Cinema Utopia

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Review: Art School Confidential (2006)

Art School Confidential (2006)

Grade: C-

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

With Max Mingella, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent, and Anjelica Huston

Terry Zwigoff has directed several offbeat films over the years. A couple have been favorites of movie critics; one, Bad Santa, has a well deserved cult following. And I'm a huge fan of Ghost World, a movie that does that the unimaginable -- make Steve Buscemi a romantic leading man.

Art School Confidential reunites Zwigoff with the writer of Ghost World, Daniel Clowes, who first wrote both stories as graphic novels. The story centers on Jerome (Max Minghella), the would-be artist who tries while studying beside other would-be artists, under the tutelage of John Malkovich (he has a character name, but as usual with Malkovich, such specifics are beside the point).

There is enormous comedic potential in this subject matter. Gather together a bunch of young artistic loners -- the goth chick, the jock, the cynical know-it-all, the attractive girl -- plus a bunch of over-the-hill artistic loners -- Malkovich, the drugged-out alum (Jim Broadbent -- who seems to be having fun), the arrogant success. Add Zwigoff, who knows how far to push outrageous comedy, and the mix seems almost too good to be true.

Unfortunately, it is too good to be true. For whatever reason -- and I blame the script as entirely underwhelming -- this movie is just not very funny. There are a few laughs, but it seems rather empty. All of the parts are effectively done -- even Malkovich fits seamlessly into the film -- but it still feels as if its missing something. The characters are too stereotypical (even Malkovich).

Where Zwigoff found real humanity amidst the idiosyncrasies of Ghost World (aided by great performances by Buscemi, Scarlett Johansson, and Thora Birch) and the humor in the relationships between those characters, here there seems to be almost a paint-by-numbers approach. Given this, the odd murder mystery subplot, which might be charming with more compelling characters, just feels like it doesn't belong.

Skip this movie. Watch Ghost World instead. Or watch Bad Santa again.

Rated R for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Oscar Season Trailers: "Doubt"

With this post, I hope to reenergize this blog. In an attempt to post more, I plan to write shorter pieces, sometimes reviews and sometimes news. We'll see how it goes.

Recently, a new trailer was released of the upcoming film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt by John Patrick Stanley. You can view the trailer here. The Broadway production featured a Tony Award-winning performance by lead actress Cherry Jones, but all of the stage actors have been "upgraded" for this Oscar-seeking film.

I'm sad to know that Jones' well-regarded performance (which I would have liked to have seen) will not be in the film. But it's difficult to argue with the central casting of the film: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Huffman, and Amy Adams. And it is exciting to know that the film has been directed by the playwright himself.

Oscar season is almost upon us.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Live (to Tape) Reactions of the 2008 AFI Ten Top Ten List

That's right. This post was composed as the list was announced, film by film. Of course, I wasn't creative enough to actually live-blog, so this is live-to-flash-drive-and-now-to-the-blog blogging. Enjoy!

For the 11th year in a row, the American Film Institute released a poll of top movies -- this year it is the top ten movies in ten different genres.

The purpose of programs and polls like this is to create interest and stimulate discussion. Mission succeeded. Here are my comments, in real time watching the unveiling of the list.

Category #1: Animation
  • #10 Finding Nemo -- This makes sense, as it is Pixar's 2nd best movie, after Toy Story 2.
  • #9 Cinderella -- Overrated.
  • #8 Shrek -- Perhaps the place to say it: I haven't seen the list of nominees for each genre (though I know I can download it online). I wonder if sequels have been omitted from the nominees -- or at least most of them. I ask because Shrek 2 is better than the first Shrek. But if voters couldn't vote for the sequel, did they add prestige to the franchise-beginning movie?
  • #7 Beauty and the Beast -- Underrated. Underrated!!!!!! My #1 (though I'll concede Snow White, even though I think it's #2) does not deserve to be #7 -- period. Some people have no appreciation for animation as art; if they did, they would recognize the beauty, as well as the nearly perfect story and superb music, of this film.
  • #6 Toy Story -- Important because of its status as the first feature-length computer-animated film. But not even the best Toy Story -- Toy Story 2 is superior in every way (and coincidentally is still Pixar's best film) -- hard to believe that it was initially planned as a direct-to-video release.
  • #5 Fantasia -- It had to make the top ten. Amazing, though misguided, effort. Of course, it might not be as misguided as Disney's rather ludicrous attempt to interest people in seeing Fantasia 2000.
  • #4 The Lion King -- Everybody liked The Lion King. I did too, but I still think it's a little overrated. I mean, Disney is credited with an original story, unlike most of the other animated films, but I'm not sure that this retelling of Hamlet really counts as an original story. But the music is pretty good, and it moves along.
  • #3 Bambi -- Most emotionally powerful of the early Disney movies. So I'd definitely have it in the top ten, just not ahead of Beauty and the Beast.
  • #2 Pinocchio -- I don't know. Great song ("When You Wish Upon a Star"); great character ("Jiminy Cricket"). I'd put it down just ahead of Shrek.
  • #1 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs -- It had to be. No self-respecting critic will put it lower than #1. As Cameron Crowe said win his interview, it is an amazing film still, with fantastic visual angles and a strong look.

