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 (www.myspace.com/melody), or her website (www.melodygardot.com). 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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest of all directors?

No, Hitchcock isn't the best ever, but he's at worst #3 in my book (after Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa). With somewhere in the range of 60 directing credits, Hitch has quite a catalog from which to choose. Therefore, if someone wanted to know which movies to check out, they could easily end up with one of his bad movies (of which he had more than a couple). To help alleviate that, I've come up with a list of my Top 5 favorite Hitchcock movies. Hope you enjoy.

1. Vertigo (1958)
Not a huge surprise if you know my all-time top 10 (where it occupies the #5 spot), but I believe Vertigo to be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie. Unfairly criticized upon its initial release as too long and too slow moving, Vertigo failed miserably at the box office, and ended the great working relationship that Hitchcock had with his star, Jimmy Stewart. The movie opens as private investigator Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) develops vertigo after a cop dies while trying to save him from falling off the side of a building. Scottie has trouble even climbing a step-ladder after this experience, but is convinced to return to investigating by an old school friend who wants to keep tabs on his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Scotty slowly falls in love with the quiet beauty, but is devastated after she’s involved in a fatal accident. The second half of the movie follows Scottie as he meets Judy (also Novak) and sinks deeper into his obsessions and towards a final tragic conclusion.

Jimmy Stewart was blamed by Hitchcock for the movies initial failure (calling him too old for the part); even if he later conceded that Vertigo was one of his best movies. Stewart is actually perfect for the role, as he was the complete embodiment of the everyman in cinema. That is what makes his performance all the braver (and more effective) when Scotty descends into his manic obsession about Madeleine. Kim Novak is quite effective in her double role, pulling off the believably separate personas of Judy and Madeleine. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most personal movie, as Scotty’s obsession with molding a woman is just a more severe form of Hitchcock’s obsession with molding his actresses. It is a hypnotic, dreamlike, beautiful, and nightmarish movie that should be cherished as the crowning achievement of Hitchcock’s career.

2. Psycho (1960)
Hitchcock’s most famous work, and the birth of the modern horror movie. Psycho wowed (and scared the bejesus out of) audiences in 1960 and it holds up remarkably well. Looking for a bit of a grittier feel, Hitch grabbed the crew from his TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” for the making of the movie, and he made it fairly inexpensively. The plot has been talked about so often and ripped off so many times (the beginning of Wes Craven’s Scream is an obvious homage to Psycho, and we also had to suffer through Gus Van Sant’s pointless remake in 1998) that it’s almost unnecessary to recap. Marion (Janet Leigh) has stolen a lot of money from her employer, and is on the run when she stops in at the Bates Motel, run by anxious, lonely innkeeper Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). “12 rooms, 12 vacancies” He says. What happens before long is possibly the most famous sequence in the history of movies, the shower scene. It is around 2 minutes of absolute genius, and I believe it to be Hitch’s single greatest achievement. However, it is not the action of stabbing (or Bernard Hermann’s legendary score) that sticks in my mind; it’s the slow zoom away from Marion’s lifeless body, half fallen out of the shower, eyes wide open. It’s one of those images that attaches itself to your brain and won’t let go.

Anthony Perkins is superb as Norman, and Janet Leigh is good in her relatively brief screen time, but I believe the movie suffers when it isn’t following either of them. The search for Marion is somewhat on the boring side, as the characters searching for her aren’t particularly interesting. And there is also a completely unnecessary scene (which seems to go on for at least 5 minutes) involving the explanation of Norman’s psychological state. But there is so much here that is brilliant that it counters the rest. One of the final images of the movie, that of Anthony Perkins deranged face, is yet another image that won’t leave your brain any time soon. Psycho is a truly unsettling work and deserving of its revered place in movie history.

3. Notorious (1946)
An underappreciated masterpiece, Notorious features Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains all in top form. Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy who is recruited by U.S. government agent Devlin (Grant) to turn spy against a group of German’s working out of Rio de Janeiro just after WWII. Devlin convinces Alicia to infiltrate the group through one of her father’s former friends Alexander Sebastian (Rains), whom he wants her to seduce. It becomes a harder mission after Devlin falls in love with Alicia, and she with him. Sebastian is also in love with Alicia, which makes it even harder on our two lovers, because Alicia did her job so well. Oh yeah, and there’s some bit about Sebastian enriching uranium (for nuclear weapons).

This basic plot was stolen by Robert Towne in his screenplay for Mission Impossible 2, but it was done with far less success. Cary Grant gives his greatest performance as Devlin, who is emotionally eaten up by forcing the love of his life into another mans arms. Bergman is as good as she ever was as the woman being pushed away, and Claude Rains was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for his role. The uranium is the most famous example of what Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin”, the thing that sets the plot in motion but is completely unimportant. Nobody (characters or audience) cares about the uranium, or wonders what happens to it, by the end of the movie. Speaking of, Notorious features what might possibly be Hitchcock’s greatest ending, but of course I won’t spoil that here (I couldn’t do it justice anyway).

4. Strangers on a Train (1951)
Hitchcock’s most underappreciated masterpiece, Strangers on a Train (adapted from the debut novel by Patricia Highsmith, future writer of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) features one of the great villains of all time in Robert Walker’s Bruno Anthony. Bruno meets famous tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a train one day and the two begin talking. Knowing that Guy is going through a messy divorce, and eager to get his own father out of the way, Bruno proposes an idea to Guy. Since neither man knew the other before meeting on the train, so neither can be tied to the other by the police, why don’t they trade murders? Bruno will take out Guy’s wife, and Guy will murder Bruno’s father. Guy uneasily laughs off Bruno’s offer, but when Bruno comes through with his end of the agreement, he expects Guy to hold up his end, whether Guy agreed to it or not.

Robert Walker is truly fantastic as the spoiled, but dangerous Bruno, who is surprised when Guy isn’t happy that his wife has been murdered. And Farley Granger gives off the aura of a kind of weak willed everyman who is in way over his head, making us not sure whether he’s going to prevail. Strangers on a Train is required viewing for any Hitchcock fan, and is one of the great suspense movies of all time.

5. Rear Window (1954)
One of Hitchcock’s most beloved movies is also one of his best. Jimmy Stewart (working with Hitchcock for the second time) is perfect as everyman “Jeff” Jeffries, a photojournalist who has broken his leg and has nothing to do but stare out the rear window of his apartment complex and watch the lives of his neighbors. A harmless enough pastime, until he starts to suspect one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr, in terrific pre-“Perry Mason” form) of murdering his nagging wife and attempting to dispose of the body.

Like all the great Hitchcock pictures, Rear Window is both an exciting suspense piece, as well as the study of a man and his obsession, in this case Jeff’s voyeurism. The movie was a huge success in its original release (receiving 4 Oscar nominations, including one for Hitch as Best Director, which he lost to Elia Kazan for On the Waterfront) and has remained possibly Hitchcock’s most popular work. I can see why.

Some may wonder “Where is The Birds? Where is North by Northwest?” Well, I enjoy The Birds immensely (it has another of the great endings in the history of movies), but don’t feel it quite deserves a place on the list. North by Northwest was my favorite Hitchcock movie as a kid, but viewing it recently I thought it was far too long and drawn out and, though good, also not deserving of a place on the list. Hitch has many other great movies (Shadow of a Doubt, The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, Rebecca, etc.), but I believe these 5 to be the best representation of his work, as well as the highest highs he accomplished. And if you haven’t seen them, see them now!

