Thursday, December 30, 2010

Is 2010 Over Already?

I don't write "Best of" lists at the end of the year for whatever year it actually is, because I have limited time and money, and often very limited access to most of the films I think it's necessary to see before making any sort of comprehensive decisions. And because I'm a pretentious movie nut and I take this all way too seriously.

For the curious, here's where I am so far:

Action: From Paris with Love, Iron Man 2, Kick-Ass, Salt, The A-Team, The Expendables, The Karate Kid, The Losers, Unstoppable

Animated: Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Toy Story 3

Comedies: Date Night, Dinner for Schmucks, Easy A, I Love You Philip Morris, Knight and Day, RED, The Other Guys

Documentaries: Exit Through the Gift Shop, Restrepo

Dramas: Harry Brown, Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer, The Green Zone, The King's Speech, The Social Network, The Town, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Winter's Bone

Fantasy: Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Horror: Daybreakers, Splice, The Crazies

Romantic Comedies: Letters to Juliet, When in Rome

Science Fiction: Inception, Monsters, Predators, Repo Men, The Book of Eli, Tron: Legacy

That's forty-nine movies for the year so far. Not bad. Now the films I still want to see:

127 Hours
A Film Unfinished
Animal Kingdom
Another Year
Barney's Version
Black Swan
Black Venus
Blue Valentine
Cairo Time
Fair Game
Four Lions
Get Low
I Am Love
Idiots and Angels
Inside Job
Kings of Pastry
Love and Other Drugs
Made in Dagenham
Never Let Me Go
Rabbit Hole
The Borrower Arrietty
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Fighter
The Illusionist
The Kids are All Right
The Tempest
The Tourist
The Way Back
Tiny Furniture
True Grit
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Waiting for Superman

Forty-four to go. If past years are any indication, the list is going to get longer before it gets any shorter.

I will have a year-end list for y'all in a day or two. None of these films will be on it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A B+ for "Easy A"

"Easy A" takes place in one of those high school universes where everyone is a walking cliche, from the extraordinarily attractive girl who is supposedly considered plain, to the self-righteous Christian do-gooder with no sense of humor or tact. Rumored sexual prowess can boost the reputation of even the most ungainly adolescent boy, and turn a nonentity like Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) into a magnet for attention.

The film is presented in flashback by Olive, who confesses to the audience, with the help of some home-made title cards, that her recent elevation to the position of school slut is based on a lie. In order to get out of a camping trip, Olive tells her best friend Rhe (Alyson Michalka) that she has a date with a community college student, which quickly snowballs into the rumor that Olive has lost her virginity. Immediately she becomes the center of attention for her fake indiscretions, and Olive finds that she enjoys the notoriety. She keeps the ruse going even though she attracts the disapproving ire of the school's self-appointed moral enforcer, Marianne Bryant (Amanda Bynes), and alienates Rhe. Then Olive stumbles upon a way to put her scandalous reputation to good use, first to shield her bullied gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) by pretending to sleep with him, then offering to do the same for many of the school's other outcasts and rejects.

"Easy A" was marketed as a typical raunchy sex comedy, and it was a nice surprise to discover how little raunch actually figured into a fairly ambitious story. The script is weak and uneven in places, but writer/director Will Gluck takes a huge step forward here from his last film, the dismal "Fired Up." "Easy A" hearkens back to the more earnest John Hughes teen movies of the 80s, which are shamelessly referenced several times. However, the film is firmly a product of the digital age, where gossip is transmitted from cel-phone to social network to instant message at the speed of light, and the entire story is framed by Olive's confessional webcast. A neat little recurring visual motif is the use of a series of shots that race through the halls of the high school at alarming speeds from person to person, in order to convey the rapidness at which a particular tidbit of information is spreading. Also, the characters are self-aware and frequently metatextual, especially Olive taking inspiration from Hester Prynne of "The Scarlet Letter," and acknowledging to the audience that such a gimmick is pretty trite.

This a perfectly tailored debut feature for Emma Stone, who seems to be picking up right where Lindsay Lohan left off with "Mean Girls." Though the story is often ludicrous and the character of Olive is hard to swallow at times, Stone has such a charismatic screen presence that it's easy to forgive the film's weaker conceits. She rattles off the ironic dialogue with immaculate comic timing, and can be provocatively sexy or endearingly frazzled as necessary. Though Olive is very savvy to the common tropes of teen comedies, and snarkily skewers many of them, Stone also ensures that she retains a good deal of adolescent impetuousness and vulnerability. In counterpoint to her vamping act, Olive hits it off with the school mascot, Todd (Penn Badgley), in a series of perfectly sweet, romantic encounters. She may be a smart girl who uses knows how to put up a convincing facade of promiscuity, but turns out to be a normal, awkward teenager in the face of real affection.

It's also fun to see a slew of well-cast names filling out the adult roles, including Thomas Haden Church as Olive's favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith, Lisa Kudrow as his guidance counselor wife, Fred Armisen as a local pastor, and Malcolm McDowell as the dour principal. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are among the film's highlights as Olive's quippy and slightly kooky parents. Their approach to parenting is very hands-off, and though they express concern about her new wardrobe and extra-curricular activities, they let Olive resolve the situation on her own terms. Among the younger actors, no one else really stands out. Alyson Michalka and Amanda Bynes' characters both come off as extremely unsympathetic, but this is due in large part to their caricatured roles.

"Easy A" is not a great movie, but it's head and shoulders above just about everything in the high school comedy and romantic comedy genre these days. I look forward to seeing more of Emma Stone in the future and I hope Will Gluck continues on this upward trajectory.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Jon Stewart Crosses a Line

Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" is making waves again. For his last show of the year, which aired Thursday evening, he spent the bulk of the airtime strongly advocating for the passage of the Zadroga bill for healthcare funds for 9/11 first responders, currently being stalled in the Senate. It was Stewart at his most impassioned and most sincere, calling out not only the Republican senators trying to filibuster the bill, but also the major news networks for failing to address the matter. Though there were a few moments of levity here and there, his usual farce and snark were nowhere to be found.

It seems that after years of blurring the lines between comedian and commentator, Jon Stewart has gone over to the other side. What he did on Thursday's edition of "The Daily Show" - taking a policy position and arguing for it, interviewing a quartet of first responders who would be directly affected by the legislation, and discussing the topic with the night's guest, Mike Huckabee - fell into the usual domain of the Keith Olbermanns and the Bill O'Reillys that "The Daily Show" usually skewers. This is worrisome because Stewart has never gone this far before. He's often in the news for taking political actors and media actors to task, but it was always in the context of satire and comedy. The Rally to Restore Sanity made a huge media splash, but its messages boiled down to a non-specific, non-partisan pleas for moderation in the national political discourse, with a side of Get-Out-the-Vote rhetoric for the November midterm elections.

Thursday night was something else entirely, because the comedian was playing it totally straight with no pretense of going for laughs at all. Stewart has done this from time to time, sometimes taking a few minutes out of his show to opine about the topics he feels most strongly about. His interviews with the major political figures of the day have grown increasingly serious and sometimes contentious over the years. When prodded about his journalistic integrity, Jon Stewart used to argue that as a comedian hosting a basic cable late night show, his influence was limited and he understood his role was a small one. He doesn't say that anymore, because it turns out that a lot of people are listening to him. The mainstream media pounced on the Zadroga story once Stewart brought it to light. Commentators on all sides are clamoring for the bill's passage. New York politicians like Senator Chuck Schumer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have thrown their weight behind it. The bill stands a much better chance of becoming law now, thanks to all the attention, and Stewart may be the one to thank for it.

It comes as something of a shock to realize that the host of "The Daily Show" can and now has used his position and influence to directly affect policy. I agree with Jon Stewart's views more often than not and I respect his efforts to maintain an open mind toward all the various political factions in the past. Held up against all the other political commentators in the media, it's clear that Stewart enjoys the respect that he does because he maintains an outsider status as a comedian, and is not afraid to go after anyone he thinks deserves it. Seeing him actually step in and drive the political discourse on this issue on purpose is unsettling. I'm not sure I like the idea of Stewart as a full-on pundit, even though I'm sure he'd use his powers and platform for good. It feels like he's endangering his rare reputation for neutrality by taking up and championing a specific political cause so strongly. One of the reasons why I think people reacted so strongly to Thursday's episode is because this is something that Jon Stewart never does. So if he's willing to step up to push for the bill, then surely it must be important, right?

The larger question is, does this mean that we can expect Jon Stewart to take up this advocate role again in the future? I'm not sure. I think that Stewart made an exception to his usual hands-off approach because the content of the Zadroga bill is remarkably non-controversial. It's a small spending bill that is deficit neutral, politically safe for both sides, and as Stewart explained to Huckabee during their interview, it's not attached to any other piece of legislation which might provide a legitimate reason to hold it back. The only reason the bill is stuck in the senate is because the it got caught in the middle of the political fight over the Bush tax cut extensions, and time is running out to pass it before the end of the lame duck session. Also, Stewart's made it clear that his biggest beef was with the hypocrisy of the Republican senators who were quick to invoke 9/11 for political speeches, but dragged their heels when tasked with doing something substantive for the 9/11 responders.

However, now that he's done this once, he could easily do it again. The Senate plays these kinds of political games all the time, and Stewart is sure to get riled up by some other issue in the future. As long as he takes up these smaller causes once in a blue moon, I think it's all right, though he's walking an awfully fine line. But if he goes farther and farther down this road, and gives up the comedy act, and actually becomes the next Olbermann or O'Reilly, it would be a terrible loss for the American media - and for the viewers. Pundits come and go, but there's only one "Daily Show" out there, and only one Jon Stewart.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Was "TRON Legacy" Worth the Wait?

