Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wedding Bell Blues: You’ll Be Addicted to “Rachel Getting Married”

I never though I’d write these words but I will: Anne Hathaway is Oscar-worthy. Yes little Princess Diaries is all grown up and can prove that she can act like a pro. I mean, not to say that she’s never been good or anything, but I figured Hathaway would always be “very good” and not necessarily “show-stopping amazing.” Of course it’s the type of role that gets noticed. In “Rachel Getting Married” she plays a recovering drug addict who is released from rehab for the weekend to attend her sister’s wedding celebration. What results is a weekend of sly one-liners and family secrets that have been simmering for years. This film, directed with a gritty, shockingly realistic style by Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, is a dark, emotional and ultimately satisfying portrait of a broken family in serious need of a patch job.

I don’t want to spend this entire review raving about Anne Hathaway, but she is really, really good. And she deserves whatever accolades (and shiny gold statues) she may accrue. She shows a sense of vulnerability in her I’ve never seen and there are moments when just her facial expressions say things no dialogue could. Hathaway plays Kym who at the beginning of the film is waiting for a ride home from rehab. At first we’re not sure we don’t know her whole story which is slowly revealed as the film progresses. She’s picked up by her father Paul (Bill Irwin) and stepmother (Anna Deavere Smith). And they arrive at her house where her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) and friends and other wedding helpers are preparing for the wedding of a lifetime. It appears that not only is Kym a recovering addict but also seems to be harboring some kind of hurtful secret from her past. She enters what looks like a child’s room and we can tell her past isn’t lollipops and rainbows.

What is so amazing about this film, besides Hathaway and the rest of the talented cast, is the Demme’s cinéma vérité direction, who shoots the film with handheld cameras (and what appears to be High Def video) as if it were a documentary and Jenny Lumet’s script which feels so real you’d swear you were watching a really high budget home movie of your own screwed up family. The camera gives us shots that are sort of ugly in that they instantly reflect the emotions and state of minds of the characters. If you’re looking for epic shots and beautiful vistas, you should be watching “Lawrence of Arabia.” I would never be able to tell this was a Jonathan Demme movie. Even though I’ve only seen “Lambs” and “Philadelphia” he employs a drastically different filmmaking style that is much more anti-Hollywood but fits perfectly with the film’s story. The camerawork sort of makes you feel uneasy as it should.

The past that comes back to haunt the members of this family is truly heartbreaking and everyone does such a great job of portraying true emotions rather than overly dramatic “made-for-TV” melodrama, which this could have easily become. Lumet’s screenplay slowly peels back the frayed layers of a family that I’m not really sure ever was all one solid piece. Kym’s father is divorced from her mother (played here by Debra Winger) and she’s not exactly going to be winning any Mom of the Year awards anytime soon.

I hesitate to mention this film reminded me a lot of the Dogme 95 film “The Celebration” mostly because I doubt you’ve even heard of it, and I hardly enjoyed it, but this is a more tolerable version. I do love movies where unspoken thoughts of a supposedly tight-nit family comes bubbling to the surface and all hell breaks loose. Is it depressing? Sure. Is it sort of hard to watch? Kind of. But it certainly makes for a fascinating movie from beginning to end. GRADE: A

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Madness of King George: “W.” is a Fascinating Behind-the-Scenes Look at Our Most Misunderestimated President

At nearly two hours into Oliver Stone’s President Bush biopic “W.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newtown) exclaims that Morocco is willing to donate expert mind field navigating monkeys on behalf of the United States’ Operation: Iraqi Freedom. It’s a moment of pure hilarity that sort of sums up the entire film. I sort of had an image of a bunch of monkeys sitting around the oval office trying to run the country. That’s pretty much what’s been going on the past eight years, but it’s sort of difficult to tell from watching “W.” a movie that honestly isn’t a Bush-bashing opus but rather a portrait of an everyman who was given the opportunity to run the country and did it. If anything it’s those around him who were pulling the strings. If anything, George W. Bush is pretty much sympathetic in this film and is expertly portrayed by “Goonies” alum Josh Brolin.

