Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009 - The Year in Review

Recession-Era Cinema
By R. Kurt Osenlund

"Economy” was the word on everyone's lips this year, and it's the word I kept coming back to when thinking about the year's best films. Whether implicitly or explicitly, in form or in function, in story or in style, my favorite movies reflected 2009's recessionary landscape.



More about power than money but firmly tethered to both, Armando Ianucci's biting British political comedy “In the Loop” offers a screamingly funny and considerably scary glimpse into the chaotic swirl of media, intergovernmental relations and twisted communication that can set the ever-profitable machine of war into motion. Only “Brüno” delivered more tear-inducing laughs this year, and no comedy in years has been more brilliantly written. The film unflinchingly suggests that war can be the most cutthroat business of all, with a screwy slew of bigwigs and underlings from both sides of the pond climbing the ladder (and the “the mountain of conflict”).


"Avatar” is unquestionably the year's best bang for your movie buck, enhancing its breathtaking visuals with gimmick-free 3-D to provide an immersive, amazing cinematic experience. As Roger Ebert recently pointed out, it also proves that James Cameron is one of very few filmmakers working today who know how to make excellent use of hundreds of millions of dollars. A towering behemoth of pure astonishment, this long-awaited saga about an epic battle on a distant moon holds you spellbound for all of its 162 minutes, and vividly exemplifies the eye-popping possibilities of modern movie-making.


A transcendent, ingenious sci-fi adventure for the ages, bold new talent Neill Blomkamp's “District 9” flips the conventions of the alien invasion picture, presenting its otherworldly visitors as a group of vulnerable, persecuted refugees and creating a potent allegory on race and socioeconomic class. Executive produced by fantasy maestro Peter Jackson, the movie also succeeds as a fascinating faux-documentary, an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller, a rip-roaring action flick and a great-looking creature feature – its computer-generated imagery seamlessly blended with the slums of its South African setting.


A gritty, galvanizing and richly textured drama set in 1980s Harlem, West Philly native Lee Daniels's “Precious” focuses on a girl who's not just poverty-stricken, but obese, illiterate, beaten at home, pregnant again by her father and HIV-positive. As the tight-lipped title character, breakout star Gabourey Sidibe gives a terrific, transformative debut performance, and as her venomous mother, comedienne Mo'Nique delivers the best performance of the year. Think you've got it bad? Then you haven't met Claireece “Precious” Jones, and when you do, odds are you'll never judge her again.

For her uncompromising Iraq War drama, “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow takes a refreshingly thrifty approach to action filmmaking. She nixes the frenetic editing and showy effects, and instead uses frightening images and tightly-wound patience to produce relentless, white-knuckled tension. Led by the war-addicted Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, Oscar-worthy), the bomb-defusing soldiers in this movie never feel safe, and neither does the audience. Emotional, yet unsentimental, it's the best contemporary war film since “Black Hawk Down.”


There's not a wasted moment, shot or line of dialogue in “Hunger,” a harrowing interpretation of the events that occurred within the walls of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison during the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Masterfully directed and co-written by British artist Steve McQueen, “Hunger” conveys its story not with words, but with visuals, its exposition reserved for one 17-minute conversation that serves as its entire second act and is caught in one continuous take. Nearly every frame is frame-worthy, as the grisly proceedings are captured with staggering aesthetic grace. As strike-initiating martyr Bobby Sands, rising star Michael Fassbender gives a fearless, indelible performance.

Plenty have argued that Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is unforgivably overindulgent with his use of shock value in the controversial jaw-dropper “Antichrist,” an unshakable beast of a movie best described as the director's dark vision of an alternate, godless world. But von Trier is highly economical in terms of plot, reducing his framework to the increasingly volatile interplay of a grieving couple attempting to mend their marriage and emotional wounds at a remote cabin in the woods. He indeed fills in the gaps with some gruesome, extremely shocking images, but more important than the images are their implications, which lead the mind down terrifying, devastating paths. The most profoundly disturbing film I've seen in years, and also one of the most undeniably powerful.


In translating the work and tragically short life of 19th century English poet John Keats to the screen, writer/director Jane Campion creates her own kind of poetry, presenting the romance between Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse, Fanny Brawne (an exquisite Abbie Cornish), as a ravishing gift to the senses. Like Bigelow, Campion exhibits a great deal of restraint and frugality, letting the movie's consummate loveliness wash over you but never forcing it upon you. Campion is in full command of the tools at her disposal (Grieg Fraser's photography, Mark Bradshaw's music, the delicate countryside of Bedfordshire, England), and uses them to craft a love story that's romantic in every way. The year's most beautiful film by a mile.

2. UP

The blissful, high-flying adventure “Up” reinstates why the films of Pixar are priceless and nearly peerless in an industry that too often forgets it's based on visual storytelling. Like “Hunger,” and like last year's “Wall-E,” this hilarious, exciting and very colorful tale of an old man who sails away on an incredible adventure after tying thousands of helium balloons to his house frequently eschews dialogue and communicates its narrative through meaningful, impactful, carefully rendered images. Though perfectly appropriate for kids, this is Pixar's most mature film to date, addressing themes of mortality and loss and stressing the importance of letting go of material things and embracing life – a soothing reminder for these difficult times.


To this list and to the cultural zeitgeist, there's nothing unclear about the relevance of “Up in the Air,” director and co-writer Jason Reitman's endlessly witty, enormously satisfying tragicomedy about an antihero who lives his life in hotels and airplanes and fires people for a living. It's not easy for a movie to be both ageless and acutely of-the-moment, but “Up in the Air” pulls it off. The components of job loss and the decline of human interaction via electronic communication are incomparably timely, yet the timeliness seems an almost incidental benefit of the eternal and universal core story. Reitman, who draws perfect performances from stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick, and does an extraordinary job of maintaining a funny, yet poignant tone, introduces us to a man slowly discovering his humanity. In the process, the supremely gifted young filmmker taps into the humanity in all of us.

“(500) Days of Summer,” “Gomorrah,” “Julia,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Brüno,” “Star Trek,” “Summer Hours” and “Goodbye Solo.”

Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Of Time and the City,” “The September Issue,” “Nine,” “Watchmen,” “An Englishman in New York,” “Michael Jackson's This Is It” and “I Love You, Man.”



Another nail in the coffin of Eddie Murphy's career, “Imagine That” is an absurd, unbearable family fantasy that tries and fails to mix the world of stocks with nonsense like magical blankies and invisible dragons. The finance stuff is over kids' heads and the kid stuff is in no way appealing to adults. Family schmamily – this is a movie for no one.


An outrageously insensitive carnage-fest that follows the disaster movie formula to the letter. Director Roland Emmerich may now hold the distinction of having the highest body count and annihilating the planet more completely than any other filmmaker on record, but what kind of career goal is that?


The most shamelessly unoriginal, cliché-filled rom-com to come along in quite some time. Completely implausible as a Starbucks-drinking, stiletto-wearing corporate hotshot bewitched by small-town charm, Renée Zellweger hits a new low.


British photographer Peter Rodger sets out across the globe to inquire about the meaning of God, and comes back with this pretentious, obtuse, hyperactive mess of a documentary that's basically unwatchable. OMG, did I hate it.


Even the climactic cat fight is clawless in this insipid “Fatal Attraction” rip-off, which features some of the year's most wooden acting and, certainly, the year's worst dialogue. “Did you not get my message?” Beyoncé's big-haired, bigger-tempered housewife asks at one point. If the message was, “This movie totally sucks,” then yeah, I got it. Loud and clear.


