Saturday, December 20, 2008

"James Bond Will Return"

Those are the last words we see as the credits to Quantum of Solace roll to an end. It begs the question: Where has he gone? Or perhaps, more appropriately: Where is he going? With this latest movie, the world's most famous spy seems to be at a particular crossroads.

With Daniel Craig as the new Bond, the makers of the series have turned him into a more violent hero. The action is more visceral, the energy more kinetic, and it's as if these two movies--Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace--are playing catch up with the Matt Damon and the Bourne films. Bond is grittier, sloppier. Roger Moore he ain't.

Bond was always cooler than those around him. Not just in a smooth, debonair way (although that too). But he was always above the action, possessing an aplomb and nonchalance that gave him a sort of ease. Here he is still figuring things out. In Casino Royale, it was acceptable. That first movie was almost like an origin story. They were playing with house money, so to speak. They could reinvent the wheel if they chose to. And in a way they did.

But Quantum of Solace isn't so much a sequel to Casino Royale as it is a tacked on, overlong epilogue to it. And rather than fleshing out the underbelly of Bond's character laid out in that initial film, Solace is hampered by it. The dead weight of the earlier film leans on the entire proceedings of this one. [Casino Royale spoilers...] Here, rather than Bond being haunted by the spectre of Vesper's death, he is overwhelmingly driven by it. But the vengeance pulsating through his veins has barely a tangential relationship with the story in front of us.

Another problem with Solace, as well as with Casino Royale, is that neither possess any real narrative drive. What's weird is that each movie accomplishes this misstep in completely opposite ways. In Casino Royale, while Bond was in a sense leaner and more stripped down as a character, the film itself was bloated and too tightly-packed. This was highlighted by one of the most boring poker sequences in recent memory, effectively halting the movie in its tracks.

Quantum of Solace, however, is one of the shortest Bond movies. And it feels rushed and empty. I hope that by the next installment, Bond and his makers figure things out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Precious memories keep lingering on...

Just today I was talking to somebody about how much I loved listening to Motown growing up. To this day, it's still the music I consider mine, the one that makes me the happiest. Later I found out that Levi Stubbs, the lead singer of the Four Tops had just died at the age of 72. One of the most distinctive voices of the Motown factory, Stubbs and the Tops were inducted in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1990... R.I.P.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"I have vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals."

There are a lot of movie stars and a lot of very good actors. Only sometimes, and nowadays more rarely, do we find the two in the same human being. Friday we lost one of the best of both when Paul Newman passed away at the age of 83.

He was closely linked with Robert Redford, another person who fit both categories and in the same way that you're either a Fred Astaire guy or a Gene Kelly guy, I think you may be either a Robert Redford guy or a Paul Newman guy. I was always a Newman guy. Make no mistake, I love Redford. But he was almost too perfect, too good-looking. Newman had an ease about him, a nonchalance that was self-effacing. Redford seemed like a God, Newman seemed more damaged. He was a heartthrob as well, but he often played a character that would get in his own way. The joy of watching him onscreen was watching how he would get out of his way, how he would somehow manage his plight.

I wonder if people my age know Newman as something more than the guy on the salad dressing or the guy in the race cars. I wonder if they know that while Britney Spears gets married and divorced within 55 hours, Newman defied all Hollywood logic by celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year. (It does help that he was married to Joanne Woodward, an actress as talented and beautiful as he was.) I wonder if they've seen that moment in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid where he rides the bike with Katharine Ross on the handlebars while "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" plays on the soundtrack. I wonder if they've seen the part in The Sting where he out-cheats Robert Shaw in that poker game on the train.

I want to stop wondering and suggest you go out and rent those two movies... and Hud, and The Hustler, and The Verdict, and Cool Hand Luke, and Sweet Bird of Youth and, well I could go on and on.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I got a woody.

Midway through Woody Allen's latest release, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Penelope Cruz's Maria Elena says to Scarlett Johansson's Cristina--and I'm paraphrasing here--that unfulfilled love is the only kind of romantic love, that once something is realized it loses its allure. (Whether I agree with this sentiment is fodder for an entirely different post--in fact, perhaps, an entirely different blog site--but I will say that in my younger days I often liked to say that "consummation breeds contempt".)

In a way, that line (Maria Elena's, not mine) comes to fruition in every relationship in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a film whose plot is a blurry convergence of intersecting love triangles, quadrangles, and more. The film, as suggested by its fully matter-of-fact and un-ironic title, is the story of two twenty-something friends, Vicky and Christina, enviably spending their summer in beautiful Barcelona. But their altogether breezy vacation is quickly upended when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter whose failed, trouble marriage with Maria Elena (Cruz) has become a bit of a local legend ("She put a knife in me," he calmly tells the two American women.).

Directly and without pretense, Juan Antonio propositions the two to join him in a weekend trip to the Spanish town of Oviedo to "eat good food, drink good wine, and make love." Yes, to both of them. Needless to say, a great deal happens--longing gazes, chance encounters, a good amount of sexual activity--between here and the end, only complicated by the arrival of Maria Elena into the mix. As for the sordid details of these shifting encounters, I'll leave that for you to hopefully discover.

There are many who would say that Allen's films possess in them a great deal of misogyny. That criticism doesn't stop with Barcelona in some of the reviews I've read. To be fair, I think that is a legitimate opinion of his films, though I tend to have a more tempered reading of this issue. Though he may deny this, of just about all mainstream American directors, Allen is the most philosophically apparent in his own work, the one whose intellectual perspective is the most visible. First, let me say that I think all men are to some extent misogynists. I think it's part of our nature. It isn't always malicious (it probably only rarely is), but it's there even if it's latent.

It only seems obvious that Allen is playing a bit of fantasy fulfillment here: the soulful artist living out his every whim among a collage of beautiful women. But the real center of the film exist in the two women. The real projection of Allen's psyche lies in Vicky and Cristina, not Juan Antonio. All the familiar elements of the Allen oeuvre are apparent, but it's this slight rack in focus where he begins to move into slightly different territory.

Vicky and Cristina lie on almost opposite ends of the sexually emotional spectrum. Cristina is the hopeless romantic, willing and able to be picked up by the unknown Spanish artist. Vicky is reluctant, settling for her safe, comfortable relationship back at home. By the end of the summer, they meet up somewhere in the middle... sort of. The point is that Allen is exploring issues of romantic and sexual identity universal certainly among the genders, but I think specific more to women. Where Annie Hall famously ends with that bit about "needing the eggs," Vicky Cristina Barcelona tries to figure out whether those eggs should be scrambled, poached, or sunnyside up.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

foil yogurt lids

I know it's been awhile since I've blogged here, but I've been busy with... well you know... life, as it were.

We're about at the midway point during the Summer Olympics as I write this and every four years (and to a lesser extent, every two years when the Winter ones come around) I am not to be bothered by other issues. Only my fantasy football draft this Saturday will take me out of the house for something that isn't work, food, or sex. (To be clear, those three things are in reverse order of importance.)

But as I look at some of the movies that will be playing at local theaters this weekend, before me lies a slew of movies that may tug me away from my living room and into a darkened theater. A quick survey:

Pineapple Express
Tropic Thunder
Bottle Shock
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (yeah, I said it)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
American Teen
The Wackness
Tell No One

And of course at the top of the list is Woody Allen's new film starring Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, and Javier Bardem, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. For a weekend in the middle of August in Orlando, this is a pretty nice lineup. Too bad it had to coincide with a two-week major international sporting event.

