[8 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
How do the Coen Brothers do it? How do they keep coming up with inventive narratives, complicated characters, and directorial flair that’s as reverent to the past as it is indicative of film’s future. Aside from a rough bit from 2003 through 2005 (in which the subpar Ladykillers remake and Intolerable Cruelty resulted), they’ve delivered nothing but brilliance—and if the trailer for this latest period piece is any indication, they have crafted another amazing masterpiece. Man deals with the late ‘60s, a Midwestern college professor with marital troubles, and from what we can tell from the preview, elements of Judaism and faith. While the subject matter sings pure Coen, it’s the visual look that’s so compelling. As they do with almost every film they make, there is an artistic approach here that’s impossible to ignore. It bodes well for this dark comedy’s chances at connecting with audiences.
Michael Moore is often lamented as the liberal’s liberal mouthpiece, a man so far to the left of center that he literally tilts every documentary he designs toward his proto-pinko-peacenik politics. Even when he’s right - Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, SiCKO - he’s seen as a whack job working out his obvious anti-American feelings on a blindly faithful fanbase. None of this will change with his latest fact-based rant, yet another attack on how corporations are killing the economy. This time around, however, he has the ear of an unemployed and disenfranchised populace angry over how Wall Street worked the entire country into a bankrupt, bail-out frenzy. Sure, there will be the typical nitpicking and Hell fire, but here’s betting more people are willing to hear him out than shout him down.
Oh boy…something about this film stinks. Unless your Edward Wright making Shaun of the Dead, or Dan O’Bannon delivering The Return of the Living Dead, zombie comedies just don’t work. Granted, this one does have Woody Harrelson in full blown cornpone mode, Adventureland‘s Jesse Einsenberg doing his best deadpan drollness shtick, Abigail Breslin growing up and Emma Stone for added sugary eye candy. Still, jokes about cannibalism and the end of the world? Preview clips that argue over the “best kill” for a certain segment of the storyline? Huh? The talent behind the lens also inspires little hope. Director Ruben Fleischer has limited credits, comedy or otherwise, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are responsible for such ribticklers as The Joe Schmo Show and Invasion Iowa. Maybe they can pull it off. Don’t be surprised if they don’t.
In which Drew Barrymore does roller derby—and brings along such fetching female talent as Ellen Page, Zoe Bell, Juliette Lewis, and Kristin Wiig along for the ride. And we’re not talking about old school ‘70s skate smash-ups like those in Rachel Welch’s classic Kansas City Bomber. Instead, this story (based on the book Shauna Cross) seems invested in the desire to show how organized team sports and gender equity leads to a sense of purpose and amplified self-esteem. This is Drew’s first effort behind the lens as well, and from the trailers currently making the rounds, she seems pretty adept at both the action and the dramedy. If it finds the right audience, an alternative crowd who want to see girls getting physical and finding their own source of power, this could be a big hit. Here’s hoping Drew and her excellent cast deliver the damage.
He is basketball’s reigning god, a deity among men who are already pretty close to immortal in the eyes of their fans. So what does this documentary about Lebron James have to offer the already devoted? Well, apparently, a paycheck for the four other teammates who played with the high school phenom before his early jump to the NBA. Indeed, Kristopher Belman had long decided to follow King James as he played his way through poverty and peer pressure, all while leading his team to several titles before he became Cleveland’s savior. As much a work of happenstance as hype (Belman indeed started this film before the much ballyhooed media meddling in James post-interscholastic plans) this is Hoop Dreams without the depressing downside, a story of inner city struggle where the end game turns out to be a shot at a National Championship - as well as several multimillion dollar years as a professional. Could be good. Could also be grating.
Ugh—another October title that promises much more than it can probably ever deliver. Jon Favreau’s long time producing pal Peter Billingsley (yes, Ralphie from A Christmas Story) is taking up residence in the director’s chair, making his feature film debut with a script from his buddy, Vince Vaughn, and What Happens in Vegas scribe Dana Fox. Sounds sketchy already. Now add in the cast, which combines solid comedic talents like Jason Bateman and Faizon Love with wildcards like Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid—bad!) and Kristin Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall—good!). While the basic concept is satirically sound, recent preview screenings have suggested that the film is loaded with dead space and cartoonish, caricature-like performances. Here’s hoping Billingsley and the boys can pull this one out of the fire before actual paying audiences have a chance to condemn it once and for all.
