Tuesday, August 28, 2012

DVD Recommendations

While I haven't seen many movies in the theater recently that have inspired me to write, there are a few new DVD releases I'd like to recommend. If you missed them in the theater (or if, sadly, they never made it to a theater near you), consider checking these out:

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, this movie stars Ryan Gosling as a stunt car driver by day, get-a-way driver by night who gets entangled in a dangerous situation. This movie is brutal in its violence and features an ironically chilling performance by one of my favorite comic actors, Albert Brooks. The movie is highly stylized, starting with the music and style of the opening credits that pay homage, or more accurately, resurrect the action film genre of the 70's. As in most action films, the main female character, played here by Carey Mulligan, takes a back seat (pardon the pun), but it's worth checking out to see Ryan Gosling play a macho guy with some integrity to back it up.

Higher Ground
Directed by and starring the luminous Vera Farmiga, this movie explores a woman's relationship with God and religion. While many of today's movies steer away from the topic of religion, this movie explores it with honesty and humor without resorting to mockery.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, this movie stayed with me long after I viewed it. Moving between the past and present, the film follows a set of twins, brother and sister, that travels to the Middle East to uncover secrets from their mother's tortured past. The Radiohead soundtrack certainly doesn't hurt either.

The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, this movie features an amazing, moving performance by Meryl Streep. Her performance is not an imitation of Margaret Thatcher, as some have said, but rather, a memorable portrayal of a very strong woman.

Directed by Dee Rees. With a tremendous cast led brilliantly by newcomer Adepero Oduye, this movie is my favorite of the bunch. It takes us into the world of Alike, a black teenager struggling to hide her homosexuality from her traditional parents. The movie glides effortlessly through Alike's daily rituals of school, family dinner, and Sunday church service, all the while leading to an emotional, yet hopeful, ending. Such authenticity comes from the convincing script and performances. It seems that all those who worked on this project shared a mutual passion for the message the film conveys: that loving one's self is freedom.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Check out "Return"

Coming soon: "Return" starring Linda Cardellini as a soldier returning home from war. Also stars the odd, yet somehow sexy, Michael Shannon as her husband. I'm pleased that a filmmaker has decided to portray the challenges wives and mothers face when they return from duty. Not that Jarhead and The Hurt Locker weren't great; they were. So glad that Linda Cardellini has finally gotten a chance to show off her acting chops. She was great in Freaks 'n Geeks, but unlike her costars from that show (Franco, Rogen, Jason Segal), she hasn't had that many opportunities. I'm looking forward to this one, even though it probably won't receive wide release. Look for it at your local independent theatre.

Check out the trailer here.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Funny. . . like us

Directed by: Paul Feig
Written by: Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo

People who know me well know that I tend to snort when I laugh at something pretty damn funny. When I watched "Bridesmaids", I hadn't experienced the "snort-laugh" while watching a movie in a long time. During the movie's 125 minutes of hilarity, I decided to let the snorts run wild, and boy, did they ever.

My laughter was not just at the infamous food poisoning or drunken air travel scenes, but at the glee I felt that finally a movie being seen by mainstream audiences shows that women can be raunchy, outrageous, and fiercely competitive, but also vulnerable, sentimental, and compassionate.

As in other movies that show more fully-formed portraits of women, this movie places female friendships in the foreground, while romantic relationships take a back seat. However, when the movie does explore a budding relationship between main character Annie (Kristen Wiig) and local cop Nathan (Chris O'Dowd), the relationship is not glossy. It has kinks and awkward moments, and it actually shows the male being the more overzealous and clingy in the relationship, which contrary to popular belief, can actually happen.

Everyone in this movie is good. But I must say that Kristen Wiig has finally stepped out of the shadows of her many weird, troll-like characters on SNL to show herself to be a fully-defined actor. In fact, most of the comic relief in the film comes courtesy of the amazing Melissa McCarthy (of CBS' "Mike & Molly"). Wiig seems more than equipped to carry the emotional weight of this movie on her shoulders.

Speaking of emotions, I cannot fail to mention the wonderfully touching performance of Maya Rudolph who plays bride-to-be Lillian. At the core, the movie is about her life-long friendship with Annie, and they both play the ups and downs of long-term female friendship so well. The scene on the morning of the wedding when Annie finds Lillian sitting alone on the bed in her old apartment is very telling of the fact that no matter how old you are when you get married or move in with a significant other, there will always be a part of you that will miss the autonomy and comfort of the single life. The dialogue these two share while sitting on Lillian's bed should strike a chord with most women.

