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Michelle Pfeiffer and Grease 2

"I can't pass a ladder without seriously considering whether I should climb it and start belting Cool Rider" -Joey

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Entries in Reviews (505)

Thursday
Oct062011

The Little Mermaid... She's Gotta Have It.

With this week's Disney announcement that The Little Mermaid will get 3D rerelease treatment (along with other pictures) that put The Lion King back on everyone's lips, I thought it was time to republish this piece on the classic film...

The Little Mermaid (1989)  | Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker Screenplay by Roger Allers, Ron Clements, and John Musker (very loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale) | Music by Alan Menken Lyrics by Howard Ashman | Starring the Voices of: Jodie Benson, Pat Carroll, Kenneth Mars and Samuel E Wright | Production Company Walt Disney | Released 11/17/1989

 

American members of Generation Y or Z and beyond may have a good deal of trouble imagining this but it's true: once upon a time, animated movies were considered highly uncool. They were strictly for babies. Teenagers disdained them. Adults took their children under duress. They barely caused a ripple at the box office. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences ignored them. CGI was not part of the national vernacular. Strange but true.

In a very short window of time, from November 1989 through February 1992, three major events changed modern perceptions of the animated film in a gargantuan way. Let's take them in reverse order: The third big-bang was the moment when Beauty & the Beast (1991) was nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, the first time that a cartoon had received that pinnacle mainstream honor. The middle part of the three-part revolution was when hipster American audiences began to discover that there was more to the form than Walt Disney. Katsuhiro Ôtomo's Japanese sci-fi spellbinder Akira was the key that opened the door for anime, now very big and influential business in America. But the first key event in animation's rebirth (stateside at least) was the release of Disney's "28th animated classic" The Little Mermaid; an orgasmic reawakening of the most flexible and fantastical of film mediums...

"She's Gotta Have It!"

The heroine of Disney's modern breakthrough film is Ariel, a teenage mermaid. Since this is a fairy tale (and a Disney one at that) she's also a beautiful princess: the youngest daughter of King Triton who rules the ocean. Only trouble is, despite her quick smile and high spirits, she's restless and unhappy... dissatisfied with her life of privilege under the sea. She wants to trade up. Literally. Since this is a late 1980s film (and a Disney one at that) she's also the headstrong entitled type. This princess isn't going to whisper her need. She's no Oliver with his meager allotment of gruel, politely asking for more.

music, sexuality and animated evolution after the jump... 

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Oct052011

RIP "The Playboy Club" (Sept 2011- Oct 2011)

The peacock network brings us the TV season's first cancellation. And whaddya know? It's their new show with the brightest plumage, "The Playboy Club". I've been soaking up the general response to this show and "Pan Am" with some interest since they're the two shows that Mad Men spawned, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and the most flattering form of theft.

It's unkind to speak ill of the dead so I want to thank The Playboy Club for shining such a bright spotlight on Broadway babe Laura Benanti as she sang onstage and bitched backstage. She was the show's indisputable MVP for its very short run so some other series would be smart to snatch her up. I normally don't wish "series regular" status on Broadway's headlining musical stars because it makes them vanish from the stage but my friends and I have held a comic grudge against Benanti for years since it took us four times of paying for her shows to actually see her perform. Maybe we had terrible luck but... well, let's just say it seems like her understudies go on... A LOT.

[Updated Editor's Note: There's a reasonable explanation in reader comments as to why Benanti was absent from shows so much in the Aughts. Terrible injury.]

Though Pan Am is appreciably better as reviews suggested, the emphatically polarized 'two thumbs up/all thumbs down' greeting is something I couldn't really get behind as they have/had some of the same strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths: Great, sexy, and showy choice of milieu in that it's a potentially fine breeding ground for multiple stories and visual pizazz, a sassy leading brunette that's fun to watch (Laura Benanti / Christina Ricci), and super attractive men in suits.
Weaknesses: Period setting plays all cosmetic with no soul, depth, or nuance (don't get me started on the dialogue in either show... way too modern), beautiful leading blonde who is dull to watch (Amber Heard / Margot Robbie ... is the actress just not bringing it or are these characters too blank) and uneven acting.

