Friday, December 31, 2010

My top ten of 2010

I only saw 24 movies released in 2010. So when it came time to come up with the traditional "Best of the Year" list, I had slim pickins. It was a great year for kids movies, but too many other "prestige" kinda movies I've not seen to tell what I think about the year overall. Every year gives us wonderful movies though, and 2010 was no exception. I've written full reviews of seven of the movies, so their entries are a little smaller. Still, it is tradition, so here it goes:

1. Toy Story 3

The fact that I don't think Toy Story 3 is Pixar's masterpiece really speaks to the quality of work they've put out over the past 15 years. The culmination of the story of Woody and Buzz and the gang is as good as their original tale, and much better than the lackluster second entry. I wrote about it back in August, and re-watching it on DVD recently only affirmed those feelings. I didn't think I would've put it as my #1 of the year, but when it came to putting together this list, it was the movie that I would've taken over any of the others.

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 1

Now, I wrote about this one just last month, and without a re-watch I can't think of anything new to wrote about it, so if you wanna know my feelings on it, just look back at last month's write up.
3. Leaves of Grass

Another that I just wrote about last month, Leaves of Grass was a movie I needed to watch a couple of times before its rough edges got smoothed over for me and I could stand back and admire its brilliance. Some websites have it listed as a 2009 release because of its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but it wasn't released in theaters (for about 15 minutes) or on DVD until this year, so I'm counting it that way.

4. Inception

I haven't had a chance yet to check out Chris Nolan's newest blockbuster again now that it's out on DVD, but I will soon. I've seen all of his movies multiple times, and don't expect Inception to be any different.

5. Shutter Island

DiCaprio entry #2 on the list, and marking his fourth collaboration with the legendary Martin Scorsese, Shutter Island is a sad, thrilling, slightly off kilter (in an intentional way) movie that I loved every minute of. It's fun to see Scorsese making big Hollywood movies after most of his career making smaller, more character driven, independent type films. Many people complain about that very thing, wishing he'd go back to the way he used to do it. But I think, he's already done that, let the man try a different way of filmmaking, he's earned it by now. Although it was supposed to be released around this time last year, for awards consideration, and eventually released in February, I wouldn't be too surprised if it still hung in the minds of some awards voters and made it into a few of the categories. Here's hoping.

6. Despicable Me

The concept of a villain being the hero of a story is a good one, especially in this movie's case, where Gru (Steve Carrell) is disappointed that another villain has stolen one of the Pyramid's of Giza, thereby making all other villains, including Gru, look lame. Gru goes on a wacky adventure involving his innumerable minions, 3 orphan girls, a man eating shark, a freeze ray, ballet recitals, his discouraging mother, a shrinking ray, and the Moon and brings us along for the ride. It doesn't quite explore the villain-as-hero thing as much as it probably could have, but it's a wonderfully enjoyable movie with a terrific voice cast all doing voices! As in, not just recording their own voices speaking lines, but actually creating characters and coming up with new voices for them (Carrell says he based Gru's voice on a cross between Ricardo Montalbon and Bela Lugosi, and yes it does sound as delightful as that combination would lead you to believe). Thankfully, it was a big hit, so we should be seeing more of Gru on the big screen in the future.

7. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

What an odd, terrific, and insane movie this is. Director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) brought the creation to life from the comic book series Scott Pilgrim, and it's just unlike any other movie I've ever seen. It takes some inspiration from the world of video games, but in a very literalistic way that was hysterical to me (when a bad guy is dispensed by our hero, for instance, he turns into coins, just like in the more innocent video games of my youth). I thought it had a lot of imagination, humor, and I think its failure at the box office could be attributed to its weirdness. I thought it was a lovable little oddity though.

8. Tangled

Again, wrote about this one not long ago and haven't seen it again so I doubt my feelings have changed any about this movie. See it!

9. How to Train Your Dragon

I recently re-watched my #9, and although I didn't quite love it as much as on the first go round, I still thought it was a terrific movie, beautifully animated, well written, and a rousing adventure story executed at a very high level.

10. Easy A

Easy A is a "teen movie", sure, but it is one that's done with the care and intelligence any movie should be made with. Emma Stone gives wit, charm, and a wonderful chemistry with her parents (the infallible Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) to Olive, our heroine, who tells a tiny little lie to make her friend leave her alone, which rumors its way around high school (as these things do) until Olive is the harlot of her small California town, with comical and not so comical results for her and her loved ones. Stone's is so comfortable in her performance, and the movie itself acknowledges John Hughes and his influence, that I was reminded of Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I think it's a star making performance and we'll be seeing this delightful actress in many more movies in the years to come. And I'll be happy to see her.

