Monday, January 26, 2009

The 4th Annual Golden Gallo Awards

I can’t believe it’s already the 4th Annual Golden Gallo Awards. It seems like only yesterday I was making up my own awards due to sheer lack of boredom. Ah, how far I’ve come in four quick years. In honor of the Oscars which award the best in motion pictures and the Razzies which honor the worst in motion pictures, I give you the Golden Gallos which represent everything in between. Enjoy.


Best Performance by a Scientologist: Tom Cruise, TROPIC THUNDER
Most Depressing Domestic Quarrel: REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

The “What the Heck Were They Thinking” Award: MEET THE SPARTANS

Best Opening Credit Sequence: BURN AFTER READING

Best Closing Credit Sequence: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Best Misleading Marketing Campaign: FUNNY GAMES
Film Least Deserving of an Award, Even a Golden Gallo: SUPERHERO MOVIE
Best Blackface Performance: Robert Downey Jr., TROPIC THUNDER

Scene Stealer Award: Kathryn Hahn, STEP BROTHERS

The Audrey II Killer Plant Award: THE RUINS
Movie Most Likely to Cause Nightmares (in a good way): THE STRANGERS

Movie Most Likely to Cause Nightmares (in a bad way): THE LOVE GURU

The Trailer is Better Than the Movie Award: EAGLE EYE
Most Obnoxious Child Performance (female): Catinca Untaru, THE FALL
Most Obnoxious Child Performance (male): Brandon Walters, AUSTRALIA

Most Gratuitous Use of Bathing Suits: FOOL’S GOLD

Best Cameo by a Former Cast Member of “Adventures in Babysitting:” Elizabeth Shue, HAMLET 2

Best Film Most Likely to be Forgotten by the Academy: GRAN TORINO

The “Or How I Learned to Love a Bomb” Guilty Pleasure Award: THE HAPPENING

The Grease 2 Unnecessary Sequel Award: STEP UP 2 THE STREETS

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It Award: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL

The Jaws 3D “I Only Wanted To See It Cause it Was in 3-D” Award: JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH

Coolest Movie Poster Award: THE DARK KNIGHT

Best Cameo by Human Feces: ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO
Second Best Cameo by Human Feces: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

The Don’t You Forget About Me “This Came Out This Year??” Award: CLOVERFIELD

The Ishtar Big-Budget Stinker Award: SPEED RACER
Best Film with a Cast Member of TV’s ‘Lost:’ THE DARK KNIGHT

Worst Film with a Cast Member of TV’s ‘Lost:’ SPEED RACER

Best Prop: The Joker’s pencil in THE DARK KNIGHT
Film Most Likely to Cause a Seizure: SPEED RACER

Worst Hairdo (Male) Emile Hirsch, MILK

Worst Hairdo (Female) Allison Pill, MILK
Best Use of the McGuffin in a Hollywood Blockbuster – The crystal skull in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

Best Gun Shot to the Head in a Musical or Comedy – BURN AFTER READING

Best Excuse to Join the NRA - WANTED

Best Comeback From a Previously Horrid Attempt at Filmmaking – Kevin Smith, ZACK & MIRI MAKE A PORNO

Friday, January 23, 2009

Wrestlers, Addicts and Brangelina, Oh My! The Best Films of 2008

I am going to go on record right now and say that I was not a big fan of 2008. Sure 2008 gave us a president we can believe in and it even gave us gas prices below $2, but I’m not sure that it gave us the most amazing slate of movies ever. Maybe it just couldn’t compare to the year that was 2007, which gave us Into the Wild, Juno, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly and No Country For Old Men. With a strong list from last year, I’m not sure that many of the films that make my list this year would even make it to my list last year. That being said there were some outstanding acheievments so without further ado I present my list of the Best Films of 2008.

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (dir. David Fincher) From the director of Fight Club and Seven comes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the magical story of a man born as an old man who ages backwards and becomes young as everyone else grows old. You’d never in a million years guess that someone who is responsible for such dark thrillers would be able to tell such a moving and enjoyable fable. This is the type of fantasy film that I find fascinating. It tells an original tale with rich characters and enjoyable performances all told in a realistic way. Fincher makes the impossible possible with standout performances from the likes of Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and little known Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin Button’s surrogate mother. This film is as visually dazzling as it is emotionally wrenching.

