Wednesday, December 31, 2008

When a classic shouldn't be-The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St.

Just like last months pick of Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Exile on Main Street is widely considered one of the 10 or so greatest albums ever made, and The Rolling Stones' masterwork. I'm a huge fan of The Stones, but Exile isn't even one of their 3 best albums, much less one of the greatest ever made. Mick Jagger himself isn't quite sure why it gets the praise it does either, saying: "Exile... is not one of my favourite albums, although I think the record does have a particular feeling. I'm not too sure how great the songs are, but put together it's a nice piece." I think that's the perfect assessment of Exile on Main Street, it's nice, but overall the songs aren't the greatest, and they've definitely put out better work in their long career.

The Stones occasionally had a tendency to open their albums with the best song ("Gimme Shelter" starts off Let It Bleed, "Sympathy for the Devil" begins Beggar's Banquet, "Start Me Up" leads off Tattoo You), which to me often lends the discs the feeling of getting worse as it goes along. That's not the case with Exile, which opens with the decent rocker "Rocks Off", which although it's a favorite of many fans, is not one of mine. They continue along with the rockabilly of "Rip This Joint" and their cover of the blues classic "Shake Your Hips" (which to anyone who's heard Robert Randolph's version just seems the epitome of weak and lifeless). Finishing off the initial quartet of songs is "Casino Boogie" which although not a great song does feature some nice slide guitar from Mick Taylor, and is another example of The Stones using horns (saxophone in particular) better than any other rock band.

Before they could make an entire album of mid-level material, they break out "Tumbling Dice", which is not their best song, but it is truly great and is probably the best representation of what The Stones are all about. It rocks, it's catchy, and it has a terrific groove. When they follow up with the excellent "Sweet Virginia" (one of their best country songs), the album really seems to be going in the right direction and possibly deserving of its praise. But the next few songs are all either ok or just good, none are great, including "Loving Cup" (which we saw Jack White ruin in the Scorsese concert documentary Shine a Light earlier this year). The rocker "Happy" has long been a concert favorite due to it getting Keith Richards to step up to the microphone, but every time I hear it I wish Jagger sang lead on it, because it's a good song that gets marred by its sub-par vocals.

The next run of songs holds nothing of particular note, although I kind of like "Ventilator Blues" and "Let it Loose". The last great thing on the disc is the penultimate song "Shine a Light", a Billy Preston guest-starring, piano driven gospel masterpiece. It's one of the bands greatest achievements, has some more terrific slide from Mick Taylor, and it holds one of Jagger's best vocal performances. The album closer is "Soul Survivor", which is disappointing because "Shine a Light" would've been the perfect ending note. As a whole the album isn't bad, again like Pet Sounds it's actually pretty good, just undeserving of the endless praise it receives. For an album that has 18 songs, it should really have more than 3 great ones on it. It's another one that has a tremendous reputation, but I find it far inferior to their less-acclaimed releases like Let it Bleed or Some Girls, and it's certainly nowhere in the realm of greatness that their masterpiece Sticky Fingers is in.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 top list

Although I haven't seen all of the big year-end movies (the "Oscar movies") yet, it'll be after the end of the year before I get to see most of them. So I decided to just recap my top 5 movies of the year, and I'll expand it by the time of the Oscars, since most of the big movies will have made their way to me by then. So, without further delay, the best movie of 2008 IS..............

1. Wall-E

After a first viewing, I wasn't even sure it was my favorite Pixar movie, but after re-watching it, I feel confident in saying that it's the best movie of the year. Sometimes movies grow on you (the great ones do anyway). Last year I wasn't even sure how much I liked No Country for Old Men until I watched it a few times and became convinced that it was one of the best movies of the past decade. Wall-E was much the same experience. It's such a beautiful movie, both in look and in spirit. The love story between Wall-E and Eve is the best one that we've had since Julie Delpy sang Nina Simone songs to Ethan Hawke in Before Sunset. It's the most visually stunning movie of the year (narrowly besting my #5), and filled me with the awe of childhood. It's the best movie of the year, and Pixar will have a hell of a time topping themselves now.

2. The Dark Knight

Chris Nolan directs his best movie yet (which is saying something, the man's already made a number of great movies in his young career). Christian Bale is terrific as Bruce Wayne, and although his deep gravelly Batman voice is a bit annoying, he's still a wonderful Batman. But the story here, as everyone knows, is Heath Ledger's Joker. In his final completed performance Ledger creates a villain who's charismatic, disturbing, depraved, and never less than fascinating. It's the best performance of the year, and will likely go down alongside Hannibal Lecter and Anton Chigurh as the greatest screen villains of recent memory.

3. In Bruges

Colin Farrell reminds us of why he was a star to begin with in the darkly hilarious In Bruges. He and Brendan Gleeson have such terrific chemistry with one another that it's almost a shame when other characters come into play. I say almost, because In Bruges is full of wonderful characters. Clémence Poésy as the slyly sexy drug dealer, Jordan Prentice's drunkenly racist dwarf, and especially Ralph Fiennes as the completely over the top mob boss. The cast is uniformly wonderful, but it's Farrell and Gleeson that stick most in the memory, and I was very happy to see them get some recognition when the Golden Globe nominations came out recently.

4. Iron Man

Who would've ever thought that we'd get 2 great superhero movies in one summer? Not me, but I would've never picked Jon Favreau to direct an Iron Man movie either. To me Favreau was (and always will be) Mikey from 1996's Swingers, the movie he wrote and starred in with his friend Vince Vaughn, propelling them both to stardom. Since then, Favreau directed the buddy dramedy Made in 2001 (also with Vaughn), and followed it with the Will Ferrell vehicle Elf which was a much bigger hit than his next family movie, 2005's Zathura. However, when casting the role of Iron Man, he was smart enough to pick a re-rising star in Robert Downey, Jr. Downey is superb as Tony Stark/Iron Man, keeping a sharp wit about him at all times, while also believably connecting with the other actors in the movie. The action is exciting and the special effects are top notch. Also top notch is the great supporting cast highlighted by Jeff Bridges, Gweneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard. Still, the movie could not survive without Downey's performance, and if not for his role in Tropic Thunder (he's the only reason to see that one), I'm sure he'd be getting more praise than he is for his performance in Iron Man.

5. Encounters at the End of the World

Since I just recently wrote about this one, I won't say too much here, other than to state that Werner Herzog is a master director, whether he's making fiction films or documentaries. He's one of the true treasures of the cinema, and Encounters is one of the best gifts he's ever given to us. Not an all-time great movie like his masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but most definitely one of the best movies of the year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

George Lazenby is James Bond?!?!?

George Lazenby was a mostly unknown Australian model when he was chosen as the guy to step into the shoes vacated by Sean Connery after 5 Bond films. He was given such a hard time by the press during filming that really, he had lost before he was ever given a chance. Still, even though 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service has the reputation of a flop, it made more than 12 times its budget at the box office. Sadly, many factors led to the role being re-cast again after this movie came out, and Lazenby has gone down in history as a bit of a joke. A joke only to those that haven't watched the movie, of course. On Her Majesty's Secret Service is at worst a top 3 Bond movie, with possibly the best Bond girl of them all, and Lazenby himself as a terrific Bond.

It starts off with Bond saving a woman (Diana Rigg, famous as Emma Peel from the TV series The Avengers) from drowning herself in the ocean. He's swiftly attacked by two men, whom he brutally dispaches of. There's a terrific looking fist fight in the waves between Bond and one of the men, and the battle continues onto the sand. The scene also contains the famous line, after Rigg has escaped, where Lazenby observes to himself "This never happened to the other fella". Through the usual Bond movie machinations, James ends up at the mountain top hide out of Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas), where Blofeld is subliminally training groups of women as his agents of terrorism. Savalas is magnificent as Blofeld, turning in what I consider to be the best villainous performance in the entire Bond series. He's smooth (especially with that wonderful voice of his), intelligent, and just an all around cold hearted bastard. In short, he's everything you'd ever want in a villain, and Savalas plays him to perfection.

If there's one thing that many people take away from On Her Majesty's Secret Service, it's the unusual impact that the Bond girl has on the film. Rigg disappears for the middle third of the movie, but when she's on screen, she's probably my favorite Bond girl. She matches Bond's wits, she's very independant, and she's a hell of a driver too. When she and Bond get together, Bond hasn't conquered another woman, they've entered into it as pretty much equal partners. It doesn't hurt that I've long had a crush on Rigg and she looks terrific in the movie.

