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.