Tag Archives: Drama

How to Watch: “Biutiful”

Step 1: Try to find your happy place when watching Biutiful.

Step 2: Don’t get me wrong. This Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film is a powerful statement on death and redemption, on forgiveness and love, superbly played out by its actors – especially the always magnificent Javier Bardem. And I know sometimes you just have to let the art of a film flow over you while you appreciate the craftsmanship — but man, this was a downer. It keeps you in the depths of despair more than is necessary.

Step 3: Tell the story. Bardem plays a hustler named Uxbal, who does anything he can to support himself and his two young children on the mean streets of Barcelona. His estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) is a bi-polar mess whose highs and lows could no longer be tolerated, even though Uxbal still loves her. Uxbal’s brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) is an alcoholic pervert who specializes in human trafficking as a cheap labor source and unfortunately Uxbal is in business with him. Still, Uxbal tries to do right by these immigrant people he is exploiting, finding them places to live, giving them money and keeping the police off their backs. And as a side job, Uxbal can communicate with the dead and pass messages along to their loved ones. He looks at it as more a curse than a gift, of course, but he’ll take the cash if someone asks for a reading.

Step 4: Put in the real kicker.  Uxbal discovers he has advanced prostate cancer, with only a few months to live. Now it becomes a race against time, as Uxbal tries to find suitable living arrangements for his kids. This is where Biutiful really brings you down because Uxbal seemingly has no options, and Bardem is so damn good, it physically hurts to watch him in so much misery. There is, however, a ray of hope in the form of Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the African wife of one of Uxbal’s immigrant street workers. When the man is captured and deported, Uxbal lets Ige stay in his apartment – and discovers she might just be the perfect person to look after his kids. That is, if she wants the job. Daff herself is an African immigrant living in Barcelona who has never acted before in her life but does an amazing job. The excellent Alvarez as the crazy Marambra is a Spanish theater actress who has never done a film. Director Inarritu gathered an incredibly eclectic cast to tell his story, well, beautifully.

Step 5: Wonder about Senor Inarritu. He started his career in music, first as a radio DJ and then as a film composer. Biutiful is only his third feature film, following his other terribly cheerful films, 21 Grams and Babel. It’s pretty obvious Inarritu marvels the human condition as it relates to tragedy, but deep down, he doesn’t really want to wallow in it just for the sake of wallowing. All his films are moving and meaningful, all depressing in one way or another, but each have hope, I guess. He is also an excellent guide for his actors. It’s not like Bardem needs much help, but I think he craves that tutelage, having worked with such great directors as the Coen brothers, Woody Allen, Julian Schnabel and Aleandro Amenabar. Still, there’s something Inarritu brought out in his leading man that we haven’t seen before in the actor’s performances. Not sure if Bardem will make the Best Actor list, but Biutiful‘s Oscar chances for a Best Foreign Language nod are more than good, possibly even winning the award,  which would give Inarritu some much deserved recognition.

Step 6: Find Inarritu his happy place. Seriously.

How to Watch: “Conviction”

Step 1: Stand out. The only thing distinguishing Conviction from a Lifetime TV movie is the star power.

Step 2: Don’t get me wrong, the acting is quite good. Based on a true story, Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a mother of two who spends 18 years trying to free her wrongly accused brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell). Betty Anne and her older brother  have always been tight, since growing up with an absentee mother, so Betty Anne wholeheartedly believes in Kenny’s innocence, even after he is sentenced to life in prison for the murder of their neighbor. She is so certain, in fact, that the high-school dropout gets her GED, then her BA and finally goes to law school in order to be Kenny’s lawyer and find some way to get him out. In the process, she also sacrifices her marriage and barely holds onto her two sons. Betty Anne’s unfaltering, tireless dedication eventually works when she finds the right DNA evidence, as well as uncovers a police conspiracy and witness coercion. After serving 18 years behind bars, Kenny is finally freed.

Step 3: Hire Hilary Swank for any blue-collar role. Swank once again nails it. Be it a woman who wants to be a man (Boys Don’t Cry) or a prizefighter (Million Dollar Baby), something in the Oscar-winning actress’ brain takes over when she gets her hands on these blue-collar roles (just don’t tell her a romantic dramedy like P.S. I Love You is a good idea). Swank’s turn as Betty Anne conveys an unparalleled level of subtlety and authenticity, and in a limited Best Actress field this year, she stands a good chance of getting a nod for her efforts. Rockwell, too, dazzles as the pent-up Kenny. He plays the character very close to the edge – a guy with a ton of charisma but who has a bad temper which can flare unexpectedly. He does keep you guessing on whether he is actually innocent, but ultimately it’s pretty clear. Other standouts include Minnie Driver as Betty Anne’s best friend and motivator and Juliette Lewis as one of Kenny’s ex-girlfriends, whose false testimony puts him away.

Step 4: Seriously, you just gotta stand out. But overall, Conviction fails to inspire, even with its compelling story. I’m sure making a smaller, more intimate, more real film isn’t necessarily the easiest sell, but there have been plenty of indies of this ilk that rise above through the unique vision of the director. The Social Network could have, in fact, been a TV movie if not for David Fincher’s skillful direction, which took it to higher level. Unfortunately, Conviction‘s director Tony Goldwyn keeps the narrative all too straight forward, relying solely on the strength of his actors. The Ghost actor-turned-director is competent, no question, but doesn’t seem to do anything above and beyond, and while this might not be a bad thing per se, it still bothers me as a filmgoer. I feel like if I’m taking the time to go to a theater to watch a movie, I want to experience something more than what I can get from turning on the Oxygen Network or even HBO.

Level of difficulty in watching Conviction: Not too, but the likes of Swank and Rockwell only go so far.

How to Watch: “Eat Pray Love”

Step 1: Yawn. While Eat Pray Love has some enlightening, touching, visually breathtaking moments, you still end up praying it would end.

Step 2: Eat. The film is based on the hugely popular real-life travel diary by Elizabeth Gilbert, a divorced, depressed writer/journalist who took a year off to travel around the globe in hopes of finding some kind of meaning to her life. Yeah, not the most exciting subject for a movie, but casting Julia Roberts in the role at least adds some weight. We start with the Eat part. In the first leg of the trip, Roberts as Gilbert jets to Rome to live, breath and yes, eat, the Italian culture. And eat. And eat some more. It’s definitely the best part of the movie, only because it’s great to see a woman consume such great looking food with abandon. But at some point, you realize you’ve been watching the movie for over an hour and yet, she’s still in Italy. There’s two more countries to go, for chrissakes. That’s when the boredom starts to set in.

Step 3: Pray. Gilbert visits an ashram in India to find peace and tranquility – except she can’t quit fidgeting and thinking about all manner of things. Plus, it’s really hot and the food isn’t all that good. If I were her, at some point I’d say screw it and go back to Rome. Alas, she sticks it out, meeting a fellow troubled American (Richard Jenkins), who helps her to become enlightened. Ho hum.

Step 4: Love. And what a beautiful place to fall into it. The scenes in Bali are spectacular, as you can imagine, and so is gazing at the hunky, if slightly miscast, Javier Bardem, who plays Gilbert’s new love interest Felipe. Problem is, the two of them have zero chemistry, which sort of dampens things. Gilbert had more zing with that gorgeous plate of spaghetti. Like I said, GO BACK TO ITALY.

Step 5: Act. Roberts could possibly be nominated for an Oscar, depending on how well the film does at the box office (that’s a gamble) and whether they’ll be more than five more great performances by women in the next five months (kinda doubtful). In other words, Roberts could get a nod by default, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. You can’t really blame Eat Pray Love‘s tedium on her performance. She does her very best to carry the movie on her capable shoulders, but her character is, well, kind of irritating. You’re never quite sure why she’s so unhappy, just that she is, or why she whines so much, just that she does. Jenkins might be the only other performance worthy of a nod, as the former alcoholic from Texas who finds his inner whatever it is and whips Gilbert into shape.

