I wish I could say I saw all of the movies featured in that trailer. School, alas, prevented me from doing so, but at least I did squeeze some good ones into my schedule. Here, in order of when I saw them, are the movies I watched at the 49th New York Film Festival.

Melancholia – R
Lars von Trier writes and directs this eerie story about the end of two worlds. The first collapse is an intangible one, of a bride (a moving Kirsten Dunst) losing her mind over the course of a disastrous wedding reception. The second and better half shows the bride, her sister (a wonderful Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law (a potent Kiefer Sutherland) witnessing the imminent collision of Earth with the planet Melancholia, brought to life through simple yet entrancing special effects. The uniformly superb cast successfully maintains von Trier’s sad and gloomy tone even in the film’s more jovial moments. From its artful opening montage to its beautifully terrifying final shot, Melancholia works very well as both science fiction and as a personal drama.
This review was originally published by The Fordham Observer.

A Separation – PG-13
When an Iranian couple (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami) divorces, the husband hires a woman (Sareh Bayat) to help care for his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is stricken with Alzheimer’s. A terrible incident sparks an endless parade of accusations and revelations that turns employee against employer, spouses against spouses and children against parents. Asghar Farhadi’s deeply involving drama withholds many details in this affair to let each viewer debate the facts long after the movie ends. This film is subtly tense, deftly puzzling and tenderly human, creating an impartial mystery in which even characters who do not appear deserving of sympathy earn it.

Miss Bala – R
Gerado Naranjo has fashioned a genuinely exciting action film about a beauty pageant contestant who is forced into the world of Mexican drug trafficking. Every single scene is told from her perspective, which works thanks to Stephanie Sigman’s appealing performance. Naranjo uses long takes throughout the film to build an impressive amount of suspense. One major shortcoming is the escalating sexual advances the gang leader (Miguel Couturier) makes on the girl. These scenes are distracting and somewhat plodding, adding little to her already humiliating situation. The film is much more stirring when it focuses on the girl acting alone as hostage and forced accomplice.

My Week with Marilyn – R
Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn is a biopic whose adoration for its subject, Marilyn Monroe, is so strong it renders the film a little insufferable. Set during the production of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), it has so many moments that exclaim, “Wow, what a beautiful and tragic star she was” that there are too few introspective scenes. Michelle Williams gives a fine performance as Monroe, but the real treat is Kenneth Branagh’s highly entertaining take on Sir Lawrence Olivier. The actors are good enough to warrant a slight recommendation, but if you want a real tribute to Monroe’s talents, just watch Some Like It Hot (1959) if you haven’t seen it before (or lately).

Goodbye First Love – NR
Mia Hansen-Løve’s story of a young French girl’s loss of her first love and how she moves on with a new one is the only movie I saw this year that I would unreservedly say is bad. It is full of dull, mopey characters whose self-centered demeanors failed to earn any of my sympathy; I suppose it may have been Hansen-Løve’s point to paint a picture of how childish first love can be, but painting a picture so thoroughly sullen does not build solid interest. As I watched the movie, there were times when I would much rather have followed the horses in the background than spend any more energy focusing on the drab humans.

The Descendants – R
In Alexander Payne’s first film since Sideways (2004), George Clooney plays a father who must reconcile with his family after his wife goes comatose in a boating accident. This is Clooney’s best performance since Michael Clayton (2007), mixing frustration and heartbreak with a despairing hope that things will get better. The rest of the movie does not match up, for it fails to integrate drama and comedy into a cohesive whole. While the comedy in Sideways is an extension of the drama, the jokes in The Descendants feel more like bald, inorganic relief from the surrounding sadness. The overall film is competent yet uneven, but Clooney makes it absolutely worth seeing.


Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross is a good movie that falls aggravatingly short of excellence. The film, which opens at Film Forum on Sept. 14, shows us riveting visuals as it ponders the source of artistic inspiration. Two recurring and vexing flaws spoil the atmosphere and ultimately hinder what should have been a lovely piece of work.

THE LION KING Rereleased in 3-D: One Dimension Too Many?

This weekend, Disney’s The Lion King returned to theaters for a two-week 3-D engagement. This release is the latest in a small trend of 3-D reissues that began five years ago with Disney’s reissue of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Beloved films that have not been seen in theaters for years are being converted into 3-D prints for theatrical exhibition. While this is still an evolving practice, one should consider whether it should be happening at all. Are 3-D reissues spoiling classic movies, or are they a modern outlet for seeing notable older films in theaters again?


