Monday, January 31, 2011

Mechanical Problems

Sometimes it doesn't take much to get me excited about seeing a particular movie. Violent, explosion-laden films are the easiest to tempt my palette, since they offer maximum excitement with minimal brain activity. I enjoy the mood-laden, intellectual film more than most, but just being able to turn your cognitive center off for a couple of hours to enjoy a show is just as much fun, and that's why The Mechanic was one of my more eagerly anticipated releases this month. A remake of the 1972 film starring Charles Bronson, this title's trailer alone guaranteed gunfights, explosions and more mature content than you could wave an AK-47 in the general direction of. Not unlike last year's The Losers or The Expendables, The Mechanic promised the kind of entertainment normal guys flock to in droves and normal women pretty much ignore altogether.

You might not like Arthur's version of "tag"
In the film Jason Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a "mechanic" or contract killer. Arthur's talents at subterfuge are so good that he can pull off a hit in a remote area without anyone knowing he was ever there. He plans every killing out for every contingency, making him among the most successful assassins in his organization. Things are going fine until his only friend and mentor Harry (Donald Sutherland) is assassinated for selling company secrets, and Arthur teams up with and trains Harry's son Steve (Ben Foster) to get revenge on the people who had Harry killed.

And don't expect him to pick up the tab, either
One of the reasons I was so enticed to see this film was that it's precisely the type of film Statham does so well. I remember first seeing him headline The Transporter to great effect, and I've enjoyed him as a performer since first seeing him in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. That's not to say he's incapable of making bad movies (the man WAS in a Uwe Boll film, after all), but a simple, action film of this caliber is the type of thing that goes right up his ally. The plot is swift-moving to keep the holes from being readily apparent, focusing almost entirely on the action when available. Character interaction goes out the door during these scenarios, unless you count people shooting one another as "interaction." The way in which the action is directed is itself hardcore and believable, with only Arthur's apparent perfect executions stretching the feasibility factor a pinch.

The "Rooftop Olympics" are underway
Statham is pretty much what you'd expect from a lead role of this kind. Arthur is played as almost emotionless when it comes to doing the tasks he's assigned, but when he's home he's a refined individual chomping at the bit to let his more emotional side forth. What works so well in this case is that Foster is across from him, playing Steve in the exact opposite formula. Steve is a passionate individual, with a mean streak (not unusual for Foster, looking at his resume) and a passion that comes out explosively during missions. For a pair of leading men, the partnership works wonders, and their scenes together are some of the best the film offers. Sutherland is a heralded performer, and for good reason, but he can't get the good roles like he used to. His role here is interesting, but several performers could have done the same job he did for the little time his character affects the audience. Once he's gone, he's barely left a presence for us to feel, and he's quickly forgotten. Tony Goldwyn does manage to stick around as Arthur's boss Dean Sanderson, but his role is mostly dry. Unlike several villains from similar 2010 titles, however, I actually got the feeling that Dean was dangerous, thanks to a hulking physique and deadpan stare. He was certainly more threatening than Jason Patric or Patrick Wilson.

The Julie Taymor stage play has been plagued by delays...
One thing that did bother me was the lack of strong female roles. I understand the film is a remake of a seventies cult hit, but the entirety of women in this film are servants, prostitutes, whores, or victims, in that exact order. There are no female assassins, no female executives for the agency, not anything resembling a powerful character throughout the film's runtime. While I'd be incorrect in stating that the film objectifies and exploits women, it would be more accurate to suggest that the filmmakers purely didn't think about them at all. THIS should be the film feminists are speaking against... but I guess the lack of award nominations lets it pass.

No, not THE bomb... just a bomb
The action is non-stop, and while the annoying close-up shots mar the on-screen violence at points, on a whole it's better done than your average film of the like. For what faults it has, that's what The Mechanic does well. It might not be as competent as it's originator, but what it does well it does competently and without mistakes. That's not enough to propel it to the top of the heap, however; The Mechanic comes in at #2 for the year. It probably won't be among this year's best, but it can safely be assumed it won't be among the worst either.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Pinnochio it Ain't

Romantic comedies can be tricky business. There are so many that follow the exact same format, dissimilar man and woman who gradually fall for one another over the course of the film. On occasion, that formula is turned on it's head and you get exceptional titles like When Harry Met Sally. Other times, the formula and the chemistry between the romantic leads works so well that you get a title that exceeds expectations despite covering no new ground; Love & Other Drugs.would be a perfect example. But the vast majority of the films in this genre rarely ascend to such lofty heights, content to market themselves to the current younger audience and distinguish themselves in little way from their contemporaries. The question is which tier contains No Strings Attached, directed by Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. Star Ashton Kutcher has held the theme close to heart, starring in films from 2003's Just Married and My Boss's Daughter to the more recent What Happens in Vegas, Valentine's Day and Killers. He's been in so many romantic comedies he's practically married to it. But co-star Natalie Portman has had such a varied career to this point that it's difficult to imagine her in such a film, especially when she's likely to win an Oscar for her psychological horror film Black Swan. So what happens when these two seemingly mismatched performers are asked to make a film that might otherwise get completely ignored under other circumstances?