So what's the decisive factor in one show winning instant fans and the other a speedy cancellation? I'm thinking confidence, both behind-the-scenes (who knows what executives are thinking) and onscreen. Pan Am struts through its airport like it owns the world and that dead bunny had something of a nervous twitching tail. Confidence in your own voice, even if you're still finding it, goes a long long way towards being heard.

Saturday
Oct012011

NYFF: "The Student" and "A Separation"

In an effort to not fall behind on NYFF coverage, here's a double feature from Argentina (possible Oscar submission) and Iran (Oscar submission!) .

THE STUDENT
Have you ever longed to learn every detail of the chaotic, multi-partied, backroom deal heavy politics of Argentina through the metaphorical microcosm of elections at a Buenos Aires university? If you answered "yes" than Santiago Mitre's The Student is the movie for you! If you answered "huh, what?" than I should quickly add that I'm not entirely sure that that's what The Student is on about. The movie's continual barrage of name-and acronym heavy information, both in dialogue and in dry omniscient narration, and its crowded character map of continually changing alliances and sudden betrayals suggests to me that politically aware Argentinians would understand and revel in its deeper implications more clearly than I possibly could.

As it is I was, like the titular character Roque (Esteban Lamothe), initially only fascinated by this vivid new world opening up all around me without ever quite understanding it. One terrific shot in the movie looks at the back of Roque's head, more specifically his ear, as he drinks up a ton of dizzying new knowledge, with more focus and determination than he ever uses while snorting up a line of coke or screwing his latest conquest. Unlike Roque however, who reveals hidden political aptitude that dwarfs but doesn't quite mask his obvious limitations, the lessons never stuck. Part of The Student's point is how quickly the various rugs will always be pulled out from under you in the dirty game of politics, but the ever shifting landscape eventually frustrates with its perpetual loop of climaxes that become anti-climactic, given that they merely reset the crowded board of players rather than ending the game. The Student's 124 running time becomes an endurance test, a Sisyphian lecture for a quiz that will never come.  B- (C+?)

A SEPARATION
Our next film, which is nearly the exact same length, achieves quite the opposite effect, growing more fascinating with each new scene and abundant detail. Asghar Farhadi's A Separation initially appears to be a well made but standard marital drama, as Naader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) spar in front of a judge over custody of their child Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). Simin wants to move to America where her daughter will have more opportunity (though the family seems well off in Iran) and Naader, almost too-willing to let his wife go, is unwilling to part with his daughter. His mind is elsewhere, perpetually worrying about his ailing father who has Alzheimers.

Naader has issues with Razieh (Sareh Bayat), his cleaning woman

The separation, though semi-amicable (no one is losing their temper), sets off a chain of unfortunate events. Through an economically conveyed but richly textured series of plot points, Naader has an altercation with the hired help (a poor couple, also with a troubled marriage) who are supposed to clean house and care for his father in Simin's absence. Soon everyone is in court again albeit for entirely different reasons. What starts as a well acted and sensitively filmed portrait of an unraveling family quickly expands into a vivid exciting portrait of families on precarious emotional ledges. In what can only be described as an embarrassment of riches, A Separation does all of this while also handily becoming the most exciting courtroom procedural movie in many a year. All the hard facts become soft and twistable when filtered through multiple emotional upheavals, religious beliefs, well meaning lies and day-to-day domestic issues.

Simin (Leila Hatami) and Naader (Peyman Moaadi)American audiences accustomed to casually and wrongly assuming a monolithic Middle East culture will find the movie eye-opening and instantly relatable; the tension between economic classes, as well as the secular and religious will feel all too familiar. Best of all, though, A Separation side-steps the easy and common cinematic path of demonizing or idealizing any of its warring characters. Every time you've come to a conclusion about a character or come close to hating or blaming them, writer/director Farhadi (of About Elly fame) opens a new door or window into their soul and circumstances. This prismatically sympathetic and insightful film is one of the best of the year.

FWIW: Sony Pictures Classics will release A Separation in US theaters on the dread date of 12/30/11 making it technically eligible for every Oscar category.

Previously on NYFF
Carnage raises its voice at Nathaniel but doesn't quite scream at him.
Miss Bala wins the "must-see crown" from judge Michael.
Tahrir drops Michael right down in the titular Square.
A Dangerous Method excites Kurt... not in that way, perv!
The Loneliest Planet brushes against Nathaniel's skin.
Melancholia shows Michael the end of von Trier's world. 

