Monday, June 29, 2009

The Best Picture Field Expands to 10 Nominees: Pros and Cons

Well, I definitely didn't expect to be talking about next year's Oscars this early that's for sure. In what has to be considered fairly shocking news, last week outgoing Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Sid Ganis announced that the 82nd Academy Awards will feature 10 Best Picture nominees instead of 5, ending a six decade long tradition. The goal is to get the Oscars to return to its old Hollywood roots, harkening back to 1939 when Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach all competed for Best Picture or in 1943 when Casablanca beat out nine other nominees to win the big prize. Why do I have the feeling 2009 won't be that kind of year? Just a guess. In other words, it's a rare admission of guilt from the Academy that the the voting body don't have a clue what they're doing and are completely out of touch with the mainstream moviegoing public.

We knew the 2008 Oscar contenders were bad, but apparently they were so bad that even the Academy President felt the need to apologize for it. I thought 3 of the 5 Best Picture contenders last year were worthy, but in a field so weak, that's not much of an accomplishment. It's also unforgivable to nominate safe highbrow fare no one went to see when better options were available. Now that viewers have fled the Oscar presentation in droves (despite a much livelier telecast this year) and studios have lost money, they're finally taking some action. But does expanding the number of nominees for Best Picture solve that problem? I guess it depends who you ask. Like any proposed solution, there are good and bad aspects to consider.


- At least they did SOMETHING and finally acknowledged there's a serious problem here in how the public views the Oscars. A change was desperately needed and long overdue. It's a first step.

-With 10 nominees the focus now shifts from what will be nominated to WHAT WILL WIN. It's a more open race now. The eventual winner is now legitimately in doubt for once.

- With more films nominated the studios stand to make more money. Good for them I guess.

- Score another one for The Dark Knight. It's snub was so awful that the Academy is not only apologizing for it, but are revamping their Best Picture nomination policy. Even Ganis admitted in the press conference that we wouldn't be having this discussion if Nolan's film had made it in ("I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words 'Dark Knight' did not come up"). The irony here is that in not getting nominated the film has earned an honor higher than that. Its legacy is sealed.

- A chance for mainstream, more crowd pleasing fare to sneak in. You know, movies PEOPLE ACTUALLY GO TO SEE. The idea of Star Trek or The Hangover getting a Best Picture nod isn't so far fetched anymore. Could a Judd Apatow comedy be nominated? It's actually a real possibility.

- Animated and foreign films that have been unfairly pushed off to the sidelines in their own categories now stand a much better chance of picking up a nomination. Pixar fans can rejoice.

-Smaller, independent films that are dark horses or considered "on the bubble" (like last year's Rachel Getting Married and The Wrestler) now can potentially get some much needed attention and recognition.

- More people may watch the broadcast now that they have a vested interest in seeing if their favorite movie wins. That also translates into more box office dollars.

-Since anything can happen now, THIS MOVIE is officially in play as a contender (sorry, just couldn't resist).

-With more nominees the chances of the Academy choosing one of their usual stuffy selections like Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, or Crash as the winner is minimized.

-The Academy may finally be forced to look further back than October in selecting the nominees for a change.

-It shakes things up. Just think how much more interesting the nominations could be.

- Here's an idea: Instead of increasing the number of nominees, how about actually PICKING THE RIGHT 5 FILMS for a change. The problem has nothing to do with the number of slots, but the people voting. This doesn't address the issue.

-There were barely 5 great films in '08 and now they're going to try and find 10. Good luck. And if they couldn't even get those 5 right just imagine the damage they could do now. Don't be shocked when you see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Paul Blart: Mall Cop among the nominees next year. This could turn the Oscars into The People's Choice or MTV Movie Awards.

-It's just a shallow attempt to drive up ratings and rake in cash.

- The Best Picture Oscar is devalued having this many films competing for it. A win now means nothing.

- For Zodiac, Into the Wild, The Dark Knight and tons of other films unfairly snubbed from the past six decades, it's too late.

- Just imagine how long the show will be NOW.

- There are still only 5 Best Director nominees which means the other 5 nominees for Best Picture could just be window dressing.

- Why 10? Isn't doubling the nominees a bit of an overreaction? 6 or 7 seems like it would have been perfect.

- The number has changed but the voters' tastes probably haven't. They could use the extra five slots to reward more films like The Reader.

- Instead of voters reaching back in the year to consider more titles, studios could try to cram more releases into the October-December window in hopes of getting a nomination. If you thought last season was bad this one could turn into a living hell.

-The Best Animated and Foreign Film categories still exist so voters can still shut those out, regardless of how many more slots there are to fill. This means the debate as to whether Up will be nominated is set to get even more heated (shoot me now please).

-With more films competing for a nomination studios will have to spend more money on promotion and campaigning. Given we're in a recession, I'm sure they're thrilled about that, especially if they don't see a return on their investment.

- What does it say about the Academy and their decision making skills through the years that such drastic changes were necessary?

The final tally is 13 to 12 with the cons coming out on top. A close call. As of now, I think it's a boneheaded move that minimizes the award. Based on their history, I don't trust the voters to pick the most deserving films and this doesn't change that, no matter how many they nominate. But what we really should do is reserve judgment until around October and November when we have a clearer picture of the Oscar landscape. All I know right now is that it's going to be a very intriguing (if not horrifying) morning when they announce the Best Picture nominees--ALL 10 OF THEM.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

80's Classics: Lucas

One way to get me really worked up is to say that the 80's were a terrible decade for movies. Of course this stems from the popular argument that they're far inferior to those released in the 70's, the decade long referred to as the "Golden Age" for film. Don't get me wrong, I understand the argument. The 70's were full of creatively groundbreaking works that revolutionized how we view movies, but if I'm hosting a party and can only screen titles from one of those decades, I know which I'm choosing and it sure ain't gonna be the 70's. It's a party, not a film class.

It isn't often that I'm actually inspired by film criticism I've read but a very personal and moving piece went up recently at The House Next Door celebrating one of my all-time favorite 80's films, The Karate Kid. That coincided with Movie Geeks United's fantastic special on the Summer of '84. What I took out of both was that for anyone who was lucky enough to live through the films of that decade (whether it be as a little kid, teenager or adult) you were part of an exclusive club. It's so cool and unless you were there you just can't fully grasp what those movies mean to us. It's impossible. Much like it might be impossible for me to understand what Taxi Driver or Jaws means to someone older who went to see it on opening day.When you live through it and remember where you were when you first saw it, who you were with, and the reaction you had it becomes more than a movie. It's an experience. And over time it becomes harder and harder to separate the two. I have a theory that those films that make that special connection are the ones that end up on people's Top 10's. For me, the 80's are full of them.

1986's Lucas isn't really a "teen movie," despite always being lumped in with the likes of The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Say Anything, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Maybe the studio just needed a familiar reference point to make audiences feel better about going to see it when it was released. It didn't work. No one went to see it and to this day, despite accumulating a small cult following, it's still gone relatively unknown and unseen by far too many. Roger Ebert seemed to be the only film critic in America who seemed to grasp its uniqueness, rightfully giving it a spot on his top ten of 1986, and his raving four-star review will always be one of my favorites. He wasn't overstating his case either. While avoiding the trappings of a teen movie, it'll certainly work as one if you're in the mood to view it that way. And going beyond being one of the best films of the 80's, it still holds up to this day as one of the most honest films about growing up ever made.

