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Like any good movie franchise, our look at 2009 movies ends as a trilogy.  Here are the first and second parts, if you missed them.  This final look includes movies with no set release date.  Some are looking for a distributor, others a marketing campaign.  Some will be released theatrically this year, some might go straight to DVD, and some might be on this list next year. Read the rest of this entry »

We’re continuing out look at some of 2009’s most intriguing movies.  Here’s the first part.  Below are movies with a scheduled released date after April. Read the rest of this entry »

Apologies for the horrible title. If it goes on to win Best Picture God help us that headline will be everywhere.

Milk may be the best biopic I’ve ever seen. Admittedly the review of my memory for a better biopic was hardly scientific and this is an invitation to set me straight in the comments and for me to sheepishly agree, but for now I’ll call it the best in memory. It doesn’t fall into the usual traps even good biopics succumb to and it manages to be a message flick without being too preachy or heavy-handed.

From a plot standpoint I think Milk’s life naturally lends itself to an effective biopic. For one, it was short and the most influential times of his life spanned a remarkable short period. He only lived to 48, didn’t move to San Francisco until the age of 39, didn’t run for San Francisco supervisor until 43, and didn’t win until 47, and only served for 10 months. This all makes it easy to keep the film focused in both plot and theme without skimping on the details. For me it was a refreshing change of pace from films like Ray and Walk the Line which felt sprawling and thematically shallow because they had so much to cover over their subjects’ long lives. For this reason many biopics feel like a series of vignettes: in this scene the hero experiences childhood tragedy, in this one he let’s his demons overcome him, in this one he redeems himself, etc… Milk rarely feels like that, instead composing a continuous story. And of course, Milk’s life was dramatic and heroic and he fought for the tried and true ideals of freedom and equality.

The positives in Milk are not by all means inherent to the subject, however. Director Gus Van Sant imbues his film with a remarkable sense of time and place, putting the viewer not just into the life of Harvey Milk but also into his environment. As much as we’re experiencing a great man’s achievements we’re experiencing a period of upheaval in 1970s San Francisco. Again, this is rare for a biopic, which necessarily tend to focus more on their subjects than their settings. The cars and clothing change over the years in Ray, for example, but there isn’t the same depth in setting as there is in Milk.

Van Sant filmed mostly in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, even renting the space Milk’s camera shop used to occupy. It was made up to look like the old shop; security guards stationed there reported older residents walking by and getting moved to tears by the recreation.

Beyond that, the story is well told and the characters well developed. The pacing, the level of drama, and the tone always felt right on. And in a time when the gay civil rights movement is gaining attention and traction and Harvey Milk’s state is once again thrust into the spotlight, the message hits home without getting preachy (save, perhaps, that boy in the wheelchair). I found the interspersal of archive footage to be effective and not gimmicky and I loved the opening montage.

Sean Penn is terrific as the title character. He disappears into the role and I in turn lost myself in his performance. The man is simply one of those movie stars that you forget is a movie star when he is on the screen. I also really liked Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk’s killer. The character is complex and off-kilter and the performance is skillfully and subtly unsettling. If I can agree with one point in Jared’s (I’m sorry to say) remarkably wrong-headed post is that I wish we saw more of White. He is an intriguing character and the film does a disservice to itself by suggesting White did what he did because he was gay. There is no evidence to suggest he was and Dan White’s warped mind was likely more fascinating than explaining away his motives with a false and simple reason. Thankfully there was no scene of him chowing down on Twinkies. (For extra reading, check out this story on White from earlier this year)

As to the rest of Jared’s argument, I know we saw the same movie because I saw it with him. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen him there with my own eyes. I guess he wants more sense of context, but I’m not sure how that matters. Who cares how many gay people there were in San Francisco or how many supported Milk? How does that help a story about the man? The film does a remarkable job of developing its environment, but it’s still primarily about the man. I found the context provided and a simple knowledge of history to be more than enough context. Also you namechecked the wrong Brolin there, boss.

You’d have to think one of the supporting actors will sneak into a nomination, if not several. Brolin was my favorite, followed by Emile Hirsch and James Franco. Neither character was as fleshed out or challenging as Dan White, however. Diego Luna was the weak link in the cast, I think.

Elsewhere we can probably expect Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations, all well deserved. As far as the technical categories, with those big nominations one would imagine Editing to follow. And, to throw a bone to Jared, art director Charley Beal was also the art director for the pilot episode of “Love Monkey,” so he must have been good.

Finally, does anyone know what the deal is with all the random little barbs directed at Dianne Feinstein? Amusing but strange.

