THE AUTHOR

Ian Casselberry is a freelance writer, currently based in Asheville, NC.

He is a columnist for Bloguin's The Outside Corner. Previously, he was a MLB lead writer for Bleacher Report, and has been a contributing writer for Yahoo! Sports' Big League Stew, SB Nation and MLive.com. 

You can also find him on the Twitter and the Facebook, where he craves your attention.

Someday, he'll get around to writing that novel.

("Pearls Before Swine" © 2005 Stephan Pastis)
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Entries in movie reviews (13)

Wednesday
Aug142013

Movie review: Elysium

What's amazing about Elysium is the world that director Neill Blomkamp has created for his story.

(Perhaps you've seen this referred to as "worldbuilding" in various reviews and commentary on the film. I don't often use such fancy words. Unless I think of them first.) 

The special effects in this movie are truly impressive. As far as computer-generated images have come, there are still far too many instances in which it's clear that the actor and the monster or superhero or flying object don't really occupy the same space.

Sometimes, the pixels are just a little too apparent. Often, there's a "weightlessness" to the effects. You can just tell that's not really a human being jumping or a car crashing to the pavement. 

That is most certainly not the case in Elysium. The shuttles and robot police officers look incredibly real, much like the prawns in his Blomkamp's first film, District 9. I was surprised at myself for how impressed I was simply by a shuttle car lifting up off the ground and moving through air space. Everything — the light reflecting off the surface, the dirt and corrosion, the exhaust it emitted — looked much like a car you'd see on the road next to you.

Now maybe there was a real shuttle car and it was lifted in the air by a crane, and I'm just a goober too easily impressed by shiny, flying things. But this has been a summer in which we've seen a lot of shit flying around and being torn down at the movies. So is it a surprise that a quieter CGI moment got my attention? 

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The appeal of Elysium lies in its premise. Science fiction at its best provides an allegory for the current culture in which it's created, and that definitely applies here. Blomkamp isn't subtle — at all — about where our contemporary debates over immigration, health care and the economy could take our society. 

Earth — almost entirely represented by Los Angeles here — has basically been reduced to a global shanty town 150 years in the future. The working class — the 99 percent, if you will — is living in slums, all of our natural resources apparently wrung dry.

Meanwhile, the elite class — the one percenters — lives high above, looking down upon us from a giant space station in which the perfect conditions have been created. The skies are blue, the air is clear, the grass is green, and most importantly for the purposes of our story, everyone on Elysium has a miracle atomizing machine that wipes out any form of disease or injury that a person might have. 

Cancer? Forget about it. Broken arm? Ain't broken no more. Face blown off by a grenade? This machine will take care of that (which the movie shows us in impressively gruesome detail). 

But eventually Elysium does have to build a story around this setting. The plot is simple enough. Matt Damon's Max is someone who's aspired to live the good life above ever since he was a kid, but circumstances have (literally) kept him down. Stealing cars is no way to live in space, son.

So Max lives in a shack and works in a factory, helping assemble the robots that keep the scourge of humanity in check. That is, until he gets radiation poisoning — the kind of poisoning that one of those fancy-dance machines on Elysium would wipe out. 

Here's where the action kicks in. You've seen the images of Damon getting an exoskeleton screwed onto his body (and into the back of his head), which will presumably give Max the strength and power needed to bull his way to the space station.

Yet if the radiation poisoning doesn't kill Max, infection probably will. At least that's what I kept thinking as the movie progressed. This understandably isn't addressed in the film — because there's shit to blow up real nice and pretty — but the stitches and bolts used to make Max a cyborg aren't exactly installed in the most sterile environment. I kept imagining pus would be a factor later in the movie. Thankfully, it wasn't. 

Once Damon straps on that exoskeleton, however, Elysium abandons any pretense of being some sci-fi think piece and jumps straight into action-movie territory. And Blomkamp gives his characters some cool toys to play with, such as exploding bullets that detonate before impact and laser shields that can block those explosions as well as any other threatening projectiles. 

The action gives us probably the most enjoyable part of the story, which is Sharlto Copley's batshit crazy operative, Kruger.

Kruger has all sorts of metal implants throughout his body that allow him to add various weaponry. We don't necessarily see those weapon ports used, but they convey the impression that this is a guy who long ago turned himself completely over to his shadow military service. He doesn't have a purpose unless he's being asked to kill people or blow shit up real good. 

Copley's South African accent serves him well here, as he gets more difficult to understand while becoming more angry and frenzied. It actually makes him sound, well, insane at times. (Unfortunately, Copley is also saddled with some of the script's worst dialogue, such as "I was gonna heal your daughter, but now I'll see to it that she's never healed!" The accent doesn't help there.)

