30 December 2009

Second Impression: "Up In The Air"

After having seeing Up In the Air for the second time, I can say that it is absolutely my favourite film of 2009. I went by myself when I first saw Jason Reitman's film, at the Varsity cinema in Toronto. This time I went with my family, to the Galaxy Cinema in Bolton. I would recommend never going to that theatre.

Here are just a few of my thoughts, after having seen Up In The Air for the second time:

(1) Jason Reitman is a fantastic director, and the film flows with a terrific ease that is absent in so many films.
(2) I found Geroge Clooney's performance as Ryan Bingham to be much more profound this second time, and I have a new admiration for him as an actor. He takes some real risk in his performance and it is wonderful to watch.
(3) I found Vera Farmiga to be just as amazing as the first time, but once again it was Anna Kendrick who stole the film for me. She is a special actress and I am eager to see where she goes next (beyond Twilight). She is my choice for Best Supporting Actress. Forget Mo'Nique, go see Anna Kendrick own the screen.
(4) I really loved how each new city was introduced, and as someone who loves both different fonts and geography I was pleased!

My original rating of the film still stands, and I am still telling everyone that I know to see Up In The Air!

28 December 2009

Review: "Nine"

Nine is the kind of Oscar-bait that is so loaded with stars that there has been awards buzz since it was announced. Nine stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren, all of whom have won Oscars. I am sure that Fergie and Kate Hudson must feel left out when their names do not appear in the trailer with such distinction. The film is based off the 1982 stage musical, which is itself an adaptation of Federico Fellini's film 8 1/2. Fellini's film has influenced many, including Woody Allen, whose film Stardust Memories (1980) is an homage to Fellini. Nine is directed by Rob Marshall, the Academy Award-nominated director of Chicago, which is my favourite musical from this decade. This is only his third film as director, and I had very high expectations. Nine was filmed in basically the same style as Chicago, but it lacked the same kind of standout performances and does not have the signature song that all musicals need.

Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Guido Contini, a world-famous Italian film director who is struggling to complete his current film. His most recent films have not fared well and most only want to talk about his early successes. He runs away, leaving his wife (Marion Cotillard) alone and confused, while his mistress (Penélope Cruz) arrives expecting to have his full attention. Guido must also deal with his costume designer and confidante (Judi Dench), his mother (Sophia Loren), an American reporter (Kate Hudson) and the demands of his actress and muse (Nicole Kidman). Guido finds himself under so much pressure from the women in his life that it jeopardizes the future of his film.

My biggest problem with Nine is that the musical numbers failed to energize the film, and sometimes I found myself wishing for them to be finished. I found the staging to be too similar to Chicago, and I do not think that it works well in this film. While I did find Marion Cotillard and Penélope Cruz to be the two highlights, Kate Hudson was definitely the worst of the bunch. Maybe she has been in too many lame films recently that she has forgotten how to act. The story within the film was interesting and makes me want to see Fellini's 8 1/2, but it fails as a musical and was one of the year's biggest disappointments.

My rating: 1.5 stars out of 4.

24 December 2009

Review: "The Messenger"

I will admit that I am not the biggest fan of Woody Harrelson, and my opinion is based almost entirely on his guest-starring role on Will & Grace. He is in two films that I love, No Country For Old Men and Natural Born Killers, but I would not say that he is the reason they are great. He has been garnering a considerable amount of praise for his performance in The Messenger, receiving nominations for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards. It is a war film about the army's Casualty Notification unit, responsible for notifying the family members of fallen soldiers. The Messenger is the directorial debut of Oren Moverman, who has written six screenplays, including 2007's I'm Not There. The film is directed with an incredible amount of control. The director allows his actors to perform and allows them to bring the words to life. It is uncomfortable to watch, due to its subject, but The Messenger features a mesmerizing performance by Woody Harrelson, who, when on screen, is as captivating as I have ever seen him.

