Friday, June 29, 2012

Crazy 80's Project: When Harry Met Sally...

If, for any reason, When Harry Met Sally... feels familiar structurally or character-wise, let me start off by saying that it's not because the film is any less fresh or funny than it was upon its release. If anything, it's because nearly every romantic comedy of the 90's--before the genre became a joke to more than just film snobs--borrows heavily from the recently deceased Nora Ephron's brilliant script. Unlike Wiig & Mumolo's Bridesmaids, which punctuates sadness with ridiculously, gloriously, over-the-top comedic set pieces, Ephron's script punctuates sadness with a calmer, more realistic comedic style. You won't find Meg Ryan shitting in a sink, but you will see an equally well-orchestrated scene where Harry and Sally, the morning after jeopardizing their friendship by sleeping with each other, call their married friends for advice. Outlandish, no. But it's just as well constructed as any scene in any comedy of the last 20 years. This is what When Harry Met Sally... does best, though, finding depth and humor in the most common places, whether that's over a game of Win, Lose or Draw or having lunch in a crowded restaurant while discussing their sex lives. Crystal and Ryan also find surprising amounts of character through their romantic comedy "types" (he is the wisecracker who hides behind sarcasm, she is perky and optimistic with the slightest hint of neuroticism underneath the surface). They have great chemistry together and make it believable that these two would make the journey from friendship to something more. When Harry Met Sally... never set out to reinvent the wheel, nor does it ever, but, like It Happened One Night five decades before it, the film reinvented the romantic comedy subgenre and forever changed how we saw them afterwards. A-

Half-Way Report for 2012

Best Film

01. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)
This movie was so fucked up on so many levels, I have no idea where to even begin. The film balances dark humor and horror as well as Scream, albeit in a less self-referential way. But the real kicker is that finale which throws everything at the wall. It probably shouldn't work so well, but I found myself endlessly fascinated (and simultaneously horrified) by the spectacle.

02. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)
03. 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

Best Performance

01. Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games
Like Crazy is the film that turned me into a J. Law fan. The Hunger Games is what turned that love into an obsession. We all knew she could do tough, extremely focused characters--a prerequisite for Katniss Everdeen that no other young actress in Hollywood can even come close to matching Lawrence in--but The Hunger Games shows different facets of J. Law's personality that we've really only seen from her on the promotion trail. In a few moments, usually opposite Josh Hutcherson (also perfectly cast: a kid actor playing an eager-to-please contestant who knows how to get people to like him), she showed a charm and comic timing usually only seen from her on talk shows. And the flaming dress she wears while riding into the Capitol matches the fire bomb sexpot we saw at the 2010 Oscars when she wore that va-va-va voom red Baywatch dress. If we hadn't already seen it before, The Hunger Games proves that Jennifer Lawrence is the already the best actress of her generation.

02. Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street
03. Armie Hammer, Mirror Mirror

Best Rental

01. History is Made at Night (Frank Borzage)
Married to a neurotic, possessive millionaire, Jean Arthur flees and falls in love with a charming Charles Boyer. Borzage, a well-kept secret of the studio era, keeps what could have been a farfetched, hand-ringing melodrama subtle and low-key, while Arthur, best known today for her Capra comedies, proves that she was as versatile an actress as any of her more well regarded contemporaries.

02. Metropolitan (Whit Stillman)
03. Possession (Andrzej Zulawski)
04. When Harry Met Sally... (Rob Reiner)
05. Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh)

Best Song

01. Lana Del Rey "Off to the Races"
Any initial skepticism I had about Ms. Del Rey was quickly erased after hearing this song. Lush, incredibly rich, and emotionally devastating, "Off to the Races" is five minutes of beautiful catharsis.

