Monday, February 28, 2011

Hall Pass

HALL PASS (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly, 2011)

At first wandering eyes and rampant sex talk from married men Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) earn them withering looks and chastising from their wives. Eventually such juvenile behavior gets each of them a so-called “hall pass” from their spouses. They are given a guilt-free week off from their marital commitments to do as they please, including sleeping with other women if the opportunities present themselves.

Their disgusted wives Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate) are following the advice of a friend who suggests that Rick and Fred have inflated senses of their virility and attractiveness. The hall pass functions as a reverse psychology tool that will ultimately provide them with renewed appreciation for the relationships they have and disabuse them of their lustful manners.

While their wives are away, Rick and Fred hit the town with their gawking buddies to flex the old ladykilling muscles. Having envisioned seven days of debauchery, they check into a hotel to keep from soiling their homes, but in reality these two talk a bigger game than they can play. They prove themselves inept at hitting on women. Most nights they’re ready to hit the sack well before last call.

Despite their incompetent flirting, Rick appears to be making some headway with Australian barista Leigh (Nicky Whelan) while Fred’s desperation lowers his initially high selectivity. Meanwhile, Maggie and Grace are forced to examine their willingness to grant the hall passes when they find guys putting the moves on them.

HALL PASS directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly, who are also among the four credited screenwriters, have made a career finding humanity among the crude and outrageous. Amid the puerile gags in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, KINGPIN, and DUMB AND DUMBER, the films also possess a generosity of spirit for the foolish characters. HALL PASS features the Farrellys’ familiar combination of vulgarity and sweetness, but this time around the brothers mostly miss the mark.

HALL PASS plays like a third or fourth sequel to THE HANGOVER filtered through cheap pop psychology. Stale bits about marijuana brownies and masturbation come across as the last refuges of the creatively exhausted. While the film elicits occasional laughs, especially in the uproarious end credits sequence with Stephen Merchant, oftentimes it feels like the jokes are more restrained or halfhearted. That old touch isn’t absent, though. Leave it to the Farrellys to deliver a quality explosive diarrhea joke.

HALL PASS’S premise sounds like something out of a here today, gone tomorrow self-help bestseller making the rounds on morning TV shows. Thankfully it’s treated with about the same seriousness since the running joke is that Maggie and Grace haven’t really risked anything in unleashing their big talking husbands.

The problem is that, like this year’s THE DILEMMA and NO STRINGS ATTACHED, HALL PASS dodges to some degree the issue at the heart of this relationship comedy. Why must these men make such displays of their attraction to other women while in the presence of their wives, and why is the solution to have the couples communicate even less? The film doesn’t need scenes of them meeting with a counselor, but it could stand to have more interaction between husbands and wives, if merely to observe the embarrassment these men are causing.

The main cast is likable, maybe too much so as the boys embark on a week of attempted horndogging that is intended to be their undoing while the girls sit back satisfied in their superiority. Wilson delivers an amiable, low key performance that suggests Rick’s wrongs owe more to thoughtlessness and guilt by association. He seems too decent to find himself in this predicament. For all of Fred’s bluster, Sudeikis isn’t a creep as much as he is trying to live up to society’s image of masculinity. Their inherent harmlessness counteracts with the film’s need to take them down a couple pegs.

As the guys’ legendary womanizing friend Coakley, Richard Jenkins brings the sleaziness that HALL PASS is eager to poke fun at but doesn’t dare invest in the leads. In his very funny pick-up artist role Jenkins reeks of patheticalness like the trendy body spray he’s surely drenched in.

Although it’s refreshing that Fischer and Applegate are appealing and loving wives rather than ballbusters, they’re given so little to do and shoehorned into some dumb subplots that their efforts are squandered.

With HALL PASS the Farrellys strive to cut loose like they first did seventeen years ago, but the film’s slack nature feels like they are growing out of the gross-out humor game. Until a dose of cold reality,Rick and Fred hang onto fantasies better left in the past. The question is if the Farrellys need a similar intervention to realize they should move on from their crude younger days or if they’re better off channeling their comedic energies differently. The middle ground, at least in this instance, doesn’t really suit them.

Grade: C-

Sunday, February 27, 2011

2011 Oscar Predictions

Since it would be shirking my duties as a film writer not to publish my predictions of the winners at tonight's Academy Awards, I present them now. If you are in a pool with me--for entertainment purposes only, of course--no copying!