Saturday
Oct012011

50/50

Joining the very slim ranks of Cancer Comedies, 50/50 must surely number among the best of them. The film begins with a long shot of 27 year-old Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) jogging. It's unclear why the film begins this way (we never see him exercise again) but it's telling. Adam is about to embark on a sweaty exhausting journey with no set destination and it takes him awhile to come into focus.

As protagonists go, Adam is a passive blurry character. He lets his loud friend Kyle (Seth Rogen) control their friendship. Even though he's only just given her a dresser drawer, his girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) is calling all the relationship shots - including no blow jobs which infuriates Kyle on Adam's behalf. Adam seems content to sit back and take whatever life does or doesn't offer him. Enter: Cancer...

...read the full review at Towleroad

P.S. Are you visiting JGL in the hospital this weekend or do you have other movie plans?

P.P.S. I didn't spend much time on her in the review but Anjelica Huston is just a marvel in her very brief role (2 ½ scenes?). She's had plenty of (unfortunate) time now to hone her skills at delivering full characterizations in mere moments. She gets two of the biggest laughs in the movie but it doesn't end with comedy. She's fierce and touching, too. Brava.

Friday
Sep302011

NYFF: "Carnage" 

Though critics screenings have been well under way for some time, tonight is the official opening night of the New York Film Festival. The kick off film is Roman Polanski's Carnage, about which we should undoubtedly say a few words. And then scream them, as we lose our composure.

Moviegoers who have seen Yasmina Reza's hit play "God of Carnage" in any of its many stage productions, had just cause to fear a film version; it's very much a work of the stage. What if they cast the two young boys whose stick-wielding playground tussle prompts all the (psychological) carnage between their parents, who meet to discuss the fight? What if the movie leaves the apartment where the entire play takes place? What if the actors can't handle the tricky satirical tone that has to be rooted in internal drama but stylized enough to extract external laughs?

The first two fears involve the dread "open it up" problem that hover like dark storm clouds over so many stage-to-screen adaptations. If you don't "open it up" you run the risk of your movie feeling weirdly hemmed in and even cheap. If you do "open it up" you run the risk of arbitrary and awkward resizing that feels more like nervous approval-seeking then an attempt to serve the material. With Roman Polanski, an expert at claustrophic storytelling, guiding the tight-quarters squabbling perhaps we shouldn't have worried.

The trouble-making sons of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly) and Nancy and Allen Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) do appear in the film but in a wonderfully smart and ambiguously played framing device. This change from the play stays magically true to the spirit of the source material but is also entirely new and right for the change in medium (which is EXACTLY what adaptations should strive for). So the first thing Roman Polanski does right is that even though we do technically leave the confines of a realistically sized New York apartment (i.e. small) both visually and physically (the apartment building's hallway), we never once feel as though we've escaped the crowded private hell of two married couples. For a smartly succinct 80 minutes (it happens in real time) you are trapped with the parental quartet and their justifiable concern: what to do about a violent encounter between their children. The comedy and drama of the play-turned-movie are the ways in which said real and justifiable but basic-sized problem morphs, twists, pivots, wiggles, shrinks and expands -- it just can't hold its shape -- until it's a series of problems both microcosmically petty (home cooking, name calling, cel phones) and gargantuan unsolvable (Genocide! Corporate Greed! Marriage!).   

For the most part the actors all do solid work. Christoph Waltz, in the film's best and most nimble performance, ably suggests that Alan is a bit of a sadist and the only one who is actually enjoying all the squabbling and suffering (until he isn't). John C Reilly has the biggest about face, appearing to be the most accomodating character (and the dullest actor) until alcohol and aggravating phone calls from his mother loosen him up. Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, two of the screen's most formidable actresses are both good. Kate is best with Nancy's comedic outbursts  (her weak stomach and quick inebriation, just as in the play, provides some of the most memorable moments) but one wishes for more character detail in the inbetween when she isn't the focus of the scene. Foster has the most difficult role. Penelope is an extremely uptight and self-righteous Africa-obsessed mother and she's the one character that's simultaneously the worst at keeping it together and the one most concerned with keeping it together. Though Foster has fine moments her comedy is the wobbliest; one ends up pitying Penelope more than laughing with or at her which is a strange place to end up inside of a viciously dark comedy. Still, there's a certain go-for-broke original bravura in Foster's vein-popping despair (hers is the performance least like the original play's), that one has to admire it even while one mentally recasts. 

