Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Thirst

* * * 1/2 / * * * *

Property The Daily Gamecock

Acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook sinks his teeth into vampire lore with his gritty and captivating new film, “Thirst,” which Focus Features released on DVD Nov. 17.

Park, who shot to international recognition with his “Vengeance Trilogy” that meditated on the need for vengeance in various forms, culminating in the frenetic and disturbing “Old Boy,” writes and directs this tale of a priest named Sang-hyeon who selflessly volunteers himself for a vaccination development project for a deadly virus.

When the procedures go wrong and the priest needs a blood transfusion, he finds himself the recipient of vampire blood. The priest suddenly starts questioning his moral life as he’s drawn into violent and sexual chaos, including having an affair with his friend’s wife and murdering others to satisfy his blood lust.

This is not a glamorous or necessarily pleasure-filled vampire tale. Sang-hyeon is a tortured and confused soul trying to negotiate the widening rift between his pre-existing morality and his newfound, overwhelming impulses. Actor Kang-ho Song plays him with an appropriate amount of variety, knowing when to send the performance over the edge for added effect.

Park’s previous films have all relied heavily on superfluous bouts of heavily orchestrated violence to both disturb and exhilarate, and “Thirst” is no exception. When Sang-hyeon and his lover (played relentlessly over-the-top by Ok-vin Kim) make the decision to murder, blood shoots and pours from veins and their drive for fleeting satisfaction pushes the film into campy territory.

The film is directed with plenty of dread and terror, with a sharp eye for integrating elements of classic vampire lore, but Park’s real skill is how he melds this with dark comedy, playing on a wide array of emotions while his film slowly crawls through its characters’ personal hell.

There is also plenty of visual invention to admire in the film. The cinematography creates striking contrasts between pale whites and pitch blacks, wedging gruesome gore somewhere in between.

Director Park fully understands how to create perfect compositions, and each scene slowly builds with deliberate editing. Many scenes accent a wealth of empty space in rooms and open areas, while others take advantage of claustrophobia and sensuality in how close the camera gets to bodies.

Though the film pushes over two hours, each moment is treated as absolutely essential, making every element of its aesthetic feel synchronized for maximum effect.

At a moment where the “Twilight Saga” seems to be trying to reshape how vampires can be imagined, “Thirst” provides an agonizing and humanizing look at two souls’ spiral into carnal sin.

The film’s religious overtones serve as both commentary and parody, constantly questioning the lines society draws around moral codes while almost never eliciting full sympathy for the deranged protagonists.

Vampirism is treated as a drug, and its victims as addicts, wherein they slowly lose all sense of themselves to the prison they erect for their bloody dinners. In its multiple approaches and wealth of subtexts to the singular subject matter, “Thirst” is an undeniably complex and invigorating film.

It is captivating horror filmmaking with a hefty sense of social commentary on its underbelly, gorgeously made from one of international cinema’s most recognizable and stand-out talents.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Golden Satellite Noms

The Golden Satellite Awards are, for a lot of reasons, pointless. They haven't even seen all the year's films, so their nods kind of reflect the best of earlier films. Either way, they're the first almost-major group to release noms, even doing so before the National Board of Review this year:

Best Picture, Drama

The Hurt Locker
Bright Star
An Education
The Messenger
The Stoning of Soraya M.

Best Picture, Musical/Comedy

Julie & Julia
The Informant!
A Serious Man
It's Complicated
Up in the Air

Best Actress, Drama

Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria
Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Shoreh Aghdashloo, The Stoning of Soraya M.
Catalina Saavedra, The Maid
Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces

Best Actor, Drama

Johnny Depp, Public Enemies
Hugh Dancy, Adam
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Michael Sheen, The Damned United
Colin Firth, A Single Man

Best Actress, Comedy/Musical

Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Zooey Deschanel, (500) Days of Summer
Katherine Heigl, The Ugly Truth
Sandra Bullock, The Proposal
Marion Cotillard, Nine

Best Actor, Comedy/Musical

Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine
Bradley Cooper, The Hangover
Matt Damon, The Informant!
Michael Stuhlberg, A Serious Man
George Clooney, Up in the Air

