Monday, August 30, 2010

Trick, Or Girl Number Five

So I've not talked about The Other Guys yet, and there's a very good reason: I've only seen it once. Many films only have to be seen once for you to know all there is to know about it (The Kids Are All Right is one of the year's best, obv). Adam McKay's films never work like that. They're always better on repeat viewings, which is why two years later, I regret not making room in my supporting actor picks for Richard Jenkins in Step Brothers (aggh, but over whom?). Like, I remember finding the majority if it funny, though lacking in most of the insanity that sets the Ferrell-McKay films apart from the crowd -- there's, like, a plot this time! But who knows? Maybe a second viewing will make me adore Mark Wahlberg's performance instead of being mildly irritated with it. Maybe I'll find Michael Keaton even funnier than I already do. Maybe I can learn the lyrics to "Pimps Don't Cry".

One thing I can say for sure, and this is something that the Walter who just got out of Ghost Rider years ago would never believe: Eva Mendes is the best part. Absolutely steals the show. And this is after her solid work in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call -- New Orleans. Has the world gone mad? Or did she Laura Linney me? That is, has she always been fantastic and I just now understand the way she operates? I don't know what it is, but I like it. And I like the movie, too. I think it's McKay's most accessible film to date, but I'm sure there'll be a lot of people who just can't get into it. That's fine, too.

You know what else I haven't talked about? Get Low, which I saw two weeks ago. I think it's because I don't know how to express my affection. It's a modest little film, with Robert Duvall as a hermit who wants to hold a funeral party for himself so he can hear the stories people tell about him. Bill Murray is the undertaker, in a quietly funny and subtly sad role that surprised me. Sissy Spacek is a gal Duvall's character used to know, and she's always great. Duvall, though, as the hermit with a secret, is just damn fine to watch. His expression barely changes, so one can easily accuse Duvall of just sleepwalking through the wall. But there's something else going on with his portrayal of Felix Busch, and when he gets his Big Scene near the end and we find out what that something else is, you're liable to feel a deep pang in your heart. It's a beautiful tale of redemption, and like Winter's Bone, one that'll probably haunt me for a while yet.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Water's Just Fine

When I did theatre, one of my teachers spoke to us about a production of Equus in which she appeared. She played Jill, the girl smitten with disturbed stableboy Alan Strang, and if you know the play, then you know that there's a sex scene in it. My teacher was nervous about going full nude on stage, it being her first time revealing herself in such a way to the public. To ease her into it, the director came up with a brilliant idea: the entire cast (they remain on stage throughout the show) would go nude, taking part in a wondrous spectacle my teacher called "The Nude Ballet".

I didn't really know quite what a nude ballet would look like. Hell, I hadn't given much thought to my teacher's story since the '08 Broadway revival of Equus starring Daniel Radcliffe. Nevertheless, somewhere between a beer bottle causing an earthquake and Adam Scott shooting fish while atop a jet ski, Piranha 3D made damn sure that not only would I get to see a nude ballet, but it would be underwater, set to the "Lakme-Flower Duet" and feature Kelly Brook and Riley Steele. The strangest thing? It doesn't even feel exploitative. It doesn't even feel unnecessary, for Piranha 3D is a film that's already promised viewers "Sea, Sex and Blood" (French tagline), and when you have Brook and Steele playing ex-pole dancers starring in a Wild Wild Girls video, not having them naked would be cheating the audience. The context, the tone, the music and cinematographer John R. Leonetti make this sequence hilarious, sexy and -- surprisingly enough -- beautiful, almost poetic.

If ever there was a film that knew what it was, Piranha 3D is it. It wallows in its buckets of blood. It ogles the bare breasts on display unashamedly. It laughs with the audience without condescension or winking. This is a film that knows how to balance humor and horror. Are you a laughing because it's funny, or because you're appalled and don't know how to react? The answer is yes! A girl is torn in half! A propellor is used as a weapon! 3D vomiting! Elisabeth Shue in a sheriff uniform!