When you re-watch a movie like Lucas (as I did just last year) you start to realize that it is sometimes true that they don't make them like they used to. I'm not sure a movie about young people that's this smart could be released today, especially considering it didn't entice audiences even then. Less discerning eyes could view the movie as a triumph of the underdog. But anyone who looks closer would see more there than that, especially in its ending. It's punctuated with the pangs of adolescence and digs up childhood memories many of us would rather leave behind, yet also do anything to revisit. You could almost get frustrated watching the film because we're so set in our ways which characters we want to root for and why, but writer/director David Seltzer has us question that, eventually forcing us to concede that he might know more about growing up than we do. It's also a great case study in how a single screenwriting decision (and one that hasn't been been repeated since in this genre) can turn a great film into something much more. It's just as emotionally potent now as it was in 1986. HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW.

Lucas (Corey Haim) is a bright but very nerdy and socially awkward 14-year-old who spends his summer catching insects and mowing lawns for cash. This changes when one day he meets Maggie (Kerri Green), a new girl in town a couple of years older than he. Quickly they become friends and a few weeks before school starts are in each others company constantly, a new exciting experience for a loner like Lucas, who's always struggled with social interaction. Then reality sets in. School starts and Lucas must come to grips not only with his growing feelings for Maggie, but her emerging popularity among the "popular kids" that bully and torment him daily. When she becomes a cheerleader (which he refers to as "superficial") and starts dating the star football player, Cappie (Charlie Sheen), jealousy rears its head and he begins lashing out. He can feel her slipping away. The cards are all laid out on the table for your typical 80's teen movie. The geek tries to win the girl from the jock. Geek gets girl. End of story. But Seltzer breaks that well-worn screenwriting rule, twisting our feelings and emotions into knots as we watch.

We're all predisposed to cheer Lucas on in his quest to win Maggie's affections. He's a great kid who obviously cares about her a great deal and deserves to be happy. He's the underdog. By that logic (at least in Hollywood) Cappie has to be a jerk since he's a jock. But not only is he not a jerk, he's a great guy and the only person to ever stand up for Lucas, who he's still grateful to for helping him with his homework so he wouldn't have to repeat a year of school. Unfortunately, how great a guy Cappie is means very little to Lucas who now only sees him as an opponent.

Sheen (who would go on to star in that year's Best Picture winner Platoon and Wall Street the following year) may be easy to dislike these days but you wouldn't know it here. This is one of his best roles and as much as I've tried so many times to hate this character every time I watch the film his subtle performance just won't let me. The response of Maggie and Cappie when they realize what's happening is essential to the story. Their first concern is Lucas. You get the impression that if they really could stop what's happening between them they would. As terrible as we think we're supposed to feel for this kid, these two characters feel worse. And when they reach out and legitimately try to help him through this and he shames them you can almost feel your allegiance shifting. When he whines, pouts and acts out you still feel bad for him, but a whole lot less.

Lucas is so self-involved that he fails to recognize that he's causing another character as much pain as he thinks Maggie is causing him. Winona Ryder (in her first screen role) plays Rina, an outcast with a crush of her own on Lucas, who hardly acknowledges her existence. Despite Ryder getting top billing on the DVD cover (an rather blatant attempt to capitalize on her later fame), it's a nothing part that doesn't amount to anything, which is exactly the point. While Cappie and Maggie worried about hurting Lucas, he never gave Rina's feelings for him a second thought. Seltzer fittingly places her as far off our radar as his.

Arguably the film's most memorable scene is where Lucas flat-out asks Maggie why she doesn't feel the same way he does about her. This is the first movie of its kind to ask that question, then actually bother to stick around for an answer. We start to to wonder whether maybe Lucas is being unfair in rejecting her friendship, which may not be as bad a consolation prize as he thinks it is. His immature reaction has us questioning whether he's even ready for a girl like Maggie. Probably not. At least not yet. With his stubborn refusal to give in and misplaced, unearned sense of entitlement, he isn't the innocent underdog you'd expect, and Haim refuses to simplify the character in that way with his sensitive performance, among the all-time greatest from a child actor.

Like most 80's movies the stars in it went on to varying degrees of success, or lack thereof. I refuse to even acknowledge what's happened since with Corey Haim. For me he'll always be frozen in time in this role and regardless of the direction his life and career took, nothing could overshadow this. Someone needs to tie him and Sheen down and force them to watch this movie on endless repeat so they can see just how much they still have to offer. Kerri Green (who co-starred in 1985's The Goonies) shows poise and grace far beyond her years as Maggie, but was never really heard from or seen again after this. But if those 100 minutes are all we're ever going to get from her, I'm fine with it. You can't reasonably ask for more. There are also a couple of "Before They Were Stars" cameos from Jeremy Piven and Courtney Thorne-Smith. Smith plays Cappie's ex-girlfriend while Piven actually has fairly large role as one of Lucas' tormentors.

Lucas has frequently shown up on those lists of "Movies That Make Guys Cry" and it isn't difficult to see how. When that now infamous "slow clap" starts in the hallway in the film's final scene, it's a rare instance where someone else could have the exact same emotional reaction to the scene, but for totally different reasons. That some to refer to it as "cliche" or "syrupy" is insane. Lucas doesn't get the girl. He still lives in a trailer with his alcoholic father. He's still a nerd who's unpopular at school. We have no clue whether his relationship with Rina will work out, that is if he even decides to explore a relationship with her. And if he does, he's kind of been forced to "settle." That's not to mention he was almost crushed to death and humiliated on the football field. Some happy ending that is. And that's why that slow clap at the end of the film means something and isn't a joke like in so many other movies. For a brief, fleeting moment Lucas earns the respect of his peers. It's a small, but importantly realistic victory in a movie that specializes in understatement.

It would have been easy for Seltzer to just cop out and give us the ending we all wanted to see with Lucas winning the "big game." Instead, he's more interested in exploring why we'd even want to see that ending in the first place. It wouldn't be honest. This one's more complicated, but then again, so is growing up. As a director, Seltzer never really did anything again after this and I can't say I blame him. He probably felt there was nothing else left to say. And he's right, there isn't. Other films in this genre have tried since and failed to re-capture the same magic. More than just a quintessential 80's movie or a nostalgia trip, Lucas has stood the test of time to emerge as an underrated classic in its genre.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Ten Best Films of 2008

First off, my apologies to 2007. I had previously stated that year wasn't a great one for films. How wrong I was. What do Into The Wild, There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, I'm Not There and Michael Clayton all have common? Well, they're all better than every single film on the list you're about to read. And in retrospect any year that finds No Country For Old Men, Grindhouse, The Lookout and The Mist all MISSING my top ten has to be considered pretty impressive. Even throwaway guilty pleasures like Alpha Dog and Smokin' Aces left a more indelible print than could have reasonably been expected. 2008, on the other hand, truly was a bad year and it's unlikely my opinion on that will change anytime soon. Compiling a list of the finest cinematic endeavors in a year this unfulfilling was a challenge.

It was also a year where I massively overpraised so many undeserving films that if there were such a thing as a critic's license, mine should have been revoked. I've since learned my lesson. In my defense though a critic is almost forced to give an impulsive response to a picture upon a single viewing without taking into account how the film will age in your mind after that viewing or hold up on repeated ones. So, AT THE TIME the analysis was right on the money. Now...not so much. Obviously, problems arise when you revisit certain films and realize they were far less than they first appeared.

Waiting until June to compile the list had a devastating effect for many of the movies that made the cut and made this process substantially more interesting. Is it really too much to ask that a movie holds up on a second or third viewing months later? Apparently so. Picking the top film was much easier than expected. All I had to do is watch many of these movies again and see them drop like flies. Only one survived. After years of doing this I think I've finally figured out the secret formula to determining the year's best film. I ask myself the following questions:

1. Is it a feat that can be duplicated? (if it is, chances are it isn't the year's best)
2. Can I watch it over and over again, discovering something new on each viewing?