28 years, millions of dollars in production and marketing, and over three years of building hype after the sequel to "TRON" was initially greenlit, was all the fuss worth it? Is the long-awaited sequel a success? That depends on how you want to quantify it.

I came into "TRON Legacy" well prepared. I rewatched the original 1982 film the night before, and I significantly lowered my expectations after the wave of negative reviews and disappointed fanboy reports flooded in last week. And I liked the film. I was surprised at how much I liked the film, since I was fully expecting a disaster from some of the responses I'd been hearing. "Legacy" isn't a great movie by any means, but it is a perfectly serviceable action film with a killer production design, gorgeous effects, and a Daft Punk score that will be reverberating around in my skull for the rest of the year. Yes, the script could have used some more passes, and yes, some of the effects didn't quite come off as well as the filmmakers were probably hoping, but the fundamentals were there. "TRON Legacy" isn't revolutionary, or groundbreaking, or even very original, but I had fun with it.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is the president of a computer company called Encom in the '80s, but one day he disappears off the face of the earth, leaving a troubled young son named Sam behind. Twenty-odd years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) technically still owns the controlling stake in the company, but has no interest in running it. When he disagrees with how the board is behaving, he engages in a little corporate terrorism, to the head-shaking exasperation of his father's old colleague Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). Alan remains on Encom's board, apparently just to be the oft ignored voice of principles and altruism. One night he gets a page from Flynn's Arcade, the long-closed video arcade that Kevin used to run. Sam goes to investigate, finds a secret underground lab, and gets himself zapped into the computer to find out what really happened to his father.

Up to this point, I though the film was doing very well. The characters are all set up nicely, the action and humor were good, and there were lots of little in-jokes and references for "TRON" fans to pick up on. Once Sam gets to the "Grid," the fluorescent fantasy world that exists inside the computer, where programs are anthropomorphized beings with wacky acronym names, the plot goes off in a completely different direction. Cillian Murphy plays an Encom programmer named Dillinger who has villain written all over him, but we never see him again after a single scene. There are a lot of little loose ends and odd pieces like this in "TRON Legacy," where you can see where the filmmakers ran into trouble with the story. However, I don't think any of the mistakes are fatal. Sam's goal once he enters the Grid is simple: find his father and come home again. There are twists and digressions, but that simple driving goal doesn't change.

And boy are there digressions. The real villain of "TRON" turns out to be CLU, a program that Kevin Flynn wrote to help him build and run the Grid, who looks like a young, thirty-something Jeff Bridges. The effect is uncanny when he doesn't move, but the second he does, CLU is smack in the middle of Uncanny Valley, and looks exactly like a character from one of Robert Zemeckis's unfortunate motion capture films. Sam has his first run-in with him when he's picked up for being a "stray" program and sent off to compete in the gladiatorial Games. This is where the best action scenes of the film take place, namely updates of the Ring Game and Light Cycle bouts of the original "TRON." Unfortunately, at this point we're only about halfway through the film.

Sam is rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a program who has become a companion and apprentice of sorts to Flynn, who is played with an appealing elderly Zen master cum surfer dude vibe by Jeff Bridges, sans any digital enhancements. As appealing as the character is, his entrance marks the beginning of the film's rockiest stretch. There are several segments where the momentum just evaporates, and the audience is stuck listening to the characters trade awkward dialogue and dull exposition. None of the material is all that bad, but it's just not handled very well by first-time director Joseph Kosinski. The pace picks up again as Sam, Flynn, and Quorra race to reach an open portal back to the real world, but every time the action slows down or the spectacle dims, the tedium sets in.

There were some concepts and ideas that just didn’t work, like the brief appearances of Castor (Michael Sheen) an entertainment program who runs the End of the Line Club. We hear mentions of resistances and revolutions against the tyranny of CLU, but this is never explored in any detail. The differing attitudes of the programs to the Users would seem to hold good dramatic potential, but we never get any decent explanation or discussion of these concepts either. There's a messy subplot about the "TRON" program of the title that seems to have being tossed in as an afterthought, maybe when someone pointed out that a film called "TRON" should probably have the character TRON appear in it. If I hadn't been familiar with the original film, I'm not sure I would have understood what they were trying to do.

The film does get plenty right. The father-son relationship between Kevin and Sam is there, Quorra and CLU are good characters, and Kevin Flynn's whole arc about being an imperfect creator taking responsibility for his creation worked for me. I found more emotional resonance in "Legacy" than I did with the original "TRON," and I would love to see this turned into the franchise Disney has been gunning for. I expect that much of the critical disappointment over "TRON Legacy" comes from the film failing to really be as risky and innovative as the original "TRON." We don't get to see what a modern computing system looks like in "TRON" terms, but rather we get essentially the same universe we knew from the 1982 film with bigger and bolder effects. It revamps concepts from the original film, but doesn't really add much to them. In that sense, "TRON Legacy" fails to live up to its predecessor. But as a souped-up light show with a great soundtrack - which was what "TRON" was always meant to be as a movie - it'll do. It could be better, no doubt, but it'll do.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Delicious is Going Down

The website Delicious, formerly known as, was among the services that Yahoo announced would soon be shuttered, following a round of layoffs and consolidations. The news has sent some of the fandom folks into a panic, because Delicious is one of the premiere social bookmarking sites, that allows users to save and share links to content with other users. Since fanwork is often located in a lot of disparate places on the web, Delicious links have become a default index in many fandoms, and the pontential loss of them is a scary thought. I browse through Delicious-enabled lists of other people's fanfiction and video mashups frequently. The big annual fanfiction event, Yuletide, is coming up soon, and Delicious always provided a quick and easy way to sort through the stories and recommendations. I have my own account with a couple of lists of videos that I don't want to lose. Fortunately, there are other bookmarking sites around that will be happy for the traffic, and I'm waiting to see which service everyone is going to jump to next, so I can start exporting my data.

This kind of social media migration is nothing new, especially if you move in fannish circles. I remember starting out with online fanfiction in the late 90s on Usenet message boards and Yahoo mailing lists. The Usenet groups are all still there, but see little activity anymore and are full of bot-generated advertisements these days. Occasionally I'll get an E-mail out of the blue from a Yahoo group I didn't realize I was still subscribed to. At some point fans starting moving to centralized archives, quitting the newsgroups and personal websites for big sites like and its imitators. These had obvious appeal because readers didn't have to go digging around through endless lists of links and posts on multiple sites to find stories. FFNet is still around and still going strong, an automated repository that has no quality control, so anything that meets minimum content standards can be posted there. Prior to 2002 it was easily the most popular fanfiction site available. Then it reorganized and booted all adult content, prompting a lot of popular authors to jump ship. In the fanart universe you have DeviantArt, which didn't really start gaining steam until around 2005, and has yet to see any major declines. There's no centralized site devoted to fanvidding yet, though Youtube is the popular default.

Social networking pulled a lot of the displaced fanfiction writers to forums and blogging sites like Livejournal, which offered better social interaction, feedback options, and the ability to create private communities of like-minded fans. A good chunk of vidding is also centered on social networking sites, and DeviantArt actually has these functions built into its service. This is still more or less where much of fandom is now, producing work in small, self-regulated groups for like-minded fans. You still see people using the big archive groups or a personal site here or there, but most of the activity is happening on blogs now. Indexing content is more difficult though, which is where bookmarking sites like Delicious come in. I think the system is still a bit of a pain and could stand more centralization and standardization - there's no universally agreed upon format for tagging, which drives me nuts - but it works, and I get more out of it than I ever did out of dumping stories on FFNet. There was a major scare, however, back in 2007 when Livejournal purged several user accounts for adult content. Among other things, this led to the creation of the Dreamwidth social networking site. There wasn't a mass exodus as some feared, but there was a lot of handwringing and drawing up of contingency plans and endless discussion over myriad alternatives in case the worst should happen.

I expect that the migration of larger fandom will happen eventually though, most likely once some newer, shinier service comes along that gets everyone's attention. It's really the same old story every time, though. You back up everything you want to save in the old system, and convert everything over to the new one if you can, in order to catch the eye of a new audience. A few people and their content get left behind or are forgotten. These cycles of fandom were going long before the internet of course, when fanfiction used to be self-published in underground fanzines and traded at conventions along with VHS tapes of the Star Wars Christmas Special. The impending Delicious shutdown is a pretty rare event, since so many fans are still actively using the site, but there's no reason to fear. It'll be a hassle, but everyone just needs to pack up their stuff and move house, like we do every couple of years anyway. Fandom endures and fandom adapts to anything.

There are more important things to worry about. Like finishing this #%&@!! Yuletide story.

New Media v. Old Media on the Red Carpet

One of the most wince-inducing bits of web content you're likely to see this week is an interview conducted by Angry Joe Vargas of the Blistered Thumbs gaming website, affiliated with the shoestring web video production company Channel Awesome. I'm not a gamer myself and tend to stay out of their corner of the internet, but I am a fan of some of the other Channel Awesome folks, and I stumbled across Vargas' coverage of the recent 2010 Spike Video Game Awards (VGAs). Apparently Vargas had been railing against the past VGA shows on his site for being exercises in corporate shilling and doing his beloved video games an injustice. Somehow he scored a press pass to this year's VGAs and was promised an interview with one of the producers, an unfortunate man named Geoff Kneightly. Do you see where this is going?

Vargas winds up at the end of the VGA press line - no surprise considering his skimpy credentials - and Kneightly only shows up briefly to give him two minutes before the show. To say the interview does not go well is an understatement. Vargas makes the amateur mistake of questioning the reputation of the VGAs right off the bat, he's antagonistic, he hasn't done his research, and he ends up losing his temper at Kneightly right there on camera. As for Kneightly, he's clearly acting like a jerk and provoking Vargas' behavior, but considering the circumstances I can't really blame him. Vargas completely misunderstood the nature of the press junket, which exists primarily for journos to collect clips for entertainment fluff pieces. It was a completely inappropriate setting for Angry Joe to be demanding answers from anybody.