Now that the summer movie season is in its last week, I'm going to reflect a bit on the highs and lows of this year's crop. Since I was not writing for a newspaper this summer, I did not see as many summer movies as I have previously. This list marks selected movies I did see (in current order of preference) with annotations of their particular achievements. The only movie I excluded, Crazy, Stupid, Love., was not bad, but it did not have anything too distinctive.


Terrence Malik’s The Tree of Life has been by far the most difficult movie for me to review. I did not have much trouble understanding it, but it has taken tremendous effort for me to describe and interpret the film. Even now, I’m unsure if I am properly relaying the sheer artistry of Malik’s latest endeavor. I can only suggest in broad strokes what I hope you will discover yourself and say the film’s mysterious images, meditative pace and celestial themes make it one of the most enthralling motion picture experiences in recent years.


Disney’s Winnie the Pooh is one of the most altogether pleasing family films in some while. For very young children, its straightforward narrative is bright and friendly without the adult sensibility of Rango, the violence of Kung Fu Panda 2 or the potentially overwhelming scariness of Toy Story 3. For parents, it is a diverting reminder of things they enjoyed as children. For Disney aficionados, it is an affectionate revitalization of the style initiated in the 60s and 70s Pooh cartoons. For anyone, the whole film is simply smashing.


Today is the United States of America's 235th Independence Day. Celebrations of our nation's birth will not only see fireworks and cookouts, but also patriotic movies. AMC will host a Rocky marathon while Turner Classic Movies will show features like 1776 (1972) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Personally, I like to watch something that is distinctly American without overtly saying, “Golly, we’re wonderful!” I might pick something that celebrates rustic Americana, like Disney's So Dear to My Heart (1948), or something encapsulating our optimism and happiness, like Singin' in the Rain (1952) or The Wizard of Oz (1939). This year, however, I watched a movie with a decidedly unflattering view on America: Robert Altman's Nashville (1975).

CARS 2 - G

One of my favorite toys when I was young was a purple car that could fly. Jet engines would sprout out of the trunk and the doors would turn into wings. I loved imagining it flying and taking down bad guys, and now it sits in my closet safe from being given away. Imagine my delight and gratification when, during the final battle in Cars 2, a purple car sprouted wings and started flying to the rescue. This is just one of the keen, childlike marvels you'll see in this movie, the 12th from Pixar Animation Studios.


Last Saturday was the graduation for my old high school’s class of 2011. My graduation was three years ago, and I can’t help but think a little bit about what senior year was like. In many ways, it was just business as usual; finishing my studies, writing for the school newspaper and acting in school plays took up most of my time. However, there was a certain trepidation that came and went in my free time. I asked myself whether I could handle living alone and would my attractive metropolitan destination be anything like the cozy home and people I had taken for granted. I’d bet every impending graduate feels that way, though I’m equally sure not many of them would care to admit it.


Kung Fu Panda has gone from being just one very good movie to being a sprightly animated franchise. The original, starring Jack Black as the titular warrior Po, was an expertly done feature that leapt well over my expectations. Now we have Kung Fu Panda 2, which has enough of the same fun and visual excitement to reward all who waited for it to arrive, even if it also loses some of the first movie's strengths.


1. Fantasia (1940)

I won’t pretend this is an easy film to sit through, but I believe it is the Disney film in which the concept is the most audacious, the staging is the most inspired and the animation is the most accomplished. It is a celebration of honest imagination without any predetermined notion of its audience. It is what it is, and you can either like it or not. In my book, it could very well be the best animated feature of them all.


Disney's Five Best Opening Numbers

1. "Belle," Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Could it really be anything else? “Belle” is the culmination of opening numbers throughout musical theatre history. It’s as expository as “Tradition,” as catchy as “Wilkommen” and as delightful as “Comedy Tonight.” The memorable melody, marvelous lyrics and bustling animation make this sequence an opening so grand you can’t wait to see what the movie will pull off next.


Disney's Five Best Villain Songs

1. "Hellfire," The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Any villain song list should include this number just to recognize what an anomaly it is in the Disney canon. A song using the villain’s agony to portray his deviousness, “Hellfire” is colored with sexual imagery that’s actually milder than what was originally storyboarded. This sequence best signifies Hunchback's goal to be a great musical over a great Disney musical.


Disney's Five Best "I Want" Songs

1. "Part of Your World," The Little Mermaid (1989)

Of the songs on this list, this one benefits its movie the most. Without it, Ariel might appear to be a spoiled brat (or more than she already does, as the detractors would say). She makes her case with some pretty singing and some brilliant work from lyricist Howard Ashman and animator Glen Keane. The song makes us understand that Ariel’s dream is a heartfelt desire and not some superficial sweet sixteen present.


