Monday, October 27, 2008

The Dreaded Grading Scale, or: How I Felt About the Films I Saw This Year but Did Not Review

Want to know the method behind my madness? I can barely explain it myself.

Owen Gleiberman, who shares the title of chief film critic for Entertainment Weekly with Lisa Schwarzbaum, has famously said that he detests the movie letter grade scale used by the pop culture bible that employs him. I don't go by letter grades (far too many variables of + and -) but by stars -- five of them (with nearly as many variables of 1/2). Rating scales are necessry when judging things on their quality; when all is said and done, when all strengths and weaknesses have been observed, how, in one succinct number or letter, does the item hold up against the competition?

For me, week after week, one of two things occurs (sometimes at once): I see a film and a grade sticks out in my mind, or I see a film and words to be written stick out in my mind. Once I sit down and start typing, one of two other things occurs (usually not at once): what I'm writing dictates a grade, or a grade dictates what I'm writing. Sometimes, a movie warrants such a clear and specific position on the quality meter, that all one needs to do is explain why. Unfortunately, this is usually not the case.

Film, the most collaborative art form, has so many factors that affect whether or not it's a successful piece of work. Personally, I'm a sucker for gorgeous and colorful movies. That affection may save a beautiful title with a mediocre script from a low grade (ex: Wong Kar Wai's "My Blueberry Nights"). I also believe that strong acting can greatly elevate a film (ex: Julianne Moore and co. in "Savage Grace," an alluring but soul-sucking picture with little to say). Since most movies are mediocre and the great ones are few and far between, these elements within the lesser titles -- elements that hint at greatness, make the grading process that much more difficult.

Take "Pride and Glory," a needlessly circuitous, all-too-familiar cop drama that I reviewed the week of October 26 and gave the see-saw-ing 3 stars. For me, this grade can lean either way in terms of recommending the film in question. I normally won't endorse something if its given a rating lower than 3.5 stars, but many 3 star pictures posess praise-worthy parts, even if their sum is underwhelming. "Pride and Glory," as I wrote in my critique, has bursts of intensity that grab you by the throat. It also boasts a crop of solid performances from a solid cast. Is that enough to suggest seeing it? Well, no. Ultimately something we've all seen before, the flick hits the low end of the see-saw.

I saw a handful of other films this year, reviewed in complete and simply rated, that were also branded with 3 stars. Some were better than others. Some leaned to the see-saw's higher end. Either way, the 3 star grade is usually the most crowded because, sadly, most flicks are just okay. Below is a collection of grades for the films I've seen in 2008 but did not review. They run the gamut from 5 star excellence to 1 star putridity. But, there in the middle, you'll see that the 3 star titles are greatest in usual.
(Bear in mind that there are still two months to go in the year and most of the "finer" films have yet to be released. Expect this list to grow considerably).

Wall-E = 5 stars
I.O.U.S.A. = 4.5 stars
Vicky Cristina Barcelona = 4.5 stars
The Visitor = 4.5 stars
A Girl Cut in Two = 4 stars
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day = 4 stars
Mongol = 4 stars
Young @ Heart = 4 stars
The Grocer's Son = 3.5 stars
In Search Of = 3.5 stars
My Blueberry Nights = 3.5 stars
Were the World Mine = 3.5 stars
Bigger, Stronger, Faster = 3 stars
The Book of Caleb = 3 stars
The Edge of Heaven = 3 stars
Fear(s) of the Dark = 3 stars
Funny Games = 3 stars
Savage Grace = 3 stars
Paranoid Park = 2.5 stars
What We Do is Secret = 2.5 stars
Mamma Mia! = 2 stars
Patti Smith: Dream of Life = 1 star

Friday, October 24, 2008

On That Note, I Give You...

..."Gran Turino":

This is a "Dirty Harry" film?!? I'm pretty sure I got my research wrong. Admittedly, I've never seen any of the magnum-slinging madman's films, but this doesn't look like any "do you feel lucky" stories I've heard. Here's what happens when you equate internet rumors with legitimate internet news: BS gets recycled. Sorry, kids.

But, anyway, this intrigues me (though I'm unsure as to where the car comes in). As long as the Asian family element doesn't take a turn a la, "Lethal Weapon 4," this looks like it could be one calculated action drama. And I just can't resist Clint's world-weary rasp.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Unstoppable Clint Eastwood

It's gettin' on December and that can only mean one thing: Clint's back.

