Saturday, October 31, 2009

An Education

A terrific new drama that is smart and brilliantly cast. The adapted screenplay is by Nick Hornby and it easily deserves an Oscar nomination. The dialog is sharp, witty, and authentic.

The film stars Alfred Molina, Peter Sarsgaard, and Cary Mulligan as the 16 year old school girl swept off her feet by Mr. Sarsgaard's "older" man. Ms. Mulligan reminds me of a young Audrey Hepburn. She is a marvel to watch and along with Mr. Hornby, also deserves an Oscar nomination. Mr. Molina, as her father and Mr. Sarsgaard as her "boyfriend" respectively are both terrific. Everyone in the cast fill out their characters perfectly. There is not a false note to be found. Even Emma Thompson, in a small supporting role, is a wonder.

The story takes place in 1961 England and while everything is very proper, there are hints of change in the air. The mood, the music, and the styles are captured just right and the film clicks on every level. This is easily one of the best films of the year and shouldn't be missed.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Shot on a shoestring budget, this "homemade" horror film is the heir apparent to 'The Blair Witch Project". Shot with one camera and featuring a cast of two, the story takes place inside the house of Katie & Micah, who decide to document the strange events happening in their home. The difference between this and "Blair Witch", aside from the steadier camera work, is that "Paranormal Activity" actually scares you.

The "film" leads you to believe that what you are watching is the video evidence of an actual haunting from 2006. There are no credits and nothing that resembles a "film". It's just 90 minutes of Katie and Micah trying to cope with the increasingly menacing activity in their house. The point of view is completely through Micah's video camera and computer images of footage captured while they sleep.

There are a few brief scenes with Katie's girlfriend and a doctor who communes with the dead, but it is left up to Katie and Micah to provide the creepy atmosphere unfolding through the camera. They start out rather boring and routine but build a serious sense of realistic dread as things go bump in the night. They are convincing enough to make you question whether or not this is real or scripted until the very end, which for this viewer, goes a bit over the top.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Based on the famous children's story, "Wild Things", the film faithfully recreates the creatures and their surroundings in a live-action film with the use of costumes, puppets and some animation. Max, the little boy in the story is brought to life by the young actor Max Records and he couldn't be more perfect for the part.

The cast of creatures are voiced by James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, and Forest Whitaker. With such distinct vocal talent, the "Wild Things" take on real personalities and are portrayed as much more complex creatures than in the book.

The cinematography is excellent and the Australian locations are amazing. Director Spike Jonze has done a wonderful job bringing this classic to the screen. The only drawback is,while interesting to watch, the story still lacks depth so don't plan on trying to analyze what's going on. Just enjoy the simple pleasure of "the Rumpus".

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg star in this comedy gorefest and seem to having a good time among the zombie mayhem. The audience will too if you check your brains (least they be eaten) at the door and enjoy the silly ride.

Apparently the only other humans left besides our heroes are Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, as con artist sisters also trying to survive. Oh, and one other unbilled cameo who pretty much steals the film with minimum screen time. Besides these players, the film is filled with flesh eating, blood dripping zombies of all shapes and sizes who are anything but scary. The film is played completely for laughs with lots of sight gags and clever dialogue.

I'm a big fan of Jesse Eisenberg but he's got to start appearing in films that don't include an amusement park. He is a deadpan, young neurotic, quick witted, and loveable in a vulnerable way. If he wasn't available, I could see Michael Cera in the part as the two of them have these types of characters down cold.

I guess you can call this an American cousin of "Shaun of The Dead". They would definitely make a great double bill.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Whip It

Actor and now first time director, Drew Barrymore takes us into the world of Roller Derby in this female fueled comedy. As the new recruit for the "Hurl Scouts", Ellen Page continues her winning ways with support from Ms. Barrymore, Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon, Juliette Lewis, Alia Shawkat, Daniel Stern and Marcia Gay Harden.

The film is a fun, appealing story that doesn't take too many chances and stays true to it's formula. Unhappy with the life her mother has chosen for her, Ms. Page discovers a love for Roller Derby and becomes "Babe Ruthless", the new star of a team of lovable losers. Both the team and Ms. Page turn their fortunes around much to the chagrin of her disapproving mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and rival team leader (Juliette Lewis).

Already a star on "Saturday Night Live", Ms. Wiig continues to grow as an actress in her largest supporting role to date. Ms. Lewis appears to be having the time of her life as "Iron Maven", the leader of "The Holy Rollers". Everyone else is in fine support mode including Landon Pigg as the musician (big stretch) who rocks Ms. Page's world.

Ms. Barrymore direction is straightforward and she handles the action scenes well. The action-comedy is a fun glimpse into the hard knocks life of Roller Derby.

Life During Wartime

The latest feature from writer/director Todd Solendz is a sequel of sorts to his earlier film, "Happiness". It is a series of vignettes revolving around the dysfunctional family we first met in that amazing film. The difference here is that all the characters are played by an entirely different set of actors.

Having thoroughly enjoyed "Happiness", it's a bit disorienting at first to reconnect to the characters when they are played by different people. I don't think the film will appeal to anyone without seeing the previous work. It doesn't really stand on it's own as it's major theme is forgiveness and without seeing "Happiness", you just won't get it.

Many of the new actors are terrific. Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy and Michael Kenneth Williams make the characters their own, which for some of them is a very hard thing to do considering who played their parts in "Happiness". Conversely, Shirley Henderson and Ciaran Hinds (while good actors in their own right) do not do justice to their characters and could not make me forget the originals.

The plot line is typical of Mr. Solendz. Multiple story lines overlap with many uncomfortable situations. You find yourself laughing even as Mr.Solendz makes you squirm uneasily as the observer of these emotional distraught people, all looking for forgiveness in one way or another.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A Serious Man

The new film from the Coen brothers is a personal, some say autobiographical, story of a Jewish family in Minnesota in the '60's. Far from the broad appeal of their last two films, "A Serious Man" has no "A" list star power, although Michael Stuhlbarg (best know for his Broadway work) is excellent as the lead, Larry Gopnick. Also co-starring is Richard Kind and Adam Arkin.

The story has universal themes but is heavily steeped in Jewish culture. Mr. Stuhlbarg plays a college professor with growing problems at home and at work. As the film progresses, his problems mount and he seeks council from various place, including three very different rabbis. The Coen's ruminate on religion, family, and one's values. The film is a drama but there is much humor underlying the serious story.

As usual with the Coen Brothers, the film is brilliantly photographed (by Roger Deakins), directed with a detailed eye, and extremely well acted. The story will probably not appeal to a wide audience but as a young Jewish teen growing up in the '60's, the film brought back many memories of my own experience.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


It's been reported that Lars Van Trier was in a terrible depression when he wrote the screenplay for "Antichrist". Making the film may or may not have been cathartic for him, but his state of mind at the time is clearly visible on the screen. This is clearly the work of a man trying to deal with his personal demons.

On the surface, it's a simple story of a man (Willem Dafoe) and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) trying to deal with the aftermath of their young son's death. The film is basically just the two characters who retreat to a remote cabin in the woods to deal with their loss. Both actors give remarkable performances, raw, powerful and not easily forgotten.

What lies below the surface will either astound you or repulse you (probably both). Visually, Mr. Van Trier has literally painted an unforgettable portrait of pain, grief, and despair. The film is divided into a prologue, multiple chapters, followed by an epilog. As it progresses, it takes the viewer to places you may not want to go. This film is not for the squeamish but if you enjoy challenging cinema, it is not to be missed.