Thursday, January 28, 2010

An Education (2009)

Since I said that Mrs. Bullock doesn't deserve to win the Oscar, I should probably share that if I had my way, Carey Mulligan would be winning big on Oscar night (granted, I haven't seen Julie and Julia or The Last Station, which are expected to receive Best Actress noms).

Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a young girl in Pre-Beatles Suburban London. She comes from a hard-working family who longs to see her enroll at Oxford university. Her slightly-naive but well-meaning father Jack (Alfred Molina) has her entire high school life planned out to make her the perfect potential pupil for the school. These plans are thrown for a loop when Jenny attracts the attention of the much older David (Peter Sarsgaard) who has the funds to take Jenny to art auctions and real concerts. Her parents don't seem to mind, they seem to think it's wonderful that a wealthy mn is taking it upon himself to offer culture to their young daughter, naively believing that David's older relative is acting as a chaperon for their young daughter. Jenny must then choose what she values more, her education or a chance at pursuing a life of fun.

Carey Mulligan acts as the second coming of Audrey Hepburn with her star turn in this film. She has to balance the tightrope of being smart enough to excel in school, but innocent enough to fall prey to David's initial advances and she pulls the act of splendidly, especially in the second half of the film, where things take a heavier turn and we get the feeling that Jenny is playing David as much as he is playing her.

The supporting case is great as well. Alfred Molina is wonderful as the loving, yet naive father who only wants the best for his daughter, and Peter Sarsgaard is able to make David charming, but almost creepily so, to where we can't tell what his true intentions are with Jenny.

Also, for any fan of the TV show Mad Men, this film is for you, besides the plot and acting, the film is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, filled with period costumes and beautiful locales.

In addition, the writing is sharp, and occasionally funny and offers a brief glimpse into the real life "education" that can occur in a young woman's life when she is confronted with the temptations of sex and a lif eof carefree luxury.

I heartily recommend this film, and I hope that you'll join me in a collective finger-cross for Carey Mulligan on Oscar night.

Precious (2009)

Strong performances elevate would would have otherwise been a Lifetime movie of the week.

Clarice Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is 16 years old, illiterate, poor, and pregnant for the second time with her father's baby. Not exactly the ideal life for anyone. She spends her days struggling in school and being teased and she spends her nights taking care of her verbally, physically, and sexually abuse mother Mary (Mo'Nique). After getting expelled for being pregnant, Precious is sent to an alternative school, headed by Mrs. Blu Rain (Paula Patton) who encourages writing and sharing. The class eventually begins to open Precious' world and give her a chance as escaping her current situation.

Sounds familiar? The plot isn't exactly blazing new territory, but luckily we have a wonderful cast of truly talented women to elevate the film above what could have been a predictable mess. The performance that grounds the film is Gabourey Sidibe's, who deserves the eventual Oscar nomination that she'll receive. It would be far too easy to make Precious a victim and make her seem so downtrodden by her situation, but instead Sidibe keeps the pain below the surface, as if Precious is determined not to show the anger and hurt. She is allowed about 1 breakdown in this movie, and it's absolutely heart shattering to watch as everything we've seen Precious endure through the film is allowed to finally be released.

The supporting cast is equally strong. Mo'Nique, who before this was doing films like Phat Girlz and Soul Plane is now the Oscar frontrunner, and deservedly so. Throughout the film, we see the monster that is Mary Jones as she strikes her daughter and insults her, but luckily we are given one scene in which a social worker (Mariah Carey, who is actually really good as someone who has seen it all) confronts Mary about the abuse and we are allowed to see the human being inside Mary, and how she is a victim as well. That one scene takes what could have been an easy character to play, the absolute troll of a human being and adds so many layers and nuances and Mo'Nique does it brilliantly.

And while we have Mo'Nique to be the villain, the film needs it's hero, someone to save Precious and we have it in the character of Mrs. Rain. It's actually sad that Paula Patton isn't receiving as much acclaim as Sibibe or Mo'Nique, because I happen to think that she's brilliant. She makes a character with an infinite amount of warmth and compassion without being schmaltzy, who also has some fire and fight within her and is able to inspire her students to do more.

