Friday, February 25, 2011


Made as straight pulp, "Rubber" by Quentin Dupieux maybe would be more successful than it is. But then again, that would be pretty, ahem, tiresome. We see a tire come to life and make things (including human beings) blow up by harnessing some sort of power. This happens many times over the course of the film, always shot in the exact same way. No insight into the character of the tire, as a banal but more entertaining film would attempt to do. Just an Anton Chigurh type, one that can only be stopped with death and not even that.

So, to counterbalance this, we have a meta-narrative involving a nerdy dude apparently on order from an unseen boss who sets up "spectators" with binoculars to watch the tire. This is considered "watching a movie," and although I see what Dupieux is aiming at with this conceit, it fails due to the fact that it makes little to no sense. Of course, suspending disbelief is step one in watching a movie about a serial murdering tire. But in a film anything is possible, we all know. Having people watch action from miles away that goes inside and outside of buildings with binoculars, though, just makes no logical sense even in a fantastical film such as "Rubber" and is too clunky to be accepted. The reason this section is in here is to both pad the film (it's only 85 minutes long anyways) and also to look at the dynamics of audiences, specifically midnight ones. I get it, but Dupieux could have achieved it with more gusto and with less of a heavy hand than he does.

I guess the resulting mishmash produces more interesting results than otherwise, though. Jack Plotnick as the orchestrating dude does pretty well, most notably when he gives an aimless monologue on when he went with his family to the mountains. Plus, Stephen Spinella as Lt. Chad brings down the house with an arresting opening speech, and even though I think his character (who gets out of the trunk of a car, talks, and gets right back in) should have been contained in this scene, he does end up supplying the film with a bit more life. "Rubber" doesn't really manage to satisfy for the most part. It has some memorable characters and a bizarre atmosphere, but skids ultimately to disposability. C+

Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires)

Anyone who enjoys good, calculated art direction, costumes, and cinematography may go into cardiac arrest while watching Xavier Dolan's enjoyably opulent "Heartbeats." Even though some have grumbled at his homages to films like Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love" and Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin," a film that makes your head constantly spin is definitely not a bad thing. It has a plot that isn't exactly remarkable, but rather perfectly tightens and loosens at the right moments, allowing you to be both astonished by what you see and also chafed by a bit of narrative tension. One has to be craving a film like this for it to work like magic, so those who aren't too crazy from the sound of it should probably step back, but I predict those who have it in mind will relish it quite a bit.

We follow Francis (played by Dolan himself) and Marie (Monia Chokri), two friends who both see Nicolas (Niels Schneider) as their soul mate. At first they all just hang out together, but soon Francis and Marie are trying to one-up each other to win over Nico. That's pretty much it, but I think Dolan is wise in not letting the plot upstage the production. That is, until the end, when the movie really needs it and when a jolt of drama helps big time.

Perhaps to illuminate the story, or maybe to pad the movie up to a 95-minute running time, we also have clips of people describing their own personal love stories. The movie when it hits these patches feels a bit jerky, and these sorts of things are usually trite, but I have to say these sections actually work pretty well.

All the acting is good as well, especially Dolan, who my friend describes as almost like a silent-movie star in his emotions. He's definitely a great screen presence (apparently he acted before he started directing films), and he solidifies this late in the film when he pulls a completely unexpected move (something like a spastic convulsion) off brilliantly. "Heartbeats" will perhaps bring to mind for its viewers recent films such as "Broken Embraces" and "I Am Love." Let me tell you: it's better than both of them. B+

Monday, February 21, 2011

Oscar Wild(e): 2011 Predictions and Preferences

I want to get this up here, since I've been putting it off for a while. This is pretty basic stuff, not detailed commentary, since I haven't had enough time or (to be frank) enough interest to carry out my ambitions of writing pieces about every single nominee (I only got to "The Kids Are All Right" and "The King's Speech").

