2009 So Far, Part 2: The Squeakquel

The economy being what it is (which to say, terrible) and myself being who I am (which is to say, a former English major), I’ve seen disappointingly few movies in theaters this year. Fortunately, that’s kept the quality to quantity ratio of 2009 pretty high. Mini-reviews follow, reverse order again:

The Hangover:

What I Liked: The long-overdue stardom of Zach Galifiankis, and the less overdue but still enjoyable stardom of Ed Helms. Those two, along with generic every dude Bradley Cooper, elevate what pretty much is an hour and a half “What Happens In Vegas Stays In Vegas” commercial into an enjoyable farce from the director of Old School. It’s telling that my sides hurt not during the ridiculous farce, look-how-Vegasy-this-is moments (A tiger in the bathroom! Que ridiculo!), but during the character moments, like when Helms tells Galifianakis he is “literally too stupid to insult.”

What I Didn’t Like: The “villain,” of the film, such as it is, is an Eddie-Murphy-in-Norbit level Asian stereotype, and there were plenty of other cheap attempts at laughs here and there, but it wasn’t as if I had expected to see Woody Allen type sophisticate humor.

The Verdict: Two And A Half Stars. Maybe I’ll kick in an extra half in hindsight if it elevates Galafianakis, who’s nearly an Andy Kaufman-level comic persona, to bigger and better things.

The Brothers Bloom:

What I Liked: Everything.

Every time Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenabums, The Darjeeling Limited) releases a movie, critics tend to rouse a chorus of minor variations of the theme “He does the same thing every time!” And while I agree whole-heatedly that yes, he does, I hope he keeps right on doing it. It’s not as if whimsically detached, artfully symmetric pastiche-pieces are clogging the screens at the Majestic every week. And if more filmmakers dive headfirst into the Anderson indie-twee style of filmmaking (like Rian Johnson with his sophomore film The Brothers Bloom), then it will still be a long time before I start complaining.

On the heels of his new cult classic Brick, Johnson got the funding for a beautifully shot ode to con men and European intrigue, and brought the same raw energy to a twisting, bantering screenplay for stars Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and Rachel Weisz to work with. The plot might get a little too cutesy for some near the end (mostly leaving us guessing whether or not people have been shot), but The Brothers Bloom is too much fun to ask questions, and too well-made to get mad at.

All that and a great, rambling score had me waltzing out of the theater.

What I Didn’t Like: There were two songs in the movie that weren’t on the soundtrack I downloaded from Amazon? Seriously, the combination of Rian Johnson’s raw enthusiasm for film with an Andersonian (Andersonish?) sensibility hit all the right notes for me.

The Verdict: Four Stars, and one derby hat slickly rolled onto my head. Watch the first seven minutes of it here, and then tell me you don’t want to catch it at the Downer Theater before it’s gone.

Click for More...

Star Trek:

What I Liked: Again, pretty much everything. As a casual fan of the original series, and only a fan-in-general of later incarnations (except for Star Trek: Voyager, which premiered whilst I was in middle school and I briefly thought was the BEST SHOW EVER), I was more than ready for J. J. Abrams to re-imagine the Star Trek universe, unlike some older critics more tied to the past, perhaps.

ST reminded me a great deal of Pirates Of The Carribean: Curse Of The Black Pearl in the way it seemingly effortlessly accomplished the introduction of several characters, incorporated several different action set pieces, maintained a break-neck pace, and kept the audience laughing or oohing and aahing at all the right points. The cast was largely spot on, although that depends on your attachment to certain characters since they were all different levels of homage to each original portrayal- they ran the gamut from Karl Urban’s absolutely spot-on (and scene stealing) Bones, to John Cho’s largely businesslike Sulu.

Without getting too much into the plot, the writers also explained the reason for a new look at Star Trek in a way that not only made sense, but provided an excuse to include Leonard Nimoy.

