Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince **

Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith
Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Tom Felton, Bonnie Wright

"Are you confused?" asks a concerned Albus Dumbledore (Gambon) to Harry Potter (Radcliffe) as they uncover yet another dark mystery halfway throughout the film. "I wouldn't be surprised if you were" he continues without waiting for Harry's reply.
Dumbledore, as it seems, may not only be speaking to Potter, but to an entire audience, who have never read J.K. Rowling's famous books and will have a hard time following, or even being interested, in a movie that contains as many plot holes, discrepancies, lack of character subtext and coherence as there are tastes in Bernie Bott's Every Flavor Beans.
Since there is no re-introduction needed the film throws us back into Hogwarts where Harry and his friends Ron Weasley (Grint) and Hermione Granger (Watson) return for another year of misadventures.
This time around Lord Voldemort's Death Eaters, who have seemingly recruited Draco Malfoy (Felton) as an inside agent, have been attacking the Muggle world and are, as usual, trying to infiltrate Hogwarts and help their master take over the world.
After almost reaching a decade of movies, the Harry Potter series has become formulaic and by now everyone knows that all of the films will at some point have all of the following: Christmas vacations, a Quidditch match, a sudden attack from Voldemort and a new professor in the school.
Said professor now comes in the shape of Horace Slughorn (Broadbent) who is reluctant to return to Hogwarts, but does so after insistence from Dumbledore.
Slughorn may possess valuable information about Tom Riddle (A.K.A Voldemort) which might help the good guys get rid of him before long.
Dumbledore of course recruits Potter to carry out this mission and most of the film consists of the execution of said plan.
The problem with such a thing is that the films have fallen also into a state of disconnect from any sort of "realism".
Why are we supposed to believe that things go wrong only when the kids are back in Hogwarts? Does evil also take a summer break? None of the films in the saga so far have been able to create believable links between each installment.
It's ironic when Professor Minerva McGonagall (Smith) tells Harry, Ron and Hermione "why is it that whenever something happens, you three are always involved?".
It's obvious that they're the stars, but it should be only obvious for the audience, not the characters themselves.
Most of the ensemble does a good work; people like Smith, Gambon, Carter (who is a wicked tease!) and Rickman can do no wrong (he is a particularly sinister scene stealer) and the delightful Broadbent brings freshness to what was feeling like a stale staff.
The kids on the other side are obviously still learning their craft. Most of the time they act like actors acting.
This problem is more obvious with Radcliffe, who movie after movie, manages to turn Potter into an uninterestingly smug kid playing humble and nice.
It comes as no wonder however that they act this way, when the film constantly neglects their "human" side. They are forced fed with dialogues and quips that have no verosimilitude and because of this the film loses its most important ally.
There are several subplots involving their sexual self awareness. Harry begins to fall for Ron's sister Ginny (Wright) while Hermione puts aside her pride and accepts that she might have feelings for Ron. They all of course spend most of the film denying such things and date other students to get over their actual feelings.
And it's not so surprising that these are the most involving scenes in the movie, where the kids get to act like kids and saving the world is something that comes second after finding who they really are.
The film is filled with sexual innuendos (that seem accidental) but actually make the whole thing feel alive for once. There is a particular Quidditch match where the position of Ron's broomstick only rises more as he becomes more satisfied.
But then the director comes and completely de-sexualizes the characters turning them into words straight out of a screenplay.
One, that isn't even that good to begin with. Writer Steve Kloves' delivers his most uneven script of the series yet. Many things in this installment seem incomplete; several key characters disappear for long periods of time and some are featured just for the sake of filling a billing.
Even if you haven't read the book it's easy to detect that a lot of material has been ignored because the plot advances in a bizarre way, it stalls more than it flows.
Fans of the book will probably dislike this feeling, but those who go to the theater expecting to see a movie will also have much to wish for.
Both Kloves and Yates seem to have forgotten that they are crafting a movie and unlike in literature there are things that can't be found by turning back a page at your desire.
"The Half-Blood Prince" feels more like a work in progress than an ultimate adaptation and very few scenes evoke a pinch of emotion out of the viewer.
It's a shame because with the magnificent work of the tech department (the costumes and art direction are stunning) the look of the saga has finally matured.
Particularly with the achievement of director of photography Bruno Delbonnel, who does actual magic with the light and his camera.
Several scenes in the film will take your breath away just from the sheer beauty they possess. Delbonnel transports his sunny French take into Hogwarts which is a more macabre environment.
His aesthetic sometimes recall nineteenth century fairy tale engravings which had both the mystery and the humanity that fascinated and attracted people so much to these stories.
Through his lens for the first time the things inside a "Potter" movie feel less like props and more like actual lived-in heirlooms.

