Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: 'Another Year'

I saw this movie on Friday and decided to write an honest-to-goodness review of a film for once.  Sorry it got a little long-winded, hope you enjoy.  

There’s a scene in Another Year in which Gerri, a post middle-aged woman played by Ruth Sheen, is tending to her and her husband Tom’s (Jim Broadbent) allotment, a modest little garden outside of London, where they grow tomatoes.  It is autumn, and the sun is shining and the vines are bearing plump, lipstick-red, ripened tomatoes.  Taking a quick break from the labor, Gerri looks up to the England sky as a breeze gains momentum and passes through the meadow, and closes her eyes to enjoy this brief and beautiful moment in time.  This scene could tell you much about the film, or not; the film itself leaves it up to you to decide. 

Perhaps it was because I was enjoying my own little slice of life; a great day of January whether in combination with a day off of school.  Before going into the theater to watch the movie, I sat outside a coffee shop next door enjoying an espresso, neglecting my usual distractions of my iPhone or my laptop in favor of observing the other customers, their dogs, other folks passing by along the sidewalk, and the hustle and bustle of nearby shops. 

Perhaps I harnessed that joy I was feeling, that acute awareness of my simple blessings that comes along maybe once a month, as I walked from the coffee shop into the theater.  Perhaps that is why this film, directed by the Brit veteran Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake) is one that had me smiling from ear to ear at points and nearly in tears at others, and was a viewing experience that I won’t soon forget.

Tom and Gerri (yes, you read that correctly) are the emotional anchors at the center of the narrative.  The long happily married couple work at modest jobs, but make enough to have a decent home, and entertain guests with good food and wine.  Among these guests are Gerri’s co-worker and friend Mary, a middle-aged, nervous, very single, wine-gulping and depressed woman, wonderfully played by Lesley Manville.  Another is Ken, an old school buddy of Tom’s who is equally as hopeless as Mary, but unlike her he seems to have accepted this fate.  There is Tom’s brother, an almost-mute who experiences the loss of his wife.  And lastly is Tom and Gerri’s son, a 30-something who comes by every so often, and maintains a balanced relationship with his parents. 

A very telling seen involves a dinner with Ken, who, after devouring plates of food as well as several beers and who knows how much wine, opines over a cigarette that things aren’t like they used to be.  When he was younger, people would “meet at the pub, have a few drinks, and go out for a curry,” but that doesn’t happen anymore.  Mike Leigh, who also wrote the script, consistently reminds us about the passing of time (the film is a literal year, broken into four sections denoted by the seasons); people change, get older, both a birth and death occur, a new relationship forms, while another may be squelched.

Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen give great
performances in Another Year.
Tom and Gerri understand that time is precious, and therefore treat each other, as well as their friends and family, with love and respect, despite their flaws.  Mary’s character comes into the forefront of the story as the year progresses—for all of Tom and Gerri’s stability, Mary’s contrasting instability becomes grating.  Her faint hope of finding a man to take care of her dwindles by every season, starting with spring and ending, for her, in the cold reality that is winter.  But the suggestion is that Tom and Gerri have found happiness because they have chosen it, whereas Mary or Ken may expect it to come by way of luck, and therefore remain disappointed in the way their lives have turned out.    

This is where the scene that I described at the beginning of this review becomes important.  By what methods do we find contentment—luck or choice?  Gerri’s choice to stop and delight in the breeze asks us this question.  Do we resent a spring shower that comes while working in the garden, or are we thankful for the moisture that it brings?  Do we invite friends into our homes for food and drink and company, or do we wait to be invited?  Some measure of luck is no doubt involved, but our decisions, over time, make us who we are. 

And so Another Year is exactly what its title claims—a small measure of time in the lives of no one in particular.  In this way, perhaps it tells us more about ourselves than it says about the characters in the film, which is a remarkable cinematic achievement in itself. 

Besides the wonderful direction, script, and acting, which I’ve already discussed, the cinematography, score, costumes and makeup, and particularly the art direction/set design add a genuine and wonderful feel to the film.  These technical elements will not go noticed by awards bodies due to their lack of flashiness, but perhaps added as much to the aesthetic of a film as any I’ve seen this year.  


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Film Friday: Volume IV

Before diving in to this weeks films, allow me to tell you about one of my favorite subplots for this Oscar season, and 2010 as a movie year in general.   