Everyone should see this movie- men and women alike. I was surprised at the amount of men in the theater. All in all, I'd still call it a "chick-flick", but at least it's a good one. With that said, I give it my four-snorts seal of approval.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A guy, a girl, and 3000 miles

Going the Distance
Directed by Nanette Burstein
Written by Geoff LaTulippe

"Going the Distance" is an extremely watchable movie thanks to the natural, truthful performances of Drew Barrymore and Justin Long and the realistic dialogue of screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe. Erin (Barrymore) and Garrett (Long) meet in a bar and share what could potentially be a meaningless, drunken night together but instead find themselves falling in love. The catch is that Erin will be leaving New York in six weeks to complete her graduate studies in San Francisco. Hence the dilemma, one which this movie so accurately portrays.

Instead of going their separate ways after their night together as many practical-minded folks would do, Erin and Garrett continue to see each other. This leads to six weeks of goo-goo eyes, excessive displays of public affection, and all of the other indescribable, mushy magic that happens at the very beginning of a relationship. Still, Erin moves to San Francisco, and she and Garrett eventually agree to pursue a long-distance, exclusive relationship.

The movie deftly portrays all of the problems that arise when you're in a long-distance relationship, from the painful: missing each other so much it feels like an organ's been removed, to the comical: trying your hand (no pun intended) at awkward phone sex. And let's not forget the temptations that lurk at home- handsome and sexy co-workers who threaten an already vulnerable relationship. Anyone who has ever engaged in a long-distance relationship will appreciate Erin and Garrett's frustrations with time difference, expensive plane tickets, and the nagging, yet often unspoken, question of whether they'll ever end up in the same time zone.

Barrymore is a natural on screen. Her mixture of girlish mischief and downright ballsiness make her a realistic prototype for today's 30-something woman. The character of Erin is brash, yet also sensitive and open. At 31, she knows who she is and is assured in both her quirks and her talents. Long's performance reminds me a bit of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's in "500 Days of Summer". Like Gordon-Levitt, Long utilizes his boyish looks to portray a sensitive, creative man without being wimpy. Garrett is laid-back and somewhat passive while Erin is direct and at times, explosive. Erin also drops the F-bomb A LOT. In this way, the movie breaks the traditional rom-com mold. Women can be foul-mouthed, and men can cry. Who knew?

With or without the long-distance theme, the movie wonderfully shows the evolution of falling in love. Prior to meeting Erin, Garrett consistently fails at committed relationships. In the beginning of the movie, we see him with his current girlfriend, treading water, treating her in a way some would consider inconsiderate and inattentive. Cut to the scene where he meets Erin and voila! he's seemingly a completely different person. Whether he's aware of it initially or not, he's found what he wants in Erin and there's never any doubt that he will treat her with all of the respect and love he was unable to give to his previous girlfriend. It's not that Garrett was a jerk who suddenly changes for the better because someone showed him how to love. He's always known how to love. He just needed to find the right girl for the impulse to kick in.

As for Erin, when she meets Garrett, she's focused solely on her education and career. She's not looking for a relationship, which makes her evolving feelings for Garrett all the more interesting to watch. When Garrett tells Erin he loves her during an embrace at an airport, the camera fixes on Erin's face which, in only a matter of seconds, reveals pure happiness, surprise, and the heart-thumping realization that she's involved in so much more than a summer fling. That's what is great about this movie. It's like we're watching the relationship in real time. While there are the obligatory musical montages showing the lovers "connecting", some scenes appear as if they're shot in a documentary style (which isn't surprising since this movie is documentary director Burstein's first foray into fictional film). Erin and Garrett are far too entranced in one another to care what any outsider would think. They are two mature adults who don't need to refer to self-help books or best friends to reassure them that their relationship has legs.

I won't reveal the ending of this movie. We all know that long-distance relationships are hard to maintain. In fact, the whole goal of a long-distance relationship is to have it end as soon as possible. But we know that this doesn't always happen. The fatigue of long-distance can get to the most dedicated of people, and lengthening the relationship, though well-intentioned, can be a masochistic endeavor.