But it's also apparent that he's having a total blast, maybe the one guy in the movie who's really having fun. Somebody make Copley a Die Hard villain. Except please don't make another Die Hard movie. Maybe he can be a James Bond adversary instead. He'd certainly be a strong physical match for Daniel Craig. I'm digressing.

So maybe you noticed that I'm nearly 1,000 words into this review (thank you for reading this far) and I haven't yet mentioned Jodie Foster. Isn't she a co-star in Elysium, getting billing right alongside Damon? Yep. But she's terribly underused here and, I dare say, probably also miscast.

Foster's character, Delacourt, is Elysium's secretary of defense, holding the line against any dirty, filthy Earth residents who want to get to the space station (and those sweet healing machines). She's like an anti-immigration politician who wants to build a wall on the border or would just prefer to shoot those grubby moochers down. 

Besides the fact that Foster simply isn't in the movie for very long, another curious thing about her character is that she has an accent for no really discernable reason. The accent is hard to peg as well, though I've read that it's supposed to be French. I guess the idea is to make Elysium and its government seem worldly and multi-cultural. But why not just cast an actress with an actual foreign accent?

I get that Delacourt is meant to be a ballbuster, someone who can stand up to a president, defy him and tell him how things are really going to run. Foster certainly carries that sort of presence. But couldn't Emma Thompson have done this also? What about an actual French actress? Or do Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard or Julie Delpy not bring enough star power? 

Besides, I'm mostly disappointed that Foster is basically wasted in this movie. The same goes for William Fichtner, one of our great character actors. He, too, is also saddled with a strange accent and isn't in this movie nearly long enough. 

But ultimately, the disappointment is that Elysium doesn't have the story to go with its compelling premise. There are too many elements shoehorned into this movie, making it less focused and character-driven than District 9. Maybe it's not fair to compare Blomkamp's two films, but with a larger budget and big stars in his cast, he didn't make a better movie. 

Regardless, I'm looking forward to what Blomkamp does next. There aren't enough filmmakers creating original sci-fi films out there. It would be fascinating to see what he could do with something like a Star Wars sequel, but there are enough sequels and comic-book adaptations out there already. Even if this experiment didn't fully pay off, it's gratifying to see Blomkamp get to try. 

Monday
Jun242013

Movie review: World War Z

I wasn't terribly excited about World War Z when I heard it was being made. I didn't read the book, for one thing. (Apparently, I didn't have to.) And though I like Brad Pitt, he's not a must-see actor for me. (In other words, he's no George Clooney.) 

But did we really need to see more zombies on the screen? The Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead (I'm thinking more of the Zack Snyder version), Zombieland and the 28 Days Later movies seemed to have covered that territory rather thoroughly. 

Would World War Z have anything new to say? Would this movie's take on zombies seem fresh? Snyder's Dawn of the Dead and Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later took the innovative step of making zombies move faster. These zombies could run after you. These weren't shambling piles of brain-hungry decay that gave you a chance to get away, as in George Romero's films.

Well, I don't know if World War Z added anything new to pop culture's zombie mythology. I'm two seasons behind on The Walking Dead and didn't see Zombieland or the sequel to 28 Days Later, titled 28 Weeks Later. So maybe there are some new angles to zombie stories that I haven't seen. (And I haven't even mentioned video games.) 

What I do know is that I really enjoyed Brad Pitt's zombie flick.

This is a tense, scary movie that keeps you riveted. Yes, director Marc Forster resorts to a couple of cheap jump scares. (And yes, I jumped. Hey, I was watching the movie in 3D!) But they wouldn't be nearly as effective if he hadn't created a setting in which the characters really don't know where the next threat is coming from. 

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The scenes in which we first see the zombie outbreak developing around Pitt's character, Gerry Lane, and his family in Philadelphia are incredible. There's mass panic in the streets, but we don't quite know why. (Well, of course we know, but we can't see why.)

Somewhere among the terrified crowds of people are the zombies. But where are they among the people? The threats don't stand out mixed in with a stampede of citizenry. Then eventually, the frenzy clears a bit and we see what Lane sees. Some of those people are attacking other people, chasing after them with ferocity and biting them. 

It's different from what we've seen in zombie movies before. This isn't a lone figure walking down a deserted, demolished post-apocalyptic city street. There isn't a slow-moving mass of monsters moving toward its next victims. It's total chaos, fueled by perhaps the most feral, animalistic zombies shown to us on screen. 

The movie doesn't really slow down from there, though there are obviously some scenes of exposition that explain to us (and Lane) just what the hell is going on. Things are probably slowest at the very beginning, when we see Lane's seemingly tranquil family life. Here's a guy who really did leave his job (with the United Nations) to spend more time with his family.