The rules of the road here: the first list is in the order of my preference, the second is in the order of the nominees' chances of winning. If there is only one list, it is a prediction list, not a preference list (though when that happens, it's noted).

I've assigned letter grades (and sprawling letter grades, like Nathaniel Rogers does and Nick Davis also) to all of the "above the line" (i.e. not technical) categories, plus the Documentary Feature, Foreign Feature, Animated Feature, and Animated and Live Action short categories. I was going to do letter rankings for all the categories, but outside of cinematography and art direction, I'm pretty much out of my element.

This is spare, but, again, I don't have all the time or the help in the world and I was tired of meditating on this. Maybe I'll put some commentary on certain categories up, but I'm still not quite sure. Sorry for the minor sloppiness in not supplying every name with every (technical) category; if you want those, go to the Oscar website. It's overwhelming, and I don't want to put this off any longer. Just so I don't lose my pedigree as a purveyor of Oscar coverage:

Best Picture:

1. Toy Story 3 A

2. Winter’s Bone A-

3. The Social Network B

4. Black Swan B

5. Inception B

6. The Kids Are All Right B

7. The King’s Speech B-

8. True Grit C+

9. 127 Hours C+

10. The Fighter C

1. The King’s Speech

2. The Social Network

3. True Grit

4. Black Swan

5. The Fighter

6. Toy Story 3

7. Inception

8. The Kids Are All Right

9. 127 Hours

10. Winter’s Bone

Best Director (I guess the same as above, though I would maybe rank Fincher higher and Aronofsky lower):

1. David Fincher, The Social Network

2. Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

3. Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

4. Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit

5. David O. Russell, The Fighter

1. Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

2. David Fincher, The Social Network

3. Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit

4. Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

5. David O. Russell, The Fighter

Best Actor:

1. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network A/A-

2. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech A/A-

3. James Franco, 127 Hours B/B+

4. Javier Bardem, Biutiful B

5. Jeff Bridges, True Grit B/B-

1. Colin Firth, The King’s Speech

2. Javier Bardem, Biutiful

3. Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network

4. James Franco, 127 Hours

5. Jeff Bridges, True Grit

Best Actress:

1. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone A

2. Natalie Portman, Black Swan A

3. Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right A/A-

4. Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine A-

5. Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole B/B-

1. Natalie Portman, Black Swan

2. Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right

3. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

4. Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

5. Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

Best Supporting Actor:

1. John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone A/A-

2. Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right A-/B+

3. Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech A-/B+

4. Jeremy Renner, The Town B

5. Christian Bale, The Fighter B

1. Christian Bale, The Fighter

2. Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

3. Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right

4. John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone

5. Jeremy Renner, The Town

Best Supporting Actress:

1. Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom A

2. Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech B+

3. Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit B/B-

4. Melissa Leo, The Fighter B/B-

5. Amy Adams, The Fighter B/B-

1. Melissa Leo, The Fighter

2. Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

3. Amy Adams, The Fighter

4. Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

5. Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech

Best Original Screenplay

1. Another Year A/A-

2. The Kids Are All Right A-/B+

3. Inception B/B-

4. The King’s Speech B-

5. The Fighter C

1. The King’s Speech

2. The Kids Are All Right

3. Inception

4. Another Year

5. The Fighter

Best Adapted Screenplay

1. Toy Story 3 A

2. The Social Network B+

3. Winter’s Bone B+

4. True Grit B

5. 127 Hours C+

1. The Social Network

2. Toy Story 3

3. Winter’s Bone

4. True Grit

5. 127 Hours

Best Animated Feature

1. Toy Story 3 A

2. The Illusionist B

3. How to Train Your Dragon B

Same as above

Art Direction:

1. Inception

2. The King’s Speech

3. True Grit

Having not seen: Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

1. The King’s Speech

2. Inception

3. True Grit

4. Alice in Wonderland

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

Costume Design (though I have no real way of ranking this rationally):

