Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

The Road: Trailer 2

I've been waiting for The Road for at least a year, after it was shafted from last October to this past April, and then again to this November. I was upset after a first trailer made it look like a typical end-of-the-world thriller, but this new full length trailer blows me away. The Road was one of the most overpoweringly depressing books I've ever read. Its sparseness and its simplicity, its unrelenting sense of doom and worthlessness - it's a perfect piece of literature.

I am confident this will be one of the best pictures of 2009. Despite some icky looking CG master shots, the atmosphere has been amazingly translated, and Viggo Mortensen bowls me over here. I'm also glad this trailer focuses mostly on the Man and his Son, as all the other characters have about two scenes, tops.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Paranormal: the most profitable film EVER?!

Paranormal Activity has now made 414,233% profit. Made for $15,000 and has currently grossed 65.1 million. And it will probably finish #2 this weekend with another 15-20 million. I'm fully expecting this baby to push over 100 million, which will make its profitability staggering.

By the way, it's passed "The Blair Witch Project" - percentage wise - in profits.

A Shot in the Dark: First Oscar post of the year!

For no reason except blind guessing, I'm officially throwing my hat in the ring and picking 10 films I think will be nominated for Best Picture next year. There are no concrete reasons. Just hunches. Picks are in alphabetical order

Bright Star; d. Jane Campion
An Education; d. Lone Scherfig
The Hurt Locker; d. Kathryn Bigelow
Inglourious Basterds; d. Quentin Tarantino
Invictus; d. Clint Eastwood
The Lovely Bones; d. Peter Jackson
Nine; d. Rob Marshall
Precious; d. Lee Daniels
The White Ribbon; d. Michael Haneke
A Serious Man; d. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Up in the Air; d. Jason Reitman

We'll see how well this does over time.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Damned United Brief Review

* * * / * * * *

What's that? A sports movie without a bunch of tired cliches about coming together? A soccer movie that's about how much a coach sucked? Michael Sheen in a comedo-dramatic role? A new Peter Morgan script that redeems Frost/Nixon?

Yes, The Damned United is one hell of a sports movie. Like all Morgan's scripts, it's a behind-the-scenes dramatization of the facts that wisely stays off the field in chronicling Brian Clough's 44 day stint as coach of the Leeds United in 1974.

This is the Michael Sheen I've been dying to see since The Queen. His performance as Clough is magnificently no-holds-barred. It's funny as hell and breakneck. Director Tom Hooper (the guy who did the whole John Adams series) is smart about putting sequences together. He's just the right amount of flashy and he knows how to frame and lens.

I don't know enough about soccer to really "get" the movie, but Morgan is great with the stream of information and developing his lead. It's his best since The Queen. Very textured sports film that's hushed but not drowned out. Thankfully it's not a sappy mess about a team. Thankfully it's about an idiotic coach, and thankfully it's not about redeeming him.

New Avatar Trailer...

Finally, I can figure out what this freakin' movie is about.

But I actually prefer the trailer without the awful dialogue.

Sorry Cameron, but this is gonna have to be BIG for it to mean anything. It's been twelve years, and this is the best trailer you've got? I'm already scraping the tired aftertaste of the colonialism narrative off my tongue...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Brief Review: Paranormal Activity

* * * / * * * *

Paranormal Activity was made for 15,000 dollars. That was in the back of my head the entire time I watched it. Whether that's good or bad, I'm not sure. It does not have the elemental terror of The Blair Witch Project. It is, in some regards, overly amateurish and a little strained.

But it is also relentlessly creative. A good chunk of its runtime is spent using the same camera setup - looking at two people while they sleep. Rarely in a recent horror film has the idea of voyeurism and of bodily vulnerability been so omnipresent.

Director Oren Peli is genius with clever shots. He's a trickster, but he knows how to pull the strings. Paranormal Activity is all about holding back, about creating an environment. Granted, the entire film is predicated on your ability to believe it COULD happen (much like The Exorcist). To detach oneself is to instantly lose interest, and that's largely a major flaw.

It does prey on the idea that we can't see things while we sleep. Paranormal or not, when our body shuts down we're not sure what we're doing. That's ultimately what's so terrifying. Granted, it's never as terrifying or original as it thinks it is, nor is it a satisfying film.

