Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Charlie Kaufman

I’ve written about writer Charlie Kaufman a bit before, writing about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I recently revisited it, and the two movies he initially made his name on, as writer of 1999’s Being John Malkovich and 2002’s Adaptation. Both directed by former music video director Spike Jonze, these movies established Kaufman as a master of bringing odd ideas to the screen in new and interesting ways. He went on to win an Oscar for his screenplay for Eternal Sunshine, and in 2008 debuted as director as well, with the divisive Synecdoche, New York. I think he’s one of the most interesting artists in Hollywood, as his work is so different, but isn’t obtuse or intentionally alienating.

Kaufman’s work heavily explores the theme of identity. In Malkovich, Craig and Lotte (John Cusack and Cameron Diaz) are both unhappy being themselves, both fall in love with Maxine (Catherine Keener), and once Craig discovers a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich, he and Lotte both want to stay there indefinitely. Craig, a puppeteer, discovers he can not only experience life through Malkovich’s eyes, but actually control him like a puppet and live inside him indefinitely. Lotte finds she feels more natural as a man, and uses Malkovich to live her love of Maxine as a man. That doesn’t even begin to describe half of the movie, which like all of Kaufman’s work winds and curves in ways we don’t expect, with this movie having one of the most hilariously surreal scenes in cinema history, where Malkovich himself enters the portal into John Malkovich’s head.

Adaptation. concerns the fictionalized account of Kaufman trying to adapt the Susan Orlean book The Orchid Thief into a movie. Unable to figure out how to do it, Kaufman decided to write a script about him trying to write the script. Twin roles by Nicolas Cage (in one of the great performances of the 2000’s) have Charlie juggle his frustration in adapting the book while keeping his artistic integrity against the upstart success of his brother Donald, who seems like a Hollywood wet dream, churning out a script about a serial killer with cliché after cliché and finding much more success than Charlie seems able to find. The movie is famous for Charlie’s speech at the beginning of the movie saying he doesn’t want to write a movie where people find love, learn life lessons, get involved in shootouts and car chases, or anything like that, and as the movie goes along, it becomes the thriller that Charlie didn’t want to write, bringing Meryl Streep’s Susan Orlean and Chris Cooper’s titular orchid thief along for the ride. It sounds twisty and turny, but Kaufman’s writing is so flawless, and Jonze’s assured direction bring the movie to life in a way that I didn’t even realize until leaving the theater that the movie had turned into the one Charlie had talked about in the opening moments of the movie.

I still believe his crowning achievement is the heartbreaking romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Clementine (Kate Winslet) goes to a doctor to get her newly ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey) erased from her memory. In a retaliatory move, Joel decides to do the same thing, but realizes during the process of the erasing that he wants the memories, good and bad, that made Clem have such an impact on his life. Eternal Sunshine has a heart that the others don’t. Not that the first two scripts are heartless, it’s just that dealing with the memories of a relationship gives a lot of space for tugging at the heartstrings. Directed by Michel Gondry, the movie has a lo-fi visual invention not often seen, which goes a long way to revealing the memories that Joel begins to realize he treasures. The absolutely infallible work by Winslet and Carrey is something to behold, and the partially fractured narrative makes it easy for me to revisit again and again.

His most “out there” work as writer, his directing debut Synecdoche, New York needs a re-visit by me. But it also concerns ideas about the identity, as it follows a theater director Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who stages a version of his life, increasingly blurring the lines between fiction and true life. It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I remember a similar surreal humor during things like Caden casting an actor to play him in his play about himself, and then casting an actor to play the actor playing him, and things along those lines. I don’t remember quite the same type of humor throughout the movie, but maybe I was just getting caught up in the movie’s labyrinthine structure and not sitting back and enjoying the ride like I did with the others. We’ll see how I feel once I re-watch it, as I find Kaufman’s work endlessly watchable.

Kaufman is also credited as the writer of George Clooney’s directing debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, about former Gong Show host Chuck Barris’s assertion that he was a CIA assassin the whole time he was in the public eye. Kaufman angrily criticized Clooney’s adaptation and made it known that the movie was far removed from his script. I liked Clooney’s movie, but I would be even more interested to see what Kaufman’s original draft looked like. Nobody in Hollywood has a mind like Kaufman’s, no matter how much we need more people like him.


Bernie is the most normal movie that I’d ever call odd. It is a very odd little movie, based on the true story of Bernie Tiede. Jack Black plays Bernie, an effeminate assistant funeral director in the east Texas town of Carthage who, was put on trial for murdering his 81-year-old companion Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine). This shocks the town, as Bernie was the nicest person imaginable, endlessly generous with money and time, and Marge was “a hateful old bitch.”

We see Bernie be as accommodating as you could possibly be to every family who came through the funeral home. When Marge’s husband dies, it seems like Bernie almost takes her animosity as a challenge, a wall to be climbed over to become her friend. He does, but before long finds her controlling nature holding him back from being himself. We see Bernie shoot her, there’s never a question of his guilt for us in the audience. But writer/director Richard Linklater interviews many of the real people of Carthage who insist that Bernie couldn’t possibly have done it, he was just too nice and honest and Marge was the dragon of the town and nobody was really gonna miss her. District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) has to combat how he’s gonna get a conviction in a town where the people would sooner have the murderer around than they’d have deceased.