Because he only did the one movie, Lazenby is at best an afterthought to most people when considering the actors who've played Bond. That's a shame because although he doesn't have the cocky charm of Sean Connery or the physical intensity of Daniel Craig, he has a nice mix of the two. He carries himself in a way that we believe he could bed these women and kick the asses of these guys. He also gets a couple of scenes to show some real acting ability, and he plays them nicely.

The action scenes are some of the best in the Bond series, with a famous ski chase down the mountain at night, a car chase through the icy roads, and (my personal favorite) a tremendous helicopter siege of the Blofeld compound. Peter Hunt had been an editor on all the previous Bond pictures and finally gets his chance to direct here. He doesn't disappoint, and keeps the movie going along at a fairly brisk pace, which is good because until 2006's Casino Royale, On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the longest Bond movie, running 140 minutes.

Lazenby quit the series even before the release of the movie, feeling that Bond was a bit out of place and wouldn't last any longer in the new cinema of The Graduate and Easy Rider (he has since acknowledged how terribly wrong he was). It was announced as a firing, that Lazenby had angered producer Albert R. Broccoli with his youthful cockiness (at 30, Lazenby is the youngest actor to portray Bond) and sense of entitlement, which Lazenby admits were both true. Still, it was Lazenby who made the poor decision to get rid of him as Bond, and the series suffered for it. On Her Majesty's Secret Service has few of the silly gadgets that had come to dominate the Connery era (and would later dominate the Roger Moore era) and focuses more on story and character, which causes the action scenes to not need any sprucing up with gadgets. Essentially, it was the truer to Ian Fleming's books Bond movie that nobody really seemed to realize they wanted until Casino Royale. And it stands only behind Casino Royale as my favorite Bond movie. Maybe some day it, and Lazenby, will get the fair shake they deserve.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Big Night = Life

Big Night's subject is, essentially, life. Its plot is that of two Italian brothers in 1950's New York whose restaurant is on the verge of bankruptcy. Through a fellow restauranteur, they set up for jazz superstar Louis Prima to come to the restaurant and eat, which will get them out of debt because people will want to flock to the place Louis Prima eats. So they have to prepare an elaborate meal, invite many guests, and make sure everything is just right for their big night. That's the extent of the "plot", but it's not like nothing happens during the movie's 107 minutes. Like life, it has a lot going on. It's really about family, love, and most of all, the joy of food.

No movie has ever been as in love with food as much as this movie is. Tony Shaloub plays Primo, the oldest brother and head chef. Stanley Tucci is Secondo, the younger brother, and the one who deals with the money issues. "Seco" helps in the kitchen and is very knowledgable about food, but Primo is the one in charge of the menu. My favorite scene in the movie is one of the first, where a woman in the restaurant orders the risotto, but wants a side of spaghetti and meatballs with it. Seco has to explain to her that spaghetti and meatballs doesn't exist in real Italian food. There's spaghetti, and there's meatballs, but there's no spaghetti and meatballs. On top of that Seco has to explain that her risotto is rice, a starch, and spaghetti is pasta, a starch, and you really shouldn't serve two starches together. The woman and her husband reiterate that they'd like spaghetti and meatballs, and since they're the only paying customers in the place, Seco goes into the kitchen to tell Primo to make some spaghetti (naturally, Primo's response is "But they're both starches!"). A competing Italian restaurant in town is packed night after night, but when Seco goes to check them out he's disgusted as he can see that nearly every table has a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs on it. Primo assures him that "If we give people time, they will learn" about real Italian food, but Seco reminds his brother that "We're a restaurant, not a fucking school".

Tucci wrote the script with his cousin Joseph Tropiano, and directed it with his high school friend Campbell Scott (son of Oscar winner George C. Scott). They assembled a terrific supporting cast with Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini, Allison Janney, Marc Anthony, and a pre-Good Will Hunting Minnie Driver all delivering good performances. Holm is a bit grating as the owner of the busy restaurant, but he's supposed to be. Tucci is clearly uncomfortable and annoyed by Holm, and since we're on his side, so are we. Ultimately though, it's Tucci and Shaloub that steal the show. You really feel the history and chemistry that these two brothers have with one another. They fight, they laugh, they love each other, and again, they cook. Big Night has one of the best final scenes in any movie I've ever watched. A silent 5 1/2 minute shot of Tucci making eggs, while they recover from the big night. It doesn't tie up any loose ends in the plot, but it shows the connecting bond that these guys share through food. Food heals and embraces them, just as this movie embraces us.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World-a visual orgasm

Encounters at the End of the World is a splendid little documentary about the wild sights, sounds, and people that occupy Antartica. Made in association with the National Science Foundation, legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog guides us through this land and its people, while narrating in that familiar and comforting accent of his. We find that the people who inhabit this place are mostly intellectuals there doing scientific research, but also we find that the general sense of everyone is that of an outsider, a misfit, an adventurer. After all, if you want to get away, or even just explore a new land, where's a better place than the "end of the world"?

If there's been one thing that is a constant throughout Herzog's career, it's the existence of incredible images in his movies. His masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God has what may be the greatest opening shot in the history of cinema. He has been quoted as saying that the world is starved for great images. I can tell you that it's not because of Herzog, he gives us image after image of incredible brilliance in all of his movies, and Encounters at the End of the World just might contain his best yet. Whether it's in the breathtakingly shot underwater scenes (filmed by a diver friend of Herzog's), the gorgeous innards of a volcanic vent, or just the barren landscape of ice (some of which is 9,000 feet thick) Herzog feeds us the unbelievable images. Some of the underwater stuff wouldn't look out of place in the "Beyond the Infinite" sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Herzog even likens the divers to astronauts exploring outer space.

This movie would work if taken just as a silent film, letting the screen wash over us, but Herzog finds some truly fascinating people as well. There's a physics professor talking about spiritual experiences studying the particles in the air, volcano experts giving us advice on how to survive an exploding open lava pit (one of only 3 such pits in the world), or apocalyptic scientists who're looking to study the undiscovered organisms below the surface (a seemingly routine expedition turns up 3 new species).

Encounters at the End of the World is a fascinating, educational, occasionally humorous, and definitely adventurous journey to the otherwordly continent of Antartica, and I highly recommend taking the trip.

Herzog dedicated the movie to friend and long-time champion of his work, Roger Ebert.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the great animated movies that your average moviegoer hasn't seen. It was a wonderful gift given to us by Oscar-winning animation legend Hayao Miyazaki (the Japanese Walt Disney) in 1988. It follows two young girls who move with their loving father into an old house near a forest in rural Japan, where they encounters mystical creatures, including Totoro, the King of the forest. What's wonderful about the movie is that it's just as engrossing when dealing with the magical Totoro and his friends as it is when we're simply watching the girls and their father clean up the house, or visit their sick mother in the hospital. It's a magnificent visual experience, something Miyazaki is known for, with evocative renderings of the small village in which the family lives as well as the surrounding forest. In particular the animation on the sisters is brilliantly expressive, using the exaggerated tradition of anime to get us to recall the feelings of childhood.

My Neighbor Totoro introduced Miyazaki to a much wider audience when it was released and has since become somewhat of a signature film for Studio Ghibli (Miyazaki's studio, which like him is the Disney of Japan). The character of Totoro appears in the Studio Ghibli logo, and I've read that he is as known and beloved by the Japanese people as Mickey Mouse is to all of us. It's not hard to understand why, once you've seen the movie. Totoro looks after the girls, finds them when they get lost, and uses his powers to speed up the growing of some trees the girls planted. I don't see how someone couldn't love Totoro.

It was re-released on DVD in 2006 after Disney acquired the rights, with a dubbed cast including Tim Daly voicing the father, and Dakota and Elle Fanning voicing Satsuki and Mei, the sisters. Unlike the previously released DVD though, the re-release included the original Japanese audio track, which is what I watched (being a bit of a purist). Either way, My Neighbor Totoro is a great movie, and one which can be easily enjoyed by the whole family.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Snow Angels

Kate Beckinsale is a tremendous actress. This isn't something that I've thought for very long though, it actually just came to me recently while watching Snow Angels. In it Beckinsale plays Annie, a waitress and newly single mother struggling to cope with life in her small wintry town. She recently seperated from her husband Glen (Sam Rockwell) and they're coping with raising their young daughter apart. We also meet a teenager named Arthur (Michael Angarano) who is dealing with his own parents recent seperation, in addition to experiencing his first love with a girl at school. The relationships complicate themselves from there, but the tone never reaches that of a soap opera, thanks to the painfully realistic acting and the sureness with which everything is handled by director David Gordon Green.

