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Im thinking of a number.

I'm thinking of a number.

All of us here have derided a film, at some time, for “not having a point.”  But what does that mean, exactly, and how does it relate to the quality of a film?  A film doesn’t need to contain some moral or get to some absolute truth, of course.  I suppose one could claim the incredibly awesome The Rocky Horror Picture Show is making a statement on the corrupting nature of power or how true love is like a good Meat Loaf, but it isn’t meant to teach a lesson.  Similarly, having a clear message does not guarantee a successful movie.  We all dislike Crash, but that surely was driving at something.  I didn’t much care for Babel or Million Dollar Baby, but those had well-defined agendas.

I don’t have a good answer to the question I posed above.  I can say, however, that W. didn’t have a point.  It made virtually no political statement, offered almost no insight into George W. Bush, and pretty clearly was not constructed with a goal of being entertaining.  Which isn’t to say anything about my enjoyment of the movie, just that I’m not entirely sure why the movie was made.

Ostensibly detailing the rise to power of George W., Stanley Weiser’s script is a muddle of moments cherrypicked to note various stages of W’s life.  Instead of a coherent story, the idea seems to have been to start with a checklist of the various phases of W’s life and make sure that a scene from each one was included.  If the movie was called S. and portrayed a fictional president, with fictional supporting players, I’d be fairly surprised to hear it associated with any awards buzz.

Indeed, the story here may be how so many of the actors seem to be impersonating the people they are portraying.  Or, rather, how the film seems so pleased with itself that it has name actors to play these well-known personas, you can almost hear Oliver Stone chuckle as, say, Richard Dreyfus goes through his lines.  Now, I don’t know the line between impersonation and acting.  Frankly, I don’t care.  But Weiser and director Oliver Stone go to great lengths to reenact certain moments of W.’s history, with perhaps a slight emphasis added (if only to reduce what was surely, say, a half hour meeting down to three minutes) and maybe successfully, but to what end?  For example, Stone lingers on Thandie Newton’s (and by the way, her last five screen credits for those keeping track at home?  W., RocknRolla, Run Fatboy Run, Norbit, and The Pursuit of Happyness) exaggerated impersonation of Condolezza Rice.  It doesn’t particularly advance the story, it isn’t comic relief, it doesn’t build tension.  No, it is more, “here’s a slightly ridiculous impersonation of Condi Rice.  Deal with it. <as the camera lingers on her a beat or two past the onset of awkwardness>” At times, it feels the filmmakers tried to paper over the script’s inadequacies by stuffing the film chock full of name actors in name roles.  But to quote the other Twain, that don’t impress me much.

If we are given a cud on which to chew during the movie, it is on W.’s relationship with his father, where the son rides a seesaw of being a screwup and then trying to fit in somewhere to gain respect from his dad (James Cromwell).  It is an interesting strain, sadly not given enough meat to support the rest of the movie.  Still, the scenes with the two are probably the best in the movie.  Not counting, naturally, any scene with Elizabeth Banks (as Laura Bush).

The film’s best chance for an Oscar is probably Josh Brolin, who currently has at least an outside shot at a nomination, it would seem.  An interesting thought is Thandie Newton for Supporting Actress, which Awards Daily sees as a possibility, at least.  Possibly because the category tends to be weakest (or at least that seems to be how it is trending for me, and feel free to insert comment about lack of roles for women here).  Again, is it easier or harder to act when your character is someone you are openly trying to mimic?  I don’t know, but Brolin does give a compelling performance.  In my mind, those on the left will wish he played Bush less sympathetically (and less intelligent) and those on the right won’t be satiated enough to not mock Oliver Stone.  And I think that’s a good balance to strike.  It is always hard to judge these things based only on the early films, but in a vacuum, it wouldn’t be a mistake to give Brolin a nomination.