An insufferably long, incomprehensible nightmare of grinding metal, raucous special effects and monotonous fight sequences, Michael Bay's needless “Transformers” sequel is an assault on the cerebral cortex, creating the sensation of being fired through a pinball machine. Forget worst of the year – this awesomely awful movie gets my vote for worst of the decade.


To read last year's lists, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Nine' Review

"Nine" doesn't sit so well in the memory but, in the moment, it's a dazzling sit indeed.

Though thin on substance, this movie is basically tailor-made for me: glamorous, cinema-centric, European, musical, and teeming with big-name actresses. You may feel differently, as many others have, but I ate up nearly every number. Read more about it in my "Nine" review, now online at SouthPhillyReview.com. CLICK HERE.

"Welcome to our home...

...what's left of it."

Happy Holidays from Your Movie Buddy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

'Brothers' Review

Watching "Brothers," I was reminded of how much I love "In America" (2003), another Jim Sheridan film that showcases the director's superb way with children. Here, he draws dynamite performances from all his actors, but none are more impressive than those of young Taylor Geare and especially Bailee Madison, who portray the daughters of the characters played by Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire.

Read more about "Brothers" in my review, now online at SouthPhillyReview.com. CLICK HERE.

R.I.P. Abbie Cornish...

...or, at least, R.I.P. Abbie Cornish's Oscar hopes for her extraordinary performance as Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion's ravishing "Bright Star." I'm getting painfully accustomed to latching on to a great bit of acting that ultimately gets ignored during awards season (last year I was crushed to see Rosemarie DeWitt get repeatedly snubbed for her brilliant work in "Rachel Getting Married").

This year, as much as I adored Carey Mulligan in "An Education," and marveled at Gabby Sidibe's transformative portrayal of the title character in "Precious" (you simply must see an interview with this girl to grasp how much of a departure Claireece Jones is from her actual persona), if I had to choose one lady to go up against Meryl Streep, it'd be Cornish. Such a feisty, yet vulnerable characer she brought so beautifully to life.

However, with all the precursors essentially in the bag, it appears Cornish's fate has been sealed as far as the Academy Awards are concerned. Rarely does a performer with hardly any precursor recognition move on to compete for the big prize.

Which brings me to the Southern-accented elephant in the room: Sandra Bullock is totally lovable, and I don't want to begrudge her her first Oscar nomination but, really, who watched both "Bright Star" and "The Blind Side" and thought Bullock was better than Cornish? (And, for that matter, who thought Bullock was better than Tilda Swinton in "Julia?") I realize "The Blind Side" is far more popular but, still, it baffles and saddens me. Such is the plight of an actress lover, I suppose.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Seeing Double

Boy, Hollywood Foreign Press, I love Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock, too, but might you have spread the wealth just a little? It never ceases to amaze me, the extent of both your favoritism and narrow-mindedness. (And "It's Complicated" for Best Screenplay? Best Screenplay of the year? Fo' real?)

To read all the nominees for the 67th Golden Globe Awards, CLICK HERE.

Monday, December 14, 2009

BFCA Nominees

Announced this morning were the nominees for this year's Critics' Choice Awards, bestowed by the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Just a heads up, kids: I tried last year to keep up with the precursor awards, and it's an exhausting, timestaking, often thankless process. Therefore, this year I'm just posting some of the nominees and winners from major awards bodies when I get around to it. I've become a busier bee and a lazier Oscar watcher. Anyway, from the BFCA:


•An Education
•The Hurt Locker
•Inglourious Basterds
•A Serious Man
•Up In The Air


•Jeff Bridges – “Crazy Heart”
•George Clooney – “Up In The Air”
•Colin Firth – “A Single Man”
•Morgan Freeman – “Invictus”
•Viggo Mortensen – “The Road”
•Jeremy Renner – “The Hurt Locker”


•Emily Blunt – “The Young Victoria”
•Sandra Bullock – “The Blind Side”
•Carey Mulligan – “An Education”
•Saoirse Ronan – “The Lovely Bones”
•Gabourey Sidibe – “Precious”
•Meryl Streep – “Julie & Julia”


•Matt Damon – “Invictus”
•Woody Harrelson – “The Messenger”
•Christian McKay – “Me And Orson Welles”
•Alfred Molina – “An Education”
•Stanley Tucci – “The Lovely Bones”
•Christoph Waltz – “Inglourious Basterds”


•Marion Cotillard – “Nine”
•Vera Farmiga – “Up In The Air”
•Anna Kendrick – “Up In The Air”
•Mo’Nique – “Precious”
•Julianne Moore – “A Single Man”
•Samantha Morton – “The Messenger”


•Jae Head – “The Blind Side”
•Bailee Madison – “Brothers”
•Max Records – “Where The Wild Things Are”
•Saoirse Ronan – “The Lovely Bones”
•Kodi Smit-McPhee – “The Road”


•Inglourious Basterds
•Star Trek
•Up In The Air


•Kathryn Bigelow – “The Hurt Locker”
•James Cameron – “Avatar”
•Lee Daniels – “Precious”
•Clint Eastwood – “Invictus”
•Jason Reitman – “Up In The Air”
•Quentin Tarantino – “Inglourious Basterds”


•Mark Boal – “The Hurt Locker”
•Joel Coen & Ethan Coen – “A Serious Man”
•Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber – “(500) Days Of Summer”
•Bob Peterson, Peter Docter – “Up”
•Quentin Tarantino – “Inglourious Basterds”


•Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach – “Fantastic Mr. Fox”
•Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell – “District 9”
•Geoffrey Fletcher – “Precious”
•Tom Ford, David Scearce – “A Single Man”
•Nick Hornby – “An Education”
•Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner – “Up In The Air”

*Read the rest at AwardsDaily.com. My thoughts? I'm mighty pissed about the snubbing of Abbie Cornish in "Bright Star," something I fear is going to be a trend this season. In better news, I'm happy to see Bailee Madison recognized in the Best Young Actor category (if it were up to me, she'd be among the Supporting Actress Oscar nominees). Guided by Jim Sheridan, her work in "Brothers" is one of the best child performances I've seen in quite some time, and I'm not often one to applaud child actors.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Invictus' Review

Great story. Great concept. Great message. Mediocre movie. Clint Eastwood's much-anticipated "Invictus" is, more than anything, a disappointment, which will probably nab a wealth of undeserved Oscar nominations.

I love the two actors above just as much as the next American moviegoer, but this film hardly showcases their talents, or Eastwood's, for that matter. Read my full review, now online at SouthPhillyReview.com. CLICK HERE.


Have you seen British photographer Peter Rodger's documentary, "Oh My God?," now wrapping up its limited U.S. run? My advice: Don't.

Hugh Jackman, as clueless as we are as to why he's in this movie.

Instead, read my better-late-than-never review of the film over at "The Good Life Blog" at BucksLocalNews.com. CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Extaordinarily Uninspired

Worst poster ever?

Fantastic Mrs. Fox

"If what I think is happening is happening...it better not be."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

'Everybody's Fine' Review

Unsurprisingly, the Rotten Tomatoes score for "Everybody's Fine" is sinking as we speak. Believe you me, I was not expecting to like this film -- it reaks of typical, holiday season fluff. And yet, I was taken aback by the craft of it, and the gentle ease with which (most of) it unfolds.

And I may as well fess up: some later scenes, however obvious, really got my tears flowing. There, I said it. Catch my review of "Everybody's Fine," now online at SouthPhillyReview.com. CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Indie Spirit Nominations

I love reading the nominees for the Independent Spirit Awards almost as much as I love watching the uncensored ceremony on IFC. Though I don't always agree with their choices, here's one institution that's more about the craft of filmmaking than about politics and campaigns.