2. The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky) I never thought in a million years that I would have a film starring Mickey Rouke as one of my favorites of the year. But I can’t deny it. The Wrestler is definitely one of the most amazing films I’ve seen this year. Everyone can agree that Rourke has never been better as this film was tailor made for him. What I want to highlight is Aronofsky’s brilliant direction with is raw and has serious bite. The techniques he employes are simply too amazing to describe in words. This is a film you must witness. The story of an aging wrestler at the end of his prime and his friendship with a lonely stripper (Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) makes for one of the year’s most brilliant cinematic experiences. The Wrestler is a winner.

3. Revolutionary Road (dir. Sam Mendes) Some may call this film “American Beauty” without the laughs and those people are half right. There are many similarities between Revolutionary Road and Mendes’ previous groundbreaking suburban hell masterpiece, but I think this film which reunites Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as a suburban couple who should have never gotten married in the first place, is just as worthy as one of the year’s greatest films. This a beautiful film that looks at the cracks in a couple’s marriage. And boy are there a lot of cracks. Everything isn’t perfect in 1950s Connecticut and the tensions rise between Frank and April who can’t seem to fit in to roles that are expected of them. They figure that picking up and moving to Europe is the key until everything starts going wrong. This is a film that gets everything right. The performances, the photography, the music and everything else we see onscreen just comes together magically. This is a captivating piece of modern filmmaking.

4. Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard) This movie is based on a stage play, which was in turn based on an interview. An interview. This is a fascinating, suspenseful and raw look at the groundbreaking interview between British journalist David Frost and ex-president Richard “I’m not a crook” Nixon. The film features two standout performances by Michael Sheen (as Frost) and Frank Langella (as Nixon) and a strong supporting cast. Frost was determined to go one-on-one with Nixon who he believed never got any punishment for deceiving the American people. What follows is a battle of wits between two men with more low blows and tension than a boxing match. This is riveting entertainment from start to finish.

5. Changeling (dir. Clint Eastwood) The 78-year-old Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood gave us two of the best films of 2008. One of them is Changeling, a heart-breaking true story of a woman in search of her missing son in Los Angeles circa the 1920s. Eastwood manages to get a beautiful and emotionally charged performance from Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie as the stressed out mother who insists the boy that the police have returned to her is, in fact, not her real son. Eastwood always manages to direct films that have stories in which you cannot tell where things are going. Changeling is a powerful and altogether entertaining drama with great performances, stunning production values and gripping drama.

6. Rachel Getting Married (dir. Jonathan Demme) Who knew that Anne Hathaway was such a strong actress? I guess like most big stars, she just needed the right role. She takes her make-up off and lets her hair down to play Kym who is an addict who is let out of rehab for the weekend to attend her sister’s wedding. What follows is a weekend of tension and family secrets that come straight to the surface. Kym throws a wrench into the entire family’s dynamics and seems to cause trouble for everyone. Demme’s shaky, cinéma vérité style adds to the drama, and makes the whole thing seem like the most heart wrenching home video you’ll ever see. The ensemble cast is right up there with Hathaway who all seem to be so real that you almost feel like a voyeur who wasn’t invited. This is powerful stuff.

7. Milk (dir. Gus Van Sant) Thankfully this film is a wonderful slice of American history. Van Sant lets us forget that he made that dreadful Psycho remake by unleashing his filmmaking talents by telling the true story of Harvey Milk who was a pioneer in the gay civil rights movement. Taking place in San Francisco during the 1970s Milk seems just as relevant today as it did over thirty years ago. But the issues aren’t the most fascining thing. It is the strong level of Oscar-worthy performances from the likes of Sean Penn, James Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch that elevate this film beyond just strong politically minded filmmaking. Van Sant manages an inimate atmosphere yet the film seems larger than life. While a film like Brokeback Mountain opened the door, a film like Milk leaves it open and will mark it’s place in history as a mesmerizing piece of American filmmaking.

8. Funny Games (dir. Michael Haneke) Critics mostly railed, unjustly, against this terrifically terrifying film about a family who is held hostage in their summer home by two deranged young men. The ever creepy Michael Pitt highlights the scary duo, dressed in preppy tennis gear, complete with white gloves, who force their hostages, including the brilliant Naomi Watts and her husband (Tim Roth) and young son to play sick games. It turns out the entire point of the film is to ridicule the audience for enjoying it all. Haneke’s direction is purposely misleading and mean-spirited yet down right brilliant. He never lets you forget you’re watching a movie. Leave it to a shot for shot remake (of his original Austrian film) to be one of the year’s most original creations. This is a truly disturbing and fascinating film.

