Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Trailer Park

My bi-weekly column on new previews.

Property of The Daily Gamecock

Welcome back to the trailer park. As more films pick up distribution deals out of the film festivals, we’ve been on the lookout for the first peeks into many of this year’s hopeful Oscar contenders, while the studios have already begun unfurling the first trailers for their early 2010 releases.

The trailer of the week goes to the dazzling first look at director Tom Ford’s “A Single Man,” which has been racking up praise for star Colin Firth left and right at film festivals the past month.

Adapted from the novel by Christopher Isherwood, the film follows a day in the life of a homosexual English professor trying to get his life back on track after the sudden death of his partner.

The wordless trailer, held together by the ticking of a clock and pulsing violins, features astonishingly intimate portraits of its actors strung in a captivating rhythm. The trailer expertly conveys the complexity of the material, along with the diversity and maturity that has already garnered the film high acclaim.

Jim Carrey’s new comedy, “I Love You Phillip Morris,” has also premiered at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals this past year but will not be distributed until early 2010.

Carrey stars as Steven Russell, who, after realizing he’s flamingly gay, decides to become a con artist. After his arrest, he strikes up a steamy relationship with Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) behind bars. The trailer goes for over-the-top and absurdist humor, giving Carrey plenty of space to flail his body, while leaving hints that there will also be a more balanced character study beneath the humor.

Director Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” has been riding waves of acclaim around the festival circuit. Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) pens the screenplay for this story of a teen girl in early 1960s London who becomes entangled with an older playboy.
Peter Sarsgaard, one of the more diverse and underrated character actors working right now, gets a big chance to shine in the lead role, and with a deft trailer that already promises fine character writing, “An Education” could be one of the fall’s biggest sleeper hits.

Denzel Washington gets down and dirty in post-apocalyptic thriller “The Book of Eli,” teaming with “From Hell” directors The Hughes Brothers. Washington plays Eli, a loner who moves across America protecting a book that holds the secret to saving mankind from destruction, as bad guy Gary Oldman tries to take the book for his own gain.

With dusty, gritty images and more than a handful of big guns and bigger explosions, “The Book of Eli” looks like “Mad Max” on a bigger budget, with Washington’s charisma hopefully providing a solid anchor for the film. The film is set for a January 2010 release.
Producer Michael Bay is back on the horror remake prowl, teaming with music video director Samuel Bayer to remake Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” slated for an early 2010 release.

Jackie Earle Haley (“Watchmen”) will put on the knifed gloves to play Freddy Krueger, a serial killer who murders teens in their dreams. The new teaser trailer does a pretty good job of recreating some of the more iconic images from the 1984 original, but it doesn’t do a good job convincing that this re-boot will be either a complete re-imagining or a competent redesign.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Daily Gamecock - Honest film explores ?bromance?

The Daily Gamecock - Honest film explores ?bromance?

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Budding independent writer/director Lynn Shelton throws the male ego for a loop in her latest film, “Humpday.” A painfully awkward comedy, it’s written and performed with wonderful honesty, and is one of the most interesting and weirdest explorations of the ‘bromance’ to date.

Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard) have grown apart in the years since college. The former has settled down into a comfortable life with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore), while the latter has traveled the world in search of his artistic calling.

After an unexpected reunion and a night of heavy intoxication, Andrew dares Ben to participate in a local amateur pornography festival. What could be more daring or artsy, Andrew argues, than two straight guys celebrating their friendship with sex?

What ensues is a rapid escalation of one-upping, where each man waits for the other to back out, challenging each other’s masculinity with a lurking homosexual desire. It’s a surprisingly affecting exploration of manhood, where awkward moments only deepen into profound silence. In its scant 94 minutes, the “macho shield” of heterosexual manliness is ambivalently challenged and thrown into question.

“Humpday” has no right to work as well as it does, but Shelton hits hard on sexual anxieties. The premise may seem gimmicky, with the characters even questioning several times how straight-gay-porn is actually art, but their refusal to back down from the gimmick makes it all the more interesting.
Both Ben and Andrew are tenderly written and played. Actors Duplass and Leonard establish mounds of chemistry in every scene, trading verbal and physical blows in an effort to repair and redefine their abandoned friendship.
The film’s real lynchpin is Anna, played by new actress Alycia Delmore. Put in an almost incessantly awkward position as the woman between these two men, it would have been easy for Shelton and Delmore to either marginalize or exploit her.

As Ben struggles with how to tell Anna about his “art project,” and Anna grapples to understand how Andrew could possibly make Ben want to commit to artsy porn, Delmore remains stunningly nuanced and composed. Anna is a strong wife and independent woman who makes her points without resorting to dramatics.

The cinematography, headed by Benjamin Kasulke, prefers long, hand-held takes that swerve around the characters, stressing their various levels of intimacy and trying to find their personal, spontaneous moments. The natural lighting of the film, where entire rooms seem to be lit by a single source, also makes for a contained and realistic atmosphere.

