Saturday, February 27, 2010

Cop Out

COP OUT (Kevin Smith, 2010)

The action-comedy COP OUT features Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as longtime mismatched partners working for the NYPD. Following in the footsteps of many other movie cops, the duo makes some major mistakes that lead to their suspension. Jimmy Monroe (Willis) fritters away his time worrying about how to pay for his daughter's wedding while Paul Hodges (Morgan) obsesses over suspicions that his wife is cheating on him with their neighbor. When Willis is robbed of a highly valuable baseball card he planned to sell to pay for his little girl's big day, he and Morgan set out in hot pursuit of the thief.

With COP OUT director Kevin Smith of CLERKS fame attempts to make his version of a 1980s buddy cop comedy. To make the concept more obvious, COP OUT even comes with a synthesizer-heavy score by Harold Faltermeyer, who's best known for composing and performing "Axel F" from BEVERLY HILLS COP. Smith didn't write the screenplay, although his likely influence on it can still be found in his signature foul-mouthed, pop culture referencing dialogue. Even if many of the jokes in COP OUT aren't all that funny, Smith's facility with crude wordplay is what he salvages from this huge mess of a film.

Morgan's energy and cheerful idiocy help to sell the flat verbal and visual jokes more than they probably deserve. Whether he's chasing a drug dealing gang member while dressed as a giant cell phone or delighting in his videotaped failure being a viral hit, Morgan strikes the right tone. He and Willis don't generate any comedic chemistry, though.

Smith is less adept in guiding COP OUT'S serpentine crime investigations along and shooting the action scenes. He's never been known as a visually dynamic director, and his clumsiness in camera set-ups and movements hamper anything that isn't joke-oriented. COP OUT isn't top shelf material, so it's not as though Smith's limitations drag it down. Nevertheless, his skill set is not the right match. Dare I say that Michael Bay, who seems to fashion himself as something of a comedy filmmaker, might have served the screenplay better?

Grade: C-

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Crazies

THE CRAZIES (Breck Eisner, 2010)

Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) doesn't usually face much trouble in his small Iowa town in THE CRAZIES, but when a crashed military plane delivers a biological weapon into the water supply, people start behaving as if they're mad. One man with a shotgun walks onto a field during a high school baseball game. Another traps his wife and child inside his home and seeks to burn it down.

Dutton and his deputy try to take control of the situation, but who's to say they aren't infected? Before long the military has stormed into town to contain the contamination and the resilient victims by any means necessary.

Breck Eisner's remake of George A. Romero's THE CRAZIES isn't bad so much as it is inconsequential. Without any palpable sense of terror or political subtext, the film is analogous to its not-exactly-zombie townsfolk who stagger about purposefully but blankly.

On command THE CRAZIES follows what the screenplay dictates but lacks the cheap thrills or substance to take it beyond a basic escape movie with a low sense of urgency. Early scenes of regular people behaving irregularly are suitably disturbing. When the population is forcefully herded and divided, it appears that THE CRAZIES is ready to explode with tension ,but instead it fizzles out.

Olyphant adds a slightly off-kilter spin on the sturdy and heroic lawman attempting to keep order and fight the powers that be. Joe Anderson's humorous and skittish performance as the paranoid deputy brings some uncertainty to a film short on surprises.

THE CRAZIES is professionally made and reasonably diverting, but it's not eventful enough for it provoke a response. In real life no one wishes for mass panic during a deadly outbreak, but this fictional account of such a situation could stand to stoke more hysteria.

Grade: C+

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ranked 2010 Film List

For my 2010 Film List I'm experimenting with the 100-point scale, in addition to using my usual letter grades. Since the first list is in chronological order, I thought it might also be useful to take the numerical values I'm applying to the films and put them in order.

Ranking of older films is more for informational purposes. I don't see it having any real apples-to-apples value.

For what it's worth, 60 points equals the lowest total that still means a positive review.

A range=80-100, B range=60-79, C range=40-59, D range=20-39, F=0-19

Last update: December 31, 2010
Total features: 329 (2010 qualifiers: 217)
Total shorts: 15

2010 Films

Inception - 92
Lourdes - 92
True Grit - 91
Exit Through the Gift Shop - 90
Toy Story 3 - 88
Four Lions - 87
Marwencol - 87
Never Let Me Go - 87
The Tillman Story - 86
The Social Network - 85
Everyone Else (Alle Anderen) - 83
Carlos - 80
Mother (Madeo) - 80
Winter’s Bone - 80