9. The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan) Who didn’t see this movie this year? Who didn’t like this movie? This is one of the most critically and commercially loved films of all time. I think most of that has to due with Heath Ledger’s brilliant turn as the villainous Joker, which will stand as one of cinema’s most memorable bad guys. Nolan’s vision of Batman’s world is realistic and simply astounding. This film is just as much a Scorsese crime saga as it is a comic book flick and you better believe that it's as technically proficient as it is entertaining. The cast who appeared in the so-so "Batman Begins" returns to tell the story of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman and how he must clean up the evil crimes in Gotham City. Themes of terrorism, loyalty, and political corruption fill out the “important issues” in a film that just so happens to be the second highest grossing movie of all time.
10. Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood) Clint Eastwood is back again with another great film from 2008. This time he stars as Walt who is a grumpy old man, a racist, and a Korean War vet; not all necessarily in that order. He’s estranged from his family after his wife dies and his neighborhood has become overrun with dangerous gang activity. He dislikes his Asian neighbors but soon befriends a teenager after he attempts to steal his classic Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation. It turns out Eastwood still has a little bit of Dirty Harry still in him. Eastwood manages to take an easy to despise character and make him completely likable. He’s the hero of the film and his blooming relationship with this boy is truly touching. It’s a journey that is worth taking. Eastwood is amazing in front of and behind the camera.

Honorable mentions (aka #11-15):
WALL-E – Another magical winner from Pixar about a lonely robot. It’s nearly a silent film yet its emotional impact is extraordinary. It’s out of this world.

Iron Man – The year’s other brilliant comic book film. This is more “fun” than The Dark Knight and is highlighted by a terrifically engaging performance by Robert Downey Jr.

Tropic Thunder – One of the year’s funniest comedies is a sharp look at the film industry. Another great turn by Robert Downey Jr. was so great even the Academy couldn’t resist.

The Reader – Headlined by Kate Winslet’s amazing performance as a former Nazi guard who has an affair with a young teenager. This is a haunting and powerful film.

The Strangers – Easily the scariest film of the year. In fact it’s so scary that I simply can’t recommend watching it alone. Creepy and disturbing, this story of a couple terrorized by three masked strangers is a truly frightening experience.
Dishonorable mentions (some of the big stinkers of 2008)
Australia - long & boring
Eagle Eye - unbelievable
The Love Guru - unfunny
Meet the Spartans - stupid
Quantum of Solace - not exciting
Speed Racer - headache inducing
Superhero Movie - missed opportunity

Entertainment Weekly Cares About My Opinions: A New Beginning

EW continues the love of Chris Gallo.,,20205997_6,00.html

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

UPDATED: 2009 Oscar Nominee Predictions

Holy crap, Batman! I guess I should have gone with my gut! I've been saying this since The Dark Knight opened: there's no way it could be nominated for Best Picture. I think all those Batman fanatics were definitely overrating this film. I love it, I really do, but I never quite thought it could actually be nominated for the industry's top honor, not that it doesn't deserve it. It just wouldn't make sense. Although after it started showing such support with the guilds it seemed as if it's fate was sealed as the first comic book movie to be nomiated for the top prize. As it turns out, never underestimate the power of a Holocaust drama with the Academy! Lesson learned: when it comes to Nazis vs Superheroes always go with the NAZIS!

Other surprises include Melissa Leo edging out Sally Hawkins in the Best Actress race. And speaking of which I TOLD YOU PEOPLE! The Academy got something right and actually nominated Kate Winslet for LEAD in The Reader. And that is great news for Amy Adams who filled out Winslet's vacant Supporting Actress slot. Richard Jenkins bumbed out Clint Eastwood, I guess the academy didn't feel like spreading the Clint love this time around. And Michael Shannon who had such a great scene stealing role in Revolutionary Road edged out Supporting Actor hopeful Dev Patel. I think the Academy didn't know what to do with Dev. Some probably thought he was a lead and some probably thought he was supporting. Oh well.

Benjamin Button leads with 13 noms but with 10 nominations, will Slumdog Millionaire become best picture of the year when the winners are announced on February 22nd live on ABC? Only time will tell...

From Wednesday:

Wow, it seems like only yesterday that I predicted Atonement wouldn’t get nominated for Best Picture and it DID. I still don’t understand how Into the Wild only managed two nominations, but I digress. If you honestly ask me what five films will be nominated for best picture, I’m not sure I could say five films with ABSOLUTE confidence. Although I’m pretty sure it’ll most likely be The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, Milk and The Dark Knight. All five have been nominated by the PGA, DGA and WGA. Only The Dark Knight failed to receive strong support from SAG, but are you really surprised? While Heath Ledger is practically guaranteed a posthumous Oscar, that film is hardly known for its strong acting ensemble.