This year they liked (my fave picks in RED, not counting the films I haven't seen yet):

•(500) Days of Summer
•Sin Nombre
•The Last Station

•Joel & Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
•Lee Daniels, Precious
•Cary Fukanaga, Sin Nombre
•James Grey, Two Lovers
•Michael Hoffman, The Last Station

•A Single Man
•Crazy Heart
•Easier With Practice
•The Messenger
•Paranormal Activity

•Maria Bello, Downloading Nancy
•Helen Mirren, The Last Station
•Gwyneth Paltrow, Two Lovers
•Gabby Sidibe, Precious
•Nisreen Faour, Amreeka

•Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
•Colin Firth, A Single Man
•Joseph Gordon Levitt, (500) Days of Summer
•Souleymane Sy Savane, Goodbye Solo
•Adam Scott, The Vicious Kind

•Mo’Nique, Precious
•Samantha Morton, The Messenger
•Natahlie Press, Fifty Dead Men Walking
•Mia Wasikowska, That Evening Sun
•Dina Korzun, Cold Souls

•Jemaine Clement, Gentlemen Broncos
•Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
•Cristian McKay, Me and Orson Welles
•Ramon McKinnon, That Evening Sun
•Christopher Plummer, The Last Station

•A Prophet
•An Education
•Everlasting Moments
•The Maid


•A Serious Man

•Cold Souls
•Crazy Heart
•A Single Man

•Cold Souls
•Crazy Heart
•A Single Man

•A Serious Man
•Sin Nombre
•Treeless Mountain
•Cold Souls
•Bad Lieutenant

•Food, Inc.
•More Than a Game
•October Country
•Which Way Home

•Karen Chien
•Larry Fessenden
•Dia Sokol

•Natalia Almada
•Bill Ross and Turner Ross
•Jessica Oreck

A 'Precious' Project

Daring filmmaker Lee Daniels gets personal and passionate in an interview regarding his gripping Oscar contender, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire.

By R. Kurt Osenlund

Lee Daniels is one of those fascinating creative types who are so passionate about their work, they stumble over their sentences when trying to describe it, as if the proper adjectives simply don't exist. On a late October morning, during a roundtable discussion at Philadelphia's Palomar Hotel, the renegade filmmaker pauses frequently and flutters off on earnest tangents while discussing Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, his gritty but graceful urban drama, which closed out the 18 ½ Philadelphia Film Festival (PFF) the night before and is now playing nationwide.

The breaks in Daniels's speech may well be a result of mild interview fatigue, as he's basically been doing press for Precious ever since it exploded onto the scene at January's Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for drama, and kick-started a wave of rapturous buzz that's arguably unmatched by any other film this year. Or, perhaps he's still awash in the afterglow of PFF's closing night party, where he admits he did quite a lot of celebrating. Whatever the reason, Daniels doesn't need to say much to express his enthusiasm for his beloved new movie, and when he does find the words, he ardently articulates what every film enthusiast who's been paying attention over the last 11 months already knows: Precious is a project that has truly changed its director's life.

Lee Daniels. (Photo by Renaud Corlouer.)

Adapted by first-time screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher from New York-based author Sapphire's award-winning 1996 novel, Precious is no easy tale. Set in 1987 Harlem and focusing on Claireece “Precious” Jones, an obese, illiterate, 16-year-old African-American girl who makes Job look blessed by comparison, it deals with rape, incest, teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and unfathomable domestic abuse. In other words, it's not the kind of movie Hollywood execs are dying to greenlight.

But Daniels has never been one to color inside the lines or adhere to conventions. As an independent producer, he's championed films like Monster's Ball (2001), a turbulent death row drama that won an Oscar for lead actress Halle Berry and made Daniels the first sole African-American producer of an Academy Award-winning movie, and The Woodsman (2004), an equally hard-hitting picture set and shot in Philadelphia and starring Kevin Bacon as a convicted child molester. As director, Daniels's one prior credit is Shadowboxer (2005), an underrated thriller that also takes place in Philadelphia and stars Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. as lovers and contract killers.

“When I make a movie, I make it for me,” says Daniels, 49. “I can't worry about what other people think. I have to think about what I want to see...which is not often what America wants to see and not oftentimes politically correct. It's not that I don't care for the audience – I do care for the audience – but I have to...I have to...tell what's in my soul, and the truth as I know it to be.”

Daniels says he first came across Sapphire's Push many years ago, when it was given to him by an agent in New York.

“I stayed with the book and the book stayed with me,” he says. “It stuck to me like hot grits. It was really one of those things that just...left me gasping. I was gasping...with my mouth open. Every other page was like, 'What the f—k did I just read!?' And I wanted to see it on the screen. I knew that it would translate well to the screen.”

Daniels made it a personal mission to carry out that translation, aggressively seeking the rights to Push even before he made Monster's Ball. According to the production notes for Precious, Sapphire had long been extremely protective of her debut novel, and turned down countless offers to adapt it – including, initially, an offer from Daniels. But after eventually seeing his work, Sapphire was impressed by Daniels's penchant for risk-taking, and finally agreed to trust him with her baby. Daniels developed the project through his own company, Lee Daniels Entertainment, an outgrowth of his earlier days in talent management. (He later gained additional financial support from Smokewood Entertainment, a fellow independent company that would also collaborate with him on the production of Tennessee, a road movie released earlier this year.)

Gabourey Sidibe and Paula Patton in a scene from Precious.

was completed and acquired by U.S. distributor Lionsgate before it caught the eyes and hearts of media giants Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who got wind of the film around the time of its Sundance triumph. Both have since signed on as executive producers, and have helped to thrust Precious into the public consciousness.

“Normally, my movies have a specific cult following,” Daniels says. “With Oprah and Tyler, they said, 'Uh-uh, not on this one. We're going to try to ring the bell.' And they have...they've been very supportive.”

The whirlwind of hype and publicity surrounding Precious is filled with talk of the film's harrowing emotional content, but one thing it doesn't prepare you for is the amount of unique and imaginative visual texture embedded in the movie. Daniels gives Precious a stamp of stylistic distinction, particularly with scenes that illustrate his heroine's fantasies, which she uses for solace when things get extra rough. I ask Daniels about his own escapism, and if he needed similar fantasies while growing up in West Philadelphia. He offers an answer that is at once cryptic and revealing.

“I did,” Daniels says. “I didn't have a rosy childhood. Some...not so nice things happened. I think my fantasies made me a better person because if I had stayed in my world...in the moment...and if I didn't escape...I don't know how I would've ended up. And the movie delves into that. When (Precious is) able to heal, she no longer needs her fantasies because she's embraced herself. That's when we know we don't need fantasies any more...when we're okay with who we are.”

In a similar vein, I ask about another visual flourish: the orange scarf that Precious is almost never seen without, and that she eventually passes on to another young girl who's also suffering from abuse.

“It's a symbol of hope,” Daniels says of the accessory, which didn't appear in the novel. As the director continues and reiterates the importance of self-acceptance, he gets emotional. “(Precious) eventually doesn't need (the scarf), just like her fantasies. Once she looks in the mirror, and she doesn't see someone else but sees herself, in her full...whatever it is that she is, it's just...[he chokes up]...it's a really good thing.”

Lee Daniels (left) directs Gabourey Sidibe (center) and Xosha Roquemore on the set of Precious. (Photo by Anne Marie Fox.)