As Carnage winds down... Stop. Winds down? Yes, though Polanski often comes up with clever angles by which to watch the four characters interact, the film does run into some trouble with momentum which the play didn't have. The hallway scenes offer new and funny ways of thinking about the fact that the couples can't seem to end their evening even while their hatred for each other grows, but they strain credulity as well. If you're that close to leaving... There are strange lulls just as things are reaching fever pitch, and the ending itself is one of those and weirdly sedate.

Despite Polanski's very smart and controlled approach to the material, one almost wishes he'd taken a page from Jodie's book and just gone jugular. He employs so many different techniques to keep you visually stimulated: depth of focus, variety of shot lengths, staging, camera stability (things get a bit shakier in time with the copious alcohol) that one almost wants to scream at him to commit to one of them, embrace it feverishly and "DO IT UP REAL BIG LIKE!!!" Take your cues from Winslet's ugly vomiting, Foster's whiny-screaming or Christoph Waltz's man-pouting and let your hair down a little. Lose your composure. Risk bloodying yourself up but good.

Carnage (2011) is maybe the best film version one could hope for given the absolute stageyness of the source material but it's good enough that it leaves you wanting one that you didn't dare hope for. B/B-*

Previously on NYFF
Miss Bala wins the "must-see crown" from judge Michael.
Tahrir drops Michael right down in the titular Square.
A Dangerous Method excites Kurt... not in that way, perv!
The Loneliest Planet brushes against Nathaniel's skin.
Melancholia shows Michael the end of von Trier's world. 

* Carnage is unique enough that the grade probably doesn't suggest how "see worthy!" it actually is. It's also the kind of property one might conceivably feel differently about on a second pass. For those of you wondering Carnage's best bet Oscar-wise is an Adapted Screenplay nomination. Since no consensus seems to have formed about "best in show" acting traction will be hard to come by for a shared movie.

Saturday
Sep242011

Review: "Moneyball"

Moneyball is an instant contradiction, a fine humanistic film championing an innovative but dehumanizing method of team-building, reducing all star athletes to statistical equations. The film has two stories to tell, that of a middle-aged man finally making his mark on the game he was supposed to rule in his youth, and the reinvention of baseball management to achieve a more equitable playing field with or without mega-funds.

The story begins after a disheartening loss for the Oakland Athletics. The humiliation is compounded by the loss of three star players who the A's don't have sufficient money to replace. General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) butts heads with owners trying to get more money and with his own management staff who are entirely resistant to innovative thinking. Enter young economics / statistics master Peter Brand (Jonah Hill moving up to the majors?) who frees up Billy's mind with his theories on why so many players are over and undervalued. They begin to make controversial and provocative changes which mystify or anger the baseball powers that be  including their own team's manager Art (well played by Philip Seymour Hoffman).

There's a smart visual well into Moneyball's first act in which huge banners of the A's three lost stars are dropped from their places of honor crumpling as they hit the ground like the deflating egos of management. Billy takes the leap of faith with Peter and they rebuild with new players, a team of misfit toys, who are all undervalued (or not valued at all). Shortly afterwards, when we see the stadium again, there is only one banner trumpeting one of the League's oldest fan-beloved players David Justice (Stephen Bishop) whose glory days are far behind him. 

Moneyball's solid screenplay (by Oscar winners Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian) has a good joke at the expense of metaphors but I can't resist this one. For all of Moneyball's strengths, from a solid cast with vivid cameos (Reed Diamond from Dollhouse is superb in a one-scene face/off with Brad Pitt) to able and sharp direction (Bennett Miller of Capote fame) and editing (which skims veritable mountains of statistical information, old footage, and emotional backstory) it really all comes down to one star banner: Brad Pitt unfurled. 

I've been in this game a long time."

Yes, you have Brad Pitt, yes you have.

