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It’s not quite the end of the month but I’m headed out on safari for a few weeks and I know no one will sleep until they hear my latest top 5.

1. Up. Still no change.

2. Zombieland. What a delightful surprise. This is a clever, funny, deliciously gory film. It sticks to its premise and takes it in a fun direction. Absolutely terrific characters with some excellent surprises. This is the multiplex movie to see at the moment.

3. The Informant!. Zany, hilarious, twisty.

4. I Love You, Man. Funny! If it’s on the plane I think I’ll watch it again.

5. Moon. Will the fledgling movement to get Sam Rockwell a nomination pay off? Probably not. But that would be sweet.

As time goes on we see more films it’s tougher to move the top five, so occasionally I’d like to highlight a film that probably would have made the top five had I seen it earlier.

9. By no means a perfect movie but I enjoyed its unique visual style and surprisingly dark themes. The second half is significantly better than the first – probably because by then you accept the relatively thin plot and characters – and the climax is quite effective.

Why don't you whine about it some more?

Why don't you whine about it some more?

Period romances have an inherent edge in the quest to be compelling, I think.  Just seems it is a lot easier to find obstacles to love in the class and gender boundaries of the 19th century than today.  Girl has money, guy doesn’t, girl’s family won’t let them marry.  See, just takes five seconds to set up the story.

Of course, that simplicity is a double-edged sword.  While it can take just a scene to set up a plausible and engaging romantic entanglement, that leaves the whole rest of the movie to figure out ways to make that romance interesting.  Bright Star, unfortunately, isn’t up to the task.

Even if you don’t know anything about John Keats’s life, the film isn’t really particularly surprising.  Abbie Cornish plays Fanny Brawne, a somewhat educated young woman of some means who is a bit proud of her sewing career.  As soon as Keats (Ben Whishaw), a young poet of little renown and even less money enters her life, it is clear (by all the usual ways) they’ll be an item.  The problem is that the film never really advances much beyond that stage.

The movie in a nutshell: Fanny is whiny and Keats is wimpy.  Other people claim the film has subtle, delicate layers.  But frankly, I’m didn’t see that at all.  There isn’t really much to their story, or much reason to get invested in the characters.  Their courtship was vague and detached.  I never saw a moment where Fanny falls in love or even a reason why she does.  And Keats seems to mostly ignore her.  There is very little romantic bickering.  And the scene where they do get together feels accidental.  It is kinda sorta a forbidden romance, but only in the sense that Fanny and Keats exert the least possible effort to try to get together.  I half expected any of the secondary character to slap either Keats or Fanny and excoriate them for their inaction.  Basically, in my mind, the story held very little interest as a romance, and there wasn’t really anything else there besides the romance.

Other than the comic relief, which was far and away the best part of the film.  There were several legitimately funny moments in the film, and increasingly they became focal points.  Certainly a large part of that is due to Paul Schneider, but I’d also spread the love around to the rest of the cast and writer/director Jane Campion.  Schneider plays the portly Charles Armitage Brown who has what kids these days call a bromance going with Keats.  A fellow poet, Brown is wholly devoted to his and Keats’ work, well, except for partaking in some sensual pleasures, and is (rightly, in my mind) skeptical of Fanny.  Obnoxious and overbearing, Brown is clearly the highlight of the film.

Bright Star has been bandied about in talks of all the major Oscar categories, save supporting actress.  Frankly, I think it’d be a mistake for the film to receive any nominations.  I’ve covered why I think the film is boring and how I was put off by Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw.  I don’t like to speak about direction, but I will say that I found the cuts between scenes to be highly distracting, so I guess I have to blame Campion for that.  I wouldn’t really be upset if Schneider picked up a supporting actor not.  He did a lot with a relatively slight role; had he been given a more substantial character, I’d be much more confident in handing him a nomination.

I can’t figure out Tilda Swinton.  Part of it is that she creeps me out, and I don’t know why.  Maybe it is her more than passing resemblance to Conan O’Brien and Beaker.  But I can’t decide what sort of roles she should be playing.  In thinking about this piece, I was also thinking about who is comparable to her.  I just came up with John Malkovich, and I’m not sure there’s going to be anything better.

She’s the star of Julia, which is relevant here because of the buzz that Swinton has a shot (albeit a long one) to get a Best Actress nom for the title role.  And I’m of the opinion that with a better fleshed-out character in a better fleshed-out film, she might have had a pretty good case.  Which is perhaps a bit odd, given that the movie clocks in a little over two hours and Swinton is the focus of nearly every minute of every scene. Swinton’s character is an alcoholic, and as with many who suffer from the disease, it defines pretty much everything about her.   I was struck by how director and co-writer Erick Zonca  decided to depict Julia’s alcoholism.  I think he (with the obvious help of Swinton) manages to successfully walk a fine line in showing how sad Julia’s life is without ever going over the top or resorting to cliches.  It is all too easy to glorify alcoholism or turn a drunk into some melodramatic wretch.