Step 6: Read. You can’t entirely blame co-writer/director Ryan Murphy, of Nip/Tuck and Glee fame, either. I’m pretty sure the source material was difficult to translate, especially when you want to please the fans of the book while still making a compelling movie. But maybe Eat Pray Love should have just stayed on the page, so readers can put the book down, maybe fly to Naples for a slice of pizza, maybe ride an elephant in India and then pick it up to read a little later. Maybe on a beach in Bali.

Level of difficulty in watching Eat Pray Love: Kinda hard — to keep your eyes open.

How to Watch: “The White Ribbon”

Step 1: Chalk up The White Ribbon as one of those German art films, in which the images are stark and minimalistic, the action languid and slow – and little to nothing is either revealed nor resolved. Coming from German auteur Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The Piano Teacher), it’s all very intellectual and thought-provoking and makes a statement about oppression and feudalism in a pre-WWI German village. But the film is also often maddeningly dull and puzzling for no apparent reason besides being self-indulgent art for art’s sake.

Step 2: Set the mood. The White Ribbon takes place in a small, rural village, in which a wealthy land Baron (Ulrich Tukur) employs over half the town to harvest his crops. There’s the hard-headed Steward (Josef Bierbichler), who tends to the grounds; the desperate Farmer (Branko Samarovski), who depends on the Baron for work; and then the other villagers who compose the other half, including the stern Pastor (Burghart Klaußner) and the lascivious Doctor (Rainer Bock). Each of these village men all have rather large families, with many children, and the film’s sadistic, central core comes from what happens to those children behind closed doors.

Step 3: Suffer the children. As narrated to us by the only seemingly kindhearted man in the village, the Schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), he describes a series of incidents one summer that set things in motion: The Doctor falls off his horse and breaks his collarbone after the animal is tripped by a thin wire; the Farmer’s wife dies when she falls through rotten floor boards on the Baron’s estate; the Baron’s only child is found beaten by a cane. Then, as Haneke peels back the layers, we begin to see what life is really like in this village, witnessing the abuse and the oppression, and watching how these creepy, Children of the Corn-looking kids may or may not be acting out.

Step 4: Wonder why nothing’s happening. Of course, writer/director Michael Haneke’s masterful craftsmanship is something to appreciate and admire, especially in his black-and-white vision with Ribbon. The imagery is both stunning and startling. Haneke also obviously gets a kick out of exploring humanity’s cruel nature, as evident in his other films, including Funny Games (maybe he has some issues to work out). There are moments in the film in which you feel something truly dreadful is going to happen, something will be resolved, but then nothing. Finally, at the end, the Schoolteacher tells us WWI has begun and bang, we’re out.  Huh? Still, The White Ribbon is the type of film that picks up awards, so its recent Golden Globe win wasn’t surprising and neither would an Oscar win for Best Foreign Language.

Level of difficulty in watching The White Ribbon: Really hard. I’m just not the kind of movie watcher who enjoys being wrapped in existentialistic ennui – or in this case, existentialistic sadism – just for the sake of watching an art film. I left the theater, shaking my head, mumbling, “I sat through over two hours of this for nothing. I need to go take a nap.”

How to Go Back to “Wall Street”

Will Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleep be more relevant in this age of big banks failing and whatnot? Does the credo “Greed is good” still apply? Can Michael Douglas really pull off the Gordon Gekko act again? Can you take Shia LaBeouf seriously as a Wall Street whiz kid? Actually, from this teaser trailer of the sequel, LaBeouf comes off looking fairly dapper, as does Douglas with his cigar. Check it out:

How to Watch: “Edge of Darkness”

Step 1: Leap off the Edge. On the surface, Edge of Darkness might seem like your typical violent revenge thriller, but it actually has some intriguing layers and surprising twists that get your full attention.

Step 2: Get revenge. Of course, one of those layers is the film’s star, Mel Gibson, who returns to the big screen after an eight year absence, looking a little worse for wear but still very commanding. He plays Tom Craven, a veteran Boston cop, who tragically watches his beloved 24-year-old daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) get blasted by a shotgun right in front of him. Everyone thinks HE was supposed to be the intended target, being a detective and all, but Craven doesn’t buy it and soon begins investigating the how and the why. What he uncovers shows him aspects about his only daughter’s life he never knew: She had a boyfriend; She worked for a top-secret nuclear facility; and most importantly, she was trying to expose something potentially damaging on a national level.

