Saturday, January 31, 2009

Movie Review: Paranoid Park

"Milk" wasn't the only movie Gus Van Sant put out this past year. Early on in 2008, he wrote and directed the little seen "Paranoid Park." It is a slight masterwork of beautiful cinematography and scattered chronological storytelling.
With "Paranoid Park," Van Sant returns back to the lush pacific northwest in Portland, Oregon. It centers around skateboarder teenager Alex (Gabe Nevins). Like Harvey Milk, Mike Waters, and Bob from Van Sant's previous films, Alex lives on the outside edges of society and reality. He scribbles down his current story in a diary. He doesn't know whether he'll live another day or be free tomorrow, but all that we and him know is that he accidently killed a man. We just know this but we don't know how or why. "Paranoid Park" uses Alex's journal as a guiding voice as it shuffles through the events that lead to this murder and how it effected Alex and everyone around him.
"Paranoid Park" is most like Van Sant's 1991 masterpiece "My Own Private Idaho." It has no clear narrative structure and switches between the clear present, and grainy memories. He seems to switch in and out of consciousness and its barely clear whether or not he's even conscious the whole time. Is the real. Or just some vivid nightmares from the mind of a sleeping teenager?
Unlike Van Sant's previous films set in Portland, "Paranoid Park" shows a more positive view of the city. It takes place in picturesque suburban neighborhoods rather than the cities junkie infested decaying slums. However, Alex barely stays in this area and would rather be in Paranoid Park, the skate park from which the film takes its name. A place where troubled teens go to escape and a place that would soon lead to a horrific tragedy.
"Paranoid Park" is not the kind of movie for those who like clear conclusions traditional narrative structure. Despite this basic outline, the movie is plotless. And I don't mean to say that in a negative way. Roger Ebert once noticed that sometimes it's not what it's about but how it's about. I never fully understood that but you can apply it here. The movie is not really about what happens physically as a result of this murder and how it will be resolved but how it affects Alex emotionally and very subtlety scars the lives of everyone he knows. This film is not about overcoming guilt, it's about how it twists your perception of reality if you hide it too long.
Despite its stunning capturing of the Portland landscape and story that allows you to put the puzzle pieces together for yourself, "Paranoid Park" is not without its many flaws. The story sometimes gets off track and can get a bit meandering at times. It really goes nowhere when there could've been much more. But maybe it was supposed to be like that. After all, isn't that what being a teenager is all about: wandering aimlessly, not knowing where you're headed next, and just waiting for something big to happen and take you somewhere, anywhere?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Stephen Colbert Loves Archie Moore's...

...Well, not exactly. But as part of his daily piece on the tragic buffalo wing shortage, Stephen Colbert reported about a major spill of buffalo wing sauce outside of none other than my favorite restaurant Archie Moore's in Fairfield. This wing/sauce shortage is certainly a tragedy, but maybe Colbert's mentioning will provide Archie's with as boost in business. That is, because any time Colbert seems to put his name on something it turns to gold. Those grizzly bears have nothing on him.
Here is the hilarious clip in its entirety:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jon Stewart: Savior of the Economy?

Last month, I reported about how Jon Stewart's hard pressing interview of Mike Huckabee about the issue of gay marriage earned him a spot as the most reliable name in news. Last night, he outdid himself once again. While interviewing Gwen Ifill and talking about Obama's new economic stimulus package, he claims that the money shouldn't go to the banks, but rather to the people who owe money so they can pay off their debts. He then followed it by saying this will happen in "a land of rainbows and unicorns." I don't know a thing about economics but, that idea is pretty brilliant. Could it work? Does this plan sound plausible to you? Why haven't any other news anchors thought of alternatives? Is anyone in Washington (or the media) listening? 
See the interview below:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Today's Sign of the Apocalypse

Ideas for remakes of classics get thrown around in Hollywood nearly every day. Most, especially when its remaking a classic, annoy me. Some don't just annoy me, but make me very angry. Today, I found out that Independent studio Cypress Moon (yes, indie studios can make mistakes too) is planning an unnecessary remake of the 1967 classic "Bonnie and Clyde." "Bonnie and Clyde" was known along with "The Graduate" for being one of the films from 1967 that broke America from its innocence and hinted at the growing counterculture movement. It's lightning fast, excessive violence doesn't fail to shock today and its story is still as entertaining as ever.
So, why is it being remade? And an even bigger question, why is the remake planning on starring "Lizzie McGuire"'s Hilary Duff and Kevin Zegers, star of four "Air Bud" movies and "MVP: Most Valuable Primate?" I wish this last sentence was a joke, but unfortunately it's as real as Kevin Costner's Oscar.
Hopefully this idea will go the way of Michael Bay's "Rosemary's Baby" remake and get axed as soon as possible.
Read the full story at:

Monday, January 26, 2009

Back Home

Sad news. I have officially left Park City and Sundance in return for Westport and Staples. Instead of the Rockies, I get the Long Island Sound (not necesarrily a horrible thing). However, if I want to see a movie, at least I have the option of seeing "Hotel For Dogs" instead of "Push." Oh, joy.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sundance Day Five: A Long Day's Journey Back to Westport

Okay, I'm not back in Westport yet. However, today was my official final day at Sundance. And what a bitter goodbye it will be. I will get to the overall reflections of the Festival in a little bit. First off, let's reflect on the last day.
Last night, the Sundance award winners were announced. This morning, I attended the World Dramatic Winner. It was a Latin American film called "The Maid." It tells the story of a tired, old maid working for an upper class Chilean family. She considers herself part of the family but as the family hires new maids to help her out, she begins to feel more and more alienated. I have mixed thoughts on the movie. It was an interesting and very relevant idea for sure. However, the execution could've been much better. The movie only runs around 90 min but feels close to 2 1/2 hours. The film doesn't really get interesting until its final act, but the payoff in the end makes the whole film worth it. The true highlight of the film is the performance by Catalina Saavedra as the subject of the film, Raquel the maid. She brings complexity and a surprising amount of humor to the character by showing barely any emotion, not even a smile or frown (until the end). In this light, Saavedra's performance evoked Richard Jenkins's performance in "The Visitor."
The second film I saw today, the Dramatic Prize Winner, I have no doubts about but only absolute praise. That movie is "Push." "Push" is an emotionally devastating drama that is both extremely depressing yet uplifting at the same time.
"Push" takes place in Harlem in the late 1980s. The story revolves around Precious (Gabby Sidibe), an overweight black teenager. She lives on welfare with her father, who rapes her, and her mother (Mo'Nique) who abuses her both physically and emotionally. The film is so realistic and some scenes so painful that at times you want to leave the theatre but you want to stay and find out what happens to Precious in the end. 
What shocked me the most about "Push" was the performance by Mo'Nique. Mo'Nique is usually known as a stand up comedian in such works as "Phat Girlz." She totally transforms herself in this film as a monster who goes on shockingly long rants against her daughter that are so incredibly insulting. Despite the horrible things about her character, you still feel slightly bad for her in the end. It may be a little early, but I am officially starting my campaign for Mo'Nique as Best Acress Nominee for the 2009 Oscars. Her performance simply won't leave my head and is the kind of performance the Oscars were made for.
So, now I say goodbye to the Festival. It is a day that is mainly bitter, but not sweet. I learned so much from Sundance. I realized the true difference between independent and mainstream cinema. I saw some films you'd never see in a theatre near you, films that were funny, devastating, strange, and most of all, daring. The filmmakers at Sundance are there to carry out their dreams and do whatever they can to protect their artistic visions. And to protect and express their artistic visions, they do that well.
Here is the order (from best to worst) of the movies I saw at Sundance:
1. Dare
2. Push
3. Paper Heart
4. We Live in Public
5. Spring Breakdown
6. Mary and Max
7. Humpday
8. The Maid

Sundance Day Four: Short (Films) and Sweet and Snowy

One of the many expectations I had for Sundance (besides meeting Michael Cera) was that it would snow every single moment of every single day. However, it was quite warm this week and the closest we got to snow was rain. So today I gave up on the idea of snow as I gave up on the idea that Amy Poehler would ever come back to the Festival. I decided to trade in my boots for my more comfortable Converses. I went to see a movie, wearing my Converses, and not long after a movie, Sundance was hit with its first snow storm of 2009. It would've been nice if I had my boots...but I digress.
I began my day not with a feature length movie but a series of shorts. The shorts worked kind of like an episode of "Saturday Night Live": the ones  that were good were really, really good and the ones that were bad were pretty awful. The top short film was "Asshole" which was simply a comedy about a guy with sleeping and other very unnatural issues going to a doctor and explaining his issues in a very Asshole way. It is a tiny, hilarious gem of improvisation. That one scene wouldn't have worked well as one full feature but the character from the movie certain deserves his own film.
The bottom of the short film barrel was "The Dirty Ones." It was dull and meandering with some of the most artificial dialogue I've seen in a movie. The story would've been great in a full feature length film, but the writing needed some major improvement.
Another great short film was the surreal Australian "Miracle Fish." The ominous shadows and camera work brought back memories of "The Shining." In this light, director Luke Doolan has the potential to be another Stanley Kubrick. I had the honor of sitting next to Doolan during the short films and he answered an important question for me; Australians do enjoy "Summer Heights High" and they do find Jonah extremely offensive.
Later on, I went to see the highly talked about claymation picture "Mary and Max." The film tells the story of a lonely 8-year-old Australian girl Mary* (Toni Collette) who lives with her workaholic father and alcoholic mother. She writes a letter to a man in New York named Max (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Max turns out to be a reclusive, obese Jewish man with Asberger's Syndrome. They mail each other for years and develop a strong overseas friendship through the good and bad times.
Does "Mary and Max" deserve all of the praise it has been getting? Yes. My one problem with it is that it dragged on a little too long but besides that it was nearly flawless. It contains absolutely brilliant comedy and a large amount of tragedy. Despite the fact that it was an animated claymation film, it is far from a kids movie. It's humor will most likely not be understood by younger kids. I do believe though, that "Mary and Max" is already a strong contender for best animated film next year.
Later on, I treated myself to a nice sushi dinner where I tried all kinds of new fish. I sat at the bar and chatted with producing couple Elana Krausz and Chris Dimassis. Hopefully, the over indulgence of sushi I consumed won't turn me into Jeremy Piven.
Tonight, the award winners were announced. Tommorow, I will be seeing winners "Push" and "The Maid" for my final day at the festival. Oh God. The tears are coming! The tears are coming!

