Sunday, August 30, 2009

Julie & Julia

Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” is a mediocre excursion into Julia Child and her influence not because of anything relating to Meryl Streep’s work. I just wanted to make that clear. No, what spoils the dish here is the section regarding Julie Powell, a New Yorker with a dead-end job who likes cooking and who makes it a project of preparing all of the recipes in Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in one single year. Amy Adams, who’s usually pretty solid, doesn’t do very good work here. But what’s really odd is how the feel is so different in these two separate parts. They feel sort of as if made by different directors. They should be, but instead they’re bundled into one film, with the Powell story getting slightly more attention.

The film is all about the parallels between the lives of Child and Powell. As Julia moves to France because of her Communist husband Paul’s (Stanley Tucci) job, Julie moves into a small apartment in Queens near her husband Eric’s (Chris Messina) office. Both of the women are not in good job situations: Julia is stuck with what to do, and Julie is in a boring, white-collar job. As you may guess, both start to get some happiness from cooking: Julia becomes a chef, and Julie starts making Child’s dishes. There should be much, much more time spent on Julia Child than on Julie Powell, at least if the stories are going to be told the way they are, because whenever the movie jumps forward in time, there’s a lessening in the quality. Ephron seems to not care about stumbling into many clichés when delving into Powell, and she also doesn’t mind falling into suit among other mainstream romantic comedies on this front. It doesn’t help when Adams and Messina (whose performance in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” I said to be “one of the non-romantic joys of the film”) are lukewarm and stilted. The usage of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” in this part of the film is sad and lame. Plus, if the biggest laugh in your subdivision is from Dan Ackroyd's impression of Julia (yes, that's also in this movie, and what we get is not only him but the reactions of the two modern-day cookers, which provides for an awkward, tepid feeling), you know things are not going too well.

Another element I thought sorry was how under-nourished Streep’s performance was. I mean if she does get nominated for an Oscar, it would only be fair for Best Supporting Actress. She’s given not very much space and time with Ephron’s objective, every-scene-has-a-clear-purpose style to spin a good Child. In a feature-length biopic, she would shine brighter and clearer. Here, she’s bogged down by her counterpart.

Well, I don’t think my review is going to influence your choice of film. You’ll probably have decided whether or not you want to go. But if you’re on the fence, there are better films to see in terms of parallels (“Sita Sings the Blues”) and mainstream romantic comedies (“Duplicity”). When it comes to food films, this is only one in really wide circulation at the moment. I know there’s definitely an audience for it, and a big one at that. I’m not part of it, however. But there is something to be said for the fact that with choices like "Inglourious Basterds" and "Halloween II" available, this film gives off somewhat of a feeling of warmness and good intent. When I left packed theater, almost everyone was talking about dinner. This is how films are supposed to inspire, and I'm glad that "Julie & Julie," no matter how good I think it is, is at that plateau. C

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In the Loop

Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop” is the closest to obsessive British insulting (“bullocksing”) I’ve ever been. It’s a fly-on-the-wall take on a lesser Minister named Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) who makes a statement about the possibility of a war in the “Middle East” (about conflict being “unforeseeable”) on a radio interview. This angers Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), a big cheese whose exact position I’m unclear about, and thus does harm to Foster’s reputation. This angering I’m talking about is not subtle at all, and includes an abundance of strong language, so if you’re expecting a refined political comedy, move along to another theater as quickly as possible.

Another component in this absurdity is Foster’s newly appointed aide, Toby (Chris Addison), whose first workday is the morning after Foster has made his remark. He gets Foster involved with the Americans by scheduling (through his high-rep girlfriend) an appearance by Foster at a meeting involving war (where Foster is supposed to be “room meat” and pretty much stay in the background). At this little meeting we find out about Liza Weld’s (Anna Chlumsky) papers, which mention a war committee. These documents are known throughout as “Quip Hip” or something like this. The war committee comes to be known as “The Future Planning Committee.” This group is headed up by Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a head honcho on the American side. Among those attending are General George Miller (James Gandolfini, the biggest name in the cast), and his ex-lover and the woman who holds the first meeting, Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy). This war committee is supposed to be secretive, but is divulged by someone I will not name. It causes an uproar, etc.

The film is sort of divided into three acts: the first in England, the second in Washington D.C. when Foster, Toby, and eventually Malcolm (“Are you coming to insult me in another time zone?” Foster asks forlornly) come to the war committee meeting and the effects of that, and the third as mostly everyone converges at the UN and votes on whether or not to declare war. This may sound underwhelming. In most films it would be. But here, the humorous script (by Iannucci and three others) and the performances carry the film onto a bit of higher ground. I mean, this is not a film many will talk about in twenty years, but it is fine entertainment for now.