What I Didn’t Like: The film’s villain, Eric Bana’s Nero, was reasonably well-done, but I was left wishing that the Enterprise might get involved in more than a conflict with a very traditional Star Trek trope: the lone despot with a powerful ship. Doesn’t the Federation function as a galactic peace-keeping organization?

I suppose that might be best left for some other series, however. But what would it be called? “Star Galactic Peace Keeping Operations?” I feel like it’s on the tip of my tongue.

The Verdict: Four Stars! I’ve seen fewer movies, but rarely do I find three of my year end top ten (probably) before it’s half over (Bloom, ST, and Coraline, if you’re counting with me).

The Soloist:

What I Liked: Robert Downey, Jr. as a journalist at the end of his rope, delivers another quietly solid performance, opposite Jamey Foxx’s more obviously dramatic schizophrenic homeless cellist. I enjoyed the script, at least in the way that it patiently depicts a friendship that falters as often as it grows, and doesn’t overdo any redemptive element- Foxx’s character never has any sort of Hallmark life-turnaround, nor does Downey reconnect with his ex-wife.

Joe Wright continues to develop as a visual filmmaker, abandoning the sweeping tracking shots of Atonement for grittier montages of Los Angeles street-life: The Soloist is about the plight of the homeless and mentally handicapped as much as it is about music. I also loved a scene mid-way through the film when Foxx hears an orchestra rehearse- he closes his eyes and Wright brings us on a journey with him, punctuating each crescendo of the music with bright visual flares on a blank screen. It might qualify as an indulgent touch, but I’m a fan of the orchestra (I’m even a sucking for the cool “warming up” noise) so it worked well.

What I Didn’t Like: Despite admiring the unhurried way the plot moved, The Soloist could have been paced a bit better- it makes the most of it’s nearly two-hour runtime. The minor subplots (the ex-wife, the animal urine (?) Downey orders to protect his garden from scavengers) weighed it down, and the brief looks at Foxx’s childhood and subsequent unraveling were more voyeuristic than they were necessary.

The Verdict: Two And A Half Stars. It might have been higher if there were more Bach and less Beethoven. Personal preference, sorry.

State Of Play:

What I Liked: A passably fun thriller about evil corporations, idealistic reporters, and possibly corrupt politicians. Russel Crowe was gravelly, Helen Mirren was a fun mean-spirited editor. Jason Bateman had a fun cameo. The plot twisted and turned.

What I Didn’t Like: Not to say that it was predictable, but it certainly felt rather familiar. In fact, the only unique part of the film was the most overblown and hackneyed- a constant emphasis on the death rattle of print journalism and how sad that is. Rachel McAdams plays the young reporter who runs the newspaper’s blog, and just doesn’t get how things should be done, Crowe uses an ancient DOS-based black-screened thing, and the film ends with a big story being printed, step by step, on an industrial printing press and delivered to newsstands. I get it. End of an era. Yawn.

The Verdict: Two Stars. Kept me watching, didn’t go anywhere unexpected, could’ve taken itself a little less seriously.

Observe And Report:

What I Liked: There’s a certain amount of downright insane edginess you just sort of have to admire, in that you wonder how they got film studio’s to agree to fund it. I’m sure it mostly had to do with Seth Rogen’s still rising star, and he does an admirably believable job as a suburbanized Taxi Driver-style psychotic mall cop.

What I Didn’t Like: With that edginess always seems to come a pervasive distaste for every character in the film, or at least that’s what we’re left with. Even cameos from some of my favorite comedy stars (like Patton Oswalt!) usually are for little purpose other than to act awful and expect laughter. And even though the abrasive wackiness gets laughs, it’s nice to have a straight man here and there.

The Verdict: Two Stars. Seemed a little too proud of itself for being risqué, with lots of musical montages and slow motion, but honestly the trailer sold that sensibility pretty well.

10 Best Picture Nominees? Good Thing I Have That Many Fingers

So as you may have heard, yesterday the Oscars (or AMPAS, if you prefer) announced the decision to increase the field of Best Picture nominations from five to ten.

