Category: Showbiz Dramas


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Among artists of a certain stripe, there’s an uncontrollable urge to make art of meaning, and if they can’t make art that contextualizes some aspect of the human experience, it can drive these artists to mania and depression. And while art that forces us to examine our place in the universe is often the most rewarding, we can’t discount the power of entertainment and escape. Situated at the tail end of Woody Allen’s transitional period from his early comedies to his later “serious” films, 1980’s Stardust Memories is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of one artist’s struggle against his own commercial talents as he desperately craves the ability to craft work of genuine import. And, in the process, he discovers maybe you can do both.

By 1980, Woody Allen had won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall, and Manhattan was a turning point for him as a dramatic storyteller, but the mixed critical reaction to Interiors and the even more mixed audience reaction to the increasingly dark and realistic nature of his films was taking its toll on Allen. He felt pigeonholed as a director of silly farces, but Allen cut his teeth on foreign art house cinema, and he wanted to make works more inspired by Bergman and Fellini than the Marx brothers. And Stardust Memories is a stunning work of art as self-therapy as Allen reconciles these warring impulses in a feat of pure cinematic magic truly worthy of its clear cinematic peer, 8 1/2.

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(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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In the many years that I’ve closely followed the Academy Awards (starting in 2004 when Return of the King took home a record-tying 11 Oscars), I’ve only cared twice about who won Best Original Song. The most recent time was in 2012 when I desperately wanted to see Flight of the Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie win an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets. The first time was in 2006 where I would have likely started a riot if Three 6 Mafia hadn’t picked up the Oscar for their instant hip-hop classic “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” from 2005’s Hustle & Flow. No matter what your other thoughts are about the film, there’s no denying that song’s place in the canon of great original movie tunes. Now, if only the rest of the film were as great as that song and the performances from Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson (Baby Boy).

There are few things more upsetting as a socially conscious film-goer than when you watch an obviously well-constructed and well-performed film but are also forced to recognize that there are some thematic… missteps in the work. And more than any of us would like to admit, there are a lot of great films that simply do not know how to handle their female characters. And Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow is one such film. As a portrait of desperation and the lengths we’ll go to achieve a dream even when our backs are against the wall, it’s a soaring success, and its social realism and gritty approach are greatly appreciated. But when every single woman in this film is simply a literal sex object and simultaneously used to massage the ego and self-esteem of the male star, that’s a problem of our male-centric film industry.

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2005’s Hustle & Flow is an underdog story in the mold of Rocky or Brassed Off! although without the cheesy triumphalism of the first or the social criticism of the second. Djay (Iron Man‘s Terrence Howard) is a philosophical and hardscrabble pimp who gets by tricking his snow bunny prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning) under Memphis underpasses. He’s got a stripper, Lex (Paula Jai Parker), with a major attitude problem and a son she doesn’t care for, and he’s got a pregnant “bottom bitch,” Shug (Taraji P. Henson), that can’t trick at the moment, but she loves and supports her pimp. Djay’s life is going nowhere fast, but he finds a chance to be somebody when he hears that rap superstar Skinny Black (Ludacris) will be visiting the bar Djay sells weed to for the Fourth of July.

Djay has one dream in life, beyond scrounging up the money he and his girls need to get buy, and that’s to be a hip-hop emcee. And after a chance meeting with an old high school friend, Key (Anthony Anderson), who pays the rent as a sound engineer for local church recordings, Djay thinks he finally has a shot at making his dreams come true and to get his mixtape into the hands of Skinny Black before his time runs out. And with a help from a local pianist and MPC machine enthusiast Shelby (DJ Qualls), Djay sets up a small recording studio in his house as he deals with the toils of keeping three different prostitutes happy under his roof. Will Djay find the muse he needs to make a genuine rap banger, and more importantly, will Skinny Black listen to it even if he does?

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Terrence Howard gives the performance his career in this film. Had Howard now turned down the supporting role of Rhodes in Iron Man 2 (because of salary disputes) and subsequently piss off all of the big producers in Hollywood, I suspect he could and should have been a big star. The 2005 Academy Awards was absurdly competitive for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote and he was also competing against Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain), but Howard’s Academy Award-nominated turn in this film is one of the best of the aughts. Few performers have ever conveyed the feeling of having your back up against the wall and watching your life race past you as well as Howard does in this film. There’s a haunting intensity to the performance, and it’s a shame that he’s more or less disappeared from interesting projects in the 2010s.

And Baby Boy‘s Taraji P. Henson also gives her all to the thankless role of Shug. As I said, the women in this film are flat creations that are literal sex objects in that they’re all strippers/prostitutes (except for Anthony Anderson’s wife who has minimum screen time) and they have seemingly no real desires or character arcs of their own other than to support Djay in his journey. But despite that, Taraji P. Henson brings a wrenching emotional context to the character that certainly wasn’t in the script. She certainly at least deserved an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars that year. It’s a sign of a great performer when they are able to wrest an astounding performance from a mediocre character, and Taraji P. Henson does just that.

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The film’s problems with women can be summed up in one visual from the film. And, spoiler alert, I’m going to spoil something major about the film, but the movie’s nearly 10 years old now, so get over it. Djay is in prison for assaulting Skinny Black after he rejects him. Nola has slept with a radio DJ and gotten Djay’s single played on the radio. The song is called “Whoop That Trick” and a new mother Shug is singing along in full head-banging mode to a song that’s about beating on a hooker which is what she is. It’s like the movie isn’t even aware of the irony of the moment although at times I suspect it is because like Black Snake Moan, there’s a certain element of blaxploitation revivalism to Hustle & Flow. Regardless, the film’s usage of a prostitute singing along triumphantly to a song about beating on her own kind is the worst kind of male tunnel vision.