But the story moves along pretty fast after that initial outbreak in Philadelphia. Lane and his family are taken to an aircraft carrier for safekeeping, thanks to connections at the U.N. The military essentially blackmails Lane into aiding their efforts to find the source of the epidemic — and presumably a cure — and we're off to South Korea. Then Israel. And finally to the U.K. 

What's interesting is that the final confrontation between humans and zombies in this movie is rather quiet. World War Z is being sold on the imagery of zombies swarming and climbing on top of each other like ants, coming at their victims in waves. They're the unstoppable force. Yet salvation might be found through intelligence and experimentation, rather than putting an axe through a zombie's forehead.

Lane doesn't become an action hero with a chainsaw strapped to one arm and a rocket launcher to the other. (Though he does duct-tape a knife to a rifle at one point.) He does have his bad-ass moments, whacking zombies with a crowbar and chopping off someone's hand to make sure the zombie infection doesn't spread.

But our hero ultimately doesn't use a weapon (at least not in the traditional sense) to gain an advantage over the enemy. And it all works, because both Pitt and Forster (along with screenwriters Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof) have amped up the tension. 

(Evidently, the original ending was a blockbuster battle in Russia. I doubt we'll ever get to see that climactic confrontation, which was actually filmed but cut. That's why Matthew Fox is listed fourth in the final credits, yet seen in the movie for only about 30 seconds. Maybe in an anniversary Blu-Ray someday.) 

Forster was one of my biggest question marks about this movie. I've enjoyed some of his previous work, such as Monster's BallFinding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction. (Actually, I love Stranger Than Fiction.)

But some guys are better suited for smaller, more intimate films rather than blockbusters. Forster's one attempt at a big action movie — the second Daniel Craig James Bond film, Quantum of Solace — was really kind of a mess. There were some great looking sequences and memorable shots, but the whole thing just didn't hold together very well. 

Apparently, however, Quantum of Solace's issues were tied to the Hollywood writers' strike, leaving Craig and Forster to write parts of the movie themselves on set. But with reports of major problems during the World War Z production — rewrites, reshoots, Forster and Pitt allegedly not speaking to each other — it looked like Forster was in for another misfire. (Calling it a "disaster" seems harsh.) 

Stories of the massive overhaul World War Z underwent makes for fascinating reading, especially if you're a film and screenwriting buff. It's possible that such behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt could be more entertaining than the movie itself. 

Because of that off-screen drama, it felt like critics had their knives out, ready to slice World War Z to shreds. How could the movie not stink if the script and production needed so much work? Was this going to be 2013's John Carter, which never recovered from all of the pre-release negative press and was deemed a flop before anyone had actually seen the film? 

Fortunately, all of the repair work done on the film paid off. This is actually one of the pleasant surprises of the summer so far. With Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel all having some problems and disappointments, World War Z looks like the one blockbuster that may have exceeded expectations. 

Thursday
Jun202013

Movie review: Man of Steel 

Typically, my biggest fear with a movie like Man of Steel is that I've anticipated it so much and for so long that I'm bound to set myself up for disappointment. 

But the newest Superman movie definitely lives up to expectations. All the cool visual spectacles weren't used in the trailers. (Although maybe most of the good emotional scenes were already shown.) There are certainly some surprises. If there's one thing director Zack Snyder can do, it's create some memorable, beautiful shots. 

Yet I don't think the story flowed as smoothly as it could have. It wasn't because of frequent flashbacks and bouncing from the present to the past. But it felt like Snyder and screenwriter David Goyer just wanted to bull through the origin story so we could get to Superman (Henry Cavill) flying and trading punches with equally superpowered villains. 

However, I liked the choice not to tell a straightforward story and cover familiar territory. 

We know Clark Kent left Smallville for Metropolis and eventually became Superman. But what happened in between the small town and the big city? Like Batman Begins, this is the story that largely hasn't been told.

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What may be most surprising is that Man of Steel is a science fiction tale more than a superhero fable. But how can it not be when you're telling a story about an alien? The beginning of the film that takes place on Superman's home planet of Krypton is not a prologue. It's a significant part of the story because it fuels so much of what comes afterwards.

Though a Superman movie obviously can't be realistic, he can be made to seem plausible. The Krypton part of the story is meant to explain why Superman wears his costume. The "S" on the suit's chest is supposed to be a symbol of hope. Superman's natural father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), envisions his son being an inspirational figure for the people of Earth.

