Posted: December 28th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
It’s ironic Rob Marshall‘s Nine, which focuses on the exploits of a famed film director, lacks any cinematic whallop. Beautifully mounted and with a charismatic central performance, it is easy to admire Marshall’s desire to recreate the magic of Chicago, his Academy-Award winning debut. The problem with Marshall’s latest is at an institutional level. On Broadway, Nine‘s impressive musical spectacle can substitute for its ho-hum plot. Coupled with predictable emotional arcs, the big screen adaptation cannot capture the immediacy of the stage.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, the de-facto Frederico Fellini, universally admired for his earlier directorial efforts. Contini’s past two features flopped, so now he must make a considerable impression with Italia, his eagerly anticipated ninth movie (hence the title). Trouble is Contini has no script. Put in an unenviable position, the director looks back on his life, particularly on the women who left an impression. His actress wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) served as an early muse, though lately Contini relies on the charismatic Claudia (Nicole Kidman). Obviously a man of Contini’s reputation isn’t confined to monogamy – he has a consistent mistress (Penélope Cruz) and random affairs with beautiful journalists (Kate Hudson). The only women who provide counsel are his seasoned costume designer (Judi Dench) and, through flashback, his Oedipal mother (Sophia Loren). All these women converge on a southern Italy hotel, where Contini and his team go through the motions of pre-production. A wife and mistress must not share the same roof, so when the director’s personal life unravels, his professional life soon follows.
As in Chicago, Marshall frames the musical numbers in a fantastical sound stage, away from the central setting. Such a device stops the characters from spontaneously bursting into song. Except for two numbers song by Day-Lewis himself, Contini’s women sing the songs, and their lyrics illustrate their relationship to the director. The lyrical insight is unoriginal, at least to anyone who has seen movies about womanizers, so Marshall must engage audiences purely on a performance level. Most of the songs are mid-tempo, delivered with a blandly flat, accusatory tone. Some songs, such as Kate Hudson’s “Cinema Italiano” and Fergie‘s “Be Italian” are forgetful, catchy fun. Even then, the lackluster dance sequences, particularly the use of sand in “Be Italian,” feel more like a halfhearted music video than a big screen blockbuster.
Emotion and songwriting prowess converge only once, when Cotillard performs “Take it All” as a wounded wife and burlesque performer. It follows Cotillard, who wowed audiences as Edith Piaf, is the strongest female performer. Others are a disappointment – Kidman’s role amounts to little more than a cameo, and without a punchy script, Dench’s barbs lack bite. Given Day-Lewis’ immersive acting approach, it’s no surprise he sinks into the role of Guido. With greasy hair and confident swagger, he convincingly portrays the Italian lothario, and his sexy accent oozes sinister confidence. It’s only a shame Nine‘s parts cannot add to a greater whole. Not even stunning locations and impressive costumes can save the inert adaptation.
I remember reading that a film director is the last job where dictatorial control is universally tolerated. With Nine, Marshall seeks to illustrate how such power goes astray without long-term vision. The movie begins with Contini facing the press, where he self-depricatingly discusses the tepid reception of his recent films. Should Marshall carefully examine where Chicago succeeded and Nine didn’t, I can imagine him discussing his work in a similar manner. After all, here are two directors who faced high expectations, and ultimately squandered access to strong talent. I only hope Marshall begins similar reflection, and like Contini, transitions from a sharp Italian suit into a humble cardigan.
Posted: December 18th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Like many others, I was deeply skeptical of Avatar, James Cameron’s first fictional endeavor since Titanic. I watched the trailers online and cynically said the movie looks like a cross between Dances with Wolves and The Smurfs, except with fancier guns. And in a year when Terminator and Transformers disappointed audiences, it’s easy to be skeptical of blockbusters, particularly one that purports to revolutionize movies. That being said, my expectations were wildly exceeded. I’ve never seen anything quite like Avatar. It’s an unrivaled theater-going experience. You must see it in a theater, and only in 3D.
Our hero is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a disabled marine who unexpectedly finds himself en route to planet Pandora. The human’s presence there is twofold. Firstly, scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) wants to study the planet and its inhabitants, while businessman Parker (Giovanni Ribisi) seeks to mine Pandora of a precious mineral. The planet’s humanoid race, the Na’vi, live on the richest deposit the resource. In order to relocate the Na’Vi, the Colonel (Stephen Lang) advocates an aggressive invasion. For the time being, Parker and Grace and her team try a diplomatic approach. Jake, Grace, and others enter coffin-like machines to control flesh-and-blood Na’vi avatars. The idea is that once the Na’Vi accept the avatars into the community, the humans can convince them to move. After a disastrous first outing, Jake forms a tenuous bond with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a native who is told to teach Jake the ways of her people. It goes without saying Jake begins to love Neytiri and his avatar body, so much so he must fight alongside the Na’Vi against the Colonel and his gunships.