"Okay, what's that smell?"
Actually, the result is not too bad. No Strings Attached has Adam (Kutcher) and Emma (Portman) as a pair of souls who met at a summer camp during high school. After many years as occasional friends, they decide to get together, but not in the boyfriend/girlfriend way. Emma has a problem with committed relationships, leading to the two becoming "friends with benefits," or more simply sex buddies. This works out well for both of them until Adam begins to realize that he's falling for his partner, which threatens to not only disable the couple's current train, but end their entire friendship in the process.

"Yeah, well... we bang"
As I mentioned earlier, Kutcher has done a bunch of these films, so you'd have to figure he pretty much knows what to do when the camera turns on. Of course, I wouldn't KNOW from seeing any of them; I haven't actively watched Kutcher in anything since 2000's Dude, Where's My Car, and so I'm not really an expert on his works beyond his role as Kelso in That 70's Show. Seemingly having not aged physically since 1998, Kutcher is a basic charming guy, but since he does it so well you'd think he was a modern day Carey Grant or Robert Redford, not simply playing a variation of himself. Adam is a somewhat interesting role, with the young man suffering father issues stemming from his father Alvin (Kevin Kline) being such a famous actor while Adam languishes as a Hollywood stagehand. While what Kutcher does is good, however, it's hardly a stretch from his public persona. Portman is much more interesting, with an aversion to commitment so intense she's almost neurotic. She simply doesn't believe in the idea of relationships because of seemingly eventual partings. If you're going to break up anyway, why put in all the effort and hard work? Portman makes the movie, and though her character's issues are the film's main impetus, she is never the villain or made to be the reason things don't go so as well as they could.

"The balloon is my apology for the smell the other night."
If only the film loved its supporting characters as much as it did the two leads. Kline is charming but something of an asshole as Adam's famous father. The film keeps reminding you that he's an asshole while adoring fans look at him and sigh. A side story featuring a budding relationship between Adam's friend Eli (Jake Johnson) and Emma's friend Patrice (Greta Gerwig) was interesting but did nothing to move the film's story forward. Cary Elwes was barely used in the film, and I wonder why his character was even kept in the script at all, so ineptly was he used. Chris "Ludacris" Bridges entertained with one-liners but otherwise was underutilized. Mindy Kaling and Olivia Thirlby are talented actresses whose casting here served no purpose besides providing familiar faces. The only secondary character used to good effect (besides Kline) is Lake Bell as a nerdy assistant at Adam's work. A little better use of these secondary characters would have allowed the main story to go a little more smoothly, whereas there were a few too many bumps due to lack of story cohesion.

Soup in bed?? On THOSE sheets???
While Ivan Reitman made his name writing and directing comedies in the seventies and eighties, he hasn't done a real romantic comedy since Legal Eagles in 1986, and it shows. As mentioned before, the story suffers from stutters and hiccups due to not having enough plot to really fill 110 minutes. It's also quite adult in it's look at human sexuality (which isn't bad) but goes over the top in parts (which is). The best scene involves Adam using a sort-of taboo situation to give Emma a mix tape, but there aren't nearly enough great scenes like that throughout No Strings Attached's story to make it easy watching. It's obvious the more adult content is meant to appeal to a younger demographic (ironic, yes) but it also seems that Reitman was not necessarily the best option to work on this, as the film doesn't feel unique to the generation its targeting. I can easily see this story being adapted as a more mature non-sexually-oriented title that can appeal to more than just a small demographic.

Ah, the awkward slow kiss... a classic
All in all, I actually LIKED No Strings Attached, though that was more in spite of it's faults than because of anything it did particularly well. The dialogue is actually quite snappy, the acting from the two leads Portman and Kutcher is enjoyable and the laughs do come enough to make me forget about the lousy story and underused supporting cast, at least in the moment. It didn't cover any new ground for the genre, but I certainly had more fun in this film than I did watching The Green Hornet; for this reason alone No Strings Attached makes #1 of 2011's Top 10 films. How much you want to bet the next film I see knocks that clean off?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Latest Issue Academy Awards Preview

If you're a Hollywood performer, you've been preparing all last year for this moment. Yesterday morning the nominations were announced for the 2011 Academy Awards, arguably the biggest celebration of film in the world. Of course, there are always controversies, snubs, and surprises that crop up every year, so why should the films of 2010 be any different? Reminisce with me as I go through this year's picks and let you know what I really think.

Best Writing (Original Screenplay): Another Year (pictured), The Fighter, Inception, The Kids are All Right, The King's Speech

What will win: The King's Speech was the Critic's choice winner, and had amazing dialogue. While the story was a bit cliched, it should be enough to take top honors here.

What SHOULD win: Inception's epic mind fuck should have left more of an impact, but a highly criticized final act hurts their chances. Of the titles listed, I have to think The Kids are All Right is the best choice on originality alone.

What was snubbed: How Black Swan was overlooked shocks and confounds me, as it would have been my favorite had it made the cut.

Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay): 127 Hours (pictured), The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter's Bone

What will win: The Social Network, no surprise here.

What SHOULD win: Honestly, The Social Network is probably the strongest in the field. Grit and Bone would have been closest, but had their faults.

"What the Frak" moment: I'm honestly not sure how Toy Story 3 manages to be an ADAPTED screenplay. Can anyone explain this to me? I've got no issue with the film's nomination ITSELF, but the rules for "adapted" are difficult to pin down.

