Monday, November 30, 2009

The Ten Movies That Defined My Decade.

9. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)

"Why do I love it so much?
What kind of magic is this?

How come I can't help adore it?
It's just another musical

No one minds it at all
If I'm having a ball
This is a musical"

-from "In the Musicals" by Björk

I had never seen a movie like "Dancer in the Dark" before I popped in the DVD that fateful day more than eight years ago.
Before it I thought that musicals were limited to being grand scale epics in Technicolor where everyone was a tune away from a happy ending.
Of course I'd seen "West Side Story", "Cabaret" and the likes, but even in their tragic finales there is always an ethereal beauty that at least leaves you with some hope.
But this one destroyed me.
I couldn't believe what poor Selma Ježková (Björk) had just gone through. A degenerative disease, a son who had inherited it, extreme poverty, a wrongful trial for helping a friend and the biggest evil of all was her extreme goodness.
How could we live in a world where good people suffered the most and how dare a movie not give them the happy ending they so obviously deserved?
Then again I obviously had no idea who Lars von Trier was. "Dancer in the Dark" opened up my eyes to someone who has become one of my favorite working directors.
His ability to be both irreverent and moving has fascinated me ever since. I now owe him some of the most memorable movie watching experiences of my life (I sat frozen in my seat after watching "Dogville" a few years later and am still uncovering the different layers hidden in "Antichrist").
I also owe this movie my endless love for Björk. Before this I liked some of her work, but just thought of her as the kooky woman in the weird "Ren & Stimpy" like video that had disturbed me so much as a kid.
But after watching how she committed with Selma I was astounded someone could give such a raw performance, I remember clearly thinking she had been inspired by Falconetti's performance in "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and how like her she would only deliver one medium changing performance.
Von Trier as I learned is definitely not for everyone, but those who give in to his vision are never unrewarded.
To this day his ability to push cinema forward, challenge our notions and extract brilliant performances out of his tortured muses is music to my ears.

Crush of the Week.

Coco Before Chanel **1/2

Director: Anne Fontaine
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola
Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos

"Coco is extravagant" says Gabrielle Chanel (Tautou) when someone suggests she should start using that name instead of her own.
This reaction and defense towards simplicity might have described the career of the woman who changed the course of fashion in the twentieth century.
The house of Chanel became known for its sleek, simple luxury and even pieces from the latest collections include the essence of what Coco intended when she started designing hats.
Anne Fontaine's biopic, like most movies of its kind, relies heavily on the audience's conception of the famous person in question.
This also gives the actors playing them the liberty to interpret them as they wish before the time when they became famous.
In such a manner Tautou makes out of Coco a fierce, strong woman who had no problem saying the first thing that came to her mind while smoking a cigarette.
Long before she became the pearl and tweed clad goddess of fashion/Nazi criminal, Tautou creates her as a businesswoman.
During her youth we see her singing in cabarets, but actually just looking for a man to look after her. She strikes gold with the millionaire Étienne Balsan (Poelvoorde) who becomes her protector. It's in her stay in his manor where she also meets Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Nivola) who became the love of her life.
And so the movie consists of scenes where Coco delivers potent one liners, wears men's clothes and eventually realizes she might just have a knack for fashion.
Fontaine remains absolutely reverential and reveals little about Chanel making the movie a rather lazy enterprise that relies essentially on the title cards that appear before the end credits.
Those who have no idea what Chanel accomplished will leave the theater feeling cheated and those knowledgeable of her career will just feel teased.
Tautou does her best to make this woman engaging, but her performance remains on a very superficial level and plays her like the rags-to-riches, by way of social climibing, heroines we've seen a million times before, as if she has forgotten she's playing the woman who once said that "in order to be irreplaceable one must always be different."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Ten Movies That Defined My Decade.

10. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004)

In 2004 I turned 18.
Yes, it meant I could finally vote (and drink and smoke without feeling guilty).
But above all I remember it was about the vote. I have always been very politically minded and even if I'm not an American, I have always followed closely their government's moves. And how can one not when they exert so much influence over the entire world?
So yeah, here I was, with a brand new ID card and the notion that I could make a difference in the world. Presidential elections in my country were still one year away, but I made a personal cause out of endorsing the American Democratic party because well everyone knew George W. Bush was simply no good.
I wore a John Kerry pin to school and was very outspoken about my belief that the Iraq invasion had been a crime upon humanity.
And yes, living outside the States I was seen as a lunatic. It took me a while to understand that people see politics as something that happens when you vote.
Democracy to most is something external that affects them little and is over the morning after a new President has been elected.
Today more than ever I know this to be a lie.
Democracy isn't about who we pick or why we pick them, it's an organism that has to be nurtured almost every day of our lives. Democracy isn't about political parties it's about our values.
Most of the time they're not even about morality (that's way too ample a concept) but about basic humanity.
No other film this decade reminded us more about that than Michael Moore's controversial Palme D'or winner.
Sure Moore has made a mess about his latter choices-he seems to pick issues with the idea to polarize as of late-but back then he was just a man trying to make way for his voice to be heard.
The movie may have not aged well (read my original review here) and the ending is still one of the most heartbreaking to be put in celluloid, but the ideas behind Moore's discourse live now more than ever.
We have the right to be heard, the right to fight for change and the right to be treated with basic human dignity.
Now a citizen of a country living under a military dictatorship I am witness of how easy it is for those in power to trample us, to play with us and to disrespect us.
But as long as we believe in change not all is lost.
As an anecdote regarding the movie I will remember it most of all because of the struggles I went through to see it (read the whole story here).
When it premiered and was opening all over the world, the local board of censorship initially declared it would be banned in my country for being "propaganda".
The government was not only very conservative here, but some of its key members had direct ties to things Moore revealed in his documentary.
I was appalled that a bunch of right wing geezers were trying to restrict my viewing rights, so I looked up online at what countries near me the movie was playing in.
The nearest one was El Salvador and coincidentally my parents had to travel there for work around the time the movie was being exhibited.
I packed my bags, told people at school I was leaving the country to see a movie and rode in a car for almost two days to get to my movie.
Nobody and nothing, not even a repressive, restrictive government has the right to choose for me.
Especially not what movies I see!

The Ten Movies That Defined My Decade.

With the end of the decade a mere month away, absolutely everyone has been delivering lists that comprise, or try to, the cinematic richness of the past ten years.
Even if most list makers are trying to establish what the best out of those movies made were, I have learned that delivering such definitive statements is not only egocentric but also useless.
Since they were created movies have been an oxymoron of sorts: group activities that turn into personal experiences.
Every time we enter a theater and sit there watching the projection on the screen with someone next to us, we're in a completely private world of our own.
It can be our wife, best friend, frenemy or complete stranger next to us, we're still leaving the cinema with a completely different perspective of what they just saw.
Therefore who am I to condemn someone for proclaiming "White Chicks" is the movie they will remember the aughts for?
With that in mind, my top ten list will not be about the best movies or even my favorites, but about those which will forever bring me memories of the post-Y2K craze.
I will write about one of those movies every day this week (click on the tag if you miss anything) I hope you will come along for the ride down memory lane with me and I'm dying to hear all about the ones that made the decade for you.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee **1/2

Director: Rebecca Miller
Cast: Robin Wright Penn, Alan Arkin
Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci
Ryan McDonald, Zoe Kazan, Mike Binder, Maria Bello
Robin Weigert, Shirley Knight

