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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mud (2012)

Mud has been described in most reviews as a "coming of age" film, and it is. However, a more apropos descriptor is "love story," though not in a purely traditional sense. 14-year-old boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neck Bone (Jacob Lofland) spend their summer days exploring southern Arkansas in Ellis' skiff. The two venture to an island in the Mississippi river, where they find a boat that had been lodged in a tree by a previous flood. They discover that a man named Mud has been living in the boat. He explains that he is waiting for the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). I won't spoil why they were separated in the first place, but Mud's relationship with Juniper becomes a surrogate for the relationship between Ellis' mother and father, and a surrogate for the relationship Ellis tries to form with a young woman he meets in town. Through his relationship with Mud, Ellis learns about romantic ideals and about the realities of love. He struggles with the implications of these lessons, just as the audience does. The major strengths of Mud are the cinematography and the performances. Cinematographer Adam Stone (Take Shelter, Compliance), does a remarkable job conveying the rural Arkansas feel and the thick, humid bayou setting. Sam Shepard is commendable as Tom Blankenship (a neighbor with a special interest in Ellis and Mud's relationship). His performance is restrained and profound, and he disappears into his character.  Michael Shannon is particularly good as Neckbone's uncle and caretaker. He takes a small part and turns it into a truly memorable performance. The real joy of Mud is the surprise of the end. The script appears predictable, at first--yet the climax is not what we might expect from the initial set-up.

The Amount of money I would pay to see this: $7

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Favorite 80s Movies

Okay, this is big ground to cover. I base this list on what I think was memorable and entertaining; information from my youth, and from my subsequent education.

Dead Ringers (1988)
I know what you're thinking. Why put Dead Ringers on the list instead of Videodrome? Well, Videodrome is a great film. But I have my reasons. First, Jeremy Irons is a better actor than James Woods. There, I said it. Second, I think Dead Ringers has a dramatic heft that Videodrome never achieved, if only because Videodrome was too busy satirizing MTV. MTV was pretty good at satirizing itself, in my opinion. Sure we had Michael Jackson, The Talking Heads, Squeeze, and Peter Gabriel (or as I know him, "Genesis"), but it was all basically a bunch of pablum for teenagers. So this brings us to Dead Ringers, which made me both cry and throw up a little in my mouth. David Cronenberg's intensely complex relationship with female genitalia never gets more vivid than it does in Dead Ringers. The Brood was only a rough draft. What Irons achieves playing twin doctors is simply remarkable, tragic, disgusting and tear-jerking. Why do I love it? In addition to the direction and performances, I like the idea of it being pitched. "I want to make a movie about twins who fall in love with the same woman and enter a downward spiral of drug abuse while experiencing delusions about mutated uteri." Oh, sure, that was an easy sell.



Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Director Sergio Leone (A Fistfull of Dollars, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) turned down the chance to direct The Godfather so that he could make this movie. Like The Godfather and Goodfellas it features characters (leads played by Rober DeNiro and James Woods) who rise in the organized crime world. It is beautiful and, in my opinion, seriously overshadowed by The Godfather Trilogy.



Tootsie (1982)
Sydney Pollack made this wonderful film. I never thought a drag comedy could be so insightful and gut-bustingly funny (except for Some Like It Hot but people don't watch that anymore, tragically), but Tootsie is. Terri Garr, Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, Jessica Lange, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning and Geena Davis make this movie worth watching over and over. When people see this movie they're going to say..."What happened?!"



 The Shining (1980)
This is cutting it close, since Kubrick started shooting The Shining in the 70s, but I couldn't help myself. The Shining is one of my favorite horror films.  One of the scariest things I've ever seen is Shelley Duvall looking at the novel and seeing that her husband is totally insane.



Blue Velvet (1984)
David Lynch made a real statement about small-town America, film noir, and spoiled innocence with Blue Velvet. I hate to show the Dennis Hopper oxygen-fueled sex scene, but....I just have to



Coming To America (1988)
Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Madge Sinclair, James Earl Jones and John Amos (and Samuel L. Jackson), all at their best. This movie has its problems, and parts are painful, but the funny spots shine (anyone who loved Purple Rain  will appreciate the awfulness that is "Sexual Chocolate"). It stands out in my memory as one of the bright bits of late 80s comedy.



A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
This is a great crime comedy. There are a lot of crime comedies out there, but John Cleese, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin and Jamie Lee Curtis make this one particularly fantastic. This is Fawlty Towers reigned in, with a proper script and direction. Not that I'm knocking Fawlty Towers, just saying a feature film needed more structure and benefited for it in this case.




Trading Places (1983)
This is a sharp comedy aimed at the economic machinations of the 80s (and of today) but it also features Eddie Murphy in full form, and Dan Aykroyd eating salmon in a Santa suit. It's awesome.


Broadcast News (1987)
Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks in a comedy that illustrates the dramatic aspects of news production, anchoring and reporting all while delivering a realistic love triangle. This was my first real romantic comedy, and it taught me that you don't have to end up with anybody to be happy. The fact that it lacks a fairytale ending makes it even more wonderful. Fucking Aaron "misogynist cokehead" Sorkin tries this shit every month without success.



Stand By Me (1986)
Three of the four tales in Stephen King's Different Seasons have been turned into films. We have seen The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and Stand By Me (based on King's novella The Body). What really makes Stand By Me great is the performances. River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Kiefer Sutherland and Casey Seimaszko. Also the direction by Rob Reiner, who understands how to balance comedy with drama in a way few directors can (as long as he has a decent script).


This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Here is another Rob Reiner movie, featuring Christopher Guest, Michael McKeane and Harry Shearer, about a fictional band that first premiered as a send-up of heavy metal on a 1979 episode of The TV Show. I love a good mockumentary, and This is Spinal Tap, coupled with The Rutles, started it all.


Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel is notable for its ambiguity and saturnine aesthetic. It's also notable for being incredibly influential on all of the sci-fi films and many of the novels that followed. There would be no Terminator without Blade Runner.
I COULDN'T GET A GOOD CLIP FROM BLADE RUNNER. TOO BAD, SINCE I AM PROVIDING FREE PUBLICITY AND SAY ONLY GOOD THINGS ABOUT IT. FUCK YOU INTERNET. 

Brazil (1985)
 In addition to its all-around prescience, Terry Gilliam's Brazil is amazing because it is fanciful, dark and funny all at the same time. This movie made me believe my dreams and made me absolutely terrified of plastic surgery. I liked it better than Time Bandits  but liked Baron Munchhausen a bit more, probably because I was a child and thought slapstick was better than true satire. As an adult, I can tell you that Brazil is true satire, and it is to be revered as much as 1984 and almost as much as Brave New World.



Ran (1985)
 The title of Kurosawa's great 1985 film means "rebellion." At the time, it was the most expensive Japanese film ever made. The plot bears similarities to King Lear, though Kurosawa stated it was not intentional. The cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitō and Masaharu Ueda is unparalleled. When I was in college, my Chinese history professor was adamant about my seeing Ran. I told him I had. He insisted I see it again. I'm glad I did. Although it is not my favorite Kurosawa film (that goes to Rashomon), it definitely makes the list as one of the greatest films of the 80s, if not the century.