02. Nicki Minaj "Starships"
03. Dragonette "Let It Go"
04. Demi Lovato "Give Your Heart a Break"
05. Avicii "Levels"

Best Album

01. Justin Bieber, Believe
The teen sensation wisely matures while keeping an eye on the young fans who got him where he is. Easily the best teen pop album since Miley's Can't Be Tamed (and a perfect counterpoint on how to grow up from your teenage fandom without completely alienating them at the same time).
02. Madonna, MDNA
03. Kris Allen, Thank You Camellia
04. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die
05. fun., Some Nights

Best Music Video

01. One Direction "One Thing"
With music video budgets, especially those of young, up-and-coming artists, continuously getting slashed, artists have to be creative with the little money they have. None of One Direction's video have been what you'd call "big budget," but with "One Thing," they have finally found the perfect outlet to display their massive personalities. Punctuated with tiny, adorable moments (the choreographed "dance", Zayn's adorable head bob behind Louis), the "One Thing" video succinctly shows the One Direction boys as the adorable, ridiculous fellas we know them as.

02. Carly Rae Jepsen "Call Me Maybe"
03. Foster the People "Color on the Walls (Don't Stop)"
04. Madonna "Girl Gone Wild"
05. Madonna featuring M.I.A. & Nicki Minaj "Give Me All Your Luvin'"

Hottest (New) Guys

01. The Teen Wolf Boys
There's a reason "Have sex with all of the Teen Wolf boys" is number three on my bucket list.

02. Drake
03. Cody Rhodes
04. Jeremy Irvine
05. Clint Mauro

Sunday, June 24, 2012

2011 Diva Cup Awards: The Extra Categories

Best Ensemble

[Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Mary Page Keller, Goran Visnjic]


[Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Chris O'Dowd, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Jill Clayburgh, Jon Hamm]

Win Win
[Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey]


X-Men: First Class
[Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Zoe Kravitz, January Jones, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi]


Young Adult
[Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins]

As good as these nominees are, none of them hold a candle to the ladies of Bridesmaids.

Best Scene
Abduction: Dr. Bennett's Plan
The Artist: Peppy's Dance
Bridesmaids: The Engagement Party Toast(s)
Bridesmaids: Wedding Shower Meltdown
Drive: Motel Massacre
Young Adult: Mavis' New Life

Whether they provoked laughter, unintentional (Abduction) or not (Bridesmaids), perfectly encapsulated the tiny joys of cinema (The Artist), raised the stakes of their film (Drive) or dared to defy genre conventions (Young Adult), these six nominees practically summed up 2011 for me. How could I narrow them down any further? While both Bridesmaids scenes managed the near impossible task of developing character and the dramatic undertones of the entire film amidst hilarious-beyond-belief comedic set pieces, Young Adult's controversial ending dared us to root on an awful character who didn't change for the better and is probably in the same place she was at the beginning of the film. In a film that opened with a wide release, that takes some massive balls, my friend.

Best Quote/Line Reading

Abduction: "There'll be time for you to emotionally deal with all this, but right now you've got to get your shit together."

Bridesmaids: "Help me, I'm poor."

Bridesmaids: "I swear to God that dolphin looked, not at me, but into my soul. Into my Goddamn soul, Annie."

Midnight in Paris: "I hear the songs he writes, and I realize I'll never write a real lyric and my talent really lies in drinking."

Scream 4: "Don't fuck with the original."

Was there a more relatable line in 2011 than Annie's drunken, pity-seeking admission?

Breakthrough Performance

Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
☆Jessica Chastain, The Help
Charlie Day, Horrible Bosses
Jasper Newell, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

An admittedly difficult choice between Bejo and Chastain, both of whom brought vast amounts of charm, energy and pizazz to their films with the effortless ease of the best old school movie stars. Chastain wins out mainly because she saves her film from near unwatchability, but I can't wait for what both of these ladies come up with for their next offerings.

Best Diva

 Rose Byrne, Bridesmaids
Cameron Diaz, Bad Teacher
Miss Piggy, The Muppets
Allison Pill, Midnight in Paris
☆Charlize Theron, Young Adult

As if anyone could compete with Charlize's eye-rolling, Diet-Coke-swilling, man-stealing Mavis Gary in this category. The bitch was the diva from head to toe.