The ensemble? What an ensemble! Adam Scott gets too little screentime as a seismologist who leaps into action, but he also plays his role perfectly -- he's in on the joke, but he resists mugging. Jerry O'Connell plays the director of a topless girls on vacation series called Wild Wild Girls (sound familiar?); while his role is coked-up, manic, sleazy, and played to the hilt...he also resists mugging. In a just world, he'd be getting supporting actor buzz. I'm serious. A man who commits to a character and tone the way he does deserves recognition. Kelly Brook is the slut with a heart of gold, Jessica Szohr the good girl experimenting with going bad, Steven R. McQueen the requisite teen male lead. And, of course, there's Christopher Lloyd as crazy fish expert Mr. Goodman. Every line delivery is bonkers and genius. My God, I can't believe they actually got everyone in on the joke! I can't believe how great everyone is in this!

Scratch that. I can't believe how great everything is in this. Not only does this movie have chomps them up and spits them out at you. In glorious 3D!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Casting Coup Tuesdays: Rock of Ages

I couldn't believe a show like Rock of Ages was being made. We'd gotten an ABBA musical, and Moulin Rouge! was made up of a number of popular songs...but a Broadway show celebrating hair metal? It was not to be believed. Yet there was Angela Lansbury at the Tonys with Twisted Sister, and this show actually looked kind of...awesome.

My girlfriend went to New York and saw the show on stage, and raved about it for -- well, she still is. But her enthusiasm led to my getting the soundtrack. I have to admit, it's a lot of fun. Unlike musicals like Mamma Mia!, the writers actually make the songs work for the story, not vice versa. And sure, this may mean a lot of dialogue to set up different verses of a song, but at least they're making a legitimate effort. And haven't we all dreamed up musical numbers for songs like "Don't Stop Believin'", "We Built This City" and "I Wanna Know What Love Is"? I know I have.

Rock of Ages is a show that completely depends on both the performances and the audience's affection for Bon Jovi, White Snake, Twisted Sister, etc. The sketchy plot revolves around small-town girl Sherrie arriving in L.A. to pursue Hollywood dreams. She winds up falling for busboy/wannabe rocker Drew, just as German city developers get the approval to uproot the awesomeness of the Sunset Strip and replace it with a cleaner alternative. Also, a popular rocker gets in the way of Sherrie and Drew's feelings for each other. This plot is stretched over two hours as the characters rock out to 80s songs. Also, there's Lonny, who is hilarious.

It's a charming show, and a film version was inevitable. Adam Shankman is working on his adaptation of it, though no cast has been announced. If I am to believe his Twitter, they haven't really begun that process. Anyway, while his choices for Hairspray showed that his instincts are top-notch, I can't help but offer some suggestions of my own:

Who is He: Hertz's son, he and his father are city developers. At first, Franz goes along with his father's plot to destroy the Sunset Strip and create a cleaner, conservativer city. That's complicated when he falls for city planner and anti-development protest organizer Regina.

Songs: We Built This City/Too Much Time on My Hands, Here I Go Again, The Final Countdown, Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Every Rose Has Its Thorn

My Choice:
David Kross (Adam & Eva, The Reader)
I have no idea whether or not he can sing "Hit Me With Your Best Shot". But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. He's young and good-looking and German!

Who is She: The mayor's city planner, she is appalled at Hertz's desire to rid the Sunset Strip of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. She knows they built this city on the latter. A woman of action, she leads the protests against Hertz...even as she begins to fall for his son.

Songs: We Built This City/Too Much Time on My Hands, We're Not Gonna Take It, Cum On Feel the Noize/We're Not Gonna Take It [Reprise], Here I Go Again, The Final Countdown, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Don't Stop Believin'

My Choice: SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Milk)

Alison Pill (Pieces of April, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
Anyone who's seen her in Milk or Scott Pilgrim knows what a fierce presence she is. Anyone who's seen her in Pieces of April or "The Book of Daniel" know she's a singer. Now, does she usually sing less rock and more...not rock? Sure, but remember: she is a member of Sex Bob-Omb.

Who is She: The owner/operator of the Venus Club, where gentlemen go to be entertained by ladies. Stripper-ladies. When Sherrie is at her lowest, she goes to work for Justice, who becomes a Momma Bear to the small-town girl.

