24 August 2009


Watch This:

Movie Review Haiku!

Seen quite a bit, and things are starting to get busy. So here they are: short reviews in Japanese poetic form.

Funny People

A weak narrative
Keeps dragging on forever
Boring, not funny

The Hurt Locker

Intense action film
Possibly overrated
But still, it's quite good

(500) Days of Summer

It's a great delight,
Similar to Annie Hall
Knowing and witty

District 9

It's filled with gore
Surprise! It's very thoughtful
Quite original

Ponyo (on the cliff by the sea)

Striking imagery
But why such a weak climax?
Hello Tina Fey

Inglourious Basterds

Christoph Waltz is great!
Full review is forthcoming.
Must see it again.

28 July 2009

Coming Soon

If you've never watched, it's time to start.

The Beatles

A Hard Day's Night
The first and best of the Beatles films. It's a testament to their talent that they are as photogenic and personable as their music is enjoyable. As a group, they wreak havoc on peaceful communities as Beatlemania follows them around. As individuals, they get into mischief and have surprisingly humorous adventures considering they are playing themselves.

There's no real plot. They are in a town to do a television broadcast. Paul's grandfather, a "king mixer" according to Paul, accompanies them and serves to fill people's heads with false notions, particularly Ringo, who decides to go "parading" late in the film, leading to the narrative's only moment of real crisis.

The scenes of Beatlemania, from all accounts, are toned down. The craze was often more frantic and at times more violent than what the movie shows. And of course the music is great, with the first Beatles album of completely original music. The title track was written over a couple of hours at the behest of the producers, who needed a song to go along with the name of the film.

It's a hugely entertaining film, with a kind of silliness that is missing from a lot of modern films. Every once in a while you need a good flick with little plot and plenty of personality.

Even more silly than Night but with more plot, which becomes problematic at times. Ringo has randomly come into possession of an Indian sacrificial ring which a cult will stop at nothing to get back. For whatever reason, the ring means that Ringo will soon be covered in red paint and killed as a sacrifice. The film follows the Beatles as they travel around evading the cult and playing music along the way.

It's also a good deal more surreal than their previous film. For instance, the house that the Beatles all live in is a cross between a funhouse and a barracks. George's room features a lawn equipped with a gardener who uses fake chattering teeth to trim the grass. John has a bed built into the floor.

The events are sometimes transitioned by humorous intertitles, telling us what to expect or what happened in between scenes. At one point, Paul is shrunk and his impending journey is announced as "The Exciting Adventure of Paul on the Floor."

It's not quite as charming as their first film, and in some ways is one of the strangest films I've ever seen. But The Beatles are all there, with their personalities in tact. And because of that, and the music, it's still a very entertaining movie.

Update at Large

A few updates on some films I've seen in the theatres, most of which haven't inspired a full review:

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Much better than most of the reviews would have you believe. I haven't seen the original, but that doesn't really matter. It's a solid thriller with two good performances at its center. This is one of those John Travolta roles that pops up every once in a while and reminds you of why he's a star, and helps you to forget some of the drivel he's done in the past decade or so.

I will agree with the critics who were unhappy with Tony Scott's style. At times, the style works, like in Man on Fire. But this story has enough adrenaline that the frenetic editing and music becomes overkill. Still, as I said, it's mostly consistent and a good piece of entertainment. It is what it is, and if that's what you're looking for, you got it.

Year One
There's some good, clever ideas here. But in the effort to make it a more accessible Jack Black vehicle, it becomes an unqualified mess. And I mention Jack Black specifically because this is the film in which he has officially worn out his welcome. I don't want to see him and his usual schtick for a long, long time.

The tinkering results in scenes that go nowhere, gaping plotholes, and narrative lapses, such as two or three scenes in which a character is in mortal danger only to cut to the next scene in which they are perfectly fine, with no hint of how they escaped certain peril. It's not a good film by any means, but a few bright spots remain, particularly the show-stealer David Cross.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Much has been said, so I won't devote a lot of space to it. Any charm that the first one held has been squashed in the sequel by Michael Bay's doubling of everything. Since the first film had one dog, the second has to have two, and so on. It's silly and medicore at best. However, a phenomenon has to be pointed out: for the most part, audiences have really enjoyed it. In some sense, it gives people exactly what they want. And for whatever reason, that includes Robot Heaven.

Public Enemies
A fascinating and entertaining look at one of America's last great outlaws. In a sense, it has feet firmly set in both the classic gangster genre and the 21st century, mostly owing to the high-definition digital cinematography. While it might be a tad bloated, Johnny Depp keeps our attention riveted on Dillinger. Christian Bale serves his purpose, but without much flair.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
One of the highlights of the series so far. There has been some rumbling among fans about the ending and other differences from the book. I'll say it again, you can't judge a film by its faithfulness to the source material. Period. End of story. Get over it. It's a lovingly painted portrait of a year at Hogwarts, and the last bit of innocence that these characters get to have. It's as enjoyable as the series has ever been, owing largely to the central characters, who have grown into fantastic actors. Jim Broadbent makes a wonderful addition to the cast. In a way, it's a transition piece, sort of in the vein of The Empire Strikes Back. There's no real beginning or ending, but it's a great ride nonetheless.

