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30 December 2009

There Will Be Blood

directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Ladies and gentleman, when I say that Paul Thomas Anderson is a true giant of the filmic craft, you will agree. Anderson has delivered some of the most intensely American (and intensely intense) films this side of the Coen Brothers, and he shows no signs of stopping. Anderson’s gut punch of a film stars the monolithic Daniel Day Lewis and the gale force talent of Paul Dano (holding his own like a champ) reacting to one another like forces of nature. Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, oil mogul who gets wind of a reservoir beneath a small town and seeks to gain control. Standing in the way is Eli Sunday (Dano), preacher and kindred opportunistic spirit who wants a kingly price for such a find. To watch Dano and Day-Lewis battle one another is like watching a lightning storm in your front yard, and with only four days to prepare for such a role, Dano shows us that he is of the stuff that makes an actor immortal. While I am dispensing with much deserved recognition, I must give a proud and jubilant bravo to Dillon Freasier for his rock hard portrayal of H.W. Plainview, Daniel’s adopted son. Whatever might be said between the two characters, the love between the Plainviews is palpable and true, and the way in which Freasier holds his own when sharing screen time with Day-Lewis and Dano is nothing short of groundbreaking (especially considering he was not an actor). Johny Greenwood creates an operatic mash up that stings the senses in all the right ways, and Dylan Tichenor (there’s that damn name again) edits himself into an academy award nomination in the same year as The Asassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (for which he should also have been nominated). It’s the true horror of the American Dream in full bloom.
I’m finished now.

29 December 2009

Hunger

directed by Steve McQueen

The story of Irish prisoner Bobby Sands and his struggle to win rights for his fellow inmates comes to horrifying, scathing, sobering reality in Steve McQueen’s knockout debut, Hunger. Michael Fassbender plays Sands with all the vehemence and conviction necessary to take home every award in the book, and every actor in this minimal dialogue, exhausting, heart-wrenching tour de force delivers the goods in every way possible. Sands wants all of his fellow prisoners to be treated as prisoners of war instead of common criminals, to be recognized as political prisoners for their participation in the turmoil of Northern Ireland’s struggle. A “no wash” protest is underway, a protest in which the prisoners use their bodies as weapons, and Sands is willing to take his to the limit to realize his aspirations. Implementing a hunger strike in which he will be the first participant (and possibly casualty), Sands is absolutely committed to the cause, and Fassbender delivers a powerhouse performance that will endure for all time, a true embodiment of a zealot willing to take his vision beyond the limit. To watch this film is to be drawn into a conflict beyond our comprehension as Americans, to bear witness to a conviction foreign to our usual patriotic sentiment. Whether or not you agree is not up for debate, however, and though it may be hard to stomach, you won’t be able to look away.

28 December 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

directed by Wes Anderson

I am quite ashamed that it took me so long to see the Wes Anderson stop motion film based on a Roald Dahl classic. Jeez, when you say it in one sentence like that, it sounds too good to be true. Well, I have to say, it almost was! Rocking such voice talents as Bill Murray (hilarious, per usual), George Clooney (with a sugary smooth voice), Meryl Streep (outdoing herself, and in animated form!), Jason Shwartzman (heartbreakingly fabulous), Michael Gambon (full of piss and vinegar)- OK, I’ll stop there, but what about Willem Dafoe (brilliant), and Eric Anderson (wonderful) and even Wes himself as the weasel realtor- sorry. If you haven’t read the book, don’t worry, Wes and Noah Baumbach create a magnificently rich world (has Wes Anderson ever failed in creating a rich and detailed world?) as big as Mr. Fox’s ambition, and succeed valiantly. From the book as title credits opening (see The Royal Tenenbaums for another fine example) to the slam bang finish, virtually every piece of this puzzle is a masterwork, and Wes Anderson’s name will now truly live on in the annals of film history for all time. Thank you, Mr. A, for bringing us some of the most beautifully zany, idiosyncratic, and singularly ornate film stories of the past two decades. May you continue to grace us with magnificent films, and maybe even one day give the world a film version of The Catcher in the Rye (hopefully, the book rights will lapse in time).

27 December 2009

A Serious Man

directed by the Coen Brothers

Beginning with a subtitled (and Yiddish) prologue about a demon and ending with-well, I won’t give that away, but what I will give up is the conceit that Joel and Ethan Coen have spun yet another remarkable classic from the fabric of faith, desperation and suffering that we call life. Larry Gopnick is a physics professor with a typical family: marriage on the rocks, two slackerish, semi-hostile children and a neighbor who wants to build a tool shed too close to the property line. Yet it just seems to get worse and worse for Larry, and I won’t beat you over the head with the Old Testament parallels and metaphors, but in the Coen tradition, trouble always begets more trouble. Michael Stuhlbarg is astounding as Larry, a man who gets more than his share of bad luck, and Sari Lennick is seriously amazing as Judith, Larry’s serious wife who wants a divorce. The Coens wear you down right alongside Larry in this darkly hilarious two hour head lock of a film, and when it’s over, you are left just as rattled. Carter Burwell’s killer soundtrack works more like another part of dialogue, and Roger Deakins never ceases to amaze with his cinematographic genius. Like another mesmerizing classic, the much overlooked and underappreciated Barton Fink, the Coens explain little and leave you to come to your own conclusions. So, let’s just ask it, already: Why?

Special note: Hats off to sound designer dynamo Craig Berkey and foley artist titan Marko A. Costanzo, the talents responsible for creating such an intricately hypnotic aural web. The end of record sequence, the soul sucking sound of Arthur's cyst pump, and the mesmerizing isolation of specific sounds throughout the film only work to strengthen the film in ways that could not have been imagined by the Coens themselves. Another example of the whole exceeding the sum of its aggregate parts, A Serious Man is a serious achievement, to be sure.

26 December 2009

Bad Santa

directed by Terry Zwigoff

If ever there was a darker horse candidate for a perennial holiday classic, I have yet to see it. Billy Bob Thornton is shockingly, agonizingly spot on as Willie, the booze swilling, chain smoking, foul mouthed heister who poses as Santa every year in order to clean out the mall during Christmas. When Willie meets a boy in need of a friend, he takes advantages of the situation and shacks up with the kid and his senile grandma. Meanwhile, the head of security (a terrifyingly funny Bernie Mac, is there any other kind?) has his sights focused on Willie and his pint sized accomplice, Marcus (Tony Cox), which throws a wrench in the works until Willie starts to have a change of heart. To compare this film to the Grinch of yore would be like trying to use math to describe a poem, and so I will not. Are there similarities, yes, but Bad Santa is a classic in every sense of the word, just not the kind one would expect. It’s like grouping Natural Born Killers in the “classic love story” genre (which I do, because it is a classic love story). It applies, but it just takes reassessment.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

directed by Henry Selick

Tim Burton, the Prince of all things strange, brings to life the holiday world of Halloweentown, and it is a sight to behold. Jack Skellington runs the freaky show, but he is tired of the same old thing. When he stumbles upon a series of strange portals in the woods, Jack finds himself sucked into Christmas Town, where the big man himself, Santa, is the boss. Jack falls in love, and in an extraordinary move, Jack has Mr. S kidnapped so that he can be the one to deliver his own twisted version of holiday cheer to the world. His earnest attempts prove futile, but when the boogeyman gets involved, it’s a mad dash to save Santa and gets things back on track. If this much warped whimsy could be applied to everything, the world would be a truly remarkable place. Danny Elfman packs a musical punch and even sings the Skellington sequences (fantastic), and the sheer magnitude of Burton's vision was (to date) extraordinary. Selick went on to develop James and the Giant Peach, which was an admirable attempt at realizing another Roald Dahl treasure.

23 December 2009

Elf

directed by Jon Favreau

Buddy is an elf, and quite an odd elf at that. This is because he is really a human, an orphan who crawled into Santa’s sack one Christmas night. Santa has a big heart (of course), and so the boy was raised by the toymakers of the North Pole, but when Buddy grows up, he gets the shocking news. So off he goes, to New York City to meets his father (a grinchy James Caan) and spread a little holiday cheer. It’s slow going at first, but hilarious, and when Buddy sets eyes upon the enchanting Jovey (a wonderful Zooey Deschanel), it’s love at first sight. Will Ferrell is continually willing to do whatever it takes to make the most of a role, and his heart warming and uproarious portrayal of Buddy, the fish out of water, is as funny for a toddler as it is for an adult. Who says you can’t make a movie for everyone?

