Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dancing with myself: Black Swan

The other day I found myself watching Vertigo while surfing the web. I would momentarily look up and relish the profound intensity and sadness that seems to permeate Hitchcock films. No one is truly happy. The protagonists are always sullen or haunted, the antagonists hide
wickedness behind Cheshire cat grins.
And I was sad for a moment. Sad that they just don't make movies like these anymore.

Black Swan is the closest to new Hitchcock we'll ever get. I don't often leave a movie feeling fulfilled. Aronofsky took on the idea of ballet, and the idea of the ballerina, and used them to construct a staggeringly beautiful piece of film for women.
Natalie Portman is a ballerina, hard working and dedicated, who finally gets her chance at a starring role. But will the pressure be too much?

This film is about pressure. It's very much about women, our relationships with each other and our bodies. For a ballerina, and for most women, the ideal instilled in us creates an incredible amount of pressure.
We want our bodies to be perfect, we put pressure on them, it becomes impossible to have a healthy relationship with our bodies when we view them as a thing standing in the way of achieving perfection. We see perfection or flaws in other women, we put pressure on ourselves and others to compete for the ideal, it becomes impossible to have a healthy relationship with other women.
The ballet is a pure and beautiful form, it is not vulgar or sexual. Nina has rejected or repressed any vulgarity or sexuality in herself.

If our bodies are the enemy, if other women are merely competitors or has-beens, if we cannot even love ourselves- can we live an ordinary life without cracking?
If we cannot accept our limitations and imperfections, our humanity, can we be human?
Can we achieve the ideal, "have it all", the perfection, without completely destroying ourselves and everyone around us?
The Black Swan rises up, it flutters its massive wings, it hisses "No.", and swallows us whole.

Go. See. This. Movie.

"Get thee to a nunn'ry!"

-- Noel
Sent from my T-Mobile phone

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The movie gifts that keep on giving

There are only four shopping days left until Christmas. Five if you count Christmas Eve, but I don't count Christmas Eve. If you haven't bought a gift for someone by now, you obviously don't really like them all that much. You know who I'm talking about: Those people you can barely tolerate, but yet are forced to exchange gifts with because of the suffocating grip tradition and social niceties have on our collective lives.

Here are some gift ideas for those people on your list. You will be able to fulfill your obligation and express your distaste for it all at the same time. Or you'll almost certainly never be invited to the Yankee Swap again. Or you'll be considered the most hysterically ironic person in your group of hipster friends.

Titanic 2- This actually exists. But hey, it's not like they did something so tasteless as to resurrect the first ship only to have it sink again. No, this is the story of an entirely different boat by the same exact name that predictably meets the same end when "a tsunami hurls an ice berg[sic] into the new ship's path...", because these filmmakers have integrity.

He's Just Not That Into You- If there's someone on your list that you want to insult in an incredibly passive aggressive manner, I encourage you to buy them this movie on DVD and really emphasize the fact that "I thought you would just love this. It's so perfect for you." It's like Closer, but with a lobotomy.

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue- Do you have a child on our list, a child whose parent you greatly despise? Give that child this movie. Not only will you be killing the child's brain cells and thereby ensuring its academic disadvantage, the parent will be slowly shaken from their sanity by their child's repeated requests to watch this movie over, and over, and over, and over... If the child is male and conforms to the western social ideal of their gender role, you should substitute Tom and Jerry Meet Sherlock Holmes.

The Lost Boys: The Thirst- You've got to know someone who deserves an ill-advised third installment to a classically good-because-it-is-bad cult flick which stars Corey Feldman. It promises that "The Frog brothers are back for blood." Think of the look the Best Buy clerk will give the recipient when they try to return this for store credit. For extra fun you could insist on watching it with them so that they can only try to sell it used and you get to see them pretend to enjoy it.

Wrong Turn at Tahoe- I recommend this, not because I have the slightest idea what it's about or how it will bring unhappiness to the person you give it to, but because Christmas is a time for charity. And I think it's pretty clear that when Cuba Gooding Jr (who has an Oscar) and Harvey Keitel (who is just really awesome) are doing movies named after Bugs Bunny's punch lines, they need all the charity we can give. Show them the money!

Have a fantastic holiday. Thank you so very much for reading my blog, and I look forward to all of the movies I'll share with you in 2011.
If I see TRON before then, I'll be sure to let you know what I think.

If you also have some great ideas for terrible movies to give as gifts, or ones you have received, please share them in the comments. Extra points if you can buy it on VHS.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Indie in-demand: Whip It & Scott Pilgrom Vs. The World

I find it fascinating that "indie" has become a genre. The term "indie" used to refer to any independently made movie, regardless of subject matter and genre. Now, any quirky movie with young characters and certain "it" actors that gives the sarcastically sweet treatment to white, middle-class life (with a soundtrack full of "indie" bands) is deemed to be "indie" regardless of its budget size. I really wish there was another name for this new genre. I propose calling them "suburbies".

Whip It is the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. It is a thoroughly charming movie with a "girl-power" theme that's pretty refreshing compared to most of what's out there. It tells the story of a Texas teenager, Bliss, who finds a purpose and motivation for life in roller derby- but struggles to gain her beauty pageant loving mother's approval.

Don't know anything about roller derby? Don't worry- Whip It lays out all the rules for you so you're not left wondering what's going on. I was confused by the fact that the features of roller derby that, I feel, are most important to the film's theme are sort of glossed over. Bliss's mother has shoe-horned her into competing in beauty pageants, which force girls to compete over something which they cannot totally control- their body and their face. No matter how great your talent or speech-giving talents may be, if you aren't born with the right body and face, you can't win a pageant. The forces girls to become alienated from their bodies. Their bodies become the thing that holds them back, the thing they cannot change or control, and this manifests in eating disorders and other body image problems.

Roller derby is an athletic sport where different body types are not only welcomed, they are essential to the different positions on the team. Blockers need to be big and strong, jammers need to be quick and nimble. Bliss finds herself viewing her body as a tool, as something she can control and use to get closer to her goals. This creates a positive body relationship that can culminate in body acceptance.
Roller derby players also play up their sexuality, while still being tough athletes. This breaks down the beauty conventions that women are fragile and demure, or must be perceived as such in order to be attractive. Players choose aggressive stage names like professional wrestlers do, but their contact sport is not costume play. They get hit, they knock each other over. Bones are broken, eyes are blackened, and lips are busted. They also have rabidly loyal fan bases who admire the women not only for their physical appearance, but their skill and ability as athletes.
Whip It barely touches these points, and it sort of makes me wish that there were a documentary to go along with the fictionalization. What is great is that the roller derby players in the film have diverse lifestyles, one is a single mom, but they are all equally dedicated to the sport and talk openly about what it means to them to be able to compete.