Such a summary does not do Avatar justice. The movie is worth seeing for its visuals alone. Pandora is realized with exquisite beauty. Unlike most 3D movies which resemble simply-drawn cartoons, the landscapes and creatures of Pandora are impeccably designed. I don’t know how the production team did it, but the Na’Vi in particular look flesh- like and real. It’s easy to doubt Cameron’s achievement because from what the trailers would have you believe, the Na’Vi are stuck in the uncanny valley. Many think that precisely because the big screen is the only place one can properly appreciate the richness of Cameron’s vision. A crummy laptop is simply too small for his imagination. 3D has been a popular gimmick for decades. Cameron eschews its novelty, and instead uses 3D to make Avatar a more immersive experience. Watching the movie, it’s almost as if Pandora surrounded me, and I didn’t dare look away from the screen.
Immediately after the movie, I was disappointed with the story. There are no big leaps in the narrative, and regular moviegoers will guess every plot point. Now I’ve come to think the familiar storyline is an asset. All the major characters embody classic archetypes, so it’s easy to identify with them, which is necessary for such a daring setting. Spectacle overshadows the uniformly effective acting. With an understated delivery, Worthington is a believable grunt – his transformation into a Na’Vi warrior is even a little heartwarming. Lang makes a great scenery-chewing villain, one who is easy to despise. Special attention, however, should be given to Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. Along with Andy Serkis, she’s the only actor to turn a CGI humanoid into a developed, sympathetic creature. The accomplishment is even more noteworthy because unlike the grotesque Gollum, Neytiri is actually kind of hot, blue tail and all.
First and foremost, James Cameron is an action director. Aliens and the first couple Terminators are classics. Avatar has its share of action, but Cameron takes his time to arrive at the Na’Vi/human battle. Cameron deftly draws the lines, so once all hell breaks loose, it’s easy for audience to comprehend the violence. So much action fills the frame that the climax overwhelms and thrills. It’s a masterful sequence, one that will be remembered for years to come. We have been conditioned to doubt Hollywood’s ability to produce such an imaginative blockbuster. Avatar is an example of a first-class director at the top of his form – within moments of its eye-popping first shot, naysayers will be silenced by visual wonder that’ll take their breath away.
Posted: December 17th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
End-of-year lists are fucking hard. Sure, they’re fun to read, but they’re agonizing to compose (for me, anyway). It follows that an end-of-decade list is even more intimidating. I could see myself spending hours, hours I say, comparing the merit of No Country for Old Men to There Will be Blood, or Closer to The Shape of Things. Frankly, I’m not willing to undergo such a painful endeavor. Rather than actually rank the best of decade, I’m going to embrace the arbitrary nature of such an exercise. In chronological order, here are my top movie superlatives of the past ten years.
Note: Release dates may not be precise, as they vary internationally.
I still remember seeing American Psycho in my hometown’s cineplex. Back then I was not movie nerd you’ve come to know and love, but a kid who was easily amused by startling bloodshed. When my English teacher asked the class to report on an American novel, I jumped at the opportunity to dissect Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial bestseller. I’m fairly certain my teacher wasn’t aware of the book’s content. Even if I only received a B+ on the report, American Psycho remains my favorite critique of male vanity (Lord knows there’s many). And no matter what profanity-laden tirade Christian Bale unleashes, I’ll always want him to feed a stray cat to an ATM.
2001: Best former Mouseketeer whose ferocious performance may have inadvertently inspired antisemitism: Ryan Gosling in The Believer
Far more than a hilarious tumblr meme, Ryan Gosling is a scarily intense young actor. His character, Daniel Balint, shares nothing in common with the handsome hunk of The Notebook. Balint is an articulate antisemite who catches the eye of a journalist and a cabal of Neo-Nazis. The big secret is Balint is also Jewish, and his antisemitism is the product of deep self-loathing. Director Henry Bean examines his subject with unblinking clarity, and even some sympathy. The end result is a character study more searing than Edward Norton‘s American History X. The Believer is a must-see for those who can stomach bitter hate speech. Trust me, you won’t find any dialogue beginning with “Hey Girl.”