As 2008 winds down, the Grouches are busy watching the Oscar contenders, not writing posts (I’m sure Brian and Adam are just timing their posts to coincide with the Pulitzer committee) and waiting for the nominations to be announced (I don’t want to jinx anything, but I’m guessing the Academy won’t surprise and force me to watch a Paul Haggis movie this time around.).    But we have also begun looking forward to 2009.  We’ve already started compiling a list of movies likely to be released next year we think look interesting for one reason or another.  So here’s a first look at some of the movies we’ll be watching next year: Read the rest of this entry »

I’d been looking forward to The Visitor, a combination of my appreciation of The Station Agent, my experience with DHS, and that I’d had the DVD for over a month before I watched it (not that I want to place blame, it could have been the fault of any single one of my roommates).  One of the few potential Oscar nominees released in the first half of the year, The Visitor tells the story of a New England professor going through the motions of life who finds a couple of illegal immigrants living in his rarely-used New York apartment.

The Visitor, frankly, is a middling movie.  While it shares some themes of loneliness found in The Station Agent, the latter movie more deeply probes loneliness as well as ensuing relationships.  This film doesn’t really build compelling relationships, leading to a story which didn’t particularly draw me in.  The connection formed between the white bread Richard Jenkins and the free spirit drummer of free spirit drummer Haaz Sleiman is pretty standard stuff, as is the budding romance between Jenkins and Hiam Abbass.

Even the commentary on DHS and our immigration policies was disappointing.  I have no problems with McCarthy telling only one side of the story, especially because nothing he shows is particularly inaccurate.  But to me it failed to add any real emotion or insight to the matter.  People who find our policies on immigration and our methods of detention to be any combination of naive, wrong, silly, or poorly handled will likely cheer the relevant scenes.  And those who agree with our current policies, or want to see them become even more strict, will likely dismiss the movie for unfounded bias.  But most of all, the situation wasn’t nearly as moving as I think it should have been.

The Visitor has been getting Oscar buzz because of Richard Jenkins’s performance in the lead role.  Granting that no one knows anything when it comes to the Academy, it would seem that he’s right on the bubble for a nomination.  It is would be great story since Jenkins is a veteran character actor, the type who are always around, but never to star or receive accolades.  But to me, that’s the only reason he’s in the conversation.  His character in the film isn’t particularly interesting, and as far as I can tell, doesn’t have any discernible emotions.  I’m happy for Jenkins and always thrilled to have less conventional nominations, but I just couldn’t support one here.

I’d been eagerly anticipating Slumdog Millionaire for some time.  Normally I try to temper such expectations, but heck, last year Juno would have been my preseason favorite and it ended up one of my top films of the year.  If we catalogued such things, Slumdog Millionaire would have been my preseason pick this year.  Unfortunately, I would have picked incorrectly.

I did like the movie, and I’d feel comfortable recommending it to just about anyone.  Structuring the film around an episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire framed things nicely.  Maybe not the most sophisticated of techniques, but one still inspired nonetheless.  Along with Quiz Show, Starter for Ten (like I’ll ever get off that horse), it forms a nice triumvirate of movies with a trivia game show as at least a subplot, and I think I speak for all bar trivia-goers in suggesting that Hollywood would do well to churn out a few more.

Mostly, though, I just don’t have anything to say about the film.  It didn’t affect me as much I thought (or hoped) it would.  The central romance was fine, but I don’t think Simon Beaufoy (the screenwriter) or Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan (the co-directors) did a great job establishing the connection between Jamal and Latika.  A few more shared scenes wouldn’t have hurt, perhaps.  To me, it seems that Jamal longs for Latika because she’s the only girl he’s ever met.  And Latika wants to be with Jamal because…he’s on the outside?  It isn’t entirely clear.

The film doesn’t really have a main character, not if you count current, younger, and youngest Jamal as separate characters.  Which makes for an interesting ensemble.  But, emblematic of the movie as a whole, most of these characters deserve to be better fleshed out.  Jamal’s brother Salim, for example, is barely sketched out in all his incarnations.  And really, Salim’s actions drive the plot at least as much as those of Jamal.  But the reasons for Salim’s pivotal shifts tended to be too subtle.  Latika herself is more of an object for Jamal than a filled-out character.  I did, however, really like the game show host, and thought his character was very well done.

In a nutshell, the movie just felt a little too distant, too hesitant to starkly dive into anything.  I found it too muted to really blow me away.  That’s not to suggest I found the movie anything less than enjoyable.  I just didn’t think it managed to break through and become something special or memorable.

A few side notes:  John and I were wondering if there’s some sort of law requiring Irrfan Khan to be in every movie with a U.S. wide release and is set in India.  Not that it would be a problem, because he’s pretty great.  Just curious.  Also, I think Slumdog Millionaire just adds further proof to the notion that every movie would be better if it added a song and dance number.  And Freida Pinto is really pretty.  Just throwing that out there.

