Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Other films from 2009

These all missed my top 10 of 2009 for sure; I hope to get it out by Sunday afternoon. Not everything I saw. I left out those I brought up in two out of the last three posts, plus The Hangover, I Love You Man (both thumbs up), Watchmen (thumbs up. Not perfect, but damn you fanboys making it hard for civilians to accept it on its own terms). I know I missed a few, as well, like Anvil! (good), Duplicity (passable, but patience is rewarded) and Paul Blart: Mall Cop (thumbs down. Long story how ended up there; thank God my money went to Slumdog Millonaire instead).

AN EDUCATION- If this film didn't have English accents in it, it would be a less glorified Lifetime for women movie. And if you saw The Girl with Green Eyes, then this film is very familar. But if you're reading this, then you're not British and that film means nothing to you, and An Education might feel fresh. Certainly captured a feeling of early 60s London, both of look and of its times for a middle class girl with limited options. A good cast, though the best I can say about Peter Sarsgaard is, he tries. A luminous lead performance from Carey Mulligan deserves all the accolades it's getting. And though I understand this is based on a woman's memoir, the script grows dramatically weak once we realize the guy is no good. It's like "Hurry up, let's play up the irony about the girl getting 'An Education', WHOOPS WE'RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME AND MONEY! Let's wrap this up NOW!". A strong feeling of 'that's it?' created a sense of enu in me. That and "This and The Blind Side, for different reasons, makes having ten nominees for Best Picture, a bad idea.". An idea we'll probably have to deal with for at least three or four years.

THE LAST STATION- And if this film didn't have any English-sounding dialects delivered by an A list cast, then this would be a less glorified Masterpiece Theatre film. But since I have been ambivalent about most of director Michael Hoffman's films, such as Restoration, the 1999 Midsummer Night's Dream, and Game 6, I shouldn't be surprised in retrospect. The love story between the Tolstoys carries most of the film's interest; the nominated performances of Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer have more than a little to do with it. Kerry Condon is appealing, and she's the only reason any storyline involving James McAvoy is interesting. A young man finding his way, doesn't hold a candle to Leo Tolstoy and his drama queen/Countess of a wife. Throw in Paul Giamatti in restrained villain mode . . . I mean please, he's forced to twirl his mustache! Save your money, because this just screams cable/Netflix.

PRECIOUS- The first half has a similar feel to The Passion of the Christ. The gauntlet the young woman runs through has the same brutal feel as in Mel Gibson's film. Get through that, and then Precious's borderline indomitable spirit begins to come through. This wouldn't have work if this became just a feature length pity party, and thank God that wasn't the case. Good job of capturing a decayed New York, both visually and, story-wise, institutional standpoint. The late 80s, which was the end of the Mayor Koch era, was only pretty when compared to the late 70s. And the further away you got from the middle of Manhattan, eeck. At least I know director Lee Daniels can actually make a good film, as opposed to one of my favorite bad flicks of the last decade, Shadowboxer (imdb that on your own).

If the Academy goes young as opposed to veteran with the Best Actress category, it would be interesting if they go with the subtle work of rookie Gabourey Sidibe over the subtle work and English accent of Carey Mulligan. In the cases of both An Education and Precious, the lead female performances work, therefore the films work. But the cast in Precious is so good, I didn't even recognize Lenny Kravitz until late in the picture. Hell, I didn't recognize Shari Shepherd at all. So now I can think of her as more than just that idiot from The View who didn't know the Earth was round (I REFUSE to let that go!).

But if the only Oscar Precious wins is Monique for Supporting Actress, I'm ok with that. What a repellent creature. I guess I can understand why, in her last scene, they could see a trace of humanity in her character, but I'm not going there. Hell no. There were more traces of humanity in Bruno Ganz's performance in Downfall, and he played Hitler. No blame on the actress here, don't misunderstand. She affected me that much.

A TOWN CALLED PANIC- About as dramatic a film as Precious was a slapstick comedy. Total opposites. A French stop motion animated film, based on a popular series of shorts that are easy to find on Youtube. Certainly not a better animated film than say, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline or Up, but possibly the most fun from 2009.

