, writes(along with Larry Levin) and directs to greatness and capitalizes on a vital and funny trend in society at the moment. Perfectly timed and silly like the name of Segel's dog (Anwar Sadat LOL), "I Love You, Man" manages to be the funniest film of the year so far and breaks the mold for bromances sure to come, although none will be quite as funny as this one. B+

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What Just Happened?

"What Just Happened?" has a problem: its title pretty much describes the whole film, and that's not a compliment. It's also a picture that no producer would want to be associated with, especially Art Linson, the man who adapted from his own memoir that's actually, in the words of Robert De Niro, "not too bad." It's a pretty horrible film, if I do say so myself, that tries to be funny even though it's so obviously not. Come on, Barry Levinson! You've been in the business long enough to tell a flop from a film that flies like a flippin' eagle. You should be able to see how there's nothing really stimulating, worth watching, or worth even caring about. You should also know that your film is a pretty needless experience. It stars Mr. De Niro as a producer named Ben. If you've read the book the film is based on, you know that these accounts are autobiographical and Ben is just Art Linson, except he's probably a lot more annoying. It also might have been a factor that De Niro is turning in some of the worst acting of his career. In the book, there's talk about how hard it is to get such a film financed. How this film even got pitched is beyond me. Without Art Linson's status as a moderately prestigious producer, this script would have been looked at with a quizzical eye and told to be rewritten or scrapped completely. Stars playing themselves might have worked. I mean, Sean Penn turns in a cute, simplistic turn where he kinda makes fun of himself, but not enough to really matter. Bruce Willis is kinda amusing with a beard, but he, like many others in this film is extremely annoying. Well, here's the skinny: Ben needs to fix some Hollywood problems, for example an excessively violent ending of a saturated action film starring Penn and directed by Jeremy (Michael Wincott). He also has to Willis he must shave his beard, very fast. John Tuturro is annoying as Willis' agent, who just adds to the annoyance content of the film. Catherine Keener plays a studio exec who supports the recutting of the ending of the film. Keener, always charming, knows a thing or two about satire, but really, can only an okay performance keep some bust from sinking? Robin Wright Penn (Sean's wife, how funny) and Kristin Stewart are members of Ben's immediate family. The film tries to save itself by having the action film premiere at Cannes (like "What Just Happened?" itself did), which is a little interesting, but not enough. These are just desperate attempts to make the viewer care, when they are already leaving to go do something else. Believe me I was tempted, as the film is an exceedingly predictable and unpleasant viewing experience. How I wish I acted upon impulse. D