What's missing? Sleeping Beauty. Walt Disney's favorite animated film (reportedly); certainly the one that he thought was his studio's masterpiece (even over Snow White). It can replace Cinderella. Frankly, it can replace almost every movie on this list.
What's also missing? As mentioned above, Toy Story 2.

Category #2: Fantasy

  • #10 Big -- OK.
  • #9 The Thief of Baghdad -- Never seen it, but from the footage, I'm sold. I know that it's often listed as one of the truly great silent films.
  • #8 Groundhog Day -- Yes.
  • #7 Harvey -- Yes again.
  • #6 Field of Dreams -- This is a sports movie. This is not a fantasy film. This is a sports movie. And it's better than I imagine at least half of the films on the sports list will be (at least). But if you have to call it a fantasy, I guess this is about right.
  • #5 Miracle on 34th Street -- Another family film. Or a great holiday film. But if those aren't possible, this is OK.
  • #4 King Kong -- YES!
  • #3 It's a Wonderful Life -- A fantasy? If you say so.
  • #2 The Lord of the Rings -- Why do three movies count as one? Were they afraid they'd take up three of the top ten spots? Not if the voters were honest -- only The Fellowship of the Ring (probably in lower top ten) and The Return of the King (top half of top ten). But if you really feel that strongly about Big...
  • #1 The Wizard of Oz -- Yes. No questions asked.

What's missing? Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The modern Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, should have made at least one appearance in the top ten, preferably this second installment of the franchise.

Category #3: Sci-Fi

  • #10 Back to the Future -- OK.
  • #9 Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- I prefer Forbidden Planet myself, though it's much cheesier. Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays the paranoia pretty straight.
  • #8 Terminator 2 -- I admit it, I've never seen any of the Terminator movies. (One of these days, I'll get around to it.) But I know how influential this movie is, so my hunch is that it is a couple of spots too low -- especially if they merge all three Star Wars movies (the real ones, not the imposters) into one spot like they did The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
  • #7 Alien -- OK.
  • #6 Blade Runner -- OK.
  • #5 The Day the Earth Stood Still -- OK, I admit. I forgot about this movie when I made my Forbidden Planet reference. But I prefer both Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers to this film.
  • #4 A Clockwork Orange -- Kubrick's best Sci-Fi movie (for those of us who think 2001 is a bloody bore) deserves a place on this list.
  • #3 E.T. The Extra-terrestrial -- Hm, not a children's film? Not a fantasy? But otherwise, I think this is the proper rank.
  • #2 Star Wars: Episode IV -- OK, so why did they put all three Lord of the Rings movies in one spot? This is the most influential Star Wars movie, so it should be at this point in the list (or #1, though I bet that's going to be The Matrix). Of course, The Empire Strikes Back is a better film, but darker and less popular.
  • #1 2001: A Space Odyssey -- Overrated! Star Wars is better, even though I know that without the fantastic special effects of 2001 Star Wars might not have been made. But I don't know anyone who can watch this movie without falling asleep. OK, so where's The Matrix?

What's missing? The Matrix. Better than, and more influential than, The Day the Earth Stood Still or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And I know the critical acclaim over the years for 2001, so I guess it should be in the top ten, but where's The Matrix?

