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Taking Woodstock •
Inglourious Basterds •
X Games 3D: The Movie •
In the Loop •
Ponyo • Bandslam • The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard • District 9 • Paper Heart • The Time Traveler's Wife
Departures • Julie & Julia • Bliss • Funny People • 500 Days of Summer
Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).
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Director Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is and isn’t about Woodstock, the famed “3 days of Peace and Music” gathering in White Lake, NY near the town of Bethel on Aug. 15-17, 1969.
At it’s core, Taking Woodstock is a story about a young man, Elliot Tiber, played by comedy star Demetri Martin, returning to his parent’s dilapidated motel in the Catskills, the El Monaco, that summer to save the place and his parents from bankruptcy. His efforts set in motion both self-discovery and an expanding view of his parents, people, the world and, yes, the universe — via LSD — which is, of course, the essence that was the 1960s.
Woodstock, the festival, provides the large, pulsating canvas that helps Elliot integrate his newly found knowledge onto himself. While the film provides a spot-on return to hippiedom in clothes, cars, attitudes, colors, language and goofy mayhem, with plenty of peace and love, missing is the music and performers who helped elevate the experience to the greatest rock ‘n roll event, ever.
But it isn’t a fault within the film. Taking Woodstock is a very funny and touching movie, one that will bring back a space in time where we all really did get along.
Martin is perfect as Elliot, the bright, slightly confused young man, straddling maturity with an innocence both grounded in confidence and insecurity. He adores his parents, Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) though he’s unable to understand them — a switch in itself for the time — as they seemingly treat him with all the affection given a pet rock. At one point Elliot convinces himself that his mother must love him by saying, “I can sense it by the way she looks at me with her left eye.”
Adding to the benign craziness is the a theatre troupe living in the El Monaco barn led by Devon (Dan Fogler) along with a bevy of beauties given to nakedness as a political statement, Emile Hirsch as the whacked-out Vietnam vet, Vilma, the cross-dressing security chief played by Live Schreiber, and the beloved dairy farmer Max Yasgur, bought back to life on the screen by Eugene Levy. It was Yasgur who defied the town’s festival objectors fearing that the waves of hippies would be “raping the cattle at night.” Instead, Woodstock had Sonia poking her broom into the brushes during the day to keep the hippies from copulating.
As Taking Woodstock unfolds on screen in a joyous, wavy-gravy nostalgic way through thousands caught in the moment, those who were there or experienced the 1960s roughly the same way can tell themselves, “We were much freer then than now.” (R) Rated 4 (Posted 8/28/09)
Adam is a movie that could have gone horribly wrong. In the wrong hands, this story about a man trying to deal with the challengers of having Asperger’s Syndrome and the first pangs of love could have been either fulsomely sentimental or downright tiresome because its lead character is, at times, obnoxiously antisocial.
British actor Hugh Dancy manages an astonishing feat by making viewers empathize with a character that has trouble feeling empathy. For Adam Raki (Dancy) interacting with other people is as frightening as standing in front of a pride of hungry lions.
He has only one friend, an older man named Harlan (Frankie Faison), who is close to Adam’s father. While Adam is unnervingly intelligent (don’t argue with this guy about astronomy!), he only has a home and a job designing toys because his father has provided them.
Adam’s cocoon falls apart when his father unexpectedly dies. His boss (Mark Linn-Baker) is adamant that Adam design more commercially viable playthings instead of the technically impressive but expensive toys he’s already conceived.
As the real world starts demolishing everything Adam has known, the one bright spot in his life is his new neighbor. She’s a friendly and apparently courageous teacher named Beth Buchwald (Rose Byrne), who quickly learns why Adam talks so freely about the stars but can’t understand euphemisms, small talk or sarcasm.
As with most movies of this type, it’s obvious where this story is going, but writer-director Max Mayer (The West Wing) actually finds credible reasons for Beth to gradually get closer to a potentially high-maintenance boyfriend. Her father Marty (an appropriately smug Peter Gallagher) is a slick financial wizard who wishes she’d settle down with a guy just like him, even though his glib ways wind up hurting everyone else around him, especially Beth’s mother Rebecca (Amy Irving).
Compared to her father and her exes, Adam is oddly refreshing. Imagine knowing that the love of your life will be honest with you no matter what, even if he has to be told to hug you or carry your groceries.
Byrne manages to make this seemingly unlikely pairing work and also keeps from being upstaged by some inspired work from Dancy. In addition to effortlessly losing his British accent, he imbues Adam with just enough vulnerability so that he seems more frightened than wimpy. He also plays Adam as a man with a caring heart, even if he can’t express it without being offensive.
Like his leading man, Mayer achieves a rather difficult balancing act. Adam is often quite funny because of its protagonist’s quirks (imagine going to a party where a guest refuses to hold the host’s newborn baby), but none of the laughs are ever mean spirited or exploitative.
Mayer doesn’t offer any fairy tale conclusions but by making Adam both entertaining and plausible, he’s still achieved a minor miracle (PG-13) Rating 4 (Posted on 08/28/09)
Quentin Tarantino has become a household name because of his love of onscreen violence. In recalling Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction, it’s hard to think of these movies without scenes of graphic or implied mayhem.
Thankfully, he’s also demonstrated a love of language that indicates there may be something more inside his head than carnage. Even when his characters aren’t cussing, he can make seemingly idle conversations become vibrant, especially if he has the right actor leading them.
Thanks to the silver tongue of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds (correct spelling be damned!) becomes more than a tribute to the European schlock films Tarantino watched as a youngster. Together the writer-director and the performer create a portrait of evil that is so seductive that viewers might not notice the danger until legions of people die.
Waltz plays SS Colonel Hans Landa, a man of such suave and seemingly gentle demeanor that his nickname “The Jew Hunter” initially appears to be a misnomer. Despite being an expert with a pistol and hand-to-hand combat, Landa rarely uses force.