Oliver Stone is certainly known as a political filmmaker in Hollywood and certainly knows how to push people’s buttons. He has a history of making liberal-minded dramas of such topics as the Vietnam War, the Kennedy Assassination and even 9/11. he’s an antiwar activist after having served active duty in Vietnam so you can sort of assume he’s not the biggest fan of the Iraq War and our current administration. Having said that, “W.” isn’t quite as Bush hating as one might think. I’m not so sure Bush fans are going to necessarily embrace the film, but I do think it has a point, besides showing the life of one of our most despised commander-in-chiefs. It wants to show how a regular Joe made it to the White House. George Bush is sort of like you and me. He went to college and got drunk. He was always living under his father’s shadow and always seemed one step behind his younger brother Jeb. Even when he wanted to run for Governor of Texas his parents (portrayed by James Cromwell & Ellen Burstyn) disapproved because Jeb was going to be running for Governor of Florida at the same time. Sometimes a guy just can’t get a break.

Honestly, most people who are going to see this film are not going to see it because they want to see the life story of a president they think is dumber than mud (yeah he went to Yale, but he got all Cs). They want to see whether the portrayals of real life current administrators are going to be actual characters or just SNL impersonations. Well I have to say that Bush’s cabinet is portrayed by good actors (Richard Dreyfuss is Dick Cheney! Toby Jones is Karl Rove! Jeffrey Wright is Colin Powell! Scott Glenn is Donald Rumsfeld!) All these performers raise above just impressions and actually deliver performances. If anything Thandie Newton who I mentioned earlier as Condoleezza Rice seems more of a caricature mostly because I think that’s exactly how she seems in real life. I also really enjoyed Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush whom we get see first meeting her future husband at a backyard BBQ. Banks doesn’t really get to do much besides play the supportive wife but she makes the best of her role. I enjoy seeing her in any film whether she’s give the opportunity to be funny or not.

What I really admired about the film besides portraying a sympathetic portrait of Bush (but don’t worry he still has plenty of dumb, Bushism moments like that time he choked on a pretzel and unknowingly making up words like “misunderestemated” as if it actually existed) is the film’s story. As written by “Wall Street” scribe Stanley Weiser we get an almost “Godfather Part II” structure in which we crosscut between Bush’s early years in college, as an alcoholic and eventually gaining the respect of his father George Sr. Meanwhile during the “present day” sequences we see first term-Bush talking with his cabinet post 9/11 about an ‘axis of evil’ and how exactly to go about declaring war (with the help our most manipulative VP ever).

If anything “W.” isn’t only just a biopic but a cleverly disguised anti-war film. We don’t exactly root for Bush to declare war on anybody even though we all felt hurt and furious about the 9/11 attacks. But let’s face it if we were going to go to war because of 9/11, at least declare war on the right people. Many Iraq War themed films have been released over the past few years and this is the only one that actually delves into the process and portrays the people responsible realistically in a move that was all about politics and not about consequences. Like any great Oliver Stone film, it will get people talking. See it. GRADE: B+

Friday, October 10, 2008

Rabid Season: “Quarantine” Offers Some Shaky Camera Thrills

“Quarantine” is one of those films that is meant to test its audience. Like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” its goal is to scare and see how far they can go without the audience completely bailing on the film before it ends. All three feature shaky, handled photography handled by one of the film’s actual characters. The film is pretty much in real time (or at least about 90 minutes worth of footage of the characters lives). Most people just want to go out and see a scary movie and some people want to go out and see something original. Both audiences should be pleased with “Quarantine” which is effective in creating suspense, providing genuine moments of terror and a brief running time that certainly doesn’t out stay its welcome.