Its advertising calls it "traumatic." Yes, it's about psychological breakdown, but it's about the breakdown of logic. It's about disrupting visual logic, laws of motion and of space, and doing so through "cheap" video equipment. As a small, intimate horror, it works.

Great Moments in Scary Movies: The Shining

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick; 1980)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: Capitalism: A Love Story

Property of The Daily Gamecock

If Michael Moore did not exist, would it be necessary to invent him? That question seems to ring in the ears throughout the documentary filmmaker’s latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

It is a simplistic, gimmicky, hyperbolic, and almost self-contradictory film that is almost always perplexing and scattershot more than it is holistically convincing.

The film tries to chronicle the worst aspects of capitalism, ultimately building to a dissection of massive corporate greed in the face of government bailouts. Moore’s ideas about fiscal equality, balanced distribution of wealth, and protection for the lower classes are easy to agree with in theory.

However, his banal simplification, highly selective examples, and inability to both distill his film into a single argument and also to provide a possible solution make it impossible to connect concretely to his plea for a more perfect union.

Moore fulfills an important function as a documentary filmmaker, giving regular people a microphone, the simple ability to let their individual voices be heard. In his emotional interviews with outraged citizens, he allows his subjects’ fears and angers to be put on full display.

As easy as it is to dismiss Moore as a sensationalist muckraker, it’s worth remembering that he is, at the end of the day, a filmmaker. He collects and juxtaposes images to create an effect, and his command of the medium is indeed fascinating in many regards.

Moore creates impressively manipulative montages through a variety of sources. He is able to use the inherent psychological meanings of stock footage, advertisements, classical music, and other films to create arguments out of media.

While it’s interesting to ponder the implications of staging an argument in such a way, it’s also hard not to feel defeated by Moore’s insistence to plug winding monologues over every segment, irrationally stroking his own ego as he claims to fight for the common man.

His ultimate fault as a filmmaker, and why “Capitalism” fails to strike an inspired chord, is that he’s unable to answer his own questions. He sacrifices argument for artifice.

When Moore approaches AIG’s offices, only to be politely turned away, it reeks of the same repetitive shtick he’s been doing for twenty years. When he wraps crime tape around Wall Street, his insistence on trying to create a meaningful image detracts from any impact such an image could have.

Yet there is one powerful moment when Moore steps back and lets a better orator do the talking. The University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collection supplied “Capitalism” with film footage of an ailing FDR reading an excerpt from his 1944 State of the Union address from the Oval Office.

In this footage, never shown publicly until now, Roosevelt delineates his ideas for a “second bill of rights,” a list of things all Americans should be entitled to.

Roosevelt’s argument is explicit and succinct, and it’s saddening to realize how few of his ideals have actually come true, and how contested many of them still are.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” is meant to be both tragedy and irony. Buried beneath its uneven, at worst unformed structure is an impassioned cry against corporate greed, and a plea for a great nation to do more for its middle and lower classes.

It’s an argument that Michael Moore is perfectly capable of making, but it’s Michael Moore that keeps the argument from being perfectly articulated.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Got "Glee"?

As awesome as Will's random detour into "Bust a Move" was, I have to say his "Thong Song" with Emma took the cake for me this week (as well as his swing dance with Sue). Big week for Matthew Morrison in terms of singing/dancing time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

That's Entertainment: The Business of Paranormal Activity

Property The Daily Gamecock

It’s nearly Halloween, and that means it’s time for the studios to churn out a couple of run-of-the-mill torture slashers, recoup their costs, and call it a day.
All of them except Paramount and Dreamworks SKG, who have been running an abnormally stealthy campaign on a super-low-budget horror film, “Paranormal Activity,” making a ploy for it to be the most successful horror film since “The Blair Witch Project.”

The much-hyped film, shot on a shoestring budget of only $15,000, premiered on only 800 screens to a stunning $20.2 million weekend gross. Though it’s poised to be one of the sleeper hits of the season, the film itself has had a complicated journey, with a unique distribution strategy that has served as one of its major drawing points.

Three years ago, director Oren Peli shot a movie on digital video cameras in one week. The film, about a couple trying to document and expel spirits haunting their home, used complete unknowns and tried to capture a realistic situation as best as possible.

“Paranormal Activity” scored a slot at the 2007 Screamfest Horror Film Festival and the Slamdance Film Festival in early 2008, but it remained without a distributor to send it out to theaters until Paramount and Dreamworks SKG tried to negotiate a feature length remake on a large budget.