Best Foreign Film: Biutiful - Mexico (pictured), Dogtooth - Greece, In a Better World - Denmark, Incendies - Canada, Outside the Law, Algeria

What will win: While In a Better World was the Golden Globe winner in this category, Javier Bardem's star power will probably put Biutiful over the top.

What SHOULD win, and honestly should have AT LEAST been nominated: Sweden's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo won the Critic's Choice award for this category and as one of my favorite films from 2010 this particular snub is pretty insulting, though in line with Hollywood rushing out their own version later this year. I guess they didn't want any blatant reminders.

Best Animated Feature Film: How to Train Your Dragon (pictured), The Illusionist, Toy Story 3

What will win: Toy Story 3

What SHOULD... oh, who am I kidding here? While Dragon was a good time and The Illusionist has an Oscar pedigree, anyone betting against the billion dollar-grossing film can safely be written off.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Amy Adams - The Fighter (pictured), Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech, Melissa Leo - The Fighter, Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit, Jacki Weaver - Animal Kingdom

Who will win: Leo is the favorite, having won the Golden Globe and Critic's Choice awards in the same category. Leo should have no problem taking the prize, as this year honestly does not harbor the strongest batch of hopefuls.

Who SHOULD win: ...with the exception of Adams, who in my opinion was the soul of The Fighter and simply amazing. It's the final round, but Adams might have enough for a last second KO.

Who was snubbed: It wasn't REALLY a snub, as Mila Kunis's performance as a rival ballerina in Black Swan was perhaps a bit overstated. I wouldn't have minded if she made the cut, but I'm not sorry she's not there either.

Wild Card: With Adams and Leo splitting votes, it's certainly possible they might cancel one another out, allowing Steinfeld or Bonham Carter to walk away with a surprise, their first Academy Award

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Christian Bale - The Fighter, John Hawkes - Winter's Bone (pictured), Jeremy Renner - The Town, Mark Ruffalo - The Kids are All Right, Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech

Who will win, and SHOULD: Bale has never before been recognized by the Academy for his work, but with his outstanding portrayal of former boxer and drug addict "Dicky" Ward and despite strong competition opposite him, here is your 2011 Best Supporting Actor.

Who shouldn't be here: Ruffalo was fine in Kids, but just like his parent film, Ruffalo is overrated in what was a good performance in a good movie, nothing more. The Social Network's Andrew Garfield had a much better performance in a somewhat better movie, but his youth relegated him to the next tier to allow the veteran Ruffalo to advance.

Who should soak up the moment: John Hawkes has been a character actor for years, never getting much recognition for his work. But with his character in Bone, the meth-addicted Teardrop, Hawkes earned his place among men who would have been favorites in other years. Despite great work by Rush and Renner in their respective roles, Hawkes had my second-favorite supporting performance of the year, behind only Bale.

Best Directing: Darren Aronofsky - Black Swan, David O. Russell - The Fighter, Tom Hooper - The King's Speech, David Fincher - The Social Network (pictured), Joel & Ethan Coen - True Grit

Who will win: Despite what I think was a directing approach as arrogant as the people he was making the film about, Fincher's direction of the "Facebook film" will probably take this award.

Who SHOULD win: Aronofsky wasn't even NOMINATED for his last movie, The Wrestler. A nomination here is a step in the right direction, but a win would be well deserved for what was indeed the pinnacle of 2010's art house films.

Who was snubbed: The Town got snubbed in a lot of categories, but perhaps most notable was director Ben Affleck's absence in the Best Director roster. He certainly deserved a nom over Fincher, maybe even Russell. Also 127 Hours's Danny Boyle is too big a name at this juncture to simply ignore, as was apparently the case here.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Annette Bening - The Kids are All Right (pictured), Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole, Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone, Natalie Portman - Black Swan, Michelle Williams - Blue Valentine

Who will win: Though there's a lot of talent on this roster, Portman's mentally-affected ballerina is the most likely, and the most deserving, to win this year's prize.

Tight Race: Kidman would be a lock in a lesser year, and Williams and Lawrence are much deserving for their indie film roles, but not one of them was Portman's equal in 2010.

Who was snubbed: Though some will argue that Julianne Moore should have been nominated over her Kids co-star, I think both should have been sidelined to make room for Noomi Rapace, whose Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was by far the most memorable female role... scratch that, MOST MEMORABLE ROLE all year. As a side note, no complaints would have been made if Love and Other Drugs's Anne Hathaway had made the cut.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Javier Bardem - Biutiful, Jeff Bridges - True Grit (pictured), Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network, Colin Firth - The King's Speech, James Franco - 127 Hours

Who will win: It's being pitched as a repeat of last year, with Grit's Bridges and Speech's Firth the runaway favorites, but I believe it's less complicated than even that. While his role in The King's Speech might not have been as commanding as that of his role in 2009's A Single Man, Firth should walk away from the stage with a Best Actor award in his hands. And he'll have deserved it.

Who was snubbed: While I haven't seen 127 Hours and so can't really discredit Franco's nomination, I would have much rather seen Ryan Gosling get a nod as Blue Valentine's blue collar romantic. The Fighter's Mark Wahlberg was also overlooked, though as a character he was far overshadowed by the talent surrounding him. And while Robert Duvall got a lot of Oscar press for his role in Get Low, it wasn't enough to beat Eisenberg to the final five. Finally, Aaron Eckart's mourning father in Rabbit Hole might have been a long shot to make it, but should be recognized all the same.