Which begs the question? Can The Dark Knight, which is not only a summer blockbuster comic book film but a SEQUEL really manage a nomination for Best Motion Picture of the Year? Well the bigger question is whether films like The Reader, Gran Torino, Doubt or even WALL-E could replace it. I doubt it.
The best part of this year is that no category has five absolute locks. There are about 6 possible nominees in each category and it will be interesting to see which ones get the door closed on them come Thursday morning.
Will Kate Winslet, Oscar’s youngest/most nominated loser get two nominations this year? I stand by the fact that her performance in The Reader is a leading role. But she’s probably going to be nominated for that in the Supporting Actress race. She’ll also be nominated for Lead Actress in Revolutionary Road, a film which seemed like perfect Oscar bait nearly a year ago, but overall support for it has seriously been waning unfortunately. Yet again, that’s what happened with Atonement last year. It didn’t’ get any pre-Oscar love and yet it still managed a nomination. So don’t count it out!
Besides there has to be some big surprise this year right? Remember when Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for Best Actor last year? No one saw that coming. Remember when Dreamgirls, the Best Picture frontrunner, wasn’t even nominated? No one saw that coming. Remember when City of God was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director, a few years back, no one saw that coming. And Remember when Salma Hayek announced Canada's Water as a Foreign Language Film nominee? Who even knew there were people in Canada that spoke a foreign language? Prepare for a shock, ‘cause it’s gonna happen.
And now without further ado, here are my predictions for the 81st Academy Award nominations:
Best Picture
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire
Alternate: WALL-E
David Fincher The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Christopher Nolan The Dark Knight
Ron Howard Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant Milk
Danny Boyle Slumdog Millionaire
Alternate: Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Clint Eastwood Gran Torino
Frank Langella Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn Milk
Brad Pitt The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke The Wrestler
Alternate: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Anne Hathaway Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins Happy-Go-Lucky
Angelina Jolie Changeling
Meryl Streep Doubt
Kate Winslet Revolutionary Road
Alternate: Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Supporting Actor
Josh Brolin Milk
Robert Downey, Jr. Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman Doubt
Heath Ledger The Dark Knight
Dev Patel Slumdog Millionaire
Alternate: Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis Doubt
Taraji P. Henson The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei The Wrestler
Kate Winslet The Reader
Alternate: Amy Adams, Doubt
Original Screenplay
The Wrestler
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Alternate: Rachel Getting Married
Adapted Screenplay
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire
Alternate: The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Quantum of Solace

The Dark Knight
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Fall
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire
Alternate: The Reader

Costume Design
The Duchess
Sex & the City
Revolutionary Road
The Other Boleyn Girl

Art Direction
The Duchess
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire

Original Score
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Revolutionary Road

Original Song
The Wrestler, The Wrestler
Jai Ho, Slumdog Millionaire
Down to Earth, WALL-E
Gran Torino, Gran Torino
I Thought I Lost You, Bolt

Sound Mixing
Quantum of Solace
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire

Sound Effects Editing
Iron Man
The Dark Knight
Quantum of Solace
Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Visual Effects
Iron Man
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Mummy Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Reader
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Animated Feature
Waltz with Bashir
Kung Fu Panda

Foreign Language Film
Waltz With Bashir
The Class
The Necessities of Life
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Everlasting Moments

Documentary Feature
Man on Wire
Standard Operating Procedure
Trouble the Water
Encounters at the End of the World

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Coal Miner’s Slaughter: Roses are Red/Violets Rule/“My Bloody Valentine 3D” is Gory and Cool

I never thought I’d really say this but I’m sick of movies like “Saw” and “Hostel” (Although I never really had much of a thing for them in the first place). Those movies actually reveled in the torture of people rather than giving us a fascinating villain. Not that I mind watching torture in horror movies. I saw both Hostels in the theater and the first four Saw movies as well. What happened to the good old days of the slasher film? Movies filled with chase scenes and masked killers picking off victims one at a time. The actual killings were brief, it was the stalking that took the longest. So it was with great pleasure I welcomed “My Bloody Valentine 3D” into my world of I’ll-see-anything-with-gore attitude of movie going. Not only did I get an enjoyable, old school style stalk-n-slash movie with a masked villain, but I got three full dimensions! Yes the old school 3D horror experience is back in full force, and the experience was enjoyable and satisfying.