A Tale of Two Films:

The first film was produced by one of the biggest entertainment studios in the world on a budget of 200 million dollars, the 20th highest budget in film history.  Despite playing on over 3000 screens with hiked up prices from 3D and IMAX, in one month it has grossed 158 million dollars, which isn’t exactly chump change unless your still 40 million short of your investment and falling off quickly from week to week.  This first film will probably inch its way toward meeting its budget over the next few weeks while executives of this studio sweat in their Armani suits, sitting in their corner LA office, afraid to answer their phones or check their email. 

The second film is the passion project of an auteur director.  Despite the fact that his previous film grossed 26 million from only 670 screens on a meager budget of 6 million, and garnered two Oscar nominations in acting categories, this director had all kinds of trouble financing his new movie.  Even though one of Hollywood’s hottest young Oscar-nominated actresses was starring in the particularly sexy lead role, the film almost didn’t get made AT ALL until a studio decided to throw the director a bone, giving him 13 million to stretch as thin as possible.  The film has now grossed over 77 million on 2300 screens and has only played wide for 3 weeks or so.  As this second film briskly walks its way to 100 million dollars, racks up all kinds of nominations/awards from critics and awards bodies, including probable Best Picture, Director, and Actress nominations from the Academy, this director will be smoking Cubans and drinking Scotch out of crystal glasses while counting Benjamins and laughing to himself at the gutless execs.    

Natalie Portman will win an Academy Award thanks
to the creativity of director Darren Aronofsky
The two movies, as you may have guessed, are TRON: Legacy and Black Swan, respectively.   I totally don’t have anything against TRON at all (in fact I recommended it on this blog a few weeks ago) but my point in writing this is that this year, if anything, has proven to me that the cheap and uncreative methods of turning a profit in the film industry did not work out as well for the studios as they have in the past, while intelligent and adult films with modest budgets are racking up all kinds of awards while making some money along the way, and it has sort of restored my faith in American filmmaking, to be honest with you.  Let me further illustrate the point with a few examples (Grosses through 1/20):

True Grit: Budget=38M, Gross=138M
The King’s Speech: Budget=15M, Gross=49M (only played wide for a few weeks)
The Fighter: Budget=25M, Gross=68M (this movie almost didn’t even get made)
The Social Network: Budget=40M, Gross=94M

And even Blue Valentine on a mere 230 screens in 3 weeks has pulled down 3M on a 1M budget, a staggering $9,000 per theatre average.  When it releases wide, it will make bank. 

All of this to say, creativity hasn’t quite been killed, not just yet.  I must keep hope alive.  

Now let me talk about some movies, and if you haven’t seen this column yet then check out the idea behind it here.

“The Damned United” (2009)

Back in the summer I mentioned on the blog here how much I enjoyed this movie, but I recently watched it again and I’m going to keep singing this film’s praises until I feel it starts getting its due.  Michael Sheen stars as Brian Clough, outspoken manager of British “football” (proper) team Leeds United in the early 70’s, and he gives undoubtedly one of my favorite lead male performances of 2009.  He effortlessly carries the film on its shoulders and transforms a seemingly pedestrian real-life back-story into a compelling and dramatic character study.

Give credit where credit is due though, to Tom Hooper, the Brit director at the helm of the whole thing.  (You will hear his name announced as Best Director nominee on Tuesday for his magnificent work in The King’s Speech).  He captures so much authenticity and adds just enough directorial flair without ever getting in the way of his own stories that he is telling, and manages to engage viewers at moments in a narrative where many would bore.  Even though there is not much in the way of actual sports taking place on screen, this is by far my favorite sports film of the past few years (well, other than The Blind Side, of course...).    

It’s on Netflix Instant.  Check it out.  8.5/10

“Annie Hall” (1975)

I know I’m REALLY breaking some new ground here by recommending Annie Hall to you, but I just saw it for the first time over my Christmas break and I have to say, it lives up to every bit of hype it gets.  It laid out the template for the modern rom-com, which many have imitated but haven’t quite replicated.  Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are wonderfully charming, funny, and in Keaton’s case, sexy.  The star of the film, though, is Woody Allen’s script, which had me laughing all the way through, even at more dramatic moments.  In my opinion, the reason the script works so well is because it is partly autobiographical, and therefore is handled with great care by Mr. Allen.  

A young Allen here is his patented cynical self without resorting to disdain, as many of his recent movies do, and he has enough wide-eyed belief in love and relationships for the viewer to take the cynicism in stride.  If Woody Allen slowed down every once in awhile and made one movie every three or four years that was HALF as good as Annie Hall, he would be a first ballot hall-of-famer, so to speak.  9/10.

