Friday, December 11, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#1

I have rarely been as emotionally impacted while watching a movie as I was sitting in the theater watching Children of Men. Having since seen it multiple times, I am more convinced than ever that it is the best movie of the decade, and one of the greatest achievements in all of cinema. Its story is very simple: the year is 2027, and the human race has been infertile for the past 18 years. An emotionally disconnected former activist (now anonymous bureaucrat, played by Clive Owen) is asked by his ex-wife to escort a young girl to safety across the dangerous obstacles now occupying England as the world's last surviving powerful nation. The by now well known complication being that the girl is pregnant. Director/writer/editor Alfonso Cuaron uses this concept as the basis to tell a powerful story of action, love, and hope rarely touched in cinema. The almost oppressive grimness of the frighteningly realistic future setting is offset with the optimism brought about by the prospect of a future generation.

Children of Men has become somewhat famous for its single-shot sequences, including an assault on a car that lasts for more than 4 minutes, and a shot during a chaotic battle that lasts for around 7 1/2 minutes. The thing that many people don't know about these shots are that they aren't really a single shot, but a couple of shots stitched together through the aid of computers. Some detractors have taken this as a negative, as though the only point of single-shot sequences is an exercise in technique. The single-shot sequences, whether actually a single unaided shot or not, work as a single take, not allowing the audience the chance to distance itself through an edit. We can't get away from the action, because the camera isn't getting away from the action, making the movie all the more tense and exciting.

The great German director Werner Herzog has said that the world is starved for great images. With Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron continues his fight to give us extraordinary images. He has the audacity to be poetic in an almost Herzog-ian way such as in the scene where the soldiers all stand around dumbfounded at the sound and sight of the baby Theo is escorting out of a building. Some people, even in the midst of the fighting and destruction going on around them reach out to the baby as the first sign of hope in nearly 20 years. The soldiers, many of whom are probably too young to even remember seeing a baby in their lifetimes, look on at the young child in a paralyzing shock. It's a tremendously moving sequence, and again, Cuaron's use of music (an opera) is very reminiscent of Herzog. Cuaron has given us some wonderful images in his previous movies. Y tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess, and even his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were expertly filmed and gave us gorgeous shots to behold. But nothing he'd ever done in the past prepared me for the power and poeticism of some of his work here. I would single out more shots, but I could nearly single out anything in the movie and use it as an example, since Cuaron often finds the poetry of images in small ways that many viewers may not even be aware of or remember.

So this is the end of my list, and I'm happy to now have at least smaller write ups for all of these movies. My goal with doing each as a single post was to make myself write some more, and I accomplished that. I hope you enjoyed reading, and now I'll get to making my top ten of 2009, and my usual writing of whatever the hell I feel like writing about.

My top ten movies of the decade-#2

Guillermo del Toro had shown promise with some of his earlier films, most particularly in the comic book adaptation Hellboy, and his ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. But he had never melded his extraordinary talents as a visual stylist with some storytelling craft as well as he did with his 2006 masterwork Pan’s Labyrinth. He wrote a simple story about a young girl escaping from her hellish life into a fantasy world that may not be any less brutal, but tells it with an elegance and assurance that he’d only hinted at before. The effortless flow of the story makes the simplicity all the easier to enjoy, with the only character who isn’t really a defined good guy or bad guy being the Faun who opens up this alternate world to our young heroine.

Movies with children as the lead characters can often get bogged down in “cute” moments from the young actors who fail to give much in the way of a real acting performance. Pan’s Labyrinth is not one of those movies. Premier among the movie’s many pleasures is the central performance from Ivana Baquero as Ofelia. The rest of the cast is littered with wonderful performances as well, but Ofelia is our guide and needs to be something truly special. Baquero is most certainly that. The film’s detractors often point to the simplistic nature of the movie as a negative, usually pointed at Sergi Lopez’s villainous Captain Vidal as the biggest offender. So what? So he’s obviously the bad guy, and he’s a really, really bad guy. He’s not even the most memorable villain, as the infamous Pale Man sequence has demonstrated. Regardless, do we denigrate The Adventures of Robin Hood because Claude Rains is so wonderfully hissable, or the Harry Potter movies because Voldemort is one-sidedly evil? No, we enjoy the obstacle for our heroes to overcome. And the movies are better for it.

The feeling that often stays with me after watching Pan's Labyrinth is one of a beautiful melancholy. The Javier Navarrete score is gorgeously haunting, and fits the movie perfectly. The rich cinematography from Guillermo Navarro, as well as Del Toro’s developing compositional brilliance, leaves us with some stunning images. One thing I would like to address that Del Toro purposefully leaves open to a bit of interpretation is whether or not this fantasy escape is all happening in Ofelia’s head. There’s a shot near the end where Vidal runs into Ofelia talking to the Faun, but he can’t see the Faun. Del Toro has said he meant this as adults aren’t as in tune with the fantasy world as children, more than that the fantasy world doesn’t exist. And that’s the way I’ve always looked at it as well. I’m more one who believes in the fate of the fig tree as an indication of what was real and what wasn’t. What is very real though is that this is one of the great movies I’ve ever seen, and I have no problem having it as my #2 movie of the decade.

My top ten movies of the decade-#3

With Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe finally achieved the flawless synergy of his love of rock music and the personal relationship dramedy that he’d been trying to perfect since his debut with Say Anything. Crowe used his experiences as a teenaged journalist for Rolling Stone magazine (where he toured with Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Eagles, among others) as the basis for his autobiographical masterwork. And while the theatrical cut of the movie is wonderful, the cut that makes it onto my list is the Untitled: Bootleg cut (i.e. Director’s cut). Although most director’s cuts are fairly worthless and indulgent, the original cut of Almost Famous only had one drawback (to me), which was that it felt a bit rushed. Crowe’s Untitled cut adds in just enough scenes to make the movie feel more lived in, more detailed, and add more character moments so that we really get to know and love these people.

Even though the movie skirts so close to cliché at nearly every turn, it never felt anything but alive to me. A lot of the credit for that goes to Crowe’s (deservedly) Oscar-winning script, but I think even more of it goes to the best cast he’s ever assembled. From Patrick Fugit as our hero William, to Frances McDormand’s overprotective mother and Zooey Deschanel’s flighty sister, Jason Lee and Billy Crudup’s quarreling band leaders, to Kate Hudson’s perfect Penny Lane and most especially Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs (still his greatest of many, many great performances), the closest thing William has to a mentor. Hell, Crowe even gets a terrific performance from Jimmy Fallon. Fugit though, as the newcomer of the bunch, deserves special mention for his ability to capture a certain youthful naiveté and earnestness, while also taking us on William’s coming-of-age journey with enthusiasm and joy. It’s one of the great youth performances the movies have ever given us.

Probably the most talked about sequence in the movie is the “Tiny Dancer” scene. I’ve heard it described as transcendent by some, and ridiculous (or worse) by others. It is, of course, the former. After a night of in fighting and much drug intaking, the whole group is angry with Crudup’s Russell Hammond as he gets on the bus wrapped in a towel and still a little bit high. The bus sets off, and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” plays over the bus speakers. Eventually everyone joins in singing along, and with it, Crowe shows us the kind of healing power great music can have. Nobody says anything to Russell about the night before. They don’t have to. Music is a powerful thing, and Almost Famous captures that like no other movie I can think of.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#4

High Fidelity is another one that didn't immediately make an impact on me. As a 17-year-old, I walked away from the theater loving Jack Black's hilariously over-the-top know it all Barry, but not really connecting with John Cusack's self-loathing (yet occasionally arrogant) Rob, and his travails through the top 5 loves of his life, and why they didn't work out. A few years later, I watched the movie again and found it deeply affected me on an emotional level, now that I had some life experience with what Rob was talking about, and a deeper love of the pop-culture that Rob also cherishes. Now, as a 26-year-old with even more experiences, I find more than ever that I connect not just with Rob, but with Barry, Dick, Liz, and Laura. All the characters are amazingly well drawn (much of which comes from Nick Hornby's brilliant novel) and brilliantly played by the actors, with even Jack Black seeming like a real character, and not just Jack Black.