This remake of the kind-of-sort-of-maybe-classic (depending on who you ask) 1981 holiday slasher “My Bloody Valentine,” certainly ups the ante in terms of what the first film was forced to leave on the cutting room floor. Yeah that film featured some cut out hearts and even a woman stuffed in a dryer, but when compared to movies like “Friday the 13th,” the gore just couldn’t stand up. The original film unfortunately was the scapegoat in a time when studios were making money off of “disgusting” slasher films and the MPAA forced “My Bloody Valentine” to get the ol’ snip snip. But now over twenty five years later, the gore the merrier! The MPAA has become surprisingly lack when it comes to gore and they allow almost anything to be shown. Therefore we get lots of gory death scenes and what is probably on record the longest full frontal nudity sequence outside of pornography.

You’re probably wondering, I’m not really a fan of slasher movies, why should I give a crap about one in 3D? You should! Frankly, it doesn’t matter what kind of film it is, I would see anything in 3D. The effects are really cool and they are literally in your face. Technology has come a long way since “Jaws 3D” and “Friday the 13th 3D.” And it’s not so much just about objects being thrown in your face. There is a real nice sense of depth to the image. There are amazing sequences of eye pleasing depth of field. And besides, this film features a Hitchcock zoom, which the first in a 3D film if I’m not mistaken.

But wait, isn’t there a plot or characters or anything else that doesn’t have to do with blood or three dimensions, you may be wondering. The film takes place in a small mining town. The film begins ten years in the past when a man named Harry dressed up in his mining gear goes on a killing spree. He kills a bunch of teens who are partying in the mines with his pickaxe on Valentine’s Day. During the present day it appears that the guy is back and ready to kill again. But is it really him or is a psychotic copycat? Cardboard CW actor Jensen Ackles (of “Supernatural”) plays Tom who was one of the survivors of the first massacre. His girlfriend (Jaime King) at the time has moved on and is now married to Axel (Kerr Smith), who is now the town sheriff. I have to applaud writers Todd Farmer and Zane Smith for giving us semi-interesting characters and a semi-interesting backstory, although I didn’t have much expectation from someone who wrote “Jason X.” This is a definite upgrade. It’s obvious that director (and editor) Patrick Lussier is interested in creating a tolerable story to go along with the slashes and gougings. And while I don’t know that I would say this film is overly scary, it is certainly a fun ride.

Let’s face it people, the main reason to see this at all is because it is in 3D. Do yourself a favor, pony up the extra bucks, put on those Stevie Wonders and sit back and enjoy the ride. You’re certainly going to have a better time than if you went to see “Hotel for Dogs.” Cross my heart. GRADE: B+

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lord of the Ring: Mickey Rouke is Revived in “The Wrestler”

“Sean Penn won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 2004 for ‘Mystic River.’ I think he should clear off some space on his mantel because his Oscar is about to get a friend.” I think I should eat my own words. That is the opening to my review for “Milk” in which I proclaimed that it’s very likely Sean Penn will win another Oscar for his fantastic performance as Harvey Milk in “Milk.” Bu then along came Mickey Rourke as “The Wrestler.” Rourke is also amazing in this film in which he plays “a broken down piece of meat” (aka a professional wrestler way beyond the high point of his career) who only knows life as a man made famous for beating up other guys. He only knows how to be a wrestler and when it turns out he can’t wrestle any more, it’s as if his entire world has ended.

Apparently “The Wrestler” has resurrected Mickey Rourke as an actor. Of course, we can’t forget that he showed us his ugly face (with a good make-up job of course) in 2005’s “Sin City.” But no one was going to give out awards for that film. And here we are three years later and we’re actually mentioning the name Mickey Rourke with words like “Academy” and “Award.” Hollywood loves a good comeback story which is why Penn should look out, because Rouke is bringing up the rear and he really wants a little golden man!

“The Wrestler” is a simple story but director Darren Aronofsky makes it a gritty and intimate experience. Rourke is Randy Robinson. His wrestling name is “The Ram.” He was really big in the 80s. But now he’s sort of out of his element. He does still “perform.” Like any rational person would realize, wrestling is as much a performance as it is a “match” (aka wrestling is FAKE). Randy lives in a crappy little trailer and he could barely afford his rent. He has no family or friends to speak of except for an estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who wants nothing to do with him. His “family” consists of his fellow wrestling buddies who see him as a wrestling legend. He even has to wear a hearing aid from a lifetime of hits to the head. One day Randy has a heart attack and in a snap his wrestling days are over. Now what?

It turns out Randy has an interest in Pam (Marisa Tomei) a local single mother who works as a stripper named Cassidy. Cassidy sees Randy more as a loyal customer rather than a friend although I think she does care about him, it’s hard for her to actually see Randy as anything more than someone who would pay to have her strip for him. But as different as they are, they are both performers (and professional fakers), both people who have to become someone else just to get through life. Randy is always masquerading as Ram and Pam is always masquerading as Cassidy. Screenwriter Robert Siegel has written two wonderful roles filled by great actors with wonderful performances.