12 July 2009

Best Pictures: Going My Way, 1944

I feel rather bad calling Going My Way a simple film, but it kind of is. I feel guilty, in some kind of religious way, almost, in not recognizing some kind of deeper significance to Leo McCarey's 1944 Oscar winner. But still I stumble through to my verdict- a kindly film without a whole lot else beneath it.

It's the story of a priest trying to modernize a parish at the behest of his bishop. He intially butts heads with the elder priest in charge, but they reconcile. There are a few subplots, including one dealing with a banker trying to foreclose on the church and his son who is in love with a girl from the streets (providing the film with its edgiest material- a vague reference to prostitution).

The priest (Bing Crosby) also nurtures a boys' choir and uses their talents to get a song ("Going My Way") published so he can raise money to save the church. The priest is more worldly-wise than the elder (Barry Fitzgerald), going so far as to take the kids to baseball games and movies (gasp!). It's almost like a kind of anti-Doubt.

That's probably too much plot, but there's not much else that inspires me to write. It's a solid, friendly narrative, capably directed by McCarey, with a couple of good performances to anchor it. Beyond that, it's not what I'd call great, or "best."

A bit of data: The other nominated films that year were Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Since You Went Away, and Wilson. I'm a fan of Wilder's Indemnity, but I can see where the Academy would go for something like Way over the sometimes ambiguous tone of the former.

10 June 2009

Best Pictures: How Green Was My Valley, 1941

It's the film that beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture in 1941, and today that seems to be it's only claim to fame, but unfairly. It's a solid picture, well-directed by John Ford. On the surface it seems to be rather simple, but underneath brews a myriad of interesting topics that provide an eeriness that underscores some of the beautiful images such as the one pictured above.

The narrative, simply put, concerns a family living in a valley in Wales, one that is dominated by a coal mine through which all men must pass. The family experiences its ups and downs, all seen through the eyes of young Huw Morgan(Roddy McDowall). He lives in a house with his parents and his many brothers, and one sister (Maureen O'Hara) who is pressured into an unsatisfying marriage. It's one of those slice of life stories that Oscar seems to favor so often, covering great lengths of time and showing you the life of people long ago and far away. However, because of plot points I won't divulge, it's not merely a memoir, but more like a eulogy.

But the film also deals with themes like unionization, corporal punishment, religious discipline, and environmental decline. These revolve around an emotionally satisfying and dynamic pastoral drama, and help to keep it from becoming pure sentiment. Uniting it all is a restlessness about the status quo and man's place in society. If the film has a singular focus it is the tendency of politics to ruin a community (an idea which resonates particularly well with me).

So while it may not have the technical innovation and proficiency of Kane, it's probably got just as much heart and insight. In terms of Ford's body of work, it's not as memorable or iconic as, say, The Searchers, but it's consistent. Part of that is due to the lack of a standout performance, despite Walter Pidgeon's strong turn as the humanistic minister. Part of what makes The Searchers so fascinating is because its part of that mythos of The Duke. While Valley can't claim that kind of Hollywood glamour, it still excels on its own terms.

31 May 2009


You'll have to forgive me for this review. It will probably devolve into a string of superlatives. I would love to be able to provide a thoughtful, balanced, and grounded analysis, but I'm not sure it's possible, at least after only one viewing. But at the same time, I won't apologize for my response, since Up provided me with one of the most profoundly emotional experiences I've had at the movies in a long time.

I don't want to go into much detail, because you should see it all for yourself. You probably already know a little about the plot, and that's fine. It's a unique story, part old-fashioned adventure serial, part fairy tale. But what makes it so compelling is its central character, the elderly but spry Carl Fredericksen, voiced by Ed Asner.

The movie is artistically brilliant as well. If it's one thing that the animators at Pixar know it's cinematography. One shot in particular sticks in my mind. I won't give the context but it happens at sunset, as we see Carl and his floating house silhouetted against a backdrop of purple, orange, and red. It's a breathtaking sight.

I'm not sure what else to write about. It's incredibly enjoyable, not just for children. If you don't feel something while watching it, you're a rock. There's something so elemental about animation, especially in the hands of Pixar. The characters' performances can cut through to us in a way that live action performances can't. We don't have any preconceived ideas about the actors; we've never seen these people before. The emotions are distilled down to their pure essences, and they're very effective. At least they were for me.

Best Pictures: The Great Ziegfeld, 1936

Right from the opening titles, you know to expect big things from The Great Ziegfeld, a biopic chronicling the life and times of one of America's greatest showmen. The concept of the showmen is a curious one, and almost obsolete. But in this film you see it fully realized in the life of Ziegfeld and the lavish musical numbers mimicking those Ziegfeld actually did.

And its the musical numbers that provide the biggest thrill of the film, and they occupy most of the middle section of the film. After an hour of traditional biography material, detailing Ziegfeld's romantic entanglements and development from glorified ringmaster to true impresario, we get several huge production numbers that truly befit Ziegfeld's reputation. One particularly lavish number features a large circular stairway (pictured above) which the camera climbs, incorporating Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to great effect. It's the highlight of the film, and for good reason.