While Watching "The Country Girl"...

...I tried for a minute to think like AMPAS.
Got to the following conclusion.
If in under two hours Grace Kelly goes from this, this, this, this... MUST be great acting!

Masculin Femenin.

Browsing through Hilary Swank's Wikipedia page (don't even ask how I got there for starters) I found something curious (an obvious typo, well two actually, which make me doubt if it was just an accidental mistake) that made me laugh out loud and confirm one of the theories I've had about Ms. Swank for ages...
Click on the picture to see the categories she won a Golden Globe and Golden Satellite for in "Million Dollar Baby".

Makes one wonder if in this alternate Wiki-universe the rightful actresses were rewarded for their roles that year...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Don't Judge a Movie by Its VHS Cover.

Growing up, every time I passed by the Classics shelf in my video club I'd stare with wide eyes at all the riches I'd yet to see in my film education.
This way I usually passed "Separate Tables" looked at it in a weird way and never even bothered to read the back cover to see what the movie was actually about.
When I became an Oscar obsessive I realized the film had won David Niven a Best actor Oscar in 1958 (a year on which my knowledge is quite limited) and Niven, let's put it this way, has never been one of my favorite actors (I blame the godawful "Around the World in 80 Days" for feeling like this).
However; I finally ended up watching the film (in my ongoing attempt to watch every Best Picture nominee ever made), and to my surprise it was a pretty good movie, damn good actually.
Excellent cast, a brilliant screenplay and an altogether marvelous experience.
What I thought would be an affected comedy of manners was instead a serious ensemble drama providing some career best work for the likes of Burt Lancaster (he should've been nominated instead of Niven) and Rita Hayworth.
I was also surprised to see how good, if a bit forced, Deborah Kerr was playing a frumpy, submissive daughter (think Bette Davis in "Now, Voyager" and what are the odds her mom is also played by Gladys Cooper).
The plot touches some rather hard topics, they say the word "sex" more times than I thought would've been decent for the era and according to sources the film was rather scandalous at the time of its release.
Now it's pretty tame though, but it's still worth a watch.
And would you blame me for thinking this would suck with a cover like this?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Late Realization...

I just figured how funny, in a totally morbid way, Parker Posey's name in "Scream 3" is.
Haha...late and not so funny anymore, I know.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Prince Albert.


The Young Victoria **

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend
Miranda Richardson, Paul Bettany, Mark Strong
Thomas Kretschmann, Jim Broadbent

