Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hebrew Ha-Ha: Review of 'A Serious Man'



A SERIOUS MAN

 
You'll get no argument from me that A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers' most personal film. Of all their work (of which I've seen only three) I think this is the first time they've ever suggested they are Jewish. Those that belong to the Coen Coven (whom I lovingly refer to as Coen-Heads) who believe ANYTHING they do is the Citizen Kane of whatever they do.

I, however, find much to kvetch about.

We begin with a prologue set in a Russian schtel, where a man and his wife argue over whether the rabbi who helped the man is really a dybbuk (an undead) or not. Even after she stabs the rabbi we don't get a resolution as to whether or not he was a walking corpse or not, since he goes goes out into the snowstorm again. This is the perfect analogy for A Serious Man, a film that has nothing to say and says it in the same quite, dull, slow manner that is the Coen's signature style. Just as there is no real point to this prologue (I have to guess that perhaps this incident brought about a curse to the descendants we will see later) there is no real point to the film as a whole (more on that later).

Flash forward some fifty-odd years later. You have Professor Larry Gopkin (Michael Stuhlbarg), the biggest nebbish in film history. He is a math professor up for tenure who is hit with a series of situations a la Job.

His son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is getting ready for his bar mitzvah but has no real interest in it, only in pot, Jefferson Airplane, and F Troop. His daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) has a permanently bored expression to her. Larry's brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is just sitting around the toilet or on the couch coming up with complex math problems. Larry's wife Judith (Sari Lenick) asks for a divorce and a gett (a Jewish divorce decree I take it) so that she can marry their mutual friend, the widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), whom she insists she has not been schtupping. Upon this hosts of situations a Korean student offers this nudnick a bribe to give him a passing grade. Amid all this moral crisis, Larry seeks help from three rabbis: the young Rabbi Scott (a most goy name for a rabbi), the head of the temple Rabbi Nachtner, and the senior rabbi, Rabbi Marshak. The first two give him a series of nonsense while the third receives no one.

 
Really by this point in A Serious Man I wonder why we would want to care about this schmuck. Perhaps the reason I disliked A Serious Man is because I disliked Professor Gopkin. He is such a total pushover. When Judith and Sy (curiously, the serious man in the film) tell Larry that they think it's best that HE leave the house and go to a hotel, he does so, even though A.) it's HIS house, and B.) she's the one who wants to leave him.

What is wildly wrong with A Serious Man is that these "crises" that this yutz is facing aren't real crises at all and can be resolved quite easily. I'm suppose to believe that all these things happening to and around him are causing some Dark Night of the Soul (to use a good Catholic term), but really each situation can be handled without much help from a spiritual advisor. You throw your brother and wife out, get your kids to stop ordering albums via mail (he is that clueless that he is unaware that Danny has basically committed identity theft against him), forget about protecting a property line with the redneck/goy neighbors which is really a pointless argument and move on with your life. None of it was terribly dramatic or funny.

Take for example when Sy is killed in a car accident. Larry comes to his house to discover this, and the kids seem so disinterested in the fact that their father is not living at home, their mother is howling in agony, and that a man is dead. Their only concern is dinner and getting the antenna fixed so that Danny can watch F Troop (well, OK, I'll give you that not being able to watch F Troop might be a crisis). I suppose I was supposed to laugh hard at how funny all this was supposed to be, but since I didn't find it funny but annoying I couldn't laugh.

Worse, he is expected to pay for the funeral. Any normal man would have said, "Hell No! I ain't paying for my wife's lover's funeral. Maybe his cremation if I get to set the fire", but no, Little Larry, Schlemiel Par Excellance, meekly goes along with this and wonders why Hashem (God) would put him through all this.

IT'S BECAUSE YOU'RE A MORON! GROW UP AND GROW A SCHLONG YOU PUTZ!

Even if I could get through all this meshugas the Coens throw at me, I can't get over the ending, or rather, the lack of one. It would be nice of Joel & Ethan got around to actually FINISHING a movie. It's sad, but I'm beginning to HATE their films and am coming this close to making the fact that all these Coen-Heads worship the slop they throw out another Sign of the End of Western Civilization. Ultimately, A Serious Man may do something I never thought possible: it may make me think Jewish people are not funny.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Spies In Love: A Review of Notorious (1946)



Ingrid, Ingrid, Ingrid, can't you see/
Sometimes Your Looks Just Hypnotize Me/
And I just love your Swedish smile/
that's one reason you drive this boy wild.
NOTORIOUS (1946)
 
As I watched Notorious, I kept thinking, "This isn't a spy film. It's really a love story in the guise of a spy film". A spy film would be something like The Man Who Came in From the Cold or the Bourne films: Identity, Supremacy, Ultimatum. No, this ISN'T a thriller--although there are thrilling moments. Essentially, Notorious is a romance, a love story with a little bit of espionage in it.

Ingrid Bergman is Alicia Huberman. She is notorious due to her father, who has been convicted of treason for having spied for Nazi Germany, and for being a party girl, drinking and carousing with abandon. Because of her father's past and her blemished reputation she is therefore the right person to infiltrate a German cabal in Brazil to find out what they're up to.

T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) is the American agent who recruits her to integrate herself into the circle of her father's friend Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). Sebastian, who is in love with her, easily allows himself to be charmed by Alicia, and she gains entry into his world, one where exiled Nazis are planning to smuggle uranium. Eventually, Sebastian and his mother (Madame Konstantin) figure out what is going on and plan to kill Alicia.

 
With Notorious, Alfred Hitchcock and writer Ben Hecht create a superb romance that can easily pass for a suspense film. The film has a love triangle between Alicia, Devlin, and Sebastian, and we are not allowed easy outs to who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. Sebastian is at the very least a Nazi sympathizer/collaborator but he also is genuinely in love with Alicia. Conversely, Devlin is constantly cruel to her: he has no qualms about insinuating she's a slut to her face. However, he also is driven by his love for her in spite of his desire NOT to care or love her. As for Alicia, it's clear she's in love with Devlin and is willing to be made a virtual prostitute because of her love for him. This is the true suspense in Notorious, between the desires of the three main characters and the goals each has.

Take for example the scene where Alicia tells Devlin that she has made Sebastian one of her "playmates". You see Devlin's reaction is a quick flash of anger, but then he strikes back verbally at her, suggesting that it isn't a surprise given her past. You then see Alicia's reaction: one of hurt. This is brilliant acting: Grant and Bergman are able to communicate great emotional torment with only their faces. While saying nothing, their reactions express everything that is within them.

Both Grant and Bergman capture the conflict within their characters so brilliantly. Grant's Devlin (a brilliant name) plays on the Cary Grant persona of romantic elegance by giving Devlin a hint of menace. His performance is one where he is outwardly aloof and remote from Alicia while inside he is filled with passion toward her. He may insinuate that she's easy, but his reaction to anyone else insinuating the same thing gives him away.

Bergman is also amazing as the torn and conflicted Alicia. She is desperate for Devlin to love her, to see her as a good woman worthy of love. She wants to do the right thing and is willing to make the sacrifice of giving herself to a man she does not love in order to try to please the man she does love. Throughout the film, Alicia wants to prove she is worthy of love, especially of Devlin. The conflict within all of them comes to a head at a party Sebastian and Alicia give after coming back from their honeymoon. She and Devlin look through the wine cellar for clues about what Sebastian and his cohorts are up to. When Sebastian himself comes, Devlin embraces her passionately. Here, it is done to throw Sebastian off the track about what is going on but it also serves to throw Alicia and even Devlin off as well, where the emotions they are trying to suppress are in danger of erupting.

 

Claude Rains, who earned an Oscar nomination for the film, also gives a masterful performance of a man who has been duped by love. There is a scene in his mother's bedroom when he realizes that Alicia is an American spy. Hitchcock films him in front of a mirror, thereby leading us to the suggestion that Sebastian is being torn in two between his sincere love for Alicia and his anger at this betrayal, the betrayal that she didn't love him AND is taking information to the enemy. Even the smaller roles like that of Madame Konstanin are first-rate. She is a manipulative villain and appears to be a major player in the group while always maintaining herself slightly above things. In the climatic scene where Alicia realizes her life is in danger, we see her look at both Sebastian's mother and Sebastian. Hitchcock shows us, again, with the dialogue adding little to nothing to what we know is going on: both Mama Sebastian's villainy and Sebastian's passiveness.

You have three amazing actors in Bergman and Grant in some of their best performances (two beautiful people who could act) and Rains (though not beautiful) is also top-notch. You have Alfred Hitchcock, one of the great directors of all time. The combination creates of the all time masterpieces, proving that love is one of the most suspenseful emotions known to man.

