28 September 2010

It's Coming Back...

...I promise.

In the meantime, watch this movie if you haven't already.

27 July 2010

Link Roundup

I thought today, as this is the first roundup of links and such, I'd just give a few road signs to places on the internet that I visit daily. Next week I'll start by linking to specific stories, pieces, trailers, etc. Some of the following links are already linked to on the side, but I thought I'd give them all a proper plug.

Dark Horizons- Updated most weekdays with the latest news, rumors, etc. Despite its sometimes focus on science fiction and fantasy genres, it does a good job of covering all the latest news. Plus it links to most all of the latest trailers to be released.

Awards Daily- If you want the latest Oscar news and a good place to join in discussions on upcoming movies with awards potential, this is the place. Things really heat up in the fall and when it gets closer to the show itself. You can also follow the editor, Sasha Stone, on Twitter: @AwardsDaily

Film Experience Blog- online journalist Nathaniel Rogers runs this blog which has a greater personal feel to it than the previous sites. I would be lying if I didn't say some of the things I'll be doing on here weren't inspired by his work. He's also on twitter: @nathanielr

Neal Reviews- Good friend of mine Neal Tucker reviews many things, and his film reviews are very insightful.

The Auteurs, or MUBI- It was once called The Auteurs and now it seems they're trying to switch the name to MUBI, though I'm not sure why. It's a social networking site, a la Facebook, for serious movie buffs. I'm a member. Shouldn't you be?

Those are the places I go the most often. Now a couple of things you should see:

Seriously, how fantastic is this trailer? When I first heard about the movie, I was skeptical, but the more I see the preview, the more excited I get. Hopefully the movie will live up to it.
The Social Network:

This movie, Howl is based on the publication of the titular poem by Allen Ginsburg. Looks promising, great cast. And of course, since it's set in mid-20th century America, it has Jon Hamm.

26 July 2010

Great Scenes- Fort Apache (1948)

Today's great scene comes from John Ford's Fort Apache. I was inspired to make my way through all the John Ford Westerns after watching Stagecoach the other evening (My Darling Clementine predates this one but I'll be going back to it tomorrow). The film depicts life within a frontier outpost, with its military hierarchy, formal and informal relationships, and some humor along the way. The Indian question comes into focus in the second half of the film, and the climax presents the American forces, led by Henry Fonda, riding against the Apache forces led by Cochise and Geronimo.

The scene, comprising the last ten minutes or so of the film, is notable for both its camerawork, showcasing Ford's familiar mastery with the Monument Valley location, and the way it brings most of the narrative questions of the film to a head all at once, as great climaxes are known to do. John Wayne's character, Captain York, is at odds with Colonel Thursday, played by Fonda. The regiment splits into two factions, following each officer, and Fonda's by-the-books approach becomes his downfall.

Without giving away each plot point, the moral ambiguity of the scene is central to the film's understanding of native American policy. It doesn't serve as a fully realized criticism of the government's treatment of the various tribes, as the film's final moments glorify the American troops who, within the story, still continue to fight to tame the West. However, it does stop short of imbuing the troops with moral certitude.

The final portion of the battle scene features a wonderful shot of Captain York standing tall against a cloud of dust kicked up by the Apache troops. He often serves as the film's moral center, but he is forced to make some concessions. When he is speaking with reporters a couple of years after the battle, we can see the conflict as he remembers his former commanding officer, and we get the sense that the way he glorifies his comrades may not be wholly sincere, but an act of public relations demanded by his new post.

25 July 2010

Salt (2010)

(Quick disclaimer. Yes, I've seen Inception. Yes, I really liked it. However, I am waiting to write about it until I've seen it a second time. It's the kind of movie that requires it. So expect some thoughts on it next weekend.)

It's easy to see why Salt was originally designed with Tom Cruise in mind. There's a lot of running. However, I'm not sure Cruise would have maintained the ambiguity that the main character requires in the way that Jolie does. For a significant portion of the film, you are unsure of whether Salt is a patriot or a traitor. Remembering that this is a big budget Hollywood movie will quickly dispel that confusion, however it is a tribute to Jolie that we find Salt potentially duplicitious in the least.