But depicting an otherworldly culture doesn't just demonstrate that Superman is an alien. It informs the worldview of the movie's villain, General Zod (Michael Shannon), making him more than a mustache-twisting megalomaniac. This is a man who's lost his home, his way of life, and wants to recreate it on Earth. 

Zod doesn't just challenge Superman physically, resulting in the best superhero fights we've ever seen on screen. (No one is ever again going to complain, as with Superman Returns, that Superman doesn't throw a punch.) But he also challenges the hero's values, leading to a painful decision later in the movie.

The choice Superman makes is impossible to fully discuss without giving away a major spoiler in the story. But it's a shocking moment because it's so unlike what we believe this character — the big blue boy scout — would do.

Superman is always supposed to do the right thing. This violated his moral code, the pledge he presumably took when deciding to use his abilities for good and set an example for the world to follow. 

Was it out of character? The reflexive impulse is to say yes. Yet I enjoyed the willingness of Snyder and Goyer (along with producer Christopher Nolan) to try something daring. So many people say what Superman is supposed to stand for, yet also lament that the character is boring. He's too powerful. He's too good. There's nothing bold or edgy about him. 

My friend Joe Lunday believes that the challenge of superhero storytelling is telling new stories within the framework and mythology that already exists. Generally, I agree with that. But Snyder and Goyer are trying to create a new framework, a new mythology. What is out of character if that character hasn't been fully formed yet? 

Did the filmmakers go too far in trying to establish that this isn't the Superman you know? Maybe. At times, I thought this was a surprisingly cynical movie. 

Superman's adopted father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), doesn't believe that people will embrace an alien being with extraterrestrial abilities. They will fear what they don't understand. They won't trust something more powerful. And thus, people can't really be trusted.

For most of the movie, the people that Clark encounters prove Jonathan right. They pick on Clark for being different, for turning the other cheek rather than engage. Do we even deserve a hero like Superman? At times, it felt like that was the question the movie was asking. 

When Clark finally meets an apparition of Jor-El, and Superman's absentee father tells him why he was sent to Earth and what purpose he needs to serve, I almost expected our hero to say, "But Dad, these people are the worst."

This cynicism is pushed to extremes throughout the story. As shown in the first full trailer, Jonathan admonishes Clark for lifting a school bus out of the water and saving his classmates, putting himself at risk of revealing his secret. When Clark asks if he was supposed to let those people die, his father replies, "Maybe." 

It's a rather jolting stance for the character that has always influenced Superman's moral view.

While that seemed like a refreshing change to the Superman origin, this philosophy gets taken even further later in the film. One of the more important moments in the story occurs when Jonathan refuses to yield at a great personal cost. It felt like an attempt to burden Clark with a Spider-Man type of pathos. If you don't act, bad things will happen. 

It's difficult to imagine that Clark wouldn't have taken action in this scenario, and it's one of at least two crucial character choices that have outraged hardcore Superman fans — and apparently film critics as well. 

But I'm going to argue that if Snyder and Goyer walked down the same path that so many other comic book, novel and screen writers have already traveled, Man of Steel would've been heavily criticized for that too.

Haven't we already seen this story? Tell something new! This is why Superman is boring!

Well, we got something new and I admired the effort. Besides, who's to say that this version of Superman won't eventually become something closer to what we're accustomed to? Maybe the choices that he's faced with and the decisions that he makes in this story end up forming the morality that we associate with the character. 

What about the amount of carnage and destruction leveled on Smallville and Metropolis during the superpowered battles between Superman and his opponents?

I can't say that it didn't bother me at least a little bit. Nearly 20 years ago, I was troubled by the amount of destruction seen in Superman: The Animated Series, in which Superman would punch villains through buildings and demolish them, yet not seem terribly concerned about people getting hurt. 

But maybe this also helps build Superman's belief system. He sees the damage that occurs when his powers are fully unleashed. This is a story point that could be used in future movies. Imagine Lex Luthor using Metropolis' destruction to turn public favor against Superman and create the fear and paranoia that Jonathan Kent dreaded. 

However, we can only speculate about what might be. The movie at hand is what has to be judged. Man of Steel should stand on its own. Maybe it ultimately doesn't because it's clearly the beginning of Superman's story. This Clark Kent didn't know who he was, nor what he had to do. He was burdened with self-doubt. 

I think a foundation had to be built, a modern take on the character had to be established. Though a phrase like this tends to make my eyes roll, this really is a redefining of an icon for a new audience. This Superman is more fallible, he's more human. He's not the embodiment of an ideal. At least not yet. 

Now that Snyder and Goyer are freed from that responsibility, the next Superman movie these guys make will be the best one we've ever seen.

Friday
Apr122013

Movie review: 42

In getting back to blogging here, I wanted to write some movie reviews again.