1. The King’s Speech

2. I Am Love

3. True Grit

Having not seen: Alice in Wonderland, The Tempest

1. I Am Love (the night’s upset, I believe)

2. The King’s Speech

3. True Grit

4. Alice in Wonderland

5. The Tempest

Best Cinematography

1. Roger Deakins, True Grit

2. Danny Cohen, The King’s Speech

3. Matthew Libatique, Black Swan

4. Jeff Cronenweth, The Social Network

5. Wally Pfister, Inception

1. Roger Deakins

2. Danny Cohen

3. Wally Pfister

4. Jeff Cronenweth

5. Matthew Libatique

Best Documentary Feature

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop A

2. Restrepo B

3. Inside Job B-

Having not seen: Waste Land, Gasland

1. Inside Job

2. Exit Through the Gift Shop

3. Waste Land

4. Restrepo

5. Gasland

Best Documentary Short

Having not seen: any of them

1. Strangers No More

2. The Warriors of Qiugang

3. Killing in the Name

4. Poster Girl

5. Sun Come Up

Best Foreign Film

1. Dogtooth B+

2. Biutiful C

3. Outside the Law D

Having not seen: Incendies, In a Better World

1. In a Better World

2. Incendies

3. Biutiful

4. Dogtooth

5. Outside the Law

Best Animated Short

1. Madagascar, a Journey Diary B+

2. The Lost Thing B

3. The Gruffalo B

4. Day and Night B-

5. Let’s Pollute C

1. Madagascar, a Journey Diary

2. Day and Night

3. The Gruffalo

4. Let’s Pollute

5. The Lost Thing

Best Live Action Short

1. God of Love A-

2. Na Wewe B+

3. The Crush B

4. The Confession B

5. Wish 143 C+

1. God of Love

2. Na Wewe

3. The Confession

4. Wish 143

5. The Crush

Film Editing (this year, no particular preference; though this is one of my favorite categories):

1. The King’s Speech

2. 127 Hours

3. The Social Network

4. The Fighter

5. Black Swan


1. Barney’s Version (horrible makeup, mind you; hope this doesn’t win)

Having not seen: The Way Back, The Wolfman

1. The Way Back

2. Barney’s Version

3. The Wolfman

Music (Original Score)

1. The Social Network

2. Inception

3. 127 Hours

4. How to Train Your Dragon

5. The King’s Speech

1. The Social Network

2. The King’s Speech

3. Inception

4. 127 Hours

5. How to Train Your Dragon

Original Song:

1. We Belong Together – Toy Story 3

2. Coming Home – Country Strong

3. I See the Light - Tangled

4. If I Rise – 127 Hours

1. We Belong Together

2. Coming Home

3. I See the Light

4. If I Rise

Sound Mixing (no preference):

1. Inception

2. Salt

3. The King’s Speech

4. The Social Network

5. True Grit

Sound Editing (no preference):

1. Inception

2. Tron: Legacy

3. Unstoppable

4. True Grit

5. Toy Story 3

Visual Effects:

1. Inception

2. Iron Man 2

3. Hereafter

Having not seen: Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

1. Inception

2. Hereafter

3. Iron Man 2

4. Harry Potter DH Part 1

5. Alice in Wonderland

Friday, February 18, 2011

Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi)

"Outside the Law" has perhaps one of the worst first scenes in cinema history, so its cause isn't helped from the get go. It involves an Algerian family being evicted by French colonist from the land they've owned for so long. I'm pretty sure Rachid Bouchareb wanted the scene to be devastating, or something, but his direction is so awful that it doesn't work in the slightest. He doesn't get the actors to seem like they relate to each other, or to have any sort of affect. The mishandling of this moment throws off the rest of the movie, completely blowing its chance at getting a grip on the audience and thus relegating us to being bystanders. It's even worse when you consider that an episode like this should work on its own.