How do you engage an audience and make them become interested in a character? First you have them believe said character has qualities we want to discover.
Pippa Lee (Wright Penn) is "a mystery, an enigma..." says one of her friends (Binder) minutes into the film.
So check, we have something to unravel.
Then you go and try to solve said mystery by putting together pieces of a puzzle. Therefore we go back in time as Pippa narrates her life to make us understand where she is now.
And since we don't really know what it is exactly we're trying to discover we let the characters engage us.
We learn how Pippa (played by Lively as a younger version) ran away from home, escaping her lunatic mom (Bello) and passive dad (Tim Guinee). She ends up living with her lesbian aunt (Weigert) and her girlfriend (Moore) only to end up becoming addicted to pills and falling in love with-and marrying-a publishing editor (Arkin) who's thirty years her senior.
And this is where we first meet her, she's just moved in with her husband to a retirement community trying to find something new to do, while learning that she might be going insane.
Written and directed by Miller (who also wrote the book the film is based on) "The Lives of Pippa Lee" is obviously its creator's lovechild and as such Miller has trouble knowing what to tell, what to conceal and she doesn't want to give us a bad impression about the people she so devotedly wrote, re-wrote and directed.
Therefore the characters are actually very interesting, even if sometimes they're stuck with ridiculous dialogues and selfconscious quips, but there is absolutely no real plot to follow.
She just keeps inserting new elements (even if they're old because they're Dickensian flashbacks) to make her heroine more appealing.
One of those elements includes new neighbor Chris (Reeves) who more than not turns out to be an excuse for Miller to pull all her deus ex machina moves.
But even with all her tricks and stylistic juxtapositions Miller can never really justify what she's doing and the "many" lives of Pippa Lee are reduced to her being single and then married.
Working with Wright Penn as top accomplice ("to be perfectly honest I've had enough of being an enigma" she teases) they make an event out of what turns out to be a not quite fascinating life.
The actress is at her best, she's tender and loving with Arkin, she's motherhood personified with the actors who play her kids (Kazan and McDonald) and she does her best Marcia Cross when she has to share scenes with her neurotic friend (Ryder).
Underneath her undeniable sexiness and appeal Wright Penn is above all bewitching. Try to take your eyes away from her and you won't be able to.
If only the movie had something else to say (we often wonder why do we need to know about this woman's life) instead of settling for facile resolutions and awkward quirk, then we would have been in for a real treat.
Because as it is, the movie comes, goes and Pippa is still as much of a mystery to us when the movie ends. "I feel like this is just the beginning" she says in the last scene, but perhaps only Miller is willing to go on this journey with her.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Funny People **1/2

Director: Judd Apatow
Cast: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann
Jason Schwartzman, Jonah Hill, Aubrey Plaza, Eric Bana

"Comedy usually is for funny people" says George Simmons (Sandler) and the usually in that quote is the keyword to best describe the mood of this film.
Judd Apatow's third film as a director takes an inside look at Hollywood, filtered through a comedian's eyes.
Simmons is a comedy superstar, in the vein of Sandler, who made a name for himself starring in raunchy adolescent oriented comedies and crass stand up routines.
He's a millionaire but lives a pretty lonely life. Things change for him when he learns he has a terminal disease and he tries to make things right.
Not in a Frank Capra way, but right by his own standards; therefore he hires a down on his luck comedian named Ira (Rogen) to be his assistant and also tries to rekindle his love with old flame Laura (Mann) who has a husband (Bana) and children.
Sandler, who rarely gets enough credit as an actor (because of his career choices mostly) makes George someone we have a hard time liking.
He's the kind of conceited superstar who thinks the world asks too much of him-he even sings it-and only reaches down from his Olympus when he needs something.
But Sandler also gives him a soul. He doesn't turn him into a fable character ready for a big change; even when the screenplay tries to make us see him with both pity and disdain, the actor makes George someone who won't give a damn about how we perceive him, until he needs an audience to turn his next movie into a blockbuster.
It's a brave performance because he's never afraid of showing his ugly side, which is most of it.
Apatow as usual gives the supporting cast great moments and Mann once again shines as the complicated Laura. Her kind of down to earth sexiness is incredibly appealing and this time around she plays someone we'd have no trouble believing existed.
Some of her choices are ridiculous, but Mann plays them out like a grown up (perhaps the only real adult in the movie). Rogen once again plays the sweet, slightly awkward sidekick and he's good at it, while Hill bores with his umpteenth take on the potty mouthed nerd.
Bana was a real surprise, he plays an Australian and when the movie wants us to hate him (he's the only character who isn't in show business and has a corporate job) we simply can't, because the actor makes us realize that even something a Hollywood star can find boring, can be dignified.
His comedic timing is ace and the dislikeability factor the screenplay attributes him comes only looking as a manifestation of how he represents people like Simmon's worst nightmares, both in and outside the movie.
He's very handsome, while the other guys often make jokes about their average looks, he's successful and he gets the girl they wanted.
And as an actor Bana is proving that you don't have to say "fart" and "cock" to make people laugh; his sarcasm might just steal more laughs than Sandler's funny voice shticks.
With him the movie reveals its weakest link because Apatow never stops to ask what it means to be funny, he has forgotten that comedy isn't a universal language.
He takes for granted that by thinking of funny we must be the kind of people who laugh at his' and Sandler's jokes.
With this unintentionally arrogant move he assumes that he is a fine comedian.
And he can be; but his kind of comedy has only gained importance during this decade and "Funny People" is an egocentric-slightly self critical- ode to himself and his newly founded reign.

The Limits of Control *1/2

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Isaach de Bankolé, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton
Gael García Bernal, Hiam Abbass, John Hurt, Paz de la Huerta

Watching "The Limits of Control" two questions come to mind: does Isaach de Bankolé ever smile and what the hell was Jim Jarmusch thinking when he made this movie?
The stone faced de Bankolé stars as a hitman on some sort of a mission that has him traveling across Spain where he meets with strange characters that give him matchboxes.
Somewhere in between conversations about molecules, Rita Hayworth, bohemians and old guitars Jarmusch expects us to have an epiphany about existence.
What he fails to see is that he's the one who's going through an existential crisis and a plot-less movie will not help him solve it.
The movie plays out like a really bad dream (if Jarmusch was trying to pay homage to David Lynch he never reaches the fascinating creepiness and surprising universality of Lynch's stream-of-consciousness movies) with selfindulgent cinematography by Christopher Doyle who does capture beautiful images, that play like awkward Renault commercials.
The saddest thing is that Jarmusch is probably aware of how empty his movie is and often tries to justify himself in the silliest ways.
When a gangster (played by Murray) asks de Bankolé "how did you get here?" he answers "I used my imagination". This response plays more like "The Matrix" by way of "Sesame Street" than as a spark to make us reflect on how the whole thing might be a dream within a dream.
During the film's only interesting scene Swinton appears as a blond (Jarmusch references tons of film noirs here) with a movie obsession.
She tells de Bankolé that she likes movies where you don't know if you're having a dream or watching a film.
Jarmusch should've learned that sometimes dreams, like films, should be kept all to oneself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Want Magic...

Dan Kois profiles Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann for "New York Magazine" (read article here) as they bring their production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" to the United States.
If there was a play I would kill to see it definitely would be this one, so I thoroughly enjoyed how Kois interprets the magnificent actresses involved in this production.
"One might call Ullmann an archaeologist and Blanchett an architect" he says as he explains Cate's flawless embodiment through imitation skills and Liv's introspective, quiet performances in Ingmar Bergman films.
I hear that tickets for "Streetcar" are practically impossible to get, but those of you in NYC, try as hard as you can so I can live vicariously through you.
Tickets and information here.