Then, according to a Sept. 20 article in Los Angeles Times, Peli urged Dreamworks production chief Adam Goodman to hold a test screening in March 2008. When several audience members literally left the theater in terror, the studios’ interest in distributing the original film immediately rocketed.

Most movies with a limited release premiere in big cities like New York and Los Angeles and then expand in a pre-determined pattern. The producers of “Paranormal Activity” took a slightly different approach, releasing the movie in a dozen university areas on September 25 and selling out multiple shows.

The producers next tried to market the film through an online petitioning system, where viewers would have to “demand” the film in order for it to be shown in their area. After an expansion to 20 locations on Oct. 2 and another limited expansion on Oct. 9, Paramount has now pushed the film into a wider release, with golden results.

“Paranormal Activity” bears talking about because Paramount’s ploy succeeded — by withholding the film and making fans demand it the studio forced audiences to think of it as a word-of-mouth discovery, despite its viral marketing.

Considering that horror is a genre that relies heavily on audience manipulation for maximum effect, it’s shocking how poorly studios market their thrillers and how pedestrian their executions usually are. It seems that too often they are simply thrown off the shelf for middling consumption, a kind of junk food no one takes seriously.

So this Halloween, take a chance on a film that barely made it to theaters, on a horror that’s trying to do something different, and on a studio that brought back a marketing strategy that’s almost antiquated for horror movies.

The saga of “Paranormal Activity” is one of those rare stories where a filmmaker found something primal in his material. He dared a studio to believe his film was scary. They bought it. But, more importantly, they bought it because of the audience. That’s Entertainment.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Where the Wild Things Are" Review

* * * / * * * *

Property: The Daily Gamecock

A child’s spirit is a wonderful thing. So wonderful, it seems most adults yearn to recapture it. Once we assume responsibilities in our lives, we want only the ability to let our imaginations take flight in the “pure” way we remember from our earliest years.

Cerebral director Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” though it follows the adventures of young dreamer Max (the spectacularly memorable Max Records), is not a film told through youthful eyes. Rather, it is a nostalgic, at times mournful flight of an adult filmmaker back into the imagination of his childhood.

Jonze, who directed “Being John Malkovich,” teams with writer Dave Eggers (“Away We Go”) to take on the daunting task of adapting Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s classic, an illustrated work less than 50 pages and less than 500 words. The result is not a copy so much as a faithfully spirited inspiration, expanded with rich hues of character.

Since its publication, literary critics have analyzed Sendak’s story from a variety of psychological and political perspectives, trying to find an adequate reading to explain the sheer magnetism of the work.

Thankfully, Jonze and Eggers do not try to simplify their film through one simple reading. They carefully blend ideas about utopia, depression, leadership, and allegiance within their story, which leapfrogs from scene to scene with an abrupt stream of consciousness whirl bound together by Max’s need to feel a family’s love.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a carefully constructed piece of visual splendor. Cinematographer Lance Acord follows Max and the Wild Things in feverish, exuberant tracking shots that get into the heart of the action. The camera almost swoons in disorientation, but the effect is exhilarating.

Other moments are carefully framed to highlight the beauty of the Wild Things. A stunning meld of giant puppets designed by the Jim Henson Company and computer animation to create more fluid facial expressions, these fantastical creatures are a marvel not only to look at, but to experience.

There is a noticeable lack of plot to Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” In expanding and re-imagining Sendak’s vision, the screenwriters have carefully increased the dimensions of the Things and their environment, while the narrative remains almost surprisingly uneventful, almost spread too thin.

However, there’s also Max. The true deftness of the film, and why it works so well, is that Jonze and Eggers have not tried to adapt or recreate Sendak’s version of Max. Their protagonist is one that feels culled from the depths of their own childhoods, their own pains, and their own spirited imaginations.

Jonze’s films are about retreats into interior – almost abstract – space. It’s hard not to see each Wild Thing as demonstrable of a particular aspect of Max’s reality or his personality, as if the film is an adventure through his subconscious.

It is only by retreating to this fantasy space that Max, young as he is, is able to confront his own idyllic fantasies and perhaps understand how it feels to play parent to rambunctious children.

Spike Jonze is a director who understands how to balance the innate reality of the film image with the paradoxically innate fiction of the film image. Rarely giving in to artistic excesses or succumbing too heavily to the story’s neuroses, Jonze instead melds a quiet work of affecting soulfulness.