But while we're talking about the Olympics, I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly ask Nastia Liukin to marry me. Nastia, I know you're in Beijing right now, but please give me a call when you get back.

P.S. I just heard Dan Hicks say in a piece about why Michael Phelps is so physically gifted in the water. One of the important traits he says is his flat backside. If that's the case, why the hell don't I have 10 gold medals in swimming either?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Two Thumbs Down

One of the reasons this blog (and I guarantee you countless others) exists is from the influence of a show that started out as "Sneak Previews" on PBS in 1975 featuring two local Chicago film critics, each writing for competing newspapers. That show eventually turned into "Siskel & Ebert," and after Gene Siskel's death in 1999, "Ebert & Roeper." Now the show, at least in its current and comfortingly familiar incarnation, will cease to exist.

From Roger Ebert's website:
After 33 years on the air, 23 of them with Disney, the studio has decided to take the program named "Siskel & Ebert" and then "Ebert & Roeper" in a new direction. I will no longer be associated with it.
Here's Richard Roeper's take, from a Yahoo! News article:
Several months ago, Disney offered to extend my contract, which expires at the conclusion of the 2007-08 season. I opted to wait. Much transpired after that behind the scenes, but an agreement was never reached, and we are all moving on.
Replacing them will be TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. He's a reasonably likable fella, though he's not as good as primetime host Robert Osborne. He also comes from a fairly formidable pedigree: his great uncle Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed the classics A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve; his grandfather Herman Mankiewicz co-wrote arguably the greatest movie ever, Citizen Kane.

Also replacing them will be current E! News movie correspondent, Ben Lyons. His pedigree includes his father, Jeffrey Lyons, long-time film critic and current host of the syndicated "Reel Talk," one of the many "Siskel & Ebert" knockoffs. A better way to describe the Lyons is not through their television credits, but through the fact that last year named them two of the top 10 "Whores of the Year" among film critics. Jeffrey astoudingly was named the #4 whore of the year and, not falling far from the whorish tree of film criticism, Ben came in at #7.

I have not seen Ben Lyons criticize a film, for he in fact is really a film journalist, and I even use that term loosely. His appearances on E! amount to little more than marginal insider knowledge and good deal of useless industry/celebrity gossip, such is the function of the E! Network as a whole. I do believe there is a place for this kind of (puffy) movie reporting, but not on the show that introduced intelligent and entertaining film criticism for a whole generation of people who may not have been exposed to it otherwise. Is Ben Lyons really good enough to replace the late Gene Siskel or the inimitable Roger Ebert? If the powers that be at Disney who are turning the show in this new direction think so, I have some advice as to where they can stick their collective thumbs.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Charles H. Joffe, 1929-2008

I'd be remiss today if I didn't take the opportunity to note the passing of Charles H. Joffe. He may not be a household name but if, like myself, you are a fan of movies directed by Woody Allen, then I'm sure you've seen it. In that unmistakable white, Windsor font, plainly laid on a black title card, the name has flashed consistently at the beginning of Mr. Allen's films for the past forty years and in the process is partly responsible for the one the best and most influential body of work in the second half of twentieth century American cinema. R.I.P.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

I joined the glee club.

"Art is made by the alone for the alone."

--Luis Barragán, Time (May 12, 1980)

In order to correctly define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and consider it as one of the conditions of human life. ...Reflecting on it in this way, we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of effective communication between people."

--Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (1896)
The two seemingly disparate conclusions made by the above quotes together, oddly, serve to elucidate both the dichotomy between the creation and reception of art and, also, the nexus upon which they come together. Art is an emotional shorthand, a distillation of feelings and ideas too deep and wide to express in any complete way. In the past few weeks, I have seen a trio of films which speak to this notion of how art unites vastly different people as well as unites what is fractured and incomplete within oneself.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) has emotionally flatlined since the death of his wife, existing in an intellectual and professional malaise in Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor. At first Walter takes piano lessons as a means of trying to connect with the memory of his late wife, who was an acclaimed classical pianist. This quest for solace and meaning in art works to no avail until he is forced to temporarily moves to his New York apartment to speak at an economics conference. It is there he meets the "visitor" of the movie's title, Tarek, a Syrian-born immigrant. See, Tarek and Zainab, his Senegalese girlfriend, have been renting Walter's apartment unbeknownst to Walter, who is a professor in Connecticut and hasn't occupied the place in years.

Tarek plays an African drum, practicing it in the apartment (Walter has by now allowed the two to stay with him), performing in jazz clubs, and playing with others in Central Park. Slowly, but surely, Walter begins to show interest in the music, wanting to play and Tarek abides. Certainly Tarek teaches and encourages him as an act of good faith for giving him a place to live, but there's also something intoxicating about another human being showing interest in what you create. And while Tarek is thrilled that his new landlord not only tolerates but revels in the music he makes, Walter is given a hand to draw him out of his doldrums. Two men who shouldn't (and don't really) have anything in common are bound by an abstraction.

Back to the first quote by Barragán. Movies may not work fully here because of its propensity to be collaborative (though in a way I still think it does fit), but there is something solitary and introspective about being an artist, about going through the process of creating your work that is peculiarly your own. This solitude is what permeates Anton Corbijn's biopic about the late Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis, Control.

The film thankfully skirts the usual pitfalls of the musical biopic by refusing to reduce the subject's life to a series of high- and lowlights. And even more so, by refusing to explain it through the superficiality of pop psychology: an abusive or overbearing parent, a downtrodden upbringing, a wandering libido, or some other seminal moment that can exist easily as a narrative scapegoat.

What remains is actor Sam Riley's quiet internalization of Curtis's anguish. With all the turmoil surrounding him, the film is as uniquely pensive as Curtis is. And what Curtis retreats to amid these storms is his art--his music. The film fails to penetrate his psyche and while I initially wished the movie explored more about the process of writing and creating the music, ultimately that would contradict the mood and tone of the picture. For just as the film keeps Curtis at a distance from the other people in the film, he is also kept at a distance from us. The only way into him is through his music--the lyrics a tunnel to his mind, the art a conduit to his soul.

But where the two above quotations funnel together into a single point is in Andrew Wagner's Starting Out in the Evening. The movie begins with Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), a college student, interviewing long-forgotten novelist Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) for her thesis. What transpires throughout the film becomes a treatise on the nature of art, the critical analysis of it, and the emotional toil it creates within the artist and on its audience.

Schiller embodies the idea of the solitary artist, the writer sitting endlessly in the silence of his lonely room, having nothing to keep him company but the unmistakable clicks of his pounding typewriter (yes, he still composes on a typewriter). At his advanced age, the only self-proclaimed goal he has left in life is to finish his final novel. Initially, he rejects the notion of helping the young grad student because of the distraction from his work. But since Schiller isn't entirely a curmudgeon, he relents, allowing Heather to conduct a series of interviews at his apartment for research.