You, the Living ***1/2

Director: Roy Andersson
Cast: Jessika Lundberg, Elisabeth Helander, Kemal Sener
Eric Bäckman, Jessica Nilsson, Leif Larsson

Set somewhere between comedy and tragedy, Roy Andersson's "You, the Living" is the second film, of a planned trilogy, where the director explores human emotions through a set of vignettes.
There's not much of a plot to follow; the film is made out of fifty individual scenes (mostly shot in one take) where different characters complain about their lives.
An angry barber shaves an arrogant costumer, an elderly man laments how his bank treated him while a large woman rides him and an alcoholic woman cries while she asks her mother why is she serving non-alcoholic beer.
All of them are fascinating to watch as they contain entire lifetimes and reflect them in a few seconds. Andersson doesn't need to come up with extended dialogues for them to convey what they are going through.
We can see it in their eyes, in their posture, even in their surroundings.
The movie makes us wonder where does it take place, not only because of its claustrophobic-but-fablesque sets (most of it is done inside a studio) but of the actual population Andersson thinks is going through things like these.
Nobody in the movie is happy and yet we find ourselves laughing at their misery. This can work in two ways, as the director makes us forget our own troubles while he entertain us or by making us realize how selfish most of our problems are.
How can we go on and complain, like the people in the movie, when there's a million people complaining at the same time?
The film's greatest scene has a young woman (Lundberg) at a bar upset because she failed to make an impression with the rock musician she has a crush on (Bäckman).
She pauses and then tells us how she dreamed they were married.
Unlike the other characters in the movie who tell us their dreams, the girl's isn't filled with bizarre trials, apocalyptic crescendos and electric chair deaths, but with music, romance and hope.
This scene with its light Buñuel oneirism makes for such a hauntingly beautiful impression that the Dr. Strangelove-ish finale won't be what leaves the theater with you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Be, Less, Italian...

OK, if there was an Oscar category for Best Poster design "Nine" wouldn't be getting in.
On its second poster released today we get a more cinematic feel and people who saw it without knowing what the hell it was about, would actually begin to understand the whole "oh they're movie people" thing.
However, cursed by the worst Photoshoppers in the history of the world, the Weinstein Co. artistic department came up with a preposterous, incoherent design.
For starters, who the hell would pose for the paparazzi like Marion, Nicole, Penélope and Kate are?
We get that the graphic designers were too lazy to look for any other images of the actors (they're exactly the same ones they used for the other poster) and don't get me wrong, they all look great (LOVE the Mastroiani feel of Daniel Day Lewis' hunch)...just not as a group.

This is never as evident as with the cast's gazes. Where the hell are all of them looking at? Marion apparently spotted something in Daniel's head and is doing flirty eyes at it.
Daniel is looking at Penélope's feet, while she smells her own armpit and falls down (judging from that too slanted position) and Nicole is straight out of her Chanel No. 5 ad looking for Baz.
Just look at how weird Penélope's position is. Not only do we have to wonder who can stand up like that and stay still, but what the heck did they do to her figure?
She's certainly beautiful and curvy, but by no means is she made out of plastic.

Last, but not least, there's the paparazzi. If you had those five together in the same spot, you'd want to take their picture right?
But look at the photographers in red, their eyes and their cameras? What on Earth are they taking pictures of?
It pains me that "Nine" is doing those wonderful trailers and gives no damn about posters. The whole production seems to be cursed with really, really bad Photoshopping.
Remember that "Vogue" cover?

I was appalled to learn that, contrary to what the final result looks like, the women were actually photographed together! (Watch video for proof)
As much as Italian society appreciates the extremes at which some women can take their appearance. Just look at everything Berlusconi dates or appoints to Congress.
There's still a limit to how retouched actresses should appear. Was there anything more breathtaking than Claudia Cardinale's and Anouk Aimee's natural look in Fellini's "8 1/2"?
Rob Marshall should definitely approach these designers with care, ask them to put down the airbrushing tools and pray not to be blurred or stretched in some Mac.

Be, More, Italian!

The idea behind the new poster for "Nine" is kinda cute. The whole poster within a poster thing has been done in the past to great effect (remember "Notting Hill"?)
But something about this poster is too damn selfconscious.
It is too damn crowded, there's too much going on and you don't really know where the hell you should be looking at first.
Wouldn't it have been superb if the poster featuring the women had been done in the style of the era: with illustrations a la Anita Ekberg in "La Dolce Vita"?
At least this one's better than the Korean version.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

My One and Only **

Director: Richard Loncraine
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Logan Lerman, Kevin Bacon
Mark Rendall, Nick Stahl, Chris Noth, Eric McCormack
J.C. MacKenzie, Robin Weigert, Steven Weber, Troy Garity

The life of actor George Hamilton gets Hollywood-ized in this biopic starring Lerman as a young George and Zellweger as his mother Anne Deveraux.
The film begins when Anne leaves her husband (a sympathetic Bacon) and takes George and half brother Robbie (Rendall whose gay character is forced to deliver cringe worthy one liners) across the country while she looks for a new husband to take care of them.
Deveraux who thinks she's "too good to work" often ends in awkward situations and her beaus include playboys, insane paint moguls and crazy military types.
But Zellweger grounds the movie with a performance that could've gone borderline, but stays on a sane, actually moving limit.
Several characters are forced to remind George that his mother loves him above everything else and truth is Zellweger embodies this beautifully.
Whether she's being mistaken for a prostitute or fighting her conservative sister (Weigert), the actress remains true to her character and never dares to judge Anne's reasons to do what she does.
And if she doesn't, how can we?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Food, Inc. **1/2

Director: Robert Kenner

Corporations are so evil they even got seeds patented. That might be one of the many messages found in Robert Kenner's revealing documentary about what people eat.
The movie examines large scale food production in the United States and how every little thing people end up putting in their mouths, has been processed and tampered with to its very last ounce.
The film is divided in chapters of sorts where we learn about several horrors corporations are doing. They get chickens so fat they can't even walk! They sue people who use their soy bean formula! They sue people who think beef sucks!
And the film doesn't even try to turn us into vegetarians, cause we learn even those are polluted.
Kenner gives the film a fresh pace that keeps the information coming in an interactive way (we might find ourselves thinking about how to change our habits during the film).
Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser provide wistful narration that informs and persuades by using some emotional elements.
And while we learn more the film reaches an ultimately frustrating point, because it tells us about the problem, but the solutions seem out of our reach (especially for those outside the States).
It reaches a storytelling dead end that makes us wonder: should we become anorexic if we can't get organic?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Valentino: The Last Emperor ***

Director: Matt Tyrnauer

It feels entirely appropriate that this documentary about iconic fashion designer Valentino is musicalized with melancholic Nino Rota pieces from Fellini films; because you don't need to know a thing about fashion to identify with the film's ultimate message.
That is, the passing of time and the loss of values our society once held dear. But this isn't as reactionary as it sounds; because those "values" being substituted are completely subjective and have to be interpreted by the watcher according to their own system of beliefs.
Set between the years 2005-07, as Valentino Garabani created one of his most successful recent collections and culminating with the celebration of his 45th anniversary in the business, the film takes a deep look at his creative process and his relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti, his life and work companion.
It also shows how Valentino must stand up for his beliefs when his design house is bought by multimillionaire Matteo Marzotto, who intends to branch out into accessories and fragrances, ending with what was then the last real couture house.
For some this documentary will prove to be a love song to frivolity and excess as they will question what values can people like these have when the entire world is going through harsh economic times.
The truth is such points of view are completely valid and director Tyrnauer allows us to question his film's purpose without ever parodying Valentino.
On the other hand the movie is a sad account of decay and the end of "la dolce vita". Valentino not only represents glamor and money, but also the last icon of an era that was populated by the likes of Audrey, Jackie and Elizabeth.
They might never have been our friends but the idea we created of them sum up what Valentino calls "beauty". And boy do we need doses of that lately.

