Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sundance Winners

Nathaniel's on the road so I don't think he has the time to post the winners from this year's Sundance film festival. I hope y'all have been following Nathaniel's Sundance writings and you'll recognise some of the names from the winners list. Debra Granik took home top honours for her film Winter's Bone, which has people crying "Frozen River!" Frozen River was my #1 film from 2008 so if Bone gets anywhere close to being as good as that one then I will be happy.

For me, however, the bigger news was that David Michôd's Melbourne-set crime saga Animal Kingdom took home the World Cinema Jury Prize. Last year that very prize was won by The Maid, so hopefully you'll see Animal Kingdom pop up at more festivals and maybe even at your local cinema (NY/LA only, natch) some time over the next year. Kingdom has big buzz down here at the moment within film-watching circles with it's big ensemble cast and zeitgeist-y plot.

Grand Jury Prize (U.S. Dramatic): “Winter’s Bone”
Grand Jury Prize (U.S. Documentary): “Restrepo”
World Cinema Jury Prize (Dramatic): “Animal Kingdom”
World Cinema Jury Prize (Documentary): “The Red Chapel”
Audience Award (Dramatic): “happythankyoumoreplease”
Audience Award (Documentary): “Waiting for Superman”
World Cinema Audience Award (Dramatic): “Undertow”
World Cinema Audience Award (Documentary): “Wasteland”
Directing Award (Dramatic): Eric Mendelsohn, “3 Backyards”
Directing Award (Documentary): Leon Gast, “Smash His Camera”
World Cinema Directing Award (Dramatic): Juan Carlos Valdivia, “Southern District”
World Cinema Directing Award (Documentary): Christian Frei, “Space Tourists”

Read the rest of the winners at InContention and IndieWire.


Sundance Wrap-Up: Blue Valentine and the "Best Ofs"

Three more movies... But in truth I'm not sure which day we're on. I may have scrambled up the chronology just like Blue Valentine does. I am typing this on Saturday for publication on Sunday about movies from Friday. Where am I? WHEN AM I? I spent today being sick so no more movies. The sickness is why, even though it seemed like i was seeing a bajillion movies, I really wasn't. I worry that I missed a few great pictures and that I saw too many that ended up with or already had distribution deals that I could have seen later. But it's my first Sundance trip. I was doin' it wrong. Better luck next time.

The Romantics
Old college friends gather at a seaside home to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Lila (Anna Paquin) and Tom (Josh Duhamel). Laura (Katie Holmes), their maid of honor, used to be Tom's girl and it's immediately clear that that relationship hasn't fully run its course. The other friends (Malin Akerman, Elijah Wood, Adam Brody, Rebecca Lawrence and Jeremy Strong) know this. Lila even knows it in a way. What follows is a curiously artificial dramedy, with a few diverting moments and a central question that is provocative (do you marry the person you want deeply or the person who you obviously need). I couldn't connect with this movie from the beginning and knew I was in trouble when I started enjoying Malin Akerman more than the other actors. Maybe Rachel Getting Married spoiled me forever but after that film's gloriously complicated conflicting real time wedding awkwardness everything else involving toasts, rehearsal dinners and wedding jitters, excitement just feels pedestrian and canned.

The biggest problem here might be the casting. At first it didn't bother me as these are all adequate to good actors, but I realized midway through that I didn't buy for a second that they had all known each other for years. They're all TV pretty without the movie star soulfulness required to hurtle this type of material or make it sing. When I began to write this I had completely forgotten that Adam Brody was even in the movie. The characters make reference to their past incestuous dating history -- that's where they get their name "The Romantics" -- but none of the performance outside of maybe Lila/Laura/Tom convey anything like past romantic history. The performances convey general horniness for other hotties instead. Where is the backstory textural performance stuff? Worse yet, moody evasive Laura and nearly mute Tom supposedly have a fiery deep sexual connection that we're meant to believe springs from their love of poetry, English lit and deep philosophical conversations. I don't know about you but when I think about Katie Holmes and Josh Duhamel, intellectual all-nighters and poetry recitation aren't the first or even the two-hundred and thirty-first thing that spring to mind. D+

Blue Valentine
Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) have been married for years. The marriage isn't what it used to be. This beautifully rendered film, twelve years in the making, is co-written and directed by one-to-watch Derek Cianfrance. The lived-in feeling of the acting reminded me of Mike Leigh so it didn't surprise me to hear that Williams and Gosling had both been involved with the project for years, and helped shape their characters in substantial ways. We follow Cindy and Dean through two parallel linear chronologies charting both the birth of their relationship and the death of it. In the best moments, this plays less like a conceptual gimmick and more like a revelation, allowing you to see how the past and future are always connected. This reminded me of the brilliant stage musical The Last Five Years. Since I love both Years and Mike Leigh a great deal, trust that these comparison points are enormous compliments.

Michelle Williams proves again why she's one of the best young actresses working and Ryan Gosling is straight up fantastic nailing often daringly conflicted character details: he understands Dean's confidence and inferiority complex as well as both his volatility and gentleness. He's as specific here as he was in Half Nelson but the characterizations don't feel at all alike.

<-- Gosling, Williams and their screen daughter Faith Wladyka at the premiere in Park City

Two hander dramas only sizzle if the actors are in synch and the chemistry is strong here. As an added bonus both young stars are entirely believable in parenting scenes with their screen daughter and that isn't always the case [*cough* Brothers]. Blue Valentine isn't perfect, the ending feels only halfway worked-through and I understand Katey's quibble about the confusing geography (where are we exactly in both past and present?). It's often depressing and I know the movie won't play for everyone. But though it might be a minor achievement, it's definitely an achievement. A must see for fans of either actor and of romantic dramas in general.