It is a film where the fiction is crafted to feel almost painfully real. “Where the Wild Things Are” is a beautiful work of transportive power that could make any adult cry, if only for the nostalgia of their own Wild Things.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Glee: TV Review

Property of The Daily Gamecock

Fox’s new comedy-drama “Glee” arrives with almost transcendental freshness. The best show about high school since “Freaks and Geeks,” this zany, perfectly pitched send-up of high school’s social absurdities and entanglements is one of the best new TV shows of the season.

Matthew Morrison leads the show’s exceptional cast as Will Schuester, a Spanish teacher at William McKinley High School who decides to revive the school’s glee club — think choir mixed with dance team. Assembling a bizarre cross section of the high school hierarchy, Will struggles to inspire and guide his students in competition and, as any good high school mentor, in life.

The concept is not necessarily original or striking at first, but its execution is nothing short of brilliant — bolstered by standout acting from the entire ensemble. Particularly effective is Jane Lynch (“Role Models”) as Sue Sylvester, the cheer squad coach who is determined to destroy the glee club to prevent it from stealing her athletic funding.

Lynch is a true wildfire, a venomous master of plucky dialogue who gladly chews on anything handed to her.

The other shocking standout is young Chris Colfer. As Kurt Hummel, the club’s flamingly gay showman, Colfer comes armed with perfectly articulated physical nuance, but he has the range to make Kurt a perfectly identifiable and richly developed character.

The characters on “Glee” are clich├ęs — the jock, the cheer captain, the know-it-all, the cool teacher. But with a perspective that’s scathingly derisive while still shamelessly rooting for these underdogs, the stock characters are used as the springboard for humor and subplots that favor exploring their limits as types and tropes.

But what really makes “Glee” stand out above other new comedy shows is its dive into expertly staged and performed musical numbers. The glee club takes stage at least once each episode, with most weeks also having side numbers complementing the narrative.
These covers of popular songs, ranging so far from Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” the cast of “Glee” has vocal range to stretch and choreography to back it up.

As splendid as the show is when it’s functioning as a finely tuned dissection of stereotypical high school life, it’s when the first chords of a song spring up that the show booms into stratospheric heights.

“Glee” is that weird instance where a show’s title actually does tell you exactly what it’s about. Though the glee club is what binds its plot strings together, it’s not about the club so much as the emotion.

“Glee” is about experiencing unfettered joy through music, relaxing the complex stress of daily life in favor of reveling in the intensity of performance. By brushing away high school’s social cynicism, “Glee” opts instead to sing waves of joy through the rafters. It’s the most enjoyably addictive show premiering this year.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Tragedy of Roman Polanski

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” So ended film director Roman Polanski’s 1974 saga of political corruption and despair, “Chinatown.” This quote, so seminally cited on the list of great movie endings, works not only as the epitome of the crushed soul of Jack Nicholson’s world-weary private eye, but as a summation of the film’s now-notorious Polish director.

When Roman Polanski made “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968, it cemented his status as an international sensation with an original vision that fit perfectly into the rapidly changing landscape of world cinema.

From his Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film for his 1962 feature “Knife in the Water,” he was cited as a distinct voice in the Polish New Wave and welcomed by the rising faces of a new Hollywood establishment. His early films reveled in visual distortion and experimentation, united around an uncompromisingly bleak look inside our fatal flaws.

His 1965 film “Repulsion” is as dark an exploration of individual psychosis as any on film, perhaps owing much to his own dark scars. As a child, Polanski watched his mother dragged to the gas chambers during the Holocaust, escaped Auschwitz concentration camp and survived in the Krakow ghetto.

Polanski’s luck only worsened in 1969, when members of the Manson family brutally murdered his wife, actress Sharon Tate, in their California home. His films are understandably organized around violence, death and mental suffocation. These ghosts, it seems, have never stopped following him.

An artist who has spent most of his life either working out his demons or being absorbed by more, the story of Polanski is as tragic as one of his films.

For many, Polanski’s 1977 charge of statutory rape of a minor was the inevitable explosion of a ticking bomb. While the facts of the case now seem entangled in a web of contradictions, the director’s Sept. 27 arrest in Zurich after thirty years as a fugitive living in France only serves as a reminder of his complicated life, so professionally successful while so personally devastating.