Songs: Harden My Heart/Shadows of the Night, Any Way You Want It/I Wanna Rock [Reprise], Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Don't Stop Believin'

My Choice:

Tina Turner (Tommy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome)
We needed some sort of icon somewhere.  How can we make a tribute to the genre without The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll herself?

Who is He: The owner of the Bourbon Room, a bar on the Sunset Strip. Dennis has seen it all, so imagine his horror the Bourbon Room is marked for destruction by Hertz. With best friend Lonny, he gets rock band Arsenal to play one last show there...the same place where they made their debut years ago.

Songs: Just Like Paradise/Nothin' but a Good Time, We Built This City/Too Much Time on My Hands, Here I Go Again, The Final Countdown, I Can't Fight This Feeling, Don't Stop Believin'

My Choice: Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy (Stranger Than Fiction) and Best Supporting Actor (The Producers), Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Actor (Stranger Than Fiction)

Will Ferrell (Superstar!, The Other Guys)

Who is He: German city developer bent on destroying the Sunset Strip's decadence in favor of a more squeaky-clean alternative. Father of Franz.

Songs: We Built This City/Too Much Time on My Hands, The Final Countdown, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Keep on Loving You, Don't Stop Believin'

My Choice: Academy Award/BAFTA Award/Golden Globe/SAG Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Inglourious Basterds)

Christoph Waltz (Death, Deceit & Destiny Aboard the Orient Express, the upcoming The Green Hornet)
A little obvious, but I'm not going to prevent a German who can sing from playing a German in a musical.

Who is He: Lead singer of Arsenal, a rock band that's about to break up so he can start a solo career. Jaxx knows Dennis and Lonny from when Arsenal was unsigned and just starting out, so of course he repays a favor to his old friends -- after they blackmail him -- and Arsenal plays their last show at the Bourbon Room. It's the typical rock God character, egotistical and sexist. He dilly-dallies with Sherrie and proceeds to be a proper douchebag.

Songs: We Built This City/Too Much Time on My Hands, Wanted Dead or Alive, I Wanna Know What Love Is, I Hate Myself for Loving You/Heat of the Moment, Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Renegade

My Choice: Golden Globe Winner/Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Actor [in a Musical/Comedy] (In Bruges)

Colin Farrell (Pride and Glory, Crazy Heart)
Apparently tone-deaf, though his performance in Crazy Heart seems to contradict that. So I'm going with that. His own celebrity would lend credibility to Stacee's celebrity. And he's a sexy guy, right? Girls would fall for him.

Who is He: The show's narrator, a man of great energy. Barfly and best friend of Dennis.

Songs: Just Like Paradise/Nothin' But a Good Time, Here I Go Again, The Final Countdown, Can't Fight This Feeling, Don't Stop Believin'

My Choice: Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy (School of Rock)

Jack Black (Be Kind Rewind, Tropic Thunder)
He's already proven himself to be great screen partners with Ferrell. He has the right energy for the role, and -- hey oh! -- he can rock out with the best of them! Remember Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny? That movie rocked. He rocked.

Who is She: A small-town girl who comes to L.A. to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. She starts out working at the Bourbon Room, falling for Drew until he gives the "friendship" speech. So she dilly-dallies with Stacee, who gets her fired, so she works at the Venus Club for Justice. Then all sorts of other things happen. And it's a musical, so (SPOILER ALERT!) True Love triumphs.

Songs: Sister Christian, I Wanna Rock, Heaven/More Than Words/To Be With You, Waiting for a Girl Like You, Wanted Dead or Alive, I Want to Know What Love Is, Harden My Heart/Shadows of the Night, Here I Go Again, Any Way You Want It/I Wanna Rock [Reprise], High Enough, I Hate Myself for Loving You/Heat of the Moment, Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Oh Sherrie, The Search is Over, Don't Stop Believin'

My Choice:

Alyson Michalka (Bandslam, Easy A)
Not the most demanding of roles, but needs a capable actress who can play heightened while still allowing us to believe Sherrie. Aly was great on "Phil of the Future", she's a hot blonde, she can rock out, and she's a relatively fresh face.