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Emily Blunt, Sunshine Cleaning
Mozhan Marno, The Stoning of Soraya M.
Mo'Nique, Precious
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Penelope Cruz, Nine

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Alfred Molina, An Education
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
James McAvoy, The Last Station
Timothy Spall, The Damned United

Best Foreign Language Film

Red Cliff, China
The Maid, Chile
The White Ribbon, Germany
Broken Embraces, Spain
I Killed My Mother, Canada
Winter in Wartime, Denmark

Best Animated/Mixed Media Film

Where the Wild Things Are
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
The Princess and the Frog
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Best Documentary

Every Little Step
The Cove
It Might Get Loud
The September Issue
The Beaches of Agnes
Valentino: The Last Emperor

Best Director

Neil Blomkamp, District 9
Rob Marshall, Nine
Katherine Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jane Campion, Bright Star
Lone Scherfig, An Education

Best Original Screenplay

Jane Campion, Bright Star
Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Bob Peterson and Peter Docter, Up
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, (500) Days of Summer
Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nora Ephron, Julie & Julia
Nick Hornby, An Education
Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

Original Score

Public Enemies
Up in the Air
Where the Wild Things Are
The Informant!

Original Song

"Almost There" - The Princess and the Frog
"I Can See in Color" - Precious
"Down in New Orleans" - The Princess and the Frog
"Cinema Italiano" - Nine
"The Weary Kind" - Crazy Heart
"We are the Children of the World" - The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus


Public Enemies
It Might Get Loud
Red Cliff
A Serious Man
Inglourious Basterds

Visual Effects

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Red Cliff
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Fantastic Mr. Fox
District 9

Film Editing

It Might Get Loud
Red Cliff
District 9
The Hurt Locker


Terminator Salvation
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
It Might Get Loud
Red Cliff

Art Direction

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Public Enemies
Red Cliff
The Road
A Single Man

Costume Design

Red Cliff
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Truly "Fantastic"

Fantastic Mr. Fox

* * * * / * * * *


Wes Anderson has, with Fantastic Mr. Fox, further cemented himself as one of the visionary geniuses of modern American cinema. For a man whose films (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic) employ various "flat," storybook visuals that take advantage of horizontal space and centered compositions, animation seems less like a glass slipper than like a comfortable slipper.

The stop motion animation in "Fox" is a truly astounding feat of deliberation and creativity. The choppy animation slides against highly stylized backgrounds and set designs. The camera travels in Anderson's typical dioramic style, retains much of his quirky flair for characterization, and still makes room to craft a loving group of characters that so squarely reflect the voices that support them the blend between animation, fantasy, and the "reality" of the voices sometimes gets a little dizzy (in an intoxicating kind of way).

Actors like George Clooney and Jason Schwartzmann are impeccable. They try to find the heart of their characters, and work them like real people - not just silly animals. Anderson teams with Noah Baumbach to write the script, and they find lots of idiosyncratic ways to display the dialogue in short, choppy bits. Fantastic Mr. Fox is clever - some might say too clever for its own good - but in a giddy, inventive way.

Perhaps that's why I enjoyed it so much, maybe even fell in love with it: its invention. I'm one who's always been under Anderson's spell for the way he can transform stories about families into rich tapestries. His visuals don't so much exist as breathe with a kind of vitality. That he's managed to do so in an animated film - a stop motion film - speaks to his depth of understanding of film as a visual and emotional medium.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a romp. It doesn't really care about getting inside the characters, it doesn't stage a grandiose or complicated plot, and much of the action seems to glide or float on the tip of the screen instead of burning into it. But in being so free-form in a way that feels almost disconnected from heavy dramatics, the film feels more abstract. No one else but Wes Anderson could have melded such a unique style into such a manic story. It comes from the soul of a man able to look at fantasy through childish eyes and distill a singular spirit through all the cinematic measures at his fingertips.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The "Precious" Debate

Lee Daniels's auspiciously titled film, "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," sounds like a Lifetime Series Original Movie. It's about an obese, sexually abused, 16-year old black girl who's pregnant with her 2nd child and discovers she's HIV positive. It's not a happy movie.