This is the writing and directing debut for Josh Radnor, better known as "Ted Mosby" on How I Met Your Mother. This is a touch like watching a mumblecore film performed by the cast of Friends. I don't mean to sound mean or glib, since it's a harmless and even optimistic movie. But there's a lot about it, from Malin Akerman's alopecia -- I don't understand how Malin Akerman is an indie actress now? Help me! -- to a huge plot thread involving a little foster care black boy, that plays in an artificial overscripted way rather than lived-in and felt. In short, it's a situation dramedy, that might work better as a TV show.

Best in show: Pablo Schreiber, brother of Liev, who has done a lot of television but who I was unfamiliar with. He plays a late twentysomething man who really loves his commitment-phobe girlfriend (Zoe Kazan) but is aching to take a next step of one sort or another in his life. He provides one of the most endearing, openly emotional reactions to a pregnancy announcement, I've ever seen captured on film.

happythankyoumoreplease was the last film I saw and when it ended I knew I had had enough so perhaps I was just grumpy (no movies for a week!). But I do think it provided welcome takeaway positivity. Whenever you're feeling grateful to the universe, say "thank you" and chase it with "more please." C

If I were passing out prizes

Best Pictures: The Kids Are All Right, I Am Love, Blue Valentine and Please Give
I'm not really sure how much I loved these four movies. I like to let things settle but I'd love to see each of them again as soon as possible. The festival climate sometimes messes with your reactions to movies.
Documentary: Last Train Home (runner up: Catfish)
Screenplay: The Kids Are All Right (runner up: Cyrus or Please Give)
Art Direction: The Runaways (runner up: Nowhere Boy)
Costume Design: The Runaways (runner up: Nowhere Boy)
Best Cinematography: I Am Love (runner up: The Runaways)
Best Editing: I Am Love (runner up: Blue Valentine)
Best Use of Music/Score: Blue Valentine (runner up: I Am Love)

Actress: Annette Bening for Mother & Child and The Kids Are All Right (runner up: Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine)
Actor: Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine (runner up: James Rollston, Boy)
Supporting Actress: (tie) Kristin Scott Thomas & Anne-Marie Duff in Nowhere Boy (runner up: Rebecca Hall, Please Give)
Supporting Actor: Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right (runner up: Jonah Hill, Cyrus)
Ensemble: The Kids Are All Right (runner up: Please Give)

Some people's favorite movie moments tend to be centered around action. I am more turned on by musical numbers so I have to shout those out... along with a couple other categories.

Best One Liners: Please Give (runner up: Cyrus)
Best Sex Scene:
Tilda Swinton and Edoardo Gabbriellini in I Am Love (runner up: Gosling and Williams in Blue Valentine)
Best Use of Nudity: Body art in Vegetarian
Best Gimmick:
Ryan Reynolds in a coffin for the entirety of Buried
Seven Best Musical Moments:
"You Always Hurt the Ones You Love" (I think that's the song?) performed by Ryan Gosling (with an assist from Michelle Williams) in Blue Valentine ; "Thriller" performed by the cast of Boy; "Blue" performed by The Bening in The Kids Are All Right; "Cherry Bomb" performed by Dakota Fanning and cast in The Runaways; "Aborigine" performed by Rocky McKenzie and cast in Bran Nue Dae; "Don't You Want Me" performed by John C Reilly (with an assist from Marisa Tomei) in Cyrus. Dancing at the Late Night Lodge performed by Nathaniel and Parker Posey. Sorry, I'll shut up about that now. But can you blame me for obsessing?
SUNDANCE IS OVER. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming. i.e. Oscar nomination hoopla and this site's own Film Bitch awards.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why Bulgaria Might Become an Oscar Winner.

Jose here with a take on the Foreign Language Film Oscar race.

The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (read my review here) not only has the coolest name in AMPAS' foreign film shortlist, it might also go ahead and get Bulgaria its very first Oscar win.

First we must consider that this whole post might be irrelevant come Tuesday, but for now indulge me while I explain why I think this movie might make it to the final five and snatch the damn thing.

The movie doesn't have even have a Stateside release date yet (except for a film festival in Florida) but I've read many articles that proclaim they'd nominate the film merely because of its awesome title. AMPAS of course can't do that, because the people who vote for this category need to have seen all the movies.

Fortunately for them, they won't have to do that much thinking, given how the movie is made out of previous Oscar winners and nominees!

The first scene which narrates the main character's birth is straight out of Amélie (complete with sepia cinematography and a musical theme ripped off Yann Tiersen's score for Jeunet's movie).
And later in the plot there's a certain reference to how a childhood treasure can trigger healing adulthood qualities.
I know Amélie didn't win the Oscar but there's more...

The plot contains elements that do more than recall Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, which like it or not, was a big hit with AMPAS. In this movie a grandfather (played by Kusturica regular Miki Manojlovic) helps his ailing grandson (Carlo Ljubek) recover his health by devising a way to make life a game based on backgammon rules. This doesn't only ease the grandson's trauma from living in a refugee camp during his childhood, but makes him see how positive thinking can Auntie Mame the iron curtain! The whole "let's make a game out of historical misfortune" strategy is perfect to hint of the film's importance while ignoring any trace of reasoning on the audience's part.

But wait! There's also moments from Zorba the Greek, Manojlovic's performance is one part Pelle the Conqueror, two parts Phillipe Noiret in Cinema Paradiso (he even looks like him in some scenes) and before you can say "Greatest Hits: Foreign Oscar version" you'll get references to The Lives of Others.
Oh and did I mention the film is based on an autobiographical novel?

If this doesn't sound like Oscar slam dunk I don't know what does then...

Has anyone else seen this movie? If so, what do you think of its Oscar chances?

Sundance Day 8: Parker Posey, Cyrus and Nowhere Boy

In which all celluloid begins to bleed together, sickness wins out, and Nathaniel loses his mind (from now on, shorter festival trips!). But, just when all hope for sanity is lost as Sundance winds down, Nathaniel dances with Parker Posey at a party! Nathaniel is elated. And no, I don't know why Nathaniel is speaking in the third person either.

