Friday, February 19, 2010

Demi-Gods To The Rescue As Chris Columbus Beats Warner Bros. To The Punch With A More Family-Friendly Titans Clash

Rated PG for action violence and peril, some scary images and suggestive material, and mild language.
118 minutes
Fox 2000 Pictures
*** 1/2 out of 5

Some directors probably don’t mind being under strict supervision by studio heads when trying to adapt a beloved book series to screen. But there are also times when a director needs to be allowed to take some liberties with the material in order to help keep things from being too bogged down. The first two “Harry Potter” films instantly spring to mind in this case when compared to director Chris Columbus’s latest, “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.”

When given the task of bringing “The Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Chamber of Secrets” to life one can only imagine the guidelines set forth by the studio, let alone the fact that audiences across the entire globe would have such high expectations. By making these films feel like a sluggish film version of every single page, they have turned out to be the most boring of the film series.

While “Chamber of Secrets” was an improvement upon “Sorcerer’s Stone,” they both still pale in comparison to the best of the lot, “Prisoner of Azkaban.” The secret is to give a director the freedom to find a way to condense things to keep the plot moving along so the general audiences who are not avid readers of the novels don’t feel like they have to plod through the filler to get to the interesting stuff.

Screenwriter Craig Titley is no Steve Kloves and I have not read any of the Percy Jackson novels by Rick Riordan, but one thing appeared to be clear – get the audience in and out and show them a grand time. You can tell that were possibly scenes trimmed here and there (as is the case with every film) but in this case it was a good thing as the film throws you into the midst of things and sets you forth on an epic adventure of mythological proportions.

One evening Zeus (Sean Bean) meets with his brother Poseidon (Kevin McKidd) to discuss the disappearance of Zeus’ lightning bolt. It must be returned in 14 days or there will be a war between humans and gods. We quickly learn that Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is a demi-god born to his human mother, Sally (Catherine Keener) who has shacked up with the intolerable yet appropriately named Gabe Ugliano (Joe Pantoliano (Francis Fratelli himself in a reunion of sorts with director Columbus who wrote “The Goonies.”)

After Percy learns of his demi-god status he is whisked away to Camp Half Blood where he must learn the rules of the trade and strengthen his powers in order to get on with the task of finding his now kidnapped mother who is being held by Hades (Steve Coogan) while he makes life literal Hell for his against-her-will lover Persephone (Rosario Dawson, reteaming with director Columbus after starring in his atrocious “Rent” debacle). Percy is joined on his adventure by Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), who happens to be Athena’s (Melina Kanakaredes) daughter, and his best friend, Grover (“Tropic Thunder’s” Brandon T. Jackson), who is really a faun.

The audience is treated to swords-and-sandals action scenes (to find some magical pearls necessary to return home from the underworld) set in everything from Medusa’s garden of stoned humans, a hydra-guarded Parthenon replica in Nashville, to a lotus-induced Lady Gaga trip out in Vegas. Meanwhile, a worldwide storm is brewing as things heat up in Olympus as the clock counts down to whether Percy can collect all the pearls, save his mother, defeat the “surprise” antagonist, and save the world by returning the bolt to Zeus and meet his father for the first time which is forbidden of all gods.

Chris Columbus makes a triumphant return to the director’s chair after “Rent” and “I Love You, Beth Cooper” and he seems to be having a lot more fun with this material than he did with either of his “Harry Potter” contributions. Logan Lerman as Percy is great in the lead role and manages to carry the film while making jokes referencing “High School Musical” and looking like the twin brother of Zac Efron. Alexandra Daddario keeps the two friends in line with her giant blue eyes and Brandon T. Jackson gets to make more riffs here than he was able to in “Tropic Thunder” (even if he was used to better effect in Ben Stiller’s comedic masterpiece).

Many have complained that the main characters have been aged inappropriately from junior high to high school, but I’d personally much rather watch these rag-tags save the day than yet another 12-year-old. It’s just another piece of the screenwriting process that managed to save the day and keep itself from seeming like just another rip-off.

As much fun as the film is, some might be surprised to learn the film is based on a novel with the way that some of it feels like it’s based on a video game. The plot bounds along and Percy fights and conquers each level’s boss to earn his pearls and move along to the next bad guy. But for once a film has made me actually want to read the novels it’s based on instead of skipping them altogether and just waiting for the next movie to come along (here’s looking at you, boy wizard.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

While This "Wolfman" Doesn't Quite Have Nards, It's Certainly No Hairball

Rated R for bloody horror violence and gore.
102 minutes
Universal Pictures
*** 1/2 out of 5

Some films can never get past production issues. Whether it's re-shoots, rewrites, troubles with editing, visuals, and special effects or even swapping around composers, it shows a lot when a film suffers through such ugly post-production issues. Even when the film doesn’t completely land with a thud, it can sometimes manage to land on both feet and howl for victory as is the case with “The Wolfman” remake.

Joe Johnston may be a protégé of Steven Spielberg (and even handled the third “Jurassic Park” film) but he also seems to have quite the love for old school classics. With a great grasp for homage, he manages to bring “The Wolfman” to a higher class of remake. Bringing back Rick Baker, the man responsible for many practical effects-heavy werewolf films such as “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London,” was also a great idea to help keep things old school.

The two screenwriters were also heavily influenced by the original 1941 classic “The Wolf Man” starring Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. as the original Wolf Man himself. While David Self has the Sam Mendes-directed “Road to Perdition” under his belt, it seems safe to assume that most of the screenplay may have been taken over by co-writer Andrew Kevin Walker. The whole film plays as a sort of mash-up/companion piece to his earlier efforts — “Se7en,” “8MM,” and Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” — while also leaning towards the tone behind his TV work on HBO’s “Tales From the Crypt” (i.e. heavy on the gallows humor).

The same storyline is followed (giving credit where due to Curt Siodmak) and even some of the original’s lines of dialogue have been brought back (“You’ve done terrible things, Lawrence”). Lawrence Talbot has returned home from America to Blackmoor, England in 1891 after his brother, Ben (Simon Merrells), has gone missing. Ben is then found massacred by either a wild beast roaming the moors or a crazed lunatic lying in wait to attack upon another full moon.

Upon returning he is reunited with his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), and makes the acquaintance of his brother’s fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Gwen and Lawrence want to know the truth behind what happened to Ben and Lawrence sets out to find a local band of gypsies deep in the woods. After the gypsy camp is attacked and destroyed, Lawrence chases a young boy into the forest to save him from whatever beast is attacking the camp.

Tables are turned, however, when Lawrence is attacked himself and upon resting up begins to receive heightened powers of sense. Soon enough, another full moon is upon Blackmoor and John locks himself up in an underground lair, leaving Lawrence to discover his inner beast and wreak havoc upon the town. Lawrence is captured and sent to an asylum while Scotland Yard sends in Agent Smith himself, Hugo Weaving, to kill the beast after Lawrence escapes from his all-you-can-eat buffet of doctors and scientists upon yet another full moon.

The film walks a fine line between homage and remake while fighting to bring something new, and it's quite a battle to watch onscreen. Director Johnston pays his respects with insider references to both the original and the previously mentioned “An American Werewolf in London.”

Blood flows as freely as you can expect from an R-rated movie about a man turning into a wolf, but “Teen Wolf” this is not. When a character makes a joke about sprouting wings and flying through a window if Lawrence really turns into a werewolf, his fate has already been sealed.

The cast seems to be enjoying themselves considerably as well. Weaving gets lots of quirky dry jokes to make to the local yokels and Blunt gets to turn on the charm and bring some kind of heart to the proceedings even if it Lawrence is busy ripping out everyone else’s in the dead of night.

The only thing that adds up to a tiny hiccup is the casting of Benicio Del Toro in the lead. Although some may find his mumbling and grumbling line delivery too underplayed, for me it just brought even more fun to the proceedings as it seemed like he was already a wolf at heart. The biggest asset to all this is Anthony Hopkins, who turns in a hilarious performance reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter.

If the mood strikes and you’re looking for a howling good time you could definitely do far worse (cough*“Valentine’s Day”*cough). But if you just want to sit back and watch lots of people lose their heads in various degrees then beware the moors and stick to the road that leads you to wherever “The Wolfman” may be playing near you.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Celebrity-Fueled Celluloid Supernova of Diabetic Proportions

Rated PG-13 for some sexual material and brief partial nudity.
125 minutes!
New Line Cinema
** out of 5

It usually means one of two things when I cease taking notes during a movie. Either I’m (hopefully) completely caught up in what’s going on or, as was the case with “Valentine’s Day,” everything that is happening makes so little sense and just seems thrown up (possibly literally) on the screen with such slap-dash effort that I've given up entirely on trying to keep track of what’s going on.

Garry Marshall has managed to direct some fun films in the past. Even if some of them weren’t great, at least they were serviceable and silly enough to keep the jokes strung along. But from the man who brought us “The Flamingo Kid,” “Nothing in Common,” “Overboard,” “Beaches,” and “Pretty Woman” also came a downhill slide: “Frankie & Johnny,” “Exit to Eden,” “Dear God,” “The Other Sister,” “Runaway Bride,” and “Georgia Rule.” Not even re-teaming with Julia Roberts could save him then nor now.

Screenwriter, Katherine Fugate is no help here. With her past writing credits including the first two “Prince & Me” films, an episode of “Xena: Warrior Princess” and two episodes of “Max Steel,” one can’t help but wonder who thought she was the perfect person to take over sole writing duties. The so-called story is credited also to the team behind “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “Never Been Kissed.” While those two movies are just as fluffy as this one thinks it is, “Valentine’s Day” receives the kiss of death from celebrity overload and Garry Marshall’s pulverizing directing.

As far as any kind of plot, let’s see… Reed Bennett (Ashton Kutcher) has just asked his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba) to marry him. While Morley may have said yes, Reed’s best friend Julia Fitzpatrick (Jennifer Garner) still fears for the worst even though she is living a delusional relationship with the man of her dreams, Dr. Harrison Copeland (Patrick Dempsey), who, surprise surprise, is married. Meanwhile, flying over the United States, Captain Kate Hazeltine (Julia Roberts) wakes up on the shoulder of Holden (Bradley Cooper) who seems to have a bone to pick with anything love-related.

Also in the mix here we get nanny Grace (Emma Roberts) who just wants to have sex for the first time with her boyfriend which is explained to numerous groups of people including her best friend Felicia (Taylor Swift) and her boyfriend Willy (Taylor Lautner), a school teacher, Ms. Gilroy (Kristen Schaal) and the grandparents of the boy (Edison, played by Bryce Robinson) for whom she is a nanny, Edgar (Hector Elizondo) and Estelle (Shirley MacLaine).

Not to mention yet more subplots involving Jason (Topher Grace) just wanting to make it clear to the girl he’s been dating for two weeks, Liz (Anne Hathaway), that he’s willing to try things longer if she is. Liz moonlights and also tries to mix her day job along with being a phone sex operator. Liz is temping for sports agent Paula Thomas (Queen Latifah) who’s also Kara Monahan’s (Jessica Biel) boss. Kara hates Valentine’s Day along with number 2 sports caster Kelvin Moore (Jamie Foxx) who has just been assigned a man-on-the-street beat by his boss Susan (Kathy Bates) to find out why the day is so important.

So much more happens that you seem to completely lose any kind of focus on any of the subplots that actually work and are the most interesting. These would be the meet-cute between Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper, who coincidentally have the most chemistry yet the least screentime (possibly ten whole minutes in a two hour slugathon); the Liz and Jason misadventures, and even the relationship between Reed and Julia which is strictly forbidden from venturing beyond the time honored tradition of miscommunication.

When you think of light and fluffy tween-geared rom-coms the last person that pops into your head to make a movie would be someone in their 70s. I doubt anyone would assume their grandpa remembers what it was like to be a teen in love, let alone be allowed to make a movie about it using hammers and nails to drive home the wackiness.

As if people don’t complain enough about this so-called “holiday” being nothing but commercialism at its worst, here comes a movie that everyone apparently indulged in grossing a whopping $66.8 million over Presidents Day weekend. In case anyone didn’t receive enough sugar from their sugars, here’s your chance for a film that’s so sickly sweet it just may induce diabetic comas nationwide. Bon appetit, America!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Oscar Overreaches and Fumbles with Sandra Bullock Ruining An Otherwise Fine Tear-Jerking Comedy

Rated PG-13 for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references.
128 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
** 1/2 out of 5

Inspirational sports films can be fun. Sports films in general usually emphasize that aspect. When the two are combined it makes for an even greater time at the movies. While sports will never be my all-time favorite film genre, I don’t mind them at all. Give me either a group of underdogs to root for or a good life story and so long as I’m entertained, most of this genre’s clichés can be overlooked.

But what happens when the driving force of your film is a huge black hole of fun every time she pops up onscreen? Such is the case in “The Blind Side” which features Oscar’s most atrocious Best Actress Nominee this year — Sandra Bullock. Here is someone who has never been nominated for an Academy Award, never has given a performance worthy of such acclaim, and yet even here gives a portrayal of what wound up to be one of the worst female characters in feel-good history.

Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock) may be a great person in real life, but as she’s been written and portrayed by Bullock in this film, I don’t know why anyone would want to make a movie about her. Maybe that’s why director John Lee Hancock (who also scripted, based on the novel by Michael Lewis) couldn’t make up his mind on which character he wanted to focus on. While the true stories have to be shown side-by-side as you could never have one without the other, Michael Oher’s (Quinton Aaron) side of things are far more interesting than Leigh Anne’s.

Leigh Anne Tuohy seems to have it all. Her daughter Collins (Phil Collins’ real-life daughter, Lily Collins) is on the cheerleading squad and her son S.J. (the hilarious Jae Head) just wants to be the center of attention no matter what the circumstances. Leigh Anne’s husband Sean (country mega-star Tim McGraw) owns a bunch of fast food chains to supply Leigh Anne with the money she needs to live in their luxurious mansion of a house and drive to restaurants in her BMW to have $18 salads hanging out on the right side of town with her debutante ball reject friends in Memphis, Tennessee.

Michael Oher, on the other hand, comes from a broken home. We see this in flashbacks and awkward, heartbreaking run-ins with his brother, and he’s just been told his father died as a John Doe. He lives in Hurt Village, sneaks his laundry in with strangers’ at the local coin-ops, collects leftover popcorn at girls volleyball games, and doesn’t even have a license, making sure the Tuohys see him walking a lonely country road in the freezing cold without a jacket. Yes, the heartstrings are being pulled overtime which is fine considering Oher is played with huge sympathy by Aaron.

Leigh Anne decides that the family is taking him in and in a whirlwind she cleans Michael up, buys him new clothes, and drives him to school with her own kids every morning after he wakes up from sleeping on her $10,000 couch in the living room. After the family is told that if Michael gets his grades up he can try out for spring football, they even hire him a tutor, Miss Sue (the ever dependable Kathy Bates).

With Miss Sue’s help and S.J.’s overbearing but always hilarious form of mentoring, Michael’s grades get to where they need to be and he’s allowed to play football where everyone slowly learns that he’s the next big thing. Soon enough, coaches from several major universities come calling, trying to offer their best not just to Michael but to S.J. as well who seems to know a thing or two about negotiations. But is all this for Michael’s greater good or is it all just too good to be true and is more about providing Leigh Anne her latest feel-good project?

For everyone else in the Tuohy residence we’re allowed enough human characterization to buy that they are doing all of this out of the goodness of their hearts. But as depicted by Bullock, you never once buy into Leigh Anne not having a greater agenda. Giving her lines where she calls Michael “a fly in a milkshake” just comes off as offensive and even racist. If she’s doing these things from the bottom of her heart, you could mine for coal in that big ol’ hole.

At one point, Leigh Anne asks her husband, “Am I good person?” As far as this film goes, I wanted to talk back to the screen and say, “No, no you’re not!” But all of this has nothing to do with Leigh Anne in real life so much as her horrific depiction brought to life by Bullock. The only moral I managed to get out of this story is that over-privileged, rich bitches have hearts too.

Everything in this film works except for Bullock. Had the film either focused solely on Michael and his real-life ordeals or had director Hancock simply turned most of the film into the “Oher and S.J. Show,” that would have been fine too. But forcing Bullock’s performance to the forefront simply ruins everything. Had the Academy not upped their Best Picture category to ten nominees this year it wouldn’t stand a chance for so much as a nomination either. It is undeserving but not more so than Bullock herself. Way to go Oscar, better luck next year.

"Dear John," Your Movie Blows

Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence.
105 minutes
Screen Gems
** out of 5

While having never personally read a Nicholas Sparks novel, it’s pretty evident from his body of film adaptations that he must hate the living. Or maybe something desperately tragic has happened to him in his past and he thinks that movie audiences and avid readers must suffer as much as he has in life and if you think anything is going to change for his latest venture, “Dear John,” you are gravely mistaken.

One way or the other, if you’re in a Nicholas Sparks film you should become a bit more self-aware as either you or someone you love is marching forth to their deathbed. At first it wasn’t quite so obvious. “Message in a Bottle” was released way back in 1999 and “A Walk to Remember” didn’t come out until 2002. Three years is a good amount of time for non-Sparks fans to not see a pattern simply based on two films.

However, after the likes of his latest three, “The Notebook,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” and “Dear John,” the pattern is clear – love is something that must be buried. Whether beneath a freak mudslide, out to sea, or riddled by cancer, it must be stopped and the female audience must cry! His next film, “The Last Song,” is currently just waiting in the wings to take out yet another female pop star, Miley Cyrus.

Director Lasse Hallström has made some great films in the past. With such films on his resume as “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Something to Talk About,” “The Cider House Rules,” and “Chocolat,” you would think he’d know a thing or two about this type of material. However, his films have grown increasingly worse and he has now treated us to the law of diminishing returns with “The Shipping News,” “An Unfinished Life,” and “Casanova” – this latest offering should probably not come as a complete surprise.

Dear John starts with another unintelligible monologue from Hollywood’s latest “it” kid, Channing Tatum. While he doesn’t quite bug me yet, he too gets increasingly worse with each film. Tatum plays the hero of the piece, John Tyree, a soldier who is home on leave. After saving Savannah Curtis’s (Amanda Seyfried) purse from open water they meet cute and it’s love at first surf.

John is staying at his father’s house (played by the always reliable and best part of this movie, Richard Jenkins) while on leave. Mr. Tyree doesn’t talk much but of course when Savannah asks about his coin collection he’s all kinds of gabby. Savannah and John are both only home for two weeks but they find time to make out in an obligatory rain storm, build a house for humanity, and finally consummate their newfound love before she heads back to school and he back to war.

They start off their time apart writing letters back and forth to each other (anyone named John who thinks this is a good idea is just waiting for a true “Dear John” letter to arrive). Soon enough, the expected break-up letter arrives and John returns home to bury his father. John also finds out that Savannah got “confused” and “lonely” and married the local cancer patient (Henry Thomas, little “E.T.’s” Elliott all grown up) with the autistic son next door. Over an awkward candlelit dinner Savannah comes clean and they must both confront their true feelings for each other and figure out what’s best for both of them.

Decisions are made and ludicrous passages of time go by and Nicholas Sparks’ ending is changed into one of the most ridiculous cases of history repeating itself combined with chance encounters of the clichéd kind. At one point Savannah tells John that she has flaws of her own, but I’m sure he had no idea what he was in for.

Surprisingly, Seyfried has neither the acting chops nor the screen presence to fend off the likes of what a heinous person her character turns out to be and that leaves us with Tatum to root for. But when his character’s too stupid to realize why he hasn’t received a letter from his long-distance girlfriend in two months it just means he’s too stupid to care about.

Unintentional hilarity rules the day while everyone learns their life lessons. Tatum was obviously cast because his character needs to be someone the ladies will want to see with his shirt off numerous times and Seyfried is completely miscast for all the reasons mentioned in the last paragraph. And if you think the line, “…my edges have been rimmed and beveled” sounds hilarious, just wait till you hear it a second time.

One last point of interest; during the candlelit dinner scene, John says to Savannah, “We’re sitting here and we’re eating and we’re talking, but nobody’s saying anything,” and that’s exactly what the audience is in for the entire runtime.

Travolta's Latest "Royale with Cheese" Is Too Hard To Digest By Even The Most Lax Action Movie Standards

Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, drug content, pervasive language and brief sexuality.
92 minutes
** out of 5

I love big, dumb action movies as much as the next guy. But what happens when a film becomes too dumb to be fun anymore? Such is the case with “From Paris with Love,” produced by Luc Besson and starring John Travolta.

Director Pierre Morel (“District B13,” the Liam Neeson revenge vehicle “Taken,” and the in-the-works “Dune” remake) has shown he can construct an entertaining film. Even when centered around the most ludicrous plots, he’s shown us either characters you want to see win in the end or filled them with enough outrageous action and fight sequences your brain can just sit back and relax.

Luc Besson is well known for delivering action-driven films so overblown you can’t help but love them and generally there’s a huge amount of fun as the driving source. While he’s credited with the story, the screenplay is written by someone else (Adi Hasak), and things seem to spring a leak somewhere along the line.

Besson’s earliest work behind the camera delivered high-octane, escapist enjoyment (“The Big Blue,” “La Femme Nikita,” and “Leon”). This includes his most recent writing efforts – “District 13: Ultimatum,” “Taken,” and the “Transporter” and “Taxi” film series – he’s a man who knows what his audience wants. If “From Paris with Love” is any indication, no one should ever try to replicate his form simply based on an idea.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays James Reece, personal aide to a U.S. Ambassador to France. He lives with his girlfriend Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) with whom he has candlelit rooftop dinners where she proposes one night, bringing to mind the likes of a far worse movie released back in early January. If anyone is not able to figure out the likes of that plot point then they’ve never seen an action movie before.

On this same evening, Reece receives a phone call informing him that he is getting the chance of his life to finally be of assistance to the CIA. He is to be a driver for loose cannon Charlie Wax (John Travolta) who has just arrived in Paris to stop a terrorist attack. Things continually go from bad to worse and Wax goes on an almost non-stop shooting spree from Asian restaurants to the open streets of gay Paris, which is far more than Reece bargained for in his sophomore mission.

Aside from everything being played so over-the-top you wish John Travolta had a ball gag in his mouth to protect the scenery, it doesn’t help when the cast is performing like they’re in a completely different film than what the director is obviously intending to be a hard R-rated thriller. Travolta spews every racially insensitive line delivered with language choices that would make Betty White blush. Meanwhile, Rhys Meyers gets to cower in corners holding vases of cocaine continually questioning Wax’s every move as if they’re in some kind of wacky cop buddy flick.

Travolta may think he’s performing in John Woo mode, but he’s stuck in Hard Target territory. Not to mention that he gets to make a reference to one of his best films (Pulp Fiction) in what winds up as one of his worst. I won’t be the first to say this, but this whole film is a “Royale with cheese.” Unfortunately, royally heavy on the cheese.

Sundance Film Festival 2010 Wrap-Up

With the 2010 Sundance Film Festival at a close, I have to reflect back and realize that it was quite the experience. Having never covered anything as substantial as this and taking the risk to jump far out of my comfort zone, it was quite the opportunity and I am glad that I chose to cover it with a few baby steps rather jumping headfirst into the waters.

All in my first day at the festival I managed a great Q&A with director Cordell Barker discussing his animated entry, “Runaway.” I was lucky enough to gain entrance to The Gen Arts Lounge, as this was a great way to get out of the cold for a while and get my hands on a groovy little engraved mojito mint muddler.

Later that night I attended an invitation-only party, The 7 Fresh Faces in Film, sponsored by The Gen Arts Lounge and hosted by Malin Akerman (“Watchmen” and “Couples Retreat”) who was also featured in two Sundance entries herself (“Happythankyoumoreplease” and “The Romantics”). This party was to honor and recognize new up and comers who were all featured in Sundance films this year — Shawn Ashmore (“Frozen”), Amy Ferguson (“Douchebag”), Shiloh Fernandez (“Skateland”), Zoe Lister-Jones (“Armless”), Zoe Kazan (“Happythankyoumoreplease”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”), and Kevin Zegers (“Frozen”) — in the Sky Lodge located on Main Street.

While I was only able to catch 11 films this year, I did manage to make a list of which of those films were better than the others. Some have misread into these two articles and I am not trying to pass judgment that these are in fact the best and worst of Sundance this year. I simply took what I saw and compared them all against each other.

Unfortunately, I was not able to see any films throughout the week but finally managed to catch my final film, “Winter’s Bone,” after waitlisting at the Rose Wagner Theater in downtown Salt Lake City. After bearing witness to this amazingly tense and terrific thriller set in the Ozarks, I would have to say that if I was to make a new list of my favorites, this would definitely wrangle its way into the top five and push the dismal “Southern District” rightly off the list completely.

“Winter’s Bone” is full of amazing performances. Jennifer Lawrence plays well beyond her years in the lead as Ree Dolly, a girl put through the family wringer while trying to locate her father, who’s abandoned the family and put up their entire estate to cover a bail issue. John Hawkes also stars as her menacingly frightening uncle, Teardrop (Hawkes is also featured in the season premiere of the final season of “Lost”). If these two don’t deserve awards come next year’s Oscar season then I don’t know who does. However, co-writer/director Debra Granik also deserves the hype as she brings a very different outlook to backwoods hillbillies than was seen during the festival in “Tucker & Dale vs Evil.”

I also managed to receive some screeners of additional animated short films from the National Film Board of Canada along with Cordell Barker’s “Runaway.” “L'ondée” (“Rains”), from David Coquard-Dassault, is a great little nugget about life in the city as it seems to get washed away before the sun comes back out and everyone is finally able to escape from refuge. “Vive la rose,” by Bruce Alcock, is an interesting piece that works as a sort of music video to an 18th century folk song about unrequited love and being dumped by your boyfriend. While this sounds rather silly, the short film turns things rather melancholy and even hopeful.

I did catch a screening of “The S From Hell” before “Tucker & Dale vs Evil.” Director Rodney Ascher unleashes a nine-minute tour de force of hilarity with a mockumentary about the origins and possible meanings behind the original Screen Gems logo of yesteryear. While the studio has updated and ultimately changed its logo, it is a great little gem of its own and everyone should seek it out wherever possible.

Finally, with the festival over and done with, there has to be a mention of this year’s winners. Here is a complete listing of the winners in every category:

• Grand Jury Prize: Documentary – Sebastien Junger and Tim Hetherington, “Restrepo”
• Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic – Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone”
• World Cinema Jury Prize: Documentary – Mads Brügger, “The Red Chapel”
• World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic – David Michôd, “Animal Kingdom”
• Audience Award: U.S. Documentary – Davis Guggenheim, “WAITING FOR SUPERMAN”
• Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic – Josh Radnor, “Happythankyoumoreplease”
• World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary – Lucy Walker, “Waste Land”
• World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic – Javier Fuentes-León, “Contracorriente”
• Best of NEXT – Todd Barnes and Brad Barnes, “Homewrecker”
• U.S. Directing Award: Documentary – Leon Gast, “Smash His Camera”
• U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic – Eric Mendelsohn, “3 Backyards”
• World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary – Christian Frei, ”Space Tourists”
• World Cinema Directing Award: Dramatic – Juan Carlos Valdivia, “Southern District”
• Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award – Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, “Winter’s Bone”
• World Cinema Screenwriting Award – Juan Carlos Valdivia, “Southern District”
• U.S. Documentary Editing Award – Penelope Falk, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”
• World Cinema Documentary Editing Award – Joëlle Alexis, “A Film Unfinished”
• Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary – Kirsten Johnson, Laura Poitras, “The Oath”
• Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic – Zak Mulligan, “Obselidia”
• World Cinema Cinematography Award: Documentary – Kate McCullough and Michael Lavelle, “His & Hers”
• World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic – Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat, “The Man Next Door”
• Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize – Diane Bell, “Obselidia”
• U.S. Documentary Special Jury Prize – Josh Fox, “Gasland”
• U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize – Mark Ruffalo, “Sympathy For Delicious”
• World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize – Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, “Enemies of the People”
• World Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Breakout Performance – Tatiana Maslany in “Grown Up Movie Star”
• Jury Prize in U.S. Short Filmmaking – “Drunk History”
• International Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking – “The Six Dollar Fifty Man”
• Honorable Mention in Short Filmmaking – “Born Sweet,” “Can We Talk?,” “Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No,” “Quadrangle, Rob and Valentyna in Scotland,” “Young Love”

This was a great year for the festivities and I think it really succeeded at Robert Redford's goal for this year: to bring the focus back to the filmmaking. Next year, I hope to see more films to bring an even more balanced look at things as a whole. Whether braving the white-knuckle ride up and down Parley’s Canyon or making my way through the onslaught of onlookers and celebrity stalkers pounding the pavement of Main Street, it was a crazy ride and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Sundance Film Festival 2010: Opening Weekend's Top Five

Welcome back! Now that we’ve been through my “bottom” five films from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival’s opening weekend, we get to the good stuff – the top five! Let’s just jump right in and see what is more than likely to be gracing a silver screen near you sometime this year (or quite soon even).

5. “Frozen”

Filmed nearby at Snowbasin Resort in Huntsville, Utah, comes a neat little film about the perils of skiing. It features some up and comers in the form of actors Emma Bell, Shawn Ashmore, and Kevin Zegers, who play Parker, Joe, and Dan respectively. We find the three hoping to have one last run down the hill before the resort closes for the week. At Mount Holliston they’re only open for the weekend and they bribe an employee to let them have one last hop down the hill before closing for a measly $100. Then all hell breaks loose for the three as they are left behind and abandoned on the lift. It’s pick your poison time as wolves, compound fractures, and frostbite all rear their ugly heads in a fight for survival that flies by in a scant 90 minutes or so. The characters are never too self-centered and their conversations feel real while the three try to figure a way out of their sticky situation. Luckily for everyone, this film opens (at least locally here in Utah) on February 5 and, having been picked up by Anchor Bay, should hopefully expand as a trailer makes it way around the net. A full review should be available next week.

4. “Happythankyoumoreplease”

Featuring one of the more interesting titles at this year’s festival for sure, Josh Radnor (of “How I Met Your Mother” fame) brings an at times heartbreakingly hilarious tale of friendships, relationships, and the things that make them work or how one can make things worse while not knowing what to do. When Sam (Radnor) wakes up late from yet another drunken one-night stand late for an interview concerning his debut novel he runs into young Rasheen (Michael Algieri), who Sam thinks has been left behind on the subway by his family. Rasheen doesn’t know how old he is and Sam is told that it was his foster family which left him and now Sam is stuck with a child in the place of a found pet on the street. This is the first of at least one too many plot lines, yet the supporting characters give so much attention to their work that it could be seen as a cross between “Garden State” and “Love Actually.” It does run a little too long and has tons of montages running rampant, but I’d rather watch a collection of scenes set to music than each individual scene dragged out in its entirety any day. The soundtrack is infectious and Kate Mara steals the whole show as Sam’s mysterious belle named Mississippi. Watch out for Kate in this summer’s “Iron Man 2” playing opposite Robert Downey, Jr. and Jon Favreu in at least one scene.

3. “Douchebag”

With a title like this one, how could anyone resist? Director Drake Doremus and a slew of writers, including star Andrew Dickler (hilariously cast as Sam Nussbaum), bring one of the funniest movies of the year that many may not ever get to see due to its (all appropriate) title. Sam really is a douchebag but this isn’t discovered until he takes off on a weird road trip with his brother Tom (a hilariously understated Ben York Jones). Sam is intended to be married to Steph (Marguerite Moreau) who has dragged Tom to join in the festivities and invest in some brotherly love after the two have not so much as talked on the phone in two years. Sam brings up the fact that Tom hasn’t had a girlfriend since the fifth grade and the two set out to find Tom a date for the wedding in the guise of one Mary Barger. Two wrong Marys don’t make a right and they start to feel that they may not find her after all, but sibling rivalry hits an all-time high and some new lows, wringing painful laughs out of every situation. Sam and Tom thankfully come off as real-life brothers and anyone who’s ever been in a relationship will appreciate the honest portrayal of both the “Brothers Gloom” and the relationship between Sam and Mary especially.

2. “Tucker & Dale vs Evil”

Two hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (TV’s “Reaper’s” Tyler Labine), head deep into the woods to spend a weekend fishing and relaxing in their new fixer-upper. Meanwhile, a group of over-sexed, drunken frat boys and girls hit the trees swillin' and tokin’ only to find their weekend party slashed to a halt as they mistakenly think that Tucker and Dale have kidnapped their friend Allison (TV’s “30 Rock’s” Katrina Bowden). With a heart of gold beating within, Tucker and Dale soon become convinced that Allison’s friends belong to a suicide cult as they accidentally begin to off themselves. Now the two poor hillbillies are up to their elbows retrieving body parts from the wood chipper or out of their freshly dug hole for the outhouse. First time feature director Eli Craig pounds every nail on the head and the laughs never stop from the very first scene as Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson disembowel the killer-in-the-woods slasher tropes. Blood flies and the body count rises as the self-proclaimed head of the group, Chad (Jesse Moss) gets crazier by the second and poor Tucker and Dale just want to have another beer and play board games with Allison, who may or may not be falling in love with big ol’ Dale. The very definition of cult classic, this deserves to be seen on the big screen with an audience howling as hysterically as the one I was lucky enough to see it with here in Salt Lake City at the Tower Theater.

1. “Catfish”

Going into this one my expectations were non-existent. All we knew was that it was a documentary about someone named Nev falling in love with Megan, the older sister of an 8-year-old girl named Abby. One day, Nev receives a package in the mail from Abby which is a painting of a photograph of Nev’s. Nev befriends Abby and becomes friends with her on Facebook and they start to email back and forth, all while Nev is sending new photos to Abby for her to paint. Things aren’t all that they seem as the New York-based photographer starts to fall in love with Megan and the relationship begins to open up, setting off a string of events that have to be seen to be believed. The less said about the plot the better. Knowing nothing myself going in, I have to give huge kudos to filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Never before has my mouth stood so agape at what I was witnessing on screen. The only way to describe this is as a sort of comedic/thriller hybrid. Except that it’s a documentary, so hilarious and engaging, yet also so remarkably chilling and intense. Trust me when I say that this is THE film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is so far the absolute do-not-miss film of the year as well.

Sundance Film Festival 2010: Opening Weekend's "Bottom Five"

I’ve never sat down to come up with a top ten list before in my life. Thankfully, when the list you’re compiling consists only of 10 films seen for a column such as this, it makes things far easier. While choosing which films to see while braving the weather in Park City, Utah over opening weekend of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (coincidentally celebrating its 25th anniversary this year) one can read all they want into synopses but it may never fully prepare you for what you’re in for.

While some of these have already been picked up for distribution, there are many that may never see a national release and could head straight for a deserved direct-to-video death (at least in one case). A few will undoubtedly be picked up in the long run and rightly deserve so while others probably won’t but more than deserve to. I have tried to come up with the best way to lay out the list and think the best way to go about things is to split it in half and start with the bottom of the heap…

10. “Southern District” (“Zona sur”)

The less said about this, the better. Here is a film so rancid, contrived, and flat-out boring that even if writer/director Juan Carlos Valdivia had centered his entire movie around the voyeuristic sex scenes it would rightly earn itself the ultimate death of the MPAA’s much dreaded NC-17 rating. If you think sitting around listening to the rich whine and moan about how hard life is or how much it sucks that your mom would never understand why you would rather live life as a poor outcast lesbian in Bolivia is enjoyable, then you desperately need to have your head examined. This is such a disgusting display of humanity that even a somewhat interesting cinematic technique can't save it. (The camera literally seems to be positioned on a lazy Susan and just slowly spins around the room while characters do whatever they think is necessary to carry the scene to another dull fadeout where you wish it was you fading out instead.)

9. “Daddy Longlegs”

Thankfully, nothing else seen was nearly as bad as “Southern District.” While co-writers/directors Ben and Joshua Safdie have not quite created the tell-all about growing up with a crazy father (the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” was far better) it at least isn’t a complete disaster. Ronald Bronstein plays far-from-father-of-the-year Lenny who only gets to see his two boys Sage and Frey (played by real-life brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo) two weeks a year. They all get in trouble together and ramble through life learning nothing from their experiences and try to keep it together long enough that the boys’ mother doesn’t snatch them away early and stop Lenny from having any visitation rights at all. The ending is far too ambiguous and there’s an excruciatingly out of place dream sequence that is even more so due to the hand-held camera style at work for the last 80 minutes. Ronald Bronstein comes off as the second coming of Denis Leary but it is only in voice.

8. “7 Days”(“Les 7 jours du talion”)

The French have definitely been giving America a run for its money when it comes to the horror genre. While some are far better than others, at least they have moments of unexpected poignancy and even better, true instances of reflection on human nature. This is, as expected, the case in director Daniel Grou’s “7 Days.” Working from a script by Patrick Senécal adapting his own novel, it makes you wonder if the fact that the original source happens to be a novel is why the film is so contemplative and realistic in the way it deals with doctor Bruno Hamel (Claude Legault) exacting revenge upon Anthony Lemaire (Martin Dubreuil) after Lemaire has raped and murdered Hamel's daughter. While some have culled this into the genre of “torture porn,” it never gets anywhere near as brutal or disgusting as those true torture porn films. Lots of the violence even happens off-screen so you never see it, or even hear much of it either. Legault as Doctor Hamel gives a riveting performance even if the script starts to flounder around by around the fourth day.

7. “Get Low”

Now that the movies considered for Oscar contention have come and gone and the New Year is in full swing, it’s interesting that this film is premiering so far in advance. Director Aaron Schneider may never get picked for his duties behind the camera come this time next year, but there is plenty of good stuff that goes on in front. As good as Robert Duvall is as the curmudgeonly hermit Felix Bush, it’s Bill Murray as funeral parlor owner Frank Quinn and Sissy Spacek as Mattie Darrow, Felix’s unrequited love of 40 years, who command the show. The direction is more than adequate and I’m sure not much was required working with this trio of such seasoned professionals. However, the script by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell tries to offer too much so-called suspense behind Felix’s mystery which means there’s far too much build-up to really make you care what happened when you hear his tale in the end. The trio may get their due next year but that’s about all that makes it worth sitting through this homegrown tall tale.

6. “The Red Chapel” (“Det røde kapel”)

While the atrocious “Southern District” and “Daddy Longlegs” may have a documentary feel to them through the cinematography, Danish director Mads Brügger brings a mesmerizingly creepy subject to life in his true documentary “The Red Chapel.” Danish/Korean-born comedians Simon Jul Jørgensen and self-proclaimed “spastic” Jacob Nossell travel to the uber-frightening land of North Korea. While everyone may hear the rumors about the tightly sealed country’s too-strict-for-comfort regime under Kim Jong-il, nothing can prepare you to bear witness to just how bad things really are. Allowed to travel into the country under the overbearing “hostess” Mrs. Pak, they are in for far more than they bargained for, mentally and possibly physically, as you wait for a spring to snap while everyone is arrested or simply gunned down before your very eyes. Riveting and more often that not highly amusing, it’s never boring and keeps you glued to your seat in anticipation of how it’s all going to end.

Coming up, I take down the top five films I saw opening weekend at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival!

Sundance Film Festival 2010: Q&A with Short Film Director Cordell Barker

Cinenerd here for Blogcritics at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. I had the great opportunity to sit down and have a chat with Cordell Barker, whose short film, “Runaway,” has been making the rounds on the short film circuit with previous stops at the Toronto and Vancouver International Film Festivals and now at this year's Sundance. Two-time Oscar nominee for “The Cat Came Back” (1989) and “Strange Invaders” (2002) he is back with a darkly comic take on the class system and is short-listed again for another Oscar nom this year. “Runaway” runs nine minutes and is part of the Animation Spotlight selection.

Loved your short, I thought it was really funny. Was that the goal?

Well, actually, not entirely. With this one I made it ... I don’t know if you’re familiar with my previous films, those were more goofy, cartoony ... and with this one I did actually intend to suppress some of the staging so that it isn’t as goofball humor, the humor is more situational. Where you understand what’s going on but it’s not as much of a pratfall kind of a goofing, screaming kind of thing. Like tossing the baby in the furnace.

I saw that.

Well see, now it’s interesting, a lot of people don’t. When I cut that together, I intentionally cut it so that, I thought, I betcha only half the audience sees that baby going in and the ones that do see it, there might even be a percentage of them that say, “Did he just throw a baby…?” so the intention was to keep the humor more at arm's length and let the metaphor play out a little bit more. Because at its heart, I thought a lot about “Masterpiece Theater.” The kind of humor that’s kind of removed, that has that kind of distance. The underlying story is more important than going for an immediate gag. With that being said, I did go for a more visceral component than I thought I was going to. It’s a mix.

The animation, right from when I got the screener, I noticed that the characters are kind of familiar. I didn’t know if you’d based it on anything… the character design?

A very strong reference for me, I’ve always loved Edward Gorey. Edward Gorey’s designs were the ones used for “Masterpiece Theater.” And his illustrated book, “The Gashlycrumb Tinies,” was always such a starting point for me. And I just wanted to get away from my “Cat Came Back” kind of roots. And even though I did that, someone recently said — they were complimenting “Runaway” — “you know it’s obviously a Cordell Barker film, it had that Cordell Barker look,” and I was thinking, “it does?” Because to me that was quite different. I tend to do hilltops as lumps and other than that, that one always takes me by surprise. I would be the last person who could ever possibly make that distinction. Other filmmakers I know say, “Oh yeah, every one of my films looks different than the rest,” and I’ll be looking at it thinking, “No it doesn’t.” It all looks the same.

The music was from the same composer who did “The Triplets of Belleville?”

Yeah, the music ended up being quite good. I enjoyed it.

I did watch your “making of” where you mentioned that you changed it from a boat to the train, it makes perfect sense, especially with the music…

With the music, the train track theme, the metaphor, and that bouncy/rhythmic thing. My instruction to the musician was “half mechanical, half melodic.” I wanted such a driving rhythmic thing that the rhythm is almost paramount to the melody. And he did do several sketches where it was more melodic, there was more of a defined tune, but even he recognized that that didn’t really serve the driving force of this thing and that it needed to have a suppressed melody line. So, it ended up working out really well.

I really like the way that the animation and the tempo of the story went so well with the music.

Right, yeah. That was a struggle to get that, I tell ya.

So this is your third film, your third short, and I couldn’t help but notice the other two times that you were nominated — congratulations, by the way for your Oscar nominations — that you’ve lost out both times to Pixar. All of my friends think it’s so funny that I call myself a “Pixar whore.” Isn’t that a little coincidental?

A bit of notoriety here is who beat me out the first time — it was John Lasseter with “Tin Toy.” So that was really like the pivotal moment of Pixar going into the stratosphere. So I sort of feel honored by the fact that I was beaten out by what ended up becoming not just the 800-pound gorilla of animation but the 800,000-pound gorilla. I don’t know if you’re aware that I’m short-listed this year as well. And then Pixar, of course, has another short out and the last time they won was with “For the Birds,” against me. And that’s the last time they won for a short. So I can’t help but skylark that I’m lucky enough to get a nomination and then Pixar is bound to because it’s really well crafted — “Partly Cloudy.” The super tight timing, great art direction, and so if they get a nomination and then let's say that wins, it would be like the last time was against me and I’m not like an every year guy, I’m like a seven years ago guy.

This one took you six years, correct?


Wow! Did you just work on this full time?

No, I couldn’t do that. I found this one so self-destructive and difficult. I went through a very painful, pessimistic mood and I thought this was going to be a career ender. It felt different than with “The Cat Came Back,” I felt like I was going into a different area there, and I just thought, “This is going to be absolutely awful.” Thought that’s it for my career. So I didn’t know what I was leading to with that statement but it led from something you asked me. I tend to be pessimistic and I think it comes out in my films, because I also sort of view myself as a buoyantly pessimistic person. I know I don’t come across that way. But at its core, I see the negative in everything and I assume the worst.

So everything I do has sort of a dark underbelly to it and I think a lot of people tap into that. I even showed it to 350 kids in a national gallery and I thought, “I don’t know if this audience is ready for “Runaway.” These were grade 5 and grade 6 students. They didn’t screen “Strange Invaders,” they screened “Cat Came Back” and that got a good reaction. “Runaway” got a much better reaction and the kids were just buzzing about it afterward and I thought wow, that was huge validation that I’d struck a chord. Because here’s a film where I’ve killed everybody except the cow and the kids liked it. Walking out of the national gallery, kids were giving me the thumbs up. In a way I’ve said that’s kind of perversely hopeful for mankind. Kids recognize the truth in it and that it doesn’t matter if the people don’t survive but that if the animals don’t survive… they somehow recognize the ecological message, I think. It’s like when I was a kid watching the old Warner Bros. cartoons. Some would be funny, I wouldn’t understand exactly what they were going for, but it was funny.

So how did you feel when you were nominated before for the other two and now to be short-listed again a third time?

Needless to say, the first nomination is like you labor away in your little spare bedroom for all those years and then I had no global awareness. I had no representation anywhere. It was just me working, going to the Film Board, usually at night because I never wanted to go during the day when anybody was there because I was just really shy, really reclusive, and then just suddenly, to get the nomination is just like I was plucked off Earth and deposited on Mars or further out somewhere. So that was such an unbelievable leap away from my comfort zone. What little comfort zone I had, I didn’t really have a comfort zone.

So the awareness of that, this woman that I knew in Montreal called me up to tell me, it was just shocking. There was no pre-release of the short film. This was just out of the blue. Some people said, “I think you might get nominated,” but that just seemed like party chat. And then when I got it the second time, I’m sure I was almost as surprised. But it’s a little different the second time. I’m not really the type that gets that jaded but at the same time how can you not be? You’ve already done it once, the bar has been set, you hope for the best but who knows.

And now you’re short-listed for a third…

Right, I’ll be like Dirk Diggler. I’m the Dirk Diggler of animation.

How did you get into animation? Was it something you always wanted to do?

Oh yeah, but I didn’t actually have the drawing skills. Drawing for me has always been, even now, 30 plus years later, has always been a struggle. And I even ask animators, like real animators that sit and draw all day long, with incredulity, “So you don’t mind drawing all day?” and they look at me like like they’re stunned and they say, “No.” But for me that is such a painful process. Always, always a painful process. Now, if I was to sit down and do “Cat Came Back” characters that would be fairly painless. But doing the characters from “Runaway?” Oh, my god, it’s brutal. Picture that film if I had done it with “Cat Came Back” like characters. It just wouldn’t resonate. You wouldn’t necessarily see the metaphor or if you saw it it wouldn’t feel genuine. Right? And I knew intuitively that it needed that kind of stateliness. A certain level of stateliness, at least in the first class passengers and in the captain and in the fireman. But the second class could be a little bit looser and that sort of helped state the metaphor.

Would you ever consider directing a live action feature?

I would love to do that. But I would have to make a leap into doing a live action short, to show that I could. I have a few ideas that are actually animation/live action hybrids and I’ve often thought, “That would be my way in, in a way.” A balanced hybrid but then really lean toward the live action but almost do the live action in an animation kind of sense.

Kind of like “A Scanner Darkly?”

Well, actually more of a hybrid where you have live action presented as live action with animation elements inserted, that kind of hybrid. Or like “Scanner Darkly.” Anything like that would be fun, mainly because I would get to work with other people. I would say 92 percent of my animation has been sitting in a room, by myself, with no music playing. So picture how long those days can feel. The trade-off is that you have to be decisive and make a decision, move on. Budgets don’t allow for you to waffle. Whatever’s in the can at the end of the day is done and you better hope you have some workable material. So that’s a little frightening. With animation there’s never a point at which you can’t go back and tweak something.

Was there anything you might have done differently?

I love that question! A kid asked me that in Ottawa, and I’ve often thought that was the best question but nobody ever asks that. So, very good. In “Runaway,” it would’ve been the pacing because I tend to, with tightly timed stuff, tend to get caught up in the momentum of the story. Of course, I’ve seen it 120 times, and so you see it at a different speed than a fresh audience will see it. So I start compacting things where it starts moving too quickly. So, as a result, the section where the train is stalled at the top of the hill, that whole scene where the captain comes out of the cabin to the point where the train starts rolling, I should’ve played that. Really dragged that out. Because then the moment when the train starts to take off would feel that much faster.

And the part where the train is floating, where the couple is regarding each other as they’re floating, I should have milked that, because it is such a beautiful piece, and let that floating just play out a bit longer. What doesn’t trigger denial like love? The whole world fades away. What other more powerful excuse than ignoring the problems of the world than being in love? But that would’ve been more effective if that was drawn out just another 15 seconds. I tend to make films with a very strong timeline. When I was getting up to the nine-minute mark, it could not exceed nine minutes. Well, as it turned out, the story took place in eight minutes, and then the credits roll for a minute. So that eight-minute mark, I would just go through and pluck out frames trying to be very precise, very trimmed down to the bone.

What was your process for coming up with this particular story?

The ultimate driving force is I want to do a film that was rhythmically based. But at the same time, I had this awareness where I’d see things happening… most of it was ecologically driven. I started thinking of the old metaphor, “runaway train,” so I thought, well, I’m just gonna make it fit that because then I can have my rhythmic quality and that balanced tipping point where we can decide. So it all just fed into the whole “runaway train” thing.

Do you have any plans for the future?

I would like to do something bigger than a short but I am planning another short for the National Film Board (of Canada) but I sort of have to do that because I can’t just say, well, sit down for two years of development work, or whatever it takes, I have to do something. But then that’s like when I was doing my shorts, I was doing commercials while I was making the shorts so now I’d like to make the short while I develop bigger things. This time I actually would think about the development whereas on the other three I primarily just thought about the shorts or thought about my next short. So now I’m kind of looking at the next bump up. Assuming there would be a bump up for me.

I would hope that with a third nomination there would be one.

Hard to say. See, I’m a pessimist, so, I always think no, because there’s a lot of unbelievable talent out there all scratching at the big door so who knows? I think a lot of it is serendipity. You scratch at the door at just that right moment as somebody’s coming out so who knows how these things trigger. It’s just being at the right place at the right time.

Time Blows Away First Impressions As a Revisit To “The Hurt Locker” Shows the Film’s Age Too Quickly

Rated R for war violence and language.
131 minutes
Summit Entertainment
*** 1/2 out of 5

It’s funny how time really can change one’s perception. I was once asked by some friends if I have ever gone back and re-watched a film and had my opinion changed. Usually I don’t find this happening very often, so my initial response was no. While there are times when, over the years, a film can become a product of its time or something of a personal cult classic where you gaze in wonder and ponder what you liked in the first place, rarely have I had this happen with something I first saw only a few months ago.

The first time I sat down in a theater to see Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war drama, “The Hurt Locker” was over the summer when it was finally released locally here in Salt Lake City, Utah. I remember the sheer shock and awe of scene after scene jam-packed with so much suspense the runtime of 131 minutes seemed to fly by. While not necessarily what one could call an extremely entertaining movie, it was definitely a highly engaging movie — at least upon my initial reaction.

The Golden Globes have now come and gone and everyone was positive that “The Hurt Locker” would be a shoo-in for at least one of its three nominated categories. Bigelow lost out to ex-husband James Cameron in two categories (Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama) and again the film lost out for Best Screenplay (Mark Boal). For some it was simple shock as most consider “The Hurt Locker” to be exceedingly better than “Avatar.” While “The Hurt Locker” obviously didn’t have the box office receipts ($12 million for “The Hurt Locker” to the daily-growing current take of $509 million at the time of this writing for “Avatar”), time will tell as to whether the Academy decides who will be taking home the coveted Oscar statues come March 7, 2010.

It’s 2004 in Baghdad and SSgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, who at least deserves a nomination of his own for his spectacular performance here) loves nothing more than disarming bombs. Having just been assigned to Camp Victory under the tutelage of Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), James expresses that he in no way wants to seem like he wants to take the place of recently blown up Sgt. Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce in a great cameo). All he wants to do is do his best and get to some dismantling.

James has personally defused 873 bombs and has a mere 38 days left in his rotation before returning home to his wife, Connie (“Lost’s” Kate, Evangeline Lilly) and baby boy. Sanborn and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are quick to judge James as either suicidal or just another adrenaline junkie redneck. While Eldridge has been seeing a shrink, it appears at times as if Sanborn is homicidal and has been out in the heat far too long.
James eventually does come to needing an escape as well after he buys a bootleg video from a young Iraqi boy who calls himself “Beckham” (Christopher Sayegh). Later, when James discovers a young boy lying on a table after what appears to be great amount of torture he is convinced that the boy on the table is Beckham. Even later in the film when James runs into Beckham on the streets of Baghdad he’s not convinced whether the boy is really alive or not and pretends to ignore him.
Once James is back home, whether trying to decide on a cereal, aloofly approaching his wife and son as if they’re strangers meeting for the first time, or continually droning on to Connie about war stories, it’s abundantly clear that James has a home and he is not at it. When he sits down to have a one-sided heart to heart with his baby boy about how the things he thinks he loves the most may one day only be three or less it drives the point home that where James belongs, at least mentally, is on his own turf, back in Iraq.

By now, most will have either managed to see the film theatrically when it was released or are seeing it again or for the first time on home video. If you are in virgin territory here, congratulations, you are in for a rocking good time. One of the biggest reason for my lowered score upon revisiting what I originally thought was one of the best war films in years comes down to three things: supporting characters, pacing, and the way too long run time.