“The Wrestler” is not a movie about wrestling (although there are some interesting behind the scenes stuff that I found fascinating). If you’re expecting “Rocky” you’ll certainly be disappointed. It’s a fascinating character study about a man who is lost in life. At some point we’ll all somehow identify with Randy as a man, who has a great personality and is charming, yet has to put up a tough guy front who makes his living smashing other dudes face into the mat. “The Wrestler” is a terrific film that is just begging to find a larger audience. See it, because it's one of year's best. GRADE: A

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Scenes From a Marriage: Kate and Leo Go from the Ship of Dreams to Dreaming in the ‘burbs in “Revolutionary Road”

“American Beauty” was about a dysfunctional married couple living life in the suburbs. It was dramatic but also very comical. You could easily call it a dark comedy. It had some twists and turns, some quirkiness and some disturbing, yet unforgettable scenes. Now nearly ten years later we have “Revolutionary Road,” a similar movie also directed by Sam Mendes, about a young couple living life in the suburbs. They are deeply unhappy because the suburbs, as always portrayed in movies, is the epitome of Hell on Earth. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy living in the suburbs. Everything you could want is there, even if you have to get there by car. The thought of living in a house with a yard and plenty of room is exquisitely planted in my mind. Of course it doesn’t work for everyone. Especially Frank and April Wheeler, a married couple stuck in a picturesque Connecticut town in the conservative 1950s, both yearning for something more out of life. Who knew they’re standing in each other’s way.

Like I said “American Beauty” is similar to “Revolutionary Road,” except that it relies much more on humor. There’s hardly a laugh to be found in Rev Road, but that is okay. Its dramatic punch is that much stronger by not being diluted by too much comic relief. “Titanic” co-stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (both of whom are exquisite) are finally reunited as April and Frank. April and Frank meet at a party in the city one evening and after courting decide to try on the whole marriage thing. They move out to a Connecticut suburb and April pops out two kids. Frank commutes to the city where he works a boring office job. April stays home and cooks and cleans while the kids are at school. Everything seems perfect. In fact, if this were “Leave it to Beaver,” it would be perfect. But alas everything is not right at home. We’ve learned from movies like “Pleasantville” and “Far From Heaven” that there is not such thing as “perfect.”

We first see the cracks in Frank and April’s marriage early on in the film. But before anything drastic happens between them April realizes they need a change fast. So why not pick up and move to Paris? She can make a killing working an ambassador translating job while Frank can stay home and figure out what he wants to get out of life. They’ll even bring the kids along. April and Frank decide to move along with the Paris plan, which disturbs a neighbor couple who are confused by the Wheelers’ news. Even their real estate lady (fellow “Titanic” alum Kathy Bates) is shocked by their news. That doesn’t stop her from asking if it is okay if her son John (a scene stealing Michael Shannon, who imports some of his “Bug” craziness), who’s been spending time in a mental institution, comes over for a visit. It turns out John calls it as he sees it and wastes no time pointing out all the problems that have been making their way into Frank and April’s marriage. Problems the size of an iceberg.

“Revolutionary Road” is an astonishing piece of work. It is as entertaining as it is insightful and artistic. It’s riveting as well. I couldn’t wait to see how the next scene would turn out. It features some great writing from scripter Justin Haythe, who based the screenplay on Richard Yates’ novel of the same name. Mendes’ regular composer Thomas Newman turns in yet another memorable and haunting score which perfectly blends with the beautiful visuals the film has to offer thanks to Roger Deakins’ fantastic cinematography. Seriously, nearly every technical aspect of this film is flawless. Sam Mendes has directed a richly textured world of repression, regret and unspoken desires. It’s an enthralling and powerful film.

I was so captivated with every aspect of Revolutionary Road that I can’t recommend it enough. You never really quite know where it’s going or what exactly is going to happen next. It features Oscar-caliber acting from all of its performers. The characters are very well fleshed out, especially Kate Winslet’s (who has the meatiest role in my opinion) who, like her other role in “The Reader,” is a character with flaws yet you feel nothing but sympathy for her. Winslet is way overdue for an Oscar. Whether she wins one for “Revolutionary Road” or “The Reader,” what does she have to do for a little respect around here??? GRADE: A

Friday, January 09, 2009

Mr. Codger’s Neighborhood: Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” Will Make Your Day

Call it the rival of “Dirty Harry.” Call it “Grumpy Old Man.” Call it what you want, but “Gran Torino” is an emotional and engaging drama staring and directed by Clint Eastwood. It pretty much amazes me how this old man, who obviously refuses to give up making movies even though he’s 78 and counting, can churn out good movie after good movie. I mean he’s bound to have a critical bomb at some point right? Eastwood has become like Meryl Streep: a seasoned veteran who gets award recognition for nearly everything he does. And with Gran Torino, which he claims is supposed to be his acting swan song, he is definitely a strong contender in the Best Actor Oscar race. It only helps him that he spits out racist epithet after racist epithet.