Monday, March 29, 2010

R.I.P. to the B.I.G.: A Review of Notorious (2009)


NOTORIOUS (2009)

In Notorious, Faith Evans (Antonique Smith) asks Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G./Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard), "Are you a good guy trying to be bad, or a bad guy trying to be good?" That question is at the heart of this biopic on the brief life of the rap superstar. A criminal, a masterful lyricist, a womanizer, a loving son, a frightened man? Biggie Smalls was apparently all those things, sometimes all at once, a man conflicted between what he wanted to achieve as a rapper and what he wanted to achieve as a person.

The film begins and ends on March 8, 1997, the night of Biggie's death. In between, Wallace narrates his life story. We begin on the streets of Brooklyn, where young Chris (played by Wallace's real-life son Christopher Jordan Wallace) is shown as a bright but insecure boy jealousy guarded by his Jamaican-born mother, Voletta (Angela Bassett). Even though she does everything she can to bring him up on the straight and narrow, the lure of the streets and the promise of easy money is too great a temptation for Chris. Even though Voletta throws him out and he has already fathered a child, he still continues to sell crack cocaine.

However, he also has tremendous talents and skills spinning rap lyrics on the streets. Eventually his talents catch the attention of an ambitious record producer named Sean John "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke). His two worlds collide when he and his friend D-Roc (Dennis L.A. White) get busted for illegal weapons. D-Roc takes the fall, allowing Biggie to pursue a rap career.

In the ensuing years, he continues to have an unmanaged life: though he falls hard for his future wife Faith Evans he can't let go of his protégé/mistress Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton). He also begins a friendship with fellow rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie). Their friendship is broken however after Shakur is shot outside the studio where Biggie is recording. Shakur blames B.I.G. with Combs' rival Suge Knight (Sean Ringgold) fanning the flames of an East Coast (Combs' Bad Boy Records)/West Coast (Knight's Death Row Records) rivalry that soon spins madly out of control.

Eventually, Shakur is shot at again, this time fatally, tearing Wallace apart. He decides to take the step of going to California (Death Row territory) to promote his own album. Just before he leaves for the album release party on March 8, Biggie calls his mother, his baby mama Janet, his wife Faith and his mistress Lil' Kim and makes peace and amends to all of them before going to his fate.


Notorious is more than just a biopic of a rap star who died at 24. It is the story of the growth of one Christopher Wallace, how he grew to be a man. The film not only allows us an entry into the rap world but also into Wallace's conflicted life. That is what makes the film work: we don't just get dry details about what he did but also what motivated him: his desire to fit in, his need to be creative, his lusts for women and money which came in conflict with his wish to be a good son/husband/father/man. Notorious lets us see the evolution of Wallace, one who has no trouble treating Lil' Kim badly but who also tells his daughter to never let any many call her a "bitch".

Some of the performances are brilliant. Woolard captures the charm and self-confidence that Wallace had, making him irresistible to women but also making him quite sensitive and protective to those he loved. He also gets Wallace's remarkable gift in rap: even when his mother has him recite the 23rd Psalm there is a rap lilt in his recitation. Though he isn't perfect (his treament of Lil' Kim is rather harsh) Woolard doesn't make him a monster but someone who only late in his life realizes that his actions have consequences.

Smith's Evans is also excellent as a woman who loves Wallace and falls for his charms but who is not afraid to stand up for herself.


That being said, the rest of the performances don't quite make it. Bassett's Jamaican accent comes and goes, and that was becoming a distraction. Not knowing what the real-life Lil' Kim is like, Naughton's version came off as slightly crazed and obsessed with Wallace. Derek Luke neither looks or sounds like Sean John "Puffy/Puff Daddy/P. Diddy" Combs and didn't quite capture Combs' real-life excessive swagger and brashness, though he did get Combs' dance momements well. Mackie also neither sounded or looked like Shakur, though thanks to Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker's script did create someone who could be playful one minute, serious the next. Director George Tillman Jr. could have brought more consistancy to those performances, but in his directing of the two leads, he did a masterful job.

Notorious brings to mind a line from a Mahalia Jackson song. "I'm going to live the life I sing about"--that could be said of both the Queen of Gospel and Wallace...with tragic circumstances for the latter. At the end of the film, you do mourn Wallace's death, not just because at 24 he was terribly young or because his death was truly meaningless. We mourn because we have come to know and like Wallace, in spite of all his flaws. We have seen his growth into a man. We have gotten to know him and to have him taken so violently, so needlessly, and so young just compounds the tragedy.

In regards to Evans' question, Wallace responds, "I'm just someone trying to make it". Throughout Notorious, we seem try: as a drug dealer, a rapper, a human. In the end he, to quote the film, took Combs' advise. "Don't chase the paper (money). Chase the dream". Words to live by, and unfortunately, words that cost Wallace and not only those around him but also his fans, dearly.

1972-1997

DECISION: B+

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Impressions of Paris 2010



This I hope to be the last time I make a non-movie posting, but I felt I should record some of my impressions of London/Paris before I forget.

It was certainly a magical week in the Foggy Streets of London Town and the City of Lights. In London my personal highlight was going to 221 B Baker Street. I've always loved the Sherlock Holmes stories (the film, not so much). It was strange that at the Churchill Museum & War Cabinet Rooms I got emotional watching footage of his state funeral. I've always been a great admirer of his when it came to his wartime leadership (though he was completely wrong on his views on Indian self-rule).
 
I also enjoyed the theater show Dreamboats and Petticoats. Many in my group weren't too thrilled, and though I would have rather have seen a bigger show (The Phantom of the Opera or perhaps Love Never Dies) I found it quite charming. The Tube system was quite easy to use and I was treated very well. Londoners are very friendly. My only regrets were not being able to see friends that live there or seeing anything Doctor Who related. I would also advise you to take a side trip to Bath--the Roman spa is magnificent. I know there were some who were disappointed in Stonehenge, but I thought it was remarkable. You could make a whole day out of the British Museum, so take an hour or two to look around and see all the splendours of the Empire. I will confess the Elgin Marbles were smaller than I thought they'd be, but for the moment it's as close to Greece as I've gotten.

Now, as for Paris, the highlight will always be the night at the Moulin Rouge. Yes they can-can-can. The show, Féerie, was absolutely fantastique, tres magnifique, shall we say. Be forewarned: with the exception of the side acts (a juggler, a pair of acrobats, and an amazing ventriloquist) the girls are almost always topless. It is a very glamourous, lavish production, but if seeing women expose their breasts en masse is offensive, you won't want to go. I found the food there absolutely delicious. Afterwards, a group of us went to a nearby pub, O'Sullivan's I think it was called, where I had a pint or two...or four. I don't think that's too much, do you? Needless to say, I had lots of fun that night and still managed to function quite well at the Louvre and Versailles.
 
 

If you go to Paris, you MUST take a side trip to Versailles. It is the Citizen Kane of palaces. Like the British Museum, you could take a day or two to see everything there and in the Louvre, but here's another tip: be ready to fight your way to see the Mona Lisa. It's a small painting, especially compared to what it's facing: the massive Wedding Feast at Cana. Also, watch out for Gypsies and West Africans at Notre Dame (not the university, though it would help if you're a Fighting Irishman) and the Church of Sacre Coer respectively. It's best to ignore them and respond "Non" if you're asked "Speak English?" They are easy to identify with their slightly ragged clothes.

Now, for THE BIG QUESTION: Are the French rude? I can only speak for myself and none of the people who travelled with me. I was treated quite well by the Parisians. I won't say that they were outgoing and that they greeted me with kisses or hugs but they were at the very least very civil and pleasant with me. I had no problems getting around even with my extremely limited French (most understood English) and I can't complain about how I was treated. I must add the caveats that A.) I don't have a typical "American" look (more Spaniard/Mexican looking am I--I was once greeted in Spanish while there) and B.) the majority of people I dealt with are in the service industry that deals with foreigners, especially English-speakers (Americans, Canadians, British, Australians).

I will say that we as Americans should do our best to learn their language while visiting their country. It's wrong to have others learn English and us not reciprocate. I don't mean we have to be super-fluent but at least a few key phrases (Where is..., What time...) would be helpful. We must remember, we are visiting THEIR country and can't expect Paris (or London) to be exactly like New York or El Paso. On the other side of the coin, Parisians should remember the first rule of being good hosts: you treat your guests with respect, not contempt. It should not be an inconvinience to take a few moments out of your day to help someone who asks. You should make your guests feel welcome, not paranoid. Civility should be a trait common to all people.