Who is He: He works at the Bourbon Room, but dreams of becoming a Rock Star. A nice guy, he falls for Sherrie, but plays the friendship card to calm her nerves, because he's so nice. Opening for Stacee Jaxx's final Arsenal concert helps to get him noticed by a Record Company Man, but the label he reps does not care for Drew's rock 'n' roll dreams. What's a guy to do?

Songs: Just Like Paradise/Nothin' Like a Good Time, Sister Christian, We Built This City/Too Much Time on My Hands, I Wanna Rock, Heaven/More Than Words/To Be With You, Waiting for a Girl Like You, I Wanna Know What Love Is, Cum On Feel the Noize/We're Not Gonna Take It [Reprise], Here I Go Again, Any Way You Want It/I Wanna Rock [Reprise], High Enough, I Hate Myself for Loving You/Heat of the Moment, Every Rose Has Its Thorn, Oh Sherrie, The Search is Over, Don't Stop Believin'

My Choice:

Constantine Maroulis
The show is so recent that it seems ludicrous to replace everyone in the cast. He's the star, he's the Tony nominee, he's the Idol, he's the one that my friend was obsessed with in high school. I have a rule that states every role shall be recast, but I'm always willing to make exceptions. And yeah, I probably should've chosen a Rock of Ages clip, but I can't resist the pull of Batman Forever.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I'm Reviewing Step Up 3D?

A few things you should know about Step Up 3D:

-There are four leads, two of which are on the poster. The ones that aren't are 18-year-old Adam G. Sevani (reprising his role from Step Up 2) and 17-year-old Alyson Stoner (reprising her role from Step Up). They are, apparently, the only actors who arrived on set.

-About an hour into the movie, there is a musical number set to a remix of "I Won't Dance". It's a single take, features Sevani and Stoner, and is the most charming thing I've seen since "He Loves and She Loves" from Funny Face.

-This iss the least intimidating antagonist I've seen since Michael Beck's pants in Xanadu.

-The first dance troupe our heroes go up against should have won.

-The final number at the Big Competition is jaw-droppingly amazing. Lights, choreography, it's all incredible, worth the price of admission.

-3D is a great asset, since now you get a since of depth. The dances more than benefit.

-Harry Shum Jr. is in this! You may know him as Mike "Other Asian" Chang from Glee!

-The "lead", played by Rick Malambri, is never called out for bullying other people, taking advantage of others, guilt-tripping kids, and being an overall douchebag. Least likable human being in the movie.

-Two writers are credited. I think they're exaggerating by at least three.

Overall, great fun, but I probably won't remember a lot of it by morning.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Great Scott!

Last week, I told some friends of mine not to be surprised if Scott Pilgrim vs. the World opens at #6, #4 if it's lucky. I hoped this wouldn't be so, since I love the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, but I couldn't help but feel that if this movie's audience hadn't already caught in preview screenings, they would all see it at midnight opening weekend. Being a member of that midnight audience myself, I can now say that it wouldn't surprise me if my prediction still held true...but it would disappoint me. For I enjoyed myself.

Scott Pilgrim is going to get a lot of hate, and a lot of overboard adulation. It's one of those movies destined to divide those who went in ready to despise, and those willing to overlook any amount of flaws the movie has. Which it does.

Fortunately, the lead isn't one of them. Michael Cera isn't the deadpan wimp from next door, but SCOTT PILGRIM, who thinks he's funnier, cooler and nicer than he really is. Dedicated to neither the girls he dates or the band he plays bass for (SEX BOB-OMB), Scott falls head over heels for dream girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and has to face and accept both her past and his own so that he may earn the title of Boyfriend. Cera gets it all right: Scott's excitability, his ego, his casual mistreatment of high school girlfriend Knives Chau (best in show Ellen Wong). Cera understands the yin and the yang of Scott, the nice guy Ramona is attracted to and the asshole that breaks hearts, the fighter willing to battle for the girl he loves and the dumb kid easily distracted by the slightest thing. It's the best thing I've seen Cera do, though admittedly I've only watched Juno, Superbad and "Arrested Development".