Awesome Parker. As friendly as she is talented.
And fun to dance with, too. She was on the competition jury

The Duplass brothers (Mark and Jay), have been steadily rising stars in the indie scene with contributions to films like Humpday, Baghead and The Puffy Chair among many others. Their latest, which they wrote and directed, looks like a breakthrough... at least where mainstream attention is concerned. This is why people cast "name" actors. It wins attention and quite often name actors are names for a reason: talent. There's not a dud performance in the film. John C Reilly plays a sad sack divorcee, Catherine Keener is his ex-wife who worries about him, and Marisa Tomei is the angel he falls for. Because this is a movie, she falls right back. It's all quite funny and just off kilter enough to be surprising. All this despite being the umpteenth billion flick to reinforce that venerable straight male fantasy: yes, any type of guy no matter his appearance, serotonin levels, aspirations, past history or employment status, can and will win incredibly hot chicks. One wonders where homely girls are supposed to go for love?

A few notes on the performances: Catherine Keener is playing warm Catherine Keener [there's two primary modes: smart-bitchy and smart-warm. Both are wonderful... though the most exciting are the performances that veer off into complicating Keenerisms like in Capote and Please Give]; Marisa Tomei continues to be one of the most enduring and endearing actresses of her generation. She's wonderful here as a fun-loving woman who loves too fiercely and impulsively not be blinded by it; Jonah Hill plays her needy manipulative son (he's very funny) and John C Reilly her needy and only slightly manipulative boyfriend. The film is smart enough to see the parallel even if it finds that more amusing than worrisome. B/B+

Finally, I ask you this:
Parker Posey was the queen of '90s indies and Catherine Keener the queen of '00s indies. When exactly is Keener going to be dethroned? It seems like she's still pretty comfy on that throne. Or am I forgetting someone...

Nowhere Boy
Director Sam Taylor Wood, who previously made the great short Love You More (see previous post) and her star Aaron Johnson (soon to be seen in Kick-Ass), pictured right, were much talked about at Sundance. Both of their stars are rising (this is her first feature but she's already a famous artist, this is his first high profile role with a probable blockbuster to follow) and they're also engaged and pregnant... not just with possibility. She's 42 and he's 19 which helps with the 'much talked about' bit.

Nowhere Boy, which has already been up for film prizes in Britain, will make it to the States in 2010 hopefully and it's well worth seeing. It's a biopic on John Lennon. The Young John Lennon as it were. Like Capote, it gains a lot of impact by tightly focusing on one specific time period and arc in its subject's life. Taylor Wood definitely has a gift with visuals and the film is always pleasing to look at. Johnson holds his own in the central role as the cocky but emotionally confused Lennon but the true stars of the picture are Kristin Scott Thomas as "Mimi" (interviewed here a year ago) and Anne-Marie Duff (James McAvoy's wife) as "Julia" who play estranged sisters -- Lennon's aunt and mother respectively -- and the most formative women in the musician's life. Pre Yoko that is. Both actresses are wonderful, refusing any standard biopic reduction into "mother figure" and becoming as compelling and three-dimensional as John Lennon himself, without the aid of the audience's pre-identification or projection. The Beatle's teenage anger at his mother figures gets a little wearying before the movie is over (grow up already!) and it ends rather abruptly but, all in all, it's a fine first film. I can't wait to see what Taylor Wood does next.

Cyrus: B/B+ (leaning B+)
Nowhere Boy: B/B+ (leaning B+)
Dancing with Parker Posey: A/A+ (leaning A+)

Which celebrity would you most like to dance with? Do tell in the comments.

Day 1: Travel Nightmare
Day 2: Late Arrival for Asian Day: Last Train Home, Vegetarian
Day 3: Marathon Day: Waiting for Superman, Splice, Bran Nue Dae, Boy, Please Give
Day 4: I Am Love, Buried
Day 5,6: Holy Rollers, The Runaways, Mother and Child, Catfish
Day 7: Gay Day: The Kids Are All Right and Contracorriente

next: a few more movies and my personal awards for the fest.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sundance Day 7: The Kids Are All Right & Undertow

I wrote up the the two best gay films, the lesbian dramedy The Kids Are All Right (which sold to Focus Features) and the Peruvian closeted romance Contracorriente "Undertow" (which sold to Wolfe) for Towleroad, so click on over and read my reviews.

But for those of you who are hopeless Oscar addicts (I feel and share your pain), I'm certain you've already begun thinking about Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right. I'd advise more caution with its awards prospects than you're hearing 'round the net.

This is already a case study in how buzz becomes immediate deafening hype through the speed of online regurgitation and hyperbole. The movie is definitely a charmer but one of its best and most curious attributes is the laid back and breezy way it approaches complicated people and tense situations.

Laid back and breezy, as you may know, aren't Oscar's favorite moods. And they're also fragile feelings, the type that excessive expectations can smother. I hope that Focus releases it in the summer actually, a la Little Miss Sunshine, rather than building a year of crushingly heavy expectations onto a small and frisky film.

<--- God visiting Park City to promote Kids

It'd be politically satisfying if Oscar went for a funny lesbian family film but they're generally more conservative than that. The initial reaction to The Kids Are All Right at Sundance was compared in several articles to the Little Miss Sunshine premiere a few years ago. That's not a bad comparison point when it comes to the performances, which have definite dramatic detailing but are also comedic. No one towers above anyone else so any golden attention will have to develop organically, with no obvious slam dunk "roles", the kind that win instant awards traction. We'll see how it shakes out.

Annette Bening's performance felt unusually authentic to me. What's more you already know that darkly comic family dinner sequences are a Bening specialty. Mark Ruffalo has the most difficult role in the film I think. There are so many ways this performance could have gone wrong and he makes splendid highly specific choices about his character. It's his best work since You Can Count on Me. Julianne Moore, on the other hand, has the Oscar advantage of having the film's big climactic monologue and the most screen time. But that's a minor point since this is truly an ensemble film, all five characters getting plenty of the movie's attention.