The title of this post may be confusing.  (Not unlike the post itself.)  You see, W is easily one of the top 26 letters in the alphabet.  Sesame Street recognized this fact, and gave W a song, the video of which is below:

As time goes on it’s only natural that one’s opinion of a movie will change. The technical deficiencies fade away in the mind to let emotion and tone shine through, for instance. Maybe a theme takes some time to strike a chord but will hang around in your head for a while. Last year I found Michael Clayton and Into the Wild stuck with me long after I wrote my initial unenthusiastic posts. My obvious problems with Knocked Up quickly slipped from the forefront, replaced with what pure joy that film was.

Of course, the process can work the opposite way as well. A movie jam-packed with emotion that leaves you reeling as the credits roll can become melodramatic and manipulative the more you think about it (see: Blow). As time went on I thought less of Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose and more of what a structural mess it was. And boy does A Beautiful Mind feel like a dull Best Picture choice now, huh?

I’m saying all this because last night the Grouches saw Rachel Getting Married, a film I’m really not sure what to think about. I left feeling like I needed to work through it a little before making any firm judgment. It’s a film with some serious pros and cons, both in quantity and magnitude. I’m curious to see how my feelings about it coalesce; in a month will I think back to its performances and brilliant emotional scenes or its severe pacing problems? How will a second viewing in a few months hold up?

So I present to you the Rachel Getting Married Index (RGMI). I will periodically check in throughout the Oscar season to explain my current thoughts on the film and what, if anything, has changed. Or if I get bored with the conceit, then not. Whatever.

The RGMI for October 22, 2008 is: 6.5.

This is what I’m thinking hours after leaving the theater. When Rachel Getting Married connects it really connects. Some scenes hit so hard I could feel them. In the good scenes everything is right on and it feels authentic. And yet I didn’t think director Jonathan Demme really had any control over the film as a whole. I don’t demand action and I’m perfectly happy with a slow pace that builds mood, theme, or character but scenes continually go on for just way too long for no apparent reason. A scene like the one at the rehearsal dinner starts off kind of pointless as characters start giving toasts to the happy couple. Then, even as it doesn’t really go anywhere, I get into it because it’s all about building mood. But then it starts going a little long.

Then it ends 15 minutes later.

It’s also the most WTF wedding I’ve ever seen. It’s so out there it took me out of the film at times. And it’s intensely uncomfortable at times. In an effective way? Not sure.

Stay tuned for further RGMI updates! No matter what happens, at least this dysfunctional-family-at-a-wedding film will probably not fall to Margot at the Wedding depths (though while writing this I’ve managed to call it Rachel at the Wedding several times). I also intend to explore the parallels I saw to another recent film, and that film is of course Dan in Real Life, but you already knew that.

This image has next to nothing to do with the movie.

<NOTE: This image has next to nothing to do with the movie.>

What a fun movie.  A total popcorn movie, in my opinion, because it is entertaining, but I didn’t really find myself invested in any of the characters.  Sure, there are characters to root for: Frances McDormand as a down on her luck, fish out of the water nanny with the requisite heart of gold, and Amy Adams as a gilded singer with a bevy of suitors who knows she’s trading on her allure because that’s all she has.  And even a couple supporting characters to cheer on: the awesome Ciaran Hinds as the wise lingerie designer, and the fantabulous Lee Pace as the piano player who’s only looking for love.

But we cheer on these characters as we might the home team in a sport for we much don’t care.  Yeah, it’ll be great if they win, but if they don’t, well, so be it.  This sentiment echoes, in a way, the heady pre-WWII days in London that form the backdrop of the movie.

McDormand is great.  If I have one beef, it is that there’s one scene where she undergoes a transformation, and I’ll be dadgum if I could notice a difference.  For whatever it is worth, the same scenario gives the remake of Sabrina an edge over the original; Audrey Hepburn looks exactly the same upon her return from France, where Julia Ormond looks very much changed.  Now, granted, that’s partially because it is pretty much impossible to make Audrey Hepburn look anything but gorgeous.