Best Picture: The King's Speech
Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo, The Fighter

Ten years ago I think the winners of the headline prizes held more potential surprises, in part because there wasn't nearly as much tracking and discussion of such stuff online. Now anyone who pays attention can reliably predict at least four of these six awards, if not five. I'm not buying into the backlash at Melissa Leo because of the glam For Your Consideration ads she took out, but that casts a smidgen of doubt on my selection of her. Splitting the oft-linked wins between Director and Picture doesn't feel like as big of a risk as it usually is. It could be what makes or breaks my sheet since these categories deliver more points in the pool I participate in.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network
Best Original Screenplay: The King's Speech
Best Cinematography: True Grit
Best Film Editing: The Social Network
Best Sound Editing: Inception
Best Sound Mixing: The King's Speech
Best Art Direction: Alice in Wonderland
Best Costume Design: Alice in Wonderland
Best Makeup: The Wolfman
Best Visual Effects: Inception
Best Original Score: The King's Speech
Best Original Song: "Coming Home", Country Strong

The guild categories (plus music) are where the pool winners and losers will be separated. While some of these seem clear cut--the screenplay categories are likely locks--it gets trickier after that. Whether it's true or not, my perception is that a "spread the wealth" mentality has been eroding. That's what has me less certain of True Grit in Cinematography. The King's Speech is nominated in both categories I have Alice in Wonderland winning, but my gut tells me that the Oscars will go to the film with the Most Apparent Art Direction and Costume Design.

I'm taking a flier on Best Original Song. The Country Strong nominee is the only one I can claim to know at all, but maybe that's because it's the most recent one of the bunch I've seen. More importantly, while most probably have the impression that animated films have dominated, it's been nine years since a song from an animated film won ("If I Didn't Have You", Monsters, Inc.). That could mean I'm backing the wrong one--just watch the 127 Hours song win--but "Coming Home" seems like a radio- and Grammy-friendly track tailor-made to win awards.

Best Documentary: Inside Job
Best Foreign Language Film: Haevnen (In a Better World)
Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3
Best Animated Short: The Gruffalo
Best Documentary Short: Strangers No More
Best Live Action Short: Na Wewe

Aside from Animated Film, which is a sure thing, the rest of these come down to shots in the dark. This is especially true of the shorts. Seeing them isn't necessarily helpful. Last year I saw the Animated Shorts and whiffed on the winner. This year I've seen the Live Action Shorts and think God of Love is unquestionably better than all of the others, but I'm going with Na Wewe because it seems "important" and is better than the mediocre other three.

The breakdown of predicted feature film winners:

5 - The King's Speech
3 - The Social Network
2 - Alice in Wonderland
2 - The Fighter
1 - Black Swan
1 - Country Strong
1 - In a Better World
1 - Inception
1 - Inside Job
1 - Toy Story 3
1 - True Grit
1 - The Wolfman

Post-awards update: Looks like I made 17 correct picks out of 24, which was good enough to win the pool I was in. (Since each category was worth various points, I needed the fourth tiebreaker--show length--to win the prize.) If I hadn't split Picture and Director, I would have connected on all six major categories.

The surprising difference--and what put me in an early lead--was Leo's win. The majority picked Steinfeld, likely from Entertainment Weekly inexplicably putting her as the favorite.

So much for "research", though. I blew the Live Action Shorts category, although I was happy to see the best one win. Recent history for Best Original Song winners went out the window with the Randy Newman song netting him a rare victory. (Also, were those about as forgettable of a bunch of songs as you could have?) I read somewhere that the Sound categories had been divided in recent years by Sound Editing favoring a blockbuster type and Sound Mixing going to the Best Picture. The latter didn't hold true this year.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

On year-end awards

When the calendar turns to early December, year-end film awards begin spreading like wildfire across the entertainment media landscape. Whether such honors are bestowed by critics in the biggest cities and longstanding organizations or cinephiles in little-known groups, there is no shortage of these best-of lists. Regardless of all the ink and pixels devoted to these laudatory announcements, what impact they have, be it on box office, Oscar nominations, or filmmaker egos, is hard to say, although I'm inclined to believe it's insignificant on a large scale.

As someone who participates in polls for the Online Film Critics Society, the Central Ohio Film Critics Association, and the Muriel Awards, I can say that it's a fun way of synthesizing a year at the movies even when it can be a frustrating process. Consider it a way for us film writers and movie lovers to engage in imaginary play as Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members in the same way that fantasy sports owners manage teams. The difference is that the outcomes of our games come with internationally distributed press releases whose results may be employed in ads.

I see a lot of movies, so I enjoy putting my knowledge to use in these polls. The exercises aren't without their aggravations. I get irritated when it seems like my colleagues nominate exclusively from awards season openers and readers assume we're trying to predict Golden Globe and Oscar nominees. I would prefer to nominate what I feel is the best from the previous twelve months and leave it at that rather than filling out my sheet with gamesmanship in mind. I don't intend this as a swipe at anyone specifically or the groups in general. Everyone is free to vote as they see fit. I just wish my tastes could be expressed more in the winners.

That's where the Muriels is a salvation for me and my purist's ballot. The group of professional and amateur writers--or maybe paid and unpaid writers is the better phrasing--takes a more expansive view of the year in film. (It helps that the later deadline grants needed time to catch up on year-end platform releases.) Performances and films that wouldn't muster any consideration in awards season coverage aren't necessarily lost causes among Muriels voters.

This goes for overlooked and underappreciated work in mainstream films as well as arthouse and foreign titles. For example, my 2009 nomination ballot included EXTRACT'S Dustin Milligan in Best Supporting Performance, Male and TETRO for Best Cinematography. I could feel free to include both because I knew that such nominations didn't automatically equate to wasting those slots. As it turns out, I was on my own in nominating Milligan and one of seven supporting TETRO.