It only gets drearier when it devolves into a bunch of what are basically vignettes following the three brothers (Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem, and Sami Bouajila, all of whom get their histrionic freak on, despite having potential for understatement and evocation) of the family on their separate paths, and then more bland as we see the brothers become less and less respectable human beings and interesting characters. I don't have a particular weakness for guys-in-treachcoats-and-hats movies, but this movie must one of the most hopeless, as it cannot come up with at least one decent staging as it descends, minute by boring minute, into becoming a time-waster. As my friend points out, you won't learn anything about the French-Algerian Conflict here.

Watching Bela Tarr's "Satantango," as I did last night, makes one appreciate good, careful craft. Watching Boucherab at work here shows just about how choppy you can get. He's pretty much the anti-Tarr, cutting off scenes way before they should close, impressively shuffling lenses and colors, but to no avail. One wonders if "Days of Glory," this film's apparent predecessor (which got a lot more pats on the back), worked some great wonders that are absent here (now I know why the section on the war in this one was so scarce).

"Outside the Law" is monotonous and out of touch with the audience. It is almost entirely unsatisfying. It's like someone made a musical and removed all of the musical numbers, stringing the sudsy in-between bits together and calling it a day. We get separated from the characters, and thus are left to look at them simply as murderers, a mistake that every good crime film is able to avoid. If this manages to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it'll be one of the Academy's biggest lapses. It is the movie of the year which makes the biggest step at divorcing the Cannes Film Festival from quality. The only way that it can be seen as a success is that it inflicts the same sort of repression on you that it portrays. You will want to leave early, so save yourself the trouble. D

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts 2010/2011

More capsule reviews, this time the nominated animated shorts along with a couple of special mention, "highly commended" films:

Bastien Dubois' "Madagascar, a Journey Diary" is an 11-minute college of every different animation style you can imagine, a film that can only be seen to be appreciated. It doesn't exert that much of a pull and the audience member feels a bit disconnected, but it's powerful as an evocation of a country and (presumably) what that country is all about. The film probably should be seen more than once to be most properly received, as it blows past you, incorporating souvenirs from the trip as centerpieces in the drawings and more. That being said, it can't quite keep up with itself, getting a bit repetitive by the time it reaches its close. Even though it has a nice stream-of-consciousness feeling about it, I wish it been slightly more refined (and a bit less show-offy). Yet, it really does more for animation than any of the other nominees. B+

Deserving a nomination but only garnering a "Highly Commended" citation, Bill Plympton's "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" is jarring, arrestingly simple 8-bit hilarity. The title does accurately describe the film, but it makes it sound like less of a film than it actually is. What we get is an original work that only succumbs to trying to be allegorical at the end of its jam-packed 6 minutes. The (wrongheaded) cow training sequence is the piece de resistance. B+

If you've ever played the computer game Spore, where you create creatures just like the ones in this film, "The Lost Thing" by Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan may seem both like less of novelty (in the way that "District 9" seems less original when you factor in its similarities to "Halo") and also may work its weird effect doubly well. It has relatively sentimental insights (something along the lines of "The Last Book in the Universe"), but it also refuses to surrender to an uplifting ending and creates an interesting if mildly hamfisted view of the apocalyptic future (evoking the album cover for "Hail to the Thief" as well as "1984"). It follows an unnamed fellow (Tim Minchin) who stumbles upon an unidentified object on a beach and tries to put it back in its place. This is another film that requires closer study, as it puts a lot in and one might not to get all of it out in a single viewing. B

Max Lang and Jakob Schuh's "The Gruffalo" is somewhat of a sentimental favorite for me, since I am automatically charmed by monsters like one shown in this one (see: "Where the Wild Things Are," which you may have noticed is the source for my avatar). Locked into rhyme and also feeling a bit intolerable at times, "The Gruffalo" didn't always work for me. But it's pleasantly drawn and has great voicework. It's a story-within-a-story, told by Mother Squirrel (Helena Bonham Carter) to her little squirrels (Sam Lewis and Phoebe Givron-Taylor), about a mouse (James Corden) who goes to get food and encounters predators (Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Rob Brydon). He uses the threat of a Gruffalo as an alibi, and although they (and he) thinks he's making it up, it turns out to be oh so real (and voiced by Robbie Coltrane). It is a humorous short, something you can't say about all of the movies up this year. B