3. Do I want to watch it RIGHT NOW? (regardless of the mood I'm in)
4. How difficult was it to execute?

5. Does it say something, meaningful, lasting and important?

Obviously, there's some wiggle room with those questions but they succeed in being objective, while still taking personal preference into account. Just reading them gives a major hint what that movie is this year. The truth is 2008 is likely to be remembered more for great performances than films. Sean Penn in the otherwise sour Milk. Micky Rourke's career resurrection in The Wrestler. Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. And of course, you know you know what. Those performances will stay with us. The films probably won't. I kept waiting for something brilliant to come out of left field and reaffirm my love for movies. I waited. And waited. But nothing.

It was a year where even the #1 film on my list was a disappointment of sorts and fell short of reaching its full potential. I'm not at all surprised what that film is, so much as the tumultuous road it took to get there. It's a tainted victory, but a victory nonetheless. Taking all this into account I've gone with a slightly different approach this year in adding a "WHAT'S WRONG WITH IT?" section for each selection to reflect the creatively uneven output of the past year. These films will justifiably be praised, but not without measured criticism that reflect the discoveries I made on subsequent viewings (most of which were negative).

It's time to right some wrongs. And now the next time someone asks me why I own so few DVD's I can just show them a list of last year's theatrical releases because this just proves how difficult it is for a movie to hold up on a second viewing, much less a third or fourth, and to do it years (or in this case even months) down the line. If you dislike brutal honesty I suggest you stop reading now. These are the best films of the year...and I'm using the term "BEST" very loosely.

10. Definitely, Maybe (Director-Adam Brooks)

Crafting a smart and entertaining mainstream American romantic comedy is becoming a lost art. Depending on which day you get me on I'm either really proud or profoundly embarrassed to say I'm a fan of the "chick flick." This is a reminder that in the rare cases it's done really well there's no shame at all in enjoying one (even if you're a guy). A rom-com mystery that kind of plays like a feature length film version of How I Met Your Mother, there's genuine doubt as to the film's central question of maternity. And who would have guessed Ryan Reynolds could be this likable as a lead?

You actually care about the lives and personalities of all three of the women (played by Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz and Isla Fisher) and anyone watching is bound to have a rooting interest in who he ends up with. Interestingly, I found my allegiance on that issue has shifted since the first viewing. There's no obvious "wrong choice," which is why Adam Brooks' underrated script works so well. The early to mid-90's setting (often under-represented in movies) only helps its cause. It's the kind of movie where you can just shut off your brain and have a great time.

What's Wrong With It?
Chalk it up to extremely low expectations but, surprisingly, not much other than it's too lightweight to be considered anything meaningful. It touches on some life issues, none of which you'll be contemplating long after the film ends. But this isn't that kind of movie, nor does it need to be. It's one of the best romantic comedies to come around recently, but in just about any other year it wouldn't be cracking the top 10.

9. Gran Torino (Director-Clint Eastwood)

While other dramas this year strained to find social relevance or force fed a preachy message down our throats, star and director Eastwood actually bothered to intelligently explore some real issues that speak about the world we live in now. And he did it in a way that didn't condescend to the audience or over-sympathize of the situation, which would have been an easy route to take given the difficult material.

As the tough-minded, racist, Korean War Vet Walt Kowalski who begrudgingly takes a shy Hmong teen (Bee Vang) under his wing , Clint never tries to get us to like him. Instead he plays Walt as a man so stubbornly set in his ways that we have no choice but to accept him as he is, at the same time acknowledging what a damn fool he is by acting the way he does. We're just waiting for him to catch on and when he does the film enters unexpected suburban Dirty Harry territory. I have to be careful in calling this a "drama" because the film has more laugh-out loud moments and situations than the past few Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell comedies combined. Clint does a lot more than just grunt and grimace through this, although there's still plenty of that if you're interested. He even sings over the closing credits.

Nick Schenck's script walks a really fine line with the comic relief and it's destined to offend some, but Eastwood pulls it off. Christopher Carley is fantastic as the young priest who won't give up on Walt, when all signs say he should. I'd congratulate Eastwood for directing and producing two major films (this and Changeling) in the past year at almost 80 years old but he's one guy I don't want to get angry. So let's just say it's an impressive feat for someone any age.

What's Wrong With It?

Is it a comedy? A drama? A biting social satire? It's about a million things at once and while it's Eastwood's most interesting directorial effort since 1993's A Perfect World, it's all over the map in terms of what it's trying to be. Not to mention it's just plain strange and uncomfortable at times. We know what Eastwood is going for, but when the xenophobic slurs are THAT FUNNY and delivered with such impeccable comic timing by Eastwood doesn't the message get muddled...just a little bit?

8. WALL-E (Director-Andrew Stanton)

The first time I saw Andrew Stanton's WALL-E, I was blown away. The second time, much less so. But I'll always have that initial viewing for when just a few hours after leaving the theater I thought I had witnessed the kind of magical movie (reminiscent of early Spielberg) that just can't ever be topped. Then reality set in about a week later. You could argue Pixar bit off more than it could chew with some really deep material for a family film but that's preferable to condescending to your audience. While I don't know of any small child who could sit through it without getting restless, for fans of animation and Sci-Fi this was pretty much a cinematic dream come true.

What's Wrong With It?

I was SHOCKED how poorly this held up on a repeated viewing. So poorly that this went from being one of my favorites of the year to just barely making the list. Taking into account the film runs only 97 minutes, the story seemed to drag a little in the third act, making me wonder if those who claimed that Stanton couldn't deliver on the promise of its nearly silent opening 4o minutes may have been right. As "perfect" as all these recent Pixar movies seem to be and how everyone says they're breaking new ground, I have to ask why so many of them have a shelf life of a single viewing? And why do they FEEL so long despite barely clocking in at an hour and a half? While technically brilliant and emotionally satisfying, I'm starting to think they represent a "one and done" experience.

Is it possible that Pixar is just replicating the same movie over and over again with different characters but a similar recipe? It sure seems like it, although that's not such an insult when you consider how good they are at it. Their latest, Up, opened to predictably glowing reviews and massive box office, but I'm surprised just how little interest I have in seeing it. I'm Pixared out. Don't get me wrong though. Wall-E is easily one of the year's best and a tremendous film, just not nearly as tremendous as I originally thought.

7. Pineapple Express (Director-David Gordon Green)

Finally, the question is answered as to what would happen if a really gifted filmmaker "lowered" himself and decided to direct a stoner comedy. That filmmaker is David Gordon Green and in a year where nearly nothing met expectations the results are even better than we could have hoped. It's a buddy film. It's an 80's action movie. It's flat-out hilarious. Seth Rogen gives his most likable performance yet as slacking process server while James Franco's should-have-been-nominated supporting turn as the stoned out (but surprisingly good-hearted) Saul shows us all how funny he was capable of being if just given the opportunity. Its final act accomplishes what 2007's Hot Fuzz did, but much better.

What's Wrong With It?
No matter how well executed it is, it's still just a really hilarious (if extremely well-made) stoner comedy. That's it.

6. In Bruges (Director-Martin McDonagh)

The most underrated film of the year. Actually, the ONLY underrated film of the year. I saw this the same week I saw The Dark Knight and just never got around to reviewing it, something I've regretted since. That's ironic because Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's debut feature about two hitmen (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) looking for redemption in the small, boring Belgium town of Bruges as they await their next job, stayed with me longer than so many other 2008 releases. I had literally no interest in seeing it but did so on the basis of universally glowing recommendations. They were right.