Who I could have done without: Franco. Okay, I know I haven't seen the film yet, but I'm just not a Franco fan. Maybe it's better than I imagine, but we'll see. Either way, with the talent that was overlooked I would have been happy to see him and the talented-but-young Eisenberg not make the cut.

Best Picture: Black Swan (pictured), The Fighter, Inception, The Kids are All Right, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter's Bone

What will win: The Social Network is the favorite to take it all, but the talent at the top is enough that there might be upset potential. That's good since Fincher's film, while quite good and socially relevant, wasn't even the tenth best movie I saw in 2010.

Wha5 SHOULD win: The Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, and The King's Speech were the only films in my Top 10 List for 2010 that were nominated for Best Picture. Of those, Aronofsky's Black Swan was by far the best of the bunch and it would be amazing if it somehow managed to snatch a victory here.

Who was snubbed: Sadly a number of films didn't make the cut that perhaps should have, including Blue Valentine, Rabbit Hole and The Town, all of which were notable contenders. Blue Valentine especially was a depressing miss, as it was my second favorite film last year.

That's it! The 2011 Academy Awards dissected, predicted, perforated and criticized. Do you disagree with my pics or did I miss anything? Comments are always welcome and I'm looking forward to that night when the Oscars are handed out and we see just how right our predictions will be. Until then, we can only watch more.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Worst or Best? Time Will Tell

Finally, we get around to the 2011 film watching only to remember that most stuff that comes out in January is absolute crap. Oh, there's the occasional gem, but for the most part January is the month where almost every new release is either the dregs from the production company's cutting room floor or an expanded release on something released in New York or L.A. already for the sole purpose of qualifying for the Academy Awards. If you're a legitimate 2011 film released in January, it's a good chance the boys upstairs either think you have no chance of gaining critical acclaim or you're a big-budget action film released solely to make a big payoff during a slow month. And if you're The Green Hornet, both may apply. In spades.

Ah, for the days when things were simple...
The long-in-production film (which had been in development in some capacity since at least 1993) finally came out this month, though I seriously doubt it's been a film most people have been waiting for. Directed by Michael Gondry, the film's big draw was its 3D implementation, by far now the most overused technology from the past year. Though there seems to be no need for 3D or IMAX when you see the trailers for The Green Hornet, someone big obviously decided that it was the way to go. The Hornet's been around seemingly forever, from radio shows in the 30's to film serials in the 40's, a TV show in the 60's and many comic book series. Despite this, the character is simply written off as a Batman clone while in fact predating the caped crusader by three years. But is the combined acting and writing of film star Seth Rogen enough to derail the film more than previously expected?

An early shot of Rogen securing the writing credits for The Green Hornet
Seth Rogen stars as Britt Reid, full time party-goer and heir to his father's (Tom Wilkinson) media empire. Never having a strong relationship with his father, Britt nevertheless mourns when dear ol' da dies under mysterious circumstances. Deciding to make something of his life, Britt teams up with his house servant and friend Kato (Jay Chou) and takes to the streets in an Imperial Crown sedan dubbed The Black Beauty as the hero known only as The Green Hornet. Meanwhile, Russian gangster Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) takes his aggressive brand of violence to the streets of Los Angeles to weed out the competition and rid himself of these new crime fighters.

Older woman, younger man... That's different, I suppose
The first half of the film is actually quite enjoyable, with the "origin" story for the Hornet believable and succinct. Painted against the backdrop of a crime-ridden LA, the division between the rich upper class and the poorer sections of the city is as distinct as the differences between Britt and his father, who he sees as something of an ass. When the film starts and its just Britt and Kato messing around and having fun, even when they start kicking ass as the new superhero duo, the film is a lot of fun to watch. Even allowing for the mediocre and unnecessary 3D conversion, there are some cool scenes and it helps that the leads are as charismatic as they are. Don't get me wrong: Seth Rogen is COMPLETELY miscast as the hero type, he's something of an arrogant fool who uses his wealth to go through with what many would consider a stupid idea and dismiss it before too long. Still, he's the kind of guy you'd like to sit down and drink a beer with, at least until he hit on your girlfriend and you knocked him cold. "Over the top" would be the perfect phrase to describe his performance, as he quickly becomes too much to bear. On the other hand, Chou is well cast as the enigmatic Kato. The award-winning Taiwanese singer, songwriter, director and actor makes his American film debut and doesn't feel at all out of place filling the shoes once worn by legendary martial artist Bruce Lee. The two actors have great chemistry together (a must in any buddy film) and for the first half an hour to forty-five minutes it's enough to keep me entertained.