With various reactions around the internet (Spout always does a great job rounding up the consensus), I find myself mostly liking the idea. Why, you ask? Let’s make a list.

1. Nothing Should Get Skipped Over Now, Finally


Some years we’re lucky enough to get well more than five films that deserve inclusion, but usually we only see three of them make it, while the rest get skipped over for whatever the studios have politicked into the field (like The Reader last year, or Juno the year before).

Now, theoretically, nothing should be relegated to the perennial sixth contender.

2. The Ratings For The Telecast Could Improve

Everyone seems to think this move is in response to the outrage over The Dark Knight’s snub last year, but honestly anyone who was really mad about it was probably the type of person who still watched the Oscars anyway (like I was, and did).

I would bet that this is more of an inclusive way to cast a wider net for the telecast- if they were worried about just certain films getting overlooked, they could have gone with six or seven nominations, or made the number conditional on some sort of voting rubric (both of which make more sense than randomly doubling the total).

But by increasing it to ten, AMPAS is more or less guaranteeing that a random moviegoer will have seen at least one of them.

Click for More...

3. It Doesn’t Really “Dilute The Prestige” Of A Nomination

Just saying. Actual films nominated for Best Picture since 1990: Ghost, The Godfather Part III, Scent Of A Woman, Four Weddings And A Funeral, Babe, Jerry Maguire, American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, In The Bedroom, The Hours, Seabiscuit, Ray, Sideways, Crash, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, and The Reader.

Now, clearly this is all my opinion, but not one of those screams “Best Picture” to me, even though they’re pretty good (except Crash and The Godfather Part III, which are awful by all accounts).

If you insist on thinking that a nomination is now half as noteworthy, then at least undeserving nominees are only half as egregious. Those who have the free time already decide which of the five nominees are also-rans as soon as the field is announced, now they just have five more to add to that list.

4. It Makes Me More Excited For This Year’s Oscars

Hey, it’s the first time since Casablanca that this has happened! At least it’s novel. Plus, with no frontrunner at this early stage, it’s fun to imagine the possibilities. As many speculate, this seems to push things like Star Trek and Up into the “likely contenders” category, instead of crowd pleasers that would certainly have been neglected.

Now I have to completely revise my likely Best Picture nominees list, which has just been in my head until now. For fun, here it is after yesterday, in no particular order:

Invictus (Eastwood film about Nelson Mandela)
The Informant (Soderbergh film starring Matt Damon)
Shutter Island (Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio)
The Road (Pulitzer-winning book made Viggo Mortensen movie)
Biutiful (Javier Bardem starrer from the director of Babel)
Star Trek
Broken Embraces (Almodovar/Penelope Cruz collaboration du jour)
Brothers (Jake Gylenhaal vehicle from the director of In America)
Avatar (James Cameron’s new Sci Fi epic).

And I had to actually look things up to think of ten! That’s the crazy part. This is to say nothing of films that I am iffy about (for BP, anyway) that become contenders if the reviews are good, like Public Enemies, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Lovely Bones, Nine (the musical, not the CGI rag-doll apocalypse thing)- and even the crazy longshot odds for Where The Wild Things Are must’ve just doubled.

So you’ve got a tentative thumbs up from me, Academy, but I was already gonna watch anyway. Hopefully such a major move makes you less afraid to overhaul categories that need it even more, like Original Song, Original Score, and Foreign Film.

My only real “aw” thought is how sad it is for the entire field in 2007, the only year that I’ve been following this stuff that could’ve sustained ten real nominees. You had the Academy’s five, which included two masterpieces (No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood), one near-masterpiece (Atonement), an awesome throwback thriller (Michael Clayton) and the fun but happy-to-be-there Juno. But it was such a great year that it would have been nice to add The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Sweeney Todd, Zodiac, Away From Her, and something actually popular like The Bourne Ultimatum or Ratatouille.

Powered by Blogger