Movie Review – Boy

Boy (2010)
Written & Directed by Taika Waititi


Boy lives on the eastern coast of New Zealand in 1984. He lives on a small farm with his Nan, his brother, and cousins. He loves Michael Jackson and his absentee father. He hangs out with his pals Dallas and Dynasty while swooning after Chardonnay, a girl in his class. Then one day, when his Nan is out of town, his father returns and enlists Boy in helping him discover money he buried in a field years ago. Boy will spend some weeks getting to know his father better, imagining a life away from this place, and ultimately learning the reality behind his father and the fantasies he has constructed around the man.

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Movie Review – Monsters

Monsters (2010, dir. Gareth Edwards)


The film begins with title cards that explain that a NASA probe was launched years ago and brought back microorganisms that have mutated into gigantic monsters that rule a swath of land between the United States and Mexico. This area has been walled off and named “The Infected Zone, ” and no one is allowed to pass without permission from the joint-government operation. Andrew Kaulder (Halt and Catch Fire’s Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist guilted into escorting his boss’s daughter, Samantha back into the States. The catch is that in two days all travel between countries is going to be blocked off for a six-month long major operation.

With Star Wars: Rogue One being released in theaters this weekend I thought it was the right time to finally sit down and watch director Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. I’d only seen his Godzilla film, which I wasn’t very impressed by. When Edwards was announced as the director of the first Star Wars spinoff, I was a bit confused. These were the same feelings I had when Colin Trevorrow was announced to director Jurassic World, Marc Webb was set to helm the Spider-Man reboot, and Josh Trank was put in charge of Fantastic Four. There appears to be a trend of picking the “hot young director” to take over a major film property. This sort of mentality defies logic because from the outside this feels like a very risky proposition. The only way this really makes sense to me is from the perspective of a controlling studio who wants a director that has a creative vision but hasn’t had time to build that sense of earned professionalism to think they can make the big decisions. “Hot, young directors” let studios and their notes on dailies wield greater power than with a genuinely creative director who has earned it.

Monsters is a beautiful looking film. The cinematography is masterful, and Edwards does an excellent job of evoking scale. Landscapes fill the screen and when the monsters do appear they are represented as truly towering and powerful. It also becomes very clear that Edwards is not interested in telling a story of man vs. monster. The film is purely focused on the two characters traveling across a dangerous land and the relationship that grows between them. The appearance of the monsters is used to underline some larger concept or idea that is going on between them or to emphasize that they are in peril to get home. There are a lot of fascinating ideas at work in Monsters.

Monsters wants to be an insightful character piece, but I personally found the characters to be shallow and ultimately uninteresting. The film’s tone bounces between a straightforward narrative with hints of Cinéma vérité but never delves deep enough. The stories behind both characters are painted in fairly broad strokes (He has a son and has never been involved in his life, She is running from an engagement she really doesn’t want to be in). Dialogue is a little too on the nose and, while these are good actors, I just don’t think they are skilled enough to bring a full performance into every gesture or look that would tell these characters’ stories at a greater depth. Edwards has a background in digital special effects which explains why the film looks so good, but may also inform as to why the characters ultimately feel flat and undeveloped.  

Movie Review – Heartbeats

Heartbeats (2010, dir. Xavier Dolan)


In watching I Killed My Mother, it was clear that Xavier Dolan had a sharp sense of humor. In Heartbeats he allows himself to make an overt comedy of manners that has delivered more laughs from me than most comedies I’ve watched this year. The story centers on Francis (Dolan), and Marie (Monia Chokri) are best friends who meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a young man who entrances them both. They begin a vicious back and forth to decide who gets Nicolas in the end.

The comedy in Heartbeats comes from Francis and Marie’s growing animosity with each other over Nicolas’ affections and the ongoing confusion his behavior and words illicit. During a playful game of hide and seek in the woods he manages to tackle Francis, pinning him to the ground. And keeps him pinned for a longer than usual amount of time before hurriedly rushing away, an act that builds confidence in Francis’ perceived chances with Nicolas. A few scenes later, Francis finds out Nicolas has invited Marie to see a play together without even asking Francis which throws him into confusion about his possible suitor’s intentions. At first, our protagonists attempt to play things cooly and not truly acknowledging the competition at hand. By the end of the film, they have devolved into wrestling on the ground decked in clothing out of place in the rustic, cabin setting they have ended up in.