Best Sexpot

Henry Cavill, Immortals

Dominic Cooper, The Devil's Double

☆Michael Fassbender, Jane Eyre, ShameX-Men: First Class

Eva Green, Cracks

Christina Hendricks, Drive

Cavill and Cooper did their best to compete but come on. For the second year in a row, in three films as completely different from each other as possible, Fassy came out swinging (his massive penis). The Argentina outfit from X-Men: First Class and his bedclothes during the fire scene in Jane Eyre weren't overtly sexual, yet nearly had me succumbing to the vapors.

Best Cameo/Limited Performance

Jill Clayburgh, Bridesmaids

Tom Hiddelston & Allison Pill, Midnight in Paris

 ☆Jennifer Lawrence, Like Crazy

Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris

Like Crazy was absolute bollocks, but Jennifer Lawrence made the whole thing bearable whenever she graced the screen (and Anton Yelchin's life) with her presence. The fact that she got dumped for Felicity bloody Jones still makes me LOL, months after watching the film.

Best Poster

Cold Weather
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
The Skin I Live In

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would probably win this if its promotional campaign to make the lame Swedish version edgy and controversial had been transferred into the actual film. That said, the poster for Drive, with its retro look and flashy neon colors, was easily the most memorable of the year.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Crazy 80's Project: Withnail and I

Two out of work actors, one a hopeless alcoholic, the other neurotic, both fed up with their squalid apartment, decide to spend a weekend in the country at the alcoholic's gay uncle's cottage. Chaos ensues as they deal with a lack of food, their lack of survival instincts and a surprise visit from the uncle himself. Withnail and I sounds like a "me" movie if ever I've heard one (Alcoholism? Check. Characters failing at life? Check. Clifford from Spice World? Check.). So why am I having the hardest time coming up with anything remotely interesting to say about this movie? Certainly, Withnail and I is clever in its own way, with quite a few amusing bits and a great turn from Richard E. Grant as the alcoholic actor. But everything in the film sort of runs together and nothing truly stands out. It has only been a week since watching Withnail and I, and I can barely remember anything about it. Maybe it's because the film is, in a sense, a comedic take on the British Miserablism film, which I find to be one of the hardest regional cinema subgenres to sit through. For all the banter and gags, Withnail and Marwood are living are extremely desperate, depressing characters sleepwalking through life; it certainly makes Bridesmaids' Annie looks like a winner in comparison.. Perhaps Withnail and I is another one of those films that requires multiple viewings to truly get what is special and funny about it. For now, it's a mildly enthusiastic B-.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Top 10 Films of 2011

When you're a film critic, you try to be as objective as possible when reviewing movies. But sometimes circumstances prevent you from being 100% objective. Maybe you're cranky and irate from work, or maybe you're tired and in no mood for the latest existential masterpiece from a third-world auteur. While looking over the films of last year, it was immediately clear that the ones I responded to the most where the ones that reflected my life in 2011. Nothing that happened to me during those 12 months was especially profound nor was it anything that millions of post-graduates trying to find themselves in the land of adults after four years of playing house weren't going through as well. That is, however, where my mind was at for most of the year, and it's definitely reflected in the upcoming list: in at least half of my top 10--debatably even more--you'll find characters stuck in a rut, blindly repeating the same, terrible life choices, hoping that something, anything will change and they will finally be happy again. Reading that sentence over as I write it, maybe I wasn't objective enough with this list. But, even so, I can safely admit that watching these movies helped me. Yes, my life is still messy. No, I don't know what I want to do with the rest of my life. For a couple hours at a time, though, these movies, in their own peculiar ways, showed me that everything will eventually work itself out and I'll be okay. In short: objectivity, be damned! Now, on with the top 10 films of 2011:

10. Warrior
The rare film where I came for the beefcake but stayed for practically everything else, Warrior surprised me in multiple ways. I was surprised by Warrior's ability to ring every drop of pathos and melodrama out of the most tired clichés imaginable. I was surprised that my interest was not only sustained throughout its excessive 140 minute runtime, but after pausing it in the middle to grab a drink with friends, I cut out early so I could come back home and finish the movie. Yes, I know that last sentence is hard to believe but you heard me correctly: I declined more alcohol for Warrior. Most people will scoff at this choice, and under different circumstances I couldn't exactly blame them. But Warrior deserves massive recognition for turning what could have been extreme crap in less capable hands into the best familial melodrama of the year.