The Princess Bride
Here is a case of a film that is equally as good as its source material. The novel The Princess Bride by William Goldman, is one of the first fantasy novels I read along with Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander. It helped that Goldman also wrote the screenplay, and that he was a screenwriter in general. He understands how to write a tight film. Also Rob Reiner is a good director! Wow, three out of the list come from Rob. Well done, indeed! The Princess Bride has no spare scenes and nothing for the cutting room floor. The performances are spot on. Everything about it makes me smile, and I can't think of a person who doesn't like it.



Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
I saw this in the theater, as many kids did, and I absolutely loved it. As I grew older, I learned about all of the little details in the film, and all of its influences. Zemeckis successfully combines Tex Avery, Mel Blanc, Bob Clampett,, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler into one film. To give credit where credit's due, however, the film is based on the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit by Gary Wolf. We have seen a few films in which humans interact with animated characters, such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins and the unfortunate Cool World, but this was the first one to make the animated characters realistic and the human characters cartoonish. It's full of laughs, arcane references, cameos, and fun.



Airplane (1980)
The first time I saw a topless woman in a movie was in Airplane, followed by Dressed to Kill. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, Airplane is an example of the Zuckers at their finest. Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Julie Hagerty, Robert Hays and yes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all in one movie, all being awesome.



Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Tornatore's love letter to the movies is touching, beautiful and very well directed, edited and acted. I don't want to say anything that will spoil the film. You simply must watch the ending without pretense.Yes, it's romantic. Yes, it's maudlin in parts. But as far as movies about film go, its one of the better entries.



Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Skyfall

I finally saw Skyfall last week, and I must say I was not disappointed. Granted, after the bleak and somewhat nihilist Quantum of Solace, it would not be hard to lift my spirits. However, Skyfall stands on its own as a good Bond film and a somewhat unique Bond film.

Bond films traditionally present a predictable setup: an unhinged, Machiavellian supervillain and his entourage want to destroy or steal something on a massive scale, and Bond is the only one who can stop them. We see this plot structure in the best Bond films. Diamonds are Forever features Blofeld and his laser satellite; Dr. No wanted to end the Space Program; For Your Eyes Only features Kristatos stealing a Royal Navy cryptography system.

The plot of Skyfall is simpler than all its predecessors. Bond (Daniel Craig) is shot off a train and is presumed dead. This could be an easy out from a difficult life, but Bond will have none of it (remember You Only Live Twice ?). He gets back in the game and attempts to stop Silva (Javier Bardem), a computer expert with a grudge against M (Judi Dench). The most wonderful thing about Silva is that he is not after global domination; he just really, really wants to kill Judi Dench. What begins as a typical spy thriller becomes a smaller scale, decidedly poignant action film. There are no nuclear weapons and no pools full of sharks. However, we do get gambling, femme fatales, and a stellar home-defense montage set in a Scottish castle. I really do love a good home-defense montage (The Lost Boys and Home Alone come to mind).

 One of my favorite (and sorely unappreciated) actresses, Naomi Harris, plays another agent at MI-6 who turns out to be Moneypenny. I saw it coming, and I cringed--truly, this is the only bad part of Skyfall. The film franchise is going to have to change Moneypenny's character quite a bit if they expect us to believe that an agent who kicks ass with a sniper rifle is supposed to settle down as a secretary. Sadly, however, I think the villain Silva (Javier Bardem) was a bit wasted. He organized the greatest computer heist in the world, only for the sake of knocking off one corporate bird. Really? That's the point of the film? However, I did like the last act, as it was immensely entertaining and light on racist and misogynist rubbish.

On a final note, Bardem and Dench are both wonderful in their respective roles. Bardem borrows a bit too much from Anton Chigurh when he plays Silva, but his platinum bob, halting delivery and crazy eyes make for a great villain. Silva is more sympathetic than Chigurh ever was, and for this I am glad. Dench is great, as always, as M. The audience gets a chance to learn a lot more about her relationship with Bond, and their connection is surprisingly touching. Also, Albert Finney is thrown in there as an old friend of Bond's family who cares for the aforementioned castle. He, as always, is inimitable.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Cloud Atlas


Films that jump between time periods often face the challenge of maintaining realism without seeming silly--films that jump time periods while using the same actors are usually limited to Lifetime because hey, even with the right makeup it can, potentially, come off as ridiculous. However, Cloud Atlas manages to do both without looking 100% absurd. While some of the film's makeup jobs are laughable, it is generally successful in translating David Mitchell's novel to the screen.

The film features 6 different story lines, all interrelated and all mostly interesting. In 1849, a lawyer (Jim Sturgess) on a slave ship is poisoned by the ship's doctor. He and his wife (Doona Bae) condemn her family's part in the slave trade. In the next story, Robert (Ben Whishaw) takes a job as an amanuensis to a great composer, who later blackmails him for being bisexual. In 1973, journalist Luisa Rey tries to solve the mystery of a murdered nuclear physicist. In 2012, Timothy Cavendish, a publisher in his sixties (played by Jim Broadbent) is confined to a retirement home against his will after a falling out with a client. 2144 in "Neo Seoul," Sonmi 451 (Doona Bae) goes against protocol and becomes part of a revolution against the government that clones and butchers women. 2321, Zachary (Tom Hanks) lives in a seemingly "primitive" society that holds up Sonmi as a goddess (presumably for her sacrifice to maintain the freedoms of her society in 2144). He meets Meronym (Halle Berry), a member of the "Prescients," who possess remnants of the technology that existed before the revolution.

This all sounds very complicated, and it is. The film is confusing at times, and the try-too-hard makeup can be off-putting. However, given the source material, this adaptation is ideal. The cinematography by Frank Griebe and John Toll is astounding. The performances are very well acted, with Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Hugo Weaving and Doona Bae being standouts. I usually do not enjoy films that are more than 160 minutes in length--that typically means the editor was fired or the director has a god complex, or a trilogy was nixed by the production company. However, I am very pleased that I watched Cloud Atlas in the theater. Every scene I dreamed in my head while reading Heinlein and Asimov and Dick and Le Guin (and Mitchell's source material)--well, all those imaginings were present in the film. It was beautiful, emotional, tragic and victorious. In particular, the scenes in Neo Seoul reminded me of both Blade Runner and Ira Levin's novel The Stepford Wives. While The Wachowskis have not made the world's best film in Cloud Atlas, I truly believe they have made the best adaptation possible given the challenging nature of the source material. I cannot wait to watch it again.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Prometheus (2012)


Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors. White Squall, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Matchstick Men, all great films that I have watched at least twice. Prometheus, his latest Sci-Fi thriller, is pretty good, but it also gives me the feeling that Scott is succumbing to a common but devastating illness plaguing our great current gray-maned directors: Self Referential Syndrome. SRS is characterized by a pathological need to remind audiences of previous cinematic coups through imagery and dialogue. Brian DePalma's Snake Eyes gnawed shamelessly on the carcass of his earlier, better film, Blow Out. Another example: everything Roland Emmerich did after Independence Day. And if you don't see the similarities between Jaws and Jurassic Park, watch them again. This is not to say that the result is necessarily bad when a director falls back on an old standby. That was case when Woody Allen made Small Time Crooks, and basically dissected and blended his 1970s film Take the Money and Run. And that's the case with Prometheus, Scott's modern day Alien semi-sendup that initially promises to explain the origin of out species and then pouts, arms akimbo, while giving us a coy smile. Some people say it's a prequel to Alien. Maybe that's the case, but if Scott had the intention of making this film a prequel to Alien, it certainly felt like a cutesy afterthought. 