Shutter Island - 78
Black Swan - 77
Wild Grass (Les herbes folles) - 77
Greenberg - 76
The Fighter - 76
The Oscar Nominated Shorts 2010 - Animated - 76
Catfish - 74
The Ghost Writer - 74
The Kids are All Right - 74
Going the Distance - 73
Please Give - 73
Disco & Atomic War (Disko ja tuumasõda) - 72
I Am Love (Io sono l'amore) - 72
How to Train Your Dragon - 70
Max Manus - 70
Neil Young Trunk Show - 70
The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants) - 69
Splice - 69
Unstoppable - 69
The Book of Eli - 68
Boxing Gym - 68
How Do You Know - 68
The Oath - 68
A Prophet (Un prophète) - 68
Buried - 67
The Exploding Girl - 67
The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER) - 67
Tangled 67
The American - 66
Conviction - 66
Daybreakers - 66
Hubble 3D - 66
It’s Kind of a Funny Story - 66
Kings of Pastry - 66
The Town - 66
Despicable Me - 65
Get Low - 65
Inside Job - 65
The Last Exorcism - 65
Last Train Home - 65
Let Me In - 65
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole - 65
Paranormal Activity 2 - 65
Restrepo - 65
Dogtooth (Kynodontas) - 64
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot) - 64
Tron: Legacy - 64
127 Hours - 63
Easy A - 63
Green Zone - 63
Iron Man 2 - 63
The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) - 63
The Secret of Kells - 63
When in Rome - 63
The A-Team - 62
Hereafter - 62
No One Knows About Persian Cats (Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh) - 62
Oceans (Océans) - 62
Pop Star on Ice - 62
Predators - 62
[Rec] 2 - 62
Robin Hood - 62
Shrek Forever After - 62
The Switch - 62
Waking Sleeping Beauty - 62
You Again - 62
Animal Kingdom - 61
Convention - 61
The King's Speech - 61
Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto) - 61
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 - 61
She's Out of My League - 61
Youth in Revolt - 61
It Came from Kuchar - 60
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - 60
Leap Year - 60
The Other Guys - 60
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 - 60
Resident Evil: Afterlife - 60
Salt - 60
Secretariat - 60
A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop (San qiang pai an jing qi) - 60

The Crazies - 59
Dear John - 59
Diary of a Wimpy Kid - 59
Down Terrace - 59
Hot Tub Time Machine - 59
The Karate Kid - 59
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1983 - 59
Repo Men - 59
Solitary Man - 59
Takers - 59
Monsters - 58
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief - 58
Tamara Drewe - 58
The Taqwacores - 58
The Tourist - 58
Chloe - 57
Colony - 57
The Good Heart - 57
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 - 57
MacGruber - 57
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) - 56
The Yellow Handkerchief - 56
Get Him to the Greek - 55
Machete - 55
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - 55
Cyrus - 54
The Next Three Days - 53
Step Up 3D - 53
Letters to Juliet - 52
Morning Glory - 52
The Perfect Game - 52
Sweetgrass - 52
Vincere - 52
4192: The Crowning of the Hit King - 51
Charlie St. Cloud - 51
Due Date - 51
Death at a Funeral - 50
Frozen - 50
Megamind - 50
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - 50
Yogi Bear - 50
Alice in Wonderland - 49
Dinner for Schmucks - 49
Edge of Darkness - 49
Waiting for "Superman" - 49
Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup) - 48
Case 39 - 48
Kick-Ass - 48
Tiny Furniture - 48
From Paris with Love - 47
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice - 47
Brooklyn's Finest - 46
Paper Man - 46
Soul Kitchen - 46
Clash of the Titans - 45
Extraordinary Measures - 45
Faster - 45
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes) - 45
Mother and Child - 45
The Wolfman - 45
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - 44
The Good, The Bad, The Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom) - 44
Life As We Know It - 44
The Runaways - 44
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - 44
Babies [Bébé(s)]- 43
Creation - 43
Devil - 43
Kites - 43
Saw 3D - 43
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky - 42
Fish Tank - 42
Love & Other Drugs - 42
Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot) - 42
The Thorn in the Heart (L'épine dans le coeur) - 42
Tooth Fairy - 42
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse - 42
Burlesque - 41
Cop Out - 41
Grown Ups - 41
Life During Wartime - 41
Alpha and Omega - 40
A Film Unfinished (Shtikat Haarchion) - 40
Harry Brown - 40
Knight and Day - 40

City Island - 39
Eat Pray Love - 39
For Colored Girls - 39
The Losers - 39
Piranha 3D - 39
Adrift (Choi voi) - 38
Date Night - 38
Killers - 38
Little Fockers - 38
The Spy Next Door - 38
The Back-up Plan - 37
The Bounty Hunter - 37
The Expendables - 37
The Girl Who Played with Fire (Flickan som lekte med elden) - 37
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - 36
Valentine's Day - 36
I’m Still Here - 35
Marmaduke - 35
Remember Me - 34
Skyline - 33
The Last Airbender - 32
My Soul to Take - 30
Sex and the City 2 - 30
Gulliver's Travels - 29
Jackass 3D - 28
Legion - 28
Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore - 26
The Nutcracker in 3D - 24
The Warrior's Way - 22