The good news is that I wrote one. The bad news (well, not really) is that my review for the new Jackie Robinson movie, 42, is at my new baseball writing home, The Outside Corner

We do get an idea of what made Robinson special, how he was able to keep a stiff upper lip and reign in his emotions in the face of horrifying racial prejudice and hatred. The movie would be an utter failure otherwise. (Just in case you don't comprehend when Robinson might be viewed as heroic, the camera tilted upward at him and the swelling strings of the musical score lets you know.)  

Much of the credit for that should go to Chadwick Boseman, who portrays Robinson. I had never seen him in anything else before, but after this performance, we'll surely be seeing more of him on the big and small screens. Boseman's Robinson comes across as defiant, stoic, quietly angry and, perhaps most importantly, charismatic. 

I love when two things I love collide, so it was fun to write about a baseball movie at my new gig. Otherwise, I probably would've written a review here, but it was nice to go to a movie "for work" last night. 

Overall, I wouldn't call 42 a great movie, but it's a good one. I'll always wonder what Spike Lee's Robinson biopic (starring Denzel Washington) would've been like. However, I'm glad to see Robinson's story portrayed on screen, even if it left me wanting more. 

Thursday
Feb022012

Movie review: The Grey

If I was a filmmaker, I imagine it would drive me crazy if the marketing for one of my movies misled audiences, with trailers and TV ads giving people the impression they might be seeing something different from what was actually made.

So when The Grey was being sold as a man vs. animal, man vs. nature drama, I wonder if Joe Carnahan was grinding his teeth a bit. Maybe not, because this movie is indeed about those conflicts. (Plus, it finished No. 1 at the box office last weekend, so he's probably cool with it all.) The characters battle sub-zero temperatures, roaring winds and thigh-high snow. And then, there are those big, bad wolves, ready to tear up some people for meal and sport.

But maybe you've also been reading that The Grey goes a bit deeper than that. This gets downright existential.

Working on an oil pipeline in remote Alaska, marooned from family and friends, with getting drunk at the on-site bar the only means of recreation, would probably push anyone to the brink of insanity. But Liam Neeson's character, Ottway, is on the brink of something else when we first see him. He's deeply unhappy, presumably over missing his wife.

We don't know why the two are apart. Did she not like him leaving for Alaska and being gone for who knows how long? Did he go to Alaska because his life had fallen apart back home? Is he the detached, aloof sort of personality that's better suited to solitude? Just a man and his rifle, off in the distance, deriving some sense of purpose out of picking off the wolves that might attack the pipeline workers?

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Ottway seems to find another purpose after the plane carrying him and his colleagues crashes onto an isolated arctic tundra with nothing around but snow, more snow and at least half a dozen hungry wolves. He wants to survive, and help as many fellow castaways as he can.

That help doesn't always exclusively apply to survival, either. In one of the film's more memorable scenes, Ottway helps comfort someone who is near death, making sure he's not alone and thinks about what's meaningful to him in his final moments.

But what makes The Grey truly compelling is that it questions the very nature of survival.

What is it about your life that makes it worth living? Is it the people you love? Is it the sense that you haven't accomplished everything you've wanted to? Is it the fear of death? Is it simply ego? And just how hard are you willing to fight for those things when circumstances push you to your absolute limit? Faced with an uncertain outcome and seemingly insurmountable adversity, would you just give up? Or would you take the struggle head-on, even to the very end?

Even more intriguing to me was that the movie is willing to challenge the concept of faith. As one of the character says, why would God — if there is one — allow these people to survive the plane crash, only to then let them die in the wilderness? How important is faith? And does it have to be earned, rather than just accepted? 

Of course, you can't really sell any of that in a trailer or commercial. Action and suspense is what's going to bring the people to the theater. But The Grey provides plenty of those things, too. It's not entirely ponderous and philosophical.The characters don't sit around and talk about this stuff through the whole movie. It's actually more up to the viewer to ponder these questions as they're watching, leaving the theater, or writing blog posts.)

It's just gratifying to have those sorts of themes weaved in with the main narrative. And as strange as this might sound, I was happy for Carnahan for getting to make a movie like this. In someone else's hands, this might have been all about man vs. wolf or some kind of survivalist porn, especially as Neeson has developed into an unlikely action hero late in his career.

Carnahan looked like a very promising director after Narc, but maybe the system beat him down a bit as he tried to get movies like White Jazz and Killing Pablo made. Instead, he had to make overly stylish crime movies like Smokin' Aces or messy attempts at blockbusters like The A-Team just to stay afloat. 