Category #4: Sports

  • #10 Jerry Maguire -- Is this a sports movie or a romance? I think it's more of a romance myself, but okay. If it's a sports movie, I'd put it right here. As long as there's room for Hoosiers and Rudy. And Field of Dreams, though I know that won't happen.
  • #9 National Velvet -- Because when you think great sports movies, you think Elizabeth Taylor.
  • #8 Breaking Away -- Happy to see this on the list. I wouldn't expect it to make the top ten, but I'm glad it did. It's a good movie.
  • #7 Caddyshack -- And on the screen, there's the great Harold Ramis. And Bill Murray. Perfect.
  • #6 The Hustler -- Yes, yes, yes. Jackie Gleason is brilliant. And Paul Newman is OK too. Another of my favorite movies retells this story (though it's not quite a sports movie) -- The Cincinnati Kid (poker movie with Steve McQueen).
  • #5 Bull Durham -- As long as The Natural is still to come, this is OK. For a while, I thought Kevin Costner was only good in baseball movies, but that's a bit overstated. This is an unconventional sports movie, very well done, which is why it's always been rated high.
  • #4 Hoosiers -- Yes! Great performances all around; great story.
  • #3 The Pride of the Yankees -- OK. The speech -- all that need be said.
  • #2 Rocky -- Yes. I was shocked when I first saw the movie because of it's cheesy reputation. (And because I had my doubts that Sylvester Stallone could write a good screenplay.) But I was wrong. It is great -- maybe the perfect sports movie.
  • #1 Raging Bull -- I have to confess: one of the few Scorsese movies I've never seen. I'll bump it up on my list. But it's Scorsese, so I can believe it's great.

What's missing? Field of Dreams -- it's a sports movie. Otherwise, men would never have watched it. Didn't people listen to James Earl Jones' speech near the end of the movie about the centrality of baseball in American culture? But if not that -- where's The Natural? I'm serious: it's too often imitated to not be on this list.

Category #5: Westerns

  • #10 Cat Ballou -- Cat Ballou?? You've got to be kidding me. If not for Lee Marvin's great dual performance, I'm not sure it'd even be a good movie.
  • #9 Stagecoach -- Yes. Just right.
  • #8 McCabe and Mrs. Miller -- OK. The first real revisionist western (revisionist before revisionism was cool -- AKA Unforgiven).
  • #7 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Only #7? I'm not sure I would put six films ahead of this. I think of High Noon, Tombstone, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and I'm probably forgetting one. So I'd put it at #5.
  • #6 The Wild Bunch -- Now I know which movie I'm forgetting -- The Magnificent Seven. I'm wondering if military films are going to be a separate genre. Can you tell I've never seen this movie?
  • #5 Red River -- I'll be honest. This John Wayne movie kind of blurs into several other John Wayne movies in my mind. I'm watching the film clips, and I still don't really remember which ones it is. Hmm, now I wonder if The Searchers is going to make the list.
  • #4 Unforgiven -- OK. Perhaps a little overrated, but should certainly be in the top ten. It certainly is a beautiful film, a definite classic (regardless of genre).
  • #3 Shane -- Hm, which one of my suggestions won't make the top two? The perpetually underrated Tombstone, of course. But this is OK. A really unique western.
  • #2 High Noon -- I've always wondered if this is overrated or not. But I dare not watch it too often, for fear that I'll never be able to get "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling" out of my head. But certainly a no-brainer for this list.
  • #1 The Searchers -- Interesting choice for #1, I think. It's certainly a fantastic film; of course, I'd have put The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence here (which is not an anti-western, or a revisionist western, but a movie that hails the end of the westerns). But the AFI didn't ask me.

What's missing? The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Without question. I mean, Cat Ballou? Cat Ballou? I was planning my typical Tombstone diatribe (also missing from this list), but this classic John Ford movie is even more deserving. At the very least, it should be no lower than #4 on this list.

Category #6: Gangster

  • #10 Scarface (1983) -- I swear, I may turn off the TV if the original Scarface does not make this list. It should be #2, if not #1. Otherwise, this selection is a farce. Michael J. Fox says that when he thinks of Scarface, he thinks of Brian DePalma -- I think of Paul Muni.
  • #9 Little Caesar -- OK. Not may have seen it, given that it was made in 1931. But maybe the first gangster movie (if not The Great Train Robbery in 1903).
  • #8 The Public Enemy -- Gosh, it's been a long time since I saw this movie. I wouldn't think of it off the top of my head, but I'm glad they did. It belongs here.
  • #7 Pulp Fiction -- OK. It's Tarrantino, so OK.
  • #6 Scarface -- Underrated. Why are people so scared of black and white?
  • #5 Bonnie and Clyde -- The first modern gangster movie. Certainly should make the list, just not ahead of Scarface.
  • #4 White Heat -- I've heard of it. But I've never watched the whole thing. Amazingly, I've seen most of the films mentioned tonight. I'll give a count at the end of the list.
  • #3 The Godfather Part II -- Hm, guess The Godfather Part III didn't make the top ten. I wonder how many people will question whether this should be ranked higher on this list than The Godfather.
  • #2 Goodfellas -- Ahead of The Godfather Part II? I don't buy it. Ahead of Scarface? It's almost just a silly joke.
  • #1 The Godfather -- It's taken six categories before getting a Marlon Brando picture on the list. He was due.

