Thursday, December 31, 2009

Precious ***

*** out of ****

The trailers for Precious make the film look like a cliche-ridden inner-city fable. Just goes to show you can't judge a movie based on its trailer. Precious is something unique. It's not the feel-good movie of the year, although you do walk away feeling a little better. It's also not a big downer of a movie like I was expecting it to be.
The title character Precious is an overweight teenager in Harlem in 1987. Her mother hates her and beats her at every opportunity, while her father sexually abuses her. She's pregnant with her second child- both from her father, she's almost illerate, and is so poor she has to steal fast food to survive. She uses her imagination to escape from her horrible existence, imagining herself as a celebrity with a hunky boyfriend, fans screaming for her autograph. After the school discovers she's pregnant, she is kicked out and transferred to an alternative school to help her get her GED. Her teacher is the lovely Ms. Rain, who makes her class keep a journal and write in it every day, forcing Precious to learn to read and write better. We see her slowly make progress in school and even make friends with the quirky girls in her class, even as things get worse and worse at home with her mother, a welfare whore. Eventually she gives birth to her baby, causing many things to change in her life and for the first time, she starts to think for herself.
Praise has to be given for the outstanding, almost-all-black cast, of which there are no slackers. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Precious (not only her first film role, her first professional acting role!) is completely convincing and heartrending. When we first meet her, she doesn't have much of a personality; she mostly just sits quietly and then talks tough when forced to talk. She gradually learns it's ok for her to be herself. Comedienne Mo'Nique makes a complete transformation for her role as Mary, Precious' mother, dirtying up her usual glamorous looks and letting loose endless diatribes towards her daughter about how stupid and worthless she is. Mariah Carey also makes herself memorable with just a few scenes. She plays a social worker Precious talks to occasionally. She also de-glamorizes herself; the scratchy voice is a nice touch, but seeing her character try to remain neutral and not get emotionally involved is where she establishes herself as a talented actress. Kudos also goes to the director Lee Daniels, who was willing to make very unusual casting decisions (it also includes The View host Sherri Shepherd and singer Lenny Kravitz), and for casting someone like Sidibe in a lead role, especially one that's gotten this much attention. Both Sidibe and Mo'Nique are Oscar-worthy; they force you to keep your eyes on the screen when you might want to look away.
Even though the film is very good, I find it hard to recommend it very strongly. It's one of those indie films that offers little entertainment value to the average moviegoer, one of those indie films that no one would see if it wasn't for the strong Oscar buzz, or the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval. At times the film is extremely unpleasant- which it needs to be in order for the viewer to understand the story. While everything is shown onscreen, luckily, nothing is explicit. There is also a gentle sense of humor beneath all the ugliness.For those who can stomach it, this is a grand story of a girl becoming a woman in a cruel world that has forgotten about her.
I would recommend this film to people who like gritty dramas, or whoever listens to Oscar buzz.

You can watch the trailer here:

Monday, December 28, 2009

Up in the Air ***1/2

Up in the Air
***1/2 out of ****

Finally, the movie we've been waiting for the whole season long: a purely enjoyable film about modern life, without any clear message shoved down your throat. Up in the Air (not to be confused with Pixar's Up) centers on Ryan Bingham, played to perfection by the marvelous George Clooney. Ryan is a compulsive traveler, on the road way more often than he is at home. His job is to go to companies and fire people when their bosses don't want to do it themselves. He's also a motivational speaker, using the metaphor of a backpack to illustrate how people need to avoid relationships and commitments. His job causes him to fly from one end of the country to another on a daily basis, rarely going home to Omaha. Despite his lack of friends, he loves his life and secretly hopes to reach ten million miles. The masterfully edited beginning sequences shows him going through the routines of checking in at the airport like one might wake up and prepare for work in the morning.
But his nomad existence is threatened by a young female up-and-comer at his company, Natalie, who proposes that they fire people via web conferences instead of traveling all the time. Ryan reluctantly takes Natalie on the road with him to show her that face-to-face downsizing is necessary because it allows the injured parties some dignity. Natalie is played by Anna Kendrick (Twilight) as an educated do-gooder who doesn't understand the way Ryan's world works.
A subplot involves Ryan meeting a sexy fellow traveler Alex, played by Vera Farmiga (The Departed) with a sparkle in her eye. The two begin a feisty yet gentle romance that neither wants to commit to.
Despite its slightly depressing- yet very relevant- plot, the film is ferociously funny, getting into the characters' minds and exposing how crazy they all are. Natalie provides the most laughs in the film, especially a scene where her boyfriend breaks up with her via text message and she gets very emotional in a hotel lobby. She also provides some of the most heartwrenching scenes in the movie, when she realizes exactly what her business entails- ending the careers of strangers. This film has truly made Kendrick a star. Watching Ryan's character resist change, and then finally accept that maybe he can change, is also a wonder to behold.
The superb cast also includes Jason Bateman as Ryan's boss, J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis as unfortunate souls that Ryan fires, Melanie Lynskey as his soon-to-be-married sister, and Danny McBride as his sister's groom-to-be.
Writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno) has created something wonderful here: an immensely enjoyable film purely for adults, with the humor embedded in the dialogue and in plausible situations, instead of cinematic pies in the face that so many films resort to these days. It's a film that can make you laugh your head off and cry your eyes out, sometimes even in the same scene. It's part comedy, part drama, and ultimately, part tragedy. This is probably the definitive film of our times, with the economy in such bad shape as it is. Up in the Air will certainly plow its way through award season, and with good reason to.
I would recommend this film to fans of Clooney, comedy lovers, and anyone wanting to see a good non-franchise film this holiday season.