"Day and Night" from Pixar's Teddy Newton I had harbored resentment for since I saw it before "Toy Story 3." It's not quite as bad as I remembered it to be and definitely skillful, though it is too clever by half. It just seems from its idea (two whatchamacallits representing the two halves of the day who want to experience the other's enjoyments) and brevity that it was quickly thought up and quickly put together, and I'm still not quite sure how I feel about that. Also, it ends on a strange decadent note, having one thing relishing the hot woman it now has, the other savoring its newfound Vegas. Not too sure about that one. B-

"Urs" by Moritz Mayerhofer, the other "highly commended" short, is, except for its remarkable drawings, pointless. It involves an old man bringing his unwilling wife over a mountain (done in a jagged style evoking "Metropolis"). I was pretty bored with it. As a friend noted, it could be portraying some sort of legend, but that explanation doesn't really make it any better. C+

Finally, "Let's Pollute" is 6 minutes of needless agitprop about the environment. Sloppily animated and blunt as hell, it repeatedly tells you to destroy the planet instead of to try save it. It makes a mild dent, admittedly, and plays a bit better than I let on, but that it blocked "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" from a nomination is ridiculous. C

Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2010/2011

Here are capsule reviews of the nominated live action shorts, in order of preference:

Always a step ahead of you in the way that "The Social Network" was, but much more purely enjoyable and wacky, Luke Matheny's "God of Love" stands above the others in its category. With a trite voiceover, B&W, and an appeal to god for help w/r/t unrequited love, it seemed to be heading for mannered eccentricity, but with verve, esprit, and great timing it bounds out of its shackles. Matheny is probably the only one who could have realized his vision to the fullest extent, and so he stars as Ray, who sings and throws darts simultaneously. He's in love with the drummer in his band, Kelly (Marian Brock), who's in love with Ray's buddy Fozzie (a great Christopher Hirsh, who keeps up with Matheny). Ray out of nowhere gets a bunch of darts that, when thrown at someone, strike the victim with an uncontrollable urge to be with the person they immediately look at. That is, for 6 hours. After that, they either snap out of it or continue onwards entranced. It's an intriguing idea (like something out of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), and, with a countdown and all, Matheny examines it to its fullest, funniest extent. The film's quasi-coda, which completes the film's circular structure, falls a bit into sappiness and doesn't resist the temptation to have things fit perfectly together, but what Matheny does shouldn't go unnoticed and should hopefully win him the Oscar. A-

Ivan Goldschmidt's "Na Wewe" is the short of this year's crop that I would call the most audacious. 19 minutes long, it takes place in real time and plays out in only one scene. It takes place in '94 Burundi, where a Belgian newsperson or something and his assistant are picked up after his car breaks down. The guy talks on and on to the annoyance of the other people in the car before the vehicle is forced to stop by a group of Hutus who want to kill all of the Tutsis onboard. They try to separate their targets from the rest, but everyone stays as a group. They go on to question every person in the crowd, with each person giving reasons why they should be spared. Once it gets going, you can see how it will end, but it throws curveballs in along the way, as kids are not automatically allowed to live. Of course, due to its subject, it gets a bit heavy-handed, and some of the details (especially the whole bit about U2) are a little dubious. But the acting (which I would single out, but can't do to the fact that I can't find the players' names on the Internet) is quite solid, and (as my friend noted) the editing is splendid. This film has a good chance at winning the award. B+