Step 3: Think outside the box. This last layer, as it were, sets Edge of Darkness apart from the usual grieving-ticked-off dad-looking-to-kill-all-those-involved-in-daughter’s-death scenario because the film is actually an adaptation of a 1985 award-winning BBC miniseries of the same name. Helmed by Martin Campbell, the miniseries’ original director, you get the sense they tried to cram as much of the six-part miniseries into a two-hour movie as they could. But award-winning screenwriters William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell still manage to create a cohesive storyline. There’s plenty of revengeful acts and bloodshed to be had, but the story becomes as much a murder mystery with political and conspiratorial undertones as anything else.  As Craven starts to dig, he turns up some ugly stones, including the nuclear facility’s Machiavellian chief Bennett (played with relish by Danny Huston, one of the go-to actors to play villains), as well as a British assassin named Jedburgh (portrayed brilliantly by the always good Ray Winstone) – a mysterious, if slightly menacing, piece to the whole puzzle. Listen carefully when he’s on screen, though; I’m sure I missed something, due to his soft tones and accent.

Step 4: Act what you know. Speaking of accents, Gibson does a fair job with the whole Boston cadence but does lapse here and there. It doesn’t really matter, though. Gibson knew Edge of Darkness was the right kind of project to make his big-screen comeback with and eases into familiar territory, shooting guns, running bad guys down and delivering lines like “I’m the guy with nothing to lose.” It’s all vintage Mel – and honestly, it’s not that bad to have him back. He also has a nice rapport with Serbian actress Novakovic, for the brief time they have together as father and daughter. They are convincing, which, in turn, makes what Craven does understandable. Unlike say Taken (which coincidentally was released this time last year), another father-daughter relationship that isn’t nearly as believable, even though Liam Neeson kicks even harder ass than Gibson.

Level of difficulty in watching Edge of Darkness: Pretty easy. It’s definitely a compelling thriller, but don’t count on Mel Gibson to regain his A-list stardom right away. He’ll need to earn it again.

How to Look First at “The Ghost Writer”

Before Roman Polanski was put on house arrest in Switzerland, he was finishing up his latest flick The Ghost Writer, starring Ewan MacGregor and Pierce Brosnan. It’s about a writer who helps a former Prime Minister finish his memoirs and ends up uncovering some nasty secrets that puts his life in danger. Here’s the movie’s poster:

Sounds somewhat intriguing, but what makes it more so is that it’s from Polanski. He’s the draw, for me anyway.

How to Watch: “The Lovely Bones”

the_lovely_bones05Step 1: Try to adapt. While some book-to-screen adaptations hit the mark, others miss it. Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones sort of falls into the latter category. Yes, it’s a beautiful, thoughtful film, full of dark mystery and life affirmations, yet somehow it’s lacking a certain inner strength.

Step 2: Admit it ain’t easy. Jackson himself said that there can never be a perfect adaptation of a book. He says, “Alice Sebold’s novel IS The Lovely Bones – that is the work that has everything in it, every character, every subplot and that’s the way you should experience the story in its most pure form. A film adaptation of ANY book, especially The Lovely Bones, is only ever going to be a souvenir, an impression of aspects of the book.” Fair enough. Alice Sebold’s novel truly does transcend and is nothing less than spectacular, in my opinion. Yet, it is also a very cerebral novel, which makes it even more difficult to translate to screen. Basically, the entire story is told by from the mind of a young 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), who, after being brutally raped and murdered, looks down from her heaven and tries to help her family catch her killer (Stanley Tucci), as well as try to stop them from falling apart. Her father (Mark Wahlberg) obsesses over solving her murder, while her mother (Rachel Weisz) simply wants to escape – and her younger sister Lindsay (Rose McIver) ends up living the life Susie wishes she could have had. While Jackson, along with longtime writing partners Fran Walsh and Phillip Boyens, gather as many “impressions” as they can to fit into a two-hour movie, the result comes off a tad superficial.