Ghost Town

"Ghost Town" is a very, very (excuse the term) forgettable romantic comedy if you will about ghosts who stay on Earth before going to Heaven because they have "unfinished business" to take care of. From this phrase, you know the film is relegated to a very cliche, mainstream mold that has been tested time and time again to very similar results. There have been quite brilliant films about ghosts before. Anthony Minghella's classic "Truly Madly Deeply" features British actress Juliet Stevenson trying to get over deceased husband Alan Rickman, who comes back to her, with sometimes very funny results. With more scope, "Ghost Town" could be somewhere near here, but really what it comes off as is a sort of low-grade "Ghost" that's not quite as dark. This little, harmless comedy centers around Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais), who's a dentist. He's also a miserable person. This sends the movie down a very familiar path, but a little more assuredly, because Gervais is quite good at being an arse. The problem is, he's not given enough real room to be one. He's used to his usual uncut humor, and I find him quite funny, since I am a person who unabashedly likes comedians such as George Carlin. But here, he's forced to act dramatically, which is not quite his forte. I give him credit, though. This film could have been extremely awful if he hadn't signed on. But still, he can't really do much, since he's forced to roll with the flow. Anyways, he receives a colonoscopy and feels quite funny afterwards, hallucinating and all. He goes back to the hospital and finds out he has died for a few minutes due to an inept anesthetist. Now, he sees the dead people who have to, as they say, "make things right." One such person is Frank (Greg Kinnear), a husband who has not had a good relationship with his spouse. His spouse, Gwen, is played by the master of misinformed retaliators and people who get vented on by jerks, Tea Leoni. This itself is quite a change that could have been made. See, Leoni brings charm, but also a feeling that we've already seen this whole thing played out. Leoni was in "The Family Man" with Nic Cage, another movie with a supernatural happening. There, the film worked, since it was anchored by Cage's neurotic presence, especially in the immortal "funnel cake" scene. Here, there is no actor that can switch from comedy to drama fast. There is only Gervais. Well, there is also Kinnear, who provides some hilarious chemistry, but it can't go on long because of the Invisibility Rule, which is another instance of the plot holding back the humor. Also, the ghosts in the film are almost intolerably annoying. I guess David Koepp, the film's director, thought this was funny somehow, but it really isn't. Yes, there are scenes that were amusing. When Pincus tries to court Gwen by the will of Frank (since she will marry the charitable but boring Richard, played by Bill Campbell), Gervais opens up a little bit and lets fly some off-the-wall humor. But, as often is the case, the structure prohibits this from happening too much and sends us down a slow road towards an uninspired ending, trying desperately to get us to laugh with silly gimmicks (if you pass through a ghost, you will sneeze) and other ruthlessly begging shenanigans. The script needs retooling, definitely. A great film may have resulted from a Charlie Kaufman ghost script, since that would have been more open to possibility. You would also need a recast. Even Jim Carrey might be able to hold down a film such as this, but I would go deeper. The point is, you can't really find what's needed here in this "Ghost Town." C

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Being John Malkovich

"Being John Malkovich" is the first collaboration between wildly eccentric screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and music video director Spike Jonze, and the results are brilliant at times. There is such an abundance of imagination at the film's beginning and a lack of it when the film ends that it's hard to believe. The idea is quite hilarious and thoughtful, but it goes down the tubes when Kaufman can't think of a good finale to end a somewhat astounding first half. John Cusack is Craig Schwartz, a puppeteer who comes up with strange dances and oddly intimate moments to show his faithful (which is very few). He's married to Lotte (Cameron Diaz), who loads the small apartment that the two share with many, many animals. Since puppeteer work hasn't been so great lately, Craig decides to become a file clerk, where he excels. He then meets Maxine (Catherine Keener), who deems him essentially "gay" for "playing with dolls."

But then, things get very interesting. Craig by accident finds a portal into John Malkovich's mind inside of his office and decides to sell visits into the actor's being for $200 each. Other dilemmas erupt from this: Lotte falls madly in love with Maxine and uses Mr. Malkovich to take part in intercourse. Problem: Craig is also in love and resorts to very desperate measures to do the same. Maxine becomes entranced in Craig since he can actually do such things, and thus a love affair comes alive. Craig attempts to take hold of Malkovich longer than the usual 15 minutes in order to love her and also extend his first career of puppeteering to a bigger audience. Problem: the sexually alive old man Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) likes to live forever and does so by transporting from body to body, essentially reincarnation but not exactly. He also wants to transport many other old people into Malkovich. This is where the film goes off the rails and into less perfectly pitched territory.

Before, the film acts as a critique of how society has a somewhat sexual, idol-like relationship with actors through a somewhat odd metaphor. Now, the film tries to explain why this is and therefore appeal to an all-questioning mainstream audience. Plus, the way the film disturbingly ties up is disgusting and made me cringe. Yes, it's theoretical, but why does it have to be here? There are so many ways this could have worked without totally going linear like the near self-destructive end of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." Oddly, the two films are very similar, and not so oddly, the Hitchcock film is easily much better. This didn't need to be the case. The first hour is perfectly Kaufman, and how the characters fall into ballistic desperation is disturbing, but in the name of intelligence. The last 20-30 minutes cave in, and although they're not linear, that doesn't put them off the hook. B+

