Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chicago Film Festival 2010

The full lineup for the 46th Chicago Film Festival, the longest-running competitive film festival in North America, went live on the web last night at midnight. Members of the non-profit umbrella organization Cinema/Chicago get to buy tickets today and tomorrow before the full onslaught begins on Friday. I might be officially the biggest CIFF nerd in the city, having bought all my tickets in person at the office from the minute the second hand hit 10:00:00 this morning. They all have a little "#1" on them, referring to the fact that I was first in line, so my film-festival OCD can be preserved for future generations.

Not much Venice carry-over but quite a bit from Berlin, which pleases, since that festival's entrants tend to have a harder time reaching the U.S. Plus, a full half of the official Cannes competition slate. I told you this festival works hard to be au courant. As per usual, though, it's just as thrilling to see how loaded the large World Cinema program is with titles and directors I've never heard of, and with appearances by personal favorites like Since Otar Left's Julie Bertuccelli whose recent works have been flying slightly under the radar, and with festival phenoms I haven't yet encountered, like Aaron Katz and Xavier Dolan. Dolan's second film, Heartbeats will play along with Bertuccelli's The Tree in the New Directors competition, reserved for filmmakers' first and second features, and also in the "Outrageous" LGBT program, burgeoning from six entries last year to nine in 2010. (I have it on good authority that Dolan's even better-received debut I Killed My Mother, which apparently got a nominal NYC/LA release this summer, will appear as part of the queer Reeling Film Festival in Chicago in November, so put $10 aside now!)

Official press screenings aren't tremendously numerous, leading nicely to the media mostly seeing the films alongside "real" audiences. Between those that have been formally scheduled and the tickets I scooped up out of my own pocket this morning, based on the color-coded Excel sheet I rocked so hard into the wee hours of night, here are the films I'm currently slated to see, in addition to the four I've already screened:

Amphetamine (Hong Kong, dir. Scud; Outrageous)

Black Field (Greece, dir. Vardis Marinakis; New Directors)

Black Swan (USA, dir. Darren Aronofsky; Special Presentation)

Caterpillar (Japan, dir. Kôji Wakamatsu; World Cinema)

Certified Copy (France/Italy/Iran, dir. Abbas Kiarostami; Main Competition)

Cold Weather (USA, dir. Aaron Katz; World Cinema)

Heartbeats (Canada, dir. Xavier Dolan; New Directors)

The Housemaid (South Korea, dir. Im Sang-soo; World Cinema)

How I Ended the Summer (Russia, dir. Aleksei Popgrebsky; Main Competition)

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Romania, dir. Florin Serban; World Cinema)

Loose Cannons (Italy, dir. Ferzan Ozpetek; Outrageous)

Love Like Poison (France, dir. Katell Quillévéré; New Directors)

Love Translated (Canada/Ukraine, dir. Julia Ivanova; DocuFest)

Of Love and Other Demons (Costa Rica/Colombia, dir. Hilda Hidalgo; World Cinema)

On Tour (Tournée) (France, dir. Mathieu Amalric; World Cinema)

Revolución (Mexico, dir. Misc.; Special Presentation)

The Robber (Austria/Germany, dir. Benjamin Heisenberg; Main Competition)

A Screaming Man (Chad, dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun; Main Competition)

The Sentiment of the Flesh (France, dir. Roberto Garzelli; New Directors)

The Tree (Australia, dir. Julie Bertuccelli; New Directors)

Tuesday, After Christmas (Romania, dir. Radu Muntean; Main Competition)

Waste Land (UK/Brazil, dir. Lucy Walker; DocuFest)

We Are What We Are (Mexico, dir. Jorge Michel Grau; Main Competition)

I also bought tickets to two groups of collected shorts, the scary Midnight Mayhem program and the Tales of the Unexpected collection, which I'm guessing means the "weird" ones, and includes the James Franco-directed Feast of Stephen.

But you know I love to give you all homework, and since I will have possibilities to add here and there to this itinerary, have a look at my CIFF 2010 page and let me know if you recognize anything in the Main or New Directors Competitions or the Outrageous lineup that you think I'm short-changing. Or, obviously, if there's anything else in the full schedule that you can vouch for. I am aware of skimping on the documentary offerings at present, but I cannot say a lot of them sound like they're up my particular alley. Happy to be instructed otherwise, though. Whereas I'm unlikely to take any hints to check out Special Presentations of 127 Hours, Fair Game, Made in Dagenham, The Tempest, and other Oscar hopefuls that will be easy enough to track down later. I did make one exception to that rule for Black Swan, following the same "But I'm Gonna Explode If I Don't!" principle that I followed last year into Precious. But that's it.

I'll add in closing that Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya, the documentary I screened this morning, was funny, unpredictable, and frank, not just in its advertised sexual explicitness but in the extensive, casual access that its key figures enable into a subject that can be very hard to make a documentary about that isn't stuck operating from a considerable distance. I'll be seeing as much as possible of the sex-focused material in the lineup, because that's how I suffer for my job. That is, not only have I published on films in that vein, so one must keep up, but the Festival office has asked me to speak on an October 9 panel about Sex and Cinema, alongside the makers of some of this year's movies. I have been asked to track down those directors' work and to follow all the envelopes they have pushed therein. I was even encouraged to wear to the panel what I was wearing last night to the pre-festival press kickoff, where the invitation was very kindly and unexpectedly extended.

It's one of those life lessons people can be slow to divulge, even though it's been known since the time of Confucius: if you're hoping opportunity will find you, give it a little nudge by wearing hot pink.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Monday Reviews: Never Let Me Go. Also: CIFF Looms!