Disney's Five Best Animal Supporting Characters

1. Sebastian, The Little Mermaid (1989)

For me, the most interesting Disney sidekicks are the ones who have their own story instead of just being around as the protagonist's receiver. Sebastian, for instance, is not even on Ariel's side until halfway through the movie. He just wants to do his job and to avoid Triton's rather horrid temper. It’s only when Ariel gets herself into a risky situation that he steps forward to help her. He’s got a big heart that doesn’t show itself right away, plus he’s a master at organizing musical numbers on the fly.


Disney's Five Best Serious Villains
Only the upcoming Best Movies list was anywhere near as hard to decide as this one. By the way, how telling is it that I found just one video for yesterday’s protagonists and I found videos for all of these villains?

1. Lady Tremaine, Cinderella (1950)

This woman has to be one of the easiest villains to hate. Even though she relishes having the beautiful Cinderella act as maid to her two ugly daughters, she always looks serene in her triumph instead of ecstatic. All she has to do is flash that cruel, vindictive smile to show her pleasure at Cinderella’s misery. We have two people to thank for this nasty character. Eleanor Audley performed the role with nothing short of evil grace and vile dignity, and Frank Thomas built upon that with rigid yet expressive animation. Lady Tremaine is spite incarnate, and watching her get her comeuppance in the end must be the most satisfying defeat in any of Disney’s films.


Disney's Five Best Heroes

1. Beast, Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The first male lead in Disney’s fairy tales to have a character arc, the Beast is not an easy person to like at first. It’s only when gentility subdues his angry despair that we care for him. Both Robby Benson’s performance and Glen Keane’s animation make him one of the most versatile characters in all of Disney, and likely all of animation. He can be monstrous in one sequence and endearing in the next. My only major quibble is I don't think we really see the point where he knows he loves Belle. It feels too sudden for me, but that’s more a story problem than a character problem. It does not diminish what a lovable brute this fellow is.


This Tuesday, Disney releases Tangled, its "50th" animated feature, on Blu-ray and DVD. [I use quotes around 50th because Dinosaur (2000) wasn't considered part of the canon until two or three years ago, as far as I know.] To mark this occasion, I'll be doing a week-long retrospective on Disney's animated lineup starting on Monday. Each day will see two lists with five choices apiece. The first three days will focus on characters, the next three days will focus on songs and the seventh day will be my choices for Disney's ten best animated features. Each entry will come with a corresponding YouTube clip when available. Otherwise, I'll use screencaps from Magical Screencaps. Even though some movies will inevitably be more featured than others, I've tried as much as I can to inject variety into these lists. I hope you'll find my choices fair and stimulating. I'll leave you for now with a few samples of things I'll be saying this week (without naming anything, of course).

"His animation makes him one of the most versatile characters in all of Disney, and likely all of animation."

"First, I'd say she ties with Jasmine as Disney's most gorgeous princess."

"I consider this musical number the grandfather of all Disney villain songs."

"How can you compete with a finale of such unadulterated happiness?"

"Even against the frights in Pinocchio and the religious overtones in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this movie stands as one of Disney's most adult features."


I can't say I didn't see the King's Speech victory coming, but it still disappoints me (and the Director win, too). You wouldn't know it since I neglected to post a Best of 2010 list, but The Social Network was my pick for best movie of the year. I think any major problems somebody could have with a movie are absent from The Social Network. That movie will become one like E.T. or Do the Right Thing that people will appreciate more than the actual winner.


The ads for Cedar Rapids make it look like another Superbad or The Hangover, but instead it is the most charming comedy since The Kids Are All Right. It's a movie that considers its subjects human beings instead of stock figures or sideshow freaks. The rude humor is nicely proportionate to affecting performances and surprisingly underplayed scenes.


It breaks my heart to say anything close to "no" to Roger Ebert. Yes, I may disagree with him on a few movies, but to give even a mixed review to "Ebert Presents At the Movies," his first television endeavor in over four years, feels like a shot to my own chest. Alas, though the new show is not hopeless, it proves problematic largely due to its unexciting hosts.

This new program, broadcast on WLIW21 in New York, emerges five months after the original "At the Movies" ended on ABC. Ebert began that show with Gene Siskel in 1986 after 11 years of working together on public television. After Siskel's death in 1999 and Ebert's departure in 2006 due to cancer treatment, the show went through some unfortunate and sometimes gimmicky replacements (namely, the uninspired Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz and the almost self-serious Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott) before ending for good. With his new program, Ebert returns to public television to revitalize the studiously yet lively type of reviewing he did with Siskel.