Sometimes a movie feels so personal to me that I fear showing it to other people, afraid that their opinion (whether positive, negative, or indifferent) will color mine in some way and my love of it will be somehow tainted. This is a movie like that. I occasionally hesitate in recommending such a deeply personal favorite, especially one that I don't think will connect with someone as fully as it does with me, immediately at least. Some people aren't willing to revisit movies that they didn't love the first time around. But I do have such a deep love and connection with it that I can't help but put it on this list and want to recommend it to anyone with an open mind.

My top ten movies of the decade-#5

I have also previously written about my #5, Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from 2004. It's one of the most interestingly done visual experiences ever put on screen, with Gondry able to project what the inside of our minds just might look like.

The crowning achievement in Charlie Kaufman's catalog, in my eyes, teaming him again with French music video director Gondry (who had previously directed Kaufman's script Human Nature, unseen by me). A haphazard journey through the memories of Joel Barish (a never better Jim Carrey) as he tries to erase his recently ex-girlfriend Clementine (the always brilliant Kate Winslet) from his mind. Kaufman started from the idea of erasing someone from your memory (who hasn't wanted to do that before?) and the impact that memories have on us as people. The way a loved one can get so associated with something that to remove it would be to remove a part of your own being. The impulsive Clem has had Joel erased from her memory by a company called Lacuna that provides such a service. As a way of getting back at her, Joel decides to erase her from his memory. Joel at one point asks Dr. Mierzwiak (the infallible Tom Wilkinson) if there's any chance of brain damage caused by the erasing. He answers "Well, technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage."

There's an achingly sad moment later in the movie when you realize that Joel doesn't remember the song "My Darling Clementine", even though it had deep meaning to him long before meeting Clem. It had become so associated with her in his mind that to remove her removes all traces of the song as well as his childhood favorite, Huckleberry Hound. For the majority of the movie we travel with Joel through the good and bad memories of the two years he spent with Clem. It's hysterical, heartbreaking, amazingly true to life while being totally surreal. Also, the brilliant score by Jon Brion is worth mentioning. It plays more like an accompaniment to the action onscreen, instead of trying to underline it, or try and inform the audience how to react emotionally. The movie is a beautiful, hilarious, and melancholy trek through the emotions one experiences with both the good and bad in a relationship, and how you should live with the balance of the two instead of trying to forget. Your memories help make you who you are, appreciate that you have them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#6

The number 6 movie on my list is the Pixar tour-de-force that is Andrew Stanton's Wall-E, quite possibly the greatest of all animated movies. Its visual invention and nearly silent opening section are reminders of what a little ambition can do for a movie. Stanton and his co-writers provide pointed commentary on the laziness of the human race and where our reliance on technology will logically lead us to (a commentary lost on so many viewers who thought the filmmakers were just making fun of fat people). But at its heart, Wall-E is a simple love story, one that just happens to star robots.

Most of note, really, is the genius creation of the title character. Stanton gives ample time for his mostly silent hero to show of his comedic skills, ones worthy of the great Buster Keaton. Stanton has actually said that he and his staff studied the entire available catalogs of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in an effort to understand and emulate the great silent comedians. Wall-E is a delightful creation, and the movie starring him equally enchanting. It was another one that didn't quite hit me with its full force on first viewing. Looking back on my original review, I wasn't even sure if it was Pixar's best movie. After repeat viewings, I always find wonderful little details in it, plus there's still the beautiful sequences like Eve and Wall-E's dance, and the simplicity of the story proves to be a strength rather than a hindrance. Our adorable hero and his quest for love hits me in the gut every time since that first viewing. It's really a testament to the strength of the decade's movies that a masterpiece like Wall-E is only 6th. And I'm already starting to wonder if that position is too low.

Monday, November 30, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#7

2007's No Country for Old Men is the Coen brothers best work, and they're no strangers to great movies. I would count their The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, and Miller's Crossing as really great movies (and that's with thinking their generally regarded crowning achievement, Fargo, is just "good"). Of course, Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning villain is the part that sticks in everyones mind, but the work done here by Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Kelly MacDonald can't be overvalued. MacDonald in particular deserves more attention than she ever got. The scene where she gets a piece of news she didn't want to get, her reaction brings tears to my eyes every time I watch this movie, and I don't think I can say that about any other scene in the typically emotionally distant Coen catalog.

One of the most tense movies I've ever seen, I was so wrapped up in the story that like many people, I was caught off guard by the ending. We're trained by other movies to expect some sort of showdown between the main characters, and when we don't get it, I was left quite disappointed. It wasn't until I kept thinking about the ending, and watched the movie a couple more times, that I was hit by its brilliance. The Coen's go for intellectualism and metaphor rather than the emotional release of a showdown. I wasn't sure at first if they'd made the right decision, but I'm more sure than ever (after my last viewing) that they did make the correct choice.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#8

One I knew would make it on the list but I wasn't sure where, was the best movie I've seen his year, Greg Mottola's coming-of-age/the-summer-that-changed-everything movie Adventureland. Since I've written about it twice previously, I'll just repost some of my thoughts.

Adventureland is the most wonderfully realized, delicately crafted, and emotionally affecting movie about young people that I've ever seen. It captures a moment in time that didn't even exist in my life, yet I connect to it so deeply I almost can't explain it.

There's not a single moment in the movie that rings false to me, and so many moments that transcend the maligned "young adult/teen" genre. Of course, it's not about "teens", it's about people just out of college realizing that their studies in Comparative Literature or Russian and Slavic Languages don't mean much in the real world. It's also about those fragile feelings of first love, real friendship, jealousy, and taking the wrong advice because you don't know any better yet. More than anything really, it's the story of first love. But because everything is so carefully constructed, capturing life, the feeling of real life, it's about much more than that simple genre description might allude to. Sure, it's not documentary-esque real life, it's idealized and nostalgic, but in the best way possible.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#9

This spot goes to my favorite living directors masterpiece of the decade, Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, from 2004. From what I've read, the movie is 2 hours and 50 minutes long, but it has flown by for me the many times I have watched it. Newest Scorsese favorite Leonardo DiCaprio proves yet again what a versatile actor he can be in the right circumstances. His take on legendary billionaire Howard Hughes is fascinating in the small details he adds into his performance. His striking blue eyes bouncing between paranoid fear and defiant rebeliousness, which serves the movie well since Hughes often feels he has to prove himself to the unbelieving people he comes into contact with, people like Alan Alda's smarmy Sen. Brewster, Alec Baldwin's Pan Am exec Juan Trippe, or even the other people in Hollywood who say that he's mad to try making his movies in the unconventional way in which he chooses to make them in. The ending may not work as well if we weren't familiar with what Hughes ended up being, a reclusive germophobe who spent his final years in a hotel room overlooking Las Vegas. It's wonderfully tragic (from a dramatic standpoint) to see Hughes rise above his illness and accomplish his greatest achievement, only to allow his demons to take a final hold of him, while he's looking hopefully to the future. An ending worthy of Shakespeare, and a testament to what an amazing decade it has been for moviegoers that this masterpiece is only my #9.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-#10

Ok, so now on to the list itself, starting with #10 on my list of the best 10 movies of the past 10 years:

I wrote about writer/director Martin McDonagh's debut film In Bruges a while ago, and although I only had it as my #3 movie of last year, every time I watch it, it grows on me. Colin Farrell's effortlessly heartbreaking yet hysterical performance as the endearing naughty boy Ray becomes that much more impressive. Brendan Gleeson's shows that many more layers to his character, the wonderfully paternal Ken. And even Ralph Fiennes' deliriously over-the-top mob boss becomes more of a joy to watch, as well as making such a deeper impact on a dramatic level. McDonagh's screenplay shows off his roots on the stage (where he's considered one of Ireland's top playwrights) in its use of a small number of locations and characters, and his attention to the detail of his dialog. In what may be the movie's best scene (although it's really too tough to pick just one), a simple piece of dialog shifts the entire mood of the film. Not in many movies would a line like "Good. Because he wasn't a bad kid, was he?" change the course of the movie, but the line is loaded with meaning where it's placed in the screenplay, and delivered with such brilliance, it has a remarkable impact. And that's without thinking about the scene being a masterfully subtle 6 1/2 minute long single take.