I'll be surprised if Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go stays in the Oscar hunt in any category except Best Original Score, even though Rachel Portman's maudlin and overly conspicuous music is, sadly, the only thing in the movie about which I can't think of anything nice to say. Well, the music and the wigs: just awful. The rest of the movie is either an intriguing failure or a seriously flawed success, depending on my mood; almost every element has moments of working and moments of falling short. Did you feel differently, or do you plan to see it? Full review here, including two paragraphs guest-written by the main character, Kathy H.

The multiplex has a welcome aura of real appeal these days, with The Town and Easy A pulling down numbers and high critical marks. Buried is also on the way to Chicago on Friday, packing the same enviable cred of impressing reviewers and filmgoers back at Sundance, so I'll aim to see one of those three this week.

The full lineup for the Chicago Film Festival goes public on Wednesday, so in whatever time I have left, I'll try to say something about that and offer up some early reviews about the three movies I've gotten to screen in advance, all of them carried over from Cannes. Michael Rowe's Leap Year and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives come in about the same gradewise, though the former is sort of half full, using a taut, judicious shooting and editing to elevate a shaky premise, and the other, sadly, feels half empty, showcasing the filmmaker's ingratiating visual, tonal, and sonic trademarks through the first act, but then taking them nowhere truly satisfying.

Both films are easily worth a look, but neither is a patch on the Ukrainian showstopper My Joy, which starts as a kind of highway noir in the sunny but unsettling vastness of rural Russian highways but then gathers force as something more fractured, more uncanny, but equally gripping. Lots of movies sacrifice tension when they make a move toward national allegory, because you suddenly start seeing more or less how everything is meant to add up. By contrast, though, as My Joy raises its stakes and broadens its canvas, it actually becomes even richer and stranger, and the bravura technique astonishes even further. Standout passages, confirming Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu as even more of a world-class treasure, include a long sequence shot at a rural town market and a late, masterfully mounted rencontre among multiple characters at a roadside checkpoint. If you're reading this and already planning to hit the film festival in October, you've already got at least one movie on your docket that you owe it to yourself to catch.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Jury of One, But I Need Your Help

This will look like compensatory activity for missing the Toronto Film Festival for the 32nd time in my life, or like a symptom of unrestrained anticipation for the Chicago International Film Festival lurking just around the corner. I am not going to deny trace elements of both, but what you're really seeing is an ingenious way to keep the site alive while mostly staying off the internet and seeing almost no movies. (Did you hear that? I just called myself ingenious.)

While I'm deep in the gnarled heart of my other major writing project, I have much less time than usual for renting or cinema-hopping, and I've had to impose a no-internet-after-noon rule, anyway, to protect my writing time. Composing a full review of anything is too distracting a project for the middle of a workday, but a tweet offers a perfect, Hershey Kiss-sized morsel of braincramp stimulus during those onslaughts of writer's block and crushing failure that I feel, you know, two or three times an hour. Plus, it's great practice at keeping concise. Plus plus, it reminds me that I do know more words than the five or six that I appear to use in every sentence of my book manuscript, including nonetheless, its evil twin nevertheless, however, and including.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I came to review 143 movies in the space of four days. After the last post, Cannes got jealous of Venice and decided its section needed upgrading, too. So now, Tweet-abetted upgrades have gone live for the Croisette vintages of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. I've added Lido pages, too, for 2003 and 2004, in addition to all the years I already hit you with on Monday morning. I'm flabbergasted anew at how many movies Cannes manages to show every year, especially once you realize that the Critics' Week and Directors' Fortnight slates aren't even included in the yearly archives on the main festival page. I don't even have the energy to look into the sidebar screenings in Venice, though I'm sure there are plenty.

I'm also a bit embarrassed at how many of my personal Palme and Lion picks are U.S.-born, or at least anglophone. I don't think of myself as remotely parochial in my film tastes, but the proof is kind of in the pudding. In the last decade or so, my favorite Palme contenders from '98, '99, '01, '05, '06, and '08 were all American, and that's not counting the English-language Lars von Trier movies that I would have voted for in '00 and '03. Venice is no prettier: I'd have bought American in '04, '05, '07, and '08, though in the second case, it's for a film I gave a "B" to, so I blame Marco Müller. Okay, and myself, for never having caught up with Regular Lovers.

What the frak is going on, though? I remind myself that because of distribution patterns, this isn't a fair fight. Virtually every English-language movie in the main or the sidebar competitions at Venice or Cannes (or Berlin, for that matter) eventually shows up front-and-center at the arthouse, sometimes even at the mall. By contrast, you have to put yourself in the right place at the right time to see the other Competition films on the big screen, which is where I try to see as many things as possible, so it's not surprising I'm showing disproportionate favor toward the films to which I have disproportionate access. When three quarters of the international cinema that screens in the Critics' Week or Directors' Fortnight never even makes it to the States, your fantasy festival ballots wind up with a lot of Golden Bald Eagles and Palmes d'Red, White, and Blue.

But still! There are such things as DVDs. And since I've confessed at the bottom of each page which films I most regret as gaps in my viewing from each year's competitions, you have a perfect opportunity to help me build my private "queue," to be stored away in a lockbox until I finish this book and earn back some intimate time with my DVD player and TV. What are the very best films that lie ahead for me? And do you agree with Cal that, pound for pound, the Golden Lion winners of the past outclass the Palme d'Ors pretty handily? I know you're all busy looking for cheap breakfasts in Toronto, or waiting in line to tell Andrea Riseborough that You Knew Her When..., but take two minutes. Steer me right. Ask Andrea what she thinks.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Monday Reviews: The American. Also: Venice

Henry James kept warning us: Americans going to Italy are always asking for trouble.