Finally, the people I met. Here are some impressions. There were the Australians: our tour guide Dave, Paul from Sydney and Brittany from Perth. They confirmed what I've been told about Aussies: they're the most fun-loving and partying people on Earth. They were all great fun to be with: so friendly, always up for a good time. I now want to go Down Under (which I understand is the National Anthem of Australia).

There were at least three South Africans that I knew of. There was Mohamed and Adila, a very nice couple from outside Johannesburg who I got to know a little on my last day. There was also Nyiko. She works for the federal goverment and she was the epitome of the glamour girl. Nyiko would always "strike a pose" whenever she had her picture taken and is the only person I know who had her picture taken next to a pair of shoes. Being a guy I would find that odd. There was Ken (or Kentaro) from Japan, and it's been my experience that the Japanese are very friendly. Ken was no exception, though I didn't do much with him unfortunately. There was also another nice couple (there were tons of couples) from Kuala Lumpur as well as one from West Virginia.

Most of the people I knew were American, and oddly, a healthly group of New Yorkers. There was Sandra, who is the only other librarian I've met outside my work circle. There was Niles, fresh out of the Police Academy. Lou is from Connecticut but that's pretty close, isn't it? There was Lawrence, who I think works in finance and struck me as a very cool guy. Ashley is from Chicago and while with her red hair you'd think she was an all-Irish girl she actually I think is more Polish (though with Irish ancestry too). Go figure.

Margarita is Russian-born but fiercely proud of her American home. I find it the case that naturalized citizens are prouder of their country than native-born citizens. Stephanie is a California transplant but she to me was your regular California Girl (she's the one who called them "blonde moments" not me). There was Elvira and her niece Alicia and I think they were from California too (don't hold me to that). I shared a room in Paris with Steve, who I think works with research on communicable diseases (worthy endeavour I think).

With a group of about 57 people, it would impossible to remember all of them (at the Louvre, I mixed up two people's names TWICE). I regret not knowing them all, but I certainly enjoyed my time will the people I was with.

Well, that is it for my London/Paris adventure. Some in the group went home right after, some stayed in Paris a couple of extra days, some went back to London for a couple of days, some went off to Rome and some to Amsterdam. I hope to hear from them soon. As for myself, they were wonderful days with wonderful people. I love to travel but I will admit I love coming back home to that West Texas town of El Paso. Still, "the last time I saw Paris/her heart was warm and gay/no matter how they change her/I'll remember her that way".

At least now I can truly say, "We'll always have Paris". A la prochaine mes amis.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

London Calling: Impressions of London 2010



Dear readers (whoever you are),

I am currently in London, making my lifelong dream of visiting The Queen come true (and getting lost more than once in the process). As it is, I may be taking a sabbatical for a week. May be, because internet cafés are a remarkable thing (although I tend to be rather cheap in these matters).

In any case, I hope to get back to work real soon. God Save The Queen.

Some quick thoughts on London: it's one of the great cities.  Everything can be found here, and perhaps it is my naiveté but I didn't find it extremely expensive.  I wish I had tried the Indian food, but one of my travelling companions had some sort of stomach issue and I was forced to have Pizza Hut.  Imagine: travelling all that way for Pizza Hut.

Still, I had lots of fun whilst in London, and wish I had participated more in things, been more outgoing, maybe jumped into the impromptu soccer game I came across.

Only I would wander into the British Museum and not realize it.  Seeing the Rosetta Stone was a great delight, and I thought about how, as a child, I was implanted with a great wish to see St. Paul's Cathedral.  I saw it indeed.

Next time, I think I'll go inside.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

In Memoriam: Arthur Redelfs

ARTHUR REDELFS 1976-2010
LESLEY ENRIQUEZ REDELFS
1975-2010
UNBORN REDELFS SON 2010


I have a few memories of Arthur Redelfs. We went to elementary school together, and we were friends for a while until it ended over something ridiculously petty. After that, we couldn't stand each other, or at least I couldn't stand him. All these years later if I ever thought of Arthur Redelfs I had a faint dislike for all the memories he brought. Until now.

I learned that he along with his wife and unborne son were murdered on the streets of Juarez. There is no motive, there is no reason. My heart breaks to think on the terror they must have endured, and fortunately their daughter Rebecca was not hurt, though she at less than a year old is deprived of both her parents and younger brother.

Now, I am filled with the greatest of regrets. It is an unfortunate aspect of my nature to hold on to grudges, to not let go. Now, far too late, I realize that things that happened when I was a child should be left there. I can't find it to explain the reasons for these barbaric crimes, not just against them, but against every one who has been beheaded, dismembered, mulitated, tortured, or just plain shot.

They were murdered because there are people who've been sold a bill of goods. They think that having a lot of money by any means necessary justifies taking lives. Some would argue that they are soul-less. I disagree. They have souls, but they have been corrupted almost beyond redemption. It is so true: the LOVE of money is the root of all evil.

Even today, there are people who I suspect hate me. I cannot control how others feel about me, but I can control how I feel about them. Do I hate them? There are still resentments, but now I see that I waste my time thinking on such things. I don't think I quite answered the question, so here goes: I dislike them, but the black hatred I felt is dissapating just a touch.

In any case, for whatever it's worth, I'm sorry, Arthur. I hope you forgot or at least forgave whatever petty slight I put you through. I will say this about him: his last act was to try to outrun the monsters who targeted him and his family. His Final Hour Was Also His Finest.

I don't like using this site to bring non-movie related views on things, but this is far too serious a matter to ignore. His death has made me more appreciative of the friends I have, from the longest friendship (Steven A., whom I call Stevener) to that of my beloved brother Gabe (whom I call Gabester--guess am not one for big nicknames). I've been blessed with good people all around me, who care about me in spite of my flaws.

So to all those who still harbour resentment (and I know who you are) I hope that in the end, you will see it in your hearts to forgive. We don't have to be friends again. I just hope you don't cheer at my death. Arthur, all that once was past is now at an end. Rest In Peace.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It Really Isn't All About Me. Me And Orson Welles Review (Review #60)



ME AND ORSON WELLES

 
Talent, I'm told, can excuse a lot: boorish behavior, raging egomania, excessive living. That may be the case, especially when it comes to a clear genius like Orson Welles. His talent goes without question, his personality another matter. Me and Orson Welles is a fanciful version of one creative output in his career, one that gives us an inside look at the brilliance and arrogance of this legendary artistic figure.

The Me in Me and Orson Welles is Richard (Zac Efron), a seventeen-year-old New Yorker who has dreams of the arts. He stands in awe of the Mercury Theater, where its star and director, one Orson Welles (Christian McKay) is about to stage his version of Julius Caesar, one set in Fascist Italy. Richard charms his way into being hired to be in Caesar by Welles, who calls him Junior, and Richard soon becomes part of a wild and chaotic world. He also meets Sonja (Claire Danes) the extremely efficient production assistant to Welles and his producing partner, John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) with dreams of stardom herself. In one week, Richard fulfills his dreams of being on Broadway, finds love, meets aspiring writer Greta (Zoe Kazan) and gets a first-hand look at the creative process of one of the great directors.

It's clear that Julius Caesar is a mess: the actors aren't rehearsed often, scenes cut and restored at whim, music cues shifted again and again and once more with confusing instructions. While Houseman does everything he can to keep the Mercury going when it's on the verge of collapse (morally, financially, structurally) Welles is driven from radio gig to radio gig in an ambulance to get him there on time (according to Welles, there is no law in New York that says you HAVE to be sick to ride in an ambulance). In spite of this, the Mercury Players stay with it although they constantly complain about the chaotic nature of the production. They are used to Welles' disorganized methods, partly because they know the results will be brilliant and partly because they might be suffering from an artistic form of Stockholm Syndrome.

 

As one can gauge from the title, the film primarily revolves around "Me", i.e.. Richard. It is HIS story told through HIS eyes. Therefore, whatever criticism of the film that it has received about it not dealing with Orson Welles is frankly silly. It's not about Welles, it's about Me.

As Richard, Efron brings a natural charm to this guy. He's not a wide-eyed innocent but a bit of a schemer. He schemes his way into getting Welles' attention. He schemes his way into going out with Sonja. He successfully saves his job after causing an accident inside the theater. Efron certainly is making the transition from teen idol to maturing actor. Yes, he does sing in Me and Orson Welles, but it is relevant to the plot. My only complaint about Efron is an odd one: even though he's only 22 he looked too OLD to play a 17-year-old.