Green is a sort of golden boy at the moment, and with good reason. He's begun to get a reputation of getting damn near any actor to have the best work of their career under his direction. Josh Lucas, mostly known for being the love interest in the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Sweet Home Alabama, was frightening as the violent uncle in Green's Southern Gothic thriller Undertow. Zooey Deschanel, probably best known for being the love interest in Elf, as well as the go to actress for the best friend role in many movies, has yet to better her work in Green's heartbreaking romance All the Real Girls. And most recently, James Franco got the best notices of his career playing Saul the drug dealer in Green's buddy comedy Pineapple Express. In Snow Angels, Green draws out incredible performances from his entire cast, which is the best of his young career.

Sam Rockwell, I'm convinced, cannot give a bad performance, and his tragic role here is his best yet. Glen is a suicidal born-again Christian and lapsed alcoholic just trying to get his life together. When he proudly tells his wife that he got a job, attempting to convince her to come back to him, and she doesn't share his excitement, Rockwell says "It's not much Annie, but I'm trying" and you can see the desperation and pain and disappointment in eyes and hear it in his voice and it will break your heart. Michael Angarano as Arthur is so natural on screen that I'm afraid many people will overlook how good he is here. Angarano has a nice body of work for a 21-year-old, including playing the 11-year-old William in Almost Famous (one of my favorite movies), plus multiple episodes of Will & Grace and 24, among others. In Snow Angels, he never hits a wrong note, whether it's his anger at his father for seperating from his mother, his awkward flirting with Annie, or his sweet romance with his girlfriend Lila (wonderfully played by Olivia Thirlby, the best friend in Juno). Angarano's definitely an actor I'll be on the lookout for in the future, because I think he has the chops to be a very good actor in the upcoming years. Also of note, comedienne Amy Sedaris was surprisingly good in the supporting role of Annie's best friend Barb.

The star here though, is Beckinsale as Annie. Although I've seen her in many movies, she'd never made an impression on me as anything much more than a pretty face. Her Annie is a tribute to the unknown depths that actors possess that they may not get to play very often. 2008 has not been the greatest year for female performances (it's been kind of the opposite of 2007 when there were a ton of great ones), but if there has been a better performance by an actress this year, I haven't seen it. Although she's British, Beckinsale's accent is spot on, and the emotional shades that she continues to add to Annie as the movie progresses is truly astounding. There are few things I love more in the world than being surprised by an actor like this, I hope her performance will open up doors for her to become a respected actress so that maybe she can wow us again.

I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the work of cinematographer Tim Orr for putting his elegant photography into the movie. Whether we're in the snowy forest or just Arthur's bedroom, Orr's camera finds the beauty in it. He's an integral part of David Gordon Green's crew, having been cinematographer on every one of Green's movies, building a reputation for finding all of those gorgeous shots, no matter where the action is taking place.

It's definitely not going to be for everyone, Green sees these lives playing out with an unfliching eye. It's the kind of cathartic emotional drama usually saved for the stage, or perhaps the page (Green adapted the story from the book of the same name by Stewart O'Nan). Snow Angels also isn't a perfect movie, I don't think the final third works as well as the first two-thirds, but there's always something to admire on screen. There's the exquisite photography, the superb acting, and Green's assured control over the proceedings. If nothing else, I recommend seeing it for the eye-opening performances from Beckinsale, Angarano, and Rockwell.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mitch Mitchell-1947-2008

We lost the greatest drummer rock and roll has ever seen when Mitch Mitchell died in his sleep of natural causes earlier this month. Mitchell isn't the household name that other drummers like John Bonham or Keith Moon were, but he has long been my favorite drummer. For those that don't know the name, John "Mitch" Mitchell was the drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, pioneering a sort of jazz-infused rock drumming on all of Hendrix's studio recordings, and can especially be heard on classics songs like "Foxy Lady" "Up From the Skies" and "Manic Depression". He and Hendrix would often record songs with just the two of them in the studio because they fed off of each others energy so much. Mitch was known for his frantic energy, but nimbly precise drumming. Just listening to the controlled chaos that is his playing on "Fire" gives me goosebumps. Sadly, he was the last surviving member of the group, as Hendrix died in 1970 and bassist Noel Redding passed away in 2003. Mitch had largely stayed out of the spotlight in recent years, but had just finished playing a Hendrix tribute tour before he died.

Friday, November 21, 2008

When a classic, shouldn't be-The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds"

I like Pet Sounds, it's a good album. Its reputation, however, is that it's one of the best albums ever made. When Rolling Stone magazine made a list of its 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, Pet Sounds came in 2nd only to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Brian Wilson, as the creative force behind the group, had been inspired to push himself to the limit by the release of The Beatles' Rubber Soul in 1965, saying of his first listen:

"I really wasn't quite ready for the unity. It felt like it all belonged together. Rubber Soul was a collection of songs ... that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed. I said, 'That's it. I really am challenged to do a great album.'"

Most people think he did make a great album with Pet Sounds, but I don't. It's a nice little album, it's enjoyable, but it's not great. I can appreciate the influence it has had on a production level, but the fact is (fact in my mind anyway) that there are only 2 great songs on it. Only "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "God Only Knows" are truly great songs. Not that that's a bad thing, most groups would kill to have 2 all-time great songs on an album. But the thing is, there are at least 2 great songs on the worst Beatles albums. So what makes Pet Sounds a classic on the level of The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, or Led Zeppelin II?

Obviously, since I don't believe it's true I won't be able to answer the question. Still, I go back and listen to it every few months to see if one day something in it hits me the right way and I suddenly see why everyone likes it so much. But honestly, if it were a Beatles album, it wouldn't even scratch my top 5 from them, much less an all-time great list.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Groundhog Day-the philosophical comedy

"I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster and drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over and over..."

What would you do if you had all the time in the world? What would you do if your actions seemingly had zero consequences? If there are no consequences, then what's good and what's evil? If there's no tomorrow, then what is the point of today? Writer/director Harold Ramis tackles these kind of questions in his modern comedy classic Groundhog Day. Weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes up every morning to see that it's February 2nd and he's in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. Phil doesn't know why this is happening (wisely Ramis and co-writer Danny Rubin never try to explain), but he knows that he's the only one who's experiencing the phenomenon. He tries to tell his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) what is going on, but to no avail. They wake up the next day on their first February 2nd.

The movie deals with some deep philosophical questions, mostly through Phil's reaction to what's happening. At first he gives in to every hedonistic fantasy one could imagine. He gets into a drunken high-speed chase with the cops (and is thrown in jail), steals money from an armored truck, seduces women with carefully placed knowledge (which he got from them the day before), and throws himself into gluttony with reckless abandon. He tries to seduce Rita, even spending time learning French and memorizing poetry to try and impress her. Rita proves to be a tough nut to crack and Phil eventually gives up. Before too long, the existential weight of his situation gets to him and he slips into a deep depression. He tries multiple times to commit suicide, shooting, stabbing, electrocution, etc. only to find the alarm in his Punxsutawney hotel room waking him up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, once again on Groundhog Day. He determines to do something good with his time when he's confronted with death, in the form of a sickly homeless man that Phil tries to save (God knows how many days he spends trying to rescue the old man). Phil realizes that maybe there are better ways to spend his eternity in Punxsutawney.

There's a lot of loneliness to Phil's situation. There's a scene where he and Rita are wasting time by flicking playing cards into an upturned hat, Rita says it'd take her years to learn how to do it as well as Phil does, but he says "Nah, six months. Practice 4 or 5 hours a day and you'd have it". There's a certain knowing melancholy to the way that Murray delivers this line, Phil has to spend his endless days doing something and when you realize that he has spent half a year just flicking cards, it really makes you think about whether his situation is a blessing or a curse. We're never told how long this goes on for (10 years, 10,000 years, it doesn't really matter). If you had all the time in the world, you could learn everything that there was to know, experience everything there was to experience. But Phil wouldn't have anyone to share in his knowledge or experiences, because they wouldn't remember what happened the next day. It's a sad life, and we're happy when Phil decides to do some good in the town, even if it seems futile.