McDonagh should also be commended for his ability to mix the profane with the spiritual, violence with the magical, and most simply (yet remarkably) the comedy with the drama. In Bruges would be a tremendous piece of work for any filmmaker, but the fact that it's McDonagh's first makes it all the more impressive. Obviously it made enough of an impact on me to warrant the #10 spot on my decade ending list.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

My top ten movies of the decade-Jury Prize

So it's nearly that time, where we close out the opening ten years of the two thousands. Naturally, list maker that I am, this leads me to make a list of the ten best movies of the past ten years. So as to give each one a bit more attention, rather than just having it be a title on a list, I've decided to put each one as its own post. So here we go with the the first piece:

The "Jury Prize" is handed out at many film festivals as an award the judges would like to give a movie that they admire a great deal, but not enough to give it the top prize. The top prize in this case, of course, is my top ten. So this is basically an 11th place. And here is my Jury Prize winner.

I first discovered Hou Hsiao-Hsien's brilliant Three Times back in May and was bowled over by it. Hou's style, slow paced, gorgeously filmed, but not distractingly so, mesmerized me. I was also taken by the incredible beauty of lead actress Qi Shu. But mostly, I just flat out loved the first of the three times that Hou gives us. I think the opening section, the simplest of the three segments, is one of the 3 or 5 greatest pieces of filmmaking I've ever seen. Its simplicity gets right to the heart of the love story, and I've never felt such joy just watching two people hold hands.

Sadly, the next two sections don't live up to the first (honestly, how could they?). The second segment is at least interesting from the point of how different it is. It's filmed like a silent movie, complete with title cards for dialog, using the same actors from the first section to play out a love story of a different sort. It has a tremendous score, and is unbelievably beautiful to look at, but doesn't have the emotional resonance of the first section. To be fair, it's not meant to, since Hou isn't just repeating the same love story in different times, but it doesn't work as wonderfully as the first. The final section is the only one set in modern times, and is by far the weakest. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it is not a good piece of drama and keeps the movie as a whole from unencumbered greatness.

So I felt a need to include Three Times, since it has one of my favorite pieces of cinema (and that piece is about 40 minutes long, so it's not just a snippet of the movie or anything) but didn't feel like it deserved inclusion in the top ten itself. So here it is with the Jury Prize. The rest of the top ten will be honored over the next week or two, as I get time to write the little pieces I feel they deserve. I will come back and include pictures when I figure out how to do that on my girlfriends laptop.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Familiarity breeds contempt, or affection?

I recently have been watching some movies by one of my favorite filmmakers, Woody Allen. I saw my first film of his, Sweet and Lowdown, in probably 2000 or 2001 and really liked it. Over the years, as I've become more familiar with Allen's films, and having seen this particular movie multiple times, I find myself generally enjoying Allen's movies more now than I did when I first exposed myself to them. Now when I watch Sweet and Lowdown, I don't just marvel at the masterful performances from Sean Penn and Samantha Morton, but at Allen's camerawork, his sharp as ever writing, and his general style of directing a movie. I find that my familiarity with his work not only doesn't make his repeated stylistic tendencies tiresome, but sort of endearing. Even when a particular movie isn't up to the highest standard that Allen has set, seeing some of his work just fills me with a certain comfortability of viewing that is very nice.

Allen isn't the only filmmaker of which this is true. Going through the oeuvres of Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, Buster Keaton or anyone of that status, I find my familiarity with their work to actually help in my enjoyment of them. I can sit back and think "Ah, ok, here's Scorsese's big tracking shot" or "Hey, there's Hitchcock's MacGuffin" and so on. The phrase familiarity breeds contempt I find to be completely untrue in this situation. Perhaps it's the fact that all of those filmmakers have those signature moves (or whatever you'd like to refer to them as) while making movies that I enjoy, which turns what could be contempt into affection. Regardless, this is a subject I've been thinking about lately.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Paranormal Activity

First time director Oren Peli has crafted a truly worthwhile horror movie with Paranormal Activity. It's a great horror movie because it has nothing to do with what most of today's horror movies do. It has no gore, only one real jump scare (and a tremendous one at that), no ingenious killer who sets traps far too complicated to actually work, etc. It's a ghost story... sort of. It concerns itself with Katie and Micah, a couple who're experiencing a sort of haunting. A haunting of what, they're not immediately sure. Katie has experienced such things occasionally since she was a young girl, but at many different locations. So they know it's not a haunted house. They're told by a kind psychic that Katie isn't being followed by a ghost, but by a demon, and he recommends they call in a demonologist, since he himself won't be able to help (he only deals with ghosts). Stranger and stranger things begin happening, as Katie, and eventually Micah, begin feeling a desperate helplessness about the experiences.

The thing that works so well about the movie is that it has no interest in showing off its special effects to show how grossly shocking a killing is. This is certainly not the geek show that modern horror has become. On a reported budget of only $15,000, it has almost no effects to speak of anyway. What it does have are chills, unsettling imagery, and tension galore. Peli has clearly learned the age old lesson that it is much more effective to make people anticipate something happening than actually show it happening. We watch the screen with eyes focused, trying to see something appear. We watch the hallway, the light on the door, the couple sleeping benignly on the bed. Sometimes, things that go bump in the night, just go bump in the night, which ratchets up the tension as we await the inevitable escalation of events.

Paranormal Activity is shot like a home movie. The storytelling technique used is that of Micah (Micah Sloat) filming everything he can after buying an expensive video camera that he hopes to use to capture footage of the demonic manifestations. Katie (Katie Featherston), the one who's actually haunted, isn't so keen on the idea, as she gets no adrenaline rush, nor any perverse pleasure from the torment. Often we see Katie frustrated with Micah's insistence on the camera, while Micah thinks it's their once in a lifetime opportunity to capture evidence of something extraordinary. Although the movie isn't without its humor, as Micah goes back to grab the camera when Katie yells in the other room (we hear her asking "Did you go back to get the camera?" as he looks down at a spider occupying their bathroom floor). As well as Micah always trying to "get extra curricular" with the camera in the bedroom.

When things start going more than just "bump" in the night, the movie works because we've had these characters and this situation so pumped full of suspense, without a payoff. It's really superb filmmaking, and honestly the use of sound is the best I've seen (heard?) in a movie this year. The sound design takes the movie to such a higher level of impressiveness than it would've been at otherwise. The movie overall is the best fright movie I've seen in a long time. One that is actually frightening because it's trying to give us the creeps, not just make us jump, or gross us out with more elaborate killings than the last movie. There's a moment near the end that I thought would've been a perfect ending, and when the movie kept going I was a bit disappointed, thinking it was going to ruin what had been so great. I'm glad it kept going, as the ending it did have was just as wonderful. Especially for those, like myself, that have been turned off by horror movies for a long time, I can't recommend this one enough. Because it's not a "horror movie", it's a "scary movie", if you get my meaning.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

American writer/artist Maurice Sendak wrote his signature children's book Where the Wild Things Are in 1963. Since then many people have wanted to make a movie of the book but had had so much trouble with it that it'd been deemed by most, "unfilmable". Not surprising, considering that the book only contains something like nine or ten sentences. But its imagery is so striking that many people, like me, remember the what the Wild Things look like, even if we haven't read the book in 20 or so years. Well, brilliantly odd director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.) has directed an adaptation of the succinct classic into an hour and a half long film combining live action actors, animatronics, and CGI.