The setup is fairly simple. A couple of scientists (Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender) find cave paintings in Scotland that match many others they have found. These paintings suggest that there are beings far off in space that created human beings. The scientists get on board a spaceship with a bunch of other professionals (what they do doesn't matter, because, big surprise, they die) and head to another galaxy to find their "Engineers." They're led by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) who is a cold, hardened boss but who cares, she has no character development and spends the film looking like a Real Girl Doll™.

Needless to say, they do not find paradise, nor do they discover their purpose for being. I can't say much more without spoiling it, but I will say this: Prometheus is a beautiful film, a suspenseful film (at times) and an interesting film. It made me thing about issues such as free will, bio terrorism, and a woman's right to choose (if you don't believe me, just watch the scene in which Rapace) can't get the medical crew to abort her deadly alien....oh, never mind, I don't want to ruin it). It is not, however, a new film. Granted, the technology is new, but the photography in Prometheus is no more effective for the audience than it is in Alien. Promethus is a film I will probably want to see more than once, and I might like it better the second time (after all, that was how it worked with Blade Runner). It has a lot of depth, and if you like cerebral fantasy, it is a good midnight movie choice. But don't spend $10 on this movie--wait for the rental and use the extra money to rent Alien.

Monday, October 03, 2011

New Posts!

I've decided that I have to start making new posts to this blog, if only to save my sanity. I've decided to start reviewing films and television again, and ooohhh are there options. Our new Oscar-bating season of films has begun (The Ides of March, The Artist), and TV is attempting to remain relevant with some interesting offerings (Person of Interest, Terra Nova). I'm excited!

I watched the pilots for Terra Nova, Person of Interest, and Up All Night and I have to say, I thought they were all pretty decent. Terra Nova is like "Land of The Lost," combined with "Lost" and a dash of "Stargate Universe." It doesn't take itself too seriously, yet it treats the characters as real people in a real situation. The casting and acting are decent, and the special effects are just cheesy enough to make it feel like an old-fashioned matinee. Person of Interest is gritty and surprisingly violent, with great characterization and suspense. Up All Night is funny and odd, and it manages to take a new approach to parenting. There are lots of other shows out there to talk about: The League, the new season of The Walking Dead and the tragedy that is Pan Am, for example. Stay tuned, I'm going to be busy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hanna (2011)

Hanna is a teenaged girl raised in the arctic circle by her secret agent father (Eric Bana). She is the result of a scientific experiment and he has raised her to be a remorseless killing machine. Her target is a CIA agent (Cate Blanchett) who wants her dead. She basically goes on a road trip from the arctic to Morocco and through Europe, both as the hunted and the hunter. What follows is a short film that feels long, a good film that wants to be great, and a really kick-ass soundtrack by the Chemical Brothers.

Joe Wright's Hanna is, in my opinion, a small film with big ambitions that never quite reaches its potential. Throughout the film, I could not help but compare it to other films; The Professional, Species, Eve of Destruction, The Bourne Identity and even Hideous Kinky in some scenes. What's the difference? Hanna is better than most of the films in the "unexpected assassin goes on a rampage" subgenre, but it projects the pretense of intending so much more, and it never really delivers. The title "Hanna" suggests a palindromic film that will, in some way, defy the expectations of the audience by diverting from the expected plot and character arcs. Sadly, Hanna is predictable. It ends the way it begins, with no true catharsis or character development. That's a shame, because the cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler is stellar. The performances by Ronan, Bana and Blanchett are spectacular. And yet, the overall story cannot support such profound performances. Tom Hollander's character of Isaacs, the assassin, is obviously meant to channel Dim from A Clockwork Orange but the character creates a sense of self-conscious unease, rather than terrifying malice. It's not that Hollander can't act--it's that he has a badly drawn character, one that is designed to be a two-dimensional trope we've seen a million times before. Ronan is, of course, spectacular, but her character has nowhere to go. She is both a little girl and a killing machine, which makes for an interesting fish out of water story; but it's also a bit boring. Shouldn't exposure to the outside world change her in some way? Develop her sense of self? The middle of the film, in which Hanna meets a family in Morocco and learns a little about human interaction, had me hopeful. But then we go back to the killing. And while the action scenes are fine, they're not great enough to define the film as balls to the wall action film. In short, Hanna is unsure of its genre and falls short of its grand intentions.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

True Grit (2010)

The Coen Brothers' 2010 version of Charles Portis' 1968 novel "True Grit" is beautiful, well-acted, and an overall disappointment. What should be an enthralling coming-of-age/revenge tale feels like an oddly cold, technical cinematic exercise. I am going to avoid comparison to the 1969 John Wayne version of True Grit, primarily because it's one of my favorite westerns and I'll go off on a tangent, but also because the two films have absolutely nothing in common.

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a girl hell-bent on avenging her father's murder. She hires cycloptic US marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her track Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. They are assisted by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger with a shrewd, selfish streak. They traverse rough terrain and an even more ponderous plot that rivals "Oregon Trail" for sheer banal predictability. And yes, I have read the book--somehow, True Grit takes a fairly interesting story and turns it into a beige, never-ending landscape of mediocrity.

If I were to categorize True Grit, I would say it would fit in the "Revisionist Western" category-in good company with films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Little Big Man. The hallmark of revisionist westerns is an overt cynicism, and a willingness to critique American society and values. Revisionist Westerns contradict the cliches of "classic" westerns (e.g. The Naked Spur, High Noon) and "spaghetti westerns," (e.g. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). The Coens avoid the "black hat, white hat" dichotomy of the traditional American Western, choosing instead to frame youth as the hero (or heroine) of the film. Cogburn has lost what Mattie has: youth, drive, passion, obsession, a mission in life. He idles aimlessly while she plows ahead, completely sure of herself and committed to her mission. The aging, sardonic men in the film look upon her with a sneer, but also with a certain tinge of envy. True Grit is definitely cynical and verges on nihilistic-but I was hard pressed to find any deeper message. Furthermore, I found it difficult to connect with the characters. As Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges is fantastic at playing a drunken, rapidly declining lawman. But I didn't really care about him. As Mattie Ross, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld takes fantastic direction and hits every mark. But I had absolutely no investment in her mission or in her outcome. Probably the most successful, interesting character is LaBoeuf, who is just reserved and complex enough to be interesting.

The amount I would pay to see this film: $3
My apologies to my boyfriend, who paid $20 for us to see it. Meh. We learned our lesson.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Music Videos That Changed my Life

I've always been a strong defender of the music video as an art form. Some of the most progressive artists made videos before there were videos. Bob Dylan with "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Pink Floyd with "Arnold Lang," Queen with "Bohemian Rhapsody." Yes, MTV fostered ADHD in America's youth, but it also served as a forum for some great musicians, and some great directors. Michelle Gondry, Spike Jonze and McG all got their start in videos. Okay, enough with my prattling, let me get to the list. MTV was not allowed in my house as a kid, but I watched it anyway, usually when I was playing the gold-cartridge Zelda at my friend Colin's house (1988) or at my friend Wilson's house (1989) when we were bitching about getting the laserdisc player to work. That thing never worked. I then continued into the early 90s (when my parents weren't watching) and into the mid-90s (when they couldn't stop it) and eventually progressed to a point at which I could rationally defend my favorites as works of art.