A writer puts a wall around himself. It's easier and in his nature to look inward and crumble within himself. It is until he implodes and out come the words (or images or sounds or whatever). Schiller most certainly has this wall and the first few interviews between he and Heather contain moments that are quite tenuous. Midway through the film, he even says to another writer, "There's something about collaboration that brings out the worst in writers." It isn't until she tells him why she loves his work, the story of her first discovery of his writing does he begin to open up and to be more honest about the nature of his craft. It's only when the personal and private efforts of his work connect tangibly to something in the public world can he learn to fully engage with, well, anything really.

Thus the collision of the two quotes also highlights one of the most revealing and intriguing traits of the artist: he (or she) is a massive hypocrite. For the creation of art is at the same time a selfless, giving olive branch to the world around us and a highly selfish and self-indulgent pastime.

A good friend of mine (not to mention a writer I admire) once wrote that men are assholes, that they are driven by ego. I reacted personally and violently to such a harsh assessment. But in the end, I think she was right. I would extend that specifically to the artist, for he is defined by ego--consumed by it. Schiller, despite his elevated and reserved demeanor, is such a person. It's a quiet arrogance he possesses; an elitism that seems particular to people who create. To be fair, I don't mean this necessarily as criticism, but something I think is quite indispensable to the process. It's the oddest of juxtapositions: the quest to connect through whatever medium the person possesses is guided by an air of superiority. Even kind and likable Walter Vale in The Visitor isn't immune to this type of haughty behavior, as evidenced by his response to a woman who asks him what he writes about: "It's difficult to explain to someone who isn't a writer." He immediately apologizes to her--such is his mien--but the mentality is still present, no matter how latent.

Yet the talent to create is a remarkable aphrodisiac and contains the allure of connecting in ways that don't involve regions nether the belt buckle. In all three of these films, the main characters forge new relationships both platonic and romantic by way of art--sometimes their own, sometimes that of others. As I said before, it is a form of emotional shorthand and listening to someone else's song, or watching someone else's movie, or reading someone else's short story they sent you via email, it invariably reaches you in a way that is unique. It has a way of wading through the muck, a way of pushing through the bullshit that a (dare I say) "normal" conversation can't.

But the best way to understand that is to not listen to someone like me talk about it, but actually going out there and experiencing it for yourself, so I'll see you at the movies! Or as David Bowie more succinctly and wittily put it: "Talking about art is like dancing about architecture."


I meant to post this link when it first came out, but I was busy trying to do my own post. I've often thought about this topic and would write about it, but Emerson puts it much more elegantly that I ever could. If you even remotely like the stuff that is written on my blog, I highly suggest reading his post as well as everything else he writes on here. (If you scroll down far enough, you'll find my comment and reaction to his thesis.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It's that time of year again...

The American Film Institute will unveil its next list on Tuesday: 10 Top 10. These are, according to the AFI panel, the ten greatest films in each of ten classic movie genres. Looking at the list of celebrities who will host a section for each of the categories during the CBS telecast, one can't help but wonder if the folks at the AFI have tipped their hand.

Clint Eastwood is hosting the "Western" section. Can we assume that Unforgiven will make the cut? Could The Outlaw Josey Wales sneak in? Doubt it, as I would venture to guess that the AFI will strive for plurality. Sigourney Weaver will host the "Sci-Fi" category. Hello, either one of the first two Alien flicks (I'm leaning towards the first one). Kirk "I AM SPARTACUS" Douglas will host the "Epic".

Those seem obvious, but how about some of the others? Cuba Gooding, Jr. will host the piece on "Sports." Does that mean Jerry Maguire will be considered one of the ten best sports movies in American history? God, will it be Radio instead? "Mystery" will be hosted by Gabriel Byrne. The Usual Suspects appears to be, well, the usual suspect here. But how wonderfully surprising would it be if they put the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing instead? Jessica Alba will host the "Romantic Comedy" section. Just in case you read that wrong, I'm going to cut and paste. Jessica Alba will host the "Romantic Comedy" section. If she appears in any movie that appears in this list, the AFI will have lost its collective rocks.

Anyone who knows me knows I love me some lists (just look at the right-hand side of this blog!). But I can't help but wonder when the AFI will run out of things to throw into a new special. This is the 11th straight year, since their inaugural 100 Years... 100 Movies special in 1998. Last year's 10 year reunion was even a redo, a mea culpa of sorts, changing the rank of some films, including new ones, dropping others. (My post about it is here.) I'm still waiting on the 25 (or even 50) greatest American directors list.

All I know is that I can't for the life of me make the connection for having Jennifer Love Hewitt host the "Animation" part of the special. I swear those things weren't hand-drawn or CGI!


P.S. If you can guess the #1 film in each of the ten genres on their website, you can win some sweet cash-like prizes. I'll show you mine if you show me yours!

Friday, June 6, 2008

I need the eggs.

My break is over.

The hiatus was brief, I know. (Actually the almost three weeks of my unofficial vacation was shorter than the time in between some of my posts!) But it was long enough to realize what is and isn't important to me. What is and isn't worth worrying about when there's nothing you can do about it. To quote a line from a song (from a movie I will be writing about soon): "I exist on the best terms I can."

Writing about movies (or anything well, and of any consequence) can be difficult when at the end of the day it really is just a hobby--when you have other things to deal with. (I'm gonna quote again) At the end of Annie Hall, Alvy remembers an old joke:
This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, uh, my brother's crazy--he thinks he's a chicken." And the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs."
Blogging for the sake of something other than blogging can be a draining task. As passionate as I am about the things I write about and my desire to share that with others, it's overwhelming, frustrating, and time-consuming... but I guess I still need the eggs.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Like girls have done so many nights before...

This past weekend I saw Elvis Costello open for some band called The Police. This posting is not about that concert. Nor is it about that weekend which pretty much sucked for me all around. This post is about me putting this blog into semi-retirement.

I mention Costello because his music has been a fairly accurate soundtrack to my life ever since I really started listening to him and the song from the YouTube video below sums up how I am feeling right now.

To reference my previous post, I have to get off this train. I really thought I was headed somewhere, but it looks like I need a break. I need to get away from the blood on the tracks. Maybe someday I'll get back on, but for now it's too much. I may wake up tomorrow morning and change my mind or I may never write a word on here again.

There have been some sly remarks about me elsewhere that I happen to find particularly unfair and rather than engage in them, I am deciding to take the cowardly route and simply run away. I guess I'll sign off by giving Elvis the last word:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

When the cows come home...

Continuing this whole "defining" movie thing, I wanted to respond to some of the comments on the initial blog. A couple of people mentioned Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride. I have to admit that while I enjoy the movie very much, I don't love it as much as many of my friends do. But a recent viewing at a "movie night" at my apartment recently made me realize how the film is a good example of how movies (and books and stories of all kinds) hold our imagination--and, by extension, how these movies come to color our own personality, our own personal cultural history (which is of course the whole point of this little experiment I'm trying to conduct).

Most of my friends can quote the film ad nauseam and the humor and fantasy elements I think are what hold it in the high esteem of a lot of the people I know. But what I find particularly interesting about The Princess Bride is its framing story. With all the swashbuckling and throwaway one-liners, it's easy to forget that The Princess Bride is not about Westley, or the Dread Pirate Roberts, or Inigo Montoya, or even Princess Buttercup. Really, it's about the story of these characters. It's about "Columbo" telling the story to his grandson--you know, the one who'd go on to date Winnie Cooper. And throughout the film, the child stops his grandfather from telling the story, redirects it, and makes him skip the bad parts.

