Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Movies of 2009

The most telling thing about my top 10 films of 2009 are the films that I had to leave off…”District 9,” “Star Trek” and “Precious” were all in contention at one time or another. But these were the 10 that made me laugh, cry, think and be thankful to live in a time where anything is still possible at the movies.

And at the top of the list is the latest film by today’s greatest magic workers, who took a story of a widower, a Boy Scout and lots of balloons and soared away with audiences’ hearts.

1. Up: Last year, Pixar’s wonderful sci-fi comedy “WALL-E” topped my list of best films. Whether “Up” is as good as or better than that gem is up for debate, but one thing’s for sure: the story of an old man, a precocious child, a talking dog and a flying house is the best time I had at the theater in 2009. Heartbreakingly poignant, nail-bitingly exciting and side-splittingly funny, “Up” is the rare cinematic experience that takes viewers through the entire spectrum of emotion. It is a blissful, perfect piece of cinema filled with wonderful characters, unexpected depth and unending delight. Pixar is the gold standard in storytelling and “Up” is the most wonderful film of the year.


2. A Serious Man: Joel and Ethan Coen followed up the dark and foreboding “No Country for Old Men” with the zany political satire “Burn After Reading.” So it only stands to reason that the ever-unpredictable writing-directing team would take another left turn with this darkly funny meditation on faith, suffering, family and the wrath of God. Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg is perfect as the put-upon Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor in 1970 Minnesota who tries to maintain his integrity even as his life begins to unravel. Stuhlbarg maintains his dignity and wins our empathy even as we’re laughing at the unfairness of Larry’s life. It’s been said this is the Coens’ most personal film and the attention to detail shown in the nuances of small-town Jewish community life evidence that this was a labor of love for the brothers. The film manages to balance shocking plot reversals, hilarious in the way that only life’s pain can be, with serious questions about faith and the nature of suffering to deliver a deceptively minor film that packs a surprising punch in its final moments.


3. Avatar: Twelve years after “Titanic,” James Cameron proves he’s still the king of the world. . . and he gives himself a whole new one to conquer as well. With the beautiful and exquisitely-detailed Pandora, the director gives us the most wonderfully realized computer-generated environment and, with the Na’vi, perfects the use of motion capture technology. The story may be derivative but in Cameron’s hands it doesn’t matter; it’s simply an excuse to introduce audiences to this new world and dazzle them for three hours with the most awesome and entertaining big screen spectacle since “Lord of the Rings.” In an age where the Internet and television continue to fight for our attention, Cameron reinvigorated the event movie and, by pushing special effects technology to its limit, reassured us that nothing is impossible in movies anymore. Michael Bay may make critics weep for the blockbuster; Cameron reminds us it’s not a lost cause.


4. Moon: This little seen sci-fi gem is one of the genre’s best entries since “The Matrix.” Sam Rockwell gives a powerful, funny and complex performance as a man struggling with isolation, loneliness and possibly insanity while waiting to return home from a three-year stint on a lunar outpost. After an accident nearly kills him, Rockwell’s character learns dark secrets that cut to the core of his identity and humanity. Director Duncan Jones creates a workmanlike, utilitarian atmosphere in space that keeps the film grounded in reality and Kevin Spacey pays homage to “2001” with his voice work as the station’s robotic helper, who may have an ulterior mission in mind. But it’s Rockwell’s fierce, heartfelt work that lifts the film into orbit. There was a time when science fiction probed the deeper questions of life, humanity and morality; thankfully “Moon” remembers and recaptures that spirit.


5. Inglourious Basterds: The final words of Quentin Tarantino’s war epic are “I think this may be my masterpiece.” Rarely has pretention felt so deserved. The “Kill Bill” director has wanted to make his men-on-a-mission film for years, but I doubt anyone expected this from him. The film is Tarantino at his absolute best, filled with long passages of exquisite, screw-turning dialogue punctuated by brief bursts of violence. Christoph Waltz’s turn as “The Jew Hunter” is as deliciously wonderful a villain as this decade has seen—evil has rarely been so charming. Brad Pitt hams it up as the redneck leader of a group of renegade soldiers, but it’s Melanie Laurent who gives the film its heart. As the vengeance-seeking owner of a Parisian movie theater, Tarantino uses the character to explore his two favorite themes: revenge and film. This may be the first war movie to be more about movies than combat and the exhilarating climax perfectly mixes absurdity, violence, tragedy, comedy and adrenaline to create one of the decade’s most flat-out entertaining set pieces. Funny, tense and surprisingly powerful, Tarantino creates such a glorious epic that we’re willing to follow him even as he rewrites the war’s ending.


6. The Hurt Locker: While audiences were flocking to Michael Bay’s brainless “Transformers” sequel, the best action film of the year was being ignored by the masses. Kathryn Bigelow’s look at Army bomb disposal units in Iraq is as tense and thrilling as films come, first jarring us with the horrific reality of a bomb explosion and then putting our nerves on edge as we wait for it to happen again. Newcomer Jeremy Renner is stunning as a combat-addicted adrenaline junkie, for whom a normal life in the suburbs is more of a nightmare than dealing with bombs and insurgents. Bigelow, the director of such high octane flicks as “Point Break,” hits a career high here, mixing psychological drama with an action thriller that adds up to one of the year’s most unforgettable film experiences.


7. (500) Days of Summer: Director Marc Webb’s comedy tells us at the outset that while it’s a story of boy meets girl, it is not a love story. Hogwash. “(500) Days of Summer” may technically be about a breakup, but its heart is filled with romance. Jason Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are perfect as two lovers who meet, mate and breakup in the course of a year and Scott Neustadter’s witty script bounces through time, genre and style with gleeful postmodern delight. It’s the first romantic comedy in ages to feel fresh, funny and intelligent. Yet the tale’s true appeal is how ably Webb plucks our heart strings; everyone has their own Summer and, for many, 500 days is not enough time to make us forget them.


8. Up in the Air: Director Jason Reitman delivered a scathing look at modern America, a charming and witty romantic comedy and a powerful human drama about isolation and relationships all wrapped up into one wonderful little film. George Clooney gives the best performance of his career as Ryan Bingham, a “termination facilitator” who lives his life from terminal-to-terminal, not only bragging about his skill in avoiding serious human relationships, but conducting seminars to tell others how they can do the same thing. Reitman’s third film—following the equally wonderful “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno”—examines our current economic devastation, our tendency to isolate ourselves and our growing dependence on electronics as relationship surrogates. Yet his cast—featuring stand-out work from Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman and newcomer Anna Kendrick—makes the entire ordeal charming, funny and light as a feather. It’s not until the bittersweet final moments that we begin to realize just how deeply Reitman has involved us, further confirming that he is one of the most intriguing directors to appear this decade.