Here's my top 10, in order of when I first watched them:

Michael Jackson, Bad: What can I say? I danced around the house to this when I was four. I loved it. I still love it.


Squeeze, Hourglass: As a lover of Escher and optical illusions, how could I not love this?


Paula Abdul, Cold Hearted: It's a horrible song, but the video is amazing. Say what you will about Paula in all her stoned glory, she's a damn good choreographer!


They Might Be Giants, Birdhouse in Your Soul: how many car trips were illuminated by this song? at least 27.


Metallica, Enter Sandman: Okay, Black, track one. The last bastion of Metallica. Need I say more?


Alice in Chains, Man in The Box: I just...love this song. And I had never really seen grunge on screen before this. It was, and still is, amazing.


Prodigy, Breath: This is the first music video to actually scare me. I was 15. I guess I was a wuss...but it's creepy. And it was different from everything else out there at the time, except maybe Manson's early stuff.


Bjork, It's Oh So Quiet: Wow. This video made me swoon. I know it's a cover, and it's not her purest work, but I loved the big time 30s musical feel in it...


Tori Amos, Spark: I saw this when it premiered, and I've never been the same.


Aerosmith, Pink:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I'm Still Here (2010)

Gawkers have been feeding on Joaquin Phoenix's bizarre n' tasty media nuggets for more than a year, buzzing about what his particular brand of crazy might be: Too many pills? Tertiary syphilis? Brainwashed by Scientologists? Lead poisoning? Whatever horse you bet on, Casey Affleck's mockumentary I'm Still Here has made it apparent that "Smug Performance Artist" won the race by a nose.

The 108 minute film chronicles Phoenix's "retirement" from acting and his miserable failure as a hip hop artist. Although it was initially hyped as cinema verité, director Casey Affleck came right out and said that the film is not a real documentary. The fellow audience members in the theatre last night didn't seem so sure, which is a good indicator of how truly skilled Phoenix is at channeling his inner-schlub.

I'm Still Here's Phoenix looks like a bizarre blend of Zach Galifianakis and a demented Rabbinical student. He stumbles through the film, ataxic and incoherent, chain-smoking and mumbling about the great sisyphean weight of his celebrity. And it's hilarious. It is hilarious, I think, because we know that it is not real. Had I been watching the actual decline and fall of a real human being, I would probably be vomiting all over my tie right now (yes, he vomits on his own tie. And it's pretty funny). I have no idea how many of the celebrity encounters are real in the film; is Affleck trying to create another Borat with guerilla satire? Or is this just another Rutles or Spinal Tap, and everyone involved is in on the joke? Watching P. Diddy attempt to seriously critique Phoenix's "album" of mush-mouthed, cacophonous rap muzak convinced me that yes, it must have all been staged. As professional and genteel as Mr. Combs appears to be in the film, I simply cannot believe that he would have tolerated such buffoonery (not to mention) cameras in his workplace without being in on the joke.

Assuming that I'm Still Here is, indeed, a mockumentary, Phoenix and Affleck successfully demonstrate what fiction and performance are all about: creating the illusion of reality. And these guys spent a lot of time setting up an unlikely scenario that, for the most part, sucked people in or at least had them wondering how much of it was real. All the illusion really achieves, however, is to demonstrate how gullible people are. It is possible that Phoenix and Affleck are attempting to teach us to question the veracity of celebrity news and of news media in general. If this was the goal, I think it could have been achieved in 90 minutes. If the goal was simply to make us all laugh, then mission accomplished. I laughed, I squirmed, I laughed some more, I put my head in my hands, and then I wiped tears off my face. But my original point stands: I could have laughed just as hard at 90 minutes of petulant, self-indulgent shenanigans, and done with fewer shots of Phoenix's backfat and hooker ogling.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Then and Now: Leverage vs. The A Team

I'm out of hibernation and ready with a new series of posts: Then and Now. I've been watching more television than films lately (due mostly to the fact that I've relocated to a rural area) and the more I watch the more I see new shows popping up that appear to be cast in the same mold as shows from twenty or thirty years ago. It's really eery to watch a brand new show only to flash back to being five years old; and I'm not just talking about the remakes of "Knightrider," or "The Nightstalker." The phenomenon of television plot recycling is hardly a new one, but I think it still bears examination.

I'm starting off with TNT's great (if sometimes cheesy) heist show, "Leverage," which is into its third season. The plot is a simple one: five cons team up to restore wealth and honor to underdogs everywhere. The team features an ex-mercenary, a thief, a grifter, a hacker, and a guy who plans everything out. They take on crooked bankers, lying politicians, other thieves, insurance companies and sweatshop owners, and they take them for everything they're worth. Sound familiar? It did to me.

I used to watch "The A Team" when I was a kid, and "Leverage" is a clone in many ways. Mr. T is replaced by Elliot, Hannibal is replaced by Nate, Sophie fills in for Face, Parker for Murdock. It's a classic formula, but with a little more respect for its audience. Nothing is ever new in this world. Writers and directors either find a new spin on an old formula, or they wait just long enough for a new generation to come along. However, my generation's obsession with nostalgia and pop culture, adapting an old formula is increasingly difficult. Perhaps this is why reality television caught on. It's cheap, it's easy, and it claims to show us the truth, as opposed to the hackneyed fictional tropes to which we have become accustomed. The irony is, reality television simply mimics the standard plot structures we see in typical fiction. It is edited and contrived to the point that it is no long reality, but fiction disguised as reality. Personally, I'll take pure fiction.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Why I Love Horror Movies

I've had an identity crisis lately when it comes to horror films. On one hand, I've been watching them since I was six (when I first saw Creepshow and Psycho, my first real horror films). I watched B-horror films every Saturday afternoon (after "Dr. Who" was over) and I saw some really terrible specimens of the genre: Rawhead Rex, Motel Hell, 976 Evil. But I also saw some really wonderful films, like Play Misty for Me and Piranha and Spider Baby. As I grew up, however, I started to realize that many horror films are misogynistic and sexist; women are frequently victimized, punished, slaughtered, depicted as idiots, held up for ridicule, and rarely achieve any kind of character development. Look at Last House on The Left or I Spit on Your Grave or The Hills Have Eyes. Each depict rape graphically and for exploitation purposes. It doesn't matter that the woman in I Spit on Your Grave gets her revenge in the end, because her rape scene is obviously meant to titillate the audience, which undermines any kind of "message" the film might have. So I've been grappling with what it means to be a feminist who's still in love with horror movies. It's a challenge. But some of my favorite horror films don't depict women in shitty ways, and some are even feminist. I've come up with a list...see what you think. A caveat: the films I came up with (a preliminary list, to be sure) were directed by men, but this time around I am focusing more on content and the depiction of female characters.

Alien
Granted, in Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien, the powerful, kickass Ripley (Segourney Weaver) is more masculine than Lambert, who is panicky and depicted as being comparably weak. However, this film stands out in that it challenges gender stereotypes by casting a woman in the lead, showing her kicking alien ass, and then surviving. It has some problematic scenes, to be sure, but Alien has got to be one of my favorite horror films of all time.