Breaking up is hard to do, but breaking up because of distance is even more bitter-sweet. This movie shows that all relationships come down to one thing: sacrifice. No lasting relationship exists without it. Either Erin or Garrett or both will have to sacrifice something to make the relationship a go. It becomes a question of how much they themselves are willing to sacrifice, and how much they'll allow the other person to sacrifice... and those decisions arise from a place of love. "Going the Distance" has very little to do with physical traveling and everything to do with making sacrifices.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Living in the valley

Crazy Heart
Written and Directed by Scott Cooper
Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb

Jeff Bridges' performance in "Crazy Heart" moved me to tears. Bridges relinquished all inhibitions to portray the sinking desperation of alcoholism and the yearning for what could have been. His performance is raw, vulnerable, and proof that material for older actors comes along far too infrequently. Bridges plays Bad Blake, a 57 year old country musician who once had his day in the sun and now spends his nights playing bowling alleys and dive bars in between downing whiskey and bedding aging groupies. Bridges could have easily played Blake with one note- as simply mean or grumpy or cynical. Instead, he gives Blake an inherent likability and charm that allows us to understand why he became famous in the first place.

Blake's clearly down and out when he meets Jean, a small-town reporter in New Mexico who wants to do a story on him. Initially, Blake only seems interested in getting Jean into bed, but eventually something about her moves him to start making better choices. Jean, played so wonderfully by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is much younger than Blake. I don't know if their age difference exists in the original novel, but it works. Jean is a single mother and level-headed, not at all spontaneous in the way Blake is. In fact, it's obvious that her interest in Blake both scares and excites her, and she knows that falling for him would be far too risky an undertaking. I think that Blake sees in Jean and her young son all of the goodness of a youth he ravaged through.

Fans of country and blues music will especially like this movie, and actual touring musicians even more so. In an uncredited role, Irish actor Colin Farrell plays Tommy Sweet, once Blake's protege, and now one of the hottest country acts. The relationship between Blake and Sweet is interesting - not adversarial, but far from father-son.

This movie is about the peaks and valleys in life, how one day you're on top, and whether through your own actions or simply by circumstance, you end up in a valley. Though it may look like hell, it's so easy to stay there. Bridges' outstanding performance shows how hard it is to climb out, but how sweet it is once you meet the level road.

If you don't ever see this movie, at least listen to the film's title song. It says it all. Isn't it amazing how music can do that? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwwkqABItLA

Monday, June 7, 2010

In Defense of Carrie Bradshaw

Sex and the City 2
Written & Directed by Michael Patrick King

When Sex and the City aired on HBO, I wasn't a fan. I would occasionally watch an episode, but I certainly wasn't a die-hard follower of Carrie Bradshaw's misadvantures. I thought Carrie was materialistic, superficial, and trivial, and found her problems to arise out of shallowness and self-involvement. However, while watching the SATC sequel, I finally understood her. After her years-long quest to get Mr. Big to love her, he finally does, and yet, she finds herself restless in the certainty, unhappy that Big chooses the couch over a night on the town. This sequel deals with the reality of marriage and the compromises that go with it. Underneath its over-indulgent costumes, hijinx, and vulgar double-entrendre, this movie is really about the power of female friendship, and the freedom allowed American women to make choices, no matter how frivolous, insensitive, or irrational those choices may be.

But let me get to what I find to be the most interesting aspect of this movie: the controversy it has ignited for its supposed caricature of Arab culture. Some critics, like Ebert, gave the movie scathing reviews. For once, I must disagree with Ebert and come to the defense of Carrie and her entourage. I feel like Elaine in that episode of Seinfeld where she admits to hating "The English Patient." I like this movie... not for the trendy clothes or the risque dialogue but for the overall message it conveys.

In one scene, the women are attending a gay wedding ceremony in Connecticut (where gay marriage is legal) complete with Liza Minelli and a gay men's choir singing show tunes. Cut to the girls arriving in Abu Dhabi where women are required to wear head scarves, and public affection can land you in jail. The juxtaposition is striking. Do I have to ask - where would you rather live?

What I find most exasperating is that the same people who have always loved SATC for its liberal stance on sexuality and feminism, are now turning their backs on Carrie and her pals. The critics claim that their disdain for the film is based solely on its portrayal of Arab culture. Could it be, however, that these critics, however subconsiously, simply will not allow these over-40 women to get away with the same shenanigans they were up to in their 30's? The same critics who have lambasted the movie for being politically incorrect are apparently unaware of their own bias toward women over 40. The sad part is that some of these critics are women themselves!!