And those glaring oversights make for a frustrating viewing experience because Hustle & Flow is the kind of underdog film I can actually enjoy (because most are total garbage excepting the documentary Undefeated which manages to be a masterpiece). I sort of actively hate most non-Outkast/non-Killer Mike Southern hip-hop, but this film’s A-Town via Tennessee soundtrack is fantastic, and the film’s got that grainy 1970s cinematography that seamlessly matches the film’s storytelling style. And, as I’ve said, Terrence Howard’s firebrand performance holds the whole film together when it threatens to fall apart. Hustle & Flow falls just short of being a great film, but if you can look past its casual misogyny, it’s a superbly performed tale worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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One of the things that I have always loved about foreign cinema is that it opens me up to worlds and cultures that I will never experience first-hand. Great foreign cinema (A Separation, The White Ribbon, Stroszek) can edify me as much as it entertains me. I’m clearly not saying that all enjoyable foreign cinema must have cultural history inside it (Bergman and Fellini care little for that), but it’s always wonderful when it does. 2006’s Rang De Basanti is the first Indian/Bollywood film that I’ve reviewed for this blog, and I felt that I learned more from this film about modern Indian youth culture and India’s history than anybody possibly ever could from Slumdog Millionaire.

It is difficult to characterize Rang De Basanti in simple terms. Running at nearly three hours, Rang De Basanti is the type of multi-generational epic that went out of vogue in America around the time the Godfather films finished up. The film’s emotional core and even genre are just as hard to pin down as the film starts off as a coming of age dramedy that shoots unexpectedly into tragedy for the film’s last hour. The film has a grandness of ambition and purpose that exceeds the actual artistic merits of the film to the point where the film’s themes are subverted (I believe unintentionally) by an insane final act that lessens the ethical value of the film. Rang De Basanti has its flaws, but even despite them, it proved an immensely enjoyable movie.

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An idealistic young British woman, Sue (Alice Patten), travels to India in order to shoot a historical film about India’s revolutionary movement in the 1920s against British rule. Sue finds the young stars of her film when her friend Sonia (Soha Ali Khan) introduces Sue to her group of college friends, including the charming DJ (Aamir Khan), the brooding Karan (Siddharth), the comic Sukhi (Sharman Joshi), and the pensive Aslam (Kunal Kapoor). The Western society-obsessed friends are cynical towards the state of modern India and have trouble relating to the martyred patriots at the center of Sue’s film, until tragedy in their own lives sparks a revolution in their own hearts.

I don’t want to say too much more about the film’s story because part of the pleasure of Rang De Basanti is watching the transformation this film takes. It’s not much of a stretch to say that until a pivotal event took the film into it’s final act, I was convinced that Rang De Basanti was a comedy about cultural diffusion and barriers with some light drama involved. The tone was so light and lively (and the musical numbers but more on that in a second) that when the film switches gears (and boy does it), I was left feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach by the sharp turns the story takes.

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I may be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that Rang De Basanti is the first Bollywood film I’ve ever watched in my entire life. And, I’m sort of thankful for that because the moviei s a great fusion of Bollywood tropes (doomed romances, insane out of nowhere dance numbers) and more traditional Western storytelling which all fits within the film’s context of young Indian men rediscovering their sense of Indian nationalism. There’s a dance sequence interspersed with bits of historical tragedy from Sue’s film that is immediately followed by the tragic event that sets the films final act into motion, and while that may seem dizzying to American audiences, it seems to mesh within the Indian context of the film.

Ultimately, Rang De Basanti proves to be a film about corruption in the Indian government. When I was an RA, I had several friends from India and Pakistan (both from the Lahore region of the area), and either one was willing to readily educate me on the political corruption of their respective governments. And, Rang De Basanti‘s attempts to bring these issues to light is all well and good and very noble, but the film loses some of its moral authority on these tough issues when it has its heroes behave the way they do towards the end of the film. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but it’s certainly easy to say that the film finds itself muddled by the end.

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Rang De Basanti is centered on a great cast with a natural chemistry, and the interactions between the young male stars reminded me of an Indian spin on classics like Diner. Aamir Khan and Kunal Kapoor really stole the show, and I’d like to see more from practically everyone in the cast though sadly not much Bollywood winds up on my list for this blog. I’ll draw this review to a close with this. Rang De Basanti may lose its footing by the film’s end, but if you can get past the thematic missteps in its closing moments, you’ll be rewarded with an intense and highly emotional look at Indian youth and the problems facing modern Indian society. For lovers of foreign cinema, I highly recommend it.

Final Score: B+

 

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Movies that garner reputations as being camp classics for being simply so bad that they become enjoyable are a serious risk for first-time viewers. For every Rocky Horror Picture Show (which seems impossible to not enjoy), you have five Napoleon Dynamite‘s whose appeal is totally lost to me. 1967’s Valley of the Dolls was one of Hollywood’s biggest critical flops of all time. It was a Gigli-level disaster and nearly destroyed Patty Duke’s career. And it’s bad. It’s really bad. This movie’s got more melodrama than a 1950’s Douglas Sirk melodrama (Imitation of Life or any of its ilk for example). The acting is absurdly over-the-top, the story and relationships are cartoonish, and the characters are prone to astounding hysterics. But, weirdly, this movie has some strange campy appeal, and although she wasn’t an exceptionally talented actress, Sharon Tate was so beautiful I could watch her all day.