09. Scream 4
"Don't fuck with the original," Sidney, the ever-battered heroine of Wes Craven's Scream series, spouts at this installment's crazed killer. It's a lesson Hollywood has problems with, especially when it comes to horror franchises. One successful film and immediately sequels and spin-offs are planned to cash-in on the brand's recognition. Scream is no stranger to this formula, particularly since the film was under the guise of Harvey Weinstein. Yet Scream has somehow always been able to overcome the typical problems of multiple sequels. Whereas the original parodied the horror genre, the second and third films, in their own ways, became parodies of the original, further extending the brand into an interesting and original direction. More than a decade after the last film, Scream 4 revisits the original's intention: parodying the horror genre, which had undergone numerous changes in the past 11 years. The technology may be better and the teens may be more self-aware, but that doesn't prevent Scream 4 from staying true to its original intentions in new surroundings.

08. Certified Copy
Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami teams up with French living legend Juliette Binoche for this cerebral take on the romance film. Binoche meets writer William Shimell at a lecture where he's discussing his latest book, a critical analysis on the artistic worth of "certified copies" of art masterpieces. She invites him to coffee to discuss, and what begins as a normal conversation involves into something more, something which may or may not reveal their true pasts and relationship with each other. What sets Certified Copy apart from other "thesis as film" excursions into pretension are that the questions it raises--Which of the scenarios is the "original" and which are the certified copies? Does it truly matter, even if we enjoyed a copy more than the original?--are original and probing and that Kiarostami actually wants us to care about these characters as people, rather than intellectual mouth pieces.

07. Senna
Piecing together a documentary out of hours of stock footage from a decade of racing events is one thing. But piecing together a documentary out of hours of stock footage from a decade of racing events so that it flows like a narrative film and manages to be as exciting and suspenseful as the best sports dramas is another thing all together. Director Asif Kapadia works wonders with the limitations, crafting an intense look at how Brazilian outsider Ayrton Senna, met with contempt and outright derision from European Formula One racers and even the organization's president, became one of the sport's most beloved figures. As with Warrior, it probably sounds trite on paper, but the storytelling and technical work involved makes Senna a can't miss movie.

06. The Muppets
Other than a passing knowledge of them through the Muppet Babies cartoon when I was a kid, I had no real earth shattering connection to the Muppets when I went to see their much ballyhooed return to the big screen. So, while most people were disappointed that the Muppets were mostly business as usual with no "new" ideas in their comedy, I found myself marveling at the many clashing Muppet personalities, somehow working together and against each other to stage a grand comeback. What struck me most about the film, and is probably the reason I responded so strongly to the movie, was the melancholy buried deep beneath the boundless optimism of the Muppets. In a way, The Muppets is a film about a group of people whose life didn't turn out exactly as they planned: they lost touch, drifted their own ways, settled into their sad existences but never really examined if they were happy with what they were doing. Is it any wonder why this movie moved me so much, particularly during this past year?

05. Drive
Instantly iconic, effortlessly cool, stylized within an inch of its life and guided by a star-making performance from Ryan Gosling, Drive is a monstrosity of a movie (in the best way possible). It's so BIG, particularly during the final half, it makes every other 2011 film look small; how does any film dare compete with the Scorpion Jacket or the vivid, retro-feeling soundtrack floating over the film? Drive is one of the best pure moviegoing experiences of the year. From a nearly wordless protagonist to its increasingly out-of-time dream (?) sequences bookended with pure, harsh reality, Nicolas Winding Refn's joyfully plays with audiences expectations at how an action film should look. The entirety of Drive feels breezy and carefree, but it's always the easiest-looking films that have the most thought put behind them.