Harrelson plays Captain Tony Stone, an army veteran from the Gulf War has been assigned to the Casualty Nofication unit for an undisclosed amount of time. It is apparent that he has been doing it for a considerable length of time and he has understands the subtleties of the job. A young soldier, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), was wounded in combat and has been assigned to the unit for the final three months of his service. Will is fighting a lot of demons, one of which is a former love (Jena Malone) who has fallen in love with another man. Tony has his own problems, including alcoholism, and it becomes very tense watching how their jobs affect them. The film takes a surprising turn when Tony and Will are sent to inform a young woman (Samantha Morton) that her husband has been killed. Will becomes very attracted to her and is soon finding himself become a part of her everyday life.

The Messenger only seems to skim the surface and does not fully develop its characters. We meet Tony and Will at a point in their lives and when the film ends we have learned bits of information about them, but not enough to feel satisfied. It is a very interesting film and it is shocking to see how families react to the devastating news. I did have trouble with one scene, involving Yaya DeCosta. I just could not believe her emotion and had trouble connecting to her. She has never really demonstrated any acting talent with her appearances on America's Next Top Model and Ugly Betty. Conversely, Steve Buscemi's role as a grieving father is powerful and provoking. The task of notifying families must be one of the toughest, and The Messenger does a decent job of depicting this. I usually love when film endings provoke questions, but in this case I felt that the film was leading in a certain direction and stopped just short of its goal.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

EDIT: I have learned, through Scott Feinberg's interview with Woody Harrelson, that the notification scenes were filmed with the two actors (Harrelson and Ben Foster) not knowing who they would find on the other side of the door (which reminds me of Mike Leigh's Vera Drake). I think that this adds a new dimension to the film, and makes me rethink my original interpretation.

23 December 2009

Review: "Avatar"

Avatar may have been the most universally anticipated film of 2009, and although I had very little interest in seeing it, I do believe it is a film worth seeing. Visually, the film is spectacular, but the film's trailers revealed very little of the story. James Cameron last directed a film in 1997, Titanic, which (undeservedly) won Best Picture, over the far superior L.A. Confidential. In the twelve years that have passed, Cameron has produced four films and directed four documentaries. Avatar was supposedly conceived in 1994, and the budget for the film has been speculated to be over $300 000 000 (though the studio has reported it to only be $237M). James Cameron is responsible for writing and directing some of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters: Aliens, True Lies, and The Terminator. Due to the advances in technology, there was obviously a lot of anticipation for the graphics in the film, which are quite amazing and worthy of seeing in 3D. The film has one great fault: the dialogue. James Cameron's screenplay is full of cliches and seems to be scrapped together from other action films, especially every line of dialogue uttered by Michelle Rodriquez.

Set in the year 2154, Avatar takes place on a moon called Pandora. An American corporation, RDA, is mining the moon for unobtanium. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, who seems very out of place in this role) has hired marines to act as mercenaries. Pandora is inhabited by its own indigenous creatures and a group of human-like people called Na'vi. The Na'vi are much taller than humans and they live in harmony with nature. Humans are unable to breathe the air, and a scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has created technology to enable humans to become Na'vi, through avatars. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has been tasked by this army to become a Na'vi and infiltrate their people so they will learn to trust him. Jake meets a young Na'vi girl, Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), and he begins to question the army's need to mine Pandora. The film co-stars Stephen Lang as the leader of the mercenary army, and CCH Pounder as the spiritual leader of the Na'vi, Neytiri's mother.

Avatar, while visually amazing and groundbreaking, suffers because of its story. The dialogue is ill-conceived and keeps viewers from fully sympathizing with the film's hero. The film's message definitely has parallels with our own world and how we abuse the environment, yet none of this is portrayed in the trailer. The film focuses so much on animation that the characters suffer. Avatar is a good film, but not a great film. It is worth seeing because it is so visually spectacular, but do not be surprised if you find the dialogue and characters to be underdeveloped.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4.

16 December 2009

Review: "Invictus"

In the late stages of his career Clint Eastwood has focused primary on directing. While he often acts in his own films, the last film starring Clint Eastwood and directed by someone else was 1993's In The Line of Fire, and he has only been in one film, Gran Torino, since 2004. His newest film, Invictus, is based on the real events surrounding the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. The life and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela are worthy of the cinema, yet this film focuses primarily on the newly-elected president's attempts to unite South Africa through rugby. It had long been reported that Morgan Freeman wanted the chance to portray Nelson Mandela, and purchased the rights to John Carlin's book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation before it had been published. Morgan Freeman is a terrific actor whose talents have been underused this decade (save for his incredible performance in Million Dollar Baby, coincidentally directed by Clint Eastwood). Matt Damon, whose talent as an actor I have often questioned, co-stars as Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, South Africa's national rugby union team.