The story, like that in the book, involves a young boy (maybe 10 or 12 years old) named Max, who is sent to bed without supper for "making mischief". But he escapes to his imagination, a magical world where fearsome monsters roam. He becomes their King (hey, it is his world after all) and they dance and play before he becomes homesick and returns to the real world, where his supper is waiting on him, still warm.

Apparently, Jonze went several months in the casting process before finding young Max Records to play Max. It's good that he waited, because the kid is terrific. In the opening sequence, Max builds an igloo out of piled up snow, treating it like a fort, he attacks his older sister and her friends with snowballs as they're about to go out. They laughingly join in, but leave after one of them jumps on top of the igloo (with Max still in it), crushing it and leaving Max snow covered and crying. Max resents that his teenaged sister didn't stand up for him, or comfort him, or anything like that. Leaving him lonely and upset. He takes his anger and frustration out on her room, smashing things and leaving copious amounts of snow to melt all over. He apologizes when his mom gets home, and they go about cleaning up the mess. But when he rebels again later that night (when his mom's boyfriend is over), he rebels a bit too much and is sent to his room. This sequence is done with such loving detail to the feelings of childhood that I was prepared for true greatness from the rest of the movie. Jonze and Records are able to bring out such hurt and sadness out of Max and his lonely life (a loving single mom who is stretched a bit too thin to give him the constant attention he needs, a disinterested sister, seemingly no friends). We understand completely Max's need to get away, and escape to his imagination. Maybe having been the younger brother who got left out of things makes me connect to this a bit more than some people might, I often escaped to my imagination at that age. Regrettably, the movie gets both more and less impressive once Max arrives in his untamed imaginary world.

The Wild Things themselves are quite impressive. A wonderful voice cast consisting of James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose, and Forest Whitaker, really help bring these strange characters to life. They're aided in this by a wonderful mix of people in giant Wild Thing suits, with CGI faces (and occasionally aided in their movements as well). The CGI was, I thought, flawless. It's a stunning technical achievement for the special effects crew and Jonze's ability to always make the characters seem like they're in the same plane of existence as our live action hero. Not for a second did I think of them as anything but their characters, it was tremendously well done. Jonze was also assisted in the movie by his regular cinematographer Lance Acord, who contributes some truly incredible photography. It's beautifully filmed in such a way to bring out the nostalgic feelings of childhood, but dark enough to not let us forget about the scares we had as children too.

Sadly, I just lost interest in the story about two-thirds of the way through. It really does feel like there just wasn't enough story to justify the runtime of a feature length movie. Jonze slows down the pacing, thankfully, instead of trying to hype things up for the kids in the audience. But still, I just wasn't as emotionally involved in the land of the Wild Things as I was in the real world. It could be because this wasn't the type of imaginary world I escaped to as a child, or because I'm no longer a child who escapes away to my imagination, but I don't think so. There are plenty of childrens movies that allow me to empathize and escape to a different world with the characters. I just think that it wasn't affecting enough in its extended story to grab me. Still, so much of the movie is extraordinary that I can't help but recommend it, despite its flaws. Lack of story is a big flaw, but the rest of the movie makes up for it overall. A classic childrens book has been made into a good movie, even if I don't think it will make people forget about the book through the years. We'll come back to it more often than we'll come back to the movie, but that's not such a bad thing, is it?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Whip It-the most fun I've had at the movies this year

Drew Barrymore comes from one of the most prestigious acting families Hollywood has ever known. She began acting at the ripe old age of 5, and came to national attention at 7, when she was picked by her future godfather Steven Spielberg to be one of the young stars of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. After rebelling against anything anyone expected of her throughout her teens and early twenties, she added the title of Producer to her resume at 24, taking an extra added amount of control over her career. It took her ten years to also add the title of Director to her ever more impressive resume, and it was worth the wait.

Whip It is one of those movies that feels so familiar because it skirts near many cliches, while side stepping them just enough to not feel like we've seen this movie a hundred times before. It stars Juno's Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender, a Texas teenager who regularly competes in beauty pageants at the behest of her pushy but loving mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden, I think the only real Texan in the cast). While in a head shop trying to get her mom to buy her a pair of boots she likes, Bliss sees a group of tattooed girls on roller skates handing out flyers. She grabs one and finds out that they're roller derby girls promoting an upcoming game. So she convinces her best friend Pash (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) to go with her to Austin to check it out. There, she sees the tough, up-tempo game and is immediately hooked. After the game, she meets one of the girls, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), who tells her she should come to the open tryouts and see if she wants to join up. Although she's little, Bliss turns out to be one of the fastest girls on skates, so the team happily asks her to join. All the girls have a kind of stage name that they go by, with names like Smashly Simpson, Rosa Sparks, and Bloody Holly. Bliss is re-christened Babe Ruthless, and begins her love affair with the roller derby, and (of course) comes-of-age by the end of the movie.

There's also a short, but sweet, little love story with a guitar player named Oliver. But really, the relationship that gets the most attention, deservedly, is that of Bliss and her parents. Bliss rebels against the beauty pageant mentality that she feels her mom has been pushing on her, and turns to Maggie Mayhem when she isn't really able to talk to her father (Daniel Stern, where has he been?) who actually would love to talk to his daughter about her life. Maggie becomes a kind of mentor to young Bliss, and Kristen Wiig proves that she's not only one of the funniest members of the Saturday Night Live cast, or a comedic scene stealer in movies like Adventureland and Walk Hard, but also a talented dramatic actress. But she isn't the only one who provides a realistic and sympathetic adult. Barrymore and writer Shauna Cross (adapting her own book, Derby Girl) don't make Brooke into the domineering stage mom that Bliss feels like she is. And Daniel Stern gives a wonderful take on the supportive dad archetype, a guy who unconditionally loves his daughter, understands what she's going through finding a sport that she loves (as Texas football is for him), but is still believable as an angry and concerned parent when Bliss doesn't come home one night.

Drew Barrymore shows none of the amateurish signs that often pop up in a directorial debut. There are no awkward moments with the actors, no scenes that should've been cut short, and she handles the drama and comedy with equal aplomb. She also makes roller derby exciting, while explaining enough of the rules to let us know what's going on. The derby scenes are exciting, and in the grand tradition of sports movies, it even ends with a "Big Game". Another thing that Barrymore thankfully doesn't do is villainize anyone, even the closest thing we have to a villain, Juliette Lewis's Iron Maven and her rival team. It's very nice to see such command of tone from a director, and enough intelligence to side step full-on cliches. Barrymore has now become an official triple-threat, actor/producer/director. She's made a terrific directorial debut, one of the best movies of the year, and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Informant!

In Steven Soderbergh's new movie The Informant!, based on a true story, Matt Damon gives one of the years best performances as a man seemingly in love with self delusion. It starts around 1992, and Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a high level executive with Archer Daniels Midland, a Fortune 500 company. He makes up a lie to cover his ass with the higher ups, and the lie ends up bringing in the FBI, whom he then confesses to about an international billion dollar price fixing scheme that ADM is a part of. He almost casually tells them that the initial thing that brought them there is a lie, but it doesn't matter because screwing the people of the world out of billions of dollars is a bigger deal, right? Absolutely Mark! Of course, the FBI doesn't take this position on every part of Mark's life, but that's getting ahead of myself. Whitacre begins seeing himself as a sort of white knight protecting the public interest, or as he christens himself "0014" (because "I'm twice as smart as 007"), while the FBI agents start to view him as an annoyingly necessary evil in building their case.

Soderbergh, writer Scott Burns, and Damon do something here I've never quite seen before. As a kind of way to aid in showing us Mark's delusion, they supply us with internal thoughts which are typically completely unrelated to the action currently happening. After having a meeting with a friend about some embezzlement schemes, we hear Mark's thoughts of "I like the idea of an indoor pool. Swimming year round. I'd like the fog coming off of it in the winter. Very mysterious, that fog." The comedic brilliance of Damon's performance probably doesn't come through in that line if you haven't seen it, but his timing is extraordinary. Damon is a really underrated actor (check out his Tom Ripley, it's pretty frightening), but shines brightly here. We can often see the compulsive lying sections of the brain take effect by watching his eyes, and his line delivery almost never failed to get a laugh from me.