*Two different references to the continent of Australia! In one post? Woot!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sundance Day Three: The Really, Really Indie Part

My third day at Sundance started very, very early Friday morning; or maybe really late Thursday night (Not sure, my perception of time has been warped thanks to the two hour time difference and "Lost"). The day started with a late night/early morning screening of "Dare." Despite the fact that I only got four hours of sleep following the screening, it was worth it. "Dare" is so far, and may end up being in the end, the best film at Sundance. "Dare" follows around three teenagers from Philadelphia as they go through their last semester of high school. The three kids are the good girl, Alexa (Emmy Rossum), the lonely outsider (and Alexa's best friend) Ben (Ashley Springer), and the jock Johnny (Zach Gilford). The film is told in three segments, each segment focusing on one of their lives (but tying into the lives of the other two) and showing how each character goes from blissful innocence to painful maturity.
The film works as an extremely accurate portrayal of teen angst. It is very honest and manages to be both funny and tragic at the same time. While each of the three acts focuses on all the actors, each act does a great job of focusing on one of the single characters and going deep into their mind. Each character goes on a different journey, but the emotions they feel are relatively the same.
After the movie ended, the cast and crew held an extremely informative, and very explicit, Q&A. Director Adam Salky explained to me his many influences for the film, one being his own life and another being "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (funny, because I thought of that comparison in my head as I watched the film). The "Y Tu Mama Tambien" aspect is from the film's exploration of confused sexuality. "Dare" was originally based on a short film that the writer and director did together that involved only Ben and Johnny--the character of Alexa came later on. Rossum didn't even have to read the script to know she wanted to do the movie. In order to prep the actors for the movie, Salky and writer David Brind got the actors to bond with each other and worked with each of them individually. It helped the actors work together easier and it shows in the fantastic chemistry they show on screen.
Next, I went to an early screening of "We Live in Public." It is a fascinating film about the beginning and the future of the internet told from the story of internet pioneer Joshua Harris. As a note to my readers, Al Gore didn't invent the internet, this guy did. Harris helped start up the internet and did many "projects" where he explored the use of cameras invading people's private lives as a metaphor for where the internet is going and how it will eventually take over our lives. He showed that soon we will be able to display live every aspect of our private lives. He did this experiment in 1999, years before the creation of Facebook and Video Chat. Harris single-handedly predicted the future of technology.
Unfortunately, low stocks on the internet and Harris's excessive spending caused him to loose his fortune. He now lives a private, happy life in Ethiopia. Harris attended the screening today and continued discussing his ideas on technology and plans for the future. As the director put it, this movie is "the story of the greatest internet pioneer you've never heard of."
In the evening, I went to see "Humpday." It has received lavish praise from audience members and critics alike. My take? Although the movie contains hilarious dialogue, fantastic acting, and a pretty daring story, the movie as a whole was just meh. I was entertained but there were pretty long stretches of the film where pretty much nothing happened and I just waited for something exciting to happen. 
"Humpday" is the story of two best friends from college. One has settled down and married, while the other is still single, exploring and okay with one-night stands (these two characters seemed very similar to the main characters of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"). When free spirit comes to visit married man, he convinces married man to participate in an art project of his for an upcoming film festival. The project? A porno about two straight men having sex. Yes, this premise is strange and funny, but it doesn't really go as far as it could with all the material it had.
Once this movie ended, the cast and crew stepped up for a Q&A. As they conducted this Q&A, my appreciation for the film began to heighten a bit after finding out how it was made. The story involved much improvisation. The cinematographer stated that when dealing with the actors the crew decided to "back off as far as we could and let them do their thing." This worked, because it let the actors work together and create backstories for the characters and ultimately a high level of believability in what could have been such a ridiculous film. 
Before today, I'd already seen multiple movies at the Festival. While they can be considered independent, "Paper Heart" and "Spring Breakdown" were already on the radar and contain big name stars. They do not fully constitute as indie films. The three films I saw today were true indie films. They were filmed on microbudgets, contain few stars, and came to the festival just hoping anyone would pick them up. It was skill, not star power, that would bring them good luck and success.
While watching these three movies today, I realized the true difference between an indie and Hollywood film. Anyone of the three movies I saw today could've been a big Hollywood film. However, while the purpose of a big studio film is solely to tell the story, the purpose of the indie film is to show the journey and not just the destination. "Humpday" looked nothing like a traditional Hollywood sex comedy, as it contained short snippets of no dialogue or a character simply traveling from place to place. "Dare" used different colors and camera techniques to portray the mood of each characters' story. These small nuances usually don't make it into major blockbusters. Even as big studios try to pass of works as character driven and awards worthy they still lack this distinctive quality that only an independent filmmaker can pull off.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sundance Day Two: The "Breakdown"

