What movie was that...?

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.
You're the best!

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).

Heavy Metal in Baghdad

directed by Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi

It doesn’t get any heavier than this powerful doc about a metal group trying to do what they love. But when you have to add “staying alive from one day to the next” to your list of things you love, then you are definitely the heaviest band out there. Enter Acrassicauda, Iraq’s only heavy metal band struggling to survive in war-ravaged land, a land that they call home. And you think you have it bad… Directors Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi find in the band a glimpse into the lives of Iraqi people who could be going to the same shows that we go to, if their way of life hadn’t been utterly destroyed by years of conflict right in their backyards. They find in Acrassicauda the healing and hopeful power that music can weave, and the determination to achieve a goal at any cost. You’ve seen the news, you’ve seen the “informative” documentaries, now get a load of Heavy Metal in Baghdad. You won’t think of music the same way again.

07 November 2009

High Fidelity

directed by Stephen Frears

Hipsters and intellectuals can at least agree on something, that the Stephen Frears classic High Fidelity is totally awesome. Audiophiles love it. Cusackphiles love it. In fact, aside from maybe Grosse Pointe Blank or Say Anything, High Fidelity is widely perceived as the quintessential John Cusack film. Cusack is perfect as Rob Gordon, owner of a Chicago record store and surly demeanor. Precipitated by the current one, Rob journeys back through his life to relive and analyze the top five breakups in his life to answer the question, “Why?” It’s the snide, talking to camera style, bearing your soul in the most sarcastic way possible brilliance of Cusack that brings timelessness to a film that could have easily fallen into the “ordinary” trap. A hilarious Jack Black and Todd Louiso (Rob’s pop culture junky employees) definitely don’t hurt matters, either. It’s music as catharsis, as narrative, as punctuation in the story of life.

06 November 2009

Inglourious Basterds

durekted by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino loves movies. It's no mystery. From the infamous ear slicing scene (Django, anyone?) of Resevoir Dogs to the stylized violence of Kill Bill (see the Lone Wolf and Cub film series and Lady Snowblood for fine examples), Tarantino makes no bones about where he draws inspiration. Hell, he even samples his music from such places as the Burt Reynolds classic White Lightning in more than one film (did anyone heed my review and immediately rent one of the best movies about moonshine liquor ever made?). Nowhere, however, is Tarantino's love of film more apparent than than in his latest opus, Inglourious Basterds (If any of you out there can get an actual answer from Mr. T about the spelling, please let me know), in which he turns film into a weapon used by both the Axis and Allies. And leave it to Tarantino to turn WWII into pulp history by centering his story around successful plots (yes, plural) to whack Hitler himself. How does one achieve this end? By rewriting history, of course! Enter the Basterds, a group of Jewish soldiers sent to scalp some Nazis and instill a little good old-fashioned fear into those anti-Semitic sonsabitches. Helmed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt in a role better suited for George Clooney. Come on, Mr. T, even you have to admit that), the Basterds align with British operative Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender with a million pound smile) who has aligned with German actress turned double agent Bridget von Hammersmark. Meanwhile, Emmanuelle Mimieux, aka Shoshanna Dreyfus, plots to torch the entire Reich herself when they attend the debut screening of Joseph Goebbel's newest piece of propoganda disguised as a biopic, Nation's Pride (cheesily filmed by Eli Roth), at her theater. Standing in the way of all this like a great blond Nazi brick wall is "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa, played to perfection by Christoph Waltz. Academy, you'd better perk up, because Mr. Waltz just showed you how it's done (let's hope he doesn't suffer the same fate as one Michael Shannon). Some malign the film for its sprawling dialogue and indulgently cinematic setups, which is as absurd an argument as watching a hockey game and saying there was too much skating. It's a Tarantino film! What did you expect? The real topic for discussion should be the sinister satisfaction we feel as an audience when a bulked up Eli Roth pumps Hitler with enough lead to sink an ocean liner. Such perverse catharsis should raise questions, but like his twisted little Danish peer Lars Von Trier, Tarantino like to turn the tables on his audience. Peep the end of this film for exhibit A: A group of people sharing a common idealogy are gathered into a large room where they are exterminated with lots of fire and lots more bullets. Wait for it... That's a bingo! I can hear all those little wheels turning in those heads right now, so I will leave you to mull that one over.
Note: I have to pose my own theories of the erroneously spelled title. One, that Tarantino didn't want his film being confused with the 1978 film that shares the same English title (though spelled correctly), the film that stars a kick ass Fred Williamson (the Vietnam vet from the Tarantino/Rodriguez gem From Dusk til Dawn). Two, as the title manifests itself on Lt. Raine's rifle in the film, and since Lt. Raine cannot even correctly pronounce simple words like Italian ("eye-talian") or English ("ainglish"), then surely he could not be bothered to apply the old spell check to his handiwork. Three, the mispellings are deliberate as they further undermind the Nazi regime. If the race of races can be ambushed, killed and terrorized by a group of idiots, then what does that say about the Nazi party? Interesting. Please tell us, Mr. T, please!

