“Somewhere” review

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Self-important films about self-important people tend to turn me off. They often lack an emotional core or well-defined characters. So why the intentionally hollow, abstract new Sofia Coppola film “Somewhere” intrigued me as much as it did, I have no idea. It’s surprising, I guess. But it’s also beautiful.

Bearing many similarities to Sofia’s past Oscar-winning work “Lost in Translation”, (primarily the exploration of ennui), “Somewhere” still feels distinctive and fresh. It’s about an actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) who couldn’t be less satisfied with the life he lives. He drags himself through his days, aimlessly and endlessly partying and promoting. Pursuing nothing, absorbing everything. It’s only when his 11-year old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning, younger sibling of Dakota) enters his life that Johnny begins to make a change.

“Somewhere” is a movie that says almost nothing. Dialogue is rare and when it occurs, it’s pretty much for characters passing the time. There will often be long stretches of silence where the scene is essentially just of Johnny going through the motions. But these never bore, they only help convey the emotions (isolation, depression) the film wants to sell. It breaks your heart.

As Marco, Stephen Dorff (in his first starring role that I can recall) is appropriately disillusioned. He does a great job carrying the film, at least at face value. I say “at face value” because the real emotional heft of the film lies in little Elle Fanning. See, while the movie may be about Johnny, the most resonant bit of the film is, no doubt, Elle Fanning’s character, Cleo. While she may be the cause for Johnny’s move from his hollow lifestyle, he still breaks her heart. The way Fanning conveys this, through little glances away from her father, through little twitches of her lip, is fantastic.

The score is also worth noting in the film. The French-pop band (and personal favorite of mine) Phoenix picked the songs for this film, and more often than not, they complement the on-screen actions in truly beautiful ways, whether it’s songs by The Strokes, T.Rex, or Phoenix themselves.

“Somewhere” may not be a perfect film, but it’s sure beyond most criticisms I can think of. Though initially cold and distant, the film gradually reveals itself to be something deeper, something more. Something great. A-

“The Fighter” review.

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2010 has been a good year for new life being breathed into old genres. No clearer is this on display than in “The Fighter”. At face value it’s a traditional sports flick, with Mark Wahlberg as an up-and-coming boxer named Micky Ward who has had something of a string of bad luck lately with his fights.

No thanks to his large Lowell, MA-based family. Though they mean well, his mother/manager (Melissa Leo) doesn’t know how to promote him, and his half-brother/trainer Dicky (an unrecognizable Christian Bale) is addicted to crack and very unreliable.

The movie is about the gestation of Micky’s comeback. But before he can come into his own, he must learn to separate his family from his career. So, in many ways, “The Fighter” is refreshing because although it focuses on boxing, the primary conflict is not whether Micky wins a fight or not, its whether he can stabilize his hectic family life.

It’s because of this different approach to the tried-and-true story that “The Fighter” feels fresh, and that it overcomes countless potential flaws to be one of the better movies of the year.

The film has an urgency and an importance to it that many of its genre lack. Mainly because of the really relatable performance by its lead, Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg has literally been training for this role for the last half-dozen years, and it shows. He does a superb job at handling all the conflict his character must face, be it emotional (in dealing with his family) or physical (during his actual boxing bouts).

But amazingly, as good as Wahlberg is, he is actually the weakest of the four principal leads. Amy Adams, so often cast as a weaker type, highly impresses playing Wahlberg’s tough-as-nails bartender girlfriend. Melissa Leo is also excellent as his mother. Her slight flamboyance in this role is a sharp (and impressive) contrast to the gritty, minimal work she displayed in her previous roles.

But the star of the show is, no doubt, Christian Bale. I’ve long considered him one of the best actors of his generation, and he easily delivers his best post-”American Psycho” work here. Bale once again displays an uncanny devotion to his work (he lost around 60 pounds to play the physically decrepit Dicky). He gives such a real, genuine, vivid portrayal of such a complex guy. Dicky is a guy that can wreck peoples’ lives yet charm them at the same time. Bale’s performance as him is an amazing transformation.

David O. Russell helms this film, which is a bit of an odd choice. I mean, his past works range from satiric war film “Three Kings” (one of my all-time favorites, it’s worth noting) to existentialist dramedy “I Heart Huckabees”. His films tend to have higher aspirations than typical fare. But rest assured, he brings his trademark directorial approach to “The Fighter”, which is to say a very kinetic, stylish feel.

