Friday, November 27, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

I believe I've read some review about Nick Cassavetes' "My Sister's Keeper" comparing it to a Hallmark or Lifetime movie. I'm not entirely sure about if I've read it, but I would think that this is a good description. This is a film with an interesting idea, yet it's forgettable, due to the way it's shot (bright-lit but depressing nonetheless), structured (flashbacks bordering on ridiculousness), etc. You've read the book, by Jodi Picoult, or if not heard about the synopsis somehow: a girl (Sofia Vassillieva) gets cancer and her parents conceive a child exclusively to cater to her needs, giving her necessary parts to sustain her life.

The child (Abigail Breslin) feels like she's being taken advantage of and goes to sue for her freedom. Her mom (Cameron Diaz, who plays an interesting character who does things that are not fully explained), who we find is conveniently a lawyer (which makes it easier to battle against her intent daughter) has put everything aside to help her Kate (Vassillieva) stay alive like the mother in "Mother" trying to get her son to freedom. Maybe with stronger technical support, the film could be excellent, but it's not here. It's just like "The Time Traveler's Wife," not in subject, but in tone. It's another example of a Hallmark movie that shouldn't be: there's an interesting idea, but it's either not realized or perhaps it doesn't have enough in it to fuel a film (this is something I doubt). This is just your average medical drama, nothing more, just as heavy-handed as you would expect, (apparently) not wishing to go beyond that. Plus, it feels sort of misguided, especially with Kate as a character. We see her go through different phrases, the weirdest and most detached of which being a punk stage, where we see her briefly drinking and pill-popping. Why? It doesn't fit into the film, basically just a flashback conjured out of thin air to explain something, a task it fails to complete.

This is the sort of thing that's a common occurrence. We look backwards into family history, and it all seems to be terribly sentimental, as well as deeply depressing. That's an emotion I felt during "The Time Traveler's Wife," as well (a film I saw in glimpses on a plane, not avidly enough to review, but enough to capture the emotion of). I dunno. I really don't. Devout fans of the book will flock to see it, and there's no stopping them. But for those who stumble upon it: it didn't work for me. Consisting of clichéd moments and ambient and mediocre music, this is not a good movie. It's insufferable for all, but in different ways to different people. There are some interesting developments, as in most of these films, such as the influence of Judge de Salvo's (Joan Cusack) own traumatic experience on this one. That's one element that spun my mind. Plus, Diaz's character is interesting. Finally, Alec Baldwin's lawyer for Breslin's Anna is, as I believe others have said, persuasive and satisfying to watch. He's talented, which is well-known, but should be said. There's also Taylor (Thomas Dekker), also shown in flashbacks, who gives Kate a nice time as she begins treatment. But it's dealt with uninterestingly, though playing to those (IMDB posters I gather from) who praise it for being "realistic."

Fine, fine. But I wasn't totally stimulated, a phrase I could apply to many an aspect of this piece. I struggle to find something to say about it, other than to talk about the widely known fact of the re-scripted ending, which feels like it devalues the whole pursuit of the heroine, in favor of showing affection. Made me feel a little warmer, perhaps, that it was done all in good intent, but then again, conflict beyond a point would have been interesting (although turn-offing to many a viewer). As I said before, I'm not converting any lovers of the book. I'm just saying to those on the outside, seeking a choice for a film to watch, I'm not a supporter of this work, which is unfortunately not very interested in aesthetics and into everything else obsessively. Okay. Maybe I'm a little hard on it. But "My Sister's Keeper" fails to be of much stimulation, which I feel a good movie inspires. It's confused, and although I'm pretty negative about it, so am I. C


Lukas Moodysson's "Mammoth," while thoughtful, seems familiar, as if borrowing from other movies of its type. It bears resemblance to "Babel," an obvious comparison, yes, but it’s the elephant in the room the whole time. Both have caretakers to American families, both from countries that each respective film dove into and followed, both follow two brothers in a foreign country. "Mammoth," however, opts to observe characters more clearly. We see a happy, affluent family at the film's beginning. The father, named Leo, is Gael Garcia Bernal, who runs a website called "Underlandish" or something of the like, is as over-flowingly rich as the people who started Facebook. The mother, named Ellen, is Michelle Williams, who is a doctor and who is kept at the hospital at night as doctors are. The film centers around Leo having to go to Thailand to make a deal. He ends up staying there for a long, long time.