Ebert chose Christy Lemire of the Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of as the show's hosts. Both critics display experience and knowledge about cinema's past and present. Lemire appears to be more casual while Vishnevetsky is somewhat of a scholar. When Vishnevetsky gives a movie "thumbs up," he points out specific scenes and comparisons to past films and filmmaking techniques to explain why he liked the movie. (In the premiere episode, one of his praises about "The Green Hornet" was the cinematography's similarity to optical processes from the 1970s.) Lemire explains her opinion as well, but her comments are broader, less formal and slightly repetitive. (She used "languid" as a major adjective two reviews in a row.) I don't want to suggest one takes their role more seriously than the other because they both clearly love movies, but it does seem like the intellectual playing field is slightly imbalanced.

The problem with these hosts is that neither one has a distinctly opposite personality yet. Siskel was a collected man while Ebert had the capacity to raise his voice if it seemed a movie he liked was being attacked. Any of their disagreements is two or three minutes of guaranteed humor amidst the discourse. The only emotion I can see in these new hosts is happiness to be on television. They should improve as they do more episodes and build a relationship. (Vishnevetsky is a last-minute replacement for Elvis Mitchell of the radio program "The Treatment.") I hope they'll reveal some more facets in time, because we certainly don't want another pair as wan as Lyons and Mankiewicz.

The reviews themselves can be less than engaging. The hosts often begin by summarizing the movie before offering any criticism. If there's one thing I know as a writer, it's that you need a juicy opening to hook in an audience. Don't start by describing the plot. Give us one succinct statement on the quality so we can be interested in hearing more. Ebert is better about it in his own segment, where he handpicks movies like "The Rite" and "My Dog Tulip," but he also wastes time describing the film factually and not describing it emotionally. It's a forgivable error for a beginning show, and the critics already started making their opinions clearer in the second episode, but they should remember to relay their general statement at the most opportune moment.

The new "At the Movies" also promises specialized segments with guest correspondents. The first two episodes featured blogger Kim Morgan praising the 1949 classic "The Third Man" and essayist Kartina Richardson analyzing the bathroom as an important recurring setting in "Black Swan." Segments like these run the risk of seeming random, so I hope their subjects will stay related to the overall episode or to current events in addition to being discussed for their own sake. So far, these pieces are interesting and recall some of the special episodes Siskel and Ebert did (like their salute to black and white and their analysis of great villains).

Even with its faults, I wish "Ebert Presents At the Movies" the best of luck. I will continue watching to see if it will improve. This show is bringing back what the original "At the Movies" delivered: intelligent film discussion proffered by relatable people. The hosts this time around are not as entertaining as Siskel and Ebert were, but their potential cannot be abandoned after only two episodes. I trust Ebert very much, and if he likes these new critics, then I'll wait and see if they will earn their seats in the balcony.

Originally posted on

Visit to watch the show's reviews.

Oscar Hopefuls Part 2

127 Hours – R

James Franco gives a captivating performance in 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s inspiring, if possibly incomplete, film about adventurer Aron Ralston. Ralston’s hand was pinned under a rock when exploring a canyon, and he was stuck for five days until he severed his own arm. The film adds a lot of touches to keep the scenes of the trapped Ralston from growing tedious. We see unusual point-of-view shots from places like Ralston’s water bottle as fluid is sucked out and his camera as it rewinds his video. It also intercuts Ralston’s physical endurance with his flashbacks and hallucinations, which call to mind Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun (another amputee story, but a much less hopeful one).

2010's Not Over Yet for this Blogger

Best-of-the-year lists for 2010 are already passé, but my decision to go home for Christmas delayed opportunity for me to see a few movies. To speed the process, my cutoff will be seeing and reviewing The Illusionist, Winter's Bone and Blue Valentine since the first one is a movie I've looked forward to and the others are ones that will likely show up on the Oscar ballot. There are a few, like Rabbit Hole and Another Year, that I may write about if they get any substantial nominations, but I've drawn the line and will publish my list as soon as possible.

Oscar Hopefuls Part I

Now that the fall semester and holidays are over, I can catch up on a few Oscar contenders that I’ve been too busy to see immediately.

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s intense and dark fantasy follows Nina (Natalie Portman), an "aging" ballerina (mid-to-late twenties, but old enough to feel she needs bigger roles now) for whom the pressure of starring in Swan Lake initiates a chain of paranoia, sexuality, physical torture and overdue freedom. Portman is brilliant as both a girl who has taken too long to grow up and, in Nina's hallucinations, a carnal savage that wants to escape. She is surrounded (and her character oppressed) by a very good supporting cast, which includes a candid Mila Kunis as a rival dancer, an eerie Barbara Hershey as Nina's mother and an imposing Vincent Cassel as the ballet's director. His character is what Boris Lermontov (the impresario Anton Wolbrook played in the 1948 classic The Red Shoes) would be like if he had a libido.