Friday, February 27, 2009


Director: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Gael Garcia Bernal, Danny Glover, Alice Braga

Running Time: 120 min.

Rating: R

** (out of ****)

“I get it…they’re blind.” That's all I kept thinking while watching Blindness, a misguided effort in love with its own gimmicky premise. The film attempts to function as both thought provoking science fiction and deep social commentary but in the end it doesn’t tell us anything. It takes an ugly, cynical look at the times we live in, expecting us to believe that in the middle of a health crisis our government wouldn’t just turn our backs on us, but lock us in prisons, torture us and commit mass murder “Big Brother” style. Just the movie we need right now. All of that would actually be fine if it served some kind of purpose other than to facilitate a filmmakers’ desire to make a pretty looking movie complete with blinding white lights and gratuitous out of focus photography. It's one of the more annoying, unnecessary devices I’ve seen used in a movie this past year and something I’d expect to see from a mainstream hack filmmaker rather than the gifted director of City of God and The Constant Gardener.

The whole film does feel curiously mainstream and lazy with the only highlights being the performances of Ruffalo and Moore, as you probably guessed going in. They’re members of a select club of actors who are able to take pretty much any project they want and not have to worry about it sinking them and it’s easy to see why they were attracted to this material, which on paper probably looked like an intriguing meditation on human nature. What translates on screen instead is a poor man’s version of Children of Men, crossed with a Saw film. I was actually waiting for Jigsaw to show up announcing: “Let’s play a game…you’ve lost your sight…” The movie drags us through hell all for the sake of telling us that desperate situations bring out the worst in people. You don’t say?

It boasts a somewhat promising opening in which a man caught in a traffic jam (Yusuke Iseya) suddenly loses his sight and is driven home by a concerned stranger who reveals himself in little time to be a lowlife creep. Soon, he goes blind as do many more residents of this unnamed city and presumably more people across the nation. The sudden blindness, unlike the typically diagnosed kind, is strangely characterized not by an absence of color, but a blinding white light. Sensing an epidemic the government rounds up the infected, quarantining them in a dirty, run-down abandoned hospital. Among them is the optometrist (Ruffalo) who treated the first patient and his wife (Moore) who fakes being blind so she can stay with him. How she somehow remains uninfected is never addressed, nor are we given any explanation as to how or why everyone else is.

The other supporting characters are just stock characters put in place so writer Don McKellar can hammer us over the head with allegorical Lord of the Flies nonsense about how primal urges take over during traumatic ordeals of life and death. There’s a bitchy prostitute with sunglasses (pitifully played by Alice Braga), a old wise man with an eye patch (Danny Glover) and the “King of Ward 3” (Gael García Bernal) who takes over the hospital in an uprising. None of these characters have names, a detail reflective of the overriding pretentiousness of the story and also very fitting since it’s impossible to relate to any of them.

The film wrestles between wanting to be science fiction thriller and an artsy prestige project, almost teetering in a perpetual state of indecision. It seems to be striving for stark realism but at the same time features logic holes big enough to drive a truck through. The idea of blind people threatening other blind people WITH GUNS is too ridiculous to even address with a straight face and the one character with sight mopes around in a state of helplessness. You’d figure inserting a person who can see into this dire situation would be like sending Michael Jordan to the floor in a junior high school basketball game, but it isn’t until deep into the third act that Moore’s character actually decides to do something. Of course this is well after all the rape and murder she’s witnessed. The most pretentious scene in the film comes when out of nowhere (SPOILER ALERT!) Ruffalo’s character cheats on his wife just to make the ham-fisted point that in desperation we cling to any form of intimacy we can, whether we can see or not.

A few reviews I've read have compared the film to an episode of The Twilight Zone, except that series that didn’t just merely introduce themes and ideas, it explored them. It wouldn’t just tell us that in life and death situation survival instincts take over and we turn on each other. It would have asked why and given the characters a reason for doing it that said something about the world we live in. These movies should leave us thinking about what we'd do and enable us to put ourselves int he characters shoes. Last year’s The Mist already proved that can be done very well.

The plot here really doesn’t differ all that much from a direct-to-DVD horror movie in its execution, though its lofty intentions are far worse. It actually thinks it’s saying something important and delivering a spiritual parable. Instead, it’s just going through the motions of a plot we’ve seen a million times before, but using fancy lighting. The decision to visually depict the blindness as if that will get us to identify with the victims’ plight is not only laughable but distracting, making it difficult to see what’s happening and creating more of a distance between the viewer and the story. Maybe Meirelles realized that watching blind people stumble around isn’t an ideal way to spend two hours so instead resorted to visual flourishes to spice things up. This truly is a gimmick and nothing more, without once making an intelligent attempt to build on its promising premise.

Insultingly, the film condescends further by attempting to work an ending message of hope into its ugly worldview. Ruffalo’s character is simply referred to as “Doctor” in the credits while Moore is the “Doctor’s Wife.” Their scenes together and the idea that he must lean on his wife to survive are the most interesting, yet despite the noblest efforts of both actors, one and two word labels would still sum up their characters. Moore is an actress I’d usually want to see in anything, very often fluctuating between more mainstream projects and artier fare, but the big problem here is Meirelles doesn’t have a clue which he wants this be so this time she stars in two flops for the price of one.

There must have been something somewhere in Jose Saramago’s acclaimed novel if it attracted this kind of talent but Meirelles clearly wasn’t the director equipped to deal with it. Its nearest relative is obviously 2006’s Children of Men and while that film was overpraised I’ll at least admit it took its ideas seriously and form followed function. But how many more stories about run-down, decimated futures run by evil governments can we watch without anything new being said? Blindness is a film that wants to be full of ideas, but instead ends up just being full of itself.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Burning Questions From The Academy Awards

Wow, they weren't kidding about changing the feel of the show were they?

Can Hugh Jackman consider it a success if the telecast runs longer than Viva Loughlin but shorter than Australia?

Not a question, but a statement: "It's Miley!"

No offense meant to him at all but when you see Judd Apatow with Leslie Mann do you think to yourself, "How did he get HER?"

And shouldn't that be inspiring to normal, funny guys everywhere?

Am I wrong to worry about his next film mixing even more dramatic elements (dying!) with the laughs?

How about the new set?

I know they were going for a more intimate feel but didn't that theater look a little crammed?

Were you worried Jackman wasn't joking when he said he was contractually obligated to mention Brad and Angelina during the show?

How hard must it have been to come up with a musical number for Frost/Nixon?

Isn't Anne Hathaway a good sport?

And who knew she was such a great singer?

But were you thinking that could be the only time she'd see the stage all night?

Did Jackman actually sing that he was going to "Frost your Nixon?"