Isn't that what we do with all the movies we love anyway? We relive them in our heads and we make our ideal of them fit our particular psyche; we rewrite these movies in our memory. How many times have you talked about or thought about a movie you loved when you were a kid only to watch it again and not feel the same way about it?

It's a fact of nature (unfortunate perhaps) that once a work of art--a movie, a novel, a pop song--hits the world, it ceases to become the property of the artist and instead becomes the property of its audience. Each of us brings a bit of our own emotional history to the work, our own personal experience, and that can't help but color our own reaction to it. As a result, we are in an ongoing dialogue with the film, an intellectual back-and-forth between our mind and the screen--a give-and-take that continues, theoretically, for the rest of our lives. Or at least for as long as we continue to watch a particular film over and over again.

And that brings me to the next film on my list.

The first time I saw Federico Fellini's 1953 film, I Vitelloni, I was a young idealist, a 19-year-old college student. The five "vitelloni" (literally, "big calves" or more loosely, "big children"), though almost a decade older than me at the time, were people I looked down upon. "How could men of their age act like such boys?" I thought. Of course at the time I didn't get the irony of my own arrogance. Here I was an adult (technically) still with the mentality of a child, still a dependent, still unaware of what was out there beyond the scope of the existence I knew my entire life. I believed I was more mature than these adolescents trapped in men's bodies; I believed Fellini was pointing the finger at them, castigating them for their insouciance. I watched it that first time with an emotional distance I didn't quite earn.

Cut to four years later at the 2004 Florida Film Festival, where the film had a special screening. I was now 23, graduated from college for two years and the movie held an entirely different meaning to me. Instead of looking at the characters with superiority, I began to see myself in them. Four years later, the movie had not changed one bit, but I did. And I realized that Fellini was now pointing the finger at me. It was a complete slap in the face. "How did I get here?" I wondered. "How did I turn into one of the 'vitelloni'?" More than that, I began to see specifically how I was like some of them: the laziness of Fausto, as well as his simultaneous selfishness and ambivalence towards the opposite sex; the artist Leopoldo, who in some ways is more worried about playing the part of a writer than actually being one; the sad clown, Alberto.

Toward the end there is a character who gets on a train and finally leaves this scene of ineffectualness. He looks back in sadness down the railroad tracks, sure, but it's the right move for him. The only move really.

It's now another four years later and I haven't seen the movie since then. I wonder what the movie will mean to me now. In a way I feel like I'm at a particular crossroads in my life (for more than one reason). But unlike the character in the train, this time I hope I'm looking forward, instead of looking back.


Does anyone have a movie or movies that have drastically changed for you in this way?

Oh, and I'm still waiting on the initial list of movies from some of you. And you know who you are.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

With a thousand smiles she gives to me free...

On a warm Florida night (is there any other?), I drove to Tampa to attend the Eric Clapton concert at the outdoor Ford Amphitheatre. I also saw him about a year-and-a-half ago here in Orlando and, while last night's show was very different from that one, it was no less amazing.

For one, as I said, the Ford Amphitheatre is an outdoor facility and even though there is a roof over the main seating area, there is no roof over the lawn, which is where I sat. Also, Clapton's band is slightly different. Gone is drummer Steve Jordan and slide guitarist Derek Trucks. The setlist was also a little different and unexpected (in a good way). Among the songs he added to his list were some more of his recent blues covers like "Motherless Child" and Robert Johnson's "Little Queen of Spades" and "Traveling Riverside Blues," as well as some of his Derek and the Dominos tunes like "Tell the Truth" and "Little Wing"--which is steadily becoming one of my favorites songs of his.

"Little Wing": From a performance at Madison Square Garden this February with special guest Steve Winwood.

What remains of course are the standards: "Crossroads," "Cocaine," and obviously "Layla," the latter still being one of the greatest songs, well, ever. What I did miss about that song from his '06-'07 tour was the slide work of Derek Trucks. Of all the times I've heard Clapton play "Layla," that performance in Orlando was the best I had ever heard, in no small part because of Trucks, who might be the best American blues slide guitarist since the late Duane Allman, who--hello--played slide on the original record.

"Layla": From his previous American tour, with Derek Trucks on slide.

Having never been to the Ford Amphitheatre, I was a little skeptical. What would it be like to sit on a lawn chair without a roof, susceptible to the elements? Well, it was great. My rented chair was perfectly comfortable and even though I was far, there were many big screens so I could still get a close-up of what was happening on stage. And underneath the dark, starry sky, with all that amazing music, I couldn't have been happier. Like that now legendary sign said, Clapton is God.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

It's all wrong, but it's alright...

So I've been feeling ridiculously shitty for the past two days and the song in this video pretty much encompasses how I feel. But the way these two kids--these two eight-year-olds--play and sing it put a giant smile on my face. At least for five minutes I feel a little better.

Hey, these guys should find that teacher from the Langley Schools Project!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

American Idol

Roger Ebert has officially entered the world of the blogs. In recent years, he has completely revamped his website (with the help of his editor Jim Emerson, whose own blog is a favorite of mine) and archived the bulk of his television reviews with Gene Siskel and Richard Roeper, so this seemed like the next logical step.

Of all the people I look up to--Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Francois Truffaut, etc.--it was maybe Mr. Ebert, through his TV show and then my subsequent discovery of archived print reviews on the Chicago Sun Times website, that had the most profound impact on my love for film. Not that I always agree with him (or with Emerson, or A.O. Scott, or Nathan Lee, or Wesley Morris). In fact, more recently, the more I've discovered my own voice and my own approach to thinking critically about film, the more I find my way away from all of these great writers. And in some ways that's the point. As the great films also do, Mr. Ebert's reviews do have a personal point-of-view and possess something of great worth to say, but also challenge the reader (or viewer in the case of film) to engage their own mind and not just sit there passively. I've learned more in reading his weekly print reviews than I have in any film class.

The world of film-blog criticism is inundated with the uninformed and the ill-conceived, the prosaic and uneducated. Maybe I'm one of those, who knows? I hope not, but I will continue to toil underneath the huge shadow Mr. Ebert's work casts and continues to cast. What I do know is that online film journalism just got a whole lot better.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Belatedly, FFF Day 9 & 10

I ended this year's Florida Film Festival on a chilly, rainy night by screening Snow Angels by director David Gordon Green, whose debut feature George Washington I feel is one of the best American independent movies of the past decade.

From A.O. Scott's review in the New York Times:
With both his subsequent films, "All the Real Girls" and "Undertow," Mr. Green has retained just enough of that idiosyncrasy to keep the promise of "George Washington" alive in the minds of his critical admirers. But these movies have also felt uneasily caught between his poetic nonconforming impulses and the requirements of sustaining a career as a midlevel, specialty-division auteur. Each one is less special than the one before.
To add, I think Green's movies have, at least overtly, become increasingly more structured--their narratives more focused on its trajectory towards a specific conclusion, rather than languishing in the nuance of character and place.