Whether my favorites come out on top or not, it's gratifying to see the thought put into the nominations--yes, even the head scratchers--and the essays that Muriels voters write about the winners. It's very satisfying for me to see the group recognize deserving work that, for whatever reason, never gains traction among the ad blitzes and campaigns. For instance, my two favorite supporting actress performances of 2010 also snagged the top two spots in Muriels voting, which somewhat remedies their near absence in the awards conversation. Such wins also confirm that these awards reflect a passion for cinema, something that gets lost too often in the incresasingly industry-dominated, year-long chatter.

As the season comes to a close with tomorrow night's Academy Awards ceremony, I encourage you to check out the slow roll-out of this year's Muriels. They're not to be treated as alternative Oscars--in fact, some category winners may be in agreement--but the results and idiosyncratic nominations ought to give cinephiles plenty of suggestions for films to search out. And isn't that the whole reason for doing this anyway?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Company Men

THE COMPANY MEN (John Wells, 2010)

The reach of the economic crisis extends even into the executive offices in THE COMPANY MEN. The drama focuses on three high level corporate workers who find themselves unemployed when their company’s stock prices need to be goosed. After all, cutting employees is viewed as the fast track to improving the bottom line.

Sales manager Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) initially refuses to alter his ways after losing his six-figure job. He shows up at the outplacement services office confident that, unlike his fellow white collar cubicle companions, he’ll find new work in no time. As the weeks stretch into months, Bobby grudgingly accepts the reality of his situation. Not only is his family’s lifestyle and home too extravagant to maintain while he searches for a job, but they likely won’t be able to keep up with their previous standard when he does get one.

Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is a company lifer who started on the factory floor and worked his way into a major position. Being laid off hits him extremely hard. Then he’s walloped with the fact that at sixty his age and hard-living appearance are liabilities that may keep him from returning to anything close to what he’s used to doing.

Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) was in on the ground floor when starting the then-shipbuilding company with his friend, the current CEO James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson), yet he’s considered expendable too.

THE COMPANY MEN means well in addressing the hardships that come with losing one’s job, particularly in this economy. There’s an air of resignation hanging over the film as these men confront their powerlessness and inadequacies upon being deprived of something that has defined who they are.

The most poignant moments aren’t visible in outbursts but in how they carry on as though still employed so that family, friends, and neighbors don’t pity them. For Bobby the greatest pains are in realizing that his blue collar brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) is kicking him some extra money in his paycheck and that his son returned a gift because he knows the family can’t afford it.

Writer-director John Wells captures these details well. From the embarrassment of knowing one can’t provide for those you love and the indignity of learning that one’s skill set isn’t unique or in high demand, THE COMPANY MEN observes how unemployment can bring death by a thousand small cuts rather than one major one.

Wells displays a light touch in depicting the adversities these men face. He doesn’t linger on their shame and anger but lets such feelings seep into the performances. Wells also doesn’t hammer his larger points. When Bobby’s brother-in-law asks him if the CEO works hard enough to deserve to be compensated seven hundred times more than the guys on the low end, it calls out the gross inequity of business today without making a scene. Gene mourns the decline of manufacturing and bristles at the blind adherence to Wall Street’s lead.

Nevertheless, THE COMPANY MEN could stand to express a little righteous fury. The film is often so low key that it ignores the urgency pressing down on Bobby and Phil. While the point of telling this story through three main characters is to examine the differences in their circumstances, the impact is often diluted. The loss of status and security for the wealthy is a reasonable premise for a film, but concentrating on individuals pulling in stacks of money like these people once made weakens the audience’s emotional connection in this instance. It’s harder to feel sorry for those who now can’t afford country club dues or biding time until stock options can be cashed in.

Grade: C

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Illusionist (L'Illusionniste)


Based on an original unproduced screenplay by legendary French filmmaker Jacques Tati, THE ILLUSIONIST tells the story of an old sleight of hand magician as he strives to maintain a career that is going out of style. The days of vaudeville and music halls are waning in the late 1950s, so the illusionist takes whatever small jobs he can find.

One gig brings him to a Scottish pub where he’s practically second fiddle to the newly installed electricity. There he meets the teenager Alice, who works at the pub and is delighted by his tricks. After giving her a much-needed new pair of shoes, she decides to accompany him as he seeks employment in Edinburgh. They check into a ramshackle hotel populated with his fellow struggling entertainers and wait to see what may come of their futures.

Adapted and directed by Sylvain Chomet, THE ILLUSIONIST is the next best thing to a new Tati movie. The main character is modeled on the comic actor, and the film follows the themes, tone, and almost wordless style of his cinematic masterpieces.

While a through line emerges, THE ILLUSIONIST often plays out as a succession of small setpieces packed with charm. Many of these scenes involve improvising within a closed environment, whether it’s finding a way to bide time while waiting to take the stage, coming up with novel methods for painting a billboard, or performing in front of a less than riveted audience. As in Tati’s classics, the humor brings forth gentle smiles more than big laughs, but the accumulation of droll enchantments is just as satisfying.

