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Lena Dunham’s Creative Nonfiction stars Dunham as a college student navigating her way through the mess that is college social life (you can catch a trailer here).  At the same time, she is working on her screenplay about a college student (also played by Dunham)  sorta held captive by her professor in an isolated cabin.  Upon escaping, the student winds her way across the country in an effort to elude the professor’s pursuit.  The film played SXSW this year, and Ms. Dunham was kind enough to send a screener our way.  Adam and I had different reactions to the movie.  I don’t want to speak for him, but since he is on vacation, he doesn’t have much of  a choice.  I think he was a bit put off by the camerawork and maybe the DIY-feel of the film.  I admired the innovative storytelling, and though I think the story fell a bit flat at times, I certainly saw potential.  As did Filmmaker Magazine, which recently named her one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film.”  Ms. Dunham was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the film.

Golden Grouches: To ease into things, what was it like to have Creative Nonfiction play SXSW?

Lena Dunham: I was really really excited that Creative Nonfiction was at SXSW. That festival has debuted a lot of work that is meaningful to me, and they have a reputation for supporting truly indie film. Plus, Austin is an amazing film community and a very cool city– it makes me want to wear cut off shorts and learn to drive and listen to better music.

Anyway, I felt really lucky to get the chance to play SXSW– I’d been working on Creative Nonfiction for nearly 2 years and getting to screen it in front of a seemingly enthusiastic audience was pretty gratifying. I also watched a variety of films by other filmmakers I previously admired/came to admire. The Q and A’s after my screenings were vigorous and made me think. All I could ask for, really.

Also, an important side note: SXSW films are screened at the Alamo Drafthouse theater, and you can order french fries or cookies or ice cream right to your seat.

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In an ideal world there would be people out there whose moviegoing decisions were influenced by our well-honed opinions. In the real world our “readers” mostly stumble upon us when searching for nude Leelee Sobieski pics.

Well we don’t have those but if you all can just put aside the search for masturbatory fuel for just a moment I would like to remind you that I Love You, Man is out on DVD this week. This is important because I Love You, Man is freakin sweet. Uproariously funny with the touches of sweetness and insight we come to expect from the Apatow Players. I love seeing Paul Rudd getting lead roles because he kills it.

And if you like Rush there is lots of Rush in this film.

So instead of seeing The Hangover for the third time go buy or rent I Love You, Man. It’s great, jobin.

Now back to your regularly scheduled Leelee

I found Bob Funk while searching through Netflix’s Watch Instantly offerings.  With some time to kill, I started up the 360 and streamed me some movie.  I’ve only streamed a handful of movies, plus some episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Columbo, and Party Down.  Oh, and an episode of True Jackson, VP, but that’s only because Julie Bowen was in it.  I swear.  In any case, I’ve had no problems with streaming until this time, when the dialogue came in extremely softly.  My TV’s volume goes up to 100, and I had to put it on around 90 in order to hear the diaolgue clearly.  The problem was that the sound effects came in at normal volume.  Meaning I had to watch the movie with remote in hand, shushing scenes without dialogue, otherwise having assorted screen noises come blasting through.  I’d like to think it didn’t affect my viewing of the film too much, but just wanted to throw it out there.

Bob Funk was apparently released in a few theaters early this year, but there’s scant evidence to prove it.  It is based off a play by Craig Carlisle, who wrote and directed the film.  Michael Leydon Campbell stars as the titular character, who, well, it is a little difficult to describe him.  Funk works as the VP of sales for the family business – a foam and futon chain owned by his mother (Grace Zabriskie).  He’s an alcoholic who, while not distasteful, doesn’t appear to have any redeeming qualities other than perhaps his ability to pick up girls (including, oddly enough, Oscar nominee Amy Ryan) at his favorite watering hole.  After an incident with his soon-to-be replacement (Rachael Leigh Cook), he’s fired, leading down a long path on the road to recovery.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the film is that it is never clear Funk has a heart of gold.  His co-workers (Stephen Root, Nadia Djani, and Alex Desert) don’t seem to ever particularly like him.  He has something less than a loving relationship with brother (Eddie Jemison) who also works for the company, no doubt partially due to their forceful mother (they lost their father when they were young).  He’s a womanizer, no doubt partially due to his wife running off with another man.  And while I applaud the move away from the cliche, I found myself just not particularly caring about the character.

