Sunday, January 31, 2010

Up in the Air (2009)

George Clooney, so good that you almost don't notice him, plays a corporate downsizer obsessed with frequent flyer miles. In the course of several weeks, he deals with a young upstart looking to alter the job he loves, and a potential love interest, played with wit by Vera Farmiga. Anna Kendrick is great as the upstart, and the film is funny and entertaining, even though it does start to get bogged down in third-act contrivances. It's saved, however, at the very end from becoming a trite romantic comedy set in the world of growing unemployment, and becomes something a little more ambiguous instead.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

RIP, J. D. Salinger

In remembrance of the passing of J. D. Salinger, I thought I'd post the first lines of his four books. I always thought he was a master of the opening sentence.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
-- The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through.
-- Nine Stories (1953), this is the first line from "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"

Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone had hoped it would stay for the big weekend--the weekend of the Yale game.
-- Franny and Zooey (1961)

One night some twenty years ago, during a siege of mumps in our enormous family, my youngest sister, Franny, was moved, crib and all, into the ostensibly germ-free room I shared with my eldest brother, Seymour.
-- Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction (1963)

Fish Tank (2010)

Another great film from director Andrea Arnold who made Red Road and a short film called Wasp. This one follows a fifteen-year-old named Mia who lives in a housing project in Essex, England. She develops a crush on her mother's dangerous new boyfriend, played by the masterful Michael Fassbender. His scenes with Mia, played by non-actor Katey Jarvis (who was amazing), are the best in the film, but the rest is good as well. It's raw and nervy, and despite the bleak setting, a kind of beautiful film. I'm really looking forward to what Andrea Arnold does with Wuthering Heights, her next project according to the IMDB.

(This film debuted in theaters yesterday but is also available on Cable on Demand. Through RCN, we got it from the IFC in the theaters section. Well worth $5.99)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Young Victoria (2009)

A romantic vision of the early years of Queen Victoria and her courtship with Albert. A very entertaining movie with good performances throughout, particularly Emily Blunt who has to carry the show as Victoria and Jim Broadbent, who steals his two scenes as King William. At times it feels as though it's rushing through the pivotal moments of Victoria's early years, but it looks good and is very nicely filmed and edited. If you like films about the royal family you'll like it. Rupert Friend, with his matinee good looks, has never impressed me as an actor before but he was decent in this as a sweet and hesitant Albert.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Little Stranger (2009)

Very slow at times, but ultimately well worth the glacial pace. Sarah Waters, who usually writes Victorian-era lesbian fiction, has written a gothic ghost story, set in the years immediately following WWII. It's got an unreliable narrator, sexual repression, a once-great house falling into disrepair, and a malevolent ghost. It's not a scary ghost-story but an increasingly creepy one, and a book that leaves you with many questions (in a good way).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Poetry Monday

by Don Paterson

I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;

one long thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score
before the act, before the blame,
before the lens pulls through the frame

to where the woman sits alone
beside a silent telephone
or the dress lies ruined on the grass
or the girl walks off the overpass,

and all things flow out from that source
along their fatal watercourse.
However bad or overlong
such a film can do no wrong,

so when his native twang shows through
or when the boom dips into view
or when her speech starts to betray
its adaptation from the play,

I think to when we opened cold
on a rain-dark gutter, running gold
with the neon of a drugstore sign,
and I'd read into its blazing line:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood--
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain's own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ten Favorite Jane Austen Adaptations

In honor of tonight's presentation of Emma (my review is on Slant Magazine), here is a list of ten Jane Austen adaptations I've enjoyed.

Mansfield Park (1999). Not faithful but entertaining. A good performance by Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price.

Miss Austen Regrets (2008). Not an adaptation but a biopic that focuses on one particular period of Austen's life. It's adapted from letters and Olivia Williams is excellent (as she always is) as Jane Austen.

Bride and Prejudice (2004). Not a good movie but Aishwarya Rai is in it.

Clueless (1995). This loose update of Emma is one of the great teen comedies of all time, and it's surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the book. The late Brittany Murphy is hilarious in the Harriet Smith role.

Pride and Prejudice (1940). Only enjoyable if you ignore the inauthentic costumes (the studio used cast-offs from Gone With the Wind) and the abridged silliness of this version.

Pride and Prejudice (2005). Despite a few missteps this is a beautiful and physical movie, very well-directed by Joe Wright.

Sense and Sensibility (1995). Adaptation by Emma Thompson and directed by Ang Lee. A movie people will still be watching in fifty years.

Emma (2009). The best adaptation of Emma I've seen.

Pride and Prejudice (1995). The gold standard of television Austen adaptations. Jennifer Ehle sparkles as Elizabeth Bennett.

Persuasion (1995). My desert-island Austen film. Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth and Amanda Root as Anne Elliot are both perfect in probably my favorite Austen plot.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Perfect Getaway (2009)

A decent B thriller. Three couples all meet while hiking the same remote trail in Hawaii and it becomes apparent one of the couples are killers. It's not too hard to figure out what is going on but once it's revealed the film explodes into a gruesome, fast-paced comic (some of it unintentional) thriller. David Twohy, the director, has made a couple of other decent suspense films--Pitch Black and Below. Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant are both particularly good in this film.