The truly great performance is McKay's. He sounded exactly like Welles, never sounding like a parody or like The Brain from Pinky and the Brain. His Welles is a raging egomaniac with the talent to back it up, a man who thrives on chaos and who will not compromise in his vision and not allow anyone to get in his way, either in his artistic or private life.

It isn't all raging though. There is a scene in the ambulance when he's being driven to another radio job when Welles lets his guard down slightly, to reveal memories of his past. It's at the radio show where Welles shows his enormous talent, adlibbing a beautiful speech unrehearsed and then going back on script as if everything were planned.

We also mustn't ignore other performances. Claire Danes is virtually unrecognizable as Sonja, who is cheerful on the exterior but who masks a burning, passionate desire to move ahead. She'll do anything to meet David O. Selznick, and yes, I mean anything. Whether she truly loves Richard or sees him as a distraction is open to conjecture. James Tupper, like Christian McKay's Orson Welles, is a dead ringer for Joseph Cotten--I was amazed at how much they look alike. His Cotten is one who loves the ladies and is devoted to his acting. Ben Chaplin made George Coulouris into a bit of a comic character, slightly contemptuous of all the proceedings but at the premiere having major, MAJOR stage fright to where he is on the verge of collapse. Leo Bill as Norman Lloyd makes his the comedy relief, and whether Lloyd in real life was we don't know.

Director Richard Linklater manages a good balance of comedy and romance with drama. The sneak preview of Julius Caesar is quite funny, showing all the effects of the unbalanced nature of the rehearsals. Once the actual premiere takes place, we get a strong idea of how the actual production would have been...and it would have been amazing. It's as if Welles managed to pull off one more miracle just in time to save his career. At times, you forget you are watching a film and get drawn into the play.

"How the hell do I top this?" Welles asks himself as the curtain draws on the premiere. We all think we know how. About the only major complaint I have is that at almost two hours it was a little long. Also, Marsan's Houseman didn't look or sound like the man he played. He doesn't come across as someone who could stand up to Welles. It's hard to imagine this man would later go on to do something Welles never could do: win an acting Oscar (if you've seen The Paper Chase, you will know Houseman as Professor Kingsfield).

At the end, Richard has had an amazing week, and we've had a delightful trip through the early career of a genius. It's by no means the Citizen Kane of Welles-related films, but even with a few flaws, it's a nice, small film about the creative process and how it brilliance and madness and ego can all collide. Perhaps there could have been a little less Me and a little more Orson Welles.

1915-1985
 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Heart Is A Lonely Drinker: Crazy Heart Review


CRAZY HEART

You know what kind of person Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is just by his nom de guerre. He's a hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-loving man. Blake is a country music legend, and by that I mean that few people remember him. To misquote Norma Desmond, "He is big. It's the venues that got small". In short, he's a screw-up, and he knows he's a screw-up. Crazy Heart is his journey, if not to redemption, at least acceptance of his flaws and peace with where his decisions have led him to.

Blake, who is introduced on stage as "The Wrangler of Love", is an old-style country musician. He doesn't like the pop-country style that now dominates Nashville, and he especially doesn't like Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrel), a former member of his backup band and protégé who has hit the big time while Blake has fallen off the map. This is one of two topics (the other being his real name) that he won't discuss in an interview with an up-and-coming journalist, Jean Craddick (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother with a son, Buddy (Jack Nation). Soon, a relationship between them begins, while coincidentally an opportunity for a revival of his career comes via courtesy of Tommy. Blake swallows his pride (and some whiskey) and goes for both. Blake eventually starts, after an accident, to try to do right by everyone, but his drinking and his general lack of health do him in. The shocks he gets forces him to realize how deep he's fallen and he does pull himself together. While he's still Bad, he also knows who he really is.

Bridges creates a man who is fully aware of his flaws, but no longer cares. His Bad Blake knows he is good when it comes to music, bad when it comes to anything else. Blake goes through the motions, angry that the man he helped is now drawing the big crowds. It's bad enough that HE has to open for Tommy Sweet, but when he sees the billing, it's downright demeaning. It isn't flat jealousy, it's also hurt that Sweet is taking the music he loves (and in some cases, wrote) and taking the country out of it.

While in many ways this is a clichéd scenario, director/writer Scott Cooper (adapting Thomas Cobb's novel) creates someone for whom we root for. We want Blake to pull himself together because we know he keeps trying again and again. Jeff Bridges' performance is pitch-perfect (no pun intended). He makes his character unapologetic for who he is or how he's come to the place he is at, which makes his evolution to realizing he is danger of repeating the mistakes with Jean that he did with others in his past all the more real. For example, there's when Blake attempts to reconnect with his son whom he hasn't dealt with for close to a quarter-century. It's only Bridges who is seen, and he carries that scene brilliantly, mixing sorrow, hurt, regret, and pain with amazing control.

 

Everyone else around Bridges plays equally well to his brilliant performance. Though it is stretching the imagination that someone Maggie Gyllenhaal's age (late 20s-early 30s) would begin an affair with a man nearly sixty, she manages to make one accept that Jean would find Blake charming enough to be seduced by him. She makes Jean a woman who has her child as THE priority, and for whom she will always sacrifice for. The conflict she shows between the passion she has for Blake and the love she has for Buddy is at the heart of her story. When she finally ends the affair due to Blake's actions, there isn't a big emotional scene. It's very quiet, and Gyllenhaal performance makes it all the more heartbreaking. Less with words and more with her face, she expresses the hurt the decision she knows she has to make and the pain it causes her.

Though he has a small performance, Robert Duvall as Blake's friend Wayne manages to make an impression, offering wisdom and support to Blake. Farrel (someone I'm not a fan of) does an amazing job sounding like an American country music superstar. In the scenes they have together, you can tell that Sweet and Blake have conflicting emotions about each other: a mixture of respect and resentment, admiration and contempt one for the other.

In a film like Crazy Heart which deals with a country music performer, the music is vital. The soundtrack is wonderful. On many songs my feet were tapping the ground, and the slower songs were appropriately sad.   Of particular note is the theme, The Weary Kind, a slow lament beautifully performed. What's more amazing is that Bridges and Farrel themselves did the singing, and especially how Farrel could lose his Irish brogue and sound like if he could be the opening act for someone like Josh Turner (pity he couldn't lose his accent in Alexander, but I digress).

As it stands, Crazy Heartis a portrait of a man who has fallen hard and tries to rise. He knows in the end that things did not turn out the way he would have liked them to. However, to quote another country song, he is "leaving here a better man".

Cyrillic Silliness: The Last Station Review


THE LAST STATION

It has been a long time since I've read a novel, and when I do, I gravitate toward fantasy and mystery. That might be a goal this year: read more novels and put down my history and biography books. I might even give the works of Leo Tolstoy a chance. I confess I have never read War & Peace or Anna Karenina (though I did enjoy another Russian masterpiece: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Therefore, I don't know much about Tolstoy and went into The Last Station quite unaware of whether or not it is historically accurate. It may be, it may not, but it is entertaining though uneven at times.

Count Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is in his final years. He finds himself the head of the Tolstoyan movement, a belief system that renounces private property, wealth, and espouses pacifism and celibacy. Tolstoy's estate reflects his belief system: a bit run down and a loving but sexless marriage to his wife, Countess Sofya (Dame Helen Mirren). She endures all this with a open contempt for what she considers nonsense. She has a rivalry with Tolstoy's chief disciple, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). They hate each other and struggle to be civil to each other while secretly plotting to gain the affection and loyalty of the ageing Count.

Into the mix comes Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a devoted Tolstoyan. Vladimir hires Valentin to be Tolstoy's private secretary and to keep a diary of what he hears all around him (in effect, to spy on the Countess). Valentin goes and soon the Countess takes him into his confidence, giving him a diary so he can write what he hears all around him (in effect, to spy on the Tolstoyans). Through those months he spends at the Tolstoys, Valentin discovers physical love with Masha (Kerry Condon), a girl at Tolstoy's commune, and comes to see that the ideals of Tolstoy may not be worth certain sacrifices and actions, especially against the Countess whom he begins to sympathize with.

 

If memory serves correct, this is the second film with James McAvoy where the story is really about his character and the historic figure he's involved with is a secondary role (the first being The Last King of Scotland). Overall, The Last Station is an interesting and engaging look into the private life of a literary legend. Plummer's Tolstoy is a cross between a hippie and a Shaker, a man who has a large, ebullient personality and is quite open about what he thinks. He also brings the conflict between his belief system and his love for his wife. Giamatti's Vladimir is not exactly a bad guy but one who is more committed to the Tolstoyan Movement than even Tolstoy (at one point the Count comments something along the lines that he's not the best Tolstoyan) and considers the Countess to be borderline evil or insane. McAvoy's real-life wife Anna-Marie Duff as Tolstoy's daughter Sasha creates a daughter loyal to her father and her cause, even though it causes a rift with her mother.