He doesn’t have to. The Colonel, with a few exquisitely chosen words (he’s fluent in several languages) can get previously loyal neighbors to betray each other, negating the reason to murder anyone else himself. Waltz’s impeccable delivery makes the most heinous acts sound not only logical but even merciful. With a twinkle in his eye, Waltz plays the human equivalent of a black hole, irresistibly pulling others into his own moral abyss.
If Colonel Landa were the only developed character, Inglourious Basterds, would be a pretty entertaining film, but thankfully Tarantino, who reportedly spent a decade working on the script, has more fascinatingly bizarre people to introduce.
To take out Landa and his Nazi superiors, the Allies put a former Tennessee moonshiner named Lt. Aldo “the Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt, in a hilariously over-the-top performance) in charge of a squad that consists almost solely of American Jewish commandos. Aldo may mispronounce “Nazi” (it comes out “Nat-See” in his thick, rural drawl), but he sure knows how to frighten history’s most depraved villains in previously safe occupied France.
Calling up his Apache roots, he and his crew gleefully collect scalps from their targets and mutilate survivors with permanent reminders of their Nazi misdeeds. Aldo’s subordinate, St. Sgt. Donny Donnowitz (Hostel director Eli Roth), earns the nickname “The Bear Jew” for the way he bashes Nazi heads the way Ted Williams assaulted baseballs. The team also has a former German named Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) who beats and kill their captives when he isn’t translating their information.
While it’s assured that the gruff Aldo and the urbane Landa are guaranteed to eventually clash, there are other intriguing players in the mix. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) runs a small cinema where Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) wants to present his latest propaganda masterpiece, “Nation’s Pride.” She’s got other plans because she’s actually Jewish and is eager to get back at Colonel Landa for what he’s done to her family.
Also converging on the scene are Der Führer himself (Martin Wuttke), a British film critic (Michael Fassbinder, Hunger), a famed German actress (nicely played by German actress Diane Kruger) and even a young Nazi gunman (Daniel Brühl) hoping to become the Third Reich’s equivalent of Audie Murphy. Turn your head for a moment, and you’ll miss Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill and an unrecognizable (but convincing) Mike Myers as a British officer.
Tarantino assembles his complicated plot and multitude of players with only occasional allegiance to history. He even uses deliberately out of period music like David Bowie’s eerily appropriate “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” to foreshadow the climax. As a result, all bets are off, making the film and its twists harder to predict.
Handsomely photographed by Robert Richardson (an Oscar-winner for The Aviator), Inglourious Basterds is probably short on action for some viewers. But like the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), the new film works by toying with our expectations and dragging out the suspense until it has reached the breaking point.
In both cases, the violence is actually sudden and disappears if you blink. But both Tarantino and Leone build up to the attacks so well that the emotional effect is far more potent than the actual images that are on the screen.
Tarantino can be faulted for setting a story in the bloodiest war ever fought on the planet and intending simply to entertain. Fortunately, he succeeds so well at this goal that he can be forgiven in approaching World War II the way Bugs Bunny did a few generations before. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 08/21/09)
Watching a motocross biker or a skateboarder briefly turn the law of gravity into a mere suggestion can be breathtaking. Watching these folks do it in 3D on the big screen sounds potentially irresistible. There’s some jaw dropping eye candy in X Games 3D: The Movie, but there are also wasted opportunities.
X Gamers are guaranteed to be fascinating to watch even if they break bones instead of records. The problem with the new film is that it features so many different events, making it difficult to give any one sport its due. All of the professional gamers profiled in X Games 3D are legends in the field and would be worthy of feature-length documentaries of their own.
Because Olympic gold medalist snowboarder and skateboarding hero Shaun White is given equal weight with motocross bikers Travis Pastrana and Ricky Carmichael, all three are given short shrift even though each has a career of intimidating achievements and a multitude of painful injuries.
When Pastrana’s wounds are described with nifty 3D graphics, it begs an obvious question: Why are these guys willing to risk an early grave?
Because we get only brief comments for the fellows themselves, we’re left guessing when it might have been more rewarding to simply watch them tempt fate. Only skater Danny Way discusses his life in any detail and while his observations are interesting (apparently his family was bit dysfunctional), the film doesn’t let viewers know that the daredevil is somehow able to juggle his potentially lethal career with being a married father.
First-time feature documentary filmmaker Steve Lawrence is probably right in thinking viewers would prefer jaw-dropping stunts to psychological insights. Therapy sessions aren’t any more interesting in 3D. Nonetheless, it’s easier to care about these guys if we know something about them other than they can do more in the air than most folks can do on the ground. The narration by Lawrence and Gregg Jennings is more annoying than helpful (uh, we can see for ourselves that these fellows can do amazing things), but at least Into the Wild actor Emile Hirsch delivers the needless hyperbole with appropriate enthusiasm.
The jumping motorcycles and boards are pretty spectacular, but some of the scenes with car rallies don’t give viewers the same type of rush. It’s probably more fun to sit behind the wheel of the car than in a theater chair.
The 3D visuals occasionally help viewers get a sense of danger that an HD television in a bar can’t. During the final competition between Way and Bob Burnquist, the glasses give you a sense of how high the ramps that these skaters use are and what the pain of hitting the ground from that elevation might feel like.
Even without the eye candy, the showdown between Way and Burnquist is tense because both are close friends. It gets even more nail-biting when Way is injured.
Most competitions might end there, but the film points out that Way successfully jumped over the Great Wall of China while nursing a broken ankle. Way doesn’t let a few fractures get in the way of winning.
Thanks to the thrilling finale, X Games 3D manages to deliver the adrenaline that should have run throughout the film. It may not be quite as exciting as sitting on a bike or standing on a board as it races down a ramp, but it’s a good deal safer (PG). Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 08/21/09)
Scottish director Armando Iannucci’s debut In the Loop is an insightful look at factors that led to the war in Iraq. But whereas several recent films like the pompous Lions for Lambs presented the situation in a didactically solemn tone, Iannucci has more to say by simply playing the crisis for laughs.