It's full of misery and grim, distorted faces that contort like demons and ghouls. Its protagonist is uneducated, illiterate and has a hard time communicating - even in voiceover. It's a jagged, unpleasant experience that takes full use of jump cuts, cut ins, and abrupt jars between fantasy and reality to try and convey the mental space of its young central character.

As I watched "Precious," I admired its craft. I appreciated the care that Lee Daniels took in creating a film that feels both a part of a community and a nearly universal tale. The crushing weight of circumstance rings throughout. But then, so much of Precious IS crafted, is pushed and pulled and microanalyzed in a way that tries to SEEM seamless that I'm ultimately left wondering how the film wants us to respond, and whether it's right in the ways it wants us to think about the character and the environment.

Of course, this comes off as a necessarily "black story," a movie about African Americans who can't function in society. Precious, who is played with great depth and understanding by young Gabby Sabide (I feel she's destined for an Oscar nod), clashes with her tyrannical and ignorant mother (comedian Mo'Nique, here blown to terrifying proportions).

Spread over two hours, Daniels makes us feel the weight of the situation. His selection of shots is unforgiving, but I'm left wondering if he ever crosses his own line. Does his film really reflect a melding of naturalistic environment study and mental stream of consciousness? In many scenes, yes, but it's exasperated to a point of exhaustion.

Precious is deeply felt and dramatically infused with a real sense of humanity. It's also artfully constructed with a real understanding of how the medium can convey ideas. I guess I'm just simply too aware of the tricks it pulls. I respond emotionally to the film as I'm simultaneously forcing myself to create a distance to it.

Maybe that's what good art is? Using the tools available to create a response? Heavens knows "Precious" is creating that response in waves, and were I to evaluate the film from an emotional standpoint it would bowl me over. But I can't, because it's simply too well-made. Lee Daniels knows what he's doing at every step, which is a gift and a curse.

Either way, the film probably deserves a spotlight - it's taken the "inspirational urban movie," made it genuinely frightening and crushing, and infused some actual artistic insight, regardless of through what means or to what end.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Joss Whedon to receive Vanguard Award

From Variety:

The Producers Guild of America has selected Joss Whedon as the recipient of its Vanguard Award, which recognizes achievements in new media and technology.

The kudo will be presented at the 21st Annual PGA Awards ceremony on Jan. 24 at the Hollywood Palladium.

Whedon is a producer, writer, director, and creator for TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," "Firefly," and "Dollhouse" with film scripts including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Toy Story," "Alien Resurrection" and "Titan A.E." He's penned the comic book series "Fray" and created and produced Internet series "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog."

"The Cabin in the Woods," a feature he co-wrote with Drew Goddard, is currently in post-production and will be released in 2011 by MGM.

Previous Vanguard Award recipients include George Lucas, James Cameron, John Lasseter, MySpace CEO and co-founder Chris DeWolfe and president and co-founder Tom Anderson, YouTube founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Will Wright.

"Joss Whedon has mastered the art of melding the newest technology with inspired storytelling, truly exemplifying the spirit of the Vanguard Award," said David Friendly and Laurence Mark, co-chairs of the PGA Awards.

Review: It Might Get Loud

Property The Daily Gamecock

* * 1/2 / * * * *

In talking about the best rock-n-rollers of our time, it’s not uncommon to hear the word “legend” tossed around. Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary, “It Might Get Loud,” wallows in the mythic statures of electric guitarists while trying its best to figure out what rock is all about.

Guggenheim, who turned a PowerPoint lecture into captive entertainment with his last feature, “An Inconvenient Truth,” brings together Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Jack White of The White Stripes and The Edge of U2 for a roundtable discussion on the state of rock ‘n’ roll, electric guitars and a once in a lifetime jam session.

Bringing together these three disparate but well-respected talents is surely an interesting idea, but one that nevertheless ends up undercooked and sporadic. The three gather in a warehouse and sit on furniture, exchange polite small talk and eventually teach each other some songs and technique.

The key word in “It Might Get Loud” is “might,” for the film never really cuts fast and loose. It lacks spontaneity and creativity. If the guitarists act too polite around each other, Guggenheim seems too nervous to fully engage his own staged event.