Aren't you excited about Nicolas Cage's new thriller, Knowing (insert sounds of crickets chirping)?

Shouldn't they have just called it Next 2?

Wasn't it a great idea to have previous Oscar winners present the acting categories?

Didn't it seem like less of a good idea when you realized it would extend the show an extra 12 hours?

Whoopie Goldberg won an Oscar?

Can we have that back please?

After Penelope won did you throw all hope out the window that it would be a "night of upsets?"

Once again, how exactly is Milk an "original" screenplay?

And didn't Dustin Lance Black's speech further confirm that it's just a message movie?

Did you know how the night would go once Slumdog won best Adapted Screenplay?

Who would have guessed the camera would pan to Brad and Angelina when Aniston was presenting?

Will the media ever let that go?

Doesn't it seem like WALL-E should be winning or at least nominated for more than just Best Animated Feature?

Especially in a year like THIS?

Was that the sound of Ben Lyons screaming giddily when Benjamin Button won Best Make-Up and Art Direction?

Speaking of Lyons screaming giddily, isn't Robert Pattinson kind of scary looking?

Is Joaquin Phoenix gonna kick Stiller's ass now or what?

In just a couple of years Phoenix goes from Oscar contender to punchline?

Does a major hottie always get to host the sci-tech awards?

And are they already lining Megan Fox up for next year?

How great was it to see Pineapple Express acknowledged (at least in some way)?

Did Seth Rogen lose some weight or what?

Have you ever seen so many musical numbers?

And now that musicals are back, is it okay if they go away for a little while again?

If they had to be on the show, weren't Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens at least incorporated into it in the most painless, least offensive way possible?

If someone where to beat Ledger could they at least take comfort in the fact that they'd still be a more deserving winner than Cuba Gooding Jr.?

Did Cuba had to clear his busy schedule for this?

Are we human or are we dancer? (not related to show, just felt like asking)

Didn't Kevin Kline's intro perfectly encapsulate what made Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight so special?

And how awesome was it that he referenced the memorable scene with the Joker sticking his head out the car window?

Did Michael Bay edit that action movie montage?

Who's idea was it to include Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in a montage celebrating achievements in special effects?

Were you hoping Christian Bale and Shane Hurlbut would present the Cinematography Oscar?

Wasn't that Jimmy Kimmel commercial with Tom Cruise hilarious?

Didn't the commercial breaks seem much shorter this year?

As the night progressed could The Dark Knight Best Picture and Director snubs have been more painfully obvious?

Didn't Jerry Lewis look pretty damn good considering every other week there seem to be rumors that he's dying?

Didn't it seem like Jim Carrey should have been presenting that award instead of Eddie Murphy?

Was it me or was John Legend really struggling through that song?

And considering how little time the Best Song nominees were given, didn't Peter Gabriel kind of have point not wanting to perform?

Were you hoping M.I.A. would show up?

So, should A.H. Rahman mail or hand deliver that Oscar to Bruce in Asbury Park?

Was it me or did Queen Latifah singing through the death montage not come off as tasteless as you thought it would?

Was there any doubt Paul Newman would rank highest on the applause-o-meter?

Even after Indy 4 is Spielberg still the most inspired choice to present Best Director?

After seeing Danny Boyle's reaction to his win did it make you forgive and forget all the Slumdog overexposure this past month?

Didn't the five previous winners presenting Best Actress give the moment a more personalized, less scripted feel?

And didn't Shirley MacLaine not only come across as sincere, but like she actually saw and respected Hathaway's performance?

Or is MacLaine a much better actress than we've given her credit for?

Wasn't this method a clever way to showcase (stroke the egos of) the presenters as well as the winners?

Can you believe that group that was up there?

Did you remember that Marion Cotillard won the Oscar last year?

And how about all the English she's learned since then?

Kate Winslet couldn't have possibly been surprised...right?

Wasn't De Niro's comment about Penn playing straight the line of the night?

Was anyone except Penn, his wife and Gus Van Sant NOT pulling for Mickey?

And if he hadn't mentioned him in the speech would there have been a riot?

Has Penn ever given a more eloquent speech in his life?

Didn't the Best Picture montage unintentionally highlight how much better the older films were?

Maybe just a little bit of a stretch juxtaposing Frost/Nixon with Citizen Kane?

Did you cringe thinking what Best Picture winners could possibly be interspersed with The Reader?

Were your worst fears realized when it ended up being The Graduate, American Beauty and Schindler's List?

Didn't that feel really awkward?

And does that give even more ammunition to haters of The Reader?

But didn't Frost/Nixon and Benjamin Button come off looking the best next to those classic films?

And is that a telling sign?

If Boyle winning didn't do it, when you saw those kids up there accepting the Best Picture Oscar did you then forgive and forget all the Slumdog overexposure this past month?

Am I thrilled that I nailed 20 out of 24 categories in my predictions?

Isn't it hilarious that despite all the changes the show still clocked in at 3 1/2 hours?

But didn't it at least FEEL shorter?

And couldn't you just not wait to flip over and hear Ben Lyons' analysis of the show?

Is Hugh Jackman the only host in recent years who didn't look nervous and actually seemed to be enjoying himself?

Wouldn't they be crazy not to ask him back next year?

Why did we even have comedians hosting it?

How many of those upcoming 2009 releases do you think will actually be competing for Oscars next year?

Remember this time last year when everyone thought Hamlet 2 would be the film to beat at this year's ceremony?

Didn't just that brief clip of Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds look pretty sick?

Did you crack up at their inclusion of Terminator Salvation?

Given who's in it, is it okay if I just go ahead and declare 500 Days of Summer my favorite film of 2009 already?

Shouldn't the producers get major props for actually changing things up and delivering a somewhat exciting show?

And can't you see it increasing interest in the films (well, one at least)?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

81st Annual Academy Awards Predictions

Last year's Oscar telecast drew its lowest rating in thirty years. This year's could draw even lower than that. Chalk it up to the quality of films released this year, poor marketing or a bad economy but for whatever reason I'm sensing a real lack of interest in this year's Oscars and how that will or won't translate to the big show is anyone's guess. The Academy did ABC and viewers no favors with the films they nominated (or in some cases didn't) but that's not their job. Their job is to recognize the year's best and in that respect they could have done much worse. And at least the acting races are strong, specifically one.

With the exception of the Best Supporting Actor coronation casual viewers will likely tune out, but for diehard film fans this is the Superbowl. After last year's disaster changes have been made. We have a new host (Hugh Jackman) and supposedly an overhaul of sorts. Just as an actor can be either be deserving or undeserving of an Academy Award, the same applies to presenting one and there have been some disturbing rumors as to who may be doing those honors this year.