Audition
I've written about Audition before, as it wins the prize for the only film to ever make me physically ill. And I love it. Miike's depiction of an abused woman turning the tables on a voyeuristic, selfish and mendacious would-be suitor is simply phenomenal. Granted, she is depicted as the villain, but I spent most of the film hating the male lead, not the crazy woman who cuts his foot off with piano wire.

The Descent
Singular for it's all female cast and conspicuous lack of sex scenes, Marshall's The Descent, while still being shot through the male gaze, is very much a feminist horror film. The characters are strong, independent, intelligent, capable; there are no cheerleaders running upstairs when they should be going out the back door in this film.

Ginger Snaps
The transition into womanhood is depicted as a physical transformation into a wild animal--this is hardly a new idea (Cat People anyone?) but the film deals more with the feelings of alienation and self-loathing that accompany puberty in girls. The way young women are treated by society, by their families, and by their peers can frequently make them feel like monsters, and Ginger Snaps translates these feelings literally to the screen.

Wait Until Dark
The "final woman" in this film, based on a stage play by Frederick Knott, is the only woman and one of two female characters (the other, Gloria, is a little girl who is equally awesome). Suzy (Audrey Hepburn), a disabled woman who has recently become sight-impaired, manages to kick ass by leveling the playing field in her basement apartment. She outsmarts three men with no assistance, and the final scene is totally kick-ass.

The Wicker Man (1973 version)
Whether or not this is truly a feminist film has been debated over the years, but I think it is. In it, a rigid, authoritative, male conservative character is victimized by feminine power. Granted, it could be taken as a backlash or warning against feminism, but I choose to view it in a straightforward way: a sex-positive, free-thinking Pagan group disarms the patriarchy, if only in a brief instance, and we, the audience, sit back and say "I told you so."

May
The 2002 horror film May stands out in that it features a "final woman" who has depth, complexity, and strength. Sure, she's odd, and she's a murderer, but she's three-dimensional. She's depicted as a victim of childhood cruelty, but she's no traditional horror "victim." She is the hero and the villain in this titular film; we empathize with May while being horrified by her acts, and the ending is delightfully ambiguous.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is a relatively low-tech heist film with a decidedly philosophical bent. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a haggard freelance “extractor,” who makes his wayward living stealing information by entering people’s dreams. How this is possible is never completely explained (which is fortunate, given that the film is well over two hours long) but it is clear that in the reality of the film, extraction of memories and knowledge is the new frontier of espionage. Nolan establishes early in the film that, like other noir characters such as Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past or Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Cobb is a man with a dark and troubled past.

The MacGuffin of the film is simple: Cobb wants to get back to the United States to see his children. Powerful entrepreneur Saito (Ken Watanabe) enlists him and his assistant Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to plant an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the heir to Saito’s main competition. Of course, he offers a free pass back to the U.S. as payment. Cobb hires Ariadne (Ellen Page) to be his “architect”—the designer of the dreamscape in which the information heist will take place. He also recruits Eames (Tom Hardy), a "forger" who shapeshifts into different chraracters within dreams, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a drug expert who concocts the sedatives required for the process. Their goal is to create several “dreams within dreams,” enabling them to lower the unconscious defenses of their mark and then plant a concept inside his head—one that will lead him to dissolve his father’s corporation, thus giving complete market power to Saito.

If this sounds a bit complicated, it’s because it is; rarely have I seen such a complex idea successfully translated for the screen. However, Inception is plagued with a number of problems, problems that prevent me from jumping on the "greatest film of the 21st century” bandwagon that appears to have attracted every critic on the planet.

My main problem with the film is the first forty minutes. For that length of time, Inception feels strangely hollow. The storytelling in the first third is weak. The dialogue is stilted and predictable, the delivery labored. In that stretch, the scenery and special effects are dazzling, but when I listened to the story that was being told, I felt as though I had been plunged into an awkward mix of The Cell and The Matrix except with heavy exposition and clunky dialogue. I was watching an amazing film, but I was bored; the concept of manipulating the subconscious dreamscape is a great one, but what does it mean if I don’t care about the people involved, or their motivations?


Then, miraculously, the team begins its mission, and once they are inside the mind of their mark, the action is fast-paced, the dialogue clever, and the effects still mesmerizing. There is a fight scene in a hotel that takes place tumbling through the three-dimensional space of a human mind; there is a James-Bond-Style ski battle on the way to an icy, Supermanesque fortress; there is even excessive use of slow motion camera work, and it’s good. There are a few standout performances, too, mostly from Ken Watanabe and Cillian Murphy. Though many have praised DiCaprio’s work in this film (and I have stated in other reviews that he is a very talented actor), I thought his performance as Cobb was a bit one-note. If anything, Marion Cotillard’s performance as the psychic projection of Cobb’s deceased wife milks more dramatic heft out of her part than DiCaprio’s flesh-and-blood antihero.

Foreshadowing can be a dangerous thing for a storyteller. If you lay it on too thick, the audience catches on and arrives the conclusion before the film does; if you’re too sparse with it, the audience forgets about it. The foreshadowing in Inception is carefully thought out, but the film is so long that the breadcrumbs dropped irregularly throughout create a loss of momentum. By the end, I knew exactly what had happened, but I had to wrack my brain to remember why it was important. And that’s a problem.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The A-Team (2010)

I knew this day would come. The day when pretty much the last of all of my beloved childhood shows would be mangled on the silver screen. The Big Hollywood Regurgitation Machine destroyed The Avengers, The Mod Squad and Æon Flux. Now, they've gone after "The A-Team," a campy 1983 adventure show about four Vietnam vets who travel around righting wrongs, tossing around catchphrases and occasionally blowing things up. Joe Carnahan's big-screen reboot features lots of scenery-chewing, the same old catchphrases, and a whole lot of blowing things up. And it's not very good.

I won't even get into the myriad ways in which the film is different from the series, because that would just be a waste of time. Suffice to say, The A-Team is a film that is totally unnecessary, and not particularly entertaining.

“Hannibal” Smith (Liam Neeson) leads the titular band of disgraced veterans: “Face” Peck (Bradley Cooper), “Howling Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley) and, of course, Bosco B.A. Baracus (UFC fighter Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson). Of course, the casting is fine. Actually, it's too good for the script, which is about as interesting as unpredictable as watching a glacier move. The plot involves counterfeiters and evil CIA agents, but that's really beside the point. In one scene, Neeson quips "Overkill is underrated." Too bad he didn't tell the director, the screen writer and the special effects guys, because The A-Team is one fatuous movie excess after another. Neeson is a wonderful actor, but as Hannibal, he's ill-suited and turns in a rather one-note performance. And he misquotes Gandhi to promote violence, which, while hilarious, is kind of wrong.

I love a dumb shoot-em-up movie as much as the next person, but in adapting a television show for the big screen, one should either seek to add something new, or to duplicate and elevate the material of the original. On a good day (say, with The Addams Family,) both can be achieved. The A-Team is disappointing because it is no better than the worst episodes of the original series: stagnant, illogical, and predictable. Oh, sure, Hannibal gets to say "I love it when a plan comes together," B.A. talks about pitying fools, and Dirk Benedict (Faceman from the original series) pops up for a cameo. But at the end of the day, all that we're left with is the ashes of a fond childhood memory, and a sense that we want our money back.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009)

I just returned from an outing at the Magnolia theater here in Dallas, where I saw Jean-Pierre Jeunet's latest whimsical fantasy, Micmacs. It's a typical Jeunet film in its use of a colorful ensemble, surreal imagery, and mechanical/industrial set pieces. While it's not as dark as Delicatessen or as poignant as Amelie or A Very Long Engagement, Micmacs manages to be one of Jeunet's funniest films.