All of this is played as the slightest of comedy. Linklater (co-writing with journalist Skip Hollandsworth, on whose article the screenplay is based) doesn’t go for any big laughs, but he doesn’t try to darken the material either. Black’s extraordinary work as Bernie (a performance of truly the highest order) is pitched just this side of caricature. None of Bernie’s mannerisms are camp or insincere at all, Black goes for realism, making the performance all the more astounding in its creation of this odd character. MacLaine seems like she is having the time of her life playing the nasty Marge, and McConaughey shows again that he can be a good actor with the right material. And the right filmmaker, as both he and Black are working with Linklater again. Black previously starred in School of Rock, while McConaughey starred in The Newton Boys as well as getting his breakout role in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.

But back to Bernie. I think it’s the townspeople that take this movie over the top, as they’re the ones the most comedy comes from. Linklater, being from Texas, knows these types of people and doesn’t try to make fun of them, he just lets them bring their own small town humor and charm to the movie, and we’re better off for it. My only real complaint about the movie is that there’s no drama. We know from the beginning that Bernie kills Marge, and we don’t really think that Bernie will get off, no matter how much the people love him, so there’s no dramatic tension. And the only real surprises come from the actors. Still, those surprises are so wonderful that the movie should be seen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


William Shakespeare’s work has been updated for new generations many times over the last 400 years. Actors like Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh made their name on adapting Shakespeare to the silver screen. Ralph Fiennes has been an established and respected actor for many years now, and he decided to make his directorial debut with the first screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus, about a Roman general banished from his homeland who takes up with his former enemy in a plan for destruction of Rome. Often thought of as a “lesser” work in Shakespeare’s canon, Fiennes’ adaptation makes one wonder why it isn’t more famous. It’s a powerful work, flawlessly acted, and gorgeously directed by Fiennes.

Fiennes keeps the language of Shakespeare, while transposing the action to an alternate modern setting. Obviously influenced by the setting of Cuaron’s Children of Men, the police state into which we’re dropped is frighteningly realized. The citizens of Rome are on the brink of riots as General Caius Marcius (Fiennes) conquers the city of Corioles, gaining him the title of Coriolanus. When he refuses to hide his contempt of the common folk, he’s eventually banished, leaving behind his family (a commanding Vanessa Redgrave as his mother, and the ethereal beauty Jessica Chastain as his wife) as he ends up seeking out his former enemy, rebel leader Aufidius (Gerard Butler), to join him in a sacking of Rome. Being a Shakespearean tragedy, things don’t turn out well.
Fiennes is electric in the lead role, his intensity and command of the language giving life to a play I had no prior knowledge of. Gerard Butler is, honestly, the only actor who doesn’t quite acquit himself, and that may only be because of Fiennes’ power making him seem unworthy of being an equal adversary. Redgrave is tremendous as the mother, Volumnia, and the always reliable Brian Cox is also a welcome addition as Roman Senator Menenius. Fiennes assuredness behind the camera is surprising and delightful. He stages every scene in a way that is imminently clear, even if you’re not able to keep up with the language density that plagues many people’s enjoyment of Shakespeare.

I have no idea whether Fiennes plans to bring any more Shakespeare to the screen, and follow the Branagh/Olivier multi-adaptation legacy, but the skill with which he has brought what is allegedly a “lesser” work to the big screen would make me welcome anything he does in the future as a wonderful filmmaker, now more than just being one of our best actors.

Indie Game: The Movie, and are video games art?

Before watching Indie Game: The Movie, I was never quite sure where I stood on the philosophical debate of “are video games art?” Roger Ebert caused an outrage in the gaming community a few years ago when he said that video games are not and cannot be art. There’s even a whole Wikipedia page devoted to the divisiveness of the issue (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_games_as_art). Ebert, as the most famous critic, noted after a presentation by game designer Kellee Santiago, that “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” I think there is a certain understandable logic to Ebert’s thoughts. But I find myself now disagreeing with him fairly decidedly.

Indie game Fez, in which you play as a 2-D character realizing he lives in a 3D world
I think people like Ebert, generally of his “older” generation, view video games as that, just a game. There’s luck of the draw in card games, luck of the roll in board games, and only a finite number of possible logical moves in a more complex game like chess. But Ebert is right that a game “has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.” Video games, on the other hand, have a certain ability to achieve a higher goal. There’s no artistic reason why a video game has to have objectives or the ability to beat the game. There’s only the commercial drawback of it being possible no one will want to buy your game if they can’t defeat the alien invasion with all kinds of cool weapons in your game. But at its base level, that’s no different than people not buying tickets to your movie where stuff doesn’t get blowed up real good. So really is the only reason they are even video games because they’re interactive? Does interactivity negate art? Of course not. There are plenty of interactive art exhibits that are not denigrated because of their interactivity.