In Iannucci’s world, the conflict was fomented not by all-powerful heads of state with devious goals but by mid-level bureaucrats playing office politics instead of determining how best to conduct the conflict or even if it is needed at all. Right and wrong are incidental in a career as a minister in Her Majesty’s government. Instead of a conscience, these drones have to follow the prime minister’s party line.
Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the Minister for International Development, has managed to hold his job for 18 months despite being what the Brits would call, an utter twit.
Simon is incapable of uttering a coherent sentence, much less meeting constituents’ needs. When interviewed for the BBC, he states it’s important to conquer preventable conditions like diarrhea before dealing with diseases like AIDS.
While most of the listeners, if there were any who could stay awake, might be been bewildered at his medical ignorance, the prime minister’s hatchet man Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi, Local Hero) is furious because Simon off-handedly declares that he finds war in the Middle East “unforeseeable.”
Malcolm charges into Simon’s office and verbally assaults the minister with the fury of a pit bull getting its revenge of Michael Vick. Before a viewer might feel sorry for the hapless Simon, it’s important to note that Malcolm greets everyone else with the same torrent of profanity and scorn.
Simon attempts to make up for his previous mistake by attempting to come up with more eloquent statements. Instead, he continually proves that he’d be better off not opening his mouth at all.
Across the Atlantic at the U.S. State Department, the hawkish Linton Barwick (David Rasche) and the dovish Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) both eagerly try to use Simon’s verbal slips for their own purposes. Karen is armed with a damning report written by her subordinate Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky, My Girl) and the support Lt. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini), who appears to be the only person in Washington or London who has any idea what the toll of war will be.
As Karen soon discovers, skill, honesty, insight or the facts have little bearing on how the crisis will play out. Linton believes that all he needs is a single fact to prove his case (it may be all that his limited brain can hold).
Unfortunately, he’s probably right.
Throughout the film, no one in either Whitehall or the White House discusses what the war could mean for the residents of the unnamed Middle Eastern country (read Iraq). And only Gen. Miller seems to care about how the imminent conflict will affect his troops or even if going into battle will solve anything.
Iannucci and his platoon of co-writers (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Ian Martin and Tony Roche) create a world that is just claustrophobic as the one in The Hurt Locker. Whereas the other film is a nail-biting look at what it’s like to be on the front line of the war, In the Loop focuses on the equally tiny world of the people who sent the protagonists of the other film into harm’s way.
Most of the people in In the Loop have little comprehension of life outside their cubicles, so Simon only runs into trouble for being a PR nightmare instead of the fact that he’s an incompetent. The press-friendly Linton appears guaranteed for lifetime employment in DC despite his fatuousness.
The film also asks a difficult but urgent question: Can a person accomplish more inside or outside the corrupt, dysfunctional bureaucracy? Iannucci never presents a clear answer and viewers get a sense that the foolishness will continue once the participants have long been in their graves.
Despite the fatalistic storyline, Iannucci’s tone is a funny as it is grim. Malcolm’s outbursts demonstrate that curse words can be as elegantly constructed as a strand of DNA. They may set a bad example for the youth of the English-speaking world, but Capaldi’s energetic take on the role is as mesmerizing as it is repellent. He also paints Malcolm subtly enough that you begin to admire how he uses the fact that everyone else resents him for his own hidden advantage.
The rest of the cast is equally assured. Gandolfini gives the general enough dignity so that viewers know there is an active and caring mind behind some of his verbal slips. He laments that going to war is like going to a place where one would never want to return, like France.
Iannucci’s extensive television work helps him here. Veterans of his TV shows like Steve Coogan (I’m Alan Partridge) have wonderful supporting roles, and his loose, handheld visuals make the absurd inanities throughout the film seem more spontaneous and real.
It’s a safe bet that In the Loop won’t prevent beltway insiders from making catastrophic decisions, but laughing about the madness may be a good first step in curing it (N/R) Rating: 5. (Posted 08/21/09)
Lights, camera, action! And there she is, an abrupt end to the anticipatory silence just before the movie starts. She is Ryden Malby (Alexis Bledel of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), the lead character in Post Grad, and she’s rambling in her video log about her life, particularly the end of her college days. “It’s Day 756 of my college experience,” she explains, “graduation day.”
Screens pop up around her, and she clicks and pauses to introduce the characters that interrupt for virtual chats as she babbles on about her life. There’s her friend Adam (Zach Gilford of the television series Friday Night Lights) and her rival, Jessica (Catherine Reitman).
All three are heading into the post-college world with different attitudes. Ryden is certain she going to get her dream job at a publishing company. Jessica, the class valedictorian, seems to think she’ll rule her world in nothing flat. Adam’s is trying to figure out if he should go to med school or take a shot at being a professional musician.
Ryden is as manic and multilayered as a hip hop performance. She’s an apt representation of a 21st century college grad: hopeful and ambitious. Her interminable perkiness may be annoying to some viewers, but she’s a reminder of the brutal realities of life in this tough economy. Her lofty and sometimes unrealistic dreams make her easy prey to life. She’s reality’s straight man, so to speak.
And the comedy lies in watching life smack her down in the same slapstick way that Laurel would smack Hardy, except that this is metaphoric slapstick. Example: In the interview for her dream job, Ryden holds her head high and clips off the reasons why she wants the job (i.e., she was born to edit books). What’s she’s saying is obviously very important to her. But she meets with a solemn a blank stare and a “thanks, we’ll be in touch,” from the interviewer. Smackdown score: Life – 1, Ryden – goose egg.
It’s funny, but in view of reality it’s not. Ryden’s quirky family (especially her grandmother, Maureen [Carol Burnett]) takes they edge off though, at least for a while.
