My commitment to this blog has been bimonthly at best this year. My commitment to film may be worse than that these days. But now that November is in full swing, my trips to the theater should become more frequent. So, I suppose I’ll just dive right in:
Review: J. Edgar
There was a time, maybe five years ago when I would defend Clint Eastwood’s work as firmly as any fledgling movie buff of the ‘aughts could. Million Dollar Baby came out in theaters at a time when I began to notice the skill of an actor transforming into a character, or a director’s ability to create atmosphere on screen that made me feel a certain way. Eastwood was one of those directors, and I awaited his films’ release dates with great anticipation.
And those dates have come one after another almost every year since MDB‘s release, and the films have been getting much, much worse. Eastwood is wearing thin (literally–sometimes I wonder if his skin will break like saran wrap stretched too far, but I digress). My assumption is that he is pushing himself too hard, rushing through his projects, taking on too much work (please PLEASE stop scoring your own films). His recent work has been collectively too long (read=rushed through the editing process), uneven in tone, and meandering towards perplexing conclusions that seem slapped on and unsatisfying. These troubles make for a disappointing J. Edgar biopic, but most frustrating is the watered-down, sympathetic version of a complex figure in history.
I’ll own up to some ignorance on my part–though I do have a B.A. in history, I did not know very much about Hoover before the film (in fact, I suspected that my friend and I were going to see a film about this guy). I had no knowledge of his political background, his legacy, or anything. J. Edgar is not a political drama or epic biography. It is a portrait of a man struggling with self-loathing from societal expectations, though not a good one.
This side of Hoover is certainly interesting, though in a film structured as the sweeping historical biopic Eastwood had us anticipating, it feels like it doesn’t belong. J. Edgar would be an ambitious project for any filmmaker, but Eastwood’s rush job leaves us with a frustrating, scattered picture, with no real attempt to show us any convincing version of J. Edgar Hoover.Continue Reading »
Dearest readers, I am fully aware that I have had nothing to offer you but radio static over the past few months.
You see, it’s mostly my fault. Sometime shortly after the Oscars, I find myself wandering aimlessly without any films to be excited about. Sure, I can look towards the next year, but it’s very difficult to discern what may turn out to be good. And on another note, hype seems to situate itself on the shoulders of big blockbusters – the Captain America‘s and the Cowboys and Aliens of the world, not the good stuff that must find a charitable (and loud) voice around festival time. The truth is that there’s just not much to talk about in the off season, and when I’m not enthusiastic about something, it’s just not worth writing about. This is mostly my fault, but it’s also the fault of every studio that releases their movies in this way (but that is a rant I have delved into before and will spare you from at this time).
So what is there to catch up on? I have seen a few films so far this year. Some were quite good, some were quite bad, one was very good, and some were very bad – like when a friend and I decided on a whim to catch Red Riding Hood. I spent another impulsive evening watching Water for Elephants. I saw many things that were very middle-of-the road for me – entertaining enough to warrant an afternoon in the a/c (Super 8, X-Men: First Class, and Bridesmaids). I also saw the one big blockbuster I was really anticipating (mostly nostalgia for the books), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which turned out to be much better than expected, with a formidable turn by Ralph Fiennes (who doesn’t really get to show his worth in the series until this film).
Another film I had been waiting YEARS to see is Tree of Life, which Terrence Malick finally released after what seemed like a decade in the cutting room. Like so many of Malick’s fans, I have mixed feelings about the whole production, but they are mostly positive feelings. Focusing on the central narrative of a 1950s Texan family helps, as all the other stuff feels disassociated. To see this film in mid-May, at the very least, offered something unique and unexpected.
Fresh out of a successful run at the Cannes film festival last May, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris drew me into the theater twice this summer. If you want further thoughts on that, you could scroll down and read my review of the film.