Today started early, but on a much cheerier note than yesterday. I arose before the sun did in order to get a good spot in the ticket line. My spot was decent, but thank God for ticket scalpers. Because of them, I was able to get myself a "Spring Breakdown" ticket (more on that movie will follow). I then purchased a ticket to the 11:30 PM showing of "Dare" tonight. Because of the late timing, my reaction to that movie will be in tomorrow's post.
During the day, I went to a New Frontier exhibition. I saw a series of short films, met students (both college and high school) from across the country, and saw the future of editing films.
My lunch wasn't as exciting as yesterday's when I met and chatted with Ms. Hughes. It was an ordinary, quiet lunch. But afterwards was when the excitement came. As I walked up and down Main Street, searching for celebrities and industry insiders, I came across a tent. In the tent, stars like Woody Harrelson, Josh Brolin, Marisa Tomei, and Robert Redford read off from "Voices of American History" (which, I have no doubt in my mind, is the work of Howard Zinn. Unfortunately, I could not get in but I watched the action from afar and even got glimpses of a few faces.
I decided the only way I'd ever see any of these stars up close was to wait for them to leave. So, I proceeded to the back exit door and waited for the show to end so I could snap a few photos. I felt like a paparazzo. Indeed, two paparazzo stood at the side door waiting as well, hoping to take a few good photos. They were both slightly overweight, one was mild-mannered but the other was a stereotypical, obnoxious member of the paparazzi cult. He triumphed in getting footage of Michael Cera and Makuley Culkin while say that they were a bunch of d**ks. I stood and waited and waited. I realized then that I understood what it was like to be a paparazzo. They stand and wait for a famous person to walk by, stick a camera in their face, and then sell it for money. Sounds kind of pathetic, but i still like taking pictures of famous people.
I unfortunately never got those photos because I had to rush to "Spring Breakdown." "Breakdown" was not as good as "Paper Heart" and felt pretty predictable at parts, but it was still a joy to watch and a slight diamond in the rough of a comedy. The story revolves around the lives of three best friends (Amy Poehler, Parker Posey, Rachel Dratch) who have lived as outsiders since college. One of them is forced to go on assignment for the senator she works for to keep her college daughter safe while she is on spring break. The trio, hitting a mid-life crisis, decide to go down together and redeem themselves for the years of fun they missed in college.
The story is the classic revenge of the nerds premise but from the female perspective. From the female rather than male perspective, it allows the film to parody the treatment of women in society. Most of the jokes hit, and the film boasts a fantastic cast of both recognizable and unrecognizable stars. Unfortunately, it is going straight to DVD. It makes me sad when studios will pick up a comedy like "Pink Panther 2" and leave something as funny and original as "Spring Breakdown" to rot in direct to DVD infamy. Hopefully, some people will discover it and enjoy it while ignoring the fact that it pretty much had the same fate as something like "Friday the 13th XXXXVVVIIIII." That number might be wrong though. I'm sure they've made more.
Since today was the Oscars I feel like I have to comment on it. I am glad for the victories of "Slumdog" and "Milk" as I put "Benjamin Button" and "Frost/Nixon" on my to list. Meanwhile, it is a shame "The Reader" got a best picture nod over so many other great movies this year ("The Dark Knight" or even "Tropic Thunder" deserved that spot). I am thrilled though to see Mickey Rourke in the running and "In Bruges" as well. The best song category is probably the worst. Although all three of the songs chosen were great, the Academy could've filled the other two spots. Bruce Springstein's "The Wrestler" song being snubbed is outrageous. Also, showing a little love to "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"'s three genius original songs, "Inside of You," "Do Something" and "Dracula's Lament" all deserved recognition. But unfortunately, I do not run the Academy.
So now I rest, and maybe do some homework or watch "Lost" (I'm leaning towards the latter) to prepare for my very late showing tonight.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sundance (Official) Day One: Disappointments, Surprises, and Phone Calls with Publicists