“Away We Go” (2009)

For my film that I do not recommend, I chose this film by Sam “I hate suburbia” Mendes.  Oh, look Jon Krasinski has a beard, and long hair, and thick-rimmed glasses, he must be quirky!  Look at all of the wacky personalities they meet on their journey to find a new home!  They don’t want to settle down and be like everyone else, they must different...and better than YOU! 

Sam Mendes (director of American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) clearly has an intense aversion to middle-class suburbanites, which would be just fine with me as long as he didn’t make it so painfully and unavoidably evident in all of his films.  This movie could have been fun, but it was so chalk-full of holier-than-thou pity that hovered over the whole thing like a cumulus cloud of flatulence that you couldn’t even take it remotely seriously as a work of art.  3/10. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Oscar Nomination Predictions 2011

Here they are, as promised.

But first, before presenting to you these nominations that you can take to the bank, let me make some comments.  Originally in this post, I wrote up some "Oscar subplots for 2011," but that ended up being over 2000 words and basically blew up into a post of its own.  Then, I was planning on discussing the minutia behind just about every prediction...I started doing that and that ended up being like 2000 words also.  Long story short, this post, unedited or restructured, would have ended up passing as a term paper at most colleges.  I figured I would save you the time.

However, let me just say this: predicting Oscar wins after the nominations have been announced is fairly easy; but predicting noms themselves, not so easy.  If you pay attention all the way through awards season (actually, if you just read anything at all during the awards season), the race shapes up pretty solidly by the time Oscar night rolls around.  The Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild, Producers Guild, Writer's Guild, etc...all are highly indicative of who will prevail come Oscar night.  Yes, there are a few curveballs thrown every once in a while, a la Crash beating Brokeback Mountain in 2006 for Best Picture (although the reason for this may have been anti-gay motivated more than anything).  There's almost always a surprise in one of the acting categories as well (last year was an exception to this rule).

However, predicting Oscar nominations is a trickier game.  Obviously, having 5x or 10x the number of movies to predict in each category is part of the reason for this.  It's gonna be difficult to get everything right in any given category--I'm shooting for 4/5 or 8/10 in all of the categories.  If you can pull off a straight 5/5 or 10/10 though, you look like a genius (I will).

For my predictions, I'm only doing the "above the line" categories, meaning only Picture, Director, Acting, and Screenplay categories.

So here they are, in all of their glory:

The Social Network is still the film to beat this Oscar season.

Best Picture
The Social Network
The King’s Speech
The Fighter
Black Swan
True Grit
Toy Story 3
The Kids Are All Right
127 Hours
Winter’s Bone

Best Director
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Christopher Nolan, Inception
Joel & Ethan Coen, True Grit

Best Actor in a Leading Role
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
James Franco, 127 Hours
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Robert Duvall, Get Low

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Mark Ruffalo gave one of my favorite performances of the
year in The Kids Are All Right.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Christian Bale, The Fighter
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Hailee Steinfield, True Grit
Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech               
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Mila Kunis, Black Swan

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
127 Hours
True Grit
Blue Valentine 

Best Original Screenplay
The King’s Speech
The Kids Are All Right
Another Year
Black Swan

Friday, January 7, 2011

Film Friday: Volume III

Check out the idea behind this new series of posts here.

I try to mask my insatiable love of Oscar season as much as possible on this blog, but unfortunately for all of you, I can’t hold out too much longer on writing a lengthy Oscar predictions post, which will be forthcoming this week in advance of the announcement of the nominations on January 25th.  I know in the past I have promised columns and not gotten around to writing them, but you can bet the farm that I will be writing this one in the coming week. 

In the mean time, for today’s Film Friday, I wanted to write a little bit about a few films that will not be (or weren’t) anywhere near the Academy Awards; cause, you know, they occasionally (rolls eyes) miss some good movies from time to time. 

“Cyrus” (2010)

Another movie that was a total surprise for me this year.  It probably won’t end up on my top-10 list for the year, but it was a really heartfelt comedy that manages to stay funny throughout the film while making an emotional connection with the audience—something that many comedies try to achieve but do not come anywhere near doing so. 

The story centers around John C. Reilly’s character, a slowly recovering divorcee who somehow scores a date with Marissa Tomei’s character (only in movies).   Unfortunately for Reilly’s character, she has a grown up son (Jonah Hill) still living at home and attached to her hip. 

