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Posts Tagged ‘Film’

You Can Miss The Last Station

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

What I know about Leo Tolstoy could fill a thimble. I’ve never read any of Tolstoy’s acclaimed works, like “War and Peace,” because I am almost illiterate. The closest I’ve come to “War and Peace” is seeing a poster in the 1968 version of “The Producers” for a dirty film called “War and Piece.”

“The Last Station” shows us Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) near the end of his life. He has become a major celebrity in early 1900’s Russia. He has developed such a following that a type of religion is created over his teachings. The leader of this movement, Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) wants Tolstoy to leave his money from his literature to the people of Russia. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) is against this idea. She wants to keep the money for her and their children. The witness to all this bickering is a member of Tolstoy following and Tolstoy’s new secretary, Valentin (James McAvoy).

Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are both fine in their roles. Both were nominated for Oscars, but neither will win. McAvoy was also decent as his role as the young, idealistic secretary. Though, we hardly see him doing any secretarial duties. Giamatti was wasted in his part as the antagonist. The most he gets to do is twirl his mustache like a villain out of a silent film. Some of the film’s big dramatic moments are executed poorly. When Mirren throws herself into a body of water, it comes across as silly, rather than heartbreaking.

One problem I had with the movie is that we never get a good sense of who these people in this Tolstoy inspired community are and what they do. In the film, there is a community of followers that live near by Tolstoy. It seems like there are only two members of the community, McAvoy, and his love interest. The most we ever see this community actually doing something, is when Tolstoy hands out flowers to a group of small children. What the hell is that about?

The last third of the picture drags along at a snail’s pace. The film never rises above its trappings as a “lifeless costume drama.” Have to credit Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune for that dead-on quote about this movie. During the film’s credits we get to see actual silent film footage shot of the real-life Leo Tolstoy. Those images of the real-life Tolstoy are more riveting and full of life than the rest of the picture.

2 stars

Jeff Bridges is the life of Crazy Heart

January 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The minute that Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) steps out of his beat up old car you know everything about that character. He is tired, his pants belt unbuckled and he pours out a jug of his own urine. He’s lived quite the life. Jeff Bridges has always been one of our great actors, delivering solid work for nearly forty years. The many award nominations he’s received for this film is richly deserved.

The film, written and directed by Scott Cooper, stars Bridges as a once famous country singer named Bad Blake. His fame now gone, he is forced to play gigs in bars and bowling alleys. He is greeted by a handful of fans who are still loyal to his music. The only solace that Blake finds from playing these depressing gigs is in the bottle. For Blake, booze is like water. Blake is able to finds some hope for his future when he gets involved with a reporter, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. He finds more relief when a former pupil of his, played by Colin Farrell, offers him some help if Blake can write some new songs for him.

The story of a flawed man seeking redemption is one we have seen before. It’s the performance of Bridges that elevates the film beyond the familiar plot. Roger Ebert said it best when he states that Bridges makes us belive that Blake has lived this hard, difficult life. There is one great shot where we see him looking at bottles of booze in a store. He is broke and we see the temptation and desperation all in the way Bridges stares down those bottles of booze.

The country songs are great. The songs written by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham are catchy and entertaining. Bridges captures the performer in Bad Blake brilliantly. He may be drunk up on the stage, and running out to vomit, but he knows how to give his handful of devoted fans, a real show. There is some solid work from Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, who shows up toward the later part of the film. Duvall’s presence reminds us of a similar role he played as a down-on-his luck country singer in the great”Tender Mercies.” Gyllenhaal doesn’t quite measure up next to Bridges. I don’t buy some of the decisions that her character makes in the film.

My problem with the film is the loose narrative. I felt there wasn’t enough of a dramatic pull in the film. It does sort of wonder along to its conclusion. Things are wrapped up far too nicely at the end for my taste, especially the issue of Blake’s alcoholism. This is a case where the performance is better than the film.

3 Stars

Here is a clip of Bridges performing one of the songs from the film called “The Weary Kind.”

The Lovely Bones Ain’t Lovely

December 27, 2009 1 comment

I can at least call this film an interesting failure. Based on the novel “The Lovely Bones,” by Alice Sebold, the film is about the murder of a young teenage girl Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) and how her murder impacts those close to her. Set in the 1970’s Susie narrates the story from a heavenly purgatory. She witnesses her father (Mark Wahlberg) not being able to cope with her death and watches his ongoing obsession into finding her killer. Her father ends up neglecting his wife (Rachel Weisz) who can’t accept that Susie is gone. Susie also keeps watch over her killer, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who on the outside appears to be the Salmon’s harmless next door neighbor.

I read the book over a year ago and remember liking it a lot. I’m not a die-hard fan who demands that director Peter Jackson absolutely stay faithful to the novel. I was curious to see what he would do with the film, especially the heaven sequences. While Jackson creates some really intriguing visuals when the film shows us Susie in heaven, the film is empty emotionally. The book left me feeling very emotionally affected. The film has none of that. Jackson has a hard time balancing the visuals of Susie’s heaven with the drama occurring on earth.