The Gold Rush

Charlie Chaplin has historically been considered the King of silent comedy. Buster Keaton, since the 1950’s when he was rediscovered, has been gaining ground as an equal, if not a superior, but Chaplin is still more widely known and just as revered as both Keaton and fellow contemporary Harold Lloyd (who was financially the most successful of the three during their lifetimes). I’ve personally been underwhelmed by the three Chaplin “masterpieces” that I’ve seen up till now (1921’s The Kid, 1931’s City Lights, and 1936’s Modern Times), but 1925’s The Gold Rush finally showed me why Chaplin has the stature he has. It contains the same blend of comedy, romance, action, and drama that Chaplin used in all his work, except I felt it was more consistent on all fronts. The Gold Rush often gets paired with Keaton’s The General as the examples of the best of all the silent comedies, and while I don’t think it’s in the same class as Keaton’s masterpiece, it’s certainly a good movie. And according to Chaplin himself, it’s the movie for which he’d most want to be remembered.

Beginning with an incredible shot of miles of prospectors hiking their way up an Alaskan mountain to search for gold (Chaplin was recreating a picture that he'd seen which served as inspiration for the movie, and it reminded me vividly of the great opening shot of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God), we’re plunged into the tale of a lonely prospector (Chaplin as his signature Tramp character) who meets two men on the mountain. One is a wanted criminal; the other is fellow prospector Big Jim (Mack Swain). They get trapped in the criminal’s cabin as a snow storm rages on outside and are in there so long that they run out of food, leading to two classic sequences. The first is one in which Chaplin boils his shoe with all the culinary care of Emeril Lagasse (and devours it with the ravenousness of frat boys taking out a bowl of wings on game day), and another being the best example I’ve seen where someone mistakes something that isn’t food, for food. Chaplin, while lamenting their lack of food, is transformed into a giant chicken right before Big Jim's eyes, so Jim chases after him with a shotgun before realizing that it's still just Chaplin. The storm subsides and the guys are able to go their separate ways. Jim goes off to reclaim the millions of dollars worth of gold that he'd found before his camp was blown away by the storm. Chaplin, meanwhile, makes it to the nearest town and gets a job watching the cabin of a man who’s going away for a while. Chaplin also meets, and immediately falls in love with, the beautiful dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale). It’s the love story in particular that is more effective in The Gold Rush than in other Chaplin works. Hale was a convincing leading lady (if a bit too flighty, as a character, for modern tastes), and she works well with Chaplin in their scenes. Chaplin himself has some great moments as we take the time to watch him watching her as he's falling in love.

Many of the comedy bits are quite funny, especially a classic scene where Chaplin puts two rolls at the end of forks and makes them dance on the table. That scene has been copied by everyone from Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon (while dressed like Keaton throughout the movie, his mannerisms are more Chaplin-esque) to Grampa Simpson in a classic episode of "The Simpsons". The action is also very good, including another legendary sequence with the cabin stuck on the edge of a cliff after another snow storm, while Chaplin and Big Jim are still inside. Chaplin quite convincingly meshes early FX (in this case a minature) with a tilting set of the cabin. But ultimately it’s the pathos that Chaplin evokes so gorgeously from the lonely prospectors love for the radiant dance hall girl that makes the most lasting impact. Whether it’s in the hysterical dance between Chaplin and Georgia, where Chaplin’s pants keep nearly falling down, or in a scene set on New Year’s Eve that contains Chaplin’s greatest acting and is the absolute definition of melancholic beauty, this is Chaplin’s greatest achievement.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Philip Seymour Hoffman is the best actor working in movies today. There's nothing wrong with Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, or Kate Winslet, but Hoffman has shown such versatility throughout his career without ever hitting a false note that there is little doubt in my mind. Like many people I first remember seeing him as Scotty the gay sound man in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights in 1997, and I didn't realize it was the same actor when I saw his small role in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski the next year. He was one of the few bright spots of Anderson's Magnolia, nearly stole The Talented Mr. Ripley away from Matt Damon, and did steal away Cameron Crowe's masterpiece Almost Famous. Since then he has given great performance after great performance in such varied roles as a pre-operative transexual in Flawless, the sadly creepy teacher in The 25th Hour, a hopelessly addicted gambler in Owning Mahony (his most underrated work), an immoral preacher in Cold Mountain, his hysterical scenes in the otherwise forgettable Along Came Polly, his deservedly Oscar winning title role in Capote, his great villainous turn in Mission Impossible 3, and his Oscar nominated work in Charlie Wilson's War. Each performance different from the others, and each one competely without a false moment. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead happily joins that list.

Directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, 50 years after his directorial debut 12 Angry Men announced him as a bright new talent, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is both a fascinating character study of a disentegrating family, and a terrifically suspenseful crime thriller. Hank (Ethan Hawke) is 3 months behind on his child support payments, and his older brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is in trouble with the IRS for embezzling countless dollars from his employer. Andy's wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) complains that he doesn't open up to her the way he did on their vacation to Rio, and Andy thinks maybe they could start over their life by moving there. Andy comes to Hank one day with a proposition, a mom and pop jewlery store robbery where they'll use toy guns so that there's no chance of anybody getting hurt, the owners will be taken care of by insurance, and the overall haul should be around $600,000. More than enough for both of them to fix their problems. Hank says that it sounds like a victimless crime, so he agrees to pull the job. I'll stop plot description there because one of the movies many pleasures is the way it slowly reveals the complete happenings of how the robbery goes spectacularly wrong. I will say that it shows remarkable confindence from first time screenwriter Kelly Masterson that the robbery is not the climax of the story, but the catalyst for it.

The casting of Hawke and Hoffman as brothers seems wrong at first, but the movie uses it as an advantage to show the opposing effect that each brother has within the family, Hoffman as the first born, and Hawke as the baby. They also work so well with each other that you feel the sense of history and brotherly connection that Hank and Andy share. Hawke should be commended for his fine work here as Hank. Most actors would shy away from the role of the obviously weaker brother, but Hawke completely nails Hank as the inadequate scared little boy in over his head. Marisa Tomei, who looks better at 43 than she did at 27, does her best work to date as Gina, a role that easily could've been played as the standard secondary "wife" character. She and Hoffman actually feel like a married couple having problems, and not like a movie married couple whom the screenwriters have given hurdles to jump over. A lesser actress's performance would've been gobbled up by how incredible Hoffman is in his role, but Tomei's secret lies in her reactions and subtleties rather than any "big moment" type histrionics. Albert Finney also does superbly subtle work as Andy and Hank's father Charles, who has as much at stake as his boys do. But like I said before, Hoffman is the star here. He has two key scenes of great power, one opposite Hawke as they're trying to cover up their tracks at a drug dealers house (the tension is palpable in that sequence), and the other while in the car with Tomei. In that scene, you see Andy's emotional armor come down for a minute and he gives us years of hurt, disappointment, self-pity, and most of all anger before we can see in Hoffman's eyes as Andy's armor goes back up and he drives away (Tomei looking like she's never seen her husband before). It's the best scene in the movie, and probably the best scene that either actor has ever played.