But to say that is not to diminish the film's strengths, of which there are many. One of the parallel stories involves Arthur (Michael Angarano) and Lila (Olivia Thirlby, Ellen Page's best friend in Juno), two high school teens navigating that most tenuous of young adult terrain: having a crush on a classmate. Cute without being cutesy, this budding relationship is the real soul of the film that partially takes a back seat to the eventual tragedy of the film, heavily foreshadowed in the film's opening scene. The problem with this tragic part of the storyline (of which I'll reveal nothing else) is that it seems coolly distant without seemingly trying to be. It lacks the fully lived-in feeling of the young romance and thus feels emotionally stunted, whereas the other is emotionally satisfying.

The night before I screened Young @ Heart, the British documentary about a choir of senior citizens who tour performing classic and newer rock and pop songs. There seems to have been a spate of movies recently that deal with the pairing of rock 'n' roll with unconventional performers--Richard Linklater's School of Rock, and the documentaries Rock School and Girls Rock! (the latter of which played at FFF this year, but unseen by me). Either one of these films would make a good double-feature with Young @ Heart, but watching the film, I kept on thinking about a short TV documentary on VH1 I saw years ago on an album called Innocence & Despair by The Langley Schools Music Project.

A recording on the completely other end of the spectrum than the seniors of Young @ Heart, Innocence & Despair is a collection of songs by a chorus of elementary school children from Langley, British Columbia during the late 70s. Ranging in material from David Bowie to The Beach Boys to ABBA, these songs are sparingly orchestrated and incredibly lo-fi in quality. The wonder of it all is how moving these songs can be even when their sung by kids who don't even really understand what they're singing about. I mean, how can a 9-year-old kid fathom the longing of a song like the Eagles' "Desperado" or the loneliness of The Beach Boys' "In My Room"? Well, maybe kids get a lot more than we think they do.

From the juveniles to the seniors and all other kids from 1 to 92, The Langley Schools album and Young @ Heart capture one of the great things about rock 'n' roll, which is its populism and egalitarianism. To put it more succinctly, as Hans Fenger, the music teacher who started the whole Langley project, said in the VH1 doc:
There's probably no better way to have people understand each other than to have them make music together. As cliché as it is to say that [music] is a universal language, it's in fact the truth.
All-in-all, this year's Florida Film Festival, despite some mishaps and stumbles, was as fun as it was exhausting. In order, my three favorite movies at the fest were Disfigured, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, and August Evening. Other highlights included my mom meeting and getting an autograph from A Clockwork Orange actor Malcolm McDowell. I'm not entirely sure, but as my mom tells it, I think he might've been hitting on her! Another slightly surreal moment occurred during the Midnight Shorts program. For those who don't know, all of the midnight showings tend to skew--how shall I say it--to the more depraved, the slightly dysfunctional. The filmmakers of one of the shorts entitled Dirty Words: The Letter C were in attendance and were passing out raffle tickets to win a vibrator and throwing out tiny bottles of lube to the entire audience.

And I find it incredibly inappropriate to tell you whether or not I've used my bottle so I'd appreciate if you'd stop asking me.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Take me to the magic of the moment... FFF: Day 7 & 8

A quiet two days had me attending only three screenings, but they were among the three best of the week so far.

Late Thursday night I watched the very funny romantic comedy In Search of a Midnight Kiss. Wonderfully shot in black and white, the film is like a more modest, L.A. version of the Before Sunrise/Sunset movies. At a Q&A afterwards, director Alex Holdridge mentioned that he was good friends with Richard Linklater, who of course directed those Before movies, so the connection is tangible. In Search of a Midnight Kiss doesn't possess the lofty ambition of those films, but in its own way, it has as much to say about love at the particular age these characters are in, the loneliness of living in a big city, and of dreams that go unfulfilled.

Friday afternoon, I screened Chris Eska's August Evening, an ultra low-budget movie that was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards this year. Like Holdridge for the previous film, Eska was in attendance and participated in a Q&A. Echoes of classic Ozu, especially his masterpiece Tokyo Story, the film centers around the familial relationship between Jaime and his widowed daughter-in-law, Lupe. The leads, Pedro Castaneda and Veronica Loren, are nonprofessional actors and, on top of that, also translated Eska's screenplay into Spanish from its original English.

Sometimes the best part of going to festivals is that the filmmakers get to participate and attend and answer audience questions. I often complain to some friends about how I don't like to hang around "film-y" people. I find that a lot of them are pretentious. [Your joke about me here.] I find that a lot of them are self-consciously quirky, edgy, and artsy. I find that many of them are just as fake as the Hollywood people they would presume to oppose. But after listening to both Holdridge and Eska, two people who seem both modest and unassuming, it renews my faith in independent cinema, both the culture of the indie world and the artists who help create it.

Quick note: Both In the Search of a Midnight Kiss and Situation Frank (part of the terrific International Narrative Shorts program) end with the old Scorpions' tune "Winds of Change". These movies couldn't be any further from each other save for the fact that they were both screened at FFF. Are the Scorpions going on a reunion tour or something?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

FFF: Day 5 & 6

After a much needed day off, I went headlong into another couple of days and six more screenings. I was prepared to talk about some of the highlights. How much I was charmed by the Israeli film Jellyfish. How I enjoyed The Cake Eaters, whose director--actress Mary Stuart Masterson--was a special guest and was just as lovely to listen to as her movie was to watch. How surprised, after a tedious and clumsy first few minutes, I was at how affectionate I felt toward Tom Gustafson's gay fantasia (that sounds like porn, but it's not) Were the World Mine.

But instead I am compelled to relay two stories. The first comes after watching The Cake Eaters and the subsequent Q&A with Mary Stuart Masterson. So I go to the bathroom to, you know, use the bathroom. For people who have never been, the Enzian theater has a fairly small one. Anyway, I open the door and what I assume is a line is actually a couple of guys waiting to pass by because a guy in a motorized wheelchair is somehow stuck in the little nook behind the door. What exactly the problem was I couldn't figure out, but there was another man helping the guy in the wheelchair and eventually he was able to get out. After a couple of seconds, I realized that the guy helping out was actually the director of a short called Shrinks. I'd seen him at a Q&A earlier when I saw a shorts program and, while I also gave him a good score on the audience ballot, I'd like to give him a good samaritan shout out. Not only did I like your film, Gregg Brown, I admire your citizenship!

On a less happy note, a terrible incident happened at the Animated Shorts program I attended. Five of the filmmakers whose shorts were being screened happened to be sitting in front of me. After A Letter to Colleen started, I heard Carolyn London--one of its directors--say to one of the house managers that there should be audio that isn't being played correctly. They shut off the movie and tried to fix it so it could be started again from the beginning. This started to take awhile and since it was the second-to-last short in the program, people got impatient and decided to leave. The film got rolling again--sound on this time--but after a few minutes just cut off completely. More people left and the directors, Carolyn & Andy London, understandably looked even more upset than they already were. Their film was in competition, up for a jury award and an audience award. With maybe a quarter of the people gone, that's a quarter of the people in the audience who won't even vote for their movie (and the one after it) while all the other movies got votes. I find this massively unfair and I am just as massively disappointed that this festival--my festival--would conduct itself in this manner. I walk around wearing my various festival t-shirts this week and all year-round with pride, proud to even be just a participant in a 10-day event that celebrates something I love dearly. Maybe tomorrow I'll decide to wear a different t-shirt.

Monday, March 31, 2008

FFF: Day 2 & 3

The first weekend has come to a close at the 17th annual Florida Film Festival and, though I'm ready to pass out after a marathon two days, it's off to a pretty good start.