And finally, I’m curious to see if Dev Patel ends up with a Supporting Actor nomination.  Going for him is the movie’s current status as a seeming near-lock to get nominated (and possible favorite status to win the whole shebang) and the lack of any other actor from the movie to nominate.  There’s also a relative dearth of name actors and juicy roles under consideration.  (The Golden Grouches underground campaign for Bill Irwin notwithstanding.)  The catch may be that his is a sort of nontraditional supporting character, in that the movie is really about him.   Additionally, Jamal’s character traits are more those of a main character (likable, gets the girl in the end, plucky, underdog).  Could voters not vote for him, thinking he belongs in the best actor category, and instead go with someone in a more standard supporting role, like James Franco or Eddie Marsan?

The heavy hitters of this year’s Oscars have just started passing through town, so I can’t really compare Slumdog Millionaire to other Oscar bait.  In a sense, I feel the same about the film as I did about The Departed.  Both are perfectly fine movies, but I don’t really understand how anyone could consider them the best of anything.

I liked that Changeling has a sharp sense of time and place. I didn’t like that it didn’t have a sense of focus or pacing. I think where it unravels is when it tries to do too much; there are plenty of aspects to it that I found admiral but maybe there are just too many aspects.

The root of the story is the disappearance of Christine Collins’s (Angelina Jolie) son, Walter, in 1928 Los Angeles. Months later the LA police return to her a boy that she insists is not actually her son. She then campaigns to force the police to stop dragging their heels and look for her real son while the police fight her back viciously. It’s certainly an emotional story with Christine trying to keep it together while dealing with the loss of her son and seeking justice. I liked Jolie’s performance, which is generally not showy. Christine is a fairly grounded and very strong woman and even in dramatic moments Jolie plays her with some restraint. Of course there are scenes involving emotional outbursts and those mostly felt earned and genuine.

But the film doesn’t stay focused on Christine’s story. Deep into the runtime it takes an abrupt and dark shift to a farm east of the city. Jolie is offscreen for significant periods of time as the investigation into the farm unfolds. I’ll keep it vague until after the jump to avoid spoilers, but this subplot feels like part of a different film. It is still often effective taken on its own, but it’s too involved and developed of a subplot for a film that should really be focused on Christine Collins.

Then the film begins to feel like it’s spiraling out of control. It goes on for way too long, far past what felt like its natural climax. It’s frustrating because the film feels so promising for so long and each of the scenes and story elements usually works on its own, just to discover as the film unfolds that many are wasted.

From an Oscars standpoint, Jolie will likely get a Best Actress nod and it’ll be well-deserved. As I mentioned at the beginning, despite Changeling‘s thematic and story missteps, to its credit it creates a wholly enveloping and consistently interesting environment. Even during the times I felt the story slipping away from me I found something of interest in the setting. A Costume nomination could certainly be in the cards and I would love to see an Art Direction nomination. The sets and the props were my favorite part of the film. Just take in the architecture, trolleys, cars, and time-appropriate props.

Besides directing, Clint Eastwood also contributed the score, nominated for a Golden Globe. I think it succumbs to indie/artsy guitar plucking far too often, a trend I find ever more obnoxious. The Academy loves Clint, but maybe they’ll go for him for Actor in Gran Torino and shut him out for Changeling.

One weird note is that there is a completely superfluous scene about the Oscars in the film. Christine’s coworkers go out to listen to the 1934 Oscar radio broadcast while she hangs back and happily cheers when It Happened One Night is announced the winner (wouldn’t it be something if the audio used in the film is from the actual broadcast; the Academy jealously guards that footage). All I could wonder is if Eastwood was sucking up; at 130 minutes in I was just ready to go.

It won’t be getting Director or Picture nominations and it shouldn’t. Specifics and theories after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Harvey Milk’s story is the stuff from which biopics are made. He faced discrimination, became a leader in his community, had a series of failed campaigns, was finally the first openly gay person elected to major office, and was murdered by a disgruntled fellow politician. There’s tragedy and triumph, all surrounding Important Social Issues.

Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant’s depiction of that story, however, never really rises to the challenge. Compelling actors and back story make the movie watchable, but it doesn’t seem particularly special. If, as some people claim, 2008 is a relatively weak year for Oscar movies, this movie’s awards success might be helping the notion gain traction.

Milk’s primary weakness is its inability to provide context.  It is never quite clear who, exactly, is impacted by Harvey Milk.  This vagueness starts with his coterie, none of whom are given any discernible character traits.  Other than his two boyfriends, who maybe get one apiece.  There’s never any sense of how many gay people were living in San Francisco, or how many people (gay or straight) supported Milk.  Or didn’t.  The movie hints at Milk uniting the gay vote and turning it into a force, but what was the magnitude of that force?  Perhaps Van Sant attempts to answer these concerns with his insertion of stock footage from the era.  But it only serves to weaken the film’s tenuous creation of an environment.