Before she became the symbol of all that is frumpy, strong willed and well, Victorian, Queen Victoria of England was a free spirited young woman with problems like every other teenager; including repressed passions, irrational decision making and a, Royal, family that didn't understand her.
Or so we are told by director Jean-Marc Vallée, who takes us to the years before and right after the Queen's coronation.
When the movie begins, with portentous title cards suggesting the melodramatic chaos that will ensue, Victoria is a child "jailed" within a palace under the watchful eye of her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Richardson) and her controlling adviser Sir John Conroy (Strong).
"What little girl does not dream of growing up as a princess" asks Victoria before Vallée turns her into Jane Eyre.
But this lasts only for a few scenes and before long the child grows up into Emily Blunt. As she approaches her eighteenth birthday, the soon to be queen, is harassed by the people who have some sort of interest in her.
On one side there's her mother and Sir John, who constantly try to make her sign regency papers to take over her crown. Then there's also her uncle, King William IV (Broadbent) who's set on having his niece marry his son and rule the country.
Across the channel there's her uncle King Leopold I of Belgium (Kretschmann) who needs British support to continue his kingdom and enlists Prince Albert of Germany (Friend) to go and seduce his cousin Victoria for him.
Before the Princess goes "nervous breakdown" on them all, her uncle dies and she is crowned. She moves to Buckingham Palace (the first English monarch to live there!), befriends Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Bettany) and falls in love with Albert, while surviving political crisis (over ladies in waiting?), giving birth to nine children and an assassination attempt.
Told with absolutely no scandalous theories, shocking sexual romps in the royal chamber (despite the Prince's famous ring), or even the most minimal attempt of questioning, the film plays out as very by the numbers and becomes pretty forgettable.
The screenplay, written by Julian Fellowes, is stacked with over the top lines meant to be opulent and Vallée's directorial tactics don't help in toning down the cheesiness.
"Do you ever feel like you're a chess piece in a game being played against your will?" asks Prince Albert to Victoria, while they play chess and are surrounded by her family and advisers...
Vallée is certainly not the master of subtlety (his previous film "C.R.A.Z.Y" was an exercise in coming of age/coming out clichés) and he fills "The Young Victoria" with obvious symbols, lazy time fluidity and dramatic tension that is only suggested by ominous music, fast editing and actors with eyes wide open (or the hairs in their arms raised in what proves to be an almost laughable moment).
The ensemble provides the job one would expect from renowned British actors in period costume; Richardson plays regretful meek, Strong is cartoon villain and Broadbent screams like only a King would be allowed to.
Friend is rather delightful and surprising, playing Albert with the suave coquetishness of a silent film movie star and his scenes truly give the film the spark of naive romance that would make Jane Austen TV adaptation fans fall in love with him.
While Blunt, who looks absolutely radiant, gives Victoria a sense of serenity and ironwill. She is able to play Victoria like a woman full of life, while infusing her with the stern, melancholy she would acquire in latter years and the one we have come to know of her.
But even if their work is good, the director makes sure they never feel like actual human beings, but as movie characters.
On the hands of someone with more expertise, the romance between Albert and Victoria wouldn't have been so sure, they would've had you doubting your knowledge of history or even popular culture.
The director could've taken two paths and either make this an ironic melodrama or a tempestuous postmodernist revision of history, instead he takes the safest path and doesn't do a single thing with the material.
Fans of shallow costume drama will go ga-ga over this queen as visually it's stunning (every pan and tilt seem to be designed to make audiences drool and Sandy Powell's costume design is, unsurprisingly, excellent), but there is little emotional or cerebral background to keep you interested.
The director's seeming fear of disrespect leaves him with flat characters and no spice. You can note this in how we see Victoria drawing in several occasions, yet the camera never shows us the results. Is it because the pictures might not satisfy us and we would end up thinking the Queen to lack talent?
During one scene Victoria sits in the theater under the sneaky, judgmental watch of the entire audience, Lord Melbourne asks her to kick them out to which she replies "if I ban everyone who thinks me wrong, you and I will be left alone."
In his too reverential "The Young Victoria" even she has been banned by Vallée.

While Watching "The Girlfriend Experience"...

I realized that the Audrey Hepburn look from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is perhaps the most overused styling done for female actresses of all time.
Hair up in a bun, clean cut black dress and shades are the epitome of classy simplicity.
Of course Sasha Grey plays an escort in this movie and Holly Golightly was one as well, even if the movie de-sexuallizes her too much.
But beyond this too specific homage from Steven Soderbergh, and his costume designer, the look has also been used recently in films like "Sex and the City".
Where else have you seen it?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Most Romantic Thing I've Seen in Ages.

