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.

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