Barrymore is a competent director. She excels at giving us intimate glimpses into the relationships of her characters. But, as I mentioned, I hope that she learns how to flesh out the parts of the story that aren't character-driven. She is also a gifted comedic presence, and created an ensemble cast that you can tell are genuinely friends off screen, so the chemistry on screen is fantastic. Kristen Wig, who plays one of the roller girls "Maggie Mayhem", is a treasure, and I always enjoy watching her. Juliette Lewis plays an antagonistic derby girl "Iron Maven", and she smolders in every scene she's in. Ellen Page plays Bliss, and it's nice to see her taking a turn as a teen who doesn't think she knows it all. Perhaps now that she's 23, she knows the whole "disturbingly mature teen" shtick could no longer hold any water. It's easy to seem wise beyond your years when you're already actually five years beyond those years.
If you like sports movies and feel like there aren't enough of them starring women (which is disappointingly true), see Whip It. It's a lot of fun to watch.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World ( is a movie is so inventive that I can't help but like it and insist that others see it. It's far from flawless and definitely has some pacing problems, but I don't think I've ever seen a translation of comic book-styling and video game-structure so eloquently portrayed on screen.
The titular Scott is an average Canadian guy in a garage band. Well, except for the fact that his band is actually good and that his ex-girlfriend is now a rock sensation a la Gwen Stefani. Everything seems like it's going to maintain a steady course until Scott meets Ramona Flowers, the literal girl of his dreams, who has a literal league of vengeful exes.

So, this film runs with the literal gag. All the cinematography evokes a comic book feel. The special effects evoke a video game feel. There are bangs, ker-pows, and coins appearing where bodies once were. However, the film does fall victim to a problem that plagues many comic book and video-game inspired films: all that fighting starts to get boring after a while. It's extremely difficult to balance action with plot development, and when filmmakers try to cram a lot of both into less than two hours the results are never that great.
What saves this movie, aside from the aesthetic genius, is a strong cast. Michael Cera is perfect as the average, yet awesome, Scott Pilgrim. Ellen Wong is hysterical as Knives Chau- Scott's teen aged girlfriend. Mary Elizabeth Winstead somehow managed to be a witty, mumbling, effortlessly cool Ramona Flowers without being an Ellen Page clone. She's also simply beautiful and the camera loves her. Kieran Culkin steals the show as Scott's gay roommate, Wallace. And all of the "evil exes" actors- Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Shota Saito, Keita Saito and Jason Schwatrzman- are perfect, growling video game villains. They are terrific comedic foils for the average likes of Scott and his crew.

This movie is tough to wrap your head around while watching. It's very self-aware and willing to make jokes at its own expense, but it has some poignant moments that try to ground it as best they can.
I think Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is best viewed with a group of friends. I think the action and the comedy will be greatly enhanced by the group experience. Plus it has action, comedy and some romance. It will appeal to geeks and hipsters of all shapes and sizes.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Win, lose or draw (Megamind and The Princess and The Frog)

Do you like cartoons? I love cartoons.
I'm sure it's because being born in the 80's, I was able to enjoy some of the best animated television shows and Disney's feature film renaissance of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, etc. I have a soft spot for hand-drawn and 2D characters following familiar story arcs and bursting into catchy songs.
So, it was bittersweet for me as I watched Pixar usher Disney and the rest of animation into a 3rd dimension. Sure, I love to marvel at the skill and artistry these technologies use to create dimensional and believable fictional worlds. And yes, the stories (at least the Pixar ones) were every bit as compelling and classic as the Disney favorites I had come of age watching- but it wasn't the same. There's something inherently charming about the way those movies could take a character, so obviously fake, made of ink and paint, and turn them into a living, breathing thing that we could relate to, aspire to, and love.
I was thrilled when Disney announced it would deliver a 2D feature film, just like old times. Only unlike old times, this one would feature some ethnic diversity and not so-closely adhere to gender stereotype-heavy "twoo wuv will save me!" story lines as before. I looked forward to The Princess and The Frog. I was disappointed when it received poor reviews. I decided to let some time pass, and then make up my mind for myself.

I should have listened to the reviews. The Princess and The Frog, while refreshingly pretty to look at and features great characters with great values to match, was decidedly lacking.
The story itself was terrible. Many parts of it worked on their own, but let's face it, Disney is at it's best when it's rehashing a classic fairytale. They simply changed too much about the old story about a princess, her favorite gold ball, and the frog who so tirelessly worked to get her to see him for what he truly was.
Tiana is the hard-working daughter of a seamstress. Her friend, the spoiled Charlotte, wishes only to marry a prince so that she can continue to live a life of privilege. Tiana's dream is to have her own restaurant, and she's happy to put in the elbow grease to get it. When a penniless, free-wheeling Prince Naveen comes to town, he makes a deal that changes all of their fortunes.
Of course they all live happily ever after. I'm not giving anything away by telling you that, it's a Disney movie. That's how they always end.

What cripples this movie is that the set-up for Prince Naveen and the villain he makes a deal with, Dr. Facillier, is poorly developed. The prince has just come to town, why would he so quickly strike a deal with a dastardly stranger he's just met? It's also not clear why Dr. Facillier is tricking this man. All that's shown is that he's jealous of Charlotte's father's money, but it doesn't seem very compelling.
To make matters worse, once Tiana and Naveen are turned into frogs, the main plot of movie becomes their quest to be human again. It's too simple. And we all know that they're going to get what they want, so you don't even feel particularly anxious about their quest.
Maybe this wouldn't be as apparent had Disney not already made much more successful "quest for humanity" movies such as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and The Beast. On top of all of that, I felt like Pirates of the Carribean and The Rescuers had the whole "voodoo in the bayou" thing sewed up pretty nicely. It would have been nice if the movie had stayed in the city of New Orleans, but set in a different time period, that would have at least felt less like deja vu.
Disney used to excel at bringing us new and exciting worlds in every movie. Fidning Nemo, Atlantis, The Little Mermaid- all set in the ocean, but it was new and re-imagined in every one. Beauty and The Beast, Ratatoullie and The Aristocats- all set in France (the latter two in Paris) yet they didn't feel stale or boring.

The thing that bothered me the most was the simple fact that Tiana was unmistakably a dark-skinned, wider-nosed version of Belle (this picture shows Tiana with blue eyes, in the film they're light brown) same face shape, same eye shape, same eyebrows, same nose line, and same lips save for the cupid's bow:

Prince Naveen was dark-skinned version of Prince Eric, or a slightly older and darker Aladdin. In the picture you can see the same face shape and same facial features.:

Even Dr. Facillier smacked of Jafar:

It was offensive to me that they didn't give these characters their own style or unique features. Mulan, Pochahontas and Lilo were treated more thoughtfully than Tiana. Belle, Ariel, Snow White and Cinderella each have a look and style all of their own. You could not mistake one for the other. Even Cinderella and Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty) have features that set them apart from each other. Tiana deserved better.