The entire film moves at a calm pace that masterfully raises the stakes and the conflict without breaking its veil of realism. By dressing down its aesthetic, it also helps the characters’ emotions feel more immediate.

“Humpday” digs deep into its characters with effortless grace, mining rich and complex humor as the men get closer and closer to “doing the deed.” When they finally arrive at their hotel room, unsure of how to exhibit their bodies or how their project even qualifies as art, the film reaches its richest poignancy.
Ben and Andrew’s friendship, be it platonic or potentially sexual, is a lifeboat for their lives. Their project is a way not to be artistic, but to run from responsibility and throw their preconceived perceptions of themselves to the wind.

In its own way, “Humpday” is a wonderful comedy about trying to define the self. Its writing is sharp and realistic, and its characters feel fully formed with deeply rooted anxieties. Writer/director Lynn Shelton has arrived with a gifted sense for crafting characters mired in bizarre personal crises.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Emmys and TV's "New Golden Age"

The Daily Gamecock - That?s Entertainment! Emmy winners represent TV?s New Golden Age

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Property of The Daily Gamecock

Host Neil Patrick Harris lit up the stage at the 61st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday night, making humorous but never intrusive remarks between awards and keeping the pace from pushing over three hours. It was a night of mostly quick acceptance speeches and wins that never seemed to come too far out from left field, but it was an also an evening of domination by perennial favorites.

It’s easy to complain about the Emmys. Year in and year out, they are a voting body that chooses to nominate and award the same people. This year marked the third win in a row for NBC’s “30 Rock” in the Best Comedy Series category, cementing it as a television dynasty, as well as the second win in a row for AMC’s “Mad Men” in the Best Drama Series category, the first time a show on a basic-cable channel has twice received the honor.

The Best Actor awards for Comedy and Drama were both repeat wins for Alec Baldwin of “30 Rock” and Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad,” respectively. Glenn Close also won the Best Actress in a Drama award for the second year in a row for her work on “Damages.”
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” won Best Variety Series for the seventh year in a row, while “The Amazing Race” swooped up Best Reality Competition Program for the seventh straight year.

Even so, there was room for first-time winners like Supporting Actress in a Comedy Kristin Chenoweth for ABC’s now canceled “Pushing Daisies” and Supporting Actor in a Drama Michael Emerson for that network’s “Lost.”

But if the name of the game appears to be monotony, is there even a point to these telecasts? Why go through the trouble of setting up a beautifully designed stage only to trumpet the same names?

As some of the winners mentioned throughout the evening, there are many who believe that we are watching “The Next Golden Age of Television.” While the shows on network television – NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX – are in a constant uphill battle for ratings, basic-cable channels like F/X and AMC have gone on the offensive, pioneering character-driven dramas meant to build slowly over an entire season, instead of jettisoning from plot to plot week after week.

HBO helped lead the charge with programs like “The Sopranos” ten years ago and continues to attract big names to meaty shows. Not to mention the premium cable channel has a virtual monopoly when it comes to made-for-TV movies; the win for its “Grey Gardens” on Sunday marks the sixteenth time in the last seventeen years the network has won the Best Movie Made for Television category.

In the 1950s, television was, among many other things, a training ground for aspiring craftsmen. Movie studios would pluck directors, cameramen, writers and editors based on their small screen work. Alfred Hitchcock would even use his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV crew when he shot “Psycho.”

Television is once again pushing itself as a serious medium, a place where producers like “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner can have thirteen hours a year to explore psychologically afflicted characters, or writers like Tina Fey can distill society’s biggest issues through a prism of workplace dysfunction over twenty-two episodes a season.
Merely reading the list of Emmy nominees from this year, let alone the winners, inspires the feeling that a pool of diverse and powerful talent are pushing the ever-widening seams of the television set with exhilarating vigor. That’s Entertainment.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The 61st Primetime Emmy Awards LIVE BLOG

61st Primetime Emmy Predictions

My LiveBlog for tonight's Emmys is set to launch at 7:30. Be sure to head here and follow up-to-the-minute coverage and commentary. Should be great!

Here are my pretty obvious predictions:

Best Drama Series: Mad Men
Best Comedy Series: 30 Rock
Best TV Movie: Grey Gardens
Best Miniseries: Generation Kill
Best Variety Series: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Best Reality Competition Program: The Amazing Race
Best Actor, Drama: Gabriel Byrne, In Treatment
Best Actor, Comedy: Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Best Actor, Miniseries/TV Movie: Brendan Gleeson, Into the Storm
Best Actress, Drama: Glenn Close, Damages
Best Actress, Comedy: Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Best Actress, Miniseries/TV Movie: Jessica Lange, Grey Gardens
Best Supporting Actor, Comedy: Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
Best Supporting Actor, Drama: Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
Best Supporting Actor, Miniseries/TV Movie: Ken Howard, Grey Gardens
Best Supporting Actress, Comedy: Amy Poehler, Saturday Night Live
Best Supporting Actress, Drama: Rose Byrne, Damages
Best Supporting Actress, Miniseries/TV Movie: Jeanne Tripplehorn, Grey Gardens
Best Host for Reality Program: Jeff Probst, Survivor

There are a buttload of Emmy awards that don't even get broadcast, and these are the "major" ones (by that, I mean the acting ones). In writing, I think Colbert Report, 30 Rock, and Mad Men will win their respective categories. I don't know what else will be in the show because I can never freaking remember.

