Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Truck Stop

I am not fooling anyone with these short posts while I wade through an especially busy period at work. I will be more than happy to tell you how superficial and inanely directed An Education was and to offer some more CIFF reviews from my notes, especially of the jury's favorite film, Mississippi Damned. In the meantime, a brief missive to let you know disappointed I was a couple of weeks ago to miss James Mottern's Trucker during its one-week run at Facets in Chicago, only to elatedly discover that it resurfaced for one more week-long run at the darling, 80-year-old Wilmette Theatre. I popped in tonight for a look at Michelle Monaghan's buzzy performance, currently on the receiving end of one of those personal-mission PR campaigns that Roger Ebert devises for himself every year or two.

I haven't done this for three years, but I walked out. I have certainly seen many worse movies in that time period than Trucker; for me to exit the theater early, either the print has to burn in the projector or my indifference to the movie has to be compounded by a huge tidal wave of anxious guilt over everything else I need to be doing. That's certainly what happened to me at Trucker, but I must say that Monaghan's utter failure to say "Man!" or "Dude!" in any remotely convincing way didn't help (and the script forces her through it incessantly). Nor did the cruddy, unprofessional, aggressively off-putting look of the film, even when one allows for the limited budget. Plus, when I scooted, at around the 40-minute mark, Monaghan was about to Bond With Her Child, after a narratively slapdash series of circumstances lands him back in her lap after ten years or so. We were about to hit the compulsory juncture where she Sticks Up For Him against some arbitrary foe, even though They Don't Really Like Each Other Yet. I am happy to grant that things might not unfold exactly as one expects over the rest of Trucker, but even half of what I expected would have been too much on this particular evening. Just now, I don't want to see any kid pouting in any car with any hard-living adult unless the (putative) adult is Tilda Swinton and they're about to crash the sedan through the corrugated tin "wall" between the U.S. and Mexico. You know what I mean.

I do feel confident, though, reporting to all you Oscar-hawks that I can't imagine us needing to worry about Monaghan. Clearly, lots of people are more taken with her work than I was (conceding that I still have half the movie to watch), but you only get nommed for stuff like this if the movie carries a real ring of hard-luck authenticity à la Melissa Leo, or if the scale of self-transformation, cosmetically and career-wise, is as galvanizing as it was for Charlize Theron and Sally Field. Monaghan isn't a big enough Name, and the performance isn't different enough from stuff you've seen dozens of times before, for her to generate nearly enough traction. No matter how many slings and arrows get shot at Amelia, Swank would be in before Monaghan would be... and surely among Cornish, Mirren, Wright Penn, and Cotillard, we've got other ways to fill out the category without either of them factoring in.

Assuming, of course, that Meryl Streep, Gabourey Sidibe, and Carey Mulligan are already in. Which I'll have more to say about in due time. But I'll go out on one more limb, since why not? My personal feelings about the performances aside (as much as that's possible), and having now seen that full trio of front-runners, I think Sidibe will win, especially if she keeps doing the kind of press that reveals how much acting she was doing as Precious. Streep's still a threat, and I suppose Mulligan is, too, but it's not quite the performance I was expecting—in terms of what it is, not how good it is—and I can't quite see Oscar voters carrying her to the top of the heap.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Good 'Man' Is Hard to Find

Still catching up on some backlogs of work that I amassed while hitting CIFF so heavily over the last two weeks. I've got lots more movies to tell you about and hope you'll keep checking in. But since so many commenters and off-board e-mailers keep writing to ask what went down so badly between me and those "Man" movies, I'll say very, very, very briefly:

A Serious Man is certainly "well made" from any number of angles, often literally, since a major raison d'être of the film is to remind us of how eccentric, hard-edged, but unsettlingly articulate a cinematographer Roger Deakins can be. But "hard-edged" doesn't even scratch the surface, and what an implacable, obnoxious, yet weirdly insubstantial surface it is. A Serious Man raises several "interesting questions," more perhaps about the Coens than about its own characters. Moreover, for me, the film furnished a summary case of the brothers underscoring, avoiding, protracting, and cretinizing all the wrong stuff, at tremendous cost to those questions and perspectives the film pretends to animate. It was unrecognizable to me as a human experience, and feels belabored in a heaping handful of ways without ever clarifying why the writer-directors were going to so much trouble, since they don't seem to exorcise any ghosts from their pasts (much less erode the present-day chips on their shoulders) so much as they exaggerate scenarios and bestialize, narcotize, or trivialize their characters until, finally, the protagonist's spiritual quandary entailed much more of an ordeal for me than it seemed to even for him.