Unfortunately, about halfway through the movie, the story succumbs to the clichés of teen romantic comedies. Ryden has to choose true love or her lifelong dream. It wouldn’t be sappier if the entire family stood behind her in the street singing, “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”
Still, because Bledel and Gilford are so cute and likeable and because Burnett still has the ability to knock off socks with her comedic chops, I must give this little flick a nod. (PG-13) Rating: 3
In Asia, Europe and pretty much the rest of the world, Hayao Miyazaki is a household name. In the United States, he’s an acquired taste.
The 68-year-old Japanese animation writer-director has repeatedly proven that cartoons can be as refined an art form as anything that hangs in a gallery. His previous films like Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away often deal with complex themes like environmentalism and gender relationships.
Miyazaki has become a mentor to the filmmakers at Pixar and has even won an Oscar, but his films have barely scratched the American market.
It’s hard to tell if his latest movie Ponyo is going to finally earn Miyazaki the recognition he deserves on this side of the Pacific. The new film is one of his lesser efforts and lacks the visual finesse of his previous efforts. Nonetheless, Ponyo is a worthy piece of work from an artist who takes his work and his audience seriously.
The new movie is a reworking of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid that’s delivered through Miyazaki’s unique sensibilities. A young fish that has a human-looking face named Pony (the voice of Noah Cyrus, Miley’s little sister) looks to the surface and wonders what life is like on land.
She gets an abrupt education when the wake of a ship pushes her into a bottle that washes up on a cliff. A five-year-old boy named Sÿsuke (Frankie Jonas, the brother who hasn’t apparently taken up music yet) rescues her and makes her a pet. Considering that being watched over by a loving boy instead being trapped in a bottle, it’s easy to see why she’d return the affection.
Her father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson in full gravitas) isn’t pleased. Surprisingly, Fujimoto isn’t a fish. He’s actually a wizard who was disgusted with what humanity was doing to the world and the ocean in particular and now lives between the waves.
While he still walks on two legs, Fujimoto says “human” as if it was a curse word and hurriedly takes Ponyo back to his undersea lair. It’s easier to keep the sea and the land in balance when you’re not chasing after your curious daughter.
Fujimoto’s powerful magic is no match for Ponyo’s will. Ponyo has picked up some of her dad’s gifts and gradually turns into a little girl and tries to reunite with Sÿsuke.
As with all cartoonists, Miyazaki asks his viewers to take leaps of imagination. A salt-water goldfish wouldn’t live long in fresh water, and Sÿsuke’s mother Lisa (Tina Fey) probably wouldn’t leave two tots to take care of themselves.
But at the same time, his films deal with real world issues in an astonishingly realistic and thoughtful way. Both of Sÿsuke’s parents work, and it puts a believable strain on their marriage and their relationship with their son. His father Kÿichi (Matt Damon) is often stuck at sea as the captain of a ship and has difficulty making it home, even though he’s stationed in the same harbor where his family lives. This may explain why Lisa isn’t that pleased with him and appears to work too hard at a retirement home.
As with all of Miyazaki’s movies, the villains are complicated and frequently well meaning. Fujimoto genuinely loves his daughter and is justifiably mad at what some of the ships have done to the harbor. Because he’s not a monolithic heel, the story takes of a fascinating resonance.
The animation style Miyazaki incorporates in Ponyo takes some getting used to. Since Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki has seamlessly incorporated computer and hand-drawn animation to produce fluid and often jaw-dropping images. At Miyazaki’s insistence, Ponyo was rendered strictly by hand, which makes the images look rougher and more organic.
The folks at Disney, who have exclusive rights to Miyazaki’s work in the States, have often given his movie small releases here. But they appear to be trying to present his films here in a dignified manner. Melissa Mathison, the screenwriter behind The Black Stallion and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, has ably adapted Miyazaki’s very Japanese tale into English. And the voice cast includes such formidable talents as Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman and Betty White.
When I show them to my friends, Miyazaki’s movies often lose them. His complicated ideas and characters, and unusual situations frustrate a lot of people. At the same time, I once led a lively discussion of Princess Mononoke with a group of college professors who were genuinely taken with the film, and little kids of all nationalities find Miyazaki’s films mesmerizing. The kids at my screening were eating the film up as their parents were mystified.
Miyazaki’s work will probably remain an acquired taste, but once you’ve acclimated yourself to his cartoons don’t be surprised if you find yourself hooked. (G) Rating: 4 (Posted 08/14/09)
Because Bandslam stars Disney Channel veterans Vanessa Hudgens and Aly Michalka, it’s hard not to walk into the film with undeservingly low expectations. Both actresses are capable, but it’s hard not to assume their presence implies that the movie offers little to viewers old enough to drive legally.
Fortunately, co-writer-director Todd Graff, who’s probably best known for his first-rate 2003 drama Camp, doesn’t look at teens or their issues in a condescending light. While Bandslam is predictable, Graff and Josh Cagan come up with enough convincingly engaging situations and characters to compensate for the familiarity.
Gaelan Connell stars as Will Burton, a teenager whose gloomy outlook belies his years. Having become a favored target for bullies, he’s secretly treasuring his newfound anonymity at his current high school in New Jersey.
Will doesn’t enjoy his obscurity for long. A popular former cheerleader named Charlotte Banks (Michalka) quickly takes Will under her wing. She recruits him to help her watch over tots at a daycare center and advise her struggling rock band.
While Charlotte has an adequate voice, her bass player Bug (Charlie Saxton) and guitarist Omar (Tim Jo) haven’t figured out how to use their instruments yet. Like music mogul Rick Rubin, Will doesn’t sing or play a note but has an uncanny knack for getting the best out of people who can.