That’s not to say the movie is a failure.  It has plenty of solid moments.  The film has some funny bits and some touching ones.  It is paced well and is fortunate to have a great cast.  Milk, perhaps obviously, advocates gay rights, but the message is generally used to enhance the film, rather than take it over.

I’ve probably made it clear I’ll be disappointed if/when the movie grabs Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations.  The Academy has done far worse, but I just don’t get why Milk is considered great, and not merely good.

At this point, I’m all for Sean Penn and James Brolin to be nominated for Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively.  I love me some James Franco, but I’m not sure he’s deserving here.  Penn as Milk, is probably the highlight of the movie (other than the doggie, naturally),  and he certainly makes the movie much more interesting.  Brolin’s character is another supporting one who deserved to be better fleshed out.  But he turns Dan White into the most intriguing character in the movie, one who provokes the most thought.  For me, anyway.

They could be twins.

They could be twins.


1. Dark Knight
2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
3. Pineapple Express
4. Iron Man
5. Slumdog Millionaire


1. Dark Knight
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
5. Iron Man


2. Pineapple Express
3. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
4. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist
5. The Dark Knight


1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
2. The Dark Knight
3. Milk
4. Slumdog Millionaire
5. Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Both The Dark Knight and Forgetting Sarah Marshall made the cut on all our lists.  Hm.  Maybe the third Batman should be a joint production between Christopher Nolan and Judd Apatow.  That could work, right?

Slumdog Millionaire shows up three times.  Who’s the bum who prevented it from being a clean sweep?

Iron Man, Pineapple Express, and WALL-E are each picks for two of us.

And finally, John and I each have some singletons, with John picking 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and Milk, and me channeling my inner hipster by throwing Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist up there.

Pictures from thefinned1 and jake_snicketCC

Happy-Go-Lucky is brilliant in its simplicity.  It details a few weeks in the life of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), who is remarkable for the complete and utter joy she gets out of life.  And that’s the whole story.  The beauty of the film is that Poppy’s joie de vivre never really gets cartoonish (in, say, a Jim Carrey sort of way) or off-putting, and she’s never forced to deal with some horrible tragedy that shatters her worldview.  Instead, Poppy’s everlasting happiness is actually the source of her depth, creating a memorable character.

In this case, it is important to distinguish the character from the film.  Because while Hawkins’s effervescence dominates the movie, it is a mistake to let her define it.  And if Hawkins is like the bubbles in a glass of seltzer, the movie is that seltzer: refreshing, to be sure, but unlikely to be remembered after a day or so.  Maybe that’ll be the last extended metaphor for awhile.

The film’s genre may be best defined as “family-friendly, but not meant for kids”; it is hard to imagine any adult being offended by Happy-Go-Lucky.  It was bold to make a movie with virtually no conflict (save for perhaps two exceptions) and I think it is a testament to writer/director Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins that the movie succeeds as well as it does.  That said, the movie is far from great.  The lack of conflict leads to lack of resolution, leaving the movie feeling somewhat incomplete.  While many comedies overcome a weakish plot by being consistently funny, Happy-Go-Lucky too often seems to get bogged down preparing to make some sort of bold statement it never gets around to making.  The scene by the train tracks, for example.  Or the subplot starting with Poppy’s student who likes to pick fights.  Perhaps most telling is that it is a struggle to remember which, exactly, were the funny parts, but I can distinctly remember the parts which seems slow or off-kilter.

I’d certainly recommend Happy-Go-Lucky, it is probably a good movie to see when trying to find something to pacify everyone in a group.  But there have been plenty of movies this year I more enjoyed.  I’ve seen a little buzz around an original screenplay nomination, and while I wouldn’t be upset, I don’t think the film is deserving, so I’d be a little disappointed.

I’m starting to see a little bit of support for Eddie Marsan getting a supporting actor nod.  He’s actually quite good in the movie, being the only one who gives Hawkins a run for her money.  His driving instructor was also pretty much the only character in the movie to exhibit any sort of range of emotions, which probably props up his chances some.  I liked him, but if his character were in a different movie, I don’t think he’d be getting as much notice.  Again, I’m not sure I’d start advocating an Oscar revolution if he gets a nomination, but I’d be very surprised if he’s one of my top five by the end of the year.

Finally, there’s Sally Hawkins.  Who, right now, is looking like she’ll get squeezed out of a relatively strong actress race.  It is kind of hard to compare her here, because her character is intentionally one note.  I have to give her credit, Hawkins remains funny throughout the entire film, without ever really veering over the top, and her timing is pretty fantastic.  She makes the film, and in the hands of some other actresses, I think the movie would have been much less enjoyable.  I haven’t seen enough of the contenders yet to make any sort of statement here, but I look forward to placing her in context.

December 2008