The movie isn't a straight ahead comedy, but that's because it isn't really a straight ahead anything. It has some dramatic elements, but isn't really a drama. Has more than a few FBI agents, including the main one played by Scott Bakula (who is terrific, where the hell has he been?), but it's definitely not a cop movie. Same for the number of lawyers, but it's not a "legal" movie. Whatever you want to classify it as, it's Soderbergh's most fun and entertaining movie since Ocean's 11, or maybe even his masterpiece Out of Sight. Amazingly as well, Soderbergh handles things in such a way that even with the endless stream of cameos in the second half, nothing ever feels out of place.

I don't know about how true to life the events depicted are, but I never really care about that. I just know that The Informant! is a lot of fun, mostly because of Matt Damon's wonderful performance. I would highly recommend going to see this, and I actually wouldn't mind seeing it much while I wait for a couple of weeks from now when some other good movies should be coming out.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Apartment

Sometimes a movie aquires the title of "classic" over the years despite not being that great. It's just that nobody wants to acknowledge that they don't think it's worthy of the title and go against the masses. Billy Wilder's The Apartment is not that movie. This is, without a doubt, one of the great American movies ever made. It stars one of our greatest actors, Jack Lemmon, in quite possibly his greatest performance. A very young, and very beautiful, Shirley MacLaine, also giving a terrific performance. And Fred MacMurray giving us one of the great "boss" roles of all time. It is also, surprisingly to me, a wonderfully humane portrait of these three lonely people.

What's fascinating about it is that these three people are lonely in three different ways. MacMurray is lonely because he has spent years in an unhappy marriage, having affairs with whatever pretty young woman would have him. MacLaine is lonely because she keeps falling in love with the wrong guys, who promptly reject her once she fully commits to them. And Lemmon is lonely because, well, he doesn't have anyone to care about or to care about him. He is ambitious, and lends his apartment to higher ups in his company, so they can have a nice place to take their girlfriends to (if they can get away from their wives long enough) that's cheaper than a hotel room. But he keeps his sense of humor about him, and flirts with MacLaine's elevator operator whenever he can. These personal relationships begin to become entangled with one another, and it's a credit to the script (by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, for which they won one of the films five Oscars) that it's not done too melodramatically, but isn't played strictly for laughs either. It's a remarkably efficient in its script and in Wilder's direction. Despite running slightly over 2 hours, the movie speeds by without ever seeming to. It actually plays quite laid back, but there's just always something going on, character or story-wise, that we're never bored for a second.

Wilder and Diamond had just come off of making the classic Some Like it Hot, and wanted to work with Jack Lemmon again, so he was cast in this movie. Lemmon has long been one of my favorite actors, but I think he shines more here than he ever really did. He shows us so many different sides of C.C. Baxter that although I was always aware I was watching Jack Lemmon, I also felt like the character I was watching was real. Lemmon had an ease of presence on screen that hasn't ever really been duplicated. He also had eyes that were some of the most expressive we've ever seen in an actor, and I felt his loneliness because he expressed so much of it simply through those eyes and his body language. When he actually comes right out and says that he never realized what a lonely man he was until he fell for MacLaine's character, we get a sense that he really didn't ever realize it, and is probably verbalizing it for the first time. But because of Lemmon's grace onscreen, and his impeccable comedic timing, the character (and therefore the movie) never gets bogged down in the loneliness. It's just part of who he is.

It's very refreshing when you watch a "classic" for the first time and it not only doesn't disappoint, but makes the term "classic" seem insufficient. Although The Apartment will be 50 years old next year, it doesn't feel dated or out of touch. It could've been made this year and it would still have the same impact on me. The way it deals with its characters allows it to stay relevant, because it's about people, and people will always be relevant. Loneliness is a surprisingly universal emotion, and one rarely explored in this manner. As such, this movie will never lose its ability to connect with people. The Apartment is one of the very best movies I've ever seen, and I can't recommend it enough.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

9-a brilliant disappointment

"We had such potential. Such promise. But we squandered our gifts. And so, 9, I am creating you. Our world is ending. Life must go on."

Shane Acker made an animated short film called 9 in 2005. It was nominated for an Oscar (for Best Animated Short Film), and allowed him to expand on it into his 2009 feature length movie, also simply titled 9. It's about these tiny little rag doll creatures in a post apocalyptic city trying to figure out what they are, why they're there, and how to survive "the Cat", a robot animal seemingly programmed only to destroy anything that moves. Into this world awakens 9 (Elijah Wood) whom we see being created and awakening during the brilliant opening sequence. 9 quickly crosses paths with 2 (Martin Landau), who saves him from The Cat, gives him a voicebox, and temporarily mentors him through the world. Eventually 9 meets up with some of the others like him, the fearful leader of the community 1 (Christopher Plummer), the kind hearted 5 (John C. Reilly), obsessive 6 (Crispin Glover), and rebellious warrior 7 (Jennifer Connelly). They soon have to band together to outwit "The Beast", an newly awakened machine which can create many smaller machines, all for the purpose of destruction.

The design of the movie is endlessly fascinating. An unnamed city that our tiny heroes crawl around in, leading to a number of beautiful scenes and shots. The creation of the characters is wonderfully detailed, as we can even see the threads in the fabric that 9 is made from. I love the little things like that that Acker and his animators throw in. Just something like the fastener for the zipper that holds 9 together bouncing around as he moves, with a slight tink every time it does. The sound design is really extraordinary in creating the atmosphere for this world. Little details like the tink of the zipper are all over this movie. The design of "The Beast" is less interesting, since it's just kind of a big red light surrounded by all kinds of little details that we don't really care about.

The voice cast is top notch. With veterans like Landau and Plummer turning in quality work, while Wood is the perfect fit for 9, since the character is much like Wood's Frodo Baggins in his mixture of innocence and intelligent resolve. John C. Reilly is also a happy surprise as 5, lending the character the exact amount of curious smarts, and genuine kindness that he needs. Jennifer Connelly is good, if unremarkable, as 7.

I guess I'll now get to the disappoinment I felt. The opening minutes of the movie (really until 9 gets a voice) are absolutely extraordinary at putting us into a world that we've not really ever seen before. I felt like I was watching something new, and got excited for where the movie was going to take me. But I soon found out that the movie (much like the similarly titled District 9 a few weeks ago) uses its brilliant setup as a framing device for nothing more than an action movie. Also like District 9, the action is terrifically done. But with such dazzling opening moments, I wanted it to be more than just an action movie. It tries in its final stretch to bring itself more meaning, which I liked, but still felt disappointed about overall.

It has its moments, and it is periodically stunning, but I think it could've been a transcendent movie if it had realized the promise of those first few minutes (which are very close to the entire contents of the short film). I most certainly recommend people see it, because it is absolutely a good movie, but I felt it could've been so much more. I do find it hysterical that there were many parents at the screening I went to who had brought their young children to a PG-13 movie that had been advertised as darker than usual (I believe one of the marketing taglines has been "This isn't your little brothers animated movie") and sometimes complaining about the darkness (beheadings, crushings, and other rag doll-on-robot violence) that is in the movie. It reminded me of offended parents walking their kids out of the "new Christmas movie" they went to see, Bad Santa, a proudly R-rated movie that they had obviously ignored the rating for.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jackie Brown-before Tarantino was TARANTINO

After recently checking out his newest, intermittently brilliant but ultimately just "good", movie Inglourious Basterd's, I decided to revisit the Quentin Tarantino movie I hadn't seen in the longest time and had been meaning to re-watch. Jackie Brown was Tarantino's third time in the director's chair, and he would have seemed to become a more mature and in control filmmaker. It has an artistic consistency and ease of tone that even Pulp Fiction doesn't have. Although I think much of that tone is due to Tarantino's long time debt to Elmore Leonard, the author whose book Rum Punch this movie is based on. Tarantino understands Leonard's work, and captures perfectly his feeling and attitude and atmosphere and most particularly his characters. The movie is also blessed by having what is probably Tarantino's best cast. Each and every actor is wonderful in their part, and perfectly suited to them. But honestly what I think the movie benefits most from is Tarantino's ability to not get in the way of the story by having to show off what a great director he is. Sadly, this was the last time he did this, as the Kill Bill movies, Death Proof, and Basterd's are all awash in a director wanting you to know he's directing a movie.