Chris Rock taking on the delicate subject of African American women and their hair? Sign us up! Similar in style to Bill Maher’s Religulous, as well as other serio-comic docs like Super Size Me, the usual suspects still make their necessary appearances: racism; unrealistic portraits in the media; minority-specific marketing; peer pressure; cultural significance and shifts. Add in Rock’s typically irreverent style, the inherent curiosity factor within the narrow-minded mainstream audience, and a built in demographic willing to watch themselves exposed on screen and you’ve got a realistic recipe for a major box office triumph. Indeed, if Tyler Perry can draw in the urban crowd with his melodramatic morality plays, a comedy titan like Rock should definitely deliver a surge of sleeper success.
Here’s one that’s hard to get a handle on. It has a stellar cast—Liam Neeson, Christina Ricci, Justin Long—and an intriguing premise (girl caught between life and death, a funeral director who can communicate with her and help determine who’s trying to kill her). But the wildcard here is writer/director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo. She is virtually unknown in Hollywood, her only other credits including a collaboration on a multi-media project for the Paris Opera Ballet and a short called Pâté. On the positive side, many found the latter to be a visionary post-apocalyptic masterwork. How this particular cinematic story will play out is anyone’s guess. And with the film still categorized as in “post production”, don’t be surprised if it gets moved to sometime in 2010.
It appears to be the same old cautionary tale—a young girl falls for an older man, throws dreams of going to college away to be with him, and then gets hit in the face with reality when her Prince Charming turns out to be decidedly less regal than originally believed. What makes this intriguing British import stand out is the source material (an autobiographical book by UK journalist Lynn Barber), the director (former Dogme ‘95 devotee Lone Sherfig), the writer who adapted the screenplay (High Fidelity/About a Boy scribe Nick Hornby) and the late ‘60s setting. Together, this solid set of talent provides the more than capable cast with enough fodder to deliver what many are calling a superb and wholly satisfying film. Already a sensation at Sundance, here’s hoping the title can live up to its publicity.
For a while, Spike Jonze and his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book was in a deep karma canyon of despair and debilitating rumors. Early tests had made their way onto the web, F/X and other elements remaining incomplete, and the fanboys started foaming. Then rumors had Warner Brothers balking on even finishing the film, giving Jonze his walking papers while writing off the entire near $90 million budget. That was over a year ago. Now, this is one of the season’s hottest tickets, all the bad buzz suddenly shifting toward Oscar nominations and ‘classic’ status. The change is clearly the result of the studio supporting Jonze, letting him realize his vision in a way that turned a potential disaster into a delight. In fact, Sendak is said to absolutely adore what the Being John Malkovich auteur has done with his tome. That’s a stamp of approval that’s hard to argue with.
Here’s another project that’s been sitting on the shelf, clouded in innuendo and early review gossip for far too long. As No Country For Old Men was burning up the box office, author Cormac McCarthy was getting the Oprah/Pulitzer treatment for his latest novel, the nightmarish apocalyptic allegory The Road. Quickly snapped up by the Weinstein Company, Australian director John Hillcoat was hired to bring the visionary work to the screen. Initial reports were favorable—Viggo Mortenson and Charlize Theron in key roles, a depressing, Hell on Earth look to the production design and F/X. And then the bad word of mouth began. Hillcoat wasn’t up to the challenge and was floundering. The film needed massive re-shoots and re-edits. Script reviews vented over “substantial changes” to the storyline, and suddenly release dates were changing (November 2008 to December, then to Spring 2009 before finally settling here). Early reviews have been mixed. Here’s hoping the hate is ill-founded.
Though it has F. Gary Gray (director) and Kurt Wimmer (screenplay) working behind the scenes, and Jamie Foxx in a starring role, this is one high tech thriller that looks like a lot of fun. Gerard Butler is a man who loses everything when criminals kills his family. After they are given favorable deals by the DA, our hero goes ballistic. In an act of vigilante justice, he acts as his own judge, jury, and executioner. Once in jail himself, however, this former “secret agent” (or so the trailer infers) continues his one man rebellion against the system. Indeed, anyone who ever received a sweetheart deal from a slimeball attorney or conflicted district attorney gets his deadly deserts at Butler’s hand - even though he’s behind bars. The preview is indeed intriguing, providing a premise that makes us curious for more. While Wimmer is not the greatest scenarist in the world (his IMDb credits are contradictory, to say the least), this could be a blast.