He takes many nice little touches to immerse us in this venue. He uses handheld cameras in order to give us a closer, more intimate look at these characters lives. He’ll mute the color palette in the boxing scenes, to make them look like authentic matches from the time period (early 1990s). These little touches only make us buy into the story all the more.

“The Fighter” is a movie that has been made before. It’s a typical underdog sports movie. But because of the invigorating, fresh approach brought to it, I can honestly say its better than most of its kind, and most of its year. A

“True Grit” review.

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Great directors often take risks with their films. But what happens when consistently risky directors opt to play it safe just a bit? One such result is the latest Coen Bros. film, “True Grit”. It’s as straightforward a Western as any in recent memory.

Teenage girl Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) has recently been robbed of a father by the drunken criminal Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). To exact revenge, she hires U.S. marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to take out Chaney.

“True Grit” is probably the most restrained work of the Coens’ career, the work where they’ve held back their little quirks and oddities the most. Gone is their bleak, borderline absurdist outlook on their characters and the world they inhabit. This is a good thing though, as instead they’re stripped down to just their knack for great storytelling. “True Grit” is a tight, taut slice of Western entertainment. It doesn’t run a frme too long. Every moment is devoted to setting the situation, setting the characters, and then clashing the two against one another.

The lively performances from the cast really bring this conflict to life. Jeff Bridges (in his second blockbuster in as many weeks) displays Cogburn with equal dosages of wit, clumsiness and well, grit. It’s fun stuff. Matt Damon plays way against type as the lovable if dimwitted LaBoeuf, who means well in his quest to aid Mattie even if his temper occasionally gets the best of him. Damon is pretty close to perfect here, as is Josh Brolin in practically a cameo as the man they’re pursuing.

But the key performance is Hailee Stienfeld as Mattie Ross. As far as I know this is her first screen performance, and she displays more life and depth than most actors who’ve done ten. She matches and in some cases outdoes her veteran co-stars.

Steinfeld goes through the wringer in this film: wielding guns, fighting snakes, witnessing murders. But though those moments impress, its in her quieter moments where she dazzles. Look for the scene where she negotiates the sale of her late father’s horses in order to pay off her recently-hired hitmen. You can feel a great actress coming into her own for the first time, only ten minutes into her first film.

The Coens are adapting a novel here and reportedly stay really true to the original Charles Portis novel, adapting entire dialogue exchanges. And yet they handle the material in a fairly Coen-esque way, with their typical dark humor and bizarre side characters. The dialogue is excellent, although I could never really tell which stuff was theirs and which came from the novel.

“True Grit” is the sort of movie I wish was made more often: An intelligent, well-crafted and entertaining genre exercise (the genre here being the American Western). It heralds the arrival of a new acting talent, Hailee Steinfeld, and reasserts the talent of many others involved. A typically great effort from two filmmakers greatly atypical. A

“Yogi Bear” review.

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Why did I enjoy “Yogi Bear” as much as I did?

Honestly, it’s a horrible movie. It’s a prime example of everything that I hate about Hollywood, about movies, about commercialism. It’s a movie that was factory-built to make money and to lower our (already pathetic) standards for entertainment. But…it’s also kind of awesome, in ways both ironic and straight-forward.

“Yogi Bear” is based off of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, where a plump bear named Yogi and his son Boo Boo get into various adventures, including mostly trying to steal picnic (“pic-a-nic”) baskets from unsuspecting campers in Jellystone Park. The film is, no joke, pretty much only that. Sure, there’s a subplot about a park ranger who falls for a nature documentarian, there’s a villain in the form of a smarmy local mayor who wants to tear down the park they inhabit. But “Yogi Bear” lacks any sort of any basic plot structure, or at least one that makes sense. It’s just a big, gooey mess with little bits of here and pieces of there.

So why have I gotten such a massive kick out of “Yogi Bear”? Basically, because of how openly, endearingly stupid it is. I almost feel bad for mocking it to the degree that I have (and do), because its as straight-forward a shot of idiocy as I’ve ever seen in a movie. Seriously, where else would I hear such killer lines as “Extravaganza? More like extrava-lame-za!” Where else would I see the primary conflict of a film be a squabble over a turtle? Where else would I see an action sequence where men in vehicles are pursuing two talking bears in a makeshift airplane?. The answer, friends, is nowhere.