However, these numbers also cause problems for the film's structure. They are the film's centerpiece, but everything around them dulls in comparison. The work is the meat of Ziegfeld's life. His offstage dalliances are far less interesting, though William Powell makes good use of what he is given. I suppose we, in the twenty-first century, are just very used to seeing tales of men going through numerous women that we're jaded. Part of the problem, though, is that the film sanitizes and lessens these flings so as to soften the scandals.

Still, we are given a lavish biopic with a good cast to boot. Myrna Loy, though given second billing, has very little to do in her role of Ziegfeld's second wife Billie Burke. Luise Ranier is the real standout in her role of Anna Held, though her scenes are allowed to go on far too long. She's humorous, but we grow tired of her by the time we are meant to pity her. We also get some good turns from members of Ziegfeld's troupe playing themselves, namely Ray Bolger and Fanny Brice. All in all, it's a pretty standard biopic with some fabulous highlights, and for those we have Ziegfeld himself to thank.

17 May 2009

Best Pictures: Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935

Directed by Frank Lloyd, Mutiny is a surprisingly compelling film that is remarkable for its tonal shifts. The first thirty minutes imply a jaunty nautical melodrama that later showcases cruelty unexpected in a film from this period. One minute a drunken peglegged surgeon is being hoisted aboard the ship to laughter and applause. The next minute Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) arrives only to have a corpse beaten with a cat of nine tails in front of his crew.

For most of the film, we see an ideological conflict in the form of Bligh and his first mate Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), who wants more humane treatment for the men. One of the best features of this film is when that conflict is muddied by the harsh actions of Christian during the mutiny, leading to the climax of the film when a departing Bligh delivers a powerful condemnation to the mutineers. The moment presents us with a villain who is heroic and a heroic rebel with no real plan and debatable leadership qualities.

Unfortunately, the climax comes about 45 minutes before the end of the film. Once Bligh and Christian are separated, the main conflict is gone. Christian wanders about Tahiti with the other mutineers, bedding a native girl who gives him a daughter. Indeed, between Bligh's cruelty and Christian's dalliances, we get a picture of sovereignty and imperialism run amok. Of course, the natives in the film are more than happy to accommodate their invaders, and the native women go weak at the knees whenever a shirtless white man walks by.

The film is well constructed, with some notable editing techniques reminiscent of that other great film less than a decade prior that also dealt with mutiny on a ship. There's also some good performances, with an interesting picture of British and American acting techniques at work in the film's central conflict. Laughton, in technical terms, acts circles around Gable, but there's no matching Gable's charisma and heroic qualities. Even when his character becomes less than noble, Gable makes Christian very enjoyable to watch.

15 May 2009

Angels and Demons

Back when The Da Vinci Code came out, I decided to read the book to see what all the fuss was about. Historical lunacies aside, one thing shocked me: how badly written the book was. It was cheap and simple, and I was a little surprised (though not much) that the world could be caught up in such a mediocre piece of work. The movie wasn't much better, as most critics noted, and frankly, quite dull.

For the first hour and a half of Angels and Demons, that problem is fixed. It's not the most intelligently written plot, but it maintains a level of suspense that works. Like last time, there are still moments where Hanks's Professor Langdon rambles on about history that is interesting but inappropriately placed when the lives of popes-to-be are on the line. But despite this, I was still entertained.

Then came the last 30-45 minutes. I won't divulge any details, because it is genuinely surprising. But not in a good way. The last act presents twist after twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud, ranging from the improbable to the ridiculous to the unnecessary twist for the sake of being a twist.

The movie had me pondering the fate of Ewan McGregor. After Moulin Rouge came out, I was really impressed with him and wanted to see more. After the Star Wars prequels, I chalked it up to Lucas's bad writing. But Angels is just one in a long string of performances that haven't impressed me, and I'm wondering if he's just not trying or if he's just not that good. Time will tell.

14 May 2009


Utter confusion never felt so amazing.

Star Trek and Disappearing Worlds Strikes Again

I have returned, dear readers. So as usually happens, school caught up with me and I was unable to post for a couple of months there, but never fear. This summer I plan on being spectacularly productive on the moviegoing front and so I'll be back in full force. More on what that force entails a little later.

Bur first let me get the obsession du jour out of the way first. If you haven't had the chance to see Star Trek yet then go. You really can't ask for more fun at a summer movie. And I'd say it's not just a good summer movie, but a good movie period. I was more throughly entertained by its opening than I have been by any Star Trek movie I've seen in the past. And I've seen them all. But I never really liked Star Trek, mostly because I found it dull and too wrapped up in its own mythology to get down to the root of things. When watching this movie I finally felt like I was able to enjoy Star Trek, for whatever its worth, for what it was meant to be. Finally, all of the Trekiness didn't get in the way, if that makes any sense.