If it’s October, it has to be another unnecessary horror remake. This time, the fabulous Terry O’Quinn is replaced by nip/tuck‘s Dylan Walsh and the female protagonist is now a suspicious son recently returned home from military school. And just to make matters worse for all the fright film fans out there, Sony has mandated a pathetic PG-13 policy regarding the violence. Sure, Sam Raimi made it work in Drag Me to Hell, but here’s betting TV veteran Nelson McCormick has a harder time than Mr. Evil Dead in the toned down terror department. Besides, 22 years ago when divorce and step-parenting were still slightly hot topic issues, this retrofitted slasher seemed timely and topical. Now, it just feels ridiculous and redundant.
Uma Thurman is a child’s blog author who is suddenly faced with planning her six-year-old’s birthday party. How hard can that be for a smart, intelligent career gal, right? Oh boy, you clearly haven’t been paying attention to how Hollywood circa 2009 really works. Motherhood promises a combination of Sex and the City and Baby Boom (don’t ask how), except with more product placement and less actual comedy. Indeed, the recently revealed trailer is so bereft of laughs that you wonder if the proposed punchlines by writer/director Katherine Dieckmann are jokes or cries for help. It’s hard to make one of Tinseltown’s most beautiful women look tawdry, but somehow this movie manages to do it. And what’s with all the stay-at-home mom, working woman weirdness. Does this movie support Thurman’s character’s career choices or not?
It’s also difficult to spoof types. Something like blaxsploitation got its collection of formulas and clichés through concerned cultural consensus, not some predetermined personal perspective. That being said, this send-up of the entire Dolemite/Sweet Sweetback school of cinema sounds amazing. The storyline centers on the title character, called back into action when the Italian Mafia starts screwing around with his neighborhood (peddling heroin in an orphanage, pushing bad malt liquor onto the streets). With the help of sidekicks like Tasty Freeze and Cream Corn, our hero must save the day, woo the ladies, and avoid the pitfalls of being angry, young, built, and black. Though director Scott Sanders only has one other film to his credit (1998’s shrug Thick as Thieves), he shows a real reverence to the look and the anarchic amateurishness of the ‘70s. It looks like a stone cold hoot.
First, there was Paris, je t’aime. Now, it’s the Big Apple’s turn to take cinematic center stage in this apparently ongoing series of celluloid love letters. With names such as Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shunji Iwai, and Shekhar Kapur behind the lens and stars like Natalie Portman, Bradley Cooper, Orlando Bloom, and Julie Christie in front, these ten thematically linked shorts promise to celebrate love among the metropolitan ruins of Manhattan. With Shanghai in its sights and a good bit of critical acclaim in its rear view mirror (many found the French installment beyond delightful), we could wind up with an enigmatic effort that finds an audience outside the arthouse. Then again, it could be too trendy for a mostly mainstream crowd.
It’s big, bombastic biopic time with America’s first famous female airplane pilot in the crosshairs. Two time Oscar winner Hilary Swank takes on the ‘30s icon, a ray of feminist sunshine in a country mired in a Great Depression and a pending World War. Directed by Mira Nair, who’s undeniable visual flair peppered pictures like Mississippi Masala and The Namesake, this does look remarkable. The period detail is crisp and the casting impeccable. Still, one can’t help but get the feeling that this film will probably suffer from something we like to call The Valkyrie Syndrome. Since almost everyone knows how Amelia Earhart’s story ends, there will be a real lack of suspense in how her life in the limelight gets there. It will be up to the insights and personal plotpoints uncovered to make up for what is an already predetermined ending.
It’s time for another CGI adventure, this time revolving around the classic Japanese manga character from the 1960s. Of course, everything is updated and Westernized, retrofitted to please an otherwise clueless pre-teen demographic. The storyline promises to follow the original origins of the character, and the design work and animation have a nice sense of depth and detail. But there is still the problem of approach. The narrative centers on a young automaton’s search for self, a journey of discovery brought about when his inventor/father fails to fully accept him. One imagines this material being significantly lightened for the Ice Age/Shrek crowd. While the action scenes are jawdropping and the voice talent involved (Freddy Highmore, Nicholas Cage, Bill Nighy) solid, there are more questions here than answers. Astro Boy could become a new post-millennial icon. He could also end up a misguided cross cultural cop out.
Lars Von Trier is not afraid of controversy. As a major proponent of the stripped down, no frills Dogme ‘95 style of filmmaking, he’s remained steadfast to his own unique vision, even when it undermined his larger artistic ambitions. Now he’s dabbling in psychological terror, presenting the story of a couple who seek solace in the woods after the death of their child. Told in three main phases (reflective of the Three Beggars figures that feature symbolically in the story), Von Trier explores elements both sexual and surreal as his two main actors (Willem Dafoe and Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Winner Charlotte Gainsbourg) battle each other physically as well as mentally for a kind of post-grief catharsis. Considered overtly violent and somewhat misogynistic, critical opinion has been divided. Some have called it a masterpiece. Others consider it a misguided mess. As always, Von Trier has the last laugh.
