Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Doubt" / "Changeling" / "Frozen River"

You probably noticed already that I have changed the name of the blog. I bought the domain name for and that address will now direct you to this blog. The old way still works, I just thought this new name made more sense and made it easier to get to the site. In hindsight, Middle of Nowhere seems a bit more cynical that I wanted it to be and it was a spur of the moment title anyway. Also, even if Cannelton Critic comes across as a little pretentious, I still like the sound of it, and I paid for two years for the domain name, so I'm keeping it. Now onto my reviews, which could be considered my Best Actress roundup, since all three films featured nominees.

"Doubt" is the story of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) and her doubts about Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his relationship with a boy in their Catholic school during the mid 1960s. This is a movie that hinges on strong performances and it delivers. Of course you cannot go wrong with Streep and Hoffman, and Amy Adams turns in a strong performance as well. But this is Streep's show. I've never seen an actress so capable of insighting my anger so easily. She is so strict and so sure of herself and it is so infuriating. But it can be a bit funny, too. Her obsession with the use of ball-point pens and a debate on the deeper meaning of Frosty the Snowman help to lighten the mood of an otherwise serious film.

Streep smacks kids in the back of the head, yells at them, and just has a general look of disgust and suspicion molded onto her face. This is in keeping with certain nuns from that time, I am told. So this film could be a bit nostalgic (or horrorific) for certain audience members. I didn't go through that form of school, so it all seemed a bit comedic to me, especially from a teaching standpoint. But Streep embodies this character and even though she's won before, I think she deserved the Oscar (though I haven't seen Anne Hathaway's performance yet). Hoffman turns in yet another impressive performance, though it might just seem impressive because he held his own against Streep.

The performances are so important because this film is truly about doubt. Do you believe Streep or Hoffman? Do you side with Hoffman simply because Streep is so mean? Do you side with Streep because of your preconceptions of the Church these days? This film is about what you bring into it, which makes it very interesting. It's always great when a film can be entertaining while it makes you question your beliefs and forces you to make a decision. The performances are so important because the actors need to try to sway your belief but you also have to be able to doubt them. I may have mentioned my hate for Streep's character, but her certainty is infecting and I found myself seeing eye to eye with her a few times. That may be the most important part of her performance; you might hate her, but she makes sense.
The performances do make this film (which is adapted from a play, which would explain why the acting is so important) but the writer/director, John Patrick Shanley, does try to make it visually appealing. There isn't anything amazing about the style, but it works. Shanley tilts the camera a few times to create the feeling of uncertainty and that works, but the subject matter doesn't really need any help.

"Changeling" is about a single mother, Angelina Jolie, who loses her son, only to have a fake replacement son brought to her from the L.A. Police Department. She then gets embroiled in a political situation spurred on by a local priest, John Malkovich, in which corruption is dealt with. Oh, and Angelina Jolie screams that she wants "MY SON!" about a hundred times throughout all this. I can't say that she does a great job. She cries a lot and yells about her son, but she just annoyed me more than anything. It might have had something to do with those stupid hats she wears in nearly every scene. I guess women wore hats like that 70 years ago? Accuracy is fine and all, but those stupid hats got on my nerves...not sure why.

The film is directed by Clint Eastwood (who seems to be obsessed with misery in his old age) and he creates a nice feel for this period piece. But I just don't usually care for period pieces that take place in L.A. Not sure why, I just don't like the way that city and its people are portrayed when dealing with the past. It has its interesting moments, though. Jolie's sanity is questioned a bit, but it isn't focused on enough to make this film entertaining. It becomes an overlong (140+ minutes) story that cannot decide whether it wants to be a kidnapping, political, pyschological, or a mystery story. I would've liked at least one of those elements fleshed out, but instead they took a quantity over quality approach and, for me, it failed.

"Frozen River" is also about a single mother, Melissa Leo, in miserable conditions. She is trying to buy a new double wide for her two sons, but her husband has stolen the money and ran off to gamble with it. She ends up getting involved in human trafficking across the U.S./Canada border (she drives them across the frozen river from the title). Does this sound miserable yet? It is, but it surprised me by being interesting and compelling when I expected it to be one of those films that just piles one horrible situation on top of another and another until you feel so awful that you want to turn the movie off. But it isn't one of those films. The characters are too well developed. You want Leo and her unlikely partner in crime, Lila, to succeed. You want their lives to improve, even if they have to do some questionable things to make it work.