Our hero Bazil (Dany Boon) is a video store clerk who has never quite recovered from the death of his father, a soldier who was killed by a land mine. One night, as he sits watching "The Big Sleep" and lip-synching all of the dialogue, he is shot in the head by a stray bullet. He ends up in the hospital, and when he awakens he has lost his job and his home. His life decimated, he finds himself on the streets, miming and entertaining pedestrians for pocket change. He is eventually taken in by a group of eccentrics who have made a home in a gigantic junkyard. The motley crew includes an introverted mathematician (Marie-Julie Baup), a very extraverted contortionist (Julie Ferrier), a human cannonball (Dominique Pinon) and the group's matriarch (Yolande Moreau), among others. Bazil tells his story and asks his new "family" to help him get revenge on the two munitions companies that manufactured the land mine that killed his father and the bullet that is still precariously lodged in his forehead. What ensues is part heist film and part slapstick comedy.

While the use of physical comedy and mime have always been present in Jeunet's work, it is clear from the start that Micmacs is very heavily influenced by classic silent comedies like Chaplin's Modern Times and Buster Keaton's The General. While the dialogue is clever, half the time it is not even necessary, as the cast is comprised of veteran performers with a talent for physical comedy. Ferrier, in particular, is captivating with the use of her body, her large eyes, her brusque speech, and her overall moxie. The villains (played by André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) are absolutely brilliant as the hateable/laughable arms dealers. Villains in these sorts of films are so frequently cartoonish--while Jeunet definitely paints them with a wide brush, there is enough depth to their characters to make them genuinely interesting.

For those who wonder about the title, Jeunet describes it as meaning "manipulation – and a lot of it." Literally, it means "Mikmaq non-stop," and I wonder how "Mikmaq" the name of indigenous people in Quebec, became synonymous with manipulation and trickery. And I don't want to know. Then again, I'm terrible at French, so I probably shouldn't be the one trying to parse this title. All in all, it's a cheerful, cute film with lots of great imagery and plenty of laughs, and a must for lovers of Jeunet's work.

The amount I'd pay to see this film: Just what I paid, namely $7

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Brothers Bloom (2009)


Where do I begin with The Brothers Bloom? The film, directed by Rian Johnson (Brick), looked great in the previews: a fun caper comedy starring two of my favorite actors (Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody) set in Prague, Mexico, Montenegro and Greece. The trailer made it look like a modern day combination of The Sting and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but the finished product is all candy coating with nothing substantial in the center. Ruffalo and Brody play the titular characters, two men who have spent their lives making money from spinning elaborate cons. They find a new mark in Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) and trick her into following them to Prague for a phony antique smuggling caper. The plot becomes more convoluted from there, as one con piles up on another.

The first thirty minutes of the film pulled me in: from the opening sequence of the Brothers as children to the introduction of Penelope's character, I was into the movie and ready to have some fun. By the time they reached the continent, however, I had lost interest in the whole mess. I was distracted by its similarities to other films (Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude, Jean Pierre Jeunet's Amelie and Fellini's 8 1/2 being the stand-outs). I was irritated by the dialogue which, while clever, failed to create separate voices for the characters. The main problem with The Brothers Bloom is that it is so self-consciously whimsical, so obviously desperate for the audience to fall in love with it, that the intricacies of the plot seem oddly unnecessary. Johnson goes for a Wes-Anderson-style fantasy character study (complete with cutesy title cards) which does not mesh at all with the story he is struggling to tell. Perhaps it comes down to the genre: con and caper movies let us know up front that the characters are spinning lies and that nothing on the screen can be trusted. The great con flicks pull us in by forcing us to have a relationship with the characters. In Matchstick Men, we end up empathizing with Nick Cage's pathetic obsessive compulsive. In Paper Moon we start out despising Ryan O'Neal but want him to have a good relationship with his daughter anyway. In Charade, we know we can't believe a thing Cary Grant says but dammit, we want him to marry Audrey Hepburn. All of these films have whimsical comic tones, as well, yet they all possess something that The Brothers Bloom lacks: characters who could be real people with real lives somewhere in the world. I never for one second believed that the brothers were real; they were more like characters in a fairy tale. As a result, I didn't really care if one of them got shot or got the girl or got a case of cholera; they did not matter to me one bit.

Strangely, a film that fails in so many way also showcases some excellent performances. Rachel Weisz, who to my knowledge has not done much comedy before, is so wonderful as Penelope that I wanted her to have her own film and leave the brothers Bloom in the dust. Her timing, delivery and physical mannerisms are pure comic perfection. She reminded me of Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. Mark Ruffalo is charming as he swaggers around as Stephen Bloom, and Adrien Brody does his best to lend a unique voice to a poorly drawn character. These great leads, however, cannot save the sinking ship of The Brothers Bloom. There is too much going on, too much cuteness, too many twists and offshoots in the script, and too many damn climaxes (three, to be exact). Give it a passing glance if it comes On Demand, but don't spend your hard-earned money on this Hindenburg of a film.

The amount I would pay to see this: $2

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Terminator: Salvation (2009)

I went to see Terminator: Salvation against my better judgment. I thought, hey, I love Christian Bale, and I enjoy the Terminator mythos, and any trailer with Nine Inch Nails in it can't be all bad, can it? Much to my dismay, I discovered that yes, yes it can be all bad.

The plot of Terminator: Salvation is a good one: Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is on death row and, at the last minute, agrees to donate his body to Skynet for mysterious experiments after his state-sanctioned death. We jump ahead to 2018 to find a future in which man and machine are at war. John Conner (Christian Bale) leads the resistance against Skynet with the support of various colorful yet never fleshed out supporting characters. Marcus wakes up in 2018, and it's not clear exactly how or why he has survived all these years and still appears to be in perfect physical health. He teams up with Kyle Reese (Anton Viktorovich Yelchi of Star Trek and numerous other films of late) in an effort to aid the resistance. None of this really matters, however, as the initially engaging plot devolves into a mindless hurricane of ballistics and over-the-top CGI. The film is overly concerned with giving shout outs to its predecessors (to wit, the dubious Arnold cameo, as well as Kyle's "come with me if you want to live," line). While this is momentarily amusing, it only serves to remind the audience of how much it fails to measure up with the first two Terminator films.