The Passion of Ingrid Bergman.

Given how "Europa '51" is Roberto Rossellini's attempt to bring Francis of Assisi to neorealist life, it makes total sense that he would ask cinematographer Aldo Tonti to light and shoot Ingrid Bergman like a saint huh?

But not any saint, the film's light plan seems to be drawn straight out of C.T Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc".

Bergman, has rarely looked as tremulous and ethereal.


Lately I've been very into Joan Crawford. I still am surprised at how I always forget how much she suffered in her movies, as opposed to what a bitch I think she was whenever I randomly think of her.
Is there any other actress that causes this reaction? The moment I think of her eyebrows I get goosebumps and imagine her catfights with Bette Davis.
But the minute she opens up her mouth and that sweet voice comes out, all the notions of Faye Dunaway going hysterical simply vanish.
With that in mind I've found myself wondering a lot: what would Joan Crawford do? Because exactly out of this ambiguity found in her persona, you never know what solution she might present to everyday problems.
For case number one: If the man you are obsessed with refuses to fall for you. What would Joan Crawford do? Like she did in "Possessed", she married the next best thing and went insane trying to get her man.
While insanity might not be something all of us want to go for, Crawford earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for this.
And what can get you laid and dating more than an Oscar nod? OK don't answer that...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Freaky as ****!

Julie and Julia ***

Director: Nora Ephron
Cast: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams
Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Jane Lynch, Erin Dilly
Mary Kay Place, Linda Emond

Meryl Streep is to acting, what Julia Child was to cooking: a master of the craft, who never forgets to enjoy her work.
This is why it's no coincidence that Streep was chosen to play Child (this and than the fact that she's the greatest imitator ever and even seems to grow a few inches to play this part) but because watching Streep act, like watching Child cook, is a delight.
You might not learn how to cook and you might not learn how to act, but your day sure will seem richer after being with them.
Streep plays Child during her stay in Paris after WWII, where she moved with her diplomat husband Paul (Tucci), enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu and began writing what would become her masterpiece "Mastering the Art of French Cooking".
Fast forward fifty something years to New York City where aspiring novelist Julie Powell (Adams) comes up with the idea to write a blog detailing how she masters Julia Child's book in one year.
From this basis, Ephron shapes a charming story that often draws parallels between the women (think "The Hours" light, very light) to show us how inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of sources.
Graciously paced and crafted, the film evokes the charming, harmless spectacles of classic Hollywood that intended only to give pleasure to its audience.
In this film the pleasure is mostly owed to the performers. Adams, who's impossible to hate, even when playing a self pronounced "bitch", brings her kind of innocence to a part that would've been damaged from being played like the cynical idea we have of NY writers.
Her part of the story might be the least appealing, but with Chris Messina who plays her husband, they do enough justice to portraying our generation's need of fulfillment.
With Tucci and Streep however; you never can get just enough. Their chemistry is magnificent-rarely do movie marriages seem so convincing, loving and natural-and Tucci is a natural scene stealer, even if he's forced by the screenplay to subject to his wife's desires.
And how could he not? Streep is literally larger than life as Child. She nails the elongated vowels, the accent and most amazingly the spirit of the cooking icon.
Even when Ephron tries to give her as little dramatic conflict as possible (her biggest problems include learning to chop onions) Streep is always ahead of the game and gives Julia little things that transform her into an actual human being.
She might've constructed the performance from videos and recordings, but Streep gives her a something extra.
Remarkably though, she also is able to deliver a meta performance of sorts. By now, she knows people will have a hard time getting over the fact that it's another Meryl Streep performance and the genius actress draws on the primordial concept behind this to turn out the sort of performance that sums up the entire movie's spirit.
"There's nothing wrong with her, she's perfect" says Powell of Child, to which her husband replies "the Julia Child in your head".
And this is exactly what Streep is playing, watch how she gives us enough internal conflict with her eyes, but stops just in time to take us back to Powell.
Someone refers to her as Julie's imaginary friend and this might be all she's actually playing, like a Harvey we can see perhaps...
Streep isn't only playing someone who lived, she's playing her version of what she thinks Amy Adams' version of Julie Powell thinks she is.
In the very same way both women are figured out by the written word. For Powell (and Adams playing Powell) people judge her based on her blog (which is based on a book...and you get the idea).
With this Ephron has something very interesting to say about how our society decodes celebrity and the places they can take in our lives.
But other than this semi-existential conundrum, nothing ever goes seriously wrong in "Julie and Julia". Sure stews get burnt and McCarthyism threatens to spoil the fun at Julia's sister wedding, but other than that there is zero conflict, therefore the movie feels like enjoying a soufflé; where we seldom have the time or desire to learn how the hell the chef avoided deflation. We just savor it and for a second or two have no cares in the world.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

2012 *

Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Thandie Newton, Thomas McCarthy, Oliver Platt, Morgan Lily
Liam James, Johann Urb, Zlatko Buric, Beatrice Rosen
Danny Glover, George Segal, Woody Harrelson

If the law of attraction had scientific validity, then Roland Emmerich would be held responsible for the apocalypse.
Throughout his career he has destroyed the planet by way of aliens, natural cataclysms, giant reptiles and meteors; this time he goes the conquistador's way and exploits the Mayan by stating that according to their calendar the world will come to an end on December 21, 2012.
And just as they predicted, when the date arrives the planets align, the sun emits radiation that causes "the Earth's core to destabilize" and the disasters begin.
Los Angeles succumbs to a massive plate movement, Yellowstone Park becomes the Earth's largest volcano and a Tsunami covers the Himalayas.
Fortunately there's a backup plan; as G8 members have been working on the construction of massive arks to help preserve art, animals and for a billion-Euros-a-seat, the planet's finest people.
But Emmerich can't let the world go down in this corrupt hedonism and for every dirty politician like the US President's Chief of Staff, Carl Anheuser (a slimier than usual Platt) there's someone whose spirit is nothing but saintly like the President played by Glover, or the film's leads.
On one side we have Jackson Curtis (Cusack), a failed sci-fi author, working as a limo driver, who discovers about the disaster from a loon in the woods (who else but Harrelson?) and runs to save his two kids (the lovely Lily and James), his ex-wife (Peet) and her new man (McCarthy).
We also have heart-o'-gold scientist Adrian Helmsley (Ejiofor), one of the first people to discover the Mayans were right and becomes advisor to the U.S. President, only to discover that the people behind the arks don't really care about humanity (gasp!).
The predictable plot will unite their stories at one point, but before that we are subjected to two hours of terrible acting, ridiculous dialogue and more CGI than you'll ever want to see in your life.
One of the film's major problems is its need to be so big about everything; therefore Emmerich has to steal from any other major disaster movie you can think of.
There's a mini Poseidon drama (where poor Segal is relegated as a stock player), "Earthquake" like moments of cheesy tragedy, Ejiofor and Cusack trying their best to be Paul Newman and Steve McQueen from "The Towering Inferno" and even a nod to "Titanic" as the life saving arks find themselves in peril.
What this movie fails to do is connect us to the people in the midst of the tragedies. Watching Cusack's character most of the time feels as if it's taking the fun out of watching the preposterous ways in which the director can think of destroying historical monuments, especially because the whole thing might even be a manifestation of his regret about losing his family.
So Emmerich removes the morbid fun out of watching the world collapse, by preaching to us why it should be saved, through characters that never really justify their need for salvation, besides the billing of course.
What's more, for all Emmerich has to say about what makes the world such a wonderful place, he constantly does his best to remind us about our worst.
One of his plotlines includes the death of a French art curator (think "The DaVinci Code" with Thandie Newton) who is killed in a car accident in a familiar looking Parisian tunnel.
That the director chooses to kill a man in the place where Princess Diana died, isn't what's disgustingly tacky, but the fact that he states it as something "curious" is a repulsive nod to tabloid lovers everywhere.
Another moment has him getting rid of almost every Russian character in the plot; because why would a new Earth need mobsters and Russian brides he asks.
And then, in one of the film's most cringe worthy scenes he seems to suggest that reality television will not die with the apocalypse, but will become a way of bonding and learning.
Perhaps Emmerich believes his movies to be just entertainment, but deep within their plots there often lie ideas that glorify the Western world and squeeze even the last cliché out of everyone else.
The world will not come to its end because of prophecies ancient civilizations made, but because of a humanity that has the technology and resources to exalt the beautiful things we can create, yet chooses only to glorify the very worst in our nature.