The Oscar-nominated original script (HOW DID THIS LOSE TO MILK?) is an example of great screenwriting at its very essence. I cared about every character. The dwarf. The girlfriend. Ralph Fiennes' brilliantly rendered hitman who hates his wife. Even the town of Bruges feels like a living, breathing character. But more than that, I felt sympathy for their situation. Earned sympathy. There's a code of morals and ethics...even among contracted killers. McDonagh and his actors somehow find the humanity in this. And that bell tower

The Oscars may have gotten it all wrong but the Hollywood Foreign Press got it right recognizing this as one of the year's best and rewarding Farrell, who gives the performance of his life here. Anyone doubting this guy's chops as an actor needs to see this movie right now. And anyone still questioning the power of voice over narration as a storytelling device will be blown away by the powerful monologue that closes the film, as its the best piece of screenwriting this year.

What's Wrong With It?
There actually isn't much wrong with this picture. While this isn't so much a knock on the film per se, the crime/gangster genre has been revisited ad nauseam ever since Pulp Fiction was released in 1994. Did we really need another one of these? The film, as good as it is, is more an achievement in screenwriting than anything else and unfortunately just not big enough in scope or importance to rank anywhere near the top of this list.

5. Frost/Nixon (Director-Ron Howard)

Far from the stuffy Oscar bait it was promoted as, this was one of the most surprisingly taut and exciting pictures of 2008 and an intriguing look into the psyche of one of our most misunderstood historical figures. It's not that we were ever wrong about who Richard Nixon was or what he did, but I don't think we were ever quite sure exactly why he did it. The answer to the question is deeper and more complicated than it first appears and it's all contained in the Oscar nominated performance of Frank Langella as the disgraced former President and the equally impressive Michael Sheen as David Frost, the reporter who pushed him to the breaking point in a series of television interviews in the late '70's.

Adapting historical events to film is hard. Adapting them from a stage play might even be harder. The film's success is less dependent on Ron Howard's direction (which is fine but nothing special) than a complete embodiment of these men by the two actors. It's almost eerie how as the story wears on Langella seems to transform himself physically and emotionally into the President to the point where in the finals scene we feel like as if we're watching Nixon. Peter Morgan's script leaves us with the the feeling that these two almost needed each other in a way, wanting to take the other down to cleanse themselves of their own failures.

What's Wrong With It?
It's a history lesson. The more movies I see based on historical events the more I start to think that there won't ever be one that could top a year-end list (and I'd even go so far as to include Schindler's List in that club). Howard avoids the usual pitfalls of the genre and crafts an exciting piece of cinematic non-fiction but that we already know the outcome (and how little it yielded) hangs over the film like a dark cloud. We go to movies to escape from the real world, not immerse ourselves in a dramatic recreation of it. "Based on true events" is a tough label to shake.

4. The Wrestler (Director-Darren Aronofsky)

Welcome back Mickey Rourke. If years down the line no one remembers much from the last year in film (which is sadly a real possibility) they'll at least never forget Rourke's eerily personal and emotionally scarred portrayal of washed-up '80's wrestling superstar Randy "The Ram" Robinson. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood shine, but Rourke is this movie. The thought that Nicolas Cage could have actually been cast in the title role instead is a scary possibility not even worth contemplating. We know who was born to play Ram. Aronofsky (in his most emotionally effective film to date) pulls back the curtain to show us how the wrestling business can chew up and spit out its performers and how for one of them leaving it is more painful than staying in, even if it could cost him his life.

The infamous "deli scene" is either my favorite or least favorite movie moment of the year, depending on whether you enjoy watching people struggling to survive in the most uncomfortable social situations imaginable. The saddest part of that scene isn't how it ends, but that Ram was actually really good at that job and almost seemed to enjoy it up until that point. How he translated his skills as a performer to the deli counter. It makes you wonder what else he could have been good at. If scenes like that don't win you Oscars, what does? Sorry Sean but that statue belongs to Mickey.

What's Wrong With It?
It's so depressing you'll want to hang yourself after the credits roll. Rourke's performance curbs a lot of that but if a movie is going to be this dark it better be full of huge ideas and big issues to think about when it's over. There really aren't any here. It's pretty cut and dry and doesn't lend itself to any kind of deep analysis. The film is primarily a showcase for Rourke, even though he does an incredible job in making it feel like it isn't. Looking back, Tomei's performance isn't the slightest bit Oscar-worthy. Also, while the film is technically superb, Aronofsky doesn't break new ground as the low budget indie faux-documentary style has been beaten into submission (cheap pun I know) by other films

Maybe it's just the wrestling fan in me talking but I can't help but think this movie was released about a decade too late, which could explain why it didn't quite strike the mainstream chord it should have. And while it brought some much needed attention to what wrestlers really do and sacrifice, it did so at the cost of reinforcing the worst stereotypes people have about professional wrestling.

3. Slumdog Millionaire (Director-Danny Boyle)

Last year's Best Picture Oscar winner about a peasant from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to win the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and find his lost love is a tale of two movies. The one Danny Boyle actually made and the one the media and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences want to believe that he made because it fits so nicely into their perfectly shaped box of what crowd-pleasing, inoffensive entertainment is supposed to be. It's both the year's most overrated and underrated film at the same time. Simon Beaufoy's script (adapted from Vikas Swarup's novel, "Q&A") is ingenious in how it seamlessly shifts back and forth through flashbacks to reveal how 18-year-old Jamal (Dev Patel) knew the answers to all those questions and dissenters of the screenplay's supposedly "manipulative" structure forget that all the queries on a show like that are dependent on someone just simply paying attention to everything that's around them.

Though it didn't garner a single acting nomination, the performances are universally strong across the board with Anil Kapoor's work as the arrogant host going criminally overlooked by nearly everyone. Frieda Pinto does a good enough job looking pretty and seeming just unattainable enough. The best edited and scored film on this list by a landslide. That train sequence (set to M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes") is one for the vault. And regardless of what's been said everywhere it's not the fluffy "feel-good movie of the year." There's a lot more substance to it than that...I think.

What's Wrong With It?

When I watched this a second time I found myself staring at my watch waiting for key events to happen and when they did, the emotional reaction I had the first time was absent. I'd be curious to know if anyone else tried that and had the exact same "been there, done that" response I did. This tells me the script is primarily dependent on surprises, revelations and plot turns rather than real emotional truth. The movie seemed more mechanical and choreographed to me the second time, making me wonder if there is some truth in those plot manipulation claims.

And don't even get me started on the film being referred to as the "Obama of the Best Picture nominees," or worse yet, that we should all just embrace it because we're in a recession. Sure, it won the Best Picture Oscar...but FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS. It's been just a few months and it already hasn't aged well. Unfortunately, the only thing people are talking about now in regards to the film are what prices the child stars are going for and how they can further be exploited.

2. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Director-David Fincher)

Just for the record, as a self-professed Fincher fanatic, here's where I stand: Better than Alien 3, Se7en and Panic Room. Worse than The Game, Fight Club and Zodiac. So no, despite my initail glowing overreaction this isn't going to be remembered as our greatest living director's masterwork. But I love it and it's a hell of a lot better than it's been given credit for. Haters of the film could only keep coming back to one argument: It reminded them of Forrest Gump. That's pretty weak. As if being reminded of that great film is a capital offense. It's an obvious shot at screenwriter Eric Roth, who penned both, and I can kind of see where they're coming a point. Luckily the Academy got wise for once and ignored all of them, showering the film with 13 nominations. Their motivations behind that may be suspect as usual, but when it comes to rewarding the long overdue Fincher, I'll take it.