It's funny how the closer I've followed films in the past couple of years the worse my predictions have gotten. Before I started reviewing movies and just followed the Oscars casually I did much better. Last year I embarrassingly managed to miss nearly everything. Below are my picks as to who I think will win in the major categories along with an analysis where I chime in with an opinion. I played it pretty straight here but if there are going to be any huge upsets or surprises, a seemingly bland and predictable year like this is when it's most likely to happen.

Best Picture:
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

"The Reader
"Slumdog Millionaire"

I can't stand it when I'm forced to almost root against a movie I love because the media has shoved it down our throats. That's what we have with the hype surrounding Slumdog Millionaire, a film its distributor insists on selling as a warm and fuzzy, lightweight "feel good" Bollywood romance. It isn't. It's far better than that. The movie Boyle ACTUALLY MADE deserves to win, not that one. Unfortunately, it's getting tougher to separate the two. As much as I hate inevitable outcomes and the media deciding the race for us I still can't disparage it because it is a great film and will be one of the stronger Best Picture choices they've made in years. Too bad it's winning for all the wrong reasons. Although you'd never know it, there are four other films competing.

Milk, the weakest nominee of the bunch has the best chance to spoil Slumdog's parade and if it does I'm throwing a brick at the television. It would be one of the Academy's dumbest, most overtly politically driven decisions of the decade. The Reader's deficiencies are exaggerated but it's still slightly undeserving of its nod and has little to no chance. I bet no one even knows Frost/Nixon is nominated, which is a shame. That leaves Benjamin Button, the most nominated and commercially successful film in contention. You can't completely discount anything with 13 nods but it'll fare better in the technical categories.

Prediction: It is Written.

Best Director:
Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Stephen Daldry, "The Reader"
David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"
Gus Van Sant, "Milk"

If you're putting odds on a huge upset you could do worse then putting them in this category. In weak years like this the Picture and Director winners have a tendency to not match (see '98 and '05). Since Slumdog is a virtual lock for the big prize Boyle isn't quite as safe as you've been lead to believe. I will say he's the only choice here who pulled something out of himself as a filmmaker that we never knew he had. It really is a huge accomplishment deserving of the win. Daldrey shouldn't be there. The Howard nod is a show of respect and nothing more. Milk isn't a "director's film." Nothing would make me happpier than waking up on Monday morning and uttering the statement: "David Fincher, the Academy Award winning director of The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Not happening though.

Prediction: Danny Boyle

Best Actor:
Frank Langella, "Frost/Nixon"
Sean Penn, "Milk"
Brad Pitt, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"
Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor"

The one race EVERYONE seems to care about and justifiably so. What a strong category. No matter what the outcome the real winners here are moviegoers. Some think Penn and Rourke will split their votes and Langella could sneak in. Not a chance. Same goes for Jenkins and Pitt. All were amazing though. This is a two man race and and if Rourke wins we're guaranteed the speech of a lifetime and the second most emotional moment of the night. Despite my misgivings about the film in which he stars it would be far from an injustice if Penn takes it. Rourke is gaining buzz by the second and catching up. You've heard the expression, "too close to call" in the past except this time it's actually true. It'll be a painfully long pause when they open that envelope.

I'm convinced whoever I pick will be wrong which is why I'm picking Sean Penn, hoping that I am. When it's this close the Academy usually makes the safer, more predictable choice.

Best Actress:
Anne Hathaway, "Rachel Getting Married"
Angelina Jolie, "Changeling"
Melissa Leo, "Frozen River"
Meryl Streep, "Doubt"
Kate Winslet, "The Reader"

It's safe to say nearly everyone (with the possible exception of Raffaello Follieri and Kate Hudson) are rooting for Hathaway. Even I want her to win and I haven't even seen the film yet. In any other year Streep would have this locked up but she's at a disadvantage by not being Kate Winslet. Who's Melissa Leo? What's Frozen River? They finally decided which movie to nominate Winslet for and in which category so that's that. Expect lots of tears. Not just from her but from viewers who hate The Reader.

Prediction: Angelina Joli...kidding. Kate Winslet.

Best Supporting Posthumous Heath Ledger Award:
Josh Brolin, "Milk"
Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunder"
Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"
Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"
Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Road"


Prediction: Give me a break.

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams, "Doubt"
Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Viola Davis, "Doubt"
Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler"

The only category where literally ANY of the five nominees can win, except maybe Henson. The Supporting Actress award has a long history of upsets and unpredictability but this year it's really wide open. You may as well just close your eyes and just point to a name. Cruz gave the is the safest bet statistically but her film's lack of nominations elsewhere is a little worrisome. Adams is coming on strong and co-star Davis isn't lagging far behind. If the Academy gave Tomei an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny they couldn't possibly overlook the best performance of her career in The Wrestler, could they? Yes they can.

Prediction: Penelope Cruz

Would Most Like To See: I'd jump up and down screaming like a little girl if Fincher won Best Director.

Would Least Like To See: Milk win Best Picture. "Least like to see" is a huge understatement.

And The Rest:
Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, "Milk" (Can someone please explain to me how this qualifies as an "ORIGINAL" screenplay?)
Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire"
Animated Film: "Wall-E"
Foreign-Language Film: "Waltz With Bashir"
Documentary: "Man On Wire"
Editing: "Slumdog Millionaire"
Cinematography: "Slumdog Millionaire"
Art Direction: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Costume Design: "The Duchess"
Makeup: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Original Score: "Slumdog Millionaire"
The "Bruce Springsteen should have not only been nominated but won" Award (or Original Song): “Jai Ho,” Slumdog Millionaire
Visual Effects: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Sound: "The Dark Knight"
Sound Mixing: "The Dark Knight"
Live-Action Short: "Spielzugland (Toyland)"
Animated Short: "Presto"
Documentary Short: "The Conscience of Nhem En"

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Director: David Fincher
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas
Running Time: 165 min.

Rating: PG-13

**** (out of ****)

Whenever I see a list of the year’s upcoming releases and a David Fincher film is on the slate I’m always prepared to clear a very high spot on my year-end top 10 just in case. Those who know me best think I’m incapable of objectively assessing his films. They're right. Had Fincher not directed a thriller called The Game in 1997 I wouldn’t be typing this review right now. Or any review. And I definitely wouldn’t be watching as many movies as I do now or come anywhere close to appreciating the work that goes into them. Everyone has the one film that started everything for them. That was mine.

12 years later we wait on the eve of the Oscars to find out just how many of its 13 nominations Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button can cash in on. A lot has been written and spoken about the film, nearly all of it false. The most popular (and ridiculous) accusation hurled its way is that it's a rip-off of Forrest Gump. While the two films share certain surface similarities and a screenwriter (Eric Roth), thematically the comparison doesn’t hold any water. This is a story about DEATH. Of your days passing you by before you have a chance to blink. Of missed opportunities and loneliness. Of feeling like you just don’t belong. Of watching everyone you love just fade away as you aimlessly move from one moment to the next.