Exhibit A: The American, which I'm so glad I elected to see, despite the strenuous pooh-poohing of early audiences and several reviewers. The movie is nifty and tense, if not quite rich enough to prompt full outrage at the bad rap it's gotten for not being a Bourne film. Then again, it's also earned back its moderate production costs already, so no need to cry over spilled bullet casings. Yes, it's a bit slow and airy as thrillers go, but the tension surged impressively more than once, and I followed the dénouement with bated breath. Always exciting, too, to find out that a film that looks this good cost so little, but then, maybe George owns all the Italian locations? Anyway, go see The American, and make sure not to expect either a lemon or an unfairly maligned masterpiece. I'm sure it prompts a wide range of responses on its own without buzz-slaves and their viral preconceptions doing that work on its behalf. Here's my full review.

Exhibit B: Venice, and lo scandalo Tarantino. I find it completely plausible that Tarantino & Co. fluffed things bigtime, but it's hilarious to me how little sense of independent agency is being ascribed to the other jurors in a lot of the press. Guy Lodge, as riled as anyone about the double-dipping for two of the Competition's less well-received entrants, at least makes the rational observation that the inordinate attention cast on A Sad Trumpet Ballad (Director and Screenplay) and Essential Killing (Special Jury Prize and Actor) is as likely a symptom of intense, maybe even factionalized feelings spread across the jury as it is of a Tarantino oligarchy, Dogtoothing poor Arnaud, Luca, Danny, Guillermo, Gabriele, and the much-missed, unbeatably named Ingeborga Dapkunaite into crawling on their knees and speaking Quentin's private, profane language. (By the way, we already have it on good authority that Arriaga, as soon as his blindfold was lifted and his legs unbound, began to write a non-chronological screenplay about the whole, bitter, Salò-style experience. Imagine how much he loooved the dawning reveal that wait! Quentin and Sofia have known each other in the past!)

Please know that I'm in no mood or position to apologize for this jury, especially having seen literally none of the movies. Almost all the critics I trust seem agreed that notable perfidies of evaluation have been committed. And please note that Tarantino is now a surprising 2-for-2 in reporting his festival juries to have been unanimous in picking the top prize, though certainly stranger things have happened. To me, the Hellman citation really tipped things: even if lots of the jurors like Hellman and/or Road to Nowhere, surely they realized that the laurels to Coppola and de la Iglesia would already be received as Tarantino tossing bouquets at an ex and a stylistic sibling, but they might have survived the impression of favoritism without the additional, effusive hat-tip to Monte, for a category of award they didn't even need to give. It kind of seals the perception. Still, I do think it's worth pointing out the following:

• The Reuters/New York Times piece that's floating all over is at least as meretricious as the jury decisions it criticizes. Or maybe you agree that the vaunted and longstanding Toronto International Film Festival is an "up-and-coming rival" to the completely different scene of the Lido? Similarly absurd: griping about there being "no prizes for Italian films," when this is hardly a mandate, and Guadagnino and Salvatores were right there in the jury box to wave the ol' green, white, and red if they had felt so moved; and expressing astonishment that Gallo copped a Volpi Cup for a performance "during which he uttered not a single word." Taken any temperature reads lately on an AMPAS voter watching a wordless performance—say, by Jane Wyman, Holly Hunter, Marlee Matlin, or Samantha Morton? Familiar with the idea of silent acting? Did you know They used to do that, and that it occasionally turned out okay? I can imagine Gallo's prize being specious in other ways, but his lack of dialogue hardly seems like the lead story here.

• People can question Tarantino's favoritism as much as they like, and there may well be a warrant, but Venice can't possibly have expected him to operate otherwise, given that Cannes '04 already served the template for what a QT presidency looks like: runner-up prize for something right in his wheelhouse (Oldboy/Trumpet), and a controversial top prize that gives him plenty to talk about (read: loudly stick up for himself about). Guadagnino's friend and muse Tilda Swinton was widely rumored to have stood up against Tarantino's tastes on the Croisette six years ago; her advocacy of Tropical Malady was almost certainly crucial to that film's winning of a Jury Prize. The takeaway here is to make sure Swinton is always on a Tarantino jury, or else on every jury. Her platoon of tastemakers did awfully well by the Berlin slate in 2009, spreading the wealth around well-liked titles while still making adventurous choices, and passing over famous Swintonian accomplice Sally Potter.

• Coppola is Tarantino's ex, but surely Isabelle Huppert's debts to Michael Haneke are at least as deep, probably more. The White Ribbon maybe had more advocates at Cannes '09 than Somewhere did on this year's Lido, but it's not as though everyone adored it, and journalists were less quick to accuse Huppert of "favoritism" than they are to allege it of Tarantino. Why? I wonder if the European press is making more than we Anglos are of the little-acknowledged fact that no American director had ever won a Golden Lion that wasn't part of a split decision until Aronofsky did it two years ago for The Wrestler, and now we've got another victory for a studio-backed U.S. auteur already. If you consider that Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution were largely American-mades films (Lust had Taiwanese and American funding), then that's four out of the last six. Does this made-in-the-USA mini-wave factor into the irritation so many are feeling?