The Virginity Hit - 19
The Black Waters of Echo's Pond - 17
Jonah Hex - 5
Enter the Void - 3
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) - 0
Trash Humpers - 0

The Two Escobars - unrated

Cumulonimbus (short) - unrated
Day & Night (short) - unrated
Rabid Rider (short) - 42
Scrat's Continental Crack Up (short) - 75

Older Films

Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom) (1929) - 100
Metropolis (1927) - 100
Playtime (1967) - 100
The Red Shoes (1948) - 100
Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo) (2008) - 93
Small Change (L'argent de poche) (1976) - 92
Apocalypse Now Redux (1979) - 90
The Circus (1928) - 90
Inglourious Basterds (2009) - 90
Mant! (1993) (short) - 90
Plastic Bag (2009) (short) - 90
Psycho (1960) - 89
Synecdoche, New York (2008) - 89
Make Way for Tomorrow (1935) - 88
Stagecoach (1939) - 80

Barfly (1987) - 77
Mystery Train (1989) - 76
The Thief of Baghdad (1940) - 76
Homicide (1991) - 75
Audition (Ôdishon) (1999) - 74
Experiment in Terror (1962) - 74
The Sun (Solntse) (2005) - 74
You, the Living (Du levande) (2007) - 74
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) - 73
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009) - 73
Quai des Orfèvres (1947) - 73
A Town Called Panic (Panic au village) (2009) - 71
Face/Off (1997) - 70
For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009) - 70
Breathless (À bout de souffle) (1960) - 69
The Girlfriend Experience (2009) - 69
Miami Blues (1990) - 69
Crazy Heart (2009) -68
Departures (Okuribito) (2008) - 68
The Horse’s Mouth (1958) - 68
Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai) (1954) - 67
3 Idiots (2009) - 66
Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) (2009) - 66
Nightfall (1957) - 66
House (Hausu) (1977) - 65
Police, Adjective (Politist, adj.) (2009) - 65
La signora di tutti (1934) - 65
Trucker (2009) - 64
The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner (2009) (short) - 63
Séraphine (2009) - 63
Session 9 (2001) - 63
Stray Dog (Nora inu) (1949) - 63
Big Fan (2009) - 62
I Live in Fear (Ikimono no kiroku) (1955) - 62
It’s a Good Life (1983) (short) - 62
Pink Floyd The Wall (1982) - 62
Variety Lights (Luci del varietà) (1950) - 62
Death Race 2000 (1975) - 61
Red Cliff (Chi bi) (2008) - 61
Alibi Ike (1935) - 60
The Horse Boy (2009) - 60
Ricky (2009) - 60
Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshirô) (1943) - 60
Strongman (2009) - 60
Vincent: A Life in Color (2008) - 60
Zabriskie Point (1970) - 60

I Capture the Castle (2003) - 58
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) - 58
Death in Venice (1971) - 56
The Messenger (2009) - 56
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) - 54
Il posto (1961) - 53
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) - 52
The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) (2009) - 52
Falkenberg Farewell (Farväl Falkenberg) (2006) - 50
Song Sung Blue (2008) - 49
The Maid (La nana) (2009) - 48
The New Age (1994) - 46
The Young Victoria (2009) - 46
Chocolate (2008) - 45
Munyurangabo (2007) - 45
Open Water (2003) - 45
The Black Cauldron (1985) - 42
The Last Station (2009) - 42

The Keep (1983) - 36

The Conformist (Il conformista) (1970) - unrated
My Son John (1952) - unrated

Daylight Moon (2002) (short) - unrated
False Aging (2008) (short) - unrated
Her Fragrant Emulsion (1987) (short) -unrated
Lethe (2009) (short) - unrated
Nimbus Smile (2009) (short) -unrated
Nimbus Seeds (2009) (short) - unrated
Wednesday Morning Two AM (2009) (short) - unrated

Film festival selections (includes TV features/episodes seen theatrically & undistributed/to-be-distributed films)

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson - 90

Accident (Yi ngoi) - 84
9500 Liberty - 80

Inside Hana's Suitcase - 75

A Brand New Life (Yeo-haeng-ja) - 69
Masquerades (Mascarades) - 69
The Desert of Forbidden Art - 68
The Great Contemporary Art Bubble - 67
Air Doll (Kûki ningyô) - 65
North (Nord) - 65
The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata din lume) - 63
Please, Please Me! (Fais-moi plaisir!) - 62
Dear Lemon Lima - 60
Do It Again - 60
Turtle: The Incredible Journey - 60