The Girlfriend Experience ***

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Peter Zizzo

Steven Soderbergh's latest hi-def, low budget experiment takes us inside the life of high class escort Chelsea (Grey).
Set in the days leading to the 2008 elections in the United States, most of the characters' conversations revolve around Obama, the debates and the recession.
Therefore most of Chelsea's clients end up talking about contracts that worry them or advice her how to invest, instead of having actual sex.
She doesn't have sex with her boyfriend Chris (Santos) either as he spends all his time in the gym where he works or looking for new ways to make money.
Why then, one could ask, would Soderbergh cast professional porn star Grey to fill in a role that doesn't need her to do what she does best?
This is one of the director's many subtle commentaries contained in the film. This isn't a film about sex, but about transactions and sex as a transaction.
The title experience for example refers to a practice where men pay a sex worker to act like their girlfriend.
And not in some sort of emulation mode, if they have actual partners, but to act like they think a girlfriend should. Chelsea therefore nods, agrees with them, caresses their hair and then gives in to whatever their favorite sexual practices are.
Soderbergh's film is about the disappearance, and search, of the sexual fantasy as we once knew it. Has sex in fact stopped being a priority in the face of economic downfall?
The film is shot in cool hues, static closeups and smooth moves, as if we were watching an ad for a high end product. Said product would be Chelsea of course and she does her best to seem like an unreachable object of desire.
Grey who is featured in almost every scene does a remarkable job. She does what very few actors can do well: listen.
She listens so much to others that sometimes she seems to have disappeared. In several scenes she's left out of the frame while someone talks to her, or our view of her is blocked by her companions.
But at the center of this we have to wonder how much it's Grey acting and how much it's Chelsea acting. Chelsea after all is paid to do whatever her clients want her to do.
Soderbergh must've been aware of the post modernist implications in this and he does give the film a few more, hilarious inside jokes.
Like the brilliant casting of film critic Glenn Kenny as a man who offers to write a review for Chelsea in exchange for a complimentary taste of the goods.
His eventual review of her is laugh out loud funny and very bitter, leading us to die and see what Kenny ended up actually saying about the film as a whole.
It's also interesting how Soderbergh might be trying to say something about art with this statement. Are the movies he gets paid for the most the only ones he counts as art? There is much to see and think about in "The Girlfriend Experience" but only if you're willing to go with its flow...don't expect this movie to hold your hand.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Happy Birthday to...

He's ten this year!

Big Emmy Love...

Color me surprised about the fact that this year's Emmy nominations don't suck (the winners always make sure to screw that up though...).
I'd remained skeptical about the fact that they expanded their top categories to fit six, or more, nominees. Because like Oscar, Emmy always makes sure to fill the slots with the stuff they love despite sanity and good taste ("Two and a Half Men"...really? It's finally gone though!)
As expected "Mad Men", "30 Rock" and "Grey Gardens" led the nominations in the Drama, Comedy and Made for TV movie respectively.
Now on to my favorite bits!
-"Flight of the Conchords" gets nominated for Best Comedy! Jermaine Clement gets in for Best Actor! Awesome!
-My favorite TV drama, "Damages" gets in for Drama Series and William Hurt gets a Supporting Actor nod! Glenn Close and Rose Byrne also get Actress and Supporting Actress nods...but where'e the fabulous Marcia Gay Harden?
-"30 Rock" supporting players and usual MVPs Tracy Morgan, Jack McBrayer and the brilliant Jane Krakowski get Supporting nominations! Why don't I get sick of the love for this show? Emmy has showered it with millions of nominations since it started and for once they feel appropriate!
- Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange get Actress nods for their fabulous work in "Grey Gardens". Go Drew!
- Jeanne Tripplehorn gets a Supporting Actress nomination for her limited, but pseudo iconic, work as Jackie O. in "Grey Gardens". I truly loved her scenes.
- Elizabeth Moss gets nominated for "Mad Men"!
- Vanessa Williams, the only actor still doing great work in "Ugly Betty" gets nominated for Supporting Comedy Actress. Lead star isn't and with reason, she's been getting from dull to duller.
- Jon Hamm and Tina Fey get double nominations in Lead and Guest categories. May they win them both!
There sadly was no love for the campy "True Blood", the fantastic "Battlestar Galactica" and more love for "United States of Tara" besides Toni Collette's nod.
May the best and NPH win!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Easy Steps to Democracy.

"I think it's the best thing I ever read. I didn't understand a word of it."
- Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) to Paul Verrall (William Holden) after reading a piece he wrote about politics.