Many others have written mostly the same (except for Ebert's uncharacteristically nitpicky review, which, frankly, missed the point). The cast is spot on, the futuristic effects finally look, well, like something from the future, and if there was a dull moment I didn't see it. I could go on, but just take my word for it. Go see it and enjoy yourself. I promise you will.

As for my own future:

Coming to a blog near you (this one here, right here, Disappearing Worlds) this summer!

A look back at my last two months of movie watching, both at home and in theatres!

Fellini: I'm going to go back and watch all the Fellini films I own to do at least one in depth study this summer on a director. I've been wanting, for a while, to go back and do this with a number of directors and Fellini seemed like a good place to start, especially after I watched the trailer for Nine: (http://www.apple.com/trailers/weinstein/nine/).
My study will consist of: The White Sheik, I Vitelloni, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, Roma, and Amarcord.

I will finally finish watching all of the best picture winners (except for the notoriously unavailable Cavalcade)!

Reviews of all the movies I see this summer!

I think those are some pretty good goals. We'll see if I keep them. First up: a look back at two months of home viewing (give or take a few).

10 March 2009

David Watches the Watchmen

"...But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget...I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another's vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away. Come...Dry your eyes, for you are Life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly. Dry your eyes...And let's go home."

You won't find that beautiful passage in the film version of Watchmen. It's my favorite part of the book. The moment in which all the despair and deconstruction gives way to an optimistic center, reminding us why any of it matters at all. Before that, we start to wonder. What if Dr. Manhattan's right? Why should he save the world? What does it matter if the Earth is destroyed? It is here that we, and he, get our answer.

But it's not in the film. And it's here where I illustrate one of my chief dilemmas in writing about this film, and formulating my convoluted reaction. It has been my chief contention concerning adaptations that a film's faithfulness to the source material doesn't matter. A film can't be a book, or vice versa. Therefore, to hold a film to the same standards as a novel is inherently silly. In past years when I've heard Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings fans complain about the differences between the books and films, I've inwardly scoffed. Who cares if Hermione tries to save the house elves? Does it really matter if Frodo meets Tom Bombadil? The film can't be the book, so don't expect it to be.

So on that level, as I still cling to that dictum, it doesn't bother me that the part I have quoted above is not in the film. The scene is there, but not the dialogue. However, I find myself with a different dilemma in reviewing the film. Here is a case in which one of the chief merits of this movie, in my opinion, is its faithfulness to the source material. Very little is cut from the twelve chapter graphic novel, and many shots are copied exactly from the book. It was as if Snyder just took the book to be his storyboards and shot from there.

To put it out there, yes, I did enjoy the movie. But there's my problem. Did I enjoy the movie because of the book, or because of the movie? I find it to be some of both, and so collapses my critical standard. I find myself at one moment a fanboy and the next a snob. But I find I can console myself with my oft-repeated motto: "There are always exceptions."

Watchmen, the film, has many merits. The story is pretty much completely intact, and it remains one of the most complex and fascinating studies of the superhero genre ever created. If you are a novice to the material, let me just warn you: this isn't X-men. It isn't Spider-man. Throw all of your preconceived notions about superhero movies out the window, because this film/book tears them apart anyway. The casting is surprisingly appropriate. Jackie Earle Haley is great as the sociopathic Rorschach. The scenes later in the film where he truly shows his chops make me wish he could have gone maskless for more of the film. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilsom also fit their characters quite well.

The directing, however, is a harder nut to crack. Zack Snyder has been one of the most frustrating directors to try to critique. There are many beautiful parts of the movie, many shots that are profound and composed. However, who do I credit? Snyder or Dave Gibbons? Therein lies my frustration, but the fact that Snyder chose to go with so much of what Gibbons drew is a credit I have to give to Snyder, though begrudgingly.

For Snyder has a lot of bad habits that pop up in the film from time to time. His obsession with slow motion, his love of graphic violence, and his uncanny ability to create the most awkward sex scenes I've ever seen. 300 was overwhelmed by these habits and so I could not enjoy it. However, the faithfulness that Snyder shows to the source material makes it almost impossible for him to screw it up, so to speak.

So, did I like it? Yes. With reservations. I liked it as a filmgoer and as a fan of the book. Did it have problems? Yes. But they did not overpower the more poignant and beautiful material that Moore and Gibbons created and Snyder chose to use verbatim. While the way to critique this film is problematic for me, I can still, in the end, say that I thought it was a good film. Did I completely invalidate my opinion during this review? Possibly. But these kinds of gray areas just highlight the complexity and ambiguity that comes with encountering material of this kind. The book is famous for its deconstruction of superheroes, uncovering messiah-complexes, sexual subtexts, and latent fascism. All of that's here, if you look for it. It just may take more than one viewing to see it all.