Winstead has the more difficult role, the dream girl with barriers. Because so much of Ramona is putting up an emotional wall so she doesn't get hurt, it's hard to get close to her. Winstead works it well most of the time, though I don't completely believe that she would invite Scott home on the first date. She doesn't seem to warm to him until later, and it's only much later that we see the possibility of a relationship in her eyes. I know we find out that Ramona tends to date guys more or less "just because", but if she came to escape her past, wouldn't she try not to make the same first mistake? Maybe she can't help herself. I do believe her moments of sadness, her moments of joy, her fights and her self-imposed shield. The look on her face when she rides the bus home after the first battle impresses: you see the regret; she knows what's going to happen. Overall, though, it's a hard character to play, and a hard performance to judge.

That may have more to do with Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall's screenplay, though. In adapting six graphic novels into one two-hour movie, they've had to condense a lot, and that's fine. I can live with most of Kim Pine's stuff being dropped (Alison Pill is a good enough actress to fill in those blanks on her own), and I'm ok that we never learn that everyone but Scott has a job (a point of contention for some), and the movie works fine without Scott living with Ramona (weird beat, anyway). But a lot of the relationship between Scott and Ramona seems to have been cut in favor of the fight scenes and video game references. One date montage will not suffice for me. This is the core of the film here, I need more. Part of the testament to Winstead's talent is that she does manage to convey some of her feelings, but the script does not fully allow her to do it.

And yet, a lot of what they get right, they get so right. Turning chief baddie Gideon Graves (deliciously played by Jason Schwartzman) into a more oily, Swan-like villain was a stroke of genius. Indeed, except for how simultaneously rushed and overlong the final sequence is, it is here that Wright and Bacall make their most ingenious departures from the source material.  The Japanese Twins get as little screentime as they did pagetime, but Wright not only gives them a fantastic battle sequence -- my personal favorite, in fact -- he makes Sex Bob-Omb more central to Scott's strengths. Using the original Legend of Zelda menu music for the opening scene does more to establish the tone and mindset than any original score could do. Which is not to deride Nigel Godrich's score, either, which serves as a great complement to the action sequences.

And oh, those action sequences. From Street Fighter to Guitar Hero, the multitude of game references for each battle are more than hilarious -- they actually serve the narrative! The VFX range from intentionally cartoony to nearly imperceptible. I'm talking dragons, hipster demons, power swords. It's here that we get that "epic epic of epic-ness" the poster promised. True, the first one goes on for way too long (the musical number is a bit much), but generally they're a good time. Chris Evans and Brandon Routh are suitably hilarious, reminding once again that they really are more than just pretty faces, and that Routh really needs a bigger career. Mae Whitman makes the most of her limited screentime, with a fun Southern accent and an unforgettable battle cry. And those twins! So cool!

You got to give Edgar Wright props for bringing it all together. Not everything works, but Wright gets good work from his ensemble (casting by Robin D. Cook, Jennifer Euston and Allison Jones) and keeps the movie going at a quick but manageable pace. Some editing choices at the beginning kept me from getting fully engrossed in the story.  Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss work great with the action sequences, but there's so much information and character stuff preceding The First Battle, it gets difficult to follow. Still, if there's one thing you can always give Edgar Wright props for, it's for managing to keep a challenging tone consistent. That he manages to do so while still offering fully fleshed-out characters and a satisfying arc is a testament to both his fine work with actors and his understanding of the material. Besides, he nails every laugh perfectly, and that's hard to do.

Production design and art direction (Marcus Rowland & Nigel Churcher), costume design (Laura Jean Shannon), cinematography (Bill Pope): all great. It really is a tremendous film, a solid three out of four stars, a fantastic B+. I don't think it's for everyone, but I think if you're willing to go into the film's hyperactive world and play by its rules, you'll have a pretty awesome time.

Friday, August 13, 2010

No, Just...No

I originally wrote up a long review of Love Ranch, which I saw earlier this evening...only to accidentally delete the whole thing. It made me feel stupid and careless, and now I hate Love Ranch for wasting even more of my time. I was pretty charitable in the first draft, but now it's no-hold-barred.