I will admit, for a film addict in the heaven that is Sundance, I was not too happy this morning. First off, I was two hours too late for tickets. That meant "Spring Breakdown," "The Informers," and "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" amongst others were totally sold out. Then, I found out that Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi had left just one day earlier along with John Krasinski and Amy Poehler. Blurgh.
Then, I decided to stop moping around. Something cleared my mind. Maybe it was the mountain air. But whatever it was I suddenly began to realize that I was now amongst the Hollywood elite. Not just the actors, but the producers, directors, and even production managers. I met a girl named Karla from UCLA who has a stop-motion animation short playing in the festival which I should be seeing tomorrow. She is just one of the many who see the festival as a beacon of hope, where dreams of a future in Hollywood may come true (or "where wings take dream," as George Bush would say. Man, I'm going to miss Bushisms). With her influences of Terry Gilliam and "Sesame Street," she's ready for anything.
Later at lunch, I sat with a group of strangers with a lot to say. One of them was Elizabeth Hughes, a Unit Production Manager (UPM) and had a documentary at the Festival entitled "We Live in Public." Her job is to manage the budget and decide how to spend investors' money. 
Hughes had much advice for anyone aspiring to enter the film industry. It is no easy journey to the top. She offers three tips: internships, meet and talk to everyone, and prepare to be professional 100% of the time. Always follow up with everyone (that includes business cards) but don't forget, you will always be working.
"The film industry doesn't have hours," said Hughes.
Things got even better when I attended "Paper Heart." Sitting just a few rows behind me was Mike White. You may know White from "School of Rock" but he also wrote several episodes of "Freaks and Geeks." I met him, took a picture with him, and told him how much I appreciated his work. I was so shocked/nervous I forgot to tell him the everlasting praise I had for him for being a part of "Freaks and Geeks."
But, the real reason I was there was to see "Paper Heart." The movie is directed by Nicholas Jasenovec and stars Charlyne Yi (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Jake Johnson, and Michael Cera. There is also a huge amount of cameos, but I won't give them away. The film starts out slow, but once Cera joins in, the film picks up speed. I will try to not give so much away but what makes "Paper Heart" so unique is the way it is shot. It mostly abandons typical narrative style and becomes kind of a documentary within a mockumentary. It follows Yi (playing herself) as a version of herself who is awkward and unsure of what true love is. She goes all "Borat" and travels cross country to find out what random people believe love is. And then she meets Michael. I'll give away not much else.
"Paper Heart" embraces the beauty of awkward humor. Cera is awkward as usual and Yi is just as awkward. Her body movements and long pauses may be painful but they're also loveable. She is the female Cera and a new face to look out for in comedy. I predict by the end of this year she'll become a huge star (one of the entertainers of the year? Maybe?). 
I spoke with "Paper Heart" director Jasenovec after the movie ended. He explained to me that the movie really had no script and was basically just a five page outline. He believes it makes the story feel more natural and realistic. He couldn't be more right. The final moments of the film remind me something of the final moments of "Lost in Translation." He believed this style worked best because it helps the audience see the events through her eyes and that "the only way to understand love is to experience it."
Later, I went to a restaurant called Bandits and had some buffalo wings with a side of steak covered nachos while staring at paintings of cowboys. My first truly western experience topped my first true experience in the film world. Tomorrow will be another adventure.
Tomorrow, I will be waking up very early in hopes of getting more movie tickets. I could be finding out what homework I should catch up on now. Or going to sleep. But then I remember, "the film industry doesn't have hours."
P.S. I unfortunately missed the season 5 premiere of "Lost" tonight. Hopefully, I will be able to watch it within the next few days and write about it. That means until then, keep your mouth shut about any twists, turns, and shifts in time.
P.P.S. Today was the first full official day of Obama's presidency. As much as I like Obama and won't miss Bush, I will definitely miss Bush's very positive effect on humor in America. Here is one fine example and one last chance to show this clip while it's still slightly relevant:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sundance: The Arrival; First Impressions

As I speak, I am now sitting in my hotel room in Park City, Utah waiting for the Sundance festivities to begin (for me, at least). Tomorrow, I will be seeing "Paper Heart" starring Michael Cera and if God is on my side, I will also be able to run into Cera and interview him. Throughout the rest of the week, I plan on seeing "The Informers," "Spring Breakout," "Rudo y Cursi," "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men," and "Humpday" amongst others. Hopefully, I will snag interviews with the stars and directors along the way.
It's quite dark out but tomorrow's daylight will hopefully reveal to me my first sights of the Rocky Mountains. But so far, I've driven by a McDonalds and an Olive Garden leading me to believe that the city of the independent film might not be so indie after all.
Side note: I saw "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" today on the plane and I believe that it's one of the year's best films. Hopefully, I'll get a review in of it sometime. Oh yeah, Obama gave some sort of speech today.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sundance Tommorow