I found the emotional drama between the Salmon family seriously lacking. The loss of the daughter and each member of the family’s reaction to it comes across as just barely hitting the surface. I wanted to see more of the family dynamic and see how it destroys their lives. Seeing the two parents just crying wasn’t satisfying enough to represent their pain. Rachel Weisz’s character gets shafted in the film. Her character in the novel has a much more absorbing character arc. Her actions in the film and it’s impact on the family is totally ignored in the film. Mark Whalberg almost borders on “The Happening” type acting here. The only two very good performances in the film are Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci as the killer. Tucci is appropriately disturbing as the child killer.

The visuals that Jackson uses to represent heaven are the film’s most fascinating moments. I remember in the book the heaven was very vaguely described. Jackson gives us a heaven that is full of big colors and images that are metaphors for what her family is going through back home. Some of imagery in alluring, but at times it comes across as distracting and at time ridiculous. One sequence has Susie being the star of her own fashion show. This comes across as very silly. But I guess a dream of a young teenage girl is to be in a fashion show. Jackson does an interesting thing where he will intercut major scenes taking place on earth with Susie experiencing the same thing in heaven. He lets the visuals speak for themselves. This is an intriguing way to let important scenes play out but it’s not always successful in getting his point across.

Jackson and his screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, needed to omit some of the novel’s storylines from film. Trying to cram in all these different plots robs them of any poignant impact they might have had. Characters, like Susie’s sisters, are not properly developed. I found Susie’s voice over in the film to be very annoying. The information that she tells the audience is redundant and at times unnecessary. Some of the film’s suspenseful moments are handled effectively well. I only wish the emotional scenes were handled with the same care. In the end, the film’s two narratives never come together in a satisfying way.

2 Stars

An Incredible Cinematic Experience

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

James Cameron has crafted an epic film the kind which Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. “Avatar” is in the same vein of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I’m not saying “Avatar” is a classic like those two films, but what they all share in common is that each film is a great cinematic experience. You must watch these films on the big screen to really appreciate the grandeur of what is being put on the screen. Simply just experiencing these films only on a television screen would be criminal.

The story takes place on the planet of Pandora in the year 2154. A greedy corporation has set up shop hoping to mine the planet for a valuable mineral. In order to learn about the native species, ten feet tall, blue creatures known as the Na’vi, scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) have developed an Avatar program. The program allows humans to mentally link up and physical control a genetically altered Na’vi. Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic marine who is recruited for the Avatar program and finds himself being taken in by the Na’vi. He is trained in their culture by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and soon Jake develops an affection for Neytiri and the Na’vi way of life. Jake’s love for Pandora can’t go on uninterrupted. The corporation’s head of military operations, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is hell-bent on destroying the planet for his corporate masters.

The first twenty minutes or so, I was not really into the film. I was bogged down by Cameron’s bad one lines and the actor’s execution of the dialogue. Even when we first see Worthington enter his Avatar body and interact with humans, I was not blown away. Where things picked up for me was when we see Worthington interact with the world of Pandora. There is a great scene of him being chased by a giant creature. The use of the 3D fully threw me into that scene. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

It’s ironic that James Cameron has used today’s modern technology to create a truly beautiful, realistic world. The 3D technology is used to fully immerse the audience into the world of Pandora. There are no cheap 3D tricks here. We feel like we are on the planet. A shot of a waterfall, or grass looks gorgeous and tremendously realistic. You get use to wearing the 3D glasses and just fall into the wonder of the planet.

The motion capture technology Cameron uses is ground breaking because when we are watching the Na’vi, we forget we are watching a CGI character. A close up of the Na’vi has the same emotional impact as the close up of regular human face. The technology does not hinder the performances of the actors. This especially applies to Zoe Saldana, as Neytiri. She is really engaging in her role. Sam Worthington is also good, though it did take me a while to warm up to his performance. Weaver and Lang also deliver some solid work as well.

Much has been made about the screenplay and I agree it’s not the strongest part of the picture. The last half hour of the film does dive into large action sequences like a typical action film. But what action it is! There is riveting imagery in this part of the film. Cameron proves he knows how to shoot great action. I did find myself getting carried away in the story. I cared for the Na’vi and even the romantic subplot involving Worthington and Saldana. The picture has allegories ranging from wars past and present. The story of native people fighting an outside force to protect their land is not a new story angle. I even found imagery that I think invokes 9/11. You will know it when you see it. This image is at the same time strangely beautiful but frightening. The seats of the theatre literally shook when this event occurs.

I saw this film on a IMAX screen in 3D and I one hundred percent recommend you see it this way. It’s a great film going experience that will carry you away with the images and story. Many critics have compared seeing this film to seeing “Star Wars” for the first time. I agree with this. Seeing “Star Wars” on the big screen for the first time at age 10 drove me into the world of film. If I saw “Avatar” at the same age today, I think it would have the same effect. Cameron has returned amazement to the movies.