The film does not focus on Mandela's twenty-seven year imprisonment, but does highlight the often violent relationship between races in post-Apartheid South Africa. The beginning of the film does a beautiful job depicting the tensions between blacks and whites, especially within Mandela's own team of bodyguards. Mandela is shown to be an intelligent, compassionate and forgiving man whose only goal is to unite his entire country. With the Rugby World Cup being held in South Africa in 1995, Mandela believes that his people would best be served if the host country won the tournament. His chief of staff and his family think that he is being foolish, but he is steadfast in his beliefs. The rugby union team features only one black player, and black South Africans have always cheered against South Africa. Mandela requests that the team hold workshops across the country, and soon the entire country is embracing its national team. Nelson Mandela took a lot of risks in his attempts to achieve his goal, and will always be remembered for his accomplishments.

My problem with the film is that I felt it undervalued Nelson Mandela's accomplishments. He is a remarkable man and should be seen as a true hero in the modern world, yet this film focuses on one single event. Invictus is beautifully shot and the rugby scenes are intense and entertaining, but I wanted to see more about the man himself. Morgan Freeman is fantastic as Nelson Mandela, but the film seems to want you to connect to the story through the sport and not through the characters. Matt Damon is unremarkable as Francois Pienaar, and I wish that a lesser-known actor had been given the role. I fear that most people will leave the theatre and think that it was just a film about rugby and not understand what Nelson Mandela was able to accomplish, and this is due to the decision to base the film entire on one event. Invictus is entertaining and well-crafted, but I do not think that it is a worthy representation of Nelson Mandela's life and I hope that one day there will be a film that does justice to his life story.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

13 December 2009

Review: "A Single Man"

Tom Ford is one of the world's foremost fashion designers, and he was once the creative director of my favourite label, Yves Saint Laurent. It has always been apparent that he is an artistic visionary and he has directed one of the year's finest films. A Single Man, written for the screen, produced and directed by Tom Ford, depicts one day in the life George Falconer, a gay college professor in the 1960s. The film stars Colin Firth, who gives a spellbinding performance. The film depends so much on his talent, especially in the many quiet scenes where dialogue is not needed. He deservedly won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival. The film is quiet and reserved, and its most emotional moments are in the silent scenes where George organizes his life while anticipating his own suicide. A Single Man features a mesmerizing performance by Julianne Moore as George's one-time love and best friend, but the film hinges on Colin Firth and his complete devotion to his character. George keeps his emotions hidden so deep inside that his pain unravels in his facial expressions. It is a film where it is more important to see with your eyes than to listen to the dialogue.

The film unfolds during a single day, November 30, 1962, and George has decided that he is ready to die. His lover of sixteen years, Jim (Matthew Goode), died in a car accident and George was asked not to attend the funeral -- it was for family only. Through a series of flashbacks we see how beautiful and fulfilling their relationship was, and how Jim's death has devastated George. He is an English professor at a small college in California, and he is not invested in his classes. This fact does not go unnoticed by his student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who awkwardly flirts with George after class. Charley (Julianne Moore) is alone and dependent on George, and pines for his love and affection. George is clearly depressed and throughout the entire film we struggle with our own emotions in regards to George's fate.

A Single Man is a great film, certainly one of the year's best, mostly due to the film's stunning visuals, which emphasize George's inner turmoil. This is especially evident during a conversation with Kenny when the scene seems grey and bleak when focused on George, but colourful and sunny when the camera is aimed at Kenny. It is exciting to watch how he interacts with Kenny, as he tries to evade his young student's advances. Julianne Moore is perfectly cast as Charley, a woman who desperately hopes that George will realize his true love for her. In a drunken rant she attacks George, showing that she is as empty inside as he is. Ginnifer Goodwin (from Big Love) has a small role as George's neighbour, and in one of the film's best scenes her young daughter helps us understand just how difficult it would have been to be gay in the 1960s. Colin Firth seems made for the role, he has created a character whose every word and motion seem so completely natural. A Single Man may have been made with the hard work of hundreds of people, but it is Colin Firth alone who left me captivated.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

Best Picture Favourites?