In this time, Gloria, the caretaker (Marife Necesito), and Jackie, the child (Sophie Nyweide) bond. Ellen feels sad that she is not able to nurture the child herself. But she is grateful for the love and care of her nanny, who lets Jackie learn her native language of Tagalong and takes her along to Mass and the Hayden Planetarium. Gloria is working day and night to care for her poor family across the globe. She has two sons, Salvador (Jan David G. Nicdao) and Manuel (Martin Delos Santos), and she wants them to live nicely. Salvador wants to work for her to come home. This is much to the dismay of his grandmother (Maria Esmeralda del Carmen), who believes he should be thankful that his mother is giving such an effort. Leo decides to move outwards from Bangkok, going to live at a "bungalow" on the beach. I won't go much farther than that.

I appreciated that Moodysson (seemingly) took the time to shoot on location. It's interesting to see different locales. He does something that feels authentic, captures the emotion of people and places. He has strength in his actors, as they are very, very good. I especially liked Williams and Carmen. I could have asked for more out of Necesito, who embodies a typical role typically. Moodysson's screenplay also sometimes goes down roads that I've seen before, such as the treatment of the nonspeaking Anthony (a kid who Ellen treats as a son and as a patient) as a character as well as (to a lesser extent) that of the brothers. The very end, a "perfect moment" as described by one of the characters, is bittersweet, partially well-done while also leaving room for disappointment.

"Mammoth" is a movie worth seeing for the reason that it usually employs different ideas than what you may be thinking. It's thought-provoking. Not to mention containing strong acting. You've maybe heard early hype from Ebert (ed. I thought he was going to rave about it, but his review was about the same as mine), and it's true to an extent. "Mammoth" is not great, but it's unusual and interesting. Your heart may be tugged by some of the contents. Mine was in some ways, but my mind was more. In the end, I'm left a little cold (as was an IMDB user, who created a thread of "Pointless movie"), but it's not all for nothing. B

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a very eccentric film in the beloved styles of both Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl. It's a very amusing and entertaining movie chronicling Mr. Fox (played by George Clooney, who is most definitely himself in the back of my mind but at the same time well-embodying of his character), who's a newspaper writer as well as a consistent tormentor of Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon), who are considered "some of the meanest farmers in the history of the valley" by Fox's lawyer Badger (Bill Murray). He's had contact with them for a long time (presumably), but now he's their neighbor, living in a huge tree.

This film is just as unconventional as it sounds, but then again, that's what makes it Anderson (who wrote the screenplay with Noah Baumbach). Mr. Fox would continue and continue with these daring exploits, but he's calmed down due to the fact that his wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep, in a equally esoteric role) wants to settle down. But, in a rather dubious move, Mr. Fox puts himself back into the line of fire by buying that tree-house against his lawyer's counsel. Oddly enough, a quiet and skilled nephew named Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, who is a good fit in the role) comes to live with them, arousing jealousy in the heart of the Foxes' son Ash (Jason Schwartzman). Ash is somewhat of a typical inept son, but in this movie, what with its warm vibes and nice personality, I'm willing to forgive that. Mr. Fox also encounters Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), who he uses on his clandestine late-night raids to the farms of the aforementioned "mean" farmers. After they do a lot of raiding, the farmers are forced to use some serious brute force.

From there, the plot goes off like the many directions of a tunnel dug by the foxes. But this is fine, due to the fact that it's a particularly fun film to experience, partly even because of the spontaneous feel in the air. The fact that the film eventually centers on something perhaps not totally satisfying is okay, because Anderson portrays it well. It could be said that the film is a little slight, despite being a long and engaging 87 minutes, but that's plot-related and is solved by Anderson and Baumbach's hilarious writing. Many members of the cast (notable exceptions being Clooney and Streep) have appeared in an Anderson film before, so it's authentically Wes. And, in my opinion, it barely tops "Where the Wild Things Are" in the whole "adult filmmaker makes children's film" craze that's spawned articles aplenty in the NY Times Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, etc. My personal favorite WA film is "The Darjeeling Limited" but this film surely is good. This is one of my few favorite animated films this year (alongside "Sita Sings the Blues"). You'll like it if you have a Andersonian sense of humor, and you know if you do. For me, it was a lot of good fun. A-