Of course, it's entirely possible that those projects scratched a creative itch and made him a better director. Perhaps The Grey is the result of that. I hope so, because I'm eager to see what he does next. (Reports have him doing a remake of Death Wish.) Maybe he'll have to alternate films he wants to do with films he has to do. But it's becoming increasingly clear which of those movies are better.  

Tuesday
Jan312012

Movie review: The Artist

I doubt I'm going to see all nine Best Picture nominees before the Oscars broadcast on Feb. 26. But of the six I hadn't seen previously, The Artist was the one I wanted to see the most. 

Maybe it's buying into the hype, but there's been so much talk about this movie from film festivals (including Asheville's) and year-end best-of lists that I figured I'd see it at some point. Of course, the idea of a modern black-and-white silent film getting so much acclaim was also intriguing. But was this a gimmick meant to stoke feelings of nostalgia among moviemakers? Or is The Artist actually a really good film?

At the risk of a cop-out answer, I think it's both. 

It's impossible not to be charmed by this movie. Everyone on screen seems to be having a great time. No one more than John Goodman, who really seems to relish overacting with his facial expressions and pantomimes. You don't even need the title card to know what he's saying.

Jean Dujardin captures the smiling, preening, swashbuckling, high-wattage style of the old-style movie actors. It's not at all hard to buy that his George Valentin is the kind of matinee idol that women want to be with and men want to be. With a thin mustache and hair slicked back by pomade, he's dashing in romances and rugged in adventures. 

Berenice Bejo plays exactly the sort of spunky gal that typified stars of the era, beautiful enough to make anyone turn and look at her, but ready to shake off that coat so she can dance. She's no China doll, Mister! Even her name, Peppy Miller, has moxie. ("The name's Miller! Peppy Miller!") 

And then there's the dog, Uggie. You will love that dog. 

Perhaps you could say the movie is about the constantly changing nature of art. What was popular and successful in one era becomes obsolete as technology and cultural tastes move on. Adapt or die. I think The Artist wants to believe this is what it's really about. 

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Dujardin is a star in silent movies, but with the advent of sound, "talkies" are the new rage and he's quickly seen as a dinosaur. Yet he still has major film ambitions — Get it? He's an artist! — and funds a tragic war epic with his own money. There's really no reason why he couldn't still be a star in movies with sound, though perhaps we learn why eventually. 

What he seemingly needs to do, above all else, is get over himself and realize that the movie industry is bigger than him, that the newest star is a flashy audition and discovery away from taking over the marquee. Or maybe he just needs the nurturing love of a good woman.

By the time the credits roll, you just feel good having watched The Artist. And I think that's what people are responding to, more than anything else. Do you have the feeling that you saw something "great"? No, but you have a smile on your face and maybe you want to do a tap dance in the lobby afterwards. That's what the movies used to make us feel before they got so damn serious. Or stupid. 

The AV Club's Nathan Rabin also astutely points out that The Artist doesn't have anything that would automatically raise a red flag as to why it would never win Best Picture. There's no unlikable lead character. It doesn't play loose with the facts. Nor is it a genre film. There's nothing at all challenging about this movie. So that's probably exactly why it will win the big prize. 

And in a way, that will probably be unfair. The Artist is the kind of movie that will probably win Best Picture, yet we'll look back in five to 10 years and wonder why the more "important" film didn't win. The Oscars do this all the time.

Yet I don't think the filmmakers ever had Oscar ambitions with this. (That could be incredibly naive of me, given Harvey Weinstein's involvement.) It's not Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or War Horse. It's just a film that was fun and utterly charming — while harkening back to a simpler, more innocent era — at the right time. 

In my opinion, The Descendants is a better movie and should win the Best Picture Oscar. But I wouldn't have a big problem with The Artist winning, either. There's nothing not to like about it. 

Tuesday
Jan102012

Late review: Moneyball

I'm still trying to investigate the circumstances that brought this about, but for some reason, I did not see Moneyball when it was released in theaters last September.

For one thing, blogging about the Detroit Tigers' playoff run and baseball pennant chases, along with following Michigan football, soaked up a lot of time. And I was usually too wiped out, even to go to the movies, when I did have some free time. 

But by the time the movie actually came out, I think I was also suffering from Moneyball fatigue.

I love baseball. I love movies. A lot of my online time is spent reading blogs, reviews and features on both subjects. Moneyball crossed between both worlds, so there wasn't really an escape. The movie bloggers and film critics I enjoy wrote about it. All of the baseball scribes and sportswriters I follow chimed in with their recollections of actual events and reviews of the film. 

So as much as I wanted to see the movie (and sort of felt I had to, as a baseball blogger), and as much as I wanted to be part of the discussion at the time, I also wanted some distance from it. Maybe I'd go to the theater after the hype had died down a bit. 