The Inbetweeners

This show will probably be a big cult hit here in America like it was in Britain, but I couldn't stand it. Here's my review.

The Hurt Locker (2009)

No character arcs. Not plotlines, or twists, or messages. The camera just follows one man doing his job, a job that happens to be one of the most dangerous in the world. It's so well done that the few moments when the script turns a little corny really jump out, but those moments are few and far between.

The Lovely Bones (2009)

Saoirse Ronan was good as a murdered girl who watches her family cope, and her murderer plan to kill again, from the afterlife. There were some startling images, including a field that turns into a rolling body of water. Those are the good things, the rest is pretty terrible. Overdirected, unsubtle. Peter Jackson, playing with house money, directs a young girl's missed first kiss like he's directing the battle of Pelennor Fields.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Life Unexpected

This CW show debuted this week. Check out my review on Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Three Favorite Robert B. Parker Books

The writer Robert B. Parker died yesterday of a heart attack at his home in Cambridge. He was 77 years old and died while writing. I can think of worse ways to go.

I've been a fan of his books since I was about thirteen years old and first picked up one of my mom's copies of a Spenser novel. Of the thirty or so Spenser books I've probably read about twenty, plus I've read a couple of the Jesse Stone novels. He wrote funny, fast-paced mystery books. They weren't ground-breaking or life-altering, but they were always entertaining. I do believe he got worse as he got older, and that the early Spenser novels were by far the best writing he did.

Another thing that was nice about Spenser novels was that they were set in Boston and he did a great job of describing the area. Also, Parker always focused on food and drink. If Spenser got a meal in a restaurant, Parker would always tell you what he ate. I appreciated that. I hate when I read a novel and the author never tells you what someone's having for dinner.

These are my three favorite Spenser books:

A Savage Place. Spenser travels to Los Angeles to protect a news personality. A dark book, and maybe I like it because Spenser cheats on long-time girlfriend Susan Silverman, not my favorite character in the series.

God Save the Child. The first Spenser novel I read. Lots of great satire revolving around a hideous suburban couple squabbling over a child.

Early Autumn. Probably the best Spenser novel. It's similar to God Save the Child, except that Spenser kidnaps the child he's supposed to protect.

Rest in Peace.

Shakespeare Wrote for Money

A cool collection of Hornby's book reviews that he wrote for The Believer. The basic idea of his reviews is that he discusses the books he read over a given month. The funniest article in the book is the month during which the World Cup aired and he actually read no books. One of the strange things about these reviews is that there are no negative reviews, which apparently is a rule of writing for The Believer, so any time Hornby doesn't like something he won't actually mention it by name. Kind of annoying. I'm all of for less snark in reviews but I also want to hear what people don't like; it defines us as much as the things we like.

PS - Thanks to Charlene for giving me this book for xmas. Cheers.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Poetry Monday

by Kingsley Amis

The cold winter evening
The fire would not draw,
And the whole family hung
Over the dismal grate
Where rain-soaked logs
Bubbled, hissed and steamed.
Then, when the others had gone
Up to their chilly beds,
And I was ready to go,
The wood began to flame
In clear rose and violet,
Heating the small hearth.

Why should that memory cling
Now the children are all grown up,
And the house – a different house –
Is warm at any season?

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Uninvited (2009)

A pretty decent horror flick. A teenage girl, institutionalized after an accident kills her mom, returns home to her lakeside house, her novelist father, and his new girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks channeling a Stepford wife). Well-done and creepy but with a few too many tagged-on scares and far too many plot holes.

(This is apparently, and not surprisingly, a remake of a Korean horror film from 2003 called Janghwa, Hongryeon. Is it really so difficult to come up with ideas for supernatural horror films and gothic thrillers that American screenwriters need to remake every half-decent international horror film?)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Best Posters of the Decade

10. A perfectly executed teaser poster that managed to signal a sea-change in the Bond franchise.

9. There were several versions of this poster that all used the hand in the water. A perfect image for the film and I love the graphic element that flows from the photograph.

8. Putting dots on top of a close-up image should not be this good, should it?

7. Sofia Coppola clearly cares about her poster art since all her films have good posters. This is my favorite.

6. This was the decade of the provocative movie poster (e.g the Saw franchise, Hostel). This is both a shocking image but also a complex one, implying some of the ideas in the film.

5. Great teaser poster for a not-so-great film.

4. The job of the movie poster is to make you want to see the movie. How can you not want to see this movie? Probably the most mimicked poster of the decade.

3. Sometimes all you need is one image.

2. Like Tarantino's movies, this poster is both familiar and new. All of the artwork for the Grindhouse experiment was great.

1. My vote for best poster of the decade.

runners up:

Anything Else (2003)

2003 must have been a tough creative year for Woody Allen. He had nothing going on so when some film students sent him a terrible parody of one of his own films he decided to buy it off of them and release it as his own. That must have happened, right? I mean, Woody Allen has made bad films but not this bad. Right?

