2009 log (12)

(4 Dec) Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009, Sacha Gervasi) 75
[ This rockumentary is about a 1980s Canadian heavy metal band who, to be frank, I’d never heard about before. But listening to the featured testimonies from members of Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Anthrax, Motorhead, Slayer and other bands, it seems like Anvil was a truly groundbreaking and influential group, even though they never got the widespread recognition they deserved. In any case, it’s a hoot to watch archival footage of singer Lips in his bondage get-up, playing guitar with a vibrator (!) while Robb Reiner drums up a storm… When we’re shown how these same guys, now in their 50s, are working menial jobs, it’s a bit sad, but then we see that they’ve kept on making records and playing gigs, and they still kick ass! Of course, like with all things metal, there’s always an element of silliness to it. Even though Anvil is the real deal, they’re often not far off from Spinal Tap! But ridiculous or not, you can’t not be won over by Lips’ enthusiasm and giddiness. These aren’t jaded, conceited rock stars; they’re still head-banging kids at heart, who clearly have as much fun playing fast and loud now than when they started out 30 years ago. Of course there are tensions, mostly brought by the fact that they’ve never quite been able to make a living doing what they love and that they too often end up playing in less than ideal conditions. Lifelong fan Sacha Gervasi’s documentary captures all this in a dynamic and visually appealing way, but the filmmaking never gets in the way of the story that’s unfolding and the characters that take part in it, which end up being oddly moving. ]

(5 Dec) The Fountain (2006, Darren Aronofsky) [ review ] 94

(9 Dec) Big Fan (2009, Robert Siegel) 72
[ Focusing on a Staten Island parking garage attendant who still lives with his mother even though he’s pushing 40 and who’s got nothing going on except his obsession for his favorite football team, this is kind of a low-key version of Tony Scott’s “The Fan” – which, of course, was itself a sports-themed twist on “Taxi Driver”. “Big Fan” star Patton Oswalt is no De Niro, but he’s pretty damn great as the movie’s sad, lonely misfit of a protagonist. And “The Wrestler” screenwriter Robert Siegel, who’s making his directorial debut here, does a solid job behind the camera. The story is a bit thin and repetitive, but this remains a rather engrossing character study. ]

(12 Dec) Up in the Air (2009, Jason Reitman) 74
[ This here Jason Reitman is an odd duck. He’s definitely talented, but not a terribly exciting filmmaker. There are many other better than average but unexceptional directors in Hollywood, you might say, but what sets Reitman apart is that all three of his features so far are actually pretty damn good… But not generally in an auteurish, movie-movie way. Reitman’s attracted to interesting material (the novels “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air” are based on, Diablo Cody’s original “Juno” screenplay) and he certainly knows how to direct actors into giving entertaining performances (see: Aaron Eckhart in “Thank You for Smoking”, Ellen Page in “Juno” and now George Clooney in “Up in the Air”, plus each film’s whole supporting cast). Those two things are nothing to sneeze at… Yet while the resulting films are good, very good even, I wouldn’t call them great achievements in the field of cinema. Take this here “Up in the Air”. It’s got a lot in common thematically with the first act of “Fight Club” (the “single-serving” lifestyle of the protagonist, the satire of capitalist thinking and motivational bullshit, etc.), but it’s much less cynical, edgy and dark than David Fincher’s flick. Meanwhile, Reitman’s latest also reminds quite a bit of Cameron Crowe’s work, only nowhere near as heartfelt, funny and lyrical. So basically, “Up in the Air” falls somewhere in between; it’s… middlebrow. Again, that doesn’t make it bad. It’s a perfectly pleasant, nicely designed picture, with clean, smooth production values, like a travel brochure or one of those corporate films they show in hotels or on planes. Which is fitting of course, and might actually be intentional! Still, I wish it would have been more intense, more thought-provoking, funnier, sadder, weirder, anything, really. The way it is, it never insulted my intelligence or bored me, and I thought everyone was fantastic in it, from Clooney to his sexy-ass not-so-romantic interest played by Vera Farmiga, his amusing new coworker played by Anna Kendrick and all the others (notably Jason Bateman, my man Danny McBride, Zach Galifianakis, J.K. Simmons, and that cameo from a certain Stranger). But is it truly one of the 10 best pictures of the year? Not even close. ]