There are still a bunch of movies I've yet to see that I think would have a possibility of making it on the list:

The American
Blue Valentine
The Illusionist
True Grit
The Social Network
The Town
The Tempest
The Fighter
Black Swan
I Love You Phillip Morris
The King's Speech
Winter's Bone
Let Me In
Never Let Me Go
I Am Love

So as usual I still have a lot to catch up with, but this is where my list stands for now. To be continued...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Song of the week: Pearl Jam's "Come Back"

Pearl Jam has been one of my two favorite bands for a while. I put their 8th studio release, a self-titled album, as my #1 album of the decade last year. Pearl Jam has some of the bands best material, especially when it comes to the rockers. Eddie Vedder was writing with the memory of his recently departed friend Johnny Ramone in his head and the thought of the world he's bringing his newborn daughter into, and the first half of the album really has an almost breathless sense of punk and rock energy. Tighter as a band than ever, they go through weightier songs about the War in Iraq ("World Wide Suicide" and "Army Reserve") and religion ("Marker in the Sand"), but also don't forget to have fun, since they also include "Big Wave", Vedder's tribute to his favorite past time, surfing. To me it's unquestionably their best album, and I still stand by its #1 ranking on my top ten list of the decade.

But my favorite song on the album is the emotional plea "Come Back", a very basic song about a guy who's lost someone, I get the feeling from death, and just wants them back. The ballads on Pearl Jam's albums are often their best material, giving Eddie's voice a chance to show it has more than just rock power, it has a striking vulnerability when he wants to show it. When he says "Please say that if you hadn't have gone, I wouldn't have lost you another way. From wherever you are, come back" you can feel his hurt and loss and when he ends with "Come back, I'll be here" in that great booming voice, I can't help but be moved by the desperate begging in his voice. It's their most emotional song, and one of their best. And I think it's a great song to show to people who only have an idea of Pearl Jam from "Jeremy" or "Alive" or "Last Kiss" or whatever of their hits.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells is a beautiful movie to look at, and full of enough mysticism, intrigue, adventure, and action to keep pretty much anyone happy. If it kinda loses its way in its last third, that's ok, since it never lets us down in its tremendous artwork. The art is obviously inspired by the Book of Kells, a legendary Irish manuscript of the four Gospels (it's been housed at Trinity College in Dublin since the 1661). But despite its Middle Ages monastery setting, the movie seems to want to sidestep the super religiousness of the actual Book of Kells in favor of a coming-of-age/adventure with quite a bit of Celtic mythology thrown in. That's fine by me, but the story does lose a little of its resonance when they won't address why it's so important our young hero finishes his work on the book.

It's the story of a young monk named Brendan, mesmerized by the mythic story of Brother Aidan, who's writing a book so good that sinners are blinded when they look at it. Brendan's uncle Cellach, the Abbot or head of the monastery, is obsessed with building a giant wall around the city of Kells, which will keep out marauding Vikings. Cellach is also adamant that Brendan not leave the walls of Kells, for the outside world is far too dangerous for him to handle. When the real Brother Aidan shows up unannounced one day, bringing with him his legendary book, Brendan finds a kindred soul who'll help him become a man. Naturally, one of Aidan's firsts requests of Brendan is to travel to the forest outside of Kells and bring back certain berries which he'll use to make ink for his book. While in the forest, Brendan meets the fairy Aisling (although it sure sounds like Ashley when they pronounce it in the movie), who helps him along his way.

However, the thing most people will wake away from this movie is the tremendous animation style. Detailed and basic at the same time, influenced by the style of the illustrations in the Book of Kells, it's traditional 2-d hand drawn animation as I don't remember ever seeing it before. It's very distinctive, I could watch it with the sound off and still be enthralled by the images onscreen. It's simply one of the most visually memorable movies I've seen in the past few years.

I always admire movies that can make their point efficiently, and with the movie being under 80 minutes long, The Secret of Kells certainly does that. With its short run time, involving story, terrific voice acting, and amazing animation, I don't find too much of a reason to not recommend The Secret of Kells.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Song of the week: Ben Kweller's "I Gotta Move"

Acting as his sort of "Born to Run", Ben Kweller puts his impeccably melodic songwriting abilities to good use in his 60's inspired bouncy pop masterpiece "I Gotta Move". Kweller has been around a while now, releasing his first independent album at the ripe old age of 13 with his band Radish, before eventually going solo. His voice still boyish even though he'll finally hit 30 next year, Kweller's music is the kind of pop music that speaks to me on a very instinctual level. He has a certain way with melodies that embed themselves into my mind and won't leave, not that I ever ask them to. And Ben doesn't overstay his welcome, from what I can tell he's only released 2 songs over 5 minutes in length.

Being the perfectionist that he apparently is, what he decided to do for his third album, the self-titled Ben Kweller, was play all of the instruments himself, in the great Paul McCartney/Prince/Stevie Wonder mold. Now I know I love the album (it was my #5 of the decade, in fact), but going in I expected Ben Kweller to be a very introspective release due to having only himself to play off of, which could've also been great, but one of the things I love the most about the album is that there is a ton of life and energy to it, best represented, I think, with "I Gotta Move".