While Tati’s fingerprints are all over the film, this remains undeniably Chomet’s work. THE ILLUSIONIST’S wistfulness regarding changing times and fashions could just as well apply to the hand-drawn style of animation in which the film is lovingly rendered.

This bittersweet tale does not argue against progress. Much of the film is concerned with transitional stages and discovering what wonders these changes bring. Yet THE ILLUSIONIST also urges for retaining old ways and the beauty and magic that is lost when such things are abandoned. Whether it’s this film’s lovely animation or a variety entertainer’s craft, to dispose of these pleasures in the endless quest for the next best thing is to limit the creative possibilities.

Grade: B

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Just Go With It

JUST GO WITH IT (Dennis Dugan, 2011)

In JUST GO WITH IT Danny (Adam Sandler) detects that wearing a wedding ring and concocting a tale of marital woe is just the ticket for hooking up with any hottie possessing a scintilla of sensitivity. Danny is a plastic surgeon who’s been using this knowledge with great success for more than twenty years.

His technique backfires on him, though, when school teacher Palmer (Brooklyn Decker) finds the ring after a romantic night together on the beach. When he explains that he’s getting a divorce, she insists on meeting his wife to verify the story. Danny bribes his assistant Katherine (Jennifer Aniston) to pose as his spouse. The matter seems to be taken care of, but an ill-timed phone call leaves Palmer with the impression that Danny and Katherine have two kids whom she’d also like to meet.

Lies pile upon lies. To keep up the charade Danny books a trip to Hawaii with Palmer, Katherine, her kids, and his cousin Eddie (Nick Swardson), who pretends to be Katherine’s German lover.

JUST GO WITH IT is an extraordinarily bad match of star and material. Sandler has never been the most energetic screen presence, and his films usually lope along so he doesn’t have to expend too much effort. JUST GO WITH IT, though, is a farce and needs to run at a high speed. The slack pace, as evidenced by its nearly two hour running time, kills any potential humor found in this comedy of deceptions and misunderstandings. The premise practically begs for a flurry of zingers. Instead the screenplay and performances offer soft volleys and returns.

An underlying anger and cruelty exists in Sandler’s films, but except for the movies made with those outside his usual collaborators, he’s too concerned with being likable to let that unfiltered meanness rise to the surface. Again, that makes JUST GO WITH IT a bad fit. This premise requires some acid in the jokes. It certainly has contempt for several of the characters, but the tone here is sickly sweet and sentimental even though nothing about the plot is.

It doesn’t help that the characters come off as beyond stupid. The lies told are never believable and become even more improbable as they escalate. To top it off, JUST GO WITH IT revels in its obnoxiousness, like the little girl who mostly speaks in an exaggerated British accent, and its laziness. Between this and GROWN UPS, it seems like Sandler’s movies are an excuse to subsidize his vacations with friends on screen. Heaven help us when this becomes too much for him and he turns to releasing his home movies with beautiful women fawning over him.

Grade: D-

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Roommate

THE ROOMMATE (Christian E. Christiansen, 2011)

In THE ROOMMATE Iowa native Sara Matthews (Minka Kelly) arrives in Los Angeles ready to study fashion design and find a more exciting life than the one she left behind in Des Moines. Her first night on campus she makes some friends and meets Stephen (Cam Gigandet), a cute guy who plays in a band. Everything in her new surroundings is looking up, even when it comes to the uncertainty about who she’ll be sharing a dorm room with.

Her roommate Rebecca (Leighton Meester) seems nice enough, and the two of them cement their friendship through interests in clothes and art. Rebecca does tend to be clingy and overprotective of her new friend, but her heart seems to be in the right place. As time goes by, though, Rebecca’s attachment to Sara begins to look more sinister.

Most college students don’t know the people they are assigned to live with as freshmen, so the potential exists for being paired with someone who may be weird or unstable. THE ROOMMATE has the seed of a promising thriller in its premise yet never taps into the anxiety of discovering that the person designated to share your space makes you uncomfortable.

The film’s primary mistake is in giving Sara far too much freedom and alternative living arrangements if things sour between her and Rebecca. Rather than experiencing the culture clash of the heartland versus L.A. and not knowing anyone in her new home, Sara takes like a fish to water to the big city and can move in with a boyfriend or a fashion designer friend with an empty condo if the dormitory isn’t hospitable.

If THE ROOMMATE is to nurture any fear, it has to make Sara feel isolated and alone, not only so she turns to Rebecca for support but also so she feels like she lacks options when her roommate freaks her out. Clearly the outgoing and popular Sara never is aware of such loneliness or doubt, and her experiences never feel like those of a typical college freshman, even when accounting for the movie universe. She might have well met Rebecca via Craigslist.

THE ROOMMATE further cuts all tension with performances that are pretty terrible across the board. Both Kelly and Meester play their roles at surface level, resulting in the former coming off as exceptionally dumb and the latter as self-evidently out of her mind.

