Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Continents

Over the past week, I have seen two movies on DVD with the names of continents in their titles, 1984's Out of Africa and 2008's Australia. They couldn't have been more different, despite Australia's attempt to be an epic similar to Out of Africa, and their identical running times of 2:42.

Out of Africa was 1984's Best Picture®. It was a capital D drama and romance, filled with great scenery, although I thought the story was a bit iffy - 1913 Kenya doesn't translate well to 2010 Minnesota. Meryl Streep played real person Isak Dineson, a Danish writer who relocates to Kenya after entering into a loveless marriage to a broke baron. Predictably, she meets her true love, a free-ranging hunter and guide, played by Robert Redford. Even though the story left me a little cold, I always felt I was watching a movie of substance and importance.  I recommend Out of Africa when you're in the mood for an epic.

Australia tried really hard to be Out of Africa but failed miserably. But not completely (keep reading). Nicole Kidman played a - presumably fictional - British dame who traveled to Oz just before the outbreak of World War II to see her family's cattle ranch for the first and hopefully last time. Ranch doesn't do the place justice. It was 7.8 million acres, taking up a huge chunk of the vast Northern Territory.

Kidman's Lady Ashley wants to get in and get out, but - predictably - she meets her true love, literally the day her husband is murdered. The true love, played by an unshaven Hugh Jackman, is a rough & tumble cattle drover, who is so rough & tumbled that he is referred to - even by other drovers - as Mr Drover.

Lady Ashley and Drover have a meet-cute on the main street of Darwin. He gets into a fist fight protecting the honor of his aboriginal friend - so we know he's really noble - and she's overly frustrated because her underthings get scattered all over the street. More slapstick follows on their five-day travel to the ranch. So much zaniness that I was getting sick. Part of the cuteness was the narration by a ten-year-old half-white, half-aboriginal boy. There was also a direct-from-Central-Casting villain who, while not having a mustache to twirl, laughed an evil laugh at the drop of a stetson.

When a minor character - the mother of the ten-year-old narrator - is killed doing something so stupid that no real person would do actually do it, I had to call it a day. I wasn't considering Australia to be a movie of substance and importance, so I hit 'pause' at the 47 minute mark and came back the next day.

On the second day, I boldly set forth to finish the movie. It continued with Lady Ashley essentially adopting the little boy and a cattle drive featuring more insubstantial and vapid dialog and CGI cattle falling off of CGI cliffs. After watching another half hour, I was ready to give up.

Then they got to Darwin. The movie changed completely. The cuteness and silly changed to serious. Lady Ashley's team got the better of the villain and we began to see why people love Australia so much. The movie fast forwarded to 1941, when the little boy was put into a mission for half-blacks (as they called them then) and the Japanese military destroyed Darwin. A bunch more stuff happened and when the movie ended, I caught myself off-guard by saying - out loud, “Well, that was a heckuva of a good movie.”

After having to pause? After considering bailing? After pitying everyone involved in making the movie for making something so trivial? Yes, I thought it was that good. If we could split up the first and second halves of Australia, I would buy the second half. Since it's all or nothing, though, I recommend renting Australia when you're in the mood for a long, visually stunning movie with a triumphant ending. Just try not to get turned off by the first 75 minutes.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Runaways

One of the previews today was for The Runaways, with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. Students of Rock 'n' Roll history will immediately sit up and pay attention to this movie, but I'm guessing it will be corporafied, made palatable for teenagers and movie executives alike. Which would be a shame, as the story of the Runaways is a great one.

I'm going to do this from memory, so I'll go light on the details. The Runaways were active from about 1975 to 1980 and were the first all-woman band to almost make it big. They wrote their own material and played all their own instruments. And they rocked. They never really sold albums in quantity but their strong-suit was live performances anyway. The pressures of breaking big and being gender trailblazers took their toll and the Runaways disbanded.

Which is where the story gets really good. Joan Jett and Lita Ford went on to solo success. Jett will always be known for "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," even though she's better than just one song, and Ford ("Kiss Me Deadly") is one of the best guitarists of the era - either gender - and has done all kinds of session work.

Michael Steele joined another all-woman band, the hugely successsful Bangles. It's generally thought that the Bangles couldn't have existed without the Runaways coming earlier and, in Steele's case, it's quite true. It's also nice that she was able to reap the rewards of her earlier struggles.

Cherie Currie was the lead singer. Blond and gorgeous, she pioneered the punk-chic look a decade before Madonna started wearing her underwear on the outside. Cherie didn't do a lot in the music biz after leaving the Runaways, but did a little acting.

