Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 10 of 2009

1. Up

2. Inglourious Basterds

3. Sugar

4. Lorna's Silence

5. I Love You, Man

6. The Hurt Locker

8. Hunger

10. A Single Man

Honorable Mentions: Funny People, Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince, Precious, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Two Lovers, Up in the Air

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ain't that America?: Thoughts on Up in the Air

Up in the Air is a bitingly funny, astute observation of contemporary America with a calculated sting in its tail. George Clooney stars as Ryan, a corporate downsizer who travels across America being hired by companies that are too timid to lay off their own employees. His solitary existence that blissfully capitalizes on other people’s misfortune is challenged when a precocious new employee (Anna Kendrick) at his company suggests a video conferencing feature that threatens to put an end to Ryan’s jet setting.

Clooney gives one of his most vulnerable performances and yet there’s no mawkish Oscar moment to be found. There’s a prime set-up for one when he visits with his brother-in-law-to-be on the wedding day but the movie resists the urge to swell into a grandstanding burst of emotions and stays true to the character’s instincts and intentions. Instead, Clooney’s performance hinges on quiet shots where a sublimated expression says everything.

The film does not shy away from the painful reflection of America’s current reality. In perhaps the film’s strongest moment, Ryan’s boss (played with impeccable familiarity by Jason Bateman) surveys the nationwide layoffs and states with opportunistic relish, “This is our moment.” In order to confront the issue head on, writer/director Jason Reitman reportedly recorded interviews with real people who had been laid off recently. Snippets of these interviews are spliced into sequences featuring performances by the likes of Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons. It’s a brilliant idea but I wonder if these “reality bites” are integrated too seamlessly into the film proper. Reitman does not use the familiar signals of reality (zooms, grainy footage, wobbly framing, offscreen interview questions, stammering) and I wonder, if I hadn’t read the article in The New York Times about the interviews, would I have been able to distinguish them from the performances? Maybe this actually speaks to the veracity of these interviews; Reitman clearly didn’t feel he had to convince anyone they were real through aesthetics and felt confident enough to insert them without ceremony.

The film’s other master stroke of zeitgeist awareness is its commentary on technology and the decline of human interaction – not for nothing are the human components of the video conferencing initiative briefly referred to as terminators.

This is the third film directed by Jason Reitman and once again, he does a remarkable job of not letting his identity overwhelm the film’s temperament. He has all the potential to become a prominent auteur figure – a legendary Hollywood father (think Sophia Coppola), a publicized promotional tour that includes social media (Quentin Tarrentino) and a vocalized political stance (not quite Michael Moore level). At just 32 years old he’s already received a Writer’s Guild nomination and an Oscar nomination for Best Director and is poised to at the very least rack up a Best Picture nomination for producing Up in the Air. But despite these laurels, he’s had the wisdom to let another collaborator’s persona overshadow all three of his films: Clooney here, Aaron Eckhart’s performance in Thank You for Smoking and Diablo Cody’s screenplay in Juno.

This is not to say his films aren’t distinct or full of stylistic flourishes (i.e. Up in the Air’s overhead location shots or the fast cuts in the beginning) but there’s never a single element that makes me think, “Ah, that’s such a Reitman quality!” Prior to seeing Up in the Air, a friend said they were looking forward to the movie because “they liked that Reitman fellow” and I agreed without hesitation. Afterwards I found myself wondering, wait, do I like Jason Reitman? I thought Thank You for Smoking was alright and I disliked Juno with great intensity, what constitutes my appreciation for him as a director? Well, he did direct one of my favorite episodes of The Office (Local Ad) but that’s not it. It’s his chameleon-like ability to make three very distinct films with an almost workmanlike sensibility. I couldn’t stomach the hyperactive self-aware dialogue in Juno but I’m not inclined to blame Reitman for that. In fact, I’m likely to credit him with the fleeting moments in which I almost started to like that movie.

But with Up in the Air, he has made his most consistent – and therefore, best – movie. It’s the one that convinces me he has a long and celebrated Hollywood career ahead of him and gives me the answer to my internal uncertainty… yes, I do like that Reitman fellow.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Side-slipping: A Review of Downhill Racer

"Available for the first time on DVD, The Criterion Collection has put together a stunning transfer with fantastic visuals. This is the kind of DVD you want in your collection if for no other reason than to demonstrate the beauty found in your new flat screen TV."

Click here to read my DVD review at PopMatters

Friday, November 06, 2009

It's All In Your Mind: A Review of The Fourth Kind

"Everything we've read about digital technology and studio greed suggests we should greet any movie proclaiming to be “real” with an armor of disbelief. But in the heat of the moment, it's actually pretty convincing and really quite creepy. Wherever its truths and fictions really lie, The Fourth Kind — like Paranormal Activity — is an effective experiment/event rather than a film to be heralded. Creepy enough during their initial unspooling, these aren't movies that will reward multiple viewings — neither for entertainment nor education's sake."