(Not that it would have saved this script but why was this film set in 2003, when everything about it -- the dialogue, the psychoanalysis, the vinyl records -- screams no later than 1971. Was he too lazy to hire a costume designer and set this move in the past?)

2 Days in Paris (2007)

Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg play a couple whose relationship is starting to fall apart at the tail-end of a trip to Europe. Delpy wrote and directed this, and it's pretty good. The chemistry between the characters is palpable; it feels improvised at times and both Delpy and Goldberg are very funny. She also casts her own parents as her parents in the film and the scenes with them, particularly the father, are great.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

So-so movie about a high-end call girl in Manhattan. It's one of Soderbergh's experimental films, which means it doesn't really have a plot; instead we get random scenes in which everything is a transaction. The call girl Chelsea, played by adult film star Sasha Gray, has one expression, a kind of bemused vacuousness. It's interesting for a while because it makes you wonder what her character is really like but after 77 minutes it just gets tiring. The stuff with her boyfriend, a personal trainer aspiring for a management position, does not help matters.

Soderbergh filmed this with a relatively cheap hi-def camera in wide-angle shots and it looks amazing. I'm a huge fan of film stock over digital cameras but the look and feel he got with his camera was impressive. The compositions were the best part of the film.

Skins (2007)

I just got through the first season of this British teen soap. It caught a lot of buzz because of how edgy it is, i.e. teenagers having random sex, doing tons of drugs, etcetera. I found it wildly uneven, some of it funny, perceptive, disturbing (all in a good way) and some of it pretty terrible--over-the-top broad comedy, unrealistic character motivation. The biggest chasm was between the nuanced teenage characters and the cartoonish adult characters, most of which are presented as monstrous buffoons and sex-addicts. Some of the acting was good, in particular Nicholas Hoult ( who I knew as the boy in About a Boy) as a borderline sociopath and self-appointed leader of the group of teens that make up the show.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Poetry Monday

A Book Full of Pictures

by Charles Simic

Father studied theology through the mail
And this was exam time.
Mother knitted. I sat quietly with a book
Full of pictures. Night fell.
My hands grew cold touching the faces
Of dead kings and queens.

There was a black raincoat in the upstairs bedroom
Swaying from the ceiling,
But what was it doing there?
Mother’s long needles made quick crosses.
They were black
Like the inside of my head just then.

The pages I turned sounded like wings.
“The soul is a bird,” he once said.
In my book full of pictures
A battle raged: lances and swords
Made a kind of wintry forest
With my heart spiked and bleeding on its branches.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Fifteen Favorite Performances of the Past Decade

This is a list of my favorite film performances of the past ten years. It's not exactly a list of the best performances although I think every performance on this list is one of the best I've recently seen. For instance, I don't necessarily think Kurt Russell in Death Proof turned in a better performance than Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood but I enjoyed it more.

In other words, take this list with a grain of subjective salt. That said, number one on this list was the performance of the decade.

15. Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds (2009)Obviously, Christoph Waltz stole the movie as Landa, but Michael Fassbender took a small, archaic role ("old chap, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's ...")and made it shine. Is there a man-crush here? Obviously.

14. Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton (2007)Another great supporting turn from Tom Wilkinson as a brilliant lawyer in a manic state. Heartbreaking.

13. Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa (2003) Another actor might have tried to imbue this character with some semblance of humanity or pathos but not Thornton. He plays it brutally straight.

12. Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)Come back to acting, Hackman, the world has enough historical novels.

11. Franka Potente in The Bourne Identity (2002)She takes a familiar role (the innocent bystander pulled into an action picture) and does something entirely new, playing it as realistic as possible, watching Jason Bourne with equal parts erotic fascination and terror.

10. Naomi Watts in The Painted Veil (2006)Her second greatest performance of the decade. An old-fashioned star turn as a woman who falls in love with her husband after she marries him.

9. George Clooney in Michael Clayton (2007)Remember when he couldn't really act? This is another great star turn in a film that grows on me as time passes.

8. Kurt Russell in Death Proof (2007)He does so much in this film. He's funny, pathetic, then terrifying, and finally, a cringing coward. There's nothing better than Hollywood hunks that are able to act without vanity. No way Burt Reynolds could have pulled this off.

7. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008)A brilliant, lived-in performance. Second great performance from Mickey in this decade after his turn in Sin City.

6. Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal (2006)Judi Dench completely sheds her bubbly personality and plays a malicious, almost-evil schoolteacher in this solid thriller.

5. Christian Bale in American Psycho (2000)Lately Christian Bale has admitted he was channeling Tom Cruise for this role. Regardless, he was the best psycho since Tony Perkins.

4. Nicole Kidman in The Others (2001)An icy performance as a woman sewn up extra tight. She's not a favorite actress of mine but for the length of this film she mesmerized.

3. Colin Farrell in In Bruges (2008)So funny and then so tragic as a man trapped in purgatory on earth.

2. Kate Winslet in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)Everything she does as prickly, lovelorn Clementine in this film is fascinating.

1. Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (2001)One of the great screen performances as she transforms from Betty to Diane.

Special award to Bill Nighy in Shaun of the Dead for best five-minute performance.