By taking what COULD HAVE BEEN another Forrest Gump in the hands of anyone else and making it darker and sadder, Fincher turns a movie about life into one about death. A protagonist aging backwards should be a showy gimmick and the film could have easily collapsed under the weight of its groundbreaking digital effects but because of Fincher's vision (and the nuanced performances of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) it becomes something much more. For proof of just how much more, read F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story from which its based and marvel at how he and Roth took a somewhat meager and unformed conceit and turned it into an epic journey.

What's Wrong With It?
Not nearly as much as you've heard, but Roth's script is clearly the weak link here. The film is so technically well made that at times it's painfully obvious that Fincher's skills are far above some of the trivial circumstances presented in the screenplay (i.e. the sea boat captain stuff). While this had one of the better second viewings on the list I couldn't help but think I was completing a homework assignment while watching it just from the sheer density of it all. Movies today are just too long and we can probably add this to the long list of films that would be greatly improved by cutting just 15 or 20 minutes.

When Benjamin and Daisy end up "meeting in the middle" and we head into the brilliant final hour the film soars to heights so high that the earlier portions can't help but be damaged in comparison. Because we expect nothing less than perfection from Fincher each time out he'll always be in competition with himself, forcing us to compare this to his previous output. Such a comparison does this movie no favors. Despite these issues I desperately wanted to put this in the #1 spot, but doing so would be an endorsement of my favorite director's resume rather the actual film.

1. The Dark Knight (Director-Christopher Nolan)

It's overlong. Some of the action scenes are sloppily edited. The plot's too convoluted. Bale's performance is just adequate. It didn't meet the massive expectations. And, sorry, it's no masterpiece. So what is it about Nolan's film that sets it a league apart from every other movie released this year? It has just as many flaws as any other film on this list, but with one key difference: It's flaws MAKE IT A MORE INTERESTING FILM and add to the overall experience. They're the result of a filmmaker's reach exceeding his grasp in a brave attempt to give us something we've never seen before. For the most part he succeeded. Nolan should take a bow because he crafted the only film this year that gains in power with each viewing and the first movie in over ten years to top my list that didn't earn four stars from me when I saw it initially. Go figure. It was just that kind of year. Truthfully, after re-watching all the films on this list, I'm still not sure if any of them are deserving of four stars (as silly as that whole rating system is anyway).

In an unfortunate circumstance, when I saw The Dark Knight last summer it ended up being the single worst theater going experience of my life. I doubted the film could ever recover. But recover it did...and then some. The flaws I saw the first time haven't gone away exactly. They just mean less in the overall scheme of things. I've accepted that I'll never love this film as much as everyone else, but there's no question it was the most ambitious and important achievement of the year and a landscape changer. For a moment in July, 2008 that barrier separating the critical from the commercial briefly disappeared for the first time since the release of Titanic in 1997. Everyone was a part of something, regardless of race, age or gender. When I think back on all the most memorable film moments from 2008, all of them can be found in Nolan's film (including the one above).

For a while, even while my appreciation for the somewhat messy, overly ambitious film increased, I was still unsure whether it was really "robbed" of a Best Picture nomination. Watching the actual telecast I made up my mind. It was. Flaws and all, this was still a better movie than the other nominees. But one Oscar it should have never been up for is Best Editing because this movie is a great example of how lost time in the editing booth can stop a great film from being a masterpiece. Questionable choices in this area still prevent me from being on board like I want to be and I still say the movie doesn't really get going until the corpse of that crook dangles outside the Gotham Mayor's window (which still caused me to jump even on a fourth viewing).

Most feel the third act involving D.A. Harvey Dent's transformation into Two-Face is what should have been left on the cutting room floor or saved for another film, but I don't completely agree. There's too much over-explanatory mob focus in the first hour that could have easily been given the ax instead. Besides, it's hard to argue less screen time for Aaron Eckhart who leaves painful memories of Tommy Lee Jones in the dust.

What amazed me most were the surprises. The fate of the Joker. Of Rachel. Of Harvey. Of Jim Gordon. Writers Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer subverted all expectations of how we thought things would go down. And who could have guessed Gary Oldman would have given us that much in what was just expected to be a minor, throwaway role? His delivery of that speech at the end? Chills. Gyllenhaal for Holmes? A fair trade, but a much narrower victory for Maggie than anyone predicted.

You can't discount the role Heath Ledger's death played in the prism through which we view the film. To do that would be flat-out denial. So would be denying that his Oscar winning portrayal was worthy of all the hype accompanying it, regardless of the tragic circumstances. This is not one of the decade's best films. Not even close. But few performances this decade, supporting or otherwise, were as powerful and demonic as Ledger's. It was the one aspect that turned out better than anticipated, if that's possible.

Usually I'm not a huge fan of superhero movies, which is a good thing since this isn't one. Nolan directed a crime drama played completely straight and stripped of all the usual conventions associated with the genre. Hopefully we do get a sequel because I think he's capable of crafting something even better than this. Yet at the same time I'll admit to being kind of curious as to the direction another filmmaker could take the franchise. Now almost a full year removed from its release The Dark Knight plays as well as ever. It isn't perfect but it is groundbreaking, reaching higher and accomplishing more than any other film in a weak year.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Top 5 Reasons G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra Seems Destined to Suck

I usually can't stand it when people judge something before they've even seen it. But just can't help yourself. Sometimes, you just get this "feeling" based on posters, trailers, TV spots, word of mouth or what have you that a certain movie is destined to fail. That all the wrong decisions were made even before the cameras started rolling. You want to approach it with an open mind but the warning signs are all there, too glaring to ignore. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is such a film. I'm not among the many who seem to feel making a G.I. Joe movie is a bad idea. Quite the opposite. I think it's a fantastic one with loads of potential. If anything, I'm shocked it took this long for it to happen. And that's why the direction it looks like they've taken with the material is so disappointing.

When Michael Bay's Transformers opened two years ago I kept my mouth shut. I wasn't a big fan of the cartoon as a kid, didn't collect the toys, so I couldn't have cared less what Bay did with it. But there were a lot of hardcore fans who did and I appreciated where they were coming from and how passionate they were that the cartoon they grew up on was done justice on the big screen. For all the criticism Bay took and still takes, when push came to shove, he delivered a film that was for the most part true to the source material, with certain understandable changes made to appeal to mainstream audiences unfamiliar with the toyline or cartoon. Some hated the movie, but most of them hate all Bay movies anyway and had zero interest in seeing a Transformers feature film in the first place. Bottom line: He came through.

G.I. Joe is a different story for me. I literally grew up on it to the point that a couple of years ago I browsed through a guide that prices old figures and discovered that had I kept everything that was listed, I'd probably be a millionaire right now. Since the project was announced I've been watching it VERY carefully and if this doesn't work out I'm going to have to take it a little personally.

If you can get past the movie's clunky, over-explanatory title (almost as bad as calling a movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine) there are other much bigger issues facing this seemingly doomed film. The only bright side here is that at least the casting doesn't appear to be horrific. It's mostly uninspired and lazy, but they could have done worse. I find it hilarious that diehards have been complaining about the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander on the silly basis that's he's "too young," especially considering this is an ORIGIN story and he'll be under a mask for the majority of the picture. Little do they know he's the only hope this movie has at succeeding provided he's given a story arc that takes full advantage of his talent (which is a real long shot).