The movie isn't awful. It's a poorly-paced, lazily-edited and horribly-scored, but it's not awful. It's just aggressively mediocre. It breaks my heart because this movie had the ability to be better. Just look at the actors: Joe Pesci uses his favorite word as a crutch, often substituting it in place of a character. Fortunately, it makes the moments where he does shine that much brighter. Gina Gershon leads the group of prostitutes employed by the Love Ranch, and she gives the best performance in the movie. The rest of the girls are equally solid -- well, not Scout Taylor-Compton, but that's to be expected -- but underused. Helen Mirren must have shot her scenes in sequence, because what starts out as a strong performance slowly becomes a desperate grasp for something to do.

Then there's the aforementioned editing. Look, I'm no fan of dissolves to begin with, so using them as the chief transition is a surefire way to get me against your film (unless they make sense, like a dreamy, trippy movie or something). Paul Hirsch abuses it so much, I felt like calling a social worker. Sometimes, he literally dissolves into nothing! Nothing! What the hell does a dissolve into a bunch of birds flying add to my understanding of the film? Why are three different angles of roadkill necessary? When is this movie going to end?

Score composer Chris Bacon sabotages any effective moments we might have had. You can actually hear potentially great scenes ruined by his overly sentimental score. One moment you're getting a genuine moment of pain with Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren; next thing you know, it sounds like an episode of "Full House". It's astounding to see just how much a rotten score can completely derail a movie.

Really, though, the screenplay. Talk about a poor judgment of what's interesting. You've got this great ensemble of hookers, a pimp who runs half the city while battling religious fanatics...and you're going to focus on the older madame's romance with a young Argentinean boxer? All the old tropes are brought out: she doesn't like him, she warms to him in a montage, he makes a move, she pushes away, he makes another move, SEX. Secrets are shared, confessions are made, people cry a lot. And I just don't care. I really couldn't care less about what happened to these people. I hoped against hope that someone would light the Love Ranch on fire while they were all inside, in the interests of both compelling narrative and justice. Alas.

Really, for a movie about brothel owners, this thing is very tame, very run-of-the-mill, very DULL. Director Taylor Hackford and writer Mark Jacobson didn't have the balls to deliver the movie the poster promised. They wasted my time and they squandered the potential for a Pesci comeback. For shame.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bone-afide Greatness

I've been looking forward to Winter's Bone for some time. First there was the Sundance buzz, of course, which led to my early bird prediction of a Best Actress nom for Jennifer Lawrence. Then I read the source novel by Daniel Woodrell, and it knocked me over. Like Sapphire's Push, its bleakness was executed in a manner that was more concerned with presenting an honest portrait than with manipulating the reader's emotions. Finally, the producer of The Myth of the American Sleepover highly recommended it, and did so with such enthusiasm that it shot to the top of my "SEE IT NOW" list.

I'm happy to report that it was not a disappointment. Debra Granik and Anne Rosselini's screenplay remains faithful to the source material while adding some little beats of their own (an added "pickin' session" furthers both the sense of place and the family dynamics central to the film). It maintains the natural feeling of the novel, with director Granik and editor Affonso Goncalves keeping a deliberate pace throughout. Moments of discovery are underplayed and there's no real feeling of climax, and that's just fine by me. Like its source, there's an approach of, "This is how it is, that's life, take it or leave it." And I'm taking it.

Jennifer Lawrence is great overall. When she mouths off to Merab or tries to confront big baddie Thump Milton, you gotta admire her balls, even as you see her desperation. The Boat Scene at the end is a marvel as she registers horror and dtermination. At times, though, you can see the seams, and I wasn't sure if I was impressed with Lawrence's acting or Granik's directing. But hey, don't get me wrong. It's a strong performance and I absolutely look forward to the rest of her career (including a potentially great role in The Beaver).

The supporting characters, though? First of all, the entire ensemble is perfect, so here's some kudos to casting directors Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee. Everyone looks tailor-made for their parts, like they brought cameras into their homes and just started filming. As for the major supporting players, we must mention John Hawkes as Uncle Teardrop. He is not a decent man deep down, but he's fiercely loyal to his niece, and we believe it when other family members scramble upon his arrival.