Centered around three rising starlets in Hollywood in the 1960s, Valley of the Dolls is a morality play examining the price of fame and the type of implosion that ultimately destroyed Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. Anne Wells (Barbara Parkins) is a small-town ingenue that moves to New York City and finds work as a secretary at a prestigious entertainment law firm though it isn’t long before she becomes the face of a national ad campaign for hair spray. Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) is a supporting player in the Broadway show of an aging diva, and when the diva kicks Neely out of the play, Neely’s solo career as a singer and Hollywood actress take off. And Jennifer North (Sharon Tate) is a talentless show-girl that marries a successful Sinatra-style singer but has to fend for herself when he’s diagnosed with Huntington’s disease. And over the course of the film, all three sink into prescription drug addiction.

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There isn’t a single good performance in this. While each of the leads have their moments, the film was so poorly directed and so “stage-y” that the movie felt funny at times that it was meant to be dramatic. Sharon Tate is stunningly beautiful. I mean, she might be one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve ever seen alongside Catherine Deneuve. She has a very sensitive face and it seemed like her performance got better as the film went along, but her diction and enunciation remained forced the entire film. Patty Duke had both the best and worst moments of the whole film. She tapped into something extreme and fierce for the role but she was also never able to really dial it down when she needed to. And Barbara Parkins was more or less boring the entire film. It would have been very interesting to see this film with a director that knew how to coax good performances out of these actresses.

I have no idea what it is, but there were at times something oddly likeable about this film despite how terrible it consistently was. Like, there was an almost innocent sincerity to everything even though they didn’t know how to turn sincerity into realistic and effective drama. And, the film had some really great photography at times. It did a wonderful job capturing on-location exteriors, and while many of the interior shots looked like a poster-child for 1960s excess, there was a weird beauty to some of those shots as well. And, she starts the film out as the most flat character of the group (emotionally cause I’m sure as hell not talking about her bust), but by the time she meets her tragic end (spoilers I guess), I found Sharon Tate’s Jennifer to easily be the most intriguing person in the film. I would have really loved to see more from her and less campy explosions from Patty Duke’s Neely.

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If you have no tolerance for campy films, don’t waste your time on Valley of the Dolls. You will hate it. If it weren’t for the fact that I was reviewing it for this blog (and I’m yet over the course of the last two years to start a movie that I didn’t finish. Wait, that’s not true. I was loving Downfall but for some reason couldn’t find the time to finish watching all four hours of it), I would have stopped watching this movie about halfway through. But for fans of camp, there is something in this movie hidden pretty deeply away. It’s certainly no Rocky Horror Picture Show. This movie is simply not good despite the fact that I found bits and pieces here and there to cling to. It’s such a shame that Sharon Tate was murdered though because I feel like she could have been a decent talent in the right hands.

Final Score: C

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Over a year and a half ago, when Hot Saas’s  Pop Culture Safari was still in its infancy, I reviewed the classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy Swing Time. I loved the movie and it was this close to being an almost perfect classic musical when a last minute black face number in the film nearly derailed the whole production. I understood that minstrel shows were an acceptable part of that era’s entertainment but that didn’t make it any less uncomfortable for this modern, ultra-liberal viewer. My first Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film for the blog, 1939’s Babes in Arms was proving to be an enjoyable (although not nearly as great as Swing Time) children’s musical when another climactic, ridiculously lavish black face number reared its ugly head to remind me yet again of our nation’s virulent racist past.

When his down-on-his luck parents decide to take their once popular vaudeville show on the road in a hope to reclaim their glory days, Michael Z. Moran (Mickey Rooney) and his fellow stage children friends are left behind. With the help of his best friend Patsy (The Wizard of Oz‘s Judy Garland), Michael enlists the other kids to put on a lavish vaudeville revue to make it big time to prove that they’re just as talented as their washed up parents. With the threat of being taken away by the state hanging over their heads, Michael and Patsy have to raise the money to put on their show. Patsy is supposed to play the lead and Mickey wrote the songs just for her, but when former child-star Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) offers to pay the show’s expenses as long as she can play the show’s lead, Mickey has to choose between his feelings for Patsy and his desire to finally make it big.

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Mickey Rooney received an Academy Award nomination for this film and as weird as this may sound, I totally get it. When I first started watching the film, I thought he was around his character’s age (early teens), but nope. Mickey Rooney was 19 when he made this film. I was incredibly impressed when I thought he was 13 or 14. Still, even at 19, he already had the timing and comedic chops of a seasoned veteran and Rooney was easily the best part of the whole film. His presence controlled every scene and it’s easy to see why he was one of Hollywood’s biggest child stars of the era. His impressions were spot-on and hilarious. He had the manic but controlled energy of a pro like Donald O’Connor. In terms of how comedy worked back in the 1930s, he was as good as much of the established talent of the time.