Charlotte wants to defeat her vain ex-boyfriend Ben (Scott Porter) at the local musical competition Bandslam. It’s an annual event that draws crowds bigger than Friday night football in Texas. Will’s encyclopedic knowledge of music and surprisingly adept social skills turn the band into surprisingly potent ska ensemble.
As Will discovers his ability as a sonic Svengali, he also falls for a classmate named Sa5m (that’s not a typo, and the “5” is silent). As played by Hudgens, Sa5m is an emo girl who deliberately speaks slowly and sarcastically about everything. Apparently still embarrassed by a long conquered stammering problem, Sa5m resents her more popular peers like Charlotte. Curiously, she shares Will’s fondness for Evil Dead 2 and can carry a tune well if asked nicely.
While the twists in this tale can be predicted as easily as transitions on an album you’ve heard too many times, Graff treats Bandslam with just enough wit and sincerity to keep the story from seeming as stale as a Leif Garrett 8-track. Most of the cast is at least within throwing distance of puberty, so they can thankfully pass for their characters.
Will’s lingo is refreshingly authentic, and the incidental soundtrack is full of terrific songs by the Velvet Underground, Wilco and David Bowie. In an interesting conceit, Graff and Cagan structure the story around a series of letters that Will writes to the Thin White Duke himself. Much of the music may predate the births of many of the stars, but at least the characters are smart enough to know which of their parents’ albums are any good. It’s also refreshing to see Friends alumna Lisa Kudrow play Will’s mother with enough dignity to prevent her from becoming a caricature.
Where Bandslam runs into trouble is that the new songs, most of which are covers, are only moderately engaging. Hudgens and Michalka can carry a tune well enough, but the arrangements and material are pedestrian. The staging of the numbers is also uninspired.
After seeing The Commitments, Once and School, where the musical numbers played at least in part by the actors were either faked expertly or shot live, it feels phony to watch polished, clean performances emerge like magic instead of through noticeable labor. After hearing Will talk knowledgably about ‘70s tunes, it’s disappointing not to hear the same care in the soundtrack itself.
Still, it’s hard not to like a movie that’s intended for teenagers that takes their concerns and desires seriously. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 08/12/09)
The newest venture from co-producers Adam McKay (the writer of both Anchorman and Talladega Nights) and Will Ferrell is, in many ways, like buying a car: long moments of boring tedium all spent for those few thrill-filled moments when you finally get that new ride. Still, what can you expect from a comedy about selling used cars?
The movie opens on a run-down car lot in Temecula, CA, run by Ben Selleck (James Brolin), who is on the verge of bankruptcy. Crewed by your standard group of comedic characters (the older foul-mouthed racist guy who talks about landing at Iwo Jima, the milquetoast with the fat wife, the Asian guy and so on …), the dealership has only the Fourth of July weekend to sell every car on the lot or get bought out by rival Stu Harding (Alan Thicke).
Enter super-salesman Don “The Goods” Ready (Jeremy Piven) and his crew of sell-all-or-die partners, who travel across the country as “mercenary” car salesmen who excel in, well, ripping people off by using such tactics like filliping the numbers on the price tag or yelling at customers until they by a car.
The laughs here, and there are a few, mostly come from Piven’s foul-mouthed man-child antics, a running gag about Selleck’s glandular-challenged son Peter (Rob Riggle) and a cameo from Mr. Ferrell himself. The rest is just a mish-mash of pointless plot-points that waste a talented cast, including Ving Rhames, David Koechner, Ed Helms and many others, who have little if nothing to do (all Ving’s character, Jibby, ever does is polish the dashboards of a few cars: you really need to fly in a “expert” for that?).
There’s no real point in talking about the rest of the plot because any ten-year old could figure out where it’s going. Even Piven, giving it his best shot, can’t save such a formulaic and tired plot. This is at best a Tuesday-night rental, and if you’re at the video store you might as well pick up Used Cars, and see a far better comedy. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 8/14/09)
Summertime at the movies is often the season for your big, dumb sci-fi blockbusters, and this year has been no exception: We’ve already had the mind-numbingly stupid Transformers 2, and G. I. Joe isn’t likely to be much better. However, sandwiched in between all this CGI-slathered crap is a real, rare gem of an S/F movie, District 9.
Two things about this film are almost certainly responsible for it’s intelligence and quality: director Neill Blomkamp, who also wrote the screenplay, obviously considers this his baby and has crafted it with love and devotion, and producer Peter Jackson, who has already shown an ability to work in Hollywood without compromising his vision.
Based on a six-minute short titled Alive in Joburg that Blomkamp made several years ago, District 9 is as much an allegory about racism as it is a condemnation how governments often exploit that same racism to further their own power.
The film opens with a montage of news clips concerning the arrival of a huge alien spaceship hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa, back in the ‘80s. Inside the ship are thousands of dazed, starving aliens who are apparently leaderless and badly need help. To the disappointment of scientists, the ship itself seems to lack a control system, and the numerous nasty looking weapons onboard can only be used by the aliens due to their own unique DNA.
Flash forward over twenty years, and the zone allocated to the aliens, called District 9, is now a trash-filled slum ripe with crime and violence. Fed up with the aliens, the government hires MNU, a private company, to forcibly move them to a new site hundreds of miles from the city. Inside the offices of MNU we meet Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a field representative whose marriage to the daughter of company’s CEO has gotten him placed in charge of the operation…or so he thinks, anyway.
The first half of the film is shot in a documentary-type style, following Wikus and his team of mercenaries through the rotting shacks to give “Eviction” notices to the aliens, who have little understanding of his bundle of forms on a clipboard. The aliens also have some kind of addiction to cat-food, which they get from a Nigerian warlord who also lives in the camp with his own horde of heavily armed henchmen.
After an encounter with an item created by a strangely intelligent and knowledgeable alien, Wikus finds his role completely reversed. Hunted by the MNU and the Nigerians because he suddenly holds the secret to using the alien’s big ol’ guns, Wikus himself becomes a refuge in District 9, bereft of power and helplessly driven along by events he cannot control.
