Thursday, December 16, 2010

The spin on the 'Globes'

I’m a couple of days late at commenting on them, but the nominations for the Golden Globes were announced earlier this week. The Globes, which are presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, are often considered a precursor to the Academy Awards, as a number of the nominees here will reappear when the Oscar nomination are revealed next month. Of course, the ceremony also veers off from the Oscars, with fewer overall categories, but splits up drama from the comedy/musical genre, and includes TV in its nominations. That makes it the rare broadcast that mixes the movie and television mediums in one award show.

But enough babble about the awards format. Here’s some of the nominees:

Best Motion Picture - Drama
“Black Swan”
“The Fighter”
“Inception”
“The King’s Speech”
“The Social Network”
This would seem to be quite the competitive category. Heck, I don’t think I could even make an accurate prediction of which film will win.

Best Actress - Drama
Halle Berry - “Frankie and Alice”
Nicole Kidman - “Rabbit Hole”
Jennifer Lawrence - “Winter’s Bone”
Natalie Portman - “Black Swan”
Michelle Williams - “Blue Valentine”
Portman is likely the frontrunner here, but I’m a definite fan of the work by Lawrence and especially Williams in their respective films.

Best Actor - Drama
Jesse Eisenberg - “The Social Network”
Colin Firth - “The King’s Speech”
James Franco - “127 Hours”
Ryan Gosling - “Blue Valentine”
Mark Wahlberg - “The Fighter”
I was very happy to see Gosling get recognized for his performance in the emotionally resonant “Blue Valentine.” But he’s a definite underdog here, with Firth the veteran and likely winner in an otherwise young field of nominees.

Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical
“Alice in Wonderland”
“Burlesque”
“The Kids Are All Right”
“Red”
“The Tourist”
“Kids” should be the overwhelming favorite in this category, with some of these films not even popular with critics (“Burlesque,” “The Tourist”). Any other film winning would be a shocker.

Best Actress - Comedy or Musical
Annette Bening - “The Kids Are All Right”
Anne Hathaway - “Love and Other Drugs”
Angelina Jolie - “The Tourist”
Julianne Moore - “The Kids Are All Right”
Emma Stone - “Easy A”
This race is a little tough to call, as the two frontrunners would appear to be Bening and Moore, who are in the same movie. They could split votes, allowing someone else to pull off an upset.

Best Actor - Comedy or Musical
Johnny Depp - “Alice in Wonderland”
Johnny Depp - “The Tourist”
Paul Giamatti “Barney’s Version”
Jake Gyllenhaal - “Love and Other Drugs”
Kevin Spacey - “Casino Jack”
This is another of those “who knows?” kind of categories, with Depp competing against himself. That’s the kind of nomination oddity that you’ll never see at the Oscars. But I would think his Mad Hatter in “Alice” will likely win out.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams - “The Fighter”
Helena Bonham Carter - “The King’s Speech”
Mila Kunis - “Black Swan”
Melissa Leo - “The Fighter”
Jacki Weaver - “Animal Kingdom”
This is one of those categories where the Globes occasionally springs surprises, but I’m thinking either Adams or Leo will win here, unless they split votes – always a possibility.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale - “The Fighter”
Michael Douglas - “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”
Andrew Garfield - “The Social Network”
Jeremy Renner - “The Town”
Geoffrey Rush - “The King’s Speech”
His nomination (in what most would consider a lead role) could see the rare public appearance in recent months of Douglas, who has been battling cancer. But him winning in this category is unlikely, with Bale and Rush looking to be the top possibilities.

Best Director
Darren Aronofsky - “Black Swan”
David Fincher - “The Social Network”
Tom Hooper - “The King’s Speech”
Christopher Nolan - “Inception”
David O. Russell - “The Fighter”
Fincher and Nolan appear to be the heavyweights in this battle, with both building quite the career of critical and commercial successes. Fincher probably has slightly more momentum with the more recently buzzed about movie, but Nolan’s film was a true technical marvel.

Best Screenplay
Simon Beaufoy, Danny Boyle - “127 Hours”
Christopher Nolan - “Inception”
Stuart Blumberg, Lisa Cholodenko - “The Kids Are All Right”
David Seidler - “The King’s Speech”
Aaron Sorkin - “The Social Network”
Another tough category to call, with Nolan a double nominee at the Globes. He probably won’t win in both categories, which could make Sorkin a likely selection. Still, it’s hard to rule out Beaufoy and Boyle, who had a lot of success when collaborating on “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The Golden Globes will be held on Sunday, Jan. 16 on NBC, with Ricky Gervais back as host.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

What's New in Blu? (Week of Dec. 14)

“The Other Guys” (PG-13)
Starring Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Ray Stevenson, Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson
Directed by Adam McKay

Garnering a large measure of its success from the oddly effective chemistry of its stars (Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg), “The Other Guys” is a better action-comedy than it probably should be. After all, mismatched cops working together on a big case is hardly original. But this film is well aware of the cliches that fill the genre, and even gets some laughs poking fun at them. Ferrell , who seems to do his best comedic work with director Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights”), is enjoyably nerdy with a dark side, while Wahlberg shows a knack for comedy. Michael Keaton, as the duo’s captain (and a manager on the side at Bed Bath & Beyond) is a standout in the large supporting cast.
Grade: B+