26 February 2009

The Top Ten Movies of 2008 (More or Less)

So here it is. I realize it's quite late, but movies don't really come to Baton Rouge with the speed and quantity I'd like. So this is as good as I could do. A couple of disclaimers:
A) I didn't see near all the films that came out this year. I really didn't see any of the foreign films, and only saw one documentary. So this list can't possibly be comprehensive. It might be if I were writing this years down the line, but I prefer to get it out in a relatively timely fashion. (If you can call two months after timely. Hey, it's a few days after the Oscars. Has to count for something (?)).
B) As with every other top ten list, the order is pretty arbitrary, with a couple of exceptions, but not worth noting. Suffice to say, the films are on the list because they deserve to be there.
And so without much further ado:

The Top Ten Movies of 2008

1. The Dark Knight
You can say I'm biased to put it at number one. Suit yourself. But I think you'd be hard pressed to find a movie that more for a genre this year. Or a movie that excited more people. There are so many stellar achievements in this film on several levels, this movie deserves its placement. You can read my review if you want to hear more praise.

2. The Wrestler
Haven't posted my review of this yet, but its spot here should let you know how much I liked it. Linear, simple, character-driven dramas were a bit of a rarity this year, and to have this one come from a director like Aronofsky is a surprise indeed. Much has been said of the performances, particularly Rourke's, and it's all true. While it may not have had the flash or pizzazz of the best picture nominees, it quietly established its supremacy over all of them.

3. Wall-E
You only have to look at the other animated films this year to realize how special this movie was. Look a few years into the past and it will stand out even more. Pixar has made a name for itself in the past with engaging stories and technical achievement, and has recently added to that a cinematic sensibility that draws on the best styles throughout film history, with Wall-E drawing on some of the best, including Chaplin.

4. Synecdoche, NY
Like several other Charlie Kaufman films, this one has been polarizing, to say the least. I'm thinking that time will smile upon his first directorial effort, and it will be looked back on as a work of thematic depth, visual brilliance, and an audacity matched by few filmmakers out there.

5. Gran Torino
Posted a review of this a few weeks back, but a second viewing has cemented my opinions. This will be one of those sadly undervalued films that people will rediscover when examining the work of Eastwood, and while it may not rank as one of his masterpieces, it contains one of his best performances.

6. Man on Wire
As far as documentaries go, this may not have the scope or ambition of others, but that's a good thing. Rather, it's an intimate study of one man's dream and the rather insane lengths he went to in achieving it. One of its marvels is its ability to communicate the kind of devotion and love that others had for Philippe, devotion he might have taken for granted but desperately needed.

7. Rachel Getting Married
Probably one of the only films that employs the handheld camera technique and makes it truly work. The reality of the characters and the setting permeates every frame, and makes it one of the most engaging films of last year. And Anne Hathaway shows us that she has a bright future ahead of her.

8. Doubt
Based on one of the best American plays of recent years, Shanley's film version showcases a solid cast manuevering through an emotional and ethical mindfield. Rather than trying to overly embellish the play, it employs an admirable focus that may in fact answer the question that the play set out to obscure. But still, at the end, it's up for you to decide.

9. In Bruges
Martin McDonagh's feature debut is probably the most curious and interesting comedy of the year. It defies easy categorization, as expressed in my blurb about it a couple of weeks ago. It has some of his trademarks of random violence and simpletons dealing with moral conundrums, but it allowed him the chance to visually interpret it exactly as he wanted.

10. The Visitor
Like Milk, takes a political issue and discusses it rationally and empathetically without beating the audience over the head. In fact, it's hardly a political film at all, and so it's rare that the message ends up being one of the most memorable parts. That and the brilliant performance by Richard Jenkins.

Honorable Mentions

11. Vicki Cristina Barcelona
12. Milk
13. Revolutionary Road
14. Pineapple Express
15. Ghost Town
16. Iron Man
17. Burn After Reading
18. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
19. Be Kind Rewind
20. Frozen River

Here's to the end of the 2008 movie season. I'm glad it's over. Compared to 2007, this past year was a let-down, but still yielded some gems. Here's hoping that next year Hollywood will take the inspiration and success from films like The Dark Knight and truly up its game.

17 February 2009

The Reader

This is my third attempt at this review. I'm a little bit stonewalled. I'm not sure if there's actually much I can say about this film. There's some good acting, it's directed decently, and the story is relatively interesting. I'm just not sure it works, for whatever that means. Whatever sympathy it was trying to garner for the main character, it didn't get it from me.

Perhaps the main thing I'd criticize about this film is something that's becoming more and more prevalent in films today. I'm talking about non-linear narrative structure. In fact, all five of the best picture nominees are structured this way. The strongest of the bunch, Milk, utilizes this to the least extent. In The Reader, it reaches almost a fever pitch. While Ralph Fiennes is capable enough to carry his portion of the story, what is the purpose? This may seem like a very shallow question to ask, I think it's valid. I think that what started out as innovative turned into a gimmick and has now become so commonplace that it's lost whatever spark it might have had. What's really the point of showing us the end of the story first? Sometimes it can work, don't get me wrong, but nowadays it seems like it would be stronger to write a linear story and have to keep the suspense going the old fashioned way.

So that's not much of a review, but it's more in tune with what I want my entries to be. I want the films to spark forays into larger discussions.