While Bob Funk adds some kinda interesting quirks to the typical redemption story, it ultimately is too muddled to work well as a movie.  The middle section sags (look at me resist the urge to make a futon joke) considerably, and the resolution isn’t terribly satisfying.  And the subplots seem inserted without any real consideration as to why they are in there.

Still, the movie isn’t a total loss.  There’s a legitimate argument to be made that Rachael Leigh Cook is the cutest actress out there.  She provides perhaps the majority of laugh out loud moments.  In my opinion, she deserves a better career.  Though be warned, she has above-the-title billing, but plays a supporting character.  The supporting cast is chock full of That Guys, they just all feel mostly underused.  It probably goes without saying that the Amy Ryan scenes are worth watching, though I’m admittedly still a little scarrred from how her dalliance with Funk ended.  And if you do watch, be sure to watch the scenes over the end credits, they are pretty amusing.

Now that there’s ten Best Picture nominees, no one is really sure what counts as a contender.  Not that anyone was really sure beforehand, I suppose.  In any case, the point is that when I say The Hurt Locker is a contender for a Best Picture nomination, it means very little.  Except, of course, that the film received critical praise, isn’t in a genre the Academy tends to ignore, and for the moment, still has buzz surrounding it.

But enough of that, let’s get to what no one wants to know: what I thought of the film.  As per Golden Grouches custom, I don’t shy away from a few spoilers, so I’m leaving the rest of the post after the jump.

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It’s hard to believe but I’m putting together my top ten even later than last year. Again I had hoped to catch up on some movies I missed, but yet again that barely happened. But truthfully this time there weren’t that many I feel like I missed the boat on by skipping.

2008 wasn’t a great year. I’d say it continues a trend starting in 2006, the year Brian and Jared started this project and the early first discussions among the four of us. 2006 had a strong crop of great movies (The Departed, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth). 2007 had a handful of great films (Knocked Up, Hairspray) but a much larger group of very good films (Once, Mr. Brooks). 2008 had few great or very good films, but a huge chunk of merely good films. My top five were easy to pick. The next three became fairly obvious. But literally two dozen films vied for those final two slots. On the one hand, that’s a nice group of films in contention. On the other hand, all are flawed and wouldn’t have come close to my top ten in previous years.

Enough rambling, on with the list!

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1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  A rare film that left me feeling like I had experienced something, although it wasn’t a very pleasant something. Writer/director Christian Mungiu explores abortion in 1980s Romania, where the procedure, along with many other freedoms, are restricted under a Communist regime. Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu play college roommates Otilia and Gabita. When the latter becomes pregnant, the former helps her find a doctor to perform an abortion and sets up the particulars. It’s a night full of unsavory characters and dirty hotel rooms. Otilia also must balance her duties caring for her friend with commitments to her boyfriend (where “I need to help Gabita get an abortion” will not suffice as an excuse).

The subject matter is tough and bleak. Mungiu’s stylistic choices are always fascinating but never distracting. His shots run for minutes at a time, often with the camera remaining still and the subjects moving throughout the frame. One scene where Gabita sits down to dine with her boyfriend’s family lasts a very uncomfortable, unbroken ten minutes. It’s a technique nearly identical to the one used in the only other recent Romanian film I’ve seen, 12:08 East of Bucharest. Romanian cinema is said to be undergoing a renaissance; can a reader let me know if this is part of the new Romanian style?

The abortion scenes are extraordinarily graphic and brutally realist although not needlessly lurid. I wouldn’t say it contains any politics and I suspect most viewers will feel the movie supports whatever abortion views they had going in. I know that months later I find several images from this film deeply affecting.

4 Months won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007 but failed to make even the Foreign Language shortlist. The outcry surely factored into the Academy’s decision to alter that category’s nomination procedures for 2008. A short qualifying run made it eligible for the 2007 Oscars – and both Marinca and Vasiliu would have been very deserving nominees in the Lead and Supporting categories, respectively – but didn’t get a real commercial US release until 2008. It is a true masterpiece, but one I have no intent of viewing again soon.