Even though James McAvoy is almost thirty, he still is able to project a youthful innocence to his Valentin. The story is really about him, and he manages to carry the story of a man who grows to maturity, mental and physical, quite well.   He remains among my favorite actors.

As his first lover, Condon creates a Masha who is a bit like Tolstoy: bright, outspoken, unafraid of life and love. Curiously, the only one that comes off badly is Mirren as Countess Sofya. She is bordering on hysterical and over-the-top through most of the film, and makes The Last Station come off almost as a drawing room farce.

In fairness to Mirren, through most of the film writer/director Michael Hoffman creates a light, almost comedic mood in the film. There is the business of Valentin sneezing every time he's nervous, which is a great deal of the time. Even at moments which call for more seriousness, you still chuckle, as when Countess Sofya keeps replacing a photo of Vladimir with one of herself and Tolstoy or when she seduces her husband with bird calls.

Sergie Yevtushenko's score adds to the comical nature of the peace, which is why when the film does take a dark turn in the last act the radical shift takes us by surprise. The death watch for Tolstoy is akin to the paparazzi today, with the travails in the Tolstoy's marriage grist for the early 20th-century's gossip mill. There is also less time devoted to the effects the struggle to control the copyright to Tolstoy's works (Sofya wanting them after his death, Vladimir to "the people", i.e.. his group) has on the Tolstoy family itself. We get a brief scene between Sofya and her son but nothing came of it. That plot point was left unanswered.
 
As it stands, The Last Station is by no means a perfect film. Mirren's performance especially veers close to parody until the end when she can pull herself together. All the other performances, especially Plummer, are more grounded than hers although at times they are more comedic. Overall, it has enough charm and delight to have us ride this train.

1828-1910
 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

It's So Easy To Forget. Remember Me Review



REMEMBER ME

I have some new-found respect for Robert Pattinson. Whatever his flaws (and I figure most women would find none, but I digress), he is making the effort to break out from EDWARD CULLEN and be a legitimate actor rather than a conduit for tween erotic fantasy. Remember Me is his first big-budget step to branch out in his career (as opposed to small fare like Little Ashes). Again, while I admire the effort, he still has a long way to go. A long way.

Tyler Hawkins (Pattinson) is the disaffected son of successful attorney and Brooklyn native Charles (Pierce Brosnan, and that is not a typo--he is suppose to be from Brooklyn). With a cigarette almost permanently dangling from his mouth, he wanders through life, living in a dingy apartment with his goofy best friend Aidan (Tate Ellington), working in a bookstore and attending college for no particular reason. He is still dealing with the suicide of his brother Michael and about the only person he has any love and affection for is his younger sister Caroline (Ruby Jerins). One night he has a run-in with Sgt. Neil Craig (Chris Cooper), but shortly after Aidan makes a discovery: the sergeant has a daughter, Ally (Emilie De Ravin). They cook up the scheme of Tyler wooing her and then once she's hooked to dump her. As it happens, they truly fall in love.

Ally has her own traumas. Ten years earlier, in 1991, she saw her mother murdered on a subway station when she was robbed. Here are two wounded souls, finding comfort in each other, loving each other. Eventually, Sergeant Craig discovers who his daughter's new boyfriend is, and so does Ally. They separate, and while there is a reconciliation of sorts, a greater tragedy will break them apart forever.

Here's a hint: it's New York, 2001, sometime after Labor Day.

There are quite a few problems with Remember Me. First is the overall screenplay by Will Fetters. The revenge aspect of toying with a young girl's emotions who has nothing to do with anything in order to get back at her father is sleazy and really bizarre. Such things make Tyler unsympathetic, even slightly cruel, and what we need is to identify with him, not think he's cruel. It was an easy way to get these characters together, but highly unrealistic. Also, the relationship between Ally and Tyler develops way too fast: in a short time they fall into bed, and while it's possible that no woman would resist the beauty that is EDWARD CULLEN (I mean Robert Pattinson), one wonders if it would have been better to have let the story develop a little more before they have sex.

The biggest problem is the actual acting. Brosnan for example did not do a bad Brooklyn accent but is was not convincing. You could tell he was forcing himself to not speak with his native British accent. We only had a vague idea as to why Tyler had such resentment toward his birth father. Cooper (a good actor) and De Ravin were not convincing when they fought over her new relationship, nor when De Ravin and Pattinson fought when she discovered the truth. I'm going to have to go with the common factor in both fights and say that De Ravin was a bit lost (pun intended) trying to rally a sense of hurt or anger in both instances. Ellington's Aidan added nothing to the story except a certain amount of silliness.

At the center of Remember Me is: can Pattinson act? Judging from this film, he hasn't gotten there yet. I give him credit for a very successful American accent, but through almost the entire film he still has the speech tones of EDWARD CULLEN: a quiet, soft tone that wasn't quite a whisper but didn't sound like a normal speaking tone. He could easily have whispered "Bella" as he could have "Ally". That is what's wrong with Pattinson as an actor. Either he's holding back or he does have a hard time expressing much emotional ranger.

Director Allen Coulter may not be the person who could break Pattinson of his EDWARD CULLEN mode, looking all forlorn, pursing his lips on many occasions. I do note there was a lot of Pattinson Pouting through Remember Me, which only adds to the notion that he was merely rehearsing for Eclipse (excuse me, The Twilight SAGA: Eclipse). Pattinson in this film did not try to dispel that he was just a pretty face trying to channel his version of James Dean--getting the persona of Dean without the actual acting that Dean brought to his performances.

Only once did Pattinson go for real emotion. When he comfronts his father after Charles skips Caroline's art show you could see Pattinson really making the effort to act. He tried so hard and came so achingly close to actually acting. He was pushing himself as he's never pushed himself before, and I applaud his efforts in this one scene. However, once that's over he goes back to this soft tone until he terrorizes a little girl who has been bullying his sister.

THE NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A SPOILER. PLEASE SKIP TO FINAL PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW.

The final act is very dicey. Using the attacks of September 11th as a plot point (or worse, as a resolution to the story) is very dangerous. It runs the risk of trivializing the horror of that day, and a little lazy. You don't have a conclusion to how the story will end, and here's a quick and easy way to end the story without having to have the characters themselves resolve the situation themselves.

All that could have been endured if the script hadn't been pointing us in that direction. The movie starts with us looking at the World Trade Center in the background, and during a class there was a discussion about terrorist attacks being on the rise. We were getting signals that September 11th was coming. That was a mistake because we were basically given no real resolution to Remember Me. Rather, we were made to endure a horrifying act of mass murder once again.
 
END OF SPOILER

Overall, I still think that Robert Pattinson may yet be an actor, though projects like Remember Me (on which he was a producer) will not make us forget the vampire. It would get an A for efforts, but...


Friday, March 12, 2010

82th Academy Awards: A Review Part IV

We've come to the final (thank Heaven) of the Oscar review. Let's get on with it.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
  1. The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart): Crazy Heart (T Bone Burnett/Ryan Bingham)
  2. Almost There: The Princess and the Frog (Randy Newman)
  3. Loin de Paname: Paris 36 (Reinhardt Wagner/Frank Thomas)
  4. Down in New Orleans: The Princess and the Frog (Randy Newman)
  5. Take It All: Nine (Maury Yeston)
Put it on my love of country music, but The Weary Kind does what an Original Song is suppose to do: be part of the film/story. This would be radically different if Ma Belle Evangeline had been one of the nominated songs from The Princess and the Frog, but it was not.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
  1. UP
  2. Sherlock Holmes
  3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  4. Avatar
  5. The Hurt Locker
Of all the things I remember from The Hurt Locker, the music ISN'T one of them. As for Avatar, the same goes. The only two scores that I think were in the running were UP and Sherlock Holmes, but the beauty of UP's music (still so reminiscent of Victor Young's score for Around the World in 80 Days) trumps the manic nature of Sherlock Holmes.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
  1. The Young Victoria
  2. Coco Before Chanel
  3. Bright Star
  4. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
  5. Nine
Is there anything more lavish than royalty? Here is a rule of thumb, just as the Best Film Editing Oscar usually goes to the Best Picture winner, almost any film that features royalty will win Best Costume Design. The wardrobe Oscar is usually for the most lavish and extravagant of films, so The Young Victoria had the leg up.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
  1. Burma VJ
  2. Food, Inc.
  3. The Cove
  4. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg & The Pentagon Paper
  5. Which Way Home
How I HATE not being exposed to this films! Sometimes documentary films are far more interesting/frightening/better made than feature films. Certainly, Food, Inc. is far better than New Moon (excuse me, The Twilight Saga: New Moon). I voted for Burma VJ because any film that draws the spotlight on the Satanic military dictatorship in Burma (aka Myanmar) deserves all the attention it can get. However, not having seen The Cove, I make that judgment with some hesitation. I will say it will be hard to say, Academy Award winner Fisher Stevens.