In regard to what he hopes viewers will take away from Precious, Daniels says the willingness to love and appreciate oneself and others is certainly high on the list. But he also says he hopes people will leave his film being able to better embrace homosexuality, a statement that is at first a bit jarring, seeing as homosexuality, while addressed, is hardly a chief component of the Precious narrative. But as he elaborates on the movie's implicit theme of tolerance, Daniels, openly gay himself, affirms that, for him, Precious is deeply personal indeed.

“I'm a black, gay filmmaker,” Daniels says. “Because I'm African-American, (Precious) has a black sensibility, and I told the story, originally, for a black audience. And it has a gay sensibility under it all...as its through-line. But I think...I think it's a universal story. It goes beyond sex, race and culture. It's a story for everyone.”

The universal accessibility of Precious, along with its multiple film fest prizes, glowing reviews and impressive initial box-office take (it banked $1.9 million on its opening weekend while still only playing on 18 screens), has contributed to its current stance as an indisputable Oscar front-runner. A nomination for Best Picture seems like a sure thing, as do nods for lead actress Gabourey Sidibe (who shows great instincts in a remarkable, transformative debut performance), supporting actress Mo'Nique (who's astounding as Precious's monster of a mother), and, yes, for Daniels. The superstitious director, however, doesn't want to hear anything about the awards buzz. When the topic comes up, he plugs his ears with his fingers and hums a tune to drown out the sound.

Besides, Daniels does seem to genuinely be a filmmaker for whom the creative process is more rewarding than any subsequent accolades. He confirms as much in his next statement, and this he says without a hint of hesitation: “I don't look at my films the way the audience looks at my films. They look at the final product, at what's up on the screen. I look at each film as a personal growth as a man, and focus on what I can learn from it and how it can make me a better human being. It's all part of my journey.”

*This article was published in the December 2009 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

'New Moon' Review

Oh, you maniacal "Twilight" fans. I know Taylor Lautner looks dreamy without a shirt, but surely there's a better way to occupy your time than by watching this ridiculous sequel. A step down from the original (which isn't saying much), "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" is pure pop trash of the lowest order. Even the CGI is of Sci-Fi Channel quality.

Poor Kristen Stewart, whom I truly enjoy despite her seeming indifference toward the craft of acting. Matched only by the comic relief of scene-stealing spitfire and probable 2009 Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick, Stewart's angsty, nonchalant performance seems to whisper, "people actually like this crap?" Yes, Kristen, apparently they do. So, please, thank your new moons and lucky stars for this career-making role, then leave it safely behind you and move on to work more deserving of your talents.

To read more of my bitching about "New Moon," head over to my review at SouthPhillyReview.com. CLICK HERE

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving...

...from Your Movie Buddy. And remember, "Do not trust those Pilgrims, especially Sarah Miller."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An 'Antichrist' Video Game?

According to Wikipedia (itself crediting the news to Politiken, a newspaper from Lars von Trier's homeland of Denmark), it's in the works.

I'm sorry, Whaaaaaa...?

First of all, while I'm not all that surprised (today's video games, after all, even glorify terrorism), I shudder to think of what kind of twisted kid is going to rush out and stand in line to buy the interactive version of what I consider to be the most profoundly disturbing film in years, and what kind of an effect it will have on him/her. For sure, I am not one to buy into the dialogue about video games destroying our children's minds, but some things really should be off limits, and this potential dialogue I find terribly creepy:

Kid: Mom, can I have this new video game for my birthday?
Mom: What's it called, honey?
Kid: "Eden."
Mom: Why, sure. That sounds nice.

At this point, neither Mom, Kid, nor I am aware of exactly what said video game will entail, but since it's based on a film in which a man ejaculates blood, a woman gives herself a clitorectomy, and horrifying truths are both revealed and alluded to, the result can't be pretty.

To be fair, the game is reportedly centered around what happens after the proceedings of von Trier's controversial shocker but, come on, what kind of sick software developer looked at this movie and thought, "Wow, this would make one helluva first-person adventure game?" What, may I ask, will be the objective(s)? Dodge the falling acorns? Defeat the talking fox? Mow down the swarm of ghost-like women ascending the mountainside? Find the wrench under the house, or worse, the scissors?

I'm sure von Trier is getting an absolute kick out of this insane new venture, which, among other things, eerily validates his vision of a God-less world (not that I buy into that kind of dialogue, either).

*Roger Ebert addresses this very topic over at the Movie Answer Man section of his website. Click it -- it's a quick read.

Cinema Italiano

Here's one way to get excited for Christmas:

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Documentary Shortlist

As many already know, on Nov. 18, the Academy released their list of the 15 documentary features that will be vying for nominations at this year's Oscars. The group was culled from a pool of 89 eligible '09 docs. The (almost) nominees are:

The Beaches of Agnes, Agnès Varda, director
Burma VJ, Anders Østergaard, director
The Cove, Louie Psihoyos, director
Every Little Step, James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo, directors
Facing Ali, Pete McCormack, director
Food, Inc., Robert Kenner, director
Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander, director
Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders, Mark N. Hopkins, director
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, directors
Mugabe and the White African, Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey, directors
Sergio, Greg Barker, director
Soundtrack for a Revolution, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, directors
Under Our Skin, Andy Abrahams Wilson, director
Valentino: The Last Emperor, Matt Tyrnauer, director
Which Way Home, Rebecca Cammisa, director

Now comes the part where I admit how depressing such announcements can be. No, I'm not crushed by the omission of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, We Live in Public and Capitalism: A Love Story (as many are), I'm reminded of how many 2009 movies I've yet to see, something I've complained about before.

Of the titles in this list, I've seen...well, let's just say I'm familiar with Robert Kenner's work. The ones that also appear on my must-see list -- aka my "God, give me some free time so I can actually watch these movies" list -- are The Beaches of Agnes, The Cove, Soundtrack to a Revolution and Valentino: The Last Emperor, which I hope will also find themselves on the short-shortlist.

I'll admit I'm a little peeved to see R.J. Cutler's The September Issue out of the running, having adored the film and chatted with the director back in...September. And I'm sure a certain editrix is none too pleased...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

'The Blind Side' Review

If you like movies about rich white people patting themselves on the back, made by other rich white people patting themselves on the back even harder, then "The Blind Side" is your hot ticket this weekend.

If not, wait for DVD so you can speed forward to scenes that show Sandra Bullock strutting her well-clothed (and well-toned) physique, and a few tender moments she shares with tight-lipped newcomer Quinton Aaron. In the meantime, CLICK HERE to mosey on over to my "Blind Side" review, now online at SouthPhillyReview.com.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

'Precious' Review

I hate to be a bandwagon-jumper, but it's true: "Precious" is one of the year's best.

Catch my brief review HERE, and stay tuned for my feature on director Lee Daniels, arriving in December.

'Clash of the Titans'

The kid in me reeeaaally wants to see this, but the adult in me is waving his skeptical finger. I'm currently siding with the kid.

PS: Does this mean Sam Worthington is officially Hollywood's new go-to action hero? He came out of nowhere and suddenly seems to be popping up everywhere, at least in the world of big-budget effects blockbusters.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

This Is It...

...my first review for the widely-read weekly South Philly Review.


Monday, November 2, 2009

What's the Worst Movie of the Decade?