This article is not an apology for Polanski’s crime. To sort out the complexities of that legal quagmire requires a far deeper understanding of the judicial system than this author possesses.

But it seems necessary now, perhaps more than ever, to try and understand the context of Polanski as a tragic figure. To think of him arrested for his decades-old crime at the age of 76 as he arrived in Switzerland to be honored at a retrospective of his work seems drenched in the kind of painful irony pervasive in his work.

Imagining him sitting in his cell in Zurich, awaiting possible extradition to the United States, possibly facing jail time for the remainder of his life, one has to wonder if Polanski realizes what he has become. For J.J. Gittes, the private investigator of “Chinatown,” the titular location is as much an abstract concept as a concrete reality, a place that holds his tortured soul captive. Roman Polanski’s life has now been consumed by his own Chinatown.

He is trapped in a vortex so similar to one of his films. He is a tortured soul undone by his own demons, trying to escape a past he can’t come to grips with, only to be defeated in the end. Maybe Polanski realizes that his life now imitates his art, even though his art was a way to sort out his demons in the first place.

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” The irony is that it’s impossible to forget. It’s impossible to forget one’s past, one’s crimes, one’s demons. If Polanski’s films – and more importantly, his life - suggest anything, it’s that these things have the potential to consume us. That’s Entertainment.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Review: World's Greatest Dad

* * 1/2 / * * * *

Property of The Daily Gamecock

It’s been a long time since Robin Williams has been in top form. Despite popping up in a variety of roles supporting his trademark over-the-top shtick, his humor has been missing the sense of bold physical exploration, that made him such a winning comedian, and the surprising deftness of spirit that made him such a poignant dramatist.

Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s new film, “World’s Greatest Dad,” is darker than dark. It’s a pitch-black comedy that breaks more than a few barriers of taste. It’s also Williams’ best work in years, a tightly wound portrait of artistic depression and emotional manipulation that’s both devastatingly funny and shockingly affecting.

Williams stars as Lance Clayton, a would-be famous novelist wasting away as a high school English teacher. No one wants to take his poetry class, and no publishers want his novels. His son Kyle (Daryl Sabara), may qualify as the world’s worst son, a pitiful and porn-obsessed fifteen-year-old jerk who couldn’t care less about his father.

Then, about 40 minutes into the film, Kyle, humiliatingly and accidentally, dies. Lance, not wanting people to know what really happened, stages the scene as an accidental suicide, complete with an emotionally deep and completely fabricated suicide note.

The note, it turns out, becomes the focus of much attention for its surprising depth. Seeing an opportunity to live vicariously through his son, Lance decides to write his son’s journal and reveal a tortured soul beneath the lonely jerk.

Perhaps one-third social satire and two-thirds misanthropic cynicism, “World’s Greatest Dad” teeters on the slippery slope of dark comedy, occasionally hitting a stride that sticks so hard it’s almost painful.

The ridiculous and escalating eulogies afforded Kyle work so well because of the contrast so firmly established by the young Sabara. He’s able to meld a character so despicable that it actually bolsters the film’s satire on the mediation of death. Director Goldthwait knows how to direct him to maximum potential.

“World’s Greatest Dad” has the guts to ask why tragedies get spun so out of control, why people crave for ballads and teary testimonials and constant mediation to work through the death of someone they barely cared about to begin with.

Williams does tremendous work, holding his emotions behind a thickly stretched veil and choosing to remain a largely contemptible enigma. The clear writing and characterization of his character allows sympathy to slowly squeeze through.

By the film’s final act, when Lance tries to liberate himself from the suffocating trap he’s built for himself, Williams again reveals his amazing dramatic abilities. The biggest trick he pulls is his ability to actually mine sympathy for Lance and make him feel both real and troubled.

“World’s Greatest Dad” is a bizarre film, and one that’s very hard to like. At times its attacks are clear and well articulated while being directed in creative, if not necessarily unique, ways. At other times, the attacks are confusing, plain and obvious even for its unorthodox subject matter.

The film is at its best when Williams is given space to break free. Though never heartily animated, he’s here wearing his age more proudly than ever. The lines of his face, the way his smile crinkles and his diminutive and pudgy physique make him look completely helpless.

As a devastating look at a wayward artist, “World’s Greatest Dad” succeeds in spades. But, as a high school satire, a media satire and a satire on death, it’s uneven at best.