22 December 2009

Love Actually

directed by Richard Curtis

Love stories abound in this very British, very funny film that revolves around too many plot lines to mention, which ultimately is its downfall. If just a few of the lesser stories had been shaved away, this film could have been exponentially better. It’s still great, however, and well worth watching. Bill Nighy is a comedic treat as aged pop star Billy Mack, who whores himself and one of old hits for a holiday chart topper. Hugh Grant is befuddled and hilarious (per usual) as the newly elected Prime Minister, battling public perception concerning his age and love pangs of his own. Liam Neeson is a widower with a lovesick son, Sam (Thomas Sangster), and Alan Rickman is man with a secret about his marriage. There are plenty more, and while the sheer number work to detract from the power of each story, the film is full of bright moments that make the entire film worth watching. Is it a Valentine’s Day film, or a Christmas film? Why can’t it be both? If Steve Miller can be a picker and grinner and lover and a sinner, then Love Actually can be a film for two holidays.

21 December 2009

Edward Scissorhands

directed by Tim Burton

I have reviewed this film before, yes, and it is and will always be my favorite film of all time, but Tim Burton’s masterpiece, and it is truly a masterpiece, is such a magical filmic experience that it must be mentioned on any list that includes great holiday films. Built around a child’s simple question (Where does snow come from?), this modern fairy tale weaves a mesmerizing tale of friendship, isolation, and the power of the human heart. Johnny Depp is Edward, an invention left unfinished and alone in the old mansion of his “father” (a wonderful Vincent Price in his last and loveliest performance). Left with just a handful of razor sharp scissors for hands, Edward has no visitors until Peg, the kindly Avon representative from the suburb below comes calling. A bit of astringent here (for the nervous nicks on Edward’s face) and a pair of old clothes there (to cover his leathery, buckley frame), and Edward is part of the family, learning the suburban ropes and making friends. His heart belongs to Kim (a sweet Wynona Ryder), but Kim’s beau Jim (a sinister and frightening Anthony Michael Hall) has thoughts of his own about Edward’s gentle nature. It’s a brave new world for Edward, but when the neighborhood turns on him, he is forced back to his mansion for a chilling climax. Diane Wiest is sugary sweet as Peg, and Alan Arkin gives one of the high point performances in a career of high points as Bill. To see the answer to that youthful inquiry is to see one of the most heartbreaking and romantic of all tableaus in film, a truly breathtaking concept. See it. See it again, and let it fill you up.

20 December 2009

Gremlins

directed by Joe Dante

Chris Columbus and Joe Dante bring you madcap comedy fun by way of the Orient in Gremlins, starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates and Corey Feldman. Billy (Galligan) gets the present every boy wants for Christmas, a weird looking little creature that talks and sings and looks like the love child of a Welsh Corgi and an Ewok. Pops done good, but when he bought the Mogwai from an Asian curiosity shop, the owner gave him strict instructions. Don’t get it wet, and don’t feed it after midnight. Good reader, you know how it works in movieland, the little guy naturally has to get splashed, then stuff his face. Oops. Now, Billy and little buddy Pete (Corey Feldman) have to battle it out against a hoard of weird looking bigger creatures that look like the love children of a koala and an iguana. Add to the mix is the adorable Phoebe Cates, local fox who may have a thing for Billy. The sequel is fun and even more ridiculous, but the original is a must see.

19 December 2009

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik

Arguably the finest of the National Lampoon’s films, the third Griswold holiday is ready to fall apart mere minutes into the film when Clark (the hilarious Chevy Chase) wedges the family station wagon (no longer metallic pea) beneath a truck hauling felled trees. They manage to avoid catastrophe, but not for long. It’s Christmas, and Clark has a dream, a Griswold family Christmas in his home. Sounds good on paper, but what unfolds is one of the funniest and most definitive holiday comedies on record. To name my favorite moments in this side-splitting film would essentially be a catalog of the entire film, but let’s just say that most of them feature a hilarious Randy Quaid in full trailer park mode. It’s holiday madness at its very best, a true treasure that should be required viewing for any budding comedian.

18 December 2009

White Christmas

directed by Michael Curtiz

Ah, White Christmas, Irving Berlin’s classic song was such a hit in Holiday Inn that it got its own movie. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye sing, dance and scheme their way through a Technicolor dream come true. Wallace and Davis (Crosby and Kaye) are a showbiz duo who plot to put on a massive reunion show in Vermont to defibrillate their old General Waverly’s hotel business. Aiding the men are the Haynes Sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen), two fellow schemers who find themselves hired to play the vacant resort. Do I smell love in the air? Of course I do, it’s a classic Hollywood holiday musical, complete with all the wonderful bells (silver, of course) and whistles (Bing Crosby’s, of course) you would expect from such a work. Dean Jagger beautifully underplays his role of the good general (which is a feat in itself when you have to share screen time with the likes of Danny Kaye) and it proves very fruitful for such a skilled actor. It’s like enjoying a candy cane that never gets all sharp and pokes the inside of your mouth.

17 December 2009

Scrooged

directed by Richard Donner

Bill Murray is the scrooge of all scrooges in the reimagining of the classic A Christmas Carol, playing Frank Cross, mega jackass media tycoon who hates Christmas like it’s his job. The television network for which Frank works is preparing for a live broadcast of the Dickens classic on Christmas Eve, but things get a bit strange when he is visited by his old boss (and dead guy), who tells Frank that he will be visited by three more ghosts before the night is over. I won’t bore you with the details (as everyone knows this story), but leave it to Bill Murray to deliver every time. Murray is as hilarious at being an a-hole (Peter Venkman, Steve Zissou, hello?) as Rodney Dangerfield is at being a ham. David Johanson puts on a great screwball show as the ghost of Christmas Past, Karen Allen glows as Phil’s old squeeze, and wait- who is that I see? Is that- it is! Robert Mitchum! All my holiday dreams just came true!

16 December 2009

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

directed by Chuck Jones and Ben Washam

Of all the times Hollywood tried to realize the strange and wonderful world of the good Dr. Seuss, almost 100 percent of the time they got it horribly wrong. But it can’t rain all the time, as Eric Draven would say, and aside from The Lorax, the only other beaming ray of sunshine in the gloom of Dr. Seuss films is the Christmas masterpiece, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, magically voiced and sung by Boris Karloff. Cartoon geniuses Chuck Jones and Ben Washam bring Whoville to life in all its twisty, pastel painted glory. The Whos are busting ass to get ready for Christmas, but scowling and scoffing above them is the Grinch, green a-hole intent on getting his hate on, until he schemes up a plan to srew those Whos and snatch their Christmas out from under them. With the help of his reindeer dog and a ramshackle sleigh, the Grinch sails into Whoville and jacks the festivities, even the crumbs for the mice (what a jerk!), but a change of heart causes him to see the error of his ways. The original is fantastic in the exact same number of ways that the Jim Carey version sucks, which is roughly four thousand and twelve ways. From the pitch perfect voice of Karloff, to the moment when his Grinch heart grows and breaks the metal measuring frame, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a holiday treat meant to be had by all. Merry Christmas.

15 December 2009

A Christmas Story

directed by Bob Clark

Remember that Christmas movie that starred The Dirt Bike Kid? The one where he wanted a b b gun? If you were ever eleven years old between the years 1983 and now, chances are that the Bob Clark classic A Christmas Story might have been one of your favorite movies. For some, it still is, and with good reason. TBS doesn’t air the perennial holiday film 24 hours in a row on Christmas arbitrarily. The timeless story of a little boy’s quest to obtain that which will be readily available to him when turns 18, a gun, is the hilarious story of growing up in the sterilized, romanticized, Christmasized suburbs of you-name-the-town, America during the 1950’s. Think The Sandlot, but add snow and sand down a bit of the wit. Flick gets his tongue stuck to a flag pole, Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) shoots his eye out, and the infamous leg lamp mingle like luscious tones in a fine Lafite. All those stories about your parents having to walk uphill both ways to get to school , or battling the bitter cold with hard boiled eggs in their pockets, well, you won’t find them here, but you will find a charmingly funny story about how much the holidays meant to you when you were young. Don’t stop believin’, hold on to that feelin’, and anything that you wish for will come true.