“Quarantine” stars Jennifer Carpenter (who you may know from TV’s “Dexter”) as Angela who is a local newswoman. She’s covering a news story about a group of local firemen. Angel and her cameraman (who provides the film’s camerawork and whom we therefore hardly ever see) tour the firehouse and even get to slide down that infamous firehouse pole. The first act of the film is simply Angela being shown around the firehouse by firemen Jake (Jay Hernandez) and George (Johnathon Schaech). She even gets hit on in the process. The fireman insist that if they get a call Angel will even be able to tag along to see how they respond to an emergency. Everything seems fine until they get called to an apartment building. It appears neighbors heard some screaming and called the police and fire department. They enter the building and they never step outside again.

It appears the old woman has some sort of sickness (its basically a superstrength version of rabies) which is equally gross and violent. The other tenants begin to worry and soon the authorities outside lock everyone inside. There seems to be some kind of forced quarantine in process and luckily they have a camera crew inside filming the whole ordeal. The film is actually scary, mostly because we don’t know what is just out of frame. There are moments where characters just sort of stand there and we have wait for what seems like an excruciatingly long time for something to jump out at us. Eventually more people become infected (because they’re all practically trapped in a box) and we learn that even a camera can be come a useful weapon.

The film is directed by John Erick Dowdle who previously directed The Poughkeepsie Tapes which has yet to see the light of distribution. I saw that trailer over a year ago and I can’t wait to see it. I didn’t even realize that Dowdle had directed both films, but obviously someone realized he would be the right guy for “Quarantine” because he knows how to structure a film that is based on the gimmick of the first person camera. These movies can work well when done correctly. The actors feel real. I felt like the opening scenes could have been part of a local news show. The subjective camera just works when it comes to the horror genre. It’s a proven fact. Add in the jittery handheld work like the previously mentioned “Blair Witch” and “Cloverfield” and you have a recipe for success. Why are these movies becoming so popular all of a sudden? I think it’s the Youtube craze if you ask me. When anyone can have access to a camera and post it online for everyone to see, it becomes cool that the average Joe can become a “filmmaker.”

“Quarantine” may not necessarily add anything new to the shaky camera thriller genre (and I don’t know if it’s as rewatchable as “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield”), but it certainly is not a step in the wrong direction. It’s probably best not to watch the film if you already have a headache because you’ll probably puke half way through it, but migraines notwithstanding is worth 90 minutes of your time. GRADE: B

Monday, October 06, 2008

Home Movies: Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks Are More than Friends in “Zack & Miri Make a Porno”

I can recall a couple years back when I watched “Clerks II.” It was a film I wanted to like but didn’t really care for. I haven’t seen it since and I think that might like it a bit more if I saw it again, but still it’s a little too “Kevin Smith” for my tastes. I realize that’s exactly what Kevin Smith fans want in a Kevin Smith movie, but I guess I felt like I wasn’t in on the jokes. Like Sarah Palin, I felt like an outsider even though this maverick filmmaker has such a devoted fan base. Now comes “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” which is sure to please everyone. Die hard Smith fans will enjoy the dirty humor and graphic dialogue and non-Smith fans will appreciate the actual story about two lifelong friends who discover they actually have feelings for each other once they shoot a homemade adult film in order to get money to pay their rent. The film feels more like a Judd Apatow comedy than a true Kevin Smith movie, but you can tell that Smith has matured as a filmmaker and is capable of telling a good story along with filthy, filthy dialogue and plot elements (Fair warning: this movie has porno in the title so why don’t you leave the kiddies at home please).

Judd Apatow all-star Seth Rogen is Zack. Elizabeth Banks is Miri. They live together and they have been best friends since high school. They even attend a 10 year high school reunion mostly to see what has become of their fellow loser classmates. Unfortunately they live in Pennsylvania (a change of location for Smith’s New Jersey-set films) and it’s the dead of winter. That means when their utilities are turned off because they have no money to pay their bills (Zack works at a coffee shop and Miri works at the mall) they realize they might just want their heat, water and electricity back. At their reunion they run into a classmate who now makes adult films (a hysterical Justin Long) and Zack and Miri get the stupendously crazy idea to make their own porno flick to make money so they can actually live like normal human beings.

