Saturday, January 30, 2010

Crazy Heart

Scott Cooper's "Crazy Heart" is a movie that borrows its pacing from a tour on the road. Basically that's all it is. Bad Blake drives around the southwest, scrounging any gig he can get like Anvil. Mostly it's just small bars where he can get a fix of McClure's Whiskey before he does a set of old favorites (just like what my friend said about The Rolling Stones) and then (if possible) has a one-night stand with a fan. Blake is "staying bad," yes, but he's sometimes not being able to finish a whole performance before going and puking in the trash can out in the back of the place. That says something.

When he heads to Santa Fe, we expect more of the same. But he meets this pianist who's niece works for a small newspaper, and thus we are plunged into what we'll be following for most of the film. Her arrival and that of her son brings something out in Bad, a good side.

Also in Bad's life is Tommy Sweet, who's the rising star in country. The thing is, Bad taught him all about music and writes him most of his material. Bad doesn't seem to be on good terms with him, as they went on tour together but then decided to do "solo projects."

Consider this the foundation of the film. There's not much beyond these three characters (as someone said on IMDB, it's "simple"). But the reason you probably want to see this film isn't the plot description. It's Jeff Bridges. He plays Bad in a good performance. If you want a little pre-Oscar preference, I really would rather see Jeremy Renner win than Bridges, but then again, Bridges does a good job acting. Maggie Gyllenhaal is the newspaperwoman, and I guess she's decent, but obviously as Vanity Fair said "Crazy Heart is [Bridges'] vehicle." According to IMDB, he also sang all of those songs, as did Colin Farell as Tommy Sweet (who I thought was okayish, but not as bad as some people said he was). The vocal work is great by Bridges. I thought the music in the film was top-notch as well, and the way it's repeated in the film the desired effect is made, and you begin to have "old favorites."

The real problem with "Crazy Heart" is how fervently it borrows from not "Tender Mercies" (which Nick's Flick Picks among others compared to it but my friend said this film was "nothing like" it) but "The Wrestler." Ebert's review states that someone said that "Crazy Heart" was "'this year's 'The Wrestler''". It also got called this in the Playlist, IMDB, pretty much everywhere.

This film has so many similar plot devices. In both there's an estranged child, a doctor scene to scare the audience into believing that the main character is going to die, the main character has a name that he doesn't want to use so he replaces it with something else. Not to mention Fox Searchlight put both films out. In my opinion Mickey Rourke's performance in that film was much better; it was extremely good. Also, you may recall, "The Wrestler" was my pick for the Best Film of 2008. That movie was so great, you need to see it if you haven't. Like Vanity Fair said, "Crazy Heart" was made for Bridges so that he could win. I'm not saying it's a bad film, but it's just not comparable to Aronofsky's.

Finally, as my friend said, "Crazy Heart"'s ending was shoddy and premature. Nothing really gets explained. The plot just gets advanced. It's a warm and good film, with one of those characters that you "care about" (Ebert describing Rourke in his "Wrestler" review), but it coasts on its predecessors too much. B-

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Best Performances of 2009

Tilda Swinton in "Julia" as Julia Harris
Mo'Nique in "Precious" as Mary Jones
Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds," as Col. Hans Landa
Souleymane Sy Savane in "Goodbye Solo," as Solo
Teriyuki Kagawa in "Tokyo Sonata," as Ryuhei Sasaki
Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker," as SFC Will James
Michael Stuhlbarg in "A Serious Man," as Larry Gopnik
Paul Schneider in "Bright Star," as Charles Armitage Brown
David Rasche in "In the Loop," as Linton Barwick
Anthony Mackie in "The Hurt Locker," as Sgt. JT Sanborn
and the vocal work of James Gandolfini in "Where the Wild Things Are" as Carol
and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Mary and Max" as Max

Saturday, January 23, 2010

That Evening Sun

"That Evening Sun" is a tale of "standing your ground" (as they say in the film) that works sometimes. Hal Holbrook plays the same role as Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino" and even Anthony Hopkins in "The World's Fastest Indian" (a film that mirrored this one's technical qualities): "a sly, cantankerous rascal" (as Owen Gleiberman would call him). Abner Meecham (Holbrook), after leaving his nursing home, is forced into the "tenant's house" because a family is renting out his house. It's not any ordinary family either. It's the Choats, with whom Meecham apparently has bad blood, especially Lonzo (Ray McKinnon), who's apparently a "slacker."