14 December 2009

Casablanca

directed by Michael Curtiz

All right, all right. There’s no way to get around it. It has to be talked about. One of the finest love stories in the history of cinema takes the form of one ultimate classic, Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart as Rick, owner of Rick’s bar, nursing a cynical attitude until a lost love sparks a yearning inside him for something more. Reunited with a wonderful Sydney Greenstreet and starring opposite such giants of the crafts as Peter Lorre and Ingred Bergman, Bogart proves once again that he is an actor for the ages, the protohero who serves as the basis for such future leading men as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Jeremy Renner (well, maybe Mr. R isn’t a leading man, yet, but he should be). Citizen Cane may be considered the best film of all time (recognition it deserves, by the way), but rest assured that Casablanca would be a heavy weight contender for the best love story of all time. Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

13 December 2009

Sixteen Candles

directed by John Hughes

I would shit twice and die if anyone ever spoke a harsh word about the John Hughes classic, Sixteen Candles. Hughes sweetheart Molly Ringwald plays Samantha Baker, who wakes up on her sixteenth birthday to find that her entire family forgot! OMG! And after she fills out a sex test that gets lost during class, Samantha heads to the school dance with exchange student Long Duk Dong (cue gong) to add yet another helping of humiliation to her day. Anthony Michael Hall, another Hughes regular, is totally major as Ted, King of the Dipshits, whose staggering confidence is exhibit A in the case to locate the source of the genius of Christopher Mintz-Plasse in Superbad. Hall wants to interface with Samantha like nobody’s business, and after a proposition from friends Cliff and Bryce (a young John Cusack with one of the best character names in film history), Hall is off to get his relationship online and collect the proof of his score. Meanwhile, dreamboat Jake Ryan sets his sights on Samantha after finding out how much she digs him. Hughes paints what can only be described as an honest caricature of the high school experience, complete with the theft of a parent’s classic car. So choice.

12 December 2009

The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

directed by Gore Verbinski

Gore Verbinski’s first Pirates film is like the exact opposite of the Orson Welles gold standard Citizen Cane. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, based on a popular tourist attraction in Disneyland no less, and packed with enough stars to make the night sky jealous, The Curse of the Black Pearl is super ridiculous and super fun for everyone. And Johnny Depp gets to be British again, which is apparently as fun for him as it is for Hugh Laurie to pretend to be American. The plots focuses on Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightley) and the piece of pirate gold she jacked off a young Will Turner’s chest after he was fished out of Davy Jones’ Locker. Jump to ten years later, and a rabble of undead pirates have beached themselves outside her front door, and they want their treasure back. Meanwhile, Captain Jack Sparrow (there’s no need to try to measure Depp’s performance. Has he ever given a bad one?) is imprisoned for being a pirate, but he has the info that Will (prettiest of men, Orlando Bloom) needs to rescue his beloved Ms. Swan. It's swashbuckling, double crossing mayhem at its best. It’s a shame that the following two films, though entertaining, ended up plot twisting themselves into oblivion. Haters want to hate, and let them hate, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Pirates trilogy is good fun all around, and it all started with what could only be described as one giant commercial. Avast, ye advertising gods, and hold fast, for this maelstrom of marketability is set grow by one more. We’d better baton down those product placement hatches, for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is due to make port in 2011.

11 December 2009

The Poseidon Adventure

directed by Ronald Neame

A hard ass Gen Hackman preaches self reliance from the steel pulpit of an ocean liner. Prophetic would be one word to describe it (I would describe it as awesome), but there’s no need to remind the passengers of the capsized ship The Poseidon. What a New Year’s Eve party. As the group struggles to escape through the underside of the massive ship, making it to the engine room where the hull is thinnest, calamities and catastrophes attack like ghouls in a horror film. It’s the nonstop tension and exhaustive perseverance in the face of almost overwhelming hopelessness that makes this a film worth checking out. As much as I love Kurt Russell (you know my feeling about the cult icon) and Josh Lucas, I am going to steer you away from the depressing remake. Only the most die hard and possibly delusional Russell fans will be able to stomach it. Shelley Winters got some award cred for her portrayal of overweight ex swimmer Belle who comes through in a pinch at her own risk, and Red Buttons glows as aging bachelor Martin who lives on a diet of herbal remedies and vitamins. It is impossible to keep down a talent like Gene Hackman, and Neame doesn’t try, instead letting him tower over his peers, even a formidable Ernest Borgnyne as the cop with the sketchy wife. It will leave you breathless, worn out, mark my words, but one thing it won’t leave you as is disappointed.

10 December 2009

John and Karen

directed by Matthew Walker

While we are on the subject of the Academy dropping the ball (per usual), let’s take a moment to explore another animated treat skunked for an Oscar nod last year, Matthew Walker’s John and Karen, an endearing story about a polar bear trying to make up to a penguin for his conversational faux pas on a previous date. The tension is hilarious, as is the physical comedy, but Walker never makes the joke about the animals or their comparative sizes. The humor comes from the dialogue, side-splittingly delivered by actors James Bachman and Emma Cunniffe, and the familiarity the subject matter holds for the audience. This film and Jeremy Clapin’s Skhizein were far and away better than most of the short films nominated in the past several years, but who am I to make that call? Geez, BC, why are you spending so much time on short films and commercials lately? Because, good reader, as a lover of film, I should be giving proper attention to other forms of filmmaking long overlooked by the general moviegoer. Have I ever steered you wrong before? Just watch them already.

Explorers

directed by Joe Dante

For many years, I thought that perhaps I dreamed this movie, directed by Joe Dante and starring a young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix. It turns out, I just need to find the right person to ask and presto, I was hunting down Explorers, checking it against my childhood memories and finding that the two align perfectly. This tale about three friends who construct a spaceship out of junk and travel into space using a protective bubble generated by brainy Wolfang’s (Phoenix) computer programming skills is something from another time, a time capsule movie that bottles in a bit of the culture for which it was created. I’m talking, of course, about the freak and geeks of yesteryear, children who were techno-savvy before it was the norm, children who would grow up to become the founders of Google and YouTube and Hulu. Hawke is great as Ben, the meek one of the group who dreams up the idea for “the circuit,” while Phoenix gives another confident performance (as usual) in what was far too short a career. You are missed, Mr. P. Rounding out the group is Darren, played by Jason Presson. What ever happened to him? From the junkyard vessel mash up to the alien interprets human culture mash up, Explorers is a film to watch with the right pair of eyes, on a Sunday afternoon or a rainy day when you just can’t get off the couch. Wait BC, are you saying that Explorers is like The Price is Right? I’m pleading the fifth.

09 December 2009

The Breakfast Club

directed by John Hughes

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but stereotypes can go to hell. If I was in charge of taglining awesome 80s teen flicks, that would have been my contribution to the John Hughes classic, and it is most definitely a classic. It’s Saturday at Shermer High School in Shermer Illinois, 60062, and a jock, a geek, a princess, a basket case and a criminal serve detention in the library. Over the course of the day, bonds are forged and walls are toppled as each of the teens learn that they all drink from the same punch bowl of angst and awkwardness. Judd Nelson is iconic as rough side of towner John Bender, who uses insults as a defense. Emilio Estevez excels as Andrew Clark, trophy jock son of a father who pushes too hard, and Anthony Michael Hall is nerddom incarnate as Brian, resident geek and, ultimately, work horse (well, I guess all the stereotypes weren’t broken) when it calls for completing the necessary detention assignment. Hughes darling Molly Ringwald is perfect as prom queen Claire, who must tread a fine line for her popularity, and last but not least, the stellar Ally Sheedy is Allison, who came to detention just for something to do. If I could select one image from the entire Hughes canon to sum up his vision, it would be that of a triumphant John Bender walking across the football field and pushing his fist into the air in a victorious and defiant proclamation of individuality. Either that or the shot of the kid drooling on his desk in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.


Skhizein

directed by Jeremy Clapin

An animated movie about a man struck by a meteorite who subsequently finds himself exactly 91 centimeters removed from himself. Sound strange? It is, but is also one of the few truly inspired pieces of film storytelling realized in many years. Jeremy Clapin weaves a mesmerizing and quietly devastating tale about a man who has lost touch with himself and struggles with his own existence. After the cosmic encounter, Henry painstakingly redraws his daily life to adapt to his condition, literally sketching imaginary windows and doors on walls to satisfy his disorientation. Henry sees a therapist and tries to cope, but his futile attempts to realign his self with his self only cause him further despair. The story sinks its claws deeply into your mind, until you see Henry when you lay awake at night. His plight is horrifying indeed, an existential crisis from which there is no escape. Clapin’s direction is spot on and artfully beautiful, mingling with the Primeresque (the Shane Carruth masterpiece) score to create a short film with feature length atmosphere. Hunt it down, buy it if you have to, fellow fans of animation and short films, and behold a film that should have been at least nominated for an Academy Award last year. Seriously, did you see the crap that had the Academy swooning last year? Except for Pixar’s Presto and British short This Way Up (wittily directed by Smith & Foulkes), the line up was mediocre at best (Oktapodi), and trite at the worst (Le Maison En Petit Cubes-ugh!). Why is it that the truly remarkable gets overlooked by the dear old Academy?
Thanks to Shane Acker (director of another inspired animated short titled 9), here it is.
Watch it.