The way that the somewhat stilted "The Crush" by Michael Creagh portrays its story, in a condescending manner, is spot on, even though I thought otherwise when I began watching. It's about how a second grader named Ardal (again, I cannot find the actors' names) wants to marry his teacher Ms. Purdy (strangely named, since that's the moniker of Creagh's production company) and how he tries to obstruct her jerk of a fiancee from beating him to the punch (right down to a duel at a handball court, which yields those banal observations which show how Ms. Purdy much of an a-hole the dude really is). One could have developed this to be something creepy, but instead Creagh makes it sweet and coy, though perhaps a little too syrupy at the close. One weird thing: the lighting makes some of the actors look like they're made out of clay, which in my opinion doesn't do the film too many favors. B

Tanel Toom's visual style in "The Confession" is seriously good, especially in how he juxtaposes two still shots of a road and a cornfield and how he shoots inside of a church. However, no tonal sensitivity is evident, and the film's eventual spiral from control seems both deliberate and unintentional. We follow a youngster named Sam (Lewis Howlett, whom we will hopefully see again), who is coming to his first confession with nothing to confess. He spends his days innocuously with his friend Jacob (Joe Eales), making fun of the whole process (mimicking the eucharist with potato chips) and biking around. Jacob feels that Sam should have something to say when he goes his first time, and so the two for some reason decide to take a scarecrow down from the cross on which it is hung and place it in the middle of a road. Why they do this I guess can be seen as an instance of the logic of children, but it goes underexposed, as do most things as the film progresses from this moment, the turning point in the film. Toom does have something interesting to say about how confession can be rendered meaningless, and Howlett is strong portraying a kid who now has way too much to confess, but it's hardly an impeccable work. B

"Wish 143" promises something subversive (a la "Cashback") with its premise of a cancer patient who wants to use a Make-a-Wish style program to lose his virginity rather than rub elbows with a famous person. Instead it takes the path of least resistance, ending up depressingly cloying. To the film's credit, it does set up a good comedic duo in Samuel Peter Holland and Jim Carter, who play the patient in question and his priest friend, setting up some pretty humorous scenes. But it goes all chickenshit and turns from comedy to sentimental drama at the drop of a hat, replete with that cheesy generic narration that connects some sort of obscure knowledge with life. The film is mildly touching, yet the ways it could have developed are potentially much more interesting. All directors should remember: you only get to direct a film once, so make the most of it. C+

Friday, February 11, 2011

Cold Weather

Critics of Mumblecore films such as "Tiny Furniture" have slammed them for "narcissistic" elements. "Cold Weather" has a self-centered character at its center, yes, but Aaron Katz doesn't have us totally identify with him. He instead uses him as a part of a satire on detective fiction, showing us how sleuths lose all track of the world outside of their mystery. It gets where (as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said) the mystery itself becomes beside the point: it's all about detectives doing their thing (and going to ridiculous measures to do it), because if something enables a slacker to feel like they have a purpose, they'll grab onto it with both hands and not give it up until it's run its course (and then some).

Doug (a hilariously chipper Cris Lankenau) went to school for forensic science (in the hopes of becoming a Sherlock Holmes type) but then dropped out because he "lost interest." Finishing out would have put him in a much better position than he is now, clinging to his sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and holding down a job at an ice factory. At work, he befriends Carlos (Raul Castillo, holding the screen in an excellent comic performance), a part-time DJ who laughs at first at Doug's aspirations at being a detective but comes to appreciate them.

You see, Doug's ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) is dropping into town for some reason and Carlos starts inviting her to do things (like go to a Star Trek convention, which Doug scoffs at). It's unclear what sort of relationship that Carlos and Rachel develop, as implications could go either way. Anyways, Rachel is a no-show for a DJing gig of Carlos' and he gets really anxious and solicits Doug's help to find out where she is.