Should be a good night for us 30 Rock devotees. If they win, they'll be a TV dynasty: three consecutive Emmy wins for best comedy series. Amazing.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jennifer's Body

Jennifer's Body

* / * * * *

When I heard that Diablo Cody, that stripper-turned-Oscar-winner who somehow managed to steal the pop culture spotlight for her cloying, beyond annoying, confused "Juno" two years ago, was the screenwriter on "Jennifer's Body," I had two thoughts: a) oh cool, that really annoying screenwriter is going to do a genre subversion film. That sounds like something I might like. b) oh no, that really annoying screenwriter is going to do a genre subversion film. That sounds like something I might hate. Yes, the right answer was B.

If the saving grace of "Juno," and the reason why so many people fell for it, was the earnestness of its cast and the sincere spunk of its heroine, "Jennifer's Body" lacks a saving grace, for it is completely devoid of an earnest moment. It is a movie written almost exclusively from left field, with gigantic pitches being hurled at the catcher from every angle. Diablo Cody, in her unending mission to be the cutest, most quotable, and hippest writer in Hollywood, has fashioned a film so annoying in design and so obvious in execution that it seeks no redemption. This is what a wasted opportunity looks like.

Megan Fox remains an actress who's built an entire career off a stellar set of breasts. If Michael was in love with her, director Karyn Kusama fetishizes her. Never are we in doubt that this film is not about Jennifer but her BODY. It teases us with glimpses and provocatively lit shots of her cleavage, her eyes, her legs, but curiously never goes in for the kill. No, perverts, you don't see Megan Fox naked, but isn't that a curiosity? This is a film about bodies - about stacks of bodies, about bodies as sexual objects, about the objectification of the physical, the actual weakness of masculine bodies, but it so cleverly withholds from us its titular 'promise.' Not that the film has any problem with its violent content or even its moments of sexuality; it merely creates a confounding teasing game, as if many of its edits were designed around a desire to NOT show Megan Fox's boobs, which seems silly instead of clever, since it never withholds anything else. But I digress.

"Jennifer's Body" is told through (largely unnecessary and extremely uninteresting) voice-over by Jennifer's "BFF" Needy (that's short for Anita, but if you think it's a fairly obvious name for the character's overarching trait - hey, you guessed right!), a sexually confused high schooler played with little flair by Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried is dressed as would expect - poor-fitting clothes, little makeup, and glasses - as if we are supposed to be surprised when she actually takes off her shirt that she is really sexy underneath. Why the film feels the need to try and downplay her sensuality is beyond me. We're meant to believe that Needy is completely uninteresting, especially when she stands next to Jennifer, but its methods of doing this just make her a worthless character to think about. There's nothing special about her, just her ridiculous love for Jennifer (the only reason she doesn't go to the cops? Because friends keep secrets! One example of a bizarre honor system that's always brought up in reference but never really becomes exploited. If you want to watch the same concept explored in deep detail, watch "Ghost World.")

But if you've missed the plot of the film: Needy and Jennifer are totally best friends for life (they have BFF necklaces, and in case you didn't see that, there's an extreme close-up of it early in the film, even though we never see it again until a slow motion shot at the climax, and even then, it feels like a pretty worthless touch), until the night of a massive bar fire that kills many and traumatizes the town of Devil's Kettle (going for gold, there! How strange also that we NEVER see any police work in a film with tons of murders and death? The most we get are sirens. The police are always referred to, but for some reason never seem to matter). Afterwards, Jennifer becomes moody and violent, before it becomes clear she's possessed by a demon that gains power by feeding off the flesh of her male classmates.

If "Jennifer's Body" does anything well, it's to create a stage on which to talk about female/female sexuality. Needy always appears bisexual, and the film ultimately seems to suggest that her relationship with Jennifer gives her "power" (but if that power is good or not is weirdly ambivalent). In a film where the camera is always moving in on something, where the female body is always openly on display (even if there isn't any nudity), and where men are now the emotional weaklings while all the women move in seductive slow motion, it's hard to see its take as "complex" or even remotely invigorating, especially when positioned against the wealth of gay pictures it's obviously drawing on. Jennifer is a sexual predator, and Needy is willing prey. The two do a tango of sexual tension, even sharing an erotic kiss shot in extreme close-up (so extreme we just see their lips...do the filmmakers want us to think their high school horror comedy is about to become a softcore porn? Because that's how they shot it), but it's almost like "Jennifer's Body" is afraid to cross that line. Needy still wants to project that heterosexuality and kill the demon living in her best friend, even though the end of the film is about her having gained from Jennifer's transgressions.