That's not to say that there are no instances of Tarantino showing off his directorial abilities here. That's also not to say that Tarantino showing off his directorial abilities is a bad thing, especially since I think he's a better director than he is a writer (where he normally gets the most credit). It's just that the directorial flairs in Jackie Brown all feel organic, feeling more like they belong than like they were forced in. The trunk shot, the extreme feet close-up, the name checking of movies and music, the overwritten dialog, even the texts overlays informing us of times and places, everything fits, is more subtle, and flows naturally. Tarantino just generally seems less impressed (though not un-impressed) with himself in Jackie Brown.

But back to that cast. Pam Grier obviously had a longtime fan in QT. He'd grown up watching and loving the blaxploitation movies she made her name on. What she hadn't ever had though was a part (or a movie) as good as Jackie Brown. And boy does she take advantage, and look great doing it. She actually comes off as a real person, and not just a Tarantino character. She imbues Jackie with an intelligence, resolve, and humor so that we can't help but be on her side. Same goes for Robert Forster as Max. They seem like actual people, and we care about them like we never care for any other characters in any other Tarantino movie. More like a character is Samuel L. Jackson's terrific performance as Ordell, proving again that he's the only actor that can make Tarantino's dialog work for him every single time. I also want to point out how terrific I think Bridget Fonda is as the maybe not so airheaded Melanie, and that this was the last great performance from Robert De Niro. He's hysterical, sad, and occasionally kinda frightening.

So after my re-watch, I would say that Jackie Brown is firmly Tarantino's second best movie. I think it's more consistent than Pulp Fiction, but I don't think the highs are quite as high. People should see it (or revisit it) because the actors are outstanding, and it reminds us of what kind of brilliance Tarantino can give us when he's truly on top of his game. And although his movies are often labled as "too violent" or "too profane", and Jackie Brown certainly does have violence and profanity in it, it's more tastefully done and palatable to most people than in any of his other work. It's kind of the Tarantino movie for people who don't like Tarantino movies.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I wrote in April, when I first saw it, that Adventureland was a rare movie. I wrote that it was so good that I sat in my seat hoping it didn't screw it up, and it didn't. Well, Adventureland came out on DVD this week, so I scooped it up and re-watched it. One thing I didn't realize the first time I watched it was that I wasn't just watching the best movie of the year, I was watching one of the great movies of the decade. Adventureland is the most wonderfully realized, delicately crafted, and emotionally affecting movie about young people that I've ever seen. It captures a moment in time that didn't even exist in my life, yet I connect to it so deeply I almost can't explain it.

There's not a single moment in the movie that rings false to me, and so many moments that transcend the maligned "young adult/teen" genre. Of course, it's not about "teens", it's about people just out of college realizing that their studies in Comparative Literature or Russian and Slavic Languages don't mean much in the real world. It's also about those fragile feelings of first love, real friendship, jealousy, and taking the wrong advice because you don't know any better yet. More than anything really, it's the first love story. But because everything is so carefully constructed, capturing life, the feeling of real life, it's about much more than that simple genre description might allude to. Sure, it's not documentary-esque real life, it's idealized and nostalgic, but in the best way possible. If this doesn't end up as my #1 movie of the year, I will be greatly, greatly surprised.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hayao Miyazaki

I wrote about Hayao Miyazaki (pronounced Hi-ow Me-a-zah-ki) back in December of last year, when I first started discovering his movies, which had been recommended to me for years. I had thankfully started with his masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro, and eventually went through his entire catalog. I recently saw his new film Ponyo, which he has said will be his last (although he's said that before). While on the lower part of my favorites list of Miyazaki's, Ponyo still had some of Miyazaki's trademarks, a fractured family of some sort, a young protaganist, a strong ecological message, and a story full of magic both good and evil.

But it made me think that I should go back and briefly review my feelings towards Miyazaki, since I hadn't done so since first discovering the 68-year-old masters work. Mostly hand animated, always a large chunk done by the man himself, Miyazaki's movies are endlessly fascinating to me. So this is my list of his movies I've seen, in preferred order, I've also decided to give ratings out of 4 stars to them, so you can see how highly I think of the mans work:

1. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind-1984-4 stars

While it has some major flaws, notably the parts of Joe Hisaishi's score that echo Nintendo games, Nausicaa is Miyazaki's greatest achievement. It encompasses all of his trademarks beautifully, and Nausicaa is the young female protagonist all the subsequent Miyazaki female heroes are measured against. The tremendous climax of the movie having one of my favorite scenes in his catalog, in the massive destruction caused by the "God Warrior". A terrifically animated epic that has topped my Miyazaki list since I first saw it.

2. My Neighbor Totoro-1988-4 stars

No need to re-review this one, as my feelings haven't changed on it since first viewing. Well, they may have, but it's been a strengthening. It's brilliant, and the movie I would start others on if they were looking to get into Miyazaki's work.

3. Spirited Away-2001-4 stars
The movie for which "Academy Award Winner" was attached to his name (for Best Animated Feature), Spirited Away is Miyazaki's most overflowingly magical experience. It's interesting in that the lead doesn't start out as the plucky, intelligent, independent young girl that most Miyazaki heroes are, but it's fun to watch her grow into that position as the spellbinding tale goes on.

4. Castle in the Sky-1986-3.5 stars
Probably my favorite example of one of Miyazaki's other recurring themes, flight. There are dozens of incredible sequences of flying in this action extravaganza. One of his most straight-forward and accessible adventure tales, I think. The sequence of the robot's destruction of the castle is one of the most memorable in the Miyazaki's catalog. It's frighteningly well done, and truly a joy to watch. Also, probably the earliest example of some of the wonderfully poetic images Miyazaki gives us during his movies. The early morning scene showing the fog covered mountain village still sticks in my mind, as does the Castle in the Sky itself.

5. Princess Mononoke-1997-3.5 stars

This one is a bit lower than it is on many peoples lists. I like it quite a bit, and it's Miyazaki's most epic movie, without question. But it just didn't resonate with me as much as it did some. I've been meaning to revisit it, because there was so much I loved about it. The demon battle that opens the movie is one of my favorites of the many action sequences in his movies. I also liked the complexity of characters, as we're rarely quite sure which side everyone is on (including the titular Princess). I think this might have something to do with my feelings, it's a bit harder to crack than his other movies.

6. The Castle of Cagliostro-1979-3.5 stars
Miyazaki's feature length entry into the long running Lupin III series is a terrific little piece of fluff action in the vein of an Indiana Jones style tribute to 1940's and 50's advenure serials. The only version I was able to see was a pretty poorly dubbed version (the only dubbed version of a Miyazaki movie I'd seen until Ponyo's surprisingly good dub), and was only able to see it on Netflix's streaming video. Still, it was fun for what it was, although it's not exactly Miyazaki shooting for the stars or anything.

7. Howl's Moving Castle-2004-3 stars

A fun trip into a strange world, Howl's Moving Castle was the last time Miyazaki said his newest movie would be his last. It's about wizards and curses and apocalyptic visions and such things. Most memorably, it's got the moving castle of the title. A wonderous visual invention of endless fascination for me, it's one of Miyazaki's greatest creations, even if the movie itself is not one of his best.

8. Ponyo-2009 (though technically came out in 2008, just not here)-3 stars
His most simplistic tale, his most kiddy friendly. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but since complexity of character is nearly always one of Miyazaki's strengths, it's a bit disappointing. Some of the visuals are exquisite, and the star studded dub (including Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin and others) that my girlfriend and I saw in the theater was surprisingly good, especially Tina Fey as the mom. But overall, the story just wasn't as interesting as some of his others.