Indie game Limbo, an atmospheric, wordless journey through a dangerous black-and-white world
The game designers Indie Game: The Movie follows around talk about the artistic expression that the games provide them. They talk about how video games encompass visual arts, storytelling, and music, while simply being interactive. After all, the interactivity of video games is only allowed by the designer. A player can’t do anything in a game that they were not allowed to do by the constraints of the designer. Therefore, video games still possess the authorial intent that all art contains. We see the designers and programmers painstakingly work and re-work to get the desired effect in the game, while working against the clock to deliver the final product for release. All of that is directly comparable to the technical issues a filmmaker or a musician runs into when prepping their newest movie or album.

Screen shot from Super Meat Boy, one of the subjects of the movie
The designers in the movie talk with disdain about the people who work at the big video game studios as designers and programmers, because it would kill their creativity. But I came to see those jobs like those hundreds of names we see in movie credits, technicians helping realize the visions of the artists in charge. But these guys are like indie filmmakers, who work with smaller budgets and crews and are able to more easily deliver something close to their heart and artistic vision because it had to go through fewer people to get to us, the consumer. I can understand that mentality.

But the ultimate point of the movie and this discussion, to me, was: art video games art? I can now firmly say that yes, I think they are. And Indie Game: The Movie is what finally swayed me to that point.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is one of the great masters of cinema. Through work in both his native Germany and his work here in the US, he’s always given us uncompromising genius. His movies are like no others, and his documentary work has actually made him my favorite documentary filmmaker. I recently watched his 2010 doc The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his 2011 Into the Abyss, and re-watched his 2005 doc Grizzly Man.

Much of Herzog’s work centers on obsession of some kind, perhaps none more obviously than Grizzly Man. Timothy Treadwell spent his last 13 summers in the Alaskan Katmai National Park and Preserve “protecting” the grizzly bears that lived there. Treadwell was a moderately successful amateur diver and failed actor who for unknown reasons felt drawn to nature and to this National Park, where he became obsessed with the wildlife there, the bears in particular. Treadwell filmed his last 5 trips into the wild, and Herzog’s film is made from that footage. Herzog provides the narration in that calming voice of his (the only case in which a German accent has ever been comforting), and guides us through interviews with both friends and family, as well as the park service that repeatedly told Treadwell he was doing the bears more harm than good.

Herzog has always had an ability to, to me, seem to evoke the most human emotions in us, while also acknowledging the ambivalence of the universe to our existence. He never makes fun of Treadwell, though it would’ve been immensely easy to do so. He doesn’t share Treadwell’s affection for the bears, instead only seeing murderous hunger in their eyes. However, he lets Treadwell speak for himself, show his own misguidedness, and receive no judgement from Herzog. Instead, Herzog imbues the film with almost the sad resignation of the fact that Treadwell would eventually be eaten by the bears he wanted to “protect.” That footage, rightly, isn’t in the movie. We only get a scene of Herzog listening to the audio tape (the lens cap had been on the camera) of the deaths of Treadwell and his girlfriend. He tells the owner of the tape not to listen to it, and that it should be destroyed.

It’s not Herzog’s greatest work, but it fits perfectly into the boundless depths of obsession that he has plunged into throughout his career.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an odd movie. It’s about the discovery of the Chauvet Cave in southern France. In this cave were found paintings made somewhere around 32,000 years ago, more than twice as old as the oldest previously discovered human paintings. The area is so tightly controlled that Herzog had only a few days, of only a few hours at a time, in which to film. The crew could only be 4 people, with Herzog himself working the lights, which had to give off no heat and run on battery packs the crew wore around their belts. All of this while only being able to walk on a two foot wide platform, because the cave is so delicate that nothing can be risked to be destroyed in any way.

It’s certainly fascinating to see these paintings, almost all of animals ranging from rhinos and bison, to horses and deer. Some were even drawn with 8 legs, as a way to convey movement, “almost a form of proto-cinema” Herzog says. And at only 89 minutes, it’s the shortest Herzog film I’ve seen, but the only one that’s ever had me checking my watch. Sure, it’s awesome seeing things created by humans 32,000 years ago, but there’s not much more to the movie after that. I didn’t feel like Herzog really had an hour and a half of things to say about this subject. It got almost universal critical approval, and it was the highest grossing independent doc of 2011, but it didn’t grab me like the next movie did.

Into the Abyss is the most thought provoking movie I’ve seen from Herzog. He uses the Texas triple murders committed by teenagers Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, both of whom are in prison (Perry on death row), to study life choices and the ripple effect of how it impacts the people around you. One of the deepest emotionally affecting movies he’s ever made, Herzog interviews victim’s families, officers who worked the cases, Burkett’s father (also in prison, as is his brother, whom we don’t see), and those involved in the prison system. The interview with Michael Perry was 8 days before the then 28-year-old was to be executed, in July of 2010. Herzog makes clear from the start that he’s against capital punishment, but says it only once. He’s not the type of filmmaker to harp on a subject, he lets the film and its subjects speak for themselves.