Gotta love Chudnofsky's double-barreled pistol
Sadly, after those initial moments I began to get restless as the film gets far too meandering and cliched. First of all, while Waltz is convincing as the self-conscious Russian antagonist, the part isn't well written in the slightest. Waltz is on that post-Oscar kick where you can do whatever you want and get paid tons of money to do it because, well, when you win an Academy Award it opens so many doors you're not sure where to go. That's why so many Oscar winners (see: Cuba Gooding, Jr) go on to have such unfulfilled careers after winning the big award, since they have so many bad options it's hard to pick the diamonds out of the rough. Cameron Diaz's appearance as the film's love interest also summons some demons out of the plot, as she's immediately treated as a romantic target for both Britt and Kato, eventually leading to a partner-breaking feud between the two. Original, huh? But I'll give Diaz credit: her character refuses to be a simple female token and has enough brains to be her own person outside of the main duo. Diaz is up to the task and puts on one of her better performances in recent years. Take that for what you will. The rest of the cast are largely unimportant, though I'll give any casting agent credit for putting into this film Wilkinson, Edward James Olmos and The Wire's Chad Coleman. Each are great actors in their own right and Olmos never gets enough credit for his gritty, down-to-earth demeanor. Wilkinson is an ass for his small role, but does a fine job with it. All in all, the supporting cast has the better talent but the leads get all the story.

Definitely NOT in the running for an Academy Award
We all have to start off somewhere, and this year I started off with what at best could be a hopped up, mediocre explosion fest. There's some good here, most especially Chou and Waltz, but not nearly enough to really recommend for even the average audience member. The writing and dialogue get annoying fast, the plot is silly and full of holes, and the 3D isn't good enough to make you forget that there was no real reason to put it in anyway. It may debut at #1 on 2011's Top 10 Films, but being number one on a list with one title ought to see this film quickly drop down the list in the months to come. If you wanted to see it then I won't tell you not to, but if you didn't want to see it in the first place, you made the right choice in my eyes.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Lot of Country, Not a Lot of Rock & Roll

When I first saw posters for the country music drama Country Strong, I'll be the first to admit that I was not looking forward to this particular release. For one, I'm not a big country music fan, and the film seemed tailor-made for fans of the style. Second, Gwyneth Paltrow hasn't had pulled off a notable role since 2005's Proof, and Tim McGraw in an acting role simply reeks of more sentimentality than sense (though it should be noted he was acclaimed for his performance in the 2006 family film Flicka). Finally, the whole concept seemed to hearken back a year, when Jeff Bridges came out of nowhere to win awards for the role of Otis "Bad" Blake in Crazy Heart. Country Strong seemed like a weak opportunity to capitalize on the huge strides Crazy Heart had paved already, and it wasn't until I glimpsed a theatrical trailer that realized that the movie actually looked somewhat entertaining and also noticed Garrett Hedlund here for the first time. Hedlund was the young actor who pretty much took over Tron: Legacy and ran with it. I'll admit it, the trailer really carried me off and so while it wasn't with overwhelmingly positive expectations that I walked into the theater to see Country Strong this week, I certainly was expecting a better show than I thought it would be when I first saw those posters.

Do all country stars wear such short skirts? I might have to attend a few concerts to investigate
Two months after suffering a drunk and disorderly charge from being wasted at a major show in Dallas, six-time Grammy Award winner Kelly Canter (Paltrow) has been taken out and prepared for a comeback tour run by husband/manager James Canter (McGraw). Kelly, who has been removed early and is still emotionally unstable, insists on bringing young unknown music artist Beau Hutton (Hedlund) as an opening act, while James wants to open with former beauty queen turned country pop singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). The tour creates conflicts between all involved, culminating with the make-or-break return of Kelly to Dallas, where she seeks redemption and strength.

"Thank you, Rednecks!"
While the story and themes presented here are a bit reminiscent of last year's superior film, Country Strong doesn't feel inauthentic in it's portrayal of alcoholism, depression or frayed relationships. The conflicts between every major character are believable and create a realistic symmetry of love/hate between each personality. For instance, James obviously loves Kelly, but more for what she was before than for what she is now. He doesn't really trust her anymore, and this mistrust helps found her subsequent relations with Beau and Chiles. Each character undergoes these types of interactions with one another, and the feelings change throughout the course of a film that plot-wise meanders a bit but mostly manages to maintain its story coherently.

"Hey, I can see my house from here!"
Acting-wise, the film has a surprisingly strong cast of well-cast vocally talented actors in its retinue. Paltrow puts on her strongest performance in years as the film's lead. Kelly Canter's emotional problems might hearken back to Bad Blake quite easily, but what she does with the performance is create an honestly sympathetic former superstar's redemption and it doesn't hurt that she puts on amazing musical performances as well. It takes a while to get to the big productions at the end of the film, but even early on she is believable in small scenes of her writing songs with Beau or attending a Make A Wish meeting to meet a young fan. Her performances of songs like "Country Strong" and the award-nominated original song "Coming Home" are simply amazing, and her charisma comes through as naturally as they would a career musician. McGraw is great as Kelly's husband James, a man who loves Kelly and wants her to recover, but is going about it the wrong way and can't bring himself to trust her implicitly. I thought McGraw would be one of the film's weak links, but he acquits himself nicely, especially in some emotionally-charged scenes with Paltrow and Hedlund.

Paltrow puts on one of her best performances in the film and on stage
Speaking of Hedlund, there's a star in the making; I thought so in Tron and the idea reaffirms itself here. Hedlund not only has amazing acting range, but backs it up with natural vocal talents that would put some professionals to shame. He's perfectly cast here as the protective Beau, and I can't wait to see more of him in the future. Meester doesn't have the vocal talents of her peers (you can tell the auto tuner is working overtime here) but still has enough charm to act alongside her fellow actors. Her occasionally stage-frightened pop princess may be billed as the new Carrie Underwood, but her character is actually allowed to grow from this narrow setting and grow, and that makes Meester's efforts notable, if not so much as her co-leads.