I'm one of the last people to take offense at jokes about aging actresses. But if you're going to make statements about what is considered unseemly behavior for a woman over 50 (Samantha's character) or about how a woman of a certain age should dress, then what was women's lib for? So that female critics can spew negative remarks about female characters who have chosen to neither marry nor procreate, and who dare to still follow their libidos at 50?!!

Regardless of director King's intentions, SATC 2 is much more a celebration of being American than a derisive commentary on another culture. This movie is about all that America and its people represent: transparent emotion (and sometimes transparent clothing), frivolity, abundance... but most of all freedom: freedom to love, freedom to be restless, freedom to dress how you like. In some countries, freedom is more yearned for than sex itself. And for some very lucky, priveleged American critics, that is a hard concept to accept.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A life of high-flying solitude

Movie #6: "Up in the Air"
Directed by Jason Reitman; Screenplay by Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner; Based on book by Walter Kirn

With all the talk of "Up in the Air" being about the current state of the economy, don't let anyone fool you. The book version of "Up in the Air" was written far before the downfall of the stock market and auto industry. This movie is about people. It's about all the small, trivial things that make human relationships so poignant and staggering. From the touch of a hand to the sheer joy of forgetting the world around you as you dance tipsy on a dance floor, "Up in the Air" wants you to reflect on the moments of your life that make you happy.

For me, "Up in the Air" has the same intangible quality, and ability to touch a nerve, that the film "American Beauty" has. When I saw "Beauty" in the theatre, I sat and cried while the end credits rolled and everyone else headed for the exit. Why, I don't know, but the film moved me deeply. Yes, the part where the neighbor boy shows off his video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind is far beyond pretentious. Things really can't be that bad if you have a roof over your head and money to burn as the characters in these movies do. But their situations echo the lives of those of us who have enough money and possessions to sometimes feel guilty for our luck, but not enough that we don't sometimes desire more. Such situations are rich material for the satire of "Beauty" and "Air."

In "Air," George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a professional terminator of jobs. He travels state to state to different companies, firing employees. He travels most days of the year and hordes frequent flier miles. Marching into this life of self-induced isolation comes new colleague Natalie. Played by Anna Kendrick, Natalie is fresh out of college and full of business-like pragmatism. She believes the company would save loads of money if they did the firings online, a possibility that would put an end to Bingham's life as the happy transient. To show her that in-person firing isn't as easy as it looks, Bingham takes Natalie on a crash-course in firing, which of course, turns out to be more of a crash-course in life.

Along the way, Ryan meets Alex, played wonderfully by Vera Farmiga. She, too, travels frequently for her job, and one night in a hotel bar, they find they have an equally unnatural passion for travelers' perks. This flirtation quickly leads to a sexual relationship which they rekindle in various cities when their schedules allow. I appreciate how the movie shows the evolution of their relationship in a natural way. They don't have some big talk about moving the relationship out of bootie-call mode into something more serious. It just happens. Ryan and Alex are two people who may or may not have different motives, but when they're together, they're on the same page, they are in the moment, and they are seemingly in love in that "I could kiss you all day and not get tired of it" kind of way. What I love about their chemistry is that it's not portrayed as two jaded 30 & 40-somethings who are bitter because they haven't yet succeeded in love. Their affection for each other is fresh and reminiscent of what it looks like to be in love for the very first time.

What is clearly evident throughout the film is Ryan's loneliness and his self-imposed exile from family and potential relationships. A major part of the plot is Ryan's sister's wedding, which shows the family dynamics in a very realistic light. His sisters are played amazingly by Amy Morton and Melanie Lynskey (the bride). To me, the scene that is the crux of the movie is one in which Ryan is called on to convince his sister's fiance, who is suffering from cold feet, that he should get married. In the scene, the fiance tells Ryan how lucky he is that he's single with no responsibilities or commitments. How Ryan responds is what makes this movie for me, because ultimately this movie isn't about Ryan and Alex, or Ryan and his family. It's about Ryan.

"Up in the Air" looks at life as the limbo we experience between birth and death, and how we decide to either cherish it or flush it down the toilet. By the end of the film, Ryan realizes he could have something more, and even if he doesn't get it right away, he's had a taste of it and knows that he wants it.

The women in this film are wonderfully written. Alex and Natalie are strong, intelligent and capable of behavior typically only portrayed by men in movies. I hope mainstream cinema welcomes more films like this in which women have practical agendas, not just hopes and dreams.