And then, just when I needed to see something to get me excited about movies again, I found Beginners a few weeks ago at the local arthouse theater in Cambridge. Christopher Plummer takes on the role of a gay man coming out in his 70s following the death of his devoted yet complacent wife. This beautiful story is told from the perspective of his son, played by Ewan McGregor, who grapples with the sudden change in his father’s life. I saw Beginners back in August and I have not seen anything else since.
It’s been a slow summer with a few pleasant surprises mixed in there. Needless to say, I am ready to forge on to another great year for movies. It really has only just begun, as festivals are in full swing, and the good stuff is on its way.
Unknown Critics may start to look a little different. I’m planning to start reviewing again, and often. Some of my friends have graciously offered to contribute, and I hope that you’ll find their voices as insightful as I do. A new Black Swan or The Social Network is right around the corner, and I can’t wait to relish in what the season has to offer.
Cheers.Continue Reading »
Review: Midnight in Paris
Notre Dame. Montmatre. Sacre Coeur. It would be unfair to say that the streets of Paris serve as a backdrop for Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy Midnight in Paris. Rather, the city itself takes center stage, playing the role of life-changer to Owen Wilson’s neurotic screenwriter/novelist/lovable doofus/youthful Woody Allen-substitute. Paris walks into the protagonist’s life, overwhelms the screen, and tricks the audience into believing that Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s return to his 1970s heyday (it’s not). Nevertheless, I’ll be the first to admit that I am more than happy to be tricked by Allen’s magical characterization of the City of Lights in Midnight in Paris.
Early on in the film, Owen Wilson’s character Gil and his fiance Inez (played by Rachel McAdams) visit the Versailles Palace on a sunny afternoon. They are accompanied by Inez’s former professor Paul (Michael Sheen) and his girlfriend Wendy (Mimi Kennedy). Inez flirts with Paul, who pedantically serves as unofficial tour guide. It’s all so familiar to Allen fans. Meanwhile, Gil, a successful screenwriter working unsuccessfully on his first novel, takes in the palace with a warm sentimentality that drives the film through the heart of Paris marked by nostalgia and the romantic past.
The same adulterous entanglements that occupy much of Allen’s filmography are at work here, and McAdams’ Inez is the “obnoxious shrew” at her worst (and I don’t mean that in a complimentary, Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona kind of way). Paris‘s female actors struggle with their surface-only, flat characters, and the adultery is worthy of an eye roll among tired audiences.
Shortly after the scene at Versailles, Midnight in Paris picks up the pace when Gil finds himself wandering the Parisian streets at midnight. He whimsically joins a friendly party in their vintage car and soon discovers that he is now in 1920s Jazz Age Paris, carousing with artists and expatriates including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Salvidor Dali. In the wrong hands, such a scenario would never have worked, but Allen lets the campy atmosphere simmer and the absurdity never seems unreasonable. Gil takes the advice of his new friends and revisits the problematic novel he’s been working on. The more Allen pushes the boundaries into 1920s Paris, the more enchanting and endearing Midnight in Paris becomes.
Despite grating flaws in the female characters and a frustratingly contrived ending, all is forgiven for Midnight in Paris due to its nostalgic energy and the overwhelming charm of the main character—the city of Paris. Allen has proved time and again that he thrives in character studies about tourists in his favorite cities, and it’s safe to assume that he truly loves Paris.Continue Reading »
I’m guilty of whining about studio release schedules entirely too often, but it bears repeating that the beginning months of the calendar year offer VERY FEW attractions at the theater. January and February are the dump months, and there’s not much to write home about in March or April either. What’s a movie geek to do in the meantime?
Talk about what’s coming up in the year, which is what I’m just now ready to dig into.
The below chart may or may not be a work in progress. I started this a week or so ago, and I’m not really happy with the aesthetics, but after too many hours spent with the thing zoomed to 99999%, I’m honestly kind of tired of looking at it.