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2. The Dark Knight. We’ve discussed this movie a lot around here, but I keep coming back to the same thought: The Dark Knight is like someone wrote a superhero movie just for me. It has the genre’s requisite action sequences, humorous sidekicks, sleek gadgets, and scheming villains but with a complexity and dark edge that one rarely sees in films, let alone in a genre flick. This truly got to me in parts, helped of course by Heath Ledger’s legendary performance, and made it gave me points to ponder leaving the theater. Those are qualities I love to find in any film of any genre.

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3. The Wrestler. I fully enjoyed this film when I saw it initially but I’ve found it has risen in my esteem even further over subsequent months. At its heart it’s such a simple story so well told of people whose peaks are far behind them and whose only glories will never be achieved again. Mickey Rourke’s baring performance is incredible (and I remind you that the dude cut himself for real in those wrestling scenes and that is bad ass) while Marisa Tomei is her usual sparkling self. And nomination snub be damned, can you think of a song that so perfectly encapsulated its film like Bruce Springsteen’s title song over the credits? The fade to black and the first strums of that song are just so perfect.

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4. Milk. Who knew a formulaic Oscar-bait genre pic could be so good? It tells the story a remarkable subject and does so incredibly well. Milk manages to be a message movie without becoming overly preachy and it maintains an over-arching narrative without straying too far into the classic biopic “tick the box” feel. Director Gus Van Sant gives it an intense feel of time and place, transporting the viewer into the middle of tumultuous 1970s San Francisco. And perhaps most notably it is full of terrific performances, not just from the incomparable Oscar winner Sean Penn but also supporting players Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch.

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5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. The last few years have seen some incredible documentaries where filmmakers happened to be filming what would have been a rather pedestrian film just to capture an incredible turn of events (think King of Kong). Here, when his friend Dr Andrew Bagby was murdered in 2001, director Kurt Kuenne decided to make a film about his deceased friend. A noble subject to be sure, but probably one that results in an intensely personal and not widely-seen final product. But Andrew’s ex-girlfriend and suspected killer, Shirley Turner, fled to her native Newfoundland where she announced she was pregnant with Andrew’s child. Kuenne’s film turned into a film for Andrew’s son, Zachary, to tell him about his father.

Andrew’s parents David and Kathleen move to Newfoundland to battle Shirley for custody of Zachary while the wheels of justice turn unbearably slow. The Bagbys must maintain a friendly relationship with their son’s murderer in order to see their grandson, an unthinkably painful prospect. The twists and turns continue as the courts make rulings and Shirley’s sanity appears unstable. I will not come close to revealing the film’s resolution. David and Kathleen end up becoming the main characters in this incredible story; their resolve is truly remarkable.

Dear Zachary did the festival circuit and had a short theatrical run in 2008, but I saw it on MSNBC. It may have future airings there and I would recommend checking it out if it does.

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6. Slumdog Millionaire. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the points Slumdog backlash devotees make. It feels mildly exploitative, the acting isn’t particularly great, and the plot strains credibility. I think for the most part it doesn’t really matter. The way the story advances through incredible chance does bother me to some extent, but I accept it as a modern fairy tale. Most fairy tales take outlandish turns. And I don’t really know how you can make a film about extreme poverty without it feeling at least somewhat exploitative unless it dwells on only the most negative aspects of human existence. The life of the poor isn’t horrible for every second of every day and it’s not necessarily glamorizing poverty to show that in a film.

Slumdog is always fascinating. The adjective that still comes into my head all these months later is “vibrant” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. I think that’s too positive a word. It is vibrant, but also brutal and nasty and dirty and raw. Maybe “pulsating” is a better word, helped with by the Oscar-winning camera work and score. I do love films where the settings feel like a major character; this was the case with my 2007 love affair with The Assassination of Jesse James and the same holds for the bustling slums of Mumbai even tough they couldn’t be further from the emptiness of the Great Plains in Jesse James. In a way I felt like I had spent two hours experiencing India. Truthfully I’m not sure Slumdog will hold up well as a Best Picture winner but it’s a pretty fantastic immersive experience with a crowd-pleasing ending.

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7. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I always knew this would make my list, but a reviewing several months ago surprised me with how good it truly is. I think with films that depend on humor and shock value subsequent viewings will necessarily lose some of the impact. And that happened here, but by not guffawing so hard I caught how well-crafted it is. The characters are interesting, well-developed, and amusing. The jokes are taut and clever; the plot engaging. Plus it has some moments that could be considered truly classic (think Dracula musical and YOU SHALL NOT PASS!).