Ultimately I take away two things from this movie. One is that with his performance here, Philip Seymour Hoffman solidifies his position atop the list of best working actors. And the other is that Sidney Lumet must be one of the most under appreciated great directors in memory. His masterpieces range from the previously mentioned 12 Angry Men, to Long Day's Journey Into Night, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Running on Empty, and he has now given us Before the Devil Knows You're Dead at age 83. Few directors can claim as many great movies. He has directed 17 Oscar nominated performances, with four wins. He himself has been nominated 4 times as Best Director, and was given an honorary Oscar a few years ago, but is rarely mentioned alongside the Hitchcock's and Scorsese's of the movie world. I think it's because as a director, his style is to serve the story and the actors before anything else; so that's what people remember from his movies. Many will come out of watching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead talking about how great the ensemble of actors is, how ingenious the plotting of the movie is, how tightly wound so much of the suspense is, but don't forget that the master behind the camera is just as deserving of praise for putting those things on the screen. He's been deserving for 50 years now.

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood contains many elements of a great movie; it has a highly acclaimed lead performance, solid supporting actors, an epic story, beautiful cinematography, and socially relevant storyline all set against a wonderfully recreated period atmosphere. But much like PTA’s previous efforts (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love), it doesn’t deliver on the promise that it shows. Just like his breakthrough effort Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood starts off brilliantly but goes astray somewhere.

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a silver miner in 1898 California. Through an accident one day, he discovers oil deposits at the bottom of his mine. Realizing the potential money to be made in oil, Daniel switches his business. Not long after, there is another accident, this one killing one of his workers. Daniel adopts the man’s infant son H.W. and raises him as his own. By 1911 Daniel and H.W. (now played by Dillon Freasier) have quite a thriving company going on wherein Daniel uses his insatiable greed and snake-oil salesmanship to convince people to sell him their land so that he can drill oil for them, while H.W. stands silently to the side giving Daniel the look of a trustworthy family man.

Daniel and his second in command Fletcher Hamilton (Ciaran Hinds) are approached one night by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who knows that his family’s ranch has oil on it. Daniel takes H.W. to the land and, while pretending to be quail hunting, meets Paul’s twin brother Eli who claims to be a faith based “healer”. While on the land, Daniel and H.W. discover oil leaking to the surface. Without disclosing their meeting with Paul, and without mention of finding oil on the land, Daniel attempts to buy the land from the family patriarch Abel Sunday (David Willis). Eli, however, knows of the oil and antagonizes Daniel until his demands that Daniel pay them $10,000 for the land are met, beginning a lifelong competition between the two strong willed men.

There Will Be Blood has the air and the attitude of a masterpiece, but I don’t feel that it is one by any stretch of the imagination. Daniel Day-Lewis has been praised from seemingly ever corner of the world for his performance, but I’m not drinking that Kool-Aid (much less that milkshake). I never once felt like I was watching a character, I felt like I was watching an actor act a role. I saw no being but saw a whole lot of acting. There were many moments when I could imagine Tony Montana sitting in the audience saying "C'mon man, that's a little over the top." Paul Dano is effective in his quieter moments, but in his "big" scenes he seems to struggle and I don't think he pulled off a good performance overall. Actually, the strongest performance in the movie is that of Kevin J. O'Connor as Henry, Daniel's long lost brother. Henry, Daniel, and Eli are, at their cores, very similar people (they're all con men), but Henry seems to be the only one of the three aware of his nature and not sure whether it's the right thing to be. There are shades to Henry's character that I wish could've been explored more, but maybe it's better to keep him a bit of a mystery.

I had been feeling like the movie was losing it's momentum as it went along (scenes such as the totally useless one with Daniel and H.W. in the bar epitomize my view), but when the final scenes showed up PTA lost me completely. The baptism scene near the end of the movie cannot be taken as anything but farce. The way that PTA shoots it (either in extreme close-up, or from very far away) show that he was trying to show the ridiculousness of Eli's evangelizing and Daniel humiliation at his hands, but instead it played as parody while making them into caricatures of themselves. It completely destroyed any sense of the sober atmosphere PTA had built up to that point. The penultimate scene, one involving a grown up H.W. and an older and more resentful Daniel, struck a completely false note. It felt like PTA wanted us to sympathize with H.W., but although he's been in nearly the entire movie, there is little to no character development for him. It felt like PTA trying to impose a certain scene into the movie rather than putting it in because it worked. Which brings us to the ludicrous final scene that is at such a right angle to the rest of the movie that I can't believe he chose to end it there. I don't remember any other time in my movie going life where I was physically cringing in embarrassment at what was on the screen, but when Daniel screams the now infamous "I drink your milkshake" line, I actually cringed. And again with the part of the final scene involving the bowling pins, PTA shoots it in such a way that the audience can't help but take it as comical, except for it's not funny and the movie is worse off for it.

All of those things said, I know I'm in the minority on this one. The movie does look incredible (the burning of the oil derrick is a magnificent set piece), and has a couple of solid supporting turns from the actors (O'Connor in particular). Much has been talked about the score, which I didn't think was anything special. It sounded like a normal movie score just used unconventionally. As I said, many people disagree with me (I know that I'm in the minority on this), and you may end up being one of those people, if you're not already. But There Will Be Blood simply showed me again that Paul Thomas Anderson is an obviously talented director who just hasn't put it all together yet. I look forward to his next movie, but this one doesn't exactly leave me with highest hopes for it.


Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a joy to experience. That’s a strange phrase to describe a movie as profane and violent as this one, but I can’t help but smile watching America’s greatest director at the top of his game. No other director can claim as many masterpieces as Scorsese (although Hitchcock and Kurosawa come the closest) and this is arguably his best movie. Many people refer to it as the last of Scorsese’s “Big 3” with 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1980’s Raging Bull being the first two.

“As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster” Goodfellas follows the story of the half-Irish Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his attempt to rise in the ranks of the New York mafia from the mid-1950’s through the late-1970’s. Being half-Irish is an important component in Henry’s story because it prevents him from ever becoming a “made guy”, as only those with 100% Italian blood can ever be “made guys”. The same hurdle blocks Henry’s mentor Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) as well. However, as a child Henry is paired with the sociopathic Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) who as a full blood Italian could one day rise to made status. The three friends begin to pull different jobs to try and make a name for themselves, including the infamous Lufthansa heist.

Henry soon meets a fiery Jewish girl named Karen (Lorraine Bracco), and impresses her by taking her to the Copacabana but instead of going in the front door, he goes through the kitchen and comes out right in front of the stage as a table is placed there for them (this is where the famous tracking shot takes place, commonly considered the greatest of Scorsese’s career). Karen, taken aback by the treatment Henry receives asks him what he does for a living, “I’m in construction” Henry says without missing a beat. They’re quickly married and soon Henry has gained a mistress, begun the selling (and intaking) of cocaine, and has to deal with the repercussions of Tommy’s violent quick-trigger temper.