And lastly, we have Mariah Carey as Mrs. Weiss, the social worker. While she only has 2 scenes in the film, Carey is instantly able to give us her character's history, with the "I've seen too much" eyes, the lax posture, and the tired voice, she creates a woman that has seen so much hardship that she's both weary and hardened because of it. When she hears that Precious is pregnant by her own father, what would make others drop their jaws, she only meets with mild surprise.

One issue I found with the film is the inconsistent directorial choices made by Lee Daniels. It seems like he wanted to simply do too much, so we have some scenes that are shot almost documentary style, then we have scenes with overly dramatic flourish like when Precious is walking down the hallway to her new class, she fades out, appears further down the hall, fades out, and is near the end and when she opens the door we see shining gold light. It's very odd and jolts us from a film that is supposed to be so based in reality.

Another issue I have are with the dream sequences in which Precious envisions herself as a famous celebrity or dancing in a music video. I understand that this is where we see the "Ideal Precious", the happy Precious who is no longer burdened by the live she leads, but the sequences are so jarring and come across as so cheap that it doesn't feel all that glamorous.

But overall, this is a strong film that can be VERY hard to watch, but it's not so much doom and gloom that you walk away feeling depressed. It also has some of the best performances of the year, which makes it worth watching alone.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Blind SIde (2009)

Sorry for such a delay kids, I've been busy trying to catch up on my potential Oscar nominees, so I should be posting entries on several of them within the coming days. For now, I'm going to do The Blind Side, which is probably the weakest film on the list.

For anyone interested in awards season, it's pretty much a fact that Sandra Bullock has pulled in front in the Oscar race for this film. It's sad, really, since I've seen 3 of the expected nominees, and Bullock's work is easily the weakest, but mor eon that later.

The Blind Side is the true story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a professional football player. But when the film begins, Michael is homeless, doing poorly in school and struggling to fit in. That is until the Tuohy family led by matriarch Leigh Anne (Sandra Bullock) take Michael in. Now as part of their clan, he flourishes, his grades improve and his protective instincts are put to use on the school football team.

The story is very run of the mill, anyone with a brain cell can see where the film is going, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing in some cases, the film isn't strong enough for you to simply enjoy the journey of the film. The weakest aspect of the film is how is tries way too hard to be meaningful and tug at your heart strings. Every single moment that could possibly elicit emotion is accompanied with uplifting music and/or slow motion. The film is like a kid at an orphanage, trying desperately to make you desire to take it home. It has all the subtlety of a drag queen. By the time Michael and the Tuohy's son are rapping to "Bust-A-Move" in the car, I had almost checked out.

Luckily, the best part of the film is that Sandra Bullock is able to play the character in a way that doesn't totally dissolve into saccharine sweetness. Leigh Anne is strong willed and willing to fight for her family, and Bullock gives the character an adequate amount of strength, humor and charm. But does she deserve the Oscar? Not really. The character is a strong-willed Southern woman, and there's not much there in the way of true character depth (though, I suspect the blame lies with the writer as opposed to Bullock). The rest of the cast flounders in parts that are way too one note. The biggest offender is the character of S.J., the Tuohy family's young son who only acts as the overly cutesy and sassy kid and offers nothing more to the film except mind-searing irritation.

In general, the film is simply too easy, in a sense. Michael is accepted with little to no argument from any of the family members, and over half of the film is "Look what the family is doing for Michael now!", getting him a car, taking him clothes shopping, it feels very condescending with the whole "The white family saves the poor black man" angle. And while they try to assert that Michael is changing the family just as much as they're changing him, that claim ultimately fails as the family is essentially perfect in the beginning of the film and perfect in the end.

And the end of the film presents a truly bizarre dilemma as Michael's admission to Ole Miss (the alma matter of both Tuohy parents and Michael's tutor played by Kathy Bates) is questioned as a sort of plot by the Tuohy's to trick Michael into going to the school and playing football for them. While this itself isn't that bad, it's suggested that now wealthy white families will be taking in poor black people an an attempt to bolster their football teams. It's ridiculous, and it's also handled so quickly that it feels almost like an afterthought to the film.

