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.