In the early days, Cherie Currie's identical twin Marie was offered the lead singer role, but Marie turned it down. Lest you think that's the end of Marie's rock 'n' roll story, it's just the beginning. Marie married in to rock meritocracy: multi-Grammy Award winner Steve Lukather, he of Toto and session music fame. Luke, as he is known, is a guitar virtuoso and played on hundreds of songs since the late 70s. You can't listen to an oldies station for more than a couple of hours without hearing a song where Luke is contributing (Africa, Rosanna, Beat It, Thriller, Physical, Hard to Say I'm Sorry, Dirty Laundry, I Love LA and hundreds more). Marie Currie and Steve Lukather divorced in the 90s, but their son Trevor, now in his 20s, is getting raves for his guitar work.

The effects of the Runaways are still being felt in the music industry today.

Friday, March 5, 2010

And the Winner Should Be...

The Academy Awards are Sunday and everybody has an opinion. I saw a lot of movies in the theater last year plus a few on DVD, so maybe I should have an opinion on the Oscars. To wit...

I didn't see any of the films nominated in these categories: Documentary (Feature); Documentary (Short Subject); Foreign Language Film; Short Film (Animated); and Short Film (Live Action).
Without a dog in the hunt, I'm not paying attention to these guys.

Animated Feature Film
Of the five nominated films, I only saw two, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up.  Up was pretty good but I hated Fantastic Mr Fox, so Up gets all my votes.

Costume Design
I only saw one of the nominated films in Costume Design and that was Nine, so I hope any of the ones I didn't see gets it.

Film Editing
Avatar; District 9; The Hurt Locker; Inglourious Basterds; Precious

I saw all but Precious. When I think about just the editing, I think any of the four would be fine. District 9 and The Hurt Locker featured a lot of steadycam shots which makes their level of difficulty higher, so that's something. Interestingly, Avatar was mostly photo-real animation with fairly ordinary looking live-action scenes, so maybe it shouldn't get this award.

Il Divo; Star Trek; The Young Victoria

Of these three, I've only seen Star Trek.  Star Trek deserves it for no other reason that they took the scrumptious Rachel Nichols and turned her into one of those green women that Kirk is so famous for - ahem - admiring.

Art Direction
Avatar; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus; Nine; Sherlock Holmes; The Young Victoria

Art Direction is incredibly important in a visual medium. I didn't see Imaginarium or Victoria, but of the other three, Avatar is in a class of its own.

Avatar Mauro Fiore
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Bruno Delbonnel
The Hurt Locker Barry Ackroyd
Inglourious Basterds Robert Richardson
The White Ribbon Christian Berger

Also important in a film. I don't know how important the camera was in Avatar since it's 90% animated. Half-Blood was pretty drab, while Hurt Locker was the best recent example of the hand-held style, but a few scenes in Inglourious took my breath away, so let's give the trophy to the Basterds.

Music (Original Score)
Avatar James Horner
Fantastic Mr. Fox Alexandre Desplat
The Hurt Locker Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders
Sherlock Holmes Hans Zimmer
Up Michael Giacchino

I didn't notice anything special about the music for Avatar, The Hurt Locker or Up, so that means each one had appropriate music. I'd be happy if any of the three took it.

Music (Original Song)
"Almost There" from The Princess and the Frog Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
"Down in New Orleans" from The Princess and the Frog Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
"Loin de Paname" from Paris 36 Music by Reinhardt Wagner Lyric by Frank Thomas
"Take It All" from Nine Music and Lyric by Maury Yeston
"The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart Music and Lyric by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett

Of this group, I've seen Nine (all its songs sucked) and Crazy Heart. Don't really care about this category. Interesting that songwriter Ryan Bingham shares a name with George Clooney's character in Up in the Air.

Sound Editing
Avatar; The Hurt Locker; Inglourious Basterds; Star Trek; Up
Sound Mixing
Avatar; The Hurt Locker; Inglourious Basterds; Star Trek; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Honestly, for both Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, each of the nominated movies was fine.

Visual Effects
Avatar; District 9; Star Trek

As unenthusiastic as I am about Avatar being a great movie, I will go on record saying Avatar takes this one and retires the trophy.

Actor in a Supporting Role
Matt Damon in Invictus
Woody Harrelson in The Messenger
Christopher Plummer in The Last Station
Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

I didn't see the movies with Harrelson and Plummer in them, but it doesn't matter. Christoph Waltz created such an original, memorable character that no one else in the category could come close to what he did. If Waltz doesn't win this trophy, the Academy isn't serious about rewarding excellence.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Penélope Cruz in Nine
Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air
Mo’Nique in Precious

Didn't see Precious and hated Nine, so that trims the options a bit. Gyllenhaal was pretty good but I'd rather see either of the ladies from Up in the Air get the nod.