Gold Derby, part of the L.A. Times' group of blogs, has compiled a list of 18 critics' choices for the ten best films of the year. I have used these lists to give each film an individual ranking, based on their spot on the list. For every number one ranking I gave the film 10 points, 9 points for second position, and all the way down to 1 point for number ten.

Four films appeared on every list: Up In The Air, The Hurt Locker, Precious and Avatar.
Four films were ranked first at least once: Up In The Air, The Hurt Locker, Precious and Inglourious Basterds.
Film with the most number one rankings: Up In The Air (14 first place votes)

Here is a list of all the films with their total point total:

Up In The Air: 174 (Highest Ranking: 1, Lowest Ranking: 4)
The Hurt Locker: 146 (1, 5)
Precious: 132 (1, 10)
Avatar: 115 (2, 10)
Invictus: 94 (2, Not Ranked)
Inglourious Basterds: 72 (1, NR)
Up: 63 (3, NR)
Nine: 56 (4, NR)
An Education: 52 (5, NR)
A Serious Man: 19 (4, NR)
The Messenger: 13 (6, NR)
It's Complicated: 10 (9, NR)
The Lovely Bones: 8 (8, NR)
The Road: 6 (6, NR)
In The Loop: 5 (6, NR)
A Single Man: 5 (7, NR)
Julie & Julia: 3 (9, NR)
The Last Station: 3 (8, NR)
Star Trek: 1 (10, NR)
Where The Wild Things Are: 1 (10, NR)

It seems that, at least for the time being, that Up In The Air is the clear favourite to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I do find it surprising that Richard Corliss' choice for best film of the year was not included on a single critic's list!

12 December 2009

Review: "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee almost plays like a less intense version of a Woody Allen film. Pippa Lee is a woman who has been over-analyzing her life since she was young, and it seems that every decision she has made can be directly related to her relationship with her mother. Directed by Rebecca Miller, based on her own novel, the film stars Robin Wright (Penn) as Pippa Lee, Alan Arkin as her husband Herb, Gossip Girl's Blake Lively as the young Pippa, Maria Bello as her mother, and Keanu Reeves as a potential love interest. Julianne Moore and Winona Ryder give supporting performances, though I would have preferred to see their roles reversed--even if it would have made a little less sense in the end. The film premiered early in 2009 at the Berlin Film Festival, and after its showing at the Toronto International Film Festival Robin Wright's performance was hailed as one of the best of the year (the early buzz has since become silent). The previews for the film made it look like a chick flick and I had reservations about seeing it. I ended up watching it online and I am glad I saved my money.

From an early age Pippa adored her mother until she was told that her mother's behaviour was heavily aided by pills. As a teenager she leaves home, and moves to New York to stay with her lesbian aunt, whose girlfriend (Julianne Moore) coerces Pippa into posing for some very risque photographs. Her aunt is very upset by this and Pippa is forced to leave. We never really know what happens after that, but one can assume that she has entered a world of drugs and promiscuity. One evening she attends a party at Herb's beach house, and she is instantly attracted to him. It is very awkward to watch the 22 year-old Blake Lively flirt with the 75 year-old Alan Arkin, though I can understand that the director wanted to highlight the age difference. Herb divorces his wife and marries Pippa, they have two children, and in the present they have moved to an retirement community after Herb's third heart attack. Pippa is afraid that he is going to die and she is incredibly unhappy. Pippa's life unfolds through flashbacks, but it is not always clear why certain scenes are relevant.

Robin Wright is wonderful to watch and her narration helps keep the film cohesive, but I had far too many complaints to really enjoy the film. I can understand the need to use Blake Lively in scenes with Pippa's mother, but I believe that the film would have been better served if Robin Wright was the actress when she met Herb. Nothing was said about the age difference and that made the scenes with Alan Arkin that much more disturbing (especially when a naked Blake Lively was lying on top of him). I grew up watching Robin Wright, The Princess Bride is probably the most-watched film of my entire life, and it is a shame that we did not get to see her act alongside Maria Bello or Julianne Moore. The film is predictable and nothing really gets resolved. It left me feeling cheated, but what is worse is that I did not care.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

11 December 2009

A continuation: Richard Corliss' Top Ten Performances

In my previous post I discussed Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss' top ten films of 2009. I found that he tried to mix the art house film genre with more mainstream titles. I do not understand how his top two films of the year can be overdone animated films! He also presents us with his top ten performnces of 2009, five female and five female.