For whatever reason, watching Fincher’s films have always been a deeply personal experience for me but this one really spoke to me. While it may seem odd to relate to a character that ages backwards I sometimes see myself in a state of regression, failing to keep pace with the outside world and too often a spectator in my own life. Who doesn't? So yes this film does feature a passive protagonist and that’s the point. There’s something wrong with him. He doesn’t fit. It's less Zemeckis, more Kubrick.

Mentioning Kubrick is apt not only because this is reminiscent of that legend’s best work but because both filmmakers have faced criticism that their approaches are cold and detached. Watching Fincher tackle big sweeping emotional material usually reserved for a more mainstream director is not unlike what happened in 2001 when Steven Spielberg carried out the late Kubrick’s long gestating dream project, A.I. The result was a bizarre, flawed but ultimately unforgettable a mix of both filmmaker’s sensibilities with Spielberg’s sentimentality (for better or worse) getting the final word. Say what you want about the film but it did push Spielberg to a place he hadn’t been before. Something similar happens here for Fincher's take on Roth's story, except this time the darkness wins out and the results are nearly flawless.

Argue all you want where it ranks with his greatest but it’s definitely the BIGGEST, both in scope and resonance and a technical achievement that won’t be matched anytime soon. It’s the only one of the five nominees for Best Picture that really feels like it could be a nominee in any year, not just a weak one. At nearly three hours long I wanted the film to go on even longer, dreading the moment the story and my time with this fascinating title character would end. And in a way it never really did. It engulfed me like a dream, which toward its final act resembled more of a nightmare. I clearly saw a film far different from everyone else and I can't wrap my head around why critics and audiences have reacted so unenthusiastically to it. Thankfully, the Academy completely ignored them.

Its August 2005 and as Hurricane Katrina is about to make landfall in New Orleans 80-year-old Daisy (Cate Blanchett) lies on her deathbed with daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) by her side. Daisy has her read the diary of a man from her past named Benjamin Button. He was born in 1918 with the physical appearance of an old man, afflicted with a rare condition that causes him to age in reverse, growing younger with each passing year. His mother died during childbirth but his father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) abandons the baby of the steps of a nursing home, where he’s discovered and warmly taken in by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). She views his arrival as a blessing and unable to conceive, raises the child as if he were her own.

It’s in his teenage years when he first meets young Daisy who he connects with in a special way but won’t see again until he’s left home and experienced life. That includes working on a tugboat off the docks of New Orleans with Captain Mike (insert requisite Lieutenant Dan joke here) played by Jared Harris,’ being enlisted by the Navy during World War II and falling in love with Elizabeth Abbott, a middle-aged British woman (Tilda Swinton) he encounters at a hotel. Through it all, whether together or not, there’s always one constant for Benjamin: Daisy. Their paths veer off in completely different directions as she starts a new life for herself in New York, yet they always seem to intertwine again, even if the timing isn’t always right. It’s when they finally “meet in the middle” that the film soars to its greatest heights and becomes a devastating meditation on love and mortality.

One moment could never sum up what a film means or measure its power but when this ended a montage stuck in my mind.. An accident befalls a character and Fincher flashes back, showing us all the little, seemingly meaningless events that had to fall perfectly into place for that event to occur. Had one of those tiny circumstances not happened, there's no accident and the paths of those involved would have been considerably altered. Life is a series of windows, opening and closing at very specific times, which can be a source of both joy and unbearable sadness. We have control over it…and we don’t. That’s life, and this film is rich with every little detail of it.

I underestimated just how affecting this premise would be having only a passing familiarity with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story from which it’s based. But you could tell a lot of hard work went into expanding and deepening the source material to bring it to the screen. I’ve rallied long and hard against the overuse of CGI in movies but this is how visual effects should be incorporated into films….TO ACTUALLY HELP TELL THE STORY. If the reverse aging is a “gimmick” then it’s a damn good one because I could think of few things that fascinated me more recently in a movie than analyzing where this protagonist was in his life, where he was going, and what age he was at in relation to those around him.

Benjamin’s situation not only informs his interactions with everyone, but in what has to be the most criminally overlooked aspect of the entire film, the condition itself seems real. I bet a lot of people would leave this film thinking that this fictitious disease, or at least something very similar to it, could exist, and not just in the pages of a science fiction magazine. That’s what Fincher brings to the table that no one else can and that’s what makes the film’s final hour so sad and scary. We’ve all seen plenty of characters die in movies before but has one ever left us like THAT? Pitt’s performance is reactive, which is something a lot of people seem to have a problem with but that’s what’s called for. His face and body may at times be buried under make-up and special effects but he never lets us lose touch with the humanity of Benjamin. One of the film’s most accomplished visual feats, beyond believably turning Pitt into an old man is having him appear toward the end of the film exactly as he did when he made his screen debut in Thelma and Louise.

While admiring Blanchett’s performance it occurred to me despite all the awards and accolades she constantly receives and how times she’s referenced the “best actress of her generation” we’ve never seen her in a role like Daisy. She’s really never been afforded the opportunity to play the unrequited, unattainable love interest for a protagonist in a film this size. Despite her obvious talent I doubt she’d jump out in most audience’s minds as their first choice to play opposite Pitt. Now it’s tough to imagine anyone else even trying it since the movie feels most alive when she shares the screen with him. Similarly buried under prosthetic make-up she's equally impressive in her deathbed scenes opposite Ormond as that present day aspect of the film just seems to increase in poignancy and power as Benjamin's story unravels.

Don’t count me among those who believe David Fincher specializes in making cold, sterile films devoid of any emotion. There's a lot of emotion in The Game, Fight Club and even Zodiac. So much more than they're given credit for. To some degree all his work has had an underlying theme of mortality but here the window dressing is a little different. It would have been another Forrest Gump under just about any other director but he turns it into something else entirely. Something more meaningful and lasting.

I also don't subscribe to the theory that the Academy is rewarding an accomplished filmmaker for one of his lesser efforts. Far from it. So much has to be absorbed and processed in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that it's nearly impossible to do it in a single viewing and that it's being met with indifference now is strangely appropriate. Like its protagonist, maybe the timing just wasn't right. Years from now it will be.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Reader

Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin

Running Time: 124 min.