Best in show, though, goes to Dale Dickey as villainous Merab. She could be played as pure evil, but Dickey does something marvelous with her piercing blue eyes, and suddenly I'm watching a masterful portrayal of a fleshed-out character. The Boat Scene I mentioned before? Her lip quivers as she watches Ree, and I was floored. In her first confrontation with Ree, you see more than threats in her words. When Ree accuses her of not doing good by the family, Merab's look as she says, "Don't. Don't you dare," made me almost gasp. I saw that this was a loyal woman, someone who was willing to do anything to protect her own. Add Dale Dickey to the list of incredible performances to remember at year's end.

This is one of those films whose greatness sneaks up on you. I can't imagine someone getting passionate and crazy about it, but it's definitely a well-made, fascinatingly-acted movie. I'd be up for another round.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Myth" Makes Dream a Reality

When I was 15 years old, I spent a sleepover talking with two friends until daybreak. Then one of us pulled a prank on someone else, we had breakfast, one of my friends got quite grumpy that we were depriving her of her sleep, and we eventually dropped off at, like, ten or eleven. But that night stuck with me,and as I continued to hang out with this particular group, I became fascinated by the web of relationships -- friends, crushes, exes, etc. -- that was all around me. And I thought to myself -- I swear to God, I thought this, and my friend Allie can back me up on this -- "My God, there should be an ensemble film about us, a realistic, Altman-esque look at young teens as they navigate their way through raging hormones and growing up!" I wrote several drafts of my version of what this could be, but it wound up becoming a thriller, and much more sensational than anything I'd actually experienced. But the idea of such a film intrigued me.

When I was following Cannes coverage in Spring, one title stuck out to me. One of my friends had sent me the page for it on Facebook, but I don't "Like" movies I haven't seen, you know? But you never forget a title as epic as The Myth of the American Sleepover, so I stuck with it, especially when I heard that it was the first American film to be selected for Critics' Week in five years. That, plus the good buzz I'd been reading from Indiewire and my favorite film journalist Jeff Wells, who called it "much smarter, better acted, more subtle" than the mainstream teen-oriented films. And, ok, full disclosure: writer-director David Robert Mitchell, producer Adele Romanski, associate producer Cherie Saulter, editor Julio Perez IV, cinematographer James Laxton and co-star Brett Jacobsen are all graduates of my film school.

Don't think that last part biases me in the least. Sometimes, I get a little dickish in screenings, and so when we were given the chance to see Myth Friday evening, I had a bit of a "we'll see" attitude. Congratulations to them, of course, because when a young filmmaker makes a successful, acclaimed film on his/her own terms and represents the Garnet & Gold, that's solid. It gives me hope. But I'm also not going to automatically go to bat for something just because of the FSU connection. If anything, it makes me a tougher critic, because I don't want just anyone representing my school. And so, it was with both excitement (SXSW Ensemble Winner! Cannes!) and uncertainty (low budget? amateur actors?) that I took my seat. It didn't take long for me to realize that writer-director David Robert Mitchell was granting me a wish six years in the making: this is the film I wanted when I was 15.

Myth has four clear leads: new girl Claudia (Amanda Bauer), hormonal Rob (Marlon Morton), heartbroken Scott (Brett Jacobsen) and soon-to-be-freshman-hoping-for-a-night-of-fun Maggie (Claire Sloma). So, yes, four characters who provide the central storylines, but this is an ensemble piece, all the way. This is a summer night preceding high school for some and college for others, which means there's a whole host of couples, crushes, besties, etc. Claudia goes to a sleepover, Rob leaves a sleepover, Scott crashes a sleepover, Maggie ditches a sleepover, Rob's sister is having a sleepover, dancers are having a sleepover, a university is having a freshman orientation/sleepover. Surely, the film's title spelled all that out for you. And Mitchell uses this innocent tradition to capture that magical moment in your life when you couldn't wait to grow up but wanted to remain young. It's universal, it's relatable, it's outstanding.