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Tony Gilroy, coming off a very successful film in "Michael Clayton," goes for a comedic take in "Duplicity," which at times reaches great, Coen Brothers-type humor, which is quite odd for a blatantly mainstream romantic spy comedy. If it had stuck with these bits of brilliance throughout the film, this might be quite a gem. Unfortunately, Gilroy feels the need to keep it audience-friendly: hence the casting of adored but somewhat mediocre Ms. Roberts, nee Julia, who shows more of her usual, somewhat forced acting across from Clive Owen, a man I thought was pretty amazing in "Children of Men." Here, he plays the deadpan style he's renowned for and does it quite well. He knows how to deliver Gilroy's perfectly-pitched script, and he's somewhat of the force of the film. He's the perfect match for Roberts: he's so super-slick and sly as a fox, when he's caught off guard, you can see it in his eyes. Except in this film, there are a lot of fronts (as said by many a review like Ebert). Although Gilroy's bait and switch was a little obvious, his ultimate payoff is a beautiful surprise, cultivating in a real dupe.

Here's the set-up: two CEOs, one a well-dressed, organized businessman (Gilroy veteran Tom Wilkinson, who does well yet again), the other a farcical, conniving man without a real plan (Paul Giamatti, who shows he can do hilarious satire for the umpteenth time, and as Lisa Schwarzbaum said, plays a "Giamattian character"), are seriously deadly rivals (witness the magnificently done credits sequence fight). Giamatti's character wants the secrets behind the mysterious product that Wilkinson possesses, and he'll stop at nothing to retrieve them. Enter Roberts and Owen, who are agents set up on both sides to try to ensure that Giamatti gets what he wants. The two also have a somewhat charged relationship: she drugged him in Dubai, and he'll never get over it, even though he comes back for more. What ensues is a well-written film that feels it needs to appeal to everyone, which is the problem.

There are flashes of brilliance, most definitely. Owen steals the show with his hilarious Tennessee accent, and his remarks about frozen pizza. The mystery product I've seen people complain about, but could it be any more satisfying? It's so Coen-esque. Gilroy is establishing himself as a key player in the business of screenwriting: he's done Bourne, a great legal thriller, and now a funny, unpredictable spy film. If he stuck to his roots in "Duplicity," he could have really gone for gold. Instead, it's half as brilliant, and only somewhat as good as it could be. B

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Stranger Than Paradise

Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" is the true independent film, not some sort of Fox Searchlight bull. It's cheaply made, adeptly cast, and it clocks in at 89 minutes in length. Yet, it manages to be very funny, very beautiful (in crisp B & W), and very well acted. John Lurie of "Fishing With John" and "Down by Law" plays Willie, a Hungarian slacker living in New York who gets by eating TV dinners and hanging out with his best friend Eddie (Richard Edson), one of those people who baits you by saying he's been somewhere and the truth is quite obvious that he's been putting you on. Willie receives a call from Aunt Lotte (Cecilia Stark) who is sending Eva (Eszter Balint), a brash lady with a penchant for Screamin' Jay Hawkins who wouldn't seem out of place in, say, Jarmusch's "Mystery Train." Willie and Eva don't hit it off immediately, but when they do, thus begins the indie road trip film of the 80's. It's a comical odyssey, with many shots mounted on the front of the car, indie style. But it's not just a quirky indie. In fact, it manages to avoid that completely. Although there is quite a bit of attention on detail, it's not one of those cute little films that marketers call "low-budget." If there was ever a film to bear that title, it would probably be this one. Another thing is how it's very Jarmuschian without being too annoying. There were moments in his "Train" that I liked (such as Hawkins' screamin' hilarious cameo), but all-in-all, it just isolated the slightly annoying bits that I don't find particularly amazing. Here, he finds a perfect pitch with zany, offbeat writing that provides a whimsical tone for a classic independent film to be treasured long after when the Hoovers have gone back to Albuquerque. A-