Monday, November 16, 2009


The "sleek" with Nicole!
The spread with Penélope!
The "Vogue" with Kate!
Someone give this to me now!

Crush of the Week.

...choosing Penélope would've been too easy.

Homer as Hathaway...

...tres genius!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"I hope so. I really fucking hope so."

Away We Go ***

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph
Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan
Carmen Ejogo, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton
Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Schneider

Leaving behind his sterile formalism and working in a very relaxed style, Sam Mendes directs his first movie that feels refreshingly un-directed.
For someone that has specialized in the deconstruction of characters surrounded by pristine art direction and/or obvious camera moves, this tale of two people looking for a home, comes as a delightful surprise.
Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are a couple in their mid-thirties who are expecting their first child. They live in a cottage in the middle of nowhere where they indulge in practices they have carried on from their college days.
But this won't do for their baby. With that in mind they set on a journey across North America to find the perfect place to settle.
First they go to Burt's parents (played splendidly by O'Hara and Daniels) who reveal they are moving to Antwerp and are just starting to live the lives people in their twenties desire.
Then it's off to Phoenix where they are greeted by Verona's former boss Lily (Janney) and her husband (Gaffigan). Lily calls herself a nutcase and insists that her little daughter is a dyke while her husband listens tolerantly.
After their awkward meeting they take a detour to see Verona's little sister (Ejogo) in Tucson with whom the film takes a turn for the purely bittersweet as the sisters remember their deceased parents.
After this they go to Madison to see Burt's childhood friend Ellen (a loopier, and oddly sexier, than ever Gyllenhaal), a college professor, who with her husband Rod (Hamilton), has taken to New Age-y parental practices that include them having sex in front of the kids.
They run away from this all the way to Montreal where they encounter college friends Tom (Messina) and Munch (Lynksey) who seem to have the perfect married life, but actually have deep pain.
Last, but not least, they go to Miami to see Burt's brother Courtney (Schneider, great as usual) whose wife recently abandoned him, leaving him alone to raise his young daughter (Isabelle Moon Alexander).
After life shows them all the possible people they can become, conveniently arranged in cinematic moral hierarchy, they have to decide where to move and who they most want to resemble.
As if they'd forgotten to decide the destination of their journey before leaving, they might always end up finding themselves where they began.
Luckily for such an aimless road trip, Krasinski and Rudolph keep the movie grounded and fascinating at every moment.
Even if the supporting characters are comprised of archetypes, weirdos and plain indie quirky clichés, they make Burt and Verona real people.
More than that, they make them people who are genuinely in love with each other ("I will love you even if I can't find your vagina" says Burt in a way that sounds breathtaking), for whom the problems of finding "the one" are done and over with.
When most movies settle for making the discovery of love the ultimate goal of life, this movie reminds us there's more than that and that life is a process.
"We're not fuck ups" they say at the beginning of the movie and they spend the rest of it showing us people who might as well be.
This comparison isn't condescending because truth is anyone watching the movie will try to empathize with them and see that after all they are not that bad.
In a lovely scene Burt proposes to Verona for the umpteenth time (she doesn't think marriage is necessary). She rejects him once more, but to ease his fear she ends up making promises from a list Burt comes up with spontaneously.
Mendes' delicate direction here isn't intrusive, but we know we are witnessing a making of vows more significant than anything we'd see at a wedding.
This is the film's best thing, not the big scenes with lots of characters, but the small intimate moments when we see Burt and Verona cuddle and lie quietly next to each other.
When they have to travel by train, they lie awake in their bunk beds, Ellen Kuras' spare cinematography suggests a void, and before long Burt has moved down to be with his girl.
Musicalized with Alexi Murdoch's lovely songs and with art direction that feels lived in more than anything, "Away We Go" is the kind of movie that indie filmmakers would die to produce, but has none of the pretentious resolutions we find in them more and more.
Perhaps a strike of good luck, or mere exhaustion (as the film was shot during a break Mendes took from "Revolutionary Road") we might leave not knowing if Burt and Verona found what they seeked.
But Mendes has finally achieved maturity.

And Justice to Bacall.

It was about damn time!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Countess *1/2

Director: Julie Delpy
Cast: Julie Delpy, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl
Anamaria Marinca, Andy Gatjen, Sebastian Blomberg

You gotta give it to Julie Delpy; few actors who direct themselves, would choose to play a deranged, blood thirsty noblewoman who's not always lit in the best way.
Then again, it makes total sense that she would choose to play someone who can be called monstrous, as opposed to a heroine, because of the challenge they would represent to act and direct.
Delpy plays Countess Erzebet Bathory, who lived in the 17th century, she's the most powerful woman in the empire (even the king owes her money).
When her husband dies, she falls madly in love with Istvan Thurzo (Brühl) a man two decades younger than her. He's the son of Gyorgyo Thurzo (Hurt), a rich man Erzebet refused to marry and who's after her fortune.
Infuriated by the fact that she spoiled his strategic allegiance, more than his male pride, he stops the affair and makes Erzebet believe Istvan is no longer in love with her.
Heartbroken she believes he dumped her because she looks old and decides the best way to regain her youthful looks is to kill virgin girls and bathe in their freshly squeezed blood.
The real life Bathory allegedly inspired the creation of Dracula and her deeds have haunted the imagination for centuries. Delpy seemingly wanted to capture the complexities of this woman and prevent her story from becoming a folktale.
But as movies go, they really don't come as stale and incoherent as this one. Despite the quality of the cast, they all move and talk as if they were rehearsing for a high school Renaissance fair.
Their affected speeches are funnier than powerful and when they are made to utter lines like "there is beauty in letting time do its duty" what should come out as elegant, becomes camp potential.
The main inconsistency in the film is Delpy's narrative device and how it ends up contradicting everything Bathory thinks about herself and everything the filmmaker wants us to think about her.
The movie is narrated by Istvan, which in itself makes for a digested version of whatever the "truth" is. This feels wrong mostly because when the film begins we are told that Erzebet never felt she was inferior to males.
In fact, a splendid scene, has her demean a Catholic bishop by comparing his jewels and garments to those of a luxurious noblewoman. With this she takes an aim at men and Catholics, two of the things she felt she had no need to fear.
Later in the movie we have her saying that she only kills women because "god created [boys] in his image".
Where is the woman we met at the beginning who even intimidated the king?
The logical thing would be to think she lost her mind out of love and now has assumed the biases given to her sex (witches were constantly being burnt at the stake during these days).
But she has moments of lucidity where she sends a powerful feminist message and questions the morals and values of her society.
"Your fable will keep the populace occupied for a very long time, they will be terrified of the blood thirsty myth you have made of me and forget about evils that are indeed very real" she says condemning those who judge her.
Delpy tries to make Countess Bathory both a romantic figure and a Gothic avenger, with results that don't make justice to either point of view.
Even if it tries to be profound about something that deals with the superficial, "The Countess" is ironically nothing more than a vanity project.