Lonzo tries to get him to go away initially, but Meecham takes up residence in that "tenant's house" where all of his possessions have been put. At first, the other Choats, Ludie (Carrie Preston) and Pamela (Mia Wasikowska), are a little nervous that Lonzo will get mad, but still supply him with food. Then, we see Lonzo for what he is: a true "drunkard." You see him with beer from the first scene, but as the film develops you see it being put into use.

Meanwhile, Meecham is doing all he can to annoy the Choats so that they'll leave. He even gets a dog, something Lonzo hates extremely, and, as my friend remembers most from the short story this was based on, gears him to bark when it sounds like he's taming him. As you might imagine, this doesn't play out very well with Lonzo, who gets hyped up when Meecham is around and causes a lot of family tension, making it (indirectly) hell for Ludie and Pamela that Meecham is there.

This is an interesting film, but one that (I agree with my friend) isn't wholly a success. For example, the character of Pamela is pretty much a carbon copy of every other young adult in the young adult/elderly person relationship thing. Her dialogue ("you're funny," saying an expletive that's quickly reprehended by Meecham) is pretty typical. It's not a good sign that I sort of dreaded every time that Wasikowska was onscreen. And she's apparently an up and coming actress? I hope she's better than how she is here. I also think the character of the "helpful" son has run its course and should soon be retired to a nursing home.

The flashbacks were unnecessary and done in that way where you barely see anyone's faces. Enough history is salvaged in the dialogue between Meecham and Lonzo. Plus, can you think of a more desperate device for getting across backstory than having Meecham talk to his dog? And can you think of other things to play besides that little indie-movie-piano riff that keeps repeating throughout the beginning? (And, last and perhaps a little impossible to fix: could you possibly not have a lot of the film in dark and then suddenly in light?)

But I did appreciate Holbrook somewhat and also McKinnon as Lonzo. My friend said their chemistry was good and provided the best scenes of the film. I would agree. But this film tended to be really boring and made me extremely impatient. As another friend put nicely, it needed "tightening up." C+

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Best Films of 2009

In conjunction with the Playlist's announcement of his favorite films of the year, I guess I'll do mine. Don't expect this list to stay the way it is. I probably will see something I love from 2009, and put it in here. But here it is.

1. The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos)
2. Tyson
3. Sita Sings the Blues
4. A Serious Man
5. The Hurt Locker
6. Julia
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox
8. Where the Wild Things Are
9. I Love You, Man
10. Goodbye Solo

Tokyo Sonata would be in slot 6 if it had not been released before 2008's Oscar cutoff date (which is the rule I play by).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Hangover

"The Hangover" is hard to review after all this "positive reception" (as Wikipedia would say). This film has garnered elite status among people I know (actually most of America), but it's not exactly worthy of that. I can't deny that it's "funny" (word of Ebert and my friend and a lot of others) and that (as my friend also noted) "the plot structure is good," but I didn't love it as much as everyone else. Maybe it was because I knew a lot of the jokes already, from different sources but yes. If I had seen it in theaters before a lot of people had, I might have agreed with all those people.
The film is well-cast, endearingly so. I personally, like Ebert, liked Zach Galifianakis the most. I also really liked Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow. But there are a lot of people in this film who spout a lot of good jokes. A lot to choose from. It's a very quotable film, as well, which, like with "The Big Lebowski," practically guarantees "cult status" (my friend said that this movie has a good chance of being really remembered, because it was "well-written"). Don't be surprised if a lot of people you know are saying the lines from this film. There are fan pages on Facebook devoted to particular lines of the film. That's a good reason to see this film.

You probably know the plot already. If you don't, I'd actually be very surprised. I actually won't tell you. You have to rent at your own risk. Look at Ebert's review if you want a synopsis. But if you don't know the plot, that's a blessing. My friend calls the plot "surreal," and that's very true. After it gets going, it really gets like that. The trailer gives up jokes, etc., and all other sources do, so just get watching. If you go in without any idea, you may really like it a lot. It's a courtesy to the filmmakers, I guess.
For some reason, I was a little weary of the beginning of the film. Not the prologue, but after that, before the main section of the film. Something about it bugged me. It may have been that I was consistently thinking, as a female friend had said, that this film was "so male." Once it goes into Vegas, etc., it works a little better and gets pretty funny. It "cops (no pun intended) a gag" from "Pineapple Express," but it improves. As the film runs its course, it gets a little giddy, and is also perhaps a little too straightforward, but I guess that's how it should have ended/solved itself. I realize this is remarkably vague, but I'm describing how I felt.