Reading back through what I've written, it makes this sound like kind of a downer, but actually Groundhog Day is a terrific comedy as well. Watching the "teenaged, evil Phil", as Ramis has called him, after Phil discovers that there are no consequences to his actions, you see the gleam in Murray's eye that tells you he's having a good time indulging in his fantasies. He has a lot of great moments in the beginning being snarky ego-centric Phil, but there's also some things like when he hurts his back after hurrying to save a kid falling out of a tree (for probably the 1,000th time), the kid runs off and Phil shouts "You never thank me!". And all that isn't even going into detail about the terrific, somewhat one-sided, romance between Phil and Rita that is really one of the throughlines of the movie.

Murray is terrific, maybe the best he's ever been, and he's been great in a lot of movies. Andie MacDowell is radiant, and I can see why Phil falls for her. She's intelligent, beautiful, and MacDowell is just so likable and natural in the role. Chris Elliott is sort of underused in his role as the camera man, but really it's more because the movie is focused on Phil and his story, rather than trying to pad the running time, which Ramis has perfect at around 100 minutes. I can see why Groundhog Day has developed such a revered reputation (in 2006 it was added as one of the less than 500 titles in the United States National Film Registry because it was "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"). It's much deeper than your typical comedy, but it also delivers a bunch of laughs. What more could you ask for?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rififi-A heist movie masterpiece

I'll admit that I don't know nearly as much about French cinema as I should. However, I have little doubt that Jules Dassin's 1955 masterpiece Rififi is the greatest French film ever made. In fact, it's one of the greatest films ever made, period. It technically falls under the category of being a heist movie, but it's of such a high quality that it just makes that label seem inadequate. It set the archetype for all future heist movies, but doesn't feel cheapened due to its imitators. If anything, the imitators feel cheapened in my mind because Rififi shows them how it's supposed to be done.

It starts in the early hours of morning in a smoky room in Paris where a group of men are finishing an all night poker game. Tony (Jean Servais) needs money to keep playing, so he calls up his friend Jo (Carl Mohner) to help him out. Apparently Tony just did a 5 year stint in prison for a jewel heist he pulled, and Jo was the protege for whom Tony took the rap. Jo takes him out of the room and into the fresh air where he plans on taking Tony home, but instead stops at a local coffee shop to meet his friend Mario (Robert Manuel). Tony's in failing health, but Jo and Mario are planning a heist of an ultra high-end jewelry store, and they desperately need Tony to mastermind the operation. Tony brings in an intermediary that they'll launder the jewels through once they have them, and knows of an Italian safecracker named Cesar (Dassin himself, acting under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) that they'll need to get through the safe. The thing about jewel heists though is that things aren't always over after the job is pulled. The guys can't screw anything up by flaunting their new wealth, which would draw the eye of both the police, and maybe the ruthless gangster than Tony's ex-girlfriend shacked up with while he was in prison.

The heist of the jewelry store is by far the most famous sequence in the movie. It's a wordless, music less 32-minute tour de force by Dassin. It's unquestionably one of the handful of greatest sequences to ever reach my eyes. These men are professionals at what they do, have thoroughly prepared for this heist (in a previous terrific sequence in the movie), and communicate with one another almost telepathically. Even after disabling the sound sensitive alarm system, there's no reason for these guys to make any noise while they're working, so they don't. Apparently composer Georges Auric scored the entire 32-minute sequence even though Dassin told him he didn't want music over it. Auric assured him that he'd need it if there was to be a half hour of the movie without dialog. When Dassin screened for him both versions of the sequence, Auric told him "It's wrong, the music. Take it out". If ever there was a piece of film I was going to show someone to illustrate that you don't necessarily need dialog to tell a story, it'd be this sequence.

Jean Servais, as Tony, had been a low level French film star who had fallen on hard times before making Rififi. Dassin said that they were lucky to get him because he was such a good actor, but they were able to get him because he desperately needed work and they didn't have much money. He's haunting as the over-the-hill but still sharp Tony. Obviously a career criminal, you can see in his eyes and hear in his voice that he's a beaten down man, but he comes alive a little bit during the heist and afterwords. It's a wonderful performance, but my favorite performance in the movie was by Dassin as Cesar le Milanais the safecracker. His final scene in the movie is another masterpiece of directing, but it's also an extraordinary performance from a guy who had recently been nearly bankrupt due to being put on the Hollywood Blacklist in the late 1940's. Dassin tried several times to get other projects going, even outside of the US, but was not able to get anything done until a French producer told him he was the only man who could make Rififi.

Rififi was a huge hit upon its release and restored Dassin to both artistic and financial good standing (the producer couldn't afford to offer him a decent upfront salary, so Dassin was given a percentage of the profits contract). Dassin won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the movie was widely hailed as one of the great film noirs ever made. Its reputation has only grown in the ensuing 53 years, and with good reason. I'd heard about it for years, but never got around to watching it. Then I had it in from Netflix for a while and never got around to watching it. Now I'm kicking myself for waiting so long to experience this true masterpiece of world cinema.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Commitments-Another musical done right

"The Irish are the blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. The Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."

Alan Parker's The Commitments is a movie that has a lot of insight into the way that many bands work. They might be fighting like the pettiest of siblings backstage, and creating beautiful, moving music when they get onstage in front of the crowd. The problem with the band The Commitments is that they can't always keep those two behaviors separate. Sax players trying to fit a jazz solo into soul music whether it fits or not, egotistical singers that piss people off but sound too damn good to kick out of the band, your trumpet player nailing all of your female singers, crazy roadies, and angry pawn shop dealers, but above all else... the music. This movie has some really good music. Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and more are worshipped by The Commitments, and this movie helped introduce a lot of those people into a new generation in the early 90's. I may relate to the band interactions and the music more than some people will, but it's done so well that I think people understand it even if they don't have first hand experience with it

Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) wants to put together a band in Dublin, and although he doesn't play an instrument, he fancies himself to be a manager. He recruits old friends on guitar and bass at a wedding where their terrible band is playing. While there, Jimmy also sees a drunk man named Deco (a 16-year-old Andrew Strong) get up and sing while the band is on break, he likes the guys voice and approaches him a few days later about singing in the band. After enduring disastrious auditions, Jimmy gets with a friend who sang in school and asks her to bring a couple of friends to be the female singers of the band, he finds a saxophonist, a drummer, pianist, and is found himself by trumpet player Joey "The Lips" Fagan, a veteran of seemingly every meaningful soul horn section ever. Jimmy decides on the name "The Commitments" because "All of the great groups of the 60's were The somethings". Soon they're on the road and squabbling constantly, onstage and off, while Joey proves that his nickname may not have been given to him because of his trumpeting, as he claims it was. Jimmy's sax player starts rebelling, his drummer quits, there are onstage electrocutions and subsequent trips to the hospital, and so on. Jimmy has idealized managing a band, even hilariously conducting self-interviews about his future successes with the band, but finds out pretty quickly that it might not exactly play out like it does in his head. But he thinks they can get Wilson "Mustang Sally" Pickett to join them onstage when he's in town, since Joey jammed with Pickett back in the day, and if he could just pull that off, Jimmy's band might make the big time.

The Commitments isn't really trying to make any big statements about music, or life, or anything really. It's just telling the inherently episodic story of life in a working band. Like always, some of these episodes work and others don't. There's a great sequence near the beginning of the movie where Jimmy holds massive auditions for the band. Nobody can correctly answer the question of who their influences are (Jimmy is naturally looking for an answer like "Sam Cooke and Ray Charles" or something of the sort), and some don't even end up being musicians. If there are maybe one too many scenes of the band fighting amongst themselves, I can forgive Parker's inclusion of them, since that's still a pretty accurate representation of a lot of bands.

The band sounds really good. Strong has a, well...strong voice, even if it's a bit untrained at his (then) young age. I had no clue while watching the movie that he was only 16, he looks like he's at least 30. It's weird to see Glen Hansard as the guitar player. After seeing him in the movie Once, or with his bands The Frames and The Swell Season, it's strange to see him 15+ years ago all baby faced and everything. None of the other bands members are known to me from anything else, although one of the female singers would later play a bit part in Pulp Fiction, as Rosanna Arquette's druggie friend. But I think that might be for the best. The Commitments is all about kind of making it, then self destructing, but looking back on the experience with fond memories. I think we can all relate to that at least a little bit.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Our little Kevin Smith is all grown up, sort of. With Zack and Miri Make a Porno, he's finally made a movie that looks like a real movie. He has been criticized his entire career (most loudly by Smith himself) that his movies looked bad, and he mainly succeeded due to his writing abilities. I wondered at first if Smith had gotten a new Director of Photography to make the movie look so different, but I find that the DP is Dave Klein, the same one who shot Smith's Clerks (1 and 2), Mallrats, and Chasing Amy. Regardless, the movie looks good, and it most definitely still sounds like a Kevin Smith movie. It is profane as it can be, raunchier sexually than any of his movies have ever been, and full of pop culture references. It's also hilarious, quick witted, and more successfully heartfelt than any of Smith's previous movies.