Other releases:
“The A-Team”
(PG-13)
Starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Jessica Biel, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Sharlto Copley, Patrick Wilson, Gerald McRaney
Directed by Joe Carnahan



“Cyrus” (R)
Starring John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener
Directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass



“Despicable Me” (PG)
Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segal, Kristen Wiig, Julie Andrews, Danny McBride, Russell Brand, Jermaine Clement, Miranda Cosgrove
Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin



“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (R)
Starring Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Emily Koslowski, Don Rickles
Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg



“Nanny McPhee Returns” (PG)
Starring Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans and Maggie Smith
Directed by Susanna White

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Movie review: "Winter's Bone"


Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt
Directed by Debra Granik


Let’s be honest: the darkly effective, small-budgeted thriller “Winter’s Bone” doesn’t serve as the greatest promotional tool for the Missouri Department of Tourism. But it can’t really be argued that the movie takes unfair liberties with its depiction of the backwoods residents in the Missouri Ozarks seemingly consumed by the production of methamphetamine.

Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, the screenplay by director Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini is sharply crafted in establishing the mood and atmosphere where the characters reside, but avoids bludgeoning you over the head with their drug-infested lives. Interestingly enough, for a movie so steeped in conversation about drugs, there’s very little use or production of it taking place on screen.

But lest the film sound like spending a couple of hours in unpleasant company, not every character inhabiting the story has drugs on their mind. In fact, the main character, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence, in a star-making performance) wants nothing to do with them, even though they’ve likely been surrounding her for all of her 17 years of life. Ree is the entry point into the film, as she’s had to take on the task of becoming the main caretaker for her two younger siblings, with a mother rendered practically useless by a debilitating depression, and an absentee father.

The fact that her father is gone isn’t really a bad thing for Ree, as he’s been a longtime meth cooker, who has apparently skipped bail as the movie begins. But his disappearance has placed an added burden on the family, as he has used the house as collateral for his bail. Ree is told by the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt) if her dad doesn’t make his court date in a week, the family will lose the house. The determined teen tells the sheriff she will find him, launching her on a journey among suspicious neighbors and extended family members.

Along the way, she gets varied degrees of assistance, but mostly runs into brick walls from people who would rather she leave well enough alone. But with the thought of homelessness (not to mention the possible breakup of her small family unit) weighing on her mind, Ree pushes forward to find her father, possibly putting her life in peril during the process.

The pacing of the film is a little sluggish at times, but great mileage is gained by the authentic location shooting (in Taney and Christian County) and moody cinematography from Michael McDonough. Granik’s cast, a mix of professionals and first-time actors, provide just the right amount of authenticity to the material, with John Hawkes, as Ree’s dyspeptic uncle, Teardrop, a real standout. His character, although an addict who is at first resentful of Ree’s mission, has an itching desire to know what has become of his brother.

But the film’s success generally depends on Lawrence, as her character’s steely determination drives the story forward. Having only had a few small roles leading to her starring role here, Lawrence is extremely impressive as a teen considering the Army as a chance to give herself a new life (and her family some much-needed money). In her expressive face that has to hide a lot of the fear and uncertainty she’s feeling, Lawrence captures Dee’s desire to get at the truth, no matter the consequences for her. In one standout scene, she pleads with her basically unresponsive mother to tell her what to do, only to realize it's her own instincts that have gotten her this far. In a chilling environment that has sapped most of the life force from those that surround her, Ree’s desire to do right by her family is a true spot of warmth.

Grade: B+
(Rated R for some drug material, language and violent content.)

Monday, December 06, 2010

What's New in Blu? (Week of Dec. 7)

“Inception” (PG-13)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger and Michael Caine
Directed by Christopher Nolan

Following up the huge success he achieved with “The Dark Knight,” writer/director Christopher Nolan crafted another commercial and critical hit with “Inception,” an exciting and original concoction that has a twisty narrative on a par with 2001’s excellent “Memento” (also a Nolan picture). Aided by a great cast, the ambitious action-packed thriller jumps onto four continents and six countries, following a small crew of thieves with the ability to extract information from the subconscious of their subjects. The crew leader, Dominic Cobb (DiCaprio, in a strong performance that echoes his work in “Shutter Island”), is given a chance to reunite with his children in exchange for successfully executing one last job, which has all the makings of his most difficult. Some of the visuals in the movie bring to mind the best parts of “The Matrix” films, with a storyline that will keep minds engaged, if not overworked.
Grade: A


Other releases:
“About Last Night …” (R)
Starring Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, James Belushi, Elizabeth Perkins
Directed by Edward Zwick



“The Big Hit” (R)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Lou Diamond Phillips, Christina Applegate, Bokeem Woodbine, Antonio Sabato Jr., China Chow
Directed by Kirk Wong



“The Mission” (R)
Starring Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn
Directed by Roland Joffe



“Restrepo” (R)
Directed by Tim Hethrington and Sebastian Junger


“Shrek Forever After” (PG)
Starring the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, Eric Idle, Justin Timberlake
Directed by Mike Mitchell