This film is not sexually transgressive. It is a simple inversion of the genre (men are victims, not women) where sex still equals death while letting females live out a sexual fantasy. But like everything in "Jennifer's Body," it's obvious and not entirely original. The small indy horror "Teeth" had a similar idea. It traded on the fear of female sexuality with a violent morality tale about castration. It also allowed its female character to enact sexual power and turn the masculine predator/prey system to her advantage. So enter Cody and Kusama, who try to blend horror, teen angst, and high school comedy into a demented perversion.

It lacks the scares of a real monster movie, or the humor of a real camp movie. Even terrific secondary players like JK Simmons are undone by the film's sheer insistence on being as quirky as it can in every moment (his high school teacher has a hook for a hand. This is never explained, nor does it serve the story in any fashion. It just exists to give us something to laugh at while covering for the fact that he just plays a recycled stupid teacher character). Fox actually pulls it off - but only because her character is a one-note monster, whose sarcasm and ungodly mutation is its central subject. She actually latches onto a lot of the dialogue and makes it her own, even if the shtick gets old 20 minutes in. Still, it doesn't take much skill to write the kind of dialogue Cody has assembled here (combining "gay" and "lesbian" into "lesbi-gay" or "freaky" and "retarded" into "freak-tarded" - wow, who knew such clever plays-on-words could exist?!). Can a film really attain cult status if it panders this much to an audience? If it comes out saying, "hey guys, this movie may be pretty cheesy and weak on plot, but I wrote a whole bunch of dialogue that you'll love to put in everyday conversation! Just watch me on DVD late at night and repeat the lines for weeks," shouldn't it just be discarded as trash clawing up a rock face? I have no space in my heart for a writer who essentially begs you to quote her dialogue instead of trying to develop characters worth caring about or a plot that does more than make several obvious detours. The only actor who came alive for me was Adam Brody as, get this, the lead singer of an indy alt-rock band that tries to sacrifice Jennifer to Satan so his band will make it. His few moments in the film are splendid and vivacious, the only real marks of life in a film so guided and pre-determined by its set-pieces revolving chiefly around death, and their "#1 Single" that plays over and over again is literally the funniest thing in the film.

If "Jennifer's Body" weren't so intent on being so clever, it could have developed its sexuality theme into a much darker arena. Images of Jennifer eating her classmates, emerging in slow motion from a black lake, and straddling Needy all work within the film. They lay great groundwork for something extremely dark about violence, sex, homosexuality, high school, and REPRESSION! "Jennifer's Body" is NOT a film without ideas - they're all just swimming around in a confused circle, running into each other. The structural limitations the film imposes on itself keep it from seriously considering the psychological implications of the repression its characters inhabit.

It works better as a film about the angst of female sexuality and the repression of sexual urges that ultimately resurface as violence. If it had a better editor who could match shots and intercut with more drama or since of shaping a scene, this could have worked, creating both suspense and parallels between characters. If it had developed characters BEYOND necessary dimensions or one-note quirks, their conflicts would have seemed more interesting (like Needy's obnoxiously cute boyfriend who always says Jennifer's evil, but then lets himself get seduced by her in a matter of...five minutes). If it had a climax that wasn't so obvious or so logic-ridden (Jennifer gains the ability to hover late in the film for no real reason and with no explanation, just so the end of the film can work), or if it allowed itself to be more campy, it could have felt more packaged, more shaped.

Instead, this feels like something an undergraduate screenwriter and director got together and made for fun after watching one too many 80s horror flicks. Any thrill is drained on the amateur feel of the filmmaking, while any comedy is wasted on its inability to hold back.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lars von Trier, Extremism, and "Antichrist"

Lars von Trier is an interesting case. If I wanted, I could probably make the argument that he's one of the ten most important directors working in the world right now. Not necessarily due to the quality of his films, but his entire attitude towards cinema, the rare moments of raw intensity he HAS created, and his anti-Hollywood, anti-narrative, anti-aesthetic strategies that usually get thrown aside because of his bizarre and controversial world views.

I've seen two of his movies: Dancer in the Dark, which I more or less hated (great ideas, TERRIBLY contrived and manipulative execution), and Dogville, which I loved (even at three hours, its life-as-film-as-play-as-nothing strategy was rewarding). So when I heard about "Antichrist" at Cannes Film Festival - about people booing, walking out, screaming at von Trier, vomiting outside the theater (and recent reports of a guy possibly going into hysterics at the Toronto premiere) - I knew I had to see it. And with an ad campaign that stresses the "extreme content," I was already there.