As for Sienna Miller as the Baroness, you could have dyed any actress's hair black, stuck some glasses on her and it would have worked. As such, I suspect Miller should do fine. This isn't Shakespeare. Dennis Quaid looks like a complete fool in this costume but in theory he makes sense for General Hawk. That I'm completely unfamiliar with the actor playing Destro (Christopher Eccleston) might be a good thing. Channing Tatum (as Duke) and Marlon Wayans (as Ripcord) are the lazy, uninspired choices I'm referring to. And I'm confused as to why the minor character of Ripcord is even heavily featured in the film when better options were available. That said, if the problems below are any indication there isn't anything any actor or actress could do to salvage the film. You're probably wondering why I'm listing ONLY 5 reasons this movie looks like it will suck. What can I say? I'm feeling kind.

1. It's directed by Stephen Sommers. Deep Rising. The Mummy. The Mummy. Van Helsing. I'm not doubting that's the resume of someone capable of helming a top-tier summer tentpole franchise, but I am saying that G.I. Joe shouldn't feel like it is. Sometimes the simplest explanation works: If the director is bad, the film will be. Shouldn't we have learned that lesson already from Terminator Salvation?

2. An over-reliance on unconvincing CGI and digital effects, which even if they were done well, shouldn't be showcased to this extent. It's not a franchise like Transformers, that needs to be driven completely on huge visual effects and explosions. Just watch this trailer...if you can. It's painful.

3. It takes place in the future. Huh? I thought this was G.I. Joe, not Blade Runner. I wonder how many people always envisoned this movie taking place in a futuristic society. I'm guessing not many, even those who aren't fans. They should have set it during World War II. Just the thought of that opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

4. They made it your typical superhero/fantasy movie. Tatum has described the film as "Mission Impossible meets Transformers meets X-Men." Sadly, I fear that's accurate. If it is, that's a great reason to stay home on August 7 and rent the 1987 animated feature instead. Ever since The Dark Knight was released last year there was rampant theorizing as to which franchises could be "Nolanized" and given a darker, more reality based treatment akin to that film. For most it just wouldn't fit. For G.I. Joe that approach would work.

They should have approached this as a war film and played it completely straight. I'm not saying it should be an R-rated Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line, but it can be fun AND still be taken seriously. Too bad the studios are wusses and refuse to release any war film during a time of war, unless it pushes a preachy liberal agenda. Just look at this rendering of what Cobra Commander is supposed to look like and tell me this material doesn't scream out for a darker treatment.

5. The posters. Have you ever seen worse promotional artwork for a movie? It's like they didn't even care. Besides confirming the feeling that they captured the wrong tone, it's ugly and doesn't make you want to see the movie unless you had a gun to your head. All the characters look exactly the same, have no identifiable visual characteristics and could have very well stepped out of any generic superhero of the month lineup. And I hope you like black spandex and tight leather. The only two characters it looks like they didn't completely screw up were Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow (pictured above), but they were easy. At risk of sounding like a whiny fanboy, if the original costumes were fine, why change them?

Why am I wasting my time analyzing a movie I haven't seen? Because the folks at Paramount apparently couldn't be bothered to. I never thought I'd ever actually agree with the infamous Ben Lyons, but when he recently said that this movie doesn't look like it will capture the "heart and soul" of the toys or original cartoon it pains me to admit he's completely right. Hopefully, I'm wrong. Nothing would make me happier. If not, and it still does well commercially (as bad movies tend to these days), they may have another chance down the line to fix any problems. Until then, I'll be crossing my fingers that my review for G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra ends up being a letter of apology to Mr. Sommers.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathy Bates, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn, Dylan Baker
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

There's nothing worse than waking up and discovering you've turned into your parents. If you have, you consider yourself a failure while the rest of society thinks you're a success. If you haven't, you consider yourself a success while the rest of society labels you a failure. Chalk it up as a no-win. That's the dilemma facing Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Sam Mendes' trying but almost brilliant Revolutionary Road. Adapted from Richard Yates' acclaimed 1961 novel it does the unthinkable in actually bringing a different take to not only my absolute favorite genre of film, but one that's admittedly been explored to death. Just not from an angle like this.

For once we're presented with characters who are fully aware of the suburban hell they've trapped themselves in and are clawing and fighting to escape. But the harder they fight, the deeper they sink. Mendes skips the formalities with only a single scene depicting the first encounter between Frank and his future wife, April (Kate Winslet). They meet at a cocktail party and hit it off. He made her laugh. There isn't much laughing after that as minutes later we flash forward a few years and they're at each others throats. That trend continues throughout the duration of the picture, nearly suffocating us with their emotional intensity and marital discord.

Frank works in marketing at Knox Business Machines, following in the footsteps of his late father who was employed there for twenty years. He despises it. In an unforgettable shot we see him blend in amidst a sea of flannel suits and bowler hats in New York's bustling Grand Central Station. Everyone looks the same. Scratch that. They are the same. He celebrates his thirtieth birthday by sleeping with a young secretary whose primary appeal to him is that she's the only woman around naively impressed by anything he does. Frank and April, along with their two kids, have just moved into their new home on Revolutionary Road, located in a very wealthy Connecticut suburb because that's "just what you do."

While on the surface their lives resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, it's all a put-on. April comes up with a crazy idea for Frank to just quit his job so they can move to Paris where she'll support him with a high-paying government secretarial position while he gathers time to decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Their plan is pretty revolutionary for a time when society's expectations of gender roles in a marriage are very clearly defined. Equally important is keeping up with the Jones,' or rather the Campbells (David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn), who are sent into a tailspin by the Wheeler's news, causing them to examine issues they'd rather leave alone. The Paris move is set into motion until things are heavily complicated by a surprise pregnancy and a golden opportunity presented to Frank at work. That, and a visit from an unwelcome houseguest, causes their already shaky marriage to devastatingly fracture.

The 1950's have taken a beating in cinema as the decade of boredom, conformity and repression, leading us to ask: "Was it really THAT bad?" But the truth is that this film could have taken place during any decade and still have rang just as true. When the middling box office returns came in for this it wasn't exactly a surprise audiences weren't in the mood to hear or see a wealthy suburban couple whine and complain about their lives as we struggle through an economic recession. There's the temptation to avoid any movie that could possibly remind us of life's very problems, especially if it features characters this realistic...or even worse, "UNLIKABLE." As someone who feels Hollywood's been spoon feeding us false optimism in the past year it was a relief to see a film at least try to tackle serious life issues head-on and ask important, socially relevant questions.

You very often hear people these days utter the phrase "I'm lucky just to have a job." So true, but have you noticed it mostly seems to be uttered by people who hate their jobs? As if they feel guilty and are saying it to motivate themselves to keep going. That's Frank Wheeler. Similarly, when a woman is pregnant our first inclination is always to congratulate them but have you ever thought why? There's a tremendous amount of financial and emotional stress that comes with raising a child and some people just aren't built for it because they're too selfish or irresponsible. Maybe they're only having children because their biological clocks are ticking or all their friends are. April Wheeler falls into both categories. But what makes this couple differ from other spoiled characters who have populated cinema's suburban hell through the decades is that they know (or think they know) what's happening and are desperate to escape, completely unaware that changing everything around them won't necessarily do that.

Paris isn't a pipe dream, but April's IDEA of what moving there will do for them just might be. They come up with all the right questions but answer them all wrong by trying to alter every external detail in their lives without first working on themselves or their relationship, although any marriage that would require this much work might not be worth salvaging to begin with. This leads to the question of how much work should a marriage should take before throwing in the towel.  Unfortunately, doing that just wasn't a viable option for couples during this era. Divorce would have been even more frowned upon than just picking up and moving to Paris. When the Wheelers' gregarious Realtor friend Helen Givings (played to perfection by the great Kathy Bates) decides it would be a good experience for her mentally unstable son John (Michael Shannon), to meet the young couple I cringed, but hearing about Shannon's Oscar nominated supporting performance couldn't have really prepared me.