Rating: R

*** ½ (out of ****)


Jaws dropped on the morning of January 22nd when Stephen Daldry’s controversial and much maligned The Reader was announced as one of the five films set to compete for the Best Picture Oscar. It took a spot many thought should have been reserved for The Dark Knight and in doing so has been on the receiving end of what could almost be considered a smear campaign heading into the ceremony. When the film ended I needed quite a bit of time to sit and gather my thoughts on it, much less form or express an opinion on it. It’s less an emotional journey than an intellectual one and I can sympathize with those who are upset with the film’s methods or see no value in the entire experience. But I do believe those who think the film asks us to feel sorry for a Nazi war criminal simply because she’s illiterate, or even asks us to feel sorry for her at all, are way off the mark. That’s a gross oversimplification that speaks more to our uneasiness with the subject matter than anything else. Besides, the Academy would never have enough guts to nominate anything that offensive.

The film instead gets most of its mileage from the fact that it really isn’t about Holocaust, but what happens when your previously held perceptions about someone are challenged and pushed to the breaking point. It’s an interesting character study that isn’t necessarily the offensive smut fest you’ve heard it is. That said, the stodgy Academy only nominated it because it touches on the topic of the Holocaust, was produced by the late Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack and stars a frequently nude Kate Winslet as a pedophile Nazi guard. While a thoughtful, well-directed film, there’s little evidence to suggest it deserves to be listed as one of the top cinematic achievements of the year. Then again, the same exact statement could be made (to a greater extent) about the mediocre Milk, another Best Picture nominee this year that inexplicably earned widespread acclaim.

The film (based on Bernhard Schlink’s German novel) opens as middle-aged lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) reflects back on his days as a 15-year-old (Michael Kross) in 1950’s West Berlin. During that summer he meets Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) a cold, detached tram attendant in her mid-thirties who takes him in after discovering he falls ill with Scarlet Fever in front of her apartment. After he recovers he goes back to thank her and the two begin a torrid affair in which their passionate bouts of sex are preceded by him reading to her. Aside from the obvious legal issues, this isn’t exactly the healthiest of relationships. Michael, who she refers to as “kid” has to start re-prioritizing his teenage life to meet her needs and feels his own sense of self sliding away in the process. Of course the running joke here is that this kid would instead probably be running around bragging to his friends that he’s banging the hot older chick down the block who looks like Kate Winslet, which just speaks to how inherently difficult this topic is to tackle on film. Just imagine if the genders were reversed. The affair doesn’t last long as Hanna vanishes at the end of the summer. Flash forward to 1966 when Michael (now in law school) discovers her on trial for aiding in the murder of 300 Jews while serving as an SS Guard at Auschwitz.

Hannah is unrepentant, claiming she was just “doing her job,” as a horrified Michael silently looks on with his law class. She doesn’t want to defend herself against the heinous allegations, or more accurately, just can’t. The secret she’s keeping, the one she took a job at Auschwitz to hide, brings her more shame than her role in the murders. That speaks to the character’s moral shortcomings, not the film’s and isn’t Daldry’s personal endorsement that involvement in the Holocaust is somehow “less shameful,” than not knowing how to read, as some have been trying to spin it. People like this existed and probably still do. She’s horrible, her actions beyond deplorable and I didn’t feel sympathy for her at all, nor was I supposed to. And I especially wasn’t supposed to simply because she can’t read. The film gives you a choice and Daldry’s not holding a gun up to your head telling you what to feel. This kid fell in love (or in lust) with the wrong person and now must forever live with the consequences. That’s what this story is REALLY about.

There comes a point in the trial where he’s faced with the option of coming forward with the valuable information that could help her case and must wrestle with speaking up or remaining silent. The choice isn’t easy. It’s here where we’re allowed to put ourselves in his shoes while the film questions the idea of moral responsibility before trailing off in an unexpected direction entirely as the story moves into the ‘70’s and beyond. Michael carries that guilt and grief with him into his adult life, which Fiennes externalizes so well in a role that’s about ten times larger and more important than you’ve been led to believe from the ads. An encounter late in the film between Michael and a survivor (played by Lena Olin) even directly addresses our concerns about having any pity for Hanna. This is Michael’s story and his search for acceptance that his involvement with her has drastically altered his life and even impacted his relationship with his daughter. It’s perplexing how anyone could say Hanna is absolved or let off the hook for her actions given her circumstances by the end of the film. In fact, they really let her have it.

As far as Kate Winslet’s best performances go, this ranks in the top tier, which says a lot. She’s why all of this works and while the arguing rages on as to whether the film wants you to feel sympathy for her character, no one could claim her performance asks you to. Just watch what she does (and doesn’t do) in those courtroom scenes and then later on when she’s believably aged to 65. To say she deserves the Oscar for this is almost beside the point considering she’s pretty much deserved one for every role she’s played in her career. What’s interesting to note is that this part almost went to Nicole Kidman. Had she gotten it this probably would have been a completely different film. After Birth, you’d figure seducing underage kids in bathtubs would be a piece of cake for her now. Fiennes brilliantly anchors the third act but it’s David Kross as the 15-year-old Michael who shares all the major scenes with Winslet and goes miles further than just holding his own, conveying all the confusion and angst someone that age would be feeling while saying very little.

This is a defense of the film, although not a passionate one because I really believe Academy members voted for it for all the wrong reasons and it shouldn’t rank among the top five achievements last year in cinema. It was only released to line Harvey Weinstein’s pockets and rack up Oscars and that it ended up actually being intelligent was probably some kind of happy accident. At times it also feels like a homework assignment. But that doesn’t mean we should just stop making movies about difficult, challenging subjects because it makes us uncomfortable. Or that all characters in these types of films should be portrayed as inhuman monsters who cackle and twirl their Hitler mustaches while sending innocent people to die because it makes us feel better about what happened. Many of them were probably a lot like this woman.

The tough issues covered here couldn’t have been handled any more sensitively and the tone couldn’t have been balanced any better yet everyone still seems to find it inappropriate. At least this inspires thought and discussion. Something like Milk just inspired for the sake of inspiring. And reducing a daring political figure’s life to standard TV movie of the week fodder is more offensive to me than anything in this. At least this took risks. Sorry, but nothing about the film is average, from its writing, to its direction, to the performances. And I do sincerely apologize for that because I really wanted to hate this film more than you know. It ends giving you a lot to think about, which is what good art should do. That The Reader has sparked such controversy and outrage is a credit to its power, but also a disturbing sign that the notoriously out-of-touch Academy may have actually struck a nerve.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall, Toby Jones, Matthew Macfadyen
Running Time: 122 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

Well, at least we can take some solace in the fact that despite some of the Academy’s undeserving selections for nominations this year, Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon definitely isn't one of them. While it does represent the kind of safe, politically minded material voters predictably respond to every year that doesn’t make its selection any less just. I’m all for taking risks and are as disappointed at this year’s nods as anyone else, but there’s no denying that this film, easily Howard’s finest, deserves to be among the five vying for Best Picture. From start to finish it's perfect.