The really wince-worthy part of the whole thing is that Vargas never figured out what he was doing wrong. The interview that went up on the Blistered Thumbs site a few days ago is framed by Vargas's frustrated commentary about the whole experience, a litany of tone-deaf grievances that totally lack any self-awareness. This is clearly someone who was out of his depth in the middle of a mainstream media-geared event and had very unrealistic expectations for what was going to transpire. He really thought that he'd be able to be vocally critical of the VGAs at the event itself without repercussions. But as boneheaded as I think he acted, seeing Vargas's idealism crushed into itty bitty pieces was painful to see. The question that keeps going through my head is, how on earth did Angry Joe Vargas get invited to the VGAs in the first place? What idiot press wrangler OKd that decision?

And this is where I get to the point of this post, which is that new media, which is web-based and draws its audience from the young and the anarchic, has been gaining prominence lately, but its values and milieu are so different from the traditional mainstream media, that the meeting of the two frequently leads to these kinds of clashes. In every recent matchup so far, the new media guys have borne the brunt of it. Angry Joe's VGA experience reminds me an awful lot of what happened to Kory Coleman of at this year's San Diego Comic-Con. Coleman, who has been doing entertainment reporting longer and runs a site with a bigger audience, came out of the "TRON Legacy" press junket similarly demoralized after a more extreme denial of access, which he attributed to his status as a new media figure. He also aired his grievances about the experience on his website, in podcast form, but I'm more sympathetic to Coleman. He made it clear that he understood and was trying to play by the traditional media rules, but got screwed over anyway.

Clearly the studios and the game companies want to get to the young, web-savvy audiences that these guys attract, but the success of Spill and Channel Awesome came about in part because they're emphatically non-mainstream. The Spill guys revel in off-color jokes in their film reviews and Channel Awesome content often depends as much on enthusiasm as talent. There's a massive disconnect that happens when the people from these sites come to the press junkets and similar media events, and bump shoulders with the slick, image-obsessed entertainment presenters from E! and "Entertainment Tonight" and their ilk. The new media folks come across as amateurs - and like Vargas sometimes they are amateurs - and the old guard don't know what to do with them. Angry Joe ends his video vowing to do better next time, but I seriously doubt he's ever getting invited back to the VGAs because he doesn't understand the rules of this particular game. You play nice, or you don't play at all.

The internet may have leveled the playing field as to distribution of content, but that doesn't mean that the new generation of media press is going to get any breaks from the old one, no matter how many pagehits they get. And just because a guy has a technically polished opening sequence for his vlogs doesn't mean he's any kind of professional. It's going to take a long time and a lot more stable revenue coming out of web-based content before it really does become the age of new media and guys like Angry Joe have enough clout to run off at the mouth the way he did at the VGAs with impunity. Until then, a word of advice for Channel Awesome. If there is a next time, send Lisa Foiles.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On "The Town"

I wasn't going to write anything about "The Town," which I saw a few months back when it was released in theaters. It's not a bad film, but I saw little to recommend it and not much to really discuss at length. Now, however, it's up for major award contention and may squeeze out some of the smaller, better titles I feel are more deserving of note. So it's time to put down some words.

An epigraph informs us that Charlestown, Boston produces more bank robbers and bank robberies than anywhere else in the world. We're then thrust into the center of one, where the four masked perpetrators get away with the money, after briefly taking a bank manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage. The film follows two of the robbers, Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) and Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), who work under the direction of a local kingpin, Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite). Both men come from rough backgrounds, and Doug's father Stephen (Chris Cooper) is serving time in federal prison for similar crimes. In the aftermath of the robbery, with FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) leading an intense investigation, Doug and Jem have very different ideas of where to go next. Jem wants to take another big job, but Doug is falling in love with Claire, the only possible witness against them. Despite the risk, he begins a relationship with her, which ends up endangering both of them.

Smart people do dumb, risky things in the movies all the time, and we suspend our disbelief and follow along, because the actors are convincing or the storytelling is strong enough to get us over a ridiculous premise. With "The Town," I could not wrap my head around the love story between Ben Affleck's and Rebecca Hall's characters. These are both good actors who turn in decent performances here, but at no point was I convinced that the connection between these two was strong enough for their relationship to play out the way that it does. Whatever affection was apparent between them doesn't feel forced, but it does feel heavily manipulated to the point where I thought it impacted the basic integrity of the film negatively. The entire story turns on the viability of this relationship, and I don't think the filmmakers gave it as much time or attention as it needed. There's an extended cut of "The Town" that runs an extra half hour, and I wonder if that footage fixes some of the story problems.

As is, most of the film is spent following Doug MacRay around Charlestown, excising his personal demons. As an actor, Ben Affleck gets by, but only just. He's not miscast as the lead , but you do get the nagging feeling that someone else probably could have sold it better. In a big supporting role that's gotten lots of attention, Jeremy Renner does a great job with Doug's dangerously unpredictable livewire friend, Jem. I also liked Blake Lively as Jem's troubled sister, in one of her first major film appearances. The only member of the cast I thought really ran into major trouble was Jon Hamm. His FBI agent antagonist is a too broad and too obviously set up as a villain. This is as much the fault of the script as it is the actor, and the same goes for Rebecca Hall as the unremarkable Claire. I sympathized with her, but I had little investment in her character.

"The Town" is a decent crime drama, and it's further proof that Ben Affleck is coming along very well as a director. There are several major action setpieces built around the robberies in the film, which are very kinetic, exciting, and fun to watch. If you edited down the other segments, "The Town" makes for a solid action film, but it's to Affleck's credit that he had bigger ambitions for the material. I don't think he pulled off everything he was striving for in the dramatic department, but he accomplishes plenty. There are some lovely, subtle scenes that he just nails perfectly. I really want to see him step out of this narrow milieu of somber Boston crime films in the future, because I think he's got the potential to follow Eastwood and Scorsese and tackle a much wider variety of projects.

A few good supporting performances aside, however, I don't understand where the critical acclaim is coming from. Give Affleck a couple more years, though, and I think he might turn out something really worthy of our attention.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Favreau Jumps the "Iron Man" Ship; I Rant About Franchises

Amid all the sturm and drang of yesterday's Golden Globes nomination announcements, almost lost in the shuffle was the confirmation that Jon Favreau will not be returning to direct "Iron Man 3." Instead, he'll be over at Disney for "The Magic Kingdom." Some Marvel fanboys are taking it hard, of course, but I think it's perfectly understandable why he made the choice.

I liked "Iron Man 2" better than most, but it was a disappointment on every front, and from the gossip about what was going on with the production, the biggest culprit was that the filmmakers rushed the production film to meet the May 2010 release date. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to be at the helm of a project like that, a massive summer film barreling forward under its own inertia with no way to apply the brakes and no time to do any more than try to hide the picture's fundamental flaws. In my original review back in May, I wished that the filmmakers could have taken another year with the sequel to hammer out some of the story problems. Unfortunately, "Iron Man 2" had to be a 2010 release because it had to be in position to set up "Thor" and "Avengers." I guessed pretty well from the start that this whole "Avengers" plan with the interlocking film universes was going to impact badly on the individual films in the Marvel franchise, and "Iron Man 2" really bore the brunt of it. It's no wonder that Favreau doesn't want to go through that again.

The tightly scheduled, assembly line approach to these big tentpole movies seems so counterproductive, but there's much more that goes into a movie these days than just making the movie. The marketing plans have to be laid out months, and sometimes years in advance. The buzz on "TRON Legacy" was going before the film was even greenlit. And then there are the merchandising tie-ins that have to be coordinated, distribution deals with various media outlets that have to be set up, not to mention the drama that goes on over simply choosing release dates. Prime holiday weekends are staked out by the studios at least two years prior to a film actually reaching theaters. Warner Brothers set the June 17th, 2011 release date for "Green Lantern" back in February of 2009. The movie didn't begin filming until a month later, and a sequel is already being geared up. From the recently released trailer, I'm worried that Warner Brothers is rushing their newest potential franchise. And this is totally idle speculation, but I really hope the stress of the experience wasn't a factor in the "Green Lantern" star's split-up with his wife, that was made public yesterday. And this is a film where there haven't been any reports of major production troubles.

If anything goes wrong, it is nearly impossible to slow down the production of a studio franchise film and unthinkable to start over. Delays can mean disturbing all the contracts and deals that have been put into place around a film, or forcing renegotiations and adjustments, which can be costly. This doesn't mean that it's never done - "Harry Potter" famously pushed back the sixth installment over half a year to the wails and lamentations of its fans, and then split the finale in half - but the pressure to meet these deadlines can be toxic. We've all heard the horror stories of films being shot with unfinished scripts or no scripts at all. Corners get cut and quality is often secondary to expediency. In the worst cases, unnecessary risks may be taken. Read up on what happened to that poor extra on the set of "Transformers 3" if you really want to get your blood boiling. And the worst part is, more often than not all the rushing pays off. "Transformers 2" was nearly unwatchable, but made more money than anything last year except "Avatar." Nobody slows down in the name of quality anymore because the way the current movie distribution system has been set up, quality is often totally unnecessary to rake in box office receipts as long as the right marketing is in place.

On the other hand, this may be changing. The summer of 2010 was a disappointment by all accounts, with major tentpoles crashing left and right. Quality may not have any effect on how well a certain film performs, but it does affect how well their sequels perform. The "Saw" and "Shrek" franchises saw declines over successive, poorly regarded sequels. A big drop in a franchise film's take may often reflect the audience's reaction to the installment that came immediately prior. Many of this year's would-be franchise starters like "Prince of Persia" and "The Last Airbender," positioned on the oh-so-important Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, probably broke even, but sequels would be very risky considering how badly the first films were received. With the studios so dependent on franchises these days, they have to keep up audience goodwill or face the consequences. It'll be interesting to see what happens with "Transformers 3" in a few months, since the previous one has become so universally reviled. And Marvel has given themselves so little wiggle room on their slate, the failure of any of their upcoming movies could upset their whole master plan.

As for Jon Favreau, I wish him well. Disney doesn't seem to be as stricken by sequel-itis as some of the other major studios (yet), and Favreau can be counted on for good kids' pictures like "Elf" and "Zathura." I have my doubts about a Disneyland movie, but they're nothing compared to what I think about Marvel's future prospects.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hail to the "King"!

I had certain expectations going into "The King's Speech," which dramatizes the tumultuous events around the ascension of King George VI to the throne in 1936. I expected the usual pomp and pageantry, a round a solid performances by the impressive cast, lots of lengthy speechmaking, and some nods and winks to the historical record. I got all of these in abundance, but a couple of surprises too. I don't know the last time I saw a British prestige picture that was such a crowd-pleaser. It's often funny, builds to a big, tense, climax, and features the best underdog of the year - King George VI, better known as Bertie to his closest relations.

Colin Firth is the clear frontrunner for every major acting award this year because he injects such humanity into a major historical figure, and the audience can't help but feel for his plight. At the beginning of the film he's second in line to the throne after his older brother David (Guy Pearce), soon to be Edward VIII. However, the film portrays David as an irresponsible, emotionally unstable playboy under the thrall of his American lover, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). With World War II looming on the horizon, Bertie finds himself under increasing pressure to lead. Unfortunately, public speaking has become a necessity in the radio age and Bertie is hampered by a debilitating stammer. With the support and encouragement of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he seeks out doctors and therapists who might cure him, and finally lands on the doorstep of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a transplanted Australian with unconventional methods.

There are two big performances in "The King's Speech." One is Colin Firth's and the other is Geoffrey Rush's, and the two working in concert is sublime. One of Lionel Logue's conditions for commencing treatment is that he and Bertie conduct themselves as equals, which leads first to a contentious therapist-patient relationship, and then to a genuine friendship. Watching them interact is fascinating, and the film is great at delivering the stage-play intimacy of two actors going at each other, but in settings that only cinema could afford them. Firth gets the more impressive part to play, with all the shouting and stammering and emotional fireworks, but Rush keeps finding ways to steal the spotlight and inject humor into the the proceedings, and it's so much fun to watch. Helena Bonham Carter also gets in a few good scenes, turning a small role into an invaluable one. Whenever any two of the three are on the screen together, the film is exceptional.

Whenever they're not, things tend to slow down. With so much of the narrative dependent on the historical context, at times it does feel like the filmmakers are determined to give us a crash course in pre-WWII British history. From some of the complaints I've read about the amount of dramatic license that was taken with Churchill and Edward VIII and even the famous stammer, apparently it's not a very accurate one either. As a non-Brit with very little knowledge of the time period, even I could see some of the seams. However, it was never so distracting as to take away any enjoyment from the stronger parts of the script - the interpersonal relationships, the dialogue from the treatment scenes, and the characterization of the two chief characters. As with "The Social Network," 2010's other big biographical film, I say hang the accuracy, and long live dramatic license.

Tom Hooper's direction is flashy when it needs to be, but is usually so understated that you don't notice the way the camera is moving and how modern and invigorating the style is. It reminded me of another recent period piece, Michael Mann's "Public Enemies," except with a great deal more restraint. It's all tight moving shots and slightly warped lenses for the buildup to the claustrophobic speech scenes, and then when the camera needs to stop and pull back for the big, epic moments, it does. Also, London has never looked so good on film, from the foggy streets to the interiors of Westminster Abbey to the greenery of the surrounding countryside. You can practically feel the cold and the damp seeping through the screen.

"The King's Speech" is very well made, but it's real strength is that it has such an exciting, inspiring story at its core. You root for Bertie to succeed against everything weighing down on him, to overcome a personal fear that everyone can relate to. His victory may not be the kind that wins medals or trophies, but it's no less emotional or satisfying to watch. The last ten minutes of the film are tenser and more thrilling than any sports match or race or game I've ever seen on film.

Secretariat, eat your heart out.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Search for the Mom-Friendly Movie

While writing up the reasons why I was perfectly willing to go and see many of the new holiday season movies I suspect will be very mediocre, I left a big one off the list - the people I'll be seeing these movies with. The big Christmas releases are child-friendly, but more importantly, I can usually find some that are Mom-friendly. My mother loves movies, but she's in her fifties and belongs to a different generation with a different standard for acceptable content. Every time she says "Let's go see a movie," I have to scramble to figure out which ones she's likely to enjoy and which she's going to grimace through.

First and foremost, she isn't big on kids' films. I can get away with the occasional PIXAR spectacular, but she has no interest in "Harry Potter" or anything involving superheroes. Too silly. I know she used to like kids' movies of the Disney generation, until the pop culture gags and scatological humor got overwhelming. On the other extreme, any studio film R-rated for violence or language is out of the picture, because filmmakers in those cases tend to feel the need to really justify their R ratings by piling on the vulgarities and gore. That nixes practically every comedy of the Judd Apatow generation and more and more action films and dramas every year. Also, no horror films or thrillers where the visuals are too dark, like "The Others" or "Pan's Labyrinth." Art house offerings are safer, but not always. I took a serious misstep with "Babel" a few years ago, which had that highly sexually charged segment with Rinko Kikuchi. Mom found it too disturbing.

So what does this leave us with? PG-13 action films are my current standby, as long as the action isn't too silly, like "The A-Team" or too crass, like the "Transformers" movies. The "Bourne" movies are good. "Bond" movies are better, especially since "Casino Royale" did away with some of the glitzy excess that the later Pierce Brosnan films indulged in. Roland Emmerich and Ridley Scott are usually okay; Michael Bay and Tony Scott are not. As you might expect, romantic comedies and melodramas are also pretty safe, though the quality and quantity of both genres has been sliding precipitously over the years. Meryl Streep is a godsend. I also keep an eye out for Diane Lane, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton, Julia Roberts, and the occasional Sandra Bullock film. I really miss Meg Ryan and Goldie Hawn. Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron may garner scoffs from other corners, but I depend on them to come through every year.

It's disheartening to see how many of the Mom-friendly genres have been in decline. Historical films and biopics? Shrinking. Musicals? Still trying to stage a comeback. Mid-range dramas? Only HBO and CBS seem to be interested in financing them these days. Oscar season is usually very helpful in putting prestige pictures in the spotlight, but I'm already mentally ruling out about half of this year's likely nominees. "127 Days"? Too gory. "Black Swan"? Too sexual. "The Fighter"? Vulgarity galore. "The Kids are All Right"? Too sexual. "Blue Valentine"? Too sexual. "Toy Story 3"? For kids. On the safe list - "Inception," "True Grit," "The King's Speech," "Winter's Bone," "The Social Network," and maybe "The Town." Of those, only two are current releases: "True Grit" and "The King's Speech." Sorting through the mainstream releases, I can add "The Tourist" and "TRON" to the pile, and that's about it. "TRON" is iffy though, because Mom doesn't do so great with science fiction, especially when it's this kind of stylized CGI-heavy stuff. Last year she was emphatic that she didn't want to see "Avatar" before anybody even asked.

What about the romantic comedies "How Do You Know" and "Little Fockers"? "Little Fockers" is probably too vulgar and Dad won't sit through a romantic comedy. As difficult as Mom is to find appropriate movies for, Dad's worse. He won't watch anything animated. Doesn't like fantasy or science fiction, hates modern comedies, and grouses about anything too human interest or touchy-feely. Has an even lower tolerance for silliness in action films - no more "James Bond" after "Die Another Day" - and he's a lot pickier about everything else. I remember one year where we were literally going through the movie listings page by page and the only thing he had any interest in was Oliver Stone's "W," which was playing in one theater about three towns over by that time. With him, my best bets are Clint Eastwood, Chinese-language epics, and WWII films. On the other hand, I don't have to worry so much about content. He really, really liked "Babel." He actually went back to see it again with my cousins after the first time.

"True Grit" and "The King's Speech" will probably work for him and Mom both. I hope.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

PIXAR's Strong Suit Isn't the Story

There's something that's been bothering me about an argument I've spotted in the discussions of recent Disney films. Over the weekend, as I was chewing over which winter movies I wanted to see with some friends, "Tangled" and "Tron Legacy" came up. Gossip was, and this is totally hearsay, that both films are visually gorgeous but weak on story. Someone opined that since Disney gained chief creative officer John Lasseter, PIXAR's fabled story team offered their services to several Disney projects, including "Tron." Surely that meant the film was in good hands in the story department. I remember reading a movie blog a few months ago that used similar justification for why we shouldn't write off "Tangled" just yet. Lasseter and PIXAR were on the case, so we could expect them to iron out the story problems that had plagued the notorious "Rapunzel" project for untold years in development hell.

I don't find this argument very convincing. For the last several PIXAR films, story and writing has been their Achilles heel. "Up" had ten great minutes followed by eighty-odd mediocre ones. "WALL-E" totally fell apart in the second half. "Ratatouille" had a messy plot that felt like cobbled-together leftovers. And then there was "Cars," which I'm not alone in liking least of all the PIXAR films. This summer's "Toy Story 3" was an exception, honestly, and there were still moments like the one where Andy introduces the toys to Bonnie that fell pretty flat. PIXAR's execution has always been flawless, which covers a lot of the bumps and weak spots, but on the whole I've never all that impressed with their stories as just plain stories. I think PIXAR's biggest strength is their ability to come up with memorable characters and their visual storytelling abilities are far beyond what any of the other CGI animation studios have achieved. That's why I enjoyed most of the films I listed.