Writing this review a day later, I realize I have more an affinity for the film than before. But I'll weigh my previous feelings in my grade. The acting and writing and humor are good. Altogether, it's not a great film, but it's a "pretty funny" one with some "comedic weight" (as they would call it). B-

Sunday, January 17, 2010


"Invictus" is (as Rene Rodriguez said) "boring." It surpasses Eastwood's past two efforts, but it does so with emptiness. Well, save one great scene. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen it: Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, reading the title poem, during a shot of his prison days. That's the only time the plot seems to stop for anything. It's as "clockwork" (to quote critics such as Roger Ebert) as you can get. Perhaps I'm a little biased on this front, having read Anthony Peckham's equally dull script (for a script review job at the Playlist). But by design and by style it goes there. It has the same sort of editing strategy as "Julie and Julia," in that whole "good night out at the cinema" thing that Nick Davis was talking about in his blog. Just not my type of film, I guess. I'm having that reaction that Ebert had when he saw "The Longest Yard," went to Cannes, and then came back.

I won't go on like this, though. "Invictus" has a couple of redeeming things. First off, Freeman is decent as Mandela, and although I would have hoped Eastwood would have gone a little deeper, it's a job done well. I would say somewhat of the same about Matt Damon, as South African Springboks rugby captain Francois Pienaar. You don't get much about him, either, but I guess maybe there's not much to know. The film does show them in their homes, but only really in that one scene in the prison do you really see who these men are and how they think. It takes a hallucination of sorts to do it, as well as a powerful poem. Otherwise, this is a poor film. I wasn't a huge fan of any of the acting, especially by the team or the people in small crowds. They all acted as some group, and it felt a little mechanical. A nit to pick, definitely, but that's how I felt. I would compare it to how Ebert felt about "Fired Up!": so unfocused on the movie that he picked up smaller things. Okay. So the cinematography is also pretty nice, by Tom Stern. South Africa is a very photogenic place, though, and when the sunset hits the shacks, it's pretty amazing. The music, criticized by Lisa Schwarzbaum among others, is too much, I agree. This is a mainstream movie, yes, so there are, I repeat again, people who will see this anyways. My suggestion: don't. It's not worth it. C

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)

Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" is a 144-minute, black-and-white intimate profile that's as "unrelenting" and "draining" (my friend and Richard Corliss, respectively) as it sounds, as Haneke is "the master of disquiet" (to quote Denby, I believe). The film's best quality is that it examines many a family during a period of distress in a town as tightly knit as you might imagine. It's one of those small epics. Believe me, though, its presence is felt.

Haneke does what he does often here, creating a plot of “incidents” and “events,” (words used in the vague summaries of the film). In the way he worked with increasingly threatening videotapes in “Cache,” here he starts with a relatively small moment (a doctor crashing into a perfectly placed “tripwire”) that continue to get bigger and bigger until things get really serious. The film commences immediately with the aforementioned episode and shows its impact, which seems like an effective device in a couple of ways: 1) it sets the film moving in an interesting direction and 2) it also both (eventually) raises the thought of both a originally a total clean slate or a slate that’s been cleaned before the film has began, a very interesting idea raised indirectly by my friend (who liked the movie more than I did) and also “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

This injury prompts suspicion and a change or two, but it is soon forgotten, for the reason that my friend said: to keep the town together. The town already has fractured relations among its inhabitants, yes, but my friend notes the town would go to pieces if such a person were apprehended. This seems to be a correct reading.

I don’t know much more what to say about the film without giving stuff away (I understand why promoters of the film didn’t do that, but a Film Comment interview with Haneke hinted at it). Let me discuss how the film is made. Haneke himself said the film was converted to B&W after being shot in color due to the fear of looking historically inaccurate. This is true, but perhaps it’s also to emphasize the film’s focus on white as a color of innocence. It is also (as my friends said) to have the film have a huge impact. If you only watch color, this is not a good film at all for you. In the theater I was in, save for the faces next to me and the orange aisle light, it seemed completely colorless. When my friend said it was beautifully shot, he wasn’t kidding. It’s a job well done by cinematographer Christian Berger, who sets things up nicely for the effects team to get rid of the colors. The only technical issue is the somewhat spasmodic editing before scenes got to their conclusion. This was pretty annoying.