9.The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Stop-motion animation, whimsical characters and storybook settings are a perfect fit for director Wes Anderson (“Rushmore”), who delivers his strongest work yet in this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. Clooney is fantastic (pun intended) once again as the charming and sly Mr. Fox, who wages war on evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short and one lean). While that plot alone might make for a delightful children’s film, it’s the very adult attention to detail and character that make this such a pleasure. Each animal character (wonderfully acted by Anderson favorites Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson) has a distinct, adult personality and each is given a moment to steal the spotlight (Schwartzman is particularly great). More than that, Anderson once again revisits his favorite themes of family and relationships and makes Mr. Fox’s behavior the result of a very-believable midlife crisis (some men buy Porsches; Mr. Fox kills chickens). This all adds up to an original, funny, whimsical and extremely enjoyable little masterpiece. As Mr. Fox would say: it’s pretty cussing great.


10. Where the Wild Things Are: Some accused director Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved story to be too deep, dark and disturbing for children. The truth, however, is that Jonze—the director of the brilliant “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”—is not making a film just for children; he’s making a film for anyone who has ever been a child. And his imaginative, beautifully realized film, anchored by Max Record’s phenomenal performance, perfectly recaptures the unrestrained joy, energy, rage and fear of childhood. It’s tough, deep stuff and I can understand why the film has cut to the core of some critics (including this one) and left others cold; it’s not the fun, engaging and brainless dreck Hollywood normally throws at families. It is, instead, deep, profound, whimsical, truthful and a tad scary. It’s the best re-creation of what it feels like to be a child that I’ve ever seen.


1.Bruno: In 2006, I named “Borat” as one of the year’s best films. This year, Sacha Baron Cohen tops the “other” list with one of the biggest comedic miscalculations I’ve ever witnessed. Forget the fact that it’s easily the decade’s most offensive film; unlike “Borat,” Cohen doesn’t have a naïve, likable character to bounce off his unwitting subjects. Instead he has a vulgar, vain and obnoxious creation who thrusts his way into people’s faces with such violence that I can empathize with their shocked, angry reactions. Yes, it’s offensive. Yes, it’s rude. But “Bruno’s” biggest crime is being unfunny.

2. The Last House on the Left: I don’t hold Wes Craven’s original film in the high esteem that many critics do, but I’ll acknowledge that he takes his subject seriously and portrays it with the grit and somberness it deserves. This rancid remake—about two parents who turn into raving psychopaths when the men who raped and murdered their daughter and her friend turn up at their house—asks us not only to empathize with the wrathful parents (which is understandable) but to root them on as they torture, dismember and destroy the men. The film is told with such a slick gloss and the violence is so amped up that it’s obvious the producers want audiences to squirm and then cheer. But, given the subject matter, my only response is to get sick and weep for our culture.

3. (tie) X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator: Salvation: Kicking off what turned out to be a fairly anticlimactic summer for blockbusters, Wolverine and John Connor managed the rare feat of taking two beloved franchises and killing all audience goodwill to them. Wolverine—easily one of the most dynamic Marvel heroes—tiredly slicked his way through a turgid prequel while Christian Bale’s monotonous rants and McG’s bland direction turned the Terminator’s “I’ll be back” from a promise into a threat.

4. Couple’s Retreat: This film’s cast has been involved in one way or another with projects like “Swingers,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Watchmen,” “Arrested Development,” “Elf” and “Iron Man.” Director Peter Billingsley was Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.” There, I just gave you seven things to watch rather than this trite, unfunny, cliché, boring mess of a romantic comedy. When it begins airing 30 times a year on TBS you’ll have every opportunity to see just how bad this movie is.

5. Hotel for Dogs: I gave this film a slight pass upon seeing it because while I was not entertained the kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it. But looking at my top ten list and seeing titles like “Up,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” I realize that this was the year when kids were actually respected at the box office with films of wit, originality, substance and heart. So shame on Nickolodeon films for this pandering, brainless mix of cute dogs, poop humor and obnoxious tween heroes.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best films of the Decade

This isn't necessarilly the way I wanted to do this list. I wanted to go back and watch all 10 (or, technically, 12) of my top of the decade and write about them in detail. But the holiday rush and the desire to get this published before year's end didn't allow for that. No matter; there's a new project I'm hoping to tackle in 2010 where I can revisit most of them again.

The best way for me to do this list was to just initially see what titles stood out for me at the end of the decade. After all, this list is not meant to be objective--there's no way I can claim to have seen the greatest films of the decade because there are hundreds I'm sure I've missed. But even as films jumped out at me, I found myself scouring IMDB to see other films that I realized would also qualify for this list. So yes, after it's written I'm going to probably regret leaving some films off the list. That's the way it goes.

But, after weeks of careful consideration, here are the, 12...films that I think qualify as my favorites of the decade. Starting with a trilogy that, when it was first announced, I had no desire to see...

1. Lord of the Rings: I remember when I first heard that JRR Tolkien's fantasy trilogy was being readied for the big screen. I think my response was a yawn. I've never been a fantasy person. I've never cared for stories of elves, dwarves and magic. But when that first trailer came out, I was suddenly hooked. I can still remember the Wednesday opening afternoon when I saw "Fellowship of the Ring." As the film hit its cliffhanger ending, I remember that for the first time in ages I didn't want to leave the theater. I wanted the rest of the story. And over the next two years, Peter Jackson gave us 12 hours of the most ambitious and successful storytelling Hollywood has ever offered. It's a wonderful mixture of a perfect cast, unparalleled special effects (I'll take the tactile mixture of models and CGI over pure motion capture any day) and Tolkien's epic tale. The greatest thrill for me was watching the story unfold over three years and finding that, unlike many trilogies, this one stuck the landing. I personally don't think that this should be looked at as three separate movies but one long tale...although I'll also admit that I think "Return of the King" is the most perfectly told of the three movies.


2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: On any given day, this is my favorite film of all time. Yes, on a technical level, it's near perfect: Charlie Kauffman's insane, time-and-consciousness bending script; Michel Gondry's whimsical, yet gritty, direction; and pitch-perfect performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet add up to a breathlessly original and mind warp of a movie. But it's the emotional resonance of this movie that levels me...we've all had people who we wish could be deleted from our memories. But with that we would lose all the beauty and joy that made the person so important to us. As I've entered into a serious relationship this year I've thought of this movie a lot, about how love is hard work and we encounter others who will not only enchant us but also frustrate, confuse and sometimes anger us. Is it worth it? The final scene of this movie hits me in the gut every time I see it. I know some who feel it's a sad ending but I prefer to look at it as hopeful...that single word, "okay," means more than any passionate kiss or declaration of love ever could. This is a great film.