Anyway, I liked McDormand as Miss Pettigrew.  Amy Adams is quite fun.  I have to give credit to someone or someones on the film who arranged an extended bath scene where we see the entire side of Amy Adams without anything revealed.  Not happy about it, obviously, but well done.  But she’s obviously both beautiful and talented, here playing her somewhat established part as slightly hyper, attention-grabbing, and somewhat insecure.  And between this, The Fall, Pushing Daisies and watching Wonderfalls, I’ve spent a rather large chunk of time with Mr. Pace this year.  Fortunately, I’m firmly on the Lee Pace bandwagon, and there’s plenty of room, so hop on board.

Four Stars (7.2 on imdb, 77% on RT, 3.5 on Netflix)

Trailer after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

Is an anagram for label.

Is an anagram for "label".

Unfolding almost entirely over the course of one day, Bella, simply put, tells the story of a waitress (Tammy Blanchard) and a chef (Eduardo Verástegui).  Blanchard has an unexpected secret, one sure to upend her struggles to get her life on track.  I liked that this tack wasn’t one of the typical strains of “life spiraling out of control leading to drugs and prostitution” or “prodigy of some sort held back by society/family/herself”.  Instead, Blanchard is just a normal person attempting, like most people, to get some control over her life.  Verástegui has a secret as well, one that explains how he went from highly-prized soccer prospect to an amazing chef who holds his brother’s restaurant together.

It is a sweet little movie, but it fails to rise to the next level.  It seems like it wants to emphasize the importance of moments.  Either the subtlety in Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, Patrick Million, and Leo Severino’s script passed me by (certainly plausible!) or needed a more coherent vision of the impact of a moment.   I thought Verástegui’s backstory was particularly well done.  And yet he turns out to be a relatively uninteresting character.  Sort of how I imagine a male in a Harlequin novel would be: Latin, handsome, a good cook, loving family, a mysterious past, generally speaking a manly man, with a sense of right and people’s feelings.  He ends up being more like a guiding angel to Blanchard than an actual person.  Tammy Blanchard, by the way, looks a heckuva lot like Norah Jones.  For whatever that’s worth.  I kinda liked her character, perhaps especially because I think in the hands of lesser filmmakers she would have been pretty annoying.

The ending felt a bit inorganic.  Not necessarily that I didn’t believe that’s where the characters were going.  More that it felt sort of tacked on.  I wonder if ending the movie a scene earlier would have improved it, ending on a note of optimistic uncertainty rather than the more complete resolution it currently has.  The upside of the current ending is that allows for both main characters to be each other’s salvation, but again, it feels weird that a three minute epilogue should carry that much weight in the movie.

Bella won the People’s Choice award at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, which is an impressive pedigree, as the award has been bestowed on some rather well-regarded, if diverse, films.  And Ali Landry shows up for a scene, so there are certainly indisputable reasons to see the movie.  It is certainly decent, so I wouldn’t not recommend it, I’m just not sure I can think of many times I’d active recommend it.

Three Stars (7.4 on imdb, 46% on RT, 3.6 on Netflix)

Trailer after the jump (note, it gives away a few things I purposely left out): Read the rest of this entry »

Oh deer!

Oh deer!

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is near and dear to me for three main reasons: first, one of the co-writers, Hayden Schlossberg, went to the U of C; second, I originally saw the movie at said college, where an attempt to smuggle White Castle led to a run-in with Johnny Law that felt like a deleted scene from Crash; and third, the movie is brilliantly hilarious.  So I was a bit excited for Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I was let down, especially since I really do believe the first one reached rarefied air, but Harold and Kumar II felt, well, run-of-the-mill.  The movie picks up right after the first, Harold Lee and Kal Penn return as Lee is determined to go to Amsterdam to meet up with new love Maria (Paula Garces).  But freewheeling Penn gets them in trouble, and after a stint in the titular prison, they begin a new road trip, the destination of which is mostly irrelevant.