Lately, it seems like every other year, Clint Eastwood snakes his way into the Oscar game. In 2004, when pundits were all but ready to declare Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" as the run-away victor of the year's top prize, Clint came into the ring swinging and and snatched it away with "Million Dollar Baby."

In 2006, Clints ambitions were doubled as he presented a dual-perspective account of WWII in "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letter from Iwo Jima." The latter - which, like "Baby," snuck into theaters late in the game - slid into the Best Picture race -- and it was in Japanese. It also garnered Clint another nomination as director and "Flags" scored a few technical nods.

Now, in 2008, it looks like Mr. Eastwood's name will be present on voter's ballots once again as he unveils not one, but two buzzworthy films in the end of the seaon. "Changeling," his 1930s missing person drama with Angelina Jolie, debuts in two weeks and is said to boost its leading lady into the top tier of Best Actress hopefuls. Then, in December, Clint returns to his hallmark role of Dirty Harry for the vigilante franchise's sixth installment, "Gran Turino."

Given the director's Midas touch, the automotive-infused "GT" has people not only talking but adding it to their preemptive Oscar tallies for Best Picture. Given Eastwood's age, the very real possibility of this being his final starring role has those same folks penciling him in for a spot as Best Actor. And given his recent track record, YourMovieBuddy thinks they're onto something.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Ones That Got Away

Reportedly due to scheduling conflicts and - duh - economic issues, Paramount has postponed the release dates for three of its major 2008 Oscar contenders. "Defiance," Ed Zwick's Holocaust drama with Daniel Craig, got bumped to late December. "Revolutionary Road," Sam Mendes' domestic drama with Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio, has been pushed to early January 2009.

And, most tragically, "The Soloist," Joe Wright's first urban venture with Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, has been removed from Oscar consideration altogether and halted until March 2009 ("Revolutionary Road" and "Defiance" will still be eligible for this year's awards).

This certainly throws my fall/winter Must-See List into a tizzy; however, if "The Soloist" is as good at looks, it'll breathe some much-needed life into the obligatorily lackluster first few months of the year.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bang the Drum Quickly

Perhaps the only actor to gain noteworthy Oscar buzz in the first half of '08 - hell, in the first three quarters - is veteran side player Richard Jenkins for his lead role in actor-turned-writer/director Tom McCarthy's sophomore feature, "The Visitor."

The film, about a disillusioned Connecticut professor named Walter (Jenkins) who finds vitality late in life when he befriends a Middle Eastern family in New York, is a culturally, emotionally, and artistically diverse gem. McCarthy, whose first feature, "The Station Agent," was just as unembellished and sincere, places himself on the list of gifted, consistent filmmakers to watch.

Jenkins, who concurs that he's been working toward a project like this his entire career, achieves the persona of a lost and lonely man with a yearning, heartbreaking honesty. However, I have to admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed after having been inundated with all of the hype surrounding this performance. Yes, it is carefully subtle and profoundly realistic, but this is an actor who's wowed me on numerous occasions in the past (see: "North Country," "Six Feet Under"). Here, while I appreciated him earning the spotlight he deserves, Jenkins simply gave me the type of focused acting I've come to expect from the 61-year-old, and I'm unsure if this understated, early-in-the-game turn has what it takes to face-off against what are sure to be some heavy-hitters (see: Sean Penn in "Milk," Leonardo DiCaprio in "Revolutionary Road").

More impressive, to me, were the supporting performances in "The Visitor." I don't know where McCarthy dug up Haas Sleiman (above, right) and Danai Jakesai Gurira - who play Tarek and Zainab, the couple that unknowingly moves into Walter's New York apartment in his absence - but both actors are knock-you-to-the-floor good. Hold on tight and watch Sleiman go as his character teaches Walter to play the Djimbe drum (above, again) and fights his fears from behind the glass after being jailed for illegal residency by Immigration. And try to hold back a smile when Gurira talks of a humorous past on the Long Island Ferry, or a tear when she learns of the eventual sad truth about her lover.

As if that weren't enough, even more pleasing is Hiam Abass ("Munich," "Paradise Now") as Tarek's mother, Mouna. Fragile and gorgeous, Abass should be on the short list of Supporting Actress contenders at year's end. The love that forms between her and Walter is the most naturally constructed romance I've seen this year apart from robot sweethearts Wall-E and Eve. And, on that note, despite Jenkins' overblown hype, "The Visitor" is one of the most uniformly well-acted pictures of 2008.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Enchants for an Hour and a Half

Two nights ago, I finally caught up with "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," that lovely romantic comedy from the spring that stars the great Amy Adams and the even greater Frances McDormand. Playing like a film that's been plucked right out of the 30s, it's 92 minutes of nostalgic, irresistable charm.