9. Porco Rosso-1992-3 stars

I was really looking forward to Porco Rosso, since I knew it was about a pilot who's been magically cursed to have the face of a pig, and I always loved the flying scenes in Miyazaki's movies. I also had heard it was kind of his tribute to the 1940's movies. Fedoras, cigarettes, dames, etc. And while it has one of Miyazaki's most beautifully poetic sequences, a flying above the clouds, it's still one of his lesser efforts.

10. Kiki's Delivery Service-1989-3 stars
This was the first Miyazaki movie I ever heard of, seeing it at the video store when I was a kid. It's a charming story, with some sweet characters, Kiki and her cat being the most obvious, but I found the climax of the movie to be unsatisfying. It's not a waste of time, neither is Porco Rosso, they're both good movies. But I would really only say these last 3 are essential if you're a Miyazaki nut like myself.

So even on what I may think of, or talk about, as a lesser Miyazaki movie, I've still liked all 10 movies that I've seen. It's remarkable consistency. I can't think of another director that I've seen this many movies from and liked them all. Maybe Kurosawa or Scorsese, but even then, I've liked some of their movies less than I've liked the "lesser" Miyazaki's. So here's a whole (quite long, I guess) post dedicated to one of my favorite directors of all time, a true genius of cinema. Hayao Miyazaki.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Diane Birch-a new musical discovery

I first heard the name Diane Birch on Tuesday morning, when the video for her single "Nothing but a Miracle" came on VH1 as I was getting dressed for work. I often do this in the mornings, when VH1 and MTV actually play music, and VH1 typically has the better selection of artists (that's where I heard Corinne Baily Rae and Iron & Wine for the first time as well, among many others). I didn't recognize the name, obviously, and heard the sounds of what I thought was gonna be some new white girl trying to be an R&B singer, but at least with a cool voice (inviting, but with a bit of edge to it). Then the chorus kicked in and I realized I was listening to a very special Gospel/Soul/Pop kind of artist. Very subtle, yet impressive, piano work. Killer backing vocals (which I would later find out were all provided by her), and a melody and rhythm that I immediately couldn't get out of my head. So I decided to do what I always do when I find a new artist, I check their Wikipedia page to find out about them, and their music. Imagine my surprise when there was no Wikipedia page for Diane Birch. So I went to iTunes and looked her up, to make sure I got the name right, and found out that her album came out months ago, and I was just hearing about her now.

So although I didn't have the time to wait for it before I had to leave for work, I immediately downloaded her album. When I got home, I turned it on and was blown away by this gorgeous voice and these surprisingly strong songs. I found out that the same production team was behind Joss Stone's first two albums, but I knew that Stone isn't a musician or much of a songwriter, so I wanted to figure out whether Diane Birch was just a singer, or a more complete artist. Although you see her play a bit of piano in the video, you never know. Seeing that the iTunes download came with a digital booklet (an electronic version of the CD insert), I looked at it and saw "Music and Lyrics by Diane Birch", which made me very happy. So shortly, I began a Google search to learn as much about her as possible.

Although born in Michigan, she moved all over the world with her South African born parents. Her dad was a pastor who moved the family all over the world until finally settling back in the States while Diane was a teenager. She had started playing piano when she was 7, intuitively using her ear to mimic any sort of melody she heard. She heard essentially no popular American music until returning as a teen, so she taught herself by using classical music, as well as church hymns and the like. She was eventually introduced to the past 75 or so years of American music by her friends, and she soaked it all up. She didn't start singing until much later, only after the urging of her friends. Out popped her incredibly warm and powerful voice, and it didn't take long before she attracted a lot of notice. At one point even intriguing a certain audience member enough that he asked her to come over to his house and jam with his band. The audience member was Prince. Naturally, Birch went and jammed with him (as many of us musicians have dreamed of doing).

Listening to her album, which she called Bible Belt, somewhat in tribute to her dad, it's amazing that a young singer would come onto the scene with such a richly developed sound. I can listen to the whole album, front to back, and not really have any big complaints. A couple of the songs are a minute or two too long, but that's true of most albums. I especially like rhythmically upbeat "Valentino", the melancholy closer "Magic View", and the opener "Fire Escape", which she's said is the take that they recorded just so she could teach the band the song, since they'd never played it before. It was so good, they just put that take on the album. The whole album is timeless in a way that you rarely see. It sounds old, but not really like anybody you've heard. Her delivery of the material feels new, her voice is warm and inviting, and the material itself is so strong that I think it has a very wide ranging appeal. Birch is definitely an artist I'm going to be looking out for, and now I'll have this entry to prove that I was listening to her before she even had a damn Wikipedia page.

Here's a link to the song that made me sit up and take notice of her, "Nothing but a Miracle"

Sunday, August 9, 2009

500 Days of Summer

"This is a boy meets girl story. It is not a love story."

So the narrator informs us near the beginning of 500 Days of Summer, a new romantic comedy. It is a romantic comedy in the sense that it is both funny, and about a romance. It is in no way your standard chick flick. In its use of split screens, a musical sequence, and the illustrations placed throughout, it actually has more in common with Annie Hall than it does with any number of Kate Hudson or Meg Ryan movies. Its two stars, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, are known in the independent film world as two of the brightest talents around, and are certainly not the type of actors you would normally see in a romantic comedy (although they've both been in one before). That, of course, is exactly why they're perfect here, and one of many reasons why this movie is so great.

The boy, Tom, meets the girl, Summer, when she becomes his bosses assistant. They work at a greeting card company, where Tom is a writer, although his real passion is for architecture. The movie actually shows off many sides of Los Angeles that I'd never seen before. It actually looks like a pretty great city, who knew? They kind of intrigue one another, and although she assures him she's not looking for anything more than casual, they begin dating and we see the ups and downs of their relationship, as both friends and lovers, throughout its 500 day course. The tagline on the poster is "Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Girl doesn't." and that's pretty accurate. Summer makes no apologies about not believing in love, or what I think, not being ready or selfless enough for love, despite Tom being a hopeless romantic who is desperately in love with her. He falls so head over heels in love that he can't help but have his world turned upside down when she says they shouldn't see each other anymore. I'm not giving anything away that doesn't happen in the first few minutes of the movie, by the way.

The movie is told out of sequence, annoyingly so to some I guess, as the couple next to me and my girlfriend audibly complained about it before leaving halfway through. But I enjoyed the way it jumped around, sometimes shifting wildly between moods, often passing hundreds of days between scenes. There's a fun graphic every time, showing us what numbered day it is, with an illustrated backdrop of L.A. giving us a clue as to the upcoming mood of the scene (sunny for happy times, darker or rainy for sad times, and so on). The story is told from Tom's point of view, Summer is mostly kept as a kind of enigma. We know why she doesn't believe in love (her parents divorce scarred her as a child), but we don't know why she does the things that she does. Which is fine, because Tom doesn't know either. She remains somewhat of a mystery to him as well. He never figures her out, and we're not sure she wants to be figured out.

The actors are really something special, with Gordon-Levitt again proving that he is much more of an actor than his days on 3rd Rock from the Sun might've hinted (although I loved him on that show too). With his performances in Brick, Stop-Loss, and especially his incendiary turn in Mysterious Skin, Gordon-Levitt has proven himself to be likely the best actor of his young generation. His work here is just as good as you would expect from him, showing the layers of Tom's pain when Summer hurts him, his understated resentment when she keeps a secret from him, and his infectious happiness when everything is going well. Deschanel, with her big gorgeous eyes, is equally adept at showing Summer's different sides, although we don't get to see as many as we do of Tom's. I love everything about both of their performances, nearly everything about the movie, and I had high expectations going in. It didn't let me down. It will definitely end up on my shortlist of the best movies of the year.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The world of film directing is one dominated by men. There are many theories as to why women still aren't as numerous in the field (deep seeded Hollywood sexism, women being generally less aggressive than men, etc.), but because there are fewer female directors, there are fewer great movies to point to to prove that women can make films just as well as men. Kathryn Bigelow has not let anything hold her back, not only being a successful director, but doing it in even more male dominated genres. Her western/horror film Near Dark has gained a large cult following, she directed the action bonanza of Point Break with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze, and also the underappreciated sci-fi movie Strange Days, with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, which in some ways was a precursor to The Matrix. Every one of her movies I've seen has had something great in it, but she'd not yet put it all together into a brilliant whole. She does exactly that in her new masterpiece The Hurt Locker, unsurprisingly set in the male dominated world of the United States Army, specifically an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit (the Army bomb squad) working in Iraq.