Stories involving racism in movies sometimes walks on a fine line. It’s very easy to go overboard and become mean-spirited. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski who is a retired Korean War vet. His wife has just died and he lives alone, nearly estranged from his two grown sons and their families living in what has become a sort of run down neighborhood populated with Asian Americans. He doesn’t know his Hmong neighbors living right next door at all. A young teen named Thao (Bee Vang), tries to steal Walt’s vintage Gran Torino one night as part of a gang initiation which he had been very hesitant about in the first place. Walt nearly shoots the poor kid in the head with his rifle and tells the kid to never show his face again. On another evening Walt scares off the gang that tried to make Thao steal the car, causing Walt to be considered a hero in the neighborhood. They bring him lots of food and flowers and he insists that he just wants to be left alone. That doesn’t stop him from befriending Thao’s sister Sue (Ahney Her) and her family.

What is so great about “Gran Torino” is that fact that Walt continues to use racist words (in increasingly hilarious ways) but his character does still change and adapt. It is hard to like someone who seems so mean-spirited, but you can see that Walt has a soft side and trying to get that side out of him is what becomes so fascinating. An old man like Walt isn’t going to all of a sudden stop saying mean things but he does slowly unravel and begins to see his Hmong neighbors as people rather than just typical Asian stereotypes. And the fact that these people aren’t too bothered by what Walt says shows that they are tolerant of people who aren’t necessarily tolerant themselves. Soon Walt becomes sort of a father figure to the shy, young Thao and shows him how to be a man and helps him come out of his shell. He also is completely intolerant of Thao’s cousin who is the gang leader who continually harasses Thao and his family complete with drive by shootings and beatings.

Eastwood always directs movies in which it’s nearly impossible to figure out where the stories are going. There are always surprises and it’s always told in a fascinating way. Writer Nick Schenk offers a winning script that is intriguing to watch unfold. I really enjoyed watching Walt’s relationship with his neighbors develop. He begins as a crotchety old man and becomes a crotchety old man who cares. Since he doesn’t have a very good relationship with his family (he kicks out his song and daughter-in-law on his birthday when they try to convince him to movie into a retirement village) it’s only natural that he would start to become close to his neighbors who he gets to know as the film progresses. The fact that he says racist remarks almost always his targets says a lot of his past as a Korean War vet. He has serious regrets about his role in the war and the people he killed and it has completely shape the man he has become. It is seriously amazing to watch Eastwood in this role of a man who at the beginning seems so dislikable and yet you feel emotionally attached to him by the film’s end.

“Gran Torino” is a great addition to Eastwood’s already terrific list of credits. It’ll be interesting to see what the Academy thinks of his work here. They would be foolish not to reward a man for turning a phrase like “Get off my lawn!” into one of the most commanding and threatening lines of dialogue since Dirty Harry insisted that you make his day. GRADE: A-

Sunday, January 04, 2009

It’s a Glad Glad Glad Glad World: Sally Hawkins Puts on Her Happy Face in “Happy-Go-Lucky”

I’ve never seen any of Mike Leigh’s films before "Happy-Go-Lucky." Not even his Best Picture Oscar nominated “Secrets & Lies” in which family secrets are exposed. He usually tends to make darker films having previous directed the abortion tale “Vera Drake.” However, he tackles the other side of the coin with “Happy-Go-Lucky” which is about an exceedingly optimistic British woman who coasts through life without ever feeling the standard human emotions of hate or anger.

Sally Hawkins, as Poppy, is terrific as a woman whose bike is stolen and upon discovering it missing, just laughs it off and feels sorry that she never got to say goodbye. I’m sorry but when my iPod was stolen I wanted to burn my workplace down. Of course, Poppy could easily become the most irritating character in the history of motion pictures, mostly to anyone who’s EVER had a negative thought, but that is not the case. Poppy is one of the most lovable. You want to know her. You want to be her friend. You want her to give you a hug.