With the help of some friends they assemble a cast and crew which includes Deacon (Smith regular Jeff Anderson), Delaney (Craig Robinson), Barry (Ricky Mabe), Bubbles (real life porn star Traci Lords), Stacey (real life porn star Katie Morgan) and Lester (Smith’s BFF Jason Mewes). Zack comes up with the idea of “Star Whores” which would be a pornographic spoof of “Star Wars.” What follows is a hilarious (and wonderfully dirty) movie about these people attempting to make the ultimate homemade porno. And it probably has one of the funniest cinematic cameos of human feces I’ve ever seen in a film.

Kevin Smith has crafted such a wonderfully zany cast of characters for this film. And surprisingly there is a lot of heart here as well. Rogen and Banks have natural chemistry together (and great comedic timing). Those who want to see a dirty Kevin Smith film will be pleased and those wanting to see a story which, stripped bare (pun intended) could easily have been a clichéd “best friends who discover their undenying love for one another” movie but instead it transcends genre conventions to become one of the most funny and touching films with the word porno in its title ever made. GRADE: A-

Note: I viewed this film at a screening during the Woodstock Film Festival on October 5th.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Far From Heaven: Bill Maher is Funny as Hell in “Religulous”

Religion. What is it exactly? It means a lot of different things to different people. To me religion is a cult. It’s a bunch of people afflicted with the same delusional beliefs that if they follow their god’s rules then they will be set for life (aka don’t kill or take the lord’s name in vain and spend eternity in heaven). Every religion is different, but to me they hall have something undeniably the same: religion is a way of running peoples’ lives. Some people are so content with the ways of the Lord that they’re blinded by the wrath of God. I think its obvious that you shouldn’t commit the sin of murder. Any rational human being doesn’t need an ancient book to tell us that. Late night talk show host/comedian doesn’t really believe in any form of religion whether it be Catholicism or Judaism or that weird marijuana religion that we learn about in the Netherlands. “Religulous” mostly consists of Maher just trying to get answers. Why do people follow a certain religion and what’s with all those weird crazy rules.

According to Wikipedia, 85% of North Americans follow some form of religion. That’s a large chunk of the population, yet there are still plenty of people who don’t follow any sort of religion. You can definitely put Maher in that other 15% of the popular. He doesn’t really follow any sort of religion, although he seemed to enjoy that weird marijuana religion I mentioned. You could classify Religious as a documentary in that it’s a non-fiction piece mostly consisting of Maher interviewing various religious people and how their religious work and why they follow a certain savior. Maher easily gets people worked up just by asking questions (which to some religions seems like a major no no). ‘Thou shalt not question religion’ should be the 11th commandment.

The most interesting people that Maher talk to are definitely those devout Christians like the ones who spend their free time reenacting Christ’s crucifixion (with plenty of musical numbers to spare). There’s actually a place in Orlando, Florida called Holy Land. You should check it out in case you ever get bored with Mickey Mouse. Also interesting is how Maher gets kicked out of the Vatican only to encounter a friendly priest nearby who practically denounces God in front of the cameras. He insists modern religious is practically ridiculous will of its crazy rules.

Most funny of all however are those random film clips and TV clips thrown in for good measure. When Maher discusses how we never get to learn about Jesus’ teen years and how he must have been an awkward teen Jew, we cut to “Superbad” star Jonah Hill looking awkward and Jewish. I can’t even imagine how much stock footage from movies, TV and other places are in this film. It really adds to the humor and makes this anything but a stuffy documentary about religion.

Maher intends to be irreverent and controversial (and it helps with “Borat” director Larry Charles at the helm). He doesn’t attack people or force them to think the way he does, but he just wants to know what is going on inside some of those religious freaks we all associate when we hear “let Jesus save you” when we’re walking down the streets of Manhattan. We want to know why it is so important to spread the love of Jesus. We want to know why religion is such an important factor in people’s lives and why we’re such a religious country. Is it possible to have morals without belonging to a religion? I think so. But what do I know? It’s not like I’m God or anything. GRADE: B+