Groan. Talk about your played-out franchises. When Darren Lynn Bousman left to helm his terrific Goth gore musical Repo: The Genetic Opera, he took all the viability for this series with him. Under his directorial watch, James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s psychological study went through several fascinating arterial spray transformations—puzzle box maze, backstory heavy bloodletting, perfect set up for the next serial killer icon. But since then, Part 5 bungled the mythology, making the mistake of added ancillary characters and heretofore unheard of motivations to the mix. Suddenly, what seemed like an annual rite of body part passage has turned into yet another unnecessary cinematic cash cow. You can tell how much faith Lionsgate has in this latest installment—it’s already mid-September (at the time of this writing) and we’ve yet to see anything beyond a vague teaser trailer.
We blame Twilight for this new unsettling fascination with neckbiters: Twilight and HBO’s True Blood. Also, shouldn’t Ray Bradbury be preparing a plagiarism lawsuit of some sort? This sounds an awful lot like a Dracula-redesigned Something Wicked This Way Comes. The story centers on a young teen named Darren Shan who manages to mess up a centuries old truce between two feuding vampire clans. Within a world of sideshow attractions and supernatural nonsense, our hero learns of his eventual role in the realigning of the undead fates. Sounds really spooky, right? Actually, this is just another example of horror being hemmed in by fashionable trends and kid lit illegitimacy. Just think, if Anne Rice hadn’t turned Nosferatu into a whining wuss, we may have been saved from spook show schlock like this. Not even the presence of John C. Reilly can salvage it.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s wife, Rebecca Miller (daughter of famed playwright Arthur), adapts her own novel for the screen, the story of a young woman, married to an older man, who finds her life turned upside down when he decides to move to a retirement community. Soon, marital infidelities flair up and Pippa’s mental state starts to suffer. Early reviews have been all over the map, some calling the film “inspired” while others find it dull and derivative. Many have also pointed out the numerous high profile cast members—Julianne Moore, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder—locked into oddball, idiosyncratic characters. With a lightweight storyline and not much room to grow, this is one drama that draws on its significant star power to validate its purpose. Apparently, it doesn’t quite succeed.
Ever since the breakout success of Superbad, Michael Cera has been carving out a unique niche career for himself. He costarred in the coming-of-age comedy Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist and then saddled up to Ellen Page in the Oscar nominated farce Juno. Then there was the mock doc Paper Heart and the unsuccessful spoof Year One. With his take on fan favorite Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in his foreseeable future (he’s the title character), the 21 year old now guides the translation of the well known novel by C. D. Payne. He plays a milquetoast young man who decides to go rebel in order to win the girl of his dreams. While some have suggested it plays like Fight Club for the Xbox Generation, the irreverent nature of the material suits Cera’s laidback demeanor perfectly.
Jared Hess is back and he’s bringing his skewed world of weird eccentrics with him. While his last film, Nacho Libre, was more of a celebration of Mexican luchadore culture, his latest is a return to Napoleon Dynamite territory. The story centers around a young sci-fi geek, a celebrated author of speculative fiction with writer’s block, and the boy’s own work of far out future shock that the famous scribe “steals” and calls his own. Sounds like all the elements are in place for another sublime slice of idiosyncratic surrealism—and boy does the trailer confirm it. This is one of the smartest looking efforts this Fall, a film unafraid to speak the language of its subject while playing its stupidity very, very smart. With the added benefit of Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement in the lead, all signs point to a clever cult classic.
For the longest time, he was a tabloid target, a ex-pop superstar who hadn’t been relevant since Geraldo was a CNBC liberal. Suddenly, an “accidental” overdose of anesthetic later and Michael Jackson is a unquestioned god, growing in unpleasant posthumous stature. So leave it to the suits behind his now defunct mega-money concert tour to whore out the last images of the late and lamented King to the highest bidder. There are even reports that part of his recent private funeral will be included in the concert film. When Elvis died, he had his last show, elephantine physique and winded greatest hits routine included, repeatedly played on every station that would carry it. For John Lennon, it was shots of bloodstained sidewalks near the Dakota and continual replays of the Beatles catalog. Now comes the Michael Jackson mea culpa and no matter how reverent it is, it still looks like a tacky bit of grief stricken grave robbing.