Smith moves away from his beloved New Jersey to Pittsburgh, and gives us the story of Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), best friends and strictly platonic roommates who've known each other since the 1st grade. Around the time they're attending their 10 year high school reunion, their water, heat, and electricity are turned off. Probably because they're a few months behind in paying their bills. They're a few months behind because Zack is a barista at a small coffee shop, and Miri (short for Miriam) works at a clothing store. They manage their small income poorly, buying sex toys and hockey equipment, instead of paying bills. While trying to come up with ways to make money, Miri jokingly says that it's times like those that lead people to hooking and/or making porn. Zack thinks it's a great idea ("Porn is mainstream now") and convinces Miri that it will save them from their financial troubles. Zack enlists his co-worker Delany (The Office's Craig Robinson) as producer, and through auditioning, some of which just involves asking strippers what they will and won't do, come across Stacey (real life porn star Katie Morgan), Bubbles (former porn star Traci Lords), and Lester (Smith regular Jason Mewes). Zack also recruits old high school friend Deacon (Jeff Anderson, previously one of Smith's Clerks) to shoot the movie. Essentially, hijinks ensue from there as the crew try to make their movie, and Zack and Miri contemplate the repercussions of having sex with each other for the first time.

It's not a perfect movie, it does drag in the second half, but at just over 100 minutes it's not like it's wearing out its welcome. The actors are all surprisingly good, especially considering that I'm told it's the first Smith movie where the actors had no rehearsal time prior to the start of production. This is Smith's best set of performances yet, especially by his two leads. Rogen is a known commodity by now, after Knocked Up, Superbad, and Pineapple Express, and he basically just plays his typical character here. Banks is less well known to most people (except us Scrubs fans). Both are good in their roles, with Banks in particular giving a lot of emotional weight to Miri. Zack and Miri each have internal struggles dealing with their feelings about their life-long relationship and how having sex (even if it is just "acting in a movie") changes that. Both actors portray believably intelligent, and emotionally inarticulate at the same time. Craig Robinson is hysterical throughout the movie (although the scene with his wife was unnecessary), and Jason Mewes shows that he can play more than just Jay to Smith's Silent Bob (but to be fair, he's not playing that different of a character). Some of the funniest supporting performances come from a gay couple Zack and Miri run into at their reunion, played by Justin Long (the Mac guy from the "Mac & PC" commercials) and our latest Superman, Brandon Routh. Although they're only in one scene, it's a great one as Routh's character tries to fend off Miri's advances (he was her high school crush) and Zack is fascinated to find out that Long's character is a gay porn star, giving Zack the intial do-it-yourself attitude towards porn.

Ok, about the title, I find it hysterical that Kevin Smith has run into issues with advertising this movie simply because of the word "porno". Many ads have just started calling it "Zack and Miri". To be fair, it isn't just the title, the poster pictured below was banned in the US due to its suggestiveness, but come on people, lighten up. There are worse things in the world than sex (actually come to think of it, pretty much everything in the world is worse than sex). Smith also had problems with the MPAA over the rating of the movie. It was initially given the dreaded NC-17 rating, but was lowered upon appeal. Apparently the MPAA didn't have a problem with the language so much as it was with the nudity (full frontal male and female), and the sex scenes (one of which has no nudity, the others being deliberately over the top). Thankfully Smith won his battle without having to cut anything that he didn't want to, and has delivered what is most likely his best movie yet. With his growth in the visual department, I'm now actually kind of looking forward to what he'll try to do with the sci-fi and horror movies he's long talked about doing.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

When a classic, shouldn't be-The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad had an incredibly difficult road to the big screen, it went through a reported 6 directors (only 3 of which are credited), a shift in shooting location from England to Hollywood, much more behind the scenes fighting, and production being interrupted by World War 2 (which is what prompted the move to Hollywood). But when it was released it was a big hit, even winning 3 Oscars. It was an early special effects picture, and was of the always popular fantasy genre, but I believe that in the resulting 68 years, it has not dated very well.

The movie's plot is taken somewhat from "Arabian Nights", and it concerns King Ahmad (John Justin) finding love with a Princess (June Duprez), but being usurped in power by his advisor Jaffar (legendary German actor Conrad Veidt), who is equally smitten with the princess and throws Ahmad in jail under false pretenses. Ahmad is being prepped for execution when he is tossed a cell-mate, Abu (played by famous Indian actor Sabu, in only his 3rd screen role) the titular thief. Abu breaks them out of jail and basically the movie is a series of episodes of them trying to get back into the kingdom and save the princess. The most famous episode is probably Abu's encounter with an ancient (and annoying) genie, which explains the picture I used above. But my favorite sequence is one in which Abu is chased by seemingly every merchant in town, after he steals 2 fish from one of them.

I heard about this movie through Roger Ebert, who recently wrote a nice piece about special effects in movies and how too many filmmakers take the ease of CGI for granted, and thus incorrectly use their effects. He pointed to Iron Man as a recent example of how to do it right, and offered up The Thief of Bagdad as an historic example of how to use special effects, because although they're obviously special effects, we still believe them inside the context of the movie. I agree with him in theory, but not in this specific example. The effects were certainly groundbreaking at the time, but have not dated well, and I believe distractingly so. Normally this isn't a problem for me, as many special effects from the 40's don't hold up now. But this was a big time "EFFECTS MOVIE" that really relied on its effects to affect its audience.

It definitely has some beautiful shots, a few nice sets, and some nice effects, like the matte paintings representing the skyline of Baghdad. But overall, I think that because it relied so much on its effects, it doesn't work today like it would've in 1940. Conrad Veidt and Sabu are both good, with Sabu in particular having an infectious presence on screen. June Duprez is beautiful, but too wooden in her performance to be much more than eye candy. Sadly, John Justin is just as wooden as our leading man Ahmad, making for a fairly uninteresting love story. I'm glad I saw The Thief of Bagdad, as I'm always up for anything considered a "classic", but I don't think this one deserves its status, and I'd take Disney's Aladdin (which took much from this movie, including Anglicizing the leads in an otherwise Arabian story) as an alternative take on this type of story.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I'll start off by saying that I believe George W. Bush to be the worst president that our great nation has ever seen or will ever see. I know many people feel similarly, among them film director Oliver Stone, so I was intrigued when it was announced that Stone's newest movie would be a biopic of Bush, rushed into production so that it could be out before the November elections, and Bush's final days in office. I also wasn't sure how I felt about hearing that Josh Brolin would be playing Bush. It seemed like just the type of role that could derail the rising career of a talented actor like Brolin, who had just come off of a scorching hot 2007 with his roles in No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah, Planet Terror and American Gangster. I think many people, including myself, expected some sort of 129 minute diatribe against Bush and his administration. What Stone gave us instead is a movie that trys to put a human face on all the rehearsed soundbites and painful gaffes (both grammatical and strategic) that we've endured under this president. I think he succeeded admirably.

The movie doesn't follow chronological order, but basically shows us W from his days as a fraternity pledge at Yale, to around 2003 after the start of the Iraq War, but before Bush's second term. I think Stone didn't go further than that because he didn't want a 4 hour movie about Bush's entire life, but also didn't want to shortchange any of the things he wanted to show. What Stone shows us is that Bush always had the personal skills (impressing his frat brothers by quickly rattling off their names while being hazed), but he never had the political brains that some people had. People like Bush's father's political advisors Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright). He also didn't have his father's distinguished military record to get his foot in the door. All he had was his last name, a name that he at times resented, but eventually put to good use.

We follow W as he goes through his heavy drinking phase, which lasted for about 20 years in reality, but isn't overly harped on in the movie, just enough so that we get the point. W meets a smart young librarian named Laura, a few years later they're married, and a few years after that he is asked to help with his fathers presidential bid. Soon W becomes a sober born again Christian, and shrewdly helps his dad get elected. After Bush Sr.'s defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992, W decides to stand up against popular Democrat Ann Richards for the gubernatorial seat in Texas. Both of W's parents advise against it since his brother Jeb was running for Governor of Florida, and they wanted "one Bush at a time". Having felt slighted by his parents in favor of his younger brother his whole life, W runs anyway and wins, while Jeb loses. He eventually feels that God wants him to run for president, so he does, and with the kind of shrewd help he personally gave to his father (both times courtesy of Toby Jones' perfectly slimey Karl Rove) he wins.

