Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Man And His Boy Against All Odds

The Road

This is the journey of a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) at the end of the world. The Man "carries the fire," and teaches the Boy well throughout their time together, a bonding that thoroughly proves the undying power of love alone. It's what keeps them going and what keeps them alive. The Man is surviving in order to fulfill the obligation he feels he owes to his son. They represent a minority in the world, whether it's after the world's demise or otherwise, and it's this minority who chooses to be righteous against chaos and evil. This ideology is similar to "No Country for Old Men," and rightfully so as that and this film, "The Road," are both adaptations of novels by Cormac McCarthy, this time from his Pulitzer Prize winner from 2007. Like the Coen brothers, director John Hillcoat ("The Proposition") does a fine job at interspersing McCarthy's restrained and beautiful prose into his adaptation. It's what makes this post-apocolyptic movie much more poetic than, say, "2012."

This isn't a disaster sci-fi affair as the actual cause of the world ending is left up to ambiguity. Fires raged, but we don't know why. There are sporadic earthquakes without explanation. Only flashbacks give us any clue to the past and what happened (disease, war, or worse?), and they're shot in sunlight, a stark contrast to the grey, fog-covered world the Man and the Boy drift through in present day. Hillcoat keeps his scenery real and grounded as there are minimal special effects with sparse landscapes of Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Louisiana used to convey an empty, desolate place with abandoned vehicles on the roadside and towns turned to wreckage.

In the flashbacks there is the Man's wife (a reserved and glowing Charlize Theron) who left them when things got too rough. She chose death over a life not worth living, and as McCarthy's words state, "She was gone, and the coldness of it was her final gift." This leaves the Man and the Boy alone in a world of people turned evil, and the film is correct about showing how such circumstances turned modern society to complete savagery. The only thing scarier than knowing you're the only ones left is knowing that any other group you run into is more likely an enemy than a friend. The Man and the Boy come across cannibals who resemble flesh-eating zombies from horror movies, except this time the horror is their reality. A scene inside the basement of an old house will leave you breathless.

The Man and the Boy are traveling with two bullets in a handgun and a shopping cart with sparse amounts of food to a mythical coast that promises a blue expanse of escape. Escape from what is unclear, but the point is that it's a goal, something for which to reach. Along the way, they come across a wandering traveler like themselves. This man is on the verge of collapse and covered in dirt and grime. He can't ask for death because "it's foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these," he says. The man is played effortlessly by Robert Duvall as a man who speaks in only tongue and riddles. These are people who live in a constant state of weariness, alert, and fear.

Viggo Mortensen is unstoppable in the vast roles he has played. From a Russian mobster in "Eastern Promises" to a Middle Earth warrior in "Lord of the Rings," his range is endless. Here is a demanding and affectionate performance from him, and he brings striking realism to a man exhausted to death but not lacking a soul and a heart in the right place toward his son. They are not sympathetic together, but rather, real. A young actor named Kodi Smit-McPhee plays the role of the boy, and he is deeply convincing.

Amidst all the doom and gloom "The Road" provides in ample dosages there is an ending note of optimism and hope that is refreshing and welcoming. In this respect John Hillcoat's film acts as a proclamation of the life-affirming power of the human spirit, but we've also heard that once or twice or too many times before from more memorable movies. This is a good movie, but it doesn't resonate with importance like it wishes. While impressive, it falls just short of being the Oscar-bound masterpiece it originally aspired to be.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Guilt For Not Loving This Movie

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

"Precious," with the clumsy subtitle of "Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," is the story of Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe), an obese, illiterate 16-year-old black girl living in Harlem in 1987. Precious' mom (Mo'Nique) is a deadbeat who doesn't work and spends her days watching TV and screaming at her daughter while demanding she cook her food. Precious got raped by her father who impregnated her not once but twice, and her second baby is on the way. Here's material that produces a long, dark tunnel of despair, one that requires a light at the end of the journey. Director Lee Daniels' (a former producer whose credentials include "Monster's Ball") Sundance sensation disappoints in that it is a film that lacks a proper reward system. To put audiences through such grueling depravity without a glimmer of hope at the end goes against the definition of an uplifting experience. The goal of "Precious" was to drag you down into the depths of human cruelty and then pick you up again, except the latter part never happens. Nothing is resolved in the end.