Watching "Born Yesterday" is a meta experience in more than one way.
For those fascinated with the Oscars and film history it's the film featuring the actress who beat both Bette Davis in "All About Eve" and Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Blvd." for the Best Actress award in 1950 (She also beat Anne Baxter from "All About Eve", but what she was doing there for starters, instead of being in the Supporting race- is a mystery of its own).
Judy Holliday plays Billie Dawn, a former showgirl who comes to Washington D.C. with her lover, corrupt tycoon, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford).
Brock, conscious that he, and consequently Billie, will be mingling with senators and important people decides his mistress needs an education.
He hires journalist Paul Varrell (William Holden) to help him out and before long Billie turns into an American revolution of her own.
Holliday, turns in the ultimate ditsy blonde performance. The, sexy/cute, high pitched voice and lovable dumbness, one that inspired Jayne Mansfield, Jean Hagen, Reese Witherspoon, Dyan Cannon, Lisa Kudrow and even Madonna since. It is rumored that Marilyn Monroe- the queen of the blondes- auditioned for the role and was brilliant, but Columbia boss Harry Cohn didn't even see her reel.
Holliday makes her entire performance something of an enigma. Thos on the Swanson/Davis team will argue that she stole the award without trying too hard, but perhaps playing dumb isn't as easy as one might think.
Holliday herself said "You have to be smart to play a dumb blonde over and over and keep the audience's attention without extraordinary physical equipment."
The actress had a very high IQ and watching her Billie onscreen is delightful because she shows absolutely no sign of this. The vagueness in her eyes is remarkable and in her one big dramatic scene she breaks your heart.
Holliday gives a performance of a woman giving a performance (which goes in the vein of what Davis and Swanson did in their respective movies playing actresses). With Billie we come to wonder if her dumbness isn't part of a role to help her achieve survival.
It may not be as grandiose and legendary a performance, but by all means it's a great part. I don't agree with her win, but there's not much we can do now.
Besides Oscars are given out through votes right? So in a way it's a democracy and we can't change history so moving on...
Then there's the whole issue of democratic history embedded in the structure of the film. By Hollywood standards Frank Capra is the master of political films, especially because his movies don't scream "politics!" even if they deal with social issues.
It's odd that he didn't get asked to direct this movie which contains some of the elements he was legendary for.
George Cukor however, whose specialty were stylized comedies and female roles, does marvellous work with the material and "Born Yesterday" feels a bit like "Miss Dawn Goes to Washington".
Cukor, like Capra, abstains from delivering an educational movie (who the hell goes to the movies to learn...on purpose?).
In the end however the film might as well comprise a crash course od modern politics and democracy. More than that the plot structure is almost a metaphor for the rise of American democracy.
Let's look at the facts.
Harry Brock would be equivalent to England during the colonies. Billie starts as the colonies; where people would soemtimes be shipped off as ways of punishment.
Harry has his way with Billie whenever he wants and she's subject to something she at first enjoys but then begins to question.
Paul Varrell in this case would be the founding fathers or some abstract spirit of education that enlightens them.
Billie eventually seeks her independence and establishes democracy as her way of living, even if she doesn't really understand it "If there's a fire and I call the engine, who am I double crossing? The fire?!?" she asks.
One of the movie's greatest scenes features the following dialogue:
Harry: "Who are you the government?"
Paul: "Yeah"
Harry:"Since when?"
Billie:"Since 1779! Right?"
From the film's light tone and interest in the law it's possible to guess that people back in 1950 were just as uninterested in politics as they are in 2009.
Therefore "Born Yesterday" is both a history and a lesson of democracy. It's fascinating to realize that even if democracy is a part of our every day language, it's not a concept we all grasp so easily.
Paul teaches Billie easy ways to understand different political views, "selfishness=fascism" in his view, even when some of his concepts are a bit too American and idealized for worldwide audiences Cukor's effort with the film is nothing but admirable.
Teach them something withou them knowing because as Paul says in the film "a world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in."

Utterly Unsettling.

Has anyone seen Michael Haneke's "Time of the Wolf"?
If so, what do you make out of it? Is it Haneke at his incendiary best or is it a pretentious attempt of the auteur to make us believe he can squeeze intellectual debate out of a McGuffin?

Monday, July 13, 2009

A blessing.