Judy Garland on the other hand wasn’t as impressive. I can’t entirely blame her though. Her singing voice was as beautiful as ever and she had the girl-next-door appeal that made her such a beloved star. And it’s 1939. It’s the same year as The Wizard of Oz. She’s at the peak of her career. But, it was also terribly clear the entire film that she was stoned out of her gourd. The studio was feeding both her and Mickey Rooney amphetamines and barbiturates like candy to keep them going during their endless film production schedule, and it seems like Rooney got all of the amphetamines and Garland got all of the barbiturates. She just seemed dazed and completely out of it for the entire film. Perhaps, I’m reading something into her performance that isn’t actually there, but that was simply the impression I got the entire time.

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The musical numbers fluctuated between lovely and utterly forgettable. “Good Morning, Good Morning” would be performed to greater effect by Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain but it made a great premier as one of the opening numbers of Babes in Arms. One can’t blame Garland’s lovely contralto. Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers almost always seem cookie-cutter to me (yes, I know that’s heresy to classic musical fans. I’m not a fan of that pairing though). But, there was something wonderful in the choreography and the spectacle of a film that was being performed by an almost all-child cast (even if the two leads were actually adults playing much, much younger than their characters). The film often managed to achieve an epic feel that made the material transcend into the charming side of “camp” that captures something innocent and hopeful about the era it was made (at the tail-end of the Great Depression).

Which makes the terribly racist, overly long blackface number at the end so incredibly uncomfortable. I had to get my computer out and look at Facebook and Twitter as that number ran on and on and on. I didn’t think it was ever going to end. But, much like Swing Time, if you can get past that awful relic of our nation’s vaudeville past, the film is ultimately enjoyable. The racism is a huge mark against it, but much like Gone With the Wind or the Tom Sawyer, it’s something you have to get past in order to understand our nation’s past historic outputs. It’s not pretty but it’s there and we can’t pretend like it never happened. So, if you enjoy these old school musicals, I wouldn’t rank Babes in Arms among the all time greats, but if you’re looking for something to pass the time, Mickey Rooney’s star turn is enough to justify a viewing.

Final Score: B

Magic Mike

Well, here’s the long-teased movie I was waiting to reveal until I actually reviewed that I first mentioned in my “I’m Not Dead” post letting everybody know what was happening with the massive power outages on the East Coast. If there’s ever an opening statement about how comfortable I am with my sexuality (and my complete lack of giving a shit about what other people think about me), it’s that I’m not worried about admitting that I saw Magic Mike and that I’m also willing to review it on here. When the power went out, that also meant the AC went out. It was triple digit weather and my sister and I were baking in the house so we decided to go to the only place in the tri-county area with power and air conditioning, the mall. Nicole wanted to see Magic Mike and I was going to see Snow White and the Huntsman, but it wasn’t playing til 11 (they were diverting power to the newer releases), and since I didn’t want to see Brave or Ted, I made the risky decision to go see Magic Mike with my sister. It’s directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, sex lies and videotape), the original king of indie cinema, so I actually thought there was a good chance it would be a good film and I knew it was going to be more than just a “stripper” movie. What I didn’t know was that Magic Mike was going to blow my expectations away with one of the most effective statements on the death of the American Dream and man’s consistent inability to improve itself.

In the heights of the Great Recession of the 2010s, the economy is no one’s friend. “Magic” Mike (Channing Tatum) fancies himself to be an entrepreneur but in reality, he’s another lost soul trying to hustle another few dollars here and there to survive. He works in construction as a roofer (where he meets the young and restless Adam [Alex Pettyfer]), owns a car detail service, manages an event management company, and dreams of one day running his own custom furniture business. However, Mike makes all of his money as a dancer at the all-male Xquisite strip club. He helps the directionless Adam get a job there as well after the 19 years old Adam blows a football scholarship at college and gets fired from the construction company for taking an extra soda for lunch. As Adam is initiated into the world of dancing, it’s all easy money and non-stop parties at first, but it doesn’t take long for Adam’s self-destructive tendencies to start fucking with Mike’s business as well as for Mike to realize that despite bar owner Dallas’ (Dazed and Confused’s Matthew McConaughey) promise of a piece in a bigger club in Miami, he’s being exploited and his dreams will never come true. As a chance friendship with Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) seems to be Mike’s only hope for redemption while Adam begins a drug-fueled descent into oblivion.

I have mixed feelings about Channing Tatum’s performance in what will ultimately be the role that catapults him to stardom (and I suspect will be the moment where people start to take him seriously as an actor). He has a wonderfully expressive face. It’s the sort of face that Fellini would have been proud to cast in one of his role (I can just see him as the bisexual Encolpio in Fellini Satyricon) and as a former male stripper, his dance moves are impeccable. Actually, he’s almost too good of a dancer to be in a low-rent Tampa strip club. However, his vocal delivery of his lines was a little on the awkward side. His face was selling his complex emotions and whenever he was trying to be charming or seductive, he was able to nail that with his voice. However, in the key dramatic moments, his diction and delivery couldn’t keep up with his expressive face. Alex Pettyfer could be another star in the making as I was far more impressed with his take on the much more difficult role of Adam. Originally, you think he’s supposed to be the audience surrogate as we’re introduced to the world of stripping, but it’s quickly apparent (even from the beginning, there are subtle clues) that’s he’s a bit of a punk. Alex Pettyfer gracefully handles the transition from us rooting for Adam to make it at Xquisite to his transformation into one of the primary foils of the film. Shockingly, Matthew McConaughey gives his best performance in years as Dallas. Channeling all of the manic, cocky energy that makes him so unlikeable in bland romcoms, Steven Soderbergh helps McConaughey direct this energy into turning Dallas into a snake-like, oily businessman who exploits the men in his club just as much as the women shoving ones down their G-strings.