Bare Essence of Life (Urutora mirakuru rabu sutôrî) - 59
Garbo: The Spy (Garbo: El espía) - 59
Bananas! - 58
My Year Without Sex - 58
Shameless (Nestyda) - 58
Cash & Marry - 56
My Tehran for Sale - 56
Headhunter - 51

Will You Marry Us? (Die Standesbeamtin) - 48
Cooking History - 45
The Ape (Apan) - 44
Father and Guns (De père en flic) - 43
Harvest - 43
The House of Branching Love (Haarautuvan rakkauden talo) - 42
Bomber - 41
Storage - 41
December Heat (Detsembrikuumus) - 40

Van Diemen's Land - 37
Love Hurts - 23

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief


PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF bears more than a passing resemblance to the Harry Potter series, and it isn't just because director Chris Columbus helmed the first two of those films. A teenage outsider discovers that he has heretofore unknown supernatural powers. To keep him safe and to train him in using his new talents, the young hero is sent to a magically protected place where he forms a tight inner circle with an unfailingly loyal best friend and a smart, beautiful girl.

In this case the protagonist is a demigod struggling with dyslexia and ADHD, and his pals are Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), the satyr assigned to protect him, and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), the half-human daughter of Athena. The son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), the Greek god of the sea, and Sally Jackson (Catherine Keener), Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) hasn't an inkling that his life is anything but ordinary until a substitute teacher transforms into a Fury and attacks him during a field trip.

Percy unwittingly finds himself as the presumed instigator of the latest squabble among the eternally quarreling brothers Zeus (Sean Bean), Poseidon, and Hades (Steve Coogan). Zeus' lightning bolt has been stolen, and he believes that Percy is responsible. Zeus wants this most powerful weapon returned by the summer solstice, but Hades is angling to get his hands on it first. Operating under the assumption that Percy is the lightning thief, the god of the underworld abducts his mom and drags her to hell in hopes that the conscientious lad will head south to make a trade.

PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF is a dutifully made kids' fantasy film that Columbus handles with the basic approach that he wielded on his faithful but vanilla HARRY POTTER adaptations. It's as though rather than adding anything to the material, his purpose is to stay out of the way of bringing the story's essence from page to screen.

The requisite effects-driven action sequences range from the suitably thrilling battle against a hydra in Nashville's Parthenon to the uninspired climactic showdown. Much of the dialogue and music selections couldn't be more on the nose, and the modern spins on Greek mythology aren't exactly going to win points for cleverness.

Regardless, this overly familiar tale about greatness lurking in an unlikely savior plays perfectly fine. The clunky early sections give way to a magical adventure that ought to keep Harry Potter fans tided over, if only partially satisfied, until the last installments of that series arrives in theaters.

Grade: C+

(Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Wolfman

THE WOLFMAN (Joe Johnston, 2010)

For traveling actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) in THE WOLFMAN, his homecoming is not a joyous occasion. Having left the family's Victorian estate several years earlier without ever looking back, Lawrence returns to Blackmoor after receiving news of his brother's disappearance. Upon arrival he is informed that his sibling's maimed body has been recovered.

A medallion among the deceased's personal effects leads Lawrence to visit a gypsy camp on the fringe of the village in search of answers. Before he can gain any clarity regarding his brother's death, a werewolf attacks the camp and bites Lawrence. The wound heals quickly, though, and Lawrence's full recovery has him feeling better than before, that is until he encounters a full moon and transforms into a beast like the one who bit him.

The Wolf Man first appeared in 1941 with Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. For this remake nearly sixty years later, director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self have greater special effects at their disposal and the freedom to show far more gore in the monster's rampages. Yet what's missing in this WOLFMAN is something timeless: the human cost that gives tragic meaning to the metamorphosis and potential cure.

Del Toro comes across as uninterested in much of the film. He mumbles and sulks in the hallways and corridors of the dark estate but never conveys the inner torment that comes with his dilemma. More critically, the supposed romance that takes hold between Lawrence and his brother's fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt) is nonexistent on screen. Except for the rare proclamation or action meant to reinforce their otherwise invisible passion, the single element that may grant this werewolf his salvation is not to be believed.

THE WOLFMAN'S choppy editing is more of a rhythmic problem in the narrative sections rather than in the action scenes. Whether it's the case or not, character-building portions feel as though they've been snipped in an attempt to minimize downtime between The Wolfman's maulings. The strained relationship between Lawrence and his father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) needs more heft than some oddly placed flashbacks can give.

The action scenes can be reasonably diverting, especially when The Wolf Man breaks loose while under medical observation, but like the film as a whole, these violent outbursts also seem insubstantial. The only thing hiding behind THE WOLFMAN'S dramatic and visual murk is a patchy story.