05 November 2009

George Washington

directed by David Gordon Green

David Gordon Green’s debut film about life in the post industrial washout of the rural south is as heavy as they come, centering around a group of children just trying to make it in a town with almost no options. When a boy dies, secrets and friendship are put to the test. What emerges from Green’s virtual stream of consciousness are the elusive tragedies and epiphanies of youth, relationships forged that know no age. Aside from the remarkable performance by the child actors, Paul Schneider is outstanding as the emotionally stunted Rico, laborer and adult child who connects with the young personalities surrounding him. The film is as beautiful as it is tragic, a true experiment that hits pay dirt. The closest thing besides the Spike Jonze masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are, Green’s George Washington is as accurate a portrayal of childhood as you will find anywhere.

Wall-E

directed by Andrew Stanton

How many animated films can you think of that have cinematography giant Roger Deakins acting as a consultant? One? Is it Wall-E, Pixar’s finest, most magical achievement to date? Very good. Gold star. Aside from being an artistic milestone in animated film, Andrew Stanton’s vision is one of the classic films of any genre, one of those films that should have transcended the categories that the good old Academy put in place. Ben Burtt, sound design jedi responsible for most of the awesomest sound effects of the past 3 decades is the voice (and soul) of Wall-E (which stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class), the last operating robot responsible for cleaning up the vast junkyard of the planet Earth after humans have split for space. After an encounter with a probe named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) sent to inspect and, hopefully, bring back a biological sign that Earth is fit for life again, Wall-E becomes smitten and embarks on a journey to save his girl and ignite the spark of hope in the flabbed out mouthbreathers cruising around in the final frontier. It’s a chunky, gluttonous technology addicted future that Stanton predicts, and frankly, I can’t fault him on his powers of clairvoyance. Watch out people of Earth, we’re on the motorized walkway to societal obesity, clutching our iPhones in our ever-fattening little hands.

02 November 2009

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

directed by Andrew Dominik

With a title like that, you had better believe that Andrew Dominik’s powerhouse of a western packs a punch, but you ain’t seen nothing yet. The film, revolving around the final years of Jesse James and the men he kept close to him, practically busts at the seams with such talent that, to see them all at once in the same film is pure cinema ecstasy. Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell and Garret Dillahunt (Dillahunt excels in one of my favorite roles of all time) all give such award caliber performances that are far greater than the sum of their parts. And Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career (to date, of course, for I know how far he can go) as Robert Ford, the hero worshipper who let his drive for fame overtake his admiration. To watch Affleck embody one of the most misunderstood historical figures in America is to watch a true master of the craft. Affleck has given some of the best and most understated performances of the past few years, including a turn in the Gus Van Sant stunner Gerry, and working with his older bro Ben in the marvelous Gone, Baby Gone, but his portrayal of Ford is heartbreaking perfection. In fact, when you have Roger Deakins as cinematographer, Dylan Tichenor editing, and Nick Cave composing music, you have 99% of the components necessary to create the perfect western. You have given us a film for the ages, Mr D, a fully loaded piece of stoic beauty.