Goodfellas has the distinction of being easily the most watchable movie in Scorsese’s brilliant catalog. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci provide wonderful portraits of these psychopathic characters who do what they do (steal, kill, etc.) because they enjoy it and not for any other psychological or sociological reasons. Lorraine Bracco gives a great performance as a wife adjusting to a mafia marriage, which is a nice character to see Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi take advantage of, as the “wife” is usually ignored in mafia/crime movies. The use of period music and subtle aging makeup allow a believable journey through the years with these characters.

In addition, Thelma Schoonmaker and Michael Ballhaus deserve infinite praise for their work on the editing and cinematography, respectively. Ballhaus’s roving camerawork helps us feel personally involved in these people’s lives, and Schoonmaker’s propulsive editing makes the movie feel alive with energy and easily the quickest 2 ½ hours in movie history. The most obvious examples of Ballhaus’s great work is the famous tracking shot in the Copa, and the great camera work during a certain section of the movie scored to the piano section of “Layla”. Schoonmaker’s genius in particular shows during a bravura sequence where Henry spends a frantic, paranoid day where he believes an FBI helicopter is following him as he dashes all over town running guns, tries to organize some drug trafficking, and attempts to cook dinner for his family (“don’t let the sauce burn” he repeats).

That said, some people may be bothered by both the language (the “f” word is used an alleged 300 times in the movies 145 minutes) and the violence. These characters are not nice people, and the fact that they show no remorse for their actions may also disturb some. The movie is not overly graphic in terms of gore, but there is no shortage of violence depicted on screen.

Many people try to compare Goodfellas with The Godfather, which is unfair to both movies. Goodfellas focuses on a few guys at nearly the lowest level of involvement in the mafia (not yet, or ever, “made” guys), while The Godfather focuses on the guy at the absolute top. The movies go for different atmospheres as well, The Godfather the operatic changing of power within a family, Goodfellas the blue collar ascension of a few guys working their way through the ranks. Both, however, are brilliant.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not only a maddening title for a movie, but is also a maddening movie. The title comes from the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, adapted here by Australian writer/director Andrew Dominik. It tries really hard to be a great movie (and should be commended for at least trying), but while it has some great things, it is much too uneven to achieve that status.

The story follows the life of Robert “Bob” Ford (Casey Affleck) as he tries to worm his way into the gang of the notorious Jesse James (Brad Pitt), whom Bob has idolized as the dime-store novel hero the old west writers have turned him into. Bob joins just in time to participate in a particularly big train robbery with the other members of the James gang, including his brother Charley (the always reliable Sam Rockwell). After that big job, Jesse’s older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) retires and leaves Jesse in complete control of the gang, which quickly disbands. As time goes by though, Jesse becomes paranoid, convinced that his old gang members will betray him to the authorities, so he sets out to get rid of them. For a time Bob and Charley accompany Jesse, but Jesse is made uncomfortable by Bob’s incessant staring and general obsession with him. In fact, everyone in the movie seems to be uncomfortable around Bob except for his brother. Bob is a little strange and always seems to just not fit in. Jesse never lets Bob forget this, always antagonizing him, to the point that before long Bob’s obsession turns dangerous.

Casey Affleck is quite good as Bob, even if much of the praise he’s received seems to be an overreaction to low expectations. We can subtly see his obsession turn, and Affleck plays each descending note of Bob’s life with surprising deftness. Brad Pitt is also very good as Jesse, ably showing the dichotomy between his tough, outlaw, bullying nature and paranoid, frightened, increasingly mentally unstable disintegration. The supporting roles are filled with talented actors all around, from the previously mentioned Rockwell and Shepard to Paul Schneider, Garret Dillahunt, and Jeremy Renner as members of the James Gang. Although I have to say if there is one quibble about the acting, it’s that the female roles were completely wasted by casting talented actresses like Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel and then giving them nothing to do. Deschanel in particular is an actress that can inject so much life into a movie, but is barely given a handful of lines here (I actually don’t remember any, but I’m sure there were a couple).

The movie looks amazing; much credit should go to ace cinematographer Roger Deakins. His past work includes not just every Coen Brothers movie since 1991 (including Oscar nominations for Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men), but also Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (both of which garnered him additional Oscar nods). He is a highly sought after director of photography, and if you see this movie it won’t be difficult to understand why. Nearly every scene could be taken as a painting unto itself; even the more mundane scenes in people’s homes are exquisitely shot.

However, Dominik tries to give the movie a sense of weight by having meaningless silences at the end of nearly every scene. When the silences draw attention to themselves it ends up feeling more like bad editing than anything else. My biggest complaint about the movie though, is that Dominik felt the need to include a narration. I’m not against narrations on principle; in fact they can be immensely effective when used correctly. And I wouldn’t mind the narration in a contemplative piece such as this one (it just enhances the feeling that Dominik wants to be Terrence Malick) except the narrator that Dominik uses is not one of the characters in his story, but an omniscient narrator whose voice sounds more suited to a PBS special than a feature film. Like the narration of Todd Field’s recent Little Children and Stanley Kubrick’s “classic” Barry Lyndon, the narration proves completely unnecessary and ultimately undermines (rather than underscores) the happenings of the movie. We don’t need a narrator to tell us what Bob is thinking or why he’s doing something, or give us some background info on Frank and Jesse James. We see these things in the performances of the actors. The script is guilty of things like this as well, such as Jesse’s line to Bob “Can't figure it out: do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” we see that question in Casey Affleck’s eyes, we don’t need it pointed out for us like we’re school children who aren’t paying attention. A director casts a movie so that those types of things don’t need to be pointed out to the audience; they come through in the performances. You cast Sam Shepard in a movie because he brings that sense of history with him and it saves you from having to explain those things to the audience. It would be like casting Al Pacino in a movie and then wasting time explaining to the audience that his character has a lot of experience being a gangster.

The Incredible Hulk

It is impossible not to hold up side-by-side the two movies based on the Marvel Comics character The Hulk. In the summer of 2003, Oscar winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) gave us the good, but deeply flawed Hulk, a visually ambitious, psychologically contemplative movie. Although it made $245 million, it was considered a disappointment by most, and so we get a completely new cast and crew this summer in a sequel/re-boot of the franchise in The Incredible Hulk. While not at all interested in the psychological depths that Lee looked to explore in the first movie, and nowhere near as visually interesting, The Incredible Hulk is an overall more successful venture. It’s a very well made big dumb action movie.

The movie opens with Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) living in Brazil, working in a soda bottling factory, on the run from the United States military, and in particular the Army’s General Ross (William Hurt). General Ross calls in Special Forces ace Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to lead a team sent to stealthily capture and sedate Bruce. Things don’t go quite according to plan, and Bruce runs for it through the buildings and streets of the city, eventually getting cornered in the soda factory. He is provoked enough when trapped, and transforms (against his will) into The Hulk. Blonksy is astonished at the size and power of the mysterious creature, and is soon working with General Ross to turn himself into a type of super-soldier to combat the monster. Bruce, on the run again, ends up in Virginia at the college of former colleague, love, and daughter of the General, Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” Ross (Liv Tyler). It’s not long before Betty and Bruce are on the run together looking for a cure for this illness, battling Blonsky and General Ross in the process.