The film will play best for those with a deep interest in history or politics, but what surprised me most is how stimulating it would be for everyone else, even those not interested in the subject at all. The trailers, commercials and promotional material don’t do justice to just how exciting it is and I mistakenly entered this film expecting a snobby, prestige picture. Instead what I got was a fascinating look at the power of the media and a thrilling intellectual boxing match that had me on pins and needles the entire time, palms sweating as I anxiously anticipated the final outcome. Though its doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel in terms of historical drama it tells the story it needs to in the most effective way possible and shines a light on an event and time period that hasn’t gotten much attention at all. I doubt many people even know what happened to Richard Nixon AFTER he resigned from office. I know I didn’t.

Deservedly, much buzz has surrounded Frank Langella’s Oscar nominated turn as our disgraced 37th President but it’s a performance that couldn’t have happened without co-star Michael Sheen. Nor could Sheen’s performance have connected without Langella’s, which is why it’s so odd to see just one of them making the rounds this awards season. It’s the very definition of a “team effort” and if Langella wins the Best Actor Oscar he should consider sawing it in half. And that statement isn’t meant to undermine Langella’s incredible work, but is rather a testament to the power of two actors at the top of their game bringing out their respective bests in one another.

The year is 1977 and just three years after he resigned the Presidency amidst the Watergate scandal, former President Nixon (Langella) is licking his wounds at his secluded beach house in California, thinking of ways he can rehab his shattered reputation and eventually head back East. Meanwhile the American public is fuming over news President Ford granted him a full pardon, absolving the former President of any criminal misconduct. At the suggestion of his agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones) Nixon entertains an offer to do a serious of sit-down interviews with British television host, David Frost (Sheen), who may as well be considered the Ryan Seacrest of his day (he even hosts a reality show). Frost is a self professed “performer” not a hard-hitting interviewer and his closest friend, longtime producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen) is bewildered by his sudden ambition to go face to face with “Tricky Dick” but supports the seemingly insane decision that could wreck his broadcasting career.

Under terms outlined by his chief of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) Nixon agrees to a series of four interviews (planned to be broadcast as four separate 90-minute specials) even though nearly everyone doubts Frost will be able to come up with enough cash to insure even see the light of day. Frost hires Nixon historians and journalists Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) to do the investigative legwork even though they don’t think he has a clue what he’s getting into. And they’re right, he doesn’t. Nixon is ready to eat this TV entertainer for breakfast, fully expecting to be lobbed softball questions that would make Larry King Live seem like an interrogation. That is what happens…at first.

One of the more humorous aspects of the film is the presentation early on of Nixon as that annoying uncle you always bump into at family reunions who can’t help but drone on about his accomplishments and share boring stories and anecdotes. With Nixon the B.S. is flying all over the place as he somehow finds a way to self-rationalize and explain away his botching of Vietnam and even the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up. His motives and decision-making process closely resembles George W. Bush's in Oliver Stone’s W. in that he can convince himself anything he does is right, no matter how wrong.

He’s also somewhat delusional, insisting it was sweat on his upper lip that cost him the 1964 Presidential debate with John F. Kennedy. But there is a kernel of truth in that television, our most powerful medium, would never benefit someone like Nixon. In talking circles around everything he outmatches his inexperienced interviewer, bullying Frost with subtle, inappropriate verbal jabs before the cameras role to psyche him out. He cares a lot about Frost… way too much about him. And it’s that small, brilliant detail in Peter Morgan’s screenplay that takes the film from being a solid Best Picture nominee to a transcendent psychological duel on par with the best suspense films.

After a while we realize that Nixon’s obsession with “beating” Frost has more to do with him actually wanting TO BE HIM. Beyond simply being jealous of his youth and success, in Frost he sees the man he could have been if he had the people skills. His fixation on every detail of his interviewer's life from his shoes to his girlfriend (Rebecca Hall) suggest what in Nixon’s personality really caused the Watergate break-in and why he covered it up. For Nixon, he and Frost are really two sides of the same coin. Both have accomplished much in their given fields but neither are taken seriously or respected by the mainstream public. He can’t get anyone to see past Watergate while Frost can’t get anyone to see past his lightweight reputation as a showman. Both are willing to wreck their careers to change those perceptions, true or untrue as they may be.

There can only be one winner and a turning point comes for Frost when he sees his opening and must summon up everything inside him to take advantage of it. His motives in going after the interview are never completely clear, but we believe it comes from a desperation to be something more than a TV host, just as Nixon had aspirations to be more than just the President. Sheen conveys Frost’s confident swagger with charm but what’s most impressive about the performance (which I can’t believe went unnominated in a year this weak) is the masked disappointment that he isn’t better. His priorities shift from merely providing entertainment to bearing the incredible burden of giving Nixon “the trial he never had.” Everyone was right that Frost didn’t know what he signed up for but when the moment comes where he finally does it's game on.

It’s in this stunning reversal where feelings are brought to the surface about what Nixon did that I didn't expect to have. Langella gives you a window into the man, to the point where you can almost see how in his warped, insecure mind what he did made sense and felt right. And you take pity on him. When I first saw the clips of him in the role I laughed because I thought he was attempting an impersonation. Now after actually watching the film I realize it isn’t the kind of performance that benefits from being shown brief clips or given sound bites of him talking like Nixon.

This is an evolutionary performance that reveals itself slowly as the layers of the story unfold. Less an impersonation and more of a full immersion and embodiment of his soul. At first glance Langella doesn’t look or sound much like Nixon but as the film wears on he engulfs the man and everything else he does (including how he looks) follows suit. By the climactic scene, which finds the combatants in a far different state then when they started, I didn’t think for a second I was watching Frank Langella walking out of that house. It was Richard Nixon. Or at least Ron Howard’s and Peter Morgan’s interpretation of who he could have been.

Even having not seen the original Frost/Nixon interviews it’s fairly obvious a lot of creative license was taken with the material. But that’s okay. The film works as kind of a wish fulfillment history where we finally get out of Nixon what we always wanted. What was embellished for dramatic effect or flat-out fabricated is irrelevant when the end result is this satisfying. It’s based on Peter Morgan’s stage play (which is a work of fiction based on historical events), not the original interview so it’s unfair to hold the film up to such detailed, fact-based scrutiny.