THE ROOMMATE is little more than SINGLE WHITE FEMALE: THE COLLEGE YEARS, so nuance isn’t exactly expected from this pulpy story. Still, even when aiming for trashy fun, the plot ought to be invested with some gravity and firmer commitment to the core idea of a disturbed young woman obsessed with her roommate. The film flits around its concept and doesn’t seem awfully interested in it. THE ROOMMATE is easy to watch garbage worth a few derisive laughs and little more.

Grade: D

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Video essays of 2010 in Film

I've been co-hosting and producing NOW PLAYING on WOCC TV3 since March 1997. For this year's Best and Worst of 2010 episode--our 369th, by the way--I decided that the time has arrived to post the pre-recorded segments on YouTube. So, if you'd rather watch the read about my Top 10, Honorable Mentions, and Worsts, now you can see them no matter where you are.

The Top 10

The Honorable Mentions of 2010

The Worst Films of 2010

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Best Films of 2010

1. LOURDES (Jessica Hausner, 2009)

LOURDES asks what a miracle is, on whose terms one should be determined, and who is deserving of such a blessing. A marvelous Sylvie Testud plays a woman with severe multiple sclerosis who is healed while on a pilgrimage in the southwestern French town. Director Jessica Hausner observes with detached amusement and seriousness how this seeming miracle changes the individual and the crowd in typical and unexpected ways. LOURDES shows reverence to the mystery while skewering how people try to divine it.

2. INCEPTION (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

Dazzling in its conception and execution, INCEPTION continues Christopher Nolan’s reign as the maker of Hollywood’s brainiest and eye-popping films. This multi-layered leap into the dream world electrifies with its visual and narrative construction. Perhaps INCEPTION’S commercial and critical success will plant the idea that blockbusters don’t always have to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

3. TRUE GRIT (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2010)

Joel and Ethan Coen settle into a vintage western remake that also has room for their signature quirks and humor. TRUE GRIT may be the most classical Hollywood film the brothers have made, but they’ve invested it with a great deal of craftsmanship and personality too. The performances are outstanding across the board. Hailee Steinfeld carries herself well with the immature certainty of youth while while Jeff Bridges’ Dude-ified Rooster Cogburn keeps the laughs coming.

4. FOUR LIONS (Chris Morris, 2010)

Comedies don’t get any nervier than director Chris Morris’s FOUR LIONS, which is built on the exploits of bumbling Islamic terrorists in a cell near London. Boldness in and of itself in a comedy doesn’t mean the material is actually humorous; however, FOUR LIONS is packed with razor-sharp wordplay and glorious slapstick that make it an explosively funny and unsettling film.


The brash and hilarious survey of the street art scene in the documentary EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP is enough to put one’s head spinning. Banksy, a celebrated graffiti artist and the film’s director, presents a quick history of this underground. Then he turns things around to discuss the nature of art, authorship, commerce, and hype. You never know when the rug will be pulled out below you in this thought-provoking and highly entertaining film.

6. HADEWIJCH (Bruno Dumont, 2009)

HADEWIJCH delves into its study of religious ecstasy and confusion with uncommon thoughtfulness. Julie Sokolowski delivers a great performance as a young woman working to make her proud displays of faith more humble, especially after she is sent from a cloistered life back into society. Her religious belief and assurance is powerfully examined as a lifelong dialogue instead of a simple choice that ends the conversation.

7. TOY STORY 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)

The well is usually long dry by the time of the third film in a series, but the creative minds at Pixar again prove themselves an exception to the rule. TOY STORY 3 brings what should be a fitting conclusion to the adventures of Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the crew in this breakneck action picture and affecting meditation on family.

8. NEVER LET ME GO (Mark Romanek, 2010)

Spanning 1978 to 1994, NEVER LET ME GO tracks three special children who grow up together in a boarding school. In his skillful adaptation of the fantastic Kazuo Ishiguro novel, screenwriter Alex Garland reveals the secret about these characters basically from the outset, yet the underlying science fiction aspect is treated as a canvas for the relationships and emotional turmoil instead of being the main focus. NEVER LET ME GO can be about the soul, technological innovation, media messaging, or any number of things beyond what the plot spells out. Still, the main story regarding love and purpose plays as its own kind of beautiful heartbreak.

9. THE TILLMAN STORY (Amir Bar-Lev, 2010)

THE TILLMAN STORY is a tough and principled documentary about a family’s loss, their persistent search for the truth, and the manufacturing of myths and heroes. Pat Tillman did the unthinkable for a professional athlete. Months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, he left a lucrative career in the National Football League to become an Army Ranger. Tillman refused to explain his motivation for the choice. After he was killed in action, the official report told of a heroic battlefield death that didn’t mesh with the covered-up facts. Tillman became a symbol for the war that he never wished to be. In telling the story of his family’s pursuit for answers, director Amir Bar-Lev also explores our need for unquestionable heroes and how creating them is a disservice to them.