BEST ART DIRECTION
  1. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
  2. The Young Victoria
  3. Sherlock Holmes
  4. Nine
  5. Avatar
I have not shifted my view that Avatar is mostly computer generated, and regardless of how pretty it looks, art direction requires sets. If anything surprised me, this one did.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
  1. UP
  2. The Princess and the Frog
  3. The Secret of Kells
  4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  5. Coraline
Where was Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs? I kid, I kid. Curious that two of the nominated films were traditional 2-D animation and two were stop-motion animation with only ONE being computer generated. That to me is a sign of hope: CGI films are now having to compete with more traditional animation, the way it should be. Of course, in any version, UP is just a beautiful film, and it deserves its Oscar. However, I hope there will be a revival of different types of animation, because CGI is making kids stupid and adults fail to appreciate the true beauty of hand-drawn creations.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
  1. Logorama
  2. A Matter of Loaf and Death
  3. French Toast
  4. The Lady & The Reaper
  5. Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty
I only saw clips, and while I (like almost all humanity) love Wallace & Gromit I think the spoof of corporate logos in Logorama is a far more intelligent choice.

There you go: the nominees all wrapped up for this year. I hope to see some of these nominated films in the future, and that next year I will have a better idea of the nominees.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

82th Academy Awards: A Review Part III

Three down, one to go. Let's go over the nominees in these categories.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
  1. Avatar
  2. Star Trek
  3. District 9
Whatever the flaws of Avatar (namely, a very weak story) the visuals were spectacular. Having said that, I think Star Trek did a better job in integrating the visual effects with the story (the fall of Vulcan is something I think outdid the fall of Gallifrey), but Avatar is too overwhelming visually to be ignored.

BEST SOUND MIXING
  1. Avatar
  2. Star Trek
  3. The Hurt Locker
  4. Inglourious Basterds
  5. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
In terms of technological breakthrough, Avatar is a hallmark in filmmaking. It had to create sounds that do not exist in some parts. The Hurt Locker did an effective job in recreating the sounds of IEDs in Iraq, but my thinking is that the pull of Best Picture grabbed this category.

BEST SOUND EDITING
  1. Avatar
  2. Star Trek
  3. UP
  4. The Hurt Locker
  5. Inglourious Basterds
I keep thinking that science-fiction films are better at putting sound effects together than reality-based ones. In fairness, even I get muddled about the difference (I used to know but now am not sure). In any case, I won't fight this winner.

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM
  1. The New Tenants
  2. Miracle Fish
  3. Kavi
  4. Instead of Abracadabra
  5. The Door
It's impossible to make a fair decision. In recent years, there have been DVD releases of Academy Award-winning short films, and if there is one for this year, it would be good to watch all of them and decide.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
  1. China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
  2. Music By Prudence
  3. The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
  4. The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner
  5. Rabbit a la Berlin
Here we go again. Impossible to decide which one is the best, but I won't argue this one either. I will highly recommend last year's winner, Smile Pinki, which chronicles work associated with The Smile Train, an organization that I'm proud to support.

BEST MAKE-UP
  1. Star Trek
  2. Il Divo
  3. The Young Victoria
How many times do I have to say it? The Green Girl. The Green Girl who Kirk is getting it on with in Star Trek. That alone deserves a make-up Oscar. However, the creation of the Romulans and Vulcans assured that this Star Trek become the first in the franchise to win an Academy Award, and deservedly so. Il Divo was all right from the clip shown, but The Young Victoria should get no prize for making the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha look pretty.
 
Now, and the rest: Best Original Song, Original Score, Costume Design, Art Direction, Documentary Feature, and Animated Feature & Short Film.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

82th Academy Awards: A Review Part II

Now let's tackle an important pair of categories of the Academy Awards: the writing. The first year there was a category called Best Title Writing, but ever since Al Jolson ad-libbed, "Wait a minute. You ain't heard nothin' yet", that category went kaput. Therefore, let us put down my reflections on Original and Adapted Screenplay.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

(500) Days of Summer: Scott Neustader & Michael H. Weber
  1. Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino
  2. UP: Bob Petersen & Pete Docter, Story by Petersen, Docter, and Tom McCarthy
  3. The Hurt Locker: Mark Boal
  4. The Messenger: Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
  5. A Serious Man: Joel & Ethan Coen
Is it cheating by throwing in (500) Days of Summer when it was NOT nominated? Perhaps, but I claim Executive Priviledge in this matter: it SHOULD have been. Given that, I find myself going for Tarantino, a film-maker I loath. I'd like to be hip and with-it, but I always get the sense he can make only 70s-era films. I can't bring myself to be a fan...yet. I will say that Inglourious Basterds was well-written (albeit a bit long).

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
  1. District 9: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
  2. Precious: Geoffrey Fletcher
  3. An Education: Nick Hornby
  4. In The Loop: Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, & Tony Roche
  5. Up in the Air: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner
If truth is to be told I would have made a tie between District 9 & Precious, with An Education being very close behind. I'd have to give the edge to the former ONLY because I fear the fan boy in me got the better of me. However, I admired the fact that District 9 worked on two levels: a rare trick nowadays. Then again, Precious was an extremely difficult subject to write for, but Fletcher did a masterful job in creating a sense of hope out of all that horror. Really too close to call.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
  1. Inglourious Basterds
  2. Avatar
  3. The Hurt Locker
  4. The White Ribbon
  5. Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince
I haven't shifted my position that Inglourious Basterds was a fine-looking film. The climax was visually well-done. I also am a throwback to when CGI wasn't all the rage. Avatar had the images created on the computer, so I wonder if it is cheating. However, perhaps I should bend with the times. I do not have strong objections to the winner.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
  1. A Prophet (France)
  2. El Secreto De Tus Ojos (The Secret In Their Eyes) (Argentina)
  3. Ajami (Israel)
  4. The White Ribbon (Germany)
  5. La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) (Peru)
How can I talk about films I have yet to see? I am going only by reputation and by reading the plots. However, this allows me to point out that I would rather see something like A Prophet or Ajami than I would Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Did You Hear About the Morgans?. El Secreto De Tus Ojos and La Teta Asustada (which my Spanish would translate to The Frightened Tit) would play well in the Hispanic-dominated town of El Paso. Alas, we will have to wait for DVD. Thank Heaven for DVD. It makes films like these available.

Next time, the two Short Films (Documentary & Live Action), the two Sound (Mixing & Editing), Visual Effects, Editing, and Make-Up.

Monday, March 8, 2010

82nd Academy Awards: A Review Part I

Well, the Oscars are over. I can't say I was surprised by ANY of the winners (disappointed is another matter). Allow me a brief moment to go over a few things and present how I would have handed out the awards. First, the Top Prize and the Acting & Directing categories.

BEST PICTURE

Now that the Academy voters had to rank them in order from 1 to 10, here is how I would have ranked them:
  1. UP
  2. District 9
  3. Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire
  4. An Education
  5. The Hurt Locker
  6. Inglourious Basterds
  7. Avatar
  8. The Blind Side
  9. Up in the Air
  10. A Serious Man
On an emotional level, UP was the only one of the ten to move me in every way: yes, I laughed, I cried. It was a toss-up between UP and District 9 (which is something you don't see often: both an intelligent allegory on apartheid AND a rip-roaring action sci-fi film). The first six were overall excellent films, Avatar was a visual splendor but a weak story, The Blind Side a so-so inspirational film, and the last two I found smug and pointless.

BEST ACTOR
  1. Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)
  2. Colin Firth (A Single Man)
  3. Morgan Freeman (Invictus)
  4. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)
  5. George Clooney (Up in the Air)
It's hard when you haven't seen all of the performances. I think that except for Clooney any would have been very good winners. However, I give the edge to Bridges only because he was the only one who has been rather pushed aside in spite of great performances. Still, this is one case where I'm willing to go with popular consensus.