Step 3: Realize part of the problem also stems from the some of the performances. Wahlberg, for example, doesn’t dig nearly deep enough to aptly portray the grieving father. To be fair, this role really isn’t suited for him; he’s much better kicking ass. I wonder, though, what Ryan Gosling, who was originally cast as Mr. Salmon, would have done with the part. Switch it up, I’d imagine. The usually wonderful Weisz also sort of phones this one in. Thankfully, the lovely Ronan, who was soooo good in her Oscar-nominated performance in Atonement, does a nice job bringing Susie to life, as it were. She captures Susie’s wonderment on her new environs and sadness in having to watch her family struggle, while Susan Sarandon provides the comic relief as the boozy, chain-smoking Grandma Lynn, who comes in to take care of the family when Mom checks out. But the real plus in The Lovely Bones is Tucci’s take on the terrifying Mr. Harvey, who is so much more menacing in all the things he doesn’t say. If anyone were to get an Oscar nod, it would be him – and rightly so. With this and his terrific turn in Julie & Julia earlier this summer, Tucci may finally have one of those years.

Step 4: Stick with what you do best. There’s no doubt Jackson knows what he’s doing tackling the technical aspects, especially when it comes to creating Susie’s “in-between” world, in which things from her subconscious spring to life, either by the actions of those still alive connected to her or from her own hopes and dreams. Creating fantastical tableaus is what Jackson lives for, so I wouldn’t expect anything less. My favorite image is of giant glass bottles, with sailing ships inside, crashing on a beach, just as Susie’s father is destroying all the very same miniature models he built with his daughter. Overall, Jackson does his best in adapting The Lovely Bones, a task that would be difficult for any director, seriously. If he isn’t able to quite capture the book’s magical qualities, at least you know going in it’ll be a worthwhile cinematic experience.

Level of difficulty in watching The Lovely Bones: Easy, but just not as good as the book.

How to Watch: “Crazy Heart”

Step 1: Great role, so-so movie. While it showcases Jeff Bridges’ extraordinary talents and delivers a couple of decent country music tunes, Crazy Heart is basically a retread that doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression.

Step 2: Don’t drink too hard. Bridges plays Bad Blake, a once-great country music star whose career and relationships have gone sour due to his hard-drinking, alienating life. He’s now on the road, playing at local piano bars and bowling alleys in order to make some cash – and throwing up in the alley between sets. His agent begs him to write some new music for an album, but Blake’s creativity well has run dry. That is, until he meets and woos Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist and single mom who captures Blake’crazy heart. Suddenly, things start to look up, including getting an opening act gig for country superstar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), an up and comer Blake once mentored when he was first starting out. All of Blake’s bad habits prove too hard to kick, however, and soon his relationship with Jean starts to slide downhill. This becomes a blessing in disguise because Blake begins to pour his heart out through song – and rebuild his life.

Step 3:
Sound all too familiar? It should. There have been so many movies about grizzled, alcoholic artists who either bounce back or die trying. One that comes to mind similar to Crazy Heart is the 1983 Tender Mercies, which starred Robert Duvall in his Oscar-winning performance as a, you guessed it, former country singing star who hits rock bottom only to come back through the love of a woman. Ironically, Duvall produced Crazy Heart and has a small role as Blake’s one and only friend, an old coot who runs a bar. I actually double checked Duvall’s character name in Heart to see if it was the same guy from Mercies. They aren’t the same, but it would have been kinda cool if they were, don’t you think? It’s obvious Duvall loves this type of story and has an affinity for country music. And even if Crazy Heart is based on a novel, first-time writer/director Scott Cooper must have had the same nostalgic feelings for Tender Mercies as Duvall – which is fine, really. The plot devices work, even if they feel overdone.