Let's take a look at his list:

Les Femmes:
5. Marion Cotillard, Nine
Rob Marshall (Oscar-nominated director of Chicago) has adapted a stage musical (which was adapted multiple times before that) that garnered a lot of Oscar buzz for most of the year. Two weeks before its release Nine has been getting a lot of disappointing early reviews, but only Marion Cotillard (2007 Best Actress winner for La Vie en Rose -- who did not deserve the award over Julie Christie) has received praise. It is a bit early to see if this performance deserves its place on the list, but in a year full of amazing female performances you can never be sure!

4. Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
I am an avid fan of Meryl Streep and was eager to see the film when it was released. I was disappointed by Amy Adams whiny performance as Julie, and the overall sugarcoated tone of the film, but Meryl Streep was exceptional as Julia Child. Is this performance as good as some of her earlier work? No... but it is deserving of being mentioned as one of the best of 2009.

3. Saorise Ronan, The Lovely Bones
Peter Jackson's return to the human drama (like 1994's Heavenly Creatures) was one of my most anticipated films of the year. It was supposed to put into limited release in Toronto this weekend, but that has been pushed to the middle of January. Is this due to the extremely mixed reviews? If so, this will probably hurt the young Saorise Ronan's chances at a second nomination.

2. Carey Mulligan, An Education
So far, my choice for Best Actress of the year, Carey Mulligan was perfectly flawless as a young sixteen year-old coming of age in An Education. She is the highlight of a wonderful film and her performance brings an incredible amount of promise for the future.

1. Mo'Nique, Precious
I think that my love for Precious has waned since seeing the remarkable film, and even more so after seeing Up In The Air.
I have been thinking that Mo'Nique's career as an outrageous comedienne helped her transformation to create the shocking and volatile Mary Jones. Mo'Nique is scary in her role, but the film belongs to Gabourey Sibide, whose performance should be ranked higher.

What do I believe is missing? Both women from Up In The Air, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, gave incredible performances that would be included in my list, along with Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sibide.

Les Hommes:
5. Michael Jackson, This Is It
Is this a joke? Can someone really be praised for playing oneself in a documentary? Not in my opinion.

4. Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
This is the greatest supporting role amongst all actors this year. Hans Landa is a wonderfully complex character and Waltz's portrayal is flawless. My only complaint: Mélanie Laurent should be receiving the same amount of praise for her role in Quentin Tarantino's film.

3. George Clooney, Up In The Air
So far this is my choice for Best Actor. Clooney brings something fresh and new to this role. I am in love with this film.

2. Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
This is a remarkable film, as I have repeatedly said, but I do not think that this is one of the year's five performances.

1. Colin Firth, A Single Man
Winner of the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, Colin Firth has garnered an immense amount of praise for his role in Tom Ford's first film. It will be exciting to see in the months to come if this small art house film can compete against George Clooney and Morgan Freeman (whose performance in Invictus has also won a lot of praise).

What is missing? Michael Stuhlbarg's performance in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man has so far been unfairly neglected.

09 December 2009

Time's Top Ten of Everything (2009)

Time magazine's film critic Richard Corliss has published his top 10 films of 2009. His top ten performances include most of the front runners for this year's Academy Awards. I have never put much faith in Corliss' reviews, mostly because I have trouble believing that the film critic for Time can give a completely unbiased review when the magazine itself is part of Time Warner Inc -- although, surprising enough, Warner Bros. did not produce a single film included in his list. But, onto the list itself...

Time's Top Ten Films of 2009
10. Thirst
This is a Korean film that had a limited release in the United States, and won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Corliss either wants to be viewed at a real man of the cinema, or he is just trying to prove he can name a few foreign films. Once more established critics (such as my personal favourite, Robert Ebert) start releasing their top ten lists we can see if Thirst makes the cut. He does, however, make a comparison (albeit negative) to the new Twilight film in his comments...