It doesn’t feel like a rip off of the first one, exactly, yet it doesn’t bring anything new to the table.  In fact, it feels mostly like a completely average comedy.  A few really funny bits (Ed Helms, most of Kumar’s fantasy pops/flashbacks, the Bush scene), a few really terrible bits (Rob Corddry’s character, for example, which is sad), and good chunk of eh.  The eh is generally entertaining, which is positive, but it is still eh.  It kinda felt like they planned out what would happen (i.e. “Here’s where Eddie Kaye Thomas and David Krumholtz reprise their roles.”  “Here’s where NPH does something ridiculous”) and just assumed the funny would insert itself into the script.  NPH needs material, people!

It is also sad that Hurwitz and Schlossberg were so desperate to win my love that they patterned one of the major plotlines after a completely generic romcom premise.  Tsk tsk.  I guess I most missed the fresh zaniness I was hoping would be passed to down to this sequel.  But maybe it is difficult to duplicate that sort of humor.

Three Stars (7.0 on imdb, 54% on RT, 3.4 on Netflix)

Excuse me?  Did I hear you say something about other women?

Excuse me? Did I hear you say something about other women?

Conversations with Other Women is unlike any other movie I’ve seen.  The film’s unique style, though, clearly needs some refinement.

Taking place over the course of a single evening, It stars Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham Carter who seem to hit it off when meeting during a wedding reception and take things back to her hotel room.  There’s actually an interesting twist in the middle, so my description doesn’t quite do it justice.  I’ve decided I’m a pretty big Eckhart fan, for the record.  Thomas Lennon has a bit part, as does Olivia Wilde, and the male lead from I Know Who Killed Me.  And supporting are Eric Eidem and Nora Zehetner (evil chick from Brick) as Young Man and Young Woman, respectively.

You see, most of the movies is done in split screen.  The majority of the time the split shows different cameras on Eckhart and Carter, but sometimes it shows Eidem and Zehetner.  The split screen effect is jarring at first.  That feeling soon gave way to bemusement.  Then I was impressed.  And finally, a bit put off.  Ultimately, I found the constant split screen to be distracting and unnecessary.  Since I’d never seen such extensive use of the split screen, I thought it was pretty inventive, and definitely a neat tack to take with a movie like this, where the film is almost entirely an extended conversation between two people.  But since it became overbearing at times, I guess I thought some fine tuning would be in order.

Gabrielle Zevin’s script was good, not great.  I appreciated much about it: the young man and woman, the twists, the ending, and the fact that it managed to keep my attention, besides not all too much going on.  Still, the split screen occasionally felt like a crutch used to support weak parts in the script.  And sure, the tale of two middle-aged people probably resonates a bit better with someone more in that age bracket.

The film is probably still worth seeing.  At the very least, it is a good change of pace movie.  And I certainly hope Zevin and director Hans Canosa progress, because I could see the movie being a first step to greater things.

Three Stars (7.0 on imdb, 74% on RT, 3.1 on Netflix)

Trailer after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

Like Spiderman.  Only creepier.

Like Spiderman. Only creepier.

Mmm…blueberries.  Maybe they should factor into more of my nights.  The title of the movie comes from one exchange, but oddly, if someone wanted to use “blueberry” as an adjective to describe My Blueberry Nights, I wouldn’t necessarily object.  Figure that one out.

The film has a strong cast: Norah Jones is surprisingly strong as the lead, and Jude Law, David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz, and Natalie Portman all having significant roles.  Whoa.  Just realized they all were nominated for Oscars (The Talented Mr. Ripley/Cold Mountain, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Constant Gardener (she won), and Closer, respectively).  Cat Power also shows up.

But really, the movie feels like it should have been a play.  Sure, the distinct parts and mere handful of settings probably contribute to that feeling.  Mostly, though, I think it was a combination the limited scope and sense of detachedness.  Not that it would be a great play, more likely a decent one, just as the movie was.