I saw Antichrist last night. I loved it. It takes you to a place so dark, so violent, so disturbing you can barely believe someone would ENVISION it, let alone FILM it. It's about a couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose son falls from their apartment's window while they make love in the shower. She harbors immense repressive guilt about this, and he's a therapist, so he naturally decides to cure her. She says the woods scare her, so they head to their cabin, named Eden, to work out the psychological trauma. Chaos ensues.
Von Trier has called this film "therapy" for him, an intense working out of the problems in his head. I dare to compare it to Vertigo (not in quality, but in thematics), because it represents a very distinctive auteurist voice working out his object issues with women. Hitchcock was sorting through his own obsessions with a certain "type" of woman, much as von Trier is doing his best to figure out the misogyny he's always been accused of. Antichrist is essentially a retelling of the Garden of Eden, sprinkled with lots of biblical and mythological references that's also heavily based in 13th century texts about mass torturings of women for being "pure evil."

Are women evil? Are they witches? What are they in relation to men? These are age-old topics, and some would say they're outdated, archaic in an age of "equality." In many ways, I was reminded of Bergman while I watched this film - it's claustrophobic and almost experimentally psychological, while it retains von Trier's dogmatic style - handheld camera, natural lighting, natural acting. The "Dogma 95" contract is met with amazing conceptual shots, mostly in extreme slow motion, that signify dreams, alternative presences, etc.

It's a nightmarish film, and deeply disturbing. The last half hour is breathless. There's been a lot of talk about sexual mutilation in this film. Yes, it exists. Yes, they show it. Yes, it's in detail. It's terrifying. It will make you want to vomit. BUT it exists for a higher dramatic purpose, at least I feel. This isn't just throwing things at the audience for shock value; there are things going on beneath the surface. This is about the nature of man, of woman of NATURE even! It's a nightmare therapy.

If this is soulless extremism, if it is debased pornography, if it tears at the cloud of decency: SO BE IT! Von Trier is pushing our buttons, and we push back. He has made a film that gives us the space to debate with him about his most serious issues, a film that feels like a major event and will be decried by critics internationally as an ugly and perverse film. That would be true if we were meant to take an iota of pleasure from it. Its perversions are viewed as perversions. Its horror is viewed as horror, as abomination.

In the end, I think it decries misogyny. Everyone's free to disagree, but the blame the Gainsbourg character harvests seems to come from her inability to deal with her reality as a result of a pre-existing condition. If that's contrived, so be it. But maybe the lesson is that men and women are of opposing and equally irrational nature. Maybe they are driven by the greater evil of nature to perform in this way. And if it's impossible to overcome, isn't that a greater horror?

Review: Extract

* * / * * * *

Property of The Daily Gamecock

Director Mike Judge has developed an immense cult following since pioneering brash cartoon humor in the 1990s with "Beavis and Butthead," moving on to "King of the Hill" and polishing that decade off with the workplace satire "Office Space."

After an unbalanced foray into science fiction with 2006's "Idiocracy," Judge heads back to screwball workplace satire in his new film, "Extract." The film follows Joel (Jason Bateman), an upper-middle class small business owner whose life starts to unravel as he becomes more sexually estranged from his wife, one of his co-workers threatens to sue after losing a testicle in a supply line accident and a sexy new temp becomes the object of his affection.

Judge's feature films are about suffocating under the banal and mundane tediousness of reality, turning the pressures of society into a prickly minefield of stress. His comedy here is never too broad or too crude, but takes a relaxed tone that lets jokes smoothly evolve.

Star Bateman keeps the film grounded by staying earnest. His happiness is always teetering on the brink, and his desire for personal fulfillment always matches his financial frustration and woes.

Supporting players Mila Kunis, J.K. Simmons, Kristen Wiig and Clifton Collins, Jr. add dashes of flavor without going over the top. The real standout is Ben Affleck, as a bearded bartender who helps Joel get the upper hand on his unfaithful wife. Affleck is the most energetic, the zaniest and, for some reason, the most likeable presence in the film.

As soft as Judge's humor is, the satire doesn't have much of a bite. What "Extract" does quite well, even if only intermittently, is to praise the economics of small business, propping up the virtues of self-made capitalism without letting the ignorance of the characters make them total buffoons.

Where "Extract" doesn't necessarily work is when it tries to balance the workplace satire against the suburban satire. While the movie is about Joel trying to stabilize himself against an escalating set of circumstances, it feels more like two movies trading off screen time than one coherent package.

The relationship between Bateman and on-screen wife Wiig simmers with sexual tension, with Wiig mustering great deadpan in almost all her scenes. Their story, and the sexual triangle Joel tries to forge with Kunis's con artist Cindy, would be a good enough story of suburban unrest without the business angle.

That "Extract" doesn't seem perfectly content with itself, meshing storylines, throwing in secondary characters and angling itself more at peripheral jokes than focusing in on the heart of the matter, which is what keeps it from being great.

Judge may keep the humor at a constant elevation, but it doesn't fly high enough. The satire only carries the film so far, and despite the actors' attempts to gel with the humor, they all largely lack the kind of vitality that helped Judge's "Office Space" rocket to cult classic status.