(12 Dec) Precious (2009, Lee Daniels) 0
[ Now, as you can tell from that red zero above, whatever hesitations I might have had about “Up in the Air” are nothing next to how gargantuan my problems with this most overrated of films are. And it’s being talked up as a Best Picture contender? Damn, it’s actually the WORST picture I’ve seen all year! What the fuck is wrong with people? Compared to this, a Tyler Perry flick looks like a Spike Lee joint! Set in late 1980s Harlem, this is a miserabilist, nausea-inducingly nasty freak show, written and directed with all the subtlety and finesse of a John Waters movie – it’s like a melodramatic “Hairspray”, minus most of the dancing. Packed with lame visual gimmicks, endless sappy voice-over narration, cheesy dream sequences and ridiculous nightmare flashes, “Precious” is nearly unwatchable tripe. It tells the story of a morbidly obese, fried chicken and McDonald’s-eating, ignorant and foul-mouthed 16-year-old who’s been psychologically, physically and sexually abused her whole life by her deadbeat dad and her welfare mom. Herself the mother of a baby with Down syndrome with another child on the way (she has her incestuous father to thank for both), the “ironically” named Precious still soldiers on, getting a little bit of help along the way from an alternative school teacher and a social worker… I guess I can sorta see why this would be inspiring and moving to some; I haven’t read the original novel “Push” by Sapphire, but I can entertain the thought that this rags-to-slightly-less-disgusting-rags story could work in better hands. One thing’s for sure: said hands aren’t those of screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher and director Lee Daniels, who keep on taking befuddling decisions from start to finish, making every single moment feel crass, phony or both. Much has been said about the supposedly stellar performances from newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique and, again, I could see these actresses being involving and memorable in a (much, much, much) better film. In this crap, though, no thespian on Earth could possibly come out shining. ]

(14 Dec) Invictus (2009, Clint Eastwood) [ review ] 66

(15 Dec) Crazy Heart (2009, Scott Cooper) 83
[ This directorial debut from Scott Cooper is not the most original film in the world, giving the impression that it’s made from borrowed parts from “Walk the Line”, “The Wrestler” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, but it’s still a deeply felt, well made flick that’s greatly elevated by Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-worthy lead performance. As Bad Blake, a 57-year-old country recording star who’s now broke, alcoholic, chain-smoking, overweight and four-time divorced, the Dude is at his absolute best, coming off like both an irresponsible fuck-up and an endearing grizzled old shit-kicker. On top of that, he plays guitar and sings so good that I would definitely buy any records he’d put out! Especially if they’re composed by T Bone Burnett, Stephen Bruton and Ryan Bingham like the great songs in “Crazy Heart”. Add the gorgeous widescreen cinematography by Barry Markowitz and the strong supporting turns from Maggie Gyllenhaal as the single mom romantic interest of Bad, Colin Farrell as his former protégé who’s since surpassed him in popularity and Robert Duvall as his father and you get a movie that, again, doesn’t reinvent the genre, but still connects in a big way. ]

(18 Dec) Avatar (2009, James Cameron) [ review ] 95

(20 Dec) Coraline (2009, Henry Selick) 82
[ This stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book is one of the most wonderfully weird, creepy and offbeat children’s films I’ve seen since… Well, Selick’s own “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. Thoroughly imaginative and visually arresting, “Coraline” follows a badass little blue-haired girl as she wanders into an alternate reality in which her parents are exactly like she wants them to be (except maybe for the buttons in place of their eyes!) and where she’s entertained by circus mice, a talking cat and theatre-loving dogs. Then again, this dream world might just be a nightmare… Words can’t really do justice to all the surprises this movie packs. At times, it’s practically an experimental art film, much closer to Jan Švankmajer’s work than to your average Disney production. ]