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Winter movie preview (December 2010)

“Black Swan”
Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Whether you like director Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler”) or not, the guy’s certainly willing to go out on a limb. This thriller is set in the world of ballet, involving a pair of dancers competing for coveted roles in “Swan Lake.” Natalie Portman has been getting rave reviews in the festival circuit as the obsessed dancer possibly losing her grip on sanity in pursuit of the highly prestigious spot. (Dec. 3, limited)


“The Tourist”
Starring Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff, Rufus Sewell, Christian De Sica
Directed by Florian Henckel Von Donersmarck

Big-time star power headlines the tale of an American (Depp) in Italy who becomes intrigued with a mysterious woman (Jolie), who happens to be an Interpol agent. He soon finds himself wrapped up in international intrigue. The thriller certainly has elements of a good Alfred Hitchcock film, and will hopefully make good use of its stars and locale. (Dec. 10)


“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”
Starring Ben Barnes, Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, Will Poulter, Tilda Swinton
Directed by Michael Apted

The continuing “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise finds itself with a new studio, but many of the same stars, hoping to recapture the box-office magic of the first installment. The last film, “Prince Caspian,” was a box-office disappointment. In this one, Lucy and Edmund are back in Narnia, travelling on the open seas with their cousin, Eustace, aboard the Dawn Treader, encountering a new adventure. (Dec. 10)


“The Company Men”
Starring Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Maria Bello, Rosemarie Dewitt, Craig T. Nelson
Directed by John Wells

A strong cast is on hand for John Wells’ (making his directorial debut) movie about corporate downsizing and the effect it has on executives, young and old alike. It primarily centers around Bobby Walker (Affleck, on a recent hot streak) and his search for an identity beyond what he’s done for work and the privileges it gave him. It’s not what you would call feel-good material, but could strike a chord with audiences. (Dec. 10)


“The Fighter”
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo
Directed by David O. Russell

Reuniting with director Russell for his third film, Wahlberg portrays “Irish” Micky Ward in a true-life story about a down-on-his-luck boxer looking to find success in the ring. He gets support from his once great, but now questionably reliable older brother (Bale) and his strong-willed girlfriend (Adams) to pursue his dream of becoming a champion. Wahlberg has had success in inspirational sports movies before (“Invincible”), but this movie has Oscar aspirations – and just might have the pedigree to pick up some award notices. (Dec. 10, limited)


“Tron: Legacy”
Starring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner and Michael Sheen
Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Hardly a big hit when first released to theaters in 1982, “Tron” has become a cult favorite in the years since, and now with special effects in a new era, a sequel has been spawned. It sure doesn’t hurt to have a newly-crowned Oscar winner (Bridges) heading up the cast. But you know people will be going for the special effects, first and foremost. (Dec. 17)


“How Do You Know”
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson
Directed by James L. Brooks

Romantic comedies sure do like to use the love triangle as a linchpin for their stories. This one involves a woman (Witherspoon) caught between her current beau, a baseball player (Wilson) and a corporate executive (Rudd). The pairing of Witherspoon with Brooks, both of whom have a great track record in the genre, could bode well for its prospects with audiences. (Dec. 17)


“Little Fockers”
Starring Robert DeNiro, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Blythe Danner, Teri Polo, Jessica Alba, Laura Dern, Harvey Keitel, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand
Directed by Paul Weitz

The third film in what has become an unexpected comedy hit franchise – one of at least two for Stiller – has more domestic hijinks for the Focker and Byrnes families. The busy Owen Wilson joins in the fun, reuniting with his longtime friend and occassional co-star Stiller (“Zoolander”). The pre-Christmas release date should make this comedy a prime target for audiences for the next several weeks. (Dec. 22)


“True Grit”
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper and Hailee Steinfeld
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

At first, the thought of remaking what some consider a classic John Wayne movie seems like an ill-advised decision. But the benefit of the doubt has to be given to the Coen brothers, who are sure to give a different spin to the western, but still remain faithful to the genre. Pulling in Bridges (in his second film of the month) is sure to generate Oscar talk. He plays a determined U.S. Marshall looking to track down the killer of a young girl’s father. (Dec. 22)


“Blue Valentine”
Starring Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, John Doman, Ben Shenkman
Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Although most of the publicity this intense drama has received centers around its unwarranted NC-17 rating, Gosling and Williams (as a young couple falling into and out of love) have picked up quite a bit of favorable notice from film critics and audiences in its journey on the film festival circuit during the course of the year. Whether the movie can get a wide release with the unpopular rating (currently under appeal by its releasing studio) remains to be seen. (Dec. 31)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What's New in Blu? (Week of Nov. 16)

“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore” (PG)
Starring the voices of James Marsden, Nick Nolte, Christina Applegate, Katt Williams, Bette Midler, Neil Patrick Harris
Directed by Steve Bencich



“A Christmas Carol” (PG)
Starring the voices of Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins, Cary Elwes
Directed by Robert Zemeckis



“The Kids Are All Right” (R)
Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko



“The Last Airbender” (PG)
Starring Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Dev Patel, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan



“Lottery Ticket” (PG-13)
Starring Bow Wow, Brandon T. Jackson, Naturi Naughton, Keith David, Charlie Murphy and Ice Cube
Directed by Erik White



“Modern Times” (G)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman
Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Fall Movie Preview (November 2010)

As November rolls around, the holiday season does as well, with a significant increase in family-oriented films hitting theaters. But more serious, award-seeking fare will also be coming.