Each section of the movie present a relatively interesting sketch of a scene with relatively interesting sketches of characters.  But they all ultimately feel like they are just being used to make the relatively uninteresting points the movie is trying to make.  Indeed, I’d argue My Blueberry Nights follows many of the conventions of a subdued romantic dramedy, only the comedy is replaced with a few of the elements of a road trip and a heavy emphasis on detachedness.

The problem with the detachedness is that Norah Jones’s character ended up feeling sort of like a narrator, and I didn’t really have much invested in how her story.  And while the lack of connection between the segments of the film didn’t really bother me, I think some cohesion probably would have helped.  Because while the movie isn’t boring, it isn’t terribly interesting.

Three Stars

Trailer after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

How YOU doin?

How YOU doin'?

Auto Focus is decent enough.  It stars Greg Kinnear as Bob Crane (from Hogan’s Heroes), with Willem Dafoe as his creepy friend John Carpenter, and Maria Bello as his lover and then second wife.  And with Michael McKean and Ed Begley, Jr. in there, and the inspired choice of Kurt Fuller (Russell Finley from Wayne’s World) as the guy who played Klink, you know the cast is solid.  And it tells the story of Crane’s addiction to sex, so there’s that.

I just don’t understand why the movie was made.  It doesn’t particularly tell the story of Crane’s struggle with his addiction, as one might expect.  It doesn’t really tell the story of the impact his addiction had on his life or his family.  Sure, it is addressed, but not fully.  It doesn’t really tell the story of Crane’s increasingly complex relationship with Carpenter, not really.

Instead we get more: “Just the facts, ma’am.”  Here’s Crane before he found uber-success, having troubles at home (with his first wife, as played by Rita Wilson).  Then Crane embarks on Hogan’s Heroes.  Now he meets Carpenter.  Here is how Crane is introduced into the world of extramarital relations.  Then his addiction deepens.  He meets his future second wife.  Hogan’s Heroes comes to end, he struggles to find work elsewhere, and he’s still addicted to sex.  Willem Dafoe is creepy.  Crane finally, maybe decides to turn over a new leaf, and then he’s murdered, possibly by Carpenter.  And that, basically, is the whole movie.

Not to sound like an English teacher, but I never really felt like I was being told why I should care.  The rote telling of Crane’s story doesn’t really delve into the psyche of any of the characters, including (and especially) Crane.  Heck, you got Willem Dafoe as a creepy dude.  Let him be a creepy dude!  And Crane’s murder is treated as an afterthought.  Just seems like a poor decision to strip almost all emotion from Crane’s story.

Three Stars

Trailer after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

Glancing at over the weekend, I happened upon an article by Ann Hornaday, “From Indie Chic to Indie, Sheesh.”  I did a quick blogsearch, and the article elicited some interesting reactions.  One laments, “Where have the days of respectable journalism gone?”  Another respects the points, but dislikes the writing.  Some fully agree, or at least say it is “required reading“, regardless of how much you agree with her.  She also endears herself to the Golden Grouches by including all in one sentence: The Station Agent, The Savages, Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl and some movie called Old Joy, which went straight to the ol’ Netflix queue.

I wanted to highlight two paragraphs from the article (which I do recommend reading):

Call it “There Will Be Hamburger Phones”: More than 20 years after American independent cinema entered its latest Golden Age, what started as a fiercely autonomous cinematic response to Hollywood and its dominant genres has become a genre itself. And like all genres, the indie aesthetic is rife with its own versions of the hackneyed conventions, tired tropes and cliched themes that weigh down the most predictable action spectacle or by-the-numbers rom-com.

Which comes from the beginning of the piece, and from the end:

Can indies be saved? Yes, but only as long as the question is framed differently. It’s time to stop talking about budgets, “edge” and filmmakers’ come-from-behind biographies — indeed, maybe the word “indie” itself should be banished — and instead rediscover values like intelligence, emotional truth, moral heft and restraint, which will endure long after indie-chic signifiers and smug hermeticism have worn themselves out.