(22 Dec) Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino) [ review ] 94

(23 Dec) Les Aimants (2004, Yves Pelletier) [ review ] 91

(27 Dec) The Messenger (2009, Oren Moverman) 67
[ One thing that’s sometimes overlooked about movies is how interesting it is when they make you learn about something you’d never really thought about. I mean, sure, it’s appreciated when there’s a good story in there, characters we care about and so on, but I think there’s something to be said about the worth in finding a potent subject matter. Take “The Messenger”: here’s a war film that deals with the specific issue of the Army’s Casualty Notification service, i.e. officers who go around the country bringing the bad news to dead soldiers’ next of kin. That, in itself, is interesting: how does one handle this very delicate task? How do people react on the moment? What’s the emotional toll on the messenger(s)? First time director Oren Moverman does a solid job, Ben Forster and Woody Harrelson are excellent in the leads and so is the supporting cast (Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi, Samantha Morton, etc.). The actual plot I had some problems with, especially the further away from the basic premise it went. But ultimately, the best thing about this film is how it allows us to experience an uncommon reality we couldn’t have otherwise. ]

(28 Dec) The Cove (2009, Louie Psihoyos) 77
[ This documentary does many striking things. First, it shows you awesome images of dolphins, then it depicts how they’re routinely captured and put into captivity for our enjoyment, so we can swim with them or watch them jump around at SeaWorld. The collision of these two sights is heartbreaking, and infuriating, too. It’s hard to believe that there are folks like the thugs in Taiji, Japan, who can shamelessly exploit such beautiful creatures… And not only do they hunt dolphins to sell them to tourist parks, they also slaughter tons of them! Another fascinating thing about “The Cove” is how its main protagonist, Ric O’Barry, is actually the godfather of dolphin domestication, having caught and trained all the dolphins who appeared on the original “Flipper” TV show. But with time, he realized the err of his ways and has since devoted his life to returning dolphins to their natural habitat. Finally, you gotta admire the “Ocean’s 11”-style covert operation Louie Psihoyos and team went on to actually get footage of the happenings in Taiji, and when you see the waters of the titular cove run red with dolphin blood, it’s clear that is was worth it. ]

(29 Dec) Whatever Works (2009, Woody Allen) 72
[ Part of the Directors Series ]

(29 Dec) Moulin Rouge! (2009, Baz Luhrmann) [ review ] 98

(30 Dec) The Big Lebowski (1998, the Coen brothers) [ review ] 93

(31 Dec) Jennifer’s Body (2009, Karyn Kusama) 69
[ On paper, it’s hard to imagine a much cooler “girl power!” trio than star Megan Fox (the sexpot from the “Transformers” flicks), screenwriter Diablo Cody (who won the Oscar two years ago for “Juno”) and director Karyn Kusama (who first came unto the scene in 2000 with the indie critical darling “Girlfight”). Add the fact that this is a high school satire about a cannibalistic cheerleader, and how could this not at least be one of the ultimate guilty pleasure of 2009? Well, it is. Set in the small town of Devil’s Kettle, the film revolves around mismatched BFFs Jennifer (Fox) and Needy (Amanda Seyfried), whose already shaky friendship is further challenged when the former starts killing and eating some of their male classmates after having been unwittingly turned into a succubus by the lead singer (Adam Brody) of an evil emo band (!). As you can see, the plot is totally preposterous and on top of that, the characters often act illogically and the horror scenes are less scary than cheesy. But all that is incidental because “Jennifer’s Body” is a self-avowed B-movie that never really takes itself seriously, not unlike a Troma production. It’s a lot of fun to watch the delightfully bitchy babe played by Fox and Seyfried is equally, maybe even more alluring in a dorky girl next door kind of way. And then of course there’s all that quotable Diablo Cody-penned dialogue, overflowing with silly pseudo-hipster lingo and cartoonishly sexy come-ons, which annoys some folks but never fails to amuse me. ]

November / January