3. United 93--The one film on this list that I hate to watch. It's the understatement of the decade to say that 9/11 was the most defining day of the last 10 years. It's a day when we still tense up and our emotions are still raw. So it's not surprising at all to find that this film, released less than five years after the tragedy, hit like a sledgehammer. Paul Greengrass brought his fly-on-the-wall, documentary style to this recreation of what occurred on the doomed flight to Pennsylvania. Casting many of the same air traffic control officers who were working that fateful day, he comes as close as we will ever get to giving us a matter-of-fact, no-spin document about what occurred on Flight 93, when the passengers rallied to keep the terrorists from hitting their final target. It's a hard film to watch--the last hour is unbearably intense and the final 10 minutes are as gut-wrenching and emotionally devastating as anything I've ever seen. And that's the point: this is not a movie that attempts to dress the tragedy in sentiment or create heroes and myths of the men and women on the flight. Instead, Greengrass tells the story of a group of strangers whose fates were bound together and, as regular Americans, they fought back even though it meant their deaths. By refusing to ladle on emotion or manipulation, Greengrass actually makes the film more powerful...there was open weeping in the theater where I saw this and I found myself shaking and crying in the theater afterward. This is a movie some still refuse to watch, and I understand why. But I find it necessary to revisit it once in awhile so I will keep myself raw and wounded by this tragedy and reminded of the heroism of average individuals.


4. There Will Be Blood: My girlfriend hates this movie with a passion. She thinks it's a portrait of evil. Oddly enough, I agree with that sentiment and it's the reason why I love this film so much. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of the decade here, creating a character so callous, greedy and ruthless that we may often find our self wincing just when he speaks. If we were supposed to root for him and like him, I would probably agree with my girlfriend that this movie is not worth my time. But Paul Thomas Anderson, the only director to appear on this list twice, is well aware that Plainview is an evil man with a soul that is quickly dying. That's the story he's interested in telling--how one man's twisted ambition and greed destroy his relationships and himself. It's a film of how greed warps our heart, twists our religion and corrupts our souls. If ever a film was a portrait of Romans 1, where we see how our depraved desires lead to our death, it would be this film. In his portrait of a merciless oil man and a wicked false prophet (masterfully played by Paul Dano), Anderson shows just what human beings are capable of. It tells the Gospel by showing us the effects of life without the Gospel. And the final, brutal scene may feel tacked on at first, but it was promised to us in the title. And it's the perfect culmination of a movie that feels like the prime example of James' warning that sin, when it is fully conceived, gives birth to death. This is a sermon in a film, a fire-and-brimstone, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" warning that holds more truth and power than any scene in "Fireproof" because it treats our sin nature more seriously than any Hollywood film I've ever seen.


5. Before Sunset: It was a sequel to a little-seen film that no one was necessary clamoring for a sequel to. No one, that is, except for those of us who saw Richard Linklater's brilliantly romantic "Before Sunrise," which featured Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as two college kids who meet one night in Vienna and spend an evening talking and falling in young love only to depart with the pledge to see each other again in six months. The film was smart, perceptive and romantic. And it would have been easy for Linklater--who also helmed the wonderful "Waking Life" this decade--to give us a frothy, dopey romantic sequel where they meet again and fall in love. But this sequel, set one afternoon in Paris, doesn't take the easy route. The characters are a bit more mature, both wiser to the ways of the world and carrying their own scars from that night in Vienna. For the film's first 50 minutes, romance and a reconnection aren't even on their minds as the brilliant script allows the characters to talk about politics, growing old and marriage with an honesty that may say just as much about the actors as the characters. But the chemistry is still solid and we're still reminded of that night nine years earlier...and the film's final half hour delivers an emotional power that sneaks up on us and asks us to consider our own old flames, missed connections and the times we put any hope of love and romance aside. All of this, of course, leads up to the movie's final scene, which may be the most perfectly-realized final shot of any movie ever made, but satisfying and frustrating in the same moment. I revisit Jesse and Celine's story at least once a year and I can safely say now that if Linklater wants to do another sequel in nine years, I'd be first in line.


6. The Incredibles--Over the last three years, the Pixar films "Ratatouille," "WALL-E" and "Up" have made appearances on my best-of list. There is something going on at Pixar that I have never seen at a single studio...they are cranking out classics each year, each one full of heart, brilliance and poignancy. Half this list could have been filled with movies like "Finding Nemo," "Monster's Inc." and the rest and I would find a way to justify it. But I decided to pick just one movie. And I had to pick "The Incredibles." Is it the best Pixar film? I don't know; I don't even know if I could name a best Pixar film. What I do know is that it seems to be the one I love the most, filled with perfect amounts of action, comedy, heart and wit. The animation is gorgeous. The characters are brilliantly realized. And it's the rare animated film that actually tackles topics of infidelity, midlife crises, family drama and dares to say that "if everyone's special, then no one is." But above all, the movie is just an insane amount of fun, the greatest superhero movie of the decade...the film's last hour is more exciting than anything we witnessed in a Batman, X-Men or Spiderman flick. Where's our sequel???


7. No Country for Old Men: I considered doubling this up with "There Will Be Blood" because, thematically, both movies could fit together very easily. But it deserves it's own spot. The Coens have never been better than this taut, bleak and pitch-black thriller. Working from Cormac McCarthy's novel, they weave a story that on the surface is about a man (Josh Brolin) running from a hitman (Javier Bardem) after discovering millions in drug money in the dessert. Dig deeper and it's a movie about the silence of God, how our greed leads to death, the inevitability of death and judgement and of the effect mankind's depravity has on the world. Look at the surface or dig deeper for the symbolism, it doesn't matter: "No Country" is a gut-punch of a movie, from it's perfect performances to the Coens masterful direction. Tommy Lee Jones, as a world-weary sheriff, has never been better and Bardem, in Anton Chigurrh, creates a villain for the ages.


8. Punch-Drunk Love: I hated this film upon first viewing; left the theater frustrated and confused. It was years later before I saw it again and, for whatever reason, something on that viewing clicked. Paul Thomas Anderson's film (his second on this list) on the surface is a quirky Adam Sandler romantic comedy. But if that's all you look at it as, you're going to have the same reaction I did originally. Digging deeper, it's a comedy about a man (Sandler, in the performance of his career) who is insecure, frustrated, lonely and angry. He can't express himself, can't fit in with friends and is brow-beaten by his sister. Then he meets a girl. And it's that attraction, that love, that begins to heal him. It gives him confidence. It gives him power. Just as he begins to restore an old harmonium which, like him, is battered but can make something beautiful, Barry begins to find his life finding direction and meaning. It's a beautiful story of redemption and love and while it's subplots--involving pudding, a scheming phone sex operator and the aforementioned harmonium--may seem random, the truth is that they all are necessary to helping us understand a human being who finds his hope when he finds love. I've come from hating this film to loving it passionately, and the "He Needs Me" sequence is one of the most moving portraits of love I've seen.


9. Lost In Translation: This was a decade of great love stories and we've already had two on the list. But how could I not include Sofia Coppola's ode to love and friendship in Tokyo? This movie has gotten me so many lonely nights and every time I revisit Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson), I feel like I'm revisiting old friends. Two people--an actor and a newlywed--strike up a friendship while stranded at a Tokyo hotel. Do they fall in love? Coppola wisely doesn't make this a torrid romance but a friendship that seems to hint at deeper things. Like many of this decade's great love stories (I'd also include "Once" and "Lars and the Real Girl"), it's not about how they find completion in each other but healing in their brief time together. Bob, going through his midlife crisis, finds renewed passion, emotion and life. Charlotte finds reassurance that her life is not a mess and that her marriage, while tough, may just be worthwhile. And both find a friend in a place where they know no one else. If you had told me at the beginning of the decade that Bill Murray would give one of my favorite dramatic performances of the year, I would've laughed...but he's never been better than in this film. And Johannson has never topped the work she's done here. And yet, the film is so minor. Such a lovely little character piece. It's not a big, bold love story. It's a story that you tell with the same fondness you would say "remember that time...". And that's the beauty of it.