Rather than allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions and feel their own naturally-evoked emotions, the movie twists their arms into empathy. In this respect, it is very calculated and constructed in drawing us down into Precious' depressing world. There's no room to properly observe and contemplate but rather just be forced to feel what the movie expects us to feel. This leaves for an ultimately unmoving experience, the exact opposite of what Daniels set out to do. Immediate empathy for Precious was the goal, but somehow I found my heartstrings not being tugged. I couldn't stop myself from thinking that Precious really should have given up her second child like her teacher suggested. Sometimes doing what you feel is most courageous to prove a point really isn't the best solution. Sure, there can be the hope that she continues her education while supporting her two children, but realistically I found Precious hard to root for.

Newcomer Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, 24, plays Precious, and she does an admirable job for a debut performance. She understands the character she is playing, and she gathers sympathy from Precious' teacher, Ms. Blu Rain (Paula Patton), and her social worker, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey). From audiences, however, this isn't a role of sympathy but one of pity. Sidibe plays Precious with an emotionless mask, a passive shell of a human being. She doesn't look people in the eyes, and she mumbles when she talks. It's hard to connect with her. We only see flashes of her shining soul in fantasy sequences where she dreams of being a glitzy celebrity. These fantasies, however, feel odd and unfitting to the movie's overall tone, and we follow Precious throughout this journey that lacks a certain structure and consistency.

After getting kicked out of school, Precous gets directed to an alternative school where Ms. Blu Rain gets her started on a GED with other girls in similar situations. The classroom scenes don't shine any new light on the condition of inner-city teaching, and the constant return to them gets repetitive. The breakthrough in these sequences is Paula Patton as the lesbian, kind-hearted teacher Blu Rain who knows how to motivate Precious and break her out of her shield of armor she had been putting up all her life. Being inside this classroom is Precious' escape from the madness of the life she knew.

Precious also makes visits with Ms. Weiss, her social worker, who is played very effectively by an un-glamorized Mariah Carey. There is a final scene between Precious, her mother, Mary, and Ms. Weiss, a scene that will leave you shaken. And in this scene is Mo'Nique playing Precious' mother at her most extreme. She represents a pattern of abuse and cruelty that goes back generations where the root of her own evil is uncontrolled agony. She claims that Precious stole her man away from her, and she uses that as reason to exploit her daughter for welfare checks. Comedian Mo'Nique is absolute dynamite in a first-time dramatic performance that has her rightfully already on the track for Oscar consideration. If there's anything that saves "Precious," it's her shocking and powerful portrayal that puts a face on the monsters in this world.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Instead Of The Twilight Saga's "New Moon"

Check back for two more movies next weekend just in time for Thanksgiving break:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Now Including Less Gay Kissing

Compare these two trailers for "A Single Man." The first is the original trailer which includes Colin Firth's character kissing his lover. The second trailer, while 4 seconds longer with snippets of critic praise, omits this shot but still includes the kiss with Julianne Moore's character.

Also note the poster above. The Weinstein Company's change in marketing campaign to mute the gay themes of this new film coming out this winter? Either way, this looks to be a remarkable movie.



An Education Indeed

An Education

It's 1961 in London just before the grooviness and sexual liberation age of The Beatles hit and right around the time post-war cautious conservatism was still lingering. Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old girl, straight-A cello-playing student living in a tidy suburb of London, Twickenham. She is aspiring to attend Oxford, but she is also bored to death. And then enters David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man in his early 30s who promises not only something new but simply for something to happen, the feeling of being alive. Danish director Lone Scherfig ("Italian for Beginners") is careful not to let her new film, "An Education," fall into the conventional holes it easily could've with such a premise. With writer Nick Hornby ("About a Boy," "High Fidelity"), they have taken the memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber and shaped it into a smart, quiet, and charming coming-of-age story that sparkles with the knowledge and detail of an era. It shows a social revolution not yet in the making but one in the distant horizon, and one that Jenny is ready to grasp with open arms.