The sets are impressive, but again, the obvious big budget only made me regret (and resent) how crummy this installment was compared to the first two Terminator films. How dare they get a good actor like Christian Bale and then give him a crummy script and mediocre direction? Director McG has proven adept at handling light-hearted stuff like Charlie's Angels and the Offspring's obnoxious "Pretty Fly for A White Guy," video. Here he is in way over his head with Terminator: Salvation, a serious film that would have been better served by Christopher Nolan or Ridley Scott. The shchmaltzy ending only served to piss me off more. In short, don't blow your hard-earned money on Terminator: Salvation unless you're seeing a matinee. And even then, do yourself a favor and have a few drinks first.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

Sorry I'm posting this review a little late. I saw the new Star Trek after everyone else, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn't like it. For me, Star Trek isn't just a great show-it was a formative influence in my life. As a kid, I loved "Star Trek: The Next Generation," a show that ran from the time I was seven to the time I was twelve. Everything about that show resonated with me, from the intergalactic politics to the contrived period pieces on the Holodeck to Data's identity crises. Later, I got into the original series and have since seen every single episode (I thought there were hundreds, but upon looking back there were only eighty or so...it seems like there were more to me, but now I realize they just reran them numerous times. Ha!). My favorites were the episodes "Bread and Circuses," which was about an early version of reality television and "The Omega Glory" which was a metaphor for the Cold War. It was such a thoughtful, interesting program, full of good (if hammy) performances. And that's why I was worried about the 2009 Star Trek film. Would it measure up? Would it just be a second-rate regurgitation of Roddenberry's mythos? What about the casting? How could anyone be a new William Shatner?

The answers to these concerns is: Yes it does, No, it's not, the casting is good, and Chris Pine is as good as we're going to get when it comes to replacing William Shatner. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek provides us with a prequel. It's like a Degrassi Junior High Star Trek. But in a good way. We see Kirk (Chris Pine) meet Spock (Zachary Quinto) as they go through Starfleet Academy. Of course, we also meet Uhura (Zoe Saldana of Pirates of the Caribbean) and Bones (the perfectly cast Karl Urban) as they all learn to work on the Enterprise together. The script is crisp and intelligent with just enough humor thrown in to keep it light. Not only that, the film manages to throw in clever references to the original series without it being a giant nerd in-joke. Scotty (Simon Pegg) gets to clamor about the engines, Bones gets to say "Dammit I'm a doctor not a physicist!" Sulu gets to show off his fencing skills and of course Spock gets the mind meld and the Vulcan neck pinch. And, finally, Uhura is able to make out with another cast member without some contrived mind control plot device. We've come a long way, baby. The film even gives us the terrific Leonard Nimoy in a cameo that is integral to the plot as opposed to being heedlessly tacked on. The special effects are well-used; I never felt like I was in the middle of a CGI onslaught. Not only that, we get a good villain: Eric Bana as a Romulan renegade. It was fitting, given their conflicts in the original series, that the Romulans would be the villain of choice. Not that I don't miss the Klingons, Cardassians and Betazoids, but you can't introduce too much in the first film. Originally, the Romulans were supposed to represent the People's Republic of China and the Klingons were supposed to be the Soviets. Abrams' Star Trek is much less political, but not necessarily to its detriment. Perhaps as a way to revise the previous references to China made in the original series, the new Star Trek names the Romulan villain Nero, as if to pretend that the Romulans were a reference to the Roman Empire. Maybe in sequels (and rest assured, there will be sequels) they can start to tackle international relations. For now, I'm happy with Black Hole devices and time-travelling Vulcans.

The amount I would pay to see this film: $10

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

I have a major girl crush on both Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, so it wasn't hard to sell me on Sunshine Cleaning, a lightweight dramady about a pair of sisters who start their own crime-scene cleanup service. Adams plays Rose, a single mom and former high school cheerleading captain whose life is not unfolding as she had planned. She works as a maid and is still having an affair with her high school sweetheart (Steve Zahn) who is the father of her son, and who happens to be married to another woman. Her sister Norah (Blunt) is a slacker who can't do anything right and who still acts like a fifteen-year-old. Their father is played with a mix of bittersweet humor and weary grit by Alan Arkin. Both sisters (as well as their father) are still grieving over the suicide of their mother some twenty years prior. When Rose gets a chance to switch from dusting to mopping up blood, she leaps at the highly lucrative chance. Soon her sister joins her and the two learn all about biohazard disposal with the assistance of Winston (Clifton Collins Jr) the one-armed cleaning supplies salesman.

This might not sound like a great opportunity for comedy, but the film's light script, upbeat performances and bright, saturated colors make it all work. It's also, surprisingly, not the precious and twee indie comedy it could have been. Suitable weight is given to the themes of death and loss, and Adams and Blunt have enough acting chops to make their characters seem like real individuals. So often films hold up the fading prom queens of the world for laughs and mockery, but this film provides Rose with vulnerability and depth. The director, New Zealander Christine Jeffs, hasn't done much yet; she directed the 2003 film Sylvia about the life of Sylvia Plath, as well as the 2003 family drama Rain. In Sunshine Cleaning, however, she shows a lot of promise as an up-and-coming director, showing a deft comedic touch for serious subject matter without glossing anything over. In addition, I was impressed by the cinematography of John Toon (Broken English, 1996). One scene in particular, featuring Blunt beneath a railroad bridge, is so beautifully photographed that it alone makes the entire film worth seeing.

On the downside, the film has pacing problems, with an ending that feels a bit rushed and tacked on. I was sometimes distracted by the abundant use of handheld camera, but it's clear that Jeffs wants her audience to feel as though we are in the lives of the characters. Finally, there is the slightly clunky metaphor of cleaning up after the dead, an activity that both women are psychologically unable to do with respect to their own mother. Jeffs' overuse of flashbacks to remind us of the parallels between cleaning out dead people's houses and letting go of mom's memories beats the horse to death, but I'm willing to forgive it in light of the film's overall quality.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is Anybody There? (2008)

It took me three days to muster up enough strength to review Is Anybody There?, an absolutely heartbreaking film that slowly broke me down over the course of its brief 95 minutes. It is a small, good film, full of tart and funny moments. It also made me cry. I'm not talking about the kind of misty, watery eyes I got when I went to see Life Is Beautiful, or even my slight blubbering at the end of Million Dollar Baby. I'm talking about tears streaming uncontrollably down my face and dripping onto my shirt. My friend and I were both complete messes when we walked out of the theater. We walked straight from the theater to a bar. In the middle of the day.

Is Anybody There? centers around ten-year-old Edward (Bill Milner) who lives in a retirement home run by his struggling parents. He is surrounded by eccentric elderly people and, inevitably, by death. He deals with death in the only way he knows how: by obsessively recording and documenting it in an attempt to understand what happens afterwards. He records the death rattles of the residents and holds seances to talk with souls "on the other side." Not surprisingly, he drives his parents nuts. He meets his match in Clarence (Michael Caine) a retired septuagenarian magician who is grieving over the death of his wife. He is also slowly going senile, a process that is tortuously laid out for us over the course of the film.

I wanted Is Anybody There? to be a great film, but it's a tad too maudlin and tries too hard to tug on the heartstrings of the audience members. That said, it has some wonderful moments, particularly between Caine and Milner. It also has a deft touch with the residents of the home. So often the elderly are depicted in films as lovable cartoons. The seniors in Is Anybody There? actually come across as real people, which is a welcome achievement. So give it a look and see what you think--but I'm warning you, bring a handkerchief and do not, under any circumstance, wear mascara.

The amount of money I'd pay to see this film: $7

Monday, May 04, 2009

Six Remakes Better Than Their Originals

So, I just found out that Robert Rodriguez is remaking Barbarella with Rosario Dawson in the lead. I don't know how I feel about that. On one hand, I say "why?" The original, starring Jane Fonda, was so bizarre and wonderful, yet still pretty disjointed and messy as a film. Remaking it could wring out everything that was great about the original while still being a sloppy mess. Or it could be fine. But will I want to watch it instead of watching the original? This got me to thinking: what remakes would I rather watch than their original source films? Here's a short list.