10. Munich: It is surprising that I had to wait until number 10 to put Steven Spielberg on this list. After all, the world's most lucrative director didn't take this decade off. And he certainly wasn't slumming. In fact, the 00's saw Spielberg at his most experimental and daring, giving us light-as-a-feather comedies ("Catch Me if You Can," "The Terminal"), a flawed masterpiece (A.I.) and two dark yet thrilling sci-fi actioners ("War of the Worlds," "Minority Report."). Yes, he also gave us "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"--a film many loathed and yet I still maintain is just as lighthearted and fun as any of the other Indy sequels. But "Munich" is his most ambitious, daring, controversial and powerful film. It's about Jewish soldiers getting revenge on the terrorists who killed their atheletes in Munich. But it's about so much more--it's about the price of revenge, about how bloodlust can destroy our souls and set a course for more disaster. The parallels to 9/11 and our post-attack culture were unmistakable and this film works both as a thrilling action adventure and a devastating examination of the price of revenge...there are moments of pure adrenaline here and pure emotional torture. It's a tough film, one that left me shaken for about a week following. And it sums up this decade about as well as "United 93" did.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Movie Reviews: "Avatar," "Up in the Air," "It's Complicated" and "Sherlock Holmes"

Originally I had wanted to do separate, full-length reviews for each of these movies. But the Christmas rush didn't allow that and, by the time I'd write them all, we'd be well into the new year. So I'm going to publish short thoughts on these four new releases and that should bring us up to date for the end of 2009. Once the schedule slows down a bit, I'll have some more time. Look for my Best of 2009 list later this week.

Avatar: James Cameron has proved that he should not be doubted. Since winning the Oscar for “Titanic,” which is still the highest-grossing film of all time, the director has stated that his next film would push the limits of special effects technology. He wasn’t kidding—with a gorgeously rendered new world for his computer generated characters to play in, Cameron has created the most awesome big screen spectacle since “Lord of the Rings.” Sam Worthington (“Terminator Salvation”) plays a crippled Marine who controls the body of a Na’Vi—the 10 foot tall inhabitants of Pandora, a mystical planet housing a much-desired natural resource. Forget that the story is derivative, patching together the best of “Dances with Wolves,” “John Carter of Mars” and Cameron’s own “Aliens.” The story is just an excuse to get the avatars out and running in Pandora, an exquisitely detailed environment that Cameron and his special effects crews bring to life with astonishing skill. Worthington, along with cast members Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana (“Star Trek”), gives a fine performance, but Cameron knows that audiences are showing up for the special effects. Every penny of the film’s rumored $300 million price tag is up there on the screen, from the beautiful foliage of Pandora to the graceful and surprisingly human Na’Vi, which represent the best work of motion capture technology that I’ve ever seen. There are moments of astonishing beauty, such as Worthington and Saldana’s late night romp through a bioluminescent forest and moments of sheer adrenaline, such as the 40-minute war that ends the film. Yes, the story is familiar, the dialogue clunky and the characterizations thin. Cameron has not made a great film. But he has made one heck of a movie and one of the most spectacular big screen spectacles of the decade. It’s an experience to be taken in on the biggest screen possible.

It’s Complicated: Hollywood is out of boy-meets-girl stories. Now it’s on to boy--divorces-girl-for-younger-girl-and-cheats-on-younger-girl-with-original-girl-while-said-girl-dates-sweet-guy stories. Oddly enough, the formula kind of works in director Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”) latest romantic comedy, which features Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwn as former spouses who find old flames reigniting during their son’s college graduation; Steve Martin is the sweet guy caught in the middle. Baldwin, drawing on his “30 Rock” persona, brings the funny but it’s Streep who brings the heart, taking a role that could have been played strictly for cuteness sake and bringing a surprising depth, vitality and even sexiness to the part. Meyer wisely sidesteps making this a simple bedroom farce and allows her characters to explore their feelings and discover the implications of their actions, although she never seems to address the inherent selfishness present in both of them. The film is funny and surprisingly intelligent, but its morality is muddled, excusing adultery as a way to “find oneself” and short-changing the innocents affected by the main characters.

Up in the Air: Jason Reitman’s third film, following “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” is thought by many to be the film of the year. George Clooney plays Ryan Binghman, a smooth-talking “termination facilitator” who jets around the country firing other companies’ employees and avoiding his own connections until he meets up with a woman who challenges his notions (Vera Farmiga) and another who challenges his own job (newcomer Anna Kendrick). The film is a portrait of our technology obsessed, isolated culture and a fitting portrait of the economic times we live in and Reitman gets many big laughs out of Ryan’s job. But he’s more successful at the burgeoning romance and the implications it has on Ryan’s personal philosophies…the film finds its legs halfway through and begins to show a tender story of human connections and relationships. Although its message—no man is an island—is obvious, Reitman’s skilled directorial talents, Clooney’s fantastic performance and a script that respects its characters enough to let them surprise us keeps it from being cliché, ham-handed or boring. This is one of the year’s best films.

Sherlock Holmes: Toss away your deerstalker cap and don’t even think of uttering the word “elementary”: this is not the Holmes you grew up with. That is, unless you’ve read Arthur Conan Doyle’s actual stories, which portrayed the great detective not as a stuffy intellectual but as a brilliant mess of a man, skilled in martial arts and dabbling in recreational “medicines.” Robert Downey Jr. brings that Holmes to life with delicious wit and charm, creating a detective who comes across as an 1800s mix of Captain Jack Sparrow and Dr. House. Jude Law is a perfectly straight-laced comedic foil as Holmes’ companion Watson and their banter makes this film worth a look; the story focuses on the impending breakup of the team as Watson prepares to get married. Rachel McAdams also shows up as a love interest, although the chemistry between Holmes and Watson sometimes makes one wonder if women are just getting in the way. Director Guy Ritchie stages some fun action sequences and there’s a mystery for the two to solve, although it’s admittedly not as much fun as watching them quarrel. The take is more “Lethal Weapon” than “Hound of the Baskervilles,” but the chemistry between Downey and Law is more than enough to jump start what could be an enjoyable franchise.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

DFCS Names "Up" Best Picture of 2009

So after weeks of working hard to see as many films as possible, I was able to cast my vote two weeks ago for the best films of the year. I'll be releasing my list of the year's top films soon, but let's just say I was very pleased with the way this list turned out :-) In the list for Best Picture, each of the films ends up on my Top 10 list...but I'm very happy that Carl, Russell, Dug and Kevin were recognized. Adventure is out there!!