The second half of the film abandons the documentary-style for the shaky, high-speed camera work seen in many of the gritty, ultra-realistic combat scenes like those in Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down, as the warlord’s thugs and the MNU’s mercenaries quickly turn the district into an open war-zone while looking for Wikus.
I don’t really want too give much more away here; it would be a shame to ruin too much of this excellent script. I can say that the pacing of this film is simply perfect. No scenes are wasted and the switch in styles halfway through is unnoticeable, which is an impressive feat for any filmmaker.
While some might find the references to racism simplistic or the eruption of action in the second half odd given the important social commentary of the first half, the simple fact is that this is an excellent example of the ideas and questions intelligent Sci-Fi can create. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 8/14/09)
Paper Heart is a strange hybrid of documentary and fiction filmmaking that might have been more enjoyable had it stuck with strictly with the facts. As it stands, this look at love through the eyes of a skeptic has several charming sequences, but the make-believe framework isn’t as involving as the real stories of lasting affection.
The film is brainchild of director Nicholas Jasenovec and actress-musician-comedian Charlyne Yi. The latter had a small but unforgettable role in Knocked Up where she played a stoner who spoke exclusively in embarrassingly obvious outbursts.
In Paper Heart and probably in real life, Yi is a much more thoughtful individual. In her early 20s, she wonders if love actually exists. To determine if her current lack of a relationship is indicative of the norm, she travels across the United States asking people to describe their relationships. Her subjects range from six-year-olds on a playground to two different couples who’ve managed to stay happily married five decades.
When Yi and Jasenovec focus on real people and their stories of love, Paper Heart can make a viewer melt from simple sentiment. None of the recollections are that sophisticated, but each is enchanting in its simplicity and sincerity. One divorced man in Memphis recalls surviving a near-fatal river crossing in Alaska, guided by a vision of his ex-wife. In another tale, a wife recalls her husband, who had been stuck with his military unit, literally running to the point of exhaustion in uniform trying to find her and their newly born child in the hospital. There’s even a gay love story from New York that can make the most hard-hearted viewer go “awwww.”
Yi and Jasenovec illustrate many of these stories using primitive puppets that Yi and her father have designed. As a result, these tales take on a storybook quality they might not have had otherwise.
The two also decide to augment Yi’s quest for tales of love with a romantic adventure of her own. Because Yi knows a lot of comics (many of whom play themselves in Paper Heart) in Los Angeles and New York, it’s not a stretch to imagine her dating actor Michael Cera (Superbad).
Cera and Yi play themselves, and Jake Johnson plays Jasenovec, who thinks filming Yi’s own love life might make for engaging cinema. Curiously, it isn’t.
Yi and Jasenovec give Yi and Cera little interesting to do on-screen. While both are appealing performers, neither is as interesting as the real stories that emerge in the film. Yi and Jasenovec won the Waldo Salt award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for their script, but it’s hard to see what bowled over viewers in Park City, Utah because the dramatic portions of Paper Heart are so lackluster. Even a trip to France doesn’t do that much for the film as a whole.
Nonetheless, Paper Heart demonstrates that Yi is a promising talent who’s worth following, especially if she just sticks with the facts (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 08/14/09)
After a recent screening for The Time Traveler’s Wife, a woman sitting next to me asked me what I thought of the movie. “Not much,” I replied. It probably sounded rude, but the less thinking you do during The Time Traveler’s Wife, the more enjoyable your experience will be.
Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana play Claire Abshire and Henry DeTamble, a married couple whose union is tested not Henry’s fear of being able to stay in her arms but his inability to do so. Thanks to a bizarre genetic condition, Henry moves forward and backward through time. At any moment, he could emerge naked in some other location or in a different era before or after his disappearance.
Somehow, he’s able to make a comfortable living working in a Chicago library even though it’s hard to figure out how he’d excuse his frequent disappearances on his time sheets. Even when library assistants have perfect attendance, they don’t usually make the cash to afford luxury apartments.
Well, maybe there is an explanation. At one point, Henry uses a previous time trip to win the lottery for Claire, but it’s a little hard to believe because Henry can’t control his disappearances and can’t take notes during his journeys. Because Henry can only travel in his birthday suit, it’s not like he can pack along any written notes.
Claire falls for Henry because he frequently visited her when she was a little girl, but he doesn’t recognize her when both are adults. The situation gets complicated and a bit creepy because she grown up longing for a naked grownup who mysteriously plops down in the meadow outside her house.
And I thought Lolita was disturbing.
Perhaps Audrey Niffenegger’s enormously popular novel provided some sort of explanation to these logic holes. Neither director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan) or screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) provide much in the way of logic or character development, so The Time Traveler’s Wife winds being as languid as it is convoluted.
Henry seems so passive about his situation and in his bearing that it’s hard to be sympathetic toward him, and Claire is sketchy as well. Despite the presence of charismatic leads like McAdams and Bana, it’s hard to get worked up about how these two will sustain their attraction. Unless your idea of cinematic bliss is a chance to catch Bana’s buff torso or shoulders, there isn’t much to the film.
At least Florian Ballhaus’ (Sex and the City) cinematography looks gorgeous. Sadly, the special effects aren’t as interesting as the scenery. Henry’s dissolves look as clumsy and unconvincing as anything in Twilight. Special effects have really progressed since the 1970s.
It’s bad enough that The Time Traveler’s Wife insults viewers for daring to ask questions about the story structure, but do they have to insult our eyes as well as our brains and our hearts? (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted 8/14/09)
The Japanese aesthetic is as delicate as rice paper and as lovely as lilacs in a field. It tends to make us westerners reconsider the commonplace and even grim aspects of life.