I'm not trying to say that the film is offensively bad. It's really just too generic of a film to suggest that people run out and see it. But as I said, Sandra Bullock gives a strong performance that saves the film from complete and total mediocrity. And if you're the sort who cries at the drop of a hat to films and you're look for something moderately uplifting, this should fit the bill. But for everyone else, you've been warned.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

I know that I've strayed a bit from the "Classic Hollywood" mold as of late, but with a New PS3 brings Netflix Watch Now, which brings to me and my brother staying up late and watching movies, and since he's not a classic film fan....

Anyway, this should be my 100th entry, and luckily it's about a film that I loved.

Joel (Jim Carrey) has recently broken up with Clementine (Kate Winslet) and in a spur of the moment decision, she decides to undergo a radical new procedure and have her mind wiped of any memories of her past love. Joel, feeling slighted, undergoes the same process but becomes self-aware and decides that he still loves Clementine and he fights to preserve his memories.

The film can be a bit hard to follow, because once Joel undergoes the procedure, all of his scenes are taking place in his memories, which are rapidly being erased, which causes the world around him to break apart as the memories is being deleted. In addition, he cannot see anything beyond his memories. For example, he is recalling a fight he had with Clementine where she stormed off down the road, Joel didn't follow her so any attempts he makes to go after her fail because his memory doesn't contain that information.

Outside this cerebral spectacle, we have Stan (Mark Ruffalo), the technician assigned to erase Joel's memories, Mary (Kirsten Dunst), the receptionist for the Mind-Wiping company, and Patrick (Elijah Wood), another worker who has stolen Joel's identity and is using Joel's erased memories to try and woo a recently mind-wiped Clementine. Their stories are just as funny and as interesting as the main plot, thankfully.

But at the center of the film, we have two outstanding performances from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. Jim Carrey almost seems to become Jack Lemmon-y as he evokes a puppy-dog sense of sadness and loneliness, someone who is neurotic and tightly wound which is probably what causes him to fall for Clementine who is wild and impulsive. Kate Winslet creates a fully formed character, we see the humor, the quirkiness and the spontaneity that draw people to her, but we also get to see her pettiness, her restlessness with life, and her insecurities. It's a beautiful performance, especially during the scenes where a Self-Aware memory of Clementine travels with Joel from buried memory to buried memory in an attempt to "hide" from the brain-wiping machine. Everytime a memory of Clementine is erased and we see her suddenly disappear, out heartstrings are tugged as we will for the two to end up together.

For such a surreal movie (thankfully, it's not so bizarre that we are totally lost on what is going on), it needed a strong emotional core to ground it, and luckily we have Carrey and Winslet who are astounding as the mis-matched couple. Also, the supporting acting is very strong, with Kirsten Dunst showing a great range from comedy to drama as her character begins to show unexpected depth.

It's a wonderful, wonderful film that deservedly won the Oscar for best Original Screenplay and it creates a couple that I actually rooted for, which if you've read this blog, then you know that it's a big deal.

Hopefully I'll have 100 more posts (and hopefully 100 more followers). Thank you for reading and I'll see you again.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Sally Hawkins is a revelation in an incredibly cheerful, happy British film.

Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is a bright and cheery primary school teacher who loves to bring sunshine and happiness to those around her. One day, her beloved bike is stolen, so she decides to finally get her license and begins taking driving lessons with Scott (Eddie Marsan), a depressing, angry, conspiracy theorist who is pretty much the opposite of Poppy's cotton-candy whimsy.

The film doesn't have a plot, so much as it has a premise, which I've just told you. It's various episodes in Poppy's life and we see how she deals with them, sometimes with cheery optimism and humor and other times with quiet kindness and gentleness. It's up to Sally Hawkins to make it work, and she does. Despite being so strangely happy, Hawkins keeps Poppy grounded and allows for the character to feel more like a realized person than just a character that is defined by the word "Happy". The film lives or dies by her performances and luckily for us, it soars.

The film itself is very funny, and a lot of the humor comes from Poppy's interactions with other people, like her sarcastic and dead-pan best friend Zoe or with the tightly wound Scott. The director was smart enough to not make Poppy the only cheerful person in the film. It could have been too easy to create a film about a optimist stuck in a depressing world filled with depressing people, but instead we are treated the the school principle who enjoys Flamenco lessons and with a school counselor who enjoys helping as much as Poppy does.