I suppose I'm focusing on the possibility of the film being depressing, but the moments Leo has with her children and the friendship she develops with Lila really bring this movie out of the darkness. It's actually pretty hopeful in the long run. So check this one out. Melissa Leo was nominated and she is very convincing in her role (this woman looks rough) and without her the movie could have failed. But she turned in a great performance and made this into a pleasant surprise.

Next: I think I've seen enough to give a Top Ten this Sunday. Might add a review of "Choke" as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

"Milk" / "Friday the 13th" / Oscar rant

My name is Eric Harris and I'm here to recruit you to the idea that the Academy went political (California recently voted against gay marriage) and gave Sean Penn a slightly undeserved Oscar. More on that later, first the actual movie: Milk.

Milk is the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco who was killed by Dan White (also an elected official). Milk is a nice guy and that makes him easy to like. People around him are happy and want him to do good and the audience gets right in step with them. That is the main factor of this film because Sean Penn plays Milk and Sean Penn is not known for being likable, or happy. Sean Penn is known for playing miserable people that do bad things and have bad things done to them. The man's face is a permanent scowl, for god's sake. So it is surprising, entertaining, and impressive to see Penn embodying Harvey Milk as he does. He won the Academy Award for this and I can see why (though I don't agree with it).

But this film has more going for it than performances. It has some ideas about hope and acceptance and who doesn't like that? The acceptance concerns gay rights and that is something that people to this day have a problem with. I didn't really need convincing from this film. If gay people want to get married or work in the same place I work, then they should be able to as far as I'm concerned. I was just hoping that this movie didn't turn out to be a two hour long gay pride parade with flamboyant gay people in risque costumes making out and rubbing each other. If that sounds anti-gay, so be it, but being heterosexual doesn't involve putting on displays of it, so why is sexuality and showmanship always part of gay pride stuff? Can't people be gay and wear suits and still get their point across? Yes, they can and this movie shows that. Though there is a bit of the flamboyance and whatnot, but it's not over the top or even unnecessary. This film walks a fine line and it keeps itself from being comical or too serious, also. It is entertaining and hopeful and that is thanks to Gus Van Sant.

Van Sant not only kept the movie balanced, but he also threw in some style here and there with some split screen work and some interesting angles. Is there some kind of film school message to be found with the scenes between Milk and White (in which they are shown from the shoulders up, but only take up half the screen)? I'm sure there is but I don't want to dissect it. I just noticed that it looked different and frankly, different is almost always better these days. So check out Milk for a great performance from Penn, two impressive performances from Hirsch and Franco, a balancing act from Van Sant, and ignore the annoying Diego Luna (you'll understand when you see it).

Now just a paragraph on the reboot of "Friday the 13th." No need to look deeply into this one. It has Jason, he kills people in semi-interesting ways. He runs now, which I thought was a mistake. The whole menacing thing about Jason is that he always walked but still caught up to everybody. Anyway, Jason kills potheads and oversexed college kids, so this is business as usual. The jokes are cheesy, but high school kids on down might enjoy them. There are a few odd references that I personally enjoyed (if the whole Heineken/Pabst Blue Ribbon thing wasn't a nod to "Blue Velvet" then that is just one of the biggest coincidences in film history). There are some unintentionally funny lines ("Where are you, gun?") and a guy screams just like a little girl at one point. So there is fun to be had here, but I think this is a misstep in the series. "Freddy Vs Jason" was much more enjoyable. I wish they would have stuck with that route. Oh, and Jason uses a bow and arrow in this, which I thought was odd.

Now for my Oscar rant. Sean Penn won Best Actor tonight in the bloated, overlong Academy Awards. I knew that he was neck and neck with Rourke, but I still thought Rourke would win because it's the better performance. I'm going back to my old mainstay argument when it comes to accting awards here. Milk was a real person and Sean Penn did a great impression of the guy. Mickey Rourke did not get to watch footage of Randy the Ram! He had to create something from the page. That is much more impressive to me. Not to mention that his performance is much more entertaining, if that matters anymore. But "The Wrestler" was about wrestling and giving an award for playing a wrestler doesn't give the Academy members the chance to pat themselves on the back as much as giving an award to the protrayer of a slain gay rights activist does. So I'm saying it was all political, especially since it was Penn who won, and that is the only way I can justify it. But here's to Mickey Rourke anyway, there's just going to be an empty spot next to the dozens of other awards you (rightfully) won before tonight.

Next week: I honestly don't know, nothing big comes out, I might just do a few DVD reviews - Frozen River, Changeling, Body of Lies...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire / Man on Wire / Bigger, Stronger, Faster

Okay, quite a bit this week, but I felt like I should write about all three of these rather than space it out. First up is Slumdog Millionaire, which is probably going to win Best Picture in a week.