NOVEMBER
“Megamind”

Starring the voices of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross and Brad Pitt
Directed by Tom McGrath

An animated adventure featuring a superhero seemed a no-brainer, thus the latest release from Dreamworks Animation, with what the studio surely hopes will launch a new franchise. That, in turn, could replace the “Shrek” series, which has (supposedly) concluded. Big names (Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Brad Pitt) headline the vocal talent, focusing on a villain who takes over on the role of a hero after the hugely popular Metro Man decides to retire. Grabbing an early November release slot, the movie should have much of the family-focused audience to itself leading into Thanksgiving. (Nov. 5)


“Due Date”
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx, Juliette Lewis
Directed by Todd Phillips

Coming off his red-hot summer smash of 2009, “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips brings in one of his stars from that film, Zach Galifianakis, and pairs him with just plain red-hot actor Robert Downey Jr. There’s pretty much no genre that Downey can’t excel in, and a road trip comedy featuring an odd couple pairing seems like a gold mine for laughs. If it’s anywhere close to as good as its trailer, Downey and Phillips should have another big hit on their hands. (Nov. 5)


“127 Hours”
Starring James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara
Directed by Danny Boyle

“Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle follows up his Oscar-winning hit film with a true-life harrowing tale of survival. Mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a supremely confident young man who has a lot of time to reflect on his life after becoming trapped under a boulder while exploring canyons in Utah. The movie has been a hit on the festival circuit, much like “Slumdog” was before it picked up a head of steam with critics and audiences, eventually leading to a bunch of awards. Time will tell if this release will follow a similar path. (Nov. 5)


“Morning Glory”
Starring Rachel McAdams, Diane Keaton, Harrison Ford, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum
Directed by Roger Michell

A young successful television producer (Rachel McAdams) is given the unenviable task of helping to turn around a struggling morning show staffed by feuding anchors (Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford). The cast is certainly appealing, but will need a good story to go along with it to become a hit in a very competitive field. (Nov. 10)


“Unstoppable”
Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson
Directed by Tony Scott

Frequent collaborators Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott team up for their sixth film together, including the second straight thriller involving a train. This time, Washington is a train conductor looking to head off a potential disaster, as a runaway freight train carrying toxic chemicals makes its way towards a town. He gets help from a young engineer (played by “Star Trek” star Chris Pine) in a desperate race against time. There’s certainly a sense of the familiar here, but its hard to discount the dependability of Washington, who’s coming off one of the biggest hits of his career (“The Book of Eli”). (Nov. 12)


“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I”
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman
Directed by David Yates

This release marks the build up for the big finish of the hugely popular franchise, breaking up the final book into two parts. Part two comes out next summer, but this installment will set the table, with audiences likely to come out in droves. This was originally set to come out in 3D, but the difficulty in converting it to the format led to the studio scrapping the plan. (Nov. 19)


“Love and Other Drugs”
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Josh Gad, Gabriel Macht
Directed by Edward Zwick

A free-spirited beauty (Anne Hathaway) and a salesman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the pharmaceutical industry find themselves unexpectedly falling in love in this romantic comedy. The leads are no doubt an attractive pairing, but can they bring something new to what has clearly become an overused genre? (Nov. 24)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Austin Film Festival wrap-up

Having returned home after several days of fun at the Austin Film Festival, it’s time to reflect on the experience. (I’ll leave the lengthy wait at security in the Austin airport out of the discussion. That was a tense way to end the trip.) Travel hiccups notwithstanding, the festival was a bit lighter on star power than I expected (only a few of the films I saw had a Q&A session with filmmakers at its conclusion). However, the quality of the material was quite good. There wasn’t a bad movie in the bunch of the group I saw. And various awards could be in the future of a few of them. That said, I only caught a small amount of the overall lineup (170 were officially listed). But in its 17th year, the festival programmers clearly know what they’re doing and it was well organized and seemingly error-free at the showings I attended.
Compliments aside, here’s a brief rundown of the festival selections I got the chance to catch while in town.