I started this year's fest with a double feature of two food movies: This is My Cheesesteak and Hamburger America. It's kind of unfair to critique movies on what you expected or wish for them to be, but both of these films skirt the larger issues of food as it exists within our culture. Both films are essentially a roll call of great places to eat these foods. We can get this everyday on the Food Network and in a feature film, you'd hope for a little more depth.

A shorts program was next on my itinerary and four more features. Flight of the Red Balloon is the first film by master director Hou Hsaio-Hsien to be set outside of Asia, but many of the familiar elements are there. Also like the other films of his I have seen, I greatly admire them for their technique, but am left a bit cold by them at the same time.

On Sunday, I only (!) went to three screenings, including the hilarious Kabluey starring Lisa Kudrow and the stellar Shorts Program #3: Shuffle, which included three films I rated a 5 on the audience ballot (a rating I rarely give).

But the real revelation here is Glenn Gers's Disfigured, a movie about Lydia and Darcy--the former a member of a fat acceptance group, the latter a recovering anorexic who tries to join the same group because, well, she also thinks she's fat. What emerges is an exploration of body image, addiction, and friendship. A movie like this could have either been exploitative or have gone for the easy "rah-rah" girl power approach, but Disfigured refuses at every turn to take the easy way out. So many films that deal with serious issues pretend to explore them with any depth and end up doing so only superficially, too naive or smug or stupid to do anything but pile cliché upon cliché in the guise of saying something meaningful. This is the 7th year I've been coming to FFF and Disfigured is among the very best I've ever seen here. If the rest of the films come even near this one, I think I'm in for a good week.

Friday, March 28, 2008

No particular place to go

This isn't at all film related, but I thought I'd relay this to whoever's out there.

As I was driving to work this morning, the radio reported the weather forecast for the day, after which the announcer told us that "'Weather' is brought to you by Central Florida Toyota [or some other car dealership]." I had no idea! I'd like to take this opportunity to personally thank Central Florida Toyota [or some other car dealership] for giving us the gift of weather. And here I was blaming God for all the hot and muggy that is Central Florida.

Speaking of which (not really), the Florida Film Festival 2008 officially starts tonight! A woo-hoo!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tipitina, tra la la

"What is it about movies that explains
their amazing hold over the human mind?"

-- Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies

I've just finished reading an advanced reading copy of a new memoir by novelist David Gilmour called The Film Club. It chronicles the the relationship between Gilmour and his son, Jesse, who is so bad at school his father gives him the option of dropping out altogether and not even have to pay rent or for food. But he has to agree to one condition: watch three films with his father a week and discuss. The book is more a love letter to Jesse and the relationship between dads and sons than it is to film, but there are some choice passages in it that really get what it is to love movies. Not to like them, but to love them, and what it says about those who do:

Picking movies for people is a risky business. In a way it's as revealing
as writing someone a letter. It shows how you think, it shows what moves you,
sometimes it can even show how you think the world sees you.

People often say that you can define a person by what they say or by what they do or by what they believe in or their values. But I like to take a different approach. I like to define a person by their taste, by the things they like. Because, as Gilmour alludes to in the above quote, a list of things you like says as much about you as it does about those things. That goes for all art, including movies.

And so I propose a little activity. For those of you who read this and know me personally (which is almost all of you), know I work at a library (which is, again, most of you who also do). Recently we had a StoryCorps mobile booth parked outside our library, which allowed anyone on the street to tell their story, whatever it is.

What I want is for you, yes you, to tell me your story, but not in the traditional sense. I want you to tell it through the movies you love. What are the five movies that come closest to defining who and what you are? These are not the five movies you'd want if you were stranded on a deserted island. This is not a Sight & Sound list either--I don't want to know what you think the five greatest movies ever are (well, I do, but not for the purpose of this). And I'm not even asking for your five favorite movies, that's still a little different. I want the collection of movies that in some way tell your personal story. And it doesn't have to be obvious, you can be creative. If you work in a library, you don't have pick a movie about librarians or writers or books. If you're a doctor, you don't have to pick a movie set in a hospital. And you don't have to pick five... pick two, even one. I'm just curious as to what movies hit you on a personal level; what movies mean so much to you it becomes an extension of you, a part of you.

Here's one of mine, to start the discussion:

Sunset Boulevard may be Billy Wilder's best movie, Some Like it Hot may be his funniest, and Woody Allen was once quoted as saying that Double Indemnity is probably the best movie ever made. But for me The Apartment resonates the most personally. There is a scene--a moment actually--that is as good as any in Wilder's career. (I'll try to be slightly evasive as to avoid major spoilers.) It comes at about the midpoint in the movie when C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) opens a compact and sees that the mirror is broken. In a moment, his whole world has turned on a dime. Everything he knows about someone has been turned on its head. "Some people take and some people get took," a character says to him later in the film. And what I love is that the more the two leads describe their own lives, the more they are describing each other. Pain and personal anguish is as universal as it is specific and I don't know if there's a better movie I've seen in capturing that.

Okay, it's your turn... you'll get the rest when I hear some of yours.

Oh, and The Film Club comes out May 6.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Eat it up

The end of winter/early spring time of year is often a dreaded one for cinephiles. After Hollywood indulges in its annual self-lovemaking at the Oscars, there is a bit of a post-coital letdown where theaters are awash with usually forgettable crap. Instead of giving us films to snuggle with, the industry leaves us with the one-night stand, a series of meaningless treks to the cinema, allowing us nothing but to curb our fix. (Okay, maybe I'm overdoing it with the sex analogy, but I like it and am starting to feel a little bit aroused.)

Thankfully, though, the Florida Film Festival starts in three weeks. I'd say that the festival brings a blast of sun, warming us up from the cold of winter, but it's Orlando and, let's face it, it hasn't been cold here since around 10,000 B.C.

For many, the big name celebrities are the highlight. This year Anthony Bourdain and Jennifer Tilly will be here. Bourdain will be discussing--obviously--food and it seems FFF has been increasingly intent on introducing food and wine as a major theme in the past couple of years, possibly because they have been sponsored by various food and drink businesses and also perhaps because the main theater is the Enzian Theater, which is a dinner theater. Tilly will be here for a screening of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, a film in which she co-starred. Last year, Oscar-winning director Peter Bogdanovich was a guest for a special screening of Paper Moon and I could've listened to him talk for days. But for me, the real thrill (besides the range of movies) is seeing and listening to the unknown independent directors, producers, and actors (although I missed seeing last year's opening night guest Judy Greer and thus missed my opportunity to ask her to marry me). For many of the films here, the festival circuit is as far as they'll get and it's both inspiring and a bit sobering hearing the hardships and triumphs of these filmmakers.

I'm taking my vacation during the festival, so I will see as many movies as I can possibly see without passing out and I will try to keep a sort of log for each day I attend.

There are a few movies I already know I want to see: Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, and the low-budget indie (redundant?) August Evening. What these and other films hold I can't say and that's what is exciting about festivals. I know that after the 10 days are up there will be a movie (or two, or three) that I will love. What's great is that I have no idea which ones they will be.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Give me one kiss and I'll be happy

The Dave Clark Five will be inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in a couple of weeks. Sadly, songwriter and lead singer Mike Smith passed away today at 64. R.I.P.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Brown paper packages tied up with string

Now normally you'd read a year-end wrap up like this sometime by the end of December or the beginning of the new year, but late-year releases sometimes don't come to Orlando until a couple of months later, so I have a self-imposed deadline of Oscar night to compile my top-10 list. (Thought: what if writer's strike had continued and the Academy Awards were cancelled?)

A survey of film (and of film criticism) this past year will likely lead you to believe that this was a year dominated by stories of men, that the ooze of testosterone permeated every cinematic offering. And, to be sure, a good number of films last year did in some ways explore territory that has been heretofore traditionally masculine. But some of 2007's best movies feature actresses in roles that don't exist simply in the periphery, but are integral to the film's success. From The Big Bad Swim to L'Iceberg, from Enchanted to The Golden Compass, from Atonement to Grindhouse, women have been portrayed in a surprisingly wide range of ways in movies last year and in no less than seven of my top 10 films this year does a woman (or women) exist at the center of the story, or are at the very at least on par with their male counterpart(s)--four of which are written and directed by a woman.

But before I get to those, let me first acknowledge a number of films (eleven to be exact) that just missed making the list. In any other year or, frankly, if I was in a different mood while writing this, these might have made the top 10. But alas, this is the 11-way tie for 11th place:

Documentaries often get lost in the shuffle of the more-heralded fiction films, but three of them in particular stood out to me. For time immemorial it is almost certain that the current political climate in this country will be defined by our presence in Iraq and while certain films fictionalize the situation there or more obliquely reference it in allegorical terms, Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight tackles it directly and matter-of-factly. Without bias or partisanship, the film in no uncertain terms described the idiocy and incompetence that led to our involvement in the Middle East this time around and, as the title indicates, who knows when it'll be over. Deep Water and The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters are two vastly different documentaries, but at the heart of each of them is how ego and ambition can drive the male half of our species to extremes most of us (men and women) would consider absolute ridiculous and at times downright dangerous.

Not a documentary, but a film that proceeds like one and based on true events, Zodiac also examines the dangerous obsessions of men, as it follows three characters in search of San Francisco's notorious Zodiac killer. Like No Country For Old Men (see below), ultimately the violence of the film is ignored for what that violence leaves in its wake and the questions it almost always leaves unanswered.

The spectre of war, violence, and internal national conflict is of course not unique to us, they exist all over the world. Sometimes the best movies about a country's past are the ones that weave the arc of national history with their character's own personal history. No more engaging is this the case than in Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Marjane (the character) is herself a dynamo and, like the rest of her family, tough as nails as they have to endure the daily struggle of tyranny and bombings in their native Iran. She is flawed and makes mistakes, but like the country that gave her life, her parents and grandmother know she is worth the struggle. Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley echoes a lot of America's history though it takes place during the Irish rebellion against Britain and its subsequent civil war. Most striking is how often that those who rise up against tyranny in many ways enforce their own tyranny, a hypocrisy that perpetuates a violence that it supposes to quell. In pre-1989 East Berlin, The Lives of Others is more hopeful in its appraisal of oppression. Tragedies and betrayals occur (as they must often do in those situations) but the ultimate empathy of people for others is the only ammo against these types of regimes. Hey, the wall did come down eventually!

Superbad may only be the second-best Judd Apatow-produced film of 2007, but maybe that's why Entertainment Weekly recently named him the smartest person in Hollywood. How is this one any different from any of the other stupid, sophomoric, raunchy comedies that come through the pipeline every year? Because this one understands the insecurity and desperation most 17-year-old boys go through when it comes to sex, girls, partying, alcohol, and friendships that get severed simply because people grow up. Because it is probably the most laugh-out-loud and consistently funny movie of last year. Because Seth Rogen and Bill Hader are the coolest cops ever. Because Martha MacIsaac plays the best drunk. Oh yeah, and because of what's-his-name, that nerdy Irish R&B singer/Hawaiian organ donor.

Why are the smartest people always the most messed up? I don't know 'cos I'm too messed up myself (haha!), but the characters in The Savages and Margot at the Wedding show that, despite some of their best intentions, people are just sometimes bad. The brother and sister Savages may have worked out some of their issues by the end and redeemed themselves, but Margot and the rest of the adults at the wedding are so evil and vindictive throughout that they make the adults in The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach's previous film) look tame by comparison.

The brilliance of Lasse Hallström's The Hoax is not just how Richard Gere's Clifford Irving plays with the truth, but how the film does so as well. It's a kind of cat-and-mouse game the film plays with us and part of the fun is wondering who's more full of it--Irving or the movie. This is a film that is based on a story, not necessarily a true one.
And now,

These are a few of my favorite things:

10. 2 Days in Paris

The best Woody Allen movie not made by Woody Allen since When Harry Met Sally and one of the most honest portrayals of two people, not still in their early 20s, but not yet middle-aged, attempting to navigate the difficult terrain of a relationship while knowing all too well that each of them has their share of emotional baggage.

9. Day Night Day Night

Without preaching or proselytizing, without pointing the finger or passing judgment, Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night is weirdly perhaps the most apolitical political film of the year. Ignoring everything about the girl's background and reasons for accepting a mission as a suicide bomber (it's even difficult to tell her ethnicity from simply her looks or accent) and focusing on her mundane minute-by-minute activities, the film places us firmly in the present and turns her into an everywoman, a sobering realization of the current climate.

8. Knocked Up

Superbad's older, only slightly wiser big brother is a sort of rom-com in reverse. Sex and pregnancy first, getting to know each other and romance second. Like The 40-Year-Old Virgin before it, Judd Apatow's follow-up generously mixes the raunchy elements with the sweeter ones. But this one actually delves deeper into the differences between the sexes and the sacrifices inevitable in relationships. The "B" storyline between Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann's characters are almost good enough to carry a film on its own, in no small part due to Mann's (Apatow's real-life wife) affecting performance. Apatow's regular cast of characters only get better with each production and they're like a great jazz band who've been together for years, riffing twos and fours off each other seemingly without even thinking.

7. Into the Wild

The romance of freedom and independence--real freedom, not imagined or idealized-- is only tempered by the grave and unfair fact that it probably doesn't really exist. That's perhaps the most moving thing I walked away with after watching Sean Penn's film about the life of Christopher McCandless, a life that is at once inspiring, sad, uplifting, and tragic. It's also a testament--among the many movies, pieces of literature, etc. that would, albeit sometimes rightfully, claim otherwise--to the beauty of this country. Not only beautiful terrain and vast landscapes, but the people. The America as defined by Americans. Sean Penn may be criticized by many "patriots" as being himself unpatriotic, but his movie celebrates us all more than most movies ever try to do.

6. Away From Her

Julie Christie duly gets a lion's share of credit for her performance as a woman suffering from Alzheimer's, but months after seeing the film, it is Gordon Pinsent's performance as her longtime husband that resonates with me. Sarah Polley's debut screenplay (adapted from Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain") is deft at allowing us to empathize with Pinsent as he maneuvers a life separated from his wife while not letting him off the hook for past deeds done. The movie is as quiet and internal as one can be without sacrificing true drama.