It's a question that yours truly and a colleague of mine, the uber-knowledgeable wordsmith Pete Croatto, recently answered in a spirited discussion over at Dyalogues.com. Pete chose "Date Movie" (which I've never seen and probably never will), while I opted for Michael Bay's awesomely awful "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

Along the way, we discuss other titles that have greatly offended us, as well as why bad movies admittedly have a certain appeal all their own. To read the full conversation (which should be the first of several), CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fright Fest

One of my many journalistic responsibilities outside the realm of film criticism involves asking a bunch of strangers a weekly survey question. In honor of Halloween, this week I asked, "What's your favorite scary movie?"

I wasn't to keen on the answers I received. To make up for it, and since I'm in the mood for a list anyway, here are some of my own personal favorites, in no particular order:

* The Descent
* Dawn of the Dead (2004)
* The Exorcist
* The Ring
* The Others
* Scream
* Rosemary's Baby
* The Shining
* Alien

A bunch of rather obvious choices, I know, but hey -- horror ain't exactly my genre of choice. What about you? What's your favorite adrenaline-pumper? (And please don't say "Eye of the Needle," which was one of my interviewees' responses. I looked it up, and apparently it's a 1981 German war thriller with Donald Sutherland. Weird.)

Thursday, October 22, 2009


At long last, the official poster:

...I love how it looks more than a little like that unoffical version that circulated for months. So curious to see what Morgan Freeman does with this role.

Art House Salad: AN EDUCATION

Dishing on the latest blend of alternative flicks being tossed around in limited release.
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Dir. Lone Scherfig
Sony Pictures Classics
95 min. PG-13

Can an extraordinary performance lift a slightly-too-ordinary movie to the height of greatness? In the case of breakout star Carey Mulligan in director Lone Scherfig's coming-of-age tale, “An Education,” the answer is...almost. Mulligan, 24, whose previous film credits include 2005's “Pride & Prejudice” and not much else, is luminous and unforgettable, and she'll almost certainly find herself in the company of such young and relatively inexperienced actresses as Jennifer Hudson, Amy Adams and Catalina Sandino Moreno, whose similarly revelatory work landed them in Oscar's good graces. And this film, set in 1960s London and based on the autobiographical memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, is eloquent, attractive and oh-so-classy. But there is a vexing, underlying familiarity to it that even Mulligan's magnetism can't hide, and that's both a surprise and a disappointment given the resoundingly positive post-Sundance reviews. “An Education” is often a joy to watch, but it's not quite as special as the early buzz suggests.

Mulligan plays Jenny, a super-achieving, virginal 16-year-old whose entire life has been steering her down one predetermined path: she will study her butt off, get into Oxford, study her butt off some more, and then...what? Jenny's father (Alfred Molina, also Oscar-worthy) is loving, but overprotective and obsessed with status and success. Opting not to bank on the archaic notion that Jenny will simply marry into wealth and be provided for, he's always told his daughter that she must follow aforementioned path to make it in the world. Jenny's mother (a warmly charming Cara Seymour) dutifully stands by her husband's plans with very few objections. The teachers at Jenny's all-girls high school perpetually drive the same way of thinking into her head: “get to university, get to university.” But no one has ever really explained to Jenny what enjoyable benefits will be waiting at the end of the path, and keeping her nose forever buried in books has left her culturally squelched. As she confides to her friends, what she really wants to do is listen to French music, travel to beautiful places, smoke, dance and converse with interesting people. She gets all that and more when she meets David (the invaluable Peter Sarsgaard), a dashing, 35-year-old bon vivant who seduces not only Jenny, but her parents as well. Wining and dining her in Paris and beyond, David gives Jenny the worldly escapades she's been craving, but, of course, there's more to this mystery man than meets the starry eye.

The script by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About A Boy”) has a wonderful ear for sharp, witty and refined dialogue, never better exemplified than in a few deliciously dramatic exchanges between Jenny and her stern headmistress (the great Emma Thompson), who spar over the value of the education system after word of Jenny's extracurricular activities begins to circulate. But the developments of the plot are too schematic for such a seemingly high-caliber project, to the extent that, eventually, I knew it was high time for things to reach their inevitable, all-is-lost climactic peak, and such a moment arrived within seconds. Though dressed up beautifully (Odile Dicks-Mireaux's costume design, Paul Englishby's music, and John de Borman's cinematography – especially in Paris – are all exquisite), the path of the film is one we've all traveled before, and its tidy conclusion is très typical.

And still, it is a film I really enjoyed. Mulligan, who has rightfully earned a slew of Audrey Hepburn comparisons, is so splendid as Jenny, her presence alone is worth the price of multiple admissions. It's not often you see a breakthrough performance in which the actor is so utterly comfortable and confident on camera. And as Jenny learns from her adventures, the performance evolves as well. Mulligan seems to be growing with her character, and the best thing about this movie is that it invites us to watch her bloom. Scherfig also succeeds in conveying the seductiveness of David, his posh friends (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) and their lavish lifestyle, which is as beguiling to the audience as it is to Jenny.

Fulfilling the film's theme of “action is character,” Jenny's experiences make her a richer, better person. The experience of “An Education” isn't that powerful, but, more often than not, it comes close.
4 stars (out of 5)

This post originally appeared on BucksLocalNews.com's The Good Life Blog and has been reprinted with permission.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Ubiquitous Amanda Seyfried

If there was anything worthwhile about sitting through last year's musical train wreck "Mamma Mia!," it was witnessing the lovely talent of Amanda Seyfried, who, as it turned out, boasts a singing voice that's just as sweet as her ever-improving acting chops.

If "Mean Girls" hadn't already done the trick, that little dad-hunting, Meryl-Streep-spotlight-stealing star turn really opened the door for Seyfried, as evidenced by the fact that she's popping up all over the place in 2009. She recently appeared opposite Megan Fox in the Diablo Cody-penned box office disappointment, "Jennifer's Body," and also stars as a prostitute in the festival fave "Chloe" with Julianne Moore.

Now comes "Dear John," Lasse Hallstrom's super-sappy-looking translation of the super-sappy-sounding Nicholas Sparks novel about a romance between a young girl (Seyfried) and a soldier (Channing Tatum) who's called back to fight just after the couple starts going steady. The trailer is below, but be forewarned: it's one of those tells-you-the-entire-plot trailers. Sorry, Amanda, I think I'm gonna pass on this one, but congratulations on all the work you've been getting.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Brain is Being Haunted...

...by Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist."

I saw the film on Friday and have found it difficult to think about anything else since. Interestingly enough, the wince-inducing experience of watching it doesn't hold a candle to its lingering power. I've gone from feeling stimulated to fascinated to depressed to exhausted. I haven't had such a strong, unshakable reaction to a movie in years. Regardless of what his detractors may say, Von Trier has created something that is profoundly affecting and completely unignorable. Though still sifting through my jumbled thoughts, I can say that, for better or worse, this shocker is a monumental achievement, and one whose terrible might commands not only attention, but respect.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Getting in Vogue

With his new film, The September Issue, celebrated documentarian R.J. Cutler boldly goes where no filmmaker has gone before: inside Anna Wintour's closet.

By R. Kurt Osenlund

In the opening minutes of The September Issue, a deliciously intriguing documentary about the inner workings of Vogue that's now playing in limited release, Anna Wintour, Vogue's longtime editor-in-chief and the film's chief subject, observes that many people are “frightened of fashion.”

More pointedly, many people are frightened of Wintour, the fashion industry's most formidable figure who famously inspired Meryl Streep's Oscar-nominated turn in The Devil Wears Prada, and whose familiar armor – the bob haircut, the signature sunglasses, the aloof demeanor – supposedly served as the blueprint for Johnny Depp's take on Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Producer/director R.J. Cutler, whose impressive body of non-fiction work is as rich as the wealth of acclaim he's received (including an Oscar nomination for his 1993 Clinton campaign doc., The War Room), saw beyond the apprehension and the caricature to the reputably diligent sovereign who rules over an empire, seemingly without breaking a sweat, let alone a stiletto.