“Ballhawks”
As a study in baseball passion or insanity, “Ballhawks” focuses on a group of individuals who catch baseballs hit out of Wrigley Field onto Waveland Avenue in Chicago. Director Mike Diedrich presents the documentary as a labor of love to Chicago Cubs fans, in particular, but baseball fans in general can connect with the passion this group of die hards have for the game – at least to a point. The film sets its sights on several of the Ballhawks, including one who has pursued the hobby (or obsession, as some might think) for nearly 50 years, having caught over 4,000 baseballs during that span. The subject matter is fairly limited in its scope, but still entertains, helped by the narration of Bill Murray, one of the Cubbies’ biggest fans.
Grade: B

“Shelter in Place”
Photojournalist Zed Nelson’s documentary looks at pollution problems brought about in Port Arthur, Texas, by the “accidental” or “unscheduled” emissions from the numerous petro-chemical plants located in the community. The emissions, as the film makes clear, are protected by Texas law, as long as they are reported by the plants. Meanwhile, the residents, many of whom are poor, African-American and undereducated, largely feel powerless against the petro-chemical industry. As one resident explains, the plants can tie up a legal claim against them in court for years, while expenses for the plaintiff will continue to grow. The material is certainly compelling, and the documentary makes it abundantly clear that Port Arthur is no attractive vacation spot. There’s probably quite a bit more ground that could be covered here, with the film only clocking in at 48 minutes. But in its brief running time, it demonstrates how the power of one just doesn’t look like enough when you’re fighting an opponent and the laws that protect them.
Grade: B+

“Blue Valentine”
Focusing on the marriage of a young couple, “Blue Valentine” is most certainly not a romantic comedy. Garnering a lot of recent publicity for its NC-17 rating (currently under protest to the Motion Picture Association of America, and rightfully so), the drama is still more than two months away from its official release in theaters. But the acting on display by its stars, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, has already garnered some Oscar buzz. That’s for good reason, as both give passionate and entirely believable performances as a couple falling into and out of love. Director Derek Cianfrance jumps the film back and forth in time, tracing the initial sweet beginnings of a relationship, and the sour patches the two find themselves in during the present. There’s nothing truly groundbreaking in the story, which might be all too familiar for some. But it’s performed with such conviction that the emotional resonance is a bit difficult to shake.
Grade: A


“The Company Men”
Catching Ben Affleck right in the midst of a career upswing, writer/director John Wells’ film debut is very much a timely tale of corporate downsizing and the cold, cruel world of an overcrowded job market. Wells, who has plenty of experience on television (executive producer on “E.R.” and “The West Wing” are among his credits), lays out an eminently watchable, yet overly predictable story. It certainly helps having a stellar cast at his disposal (Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello, Craig T. Nelson and Kevin Costner are among the players). Still, the subject matter might hit a little too close to home for some people’s comfort. But that’s not saying that there’s a lot of relatable material here for the lower to middle class (most aren’t contemplating having to sell their Porsche or giving up their golf club membership). Still, the general idea of having a comfortable life pulled out from beneath you upon losing your job (and the accompanying sense of self-worth) is a possibility that makes “The Company Men” seem like a movie of the moment, much like last year’s “Up in the Air.”
Grade: B-


“Twelve Monkeys”
Terry Gilliam’s bleak and twisted vision of the future is aided by committed performances from stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt. The screenplay (by David and Janet Peoples, who were both in attendance for a special screening at the Alamo Ritz during the festival) jumps around in time, keeping the audience off balance, just like Willis’ character. As James Cole, an inmate who “volunteers” for an assignment to track the origin of a killer virus, Willis gives one the best performances of his career. The story is a little convoluted at times and leaves some ideas open for interpretation (an intentional action, explained David Peoples during a post-screening Q&A). But the dark material matches the visual sensibilities of Gilliam, who keeps the action moving towards a satisfying conclusion.
Grade: B+


“Welcome to the Rileys”
Largely fueled by its three lead performances, “Welcome to the Rileys” is a domestic drama that centers on a failing marriage between a couple (James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo), who have been unable to move on from the death of their teenage daughter several years ago. Taking a trip to New Orleans for a work convention, Doug Riley decides to stay there indefinitely after meeting Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a troubled runaway who is also a stripper/hooker. He takes an interest in helping her (and thankfully, not in creepy older man way), cleaning up her less-than-appealing house, and seeing a chance to offer fatherly guidance again. His wife, who has become agoraphobic in the years since her daughter’s death, makes the trek south from their Indiana home to try and save her marriage. The story doesn’t take too many surprising detours, and director Jake Scott (son of Ridley Scott) does a decent job of letting his great cast do the heavy lifting. If nothing else, it further demonstrates, much like “Adventureland” did last year, that Stewart has a future beyond her “Twilight” days.
Grade: B+


“Meek’s Cutoff”
Reuniting with director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”), Michelle Williams gives another strong performance (her second of the festival) as a determined settler making her way on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Her character is part of a small group that breaks off from a larger wagon train, choosing to follow Stephen Meek (a very scraggly-looking Bruce Greenwood), a guide who has led them astray. As the days turn into weeks, the group is losing food, water and patience with Meek, with one character even wondering aloud if the guide is incompetent or evil. Their situation is further complicated when they capture a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux), bringing along disagreement on what to do with him. Some, in particularly Meek, favor killing him, while others feel he might be their best chance at finding water and salvation. Reichardt has crafted an authentic look at pioneer life, choosing to frame the proceedings in an almost claustrophobic 4:3 screen ratio, rather than widescreen. Plus, there are long periods of near or complete silence on screen (bringing to mind sequences in 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”). It’s certainly a singular director’s vision that will captivate some people, while driving others to distraction.
Grade: B

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What's New in Blu? (Week of Oct. 19)