We all remember what has happened since then, but the movie covers some of that ground as well. A particularly bone chilling sequence is one that takes place in a high level meeting of the minds about the direction of the country after 9/11. Richard Dreyfuss delivers a frighteningly logical speech about "why Iraq", the country that Colin Powell keeps wondering why everyone is harping on about when it had no known connection to 9/11 (the surprise answer: oil, and strategic placement for future oil). Jeffrey Wright is fantastic in this scene as Powell, the only real military man of the bunch (a 4-star General after all), a fact that he throws back into Cheney's face when Cheney talks down to him on military matters. But Dreyfuss is also terrifically frightening as Cheney, who doesn't have the people skills that W does, so he's content to stay behind the scenes, sometimes literally standing in the shadows (next to Rove, who stays there the whole time), convincing President Bush that war is the answer.

Nearly every one of the supporting roles is well cast, most particularly James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush. He tackles portraying a person that we all know (and have seen parodies of for nearly 20 years) and succeeds mightily. We see that his father (who was Senator Prescott Bush) never really gave him any sort of affection, the closest being a gift of a special pair of cuff links, and he transfers that behavior into his own parenting. He tries to be a good father, bailing W out of many bad situations, and pulling strings to get him into good ones. He tries to encourage his son into helping with his campaign, but plays it off that Jeb was busy so he asked W for help instead. This just adds to W's lifelong feelings of being considered the lesser son. Cromwell also has a phenomenal scene where the family watches as the news reports on '92 election night, announcing Clinton's victory. Cromwell just might've earned himself an Oscar nomination with that scene, and he'd deserve it. I don't think Thandie Newton fairs as well in her portrayal of Condoleezza Rice. Her accent seemed a little fake to me, and she seemed to not quite fit into the skin of her character. Elizabeth Banks, however, is good as Laura Bush, who is always there to support W in whatever capacity she can. She and Josh Brolin create a believably loving marriage onscreen. That brings us to Josh Brolin's central performance here as President Bush. While I don't think he looks anything like the man, Brolin captured the essence of W so well that I rarely thought about him as playing W, and just accepted him as W. Brolin portays him as arrogant, often misinformed, but a genuinely good guy who is trying to do his best.

Oliver Stone has crafted a remarkably even handed portrait of one of the most divisive figures of our times. Bush has set records with both the highest presidential approval rating (92% a month after 9/11), and the lowest (19% just last month, his second time being that low). But with the empathetic way Stone shows him, we kinda feel a little bad when everything goes south for him. It's not a perfect movie, or even a great one honestly, but it does have a lot to admire and it could even be up for some awards for a couple of the actors come Oscar season.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tremors-An A-quality B-movie

It's always nice when you revisit a childhood favorite and find out that it holds up over the years. I recently re-watched Tremors, one of the few "monster movies" I like. I hadn't seen it in many years, but I think I might've actually liked it even more as an adult. The script is hysterical, but takes itself just seriously enough so that the suspenseful parts are actually suspenseful. The actors are nearly all terrific, and the special effects are actually quite good.

The plot concerns itself with the unexplained appearance of 4 gigantic subterranean worms that begin terrorizing the almost ghost town of Perfection, Nevada. The handful of residents in the area include survivalist nuts Burt and Heather (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire), Rhonda, a graduate student studying seismology (Finn Carter), as well as handy men Earl and Val (Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon). They fight against the monsters and, blah, blah, blah. That's not important. What is important is that this is one of the best "buddy" movies ever made. The script gives us a relationship between Val and Earl that really comes as a surprise for this kind of movie, and it's aided by the performances from Ward and Bacon. They bicker like an old married couple, but do look out for, and care about, one another. Fred Ward gets laughs just from some of the looks that he gives, and Bacon is all nervous energy and sarcasm (my favorite line in the movie being "Oh sure Earl, everybody knows about 'em, we just didn't tell you").

The script by Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson is very well written, and the movie moves along at a brisk pace. The scripting is surprising coming from the writers who brought us Short Circuit and Short Circuit 2, and would later bring us Ghost Dad and Wild Wild West, two of the notoriously worst movies ever made. But their script here is full of nicely written dialog that helps the actors create a sense of history that's needed to make a town of approximately 15 people be believable. And it's not just Ward and Bacon that are terrific, Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as the survivalists have a lot of good moments. Reba was making her acting debut, and it's a strange part for her to take, considering that she was already a famous singer. But she and Gross work wonderfully together and both have their fair share of great dialog (my favorite of theirs being after they kill a monster, Gross shouts "Broke into the wrong god damn rec wreck room didn't you you bastard!). Not all of the supporting performances are good, but none ruin anything about the movie, and are the smallest of distractions from the main characters, at worst.

Tremors is thankfully a movie that wasn't just good because I saw it when I was a kid and didn't know what good movies were yet. It's an hysterical comedy, a decent monster movie, a terrific buddy flick, and just an all around great time at the movies.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

New movie I saw this week, part 2-Appaloosa

Ed Harris made his directorial debut 8 years ago with the biopic Pollock, and he's now given us his sophomore effort Appaloosa, a western based on the bestselling novel by Robert B. Parker, which Harris co-produced, co-wrote, and stars in, in addition to handling the directing duties. It holds many trademarks of the western genre, the small desert town (was there no grass west of the Mississippi River in the 1800's?), the evil cattle baron (deliciously played here by Jeremy Irons), the steel faced marshal (Ed Harris), his woman (Renee Zellwegger), and his loyal deputy/best and only friend (Viggo Mortensen). It also has the requisite shootouts, stare downs, and a few scenes of comic relief. Harris handles everything with a steady hand behind the camera, but the movie needs some paring down, as it feels longer than its 114 minutes, and isn't quite as satisfying as it probably could've been.

Harris doesn't need to prove himself as an actor, he has 4 Oscar nominations on his resume, and probably should've won the awards for his performances in Apollo 13 and Pollock, if not for The Truman Show as well. Here he's quite good as Virgil Cole, a man who doesn't always articulate his points, but is good at his job. His job is to contract himself and his partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen) to towns that are overrun with crime. They come in, temporarily become the law, and kill anyone who doesn't abide by the rules. Then they move on to the next town. The town of Apaloosa is terrorized by Jeremy Irons' cattle baron and the men who work for him, and they're happy to hire Cole and Hitch to clean up the place. Both men are expert marksmen and not afraid to show it, and Cole is a pro at diffusing the angry mobs of criminals who oppose them. Zellwegger's role is fairly well written, but she doesn't do anything here that a thousand other actresses couldn't have done. Irons is quite good as the bad guy, and Lance Henriksen is wonderful as a shady man from Virgil Cole's past.

Mortensen continues to show that he's one of the best actors around right now. The relationship between he and Ed Harris feels real, we feel a sense of history between these two men, and Mortensen's reactions to Harris' actions are priceless. Sometimes an actor will be around for a while before people really take notice. Mortensen first made his way into movies with the acclaimed Peter Weir movie Witness, playing a member of the Amish community infiltrated by Harrison Ford. He was later cast as one of the two leads in Sean Penn's directorial debut The Indian Runner, had a small role as one of Al Pacino's old gangster buddies in Carlito's Way, was the antagonistic Command Master Chief in G.I. Jane, and was Sam Loomis in Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho. For some reason, Peter Jackson really wanted to cast him as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and when the actor originally cast was fired, Jackson got his wish. The movies went on to be successes beyond anyone's imagination, and made Mortensen a star in his early 40's. He used that newfound stardom to make a pair of movies with David Cronenberg, 2005's A History of Violence, and last year's Eastern Promises (for which he was nominated as Best Actor at the Oscars, and should've won easily). Mortensen's work here isn't of the astounding quality that his work in those last two movies were, but it's still of an extremely high quality. Both his and Harris' parts are very subtle, with no big showy scenes for them to showcase their abilities. What they do instead is create a believable relationship between these two characters that we'd honestly like to spend more time with, which is always a good thing.