David comes driving up in the pouring rain offering to put Jenny's cello in the backseat so it wouldn't get any wetter. They begin a conversation about classical music, and it's in this exact moment that we realize what a smooth and suave guy David is. He's reasonably handsome, but most of all, he knows how to turn on the charm, and in that sense he becomes irresistible. They just so happen to bump into each other again, and David invites her for a night out. Jenny meets David's fabulous and cultured friends, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), and next thing she knows she's caught in a whirlwind of concerts, restaurants, jazz clubs, and the leisure of high-living. David wants to take her on a weekend in Oxford and then a trip to Paris.

How are the parents of a 16-year-old handling all of this? Well, they become just as disillusioned as Jenny. Her mom (Cara Seymour) and dad (Alfred Molina) are an old-fashioned couple who want the best for their daughter, and they are very loving about it. When David enters their home well-dressed and well-mannered, they can't find the harm in him. They are naive just like Jenny. How he explains his interest in Jenny is that he's interested in her mind, intellect, maturity, and potential. He wants to teach her things, and Jenny's parents view it as an older gentleman assisting her daughter in the real-world, an opportunity neither of them can pass up. Paris is safe because, well, David's aunt will be there chaperoning, of course. It's a little white lie, the type of lies David is filled with, but ones so minuscule they are never harmful. You see, David is a bit of a scoundrel, but the film is keen on not letting audiences aware of that until later, right about the time Jenny starts to realize it. And yet, she goes along with him still because, even when she sees through him, she wants to continue playing along to become a part of that lifestyle. She wants to embrace it in order to become it.

Then there's the possibility of sex. On her seventeenth birthday, David sweeps Jenny off her feet, but it turns out sex was the least of it. "All that poetry about something that lasts no time at all," Jenny said after the fact. Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan pull off the unthinkable by making this seemingly off-putting relationship one that is believable and unsentimental in the truths it reveals. Sarsgaard strikes the perfect balance amongst a tricky role by becoming a slippery snake of a predator while also being sweet and nonchalant. And he makes a perfect duo with Mulligan whose look is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. She is absolutely breathtaking and worthy of an Oscar nomination. Everything she does we have faith in her decisions, even if it doesn't seem right at the time, because she has the ability to get us on her side. She's the epitomical lovable character.

Along the way, Jenny is confronted by her young teacher (Olivia Williams) when Jenny starts becoming the talk of the school as she's courted by an older man. This teacher is concerned for Jenny potentially throwing away the possibilities of her bright future. There's also vicious disapproval from the headmistress, played by Emma Thompson in a fiery passion. There are two strands of education here: one that gets a young girl into Oxford and one that teaches a young girl a thing a two about life and living. And while both are important, it would appear that one in particular gives Jenny a certain edge. This is a lesson, an education, that'll stick with her because sometimes the lessons that hurt you the most affect you the greatest. Yes, of course Jenny's been to Paris before, but the boys her own age don't need to know that.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Von Trier Shows No Boundaries


Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" has polarized critics and was the controversy of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and for fine reason. This is a rare, disturbing, and horrific exploration into von Trier's personal outlook on grief, pain, and despair (chapters of which the film is divided into), and it is at first fascinating but then makes a sharp and crippling turn to infuriating. Von Trier (most known for his "Dogville") notes that filming this creation helped him overcome his period of depression. All right, so we know what this film did for the director, but what does it do for us? Here's a film so frightfully self-indulgent that the artist might as well have kept his vision inside his own head.

It starts with a woman coping with the death of her child. A nameless couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) are in the throes of intimacy when, unbeknownst to them, their young son, a toddler, gets out of his crib, makes his way toward an open window, and goes tumbling out of it along with his teddy bear. The woman's grief is unbearable, and the performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg, which won her the Best Actress prize at Cannes, is one of startling anguish and emotional potency. Her acting is both literally and figuratively naked and also equal parts psychological and physical. Gainsbourg's bravery toward the role is one worth admiring. That is until von Trier sends her character directly into unexplained insanity, much like the rest of the film.