One of the things that makes this a solid film is the acting that directors Jay & Mark Duplass manage to draw out of Reilly and Hill, two actors who tend to play the same type of characters over and over, but here find themselves very comfortably inside the skin of the written characters while adding just enough of their own traditional flair to them.  This movie went under the radar for a lot of people, but it’s out to rent now and I highly recommend checking it out.  7.5/10

“The Bicycle Thief” (1948)

This was a film that I watched back in the summer as part of my attempt to become a classic film snob.  It’s an Italian film, so the combination of Foreign + Pre-1960 Film gets you a LOT of snob points. 

It was immediately easy for me to see why this is regarded as such a classic when I was watching it.  It has the simplest story: A man looking for work in post-WWII Italy finally gets a job that requires him to have a bicycle to ride around on.  After selling sheets and blankets in order to purchase the bike, it is tragically stolen from him.  He then embarks on a journey with his young son around the city to find the bike and the thief, and to bring them to justice.  What ensues is a morally ambiguous and politically-driven narrative that is well-acted and SUPREMELY directed.   It’s on Netflix Instant and has a mere 90-minute runtime, so do yourself a favor and watch it.  8.5/10

“Greenberg” (2010)

For my film that I do NOT recommend, I chose this Ben Stiller vehicle driven by highly regarded director Noah Baumbach.  I’m sort of sticking my neck out here in proclaiming I didn’t like it, because apparently a lot of people did like it as it is getting nominated for a lot of awards. 

Ben Stiller stars as Roger Greenberg, a boy in a man’s body who apparently is obsessive-compulsive (one of my least favorite character devices in movies unless we’re talking about Nick Cage in Adaptation), and who is staying at his brother’s LA home while the brother is out of the country for awhile. 

Roger Greenberg is a bitter man that manages to piss off pretty much every other character in the film at some point, particularly Florence, his love interest, played by Greta Gerwig (one of the only good aspects of the film is her character).  It’s not that I’m inherently against a-hole characters in movies, it’s just that Greenberg has almost literally zero redeeming value as a human.  He has no character arc, never learns from any of his lessons.  It makes little sense that anyone, especially Florence, would want to keep spending any time around him.  I know I didn’t. 

I’ll give this a generous 5/10.  

Monday, January 3, 2011

Seven Intriguing Storylines for 2011

This story about some 2011 movies coming out caught my eye, and my interest some of you.  Courtesy of the LA Times.  Which one of the storylines here interest you most?  Mine might have to be Mel Gibson's The Beaver.  

"January brings New Year's resolutions, holiday hangovers and, apparently, a lot of "The Dilemma" commercials. Although the Vince Vaughn vehicle isn't a huge storyline in moviedom, there are a number of narratives in and around the film world set to unfold in the coming months. Here are a baker's half-dozen to keep an eye on.
The "Twilight" crowd, the morning after: They've branched out into other roles before. But 2011 will bring moments of truth for all three lead actors in the "Twilight" franchise: Robert Pattinson in the period circus drama "Water for Elephants" (coming in April), Taylor Lautner in the teen fugitive thriller "Abduction" (coming in September) and Kristen Stewart in the adaptation of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" (date TBD). The last two movies in the franchise that made them famous are shooting now. Which of the trio can fashion the most productive post-Forks career?
The Battle of the Greens: When footage of Seth Rogen's comedic "The Green Hornet" screened at Comic-Con last summer, it drew a tepid response, paling in comparison to Ryan Reynolds' more muscular "The Green Lantern." But in the last two months, the tide has turned: The Rogen movie, coming out later this month, is testing well, and the trailer for the springtime Reynolds movie elicited some perplexed reactions. Is there room for two green superheroes? Or will only one of the films take the ring?
Reboot Redux: We've seen a fair number of reboots already, but 2011 will bring a slew of them: a new "Planet of the Apes," a new "Smurfs" movie, a new "Conan the Barbarian." Some say enough with the rummage sale, but reboots like "Star Trek" and "The Karate Kid" have performed well. Can the streak continue?
"The Hangover" hangover? It was one of the biggest surprises of 2009. But the sequel has been filled with more hiccups than a Bjorn-held baby. First there was a fracas over the casting, and then non-casting, of Mel Gibson. Then came the news last month of a serious injury to a stunt man. Can Todd Phillips successfully take his endearingly ragtag group of man-children from Vegas to Thailand, or would he have better luck at the Bally's craps table?
A tree grows in Malick-ville: Rarely does a movie not based on a comic book generate this much advance hype. But more than four months ahead of the release of "The Tree of Life," the buzz is already nearing crescendo levels for Terrence Malick's long-developing autobiographical epic. Will it live up to the standards of the director's "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven?" Or will its meditative tone make even "The New World" seem like a potboiler?
How super "Super 8"? With J.J. Abrams writing and directing and Steven Spielberg producing, it's one of the most high-profile collaborations in modern commercial fimmaking. It's also one of the most secretive. The 1979-set film, scheduled for a June release, may or may not be about an alien invasion, supernatural occurrences or any of another number of phenomena. Is it the second coming of "Star Trek" or a marketing idea in search of a story?
Beavering: It was a much-ballyhooed story long before a trailer was even released. The story will only heat up as the months become weeks for the release of "The Beaver," the first Mel Gibson movie to come out since he allegedly verbally abused ex-lover Oksana Grigorieva, and one with some additional challenges given its beaver-puppet themes. Will the actor turn out to do publicity? And will the public forgive him he does?"
                                                                                                                                    --Steven Zeitchik