Adams is perfect for the film's theatrical tone and her fiery locks look right at home in Depression-era bonnets and curls. Even better is McDormand, who adds yet another note-perfect performance and fits-like-a-glove role to her resume. Strong support comes from male characters played by Lee Pace ("The Fall") and Ciaran Hinds (um, everything?) but this film belongs to its two leading ladies.

For a period piece (it's set in 1939 London), the tale of Miss Pettigrew (McDormand), an unemployed nanny who lives on the streets until she gets herself a gig posing as the social secretary of aspiring actress Delysia (Adams), is told on a rather small scale. There are only about five locations in this film and most of it takes place in one luxurious flat. For me, this added to the intimacy of the story. And after all, the whole thing takes place in just...a day.

Nearly as entertaining as the film are the special features on the DVD which include a documentary about "Miss Pettigrew"'s long journey to the screen. Winifred Watson, who wrote the novel on which the film is based in the very year it takes place, sold the movie rights to Universal twice before her death in the 50s. Universal, which owns Focus Features, ultimately released the film nearly 70 years after the publication of Watson's book. I'm not sure if it delivers on what that much production time can afford but it's a touching and pretty film that's definitely worth a rental if not a purchase.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Streep Esteem, Part IV: THE RIVER WILD

I would say that Meryl Streep's upcoming Oscar buzzy role in "Doubt" is the impetus for this post but, really, I wanted to revisit this blog's ongoing tribute to the world's greatest living actress simply because I miss her. I know what you're thinking: 'Meryl just starred in the box-office hit, "Mamma Mia!," stupid!' Too true; and Streep belted "The Winner Takes it All" like a champ, but that movie did a dreadful disservice to its actors, and a far less invasive way to experience their solid work is to download the soundtrack. (Trust me, you'll save yourself from a full-on assault of epileptic camerawork and freshman film major construction -- just skip the Pierce Brosnan tracks.) I love Meryl's sparingly used pipes almost as much as I love her ways with dialect, and such is the only reason I stop myself from wishing that the big screen ABBA musical never happened.

No, I miss Method Meryl. I miss Dig Deep Meryl. "The Devil Wears Prada" is a gift from heaven, but I miss Meryl from "The Hours." I miss Meryl from "Adaptation." I miss Meryl from "The River Wild." Wait -- huh? That wilderness flick with Kevin Bacon from the '90s? You're damn right.

This movie came out when I was 10 and I went to see it in the theater. I don't think I was old enough to appreciate the magnitude of the talent before me, but you can bet I was just as rocked as anyone else when she said to Bacon: "I CANNOT row this big water, man, that's the truth! I CANNOT DO IT!" Such power. Such raw honesty tied up with mounting fear. Such...Streepness. The clip I found online is not of that scene but of the majestic opening credits, photographed beautifully by the great Robert Elswit. And you better believe that's Meryl doing the rowing herself -- this is a woman who mastered the violin for "Music of the Heart." ...But, that's for another post.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Somebody, please... me this for Christmas:

Actually, I already own a few of the titles in Janus Films/Criterion Collection's MASSIVE 50th anniversary boxed set - with 50 films on 50 discs, a 200 page hardcover booklet, and a $770 price tag - but I'd be willing to sell them off on eBay if someone handed this to me. No need to wrap it; it's simply beautiful as is.

Films in the collection I own: "The Rules of the Game," "Seven Samurai," "The 400 Blows," "M" -- wow, yeah, that's it.

Films in the collection I'm dying to see but haven't got around to yet: "Pandora's Box" (pictured above), "Beauty and the Beast," "Jules and Jim," "Ikiru," "La Strada" -- oh, who am I kidding? I want them all...and I've been really good this year.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

'Australia' is...

...officially my most anticipated film of 2008. I've been following Baz Luhrmann's Down Under epic for a while now, but this gorgeous new trailer sent it straight to the top of my must-see list.

I love BIG pictures like this because they have it all: action, scope, romance, humor, passion, and beauty. ...Then again, that's what they said about "Pearl Harbor." Meaning, this could be a masterpiece or a mess. However, I find it hard to believe that the mind behind "Moulin Rouge!" would fail to deliver the goods when working with a package this pretty.

So, how about it? What is "Australia" to you? The film event of the year, or just another loud tale in a (fairly) new location?