McGraw is the film's true surprise
As I said before, the story meanders a little and the story seems derivative of what's come before. It's a bit rote and not a little predictable, especially in the final act. The lack of polish could be due to inexperience: writer/director Shana Feste has only directed one film before this, the largely-unknown 2009 film The Greatest. The simple fact that Kelly Canter was inspired not by a country superstar like Faith Hill or Sugerland's Jennifer Nettles but by Britney Spears speaks to perhaps the lack of thought really put into the character's creation. That said, the film does have a healthy respect for country music as a whole, perhaps even more than Crazy Heart did. With amazing songs including the Hedlund/Meester duet "Give In to Me" and Sara Evans' "A Little Bit Stronger", not to mention the aforementioned "Country Strong" and "Coming Home", the soundtrack legitimizes what might have been a much poorer film. The film is really worth seeing in the theaters for two reasons: the amazing acting performances and the even more astounding music. True, you COULD buy the soundtrack if you wanted the music, but since it doesn't have the Hedlund/Meester "Give In to Me" recording it's not really worth the price. This movie is worth more than you probably realize, and if you missed Crazy Heart you'll probably be happier with Country Strong than most. But if you remember last year's Best Actor winner, you'll probably be better off going back to re-watch that than spend more money on this.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Classic Filmage in The Latest Issue!

While I do have quite a bit of knowledge pertaining to cinema in general, most of what I know comes from recent films, and when traveling back in time, my information becomes much more scant the further back you go. To those who know me, it's probably not too surprising if I haven't heard of a "classic" film from more than twenty or thirty years ago, and even if I had heard of it, I most probably haven't seen it unless it was a major release. For every Alien or Star Wars, that I've actually seen there are dozens, if not hundreds of less recognized films that I haven't gotten around to yet. So when I was given the cult 70's horror film Phantasm for Christmas, it was a chance to see for the first time a title that has long been considered one of the best "B" movies in existence. The gift came from my old friend 313, who runs his own blog Full Half Glass...No Wait... here on Blogspot. Though it's been a few weeks since Christmas, I hadn't had the chance until a combination of lack of interesting movies and ample time on my hands made itself available. Thank goodness for vacations to make such things possible, and so last night I popped my gift in the DVD player and leaned back to see what the hubbub was about.

Even in the film's beginning, you can tell Scrimm is the bad guy
The first thing you notice - besides the popping bustier - is that even for a film made in the 1970's Phantasm looks OLD. As a low-budget horror film, it was practically created single-handedly by Don Coscarelli. a director and filmmaker known for his inexpensive horror titles. In fact, one of his latest films, 2003's Bubba Ho-Tep, features one of my favorite Bruce Campbell performances. But looking back at the film quality of Phantasm, It's more difficult to take the film seriously when you're used to much more sophistication in acting, special effects and score. Despite this, Phantasm does try as hard as it can to scare you, and certainly has a unique story to try and draw the audience in.

I think The Tall Man wants to kill Reggie for his ponytail
In a small unnamed town, Jody (Bill Thornbury), Reggie (Reggie Bannister) and Jody's young brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) are the only hope the people in the town have against a force known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm). The Tall Man has been taking the bodies of the deceased and using them for his own devices, operating out of a creepy mausoleum for seemingly forever. The three face off against paranormal forces unlike anything they or we the audience have seen before, including psychotic dwarfs and the infamous silver spheres of doom.

...And it's in your eye. What have we learned today class?
The acting is downright silly, with barely half of the lines being delivered in anything approaching a believable manner. This alone in a small horror film is no surprise, but what's more insane about the poorly-written and performed dialogue is that this somehow went on for three sequels. After the downright mediocre performances by the three leads, I'm surprised they ever worked in film at all. Only Angus Scrimm was really memorable, and as he doesn't have many spoken lines his appearance here can really better be described as a force than a portrayal. His Tall Man is as memorable as any horror villain should be, and holds up as well over time as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. A. Michael Baldwin goes from annoying snot-nosed punk to, well, a slightly less annoying snot-nosed punk over the course of the film. Any scene he was in was guaranteed to make me clamp my hands over his ears, and the only reason I don't think he was the worst part of the film is because as a kid he had an excuse for his over-acting. Bill Thornbury and Reggie Bannister share much of the film's burden, but as neither puts forth a good job in the believability department. Thornbury is almost a classic hero type, with long flowing hair and a reluctance about the film's plot that changes to match the story's needs. And Bannister is an odd choice for hero, with his bad hair and sloth-like demeanor surely intending to represent an everyman, but since he's an everyman from the 70's it's not really something someone from today can identify with.