Much has been written by critics about the implausibility of the plot. Is it outlandish? Yes, at times. But I am confused as to why non-realism is being used as a way to critique a spy film. There have been some "realistic" spy movies in the past. The Bourne series is probably as realistic as any successful spy movies have ever been. However, audiences have never expected realism in this genre. They want false identities, double agents, cool gadgets, and outrageous stunts. Salt delivers those in spades.

While not being realistic, I think, is not a valid criticism, the way the movie handles its inherently unrealistic plot is a different matter. What the movie really needs is a sense of humor. It's not a problem to ask the audience to believe certain silly things. That's central to enjoying a lot of movies. However, to take it too seriously on top of that is dangerous, and that's where Salt gets into trouble.

I've been intentionally vague about the plot, because I'm assuming some degree of familiarity about the basic premise. Any other information on my part would fall into the realm of spoiler. Overall, I did enjoy myself to a certain extent. The movie has its thrills, yes, but is ultimately a slight affair. Though the ending promises sequels (rather heavy-handedly I must say), I can't say I'm dying to see them.

24 July 2010

Stagecoach (1939)

I picked up the Criterion blu-ray edition of John Ford's Stagecoach yesterday (I highly recommend it, great transfer). A bit of background if you're unaware: the first major Western by John Ford since the mid-20s, the first serious Western made by anyone in a good while, first star turn by John Wayne, first major collaboration between Wayne and Ford, nominee for Best Picture, winner of Best Supporting Actor for Thomas Mitchell (the inebriated doctor), and placed amidst one of the best years of American cinema ever (other films that year: Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka).

The film tells the story of several strangers thrust together in a perilous stagecoach ride across the desert, with the constant threat of attack by Apache Indians, as well as the threat of sabotage from within. The group is a microcosm of society: an outlaw, a prostitute, a society lady, a doctor, a salesman that everyone mistakes for a reverend, a Southern gentleman/gambler/cad, and a couple of trusty cowboys.

Pauline Kael calls it "Grand Hotel on wheels" and David Thomson describes the characters as being dipped in a "marinade of cliche." Both of these statements make perfect sense, particularly the latter, as the film does have a nostalgic feel in hindsight, but it's difficult to gauge how audiences might have received it back at its release. Frank Nugent's original NYT review tells us: "He (Ford) prefers the broadest canvas, the brightest colors, the widest brush, and the boldest possible strokes. He hews to the straight narrative line with the well-reasoned confidence of a man who has seen that narrative succeed before. He takes no shadings from his characters: either they play it straight or they don't play at all."

One gets the sense that audiences had seen all of these characters before, but never in such an artistically satisfying form; up until this point, most Westerns were B-pictures. For our purposes, it's as classic as a classic Western gets. And as with many great movies, knowing exactly what's going to happen next isn't a detriment. And at a breezy 96 minutes, it's incredibly economical.

The movie has its famous flourishes: John Wayne (as The Ringo Kid) has one of the greatest entrances in one of the most exciting shots I've ever seen. It's such an appropriate first appearance for one of the greatest stars who ever lived. The chase sequence through Apache country is brilliant, with stunts that baffle you. It's one of those moments that makes you realize just how cheap CGI can be. And you can see some classic Ford touches, such as his doorway shots and appropriate balance of moving and static shots.

In all, it's a must-see if you haven't already. If you've never seen many films by John Ford, this is a good place to start. It's him at his most crowd-pleasing. Sometimes, because of his influence, it's hard for modern audiences to get what kind of style Ford worked in. His language has become so absorbed that it seems average at first glance, but there's something about Stagecoach that hooks you so quickly that you can't help falling in love and wanting to see more.

The blog returns...really. I mean it this time.