Actor in a Leading Role
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
George Clooney in Up in the Air
Colin Firth in A Single Man
Morgan Freeman in Invictus
Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker

Bridges is getting a lot of press and was fine as the singer in Crazy Heart but he wasn't that much better than the others. I might take points away from Freeman because he was playing a famous living person and he just wasn't the guy we see on the news. I think Renner gets extra points mainly for being unknown but in your face wonderful. Any of the nominees could be said to earn this award. I wonder if Matt Damon shouldn't have received a nomination for The Informant.

Actress in a Leading Role
Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side
Helen Mirren in The Last Station
Carey Mulligan in An Education
Gabourey Sidibe in Precious
Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia

Haven't seen The Last Station or Precious, and An Education is my movie for tomorrow. I'm part of the emotional groundswell for Bullock, but I wouldn't object to Streep taking the trophy, either. However, missing from the list of nominees is Mélanie Laurent from Inglorious Basterds. She's wonderful as the French Jew suddenly swimming in Nazis in occupied Paris.

update 3:03pm March 6
I just returned from seeing An Education, featuring nominee Carey Mulligan. I'm guessing that if more people had seen An Education, we'd have more of a horse race. Mulligan is wonderful and deserves serious consideration for Best Actress, although I'll bet this won't be her last chance.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
District 9 Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
An Education Screenplay by Nick Hornby
In the Loop Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche
Precious Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher
Up in the Air Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

Have only seen two of the five, so I'll reserve my opinion.

Writing (Original Screenplay)
The Hurt Locker Written by Mark Boal
Inglourious Basterds Written by Quentin Tarantino
The Messenger Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
A Serious Man Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Up Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy

Basterds was bold, Serious was crap, Up was fun and Hurt Locker was intense.  What will you be in the mood for on awards night?

Avatar James Cameron
The Hurt Locker Kathryn Bigelow
Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino
Precious Lee Daniels
Up in the Air Jason Reitman

Separating the director's job from the movie as a whole is tough task. Cameron assembled the most complicated movie in history, so as a manager, he's best, but Reitman and Bigelow got great performances out of human actors and Tarantino put together an event movie. Take your pick.

Best Picture
Avatar James Cameron and Jon Landau, Producers
The Blind Side Gil Netter, Andrew A. Kosove and Broderick Johnson, Producers
District 9 Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, Producers
An Education Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, Producers
The Hurt Locker Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Nicolas Chartier and Greg Shapiro, Producers
Inglourious Basterds Lawrence Bender, Producer
Precious Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, Producers
A Serious Man Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Producers
Up Jonas Rivera, Producer
Up in the Air Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman, Producers

This is the first year in decades where the nomination field is more than five. I think the Academy would have been better off expanding the field to only seven or eight if their goal was to add some suspense - ten is a bit much. Avatar should probably take this on points. District 9, The Blind Side and Up are here just to take up space. A Serious Man is one of the worst movies of 2009. The Hurt Locker and Inglorious Basterds are both great and deserving of praise but I don't know that they are greater than Avatar. Up in the Air is a great character study but, again, is it better than Avatar?

update 3:03pm March 6
Let's add An Education to the movies truly deserving consideration. It's an intimate little period piece with a good story and some great performances.

I've now seen nine of the ten nominees for Best Picture. The question remains: Will the Academy - 5800 members, predominately actors - pick the glitzy style of Avatar over the substance of The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air or An Education?  Or will they go really crazy and give it to the in-a-league-of-it's-own Inglorious Bastages?

Enjoy the awards.  May the awards go to people and projects that don't suck.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Valentine's Day

The short version is that Valentine's Day is a mish-mash of vignettes that doesn't quite work but by the somewhat looser standards of romantic comedies, isn't a bad way to kill two hours.

In recent history, the best example of this type of movie is Love Actually. You have a bunch of beautiful people - some connected, some not - intermixing around a theme that works to its conclusion - happy endings for about 80% of the cast. As a connoisseur of the romantic comedy genre, I can see the attraction of film makers to try this type of story because when it succeeds, it's a work of art. Valentine's Day is a decent try - but it ain't no work of art. Directed by Garry Marshall, the movie meanders all over, making it difficult to get to know the characters, much less like them and root for them.