Slumdog (dropping the Millionaire because I don't feel like typing it twenty more times) is the story of two brothers, Jamal and Prem, who grow up in the slums of Mumbai (or Bombay, depending on the time period). They witness riots over religion, they find out how to survive as poor children, and Jamal discovers love at first sight. All of this is told through flashbacks as Jamal is questioned about how he could possibly know all the answers to Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He's down to final question and he's in between shows. So we watch each question and then it flashes back to how an uneducated "slumdog" knew the answers. I thought this was a decently clever way to tell a story, even though I thought it sounded kind of cheesy when I read about it. It works and it builds suspense and tension throughout. Jamal becomes likable through all this and I was interested in his story.

Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Sunshine) directs this in his usual style. Things are frantic at times, music seems perfect for each scene (M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" is used better in this than in the Pineapple Express trailer), and he creates a number of impressive shots, such as the scene with Jamal and Prem overlooking Mumbai. I really won't mind if he wins Best Director, he deserves it for past films and this one is worthy of the award as well, even though the same could be said for David Fincher.

But is this the best film of 2008? I say no. Actually, it's not in my personal top ten for the year (I might write up my top ten in a few weeks, once I've been able to see more 2008 movies). But I am not surprised it's nominated. There's a feel good quality to this film even though it covers some serious and depressing things. That's how audiences want their depictions of the poor areas of the world to be, though. Don't make us feel miserable or guilty, show us the misery and then show that it's all okay, anyway. That's all well and good, but I don't think that message makes this film rise above the likes of Benjamin Button or The Wrestler. Personally, I prefer City of God when it comes to what slum life can be like. City of God is more entertaining as well, so I'd suggest that over Slumdog any day of the week. So that's Slumdog, misery and poverty wrapped up with a feel-good bow on top. So give it the awards, as long as Boyle gets his for Directing, I'm okay with it. Not happy, but worse films have won (Crash, Chicago, Shakespeare in Love...). Just to reiterate, this is a good, entertaining film, I just think it's overrated.

Now to the two documentaries. First is Man on Wire. This is about Phillipe Petit, the man who walked a tightrope across the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. What makes this documentary so entertaining (and what is earning it so many awards) is the fact that it is made almost like a heist film. Using recreations and archive footage, you get the feeling that these guys are planning a bank robbery; you have fake names, disguises, clever ways of sneaking material and people in, the suspense of security finding out. That is why this film is so easy to watch, but the subject material is fascinating as well.

Petit is kind of an enigma. There is no reason for him to walk across these structures, he just expresses some kind of need to do it. And the man himself is crazy enough to be entertaining in his interviews for the film. There's not much more I can say for this. It's fun, perplexing, and it features some great shots, archival and recreated (at times it looks like he is walking on air). It's on DVD right now, so there's no reason to miss this one. As for the special features: more interviews, a strange animated short aimed at elementary students (and narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal), and an old documentary about Petit walking across a bridge in Austrailia. The last feature is the most interesting, and you get to see where all of the excellent footage from the main film came from.

Second of the documentaries is Bigger, Stronger, Faster. This is a film made by Chris Bell, a New York native who was born small and dreamed of being just like Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He and his brothers, Mad Dog and Smelly (nicknames of course, but it's easier to follow them by these names), grew up hitting the weights and dreaming of the glory of the football field, the wrestling ring, and competetive weight bench. Mad Dog and Smelly resort to steroid use, while Chris tries doing it natural. This gets him thinking about American culture and the fascination with being bigger, stronger, and faster.

Today more than ever, if you hear the word steroids you instantly think of baseball, but this film does a good job of covering the other areas of steroid use. Bell talks a bit about baseball, but he also goes to the gyms, the football field, the air force; in other words this is not some topical film just about baseball made to get a quick buck while it's popular. This is truly about steroids, the bad and surprisingly, the good. Maybe not good, but at least a question as to why they are so demonized. It is interesting to see statistics in death and injury in relation to other drugs, and the true side effects that are actually not permanent (except for some of the female side effects). There are tons of questions raised in this, why aren't the long term effects being researched, why is Congress spending more time on this than health care, is the use of steroids cheating? There are no clear answers because most of it comes down to opinion. But it's still interesting to discuss it all.