Taking us behind the glossy pages of Vogue's September 2007 issue (which, at nearly five pounds and 840 pages, was and remains the magazine's largest ever), Cutler's watch-and-watch-again film is imbued with the blithe spirit and foot-tapping rhythm of a runway show, as well as the headlines-and-deadlines fascination of a juicy journalistic drama. Affectionate, yet still largely objective, it legitimizes a world so often regarded as trivial, while also giving a voice to its detractors. And since virtually no magazine is quite the same as it was two years ago, all the ad-laden affluence of the issue in question is given a certain bittersweet, romantic quality.

With his cordial disposition (and markedly casual dress), Cutler doesn't seem like an obvious Wintour playmate, but, then, neither does Grace Coddington, Vogue's passionate creative director who's been lovingly locking horns with Wintour for over two decades, and who emerges as the movie's unlikely heroine. In an interview at Philadelphia's Sofitel Hotel, the filmmaker and I discuss what ended up on the cutting room floor, how Coddington originally scoffed at the project, and how Wintour isn't exactly the devil she's made out to be.

R.J. Cutler

R. Kurt Osenlund: Let's start by discussing your genre of choice. What would you say is your fascination with documentary?
R.J. Cutler: As far back as I can remember, I had two passions: one was directing plays and one was writing a newspaper. These dual passions continued from first grade through college, and even when I became a theater director – which was my career before I was a filmmaker – I still dabbled in journalism. But I knew that journalism wasn't really for me because I didn't like the remove – I didn't like the distance. I didn't want to have to tell the whole story, I wanted to tell the story that I saw, that was subjective, but truthful. And I loved directing plays, but I felt that the work I was doing wasn't plugged into the world in the way that I wanted it to be. Then, I was 30 years old and I came up with the idea for The War Room. And when we made The War Room, it was everything I loved about the theater and about journalism without any of the things that I didn't love. I finally figured out what I really wanted to do, and it was making documentary films. I love when people say, “you can't make this shit up,” because you can't. People are amazing, they're fascinating, they're rich, they're complicated. Life has a poetry and a theatricality to it and I love finding that and bringing it out.

R.K.O.: You've covered a number of weighty topics in your work, and your last film, Thin, dealt with eating disorders. How'd you go from that to Vogue?
R.J.C.: I've made films in the worlds of politics, American history, basketball, the military, young physicians working in a hospital, college and high school. The worlds are different, but what's always similar is that there are fascinating characters. For some reason, whatever it is, the characters spark my curiosity. In this case, it was Anna. I've always been fascinated with characters like Anna – these people who rule an industry. It's so rare: you can make a movie without Steven Spielberg's blessing, you can publish software without Bill Gates's blessing, you cannot succeed as a fashion designer – except in rare cases – without Anna Wintour's blessing. It's so interesting. Who are these people? What are they really like? What's she really like? That's where it starts.

R.K.O.: Were you intimidated by her initially?
R.J.C.: I don't think so. I think those who are intimidated come to be intimidated. I came to talk to her about filmmaking, about making a movie. I found that she's clearly somebody who responds to people who know their mind, and she wants to get down to business. She's very straightforward, she's easy to talk to, she's very approachable. I'm not saying she isn't a tough, demanding boss – she is – but I wasn't working for her: I was going to talk to her about collaborating on something. In our first meeting, when we decided to work together, I explained to her my approach, and she supported it. I said, “All I want to do is make a film about how you do what you do.” She said, “Great.” She got it.

R.K.O.: At one point in the film, Anna is referred to as “the most powerful woman in America.” Do you think there's any validity to that statement?
R.J.C.: It's certainly how she's perceived by many. If you were making a list of the 10 most powerful women, you'd consider Anna, and I suspect you'd put her on it. She's pretty powerful. But you'd have to show me the tournament grid before I told you if she was the favorite to win the competition.

R.K.O.: Did you hope to get more personal information out of her?
R.J.C.: No. The personal information included in the film was the personal information I wanted to include in the film: the information that illuminates either her work life or her work relationships. It's a work story in the way that The War Room is a work story. Of course there's plenty of other stuff, but this is exactly what I wanted. If you open up the can of worms of private lives and other personal stuff, it gets very wormy. I wasn't interested, really. That's for gossip columnists.

R.K.O.: You spoke before about fascinating characters. From Grace Coddington to (American editor-at-large) Andre Leon Talley, The September Issue has a very colorful cast of characters, each with very strong personalities. Were you expecting that?
R.J.C.: It's part of the discipline to not expect, and just to enter with a kind of innocence. Simple questions, curiosity. So, without preconceived notions, or an agenda, or expectations, you can discover so much more. You're in this kind of very wide-eyed state, just...curious. That's the beauty of it all.

R.K.O.: The unprecedented access that you and your crew were given is one of the film's key selling points. Was anything off limits?
R.J.C.: Not that I'm aware of. We saw it all.

R.K.O.: Was the film always intended to be about the production of the September 2007 issue?
R.J.C.: That was always what the structure of the shoot was going to be, but you never know. There could have been one day that was so remarkable that we might have made a movie about one day. But the access we were given was for the September issue and for everything else that was going on during the eight months when the September issue was being made. And that was the intention, but the September issue turned out to be the right structure because the September issue is the MacGuffin here. The real story is about the relationship between these two women (Anna and Grace); these polar opposite, symbiotic collaborators.

Grace Coddington and Anna Wintour

R.K.O.: Eventually, the movie is indeed as much – if not more – about Grace as it is about Anna. How did that happen?
R.J.C.: Well, when we met Grace, the first thing she said was, “Go away! Anna said people were coming; it's ridiculous! All you're going to do is get in the way!” We thought, “Who is this angry person?” It's like, you're scared of her because she just yelled at you, but your curiosity is certainly sparked: “Who's the mad one with the red hair? She's awesome!” So, we tried again the next week. “Get out of here!” she said.

R.K.O.: How long did it take for her to warm up to you?
R.J.C.: Four months.

R.K.O.: Wow.
R.J.C.: Because four months in, I knew the movie we needed to make, and it was a movie about Anna and Grace. Those first four months were critical in learning about the world and the people and how they communicate with glances and nuances and gestures, but I still hadn't nailed the story in terms of what we were shooting. And one night, I was home looking through this beautiful, dazzling book about Grace [in her modeling days] published by Karl Lagerfeld. It's her whole body of work for 30 years, and it's organized by photographer – every great photographer of her lifetime. And I thought, “this woman's entire life has been about collaborating with photographers and working with storytellers. She's a storyteller. Well, we're storytellers. This isn't a question of convincing someone who's going to hate it to do it, this is a question of convincing someone who's going to love it to do it.” It was a eureka moment. And then I went to her, and I said, “I cannot make this movie without you. I don't know how to do it, and I don't want to do it. So give me one hour.” And we spent that hour talking about photography, and then we spent more time together, and then we were making a movie together.

R.K.O.: In the film, there's a beautiful segment in Paris where Grace talks about inspiration. What inspires you?
R.J.C.: Beauty. Human complexity. Baseball. Preston Sturges. Great music. Beautiful art. The two movies that inspired me while I was making this film were A Philadelphia Story and Crimes and Misdemeanors. A Philadelphia Story because it's a beautifully shot comedy of manners that's really about the lightness of tone in this rarefied world that becomes accessible, and Crimes and Misdemeanors because it makes the city a character and there's a great interplay of music and city. In our film, we tried to make New York a character and Paris a character.