It's about this point that the film simply makes NO sense
But the acting isn't even what's worst about Phantasm. The story is frankly silly, and getting past that (I mean hey, it's a horror film) the incoherence of the film's final act defies logic.Even the most prolific horror fans should probably have been insulted by the cheap attempt at a slick ending, and while The Tall Man and the silver spheres have become scary movie legends, this film is hardly the mecca of horror it would make you believe. Were people just afraid of more back then? Phantasm's tag line would say that if t he film doesn't scare you, that means you're already dead. Sorry, filmmakers, but just because my pulse is so slow after seeing your work that you can't detect it doesn't mean I've left the land of the living. Coscarelli does a good job with darkness but that's true of most horror filmmakers of the era, and I really can't recommend this one to anybody. I know I'll have my detractors on this, but Phantasm simply isn't a good movie, and if I want to see a low-budget horror film from the same era, I'll see Evil Dead instead. At least that one has Bruce Campbell.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Exorcist meets The Blair Witch? Interesting...

During last week's assertion via blizzard that we are indeed in the winter months, I decided that it wasn't particularly in my best interests to trek across town to see the latest films in theaters recently (okay, I was also not a little lazy). So instead I decided to go the rental route and see what was available for viewing. With great delight (and nothing really available) I came home with 2010's The Last Exorcism for my entertainment, and watched it last night. Yes, on a day in which many watched the Pats get their heads handed to them by a team they decimated during the regular season and the somewhat unimportant Golden Globes were aired, I skipped them both to watch this mockumentary produced by Eli Roth telling the tale of a veteran Reverend's final exorcism before retirement.

Cue bed shaking, oh Lord!
The Last Exorcism takes place in Louisiana and stars Patrick Fabian as Reverend Cotton Marcus, a lifetime man of the cloth from Baton Rouge who has performed over forty exorcisms in his career. But after reading an article in which an autistic child was accidentally killed during such an exercise, and with a waning faith in God, Marcus decides to take a camera crew along with him on his last excursion, giving a behind-the-scenes look at the charade that is the exorcism practice and exposing it as charlatanism for the world to see. At least, that's the idea until they get to the home of Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) who believes his sixteen-year-old daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) is possessed by the devil himself.

She'll swallow your soul for a nickel!
As mentioned before, the film a mockumentary, a film shot in documentary style to tell a fictional tale. There have been several mockumentary horror films, and the most notable - The Blair Witch Project - is the one whose success any filmmaker would envy. Of course, this means that the story process used in Blair Witch has been copied by a hundredfold movies, and The Last Exorcism is no different. Educated people go off into remote and uninviting places sure that they carry the truth with them, only to see and experience things completely contrary to their beliefs and make them reassess before a terrifying finale. Of course, this film has slightly more capital and more advanced technology behind it, and it shows especially in the picture quality which looks sharper while still looking like it was shot with a handheld camera. Another interesting aspect of the film is that most of the actors play characters sharing their real-life given names. I can only imagine this was to help acclimate local performers to limit the number of takes, and perhaps to give a ring of genuineness to the production.

And that's why you don't go sticking things like that in your mouth
The film also has great acting, and from the most unlikely of sources. Almost everyone in the cast have made their careers via television, with precious little film experience overall. Fabian is charming and humorous as Reverend Marcus, but also quite convincing when he's 'working' at exorcising demons. Fabian has to make a gradual transformation over the course of the film to accept the things he cannot explain, and does a great job pulling it off. Bell, who plays the possessed Nell, makes her feature film debut and shows us a performance rivaling that of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Though at first she appears sweet and unassuming, we slowly learn more about her as the film continues and she does one of the best indie acting jobs I've seen in years. Herthum, who plays her father, has a legitimate grittiness to his presence that makes him a great foil to Marcus over the course of the film. Caleb Landry Jones does a good job as Nell's brother Caleb, though he's more notable for his upcoming role as Sean Cassidy in the upcoming X-Men: First Class. And comedian Iris Bahr does a serviceable job as a member of the film crew following Marcus. She acts unofficially as the voice of the audience, saying what we're all feeling about the current situation. Many of the minor performers are obviously locals and aren't as talented performers, but do good jobs regardless.

Okay, okay, they've canceled Dollhouse, calm down already!
The Last Exorcism does have one problem however. When you're filming a documentary-style film, you can't suddenly have jump cuts to another angle mid-scene. You have to act like there's only one camera and do things in one take, or at least patch it up enough so that it LOOKS like it's one take. This happens far too often over the course of the film and makes the experience fell less authentic than it otherwise would. It's a shame because when it's GOOD, as it often is, it's plagued by little things like this. If they couldn't successfully pull off the right technique, perhaps the documentary angle should have been dropped altogether. It certainly didn't make the film very unique and could have been handled much better than it was by novice director Daniel Stamm. In the end, it felt a bit too Blair Witch-y for my tastes, though the finale did succeed in making my heart race waiting to see what happened.

Okay, try not to think of the blood on your hands and breathe...
The great performances really make the film what it is, especially Fabian and Bell in the lead roles. While the film itself felt a bit repetitive and cliched, The Last Exorcism still managed to get the blood flowing and the tension rising throughout most of its run time. The documentary angle could have been scrapped - and the film would have been better for it - but I still thoroughly enjoyed watching it as a fun, pretty scary title that probably won't have any long-term legacy but manages the simple task of entertaining its audience.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Race is On!

This past week, I went on something of a film binge. With the first major awards show up this Sunday (The Golden Globes, for those of you who might have lost track) time is running out to catch up on all the 2010 releases that made an impact. Though time didn't permit me to see all the films I probably should have (take THAT, 127 Hours!), I did get a trio of films under my belt that will get some attention this Sunday, and may even do so when the Academy Awards roll around next month.