But at least it's an interesting failure, and if it didn't bespeak such lurid shortcomings of compassion and point of view, I might grade it higher. Whereas A Single Man just seems badly made, egregiously clichéd in astonishingly dated ways, and incapable of generating a solid idea for why it's even attempting the sensuous, woozy Wongisms that it's so nakedly trying for (without, for my money, coming anywhere close to them). Firth is fine, but hardly the powerhouse we've been hearing about; Mickey Rourke deserves a good cry if A Single Man makes off with this year's Best Actor Oscar, though I suppose Firth has earned some kind of Good Sport award for consenting to the most jaw-droppingly asinine conversation scenes imaginable with Nicholas Hoult, in a hopelessly shallow turn as an admiring student and self-styled Emissary for the Living. (Spoilerish:) If you always enjoyed the dodgy finale of American Beauty, you'll enjoy it even more when you get to watch it again here, especially if you find yourself hoping for just a bit more morbidification of sexuality and desire, and some even more outlandishly misplaced paeans to the status quo and to a mushy, secularized model of human predestination. And this time, the film itself gets to be the killer! All that, plus some of the most risible university pedagogy since Babs nattered on about courtly love (and, later, prime numbers!) in The Mirror Has Two Faces, which is more maladroit and less sophisticated on the whole than A Single Man, but only by an unexpectedly and tragically small margin.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Overheard at CIFF (Updated)

Favorite Exchange (in the audience for Mother):

Older WOMAN, paging through the festival program:
A-ha! Police, Adjective. I found it.
That's why I wanted to see that, because I like Romanian films.

Older MAN, not reading the program:
Is it about oppression?


MAN, very earnest, still not reading:
Oooh, sounds good!

WOMAN, after two beats:
It says it "does a lot by only doing a little."
I think I have to see that!

Favorite Non-Sequitur (in the audience for Red Riding: 1974):

MAN, to his viewing partner:
I have a friend, and he is adamantly Croatian.
I mean, he went to prison.

Favorite Refusal to Budge (in the audience for Face):

MAN, to his viewing partner:
Daniel Day-Lewis is French.

WOMAN, after an incredulous beat:
Of course he's not French. He's English.

No, Daniel Day-Lewis is French.

WOMAN, after two beats:
Listen to the name. "Daniel Day-Lewis." There's no way he's French.

MAN, unflappable:
He is French.

WOMAN pulls out her iPhone. Tip-taps. Eventually:
"Daniel Day-Lewis, born 1957, in London, England."

But he is French.

(Note: Day-Lewis has had Irish citizenship for years, but I wasn't about to cut in.)

By Far, the Most Tortured Word:

, aka VIN-SEER. VEE-VUH-RAY. VINKER. VINCER, like "pincer." VEEN-SAYR. VINKERY. Quite memorably, Vuh-RENTZ. Save a thought for the poor Italians at the screening: moaning, wounded. VEEN-chayray, they yelled, to no avail. Hell hath no monolith like a Chicago accent doing whatever the hell it wants.

But anyway, back to Precious: keep those comments going!

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

CIFF 09: Precious

(NOTE: Review has been revised and, if you can believe it, expanded.)

Since I've been away for two days from regular, review-based festival coverage—busy, I don't mind saying, submitting a dossier of 400+ pages of new writing and teaching materials to ensure the security of my job for the next three years—I figured I needed to come back full swing to keep you hooked on this CIFF material. So what better time to reveal the one exception I made to my general rule of avoiding the marquee presentations of imminent commercial releases? Even if I'm at least as excited about the possibilities of Antichrist, playing elsewhere in the festival lineup, and of Where the Wild Things Are, which I'm dutifully skipping till the festival is over, there was no way anyone was keeping me away from Precious. At this point the film needs no introduction, though my review merits the forewarning that it's one of my longer pieces. Possible spoilers along the way, unless you've already been inundated with coverage about the film, which has tended to speak pretty liberally about its structure and key scenarios. I like the film but couldn't quite love it; as engrossed as I was, I had qualms about the terms on which my fascination and even my sympathy were being elicited. I'll hope to be hearing from you in the Comments, even after the movie rolls out for its hugely hyped commercial release.