I’ve always found Edward Norton to be a talented, but overrated actor. Here he is good, but a little bland as Bruce (just as Eric Bana was in the same part in the first movie). He conveys everything that the script asks him to, but he’s not exactly flexing his acting muscles here. Liv Tyler, while beautiful and talented, is not the caliber of actress that Jennifer Connelly was in playing Betty in Hulk. But although she starts out a little shaky, she does get better as the movie goes along, and she and Norton have a nice chemistry together. William Hurt has proven himself throughout his career to be a very gifted actor, and has turned in a number of excellent performances. Here however, I think the part requires the gravitas that Sam Elliot brought to Hulk, and I can’t look at Hurt’s mustache without thinking how much more formidable Elliot’s is. Livening up the proceedings are the two notorious scene stealers Tim Blake Nelson and Tim Roth. Nelson plays a doctor who works with Bruce to find a cure to the disease of The Hulk, but may not see the problem the same way Bruce does. And of course Roth is a delight as Blonsky, intent on finding a way to defeat The Hulk. Though he doesn’t go over the top (the way Nelson does), Roth shows the growing competition in Blonsky’s eyes as The Hulk bests him time and again. It’s not on par with his villainous turn in Rob Roy, but it’s always a welcome sight to see Roth as the antagonist.

Ang Lee took the look of the comic book world further than any other director had tried with Hulk, but many audience members resisted his split-screens, multiple panels, and occasionally bizarre cutting. Directing duties on The Incredible Hulk, on the other hand, have been given to action movie director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), and he has no such ambitions. That’s not to say that the movie looks bad, because it doesn’t. It’s just that Leterrier is not Ang Lee, and The Incredible Hulk has no visual flair to distinguish itself from hundreds of other action and superhero movies. Leterrier knows how to direct action, and it shows here. The assault on The Hulk at the college campus especially is a terrific bit of work, and is much better than the slightly disappointing final battle. The CGI has improved, if only slightly, and The Hulk himself does look better than he did in Lee’s movie. Leterrier also brought the movie in at 112 minutes, thankfully less than the bloated 138 minutes of Lee’s Hulk (which could’ve easily been cut down to a similar runtime).

Overall, The Incredible Hulk succeeds mostly because although it doesn’t do anything great, it doesn’t do anything wrong either. It’s got some enjoyable action sequences, nice chemistry between the leads, a good villain, and a runtime under two hours. And while you’d be much better off spending your superhero deprived time seeing Iron Man or The Dark Knight (if you’ve yet to see them), you wouldn’t exactly be wasting your money on this one.


Wall-E is the best robot story Isaac Asimov never wrote. Wall-E the character, meanwhile, may be the most lovable creation since Wallace and Grommit. He’s plucky, determined, loyal, curious, he has a sense of humor, and above all he wants to be loved. Wall-E pulls on your heartstrings, tickles your funny bone, dazzles your eyes, and never once insults your intelligence. In short, it’s possible that 9 movies in Pixar has given us their best one yet.

In the year 2185, the Earth is covered in garbage, and humans haven’t inhabited the planet in more than 700 years. All we’ve got is a trash compacting robot named Wall-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class), his friend the cockroach, and endless mountains of debris. Every day Wall-E rises from his shed, charges up (he’s solar powered) and heads out for a days work of compacting trash and stacking it neatly into piles that can end up indistinguishable from the skyscrapers they stand next to. Sometimes he collects things that he finds interesting, and sometimes he’s able to salvage parts from old broken down Wall-E’s. He then goes home, feeds the cockroach, and settles down to watch an old video of Hello, Dolly! He looks longingly at the characters holding hands, and records some of the songs onto his built-in stereo to play back while he’s working. This monotony is broken up one day by the arrival of a spaceship and the deployment of a fancy new (and trigger happy) robot named EVE, or as Wall-E so endearingly calls her “ee-vuh”. Wall-E is instantly in love with EVE (who looks like an egg shaped iPod), so when she is taken back to her ship and ready to blast off, you better believe that Wall-E is coming too.

Wall-E is a very simple character and I felt a strong emotional attachment to him. I also felt a childlike sense of wonderment at the space scenes so beautifully handled by writer/director Andrew Stanton. Stanton has worked on every Pixar movie, 6 of them in a writing capacity, and here gets his second solo director credit (he previously directed Finding Nemo, and co-directed A Bug’s Life). One amazing sequence in particular stands out to me as Wall-E and EVE zoom around the outside of a spaceship (Wall-E hilariously using a fire extinguisher as a means of propulsion) doing a very touching kind of robot dance. Stanton amazingly gets us to care more about the robots than the humans that we eventually encounter. Although maybe that’s because when we finally do meet humans, we see that they’ve become technology slaves who’re too fat and lazy to get out of their hover chairs (or get back into them if they’ve fallen out). You can’t blame them though, they’ve been away from Earth’s gravity their entire lives, and are waited on hand and foot by robots to the point that they don’t need to get out of their hover chairs. A lot of the movie is a sort of nice version of what Mike Judge showed us we were headed towards in Idiocracy.

There is a very minimal amount of dialog in Wall-E, but I didn’t even realize that until I left the theater. Oscar winning sound designer Ben Burtt (whose past work includes the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies) meshed a multitude of mechanical sounds over recorded voices to create a version of dialog for the robots. But Wall-E and EVE are so vividly created that their version of dialog, as well as their incredibly expressive eyes, communicates more than many live action actors do. There is traditional dialog in the movie, the ship captain (voiced by Jeff Garlin) is the main human character and has plenty of lines, John Ratzenberger makes his traditional Pixar cameo, Fred Willard shows up in the first live-action role in a Pixar movie (it sorta makes sense when you see it), and Sigourney Weaver plays the voice of the ship itself, slyly evoking her role in Alien except she’s playing the Mother role here.

Wall-E filled me with a sense of awe that I haven’t experienced since Close Encounters of the Third Kind or 2001: A Space Odyssey (to which there are multiple nods here), and I would sometimes just sit back and marvel at the visual invention on screen. Every time I doubt Pixar, they prove me wrong. I didn’t think Ratatouille looked like it’d be any good, but it turns out it was one of the 5 or 6 best movies of last year. When they played the preview for Wall-E before Ratatouille, I thought “Boy looks like they’re reaching for stories now. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how that one turns out.” Turns out it’s a masterpiece, and one of the best movies of the year.

The Dark Knight

I weep for the roles left unplayed by the late Heath Ledger. He was so powerfully repressed, lonely, and inarticulate in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain that it tore my heart out. Perhaps determined to show his versatility as an actor, Ledger took on the iconic role of The Joker, arch-nemesis of Batman, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The Joker, as played by Ledger, is a sadistic, anarchic, murderous psychopath who wants nothing more than to revel in the chaos that he creates. Whereas the popular incarnation played by Cesar Romero on the 1960’s TV show “Batman” was a generally harmless prankster, and Jack Nicholson’s version of the character in Tim Burton’s Batman a more criminal version of that, retaining the camp humor that Romero played, Ledger’s is a true wild card. He’s not a clown, he is the frightening incarnation of evil, determined to make the city of Gotham push its morals to the breaking point, wrapped in stringy hair, a maniacal laugh, and garish make-up.

