Friday, November 21, 2008

Vacation

I've fallen tragically behind on reviews lately, even though I've been seeing a lot of films. I'll be away for the next week, so when I get back, hopefully I'll have lots of exciting new reviews to post. Additionally, I've already begun my Oscar predictions and will link to those on a separate site as part of a computers course assignment. For now, I can highly recommend "Slumdog Millionaire" as well as the forthcoming "Doubt." After Thanksgiving, I'll be recovering and catching up, and by the second week of December, I should be posting regular daily reviews and in-depth awards predictions. In the meantime, check out this blog's first guest review from my good friend Josh Blum below of the film "High School Musical 3." See you then!

Guest Review: High School Musical 3

High School Musical 3: Senior Year
Directed by Kenny Ortega
Released October 24, 2008

As a fan of the first two “High School Musical” installments, I went to see “High School Musical 3: Senior Year” with high expectations. And the movie certainly fulfilled those expectations. The choreography by Kenny Ortega has reached a new peak and the musical performances are certainly above those of the previous two films. Still, many fans and newcomers may be left disappointed. The plot lacks anything unexpected and, at its core, the movie is really just a series of outstanding music videos strung together. However, Zac Efron and Corbin Bleu display unforgettable performances that won't disappoint. In terms of the music, the soundtrack is very different in comparison to the previous films. The new songs really have a more theatrical vibe and are missing the basic sing-along qualities that made the first two soundtracks so wonderful. Notable tracks include “Can I Have This Dance,” “Just Wanna Be With You,” and the aptly named, “High School Musical.” “Senior Year” is a movie that builds excitement immediately and doesn't lose your attention throughout the movie. It's certainly an entertaining movie and one that I would enjoy seeing again but, if you didn't like either of the first two movies, you might want to consider passing on this one.

B

-Josh Blum

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Film Review: Changeling

Changeling
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Released October 24, 2008

Clint Eastwood’s latest film is possibly his strongest in recent years, transplanting the devastating drama of “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby” to the 1920s and improving upon the end result. The story is thoroughly interesting, and even though it’s a lengthy 2 hours and 20 minutes, it doesn’t feel too long, because every new direction is just as engaging as the previous one. The costumes and sets are a wonder to look at, and Eastwood’s token simple score is perfect for the film. It’s reminiscent most of “Gone Baby Gone,” and it handles the powerful nature of its content extremely well, just as that film did. Angelina Jolie truly is a great actress (last year’s “A Mighty Heart” should not have resulted in an Oscar snub) and she’s a terrific choice for the role of the grieving mother Christine Collins. John Malkovich, in a tragically small role, is excellent as a police-hating preacher who fights to help Collins expose their misconduct. Jeffrey Donovan, master of all accents on “Burn Notice,” is a fine addition to this cast as the police detective so determined to be right that he’ll sacrifice the truth to accomplish it. Overall, it’s a film with few flaws that’s entirely fascinating and stunningly executed. Mixed reviews are a shame since this really is one of the best movies of the year.

A-

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Film Review: W.

W.
Directed by Oliver Stone
Released October 17, 2008

Oliver Stone’s portrait of George Bush was criticized heavily even before it came out because it appeared to be both a mere rehash of Bushisms and a poorly timed critique of a sitting president. It turns out that “W” is neither of those things, and that’s perhaps the reason why it is so disappointing. It’s completely unfocused biography which leaves glaring amounts of time altogether uncovered. It requires a historical knowledge to fully grasp the entire story, and as a result feels incomplete. The cast of characters in the Bush administration are all colorfully played, but it’s often difficult to tell who’s being appropriate and who’s overdoing it without having closely followed the individuals. “W” should be relevant, that’s true, but it’s very likely that in a number of years, those unfamiliar with Bush staff will find themselves completely lost. In stark contrast to “JFK,” this film can’t hope to live on in time. It’s not an effective, timeless snapshot of a historical time. Worse than that, “W” refuses to take sides. It seems that Dubya is actually the only sympathetic character in the entire film, which certainly lends credence to the idea of a “life misunderestimated,” but it’s hardly the conclusion that might be expected from the actors Stone cast and the satirical slant of the trailer. In some cases, it’s an explicit parody (Thandie Newton is awful and obnoxious as Condoleezza Rice, Rob Corddry is hardly interesting as Ari Fleischer, while Karl Rove and Jeffrey Wright are great as Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, respectively), and in others, serious actors fill serious roles (James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush). Josh Brolin does a good job of portraying Dubya, though it’s more of an objective stance than anything else. There’s no clear thesis here, and the movie is not nearly entertaining enough to sustain itself without one. It clocks in at 2 hours and 9 minutes, which feels devastatingly long, even though the four hour runtime of “JFK” seemed perfectly appropriate. All in all, it’s just uninteresting – a horrible waste of such effort and scattered talent.

C

Monday, November 17, 2008

Film Review: Body of Lies

Body of Lies
Directed by Ridley Scott
Released October 10, 2008

After the disappointment of last year’s “American Gangster,” the last collaboration between director Ridley Scott and supporting actor Russell Crowe, and the relative lack of buzz when this movie came out, my hopes weren’t too high. “Body of Lies” turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It’s an unexpectedly clever, action-packed thriller. It’s more effective than perhaps it should be because it emphasizes action and excitement over thorough dramatic plotting. Taken as a less serious movie, it’s a more pleasurable experience. It’s lengthy, but the intensity of the movie is pretty uniform throughout. This film isn’t about the acting, though Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe are great fits for their respective roles. A particularly impressive acting tour de force comes from British actor Mark Strong as the man to talk to if you need to get something done in Jordan. “Body of Lies” is certainly a fun movie, and if expectations aren’t set that high, it is sure to please.

B

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Film Review: Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Released October 24, 2008

Charlie Kaufman is best known for his Oscar-nominated screenplays for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” and his Oscar-winning script for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” All three films are wacky but surprisingly focused explorations into a different way of looking at life. Here Kaufman steps behind the camera during shooting of the film, and there result is a marvelous yet incomprehensible fantasy. “Synecdoche, New York” is entirely fascinating, but hardly ever does it make any sense. It’s a world within a world within a world within a world, and the degrees of copying are mind-boggling. The make-up here is something that should truly be trumpeted as wonderful, since all the characters age decades throughout the film and it looks as if they’ve actually lived all those years. The character relationships are intensely interesting, since it’s unclear whether the real Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is interacting with the actual Hazel (Samantha Morton), or whether it’s the actor playing Caden (Tom Noonan) trying to engage the actress portraying Hazel (Emily Watson). It’s an unbelievable mind trip, but that’s what come to be expected from the mind of Charlie Kaufman. All the actors in this film are incredible, and casting Samantha Morton and Emily Watson as the same person is a dream come true. It’s not the kind of film that ends leaving the viewer satisfied, but instead one that gets him thinking, ruminating on just how complex and bizarre an experience this movie really is. It’s sort of like watching a movie without subtitles – you know you won’t understand everything, but it’s sort of alright, because there’s a magical feeling that something unfathomable is going on.

B+

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Film Review: Happy-Go-Lucky

Happy-Go-Lucky
Directed by Mike Leigh
Released October 10, 2008

Director Mike Leigh hasn’t made a movie in four years, and his last effort was the incredibly good, incredibly serious drama “Vera Drake.” His new film, “Happy-Go-Lucky” is completely the opposite in terms of tone, yet it’s still a marvelous and completely likeable experience. The movie is amusing throughout, and its dramatic moments come only in perfectly blended spurts. Lead actress Sally Hawkins is simply amazing as eternally cheery chatterbox Poppy, and the great news is that, even though all the critics will be highlighting Hawkins’ performance, the movie is just as good. Alexis Zegerman provides an excellent sarcastic foil to Poppy’s positive demeanor as her roommate and best friend Zoe. It’s rare to find a film that’s truly a comedy that’s as good as this one. Hopefully, this little-seen film will get increased distribution and renewed press coverage when Oscar season comes up and Hawkins garners an Oscar nomination (fingers crossed!) for her terrific performance.

B+

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Film Feature: Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle
Released November 12, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire" is unlike any other film you’ll see this year. It is a grand meeting between an American ideal and a Bollywood style, given life by a British director. Danny Boyle headed to India to create this heartwarming story of a boy who goes on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" only to be accused of cheating and be forced to defend himself by retelling his life story.