The myth of PIXAR's storytelling prowess is the result of a few different forces. The most obvious of course is that PIXAR actually emphasizes their care and attention to story when talking about their filmmaking process and uses it as a selling point. They spotlight their story teams and story artists where the other studios don't. The height of this approach was the first trailer for "WALL-E," which included a dramatization of an early PIXAR story meeting that generated the ideas for most of their earlier films. It's very shrewd brand boosting, and hammers home the message that PIXAR sets a higher standard to meet and they pay attention to their fundamentals. And all cynicism aside, PIXAR deserves plenty of kudos for staking their reputation on the quality of their films, and giving credit to artists that make vital contributions.

Another factor is the other major animation studios like Dreamworks/PDI and Blue Sky, that have churned out some downright terrible animated films in the past. Next to the minimal, clothesline plots found in the "Madagascar" and "Ice Age" films, "Cars" plays like Moliere. At least PIXAR was coming up with original, developed stories instead of relying on pop-culture references, scatological humor, and celebrity voices. At least they were making an effort, instead of churning out ill-considered "Shrek" sequels, one after another. However, lately it feels like the balance is shifting. Dreamworks is still putting out an awful lot of dreck, but their execution keeps getting better. "Kung Fu Panda" had a simple plot, but it was told very, very well. Ditto "How to Train Your Dragon." PIXAR, meanwhile, has an awful lot of sequels on its slate that are not inspiring my confidence.

Ironically the last PIXAR film I really enjoyed for its story before "Toy Story 3" was "The Incredibles," though director Brad Bird proved terribly inept at talking about the process by which he developed the film and its concepts - his director's commentary is a woeful litany of animator shout-outs, occasionally punctuated by him pointing out instances where they juxtaposed "the fantastic and the mundane," a phrase he awkwardly repeats about a dozen times. Bird is off making a "Mission: Impossible" film with Tom Cruise, but I hope he comes back to PIXAR soon. I thought his presence at the studio really shook the place up in a good way, and his influence led to riskier projects being put in the pipeline. Right now I'm rooting for "Brave," formerly known as "The Bear and the Bow," to deliver on PIXAR's promised commitment to good, solid, well-developed stories.

As for "Tron" and "Tangled," both films remain on my to-see list. But I'm going for the shiny visuals and Disney nostalgia. I'm not expecting much as far as their stories. I hope they surprise me though. I really do.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Probably Not Great, But I'm Still Going to See It

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" only received so-so reviews, "The Tourist" with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp is getting trashed. "TRON Legacy" is being madly hyped with everything Disney's got, but the word from people who've seen the film is that it's in the same vein as the first "TRON" - very pretty, but very shallow. Nonetheless I'm probably going to end up seeing all of these films this year, even as I try to get in viewings of "True Grit" and all the other big Oscar contenders coming out at Christmas. Not out of social obligation, mind you, but because I want to.

I take real pride in being a pretentious movie fan. I had a great epiphany a couple of years ago, while trying desperately to find something to watch while channel-surfing one weekend afternoon, that there were so many wonderful alternative, artsy, old, foreign, and off-the-beaten-path films that I had never seen. There was really no reason why I ever had to sit through another inane piece of brain-deadening pabulum like "The Mummy" or "The Break-Up" on a Sunday afternoon ever again. I could go watch Fellini and Kurosawa and Kubrick instead. I could figure out what all this fuss over David Lynch and David Cronenberg were about. I didn't have to limit myself to films that had come out in the last ten years, or that had mainstream theater distribution, or that everybody else had seen and liked. I would reject the tastes of the masses! I would stand for quality! I would become pretentious!

Well, that didn't last long. Sometimes movies are great art, and sometimes you just want to see explosions on a big screen for two hours and your favorite actor saying zippy one-liners. There is nothing wrong with liking lousy movies, and after trying to wear the big, pretentious cineaste shoes exclusively for a while, soon I got tired of it and went back to the multiplex - in moderation. I've gained the perspective and the context to be perfectly aware of when I am watching an exercise in cinema mediocrity, but most of the time I don't care. Holding all films to the same standard is totally counterproductive when I watch different films for different reasons. And I'm looking forward to the following holiday films for reasons that really have nothing to do with whether they're actually any good.

First there's "The Tourist," which I'm seeing because of Johnny Depp. I'm a massive Johnny Depp fan and I've seen nearly everything he's ever been in, including some really terrible movies. Several of them I enjoyed just because Depp was in them, doing what he does best. Other times I wasn't so lucky, but I've never regretted seeing any Johnny Depp film. Sometimes you love your favorite star most when he's at his absolute worst. The presence of Angelina Jolie and bunch of other good actors, with an interesting European director at the helm, are also pluses. If "The Tourist" does turn out to be terrible, which there's every indication that it will be, I'll still have gotten to see Depp and Jolie on the same screen playing against each other, and Rufus Sewell being a baddie.

Then there's "Voyage of the Dawn Treader," based on my favorite of the "Narnia" books. I adore the book so much, I have to see how they're going to translate its fantasy concepts to screen with a proper budget at their disposal. The movie is going to be preachy, watered-down kiddie fodder and I don't care. It will have the Dufflepods and the Silver Sea and Reepicheep, who I enjoyed in the "Prince Caspian" film. And I want them to make "The Silver Chair" and "The Magician's Nephew," so there's definitely a sense of franchise solidarity at work here too. I don't think that the current series of films holds a candle to the old BBC/Wonderworks miniseries that PBS used to show back in the 80s and 90s, but I can see the potential with the films for better. And the miniseries stopped at "The Silver Chair."

And finally there's "TRON." Sometimes the hype will totally turn me off from a big movie, like it did with "Avatar" last year. Not this time. I may not have a personal stake in "TRON" as a franchise, but I'm curious to see how the whole revival attempt is going to play out from a meta point of view. How will the fans of the 1982 original react? Will Disney be able to attract the mainstream audience? If ths goes well, will we start seeing other 80s cult properties start coming back too? There are a couple that I'd love to see resurrected. But if it all goes wrong, well, the fallout will also be glorious too. Also, I was part of the free foley exercise in Hall H at Comic Con, so this is the closest I've ever gotten to actually participating in the production of a major motion picture. I'd like to see how that worked out.

In short, I figured out that the quality of a movie turns out to have no correlation whatsoever to whether I'll enjoy it in many cases. So I'll be pretentious again in January, but for the holidays, hail to the pabulum of the masses!

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Law & Order" is Making Me Cringe

The "Law & Order" franchise has been one of the stand-bys of my television watching schedule for a very long time. I've mostly stuck to the "Special Victims Unit" spinoff, though I've seen plenty of the other variants and I've been meaning to check out the UK adaptation too. Mistakes and exaggerations abound, which I've mostly been able to suspend my disbelief about, because they're necessary for dramatic effect. Trials that would take months or years are compressed into five-minute scenes, the detectives are only ever seen working on one case at a time, suspects are always hammy overactors, and somehow the department has the budget for all kinds of cutting edge technology for medical tests and forensics - which take no time at all to process. There's also the common practice of ripping story elements from the headlines and cobbling together single episodes out of the most salacious details of maybe half a dozen separate cases from all over the country.

On Wednesday's episode of "Law & Order: SVU" I think they went a little too far on all counts. I've always seen complaints about the way "Law & Order" depicts sex crimes, especially the ones involving children. Too exploitative and explicit, was the common charge, and I could see their point. There were some episodes in the past that did make me uncomfortable, because the made-up cases often lingered on the distress of the victims or the sadism of the perpetrators for far longer than was necessary or tasteful. The series started out with more realistic, grittier portrayals that I liked better than the slicker, more polished stories you see now. It's the same with many other crime shows, and "Law & Order" hasn't been the worst of them by far. Except after Wednesday, I'm not so sure anymore.

The episode in question started out with a little girl who had been horribly abused and neglected, found bleeding and near starvation in a convenience store. Then add parents who were Internet addicts, one of whom coincidentally suffered from Capgras delusion, the mistaken belief that their nearest and dearest had been replaced with pod people substitutes. This element was introduced just long enough to set up a really horrific interrogation scene where the afflicted mother rejects her traumatized daughter. From there, the story immediately switched tracks once it turned out the little girl was raped by an unknown assailant. Enter an Internet vigilante group harassing anyone in the neighborhood identified as a sexual offender, led by a character from a previous episode with a fixation on pedophiles. Also in the mix were two briefly introduced men on the offenders' list with sympathetic circumstances, portrayed as unfairly persecuted for past or imagined crimes. There was also a suicide scene, an illegal surveillance scheme, courtroom histrionics, and a little girl soiling herself in fright.

What the hell? This was one of the worst, most gratuitous episodes of "SVU" I've ever seen, that crossed the line into downright sleazy territory several times. I expect a certain amount of distasteful content on this show, but you had more than enough to deal with in the first ten minutes to fill the entire episode. Several interesting characters like the mentally challenged man and his mother are introduced for only a scene or two, and then disappear from the narrative completely. There's hardly a word to resolve what happened to the original young victim. This was a rotten script with a shock ending that anyone could see coming from a mile away, crammed so full of twists and turns and revelations that it never dealt with a single one of them competently, with any kind of insight or illumination. It was all just fodder for cheap thrills, and it makes Manhattan look like some kind of secret pedophile hotspot.

I know it's the modus operandi of the "Law & Order" series to start with one crime and often end somewhere completely different, but at least the stories used to be well-paced and gave you some breathing room between one development and the next. Somewhere along the line the episodes have just turned into densely packed catalogs of horrors, each more unlikely than the last. Think too hard about the actions of the major villain of the episode, and they make no sense. The evil gamer parents were ridiculous caricatures, stock nefarious types who had been pulled out of some Dickens novel and introduced to an X-Box. This isn't the first time I've felt like this show is written by people who do little to no research into the some of the subcultures they like to heap scorn upon. And enough already with traumatizing the adorable little girls! Once an episode should be more than sufficient!