Howard employs docu-style filming approach cut-in with fake interviews and actual newsreel footage. This quasi-documentary method has been overused of late but it really works well here keeping things moving at a surprisingly brisk pace. I know Howard would never top anyone’s list as one of the most visually inventive or risk-taking filmmakers but he could have very easily screwed this up. It’s tough adapting a stage play, much less one centering on two talking heads but Howard builds momentum slowly until the action boils. He was also smart enough to get the two actors who originated the roles on stage even while the studio pressure was probably on to score bigger names. No one else could have played those parts. It’s a classic set-up followed by the ultimate payoff and I was on the edge of my seat hanging on every word. Frost/Nixon is the rarest of historical dramas in that it intellectually excites you in the events and people that inspired the film.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

Director: Peter Sollett
Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Ari Graynor, Alexis Dziena, Aaron Yoo, Rafi Gavron

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: PG-13

*1/2 (out of ****)

On the surface Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is safe and vanilla, lazily chugging along to its predictable finale. Look closer though and you’ll see it’s actually a whole lot worse that that. What’s the point of watching a character go through the motions of a contrived script so he can discover what’s fairly obvious to us in the opening minutes? Maybe to remind us yet again that Michael Cera enjoys playing really awkward characters, a point made very abundantly clear in every scene. What a relief that Cera’s holding up the Arrested Development movie so he can star in junk like this. At worst I expected the movie to be a mildly entertaining diversion but it turns out it hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for how bad it is.

When it ended I came to the epiphany that this isn’t merely just a bad film, but one that reflects our times in the most negative way possible and represents the alarming direction pop culture has been going in lately. The “playlist” in question may as well be that of tween girls who love listening to Miley Cyrus and The Jonas Brothers. They watch American Idol every week….and vote. Ryan Seacrest is their hero. And now this can be their movie, which is fine. They should enjoy it. But why does it have to pretend to be something deep?

If the film were upfront and honest about its goal to dispense disposable, cotton candy flavored entertainment it would still be a colossal failure, but its raw nerve in pretending to actually be meaningful makes it far worse. It’s so careful not to offend or challenge that it’s almost a perfect match for our politically correct era. And in desperately trying to please audiences of all genders, races, nationalities and religions with its cornball story and stereotypical characters, it pleases no one, especially me.

Earnest hipster Nick (Cera) is urged by his two best friends and bandmates to hit New York City in an effort to get his mind off of ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena) and hopefully find their favorite band, Where’s Fluffy, who are playing a secret gig. It’s worth noting that Nick’s two friends (played by Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron) are gay (or rather gay stereotypes), if only because the film itself can’t seem to stop dwelling on that pointless information. By writing them as broad caricatures it comes off as if they offensively shoved the characters into the story to meet a gay best friend quota. Norah (Kat Dennings) ends up joining them on this adventure to search for her missing (and very drunk) pal, Caroline (Ari Graynor). I usually love movies that take place over one night and throw different characters together for the sake of an important mission. Maybe that’s why I found myself so turned off by this forced, contrived scenario involving important “clues” written on napkins and public restroom grossness.

Norah has harbored a secret crush on Nick for a while now, even though she knows him only through the mix CD’s Tris has thrown in the trash. They’re destined to be together, but Nick is a little slow to figure it out because he’s still distraught over being dumped by Tris. One of the film’s biggest failures is in convincing us that he and Tris could at any time have been a couple, or even dated. Another big mistake comes a few minutes later when we’re expected to believe Norah would be drooling over the gawky, socially inept Nick as he robotically performs onstage. Cera is most effective when his awkward tendencies are played for comic effect but here we’re supposed to believe those same qualities would have girls swooning like he was Brad Pitt. Say what you want about Juno, but at least it was never dumb enough to try that. Cera’s at his best when playing characters that stumble into situations or are out of their element. If this is any indication, romantic leading man roles are just not for him. His performance at times borders on being insufferable, though it’s hard to pinpoint a specific thing that makes it so. It’s more everything, from his delivery to his annoying, awkward (there’s that word again) pauses.

The choice of Cera for this role is worth examining though because it very much reflects a larger problem. It reeks of a choice made by a group of studio suits who thought his casting would appeal to the tween girl demographic, yet be just geeky enough so their boyfriends would tag along without complaint. Forget about whether he’s right for the part. It’s a safe and inoffensive decision. That’s all that matters.

Remember when teen movies were smart and appealed to all audiences? One came out not too long ago. It was called Charlie Bartlett and it co-starred Kat Dennings. Here though she’s just playing a watered down version of her far more interesting character in that film. The script makes little effort to give Norah a history or any reason for existing other than to fall in love with Nick and go through the motions of the contrived scenario. Dennings is a good actress (she more than held her own with Robert Downey Jr. in Bartlett) who will probably headline a great film someday but there’s only so much she can do with material this vacuous.

Seemingly out of nowhere the writers also thought it would be a good idea to make big deal out of the fact that Norah is Jewish and has a famous music executive as her father. At least the latter detail leads to the only decent, real-feeling scene in the film but the former earns its place about as well as Nick’s two gay best friends. I’m waiting for the day where we can have gay and Jewish characters in movies without the constant need for the filmmakers to point it out. That would be something to celebrate. It’s bad enough to litter the story with stereotypical characters but to then stick a label on them like “Gay” or “Jewish” is just plain offensive. Though by dwelling on it here it seems like I've fallen right into their trap, which just annoys me more.

Dzienza is playing an even dumber than usual “high school slut” stereotype, nearly identical to her annoying character from Fool’s Gold. I can’t think of anyone who saw that film who was clamoring for more of her. Ari Graynor (who looks about twice the age of her contemporaries in the film) isn’t funny, nor is her character’s drunken misadventures. They’re just disgusting and I found every second she was onscreen to be a repulsive experience. The only minor character who works is Norah’s ex-boyfriend, well played by a cast against type Jay Baruchel, but he’s not around enough to make any kind of impact.

Considering the title of the film is Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and unmemorable music seems to constantly be playing on the soundtrack, it doesn’t figure into the plot much at all. We’re supposed to believe these two are “musical soulmates” but other than a one-minute conversation in the car about the topic we’re not given any inkling as to what kind of music they love, why they love it and what it means to their lives.

I shudder even mentioning movies like Say Anything or Almost Famous in a review for this, but that does seem to be the tone Lorene Scafaria’s brain dead screenplay and Peter Sollett’s direction is going for. It really is trying to be a teenage version of Before Sunrise, which is what makes this so insulting. You either go all the way with something like that or you don’t attempt it at all. But this film wants to have its cake and eat it too, laughably believing it’s provoking real insight and introspection. The story is adapted from a popular young adult novel (by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan) but that doesn't mean it had to be dumb. Hopefully it played out much better on paper because from all indications that’s where it should have stayed. The only thing infinite about Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist are the amount of problems with it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Snow Angels

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Angarano, Olivia Thirlby, Amy Sedaris, Nicky Katt, Griffin Dunne

Running Time: 107 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Was it unfair of me, given the director and subject matter, to go into Snow Angels expecting it to be nothing short of a masterpiece? Maybe, but when you have a filmmaker like David Gordon Green tackling suburban dysfunction and moral depravity, expectations of greatness are bound to accompany it. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good film, but I just anticipated a little more. It’s frustrating because so much of the film is beautiful and glimpses of what could have been are visible at every turn, yet after it concludes there isn’t a lot to extract or think about.