What's missing? I'm actually not sure. Maybe I'll think of something by the end of the night. But these titles feel about right (well, maybe except for the remake of Scarface).

Category #7: Mystery

  • #10 The Usual Suspects -- This is a mystery? Crime movie, yes, but mystery? That's pushing it.
  • #9 Dial M for Murder -- OK.
  • #8 Blue Velvet -- Never seen it. But there has to be a reason why movie studios give David Lynch money to keep making his random movies.
  • #7 North by Northwest -- Great Hitchcock film. But again, I'm not sure I'd classify it as a mystery. I'd call it a thriller. Which probably means that there is no thriller category.
  • #6 The Maltese Falcon -- OK.
  • #5 The Third Man -- I'm confused. What category are we in? I mean, this is one of my favorite movies, but I've never thought of it as a mystery.
  • #4 Laura -- If you say so. Clearly this is a confused genre/category.
  • #3 Rear Window -- I have a suggested title for this category: Hitchcock. Then I'd understand. Otherwise, I'm just completely confused. But I'll be really confused if Vertigo isn't one of the top two movies.
  • #2 Chinatown -- I've always thought that this was an overrated movie. I mean, it's a great film, but I don't really think that it's the end-all, be-all that other people seem to think it is. Some people think it's one of the greatest movie scripts; I don't see it.
  • #1 Vertigo -- Yes, you see, this isn't the mystery category. This is the Hitchcock category.

What's missing? Um, a coherent genre. Before I have that, I can't pick any other films.

Category #8: Romantic Comedies

  • #10 Sleepless in Seattle -- There are nine better romantic comedies than this? Let's see, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn made six, so you can put all six of them on the list. And then When Harry Met Sally. And this movie should still be two spots higher. Ooh, ooh, tell me that The Graduate makes this list!! This is ridiculous.
  • #9 Harold and Maude -- This movie is dated. And it's not better than Sleepless in Seattle (get ready to read that a lot).
  • #8 Moonstruck -- OK. But not better than Sleepless in Seattle.
  • #7 Adam's Rib -- Here is Tracy/Hepburn film number one. Actually it might be the only one on this list, surprisingly. And I'll concede that reasonable people might think that this is better than a certain film lower than this on the list.
  • #6 When Harry Met Sally -- Some people are going to be very angry about this. Personally, I was unhappy that this movie turned into a romantic comedy; I wanted the sexual tension to never be relieved. But they don't let me near a film lot. A lot of people think that this is the gold standard though. It gives me hope that some classics may yet be on the list, like It Happened One Night or maybe The Thin Man (now that's a mystery!).
  • #5 The Philadelphia Story -- Yes.
  • #4 Roman Holiday -- The classic live action princess story. And you thought it was only a Disney thing. I kid because I love.
  • #3 It Happened One Night -- Yes! Maybe the perfect romantic comedy.
  • #2 Annie Hall -- If you like that sort of thing. Maybe at #9. At least it's not #1.
  • #1 City Lights -- I'm shocked. I never would have imagined Chaplin on this list -- I don't know why. And I certainly wouldn't have expected him at #1. I still think I'd rate it lower than It Happened One Night (but I guess maybe not lower than Sleepless in Seattle).

What's missing? Tootsie.

Category #9: Courtroom Dramas

  • #10 Judgment at Nuremberg -- Great film. Had to make the list.
  • #9 A Cry in the Dark -- Never seen it. Never even heard of it. I suppose it's not to be confused with A Shot in the Dark.
  • #8 In Cold Blood -- I wouldn’t call this a courtroom drama at all. In fact, this might be better classified as a "mystery." I must say, now I'm worried that this is going to be, by far, the weakest list of films.
  • #7 Anatomy of a Murder -- Now this is more like it. Ben Gazzara says it’s the best courtroom drama film ever made. I think he might be right. So I guess it's ranked about six spots too low.
  • #6 Witness for the Prosecution -- OK. I'd put it below Anatomy, but otherwise OK.
  • #5 A Few Good Men -- I'll admit it. I love Aaron Sorkin's writing. And this was his first movie, based on his play. But it's consistently overrated. And if The Caine Mutiny doesn't show up on this list, I'll be very angry.
  • #4 The Verdict -- I guess. It's a good movie, though I'm not convinced it's a great courtroom drama. I mean, they're going to include To Kill a Mockingbird in a second, and that makes more sense.
  • #3 Kramer vs. Kramer -- Maybe I'm getting tired, but this seems a very weak category. I know this movie won Best Picture, but it was overrated then, and, obviously, now.
  • #2 Twelve Angry Men -- Can you believe that this was the first movie that Sydney Lumet directed? His first feature. It's a one-room movie -- the hardest kind of film possible -- and it's flawless. So dramatic.
  • #1 To Kill a Mockingbird -- You expected something else?
  • What's missing? The Caine Mutiny, as mentioned above. But I'd put something else as a category here, probably Military Dramas. It would be a better list.