The result is a sweet film about someone who never allows life to get them down and finds joy in every single situation that she can, making it hard to keep from smiling during the film and after the credits have stopped rolling. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

La Vie En Rose (2007)

Marion Cotillard delivers a stunning performance in this biopic of French singer Edith Piaf.

Edith Piaf didn't have the best life. She was a small sickly child who grew up in her grandmother's bordello before living at the circus with her father, eventually having to become a street performer, where her lovely voice is discovered. As expected, she eventually becomes famous, and has to deal with drug addiction, love, and her failing health.

The film tells the life of the singer in a non-linear way, which may be confusing to some to see the young Edith, then cut to an older arthritic Edith, but it eventually works out to the film's wonderful conclusion, which is much more of an emotional payoff than simply following her life until her eventual death.

The sets and costumes used in this film are rich and beautiful, perfectly capturing the wealthy lifestyle Edith finds for herself through her music. The make-up is insanely good, making Marion Cotillard's life spanning performance seem totally believable as we see her grow older and older.

The film ultimately works because of Cotillard's beautiful (and Oscar winning) performance as the singer. She fully embodies every stage of life she must portray. Her 20 ear old Edith is bubbly and full of life while her older Edith is hunched over and weak, wise from the hardknock life she is lived. Some have said her performance is melodramatic, which is true, but the character is portrayed so that it works. She's been a performer since the age of 9, she lives through emotions and feelings, so it makes sense for there to be a lack of emotional subtlety in someone who spends their life tapping into their feelings for the sake of performing. It's a haunting performance that is emotionally affecting. When we see her happy, we cannot help but smile and when we see her sad, our hearts break with her as Marion Cottilard delivers an astonishing performance that paints Edith Piaf as a fully realized, multi-faceted individual. We see her pettiness, her selfishness, her kindness, her humor, her warmth, and her charm. We see all of it while Marion Cotillard guides us through the life of the French singer.

It's a wonderful film, and the lead performance is something that must be seen.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Meet John Doe (1941)

Frank Capra directs Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper in this comedy-drama about the plight of the everyday man.

Barbara Stanwyck is Ann Mitchell, a feisty journalist whoi is fired from her job at the newspaper, saying her writing lacks "fireworks". So for her last article, she prints a fake letter she claims to have received from a "John Doe" an everyday man frustrated with society who is going to jump off City Hall on Christmas Eve at midnight in protest. The article sparks outrage as people are angered that a man is driven to such actions by society, but when the governor claims that the letter is a fake, Ann convinces the newspaper editor to hire someone to play John Doe and offer a articles in which John Doe argues for the plight of the common man. They find their John Doe in Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), a former Bush League pitcher who injured his arm and was forced to drop out.

What starts out as a scheme to sell newspaper begins to have a widespread effect, especially after a radio speech which Anne writes based on the ideals of her dead father, that men should know their neighbors and help eachother out. This causes the creation of John Doe clubs across the nation, where communities gather together to help one another. While Ann and John begin to fall in love, they're forced to deal with the situation of whether or not a movement based on honesty, generosity and integrity can survive if based on a lie.

The film itself is pretty good, never getting bogged down in one plotline and instead moving along several until the films ultimate conclusion. But it does have one issue that bugged me. Ann and John simply fall in love too fast. They have a working relationship, then we get a montage of John Doe clubs spreading across the country and suddenly John is head over heels in love with Ann. It hinted that Ann had feelings for John Doe, since he seemed to embody the ideals held by her father and John begins to take those on as he becomes passionate about the movement, but for John to fall in love with Ann so much, it feels a bit rushed. And since the latter parts of the film NEED to have the two in love, it seems like they just needed to have it happen without adding to the film's running time (which is over 2 hours).

Luckily, the two leads are more than capable. Barbara Stanwyck is wonderful as someone in love with money, falling in love with ideals, and then the man who represents these ideals. And much like Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper has to play someone not really invested in the whole John Doe movement, instead he's simply looking to make some money, but he too begins to fall in love with the movement and begins to truly feel as if he really is John Doe.

The film is a feel-good film that leaves you feeling happy, which is always nice, giving a message of hope in a world that is plagued with poverty, prejudice and hate. Plus, as I said, the two leads are great (But, Barbara Stanwyck is always great) and despite one issue, it's still a great little film.