The man, Dafoe in a performance much more subdued and less convincing than his counterpart's, acts as a therapist to his wife attempting to find the source to what she most fears. They both journey to an isolated cottage in the woods called Eden, which is shot by Anthony Dod Mantle ("Slumdog Millionaire") in a beautiful, pulsating, digital style that includes some strange optical effects. The location of Eden drips with metaphor and allegory full of raining acorns, animal fetuses, and a talking fox that looks the man square in the eyes and says, "Chaos reigns." The woman calls nature "Satan's church," and she had been doing research in the attic about old pagan rituals involving women. What does it all mean? Von Trier's meanings aren't ambiguous, they're incomprehensible. It's not that it's over our heads, it just isn't there. It's muddled, and it thematically falls apart. And in the end, it's an examination that gets too close for comfort, and the real shock becomes the sad fact that the only thing von Trier brings to the table is shock value. At one point the film becomes a slasher flick. Allow me to explain:

The latter half of "Antichrist" deteriorates into graphic violence, which includes vivid scenes and close-ups of self-inflicted genital mutilation. This film could've been an intense and dark meditation on some deep ideals, but the fact that it almost, kind of, begins to encroach upon this intrigue is not excuse enough for an ending so absolutely grisly and unwatchable. It's hard to tell where von Trier's mind is on death, birth, infertility, and the intrinsic nature of women. Are they evil? Is the film painfully misogynistic or subtly feminist? In the end, it doesn't even matter.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

And Who Could've Predicted This?

Roland Emmerich's "2012" has been getting better-than-average reviews with critics claiming it to be over-the-top, ridiculous fun and falling into the "so bad it's good" category.

Roger Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars.
"The mother of all disaster movies (and the father, and the extended family) spends half an hour on ominous set-up scenes (scientists warn, strange events occur, prophets rant and of course a family is introduced) and then unleashes two hours of cataclysmic special events hammering the Earth relentlessly."

Lisa Schwarzbaum labels it a guilty pleasure.
"God forgive me, but I enjoyed the nerve-racking silliness of this newest, loudest exercise in destruction."

Well, there's no denying that Emmerich is offering up exactly the reason audiences are going to see this movie, and that is to watch Earth get destroyed in incomprehensibly catastrophic ways. Looks like this one may be a surprise success.

But, one still must wonder, will December 21, 2012 itself will be this much fun?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Did the Mayans Predcit This Movie Would Be Made, Too?

Holy shit, "2012," coming out this Friday, is 2 hours and 40 minutes long, which means that it's a 2-hour-and-40-minute-long disaster sequence. I swear, after "The Day After Tomorrow" making this movie must've been like an orgasm for director Roland Emmerich. I can't help but wonder if the entire movie is one giant explosion of CGI or if there's actually a plot. And if there is, well, I know I wouldn't be able to stand watching John Cusack looking concerned for nearly 3 hours. And, really, how does a movie like "2012" end? The world just collapses, right? ...Or does it?

Oh, and how timely! He made Danny Glover the president. I wonder if this is the first big-budget motion picture to feature a black U.S. president.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Fall Of ABC's Former Successes

I think I've officially given up on ABC's two breakthrough shows from 2004, "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." Having watched both of these shows religiously since their beginning, it's time to finally let go of my dedication. The wells on both of these series is running dry as they enter their sixth seasons.

This latest season of "Grey's" has been focusing on downsizing as Seattle Grace has merged with Mercy West introducing far too many supporting characters. It's all become far too muddled, and the leading stars have been shoved into the background. With an explosive and astonishing first few seasons, the show has been making its steady decline into mediocre melodrama as of recently, and it appears to have finally made it there. Even the soundtrack, which used to be the show's highlight, has been lacking.