Finding Nemo

I've seen "Finding Nemo" many times, in English, and also in Spanish, and yet, I still can't see what all the fuss is about. Critics and audiences fawn over any decent animation, and sometimes the attention is not so fitting. The film won an Oscar for Best Animated Film which was no big surprise since it had an entire country behind it. It has its interesting moments and techniques, but it's mostly beloved for its extremely one-note performances. Albert Brooks does for once a non-comedic performance, although that's not necessarily a good thing. He plays Marlin, a clownfish (wow, how funny). His son is a rebellious, quiet youth named Nemo (Alexander Gould), who's probably the film's main source of praise. I think he's definitely the best character here. He's really the only one who didn't get constantly on my nerves. There's one fish we all know, one played by Ellen DeGeneres, an annoying comic in her own right, that really, really for me held the film back. Dory. She has tepid chemistry with everyone, but is beloved however because her mannerisms are memorable and kids find them funny. Getting back to the plot, Nemo is Marlin's only survivor son of a barracuda attack that took basically the entire litter and Marlin's wife and left Nemo damaged with a scarred fin. Now, flash forward to the first day of school, where Marlin, the neurotic bundle of nerves stereotype that he is, watches as his son is captured by a diver and taken across the sea or whatever to Sydney. Thus begins an "epic," overrated odyssey by a father trying to save his son. Touching, yes, but relying too much on light and cute humor to get the job done. Andrew Stanton is critically lauded for everything, and he's only impressed me with "Wall-E." Here, he constructs a wink wink nudge nudge pastiche of Oscar bait silliness. Sure, I enjoyed "Finding Nemo," but seriously, it's not the best thing since sliced bread. B-

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hannah and Her Sisters

"Hannah and Her Sisters" could be as good a film as, say, "Husbands and Wives" (the film it so frequently parallels), but instead it divulges into extremely random and painstakingly predictable sentimentality not usually found in Woody Allen's films. Like "Crimes and Misdemeanors," the film has two threads: one a more serious story involving love and the other focused around Mr. Allen himself and his neurotic attributes. The problem is here that, as the director, Allen feels the need to tie the stories together too closely and ends up with a final scene that's unnecessary since you can see it coming from a mile away. Another problem is the mediocre and heavily cheesy performance by Michael Caine that ruins the romantic aspects of the film, even though the actor possesses a seductive British accent. He goes through the whole cliche "hiding an affair" schtick that we've all seen again and again throughout cinema. Also, Mia Farrow's work is not put to the right use. In "Wives," her breakdown after her best friends break up is realistic and shocking. In this film, she grabs the wrong aspects of her personality, i.e. the annoying ones, and blends them together lukewarmly. As does Dianne Wiest, who, although better than in "Bullets Over Broadway," again fails to fill an ominous void (the plot), which is not quite as big as with "BOB." There are a few honorable bits and pieces strung together here. Allen, except in the unrealistically portrayed last scene, is very funny, as he contemplates the meanings of life, death, committing suicide, and religion. Max Von Sydow is an enigma here, as he plays a fascinating painter who's the partner of Barbara Hershey. His scene with the equally good Daniel Stern is hilarious and satirical. If only the rest of the movie could have been like that. I believe the whole enterprise here is heavily overrated because it sometimes captures the meaning of love. While I think the film has some good moments, the whole movie is hard to put together and Allen can't quite get it done. B-

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Class

Laurent Cantet's "The Class" is a fascinating achievement. François Bégaudeau, a real schoolteacher who I believe taught the very high schoolers of the film, wrote a book about his experiences and has adapted into a film that is joyous and quite excellent, but flawed as well. He plays himself, well, with a different name. He's a teacher that seems better to have than he is. He's sarcastic and pushing, or charismatic and supportive, depending on your outlook. To tell you the truth, he does receive a lot of flak throughout the film, but he somewhat overdoes it when it comes to his teaching.