His cameras sit on the sideline of an impromptu stage, slowly circling, desperate to capture something. By not guiding this “guitar summit,” forcing his subjects into interesting and different directions, Guggenheim’s respectful reverence for their status as important musicians keeps his project from delivering extraordinary results.

That doesn’t keep him from trying to “demythologize” the guitarists. In between the scant sequences of the guitar summit, Guggenheim follows The Edge and Page around formative sites of their band’s budding years as they enthusiastically tell stories that may be interesting for those who don’t know much about either band, but rarely turns over new stones.

Using a wealth of archival footage, “It Might Get Loud” borders on an odyssey through multiple generations of rock ‘n’ roll, but its considerably flawed idea is that these three musicians provide the jumping off point for probing that history.

Yes, each has done wonderful and different things with an electric guitar. Yes, each of them talks about their instrument and their craft with gleeful enthusiasm. And yes, there is a certain level of satisfaction that comes from hearing the Edge play the early four-tracks of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” or watching White construct a makeshift guitar out of scrap parts.

“It Might Get Loud” has no thrust, no deeper exploration of the medium. Guggenheim and his directors of photography do find superbly beautiful ways to photograph the instruments, and while the film is never boring, it’s rarely fully satisfying.

This documentary provides the opportunity to learn a thing or two about the philosophy and technique of the electric guitar from three very serious and very diverse artists. The information in the film should fascinate serious music fans and enamor casual listeners.
If only the empty warehouse where Page, Edge and White mingle and rehearse had exploded instead of simmered. If only these artists had debated more, probed deeper into each other’s styles or merely jammed longer. If only the film had, to borrow from Spinal Tap, gone to 11.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

10th Anniversary Fight Club DVD special treat

Copied this from Yahoo News. I love Fincher...

Don't be shocked when you load up your new Blu-ray version of directorDavid Fincher's 1999 cult classic "Fight Club" this holiday season and the menu screen appears to be from the Drew Barrymore romantic comedy "Never Been Kissed." It turns out it's all a prank by Fincher.

After noticing the gag with a preview copy, The Onion's AV Club contacted Fox Home Entertainment and had its suspicions confirmed: while the original "Fight Club" menu replaces the "Never Been Kissed" one after a few seconds, the "snafu" was no accident.

The fake menu screen for 'Never Been Kissed'

Turns out that Fincher thought it would be funny to use the menu from a sweet bubble-gum romance -- the farthest possible thing from the very dark "Fight Club" -- that was a much bigger box office success when both films were released in 1999. Barrymore's inexpensive comedy grossed $55 million in the U.S., while the big-budget "Fight Club" only brought in $37 million. Of course, "Fight Club" has developed a loyal and vocal fan following over the past decade, and it is listed in the top 10 of Total Film's and Empire magazine's Greatest Films of All Time lists.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review: A Christmas Carol

Property The Daily Gamecock

Disney has filmed Charles Dickens’ classic novella “A Christmas Carol” three times — once as a Mickey Mouse vehicle, again with the Muppets, and now in 3-D motion capture animation.

Director of “Forrest Gump”, Robert Zemeckis is one of the few directors trying to make a legitimate plea for both motion capture animation and new 3-D technologies, even if his case rests on the visually stunning, yet absolutely hollow films “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf.”

His adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” is so straightforward and obvious that its small 96-minute runtime feels boring and over done. Taking such a familiar and traditional story seems to make Zemeckis feel like he can completely disregard the need to fill his version with any emotion and spontaneity. The result is visually breathtaking and artificially interesting, but lacks the joy of the most routine rendition of “Jingle Bells.”

Jim Carrey steps into the role of London grinch Ebenezer Scrooge, also lending his voice to the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. His performances run the gamut of variety and creativity as Carrey tries to twist and exaggerate his voice.
As much oddball eccentricity as he tries to interject into the film, Carrey fails to accent Scrooge’s dramatic emotional arc. Though the motion capture does a suitable job of mimicking his manical facial expressions, the animation prevents Carrey from fully engaging with Scrooge’s spiritual crisis.