New in Town *

Director: Jonas Elmer
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr.
J.K. Simmons, Siobhan Fallon, Frances Conroy

Renée Zellweger plays Lucy, a-curiously untanned- Miami executive, who gets sent by her company to run a plant in Minnesota.
Being from Miami, she's obviously not prepared to embrace a small town and the film gives path so that her cold cold heart will melt with the help of the Jesus loving, tapioca eating, folks from the joyous Minnesota.
Anyone watching this film will be offended by at least two things: first the utter lack of originality displayed in the screenplay.
It's obvious that Lucy will become good and learn to love the townsfolk including the hunky union leader (who else but Connick Jr.?) and the nosy secretary (Fallon).
And because of this not a single actor in the film puts some effort into their characters. Simmons, who even looks uninterested, rehashes his usual lovable smartass role from "Juno" and "Spider-Man", Connick Jr. is so bland that you wonder who refused his role so that he ended up taking over and Zellweger who is usually charming and cute is so icy and detached that nothing in the film ever really makes you like her.
In fact absolutely no character in the movie is likeable!
Then comes the fact that the entire movie is so disrespectful of Minnesota that nobody will feel comfortable with the clichés and eventual Capra-esque realizations we're supposed to have with it.
"Fargo" wasn't exactly reverential of Minnesota, but the Coens knew what they were doing, director Elmer here however tries to emulate them and especially with Fallon's character- whose last name is Gunderson-the film proves that there is a fine line between the sublime and the purely ridiculous.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Double Take.

By an odd chance last night I ended up watching two films which dealt with the exact same themes. I was in Meryl Streep mood (make that me trying to watch all of Meryl's Academy Award nominated performances) so I got "One True Thing". I had a basic idea of what it was about: mom (Meryl) gets sick, hotshot daughter (Renée Zellweger) comes from the city to take care of her and make amends, all leading to a melodramatic assisted death thing.
After that was over I watched "The Barbarian Invasions", Denys Arcand's follow up to "The Decline of the American Empire", which had a plot I didn't know about. To my surprise it deals with an ill father (Rémy Girard) whose hotshot son (Stéphane Rousseau) comes from the city to take care of him and make amends, all leading to assisted death.
What made these events happen for me in the same night? I do not know. But the night ended up being a film lesson of sorts about do's and don'ts when it comes to family dramas.
Streep's film, yet it's hers, handles things in a slightly contrived way. It's all about the revelations and hidden feelings, instead of flowing naturally.
Zellweger has some trouble throughout the film not acting and you can see her figuring out what should her character do in the next scene. William Hurt plays her dad and while he's brilliant as usual, his character suffers the same problem most of the movie deals with and is the fact that they feel pretty aimless.
The film can't hide its tricky sentimentalism when it comes up with a rather unnecessary subplot involving a police investigation dealing with the whole suicide thing.
Of course Meryl rises up and makes the entire film seem less like a Lifetime flick of the week and more like an existential meditation of compromise and love.
She suffers with such dignity that every single attempt to turn her scenes into a cornucopia of corniness becomes testament to someone who can do it all, and does!
Arcand's film on the other side doesn't take itself too seriously. Before long there are subplots with heroine junkies, corrupt hospital unions and "Empire"'s array of literate, vicious characters who cheer up the dying man with their sexcapades, erudite conversations and wicked sense of humor.
You can't really feel death looming over this movie in the way you feel it in "One True Thing". Does this mean that one is in a denial of sorts while the other deals with things more straightforward? Or is perhaps death, in a Bergmanian way, something that should be received with as much fear as humor?
All this made me wonder what would it have been like if Meryl was part of "The Barbarian Invasions"' ensemble.
For one Marie-Josée Croze would've said goodbye to that Best Actress award at Cannes (I don't see what they saw in her, especially not in the year of Nicole Kidman in "Dogville" at the festival...) Streep does dry humor-and all humor-like no other thespian and she would've known exactly how much tears to put into the sentimental moments.
She would've been perfect, but alas she can't be in every movie.
Have you seen these two movies? If so had you seen the similarities? And do you prefer one over the other?

Repeat after me...

There's no actress like Meryl...
There's no actress like Meryl...
There's no actress like Meryl...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Rise of the Happiness Empire.