Bruno Campos (who I only really know from his incredibly disturbing turn on Nip/Tuck) is delightful as Naveen. As much as his physical appearance may not stand very far from other Disney leading men, his personality oozed charm. His accent was funny- but not so funny that it seemed kitchsy- and His character showed some of the best facial expressions in the film.
Keith David (you may remember him as The Cat in Coraline, or as Goliath in the TV series Gargoyles [yes, I am a total nerd]) is magnetic as Dr. Facillier. So magnetic that it makes it painfully obvious that his character is poorly developed and not adequately motivated. He gets the most entertaining musical number.
Anika Noni Rose does her best as Tiana. But terrible dialogue and Belle-all-over-again look and personality make her truly forgettable. Next to Bruno Campos, she fades away. The only supporting characters that truly hold their own are Charlotte, played to hysteric perfection by Jennifer Cody, and her "Big Daddy" (Tennessee Williams is rolling in his grave), voiced unmistakably by John Goodman.
What does it say when the most interesting supporting characters in the movie are white? That the writers just weren't sure, or were too scared, to take any risks whatsoever with any of the other characters. Dr. Facillier could have been more flamboyant, he should have been out to take revenge on the sugar barons for profiting off of the hard work of their slaves and under-paid workers. Tiana could have shown the other side of the struggle, and that she didn't want free reparations, she was willing to work for what she wanted and earn the respect of those around her. Charlotte and Big Daddy could have been more sympathetic to Tiana and her family, in the end promising to give back to the black community and offer loans or support to people like Tiana who wanted to start their own business. Naveen should have been humbled by seeing the struggle of people of color in America while he had lived a spoiled and privileged life in his home country. He could have acted as ambassador and helped with integration. That would have given us dynamic and compelling characters, while still sugar-coating reality enough to be a Disney film.

For a film that was clearly made to be empowering, and with the best intentions, it was not. If you want to see an empowering Disney movie, see Mulan or Dumbo (one of my favorites). Please, do not see The Princess and The Frog. I took one for the team here.

A movie you should see, critics be damned, is Megamind. All the critics pooh-poohed and said "It's like The Incredibles, only not as good."
No! It is not like The Incredibles. Megamind is a more straightforward send-up of the Reeves Superman films, whereas The Incredibles was more teasing at the old super hero cartoons and comic books. Unlike The Incredibles, it has a more adult-oriented cast and humor.
Imagine if Dr. Evil was the star of the Austin Powers movies, that's the angle Megamind is working.
An alien child, Megamind, is sent away from his dying home planet to Earth. His journey is paralleled by a fortune-favored, handsome alien child, Metro Man. Rather than standing in the shadow of his privileged, popular counterpart, the ostracized Megamind decides to become a super villain, and he's pretty good at it. Until he manages to defeat Metro Man. Hilarity ensues.

The brilliance worth seeing here is the dialogue so perfectly delivered by Will Farrell, Tina Fey, Brad Pitt, David Cross, and Jonah Hill. The comedy talent here is peerless. The only way it could have been improved were if those offering their voices had actually written their lines. The thought of them even getting to ad-lib all in a room together is like a wet dream for your funny bone.

Is it a great work of timeless class? No. Is it entertaining? Hell yes! I laughed really, really hard. I found myself repeating the funnier parts later on and still laughing. The more sentimental story lines were sweet but slightly boring, yet not forgettable or tedious.

The thing I really thought was lacking in Megamind was a distinctive visual style. It looked like The Incredibles, and that's what hurt it so much. And seeing as though Dreamworks gave us Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar, they're clearly up to the task, so why they simply phoned it in and copied Brad Bird on the visuals, I'll never know.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

By the numbers

A lot of people are saying that the movie The Social Network is a zeitgeist.

Zeit-geist: n. The spirit of the time; the taste and outlook characteristic of a period or generation.

I disagree. Facebook could be called a zeitgeist, but the movie about the creation of Facebook is not.

(500) Days of Summer is a zeitgeist. It's a movie by, for, and of my generation. The best thing about this movie is the creative approach it takes to the traditional plot of any boy-meets-girl film. It's about a young man named Tom, and his relationship with a young woman named Summer.

The story is told in non-chronological order, like Pulp Fiction and Memento. There are also many plays on POV, with surreal, fantastical, or exaggerated sequences that crib from other film genres. Pop culture is woven into the characters lives in such an organic way that it's impossible to tell where the cultural references stop and the characters begin.

This is the way so many millennials, or Generation Y, experience life. We have an endless internal index of movies, shows, music, books and characters with which we can annotate occurrences in our daily lives. We see our experiences reflected in the media that we consume and share with each other. We deepen our interpersonal relationships by sharing our media and experiences. We love to tell people why we love the things we love. I'm doing that right now, right here on my blog. We put an emphasis on sharing similar interests with our significant others. We expect them to like the same bands, the same movies, the same shows. Thanks to Facebook and other social networks, we can now like and share our friends experiences. Our internal collection of references grows, our networks expand, and we find that our lives are inextricable from the context we seek to create around them. A context of cultural touchstones and the approval of others. Our experiences are the sum of their parts, not the sequence in which they happened, which is why we so enjoy nonlinear narratives in books, movies and other media.

(500) Days of Summer is truly representative of my generation. Tom, the main character portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is frequently seen wearing t-shirts declaring his love of a certain band or film. His apartment is littered with similar references. Even the music he listens to is audible and acts both character development and plot device. One of the first things that makes him really notice Summer, played by Zooey Deschanel, is that she hears a The Smiths song he is listening to and comments about how she also likes that band and song. Tom is floored. He so closely identifies with that music that the simple fact that Summer also enjoys the music means, to him, that they are perfectly compatible. He also takes pride in thinking that The Smiths are vintage and not well-liked by the general public, so he considers his taste, and Summer's taste by association, to be extremely rare and sophisticated.

Considering the fact that The Smiths have almost 900k fans on Facebook, you begin to see how this frame of mind can be misleading. This film also highlights another generational problem: we are in love with love. A large chunk of Gen Y are hopeless romantics, and its no wonder considering the fact that we grew up on John Hughes's work and other movies like Pretty Woman and The Goonies. We take breakups harder than most. All we see is a cacophony of references to our failed relationship. That show we used to watch together. That movie or band we both liked. That shirt I wore when we first met. Our internal index works against us, and we find ourselves dissecting it to try and find the cause of our broken romance. And we blame ourselves. The true romantic in us cannot blame love, it blames itself, and it almost enjoys the suffering- for nothing is quite as beautiful and romantic as heartbreak.