Crime has escalated in Gotham City since the end of 2005’s Batman Begins, the first movie in Nolan’s reboot of the franchise. Some criminal activity is being dealt with by other vigilante’s who are dressing up as Batman, to play off the fear that the suit and famous cowl represent (even if their low-tech suits are sometimes comprised only of hockey pads). Except these guys are using guns and shooting to kill, the moral point at which Batman draws the line. So Batman himself (again played by Christian Bale) now has to deal with these vigilante’s and the criminals they’re going after. This leads to a frequently exhausted and beaten Bruce Wayne returning home at the end of the night to his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine). The local mafia, headed by Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts), continues without fail, but their presence is being somewhat augmented by the rise of master criminal The Joker (Heath Ledger) who likes to put people in impossible moral situations and see how they react. On Batman’s side in this war are quintessential good cop Jim Gordon (an effortless Gary Oldman), and the “White Knight” of Gotham, new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Complicating matters is that on Dent’s arm happens to be Bruce’s lifelong love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, nicely taking over for an unfairly criticized Katie Holmes). Bruce hopes that Dent can be the face of fighting crime in Gotham City, so that he can hang up his Bat-cape and hopefully settle down with Rachel at his side. The Joker has other plans for the love triangle, plans which take on a sad twist when realizing that The Joker doesn’t even know that Bruce Wayne is Batman.

The script, written by Chris Nolan and his brother Jonathan (from a story by Chris and his Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer), is probably the most densely written screenplay you’ll ever find in a big summer blockbuster. That’s because Nolan was searching for something much deeper than your typical “big summer blockbuster”. He explores things like the essence of good and evil, the impact of making impossible decisions, the nature of what makes a hero, and why we need them. The characters are given the kind of complexity sometimes not even reserved for “serious” movies. There are also a number of beautifully poetic dialog exchanges, another thing usually ignored in this type of movie. The movie has a lot going on during its 152 minutes, but it isn’t the jumbled mess that something like Spiderman 3 was. Actually, The Dark Knight transcends any notion of being a “comic book movie”, and simply becomes a terrific movie.

Chris Nolan, throughout his career, has been able to get wonderful actors to give some of their best performances in his movies, whether it was Joe Pantoliano and Guy Pearce in Memento, Hugh Jackman in The Prestige, or the trio of Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams in Insomnia. But he has his best ensemble cast yet in The Dark Knight. Christian Bale returns as Bruce/Batman, and is equally adept at playing Wayne’s oblivious playboy, and adopting the theatrically low raspy voice and intensely focused eyes of Batman. Aaron Eckhart perfectly walks the line between acting the politician telling people to not give up hope in these dark times, and being truly genuine. He gives off the sense that Dent could be the hero that Gotham is really looking for. Gary Oldman, surprising given his history of perfectly hateable villains, is very strong as Lt. Gordon, a role that could’ve come off as the stereotypical “good guy” in someone else’s hands. Morgan Freeman returns as Lucius Fox, the man who developed most of Batman’s gear and is currently acting CEO of the multi-billion dollar Wayne Enterprises. He and Michael Caine add a wise center, as well as some much needed humor to the dour atmosphere of the movie. Eric Roberts and Maggie Gyllenhaal are both quite good, even if they aren’t given much to do. But Heath Ledger will undoubtedly stick out in the minds of the audiences leaving this picture. He has the same type of unnerving impact on the movie that Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter had in The Silence of the Lambs. He may not be onscreen the whole time, but his presence is felt in every scene. It’s a staggering and disturbing performance, and probably the greatest villain the screen has had since Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List 15 years ago.

Sadly, Ledger didn’t get to live to give us more performances as great as this one. There has been much talk about awards for his performance, but I couldn’t care less about that. The Joker will live long after people forget about awards, and honestly I would be surprised to see anyone give an award to a character as reprehensible and morally repugnant as this one. The saddest thing about Ledger’s accidental death is that he seemed to be just hitting his stride. His emotionally wrenching performance in Brokeback Mountain (not to mention his supporting turns in Monster’s Ball, and I’m Not There among others) is so completely different than The Joker that it makes you wonder what other performances he had up his sleeve. I mourn for those lost performances.

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited is a perfect encapsulation of Wes Anderson as a writer/director. It is visually ambitious and exciting, it’s drolly humorous, it’s occasionally boring, and it’s intermittently brilliant. All of Anderson’s movies have had these qualities, starting with 1996’s Bottle Rocket and continuing through Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson’s movies are always episodic in nature, but the danger with that approach is that you run the risk of certain episodes not working as well as others. And that’s exactly what happens here.

Jack (Jason Schwartzman), Francis (Owen Wilson), and Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) are brothers trying to reconnect, after a year of no contact, by taking a journey through India on a train called The Darjeeling Limited. Francis orchestrated the odyssey, and is the most active in trying to get the brothers to open up and trust each other again. He has an assistant who has detailed daily itineraries, which may include things like “wake up”, and a timeslot for spiritual awakening. That’s the basic plot outline, the episodic nature of the movie prevents me from being able to fully detail the other goings on, but it doesn’t matter. The episodic nature is the point of a movie like The Darjeeling Limited, because journeys are episodic by definition, and these guys are most assuredly on a journey.

As I said, the danger of all episodic works is the possibility of some episodes being more successful than others. For instance, while on the train, Jack falls hard for the beautiful stewardess Rita (beautiful newcomer Amara Karan) and they begin a short, secret affair behind the back of her boyfriend the Chief Steward (Waris Ahluwalia). I was fascinated by this sequence, as the actors shared a nice sense of humor, and a terrifically sweet chemistry. I wanted more of this piece, but maybe it was best Anderson left me wanting more. There are other sequences that work, like when the train gets lost (“How can a train be lost?” Jack asks “It’s on rails.”), or when Francis and Peter stupidly fight over a belt and Jack hilariously tries to both take action, and run away. There’s also a nice flashback to when the guys were on their way to a funeral, but there was too much stuff in the picture that didn’t work. The movie is only 91 minutes, but it felt much, much longer. There are no particular big sequences that completely don’t work, but I felt it was the majority of the little things between the sequences that weren’t successful for me, coupled with Anderson’s usual leisurely pacing.

Just like all of Anderson’s movies, The Darjeeling Limited is gorgeous to look at. He has always been a gifted visual director, and though some accuse him of being over-the-top in his visuals, you won’t hear me complaining. Anderson is remarkably assured in his visual composition, often creating shots that could work as still photographs. There were the wonderful single take walkthroughs of the boat in The Life Aquatic, and Anderson equals those shots here with a sort of “summing up” tracking shot down the length of the train. The single shot contains many elements of the journey, with each incident, or person, in another compartment of the train, decorated like the backdrop of their sequence (we look in from the side, just like the boat shots in The Life Aquatic). I didn’t time it, or count the number of compartments, but just as the bulk of Anderson’s other show-offy camerawork does, it enhances and supports the story rather than detracts from it.