Overall, Bégaudeau is fantastic, and he has a sort of underlying, irresistible charm that draws you in and keeps you in. His supporting cast, all students that the man himself has taught, are also excellent, managing to fill and expand on the vague schoolchildren that we have seen over and over again in cinema. In this case, the children are more interesting than most of the teachers. I believe this may have been put in to make the viewer think twice about what they know, but it also holds the film back from its full potential.

Like a real schoolday, "The Class" has its hardships. The teachers of other subjects seemed to be forlorn types that haven't been gotten around to in the rounding process. Perhaps Bégaudeau didn't know his colleagues that well, or something, but I need a little more here. Also, I wanted to get to know the rest of the class like I got to know some, like the pair of class representatives that function as objects of anger for Bégaudeau, who flips and indirectly calls them "skanks." Or Souleymane, the troubled and undernourished teen who breaks down and blows up. He's another inhibitor, since sends the third act into a bit of a drag. Cantet looks to only profile a few, but perhaps he missed stories that could have struck the camera harder. However, do I question the film's setup and nonlinear approach? Non. Do I think the film should have triumphed "Gomorrah," a film of the same style of unfocused narrative, to win Cannes' coveted Palme D'Or? Non again. Alas, it's a bit overrated. But, for all its flaws, "The Class" is somewhat of a delight, a quieter flame driven by those who learn, although they would like to admit otherwise. A-

Friday, March 13, 2009


Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah" is a bold, jarring, unusual take on the crimes committed by the Camorra in Naples. It's a Mafia picture wiser than it's cinematic classic counterpart "The Godfather." What I'm saying is that it's much closer to the scenes of the crime. Adapted from a memoir by Robert Saviano, it doesn't pause for breath. Its focused on showing the action, instead of getting caught up in the elastic boundaries of style. All the more, it shows a concrete, synthetic city, inhabited by people exactly the opposite. As I said, its purpose is to observe, not to build a plot. There are pieces of stories, but they are not linearly put together. If they had, it would have seemed a more amateurish effort a la "Crash." Its a documentation of a brutal series of acts, not a feel-good, buddy buddy film poised for Oscar Season. Don't get me wrong, some of those films are good, even great, but "Gomorrah" is not in that category. Hollywood looks to overload films with real "purpose," a gimmick for moneymaking, a need for stars. "Gomorrah" is a testament against a crime group. No government of any sort is mentioned throughout the film. I'm assuming, but I believe Saviano has an incarnation in the film, a man who eventually steps out of the business. There are also two rogue teens, who at one point raid a weapons stash and fire around in their underpants, interested in casual stickups, who get caught up in the web of deceit. There is a boy, also forced into this current, who commits a despicable betrayal of a friend. The violence is sudden and harsh. The film is a realistic portrait of the criminal activity, no holds barred, from an insider, and I can see how audiences can react strongly against it. But I believe this is an important step in trying to dust up a giant. A

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Counterfeiters

The Holocaust is such an extremely covered that it seems as if the films about it are being produced by the dozen. This year, Best Live Action Short was awarded to "Toyland," a Holocaust film with a slight twist over Reto Caffi's brilliant "On the Line." One year before, Stefan Ruzowitzky made this film, rewarded by the Academy in the Best Foreign Film category. It's adapted from a memoir by Adolf Burger called "The Devil's Workshop," and it's about the paradox of counterfeiting money for the Nazis in order to survive. Working off of a powerful subject, Ruzowitzy opts to monitor the action with zooms, quick cuts, and other fancier camerawork instead of looking at his subjects from afar. This is very atypical for a Holocaust retelling, and the signature "watching" has become synonymous with this. But the real miracle of the film is Karl Markovics ever expressive face, aided somewhat by makeup, but still devastating. He's the main focus of the film, as Sally Sorowitsch, famous counterfeiter renowned for his illegal dealings on the underground circuit. But soon, he is arrested and put straight into a concentration camp. He begins forced laboring, but when the guards pick up his natural talent of drawing and stenciling, they assign him to self-portraits, and, eventually, his forte, making fake currency. August Diehl also turns in a good performance as the man who wrote the book, a rebellious, torn up printer, agonized at the measures he must go to stay alive. At one point, say a few years back, maybe more, this film could have concocted something new. Its challenge is overcoming the cliches of the genre, and in some ways it dodges them, but there are definitely the "obligatory" shots of men, kneeling, being murdered. I guess after the stunning force of Spielberg's classic, nothing could quite compare. The reason: "The Counterfeiters," despite its circular plot structure that takes you eventually out of the camps, can't really escape being a Holocaust film, and at this point, we really need more than a slight variation on the theme. B+