In short, the cinematography is impressive and very emotive. The screenplay is inventive, the dialogue is fresh and believable. The acting is first-rate, both Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are magnetic and charming. The soundtrack is impeccable, for all of the reasons I list above. It's the mix tape we all made at some point for someone, that described a relationship from start to finish.
(500) Days of Summer is entertaining, beautiful and quirky. I couldn't think of a better love-note written by Gen Y and addressed to everyone. It says "this is who we are. this is what our life is like, and we hope you like it." I liked it. I hope you will too.

If you want to see a love note written by Gen X and addressed to everyone, watch High Fidelity. John Cusack's Lawrence of Arabia.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why I love sports movies

I love sports movies. Sometimes in spite of myself, sometimes in spite of the fact that I don't follow sports in real life. There is a charm to the standard sports drama that never fails to appeal to me. It's the underdog story, the inevitability of the underdog to win, and the satisfying righteous nature of that mega-happy ending. Sports dramas are reliable that way: they enthrall, they inspire, and they're usually pretty straight-forward. Sports comedies follow the same plot structure, only the defeats and short-falls are hilarious instead of heartbreaking.

Dan also loves sports dramas. And, since I've been subjecting him to every manner of "I know you don't want to watch this movie, but it's an important movie that you should like", I decided to watch a couple of movies I knew we'd both enjoy.

I started off with The Greatest Game Ever Played. I figured this was a sure-thing. Dan loves golf. Dan loves Boston. This was a movie about a famous golf player from Boston. The fact that it's a Disney movie directed by Bill "Game Over, Man" Paxton, starring Shania TheBeef gave me pause, but I was doing this for Dan, so I put it on my Netflix queue. I'm so glad I did. Most of my family members are avid golfers and I've lived in Massachusetts my whole life, yet I had never heard of Ouimet and "The Greatest Game Ever Played". It's an incredible story and I really feel that this movie did it justice.

The Greatest Game Ever Played is partially a biopic of two golfers (Francis Ouimet and Harry Vardon) and partially about the world of golf in 1913 and how these two players changed golf forever.

Vardon came from humble backgrounds to be the most successful and famous professional golfer of his time. Francis Ouimet was from a working-class family and grew up at the foot of a prominent country club in Brookline. Ouimet was inspired by Vardon at an early age, and Ouimet finds himself playing in the U.S. Open against Vardon. Ouimet and his ten-year-old caddy, Eddie Lowrey, are amateurs, but determined to win. The resulting round of golf was called "The Greatest Game Ever Played" by local papers.

The story itself is so incredible that Dan and I took to Wikipedia several times to see what amount of Disneyfication was going on, but the most unbelievable aspects of the story are the ones that are true. And Bill Paxton is actually a pretty good director. He does an excellent job of character exposition and gives a great moody undertone to balance out this mega-happy ending. Paxton even gets artsy with us, using clever camera angles and cutaways to illustrate the nerves Vardon and Ouimet feel before every swing of the club.

Shia LaBeouf is likable and just awkward enough as the young golfing prodigy Ouimet. But what I liked the best in this film were the supporting performances. Elias Koteas as Ouimet's father, with a flawless French Canadian accent, is a tough blue-collar guy who just wants his son to succeed, but not in golf. Stephen Marcus (you've seen in him as Nick The Greek in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) is bombastic as Ted Ray, the big golfer with a short temper. And this film would not be half as good as it is without Josh Flitter as Eddie Lowrey, Ouimet's loyal, wise-cracking caddy. My favorite scene from this film is the one where the men in charge of the U.S. Open try to manipulate the pair into replacing Lowrey with "a proper caddy". Lowrey bursts into hysterics, in a way that was instantly recognizable and believable as the way that any kid reacts when they feel betrayed and heartbroken. "They told me you'd want to..." he chokes out between sobs to Ouimet, and it got me. My heart was wrenched.

Another thing I liked about it was how it visually contrasted the world of the rich club members and the world of the golfers. The former is polished and cold, the latter is dingy and earthy.

The other sports film I watched with Dan was The Blind Side. It was good. Not "deserved to be nominated for Best Picture and for Sandra Bullock to win Best Actress" good, but simply good. The real power to this film, like The Greatest Game Ever Played, is that it's hard to believe it's all true. It is simply incredible that anyone could escape the life that Michael Oher was living. It's incredible that anyone would take a person they hardly knew into their family, with few questions asked. That story itself is well worth watching, and leaves you with a good feeling. Other than that, this movie is pretty standard. I think the reason Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for it was because the role proves that she can act and that she can pull off a Southern drawl quite nicely. But she doesn't exactly disappear into the role of Leigh Anne Tuohy. I just think she's so very much like Leigh Anne Tuohy that no one else would have even been considered for the role. The character, in spite of being based on a real person, is very Bullock-esque. I was very much aware that I was watching Sandra Bullock. It's still a sin that she won over Gabourey Sidibe's performance in Precious, but at least now I have a little more perspective. Tim McGraw and Kathy Bates are also in this movie. They're okay, too. I really wonder if those roles were given simply because the real people got to pick who would play them in a movie. I could see Leigh Anne picking Bullock, Sean picking McGraw and Miss Sue choosing Kathy Bates. Nothing spectacular.

I did really enjoy Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher, but the performance confused me. The role is very similar to Precious in Precious, but without the narration, we lose our concept of the character's inner thoughts and feelings. Through much of this movie we are simply left to wonder why Michael is so cryptically stoic. I feel this is the place where the film falls short. Those moments where Michael does express himself, on the field and off, are the ones that really let this movie soar. But we don't see enough of them. The way we see Michael portrayed in the movie, and the real-life clips and photos at the end seem like two different people. The movie-Michael is withdrawn, stone-faced and insecure. The Michael we see in clips and photos flashes wide grins, and seems to have personality oozing out of his pores. This disparity bothered me. I would have liked to know more about how he felt in those times, and seen that big friendly personality emerge more often.

Where I do think the movie triumphs is showing how those of us who live outside of the harsh world of the ghetto are the ones with a blind side. We don't know what it's like for those people who live there. We don't hear or see anything about them unless they're being arrested or killed. And we don't do anything to help them because of it. All Michael Oher, and so many other young people, need a safe environment surrounded by people who truly care about them in order to succeed. This is the same lesson Precious provides, but it's delivery will make most people uncomfortable. The Blind Side is able to deliver the message that love is what saves people while not making people uncomfortable with their ignorance or inaction to "the other America". Which is why it was more successful than Precious. But that isn't important as long as people are taking that idea to heart at the end of the film, and I hope they are.