At any given moment, it always feels like Carrey is trying to “play” old. Perhaps the totality of the animation process prevents him from doing more than throwing on accents and playing with voices.

The motion capture animation, especially when combined with the 3-D technology, gives director Zemeckis seemingly unprecedented control over the frame. Cinematographer Robert Presley finds ways to swerve and dash around London buildings, twist around pedestrians, and push the foreground to the extreme.

Intricate detail is placed on crafting these environments, especially the more fantastic journeys the Spirits of Christmas take Scrooge on. To the film’s extreme detriment, there is an overwhelming burden placed on adventure and spectacle.

Zemeckis seems too often bound up in trying to present the full possibilities of his technology. He’s in love with creating both photorealistic and highly stylized images, but this fascination seems to displace the interior struggle for redemption so crucial to Dickens’ fable.

Alan Silvestri’s score intersperses bars of traditional joyous Christmas songs throughout the film, but this version thankfully highlights the darker implications of Dickens’ story by emphasizing creepy ghosts and dread. Yet, there is also a hollowness to this film that relies so heavily on its technology. Its themes and emotions are as dead as the skin tone and eyes of the background characters.

For every moment of staggering animation, there is another that more closely resembles a run-of-the-mill video game. This version of “A Christmas Carol” leaves no lasting impression and acts as a serviceable but completely unmemorable adaptation. It feels less like it’s trying to honor its source material than it feels like a filmmaker clamoring for an excuse to further his technology, aimlessly jumping from plot point to plot point and trying to win admiration while forgetting to win affection.

Where have all the Thanksgiving films gone?

Property The Daily Gamecock

It’s mid-November, and the smell of turkey and pumpkin pie is beginning to waft through the air in preparation for the pre-Christmas feast.

Apparently the media have decided there are two things in this world that sell like nothing else: sex and Christmas. Is it only a matter of time before Santa Claus and his elves star in an off-color comedy where the North Pole becomes a brothel?

Disney’s latest effort to start the holiday season as early as possible, their 3-D adaptation of “A Christmas Carol,” has collected $63.3 million off its first two weeks, which begs the question, how early is too early for the holiday spirit?

And let’s face it, Nov. 6 is probably too early. ABC Family, a Disney-owned property, is currently in the midst of their countdown to the 25 Days of Christmas. A countdown to a countdown? Have the holidays really come to a shameless exploitation of pre-existing properties?

The way things are going, Santa Claus will be a stop on the annual haunted house.
What about Thanksgiving? Sure, it may be a historically simplified holiday that celebrates a fleeting moment in colonial history when settlers and Native Americans shared food and community before the impending genocide, but its spiritual meaning of family and blessing should still be considered separate from yule tide joy instead of a mere road bump on the way to Dec. 25.

Way back when, and honestly who can remember exactly when, the folks at NBC developed the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for a strategic marketing reason. Santa Claus came at the end of the parade because it was the ultimate symbol for the start of the shopping season.

Hollywood will always produce a feel-good Christmas movie every season, there’s no fighting that. But why not make some great Thanksgiving movies? Maybe if Disney can figure that one out, they can stop showing “Harry Potter” during ABC’s 25 Days of Christmas.

Where’s the Tom Turkey superhero movie the world’s been dying for? Where are more films like the tiny 2003 indie “Pieces of April,” that was simply about a daughter trying to throw Thanksgiving for her parents? Or a new period piece about the holiday itself that could try to not be patronizing about the U.S.’s early relationships with natives of the continent we now call our own?

Thanksgiving has, at least in the media, eluded proper celebration and recognition for years now. Whereas the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was once a transition device that ebbed from fall to winter and from Thanksgiving to Christmas over the course of its long crawl through New York City, the lack of a clear distinction to the start of the Christmas season has made this anticipated event lose some of its splendor and cultural significance.
While the marketing and promotion of the Christmas spirit, at least outside the religious sense, has rested almost solely in the hands of the entertainment industry, they’ve perverted and stretched their most profitable time of the year so much it’s bordering on distortion.

The 3-D gimmick “A Christmas Carol” is only the most recent culprit. When a remake of “Miracle on 34th Street” inevitably comes out the same weekend as “Saw XV,” the world will be in trouble. Or at the very least, extremely confused. But if it sells, then sell more of it. That’s Entertainment.