10. MARWENCOL (Jeff Malmberg, 2010)

The documentary MARWENCOL reveals the imaginative creations that bloomed out of tragedy and need for one man. After being assaulted Mark Hogamcamp lost his memory and turned to a unique way of rediscovering his identity and trying to recover. In his yard Hogancamp builds a World War II-era Belgian town he dubs Marwencol and fills its with dolls that function as the the alter egos of himself and those important to him. Director Jeff Malmberg provides a deeply empathetic view of loneliness and powerful evidence of art as an outlet. He also exercises restraint and displays respect for Hogancamp as he freely and frequently talks about the pain of being alone. This artist born out of necessity discusses his Marwencolian representation and imaginary world with a depth of feeling that most would reserve for real acquaintances. Some of the documentary’s most touching portions provide insight into the expressive and healing properties of the art on the creator.

2010 in Film: The Honorable Mentions

BLACK SWAN (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

BLACK SWAN merges the sexual hysteria of Roman Polanski’s REPULSION with the ballet drama of Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES and throws in a generous dollop of Cronenberg-like body horror for good measure. Director Darren Aronofsky’s lurid mixture of high and low art makes for an often intoxicating film about creative risk and personal development. Natalie Portman’s performance thrills with how she manifests her ballerina’s psychosis, swinging from delicate technical precision and emotional repression to bold, forceful expressions.

CARLOS (Olivier Assayas, 2010)

Although five and a half hours long, Olivier Assayas’s CARLOS is a brisk and absorbing study of the infamous Venezuelan terrorist known as The Jackal. A magnificent setpiece recreating the 1975 raid on OPEC headquarters in Vienna and Edgar Ramirez’s magnetic lead performance are among the treasures in a biopic stocked with plenty to unpack regarding global and personal politics and how their tides shift.

CATFISH (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2010)

Whether CATFISH is or is not a documentary--I don’t think it matters--it stands as a compelling look at the thrills and pitfalls of living in the social media age. The film follows its subject, one of the directors’ brothers, as online communications lead to emotional investment with a family hundreds of miles away and romance with one of the daughters. As doubt creeps in about the truth of the situation, the filmmakers make a surprise visit to find out who they’re talking to. The answers they find have a lot to say about what we’re seeking when we reach out to make connections over the internet.


The exquisitely made EVERYONE ELSE is a painfully observed exploration of a relationship and each person’s culpability when it frays. In watching how people interact when they are alone, especially two who want to break away from the pack, the film is astonishingly keen in its intimate insights. As the couple, Birgit Minichmayr and Lars Eidinger do an extraordinary job of conveying the small ways people test and hurt the ones they love.

THE FIGHTER (David O. Russell, 2010)

In THE FIGHTER director David O. Russell tells the true story of underdog welterweight boxer Mickey Ward as part dysfunctional family comedy and part inspirational sports movie. A stellar supporting cast featuring Melissa Leo, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams often swipes scenes from Mark Wahlberg’s understated main character. Humming with humor and working class determination, THE FIGHTER finds that the most important sparring matches often occur outside the ring.

THE GHOST WRITER (Roman Polanski, 2010)

Co-writer/director Roman Polanski fashions THE GHOST WRITER as a '70s-styled potboiler bubbling with paranoia and conspiracy. This isn't CHINATOWN level work from Polanski, but THE GHOST WRITER still succeeds as an above-average thriller that dabbles in the political and the personal. A ghost writer's purpose is to tell someone else's story in that person's voice. As co-writer and director Polanski gets to speak for himself through the film, but for all of it's mirroring of real life circumstances, THE GHOST WRITER'S shrouded revelations are ever transitory.

GOING THE DISTANCE (Nanette Burstein, 2010)

GOING THE DISTANCE is a consistently funny romantic comedy, which is rare enough. It also possesses the wisdom to explore the natural challenges in Drew Barrymore and Justin Long’s bicoastal romance rather than contriving conflicts. Although the set-up is familiar, the film’s warmth, vulnerability, emotional truth, and raunchiness distinguish it from the pack of so-called love stories.

GREENBERG (Noah Baumbach, 2010)

Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s dramedy GREENBERG is a deeply felt observation of flawed individuals trying to cope with life’s problems. Ben Stiller does some of his finest cinematic work as the prickly and self-sabotaging title character. The performance requires looking beyond the surface to see a wounded soul who believes he can only feel better by making others miserable. Greta Gerwig matches Stiller’s performance with a turn that shows how awkward and unguarded optimism can survive among disappointment and sadness.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT overdoes it in laying out its themes in the final act, but nevertheless, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg have crafted a funny and generous film about family ties. Although gay spouses anchor the film, it illuminates the universal strains that come with coupledom and parenting rather than speaking to anything specific to sexual orientation. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT finds gentle laughs among and enormous sympathy for the trials of family.

MOTHER (MADEO) (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)

MOTHER co-writer and director Bong Joon-ho assembles an expertly constructed thriller with a surprisingly deep well of emotion and ribbons of humor. Kim Hye-ja’s remarkable performance speaks to the fierce devotion and love that a parent can exhibit when protecting a child.