• One year's outraging jury choices occasionally turn out to look like pretty good calls in retrospect, or at least highly defensible ones. David Cronenberg almost got thrown out of Cannes in 1999 for daring to give the Dardennes' Rosetta a Palme over All About My Mother, and for sending three trophies the way of Bruno Dumont's L'Humanité. The stink was unbelievable, but I bet a lot of cinephiles today have at least as much time for Rosetta as for Mother (and Almodóvar did take the directing prize), and Cronenberg's wasn't the first or the last Cannes jury to give it up big-time for Dumont. Even people who hate his films have had an awfully easier time seeing and fighting about them after the Humanité gongs than they would have before, and miraculously, things turned out okay for Pedro and his gal-pals. All of which is good for film culture, even if Cecilia Roth's Manuela admittedly knocks Séverine Caneele's hardy, pugnacious rutting for six.

So before we all go burning our Jackie Brown DVDs in the streets, then, or hiring George Clooney to shoot QT in the head from some nearby, impossibly verdant Italian mountaintop, maybe we all ought to have a look at the films (which only some of the furious protesters have done). We also might wait for a sense of how the awards outcomes ultimately wind up serving the winners as well as the abjectly unchosen. No press is bad press, particularly not the "You wuz robbed" press that Almodóvar rode all the way to his first Oscar. I'd love to see something semi-comparable happen for admittedly tougher sells like Post Mortem or Black Venus, or at least for the more insulated snubbee, Black Swan.

If you're still not appeased, and you feel compelled to pop a valentine into the mailbox along with your condolence note to Natalie Portman (who I suspect will find it in her to survive this devastating setback), may I suggest addressing it to the true believers of SIGNIS? In the last three years, they've given their Competition prize to The Hurt Locker, Lourdes, and now Meek's Cutoff. Maybe a lot of distinguished Catholics doubt whether women can be priests, but they sure seem to believe they can be cream-of-the-crop filmmakers, and I know which one I'd rather be. So, hooray for them and their flawless choices, regardless of gender ramifications. In fact, they've managed to coronate my own favorite Competition films of '08 and '09 and my most-anticipated title from '10, and I wonder what I did to deserve to have my own predilections flattered in this way. I know the Catholic church, via its Legion of Decency, did no favors to American film culture when they used to run our ratings system, in the pre-MPAA days, but time does fly, and I'm starting to think these SIGNIS/OCIC folks oughta be granted their own distribution wing. Why should Sony Classics have all the fun?

And if I have so much to say about Venice jurying, why not do some of it myself? I've added a Venice Film Festival subsection to the site, mostly as a smaller companion piece to the Cannes pages I've maintained for a while. As with most things, though, the new, slimmer model is also a notable upgrade. Best feature: tiny Twitter-sized reviewlets of all the Golden Lion competitors I've seen from the last six years. Worst feature: the number of legendary Lion claimants I have never seen, by Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Rossellini, Ray, Godard, Antonioni, Hou, Varda, Tsai, von Trotta, Olmi, Zanussi, Zhang, Rosi, and many more.

Clearly, I need to get on top of this situation. By all means, tell me the first Lion of Yore that you think I ought to visit. If I start getting too heckled for my own shortcomings, though, or feeling too embarrassed, I will gladly relight the pyramid of dry wood underneath Tarantino, just to deflect attention. Because, after all, what on Earth could he possibly have been thinking? I heard a rumor that Fedorchenko did actually win, but Jack Palance, that nutty old coot, read the wrong name. And what did the petite Natalie ever do to Quentin, anyway? Maybe he's an O.G. Star Wars fan?

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Friday, September 10, 2010

I'm Breathless: Fall/Holiday Season 2010

One more early fall tradition, and then we can actually get on with things! Typically, after The Fifties have passed, I provide a sort of almanac of what I'm eagerly anticipating, less eagerly anticipating, and not so much anticipating in the coming months—perpetually ballyhooed as the season when "all the good movies" open, though I think regular readers will know how seriously I take that adage. Probably Nine and The Lovely Bones cemented that point on my behalf last year (sorry, Andrew!), even though I was anticipating them as much as anyone. With Telluride and Venice both having kicked off and Toronto set to go commence momentarily (or maybe by the time this post goes live, it will have?), we're starting to hear a little more about several of these titles, and the release calendar is always volatile, so of course these classifications are subject to change. But I'm always surprised how much readers respond to this list, it's a fair confession of my early biases, and it's a handy one-sheet for me. So, with a somewhat arbitrary tip of the hat to Madonna...

White Material - Easily one of our greatest filmmakers and greatest stars
  A– - Agonized and fearless, eerily sympathetic, formally electric

Black Swan - Requires a lot of trust in Portman, but who isn't fascinated?
  B– - Works as schizo freakout, but resorts to too many cheap tactics
The Illusionist - No such thing as a review of this that isn't a heartfelt paean
Inside Job - No End in Sight rocked, and this seems even mightier
  B+ - Strong! Just as compelling as No End, if more testily self-righteous

Another Year - I'm guessing I'll like but not love it, which is plenty
Blue Valentine - Could collapse in flames of pretense, or could invigorate
Buried - I am all for a well-played gimmick, and reviews have all been kind
  C– - Enervating and implausible in all the wrong ways
Enter the Void - Inevitably self-indulgent, but his visuals entrance
  pass - Inconvenient length and showtimes plus bad word-of-mouth kept me out
The Fighter - A sharp cast and a director who's always worth trusting
For Colored Girls - I like Perry, and I love this text, and many of the women
  C+ - Very worth seeing for power of best bits, but troubling and ill-integrated
Last Train Home - Everything I've read is a rave; Up the Yangtze redux?
  pass - Saw first half and had to leave on work-related emergency! Was going fine...
Monsters - Came sailing out of Edinburgh fest; seems genuinely unusual
  B– - Excitingly odd, great lensing and production, but ratios way off
Mugabe and the White African - A buzz builder for over a year
  C+ - Both essential and disappointing (full review)
Rabbit Hole - Somebody buy this! Seems ideal for Kidman, especially
  B– - Uneven and limited, but affecting and smartly performed
The Social Network - Very intriguing, but lots of room for error
  B+ - Fleet, sharp, engaging, impressive, just a bit too deoxygenated
The Town - The promise of Gone Baby Gone, minus the cheese?
  B+ - Muscular, absorbing pulp; unexpected tenderness and humor
Valhalla Rising - I'm all for nutso, heightened historiography
  C+ - Gruff, deadpan, and proudly bizarre (full review)
The Way Back - I didn't get Master & Commander right away, but now I'm sold