Grade: C-

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Best Films of 2009

1. SUMMER HOURS (L'HEURE DÉTÉ) (Olivier Assayas, 2008)

SUMMER HOURS is a gorgeous evocation of the ephemeral and the enduring, the tangible and the spiritual, and our relationship to the objects around us. Economics is treated as a science, but as the character Frederic asserts, it is more akin to religion. SUMMER HOURS explores that idea as the camera glides through the process of making preparations for one's death and the survivors deciding what to do with inherited items, appraising the objects, and selling them. In observing interactions with the things of our lives, writer-director Olivier Assayas reveals how objects become consecrated and worthless. One of the saddest shots in the film is of an unopened box perched on a sill. The three telephone handsets were politely set aside when the mother received them as a gift and have been overlooked as the house is emptied. Like the discarded playthings in TOY STORY, these unused and forgotten phones represent the passage of time and unfulfilled love. As a gentle reminder to be more mindfully engaged with the products sharing and cluttering our living spaces, SUMMER HOURS is a powerful piece.

2. TWO LOVERS (James Gray, 2008)

TWO LOVERS is the kind of film Hollywood studios used to make for adults on a regular basis but which are now exceedingly rare. The small-scale relationship drama is a sharply observed and well-acted portrait of a man struggling to find happiness in the aftermath of romantic disillusionment. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as the heartbroken Leonard, who is trying to repair his wounded self but often acts against his best interests. As the two lovers of the title, Vinessa Shaw does subtle and sensitive work as a woman who sees Leonard for who he is and accepts him in spite of his faults, and Gwyneth Paltrow is effective playing against type as the damaged and damaging temptation who Leonard can't resist.

3. DUPLICITY (Tony Gilroy, 2009)

Writer-director Tony Gilroy uses the espionage tale to scrutinize something more important than product development secrecy and conglomerate antagonism. In DUPLICITY he's really concerned with how and whether to believe someone who proclaims love. Gilroy keeps the twists coming with gleeful abandon, both in the elaborately planned thefts and mutual distrust between romancing thieves. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen stylishly play the smooth criminals while Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson are savagely funny as business titans practiced in the art of destruction. Whether it's the high stakes of a heist or committed coupledom, DUPLICITY understands that all of the careful planning in the world won't lead to success if there's a lack of faith.

4. STILL WALKING (ARUITEMO ARUITEMO) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008)

Hirokazu Kore-eda began as a television documentary filmmaker before transitioning to narrative fiction films. His keen observational sense is put to exceptional use in STILL WALKING, a lovely and heartbreaking portrait of family and all of its complications. Set during a family's annual memorial for the eldest son, who died several years ago in the act of saving another, STILL WALKING carefully watches the dynamics among three generations. Kore-eda captures a lot of truth about the passive-aggressiveness in family interactions and how knowledge is passed down. The film is so uncommonly perceptive about communication and the complexity of people that it feels as natural as breathing.

5. A SERIOUS MAN (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2009)

A SERIOUS MAN is the product of singular filmmakers humorously examining the eternal questions that have vexed humans since ancient times. The Coen brothers ask what if there is no meaning to life or suffering. Their film elicits choked laughs and stifled sobs, with an indistinguishable distinction between both reactions. Filtering this modernized tale of Job through the sensibility of an agnostic fatalist and Catskills comedian makes it oddly consoling and despairing.

6. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is an entertaining mix of art and trash cinema that has more to say about the movies than World War II. Then again, when hasn't that been true of Quentin Tarantino's films? Tarantino is likely never going to be considered a director with much of substance to say, but he may be the supreme champion of the cinema as the audience's alternative to the psychotherapist's couch. This revisionist fairy tale is tense, funny, and well-acted, qualities that all come to fruition in Christoph Waltz's startling performance as a Nazi colonel. It matters less what INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS means and more that it's a terrifically entertaining movie.

7. UP (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009)

Building an animated movie around a grieving senior citizen and making it play for children and adults is a bold creative move, yet UP accepts and fulfills the challenge in surprising and delightful ways. The folks at Pixar, Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson in this instance, continue to match their ambition with accessibility, which is a pretty remarkable feat, especially for family films. This tender and fantastical adventure conveys that the journey is the reward. Whether you're seven or seventy, it's a message that can't be heard enough, especially when passed along in such a humorous and graceful way as it is in UP.

8. THE INFORMANT! (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)

Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns deftly present the puzzling information about corporate price fixing in a clear and highly entertaining manner in THE INFORMANT!, but for all of their hard, workmanlike efforts, the film is Matt Damon's through and through. At first Damon's hilarious performance as top exec-turned-whistleblower Mark Whitacre appears to be little more than playing the clueless schlub who narrates his exploits with an internal, analytical yammering, which is funny enough in its own right. Damon's layered work gradually transforms this unlikely hero into the type of person Whitacre's FBI handlers couldn't have anticipated encountering. The story about why Whitacre chose to help is fascinating, perplexing, and, in a certain light, outrageously funny.