Shannon's John acts as kind of a bridge between the two halves of the film, popping in to call Frank and April out on their hypocrisy. A former mathematician on leave from the psychiatric hospital, he's ironically the only character who truly understands the problem and isn't afraid to say so...bluntly. When he feels betrayed by the Wheelers, he pushes them to their breaking point, leading to an electrifying confrontation that rivals the deli scene in The Wrestler as the scariest and most uncomfortable few minutes committed to film in 2008. Shannon occupies only minutes of screen time, but he's like a tornado ripping through the picture, leaving a wreckage of distress and shock that stays with the couple (and viewers) long after he departs. There's definitely no shame losing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Heath Ledger but the irony there is that Shannon basically comes in and plays his own twisted version of the Joker for two huge scenes. The similarities are eerie.

There's little point arguing whether Kate Winslet's Oscar winning performance in The Reader was more or less deserving of the statue than her work here. They're two completely different parts that call for entirely different performances, the former obviously being the flashier, more Academy-skewing role. It isn't difficult to see why they nominated her for that instead. Both are deserving, but I prefer her more understated, no less challenging turn here, which wouldn't have been possible without DiCaprio, who equals her in every way.

Winslet may be given more notes to hit but DiCaprio is even more impressive, inhabiting a man at war with himself, resentful of society's expectations of him, but too afraid to do anything about it. So he takes it out on his wife. For years DiCaprio has very deliberately made more mature choices as an actor but because of his youthful appearance it's been an uphill climb. None of that is due to of a lack of talent since he's given great performances each time out (with his work in The Departed and The Aviator topping the list), but rather a certain preconceived bias from audiences that he's "too young" for these types of roles. No one can say that about this, his most mature, fully realized performance. He becomes Frank Wheeler in 1950's suburban Connecticut. Just watch his face in the the scene when he returns home to find April and his kids surprising him for his birthday.

Fans of Titanic who waited over a decade to see the re-teaming of Kate and Leo will probably want to hang themselves by the time the final credits roll. This is not an epic romance, or even a romance at all. Despite the fact it was misleadingly marketed as Titanic 2, there isn't a single romantic element in it. It's closer to a horror movie. Think Pleasantville meets Rosemary's Baby with a side helping of Mad Men thrown in for good measure. I'm convinced the hate-filled scenes the two actors share wouldn't have been possible if they weren't really close friends (which they supposedly are) and a very high comfort level must have been there for them to go at each other like they do.

Director Sam Mendes explored this kind of material before with 1999's Best picture winner, American Beauty, but he isn't just repeating himself. This is a far different film, set in a different era and Justin Haythe's screenplay doesn't feel quite as calculated. That's not a knock on Beauty but rather an indictment that the two share anything other than the exploration of a crumbling marriage in the suburbs. Strangely enough, it also doesn't remind me of the most recent flag bearer for this type of movie, Todd Field's Little Children, even though they share an actress in Winslet and Field was originally attached to this project. That film seemed to have a more satirical slant and bite that this lacks, making the two different enough that this film doesn't suffer that greatly in comparison.

Technically, it's a flawless motion picture. There isn't a single wasted shot or moment. The best cinematographer working today, Roger Deakins, tops himself again by bringing the '50's to vivid life with dreamlike precision while the production and costume design is so authentic its frightening. Thomas Newman's subtle piano score comfortably fits the film like a glove. Even the film's most biggest detractors would have to concede it's a top notch production and better put together than any other recent adult drama. I'm curious if it'll hold up moving forward or go the way of just about every other supposedly great film of 2008 and lose its power on repeated viewings. It does seem like the kind of picture you respect and admire in terms of craftsmanship, but can't love because it keeps you at arm's length. We'll just have to see how time treats it and whether, like the similarly themed The Ice Storm, it experiences a critical resurgence down the line.

I understand why this movie failed commercially but am still in complete disbelief that it wasn't better received by critics or the Academy. It would seem tailor-made for them except for the fact that they made up their minds this past year that they'd rather not be challenged or pushed by mainstream entertainment. This isn't easy to watch and full appreciation requires almost full surrender into a state of total despair. Not an easy thing to do. You have to be a hardcore cynic or have a generally pessimistic view of human nature to enjoy it, and even then, I'm not sure the word "enjoy" applies. If you didn't like it, you should probably be relieved. That my favorite genre of film usually features characters who emotionally hurt one another scares me to no end, but it doesn't depress me. What really depressing is when movies insult our intelligence by chickening out.

When the film ended though I wasn't left with the feeling of hopelessness you'd expect after sitting through what's essentially less a movie than an ordeal. That's because of one well-placed, superbly performed scene before the finale hinting that maybe Frank and April finally "got it." Maybe the key for them was finding a healthy balance somewhere between the hope and despair and, at least for a brief, passing moment, they did. It may make everyone feel better about themselves to classify these these people as unlikable but the reality is more complicated. Take away the suburban setting. Place it in another decade. It doesn't really matter. The problems are universal, the story is timeless. Revolutionary Road offers up a new reason why we shouldn't turn into our parents: They may have been even more screwed up than us.

Monday, June 1, 2009


Director: Kyle Newman
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, Sam Huntington, Christopher Marquette, Kristen Bell
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

I had my doubts the day would ever come where I'd get to watch and review Fanboys. Within the past couple of years there have been maybe only two or three films I felt I just had to see based on their premise and trailers alone . This was one them. The idea of four Star Wars fanatics traveling cross country to Skywalker Ranch to steal a print of Episode I bursts with unlimited creative potential. But I must confess to some bias on that point. A while back I came up with an idea pretty similar to this and, like all my ideas, never did anything with it. That's of no consequence since I've built up quite a collection of 3 x 5 index cards filled with unused, half-developed brainstorms but this was the first I recognized onscreen in some form or another. So understandably my curiosity was piqued as to how writer/director Kyle Newman would handle the material.

I approached Fanboys in a mindset similar to how I did Southland Tales in that it was a film I had looked forward to for years, but when stories spread about behind-the-scenes creative clashes and a troubled post-production, I was forced into approaching it with what could best be called "cautious optimism." I wondered if this film could also overcome the odds, despite sitting on the shelf for three years during an ugly public feud between the studio and director. Unfortunately, the real losers in that feud turned out to be the fans.

After missing about 4 release dates due to re-shoots and re-edits the film was finally released with a whimper in February but it was too late for anyone to care and was subsequently met with a smattering of negative reviews (including an unusually mean spirited attack on Star Wars fans from Roger Ebert) It's impossible to know for sure how much of Newman's original vision is present in the final cut but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt that it's not nearly enough because the end result is kind of a truncated mess.

The bitter battle over whether to include the now infamous cancer sub-plot has clearly caused the movie to slip away from Newman. This element has since been re-inserted, but sloppily, and other aspects of the film suffer slightly because of it. This should have been better. Much, much better. Those looking to blame Harvey "Darth" Weinstein have a strong case because it looks like he really did do some serious damage here and came very close to ruining the film. The good news though, is that enough survived to earn it a solid, if somewhat tentative, recommendation.

While I smiled and chuckled during many portions of Fanboys there were also times where I didn't and wondered what this movie would have played in its original, un-tampered with form. The true irony is that while it does harness the excitement we all felt awaiting the opening of Episode I, it also permeates with that feeling of disappointment when it finally did. I also underestimated how little I wanted to be reminded of the prequels and the letdown accompanying them.