PLEASE GIVE (Nicole Holofcener, 2010)

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s PLEASE GIVE humorously grapples with the problems of the fortunate, particularly those burdened with white liberal guilt. PLEASE GIVE shares a comedic sensibility with Woody Allen’s films while taking a female perspective on ordinary family problems, fear of mortality, self-image issues, and the illusion of control one has in life.

SHUTTER ISLAND (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

SHUTTER ISLAND is Martin Scorsese’s sublime version of a 1950s Hollywood thriller. It’s a treat to see one of the all-time greats having fun with a genre film. Scorsese utilizes the overheated tone and vivid colors produced in Robert Richardson’s cinematography to ratchet up the suspense unlike few can.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (David Fincher, 2010)

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is as elegant and brilliant as a well-written line of code. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's fictionalized account of Facebook’s founding dives into some of today’s big questions brought about by technological advancements and boasts a complex and masterful lead performance from Jesse Eisenberg. The script provides the foundation for a hugely entertaining drama that has a fair share of big laugh lines. Fincher’s smooth direction guides us through complicated legal proceedings and a social world not nearly as neatly organized as a social media tree.

SOMEWHERE (Sofia Coppola, 2010)

Although SOMEWHERE throbs with dissatisfaction and longing for purpose, writer-director Sofia Coppola’s film reveals itself as a dryly funny meditation on being adrift in Hollywood. Coppola sympathizes with a movie star’s burdens while observing the inherent absurdity of the profession. Elle Fanning shines as the daughter who helps routine-stuck father Stephen Dorff emerge from his privileged and suffocating cocoon.

WILD GRASS (LES HERBES FOLLES) (Alain Resnais, 2009)

When WILD GRASS was released, French director Alain Resnais was 87 years old and 48 years removed from when his classic LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD debuted, yet his ability to confound hasn’t dimmed. In this puckish and unpredictable romantic comedy-drama-mystery, meaning is elusive as ever, but WILD GRASS is a delight from beginning to end, especially the inscrutable ending.

WINTER’S BONE (Debra Granik, 2010)

Co-writer/director Debra Granik captures an outstanding sense of place yet never condescends in the Ozarks noir WINTER’S BONE. Jennifer Lawrence gives a terrific lead performance as a teenager who embarks on a harrowing journey in search of her no-good father so as to save the family’s house.

The Worst Films of 2010


The most notorious film of 2010, at least among cinephiles on the internet, was also the year’s worst. Like a carnival barker, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE entices the adventurous with the promise of a repulsive display that begs to be seen but fails in its delivery of gory one-upmanship. The film’s most shocking quality is it’s capacity to bore. THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE is a repellent film, but that's exactly the condemnation it needs to advance its reputation as a transgressive work. Being disreputable is the film's only distinguishing characteristic, even if in this case its offenses have been overhyped to Barnum-esque proportions successfully enough that a sequel is in the works.

2. TRASH HUMPERS (Harmony Korine, 2009)

TRASH HUMPERS, from cinematic agitator Harmony Korine, is a tiresome example of shock for shock’s sake. Shot on VHS and edited to resemble a weird, grubby found videotape, it’s a bunch of performance art nonsense with the director and others in old people masks humping garbage and vandalizing. Just because it’s outrĂ© doesn’t mean it’s profound or artful.

3. ENTER THE VOID (Gaspar Noe, 2010)

French provocateur Gaspar Noe’s ENTER THE VOID certainly doesn’t lack ambition. This psychedelic, first person perspective of a young drug dealer’s death, voyage into the hereafter, and rebirth is artistically indulgent in the worst way. With the camera floating around Tokyo, watching ENTER THE VOID is like seeing a sexed-up two and a half hour loop of the old Dolby Digital Broadway promo while on heavy depressants and hallucinogens.

4. JONAH HEX (Jimmy Hayward, 2010)

The adaptation of the graphic novel JONAH HEX was the most ineptly made major studio film of the year. Like PUSHING DAISIES' Ned without the delicious pie-making skills, Josh Brolin's disfigured anithero can resurrect and speak with the dead for a few moments, but making the film comprehensible at all is beyond his powers or anyone else’s powers. JONAH HEX isn’t merely bad; it’s flat out incompetent.

5. THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND (Gabriel Bologna, 2009)

That the Z-grade horror film THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND managed to swing a theatrical release is something of a miracle. This is more like a cheap knock-off found in the DVD bargain bin than a multiplex. A despicable group of young, bland, and obnoxious people are stuck on an island playing an evil board game that predictably leads to most of them being killed. The murky visuals and number of scenes reliant on ponderous dialogue show every bit of its low budget on the screen.

6. THE VIRGINITY HIT (Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, 2010)

The hugely off-putting teensploitation comedy THE VIRGINITY HIT purports to be a documentary about a hateful group of friends seeking to document the last of the bunch having sex for the first time. The premise itself isn’t drastically different from other teen sex comedies, but what makes it truly insufferable is the conceit that these are real home videos of their adolescent shenanigans. For these characters, personal privacy and intimacy are just obstacles to putting every experience on YouTube.