Color Me Absolutely Excited (and Surprised...)

I couldn't believe my eyes and ears when I saw how fabulous Kate Hudson looked in that preview of "Nine" (it's everywhere this week!).
She's been neglected by the presence of all those other huge, and Oscar winning, ladies, but this proves she might be a scene stealer.
For a sec or two I drooled thinking what Anne Hathaway would've done with this if she'd gotten the part (remember her rope stripping from "Bride Wars"?) but as it is I can't complain about Hudson.
She makes everything look like more fun than it should be.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Who's Not Wearing Any Clothes?

She's not!
And boy did this get me excited, in more than one way.

Paranormal Activity **

Director: Oren Peli
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Mark Fredrichs, Ashley Palmer, Amber Armstrong

Terror is found in the seconds between action and reaction, "Paranormal Activity" knows that and thrills us with a story that occurs while we least expect it.
It takes place in the home of Micah (Sloat) and Katie (Featherston) a young couple who have just moved in together and begin to experience strange events in their house.
Trying to find out the causes Micah buys a camera and recording equipment to tape everything that happens while they sleep.
With this move the director justifies the fact that the entire movie is shot documentary style by the protagonists. This aesthetic not only serves to hide the low budget, but also to make us empathize with the characters more because they are not being aided by CGI and special effects.
In this way the entire movie is made up of scenes where Micah and Katie go to sleep while they are haunted by something that moves their bed sheets, leaves footprints in their room and bangs at their walls.
The fact that we can not exactly figure out how they made all the effects makes for a chilling experience and the scenes while we wait them to go to bed and see what happens next make for nail biting suspense.
However the movie suffers from its eagerness to scare us. Supposedly the movie was made up of the footage found in the camera, but this doesn't atone for the fact that every morning Micah wakes up, watches the footage and tries to edit it himself as if he's already consciously preparing the movie we are watching.
The actors do terrific job, because we rarely catch them acting, they behave like "normal" people would in the midst of something like this.
Katie is always selfconscious in front of the camera, especially because she's usually the only one onscreen, while Micah behaves like a boy excited with his gadgets and trying to come up with a solution to prove his manhood to this presence.
But where the movie fails gigantically is in balancing the two central ideologies at the center of its dilemma.
We learn that Katie "inherited" this ghost, she has been having experiences like this since she was a child and for her it has come down to a trust issue with her boyfriend.
She's desperate for him to believe her and stop trying to rationalize everything.
Katie would be the equivalent of oral tradition and legends, "we shouldn't have the camera" she says, convinced that the technological intrusion will somehow disturb the ghost.
She represents the "I heard a friend of a friend..." notion that has haunted our dreams since we were little kids. Stories like hers' which we heard again and again that resulted thrilling only because of the images we formed in our minds.
The movie feeds our preconceptions more by making the ghost only attack at night for example (whatever happened to good old fashioned day scares?) and concentrating in the infamous three a.m. period.
Then there's Micah who in a particularly funny scene hears his girlfriend scream, runs out to help her and comes back realizing he'd forgotten his camera.
We can assume his brain is broadcast on YouTube and his way of thinking is that nobody will believe something they can't see (and dissect).
He tries to document every single thing about the haunting in the process reminding us of the way Hollywood has made horror something terribly graphic lately.
Unfortunately the movie seems to lean with his view of the world and they end up explaining things that would've worked better if the audience left the theater trying to put the pieces together in their heads.
We get an exorcist, online footage that looks like a Linda Blair parody and a particularly unsatisfying finale that tries to be "The Blair Witch Project" but looks as if Micah and Katie wanted it to happen this way.
If it hadn't picked a team "Paranormal Activity" might've worked as a clever dissertation of what horror has become to mean for this generation.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Marty and Cecil.

The Hollywood Foreign Press has announced Martin Scorsese will receive the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes ceremony in 2010.
This honor will come as a great compliment for Scorsese's two Golden Globe awards for Best Director, which he won for "Gangs of New York" and "The Departed" (he was also nominated for "Raging Bull" and "The Aviator" among others).
With the release next year of "Shutter Island", which teams him up with his fave new collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio, the prolific filmmaker is set to continue collecting accolades and honestly it was about time they showered Marty with every award out there.
The Academy Award winning director turns 67 next week.
Read the full story here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Two Lovers ***1/2

Director: James Gray
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw
Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov, Bob Ari, Elias Koteas

From its washed out, spare aesthetic, to its anachronistic use of technology, "Two Lovers" feels like a piece of stolen time. Director James Gray (who also wrote the screenplay with Eric Menello) even made sure that the font used for the film's title in the credits, looked like something out of a seventies drama.
For once, this move isn't a selfconscious spectacle (unlike his previous movies tried to jam crime film references down out throats) but a melancholic ode to the fact that the movie's themes are inarguably timeless.
Set in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, the movie starts as Leonard (Phoenix) jumps into the bay attempting suicide.
He doesn't succeed and arrives to his parents' apartment completely wet. His mother Ruth (Rossellini) greets him with an offscreen "hello". After seeing the state she shows up in, she hollers for her husband Reuben (Moshonov) only to say "he's tried to do it again".
Leonard has already entered his room, episodes like this seemingly the most familiar thing, and his parents remain discussing his "bipolar problem" right outside his door.
The manchild moved in with his parents after a failed engagement and works in their dry cleaning business. He sleeps until noon, only because Ruth enters his room and wakes him up, while he flirts with the idea of becoming a photographer.
To his parents, his mother especially, Leonard is still a child and this comes to show in his relationships. Looking back at his torn engagement he has a flashback where his fiancée simply tells him "I have to go".
It is this kind of reasoning that opens the door to the film's central problem. He spots his neighbor Michelle (Paltrow) in the hall one day and invites her to his apartment while she hides from her crazy father; and just like a child would, he shows her his living room, introduces her to his parents and doesn't ask her to stay for dinner.
He's smitten. The next time he sees her he follows her to the subway, waits for her to see him first and then rides with her making awkward small talk.
While he feeds his crush his parents introduce him to Sandra (Shaw), daughter of his father's new business associate.
While it's obvious that she's into him, completely aware of the "set up", he continues dangling with thoughts of Michelle.
In her he sees the promise of glamor, excitement and Manhattan, with Sandra there's just the perpetuation of a lifestyle he obviously doesn't feel good in.
This doesn't stop him from pursuing both of them and by the end he will have to make a choice. At the hands of Gray this choice however doesn't come down to a basic choosing between two women, but choosing his own lifestyle.
The women in question, albeit being very human, realistic characters, are archetypes of the paths Leonard's life can take. Which is why "Two Lovers" might look and talk like a traditional romantic drama, but is far from being it.
Phoenix is smooth and wonderful making Leonard someone who deals with his demons as practically as he can. All of his choices seem to be easy to take and his disregard for responsibility is always covered by the "he was dumped" card.
The actor evokes James Dean's Jim Stark and in some scenes is as haunted as Brando was in "Last Tango in Paris", but the truth is that it's not easy to place his kind of performance and compare it directly to someone specific.
He might recall Method actors and seventies' geniuses, but what he does is all his'. Shaw and Paltrow provide wonderful supporting turns.
Shaw's Sandra is a delight to watch; she lives ruled by family laws and courting standards, but while she doesn't seem to ask for more than she can get, we know that she has compromised with herself.
Paltrow's femme fatale on the other side is an explosion of hysterics and unnecessary drama, that the actress makes her so refreshing and seductive is a miracle and proof that if we were in Leonard's position we wouldn't be able to resist her charms either.
And Rossellini (who inherited her mother's heartbreaking smile) is the film's most powerful female figure. Her overbearing need to see her son happy makes her a deity of sorts (notice how we know she's there in several scenes but we don't see her, she's omnipresent) and the fact that Rossellini plays her without recurring to Jewish mother clichés is surprising.
When Leonard first kisses Sandra in his apartment, he turns and looks at the pictures in his wall, he pulls away from Sandra and says he can't continue with mom "standing" there.
That moment sums up the bittersweet dilemma in "Two Lovers" and Leonard's incapacity to become a man of his own without blaming a woman for what he turns into.
Early on Gray makes us see who's good for Leonard, but we never really know if he's good for anyone, or if he ever will be.