But this film is not all about the possibility of steroids being useful, it also covers the damage they can do. It's not so much about the physical effects, but the emotional. Bell talks candidly with his brothers, his parents, and his in-laws about what steroid use has done to the family and it is not pretty. There are definitely some problems in his family in regards to steroid use, but the question is whether or not it all really matters when you're in America. Because it's all about winning and the image of winning. It's what people want. Maybe that's not completely true, but when you look at the issue, you definitely see something inherently American about the entire situation.

If you're into Michael Moore style docs, then this one is for you if all of the above stuff doesn't appeal. Bell isn't as confrontational as Moore, but he is just as entertaining. The truth behind before and after photos and supplements was great. He found some great archival footage and his childhood love of wrestling and action movies is something that the kid (and adult, to be honest) in me can identify with. It may get a little political and uncomfortable at times, but it never becomes boring.

As for the special features, I don't know about them because I watched this instantly off of Netflix.

Next Week - I may get around to watching Friday the 13th next week, and I'll review either Milk or The Reader (or both) as well.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

At long last: The Wrestler

"I'm an old broken down piece of meat and I deserve to be alone."

That line, prominent in the trailers for "The Wrestler," says it all. Mickey Rourke, as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is perfect. Find an old picture of Rourke and compare it to today; Rourke himself appears to be a broken down piece of meat. So all of the comparisons to the character and the man are fair, but that's all I want to comment on as far as that goes because I think to say that Rourke was born to play the role and things like that actually belittle the performance. If he was born to play it, then why is it so impressive? It's impressive because the guy can act. Rourke does so much just with his eyes and his voice in this. The lines are good, but he makes them better. You hear a little desperation in his voice. You see the pain behind his eyes. You feel sorry for this man. You want him to succeed the moment you see him. That is Rourke at work. That is why he is winning awards and that is why he deserves that Oscar in a few weeks. Now, onto the actual film, which is unfortunately taking the back burner this awards season.

The Wrestler begins with a montage of clippings from The Ram's career: sold out shows, pay-per-view specials, championship fights, etc. Then it cuts to twenty years later and The Ram is sitting in a folding chair in what appears to be a kindergarten classroom which has been turned into a dressing room for the night. He is handed some money, though it isn't as much he expected because the gate wasn't very big that night. This is what he has become. Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream) uses the camera to follow closely behind The Ram, just observing, not showing his face just yet. We need to walk around with this guy for a bit before we see his face. This creates the sympathy because if we see his face first, we start making assumptions about the guy. If we walk around with him, see him locked out of his home and sleeping in his grungy van, then we feel something about him before we see that damaged face. Aronofsky creates an interesting style this way. I'm not sure how to exactly describe, but it just makes you feel like you're there with the characters. He somehow found the right distance, shook the camera enough to create a walking sensation without making it distracting, and left a grainy look to the film to make it seem a bit more real. It helped me get into the story instantly. So we're following The Ram...

We follow him to a strip club where he tries to win over Pam (Marisa Tomei), who is also a performer that's getting a bit too old for the job. We follow him to his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who is sick of him, but willing to try to forgive him. We follow him to his matches where he is an esteemed veteran, not a joke, which is what he appears to be when he's working his regular job at a grocery store. Sound depressing? It is, but it's an enjoyable film all the same. The Ram has some funny moments; shopping for his daughter, playing retro videogames with local kids, talking about the greatness that is 80's hair metal, etc. And if you're a wrestling fan, or ever have been, you'll enjoy every second of the matches (you'll probably enjoy them even if you don't care for wrestling). The matches are not only put in there to add action, though. The matches really say it all. The Ram is a fan favorite and he looks like he's at home on the stage...sorry, in the ring. He looks slightly lost everywhere else. One of the best moments in the film is when The Ram starts working in the deli section of the grocery store. He puts on his hairnet in the bathroom then the camera follows him through the back area while the noise of a crowd can be heard. The crowd grows louder as he nears the plastic curtain to the deli, he pauses, walks through and...silence. The Ram is nothing without the fans. He has a real name without the fans. It's funny, it's sad, it's a little shocking here and there, and it's heartbreaking. That's life and that makes a good film.

A quick sidenote concerning the Oscars. I'm happy with the acting nominations (Rourke and Tomei), but it is a joke that this is not up for Best Picture, because, in my opinion, it's the best film of 2008 (even though us in the MidWest have to wait until 2009 to watch it). This must be better than The Reader. It just has to be. And Aronofsky is not up for director and Ron Howard is? I loved Frost/Nixon and Howard did a good job with it, but this film has the fingerprint of a great director on it. Aronofsky deserves just as much praise as Rourke, if you ask me. And finally, no nomination for Springsteen's song? The Academy needs to rearrange their backwards technical rules for Best Song and Best Score* because this seems to happen every year.