Unless Julianne or Annette have other roles released this year that interfere with this film's eventual campaign, I assume that they'll demote Moore to supporting and push Bening as lead. It's the same "top/bottom" situation I accurately predicted for Brokeback Mountain's Oscar campaigns (before anyone knew what that movie was like) only with women so we're speaking figuratively: Bening is the bread winning head of the household and Moore, her younger flightier wife, is more of a big sister type of mom.

I hope you all see and enjoy it but I really hope this warm funny experience isn't spoiled by expectations of golden statuettes.

once again, my review.

Dancing With Sarah

JA from MNPP here. I think a lot of y'all will agree with me that Michelle Williams' name has become, in this post-Brokeback, post-Wendy and Lucy world, enough of an incitement to cause us to click on a link to see what she's up to. I like that gal! She's proven herself (and I hear she and Ryan Gosling tear it up in Blue Valentine.) So point being I clicked on this link over at DH, and was met with this news:

Seth Rogen & Michelle Williams Have A "Waltz"

Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams are set to star in the romantic drama "Take This Waltz" says Deadline Hollywood.

The story follows a young woman (Williams) who struggles with her infidelities and the budding realization that she may be addicted to the honeymoon period of her relationships.

Sarah Polley ("Away From Her") directs from her own script which made last year's Black List. Filming kicks off this July in Toronto.

Now you'll note that that post's title leaves the most important fact of this story out of it and if Michelle Williams' name weren't such an incentive for me I might've missed this most important fact:

Sarah Polley's directing again!!!

She shoots... movies.

Can we all just do a little jig for a minute here please? Yay!

Of course if you click over to where the news broke you'll see that they broke the news the right way, with Polley's name the very first thing you see. But everybody doesn't cover news the right way! Polley first, always! It's like my version of "Bros Before Hos" only not obscenely misogynistic.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Modern Maestros: Wes Anderson

Robert here, continuing my series on great contemporary directors. I thought I might as well round-out the Anderson trifecta with Wes Anderson, a director on whom I’ve had mixed feelings (though I cannot deny his influence). So to all those who love, love, love Mr. Anderson, please accept my advance apologies. I shall try to keep this unbiased. If nothing else, Wes Anderson has been the only director to successfully convince Natalie Portman to go sans clothes, and that’s certainly worth celebrating.

Maestro: Wes Anderson
Known For: Quirky, comedic tales of families and failure.
Influences: Satyajit Ray, Orson Welles, Mike Nichols, Quentin Tarantino and perhaps most of all Hal Ashby.
Masterpieces: I find Anderson to be endlessly fascinating, but I’m not in love with any of his films, except for Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Disasters: none (I promise I’ll eventually get to a director with a disaster, I swear)
Better than you remember: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was his most poorly received film and I can’t say I disagree. So no entries here.
Awards: Nominations at the Oscars, BAFTAs, Venice and Berlin. Not a whole lot of substantial wins.
Box Office: The Royal Tenenbaums with over 50 million is the winner.
Favorite Actor: Bill Murray and Owen Wilson tie, each in five of Anderson’s six films.

Wes Anderson was a part of a new generation of indie directors that came to prominence in the late 1990's including (though not limited to) David O. Russell, P.T. Anderson, and Spike Jonze. And though he may not be the most talented among that group, he's possibly the most influential. His is the career that launched a thousand quirky comedies. Without Wes Anderson would there be a Little Miss Sunshine? a Juno? an Eagle vs. Shark? The tragi-comedy about a sad figure set to impossibly trendy music isn't a new concept, but one may just have to credit Anderson for hastening its recent rise (for better or worse). What's so surprising is that even though Anderson is thought of as a "hip" or "trendy" director his themes are not exactly the encapsulation of "cool". Stories of once-great men, their downfalls, and familial relationships aren't as cool as stories about killers or kings.  But it's here where Anderson keeps returning. Royal Tenenbaum, Steve Zissou, Mr. Fox are all men attempting to recapture some past glory (and who all star in films named after themselves). And do they recapture their past glory?  Well that's complicated.  Anderson never gives us a clear ending.  His ulitmate suggestion seems to be that life is neither happy nor sad nor simple, yet almost always ironic. So yes you can find your white whale (or jaguar shark) but when you get there the price you've paid for your goal will diminish its worth.

It was during Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese's discussion on the best films of the 1990's (Scorsese selected Bottle Rocket to his list) where they noted this sense of existential irony that permeates through that decade's independent cinema. "Everything has quotation marks around it" says Roger Ebert. And there's something about Wes Anderson's style that puts him at the forefront of this phenomenon. Anderson's construction and framing often highlight the artificiality of his films. Realism is farthest from his mind and he regularly betrays convention with the film drawing attention to itself as a result. Anderson would rather shoot a conversation between two characters in its entirety with both in profile then as series of cross-cut over-the-shoulder shots. Why is this? Is it to achieve a sense of unreal? Is it to maintain the tempo of a comedic scene? Is it just to break the rules? A little bit of all three I think.

Once great

It's nice to see Wes Anderson back on top of the world again with his most acclaimed film in eight years. Even though his two prior films achieved interesting things (The Life Aquatic allowed him to work with Herny Selic and The Darjeeling Limited let him homage Indian cinema in a way he'd been hinting at for a while) neither was able to capture the brilliance of The Royal Tenenbaums, which was, at the time, the quintessential Wes Anderson film, hitting all of his most common themes and also having fun taking a somewhat affectionate look at the oppression that comes from being rich and famous (an offshoot of his interest in failed great men and a concept taken right from Hal Ashby). But Fantastic Mr. Fox gave Anderson the chance to try animation, a genre quite possibly perfectly suited to Anderson's constructed ironic sensibilities. What's next for Anderson we don't know. IMDb and Wikipedia each list different future projects, but there's little doubt that he'll have another film out soon and it will continue to influence young directors while clearly setting himself apart from those who try to do what he does with his superior sense of style and craft.