9. CORALINE (Henry Selick, 2009)

The sterling craftsmanship in CORALINE is practically reason enough to see this stop-motion animated film, but thankfully the imagination extends to the spooky story as well. CORALINE bewitches and frightens with promises of what any child could ever wish for while simultaneously imparting a worthwhile message about the danger of always getting one's way.

10. 35 SHOTS OF RUM (35 RHUMS) (Claire Denis, 2008)

Looking back on my sparse notes for something to write about 35 SHOTS OF RUM, I found I'd scribbled just three words: quiet, warm, lovely. Those words seem sufficient for saying all that's necessary about Claire Denis' mood piece focusing on four people in Paris who seem relatively satisfied with their lives even if a significant piece is missing in each. The pretty Tindersticks score and a pivotal scene in a diner set to "Night Shift" express more about who these characters are than words ever can.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

2009 in Film: The Honorable Mentions

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (Marc Webb, 2009)

Life and love are rarely as tidy as art's simplified representations and the romantic's self-deluded perceptions. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER takes a hammer to romantic comedy tropes that distort the interpersonal dynamics between men and women into childish knight-in-shining-armor and princess fantasies. As the commitment-seeking emotional mess and the nonchalant pragmatist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are a delight to watch as they reverse gender stereotypes. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER doesn't reach the rarefied level of Woody Allen's masterpiece ANNIE HALL, a clear influence, but the film's bruised yet clear-eyed romanticism is refreshing to find in a genre that often settles for something less than truthful or passionate.

ADVENTURELAND (Greg Mottola, 2009)

Warm and genuine, the nostalgic romance ADVENTURELAND fondly remembers the exciting and painful time in life that comes after college graduation but before one's life is sorted out. Writer-director Greg Mottola knows that while this period may feel like the end, it's actually a beginning. The characters come across as the pretentious but self-deprecating older siblings to the teens in the director's previous film SUPERBAD. Having a more mature but still insecure protagonist and supporting cast means ADVENTURELAND is filled with many modest charms rather than sidesplitting laughs, but it's an equally well-observed and funny slice of life.

BLACK DYNAMITE (Scott Sanders, 2009)

The blaxploitation parody BLACK DYNAMITE looks as though it could be a hilarious, forgotten film from the 1970s. Director Scott Sanders and co-writer/star Michael Jai White lovingly and convincingly recreate the cheap, junky, and freewheeling aesthetics of the genre, but this is more than just a skilled mimicking of another era's filmmaking style.

THE BOX (Richard Kelly, 2009)

DONNIE DARKO writer-director Richard Kelly takes another exceedingly strange and haunting look at the consequences of our decisions and how we rationalize them in THE BOX. As the plot developments become crazier, what Kelly's aiming for isn't always clear. Still, this Stanley Kubrick meets long-form TWILIGHT ZONE episode is an invigorating science fiction film with plenty to ponder.

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2009)

Among 2009's rich yield of animated films is the clever, character-based comedy of CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS. This lighthearted look at conspicuous consumption soft pedals its message in favor of a lot of sly visual and verbal jokes. For me this beautifully computer-animated film with depth-enhancing 3-D was one of the year's biggest surprises.

AN EDUCATION (Lone Scherfig, 2009)

In the hands of director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby, Lynn Barber's memoir is treated with a youthful innocence rather than an adult's experience and perhaps jadedness. It's a critical distinction because taking an older view of this story would taint how it is observed and reconciled. AN EDUCATION showcases several fine performances in this story about the dangers of youthful cleverness. In her first major role Carey Mulligan does keen and sensitive acting to peel back the effects of the schooling the character gets in prizing her own intelligence to a fault. Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, and Rosamund Pike do excellent work in adding more seasoned, yet not always wiser perspectives in this coming-of-age tale.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX (Wes Anderson, 2009)

FANTASTIC MR. FOX is ostensibly a Roald Dahl adaptation, but more than anything it's a different canvas for director Wes Anderson for expressing his fixations. Anderson's films have always felt handcrafted, so going into the stop-motion animated realm for the funny and bittersweet tale of a restless, middle-aged fox is a natural, if unexpected, extension of his way of doing things.

GOODBYE SOLO (Rahmin Bahrani, 2008)

Ramin Bahrani spotlights people and places who exist in the background or who aren't given much consideration. With GOODBYE SOLO, his third neorealism-steeped feature film, he again proves his ability to suss out meaningful stories about the invisible in American society. The developing relationship between a Senegalese immigrant taxi driver in North Carolina and his likely suicidal customer gains quiet power as Bahrani illuminates their lives and attitudes. Souleymane Sy Savane's charismatic performance as the amiable cabbie Solo adds deeply human and heartfelt qualities in the face of a stranger's immense sadness.