R.K.O.: How have your views of the fashion industry changed since making the film?
R.J.C.: Well, they changed entirely because I now have a deep appreciation for the vital role that the fashion industry plays in culture, society, industry, history, art and commerce. And I also recognize that it's frivolous and vain and excessive and indulgent. But I recognize that it all goes on at the same exact moment and that's awesome.

R.K.O.: Is there anything that we didn't see that will end up on the DVD?
R.J.C.: There are 320 hours (of footage). There's great stuff. There's nothing I would put in the film. I had complete creative control, I had final cut – this is the film I wanted to make. But there are a lot of awesome scenes that will be on the DVD that just don't fit into this narrative. There's a lot of great stuff with Andre [such as a visit to the high-end French boutique, Charvet], there's great stuff with Grace, with Anna, with (fashion designer) Thakoon, and with characters who aren't more prominent in the film like (fashion news and features director) Sally Singer and (European editor-at-large) Hamish Bowles. There's a lot of yummy stuff.

R.K.O.: I'm going to end with Anna's last line in the film and ask, “What else?” What's next?
R.J.C.: Ah, very good. There's one project that I might start shooting this fall, but I can't talk about it on the record because we haven't nailed it down and I'm both superstitious and too respectful of the subject to make it public at this point.

R.K.O.: Is there anything that you can tell me?
R.J.C.: It's something I'm very, very excited about.

*A version of this article was published in the October 2009 issue of ICON magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Boasting the blinding wattage of Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Ashton Kutcher, Bradley Cooper, Eric Dane, Shirley MacLaine, Hector Elizondo, Queen Latifah, Emma Roberts and -- get this -- Taylor Swift, the 2010 ensemble rom-com "Valentine's Day" begs the question: how much star power is too much?

Here's the lightning-quick trailer, which, ironically (and blaringly), suggests that the real stars are...The Black Eyed Peas.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Art House Salad: STILL WALKING

Dishing on the latest blend of alternative flicks being tossed around in limited release
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
IFC Films. 114 min. Not rated.

“Still Walking,” the exceptionally intimate and solemn new film from Japanese minimalist Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Nobody Knows”), takes place almost entirely inside of a house – a hilltop cottage in Japan owned by an old couple with grown children. And in that house, the key location is the kitchen, where food is prepared and eaten by the matriarch and her family throughout the one day that makes up most of the movie's running time. Early on, as I watched the mother and her daughter peel carrots and salt soybeans before the other family members arrived, I realized that I'd never really seen Asian cooking in a domestic setting – or, at least, not with such prominence. The universality of food is what Kore-eda uses, not only to seduce the viewer, but to give his characters common ground. In its soft-spoken way, “Still Walking” is the Japanese answer to “Soul Food”: no matter what kind of bloodline drama is going down, everyone can at least agree that the corn bread – or, in this case, corn cake – tastes great.

Not that the drama is ever explicitly dramatic, and not at all that this movie is simply about sushi and tempura (though both traditional Japanese dishes are eaten – and, even more deliciously, discussed in depth – before the aforementioned day is out). The family has gathered for their annual commemoration of the death of Junpei, the eldest son who drowned 12 years ago while rescuing a neighborhood kid. The father (Yoshio Harada), a retired physician, is cantankerous and anti-social: while others gather in the kitchen, he retreats to his office or outdoors, and Kore-eda repeatedly makes the distance palpable by filming him from inside the home looking out. The mother (Kirin Kiki), however, seems chipper and content, for she is a woman who knows her role and knows when and how to conceal her pain. The surviving son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), is dreading the event: he doesn't get along with his father, who doesn't approve of Ryota's employment choices, or of his new wife, a widow with a little boy. There's also Ryota's sister, the most neutral member of the family who's sentimental, but takes things in stride.

As the movie progresses (which is a slow and steady process, to be sure), it becomes increasingly more interesting, as layers are peeled back and truths are revealed with a clever nonchalance. In a fine, unpredictable performance by Kiki, the mother, specifically, is fascinating: she is wholly devoted as a wife, yet she is not above indirectly airing out her husband's mistakes in the presence of guests. And her instincts and devotions as a mother – perhaps the most personal things a woman can have – are revealed to be quite fierce, indeed. Such is one of the better pleasures of “Still Walking”: you think you have all of these characters pegged, then some of them pull the rug out from under you. And there is the conveyance of a deep, believable understanding among these people. I'm having a hard time ignoring my thought that some of the dialogue and delivery was a touch contrived, but the characters certainly have the worn-in feel of family. The warmth of their relationships – even the one between Ryota and his father – enhances Kore-eda's tone, which I'll describe as comfortably claustrophobic. We are packed tightly in this home with these people and their troubles, and we rarely ever leave, but, eventually, we find that we don't want to.

Which may account for why the few departures from the house are so striking and vivid. The images of beaches, and trains, and roads, and buildings, and cemeteries are made remarkable because they're rare. (Also rare is composer Gonchichi's simple string soundtrack, which tends to be reserved for the outdoor portions.) Kore-eda manages to create a comfort zone so comfortable that even the sky feels new again when we exit. There's one scene set in a room with a large open window, through which we are given our first glimpse of the home's beautiful view from the hilltop. In that moment – which is early, long before the film nears its melancholic, but pretty, conclusion – a small part of me hoped that the camera would go out and explore what was beyond. But, then, dinner had not yet been served, and there was no way I was going to miss that.
4 stars (out of 5)

This post originally appeared on BucksLocalNews.com's The Good Life Blog and has been reprinted with permission.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Summer in the Cinema, Part II

Summer is officially over. Let's glance back at its lowlights, shall we?

The Worst of the 2009 Summer Movie Season
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Last month," I shared what I felt were the finest aspects of what Hollywood had to offer throughout the warm weather months. Now we come to the worst – the sins of summer cinema that are as remarkable for their missteps as the others were for their merits. Before we proceed, a disclaimer: I don't see too many bad movies if I can help it. I've got a pretty keen radar for what will soar and what will suck, and there are too many titles with gravity-defying potential to waste a lot of time on those that will almost certainly fall flat. So, within this list, you're not going to find a full lineup of obvious duds like Land of the Lost, The Ugly Truth and Nia Vardalos' repellent double-whammy of My Life in Ruins and I Hate Valentine's Day. What you will find are the most disappointing parts of films that initially showed promise, as well as the especially shameful bits of the ones I suffered through despite the warning signs. Here's to wrapping up the summer on a very opinionated note.

Worst Comeback:
The cast of Fast & Furious

Fast & Furious, the ingeniously titled fourth installment of a franchise that stubbornly refuses to die, isn't so much awful as it is awfully un-engaging (which is pitifully ironic for a film that spends so much time homing in on fuel injectors and nitrous boosters). Of all the oomph-lacking elements in this movie (which plays like a lengthy hip-hop video mashed up with a bad C.S.I. episode), the most nullifyingly lifeless is the principal cast of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster, the original foursome from 2001's The Fast and the Furious whose reunion is apparently a big deal to motorhead moviegoers who actually remember the characters. I didn't, and evidently, neither did the actors. Save the lumbering lug played by Diesel (who we identify as, well, Vin Diesel), these people have no discernible identities. And though the junker of a script doesn't do them any favors, when the players attempt to convey how much their fictional counterparts mean to one another, they're each about as convincing as Amy Winehouse at an AA meeting. When one of the four kicks the bucket, the other three have mixed reactions, all of them grossly inauthentic. One's eyes fill with crocodile tears, another's eyes fill with impalpable anger, and the other's eyes remain as dead as a shark's. My eyes rolled.