By no means a poor or unfunny film, "Extract" is just too invested in providing samplings, trying to capitalize fleetingly on all anxieties instead of focusing deeply on any one subject.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Up in the Air" Trailer

If you haven't been on a movie blog in the last week, you haven't heard about Up in the Air, the third feature from director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno). It's fast becoming the early "festival film" for Oscar, generating massively good word of mouth at every venue it's being screened at. Take a look at the trailer:

Simple, poetic, great imagery. Doesn't tell too much about the plot, but focuses appropriately on Clooney. Bid for Best Actor? Could be one of the most well-designed trailers of the year.

"Lebanon" Wins Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival

According to Variety, "Lebanon" is "a hard-hitting look at war from inside a military tank" from Israeli director Samuel Maoz, and is based on his experience as a soldier during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Can't wait to see it. Here are the winners from the big festival:

Golden Lion for Best Film: Lebanon, by Samuel Maoz
Silver Lion for Best Director: Shirin Neshat for "Zanan Bedone Mardan" (Women Without Men)
Special Jury Prize: Soul Kitchen by Faith Akin
Coppa Volpi for Best Actor: Colin Firth, A Single Man
Coppa Volpi for Best Actress: Ksenia Rappoport, La doppia ora
Best Young Actor/Actress: Jasmina Trinca, Il grande sogno
Best Production Designer: Sylvie Olive, Mr. Nobody
Best Screenplay: Todd Solontz, Life During Wartime

Review: In the Loop

* * * / * * * *

Property of The Daily Gamecock

"In the Loop," a ferociously funny new British comedy, is not as much about political misgivings and manipulation as it seems. Its plot focuses on the efforts of various inept British and American politicians trying to both ignite and diffuse a war against an unnamed Middle Eastern country, but the politics are always secondary to the voices and personalities of the film's cesspool of power-hungry and brainless nut jobs.

This is a film about profanity. Writers Tony Roche, Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell, and Jesse Armstrong slip just about every variant and incarnation of a multitude of naughty words into the mouths of their fast-talking characters at an unbelievable rate.

But "In the Loop" is not just a mountain of filthy jokes balanced against political banter. The script is intelligent, and co-writer/director Armando Iannucci has a gift for understanding the nuances of speed and cadence in dialogue. The humor constantly sneaks up and surprises, lurching from filth and emerging as gold.

British and American slang clash in a flurry of miscommunication, where warmongers and self-involved pacifists vie for the chance to be responsible for a top-secret military committee.

In a film that almost explodes with great acting and wicked ensemble work, no one is better than Peter Capaldi. Playing Malcolm Tucker, a British political advisor with serious anger issues, Capaldi knows when to stretch his character's broad strokes, making his humor both cartoonish and focused.

The other major standout is American character actor David Rasche, as Assistant Secretary of State Linton Barwick. A calmly spoken man who detests profanity but wants to rally his country to international war, Rasche is exceptional at playing both the fool and the conniver, making Barwick a fascinating political figure.

"In the Loop" comes straight out of British television, taking most of its actors and writers from 2005 comedy "The Thick of It." Mimicking the look and feel of a documentary, the movie was shot on video instead of film and most of the shots are handheld, giving the cameramen the ability to maneuver in and around characters with uninhibited pans and zooms.

The somewhat chaotic filming style, accompanied by edits that try to keep the flow of conversation clear in the more pivotal and cluttered moments, serves to underscore the manic ineptitude of the situation.

"In the Loop" is, in many ways, a great sitcom pushed out to feature film length, but that's not meant as a detriment to the daring bark and bite it hurls at every turn.

This comedy is scabrous and unforgiving, and much more effective when it's less about the politics and more about the slow-cooking crock-pot of foolish vegetables that make up its political minefield.

As political satire, it rather bleakly paints political pursuits as personal battles, where desires for reform only overlap with personal conviction, and the good of the state only comes served with self-satisfaction.

"In the Loop" is quite possibly the funniest movie so far this year, a laugh-til-you-hurt, hurt-til-you're-sore gem that never ceases to amaze at the sheer creativity of its wordplay, or the carefully designed inflections that help propel that creativity into stratospheric heights.

Why Film Festivals Matter

Property of The Daily Gamecock

Film festivals are wonderful things. They give emerging filmmakers the chance to showcase their first projects and let veteran directors and producers generate word of mouth about their latest work. It's a major breeding ground of the industry's business, where the filmmakers and the businessmen mingle, make deals, and get their voices out.

Two major film festivals usually mark the first half of the year. The first, Sundance Film Festival in Utah is one of the premier spots for new filmmaking talent to get exposure. Films like "Little Miss Sunshine" and "(500) Days of Summer," which were made independently and thus had no guarantee of national theatrical distribution, debut here, attract critics and audiences, and eventually get the notice of an executive who can finance a future for these kinds of films.

Places like Sundance have become the epitome of the American independent scene, a place slightly divorced from the Hollywood studios but still very much a part of the business.

The second is the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France, which has had a long tradition of attracting the most anticipated international projects since 1946. It's a showier affair that supports exhibiting both premieres of mainstream films and new independent work in and out of competition for their coveted "Palme d'Or" - or Golden Palm - award.