Dan Aykroyd and Justin Timberlake lend their voices as Yogi and Boo Boo (I giggle typing this) and both give an appropriate if somewhat overt enthusiasm to their roles. Being in the goofy mood I was in when I saw this, most of Timberlake’s lines cracked me up. Here’s a guy that was absolute dynamite in “The Social Network”, being reduced to voicing jokes about how salad gives him “gas problems”. Can’t I find just a little bit of cynical, ironic entertainment in that?

And really, that’s what “Yogi Bear” was for me. Most adults will look at it and be horrified, most kids will look at it and be gleefully delighted. But I was a bit of both, which begs the question: Was I delighted because it horrified me, or was I horrified because it delighted me? D

“Black Swan” review.

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Darren Aronofsky. What a weird guy.

As a director, not one of his films could be considered conventional. Be it a mentally disturbed mathematician, a group of heroin addicts, or a man trying to save his spouse from death, he always takes fascinating topics and tackles them in exciting ways.

Continuing in a recurring theme of unconventional artists in his films, Aronofsky’s latest film, “Black Swan”, is the story of a ballet dancer, Nina, who is cast as the Swan Queen in her troupe’s latest production of “Swan Lake”. The trick is, the Swan Queen is supposed to have two split personalities: A calculated, elegant one, and a dark, sensual, rugged one. For the role, Nina struggles to find the darker side in her as a performer, but in this search Nina descends into madness, destruction, and in more ways than one, transformation.

Here’s some hyperbole for you guys: Natalie Portman’s role in this film as Nina Sayers is one of the greatest screen performances I have ever seen. There is not a better female performance this year, there probably isn’t a performance better this year. She’s just that good.

Portman immerses herself completely in the (literal) shoes of a ballerina, she reportedly trained for about a year prior to filming and could pass for a professional, at least to my novice eye. But its not just the technical aspects that she nails. Her character Nina undergoes an emotional metamorphosis in this film: Good to bad, pure to unpure, white swan to black swan. I’m unsure whats more impressive: The moral absolutes she exhibits at opposite ends of the movie, or her haunting descent from one to the other. Either way, I cannot stress enough just how damn good she is.

Mila Kunis, in her most dramatic role yet, plays Lilly, both a rival and friend to Nina. I’ll just say she’s vital to the film and leave it at that, as her character is full of surprises. That said, Kunis aces it. Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey both bring a lot of intensity to their roles, as Nina’s jealous colleague and her overbearing mother, respectively, and Vincent Cassel is solid as her sleazy director.

The cast does an incredible job lending the right amount of both realism and theatricality to their roles, in order to let the melodrama run wild but also stay grounded in reality. Because believe me, “Black Swan” is by no means a realistic film. The twists it takes in the final act are ridiculous, perhaps even stupid, and certainly rooted in fantasy. But where with another director it may have been ludicrious, with Aronofsky they’re flawlessly executed.

The film is an emotional powerhouse, that’s for sure. It has a certain atmosphere of terror that never once lets up, and that lets all the dramatic punches hit all the harder. It’s emotionally manipulative for sure, but here’s the thing: You don’t mind, one bit. Because you’ve built a foundation with it, you’ve been sucked into it, you’ve been hooked. Save for the occasional proclamation to my friends beside me (“THIS IS AWESOME!”), I didn’t look away from the screen once. How could I?

Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and Clint Mansell’s score are both superb, but they actually have a really interesting dynamic in this film. The two complement one another in really beautiful yet truly unnerving ways, and Libatique’s work warrants an Oscar for sure.

“Black Swan” is the story of Nina’s strange journey trying to achieve artistic perfection, and by the end of the film she achieves it. But by that time, something wonderful happens. The film itself achieves perfection, in every way that I can imagine. Wondrous, beautiful, haunting, unmissable. A

“Tron: Legacy” review.

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On paper, it doesn’t make much sense.

Who would willingly greenlight a $170 million sequel to a 1982 cult classic that failed at the box office? Believe it or not, Disney has done exactly that, and the product is the latest souped-up blockbuster, “Tron: Legacy”. The original featured Jeff Bridges as a computer programmer, Flynn, that accidentally became stuck literally inside one of his computer programs, called ‘The Grid’. The program was visualized as a vast city with neon blue lights and deadly enemies that he had to fight to survive. “Legacy” very much follows that basic plot outline, but instead casts Flynn’s son, Sam, in the lead role, and the villain as a digital replica of Flynn’s younger self, named Clu. Clu has some ridiculous plan to carry his million-strong army over into the real world, and it’s Sam’s job to try and stop the guy. Sam’s also after his father Flynn, who has supposedly been stuck in the “Grid” for the last 20 years.

Where “Tron: Legacy” really shines, where you can tell the filmmakers poured every penny they could: “The Grid”. They craft such a cold, vast, but ultimately beautiful world, and seeing that come to life is “Tron: Legacy”s greatest achievement. Director Joseph Kosinski crafts a lot of really cool action sequences that take full advantage of the unique environment they’re set in, a highlight being the awesome “light-cycle” chase sequence. Bottom line, the people that made this movie knew they had a really cool concept to toy with, and they often take advantage of precisely that.

Both Flynn and Clu are played by Jeff Bridges once again, and its pretty cool to see one of my long-time favorite actors in the lead role of a mega-blockbuster. As Flynn, Bridges is solid, given what little he has to do. A recurring joke of the movie is that he’ll use very “Dude”-like phrases, in reference to his role in the ’98 classic “The Big Lebowski”. His digitally de-aged performance as Clu, on the other hand, looks god-awful. Not because of any of Bridges’ efforts, but because effects artists’ attempt to make Bridges look like he was 40 makes him look clay-like, almost zombie-like. It’s both a spectacularly bad and slightly disturbing goof-up. After all, if computers can suck the life out of one of Hollywood’s most expressive, lively actors, what can’t they mess up?

Other performances? Meh. Garrett Hedlund does a passable job as the protagonist, Sam. Given that this is without a doubt the biggest role Hedlund has had in his young career, it’s odd that it feels somewhat phoned in. Olivia Wilde plays a program that comes to Sam’s aid, named Quorra. That the filmmakers never try and set up Sam and Quorra romantically is a surprising show of restraint, and it works to the film’s benefit for sure. Wilde also gets some really cool action set pieces. The impressive thing about the ensemble is that they all breathe life into the film’s greatest weakness: The script.

The script for “Tron: Legacy” is, no joke, absolutely awful. Not structurally or conceptually, but in terms of dialogue its some of the worst I’ve heard all year. Surprising, given that the screenwriters are both alumni of the TV show “Lost”, a show renowned how well-written it was. Most exchanges of dialogue don’t feel real, they feel mechanical, forced, almost just to pad out the non-action bits.

But maybe I’m putting too much thought into it. After all, “Tron: Legacy” is a straight-up blockbuster, a movie made for the sights and senses, if not the brain. And on this premise, it delivers…more than most movies 2010 has had to offer. It’s a shame that the emotions feel almost as artificial as the virtual world they’re set in. C

(P.S.: The French electronic duo Daft Punk scored this movie, and WOW. Their blend of simple beats and orchestral arrangements is almost worth price of admission alone, and I proudly say their work is only the second soundtrack I own in a 300-strong CD collection.)

“Tangled” review.

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Catchy songs, upbeat heroine, bubble-gum attitude and gorgeous animation. These are what tend to define “classic Disney animation”, which is to say the periods in which they hit their stride (I direct your attention to the ’40s, ’50s, and early ’90s). They’re clearly aiming for that vibe with their latest and 50th film, “Tangled”. “Tangled” is a telling of the tale of Rapunzel. In this, Rapunzel is still a naive, long-haired princess stuck in a tower for all twenty-something years of her life. When a charming thief named Flynn hides away in her tower, Rapunzel sees it as an opportunity to witness the outside world. The unlikely duo get in all sorts of adventures, and, in true Disney form, begin to fall for one another.

Despite the fact that the film is rendered with computers, this is a movie that looks and feels like a traditionally animated one, and I mean this in both good and bad ways. It’s good, because, let’s face it, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Over the last 6 years, Disney poured $260 million into developing this movie, and damn-near every penny shows on screen. It blends the abstract beauty of hand-drawn animation with the vivid detail of that of computer-generated animation. Every frame is a visual revelation. It’s also refreshingly straight-forward, doing away with the self-aware, referential style we’re used to from, say, a Shrek movie.

But the downside of adhering to the Mouse House’s traditional habits is that “Tangled” plays and feels like most other Disney films, and most animated films for that matter. It pleasantly ebbs and bobs along for 90 minutes, hitting all the beats and character moments you’d expect, never feeling really important or necessary. Mind you, it’s never once boring, and to be sure I sat in the theater enjoying myself a good deal, but considered: After all the amazing movies Disney has given us, did such a standard one really need to be made? Had they focused on the story as much as they did the visuals, probably. But instead we have “Tangled”, a movie that soars in some respects but plays it far too safe in others. C+