The Blind Side is a great family movie, and it is heartwarming to see how the entire Tuohy family falls in love with Michael. Kind of made me want to run out and adopt a football player.

If you want a sure-fire, feel-good, mega-happy ending, go with a sports movie every time. Others I recommend are The Natural, Miracle and Rudy.

And feel free to dump some Gatorade on someone the next time they do a good job. Nothing says "Nice work!" like being cold, wet and sticky.


Going BUMP in the night

Halloween is just around the corner. It's my favorite holiday, because we get to dress up, eat candy, and get a good scare in. I have always been sensitive to horror films, but I love them because they produce such a strong emotional reaction.

So, in honor of my favorite holiday, here are some of my favorite scary movies. Six seems like a good, spooky number:

The Shining- Stanley Kubrick knows how to make hypnotic and violent movies, Stephen King knows how to write stories that evoke our most basic fears. Together, with the ever-talented Jack Nicholson, they created one of the most iconic horror films of all time. Who can forget the blood crashing out of those elevator doors? Who isn't terrified by the concept of your own family being turned against each other? This movie still gives me the creeps, no matter how many times I've seen it. Part of its genius, and part of the reason why any child who sees it at a young age is scarred for life, is that we see most of the action from 6-year-old Danny's point of view. The scenes with him rolling around the vacant hotel on his big wheel, hiding in the kitchen (which Stephen Spielberg later used in Jurassic Park), and the end sequence with the hedge maze will never leave your mind. The acting is stellar and the pacing is flawless.

A young family is hired to care for an old hotel during the off-season, but it seems they are not alone, and some buildings are not composed of simply brick and mortar.

The Exorcist- If you've seen this movie and didn't think it was that scary, watch it again. Once you already know the dark things plaguing poor Regan, the hints scattered by director William Friedkin along the way are like breadcrumbs leading to a place you know you don't want to go. Part of the horror is that the answer to what is wrong with Regan is so simple, but a world of non-believers fail to see it, and the girl suffers greatly as a consequence. This movie scarred an entire generation of people. My mother, and most women my mother's age, refuse to even discuss this film. They won't even joke about Ouija boards. The Exorcist's success in horrifying us is that it makes the most ridiculous concept- demonic possession- seem perfectly real. Linda Blair is a wunderkind.

A young actress calls upon a priest when her daughter becomes plagued by a horrible illness.

Audition- Can there be anything more frightening than discovering the person you love is not who they seem to be? This brilliant Japanese horror film has some pretty powerful thoughts about the dangers of sexism, trust and innocence. I can't forget this movie. When people tell me about acupuncture, this film leaps to mind, its graphic scenes coating my eyeballs like a paint no thinner can remove. It will haunt you. It will disturb you. Click on the title for my full review.

A lonely man accepts his friend's offer to "cast" him a new wife, who turns out to be a much better actress than he bargained for.

Silence of the Lambs- I adore this film. It is incredibly watchable and entertaining, yet sophisticated and creepy. Anthony Hopkins IS Hannibal Lector. Accept no substitutions. He fills up this monster of a man in a way that is totally terrifying. And the final scene with Ted Levine in the claustrophobia-inducing basement is unforgettable.

Jodie Foster plays hot-shot FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, tapped by her mentor to crack a serial killer case. In order to get to the bottom of who "Buffalo Bill" is and why he's skinning his victims, she turns to an imprisoned, murderous, former psychiatrist Dr. Lector for clues. The rabbit's hole he leads her down is far darker and twisted than Clarice ever could have imagined.

The Ring- Normally, I don't recommend re-makes. However, the slick sensibility of the American version of The Ring lets the frightening concept of the curse shine. This film is cold and calculating, and it scared the hell out of me. I watched it by myself at 11:00 a.m. on a bright, sunny day, and I was still too spooked at night to turn off the lights. The impending sense of dread this film creates, the inescapable nature of the curse, knocks down every "it's only a movie" sensibility you could hold.

A young reporter is determined to discover the reason behind her niece's sudden, violent death. But, some secrets go viral once they are let out.

Beetlejuice- Okay, so this one really isn't scary, but it's just a great movie that's damn fun to watch and it reminds us why we go looking for frights on October nights. You can't beat this cast: Alec Baldwin. Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones. Helmed by Tim Burton, Beetljuice is the perfect mix of funny, scary and heartfelt.

A recently-deceased, young, country couple find themselves having to share their home with odious city-dwellers. They seek a way to drive them out, but their desperate measures begin to interfere with the kinship they feel with the new family's Goth teenage daughter.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Doctor is in

I've got two online courses and weddings, showers, parties and other such happy time-consuming things going on in my life. This is reducing the time in which I can sit on my couch and blog. I'll have to start mobile blogging during my lunch hours to get caught up.

Doctor Zhivago is one of those movies that I felt like if I didn't see it, I would be missing out on this huge cultural icon, like Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. These films are epics, they're truly larger than life. They can only be described with words like sweeping, lavish, classic, and grand. They are big in every sense of the word, and they are long. Doctor Zhivago has a 197 minute running time. However, I cut this down by doing something borderline sacrilegious: I skip the overture, intermission and entre act orchestrations. I know, I know, these movies are like operas and each character and theme has its own music and by skipping these things I miss out on the bigger picture. But, there are plenty of movies that achieve an operatic-like soundtrack without needing overtures and intermissions, Lord of the Rings (1) and Star Wars (4) come to mind as examples. So, if you can't quite carve out three and a half hours in which to watch Doctor Zhivago, skip the music bits. The story is strong enough to stand on its own.

Doctor Zhivago takes the story of the Russian communist revolution and uses the story of two star-crossed lovers to frame it. Yuri Zhivago, the titular rich young physician, and Lara, the working class girl. Fate brings them together and tears them apart time and again. In the meantime, they each live through the worst parts of the communist revolution. It is, at its heart, a story of how in a nation where people are forced to share everything, everyone loses everything they hold dear. It is incredibly romantic, but it's so much more than a romance movie.

The cinematography is what makes this movie a masterpiece. The emotion of each scene is told by the camera. My favorite example of this is the first opportunity Yuri sees to begin an affair with Lara. He is draped in shadow, his face obscured, while he makes his shameful proposition. Lara, surrounded by a halo of light, nobly refuses his invitation, even though she admits she admires him a great deal. The dialogue is subtle, and the acting is as well, so if it weren't for the use of light and camera angle the viewer might not notice the power of morality at play in the scene. There are also several scenes featuring the odious Viktor Komarovsky, and the tension is shown in the shadows and cramped spaces in which he always brings Lara.

The costumes are accurate as possible, and flatter the actors without upstaging them. The makeup is the real costuming achievement in this film. The characters are shown to age. They reflect their nation as Russia becomes a shell of its former self. Poverty, fear and the ravages of time are shown on their faces with makeup.