Precious played two dates at the Festival, including the Centerpiece Gala where Lee Daniels and Gabourey Sidibe won awards for artistic achievement. The film opens commercially in the U.S. on Fri, 11/6.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

CIFF 09: OscarWatch (Updated)

Cheating a little, since end-of-the-week deadlines at work make it impossible for me to generate a full-on review, but I don't want to default entirely on my daily festival coverage. So, some brief notes about the AMPAS viability of the four official submissions for the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar I have seen or am soon to see at CIFF, all of which await their full reviews:

IRAN: About Elly (IMDb) - I can easily imagine this film earning a nomination, and though I'd still regret the more sublime and ambitious Iranian films that have gone unrecognized for so many years, I'd be to applaud a citation for About Elly. The strong ensemble acting, mystery structure, and production values jell much more closely than almost any previous Iranian submissions have with AMPAS's preferred templates, and the film has built-in appeal for nominators who vote with an eye toward cultural particularity as well as those who are looking for Hollywood-friendly "entertainment." Plus, most of the people I have talked to who have seen About Elly can't get over how gratifyingly unusual it is to see an Iranian picture get major play in the U.S. festival market without being a highbrow formalist work about children or about alienated drifters. The immersion among eight young, attractive, middle-class friends on a weekend trip will probably prove even more eye-opening to Oscar voters than to the cinephiles who have already been rallying behind the movie since Berlin.

MEXICO: Backyard (IMDb) - Seems like a threat for a nomination, especially since director Carlos Carreras has scored here before for The Crime of Father Amaro. Then again, the Academy has certainly passed up lots of recent chances to recognize many, many Latin American thriller-dramas that deal with the kinds of criminal investigations and headline-grabbing scandals that power this movie. The complicated but not too complicated female protagonist played by Ana de la Reguera may register well, as might the overtly feminist outrage of the script, less because Oscar has an estimable career as a global feminist than because of the Academy's persistent urge to feel somewhat hypocritically well-schooled about forms of "oppression" and sociological or bureaucratic deadlock that flourish beyond the U.S., as long as they are dissected within slick, commercial, ultimately reductive aesthetics. Note that this is basically the same recipe they tend to prefer among homegrown "political" dramas. The casting of industry fixture Jimmy Smits in a sort of privileged cameo cannot hurt.

SOUTH KOREA: Mother (IMDb) - I would be astonished if this made the cut, and given Korea's prior inability to find any traction in this category, either with period epics (Chihwaseon) or crossover hits (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring) or festival prizewinners (Secret Sunshine), it would be a major plume in Bong Joon-ho's cap to qualify for this defiantly eccentric combination of murder mystery, deep-black comedy, and maternal-sacrifice melodrama. I suspect it will translate as erratic and overworked to most Academy voters, since even the more sympathetic audiences of festival watchers and devotees of aberrant auteurist perspectives have had mixed responses to the film and to the mannered, intense, bravura performance at its center. As far as that goes, see the comments that have already started accruing to this post.

ROMANIA: Police, Adjective (IMDb) - A very tricky case. I couldn't help thinking that the protracted static shots, the repeated scenes of low-intensity stakeouts and zero-speed police pursuits, and the severity of the atmosphere, color palette, and minimal dialogue would be an impossible sell to AMPAS. But then, some pivotal scenes involving a YouTube video, a populist takedown of arcane grammatical rules, and a climactic, tendentious scene with a dictionary that furnishes the movie its title really brought down the house at the screening I attended, which looked demographically like a plausible mirror for what I suspect a Foreign Language Film Committee screening probably looks like. That is, lots of white hair. Police, Adjective works a similar combo of being and of spoofing (or at least generously tickling) a certain kind of arch, minimalist European art form that paid off with a nomination for The Man without a Past in 2002, another Cannes favorite that few had pegged as the Academy's cup of tea. It won't be an easy "get" for a nod, and the snubbings of the even more accomplished The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (longer write-up here) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days still cast quite a shadow. Police, Adjective, though, exposes its very, very dry funny bone early and obviously enough that voters who might like it could be tempted to stick it out for the even bigger payoffs to come.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

CIFF 09: Give Me Your Hand, plus an Extra Helping of Gay

Sticking more or less to my sequence of screenings means my next review is for the movie that has so far made the vaguest impression on me, good or bad, through the festival so far, give or take Mexico's Academy entrant Backyard. I'm talking about the French drama Give Me Your Hand, starring two twin brothers who are easy to look at but harder to feel much about. I don't know if my pulse exceeded 100/60 at any point while I watched the movie or wrote this review, but I hope you'll enjoy it anyway.

Particularly now that Give Me Your Hand has fulfilled its cycle of CIFF screenings, and if you're hankering for some gay cinema that better earns that designation, I hope you'll consider the documentary Quearborn & Perversion: An Early History of Lesbian & Gay Chicago, programmed for just two bookings at the luminously old-fashioned Music Box Theatre on Sunday, October 18, and Tuesday, October 20. The filmmaker, Ron Pajak, developed the project with funding from the Chicago History Museum, which continues to be a tremendous benefactor to our city's LGBT community. I am experiencing a rare bout of regret for pouncing on CIFF like a jacked-up kangaroo from the instant the Festival tickets went on sale last month, since I'm obligated to an unmissable life event on Tuesday night and a scarcely less missable film on Sunday. Happily, I'm lucky enough to have one more chance to see this fantastic-looking, eye-opening, richly researched documentary, but that's only because of Ron's generosity with screeners. You, on the other hand, should file out to the Music Box to find out how much more there is to Queer Chicago than singing at Sidetrack and breakfast at Big Chicks, not that I'm knocking 'em. But let's learn a little, shall we, and let's give Ron a hand.

Give Me Your Hand ended its three-screening run at CIFF on Tuesday 10/13. It recently played the Quad Cinema in New York City and may crop up at similarly esoteric and gay-friendly arthouses near you—even if it requires a real gusto for quick-trigger labeling to read this film as "gay."

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

CIFF 09: Mary and Max

I alluded yesterday to tremendous enthusiasm for one CIFF screening that I hadn't even copped to screening yet, and today the one-eyed cat is out of the bag: I'm talking about Mary and Max, the feature debut by Oscar-winning Harvie Krumpet animator Adam Elliot, which opened this year's Sundance Film Festival but hasn't built the Stateside critical or cult followings that I would have predicted if I'd seen it in January. It's currently playing On Demand on the Sundance channel but will be eligible, apparently, for this year's hotly competitive Best Animated Feature Oscar. Good luck squeezing past all those airborne houses and fantastic foxes and tasty precipitations, but for my money, Mary and Max is the best of a high-caliber bunch. I'm so glad that Glenn Dunks, in this guest entry for Nathaniel last month, made a point of urging us all to keep track of all the recent phenoms from the Australian film market that have inexplicably had a hell of a time crossing over to American distributions, or even American film-blogger buzz. Big thanks to Glenn, to whom the full review is dedicated—and that was before I knew that today was his birthday, so obviously something is Mary and Max-ishly right with our transoceanic connection.

Note, by the way, that even as I've hit my seventh straight day of consecutive full reviews for festival titles, I've decided to be less coy about telling you what I've caught so far, especially if it spurs any Chicagoans to check in on titles like Raging Sun, Raging Sky or About Elly while they're still in the CIFF rotation... or to avoid fatuous wastes of time like the empty, static, self-monumentalizing Vincere, though that one has obviously amassed its loyal fans since Cannes. Keep returning for more on the titles I haven't yet reviewed. It's an insane season at my job to be denying myself these extra hours of sleep, which is the only way to make time for all this writing, but I'm hopeful of posting a review every day through the 22nd, and I'm really enjoying myself.

Mary and Max will play the Festival on Sunday 10/18 and Tuesday 10/20. Stay tuned for whether its projected candidacy for an Oscar nomination prompts a theatrical run somewhere in your city.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

CIFF 09: Partners

As the Festival continues, it will get harder to review films such that you'll still have time to catch them if my write-up prompts you to be interested. For instance, I wish to God—or perhaps, following the film's brazen idioms, I pray to an Aztec priestess—that I had time to assemble a full review of the three-hour, Teddy-winning, shape-shifting, humidly surreal Mexican drama Raging Sun, Raging Sky in order to convince even one extra person to catch tonight's screening. That one is neck and neck at the moment with My Neighbor, My Killer and with one other title I haven't yet divulged for my favorite of the fest so far, but it's also as mad as a hatter, prompting several walkouts over the course of its 191 grotty, gropey, robustly homoerotic, unabashedly apocalyptic minutes. I'm dying for people to see it. As Aaliyah memorably posed, are you that somebody?

Keep an eye out for that film and for my further thoughts about it, but for now, my first "lame duck" review of the fest is for Frédéric Mermoud's erotically charged Swiss/French detective thriller Partners (or Complices, in French). Spoiler warning: I really liked it, and I imagine lots of other people would also. Even the couple who couldn't stop talking and whingeing as Raging Sun, Raging Sky barreled onward expressed great enthusiasm for Partners, which is much less of a backhanded compliment than it might sound. Here's the beginning of that review:

"Thank goodness someone invented television, or the Earth would never have had the chance to pose itself such trenchant questions as, What do we as a planet most deeply prefer: quasi-democratic contests among amateur singers, or tense four-way standoffs among forensic analysts, the suspected culprits in their cases, the mauled and blue-lipped victims, and their own upsurges of "humanizing" emotion and bias? Put a microphone or a pair of sterilized tweezers in someone's hand, and the whole world thrills. Eventually, someone will figure out a way to blend these two indefatigable premises, somewhere in the vicinity of So You Think You Can Autopsy?.