You Had It Coming!

The gratuitous Penélope Cruz/Nine post of the week. I hadn't mentioned anything about either of them for weeks so don't complain...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Clash of the Trailer.

I'm a big fan of 1981's "Clash of the Titans", I grew up on its strange combination of legendary actors playing gods (talk about a not so subtle comparison) and the divine work of Ray Harryhausen.
So naturally I'm very excited about this new version, I have my reservations of course, which with the trailer have become a ton.
Why the hell does CGI have to come and mess with my childhood memories? The wonderful thing about Medusa in the original was that she looked as if she was made during the glory days of the Greek! This shiny snake looks like Angelina Jolie in "Beowulf".
And as much as I love watching Sam Worthington in a skirt, why is he forced to act like a "300" extra? And what's with the ominous rock song used in the trailer?
And what the hell is wrong with that tagline? "Titans will clash"????? Really? Is that the best a multimillion dollar marketing team can come up with?
The silly redundant tagline could've worked if they'd gone straight to the release date afterwards, but no, they had to establish the movie's name...
Let us hope the movie is at least campy.

Whatever Works ***

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood, Patricia Clarkson
Ed Begley Jr., Henry Cavill, Christopher Evan Welch, Olek Krupa

Some find Woody Allen's kind of filmmaking to be exasperating and annoying; stuck in the "neurotic, snobbishly humble Jew" part for times immemorial, he's what you can call an acquired taste.
Same goes for Larry David, who with his arrogantly neurotic comedy has become one of the most polarizing figures in entertainment history.
What happens then when you put these two together? Even more, what happens when the egregious David takes on the "Woody Allen role" in a movie?
You would have expected a clashing of egos (and it feels like that for the first awkward half hour), but before soon the two have managed to make something imperfectly perfect out of Boris Yellnikoff: the suicidal physicist at the center of "Whatever Works".
While Allen's male leads usually fear the world, Boris plain hates it. He goes on calling children "inchworms" and delivers complicated insults that boggle instead of offending.
The man even hates sex.
He manages to live because he seems to enjoy finding more reasons why he shouldn't be alive and his theory is that instead of looking for meaning you should just go with whatever works.
One night going home he encounters the waifish Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Woods), a Southern girl who just arrived to New Yok City, who asks him for something to eat and a place to stay the night.
She ends up staying a month and marrying Boris.
Their marriage however isn't born out of romantic movie love, Boris himself says he wants to attempt a "Pygmalion", while Melodie seems pleased with the notion that she's married to a genius.
She begins to talk, act and think different, "you have ideas of your own?" he asks in disbelief.
"Just a couple" she answers with the Southern modesty she was raised on.
Things start getting complicated when her parents arrive looking for her. Marietta (Clarkson), her mother, is a church going conservative who wanted her daughter to marry someone like George Bush.
Her father John (Begley Jr.) is the kind of man for whom a rifle is as sacred as his Bible. The two of them will be transfixed by New York City in unexpected ways and it's through them that the movie achieves a most positive, almost hopeful, note.
Allen doesn't take advantage of them to exalt the transforming power of his beloved city, instead he turns them into lovely fablesque creations that need to be so corny because "sometimes a cliché is finally the best way to make one's point."
This is by no means an attempt at realism, but a film made by someone who just doesn't have the heart to be too cruel.
You will find vintage Allen; some of the dialogues are hilariously cerebral beyond words and the performances are magnificent.
Even David who comes off as someone you're dying to hate at the beginning, grows a sort of Allen heart through which he exposes his vulnerabilities.
He often addresses the audience, in a move that not always works like it should, trying to explain his tragic views on life and at one point rightfully asks us "why do you wanna hear all this?".
Ironically, it's with this self examination that the movie steers us towards Melodie, Marietta and John, who become the most fascinating characters.
Clarkson is a scene stealer, bringing her earthy sexiness and effortless sophistication to someone that might've been played like a parody and Begley does wonders as Allen tries to explore with him the one issue he's never been able to tackle accurately in his movies.
Then there's Wood who selfconsciously starts playing Melodie like a typical bimbo, only to turn her into a fascinating young woman at odds with what she believes, what she believed and what she believes she believes.
With her, Allen makes the crazy marriage seem like the most normal thing in the world, "I don't like normal, healthy men, I like you" she says (which might remind you of Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's") and she means it.
And once she understands that each of us must make the best out of what we get,she channels Mariel Hemingway in "Manhattan" and delivers a lovely statement that makes us see that for all the theories we make about love; whether they be physical, chemical, spiritual or mental, the truth is it's still the greatest mystery in the universe.
Boris might not get it, Allen might not get it, Melodie herself might not know what she's talking about, but with her the movie turns its bitter outlook upside down and delivers the refreshingly hopeful plunges into the dark Allen has always been so good at.
Because hey, it just ain't Allen if it doesn't break your heart.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Crush of the Week.

Duh I know...

I Want More!

...the season when I finally start loving it and now it's gone!