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Every Little Step

"Every Little Step" is a meticulously edited film about perhaps the most languidly written musical ever (I say that last comment not knowing much about Broadway history). It's a meta-meta-physical documentary, probably the most ready-made showcase for showing the process of audition (another thing I profess to know little about). "A Chorus Line" seems to be one-of-a-kind: Michael Bennett recorded a bunch of personal, personal stories and put them together. Perhaps it sounds contrived, and it would be if it were thought up by some playwright. But these moments are real. And to think of the casting: they are the hardest and easiest roles to choose, since while there is a face and a personality that the revival's stars have to match, everyone shares the dream.

"Every Little Step" I believe is concerned more with what you can't see that what you could have. Me, I've never seen "A Chorus Line". That's not hard to believe, though, since I only travel to New York to see a play when it seems like it's going to be actually good. I don't go on whims like I do with movies. I didn't even know what it was about until I saw the trailer for this film. I didn't have high expectations for this film, either. "Every Little Step" is not a powerhouse documentary in the way "Tyson" or "Man on Wire" was, but you can't get to that plateau every time. I was expecting "Valentino: The Last Emperor" or worse from it, and I got something more. It's that same way you watch "American Idol" or something else. A little less personal, but then again, you're given less than two hours to meet many, many actors. The film is set up many times to make it easier to compare your favorites for each part, since this is what I'm always drawn to do. Any devoted viewer of talent competitions knows there are those moments when you find out who should be the victor, or in this case, the actor who gets the part.

In this film, there's only one really great scene, with Jason Tam playing auditioning for a part as a gay actor. You don't see him sing or dance. He only just gives a fantastic performance of a tough monologue, with great precision on each heartbreaking line. It's something you need to see to believe. I mean, there are other good performances given by capable actors (such as Chryssie Whitehead with a magnetism like Sally Hawkins or Deidre, unfairly uncredited by IMDB, who's not the best singer but a very good actress nonetheless), but Tam is phenomenal. The stingy casting directors (very much like your average Simon Cowell, capable of being moved by anything, but by convention "not easily impressed") are reduced to tears. He's so good, so perfect, that he's cast upon the spot. That's too bad, since that's the only time you see him really perform.

Never mind that, though. This is a good, very skillfully edited movie. That doesn't mean it isn't slight. As I said before, this movie is much more about behind-the-scenes than on the line, so you get a rushed montage of celebrity arrivals and small chunks of different numbers. I also had slightly mixed feelings about the flashbacks, as they are a little distracting, but I guess the provide some insight, and they don't spoil the movie. The most interesting subject was Martin Hamlisch, who makes note of all of the little musical bits. It's also interesting to hear the basis of the story, and it's good that the filmmakers got the permission to use it (noted in a title preceding the film). "Every Little Step" is not perfect, but it definitely is a solid movie. I would recommend it to people with any range of "Chorus Line" experience. Look, even I got something out of it. "Tyson" is available on DVD, and that's perhaps a better option, on a slightly higher playing field, but if you've seen that (like me) and are exploring, this is a good one to try. B

Friday, November 20, 2009


"Bronson" is a film that's in limited release, and having sat through it, resisting the strong, strong urge to walk out of the theater, that's the level of exposure it should get, if not less. I like enduring the unendurable sometimes, but this movie takes that too far. There are more than a few scenes that persist for what seems ages, and to no avail. I applaud all those who find this film "pointless." That is exactly, exactly, exactly, exactly what "Bronson" is. If you noticed, I left two or three more "exactly"s than necessary, and that's what is done throughout the film in many different ways with many different things. Nicolas Winding Refn (whose "Valhalla Rising" looks like a good follow-up to this) seems to provide little to no supervision over any technical aspect of the film, so cuts are free to let to run on as long as Matthew Newman as editor wishes. That's at least how it felt.