Right now, the film world is eagerly on edge as it enters a major marathon of national and international festivals, with major journalists and bloggers alike chomping at the bit to see all the new films they can and start generating buzz about that next great find.

The Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival are just two of at least half a dozen major festivals happening around the world in the next few weeks.

These festivals have been growing year after year into major events where filmmakers can unveil their work for the press and their peers before moving on to limited or national theatrical engagements.
Okay, that's all well and good, but wouldn't most of these movies grab some kind of distribution deal even without a festival? After all, powerful names like Michael Moore, Steven Soderbergh, and George Clooney just premiered work at Venice.

As true as that may be, executives and journalists also long to "discover" the next great film. Last year, Fox Searchlight rescued "Slumdog Millionaire" from a direct-to-DVD fate after a festival premiere, and used escalating word of mouth from the festival circuit to help net its eight Academy Awards.

Film festivals are fast becoming the place where dreams come true, a vital outlet for the creative survival of the medium, where movie stars and clamoring artists alike can unite to celebrate and discuss their art. They afford space for press conferences and roundtable discussions with filmmakers and journalists.

If the moviegoer inside you sighs heavily at "The Final Destination" yanking box office receipts left and right, don't give into that rage you want to spew at Hollywood for "turning out the same predictable junk week after week."

Look instead to Venice, that beacon of hope on the horizon of the upcoming awards season, and remember the movies aren't just a dollars and cents business.

Remember that someone could get the chance to make it big and finally feel that spotlight. That's entertainment.

Review: Halloween II

* 1/2 / * * * *

Property of The Daily Gamecock

When Rob Zombie, director of gory cult classics like "The Devil's Rejects," remade John Carpenter's original slasher classic "Halloween" in 2007, he opted for a route of more gore and more psychology, exploring the disturbed mentality of killer Michael Myers to middling effect.

In redefining a legend, Zombie tried to look deeper but came up emptier, trading mood and atmosphere for a redundant romp through traumatized childhood and the guts of teenage babysitters.

Zombie's "Halloween II," a sequel to the remake but not necessarily a remake to the sequel, doesn't just slice and dice its victims; it sets its sights on demolishing the whole aura of the genre. By the end, the infamous white William Shatner mask is nearly torn to shreds.

The new installment of the rebooted franchise flashes a year after the fatal events of the previous Halloween. Michael Myers, still on the loose, makes his way through the Illinois countryside to Haddonfield, where his sister Laurie, played byScout Taylor-Compton, lives each night haunted by her encounter the previous year.

Meanwhile, Dr. Samuel Loomis, played byMalcolm McDowell, has published a book about Michael's case, trying to defend criticisms and salvage his professional reputation.

While Rob Zombie's filmmaking is almost undeniably sloppy, it is far from the hatchet job the 2007 film was. What's rewarding about this boogeyman is that it doesn't play by the rules even when it can't find its footing, and lurking beneath its uneven textures and haphazard regard for its accumulating stack of bodies is a filmmaker trying desperately to reinvent the slasher.

Cinematographer Brandon Trost's images are at times gorgeously expressionistic and haunting, using unnatural lighting and wide lenses to distort Myers, while drenching entire halves of frames in total darkness.

It's dark and almost dreamy work, but the camera also loves to revel in muddy grunge and linger on pools of blood. The sound design team shares Zombie's obvious fascination with the ways violence can be heard; as much as the stabbings in the film look like overkill, it pales in comparison to the murders' aural assault.

As creative and driven as the film's aesthetic looks in some areas, it's also obvious and tiresome in others. Tyler Bates's score is always loud and crude instead of creepy and smooth, diluting much of the tension.

Ultimately, "Halloween II" fails to reach an inner heart of darkness. The most it can do is slosh through an ever-swelling puddle of blood.

If Rob Zombie had in mind a gory deconstruction of the irrational creatures lurking in the night, one has to wonder why he's decided to reboot Carpenter's genre-defining work, instead of mining his own demons. If anything, the film is a half-baked series of ideas that echoes and refracts forty years of slasher movies without getting deep enough under the skin of the formula.

As for Myers himself, this gigantic, hulking incarnation is more like a demon from Hell than a crazed boogeyman. He may know how to slice a throat, but his style is more akin to the robotic machines of a slaughterhouse.

He's not a psychopath to be feared, but the object through which Zombie can inflict his massive violence. As such, "Halloween II" is more a grungy garage band of a slasher than a full-blown orchestra. It dreams big, but never gets there

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

District 9 Review

District 9

* * * 1/2 / * * * *

Property of The Daily Gamecock

The best science fiction has, traditionally, always had one foot planted strongly in its present. In the 1950s, filmmakers helped shape the genre by presenting allegories of Cold War America grappling with the paranoia of communism in such classics as "The Thing From Another World" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

In the intervening decades, filmmakers have continually recognized the ability to reflect real society through fantasy to address political or social concerns. Clearly attuned to his most successful predecessors, South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp directs "District 9" with a ferocious and clear-eyed intensity rarely felt in contemporary sci-fi.