The real stars are the sets and location. Russia herself is the silent character, and by showing the same places over and over again, changed by the revolution, slowly becoming more desolate and sad. The colorful flowers and blue skies seen in the happier times of Zhivago's life are replaced by gray streets and white snow.

The acting is just unbelievable. Not for one moment do you see any of the actors as anything else but their characters. Omar Sharif gives one of the best performances ever seen. If I had to rate performances in a top five, this is number two. The only performance I've seen that can top it is Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. This isn't entirely surprising. After working together on Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif teamed up with director David Lean to bring us Doctor Zhivago. Sharif originally wanted to play Pasha, but Lean cast him in the lead after Peter O'Toole passed on the role. Best twist of fate ever. Sharif gives a performance that spans a man's entire life and does it with a style that you just don't see anymore.
Julie Christie also astounds in playing Lara. She gives us a character that, in spite of all the hard knocks in her life, remains true and loving. Never bitter, never breaking down. Tom Courtenay is remarkable as Pasha. Courtenay shows the character's progression from an optimistic young man hungry for justice to a hardened war criminal who rules with an iron fist in a chilling and familiar way. If good people can become monsters, this is how it must happen.

The music really is amazing. It captures the scale of the story while still giving a feel of the individuals making up that story. There's no other way to describe the soundtrack, it's epic. It's operatic. It's the strong current in the ocean of this movie.

Doctor Zhivago is one for your bucket list. I'm so glad it was on mine. I'll never forget it.
Here's a little taste:


Saturday, September 25, 2010

I'm down with The Town

It may seem like Ben Affleck has it easy. Gorgeous, famous wife, an Oscar, two cute kids and some good movies under his belt. However, he doesn't have much cred to film buffs. Sure, he was in those great Kevin Smith flicks, 200 Cigarettes and Boiler Room, but who can forget Gigli and Daredevil? He was never destined to follow in the foot steps of DeNiro. Lucky for us, he stepped behind the camera, and he's actually very good at casting himself.

The Town works in all the ways Good Will Hunting works. Affleck has an intimate knowledge of the Bay State state of mind. He excels at portraying a blue collar tough guy whose only fear is that his buddies might find out that he's got a heart of gold. He's that bad boy with a sweet creamy center that every girl kids herself into believing truly exists. The big romantic streak running down the center of this cops'n'robbers movie throws you off. It's like a French romance set in Boston. I'm a little troubled by Affleck's seeming obsession with stories about men who had devastating childhoods. Just how tough was it being the kid from Cali in The People's Republic of Cambridge?

Affleck plays Doug McCray, a crook from a family of crooks who hangs out with other crooks and skanky girls. A big heist has him cross paths with a goody-two-shoes bank manager who just happens to be the girl of his dreams. But can he quit the life, and can the life quit him?

There's some serious talent flashing around in this movie. Affleck is good, Jeremy Renner is explosive as Doug's seriously demented friend, James. John Hamm shrugs off Don Draper to play a frustrated and ambitious FBI agent. But it was Blake Lively who really blew me away. Having lived my whole live in Massachusetts, I can honestly say I've never seen such a perfect portrayal of a lady Masshole on screen as Lively delivers. She's like a white Precious as Krista, only she's crafting her own destruction. She is deliciously tragic and heartbreakingly sympathetic. A product of her environment, Krista is in love with the things that hold her down. Institutionalized and trapped. I know this girl. I grew up with her. I see her on the T sometimes and at the mall. She is the girl next door, who deserves more but never wanted it for herself because she's too filled with self-loathing. Incredible. Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper round out the cast as the grizzled veterans showing the kids how it's done.

The direction isn't anything mind-blowing, but it gets the job done and the robberies and chase scenes are all good fun. I was on the edge of my seat quite often. That's always a good thing. But it sometimes telegraphs its punches, so Affleck isn't at master-level yet, but I think his next one might be.

The Town delivers some top notch, Boston-bred entertainment. If you liked The Boondock Saints, Gone Baby Gone and Heat, you'll enjoy this one. I know I did.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Write on

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is a slick and powerful neo-noir. Ewan McGregor plays a young writer, ghosting to make ends meet, who gets plunged headfirst into a world of political intrigue when he's hired to help Alan Lang, the former PM of the UK played by Pierce Brosnan, complete his memoir.

Most neo-noirs have a claustrophobic and stifling feel to them. The Ghost Writer, instead, channels THX 1138 and other Wellesian distopia future films. The landscapes and interiors are cold, vacant and hollow.
The houses do not feel like home, and even the island itself seems more like a santiarium than a resort. It's interesting to have watched this film so shortly after I had watched Shutter Island. These movies might seem thematically very similar: a man finds himself on an isolated island for his work and discovers a possible conspiracy. But their visual styles could not be more different and it's wonderful to see how the atmosphere the director creates does so much to enhance the plot and reveal the emotional state of the characters.

The casting is brilliant. Some of the best scenes occur in the beginning where familiar faces, like Jim Belushi, deliver surprisingly masterful performances in their small roles. I was especially pleased with Pierce Brosnan in this film. He gives Prime Minister Lang layers which I did not
expect. So much of the plot relies on his character, and Brosnan shows the tiny cracks in Lang's crafted, slick political facade in a nuanced and believable way. McGregor, as always, is so organic as the naive young, un-named artist. His role is one that closely mirrors the role Polanski played in The Tenant/Le Locataire. His innocence is his greatest flaw as he tries, in vain, to swim against the merciless current of fate. Yet, he is so likable and sympathetic that you cannot help but root for him. His nameless character is a perfect foil of other famous nameless character, like Clint Eastwood's hard Man With No Name. He is vulnerable and anxious, but resolute. Olivia Williams is magnetic as the PM's wife, Ruth. Williams makes Ruth into a mysterious woman whose charms almost conceal her darker motives, almost.

However, the cold, clinical atmosphere of the film makes it a little difficult to get attached to the characters. That doesn't make it any less of a well-crafted film, it's just the reason why it could never be a blockbuster.

Coming soon: Doctor Zhiavago, Bugsy, The Town, and more! I've been doing more movie
watching than blogging, but I'll do my best to catch up.

-- Noel
Sent from my T-Mobile Sidekick®


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Island Retreat

Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is unlike anything else in his filmography. Based on the novel of the same name by Massachusetts author Dennis Lehane, this psychological thriller is the kind of subject matter we're used to seeing from Christopher Nolan. And the dream sequences are very reminiscent of David Fincher's Fight Club. Scorsese has never done anything as visually lyrical as this before. I'm hungry for more.

Shutter Island follows U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels as he investigates a mysterious disappearance at an isolated prison for the criminally insane. Only as he unravels the mystery, it only seems to become further tangled onto itself.