04. Hanna
If I was a blurb whore, I would call Hanna the best action film since Speed and leave it at that. But since I'm not, I'll offer a bit more explanation as to why I loved this movie so much. Joe Wright, known primarily for period pieces, proves that (a) he can do more than period and (b) you can meld arthouse visual flourishes with the action genre's sensibilities for a hybrid that is both unique and fascinating to watch. From the pounding, memorable Chemical Brothers score, to the long take Eric Bana fight scene, to the chase sequence on top of those stock yard crates, every bit of Hanna has been completely thought out and executed flawlessly. If all action films were this intelligent and well-made, I'd be a bigger fan of the genre.

03. Young Adult
When I saw Young Adult on a Friday afternoon in mid-December, I left the theatre feeling like I had just been punched in the stomach. What was that movie? I didn't hate it, not by any stretch of the imagination. Rather, I couldn't quite shake the cold, dark pit it had left in the bottom of my soul. I walked around the mall near the theatre, shopping for Christmas presents, and I wondered how Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) would react to all of the nonsense going around. I imagined the sneer, the look of contempt she would give these lowly shoppers, spending their sad, pathetic lives in this sad, pathetic mall. Without even realizing it, Mavis had invaded my soul, and that's what bothered me so much about the movie. Even though we are disgusted by the stupid, selfish vanity and egotism Mavis Gary represents, all of us can relate to her at least on some level. From small things to keeping up the appearance of popularity by continuously texting nonsense into your phone or sleeping with someone even though you find everything they say and feel to be utterly contemptible to something bigger like the inability to find happiness in anything, let alone the small things the people around you can and do with relative ease, Young Adult manages the tricky task of finding the reprehensible relatable. The controversial ending to Diablo Cody's masterclass of a screenplay sticks a sharp dagger into the cold, dead soul of this movie--and feels all the more alive because of it.

02. Beginners
If Young Adult was like a punch to the gut, Beginners was like pulling out a nose hair: I was in an incredible amount of (emotional) pain, and I suppressed the urge to cry for no specific reason. A lot of people compliment writers/directors on caring about their characters, but none of them can touch the amount of empathy writer/director Mike Mills feels for every single character on-screen as they find the courage to begin their lives again after setbacks or life-changing moments. Some find it easier than others, yet they all soldier on even when they want to throw the towel in. Beginners is masterful in its ability to find warmth even in the face of death, whether it's of a relationship or a literal one. It's these little glimpses of humor and life in the darker moments which make them all the more affecting and heartbreaking. A perfect mix of light and dark, Beginners is one of the best melancholic comedies you're ever likely to see.

01. Bridesmaids
It's 2012, yet comedy is still treated like a second-class art form. "Sure, Bridesmaids was funny," you'll hear pretentious arthouse snobs sneer after extolling the artistic virtues of the latest Terence Malick snooze fest, "But it's not a great film." "Oh, fuck off," is my response to these ignorant moviegoers, unwilling to even consider the fact that great doesn't always equal serious. Under the guise of a raucous, foul-mouthed gross-out comedy, Bridesmaids smartly sets itself apart from nearly every other studio-financed comedy out there by exploring serious, even potentially dark, subjects through outlandish, in-your-face, comedic set pieces. While laughing at Annie's (Kristen Wiig) numerous meltdowns, you can't help but see how fucking sad it all is. This is a woman who feels the need to compete a smug, condescending stranger at a wedding party because she's afraid of losing her best friend or who picks a fight with a 13 year old girl and calls her a cunt because she realizes just how shitty her life has become. Even the go-get-'em speech at the end, delivered to Annie by fellow bridesmaid Megan (Academy Award-nominee Melissa McCarthy), doesn't ever feel as corny as it should, delivered with good intentions and conviction by McCarthy but layered with so much comedy you don't realize how beautiful what she says is until much later. Yes, Bridesmaids is "just" a comedy, but no film in 2012--hell, at least the past five years--has opened my eyes more to the many possibilities film has to offer.