(Detroit, Michigan – December 18, 2009)The Detroit Film Critics Society is pleased to announce the BEST OF 2009 nominees in eight categories. The society was founded in Spring 2007 and consists of a group of 21 Michigan film critics who write or broadcast in the Detroit area as well as other major cities within a 150-mile radius of the city including Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Flint, Michigan.

Each critic submitted their top 5 picks in the following categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Ensemble, and Best Breakthrough Performance. From these submissions, each entry was given a point value and the top 5 in each category were put on the final ballot. The final ballots were then given to each critic to rank in order. The results were once again tabulated and the winners were decided.

( in alphabetical order--winners in red)












The Detroit Film Critics Society members for the 2009-2010 season in alphabetical order are Kirk Baird – The Toledo Blade, Jason Buchanan –, Colette Evangelista – Capital Area Women’s Lifestyle Magazine, Jim Fordyce –, Adam Graham – The Detroit News, Corey Hall – The Metro Times, Tom Long – The Detroit News, Jeff Meyers – The Metro Times, Robin Miner-Swartz – The Lansing State Journal, Chad Mitchell – The Chad Show, John Monaghan – The Detroit Free Press, Warren Pierce – WJR Radio, Greg Russell – WMYD-TV, James Sanford – The Kalamazoo Gazette, Debbie Schlussel – Sirius Patriot Channel 144’s Mike Church Show, Perry Seibert –, John Serba – The Grand Rapids Press, Lee Thomas – Fox 2, Kirk Vanderbeek – Real Detroit Weekly, Greg Walton – WIOG/KRSP, and Chris Williams – Advisor & Source Newspapers.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Reviews...Bite Sized Edition

Whew. Taking a deep breath here. Been a few weeks since I've written, and the holiday season has been beating me up. I've seen many, many, many movies as I've prepared to write my year-end list and vote for the Detroit Film Critics Society's best of 2009. The problem? Unless I've written a review for the paper, there hasn't been any time for online entries.

So...rather than wait until I have time to write up long entries on the various films I've seen, which I know will take several weeks, I'm going to give some smaller entries about what I've seen. A few definitely deserve greater attention down the road, and I hope to one day at least write up a good sized examination of "A Serious Man." But for now, here's what you're getting...and, in the next week, I'll try to get up thoughts on "Up in the Air," "Avatar," "Lovely Bones," "It's Complicated" and "Sherlock Holmes" as I see them.

Also, please keep an eye on this site. I'll also have the results of the DFCS' voting, my end-of-the-year list and will start examining the top 10 (or so) films of the decade (will likely start that one after Christmas and go into early January).

With that, let's jump into what I've been watching over the past few weeks...

A Serious Man (R, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009)

Two years ago the Coen Brothers gave us the bleak and foreboding "No Country For Old Men" and walked away with an Oscar. Last year they delivered the brilliantly brainless "Burn After Reading." So it only stands to reason that the brothers--who can move from "Fargo" to "Big Lebowski" without breaking a sweat--would once again mess with expectations and deliver, of all things, a retelling of the book of Job set in a 1970s Jewish suburb of Minnesota, similar to where the brothers grew up.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a university physics professor. He's coming up for tenure. He has a wife and two kids at home, along with a ne'er-do-well brother (Richard Kind) who he took in after he reached some hardships. Larry is a good man. A serious man. And, as often happens to good and serious men, his entire life begins to unravel. His wife is leaving him for his best friend. A disgruntled student may be trying to bribe him. Someone is writing the university letters, urging them not to grant him tenure. His sexy new neighbor is sunbathing nude in the backyard and his other neighbor, a WASPy gun nut, doesn't seem to like him at all.

Like the book of Job, the film chronicles Larry's struggles to keep his patience, integrity and goodness in the face of calamity. Like the Biblical account, it's also structured around visits with three men--rabbis in this case--who offer the sufferer bad advice. But Job was never this bleakly funny, mixing dark laughs in with the suffering...sometimes the only thing to keep us from crying is a bit of laughter. So as Larry's woes mount up--through car crashes, police visits and cruel twists of fate--the laughs come right along and the Coens, masters of dry humor, toss in sly visual gags and narrative twists to keep this minor tale moving.

But don't mistake this for another lark like "Burn After Reading." The ominous tones that rumbled through "No Country for Old Men" can be heard here as well. As Larry's pressures mount and keeping his integrity becomes more difficult, we begin to understand the stakes at play here. The Coens have never been so theologically transparent, provoking serious questions about faith, suffering, morality, family and--in the movie's sobering final moments--the judgment of God. Here is a film that dares take its spiritual questions seriously, presenting an intriguing and endlessly thought-provoking look at an Old Testament God, to the point where I was praying for some New Testament grace for these characters.

The Coens have hit their rough periods before--when you're this brilliant and original, I'd guess that's a hazard of the job. But with "No Country" and "A Serious Man," they've proven once again that they are the most unique and uncompromising filmmakers currently working. With a stand-out performance by Stuhlbarg, who earns our empathy and keeps Larry's dignity to the end, "A Serious Man" is one of 2009's absolute best films.

An Education (2009, dir. Lone Sherfig)

The lion's share of the praise for this film has gone to newcomer Carey Mulligan, who comes out of nowhere to play a 16-year-old girl in 1960s London who falls for the charms of a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard).

Critics are right to single out Mulligan's work--other than Gabourey Sidibe's work in "Precious," I cannot think of another actress who impressed me more this year. Mulligan has a brightness and spark about her that rightly earns her comparison to Audrey Hepburn.

That charm goes a long way because "An Education" would not work if it were a grim fable about how a young girl was used and abused by an older man. Instead, Jenny is a bright and intelligent girl swept off her feet by a secretive man who is himself formally uneducated but well-versed in art, music and the social scene. Sarsgaard does not play the role of David as a lech but as a man who is genuinely intrigued by this smart young girl and may be able to have a recaptured taste of his youth in his romance with her. Yes, he's a cad and a bit of a trouble maker--we see that in the effortless way he schmoozes Jenny's father (superbly played by Alfred Molina)--but Sarsgaard also plays the character as a man who is enjoying his time with Jenny and, if he may have ulterior motives, we don't doubt that he is in some way won over by this young girl.

"An Education" works because it's romantic, charming and witty and not tawdry, graphic or disturbing. Nick Hornsby's script allows the characters to grow and breathe and, although the film arrives at a predictable conclusion, it winds there more with a feeling of inevitability instead of plot manipulation. The film's final act is a tad rushed and everything is wrapped up a bit too nicely in the end, but this one is definitely worth a look for the brilliant debut of Mulligan and the solid-as-ever work by Sarsgaard and Molina.

Invictus (PG-13, 2009, dir. Clint Eastwood)

The problem with Clint Eastwood as a director is that he's been on such a hot streak the past few years that when he merely does a film that is very good, it feels like a disappointment.