Dolan has a very deft hand at the awkward moment, particularly zeroing in the desperation people take on when they are incredibly attracted to an individual they see as “cooler” than them or “out of their league.” At one point, Francis makes a completely inappropriately expensive purchase for Nicolas’ birthday and, while this fact is only known to Francis and the audience, it adds tension to the informal gift competition that springs up between him and Marie. As an actor, Dolan has the most perfect uncomfortable, awkward smile. He’s left behind at Nicolas’ apartment and has to receive a monthly allowance being delivered by Nicolas’ mother (played by the remarkable Anne Dorval, who played Dolan’s mother in his previous film). Dorval dominates most of the conversation, revealing her career as an exotic dancer, her broken relationship with Nicolas’ father, and other TMI. Dolan doesn’t fade into the background, though, and through his face and his body language, the audience is reminded of all those intensely awkward conversations we’ve ended up in, and especially those with a friend’s parent or some other acquaintance who shares far too much information.

The new element in this film for me was Monia Chokri as Dolan’s rival. Chokri was fantastic and kept up with her co-star and director by exuding an awkward confidence. As the tension increases, her chill unaffected nature begins to show cracks culminating in a scene where she runs into Nicolas on the street that will elicit the strongest empathic cringe from anyone watching. The awkward humor is never to the intensity that something like Curb Your Enthusiasm produces, it is continually softened through a lens of romantic idealism. Chokri’s Marie is presented as a very composed and intentional person, bearing an early 1960s appearance in both hairstyle and clothing. Coincidentally Nicolas mentions his love of Audrey Hepburn and Marie begins adding accessories that emphasize those aspects of her appearance.

The film is about friendship and the silliness of “profound love” and romanticism. It evokes the visual style of Wong-Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love in particular moments, but instead of using this imagery to evoke a sense of serious simmering passion, Dolan uses it to cultivate a sense of irony with the protagonist’s actions. This is yet another Dolan film that highlights a different talent than I Killed My Mother and Tom at the Farm. The former is a wonderfully bittersweet character study, and the latter is an exercise in tension and psychology. Heartbeats are Dolan’s take on a romantic comedy, a modern remix of Jules and Jim with his own personal visual flair.

Film Review – Red, White, & Blue

Red, White, & Blue (2010, dir. Simon Rumley)
Starring Noah Taylor, Amanda Fuller, Mark Senter

British director Simon Rumley seems intent on shredding every last ounce of emotional energy I have. As you can read in my review of his 2006 film, The Living and The Dead, he is able to present a psychological horror film unlike any you will ever see. Here too, in Red, White, & Blue, Rumley takes the revenge/gore film made popular in 1970s and still alive and strong today, and goes down avenues no mainstream picture would ever think about. The result is another film that hammers itself into your mind and squeeze every ounce of composure from your soul. The last fifteen minutes left my heart pounding and my head feeling dizzy, shocked at the level of physical gore and psychological torment.

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Film Review – Submarine

Submarine (2010, dir. Richard Ayoade)
Starring Craig Roberts, Yasmin Page, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine

The directorial debut of British comedic actor Richard Ayoade has drawn unfair criticism for “being too much like Rushmore or Amelie”. Its easy to see how you could mistake this film for something like that, but after viewing the film it becomes apparent Ayoade has made an homage to French New Wave cinema. Ayoade takes those hipster affectations he’d being excused of exploiting, and actually frames them in a poignant look at the hyper-urgency of the adolescent mind.

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Film Review – The Fighter

The Fighter (2010, dir. David O. Russell)
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams

What is interesting about David O. Russell’s current film, The Fighter, is how the way the story is told parallels the situation our lead, Micky Ward (Wahlberg) finds himself in. He is the younger half-brother of  Dicky Eklund (Bale), a former big time boxer whose career fell apart after he became addicted to heroin. The opening scene of the film is about Dicky’s pomposity and grandiose nature overshining Micky. This is the situation Micky finds himself in consistently. Despite Dicky’s failings as a son and a father, everyone seems to love him and give him an infinite number of chances. Even Micky’s boxing career seems to be one big stepping stone in Dicky’s comeback. While The Fighter treads into dark territory it still comes off as the feel good movie of the year, in an honest way with its audience.

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My Top Films of 2010

Since 2005, I have been keeping track of the films I watch each year. I also come up with a list of my ten favorite films (old or new) that I saw for the first time that year. Here’s the list, with the full list of all 232 I saw this year after the break. Feel free to ask any questions about films on the big list, my freakish nerd memory will be able to answer you.

Top 10 Films of 2010
1. A Serious Man
2. Hunger
3. Mother
4. Un prophete
5. The White Ribbon
6. Black Swan
7. The Social Network
8. True Grit (2010)
9. The Heartbreak Kid (1972)
10. I Am Love

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2010: The Year in Television

Looking back at 2010 there were a lot of highlights from television. Here’s the ones that standout as the most memorable for me:

The Lost Finale (ABC): After six years, Lost came to an end with a three hour finale that didn’t seek to solve the myriad of mysteries built up during the show’s run. Instead, the creators chose to focus on emotional closure. There are some valid criticism of the show’s six season, but overall I felt very satisfied by the way things ended. It definitely evoked some of the same feelings I had years ago reading The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. Despite my own personal views on religion, I found the “spiritual” ending to not come off as hackneyed. It was also the hardest I’ve ever cried while watching a single episode of television.

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Film Review – True Grit (2010)

True Grit (2010, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

I’ve never seen the original True Grit, mainly because I am not such a big fan of John Wayne. I’ve only seen two films of his (The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). I totally get Wayne as an icon, but as an actor he seemed a little weak. So I entered the remake of True Grit with no expectations and found it to be a great western and adventure story, with enough subtext to keep me thinking for a long time. Despite advertisements, this is Hailee Steinfeld’s film. The other actors are there to support her and she does a magnificent job keeping up with the likes of Bridges and Damon.

Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) is the 14 year old daughter of a man shot in cold blood by Tom Cheney (Brolin), a dim witted scoundrel. Mattie travels to the location of her father’s body under the pretense of preparing it to be sent back home, but is actually out to find a hired gun to help her track down and murder Cheney. She happens upon the grizzled federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), a man who shoots first and asks questions later. After some convincing, he agrees to take Mattie into Choctaw territory where Cheney ran off to. Before they can depart, Texas ranger Le Boeuf (Damon) who is looking for Cheney in relation to his murder of a Texas state senator. The trio bickers and bonds as they draw closer to their prey, which in the end will test each of their resolves.

The Coens are employing their strongest tactics in this film: dialogue and character. The language of the characters is so precise and specific, and this is how they have created countless memorable and iconic characters. True Grit is a showcase for the complex figure of Mattie Ross, whom could easily become a “girl power” anachronism. Instead, through well placed pieces of dialogue, we learn about Mattie’s role in her home and the extra responsibility she has been strapped with. She is both courageous and vulnerable in a way many female characters in film rarely are. Beyond Mattie, the central and side characters all have unspoken histories that we catch glimpses of. As she and Rooster travel the wilderness they encounter characters who may have a line or two (or none at all) and are fully realized figures in this world. The Coens succeed in producing another film chock full of those things that cause the brains of film geeks like myself to salivate.

Film Review – Black Swan

Black Swan (2010, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

With Darren Aronofsky you know you will get something ambitious, whether its ambitious in its drama (Requiem for a Dream), its scope (The Fountain), or its simplicity (The Wrestler). Are they always winners? Nope, but they always bring forth a completely unique vision and experience. With Black Swan, Aronofsky is bringing together elements from all his previous work. You have the severe schizophrenic breakdown of a character, you have a hallucinatory transformations, and you have the destruction of the physical body for the sake of one’s art. The film also breaks the boundaries of genre by being both one of the best dramas and one of the best horror films of the year.

Nina Sayers (Portman) is one of the many dancers that perform at New York’s Lincoln Center. The prima ballerina of the company (Ryder) is on her way and out and the manipulative director, Thomas (Cassel) is looking for his new “little princess”. A re-interpretive staging of Swan Lake is in the works and Nina finds herself in competition with the new girl, Lily (Kunis). Lily works against the conventions of the ballerina, staying out late, dropping ecstasy, and being very laid back with her work ethic. Nina must also contend with her mother (Hershey) who is babies her daughter and attempts to mold her into the dancer she failed to be. Nina is suffering from strange abrasions on her back and is beginning to have intense nightmares about the ballet. All of this is leading down a dark and destructive path….or is she merely fighting against those who have constrained her since she was a child.

Everything about this film clicks, the performances are pitch perfect and the direction from Aronofksy hits on all cylinders. There is the return of the shaky handheld cinematography of The Wrestler that adds that vérité feel to the story. In direct contrast to the realism of cinematography there is amazing use of makeup and CG effects. The films does a great job in balancing the psychological horror, and will make you question deeply what events actually happen to Nina and which are the product of a fragmented mind. I was most impressed with how Portman manages to infantilize Nina’s behavior in very subtle and nuanced ways. She doesn’t babytalk, but the way she interacts with her mother and her director bring out her childlike mentality. Her rebellion against these forces of control is played naturally and its horrific outcome resonates in the mind for a long time after.