4 Stars

Tarantino’s Top Films of 2009

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment

Not a top 10 list, more of a top 8.

Half the films on his list wouldn’t make my top 10 or even top 25. Star Trek was fun, but overrated in my view. Funny People and Drag Me to Hell were okay but very flawed. Observe and Report was just plain bad.

Precious and Up in the Air are solid picks. Those films look like they would appear on my list of the top 10 films of 2009.

Clooney, Reitman & Crew Deliver an Outstanding Film with Up in the Air

December 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Up in the Air

With this film director Jason Reitman I think cements his status as possibly one of our great future directors. With each successive film Reitman has grown as a filmmaker. I didn’t care for his debut, “Thank You For Smoking,” but I really enjoyed his follow-up “Juno.” I think “Up in the Air” is without a doubt his best film. The writing, direction, and the cast, is a step above the rest.

Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, is a man whose job is to fire people. Companies from around the country hire him to come to their company and fire their employees. He is an expert at it. Watching him fire people is like watching a fine artist at work. All this traveling requires that Bingham essentially live in the air. On the rare occasion when he returns to his apartment we see it is lonely and empty. Traveling is his life and he loves it. He has no use for an ordinary life. Along his travels he encounters two women who challenge his life. One of them is a female version of himself, Alex, played by Vera Farmiga. The other is a young employee at his company, Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick, who Bingham takes on the road to show her the ropes.

2009 has been a standout year for Clooney. He was the best thing in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” and his voice work was fantastic in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” With this film Clooney ends the year with another strong performance. He is completely charming, but doesn’t rely on it to carry the role. We get to see a real vulnerability behind all his charm and good looks. There is one great scene where we see Clooney at work. He fires J.K. Simmons with such sincerity that it had me thinking that I wouldn’t mind being fired by Clooney.

The two female leads are also strong. Vera Farmiga finally gets a chance to shine. I love the scenes between her and Clooney. When the two of them go at with the dialogue it reminded me a bit of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell going at it in “His Girl Friday.” Anna Kendrick is completely engaging as the hot-shot newcomer who threatens Clooney’s way of life. There is a great scene where the two go at it for the first time and the cutting back and forth between the two reminds you of two boxers going at it. Kendrick puts up a tough persona, but we are able to see cracks in her hard armor.

The screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kerns, is terrific. There are a number of great one liners. The dialogue and the way the actors deliver the lines is delightful to hear.

The film mirrors the real life economic downturn that is facing the country today. Reitman uses real life out of work employees in the film. When I first heard of this, I wasn’t sure how this element would be incorporated into the picture. But Reitman blends the unemployed into the film in a nice, non intrusive way.

Just when the film reaches a level of sentimentality, the film pulls the rug out of the audience and Clooney. I kind of did see this event coming just when it was about to happen. A lesser filmmaker would have possibly went for the easy way out. I really liked the ambiguity of the ending. Where does the man in the air go now? The more I thought about the film afterwards, the more in stature the film grew.

I think Roger Ebert sums it up best about Reitman during his review of this film. He “makes smart, edgy mainstream films. That’s harder than making smart, edgy indies.” Reitman is a real talent, who has a knack for balancing humor and drama to produce a fully satisfying picture.

4 Stars

Mixing Zac Efron & Orson Welles Gets You a Good Movie

December 14, 2009 Leave a comment

What drove me to this film was not man boy superstar Zac Efron, but Orson Welles. Like every young cinephile there was a period when I was obsessed with Welles. I sought out every one of his film I could get my hands on. Welles remains an inspiration for all young wannabe filmmakers. Here is a man who at the age of 25 made the world’s greatest film, Citizen Kane. He remains a once in a life time iconic figure.

Director Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” stars Zac Efron as a young high school student living in 1937 New York City. One day he encounters a young Orson Welles, played by newcomer Christian McKay, and is able to get cast in a small supporting part in the real life Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar. During the production of the play Efron falls for Claire Danes, who plays a career driven production assistant for the Mercury Theatre.

Christian McKay is terrific as Orson Welles. His Welles towers over the film. His dead on impression of Welles is able to capture the ego and brilliance of Welles. If you close your eyes you could swear that you are actually listening to the real life Orson Welles up on the screen. This performance deserves some serious awards consideration. McKay, in his first screen role, will forever be associated with the great director. He is able to fully bring to life this larger than life icon.

In comparison to Christian McKay, Zac Efron is really no match. This is not to say that Efron is bad in the film. He’s fine in his role. He seems very suited to the 1930’s type nostalgia that the film captures. Danes is also very good in her role as the aide who has no qualms with sleeping to the top.

Other than the great performance of McKay as Welles, the film itself is nothing special. However, the picture is quite entertaining and fun. It’s intriguing to see all the backstage politics and drama that goes into the production of the play. One great shot in the film is a long tracking shot of Welles walking into a radio station to record a radio play. That long take is able to capture the arrogance, trickery, charm and genius of Orson Welles.

3 Stars