I love Sloma's Maggie, a girl who self-consciously tries to act older than she really is. She's got a confident smile and a shrug that reminded me of so many girls from middle school. Amanda Bauer believably, humorously portrays Claudia, a nice girl who can become ruthless when she feels crossed. And I love that she does do it humorously, that this film knows that no matter how seriously the youth take themselves, they are rarely serious at all. And Scott is going into his last year of college, but is going to look for these twins he liked in high school in order to treat the wounds of a bad breakup, and Brett Jacobsen has the task of making this guy, essentially a creeper, into someone relatable and likable. AND HE FUCKING DOES IT. Aided by Mitchell's sparse yet effective writing, Jacobsen makes Scott into a guy who knows he's about to do something weird, but goddamn sometimes desperate measures are necessary. And damn if I didn't see a little lot of myself in Marlon Morton's Rob, who at 14 years old is obsessed with women, knowing that Destiny awaits in the form of a hot blonde he saw at the supermarket. This kid is so deadly serious about this love and romance business, but his attention constantly wavers, depending on what girl is in the room. The fickleness of teen love!

Rob's best friend Marcus is played by Wyatt McCallum. It is my favorite performance. What this kid does with silence is wow. He's off to the side much of the time, but as a loyal friend beginning to discover himself, he gives a memorable, heart-wrenching performance. And it's all subtly done. I'll never get over his reading of, "Do you ever think...?" Hope and sadness and confusion rolled into one, and out of everyone else in the movie, he was the one I most wanted to get the kiss. A beautiful performance.

But then, it's a beautiful film. As one classmate said, it's French New Wave meets John Hughes, without any bullshit. There's no big Losing Your Virginity storyline, no Deep Moment of Tears and Reflection. Not everyone gets a triumphant ending. Hell, not everyone gets a climax. That's life. More than that, though: it's refreshing. The Myth of the American Sleepover is doing well on the festival circuit, but I can only hope and pray that it gets a release and some recognition from audiences. If ever you have a chance to see it, do so. Those of us that wish we could see something as true and real as something like, say, Nashville...that wish has come true. It's the film I dreamed about when I was 15, and I am not worthy of such a miracle.

More Than Just "All Right"

I moved into a new apartment Friday, one where the internet won't be hooked up until August 22nd. Fortunately, I just arrived in my old hometown for a two week vacation, and my folks have their wireless up and running. Four days without internet almost killed me, I swear, and not just because I'm an addict who spends most of his time on this thing. No, I needed to get on my blog and talk about two great movies I saw this weekend.

First, I want to talk briefly about the more readily available one. Though in a limited release, The Kids Are All Right has the benefit of Recognizable Stars to up its chances of getting an audience. And thank goodness for that, because this movie deserves to be seen. The movie is light, but the performances are fully realized. It's strange, because this movie does bring out the ol' Hollywood tropes: big speeches, college looming, bad best friends, outsider charms way into a family. And a cynical person may be tempted to say that no one would praise this movie as much if it was about a straight couple who used a donor as opposed to being what some are calling a "lesbian issue film".

 Relevant cinema! The horror!

But what's wrong with gays having mainstream issue films? Everyone else gets them. And if they're as good as The Kids Are All Right, can we have more, please?  This movie deals with families and marriage and growing up and the trust between spouses and the bonds between parent and child. These are universal themes that any family can appreciate and relate to. The parents here just happen to be women. And thank goodness for that, I say, for otherwise we'd be deprived some stellar work from Julianne Moore and Annette Bening.

That's what this movie is about, people. There's great direction from Lisa Cholodenko, and an admirable script by her and Stuart Blumberg. But this film is about the performances! Subtle, likable performances across the board! Annette has a great moment in Act Three that...well, it's really the basis of her inevitable Oscar campaign, isn't it? Julianne Moore charts this heartbreaking and relatable arc that kills me. Mia Wasikowska finally emotes and Josh Hutcherson makes me sorry he's not going to be Peter Parker. Mark Ruffalo? Best performance he's given since Zodiac. A solid ensemble all around, and best of all: it comes with a believable family dynamic! Hurrah!

Yeah, I highly recommend it, and I stick to my earlier predictions for Best Actress and Best Picture nominations. The film's that good.

And as for that other film I saw...well, that deserves a separate post!