GOOD HAIR (Jeff Stilson, 2009)

Chris Rock leads the way in this highly entertaining, funny, informative, and surprising documentary about African-American women and their hair. The humor and discussion about beauty standards and self-image make GOOD HAIR plenty worthwhile even for those for whom it isn't the cultural eye-opener like it is for me.

LORNA'S SILENCE (LE SILENCE DE LORNA) (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2008)

The social consciousness of the Dardenne brothers probably gets in the way of their work being conventionally considered as thrillers, but these masters of economical storytelling invest their films with a strong degree of nail-biting suspense and genuinely uncertain outcomes. LORNA'S SILENCE follows an Albanian woman in a short-term marriage of convenience to attain Belgian citizenship and enough cash to start her own restaurant. Finalizing the end of the deal proves to be pretty distasteful, even for the complicated and highly compromised Lorna. The Dardennes tell the character's tough and heartwrenching story to make points about immigration and human trafficking, but viewed merely as a straightforward thriller, it's pretty harrowing stuff.

MOON (Duncan Jones, 2009)

MOON is practically a one man show for star Sam Rockwell, who plays a solitary worker on a lunar mining base nearing the end of his assignment. His stellar performance and the striking visual sense of first-time feature director Duncan Jones give this science fiction mindbender to explore as it floats along in a most peculiar way.

MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (Werner Herzog, 2009)

2009 was a good year for fans of director Werner Herzog. The deranged THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS and its out there Nicolas Cage performance stirred online buzz, but the less talked about MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE was the slightly better and more consistent effort. Loosely based on a real incident, this hypnotic, disturbing, and yet weirdly funny film about a San Diego man who kills his mother with a sword features a compelling lead performance by Michael Shannon. As usual Herzog's interests are not in understanding or explaining the behavior but in studying the bizarre lengths people will go to in trying to achieve their self-identified purposes.


The makers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY understand that the most frightening things are what we imagine but can't see. Writer-director Oren Peli uses the limitations of a single location and low budget to his supreme advantage. The mental wear and tear of living in a stressful place and an increasingly tense relationship is played beautifully by Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. Since we observe everything through their eyes, the believable, lived in performances build the fear factor in things that go bump in the night and their fraying interpersonal connection.

THE ROAD (John Hillcoat, 2009)

Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, THE ROAD is a haunting portrait of what it means to be a parent. Clearly the stakes are exaggerated and raised in this nightmarish, post-apocalyptic world, but the underlying sentiment holds true. Keeping one's child safe in a world full of harm can be the most terrifying endeavor for any adult. Viggo Mortensen delivers a fierce (and practically feral) performance, and director John Hillcoat evokes a hostile atmosphere whose stern, gray beauty makes common kindness stand out in sharp relief.

SITA SINGS THE BLUES (Nina Paley, 2008)

The dazzling SITA SINGS THE BLUES finds animator Nina Paley turning to an ancient Hindu text for assistance and insight into her current romantic troubles. Paley's study of how old religious parables are shaped and can be applied in contemporary life is invigorating and playful in its intellectual wrestling and creative solutions. Reinterpreting a story thousands of years old through Annette Hanshaw's jazz recordings from the 1920s and the filmmaker's autobiographical struggles ties together how vexing love can be no matter the time.

STAR TREK (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

Rebooting a decades-old franchise doesn't get more pleasurable than J.J. Abrams' rejuvenation of STAR TREK. Abrams accomplishes what might have seemed practically impossible: making an affectionate and knowing tribute that satisfies and flatters longtime, hardcore fans while putting a fresh spin on the mythology that is an easily accessible gateway for newcomers and casual viewers. This version of STAR TREK may not be as contemplative as its predecessors, but the 2009 entry is a funny and exciting piece of cinema that shows what summer event movies can be when at their best.

SUGAR (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2008)

SUGAR provides an absorbing look at the Dominican Republic's baseball pipeline, a system that significantly impacts the game yet is largely unfamiliar to fans. The film delivers a potent reminder of off-the-field challenges that affect performance on the field. Athletes aren't robots, and this humanizing examination of one immigrant's quest grants greater appreciation for what must be overcome to even have a chance to succeed.

UP IN THE AIR (Jason Reitman, 2009)

UP IN THE AIR has been lauded for being very of the moment in its treatment of massive corporate layoffs, but where it truly shines--and what will give it more staying power through the years--is how it details the importance of a personal touch over more convenient but impersonal technological solutions. Director and co-writer Jason Reitman demonstrates these values and does his best work to date with a solidly crafted film whose greatest resource is its actors. George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga are terrific playing characters confronted with the choices they've made regarding how to lead their lives.