“Psycho” (R)
Starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam and Janet Leigh
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

One of the all-time great films that arguably isn’t even the best film of its director, Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch with a screenplay by Joseph Stefano, Hitchcock’s film has influenced countless number of filmmakers over the years. Heck, it practically launched the horror genre, and due in no small part by the perfectly creepy performance by Anthony Perkins (who shockingly wasn’t nominated for an Oscar), contains one of cinema’s most memorable villains, Norman Bates. Sure, the blood quotient is a little tame compared to most horror movies these days. But unlike most of those same films, “Psycho” can still deliver the chills by actually building suspense. And that Bernard Herrmann score is as unforgettable as that classic shower scene that it accompanies.
Grade: A+



Other releases:
“Apocalypse Now” (R)
Starring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne and Dennis Hopper
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola




“Moulin Rouge” (PG-13)
Starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh
Directed by Baz Luhrmann




“Please Give” (R)
Starring Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall
Directed by Nicole Holofcener




“Predators” (R)
Starring Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins and Laurence Fishburne
Directed by Nimrod Antal




“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (R)
Starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
Directed by Jim Sharman


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What's New in Blu? (Week of Oct. 12)

“Three Kings” (R)
Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn, Jamie Kennedy, Myketi Williamson, Cliff Curtis
Directed by David O. Russell

A war-era movie that has more on its mind than gunfire and explosions, “Three Kings” is by turns exciting, funny, serious and intense. Featuring an impressive performance by George Clooney, clearly demonstrating his ability to hold the screen as a leading man, director David O. Russell brings a unique visual style and strong pacing to the proceedings. With the 1991 Gulf War in its last days, a map is discovered by several soldiers that would seem to indicate a hidden cache of gold bullion stolen by Saddam Hussein’s troops. Sgt. Maj. Archie Gates decides to lead the soldiers (including Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Spike Jonze, in a rare acting role) on a treasure hunt. Predictably, things don’t go quite how the soldiers want. But the direction the story takes and how it is resolved isn’t so predictable. While the film does have a definitive political view, it thankfully avoids getting bogged down in it. Russell keeps the action moving, as it serves the story, even finding a way to lighten the mood in a tense scene with some music from the band Chicago on the soundtrack. It’s an example of a creative moment in a movie that’s filled with them.
Grade: A-



Other releases:
“Deep Blue Sea” (R)
Starring Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, LL Cool J, Jacqueline McKenzie, Michael Rappaport, Stellan Skarsgard and Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by Renny Harlin




“Jonah Hex” (PG-13)
Starring Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Will Arnett, Michael Shannon, Michael Fassbender
Directed by Jimmy Hayward




“Leaves of Grass” (R)
Starring Edward Norton, Keri Russell, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Dreyfuss and Susan Sarandon
Directed by Tim Blake Nelson




“Red Dragon” (R)
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by Brett Ratner


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Austin Film Festival line-up

The 2010 edition of the Austin Film Festival (its 17th in total) is set to start later this month (Oct. 21, to be exact), and I plan to be there for it. Well, at least a portion of it. The full line-up was recently revealed and it looks to be a great one, filled with an eclectic mix of genres and sure to produce a decent dose of star power at its various premieres. While Austin is well established as an outstanding live music city, featuring festivals that can stand with the best of them (South by Southwest and Austin City Limits), it has been building a strong reputation for its film offerings as well. South by Southwest also includes a great film festival (which I attended last year), and draws a lot of big names to attend it, along with Fantastic Fest and the Austin Film Festival, among others. That’s saying nothing of the numerous celebrities that live in, work in or frequent the Texas capital.

But enough about the entertainment industry standing of the city; let’s look at some of the festival’s schedule. Some of these films have been making the festival circuit in recent months, while a number of others will be making their U.S. or regional debut in Austin later this month.

Although I’d love to go to so many of these, time and scheduling conflicts will undoubtedly play a part in what I’ll ultimately be able to catch. But I’m excited to be able to view a number of films (and possibly the stars and filmmakers that are responsible for them). The standing in line to do so? Not so much.

Here’s a few of the films I’ve got my eye on (with accompanying trailers, to boot). Rest assured, there will be others. Keeping in mind that I won’t be able to see all of these, those that I do see, I’ll report back on upon my return.


“127 Hours”

The new film from 2008 AFF Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award Recipient Danny Boyle and the Academy Award winning director of the 2008 Best Picture, “Slumdog Millionaire” (also the 08 AFF Audience Award Winner), “127 Hours” is the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston's remarkable adventure to save himself after a fallen boulder crashes on his arm and traps him in an isolate canyon in Utah. Over the next five days Ralston examines his life and survives the elements to finally discover he has the courage and the wherewithal to extricate himself by any means necessary, scale a 65 foot wall and hike over eight miles before he is finally rescued. Throughout his journey, Ralston recalls friends, lovers, family, and possibly the last two people he ever had the chance to meet.