Oh, "Law & Order." You're supposed to be the classy crime drama. You're supposed to have higher standards than "CSI" and "Without a Trace" and their ilk. It pains me to see you sink to this level. It really does.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Now We Can Talk About Awards Season

A few months ago I bemoaned the proliferation of the early awards prognosticators who were already mapping out potential Oscar contenders during the last round of film festival premieres. Now, a week into December, nearly all the big prestige pictures have hit theaters or been screened for critics. The National Board of Review has put out a Top Eleven list of films that has been hotly debated. The Gotham Awards for independent movies have been announced. Some of the smaller awards like the Annies and the Satellites have rolled out their nominee rosters. Critics' circles are starting to put out their picks too.

So I want to take a minute to look at the frontrunners in the Best Picture race. The easiest way to do that it to consider the NBR list, which is usually a good indicator of films that are in serious contention for recognition, though there are always a few oddball picks in there. Here's the list for 2010:

Another Year
The Fighter
The King’s Speech
Shutter Island
The Social Network
The Town
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone

Also, you can add the films that generated more buzz for being left off the list:

127 Hours
Black Swan
Blue Valentine
The Kids are All Right

There's still the chance that we'll get a dark horse in there like "Four Lions," "Somewhere," "Made in Dagenham," "Never Let Me Go," "The Way Back," or even "TRON," but their prospects are looking less and less likely as long as the buzz isn't there. Former hopefuls like Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls" and Edward Zwick's "Love and Other Drugs" have been trashed by the critics. Some like "Fair Game," "Conviction" and "Secretariat" might still squeak out an acting nod or two, but they've been roundly ignored for the most part. We can rule them out. Again, this is why you don't make these predictions in September!

So far I've seen six of the contenders, mostly the same major releases that most people have at this point: Inception, Shutter Island, The Social Network, The Town, Toy Story 3, and Winter's Bone. With that in mind, let's whittle this list down a little. "Hereafter," the latest Clint Eastwood film, only got middling reviews and looks like a legacy pick more than anything else. So much incredulity greeted its inclusion on the NBR list, I doubt any other awards organization will make the same choice. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" was a good film that I enjoyed, but it was such a departure form the material Scorsese is usually associated with, that it threw some critics for a loop and it also comes cross as something of a legacy pick. I don't think it has the support to crack the top ten at the Oscars this year.

And here are the rest of your frontrunners in order of likelihood of being nominated:

- "The Social Network" is the current frontrunner, thanks to nabbing the NBR's "Best Picture" prize. For all its newfangled subject matter, it's an old, familiar story of power and fame and betrayal. Yet it's also the film that feels the most timely and emblematic of 2010. With a cast of so many young up-and-comers, it feels like Young Hollywood's big debut. And they're exactly who the Oscars have been looking to in order to appeal to a wider audience, going so far as to turn hosting duties over to Anne Hathaway and James Franco this year.

- "The King's Speech," is close on its heels. It features Academy favorite Colin Firth, who can expect a Best Actor nod, and the kind of sweeping dramatic and historical elements that appeal to the older, more traditional crowd of Oscar voters. Some have characterized this year's race as a battle of the older and younger generations, but considering that all the rest of the potential nominees are all over the board this is wishful thinking. But if that's the narrative that the media is going with, I know who I'm rooting for on principle.

- "Toy Story 3" doesn't have a chance of actually winning a Best Picture Oscar, but it is almost universally loved, it was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing summer, and it's a rare third film in a trilogy that actually lived up to the first and second. The Oscars have a habit of giving awards to filmmakers for their consistent past work, like the borderline embarrassing "Lord of the Rings" sweep in 2004. No one in Hollywood has been more consistent than PIXAR. Also, their marketers are actively campaigning for a win this year, because what have they got to lose?

- "Inception" will be another longshot for a win, but it'll almost certainly grab a nomination. Fanboy rage over the Academy's failure to recognize "The Dark Knight" helped fuel the decision to expand the number of slots for Best Picture nominees from five to ten. This will be the Academy's chance to make it up to Christopher Nolan. It also helps that he pulled off the rare feat of getting a totally original project made, and turning it into one of the biggest blockbuster films of the year. I thought only James Cameron had the power to do that.

- "True Grit" was on every prognosticator's list before we saw a frame of completed film because the Coen brothers are just that good. Early reviews have been promising, and I have it on good word from a friend of a friend who was at a screening on Tuesday that it lives up to expectations. I am totally biased on this one because I've seen every single Coens' film and love these guys to pieces. But in my defense, just about everybody else with any kind of love for American cinema does too. Who else could get away with remaking "True Grit"?

- "127 Hours" and "Black Swan" have been racking up awards and buzz, so I'm going to trust the critics here even though I haven't seen either film yet. We've got two exciting directors, a pair of solid young actors, and material with great potential to cross over to general audiences. Psycho ballerinas? Extreme desert survival? YES! Darren Aronofsky is overdue for some Academy recognition, especially after the snubs for "The Wrestler." Danny Boyle won last year, but consistency is paramount. And his leading man is hosting, which should help nudge the voters.

- "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter’s Bone" are the big indie contenders this year. "Winter's Bone" just took top honors at the Gotham Awards, and its appearance on the NBR list is a very good sign that it hasn't been forgotten since its summer release. "Kids" was a big contender earlier in the year, but it might get lost in the shuffle with so many other contenders rolling out their campaigns. Its stars, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, will probably score nominations in the acting categories, but it's chances are significantly lower as to getting a Best Picture nod.

- "The Town" was pretty disappointing, honestly. Jeremy Renner had a great supporting role, but the story was so contrived, and Ben Affleck totally wasted Jon Hamm. It's well-directed and well-acted and I understand why it got all the good notices it did. However, "The Town" isn't anything special, and if it does get a nomination it'll be for competency rather than excellence.

- "The Fighter" picked up an early win for Christian Bale as a supporting actor, and so far the critical response has been good. But frankly, it had a lousy trailer and it's going to draw inevitable comparisons to "The Wrestler." On the other hand, it's a feel-good sports movie about a local hero who makes it big, and everybody loves a winner.

- "Blue Valentine" has been largely off the radar because of its difficult subject matter. However, all the fuss over its recent ratings fight with the MPAA has been a magnet for attention, which means that people are actually seeing the film, and that might be what makes all the difference. Also, "Blue Valentine" has Harvey Weinstein on its side, and he's already proven he's willing to go to bat for it.

- "Another Year" is a film I've heard very little about, which means that it's not generating much buzz. Aimed at an older crowd and directed by the dependable Mike Leigh, this one is going to slip through the cracks unless it steps up its campaign quickly. Somber domestic dramas may have been Oscar mainstays in the past, but these days they're a dying breed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I Like More Than Love "Phillip Morris"

I debated with myself as to whether I ought to wait to rewatch "I Love You Phillip Morris" before writing this review, since I saw it so much earlier in the year. But then, I wouldn't be writing a review at all if the movie hadn't stuck with me for this long, and I do have some thoughts about it that have been rattling around in my brain since February. First and foremost among them is that this is a very strange movie.

Stephen Jay Russell (Jim Carrey) starts out as a police officer living a life of domestic bliss with his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann) and a cute kid. Then one day, there's a terrible accident and Steve has a life-changing epiphany. He's gay. He's not only gay, but flaming gay and soon finds his way to South Beach, living it up and working as a con man to support his new lifestyle. Then he ends up in prison, where he meets the love of his life. No, the title is not a euphemism for cigarette addiction. Steve falls passionately in love with his cellmate, one Phillip Morris (Ewan MacGregor), and when threatened with their imminent separation Steve decides to take matters into his own hands. And the story really starts getting crazy.

I've never seen a film so deliriously manic and earnestly sentimental at the same time. The relationship at the center of the film seems to verge on parody at times because the camp level is cranked up so high, especially with Ewan MacGregor using the same wholesome Southern drawl that he had in "Down With Love," and Jim Carrey piling on the sight gags. Yet somehow, the pitch black comedy and fluffy romance do work together. This is a movie that could have been so terrible so easily, but Carrey commits everything he's got to the role of a con-man in love with very poor impulse control, and boy does it pay off for him. I think this is his most memorable performance in years, and certain among his best comedic ones.

I was never a big fan of the early Jim Carrey, who made "Ace Ventura," built his fame on funny faces, and fueled the rise of modern idiot cinema. I preferred his more sincere everyman roles in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "The Truman Show." "I Love You Phillip Morris" is the best of both. We get plenty of slapstick and broad humor, but at the same time you do buy Carrey as being genuinely in love, and being driven by that love to go to all of these wild extremes. There were a few moments where I wish the directors, John Requa and Glenn Ficara, would have slowed down down a little more often to let the romantic side of the story balance out the comedy.

As it is, the film feels like a roller-coaster in just about every sense - narratively, tonally, visually. Plot twists fly fast and furious. Hysterical moments lead into sentimental ones and serious scenes will have laughs lobbed into their midst. While Steve and Phillip are cozying up in their cell together, the prison guards are violently clashing with the inmate next door. Steve's narration of his increasingly ridiculous crimes keeps emphasizing his devotion to Phillip, which gives his actions a solid emotional context. Though the film insists that it's based on a true story, some of the antics that Steve gets up to are really tough to swallow. But eventually the audience becomes like Steve's long-suffering wife, who simply takes it all in stride.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" was stuck in distribution limbo for ages, in part because of its frank treatment of gay relationships and a few simulated sex scenes that might give more the conservative members of the audience heart palpitations. These scenes aren't gratuitous, but there's no effort to hide what's going on or to sugarcoat the homosexuality, the way "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" did. While I hope we can assume that anyone going to see a gay prison romance movie in the first place would have some idea of what to expect, for those remaining Jim Carrey fans hoping for a return to the "Dumb and Dumber" era, it may be wise to skip this one.