Ocean's Eleven
This is an obvious choice. Steven Soderbergh's remake of the 1960 Rat Pack movie succeeds because it took an awesome, star-packed heist story and made it even more star-packed, while updating it for today. It doesn't copy the original, it improves upon it, and manages to be very entertaining as a result.


The Thing
John Carpenter's remake of Howard Hawkes' The Thing from Another World makes the most of the greatest special effects that 1982 had to offer.


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Who would have thought you could do better than Marlon Brando and David Niven? Frank Oz's remake of Ralph Levy's 1964 comedy Bedtime Story is great because it does better than Brando and Niven by giving us Steve Martin and Michael Caine in one of their most hilarious outings ever as a couple of Riviera con men.


Little Shop of Horrors
Okay, this kind of doesn't count because it was based on a stage musical that was based on the original 1960 Roger Corman film. But let's face it--never have we seen such a whimsical and quirky remake brought to the screen.


Ben Hur
Ben Hur has actually been remade three times, in 1925, 1959 and in 2003 as an animated film. The remake I'm referring to in this case in the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. What a spectacular period piece!


The Birdcage
Director Mike Nichols reminds us that he can do comedy with this 1996 remake of La Cage aux Folles, a 1978 French by Jean Poiret and Francis Veber. I saw it when it first came out and it still makes me laugh.


The Good Thief
This 2002 film starring Nick Nolte is a remake of the 1955 French film Bob le flambeur. It is atmospheric, intense and insanely well acted (but then, with Nolte, everything is insane).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Happiness

No, I'm not referring to Todd Solondz's ironically titled 1998 film Happiness, although it's awesome. No, I'm talking about the concept of happiness, as viewed from both sociological and psychological perspectives, in the context of modern film.

This week, I was a guest on Under Surveillance, the awesome radio show on WLUW here in Chicago produced by my friend and fellow cinephile Kevin Fullam. This week's show explores how the pursuit of happiness is depicted in various films and television shows. Check it out here: Under Surveillance

We explored a number of films and shows, including About Schmidt, American Beauty, Mad Men and The Sopranos. Many of these examples don't explore happiness so much as the absence of happiness. Characters such as Lester from American Beauty, who is incredibly unhappy despite achieving the American Dream. Check out the radio show (also a podcast for all you high tech kids) and enjoy these clips from the films and shows we discuss:








Saturday, March 28, 2009

Song Choices...Some Thoughts

And now, some random favorite song choices from Celluloitering:

Best use of a one hit wonder: The clear choice is “Stuck in the Middle with You,” by Stealers Wheel, as used in “Reservoir Dogs.” Obvious, I know, but after watching Tarantino’s mutilation sequence, will we ever think of anything else in association with the song? A runner up would have to be “I Will Survive” as used in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. How often do you get to see Aborigines covering Gloria Gaynor on dijeridoos?

Best use of a Beck Song: “Black Tambourine” in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. A soiled, desperate Laura Dern stumbles through a nightmarish Hollywood while Beck rocks out in the background. I may have zoned out halfway through the three hour film, but this sequence has stuck with me over time and burned itself into my consciousness. Runner up is "Deadweight" as used in A Life Less Ordinary. I thought the song and video were better than the film.

Best montage song: Undoubtedly the training montage from the original Rocky, using the song “Gonna Fly Now” by Bill Conti. I chose this because, let’s face it, it is the godmother of all training montages, ironic and unironic alike.

Best use of diagetic music in film, musicals excluded: “diagetic” refers to music that comes from the action of the film itself (for example, the use of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Wayne’s World). My best picks for this category: Antonioni’s Blowup--which uses all live music and radio broadcasts without any external score whatsoever—and Casablanca, which features a score that is mostly played by Sam.

Best use of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song: prior to 2005, I would have said “Sweet Home Alabama” as used in Con Air. However, the spot was ousted by Rob Zombie’s ingenious use of “Free Bird” in the climax of The Devil’s Rejects. Runner up: Andre Braugher in Duets, a ridiculous film that features a karaoke cover of "Free Bird" that never fails to get me (I know, it's stupid, but just watch it, you'll see).

Greatest movie song with no lyrics: The "Colonel Bogey March" from the 1957 film The Bridge on The River Kwai.

Most unexpected use of Hip Hop: William Shatner’s Shakespeare Rap in Free Enterprise, and the song “No Budget” from Jon Water’s Cecil B. Demented.

Best “Best Song” winner from the Academy Awards: Okay, this is just plain self indulgent, as it is just my own preference, but I think the title has to go to Issac Hayes’ “Shaft.” Runners up for me are “Soon or Later” from Dick Tracy and “Falling Slowly” from Once.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Watchmen

The first time I read Alan Moore’s 1986 comic series “The Watchmen” was in 1993. It was the summer before I turned thirteen and my sister’s college boyfriend lent it to me to read, telling me “if you like the Phoenix Saga, you’ll love this.” I read it all in a day, and then I read it again. I did not entirely appreciate it until later, but my initial exposure to the work changed the way I saw comics and, in a way, it changed the way I viewed U.S. history. Now, fifteen years later, I finally got to see the amazing story brought to the screen. I entered the theatre with both excitement and dread, fearing that my favorite graphic novel of all time would become another League of Extraordinary Gentleman. I am happy to write that Watchmen stands unique as the best and most faithful Alan Moore screen adaptation to date.

The story is set in an alternate universe in which superheroes are a real and controversial part of America’s social landscape. It introduces us to two generations of crime-fighting superheroes: the Minutemen of the 1940s and later wave known as the Watchmen. None of these superheroes have superpowers, save Dr. Manhattan who can manipulate time and matter. In the alternate present, Nixon was never impeached and has brought the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war. Superheroes, once accepted and sanctioned by the government, have been outlawed as vigilantes. One of the old guard, The Comedian (the perfectly cast Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is assassinated under mysterious circumstances. This brings the Watchmen back together as they attempt to figure out who is knocking off old superheroes and why.

Director Zach Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) creates a lush visual tableau peppered with perfect period details. He also casts the film amazingly well. Patrick Wilson makes a first rate Nite Owl. As Rorshach, Jackie Earl Haley manages to steal most scenes despite spending 90% of the film with his face fully covered. Dr. Manhattan is mostly CGI yet still human thanks to the competence of Billy Crudup. Malin Akerman and Carla Gugino are the only disappointing additions, turning in rather stilted performances. The real strength of Watchmen is that it doesn’t dumb itself down. Rather, it trusts that audience members, both long-time fans and newcomers alike, will be able to follow the considerably complex narrative without extraneous exposition or oversimplification. At two and a half hours, I expected to get a stiff neck and bleary eyes by the film's finale, but I found myself entranced until the very end. Some die-hard fans may be disappointed by the parts of the book that are missing, such as the “Tales of the Black Freighter” comic book within the comic book, or the side story of Rorshach’s psychiatrist. You fans will be pleased to know, however, that these nuggets were in the original film and will be released on the DVD as extras.

The amount of money I would pay to see this: $10 all the way. And I’ll see it again.