Sundance Day 5 & 6: The Runaways, Mother and Child, and More...

The day in which Nathaniel got sick (cough sneeze), wanted to jump on Ari Graynor (with love!), saw Paul Dano at a party (quite adorable), went to a gay party by himself (absolute torture) and saw a few movies. Which is what we're here to talk about. So here goes...

Holy Rollers
I've seen more than enough drug dramas in my lifetime but this one is about an ecstasy smuggling ring with Hasidic Jews as couriers. So ...that's new. Movies with unusual premises or angles win initial "potential" points right off the bat. Jesse Eisenberg plays Jesse Eisenberg again... only with payot. (somebody needs to start stretching. I'm just sayin'). He plays Sam Gold who, despite the fact that he's living an Orthodox life, he soon dives deep into crime with an older friend and fellow Hasid (Justin Bartha), as his guide. Ari Graynor, whom I love yet more with each new movie, plays their bosses arm candy. She enjoys torturing (i.e. flirting with) the Jewish boys and delighting me in my theater seat. There's a certain punch to a couple of the performances and the milieu is interesting, but I wish the movie were stronger. It lacks a certain urgency that's necessary for crime dramas (even non-violent ones like this) but the religious backdrop was refreshing. Holy Rollers also accepts and doesn't judge the way that people often retreat into religious ritual and habit, whenever they feel threatened by the waters they've tested outside. C+

P.S. At one point Ari Graynor offers Jesse ecstasy on her tongue. I've never done E but I've never been more tempted. I am becoming obsessed with Ari Graynor. Help me!

Mother and Child
The premise goes like so: Mother "Karen" (Annette Bening), pregnant when she was only 14, gave up Child "Elizabeth" (Naomi Watts) for adoption. Both of them live the next 37 years deeply affected by this decision. Mother spends the rest of her life thinking about this girl and who she might have become. Bening's performance, typically strong, is all brittle self-punishing defeat. Karen's anger isn't only internal, she's got enough of it to spread around, keeping potential friends and would be lovers at a (safe) distance. Bening has played icy women before but Karen feels like a fresh creation. There's no theatricality to her rudeness, no joy in her solitude.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, has become a skilled successful lawyer. Like her mother she also lashes out, only she knows she's doing it. There's an unsettling 'I dare you' challenge in her gaze and she seems to greatly enjoy undermining the happiness of neighbors and angling for power in her relationship with her boss (Samuel L Jackson). It's a difficult unlikeable character to wrap your head around. Watts is typically intense but she doesn't find a way to make the ice queen thaw feel like more than a forced screenplay choice. There's a third would be Mother in the film "Lucy" (Kerry Washington) and the film also runs into some trouble here. All the parallels and connections began to feel too schematic and less than organic.

Writer/director Rodrigo García's career from Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her through his television work and to Nine Things suggests that he loves actresses as much as I do. I thank him for that but next time I hope he loves them more spontaneously and energetically. Mother and Child has both sorrow and warmth but it needed more fire in its (pregnant) belly. C+

The Runaways
Joan Jett, Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart all came to town for the festival to promote this rock star bio film. And Sunday night Jett even performed -- she still loves rock and roll -- but I was not invited. The universe is cruel that way.

Though I had my worries about Kristen Stewart portraying this iconic 80s rock star, the mimicry seems to have encouraged her to drop some of the usual tics that she brings with her when playing fictional characters. She's fine here even though, as it turns out, she's nearly a supporting character despite her top billing. We meet Joan first but by the time Dakota Fanning takes the mic as the "ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb" jailbait, the catalyst for their success as the film argues, the film is hers. Or maybe it's Michael Shannon's? He gives the only comic performance in the film as their manager.

Director Floria Sigismondi has fashioned a visually exciting bio that is refreshingly punk in spirit: she doesn't shy away from the unsavory reckless behavior, the sexually fluid promiscuity (yes, Dakota & Kristen get it on), or the money-minded exploitation of underage Cherie. Speaking of: what will people make of the parallel exploitation of Dakota Fanning in this role? For all the snap of the music, the fun of the period details and the colorful aesthetic, The Runaways is hit and miss. Like many biopics, it suffers from a repetitive nature and some missed opportunities in focus and character development, particularly within the supporting cast who barely seem to exist. B

The next day sidelined by general sickness miserabilism, I only took in one movie: the extremely buzzy documentary about... well, here's the catch. You're not allowed to talk about what it's about. I wrote a little bit more about it in my weekly Tribeca column. B+

What have you been watching this past week? Have you ever been to Sundance.

Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

by Guest Blogger, Erich Kuersten (Acidemic)
As cinema lovers and everyone else mull over Obama's state of the union address (replete with dissolute toadlike old power mongers muttering their villainous dissent in the audience), it's tempting to look for a Capra film to compare with, but shouldn't we go back farther, to GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, and Busby Berkley's "Forgotten Man" number? Can't you feel it coming in the air tonight?

Opening with hot chicks (including Ginger Rogers) naked behind gold coins singing "Where in the Money" in Pig Latin, GOLD DIGGERS is as savvy and hip a denouncement of the status quo as hard times can produce. Robert Dudley (the Weenie King!) plays the good-hearted producer who wants to put on a show about "men, walking, hungry, jobs! jobs! jobs!" with heart-of-gold-digger Joan Blondell, the "comic" beanpole Aline McMahon, and normie Ruby Keeler, who--as always--is assigned to sing and smooch with Dick Powell. Of course it turns out Powell's a trustafarian, pretending to struggle in the Village rather than spend some of his trust fund and live a little, but he's got no problem bank-rolling the show, leading to--hilariously!--the entrance of beloved rogues Warren Willian and Guy Kibbee! All they need is some emotional blackmail to get them swinging on a star (note to Obama, send gold diggers to discredit these republican antagonists and all will be well).