08 December 2009

The Secret (A Carlsberg Commercial)

directed by Johnny Green

Denmark, 1883. A man jacks a bottle from the Carlsberg Brewery and splits on his horse in the middle of the night. He rides like a bat out of hell through forests, fields, the Industrial Revolution, and even into the realm of claymation! Indescribably cool, though lacking in the voice over department (which could have stood better writing), Johnny Green’s short but epic tale of how Carlsberg made the world a better place by sharing its stellar brewing formula with other manufacturers was developed specifically for the Irish market, but I decided to take a page out of Carlsberg’s book and share it with you. Green’s catalog is impressive, including a very cool Guiness commercial and some marvelous Discovery Channel promos that dazzle the senses. It is quite possible that we are witnessing a resurrection of the wicked commercial. Perhaps I spoke too soon when I likened its kind to the Carrier Pigeon. Enjoy.

They Live

directed by John Carpenter

John Carpenter came here to do two things: chew bubble gum and kick cinematic ass. And guess what, he’s all out of bubble gum. In order to make good on his vow, Carpenter masterminded the glorious B flick They Live, starring wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper (of Hell Comes to Frog Town Fame) and rocking one of the most ridiculously entertaining plots in late night movie history. Piper plays Nada, who discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see people for their true selves, aliens. Yep, that’s the premise, and that’s all you need to know. If you have a soft spot in your heart for the fantastic treasures culled from the B film underworld, jewels like Cherry 2000, Hell Comes to Frogtown and Night of the Lupus, you will not be disappointed with Carpenter’s They Live.

07 December 2009

Zingolo (A Cadbury Commercial)

directed by Ringan Ledwidge

Ringan Ledwidge has made a few good commercials in his day (hunt down the bottled water commercial where a marionette Elton John dances. Totally worth it), and he hasn’t stopped yet, carving up a piece of musical eye candy that will make your optometrist cringe (you know, because of the cavities? I moved the cavity from your teeth to your eye to make it funnier and make the joke work- nevermind). Ledwidge takes us to the streets of Ghana by way of a floating head whose cocoa bean garnishments explode into rapper Tinny and kick start a mega party. The cinematography pops off the screen with RIZEesque vibrancy (David LaChappelle would be proud), and the sparkle explosion after effects are too cool for school! The music is no joke either, a crowd pleaser by any standard that just begs to be bumped. It’s a celebration of Ghana’s culture, music and dance, and if that doesn’t make you want to join in the party, I don’t know what will.
If you like this, then be sure to check out the full length music video. It rocks even more!

The Night of the Hunter

directed by Charles Laughton

Let me tell you the story of right hand and left hand. Robert Mitchum’s knuckle tattoos practically speak for themselves in this super excellent thriller directed by Charles Laughton (go look him up) in which Mitchum plays “preacher” Harry Powell, recently loosed from prison and hell bent on locating the whereabouts of a stash of cash he heard tell from his cell mate before he died. Off he goes a courtin’, and when Powell wins over the cell mate’s widow (Shelley Winters), the only thing standing between him and his treasure are her two kids. Such suspense, such tension, and such Mitchum! Robert Mitchum is hands down one of the best actors of his generation, including lead roles in such seminal films as Cape Fear, Thunder Road (the second best film ever about moonshine liquor) and El Dorado, and he delves deep to deliver the freakiest performance of his career in The Night of the Hunter. Be sure to feast your little eyes on some of the best shot compositions in film (and see where such talents as graphic artist Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez got some of their righteous inspiration).

06 December 2009

The Darjeeling Limited

directed by Wes Anderson

A taxi carrying business man Bill Murray hauls ass through India on its way to the train station with all the pomp and gusto of a Mannix episode. As he sprints the last leg toward his train, a lanky-limbed addition to the Wes Anderson universe overtakes the distance and tosses his custom baggage onto the caboose. Adrien Brody is Peter Whitman, middle brother in a family of dysfunctional siblings who hardly know each other, let alone trust one another, and how perfectly he fits in with such Anderson regulars as Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman can only be summed up by his pitch perfect performance. How many other actors Anderson may have had in mind is irrelevant, but what is relevant is how wonderful his fifth (and best?) film is in every way. From the cinematography to the dialogue, the editing to the soundtrack, Wes Anderson’s film is as grandiose as its ambition, and it pays off. The three Whitmans meet at the eldest’s behest (a heart wrenchingly funny Owen Wilson) to take a spiritual trip through India to find what they have been missing since the death of their father. Wilson, Brody and Schwartzman have chemistry for days, and Anderson’s talent has only grown better with time. Some have dissed the film for being too similar to his other works, and to that I say this: did anyone dis William Faulkner for writing about Southern families all the time? No, they gave him a Nobel Prize.
Note: While I very much enjoyed the prelude film starring Schwartzman and Natalie Portman, I do not feel it was vital to the narrative as a whole. It's like a piece of candy to be eaten before the main course; delectable, but sans the nutritional value.

05 December 2009

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

directed by Terry Gilliam

I vividly remember (when I worked as an usher at a movie theater) throngs of teenage girls shelling out their hard earned babysitting money to feast their eyes on the newest Johnny Depp film. They thought they were coming to see another Benny and Joon or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and that, kids, is why it pays to watch the trailer. I also vividly remember nearly all of those girls demanding their money back mere minutes into the movie because the film they came to see was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Johnny Depp “looks gross and bald and stuff” in Terry Gilliam’s frenzied, acid-coated gem. Depp channels the great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in the film adaptation of a book long thought to be impossible to adapt. Well, Gilliam says “boo ya” to the haters, carving up a slice of Americana in all its drug-addled, greed-filled debauchery (and remaining super faithful to Mr. T’s original work). Benicio Del Toro is no slouch himself, playing a crazed Samoan attorney self-advised to escort the journalist out to Las Vegas to cover a desert race. In the midst of a scorched earth, Thompson found the true American dream, and it is as horrifyingly relevant then as it is today. Rocking enough cameos and big name small role actors to fill a SAG banquet hall, Gilliam’s testament to a rogue American hero is as frantic as the iconoclast himself. RIP, Mr T. I hope there’s enough rum in heaven for you.

04 December 2009

Fight Club

directed by David Fincher

The film that spawned a thousand parking lot brawls and a thousand cubicle fights, David Fincher’s Fight Club is as potent a brew as the Chuck Palahniuk novel itself. Palahniuk gave a name, an outlet to Gen X frustration and flipped conspicuous consumption the bird, and Fincher took up the torch to generate a renegade masterpiece dealing with the young American male predicament. Edward Norton plays a sad sack risk analyst whose life changes after his apartment explodes and he is forced to board with almost stranger Tyler Durden, whom he met on a plane. After a night of drinking the two decide to knock each other around a little bit, and find the experience to be quite cathartic. And so the brainchild of destruction and mayhem was born. When things start getting too big, Norton is left chasing Durden and trying to put on the brakes. Brad Pitt plays Durden with all the chops necessary to create a lasting character (let’s all just try to forget the Benjamin Button fiasco from 2008), and Fincher’s twisted, adrenaline-fueled roller coaster of a film is clever and raw. Be sure to watch out for the subliminal flashes of a pre-meeting Tyler invading Norton’s useless life. Pay attention. I am Jack’s satisfaction at seeing a recklessly vehement rebuke of America’s rampant materialism.

02 December 2009

Sexy Beast

directed by Jonathan Glazer

Probably one of the best gangster movies ever, and somehow it slipped below the radar. Jonathan Glazer’s razor sharp film Sexy Beast stars Ray Winstone in his best role, and the most terrifying Ben Kingsley you will ever see (he’ll make you flinch). Winstone plays Gal, retired gangster spending his years in a hot as hell Spanish villa, removed from existence and sharing his time with his wife and one other couple who have also chosen to get out of the business. Things are okay, until a visit from Don Logan (Kinglsey) forces Gal to learn the phrase “no one really quits.” Gal heads back home to London to make one last score and get out from under the thumb of boss Teddy Bass (a steely and stellar Ian McShane). Glazer made quite a name for himself in the music video and commercial circuit (Radiohead and U.N.K.L.E. videos as well as Levi’s commercials) before cutting his teeth in film, and his direction gives the film a rough poetry, a harsh and surreal resonance that will sneak up on you in the dark.

01 December 2009

A Fistful of Dollars

directed by Sergio Leone

Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name character is born here in Sergio Leone’s classic A Fistful of Dollars, the first in his Dollars Trilogy (consisting of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Based on the Akira Kurosawa film Yojimbo, the plot centers on a mysterious character (Eastwood) who plays one lawless family against the other in order to make a big score. Leone has both barrels firing in this genre defying western that looks at the entire myth of the American West from the perspective of an outsider, and the results are not nearly as clear cut as The Duke would have us believe. Leone dispels the romance and leaves us with a distilled, highly potent comment on our perceptions of our nation’s history. He uses clichés to his advantage, and he makes obvious use of his knowledge and love for film to elevate a genre out of the realm of mediocrity to the level of sophisticated art. Sound like any other director we know today making movies with all of the flair and passion that Leone showed not just for storytelling, but for the art of filmmaking itself? I’ll give you a hint, his initials are Q.T.