More from the Chuck Jones/Looney Tunes school of animation, as opposed to something epic from Pixar, or something slapped together from Dreamworks, post Shrek. Most figures about the size and texture of your typical toy solider, cowboy or Indian. A little town where the smart Horse, lives with his best friends, the moronic Indian and the even stupider Cowboy. It's Horse's birthday, and his friends buy bricks (using Horse's credit card of course) to build a barbecue. But after accidentally buying 50 billion bricks, the problems come faster than the bricks can be delivered (and those millions of delivery trucks come fast). Spoofs on Journey to the Center of the Earth and March of the Penguins, plus difficulties above and below the sea all interfere with Horse's budding relationship with his piano teacher.

The plot is deceptively simple and on second viewing, fairly intricate. But on first viewing, just understand that linear logic isn't obvious. And for the most part, the film is built on forward momentum; better to get to a new joke and a new obstacle, and to do it quickly. Not rated, but consider this the most fun PG film you'd see that has come out of 2009.

INVICTUS- A bit of a spinach film (here, watch this film, it's GOOD for you!). I don't take credit for that saying; I heard it before back in the early 90s, but don't remember the source. But more successful in giving us an insight into Mandela and the state of South Africa through this brief period of time, than any feature-length bio pic would probably provide. The HBO film Mandela, starring Danny Glover is a prime example.

You may not learn much more about Rugby then you did going in, but the climatic World Cup match is pulled off quite well. Just as good in pulling off time and place on a large budget, as An Education and Precious did on smaller budgets. Glad Freeman got a Best Actor nod as Mandela, but Matt Damon for Supporting Actor? Really? So indifferent. A nice cap to a good decade of consistent film making from director Clint Eastwood. Still waiting for a Clint as director only retrospective. Are you listening Film Forum, or MOMA?

THE MAID- Little seen Chilean film received the acclaim, but whenever it comes out on DVD or either IFC or Sundance Channel, find it. An overworked maid, with an apparent black belt in passive aggressive, has just reached in middle age, and has had enough. Things slowly get worse and then change, but not in the way you might expect. Let's just say, if you thought from the advertising and somewhat cryptic reviews that you were getting a kind of Fatal Attraction, you'd be pleasantly mistaken. Director/Co-Writer Sebastian Silva takes an Altman-esque approach, in terms of character exploration and overlapping dialogue, and that's a good thing.

STAR TREK- The most fun summer blockbuster of 2009. For fans of Star Wars who are not Trekkies/ers. I was bemused by some of those pro-SW anti ST types, who claimed they didn't think the franchise had it in it (damn my lack of grasp of English). But Star Trek was always flexible enough to pull of action, metaphorical stories, character driven pieces and the like. It always depended on the cast, the writers and the budget to pull off anything devised. Admittedly not three elements ran well over the course of 43 years, but it happened with J.J. Abrams film. It's at point where it could go almost anywhere; either re-do and improve a classic story or villain, or go into a different direction. The possibilities are exciting to think about, the audience goodwill is there, and my hopes are high. I almost wish Avatar was out so Star Trek could get some visual effects Oscar love.

500 DAYS OF SUMMER- Good dialogue and winning lead performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt carry the film. Once the film's romance sours, the pain is well felt. But there were better films in 09, so I don't have much more to go about here.

REVANCHE- Respectable Austrian film, nominated at last year's Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. A story of revenge (possible) and forgiveness (possible?), told through the filter of a crime drama. An ex-con, involved in a robbery gone wrong, seeks revenge on the patrolman who accidentally ruined his life. He tracks the cop down. The cop just happens to live near the farm of the ex-con's elderly uncle. But when he re-connects the uncle, and connects with the cop's frustrated wife, is he ready to forgive something that was basically an accident the way things played out? Deliberately paced (yes, that occasionally means slow), so that we know all people involved, so that the possibilities for tragedy can be truly felt. Available through the Criterion Collection, so hopefully it won't completely fall through the cracks.

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS- Ignore the connections to the forgotten Harvey Kietel NYC cult classic; the title addition of the first two words, was apparently done by the money people involved as opposed to anyone with artistic power. That aside, any pairing of Nicolas Cage and director Werner Herzog would seem batshit crazy, and it works. Not as brutal as the Kietel picture, but not full of it self, and not afraid to throw a little light(ish) humor in there. Might get a little too quiet for those expecting full blown nuts Cage all the time, but it's not unusual if you know Herzog.

TYSON- Not the best documentary I've seen from 2009, that would the Oscar nominated Daniel Ellsberg/ Pentagon Papers documentary. But this is still fascinating to watch. No talking heads, and the only time you hear or see someone talking who isn't Tyson comes from the many interviews, fight coverage and even commercials. Whether you're sympathetic, repulsed or just pitying him, it is compelling to watch.

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