5. Waitress

It would be difficult to watch this film without a tinge of sadness knowing the fate of director Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered before it debuted at Sundance. It would also be easy to dismiss enthusiasm for the movie as an overreaction to her death. But all I know is that this is the movie that might have made me feel the happiest after seeing it and that Keri Russell's lead performance is probably my favorite of the past year. The scenes between her and Nathan Fillion as Dr. Pomatter play like 40s screwball, like this generation's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. It's also, underneath all its great warmth and humor, a sort of feminist manifesto, showing that a woman doesn't have to define herself by the man whose arm she's on, whether it be her abusive husband or even her all-around good guy doctor. Oh yeah, and all those great pies!

4. There Will Be Blood

The best thing to wash down a great pie with is probably a milkshake! "I drink it up!" as Daniel Plainview would say. The grander theme of the movie--the dialectical relationship between religion and money, God and commerce--is balanced by the focused portrayal of one man's descent into madness. The movie's ambition is equaled only by its main character and it devours him and all that dare enter his path. I know a whole lotta people had issues with the film's insane finale, but I think it's perfect in galvanizing both the larger matters of the film with the smaller, more internal ones of Plainview.

3. No Country For Old Men

After seeing the Coen Bros.' latest film, a very close friend of mine wrote to me: "No wasted shots, no wasted dialogue." And she couldn't have hit it more on the nose. The film is as coolly efficient as Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh is a killer. It's probably the most technically accomplished movie of the year, but saying that would be to diminish its overall accomplishments. Eschewing the violence that occurs earlier in the film, NCFOM becomes a meditation on a world that, like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), is always recovering, always one step behind.

2. I'm Not There

Probably the musical biopic that most captures the spirit of its subject since A Hard Day's Night, I'm Not There knows no bounds in its approach to Dylan--the artist, the man, the celebrity, and everything else. For all its intellectualizing, it does also have an emotional center, both in the elegiac section with Richard Gere as Billy the Kid, and more notably the bittersweet romance between Heath Ledger as actor Robbie Clark and Charlotte Gainsbourg's Claire. From their first meeting in a Parisian cafe, to their courtship and marriage, to their eventual divorce, this is the episode of the film that is filled with the most joy and also aches with the most pain.

1. Once

A man and a woman (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) are in a music shop, she sits down at a piano, he next to her with his guitar. He's written a song and asks her if she'd try playing it with him. Note by note, he teaches her the melody, while she reads the words on his notebook. Four minutes and one song later, we know everything we need to know about these two. Surely, there are incidental things they'll learn about each other--a kid on her end, a cheating ex-lover on his--but something as simple as the music they share is enough for the film to immerse us in their universe. Everything about this movie is right, every song wonderful. No two characters did I feel more for, no two people did I care as much about what happened to them.

I debated for a long time which I thought was the best movie last year, Once or I'm Not There. In the end these two people, whose names I don't even know (they're just "guy" and "girl" in the credits), were the two best friends I had in all my treks to the cinema in 2007. Some of my favorite movies often have the best endings--a whisper between friends in my #1 movie of 2003, a sunrise and a tapping quarter at the end of my favorite movie of 2005. Once is no different. It ends with a song of course and a crane shot outside a window with someone directly looking into the camera as a sort of goodbye. And as the camera pulls out into the sky we say goodbye as well as we float away. I first saw this movie last summer and I still don't think I've landed.

In an act of pure serendipity, Hansard and Irglová were asked to do a song on the soundtrack of another movie. It just so happens to be a Bob Dylan one called I'm Not There! How 'bout them apples.

Liked some of these movies? Hated them? What were your favorite movies this year? Seriously, I wanna hear it. Comment away!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Little by Little

For those clamoring for me to post more often (and you know who you are!), instead of doing a more thorough interrogation of some of the movies I've screened recently, I will instead do a quick, little mini-review of a few titles of interest. (And of course I'm willing to write more if anybody wants to engage in a discussion of any of these movies.)

La Vie en Rose: Yet another bloated musical biopic. It is often someone will say that real life is more entertaining and dramatic than fiction. I believe those someones are probably the idiots that also say that a movie is never as good as the book. Coming only a couple of years after the likes of Ray and Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose changes nothing of the genre, only inserts a different musical legend (legendary French singer Edith Piaf). In a year when both I'm Not There and Walk Hard were released, you'd think people would grow tired of this type of movie by now. If Dewey Cox were still alive, I imagine he'd try to cut the Gallic crooner in half.

Deep Water: It is often someone will say that real life is more entertaining and dramatic than fiction. Okay, in this case they may be right. One of the most stirring and involving documentaries of the past year revisits the 1968 competition which pitted nine men in a non-stop boat race to circumnavigate the globe. Focusing on one sailor in particular, Donald Crowhurst, the film is a meditation on ego and loneliness and the depths of desperation it can create in a human being. More than that, Deep Water also subtly (and sublimely) examines the things men do (because inevitably they must--if for no one else but themselves), while the ebbs and flows of their tragedies and triumphs leave their lives (and responsibilities) at home on the couch, watching and waiting.

27 Dresses: I know the topic of Katherine Heigl bad-mouthing Knocked Up for being sexist has been talked about at length for while now, but seriously, where does she get off? It's movies like 27 Dresses and the just-as-ridiculous Because I Said So, in which the only goal a woman should have in life is to get hitched that make movies like Waitress and The Big Bad Swim all the more important. It's a shame too because as it turns out James Marsden shows, as he did in Enchanted, that he's got the chops to be a real leading man.

The Savages: In the same way the earlier Away From Her dealt with the onset of Alzheimer's, The Savages deals with the onset of dementia. What's curious about both is that each examine the illnesses from the observer, from the perspective of the loved ones who have to manage the situation. And in a way I guess it would be difficult to do it any other fashion, seeing as it would be quite difficult to truly understand what's going on inside the head of the person who's actually suffering the disease. But the arrival of their father's disease force the two overgrown children, Jon and Wendy, to finally grow up and the tenuous sibling rivalry that surfaces as a result is both painful and painfully funny. Two great performances by the always great Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

L'Iceberg: There are a lot of movies these days that work at subverting a particular genre's conventions, or at the very least working as an homage withing that specific framework. Often they are the more clearly defined genre's such as the western or film noir. But the Belgian film L'Iceberg works within the rich, but nowadays almost instinct world of silent comedy. Like the works of Jacques Tati in the 50s and 60s, the film does have ambient sound and minimal dialogue, but it exists almost purely in the physical and visual. Like most silent comedies, even the works of the greats like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, when the gags fall flat, the film suffers along with it. But when they connect, they're as funny as anything you will see on screen. Like Chaplin did, the directors simply keep the frame still, letting the actors and the action do all the work within the camera's proscenium.

There Will Be Blood: Of all the movies here, this certainly warrants the most consideration, but I am aiming for brevity here, so we'll see how this goes. Based loosely on Upton Sinclair's Oil!, the film follows one man's desire to bring the industry of black gold to the masses, running over anyone and anything that gets in his way--family and friends included. At the center of the film is a chewy, over-the-top (in a good way) performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. In a way it's the typical story of the American Dream and the ambition displayed by Daniel Plainview (Lewis) is matched only by the film's ambition. The film is also the story of America--the strange bedfellows of big business and religion and the way it has shaped this nation both for good and for evil.

Quick note: as the Oscars are coming up soon, I will (finally!) post my year-end review and top 10 for those who are interested (again, you know who you are!).