It's a classic kinda concept now, the rock star writing about the days when he just wanted to get out of his town and make something of himself, but Kweller makes it seem fresh and infectious. The chorus is just that great basic pop songwriting (and the song clocks in at the classic 3-minute mark). And when he talks about life in his hometown and how he's gotta get away from it:

I just can't sit still, in this small town,
There's nothing more here, I hit the ceiling,
So in the morning I'll hit the highway.
Oh, I just can't stay

I like the straightforward and unpretentious way he goes about it, and when he follows in the next verse with:

Its time I broke out into the open,
You know I'll settle down again some day,
I need some new land, and form a rock band.
Oh, I just can't stay

It's less about home being a negative place that's dragging him down, the way Springsteen seemed to feel in "Born to Run" and others, and more about how it's given him all he's going to get and he just needs to move on. And, as with the best pop music, the song works whether you want to peruse the lyrics or not. It's got a wonderful hook of a chorus, chugs along at a great pace, and doesn't hang around too long. He's written more meaningful songs (he's described "Thirteen", detailing his relationship with his high school sweetheart, and now wife, Lizzy, as his best song, and he's probably right) but for sheer fun and exuberance, I go back to "I Gotta Move" more than any other song he's written.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Disney's 50th animated feature, Tangled, will probably not be counted by most people as one of their classics, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself and look forward to seeing the movie again. The classic fairy tale Rapunzel, Disneyfied of course, is the basis we start from. Reportedly costing an absurd $260 million, due to a restart late in the project where all they supposedly kept was "the hair, the tower, and Rapunzel." Add in some wonderful animation (the best in the short history of Disney 3-D), terrific voice work, humorous supporting characters, and solid (if mostly unmemorable) songs, and we have all the makings of a great movie in the classic Disney mold.

Rapunzel, voiced to sweet perfection by Mandy Moore in all her adorable glory, spends the days in her tower painting and cooking and generally just wasting her time until her mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) comes to the tower "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair." By the age of 18, Rapunzel has grown extremely restless and wants to leave her tower. She's aided by the appearance of Flynn (Zachary Levi), a thief who can lead her to see the floating lanterns she wants to see. The lanterns are sent into the sky every year on her birthday, and she wants to know why and to be able to see them in person. Fairy taleness ensues in a pretty straightforward way.

The animation has a lot of care in it. The animators used classical paintings as reference in trying to give the movie the lushness and character of a traditionally animated fairy tale, just animated in 3-D. Speaking of, the screening I went to was mercifully projected in 3-D, so you won't have to hear me denigrating the worthlessness of 3-D again. The lighting and detail in the movie is tremendous. We're able to see the fiber threads in a carpet when Rapunzel's little sidekick is laying on a rug. The faces of the characters have a lot more movement and make the characters jump to life a lot easier than in other movies, but in a subtle way that some people may not notice. The songs are a bit of a weak point in the movie, but while there definitely isn't a "Be Our Guest" "A Whole New World" or "Hakuna Matata" in the bunch, I didn't really feel like any of them were bad either. They further along the characters and the story, and if they're not the greatest songs, at least they don't detract. I did really like the "dreams" song they sing in the bar. Very reminiscent of the "Gaston" sequence from Beauty and the Beast, but well done and a lot of fun.

So while many may not consider it an instant classic, I think it's perfectly enjoyable and has quite a bit of greatness in it. When Rapunzel finally gets to see the floating lanterns lit, the sequence bursts with light and shadow, and I loved the shot tracking down from the castle throughout the town as everyone lit their lights and sent them into the sky. It's a terrific sequence, my favorite in the movie, and with the enjoyability of the lead actors and the wonderful attention to details in the animation, there wasn't a whole lot about Tangled that I didn't like.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Song of the week: Melody Gardot's "Baby I'm a Fool"

I've been following Melody Gardot for a few years now. I first ran into her music when her song "Worrisome Heart" was an iTunes single of the week. I downloaded it, loved it, and subsequently downloaded the whole album, also called Worrisome Heart. I found out about an EP, The Bedroom Sessions, she had done while laying in a hospital bed for a year recovering from a vicious hit-and-run accident. Later came another EP, Live from Soho, which I downloaded the second I found out about it. Its opening song, which became the second single off of her second album My One and Only Thrill, was "Baby I'm a Fool" which mesmerized me immediately.

Gardot has said of this song, "'Baby I'm a Fool' is about two coquettish people who are very much afraid to admit they could possibly even fall in love and there is a secret between them both, so you have two Don Juans dancing around each other with the undertow that they are actually in love but never admitting it" Gardot is a bit different than many young jazz artists in that she mostly writes her own songs. Most jazz singers are not writers as well, or at least are not musicians and only write lyrics. Gardot, on the other hand, has released only 3 songs that she didn't write the words and music to, still co-writing two of them, and the other being her cover of "Over the Rainbow".