“Ballhawks”

The tale of the fluctuating group of men who have been chasing baseballs and dreams outside of the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field, as long as it has been there. Then, 2004 World Series changes everything; the Cubs have a chance of winning. These increased expectations have heated up the competition for home run balls hit onto the street to a fever pitch, while the imminent Wrigley Field expansion threatens this century-old pass-time. The filmmakers are clearly Cubs fans, making this documentary an intimate foray into a world of baseball passion. As the baseballs fly out the stadium, dreams soar with them, hope for not only victory, but the chance to be part of it by catching a fly ball. Narrated by Bill Murray.


“Black Swan”

Visionary director Darren Aronofsky, takes a thrilling and at times terrifying journey through the psyche of a young ballerina whose starring role as the duplicitous swan queen turns out to be a part for which she becomes frighteningly perfect. Following the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her retired ballerina mother who zealously supports her daughter's professional ambition. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Seymour Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who impresses Leroy as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side with a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.


“Blue Valentine”

On the far side of a once-passionate romance, Cindy and Dean are married with a young daughter. Hoping to save their marriage, they steal away to a theme hotel where they went years earlier, when they met and fell in love—full of life and hope. Moving fluidly between these two time periods, "Blue Valentine" unfolds like a cinematic duet whose refrain asks, where did their love go? Framing the film as a mystery whose answer lies scattered in time and in character, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance constructs an elegant set of dualities: past and present, youth and adulthood, vitality and entropy. The rigor of his process is visible throughout the film. Eliminating artificial devices, he has only the truth of the characters to work with.


“Conviction”

The inspirational true story of a sister's unwavering devotion to her brother. When Betty Anne Waters' (two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank) older brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is arrested for murder and sentenced to life in 1983, Betty Anne, a Massachusetts wife and mother of two, dedicates her life to overturning the murder conviction. Convinced that her brother is innocent, Betty Anne puts herself through high school, college and, finally, law school in an 18-year quest to free Kenny. She pores through suspicious evidence mounted by small town cop Nancy Taylor (Academy Award nominee Melissa Leo), meticulously retracing the steps that led to Kenny's arrest. Belief in her brother pushes Betty Anne and her team to uncover the facts with the hope of exonerating Kenny.


“The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan”

Mary Nolan lost her husband on June 16, 1966 when joined the Army and never came home. Questions swirl around his disappearance: did McKinley become disillusioned with the mission in Vietnam? Is he a deserter? Is he still alive? The stories of McKinley Nolan are many. In 2006, Lt. Dan Smith may have seen Nolan alive. He may have married a Cambodian woman or been killed by the Khmer Rouge, but director Henry Corra does more than answer questions. The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan is a heart wrenching documentary that explores the ideas of war, home, and love, and the triumph of hope in the human heart.


“Fair Game”

A suspense-filled glimpse into the dark corridors of political power, Fair Game is a riveting action-thriller based on the autobiography of real-life undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose career was destroyed and marriage strained to its limits when her covert identity was exposed by a politically motivated press leak. As a covert officer in the CIA's Counter-Proliferation Division, Valerie leads an investigation into the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Valerie's husband, diplomat Joe Wilson, is drawn into the investigation to substantiate an alleged sale of enriched uranium from Niger. But when the administration ignores his findings and uses the issue to support the call to war, Joe writes an editorial outlining his conclusions and ignites a firestorm of controversy.


“High School”

With echoes of the work of John Hughes and Judd Apatow, “High School” is the tale of a valedictorian whose first hit of pot coincides with his first drug test. Determined not to go down, he teams up with the local stoner to concoct an ambitious plan to get his entire graduating class to face the same fate, and fail. Every thing seems to go just as planned until the town’s biggest nutjob, Psycho Ed (a hysterical Adrien Brody) barges into the school looking for the stash the guys stole from him, leading all hell to break loose amongst their now-stoned classmates. Featuring not just a unique cast of teachers, including Colin Hanks and Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson), but also a brand new score from Harold Faltermeyer – the composer behind the iconic music of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun.”


“I Love You, Philip Morris”

This notorious Jim Carrey comedy is now off the shelf, but you may only think you’re ready for it. Based on the true story of Steven Russell, a Dallas cop, who is happily married to Debbie, when he comes to the sudden realization that he’s gay. Steven rejects his old life and begins to pursue his new lifestyle flamboyantly in Miami. Despite his history as a police officer, he becomes a con man to earn money. His attempts at conning land him in the state penitentiary where he meets the love of his life – Philip Morris (Ewan MacGregor). Steven is committed to freeing Philip from jail and having a life together. At times romantic and comedic, “I Love You, Phillip Morris” is a love story unlike any other.


“Make Believe”

“Make Believe” follows the story of six junior magicians from the U.S., South Africa, and Japan. It shows their introductions into the world of magic, and their fates as they compete for the title of Teen World Champion at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. But, the world of magic isn’t immune to emotionality. As these young Merlins grow up, they can’t escape the quirkiness and differences associated with their craft, and, in some cases, the solitude. The magicians of Make Believe will work their own bit magic into your heart, as they share their intertwining stories and passion for this unique hobby (that they hope to turn into a career). Produced by the team behind “The King of Kong.”


“Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story”

Monopoly originally became popular during the Great Depression. Since then it has been played by over a billion people and become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Narrated by Zachary Levi, Under the Boardwalk captures fascinating stories about the game and those who play it. The filmmakers explore Monopoly’s roots in an anti-capitalist political platform to its eventual transformation into a game about getting rich quick. The filmmakers also investigate the psychology of the game, and game experts reveal the best strategies for winning. Under the Boardwalk also explores the pop cultural and social history of the game. This quirky documentary features eccentric collectors and players and exciting worldwide tournaments.


“Welcome to the Rileys”

An emotional journey that takes us through grief, self-reinvention and healing. The Rileys have been struggling in their marriage since losing their teenage daughter. Once a happily married couple, Lois (Melissa Leo) and Doug (James Gandolfini) have grown distant. Lois has become agoraphobic, while Doug finds their home depressing. Looking to get away, he goes on a business trip to New Orleans. He meets Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a teenage runaway. Despite her unsettling demeanor, Doug immediately recognizes innocence in Mallory. He realizes she is in desperate need of guidance, something he has been longing to provide. The opportunity to care and protect Mallory supplants the void Doug's marriage has left in his heart, and brings new meaning to his life.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fall Movie Preview (October 2010)

Some films with Oscar aspirations start to pepper the release schedule for October, but are mixed in with some others who most definitely don’t have those kind of hopes. Those releaes will be perfectly happy just making a lot of money.


OCTOBER

“The Social Network”

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara

Directed by David Fincher

Working from a script by Aaron Sorkin (TV’s “The West Wing”), director David Fincher helms the topical tale of the origins of Facebook, and the ensuing legal fight over its ownership. Eisenberg, portraying Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, has been building up a solid resume of films in recent years, and this one might launch him into a lot more starring roles. (Oct. 1)



“Life As We Know It”

Starring Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, Josh Lucas

Directed by Greg Berlanti

In this comedy-drama, Heigl and Duhamel play single adults who are forced into parenthood when mutual friends of theirs pass away in an auto accident. The couple leaves behind their infant daughter into their friends’ care. Doesn’t sound like the sunniest scenario for a comedy, but tougher sells have been made by Hollywood. Still, Heigl hasn’t had the best track record in projects over the past couple of years. (Oct. 8)



“Secretariat”

Starring Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, James Cromwell, Kevin Connelly and Scott Glenn

Directed by Randall Wallace

After the big success of “Seabiscuit” several years ago, it seems remarkable that Hollywood wasn’t all over the story of Secretariat before now. The legendary racehorse is largely considered the greatest non-human athlete of all time. Lane portrays the horse’s owner, while Malkovich is the tempermental trainer. This should be one of the season’s surefire standouts. (Oct. 8)



“Stone”

Starring Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Francis Conroy

Directed by John Curran

Stars De Niro and Norton reteam in this dramatic thriller, having previously worked together on the entertaining heist picture, “The Score.” Here, De Niro is cast as Jack Mabry, a parole officer who gets wrapped up in the case of Gerald “Stone” Creeson (Norton). The case gets further complicated when Stone’s wife (Jovovich) gets involved. This might not be highbrow entertainment, but there should be some enjoyment in being able to watch two great actors at work together. (Oct. 8)



“Jackass 3D”

Starring Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Bam Margera, Chris Pontius

Directed by Jeff Tremaine

For those who think that 3D is an unnecessary and overused trend in movies right now, prepare yourself for whatever in-your-face antics the fearless wackos of “Jackass” concoct for the third film in the series. If you’ve ever seen any episodes of the TV show or the previous movies, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting. And you can be sure that yes, people were harmed in the making of this movie. (Oct. 15)



“Red”

Starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Mary-Louise Parker, Brian Cox, Julian McMahon, Richard Dreyfuss

Directed by Robert Schwentke

A great cast populates the adaptation of a graphic novel centered around a small group of ex-CIA agents forced back into action after an assassin targets them. Having Willis in an action-comedy is a no-brainer, but it was some inspired casting to get Mirren and Freeman on board as fellow agents. That’s saying nothing about the great Mary-Louise Parker as a federal office clerk roped into the fray. The trailer sells the movie very well. (Oct. 15)



“Hereafter”

Starring Matt Damon, C├ęcile De France, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jenifer Lewis

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Eastwood, who has become quite the prolific director in recent years, obviously hit it off with Damon in last year’s “Invictus,” as the actor returns to star in “Hereafter,” a supernatural-themed drama. He plays a former psychic looking to escape his past, who finds his life intersect with two others living overseas. This would appear to be a bit of a departure for both star and director, and it seems like with every movie of Eastwood’s, Academy Award talk is involved. This will probably be no different. (Oct. 22)



“Saw 3D”

Starring Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Cary Elwes

Directed by Kevin Greutert

They’ve now titled this latest installment of the horror franchise with a 3D designation, so I’ve forgotten how many there have been now. At this point, the producers might have as well, but when Halloween rolls around every year, you can be sure to find another bloody good affair being released. Well, “good” might not be an apt description. But this series has a devoted, if dwindling, fanbase. For those keeping track, a group of victims of the killer, Jigsaw, gather to seek out guidance from a self-help guru. But then strange (and most assuredly, violent) things start to occur. (Oct. 29)