Thematically, the movie had a lot of important things, and the shocking thing was how well it said all of them. On the most important level, the film is a commentary on our current economic situation and how the idea of the American Dream and how you can do whatever you want if you work hard enough is complete bullshit. Mike is nearly a perpetual motion machine and he works his ass off. Whether it’s the stripping or his many other businesses, he never stops working, and with $13,000 saved up, he’s in better financial health than most Americans. Yet, it still isn’t enough for him to get a business loan from the bank (that may seem like a spoiler, but the film carries an air of tragic inevitability so I don’t really think so). There’s another scene where Dallas announces that the club in Miami has finally been approved. This should be a massive pay day for everyone working in the club, but that moment marks the start of the film’s tonal shift into heart-wrenching darkness. I tweeted this at Bret Easton Ellis (sadly I didn’t get a response) as he was talking about the film, but the movie also includes a very David Chase-esque statement about how people don’t change. It might appear as if Mike undergoes some growth throughout the film but it’s more a realization of the cycle of disappointment he’s found himself in than any real change in personality. Adam is the ultimate example of this aspect of the film’s message as all of the things we were supposed to find endearing about him earlier in the film are what ultimately destroy him (and nearly destroy everyone around him).

To me though, one of the most interesting points the film tries to make is about modern sexuality and specifically sexual objectification. I honestly think this film should be required viewing for most men because maybe it would inspire a dialogue about the way we objectify women (if they can get past the scene of Joe Manganiello using a penis pump) by showing a film where the men are objectified. There were women hooting and hollering during the showing of this film every time the men took their clothes off (which mirrored the action on screen with the women in the club), and while the film certainly celebrated a certain freedom of sexuality that isn’t on display in the much more sad and pathetic female strip clubs, the film also forced the audience to confront the fact that most of them came to the film to see eye candy and viewed its half-naked male stars as pieces of meat when in fact they are much more than that. That may not seem like that grand of an insight but it was the gender reversal on display when we’re used to those sorts of lessons coming about beautiful women. It’s rarely shown that women objectify men just as much as men objectify women. I’m not sure how many people came away from the theater with that message (and sadly, I’ve heard far too many women complain on Facebook that the film had too much plot and not enough oiled up men), but it was very clear that’s what Steven Soderbergh was trying to accomplish.

The more I think about this film, the more I appreciate it (which is always a good sign), and Steven Soderbergh’s direction and cinematography are another area where the film showed excellence. It’s a major studio picture (Warner Bros.), but it was shot like an indie film. Lots of handheld cameras, intimate close-ups (especially during conversations), and stylistic experiments to try and visually capture the mood of a scene (particularly if drugs have been used). There’s almost a light, cheery air to the film’s visual style for the first half of the film where Soderbergh tries to tease you that this may be a happy film (though the subtext always lends it that air of fatalism), but after a scene during a hurricane where good news that is obviously bad news is announced marks a radical change to the way that Soderbergh shoots the film and tries to capture the atmosphere of Xquisite and the men that work there. There’s also a very naturalistic take to the dialogue. It rarely feels “scripted” and whether there are moments of improvisation or not, nothing anyone said ever felt forced (unless the actor made it sound that way) and you often felt like you stumbled into a conversation being held by two real people. One of the best scenes in the film showcases Soderbergh’s spot-on visual style where the color and lighting constantly shift as Adam and Mike “roll” on ecstasy in a moment that further widens the gap between the two paths the two protagonists are following.

You should see this movie. It’s as simple as that, and if you have any interest in cinematography (as well as the way that the film’s visuals help emphasize the subtext on sexuality inherent to the film), you should see it on the big screen to get the full effect. The film is about taking larger than life figures and making them small again, and I think that could be lost on TVs. Even if you’re a heterosexual male (like myself), you should know that this is more than just a stripping movie. If you couldn’t get that from 1700 words of rambling from me, well, you’ll probably be lost on what this film is trying to accomplish anyways. Magic Mike has to be the most egregious case of misadvertising in the history of films. The studio knew exactly what it would take to get women in the theaters (men taking their clothes off) and only sold that aspect of the film in the adverts. It’s so much more, and you’d be doing a disservice to one of the greatest American filmmakers of the last twenty years if you didn’t at least give Magic Mike a fair shot.

Final Score: A-

Much like last year, it took me until the middle of the summer (with last year’s True Grit remake being the film with the very late DVD release), but I’ve finally finished all of 2011’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees. Yesterday, I finally got around to watching The Artist. I would have had my review up sooner but I haven’t been feeling well ever since I had Chinese food with my family for dinner. I hate the way that I’m ultimately going to approach this film critically, but at this point, it’s the only way I can do it. I’ll do my best to talk about The Artist on its own terms, but as the film that won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, I feel obligated to discuss how I feel about the awards that it won. I have a history of not agreeing with the film’s the Academy picks for Best Picture. As in, I haven’t agreed with the Academy on a Best Picture since Return of the King back in 2003. Unfortunately, 2011 is no different. Let there be no confusion. I think The Artist is a good film. I thought The King’s Speech was good last year. I just don’t think it’s a great movie and that the Academy was more impressed with the gimmicky nature of a well-made (as opposed to student) silent film than the ultimately simple and innocent nature of Michel Hazanvicius’ story. The fact that this film (especially in the direction department) beat The Tree of Life is one of the most egregious Academy fuck-ups since Danny Boyle and Slumdog Millionaire beat Paul Thomas Anderson and There Will Be Blood.