Boyle is a notable director best known for films like "Trainspotting," "28 Days Later", "Millions," and "Sunshine." He embraced the opportunity to work on "Slumdog Millionaire" if only for the unparalleled experience it provided him to work in India. He emphasized the positive but daunting community dynamic. “You have no control,” he insisted. “If you seek control, you will find madness. Directors usually like control, but it doesn’t work like that there. The people you work with respect and trust you because you respect and trust them.” He also loved the bravery of his Indian co-director, Loveleen Tandan, whom he credits for much of the film’s success. “The problem with being a director, especially if you’ve made a few films people know, is that people just say yes, that’s right,” he explained. He appreciated Tandan’s willingness to stand up to him. “You’re not making a documentary, you’re making a narrative,” Boyle said. “Sometime it’s essential to know that you’re doing something that’s deliberately incorrect, culturally or whatever.”

Boyle seemed awed with the prospect of being able to actually film in the slums, which he describes as “an incredibly complex place; a city in itself.” He noted that the crew used digital cameras in order to move about more freely, since, he said, “if you use the big cameras, people are obsessed with movies there and people are all like, let’s gaze into it.” The contradictory culture is due in part to the massiveness of the slums. “They’re not wealthy people, but they’re incredibly resourceful.” "Slumdog Millionaire" attempts to capture that grandstanding notion. “You’d never be bored there. It’s like going on fast-forward the whole time. We want this to be an exciting film.”

Boyle was especially surprised with the response to the film thus far in the United States. “I thought it might work in the UK because of the connection with India, but I had no idea about America. I had never really thought about how the underdog idea was. It’s so part of the psyche in America that if someone has a dream and they stick it to it, even if everything is against them, you have a country built on that idea. People are very cynical about that outside of America.” Distributor Fox Searchlight seems hopeful about the prospects of the film, and they’ve begun an extensive marketing campaign with a clever take on the film’s game show setting.

"Slumdog Millionaire" is Danny Boyle’s longest film to date, clocking in at two hours. He’s happy with the final version, but there was a major roadblock along the way. The film was initially contracted for a PG-13 rating. Instead, it ended up with an R rating due to the “intensity of the experience,” according to Boyle. He claimed that the rating was fruitlessly appealed; however, he didn’t want to distort the film more by attempting to edit it down. He believes that movies like The Dark Knight, which made off with a PG-13 stamp, was pretty intense, and “one of the reasons it’s so good is it feels real.” He did note that “I like extremes, that you feel the film. I’m glad it feels like an intense experience.”

The experience Boyle describes doesn’t come with any recognizable faces, at least for American audiences. The film’s lead character, Who Wants to be a Millionaire contestant Jamal, is portrayed by Patel, whose only previous acting experience was the British television drama Skins. Bollywood sensation Anil Kapoor plays the host of the show, but this is his first English role. The only face that might be slightly familiar to American moviegoers is Irfan Khan, who has recently appeared in supporting roles in The Namesake and A Mighty Heart. The movie does contain revelatory performances from debut actors, most of them very young, but it’s going to have to depend on its sympathetic and unexpected story to appeal to audiences. Boyle’s name is not yet a household brand, and zombie devotees who loved 28 Days Later may not be drawn to this unconventional premise. Luckily enough for the movie, it has the added boost of being the surprise favorite for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture by bloggers and critics alike. Boyle noted that, “none of us were thinking about it while we were making it. If it ever gets a nomination for anything, they’ll be so delighted. They really do look to American movie culture, and it would mean an awful lot to them.” This movie wasn’t made with awards in mind, but with the right buzz, maybe it can achieve the same unlikely success as its hero. "Slumdog Millionaire" is a movie about the underdog, and this sure feels like an underdog movie that will go far.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Friday, November 7, 2008

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Israel Film Festival: Lost Islands