From the point at which the two investigate the motel room in which she was staying until the end, the film makes little to no sense, and gladly so, as it is proving its point well. There is a briefcase of money, multiple identities, and a cowboy/porn photographer named Jim Warden involved, but how those dots are connected is beyond me. But, as I said, Doug jumps right in, making stops for a pipe and tobacco and for breaking a code of baseball statistics, much to the annoyance of his dragged-along sister. I will go and say now that there is no conventional resolution to the film, so as not to disappoint anyone, but if there was, it would offset Katz's vision (by leaving information limited to assumptions, he's making another comment about the whole detective business). Eliminating the film's deliberately slow start would be unfitting as well. It may be a bit tiresome, but we would see Doug in a much different way without it.

The acting and writing may strike some as bad. Personally, I think both are endearing. The eccentricities of the film (that often are present in movies of this genre) totally work, and the characters are always enjoyable to watch, as Lankenau, Dunn, and Castillo all play off each other exceptionally. The cinematography by Andrew Reed is jaw-droppingly good as well, especially in the scene set in a storage building. There's another passage that rests all on the camerawork, an exchange in the ice factory where we follow Doug back and forth from one wall to another while talking to Carlos. It absorbs you in a remarkable way. I doubt a lot of people will love this film, but to me, it's an observant work that knows how to treat its main character: supplying him with laughs, but also expressing a bit of disapproval at his lethargy and desperate attempts to free himself from it. B+

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


The only innovation in "Biutiful" is having different colors for subtitles in different languages (white for Spanish, blue for Chinese, yellow for Senegalese), something that last year's confusing Oscar nominee "Ajami" could have used. Otherwise, "Biutiful" is an emotionally manipulative, 147-minute tapestry of cliches and poorly-developed characters that Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu puts together clumsily and without much coherence. A good but not necessarily Oscar-worthy performance by Javier Bardem (co-winner of Cannes Best Actor) and a pretty touching (and at times pleasantly mechanized) score by Gustavo Santaolalla (et al.) are to the film's benefit but don't really help it work as a whole.

Uxbal (Bardem) is a disciplinarian who has a handle on everyone but (you guessed it) himself. He tries to get money to support his children but his long-lasting felonious venture (something involving construction) seems to be nearing its end. His other job, telling people what their recently deceased family and friends (who look like something out of J-horror) said, is also losing steam as people are tired of him sayingthat their kids stole things (even if they did). His separated wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), whom he still loves, claims to be stable but engages in an affair with his brother Tito and, when Uxbal moves back in with her, displays all of the problems she's said to have overcome.

Before his life bursts by itself, he finds he has contracted cancer (portrayed gratuitously with bloody urinations and needles) and neglected it beyond the point of return. Uxbal doesn't want the same thing to happen to his kids that happened to him when his father (whom he never met) passed early on in his life, but there's very little he can do about it. And that's all I'll say about the film's plot, since I'm getting annoyed describing it and also because I don't want to transcribe the whole movie right here, which is sort of tempting.

Bardem has some nice scenes of anger, tenderness, and sadness, but the performance isn't exactly the slam-dunk I was expecting. He, along with the other actors, is at the mercy of Inarritu's screenplay (with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone). It throws in corny characters (a cop, a fellow supernatural friend, a conflicted immigrant), kills off minor ones to try to grip us, and doesn't treat the substantial ones as well as possible. The film's ending (and also prologue) is a mild triumph for the script, though. Despite lingering on an overplayed image, it made me feel something. "Biutiful," between its introduction and conclusion, however, doesn't really dig that deep. C

I've now seen all the nominees of the "above the line" categories at the Oscars. This enables me to do my feature to its fullest extent, though I'm unsure of how that'll work out. Stay tuned, though.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Barney's Version

The failure of Richard J. Lewis' "Barney's Version" comes from the fact that it is almost entirely unconvincing. It cannot sustain the illusion that what it's presenting is not superficial, timeworn, unintentionally hilarious, and inexplicably complex. It doesn't help that the writing is unbelievably bad on a scene-to-scene basis or that the direction is hopelessly unenlightened (revealing that lack of tonal sensitivity that is often present with a regular TV director). Paul Giamatti, whom everything depends on, throws it all on the line, but it's no use. As my friend notes, he's not skilled enough to overcome such impossible hurdles, especially without acting up a miraculous storm (he gives only an erratic if decent performance, which did win a Golden Globe). Such a film will only appeal to those who are willing to give themselves over to an insufferable collective. Do not take yourself to "Barney's Version" if you do not fit this criteria.