Such is the case with "Invictus," a solid and inspiring drama about how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) utilized rugby to unite South Africa in the years after he was elected to office. The movie has a story worth telling, a laudable theme and several moments of undeniable power. But it's hobbled in some areas by hiccups that should have been easily avoidable for the director of "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Gran Torino."

Some have argued that this is the wrong story to tell about Mandela; I think that's a cop-out. This was the story that Eastwood chose to tell...yes, the man is worth a longer, more comprehensive biopic. But by focusing on how Mandela used sports to unite his country and forgive his enemies actually allows us to see quite a bit about the man's character and integrity. Freeman is wonderful as Mandela, capturing a quiet dignity and peace that makes me want to know more about the man. Damon is solid as ever, but the role is a bit underwritten...this is Freeman's movie all the way.

And there are moments of power. A visit to the prison where Mandela spent many years is probably the most lump-in-the-throat moment in the movie. And it's an interesting, even inspiring story of how Mandela came into office not to push his agenda but to unite South Africa, even if it meant offering olive branches to his enemies. I have no idea how rugby works but the game is not really the point...the point is how Africans united around their team and put aside old associations to cheer their countrymen on together. As a look at the transcendent power of sports, the film is extremely intriguing.
But there are amateurish stumbles Eastwood makes, including ham-handed musical overtures and a subplot about Mandela's family that is hinted at but never resolved. Damon's character is never as fully developed as I'd hoped and there is an unforgivable moment near the end when Eastwood uses a plane flying too close to the stadium to milk false suspense (and our 9/11 memories) for nothing more than a sight gag. He should know better.

And yet, I still found myself inspired by the story...just wishing for it to be told a tad better.

Me and Orson Welles (2009, PG-13, dir. Richard Linklater)

Christian McKay absolutely tears the roof off this with his meticulous, funny and dead-on performance as Orson Welles in this enjoyable little gem about the theater.

Zac Efron plays a young man whose dreams come to fruition when he is picked off the street to take on the role of Lucius in Welles' famous Mercury Theater production of "Julius Caesar." Not only is able to spend time with the lovely woman who manages much of the behind the scenes work (Claire Danes), but he's also able to realize his acting dreams. The only downside is that Welles is a notoriously unpredictable, prideful and often wrathful diva who is a bit too aware of his own genius.

The film works best when focusing not on the Efron character's story and romance...those things are predictable and, sadly, Efron doesn't have the dramatic chops to pull it off. The best moments occur when documenting the chaos of the theater--the mishaps that nearly derail the show, the suspense of wondering if your lines will get cut, the disastrous preview performance and the exhilaration of getting it right. Linklater's best films ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise/Sunset," "Waking Life") occur situations where life unfolds around the characters, not dictated by plot points or contrivances...when he simply allows the rhythm of theater life to unfold, the films works magic (there's actually a funny and slightly meta conversation where one character talks about the absurdity of trying to sell a story where nothing happens; just two people meet).

The film is never less than entertaining, but ratchets up about 10 notches whenever McKay is on the screen. He captures Welles' larger-than-life persona, his penchant for (off-stage) genre and the hubris and pride that only a genius can get away with. But McKay never turns it into parody or a mere imitation...there's intelligence behind the eyes and his Welles is a character well aware of what others think of him, how unreasonable his demands are...and also fairly confident that it doesn't matter because he's usually absolutely right. McKay anchors this film and commands every second of his screen time...which is funny, because Welles did the same thing.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, PG, dir. Wes Anderson)

Confession: Wes Anderson usually leaves me very cold.

It's not that I don't admire his skill. I can see the work put into "Rushmore" and "Royal Tennenbaums" and I respect the performances he is able to elicit from his actors. His storybook style is very pretty to look at but the over-heightened setting, along with Anderson's dry humor and other quirks, often isolates his characters and leaves me impressed on a technical level but never connecting.

But somehow, his style is a perfect fit for this stop-motion animation version of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book, in which a sly fox (George Clooney), his family and friends outwit three cold-hearted and cruel farmers.

Mr. Fox is former chicken thief who went straight after learning he was going to have a son (Jason Schwartzman). He's moved his wife (Angelica Huston) into a nice hole and taken on a day job as a columnist at the local newspaper. But he still sometimes feels the itch to indulge his wild animal needs. So one day he gives back into his urges and starts stealing chickens again, which leads to a war with the farmers that will displace the Foxes and their friends, cost Mr. Fox his tail and allow him time to bond with his son.

I suppose that straight narrative could make for a decent kids' movie in and of itself. But Anderson isn't interested in making a children's film. Instead, he supplies every character with very adult tics, quirks and personalities and crafts a story about some of his favorite themes--fathers and sons, the importance of community and originality.

The stop-motion is absolutely beautiful to's not the smooth animation of, say, "Coraline," but an almost crude and jerky version, like watching a children's program from the 1970s or so. That's not a dig--it gives the movie a timelessness and warmth and perfectly accompanies the whimsical nature of the film.

Anderson assembles a cast that also includes Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and others and gives each animal his own little quirk and personality. Clooney is basically voicing an animal version of Danny Ocean and Schwartzman steals the entire film with his wonderfully bizarre lines. In a time where most animated films not bearing the Pixar label are crude and littered with pop culture references, it's refreshing to see a film with likable characters and sense of humor that doesn't depend on fart jokes. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is one of the most wonderfully witty, original and flat-out most enjoyable films of 2009.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Movie Review: "The Road"

The one thing I remember about Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Road" is the color gray.

Gray is everywhere in the novel, which takes place in a world that has been decimated by an unspecified disaster. Grey ash covers the ground and the characters live under barren skies. The snow is a grey, sooty color and even the ocean has ceased to be blue. It's a desolate, barren world in which a young Man and his Boy traverse a largely-abandoned road, looking for the sea.

If there's one thing Director John Hillcoat gets absolutely right in his adaptation of the novel, it's the gray. Filming largely without the help of computer generated effects, Hillcoat found burned out, ravaged areas of Pennsylvania and surrounding states to recreate a ravaged, dying world where the trees are empty and dying, stalled vehicles litter the roads and starving, hopeless families have taken unspeakable measures to either survive or escape the horror.

The other thought I had upon reading McCarthy's novel is that it was unfilmable. The writer's sparse prose and ungilded dialogue gives the story much of its weight, demanding readers to create the world in their mind and providing a poetry to the narrative. Few writers pay as much attention to the actual craft as McCarthy and he's the rare wordsmith who is able to create such a compelling tale through so few words.

I walked away from "The Road" realizing I was right: in a certain sense, "The Road" is unfilmable. No movie will ever be able to perfectly realize McCarthy's writing because film provides us with images that McCarthy powerfully evokes...something is bound to be lost in translation.

But Hillcoat comes as close as one possibly could to bringing "The Road" to the screen. While it's not the perfect adaptation that Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men" was, "The Road" retains the book's solemnity and quiet and delivers a difficult, brutal and yet surprisingly moving and beautiful meditation on humanity, grace and hope. Just two weeks after "2012" turned the end of the world into spectacle where millions of people died for our amusement, "The Road" captures the sadness and profundity of what it may be like to be among the last human beings on Earth and moves us over the plight over a father and his son.