The Artist is a tragic spin on a story familiar to any fans of Singin’ in the Rain. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men at the height of the silent film era. His films are smash hits and just accidentally being photographed with George helps to catapult aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) to stardom. However, it isn’t all premieres and glamour for George (and his adorable Jack Russell Terrier, Uggy). He’s in a loveless marriage with his wife (which isn’t helped by his rakish ways) and his ego and pride isolate him from his colleagues in Hollywoodland (the original name of Hollywood in the 20s). Though it isn’t mentioned by name (unlike Singin’ in the Rain), the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927 and the following rise of “talkies” destroys George’s career while Peppy finds fame as a “talkie” starlet. Out of pride, George refuses to make the transition to speaking roles, and he invests all of his money in one last great silent film. However, the movie flops at the box office at the same time that the stock market crashes to ring in the Great Depression. George is forced to sell off all of his belongings and watch his world (including his marriage) fall apart around him.

My feelings about the acting in this film are complicated. If we were judging the film on just how well Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo were able to ape the style of silent film stars like Lillian Gish or Rudolph Valentino, then they were a smash success. Particularly in the scenes where they are showing fictional films in the movie, Jean Dujardin nails the over-the-top (and let’s face it, ham-fisted) style that was the only way to get across emotion and/or exposition (in a weird sense of that word) when you couldn’t speak. However, both stars are guilty of the same kind of “mugging” for the camera that Peppy complains about in an interview once she’s a “talkie” star. There isn’t a lot of subtlety to Jean Dujardin’s performance when we see him going about his daily life. I understand that since he can’t speak, he has to emote a little bit, but when you compare his performance to far more subtle and nuanced roles like Woody Harrelson in Rampart or Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus, it’s sort of outrageous to realize that he won. Berenice Bejo’s performance was  much more subtle but she was still guilty of more than her fair share of over-acting. Jean Dujardin was capable of delivering some truly great emotional moments (especially when he was in the throes of his depression), but it would only be especially impressive if we hadn’t had 80 years of more mature acting techniques since the “talkies” took over.

While I certainly believe that Terrence Malick’s direction/cinematography/genius with The Tree of Life is one of the greatest film achievements of the 2000s, I must concede that Michel Hazanavicius guided The Artist with a brilliant hand (even if the script wasn’t as perfect). Shot in a gorgeous and crisp black & white, The Artist is one of the better looking films of the year (though yet again, Tree of Life is one of the most beautifully shot films ever), and the movie does an excellent job of shooting a more modern, Manhattan-style black and white for the regular sequences and then adopting the more antiquated style for the movies within the film. There’s a nightmare sequence that was one of the most inspired moments of the film (and of 2011) where George is having a nightmare about his inability to transition to the “talkie” world and so everything else in the world can make noise except for him. It was very brilliant. The shadow and contrast work in the film was second to none as was the attention to period detail, and for fans of old films, you can revel in all of the little historical details that the film tries to get right from the costumes to the cars to the Hollywoodland sign (instead of Hollywood). Also, I will say that there is one Oscar the film totally earned which was for Best Score. I can’t remember the last movie I watched on here where I wanted to go out and buy the orchestral score, but The Artist inspired that reaction. It was a perfect recreation of the scores of yesteryear but honestly, it was better and more stirring than the scores of the past.

At the end of the day though, The Artist is the sort of congratulatory celebration of Hollywood’s past that the Academy eats up like candy lately. Much like the L.A. centric-Crash (which beat the far superior Brokeback Mountain), it’s a film that hits home to the L.A. voting bloc that decides the Oscars. It’s not the best film of the year, and if you’ve seen all of the nominees, I’m not sure how you could disagree with that statement. Of course, I’ve long suspected that the films that most often win at the Academy Awards contain at least some semblance of a mass-appeal factor. Perhaps, I can’t blame them for not always choosing the artsy films that I enjoy. That’s my preference. Other people have theirs. And like I said, The Artist is a good movie. It contains flashes of brilliance and I enjoyed it, but much like Forrest Gump (and the way it fucked over Pulp Fiction) or Titanic (and the way it screwed over Good Will Hunting and/or L.A. Confidential), I’ll always think of it as the movie that stopped Woody Allen or Terrence Malick from more deserving wins. It’s sad but true.

Final Score: B+

I get far too metatextual in my reviews but without explicit posted explanations of the way that I operate sometimes I feel the need to explain things. For example, I don’t have a strictly posted and enforced editorial policy about what my grades for movies/books/TV shows/etc mean. “A+” is pretty obvious. It means that I think the film is practically perfect and one of the best films I’ve ever seen. “A” films are also phenomenal but might have one or two smaller flaws keeping them from perfection (or there’s nothing about it that is “A+” caliber). “A-” are great films with a more significant flaw. “B+” are films that are good on the verge of being great but not quite there. “B” films are simply enjoyable films but there’s not necessarily anything fantastic about them. “B-” movies are good but with serious problems although at the end of the day, I think their good qualities outweigh their bad ones. “C+” and below are a little more amorphous. Generally, this is reserved for films I didn’t enjoy and each step down from “C+” is a comment on how few redeeming factors the film had. However, this doesn’t really mean they’re genuinely bad films. Sometimes, they’re just so mediocre that they leave absolutely zero emotional impact on me. That’s what happened with the 1980s showbiz dramedy, Irreconcilable Differences, which was neither bad nor good (although the acting was pretty awful). It was just completely forgettable.