The American - The studio just knows we'll hate it, so I'll probably like it
  B - A bit clichéd but subtle and insinuating (full review)
Burlesque - Cher in a film is an event. One of our most underused actresses
Carlos - Festival notices hadn't been raves, but Assayas is unmissable
Fair Game - Cannes notices didn't inspire, but the story bears repeating. Sean!
Love and Other Drugs - Zwick and all, but Hathaway shimmers in the ads
Never Let Me Go - I'm mystified by the book, but I still feel drawn to the film
  C+ - Mix of pros and cons re: already shaky book (full review)
Night Catches Us - Mackie and Washington; surely one has to go bonafide soon?
Somewhere - I'm curious, but will her next be called Deck Chair? Drifting?

Country Strong - Welcome back to the 5 & dime, Gwynnie P, Gwynnie P!
Easy A - Emma Stone charmed even in Superbad, and this looks scrumptious
  C+ - Stone's aces, plus some good sidebar moments; film's a breezy mess
Hereafter - Clint whiffed three in a row, but it's an important career
  pass - I'll see it eventually. Maybe. Probably. It just sounds so lame.
How Do You Know - I'm not a Reese guy, and I still found the trailer inviting
Howl - Neither of Franco's pics looks like a sure thing, but I'm curious
  C - Ginsberg on Ginsberg, a trial about Ginsberg, all indirect and choppy
It's Kind of a Funny Story - Boden & Fleck compel respect, but are we suuure?
  pass - Sounds increasingly clear like they're off their game, and I don't want to see that
Leaving - Could be juicy vehicle for Scott Thomas, who says final cut surprised her
Nowhere Boy - I'd avoid it if the reviews for the actresses weren't so strong
Soul Kitchen - Please tell me this is genuinely winning, and not just pandering
  pass - Had every intention, but I, like the distrib, thought it would catch on longer
The Tempest - Taymor isn't trustworthy, but the elements still scintillate
The Tillman Story - My brother took this story really hard, so I feel compelled
  B - Sober, effective storytelling with many-sided characters
The Tourist - Wasn't a Lives of Others fan, but this could be smart, or taut
True Grit - Dubious match of Coens to shaky material, but can't be ignored
Vision - Von Trotta's an interesting case, and I work with a Hildegard expert

127 Hours - I'd put it lower, but I'm sure I'll still wind up seeing it
  C+ - Very capable with local details but awfully fuzzy on larger ideas
All Good Things - Much delayed, but Gosling, Wiig, Venora are big draws for me
Biutiful - I don't think González Iñárritu or Bardem has lived up to potential
Bran Nue Dae - Glenn at Stale Popcorn has been beating this drum for a while
  pass - People who saw it doubted whether it was my thing; I'll wait for DVD
Conviction - We'll know from the first reviews if we really need to bother
  C+ - Unremarkable filmmaking, hugely patchy script, but leads sell the heck out of it
Down Terrace - Tim Robey gave it a very admiring review in the Telegraph
Jackass 3-D - Call me a groundling, but I loved the first, seems perfect for 3-D
  pass - ...though not enough, apparently, to get me to commit another $15
The King's Speech - It reads sort of ludicrous, but I might feel obligated
Let Me In - Unlike most others, I don't hold the original sacred
  pass - Sympathetic as I was to chance of improvement, I didn't care to investigate
Making the Boys - The subject can't help but move me, but how's the film?
  pass - Never came anywhere near me, assuming it opened at all
The Next Three Days - Crowe is always worth it, and Haggis retains potential
  C - Embarrassing start, watchable and sometimes great in middle, infuriating end
Paranormal Activity 2 - I might not have learned my lesson at Book of Shadows
  B - Enjoyment predicated on fondness for first movie, but I went for it
Waiting for 'Superman' - Even if it overstates the obvious, I feel implicated
  pass - The critics I care most about seem all but agreed that this is thin soup.

Barney's Version - The IMDb plot précis gave me a genuine twinge of acid reflux
Machete - I still can't decode the reviews. Should I go? For Trejo?
  pass - I'd have gone in a different season, but fall's too crowded as is
Morning Glory - An inspired grouping of cast members, but ads are groaners
  D - Some yuks, but a sinkhole of incoherence. McAdams deserves better
Stone - Wouldn't stand a chance, but written by Junebug scribe!
  pass - Sounds mildly unusual, but not enough to entice me back to De Niro or Norton
Welcome to the Rileys - These three actors are a tough combo to ignore
You Again - Seems like something I'd skip, but lotsa great ladies
  pass - Oh, so it's Mean Girls meets Bride Wars with dumb jokes? Oh.