Her music isn't the most complex in the world, but starting out as a piano player from the age of 9, and now mostly switched to guitar, she implores many odd chords and progressions in her writing. Her lyrics range from sweet to sultry to achingly autobiographical. Her song "Some Lessons" recalls some of the details of the accident that left her with sensitivities to light and sound, memory and movement, and neural pathways in her brain that were treated with the musical therapy that brought her to where she is today. And still she refuses to be a downer, giving us the feeling that the song is about appreciating life, not holding a grudge against those who've wronged us. And in this song, "Baby I'm a Fool", even though she has these "two Don Juans dancing around each other", she still doesn't deprive them of the possibility of love, or of a happy ending. It's a wonderful song from a wonderful artist, one whom I will always look forward to watching in the years to come.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tragedy vs. Comedy

I use the terms in the title of this post a little loosely. It should really be titled something like "seriousness vs. light heartedness" or "endings where the guy and the girl don't get together vs. endings where they do get together" but I thought being more succinct would be a good thing. A recent conversation with my wife prompted me to start thinking about why we as viewers react a certain way to movies. She claims that I only like movies where The Guy and The Girl don't get together, and I claim that she dismisses any movie where they don't as being not worth the time. I certainly don't have anything against happy or "fairy tale" endings, when I think they work within the context of the movie. In fact, when I think it works, I love it just as much as anything.

But I also love when there's some ambiguity in the ending. At the end of the great romance movie Before Sunrise, for instance, Jesse and Celine don't have a fairy tale ending, but they also don't have one where they necessarily don't end up together. I love the scene in the sequel, Before Sunset, where Jesse talks about the scenario (via the book he wrote about the first movie's happenings), where the two lovers part but pledge to meet again in the same spot 6 months from then. He says essentially that we fill in the blanks with whatever type of person we are, a romantic will believe they got together again (as I believed before seeing Sunset), a cynic will think that they don't, and someone in between will simply not be sure. And in my recent viewing of 5 Centimeters Per Second, there's the grayness of the ending where you think about why he stops to try and see her again, and why she walks away. I loved that ending, but it wasn't because "they don't end up together", it was because of the character motivations and what it meant to each of them to see the other one again after so long. Alvy doesn't end up with Annie Hall, but they don't have to. Alvy appreciates the time in his life that Annie occupied and has moved on, and so should we.

Some movies like that just leave us with a piece, or a taste, of love. In Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times, the first section ends up with the two young loves holding hands with nervous smiles on their faces. It was a perfect piece of cinema. Cameron Crowe's great Say Anything ends with John Cusack putting his arm around Ione Skye as they apprehensively wait for whatever they'll face in their new life of love together (a remarkably mature ending for a debut from Crowe, as is the whole movie). In Casablanca, everyone knows Rick and Ilsa don't end up with one another (the movie's so famous, most people can quote the scenes even if they've never seen the movie before), but that doesn't tarnish the great lost romance that they had, or Rick's noble sacrifice in the end. What happened after Harry met Sally? Well, they had an iconic New Years Eve, to the delight of romantics like me. James and Emily in Adventureland have a wonderfully romantic (and funny and heartfelt) culmination of their relationship at the end of my favorite film of last year. These are incredibly romantic movies, I think, and some of my favorite romance movies.

But then we have the chick flicks. The leads always end up together after some bullshit incident that threatens to derail their romance in the third act. These movies are safe and comforting for many people, and can be perfectly enjoyable when done right. But since they're simply formulas made over and over again with mostly interchangeable lead actors, I don't really think of them as romantic or as "romance" movies, and they rarely evoke any sort of passion out of me as a viewer. I understand their value in the same way I understand the value of McDonald's, you go in each time knowing precisely what you're gonna get and it doesn't matter who the lead actor (or Mickey D's location) is, you're gonna get exactly what you've already had in the past, that's why you're coming back for more. But as art, they nearly always fail to move me in any significant way. And that's what I'm looking for, some artistic payoff for my emotional investment.

It's been a little difficult for me to answer some of my wife's questions about why I react the way I do to certain movies, simply because I never really thought extensively about how we all respond to the art that we expose ourselves to. I think a lot about what our responses are, and whether I agree or disagree with your response and what our interpretation are, etc. But I don't think much about why I instinctively am drawn to things more serious minded than not. But I think that last line of the previous paragraph is the heart of it. I need to feel that payoff, it just doesn't have to be in the form of a happy ending.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Black Swan posters

Now, I haven't seen Darren Aronofsky's movie Black Swan (seeing as it hasn't opened yet) but I gotta say that I'm really loving the posters they've drawn up for his ballet/mental breakdown followup to The Wrestler. The movie, which has been getting Oscar buzz for its leading lady Natalie Portman, and also contains a much hyped lesbian sex scene between Portman and co-star Mila Kunis, won't be coming out here in a couple of weeks (or maybe even months) more than likely, but I still wanted to share its posters, a thing which I think is becoming a lost art when it comes to movie advertising.