You will likely have to zoom to 99999% also if you want to see what’s on there, so I’ve added a full, readable list after the cut.Continue Reading »
With every post I author for this website, I make a conscious effort to keep the awards season and mentions of “Oscar buzz” out of here. If you know me in real life, you might have some understanding of how difficult that can be at times. But when I started Unknown Critics, I wanted it to be a project of developing and improving my review writing, so it seemed best to keep the “Oscar” out of it. Today I’m making an exception.Continue Reading »
If there’s one thing that sends me into a boredom-induced theater coma this time of year, it’s the film release schedule formula that studios have a hard time straying away from. Who can blame them? From a marketing standpoint, awards season success and end of year critic’s lists can translate into additional box office revenue, so releasing the best of your crop in January/February means you run the risk of them being forgotten by December.
So, the calendar year generally ends up looking something like this:
January-March: Horror films, bad romantic comedies, thrillers*
April-July: Big budget blockbusters, comic book movies
August-October: Indies, small budget films picked up from festival buzz, an additional surge of horror films around Halloween weekend
September-December: Anything directed by Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, or the Coen brothers; awards-hopefuls; rollover small budget festival projects
While I usually spend the first third of the year catching up on what I missed from the previous year on DVD, I can’t help but scour the theater listings in the hopes that something worthwhile has been scheduled outside the formula. As I looked up from my DVD pile the other day, wondering if perhaps Peter Weir’s The Way Back had finally expanded outside of NYC and LA (it hasn’t), I found it near impossible to distinguish between these two trailers:
Both feature a vague teaser of plot surrounding mistaken identity, paranoia, and established male actors alongside newcomer hot young actresses. Both could not entice me any less. Both fit well into the “thriller” pile that’s dumped into January and February. That’s not to say that all thrillers are bad, but that all bad thrillers come out this time of year.
Happy hibernation, folks.Continue Reading »
Although we’re way into January at this point, I’ve finally reached a point where I feel comfortable in the number of 2010 films I’ve seen to compile a top ten list. It just never seems to come together by January 1st for someone not living in LA or NY, nor with the resources or access to film festivals and countless advanced screenings.
As of right now, I have seen thirty-five films with 2010 release dates. See the below chart:
You could click on the photo to enlarge, but even still, it may be difficult to make out some of the posters. So, if you’re really curious, here’s the full list:
February: Shutter Island
March: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
April: Please Give
May: Robin Hood, Sex and the City 2
June: Eclipse, Toy Story 3
July: Inception, The Kids are All Right
August: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World; Eat, Pray, Love
September: The Town, Never Let Me Go, I’m Still Here
October: The Social Network, Hereafter, Secretariat, Conviction, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Inside Job
November: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Love and Other Drugs, Morning Glory, Fair Game, The King’s Speech
December: Black Swan, True Grit, The Fighter, Blue Valentine
On DVD: Winter’s Bone, Easy A, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Alice in Wonderland, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
In Theaters: 30
On DVD: 5
Grand Total: 35
There are still a few titles I’m very motivated to see (Another Year, Rabbit Hole, Somewhere, and especially Peter Weir’s The Way Back), but since we’re moving fast towards February, I’d say 35 sounds like a good number.
Let’s get to it:
10. Shutter Island
A meticulous and visually arresting adaptation of Lehane’s dark, unsettling thriller. Scorsese continues to thrive with gritty material and DiCaprio in front of his lens. I can’t say that I’ve even watched this a second time, because the experience is so haunting—such is a testament to his erudite filmmaking. The experience of taking in this story only to have reality overturned is powerfully disturbing.
9. Blue Valentine
Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling do the heavy lifting here, but I can’t help but feel enamored by their performances and the cool gray photography from director Derek Cianfrance and DP Andrij Parekh. Blue Valentine is a subtle capture of the evolution and eventual discord between a young couple.
8. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Edgar Wright has put a new spin on a comic book adaptation, and I thank him profusely for that. Scott Pilgrim is sharp, funny, and unique in its details—a good time with smart, witty embellishments in every frame.