The Company Men - If it's "Up in the Air but 'not quite as good,'" I'm out
Due Date - I chuckled once or twice at the trailer, but mostly groaned
  pass - Reviews, especially A.O. Scott's, didn't tell me anything I want to hear
Heartbreaker - Reviews and business in France have been pretty spectacular
  pass - Couldn't see appeal, but imagine what French think of Hitch
I'm Still Here - I am not fascinated by the shenanigans of the weird and privileged
  pass - Some praise mixed with the pans, but nothing turned me around
Made in Dagenham - Maybe if Sally Hawkins is the real deal, but awfully light
Mademoiselle Chambon - Seems pretty anonymous, but it's got Lindon and a César
  pass - In a very crowded season, I just couldn't justify the time
Red - Only if reviews signal it as more than an arbitrary stunt
  pass - Reviews confirmed worst fears, and I'm Mirren'd out at the moment
Secretariat - Only if I'm having one of those pint-of-Häagen-Dazs days
  pass - Critical scuffles have been intriguing, but I haven't bought a ticket
TRON: Legacy - Only if the reviews are above Speed Racer
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Carey Mulligan and Josh Brolin, but still...
  pass - Checked in on Carey for Never Let Me Go. Why visit twice?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt.1 - Dropped Harry, don't regret it
  pass - Exactly what I already said
I Want Your Money - And I want a doc that doesn't just preach things we know
  pass - I don't think this ever showed up, and I think Inside Job satiated me
Jack Goes Boating - Loved Synecdoche but can't take much more schlub
  pass - Reviews more encouraging than I expected, but I'm still just not ready
Legendary - What will I do for Patty Clarkson? Attend a wrestling pic?
  pass - Only opened in northern suburb! I'm not traveling for this thing
Megamind - Only if the reviews are above Despicable, and doubtful even then
  pass - If anything, reviews are more muted than for D-Me, so I'm out
My Soul to Take - For Wes Craven, I need Freddy, or else Meryl on fiddle
  pass - Already clear this won't be my thing
The Sicilian Girl - Ever hear about the Sicilian movie about the Mafia?
  pass - Preview even more rote than what I had imagined; no peep from critics
Skyline - This seems Dean Koontzy to me. Is it Dean Koontz?
  pass - I thought so.
Tangled - "Alex, I'll take 'Completely Charmless Trailers' for $1000..."
The Warrior's Way - An unexpected cast, but I bet I'll still pass
Wild Target - Nighy? Blunt? Everett? Atkins? Enough to reserve judgment
  pass - Can already tell from trailer that this won't be my cuppa
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - Still haven't liked an Allen in 13 years
  pass - Reviews, especially A.O. Scott's, have confirmed all my fears

Case 39, Faster, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Gulliver's Travels, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, Life As We Know It, Tamara Drewe, Unstoppable, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Yogi Bear

(i.e., confirmed postponements)
Brighton Rock - Unless reviews curdle, I'll want to see if they nail the nastiness
The Conspirator - Forget box-office poison; Robin is like distributor poison
The Debt - I liked Munich, twice, but will this measure up?
Hesher - Gordon-Levitt indifference persists, but script by Animal Kingdom guy
London Boulevard - Lots of potential but are we positive it's opening?
Miral - I'm expecting a bit of a slog, but I'm curious to follow Schnabel
Passion Play - Rourke's first post-Ram gig that offers real opportunity
Red Dawn - Must every damn thing be remade? Now, if it were Red Sonja...
Tree of Life - As if anyone needs me to explain my hopeful ardor
What's Wrong with Virginia? - Rare gig for scripter behind camera really hooks me


Monday, September 06, 2010

Monday Reviews, Part 2: Mugabe and the White African

I normally wouldn't double up on posts during the same day, especially when I've already linked to five new reviews below. However, Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson's Mugabe and the White African, long-listed for last year's Documentary Feature Oscar and a favorite of several film writers I adore, offers an unusual combination of a film that seems like essential viewing while also deeply rankling me, in political as well as aesthetic terms. I think everyone should see it and then argue about it, providing they can resist the otherwise brave filmmakers' implied preference that we respond emotively but not historically or intellectually to the tale they are presenting.

Mugabe is only playing at Facets Cinemathèque in Chicago until Thursday (thanks for this one, Facets!), so in the interest that a hometown audience might turn out for this urgent and somewhat inflammatory piece, I'm publishing my full review pronto.

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Monday Reviews: In the Silence Before Twitter...

Before I opened my account in the late spring, I was as dismissive of Twitter as the next snob, thinking it was good mostly for alerting your friends that you were having trouble finding a parking spot, or that your latte was cold and you were running late, or that you were totally over your AP Government teacher. That's me, eating crow. I've really enjoyed the coerced concision, the exposure to other voices, and the opportunity to file very short briefs about the movies I see, to register first impressions and/or to take the place of longer reviews. As we move on from the Fifties and find out what the fall and winter hold in store, I've gone back and supplied Tweet-sized reactions to all the U.S. releases from 2010 that I screened before I added this extra feature of the site. Remember, too, that I now include these at the top of the dedicated page for each film on my main review site.