And two of its more traditional posters, ones that I still like anyway:

If you look back on movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future (or anything else by famed poster artist Drew Struzan) there used to be a lot of love put into this kind of marketing that I think helped make so many of these movies iconic. These aren't in Struzan's style (just Google his name if you wanna check out some of the cool posters he's done), but they have the same kind of care put into them that really is nice to see. Makes me want to watch a movie that I was kinda on the fence about to begin with. And isn't that the point of a poster?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Song of the week: The Black Keys' "Meet Me in the City"

So, this song coming a little later in the week (because of Thanksgiving), I'm gonna go with The Black Keys song "Meet Me in the City". Originally an old blues song by the great Junior Kimbrough, The Black Keys covered it on their tribute EP Chulahoma: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough. The Keys had been greatly influenced by Kimbrough and had actually already covered his songs on their first two albums, and eventually decided to just do the Chulahoma EP in 2005, strangely not containing either of the songs they'd covered on their first two albums. Kimbrough's songs had a raw, hypnotic way about them that could remind someone of John Lee Hooker or RL Burnside without too much effort. He was a great artist, and I included his version of the song underneath the Keys' down below.

But this is about the cover version. Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney make up The Black Keys, and you really never miss any instrumentation in their music, even when it's just stripped down to Auerbach's voice and guitar and Carney's drums. They're a force to listen to, raw and dynamic and beautiful and inspiring to me as a fellow musician (last May, when I did my top ten albums of the decade, their Attack and Release ended up at #7). "Meet Me in the City" was one of the first songs of theirs that I heard, and it really grabbed me by the throat on the first listen, but it was because of its tenderness and not because of its energy. The painful love Auerbach has in his voice just killed me after the kind sleepy groove drew me into the opening of the song. The lyrics are simple:

"Meet me, oh momma, in the city
And see everything is so fine
We'll get together now, darlin'
Oh yes we will
We'll make everything alright
Now honey don't
Oh honey don't

Please, please don't leave me right now, baby
Right now, right now
Oh no no no

You got me, baby
You got me, darlin'
You got me where you want me, baby
Girl, I know you are satisfied
Still begging you, baby
Don't leave me here

Please, please don't leave me
Right now baby, right now, right now
Oh no no no"

But the way Auerbach infuses them with so much yearning and hope and pain is astounding. Sometimes the simplest things can evoke our most basic human emotions better than anything else can. It's songs like "Meet Me in the City" that typify the blues as a genre of all of our essential humanity. And when it can be delivered to us by artists as great as Junior Kimbrough or The Black Keys, it makes all that deeper of an impact.

The Black Keys' version

Junior Kimbrough's original

Sunday, November 21, 2010

5 Centimeters Per Second

The Japanese anime 5 Centimeters Per Second is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen, in both a visual and thematic way. It's the story of two people who're inseparable as kids (both entranced by the falling cherry blossoms, which allegedly fall at 5 centimeters per second) but are split apart by their families moving, yet they are determined to meet up again, they do and fall in love as teenagers, only to be split apart again, before becoming adults who still think of each other but have moved on with their lives (or are trying to learn how to). It's breathtakingly animated. Writer/director Makoto Shinkai allows so many shots of lonely looking objects to linger a bit longer than most would let them, underscoring the longing our characters feel for each other. The score by Tenmon, who's scored all of Shinkai's work, is an empty piano score which even further enhances the feelings of our main characters. At just 63 minutes, 5 Centimeters doesn't outstay its welcome, but Shinkai takes his time unfolding his story in a way that makes sure it doesn't feel truncated either.

The story reminded me forcibly of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's great Three Times, another love story set against 3 separate time periods (and was in my top ten of the decade). Of course, Hou set the stories apart by having the same actors playing different characters in different time periods and then watched how they play out their love scenarios. Shinkai simply gives us three segments from the same characters, as they grow older. The first segments are strikingly similar, as the man (boy in 5 Centimeters case) seeks out the woman (girl) before eventually meeting and sharing a simple expression of affection, although Shinkai's ending is as achingly beautiful as Hou's, it's in a different way, since 5 Centimeters follows the same characters throughout its 3 stories, we don't leave our characters at the end of the segment. So there isn't the ending note of love, since we will catch up with Shinkai's characters (and his first segment ends on a less fully romantic note, there's some mixed feelings there). The unreciprocated feelings in the second story are interesting and worthwhile as a story, but don't have quite the same emotional weight as the opening segment.

The final segment, though marred a bit by a too on-the-nose power ballad that stands at complete odds to the sparseness of the rest of the soundtrack, is the ambiguous end to the story that maybe isn't so ambiguous once you think about it. Our hero is haunted by the lost love that never got to see its fruition, while the heroine still occasionally thinks back on those days gone by, even as she has moved on. The chance meeting that the hero has longed for finally happens, but how you feel about the outcome will ultimately depend on each viewers interpretation of the characters feelings at that point in their life.

I think it's a beautifully mature ending to a gorgeous movie, one of the best I've ever seen. Sadly, and for a reason unknown to me, 5 Centimeters Per Second is unavailable on US DVD, as far as I know. However, it is easily viewed through Google Video, which is how I got ahold of it. It is a truly remarkable movie from a filmmaker I need to see more from. Makoto Shinkai has been labeled as "the new Miyazaki", although the thought wouldn't have come to my mind from this movie due to its lack of action or adventure or many of the ecological or aeronautical themes that Miyazaki returns to time and again. What Shinkai does have in common with Miyazaki is that he has made a beautifully animated movie, one that I will return to many times over the years. I wouldn't call him "the new Miyazaki", because really he's "the current Makoto Shinkai".