Worst Couple:
John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph in Away We Go

While their performances are far from extraordinary, lovable TV alums Krasinski and Rudolph aren't necessarily the ones to blame for the extreme un-lovability of Burt and Verona, the expectant couple the actors portray in Sam Mendes' soulless road movie. The real culprits are writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, real-life sweethearts who fill their main characters' mouths with enough quirky hipster jargon for three Juno sequels. Eggers and Vida want us to believe that Burt and Verona, with all their odd-yet-ordinary qualities, are just your average idiosyncratic thirty-somethings; however, neither of them are like anyone I – or you – have ever met. They exist in an intentionally wacky world that hovers above our own, and from there they look down on us, listen to alt-rock music, wear nothing but second-hand clothing and speak in annoying tongues. I wasn't just unable to connect with these people, I began to resent them. The only time they felt vital to me was when they'd scream at each other as part of a running joke, and by then, I wanted to scream right back.

Worst Funnyman:
Eddie Murphy in Imagine That

Oh, Eddie. Remember when you were painting the town with your nimble brand of cool in Beverly Hills Cop? Or when you brought to life a whole clan of crazy characters under mounds of makeup in The Nutty Professor? Or even when your electric performance in Dreamgirls got you nominated for an Oscar? Those were the days. Rather than occasionally dabbling in drivel (like, say, The Adventures of Pluto Nash), you now seem hellbent on slamming the nails into your career's coffin with heavy-handed hammers like Norbit, Meet Dave and Imagine That, a fantasy so insufferable even young actress Yara Shahidi's cuteness is rendered moot. When you were reading the script for this film,what, exactly, jumped out at you and screamed: “Go for it!” Could it have been the scenes in which you wear a blankie on your face and sing to imaginary dragons? Or the ones that have your financial advisor character, Evan, insisting that stockholders sell because their stock “wets the bed?” At one point, I considered the possibility that maybe you, the director and the screenwriters had all started your own peyote-popping cult. How else to explain all the wack-a-doo absurdities here? What? What's that you say? It's a harmless family film? With a wholesome message about parental priorities? Right. Problem is, Imagine That isn't a family film; it's nobody's film. The finance talk is Greek to the kids and the fantasy hogwash is intolerable for their parents. Come on, Eddie – you're better than this. Aren't you?

Worst Eye Candy:
Public Enemies

A lot of critics and audiences went ga-ga over Michael Mann's John Dillinger biopic. Not me. Systematic and monotonous, the film has the grip of an arthritic bank robber. And call me old-fashioned, but if I'm going to watch an epic crime drama set in the 1930s, I'd prefer it not look like a high-def cut of The Blair Witch Project. Mann, who until now has never made a movie I didn't like, opted to shoot Enemies on handheld digital video, the same medium he employed for Collateral and Miami Vice. The aesthetic is a perfect fit for contemporary works with brooding urban settings, but for a period picture, it's distracting and terribly mismatched. The constantly wobbling camera and the excessively sharp pseudo-graininess act as a shield against the senses, making it nearly impossible to appreciate Coleen Atwood's elegant costumes, Patrick Lumb's art direction, or even cinematographer Dante Spinotti's canny eye for pattern and composition. It seems that Mann is going through a period of artistic experimentation. It's my hope that Enemies is his last guinea pig.

Worst Imitation:
The Answer Man

The Answer Man, an As Good as it Gets wannabe set and shot in sunny Philadelphia, may look like a legitimate movie, but is in fact a second-rate sitcom stretched out to feature length. As Arlen Faber, a hugely successful self-help book author whose own soul is in dire need of chicken soup, Jeff Daniels gives it his irascible all, chomping away at the familiar scenery and extending his already considerable range. But neither his impressive performance nor first-time writer/director John Hindman's intermittently profound philosophies could keep this turkey from gobbling up my patience. Even if I were able to ignore the odd discomfort of its mood swings (it tries and fails to be naughty and nice at the same time), The Answer Man uses, quite ineffectively, the gimmick of a bestseller to plug the exhausted premise of a curmudgeon's redemption. It's the type of uninspired, manipulative, borderline insulting “entertainment” that's broadcast profusely on basic cable, and most of its humor is so broad that the only thing missing is the laugh track. Long before the unforgivably clichéd conclusion arrived, I found myself not looking at my watch, but looking for the remote.

Worst Action Sequences:
X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I considered director Gavin Hood's bumbling franchise spin-off for a number of categories: Worst Dialogue, maybe, or perhaps Worst Villain for Ryan Reynolds' ripped-frat-boy take on comic book baddie Deadpool. But, ultimately, no one really goes into an X-Men film expecting brilliant screenwriting or award-worthy acting (at least I don't). The major drawing factors are the action setpieces and special effects, and the biggest blunder of Wolverine is that these main areas of interest are practically devoid of punch. Looking lost in his own movie, poor Hugh Jackman leaps from one redundant, run-of-the-mill skirmish to the next, dodging a bazillion bullets and walking away from explosions like a furry clone of Mad Max. Throughout, Hood stages his innumerable and indistinguishable battle scenes with a boastful showiness they definitely don't warrant. Wolverine is a base-level actioner. There's nothing presented that hasn't appeared in scads of other, better blockbusters, and its methods for creating suspense begin and end with overly emphatic close-ups of growing claws. If I gained anything from it, it was the inspiration to sharpen my own claws for this critique.

Worst Ending:
The Stoning of Soroya M.

The Stoning of Soroya M., a somewhat contrived but deeply harrowing account of actual events that occurred in the outskirts of Iran in 1986, means to shock and succeeds. Though beyond objectionable as far as taste is concerned, the movie's climax – which depicts the public execution of the title with prolonged and vivid brutality – is one of the most devastating and indelible things I've ever seen on screen. That director and co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh follows such a powerful segment with a trite resolution straight out of the Hollywood handbook is a travesty. Emerging from flashback to conclude the film's bookending storyline (in which a journalist played by Jim Caviezel gets the dirt on the hush-hush incident from Soroya's aunt, played by Shoreh Aghdashloo), Nowrasteh resorts to cheesy conventions and daft melodrama. After having been agape for nearly twenty minutes, my mouth contorted into a snarl while watching the journalist's car fail to start as he attempts to escape some cartoonish villains. Then Aghdashloo's character spreads her arms and shouts hokey lines to the sky as the camera zooms out for extra-hammy effect. The Stoning of Soroya M. should have ended with the stoning of Soroya M.

Worst Overall Experience:
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Forget worst of the summer. The way I see it, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a surefire contender for worst film of the year, maybe even the decade. It is so awesomely and thoroughly god-awful that it will likely stand the test of time in the tradition of notorious flicks like Caligula and Battlefield Earth. How will I remember it? Let me count the ways: 1) As an endless, incomprehensible nightmare of raucous special effects that made me feel as though I'd been fired through a pinball machine. 2) As the quintessential movie of the ADD generation. Not into boring stuff like plausible plot and character development? Here's a frantically edited, mile-a-minute spectacle so huge, your boredom won't know what hit it. 3) As the moment in which director Michael Bay finally came full circle in his career, finally delivering a disaster movie that is itself a disaster.

*This article was previously published in the September 2009 issue of ICON magazine and has been reprinted with permission.