Unfortunately, I waited too long. But thanks to a second-run theater in Asheville, I was able to see Moneyball just after Christmas. To me, the timing on this felt perfect. Baseball season had been done for two months, so the appetite was there. Seeing it in September might not have made a difference, but it was nice to have a baseball movie when the real thing was in hibernation. 

The question with Moneyball was how a book largely about exploiting market inefficiencies to compete with big-revenue baseball teams could be adapted into a cinematic story. But Michael Lewis' book centered on Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane to put a face on the story. Bennett Miller's movie (and the script by Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin) take that even further, making this Beane's story almost entirely, following a man fighting the establishment and an industry that's been calcified in conventional thought. 

Brad Pitt is well cast as Beane, someone who can make things happen with his charisma and the force of his personality. Yet he also has an edge to him that suggests he's not truly happy with how his job is going and yearns for a breakthrough that will help him gain a foothold in baseball.

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He finds that breakthrough in Peter Brand, who opens Beane's eyes to the deeper statistical side of baseball and is thrilled to have someone believe in him enough to put his theories into practice. Jonah Hill does a great job of portraying kind of a shy genius who gains confidence in himself as the story progresses. But what makes his story especially compelling is that Beane shows him that dealing with people is an important side of running a baseball team, as well. 

One of the frequent failures of sports movies is that they fail the eye test. Fans who watch the games can tell when an actor's swing looks slow and isn't smooth. When a throw from a quarterback to a receiver doesn't look authentic (and is obviously aided by cuts and camera tricks), it's hard to get past that. Well, at least for me.

Moneyball doesn't have that problem because most of the action (so to speak) takes place off the field. The story follows how Beane and Brand seek out undervalued players based on how much they get on base, how the two build their baseball team out of so-called scrap parts, and how they stick to their convictions in the face of everyone telling you them wrong because they're not doing it the way it's always been done. 

When on-field action comes into play, Miller uses actual game footage for most of the play, rather than have his actors try to simulate what actually happened. Which is a smart move. But when the drama needs to be amped up, he closes in on his actors, particularly Chris Pratt, who plays Scott Hatteberg, kind of the embodiment of the Beane-Brand philosophy.

Hatteberg was a washed-up catcher who appeared to be on his way out of baseball. But he could get on base. Signing him to play first base was a whole lot cheaper for a team like Oakland.

No, Hatteberg didn't have the power and flashy numbers that the departed Jason Giambi took with him to the New York Yankees. But with his talent for taking lots of pitches until he got the one he could hit hard, he could help replace that missing production — and at a far greater value. 

Much like Brand as portrayed by Hill, Pratt shows us someone on the player side who worries that he's being asked to do something that he might not be capable of, but finds his footing as the team shows confidence in him. Eventually, it all comes together and the affirmation that comes with that is sweet.

Some have criticized Moneyball for fudging and glossing over some details. For instance, "Peter Brand" is a fictionalized version of Paul DePodesta, who disagreed with his portrayal in the script. (And though he says otherwise, maybe he wasn't too thrilled about a pre-svelte Jonah Hill playing him.)

Additionally, the 2002 A's weren't entirely a rag-tag collection of cast-offs. They had a formidable pitching staff that included Barry Zito, who won 23 games and the American League Cy Young Award. Shortstop Miguel Tejada won the AL Most Valuable Player award after hitting 34 home runs and driving in 131 runs. Other players who made major contributions — such as Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder — are barely mentioned.

Young first baseman Carlos Pena wasn't traded to the Tigers as easily and for as little as is portrayed in the film. (My moviegoing companion demonstrated great patience in trying to watch the film while I often leaned over and whispered, "It didn't really happen that way.")

Yet the film sells it. The trade looks convincing, mostly because it's the culmination of the conflict between Beane and field manager Art Howe, who steadfastly refuses to indulge an experiment that will presumably cost the team wins and reflect poorly on him. 

The same goes for the overall movie. The small details may not be quite correct, but those have little to do with telling this story. And it's a story of affirmation and redemption that anyone — baseball fan or otherwise — will likely find compelling. 

One last thing: Moneyball had its own behind-the-scenes drama as Steven Soderbergh was originally set to shoot this movie, only to have Sony shut down production once they discovered that Soderbergh had made changes to the script and intended to make more of a documentary-style film with the real figures portraying themselves.. As a huge Soderbergh fan, part of me will always want to see that movie. Including the footage he shot on the Blu-Ray would've been one hell of a special feature.