It's an excruciating film, and simply because it doesn't know where to stop before it becomes tiring. Add to that the fact that we have to watch Tom Hardy do a painfully annoying (but perhaps from some angle good) performance all the way through in scene after scene. This is not the best movie to have the lead actor present some sort of tedious (as said before) "schtick in front of an audience." He's front and center, doing some sort of twisted routine, and that is supposed to be appreciated. Maybe this is, as others have said, "the best way to showcase Charles Bronson" (although I've heard complaints about different aspects of how he's portrayed probably by people who've studied him enough to know). If so, great. It's just maddeningly unpleasant. That's something I can take, but if I come out of the film feeling like I got nothing or close to nothing out of it, it's not worth it.

I should describe this movie first. It's the story of Charles Bronson (Hardy) who has an underlying desire "to be famous." He does it unconventionally (in a sense). After he commits a small crime, he's jailed and basically he's a total problem. He goes from prison to prison to mental hospital to prison in an everlasting circle beating on whoever is trying to hold him down. Maybe I was expecting it would be Steve McQueen's "Hunger" all over again. That film featured long shots, but they were engaging because of the beauty of Sean Bobbit's cinematography. See that instead. Go get the Criterion release when it comes out. It's a great film, Steve McQueen's one and only film, hopefully not forever. "Bronson" hammers you, but with lack of intellect or purpose and abundance of disgust. Oh, yes. There's that one scene with a infuriatingly long take where there's low-grade muzak playing in the background as you follow a mental patient, who walks back and forth before the camera finally rests on Bronson. I don't think it would be very nice if I described what he looks like. It's sickening. There's another scene that was mentioned in the content advisory by the SF Chronicle's negative review as "a scene of defecation." It's as awful as it sounds. (And yes, "Hunger" has "a scene of defecation," too, but in that film it is extraordinary art, however hard that is to picture, whereas here it's used to illustrate the boredom of Bronson and mental hospitals. In "The Hurt Locker," there's a very similar scene when Jeremy Renner returns from Iraq and is shopping. A lot less revolting, and in a much better movie.)

Technically, although containing decent cinematography, "Bronson" features many distractions, too, the greatest of which probably being the overused classical music. In one or two scenes, if any, maybe. But not as often as here. There's a scene in an asylum where there is dancing, and that may be the film's most enjoyable stretch. Plus, the walking of Hardy is tolerable and nice. But that leads right in to the next elongated, elongated moment. Suggested ways of using the amount of time spent watching: read Anthony Burgess' stimulating "A Clockwork Orange," which is considered a major influence on this movie, go see a great movie around in your area, or do something else. You don't need "Bronson." I'm not saying this film would be unenjoyable to all audiences. If it sounds like the best movie of the year, take a shot. You'll likely find it, judging by the comments on IMDB, a waste of time or absolutely amazing. I believe I've made myself clear which side I've found myself on. D

The language in this film was particularly offensive. The "c-word" was used far too many times. I am not usually squeamish about swearing, but here for some reason it kept on getting to me. So just know what you're in for, since the MPAA gives only a citation for "language," while it should be "pervasive strong language."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

It's common to wonder if you're experiencing the "real" someone, as opposed to just being another person who's interacting with a front. "The Girlfriend Experience," Steven Soderbergh's first of two 2009 films, one where he controls just about every technical aspect of, gets to the bottom of this. It's distractingly and pointedly lo-fi, and sort of flat, but at least it investigates something interesting.

It's about Chelsea (Sasha Grey), an "escort" who tries to channel the least amount of emotion as possible during every encounter she has with a "client." She's part of such a big classification that, according to IMDB, it has it's own name, which is the film's title. I think this film understands this fascinating idea's potential, and that's definitely a strength. So it has its whole intellectual thing down, but as a movie it feels a little slight. Other reviews have mentioned this, definitely, but this has to be said. Somehow I wasn't surprised when I found out that the movie was this short. It seems to fit on some sort of weird level. Anyways, Chelsea goes from person to person, giving each what she calls "the time of their life" without feeling anything. Passion is not involved in the slightest, and even though Grey seems to have some in the brief makeout scenes, it would make sense that it's all a practiced game. This is shown especially in the way she, without a trace of affect, reads off descriptions of her sessions. I guess the ironic thing is that they're frank, creating a juxtaposition between the public and the private, one that, with a slight exception, always calculates well.