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Any sort of media is a hard sell or even subject to persecution if it dares to criticize a religion. In "Religulous," Bill Maher and Larry Charles actually dare to go that far, taking an atheistic view and a few index cards full of provocative questions to many different religious. The film is extremely divisive. Religion is the most touchy subject out there, and a movie attacking it in any way won't strike a unanimous chord ever. Maher thinks that the whole business of faith is total B.S., and he tries to find the most ridiculous people out there to lampoon. He's a modern reincarnation of George Carlin, expressing his controversial views where most would shy away. Every person that Maher interviews in the film is utterly pious, and I believe he really pisses most of them off. He does some pretty outrageous shit in the film. He gets himself kicked out of the Vatican, for one, and goes one-on-one with a somewhat "maverick" priest. "Religulous" strikes me as a version of Sacha Baron Cohen's collaboration with Charles, "Borat." The only thing is, one was critically lauded and the other gets very little attention. The reason is that Maher's film puts people more at unease than Cohen's. It's trying to make much more of a statement. Towards the end, Maher preaches about how religion will end up destroying the world. I think the film works better as a smaller, more interrogational piece where Maher lights some people's fuses and tries to uncover the far-fetchedness behind all of this religion. He plays dirty, in almost all cases. The editing of satirical footage is somewhat pushing the limits of courtesy. But, really, how is a film criticizing religion full of courtesy? It's a brave thing for Charles and his comedian buddy to make such a film, however unilateral, that so examines religion. B+

Snow Angels

In movie adaptations, there are moments that you can't capture, subplots that must be cut for whatever reason, and bits connected to these subplots as well that must be also edited out. David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels" is so strung of these unexplained bits that its like the film is the result of free association. To a point, of course. It's a low-grade adaptation of a much more deserving author's work. I've met Stewart O'Nan, and he's a literary mastermind. "Angels" the film version is unworthy on its own, for the most part miscast, horribly paced, and tinging with convolution. Kate Beckinsdale is definitely the wrong choice to play Annie Marchand, a woman in a terrible marriage to Glenn, played with some gravitas by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell turns in a somewhat nuanced performance, especially in two scenes where he interacts with Nate (Nicky Katt), the second a seriously powerful oasis stuck in a swamp of cliches. I've seen all of this movie assembled in many other places. There is an interesting story in between the lines of a fourth-rate plot: Annie's fellow employee at a Chinese restaurant Arthur (Michael Angarano) likes to play trumpet in the school band, smokes pot, and has a relationship going on with Lila, played by Olivia Thirlby, who'll remain in my mind as Juno's best friend. Arthur has family troubles: his mother and father are separated, and his father offers letters and mixtapes to try to reunite the couple. In my opinion, that's somewhat ridiculous. I'd seen this play out so many other times in other movies, I couldn't really get past it. Since there's so much to focus on, the fact that there is a missing child case embedded in the story has a lessened impact. It's very similar to Clint Eastwood's "Changeling": there's too much of a murky facade surrounding the whole devastation that we are almost challenged to be moved. All I have to say is, pick one story or another and stick with it, focus on it. Then we have a good movie. There is really only one good performance inside of the film, and that's Tom Noonan as the unnamed bandleader. Noonan, unbelievable in Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York," builds a fascinating character in less than five minutes, while others are given an entire film, where they can't do what Noonan does. Of course, 25% of the film is random, unnecessary shots that are not even artistically or purposefully set. Then, when we get into the integral scenes of the film, the camerawork is so obnoxiously distracting, moving left and right, that we can't focus. C-