9. District 9
I have not seen it, but I have at least heard of it! It just seems like too much of a summer blockbuster, which rarely interests me. I have heard that it was a good film, but in all this end of year awards buzz it has rarely been mentioned.

8. Of Time and the City
Has anyone actually heard of this? It debuted at Cannes in 2008 and had a release that year in the U.K., but not until this year in the United States. It received a number of accolades at this time last year, so does that mean it is equally deserving this year?

7. A Single Man
I am saving any judgment of this film until Sunday afternoon, which will be after I have seen it! Julianne Moore is a wonderful actress, and her guest-starring role on 30 Rock tonight made me even more excited to see it.

6. The White Ribbon
Obviously Mr. Corliss gives a lot of credence to the Cannes Film Festival, seeing as this film was the recipient of the prestigious Palme d'Or. This film has not yet been released in North America, but such is the luck of a film critic.

5. Up In The Air
Jason Reitman's film, starring George Clooney and two amazing women, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, is my choice for top film of the year so far.

4. The Hurt Locker
The constant motion of the camera made me sick when I saw this film on the big screen, ruining a lot of its impact. I do believe it is a fantastic film, and deserving of its success.

3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
I think Wes Anderson is a genius, and his first attempt at animation is the best animated film of the year! Watching that old, traditional stop-motion Christmas film on television makes the impact of this film that much more astonishing.

2. Up
I had reservations before seeing this film, and I almost preferred that I had stayed away. I absolutely believe that Pixar has made much better films (Finding Nemo), and worse (The Incredibles), but Up just ranks somewhere in the middle.

1. The Princess and the Frog
So the top three films of the year are all animated? And Disney gets top honours! The film has been getting some glowing reviews, but the release has been surrounded by a lot of controversy. Disney has finally decided to show a non-White princess, and I am just left to believe that Disney is being applauded for finally crossing the racial barrier!

Obviously I disagree with most everything Richard Corliss has picked for the year's best, and I will probably continue to ignore all of his film reviews... but he also made a list of the year's best performances, which I want to discuss later!

07 December 2009

Review: "The Blind Side

Is there a mature working actress today who more invokes memories of the 90s than Sandra Bullock? With the exception of her role in Crash, she has only done a series of sappy romantic comedies that garnered little attention, but were widely promoted. These films struggled to capture any of her true acting ability. She is the quintessential 90s actress, similar to Julia Roberts, and they have both struggled to translate their former success in this decade--with the exception being Julia Roberts' Oscar-winning performance in Erin Brockovich (although it barely counts, as it was released in 2000). With The Blind Side it finally seemed that Sandra Bullock had found a film that could challenge her artistically. Based on a true story, the film depicts a Southern family that opened their home to a young man who became a football star. Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family whose own compassion and stubbornness help the young Michael Oher succeed. It is a shame that the life story of a young black man had to be adapted for the screen as the story of the wealthy, white woman that saved him. The film did suffer from over promotion: there was a preview before almost every film I saw this fall (which is a decent amount) and in the weeks leading up to its release there was hardly a commercial break on television that did not include at least one advertisement.

Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) is a young man without a future. His mother is a drug addict in an area of Memphis where boys turn to drugs and violence instead of sports and education. He was fortunate to have two people fight for him to attend a private Christian school, where he became the only black student. He had been out of school for so long that his test scores were low, and almost every single teacher saw no potential in him. He befriended a young boy named SJ Tuohy, and one night driving home from a school event his mother Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock) stopped and invited him into their home. Michael slowly became an integral part of the Tuohy family, a brother to SJ and Collins, and a son to Leigh Anne and Sean (Tim McGraw, who must be the template of the loving southern husband). Michael shows a real aptitude for football, and becomes such a star on his high school team that he is eventually heavily recruited by nearly every college in the Southeast Conference. The real heart of the story exists in how Michael changes those around him, and how his presence in their lives affects them.