Much of the film's success comes from Viggo Mortensen, perfectly cast as The Man. This decade has been one in which Mortensen has proven himself as one of the most versatile and dependable actors, able to lose himself in a role be it that of a noble man ("Lord of the Rings"), a father with a brutal past ("A History of Violence") or a vicious killer ("Eastern Promises.") Here, haggard and gaunt, caked in grime, the Man is a walking skeleton, exhausted and on the brink of collapse. But his eyes light with anger, grief, passion and intensity when it comes to the one thing he has left: his son, with whom he is walking the road and teaching to grow up right, to "carry the fire" of goodness, humanity and dignity in a world that has thrown those things aside in an effort to survive. The boy, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, at first doesn't do much more than register shock and worry as they trudge through the world. But as the father's words sink in and he begins to apply them, there's a fierce anger in the child's eyes as he questions his father's own stubbornness and refusal to treat others kindly in favor of survival.

Of course, one couldn't blame the Man for holding on so tightly and violently to his son. In flashbacks, we see glimpses of the life that existed before the world went gray--ironically, the first image Hillcoat shows us are blooming trees and verdant fields. The Man had a wife (Charlize Theron) who was pregnant with the Boy when the clocks stopped and the fires started. We see her begin to unravel and lose hope, desperately not wanting to give birth to a child in such a dismal world and then finally, when the Boy has grown, leaving and not coming back. The Boy is all he has, the only thing that makes the Man human and gives him hope ("If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke," the Man says in voice-over).

Hillcoat, whose previous film ("The Proposition") also dealt with the plight of desperate people in a hopeless landscape, does not flinch upon showing us the horror that exists in this post-apocalyptic world. Those who survive have largely thrown off humanity in favor of survival, robbing, raping, killing and eating those who still survive. For the most part, Hillcoat shies away from showing us the most brutal and disturbing aspects, alluding to them through a splash of blood or the carnage that remains. But a visit to a farmhouse--possibly the most horrifying sequence in the novel--remains intact, as terrifying and disturbing a moment as any I've seen on the screen this year.

But Hillcoat doesn't exploit the novel's darker moments and turn this into "I Am Legend" or "2012." Rather he's more interested in the same questions McCarthy poses: can The Man and The Boy survive and keep their humanity intact? And, when the time comes, will the Man be willing to kill his son in order to spare him a darker fate?

And while the film, like the novel, is grim, its peppered with moments of surprising hope and subtle beauty, as the Man and Boy experience unexpected graces. A can of Coke. A bunker stocked with food. A hot bath. The memories of mother. A quiet interlude with an old man (Robert Duvall) in which the existence and compassion of God are called into question.

Even more touching is the story of fatherhood that weaves through this story and the moral questions it provokes. For the Man is not simply living for his child to survive. He wants his child to "carry the fire," and grow into a man who does the right thing. When the child asks if they will not eat anyone no matter how starving they get, it's moving because the kid has a deeper problem than survival. The first moments with the old man and an encounter with a thief on the side of the road become occasions for the child to surpass his father in terms of morality, compassion and warmth. In the later sequence, I recalled Christ's words to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us and turn the other cheek and found tears welling in my eyes at the beauty of this child. If the world were to end, this is they type of boy I'd hope was left.

In the end, the film succeeds not because it recaptures the power of McCarthy's novel (it never could) but because it recaptures the humanity of the story. It presents us a grim, barren and hopeless world and then asks us if goodness and hope can still exist. In such a dark and harrowing tale, I was surprised to find a warmth in my chest as that question was answered.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie Review: "Ninja Assassin"

Originally written for the Nov. 29 edition of "The Source":

Things heard upon leaving a recent screening of “Ninja Assassin.”

”That was more like a slasher movie than an action movie.”

Probably one of the most astute things I’ve heard from an audience member following a free screening. “Ninja Assassin,” the latest action flick from Warner Brothers, spills its blood by not by the gallons, but by the pool.

Of course, one would expect the tale of rogue ninja Raizo (Korean pop star “Rain) on the run from the clan that trained him to have its moments of carnage. Martial arts films are chock full of dismemberments, broken bones and gouged eyes. But from its opening sequence, in which a ninja dices and slices a group of punk teenagers in a tattoo parlor, “Ninja Assassin” wallows in the wet red stuff, eviscerating characters (the term is used loosely in this review) with such wanton gore and bloodlust that even Freddy Krueger would consider it over-the-top.

Of course, some will give it a pass because it’s stylized and computer-generated blood that pours from wounds like a leaky faucet, not the gritty and realistic violence we see in the “Saw” films. While director James McTeigue (“V for Vendetta”) keeps things cartoonish enough that no one will ever buy it as real, seeing a man’s head spliced in half in the first three minutes of a movie is jarring no matter what the context.

The plot also resembles a slasher movie, if you consider the evil ninjas to be the story’s boogeymen. They pick off a random group of people one by one—not high school students but rather high-ranking Interpol officials who catch wind of the clan’s existence. And they set their sights not on a heroic cop but on a helpless young woman (Naomi Harris), whose only hope is the Raizo, who was once trained by the clan and, we learn through a series of flashbacks, turned against them after they murdered his girlfriend.

I bring up the gore first because that’s really all “Ninja Assassin” has on its mind. Even the title screen is nothing more than formed by a splash of crimson. One fight scene even takes place behind a screen where we can’t even see the shadows of the contenders but can see their blood being splashed on the wall. In this movie, throwing stars don’t simply cut someone but tear them apart with the force of an uzi. Forget style, grace or skill; McTeigue is only interested in how much computer-generated plasma he can douse the screen in.

I have no problem with the use of violence and blood in an action movie; after all, swords do cut and bullets pierce. But just as gore in a horror movie doesn’t make the film scary, blood in an action flick doesn’t make it exciting. Especially when that blood is obviously computer generated and watching hundreds of ninjas and police die excruciatingly looks like something out of a videogame.

Which leads to the next thing I heard while exiting the theater.

”That was just like ‘Kill Bill.’”

No, it really isn’t.

I can understand the comparison. Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill, Vol. 1”—possibly the best action film of the decade—climaxes with a 20-minute battle in which Uma Thurman hacks apart ninjas with a samurai sword. The violence in the scene is just as bloody as anything McTeigue shows in “Ninja Assassin,” so why is one a classic and the other a dud?

It comes down to showmanship.

McTeigue is a stylish director. I admired “V for Vendetta” and he’s been a second-unit director on movies like “The Matrix” and “Speed Racer.” He knows action and style. What he doesn’t show is a love for this particular genre of film. “Kill Bill” was bursting at the seams with visual and aural cues that expressed passion for martial arts movies; the spurting blood geysers were not meant to excite audiences’ bloodlust but instead paid homage to the films of the Shaw Brothers and other genre masters. Every swing of the sword, gouge of the eye and kick of the foot was done as a love letter to a particular type of film; the joy of the scene came not from the carnage but the knowing re-creation of a beloved film style. In “Ninja Assassin,” McTeigue thinks audiences simply want to see dismemberments and decapitations for their own sake. He knows the lyrics to a good action movie but not the music that makes the scene dance.