Monday, November 16, 2009

New Nine Trailer

I'm in love. But should I be??

Review: The Way We Get By

Property The Daily Gamecock

Documentary filmmaker Aron Gaudet’s first feature, “The Way We Get By” is a small, poignant film that is stunning in its heartbreaking simplicity. It is a film about basic human kindness and small acts that speak great depths, but also about the tragedy of our existence and the fragility of life.

In Bangor, Maine, three senior citizen, including two veterans of the armed forces and the wife of a late veteran, voluntarily place themselves on call 24/7 to shake hands with all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who pass through their airport. Though all three are over 70 years old, they have personally thanked over 900,000 troops since 2003.

Gaudet’s film is very simply composed. He follows his three subjects — Joan Gaudet, William Knight and Gerald Mundy — around airport terminals with appropriate distance. Always holding back and observing the action rather than infiltrating it, he films troops as they telephone their parents and loved ones.

Interspersed between these segments are solemn reflections by the three citizens of their own lives and the pains of their mortality. Gaudet follows them around their homes as they try to find happiness while filled with the knowledge that their own deaths are perhaps too close for comfort.

He provides us with vignettes of them doing things as mundane as shaving, playing with their dogs and donning their own uniforms for a Bangor parade, although the director’s visual modesty makes each of these events seem important and powerful.

The three speak candidly and frankly, telling wonderful stories of their lives and unexpectedly slipping into small and poetic ruminations on the fragile tension between life and death.

“The Way We Get By” is a film cautiously poised around gateways. The airport terminal that structures the film is merely the most concrete and accessible, for through it we witness the journey overseas of courageous individuals and the warm returns of soldiers who are overwhelmingly thankful for a simple handshake.

The film is not “about” war, nor is it necessarily “about” patriotism. Yes, those are major themes, but filmmaker Gaudet has his camera far more focused on capturing humanity.
In his three subjects, he has found marvelously moving portraits of citizens trying to keep their lives and spirits strong even as they recognize the impending twilight of their entire generation.

This focus makes up the film’s other, far more sobering, gateway. Thanking soldiers for their unflinching service is itself a form of unflinching service that, for these three, gives them a haven to escape from their perpetual worries and concerns.

“The Way We Get By” hits the heart like a gigantic hug. In a time of cynicism and political outrage, where each side of the spectrum is wrapped up in concerns about what is “best” for America, Gaudet’s film reminds of the potential of the American spirit.

What Gaudet lacks in technical prowess as a filmmaker, he makes up for in unashamed emotion. Always heartfelt yet rarely sappy, “The Way We Get By” is an affecting footnote of a film, exemplary in its depiction of soldiers returning from war and of citizens trying to honor them.

Though it is completely contained in the lives of its three subjects, Gaudet’s film seems to nag at a somber subtext for our society as a whole: why can’t more of us find this kind of selfless compassion?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Currently Watching: Chicago

With massive expectations for Rob Marshall's "Nine" on the horizon, I spent my Friday afternoon cozying up to Chicago. I still maintain it's a consummately filmed musical. The editing, design, and cinematography are absolutely top-notch.

Anyway, I remember how I fell in love with John C. Reilly in 2002. Between this, The Hours, and Gangs of New York, it was the first time I remember being wowed by his immense strength as a supporting actor, which I'm glad has paid off 7 seven years down the road.

Here's one of the film's best scenes, featuring Mr. Reilly's showmanship:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Got Glee?

Last night's episode of Glee had three tremendous performances:

A solo for Artie of Billy Idol's Dancing With Myself
A face-off of Defying Gravity from Wicked
A choral rendition of CCR's Proud Mary

While Proud Mary closed the show with some magnificent wheelchair choreography, it was the way they handled the solo audition between Kurt and Rachel that was the week's highlight. Skillfully cutting between performers and blending voices to show each singer's highlights and still maintaining the plot's action, this brought the whole episode together.