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1

Here we have the beginning of the end of the most lucrative franchise in cinema history. We first met these characters on the big screen in 2001, and have seen the actors and the films themselves grow since then. I have a deep, personal love of J.K. Rowling's books, and haven't always been completely pleased with their adaptations to the silver screen. Last years Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the first one that in my mind really captured so much of the magic of the books into the movies, but even it had so much that was cut from the novel. Splitting the mammoth final book into two parts was a good idea here, as even though many things were cut out, few of them are truly missed. Although Deathly Hallows, Part 1 certainly feels like the first half of a story, it also succeeds admirably as a movie.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson as the three leads have truly grown a lot since their first forays into our lives. Radcliffe had, in my mind, more than a few awkward line readings and uncomfortable times in the series, but as he has become a man he has also become a better actor. He gives Harry weight and depth as a character, and not in just a "good for a kid actor" sort of way. Grint, who's buffed up in the past couple of years in addition to his normal growth, keeps Ron's role as the comic relief of the trio, but also adds some layers to Ron, the love and anger and friendship that the role needs. Emma Watson, whom I've thought was the star of the group since the fourth movie or so, again soars here. There's a scene in the first few minutes of the movie, when Hermione wipes herself from her parents memories, when Watson conveys all of Hermione's psychological conflict in just a look, and director David Yates gives us a great shot of Hermione walking away from her house, and maybe her family, forever.

Yates, returning for the 7th and final movie after also helming numbers 5 and 6, again gets things right as far as the balance of character and action, giving us some of the same small moments that make Rowling's books so delightful to return to, as well as the big action scenes that a blockbuster of this type requires. I've heard some rumblings from some people that the movie moves too slowly, but I didn't feel that way in the slightest. I thought the 146 minutes flew by wonderfully, with only some of Dumbledore's backstory that I can think of that I really missed seeing. Yates and his cinematographer Eduardo Serra do maybe go a little too heavy on the handheld sometimes. I'm thinking mostly of the chase with the Snatchers, which felt very Paul Greengrass-y (like his terrible handheld work on the last two Bourne movies), but mostly the movie is gorgeously shot, whether in the forest, on the beach, or in the Ministry of Magic, the movie looks terrific, surely to get Serra his third Oscar nomination. My favorite part of the movie though, had to have been the animated sequence detailing the "Tale of the Three Brothers", done in an updated take on the animation of the legendary Lotte Reiniger's paper cutouts. Such a beautifully done piece.

So we get what I feel is the best Harry Potter movie yet, and with next years conclusion to the series again coming from David Yates, I feel in good spirits about the final adaptation of some of my favorite books. From my remembrance of the novels, there will certainly be a huge amount of action for those that feel this was a little light on conflict. I feel like this is the movie event I was missing this summer, when it felt like the only greats we had were Inception and Toy Story 3. A wonderful piece of entertainment, with some very good performances and wonderful visuals, I loved Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, and can't wait for Part 2.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Song of the week: The Beatles "Twist and Shout"

Debut of a new thing I wanna do. I love looking at albums and artists as a whole, but sometimes individual songs need their due as well. And so to start off this foray into spotlighting a song a week, I'll begin with the song I'm obsessed with right now, The Beatles' cover of "Twist and Shout".

Originally written Phil Medley and Bert Berns (whose other compositions include "Hang on Sloopy" and "Piece of My Heart") and recorded by the Top Notes, produced by Phil Spector and released in 1961. It was covered just the next year by The Isley Brothers, produced by Bert Berns himself, after he felt that Spector had screwed up the original recording and wanted to show him how it should be done. The song was a hit for the Isley's, and became a popular song for R&B groups to cover. The Beatles version appeared as the closing song on their debut album Please Please Me in 1963, and issued as a single in '64 (it would be the only top 10 song the band had that wasn't an original). It was the final song recorded during the marathon session Please Please Me was recorded in, the 11th song in 10 hours. Producer George Martin knew that the song would be tough on John Lennon's voice and so saved it for last. He'd intended to record it as many times as it took to get it right, but Lennon was only good for one take before "John's voice had gone" as Martin put it.

Lennon's voice is obviously shredded, and you can hear it on the recording. Thankfully, he finished the take and gave us one of the great vocal performances in rock music. The rasp was on his voice in full force, and Lennon sounds drained but forcing himself through. Paul and George's backing vocals sound as sweet as the Isley's did, but John's demolished vocal chords are what makes the song special. During the "Shake it, shake it, shake it baby now" part towards the end, you can hear the weariness in the band, but with smiles on their faces in a way that's infectious even to just listen to. I can imagine Lennon must've collapsed in exhaustion just after the tape ran out. "Twist and Shout" was the first Beatles song I remember ever hearing, I must've only been about 3 or 4 at the time, and it transfixed me as I listened to the cassette over and over again. Some things you just don't grow out of as an adult, and I still can't listen to "Twist and Shout" without a big smile on my face, convulsing like Paul McCartney does when John tells us to "shake it, shake it, shake it". It's one of the great songs by the greatest of bands, and a perfectly fine choice to open my new series of blog posts.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Elevator to the Gallows