2002: Best drama that alienated fans of both science fiction and romance: Solaris
Steven Soderbergh, someone to whom I bear an uncanny resemblance, is a prolific director, churning out at least one movie a year. His work varies from the mainstream (the Ocean’s series) to the experimental (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience). Among his features of the past decade, his 2002 update of Tarkovsky’s 1972 classic is my favorite. Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) visits a space station where a bizarre phenomenon occurs. An alien force reads the mind of the space station inhabitants, and causes dead loved ones to materialize in the flesh. With Kelvin’s dead wife wandering the staiton, Kelvin must grapple with emotions and logic (as must the audience). Soderbergh handles his material with the confidence of a master, and culminates his movie with a haunting conclusion.
Easily the most horrifying film of the decade,Kevin Macdonald‘s documentary is an incredible tale of survival. Along with friend Simon Yates, mountain climber Joe Simpson climbed a dangerous slope in the Andes. Their trip did not go according to plan. Simpson suffered a severe injury (his tibia shatters his kneecap), and is later left for dead after falling into a crevasse. I wouldn’t believe Simpson survived such an ordeal if Macdonald didn’t film an engrossing interview with him. I still remember watching this movie with friends. No one spoke afterward – all were visibly shaken, as if they have just underwent a similar experience. The Saw movies focus on the viscera and function as mere torture porn. Touching the Void, on the other hand, evokes blind terror and desperation in a way I haven’t experienced since.
From X-Men to Watchmen, superhero movies ruled the box office this past decade. They certainly varied in quality – many consider Spider-Man 3 an abomination, whereas The Dark Knight transcends the genre to become a masterpiece. In terms of sheer entertainment value, I say The Incredibles has them all beat. The exploits of Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and his family are well known to anyone who, like me, celebrates the entire Pixar catalog (we’ll just pretend Cars never happened). What separates The Incredibles from other Pixar endeavors is a clever subversion of genre conventions, coupled with truly kick-ass action. It’s a delight to watch the Incredible family use their powers as a team, particularly when the fight reaches an urban setting. Besides, who is so stone-hearted that they can resist Samuel L. Jackson whining, “WHERE IS MY SUPER SUIT?”
2005: Most appealing sports movie featuring gunfire, silly costumes, and an existential crisis: Game 6*
Don DeLillo penned this quirky, way-too-overlooked comedy. Nicky (Michael Keaton) has a play opening on the same night as game 6 of the 1986 World Series. A lifelong Red Sox fan, he skips opening night to watch the game. Attending the play is Steven Schwimmer (Robert Downey Jr.), a loathed theater critic who goes to extreme lengths to protect himself from angry playwrights. The pleasure of the movie is its rich dialog. A regularly repeated line is “The Redsox are always winning until they lose.” Keaton and Downey, Jr. are smart actors, and probably relished the chance to speak dialog composed by someone who knows how to write a decent sentence. The movie has an easy-going pace, but gives you time to appreciate the absurd situations. Sure, the bizarre mystique of the Red Sox’s losing streak is gone, but Game 6 brings more awesome than Bill Buckner did.
* This write-up is essentially a repeat of my first BYT column – my feelings towards Game 6 haven’t changed.
At the BYT holiday party, I had a brief conversation with Cale that made me feel vindicated for including Tom Cruise‘s latest spy movie on this list. The Mission: Impossible series is essentially a blank canvas for directors to impose their unique sensibilities. In the first, Brian De Palma opted for Hitchockian double-crosses, whereas John Woo had an abundance of slow motion doves. With J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair, the third entry is a triumph of pacing and ruthlessly efficient set pieces. Watch the movie again to appreciate how relentlessly Abrams drove the action forward. For example, it takes less than a minute for superspy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) to land with arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) before the brutal assault on the Chesapeake Bay bridge begins. The latter half of the decade saw its share of memorable villains, and Hoffman’s Davian is an underrated entry. His matter-of-fact brutality is chilling, a nice counterbalance to over-the-top Bond villains. Abrams would later use his talents to reboot Star Trek, yet this thriller remains my rainy-day favorite.
Every year I always have an informal Oscar betting pool*. It’s become habit at this point, and after a series of disappointments, I was certain Marion Cotiallard would lose Best Actress to Ellen Page (hindsight is 20-20). My buddy Robin (correctly) insisted the Academy would recognize Cotiallard’s total transformation into Edith Piaf, both in terms of physicality and the harrowing lows she underwent. Boy, I was glad to be wrong – it’s always nice to see phenomenal performances recognized, particularly those that’ll define a careeer. If you haven’t seen Olivier Dahan‘s superlative biopic, do yourself a favor and check it out. You’ll have plenty of time over the holidays, and the dead boxer sequence alone justifies the 140 minute running time.