For a certain crowd, however, "Phillip Morris" is a lot of fun. It's chaotic and weird and sometimes teeters on the edge of bad taste, but it's entertaining throughout. I came out of my screening with very mixed emotions, though, because for all the film's flights of fancy, reality catches up with Stephen Jay Russell in the end. I appreciate that the filmmakers didn't pull their punches, but ultimately it feels like they sold the romantic side of the story short. Though the laughs were great, I was invested in Steve and Phillip's relationship by the end, and I was looking for a resolution I didn't get. Those two really do make a cute couple.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wait, Did I See That Movie?

One of the dilemmas of being a pretentious movie geek who also likes to catalogue and quantify her hobby is the little matter of deciding whether or not I actually watched a movie or not. This is not a question that comes up all that often, but when it does, it always gives me pause. I spent a good portion of a tedious bus ride trying to decide whether or not I had watched "The Fugitive," the 1993 Harrison Ford action movie. I knew I had seen the beginning, where Sela Ward gets murdered. I knew I had seen the ending, where Julianne Moore shows up as a doctor. I knew I had seen the iconic scene where Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones have their confrontation on top of a dam, but maybe that was only because that was the clip that was played over and over by every award show, news report, and retrospective that ever referenced the movie. At any rate, I'm not sure I've seen "The Fugitive" start to finish in a single setting, or even all of it cobbled together from disparate bits.

Can I say I've seen a film if I don't remember much of it? I know I saw the Christian Slater romance "Bed of Roses" in a movie theater in 1996 but I have no idea how it ended and frequently get it confused with a 1993 Christian Slater romance, "Untamed Heart." With "Untamed Heart," I didn't finish the movie and may or may not have watched the ending separately later. I know I've seen half of the long version of David Lynch's "Dune," because it was split up into two parts for syndicated broadcast, but I can't remember anything that happened past the first twenty minutes anyway. And there are at least a dozen films I watched as a kid that I don't know the titles of and have pretty warped memories of. I remember being seriously spooked by what I thought was a horror movie about a girl with a magic compact. Years and years later, I figured out that it was an episode of "Friday the 13th, the Series." I even tracked down the episode, and it turned to be as cheesy and silly as you might expect.

I'll also occasionally sit through movies where my attention wanders or my interest fades, and I lose track of what's going on onscreen. This happens with older films sometimes, especially crime and noir films where the plots can get byzantine and the visuals look similar. I know I saw "Out of the Past" and "The Killers" (not "Killers"!) during the summer, but if you gave me descriptions of the stories without referencing the actors, I couldn't tell you which was which. Of course, there are also the tedious, terrible films that I end up seeing in social situations where my brain happily turns off to save itself. Sometimes selective amnesia takes hold. I started keeping records of the films I watched back in 2004, and sometimes going back through them I'll completely fail to recognize the titles listed, and have to Wiki or Google additional information in order to jog my memory. And I'm still not entirely convinced I saw "Dude, Where's My Car?" even though my spreadsheet says I did.

These issues are all symptoms, of course, of watching too many movies. I average three or four hundred a year, and my tragic flaw is that I'm a completist. I don't give up on films until I get to the bitter end, if only to be able to gather the ammunition to better denounce or dismiss them later. I've never walked out of a film and I doubt I ever will. This has resulted in a lot of hazy cinema memories and a lot of hasty rewatching when I realize I actually need to know what I'm writing or talking about. On the other hand, this is usually only a problem with mediocre films. I always remember the ones I enjoyed, and it's a good sign at the end of the year when I'm measuring movies up against each other, if I remember certain ones better than others. And as for the films I saw piecemeal, or only parts of, I figured out a solution.

Did I see "The Fugitive"? I remember I liked the film, that Harrison Ford was great in it and Tommy Lee Jones was better. I remember it was a solid, exciting action film, but I don't see how it deserved all those Oscar nominations. I remember enough about "The Fugitive" to be able to form an opinion about it. So yes, I did see that movie.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Grown up "Harry Potter" for Grown-Up Fans

After viewing the latest "Happy Potter" film, I had the strong urge to warn off any parents of young children who had not yet succumbed to the hype to avoid the film until their tots had gotten a little older and hardier. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I," is light years away in content, tone, and sensibility than the earlier installments of the series. If you remember, the first two Chris Columbus directed "Potter" movies were aimed squarely at children and often criticized for being too glitzy and pandering. No such complaints can be applied to "Deathly Hallows." This is a film made for the same audience, but which assumes that audience has grown up, and is ready for the dark and unpleasant side of the "Harry Potter" universe.

"Deathly Hallows" also assumes that the viewers have read the books or are at least familiar with the earlier "Harry Potter" films. It wastes no time explaining concepts like apparating, the Ministry of Magic, muggles, or Death Eaters. Introductions to new characters are brief, and the established ones are too preoccupied to delivery more than the most absolutely necessary exposition. I admit I had trouble following along at some points, and I want to see the film again to sort out a few plot points. The most important developments, however, are clearly laid out. Teenage Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), and his friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are on the run from the forces of the evil wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), who returned at the end of the last film to take over both the human and wizardly worlds. Initially Harry is taken to safehouse, but he and his young friends slip away in order to look for the horcruxes, magical items that contain pieces of Voldemort's soul and are the key to his defeat.

Like all the previous "Harry Potter" films directed by David Yates, who has been with the series since the fifth film, the cinematography is gorgeous. The protagonists spend a lot of the film camping in the woods. Yates does what he can to compensate for the slower pace of these segments by putting the characters in a succession of striking natural locations. The story takes place during the winter months, and the frozen landscapes impart a cold, stark atmosphere that's different from the murky darkness of the third and fifth films, or the washed-out gloom of the sixth. This is the "Harry Potter" film that feels closest to reality, though every frame seems to sport some evidence of magic at work. Notably, this is the only film that doesn't feature the Hogwarts school with its towering fairy-tale castle, or any scenes of Quidditch, or any of the other school-related elements associated with the other Potter films. There's not a striped scarf in sight. Instead, it feels like the kids have been thrust into the real world at last, a dangerous, unfriendly world where everything they've learned must be put to use and the stakes have become very high.

In "Deathly Hallows" people get hurt left and right, and a few beloved characters die, as one might expect in the latest installment of a series that has gotten progressively darker over the last six films. However, those unfamiliar with the books might be surprised as to how far the creators push the material. Voldemort and his underlings have seized control of the wizard government, and there are obvious parallels to the Third Reich as they begin to subjugate and purge the undesirables in the population. We get glimpses of interrogations, kangaroo courts, an execution, and even a brief torture scene. There's nothing that threatens the film's PG-13 rating, and some good laughs are peppered throughout, but there's enough sobering content that it's hard to call "Deathly Hallows" a kids' movie with a straight face. The sequences with Harry, Hermione, and Ron in the woods are slow and likely to be too plodding for some, but they're also indicative of the series' newfound maturity. This is the first time we've seen the three of them with the cinematic space to seriously hash out some of their long-simmering interpersonal issues with each other, and the series benefits from it.

Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint shoulder the weight of the film without batting an eye. They've proven so dependable over the last few films, it's hard not to take their work for granted. Ditto the adult cast, full of British superstars who gamely show up for a scene here or a line there, sometimes with only the barest acknowledgment. By my count Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter has the briefest cameo - she only appears on a moving book cover and in a newspaper clipping. There are a few new faces, the most prominent of which is Rhys Ifans as Luna's father, Xenophilius Lovegood. He gets to act paranoid and chew scenery, which he does very enjoyably. David O'Hara, Sophie Thompson, and Steffan Rhodri also deserve recognition for pulling off a tricky scene involving our heroes infiltrating the Ministry by borrowing the appearances of some low-level minions.

"Deathly Hallows" is not a film for neophytes, but for the full informed "Potter" fan, it's a satisfying penultimate chapter to the "Harry Potter" saga. Contrary to the grumblings of other critics, "Part 1" felt like a whole film for me, albeit a sadder, more deliberative one than the others. It's mostly buildup, and all the big climactic happy ending business will come with "Part 2." However, on its own it's undeniably the most grown-up, challenging, and interesting installment thus far, and easily ranks among the top three "Potter" films along with "Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Order of the Phoenix."

Sunday, December 5, 2010

My Holiday Wishlist

This year for Christmas, I want:

For MGM's bankruptcy and reorganization to go smoothly, so we can finally get the productions of "The Hobbit" and the next "James Bond" films going. Is it too late to get Sam Mendes back for "Bond"? Also, so we can finally see the release of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's horror film "Cabin in the Woods," which has been delayed since February. I'm still ambivalent about the unfinished "Red Dawn" remake - it's never a good idea to tick off the Chinese. I will admit that MGM's tussels with Carl Icahn have been a lot of fun to follow in the press, but enough is enough. Give the lawyers and accountants their pound of flesh and get back to work.

For more older films available to rent on Netflix. Right now the company is turning its attention to acquiring currently airing primetime shows for its streaming service to cut into Hulu's business. I'd prefer that they pay more attention to building up their DVD film library, which makes far fewer of the old foreign and prestige titles available for rental than Blockbuster Online does. It's not a good sign when my local library system has more Criterions than they do. However, kudos for the getting the new cut of "Metropolis" into the Instant Watch section so quickly.

And on that note, for more restorations and rescues of obscurities and out-of-print films like King Vidor's "The Crowd" and Penelope Spheeris' "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years." Both were made available on VHS long ago, but have yet to hit DVD or any legit digital distribution that I can find. This means accessibility is disappearing fast for them, and too many other films. There are a few companies like TCM, Criterion, and Kino doing what they can, but they can use all the help they can get.