At an AA meeting and later after a night of drinking/blacking out, Julia meets Elena (Kate del Castillo) who happens to also be her neighbor.  Elena claims that her son’s rich paternal grandfather has custody of the boy and asks for Julia’s help, offering a substantial sum of money.  Elena is soon written out of the film, somewhat clumsily, but not before a scene that would have put her into the Supporting Actress race, had she been a higher profile name in a higher profile film.  The rest of the film has Julia stumbling through kidnapping the child, with the idea of getting a ransom, which leads her to Mexico, where the kid gets kidnapped from her.

One of the film’s major problems is that Julia isn’t a compelling character (though she is, to be sure, quite interesting).  She’s mean, greedy, basically just not a nice person.  Which probably is directly related to her alcoholism, perhaps she doesn’t quite know how to relate to people while sober.  It hard to feel anything other than vague disgust toward the character, even her redemption is murky.  And that’s a significant stumbling block to a character-driven film where Julia as a person is supposed to maintain interest in what is otherwise a fairly uninteresting kidnapping story.

I liked the supporting cast, I mentioned del Castillo, but Saul Rubinek was definitely underused.  The revelation to me, though, was Bruno Bichir (who, according to imdb, has had some success in Mexican entertainment and is good friends with Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal).  He plays a suave stranger Julia meets in Mexico, and just might have been the most interesting character in the film.  If I were to have recut the film, I would have left manic del Castillo in a little longer, given Rubinek a stronger roler, probably cut out a good chunk of the middle section, which drags, and transferred that time to the Mexican scenes, exploring Bichir’s character more in depth.  So, OK, maybe I’m just looking for a sequel spinning off his character.

Obviously it is pretty early in the year to be assessing Best Actress nominations.  Swinton is certainly memorable here, but I’m a little skeptical it is going to rank among my favorite performances, and given the film’s low profile, it seems relatively unlikely Swinton will grab her second Oscar nom.

…cannot be found on this site. But our unexpected and inexplicable hit gravy train of being the #1 Google Image Search result for Leelee Sobieski suddenly and devastatingly left the station. We need new ways to trick traffic into visiting our site, looking for a split second, then hitting “back” when they realize this isn’t what they want.

But seriously I’m pretty much done with Megan Fox for a while. Talk about overexposure. First the hype around Transformers 2, then the absurd feud with Michael Bay, and then the panned and flopped Jennifer’s Body. After the awful, awful Saturday Night Live she helmed on Saturday, can she please just disappear for a while? She’s not a good actress and no one who meets her has anything nice to say about her.

Also, she’s not that hot. That’s right, I said it. With Hollywood full of attractive people this is the peak of womanhood?

So go away for a while, please. I’d take a new Christian Bale movie every week instead.

Ooh, but it’s just one year, eight months, and thirty days til Transformers 3 is here…!

Several of the Grouches got a sneak peak at the new Ellen Page roller derby comedy Whip It the other night. Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut in this story about a small town Texas teen discovering herself and coming of age in Austin’s roller derby circuit. Kristen Wiig, Marcia Gay Harden, Jimmy Fallon, Alia Shawkat, Juliette Lewis, and Andrew Wilson (brother of Luke and Owen) also appear. While it’s not likely to garner any awards attention, Ellen Page is a Grouches (and awards circuit) darling and Whip It did premiere at the Oscar springboard Toronto International Film Festival.


I really, really hated this movie. When it comes time to talk directing awards we often note that it’s tough to tell what makes a well-directed movie and how to separate the directing from a film’s other components. I’ve generally looked at shot and editing choices, tone, and pacing but really it often comes down to whether the director has created a good movie.

This is a poorly-directed film. I don’t have any feelings either way for Barrymore in general, but she should stick to acting. Every cliched shot possible can be found in this movie. Beyond that it’s unfocused and messy. It felt like they had an idea of some cool scenes and made it up as they went along. No sports movie cliche goes unused and never in a clever or ironic fashion. The themes are handled clumsily. The acting is hammy. It does have some funny moments and interesting, albeit underdeveloped, characters. Page’s parents I found particularly fascinating.

But if roller derby is such a grrrrl power sport, why are all the announcers, refs, and coaches male?


Whip It fits comfortably into the sports movie genre, perhaps too much so.  Think A League of Their Own, only with more physical violence and less-developed characters.  The film hits most of the familiar tropes (including having an awesome soundtrack), but rarely deviates from them.  So it feels a little paint-by-numbers, which is fine if you like standard sports flicks, but it just means you have to tolerate a few weak and/or cliche subplots.  The supporting cast is filled with interesting people, and it sure appears that they had a lot of fun filming, unfortunately they have to work with extremely stock characters, so their enthusiasm can only add so much.  Ellen Page shines in the lead, not just because she’s ridiculously cute.  If you go in expecting something TBS will show as part of a sports movie marathon one Sunday afternoon, you probably won’t be disappointed.

October 2009