Watch the video here:

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

* * 1/2 / * * * *

Property The Daily Gamecock

In “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” George Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, a booze-addled, burned-out Jedi Warrior. No, not a “Star Wars” Force-wielder — Lyn professes to have been an integral member of the U.S. Army’s top secret project to train super soldiers with paranormal psychic abilities in the 1980s.

Director Grant Heslov’s scatter-shot and scatter-brained satire digs into the absurdity of military philosophy. It alternates between smug and tiresome, with multiple stories backtracking through time in a journey that almost too calmly meanders through a group of inadequate men straining to find purpose in their lives.

It moves briskly, and its deadpan humor packs a serviceable laugh, but Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan never figure out exactly what their target is.
The film follows journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who, in the wake of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the collapse of his marriage, heads abroad to cover the war. Waiting in Kuwait, he crosses paths with Clooney’s Cassady who claims he is a reactivated Jedi Warrior on a secret mission.

The two take off into the Iraq desert with little purpose, encountering a bizarre string of misadventures. Interspersed in this main story is McGregor’s to-the-point voiceover that relates Cassady’s training in the U.S. Army’s First Earth Battalion under the tutelage of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), an officer who believes preaching hippie happiness can unlock his soldiers’ psychic abilities to travel through walls, drive while blindfolded or stop an animal’s heart.

George Clooney holds the film together with an outrageous and subtle comic performance. He plays Cassady’s reckless devotion and paranoia to extremes while holding back bodily animation. He measures his intensity in facial tics, jutting his chin or popping his eyes out in all directions.

In the flashback scenes, Clooney’s slack-jawed awe at his own psychic abilities helps put the film in fuller focus. When Bridges is given the space to parade his ideals in front of his recruits, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” manages to push absurdity in every moment, building and upping its ante scene by scene.

But while these flashback scenes efficiently poke and prod at blind devotions and the silliness of sliding hippie harmony inside military aggression, the scenes of McGregor and Clooney wandering around the Iraq desert are like interludes and sketches that add little to the overall commentary.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is lightweight and breezy, but it doesn’t have the guts to poke deep enough. It doesn’t know whether we should laugh at Lyn Cassady or understand his plight of psychic rediscovery.

Nor is it cynical or deadpan enough to push its satirical edge to a cutting level. All the jokes seem dulled in its third act, when all the elements try rather unsuccessfully to converge.

There are lots of great ideas in “The Men Who Stare at Goats” about confusion, inadequacy, the need to find meaning and how war offers us both problems and solutions.
It amuses, but it never gets us to think about the implications of training psychic super soldiers. The film hits ambivalence about nearly every one of its subjects.

Its deadpan humor and the absurd clowning of George Clooney and Jeff Bridges make it an easily digestible farce that doesn’t get too bogged down in trying to create a message.
But in the absence of a direct point for its commentary, the film’s major moments all feel too tangential and underdeveloped. Its tip lacks poison, and its tone never seeps into the caustic singe that could have pushed it higher.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

TV Review: Modern Family

Property of The Daily Gamecock

The family sitcom has probably become the most derivative and groan-inducing of TV comedy’s sub-genres. Every once in a while the networks strike big with an “Everybody Loves Raymond” or an “Arrested Development,” but more often than not these shows reek of formulaic structures, bland characters, and obvious writing.

ABC’s “Modern Family,” airing Wednesdays at 9 p.m., almost explodes with great comedic writing and well-defined characters that run the gamut of deluded suburban stereotypes. This comedy from creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd is one of the season’s most enjoyable new shows.

Shooting in the popular style of mocumentaries, the show is splintered around three separate “spheres” of one family. One sphere focuses on family patriarch Jay, a superbly dry Ed O’Neill, his much younger and more Hispanic second wife Gloria, played by Sofia Vergara, and her son Manny, a 10-year-old who thinks he has wisdom beyond his years.
A second sphere, incorporating more standard suburban comedy situations, follows wannabe-cool dad Phil (Ty Burrell); his wife and Jay’s daughter, Claire, played by Julie Bowen; and their three kids: the too-cool-for-her-family teenage Haley, the snarky middle child Alex, and youngest Jake, whose immature actions confound his parents.

The final branch follows Jay’s gay son Mitchell, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and his boyfriend Cameron, played by Eric Stonestreet, as they try to raise a newly adopted Asian baby.