In his two decades of stardom, Pitt's best work has generally happened within three types: weirdos he attacked with gleeful creative gusto (Tyler Durden, Jeffrey Goines, Chad Feldheimer), strutting men that basked in their own golden light (J.D., Rusty and Paul McLean), and family men with wounded machismo (Mr O' Brien and Detective Mills);  In Billy Beane, all of Pitt's strengths coalesce as if he'd been in training for this one. He's loosely idiosyncratic and funny (that goofy business after a "good talk" with the humorless Art is just wonderfully endearing detail), he harnesses his potent movie star charisma with weary grace playing a man who, unlike himself, didn't live up to his golden boy promise, and in scene after scene but particularly when visiting with his teenage daughter, he lets his worried humanity show; he feels like a failure and this daring move is his last shot at glory.

Brad Pitt's shiny star turn is so good, in fact, that it neatly blinds you to the film's minor flaws. No one, including the man himself, is reinventing the wheel here and for all the star light that Pitt gives off, the film doesn't use any of it to fill in poorly lit corners. It raises but never addresses troubling side issues like what to do with the understandable revulsion that greets the dehumanization of players (exarcebated by so few of the players having distinct personalities) and it has a strange inability to flesh out the important side story of Art's insistence on managing the team in opposition to Billy's plans. The scene wherein Art finally capitulates to a different way of thinking would be a superb bit of economic storytelling in most films but here, given the underlit subplot, it feels like not enough as a wrap-up.

Billy continually worries that all of his accomplishments will be dismissed if he loses the final game of the season. The film needn't worry about the same thing. The final game here is a beautifully elongated nearly sports-free quietitude while Billy merely contemplates his options and a coda that works as a reprise of one of the sweetest earlier scenes with tenderness and even gently needling humor as the credits begin to roll. Late in the film we're told "you can't help but romanticize baseball" and it rang so true, even to me! I don't know the first thing about baseball, nor do I care to, but I was nodding my head like some dreamer in the bleachers waiting to catch that fly ball.  B+ 

 

Oscar Notes: It's rare when late August / early September hype survives intact the following February but (for now) it's looking like this may well be the golden year for Hollywood's golden god. In the past I've stated that Brad would never win until he was in his 60s (they make the adonises wait) but I'll quite happily be proven wrong since I've been on Brad's team for twenty years. Beyond Pitt's likely nomination (a third... and easily his most deserving since Oscar's idea of his "best" work is suspect.) I think you can safely bet on Moneyball's statistical scrappiness factoring into several categories barring those generally reserved for eye candy films. In short: we need to update our prediction charts

Saturday
Sep242011

NYFF: "Melancholia" This Is The Way The World Ends 

[Editor's Note: Our NYFF coverage begins! You'll be hearing from Michael and Kurt and me. -Nathaniel]

Hey, everybody. Serious Film’s Michael C. here reporting from the New York Film Festival. I’m jumping right into the deep end of the pool with the first title so let’s get to it.

When the world ends in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia it is definitely going to be with a bang and not a whimper. The film opens with a stunning series of images centered around a rogue planet spinning out from behind the sun on a course to smash into Earth like a wrecking ball. It’s a dark nihilistic death dance, the B-side to Tree of Life’s sun-dappled song of life. The sequence alone is worth the price of admission.

From there the film splits neatly into halves. The first concerns the wedding of clinically depressed bride Kirsten Dunst to “aw shucks” wholesome groom Alexander Skarsgård. The second concerns Dunst and sister Charlotte Gainsbourg grappling with the whole possible destruction of the planet thing. Both halves follow similar arcs with characters hoping against hope that the worst case scenario can be avoided before remembering that this is, after all, a von Trier movie.

I’m not sure splitting up the stories was the wisest choice, since the second half never recovers the energy of the wedding scenes. I could write that the second half creaks under the weight of its symbolism, but if Von Trier is willing to fill the sky with an ominous death planet named after his own depression, who am I to point out that the whole thing is a bit "on the nose"?

Melancholia would have to qualify as a minor disappointment considering the shattering impact Von Trier is capable of, but still, it's an experience worth having. The whole cast is aces. Dunst rises to the occasion with a bone deep convincing portrayal of smothering depression, while Kiefer Sutherland, to my surprise, punches through in a big way as Gainsbourg’s wealthy put-upon husband. Best of all, is the wall to wall breathtaking cinematography by Manuel Alberto Claro, which, by the way, is probably the film's best shot at awards attention. The whole thing has a cumulative effect greater than the sum of its flaws.