I may not entirely agree with Hornaday’s lament that indie movies now tend to be as derivative and formulaic as the movies against which they originally rebelled.  I watch a hundred baseball games year after year, and I still enjoy it, so I don’t really see a reason why the “Little Miss Juno Dynamite” (in Hornaday’s words) strain of movie should go away.  Except for Napoleon Dynamite, of course, since it is an atrocious film.

And yes, I think it is hard to argue against what Hornaday is rooting for: “something that feels compelling and new.”  In fact, who would?  It sounds to me that she really has a problem with nomenclature more than anything else.  There’s a rapidly forming distinction between “independent” and “indie”.  To be sure, “independent” has lost much of its meaning.  Because what it an independent film, any more?  But Hornaday seems to be arguing that “indie” is now a genre (does that mean the next step is a crappy AFI Top 50 Indie Movies list?) where Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and Napoleon Dynamite are indie, but The Station Agent and The Savages are not?

Part of the problem is that, as Hornaday puts it, “American independent films used to be the stuff of the cognoscenti, denizens of film festivals and art house.”  It used to be cool to like independent films, you see, and now everyone has seen these films.  Where’s the fun in that?!  For some, being a movie buff is always going to be about seeing those movie other people don’t know about or haven’t been able to access.  But thanks to a combination of things like the Internet, Netflix/Blockbuster, and the changing nature of the Oscar race, independent films have permeated our consciousness.

Which isn’t a problem, in my book, it just highlights the need for an improved classification system.  “Independent” is fast approaching meaninglessness, and Hornaday illustrates the problem with “indie” referring to films as diverse as those of Sayles, Lynch, Aronofsky, and Tarantino.  And I don’t have the answer.  Maybe it is out there, and I haven’t seen it.  Or maybe this is a task for film schools grads.  Part of the difficulty may lie in the fact that the sense of newness in films like Lars and the Real Girl or The Station Agent suggests there’s no category in which they could fall.  Hornaday suggests “indie chic” and “old-school classicism”, but I’m not quite sure that works.

In any case, I do suggest reading the article.  I don’t agree with all of the logic, conclusions, or movie preferences, but I agree with some.  And it made me think, which is probably most important of all.

If you squint, he kina looks like Dustin Hoffman

If you squint, he kinda looks like Dustin Hoffman

I swear, I have no inherent bias against French movies.  Really.  Just one against boring movies.  Of course, pretty much everyone else liked Tell No One.  Then again, that includes John, so maybe I’m not so wrong.

Ostensibly a mystery/thriller, Tell No One falls flat on both counts.  Francois Cluzet stars as a doctor whose wife was murdered nine years ago.  Or was she?  Cluzet was a prime suspect in his wife’s murder, and after two bodies are found close to where his wife’s body was discovered, Cluzet becomes a suspect again.  Soon after, he receives a mysterious e-mail containing video of what appears to be his wife (Marie-Josee Croze), alive and well.  As the body count piles up, Cluzet embarks on a quest to prove his innocence and find the truth about his wife.

Having devoted countless hours to television mysteries, I perhaps have a different expectation of movie mysteries than other people.  And Tell No One felt too linear to me.  I’m not arguing you’ll figure things out in the first twenty minutes, just that the clues aren’t particularly subtle, red herrings mostly missing, and the reveals not super surprising.  As such, I wouldn’t say I felt thrilled at any specific point in the movie.

On the bright side, there’s a pretty awesome dog in the film.  And the doggie actually figures into the plot.  All of the actors were fine, I thought.  Kristin Scott Thomas shows up.  I wouldn’t say Tell No One is a bad movie, per se, I just didn’t find it terribly exciting.  And the ending wasn’t terrible, I just didn’t  find it to be a big reveal or anything.

Two Stars

Trailer after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

October 2008