*Actually, the snub for Springsteen is not due to any actual rule, so it's only explained by the fact that the Academy completely dropped the ball on this one, especially since they only nominated 5 songs, so it's not like The Wrestler was beat out by anything. I have read, though, that they don't like to give it to songs that play over the end credits only, though it is not against the rules to do so.

As for the Score, Eddie Vedder and Jonny Greenwood (There Will be Blood) were left out last year because Vedder's was too "song-based" and Greenwood used some music he had already performed for an album a few years earlier...both technicalities that should have been given nominations regardless, if you ask me.

Next week: Not sure, maybe the new Friday the 13th, but I might just review "Man on Wire" on DVD.

Monday, February 2, 2009

My Bloody Valentine 3-D / Living in Oblivion

Okay, obviously The Wrestler did not make its way to my area. In fact, I probably will not get a chance to see it until Feb. 13. So, I decided to watch some trash this past weekend. But I'm adding a more respectable independent film that I recently watched on DVD to try and church up this review lest I end up reviewing nothing but slasher flicks and Jason Statham movies. But first: the trash...

My Bloody Valentine has a plot, I think. Something is going on where a guy kills a lot of people with a pickaxe. Let's face it, anyone who wants to see this knows exactly what it is. There is bad acting by a cast of TV actors, there are ridiculous plot twists that aren't even worth pondering, there's gratuitous nudity (a naked woman even picks up her clothes, only to discard them to grab a gun from her purse as if to say, "I could put my clothes back on before I go outside, but what's the fun in that?"), etc. I knew about all of these aspects and that is exactly what I was wanting to see. I laughed quite often during this film, which I can only imagine was part of the point of it all. But the bigger aspect to this film is obviously the 3-D.

This is not that crappy 3-D you see on TV every now and then that calls for those blue and red glasses. These glasses are pretty much clear, using some technology I don't care to look into. All I know is that they are well on their way to perfecting the use of 3-D in film. It was certainly problematic; some things move too quickly and it gets blurry at times, plus it can get downright disorienting at first. Apart from that, the bigger 3-D setups are great. The pickaxe is the perfect weapon for this. There are countless moments when a pickaxe is swung at the screen and it all honestly looked like it was right in my face. I didn't duck out of the way or anything like in the preview for the film, but it was still very impressive. Overall, the 3-D turned what would have been a mediocre slasher flick into a mediocre slasher flick with a great visual gimmick. It was mindless fun.

Enough with the mindless fun, now on to some slightly intellectual fun. Living in Oblivion is director Tom Dicillo's 1995 film about what can happen when you try to make an independent film. Apparently this is mainly based on his experiences when he made Johnny Suede (with Brad Pitt), but I have not seen that yet, so I'm not sure how well it ties in. I do know that James LeGros' character, an up and coming pretty boy actor, is based on Pitt. LeGros is only a supporting player, though; the star is Steve Buscemi and he is at his best in this. It is basically a three part film (it was orginally a 30 minute short film, that was turned into a three part 90 minute film) that shows a mix of nightmare and reality on the set of an independent film. So things go wrong on set: LeGros wants to change shots around, a smoke machine doesn't put out smoke, a little person refuses to laugh, a senile mother shows up on set, relationships are made and broken, etc. People end up breaking down and it leads to some hilarious moments. One particular gag involving a DP and his eye patch is quite funny. This is not laugh out loud material, but anyone into behind the scenes stuff, self deprecating humor, or Steve Buscemi in general will have fun with this. One warning, though: there are multiple times where Buscemi is trying to get a scene and you are forced to watch a fake scene played out over and over and that can be a bit boring after awhile. But that is only a small issue. This is definitely worth a look if not for Buscemi alone, but Dermot Mulroney is suprisingly good as the DP, and Catherine Keener is decent (though I am personally not a fan of hers).

I don't know much when it comes to transfer quality on DVDs and stuff so I'll stick to special features when I write about them. I skipped the Director's commentary and watched an interview with Dicillo and Buscemi from 2002. I strongly suggest you check this out if you rent this as it fills in a lot of information about supporting cast members and how it all came about. It's quite funny, also.

Finally, thanks to the Bradley family for all the comments. Good to know someone's reading this already. And yes, I could've gone on and on about Nixon, but I was able to restrain myself. I don't know, though...I might have to do a DVD review of the Oliver Stone Nixon film...that might be interesting.