YOU, THE LIVING (DU LEVANDE) (Roy Andersson, 2007)

Swedish director Roy Andersson follows up his 2000 surrealist comedy SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (SÅNGER FRÅN ANDRA VÅNINGEN) with more darkly humorous sketches about the dilemmas of human existence. Laughs catch in the throat, although this time a bit more optimism underlies the drollness and Scandinavian emotional coolness. Andersson favors gorgeous, deep focus compositions that establish scenes in which the jokes trickle out in unbroken shots. The meticulous craftsmanship and impeccable timing in YOU, THE LIVING show an artist in full command of his distinctive voice.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Big Fan

BIG FAN (Robert Siegel, 2009)

BIG FAN's Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) gets little joy out of life except for passionately following and cheering on his beloved New York Giants.  36-years-old and still living with his mother in her thin-walled home, Paul occupies a cramped bedroom that doubles as a cluttered shrine to his favorite football team.

Paul's occupation as a parking garage attendant offers him little respect from his customers and family.  It's hardly the most fulfilling employment.  Tuning in to the local sports talk radio station eases the isolating drudgery of his job.  Paul's not merely a listener, though.  During work he writes and rewrites his pro-Giants opinions.  Late at night he calls the station to deliver these monologues straight from his spiral-bound notebook.  As a frequent caller he's easily identifiable as Paul from Staten Island and has developed an arch-enemy in Eagles fan Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport).

Paul shares his Giants fanaticism with his best (and only) friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan).  They aren't able to afford tickets to see the G-men on the gridiron, but they're serious enough about the team that they watch the televised home games from the stadium parking lot so they can soak up the atmosphere.

One night Paul and Sal spot five-time Pro Bowl defensive player and Giants star Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) in their neck of the woods.  Seeing him turns them into giddy little boys, Paul especially.  Bishop is his favorite player.  A poster of Bishop adorns Paul's wall, and he owns an NFL replica jersey with the punishing defender's name and number.

Paul and Sal decide to follow Bishop around their neighborhood and eventually into a Manhattan strip club.  There they muster up the courage to approach the player and express that they are big fans, but the encounter takes an ugly turn when a misunderstanding leads to Bishop assaulting Paul and putting him in the hospital for several days.  Paul's family, his lawyer brother Jeff (Gino Cafarelli) in particular, want him to press charges, but a lawsuit is the last thing Paul wishes to file.  After all, the incident has resulted in Bishop's suspension on a game-by-game basis, which is hurting the Giants.

Fans are quick to condemn athletes who admit to steroid use or get into legal scrapes but are suddenly compassionate and willing to turn a blind eye when the offenders play for their teams.  When it comes to the squads they cheer for, even the most levelheaded sports fans can be irrational.  BIG FAN's Paul does not rank among those supporters with a healthy perspective.  As an obsessive fan, he's invested his identity and happiness in a professional football team.  He's willing to put his well-being in the short- and long-term on the line rather than risk depriving the Giants a key player during their playoff push.

To the regular person, especially a non-sports fan, this is madness.  Nevertheless, Paul's decision makes sense when filtered through Oswalt's uncompromising performance.  His hangdog expression and defeated posture improve when he's engaged in his single passion, even if it's just discussing football.  Paul's family thinks he is in a dead end job and has no personal life, and from what we see, they're right.  Paul is an unlikable character.  He tends to think he knows better than everyone about everything and exhibits little patience.  Yet he's a relatable character in that his love for the Giants allows him to blow off steam about all of his dissatisfaction with the life he has.  Paul's biggest dilemma isn't whether to help himself or not.  If sues Bishop for assault, he's hurting the team, but he's also hurting himself.  Paul may not feel like he wins on a day to day basis, but he can win by proxy if the Giants are victorious on Sunday afternoons.

Writer-director Robert Siegel nailed a lot of the details in his screenplay for THE WRESTLER, and with BIG FAN he proves equally astute at observing the behaviors and mindset of the fan who sees no distinction between himself and the team.  The film's version of a Jim Rome-like radio call-in show is hilariously spot-on, with stale put-downs elevated to the likes of poetry  Oswalt has the antsy, stilted nature of the regular caller down pat as he waits for his turn to deliver his sometimes awkward reading of prepared taunts and predictions.  It's funnier still when he tells his deeply impressed friend that he improvises it all.  Siegel understands the silly things fans will do, whether it's flipping off the radio when hearing a member of the opposition's provocations or tailgating outside the stadium of a game one doesn't have tickets for.

Catholic symbolism abounds in BIG FAN and for good reason.  For Paul, following his favorite team requires constant faith and devotion and takes on the air of religious study and ritual.  He is a true believer in his team, so a clash between his worldview and personal needs produces a genuine crisis of faith.  It may sound absurd for something as inconsequential as a sporting event to have such a profound affect on the character's outlook, but plenty of fan bases and cities draw self-image from the performance of their hometown heroes.

Grade: B-