Accomplices (09, B): A perfect festival surprise, handling two-track plot with rare ease; well-acted, well-told within a conventional form

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein (09, C+): Finkelstein well worth trying to penetrate but filmmakers haven't done it; structure too loose, POV too cautious

Chloe (09, D+): Moore's and Seyfried's ideas about their characters come to nothing as script and direction freefall into cheapness

Delta (08, C+): Artfully lensed, with some creeping power, but too many moves swiped from Festival Handbook of Slow-Build Morbidity (full review)

The Eclipse (09, C–): Not without its brooding chills and can't fault the leads, but adds up to precious little, and Quinn's embarrassing (full review)

Fish Tank (09, B+): Arnold gets such charge from images, actors, sounds; even when this one lapses or wanders, she brings it back with kick

Get Low (09, C–): First shot's a tone-setting keeper, but there's no movie beyond a mood and a rote climax; acted well but not memorably

The Ghost Writer (10, B): Early mastery of form and tone falter in the last third, but for spindly craft, nothing matches it right now

Green Zone (10, B+): Earns some gripes for stalled characters and naïve payoff, but very forceful, especially climactic triple-chase

How to Train Your Dragon (10, B+): Lilo & Stitch helmers reprise bouncy wit and keen feeling for child-animal rapport; inspired use of 3D

I Love You Phillip Morris (09, C): Everyone tries, but tone too flippant, and smug about its risk-taking; McGregor's sweet, Mann underused

Let It Rain (08, C+): Passable, but feels too much like it's still in idea stages: "What if we based our story loosely on Ségolène..." (full review)

Mother (09, B+): As in many Korean peers, piecemeal structure is problem and thrilling gift; for every bald patch, a staggering surprise

My Neighbor, My Killer (09, B+): What extraordinary doc lacks in finesse and structure it nails in emotional candor and eyewitness value (full review)

Prodigal Sons (08, A–): Brave, deft, top-level documentary; takes huge risk pairing transgender with mental illness, but it pays off

A Prophet (09, B+): No gainsaying Audiard's scene-level genius or the aliveness of his films, but genre feels trapped by overfamiliarity

Red Riding: 1974 (09, B–): Doubt I'll proceed; self-important air despite mid-grade plotting, and distractingly smudgy photography

The Runaways (10, B–): A literally unbeatable opening with nothing to match its verve, but good acting, worthy subject, artful moments

The Secret in Their Eyes (09, B–): Diverting mystery plus a bravura sequence shot, but ropey, a bit salacious, and stuck in Law & Order mold

The Secret of Kells (09, B): So gorgeously detailed and creatively designed it barely seems like the classroom dilution it essentially is

Shutter Island (09, D+): Undercooked scenario in grotesque grapple with overbaked presentation; Clarkson survives, Scorsese drowns (capsule review)

Summer in Genoa (08, C): Unclear why Winterbottom wanted to redo Don't Look Now but less ambitiously, with dangling ghost threads (full review)

Vincere (09, D+): I confess low tolerance for high-gloss Italian bathos, but nothing sustains the wailing, opportunistic spectacles

Finally, in case you still aren't a Twitter reader, and Lord knows I'm the last person to criticize a conscientious objector to any form of modern technology (including, you know, the car, the microwave, and the cellphone), I'm providing one last tip-off here to my recent reviews of last year's Venice Film Festival champ Lebanon (still playing at Chicago's Music Box), a highly rhetorical but affecting war film; the unusual, insinuating, zombie-flavored indie Make-Out with Violence, which Facets or someone ought to book for a midnight-cult run; the Australian import The Square (now on DVD), which I found disappointing but many fans of pulpy suspense will probably enjoy; Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising (now playing at the Siskel Film Center), a stunted aspirant to Aguirre's mad throne; and the chintzy-looking The Last Exorcism (currently in commercial release), which increasingly spurns internal consistency but has much more up its bloodied sleeve than you might be guessing.

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Best Actress

Annette Bening for The Kids Are All Right, for surviving choppy exposition and finding comedy in a character who is resolute, threatened, and pained, and never entirely predictable;

Greta Gerwig for Greenberg, for making her character entirely ordinary but not confusing this with making her colorless or uncomplicated, or someone to condescend to;

Katie Jarvis for Fish Tank, whose own greenness may feed into Mia's rough edges, but she's thorny and sensitive in the right ways, and her dancing is poignantly average;

Kim Hye-ja for Mother, for finding a woman who'd make Mildred Pierce cry but also scare the shit out of her, keeping us on our toes without playing her too smart; and

Birgit Minichmayr for Everyone Else, for teasing out gradations of Gitti being a pill on purpose or just being her flamboyant self, inviting critique but also seeking to please.

One of these women (not telling which!) cycled on and off and back on this list, and could get replaced at a moment's notice by any of my extremely honorable mentions: to Patricia Clarkson for risking a cloudy lethargy in Cairo Time that we rarely associate with her, and gradually revealing the reasons why this is such a well- or an ill-timed trip for her character; to Sylvie Testud for adhering to a fairly narrow, understatedly sunny range of affects in Lourdes, preserving mystery but playing a woman rather than a question mark; Nina Meurisse, who is so plausible and poignant as an adolescent drawn into a relationship that she can't possibly see coming in Accomplices, and unsure of what she's enjoying about it and what she isn't; and Jennifer Lawrence, who is good at playing one tough cookie in Winter's Bone, but is even more assured playing a patient, resourceful big sister in her quieter scenes. That seems like the easier half of her assignment, but I actually don't think it is.

Honorable mentions to Tilda Swinton for I Am Love, Aggeliki Papoulia for Dogtooth, Chiara Caselli for The Father of My Children, and Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right, and let no one say I am helplessly in the grip of my biases, given that the first and last of those women will rank a lot higher on other people's lists. Annette Bening in Mother and Child and Kristen Stewart in The Runaways might have hit a few notes too hard or played too strongly at times to their established personas, but they were really special during other passages. Each woman's deft handling of her final run of scenes was crucial to helping her film end sturdily after a wobbly middle.

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Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Best Picture

Yeah, I know you were expecting Best Actress next, but I also know the kinds of folks who frequent this site, and I elected to make you wait another day. Plus, this list was easier to settle on.