Some of the posts on the main page are a year old. I regret that. The past year has been probably the busiest ever. I took a lot of classes, directed two shows, and generally ran around like crazy. That, combined with the general lackluster nature of this year in film, has not exactly inspired me to write much. In general, my movie-watching habits have suffered. I do not watch as many older films as I used to. But I miss that, and I miss studying the films I watch and writing about them. So in order to be more regular with the blog, I'm establishing a schedule that I'm going to try to keep up with. It will be as follows:

Sundays: Review of a new or recent theatrical release
Mondays: Thoughts on a favorite scene in a great movie
Tuesdays: A roundup of links and pieces online that I recommend reading
Wednesdays: Some thoughts on a certain actor, writer, director, etc.
Thursdays: Wild Card!
Fridays: A fun list to generate thought and discussion
Saturdays: A review of an older or classic film

I am fully aware that I have lost any and all readers that I had. Hopefully people will be drawn to the blog again over time. However, at the end of the day, this is for me, not anyone else. That being said, if you do read the blog, comment often! This will help me stay motivated to continue this. I want this to be a forum for discussing movies, not just me talking about them at length. Let's have fun.

22 March 2010

"There's a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. 'The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.' ...I never gave much thought to what it meant. ... See, now I'm thinkin': maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. And I'd like that. But that ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd."

(In an effort to get back to normal with this blog, I've decided to just start posting something from or a reflection on whatever movie I've been thinking about most on a given day. I usually refer back to movies far more than is probably normal, but oh well. Hence this blog. This scene kept ringing in my ears today. Probably one of my favorite bits of dialogue in all of cinema. In fact, Jules is probably one of the best characters Tarantino ever wrote, with Hans Landa coming at a close second. I digress, but at any rate, this is how I feel today. I'm trying. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd.)

07 March 2010

The Best Films of 2009

I’ll skip the usual apologies for not updating the blog in so long. I was busy. But now it’s back. At least for this year’s top ten. I can’t say 2009 was a great year for movies. Especially compared with some recent years, like 2007. As usual, except for the number one slot, all the others are ordered in a relatively arbitrary fashion. After the list, my personal picks for some of the awards being given tonight (whether they are nominated or not), and then some notes on the Oscars. I’ll try to update tomorrow after we know who’s gone home with what. But now, without much further ado:

The Ten Best Films of 2009

1. Inglourious Basterds

One of the most cathartic film experiences of the year. Tarantino was firing on all cylinders, and there are few films I have seen in the past few years that utilize all the qualities and potential of the cinema as well as this did. I’m sure this movie isn’t “for everyone” but it has something for everyone. Much has been said about Christoph Waltz, and it’s all true, but let’s not forget the rest of the cast: Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, and Melanie Laurent all turn in wonderful performances. It won best ensemble at the SAG Awards, and it really truly feels like one. It’s visually, audibly, and textually brilliant, and gets better with each viewing.

2. Nine

I seem to be one of the lone defenders of this strange concoction, but I enjoyed it on an emotional level perhaps more than any other film. The critics wanted 8 ½, and when it wasn’t, they panned it. Audiences, I think, were confused as to what they’d find, and so stayed away. But history will vindicate this spectacular movie. The showmanship, from director Rob Marshall, that made Chicago work so well finds a better match here in dealing with issues of cinema, illusion, and performance. It’s an intimate character study with a theatrical twist, and the most underrated movie of the year.

3. A Serious Man

Not many people make movies about religion anymore. Some are set in the world of religion, but few films actually tackle the inner workings of faith and theology, and so it is in that regard that the Coen Brothers’ latest film is a bold one, and one of their best. As a result, it has the freedom to ask some of life’s biggest questions, and doesn’t shortchange its audience in the process.

4. The White Ribbon

I don’t have a lot to say about it at this time, because I’ve only seen it once. It is one I will definitely watch again, and I know there is much more to be had than what I gleaned the first time around. I can with certainty say this: it is a wonderfully-shot, expertly-directed, and, at times, disturbing film. If you have not heard of it, you should see it anyway. It would not help for me to tell you much about it, it’s something you need to encounter for yourself without any preconceptions.

5. Public Enemies

A movie that really didn’t come alive for me until the second viewing (perhaps because I was exhausted the first time). It’s another one of this year’s underrated wonders. An old-fashioned gangster film with a modern sensibility. Every time I want to write off Johnny Depp as a pop-culture fad, he surprises me with a performance like this. And, between this and Nine, Marion Cotillard proves she is one of the world’s best film actresses.

6. Bright Star

Films about Romantic English poets aren’t probably going to attract a ton of attention, but this one deserved it. Great performances all around, and director Jane Campion is able to lead us to an inevitable ending with patience and serenity, where other directors would probably lapse into melodrama. It’s a movie I’ve been eager to watch again since I first saw it back in October, just to make sure it’s as good as I thought it was that time. I’m certain it is.

7. A Single Man

Much has been made of its cinematography and music, both of which are gorgeous. But what makes this film work is the excellent performance at its center: Colin Firth (finally proving what I’ve always suspected about him as an actor) as a broken man stuck in a world that doesn’t allow him the right to grieve.

8. In the Loop

I could go on for ages about the stupidity of the prejudices that many artists have about comedy as opposed to “drama.” Here is a film about the lead-up to a war in the Middle East, but rather than beating you over the head with rhetoric and political commentary, it cracks you up and works better than perhaps any film yet dealing with the war on terror/Iraq. The screenplay is rightly nominated tonight, but Peter Capaldi deserved a nomination, if for nothing else than one particular scene in which his Malcolm Tucker almost breaks down. If you’ve seen any of the BBC show the film is based on, it’s a truly memorable moment.

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox

The best animated film of the year (sorry Pixar). I’ll admit that it’s possible I’m just a Wes Anderson junkie, but the general acclaim it got makes me feel my praise is warranted. Appropriate (i.e. non-gimmicky) voice acting and old-fashioned animation make this one of the fullest expressions of Anderson’s style. It ranks right up near The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore.

10. Star Trek

I bet I’ll take some flack for this one. I already wrote a short review of it, so I’ll be brief. It’s fun, excellently-made, and one of the most purely entertaining movies this year. At the end of the day, sometimes you just can’t beat a thrill ride.

The Second Tier

11. (500) Days of Summer
12. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call- New Orleans
13. Un Prophete
14. Il Divo
15. The Road
16. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
17. Up
18. Away We Go
19. The Young Victoria
20. Up in the Air

Honorable Mentions (Five films that don’t belong on any best-of list, but I still really enjoyed)

District 9
Me and Orson Welles
Observe and Report

Best Actor: Colin Firth, A Single Man

Best Actress: Abbie Cornish, Bright Star

Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard, Nine AND Public Enemies

Best Director: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man

Best Adapted Screenplay: Armando Iannucci, In the Loop

And I won’t pretend, like others, to know enough about the craft of any of the technical categories to pick what’s best. I’ll leave that to the Academy.

Quick Oscar Thoughts: You’ll probably notice a glaring omission in this list: The Hurt Locker. Is it a bad movie? No. Good movie? Perhaps. Overrated? Most definitely. While a win for it would not be as infuriating as Slumdog’s triumph last year, it would still be another example of the Academy getting behind what it thinks is an “important” movie and letting that carry it all the way to the finish line. The movie has its virtues, and I do think it’s pretty good, but I just can’t get behind calling it one of the best movies of the year. I believe the fact that it’s probably the best of all the Iraq movies, something that Oscar has felt the desire to comment on in the past few years, has brought it to the podium.

Avatar: I enjoyed it, as I indicated above. Yes, yes, it’s a technological breakthrough that’s probably changed movies forever, etc. But a place in the top twenty? I think not. It is visually dazzling, no doubt about that. It deserves the Visual Effects Oscar it receives tonight. But the melodrama and faux-profundity kept me from truly engaging with it. But as I said, I did (and will continue to) enjoy it.

The Ten: I seem to be one of the few people out there who likes the return to ten best picture nominees. If you look at the best director lineup, you can see what are the five “real nominees,” and the inclusion of The Blind Side gives the sense that the rest of the list is the Academy checking off demographic categories (Fanboys? Check. Middle America? Check.) But I like the chance to include more genre entries like District 9 and Up. Plus, the change in the balloting system has resulted in one of the least-certain best picture races in recent history.

So here’s to you, Academy. Here’s hoping you don’t embarrass yourself like last year. Here’s hoping that, despite the glaring omissions in your list of nominees, you manage to make some decent picks. Here’s hoping you’ve learned your lessons.

Who am I kidding? Bring on the headache.