30 November 2009

The Big Lebowski

directed by the Coen Brothers

Apparently, a friend of mine knows the real Lebowski and this guy claims the Coens took his story without paying their proper dues. While that may be a dispute for the ages, what is indisputable is the hilarious genius of Joel and Ethan Coen, the creators of some of the most varied film experiences of the past quarter century. From the blackest of comedies Fargo to the silliest fable Raising Arizona, the viscerally amazing No Country for Old Men to the knock out Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers have churned out more gems than Tiffany and Co. In The Big Lebowski, the Coens channel their inner hippie to bring the story of The Dude Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and his exploits. All The Dude wanted was to replace the rug that really tied the room together, but he gets way more than he bargained for when a kidnapping plot, an extortion plot and the misfortunes of his bowling buddies collide in a comedic mash-up that splits the sides. Bridges is wonderful as The Dude, point man for the various webs of intrigue encircling his quiet life. And right in the middle of bowling playoffs! With a little help from loony vet buddy Walter (John Goodman, the best returning personae in the Coen universe) and “Big” Lebowski’s daughter Maude (a dry and sharp Julianne Moore), The Dude tries to crack the case and find the truth. With so many in and outs, so many facets and what have yous, it’s almost too much movie for one movie, yet somehow the Coens make it work, and that’s because they are never out of their element. Do you see what happens when you know what you’re doing?

29 November 2009

The Royal Tenenbaums

directed by Wes Anderson

If you ask any hipster to name their favorite Wes Anderson film, seven times out of ten they will name The Royal Tenenbaums (narrated by Alec Baldwin). Two times out of ten they will name Rushmore, and the other one percent will name Bottle Rocket because they are the kind of hipster who only likes an artist’s “early work, you know, before they got really big.” While Anderson’s films may stack up differently to different people, there is no denying the wit and magic the director can create. Like a decadent tapestry of colorful dialogue and colorful characters, Anderson’s films are Salinger-esque treasures, so tightly filmed and wonderfully cluttered with detail. No less enchanting is the way in which he wrangles up such a wonderful ensemble to play one of the best (and worst) families in American cinema, the Tenenbaums. Gene Hackman plays Royal, estranged father and lovable jackass whose financial maladies cause him to fake a terminal illness in order to move back into his old family home. The Tenenbaum house soon finds itself filled once again with sons Richie and Chas (widowed, and with two boys of his own), and adopted daughter Margot. Anderson’s lens finds the genius in each performer, especially a Luke Wilson who was skunked for any accolades as oldest brother Richie, a lost man who pines for someone he feels he cannot have. It’s gaudy storytelling mixed with deep personal tragedy, and the result is a film you cannot help but love. Well, well, well, it seems that Dylan Tichenor was on the editing scene for this film as well. That makes how may for him at this point?

28 November 2009

Peter Pan

directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske

Perhaps my favorite of all Disney films, this adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s everlasting children’s play is one part dreamy, three parts whimsy and nine thousand parts amazing. To love Disney films is to love the vastness of the child’s mind, the endless realms of possibilities that exist there, before it is slowly killed by responsibility, work, and the general whittling away of the human spirit by adulthood. That may sound cynical, but it doesn’t make it any less true. It’s a good thing that a fair few of us can rage against the dying of that light (Walt Disney, Roald Dahl, J.M. Barrie, and Charles Schulz, to name a few) and keep the set of eyes necessary to see the magic of adolescence. Peter Pan is the ultimate expression of youth, a boy who essentially willed his eternal childhood into existence, rounding up a gang of other youngsters to traipse through the forest with and find adventure. But when he chases his shadow into the Darling household one fateful eve, the three siblings are forever changed. Peter takes them to Neverland where they encounter The Lost Boys and get into it with Captain Hook. It is fun at its purest level, and if possible, watch the film with a niece, nephew, young sibling, grandkid, anyone who will help bridge that gap and find the Peter Pan hiding in all of us.

Dazed and Confused

directed by Richard Linklater

I initially disliked this film about the last day of school in 1976 Austin, Texas, but once I had time to get my head right and really contemplate the genius a go-go that is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, I came to terms with the folly of my judgment. Linklater’s film about high school and the 1970’s is just as applicable to the 1990s, or 80s, or whatever the hell decade you came up in. The 70s references are great in themselves, but what lasts is the way in which Linklater depicts teenagehood (is that the word I am looking for? Well, it is now). The film revolves around Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) and his dilemma about what to do with the promise contract his football coach is making him sign, and Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) and his struggle to fit in with the older crowd and get revenge on raging dick O’Bannion (a perfect Ben Affleck). Matthew McConaughey puts on the best strut of his career on as Wooderson, the post-grad elder who still digs the high school girls. If I could award Mr. M with a trophy for one of the coolest and definitive career performances of all time, I would bestow a bronzed Aerosmith ticket to his genius. Alright, alright. That’s what I love about Linklater’s stellar film: I get older, it stays the same age.

Keep on L-I-V-I-N

25 November 2009

Gerry

directed by Gus Van Sant

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, Casey Affleck is one of those drastically underrated actors in Hollywood that should be making fistfuls of cash to be in everything from Internet shorts to overblown blockbusters. How unjust you are Hollywood, that the Casey Afflecks of the world don’t get asked to the dance while the Shia LaBeoufs seem to be out there all night, shaking a mediocre leg and getting all the attention. C’est la vie, but for those of you who have a thing for actual talent need to check out the Gus Van Sant dynamo Gerry, starring a stellar Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. And that’s it. No one else. A simple story beginning with two friends who get lost on a day hike in the desert and ending in a chilling and agonizing climax is as haunting as it is mesmerizing. Sparse dialogue coupled with stunningly epic landscapes make for a wondrous brew. It’s too bad a film like this doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

24 November 2009

Out Cold

directed by the Malloys

This movie has always been a guilty pleasure, but I don’t care who knows it (just don’t tell anyone). A sauced up Casablanca fueled by gallons of booze and lowbrow comedy. Sign me up! Jason London (no, not the one from Mallrats, the one from Dazed and Confused) is Rick Rambis, snowboarder and sort of, kind of leader of a gang of idiots and slackers on Bull Mountain. When the mountain is sold to a John Majors (Lee Majors), Rambis is offered a job while Majors tries to show his buddies the door. And it turns out that one of the Majors daughters stiffed Rick on a trip to Cancun, a scar that (somehow) still stings. Included in the works is a tres funny Zach Galifianakis, a bonkers David Koechner and a host of crass sex jokes and drunken antics. Is it a classic, a landmark in the comedic tradition? Not at all, but it sure is a helluva lot of fun to watch over a case of beer. And come on, Zach Galifianakis is a genius!

23 November 2009

The Karate Kid, Part II

directed by John G. Avildsen
In many ways better than the original, The Karate Kid, Part II boasts all the usual suspects that made the first film a classic. Avildsen is back behind the camera, Kamen penned another stellar script, Macchio and Morita together again in one of the best film partnerships of the past three decades, only this time the duo heads out to Myagi’s hometown to see his dying father. But an old feud threatens to tear apart the entire town as Myagi has to face his old friend and sworn enemy, Sato. Danny runs into problems of his own when the girl he has his eye on (Ali dumped him for a college guy) leads to trouble with Sato’s nephew, culminating in a wicked climax on an island inside a castle where Danny once again has to do it all for the glory of love. There are actually four films in this series (including a disastrous final attempt to crown a young Hilary Swank as The Next Karate Kid), but just walk away from the series after the second film if it’s possible. If you’re like me and you came back for second helpings of trash by watching even the fourth film, then I share in your displeasure. As calamitous as the final pair of films may be, nothing can take away from the mighty power of the first two.

22 November 2009

Magnolia

directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Nothing says grand like Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling piece of Americana, Magnolia, a film about many stories that crash land into one another over the course of one day. Anderson’s films are always a rough tonic indeed, but to experience any of his masterworks is to be transformed somehow, to be affected. Certainly this is true for Punch Drunk Love and Boogie Nights, Hard Eight and his filmic gut-puncher There Will Be Blood (starring a Daniel Day Lewis so frightening that I couldn’t look him directly in the eye), and the added beauty of Magnolia is its length. Anderson sinks his teeth into us slowly, weaving us through the varied worlds of the west coast, carving out peepholes through we which we glimpse the faces of ourselves. A dying television mogul and his last request. A beat cop trying to make the world a better place. An ex quiz show kid searching for love. And I’m just scratching the surface. From the bizarre opening sequence documenting historical “coincidences” to the revelatory and surreal climax, Anderson draws you into a world as screwed up, and beautiful, as anything we could imagine, a world where things happen, whether we are ready for them or not. And when such a talented and superb cast allow everyone to steal the show equally, you really have a thing of beauty. John C Reilly gives hands down the ultimate performance of his career to date as police officer Kurring, as does Tom Cruise as Frank Mackie, self help-get-you-laid guru struggling with forgiveness. To list every actor and their stellar performance, and they are all stellar, would take too long, and it still wouldn’t do the film justice. Prepare yourself and rent it. You will be affected, just don’t expect Anderson to explain any of it (he never does commentaries, the bastard).