There are about two dozen characters in Valentine's Day and all the action, naturally, takes place on February 14. Some couples are falling in love, some are breaking up, you get the idea. There are just so many, and so many of them were big stars, it was hard to know who to pay attention to and who was just window dressing. For example, the movie opens on Jessica Alba, but she's only in a few scenes. Another example is Queen Latifah, who makes a diva-sized entrance but is only in three scenes. Three small scenes. I checked my watch - the last major character made her first appearance 32 minutes in. Thirty-two minutes and we're still meeting characters? Of course this thing wasn't going to gel. Alfred Hitchcock once said he liked casting Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant because he didn't have to waste the first fifteen minutes of the movie on exposition. When you have two dozen characters, they need a little exposition. Marshall went light on it and jumped in to the heart of the stories, and it didn't go well.

Nonetheless, as far as romantic comedies go, I'm going to say to go ahead and rent Valentine's Day. It will get the job done but it's not as good as it should be. And rent, don't buy.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk pet peeves. In the megastory genre, the stories all have to mesh at the end. To do that in a fun way, you often have characters that are connected but not in each others storylines meet at the very end. It's called a reveal. In Valentine's Day, there are two reveals in a row done the same exact way. It's midnight and one character is sleeping. You see someone enter the room. The view pulls back, you see the other person and there should be a big “Oh” moment. Once is fine. Twice in two scenes is audience abuse. Plus, Marshall tipped his hand with one - the woman who never said who she was traveling to meet never said it just a little too obviously.

Then there's the beautiful people. Why do film makers think we will buy that pretty actors will be unlucky in love? See my review of When in Rome for one example. In Valentine's Day, Jessica Biel - the gorgeous and extremely buff Jessica Biel - plays a woman who is so unlucky in love that she has an unvalentines day party every year. Please. I bought that her character was neurotic but someone who looks like that and has a six-figure job as a PR flack is going to have guys lining up for blocks. In that line will be plenty of frogs but probably a prince or two. Once she accepts her lot in life, she would no doubt develop a jerk radar, and could easily sort through the frogs to find the prince. I, for one, would be in that line, for a chance to be the next ex-husband of Jessica Biel or Kristen Bell (or their characters). I would also be one of the first frogs to get the hook, of course, because that's my lot in life. I'm typecast.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Catching Up - February Edition

Well, somebody has become a blog-slacker of late. If I were you, I'd demand my money back. Today, I'm going to post some capsule reviews of recently viewed movies.

It's Complicated

If you've seen a commercial for It's Complicated, you know the story.  A 60ish divorcee starts shagging her ex, who is remarried with a younger family.  The story is a throw-away.  It's Complicated is an excuse for Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin to appear in a movie together.

Their chemistry is great and director Nancy Meyer's deft chick-flick instincts are spot on.  It's not going down in history as a great movie, but it's OK for a single viewing.  I have one quibble, though.  Streep's character finally got all the kids out of the house and decides to remodel.  As a professional baker, she can finally get the kitchen she always wanted.  However, her old kitchen is huge and well furnished.  I would love to have her old kitchen.  That part of the story was distracting.  And the infidelity didn't quite work for me either, but it's just a movie.


When in Rome

The original pitch for When in Rome must have been dynamite, because it had a big budget, great cast and looks fabulous (the lead character works at the Guggenheim, for pete's sake!) but something happened.  We'll call it meddling.  It may not have been meddling, but we'll call it that.  When in Rome is a beautiful disaster.  And in that chaos, there is a goofy charm.  Some people may judge it more harshly, but by turning off my brain as soon as I realized I was watching a train wreck in progress, I enjoyed it a lot.

Kristen Bell and Josh Duhamel, two beautiful people straight from central casting, start a romance in Rome, where she picks up coins from a magical fountain.  All the guys who tossed in the coins fall madly in love with her and begin wooing.  That four of the five live in New York is just one indication of how goofy it gets.  I, personally, would have liked at least one of the coins to have belonged to a woman but...

I hesitate to call When in Rome a romantic comedy, but if you're in the mood for a romantic goof-fest, give it a try.  Rent, don't buy.


Dear John

Your basic doomed-lovers story.  He's an Army Ranger and she's a soft-touch socialite.  They keep in touch with daily letters, the last of which is a Dear John letter.  Strange, because since his name is John, they all are Dear John letters. Never mind that.

Amanda Seyfried is getting better with every role (Mean Girls, Veronica Mars, Mamma Mia) and Channing Tatum is perfectly cast as a GI (He was literally GI Joe last year).   Dear John is a decent romance, but the ending seemed tacked-on, like the studio added it after the original ending scored poorly with test audiences.  Either way, I liked it enough for one viewing.