The Darjeeling Limited is preceded by a 13-minute short film called Hotel Chevalier, starring Schwartzman’s character Jack, as his unnamed former girlfriend (Natalie Portman) visits him in his hotel room in Paris. It has become somewhat infamous for being the only movie in which Portman has done a nude scene (tastefully seen from behind), but it’s also a perfect representation of Wes Anderson’s brilliance. There are small, mostly non-speaking, parts by other actors, but it’s basically just Portman and Schwartzman in a hotel room. In very little time they establish a feeling of history between the characters, and we’re intrigued by what has happened to them in the past, and what will happen to them going forward. The short has a wonderful atmosphere of sexual tension, past pain, humor, and romance. Both actors are terrific, and it’s just the right length at 13 minutes. It’s a superb portrayal of how great Anderson can be in small doses, while the movie itself is proof that he can’t quite always extend that brilliance for an entire feature.

Southland Tales

This has been the hardest review yet to write. Southland Tales is a movie that my brain wants desperately to forget. I’ve tried to gather my thoughts about it, as I do with all movies I see, but I feel it slipping away as my brain makes space for useful things like the number of teeth I have (28), the current temperature of my refrigerator (36 degrees Fahrenheit, -2 for the freezer), or how many of my DVD’s start with the letter S (37). It’s not technically inept on the level of an Ed Wood movie, and yet it makes Wood’s work look like Citizen Kane in comparison. It is, quite simply, the single worst movie I have ever seen.

To sum up the plot with any kind of description would be doing you the reader a disservice, because it would make it sound like it has a coherent narrative. It doesn’t. Dwayne Johnson (he’s fully dropped his former nickname of The Rock), Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, Miranda Richardson, Justin Timberlake and many others wander around this colossal mess with seemingly no direction whatsoever. Most feel like they’re in completely different movies, which is possible because writer/director Richard Kelly doesn’t have a clue as to what type of movie he wanted to make. He tries to go for a sort of drama/comedy/pre-apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic/futuristic/musical/time-travel/over-the-top satire, except none of it works. The drama isn’t dramatic, and the comedy is as funny as if a Rob Schneider movie had a baby with Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, that’s how often I laughed. Actually, to be fair, I did laugh once at one of Mandy Moore’s lines, which had everything to do with her delivery and the fact that she can be a terrific comedic actress, and not necessarily with the humor of the written line. But one laugh in a movie that is (I timed it, because they misprinted it on my Netflix disc) 467 hours long is not enough.

It obviously thinks it’s saying something important, with Timberlake serving as narrator and always quoting the Biblical book of Revelation. I assume inaccurately, simply because everything else in the movie is a failure, so why not that too (although I guess it’s possible at least one thing was done right)? But there’s nothing of the slightest importance in the endless pile of excrement that is this movie. Hell, Kelly was even able to make both Timberlake and Johnson uncharismatic and boring, a feat I would’ve previously said was impossible. He was also able to get inherently and effortlessly funny people like Amy Poehler, Jon Lovitz, and Wallace Shawn to be unfunny even when they were trying to be funny. Actually, come to think of it, there’s not a single good performance in this movie. The leads are good-looking enough to be watchable, but they all give terrible performances (even with Moore’s one laugh, she’s never been worse). How Kelly got any of these actors to be in his movie is beyond me. He’s got to be one hell of a photographer to be able to get the kind of incriminating photos he must have on these people.

Southland Tales famously opened at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, where it was roundly trashed by most in attendance. But Kelly must have black mailing photos of Sony CEO Howard Stringer as well, because Sony picked up the movie for distribution and gave Kelly more money for additional special FX in exchange for a lowered running time. I would say that the money paid off, except that none of the FX look particularly good, and in fact the movie as a whole looks like a low budget made-for-TV movie. Or like it was made by a student who’s fresh out of film school, and has no visual idea of how to make a movie, but has a professional crew to work with anyway. The only good thing to come out of the Sony deal was the decreased running time. Although the final time is listed at 144 minutes, my timer still told me it was 467 hours. More than a year and a half after its disastrous debut at Cannes, Southland Tales opened at the box-office and flopped big time, making back only about 4% of its budget.

I didn’t write that last part to make myself feel better about hating a movie that tanked at the box-office, or trying to make fun of Richard Kelly for failing so spectacularly. I did it to illustrate the fact that sometimes a movie fails at the box-office for a reason. Like, in this case, maybe it’s terrible. I hope Kelly comes back and makes a great movie next time around (and we’ll get to see, with next year’s The Box). But to sum up my feelings about Southland Tales (and to paraphrase a line from Roger Ebert, though he said it about a different movie), if a person you know says they want to see this movie, or recommends that you see this movie, I recommend that you don’t know that person anymore. This is movie cancer, the world is a worse place because of the existence of Southland Tales.

In Bruges

Sometimes a movie comes along and reminds you of a certain actor or director’s talent that you had forgotten about, In Bruges is that movie for Colin Farrell. It’s the debut film from famed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. He has been referred to as the Irish David Mamet, with good reason, as In Bruges is an incredibly profane, dialog driven movie whose Irish-ness comes to the forefront in the black comedy contained throughout its 107 minutes. The dialog isn’t as stylized or cadenced as Mamet’s is, but it is equally intriguing and has a heart that Mamet has never shown.

“After I killed ‘em, I dropped the gun in the Thames, washed the residue off me hands in the bathroom of a Burger King, and walked home to await instructions. Shortly thereafter the instructions came through – ‘Get the fuck out of London, you dumb fucks. Get to Bruges.’ I didn't even know where Bruges fucking was………. It's in Belgium.”-The opening narration, spoken by Ray (Colin Farrell).

Ray and Ken (Brendon Gleeson) are two Irish hit men who arrive from London into Bruges of two completely different mindsets. Ken thinks they should lay low and sight-see in the beautiful city “Bruges is the most well preserved medieval town in all of Belgium, apparently” he says. Ray, meanwhile, wants only to go back to London, or his beloved Dublin, and get back to his life. They’re sent to Bruges by their boss Harry (a hilariously over-the-top Ralph Fiennes) after Ray’s first job goes wrong. While walking around the city at night Ray and Ken stumble upon a film set and eventually get acquainted with dwarf actor Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) who’s starring in the movie’s dream sequence. Ray also becomes infatuated with a girl he sees on set (the radiantly seductive Clemence Poesy) named Chloe. He asks her out, and she reluctantly agrees, leading to one of the best “date” scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.

McDonagh pokes a bit of fun at the Americans in the movie, to great effect (if we can’t laugh at ourselves, what can we laugh at?). Jimmy the dwarf keeps asking people to not hold the fact that he’s American against him. After Ken goes up to the top of the city’s famous bell tower to see the view without Ray (Ray saying “The view of down here? I can see that from down here”), an obese American family approaches and informs Ray that they’re on their way up, but are outraged when Ray tells them that they won’t make it up the stairs because “You’re a bunch of fuckin’ elephants”. The joke isn’t that the American’s are overweight, but that they’re offended someone pointed it out. When, as he passes them on his way back, Ken also expresses his concern that the family won’t make it up the stairs because the stairs are quite narrow, he’s not making fun, he’s just trying to be a friendly person. The Americans don’t quite take it that way, but if you pay attention later in the movie, you find out that Ray just might have been correct.