The film starts with Barney Panofsky (Giamatti) in the present day and goes on to cycle through his life from 1974 on. The first few sequences in the past are pointlessly supplied with time cards that give the audience information that they already know or could easily pick up. However, the film suddenly starts moving through time unclearly, coming back to the present and moving out without giving a good sense of where it's going. At this point, when the movie should be barraging us with time cards, it neglects to. In doing this, it confused me to no end, sapping the drama out of many a scene. The makeup, which is nominated for an Oscar, offers absolutely no help, and as a result is ineffective. (Add to that the fact that it is amateurishly noticeable.) Maybe it was hard for director Lewis and his writer Michael Konyves (working from Mordecai Richler's novel) to control their work. If so, they shouldn't have burdened the audience with the result.

The story of Barney for some reason picks up with him in Rome when he's in his 30's. He's chillaxing and experiencing the world and shit with his buddies and hoping to start his life soon with his pregnant fiancee, Clara (Rachelle Lefevre). But she has a stillborn, the unborn baby wasn't his anyways, and an upset Barney storms off. {{{{SPOILER She's depressed by Barney's depression and kills herself SPOILER}}}, providing a one-scene entrance for Saul Rubinek, who is as lousy as he'll ever be. The whole dramatic workings of this first segment are risible, with the making of jarring tone changes and miserable acting by Lefevre and Scott Speedman as close friend Boogie (though I will admit that Speedman goofiness is a bit appealing).

Things progress and Barney, after getting a job, meets and ties the knot with a character played by Minnie Driver, and since I was not taking notes and since the Internet gives no help, she will remain nameless. At their wedding (done up in a flauntingly Jewish fashion), he meets Miriam (Rosamund Pike, who, along with Dustin Hoffman as Barney's father, makes the film mildly tolerable), whom he immediately is attracted to and whom he really wants to be with, even then. She, being the prudent lady that she is, will not be with a married man, and so he must wait and wait and wait and wait and find an excuse to get away from Driver's character.

He does, but not before the film takes great pains to paint their marriage as loveless and shallow. A critical viewer will note that the third marriage may be just as empty. Consider the fact that we never hear Miriam and Barney talk about anything except for the origins of phrases, or the fact that Barney feels the need make a list of conversation topics that includes Saul Bellow's "Herzog" (an ironic gesture) and "All the President's Men." If this is the case, then there is no relationship in the film that is substantial, which is kind of dismal and not the intention.

I won't go on and on about this movie, even though I could. It's just a cliched kitchen sink affair, what with Alzheimer's (always having to be paired with hockey in Canadian films), a dude from Waverly Films (who's also Dustin Hoffman's son), murder, bad song choices, Bruce Greenwood yet again tied with homosexuality, and on and on. The sprawl (this movie is almost 2 and a half hours long) is admirable on a conceptual level, but it plays out poorly. I guess I bottled up a lot of impatience throughout, because when the film got to a certain point, with a line so ridiculous in its enclosure, I had a laugh attack that was almost unstoppable. If I hadn't contained myself in a few seconds more, I would've left as to not be rude. Thank the film's padded corny dialogue towards the end (which for the most part kept me from cracking up) that I didn't, because then I wouldn't have been able to write this review and inform you of the mish-mashing incompetence of "Barney's Version." I still may not have done it justice, but I won't go further. D+