Bigelow has essentially just made an action movie here, with no overt talk of the politics involved in the Iraq war, and with only a little talk of the soldiers feelings about it, which essentially consists of "I hate this fucking place". Bigelow knows that politics will only divide her audience, so she ratchets up the tension by making us actually care about these characters. These guys aren't stand-ins for the directors or writers political ideal or agenda or anything like that, they're just regular guys counting down the days they have to stay alive until they can go home. There are many Hitchcockian scenes of bomb disposal, some successful, and some not. That we know Bigelow isn't afraid to kill off any of our main characters adds to the tension of many of the scenes. What also adds to the tension of the scenes is the unpredictability of Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner), the adrenaline-junkie tech guy and leader of the 3 man squad. He grates on the nerves of the by-the-book Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and just further worries the already traumatized Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). We get to see James as your traditional cocky action hero, but we also see the effect that his reckless actions have on him and his team, and Renner never makes him feel like a cliche.

The actors all around never feel like anything but real people, it's a terrific ensemble. But still, the main draw should be the unbelievable tension that Bigelow is able to extract from these situations. There are many tense sequences in the movie, and they never feel repetitive. She is always able to give them a different spin. Amazingly, even the many scenes of bomb dismantling never repeat each other. There are sequences that just can't be a reflection of the reality of an EOD unit, or what soldiers really face in Iraq, but it's always in service of making the movie better. This is a movie that I would recommend to anyone, regardless of if they say they "don't like war movies". Probably because this isn't a war movie, it's an action/thriller that happens to be set during the war. The Hurt Locker is an extraordinary film, definitely one of the best of the year.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Funny People-A comedy?

Judd Apatow has made a name for himself the past few years as the creative force in cinematic comedy, despite only actually directing two movies. His work as producer and writer has given us some of the best comedies in recent memory, and he's now back with his third directorial effort, which he also wrote and produced, the semi-autobiographical Funny People.

Apatow cast his protege Seth Rogen in the role of Ira (obviously based on himself), a struggling stand-up comic who lucks into writing jokes for lowbrow comedy superstar George Simmons, Ira's comedic hero, and a character obviously based on the career of Adam Sandler. Not coincidental then perhaps, that George is played by Adam Sandler. But away from the big screen, George is a verbally abusive, depressed guy who kinda keeps Ira around as his de-facto friend, seemingly his only friend. George has found out that he has a serious blood disorder that he has a very small chance of living through. Undoubtedly inspired by his near death situation, he tries to get in touch with "the girl that got away", Laura, played by Apatow regular Leslie Mann (aka Mrs. Apatow). One problem is that "the girl that got away" really did get away, most obviously in the fact that she has a husband and two kids (hilariously played by Eric Bana, and the adorable Maude and Iris Apatow).

The movie isn't really a leap for Sandler, since he's already done his really serious movie Punch-Drunk Love, as well as another dramedy, Spanglish. But I think he continues to show a lot of depth and talent as an actual actor. His increasingly lined face tells us a lot about George's internal struggle with his disease, and his occasionally awkward relationship to Ira. George isn't an easily likable guy, and Sandler doesn't really seem to try to make him such. He plays him as a complicated man that occasionally makes us laugh, can make us uncomfortable, and actually felt like a character and not like Sandler acting a role. There are some funny supporting roles from Apatow regular Jonah Hill, semi-regular Jason Schwartzman, and hopefully future regular Aubrey Plaza as the token female comic of the group. Seth Rogen has really grown since his days on Apatow's ridiculously brilliant TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, and he has quite a few nice moments here, as does Leslie Mann, but for me this was all Sandlers show, and I was left greatly impressed.

One thing I would say though is that I wouldn't really classify Funny People as comedy. Apatow has accurately described it as a dramedy, and he doesn't shy away from the drama. He's said that he had had an idea for a movie about a guy dealing with a disease and how that affected his life, and realized he should mesh it with the other idea he'd long had, a movie about stand-up comics like the ones he idolized and occasionally wrote for before he was famous. He and Sandler had been roommates while trying to make it big, and had stayed friends over the years, so it was a natural fit that Sandler star in the movie.

Overall, I think just as highly of it as I do of his previous movies The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but it's in a different mold, he's dealing with different issues here, more adult issues. It looks terrific, and I would like to see Apatow work with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski again. But Kaminski should know how to shoot a movie, as Steven Spielberg's go to director of photography, Kaminski has so far picked up 2 Oscars, and has another 2 nominations under his belt. Apatow is a master of surrounding himself with talented people, and I'll be very interested to see where he goes next as a writer/director.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Roger Ebert, a critic I admire a great deal, has received a lot of flack over his 4-star review of the movie Knowing. Review aggregating website shows that only 32% of published critical reviews were positive, with the general consensus stating "Knowing has some interesting ideas and a couple good scenes, but it's weighted down by its absurd plot and over-seriousness." Well, the movie is about a man finding a sheet of paper that predicts the end of the world. It's a sort of disaster movie, of course it's ridiculous. And since it deals with the apocalypse, I would hope it would be over-serious. Do we really want apocalyptic movies any other way?

The movie kicks off with an elementary school class in 1959 creating a time capsule full of their drawings of what they think the future will be like, to be opened 50 years later. We see little Lucinda (an effectively creepy Lara Robinson), whose contribution to the time capsule is a page covered in numbers. Cut to 2009, where Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) is part of the elementary school class that gets to open up the time capsule, and he is the one that receives Lucinda's paper. His father John (Nicolas Cage) starts looking at the paper one night and notices the group of numbers 91101, or 9-11-01, with a number beside it that happens to be the number of lives lost on that day. He begins going through the paper, front and back, and finding dates and lives lost of many tragedies that've happened over the last 50 years, including 3 that will happen over the next few days. John also gets in contact with the now deceased Lucinda's daughter Diana (Rose Byrne) and her daughter Abby (also played by Lara Robinson, though less creepy this time).

The movie was directed by Australian visual virtuoso Alex Proyas, who directed one of my favorite movies, Dark City. The visuals here are less impressive than they were there, but there is a tremendous plane crash that was obviously influenced by Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, as it's a single take of the crash and its destructive aftermath, with Nic Cage wandering through the chaos. I think Proyas keeps the first two acts of the movie believable enough that we're invested enough in what is happening to go along with the "ridiculousness" of the final act. It's a bit difficult to review the ending of the movie, since it really requires a back and forth discussion, but I'll just say that it worked for me. There are a lot of religious evocations happening that I think turned some people off, but all of it was well done, and I thought very effective.

I feel like many people didn't give this movie a fair shot due to the presence of Nicolas Cage. He's done such a vast amount of shit over the last few years that I think most people had a pre-existing prejudice against this movie just because of his recent track record. Because of my previous love of Alex Proyas's movies (not just Dark City, but also The Crow, and I even enjoyed I, Robot despite its many flaws) I looked at Knowing as an Alex Proyas project that happened to star Nic Cage, which is what it was. I'm saddened that many people didn't give the movie a chance, Cage isn't as great as he's been in the past (Adaptation., Bringing Out the Dead, Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, the man's given us a lot of great performances), but he's good enough to not ruin the story, and the other actors are at about the same level. No one is great, other than young Lara Robinson, but nobody ruins anything either. This movie is more about the story, no matter how ridiculous, and how well it works. I thought it worked tremendously.