The Blind Side is as formulaic as any true story, which means that it is enjoyable to watch but fails to really resonate once the films ends. The real Michael Oher is a rookie lineman for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL, and it almost seems unfair to him that this film was released during his first professional season. Sandra Bullock has created one of her finest performances, but I did find myself often amazed at how some scenes focused more on the shape of body. This kind of role may have won Julia Roberts awards glory, but the state of cinema has changed. It is films that require risk and selflessness that are capturing trophies. The Blind Side has obviously taken some cinematic license, and as a football fan I think I might have enjoyed learning the real facts of Michael Oher's life instead of seeing this film.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

06 December 2009

Review: "Up In The Air"

In 2001 I had graduated early from high school and I was working full-time before starting university in the fall. I was let go at the beginning of July. During that time I bought a new book every week. One of those books was Up In The Air, by Walter Kirn. I really enjoyed the book, so much so that I read his previous novel, Thumbsucker. That novel was made into a 2005 film, and I was mostly disappointed by the adaptation. Jason Reitman has only made two previous films, Thank You For Smoking and Juno, which were both critically lauded. I was excited from the start for his adaptation of Up In The Air, even if I was a bit apprehensive of George Clooney taking on the role of Ryan Bingham. I had reservations because I think that George Clooney is too old to be playing a 35 year old man, and aging the character too much would be disastrous. From its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in early September, to its massively hyped premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Up In The Air has been garnering accolades for its three stars (Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick) and for director Jason Reitman (who co-wrote the screenplay). The studio could have over-hyped the film in the three months leading up its limited release, but there was so much faith in the product that there was very little news until a week before it entered theatres (though only in limited release until Christmas Day). There was not a single film I was more eager to see this fall, and I was more impressed by the film than I had ever expected.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) works for a company that sends him flying back and forth across the country to fire employees at other companies. He travels almost 300 days of the year and chooses not to have a real home, real friends, or any real relationships. An eager new employee, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) has a fresh perspective and has grown up with technology. She has convinced the company that they no longer need to waste funds sending so many employees across the country firing people face-to-face when it can be done using the Internet. Ryan is unconvinced and takes Natalie on a cross-country tour showing her that the human element is a necessity. Natalie is shocked by Ryan's disconnectedness, and the two eventually learn to appreciate and understand each other. When Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), who spends weeks and months away from home, his views begin to change. The three characters, when together on screen, work so effortlessly that you cannot help but feel attached to these characters and their futures.

Up In The Air is the best film that I have seen this year. It is more perfectly paced than A Serious Man (which is itself an amazing film) and it has more real human emotion than Precious. It will win a vast number of awards during the Oscar season. The National Board of Review named it the best film of the year, with Clooney and Kendrick taking the Best Actor and Supporting Actress awards, respectively. The film has a lot of humour (with Zach Galifinakis and J.K. Simmons in great supporting roles), but the real heart of the film is how Ryan is affected by Natalie and Alex. This is not George Clooney's film, he and his character would have fallen flat were it not for the amazing performances by his two female co-stars.

My rating: 4 (or 5, even 6) stars out of 4.

04 December 2009

Does a trailer make a movie?

Before reviewing Up In The Air, which I saw today (and it did not disappoint), I wanted to mention something I thought of before the film started...

Remember when the excitement of going to see a movie included wanting to see those few previews before the film? Ever since cinemas started adding five minutes of advertisements before the trailers, it takes so long for the film to start that I often forget which film I am about to see. Now, with Apple offering exclusive clips and behind-the-scenes extras, I often go to the movie theatre and every preview is a trailer I have already seen! It seems that the worst films are the most advertised on television, which happen to be lowbrow comedies aimed at teenage boys. It was for this reason that I was against seeing The Hangover for the longest time.

But this is not a post to condemn trailers to extinction!

There is one film whose trailer excites me beyond belief. It reveals next to nothing about the plot, and is simply a long series of fractured scenes set to a heart-racing score. Each time I watch the trailer my heart rate increases and my anticipation soars! Tom Ford's directorial debut, A Single Man, should win some kind of award for its spectacular trailer!

03 December 2009

Why "Big Love" is my biggest love!