16 February 2009

Oscar Thoughts 2009

So any that know me probably know how disappointed I am about the Oscars this year. The best films of the year had a chance. They had all the makings of nominees and even winners. But then the Academy had to fall back (for the most part) on medicore Oscar-bait films and a couple of movies that got stuck in everyone's heads like a bad song. I'll withhold my own thoughts on what the best films of the year were (i.e. My Top Ten for 2009) until later this week, but first I'll take a look at the nominees, generally. I would take the time to go category by category, but frankly, they don't deserve it.

Most people who follow the Oscars probably saw the freight train that was The Dark Knight for a while. The guild nominations, the critical acclaim, the popular support, it all should have led up to a Best Pic nomination. But alas, the academy anti-populist bias won through. They seem to have this attitude that they are the mystic guardians of what constitutes good film, and the Oscars are the general public's precious access to that secret knowledge. Sorry to break it to you, Academy, but now you've almost invalidated yourselves into oblivion.

The films that did make it through to the final five are largely undeserving. The only one out of the five that probably deserves to be there is Milk. It's solid, powerful, beautifully acted, and so on. It's not in my personal top five, but I can understand why it's in theirs. And on some levels, I can understand Benjamin Button. I liked the film in a lot of ways, but it just doesn't measure up when compared to the best films. But again, I can kind of understand why the Academy went for it. And got to give them at least some credit for going with a fantasy.

And that leaves the rest, including the frontrunner-apparent. A film that's got everybody wrapped up in some poverty-stricken wonderland that doesn't really exist. A film with all with all the visual capacity of a Michael Bay film. A film that just simply isn't "Best." It's not even great. It might be good, but at this point all the attention it's getting has just made me embittered toward it. And the future will prove me right. The backlash is coming. Of course, I'm talking about Slumdog Millionaire. And that's where I'll stop. The movie doesn't deserve my attention. Or anybody else's. That's all from me.

The other two, Frost/Nixon and The Reader are Oscar bait through and through. While I enjoyed Frost, it's nothing without those great performances, particularly Langella's. The Reader probably wouldn't be on anyone's radar if it weren't for its now deceased producers Minghella and Pollack. That's not to disrespect them in anyway, they both made some really great films, and they will be missed. But I have a feeling that if they weren't involved, the Academy wouldn't have taken notice like it did. And there's also Harvey to contend with. But oh well, my review on that later.

The acting categories are a little more varied, allowing for great performances from non-best picture nominees like The Wrestler and Rachel Getting Married. Mickey Rourke has my vote, but as you probably know, he's going to be neck and neck with a still-deserving Sean Penn. I'd love Anne Hathaway to win, but I think the Academy's going to give Kate Winslet her due, even if she's given better performances. Heath Ledger's got it wrapped up for supporting, and at this point it's Penelope Cruz's to lose for her subtly chaotic turn in Woody Allen's great Vicki Cristina Barcelona.

In most Oscar years, I try to see all the nominees right down to the shorts. This year, the spark is gone. Maybe it'll be back next year. It depends on the nominees. This year the nominations made me so bitter that I haven't been as into the whole race as I usually am. So I don't have much to say about the tech categories. As far as I can see, the evenings going to end up with more statues going to Slumdog than it deserves.

It's shaping up to be a big week for the site, as I hope to post reviews for The Reader, The Wrestler, He's Just Not That Into You, and Revolutionary Road. And then on Thursday, my top ten. I'll also try to update on what I've been watching on dvd (i.e., not as much as I'd like). So stay with me reader(s), there's more to come.

03 February 2009


In a way, it takes a very particular set of circumstances and artists to put out a good movie that reliess completely in dialogue. Maybe that's why Frost/Nixon was originally a play. Now, in this visual dimension, it achieves much of the same excitement and tension without becoming a necessarily great film. It's satisfying in a historical and dramaturgical way, but not really cinematically.

Theatre, of course, has a visual dimension. But it also has the luxury of being able to rely on dialogue in a way that film can't. Theatre, as I'm generally realizing, has much in common with law proceedings based on their root in ancient Greece. Ancient rhetoric had much in common with ancient drama, and vice versa. But film has to extend beyond the words (if it has to use them at all) and show us something. And because this source material is entirely reliant on dialogue, it is here where Ron Howard's skills almost fail him.

I did say skills. He has them. A lot of people love to tear down Ron Howard, but I think that's mostly a matter of audience. Ron Howard's audience is mostly made up of older people. In his long career in the business, he's more familiar with their style than the one of the new generation. Now there's nothing wrong with knowing your audience, and nothing wrong with having an older audience. It's just simply a matter of mismatched material.

Howard's never out to dazzle us with his skills. He maintains a quiet technique of solid storytelling and a balance between overt artistry and subtlety. But often he has material that is well-suited to his skills. Here, he lacks the style to really give the material its punch.

That's not to say the results are all bad. They're in fact quite-good. It's just not exactly great filmmaking. The confronation between the titular characters is very interesting to watch. I'd think that for a generation that remembers the Nixon era it would be even more poignant than it was for me. The acting is superb, but without it the film would be nothing. It's a solid film, and easily communicates its purpose. It's good in many regards. Just not great. Just not one-of-the-five-best-pictures-of-the-year great. I'm bitter.