Appaloosa is exquisitely filmed by Australian cinematographer Dean Semler, renowned for his work on Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Dances with Wolves (for which he won an Oscar), and Apocalypto. Unfortunately I can't find a picture of my favorite shot in the movie, which was one of Mortensen in the shadows holding his gun as Zellwegger nervously walks by. But if you see the movie, you'll know which shot I mean.

Ultimately I do recommend that you see Appaloosa, because although it's not a great movie, it's definitely a good one. There are no major missteps by anyone involved, the unshakable friendship between Harris and Mortensen is terrific, and the images are worthy of mention alongside the greatest in the western genre. Seeing how wildly different this is from Pollock, it makes me quite excited to see what Harris tackles next, because he's obviously as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it.

Friday, October 3, 2008

New movie I saw this week-Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a pretty frustrating movie. It has two endlessly watchable leads who are adorable together, a nice visual look, a terrifically engaging storyline, and some fairly good laughs. So why isn't it better than it should be? I think it's because other than its wonderful title characters, it's painfully hit and miss. An entire sub-plot with Norah's best friend flats flat on its face, the side characters of Nick's best friends have a couple of good moments, but could've easily been done without. Sub-plots with both Nick and Norah's exes work, but are underdeveloped. That said, I have to recommend this movie if only on the basis of Michael Cera as Nick, and Kat Dennings as Norah.

Nick is the bass player in a band with his two gay best friends in suburban New Jersey. They have a gig tonight in New York City, and who should show up at the gig but Nick's ex-girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), who left him heartbroken a month ago. Nick still hasn't recovered, and doesn't even notice that another girl at the gig, Norah, was eyeing him as he was onstage. Turns out that Tris is the bitch at school that Norah has to put up with, and so as not to look like she came alone, Norah asks Nick to act like her boyfriend for a few minutes in front of Tris. Nick comes out of his stupor for a bit when Norah kisses him, and Nick's best friends take it upon themselves to make sure that Nick and Norah end up together (they hated Tris). All the while, a secretive show by Nick and Norah's favorite band is happening in the city, and they go on a night-long adventure to find the show.

The best friend characters are mostly there for comic relief I guess, except they're not very funny. Norah's best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) is an alcoholic that the movie tries to pass off as some old timey "funny drunk", but it comes off more as tragedy than anything else. Except the actress isn't playing tragedy, she's playing comedy. Hence the reason it doesn't work. The gay best friends, and the beefcake they meet at the gig, aren't as worthless. There's one particular moment as one of the guys is explaining to Nick how The Beatles had everything right, that's one of the best moments in the movie (because, of course, The Beatles did have everything right). The exes, Tris and Tal (Undeclared's Jay Baruchel), are both nicely played and both have some good moments with Nick and Norah, but as character's they're not developed as anything more than "the exes".

A movie like this cannot survive if the leads aren't engaging. Some people will say that Michael Cera is playing the same character he played in Superbad and/or Juno, but those people aren't paying attention. Cera plays different notes of the "shy nice guy" persona in each movie, this one being the most grownup and realistic. Just as John Cusack often plays different shades of the same character type, so does Cera. Nick is a good guy that has had his heart broken by Tris, but all he wants is to find love, he's just looking to the wrong person. Kat Dennings, as Norah, is given one of her first lead roles, and I can safely say that she's a huge star in the making. She shows an intelligence and passion to Norah (two of the hardest traits to believably pull off for an actor, I think) that intrigues both Nick and us in the audience. She's not just "the girl" in this story, she challenges Nick and eventually wakes him from the coma that Tris had put him in. It doesn't hurt that she's also incredibly gorgeous. There are multiple occasions in the movie where characters say that Norah isn't in the same class of beautiful as Tris, but maybe it's because we're so in love with Norah at that point, but Tris looks like Ernest Borgnine in comparison. One small thing I'd like to single out, there's a moment near the end, where Nick and Norah silently give each other a little smile, that is absolutely sublime. Don't go running out to see Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, but it's worth a look at least, I just wish that the movie had followed just these two characters and done away with everyone else.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


As a musician, I've never been able to articulate to people the sort of psychic connection that musician's have with one another when we really click. It's almost like you've found your soul mate, like they understand everything about you, even if you've just met and they don't really know anything about your life. Well, John Carney's film Once taps into that energy, shows that connection, and at least documents the high that you get from creating music. I wasn't sure if non-musicians would understand the subtext of much of the movie, but most of the people I've talked to do seem to understand, and they love it. Music is universal, but musicals are notoriously un-loved by many people (myself included, with few exceptions). Once, however, is at least 2/3rd's music, and although not universally loved (because no movie is), it has certainly made a connection with many people.

Glen Hansard is the leader of a hugely influential rock band in Ireland called The Frames. They are one of the great bands of the past couple of decades, but for some unknown reason never made it big in the US. John Carney began as the bass player for The Frames in the early 90's but slowly gravitated away into filmmaking. But when he got an idea to do a movie told mostly through music, he wanted his old bandmate to write the music for it. Irish star Cillian Murphy (he was Dr. Crane/The Scarecrow in Batman Begins) was supposed to play the lead, he was a musician prior to becoming an actor, but walked away after hearing the proposed music that he wasn't sure he could pull off. Losing a star meant that Carney wouldn't be able to get the kind of funding he would've previously been able to get. Instead of dwelling on this, Carney turned it into a positive. This meant that he could make his movie for basically no money, which meant no interference from a studio. He also re-evaluated his leading man, thinking it might be better to get a great singer who could half act, rather than a great actor who could half sing. He turned to Glen Hansard, who promptly refused, after having had bad memories of his only previous foray into acting, in Alan Parker's The Commitments. But, thankfully, Glen reconsidered and agreed to do the movie. Playing the female lead opposite Glen would be his good friend, and recent musical collaborator, Marketa Irglova, a young Czech pianist/singer whom Glen had met a few years previously. Marketa added her haunting voice and piano to Glen's songs and they became the backbone of Once.

The movie was ultimately made for very little money (just over $100,000) and looks like it. The visual quality of the film makes it clear that it was shot on cheap cameras and shot very quickly. This would be a hindrance to some movies, but actually works here. Glen's character (unnamed, but credited as The Guy) lives in a working class section of Dublin, splitting his time between working in his dad's vacuum repair shop and being a street musician. Marketa's character (The Girl, or "herself" as Glen tends to refer to her) splits her time between being a maid, and being a street vendor (roses, magazines, whatever). They meet one night as Glen is playing his own heartbreaking songs to no audience, he tells her he plays his songs at night because people only want to hear things they already know during the day, and that's how he makes money. She likes his songs, and Glen soon finds out that she plays piano. She takes him to a music shop where the owner lets her practice for an hour every day at lunch (she doesn't have a piano at home because they're too expensive). Before long they're collaborating on music, and eventually recording in a small studio.

As a musician every one of the musical sequences rings true, probably because the movie is about musicians, so it's not like the characters are just randomly breaking out into song. They're simply playing their songs the way that musicians do. There's the possibility that their relationship could lead to a romance but, despite the embarrassingly photoshopped poster showing them holding hands, it doesn't. And the movie is better off for it, because that would've been the first demand from a studio, the guy and the girl must fall in love. Well, actually they still do, but not in a traditional movie sense. There's no doubt in my mind that these characters love each other possibly more than they'll ever love anyone else, but they don't act on it. Not that they don't want to (her million-watt smile and his puppy dog eyes tell a great untold story), but it just isn't in the cards for them.

Once has more heart and soul poured into it than most movies you'll ever see in your life combined. It's a heartbreaking romance, a beautiful musical, and a deeply felt portrait of two lonely people finding each other in the world and making some terrific art out of it. It's one of the best movies of the past few years, and I've yet to meet one of the few poor heartless bastards that doesn't like it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman-1925-2008

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in 1958, the year they were married

"I'd like to be remembered as a guy who tried -- tried to be part of his times, tried to help people communicate with one another, tried to find some decency in his own life, tried to extend himself as a human being. Someone who isn't complacent, who doesn't cop out."-Paul Newman

The world lost a legend this week, as Paul Newman died of lung cancer at his home in Connecticut, he was 83. Newman was nominated for 9 acting Oscars in his career, and also had a nomination as Best Director for 1968's Rachel, Rachel. His acting, as Roger Ebert so astutely put it, was not "naturalistic" as some acting is. He was always just natural onscreen. He simply was whatever character he was playing, whether it was "Fast" Eddie Felson, Hud Bannon, Butch Cassidy, Luke Jackson, or any other character. You never saw any acting from Newman, and that's why he's one of the great actors of all time.