Let’s not also forget that “Kill Bill’s” climactic showdown was done largely without the aid of computers. Tarantino used stunt men and women to capture the grace and beauty of martial arts. “Ninja Assassin” is staged like a typical kung fu flick, with a fight every five minutes or so, but McTeigue forgets that the exhilaration of watching Bruce Lee, Jet Li or Jackie Chan in action is in the long shots that show them performing tremendous physical feats. There is a skill in martial arts that is lost when you’re quick-cutting every five seconds or using computers to do work that Chan could do in grade school. Also, I understand the visual appeal of keeping ninjas in the shadows, but the film is so murky that it’s hard to get a grasp on anything going on; ironically, the blood splashing gives us our only frame of reference. Just as you can’t capture the beauty of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly without showing their feet when they dance, you can’t recapture the thrill and artistry of martial arts without showing the full body in motion; CGI and rapid cuts take all the danger and thrill out of the fight.

”That movie was really stupid.”

If I could get away with a five-word review, I would have just added that quote verbatim. Forget Rain’s wooden dialogue or Harris’s non-existent personality. Forget the imbecilic Interpol agent who seems to reverse his position every five minutes only to end up as a hero anyway. Forget that a key plot point is that the great ninja assassin gets caught on a home surveillance camera or that Interpol has a team of super agents dedicated to arresting ninjas. And forget that the film’s climax suddenly gives its villain superpowers but he can still be surprised by a “glorified librarian” with a gun. Forget all that, and you forget the entire movie. Which may be a good thing.

”Sir, you’re a walking hazard."

That was actually directed at me as I was attempting to cross the lobby while using my Blackberry. Maybe the lady who chided me was right. Maybe I should learn to walk safer. And the first step of that: walk away from any theater showing “Ninja Assassin.”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Movie Review: "Precious"

I will admit to being surprised when Lee Daniels' new film "Precious" opened in third place at the box office this weekend, bringing in $5.8 million on less than 200 screens across the nation.

After all, "Precious" (which opens in Detroit area theaters this weekend) is not the feel-good type of crowd-pleaser that one would associate with a Saturday night at the movies; it's an often-devastating and emotionally wrenching drama that often hurts to watch. The movie is very good, but it doesn't provide the escapism of "2012" that often propels films to the top of the charts.

While some would argue that the support of Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey - who signed on as executive producers after seeing the film at the Sundance Film Festival - has driven much of the movie's support, I am going to chose to be more hopeful: Audiences are flocking to "Precious" because it is the rare film experience that gives you a character worth rooting for and a story worth seeing, presented by actors who rocket past any previous expectations we have of them.

Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is a 350-pound 17-year-old living in Harlem. She attends middle school because she is illiterate. At home she endures a verbally and physically abusive mother (comedian Mo'Nique) who is less interested in Precious' well-being than in the welfare checks that keep food on the table. As the film begins, Precious is about to be expelled from school; she is pregnant with her second child from her father.

The opening scenes are as bleak as any I've endured in a movie theater: Precious' life makes the kids from "Slumdog Millionaire" look like a vacation in Bombay. We learn, through her mumbled and lifeless narration, that she is good at math but doesn't apply herself at school because of her home life. She retreats into a fantasy world where she's a model or movie star and then, when reality comes crashing in, she confides in the audience that she wishes she was dead. After witnessing one of her confrontations with her mother - as shrill, violent and hateful a character as I've ever seen - we begin to realize that death might actually be considered a blessing for Precious.

But hope is glimpsed when Precious, expelled from her classes, is sent to an alternative school where an idealistic inner city teacher (Paula Patton) sees her potential. Despite her mother's put-downs, Precious begins to apply herself for the first time, learning to read and write, and building friendships for the first time among the girls in her class. The rough, vulgar shell that protects her on the street begins to melt away and Sidibe shows us the smiling, funny and beautiful person that is finally given a chance to come out of hiding and dream of a better life for herself and her children.

The description is probably a bit too simple and, on paper, it sounds like "Precious" is another troubled-teen-makes-good story, ala "Good Will Hunting." Yet Daniels' (producer of "Monster's Ball") is wise enough not to make this the story of how Precious becomes a genius; her struggle is not to publish a book or graduate college. Her challenge is to read, write and learn how to navigate life on her own. The story is not so much about Precious' success, but about the very possibility of success appearing to this girl for the first time; as bleak and dark as the story gets, it's anchored by the goodness and hope of those who don't give up on Precious, such as her teacher or a kind-yet-tough social worker (a nearly unrecognizable Mariah Carey).

To see Sidibe in character as "Precious" and then watch her in an interview is as startling a thing as I've ever witnessed; what she accomplishes with this role is one of the strongest feats of acting I've seen in years. In the beginning of the film, Sidibe captures Precious as closed-up, angry and even violent, her voice a series of rough mumbles and expletives. Yet Sidibe lets enough of the character's humor and longing seep through to garner audiences sympathy; the Precious we see at the end of the film is a transformed, hopeful and wiser young woman, but the transformation is smooth because Sidibe lets those seeds exist in the beginning. The story is a triumph not because Precious becomes a different person but because those glimpses we see of her in the beginning are finally allowed to burst forth and shine.

I was shocked by the work done by Mo'Nique here. In films like "Soul Plane," she's always been a loud, brassy stereotype, grating on the eardrums and the patience. Here, the comedienne creates as evil and despicable a character as I've ever seen, not just in her physical abuse, but in the vitriol Precious' mother spews at her own flesh and blood. A confrontation when Precious brings her newborn child home to meet his grandmother quickly escalates into one of the most wrenching, horrific and heart-breaking moments I've ever witnessed onscreen. Yet Mo'Nique refuses to turn the character into a caricature and there is a scene near the end where she moved this reviewer to tears, revealing that Precious' mother isn't so much contemptible as pitiable.

Much has been made of Daniels' use of musicians like Carey and Lenny Kravitz (as a male nurse) in the film. I was surprised at how low-key their performances were; this is not a case of grand-standing but of clever casting. Kravitz is subtle in his minor role, and Carey's small but crucial role is strong and brave, considering that the notorious diva allows herself to be filmed without makeup or a flattering hairstyle.

Daniels himself could learn to dial back on the theatrics a bit; he's a fan of swooping camera tricks and artistic touches when they aren't called for (a glow coming from the classroom is awkward and ham-handed); this is an otherwise gritty film and the auteur tendencies only call attention to themselves. Likewise, the film's final scene feels a bit abrupt and the impact of a third act's revelation is never fully dealt with.Still, with performances as strong as anything I've seen all year and an undeniably gripping story, "Precious" holds the attention. Sidibe creates a character nothing like we're used to and it's a credit to her that we stick with Precious until the end. And it's the rare film where hope feels genuine, happy endings feel earned and the tears are justified.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.