Legendary French director Louis Malle made one of the great debut movies in cinema history with his 1958 masterpiece Elevator to the Gallows. Starring Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as Florence and Julien, secret lovers planning the murder of her powerful husband (his boss), only to have their perfect plan slowly unravel over the course of the movie's 91 powerfully tense minutes. A haunting, lonely score improvised by Miles Davis sets the backdrop of inevitable tragedy in the lives of our characters. Moreau, who didn't do anything for me in Truffaut's Jules and Jim, here uses her strangely attractive features in a wonderful performance of a woman hoping and searching and afraid for the safety and whereabouts of the lover she can't find, almost going mad with worry. Because, after the murder of her husband, Julien spends the night trapped in the elevator of the building in which he'd just committed the crime.

Elevator to the Gallows has the same trajectory and tone as many of the American noirs of the 40's and 50's that I've been watching lately. It has the same kind of inescapable sense of doom that hangs over so much of the characters actions. I wasn't sure how things would turn out, being that it was a French take on the genre, but I was gripped to my seat like almost no other noir has gotten me. Gorgeously shot in stark black-and-white by cinematographer Henri Dacae, we get a lot of classic noir shots of dark streets, interrogation rooms, and rainy nights. Malle, only 24 when he made the movie, directs with a tight hand. There's nothing wasted in the hour and a half that we spend in this world. We see Julien struggling to get out of the elevator, Florence wandering Paris looking for him, and the young couple who steal Julien's car and go on their own tragic journey through the night.

I'm always happy to have made another successful venture out into world cinema, with this being probably only second to the great heist movie Rififi as my favorite French movie. I liked this much better than my previous Malle movie, Atlantic City, and put it high on my list of favorite noirs. I'll always remember Jeanne Moreau's haunting face and Miles Davis's equally effective score. I'll also be looking forward to my next foray into Louis Malle's catalog, and French film in general.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Leaves of Grass - an Oklahoma dose of greatness

Leaves of Grass has a lot of autobiography from its writer/director Tim Blake Nelson. Not so much in Ed Norton's twin Kincaid brothers, the marijuana dealing, or the violence, but in many of the little details contained in this wacky ride through my beloved home state. Nelson (probably most famous as Delmar from the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is one of the finest character actors around, stealing scenes in all kinds of movies from big budget to tiny independents. Although from humble Tulsa beginnings, Nelson is an Ivy League (Brown University) educated Classics major, a Julliard graduate, an accomplished playwright, and an experienced filmmaker, Leaves of Grass marking his 4th major work as director. About half of that description applies to Bill, one of the twin brothers played by Ed Norton (who also serves as a producer on the film).

Bill is Professor of Classical Philosophy at Brown, a hot young name in academia being courted by Harvard to start up his own program there. The movie opens with a great monologue by Bill dealing with the teaching of the ancient Greeks, and it's a testament to Nelson's faith in his script that he doesn't turn it into simply a montage of Bill lecturing to students, but a fully formed monologue, much of which foreshadows the intellectual themes of the rest of the movie. Soon after, we meet Brady, a genius pot grower in the Southeastern Oklahoma town of Idabel. He and his best friend Bolger (Nelson) are running into problems with a Tulsa based Jewish drug kingpin (deliciously played by Richard Dreyfuss) who wants payback, Brady and Bill's hippie mom (Susan Sarandon) who's checked herself into a retirement home, and with Brady's pregnant girlfriend Colleen (Melanie Lynskey) who wants Brady to stop selling, stop growing, and stop smoking his beloved mary jane.

Blackly comedic hijinks ensue as everybody crosses paths and we get faked deaths, real deaths, obvious comedy, subtle comedy, uncomfortable comedy (thanks to Josh Pais's unbelievably great performance), philosophical discussions on poetry and the existence of God. Brady has an interesting theory about why he does believe in a higher power, I would've never thought about explaining God's possible existence with parallel lines, but it makes a lot of sense when Nelson gives his characters the time to talk about things and ideas the way that few movies ever do. It's intoxicating to find a movie that allows the ridiculousness of legendary singer/songwriter Steve Earle angrily shooting a crossbow (with his bluetooth headset in his ear) to exist in the same realm with Keri Russell reciting Whitman while she guts a catfish. It's a wonderful feeling, even if Nelson doesn't quite have the directorial flair to be able to pull it off without a hitch. There aren't many problems with the movie, but maybe those things can't go flawlessly into a movie in the first place. I'm still really glad he tried.

Now, I've not been a huge fan of Edward Norton over the years. I was never one of the people praising his work to the heavens and declaring him the best actor of his generation. I think he's a solid actor whose performances tend to all feel the same to me. Not, however, in Leaves of Grass. Bill is intelligent and logical, but increasingly reaching the end of his rope, often due to Brady. And Brady is a brilliant mind who doesn't always put his smarts to use in a constructive manner. Although I thought at first the "hick" accent that Norton uses for Brady was too over-the-top, either he or I grew into it, and I was okay with it. Norton creates these two characters with a wonderfully subtle bag of tricks, and the illusion of the twins is handled wonderfully by Nelson and his bag of directorial tricks. I knew, of course, that Norton wasn't acting opposite himself, Nelson made pains to include many shots of Bill and Brady together, and Norton's timing and amazing ability to play off of himself seals the deal so that we never don't believe that we're watching two brothers.