Disgrace **

Director: Steve Jacobs
Cast: John Malkovich, Jessica Haines
Antoinette Engels, Eriq Ebuoaney, Fiona Press

Like its leading character, "Disgrace" likes to think it works on different, supreme levels when it's usually just hiding its nature behind a facade.
Malkovich stars as David Lurie, a literature professor in Cape Town University, who starts an affair with one of his students (Engels).
He's discovered and forced to resign after he refuses to indulge the school's board with public humiliation (he does tell her from the start that he's willing to take the affair as far as he wishes).
The problem, which might go undetected by some, is that he's white, she's not and it's post apartheid South Africa.
After this he goes visit his daughter Lucy (Haines), she lives in a farm in the middle of nowhere with her dogs, a rifle-that's never been used-and Petrus (the magnificent Ebuoaney) a black man who bought some land from her property and has started to build a house.
David feels that this place isn't safe for his daughter and his notions become reality when one day they are attacked by three men who do unspeakable things to them.
After this event the movie turns into a facile attempt to try and rationalize Africa, the apartheid and the personal sins of the characters.
The problem is that director Jacobs never really knows where to draw the line between what is symbolic and what is not.
But really, you can't blame a movie that from the very start uses Lord Byron as a premonition (or is it an excuse?) of what will come to happen later on.
When describing Lucifer, Lurie tells his students that the poet described him as a creature who "doesn't rely on principles but on impulse and the source of his impulses is dark to him".
Therefore he becomes "a thing" who "lives among us, but is not one of us". With this poetic reading the movie tries to justify itself.
It also tries to impose upon us a moral dilemma as Lucy refuses to seek justice for what happened to her and the screenplay begins to compare it with what her father did with his student.
But how is consensual sex between two adults-despite the ethical student/teacher problem-any similar to brutal rape?
The movie tries to explain us this relation by pointing out how whites and blacks in Africa lived under different codes of morality. As if crimes can be justified by anthropology.
Perhaps they can be understood if one chooses to judge each culture by their own ideologies, but then what does this say of how we should perceive these characters?
Haines gives a very good performance even when she must convey someone who comes off looking irrational most of the time. The actress gives her the dignity necessary to make her undertake an unnecessary burden (is she atoning for the sins of her father or of the entire white race?) and she's good enough to avoid falling into the clichés that come included by making her character a lesbian (subjecting to the sexual will of men gives the plot forced gender role questioning).
The movie has good intentions, even when it tries too hard to be as cerebral as it is emotionally engaging and Malkovich gives one of his greatest performances as the sleazy, but deeply human, Lurie, but the truth is none of the characters seem to understand each other's choices, in the very same way the audience won't understand the movie's.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Oh man!

I'm like the only person left in the world that still likes Gwyneth Paltrow.
So you can imagine my joy upon finding out that she's been cast to star alongside Nicole Kidman in "The Danish Girl" (she's replacing Charlize Theron).
She will play wife to Kidman's pre-op transsexual in what already was one of my most awaited upcoming movies.
Can you imagine both Gwyn and Nic back in the Oscar game?
The movie sounds baity as fuck, with the director, the plot and with these two on board it's just set to be something remarkable.
I'm already salivating while I think of what they will wear to the 2012 Oscars when they both are nominated for this movie...
Ok a man can dream right?
Read the whole casting story here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Zombieland **

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin

After zombies have taken all over the world, human survivor Columbus (Eisenberg) is trying to reach his hometown to see if he has a family to get back to.
Not out of any special connection, but because it's the normal thing to do, as he explains in a self deprecating narration.
On the way there he encounters Tallahassee (Harrelson) a Twinkie (as in Hostess pastries) loving redneck with a special talent for killing zombies and tough sisters Wichita (Stone) and Little Rock (Breslin) with whom he forms an unlikely family.
They stick together, only after learning to trust each other of course, and Columbus gives up his original plan in order to help the sisters get to Pacific Playland, an amusement park in California that reminds them of better times.
Forget the fact that these people think a rollercoaster ride is a priority, what matters here is that the filmmakers chose this over more "important" things.
It's clear from the start that this isn't a movie a la "28 Days" and its intention isn't to use zombies as a parable for anything else. What "Zombieland" tries is to push the genre forward and trying to emulate the wonderful "Shaun of the Dead", the filmmakers end up delivering something that works more like a buddy/road movie with a pinch of zombie parody.
Never scary enough to get the most out of the genre, the movie usually relies on the zombies as means to justify its need to utter pop culture references (Harrelson's micro rendering of "Deliverance" is delightful!) and exploit the likability of the actors.
Breslin can do no bad and even when she's holding a machine gun she manages to look adorable and age appropriate, while Eisenberg brings his "I am not Michael Cera but I act and look like him" qualities to a place where you can actually identify with his too self conscious deprecating.
The movie has its moments, in fact it has one of the most memorable cameos in any zombie movie ever, which despite its hilarious finale sadly feels like it lasts too little.
But most of the time it movies around aimlessly, like a zombie...
"Zombieland" is an exaltation of everything that is geek, from cult movie references to shameful confessions about virginity it's all a fantasy for people like Eisenberg's character.
Because of this it has franchise possibilities; if this one's about the geek getting the girl, there can be a million more about how he overcomes obstacles he can be bullied for.
But for all its heart it can't help itself from making the audience expect for it to end with geek waking up from a crazy dream with a familiar wet spot on his underpants.

Humpday **1/2

Director: Lynn Shelton
Cast: Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore

Andrew (Leonard) and Ben (Duplass) were best friends during college but drifted apart as the years went by. Andrew ended up getting married and lives with his wife Anna (Delmore) in Seattle where Ben, who's coming back from a long term stay in Chiapas-where he did art with natives- irrupts one early morning unannounced.
Suddenly Ben finds himself in a strange party with Andrew's new friends; a group of hippies, artists and swingers.
While Anna sits at home waiting with a cold dinner, Ben gets drunk, high and agrees to do an art project with Andrew.
Said project, a movie which they will submit to the local Humpfest, will feature them having sex. The following morning trying to hide behind and accuse the hangover they rekindle their talk and realize this is something they actually want to do to prove how one of them isn't as "Kerouac" as he thinks and the other isn't completely "white picket fences".
Writer/director Shelton has some interesting points of view about how heterosexual males choose to bond and the movie has some really funny moments, that don't necessarily involve sexual orientation stereotypes.
As the movie builds up to the imminent encounter, to take place at the "Bonin' Motel", it's not so much the characters who begin to falter and doubt, but the filmmaker herself.
"What exactly about two straight dudes having sex on camera is a great piece of art?" asks Ben as he sits next to his buddy half naked.
The question isn't directed to them as much as it is to Shelton, who came up with a cute idea and later had nothing to say with it (as happens a lot lately in "art").
She then has them involve in a conversation that's half profound questioning of our sexual perceptions, half silly conversation- a keg away- from a frat party.
Her postmodernist attempt to question the existence of her own movie feels more like a happy accident than an intention; and in her search for a door into the heterosexual male's mind she only came up with clichés.
Her idea of what it's like to be heterosexual can't help but be stained by very feminist ways of thinking. Even when she might swear she's trying to make the guys seem reasonable, she ends up being condescending to them and towards homosexuality.
When Andrew reminds himself that he's about to star in a movie about "two straight guys boning", Ben instantly asks "how are they going to know that we're straight?".
It's sweet of Shelton to want to explore the fears that lie behind society's take on homosexuality, but when she makes Ben reveal that he had "a moment" with a guy during his teenage years (kudos to Duplass for making this scene seem much deeper than it has any right to be) the whole thing feels reduced to a movie about the incomplete bonding of two college buddies afraid of middle age.
Shelton may not get men in the way she wants, but with Anna she saves the movie from becoming insulting.
She isn't only the most grounded character in the film (a lot is owed to Delmore's bittersweet, mature performance) but she's also the only one who seems to have a life outside the screenplay.
Her dialogues are more planned and thought out than anything the boys have to say and even when she suggest to her husband that he should get "that thing" out of his system, she seems to be talking from a place of pure empathy and even love.
She also has a confession of her own and even if it's not a mindfuck of a revelation it feels more human and real than anything else featured here.
Sadly, "Humpday", like its characters, is never as open minded as it wants to be.