Aside from some typically snapless romantic numbers between Powell and Keeler, this is surreal stuff all the way, and the climactic Forgotten Man number ends it with a superb mixture of tears, guts, heart and bang for your dime! I love Joan Blondell's open-hearted, deeply warm and potent mix of sexual and maternal compassion for all these hollow-eyed veterans as they stagger, stagger, stagger looking for jobs jobs jobs! The "Forgotten Man" was, incidentally, the phrase at the time for all the World War One vets who had come home from the war to no job opportunities whatsoever, staggering around hungry, their chests adorned with worthless medals... the only real money to be made was in bootlegging, so if they were honest, they starved.

As with most all of Berkely's numbers,"The Forgotten Man" is really a stand-alone short film that starts out, perhaps, as a stage number on opening night, but soon expands and contracts and zooms in until we're in a whole other universe. Blondell goes from trying to stand up for her beaten-down beau against an unfeeling cop, to addressing the audience, and the world, directly, her hands outstretched in a massive, Brodway belt of a plea. Watching Obama last night I was reminded not of Jimmy Stewart's hoarse fillibuster in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, but Blondell, opening her human heart a mile wide to engulf the nation in a surge of compassion as the music marches inexorably onwards. It's a galvanizing moment when music number, plot, message and fourth wall breaking all merge seamlessly together to create the purest most direct kind of art, and I wanted to present here, on dear Nathaniel's fantastically actressexual blog, in celebration of Miss Blondell and all those brave, forgotten men still treading the pavement for jobs, jobs... jobs.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Curio: Sophia and Jayne

Alexa from Pop Elegantiarum here again with some artsy craftiness. Since the SAG awards, Sophia Loren has been in my thoughts, probably because in her 70s she is way hotter than I was in my 20s. (I also owe everything I have to spaghetti, with mixed results). And last night I had really vivid dreams about Jayne Mansfield, probably because I fell asleep, rather unfortunately, to Law & Order SVU (Mariska does bear a resemblance to her mom now and then). It all came together today when I spotted this swell little embroidery by Jennifer Jackson, a.k.a. Lucky Jackson.

The photograph of these two is so reproduced that you almost forget how funny it is. I think the embroidery really brings out the catty girlyness of the encounter. You can see more of Jennifer's happy art (including her odes to Office Space and Tim Gunn) here.

Anne Announcing Oscars

Anne Hathaway has been tapped to announced the nominations for this year's Academy Awards on the morning of Tuesday, February 2nd. One year after being named a nominee and starring in Bride Wars. What names will she be reading out I wonder? Since they've gotten a female to do the co-presenting honours, Anne will be announcing Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. The former seems locked solid (Bridges, Clooney, Firth, Freeman, Renner) although the latter could throw up a surprise or two. Will Hathaway announce "Stanley Tucci" before pausing for a couple of seconds and following it with "in Julie & Julia"? Will she be able to lay claim to being the first person to ever read Christopher Plummer's name out as an Oscar nominee? We shall see next week (NEXT WEEK!)

I also wonder if Anne gets the honour of announcing all ten of the Best Picture nominees or if she and Academy President Tom Sherak will split the duties. And no matter how they do it, what surprises will we see sprout out of this new-fangled system? I am both excited and bored to tears by the whole process, aren't you?

"Ugh, Invictus? REALLY?"

You tell 'em, Anne!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

(Un)Lucky Star.

Jose here bringing you some more award news.

The Costume Designers Guild announced their nominees for 2009.
In what's becoming a ridiculous set of snubs, Jane Campion's Bright Star was once again ignored for much less remarkable achievements (odd considering how much the costumes are actual part of the movie's plot). After the egregious snub by the Cinematographers Guild it's been clear how much people have decided to just pretend the movie doesn't exist.
You didn't have to like the film to see how great the cinematography and costumes were, right?

Now on to the nominees,


  • Avatar (Mayes C. Rubeo, Deborah Lynn Scott)
  • The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Monique Prudhomme)
  • Star Trek (Michael Kaplan)
The fact the CGI loincloths from Avatar were nominated in this category is a reminder of how much people are dying to reward this film.


  • (500) Days of Summer (Hope Hanafin)
  • Bruno (Jason Alper)
  • Crazy Heart (Doug Hall)
  • Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (Marina Draghici)
  • Up in the Air (Danny Glicker)
Bruno being here proves my previous point about Bright Star. Both movies have fashion as essential plot elements, of course one's crass, the other's class, but still that doesn't diminish or improve their technical achievements.
I find it strange that they snubbed The Lovely Bones here though or did they think it was more fantasy?


  • Coco Before Chanel (Catherine Leterrier)
  • Julie & Julia (Ann Roth)
  • Nine (Colleen Atwood)
  • Sherlock Holmes (Jenny Beavan)
  • The Young Victoria (Sandy Powell)
I'm guessing this could be what Oscar's lineup will look like. With AMPAS favorites Atwood, Roth and Powell leading the way we might have ourselves another Oscar win in this category where the most blah movie takes the prize on account of how many ruffles and bows the gowns have.
I find it interesting that Coco Before Chanel made it here, especially because the most notorious costumes from the movie were actually Karl Lagerfeld's work.
I guess that guild members assumed that to snub a movie about a designer would be insane.
Which, don't make me say it, but only reminds me of the John Keats movie...

What was your favorite costume on a movie last year? do you think these nominees represent 2009 well?

Sundance Day 4: I Am Buried, Love!

An easy day for me after the day 3, 5 film marathon (scroll down). I saw just 2 films. There would've been 3 but for a bus mishaps. Boo. Have also developed an irritating persistent cough. I blame all this fresh mountain air. My lungs are citified.

lo sono l'amore (I Am Love)
I'll have more to say about this Italian stunner as it approaches release but I'm too sick to parse it at the moment. So for those of you who are tweetless, I share this exchange between Guy Lodge and I.