Click here to read my review in The L Magazine

Thursday, October 22, 2009

This Could Be Heaven: A Review of The Devil's Advocate

"The Devil’s Advocate isn’t as evenly paced as the classic horror titles mentioned above but it does strive to be more than a special effects extravaganza. While the film occasionally succumbs to overwrought melodrama and the sheer lunacy of its proposition (like in Angel Heart, the Devil sure seems to do a lot of micro-managing), it’s hard to begrudge the film’s questionable moments given the strong production value and talented crew."

Click here to read my review, part of Not Coming to a Theater Near You's 6th Annual 31 Days of Horror

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Polygamy in Africa: A Review of Min Ye

"Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé’s reputation precedes him, and for a director that can be both a blessing and a curse. It may help open doors and smooth over the pre-production process but it can also set unrealistic expectation upon the finished product. Cissé returns to the cinema after 14 years with Min Ye (Tell Me Who You Are), his third film to play the New York Film Festival. Best known for 1987’s Brightness (Yeelen) (which a colleague describes as Star Wars in Africa), Cissé has been praised for his social realism and is a pivotal figure in African cinema. Min Ye is the first film of his that I’ve seen, but I don’t need to have seen his others to recognize it as an underwhelming offer, high expectations or not."

Click here to read my review of Min Ye at Not Coming To a Theater Near You's NYFF Coverage

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Trigger Effect: A Review of Lebanon

"Lebanon isn’t quite the pivotal war document or riveting suspense narrative it could have been, but it is confidently made with piercing sound design and arresting visuals that aid in the effective illustration of the range of people directly affected by war."

Click here to read my review at Not Coming to a Theater Near You as part of their New York Film Festival coverage

Friday, September 25, 2009

Independent Woman Pt. 1: A Review of Coco Before Chanel

"...without a clear plot trajectory, the film struggles to maintain momentum, relying on the tired period-piece mainstays of sweeping landscape shots accompanied by swelling orchestral music before concluding with little impact."

Click here to read my review in VIVmag

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


In the tradition of Raising Arizona comes Skiptracers, a low-budget, Southern fried comedy about a family of bail bondsmen – who also coach the local peewee football team in their hometown of Yellow Hammer, Alabama. Overseen by their surly, drunken patriarch, brothers JD (Porter Harris) and Tucker (Dustin Kerns) are fugitive recovery agents, but their minds are on other things. JD, the slightly more sensible of the two has dreams of flying fighter pilots while Tucker, the dashing one, is more interested in philandering around town.

Tired of scraping by on the company’s meager income, JD decides to take a gamble on a high-profile parolee named Rusty (Andy Stuckey, who also wrote and produced the film). Rusty, a livewire in the truest sense, quickly becomes more than they can handle and the brothers find themselves embroiled in a feud with the town’s rival bondsmen company.

Characters from the South frequently serve the purpose of easy jokes in the movies (think anything by Sacha Baron Cohen) but Skiptracers joins the group of emerging filmmakers who better care for their brothers from the South. Like David Gordon Green and Phil Morrison, director Harris Mendheim is happy to present his characters as eccentrics but they’re never repulsive or despicable (unlike the Staten Island inhabitants depicted in Big Fan for example). Some of the minor characters, while memorable, are occasionally overdrawn but Porter Harris gives a well grounded performance and Andy Stuckey has an admirable energy that makes a challenging character hard to resist.

Even if it may have trouble connecting with audiences on the coast, Skiptracers will likely be well received in the South and mid-West, where audiences will enjoy the familiarity of its milieu and its tender touch.

Skiptracers opens at New York’s Village East Cinemas this Friday, September 11th. In a savvy move of cross-promotion, opening night attendees can get a free Colt 45 from the nearby bar, Finnerty’s.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Inside Baseball: A DVD Review of Sugar

"Melancholic and pragmatic, Sugar is not a rousing Saturday night sports movie. But it is a brilliantly executed film that provides insight into a world most viewers rarely think about. As far as sobering sports movies go, Sugar would make a strong double-feature with last year’s The Wrestler, as both films are dedicated to examining the psychology of minor league athletes just outside the spotlight."