In Blomkamp's version of South Africa's battle against apartheid politics, the downtrodden and discriminated are a race of aliens who arrived on Earth 28 years earlier and hovered over Johannesburg, their spaceship out of fuel and the inhabitants malnourished to the brink of death. Out of fear, the South African government intervened and relegated them to a slum.

Now, na've up-and-coming government agent Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley) helps lead an effort to evict the aliens into a smaller concentration camp, where the government can naturally exert more direct influence on the creatures.

Made on a scant budget of only $30 million - compare that to the nearly $200 million budget of "Transformers 2" - "District 9" contains some of the most eye-popping, jaw-dropping, nerve-rattling special effects wizardry of any blockbuster this year.

Shot largely on location in actual South African slums, "District 9" has a palpably urban feel. It's loaded with dust and crawling with grime, and rather expertly captures a distinct verisimilitude by shooting most of the film like a television documentary.

The effects and nasty makeup blends seamlessly into the intricate and rickety camera movements and sharp editing of each action scene, making the film immersive and completely captivating.

Blomkamp's film is built off the rather common theme of cross-cultural, or in this case cross-species, understanding and while it's hard to make the case that it advances the idea of a "socially conscious science fiction film" into uncharted territory, "District 9" is whittled of fat and excess, its politics laid bare but simultaneously expertly concealed beneath its graphic and gripping aesthetic.

It's a lean machine of gross-out makeup and gore of the highest caliber, superbly calibrated to launch effortlessly from set piece to set piece. Copley helps keep the pace and tension high with his charismatic lead performance, throwing himself wholly into his character's fears and resolves, and giving the audience an easy place to hold their sympathies.

But even as "District 9" works as a consummate thrill ride, it's also smart enough not to get pigeonholed by the cinematic conventions and echoes it structures its story around. Scientists exploiting alien life for government gain, small alien children harassed by workers and brutish and unforgiving soldiers help make up the dusty landscape of the film, but thankfully Blomkamp's script uses these as efficiently as possible, as mere touchstones to simplify his exposition.

"District 9" has the effect of being rolled around inside a steel barrel. It's an exhilarating action film that's always tossing and turning in the most unpredictable way, and it's hard to shake the shock.

Disney and Marvel's New Vertical Integration

Property of The Daily Gamecock

A couple of months ago, Marvel Enterprises, the studio behind "Spider-man," "Iron Man" and several other big name super hero franchises, announced they would be starting a special screenwriting program.

No, it's not an internship - more like a soul-stealing contract. Marvel has decided to put approximately half a dozen budding screenwriters exclusively on staff. For a salary of up to $100,000 a year, as speculated by entertainment trade paper Variety, these writers will receive specific writing assignments from producers.

These assignments could range from adapting new characters from Marvel's library, assisting on script re-writes for adaptations in production or helping other hired writers develop sequels for pre-existing franchises.

Sound like a great idea? As with any sweet deal, there's a tiny catch - anything a contracted writer produces during their one-year stay becomes the sole property of Marvel Studios.

For a studio whose box office influence has only really emerged within the past decade, this is a daring move. Banking on the immediate success of their first "Iron Man" film in 2008, of which a sequel is already in post-production for its May 2010 release, Marvel is hoping to draw as much as it can from other genre competitors like DC Comics ("The Dark Knight").

Their business model closely resembles Disney's, which doles out a $50,000 yearly salary to contracted writers who want to develop programming for Disney Channel and ABC.

And in this world of bizarre coincidences, Disney announced yesterday they will be buying out Marvel Enterprises for $4 billion and, according to Variety, will effectively own all of Marvel's 5,000 characters.

But so what if Marvel, or new parent Disney, wants to contract writers? They're planning to staff less than 10 people; does it make a difference? To draw an admittedly tenuous parallel, Disney seems to be drawing its ideas from an outdated kind of Hollywood thinking.

Way back in the good old days of black and white Depression-era Hollywood, every studio in town practiced intense levels of vertical integration. Warner Bros. and MGM kept writers, directors, actors and even theaters on their payroll, controlling the filmmaking process from conception to delivery and retaining sole intellectual control of all property produced.

Granted, this was a time before the guilds, before court decisions helped break up the studio oligarchy and comparing this kind of unified production with Marvel's program is admittedly a bit extreme.

After all, isn't it a great chance for inexperienced writers to get their foot in the door, to make a name for themselves in a cutthroat industry? Of course it is, but only to an extent. Marvel's contracts only last a year and are one step above paid intellectual slavery.

Once the contract expires, these writers will still have a hard time shopping themselves around Hollywood, for they don't actually have ownership of their work.

And with Disney tightening its corporate stranglehold over one of the industry's major up-and-coming studios, doesn't this reek just a little bit of good old vertical integration? Well, that's entertainment.