BEST ACTRESS
  1. Carey Mulligan (An Education)
  2. Gabourney Sidibe (Precious)
  3. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)
  4. Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)
  5. Helen Mirren (The Last Station)
I think Bullock did a great job in The Blind Side (though her accent still drove me crazy). However, Mulligan's girl growing into a woman (mentally and sexually) was a brilliant performance, followed by Sidibe's heartbreaking portrayal of a viciously put-down girl in Precious. Streep gets points knocked down for it being Julie & Julia. If it had been Julia alone, then maybe she had a greater chance, but since it was a double act...

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
  1. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)
  2. Christopher Plummer (The Last Station)
  3. Woody Harrelson (The Messenger)
  4. Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones)
  5. Matt Damon (Invictus)
Waltz was brilliant. It may an overused term, but he was brilliant. Plummer and Harrelson (who has erased any memory from Cheers) fight it out for who would follow, but I give the elder statesman his due. As for Tucci, I can't award a child killer, and Damon will never convince me he's a true Afrikaner.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
  1. Mo'Nique (Precious)
  2. Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air)
  3. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart)
  4. Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air)
  5. Penelope Cruz (Nine)
I still contend that Cruz was whore-able in Nine, and I thought Kendrick was annoying and dumb. Farmiga's older woman was a strong performance, but nothing could beat Mo'Nique's wounded mother from the Ninth Circle of Hell.

BEST DIRECTOR
  1. Lee Daniels (Precious)
  2. Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
  3. Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds)
  4. James Cameron (Avatar)
  5. Jason Reitman (Up in the Air)
It was just a question of who did a better job in leading the actors and putting the film together. Daniels brought out brilliant performances from newcomer Sidibe, raunchy stand-up comedienne Mo'Nique and pop diva Mariah Carey. He also told an extremely disturbing story with delicacy. Bigelow made an intelligent film about the Iraq Intervention, Tarantino a glorious revenge fantasy in his style (all 70s-style film-making), and Cameron a visually stunning science-fiction spectacle. Only Reitman managed to make a film I couldn't get enthused about. Based on that criterion, I would pick Daniels.

Another time, the Screenplay categories along with Cinematography and Foreign Language Film.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

82th Academy Awards Preview

Well, dear readers (Bless You), we've come to the end of a mad campaign season. For some of us, we've come to the end of our March Madness. In a few hours, some people will have Academy Awards, and some will just have a few good drinks. Now, I've decided to run down all the categories and put it in three sections:

Who Entertainment Weekly says will win
Who I think WILL win
Who I think SHOULD win

BEST PICTURE
The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker
Up

The push is too strong for The Hurt Locker, even with recent controversies popping up. Avatar and Inglorious Basterds are the only real competition, but out of all the nominated films, only UP touched me on all levels.

BEST ACTOR
Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges
Jeff Bridges

I believe out of the five nominees, only Colin Firth in A Single Man poses any threat of an upset to someone who's cleaned up every other award, who is the only returning nominee NOT to have won, and who has a family history in Hollywood. Again, too much of a pull.

BEST ACTRESS
Sandra Bullock
Sandra Bullock
Carey Mulligan

I disliked Bullock's wild Southern accent in The Blind Side, a film I thought was trying too hard to be inspirational. On a personal level I'd love to see any of them win, but Mulligan carried An Education with grace and a mix of intelligence and naivete. Unfortunately, Meryl Streep A.) is Bullock's only real competition and B.) will go without...again...since 1983.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz

How cool is it when you can be menacing and charming in FOUR languages? I confess he was the best part of Inglorious Basterds, and I feel awful for Christopher Plummer. Anyone sense a Lifetime Achievement Oscar?

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mo'Nique
Mo'Nique
Mo'Nique

Gimme Gimme Mo'. I was underwhelmed to say the least at Up In the Air and Nine, but the stand-up comedienne managed a frightening, fierce, and ultimately heartbreaking performance.

BEST DIRECTOR
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
Lee Daniels (Precious)

Yes, Bigelow will strike TWO blows for women: the first woman to win Best Director AND the delight of beating her ex-husband James Cameron. However, my choice is for the beautiful story and performances Daniels brought out in Precious. He too would make history, as the first African-American to win. There you go. Best Director will be a history maker.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker)
Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker)
Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds)

There's a shocker: I, who have NEVER been a Tarantino fan think the award should go to him for his revenge fantasy. Well, I confess to being slightly underwhelmed by The Hurt Locker and only UP would have ranked higher. Still, I thought Inglorious Basterds, for its problems, was the best WRITTEN of the five nominees. However, if (500) Days of Summer were here...

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner (Up In The Air)
Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious)
Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell (District 9)

I can see why Up In The Air could win: it's topical and this may be its only chance to win anything. However, adapting the novel Push into something that could be watched is a miracle onto itself. Ultimately, I was blown away by District 9 and this may ALSO be its only chance to win anything. This is not a lock.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
UP
UP
UP

Universal consensus: since it WON'T win Best Picture, here's its consolation prize.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
El Secreto De Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) (Argentina)
The White Ribbon (Austria)
A Prophet (France)

Well, it's hard to say since I haven't seen ANY. However, I've heard people going ga-ga over A Prophet and The White Ribbon. We shall see.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
The Cove
Food, Inc.
Burma VJ

I've only seen Food, Inc., and on a personal level I'm not fond of "documentaries" that are more advocacy films than straight documentaries. Be that as it may, I'm going for Burma VJ only because anything that will help topple the military dictatorship in "Myammar" gets my vote.

BEST FILM EDITING
The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker

It's a question of Best Picture. As stunning as Avatar has been, the film with the biggest Best Picture pull gets the Best Film Editing Oscar. Avatar will get many technical awards, but I think this one will slip through the Na'vi's fingers.

BEST ART DIRECTION
Avatar
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnissus
Sherlock Holmes

Here, I disagree with EW. I still think the Art Directors will revolt at the idea that the CGI Avatar will be rewarded in a category that requires sets. There are TWO Victorian-era films here, but I suspect the vote may be split and help the Doctor.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
The Hurt Locker
Avatar
Inglorious Basterds

Here, the Best Picture pull works for The Hurt Locker. However, since Avatar was ALL ABOUT the visuals, I think Avatar will win, though Inglorious Basterds knew how to capture a remarkable look. Just look at the Nation's Pride premiere scene.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
UP (Michael Giacchino)
UP (Michael Giacchino)
UP (Michael Giacchino)

Of the nominees, only Sherlock Holmes' score was as memorable as UP's. However, Giacchino captures both the beauty of flight and the heartbreak of loss without it being overwhelming to the story or film.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart)
The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart)
The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart)

Not only is it right to reward T. Bone Burnett, but seeing as The Princess & The Frog would split the vote with itself AND Ma Belle Evangeline is NOT nominated plus how Take It All isn't a memorable song from Nine, it's process of elimination.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
The Young Victoria
The Young Victoria
The Young Victoria

Oh, how the Academy loves royalty. All those lavish costumes.

BEST MAKEUP
Star Trek
Star Trek
Star Trek

A.) This is the only category out of four nominations in which Star Trek has any chance, and B.) The Green Girl, people. The Green Girl.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Avatar
Avatar
Avatar

Did you SEE the film? It's ALL Visual Effects. Avatar will DOMINATE technical categories.

BEST SOUND EDITING
Avatar
Avatar
Avatar

Did you HEAR the film? It's ALL Sound Editing. Avatar will DOMINATE technical categories.

BEST SOUND MIXING
Avatar
Avatar
Avatar

Did you HEAR the film? It's ALL Sound Mixing. Avatar will DOMINATE technical categories.

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM
The New Tenants
The New Tenants
The New Tenants

Yeah, as if ANY of us have seen any of the nominees. Just a good guess, but I figure since I'm in sinc w/EW.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
A Matter of Loaf & Death
Logorama
Logorama

Not having seen any (big surprise for El Paso) I'm going to go against the trend to give it to four-time winner Nick Park (even though I LOVE Wallace & Gromit--who doesn't).

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Music By Prudence
China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province

I was the only one that thought Smile Pinki, about a girl from India who has an operation to repair a cleft lip (through the work of The Smile Train, an organization I'm proud to support) would win. Entertainment Weekly was wrong on that count and I think they are wrong this year. I think the Academy will gravitate towards tragedy. Then again, Smile Pinki was an OPTIMISTIC story, and Music By Prudence appears to be optimistic too. We should cry out to have these films available, and less Transformers.