Click here to read my review at PopMatters

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

My Summer of Love: A Review of Adventureland

"Unassuming and naturalistic, Adventureland has a remarkable sense of pathos for a young adult comedy. But its appealing ensemble, pitch-perfect soundtrack, and controlled filmmaking help the tougher moments go down smoothly. It’s a hugely enjoyable blend of humor and agony that captures the confused, painful, but open-ended state of late adolescence. "

Click here to read my DVD review at PopMatters

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Animal Husbandry: A DVD Review of Husbands

There is still a lot to appreciate about the film: the open-minded camerawork (so much happens outside of the frame), the long, expressive close-ups, the natural dialogue and the very funny moments that it creates and its general unpredictability. But truthfully, these pleasures are on display in Cassavetes’ other films too. And they don’t come with the same self-involvement and frustrating incoherence that permeates Husbands.

Click here to read my review at PopMatters

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Unexamined Body is Not Worth Living: A Review of Cloud 9

"The film's strengths lie in the natural performances and Dresden's minimalist direction. The locations feel lived-in and the performers do so much with just their eyes. But what will inevitably leave the longest lasting impression on viewers is the frankness of the love scenes which are energetic, starkly shot and — believe it or not — sexy."

Click here to read my review of Cloud 9 in The L Magazine

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Postcards from the Edge: A review of Doc Martin: Series 2

"Fans of British television – and British scenery – should be perfectly satiated by the 464-minutes of Doc Martin contained in this package. Like a good doctor, it’s dependable, easily accessible and comfortingly familiar."

Click here to read my DVD review on PopMatters

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Action Movie Essentials: Mission: Impossible

Not Coming to a Theater Near You is currently running a very entertaining feature on action movies. The inspired collection of films being covered includes the entire Rambo series, obscure Chuck Norris movies and even a Buster Keaton silent classic. I chose to contribute a piece on Mission: Impossible, of my favorite summer blockbusters directed by one of my favorite directors, Brian De Palma. There's a lot of nostalgia present - I still vividly recall my Mom taking me to see it on the opening Saturday night (I was just young enough that it wasn't uncool) - but I also think it's a very well constructed blockbuster whose enjoyment factor hasn't waned over the past 13 years.

Click here to read my essay at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Death Every Afternoon: A DVD review of The Hit

"...despite its generic title and the professions of its central characters, The Hit bears little resemblance to the gangster film in the traditional sense. It’s closer in nature to Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance, a film that opens as a full-on gritty gangster film but radically shifts gears to become a psychedelic head trip about questioning self-identity. The Hit is a less complex (and less frustrating) film but it follows a similar trajectory of using gangster film qualities to philosophize about the nature of death."

Click here to read my review at PopMatters

Friday, June 12, 2009

One Night with the Boss: A DVD Review of Bruce Springsteen On the Road

"Bruce Springsteen On the Road: 40 Years with the Boss is the definition of a mixed bag; and also a misnomer – these two discs neither show tour footage nor cover the promised 40-year span of Bruce’s career. The second disc might be too technical for casual fans of Springsteen and the first disc is so shoddily constructed that it can’t even serve as a primer for new recruits. Nevertheless, strong Bruce supporters will definitely be captivated by the second disc and I’m inclined to say that if you can find the set at a reduced cost it would be worth picking up."

Click here to read my review at PopMatters

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Under the Harvest Moon: A Review of Food, Inc.

"Kenner appeals to enlightenment rather than condemnation, and the text-based conclusion offers specific practices for viewers to consider. Even if they're only micro compared to the policy reform that the film essentially bids for, it at least offers tangible suggestions (scored to Bruce Springsteen no less). Participant Media also published a paperback companion that further explores issues raised in the film, and shipped it to bookstores in advance of the film’s theatrical release. By suggesting alternatives in a controlled, persuasive manner, Food, Inc. distinguishes itself from social awareness ego-trips like Richard Linklater's pedantic adaptation of Fast Food Nation and from the scores of fear-mongering documentaries that criticize without offering solutions: Michael Moore, Charles Ferguson, etc. take note."

Click here to read my review in The L Magazine

Sunday, June 07, 2009

You’ve Got a Friend in Me: An Appreciation of Quantum of Solace

When Quantum of Solace hit theaters this past November, it was met with a fierce critical drubbing for being too frenetic, too downbeat, too un-Bond. All salient points that deserve attention; in many ways it feels like an indie Bond made on the quick to let out some aggression in between grander, more satisfying efforts. And I concede that the first twenty minutes borders on the unwatchable with enough incomprehensible action to suggest that Bond is the progeny rather than the progenitor of Bourne. But I choose to turn a blind eye on its flaws because Quantum of Solace and its superior brethren Casino Royale do something that no other Bond films do: engage me both viscerally and cerebrally.