In the opening scenes, filmed among the unmarked graves of some of those executed by the state of Texas, Herzog talks to the prison minister. When he asks why God would allow the death penalty, the minister doesn’t have an answer. Later, Herzog talks about the execution process with Fred Allen, a former Captain on death row. Allen talks about leading prisoners the ten or so steps from the holding cell, into the execution room, and the protocal for strapping them onto the gurney to be executed. After doing more than 120, by his count, Allen one day couldn’t do it anymore, and at the risk of losing his pension, quit. In my favorite sequence, Allen tells the story of “your dash”, the hyphen on your tombstone between your birth and death, and asks “how do you live your dash? What are you doing with your dash?” It’s the perfect ending note for Herzog’s meditation on life and what we’re all doing with our dashes. Into the Abyss easily fits alongside Herzog’s other masterpieces as a profound work of art from one of the greatest filmmakers in all of cinema.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

Much like her previous two movies, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff is a minimalist little gem that refuses to fit into any sort of mold that we've seen before. It's a western, but it's completely unlike any western I've ever seen. It concerns a small group of pioneers trekking across 1845 Oregon, led by Stephen Meek (a never better Bruce Greenwood). Reichardt successfully evokes the hardship that these settlers came up against, the exhaustion, dehydration, and simply the physical harshness of the land and travelling over it. Michelle Williams continues her streak of brilliance, working with her Wendy and Lucy director again, as Emily Tetherow, the strongest and most vocal of the women of the group.

Meek was hired to lead the pioneers through the dangerous and unforgiving land, but some think he has lost his way and is too proud, or incompetent, to say it. When they capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), it's Mrs. Tetherow and her husband Soloman (Will Patton, also returning to Reichardt's world after Wendy and Lucy) that says they should let him lead the group towards water, of which they're quickly running out. They can't communicate with the Indian, and there are some in the group, specifically the Gately's (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) who think the Indian is leading them into an ambush from his tribe. The paranoia and sense of impending doom don't really ever disipate, letting things fester in the minds of the pioneers and us in the audience.

Most people who dislike the movie have said things along the lines of "it's boring, nothing happens, etc." and I kind of think that's part of Reichardt's point. These people were traversing the land on the hope of finding something, but that doesn't mean that they will. Often times, one day melded into the next, as you rode from one generic valley to the next without any clue of what you're leading towards. I felt a profound sadness as Emily throws an old clock that belonged to her husbands mother, and some chairs out of the back of the wagon, just to ease the load on the oxen as they got further into the depths of the land.

Reichardt shoots the scenery in an oppressive vastness. It's a very lonely movie, as the neverending landscape insulates the group further and further, letting them see far enough to know that they're not close to anything, but with the manifest destiny belief that paradise could be just over the next hill.

The acting in the movie is top notch, especially by Michelle Williams, who has become possibly my favorite actor to watch think. She shows so much with her eyes and body language, and not every actor can tell a story without much dialog. Rod Rondeaux, as the Indian, has the mystery they leads our eyes to him over and over again, as we try to read him and figure out his motives. Is he leading them to water and more? Or his he leading them to certain doom? He certainly doesn't hate the settlers, as he gorgeously sings a lament for one of the men dying from dehydration. Reichardt's final shot lets us decide for ourselves, though I'm not sure what I think

Stephen Meek was a real man, a fur trapper and guide through the old pacific northwest. He even has a path named for him, the Meek Cutoff, a road branching from the Oregon Trail. Greenwood plays him with something of a messiah complex, false humility, but certain intelligence behind his bushy facial hair. Reichardt definitely, from her comments on the movie, wished to make comparison between the divisive historical Meek, and our current times (or at least our former president). I didn't really care about drawing modern comparisons (though I wondered about the choosing of the phrase "stay the course"), I simply looked at the movie self contained, and liked it a great deal.

God Bless America

Bobcat Goldthwait’s God Bless America is the kind of satire we don’t get often enough. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but it also contains enough truth, enough anger, and enough balls to really say something worth saying. What it’s saying isn’t anything new, but that’s okay. The point of the movie is that America has devolved into a celebration of the loudest, stupidest, and meanest among us. Its surface target is reality TV, but it extends down to the stupidity and selfishness we are faced with on a daily basis as well.

At its core it contains a superb performance from Joel Murray as Frank, a depressed man who’s just found out he has a terminal brain tumor. Fired from his job for trying to do something nice for a co-worker that was misinterpreted as creepy, living next door to a white trash couple whose baby is always crying while he lays awake with insomnia and migraines, Frank has reached the end of his rope. Before committing suicide, Frank decides to take a few along with him for the ride, starting with ungrateful reality TV star Chloe, who Frank sees screaming at her dad for daring to buy her a Lexus for her 16th birthday instead of the Cadillac she wanted. When angry teenager Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) witnesses Frank’s killing of Chloe, she convinces him to let her go along with him as they kill people, but “only people who really deserve to die.” Hijinks, of a sort, ensue from there as the duo make their way across the country towards the studio of American Superstarz, the American Idol stand-in that Frank so despises.

The best part about the movie is the brilliant opening 30-40 minutes or so. While the remaining hour isn’t exactly slouching, it doesn’t have the manic ferociousness that the beginning has. I thought maybe Goldthwait would lead us somewhere new as we went along, but really it was just a reiteration of the offenses he presents in the first few moments of the movie. It’s done nicely, but I kinda wish there’d been more as it went along. To be sure, Goldthwait fills the movie with plenty of bitter outrage at what we’ve let our pop culture become, but he doesn’t really have much to add other than “we should be nicer.”

The performances by our two leads are wonderful, Murray in particular makes you realize he’s always been much more than just Bill’s little brother. He’s funny as hell, but also lets plenty of pathos into the mix, as we really feel Frank’s depression. Barr’s character is a little too “psychotic Juno” at times, though maybe by design. Frank even calls her Juno during one scene. But that’s an issue with the character, not with Barr’s terrific work pulling it off.
Yeah, the characters all talk alike, and we don’t really see anything astounding directorially, but the overall feel of the movie is one of freshness and a curious sense of wondering where it was all going to go. I was certainly never bored. And this kinda makes me want to check out more of Goldthwait’s directorial work, since this is his fifth feature. I’ve listened to some of his stand up lately (thank you Pandora) and realize he’s got much more depth to him than Police Academy’s Zed would’ve ever made you think.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 21 albums of the 21st Century

There were a lot of great albums released in the 2000’s. MSN.com recently did their list of the 21 albums of the 21st century. I thought it was a good idea for a post, so I began compiling my own list. There were a lot of artists that deserve a place on the list that didn’t release an album that I thought was cohesive enough, or that I only loved part of (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Janelle Monae, Kings of Leon, Regina Spektor, OutKast, Justin Nozuka, The Roots, and many others fall into this category), and yet my shortlist was about 50 albums or so. I know I’ll likely not have whatever your favorite album was, and I’ve probably forgotten albums that I love as well, but feel free to tell me what you think I’m missing. Some artists that people go nuts for (The White Stripes, Radiohead) will not appear on my list because I’m not a fan, and I don’t claim to be an expert who has heard every album released in the 2000’s, but here we go with my list, chronologically:

D’Angelo – Voodoo (2000)
The definitive groove record of the 2000’s, no neo-soul artist ever really put together an album so thoroughly enjoyable as Voodoo. Front to back, every song grooves like nobody’s business and there’s no let down. Even the great Lauryn Hill couldn’t match D’Angelo’s masterwork. Now where the hell is the follow up?

Sleater-Kinney – All Hands on the Bad One (2000)
Corin Tucker's voice is one of the great instruments in all of rock music, and when combined with Sleater-Kinney’s best group of melodies and pop hooks, combined with the intricate guitar interplay between Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, and the group always infectious punk energy, you have one of the best albums of the 2000’s.

Tenacious D – Tenacious D (2001)
The best comedy album of the decade also has some good music on it. If it was just about laughs, I probably wouldn’t have listened to this so many times over the last 11 years. Kyle Gass is a damn fine guitar player, and Jack Black has an amazingly elastic singing voice. Add the great Dave Grohl behind the drum kit, and it’s a recipe for success.

Corey Harris – Downhome Sophisticate (2002)
Corey Harris is a kind of black music chameleon. He’s released reggae albums, blues albums, and even Mississippi to Mali where he played blues songs with African instrumentation and influence. Downhome Sophisticate (one of my favorite album titles too!) is the best meshing of all his fascinations. There’s a little hip-hop, some blues and rock, and even some Calypso and Zydeco flavored songs. A roots music buffet from one of our great stylists.

Counting Crows – Hard Candy (2002)
Not my favorite album from Counting Crows (that’s 1999’s This Desert Life), but Hard Candy is one of the best pop-rock records I’ve heard. Adam Duritz has an odd way with melody and lyric combos, and this one is no different. I was a little cold to it at first, but it grows in my estimation every time I listen to it.

Ben Harper – Diamonds on the Inside (2003)
As close as Ben will probably ever get to a masterwork, Diamonds on the Inside is another entry that has a lot of influences. There’s gospel, country rock, reggae, and on the climactic song “Picture of Jesus” the presence of Ladysmith Black Mambazo behind Ben’s impassioned lead vocal. It would be among my picks for favorite song of the 2000’s, and the album as a whole, with only a couple of missteps, has to be on this list.

Tom Waits – Real Gone (2004)
No Waits record is perfect, but every one has something brilliant on it. Real Gone is no different, and Waits adds some politics to the mix in the great “Day After Tomorrow”. His gruff voice and odd music has become an inimitable style all his own, and his ability to create characters and atmospheres with a synergy of his lyrics and his music is unsurpassed. Real Gone may not be his best release, but it’s not far behind.

Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine (2005)
I actually prefer Fiona's second album, When the Pawn..., but that came out in '99 and doesn't qualify for the list. After the Jon Brion produced original songs were scrapped (actually all but two), I was worried that Fiona might scrap the whole album. But she went back into the studio to re-work the songs, and actually made them better. I just wish she didn't take so damn long between releases.

David Gray – Life in Slow Motion (2005)
It’s maybe the best rainy day record of the 2000’s, but Life in Slow Motion doesn’t get a lot of love. Some write off Gray’s work as bland, which I’ve always felt his voice makes impossible no matter what the song is. Others didn’t pay attention to it because it didn’t have “Babylon” “This Year’s Love” or a similar hit. But it’s one that I often turn on when the clouds show up, and I think it’s a terrific album from one of the best singer/songwriters around.

Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam (2006)
My pick as the best album of the 2000’s, Pearl Jam has a punk rock energy that none of their other releases have (Eddie Vedder has said the album was inspired by the late Johnny Ramone). It also has the requisite politics, love songs, and angst that all of their albums have, only it’s better. The relentless rock of the first half of the album segues eventually into the emotional final two songs, “Come Back” being maybe my pick as their best song.

Ray LaMontagne – Till the Sun Turns Black (2006)
What actually would be my pick as the best rainy day album of the 00’s, Ray LaMontagne’s second record unfolds with organically used strings and horns, while also letting Ray’s raspy voice take us on the journey of the album. It’s a true album, playing better as a whole than as an individual collection of songs, which I always appreciate.

Ben Kweller – Ben Kweller (2006)
Simply the best pure pop/rock album of the decade. Actually, probably my favorite pop/rock album that doesn't have the name The Beatles on it. My brother had made friends with Ben’s former drummer, so when this one came out and it was Ben playing all of the instruments, there was a certain part of us that wanted it to not be as good as his first two albums. But it was, it was way, way better, and now I’m happy about that.

Derek Trucks Band – Songlines (2006)
Derek Trucks is, at worst, the third best guitarist alive. His skills have been otherworldly since he was just a teenager, but with Songlines, he finally molded his world music-via-Duane Allman sound into something more palatable to the rock world. Singer Mike Mattison makes a nice addition to the group, but make no mistake, this is Derek's show and he doesn't disappoint.

John Mayer – Continuum (2006)
Most people know the lead-off song “Waiting on the World to Change”, which I thought was a remarkable political statement for a pop star of Mayer’s stature, but not everyone knows the genius of the album as a whole, including the signature Mayer song “Gravity”. It’s Mayer’s guitar playing (the guy does need to cut loose more, though, he can play his ass off), and much more mature songwriting that really elevate Continuum into the realm of “best of the decade”. Even he has said he’ll probably never better this record.

The Flaming Lips – At War with the Mystics (2006)
Ah, The Flaming Lips. Eccentric geniuses of my home state of Oklahoma. Although 1999’s The Soft Bulletin is their masterpiece, At War with the Mystics has “Mr. Ambulance Driver” and “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” probably their two best individual songs. Like all of their albums, it plays best as a whole, and it plays wonderfully.

The Black Keys – Attack and Release (2008)
The Black Keys have been a favorite band of mine for a while, so I was slow to warm to the multitude of strange new sounds that were added to the mix by producer Danger Mouse on Attack and Release. As I listened to the album more and more, the songs grew, the arrangements seemed just as organic as they should be, and I was bowled over by its greatness. Dan Auerbach's voice is one of the best out there, and Patrick Carney can't be underestimated as a drummer. I was initially wary of Danger Mouse's presence, but he proved himself to be in the upper echelon of producers, able to bring a different side out of the duo without pushing his own vision over theirs. They started really achieving the recognition they deserve for their next record, 2010’s Brothers, but this is their best album.

Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple (2008)
This album was doomed from the moment “Crazy”, from 2006’s St. Eslewhere, became one of the defining songs of recent times. The follow up album couldn’t possibly have any songs to compete, and the release was destined to be forgotten by the listening public. But listen closely, and you’ll hear the great “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul” and “Run” alongside a host of other terrific songs that make up a superior album.

Hockey – Mind Chaos (2009)
With the same sort of retro-new wave vibe as The Strokes or The Killers, but with more interesting music and lyrics, Hockey got dropped from their record label (Sony) before climbing back with their album Mind Chaos, which eventually got released by Capitol Records in 2009. It’s a great, fun, record. If it doesn’t sound particularly “new” or “fresh”, as some have argued, I’d ask: why does it have to? I thought all it had to do was be good.

Paolo Nutini – Sunny Side Up (2009)
Miles beyond his debut, Paolo Nutini’s sophomore album is something of a masterpiece. He genre hops like crazy, going from the neo-ska of the opener “10/10”, to the Otis Redding influenced “Coming Up Easy” and “No Other Way”, to country, folk, old school swing jazz, and others. Actually, my least favorite song on the album is the lead single, “Candy”, which is a fine song, but not indicative of the overall quality of the record. If this list were ranked, this one would certainly be near the top.

Hanson – Shout it Out (2010)
The most surprising entry on the list, to me anyway. Despite wanting to love all Oklahoma artists, “MMMBop” came out when I was about 14 or so, and I became an instant hater of the blonde brothers and everything they did. This hatred ebbed over the years as I came to think “well, in the era of boy bands, at least they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments.” Then when I first heard this album, I was blown away by the impossibly pure pop the trio had infused into their take on old school soul and r&b. It’s melodically one of the strongest albums I’ve heard, and bolstered by the singles “Give a Little” and “Thinking ‘Bout Something”, this album had a bit of the success they actually deserved this time.

Adele – 21 (2011)
The only entry I share with MSN’s list, its inclusion in undeniable. One would think, after starting the album with this generations “Respect”, the powerhouse “Rolling in the Deep”, that the album would have gone sharply downhill. Instead, Adele crafts an album full of rhythmic and funky soul-pop. Adele’s voice is remarkable, powerful without having to push, gritty and pure at the same time, with endless range and impeccable phrasing. Honestly, the only song I didn’t care for is not even Adele’s song, it’s her cover of The Cure’s “Love Song”. The same was true of her debut, 19, where the cover of Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” was sub-par. Unlike most divas, Adele is not a stylist who does better with songs written by others, she’s best left to her own material. She suits it and it suits her perfectly.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Artist

If you had told me last year that the front-runner for Best Picture at this year's Oscars was a silent movie from France, I would have told you you were crazy. But director Michel Hazanavicius has crafted just such a movie, in a wonderful little movie called The Artist. It takes place, as Singin' in the Rain did, at that moment where sound came in to destroy the reign of silent movies. "The French George Clooney" Jean Dujardin is our hero, George Valentin, a Hollywood superstar who crosses paths with Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) on her rise to fame. Not strictly silent, and not strictly French (Americans John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, and Penelope Ann Miller also star), The Artist pays tribute to old silent comedies and melodramas, combining both beautifully to make one of the best movies of 2011.

We follow George Valentin as he starts on top of the movie business, only to be knocked down when talkies come around, because "nobody wants to hear me speak". His marriage is falling apart, and he meets young Peppy Miller, whom he takes under his wing a bit, as she goes from extra in his spy action pictures, to full on super stardom of her own, going from "it girl" to THE big name in Hollywood. As Peppy's star grows with her success in the talkies, George's fame falls hard, as audiences begin rejecting silent pictures altogether. It's a classic (i.e. cliche) storyline that we've seen a million times before, but like all cliches, when it's done right it still works, and it is most certainly done right here.

The movie has many wonderful little scenes, when George and Peppy have a little dance off, only seeing each others legs. Another where they literally cross paths as George is leaving the studio after being fired/quitting, and Peppy comes in, excited about finally having a studio contract. Hazanavicius frames this scene in a wonderful set of shots on the studio stairwell, with George on bottom, looking up to the future star Peppy. My favorite scene though, is when George gets Peppy a job as a ballroom dancing extra in his current movie, and we see take after take of George messing up the scene as he gets distracted by this beautiful young woman who's found her way into his life. It's terrifically romantic, and really sets up the melodrama of George's fall from grace much more powerfully than I would've expected.

I have no idea whether The Artist will win Best Picture at the Oscars, but I know that I will definitely be rooting for it. Dujardin is wonderful in the lead role, certainly deserving of a Best Actor Oscar if he ends up winning. And although Bejo (Mrs. Hazanavicius, by the way) is nominated as Supporting Actress for who know what reason (it's obviously a lead role), she'd deserve the award if she won too. Hazanavicius controls everything in a way that really works well for the movie, and it takes a certain kind of filmmaker to pull this kind of trick off. Modern silents are not unheard of (acclaimed Canadian auteur Guy Maddin has made three), but Hazanavicius's ability to pay homage to an era and a way of filmmaking while also crafting a terrific crowd pleaser like this should not go unnoticed.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The worst movie of 2011 - Mars Needs Moms

The worst movie of 2011, and one of the worst I've ever seen, Mars Needs Moms is just as good as its title would lead you to believe. Shot in the same motion capture style the works for The Adventures of Tintin, this movie is dark, dull, depressing, and terrible in every conceivable way. I don't wish to inflict this movie on anyone, nor do I wish to write any more about than I need to, suffice to say that this even is up there with Southland Tales, Moulin Rouge!, Law Abiding Citizen, and xXx as the worst movies of the 2000's.

#5 - The Muppets

5. The Muppets
One I'm already wondering if I placed too low on the list, this newest Muppets adventure gets everything right that you could want, the songs, the humor, the just plain lovableness of the whole crew, there's not really a lot to complain about here. Jason Segel, after the success of the wonderful Forgetting Sarah Marshall, got the chance to write and star in his dream project, another Muppets movie. He created one in the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney tradition of "let's put on a show to save the ________" and the lack of trying to "update" the Muppets is exactly what works so well here. People love the Muppets, have a childhood connection to them (if you're of my-ish generation) and don't want them to be "rebooted" or "reimagined", we just want more. That's exactly what we get. Nothing revolutionary, just sensational Muppet-y wonderfulness. With assured direction from James Bobin, and great music from Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie, The Muppets is a great kids movie and one that I hope we'll be getting a sequel to soon. I could use some more Swedish Chef in my life, that's for sure.

#4 - The Adventures of Tintin

4. The Adventures of Tintin

I remember Tintin from the animated show that I used to watch on HBO when I was a kid. I loved the stories, but didn't remember much about them other than what Tintin looked like, and his little dog Snowy always at his side. I didn't understand why none of my friends ever understood what I was talking about, until a few years ago when I heard Steven Spielberg was looking to make a Tintin movie, and I started researching. Finding out that the Tintin stories (comic books from Belgian creator Herge, who gave Spielberg his blessing to make a Tintin movie before his death in 1983) were a worldwide phenomenon everywhere but here in the US, it finely made sense why none of my friends knew what I was talking about. Teaming with Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson, Spielberg gives us our first big screen Tintin adventure. Sadly, I read that Spielberg was intent on doing the movie in motion capture animation the way that Robert Zemeckis had done The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. I'm not a fan of the style, so I was understandably disappointed when I found that out.

Thankfully, Spielberg handles is perfectly! The animation is astoundingly gorgeous, and the movie runs through its 107 minutes wonderfully. There's a bit too many action scenes, one involving cranes should've been cut if you ask me, everything is fun and adventurous and really comes off like an animated Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a tremendous thrill ride, it's funny, it's exciting, and I want more. It's already doubled its budget at the worldwide box office, so I hope that since Peter Jackson is supposed to do the next installment that he'll get right to it after he finishes The Hobbit. I can't wait for more Tintin-y goodness.

#3 - Moneyball

3. Moneyball

Director Bennett Miller's previous movie, Capote, was one of the best movies of its year, so it's not too surprising to find that Moneyball is one of the best of 2011. Built around a phenomenal performance by Brad Pitt, Moneyball tells the story of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, and his quest to put together a team that will compete with the New York Yankees every year, on about a quarter of the budget. Beane realizes that he can't do that by approaching the same way the Yankees do, he's gotta find a new way of thinking. He stumbles upon Peter Brand (wonderfully played by Jonah Hill), a Yale economics graduate who has startling fresh ways of evaluating players. Almost no one but Billy and Peter believe in their approach, as baseball is an old game and its thinking highly ingrained in those involved. A's manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, terrific, but sadly wasted in a small role) is the personification of that old baseball thinking that Billy has to fight against, he doesn't understand (or care) how wildly inventive what Billy is trying to do is, and takes the players Billy gives him and plays them according to his own approach to the game.

One need not know about baseball to follow the movie, it may add some depth, but the movie isn't really a sports movie so much as it is about this guy trying to change the way people think, while having his livelihood on the line if it doesn't work out. Wonderfully handled by Miller as the director, and carried by the performances of Hill and especially Pitt, who is right up there with George Clooney and Matt Damon when it comes to getting consistently great performances from our biggest stars. A really terrific movie.

#2 - Midnight in Paris

2. Midnight in Paris

I've written about this one before (back in June), so I'll just say that it hasn't diminished in my mind, and I was happily surprised to see that it became Woody Allen's most financially successful movie of his career. It's a wonderful little romance movie, and my #2 of 2011.

The best movie of 2011 - 50/50

So, 2011 was not a great year for me writing wise. I only had 31 entries on this blog, less than half of previous years, but it was because life happens and I didn't always have the time to write. Now that I have the time, I'm trying to get back into it, and I might as well offer up my summation of 2011.

Now, I only saw 19 movies in the theater this year. I'm trying to catch up with as many 2011 movies as possible through Netflix, but it'll take awhile before all of the movies I want to see come out on DVD. So with that in mind, I'm only going to present a top 5, and a bottom 1 for 2011 until I can better judge the year (whenever that may be, there are still 2010 movies I wanna see but haven't caught up with yet):

1. 50/50

The only movie this past year that I'd classify as a masterpiece, 50/50 kinda came outta nowhere at me. I love all of the actors that are in it, but had never heard of the writer Will Reiser, nor the director Jonathan Levine. So I was taken aback while sitting in my theater seat, watching the directorial command of tone and storytelling, and the wonderful evocation of a multitude of emotions from the writing.

It tells the story of Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who finds out he has a rare cancerous tumor on his spine. He's told his chances of survival are only 50/50, and his best friend Kyle's remark that "50/50? If you were a casino game you'd have the best odds. You're gonna be fine." doesn't help. He's sent to a therapist, Katherine, to help him cope with his life changes, but he's only her third patient, and ends up helping her grow as much as she helps him. Adam also has to deal with his overbearing mother, and his inconsistent girlfriend, while his whole life is turned upside down with cancer.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves again that he's our finest young actor (not that we needed reminding after movies like Mysterious Skin, 500 Days of Summer, Brick, and The Lookout), and this is among his best work. His journey as he goes through the few highs and many lows of cancer treatment is rendered with such honesty and heart from Gordon-Levitt that I hope he's not forgotten when Oscar time comes around, it's the best performance I saw this year. Not to be out done, the supporting cast is flawless, especially Angelica Huston as the mother. Her love for her son, while also caring for her Alzheimer stricken husband, is palpable and Huston's subtlety in the performance is heart wrenching in some scenes, it's another award worthy piece of work from her. While Anna Kendrick is very good as the therapist, it's not all that different from her work in Up in the Air as George Clooney's young tag along. The real surprise for me was in Seth Rogen as best friend Kyle. He brings a ton of humor, and a real dramatic weight to his character.

But the best thing about this movie is that it's a movie about a young man getting cancer, it's very heavy in some moments, but it is extremely funny. While I would categorize Rogen as the "comic relief" the movie really doesn't need it as writer Will Reiser finds the humor in most situations without cheapening them. One of the best examples is that of Adam chemotherapy friends, who convince him (after he initially declines) that eating their weed-infused brownies is about the only way to get through something like chemo.

It ends quite perfectly, and there wasn't a single second of this movie that rang false for me, easily the best movie I've seen of 2011.