“In the Loop” is very well cast, and well acted by its players. Hollander and Addison are funny and whimsical British presences, which is what the roles needed. Gina McKee as a fellow aide to Foster is good as well. Capaldi, given the film’s punchlines often, is overbearing, but I suppose that’s the point. Rasche, as the glib Barwick, perhaps turns in the film’s best performance. Gandolfini is formidable, and Chlumsky I found below average and the film’s weakest performance as a cliché American. She does very little with the least shaded-in character.“In the Loop” is a very amusing and moderately satirical, but mostly just a comedy of errors and high-level idiocy. There are many quotable lines and little bits of wit. It’s pretty good for the genre it’s in. Although it’s not an extremely impacting or really standout film, it’s delightful in a way and vulgar (this is hard to take at times). The crew rarely lets you get deep in the loop, but that’s okay. It’s enough to watch from the outside in. B-

Monday, August 24, 2009


Erick Zonca’s “Julia” is an insane and very complex film, one of the most insecure movies that I’ve seen in a while due to great cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and very disorienting editing by Phileppe Kotlarski. But there’s one component that really couldn’t have been well replaced, and that’s Tilda Swinton. This is probably the year’s best performance, a shaky, captivating portrayal of a "reckless alcoholic." It easily deserves an Oscar nomination, for this is perhaps Swinton’s very best work (better than even her Academy Award-winning acting in “Michael Clayton”).

Well, the film stretches nearly two and a half hours, providing the room for a long, insane plot. Julia Harris (Swinton) is a desperate, desperate woman who owes money to plenty of people who’ve helped along the way and who drinks so much she regularly passes out. The interesting way the film handles this is by telling it from her point of view, so you see only before and after she faints. One who’s tried very hard to help her is Mitch (Saul Rubinek), her advisor of sorts on alcohol who wants to go to AA meetings, which she refuses to stay more than a few seconds at. At one she meets Elena (Kate Del Castillo), who’s also her neighbor. Elena tells her about her kid, who was taken away from her. She asks Julia if she wants to take part in a plot to kidnap the son from his stepfather, and Julia goes along, not knowing the full extent at all of what she’s getting herself into. What ensues is completely loco, wildly intense, and very inflicting upon the viewer.

Julia, previously only an owing drunk, now gets caught inside of a web of intricate plotting and into many different troubles, part of the overly elaborate script by Zonca and Aude Py which gives Swinton a spectacle to be a part of. It’s very well orchestrated, in a way that makes you feel the layers being brought upon Julia. Why I think the cinematography is so good is because the camera lurches and shakes like viewing from the perspective of a tippler. Le Saux also does bizarre things like pan the screen and pan back during shots involving multiple subjects, creating a feeling not found in most films. The editing is well done in creating a bewildering atmosphere.

I’m not sure if this is a Best Picture contender or anything, but it’s a very good film in which Swinton gives a masterful performance of little control. Zonca gets to make an interesting film that only could be made independently, due to the fact that it’s hard to endure and many would only see it once, or fractionally. I’m not sure I could really go through it again, but I probably will sometime or another. If you’re easily shaken, this is not a good film for you. But if you can take it, it’s a movie of great ability and compromising lunacy. A-

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rudo y Cursi

After seeing Carlos Cuaron's directorial debut "Rudo y Cursi," about rivalry between brothers, I can now say that I believe Alfonso, his brother and the director of the amazing "Children of Men," is the better filmmaker. Carlos' film is a profane, somewhat sickening take on soccer and its deep effect upon people. Tato (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Beto (Diego Luna) are two brothers working on a banana plantation in rural Mexico. In their spare times, Beto and Tato play soccer, and Tato sings (not exactly well, but I don't think the film makes a big deal of that). Suddenly, a greedy-looking fellow by the nickname of "Baton" (Guillermo Francella) comes to town and wants to turn the two brothers into superstars.

"Baton" accommodates both brothers eventually, but he's difficult. He first only takes Tato on the basis of a penalty shot which the two coordinated to go one way (for Beto's sake), and well, Tato aimed otherwise. Moving on, when they're on their teams, both brothers take in large paychecks and live in the house Tato (now known as "Cursi" since he does a lot of theatrics after he scores) has gotten a hold of as a gift from the team. Cursi is dating a TV celebrity named Maya (Jessica Mas), a woman who we realize (but not Cursi) just loves the player who's hot at the moment. Cursi is also trying to launch his career as a singer (his signature song is "I Want You to Want Me"). Beto (or "Rudo"), the more successful soccer player of the two (probably since he's more devoted), is investing with his wife Tona (Adriana Paz) in a vitamin company. He's also gambling a lot, using a "system," which you know is not good news.