In Departures, director Yojiro Takita turns the lenses to death and art, seemingly disparate subjects. But by the end of Departures we see that art can be death, and the final preparations for the dearly departed can be art.
Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) finally gets his dream job as a cellist with an orchestra in Tokyo, but his joy is short-lived. The orchestra disbands after his first performance with it.
Worse, he’s spent a large sum of money for a new cello, and he concealed the purchase from his supportive wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). When Mika find out about the expensive cello she still grins and says they’ll find a way to make the payments.
However, Daigo decides that it’s time to sell the cello and surrender his dreams of making a living as a cellist. So he leaves his art for the real world.
He answers an ambiguous ad titled “Departures.” Soon he learns that the job, which he gets on the spot, is tending dead bodies, preparing them for the funeral.
At first he doesn’t think he has the stomach for the sometimes grotesque work. Then he settles in, perfects his job into art and takes pride in his skills.
Early on, Motoki’s facial expressions combine comedy and horror as he reluctantly does his duty. Later his intensity turns the funerals into life dances, beautiful, artistic ceremonies during which the living celebrate the deceased.
Takita intersperses the funeral action with scenes of Daigo spending time with his widowed boss and the office assistant, time with his wife, time in a public bath he has frequented since childhood, and time spent playing his beloved childhood cello.
This is a quiet film in which little happens in a physical sense. But so much happens spiritually and emotionally.
After viewing this lovely and touching film, it’s easy to see why it received the 2009 Academy Award for foreign film. Departures stands out even in a crowd of worthy rivals. (PG-13) Rating: 5 (Posted 8/10/09)
“Two women separated by decades but united by an extraordinary love of food,” that’s what I imagine a stately baritone voice announcing as the trailer for Julie & Julia rolls by. It sounds so deliciously goofy, as does the plot for this film.
But goofy can become fresh and insightful in the capable hands of writer/director Nora Ephron (You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle). The question is: Did Ms. Ephron pull it off this time?
Julie & Julia tells the story of chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep) during the late 1940s through the early 1960s. During most of this time, Child lived with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) in France, where she gradually fell in love with the art of cooking.
Decades later in New York, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), an unfulfilled Amherst graduate at the brink of 30, uses cooking as a refuge from her lackluster job. Disturbed by her failure to become a writer and annoyed with her inability to complete anything she starts, she decides to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year and to write a daily blog about the experience.
Julie and Julia shared parallel journeys, Child trying hobby after hobby until she followed her love of food to its source, cooking; Powell working a bureaucratic job guiding September 11 claimants through the process of filing their claims all day and then retreating to the solace of her kitchen at night.
As usual, Streep charms her way through the movie. She becomes Julia Child, a bit of a bumbler but amiable enough to get away with it. She and her character, Julia, could have carried this film without Julie Powell and Amy Adams.
It’s not necessarily that Streep’s acting is so far above Adams’, but that Streep had the benefit of a fully written character. Unfortunately, writer Ephron focused more on Child’s life and character than on Powell’s. Child's character is more fully drawn than her 21st century counterpart, who often comes across as nothing more than a weepy ditz.
Still, both actresses managed to add natural humor and a simple charm to their roles. That humor and easy charm made the movie accessible and fun most of the time, although a bit of editing and a bit more action than talking would have reduced the boredom factor (which although present was not abundant).
But despite the movie’s flaws, much laughter emanated from the packed theatre’s huge audience during the screening I attended, and the sighs and chuckles at flick’s end provided a clue that many in the audience had succumbed to the appeal of the two lead characters.
It’s a bit slow in a few places. However, Julie & Julia has a winning formula: lovable characters and capable performers. That equation usually equals many viewers, both during the theatre run and during the inevitable cable television reruns. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 8/7/09)
Nature’s beauty coexists with man’s ugliness in Bliss, which is based on Turkish author Zülfü Livaneli’s novel of the same name.
The film’s subject, honor killing, may be dark. Nevertheless, Turkish writer/director Abdullah Oguz has crafted a feast for the eyes, ears and mind. The camera follows Chemel (Murat Han) and his teenage cousin, Meryem (Özgü Namal) as they travel across Turkey from their small village to Istanbul.
Nearly every frame of this film contains a postcard-worthy shot of natural and manmade wonders. Livaneli’s haunting story adds a layer of beauty with periodic cries from a plaintive flute and the occasional wordless pleas of a single female vocalist.
Chemel arrived home to the village after fighting in a war, and immediately his father and uncle asked him to take Meryem far away to Istanbul. Meryem had been found disheveled and battered in a field where she had been tending sheep. She wouldn’t tell her father or stepmother what had happened, but it was pretty apparent that she’d been raped. Her family blamed her. They said that she had shamed the family.
Her family locked her in a barn and brought her a rope. Her stepmother encouraged her to kill herself, reasoning that if she did it herself she’d go to heaven.
So when Meryem learned that she’d be traveling with Chemel she appeared relieved. She had no idea about the plot to kill her.
The two begin their journey by car. After the car drops them off along a deserted road they embark upon the rest of their journey on foot. The barren roads they travel become a metaphor for their village’s archaic traditions and the isolation of their world from Istanbul’s bustling, urbane society.
In Istanbul, Chemel visits a brother who’s estranged from the family and a soldier friend. He tells both of them about his mission, and they discuss the backwardness of traditions such as honor killing.
But later it becomes clear that Chemel is a product of two worlds. On one hand he doesn’t want to kill his cousin; on the other, he’s inclined to think of her as a whore when she shows the slightest kindness to men around her.
The beauty of this film is that it is told mostly through pictures: the captivating land, the water which the two travel by boat with a former professor, and flashbacks that reveal Chemel’s and Meryem’s fears and anguish. Although the movie runs for nearly two hours there is probably less than 30 minutes of dialogue. Yet flashbacks and the interactions between Meryem and Chemel tell so much about their backgrounds and give us a firm impression of the life Meryem has endured to this point.