Meanwhile, thank goodness, too, that someone invented movies, so that scenarios that could easily boil down to an extended episode of CSI: Lyon actually pop on the big screen, taking advantage of unexceptional but unimpeachably sturdy craftsmanship to tell a two-pronged story about two risk-taking teenagers, at least one of whom is doomed to wash ashore on some brackish French riverbank, and about the two police investigators who keep learning things, and rarely the things they expect to learn, by burrowing further into the case..."
(Keep reading)

Partners completed its three-screening run at the festival on Sunday 10/11. Here's hoping you caught it, since I have not discovered any current plans for a U.S. release—though eventually, one seems likely, since Americans will go to French-language movies even when they won't go to any other international films, and Partners has going for it four sexy actors in various states of déshabillé.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

CIFF 09: Lovely, Still

Not so very long ago, I was dipping my toe into the eddying waters of Oscar prognostication, at which time I opined that if the infamously unpurchased Lovely, Still ever scores a U.S. distribution deal, then Martin Landau or Ellen Burstyn or both might gratifyingly add to their career tallies of Academy nods. (It would be his fourth and her seventh.) That conjecture was based entirely on second- and third-hand reports on screenings from Toronto '08, but now that I've seen the movie, I feel that I can go on record that Landau and Burstyn probably wouldn't be nominated even if it were 1996 and Harvey Weinstein opened the movie on Christmas Day. The actors are fine but the movie starts out frustratingly slight and inelegant and then slides precipitously into something that actually galled me, and not in that Inglourious Basterds sense of prodigious but diabolically misplaced gifts. I explain what I mean in this full review, but I do hope that Martin and Ellen get other tries at front-and-center parts before they fully retire from the screen. Meanwhile, I'm embarrassed at myself for letting not just Oscar hype, but potential Oscar hype for a movie that hasn't even been bought yet goad me into watching something this amateurish and finally dishonest, when I could have set my sights somewhere else.

You can't win 'em all, but thankfully you can win some of 'em—and after seeing about twice as many CIFF movies as I've admitted so far, I've still seen more good eggs than toss-outs. Keep watching this space!

Lovely, Still plays on Saturday 10/17. Martin Landau plans to attend, so even if you're as disappointed by this new film as I was—and, obviously, you might not be—it would still be a kick to ask him about Bela Lugosi, Cary Grant, and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

CIFF 09: My Neighbor, My Killer

My first major discovery of the Chicago Film Festival is the documentary My Neighbor, My Killer, which will be an insuperably hard sell to lots of audience because it's about the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide—specifically, about the locally mounted communal trials by which survivors of the national massacre accuse, listen to, and sentence suspected perpetrators who have recently been released from jails, once the official courts became hopelessly clogged and the processes of jurisprudence and of healing, whether or not those have anything to do with each other, grew ever slower. The film itself is smartly, profoundly, tough-mindedly evocative of almost every side of this unfathomable circumstance. It is robustly present-oriented, rhyming with the ethos of the courts to help everyone move forward, without getting saddled in the past, even if that's a profoundly impossible edict to maintain in a country like Rwanda. If anything, the film skimps a bit too much on historical and contextualizing information (I recommend Gérard Prunier's The Rwanda Crisis for an incisive and comprehensive historical account), but the film teems with interviews and with snapshots of awkward, enormously loaded personal encounters that I'm sure I will never forget, and not for the reasons I anticipated. Click here for my full review, and keep your eye out for the movie.

Please do, by the way, click on these reviews, link to them on your sites, or post comments on these blog posts, even if you don't plan on catching the movie soon or having time to read the full write-ups just yet. It's quite an exercise in generosity when these festivals afford me a press pass, since I'm not connected to any "official" media outlet, and being able to verify that people are reading these entries and taking stock of the films—especially the ones you haven't read about elsewhere—will allow me to keep scoring gigs like this. Thanks!