The first of the three movies I saw was the Will Gluck-directed Easy A, starring Golden Globe nominee Emma Stone. Stone plays Olive, an anonymous teen in a Los Angeles high school whose life goes awry after lying about losing her virginity to her best friend. That lie quickly becomes problematic as it turns into a full blown gossip nightmare, with Olive being branded a whore by her classmates and eventually leads her to branding herself with a red letter A, inspired by the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel The Scarlet Letter. Eventually she has do decide whether to tell the truth or risk the people she cares about getting hurt for a lie.

Stone, who I had never been particularly impressed with before, is very much in her element here, though I guess "high school student" wouldn't be much of a stretch for her, having turned all of 22 last year. Still, her portrayal of Olive as feisty and smart with a take-no-prisoners swagger makes for a great hero, and her performance alone would have made the film worth watching. That said, the support of a surprisingly-strong cast make every scene enjoyable, with some of the younger stars such as Amandy Bynes, Penn Badgely, Cam Gigandet and Aly Michalka putting forth some good work, while vets such as Thomas Hayden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Malcolm McDowell, Lisa Kudrow and Stanley Tucci blow them out of the water. Of special note are Tucci and Clarkson, who absolutely kill as Olive's hippie parents.

Somehow I doubt Olive is anonymous after being seen in this
If only the story was as interesting as the film's characters. Though I respect the throwback to 80's style teen dramas like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, Easy A has something of a shallow tale that, while it cranks out the laughs, goes over the top on quite a few occasions. A perfectly good film and worth a rental, there are probably more worthy titles awaiting your perusal.

Despicable Me was the second film I checked out, just the second animated film I've seen from 2010. Though Toy Story 3 will be the likely victor come awards presentation time, I figured this would be worth the time taken. Led by the voice of Steve Carell, I was sure there would be enough laughs to keep me at bay for a while at least, and while the film isn't a masterpiece by far (not surprising coming from the creator of the superbly-okay Ice Age) I wasn't disappointed either.

Carrel voices Gru, a veteran super-villain eager to prove his worth as he's seemingly never reached his villainous potential. His target? Vector (Jason Siegel), the man who swiftly and unexpectedly became the world's number one villain and in possession of the one tool Gru needs to steal the moon and regain his mojo. For the plan to work, he needs to adopt three cute kids, not realizing that having these children in his life will change him in ways he couldn't imagine...

Don't you just want to market them to tots??
Carrell and the voices around him do an amazing job with their characters, but the film is truly stolen by the Gru's "Minions," tiny yellow creatures utterly loyal to him. Each seemingly with a personality all their own, they manages to steal every scene in which they appear, much like Scratch the saber-toothed squirrel in the Ice Age films. They make perfect sidekicks to Gru, and really make the film differ from it's 2010 peers in the character department.

I liked Despicable Me, though it's second half is much too predictable for all that.. Good triumphs and all that, but when you consider that the film is made for kids it's pretty difficult to argue for a more textured plot. Like most animated films, I was glad I watched it but now have it out of my system, and while I will think it a good film, I'll probably never watch it again.

Finally, I saw a film that is actually getting a lot of Oscar buzz, and has been gathering admirers since it's July release. The Kids are All Right is a look at the modern American family, which in this day and age may not be what it was even twenty years ago. Based at least partially on the life of writer/director Lisa Cholodenko, the film looks at what it means to be a family in today's world, and how those families that seem 'different' might not be nearly so when you take a close look at them. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play lesbian partners and parents to Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson. When the kids decide to seek out the man who donated the sperm to get their mothers pregnant with them, the inclusion of Mark Ruffalo into this family's world might be too much to handle.

The film is getting a ton of attention from critics leading into awards season, especially for the three leads. It's puzzling because none of the three is necessarily doing anything that stretches the boundaries of what they've played before. Bening plays a drunk neurotic, and there's actually not much to the role besides the strength she puts into her delivery. Moore is a stifled housewife. Again, not a lot of depth. Ruffalo is a carefree man who finds out he can actually be a decent dad given a chance. Wow, that's an award-winner. These are not great characters, but the talent playing them seems to have fooled some people into thinking that they somehow deserve praise like no other. Frankly, I have to think that the most cosmetic differences, that of Benning's and Moore's sexual orientation, has put this film on the Juno fast track, trying to make everyone think that it's a better film than it is.

Yes, we GET it, you're gay! No more group hugs!
What really brings The Kids are All Right down though, is the story. Or rather, lack thereof. I guess realizing about halfway through shooting that there was no story, the film throws in a twist so conspicuous that we're stunned into disbelief. That the film jumps the shark so eagerly to appease audiences brings down the film's authenticity, and while it was still a film I enjoyed, it was nowhere near the critical darling I was expecting. Funny, yes. Caring, yes. Legitimate Oscar contender? Don't get your hopes up.

And so that's it, while there are some films left to see from 2010, I've worked my way much closer to finishing off 2010, much more than I have for any year before already. A few more films and I'll finally be done with last year, just in time to see what I'm sure will be great films like Green Hornet, Season of the Witch, and Cedar Rapids.

Okay, there MUST be better films in 2011. I'll find 'em.