* Don’t worry, Dear Readers, I again intend to booze my way through the Academy Award liveblog next year.
Like the best home movie you’ll never have, I get more sentimental about Jonathan Demme‘s Rachel Getting Married the more I think about it. It has the appearance of a sloppy mess, yet the guy who brought us The Silence of the Lambs imbues his movie with flawed three-dimensional characters, and an uncanny sense of place. I had no doubt female leads Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt would do a fantastic job; instead I was pleasantly surprised by TV on the Radio’s Adebimpe, the lucky guy who marries the titular Rachel. His wedding vow is sneakily moving – I mean, it nearly killed Svetlana.
2009: Best thriller everyone reading this column should add to the top of their Netflix queue right fucking now: Julia
In the year’s riskiest drama, Tilda Swinton plays an unlikeable alcoholic who desperately kidnaps an obnoxious child. Here’s a link to my August review. This one is a must-see.
Adapted from a Graham Greene novel, Phillip Noyce‘s The Quiet American is a victim of circumstance. It was slated for release in the autumn of 2001, but with the 9/11 attacks fresh in everyone’s mind, no one was in a mood for a movie about the CIA’s involvement with the Vietnam War. Instead the movie had a quiet release mere months before the invasion of Iraq, and the timing is eerie instead of unfortunate. Set in the mid 1950s, Brendan Fraser plays Pyle, an American in Saigon who aims to feed the flames of war. He becomes friends with Fowler (Michael Caine), an English reporter who frets over his inevitable decay. Both Fowler and Pyle find their answer in Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a Vietnamese girl who captures their respective affection.
What’s fascinating about this story is how political motivation gives way to a personal vendetta. In the end, The Quiet American combines a love triangle with a political thriller for an truly chilling effect. Caine is still a reliable actor, but not since The Quiet American has be given a chance to play character who combines sophistication, vulnerability, and ferocity. Caine simply embodies the character effortlessly. Whereas experience defines Fowler, Pyle’s open face hides the terrifying potential of a True Believer, one who’ll stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Nation-building helped define the aughts, and in an entirely unexpected way, Pyle symbolizes the misplaced confidence of American foreign policy. The movie succeeds as a thriller, but has hidden layers that’ll only be revealed through careful thought or spirited discussion.
Whew, so that’s the decade in movies. Check out the part two of the series in 2019. Meanwhile, tell me what I missed!
Posted: December 11th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Ten years ago I could not have conceived how the internet impacts my life today. I am on Gmail and an RSS reader constantly. Like many of you, I suspect, I regularly update my Twitter and Facebook, participating in the omnipresent hive-mind conversation. Despite the internet’s dizzying development, it makes sense a brilliant eccentric saw how the revolution would take place. Someone had to be the nerd behind the nerd behind the nerd. Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public chronicles the eccentric in question, and how he influenced communication as we know it. From hours of footage, Timoner’s lean documentary is disquietingly candid, with a bizarre central figure. It lacks the punch of DiG!, her earlier effort, yet We Live in Public should be required for any prolific Twitter/Facebook user.
All it took was a single tech presentation for Josh Harris to see the internet’s potential. He made millions when he sold web tools to the first internet providers. In 1994 Harris founded Pseudo.com, a live web casting service. His work caught the attention of major news networks – he brazenly told a 60 Minutes anchor he intends to put CBS out of business. Eventually Harris left Pseudo to focus on his real interest: two ambitious human experiments! The first was Quiet, a New York basement where cameras recorded all activity. Quiet residents and were forbidden to leave and didn’t pay for a food/lodging. The price for participation was constant surveillance, the occasional interrogation, and the erosion of sanity (I’m sure the nearby gun range didn’t help). The second experiment was We Live in Public, in which Harris and then-girlfriend Tanya Corrin would broadcast their entire lives on the web. Users could interact with Josh and Tanya via chat, so the couple was all too aware they were being watched. Needless to say, both experiments ended disastrously. Coupled with the dot-com burst, this all left psychic toll on Harris.
Timoner was fortunate enough to meet Harris at the right moment. She filmed Pseudo parties, and participated in Quiet with the other nuts. Harris treats most people with cool detachment, so it must have taken years for Timoner to gain his trust. I’m glad she did – he’s an interesting guy, one who thought nothing of adopting a clown alter ego as shareholders toured Pseudo offices. For the most part, the Quiet scenes feel like an extreme reality show. As a former CIA interrogator humiliates residents, one can easily hear gunfire in the background. Similarly, the We Live in Public footage has the same payoff as Big Brother, except the inevitable break-up feels more authentic. There is even a disturbing moment where the nebbish Harris loses his cool, and his features become monstrous.