I've rediscovered here at Sundance that I tend to respond best to visually driven films. Another critic I sat with at I Am Love complained that it kept him at a certain remove and that's totally true so long as you're speaking about its narrative or dialogue but the emotional content was all in its at first stately and then increasingly baroque rush of images and score. B+/A-? [I also suspect that I liked The Runaways better than most because I dug the visuals from director Floria Sigismondi, another contestant in the long line of great music video directors who made their way into feature films. But that's a story for another post.]

One more thing about I Am Love. I find it amusing that the initial foreign poster and the American poster are basically the same thing but for the star-f***ing.

Not only do three characters get cropped out to focus on the nuclear family, but it's also becomes all about Tilda Swinton. The font obscures the other actors and loops around to create a Bust of Movie Star. Place her sculptural beauty on your mantle. which I mean buy a ticket when the film opens later this year.

The announcement that this accurately named thriller had been bought by Lionsgate -- who made (tidal) waves for the Sundance acquisition Precious last year -- came shortly before the screening for critics. I don't usually do this but I spent some of the movie and a good deal of time after the movie, thinking about how they could possibly market it. The movie takes place entirely inside a coffin with Ryan Reynolds as the unfortunate American truck driver trapped inside. He wakes up to this nightmare at the beginning of the film with only a cel phone and a lighter (and unfortunately all of his clothing). Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés displays enough technical creativity here in sound, lighting and shot differentiation that the gimmick is sustained surprisingly well. But how will they ever do a trailer without revealing the onion being peeled as it were? The fun (if such a thing can be called fun) is in how the story, predicament and politics are parceled out. And if you see a lot of that in the trailer... B

P.S. [*light spoiler*] I'm tempted to pettily subtract a grade due to the completely unimaginative voice casting. You'll never believe this but ubiquitous character actor Stephen Tobolowsky (in one of the voice roles) plays an asshole! Shocking right? When you hear that voice you simply know, thereby ruining one of the film's nastiest surprises.

Today In Cinema - 1:26:10 - ala StinkyLulu

This post is part of the new-ish photoseries that I've begun running over at StinkyLulu and which was inspired, in part, by Nathaniel's now legendary 20:07 series. Each of my "Today in Cinema" posts features a screenshot captured at (A) a precise moment in a favorite film's running time that (B) numerically corresponds somehow to today's date.
If you recognize the film, say so in comments.
Then, tell us what you love/loathe most about the flick.


Tell us why this shot also corresponds to one of 2010's "baitiest" turns.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Australia Day

Today is Australia Day here in, you guessed it, Australia. If you're American or British you're probably reading this and it's not technically Australia Day yet (26 of January), but that's my reward for LIVING IN THE FUTURE! Time zones be damned! America celebrates the day that British people came to their land with Turkey and family get togethers and being thankful for good health. Australia celebrates by having a bbq and sitting in lawn chairs and wading pools. We're classy like that!

Over at my blog Stale Popcorn I have celebrating by doing another end-of-decade list, this time one that I'm sure not many others have done: Best Australian Films of the Decade. There are some titles on there that you non-Aussies will recognise like Samson & Delilah, Wolf Creek, Mary and Max and Australia, but there's also plenty you have probably never heard a single word about. No matter whether you've heard the rapturous reviews or not, you should do me a favour and put them on your DVD queue immediately. I actually did a search of America's Netflix about 19 of my top 25 are available, which surprised me a lot.

  1. Lantana (dir. Ray Lawrence, 2001)
  2. Noise (dir. Matthew Saville, 2007)
  3. Jindabyne (dir. Ray Lawrence, 2006)
  4. Three Blind Mice (dir. Matthew Newton, 2009)
  5. Samson & Delilah (dir. Warwick Thornton, 2009)
  6. Not Quite Hollywood (dir. Mark Hartley, 2008)
  7. The Dish (dir. Rob Sitch, 2000)
  8. The Horseman (dir. Steven Kastrissios, 200?)
  9. Black Water (dir. Andrew Traucki & David Nerlich, 2008)
  10. Look Both Ways (dir. Sarah Watt, 2005)

You can read the rest of the top 25 at Stale Popcorn. Have you had a favourite Aussie film from the past decade? Speak up in the comments! Meanwhile, I'm off to drink beer and sit in a lawn chair in the sun for hours on end.

Woolf at the Movies.

Jose here to commemorate the anniversary of Virginia Woolf's birth.

Woolf said that every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.
Since this isn't a literature site, what better way to examine this than the ways in which some of her works have been taken to the movies.

First up is Sally Potter's gender bending version of Orlando with Tilda Swinton as the title character. In this luscious reworking of Woolf's classic, Potter concentrates mostly on interpreting the author's groundbreaking prose and reflecting it through the film's sensuous visuals.
Few filmmakers would've been as brave as Potter and give in so much to the undeniable power of the text to a level where the film actually celebrates Woolf more than the director. Jane Campion's crush on John Keats in Bright Star comes to mind-in terms of literature taking over film so much-and if you haven't seen Orlando, what are you waiting for?

Even if at first glance she's only referred to in the title, the ghost of the British author hovers all over Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? her name is supposed to symbolize the fear of leading empty lives and existence out of illusion. While Edward Albee's play is notorious for its explosive nature (as opposed to Woolf's universe of inner conflict) it's feasible to say that the playwright's intention was precisely to make us wonder what would push us to release all those violent, damaging emotions from our minds.

Last but not least, today would be a good day as any, to re-watch Nicole Kidman's Academy Award winning performance as Woolf in The Hours.
Brilliant beyond the fake nose, Kidman has rarely been as introspective and haunting. She might've made one very controversial Oscar winner, but like Woolf's literature her performance doesn't fade, doesn't wither and probably will never grow old.

Are you a fan of Virginia's literature? Do you like how cinema has interpreted her?