7. Please Give
Please Give’s script doesn’t overextend itself (a virtue among so much exposition), and spending time with its engaging, well-developed characters is satisfying throughout. Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt flourish in their flawed characters’ discomfort.
6. Fair Game
Digging back into the CIA Leak under the Bush administration is something many of us would likely rather not reflect on, but Fair Game captures the Plame Affair with an investigative eye. Sean Penn gives one of his best performances.
5. True Grit
Bolstered by fantastic performances from Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon, True Grit is an enthralling take on the Western genre, elevated by Coen brothers quirk.
4. Inside Job
A level-headed yet motivating investigative documentary about the events leading up to the 2008 stock market crash.
3. The Social Network
Perhaps not the “film of the zeitgeist” as some are asserting, but a smart, engaging drama no less. Fincher is doing his best work these days, especially with the stalwart Sorkin script in hand.
2. Never Let Me Go
A subtle, moving adaptation of a horrifying and passionate story. Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley are a cogent, powerful ensemble. By far, the best part of the experience is to take in the photography, the direction, visuals, and accompanying score that work in tandem to elevate the eerie circumstances the characters never seem to be able to register.
1. Black Swan
I found myself trying to resist this one for the top spot, but in terms of risk-taking and innovation, Aronofsky’s thriller takes the cake.
Onward to 2011! Have at it in the comments section—what would make your top ten list?Continue Reading »
This website may have been sleepy over the past month, but I’ve been busy immersing myself in the Oscar season and in the cream of the crop releases that December has provided us. I imagine many of you have done the same.
With brevity, here’s my short take on the last act of 2010:
Review: True Grit
In True Grit, the Coens deliver something unlike anything else they’ve done before. For years I’ve admired their work from a distance, and by that I mean to say that I haven’t ever totally digested their better-left-unsaid narratives. From the slow-moving monologue at the end of the pulse-pounding No Country for Old Men to the whirling gray tornado in the final shot of A Serious Man, I admire their sweeping head-scratcher endings at arms length. But in True Grit, perhaps comparable to the underrated O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I found the experience to be the perfect marriage of Coen Bros. quirk and a soothingly linear narrative. I settled into the story with ease, relishing in the absurdity of characters like Rooster Cogburn, a burly assassin donning an eye patch, played by Jeff Bridges. Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin round out the ensemble with pitch perfect performances in a Western that both embraces the genre and jettisons its campier traditions.
Review: The King’s Speech
The King’s Speech doesn’t have the edge or embellishments of some of the other titles released this year, but it offers an effortless narrative that is both feel-good and inspirational. The screenplay doesn’t seem to work too hard with its pared back, tight exploration of the doctor-patient relationship between King George VI (Firth) and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush). While threats of Hitler and WWII flicker in the background, the strength of George VI to overcome his stammering and his friendship with Logue provides an engaging character study. Had director Tom Hooper placed this script in the hands of anyone other than Firth and Rush, I’m certain that it wouldn’t have worked so well. This is an actor’s movie, to say the least.
Review: Blue Valentine
Although the break-up narrative has been done before (and done very well, in one of my favorite films Annie Hall), Blue Valentine takes this approach with painful honesty and daring direction. The film oscillates between young parents Cindy and Dean’s beginning and end to their marriage in a non-linear narrative. Director Derek Cianfrance and cinematographer Andrij Parekh take a documentary-esque approach through the lens—certain scenes are grainy and gray, others illuminated by soft lighting. It’s easy to immerse yourself in their subjects’ journey, from happiness to pain and the conflicted feelings along the way. Blue Valentine is as moving as anything I’ve seen this year.