You can watch the trailer here:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar ****

**** out of ****

There are many words that can describe Avatar: Incredible. Sweeping. Exhilarating. Awesome. OMG. I'll choose just one: epic. Once again, James Cameron has redefined what an epic film can truly be. The writer/director of such instant classics as the first two Terminator movies, Aliens, and of course, Titanic, makes yet another sci-fi actioner that makes everyone in the world turn their heads. The story is at once complicated and yet surprisingly simple. The acting is always genuine, and the special effects are quite simply the biggest and best ever put on screen.
The story centers around Jake, played with an everyman charm by Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation), a wheelchair-bound paraplegic sent to the distant planet Pandora after his twin brother dies. Pandora has a wide array of animals both small and large, but the people on the planet are only concerned with a precious metal under the surface. It just so happens an intelligent species called the Na'vi- giant blue cat/lizard creatures about twice as big as humans- are living right over a large supply of the metal, so Jake's job is to go in and try to move them out. The catch is: he and several others are able to take over a specially harvested Na'vi body so they can walk among the natives. (They hook up to the bodies in some kind of advanced tanning bed- think The Matrix. They come back to their human bodies when their avatars fall asleep.) This means that Jake is able to walk and run again. He gets in with the tribe and is taught their ways by a fierce warrior princess, played wonderfully by Zoe Saldana. After becoming one of them, Jake realizes how wrong the humans are to try and move them. He has to do battle against the scarred, determined Colonel to save the tribe.
To create a real-looking alien species played by people, Cameron had to invent a new kind of motion-capture technology, similar to what Robert Zemeckis did for The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, except way better. Not only do the avatars capture the movements and emotions of the characters, they actually look and sound like the actors playing them! Seeing Sigourney Weaver as a tough scientist and a big blue creature is a real treat. The Na'vi and all the other animals, and the candy-colored planet itself for that matter, all looks incredibly real, and the film's intricate camerawork (and 3-D effects) puts the audience right there with the characters. It's easy to see why this film took 15 years to finish: it's so damn intricate.
In addition to the amazing special effects, this is an incredibly well-made film. The editing is masterful, letting you know in the first five minutes this is not just another hokey alien special effects film. The music is grand and aids in the emotions, the futuristic sets and props look authentic (even though it does look like they borrowed more than a couple ideas from Aliens), and the story is everything you'd want from an epic film like this- and everything you'd expect from a talented writer like Cameron. The plot may get predictable, but it's thrilling every step of the way. It offers real comparison to movies like Star Wars and Jurassic Park. The action and battle sequences are outstanding, as are the thrilling scenes earlier where Jake has to learn to fly on a giant winged creature.
Little-known actor Stephen Lang makes a wonderful villain as Colonel Quaritch, who kills with such a matter-of-factness like he's reading a report. The film also co-stars Michelle Rodriguez (TV's Lost) as a sexy pilot, Joel David Moore (Dodgeball) as a technician (he also gets his own avatar), and Giovanni Ribisi as the leader of the humans on the planet.
The film is really pretty flawless. If there's something to gripe about, it's the length. (Two hours and forty minutes.) As an epic film, it is fitting to be that long, but as a 3-D film, it does give one a headache after that long. (And of course I have only good things to say about the IMAX format. The giant screens, monster sound system, and vibrations under your feet really do elevate the film to an experience. See the film in this format if at all possible.) This naturally won't be as popular as Titanic (what would be?), but it truly is the movie event of the year and will definitely go down as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes sci-fi, fantasy, or action films, or anyone who wants to see a kick-ass movie this holiday season.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Invictus ***

*** out of ****

Nothing like a Clint Eastwood movie in theatres to let you know awards season is in full swing.
Invictus stars the great Morgan Freeman as South African president Nelson Mandela, soon after he is elected and facing a country divided in two: the black and white people in the country see each other as enemies. Mandela uses the most popular sport in the country, rugby, to try and unite the country. The Springboks are currently a disgrace of a team and the blacks refuse to root for them. Mandela has the team captain Francois over for tea, and inspires him to inspire his own team to go and win the World Cup. Thus they start winning, making public appearances, and eventually go on to capture the country's hearts.
Freeman is utterly convincing as Mandela, getting his accent down pat and coming across as an incredibly decent person trying to do the best thing for the country that put him in jail for thirty years. Mandela works himself to exhaustion, although the film gives the idea that he was more interested in the rugby team than he was in actually leading the country. Matt Damon once again proves his acting chops as Francois, the team captain determined to make Mandela and South Africa proud. The supporting cast- almost all completely unknown- are also very good and faithful to their real-life counterparts. Eastwood's films are usually quiet and slow, but this is something very different. The rugby sequences catch the intensity and rough nature of the sport, and even during the other scenes, the characters keep the plot moving and the film watchable. (The film also follows Mandela's bodyguards, which include blacks and whites, as they try to protect him as he constantly exposes himself to threats. It's an unnecessary subplot but it does make the film more interesting.) While the ending is never in question- it's based on a true story, after all- the final match is frought with suspense so that the finale delivers the emotional goods.
Compared to other real-life sports dramas, this isn't particularly special, but it is meticulously well-made and its star power elevates it above average. The incredible musical score and impressive original songs definitely help. The film is entertaining, but what it really lacks is relevance to an American audience. Who knew Eastwood, the king of Westerns and sad, quiet dramas, would actually be good at making a rugby movie?
I would recommend this film to fans of sports movies, and fans of the stars.

You can watch the trailer here: