On the Radar: George Clooney in ‘The Descendants’

Summer movie season is my least favorite time to go to the theater. The only good thing about it is when the summer starts to fade out and the excitement of the new Fall releases begins to percolate. These are usually the movies I want to see and this year looks no different. One film that I am especially excited about is The Descendants – and if you watch the trailer below, you’ll have a good idea as to why that is. First off, it is the first feature-length film written and directed by Alexander Payne since the amazing Sideways (2004), a film I thought belonged in the Top 10 movies of the decade. His short film, “14e Arrondissement” was, in my opinion, the very best to be included in Paris Je T-Aime. And now The Descendants, which looks like it has award nominations written all over it.

The movie looks like a tremendous vehicle for George Clooney. I have always liked Clooney, but have always felt that he fits ‘too easily’ in the roles that he takes on – even in those roles in which he has garnered much critical praise from. I am always thinking that, although quite convincing, he could have played these roles (Up in the Air, Three Kings, Out of Sight) in his sleep. From the looks of it, Matt King, the character he plays in The Descendants, gets him out of his comfort zone just a bit – and we, the audience, can perhaps have greater empathy for him this time around. Here, Clooney is trying to re-connect with his adolescent daughters after his wife suffers a terrible accident and falls into a coma. We can see that his relationship with his girls is strenuous at best – and when one of them breaks the news to him that their mom was having an affair, it shatters his world.

I can’t wait for the release of this movie. It looks like the typical grand fare that we have come to expect from Payne (Election and About Schmidt) – a wonderful blend of the tragic and lighthearted; heartbreaking and quite funny – with a pitch-perfect script and wonderfully sculpted characters to surround Clooney. I’m sure the Fall movies will bring with it much competition for Payne’s latest work – but for right now, I am eager to see what this movie brings.

The Top 10 Films of 2009 Ranked by Peter Eramo


2009 was a relatively weak year for films. Unfortunately, I don’t get paid to be a film critic (not yet anyway) so I don’t see eveything that comes out. Though I did manage to view 125+ films for the year — I try and stay away from the “safe bets” guaranteed to be crap like “The Proposal” or “The Land of the Lost” or “The Ugly Truth” and focus on the ones that look as if they are worth my time and money. There was not a stand-out phenomenal film this past year…no modern-day classic to speak of. Hopefully, 2010 brings us a better crop in the months ahead.

In any case, here is my list of the Top 10 films from 2009, complete with a list of honorable mentions that are also all solid films. At the bottom of each post is a link to view the official trailers in case you’d like to give it a peek. Give it a read, and as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject…what do you feel I omitted, what film am I nuts for including, where was I actually (dare I say) right on the money?

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)

Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, among others, this was certainly the best animated film of the year, without a doubt. And don’t give me “Up”…please. Based on the story by Roald Dahl, this film was pure enjoyment to watch — as well as being uproariously funny. For a full review on this film, click on this link.

9. Sunshine Cleaning (dir. Christine Jeffs)

A charming, poignant and offbeat indie film from the producers behind the Cinderella film, “Little Miss Sunshine.” This film revolves around the relationship between Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt), two sisters who are leading completely unfulfilling lives — but manage to set up shop and start their own business…crime-scene clean-up! Once upon a time, Amy had her whole future ahead of her when she was a popular cheerleader in high school dating the star football player. Now she is a single mom with a young son and though she still sees that same football player (Steve Zahn), it is nothing more than an illicit, thankless affair since he has married another.

The film focuses on Amy putting her foot down and getting her life in order, but it also does a terrific job at exploring the relationship between the two diverse sisters. Emily Blunt (who is just adorable to watch anywhere, anytime) is incredibly effective here — the hard-as-nails, pot-smoking aunt on the outside, but underneath, we see that she is simply vulnerable and frightened. Alan Arkin is great (no shocker) as their dad and his scenes with his precocious grandson are very humorous. Though it is not laugh-out-loud funny, there are some terribly funny moments here, especially as the gals start going out on jobs cleaning up shackled homes of people who have just committed suicide. When Rose is asked by one of her friends (who apparently has actually made something of her life) if she actually likes her grotesque job, she responds, quite philosophically, somewhat appropos: “Yeah. I do. We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound – and sad. And they’ve lost somebody. And the circumstances, they’re always different. But that’s the same. And we help. In some small way, we help.” A bittersweet film, with a genuine and effective script and authentic performances all-around, this one was too enjoyable for me not to include here.
*To watch the trailer for “Sunshine Cleaning,” click here

8. A Serious Man (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

I’m not sure I would recommend this film to someone unfamiliar with the ouevre of the brilliant work of the Coen brothers, but to me, it surely ranks as one of their stronger films and is most similar in style and tone to their masterpiece, “Barton Fink.” It is certainly their most universal — and most Jewish film to date. Not a full-out comedy like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but filled with much of the dark humor that has been a staple in nearly all of their films. This is a very mature, intelligent work with skilled art direction, use of music, and a helluva image to use as the film’s final shot. No big stars in this film at all, which I think was a bold, smart choice. Rarely do these guys make a wrong turn (well, there was “Intolerable Cruelty,” but so what…one bad turn).

The film is set in 1967 and revolves around the relatively simple life of college professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). He lives in a world of formulas and certainty, but many times, the world around us doesn’t follow rules or certainty. Ironically, he teaches the Theory of Uncertainty, but really doesn’t grasp its concepts beyond the mathematics. His whole world is coming down around him and he merely seeks answers as to why and the film focuses on Gopnik trying to cope with all the chaos that is swarming around him.

Amazing performances by a relatively unknown cast. Michael Stuhlbarg was certainly snubbed of a Best Actor Oscar nomination here as the film is all on his shoulders and he does a wonderful job as our modern-day Job. Richard Kind is great as Larry’s bizarre brother, and Fred Melamud plays Sy, the man who is having an affair with Larry’s wife. Melamud is perfect casting here…a seemingly perfect gentleman on the surface, but what a slimeball this guy is! A top-notch screenplay and careful, astute direction (as always), I cannot wait to give this movie another viewing. Like all of the films made by the Coen Brothers, there is always something new to catch and one gains a greater appreciation for the movie as a whole. A clever, dark, and honest film.
*To watch the trailer for “A Serious Man,” click here

7. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)

Viewers of this film are warned even before the credits even roll that “This is Not A Love Story,” so those who may enjoy the typical formulated, predictable romantic-comedies (can anyone say Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock) may be disappointed here. It tells the story of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he reflects back on his relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel). The fresh and creative script jumps us back and forth in time through the (500) days of their bi-polar relationship and director Marc Webb uses some amusing techniques (split screens, animation, a hokey/cute musical dance number set to Hall & Oates) throughout to show the viewers how Tom is experiencing things. He is head over heels in love with the quirky and independent Summer – Tom fully believes that she is the one. The only problem is that Summer doesn’t believe in long relationships or in love – she feels that life will always get in the way. Tom seeks advice and guidance from his two best friends, but most of all from his little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz).

Despite the forewarning we are given, “(500) Days of Summer” is love story. There is no way around it. It may not be the typical love story — or follow the conventional “love story” plot devices, but this is a wonderful departure from all of that and that is what makes this film a breath of fresh air. Gordon-Levitt (excellent in “The Lookout“) is very natural here, very soft-spoken as Tom, the greeting card writer who aspires to become an architecht — and who is desperately trying to win over the woman he loves so passionately. Deschanel is a joy to watch. She is not your typical leading lady at all, but there is something about her that keeps your eyes glued to her every move. She’s got that hypnotic sing-song voice and of course, is lovely to look at – we can see and understand why Tom is bitten so hard here. Their chemistry here seemed very natural throughout. I could not believe the film was snubbed of all Oscar categories, especially for Original Screenplay. But it remains one of the stronger, more creative romantic-comedies (too bad guys…it is one) in recent years and surely one of 2009’s very best.
*To watch the trailer for “(500) Days of Summer,” click here

6. Watchmen (dir. Zack Snyder)

I could not believe how much I enjoyed and how overly impressed I was with this unique superhero film. I am not a reader of graphic novels and knew nothing about this particular one written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, so I went in completely blind. Unlike most films of its genre, “The Watchmen” is highly stylized, dark, and cynical, containing much more material for adults than teens (in themes, graphic violence and sex/nudity). What I also enjoyed (and was surprised by, quite frankly) was the moral questions that the film raises and tries to answer. I enjoyed this film more than “The Dark Knight” and almost any other superhero film I have seen.

The film is set in an alternative 1985, with Richard Nixon in his fourth term as U.S. president, the Cold War raging on and superheroes are banned from using their powers despite the constant threat of a nuclear war. After one of the masked members of the Watchmen group is murdered, an investigation (initiated by the memorable Rorschach character) follows and with it, a far deeper plot that the heroes must combat.

The film is so beautifully stylized, with tremendous visual effects and art direction. How this film wasn’t nominated in a handful of the technical Oscar categories still escapes me. And though it is high in budget, there still has a feel of art-house in it. The soundtrack is phenomenal, as it cleverly incorporates some classic rock tunes by Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, among others. Jackie Earle Haley steals the show as Rorschach, but Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) are all great here. I remember before its release, a film-blogging friend was a bit worried about the movie because he absolutely loved the graphic novel and was a loyal follower of it. He was so overly impressed with it, I think he went at least 8 times in the theatre to screen it. He told me how faithful it was to the novel and that it far exceeded any expectations he had going in…and this is from a guy who is an avid follower of the literature. Again, I went in “blind” and loved it as well.
*To watch the trailer for “Watchmen,” click here

5. Das Weisse Band or The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke)

A magnificent cinematic achievement, “The White Ribbon” takes place in a small, rural town in Germany during 1913-1914. reminiscient of Bergman’s masterpiece “Fanny and Alexander” in some ways,Haneke’s film explores the darkness of man and foreshadows the darkness of what is to come in Germany in the years that follow. A number of peculiar, horrific crimes/acts occur in this small village and the mystery abounds as to who is responsible for them. But Haneke is not concerned with solving this mystery as much as he is trying to illustrate the brutality that exists in both adults and children. Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, the white ribbon of the title suggests an innocence which has been lost and possibly the looming apparition of facsism; the small community, an analogy for a world on the brink of war.

The performances here are extraordinary. Though the pacing may be slow to some, it is a riveting drama exploring character and the hypocrisy of domestic and religious values. Yes, there are moments that are rather difficult to watch (in the best way possible), but they surely serve a greater purpose. Haunting, profound, potent and altogether human, “The White Ribbon” is a triumph of a film.
*To watch a trailer for “The White Ribbon,” click here

4. The Invention of Lying (dir. Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson)

You’re probably laughing at me right now, wondering why in the world is this film included here, let alone ranked so high on the list itself. Is it a higher cinematic achievement than “The White Ribbon” or “A Serious Man“? Probably not, I would agree. But my reasoning here is quite simple — pure enjoyment! Comedies are always overshadowed by their big brothers – the more serious dramas and “arthouse” films on these kinds of Top 10 lists. I did not want to fall victim to that. But that is not the only reason I include this film. It was just too damn funny, too damn smart and too damn fine a film.

The film is set in a world where no one has ever told a lie. That is, until Mark Bellison, a writer who is about to be fired (Ricky Gervais), creates one on the spur of the moment for personal gain. Mark is overweight, under-successful, short and comes from a poor gene pool. He is in love with Anna (Jennifer Garner) who is way out of his league as she is looking for the perfect mate with ideal genes to create perfect, good-looking children. Of course Mark begins to take advantage of his discovery little by little until one day, the hospital staff overhear him speaking to his mother on her deathbed as he desribes what Heaven is truly like. Everyone believes him of course and Mark not only becomes famous, but a prophet of the people as well.

What Gervais and Robinson have created here is one of the better comedies I have seen in years (although “Tropic Thunder” is right up there as well). I was constantly reminded of the better films of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen throughout. Gervais gives an endearing, hilarious performance here and manages to also include his own personal opinions on God, religion, love and the backwards priorities of our society. An entirely original film, I was blown away at how funny and clever it was. The film also features some great cameo appearances (which I won’t spoil here) and execllent supporting work from Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill. Gervais is certainly making a name for himself here in the States — I only hope that people begin to recognize that this is a major force in comedy right now — not only is this one downright hilarious, but on top of that, has a heart to match.
*To watch the trailer for “Invention of Lying” click here

3. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Well, one thing is for certain…this film is unlike any other war film you have ever seen. That’s for damn sure. The film reeks of Tarantino dialogue, plot twists, homages to the spaghetti westerns and French New Wave cinema — as well as the dark humor that has been a trademark of his since his debut with “Reservoir Dogs.” I went in really not wanting to like it (as I’m not the biggest fan of his), but I could not deny what an excellent film he helmed here.

We are in Nazi-occupied France during World War II and a platoon of Jewish American soldiers are enlisted to spread fear throughout Hitler’s Third Reich…they have one mission — to kill and skin the heads of us many Nazis as they possibly can. The Basterds are headed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Southern American with a thick accent and passion for killing Nazis. The other part of the film focuses on Jewish refugee Shosanna Dreyfus (a very impressive Melanie Laurent), who is plotting her revenge several years later after witnessing the slaughtering of her family. The first scene of the film itself (a long, fascinating scene) keeps you glued to the edge of your seat…Tarantino does a brilliant job of building the suspense here with effective use of editing, exceptional dialogue and the masterful performance of Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa) who steals the film and has created one of film’s very best villains, wholly deserving of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win. Waltz is unbelievable and is at his most evil when there is a smile across his face.

There is hardly a dull moment here and when you are thinking one thing is going to happen, you find that you are wrong and something else does. Pitt is fine here with his deadpan delivery and is actually quite funny. Great use of color, set design and photography, this is a film that builds from the very first scene and never lets up. Yes, it is not at all historically accurate, but Tarantino knows that and he also knows his business is to entertain….he does that here in spades.
*To watch the trailer for “Inglourious Basterds” click here

2. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)

An American film that does such an interesting, on-the-mark job of conveying modern American values and the historical unemployment recession that has fallen on us these recent years. Jason Reitman wrote/directed the utterly brilliant “Thank You for Smoking” and the tad over-rated “Juno,” but rebounds nicely with this superb script which makes for a highly pleasing film and one of the year’s very best.

Ryan Bingham’s (George Clooney) job is to fire people from theirs. He spends nearly his entire life living out of a suitcase, going from airport to airport and hotel to hotel – and he loves every minute of it. He has almost no connections in his life – not even his family. The firm takes on young Natalie (Anna Kendrink) who has come up with a method of firing these poor schleps via video conferencing, thereby threatening Ryan’s way of living — his way of being. He takes her under his tutelage on one of his cross-country firing sprees and as the brash Natalie begins to see the actual pain and suffering she is causing real people with real families, Ryan is beinning to discover a lot more about himself. Along the way, we follow the relationship between Ryan and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate traveler. The two try and meet up as often as their schedules will allow and Ryan begins to feel that perhaps he may want more from Alex than just sex in a different hotel room each time.

The script in itself is a great achievement. I’m still angered that it did not capture the Best Original Screenplay Oscar as it most certainly deserved it. The performances, all solid. Clooney is perfect as Ryan Bingham – he is confident, charming, quick-witted and at times, vulnerable…in other words, he does his “Clooney thing” – he can do this in his sleep. Vera Farmiga is wonderful here and in one scene in particular (she’s in her car alone), you just want to smack her. Jason Bateman also has a strong supporting role as Bingham’s boss – a clever bit of casting here. “Up in the Air” is a timely film, a well-made film and most of all, a very, very enjoyable film. Reitman is really building up quite a nice resume here and I am anxious to see what he gives us next.
*to watch the trailer for “Up in the Air” click here

1. District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

I am in no way a science-fiction film. But it is so much more than that. I was not expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did and though it came out relatively early in 2009, it never lost its ranking as what I perceived as the best motion picture of the year. The onset of the film has an authentic docu-drama look and feel to it, but as the film builds, it morphs into sci-fi character drama and finally, a police thriller. And all the while, it never loses its sense of realism, nor do we ever not believe in any of the characters or their choices.

An extraterrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions in Johannesburg — a refugee-camp where humans refer to them as “prawns” as they exploit and abuse these creatures since they arrived on Earth in 1982. Now it is 2010 and Multi-National United, a munitions corporation is forcing the eviction of these aliens from District 9 to a new camp. The man in charge of the operation is Wilus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley). At first quite clumsy and a somewhat silly authoritative figure, van der Merwe is suddenly exposed to a strange alien chemical and must now rely on his new prawn friends to save his own life as his human family and friends begin to turn on him.

The analogies in the film (apartheid, Guantanamo Bay) are evident, but it doesn’t hit you over the head or insult the viewer. The relatively unknown Copley gives an outstanding performance here and the visual effects are top-notch even though it’s not technically a high-budget film. What makes “District 9” such a remarkable film is its excellent work of character, its sense of authenticity, crisp editing, great action sequences (especially the last 20 minutes or so) and the way it makes you sympathize and feel for the aliens. The very last shot in itself is a memorable, chilling one. A powerful, intelligent, and moving film on a whole. This is Blomkamp’s first major film (produced by Peter Jackson) and he has delivered a near-masterpiece of a film that I think will be remembered for years to come…the best to come out in 2009!
*to watch the trailer for “District 9” click here.

HIGHLY HONORABLE MENTIONS
Though they did not crack the Top 10 list, here is a brief listing of some other excellent films that came out last year that I would surely recommend. They are, in no particular order:

Sin Nombre (dir. Cary Fukunaga)
Funny People (dir. Judd Apatow)
The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos)
Julia (dir. Erick Zonca)
Management (dir. Stephen Belber)
The Road (dir. John Hillcoat)
The Last Station (dir. Michael Hoffman)
Crazy Heart (dir. Scott Cooper)
The Great Buck Howard (dir. Sean McGinly)

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Peter Eramo Reviews “Fantastic Mr. Fox”


I’ll start by saying that, like most avid film fans I know, I am not at all an admirer of Wes Anderson films. I enjoyed his debut film “Bottle Rocket,” felt “Rushmore” to be a tad over-rated, disliked “The Royal Tenenbaums” and could not stand “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” Having said that, I went into “Fantastic Mr. Fox” with little expectations — and absolutely adored it! With an all-star cast and an enormously witty script adapted from the famous Roald Dahl story, this is a wonderfully funny, touching and enjoyable film this is for audiences of all ages.

The film revolves around Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his mid-fox-life crisis. He says to his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep): “Honey, I am seven fox years old. My father died at seven and a half. I don’t want to live in a hole anymore, and I’m going to do something about it.” With that, Mr. Fox goes behind his wife’s back to re-enter the once adventurous life he had before the Foxes were expecting their first cub. You see, Mr. Fox is a highly skilled chicken thief, but gave his word to the adorable Mrs. Fox that he would give up that life to become a devoted family man. But Mr. Fox wants more in his life…he misses the excitement, the rush; he wants to live better and in a nicer house. In going back to his life of crime, Mr. Fox puts the entire animal community in jeopardy. He’s the one who gets everyone in this mess — and he’s the one spearheading the plan to get them all out.

The stop-motion animation works brilliantly here. The casting of Clooney is perfect. Mr. Fox is quick, charming, whimsical, irresistable and struggling with himself. Mrs. Fox tells him at one point, “You know, you really are…fantastic” to which Clooney replies in that wonderful dead-pan delivery, “I try.” And the film is peppered with the dry humor that is a trademark of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (who co-adapted the script). Meryl Streep makes a delightful Mrs. Fox. She knows what she signed up for when she married her daredevil husband (“I love you, but I should have never married you,” she tells him at one point).

The rest of the cast who lend their vocal talents to the film also fit admirably. Jason Schwartzman (an Anderson fav) is ideal playing Ash, Mr. Fox’s son who is dying to be an able athlete and is at odds throughout the film with his cousin Kristofferson (who, of course, is a quite gifted athlete). Ash wants his father’s approval and he wants the attention of the ladies — but Kristofferson has the innate talent to capture both…a great foil for Ash.

Bill Murray (as Badger), Willem Dafoe (playing a bad-ass rat with a knife) and Owen Wilson (as Coach Skip) round out the great cast. Michael Gambon is also terrific as Franklin Bean, the man out to kill Mr. Fox and the entire animal community.

I laughed throughout the film (distributed by 20th Century Fox) — it is just as good, if not superior to Pixar’s output and was robbed by the much-hyped, though sweet film, “Up” at this year’s Oscar ceremony. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the better film – it’s smarter, it’s funnier. It is aimed to adult viewers just as much as it is to kids. The chapter titles are fitting and I was amused by the use of the word “cuss” when the characters wanted to…well, use other words instead. And beneath all of the humor throughout the film, there are those serious themes that do not go unnoticed. There are some rather profound moments which hit even harder because of the proper balance with the comedy.

I highly recommend this film to those who love animated films and those who never really give them much of a chance. And if you are like me and said to yourself that you wouldn’t see another Wes Anderson film after you had to sit through the snooze-fest that was “The Life Aquatic…,” then give Anderson another shot…you will not be disappointed.

Film: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Director: Wes Anderson
Year: 2009

Rating: *** 1/2 (out of 4 stars)

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