That exception is with a screenwriter named David (David Levien), who she's surprisingly naive about. She overlooks the fact that he's married with children and hopes to have a relationship with him, disregarding the one she has with Chris (Chris Santos). It's all sort of confusing, but I think it's meant to be, putting into consideration the staggered time structure plus the editing in of truly unnecessary Vegas plane tapes. These have a connection to Chris, but they seem to just be self-indulgent waste for Soderbergh to just create cinematography of a different tone than in the Chelsea bits. That's when you start to wonder: is Soderbergh just spinning his wheels? Does he really care about the story or does he just want to create nice compositions and be rid of it all.

I liked "The Informant!" better because it went beyond the cinematography to a point where I was interested in the story. Here, it doesn't really work that way. Everything is just so under-shot that you can't help but notice. Whatever. What can you expect from Soderbergh? He either brings his game or he doesn't. What I found interesting is how the film ends on a genuine note of passion, where Chelsea is faux-romancing a store owner. He seems to really be feeling something, but Chelsea won't unless she finds just the right person. I didn't particularly enjoy "The Girlfriend Experience," and I really didn't get something out of it. Enough to satiate my cinematic hungers? Not really. There are some really interesting issues raised here, and perhaps they're shot in the right way, but don't expect me to be having a good time. B-

Friday, November 6, 2009

An Education

"An Education" is another one of those clean-cut films like "Julie & Julia" that large audiences wouldn't be ashamed of seeing themselves at. In a year of risky filmmaking such as "The Hurt Locker" (which, admittedly, there was a packed house with) and "Julia," people buy tickets in droves. Lone Scherfig's new movie is pretty good, but not one that everyone will talk about in years and not one I particularly found enjoyable beyond a certain point. It inspired some emotion within me (as opposed to "Julie & Julia"), but doesn't work really I guess due to the fact that it finds vapidity in all things yet tries to conclude showing that the heroine made the best choice. But this is based off of a memoir, so I guess the parameters cannot be tampered with.

Odd thing is, why exactly would we want to see such a film? It's not extraordinarily profound or anything, so why do we need this? I can answer on a small scale. It's interesting to see how the ideas of society have, over the course of nearly 50 years, made a sharp change. This romance would doubtfully be plausible now. In fact, it would be called predatory (yes, she does "come of age" in the film, but just barely). I am babbling on, but I really am fascinated by how this relationship works and with what ease. It inspires a thought.

The film, if you haven't already picked up, is about a "schoolgirl" (as she's called in every review and on wikipedia), in such a way that the word seems invented for her. Her name's Jenny and she's portrayed in a mix of smiles and tears by Carey Mulligan, the recipient of more than a little too much acclaim for such an okay performance. Jenny is the only child in a lower-class family consisting of Jack and Marjorie (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), who are urging her onwards to Oxford, especially Jack. As she later remarks, not unlike Professor Larry Gopnik (a character in a film you should see instead of this one), she "hasn't done anything." And then David (Peter Sarsgaard) enters the picture, with his flashy car and boatloads of cash. He's the adult male who thinks he'll try to snare a young female like Jenny. Does he ever. She remarks after her first unofficial date, it was "the best night" of her whole 16 years, something that shows she needs to relax more and have more things to look forward to. Of course, that turns into much more cultured activity, from auctions to weekends in Paris and Oxford. Her parents seem strict, but David, although a Jew (real source of controversy, but it seems sort of artificial here), sways them with his silly humors and smooth talk (reminds me of another Jew by the name of Sy Ableman, who just so happens to be also in that same movie that you should see instead of this one). Look, this may sound dark, but it's lighter than it is (perhaps until the end, where David is revealed to be quite the pathetic type).

If you're looking to have a good time at the movies (especially if you enjoyed "Julie & Julia"), you might be swayed like Jenny in this film. You might as well see it anyways, just since everyone's jumping up and down with Oscar talk (Look at her dresses! His suits! And Nick Hornby! Branching out!). But if you're looking for a little risk at the cinema, go see "A Serious Man," an Oscar contender as it should be, one of the actually good films this year. They'll be fighting for you. "An Education" is sound, I guess, but I come away not feeling challenged (there are attempts to engage you) with a sigh. If you put a little gloss on (the sets are nice, I will admit) and you intertwine the controversial and the sentimental without going too far, you'll get an audience. That's what "An Education" proves, which is nice, but not testy, and thus not ingraining in my mind. B-