I was ready to dislike this movie because the decision was made to go in a more conventional direction (canning one of my favorite directors in the process). But in the end, maybe the right decision was made. And maybe Miller ended up making a better movie, regardless of how closely it stuck to actual events.

Friday
Dec302011

Movie review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

My friend A. has been on me for years to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, along with the other two books in Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy. But in typical fashion for me, I never got around to them, despite owning the first two books. (This should be a entire blog entry on its own, but I've had trouble reading fiction over the last five years or so. It's a problem I'm working on.)

I've also never watched the Swedish film adaptations of the "Dragon Tattoo" books. Although I'm familiar enough with Noomi Rapace's portrayal of the title character to know why she's suddenly appearing in blockbuster American films. And I recognized the actor who played Mikael Blomkvist, the story's other protagonist, in the new "Mission: Impossible" movie. 

At various points throughout this year, I intended to read the books and/or watch the Swedish films before seeing David Fincher's American version. Adaptations are kind of a pet fascination of mine, and I'm very curious how the material is approached differently. But I continued to procrastinate (i.e., goof around online, watch TV and read other — nonfiction — books), leaving myself little time to check out the source material. 

All of this is a long way of telling you that I went into this movie fresh, as Frank Costanza would say. I had no idea if Fincher (and screenwriter Steve Zallian) were faithful to the book. I had no opinion on whether or not the Swedish movies were better. I couldn't tell you if Rapace is a better Lisbeth Salander than Rooney Mara. Is the tendency by Daniel Craig's Blomkvist to hang his glasses off his ear and dangle them below his jaw something from the book or a quirk Craig came up with himself? Dunno.

What I do know is that I love Fincher's movies. (Well, not all of them. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a snoozer.) And this is such a great match of filmmaker and material that it's almost like it was meant to happen.

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The story and characters are very dark, and so is this movie with its sharp blue and slight greenish tones and inky black primary colors. (And nothing is more "inky black" than the rocking title sequence. I've read several people say it could be the opening to a Bond film. I just thought it was the best music video — for Trent Reznor and Karen O's cover of "Immigrant Song" — I'd seen in a long time.) Every frame of this thing might as well have a "FINCHER" watermark on it. 

I've heard the criticism that Fincher is almost cycling through his greatest hits here, and maybe there's something to that. Obviously, you have the serial killer storyline, which echoes Seven and Zodiac. And I got a distinct Seven vibe from the guest house Blomkvist stays in, along with the library where Salander does some research. But I think that's largely a coincidence. This stands on its own among Fincher's other films.

The story takes a while to get going, and though it's nice to see the characters and their arcs get established, I felt like Blomkvist and Salander needed to team up sooner. That might be a product of the source material.

Once the two get together, the action probably does throttle down a bit as we mostly watch research through documents and photos on computer screens. But Fincher doesn't let it drag out like he did with Zodiac and "Benjamin Button." The mystery picks up momentum as they get closer to finding the killer they've been hired to discover, so it doesn't feel boring at all. 

However, the pace feels a bit off, especially because the movie keeps going after the primary plot is resolved. When it seems like the credits should roll, the story continues to resolve a subplot involving Blomkvist and his fall from journalistic grace.

I assume this is meant to establish a bridge to the subsequent stories in the trilogy. Those seem much more fun in superhero movies when Batman is handed a Joker card or Samuel L. Jackson shows up at Robert Downey Jr's house to talk about "the Avengers initiative." 

I do have one big pet peeve with the film's casting, however. Not with anyone chosen to play a particular part. All the actors are cast wonderfully. But when one relatively well-known actor stands out among lesser known castmates in a collection of suspects, it's a safe guess that the more famous guy will turn out to be more important.

As Roger Ebert once wrote, casting is never accidental. Unfortunately, it tips off the mystery quite a bit, in this case. 

But the most important casting is Mara as Salander. Again, I have no point of comparison, but I thought she did an outstanding job. Salander is all hard edges with little social tact when we first meet her. It's her armor against a world and life that's treated her poorly. (She wears a hilarious t-shirt when first meeting Blomkvist that sums up her worldview nicely.) That's forged a capacity for fierce vengeance, but also a strong sense of right and wrong I can see why she's such a popular character.

As the story progresses, and Salander takes a liking to Blomkvist — perhaps realizing that people aren't so bad or that some have been shit on too — she softens. Not a lot, but enough to notice. And you see that subtle transition in Mara's face. 

I actually wanted more of Salander in the movie. It's far more interesting when she's on screen. And I look forward to seeing her in future sequels (though I've been told that she spends a lot of time in a hospital bed later on, which sounds like a major buzzkill). 

I just hope Fincher stays along for the ride. I can't imagine these movies would be as compelling without him.