Last Chance Harvey

Last Chance Harvey is a slight if entertaining film with a host of flaws that just can't seem to keep it down. One of the most suprising things about the film is the ability to enjoy it. Most of that is due to its star duo, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who do their best to play sad sacks for the first half of the film, as the script flits annoyingly back and forth between Harvey's journey to London for his daughter's wedding and Kate's feeble attempts at blind dates and dealing with a high-maintenance mother.

The forty-five minute collision course finally comes to an end and the movie heads in exactly the direction we knew it would. We suspend our disbelief at Kate's ability to put up with Harvey's pushy flirtations. We play along with the arbitrary twists of fate that conspire to keep Harvey and Kate apart. But we know they'll come together in the end. And that's okay.

I guess what works best about the film is the way it lovingly allows these things to happen, because after all, by this point in their lives the characters deserve some happiness. There are distractions and side trips, like Kate's mother's paranoia about her Polish neighbor, but the movie ends up where it should, and is almost cathartic in its conclusion.

11 January 2009

Weekly Viewing Roundup: January 2-10

So this is the first of what I hope will be a weekly series where I write brief comments on what movies I watch outside of the movie theatre each week. I'll reserve the longer reviews for new films, and sometimes I'll write longer posts on individual films, but I'll try to write at least something on the films I watch at home. This post includes a couple of days from last week since I'm late getting started. As I said, my goal is at least five movies a week (last year I watched 227 films!). And without further ado:

A capable biopic directed by Lord Richard Attenborough, but it has one central flaw. The movie takes the cliche biography film path by focusing on all the women in Chaplin's life. Sure there were a lot, and that's an interesting sidenote. But what makes Chaplin's legacy endure and what makes him most interesting are his films. Attenborough chooses to focus on the sordid gossip in lieu of film production. There's barely a mention of the great lengths he went to to film The Gold Rush, hardly a mention of the bravery of filming a silent film during the emerging sound era, the film that went on to be the greatest film of all time: City Lights. They don't mention clearly the formation of United Artists. Chaplin changed film history, but what we get is a laundry list of infidelities. The performances are capable enough, though Downey is a little too mumbly for my taste. Interesting, but ultimately comes up short.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Like the Star Wars prequels, it generated a lot of interest and fans early on but as time goes by it earns more detractors and more ire for George Lucas. And I do, like so many others, blame Lucas rather than Spielberg. I have the common problems with it: gophers, monkeys, waterfalls, etc. But I think I have an easier time getting past those than some. I still enjoy the film. As a piece of escapist entertainment it's just fine. And maybe that's all we can really expect from Indy. But I would have enjoyed a better script and a better conceived plot. In the end, one of the lesser entries in the franchise, but not as bad as everyone says. It will survive with the rest of them.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Unfortunately, kind of overlooked this summer. And it's box office performance seems to have tanked the next installment (unless another studio picks it up from Disney, anyone? anyone?). I am one of the very few people to have thought it better than the previous film. It's more mature and thoughtful than Lion, Witch and takes more time to develop the characters. The special effects are some of the best this year. It still has that feel of being Lord of the Rings Jr. but if the series is allowed to continue, it might stand as one of the strongest installments. Let's hope it finds a renewed life on dvd so we can find out.

The Godfather Trilogy
What can I say that hasn't already been said? It took me a few viewing to really appreciate the first film, and on this second viewing of the second film I can already begin to feel myself warming to it. They're not the most accessible films, oddly enough, but they are rewarding once you get into them. The third film has those flaws that most people mention, the second is one of the greatest sequels, to be sure. But it's that first film that ranks the best for me. It's rich and complex, and is famous for all the right reasons. Perhaps I'll write on the trilogy later on in more depth, but for now, kudos to Coppola and his team for creating a purely dramatic trilogy.

The Hidden Fortress
One of Kurosawa's lesser efforts, but even that is better than the work of most directors. A great exercise in, if not style, clear and entertaining storytelling. Part of it was the inspiration for Star Wars, and it shows. What made the first Star Wars film so successful owed a lot to this and other Kurosawa films, and Lucas seems to have completely lost that in the prequel trilogy. Kurosaswa's chief actor Toshiro Mifune is once again fantastic as the general, and the supporting players, with the exception of perhaps the princess, play along beautifully. It's gorgeously shot and works as a great entertaining adventure, proof that great art and populist entertainment need not be mutually exclusive.

In Bruges
Is this the darkest comedy ever made? Possibly. It's classified by most as a comedy and will be competing for the best comedy prize at tonight's Golden Globes, but I didn't laugh for most of it. But that doesn't mean it's not a comedy. It's the kind of humor that makes you laugh on the inside, the kind of humor that lends levity to what would have been a violent drama. It helps to balance the mood, slightly tipping it into the comedy range without being a laugh-out-loud riot. The acting is excellent, and McDonough's script deserves an Oscar nom this year. If you're familiar with his plays you will likely love the film, and the film's critical success will hopefully give him enough clout to make more. Let's hope so.

Gran Torino

Based on what I see in trailers, there is sometimes a huge gap between what I am expecting from a film and what I get. Gran Torino seemed like it was going to be a very generic tale of an old man getting to know the people he hates, having his heart softened in the process, and then having to protect them from violence. The storyline was just that, but generic it wasn't. The film turned out to be one of the best surprises of the season.

I've always respected Clint Eastwood as an actor, but here he truly carries the picture and the results are moving. He turns what could have been a racist old geezer into a humorous and, at times, charming, though still racist veteran. The supporting players can't quite match his caliber, but in a way that's okay. He's the heart and soul of the story, and his performance matches that responsibility.

I return again to the humor, which caught me off guard. Some of it is racial in nature, almost a laughter of disbelief at a person saying the things that he says. But it's not limited to that. The way he treats people is cruel at times, but he thinks it's hilarious, and because of that, we do too. It helps lift the film from its possibly cliche trappings.

I'm still kind of processing the film, so I'm not sure of what to say. And that's okay, I think. Suffice to say that it is a very poignant and tender exploration of racism and friendship. It deals with racism in a much more complex and intelligent way than a lot of other films that purport to explore it. It's not the cut and dry violent force like in Crash, and it almost continues the conversation started in 50s and 60s films like Giant or In the Heat of the Night.

In terms of violence, it can also be seen as Eastwood's answer to the violence of some of his earlier films, particularly the Dirty Harry films, in the same way that Unforgiven was his answer to the violence of his Westerns. Parts of it are a little simplistic at times, plotwise, but it never ceases to couple that with further depths of the central character, which Eastwood will always be remembered for.

10 January 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I never quite understood the appeal of Forrest Gump. I mean, I get it. A man lives through a lot of history and stumbles into major world events and throughout it all he's just trying to find his love and take care of his mama. Interesting concept I suppose, but not particularly well made. Definitely not deserving of a best picture Oscar. Just goes to show the infectious power of optimism to ride a movie to awards season glory (as we're about to see happen again with Slumdog Millionaire.

But enough about mediocre films. I bring up Gump because The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shares with it both a plotline and a screenwriter (check other sites for detailed breakdowns of similarities between the two films, culminating in what might be a case of self-plagiarism). That said, Button has the distinction of being a well-made film.

Visually, it's quite stunning. This might be one of the best uses of computer-generated effects ever seen, because it's actually put to good use for character portrayal rather than merely background painting. Brad Pitt is able to extend his performance beyond the limits of his body and what makeup can do. It's quite a feat.

The story has surprising drive for its type, being able to pull interest from an audience for over two and a half hours with not many clear goals and objectives for the title character. But it's as much Daisy's (Cate Blanchett) picture as it is Benjamin's. So we watch in hope that these two satellites orbiting the breadth of the earth will finally collide.

That said, when they finally collide, it becomes a little less interesting, for a time. It's a sad fact that happiness is not as interesting to watch as pain. But things don't stay that way. For most of the picture, indeed in its most interesting parts when Benjamin is traveling, Benjamin's strange malady is almost an afterthought. It consumes the physical nature of the character but his spirit is enough to push it into the foreground. The attention that must be paid to it by Benjamin and Daisy toward the end sparks new life into the plot for the last section of the film. It's strange and almost off-putting in a way. It mirrors real life, where for most of our youth we don't have to think about our physical limitations. We can do anything. Then suddenly, our bodies put limits on our dreams. Things cannot be as they once were, and we start to despair.

The film has many of these interesting insights, stemming from Fitzgerald's original story, and, to a lesser extent, Eric Roth's screenplay. But it's David Fincher and his actors who breathe great life into it. They meander and detour, sometimes frustratingly, but always come back to the central point: that we have a finite number of opportunities in life, and they will end. It's a flawed film, but a good one, and one that shows that David Fincher does have some heart in him, beyond the flashy tricks and creeping dread showed in films like Fight Club and Zodiac. He took good advantage of this opportunity, and it shows.


After some of his previous efforts, Valkyrie seems like an odd choice for Bryan Singer. No superheroes, and no crazy twist ending. In fact you already know the ending. But it's a marvel that it doesn't lessen the suspense. We know Hitler survives this assassination attempt (at least I hope you know enough about history to know that). But it's still an exciting film.

It's not a particularly great one, but it's solid. It's able to keep the audience going and move the plot without it falling apart. The performances, again, aren't Oscar material, but they move the story. And in the end that's what the movie is all about, the story. About the central fact that some Germans wanted Hitler dead. It's an important point to make, and the film's focus is admirable.

That said, there are drawbacks. The points where the film does deviate from that central purpose spoil the flow. We don't need so many diary entries by Tom Cruise's Count von Stauffenberg. We don't need to see every argument made to get people on the side of the resistance. We get the point early on: Hitler is bad and something must be done.

All in all, quite capable and satisfying for what it is. May not be remembered as one of the great war movies (a genre I've always been a little bored with) but an effective outing to the theatre. I hesitate to call it escapist, but maybe that's what it is. It doesn't break any new ground necessarily, despite the film's advertisements as "the story that has never been told...until now." It's escapist in the sense that it's an exciting suspense thriller made just that much more authentic by its historical trappings.