Step 4: Get to the real point of doing this kind of movie: a) come up with some good music and b) hand over a choice role to a veteran actor able to portray it. I wouldn’t say this is the best performance Bridges has ever given (it might be a toss up between The Fabulous Baker Boys or Fearless for me), but I’m thinking career Oscar at this point. He totally nails Bad Blake – all at once quiet, sad, drunk, fat, sweaty AND sings all his own songs. The other stand-outs are: Farrell as Tommy, who isn’t the cliché diva type but genuinely respects his mentor and really only wants to see him back in top form; and Ryan Bingham, a young 28-year-old country songwriter who, along with T-Bone Burnett, composes Crazy Heart‘s music, including the great song “The Weary Kind.”  It could easily end up winning the Oscar for Best Song (if they include the category). I met Bingham at the Crazy Heart press junket, and he seems to have packed about 60 years into his short life, most evident in his voice when he himself sings “The Weary Kind” at the end credits.

Level of difficulty in watching Crazy Heart: Not too hard. The one thing you might take home after you see the film is Bingham’s gravelly pipes singing a really sad song.

How to Interview: Jeff Bridges

crazy_heart_01As an old school, hard-living country singer named Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges gives yet another solid performance, playing a man who was once successful but who has almost blown all his chances to get back on top. It also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall.

But Crazy Heart is really all Bridges – from top to bottom. He just received a Golden Globe nomination for the performance, and many pundits – including myself – are predicting this could be the actor’s year to bask in the award season’s light; that he may finally snag the Oscar he’s been poised to win ever since he was nominated for his turn in The Last Picture Show (he’s been nominated three other times for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Starman and The Contender).

We journalists had a brief but meaningful conversation with Bridges about singing in a movie for the first time, similarities between country singers and actors – and who his mentors have been in his career.

Step 1: Sing your heart out
Jeff Bridges: “When I first got the script, there wasn’t any music attached to it. So I kind of took a pass on it. Then when I found out from my good buddy T-Bone [Burnett] that he was going to do it if I was going to do it, then that filled in that empty missing piece. So when he got involved, I knew the music was going to be top-notch. That got me to the party real quick.”

Step 2: Being on the road ain’t easy
Bridges:
“Yeah, my wife told me, ‘You know we’ve been apart 11 months this year.’ 11 months, man! That’s tough, that’s the hardest part for me. But we’ve been married 33 years, so we’ve done this a lot together. We know the routine and how tough it is; we depend on each other. It’s great to have a partner like that.”

Step 3: Success ain’t so easy, either
Bridges:
“One of the things appealing about country music is dealing with human emotions that people can relate to. I think we can all relate to not only the fear of failure, but the fear of success, too. What we do to ourselves when we get kind of successful and when you get to the top of the mountain, there’s only one place to go. You roll down. So how do you deal with that? A lot of us deal with that by numbing ourselves and that’s our strategy to slow ourselves down. So, I can relate to that just as a human being. Not only as an actor, but just being alive.”

Step 4: Admire those who taught you
Bridges:
“Do fathers count as mentors? I guess they do. So my dad [Lloyd Bridges] was my mentor. He really encouraged all of his kids to go into show business, he loved it so much. I remember as a little kid, he’d come up to me and say, ‘Hey, do you want to be in Sea Hunt? There’s a little part” – this TV show he did in the ’60s. And I’d say, ‘Ehhh … ‘ and he’d cajole, ‘You get to get out of school. Make some money to buy some toys.’ [Laughter] So, I’d say OK. And I remember him sitting me on the bed, giving me the basics of acting, teaching me how to do it. Of course, my brother [Beau Bridges] was also my mentor, took up where my dad left off. Worked on scenes to get my agent. I remember a big turning point in my career was doing a movie version of the play The Iceman Cometh. And I got to work with all these masters: Robert Ryan, Frederic March, Lee Marvin. Most of my scenes were with Robert Ryan, who I learned a lot from.  About fear and insecurity. I remember doing a scene with him across a table, and we were waiting for the scene to start. He took his hands off the table and there were too puddles of sweat on the table. I was like, ‘Wow, after all these years, you’re still frightened. You’re still nervous and scared.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, I’d be really scared if I wasn’t scared.’ That thing about fear, it’s always going to be with you, that’s how you deal with that. It’s hopeless to think you can get rid of that.”