Tomorrow, I will be departing Westport and heading out west to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. I will be there until the 26th and am sacrificing a whole week of school (including the start of the research paper) for this festival. I should have internet in my hotel so please check back every night from the 20th-25th for reviews of movies, interviews, commentary, etc. If I am lucky, I will try to snag interviews with the likes of John Krasinski, Amy Poehler, Michael Cera, Mickey Rourke, Alfonso & Carlos Cuaron, Greg Motolla, Gael Garcia Bernal, and maybe some names you might not even know of until they appear on the Oscar ballot a year from now. But, hopefully at least one of these people might want a word with me. So, enjoy your week everyone. And if you have a spare moment, please check back here. Until then, happy movie watching.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Movie Review: The Wrestler

Around this exact same time last year, I walked out of the movie theatre after viewing "There Will Be Blood" on a cold January day. Seconds after it ended, I said to myself "Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor of 2007." Today, just seconds after "The Wrestler" concluded I found myself thinking that exact same thing, but this time it was all about Mickey Rourke.
"The Wrestler" begins following around a big, long blonde haired man with only the back of his head seen. He sits in a chair in what looks like a preschool wearing nothing but a pair of wrestling tights. We learn moments earlier that this man is Randy "The Ram" Robinson. "The Ram" was once a part of his name during his days as a professional wrestler. Once a star, Randy is now old and burned out. If you saw him now, you'd never know he was a wrestler. He's got a bad heart, an ear piece, and can barely pay to live in his New Jersey trailer home. 
He works at a butcher shop and occasionally still subjects himself to small, underground wrestling matches. He's obviously outlived his wrestling days, but he does it just out of pure desperation. Throughout the movie, he tries to make a comeback all while trying to reconnect with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and forming a friendship with a stripper (Marisa Tomei). 
Mickey Rourke, when given good material, can be one of those actors who steals every scene he is in from everyone else around him. He becomes the movie. He turns Randy into a broken down old dog with a sense of humor, compassion, and a longing for everything in his life to go right for once. One key scene with him and Tomei getting a drink in a bar. The song "Round and Round" plays and he encourages her to dance. In another scene, he walks out a bleak looking hallway, picturing crowds of fans cheering for him into the counter of a butchershop and delivers everyone's food with such a huge sense of humor and enthusiasm that it's not hard to understand why he was once a celebrity. After viewing these two scenes, I knew for sure that Rourke would win best actor this year.
Rourke's amazing performance might make you forget that there's an actual movie here, too. And it's a good one. "The Wrestler" could've been that feel-good cliche sports movie that Hollywood loves so much but thanks to director Darren Aronofsky, "The Wrestler" has all of the frank, brutal violent realities of the underworld that he captured so well in "Requiem for a Dream." Unlike the WWF matches they show on TV, "The Wrestler" captures all of the wrestling matches from right inside of the ring, in the two wrestlers' faces. One wrestling scene that involves shattered glass and a staple gun is one of the most violent scenes ever captured on film. It's so real that you want to look away, but so stunningly captured that you just can't miss a second. Sport action hasn't been this perfectly recreated since "Raging Bull."
Many might have you believe that this an uplifting story. Yes, in the fact that it captures a comeback, but no in nearly everything else in The Ram's life. Like his daughter tells him, he's a f***up and he knows that nothing he can do will change that but since he's got something he does well he might as well do it. Wrestling for him is an act of desperation and you can feel him so desperately clinging to life and trying to let it give him a second chance. Unlike Rocky, he's not wrestling to be the winner, he's just wrestling so he can carry on living.
While the film contains some flaws (dropping the storyline about his daughter too quickly, ending abruptly)  it is really a beautiful story about a struggle for survival. A story about one man's quest to let the American Dream give him one last shot. Arronofsky makes the wrestling scenes seem almost like gladiator fights and Rourke makes Randy into a true gladiator, just hoping to get out of another fight alive and breathing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

TV Review: Summer Heights High

Here's a new name to remember: Chris Lilley. He's a comedian from Australia who within the next year, will likely become a household name. I (and many others) discovered Lilley with his fantastic TV comedy "Summer Heights High."
"Summer Heights High" is probably the best representation of life in high school on television since "Freaks & Geeks." It delves into a level of strange surrealism at times, yet still remains a frank look at high school from every perspective.
"Summer Heights High" is shot in mockumentary style like "The Office" but while "The Office" takes place in and around an office, "Summer Heights High" shows the characters' lives solely on the school grounds of an Australian public school.
The story focuses on three different people, each one played by series creator Lilley. One is Mr. G, a flamboyant and pompous drama teacher. The next character is Ja'mie, a preppy girl (yes, he plays a girl) whose transferring from her private school to spend a semester with the "wife beaters and rapists" that occupy the public school system. The final, and best of his three characters is Jonah. Jonah is a Polynesian student with a love for break dancing, learning problems, and a knack for getting in trouble.
"Summer Heights High" doesn't shy away from controversial subjects and is daring in its audacity to laugh at the kind of things that few do. A few examples include Mr. G's attempt to make a musical about a girl overdosing on ecstasy and Ja'mie holding an AIDS themed fashion show.
Perhaps the most controversial subject covered on the show is Jonah. "Summer Heights High" contains much of Australian culture that may seem unfamiliar to most Americans but it is clear that Polynesian Jonah is the minority at Summer Heights High. Without care, Lilley's performance could've come off as racist and something on the scale of black face. Despite the fact that Jonah might seem like a horrible stereotype of Polynesians with his cursing and illiteracy yet Lilley ultimately uses him to get a message across about the backward treatment toward minorities. Is placing Jonah in a program called Polynesian pathways where he is forced to hula dance in front of the entire school really helping him fit in better with the rest of the students? As Jonah might say, puck you, miss.
The reason I focus on Jonah so much is that he is not only the funniest but best developed of the show's three main characters. His story becomes somewhat tragic in the finale and his transformation in the final scene is a little bit sad but even a little heartwarming. His final mark on Summer Heights High and break dancing in the middle of the street is nothing short of inspirational.
"Summer Heights High" is shot like "The Office" not just in its shaky camera movements or individual interviews, but also many shots of characters shot from a distance or maybe in a bush that gives the feeling of someone carefully following around a moment in the life of these people without breaking the natural order. Almost like viewing animals at a zoo. 
"Summer Heights High" is also reminiscent of a Christopher Guest movie and Lilley himself has the potential to be Christopher Guest. Like Guest, he plays characters so distant from his true self with pitch-perfect precision. His stereotypical drama teacher Mr. G reminds me of the stereotypical southern bloodhound owner Guest portrayed in "Best in Show" just for the ability of convincing the audience that we're not viewing an actor but an actual character.
Unfortunately, as of now "Summer Heights High" was only meant to be a one season show. It makes sense, because the final episode wraps things up nicely and makes it seem hard for the possibility of a second season. However, Lilley has done other short series with these characters including "We Can Be Heroes." Hopefully, another spin off will be made sometime in the near future but I also can't wait to see what other characters Lilley will create next.
"Summer Heights High" is groundbreaking without seeming like it. It's a big f-you to modern education as both a mockery of the teachers who teach the kids and the kids who inhabit the classrooms. It's groundbreaking not because of its style but how it shows high school from every single perspective, giving every possible character a chance to shine. Its style of humor can't be defined. It's black comedy that goes beyond the limits of usual black comedy and dry humor that is so amazingly deadpan that it's hard to know when to laugh. If I had to choose I'd just say that it's a style of humor all its own; totally original, totally new.
Recommended for fans of: The Office, Arrested Development, Freaks & Geeks, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman, This is Spinal Tap

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Golden Globe Awards: Who Will...uh...Take Home the Gold?

This might be one of the few spare moments I have as I am currently under midterm study lockdown but I felt like at one point or another it was my duty to give you my predictions for who will take home the Golden Globes this Sunday.
Here are my predictions:
Best Picture Drama: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Best Picture Musical/Comedy (anyone want to explain why those two are categorized together?): Mama Mia
Best Actor Drama: Sean Penn, Milk
Best Actress Drama: Meryl Streep, Doubt
Best Actor Musical/Comedy: Dustin Hoffman, Last Chance Harvey
Best Actress Musical/Comedy: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Director: Danny Boyle (Pictured), Slumdog Millionaire
Best Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Comedy/Musical Series: 30 Rock
Best Drama Series: Mad Men
Best TV Actor Comedy/Musical: Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Best TV Actress Comedy/Musical: Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Best TV Supporting Actor: Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your MOther
Best TV Supporting Actress: Dianne Wiest, In Treatment
Best TV Actor Drama: Hugh Laurie, House
Best TV Actress Comedy: January Jones, Mad Men

Friday, January 2, 2009

Movie Review: Milk

When "Milk" ended, I didn't move from my seat. I just sat there and thought about everything that had just hit me. All of the thoughts and emotions and anger that had been evoked. What a fine movie I had just seen.
"Milk" chronicles the life of openly gay politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). The movie takes the shread of biopic formula by starting at a pivotal future point in the character's life and working backward from there. However, in "Milk" this device feels much less forced. It begins in 1978 not long after Milk has been threatened with an assassination attempt. Fearing his life may soon be over, he leaves a recording of his life and accomplishments.
His first flashback comes from the days before he moved out west. He was a Jewish Long Islander working as an insurance agent on Wall Street, keeping his homosexuality secret until he met and fell in love with Scott Smith (James Franco). Milk, turning 40, realizes he has done so little with his life and decides to move with Scott out to San Francisco.
While living in San Francisco, Milk becomes known as "Mayor of Castro Street." He helps fight against the oppressing homophobic forces of Anita Bryant and John Briggs. After many failed campaigns, Milk finally won city supervisor and became the first openly gay politician in America. His biggest achievement was fighting Prop 6, which makes Prop 8 pale in comparison. 
"Milk" is directed by Gus Van Sant. Van Sant is openly gay himself, and you can see in the final product of the film the great respect he carries for Milk. Every character in it, both straight and gay, is treated with the same level of dignity. Milk was a man who saw that he had done so little in his life and now was a time for change. Van Sant loves the idea of a person turning their life around and seeing that everyone has the ability to change.
Van Sant also puts in his very strange yet creative directing style. Take special note of the phone conversation scene, which reminds me of many avant-garde scenes of "My Own Private Idaho," yet at times the film is often shot like a documentary. Van Sant adds the same vibrance to the colorful neighborhoods of San Francisco as he did to the burnt out neighborhoods of Portland in "Drugstore Cowboy."
Of course, what has been admired most in this film is Sean Penn's performance. And what a performance he gives. He is the rare breed like Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Daniel Day Lewis who have the ability to get inside their character's skin and be so convincing as them. When looking at footage of the real Harvey Milk, Penn doesn't just imitate his voice or his look. He takes in every small detail about him whether that be the way he moves his mouth or says a certain word. Penn in this way can totally engulf Milk's outgoing, one of a kind personality. This is the kind of performance that touches hearts and wins awards.
Penn might stand out, but he does not have the only great performance in the film. "Milk" carries a fantastic ensemble. Franco shows his budding dramatic ability as one of Milk's boyfriends. Other members of the ensemble include Emile Hirsch as a once insecure gay man who went up to the front lines in Milk's battle. With this and "Into the Wild," Hirsch has proved himself to be one of the best young actors out there. Also great is Diego Luna ("Y Tu Mama Tambien") as Milk's tortured lover. 
Besides Penn, the actor who stands out most is Josh Brolin. Brolin plays Dan White, a political rival who would eventually become Milk's crazed assassin. Brolin plays the role with a Blagoyevich-like hairdo and a demeanor that seems awkward and harmless at first which then turns awkward, creepy, and very harmful. Brolin conquered George Bush earlier this year and has now conquered Dan White. Brolin deserves an Oscar for this performance.
"Milk" always feels like a Van Sant film, but also at times feels like a Kubrick film (IMDB claims that Van Sant's favorite director is Kubrick). There is a very effective use of reflection shots. Perhaps those reflection shots represent Milk reflecting on his own life and constantly reflecting on what his purpose is in the world. Milk, for a large part of his life, felt he had no purpose. 
The movie contains an operatic score throughout. This is partly because of Milk's own interest in opera. The film's use of opera turns Milk's life story into an opera itself, letting the music inspire the story and the characters as well. It's almost like how "Ride of the Valkyries" inspired Kilgore on his invasion in "Apocalypse Now" or how Alex felt the desire to commit his vile acts when listening to Beethoven and when Milk saw an opera, he was inspired to stand up for his rights.
"Milk" takes on a new relevance this year with the passing of Prop 8. When an ordinance like that is passed, one can only wonder where is Harvey Milk? 
Milk so beautifully captures the great elements that made Harvey Milk such a legend. He became a man who was not afraid to show off who he was and had the sense of humor to enjoy getting pied in the face. We have gotten to know and love Milk so much by the end that his inevitable assassination may become one of the saddest things you'll ever view on film. But in it is inspired a new hope. Here is a man who died for something. Died for a cause. Died fighting. Gus Van Sant has brought to light a crucial section of history in the battle for civil rights, a man who was truly like Martin Luther King to the gay rights movement. Try not feeling emotionally devastated by the staged and mixed with true life footage of the memorial service for Milk, highlighted by thousands of candles.
Ultimately, every bit of Harvey Milk's personality can be defined by his reaction to the statement that homosexual relationships are ruining the traditional family and asked if two men can reproduce: "No," he says, "but God knows we keep trying."
Recommended for Fans of: My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting, Drugstore Cowboy, Brokeback Mountain, Braveheart, American Beauty

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Something Nice For New Year's Day/Sundance

Well, it's New Year's Day 2009. To many of you, I guess that means its National Hangover Day. I'd like to let you all know of the month ahead, because a very exciting event is coming. If you're throbbing headache is making it impossible to even look at a computer screen, just here me out for a moment, because in a few weeks I will be heading on a trip to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. There, I will see many new movies and hopefully get some interviews with the stars and directors who make the independent film world possible. I will be there from Jan. 20-26 so tune in to The Reel Deal all that week for updates.
Now, I have to go study SAT vocab like I promised. Now like I promised to you, here's something nice for New Year's:

Happy New Year!

Happy new year everybody! This is the first official post of 2009. I've made a vow that this year I would try some things new. So far, I have, watching my first episode of "Chelsea Lately" ever (Handler's book "Are You There Vodka, It's Me, Chelsea?" is a must read) this moment. I also began "How I Met Your Mother" not long ago. I will also vow to see even more movies in the theaters and read some more books. Well, the former I think I can accomplish, the latter, we'll just have to see.
For one last remembrance of 2008, here's a great clip from this season of "Saturday Night Live" I just discovered that unfortunately no one is talking about:
And to see a preview of what could be one of the great comedies of the coming year: