AS IF PHISH FANS NEED ANOTHER ALTERED STATE TO ENHANCE THEIR CONCERT VIEWING…
Review by Marc Berman
I will start off by saying that you absolutely need to be an avid Phish fan to get any enjoyment out of “Phish 3D”. As I am huge Phish fan, finding myself at shows whenever possible, I could not resist the opportunity of seeing them in 3D, especially since it is only in theaters for a single week.
Phish got back together in 2009 after a long 5 years of soul searching and drug arrests, and it seems like they intend to stay together for the long haul. Festival 8 took place on Halloween weekend at the Polo Grounds in Indio, California (known for the Coachella festival). They are essentially massive temporary cities of people that come to camp, party, smoke tons of weed, and listen to eight full sets of their favorite guys from Vermont. If you don’t know already, the band consists of Trey Anastasio (guitar, lead vocals), Mike Gordon (bass), Page Mcconnell (keys), and Jon Fishman (drums) who are four buddies that met while at the University of Vermont.
The film opens with the lively “AC/DC Bag”, which is a crown favorite and a logical choice to open up the film. You notice the 3D effects right away on Fishman’s Drum Kit and you get a real sense of the depth of the stage and how far the guys are actually standing from one another. I was more impressed with the 3D effects than I expected to be. The balloons and glowsticks in the crowd seemed like they were right in front of your face.
The next song was “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan”, which is a track from the new album “Joy”, kind of a hypnotic tune that has grown on me since the release of the album. “Undermind” was the next selection which I thought was a strange choice to put in the film, but it was surprisingly good, certainly not a favorite of Phish fans. Next is the well known, “Tweezer” which went on for quite some time and went right into “Maze” which was one of my favorites of the film – great energy and lots of great 3D effects, including awesome visuals of these huge fire-breathing sculptures on the field. The final song of the first section of the film was “Mike Song”, which is obviously performed mainly by Mike and is another crowd favorite, a solid performance.
On 11/1, the band performed a full acoustic set at 12 noon and the next section highlighted this rare occurrence. “Back on the Train” happens to be a song that has been a favorite song of Trey’s solo career, which he often played acoustically when on the road with one of his many solo band incarnations. The Phish acoustic version was pretty much the same, always a tune I enjoy. The rest of the acoustic selections included “Strange Design”, “The Curtain With”, “Sleep Again”, “Train Song” and finally culminating with “Wilson”, which drove the afternoon crowd into a THC-rattled frenzy.
The only real behind-the-scenes footage (which I really wish there was more of) was a rehearsal of “Suzy Greenberg” with members from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, which consisted of a 3-piece horn section, Sharon Jones and another girl on backups. It was a very small glimpse, but very cool. It prepares the viewers for the final section of the film.
The Phish Halloween tradition is that they create a musical costume by covering an entire album by another artist. At Festival 8, there were a bunch of possible albums, but the final choice of “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones wasn’t revealed until the band hit the stage. “Loving Cup” is already a song that is in heavy rotation with the band and it always amazing, this version with the horns and the backup vocals was the best I have ever heard…totally amazing. “Happy” was next followed by “Shine a Light” which was amazing, and finally “Soul Survivor”, which was led by Fishman, who is not known for having the best voice, but it was OK.
The film wrapped up with a great version of “Suzy Greenberg”, which was a final chance for the film to have some of that Phish energy, and culminating in “Tweezer Reprise”, which is always the case when the band plays “Tweezer” at another point during the show.
This certainly wasn’t the best concert film I have ever seen, but seeing it in 3D was pretty savvy. I am pretty into Phish, so they really can’t do too much to wrong me, but this definitely had the potential to be a whole lot better. I think it fell short with song selections, I would have liked to have seen some more intense jams and things that Phish is known for, but overall I enjoyed it.
Directed by: Lawrence Jordan & Eli Tishberg
Release Date: April 30, 2010
Distributor: AEG Live
SPOILER ALERT: RICHARD DREYFUSS DIES EARLY
Review by Paul Preston
Maybe it was the death many thought should’ve happened at the end of “Jaws”, or maybe Dreyfuss, after being blackmailed, apparently, to appear in “Piranha 3D”, lobbied to put it in his contract that he get out early. Whatever the reason Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss had to be done with his involvement in “Piranha 3D” about five minutes in, he was luckier than me.
“Piranha 3D” is another in a series of great kitschy throwback concepts with cult potential that fails to connect, following on the heels of “Snakes on a Plane”. I know not to take this movie seriously, taking my cue off the director and all the actors, but I also didn’t have the fun I’m sure they were certain I would have.
The biggest major distraction is the horrible 3D conversion. The most solid proof yet that the third dimension is only successful in animated movies, “Piranha 3D” might have you checking to see if your contacts are in correctly, as parts of the screen are blurry and all the foreground images are surrounded by the haze you see coming off of the hood of a hot car after it’s been running for an hour in August.
Just when I was wondering what Christopher Lloyd has been doing lately, harsh reality set in as I learned the “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” star has gone mad. With no further calls from Robert Zemeckis, Lloyd is relegated to giving this downright LOONY performance in “Piranha 3D”. Elisabeth Shue isn’t aware what movie she’s in, adding gravitas as a local sheriff rescuing her kids from the deadly piranha attack (need I deliver the plot? ‘Cause I realized this is the first time I’ve mentioned it – ancient piranhas are, for reasons unknown, unearthed from under a lake bed and wreak havoc. You said that with me, didn’t you?)
The characters make really stupid decisions in this film, and that’s made up for with excessive nudity, and the film delivers TONS of blood. This brings me to the one aspect of “Piranha 3D” I really respect. They used practical blood effects! That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but more and more now movies are going for the CGI blood, which worked in what’s basically a cartoon in “300”, but in something like “Machete” and “Ninja Assassin”, computers can’t take the place of real arterial spray. Kudos to the waters flowing red in “Piranha”, but the film is otherwise base and unappealing.
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Release Date: August 20, 2010
Run Time: 88 Minutes
Distributor: Dimension Films
THE PLURAL OF CRAP
Review by Justin Bowler
Easily the worst “Predator” movie of the franchise (And THAT is saying something)!
SPOILER ALERT! THIS MOVIE IS TERRIBLE AND I GIVE SPECIFIC EXAMPLES. (With that said, I still recommend you read the review and save yourself 1.5 hours of your life.)
Some movies I can accept as bad and move on without being exceptionally harsh. However, when Hollywood reboots/re-imagines/capitalizes-on property that already exists, naturally it merits a comparison to the original. So, I feel completely justified in examining every excremental ingredient that went into creating this boiling hot pot of fecal stew.
It seems to me that a filmmaker really has to go out of his way to make a film this bad. It is one of the worst films I have seen in a long, long, LONG, L-O-N-G TIME! It isn’t just bad. It is the trifecta of bad. It has terrible over-acting, excruciatingly awful writing, and beyond unbearable direction. I almost feel as if the whole world isn’t in on the massive joke that Robert Rodriguez and Nimrod Antal are playing on us. Let us take a look at each leg of this fantastically awful film.
While I personally think Adrien Brody is an exceptional actor who not only earned his Oscar, but also had an extremely emotional and awesome acceptance speech, his talents were lost in this film. Clearly, he was directed to play this character as “tough”. And as everyone knows, all tough characters speak in raspy and gravelly voices. Unfortunately, Adrian’s was better suited for a sex hotline, than an action hero. With many laugh out loud moments, he delivers a particularly good comedic performance.
I have a 7-year old nephew, Jeffrey, and I have heard the dialogue he uses when he is playing with his Batman action figures. Now, I can’t personally verify that he was hired to write the dialogue for this film, but I have a pretty good idea that he did. Oh, I’m not saying he came up with the storyline. That would be absurd, he’s only 7. However, with the low level of dialogue in this film, one wonders if the writer was either a child (who has only seen low budget crappy action films from Bulgaria), or if the writer speaks English as a second language AND his only writing credits actually include… low budget crappy action films from Bulgaria (You make the call… the writers don’t have many credits on IMDB). (But, my sister has been calling my nephew “Alex” a lot lately.) (Hmmm.)
Shouldn’t the director see the plot holes if the writer doesn’t? Early in the film, one of the characters, who was aware of the 1987 “Predator” event, conveys that the only survivor covered himself in mud so he would not be seen by the Predator. Well, the experienced warrior, or the smart warrior, or even the slightly better than retarded warrior, would immediately cover himself with mud. Instead, our “heroes” completely disregard this info altogether (thus making the entire conversation pointless). (BTW, a good writer would have cut the pointless dialogue.) (But, really, I can’t expect my 7-year old nephew to think of everything, so I blame the director.) Next, the “heroes” come across a Predator’s gun, cloaking helmet, and body armor. After seeing it demonstrated on a human (so they can see that THEY CAN USE it), they disregard it, instead they, apparently, load up on some random FLARES. (Understand, these weren’t super flares. They weren’t magic flares. They weren’t even good flares. They were just flares. (You know the kind… the ones that light up the area, alert the Predator to your position, and then go out 15 seconds later.)) Finally (and the most absurd), in the finale, our “hero” has the drop on the Predator… I will set the scene. First, Adrien Brody takes off his shirt. (There is no reason for this, other than we needed to see he is more than just a guy with a tough voice.) Second, he lights everything on fire. This is so the evil Predator won’t be able to see anything with his heat sensitive vision (Remotely clever, I’ll admit). Then, it gets a little unclear… I’m not sure if the Predator forgets how to take off his helmet so he can look at things with regular eyes… or if the Predator just is too intimidated to look on Adrian Brody with his shirt off, but FOR SOME REASON the Predator keeps his helmet on, remaining “blind” so Adrien can go after him with a hatchet. (Yes, that’s right, I said hatchet.) “Why not a gun?” you ask. EXCELLENT QUESTION!!!!!!! It wasn’t because he didn’t have one, because he did, less than THIRTY SECONDS BEFORE. Yet, he uses a hatchet, and the Predator gets the drop on him. Then, it is up to someone else to pick up the gun Adrien should have used in the first place. The entire sequence is stupid, contrived and amateur. But, at the same time, that is so representative of the entire film. And these are just highlights. I have not even mentioned the overused camera shots to “show suspense” and the absurd and unnecessary twists in the story.
I am very surprised that Robert Rodriguez had his fingers in this fresh, hot baked pie of crap.
Skip it. (And tell your friends to skip it.) (In fact, tell strangers on the street to skip it while you are at it.) I give it half of a star.
Directed by: Nimrod Antal
Release Date: July 9, 2010
Run Time: 107 Minutes
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
NOTHING SAYS “PERSIAN” LIKE JAKE GYLLENHAAL
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Review by Paul Preston
Did Jerry Bruckheimer produce “Prince of Persia”? Yes. Does it look like he did? Yes. Is that because it’s good? No.
Have you ever Googled Jerry Bruckheimer? Sure, it’s a profitable resume, but it’s full of bad movies, successful or not: “Days of Thunder”, “Pearl Harbor”, “Gone in Sixty Seconds”, “Bad Company”, “Déjà vu”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “G-Force”. All bad. But still, his films will be touted as “From the producer of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’”. Oh, yeah! The FIRST one was GREAT!
That’s the problem with Jerry. You could make a list of equally good movies he’s made because money and size don’t seem to be an issue with his projects: “Beverly Hills Cop”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Crimson Tide”, “American Gigolo” and “The Ref”.
If the pendulum swings between good and bad with each film, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” is a definite swing towards the bad. And although there are levels of ineptitude throughout the movie, greenlighting this awful project falls first on Bruckheimer. I blame him.
By now, this movie is three plus weeks old. I was so uninspired in ANY way by this movie, I couldn’t even bring myself to write about it until today. Unfortunately, the awkward scenes and over-production etched in my brain haven’t left my noggin since I saw it. I think I was also secretly hoping that might happen…
“Prince of Persia” was directed by the once-great Mike Newell, a director known for relationship comedies and dramas like “Enchanted April”, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and the outstanding “Donnie Brasco”. In 2005, he tasted big-budget action moviemaking by helming “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and now, apparently, is hooked, as he returns to bring the Ubisoft videogame “Prince of Persia” to life with unintelligible flair.
The climax and finale of this movie don’t make sense. If you like special effects, there are plenty of them to distract you from the fact that what you’re watching DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. Previous setups get ignored, characters act irrationally, it just doesn’t make any sense and the worst part is that I want to go into detail about how much it fails to follow comprehension, but I’d be invoking spoilers. As a critic, I feel the need to adhere to the don’t-spoil-it mantra, and I feel icky remaining beholden to something that doesn’t make sense.
The performances aren’t good, either, and fail to save the film. Jake Gyllenhaal has beefed himself up to play an action hero (I already thought he was beefed up for “Jarhead”, a much more worthy film to get ripped for). My history with Jake is spotty. When he first came on the scene, he bored me to tears in movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Moonlight Mile”. It seemed, however, that he was turning things around with “Jarhead” and “Brokeback Mountain”. Alas, the pendulum has swung here, too, and poor Jake just looks lost as the hero/warrior type. He stumbles his large frame around the desert with no real charm and no chemistry with Gemma Arterton.
Arterton is saddled with playing the worst kind of character in this type of action movie. She spends the majority of her on-screen time spouting (loudly) the rules of the mystical dagger that stirs up trouble in the film with its ability to turn back time. She’s always yelling shit like, “THE DAGGER MUST BE RETURNED TO THE MYSTICAL CAVE WHERE ONLY THE ONE WHO IS CHOSEN CAN ENTER WITH IT.” Boring. Brain-cavingly dull stuff.
Alfred Molina adds decent humor to the proceedings and Ben Kingsley adds clout, but not much else. That leaves a bunch of character actors playing Gyllenhaal’s brothers, all vying for the throne. Two weird things about that:
– They mostly overact in that “Let me at ‘em” kind of way when discussing overthrowing a neighboring kingdom
– And they’re all British. It’s that thing again where all the Persians speak with a British dialect. I get it, Ben Kingsley’s British, but Jake Gyllenhaal actually ADDS a British dialect to be a more authentic PERSIAN. Again, weird.
I suppose the stakes shouldn’t be high when going to an adaptation of a video game. I can see why they went to Bruckheimer. They want a hit. I wanted a good movie.
The El Capitan Theater in Hollywood had, on display, the magical dagger that turns back time. Should I:
– Kill myself with it after seeing “Prince of Persia”?
– Go back in time and stop Disney from making it?
Directed by: Mike Newell
Release Date: May 28, 2010
Run Time: 116 Minutes
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN 2
Review by Paul Preston
In the case of Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood”, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
This is not the story of the swashbuckling outlaw that fights against King John for the poor people of Nottingham. Instead, this script plays out more like “X-Men: Origins – Robin Hood”, where the film ends with the merry archer we all know and love. The Robin Hood Scott and five-time collaborating star Russell Crowe create is so sober, so battle-weary, he’s tougher to love. That doesn’t mean that his story isn’t interesting or complicated enough to admire. It’s the kind of movie you’ll go back and forth on again and again like an ex-boyfriend you’re not sure if you should keep dating.
We’re thrust right in the middle of a huge, Ridley Scott-esque epic battle from the opening scene, as Robin is part of Richard the Lionheart’s army just returned from the Crusades. The mercurial Lionheart seems to take a liking to Robin, but he nevertheless throws him in the stockade for being harshly honest. But soon King Richard is slain, and Robin and his counterparts escape and happen upon another adventure, that of returning the King’s crown to the Queen. During this mission, they are also charged with returning the sword of a dying soldier to his father. The soldier’s name is Robert Loxley and soon Robin ends up assuming the dead man’s name and identity, and he falls for Loxley’s wife, Maid Marion.
So, there’s a lot going on, but don’t get all catty, ‘cause that’s really only the first half hour or so. I haven’t revealed too much. And if it feels like Robin Hood himself, the title character is a participant in a larger tapestry of a story, you’re right. “Robin Hood” is less about following the notorious outlaw as it is seeing how the events of the day built him up to finally taking a stand against the politics and politicians of the day.
Like “Wolverine”, “Revenge of the Sith” or other origin stories, you know how the film’s going to end, leaving the resulting films with a handful of drama, but no palpable sense of threatening danger.
Earlier this year I reviewed “Edge of Darkness” and admittedly couldn’t get enough Mel Gibson, despite his flawed personal life. Another Aussie who gets a lot of grief for his behavior is Russell Crowe, but he, as well, is pretty solid in nearly every film he’s in. It’s an odd bit of casting in that he’s perfect for this serious telling of the Robin Hood tale, but I can’t imagine he’d be that good if Ridley Scott were telling the tale of Robin vs. The Sheriff of Nottingham, as the glint in the eye and the wise quips would have to zip out of Crowe’s persona like an arrow out of Robin’s bow, and that would require more selling to get me to believe I’d see it (although his part in the GREAT movie “3:10 to Yuma” showed that cocky nature).
Guess what?!…Cate Blanchett is very good. She’s ALWAYS very good (except in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, which only has one good moment in the entire film, and she wasn’t in it), but there is one awkward kiss Robin and Marion share on a blood-soaked battlefield. She’s such a strong presence, everywhere else Blanchett succeeds, her strong point may not be “maid”. Although his screen time is brief, Danny Huston is memorable as Lionheart. Huston, also in “Edge of Darkness”, is getting to be a sure-thing casting bet, and I’m a big fan.
Speaking of sure-thing casting bets, “Robin Hood” gives Mark Strong another meaty villain role. After “Stardust” and “Sherlock Holmes”, he’s somehow succeeding at not seeming like the same guy in every villainous role, but frequently getting the nod when movies need a bad guy. The Merry Men are largely character actors really enjoying some time in a higher-profile role, especially Kevin Durand as Little John, who wears dumb beefcake well on his sleeve, while remaining likeable.
Production values are solid throughout, as you would expect in a Ridley Scott film. Lush cinematography and authentic re-creation of place and time fill the screen. The score by Marc Streitenfeld is good, providing a staccato accentuation to the fast-moving action. The editing was good, but it had to try and handle a re-occurring problem with the picture in that the battle scenes didn’t have enough variation. The battle at the castle and the battle at the village and the battle at the beach were all very similar, from staging to cutting to choreography, with only a few notable exceptions in each arena. The unfortunate effect of that move is that the scenes end up being only bludgeoning and less effective.
And so can be summed up the whole film, a lot of sound and fury signifying…..not exactly nothing, but less than what I desired. The real drive of Robin Hood and his life and loves were never delivered on as personal a level as I hoped. Again, he was swept up in a the greater expanse of a continent-wide power struggle between English factions and the French. I can’t imagine millions of moviegoers are going to get swept up in the continent-wide power struggles between English factions and the French.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Release Date: May 14, 2010
Run Time: 140 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
SEX. CHECK. DRUGS. CHECK. ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. CHECK.
Review by Joel Frost
The most striking thing about “The Runaways”, Floria Sigismondi’s film about the all-girl rock group of the same name, is that even as it navigates its way through a certain amount of standard rock-biopic fare, it is telling quite a unique story. A band in its early stages, a meteoric rise, the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll, the pissing on the guitars of the asshole headlining band while they’re on-stage. It’s all there, of course. What makes the film different, and what made The Runaways, themselves, unique is not exactly what they were doing, but that they were doing it at all. The Runaways were the first commercially successful all-girl hard rock band… one of the first all-girl rock bands at all… and try as hard as they could to fuck it all up with their wild and intoxicated judgement, they were actually pioneers. Rock and roll is still a bit of a boy’s club, but in 1975 it was almost exclusively so. Girls didn’t play electric guitars, as Joan Jett’s guitar teacher explained to her, as he tried to teach her “On Top of Old Smokey.” With assistance from a producer and a lot of grrl power, The Runaways helped turn that all around.
At the beginning of “The Runaways”, we meet Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), just as she gets her period for the first time. While it seems a little late for that in relation to Cherie’s age (15), it’s a poignant moment for the film… she’s not a girl anymore. She’s growing up fast, in the ways that an alcoholic/often absent Father and a distant, soon-to-leave-altogether Mother help spur along. She and her twin sister Marie rely on each other for support, and Cherie dreams of stardom.
Meanwhile, Joan Jett (Kristin Stewart) is in the midst of her own, somewhat similar struggle. She’s got no twin sister to rely on (or to rely on her), but she’s also adrift in the world of the 1970’s teenage girl with no parents to speak of. Her spirit and drive lead her to Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a record producer who she recognizes. He’s a no-bullshit extrovert who takes a shine to Joan and soon he’s got her and drummer Sandy West rehearsing together with a promise of rock stardom. He finds Cherie in a sweaty and dirty rock club in her Bowie make-up and pulls her on-board. Robin (Alia Shawkat) and Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) are there to round out the line-up. Fowley directs, cajoles and insists that the girls understand and take seriously what they’re involved in. The band begins to take shape, fashioned by their drive and talent, Fowley’s direction, and the inevitable struggle against a hostile reception.
It’s in this that we understand what made The Runaways a good rock band, beyond a gimmick. Their edge is sharpened on the hard stone of the establishment of popular music. There’s irony here, of course, and the girls seem to know it, all while Fowley refuses to allow them to fall victim to it. Rock and roll was born from rebellion and was meant to be the voice of youth. The musical sexuality of teenagers. Yet, these teenagers must run up against the same latent (and sometimes overt) sexism that rock and roll, at its soul, challenges. It’s your parents who don’t want girls to rock, and your parents have no place in rock and roll. The Runaways were helping to carve out and define the freedom of rock music, into an avenue that it somehow hadn’t yet truly explored. It makes perfect sense while being utterly shocking: up until this band came along, rock had little room for girls, unless those girls were screaming about the boys.
It’s no shame on the members of The Runaways that they were helped along by a male producer. They were kids, after all… something the film allows them to be. The vibrating freedom of the youth and sexuality of these girls is palpable, scene to scene. The film is not exploitive with this, but it does not shy away, and that is very important. To attempt to neuter or clean up their history would have been a crime and disservice. It’s perhaps easier to imagine, via the prism of our moralizing culture of today, that the sexuality of 15-17 year-old girls is at all ignorable in the context of a story like this. It’s not. The camera works mainly in close shots, giving us a hazy yet unflinching view of who these people are as they try to create and have some control over their world(s). Their sexual drive is a powerful force, and it drove their music, but it in the hostile, condescending world they were forging through, at their young ages, it wasn’t easy to find satisfaction. The film carefully addresses the ways that these girls looked to each other for assistance in that area, without purporting a frat-boys fantasy of a sapphic orgy. Joan is depicted as the caretaker of the band, and in that capacity she serves as a guide for their sexuality as well.
Dakota Fanning couldn’t have found a better role to cross over from child-star to ingenue. She manages disaffection without being boring. She gives us vulnerability without pity. Her scene in a supermarket, wearing an outfit fit for a rock-star onstage, drunk and wavering while buying two onions and a bottle of vodka, is the heart of the film. The metaphor is clear and palpable: young girl, trying to do things her way in the established world, and of course stumbling along a bit. The supermarket’s lights wash her out and expose her as much as the stage lights make her look like a Goddess. The shaft of the vodka bottle with the two round onions seems an intentionally clumsy symbol of masculine oppression.
Michael Shannon has been systematically carving a place for himself in Hollywood as an eccentric. He was a creepy revelation as the human catalyst in “Revolutionary Road”, and he serves a similar purpose, with a much different character, in this film.
It’s Kristin Stewart, though, who anchors the film with her portrayal of Joan Jett. her physical and vocal work is on display in affecting Joan’s posture, attitude and soul. Apparently Joan Jett was played a version of one of the Runaways’ songs that Kristin had re-recorded the vocals for and Joan did not recognize that it was Kristin’s voice, thinking it was her own. That’s the kind of inhabiting that Ms. Stewart takes on in this film. Her growl seems just right.
The growl of this film in general is close to just right. The script isn’t perfect, perhaps… some parts a touch awkward or stilted. But what “The Runaways” loses in precision, it makes up for in emotion… like a lot of good rock and roll. There are some very powerful moments in the film, culminating in Joan and Cherie’s encounter at the end of it. At that point, with the short history of The Runaways over, what passes between the two characters is riveting. The sense is that these two women have experienced something together that no film could ever really explain. “The Runaways” makes a thumping, feedback-heavy, howling effort to do so and it’s a whole lot of fun watching it try.
Directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Release Date: April 9, 2010
Run Time: 109 Minutes
Distributor: River Road Entertainment
Review by Adam Witt
“Salt” tells the story of what happens when one half of the famous Hip-Hop Act, Salt N Pepa, goes on a soul=searching mission to find herself with the help of N’ Play.
Haha, we have fun here at The Movie Guys, but that’s not really what the movie’s about, silly. Now get out of here, and I mean it.
Actually, “Salt” is a movie about a CIA agent with a strange last name who’s name gets shouted for two hours. Why does it get shouted from CIA headquarters, to moving cars, to highway overpasses, to the White House, to NORAD?
Salt’s name is shouted by various CIA agents because Salt is on the run and may very well be a part of a top-secret Russian experiment to raise super-obedient children. Which is bullshit. I spent my summer watching various parents trying to get various children to eat what the kids said they liked the day before. Try getting one of these kids to even remember the name of a Russian Premier, much less pledge allegiance to the son of a bitch. Why would the Russians need super-obedient kids? A) To wait thirty-five years to attack America from the inside and B) To clean up all these goddamn toys!
Ironically, the film was released very closely to the Republican attempt to inject the idea that radical Islamic immigrants are having babies here in America that, after eighteen years of McDonald’s and movies with Angelina Jolie nip slips, will somehow hate this country. The children would then, presumably, get a weird look in their eye like the hypnotized Insurance Seminar Audience in my 1978 VHS copy of Spider-Man: The Deadly Dust, and trade their patriotic desire to get a blowjob in a Ferrari, in favor of bombing everyone on Newsmax’s Spam list.
“Salt” stars Angelina Jolie, America’s frailest talent, and Liev Schreiber, who I hope someday stars in a movie called “Liev Schreiber Eats Soup” – just to see if I’d rent a movie to watch him do anything.
The movie gets major points for getting to the point. I was worried early-on when the movie spent thirty seconds showing me how much Salt and her husband were in love. They’re having breakfast and they’re cute and loving in a way that people aren’t first thing in the morning and he’s the very frumpy German model of a guy the real Angelina Jolie would pay to have beat up. Nothing’s more annoying in a summer action movie than watching two people relate to each other in what I have grown to call a “Godzilla relationship,” where they only insist on long scenes with the leads so that we’ll reward the movie for not being “all about the bang”, like it’s math. Like if Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton are on screen long enough without action, we’ll magically be wooed by sheer time of possession by the opposing team. Yes, when you apply a football analogy to Summer Action Movies, dramatically tempoed scenes are not the home team.
But twenty minutes into this movie, we know everything we need to know, Salt’s name is being watchably shouted by Liev Schreiber, and Angelina Jolie is jumping off expressways onto moving trucks, which is really really hard. But could this be evidence that she’s a secret Russian agent?
That’s the gist of the movie. It’s a quick setup, “The Fugitive”, and then – “is she or isn’t she?” for an hour. The script, which deftly sweeps Salt from action setpiece to action setpiece while asking the above question, was written by “Equilibrium” Writer/Director Kurt Wimmer; who had his “Director” hyphenate removed from him in an outpatient procedure following the release of “Ultra Violet” – the only movie I ever wanted to walk out on that actually ended itself for me. The film actually broke and I got paid to leave. It’s one of my happier days.
I liked “Salt” way better than I thought I would, but, in interest of full-disclosure, I’ll watch any movie where someone was made a killing machine in their long-forgotten past and then gets fucked with by the wrong guy. You’re with me on that, right? Rambo, Jason Bourne, Machete, even that stupid one with Benicio Del Toro. I’ll watch it every time.
But once, JUST ONCE, I want to see someone jump off the top of a Highway overpass onto a moving truck and botch that move. Just – bounce, bounce, and into traffic. I jumped off a bike going TEN miles an hour as a kid and got FUCKED UP. Here’s the valuable property of physics that I learned and it must apply to overpass truck jumping.
The road is going ten miles an hour. You aren’t.
6/10 – Somewhat recommended.
Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Release Date: July 23, 2010
Run Time: 100 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
BLINK AND YOU MISS SOMETHING
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Review by Paul Preston
STACEY PILGRIM: Did you really see a future with this girl?
SCOTT PILGRIM: Like….with jetpacks?
SHAME on you, America!
“Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” is an endlessly entertaining movie, so crammed with laughs, visual gags, references and hipster attitude it’s overwhelming. So why didn’t you see it?! Again, shame. On. You.
Director Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”, “Hot Fuzz”) has created a blisteringly sign-of-the-times, of-the-moment masterpiece that provides some scenes and situations that are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Quiet an achievement nowadays when seemingly EVERYTHING’s been done.
The film is adapted by Wright and Michael Bacall, from a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley. The story centers on a do-little twenty-something kid from Toronto who plays in a rock band and is ‘between jobs’. Immediately, you’re asked to buy in to the premise of this film, which lives outside reality and jumps at the chance to bend your expectations on their head. Soon, Pilgrim is attracted to a girl and needs to fight her evil ex-boyfriends to win her heart. This plot is merely an excuse to throw nearly every pop culture reference from the last thirty years at you, and create some unique, memorable situations as well. And somewhere in the middle of it all, there’s a little heart behind Scott’s unremitting attraction to Ramona Flowers.
Perhaps “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” bombed because it seems like a movie for young people, but the references were largely to twenty-five-year-old video games like “Donkey Kong”, “Pac-Man” and any number of the Tekken-based fighting games that youthful, XBOX-ians may not comprehend. Maybe, then, two big demographics were alienated.
I also think that there’s a huge demographic outside of the city I live in (the “How will it play in Peoria?” camp) that may not get the Super Mario Brothers references as swiftly as those in cities who are already used to everything in their life being fast, furious and technology-provided. Then again, I don’t think either demo is going to know what I mean by “How will it play in Peoria?”.
This, of course, is all post-post-production speculation as to why U.S. filmgoers widely avoided a great and hugely enjoyable film. What’s apparent is that the filmmakers didn’t care about any of that. They ripped forward with the movie they wanted to make, and the energy and passion is unmistakable in every scene.
One interesting facet of this movie is that most twenty-somethings I see in real life look and act like people I would want nothing to do with. Slacker care-littles that are too smug and hip for their own good. But somehow, that all remains true in “Scott Pilgrim”, but I like them. I root for Scott, who seems dumber than a person of twenty-two should be and has about as much ambition to better himself as a block of fudge. However, the dialogue and rampant comedy inherent in their situations in the movie kept me engaged throughout. It’s just a fucking funny movie.
One of the funniest characters in the film is Scott’s gay roommate Wallace (technically Scott is staying at HIS place), often introduced as “He’s gay”. Wallace is played with deadpan hilarity by Kieran Culkin, who showed real promise in 2002’s “Igby Goes Down”, but has only appeared in three films since then. “Scott Pilgrim” is a welcome return for Culkin’s dry delivery. Michael Cera is also good here as Scott, even though there seems to be some backlash against him appearing in critically acclaimed indies (“Juno”, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) and big-time moneymakers (“Superbad”). Despite his talent, I fear his bankability is now in question.
The ex-boyfriends are no small task to conquer, as they include Captain America and Superman – Chris Evans and Brandon Routh, respectively. Routh is a riot (and built like a brick shit-house!) as the bass-playing vegan who exudes super-confidence until his vegan powers are in question. Evans plays a movie star whose one-liners (“The only thing separating me from her is the two minutes it’s gonna take to kick your ass”) are straight out of a bad Seagal movie, and are delivered as such.
Edgar Wright, cinematographer Bill Pope and the FX team deserve heaps of praise for the original look of this film. There are fight sequences and sci-fi imagery in “Scott Pilgrim” that many action films wished they had. But the “fights to the death” hold about as much mortal weight as a video game. It’s all in the name of fun, and everyone I know who has seen “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” has loved it, and critics followed suit.
So, well done, filmgoers. I guess I won’t get to see “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe”. “Vampires Suck” has made more money. What do you people have against fun?
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Release Date: August 13, 2010
Run Time: 112 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures
THE FOURTH TIME’S THE CHARM
Shrek Forever After
Review by Paul Preston
Shrek and Company return for “The Final Chapter” of the Shrek film series, and thankfully, this time the “Company” is smaller. I always thought that the Shrek sequels had a case of Schumacher-Batman-itis, piling on too many supporting characters, losing the charm of the main characters we came to see in the first place in the process. “Shrek 2” added six major characters to the fold, and “Shrek the Third” added close to a dozen. Outside of some extra ogres, “Shrek Forever After” really only adds two new characters to the mix, and the film remembers to have tons of fun with the team of goofballs we loved from the beginning.
The newest character is a good one: Rumpelstiltskin, wonderfully and weasely voiced by Walt Dohrn. Rumpelstiltskin creates contracts granting wishes, but always wants part of the deal to include him gaining ultimate power over the kingdom. The other character is The Pied Piper, who has no dialogue, but does Rumpelstiltskin’s bidding using his flute.
After domestic bliss turns sour for Shrek, he wishes he could go back to the good ‘ol days where he was a mean ogre flying solo. When Rumpelstiltskin grants his wish, an alternate universe is created, and Shrek regrets his decision, determinedly setting out to put his life back together. This is a great plot device for a fourth movie. This late in the franchise, you can just PLAY, and there’s freedom in making jokes and outlandish action scenes in this context, instead of having to pull together a million characters into a clogged finale, as was the case in “Shrek the Third”.
Myers, Murphy and Diaz do a great job bringing life to Shrek, Donkey and Fiona, but the highlight this time out is definitely Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots. EVERYTHING he says is funny. The writers and Banderas are very game to spoof the dramatic intensity Banderas has brought to characters like Zorro, and the ante is upped here when Puss is in the alternate universe and isn’t quite the adventurer he’s been in the past.
There’s a plague, however, that’s affecting all animated movies these days. Even the smallest roles seem to go to name performers, but with minimal results. There’s a whole separate movie’s worth of actors in supporting roles in “Shrek the Third” that were unmemorable – Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler, Ian McShane, Maya Rudolph, Cheri Oteri and Amy Sedaris. If you go to “Shrek Forever After” to hear Jane Lynch, Kathy Griffin, Meredith Viera, Ryan Seacrest and Lake Bell, prepare to be underwhelmed, ‘cause you really can’t tell they’re in the film till you see their names in the credits. It’s stunt casting to deepen the voice talent roster that doesn’t need the help. You had me at Eddie Murphy.
This makes it all the more exciting to see Walt Dohrn, up till now an ancillary voice talent in the Shrek universe, make such an impression as Rumpelstiltskin (he has a different wig for his various emotions. Very funny).
Another lingering issue is the “Shrek” films’ dependence on too much modern music. It’s funny when Donkey sings pop songs, but it seems just a little more desperate when The Pied Piper’s mind-controlling numbers are all disco tunes like “Shake Your Groove Thing”. The concept of ogre-control works without the pop culture help-up.
The BEST use of music in the movie is when Shrek first enjoys his return to true Ogre form and he sets off on a spree of scaring people and terrorizing villages. It’s juxtaposed with The Carpenters’ “Top of the World”. The montage of the mayhem Shrek creates combined with the innocence of The Carpenters’ simple-life lyrics is a riot.
The movie manages to give us Shrek making a bad decision at the beginning of the film (wishing he didn’t have a family), but somehow getting us to root for him soon after. And it’s FUN to root for Shrek again. All that King Arthur stuff just got in the way in the last film. Wanting Shrek and Fiona together again is enough.
I saw “Shrek Forever After” in 3D, although it wasn’t entirely necessary. But at least it wasn’t a HACK job. The 3D effects of “Shrek” and “How to Train Your Dragon” were pretty impressive, leading me to believe that animated films work best with this technology. That being said, there was still color distortion on the sides of the movie screen, a detriment to the hard work of some quality animators. 3D is probably a no-win situation for film purists.
Overall, if the previous Shrek sequels kept you away, this finale for the big, green lug is worth taking in.
Directed by: Mike Mitchell
Release Date: May 21, 2010
Run Time: 93 Minutes
Distributor: DreamWorks Animation
NO PLACE FOR YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Review by Mark Tucci
“Shutter Island” is the latest film directed by Martin Scorsese that also stars Leonardo DiCaprio. For this outing, Scorsese foregoes the safety net of familiar territory to instead craft an effective and often mind-bending tale of psychological anguish, despair and violence.
Set in the early 1950s, the entire film takes place on a remote island off the coast of Boston. The sole inhabitants are comprised of employees and patients that make up a large psychiatric compound housed on the island. From the opening frames of the film, Scorsese begins to weave subtle elements of foreboding, and from the very first moment we set foot on the island, there is an eerie sense that not everything is right nor those we encounter entirely honest.
The premise behind the story is simple and betrays nothing insofar as the overall film is concerned. The two main characters, DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels and Mark Ruffalo’s Chuck Aule, are U.S. marshals sent to investigate the strange disappearance of one of Shutter Island’s patients. What slowly reveals itself beyond this is something else entirely, as we’re left confined on the island to endure the deteriorating mental state of Teddy as he tries to make sense of the situation and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Scorsese is very effective at crafting an unsettled mood and breathing life into it through the fine performances of his cast. Teddy Daniels is perhaps one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s best roles to date and he does an incredible job of bringing believability and honesty to someone that could have been a mere caricature in the wrong hands. Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow are brilliantly placed to cast just the right amount of menace and uncertainty into the story as the institution’s head doctors. The remaining cast members round out an ensemble of suspicion and second guesses as evidence of a larger cover-up continues to invade Teddy’s thoughts.
The film makes no obvious intent to hide the fact that secrets are being kept from Teddy and Chuck. The fact that we as an audience know this from the beginning, yet are as taunted and as frustrated as Teddy, is a testament to Scorsese’s ability to infuse this film with such an effective sense of mood.
While the mood, style and performances in “Shutter Island” are all top notch, the story itself is a whole other issue. Without disclosing any spoilers, it’s safe to say that by the end we’ll realize this ground has been covered before. While that may be true, the way that Scorsese gets us there is certainly effective, and the film does a great job of wrapping things up in a way that is satisfying without treating the audience like a child.
Undoubtedly “Shutter Island” is the type of film that will have those who’ve seen it discussing what happened long after the final shot. Because so much of the film deserves scrutiny once it’s played out, it’s may not be for everyone. This is a film that will make you think and keep you thinking long after you’ve seen it. While the payoff is worth the effort it takes to get there, for those that prefer to have every shot handed to them with an unquestionable clarity, you might want to skip “Shutter Island”. Then again, this is Scorsese we’re talking about here, so you might as well get out of your comfort zone for a while and enjoy it.
I said earlier that violence plays a part in this film, but unlike some of Scorsese’s other works, “Shutter Island” didn’t seem to me to be overly violent. Without question, there are violent acts that are displayed, but “Shutter Island”’s violence tends to be revealed just after the fact. We witness horrific things, but always seem to show up a few frames too late, like a driver passing by the scene of an accident. We know what happened, but we just didn’t see it. This happens throughout the course of the film, mostly through flashbacks, and gradually gets worse and worse as more facts begin to be revealed. While some people may be off-put by what is depicted, I didn’t find it nearly as bad as some of the brutality played out in films like “Goodfellas” and “Gangs of New York”.
Ultimately though, solipsism plays a big part in “Shutter Island”. We are trapped on the island and we are trapped in the mind of Teddy Daniels. As reality begins to unfold, and the characters we meet create yet another wrinkle into what is going on, we begin to wonder who is crazy and who isn’t? There’s a point made that once someone is labeled crazy, everything that person does to deny it merely reinforces this belief. As the film builds toward its conclusion, Scorsese does an excellent job of taking the audience along with Teddy’s downward spiral to eventually question everything and everyone. The fact that “Shutter Island” is so unforgiving in this way, may again be frustrating to some.
But even if you consider this to be the film’s fatal flaw, it can certainly be spun to support it as its greatest asset: its ability to force the audience, like Teddy, to question everything they’ve seen and heard along the way . While some may think this is a cop-out, my guess is that subsequent viewings will reveal this to be the case.
“Shutter Island” is by no means flawless, but Scorsese manages to put together a refreshing take on the noir thriller. It’s certainly an exciting ride that will keep you guessing, but it’s one trip you’ll be happy to make, even if the company you’re forced to keep makes you crazy.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: February 19, 2010
Run Time: 138 Minutes
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
THANK YOU FOR BEING A FRIEND
The Social Network
Review by Joel Frost
Testimony is assumed to be 85% emotionally charged and 15% perjury, legal assistant Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones) explains to Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). So what is a biopic but the visual representation of testimony? With this line, spoken near the end of The Social Network, the new film directed by David Fincher, Aaron Sorkin wrote into the script a caveat that needs to be heeded. The film is not meant as a historically accurate visual document. It is a representation of the criss-crossing views, rememberings and perjuries of the many people involved, brought to life with an emotional charge. It’s the story of the inception and rise of Facebook, a website that we all know is full of different perspectives. So what, then, if it didn’t go down exactly like this. Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of the site, is surely happy with the number of participants (500 million or so, as the tagline invokes) in the Facebook story. Expecting accuracy and clarity amidst the jumble of that collective consciousness is naive at best.
The story begins in the fall of 2003, which some of you may remember as “just the other day”. Zuckerberg, a sophomore at Harvard, is a smart and awkward (Eisenberg plays him with a dollop of Asperger’s Syndrome) kid whose burgeoning self-conscious ego manifests via his computer-programming skills. Dumped by his girlfriend, he takes out his frustration via the internet… he creates a site called facemash.com, which allows Harvard users to compare the faces of their female classmates. It’s Zuckerberg’s first foray into the web of internet privacy issues, a place he’s occasionally gotten stuck in the years since. Facemash is a huge hit. The Harvard servers crash. Zuckerberg gains infamy, and is placed on academic probation. For many, an event like this might hinder their future ambition. For Zuckerberg, it’s confirmation that he has the coding ability he’s been cultivating since a young age, but it’s also an episode that seemed to spark Mark’s interest in how people view themselves and others via the internet. He seems to begin to understand that an effective social endeavor online would have to pay respect and service to the conflicting impulses of a voyeuristic populace. Zuckerberg isn’t “cool” in the classic sense. He feels a bit like an outcast, apparently longing to have the social success that his roommate and Facebook collaborator Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is beginning to enjoy by being invited to join one of Harvard’s exclusive clubs. Mark is no milquetoast, though, and he combats his occasional pinings for standard social success with a focused and oddly self-assured fervor. He’s better than all that crap, one seems to be able to see him thinking.
Enter the Winklevoss twins (somehow played by the same actor, Armie Hammer). With their chiseled jaws, blond hair and blue eyes, and Crew-cut physiques, they are the elite Harvard men that Zuckerberg at once envies and despises. They’ve heard of Mark through the facemash scandal, and have an idea that he may be able to help them with a social networking site based around Harvard’s student body. “I’m in”, Mark says, but he isn’t really. He spends the next several weeks putting off the Winklevosses (or the Winklevai, as he refers to them) and putting together the first version of Facebook, then titled thefacebook.com.
Aaron Sorkin clearly delights in his ability to mix and transcend genres. As far back as A Few Good Men, Sorkin has avoided writing easily pigeon-holed scripts. He takes his subjects seriously, of course, but manages to adroitly meld various styles, characters and objectives all at once. In the conflict between Zuckerberg and the twins, we see clear hints of 80’s movie plots. Zuckerberg exacts his version of Revenge of the Nerds on the two preppies, and just as this situation rises to a level of potential violence, one of the twins invokes a specific 80’s film, saying they can’t go after Mark in such a way that would place them in “skeleton masks, chasing the Karate Kid”. It’s a quick, brilliant touch for the script, at once a toss-off and the summation of the self-consciousness of children raised post-meta. The Winklevosses won’t play the part of the obviously overprivileged self-important antagonists who are defeated by the upstart geek. They seem rueful at the notion of it. Yet, merely by who all these players are, they can’t quite help themselves. It is Sorkin’s art imitating life imitating art. The Winklevai are pawns in Zuckerberg’s chess game, and are almost to be pitied. Almost.
Truth is, no one’s the clear-cut hero or enemy here. Sorkin has weaved enough nuance and ambiguity into this story to give the impression that an audience is watching the events of the real world on the screen. It’s perhaps because the script is so strong that some may argue vehemently (Facebook itself is none too pleased, it seems) that the film mis-represents history. That may be so. Perhaps the film is essentially fiction. But what is not fictional is the soul of it. Sorkin fleshes the characters out by exposing the issues that are central to the non-fiction history of human ego, especially as that history has played out in the past several years, with the internet as the new catalyst. The story of Facebook is not the story of when exactly Mark Zuckerberg did what to whom or who did or did not have the idea for Facebook when. (As Zuckerberg states to the Winklevosses in the film, “If you were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”) The real story of Facebook is what it means as it relates to the millions and millions of people who use it every day. Sorkin doesn’t get caught up in the net of detail. He gives us a window into the psyche of humanity as it exists in the Facebook world. The word “friend” is re-defined by Facebook, and The Social Network spells it out. In case you thought it was just a fun little web-site, think again. The film shows us the watershed.
A little gentle snooping on Facebook can lead an interested investigator to a late-night party video where Mark Zuckerberg himself strums “Wonderwall”, by Oasis as a group of his pals sing along. There’s another song by that band that includes this line, “Where were you when we were getting high?” There are juxtaposed shots in the film of Harvard party debauchery and then Mark Zuckerberg at his computer, writing code that changed the world. The Social Network gets to the point: We all missed it, even those who were seemingly there from the beginning. As Zuckerberg says in the film, “We don’t even know what it is yet. We don’t even know what it can be.” So maybe he can’t explain it either. It seems he’s a savant, but he’s not a calculating monster. There’s innocence here, for sure. Sorkin won’t let us ignore that, fortunately.
Oh yeah, David Fincher directs, although he’s like a good umpire… he’s not the story here. He never gets in the way, and seems to make the right calls while tamping his recognizable style down. There’s really only one clearly Fincherian section in the film, during a rowing-race, unless one counts the use of music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. That score provides an appropriate uneasiness to the proceedings. Justin Timberlake shows up and chews up the scenery for a while as Sean Parker, fresh off his “success” at Napster. Timberlake is a work in progress on the big screen, but his personal strengths in showmanship and commitment serve the part well. As far as performances, this is really Jesse Eisenberg’s coming-out party. He’s shown some promise before in films like The Squid And The Whale, Adventureland, and Zombieland, but he nails the disaffected, awkward, yet hugely tenacious Zuckerberg of Sorkin’s script.
The “true” story of Facebook’s rise may never get told perfectly. Perhaps the WInklevai deserved more credit. Perhaps Eduardo was ambushed and de-friended harshly. Perhaps the activities fed to an audience by The Social Network are exaggerated or even fabricated. At the end though, one thing matters most, and it’s the quality that Eisenberg and Sorkin’s Zuckerberg stresses about facebook.com: whether it is cool or not. As long as enough people click the “like” button, there’s your history.
Directed by: David Fincher
Release Date: October 1, 2010
Run Time: 120 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
A MUST-SEE DOCUMENTARY
The Tillman Story
Review by Paul Preston
The wave of documentaries about The Iraq War and its fallout have been of surprisingly consistent quality. “The Tillman Story” falls right in line with sharp storytelling skills and an amazing family as the core subject.
Pat Tillman was a college and pro football defensive phenom, as original and confident in his demeanor as he was on the field. He decided to quit pro ball and join the army, getting sent to Afghanistan with his brothers. Pat died in a firefight and prompted an investigation by his family as to what actually happened to their proud son and brother. The U.S. government made Pat’s sacrifice the poster boy for patriotism and the war, but what the Tillman’s family uncovered turned Pat into the poster boy for government war sales and scandal.
Pat’s situation reminded me of that of the Iwo Jima soldiers, a troubled group of men who found themselves the subject of a historical moment. That moment was exploited by the military to sell war bonds, regardless of the toll on the soldiers, or the truth of the moment that legendary American flag was planted.
I’ll admit I have little respect for politicians. From their desire to raise money over raising concerns, to working to get re-elected instead of working for the people who elected them, their self-involved, face-saving nature is nothing to admire. That behavior is on display ALL OVER THE PLACE in “The Tillman Story”. Politicians like John McCain show up at Pat’s funeral to promote their OWN patriotism. This is not unlike Fred Phelps showing up at the funerals of gay men to protest their homosexuality. Neither is a service to the family. And numerous political types spend the majority of the investigation into Pat’s death denying knowledge of anything or passing the buck.
Throughout, The Tillman family is relentless, from Pat’s mother Dannie, who won’t sit on her hands and take shit from Washington to Pat’s brother Rich, who gives a very memorable, deflating eulogy and is outspoken in all the ways we wish we were.
As invigorating as the documentary is, there is something depressing about it that goes beyond the initial sadness of a fallen soldier. This “machine”, whatever it is, that does things like promote illegal wars, abandon sacrificial soldier lambs after they’ve served their purpose, create and promote lies and profit-seeking agendas despite the cost on the country, may finally be too large to conquer. When a ferocious family like the Tillmans don’t have much luck in the fight, that doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.
Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev
Release Date: August 20, 2010
Run Time: 94 Minutes
Distributor: A&E Indie Films
HEAT WITH BOSTON ACCENTS
Review by Adam Witt
“The Town”, Ben Affleck’s second directorial effort makes his first one, “Gone Baby Gone”, look like a movie I haven’t seen.
In “The Town”, Affleck plays a bank robber who robs a series of banks with a crew consisting of one hothead and two other guys. They are pursued by a vigilant cop as they plan one last final last robbery, but it just might be the job that gets them all killed as…wow, describing this plot just gave me a weird sense of Deja Vu. You know that feeling like you’d rather be describing the plot of Tony Scott’s “Deja Vu”?
Yes, it’s “Heat”, with Boston accents. But really, who doesn’t love both of those things?
The real twist in “The Town”, and what sets it apart from what I just described, is the relationship that Affleck’s character, Guy McBoston (or something), has with a bank teller (played by either Vicky or Cristina Barcelona) who becomes a hostage in the film’s initial bank robbery. Guy cases the the woman down to eliminate her, but then falls in love while the FBI noose pulls tight around their key witness to the robbery and Affleck’s gang.
These films would be nothing without a dedicated detective, who in this case is played by the famously watchable Jon Hamm (who may have an “h” in his first name). The tension notable as the Detective and his team get closer and closer to Guy’s crew as the hours tick down until the final robbery, a Heat-like firefight inside Fenway Park. Tension enough, but heightened to a new degree because of the conflict created by Affleck and his former victim.
The film may not be groundbreaking but it tries hard to be original in the places where it mimics, the bank heists are thrilling, tense, and balanced nicely with the Affleck’s relationship – the latter plot also reveals that only one person should direct Ben Affleck, himself. I mean seriously, where did THIS Affleck come from?
The film also stars someone who I’m told is Jeremy Renner, who will be playing Hawkeye in “The Avengers”, so that’s enough to get me excited about him.
7/10 with one point taken off for a complete lack of Casey Affleck, so 6/10
BEN THE DIRECTAH
Review by Joel Frost
Ben Affleck, the legend goes, burst into Hollywood on the arm of his friend Matt Damon and won an Oscar before most people knew who he was. He co-wrote “Good WIll Hunting” with Damon, the Academy Award was for that endeavor, and has since gone about the business of convincing audiences that writing, or maybe almost anything else aside from acting, is where his talent lies. Since “Hunting”, he has strung together a series of underwhelming performances in equally underwhelming films. Along the way, he directed the fine “Gone Baby Gone” (he also co-wrote the screenplay, adapted from Dennis LeHane’s novel), and spent a visible portion of his time next to the home dugout at Fenway Park, cheering and grimacing for his favorite team. His blood, it would seem, is as red as his sawx, and as awkward as he’s appeared in some of the forgettable action films he’s done over the years, he is never more comfortable than when he is safe at home, somewhere in the Olde Towne.
This time around Affleck is quite comfy in “The Town”, which he directed, co-wrote and stars in. The film is a convergence of all Ben’s strengths and weaknesses, a kind of glimpse into the psyche of the star and (therefore) who he imagines himself to be. It’s Ben Affleck the action hero, the director, the writer, and the Boston boy all rolled into one, set on the back-drop of a heist film. Ben plays Doug MacRay, a goodfella from the mean streets of Charlestown, the blue-est of blue-collar neighborhoods. Doug is smahta than the average robbah, and Ben plays the character easily and lovingly as the unlikely, perhaps even inexplicable, hometown hero that Ben might like to be. Tough yet kind, he’s concerned with the safety of his cohorts, cops, and local kids… all while toting automatic weapons into banks in order to rob them. His father (Chris Cooper) is in jail, pinched for similar crimes, and Ben semi-reluctantly carries on the family business. There’s a mob boss (Pete Postlethwaite), a volatile friend/co-robber (Jeremy Renner, chewing it up), and of course an innocent love interest, Claire (Rebecca Hall). Jon Hamm does his level best with a fairly thankless role as the two-dimensionally drawn FBI man in charge of taking Doug’s crew down. Hamm muddles this old-fashioned tale the best he can, but it’s Affleck’s spirit that’s in charge here. Throw it all in a blender, with a dash of Michael Mann’s “Heat”, and there’s your recipe for a party at Ben’s place: splashy, fun, and forgettable.
It’s not an easy task, creating an anti-hero. A writer, actor, and director is dancing on the line of vulnerability and softness. Ben fits into Doug’s skin easily; the actor is at his best when he’s allowed to drop his r’s (pahk the cah). The same comfort and ease that Affleck showed on the screen in “Good Will Hunting”, and not much since, is evident in The Town. It’s not a stretch for Ben to play this guy… one gets the impression that he knows Doug, or people like him. That kind of guy probably took his lunch money during recess. Ben’s best work has, and almost certainly always will, come when the subject matter and setting is his beloved Boston. “Hunting”, Gone Baby Gone, The Town… a trilogy of Affleck’s best work.
“The Town”, though, while it includes some of Ben’s best acting work and competent directing, lacks strength in the area that the other two films excelled: the script. It’s a rote heist film, that manifests in various forms. Anyone who saw “The American” a couple of weeks ago saw a different variation of the same story: the bad guy who maybe isn’t quite so bad, at least when the young lady is around, wants to leave the life so that he can be who she wants and imagines him to be… some idealized and naive version of himself, that he can see clearly in his reflection in her eyes. Robert DeNiro goes through the same thing in “Heat”. Doug MacRay is not drawn believably or interestingly enough to keep the film engaging for long, though. There’s plenty of shooting and car-chasing to look at, and almost none of that bores. But as the film wears on, we’re reminded of Ben’s limitations. He’s never been able to hold a film together as the leading man, and as ambitious and bombastic as “The Town” is, it’s no exception.
The performances are generally quite impressive. An Oscar nomination or two may well arise from them. Blake Lively does excellent work as Ben’s low-class, jilted ex-girlfriend (an echo of Amy Ryan’s character in Gone Baby Gone). Hamm is delicious in a couple of spots, and Renner gives it his all. By performance standards and by action standards, “The Town” excels.
But if we know one thing about Ben Affleck, it’s that he has a hard time pulling together all the pieces into a whole. “The Town” is a nice place to visit, but it would be better if Ben Affleck didn’t live there.
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Release Date: September 17, 2010
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND
Toy Story 3
Review by Paul Preston
Much like Pixar’s ability to make original movies that rank among the best films every year, they show again that they can generate a sequel better than most franchises as well. It’s wise of Pixar to re-visit “Toy Story” before any of its other features, it has the strongest, most universal themes – friendship and loyalty. In “Toy Story 3”, these themes are put to the greatest test and lead to a very satisfying conclusion.
In the world of “Toy Story 3”, time has advanced exactly as it has in real-world time. It’s fifteen years since Buzz Lightyear first squared off with Sheriff Woody in Andy’s bedroom. Now, Andy is off to college, and the fate of his toys hangs in the balance – put them in the attic where they can live out a peaceful if not entirely fulfilling life, or end up in the trash. When an unexpected third option appears (donation to a day care center), the toys must choose whether to embrace their new life or make the trek back to Andy one last time.
Every time a new Pixar movie comes out, I brace myself for their first failure, but it just doesn’t happen. I make myself emotionally ready for the possibility of a Pixar film being more like a low-rent, pop-culture-filled, constantly-winking product of some lesser animation company, jam-packing it’s roster with expensive, high-profile voice talent to overcompensate for by-the-numbers storytelling. And it just doesn’t happen.
Laughs, adventure, tears, drama, double-crossing, and glorious animation. It’s all here. And despite nods to prison dramas, The Great Escape, Return of the Jedi and more, writer Michael Arndt and director Lee Unkrich wisely return to the basics whenever possible, focusing on the great relationships of the characters, toys holding onto and enjoying each other in the face of an uncertain future.
“Toy Story 3” adds on new characters, and where most franchises would suffer under the weight of too much addition (“Shrek”), the new characters here are expertly drawn and never take the front seat away from Buzz and Woody. There’s Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend, voiced by Michael Keaton, reminding us once again that when he shows up, he’s awesome. But where does he go between high-profile projects? Lotso-Huggin’ Bear, voiced by Ned Beatty, “runs” the day care center with ominous Southern-gentlemanly charm. His back story may be among the darkest things you see in the movies this year, but where the story could tug another heartstring, and feel a little too familiar (like Cowgirl Jesse’s back story of abandonment), instead it’s told with such over-the-top DRAMA, it actually plays out fun.
A special shout-out is deserved for Timothy Dalton, who plays a “classically-trained” toy who, with his friends, treat their relationship with kids as one big acting gig. He plays it so straight, the laughs are huge. Perhaps he deserves a “where you been?” too!
The old characters get into all sorts of mischief, and by now the voice talents are in prime form, especially Tim Allen, whose Buzz Lightyear is as warm as he’s ever been, but a string of mishaps have him barking out “Cool Hand Luke”-type orders and the result is hilarious. John Morris, the voice of Andy in all three films, lends great warmth to Andy, allowing us to like him regardless of what he decides to do with his toys. Apparently growing up with a single mom, Andy turned out OK.
As if just doing a third movie of any franchise wasn’t risky enough, the Pixar team chooses the more precarious route whenever possible, and the payoff is the audience’s to enjoy.
The final moments wrapping up the relationships of all involved moved me more than I expected. For a franchise that is so much fun, the theme of loss is surprisingly prevalent in all three films. Loss of worth, loss of time, loss of friends, these things threaten the toys and Andy at every turn. In the finale of this trilogy, Pixar very deftly handles fate of those characters we love. Andy and the toys have a more mature relationship than most adults in movies today.
Directed by: Lee Unkrich
Release Date: June 18, 2010
Run Time: 103 Minutes
Distributor: Pixar Animation Studios
Don’t Know Much About History
By Steven Lewis
Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and entertaining films to play in theaters last year. Yet its ending opens up such a messy can of worms, it’s kind of worth considering apart from the film itself. If you don’t already know about that finale by now (and for God’s sake stop reading at this point if you don’t – or at least consider yourself warned), Quentin essentially alters the ending of World War II (European theater, anyway). He has his “basterds” successfully infiltrate and blow up a movie theater attended by Adolf Hitler and all of his top brass. End of the Nazi power structure, in one neat and clean stroke.
Now, Quentin seems to always find a way to smuggle audacious scenes or plot developments into his movies and make them work. But even for him, this is a doozy – and I’m hard-pressed to explain why it doesn’t bother me. It should, shouldn’t it? I should at least feel – shouldn’t I? – that the Academy should have snubbed the script at Oscar time, withholding a nomination as penalty for such a blatant crime against history.
I mean, it’s not like the film does anything “intelligent” with this re-write of the facts – like use it as a springboard to create an alternative history, such as many sci-fi stories do. No, it simply uses it as an action climax – deciding that the defeat of the Nazis deserves a bigger bang for the modern cineplex crowd. Makes you wonder how a “Die Hard” film where John McClane single-handedly averts the 9/11 terrorist attacks would play. Or another World War II thriller where daring undercover American operatives kidnap Emperor Hirohito and ransom him for Japan’s surrender – thus ending the conflict in the Pacific without need for America’s A-bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But hey, if we’re gonna re-write here, let’s re-write something that REALLY calls out for it. Tarantino himself would be the ideal candidate, in fact, to write and direct “The Passion of the Christ, Volume 2”. You know, the one where Jesus rises after three days to go on a bloody rampage against all those who set him up and sold him out? I mean, come on! – the actions of Uma Thurman’s Bride would be as nothing compared to the supernatural Wrath of God shit that Jesus Christ would have at his disposal to reign down (to say nothing of the six years of FX and CGI improvements that QT would have at HIS disposal to portray all of it). And it would finally give the Gospels the dramatic action finale they’ve been crying out for, for the last 2,000 years.
But perhaps I overstate. Maybe the reason “Inglourious Basterds” does not inspire (or warrant) outrage about its ending is that, even though Tarantino altered the facts, he didn’t alter the outcome. After all, he doesn’t make the Nazis WIN the war, does he? And he even takes care to set the main action of the story late in the conflict – close enough to the REAL end to make an audience member plausibly say “Ok, the Nazis are just a matter of months from losing anyway — this isn’t a SERIOUS breach of history . . . ah, what the hell, let’s just give it to him. OK, in Quentin’s universe this is how the war ended – I can live with that.”
In which case, here are a few alterations of my own I’d like to suggest to any would-be makers of historical epics. They wouldn’t change anything drastically – just simply allow the documented outcomes to “play” a little better, movie-wise:
* “Washington’s Last Stand” – This could be an exciting, emotionally stirring movie about George Washington coming out of retirement to lead American forces against the British in the War of 1812. True, Washington had actually been dead for thirteen years at the time, but that shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of a surefire hit narrative. Think of it: Washington in his old age, having already served his country nobly as warrior, statesman and president, is roused out of the civilian comfort he has so justly earned by yet another British invasion. Reluctantly, but with grim determination, he laces his boots up one last time and repels the limey hordes once again, dying gloriously on the field of battle. Not a dry eye in the house – guaranteed!
* “Inglourious Coloreds” – We all know (don’t we?) that the South was eventually brought to its knees in the Civil War by the scorched earth campaign of General Tecumseh Sherman – his famous “March To the Sea” (from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia) destroyed all Southern property in its wake. It was a savage, bloody campaign which applied the concept of “total war” for perhaps the first time in American military history. And wouldn’t it make a cool movie for it to instead be waged by an all-BLACK regiment of soldiers? We know – if not from history, then certainly from the movie “Glory” – that such regiments existed by the end of the conflict. Why not set it up so that the powers that be decide to set one loose to wreak maximum carnage: The South laid waste by the very people it had been enslaving! “I want me some Confederate scalps!” I can practically hear Brad Pitt exclaiming to his charges, as the defiant General Sherman himself. Throw in Samuel Jackson as well as a cool posse of rappers-turned-thespians as the soldiers and you’ve got yourself a crossover hit of massive proportions.
* “Reagan’s Heroes” – No one’s ever made a movie about the end of the Cold War – and no one ever will. Know why? There’s nothing sexy about it. No final climactic event to really send things out with a bang and get audiences cheering. Oh sure, there’s the Berlin Wall coming down – but then, America didn’t really have anything to do with that. Or did we? Suppose we’d actually sent in a crack team of covert operatives – a secret team recruited by Ronald Reagan himself before he left office – to slip in behind East German lines, act as agitators, and get the populace riled up enough to push for a final breakthrough. Sounds plausible to me. Or at least entertaining.
As you can see, history truly has so many wonderful stories for filmmakers to tell. And these increase exponentially if they allow themselves the freedom of not being constrained by the facts. Thanks again, Quentin for showing us the way!
THE GREEN HORNET – FIRST GLIMPSE
By Adam Witt
SPOILER – Seth Rogen wears a Green Coat.
So I’m a big Superhero guy. I like comics, but more than that I like Superhero movies. I was at “Ghost Rider” opening night and I’ve seen “Elektra” more times than most people have forgotten it was made.
But there’s something that hasn’t made sense for a long time. Back when 1989’s “Batman” made many teens like myself take craps in their tight-rolled Bugle Boys Hollywood got the hint, we wanted to see some Superheroes dammit. So what did they roll out in the few years that came after it? “The Rocketeer”, “Dick Tracy”, “The Shadow”, and “The Phantom”. Did their statistics somehow show that Grandpas were what made “Batman” so popular? What no Lone Ranger movie?
Not that I was complaining, the last Superhero movie prior to “Batman” was “Superman IV”, I was happy to have any. But is it just me or are the above-mentioned heroes and The Green Hornet not special in any way? I love watching the 1966 Green Hornet, but it was made before America knew how to be entertained. The concept literally is “a guy in a Green Coat stops thefts.” Substitute “Rocket” for “Green Coat” and you have The Rocketeer. Substitute “Rocket” for Purple Suit and you have Syfy’s newest tv show, The Phantom. Yes, just like the movie from the 90’s with the premise that could only be described as exotic and fascinating by an Amish guy. “A guy in a Purple suit who people thought died stops criminals who go to all the trouble of going to the jungle he lives in.”
All superheroes are good for me, but I really don’t get the fascination with these old fart radio drama heroes, and Seth Rogen as The Green Hornet? Is that the weirdest career left turn you’ve heard since “A League of Their Own” somehow signaled to Hollywood that Geena Davis might make a good Pirate. Seth Rogen? The pot guy? I always saw him as more of a Doc Savage: Man Of Bronze type.
I liked the Book, but the Movie Was Better
By The Lazy Film Critic
One of the most tired arguments as to why someone didn’t like a movie is to say, “The book was better.” I have never understood this argument. I mean that literally; I do not understand what this argument even means.
A movie is a story communicated through visuals and audio, and with the exception of the occasional Mel Gibson indulgence, requires little to no reading. A book is a story which is entirely dependent on reading (if you don’t count those cheaters who listen to audio books). Comparing the two media is like saying, “I liked the painting but the opera was better.” It’s like comparing apples and an heirloom pendant of an orange.
Full disclosure: I don’t read fiction because I don’t like reading fiction. I prefer to get my fiction in the form of movies. That being said, the argument still holds because the premise underlying the statement “The book was better” is that somehow the two media are competing to best communicate a story. They’re not in competition any more than a Hemingway book can take the place of actually going to the sea.
Movies and books both communicate a story but that’s as far as the comparison goes. Yes, a book is better at giving you a richer description of the psychological motivations of a character. Yes, you’re a genius if you can read a Tom Clancy book versus the rest of us morons who prefer listening to Sean Connery’s Scottish-Russian accent. But movies aren’t trying to be a book. If they were, you would just have frame after frame of words and you wouldn’t have to mess around with all that unnecessary artistic direction, music score, set design, cinematography and editing which makes movie-making so cumbersome.
I love the movie “The Silence of the Lambs”. It was so good that I actually read the book afterward. But while I was reading the book I wasn’t criticizing it for not being visual enough (although a “Silence of the Lambs” picture book might be a fun addition to any family’s book shelf).
The only reason people like saying “The book was better” is because they want the pat on the back that they read. What strikes me as funny about that though is that people are usually bragging about a book like “Twilight” or “Harry Potter”, not exactly modern equivalents to “Finnegan’s Wake”.
So, okay book-readers, here’s your official pat on the back from all of us movie lovers. Now here’s a much harder whack on your head to get you to snap out of your snobbery and realize that movies don’t want to be books any more than books want to be movies.
REVIEW…OR RANT? YOU DECIDE.
Drawing With Chalk
Review by Justin Bowler
Making an indie film is incredibly difficult. There is an insurmountable amount of cash that has to be raised, no one is paid what they are worth, plus, getting the schedules of people working (for free) to line up is nearly impossible. Furthermore, since you aren’t paying anyone, you must have a script that is good enough so people will believe in it. Then once it is made, the first question every distribution company rep asks is “Do you have any nudity in it?” When you respond “No”, they lose interest at an exponential rate. This spells utter disaster for the film unless it wins an absurd amount of awards, thus making it difficult for the average indie watcher to ever see the film and, consequently, the target audience for the film will most likely never see it. (You know, the audience that doesn’t want nudity in their films.) (I’m not sure if these people really exist.) (They might be in Canada.)
BUT (and we are talking a Rosie O’Donnell-sized but here), despite these many setbacks, sometimes a DVD may happen to fall into the hands of someone who still appreciates the value of such a film. Such is the case with “Drawing With Chalk”.
Todd Giglio stars, writes, produces, and directs (but if you’ve ever made an indie film, then you know the person leading the group does about 1000 more jobs as well) this wonderfully relatable film. As he puts it, it’s a “midlife coming of age story”. It is aptly described. It’s not a “wow” film, but an “I thoroughly enjoyed that” film in the style of “Dave” or “Waitress”. But, for me, it was even closer to home (not that I have an Indian wife and some kids). Anyone who is past thirty and still pursuing “the Hollywood dream” can relate to this story. Though not titled as an autobiography, this film pinpoints the tribulations of such hopefuls. We’ve never given up the dream, the passion, but in trying to marry the oddity of “pursuing the dream” with the normalcy of “I’m married and raising a child”, we find the many trials we must overcome. Hearing our families telling us to give up and get a real job, finding out our trusted spouses don’t truly believe in our ability.
And the non-artists, OH THE NON-ARTISTS, you know who they are, the ones who think entertainers aren’t really entertainers unless the whole world has heard of them. The ones who talk during plays because they don’t see real people on stage, they see a television, or, as in “Drawing With Chalk”, the ones who “think live music is just background noise”. (Is this review turning into a rant?) (HELL YES!) But, I’m ranting to make my point (a point that the people I want to make it to, will never understand because they are NON-ARTISTS)! You know exactly who I’m referring to. They are the idiots who don’t ever have their phone on silent! I saw “Next to Normal” on Broadway, and in the middle of a performance, the cell phone of a woman four seats away from me went off. Not only had she disregarded the numerous announcements to silence it, but after it went off (full volume), SHE ANSWERED IT!!!! I scolded her to put it away. Unhappily, she did, yet for some reason I’m the one who got the dirty looks from her grandchild.
But, I’ve digressed.
Anyway, as I was saying, it is those trials that Todd Giglio’s character Jay must deal with (effing non-artists). And it leads us to the question that we all must ask…how long can I pursue the dream? How much am I willing to sacrifice? Can I live in the house I grew up in, in the Midwest, for a few years? Can I survive a manual labor job or deal with my traditional Indian wife’s family looking down on me? Can I tolerate one more argument about how playing a gig is (yes, fun) but also hard work, too, and just because I enjoy it, doesn’t mean I can’t be too tired the next morning to resurface the porch, and oh by the way, I’ve never put down anyone pursuing a career as a doctor. Yes, I know it takes a very long time and yes, I know its grueling hours, day after day, but don’t demean us musicians! JESUS!~!@!
All right, now that I’ve had a smoke I feel better. (And by a smoke, I don’t mean a cigarette, I mean fifteen minutes of yoga, centering my chi, followed by a ½ dozen celery sticks) (I feel better and I will continue).
Such are the questions (approximately) we are all forced to face. And such are the answers found in “Drawing With Chalk”. The film is more than just a struggle of a man, but an allegory that all can learn from. Without giving away the ending, it presents us with a happy (?) compromise. For all of us that pursue the dream, either under thirty or over thirty (though I know those of you under thirty think, “if I haven’t made it by the time I’m thirty, I’m out. I’m not going to be an over-thirty loser”) (Well, just you wait and see you little expletives) (It happens to you easier than you think)… But, Todd Giglio’s character… (NO. In fact, I dare you under-thirties to have a condo near the beach and still struggle and strive at your day job to pursue the dream. I dare you to keep it going. After all, it is SOOOOOOO EEEEEEEAAAASSSSSYYYYY!) …sorry, back to the review.
If you have the chance, I highly recommend this film. It’s made with a personal touch that brings the specificity of our lead character’s turmoil to a universal level where all of us feel/relate to the joy, anguish, and resolution. While so many indie films fall short of the precision acting required for film, this entire cast is excellent. Particular kudos go out to Christopher Springer for his portrayal as the protagonist’s friend Matt, whose unrewarded life has caused him to disregard the plausibility of dreams, but secretly, he still feels Jay is his only chance, if it is possible at all. The beautiful Pooja Kumar plays the likable and supportive wife, who is tolerant of her husband’s “failures” until it is too much to bear. This is to say nothing of the impressive filmmaking displayed here. The story very accurately captures the pros and cons of a married artist’s everyday life. The good and bad are subtlety weaved into the fabric of this touching, angering, and true-to-life story. All and all, Todd Giglio shows he is a solid filmmaker. Distribution agents should line up to meet him, if not for the appeal of this film, then at least, to get first shot at his next, larger project. I anxiously await it and hope he is rewarded for his hard work on “Drawing with Chalk”. And to you a-holes who don’t bother to see high-level filmmaking displayed in this lovely tale, I’d like to see you make a better film, THEN we’ll talk. Until then, I’m heading to the gym to blow off some steam and prepare for our encounter. Idiots, beware.
Editor’s note: Justin Bowler is not a musician nor does he own a porch.
“Drawing With Chalk” is available at Indiepix.
Directed by: Todd Giglio
Rated: No Rating
Distributor: Drawing Chalk Pictures
For the average person – ***
For filmmakers – ***1/2
Review by Justin Bowler
“Official Rejection” is an entertaining and enlightening look at the world of “independent” film festivals that all independent filmmakers MUST see!
I watch a decent amount of documentaries. They are mostly the big ones, the ones Netflix recommends and the ones my wife brings home (so, yes, I’ve seen more about pageants and dance competitions than I care to review) (As if I don’t get enough of that stuff from the TV that I have to watch… I mean LIKE to watch with my adorable wife). “Official Rejection” is one that I was asked to watch. And I’m glad I was. “Official Rejection” is an entertaining and enlightening look at the world of “independent” film festivals. It achieves what the perfect documentary should achieve: insightful revelations, combined with excellent narrative, and solid filmmaking. It is not only entertaining and enlightening, but also, the subject matter is of vital import to new filmmakers. Every student of film should be required to watch this movie. The documentary follows Scott Storm and his production team on their journey through the film festival circuit with their feature film “Ten ‘til Noon”. Through their story, you see the real “criteria”, politics, backroom dealings, triumphs and tragedies of the independent scene.
Scott Storm is a director with a finished feature film called “Ten ‘til Noon.” He’s very happy with it. His cast and crew are happy with it. All of his friends are happy with it. It has strong sexual content, nudity, violence and language. And it was shot on film to boot! Basically, it has all the stuff you want from a film. But, for some reason, he can’t get it into a film festival. Why? So, the story begins.
This documentary is incredibly informative. It provides an in-depth look into the inner mechanics of how many of these film festivals work. It gives a realistic look at what new, and even old, filmmakers can expect from the film festival circuit: the relentless rejection, the ongoing expenses, and the wear and tear on the personal lives of the filmmakers (and their significant others). From interviews with fellow filmmakers to programmers and film screeners, Scott seeks to find out why certain movies get picked and others do not. Are all the submitted films watched? “Of course they are” says one former screener, as he goes on to completely negate that answer. Following that logic, another filmmaker suggests intentionally sending blank screener discs to the festivals to make sure the screeners actually try to watch them. If they contact you (and that is a GIGANTIC “IF”), then you know they tried, and now you have just set yourself apart from the other 1000 submissions (because THEY contacted YOU). Is that what it takes to get into a festival? Apparently.
While investigating and informing, Scott and his team poke fun at themselves and the system. In one segment, the filmmakers illustrate the problem with many festivals: movies are not accepted unless they have big stars. Determined not to make that mistake with this documentary, instantly, the filmmakers cut to their own interviews with well known names like Bryan Singer (yeah that one, Bryan “I made ‘The Usual Suspects’” Singer), Kevin Smith (yup, Kevin Smith, Mr. Independent film himself, Kevin “I effing made ‘Clerks’” Smith) (which is really cooler than Bryan Singer in my opinion), and Traci Lords (yes, that’s right, I said it, TRACI LORDS, Mrs. Traci “I made a lot of underage porn” Lords). (And she is not just naked this time; she has something to say about… something). (This is actually a smart maneuver on the filmmaker’s part, since putting her in the credits makes one wonder if there is nudity in this documentary. Ahh yes, the distribution angle. I like it.) (Well does she get naked? You will have to watch the movie to find out. I don’t want to destroy this brilliant marketing idea from the filmmakers.)
This is first rate filmmaking. Documentaries are not an easy animal to tame. You usually have far more footage than you need. Then you must decide which aspect of the story to really focus on. From there you must still present it in a format that others will actually find entertaining or compelling enough to watch (that’s typically the biggest challenge). Director Paul Osborne, Scott Storm and their team make it look easy. From comedic moments to poignant moments, to truly outraging moments (mostly dealing with unbelievable idiocy from idiotic idiots), the film carefully tells the story of its heroes who are, like so many filmmakers, ordinary people with extraordinary dreams. I would like to say that the film satisfies in the end, but, and this may be a test of the filmmakers to see if I ACTUALLY watched the film, (and to answer your question, YES I DID), unfortunately, my screener died ten minutes from the end of the documentary (NICE TRY GUYS!). So, if there is a bittersweet catharsis, I did not get to experience it; rather I was left with my empathetic angst that was forming from the film’s final conflict.
Three days later, the filmmakers got me another copy, “swearing” it was not intentional :). The end of the film provides exactly the optimistic POV we hope for. It’s fulfilling and moving while still realistic.
Overall, as I said, it is a truly entertaining and informative film. Every future, educated, daring, or wannabe filmmaker needs to see what the road ahead looks like. The downside is, for the filmmakers of “Official Rejection” (and I’m sure they have thought of this), though they made an excellent documentary (with stars, this time) (and maybe some nudity from them) (no, I’m not talking about Kevin Smith, that would be gross), the antagonists of their movie are the very people who hold the keys to the festivals they wish to be accepted to (truly, a poetic irony). I say, Scott and Paul, you and your balls of steel need to submit to every film festival you can. But, as you do, you need to make a sequel to your documentary that chronicles the story of “Official Rejection”’s official rejections. Yes, I realize that is a lot of money to spend, but it must be done. (By the way, I’m typically very passionate when it comes to spending other people’s money). Your target audience needs to see your film! The good news is… they will actively seek it out, when they hear about it. (I’m glad I could help spread the word.) (Keep up the fight!)
3 stars for the average person.
3.5 stars for filmmakers. Find it, watch it, learn from it, and revolt.
Until it gets wide release, here is where you can see “Official Rejection” in 2010:
– Los Angeles United Film Festival, Friday, April 30th @ 9:45pm
Los Feliz 3 Cinemas, 1822 Vermont Ave., LA
And until they make they make a film documenting their rejections, you can follow the festivals “Official Rejection” DOES get into here.
Directed by: Paul Osborne
Rated: No Rating
Distributor: Conspicuous Pictures
Ten ‘Til Noon
Review by Justin Bowler
Hollywood films are rarely made by a small production team; rather, they are the product of a dozen producers, bowing to the whims of the major production company heads. Of course, their interests lie in the many ancillary aspects of the “film world”. Because these companies are so big, they worry about pleasing (or more importantly, not offending) every person on the planet. This is merely a business decision: the bigger the company (Sony), the larger the chance one of their other non-movie products (cell phones with pretty colors) would be marketed to someone (Jane Christian-woman) that would have nothing to do with an artistic film, no matter how good it was (District 9). But, that giant corporate production or distribution company (Universal) must water down (or strip completely) any major film (The Wolfman) so it no longer has anything interesting (let alone artistic) to it at all (Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Feces). Why can’t there be both (The Empire Strikes Back)? Well, those production companies (20th Century) are more concerned with hiring people who think like market-eers, instead of filmmakers (George Lucas).
Thank God that we have fantastic indie films that don’t have to cower to the whims of the Great and All-Powerful Oz-es of the film world (Michael Eisner). So, we can enjoy solid films (Ten ‘til Noon), made with skillful and unconventional storytelling (Ten ‘til Noon), like Scott Storm’s crime thriller Ten ‘til Noon (Ten ‘til Noon).
Though this film had a rough time on the festival circuit (see the documentary “Official Rejection” for further details), this movie has everything that true movie fans want: intrigue (violence), high production value (nudity), and excellent story telling (actual thought that is put into the script). Told in a nonlinear fashion about a series of events that all take place at the exact same time (11:50 am (ten minutes until noon)), this film keeps you engaged and wanting more at every given turn (though it’s acting is a little rough at times). I would compare it to a good episode of the series “Lost”, except this writer (Paul Osborne), understands how to write a third act (he actually answers the questions that he raises) (That’s right, I said it, J.J. Abrams doesn’t write 3rd acts, he just extends (repeats) acts 1 and 2 over and over (and over and over and over and over again)) (Look for more on that rant somewhere in future reviews).
I’m a fan of unconventional storytelling as long as it is done for a purpose (Pulp Fiction) and done well (Pulp Fiction). Scott Storm (director) and Paul Osborne (writer) achieve both. There are several traps in this script that a lesser team would have been caught in. (And by “lesser team”, I mean any aforementioned Hollywood big machine producer or market-eer.) For example, without giving anything away, if “Ten ‘til Noon” were a Hollywood film, the gay man would have been an over-the-top flamboyant stereotype and the kickass gun-for-hire wouldn’t have been a female. Additionally, the Hollywood machine almost never (Pulp Fiction being one of the exceptions, because it was laced with well known faces) allows this kind of unconventional movie making. Similar to Quentin Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock, Storm and Osborne kill off major characters that, as an audience member, you have invested in and care about. Furthermore, like the Coen Bros, some of their important deaths occur off-screen.
The script is solid and so is the filmmaking. I would, however, love to see these two team up with a really talented, but well known, cast so the rest of the world could appreciate them as much as I do. Sadly, until that day, I’m afraid the Hollywood machine won’t let them in. This film is too unconventional for them, which is why it had so much trouble finding its way. (Once again, see the documentary “Official Rejection” for further details). But, stealing the cast members from any Coen Bros. or Quentin Tarantino film would yield some amazing results.
Even though I give this film high marks, it is not without folly. As I mentioned, two members of the very talented ensemble are not the caliber of the rest and overact a bit. Additionally, I’m not a fan of the last ten minutes of the film. Seemingly shot as an afterthought, in the middle of the credits a “denouement” takes place that I not only found unnecessary, but also done without the care and skill that the rest of the movie had. So, I recommend watching this fantastic film until the credits and then turn off your DVD player. Now, I only say this because the rest of the film was done so well that the bar is simply too high for the last scene. In a lesser movie the final scene would have been acceptable, but with the skillful storytelling exemplified in everything before the credits, the final scene just doesn’t seem to fit. But, overall, I say Definitely SEE IT! (And then see “Official Rejection”) (Then watch “Ten ‘til Noon” again).
I give it 3.5 stars.
“Ten ’til Noon” is available on Netflix.
Directed by: Scott Storm
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Distributor: Shut Up & Shoot Pictures
BEST PICTURE BETTER
The Movie Guys Rewrite: The Silence of the Lambs
Rewrite by Steven Lewis
THIS ARTICLE OBVIOUSLY CONTAINS SPOILERS
Have you ever been watching a movie and thought to yourself, “I could have come up with a better ending than that!”. Or maybe you say to your friends afterward “This movie was alright, I guess, but it was way too long. That second sub-plot could have been cut entirely and the whole thing would have been so much tighter.” We all have these thoughts from time to time about the movies we see. Bad films could be made at least palatable, good films great, and great films – well, even greater . . . if only someone had asked YOU for an opinion of the script before it went before the cameras.
There is nothing so frustrating as the film that ALMOST works. You want to love it, or at least like it – but something about it keeps it from being complete or fully satisfying. Now, no one is going to give you a couple million dollars and unlimited access so that you can go away and fix what needs fixing. But that doesn’t mean you have to simply resign yourself to its flaws, either – not anymore. Why? Because The Movie Guys website exists, dammit – and is the perfect forum for film geeks of all stripes to put their two cents in, and by God we’re going to USE it!
And if we’re going to have the audacity to “fix” a film in the first place, there’s no point pussy-footing around on the margins. Might as well shoot straight for the top with a classic. So here we go with re-writing a classic! Today’s pick . . .
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Now, first off, there’s no question that “The Silence of the Lambs” is fully worthy of its “classic” status. It is truly one of the great horror/thriller movies of the past twenty years (yes, movie buffs – next February it will celebrate its 20th anniversary). The story of FBI Agent Clarice Starling’s pursuit of the serial killer Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb is gripping from start to finish, and fires simultaneously on the twin cylinders of ferocious, white-knuckle suspense as well as a fully engaging character study. Clarice’s fierce intelligence and drive, her struggles as a woman in a man’s world, and her emotional need to protect the innocent and helpless are grippingly presented, and serve to fuel and complement an already compelling, well-plotted tale.
As everyone knows, the heart of the movie is the cat-and-mouse chess match of wits between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. It’s interesting, in fact, how Lecter is largely recalled as the “bad guy” of this film, rather than Buffalo Bill. That speaks, of course, to both how well his character is written, and how wonderfully embodied he is by Anthony Hopkins. But it also leaves one to wonder – why ISN’T Buffalo Bill more memorable? This is, after all, a guy who keeps women imprisoned in a dungeon, starves them, and flays them alive – certainly acts as horrific as those attributed to Lecter. And for all that, what do we really remember about this guy? Next to nothing, save for him dancing in front of the mirror with his willie tucked between his legs. It seems to me that the film tossed away an opportunity to deliver us TWO of the creepiest movie monsters of all time, and it settled for just one.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER?
And yet, the second-class status of Buffalo Bill is not what I’m concerned with here. Because I have a bigger bone to pick with this movie. For, to my way of thinking, sitting at the center of this otherwise masterfully conceived and plotted film is a glaring structural flaw that cries out for redress. I’m talking here of Lecter’s escape from custody. Now, the scene itself is crackerjack: creepy, tension-filled, and with a payoff that makes you jump right out of your skin (pun, ahem, intended). As far as execution goes, it’s probably the single best scene in a movie full of great scenes. Only problem is, it has no reason to exist.
That’s right – Lecter’s escape is an absolute waste of time in story terms; it serves as a show-off moment for everyone involved at the expense of moving the film forward. It serves no purpose in the larger picture because Lecter himself plays no role in the rest of the plot. This is a problem for a character of his stature. His character SHOULD play a role in how the film turns out – he’s too important not to – and I know how it could have been accomplished.
SEEING THE LIGHT
So picture this with me now – the final, climactic showdown between Clarice and Jame Gumb, in the crazy man’s basement. The room has just gone dark, and we see Buffalo Bill putting on his night goggles (damn, but this is still one of the most frighteningly intense sequences I have ever witnessed in a movie – such pure, unadulterated terror!). Oh no, we think – Clarice has had it. He’s got the jump on her, there’s no way she can defeat him now.
All at once, the lights flip on (we don’t know how), she sees Gumb with a gun pointed at her and she shoots. Gets him! As she’s busy handcuffing him and removing his gun, checking his wounds, etc. the camera does a slow pan around the room, then through the hallway, past the pit where the girl is screaming, up. . . up. . . up to the very top of the stairs, where a man’s hand rests upon the light switch. Pull back to see it is Lecter. He smirks knowingly to himself, makes a small flourish while putting on his panama hat, then closes the door and leaves. The rest of the movie – including the final phone conversation between Lecter and Clarice – plays out exactly the same.
Now, this change takes away none of Clarice’s bravery or heroism, or her brilliant detective work in getting to Gumb’s house in the first place. It just provides her a little bit of extra help (from above, as it were) And it’s a type of “help” that’s totally in keeping with Lecter’s character to provide: he’s not going down in the basement to fight alongside her, after all – there’s nothing decisive in his switching on of the lights; it’s still Clarice’s fight to lose or win. But, as with all their previous encounters, he’s going to give her a little positive push in the right direction, because . . . well, because he kind of likes her, and he considers it sporting to help her a bit (at least, up to a point). And it’s totally the type of controlling, patriarchal thing he’d do.
Now, as to how to establish he was there in the first place, and as to how he would know just the right MOMENT to flip that switch, let’s do some backtracking: Earlier in the sequence, have some establishing shots of Clarice walking around the town, being spied upon through the inside of a car, whose owner we never see. At first, we think it might be Gumb (although the smarter of us also ask, “Hey – Clarice isn’t big and fat like the other girls he goes after, so why would he be interested in her? Unless it’s someone else. . .”). The concluding event in the basement would establish that it had been LECTER, all along, who had been tailing Clarice – acting as a creepy sort of guardian angel. This would break no rules, as it’s clearly understood Lecter knows who Bill really is, and so of course would know the right town to go to. The perfect-ness of the timing in the actual switching on of the light is a thriller conceit that we would buy if everything else was in place. (After all, the way the sequence actually DOES end, with Clarice hearing Bill’s gun cocking, is a bit of hokum in and of itself.)
So there you go. That’s what I would do to convert “The Silence of the Lambs” from a Great movie into a PERFECT movie. And a gentle beginning to this feature on the website too, because I don’t have to run the film into the ground in the process of making it better. Not so with the next “classic” I have in my sights: Alfred Hitchcock’s unjustly lauded “Vertigo” – a fuckup of a movie if ever there was one. But oh how it could have been great . . .
“The Silence of the Lambs” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
OSCAR RANT 2010
(Honoring the films of 2009)
Rant by Paul Preston
The Academy Awards are upon us, and to mix things up, there are TEN Best Picture nominees this year. Which means we have the always-exciting five nominees not worth including. This move is important to ABC and the attempt to get higher ratings, it’s not a creative decision to reward more films. A cynical view, I know, but it’s the equivalent of making the baseball All-Star game determine World Series home field advantage.
We never asked for it.
But, if they’re gonna play that game, then my annual Top Ten of the Year will show you where they went wrong, and where I went right (in my humble opinion…). Read on!
THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2009:
(with links to original reviews, where applicable)
The lists feel weird this year, as most critics think it was a weak year and “not so great” movies made it on the lists. I think it was a weird year because so many of the best films were wide-audience entertainments. You rarely see that, and I think critics take great pleasure in holding art-house fare sacred and heaping praise on movies you’ve never heard of so they can feel smart. But what if the most popular movies were some of the best? Then you have 2009.
10. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY – It doesn’t seem like a movie made on such a small budget should be alongside big Hollywood films, but if your project sets out to achieve something and NAILS it, you win. Oren Peli’s small-time horror film delivers big-time scares and held my attention a hell of a lot longer than “An Education”, “Invictus” or other ‘prestigious’ fare. Newcomer lead actors Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston anchor the film with effortless realism. The film deals with a spirit that’s haunting a young couple as they sleep and the genius stroke of the film is when each night arrives, you never know what’s gonna happen. Eventually, the mere change of scene to the couples’ darkened bedroom brings dread. You can’t stop watching.
Click here for full-length review.
9. WATCHMEN – Not the first of very polarizing films that made my Top 10. The ‘unfilmable’ graphic novel was brought to contentious life by Zack Snyder, keeping the unflinching look at the future and the challenging nature of the superhero in tact. It’s a shame Alan Moore despises Hollywood so much, ‘cause after screwing up the first two films based on his work (“From Hell”, “LXG”), “V for Vendetta” and “Watchmen” reverse that trend and get it right. But not before Moore removed his name from all Tinseltown adaptations of his writing. Is “Watchmen” perfect? No. But it shot higher than most adventure movies this year and provided for some of the year’s most memorable images, ripped right from the comic – Rorschach’s unsettling prison stay, Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian destroying Vietnam and Richard Nixon leading the U.S. in his fourth term. “Watchmen” is about old superheroes searching for the killer of one of their own, and along the way, the viewer can soak in buckets of blood, style, and heavy, adult themes. I’m not stupid, and I thank Snyder for being such a fanboy that he made “Watchmen” with the proper reverence that it requires a smart audience. KILLER opening credits, too. Perhaps the best ever.
8. THE MESSENGER – What? There was a SECOND Iraq War movie this year? In the shadow of “The Hurt Locker”, this great, personal drama never found a decent-sized audience, but certainly delivered the goods. Ben Foster showed the promise of a great career in “3:10 to Yuma”, and with more roles like Will Montgomery in “The Messenger”, I will be following everything he does. Will is a broken man, beaten and changed by war, and upon returning, he accompanies Cpt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) in casualty notification duties. Harrelson also shines as a tough yet vulnerable veteran of this undesirable duty. From Samantha Morton to the smallest role on screen, EVERYONE is good. Some unknown actors with one scene left me in tears. So, unknown no more, I say – Peter Friedman and Halley Feiffer. “The Messenger” also goes into great detail about the rules and protocol in notifying loved ones of the loss of soldiers in Iraq. That information is just as fascinating and well-told as the relationships.
7. UP IN THE AIR – We’ve said it numerous times in print and on video at themovieguys.net, George Clooney is the most interesting actor out there. You are guaranteed something worth watching when he’s in a movie. After a couple of cornball comedies, “Up in the Air” is the PERFECT movie for Clooney, his best performance since “Michael Clayton”. The story of a loner corporate hatchet man who comes face-to-face with a romance and his job’s technological future, it’s refreshingly, unapologetically ADULT, never stooping to dopey jokes about the characters’ situations or pushing some hot newcomer into an awkward relationship with our star. Instead we get the sexy maturity of Vera Farmiga as a fellow traveler and a great performance from Anna Kendrick as the thorn in Clooney’s side. Jason Reitman joins Pixar and Alexander Payne as one of those rare filmmakers who’s never made a bad film. And despite the topic (corporate downsizing), it’s funnier than you’d think.
6. NINE – My other polarizing Top 10 pick. Actually, it may not be so polarizing. I think everyone else hated it. But, I can’t deny the old-school musical pleasures I got out of watching and Italian movie director lout named Guido confront his female muses and decide whether he even WANTS redemption or not. Rob Marshall is off to direct the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, but his strength, evidenced here and in “Chicago”, is reigning over a wide canopy of a story with inventive and energetic musical numbers. The ‘dream cabaret’ conceit, used so well in “Chicago” is used again here, and although perhaps not as fresh, it’s an idea that lends itself to the story as the movie set returns over and over again to explore the themes in Guido’s world. Slick production, great music, dynamite cast, sexy as hell, this movie is just cool, man.
Click here for full-length review.
5. BLACK DYNAMITE – Year after year there’s room in my Top 10 for the funniest movie of the year. After a second viewing, this year’s entry may be one of the funniest movies of all time. “Black Dynamite” is a send-up of the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, and all you need to know going in is that The Man killed Black Dynamite’s brother, and now Black Dynamite’s gonna make all those jive turkeys pay. A tour-de-force for star/co-writer Michael Jai White, there’s not a scene in “Black Dynamite” that isn’t out-and-out hilarious, by going either ridiculous or straight-faced or both. Released at a time when Hollywood shits out self-referential garbage like “Epic Movie” and “Meet the Spartans”, “Dyamite” reminds you of how to get it done. You can’t just mention Paris Hilton and expect to get a laugh. And “Black Dynamite” has a great ending, not just the outrageous final scene, but also the entire third act yields some of the biggest laughs in the film, the same time most comedies are dying out. If you see a listing for this movie as a midnight screening anywhere, GO. It’s the kind of film that will bring people back over and over again.
Click here for full-length review.
4. STAR TREK – Man, did this seem like a bad idea on paper. If there’s one franchise, outside of “Star Wars” or “The Godfather” that just don’t look like can be re-done, it’s the genial space-tripping utopian thrill of the “Star Trek” universe. But in the hands of J.J. Abrams, this re-boot not only vaults the franchise into a new hi-tech arena, but makes all the old relationships fresh again. Where do the writers of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “The Island” get off making a script so thorough that it hits on ALL counts (action, romance, intelligence, humor, sci-fi) where previous scripts couldn’t successfully cover ONE of those themes? This latest “Trek” concerns a Romulan warship on a fierce quest to hunt down Mr. Spock, and there are LOTS of time travel concerns, normally the kiss of death for sci-fi franchises when they should just keep it simple, but “Star Trek” NAILS it, keeping you thinking AND entertained at the same time. Imagine that. So as you can tell from this mini-review, “Star Trek” isn’t so much a movie that provides fantastic entertainment as it is a film that avoided all the obvious traps in front of it and flourished. And a HORDE of critics heaped praise on this film when it was released in May, but for some reason by year’s end, they want to appear more cultured, rewarding something like “Precious”. Make no mistake, “Star Trek” is easily one of the year’s best.
Click here for full-length review.
3. THE HURT LOCKER – Well done, Kathryn Bigelow. Yes, it’s the director of “Point Break” that has put together the best film yet on the Iraq War. I think the debate is over now as to whether it’s “too soon” to make Iraq War movies. This unnecessary occupation has lumbered on for 8+ years now. “Apocalypse Now” came out four years after the Vietnam conflict ended, and I think any opinion about the Iraq War is worth putting up on screen. As even-handed and more-or-less non-political as “The Hurt Locker” seems (it’s the story of an IED-diffusing team that seeks out explosives in the cities of Iraq), the mere depiction of our soldiers as walking targets that could be offed by anyone, anytime suggests that the Iraq conflict is not a war. A war is a conflict between two groups. “The Hurt Locker”’s Iraq, as laid out by been-there screenwriter Mark Boal, is the devil’s playground, an unstable, dangerous country where our soldier’s mission is unclear and our servicemen balance grief, fear, anger and exhilaration on a daily basis, and it’s riveting. Jeremy Renner is great as a sergeant who’s addicted to the danger, causing a sticky relationship with his fellow soldiers. To him, war is a drug. I found “The Hurt Locker” just as addictive.
Click here for full-length review.
2. UP – Annual Top 10 list resident Pixar is back again. There isn’t an emotion out there that isn’t present at some time in “Up”, a fantastically unique animated masterpiece from writer/directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson. 78-year old Carl Fredricksen sets out to visit the wilds of South America and encounters an adventure he didn’t plan. I have the feeling, fifteen years into Pixar’s brilliant streak of critically-acclaimed blockbusters, that you could give them ANY plot (a shoe and a lemon run for the same State Senate seat, an old barn wants nothing more than to sing showtunes, a can of soda re-thinks the health risks he might be providing people), and they know just what to do. They’ll add their trademark humor when necessary, there will be dizzying action scenes, memorable music, and the highest quality animation that buries the studios that have followed in their wake. “Up” has all that, plus an emotional foundation more effective than half of this year’s dramas. “Up” is one of the decade’s true originals.
Click here for full-length review.
1. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS – A second viewing of Quentin Tarantino’s audacious World War II extravaganza locked it into the top spot of 2009’s best films. At first look, I was drawn in by QT’s bravado and was entertained as hell. Upon second look, I saw the specific, authoritative control of a master at work, and was duly IMPRESSED. It’s no secret that Quentin will emulate the filmmaking techniques of some of the greats when necessary. He brandishes that like a code of honor. He loves old movies. SO DO I. So, when he borrows from Leone for some great shots at the beginning of the film, or uses the music from “The Battle of Algiers”, I’m right there, it’s fun. But when it’s time to get down to business in this movie, he wastes no time and no line of dialogue is frivolous. This is evident in the opening scene, the brilliant “Operation Kino” tavern sequence and the fantastic scene with Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz over a strudel. “Wait for the cream!”. Whereas “Death Proof”’s characters talked and talked and talked for no reason, the payoff of all these scenes (or, ‘the cream’) is very satisfying. There are enough intriguing and interesting stories and relationships in “Inglourious Basterds” to fill four lesser films. “Basterds” juggles them all into a vibrant, intense storyline leading to a blazing, cinematic spectacle of a finale that manages to be both wildly fulfilling and thought-provoking. Tarantino is back on track.
Click here for full-length review.
AVATAR – James Cameron, although not delivering too much new in the way of themes, is one of the best action-movie directors EVER. The finale of this 3-D adventure is literally unbelievable.
DISTRICT 9 – A great sci-fi/horror movie where the humans are the monsters.
DUPLICITY – Not Top 10-worthy, but MUCH better than it’s tiny box office would lead you to believe. From “Michael Clayton” writer/director Tony Gilroy, it’s a smart (perhaps too smart), funny look at the evils of corporatism.
FUNNY PEOPLE – Not all the drama works here, but right when it seems to be going south, something funny happens. Then something else funny. Judd Apatow is just funny.
THE HANGOVER – Not as funny as “Black Dynamite”, but pretty damn good!
THE INFORMANT! – This movie deserved more love from critics and audiences. Steven Soderbergh employs all the right cinematic tricks to tell the story of a whistle blower that’s hard to like but impossible to stop watching.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG – More good news from the Disney/Pixar merger. Their 2-D animation department has been overhauled by John Lasseter, too, and this movie fits right in with the new classic years of Disney’s 1990s animation.
THE WORST OF 2009:
I’ll admit right out of the gate that some movies were so bad I didn’t even see them – “Old Dogs”, “G-Force” and “Bride Wars”, for example. But of the bad stuff that did eat up two hours of my life, here’s what stunk:
G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA – What has happened to action movies? When “Star Trek” or “District 9” are out there, why do we need this? And Stephen Sommers has never, ever, ever, ever, ever made a good film. Go ahead, imdb the guy. NEVER MADE A FILM WORTH WATCHING.
THE LOVELY BONES – A total misfire for Peter Jackson. Quick, take back the reins of “The Hobbit”.
NINJA ASSASSIN – Of course this was bad. Now “John Woo’s Ninja Assassin” or “Jet Li’s Ninja Assassin” might’ve had a chance.
PIRATE RADIO – More depressing than bad ‘cause Richard Curtis can do so much better than this convoluted comedy.
THE ROAD – I heard it was a good book, but this father/son wasteland adventure story had NO POINT.
TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN – One of the worst things to look at that I’ve ever seen. Like, I don’t even care was was happening, I couldn’t LOOK at it.
YEAR ONE – Unfortunately, comedy wasn’t invented till year two.
And, since 2009 brings the decade to a close, my
TOP TEN FILMS OF THE 2000s:
10. IN AMERICA – Jim Sheridan’s Irish-family-in-New-York-City story is his most personal film yet. And his most effective in years.
9. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 – Changing the landscape of what a film can be and what a film can do, a brilliant cry for revolution from the cheap seats.
8. JUNEBUG – Keep it simple, and wonderful things happen. Phil Morrison’s slow, superb North Carolina drama will catch you off guard.
7. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK – There’s not a bad frame in George Clooney’s period work of genius with great performances throughout and modern-day resonance.
6. CHICAGO – An exhilarating musical comedy that stands among the best movie musicals ever. Makes me wanna take up jazz and liquor.
5. SIDEWAYS – My favorite relationship of the decade is Miles and Jack in this hilarious comedy. Even when it’s a downer, it’s hilarious.
4. MICHAEL CLAYTON – Right now, there’s nothing more relevant than corporate criminals. This film will anger you and get your panties in a bunch. Not just ‘cause Clooney’s in it.
3. THE DARK KNIGHT – Christopher Nolan’s crime story is so compelling, you almost forget it’s a superhero story, too. But both angles of this bleak, complex work are equally handled with a master’s touch.
2. UNITED 93 – Eight years after 9/11, I hope everyone can finally give Paul Greengrass’ excellent film a viewing. Emotional and aggravating, it’s a riveting film showcasing great work from an unknown cast.
1. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – A thematically OVERWHELMING piece of work from The Coen Brothers. This movie has sparked hour-long conversations every week since I saw it three years ago. The writing, cinematography, acting, sense of place and time and direction are flawless. It’s suspenseful and endlessly provocative. Brilliant.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM
Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”
George Clooney, “Up In The Air”
Colin Firth, “A Single Man”
Morgan Freeman, “Invictus”
Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”
Glaring Omission: I thought Michael Stuhlbarg had a shot here. Since “A Serious Man” got a Best Picture nomination, I thought maybe it’s main character would get some love, too. Plus he had some previous nominations. Maybe Robert Downey, Jr., because of his Golden Globe win, but I don’t see “Sherlock Holmes” standing up next to the more prestigious films represented here.
Runners-up: Matt Damon in “The Informant!”. He is so weasely, and deftly handles the mountain of stories he has to tell to frustrate the hell out of Scott Bakula (there was nothing more fun to watch Bakula’s slow burn). Ben Foster in “The Messenger” was every bit as good as Woody Harrelson, and I would’ve nominated him here over Morgan Freeman, who is essentially doing his man-of-respect thing. James McAvoy continues to be good in nearly everything he does, same can be said for “The Last Station”, but he’s clearly outdone by his supporting cast legends Mirren and Plummer.
Great Inclusion: Jeremy Renner, for his out-of-nowhere manic energy performance in “The Hurt Locker”.
Will win: Jeff Bridges. But at least it’s a good performance for a career win.
Should win: They’re describing the race as between Bridges and Renner, but this is one of Clooney’s best performances to date. To me, that’s a pretty brutal three-way race from which to have to pick a winner. I’m going with Renner, because Bridges’ Bad Blake visits familiar territory for a movie about a musician, and Clooney is so well-cast, it’s mostly his personality at work, without a huge stretch. That leaves Renner to win in my book, from the toughest category to pick such a thing.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Matt Damon, “Invictus”
Woody Harrelson, “The Messenger”
Christopher Plummer, “The Last Station”
Stanley Tucci, “The Lovely Bones”
Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
Glaring Omission: Alec Baldwin for “It’s Complicated”. Man, I thought that movie blew, but there was talk, and I thought that talk might be enough to keep this Emmy darling in the Oscar hunt.
Runners-up: Is it possible to nominate Christopher Johnson to be nominated from “District 9”? I felt more for him, rooted him and understood his horrible situation more than, say, Matt Damon in “Invictus”. Christopher Johnson, Best Supporting Actor, I like the sound of that. Also, this could be the Stanley Tucci category, as his turn as Mr. Child from “Julie & Julia” was quite good, too. Being the “Watchmen”-lover that I am, count me in for a Jackie Earle Haley Best Supporting Actor nod. He brought the complicated Rorschach to life with vivid energy and was a blast to watch.
Great Inclusion: Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones”. Horrible movie, with a transformative performance by Tucci, you just want him to burn.
Will win: Christoph Waltz, the most sure thing of the evening.
Should win: Waltz. Col. Hans Landa will be an enduring cinematic figure for years in the vein of Anton Chigurh and The Joker, former winners here.
Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side”
Helen Mirren, “The Last Station”
Carey Mulligan, “An Education”
Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”
Glaring Omission: This is pretty much how the list was expected to turn out. One nod people thought might happen is Meryl going up against herself in “It’s Complicated”. But again, that movie was crap, so I’m thankful that’s not happening. Did Zoe Saldana have a shot here for “Avatar”? We’ve yet to see an animated performance, whether vocal or screen-captured, be Oscar-nominated. This came close to being worthy, but there’s too much relying on the post-production of her performance to nominate it.
Runners-up: Marion Cotillard in “Nine”. It’s pretty much an ensemble cast, but since she has two songs, maybe Marion can get upgraded to this category for a heartbreaking performance. Audrey Tatou was very engaging as Coco Chanel in “Coco Before Chanel”, playing the span of years well and the quiet desire to come out from under man’s thumb and stake her claim in the fashion world.
Great Inclusion: Helen Mirren, “The Last Station”. A firestorm of wild emotion, her take on Countess Sofia Tolstoy was a wonder.
Will win: Bullock, for stepping up to the plate and making us forget “Premonition” and “The Lake House” even came out.
Should win: Here’s another case where the race is supposedly between Bullock and Streep, and they’ve been trading awards leading up to The Oscars. But as sharp as Bullock was and as good an impersonation as Streep did, Helen Mirren is a force to be reckoned with in “The Last Station”. Her character evokes sympathy, then does something to deny you that feeling. She’s playful, then heartbroken, so all over the map and BELIEVABLE in every compass point, she takes it if I were giving them out. Sorry, Sandra. Hopefully this role is the start of streak.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Penelope Cruz, “Nine”
Vera Farmiga, “Up In The Air”
Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Crazy Heart”
Anna Kendrick, “Up In The Air”
Glaring Omission: More than a glaring omission in this category is a glaring inclusion – Maggie Gyllenhaal, who hasn’t been nominated for any other major awards up to The Oscars for “Crazy Heart”. Yet, here she is. Who does that leave in the lurch? Probably Julianne Moore for “A Single Man”. The Academy is dying to give her an award, but timing hasn’t been on her side.
Runners-up: Diane Kruger was SAG-Award nominated for “Inglourious Basterds” and rightfully so, I might’ve slid her in there before Gyllenhaal. Kruger was funny, tough and fearful at all the right times.
Great Inclusion: Penelope Cruz in “Nine”. An otherwise critically-trashed movie got a teency amount of love from The Academy with Cruz’ nomination. She’s sexy and pathetic at the same time, reminding me that I didn’t like Cruz at all just three years ago, but she’s on a roll now.
Will win: Mo’Nique
Should win: I’m gritting my teeth here, but I’m gonna go with Mo’Nique, too. The abusive parent role isn’t all that new but she delivers the fearful goods. Her connection to the material late in the film and the dark places she goes showing vulnerability in her monologues are pretty impressive. Mo’Nique.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and The Frog
The Secret of Kells
Glaring Omission: “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”, which seemed to be out solely to have some fun with 3D, but was in the end a little more substantial. It was, however, outdone by what must’ve been a hell of a marketing campaign to push “The Secret of Kells”, a movie no one reading this has seen. And you won’t see it before Oscar night.
Runners-up: “9” perhaps? Let’s be honest, though. That wasn’t too great. Disney brought 2-D animation back to life this year, but when 2-D was phased out, it wasn’t doing well. Perhaps 3-D animation is getting a little saturated, too? There seemed to be a lot of animated releases this year, but only five worth nominating. “Planet 51”, anyone? UGH.
Great Inclusion: Two more nominees! Expanding this category was actually worth doing. Previous years only saw three nominees, but that never made sense to me. This year squeezed out five nominees, hopefully future years won’t have to try so hard, but there should be five total.
Will win: “Up”, probably the second lock of the night, behind Christoph Waltz
Should win: “Up”. Pixar leads this category all year long, they lead it Oscar night, too.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria
Glaring Omission: “A Single Man”, nominated for a Golden Globe. The “Mad Men” team nailed the period of “A Single Man”, but it seems Oscar certainly seemed to be more entranced by time periods not close to current day or our current world.
Runners-up: “District 9”. As it is, thanks to “Black Hawk Down”, “Blood Diamond”, “Hotel Rwanda” and more, I won’t be going to Africa. “District 9” will keep me away, too, and it’s not even REAL. Nice work. Am I the only one who thought the goofy banks in “The International” were a lot of fun? That coupled with the destruction of the Guggenheim at least gets you think of a nom.
Great Inclusion: “Nine”. The huge film set and all its various uses alone should get the nomination, then throw in all the gorgeous Italian locations and it’s a done deal.
Will win: “Avatar”, in a run on tech awards.
Should win: “Avatar” probably should win, but am I an old fart to not be so impressed with what computers can do as opposed to what can be created in terms of a tangible world in which the characters interact? But with no “District 9” on the radar, I guess “Avatar”, but I’m not saying that enthusiastically.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
The White Ribbon
Glaring Omission: Eric Steelberg’s work on “Up in the Air” seems like the kind of solid camera-work that The Academy loves. Thought I’d see that nominated here.
Runners-up: The “Watchmen” lovefest continues. Larry Fong’s work here was hypnotic and fed Zack Snyder’s vision well. Dion Beebe made “Nine” look like an Italian wet dream, lush, gorgeous and seductive.
Great Inclusion: “Inglourious Basterds”. Robert Richardson is one of the best shooters in the last 25 years, he made “Basterds” and “Kill Bill” look awesome. Special shout-out to “Avatar”. A friend of mine said he was impressed that the computer-animated sections of the film look as if they were “shot” by a camera in an environment. I concur, nice work in pulling off that effect.
Will win: I’m admittedly undereducated here. I missed “The White Ribbon”, but will predict its win because it won the Cinematographer’s Guild Award
Should win: “Inglourious Basterds”. Some kind of award has to be given out to a movie that has the “Giant Face” in it.
Coco before Chanel
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria
Glaring Omission: “A Single Man”. Um, this movie was directed by Tom Ford, who has made a career out of FASHION. No nomination here’s gotta sting for him.
Runners-up: C’mon, Academy! “Brüno” was wall-to-wall giant, gay, glorious costumes! “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” was such a lousy film, anything should replace that here. How’s about “The Hurt Locker”, which had no partnership with actual military to make its film, yet the uniforms of the soldiers look very authentic? And the “Watchmen” lovefest continues, as Michael Wilkinson built garb for our heroes that suited what fans of the comic remember, and they had lots of fun with the period superheroes, too. “Public Enemies” also nailed the gangster look of Dillinger.
Great Inclusion: “Nine”, not just because of my love of the film, but every year this category gets hooked on period pieces or fantasy films, and I always wanna show love to flicks as close to my time period as possible. “Nine” was a great representation of 1960s Europe mixed with luxurious musical theater dress.
Will win: “Coco Before Chanel”
Should win: “Coco Before Chanel”. Matching Chanel’s wardrobe is a tall order, and they stepped up to it.
James Cameron, Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up In The Air
Glaring Omission: This is the first year where I can’t rant that a Best Picture nominee doesn’t have an accompanying Best Director nomination. They did cover their bases by having ten nominees this year, but still I can’t help think that the Academy gets so used to nominating Clint Eastwood every year that they’d just do it, whether “Invictus” was nominated or not.
Runners-up: If you saw my Top 10 of ’09, you can get the idea who I think should be recognized here. I’d pull Lee Daniels and replace him with Pete Docter and Bob Peterson of “Up”. “Up” required more imagination to pull off, and I always applaud that.
Great Inclusion: James Cameron, “Avatar”. The magnitude of work required to pull off that film is staggering and time-consuming. He did it.
Will win: Kathryn Bigelow, “The Hurt Locker”. She’ll squeak out a win past Cameron on the heels of her DGA win and it’ll be history-making, the first woman Best Director winner.
Should win: Tarantino. Sorry, history, QT’s made the year’s best film.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Which Way Home
Glaring Omission: “Capitalism: A Love Story”. Three of these nominated films are high-profile and I was surprised to see the two other less-heard-of movies get the nod over Michael Moore. I also thought the emotional push of “Michael Jackson’s This is It” would get it a nod. But it’s not a great documentary, although it’s a unique concert film.
Runners-up: I was a fan of Moore’s movie
Great Inclusion: I think the race is between “The Cove” and “Food, Inc.”
Will win: “The Cove”
Should win: Flip a coin, but I think the world knows our food is bad and it’s killing us, we just don’t care. “The Cove” can enlighten people about something new. I’m going with “The Cove”
China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner
The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
Music by Prudence
Rabbit à la Berlin
Um….next. Haven’t seen ‘em. Good luck, nominees!
The Hurt Locker
Glaring Omission: Look, “Avatar” is pretty much an animated film, so why not nominate Editor’s Guild Award winner “Up’? The Carl/Ellie relationship montage alone edited to the brilliant Michael Giacchino score could win the award.
Runners-up: “Star Trek”, with crazy-exciting action scenes. Editing around the lens flares alone is award-worthy. “Up in the Air”, with all of the scenes that cut along with Clooney’s monologues. I especially like the descriptions of how he flies while barely breaking pace in the airport. “Nine” cut together spectacular musical numbers, often sliding between the real world and the musical numbers fluidly.
Great Inclusion: “Avatar”, it’s tough to cut footage that doesn’t exist in the real world.
Will win: ACE winner “The Hurt Locker”
Should win: “The Hurt Locker”, barely beating out “Inglourious Basterds”. “Locker” built scenes of vital suspense that worked very well, thanks in part to the editors.
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
El Secretro de sus Ojo, Argentina
The Milk of Sorrow, Peru
Un Prophete, France
The White Ribbon, Germany
Um….next. Haven’t seen ‘em. Good luck, nominees!
The Young Victoria
Glaring Omission: TWO MORE NOMINEES! I say this every year. There’s worthwhile work out there. I’ll mention it next.
Runners-up: How’s about “The Road”? Can’t be easy to cover people in grime every day and be continuous with it. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” – half the characters in this movie look bugged out – Wormtail, Dumbledore, etc.
Great Inclusion: “Star Trek”. Year after year this franchise is chock full ‘o’ nuts – Romulans, Vulcans, etc…
Will win: “Star Trek”
Should win: “Star Trek”, the most flamboyant choice, the others are mostly age makeup.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
Glaring Omission: “STAR TREK”!!! Michael Giacchino is represented here for “Up”, which is great. But his “Star Trek” score is phenomenal, a throwback to blaring trumpets and pounding timpanis and a very memorable theme. This is one of the second best score of the year, being bested only by himself for “Up”, it’s a crime it’s not nominated. Once upon a time, the latest “Harry Potter” film would be in this category. That was when John Williams or Patrick Doyle waved the baton. Now, with Nicholas Hooper, the most memorable part of the score is still Williams’ original theme. I also thought Randy Newman had a shot with his jazz score for “The Princess and the Frog”, but the songs may have been more memorable than the score. I also thought Marvin Hamlisch had a good chance of being nominated for his throwback score to “The Informant!”. It was a good year for film scores.
Runners-up: I like everything listed above. Did I mention the “Star Trek” score was great? I also liked Karen O and Carter Burwell’s score for “Where the Wild Things Are”, a movie that underwhelmed me, but the score captured the feel of the whimsical childhood imagination. I hope Burwell wins an Oscar one day.
Great Inclusion: “Up”
Will win: “Up”
Should win: “Up”. Not only is it the year’s best score, but this will be payback for criminally neglecting to nominate Giacchino’s awesome score for “The Incredibles” a few years back.
Almost There, The Princess and the Frog
Down in New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog
Loin de Paname, Paris 36
Take It All, Nine
The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart
Glaring Omission: I thought, even though it’s not a stand-out song, that the Academy would nominate I Want to Come Home from “Everybody’s Fine”, just to get a live performance out of writer/performer Paul McCartney at The Oscars.
Runners-up: “Cinema Italiano”. Outside of Be Italian, this new song is the most memorable song from the film, based on the original Maury Yeston musical, and the number in the film is staged great.
Great Inclusion: Take it all from “Nine”. This is a situation for me where I don’t even remember much how this song goes, but the delivery of it in the movie is most memorable, with Marion Cotillard baring it all to her husband, showing the pain and passion of their relationship.
Will win: The Weary Kind
Should win: The Weary Kind from “Crazy Heart”. Almost There is the standout from “The Princess and the Frog”, but The Weary Kind embodies the whole film “Crazy Heart”. In fact, the title alone could be Bad Blake’s nickname.
The Blind Side
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up In The Air
Glaring Omission: I thought going to ten nominees would allow The Academy to go with Clint again, but “Invictus” didn’t get the love.
Runners-up: Check my Top 10. Pull “Avatar”, “The Blind Side”, “District 9”, “An Education”, “Precious” and “A Serious Man”, add “Star Trek”, “Black Dynamite”, “Watchmen”, “Paranormal Activity”, “Nine” and “The Messenger”. It looks weird, but it’s a hell of a Top 10.
Great Inclusion: Even though it just missed my Top 10, how cool is it to see dark, violent, bloody mess “District 9” represented? That’s cool.
Will win: “The Hurt Locker” sprints ahead of “Avatar”. “The Hurt Locker” won the Editor’s, Writer’s, Director’s and Producer’s Guild Awards. If “Avatar” still wins, it’ll be an upset at this point. But hey, $700 million in box office for “Avatar”? Everybody wins.
Should win: “Inglourious Basterds”
Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty
The Lady and the Reaper (La Dama y la Muerte)
A Matter of Loaf and Death
Glaring Omission: “PRESTO”!!! How can Pixar’s BRILLIANT magician/bunny showdown go unnoticed. “Presto” was one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year, hilarious and lovingly detailed and crisply paced. It would’ve made Tex Avery proud.
Runners-up: See “Presto”
Great Inclusion: “A Matter of Loaf and Death”. Anything Aardman touches is super entertaining, and this is a new Wallace & Gromit short!
Will win: “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty”, a hilarious short about a grandma reading the classic story to her grandson, and slanting the story to become a treatise about how pretty people get everything handed to them.
Should win: “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty”, and I think the race is between “Granny” and “Loaf”, but the Wallace & Gromit shorts may have peaked too early, and the frantic pace of action and gags may not come as fast in this short as they did in, say, “The Wrong Trousers”, allowing fresh newcomer Granny to win. I’d agree, by a hair.
LIVE ACTION SHORT
Instead of Abracadabra
The New Tenants
Glaring Omission: Not sure what else was out there
Runners-up: Not sure what else was out there
Great inclusion: “Miracle Fish”, an Australian drama with a slow reveal and shocking ending making the first five minutes of deliberate pace and style worth it.
Will win: “The Door”, ‘cause it panders to all the stuffy things that make Academy voters feel important – period (1980s), drama (Chernobyl), foreign content (Russian location, Irish film), and culture.
Should win: It’s great to see “Instead of Abracadabra” here, a loose and fun comedy about a rather lame magician. Fun and easy, it’s a total winner about potentially undesirable people. I’m rooting for it to upend the more serious fare.
The Hurt Locker
Glaring Omission: “District 9”, perhaps? Any movie introducing new sci-fi elements and plausibly editing them is deserving of a nomination, but I can’t think of anything you’d remove from this nominee list to make room!
Runners-up: “Nine”, the blistering songs of Maury Yeston matched with the bedlam of the Italian film scene made for an overwhelming aural experience. I don’t care what you say, that’s a great sentence.
Great Inclusion: “Up”. I’m always a fan of animated films making this cut, ‘cause NO SOUND IN THIS MOVIE IS NATURALLY BORN. It’s all edited in the final cut. Brilliant work, here.
Will win: “Avatar”, keeping its tech sweep alive
Should win: “Up”
The Hurt Locker
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Glaring Omission: “Up”, just ‘cause “Transformers 2” is a horrible, horrible movie and needs to not be Oscar-nominated…with that in mind, you could nominate “The Blind Side” here, a perfectly mediocre movie whose nomination won’t be as embarrassing as recognizing “Transformers 2” for anything.
Runners-up: “District 9”, “Nine”, “Watchmen”
Great Inclusion: “The Hurt Locker”, in a category mostly dominated by action movies, same goes for the “Basterds”
Will win: “Avatar”
Should win: “Avatar”, ‘cause if you create a world visually, you have to create it audibly, too.
Glaring Omission: Here’s a year when five nominees are necessary. There were TONS of great effects all over Hollywood this year – “Where the Wild Things” are seamlessly blended the Henson puppets and CGI. “2012”: it’s a shocking upset to see that film passed over. Whatever you think of the dopey-ness of that popcorn trash, the destruction of the world was pretty impressive to see. How about “The Lovely Bones”? The afterlife didn’t make any sense but it was good to look at. Wait, I just talked myself out of that one..
Runners-up: “Wild Things”, plus “Watchmen” and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”
Great Inclusion: “District 9”, the effects were one of a number of things that made that film unique
Will win: “Avatar”
Should win: “Avatar”. If Cameron isn’t recognized for tackling an enormous task, then the category’s a joke.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
In The Loop
Up In The Air
Glaring Omission: Nothing really ‘glaring’ here, but I thought Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach would get a nod for “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, the Academy loves them. Instead, “In the Loop” snuck in.
Runners-up: “Star Trek”, for taking an old property and making it more fresh than ever, and “Watchmen”, for paring down a massive graphic novel, and making it palatable.
Great Inclusion: “District 9”. This ridiculously original idea needed to be rewarded (the feature script is based on the filmmaker’s short)
Will win: “Up in the Air”, a fine choice
Should win: “Up in the Air”. The only thing wrong with this adaptation is that this book about corporate downsizing and straining economy was written nine years ago, but it still relevant…
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Glaring Omission: I thought maybe here that “(500) Days of Summer” would find it’s one nomination of the night, but not so, they went with “The Messenger”.
Runners-up: I would crap myself if “Black Dynamite” got nominated. It’s funnier than anything else nominated, does that mean anything?
Great Inclusion: “A Serious Man”. ALWAYS nominate the Coens
Will win: “The Hurt Locker”, the war movie.
Should win: “Inglourious Basterds”, taking the war movie and turning it upside down.
Well, there you have it. There’s a rant for you. Share it, print it out, and by all means, if you disagree, LET US KNOW. I’m not entirely right. Just mostly…
And the producers of The Oscars this year are taking steps to trim down this year’s broadcast. Was the first step to add five more Best Picture nominees? Good luck with that…
OSCAR PICKS – 2010
by Joel Frost
Best Supporting Actress:
Who should win: Mo’Nique
Who will win: Mo’Nique
In a year of as many close to sure-things as any year in recent memory, this is perhaps the easiest call. Mo’Nique was absolutely stunning as the damaged mother of the title character. Her culminating scene with Mariah Carey and Gabourey Sidibe was a thing of beauty, even as it displayed the character’s deep ugliness. Anna Kendrick was excellent in “Up In The Air”, but Mo’Nique was just about perfect in “Precious”.
Best Supporting Actor:
Who should win: Stanley Tucci
Who will win: Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz has run the table with the awards leading up to the Oscars, and for good reason. His deft, subtle precision made for many riveting moments during an uneven film. However, Stanley Tucci’s performance as the child-murderer in “The Lovely Bones” was creepier and more visceral. It’s no crime if Christoph Waltz wins this award… he certainly deserves it too. For my money, though, I have Stanley Tucci’s performance just a touch deeper.
Who should win: Meryl Streep
Who will win: Sandra Bullock
Sandra Bullock was a bright spot in this otherwise cartoonishly middling film. Try as she could, she couldn’t raise the proceedings to her level. In fact, as the movie wears on, it seemed as if the whole endeavor wore her performance down. When Meryl’s around, the bar is set high, and for all of Sandra’s effort, I still feel Meryl had the better showing. Again, it’s not a tragedy if Sandra wins. However, all things considered, Meryl’s level of work is just a bit higher.
Who should win: Jeff Bridges
Who will win: Jeff Bridges
In the second-easiest to call category, Jeff Bridges is almost certain to take home the statue. Academy voters love a tale of redemption from an admired veteran. Bridges isn’t getting a free pass here, though, as he certainly deserves the award. George Clooney, Colin Firth and Jeremy Renner all essentially cancel each other out as dark horses in this category… each likely to siphon off an equal number of votes, none likely to unseat Bridges.
Best Animated Feature Film:
Who should win: Up
Who will win: Up
In any other year, “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” would be the front-runner. Visually, it’s a bit more interesting… at least less obvious… than “Up”. However, “Up” is a complete picture and no slouch as a nominee. If it lacks anything in the sense that it fits easily into the “formula” of the Pixar canon, it makes up for it in story and humor. This category possibly has the largest chance for an upset, but that chance is small by usual standards. “Up” deserves the award, and is likely to take it home.
Best Original Screenplay:
Who should win: “A Serious Man”
Who will win: “Inglorious Basterds”
The Academy voters will likely want to find a way to give Tarantino his due for this film, and this may be the easiest way. “Up” and “The Hurt Locker” give “Basterds” some stiff competition, but I’ll take the rich, lumpy Coen Brothers piece over either of them. This category is a tight race. Don’t bet the house on any of these scripts.
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Who should win: “Up In The Air”
Who will win: “Precious”
This is a three-horse race. “District 9” also has a shot, although I suspect that film’s outsider status (made in South Africa) might unfortunately keep it from getting as fair a shake. “Up In The Ai”r was an excellent film which somehow doesn’t seem to be the front-runner in any category. This may be its best chance to take home a statue, but in the end, I expect “Precious” to prevail.
Who should win: Jason Reitman
Who will win: Kathryn Bigelow
Kathryn Bigelow is the favorite for this category, and certainly could take the Oscar. James Cameron has a chance too, and after having seen the “making of” special for “Avatar”, I can certainly understand why. I’m in the Jason Reitman camp for many reasons, from his shot-selection to the performances he managed from his actors. The deciding factor here, not that Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t deserve the award on the merits of her work, may be that this award has never been won by a woman. In a tight race, that extra push of recognition is likely to cement the win for Bigelow.
Who should win: “Up In The Air”
Who will win: “Avatar”
“The Hurt Locker”, “Up”, and “Precious” all have a shot in this category. “Up In The Air” does as well. However, “Avatar” isn’t going home empty-handed, and it’s hard to argue with a $700 million in domestic box office gross. Those people buying tickets have voted with their pocket books, and the Academy is likely to take note. Purely looking at the films, frankly I don’t see “Avatar” as in the same class as the others. It’s visually stunning but only a so-so story, without any great performances. Cameron certainly did his job as the director of this film, but ultimately it doesn’t have the weight of the others. “Up In The Air” isn’t a vastly superior movies to the other close contenders, but I liked it better than any of them. In the end, what is this all but just a big popularity contest anyway?
OVERLOOKED GEMS, PART 2
Reviews by Steven Lewis
We all have ‘em: movies that we like, even love, which somehow get lost in the grand shuffle called “posterity”. They may have been hits in their day – or they may have bombed undeservedly – but whatever the case, no one is talking about them anymore, and they are not likely to appear on anyone’s “must see” list as they go trolling the video store shelves, or adding to their Netflix queue. What follows are some random films from my own “overlooked gems” collection, with accompanying reviews.
Funny Farm (1988)
Now, admittedly, I saw this during a period of my life when I believed Chevy Chase could do no wrong (I have since come to my senses), but even so, this is one that holds up, and was unfairly lambasted by the critics. From the ads (if you can even remember that far back!), this looked like it was just going to be a “Vacation” rip-off, sort of “The Griswolds Move To the Country.” Believe me, the humor in this film is much more sly and more charming than anything in the “Vacation” pictures (of which the first is a classic, the second and fourth abysmal, and the third one has its moments).The film is about a sportswriter (Chase) who quits his job in order to move out to the country with his wife (the wonderful Madolyn Smith) and write the Great American Novel. The movie details his gradual comeuppance, as he realizes that neither country living nor his talent is all that it’s cracked up to be.
The film wonderfully skews the convention of the innocent country rubes moving to the big city and being overwhelmed by its meanness and craziness. Here, it’s the cityfolk who move wide-eyed to the country – and are amazed to find there a roll call of crazies, misanthropes, and just plain weirdos. Does this view of rural life have any basis in reality? Probably not, but then the film isn’t really trying to be a satire but instead a pure lunatic comic fantasy. And it gives us a rich array of supporting characters – from the town sheriff who travels by cab because he flunked his driving test, to the Mad Max-like mailman who refuses to stop or slow his vehicle in order to make his deliveries, and even the little old lady who runs the local antique shop, yet who seems to be selling nothing but her own family heirlooms. All these characters are priceless, and the film just keeps coming up with more and more of them – until it has created this pleasantly bizarre and warped Otherworld, of a kind that only comedy can truly provide.
Best of all is the way in which Chase and Smith react to all of this and try to make some sense of it. I very clearly say “Chase and Smith” because the film belongs equally to both of them. It had to be billed as a Chevy Chase Comedy, of course, since he’s the big star here, but this is no star trip; from the very first, the wife is made an equal partner in the trials and the laughs, and it’s the way the two go through their new life together that provides much of the comedy. It also helps take the edge off of the usual Chevy Chase persona: in “Funny Farm”, he’s neither glib and disinterested nor over-the-top silly. He comes across instead like a normal, personable guy who just finds himself caught in insane circumstances.
Finally, the climactic sequence of the film – wherein the townspeople respond positively to a bribe forcing them to put aside their various peccadilloes in order to replicate a bogus “Norman Rockwell” presentation of small-town life – is one of the most brilliantly sustained comic set-pieces you’ll see in any movie, of any era. Funny Farm is the type of movie which gives you a great time and leaves you with a big, dopey grin on your face after it’s all over. Even if you don’t normally like Chevy Chase, you should not have a hard time loving this movie.
I’m not normally a fan of Oliver Stone, but this movie just blew me away. The reason I usually don’t like Stone is that, though he is a great technical director and visual stylist, his scripts are generally heavy-handed and one-sided to the point of absurdity. But not here. In fact, the script is perhaps the most impressive element in this whole movie, not only for how ambiguous and even-handed it is in dealing with Nixon as a character, but also for the brilliant way it moves around in time. It starts with Nixon, feeling embattled in the White House in 1973 as the Watergate hearings are upon him, and uses the device of him listening to his secret tapes to jump back and forth to previous eras, flawlessly moving between past and present to give an impressionistic, kaleidoscopic overview of the man’s life, instead of following the staid and ho-hum linear approach most movie biographies take. You know what I’m talking about – the “this happened … and then this happened” approach which makes the biopic about the most boring type of movie Hollywood produces. (Obviously, for those of you out there who don’t think so, you can probably disregard this review – it’s not meant for you!)
Another reason to see this film is the brilliant, absolutely overwhelming lead performance by Anthony Hopkins; his Nixon may not look or sound exactly like the 37th president (but come on, except maybe for Ed Sullivan, who does?) but he embodies his qualities – strengths as well as weaknesses – to such an enormous degree that he simply BECOMES Nixon, at least for the three hours the movie is on screen.
Cinematically, the film is an absolutely stunning achievement, employing nearly every trick in the filmmaker’s arsenal (montage, quick cuts, sped-up photography, film stock experimentation, etc.). It also contains some interesting stylistic of both “Citizen Kane” (cavernous high ceiling scenes, a “March of Time”-type newsreel on Nixon, a dinner scene between Dick and Pat Nixon set at a long, impersonal table) as well as “The Godfather” (the burnished, half-dark half-light cinematography, several “chamber of power” scenes in tight, dark and claustrophobic rooms) that I found, in context, to be totally appropriate. It paints both Nixon and the times he (and the country) lived through on a grand and mythic scale that was truly awesome and, once again, entirely appropriate. Yes, it’s a film that is at times big, loud and bombastic (because so, after all, was Nixon himself) but, just as often quiet, contemplative and told at an achingly human level. The contrast between these two states is what gives the film a good deal of its overall power and, as I’ve said, I never would have believed that Stone would have been capable of doing the smaller, quieter scenes so well.
This is a good film to own on DVD, in order to go back to again and again. First of all, it’s so long, and so dense with facts, characters and events, that you’re not likely to want to watch it all the way straight through more than once (the first time I saw it was in the theater and though I was held spellbound, I began wishing for an intermission at about the two-hour mark, not so much to stretch my legs but to give my brain a chance to process all I’d seen and heard so far). But the film is so monumentally great, so engrossing and well-acted and visually stylized from scene to scene to scene, that you can pop it in anywhere and have a rich, fully realized cinematic experience. One of the most watched and returned to films in my collection, for sure.
Fierce Creatures (1997)
This film was famously marketed as the “equal” (rather than sequel) to “A Fish Called Wanda”. That is, it was not meant as a continuation of the same characters, but rather featured the same lead actors (John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Michael Palin), in roughly the same configuration and relation to one another as in the previous film. Ok, now first of all, before even talking about the film itself: how great an idea is this? I love it! I wish more blockbuster films would take this approach: rather than going the sequel route – which usually ends up being an uninspired retread of the original tale, especially with comedies – take the same ACTORS and put them into a different context. This allows for the benefit of originality and familiarity all at once. For instance, how much better than “Ghostbusters II” would it have been to have taken Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts and Ernie Hudson and found some brand new story to house them all, with new characters to play?
And the sad thing is that “Fierce Creatures” showed how well this type of arrangement could work. Certainly, the movie is not as hilarious or memorable as “A Fish Called Wanda” (few films are). But it works better than most sequels do and, as an audience, we come in primed in a way we normally would not be to like and engage with the characters, due to the spillover effect of our pleasant associations from “Wanda”. Beyond that association, the film has going for it an inspired silliness, as well as a sweetness and general good spirit that I find pretty darn hard to resist.
The story itself is rather convoluted, and one could make a fair claim that it seems more a hodge-podge of stitched together ideas than a seamless thru-line. That is so, and yet since it is a hodge-podge of almost entirely good ideas, it’s harder to find fault with. Cleese stars as an ex-cop who is hired by a huge Rupert Murdoch-like conglomerate to run an English zoo that they have picked up in a mergers acquisition. Needless to say, the zoo has absolutely no inherent interest to the company, but they are willing to keep it going if it can return a profit. Cleese plans to do this is by appealing to people’s bloodlust, and only keeping the most dangerous and fearsome of the animals (the “fierce creatures” of the title). Things change somewhat when Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline show up to take over Cleese’s job (but keep him on as an employee). A brainstorm by Kline (playing a character every bit as hilariously slimy and petty as his counterpart in Wanda) introduces the notion of corporate sponsorship into the zoo-going experience. Eventually, all the employees are decked out in animal costumes (like mascots at a “Zoo Land” amusement park), and Kline has even begun the process of introducing animatronic creatures behind the bars. All the while, a budding romance between Cleese and Curtis is playing out behind the scenes, and the two eventually join forces to try and save the zoo from the clutches of the crass and evil conglomerate.
Any one of the comic scenarios the film-makers bring up would be worth exploring to the end. The fact that they cannot seem to keep one satirical conceit going for any stretch, and feel the need to overhaul the plot in a new direction every twenty minutes or so, definitely lessens the impact the movie could have had (and of course stands in marked contrast to the airtight construction of “Wanda”). And yet, for example: just because the writers beg off early on the “fierce creatures” idea doesn’t make it any less hilarious – both as a concept and in execution. The scenes of the kindly zookeepers trying to sell their individual cute little animals as dangerous is one of the funniest scenes in the movie. But then, later, when that concept has been forgotten, and we instead see Kevin Kline leading around a group of potential financial backers, giving them his notions of how corporate sponsorship could work at the zoo . . . well, that’s one of the funniest scenes too. What I’m saying is, though a strong focus is something the film lacks, it makes up for it by filling its running time with enough entertaining and well devised comic moments to make you feel like you got your money’s worth.
The performances help. As in “A Fish Called Wanda”, Jamie Lee Curtis is not particularly noteworthy as an actress or a comedienne, but she gets by on her general sultriness and willingness to play cheerfully along. Most importantly, she keeps out of the way of the big boys and lets them do their stuff. Cleese seems a little moldier here than usual, but there’s still no one who does high-strung fussiness better, and he holds down the screen nicely, particularly in several madcap scenes reminiscent of “Fawlty Towers.” As with Wanda, though, it’s Kevin Kline who really steals the show – this time in a dual role, as the Murdoch-like head of the conglomerate and his stupid slimeball son who has big plans for the zoo (as well as getting into Curtis’s pants). The sheer energy he throws out is infectious, and his ability to “play off” himself – in the scenes between father and son – is nothing short of superb. Blessedly, the dual role bit is revealed as more than just an actor’s stunt by the way the movie is resolved: had Kline not been playing both roles, the movie could never end the way it does. That, too, was a nice touch.
Genial, breezy, good spirted – this is “Fierce Creatures”. Nothing in the masterpiece league but, especially if you’ve seen “A Fish Called Wanda”, it’s a nice evening spent with old friends – with some new and well devised jokes thrown into the mix.
All the above titles are available on DVD. “Nixon” is also available on Blu-Ray.
SAY NO TO DROOGS
A Clockwork Orange
Rant by Steven Lewis
RANT CONTAINS SPOILERS
“Dr. Strangelove” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” are in my Top 10 movies of all time, so in my book, Stanley Kubrick forever has an asterisk next to his name denoting “genius” (his “Lolita” and “Paths of Glory” were none too shabby, either). But right here, with this movie, is where ol’ Stan began – in my mind – to vanish into his own hermetically sealed vault of cinematic pretension and designer, knee-jerk nihilism. The movies he made for the remainder of his life are cold, opaque works that don’t engage on any level, save for an appreciation of the technical artistry they demonstrate: meticulously constructed sarcophagi, where lie entombed the spirit of a once-puckish, daring, and wonderfully alive filmmaker.
At least with “Clockwork”, Stan still retained the power to provoke (he lost even that right after this release) – but he goes about it all wrong, and to extremely dubious ends. I should say upfront that I read the book (by Anthony Burgess) first, and it had a profound effect on me. The first part – which chronicles Alex and the violent, pillaging activities of he and his ‘droogs’ – filled me with such revulsion and hatred, that I took sadistic glee in seeing the ‘reformed’, post-Ludovico Alex get his nasty comeuppance in the second half of the book. However, when the story took its final twist at the end by giving Alex his ‘freedom’ back, I was furious. Here’s a guy who (the narrative makes clear) has learned no lessons or morals from his predicament – who feels no remorse, and will doubtless return to a life of ‘ultraviolence’ as soon as he gets the chance; I was rooting for him to remain a robotic pawn of the state. The book’s fundamental challenge lies just in this: convincing (or at least presenting powerfully to) the reader that even brutes and reprobates such as Alex deserve the dignity of free will, and that there can be no justification for revoking that. (The challenge is, indeed, open-ended – inasmuch as I’m not entirely convinced; after all, isn’t prison a revocation of someone’s ‘free will’, too? Isn’t any form of punishment? But at least the book’s presentation makes it an idea worth wrestling with.)
Kubrick’s mistake, as I see it, is in making Alex such a charming and charismatic figure. In the book, he’s a single-minded brute; he still is in the movie, but by filtering his thoughts through the purring, dulcet tones of Malcom McDowell, and filming even his most violent and heinous acts with pop-art style brio, Kubrick leaves little doubt about his affection for this monster. Further, he does so within the context of making EVERY OTHER SINGLE CHARACTER in the movie a caricatured and annoying drone – so much so, in fact, that it is actually they who become the monsters. Quite a flip from the book.
As such, Kubrick upsets the entire balance of the piece (at least as Burgess envisioned it). We get no sense of Alex’s crimes against humanity – because, in fact, there’s no ‘humanity’ here: only the kind of ciphers and waxwork grotesqueries that would become Kubrick’s definition of ‘character’ for the remainder of his career. Perhaps that’s his point, after all (no doubt it is): that, in fact, under a bogus sense of decorum, society consists of nothing but droning, annoying hypocrites, and there’s no use in spilling a tear for any single one of them. But when you are watching a woman being violently raped and made to feel nothing for her, through a clinical presentation of the act as well as a directorial emphasis upon the playfulness and mischievousness of the perpetrators (the famous “singin’ in the rain” parody), then something rather sick and insidious is going on.
Burgess’ book was written as a warning against the dangers of social engineering, no matter how well-intentioned. Kubrick’s movie plays more as a blatant indictment of humanity as a whole. Its underlying, none-too-subtle message is that in a society so plastic and corroded, only violently murderous free spirits like Alex are truly worth anything: he may not be nice, but at least he’s not dead inside like every other single person on the planet.
Personally, I think the only humanity Kubrick ends up indicting by such an approach is his own. But maybe that’s just me.
“A Clockwork Orange” is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Rant by Steven Lewis
At this point, over sixteen years after its release, Schindler’s List is what it is: it has become a cultural touchstone, and its reputation rightfully precedes it. It certainly has an aura and a cachet that goes beyond any single endeavor to praise or criticize it; therefore, I plan to do neither, but merely to share some of the thoughts I had while watching and then reflecting back upon it. Some will be positive, others negative – but none are meant (or will be able) to diminish what Spielberg has achieved with this movie.
First off, I must say that all the scenes with Schindler himself I found riveting: Liam Neeson – not an actor I usually warm up to very well – was absolutely mesmerizing: he gave the character an authority and a charisma that was totally captivating, while still preserving the basic enigmatic nature of the man. (He reminded me again and again of a young Richard Burton when he was at the top of his game.) The tug-of-war of conscience in the scenes between him and Stern (Ben Kingsley, underplaying nicely) were, though a bit schematic and obvious, nonetheless powerful – no doubt because of the enormity of the topic at hand. Holocaust movies, of course, can very easily get a free pass because of that very enormity, and Schindler’s List is no exception: scenes that might otherwise have seemed simplistic or overplayed are imbued with power because of the context in which they occur.
One scene that stuck out for me, though – and not in a good way – was the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. It is of course a tour-de-force of filmmaking and technical prowess (a foreshadowing, say, of the Normandy Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan), but its reason for being I found suspect. Ostensibly – on the level of the story, anyway – it was there to bring Schindler face to face with the horror and waste of the Nazi policy toward the Jews, and so to suggest a reason why he converted from shameless profiteer and exploiter to Jewish savior.
Except, as such a scene, it doesn’t quite wash. Schindler indeed is displayed as witnessing the liquidation, but from his vantage point – a hill overlooking the ghetto – he would in no way have been able to see the scene in the detail, and in all the different locations, that the movie makes us privy to. No, this scene is designed not to be played before Schindler, but to be played before us, the moviegoers.
So why does that bother me? Well, it seems to me a break in form. A movie that had been, up until that time, focusing narrowly on one man, suddenly opens up to wanting to display the panoply of characters and lives that were directly affected by the Holocaust. Problem is, by adopting such a large-scale approach, no one individual (or family) is able to claim our full attention, and so Spielberg becomes guilty in his own way of `ghetto’-izing the Jews – that is, grouping them together facelessly as victims, rather than showcasing any of their dignity or humanity as individuals.
My bias, I suppose, in films dealing with the Holocaust, is that the enormity of it is just lost on most of us. It’s impossible – unless we lived and survived through it – to do justice to both its scale and its horror. Therefore, a film-maker shouldn’t try. Not that Holocaust-themed films shouldn’t be made; it’s just that, to be honest and effective (not necessarily the same thing – particularly when the artist is Spielberg) they should focus themselves on a small microcosm of it – a family, a person, a survivor – and attempt to suggest the full horrors, through the particulars of that person’s story. Actually trying to show those horrors outright (to put us, as it were, ‘inside’ the Holocaust) is frankly impossible, and I think Spielberg’s ambitions to do so, through this liquidation scene and other similar ones in the movie – are, though perhaps high-minded, ultimately wrong-headed.
But, as I say, when he’s focused narrowly on Schindler himself, the film works wonderfully – and is far more able, in my opinion, to get across the horror and waste of the Holocaust than when it’s concentrating on its big (but impersonal) ‘herd up the Jews’ scenes. The making up of the list itself is extremely powerful in this regard: `More names! More names!’ Schindler demands, and his mania in doing so tells us all we need to know about the absolute desperation of the times (particularly as it comes from a formerly amoral man only interested in himself).
And as such, I must take exception to all those (and there are many) who find the last scene – Schindler’s breakdown – to be completely maudlin and ill-advised, a detriment to an otherwise marvelous motion picture. To me, it was the best scene in the movie. For, in the character’s hysterical insistence that he `could have done more’ – coming on the heels of all the people we saw that he did save – it serves to remind the audience, in absolutely unambiguous terms, that what Oskar Schindler did, though momentous, wasn’t even a drop in the bucket compared to the number of lives taken and/or disrupted by the Holocaust. That this man – driven to bankruptcy and ruin by his (eventual) unceasing efforts to save the Jews – could claim that he `didn’t do enough,’ only shows how much there was to do, and how much of it was left undone. That, to me, is the kind of moment that brings home the enormity of the Holocaust – not the use of hundreds of extras to be herded onto trains and into showers. We can tell ourselves (and be right) that those scenes are fake (staged for the movie). The point made through Schindler’s breakdown at the end is the deepest kind of truth – the kind that never should be forgotten or cast aside.
“Schindler’s List” is available on DVD.
PAUL GOES TO THE LOS ANGELES UNITED FILM FESTIVAL
By Paul Preston
I recently attended the opening night of a film festival that seemed more interested in pleasing their audience with a good lineup than with glitz and hype.
The Los Angeles United Film Festival kicked of April 30th with a pair of features and three shorts, with Q&As and even some giveaways.
The Fest had a kickoff night on Thursday, but Friday yielded a well-put-together comedy and a documentary about film festivals:
And good news for the fest, when I arrived, there was a line:
First up was “Jeffie Was Here”, an uneven comedy, for sure. But it’s got plenty of funny stuff and good performances. Alan, a college professor and his wife travel across country to attend a funeral. To share expenses, they put an ad online for a third traveler. The guy they end up with is as odd as can be and has an agenda.
Alexis Raben plays the wife and she is SO easy to fall in love with. I appreciated the complications filmmaker Todd Edwards threw into the mix, but some of those situations made the husband very unlikeable. This was definitely on purpose and challenging, but in the end the only person I rooted for was Raben’s character. That being said, Jeffie, the unwanted traveler, has some very funny hippie songs and uncomfortable comic moments.
Many members of the cast (including “Heroes”‘ Christine Rose, who kills as Alan’s mother) were on hand for a Q&A:
Edwards also directed one of the shorts that played before “Jeffie Was Here”, a great music video by the band Hanson. It’s a terrific homage to the “Shake Your Tailfeather” scene from “The Blues Brothers”. That short can be seen in full at our page, THE LATEST.
Next up was “Official Rejection”, recently reviewed here on this site, so I won’t go into details about what the movie is about (except to say it’s a documentary about the film festival circuit, and it showcases how frustrating life on that circuit can be). This gave me a chance to ask some follow-up questions to director Paul Osborne.
I imagine that any immediate negative reaction to OFFICIAL REJECTION by some film festivals would be to avoid programming it. Have you gotten responses that have been more insane?
Other than the occasional angry phone call, I’m not aware of any other insane reactions. Now, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been violent outbursts, or incidents of programmers jumping up and down furiously on our screeners or something. It just means I haven’t been privy to it. Who knows what sort of demented, irked actions OFFICIAL REJECTION has inspired behind the scenes at certain festivals.
We got a shit screener of OFFICIAL REJECTION to review the film for our site. What gives?
Ugh, so sorry about that! DVD screeners are horribly unstable. It certainly wasn’t intentional, and we did rush to replace it.
This is true. But I imagine it feeds into one of the things working against the indie filmmaker. How unstable do you find screeners, and what else can be beyond your control that leads to your film’s demise when it comes to being considered for a festival?
DVD screeners are just generally sketchy, but their playability also depends largely on the quality of the programmer’s player. If it’s an older machine, the chances of DVD failure are really high. We had our DVDs burned with high-quality equipment at a proper dub house, so the fact that they freeze as often as they do is quite disturbing. In terms of other things that can bar you from festivals that are beyond your control, I’d say one of the biggest is the mood of the programmer. Those poor souls are plowing through hundreds of submissions, and the state of mind they’re in when they finally pop in your screener can really effect how your film is perceived. Especially, you know, if it’s the fiftieth one of the day and the damn DVD freezes two minutes in. That sucker’ll hit the trash can pretty damn fast.
One of the things I got from OFFICIAL REJECTION is that having a star in your film will get it noticed by programmers. If I have, like, Conrad Bain, is that enough?
Conrad Bain is a very particular celebrity, so I’d say it would depend on what he was doing. For example, if you have him adopting two young black orphans, and then he molests, murders, and eats them, you might be able to really trade in on his fame and get the attention of programmers. Incidentally, if you go for Conrad Bain, you should also get Conrad Janis, because the “two Conrads” are destined to be way bigger than the “two Coreys”.
In that vein, Best Live-Action Short at The Oscars this year went to the only short with a name actor in it (Vincent D’Onofrio). Are the Oscars following suit with the festivals, or vice versa?
I don’t think it’s news that the Oscars are politically influenced. And we’ve seen how the size of an Oscar campaign can influence who ultimately wins. Oscar campaigns cost money, celebrities have money. But the Oscars have never claimed to be about discovering new talent or giving a voice to alternative cinema, so their celebrity mongering is more on point with how they define themselves.
So, would you consider the LA United Film Festival “ballsy” for showing OFFICIAL REJECTION?
I would consider them super-cool for doing so, but I’m not sure how ballsy it is when you consider the context. Los Angeles United is run by filmmakers who program their festival based upon their taste and not because of celebrity content or studio favoritism . The content of our flick fits perfectly into their wheelhouse, so it makes sense for them to program OFFICIAL REJECTION. I have to say, I’ve been really impressed with them. It’s not “just another” film festival in Los Angeles. These guys are running the real deal.
After the screening, Osborne continued the same fever-pitch promotion he did with “Ten ‘Til Noon”, the subject film of “Official Rejection” by handing out one-sheets to the whole audience. He brought up his kids, Film Festival guru Chris Gore (who handed out T-shirts of his own) and filmmaker Blayne Weaver, also featured in “Official Rejection”.
Indies United, indeed.
The LA United Film Festival continues through May 6th at the Loz Feliz 3 Cinemas in L.A., 1822 Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90027. The closing night looks great at The Vista Theater in Silverlake: Screening of “The Shark is Still Working”, a documentary about the making of “Jaws”. “Jaws” screenwriter Carl Gottlieb will be on hand to receive an award.
The United Series of Film Festivals runs around the world in New York, London, Tulsa and other cities. For more info, go to their website.
PAUL GOES TO STAR WARS: IN CONCERT
By Paul Preston
It was quite a week in Los Angeles. LOTS going on. Pearl Jam at the Gibson Amphitheatre, Steve Martin at the Coronet Theater, “August: Osage County” national tour at The Ahmanson Theater downtown, Kathy Griffin, Halloween Horror Nights, MASS HYSTERIA! Well, at least I made it out to geek nirvana for one night…
October 1st was the U.S. premiere of the latest theatrical event from the “Star Wars” juggernaut universe, “Star Wars: In Concert”. An event so big, theaters couldn’t contain it, it’s coming to an ARENA near you.
If you don’t know what this show is, it’s your favorite themes and music from all six “Star Wars” films, played by a live orchestra, all set to super-gorgeous HD clips on a HUGE screen, with lasers, fire and smoke thrown in dramatically now and then for effect. Go here for a look at the stage and more specifics about the cities the show is visiting. Here was my experience:
First of all, like any “Star Wars” fest, you’re greeted by non-commissioned dudes like this:
Beyond the spectacular live show, this event is a good excuse to bring out all the old props and designs from the making of the films. This provides some insight…
…and lots of photo ops:
Godzilla attacks Coruscant!
The Battle Droids were never as menacing as in this picture…
The only thing I had to defend myself with against Darth Vader was my “Force Unleashed” iPhone app.
Gotta be on your guard here. At any moment a nerd could swoop in with a sneak attack.
Here’s a little something I whipped up while waiting for the show to start. I call it “Future Land with Dangling Thingys, Wires and Whatnot”
This still makes me sad.
They had a petting zoo.
On to the show. The voice of James Earl Jones introduced the host (as “A part of the rebel alliance, and a traitor”), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO). He did an admirable job mixing wonder with weight as he delivered summations of the six films’ storylines, leading into the various numbers.
I’ve seen U2 and Eagles at the Honda Center in Anaheim, and it is a decidedly great place to see a concert, if you have to go the Arena route. I’ve found Staples Center very noisy and sometimes distorted, but the symphony at Honda Center sounded top-notch for “Star Wars: In Concert”. They even sounded better than I’ve heard orchestras sound at The Hollywood Bowl. Next week the show moves to the Nokia Theater in downtown L.A.
The Lasers at work!
I’ll freely admit that I’m a prequel-hater. Not that they’re entirely without merit, but they certainly aren’t as much fun as the first three (REASON: NO HAN SOLO). As scenes fall apart or special effects run ridiculously rampant, one thing is consistent – John Williams’ score. The saga-crushing Padme/Anakin love story is atrocious, BUT is accentuated by a brilliant, moving orchestral piece (“Across the Stars”) that can even breathe life into Hayden Christensen. Even Jake Lloyd clips are improved when slow-motion is employed and the dialogue is taken out! And when the prequel clips are strung together quickly, it certainly looks like something important is happening, and that may be the best way to see “Attack of the Clones”.
This orchestra, not any that recorded for the film, but pieced together of excellent musicians, brings all the music vividly to life. The original “Star Wars Main Theme” is the greatest, most triumphant piece of movie music ever created. After the THX logo theme shushed the crowd, the Main Theme filled the arena to the lovingly non-organized ignition of light-sabers throughout the audience and loud, exuberant cheers. Awesome.
There was an inconsistency in the use of clips that I found odd.
Daniels went to great pains to tell the story chronologically, from Episode 1 – VI, but the clips didn’t necessarily follow suit. Example – when a clip series is introduced as Han Solo narrowly escaping an asteroid field, don’t also cut in Jango Fett flying through an asteroid field from a completely sterile scene in “Attack of the Clones”. If you introduce the segment as “Narrow Escapes”, I’ll expect as much, but when it’s introduced as “Han Solo dodging Asteroids”, that’s what I want. I always want more Han Solo.
That’s a minor nitpick in what was overall a greatest hits of crowd-pleasing music from the most popular film series of all time.
One of my favorite pieces of the original trilogy is “The Rebel Fleet” that ends the best film of the series, “The Empire Strikes Back”. Am I a dope if I say I got choked up watching this? The haunting music that ends this film doesn’t help calm our fears that things aren’t going well with our heroes. It’s brilliant. Other big hits with me were “The Imperial March”, “The Cantina Band”, “Princess Leia’s Theme” and “Duel of the Fates”, which included a live chorus on stage.
I have to believe the “Star Wars” crowd doesn’t go to the symphony much. That, coupled with the fact we’re in an arena made me believe that the audience was calling for an encore. Instead, it led to three sessions of bows by Daniels, the conductor and the orchestra. Deserved, for sure, but they may want to work up “The Raiders March” or “Free Bird” to satiate the masses at the end.
Overall, I’m pleased to say “Star Wars: In Concert” is a classy entry into a franchise that can be prone to milking itself a bit too often. Skip “The Clone Wars” and go here. It’ll make you reflect kindly on the best parts of the legend…
That’s Debatable – When Harry Met Sally
Film Debate by Paul Preston & Steven Lewis
PAUL: Steve, it’s come to my attention that when I said in the “To & From: Julie & Julia” video that “When Harry Met Sally” is just a lazy combination of “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”, you TOOK UMBRAGE, correct?!
STEVE: Well, since “When Harry Met Sally” is one of my favorite romantic comedies, and since I generally find Woody Allen’s films to be wildly overrated – particularly the two you mentioned – yes, it’s fair to say that your comment didn’t quite sit well with me. It’s not like I didn’t realize, even at the time of its release, that “Harry/Sally” shared certain stylistic traits with some of the Woodman’s more prominent films (in particular the all-standards soundtrack, the picture-postcard shots of New York City, and the ending montage of previous scenes from the movie).
But so what? You could just as easily dismiss “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as an “Annie Hall” ripoff because the lead character speaks directly to the camera. Ultimately, any film deserves to be judged not by whether or not it reminds you of other movies, but on how well it maps out and achieves its own particular tone, approach and intent. And I’d say “When Harry Met Sally” does a fine job on all counts.
PAUL: Steve, you ignorant slut. It’s not that “When Harry Met Sally” shares sylistic traits with Woody, it’s that it shares the entire “particular tone” you say it individually maps out. I’ll admit, I laughed a lot at “When Harry Met Sally”, there are loads of good jokes, and not just ones that are “jokey”, but good relationship stuff and the classic “I’ll have what she’s having” line. It spoke to me, too, ’cause it was a 1980s movie, and that was the era in which I grew up.
But it was AFTERWARDS that I saw “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” (a late bloomer), and was surprised at how much of what “Harry/Sally” accomplished had been done in the ’70s. Taints the memory a little. Heh-heh….taint. But now that you mention it, did “Ferris Bueller” rip off “Annie Hall”‘s style, too
STEVE: Paul, really! “You ignorant slut”? I laughed, until I realized that comedic territory had aready been mined back in the ’70s by Dan Aykroyd on ‘Saturday Night Live’. What a ripoff artist you are! . . . But seriously now, to get down to cases: you say Woody’s movies already scoped out Harry and Sally’s territory years earlier. I’d say not. First of all, Woody’s films are told relentlessly from HIS CHARACTER’S POINT OF VIEW. This is a crucial difference. It makes the films, particularly “Annie Hall”, stories not of a relationship per se, but rather of one man’s reminiscences of a relationship (or relationships – several are touched on) and his attempt to draw meanings and conclusions about his life based thereon.
By contrast, Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron are almost schematic about ping-ponging back and forth between the Harry and Sally characters, making sure the film is about each equally. Secondly, Harry and Sally populate a landscape located squarely within standard rom-com convention: i.e. this is a story about how boy gets girl (or vice versa, as your sensibilities dictate). The success of the film comes from the way it adheres to, yet also rings changes upon, that fundamental convention. Woody’s films are much more interested in examining FAILED relationships, and so already exist outside of standard formula. A more apt comparison would actually be to John Cusack’s “High Fidelity” or this year’s “(500) Days of Summer” (both wonderful films, by the way). So there’s a complete difference of INTENT between the films we’re talking about – and that’s before we even get to the jokes!
PAUL: Ah, gotcha. Instead of saying “You ignorant slut”, I should’ve maybe thought of my own idea and forged out my own comedy path instead of re-treading what was done in the ’70s. That’s a great idea. So noted. I’ll easily give you the difference in point of view. Woody’s certainly more narcissistic than most filmmakers, and his films show it, making them unique.
So, perhaps I need to refine my argument that if Reiner and Ephron are starting from a different INTENT (and I do like the old couples reflecting on their SUCCESSFUL relationships), why re-tread the tone as a way to follow-through with the intent? I know “When Harry Met Sally” is the gold standard for recent romantic comedies, but I think I can safely now say that I go more for the films that don’t wear the genre on their sleeve, like “There’s Something About Mary”, which is so goddamn funny you forget it’s really a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-chance-to-get-girl, boy-spends-YEARS-pursuing-girl romance. Or “Groundhog Day”, which mined a concept for laughs, but quickly used it expand a relationship. It’s just a shame that the ‘gold standard’ is populated with some contrivances.
STEVE: So let me get this straight: you identify Woody Allen’s films as displaying true quality, yet somehow disparage “When Harry Met Sally” for seeking to emulate that quality? Sounds like your argument is along the lines of “Since ‘WHMS’ is just a dumb romantic comedy, I expect it to well and truly BE dumb! Why introduce wit and sophistication into a genre that gets by just fine on dopey physical schtick, wacky plot contrivances, and overly calculated three hanky emotional moments?” What I love about “WHMS” is how it eschews all those standard rom-com devices and manipulations; instead, it utilizes beautifully crafted scenes and dialogue to offer pithy, hilarious takes on the male-female condition. And its development of friendship transforming into romance is still a damn sight more mature than 9/10ths of the movies following in its wake (for which it’s supposedly the “gold standard”).
Now, I could go on from here to detail the ways in which I feel the movie’s approach to dialogue and situation is very different from Woody Allen’s (his characters grope and stumble for words, whereas the conversations between Harry, Sally and their friends flow with the confident rapidity of a 20th century Shaw or Oscar Wilde – if anything, their rhythms are closer to “Seinfeld” than to Woody Allen), but I feel that’s somehow no longer even the argument. Your statement of preference for romantic comedies that “don’t wear their genre on their sleeve” leads me to suspect that your REAL problem with “Harry Met Sally” is that it’s too rich and sophisticated to be in the genre ghetto it has consigned itself to. That is, if the movie was going to be so adult and clever and mature anyway, then why didn’t it just go the extra mile and make itself into something more idiosyncratic and personal LIKE Woody’s movies are, instead of staying tied to its more streamlined, conventional approach. Is that what I hear you saying?
PAUL: That is definitely NOT what you hear me saying. I think I’ve made the disappointment I have over “WHMS” becoming too much like ANYTHING else quite clear. And what are the kids saying nowadays anyway? “WHMS” or “Harry/Sally”? Again, I’ll say that I like the film, but too much of it was verbatimly (yes, I made that word up) familiar, specifically pulling montages from two Woody Allen films, including the ending! When “Casablanca” came out, if it ended with the Rosebud scene from “Citizen Kane”, it would’ve lessened the movie, no?
It’s the very definition of a genre gold standard to stand above everything else IN the genre, and indeed many have come in the wake of “H/S” and failed to maintain “W/H/M/S”‘s quality. But I certainly don’t praise the film as highly as you. Over the course of this argument, you’ve gone from liking the movie to comparing Nora Ephron to Oscar Wilde. Hmmm….that’s debatable.
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Distributor: Castle Rock Entertainment