21 November 2009

Eddie and the Cruisers

directed by Martin Davidson

Ugh, BC. An early 80s film about an early 60s band that lost their lead singer? Absofrigginlutely. Not only is Martin Davidson’s drive-in classic Eddie and the Cruisers a great film, it stars the super ridiculously awesome Michael Pare (be still, my heart) in probably his finest role as Eddie Wilson, lead singer of popular (and fictional) band The Cruisers who disappeared after his car crashed off a bridge one lonely night. Jump to twenty years later and a music reporter (Ellen Barkin) looking to score big runs with the angle that Eddie Wilson is pulling an Arthur Rimbaud (the French poet? Gave up writing by the time he reached his early twenties? Died young?- Oh, just look him up.) and that maybe he’s not really dead. Good one. Barkin beats the bushes and drums up the old band (what’s left of them) in order to conduct interviews for the piece and find out just what happened to the last Cruiser album, A Season in Hell (the tapes went missing the same night as Eddie, weird). Most of the story is told through keyboardist Wordman’s (Tom Berenger) perspective, and as reporter and Wordman try to piece together the past, they seem to awaken a few ghosts. Pare’s performance alone is worth a viewing, and it only gets better with age. Every time I watch it it’s like I’m seeing it again for the first time. Please don't go, tender years.

20 November 2009

The Fall

directed by Tarsem Singh

A virtual orgy of imagery, artistic revelry and so far over the top visual effects so as to render its audience breathless, Tarsem Singh’s The Fall has all of that in spades, and then some, and it’s all real. It’s the 1920s, and an injured stunt man Roy Walker (Lee Pace) in a California hospital befriends a young girl who is also on the mend. Roy tells the little girl a fairy tale of his own invention, a fairy tale that begins to bleed into the little girl’s real world. Visually dazzling and whimsically tragic, Singh’s directorial flourish is as vivid as Technicolor, minus the nostalgia. Using no computer effects and utilizing real locations for every sequence, Singh creates a world of his own, a dreamy piece of cinematic eye candy. Don’t get a cavity.

19 November 2009

The Believer

directed by Henry Bean

Strange that it takes a Jewish writer/director to create such a shocking, devastating and (dare I say it?) convincing portrait of the mind of a white supremacist. Henry Bean’s The Believer succeeds in all the ways the Tony Kaye disaster American History X fails, it creates a realistic character in such inner turmoil that he turns it against himself. Adding just one more plot twist to the mix is the fact that the main character Danny (a force of nature performance given by Ryan Gosling in one of his first features) is also Jewish. Before you stop listening, keep in mind that this character is based (loosely) on a real Jewish neo-Nazi who killed himself when an article outing him was published in a local newspaper. What Bean delivers is a story of a man in conflict with himself, a man whose hatred of Judaism stems from his deep identification with the faith. Danny uses erroneous, but sophisticated, arguments that he repeats with a mantra-like formality to justify his anger, and in order to focus this anger, he reinvents himself as a white supremacist. Ryan Gosling blows off every door as Danny, bristling with such hatred that only an insider with a misdirected resentment for himself can feel. For those of you who prefer The Notebook or Lars and the Real Girl Gosling beware, but for those of you who see the kind of talent he possesses and willingness to push the boundaries will not be disappointed. Again, in another Academy regulation tragedy, Gosling was not even considered for a nomination because the film wasn’t ultimately released in theaters, a nomination he surely would have earned earned and probably should have won. Just watch and think about what might have been.

18 November 2009

Gone, Baby Gone

directed by Ben Affleck

The crown jewel in the Affleck coat of arms takes the form of Gone, Baby Gone, a filming solidly directed by Ben Affleck and starring little bro Casey Affleck. Set in Boston, Affleck (the younger one) is Patrick Kenzie, a neighborhood kid turned private detective hired to find a little girl who disappeared while her mom was out at the bar. Making use of his neighborhood contacts, Patrick sets out to find the truth and bites off more than he can chew. For a freshman attempt, Ben makes all the right directing choices, including some superb supporting cast choices. Shining brightest of all is Bubba (wonderfully played by Slaine), Patrick’s drug dealer buddy who has an ear to the streets and who helps him track down a pedophile. Ed Harris is reliably explosive as detective Remy Bressant, and Morgan Freeman gets inside your head as Jack Doyle, victim of child abduction himself. Gone, Baby Gone is a film that leaves you with almost nothing to cling to but an ambiguity that refuses to lend itself to simple justification. Casey Affleck has proven himself time and time again to be an actor of seemingly limitless talent, playing the most hilarious and pitch perfect little brother type in Good Will Hunting, and he steals the show in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films. And when it comes to dramatic acting, let’s just put it this way: if Casey Affleck had a nickel for every dramatic performance for which he has been overlooked, then you would definitely hear his pockets jingling. Mr. A, you’ve sure come a long way since you played Kevin's older brother in American Pie.

17 November 2009

12 Monkeys

directed by Terry Gilliam

Possibly the silver medal winner in the Olympics of time travel films, Terry Gilliam’s surreal meditation on causality and human destiny make for one of the craziest and suspenseful films in years. And Gilliam, in true Gilliam fashion, almost ran out of cash before he could complete his little project. It’s a good thing he did, otherwise we would have lost out on a true cinematic mind job. Bruce Willis plays convict James Cole who, in return for a reduced sentence, is sent back in time to investigate the origins of a deadly plague that drove the human race underground. There is a problem, however, and Cole is sent back too far in time, thus landing him in a mental health facility where he meets a doctor (a great Madeleine Stowe) who later comes to his aide and a fast talking nutjob named Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt gives a spirited performance that shows his potential). There is so much more to it than that, but I will spare you the details so you can be as surprised and thrilled as I was when I first laid eyes on this sci-fi treat. Pay attention and don’t be dismayed, it all comes together.

By the way...

16 November 2009

The Dark Knight

directed by Christopher Nolan

I have always liked to think of Joker as timeless, without a past or a history, as simply awakening or materializing in the shadows after Bruce Wayne put on the cowl one night. Well, Joker has a history in Christopher Nolan’s newest Batman film, The Dark Knight, he has a past, and it’s whatever works for his audience. Like telling a joke, Joker uses fear and violence as a punch line, a gag to be laughed at and a spectacle to be ogled. This time around, Bruce has more villains, more problems. Battling gang wars on one front and fellow vigilantes who heard his call on the other, Batman, it seems, has only made the problem worse. Like Gordon said at the end of Batman Begins, it’s escalation. Bullets are met with Kevlar, which is then met with armor piercing rounds, and the same goes for a not totally sane citizen vigilante who dresses up as a bat and fights crime at night. Now, is Joker crazy? I think not. Malicious, yes, violent, yes, ruthless, yes, but he maintains a complete awareness about his identity and his role in Gotham City, while Batman is doomed to toil under the self-designed premise that he will perform his duty until he is no longer needed. But who decides when he isn’t needed anymore? He does. And when you are as clearly obsessed as Wayne is, that day will never come. Nolan’s film plays out less like an action film (though it has that in spades) and more like an essay on the comic book hero himself, an essay in which his enemies are like dark reflections of himself, all just as crazed and adamant about their point of view. Aaron Eckhart is admirable as District Attorney Harvey Dent, who becomes Two Face far too late in the game, and Bale, Caine and Oldman are reliably excellent. It is the late Heath Ledger who steals the show in a force of chaos performance wrought from the darkest places of mankind’s inner workings. Ledger’s Joker is the best portrayal you will find, either in print or on film (sorry, Mr. Nicholson, I still loved your Joker), the brutal fixation on destruction and Batman is as frightening as ever. As he says to Dent, “I’m like a dog chasing a tire. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I got one.” Steeped in the metaphysical realm of Batman’s ultimate moral judgment like Batman Begins was steeped in the Frank Miller frenzy of Batman’s origins, The Dark Knight poses questions and leaves its audience to find the answers. Is the film long, yes? But is it worth it? Yes. What might have been if Mr. L hadn’t passed away…

The Sandlot

directed by David M. Evans

Some of us know the superb loneliness that coincides with moving to a new town when we’re young. David M. Evans crafts a fantastically romanticized portrait of suburban youth around such a premise. Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) moves during the summer (ouch, rough timing) with his mother and new stepfather (an inexplicably cast Denis Leary), leaving the poor kid with virtually no chance to make friends. Stuck inside with his erector set, Smalls finally gets forced outside by Moms and into the sweet embrace of Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), the best baseball player around. Turns out, Benny needs a ninth to round out his team and have a proper practice out on the Sandlot, a back alley diamond haunted by local goofballs like Squints, Ham, Yeah-Yeah and the Timmons bros. Sounds like a plan, but Smalls doesn’t know jack about baseball. He doesn’t even know who Babe Ruth is! It is that ignorance that gets the gang in so much trouble when Smalls lets his stepdad’s baseball (signed by the Sultan of Swat himself) fly over the fence and into the backyard of The Beast, a monster dog who, as legend has it, eats kids like ball park franks. The kids pool their intellect and devise scheme after scheme to get Smalls off the hook, learning about themselves and having the best summer of their lives in the process. Think Wonder Years meets Stand By Me, minus the dead body. It’s tree house dwelling, public pool going fun, and that fireworks sequence is pure magic. Hark, can you hear the call? Sandlot, Sandlot, Sandlot!