The Edge of Darkness

Mel Gibson has taken a much needed break from the movies.  The Edge of Darkness is a decent one for him to come back to.  Your basic invincible father avenging a murdered family member formula, this one done rather well.  Danny Huston plays the same smarmy villain he played in Wolverine, while Ray Winstone plays an inscrutable intelligence agent (you know the guy is a high-ranking American spy due to his English accent).

Much like Liam Neeson's Taken, The Edge of Darkness is, well, darker, with a slightly less blood but 50% more conspiracy.


The Lovely Bones

Something drew me to The Lovely Bones.  That something is Saoirse Ronan (pronounced sur-shuh).  Oscar nominated for Atonement (at age 12), she made the unwatchable City of Ember tolerable.  I put her on my mental list of actors to watch, so, when I saw her face all over the ads for The Lovely Bones, I knew I had to go.

Until I saw that it was directed by Peter Jackson.  Jackson made some of the worst movies of all time - King Kong (2005) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy - so I just refuse to see his movies, but Saoirse won out.  And it worked out.

The Lovely Bones is probably a great novel but made only a decent movie.  It completely lost track during the fantasy scenes and being set in the 1970s was just odd, but was dead-on when focusing on the people.  Saoirse's Susie is murdered early on and spends much of her time in a Technicolor limbo.  Her father and little sister try to solve the murder, practically destroying their family in the process.

While I went in because I believed in the talent of Saoirse Ronan, I walked out with another entry on my actor-to-watch list.  Rose McIver, the younger sister, played her damaged teenager so effortlessly and completely, I felt I was watching an actual person.  Let's just hope she avoids Peter Jackson movies in the future.  No amount of talent or charisma can compensate for giant worms and unnecessary special effects.


The Book of Eli

Eli's book is the bible.  Literally, The Bible, the last one in existence in a post-apocalyptic America.  Eli, played perfectly by Denzel Washington, heard a voice telling him to find the bible and take it to safety.  He's been walking for 31 years.

In desert California, Eli meets a warlord that wants the book.  Much bloodshed later, the movie meets a satisfying ending.  Along the way, Eli picks up a teenage sidekick played by Mila Kunis, who more than holds her own sharing screen time with one of the greatest actors of all time.

I am not a religious person and I typically avoid entertainment products that might preach or proselytize, so I was reluctant to see The Book of Eli, but it wasn't a problem.  Eli is a big believer, no doubt, but religious aspect is secondary to the story.  Is Eli invincible or has he honed great reflexes by surviving three decades alone?  Is he bullet-proof or is post-apocalyptic ammunition prone to misfires?  You can decide for yourself.  All that matters is that Eli believes in his mission and lets nothing get in his way.

As an end-note, I will say that I've pretty much had my fill of post-apocalyptic movies.  By definition, they say that bad things are headed our way.  I don't mind the explicit negativity of the stories but they all tend to look the same.  The sun is always too light or too dark, the people are all unwashed, the clothes are all thrift-store grunge.  If a movie is going to go there, it had better be good, like The Book of Eli.

1:48; two viewings

Sherlock Holmes

More an excuse to use CGI and martial arts in Victorian London than a Conan Doyle mystery. Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law chew up the scenery between ridiculous action scenes, but it's a lot of fun.



I haven't said anything about Avatar until now because pretty much everything has been said.  However, ten weeks into its run, I can say a few things.

The story of Avatar isn't all that good.  Hardly innovating, it's Last of the Mohicans in space. It's the Great White Hunter sent to woo the natives but ends up going native (so that's where the phrase comes from).

Pandora is a moon, not a planet. It's a goodly-sized moon and it orbits a gas giant, but it's a moon nonetheless. The flora and fauna are iridescent because the planet is in darkness at least 5/8ths of the time, including long stretches of total darkness when it is eclipsed behind the planet.

The mineral, unobtainium, is a joke among science fiction writers going back generations. If it's not important what the mineral does, then giving it a perfectly descriptive nonsensical name saves pages of exposition, hence, unobtainium (it's rare, it's hard to find, it might be radiatctive! Unobtainium! On sale now!)

The Na'vi won the battle with arrows, rocks and large cajones. They didn't win the war. When the humans go back to earth, do you think they are going to stay there? No. They will make bigger, badder weapons, come back and annihilate the natives. The Na'vi are extinct but don't know it yet. For me, it was a sad ending.



I want the one hour forty-seven minutes of my life back that this dog stole from me.  It was billed as the second coming of Chicago, what with glitzy ads featuring a singing Kate Hudson, but it sucked more than a black hole inside a vacuum cleaner.  Avoid, avoid, avoid at all costs.