As noted in Ebert's and the Playlist's reviews, the film is more about the energy surrounding soccer than than the sport itself. This is necessary in the situation presented, since it helps to understand the emotions of the two brothers, who are the real main focuses on the field. What the film comes down to in the end seems like a melodramatic sports cliche, and it sort of is. But the intention I think of Cuaron is to show a dream that turns sour due to the fact that there is so much on the line (one reason why neighborhood soccer is somewhat better). If you think you know what will happen in the film's conclusion, you probably are slightly off. This whole scene is supposed to be dreamy and weirdly downscaled, but if you're looking for an ending you can't quite find, there is one. All-in-all, "Rudo y Cursi" isn't very solid (although Bernal and Luna are decent and Adam Kimmel is a great cinematographer), but it provides an interesting, realistic, and darkly funny look into superstardom and how two man-children having it brought upon them are too naive to see that they are being played. C+

Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

"District 9" is a critical look on discrimination in a place where there's been plenty of it: South Africa. The film is about an alien ship landing over Johannesburg. These aliens (we never find out what they're really called, we just get a slur-- "Prawn"), are found and sequestered in District 9, where they have lived since 1982. This is (according to and about 36 years into Apartheid, although in the film there is no mention of it at all. It may be an alternate universe, where Apartheid hasn't happened. Whichever, the film uses your knowledge to create an "underlying racial tension" (as they say).

The film is set in 2010, meaning the Prawns have been located in District 9 for roughly 28 years. Also interesting is the fact that Nigerians have been grouped together with the aliens, which says that human racism has not even been solved. As the film commences, the public is protesting against having to live with such creatures, and the MNU (Multinational United) is moving them to a new area with tents. Later on the film, the hero of sorts, Wikus (Sharlto Copley), compares this to a concentration camp, evoking thoughts yet another bit of prejudice. We first meet Wikus, a MNU worker and a white South African, evicting aliens from their dwellings. This is where we first encounter the aliens, computer-generated fellows who speak in a weird dialect, using relatively cliche bits of dialogue, and with an appetite for cat food. The film is shot with a handheld camera, evoking realism. The violence that transpires is challenged with looking realistic, and it is more in the vein of "Look what I caught on camera!" This inspires a question: do you aim more for a more true-to-life perspective or do you go more in the way of "Transformers," which uses regular film to capture sensationalism? "District 9" does both, in a way, and I'll discuss that more later.

Anyways, Wikus experiments with an alien canister and sprays himself with a highly dangerous substance, which in turn makes him sick. I won't say exactly what happens as a result, but I will remark that MNU has a heyday over it. It satirizes the lengths that labs go to to get new information, and also later pokes fun at the media's way of blurring stories. The problem is, the film goes in an entirely predictable direction from this point onward. We meet up with a character from earlier on, and Wikus the nerd gets to operate some high tech weaponry (said guns smack of "Halo," which was set to be Neill Blomkamp's directoral debut).

As I said before, "District 9" calls to mind "Transformers" in its (as Ebert said and Deborah Lipp said of "Thunderball") "climactic sequence, where following who's participating and such is very hard" and (as others said) "the whole scene is very dull." Who's ultimately painted as the villain is a weak choice, too: the main man from the eviction mission who Vikus complained to about "efficiency." He's a cardboard cutout, as you might expect. There's also a massive dependancy on Snorricam, the method in which the camera is strapped to an object and... well, it's hard to explain, but you'd know when you saw it. I'm getting off topic here in regards to a topical movie. Not a good sign.

I won't go into huge detail about the main performance, which is, in the standard way for action pics, not all that great. Copley is "nervy" like they say about Nicolas Cage, and also uses the word "man" a lot like Russell Crowe in "State of Play." He does, however, radiate with a charming quality, at least at the beginning. Just like the movie, he's better earlier on. Everything into consideration, "District 9" maintains a fascinating metaphor regarding intolerance, and does it in an innovative, documentary-style way. But, as Ebert said, it mimics other recent cinema (like "Iron Man," with regards to the battle suit) when it manifests itself as a slam-bang, (to quote the MPAA rating) "bloody" piece. It would have worked better (if the end had been retooled) as a novel, where it could've had, in the right hands, a better impact, since there wouldn't be so much clutter to prevent it from greatness. They should call it "Prawn Like Me." C

Friday, August 14, 2009


Perhaps it was because I have seen the English version, but to me Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo" is a disappointment and is one of the director's very few. It's not the imagery that's the problem here: Miyazaki animates in his standard way, touching every shot up with great little details. When "Ponyo" reaches underwater, there is no shortage of well-drawn sea creatures to delight us. But the subtleties in the background are only half of a Miyazaki piece. There is usually an adroit story to supplement.