15 November 2009

Batman Begins

directed by Christopher Nolan

Jaws clenched and nervous hands wrung to the max, I sat down to scope out Christopher Nolan’s origin film, Batman Begins, bracing myself for the bad news. Historically, Batman had fallen on hard times. Tim Burton left after his second genius addition to the canon of the best comic hero ever, then the films had deteriorated to black lighted pap unfit for even the most easily satisfied moviegoer. And Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mister Freeze? What the hell were you thinking, Joel Schumacher? Needless to say that I was worried about seeing a reimagining of my favorite hero, brought to the big screen by some British psychological mystery man. I apologize for doubting you, Mr. N. I apologize for ever doubting that in your genius embrace, my childhood hero would finally get the comeuppance he deserved. In your face, Spiderman! Sit on it, Superman! You ain’t got nothing on my man the Dark Knight. Christian Bale is the new gold standard in his depiction of the wounded millionaire Bruce Wayne, who goes to the ends of the earth to learn what it means to be badass. In a foreign prison he meets a man named Ducard who teaches him the ways of the ninja, but not before asking Wayne to help boss man Ra’s Al Ghul destroy Gotham City. Wayne refuses to be an executioner, and so begins his battle to reclaim his city from the clutches of crime, poverty, and fear. Donning a crazy get up and swooping through the night, Wayne learns how to be Batman on the fly, literally. Each mistake or sticky situation brings him back to the old drawing board to make it so that it will not happen again. This is calculated and obsessive psychosis at its best, for who asked the great Bruce Wayne to save an entire city? Who asked Wayne to take up the mantle of justice? Isn’t that what we have police for? The strange complexity of Batman is his sheer will to do what he believes is right. Superman came here from another planet and has powers because of our yellow sun. Peter Parker developed powers after being bitten by a mutant spider, powers that make him different from other people. Bruce Banner got hit with gamma rays, making him an unwilling hulk. Batman has no powers, no scientific calamity to contend with. He simply believes in what he must do, and wills his crime fighting personae into existence. It would take some serious therapy to unwrap all those layers, but Bale finds a crazed balance in his performance and breathes new life into a classic character. Michael Caine is excellent as combat medic and Wayne family butler, Alfred, and Gary Oldman rocks a glorious push broom mustache to play Jim Gordon, who befriends the caped crusader. Drawing heavily on Frank Miller’s groundbreaking graphic novel, Batman: Year One, Nolan creates a gritty reality in which to place the hero, and a promise to up the ante for the next film. I could hardly wait to feast my eyes upon the next installment, and when the trailers finally came out, I was hooked. Just pretend that Schumacher’s disasters never happened and jump from the Burton classics to Nolan’s twin visions. All will be right with the world.

14 November 2009

The Man Who Walked Around the World (A Johnnie Walker Commercial)

directed by Jamie Rafn

Robert Carlyle struts across the Scottish countryside and schools the ignorant about the booze-making artistry of one Johnnie Walker. One long take, beginning with a bag piper getting hushed by Carlyle (his exact words are “Hey, piper. Shut it!”), and he’s off, telling the tale of a young man who finds his niche by blending the questionable and inconsistent local brews into one bold formula. The Walker sons later took up the mantle and began to spread the word, and form the iconic look of what we now associate with the premium scotch. What makes this better than a regular old commercial is the quality of the cinematography (sweet), the quality of the writing (exceptional and confident) and the bombast of Carlyle as he traipses along a dirt road like he’s swaggering through Times Square. It’s clever and fresh, exciting and exhilarating, and it’s exactly the kind of ad campaign befitting such a smooth scotch.

Big Fish

directed by Tim Burton

Tim Burton’s talent for tackling the strange and wonderful is immense. From the Easter egg colored horror of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands, to the freaky magic of Sweeney Todd, Burton’s hand can paint an oddball picture. When checking out a Tim Burton film, you have about a 50/50 shot of ending up with one that features Johnny Depp, but Billy Crudup (the blue guy from Watchman), Albert Finney (the crime boss in Miller’s Crossing) and Ewan McGregor (the smart ass from Shallow Grave) take the reins in Burton’s fairy tale as biography film, Big Fish. Will Bloom (Crudup) goes home to tend to his ailing father and get the truth out of him for once. Papa Ed Bloom (Finney is so good in a role that calls for so much) tells the story of his life as he saw it (McGregor plays the young Ed Bloom, packing a smile that could eclipse the sun and enough charm to make a folding chair swoon), with all the magic and exaggeration of a professional yarn spinner. Will can’t stomach the whimsy and demands the truth, and learns in the process exactly who his father is. This is about as close to actual reality that Burton will dare get, and the result is enormously satisfying. Jessica Lange is dazzling as Sandra Bloom, Ed’s wife, and Helena Bonham Carter brings her masterful talent to the role of the witch (who later becomes Ed’s friend, Jenny). Crudup is massively underrated, yet solidly performs in roles that other actors would be hard pressed to tackle. McGregor is a great actor, but he unfortunately doesn’t always make great decisions (still trying to forget about The Island? Me too). Rest assured, his role in Big Fish is as good as one can get. Finney is a mammoth talent, usually jumping off the screen with dynamism, which is what makes his virtually immobile and bed ridden performance so mind blowing in Big Fish. Burton is always most successful when dealing with estrangement and confusion, when blending fantasy and reality, and when it all comes to together, you don’t care which is which.

American Movie

directed by Chris Smith

The American Dream. What does that mean to you? To Mark Borchardt, it was pursuing his passion, and when filmmaker Chris Smith discovered him, he was in the process of filming his latest horror film, Coven, when lack of funds threatened to derail his vision. With the help of his lovable buddy Mike Schank (you couldn’t write a character this tragically endearing if you had all the time in the world) and his tough customer Uncle Bill, Mark risks it all to complete his film and realize his dream. Proof again that fact is more remarkable than fiction, Chris Smith’s glimpse into the mind of a fanatic is as revealing and entertaining as anything good old Hollywood is willing to vomit up onto the screen. A testament to the power of dreams and the devotion to that which makes you truly happy, American Movie will make you feel all kinds of things, and you will be glad you did. Hell, it may even give you a new found respect for the indie film circuit. Please support your local filmmaker.

13 November 2009

My So-Called LIfe

created by Winnie Holzman

The best television series about being young, and it only made it for one friggin’ season! Why, gods of the FCC and the ratings boards, why? I have so many questions. Did Jordan and Angela make it? Did Brian Krakow let the cat out of the bag? How’s Rickie doing? Did Frozen Embryos go platinum? What other kinds of awesome hookups did Tino have? For those of you who were like, living in a hole for the 90’s, My So-Called Life was the extremely well made television series that starred Claire Danes as Angela Chase, a high school girl trying to find her way. She takes up with a new group of friends, Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) and Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), and pines for dreamy slacker Jordan Catalano, played by a most beautiful Jared Leto. Did you know that every time Jared Leto bats his eyelashes, an angel get its wings? Well, now you do. Leaving cheerleader friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) in the dust and blowing off geeky neighbor Brian (Devon Gummersall) more than the west wind, Angela rebels against her parents, gets into trouble, and generally acts like a teenager, to superb, uniquely honest and realistic effect. What unfolds over the first season is television’s closest thing to a realistic depiction of youth, but I guess people would rather watch Family Matters or Step by Step… My So-Called is unequivocally one of the most brilliant television shows of all time, and the greatest tragedy is the one time a year when I pull out my box set, watch the entire series in two days and get to the last episode. How could the network drop it? Who could take their eyes off this show? Why did it never come back, and why hasn’t Mrs. Holzman made a movie? Set it fifteen years from when the show ended, Ms. H, and try to tell the tale that you envisioned when you first created the show. And if Leto, Danes, Gummersall, Langer, Cruz, and all the rest of the truly marvelous cast were legit lovers of their art form, they would agree in a heartbeat. Anyone who reads this needs to contact Winnie Holzman through whatever means necessary and implore her to make this film. A show that srikes such a profound chord in so many people my age is a testament to its genius, its timelessness, and its ability to peak interest even today. Go now, go.

