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'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.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Just a Hunch

With the fall movie season finally upon us, it's high time that I throw out my first round of Best Picture Oscar predictions. I've only seen two of these TEN (good lord) selections, but you know how the buzz system works -- it's all about the feelings in the air. And based on those feelings, here's what I'm currently thinking will make the cut come January:

An Education

Anchored by what's rumored to be the Best Actress performance to beat, this elegant coming-of-age tale is packed with Oscar-y ingredients and already has plenty of critical support.

Despite the undeniably disappointing teaser, my guess is that James Cameron's long-awaited sci-fi epic will still pack enough punch to entrance voters. But, methinks Mr. "Titanic" is the one filmmaker in this list who should be mighty thankful that the field was expanded.

Bright Star
Looks to be the most picturesque epic romance since "Atonement," and that pretty baby made it all the way to 2007's top five. Plus, it seems to be a triumphant return for Jane Campion ("The Piano"), one of many female directors making a big impact this year...

The Hurt Locker Kathryn Bigelow, whose masterful bomb squad thriller is unquestionably the best film yet about the war in Iraq. Though so well executed, it really doesn't need it, the relevance of this movie gives it a major boost.

"Gran Torino"'s Oscar shutout notwithstanding, you shoud never bet against Clint, who returns to more worldly subject matter with this pseudo-biography of Nelson Mandela. A presumably dynamite turn from Morgan Freeman can't hurt.

Rob Marshall, the man who drove "Chicago" to a Best Picture win in 2002, serves up another stylish musical; one that boasts a blindingly star-studded cast. This film's trailer alone is arguably the year's best; at least two of its performers will likely land acting nods; and it seems to have great potential in virtually every other category.

Backed by what can safely be called universal acclaim, this harrowing drama has had everyone talking for months. EW's Dave Karger has said outright that Mo'Nique will earn a Supporting Actress nomination, and given the buzz for the movie itself, at this point, I don't see how it could be shut out of the race.

The Tree of Life
Aside from the casting of Brad Pitt and the December release date, I don't know much at all about this film. What I do know is that Terrence Malick is a bona fide Oscar magnet, and the apparent grandiosity of his latest epic looks very promising. (And, no, the image above is not the film's actual poster. Sorry.)

Will Pixar's most recent triumph be the first animated film since "Beauty and the Beast" to be nominated for Best Picture? My gut says, "yes." And, quite frankly, if it isn't, I'll be irate and heartbroken. The Academy already snubbed "Wall-E" last year, a move that was met with much disdain. I doubt they'll make the same mistake twice.

Up in the Air
The ecstatic buzz out of Toronto appears to have all but cemented Jason Reitman's genre-defying Clooney vehicle in the Top 10. Like last year's winner, "Slumdog Millionaire," this relatively late-in-the-game crowd pleaser is quickly building a very passionate following. Once the Academy gets wind of it, it may just gather enough steam to take home the gold.

Runners-Up: "The Lovely Bones," "Creation," "A Serious Man," "Capitalism: A Love Story," "Amelia."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Singularly Beautiful

Now this is my kind of trailer. A bit prolonged, perhaps, but it towers above the accepted norm of frentically-edited messes (I'm talking to you, "Gamer"). Leave it to Tom Ford to deliver the goods with a touch of class. As I understand it, although "A Single Man" nabbed the Queer Lion and the Best Actor prize (for star Colin Firth) at the Venice Film Festival, it still doesn't have a distributor. Of course it doesn't -- we can actually breathe (heartily) during the preview.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Catching up with noteworthy 2009 films that eluded me upon release.
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The Hurt Locker
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow
5 stars (out of 5)

You'd have to go back to 2007's brutal double-header of "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" to find recent films that deliver anywhere near the amount of relentless, white-knuckled tension that director Kathryn Bigelow so masterfully builds in "The Hurt Locker." To find a better contemporary war drama, you'd need to go back even further, as this you-are-there tale of an American bomb squad in Iraq is the best film of its kind since Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" from 2001. Bigelow -- who's practically been in hiding since her last movie, "K-19: The Widowmaker," bored viewers and bombed big time -- translates journalist Mark Boal's first-hand-account script to the screen with such frighteningly powerful imagery and tightly-wound patience that the rapid pounding of your pulse becomes the metronome of your viewing experience. The soldiers in the emotional, yet unsentimental story never feel safe, and neither does the audience, thanks in part to the hypnotic score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, but thanks mainly to Bigelow's wholehearted refusal to compromise. Last year, Kimberly Pierce's condescending and stereotypical "Stop-Loss" landed on my list of the worst films of 2008. This year, "The Hurt Locker," which glorifies nothing, talks down to no one, and brings eerie truths into perspective, will likely end up in my Top 10.

Dir. Tony Gilroy
4 stars (out of 5)

The snaking, overlapping, back-and-forth structure of "Duplicity" is perplexing on the outset, especially when the dueling/bed-sharing spies played by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen start to repeatedly recite the same insidious exchange that got the ball of the central, cat-and-mouse plot rolling in the first place. The immediate reward of the initial confusion is the articulate, rapid-fire deliciousness of the language, penned by writer/director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton) and wonderfully put into play by the winning duo of Roberts and Owen. What's earned later is the "a-ha!" thrill of watching the puzzle pieces connect. Gilroy is my kind of filmmaker: urbane, tasteful, challenging and exceptionally intelligent. In a post "Pulp Fiction"-world full of imitators trying (and often failing) to toy with movie chronology, he manages to construct a broken narrative that feels both fresh and classic. And, through the lens of the great cinematographer Robert Elswit, he doesn't skimp on the stylish visuals, either. If there's a failure, it's the movie's inability to truly invest viewers in the spies' romance, despite the lead actors' fiery chemistry (perhaps it's simply an inevitable side effect of the story's fundamental theme of mistrust). But "Duplicity" is more about the game than the players, and the game is an entertaining one, indeed.