Perhaps the most impressive thing Scorsese does is drop breadcrumbs about the twist throughout the film. Much like in The Sixth Sense, this means astute film-junkies will figure out the plot twist before it happens. But unlike The Sixth Sense, you won't feel like you're wasting your time watching a movie when you already know the ending.

I love the visual style. It's dark, but colorful. The Aviator meets Pan's Labyrinth, and even a little bit of Inglourious Basterds. Scorsese shot the majority of this film in Massachusetts. However, most of the settings are totally unrecognizable because of some CGI wizardry that stitches together landscapes and buildings to create a beautiful Frankenstein's Monster of a backdrop. The weather, the buildings, the environment reflect the mental state of the main character. Pay attention to their cues.

The acting here is solid, if not a little melodramatic. I want to like Leonardo DiCaprio, I really do, but I have a hard time buying him as a disturbed, world-weary veteran. His face seems young to me. Or maybe it's the fact that he can't seem to express mature emotion in roles. I really feel the strongest thing he's ever done is Basketball Diaries, a close second is The Aviator, but that was more imitation than creation. I also liked him in The Departed, Gangs of New York and Inception, but mostly because I felt that his characters were somewhat emotionally stunted. So his adolescent emoting didn't bother me as it seemed appropriate. But in Revolutionary Road, and in Shutter Island, they seem tedious. They seem forced. He is acting. Leo lacks the ability to disappear into a role, but I give him credit because he tries so damn hard.
Perhaps his shortcomings wouldn't be so obvious if it weren't for Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo, Michelle Williams (who knew?!) and Ted Levine so frequently upstaging him in this film. Ted Levine had a short but amazing scene with Leo. He plays the sinister warden, and his subtle yet powerful performance stole the movie for me. With turns like this one and Silence of the Lambs, I cannot understand why Ted Levine got strapped into "Monk" for eight unbearable seasons playing second fiddle to Tony Shaloub (who was way better in Men in Black than he ever was in the TV show he's won three Emmys for). Mark Ruffalo is stellar, as always, and Ben Kingsley turns out this movie like a seasoned pro. Michelle Williams is a pleasant surprise. She is perfectly fragile, like a piece of glass, so thin and full of cracks you're afraid to touch it. Hers was a role that could have been overplayed, but she did a beautifully understated performance. I hope to see more from her.

The story is brilliant, and it made we want to read the book. Not since Fight Club have I seen such an innovative and original story brought to life on celluloid. I'm now having wet dreams where Scorsese directs a Chuck Palahniuk novel. Let's make this happen people! I'm thinking Haunted or Diary, what about you?


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lost movies?

To continue my mission of watching all of Polanski's movies, I'm looking for the following titles that are not available on Netflix:

The Beautiful Swindlers


If you have any suggestions on where I can find these, preferably on DVD, preferably rented, please let me know.

In the meantime, I'll be working on Knife in the Water, Death & the Maiden, The Pianist, and The Ghost Writer.

-- Noel
Sent from my T-Mobile Sidekick®


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Yay! One Hundred Posts!

So, my review of The Young Victoria was my 100th post! To celebrate, I will share with you a piece of advice.

In spite of my love for action movies, I am fully aware that most people wouldn't win a fight in a real world, no matter how righteous or brave they are. I'm one of those people. I'm scrawny, and not athletic in the least. It has occurred to me that at some point, I may be in a position where someone is trying to engage in a physical altercation with me. I have devised an effective and clever response to such a situation:

Dance around like an orangutan and scream crazy things.

I have tested this method on several people, and it seems to do the trick every time. People are so surprised and disturbed by my sudden psychotic behavior that they instinctively move away. This gives me the chance to either flee, or escalate the psychotic behavior in hopes that it will further deter my would-be attacker.

If you have no hope of being too big or strong to fight, you must seem too crazy to fight. No one wants to duke it out with someone who is completely insane. Insane people are unpredictable, and might kill you or fight dirty. But how to appear crazy enough to scare someone away when you're not normally physically intimidating? Nothing makes you seem crazier than adopting a primate-like locomotion while yelling crazy things like:
"I will end you like a dishtowel! My fury is a hot ball of cheese! Get ready for plaid!"
Peppering in curse words where applicable.

And it's really quite easy, you crouch down, knees bent, butt low to the ground, legs and feet spread wide, jumping from foot to foot while swinging your arms up and down loosely like an ape.

When you scream, don't scream like a war cry. Scream like you're on a crashing plane and you're in full flight-or-fight mode. The more high-pitched and irregular, the better.

As I mentioned, my tests of this have gone very well. I ask a person "Get in my face, like you're going to fight me." and once they do, I commence with the crouching, flailing and screaming. They always jump back in alarm. Who wouldn't?

Like the Spanish Inquisition, my chief weapon is surprise. My second weapon is the ability to appear unhinged.

Here endeth the lesson.

The Young Victoria

I've been meaning to watch this one since it was in theaters, but it's hard to get Dan to watch a pre-20th century romance. I admit, I was dying to see the costumes. I heard they were gorgeous in reviews, and watching the Academy Award Best Costume award presentation confirmed that. So when I saw that the movie was available to watch instantly on Netflix. I was thrilled. It took a little convincing to get Dan to agree to watch it, but in the end we both enjoyed it a great deal.

The Young Victoria is a movie in the spirit of Elizabeth. It tells the story of Victoria's rise to power and her courtship with Prince Albert. The plot is very good, and its interesting to see the precarious way a future and sitting monarch has to live her life. She can't really trust anyone, yet she wants so badly to be close with someone. Any misstep can bring a crowd of angry citizens raging outside the gates of her palace.

Emily Blunt is an elegant mix of vulnerability and determination as Victoria. This film shows how under-utilized she is in movies. We got such precious glimpses of her talents in Sunshine Cleaning and The Devil Wears Prada, I'm so glad that director Jean-Marc Vallee took a chance on her. It paid off big time. She is believable as the 18 year old queen, portraying youth and inexperience well without making Victoria seem incompetent. Blunt carries the film very well, and hopefully you'll be as impressed with her as I was. Rupert Friend is charming and supportive as Prince Albert, his love for Victoria and his need to please her is evident and completely disarming. My man Mark Strong (is he in every movie these days?) is a cold calculating viper as Sir John Conroy. Paul Bettany is the picture of cool British reserve as Victoria's right hand man, Lord Melbourne.

The costumes are incredible. Sumptuous and colorful, I swooned almost every time Victoria had on a new dress or Albert was seen in his impeccable outerwear. You just want to reach out and touch the fabric. I can't imagine how it much change one's posture and movements when one wears such costumes. I could happily watch this movie on mute, it so visually gorgeous. Their award was well-deserved
The sets and lighting are also just beautiful.