Well, for my part, I will be happy to see this year's Oscars officially close. Whoever gets The Big Prize will not find themselves ranking alongside Casablanca, The Godfather or All Quiet on the Western Front, but they won't be along the likes of No Country For Old Men or Titanic.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Letters Stand for "Just Fiction, Kids". JFK Review


JFK

There is a famous line in JFK, where Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) tells his staff in his N'awlins drawl, "We're through the looking-glass people, where black is white and white is black". Nothing captures JFK so accurately, a film that is technically first-rate but so historically irresponsible it may end up achieving the opposite of what it claims to want to do. It paints crazy people as sane, sane people as useful idiots, and history as being in flux. It may claim to want to solve the mystery around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but what it ultimately does is make it so confusing that the truth may never now be fully known or accepted.

We begin at the beginning, where in a montage narrated by Martin Sheen (who more than other actors is identified as J.F.K. via his starring role in the mini-series Kennedy) and we end with the assassination itself. Now we go to Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the New Orleans District Attorney. Three years on, D.A. Garrison can't let the assassination go. He begins to suspect that Lee Harvey Oswald is NOT the assassin, but instead 'just a patsy': a stooge, a fall guy, one left out to dry.

He begins his own investigation into the assassination and makes a shocking discovery: there was not only a conspiracy, but a MASSIVE conspiracy where there were TWO assassins (neither being Oswald himself) and that involved (as far as I can make out) Cuban exiles, the CIA, the FBI, perhaps the Mafia, and possibly Fidel Castro, the federal government and then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

The motive for what is called a "coup d'etat" is quite simple: to stop President Kennedy from being President. The military-industrial complex must be fed, and with Kennedy about to stop that gravy train, these disparate groups joined forces for their own reasons (I imagine the logic of Cuban exiles AND Castro working together to save Vietnam from the Americans escapes only me) to stop the President from A.) achieving peace with the Soviets, B.) ending the space race, C.) ending the Cold War, and D.) pulling out of Vietnam.

All this he would have achieved in his second term (which we ALL should know was a given, given his landslide the first go-round). Only Garrison has the intelligence and the courage to unmask this evil, and the only one who dares speak the truth to a world that refuses to believe. He manages to bring New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) up on charges of conspiracy, but as in all Quixotic battles, the conspiracy holds.

 

JFK is excellently put together. Many times it is impossible or extremely difficult to distinguish what footage was from 1963 and what footage is from 1991. The shifts from color to black-and-white photography give the film a documentary-like style. The editing by Joe Hutshin and Pietro Scalia is so seamless one almost has to be an expert to know what is what. John Williams' score is also brilliant: it gives the film this menace, this sense of danger and conspiracy that reflects well on both Williams' talent and the overall sense of conspiracy in the film.

The performances are also first-rate. As Garrison, Kevin Costner gives a masterful performance. His Garrison is an extremely good and noble man, the ubiquitous pipe giving him an air of respectability, a professorial, almost Holmesian manner to his investigation. The summation at Shaw's trial is a brilliant piece of acting. It takes an extraordinary talent to carry off such a long monologue scene, and Costner creates a mesmerizing piece of acting where he holds you in his hands. Gary Oldman (who shockingly has YET to receive a single Oscar nomination) makes you forget he's British and makes Oswald not just a loner but a shadow, a mystery man who is just out of reach.

There are also solid performances from such varied performers as Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Ed Asner, Donald Sutherland, and most surprising to me, John Candy as attorney Dean Andrews with an extremely convincing New Orleans accent. I was surprised in Candy's dramatic turn, at how well it was done, and how good he was in a very small role.

Having said all that, praising JFK where it needs to be praised, the films fails to be reality-based. There are times when director Oliver Stone lights Costner in such a way as to almost give Garrison a quasi-divine look to him. The same thing that made JFK effective in its camera work is also what makes it dangerously deceitful. For someone who knows little to nothing about the Kennedy assassination, the information being presented is shown as the unvarnished truth when in reality it is highly selective.

Take that same trial scene. Never do we get a counter-argument, one that provides contradictory evidence to rebut Garrison's claims. That would not serve its purposes, which ultimately is not to entertain or even draw light on the Kennedy case. The entire raison d'ete of JFK is to convince people that there was this conspiracy so large that by the end of the film one is convinced that one's own parents were somehow involved. Early on in the film, Ed Asner's Guy Bannister (ex FBI and John Bircher) cheers on the assassination, toasting the "end of Camelot". This would have been nonsense to say in 1963 because no one referred to the Kennedy Administration as "Camelot". This started shortly AFTER the assassination, and even the most cursory student of history would know this. The fact that so many Americans are shockingly ignorant of their own past is an embarrassment unto itself, but it also allows such free-wheeling with history to pass unquestioned by the mass public.

By JFK accounts, Lee Harvey Oswald was a lousy shot who had no reason to learn Russian. By historic accounts, Lee Harvey Oswald was a marksman who taught himself basic Russian in order to live in the U.S.S.R. Which is to be believed? I'm not here to argue over the historical accuracy of JFK. As in all films based on historic events/people, certain liberties will be taken for dramatic effect. That's par for the course.

What separates JFK from other films is that JFK presents itself as being closer to the Truth than actual history would allow. It takes great pains to portray fiction AS fact and fact AS fiction. The famous "magic bullet" theory is presented in a way as to have the audience draw the conclusion the film-makers (director/co-writer Stone with his co-writer Zachary Sklar) want you to draw. That would make JFK not merely manipulative. It would make it propaganda.

Some parts are so obviously ridiculous one wonders how reasonably intelligent people could believe such things. Take Sutherland's character. Garrison met him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and this 'contact' would recognize Garrison by an umbrella. I howled with laughter when he introduced himself to Garrison as "X". Could we get a more idiotic code name? Unless he was a black man with red hair and a fiery speaking style no person should ever refer to himself as "X" or his superior as "General Y". The last time X and Y were linked in a conspiracy it involved the French attempting a shakedown of the U.S. government in the first Adams Administration. If Garrison really met a whistle blower who called himself "X", then Garrison was bordering on insane.

 

It also is extremely insane to believe that this cabal would go through all this trouble to be rid themselves of President Kennedy when he was one year away from re-election. If they really thought the President was so dangerous to the cause of world peace (he was for it, they were against it), they could have worked their wonders to have Barry Goldwater elected (someone much more in line with their 'kill them all' policy). It would have taken months if not years to have pulled everyone out of Vietnam and have detente with the Soviets. Frankly, contrary to how Stone et. al. view President Kennedy, in reality he was a staunch anti-Communist and not a Jimmy Carter with more sex appeal. If they wanted to get rid of him sooner, all they had to do was leak information about the President's Addison's Disease or his sexual indiscretions, and the resulting scandal would have either cost him re-election or forced him to resign and they would have gotten Johnson in office. In short, all these machinations weren't necessary and it's so bizarre to think such a disparate group of people would plan such an elaborate scheme to remove a politician from office when much simpler and cheaper methods were available.

I also found the constant showing of the Zapruder film to be cruel and gratuitous. I find it perverse to be shown in slow motion a man having his brains blown out over and over and over and once more. The whole thing borders on sadistic. Restraint should have been called for, but when you're convinced that you are speaking Truth to Power, there's no holding you.

Ultimately, JFK is a landmark film, but for all the wrong reasons. It is the beginning of Oliver Stone's conspiratorial bent, where he presents his version of history as almost Gospel. Nixon, W., even Wall Street: somehow Stone has become the unofficial chronicler of the times, and his reality has replaced the history section as THE TRUTH ITSELF in the minds of Americans. People now get their history and facts from film and television. JFK made Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock more acceptable as documentarians when in reality they have made opinions and selective facts pass as 'nothing but the truth'.

The film also has made the idea of massive conspiracies almost normal. All those "9/11 Truthers" and "Birthers" (those convinced the attacks on September 11th were done with the knowledge of or by the U.S. government itself or that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and thus is an illegitimate President respectively) are the children of the world of JFK. The tragedy of the assassination is compounded by the lunacy of the film itself.

JFK is a disservice. As a film, it's brilliantly put together. As reality, it's a fraud. Does the film work as fiction? Yes. As fact? No. However, it is being presented AS fact. In truth, JFK is as truthful as Triumph of the Will. Nothing will ever dissuade the true believers like Garrison or Stone. It's true that black is white and white is black. Lack of evidence is presented AS evidence of a conspiracy, contradictory evidence is presented as evidence of a conspiracy. It's an ironic turn in history that Americans believe there was a major conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy and none to assassinate Lincoln when in reality there is more solid proof for a conspiracy against Lincoln than there is against Kennedy. Curious no one ever thinks there was a conspiracy in the assassinations of Presidents Garfield or McKinley.

It presents truth as fiction and fiction as truth. In that lies the real danger, more dangerous than any conspiracy: the idea that JFK is reality.

1921-1992
 
DECISION: B- (The Film)
DECISION: F (The Content)