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8. In Bruges. I like a movie that can get to me a little and this very, very dark comedy did. Much like Sarah Marshall it depends to some extent on shock value, but even if you know what’s coming it’s still deeply engrossing and the ruminations on fate only get more fascinating. Great performances and fully-developed characters make the subject matter and strange twists and turns seem natural. The concept is a little insane (odd couple hitmen hiding in Belgium!) but the execution is spot-on to the point that it doesn’t really seem that insane.

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9. Tropic Thunder. Does this clever and funny film make writer/director Ben Stiller respectable? I mean, Zoolander was quite good too. Like the previous two films on my list I’m surprised how well it held up on a second viewing; here you take out the shock value and it’s still damn funny. Maybe even funnier. The Hollywood mockery is clever and the fake trailers that begin the movie are hilarious. The Golden Globe nod for Tom Cruise is kind of a joke, but Robert Downey Jr’s recognition surely is not. He’s an actor in blackface acting as an actor in blackface acting in a movie. And he does the DVD commentary as his character’s character. Heady!

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10. Let the Right One In. What an interesting mixture of genres. It’s a vampire movie and does have some genuinely creepy moments straight out of a good horror film. But the film’s wide appeal is clearly due to the very sweet tween romance between protagonists Oskar and Elli (the vampire). I haven’t seen Twilight but I think I can safely say that Let the Right One In beats it at its own game. The DVD subtitle controversy may have the internet up in arms, but this is a real winner no matter what subtitles you get. In fact, I’ve read comparisons of the two sets of subtitles and the new set has a few sections that are superior to the theatrical set. I think it’s rare to see a vampire movie that’s so cute.

And there were plenty of other good films this year that did something special. Most of these were in the running for the last two spots on my list. In no particular order:

I like a raunchy Apatow-style comedy with a helping of depth and insight. Or you can take something like Role Models, eschew the depth and insight, and just make it extra balls-out funny. Paul Rudd can definitely lead a film… For a great double feature of very clever and entertaining con movies, pick up The Bank Job and RockNRolla. Both are some of the most fun movies I’ve seen in some time with plots that withstand scrutiny… Speaking of fun films, Gran Torino is not what I would call a good movie by any stretch but hell if it isn’t ridiculously entertaining. It thrives on Clint Eastwood’s hilariously fun and over-the-top performance.

Don’t listen to the rest of these fools on this site, Frozen River is terrific. It’s a quiet film but it kept me tense in its portrayal of desperate poverty… Or for another wintry film to cool you down this summer, turn to David Gordon Green’s bleak but affecting drama Snow Angels, featuring good performances from Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale… For something completely different, Green’s other 2008 film was the hilarious stoner comedy Pineapple Express. I think maybe the last scene was the best ending of the year… Another place to look for laughs is Get Smart, which blew my low expectations away. It’s fairly mainstream comedy but very well-done.

Is it sacrilege for me to admit Kung Fu Panda was my favorite animated film of the year? DreamWorks rose above their usual crutch of pop culture jokes to create something that’s timelessly funny and entertaining while the animation is strikingly gorgeous… HBO’s Recount dramatizes the 2000 Presidential recount farce in a way that didn’t seem too obnoxiously political. Many of the characterizations are campy fun but Laura Dern as Katherine Harris takes the cake… The Fench thriller Tell No One takes the usual genre elements and gives them a curious French stylistic twist… Have I mentioned recently how great Richard Jenkins is in The Visitor? He’s near perfection in a good film, though it lags a bit whenever he is offscreen.

And one final commendation to the first two-thirds of Hancock. It’s rare indeed for me to be so onboard with a movie so quickly and so completely. I mean, what a concept: a boozing superhero who needs a PR campaign to repair his image. Brilliant! The plot and every little story touch is so clever and entertaining while Will Smith and Jason Bateman turn in their usual terrific performances. Too bad the last third is so putrid that it irreparably damages the film. Everything that is so right about the first hour goes spectacularly wrong, as if an entirely differenent set of people made it. I don’t understand how something can be so well-crafted at the beginning and so hapharzardly awful at the end. And I’m not even talking about the big twist, which the DVD box basically spells out. It’s the resolution with its out-of-leftfield plot points and absurd logic. Without that unfortunate turn of events Hancock would have surely been near the top of this list.

On to a better 2009!

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