For fewer reboots, remakes, and sequels. For more adaptations instead. It's perfectly fine to get your inspiration from older films and television shows. Many of the great directors riffed on each others' work. However, the recent proliferation of 80s reboots and tentpole sequels is starting to wear on me. It never fails to impress how much wonderful material is out there in books and plays and suchlike sources that have the potential to be great movies. And whatever happened to the "based on a true story" tagline?

For Comcast to not become the Evil Galactic Empire. Between the recent Net Neutrality spat and my see-sawing cable bill, I am this close to cutting the cord again. I know that Comcast is in an awkward spot as a giant media conglomerate, straddling old and new media and that merger with NBC still no closer to going through, but they seem to be a on the wrong side of every battle lately.

For Michael Bay to find true love. Hear me out. Once Michael Bay finds true love, this would lead to marriage, a couple of kids, and possibly, finally, the necessary maturity and new parent worldview to make a "Transformers" movie that is actually age-appropriate for its target audience of little boys. You know, the ones who actually play with the Transformers toys that Hasbro is using the movies to shill?

For a new film review show to fill the gap left by "At the Movies." I've been making do with Fimspotting and Spill podcasts, but it's just not the same. I know that Roger Ebert has something in the works, and there are others on the internet gamely trying to find a new model for a review show. I didn't think there was anything wrong with the old model, but best of luck to anyone making the effort.

For "Winnie the Pooh" to do well enough in theaters that Disney will keep making traditionally animated films. This may be the last chance before American studios totally surrender on the 2D front to the French and the Japanese. As for CGI features, they've had a record year at the box office. Here's to their continued success in the future, but I also hope we'll see the big studios start taking more risks.

For all the new films and television shows coming out in this winter and next year to exceed my expectations, and for those that didn't to improve.

For "The Big Bang Theory" and "Community" to be in different timeslots so I can watch them both sitcoms live without guilt.

For the news pundits to take a minute, breathe, and realize that things aren't quite as bad as they make out.

For more arthouse theaters and more arthouse theater patrons.

For a really kickass "Doctor Who" Christmas special.

And a flatscreen TV.

Happy holidays!


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Out in the Cold of "Winter's Bone"

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a rare kind of teenage girl in today's cinemascape. She shoulders the responsibility of her impoverished household in the absence of her father, which includes looking after two much younger siblings and a mother who has been incapacitated by some unidentified mental ailment. She doesn't appear to go to school, though it's hinted that she did in the past, or participate in any of the usual social activities associated with adolescence. Instead, we watch her cook, clean, hunt, and make repairs to the family's dilapidated house in the Ozarks wilderness, often instructing her younger siblings on how to do the same. The only other girl her age that she regularly interacts with is already a married woman.

However, this is only the beginning of Ree's problems. She learns through the local sheriff, Baskin (Garrett Dillahunt), that her missing father, Jessup, was arrested for cooking drugs, put up the family home and property as bail, and disappeared. Unless Jessup can be found to stand trial in a week, the police will seize their home and evict the Dollys. The family is barely getting by as it is, dependent on handouts and whatever they can scrounge from the woods. Losing the house will mean they'll have to split up. Ree sets out to find Jessup to ensure that doesn't happen, but when she starts asking too many questions of the wrong people, it threatens to bring even more trouble down on her head.

"Winter's Bone" is a neo-noir, and the bulk of the film is taken up by Ree's encounters with various characters who might have the information she needs. Some are sympathetic and some are hostile, but it's diffcult to tell which are which. Jessup Dolly and just about everyone else in Ree's rural community are part of a tight-lipped extended family, engaged in illicit activities that are alluded to but never revealed. The longer Ree persists in looking for answers, the more dangerous the situation becomes for her. Director Debra Granik nicely builds the suspense, slowly giving us clues as to what happened to Jessup, but refrains from answering all the questions or explaining everything we see. The film is about Ree dealing with the consequences of her father's actions, and the whys and hows of his ultimate fate aren't important.

The portrayal of the Ozark community is what really sells the picture. Granik presents characters who undeniably fit a certain type - poor, rural, insular, sporting strong regional accents, and a few odd banjos do make appearances - but they are never caricatures. There's a starkness about them that mirrors the harshly beautiful frozen landscape. Both are cold and oppressive, and Ree has to confront both of them continuously during her search. Among the supporting cast, there are some very strong performances. John Hawkes should stir up plenty of year-end award speculation for playing Jessup's brother, Teardrop, a weathered man with a mean, unpredictable temper. Another is Dale Dickey as Merab, the intimidating wife and mouthpiece of the unseen head of the community, who Ree tries to appeal to for help.

However, the real star here is Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. She shines as an admirable young heroine whose toughness, intelligence, and considerable strength of will are day-to-day necessities for her survival. When the crisis threatens the family's stability, it's clearly only the latest in a series of struggles, and seeing Ree keep pushing herself harder to endure is a riveting watch. These roles are hard to come by, and I hope Lawrence gets to tackle something this challenging again. I can't think of another film noir with a girl in the lead, and it's interesting to see how the community dynamics are affected by Ree's status as a teenage girl rather than a grown man. Granik could have made a great film with Jessup or Teardrop or the Sheriff as the protagonist, but by having someone like Ree as the lead, we get to see a different facet of this universe than we might have otherwise.

There are a few moments in "Winter's Bone" that rang a little false for me, such as one of Ree's later encounters with Sheriff Baskin where the dialogue is much too pat. I also found some of the musical segments gratuitous, though they're thankfully brief. And I can't help thinking of ways in which the narrative could have been tighter and more impactful, but that would have sacrificed the atmosphere and mood that make "Winter's Bone" so distinctive. Other than that, it's hard to argue with the film's boosters.

To sum up, it looks like we've got a contender here, folks.

Friday, December 3, 2010

My Favorite Andrei Tarkovsky Film

I've finished watching all of great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's films but one, the short documentary "Voyage in Time." Essentially, I'm done with his filmmography, and I view this as a nice little movie geek milestone, so I wanted to put down a few thoughts. As with most of the great directors, I had no idea what to expect when I first acquainted myself with his work. I knew Tarkovsky's films had a reputation for being challenging, difficult to sit through, full of obtuse symbolism and light on plot. Aside from that, I was a blank slate.

I think the joy of discovery plays a large part in why the first Tarkovsky film I saw is still my favorite. This was "Stalker," the 1979 science-fiction feature that follows the journey of three men, the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn), and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) to a place in the wilderness known as the Zone. Nobody ever explains what the Zone is, exactly, but the authorities have forbidden anyone to go there because of dangerous phenomena that occur within the area. However, in the Zone is the Room, a place reputed to grant people's deepest wishes and desires.

I'll confess that I didn't understand "Stalker" the way the director probably intended me to. I couldn't decode all the religious and existentialist symbolism. The discussions that the characters had about the nature of their their relationship to God and the universe didn't penetrate my thick skull. However, the visuals got me. Andrei Tarkovsky is famous for his approach to cinema known as "sculpting in time," where one of his primary aims is to convey the passage of time, and the relation of one moment to the next. To this end, his filmmaking style is almost meditative, full of extremely long shots that can last for several minutes. "Stalker" is 163 minutes long and has only 142 shots, most of them clustered together and separated by much longer shots of four or five minutes apiece.

I was surprised to learn that the longest shots were only around five minutes because they feel much longer due to their form and content. The journey of the three characters is a lengthy slog, first through an empty gray landscape on a railroad handcar where the image practically becomes static, tightly framing the men on the handcar as they pump the levers, the background unchanging despite the speed at which they travel. You begin to experience the mental weight of the journey the longer the shot goes on, the feeling of endlessness and emotional tedium. And then, at the end of it, Tarkovsky abruptly cuts to a gorgeous view of a verdant green field, a visual blast of saturated color in a film that had been so monochromatic up to that point that I thought it was in black and white. It was like Dorothy opening the door to find Oz on the other side. No one needed to announce that the travelers had reached the Zone.

For a filmmaker with such a reputation for being heady and philosophical, Tarkovsky's work always manages to provoke strong emotions from me. There are several segments in "Stalker" that I found deeply unsettling, such as the descent of the travellers into a series of tunnels that they hope will lead them to the Room. The tunnels are dark and it's difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. Tarkovsky, in a single long shot, slowly takes us through those tunnels step by step, creating almost unbearable tension and suspense. There's nothing in the dark besides the three men and ambient nature sounds, but fear of the unknown is palpable nonetheless. And then there are the moments that truly seem to verge on experimental film, like the pan shots over stagnant water that may contain hidden symbols in the murky depths or in the reflections on the surface. It's difficult not to squint and stare and search for meaning in these images.

I get a rare feeling of accomplishment after finishing a Tarkovsky film, because it feels like I've been somewhere tangible and I've experienced something profound, even though I can't put it into words. Clearly Tarkovsky films are not for everyone, because they require so much patience and a willingness to accept the unconventional and ambiguous. His most accessible work is probably "Ivan's Childhood," the WWII drama that brought him acclaim in the 60s and was instrumental in allowing Tarkovsky the artistic freedom to pursue his more ambitious projects. I feel a little sad knowing I'll never be able to see one of his features for the first time again, but the nice thing about Tarkovsky is that I feel like I've only scratched the surface with his work. The more I read about him and his theories of film and his favorite themes, the more I want to go back and see if I can penetrate a little further into the mysteries of "Stalker" or "Solaris" or "The Mirror."

It may be a rough trip to get to the Zone, but I already know the way.

What I've Seen - Tarkovsky

Ivan's Childhood (1962)
Andrei Rublev (1966)
Solaris (1972)
The Mirror (1975)
Stalker (1979)
Nostalghia (1983)
The Sacrifice (1986)