The 23rd Israel Film Festival opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York on October 29th with honors bestowed to director Edward Zwick, producer Irwin Winkler, and actor Danny DeVito. The opening night selection was the film “Lost Islands.” Director Reshef Levy’s first feature film is an intimate portrait of an Israeli family unit in the 1980s. It’s inventive and refreshing in the way it dodges traditional issues and dilemmas in Israeli society by focusing instead on complex relationships between the many siblings in the Levi family. The near-complete ignorance of political discussion, save for the occasional ironic, future-looking reference to Israel’s leadership, makes room for further exploration of the human interaction of the family. Levy’s film lacks the awesome captivating power of director Eytan Fox’s recent productions “Walk on Water” and “The Bubble,” but there’s something increasingly compelling about the story and characters as the movie continues along. For 103 minutes, this family is the center of attention and they’re full of interesting surprises and occasional endearing humor. “Lost Islands” has already received a number of awards from the Israeli Film Academy, including mentions for lead actor Michael Moshonov and supporting actor Shmil Ben Ari. Moshonov does a fine job as protagonist Erez, though Oshri Cohen, who plays his brother Ofer, deserves equal credit. Ben Ari has a wonderful Javier Bardem-like quality to him that makes his performance entirely irresistible. Yuval Scharf also deserves a notable mention for her portrayal of Neta, the girl whose love is shared between Erez and Ofer. It’s really a remarkably strong cast well-matched by a smart script. The movie has a terrific jaded feel, as if it’s a time capsule snapshot of a place to which people yearn to get back. It’s a pleasant memory, and an effective, moving one at times which should certainly be seen by American audiences whenever it is released in the United States.

B+

More information on the 23rd Israel Film Festival, running through November 13th, is available at http://ny.israelfilmfestival.com.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Mini-Review: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Released October 3, 2008

This is a terrific independent film whose universally glowing reviews should hopefully garner it the wide audience it deserves. Easily comparable to 2006’s Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, “After the Wedding,” this movie is a remarkably intimate and intensely interesting story with wonderfully three-dimensional characters. The cinematography and editing are very deliberate but work so seamlessly. Anne Hathaway, who to this point hadn’t impressed me much, delivers an incredible performance that really shows her transition to adult roles and should earn her an Oscar nomination. It’s quite possibly the best lead actress performance I’ve seen all year. Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays her sister, and Bill Irwin, who plays her father, are equally amazing. I’m just worried that their screen time and limited roles may rob them of the recognition they so richly deserve. Debra Winger, who plays her mother, may steal most of that for a performance that’s good but not nearly as nuanced as the other three. Plainly put, there’s no weak link in the cast, and this is one of the best films of the year. Go see it!

A-

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Mini-Review: Blindness

Blindness
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Released September 26, 2008

Fernando Meirelles has earned himself quite the reputation after scoring a surprise Oscar nomination for the unbelievably good “City of God” in 2003 and then following it up with the critically-acclaimed, though in my mind underwhelming “The Constant Gardener.” You might think that he’d be the perfect director to take on the story of an epidemic of blindness and the one woman on the inside who can still see. It’s a profoundly disturbing film that isn’t as affecting as it should be. It’s less than pleasant, but there’s no merit to it. The cinematography and editing are very much inferior to the more creative aesthetics of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and no one in the cast is particularly great. The film takes a while to speed up, then slows right back down again, leading up to an annoyingly predictable ending. This should have been a better movie, and its lack of inventive storytelling is perhaps its biggest flaw.

D+

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mini-Review: How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

How To Lose Friends and Alienate People
Directed by Robert Weide
Released October 3, 2008

Simon Pegg is an impressive actor whose comedic skills should allow him to be able to carry a film, especially one like this. Sadly, this movie never quite takes off. It’s funny at times, but doesn’t at any point become a truly good movie. Pegg is amusing, but his character is too loud and outlandish. It’s difficult to enjoy a movie like this when the hero continually sabotages himself the entire time, and that’s supposed to provide the humor. I don’t find it easy to laugh at someone who consistently does stupid things that should have been easily avoidable. Supporting stars Kirsten Dunst and Jeff Bridges need to get to work on finding better roles, immediately. Danny Huston is well-cast for his part as a typical sleazebag, and I’d like to see this guy have bigger and better roles in the future. The movie’s occasionally fun, but altogether just too hard to like.

C