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Film Friday (On a Saturday) Vol. II

Check out the idea behind these new weekly posts here.  December has given me an embarrassment of riches as far as the quality of movies I have seen in the theatre, including The King’s Speech, Black Swan, The Fighter, True Grit, and TRON: Legacy, which I write about below.  I plan on writing a little more about a couple of these this coming week.  Here are my picks for this week, and for the love of mercy remember the order: first movie = good new movie, second movie = good older movie, third movie = bad movie. 

“TRON: Legacy” (2010)

I almost hesitate to recommend this here because I wasn’t a huge fan of it, but I did think it was such an audio-visual treat that I think a lot of you would enjoy watching it.  This is definitely one that you want to see in IMAX 3D or you might as well not even bother.  If you want to see it at all, don’t wait and simply rent it. 

I could talk about the story but I’m not even sure if it matters.  Garrett Hedlund, the lead of the film, wasn’t given very much love critically for his performance but I actually enjoyed what he did with a very underwritten character.  Jeff Bridges gives a very interesting performance, as he not only reprises his role from the original but also plays the villain. 

None of that even I said, it’s all about the audio-visual aspects of the film.  Daft Punk’s electronica-sounding score is one of the best I’ve heard this year, and perfectly complements the film.  Visually, the action sequences taking place on “the grid” are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, though there are spots where I felt they were recycling the same things over and over.   
Despite the meandering story, I still recommend checking this one out before it leaves the theatres.  6.5/10

“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)

I’ve written before about how my dad is a huge old movie buff.  This is one of his favorite films, and I finally got a chance to check it out a couple of weeks ago.  It follows the different lives of three WWII veterans as they return home the war, and looks at the challenges that each one of them face in returning to civil life: one, a young amputee with hooks for hands; another, a poor man with marital troubles and post-traumatic stress syndrome; and lastly, a family man who has missed several important years of his children growing up. 

William Wyler, the director of this film (and the most Oscar-winningest director of all time), is a natural at the emotional storytelling that takes place.  At the same time, one of the things that I appreciated most about the film is that it is emotional about veteran life without being overly sentimental or unrealistic about it.  Wyler gives enough directorial flair to turn what would have been a really good movie into a great movie.  This Best-Picture winner is not one to be missed.  8.5/10.  

“It’s Complicated”  (2009)

Meryl Streep, I expected better from you.  Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, not so much...but you, Meryl?

Nancy Meyers (director of such classic films as The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, and What Women Want) returns here to give us another story about the pain and drama in the lives of the middle-aged upper class.  Excuse me if I don’t exactly feel their pain.  Streep and Baldwin star as divorcees who fall back in love with each other, “complicating” things. 

The only problem is that neither Meyers, nor Streep or Baldwin make me feel at all during the film that anything is actually complicated.  The film should rather be called “It’s Slightly Inconvenient in My Otherwise Privileged and Lavish Lifestyle.”  I’ll give you that I’m not really the target audience of a film like this.  However, a good director would make this story appeal to more than just a very specific pocket of people, and instead of stereotyping and generalizing the characters to appeal to this pocket (and the lowest common denominator in that pocket), they would have tried to bring the film to life through some more specific characterization for Streep, Baldwin and Martin.  It pains me to say it, but none of the three of them give even a decent performance.  

Whatever.  People will see this anyway, and I'm sure a lot of people liked it/will like it, but it just wasn't for me.  At all.  How's that for film criticism?  3/10.