With Veronica Mars no longer being on television after its ludicrous cancellation, my absolute favourite show is HBO's Big Love--which coincidentally stars Veronica Mars' two best friends! Set in Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, the show stars Bill Paxton as Bill Henrickson. He tries to maintain a public persona while engaging in polygamy at home. He and his three wives, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), second wife Nicki (Chloe Sevigny) and third wife Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), live in three houses connected by an open backyard. Bill and Barb present themselves as a loving Mormon family, but at home their lives are complicated by Barb's resentment of Bill engaging in polygamy, Nicki's relationship with her father (the prophet of the polygamist colony where Bill was raised), and Margene's yearning to be a contributing member of the family. The show does not romanticize polygamy, nor does it blatantly condone it. Big Love showcases the effects of polygamy on one family, and how their lives are complicated by their choices.

Here are my top five reasons to watch Big Love:

1. Margene Heffman (Ginnifer Goodwin)
While all three of Bill's wives offer something different, it is Margene's innocence and charm that make her the most empathetic of the three. I feel Barb's pain when Bill is with his other wives, considering that she was married to him for 10 years before ever reverting to his polygamist past. During the first season Margene is often seen as naive and needy. She is overwhelmed by her two children. She feels belittled by Nicki. It is remarkable to watch how she grows and matures. In season 2 she befriends a woman named Ana, who Bill courts as a possible fourth wife. This friendship allows us (and Margie herself) to realize how much she loves Bill and their unique family. But it is during the third season that Margene comes alive. She becomes the public image of Bill's new business venture, an online gaming company. Margene has real business savvy and the ability to really sell her ideas. Margene is my favourite character, and she is the only one that I would want to befriend!

2. Ana (Branka Katic)
While only appearing in eight episodes, Ana makes a real impact on the family. She is an immigrant from Serbia, working a dead-end job as a waitress. After Bill begins secretly dating her (keeping his real motives unknown), Margene and Ana become friends. Margene really needs a friend outside the family and this relationship makes Margene glow. After initially breaking up with her, Bill reveals his secrets and proposes to Ana. She marries into the family during the third season and refuses to surrender her individuality. She wants to keep her own money and demands her own house, like the three other wives. Ana leaves the family just as quickly as she entered, but there are consequences: Margene is now full of self-esteem and will not take the abuse from Barb and Nicki, and Bill's integrity, previously in question, has been lost.

3. Kathy Marquart (Mireille Enos)
Kathy enters the show as a potential second wife for Bill's brother, Joey. His wife Wanda suffers from mental illness, and Kathy becomes a wonderful balance for the family. It is Kathy's presence that made me see the value in polygamy. She is a caring and compassionate woman, and her death in the third season is the most heartbreaking moment of the whole series. The only saving grace is that the marvelous Mireille Enos plays Kathy's twin sister Jodeen, who does appear in episodes after Kathy is killed.

4. The four teenagers: Ben Henrickson (Douglas Smith), Sarah Henrickson (Amanda Seyfried), Heather Tuttle (Tina Majorino), Rhonda Volmer (Daveigh Chase)
The show demonstrates how being raised in a polygamist family has affected Bill and Barb's two teenaged children, Ben and Sarah. The two fight over Ben's revelation that he wants to engage in polygamy, and they bond over Sarah's pregnancy. Heather, Sarah's friend from work, is an active Mormon, and is interested by Sarah's home life. The two become fast friends and make plans to go to college in Arizona to raise Sarah's baby away from both their families. It is also a lot of fun to see Veronica Mars' best friends finally get some screen time together! Rhonda, a 15 year old engaged to Roman, the prophet, on the compound. She is manipulative and plays on Barb's sympathies. She threatens to come between Sarah and Heather, and while she plays innocent and naive is definitely aware of all her carefully plotted actions. Polygamy affects everyone and these four adolescents are no exception.

5. Frank Harlow (Bruce Dern)
Maybe I am a little bit biased because I love his real-life daughter, Laura Dern, but his character on Big Love is so fun to hate! He is Bill's father, and terrorizes the whole family. When the series starts Bill has little to do with his father, and as time passes the reasons become painfully obvious. Frank is often vengeful, and causes tension with Bill when he openly supports Roman's efforts to attack Bill. He is verbally and emotionally abusive of Bill's mother Lois (Gracie Zabriskie, George's Costanza's would-be mother-in-law on Seinfeld). My dislike of Frank goes so deep that in season 3, when Lois attemps to kill Frank, I wanted to be there alongside her.

Big Love is big fun, so on and watch it!