For me, the movie begins when Bond is picked up by Olga Kurykov’s Camille who notices a tail and asks sarcastically, "Friend of yours?" Bond responds, "I don't have friends." In any other iteration of Bond, the line would be merely a quip but with Daniel Craig's Bond, it's an insight into his personality. From that scene on the film can be viewed as a meditation on friendship: Can it exist within business / politics? Can you have an enemy if you're not capable of having a friend? What’s the difference between a friend and a lover? I couldn't believe how many times the word friend or friendship is uttered throughout the film: Mathis, Felix, M, Camille, Vesper's Ex, etc. I haven't heard the term friend used with such frequency since I saw River's Edge.

In the film’s penultimate scene, Bond interrogates Vesper's ex and when he notices a woman wearing the same necklace Vesper had worn he states, "I have one just like it… He gave it to a friend of mine, someone very close to me.” In a sense, the film begins with Bond rejecting the notion of friendship and ends with him accepting not only the possibility but the existence of a friend. Of course, this is certainly not a healthy understanding of friendship, as the friend in question is now deceased and their relationship was built upon duplicity.

Perhaps a cold war nut can find just as satisfying an analysis of For Your Eyes Only or a sci-fi guru can gleefully dissect the intricacies of Moonraker but for my money, Quantum of Solace is the most thought provoking Bond entry yet. Does that make it the first Bond movie to play better in the classroom than on the big screen?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Are Gross-Out Gags Invading Family Films?

This morning I went to see Up which was by all accounts a fantastic film, the highlight being the four-minute montage devoid of dialogue that perfectly visualized love in its purest form. But before the film started I was distracted by a nagging observation made about the previews that ran before the film: the large number of gross-out gags – jokes designed to make the audience recoil in disgust while simultaneously laughing.

I’ve long been fascinated by gross-out comedies and have devoted much thought to the theoretical ramifications of it as a comedic movement but until this morning I’d never considered their presence in family entertainment. Now that I think about it, booger or cooties jokes seem commonplace and in the ‘90s Nickelodeon virtually planned its entire programming around gooey substances. But I was struck by the usage and the content of the jokes I saw this morning and wonder if the gross-out gags featured in family films have escalated and become more graphic?

The three trailers in question were Imagine That, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and G-Force. All three trailers use a gross-out gag prominently as a punctuating joke. In the case of Imagine That, it’s the opening scene:

At the 0:11 mark we see a close-up shot of clumpy, spoiled milk being poured onto a bowl of cereal. The gag is created not just from the viscosity of the liquid but from the prospect that Eddie Murphy’s poor daughter might actually end up eating it. On the scale of gross-out humor this is fairly tame but it still produced an audible disgust from the sold out audience and it is significant as is chosen as the film’s introductory gag.

Next up is Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs which concludes its trailer with two gross-out gags, one visual and one verbal.

The first occurs right before the title card (1:53) and involves a sap-doused nut being violently ripped from Scrat’s furry chest, resulting in a pink underbelly and a pained yelp. 40-Year-Old Virgin anyone? (To be fair, that film went further and fully solidified the gag as gross-out by showing extreme close-ups on the removed hair and the bristling gashes on Steve Carell’s chest.) The Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs’ trailer then concludes with Sid mistakenly milking a male ram, the error of his ways being emphasized by an amplified sound effect and close-up on the ram’s eyes (2:16). While the gross-out infraction is kept off-screen, the audio track and accompanying facial expression indicates that Sid has inappropriately manhandled the ram’s reproductive organs.

Finally, there’s G-Force which uses a gross-out gag to punctuate the trailer’s moment of maximum excitement – the hamsters soaring through the air in a protective ball – with a fart joke (2:14): (trailer not embeddable)

This was the specific gag that got me thinking about the propensity of gross-out humor in these trailers. It was the simplicity of its insertion, how unmotivated and unnecessary it was (the trailer also ends with a “poop in his hand” line of dialogue – 2:29). The film is rated PG for “Some mild action and rude humor.” Have family films always thrived on rude humor? To the point that it serves an essential function in their marketing? Or is this a more recent trend spurred by the success of There’s Something About Mary and American Pie?

Perhaps rude humor has always been present and I just haven’t focused on it. Surely, Beethoven contained a wealth of dog slobber jokes? I love a good gross-out joke and when they’re properly executed they can be wonderfully unifying acts, leveraging the lowest common denominator appeal into a class-defying unity of mirth. But when used improperly they’re resolutely low-brow – and the three trailers under scrutiny are certainly low-brow. For the record, Up, an exemplar of the high-brow family film, contains two minor gross-out gags involving animal saliva and the lead character’s walking implement. Neither gag features in Up’s marketing and both are executed in a simple, non-glorified manner. There’s a clear distinction between these gags and the ones profiled in the above trailers. But has there always been a need for this distinction within the genre of the family film?