7. THE WARRIOR’S WAY (Sngmoo Lee, 2010)

THE WARRIOR’S WAY mashes up genres and styles in an unlikely and catastrophic manner. Imagine a martial arts western as directed by a Prozac-addled Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Imagine how terrible that sounds, even with some late arriving ninjas. That’s THE WARRIOR’S WAY.

8. THE NUTCRACKER IN 3D (Andrey Konchalovskiy, 2010)

The hideous poster for THE NUTCRACKER IN 3D practically promised that it would be one of the year’s worst. Call it truth in marketing, even if that surely wasn’t the intent. Unfortunately this adaptation of the classic ballet is just a dull, badly conceived, effects-heavy farrago than the amusingly terrible movie I’d hoped for. Still, it does have Nathan Lane playing Einstein, or someone suspiciously close to him, and an impending toy holocaust that is sure to horrify any kids with the bad luck to see it.


I can’t imagine any poor souls were holding their breath for nine years in anticipation of a CATS & DOGS sequel, but 2010 produced this inessential follow-up anyway. As the titles suggests, CATS & DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE is a lame spy movie parody with talking animals. Does it recycle all the tired cliches one expects? You bet.

10. SEX AND THE CITY 2 (Michael Patrick King, 2010)

SEX AND THE CITY 2 takes self-absorption in front of and behind the camera to new levels. The comedy represents all of the worst stereotypes of Americans at home and abroad. It’s an amazingly tone deaf film with the audacity to pat the nation’s mothers on the head when two of the spoiled characters bemoan the weight of parenting without a nanny. The critics heaped scorn on SEX AND THE CITY 2, and it was all deserved. But never mind that. SHOES!!!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


SOMEWHERE (Sofia Coppola, 2010)

Holed up in the famous West Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont, movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) floats through his days with an abundant supply of cigarettes, alcohol, and women wanting to sleep with him. Occasionally work interrupts his unhurried daily routine, but posing for publicity photos, fielding inane interviews questions, and sitting for a prosthetic mask fitting aren’t the most demanding or energizing tasks.

Johnny is in a rut, and the circumstances encourage him to stay in it. He’s acquired enough fame and money that he can have whatever he wants. By all appearances he doesn’t get much pleasure out of his good fortune, but there could be worse problems to have.

One day his willowy eleven-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) is dropped off at his door. When her mother will return for her is uncertain. Johnny isn’t an uninterested father, but the impression is given that he doesn’t play the role of parent on a regular basis. As he and Cleo hang out, the emptiness in his life becomes more apparent to him.

SOMEWHERE writer-director Sofia Coppola’s body of work explores lives in suspended isolation. This marks her third consecutive film about privileged people living in gilded cages. So it’s fitting that SOMEWHERE opens in the desert with Johnny driving his sports car in circles. The image is an obvious one, yet it’s still an effective and efficient way of conveying the existential crisis nagging the protagonist. Whether it’s the career or race track, Johnny has the means and the horsepower at his service to venture off the courses he’s found himself on. Nevertheless, he can’t or won’t get out of the infinite loops.

Although the film throbs with dissatisfaction and longing for purpose, SOMEWHERE plays as a dryly funny meditation on being adrift in Hollywood. Coppola sympathizes with a movie star’s burdens while observing the absurdity of the profession. Johnny’s presence at the junket roundtable with foreign press seems almost unnecessary as they pepper him with stupid questions yet barely wait for his equally pointless answers. His photo shoot with a co-star puts him through the indignity of being propped up on a board to reach her height. Additionally, both of them have to smile their way through being in close proximity and fake enjoying one another’s company when she clearly resents how he treated her.

The peak of “I get paid for this?” ridiculousness comes as Johnny must sit still for forty minutes while he’s slathered with goop that he waits for it to harden into a mold of his head. The medium shot of him sitting there encased in it highlights the absurdity of it all.

Johnny’s connection with Cleo becomes his life raft and throws into sharp relief how he relates to the women around him. Almost without exception the women he encounters bend over backwards, literally and figuratively, to please him regardless of if he’s shown an interest in them. They don’t need him to be anything more than what they’ve seen on movie screens and in magazines. He doesn’t ask of them to be something beyond outlets for his sex drive.

Cleo’s presence doesn’t erase this behavior in himself or those offering themselves to him, but Johnny slowly awakens to the harmful example he may be setting for the girl who is counting on him to be more than a movie star. In a strong supporting performance, Fanning fills Cleo with unconditional affection for Johnny. It’s possible to understand how the innocence and love beaming from her could shake him out of his static life.

SOMEWHERE doesn’t really earn its ending. Whether it’s the screenplay’s small scale view of the character, Dorff’s limitations, or a combination of both, the resolution feels as though it’s been arrived at too quickly and easily. Regardless, SOMEWHERE finds Coppola mining similar territory and discovering new elements.

Grade: B+