If you think about it, it's tough to look back on what George Lucas did in the summer of 1999 and laugh. At least I find it tough, and I'm not even what you'd consider a "die-hard" fan. But it is fun to go back to that special moment in time BEFORE it opened when we were about to see "the greatest movie ever made." As much as Fanboys takes unnecessary detours and makes some wrong steps, it at least captures that moment effectively.

It's October, 1998. The release of The Phantom Menace is six months away and counting. Far from just being a movie, for Eric (Sam Huntington), Linus (Chris Marquette), Hutch (Dan Fogler) and Windows (Jay Baruchel), four friends and proud Star Wars fanatics from Ohio, it represents the defining event of their lifetime. But Eric has since moved on, or at least has done a good enough job convincing himself he's grown out of his obsession, miserably working at his sleazy, flamboyant father Big Chuck's (Christopher McDonald) used car dealership.

Things change when Eric learns that Linus is dying of terminal cancer and has only months to live. With his urging the foursome decide to make good on their crazy childhood dream of breaking into George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch and stealing the unreleased they can destroy it. Sorry. Just some wishful thinking. It's actually so Linus can see it before he dies. They're eventually joined by every geek's dream fangirl Zoe (Kristen Bell), who not only loves Star Wars, but hangs out at the local comic book store, which is apparently where I should be frequenting more often.

A road trip commences and it's a little disappointing that it does feel derivative of every other road trip movie, with the added Star Wars element, but luckily that element is a very welcome one. Their misadventures along the way are littered with a lot of cameos. I mean A LOT. Maybe the most I've ever seen in a comedy. Some are funnier than others and at times it feels like the characters are just being dropped from one excursion to the next just so all these names can appear, but they do add to the overall viewing experience in mostly positive ways.

We have Danny Trejo as a pot smoking Indian chief who's the catalyst for a hallucinatory dream sequence that's probably best appreciated under the influence. Seth Rogen in dual roles, one of which is absolutely hilarious. And we're treated to an appearance from film critic Harry Knowles, who I thought must have lost a ton of weight until I realized he was being played by Ethan Suplee. It's shocking that the real Knowles didn't cameo since you'd figure the shameless self-promoter and ultimate fanboy would jump at the chance to appear as himself in something like this.

Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith pop up playing variations (I think) on their Jay & Silent Bob characters while Danny McBride has a very memorable and funny role as a Skywalker Ranch security head. The Star Wars vets prove to be good sports as Carrie Fisher shows up as a physician, Ray "Darth Maul" Park as a security guard and Billy Dee Williams as..."JUDGE REINHOLD." Yes, I know the joke seems like something a fifth grader would come up with and it was much funnier on Arrested Development when the role was ACTUALLY PLAYED by Judge Reinhold, but I'm embarrassed to admit that I still laughed.

The best cameo belongs to William Shatner who for some reason isn't given so much as a walk-on in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot but can land a bit part in a movie celebrating Star Wars. The fanboys vs. "Trekkies" sub-plot works best and produces the most consistent hilarity in a film where consistency is frequently absent. It almost pains me to report the sub-plot that's handled poorest is the cancer storyline, which seems to appear and disappear at the plot's convenience. It's in the movie just the exact wrong amount, showing up as almost an afterthought until the final scenes when it does register. By then it seems almost too late.

As haphazardly as it was re-incorporated though, all the angry fans had a point that it does belong in there. Without it the story doesn't have much of point. Then again, if they were just going to forget about it anyway, why put it back in? The issue has less to do with whether it should be there than HOW because it doesn't always mix well with the gross-out, slapstick humor. Of course that can happen when you re-edit your movie 75,000 times and spend three years in post-production hell.

Sam Huntington (best known for playing Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) acclimates nicely as the leading man, even when it's not entirely clear he's the leading man amidst the film's constantly shifting focus. Marquette and Baruchel's characters seem to get more attention and screen time and both deliver solid performances. This is also a victory of sorts for the seemingly talentless, but Tony Award winning (no joke) actor Dan "Balls of Fury" Fogler, who turns in what just might be his least grating work to date. Don't get me wrong he's still annoying as hell but at least he's found a part where he's supposed to be stuck in a permanent state of adolescence.

My future wife Kristen Bell has a role that's miles away from her recent co-starring turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, even though shooting on this probably wrapped years before casting on that film began. I complained about Bell's role in that but one thing I couldn't say was that it was underdeveloped or underwritten. This feels like it could have been or that scenes of hers were left on the cutting room floor, but it's a trade-off I'll take because this comes closer to the types of roles I'd like to see her in. I wish more was done with her but when she does appear (primarily in the third act) there were glimpses of her Veronica Mars character in there. That made it especially frustrating for me that she wasn't given more. It's enough I guess, but I'm greedy.

An attempted romance with one of the main characters seemed forced and manufactured, not to mention that it's with the wrong character. The whole thing just rings false. Had this sub-plot been executed well it would have really showcased her skills and added an extra layer of poignancy to the story, if that's even what they were going for. That's part of the problem. I had no idea what they were going for. But yes it's true that Bell does wear the Slave Girl Leia costume. Patience you must have. It's worth the wait. And so sue me I think I might even like her better as a brunette.

With all the behind the scenes drama in making the film it's at least nice to discover the studio didn't cut any corners in procuring music for the soundtrack. You can't dislike any movie that features Rush and forgotten late '90's alt-rock classics. When an all-time favorite of mine blasted at just the right moment in the film's final scene I was grinning from ear to ear. The last line of dialogue perfectly encapsulates in one question what we were all feeling right before the curtain went up on Episode I.

For the record, I don't think The Phantom Menace "sucks." Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull... now that sucked. But if we were to weigh expectations against actual execution I do think The Phantom Menace should rank among the most disappointing films ever made. There's just no reason that or any of the prequels should have existed and if I could somehow stop the release of just one movie it would probably be Episode I. That's the primary appeal of this movie: Cleansing us of that feeling.

Wherever the blame lies, it's terrible to be letdown by something you just know will be spectacular. There's an undercurrent of that running throughout Fanboys. Lucas doesn't appear in the film and strangely that seems right. I, like many, have little desire to see him involved with any Star Wars project anymore. It somehow seems cooler without his presence, but to his credit he not only gave Newman his blessing, but the rights to use Star Wars trademarks in a feature film. You could argue its the only intelligent decision Lucas has made with the brand in the past two decades.

I also understand why no mention of the film's tumultuous journey to the screen was made on the DVD because if I were Newman I wouldn't want to talk bout it either. A fun commentary track, some deleted scenes and a couple of featurettes are fine and that's exactly what we get. The guy's been through a war and came out on the losing end, despite the outpouring of fan support. While they meant well, I wonder if their attempts to "save the film" did more harm than good, resulting in excessive tinkering that distorted the final product. It's awful that what obviously started as a filmmaker's labor of love turned into such a messy public disaster. If nothing else, Newman deserves some really stiff drinks and a long, well-deserved break.

It's funny how I was mostly either unsure or disappointed while watching the picture but when it ended I had mostly fond memories of the experience. I'll probably even see it again hoping against hope that maybe its problems will be ironed out and the pieces will fit together a little better. I'm convinced I wouldn't have been able to bash this if I tried. I can't think of a recent movie I wanted to love more. There must be an original theatrical cut of Fanboys locked away in Harvey Weinstein's office that didn't make it to theaters or DVD. That's the one I want to see. If anyone ever decides to steal it, they can count me in.