Dogtooth, for the courage of its convictions, evoking cruelty without just being cruel, and culminating so precisely, with shivers of jet-black wit;

Everyone Else, for inhabiting a three-act structure without laundering a speck of life's messiness; I could have watched another hour, at the outset or end;

Mother, because it's The Host all over again but potently elevated in stylishness and feeling, with mother and son swapping the role of the beast;

Prodigal Sons, speaking of life's messiness, for making the filmmaker's present as fascinating as her past, her family's story as gripping to us as to her; and

Toy Story 3, for being an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Playroom, an honest-to-god fable of purgatory and collective purpose, with sniffles and laughs.

Extremely honorable mentions to Fish Tank, Greenberg, and Lourdes, all of which have maintained formidable staying power in my mind and could conceivably move up this list upon a second viewing. A Prophet emanates lots of craft and an unpretentious self-assurance, but for whatever reason it's just never arrived to me as the full-on corker that it was for a lot of other people. Maybe I need to give that one another whirl, too. A glance over my Movies of 2010, using the grade-sort option, ought to let you know what other titles I considered for this category.

And tomorrow, the female leads.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Best Supporting Actor

Khalid Abdalla for Green Zone, who avoids bare clichés of the outraged local or the shady ally yet keeps you guessing about his motives and engaged in his point of view;

Niels Arestrup for A Prophet, because even if he weren't in jail, you could see that he's trapped and rotting, no matter how much power he wields from that fireplug frame;

Pierce Brosnan for The Ghost Writer, taut and character-specific in revelatory ways, either as a weary ex-PM denied the respect he deserves or a lifelong dupe, but mad either way;

John Hawkes for Winter's Bone, because the tenor he brings to most of the perf does not match the spirit of the character's decisions and behavior, creating rich mysteries; and

Rhys Ifans for Greenberg, who could have oversold Ivan's sad backstory or his ire at Roger's recent abuses, but he stays quietly powerful, intent on keeping cool.

Honorable mentions to Ned Beatty for his plush, avuncular, but always operative antagonism in Toy Story 3; Hans-Jochen Wagner for being such an insufferable, sexist foil in Everyone Else without seeming fully against his friend, or just becoming a nuisance to the audience; Michael Shannon, who strays not very far from the usual Michael Shannon performance in The Runaways but is nonetheless a reliable generator of energy and needed flamboyance; and Ewan McGregor, working far from his Honorable Mention'd performance in The Ghost Writer as the fey lover-inmate in I Love You Phillip Morris, parsing stereotypes with noble discernment, invoking the familiar but avoiding the hackneyed, and winding up a gentle, sympathetic figure.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Best Ensemble

Accomplices, with ace anchoring from Descours, Meurisse, Melki, and Devos, echoing each other across plotlines, plus sharp supporting turns to boot;

Animal Kingdom, for the family group of competitors, allies, and backstabbers (all the same people), but also the police, the lawyers, the girl's parents...;

Everyone Else, where the two frenemies are as fully realized as the two protagonists, and the couple with the boat evokes a whole lifetime in mere minutes;

Greenberg, where the concentric circles of strong acting include Leigh and Duplass from Greenberg's past, and the raft of kids he charms and alienates;

Toy Story 3, where the interplay among the regulars remains a franchise highlight, but the daycare and Bonnie's room yield new galleries of agile voicing.

Honorable mentions to the very game actors who realize Lanthimos's perverse vision in Dogtooth and bring real personality to it; to the patricians in I Am Love, eying each other mostly with affection but not without suspicion; to the rogue's gallery of criminals, schizos, bystanders, and phantoms in A Prophet; and to the warm, funny, thoughtful collection of performances in The Kids Are All Right, which aren't all perfect and rarely hit their peaks at the same time, but thrive off of each other's talent and each other's dissimilarities.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Fifties for 2010: Best Supporting Actress

Five splendid supporting performances by women, four of them directed by women, and four of the actors essentially new to me with these performances, since I didn't pay much mind to Mia Wasikowska watching her dad get eaten by a super-sized alligator in Rogue, and I don't remember which headcase Dale Dickey played in the Changeling asylum. Two shortfalls of perspicacity, I'm sure.

Dale Dickey for Winter's Bone, who enters as a tough scene-stealer, then surprises by returning (and how, tossing coffee!), then keeps showing new sides of this tough bird;

Ann Guilbert for Please Give, because her director coaxes tart but not especially daring performances, and yet Guilbert gives odd, risky edges to her mean, ailing old bat;

Elina Löwensohn for Lourdes, who manages to underplay bitter resentment, quietly seething over her mothlike charge's strange epiphany, wondering why it bothers her so;

Mia Wasikowska for The Kids Are All Right, giving the film's subtlest and most consistent performance, radiating an annoyed sadness as she realizes that her family cannot be trusted; and

Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom, who looks like she knows she rocks, but fair enough when you forgo pyrotechnics, kill with kindness, and play the car-window scene so softly.

Can I just say, that's yet another lineup I'd be happy to preserve through the end of the year? Still, honorable mentions to Patricia Clarkson for using her voice and her intensity to swat Leo across the face in Shutter Island, coming remarkably close to bringing the film to life; to Alice de Lencquesaing for playing a girl both introspective and precocious in The Father of My Children, not unlike the one she played in Summer Hours, but nicely blurring the line between shell-shocked grief and adolescent preoccupation; and to Kierston Wareing, who is vivid enough as the blowzy good-time mom in Fish Tank that one wishes she had more opportunity to expand upon her lewd, cat-grinning, unreliable presence.

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