Sunday Day 3: Mad Genetic Scientists, Evil Unionized Teachers and Guilty Rich Folk

Five movies in one day is a common enough festival occurrence but I can't say I recommend it. It's fun to chat with fellow film fans when lining up for festival screenings but it can be highly embarrassing when someone asks you "Nathaniel, what did you see today?" and you can't remember. Speaking hypothetically [cough].

Yes, I did have to look up what I saw yesterday in order to share it with you now. Let's take them in ascending order of preference.

Waiting for Superman
This documentary about our nation's education crisis was riding a solid wave of buzz when I saw it. I can't share in the enthusiasm I kept hearing on buses and in lines. It's an easy familiar sit, using talking heads, animation interludes, and familiar TV history moments in the pursuit of its thesis. It's hard not to feel for the struggling adorable kids and parents that the film follows, though one has to wonder why the filmmakers chose to follow so many of them given how much statistical ground and educational ideologies the film also wants to cover (the sidebar issues are forgotten and revived haphazardly throughout). These kids are dreaming of college but statistics are against them. Most of them will end up in poorly performing middle schools and and "dropout factory" high schools. A lot of salient points were raised but this was one of those documentaries that left me wondering how much they'd left out in order to make their point, especially because the last act plays like a commercial for charter schools and constructs a clear movie villain out of teacher's union. C-

This horror/thriller was part of the 'Park City at Midnight' series. If you've ever been to a film festival you'll know that the midnight section is basically the punk rock bin. The films are meant to be raucous, offensive, strange or violent. They dream of "cult classic" status. Splice follows a romantic couple (played by Sarah Polley & Adrien Brody), who appear to be rock stars of the genetic engineering world. They even dress like they're about to perform for a club's worth of inebriated worshipful fans when they head in to the lab.

Sarah Polley makes a new friend. Literally.

The film kicks off with a smartly filmed "birth" sequence. The scientists create "Ginger and Fred" (hee), two lumpy slugs created from mixed and matched DNA. I won't bore you with the sci-fi gobbledy-gook science or spoil the icky surprises. Let is suffice to say that things don't go the way the scientists plan and their corporate sponsors ask them to redirect their efforts elsewhere. Our rock star engineers pretend to do just that. Meanwhile they continue playing god, making an animal human hybrid they name "Dren". Movies always punish scientists for playing god so you know where this is going. The best I can say for the feature is that Dren is spectacularly disturbing. Director/co-writer Vincenzo Natali manages to sustain a level of creepiness surrounding this... thing... that's pretty impressive. If anything Dren becomes more and more disturbing with familiarity, something you can't say for most movie monsters. Unfortunately, the other parts of the movie don't play as well: the acting seems stilted but insufficiently stylized, the humor often falls flat, and some important backstory details are only brought in as plot devices. But still... creepy. C+

Bran Nue Dae
This wacky Australian musical is about an aboriginal boy who doesn't want to stay in his religious boarding school. He'd rather be at home romancing his girl. This is not okay with Father Benedict (Congratulations hambone Geoffrey Rush. For once, you're not the most over-the-top thing in one of your films!) who chases after the runaway. Bran Nue Dae is contagiously enthusiastic but I wish it were better. It's sloppily assembled and its over the top antics begin to grate before it wraps up. But it is fun. I'm not denying that. It's particularly great counterprogramming at a film festival since film festivals aren't known for "silly". And 24 hours later I'm still humming the sardonic spirited closing number
There's nothing I would rather be than to be an aborigine.
And watch you take my precious land away..."
There's nothing like musical comedy so long as you're in the right mood for it. B-

Did you ever see the Oscar nominated short Two Cars, One Night? It simply watched children in parked cars, and the way they communicated as they waited for their parents to finish up with adult activities in a local bar. This feature from the same director Taika Cohen is inspired by that wonderfully suggestive short. You're still dealing with the way children react to the adult world that confuses them and the way they treat each other. Your protagonist this time goes by "Boy" (played by the wonderfully expressive James Rolleston, pictured right). He's obsessed with Michael Jackson and his own loser father, who he idolizes. When his father returns from a stint in prison, Boy's world is upended and he's forced to grow up a little, even though he's already essentially parenting his little brother and a swarm of cousins whose parents are never at home.

The film gets a good dose of laughs from its 80s era obsession (
E.T., a number of hit American TV series, and the whole Thriller phenomenon) but Cohen also has a finely tuned visual comic sensibility as a director. He knows when to let a joke play out, when to cut away and when to let loose with imaginative childlike flourishes. He's not as successful at directing himself (he plays the often buffoonish father) and though the film sometimes struggles to find the right balance between comedy and pathos, it's a sweet well rendered coming of age story. Future sleeper hit status awaits. B

Catherine Keener is a giver. Oliver Platt not so much

Please Give
This comedy is quite a rebound for writer/director Nicole Holofcener. It's not that her last feature Friends With Money didn't have its charms but it amplified what can sometimes be schematic in her work: her titles are right on the nose with the characters as variations on its theme. On the other hand this obviousness has its charms. Why conceal your theme when it's so unusually specific and delivered with such a distinct voice? Please Give manages the neat trick of being sharply unsentimental and also loving and, better still, very funny.

Holofcener's chief muse Catherine Keener is front and center as a well off antiques dealer. She's constantly beset by guilt and assuages it with generosity. She and her husband (Oliver Platt) are waiting for their ancient next door neighbor Andra (a wonderfully tart Ann Gulbert) to die so that they can have her apartment but they throw her birthday parties to make nice. What makes Please Give such a generous movie is how fond it is of all of its characters and their hangups, too. Keener and Platt work well together as a couple who've lost the spark, their marriage flatlining into a friendship and business partnership. Even better are Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet (pictured) who play dissimilar sisters reacting to the "vultures" waiting for their grandmother to kick the bucket and dealing with issues of their own. Highly recommended. Especially if you like talky neurotic comedies. B+