INVICTUS

December 31, 2009

The first hour is a little slow and feels a bit too much like a history lesson, but the second hour more than makes up for it.  We know, especially from recent efforts, that Clint Eastwood can tell a good story, lead actors to peak performances, and engage an audience, but Invictus is not the type of film we’ve come to expect from the director.  It’s too epic, too international, and too overtly political.  Maybe we should check our expectations about Eastwood and just enjoy the ride.  Morgan Freeman is on point as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon is equally convincing as rugby star Francois Pienaar in a film that his half historical drama and half sports movie.  When the new president of South Africa asks the national team, formerly a symbol of apartheid, to do what seems impossible and win the 1995 Rugby World Cup and unite a nation, surprising things begin to happen.  Solid filmmaking that should appeal to a broad audience.

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NINE

December 31, 2009

I’ve tried to gather some resolve, but I just cannot make myself go see Nine.  Sorry.


IT’S COMPLICATED

December 31, 2009

The title fits.  It is complicated to put this movie in an appropriate context.  It’s not a great movie (not as fully realized as Something’s Gotta Give), but I enjoyed virtually every frame.  And why shouldn’t I?  Writer-director Nancy Meyers has made a fantasy film for women like me (and extending demographically past my mother).  I’ve never related more to Meryl Streep – even though she plays a woman at least a decade my senior – because she is so down-to-earth and together.  On the other hand, she has a picture perfect home, a fabulous business, and a garden to die for, and it must all be maintained by pixies and fairies because I never see anyone doing the work.  Even at her bakery, Streep’s character seems to just breeze by in one scene during business hours.  She also has two successful and reasonably attractive men after her, and one of them is actually worthy.  Wow!  This really is fantasy for women of a certain age.  It’s Complicated won’t make my top ten list of the year, but I’m glad to have luxuriated in it for a couple of waking hours.

Hint:  I’m working on my top ten movie list for 2009, and at present my two favorites are both directed by women.  This is unprecedented!


UP IN THE AIR

December 27, 2009

I want to like Up In The Air more than I do.  Good movie?  You bet.  Great movie, or best movie of the year?  Not by a long shot.  The film is well-crafted, clever, and topical, but it is riddled with conflicts.  That’s not always a problem, but here I’m more concerned about all of the people losing their jobs than about the man (firing them) who has lost his soul.  I liked the movie while I was watching it but wanted a little something more when the credits rolled.  Director Jason Reitman is talented to be sure, but my favorite of his films to date remains Thank You For Smoking.


FOUR SHORT TAKES

December 24, 2009

AN EDUCATION

I have been a fan of Lone Scherfig’s work since her Dogma 95 film Italian For Beginners (which I show to students when I teach Introduction to Film).  Likewise, I’ve enjoyed Nick Hornby’s novels and film adaptations (particularly About A Boy and High Fidelity).  With An Education, Hornby is adapting someone else’s work, a memoir by Lynn Barber, a British journalist, set in a London suburb in 1961.  The story is simple:  a precocious 16-year-old schoolgirl is seduced by an older man, with the unlikely complicity of her parents, and there are consequences none of them foresee.

The implications of the story are anything but simple, and I’ve seldom seen a more compelling argument for formal education presented in a movie.  The tricky part of the film, the unsavory part, is determining the effects of the other education the girl seeks and finds outside of the classroom.  Peter Saarsgard gives a wonderful performance as a man of about 30 who is both less and more than he appears.  We know from the outset that he is a predator, but we can also see how his charm causes people to overlook, at least for a time, what is right before their eyes.  The education this predator gives the schoolgirl is presented, ultimately, as something of a mixed bag, which will be a problem for some viewers but makes the film more complex.  An Education will give you a lot to think about as you watch it and more to consider after the credits have rolled.

A SERIOUS MAN

Ethan and Joel Coen’s latest film, A Serious Man, is a 1960s retelling of the Job story.  The film is fascinating (as the Coens are wont to be) but not wholly satisfying.  The cultural context and cinematic detail throughout are rich, and the terrible things befalling our protagonist are also clever and, at times, slyly amusing, but it is that character who needs a bit – just a bit – more of a response to these events to draw the viewer more fully into the film.  Michael Stuhlbarg plays physics professor Larry Gopnik as an appealing but ineffectual man.  That’s okay so far as it goes, but I want more.  Probably I’m just looking for larger meaning where none is intended – and I do not expect the filmmakers to answer all of the great questions about human existence and theology – but it would be nice to have some clues about Larry’s interior life.  All of that aside, the film is still worth seeing.  Go and judge for yourself.

EVERYBODY’S FINE

Everybody’s Fine has a terrific cast (Robert DeNiro, Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell, and Kate Beckinsale), but the movie cannot overcome its torturously contrived narrative structure.  I won’t knock it for some holiday clichés because those sometimes are worth repeating, but there is not any magic here.

THE ROAD

The Road (adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel) is grim.  Perhaps this is true to the post-apocalyptic story presented in the book of a man and his son traveling toward the coast and trying to stay alive amid storms and falling trees, roving bands of people who have resorted to cannibalism, and isolation against the endlessly gray landscape.  I can’t make the comparison because I have not read the novel (though I always argue books and movies are separate entities that should each stand alone).  I frequently appreciate bleak and desperate films because of the context they provide – the lessons about life and meaning.  I found none of that in The Road.  I do not feel enriched (even a painful way) or enlightened (even in a sad way) by seeing this film despite the fact that the production design is effective.


AMELIA and ME AND ORSON WELLES

December 21, 2009

Sometimes there are movies that you want to like more than you do, movies that despite your desire for more are instantly (or nearly instantly) forgettable.

I’ve been meaning to say something about Amelia, but I keep forgetting!  Hillary Swank is always fun to watch, and she actually looks like Amelia Earhart.  The big problem here is the story.  Both Ron Bass (Rain Man [1988], The Joy Luck Club [1993] and more) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (Mask [1985], Gorillas in the Mist [1988], and Girl, Interrupted [1999]) have some good credits separately, but this script they’ve written does not work.  Director Mira Nair is hit or miss for me:  hits include Mississippi Masala (1991), Monsoon Wedding (2001) and The Namesake (2006), and misses include Vanity Fair (2004) and Amelia (2009).

Me and Orson Welles intrigued me as a Richard Linklater period piece and because it showcases Orson Welles during the Mercury Theater portion of his career a year before the famous 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.”  I was intrigued with the idea, but the film will not be very interesting to viewers who don’t have a good grasp of Welles biography.  My two favorite Linklater films (best viewed as a double feature) are Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004).


AVATAR

December 20, 2009

Definitely see Avatar in 3-D.  The story draws on familiar sources – more on that in a minute – but the look of the film is fresh with 3-D a welcome enhancement here.  I really felt as if I were being drawn into a new world in a way that was more appealing and realistic than simply fantastic.  After awhile, I saw Pandora as a real place, lovely and real.

The story is fairly standard James Cameron with some lines of dialogue that land with a thud and some characters that seem one-dimensional.  The narrative structure is grounded in the familiar terrain of the hero’s journey (Joseph Campbell) and embedded with contemporary touchstones like corporate greed, military hubris, and the exploitation of natural resources.  Those themes fit well with some of the progressive tendencies revealed in Cameron’s work over time.

Most of the time (The Abyss, Aliens, Terminator and Terminator II) Cameron exhibits a progressive bent in terms of gender depictions on screen (I admit that True Lies and Titanic are exceptions that have irritated and disappointed me.   Avatar does offer some expansive roles for women, including Sigourney Weaver, and it’s nice to see her back on board in a strong role.

A close friend of mine said her son described Avatar as “Dances With Wolves in space” (credit here to Jordan Beil).  I had to chuckle because the thought did cross my mind that Cameron may have been in touch with his inner Native American when crafting this story.  Avatar leaves no doubt about whose way of life is better, and that honor does not belong to the usurpers who look like us.

That was not a spoiler! I’m willing to bet you already knew it from the preview trailers.

By the way, if you’ve never see the director’s cut of The Abyss, I recommend it.  Sometimes more is more, and the additional scenes in this film make the fine original even better.  (For the record, I feel the same way about Apocalypse Now Redux – longer but better so that it actually feels shorter.)