Of course there is more to Poppy that simple cheerfulness. She is sort of flawed in a way because it’s never really a good thing to never have negative feelings. As is the case with her relationship with her driving instructor. At thirty years old, Poppy doesn’t know how to drive a car, which I assume is because she rode her bike everywhere. So she takes driving lessons from Scott (Eddie Marsan). Scott is the complete opposite from Poppy. He is disgruntled, pessimistic and mostly grumpy. I thought he was going to jump out the window when he realized how jubilant Poppy is. Their scenes together are almost utter brilliance. Poppy is just coasting along, making harmless jokes which irritate Scott to no end. I will not spoil how their last session folds out.

I don’t really know what the plot of Happy-Go-Lucky, but I would basically call it the story of a blissful, independent woman and her misadventures. She has a flatmate who is her best friend. Her sister is pregnant. She takes dance lessons with a co-worker which are some of the film’s funniest scenes. The critics are correct in not calling this a “feel good” movie but rather a movie that makes you feel good. It’s impossible not to smile or laugh at the situations Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, presents us with. Poppy is so happy that even when she has pains in her back and must see a chiropractor, she laughs when the doctor touches her sore spots. Anyone else in the situation would be cursing, but she just laughs it off. We almost wish we could be that cheerful.

“Happy-Go-Lucky” is a charming and fun movie that will certainly make you feel good. It is original and fun and while it doesn’t have show stopping moments of hilarity, it offers enough fanciful situations that certainly make it worth viewing. Hopefully the Academy will recognize Hawkins’ brilliant and charming performance. GRADE: B

Friday, January 02, 2009

Bedtime Stories: Kate Winslet is Perfect in “The Reader”

Kate Winslet needs an Oscar stat. She is always so good and it’s not as if she’s always overlooked because she’s been nominated five times already and she’s only 33. It’s just that she always seems to be nominated in a year when she’s not considered the front runner. Helen Mirren, Hilary Swank, Jennifer Connelly, Helen Hunt, and Mira Sorvino have all snatched away the little golden man away from poor Kate. This year, if Kate can manage to be nominated for "The Reader" in the supporting role she has a very good shot, although Penelope Cruz seems to have a leg up. If she’s nominated for "The Reader" as lead actress (which is sort of unlikely but certainly a possibility) then she’ll probably have a better shot because Winslet is absolutely outstanding as an illiterate former Nazi guard who has an affair with a teenage boy (Not only is she absolutely outstanding but she’s absolutely a leading role).

This is one of those performances like Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica” or Helen Mirren in “The Queen” or Charlize Theron in “Monster” that actually raises the film to another level entirely based on an individual performance. She’s the sole reason to see the movie although the movie itself is not on the same level as her performance, it is certainly a fascinating look at morals and ethics that will certainly raise many questions once the film has ended. The film takes place in Germany in the 1950s. A lonely woman named Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) works as a train worker begins an affair with Michael (David Kross). On his way home from school one day he gets ill right in front of her apartment. She takes him in, helps him clean up and escorts him home. He insists on thanking this kind woman so he brings her flowers. Before he knows it she’s seduced him and they spend nearly ever afternoon in a passionate, naked embrace. He’s also an intelligent young man and Hanna insists that he read to her, which he does. He reads novel after novel and this foolish affair lasts an entire summer until one day Hanna is gone without a trace or explanation.

Years pass and Michael moves on. He attends law school in the 60s and he gets to sit in on a special trial in which former Nazi death camp guards are being put on trial for murder. Wouldn’t you know that Hanna Schmitz just so happens to be one of the accused women. Michael is completely shocked and horrified that the woman he loved and cared for so much worked at a death camp. This brings up so many issues in that could a person continue to love someone once they discover that person had a particularly horrible past life? “The Reader” is interesting in that it’s technically a “Holocaust drama” but it doesn’t focus on the Holocaust at all. The film is entirely set years later and is more about the moral delimma one faces when they are “forced” to participate in horrific acts of human bloodshed. Hanna is accused of guarding an entire building of Jews who all burned to death when she refused to unlock the door. She was just following orders right?

“The Reader” is one of those movies that sort of changes midway through. It begins with a torrid love affair and turns into the story of a forlorn woman who accepted a job at a Nazi death camp. Hanna is not always likable but she is certainly sympathetic and as we witness the years pass and more and more wrinkles appear on her face we begin to realize the toll that all of this has taken on this woman. What is most fascinating, I believe, is Michael’s reaction to all of this and how it affects him as an adult (played by Ralph Fiennes). After all, this was a woman who he felt so passionately about. It’s difficult to imagine the person you love doing despicable things. I have a feeling that this is Kate Winslet’s year at the Oscars. At least she doubles her changes with Revolutionary Road, as long as it doesn’t cost her a nomination. Now that would be horrific. GRADE: B+