Nominally centered on the divorce case (though more accurately the “emancipation of a minor” case) between 10 year old Casey Brotsky (Drew Barrymore) and her self-absorbed Hollywood parents Albert (Ryan O’Neal) and Lucy (Cheers‘ Shelley Long) who have long since abandoned any pretense of actually caring about their daughter, Irreconcilable Differences is actually more of the story of the blooming romance between Albert and Lucy and the Hollywood excess and greed that drives them to their current situation. A film history professor at UCLA, Albert met Lucy while hitchhiking across the country to start his new job, and although she was engaged at the time, they fell in love on the trip and were soon married. After being invited to screen a Hollywood producer’s movie, Albert’s encyclopedic insight into cinema lands him a job as a screenwriter in Hollywood and before long, he’s writing and directing (with the help of Lucy) a long-gestating film that becomes a smash hit. However, when it comes time to make their second film, Albert falls in love with the movie’s young starlet (Sharon Stone in her debut role) and leaves Lucy. While Albert becomes incredibly wealthy, Lucy’s life begins to fall apart and neither parents gives any attention to their young daughter Casey who becomes just another fixture in their lives and a pawn in their battles with each other.

Drew Barrymore is not a good actress. I’m sorry but it’s true. She has the emotional range of a professional wrestler. Actually, they can at least fake anger and machismo. All she can do is cloying adorableness. That’s all she has going for her. And that’s grown-up Drew Barrymore I’m talking about. She was ten years old in this film and just a complete wreck to watch. I don’t know how she’s had a thirty year career in Hollywood. It defies the laws of the logic. We’re supposed to sympathize with her plight, but because Barrymore’s acting was so rigid and dull, I just didn’t give a shit. Ryan O’Neal wasn’t much better. His Hollywood royalty status aside, he shamelessly mugged for the camera, and the number of scenes where he was hammishly overacting were innumerable. If he flashed that awful, fake smile  one more time directly at the camera, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the film. Shelley Long was better but not by much. Lucy isn’t nearly as interesting a character as say Diane Chambers from Cheers, and Lucy just tended to swing from neurotic to hysterical. At least Shelley Long was able to nail those emotions.

Surprisingly, the beginning of the film was actually fairly enjoyable. Watching Albert and Lucy fall in love on the road and experience their entry in the world of Hollywood had some freshness. It’s obvious that the film’s screenwriter is a movie lover, and there are a plethora of little tidbits about Hollywood lore and moviemaking scattered throughout the film. And, I definitely bought the fledgling romance of Albert and Lucy as he was hitchhiking. Then, once you got to the actual dramatic moments of the film where the characters were supposed to change for the worse, much of it felt artificial and forced. I could not buy the drastic change in character these individuals experienced. It seemed incredibly unrealistic. Also, the film is obviously meant to be satirical of Hollywood egos and excess and what not. The film’s not funny… at all. I don’t think I even chuckled once the entire film. The only moments in the entire film to make any sort of emotional response were the romance scenes between Lucy and Albert and once that was abandoned the film became more cliched and trite almost magically. Also, no judge in his right mind would actually grant the emancipation case requested in this film. The lack of legal realism was pretty absurd.

I don’t know what sort of crack the Golden Globes were smoking when they gave Drew Barrymore a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this film (or even Shelley Long for Best Actress in a Comedy) but obviously, they weren’t thinking straight. I honestly can’t think of anyone in 2012 who could really find a film like this especially enjoyable, but I also thought Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was a completely joke and others fawned over it so what do I know. Maybe if you’re a really big Drew Barrymore fan (but at this point, you’ve stopped reading my review because of my complete lack of respect for her acting abilities) you should see the film. That’s about the only group I can recommend this movie to. I don’t think there are still big Ryan O’Neal or Shelley Long fans anymore. If there are, they probably aren’t big internet users or reading this blog. Everybody else can pass Irreconcilable Differences over and watch something more worthy of your valuable times.

Final Score: C

Where do we draw the line between an artist and his art? Through the works of Woody Allen it is easy to tell that the man loves and loathes his home of New York. He is a neurotic and nebbish man who both worships women and alienates them. If you watch any Quentin Tarantino film, you should come away knowing that he knows more about genre cinema than perhaps any other man on the planet. Considering the number of Scorsese films that deal with religious guilt and the sexual degradation of the male psyche, it is not much of a stress to feel that Scorsese was torn as an artist by his Catholic upbringing. If you can summon basic powers of perception (with some psychological intuition) and have seen a large swath of any directors filmography, you can learn a lot about not only the art but the artist. The scripts they choose to direct, the direction they choose to take the subject matter, the consistent (or perhaps telling inconsistent) tone of their films all speak leagues to who the artist truly is. It’s a fun game for students of film to play as we attempt to gleam little tidbits about her celluloid heroes, but rarely do filmmakers themselves ask these sorts of questions. Yet, the battle between art and the men who make it and the psychological forces that shape said art lies at the very center of Federico Fellini’s masterful 8 1/2 which makes for one of the most cerebral and rewarding films I’ve seen in months.