"Housewives" has certainly had its ups and downs throughout its lifetime, and although season five showed some promise with jumping ahead five years in the characters' lives, unfortunately this latest season has slumped right back down into nothingness. With yet another introduction to new neighbors, I'm really starting to feel like I've seen it all before. And without Nicolette Sheridan in the picture, it's lost a lot of sizzle.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Flat Rendition Of A Christmas Classic

Disney's A Christmas Carol

Robert Zemeckis has done this once before. As he did with "The Polar Express," using his photo-realistic, motion-capture animation technique, he has adapted a holiday story for not just the big screen, but the really big screen: IMAX. And this time, 3-D. Much like he proved with the surprisingly adept "Beowulf," Zemeckis certainly knows how to put 3-D to good use. The thing with his "A Christmas Carol," corporately labeled as a Disney production, is that the animation is better, and yes, the 3-D is wondrous. The look of real actors being animated comes off much less creepy here than it did in "The Polar Express," but even so, that was a better film. The issue is that this time Zemeckis is adapting the timeless 1838 story by Charles Dickens. All the trimmings of Victorian yuletide cheer are there, but the emotional feeling of being a classic just isn't.

This is a premise we all know, so it's not worth repeating, but here's a basic outline: Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is a bitter old man whose business partner, Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman), died on Christmas Eve. He therefore hates Christmas, and with his stooped back, drooping skin, and pale eyes, he loathes everything about the holiday. He is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, all distinct and all teaching Scrooge things about himself he may have never even realized before. Majority of the dialogue throughout the film is directly lifted from the original story, and to that extent this adaptation pays rightful tribute to Dickens. Zemeckis stays true to Dickens' most potent and finest themes, and with such comes a rather dark tone, one that focuses on moral disparity and even death. In this instance the movie can be eerie and even downright scary, which means that this is one definitely not for the youngest kids.

There's no denying that Zemeckis' "A Christmas Carol" is visually splendid with sequences swirling with magic and a rendering of 19th century London that is seamless and gorgeous. And yet it feels like Zemeckis gets a little carried away. This isn't meant to be the Christmas Carol roller coaster ride, and perhaps there simply wasn't enough material to work with. Between all of the exuberantly-designed chase and action sequences, the real narrative, the appearance of each ghost, almost become the backdrop to the thrill-ride. It gets tiring after a while, especially when there is so much to offer with Zemeckis' vision of these ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past is exceptional with just a face in a lit candle, whispering and flickering.

Jim Carrey pulls his weight, voicing not only Scrooge but also the three ghosts. Gary Oldman does the voices of Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and Marley. Deep beneath the layers of animation is Carrey playing Scrooge quite well as he does a good job of playing it straight without any flairs or goofiness. The expressions of the CGI characters are now more fully-realized with thanks to technological advancements. Scrooge is no caricature with Carrey giving him the perfect dose of remorse and melancholy.

While Zemeckis works hard to stick with Dickens' sentiments, one must really wonder at the end of viewing "A Christmas Carol" if another adaptation was really necessary. It's a sight to behold and certainly will get viewers promptly in the mood for the holiday season (which perhaps is the primary goal), but the desired emotional level of connection is never reached. The plight of Tiny Tim is there in all of its sadness, but I just didn't find myself in sympathy as much as I felt I should've. Observing Scrooge's personal transformation becomes like viewing it from afar, and the endeavor feels ultimately removed and sadly soulless.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"The Gurus Of Gold"

So, I guess it really is that time of year: Oscar season. It is the beginning of November, except it feels unfortunately just like last year that, even though worthy films are being released, I have yet to see them for myself. Hopefully it won't be as painfully delayed as it was last year where I'm scrambling to see "Revolutionary Road" a week before nominations are released.

Check out this website that Roger Ebert included in one of his tweets. That's right, Ebert now has a Twitter, and I couldn't be more thrilled about it.

Looks like "Up in the Air" and "Precious" are in the lead for the Best Picture predictions followed closely by "The Hurt Locker" and Clint Eastwood's latest movie starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, "Invictus."