Monday, March 2, 2009


Pedro Almodovar is a fascinating director, and "Volver" is a powerfully fascinating and intensely provoking film. What charges the film is a brilliant script from Almodovar, who orchestrates happenings of the most interesting kind. Penelope Cruz is one of his favorite actresses, and here she plays Raimunda, a woman in an unhappy relationship and with a sister (Lola Duenas) who she's recovering with. See, they've lost their mother. At the beginning of the film, they are tending to her grave and to their Aunt who's heading for death. Soon, a terribly grotesque event happens involving Raimunda's husband and daughter and echoes the past. I don't know if it sets things in motion, but it somewhat lays down the tension for a ridiculously taut drama. Anyways, Raimunda's sister Sole begins to start seeing their mother, Irene (a wonderful performance by Carmen Maura), and suddenly we are confused. Is this a film of the supernatural, or is Irene not actually dead at all? I would say both. I'm sure that's not much of a spoiler, it's just a indication that Almodovar is up to something out-of-the-ordinary in his creation. "Volver" is very much about death, just not as you may think. The translation of the title into English is "To Return." That has many meanings in the film. As does the screenplay. Almodovar crafts writings of multiple mediums, and the dialogue helps convey them the fullest. Yet, I don't know if the execution is quite as full. Almodovar has absolutely nothing to do with this, and I am not putting him down. He is just as good as you have heard. Cruz, extremely good in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," is pretty good here, but is tainted in my mind. Why? As, Nick Davis said, because her "lip-syncing" to Estrella Morente's titular song is so bad, it's unbearable. Why not write out that one character trait, and you'd have a resoundingly complete performance. Another thing is that the movie is at least 20 minutes too long. The ending, however, is very well done, but I believe the restaurant scenes could have been made shorter, including the dreaded, aforementioned Cruz moment. "Volver," though, is truly a special film. The flaws are only a small part of the glory here. B+

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Princess Mononoke

Hayao Miyazaki holds power in his films found in few other places. Usually finding delight in his animation, he here ranges towards a dark and gruesome battle between humans and nature, where rage is boiling and turning the earnest into maddened demons. As the movie opens, we are faced with a town hero, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), who becomes infected by the virus of anger when he slays a charging boar. He is told to go to the forest spirit to make peace for his killing and also to end a brutal war. This gives Miyazaki a chance to do what he does absolutely best: beauty. His visions of a countryside are mind-blowing, his keen eye stunning, and his ultimate product detailed painstakingly. "Princess Mononoke" lays claim to the fact that its a visual masterpiece, easily one of the director's best to the eye. It is surely his epic film, and he creates unbelievable images. The problem is, though, that he goes far beyond what his writing can attest to. It's sad to see what happens to such an achievement when the dialogue is mediocre, and the overall effect takes somewhat of a hit from the maddeningly simple wordings that are used too much to work. They do not, however, extinguish all of Mr. Miyazaki's brilliance. Jack Fletcher's casting for the English language is quite inspired indeed. Crudup does nicely in the lead, and Danes supplements, if predictably, well. Minnie Driver is the only one here who decides not to enunciate the hell out of her lines, and I acknowledge that. But the really interesting casting move is for Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays, through the magic of the medium, a character of the other race. That's really something interesting to be wrought out of a style. "Mononoke" has a lot to be said for its visual, visceral images and gripping although somewhat climactic plotlines. The acting and writing fail to bring the whole enterprise full-circle, but that's no reason to make it fall to the wayside. This is a master working hard, and the results are praiseworthy. B+