The story Green tells is basic and that may have been the problem. He’s a filmmaker who operates with a minimalist approach that deals primarily in capturing feelings and moods. It works for films like George Washington and All The Real Girls (and believe it or not Pineapple Express). This is the first time he’s adapting a novel (in this case Stewart O’Nan’s) to the screen and it’s easy to see how maybe the obligation of faithfulness to the source material could have limited him some.

What Green and his cinematographer Tim Orr can accomplish visually are limitless but there’s only so much that can be done with the story. It really needs to crackle with force and energy and Green’s laid back “slice-of-life” approach may not be the best match for material this weighty. The actors really had to be up for the task and most of them are, with one notable exception. Unfortunately, she plays the most important role in the film and the entire emotional impact of the story rests on her shoulders. This performance isn’t distractingly awful or anything, but in a way it’s worse in that it’s just plain bland.

Movies that cover similar territory like The Ice Storm, American Beauty and Little Children depend on us not necessarily sympathizing with deeply flawed characters but understanding them. If we can’t see at least a little of us in them it doesn’t work. Snow Angels works about halfway in that regard as I could get a handle on the motivations of most of the characters, except for the most important one. I actually kind of despised her and considering the film's bleak, tragic events that’s a serious problem. And because everything else is handled so well by Green the actress has to take the lion’s share of the blame for the false notes that are hit. She’s just wrong for the role and if another actress had played it the film would have likely been improved ten-fold. There are also other smaller issues at work, but that's the major one .

During the film's opening minutes a teacher’s impassioned pep talk during a high school marching band practice is interrupted by the sound of two gunshots in the cold, snowy air. We flash back to weeks earlier and are given glimpses into this small Pennsylvania town and the events that led up to that moment. All of them seem somehow connected to trombone player Arthur (Michael Angarano), whose parents are separating as he embarks on a relationship with the new girl at school, Lila (Juno’s Olivia Thirlby). On weekends he works at the local Chinese restaurant with waitress Annie (Kate Beckinsale), who babysat him in his youth.

Annie’s currently separated from her alcoholic, suicidal husband Glenn (Sam Rockwell). He’s recently found Jesus (and a new job) but it’s done little to curb his violent outbursts as the two spouses argue constantly over their young daughter. Annie seeks solace by having an affair with slimeball Nate (Nicky Katt), the husband of her co-worker and best friend Barb (Amy Sedaris in a rare dramatic turn). All these characters lives are about to be seriously altered by the tragic events that will unfold, or so we’re led to believe. It isn’t trying to be a mystery so much as deeply involved character study, but the film curiously only scratches the surface of what it could.

No filmmaker is more in tune with the rhythms of everyday life than Green and that’s where most of this movie’s power comes from, even when the story doesn’t seem particularly inspired. The developing romantic bond between classmates Arthur and Lila is one of the more authentic depictions of a teen relationship on film you’ll see. Nothing about it is forced and every moment Angarano (best known for playing the younger version of William Miller in Almost Famous) and Thirlbly share onscreen together is really something special. I kept waiting for them to become more than just periphery characters standing on the sidelines as the adults wreck their lives, but that never came to pass.

Arthur’s crush on Annie also didn’t go where I expected. Problematically, it didn’t go anywhere at all. The details of Arthur’s parents’ fractured relationship is as well observed as their younger counterparts, but with far less screen time. It seemed the whole film is meant to have the characters represent various stages of a relationship, from puppy love (Arthur/Lila) to complete destruction (Glenn/Annie). That's great, but you can get that insight in a therapist’s office or psychology class.

The central story is Annie’s fractured relationship with the screw-up Glenn, which is where most of the film's problems lay. First of which is a performance from Beckinsale that can best be described as “blah.” I’ve never seen a movie of hers where she registered onscreen at all or conveyed any presence so it’s odd Green would think she’s capable of lifting material this heavy. Nothing on her résumé suggested she could. It’s kind of hard to believe a filmmaker as gifted as Green didn’t have more talented actresses knocking his door down to get this part. As I watched I couldn’t help but think what Nicole Kidman or Kate Winslet (who played a similar character in Little Children) could have done with it.

Beckinsale must play an irresponsible mother cheating with her best friend’s husband. And she plays it just like that and nothing more, sleepwalking her way through the whole thing. It isn’t a bad performance, just merely serviceable and for this type of a film you need a lot more than that. As a result, Annie comes off as an uncaring bitch and when the cataclysmic event occurs about an hour in and she’s blamed for it I couldn’t disagree. It is mostly her fault. The sad part is I don’t think Green’s screenplay intended it to come off that way.

Rockwell’s layered portrayal of a man driven to the brink is much more rewarding. He plays him as a decent guy trying desperately to do good for his daughter but continuously messing up at every turn because he just can’t get a hold of his demons. We can actually see and understand how things get to the point they do with him and that’s no small feat. Here’s hoping that Beckinsale comes off so bad because Rockwell is that great. What’s worse though is that this represents her best work, which means if Green can’t coax a great performance out of her then no filmmaker can.

There’s a lot going on but the separate characters’ lives rarely intersect and the story never really comes together as a cohesive whole, which you could argue fits the realistic minimalism Green pictures usually bask in. But that doesn’t mean it helps the film. That style is fine for a meditative tone poem like All The Real Girls that explores the heartbreak of relationships but this sets itself up to be more than that and doesn’t completely deliver. It actually could even be described as almost too restrained. The result is a depressing viewing experience that’s intelligently written, beautifully shot and features a couple of very good performances. And that’s pretty much it. More gasoline needed to be added to the narrative fire.

There’s been some debate as to when the film’s events actually take place. The novel was set in the 1970’s, but contrary to Netflix’s erroneous packaging information Green did adapt the film to present day. That you really can’t tell the time period is a high compliment that represents one of his many great attributes: they exist in a timeless vacuum that doesn’t age. His control of mood and atmosphere is such that it may be intriguing to see him attempt a horror film. This could almost be considered one. Unfairly or not, some directors are just held to a higher standard than others because we expect so much. David Gordon Green tops that list. While Snow Angels is his first film with some holes in it, one of his merely good pictures will always be ten times more interesting than most filmmakers’ finest.