As a friend said, it’s engrossing. I find its structure really helpful in bringing you in (as well as the way there was no color at all anywhere around me). My mind, though, was wandering a lot. My friends said that the film had “no uplift.” This is right, and that means there are no “emotional hooks” in the film. That doesn’t stop the film from smashing into you, especially in the end. I agree with A.O. Scott’s comment that the film is “unsettling yet unsatisfying.” Ebert said, “At Cannes the year “Cache” premiered critics deplored its lack of a resolution” while going onto praise that aspect of the film. Haneke likes to do this, and in both cases it’s perhaps justified, but what a long time to wait for so little to ultimately come. The same thing happened with “Police, Adjective,” even though both films are good.

“The White Ribbon” I think is good but (for me) not the "masterpiece" IMDB users called it. I personally liked “Cache” better, a more intriguing film that had more interest in different ways. I enjoyed how this film was “personal.” Haneke (as been said before) is good at that. But this film is not one for anyone (and I know some) who resent a lack of color, "depressing" movies (worthy of a tag on Aspergian Sarah), or as Ebert helpfully noted, films with "a lack of a resolution." Don't get yourself into this film without making sure you're okay with those criteria, since this film has a lot of all three. B

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Road

John Hillcoat’s “The Road” has astonishing photography/art direction/special effects (and "landscapes", as my friend, Scott Tobias, and many others probably said), stuff that will totally amaze you. Going into the film thinking somewhat lowly of it, I upon seeing the cinematography re-thought my opinion. This may have been the way to start a very good movie, but not everything is as good. Ebert, in his disvalued, retracted review began by quoting Mark Twain: "'The Road' knows the words, but not the music." My moviegoing friend thinks this is absolutely true, and after talking with him, it makes sense why Ebert's said that.

He's gone on to re-rate the film after “seeing it for a second time” it, but I think that won't be the case for me, since I don't believe I'll take another chance on this film (maybe I'll do one of those 'revisiting' things that Nicks Flick Picks does, but, like him, maybe not for a while). Why? Because the scriptwriting (praised by those on Flickster) by Joe Penhall makes me cringe, as Viggo Mortensen is reduced to yelling things at his son in non-McCarthyesque outbursts. Also, Penhall uses lines in the book as touchstones, to give a notice to the audience who read it. But these come out all wrong. Mortensen, who with the rest of the cast Ebert complimented as "the only actors who could have done this," delivers each of these off the mark. Personally, Guy Pearce, if he had done away with the terrible accent he put on, would have been better in the lead role. My friend, who teaches the book and has a very fine idea of how the characters should have been, has a description that Pearce could match. Whatever. My friend and anyone who said that Mortensen at least looks the part is right. Besides his looks, whenever he’s hiding in a ditch, he seems to have the required “desperation” (as my friend said the character should have). And Kodi Smit-McPhee is pretty formidable, I guess, as Mortensen’s son.

For those of you who haven’t read the book, which, hard to believe, may be possible (i.e. you stumbled onto the film), I’ll refresh with a little description. As undoubtedly described this way before, a father (Mortensen) tries to raise his son (Smit-McPhee) despite being in the middle of what my friend aptly described as a “nuclear winter.” He tries not only to protect his son from being killed, but also from being ruined inside, to “preserve innocence” (as a friend would say). They walk towards a “coast” (which sounds a little like “Children of Men”) since the man’s wife/the boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) tells him to go there. Ultimately, as been said before, (I think on the back of the book), “they try to survive.” Such is not easy. “Bands of survivors” (as Owen Gleiberman as well as zombie movies would say) are traveling around, looking for things to eat (humans are not out of the question). Another key fact (stressed by my friend when he originally told me about the book, and also on maybe the back of the book) is that the two only have only two bullets, intended to be so that they can commit suicide at any given time. My friend and I alike both are moved by the scenes where the father teaches the son how to do such a practice.

But I’m blending memories of book and movie together. Ebert noted that this was tough not to do in his new review since he had read so much McCarthy. If I knew nothing about the book, and if he didn’t, and if no one did (i.e. it was an original screenplay), then it would have a much bigger impact. (This happened similarly with “8 1/2” and “Nine” for him.) But, as my friend noted, it’s a “halfhearted” adaptation. It’s abridged. For example, my friend noted the absence of the “bad dreams” while “good dreams” were abundant. The only great thing about it is the way it was shot. However, that's not enough. C+