Category #10: Epic

  • #10 The Ten Commandments -- I love this movie, but even I think this is too high on this list.
  • #9 Reds -- An epic that probably shouldn't have been made, which I think has made it more loved. But I have no complaints with its inclusion here.
  • #8 Saving Private Ryan -- Give me a break. I'm serious. This is worse than a joke. It's offensive. This movie has no business being on this list. If my previously wished for category of Military Dramas was ranked, it wouldn't belong on that list either. Perhaps if the movie was only 40 minutes long, it would be great.
  • #7 All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) -- I'm not sure if I've seen this movie. If I had, though, I'd probably be offended that it was included on a top ten list that also included Saving Private Ryan.
  • #6 Titanic -- Yes.
  • #5 Spartacus -- I am Spartacus. Really. I am Spartacus.
  • #4 Gone with the Wind -- It's not #1? Wow. It's not my #1 epic, but almost everyone disagrees with me about these things.
  • #3 Schindler's List -- Not better than Gone with the Wind. Not better than Titanic or Spartacus or (a movie that obviously will not make this list) Dr. Zhivago.
  • #2 Ben-Hur -- At least the #1 will be appropriate for this list. But this deserves the #2 spot.
  • #1 Lawrence of Arabia -- A bold choice. And the right one. So right, I've started writing this before it's announced. This is the epic of epics. And it is, in my humble opinion, still the most beautifully shot film ever.

What's missing? Dr. Zhivago. Or Patton, since my desired military drama category wasn't covered. They can replace the Spielberg movies on this list.

I've seen 84 of these films, which is about five fewer than I expected, though it's more than I've seen of any other AFI list (when they were announced -- I usually add some of these films to my "must-see" list). And of the 16 that I've not seen in their entirety, I've seen part of about half of them.

As for the overall lists, I would ask only one question: where is the movie musical category? That is an obvious, and indefensible, oversight. That's a more significant category than "courtroom drama" or even "fantasy." I understand that certain larger categories have been covered on other AFI lists (dramas, comedies, romances, thrillers), but they've never done musicals. No action category either, which is almost as big an oversight.

But on the whole, there were only a couple of completely stupid movies to make the lists, so that's pretty good for a popularity contest like this.

Monday, June 2, 2008

New Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

There is a new review posted at Cinema Utopia of the anticipated fourth Indiana Jones movie: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Senior-citizen Harrison Ford dons the fedora and leaps off again in this fun action movie set in the 1950s. Grade: A-.

Click here to go to the review.

See you at the movies!

Friday, April 4, 2008

New Review: Juno (2007)

Hello all.

There is a new review posted at Cinema Utopia of the Academy Award-winning film Juno, starring Ellen Page (nominated for Best Actress) and featuring Michael Cera, Allison Janney, J. K. Simmons, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman. It was excellent, though perhaps the Best Picture nomination was a stretch.

Click here to read the review.

See you at the movies!

Friday, March 28, 2008

If I Picked the Winners: Best Picture

Well, I've now seen all of the 2007 films nominated for Best Picture, having finally watched Atonement.

If you've forgotten, here are the nominees for Best Picture:
  • Atonement (Focus/Universal), directed by Joe Knight
  • Juno (Fox Searchlight), directed by Jason Reitman
  • Michael Clayton (Warner Brothers), directed by Tony Gilroy
  • No Country for Old Men (Miramax), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
  • There Will Be Blood (Paramount Vantage), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

And the winner is:

No Country for Old Men.

I know, how convenient for me to agree with the Academy, but I do. Of these films, there's no contest -- the Coen brothers' thriller is by far the best. Interestingly, there's more competition for second place, as I greatly enjoyed both Atonement and Michael Clayton. If forced to rank them, I would put Michael Clayton slightly ahead. Of the five, I think that only one film really doesn't belong -- There Will Be Blood. I think that there are a few films more deserving of this nomination, including the one whose review I published today, Charlie Wilson's War.

As I watch more films, I will try to post my winners in a few key categories. And no, don't expect to see my pick for Best Documentary, Short Form. Even I don't watch those.

New Review: Charlie Wilson's War (2007)

There is a new review posted today at Cinema Utopia of the 2007 Mike Nichols' comedy Charlie Wilson's War.

Click here for the full review.

There is also a capsule review of Enchanted, Disney's latest princess movie starring Amy Adams.