Review: The Fighter
Originally hesitant to see a “comeback” story (which seems to have been exhausted over the years), I found The Fighter to be a surprisingly poignant, engaging drama constructed by a skilled director and a brilliant ensemble of actors (perhaps the best 2010 has to offer). It’s difficult to watch the Ward family’s behavior, especially that of Dicky Eklund, a once promising boxer who threw away his potential in favor of a crack addiction. After some reflection, I realize that the film feels a bit uneven at times, perhaps because Bale’s performance of Dicky is so striking and memorable. Everything else going on feels a bit like hot air, when Micky’s triumph should be the driving force of the story.Continue Reading »
Review: Black Swan
There’s an interesting interview with MTV in which Darren Aronofsky shared his original intention of making a film that combined the stories of his last film The Wrestler and his recent release Black Swan – a contrast study of two athletes, one from the elegant world of ballet and the other from the grotesque world of wrestling. He explained that the project just seemed too broad to work (and he’s probably right), so he split the stories in two. But in Black Swan, he has stayed committed to the “contrast study” vision, as he finds the ugly side of a ballerina and explores how her dedication to the high art destroys her physical and mental well-being.
While there are excellent supporting turns in the film, Black Swan offers Natalie Portman the role of her career, and she more than delivers. Portman plays Nina Sayers, a beautiful New York company ballerina tortured by her desperation for perfection fueled by an emotionally debilitating relationship with her mother (played by Barbara Hershey), a retired ballet dancer who never achieved the career heights Nina has.
Nina’s mother coddles her to the point of social immaturity and demands of her a perfection in her dancing that drives Nina towards a psychosis that is accelerated when she’s offered her most challenging and prestigious role—the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. This Swan Lake production (a variation of the original story) requires her to dance two parts. Her director (played by Vincent Cassel) feels confident in her portrayal of the pure, innocent White Swan but worries that she lacks the sensuality and sex appeal of the Black Swan. Striving for perfection, Nina agonizes over her inadequacies in the Black Swan role, and when newcomer Lily (played by Mila Kunis) arrives at the company radiating sex appeal and self confidence, Nina’s insecurities take control of her in an alarming way.
Hershey, Cassel, and Kunis make up a vibrant ensemble whose characters each provoke Nina’s behavior and feed her psychosis. But again, this is Portman’s show. Putting aside the physical demands of the role, the emotional demands are just as formidable and Portman smooths over the camp of Nina’s descent into madness, making her tortured behavior seem almost understandable. Watching the innocent, fragile Nina beat herself up (physically and emotionally) for the role and her overwhelming distress over competition from Lily is a painful and uncomfortable experience, but Portman captivates through the last frame.
Black Swan is not an easy film to watch by any means—Aronofsky has shown in his work an interest in studying characters who physically destroy their bodies, and this film is no exception. But no matter how uncomfortable I felt watching Nina’s demise, I felt invested in her story and in the uncertain reality of her surroundings. Black Swan pulls you into Nina’s hysteria, her false perceptions, and her obsession with delivering the perfect Swan Lake.Continue Reading »
*Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame in Fair Game.
Given my general ignorance (apathy?) of box office numbers and film marketing, I’ll never really understand what gets people to the theater. Sometimes it’s a particular weekend, or the weather, or a franchise—but most often you hear that a mainstream audience wants to escape. They want Julia Roberts in gladiator sandals conquering failed relationships and discovering herself. They want Christopher Nolan because he’s trendy and knows how to make a great action film. They want Michael Bay because he knows how to blow stuff up and put hot actresses up on the big screen.
But what else is on the menu?
*Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer interviewed in Inside Job.
In the past week, I have seen two films that in no way offer the aforementioned feel good, just have fun experience. Fair Game and Inside Job both take on the tough stuff—the former delving into the 2006 CIA leak that exposes the Bush administration’s desperation to justify the war in Iraq; the latter investigating the 2008 financial crisis, a documentary that shatters any trust I had in Wall Street or in Obama’s economic team.
Both are as moving as any drama I’ve seen this year, as engrossing an experience as any summer blockbuster thriller. Neither will help you escape the day to day struggles we experience as Americans in a tough economic climate. Both will make you angry; but like any art, there’s a time for that.
Note: The idea for this post came from a suggestion made in the Awards Daily podcast “Oscar Poker,” which I recommend checking out at some point.