"History is not a science of morality"
- from Denys Arcand's "The Decline of the American Empire".

Yesterday I heard on CNN that I live in the happiest place on Earth! (Click here for full story)
These news forced me to ask myself why then are most of the people I know unhappy. Is it because they are too demanding? Because they have clinical depression? Because they are missing something in their lives? Because they don't know they are living in the happiest place on Earth? Or simply because the "happiness" collected in this study isn't accurate for our times (or at least for the people I know)?
With the state of the world I didn't have much time to reflect on that piece of odd-almost novelty-news and it quickly slipped my mind.
Until later during the day I watched Denys Arcand's masterful "The Decline of the American Empire". In one of the first scenes Dominique (Dominique Michel), an important author, explains to a journalist the thoughts in her new book which discusses gender roles and sex among other things, but uses the looking glass known as happiness to explore them.
She thinks happiness is what rules the world and everything the human race does, even wars and genocide, are aimed towards the reach of this seemingly abstract concept.
She explains that our ideas of happiness have changed during three specific historical times; first during the fall of Rome in the third century, later during the French Revolution when Rousseau came up with his groundbreaking manifestos and the third time during the post Vietnam era (the film was made in 1986).
At first anyone can dismiss these ideas as Arcand's way of providing his character with pseudo-intellectual theories to support what we will later learn is a very sad character.
However, they persist long after you've watched the movie. Perhaps not the theories themselves, but the idea that happiness isn't a static concept. It also evolves, it also can change and above all it also can disappear.
I hadn't seen a film so rooted in ideas in ages. And even if I could resent the fact that it gave me so much to think about in what's an already stressful time for me, I can't be but thankful for cinema that challenges the viewer so much and without trying too hard.
When was the last time a movie got the wheels in your mind turning so powerfully?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

" big dick is all I've got."

Miss Independent.

Gloria Stuart turns 99 today! She's had one of the most fascinating careers in Hollywood history, from 1930s contract player to septuagenarian superstar.
It's a joy that she's had such a wonderful life. Best wishes on her birthday!

Why can't he act as good as he looks?

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs **1/2

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Unlike the era they take their title from, each of the "Ice age" sequels proves to be more inconsequential than the previous one. This time around, family is the word as woolly mammoths Manny and Ellie (voiced by Ray Romano and Queen Latifah respectively) are expecting their first child.
Meanwhile saber toothed tiger Diego (voiced by Denis Leary) wonders if he fits with this unorthodox herd as he feels he's losing his instincts. Sid the sloth begins to feel lonely and "adopts" three dinosaur eggs to feel safe.
When the dinosaur's mother, an angry Tyrannosaurus Rex, comes to the rescue of her children she takes Sid with them down to an underground world, preserved under the ice, where dinosaurs roam in the free and lava waterfalls are as common as gigantic animal eating plants.
The whole herd comes to the rescue and are aided by Buck (voiced by Simon Pegg) a crazy weasel with a Captain Ahab complex.
This is one of those movies where the search is always filled with troubles and adventure, while getting back home takes under ten seconds (obviously it would take forever if they found inconveniences on both ways, but it would be awesome if sometime they tried this...), you know how the film will end after the first five minutes.
They will have epiphanies, near death encounters (but how do you kill a cute, fuzzy prehistoric animal?) and as many sentimental moments and speeches as they see fit to include.
But the truth is that there's nothing inherently wrong with "Ice Age", even this predictability seems to be an asset, especially because the main plot is often balanced by the film's real stars: saber toothed squirrel Scrat who is now torn between the love for his acorn and Scratte, a femme-fatale with killer eyelashes and concealed abilities.
Every time the plot begins to drag, and it often does, the filmmakers wisely take us to one of Scrat's misadventures which erupt instantaneous laughter (even if some of the best were spoiled in the trailer).
It's a shame that the story with the herd is never as involving and exciting as the one with Scrat, especially because technique wise, the film shows clear evolution from its predecessors.
However they use too many anachronistic references and the "Moby Dick" reference is plain screenwriting laziness.
But just as you're thinking how dumb the movie feels, you start humming Lou Rawls' "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine", which becomes Scrat's theme song, and the film feels a little less like a fossil...