"Ponyo" is about a young boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) who finds a little creature which he christens Ponyo after she eats a lot of ham. What Sosuke doesn't know is that Ponyo (actually named Brunhilda) is the daughter of the keeper of the ocean, Fujimoto (Liam Neeson). This makes it hard to maintain a relationship. Another factor is that both of the protagonists are (as people have said) "around the age of 5". It would be interesting to see what happened as the two grew up. But that is not shown here. Ponyo could be seen, however, as a sort of spark in Sosuke's cliche-founded life. You see, his father (Matt Damon) is away at sea almost every day, and his mother (Tina Fey) works at a nursing home. There is one kind of bizarre scene where the two parties (the father on his boat and the son and mother in their house) communicate via lights, involving the phrase "bug off." That's all you really find out about Dad, the cardboard cutout that he is.

Well, Ponyo eventually is taken back in by the ocean at the fervent command of Fujimoto so that the world will stay in balance. What's a little fuzzy is that Fujimoto is painted bad since he wants to break up the relationship, partly because he hates humans, but also because he wants there not to be an apocalypse. But if it can also be solved by just making Ponyo a human... Whatever. What "Ponyo" the film is short on is logic. There's a tsunami scene in the film in which Sosuke's mom, who's a terrible driver and who cannot seem to compute there's a tsunami on, attempts to drive home for no reason other than to drum up some sort of tension. No one would do this. And when she gets home, the tsunami hardly enters her mind again. It redefines the phrase "natural disaster." No wonder no one pays attention to Fujimoto.

I won't go on berating the plot: you can see for yourself. As Ebert said in his review of Miyazaki's previous effort, "Howl's Moving Castle," if you are a fan of the director you are bound to check it out. I won't complain about the annoying voicework since it probably is only a problem in the dubbed edition, but I will say that the editing is tackily done by Miyazaki and Takeshi Seyama. If the screenplay translates to anything similar in Japanese, and it's not a matter of matter of badly interpreting Japanese in English, it's poor. There are passages of monotonous dialogue that are possibly padding to stretch the film from a short to a feature-length film. But enough: my review will not dissuade you if you are a Miyazaki fan. If you have not seen any other of his work, let me say this: he has done much better in the past and if you want a taste of what he really can do, go with "Spirited Away" or "My Neighbor Totoro". This is the movie of his to skip out on. C

Sunday, August 9, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

"(500) Days of Summer" is a surprisingly traditional mainstream comedy for all the nonlinear lengths it goes to to try to clear a place itself in our minds. It fails at being much more than a off-key bunch of episodes grouped together by a parenthetic clock. Critics acknowledge its point is that a relationship is thought of afterwards by the participants in random memories than from beginning to end. But they are forgetting something. There was a movie five years ago that is similar in this way, which was much better. It's Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," scripted by the wonderful Charlie Kaufman, that was about recollection as much as this film. What was different was that the film was well-executed, with scenes in between that made the film a little better than just a vehicle for a gimmick. "A vehicle for a gimmick." Sounds just like "(500) Days of Summer" to me.

The film chronicles a relationship that you can see as doomed from the beginning, since the title references a period of 1 year and 135 days as opposed to a lifetime. Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the "boy" in "boy meets girl" and he believes in a little thing called love. Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), the "girl," thinks otherwise. She wants to have fun in L.A., and "not be tied down by a man". I am either directly quoting, paraphrasing, or just referencing (I'm not sure which) Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," where there is the debate of lightness vs. weight (there is also a scene about discovering women that this film made me recall). The film's characters debate the same thing, while the film is more light than substantial.

Anyways, both of these (archetypal) "twentysomethings" work at a greeting card company, where Summer is a secretary and Tom is the guy who can come up with phrases and who is a lot better than everyone else. My question is: why are unoriginal people working at a company where it's a good idea to have some vibrancy? I guess that's why there's an abundance of mediocre cards out there. Tom dreams of becoming an architect and you can probably guess whether by the time the credits roll he gets to do he wants. That's the kind of movie this: caving in to the predictable.

Scott Neustadler and Michael H. Weber, the writers of the film (who also worked on "The Pink Panther 2" together), remarkably pen an number of cliches into a film that is supposed to be the "anti-love-story." They inject little bits of oddity (like how Belle and Sebastian's sales skyrocketed after Summer mentioned them in her high school yearbook), but there's also what Tom's next girlfriend is named, how the film ends, and the random, juvenile scene involving human anatomy that rain on director Marc Webb's sunny day. There's also a weak supporting cast of dude friends like Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler, who predictably don't know the first thing really about a serious relationship and yet offer a lot of advice (like Ebert, Lisa Schwarzbaum, et al. said about the guys in "The 40-Year Old Virgin"). Another lukewarm performance is delivered by Chloe Moretz as Tom's younger sister by a decade or so who knows more about love than he does. She also says something about remembering the days of Summer that sounds very similar to something from "Eternal Sunshine." There is also a shot, one of the two leads walking through a market, that makes me think back on the other film, and how it was a success. "(500) Days of Summer" is not one. If you claim to make a hyperkinetic, modern take on love, follow through. Don't go all routine on us all. C