My Neighbor, My Killer plays Sunday 10/11 and Tuesday 10/20.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Wait, I Think They're Talking about Me

One of my students made this discovery a few hours ago, and neither he nor I can quite believe it. In his case, because I think he's not used to seeing his professors quoted in relation to web-zine articles about Vince Vaughn. In my case, because I'm not used to seeing myself quoted anywhere, much less by people whom I've never met. But as Rotten Tomatoes counts down the ten-best reviewed movies that featured Vince in a major role, there I am, stumping as ever for The Cell. You'd think they'd have cited Mr. Ebert, since he also had the movie on his Top Ten list that year, and last time I checked, he was still somewhat better-known than I am, and his endorsements carried sway with a marginally larger group of people. But especially in the month of Halloween, and especially as I'm walking a fantastic crop of students through another modern masterpiece of this genre, I'm always glad to keep spreading the enthusiastic word about Tarsem's dazzling feature debut. I suppose it was never going to happen that my other favorite Vince Vaughn movie would qualify for this list, but at least Jeff Giles, the author of the Rotten Tomatoes piece, withstands the usual urge to take a drive-by swipe at it.

Happy Friday, Vince, and happy birthday to me!

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CIFF 09: The Eclipse

Note: Today's and yesterday's CIFF reviews fall notably short of "rave" territory, but already I have encountered two gems on which to fill you in. Stay tuned!

I regret that my summertime undertaking of a theater-centered blog to complement this one was such a quick casualty of the busy fall, but I will hope to check in over there occasionally. I do love plays, and I'm always eager to see how strong playwrights fare as their work travels to the screen, particularly when they get to test their own hands in this new medium. I was off-consensus last year about Martin McDonagh's feature-length debut In Bruges, which I found to be hectoring and over-worked, and lacking the emotional sincerity that would have driven home its ambitious character arcs and committed central performances. Still, I can see why people who like In Bruges like it. I will be less easy to persuade that my cool response to The Eclipse, a rare cinematic foray for Shining City and Seafarer scribe Conor McPherson, amounts so easily to an issue of personal taste, and I doubt it will prompt nearly as many people to try to bring me around to greater enthusiasm. It works serviceably as a generically spooky mood-piece and has some nice acting moments from Ciarán Hinds and Iben Hjejle, plus it's the only movie that's ever found occasion for the line, "Yes, I was terrified, but at the same time I was so intrigued and fascinated that I actually wound up studying theoretical physics at university." The auditor of this comment offers the only conceivable response, which is "Jesus!"

Now, that's entertainment. Unfortunately, though, The Eclispe lacks the focus or the courage to be as fragile and understated in generating its eerie moods as McPherson's play scripts generally are. There's also one howler of a performance from someone who should really know better. You can read my full reaction here, but as always with festival reviews, I warmly invite you to go check it out for yourself. Hinds did win the Best Actor prize at Tribeca for this turn, and if low-intensity disquiet and a few whiplash jolts are what you're after, this might be just the vehicle.

The Eclipse plays tonight, Friday 10/9, and also on Saturday 10/10 and Friday 10/16.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

CIFF 09: Air Doll

With the festival commencing this evening, I am already taking a long lead on one title that won't start showing until the second week, but whose renowned director might well prompt a run on tickets among the kinds of patrons who flock to the CIFF every year. My second review for the fortnight is thus of Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll, which sadly makes a stronger bid than I had hoped for the alternate title Air Head. Shot by In the Mood for Love and Millennium Mambo cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin, the film lacks the aesthetic heft or disciplined shape of the former and surpasses even the latter for vacuous cosmetics and patience-trying protraction. If that strikes you as an unfair thumbnail of Millennium Mambo—and Hou is definitely a filmmaker that Air Doll appears to have on its mind, such as it is—then this might be a title for you, but as my review testifies, I was quickly put off.

Air Doll plays on Saturday 10/17, Sunday 10/18, and Monday 10/19.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

CIFF 09: Kickoff, and Paranormal Activity

The Chicago International Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, and I could barely be more excited. How very kind of my windy metropolis to throw me a birthday bash every year, and this time to amplify that already transparent correlation by underscoring its own birthday: 145 films exhibited from 45 different countries to mark the festival's 45th year. Admittedly, I haven't bean-counted the program to make sure things really do stack up this elegantly. I am happy to be a sucker for the marketing staff and its pleasingly professed numerology.