He was also the coolest guy to ever be in movies (sorry Steve McQueen fans, there's no comparison) and was a noted philanthropist through his Newman's Own foundation, which donated more than $250 million to charity. He had the most famous set of blue eyes in all of cinema, and once remarked that he wouldn't want his tombstone to read "Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown". He will be missed, but will always be remembered for the many great things he gave us.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Last Waltz-30 years and still the best

The Band, one of the greatest groups in the history of rock and roll, had been on the road together for 16 years when they decided to part ways in 1976. But they felt like they should have one last hurrah, and put together a concert at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, the location of their first gig as a band. They invited a lot of their friends to help send them off in style, and held the event on Thanksgiving Day. I say "they", but it was really only lead songwriter/guitarist Robbie Robertson that wanted to disband. He couldn't imagine continuing in their current touring lifestyles, and wanted to do something different. Drummer/singer Levon Helm was staunchly against the breakup, thinking that the group was still going strong and could continue to be relevant in the music world. Levon makes his very valid case by giving the performance of his life during The Band's final show, one they dubbed The Last Waltz.

Now, you and I don't have the same kind of friends that The Band had, to put it mildly. The "friends" that they invited out to send them off in style included people like Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Bob Dylan (whom The Band had been the backing group for when he went electric), Joni Mitchell, The Staples Singers, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, and others. They also had a movie director friend from New York named Martin Scorsese who wanted to film The Last Waltz and make a rock documentary about it. A decade or so previously, Scorsese had worked on the team of editors editing the great Rock Doc of the time, 1970's Woodstock, the documentary of the legendary 1969 festival. Years later many people hold Scorsese's The Last Waltz (celebrating its 30th anniversary this year) as high or higher than that epic doc.

As great as all those guest stars are, the best parts of The Last Waltz are with The Band alone. Scorsese conducts interviews with all the band members, pianist/singer Richard Manuel, organist Garth Hudson, and bassist/singer Rick Danko, but Robbie and Levon are the dominant personalities. They talk about how they got together and tell some stories of their early days, and we also see their still powerful performances during the concert segments. The movie opens up on their final encore, their definitive take on Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It", and later they go through their hits "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" without guests, while The Staples Singers accompany the group during their other big hit "The Weight". As I said before, Levon is in rare form as both a drummer and a singer throughout the night, Robbie nicely MC's the event and plays better than ever, and many of the guests are performing at their highest capacities (especially Van Morrison and Neil Young). But I'm saddened that Richard Manuel, who had the most heartbreaking and beautiful voice in all of rock music, was so broken down through his addictions and hard life on the road that we only really see him sing a verse of the Dylan/Band classic "I Shall Be Released". This has always been Levon Helm's problem with The Last Waltz, both he and Rick Danko considered Manuel to be the lead singer, and yet he is nearly absent from the final cut of the concert we see. Robbie Robertson says that Manuel was too far gone in his addictions, and he and Scorsese did the best they could with the material they had.

There's a sadness alongside the joyousness of the music here. A type of sadness not usually seen in concert films. You can see that the guys love playing music together, and with their friends, but there's a sort of knowing wistfulness in everyones eyes, particularly Robbie's. The Last Waltz was a wonderful celebration of one of the great bands of all time, but also a melancholic goodbye to the music that they made together. The Last Waltz is the greatest of rock docs, about one of the greatest of bands, and even now in its 30th year, there are still amazing sights and sounds to behold.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

First non-movie topic: Melody Gardot

Melody Gardot is a jazz singer from Philadelphia, who at 19 was hit by a car while riding her bicycle home. Her extensive rehab period actually continues to this day, 4 years later, as she is both light and sound sensitive and needs the assistance of a cane (which she has dubbed "Citizen Cane") for stability and balance. She was encouraged by her doctors to write songs, as it had been helpful in aiding other patients brain functions recover and develop. She ultimately released the EP "Some Lessons: The Bedroom Sessions", which she recorded while still in the hospital, microphones next to the bed, medical equipment sharing space with a guitar, a piano, and an 8-track recorder. She eventually left the hospital and recorded her full-length follow up "Worrisome Heart", which came to my attention a few months ago when the title song was the Single of the Week on iTunes. I was seduced by this incredibly expressive voice and sensual atmosphere, and bought the entire album immediately without knowing her backstory. I was not disappointed, as every song is strong enough to stand on its own, especially "Sweet Memory" "Good Night" and "Some Lessons" the song she wrote about her accident.

If you want to check her out as well, you can get her album on iTunes, or go to her myspace page (, or her website ( I hope you do.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Terrence Malick and The New World

Terrence Malick is a film director unlike any other. A former Rhodes scholar who got a philosophy degree from Harvard, a subject he later taught at MIT, Malick worked as a script doctor (someone who gets paid to do uncredited rewrites of scripts) before making his first movie at age 30 with 1973's Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a couple who go on a killing spree through the midwest. It was lauded by critics as a masterpiece, and Malick followed it up with 1978's Days of Heaven, with Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, and Sam Shepard in a love triangle set against the backdrop of a poetically gorgeous Texas wheat farm. Also hailed as a masterpiece, Malick's next project was highly anticipated, but he stepped away from the film business for 20 years before returning with 1998's WWII epic The Thin Red Line, which was hailed again as a masterpiece and garnered Malick Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director (the movie itself was nominated for 5 other awards, including Best Picture). He thankfully didn't wait another 20 years before giving us 2005's The New World, a retelling of the story of Pocahontas.

The Indians watch apprehensively from the shoreline as huge ships approach from the ocean, bringing with them the English settlers. As they first make contact with each other, the Indians approach quizzically, fascinated by the English weapons and armor. The two sides get along fine for a while, and when Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) returns to England to bring back more ships, he leaves in charge Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell). Things turn sour quickly between the settlers and the "naturals" (as the English call them), and when out on an exploratory mission, Smith is captured by a group of Indians and is about to be executed before the Chief's daughter Pocahontas throws herself on top of Smith and pleads for his life. The story proceeds from there with a terrific mix of legend and history, the most legendary of which is an achingly beautiful romance between Smith and Pocahontas, for which there is no historical basis. The story is also told with Malick's trademark narration (by both Smith and Pocahontas), and his unconventional, and some say meandering, storytelling technique.

Pocahontas is played by newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher in a performance of startling complexity. She's fascinated by these new people, and wants to learn about them and their ways, as well as their language. There's a wonderful sequence where Kilcher and Farrell teach each other their different words for lips, eyes, ears, sky, wind, etc. and both actors truly shine. Farrell shows again here (as he did earlier this year in In Bruges) that he's a tremendous actor when given the right material. You can feel his disgust and contempt for the English when he returns from living harmoniously with the Indians, whom he came to love and respect and deeply admire, and Farrell does it without words. Christian Bale is quietly effective in the role of John Rolfe, the man Pocahontas would eventually marry. But Kilcher is the real story here, as she was robbed of every award that didn't go to her (and no major awards did). She was only 14 at the time of filming, but that's not why her performance is incredible, she shows such a depth of characterization, such intense and confused emotions, and ultimately plays an understanding of those emotions to an extent that few actors can. It is one of the great performances of this decade, and reason enough to see this movie.

Another reason to see this movie is for the incredible cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who recently received his 4th Oscar nomination for his groundbreaking work on Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men). Lubezki and Malick create such visual poetry in every facet of the movie, whether it be the innocent love scenes between Farrell and Kilcher, the chaos of the battles between the English and the Indians, or just simple scenes of Kilcher walking through the tall grass. There is not a frame of this movie that isn't absolutely gorgeous.

So having now seen all 4 of Malick's movies, I have to say that I'm quite a fan. I think Days of Heaven is his best movie, with that tragic love story. It also has his best images, as it could be watched without sound and simply regarded as a moving painting, and it would still work. Then followed closely by The New World, with its gorgeously bittersweet love story, and because of its unforgettable imagery. I liked Badlands a lot, both Sheen and Spacek were terrific, but it's not quite on the level of the other two. The Thin Red Line I find to be his weakest effort, though not without a lot of great images (detecting a theme there). I just felt that Malick focused more on giving his characters philosophies to spout, rather than creating characters who would then talk philosophically. However, I believe I'm in the significant minority on that one. If I were recommending which movie for a Malick virgin to start with, I would say start with Badlands as it's his most accessible movie, and then work forward chronologically.