What separates We Live in Public from standard reality television is how talking heads are able to analyze the implications of Harris’ experiments. There is exploitative footage, to be sure, but this is a thoughtful documentary. Tanya in particular has a clear-headed view of Harris and why his everything went wrong. Still, everyone involved is curious to see where this communication revolution will take us. The interviewees are articulate and sardonic, and a pleasant counterpoint to the frequent debasement of Harris’ work.
The weakness of We Live in Public is not Timoner’s fault. We already live in public, so his conclusions aren’t exactly earth-shattering. The director’s achievement is nonetheless remarkable, especially since Harris’ story could have been easily forgotten. It’s certainly striking how someone could be eerily accurate about the internet’s future. Now whenever I write on my Facebook wall, I’ll remember Josh Harris once said, “Everything is free here, except what we record. That we own.”
We Live in Publichas a limited one-week run at E street. Check it out before it’s too late!
Posted: December 7th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
It’s fitting Jason Reitman‘s Up in the Air comes out the same day the Department of Labor releases its monthly job report. With a 10% unemployment rate, job security is an issue on the minds of many. Up in the Air taps into economic concerns by presenting Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man whose sole purpose is to fire people. Right or wrong, Ryan values his lack of roots. Reitman tells the story of how several patient women reawaken his desire for a genuine human connection. It is a disservice, however, to simply describe the movie as a love story. It’s above all observant, with perfectly calibrated performances and a sharp screenplay. Many love stories rely on broad caricatures – here is one with plausibly interesting characters, the kind you could meet at a bar and come to care about. Like Juno and Thank You for Smoking, Reitman’s latest contains unexpected depths that’ll reward multiple viewings.
One of the perks of Ryan’s job is he spends little time in his Omaha home. Flying around the country, he accumulates flyer miles and other hotel/airline perks. He believes he performs a helpful service, and experience informs his work as a “termination facilitator.” One day his boss (Jason Bateman) hires Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a recent college graduate who wants to fire employees via video conference. There’s already a detached element to Ryan’s work, so he’s skeptical of Natalie’s proposal. Begrudgingly the two work together, so she can learn from his experience. She does not just learn about the job. In a wry sequence, Ryan shows her how to fly efficiently, and which airport security line moves fastest. Meanwhile Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), another jet-setter who values independence and fetishizes traveling perks. Their relationship gets physical quickly. Without even realizing it, Ryan develops feelings for Alex. The wedding of Ryan’s sister (Melanie Lynskey) is quickly arriving, and Alex tags along as his date. Maybe for the first time in his life, Ryan considers settling. And as a man who values isolation, he has plenty to learn if he wants to join the rest of us.
The secret to Reitman’s success is an understated approach, coupled with trust in the audience. The characters are articulate, but unlike Juno, the screenplay never feels written. Some scenes, such as the one where Ryan and Alex help Natalie through a crisis, combine just the right mix of comedy and pathos. The cast is uniformly excellent. Ryan Bingham is a perfect role for Clooney, and after a string of overwrought mother roles, Vera Farmiga finally gets to play a believably gentle woman. The movie’s biggest surprise comes from Anna Kendrick. Other than Up in the Air, I’ve only seen her play Bella’s ditzy friend in the Twilight movies. Here Kendrick is perky and vulnerable, and it’s a delight to regard her chemistry with Clooney. Even a comic actor like Danny McBride downplays his schtick, and lets the audience establish sympathy slowly. Once again, Reitman’s subtle directorial choices serve the story. Brusque cuts of Ryan packing establish his travel skill, and long takes of the final reel highlight Ryan’s loss. All the elements culminate in a strangely satisfying ending that’s both melancholy and hopeful.
I just realized I haven’t mentioned the scenes where people are fired. Reitman casts character actors and actual downsized employees, and the effect is startling. These scenes are often painful, and it’s rewarding to watch Ryan subtly grow as the layoffs continue. Ryan must learn plenty about human nature after putting so many in an undesirable place, and like the production team, he always resists the urge to pander. When I reviewed New Moon, I mentioned how I use the watch test to determine whether a movie is any good. I never looked at my watch during the movie, and was instead enthralled by first-class entertainment. Up in the Air is warm, smart, and one of the year’s best.