So, in short, Leaves of Grass is a masterwork by a proud Okie. It contains too many wonderful things to let the small stuff bother me, most notably brilliant performances by Ed Norton (the best work he's done, I think). It's certainly one of my favorite movies of recent times.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


I was taken way back to the days of my childhood again recently, when my wife and I watched The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh. I loved Pooh as a kid. I loved his simple nature, his direct way of seeing things, his naivete, and his good hearted love of honey. I love the amiable way Pooh goes around wishing everyone a "happy winds-day" during the tempestuous weather. And his innocence in trying to trick the bees into thinking he's a harmless rain cloud so that he can steal their honey. He's really just one of the most heartwarming characters I've ever seen. And his compatriots in the Hundred Acre Wood are only slightly less charming. Piglet is all nervous, tuttering energy. Rabbit, fastiduous and annoyingly whiny. Owl, long-winded and pompous, but also blessed with a good heart. Kanga and Roo the sweet mother/son team. And, of course, my two favorites as a child: depressive Eeyore, and bombastically energetic Tigger.

The movie is really just three short films put together into one movie, a process they used to refer to as "package films". Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree from 1966, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day from 1968, and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! from 1974, all put together and released as a full length movie in 1977. One of my favorite parts about the movie is that Disney translated the stories to the screen as though they were actually stories being told to us by the movie's narrator (perfectly voiced by Sebastian Cabot). Occasionally the characters themselves even interact with the narrator reading the stories that play out their lives.

Well, "lives" may be stretching it, considering that the whole concept of Pooh is that the characters are stuffed animals brought to life through the imagination of their owner, the young Christopher Robin. That's actually another great little detail of the animation, the way that the animators gave the characters the weight and feeling of stuffed animals brought to life and not like real animals. They took much inspiration from the terrific book illustrations by EH Shepard, but gave the characters movement and really brought them to life for all of us to enjoy. In combination with the animators, there's the tremendous voice work, most especially Sterling Holloway's work as Pooh, and Paul Winchell's famous voicing of Tigger. All the actors really help the characters jump off screen, but those two are special.

There is apparently a new Pooh movie Disney has scheduled to come out next summer, just called Winnie the Pooh. It's supposed to take the same inspiration from Shepard's original illustrations, and has great voice work lined up from Jim Cummings (who's done so much amazing voice work I wouldn't even know where to start listing it from), John Cleese as the narrator, and a theme song sung by Zooey Deschanel. But I'm leery of anything that might infringe on my affections for Pooh bear and the gang, one of the many reasons I've stayed away from the innumerable direct-to-video stuff that's been released over the last decade or so. But hopefully it can capture some of the magic that The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh did all those years ago. Watching it made me feel like a kid again, in the best possible way.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Red Balloon

I remember as a child being fascinated by silent passages in movies. I am still to this day intrigued by completely visual film making. I think this all started with French director Albert Lamorisse's sweet 1956 masterpiece The Red Balloon. It was shown throughout American elementary schools from the 60's to the early 90's (and should still be shown to kids today, if you ask me), and I was one of the many children that the movie made a huge impression on. It's the story of a young kid, played by the director's son Pascal, who finds a balloon caught on a light post on his walk to school. He frees it and soon finds out the balloon has a mind of its own, which it uses to follow him to school and play games with him and be the friend that he so desperately needs.
Of course, one of the calling cards of the movie is its script. It won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, despite having lines of dialog in the single digits. It's nearly silent (and could've been completely had Lamorisse wanted to do so), and is all the more magical for it. It's a simple movie, but one that plays to our recollections of childhood and the feelings of finding a new friend. My favorite sequence is the one in which Pascal and the balloon walk past a little girl carrying a blue balloon, causing the balloon to do its version of a double take, getting a little crush on the pretty blue balloon. However, the movie also doesn't let us forget that bullies exist in our world, as Pascal runs through the streets of Paris with the balloon as a big group of jealous kids seek to take it away from him. But a perfectly wonderful and uplifting ending gives us hope and a childlike glee in our hearts.
So, The Red Balloon is one of the great gifts of cinema. I've been meaning to revisit it for a while, ever since I saw Hou Hsiao-Hsien's homage The Flight of the Red Balloon with Juliette Binoche, about a year ago. I finally made it back to the original, and am glad I did. Its magic realism and understated brilliance will keep me coming back to it over and over again through the years. It gives me that wonderful fuzzy feeling inside that you just get from so few movies. Or, as critic Owen Gleiberman so wonderfully put it, "More than any other children's film, The Red Balloon turns me into a kid again whenever I see see The Red Balloon is to laugh, and cry, at the impossible joy of being a child again."