The Brothers Quay Short Films

directed by the Brothers Quay

As I have said before, I heart stop motion animation, and if I make a claim such as that I cannot leave out the animated films of The Brothers Quay. I am referring specifically to the collection of films titled The Brothers Quay Collection, but the brothers have left their mark on the documentary genre as well as live action. In this collection the Quays have in many ways defined a style unique to their world, a style that is often imitated (such is the case with several Tool videos that were “influenced” by the Quays but not their own work) but never equaled. Their films can only be described in a very rudimentary, very explanatory way, but how they are viewed is entirely up to the audience. The Quays cultivate a mood, an atmosphere of darkness, of surreal and brooding menace that cling to your psyche like cobwebs. Watch it with the lights on.

12 November 2009

Road House

directed by Rowdy Herrington

Pain don’t hurt, and neither does making a film about ass-kicking bar bouncer Dalton (Patrick Swayze in his prime) who takes the roughest job of his career, cracking skulls at the Double Deuce. Violence and out of control hillbillies are the norm at the Deuce, but not if Dalton can help it. When a local crook (does Ben Gazzara ever not look sleazy?) tries to take out Dalton, he puts in a call to his buddy Wade (a low talkin’ Sam Elliott) to help him out of a jam. Ben Stiller modeled his look in Dodgeball after Swayze’s do (excellent Road House homage, Mr. S), and with so much brawling and boozing and cowboy boot as weapon fighting, what else could you ask for? I haven’t watched the movie on cable in a long time (as I have the DVD and watch it often), so I am unsure as to how they treat the most disgustingly awesome line delivered during the final fight sequence in the film, but if you haven’t watched the real version in a while, it’s high time you checked it out again, mijo. Patrick Swayze can make anything look good, and at least we can rest assured in the knowledge that Saint Peter can finally take down the job posting for a cooler at the pearly gates.

11 November 2009

Cinderella

directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske

A fine example of Disney at the top of its game is the timeless and beautiful Cinderella, the gold standard in princess films. Cinderella has it rough, cleaning up for two wretched stepsisters and one rotten stepmother. Her only friends are the various critters dwelling within the great house in which she toils, until an open invitation from the king shines a small light on the gloom of her everyday life. The king wants all the single ladies, all the single ladies, to come out to the castle for a bachelor style shindig so that his son might find true love. A little help from her fairy godmother gets Cinderella to the castle in time to sweep the prince off his feet, but in her rush to get home before the godmother’s spell is broken, she forgets to tell him her name. Woops. How does it end? You know how it ends, but it doesn’t make it any less enchanting to watch. From the talking animals to the wonderful musical sequences, Cinderella is best kind of princess film, one that endures.

10 November 2009

Thunder Road

directed by Arthur Ripley

If Arthur Ripley’s high octane, Robert Mitchum karate chopping, leaded fuel scorcher of a driving movie Thunder Road had to fight Joseph Sargent’s shit hot, Buddy Joe Hooker driving, Burt Reynolds-fest White Lightning, you just couldn’t ask me to place a bet on either side. It’s too close to call, but be sure that you would get your money’s worth out of the price of admission. If I was in charge, double features like this would be a regular occurrence, or an Eddie and the Cruisers/Streets of Fire back to back. It would be awesome! A guy can dream, can’t he? Robert Mitchum had a dream, the story for what would become Thunder Road, the story of Lucas Doolin and his fast living ways. Doolin (a full swagger Robert Mitchum. Is there any other kind?) runs moonshine for his father and wants to keep his little brother (played wonderfully by Mitchum’s actual younger brother, James) out of the family business. When an out of towner tries to snatch up all the local stills and put them under his thumb, old Lucas just can’t abide. On the run from gangsters and cops alike, Mitchum rides the highway to hell with the pedal to the floor. It’s all the badass Mitchum and full tilt driving one film can contain. If it don’t wet your whistle, rent White Lightning, already!

Friday Night Lights

directed by Peter Berg

And you thought high school football sucked? Get your head down and brace yourself for Peter Berg’s true story adrenaline pumper about a west Texas football team and their journey to the playoffs. Trust me, it is so much better than it sounds, possibly even the greatest football movie of all time. Berg’s film runs balls out from beginning to end, pausing only to contemplate the existence of young men carrying the burden of an entire town, and Berg captures the intensity of the field on game night with surgical precision. Lucas Black perfectly plays Mike Winchell, worrisome QB for the Permian Panthers and Odessa’s country mile throwing arm. Derek Luke is amazing as running back Boobie Miles, whose injury threatens to ruin him. Garrett Hedlund is electric as bad boy Don Billingsley with a chip on his shoulder in the shape of a jaw dropping Tim McGraw, who plays the senior Billingsley with such focused subtlety that, though I could clearly recognize his face, my brain would simply not put it together that the actor I was watching and the country singer were one in the same. Bravo, Mr. M. Billy Bob Thornton plays a squeaky clean head coach Gary Gaines, treading the waters between the victory crazed fans and the needs of his players. You can almost feel the heat of the lights, and so much young talent in one place is cause enough for a celebration. Feel good about yourself, Peter Berg, come on!

09 November 2009

The Karate Kid

directed by John G. Avildsen

Is there anything more timeless than a story of a youth who learns patience, confidence, and humility? What about a story about those things, but where the youth gets to kick some Cobra Kai ass? Enter The Karate Kid, written by action script ninja Robert Kamen and directed by John G. Avildsen (of Rocky fame), about a scrawny kid from Jersey with backbone to spare who moves out west with his mother. Danny Larusso (stay golden, Ralph Macchio) makes a love connection with Ali (an adorable Elisabeth Shue) which leads to a war between himself and the entire Cobra Kai dojo, lead by blond bully Johnny. Taking pity on him is Okinawa OG Miyagi, the handyman responsible for fixing Danny’s bike and his ability to defend himself. As Miyagi teaches Danny the essentials of martial arts, Danny learns to be a man who will fight for his honor, by using the “no can defense” crane technique. Pat Morita will forever be Mr. Miyagi to a generation of martial arts film lovers, a true sensei whom you refuse to doubt, ever, and Avildsen gives the film a pulse that resonates.
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Pineapple Express

directed by David Gordon Green

I vividly remember sitting in a darkened movie theatre and seeing for the first time the cinematic bitch slap that was David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express. Like Jody Hill’s The Foot Fist Way, I knew then that what I had just witnessed marked a shift in comedy, a corner that had been turned. And we all have to Seth Rogan and partner in crime Evan Goldberg to thank for getting the ball rolling. The comedic prodigies got the green light for their “weed action comedy” during the filming of their other gem, Superbad, and thanks to a name dropped by Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, one of film’s brightest talents, was on the scene. Green brings an artist’s eye (Watch Green’s other films) and hilarious suggestions (listen to the DVD commentary track) to a film that didn’t require much work to begin with, and the result is a comedy that I couldn’t have fathomed prior to viewing. I felt like Neo after learning about the Matrix (whoa). It’s a shame that James Franco didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for his performance, because he so deserved it! Featuring a side splitting Danny McBride and a terrifyingly funny Craig Robinson slash Kevin Corrigan duo, Pineapple Express possesses that intangible magic that few films can actually conjure, and even fewer can sustain. Is that Huey Lewis singing an original song for the soundtrack? It is!

08 November 2009

The Wrestler

directed by Darren Aronofsky

Mickey Rourke spent the better part of the past two decades boxing, and apparently gargling with broken glass. Seriously, how did that happen? Listen to his voice in Diner, and then check out his absolutely stunning performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a film that is nothing short of astounding. Rourke is past his prime wrestler Randy “The Ram,” stuck working at a grocery store and clinging to a dream of making it big in the pro circuit again. Estranged from his daughter and popping enough pills to make a Presley cringe, Randy’s only outlet and source of friendship comes from another battler, Cassidy (a shockingly good Marisa Tomei). At first glance, the story of an aging wrestler sounds trite and overdone, but Aronofsky breathes a new life, a vitality into a bare bones script that demands much from its actors, and Aronofsky found in Rourke the perfect embodiment of The Ram. I can only assume that Aronofsky saw what a few of us saw in the sub par Jonas Ackerlund film Spun, a wonderful Rourke making the most of a very small part, so much so, in fact, that his final scene in the car made that a film worth viewing (for me, that is).