To communicate adequately without words requires the highest degree of artistry. It is a level to which Livaneli has risen with this quiet and at times simple work. Not Rated. Rating: 4.5 (Posted 8/7/09)
The film opens today in New York and is available for online viewing through www.giganticdigital.com.
I like movies that make me think and feel, remember, celebrate and lament human life with all its glorious and ludicrous tendencies. How apropos that the latest film that makes me do all those things stars paradoxical actor Adam Sandler.
Sandler’s career has been a mix of sublime and ridiculous. Some of his characters are so quirky that any sensible person would know they couldn’t exist in real life. Into this category fall the angry hockey player turned golf prodigy (Happy Gilmore) and the dense, sheltered water-boy that becomes a football star (The Waterboy).
Then there’s the sublime (Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me). In these flicks Sandler plays it straight mostly, his characters tortured souls beneath eccentric façades. These characters expose the dark underbelly of the tragic clown type.
In Funny People, Sandler reprises the tragic clown persona as George Simmons, a popular comedian and movie star who learns that he’s suffering from a rare form of leukemia.
When we first see George he’s headed to his doctor’s office. Along the way he grins, happily signs fans’ autographs and waves to admirers from his car. When he leaves the doctor’s office he still carries out the duty of acknowledging his fans but with a blank expression replacing the grin.
That evening George makes an unexpected appearance at a comedy club. He blows off steam on stage with a routine about how life stinks (sort of a toned-down stand-up version of his rendition of the song “Love Stinks” in The Wedding Singer). When George finishes aspiring comedian Ira (Seth Rogen) takes the stage and jokes about the darkness of George’s routine.
If you’ve seen writer/director Judd Apatow’s films you can probably guess what happens next. George and Ira become friends, sort of. George hires Ira to write some jokes for him. Soon George tells Ira about the terminal illness but swears him to secrecy.
Both men need the relationship. George needs a friend because he doesn’t have any, and Ira needs a comic mentor.
Sandler is much more subdued here than he was in both Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, but his character’s anger is still visible just beneath the surface of his boyish exterior. Even Rogen is subdued in this flick, his performance nuanced and paradoxical. He’s a man-child who sleeps on his friends’ couch and can’t pay rent, yet he’s conservative enough to avoid one-night stands.
As usual, Apatow has hit upon some important and serious subjects: becoming responsible, learning to love, coping with death and learning to live before you die. As usual, he’s wrapped the dialogue in obscenities and adolescent references to body parts, which surprisingly didn’t bother me much because it seemed organic to the characters’ personalities.
Funny People’s sin is that at nearly two and a half hours it’s just too long. Cutting it to an hour and forty-five minutes probably would have eliminated many of its excesses (jokes and scenes that had nothing to do with the core story).
But those who can endure the length will likely find something to savor. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 8/4/09)
The makers of 500 Days of Summer are being disingenuous when they declare in the opening frames that the new film is not about love.
Much of the charm of the new movie is that it focuses on just about every moment in the relationship except the frozen moment when two lovers hold hands as the screen fades to black.
Freshman director Mark Webb, and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber borrow heavily from Woody Allen’s breakthrough movie Annie Hall, but they demonstrate that people who seem like opposites are probably not well suited for each other even if Hollywood has told us that for generations.
To an outsider, it’s obvious that Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) have little business being in a relationship. The only things the two seem to share are age and hair color.
Tom makes his living writing and illustrating greeting cards but is really a frustrated architect (that explains all of the animated graphics that run throughout the film) and a hopeless romantic. Just as some believe fervently in UFOs, he’s certain that fate has selected a partner for him, and that she’s just a few cubicles away. Summer, however, doesn’t believe in either destiny or permanent relationships.
Despite the deep affection and hormonal drives Tom and Summer feel for each other, it’s not a spoiler to admit that any union between them will be fleeting. Webb and the screenwriters find dozens of creative ways to make the obvious seem fresh and intriguing.
For example, by presenting the story out of order, 500 Days of Summer actually builds tension by making viewers wait to find out when Tom and Summer reach the peaks and valleys in their relationship. The chronology may be inverted, but it’s not random. Neustadter and Weber place the events carefully so the story still moves even if it isn’t proceeding in a straight line.
Like Annie Hall, 500 Days of Summer is presented subjectively, as if the camera were peering through Tom’s head. His fantasies are presented as fact (a trip to the movie theater results in Ingmar Bergman tributes that reflect what he’s thinking). Some of the whimsy falls flat (the voiceover at the beginning isn’t terribly helpful), but Webb and screenwriters have so much up their sleeves that they quickly follow weaker sequences with ones that amaze.
Webb cut his teeth on music videos, and it shows here. He not only has fine taste, but he fits pop tunes into the film so seamlessly that even 30-year-old Hall and Oates songs sound as if they were written just for the movie.
Neustadter and Weber also have a knack for churning out engaging banter. Tom’s sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz) describes one of Summer’s crushes as “just some guy she met at the gym with Brad Pitt’s face and Jesus’ abs.”
All of the wit and creativity might have been for naught if the leads weren’t charming or capable. In Stop-Loss, Manic and The Lookout, Gordon-Levitt has developed a knack for playing characters that are on the verge of sanity, so he’s a natural for Tom. He also just smart and appealing enough to make viewers hope he’ll succeed even if his quest is hopelessly futile.
Deschanel may be playing a rigid character, but she imbues Summer with enough vitality to make Tom’s attraction seem like more than an act of folly. She and Gordon-Levitt also have a natural chemistry that makes their bickering sound less like arguing and more like an intense verbal tennis match.
No, Tom and Summer won’t be walking into the sunset together, but their broken affair is a lot more entertaining than most successful ones. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted: 07/31/09)
|Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.
Deborah Young can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brandon Whitehead can be contacted at email@example.com.
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