The show’s premise is deceptively simple: What does the word “family” mean in a society with increasing multi-cultural and same-sex households? If the suburban sitcom of the 1950s was about rigidly enforcing the supposed homogenous morals of its time, “Modern Family” celebrates the unhinged and awkward flow of life between wildly different sets of people.

While the mocumentary style has become wildly overplayed in the wake of shows like “Arrested Development” and “The Office,” this show remains stylish and relatively conservative in how it employs the camera.

Talking head interviews are rarely overdone, and the handheld camera is often well framed and moves rather effortlessly around family confrontations.

The real surprise about “Modern Family,” and why it’s one of this season’s new comedies that’s worth a watch, is that it provides a commentary on why people love each other and the bizarre ways they try to express it.

Beneath its sarcastic and snide humor, there’s something genuinely expressive about the emotions in this “Modern Family.” In its first few weeks, it has found a footing remarkably fast, supported by a hyperactive wildfire of an acting ensemble, where even the kids feel well-rounded and truthfully written.

It’s a show that, above anything else, is exemplary of how to balance and package a lot into its 30-minute time slot.

Review: The White Ribbon

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I was very fortunate to see this year's Palme d'Or winner, "The White Ribbon," over the weekend. Directed by Michael Haneke (Cache, Funny Games), I expected a deeply contemplative and confounding film.

As of this writing, The White Ribbon may be the best film I've seen this year. Telling the story of a small German town ruled by ritualistic guilt and corporeal punishment in the years before WWI, it chronicles the burdens of fascism, the tensions in family, and the transformation of the town's children. When a series of mysterious events - including a doctor being thrown from his horse when the animal trips on a wire strung between two trees, the baron's son being severely beaten, and a mill worker family's matriarch being killed in a work accident - erupt across the town, no one can seem to find the answer. The town's School Teacher heads up his own investigation, and the film offers us glimpses into the lives of the town's Baron, Steward, and Bishop and their complicated and corrupt reign over their respectful families.

Shot in black and white high definition, featuring sparse art direction and muted film editing, magnificent compositions that are alternately almost blankly constructed and intricately complex in their handling of interior deep space, The White Ribbon is a work of aesthetic genius. Haneke encroaches on Bergmanian territory with his chamber-play-like atmosphere. The narrowness of physical space always complements the mental dizziness of the characters, and complex relations are shown in quiet interchanges instead of dramatic screaming matches.

Typical of Haneke, this is a mystery film with no real solution. It is Antonionian in its dissection of society at the removal of a causal plot. The "how" or the "why" of the mysterious events are secondary - the point of the film seems to be that evil - or the potential for evil - is harvested in all of us. Haneke's film stops when WWI breaks out, but it's just as easy to transplant this to a study on the rise of fascism. He knows this. We're watching a society crumble, and the first World War is just the final stake through its heart.

At almost two and a half hours, The White Ribbon crawls at a snail's pace, but it's so damn fascinating it more than compensates. It is emotionally impenetrable and intellectually invigorating. Though he frustrates our demand for answers, Haneke has bigger ideas on his mind. At several points in the film, we are led to believe the town's children are conspiring in some sort of massive revolt against the high order. And why not? Many of them are shown to be physically or sexually abused. They receive stark punishment for simple disobedience. Their religious-centered education borders on insane repression. Of course, we never know what the children did or didn't do, but the trans-generational subtext is cautionary - heed how we address our sons and our daughters, for they will control the country.

And of course, these young children will grow up to fascism and Nazism. Not that these specific children are Hitler or Goebbels, but it's an allegoric parable.

Michael Haneke is cerebral. He's out there. But he's also inside - he's an intense psychological filmmaker whose films and characters are experiments in visual expression. Here, he's harnessed many of the best elements of his previous films while expanding his talent in a brave new artistic direction. Like Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dryer, or Michelangelo Antonioni, his White Ribbon is a mesmerizing aesthetic accomplishment and a powerful indictment of society driven by intense symbolism and intelligent writing. This is the crowning achievement for one of world cinema's most perplexing and demanding contemporary artists. It's a film we should all celebrate.