Terminator Salvation **

Director: McG
Cast: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington
Common, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard
Helena Bonham Carter, Jane Alezander

The fourth installment in the "Terminator" series begins in the year 2003 where Dr. Serena Kogan (Bonham Carter in full Burton, necrophylia mode) convinces death rown inmate Marcus Wright (Worthington) to donate his body to science. After this "random" prelude we flash forward to 2018 where Judgment Day has taken place and humans are living in hiding under the threat of Skynet and their terminators.
After a Resistance attack, Marcus Wright wakes up and finds himself with no memory of what happened to him after his death. He decides to find answer at Skynet.
John Connor (Bale) is now a leader of the Resistance planning a massive attack on Skynet enterprises. Little does he know that the company has a plan of its own and are trying to kill his yet-to-be father, the young Kyle Reese (Yelchin) who is unaware of being a target.
Before you can say Arnold Schwarzenegger their stories become intertwined and fans of the "Terminator" franchise will hopefully be thrilled to find out new links in the mythology they follow religiously.
For the rest of the audience the film will seem yet another mindless summer blockbuster and that is obviously its biggest flaw.
The characters' history is quite easy to follow, you just need to know "John Connor must die" and disengage all scientific notion of time travelling to get in the film's universe.
This however doesn't justify the fact that the movie feels mostly like a very long prequel to the upcoming sequels.
The film's very existence is impossible to justify as it doesn't add much to what should feel like a saga. You never really care for the characters because early on the filmmakers reassure us that life is expendable if you have time travel and evil machine corporations.
This leaves them time to fill two hours with explosions, all the kinds of robots they can invent (look it's a Motonator!) and references to the previous movies.
The ensemble is mostly uninterested and uninteresting; Bale loves his time in the spotlight and squeezes even the last tough scream and grunt he can get out of a single line of dialogue (is his character dislikable because of the arrogant incident between the actor and the film's cinematographer? It obviously adds a little something to those watching the film), Alexander is cast as one of those "wise and eccentric post apocalyptic priestesses" sci-fi has reserved for respected actresses, Yelchin lacks presence to feel as if his character is important and the underrated Howard is left as an accesory.
The film overall would be a complete miss if it wasn't for the electrifying Worthington who convinces you there is something meaningful going on, at least through his character's eyes.
He turns Marcus into a battlefield of emotions and after a twist (revealed in one of the trailers...) he finds the humanity nobody else in the film ever achieves.
Even when the plot gives him opportunity after opportunity to revel in grandiose moments deemed to be iconic for the franchise (the whole Jesus Christ metaphor is ridiculous and lacks subtlety...crucifixion motives, the whole resurrection issue, John Connor's initials and their connection in the end...) Worthington keeps it down to Earth and visceral. He is this sequel's salvation.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Here's Looking at You Mitch. (1912-2009)

Academy Award winning actor Karl Malden has passed away at the age of 97.
The prolific actor starred in dozens of movies, television shows and plays. It was his performance in a "A Streetcar Named Desire" (perhaps my favorite film of all time) that earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor being part of what is perhaps the greatest ensemble work captured on film.
He played Mitch, the kind, pure hearted overachiever wooing Vivien Leigh's not so pure Blanche DuBois. Mitch could've been played as a silly character, but Malden brought to him an integrity that is only more impressive when he unleashes his beastly side (in one of the most electrifying scenes ever).
He did great work with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Franklin J. Schaffner, Norman Jewison, John Frankenheimer and Elia Kazan, who arguably gave him his greatest acting challenges in movies like "Streetcar", "Baby Doll" and "On the Waterfront" in which he played a hard fighting priest looking for justice within the corruption of dock union bosses.
Ironically more than four decades later he ended up "reprising" his role as he became an advocate of awarding Kazan with an Honorary Oscar. Kazan had become controversial and polarizing after "naming names" before the HUAAC.
But just like his character in "On the Waterfront" does with Brando's Terry Malloy, Malden saw beyond the "stool pigeon" labeling and reminded the world that Kazan after all had been an artist.
Malden served as President of AMPAS from 1988-1992. May he rest in peace.