McDonagh’s background as a playwright comes through in that In Bruges has a fairly small cast of characters, but it doesn’t feel constrained by that, it simply feels like an extension of the fact that these characters live in a fairly insular world. Actually In Bruges just plain doesn’t feel like a first movie. McDonagh has clear command of the story, a nice visual sense, and is able to effortlessly switch from comedy to drama, often within the same scene. And it’s in those scenes that Colin Farrell truly shines.

He often gets dismissed due to his good looks, but Farrell can be very good when given the right role. I first noticed him as the antagonist in Spielberg’s Minority Report, but unfortunately since then he seems to have developed a trend where he works with great directors on their lesser projects. In 2004 he starred in the disaster of Oliver Stone’s Alexander, in 2005 followed with Terrence Malick’s The New World, and then in 2006 with Michael Mann’s Miami Vice and Robert Towne’s Ask the Dust. Combined, those guys have 18 Oscar nominations, and 4 wins. They weren't all flops by any means, The New World was a critical success, but essentially it was a case of "right filmmakers to be involved with, wrong films to be in" (regardless of the fact that he himself was really only negatively singled out for Alexander). His career wasn’t a complete disaster during that time period though; he had his nice turn in Phone Booth, as well as his widely praised performance as the villain Bullseye in the much maligned Daredevil, was again critically praised for his performance in the little seen A Home at the End of the World, and had a terrific guest spot on my favorite show, Scrubs. None of those performances, however, are as good as he is here as Ray. He pulls off the dramatic and emotional scenes without fault, and yet he could have me cracking up with a simple “Hmm”. You can also hear the childlike glee in his voice when the guys first come across the film set and he blurts out “They’re filmin’ midgets!!” as he rushes over.

The rest of the cast are all up to par, with Brendon Gleeson in particular standing out during an incredibly acted 6 ½ minute long shot in the hotel room where we first see him talk to Ralph Fiennes on the phone. That scene is probably the best encapsulation of the movie. McDonagh shows his mastery of character and story with the atmosphere of the conversation (and therefore, the movie) shifting with a simple question. Gleeson goes through a wide range of emotions in that scene, and just watching his face can really hit you emotionally. In Bruges is a near masterpiece that gets better with every viewing, surely one of the best movies of the year, and hopefully the start of a long film career for Martin McDonagh.

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg is one of the most peculiar directors in the history of movies. His most well known works have included an adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone in 1983, a successful remake of The Fly in 1986, and 1996's hugely controversial Crash which consisted of characters who are sexually aroused by car accidents. It was therefore a little puzzling when it was announced that he would adapt a graphic novel called "A History of Violence" into his next movie and cast newly minted superstar Viggo Mortensen (hot off of playing Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings movies) in the lead. What Cronenberg gave us was one of the best movies of 2005. Many wondered if he would go back to his usual bizarre sci-fi/horror genre or try something different. Well, he chose a good old fashioned gangster movie as a follow-up, and re-teamed with his leading man in 2007's Eastern Promises. Cronenberg hasn't become a mainstream director-for-hire with this picture, nothing of the sort. In fact, if you take a close look, he doesn't even really give us a standard gangster movie (there's not a single gun in it), he gives us something much deeper and more interesting.

As the movie opens, we meet Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a mid-wife at a London hospital. A young teenager dies after giving birth in Anna's ward, and while searching for any sort of identification Anna stumbles upon the girl's Russian language diary. In an attempt to find the rightful home for the newborn, she takes the diary to a local Russian restaurant where the owner, a seemingly kind old man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), offers to translate it for her. While at the restaurant, Anna crosses paths with Seymon's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his best friend and driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). Anna's Russian born uncle warns her that these people are part of vory v zakone, the Russian mafia, but when Anna's motorcycle breaks down one night outside the restaurant, Nikolai gives her a ride home. There is a strange attraction between the two, but he warns that she should stay away from people like him. Nikolai insists he is just the driver but we've, not long before this, seen him casually dismember the body of a mobster that Kirril had put out a hit on. Anna gets slowly sucked into this world and fights to protect the current and future safety of the baby. Nikolai meanwhile must handle his unstable captain Kirril, and make progress in the eyes of the cold hearted boss Seymon. Kirril and Nikolai also have to deal with the fact that when you put out a hit on another member of the mafia, his family might come looking for you.

Cronenberg shows complete mastery of his art with this movie. Slowly, subtly, patiently he reveals the layers of the story in such a way that you may need to see it multiple times so that you can fully understand the goings on. A lot of credit should go to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (working with Cronenberg for the 8th time), as the movie looks beautiful and feels like a "lived in" version of London, and not like a set or just a generic city. There are no shots of Big Ben or a Westminster Abbey to hit us in the face and let us know that we're in London, because that's not the world that these people live in. The movie has a very steady, measured pace that has led some to call it "boring", I found it fascinating. Cronenberg isn't looking to thrill us in the traditional sense with his story. He's looking to set up his characters and set up this world, and then let the story happen there. The happenings of the plot are secondary to the existence of these people and their lives.

Credit should also go to the best ensemble cast that Cronenberg has ever assembled. Noami Watts shines in a role that could've been disastrous in a lesser actresses hands. In fact, the ferocity of her performance is so subtle that many viewers may not recognize just how great she is in this part. Vincent Cassel perfectly plays the drunken, volatile, possibly gay Kirill and Armin Mueller-Stahl is commanding as the quietly vicious Semyon. However, the star of the ensemble is Viggo Mortensen, who gives the greatest performance that Cronenberg has ever coaxed out of an actor (and he's had some great performances in his movies). I was not prepared for this type of performance from Mortensen before A History of Violence, and I was expecting coming into Eastern Promises for him to be great again, but nothing he's done in the past could have prepared me for how brilliant he is here.

There is violence in the movie, as there has been in nearly every Cronenberg movie, but the violence is not exploitative in any way. Again, Cronenberg doesn't necessarily want to thrill you with action sequences or fight scenes, he wants you to see how difficult it would be to fatally slice someone up with a razor. He wants you to see the consequences to the body when you get stabbed with a knife (fragility of the human body is a recurring theme throughout Cronenberg's career). As he himself has pointed out, there are only about 4 or 5 scenes of violence in the movie, but you will hear many people talk about how violent it is. It's not because there is a lot of it, it's because Cronenberg takes violence seriously and doesn't want to trivialize it by making it part of a standard action sequence. In so doing, the violence makes a bigger impact on people's minds. The movie has also become somewhat notorius for an extended fight sequence in a bath house where Viggo Mortensen is naked throughout. This was also not done simply to give the movie a calling card, it was done because Nikolai has nothing to hide behind in this fight. No pads, no armor, no weapons. It makes the fight all the more effective because we can see how vulnerable Nikolai is to attack, and that adds an extra layer of danger and suspense to the scene. Also, kudos to Viggo Mortensen for taking on that scene when every single other star in Hollywood would've balked at it. As Cronenberg said, he was lucky that he cast an actor in the part and not a star.

The New Blog

Due to my dissatisfaction with the way the previous site I wrote for was being handled, I decided to start my own blog instead (thanks to some expert thinking by my brother). Up front I'm going to post everything I'd written for the other site, whether it got posted or not, so that I can get those thoughts out there.

Here's hoping some of my fellow writers from before join my lead.