In an obviously highly autobiographical film (of Fellini’s career/childhood), Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, an Italian film-director who has retreated to a remote resort in the hopes of getting some peace and quiet so he can work on his next film. His rest is short-lived when his film’s producers, his mistress (Sandra Milo), and even his wife (Anouk Aimee) arrive at the resort and begin tearing him in opposite directions. As Guido’s writer’s block and creative slump worsen, we are ushered into the unfiltered recesses of his mind where glimpses of his childhood, sexual fantasies, and reality all intertwine. Guido reflects on the many, many women in his life (from his mother to the first prostitute he ever visited) as well as the role of the church and religious sexual oppression all while trying to find the inspiration to make his next film which he hopes will include all of these elements. To sum up the film as simply (though perhaps misleadingly) as possible, it is a semi-autobiographical film about a director trying to make a semi-autobiographical film while simultaneously destroying every accepted rule of structure and style up to that point.

With certain directors (Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch, etc.) it’s impossible to take any one film of their library as a completely separate entity and not as part of their entire canon. I’ve reviewed three films (including 8 1/2) from Fellini’s library now. I have also written about 1954’s La Strada and 1969’s Fellini Satyricon which places 8 1/2 more in the art-house category of Satyricon than the neo-realism of La Strada. While I haven’t seen La Dolce Vita, it was the last full-length film that Fellini wrote and directed before 8 1/2, and in many ways, 8 1/2 is Fellini attempting to follow-up his most commercially and critically successful film yet, failing to do so, and ultimately realizing that he could make a metatextual commentary on the creative process of delivering a follow-up to a rapturously beloved film. The fact that Fellini turned this head-spinning tale of his own attempts to make the movie he’s currently working on into a psychological study of his relationship with women adds the substance that would be missing if Fellini were simply chronicling his own writers block (in an admittedly clever, “meta” way). . This was one of Fellini’s first real art-house films and while it doesn’t totally embrace the surrealism of Fellini Satyricon, Fellnii still masterfully fuses the dreamlike and the real (often in the course of one scene) in what can only be deemed a technically masterful cinematic accomplishment.

In the entire time I’ve ran this blog, I’ve never been so at a loss for how to describe a film on its artistic or technical merits. I finished watching it over four hours ago and I still find new things to mull over in my mind. I’ll recall an overt religious or sexual symbol in a scene that only really clicked when the reason for its import was revealed later in the film. I’ll realize that something happening in one scene probably wasn’t really occurring and was part of one of Guido’s fantasies. I’ll mentally click that the artificial and overtly theatrical nature of early scenes was part of Fellini’s overall commentary on the film-making process. There is so much to talk about in this movie that I desperately crave a dialogue with another person to truly engage with the material. I know that I enjoy the postmodern, dreamlike quality of the film, and I can articulate why I think that makes Fellini such an ambitious and artistically significant (and immensely influential) director, and while those sort of statements are pat enough praise for a lesser film, 8 1/2 deserves an almost academic level of analysis and I don’t see how I can deliver that in this post.

Regardless, this is the format I have and I’ll try to stick to the avenues of praise that I know. Marcello Mastroianni is essentially playing an idealized and semi-fictional version of Federico Fellini himself, and while I don’t know much about Fellini’s personal life other than he married La Strada star Giuiletta Massina and she was to him what Liv Ullmann was to Ingmar Bergman, I can tell you that Marcelo Mastroianni fully inhabited the deeply sexual and ultimately confused hedonist, artist, and lover that was Guido Anselmi. Guido is a slightly pathetic man, unable to make any real decisions over the course of the film, and Mastroianni shows the way he’s being torn apart at the seams in intimate detail. Yet, he’s also a man capable of so much life and passion, and through Guido’s fantasies and his (more rare) happier moments with the women around him (such as his muse Claudia [the breathtaking Claudia Cardinale]), Mastroianni has a chance to explore one of the most dynamic characters of Fellini’s career. Anouk Aimee gave the most impressive performance of the film though as Guido’s long suffering wife Luisa. It’s ironic because I felt the exact same way about the terrible, terrible, terrible musical remake of the film, Nine, where Marion Cotillard (playing Anouk’s character) was the film’s sole saving grace. For a character that was as much caricature as a fully-formed creation in her own right, Anouk Aimee breathed a fire that only a woman scorned can deliver.

Because I feel so ill-equipped to eve discuss this film in a worthwhile manner until I’ve had the chance to discuss it with someone else, let me just state that for a movie that is nearing its 50th anniversary (next year), it’s aged remarkably well. The black-and-white cinematography is as striking in this film as it was in La Strada, and Fellini’s visual flair is really matched only by Bergman, Kurosawa, and Malick. There’s a reason why this film is viewing 101 for every film student in the country, and as someone who regularly bemoans the over-rated status of many “classic” dramas (i.e. dramas before the mid 60s when films were too idealistic and romantic for my tastes), this film hasn’t lost an ounce of its magic even if its inspired an endless stream of less creative imitators. I mentioned that the film was remade into the absolutely terrible, soulless film Nine earlier, and my undying hatred for that film couldn’t even stop me from appreciating how brilliant Fellini’s form is in this picture. It took me about halfway through the film before Fellini’s goal became clear (and I’m sure this film will require several more viewings to fully appreciate), but once I realized what Fellini was trying to accomplish and once the barrier between reality and fantasy in the film became even more thin, it was a non-stop voyeuristic ride into the psychology and creativity of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. If you like foreign cinema or truly challenging (but ultimately rewarding) film, 8 1/2 is required viewing.

Final Score: A+