I will not be attending the red-carpet opening-night gala screening of Motherhood, a comedy directed by Katherine Dieckmann, who got Paul Rudd looking so good in cold-weather clamming duds a few years back in Diggers. Even in this prodigiously exciting year for women directors, especially those who maintain artistic ambitions for commercial narrative film, regular readers know that I need even more incentives than that to watch Uma attempt comedy. Prime, sadly, is not as distant a memory for me as it might be for you. I did, however, marvel at this overheard conversation a few weeks ago at CIFF headquarters, as a staffer worked out some kinks in Uma's travel plans over the phone with some unseen agent:

Last name is "Thurman." First name "Uma." U-M-A. Yes, it's the actress... She's in movies. She was in Pulp Fiction... Do you see movies?... No, I don't think she was in that... Hmm-mm... Oh, yes, I think she was in My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

I'm not an Uma-phile, but she didn't deserve that. Thankfully for her, the festival is throwing a big show in her honor, endowing her with its Career Achievement Award. Meanwhile, I am reminded of what I almost always forget, which is how little the movies matter to a tremendous number of people. I even know some people like this, though I attempt to deny it, and goad them by inviting them along to things.

Anyway, failing any coverage of Motherhood, and slyly bridging from what I was just talking about into my festival pieces, I want to alert you to the one-time, Saturday-night CIFF screening of the increasingly-hyped but still elusive Paranormal Activity. As I promised in my first post about CIFF '09, I will almost entirely avoid imminent commercial releases within the CIFF program in lieu of filling you in on carryover hits from other festivals that I doubt you've been able to see yet, and some even more under-the-radar titles from around the world. So, as I commence with a full review of a title that I'm guessing will bloom into a fuller-scale, nationwide release sometime between now and Halloween, I urge you to seek out this movie, whether amid the Chicago Film Festival or in your own town, but not to anticipate many more CIFF dispatches that skew quite this commercial.

You'll know soon enough what you think, and what I think, about An Education and The Young Victoria and Antichrist (although, man, it hurt not to buy that ticket). For the next two weeks, I'll shine a light instead on less heralded films and filmmakers and on national cinemas from well beyond the beaten path of U.S. commerce. Admittedly, you'll be well within your rights to observe that Andrea Arnold and Bong Joon-ho and the rising tide of Romanian masters hardly amount to undiscovered talents or breaking news. But much of my docket should offer even fresher material to my readers than however I wind up responding to these relative celebrities of the cinephile world.

But first, we've got one nasty $%@# of a demonic malefactor to attend to...

Image © 2007 Blumhouse Productions, © 2009 Paramount Pictures. Paranormal Activity plays late in the evening on Saturday 10/10. Tickets will go fast, if they haven't already.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Mid-Autumn Oscar Nom Predix

You already know where to go for more regular and more informed speculation about the nomination fields. In fact, here is a direct link to Nathaniel's best guesses and savvy reasoning, and here is an index of postings by my favorite In Contention writer, including his Long Shot pieces which have the nice effect of dialing back from the sporting, "tea leaves" aspect of the season and asking bigger questions. (My criteria for linking to Oscar bloggers: it needs to be clear that they care about the movies even more than they care about the Oscars, and they need to be just as interesting when they're talking about totally non-Oscary movies or – gasp! – subjects other than movies. In my experience, even/especially among the most famous names, this is a smaller group than one wishes.)

As ever, I'm certainly wrong in what follows, but it's all about finding out how wrong I am... I'm sure you'll be happy to let me know! For the record, I think Avatar is going to bomb, I'm not convinced The Tree of Life is going to open on time, I think Bright Star is going to have trouble higher up than the so-called "technicals," I think The Road stands a shot at Best Picture but tougher prospects almost everywhere else, I think Clooney could get a shockeroo snub in that Paul Giamatti way, and I find Inglourious Basterds unusually hard to anticipate in terms of Oscar's reaction.

Also, if Best Director looks like this, or even close to this, I have a hunch that Bigelow will win. Which would be phenomenal. Bigelow and other early picks to win marked with a .

MY GUESSES: An Education, The Hurt Locker, Invictus, The Lovely Bones, Nine, Precious, The Road, Star Trek, Up,  Up in the Air
BUT MAYBE: Inglourious Basterds, Bright Star
OR EVEN: A Serious Man, The Tree of Life, Public Enemies

MY GUESSES:  Kathryn Bigelow, Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman, Lone Scherfig, Quentin Tarantino
BUT MAYBE: Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Rob Marshall, Terrence Malick
OR EVEN: Joel and Ethan Coen, John Hillcoat

MY GUESSES: Abbie Cornish, Helen Mirren,  Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe, Meryl Streep
BUT MAYBE: Robin Wright Penn, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Hilary Swank, Audrey Tautou
OR EVEN: Saoirse Ronan, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tilda Swinton, Natalie Portman
OR IF THEIR FILMS GET RELEASED: Annette Bening, Ellen Burstyn, Naomi Watts

MY GUESSES: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Colin Firth, Morgan Freeman,  Christopher Plummer
BUT MAYBE: Jeremy Renner
OR EVEN: Viggo Mortensen, Daniel Day-Lewis, Hal Holbrook, Robert De Niro, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nicolas Cage, Paul Bettany, Clive Owen

MY GUESSES: Penélope Cruz, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick,  Mo'Nique, Julianne Moore
BUT MAYBE: Marion Cotillard, Rosamund Pike
OR EVEN: Mariah Carey, Susan Sarandon, Judi Dench, Mélanie Laurent

MY GUESSES: Anthony Mackie, Christian McKay, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci,  Christoph Waltz
BUT MAYBE: Alec Baldwin, Robert Duvall, James McAvoy
OR EVEN: Jeff Bridges, Steve Martin, Paul Schneider, Matt Damon

MY GUESSES: (500) Days of Summer,  The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, Up
BUT MAYBE: Duplicity
OR EVEN: Bright Star, The White Ribbon, Broken Embraces, The Tree of Life

MY GUESSES: An Education, In the Loop, Invictus, Precious,  Up in the Air
BUT MAYBE: The Road, The Lovely Bones, Nine, The Informant!
OR EVEN: Julie & Julia, Bright Star, Public Enemies, The Men Who Stare at Goats

MY GUESSES: Bright Star, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds,  Nine, The Tree of Life
BUT MAYBE: The Road, The White Ribbon, A Single Man, A Serious Man
OR EVEN: The Lovely Bones, Amelia

MY GUESSES:  The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Nine, Precious, Star Trek
BUT MAYBE: Public Enemies, The Road, Up in the Air, The Lovely Bones
OR EVEN: The Tree of Life

MY GUESSES: Ajami, Letters to Father Jacob, Max Manus,  Samson & Delilah, White Wedding
BUT MAYBE: About Elly, A Prophet, The White Ribbon, Backyard
OR EVEN: Police, Adjective, I Killed My Mother, No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti, The Milk of Sorrow

MY GUESSES: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Ponyo,  Up
BUT MAYBE: Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, 9
OR EVEN: Monsters vs. Aliens

MY GUESSES: The Informant!, Nine, Public Enemies, A Single Man,  Up
BUT MAYBE: The Lovely Bones, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Chéri, The Tree of Life, The Princess and the Frog
OR EVEN: A Serious Man, Bright Star

MY GUESSES: Bright Star, Chéri, Coco Avant Chanel, Inglourious Basterds,  Nine
BUT MAYBE: Amelia, The Young Victoria, Public Enemies, An Education, Taking Woodstock
OR EVEN: Julie & Julia, Where the Wild Things Are, The Last Station, The Brothers Bloom


Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Paranormal Activity Project

And furthermore, I have lived through one of those incredibly canny midnight screenings in order to tell you that this is as terrifying as this, if not quite its equal in low-fi ingenuity and craft. I can't imagine that Paranormal Activity will work nearly as well without the room-thickening tension of being packed in a multiplex at the witching hour with a group of largely confused patrons, who all file in saying to the smuggest-looking member of their respective groups, "So, how did you hear about this? What is it?"

The theater where I saw it exhibited it simultaneously at midnight at its three largest screens, all of which stand consecutively to each other, so that 99 minutes later, a throng of stricken souls filed out amid shared jitters. I will admit to experiencing a dip in my estimation of my fellow man. It might be snobby, but I was not quite prepared for the sheer number of conversations I overheard that had fallen hook, line, and sinker for the already-hoary marketing device of "These are the real tapes! This really happened!" But nitpicking seems less important in the face of a few truly Richter-scale jolts. The worst for me: the leg. (Click here for Kris Tapley's take.)

I came home at 2am, keyed myself into my apartment, and my partner, expecting my arrival and knowing where I had been, had the sweet disposition but the extraordinarily bad luck to be standing in three-quarters shadow in the first doorway you see as you enter from the hallway of my building. I am not proud, but Reader, I shrieked like a mandrill and stumbled backward all the way into the elevator door.

P.S. Resist the urge to watch the trailer for this film, if at all possible. I gather from Kris's piece that a key bit of action is spoiled, and an incredibly starkers moment in the film would have been spoiled entirely for me if I'd known what to expect.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Whip It On

For nine years I've wanted to know, once again, what love is. I wanted Drew Barrymore to show me. She did: this is as delicious as this. The Hurl Scouts even share a color scheme with the Compton Clovers. "Babe Ruthless" she is, but she's also Bliss.

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