The direction is very good. This movie feels intimate and genuine, with a few sweeping epic shots to give you the "this happened and it was a big deal" type of feeling. It could have veered into chick-flick territory quite easily, but the characters of Victoria and Albert are so well-developed and the plot has just enough political intrigue that it holds its own as a true biopic. As I said, my wary husband very much enjoyed it, even though the trailers made him hesitant. The trailers really did not do it justice.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Get away

Oh my, time flies when I'm not blogging! I've been so busy enjoying the last days of summer and watching movies that I've been neglecting my blog. Well, back to work.

The Great Escape is a fantastic heist film that tells the true story of a group of WWII P.O.W.s who escaped from a Nazi prison camp specifically designed to hold escape artists. The great thing about this film, well one of the great things, is that the escape itself is the plot. Most heist movies have another plot line running and the heist serves to simply move that other plot line forward. Not so in The Great Escape.
We get some lovely character and plot exposition right in the beginning with the Nazi officers discussing the prisoners repeated escape attempts and how this new camp will thwart any new attempts at getting out. We see a few foolhardy attempts at escape right off the bat, but then the big scheme begins to brew. Steve McQueen is the obligatory American bad ass. James Garner brings his real-life P.O.W. experience to his role as The Scrounger. Charles Bronson is the meaty Eastern European Tunnel King with a soft heart. But the shining star in the ensemble cast is Richard Attenborough. If you're like me, you know Richard from Jurassic Park. But here, he's the slick, crafty and much-hyped leader of the Great Escape, Big X. Part of his character development is all the men discussing how they can't wait 'til he gets there and how great he is, so when he finally struts into camp, you're already all-in with this guy. He's like James Bond and Winston Churchill rolled into one.

The set for this movie is an exact replica of the actual prison camp. Produced less than 20 years after the real escape, the filmmakers tried to be as true-to-life as possible and hired several P.O.W.s to act as consultants to ensure authenticity. Some of the facts are fudged, there were many P.O.W.s from countries other than the U.S. and U.K., and the role of the U.S. prisoners are greatly exaggerated, but the rest is all true.

It has everything you want from a heist film. Suspense, action, excitement, and the complicated escape plan is genius. Obstacles are encountered and overcome. The ending, however, is bittersweet. I won't give it away, but suffice to say, this ain't Ocean's Eleven, it's war.

This film didn't win any awards. It wasn't critically acclaimed after its initial release, but its growing popularity has finally given it some well-deserved recognition. If it has one drawback, its that the characters are not very deep. They serve their function as military men committed to their cause, but they don't seem to have many emotions beyond that. We get hints with The Scrounger and The Forger, but that's about it. But it doesn't make the movie fail. It just serves to make them seem brave and larger-than-life.

The Great Escape is a great movie, and clearly influenced many heist movies that followed it. Had it been based around American characters, my guess is that it would be a basic cable staple, but since it's primarily a British film, most Americans haven't gotten the chance to see it. You should.

A song in my heart

I love documentaries. And if you like documentaries, you should see Young at Heart, aka Young @ Heart

This critically acclaimed documentary tells the story of a senior citizen chorus in Northampton, Massachusetts. Their director chooses diverse song selections from Jimi Hendrix and James Brown to Coldplay and Sonic Youth. While their vocal ability might not rival Mariah Carey or Michael Crawford, their passion and delivery will floor you.

What is most incredible about this is that, on the surface, nothing that extraordinary is occurring. It's a group of 65-98 year old people singing songs. But what moves you is their dedication, and how much this organized activity enriches their lives. When it all comes together in the final performance,e you see why this group sells out shows around the world.

Society so often marginalizes the elderly. We push them to the side, resign them to a role of non-contribution, and very rarely give them a chance to express themselves. This is partly out of our obsession with youth and fear of old age, and death which immediately follows it. But these remarkable, ordinary, people show us that old age is nothing to be afraid of. You can still have fun, you still have something to contribute, and you're not done living until you die.

My favorite scene is when the chorus performs at a prison. The reaction of the inmates is palpable and amazing.

Their director, Bob Cilman, is a visionary. I don't know how or why he came up with the idea to organize this chorus or selects the songs they perform, but it's genius. It's ground-breaking. It makes you wonder why you haven't seen it before and don't see it more often.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Greatest Show On Earth

I recently finished watching the two seasons of the show "Twin Peaks" and the movie that followed it.

I must say it was one of the best television series I have ever seen. It was like nothing that came before it and so many of the shows I know and love probably were obviously influenced by it. ("Six Feet Under", "Carnivale", "Picket Fences", "The X-Files", "Dexter"- pretty much every lauded TV series owes some thing to "Twin Peaks".)

Charming, haunting, and refreshingly weird and campy, "Twin Peaks" is one part "Twilight Zone", one part soap opera, one part film noir and one part crime drama. All shaken together with a cast of characters that you'll never forget.

The show centers on the small town of Twin Peaks, Washington. The homecoming queen and popular local teen Laura Palmer is found murdered. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper is sent to investigate the murder. The eccentric and compelling townsfolk each have a part to play in the plot as the mystery slowly unfolds.

The story and direction is just fantastic. There are so many themes and metaphors, it's one of the most stylistically sophisticated I've ever seen. The look of the show is just gorgeous. The women look like they just walked out of 1940, the men are rugged, and everyone is a little mysterious. The costumes say so much about the characters. Dramatic lighting, dynamic camera angles, and symbolic imagery are constantly showing up on the screen. The other character in the show is the forest surrounding "Twin Peaks". It is almost always dark, foreboding, and hiding secrets.

The acting is just incredible. Kyle MacLachlan (you know him from other Lynch work such as Dune and Blue Velvet) is smooth, cool and the consummate professional as Special Agent Dale Cooper. Sherilyn Fenn is the perfect Lolita as Audrey Horne. Lara Flynn Boyle channels a Hitchcock heroine as Donna, Laura Palmer's best friend. And Sheryl Lee, oh Sheryl Lee. The image of her face, playing a corpse wrapped in plastic, will never leave my mind. She is so powerful and magnetic when she is on-screen that it's no wonder Lynch found another role for her in the show. And in Fire Walk With Me she brings down the house. She's a natural talent. The entire cast create a community populated by true individuals. The cast brings the town of Twin Peaks to life in a way few casts ever do. It seems like a real, living community that you're observing. The way they interact with each other is just perfect. You will never forget Catherine Coulson as the infamous Log Lady (see picture above). She is so delectably weird. When you watch the DVDs you must must must watch the Log Lady intros. The Log Lady will tell you what to look for, what to remember and what to know. It adds a whole new layer to each episode.

The dialogue is, at times, very cliche. But this is intentional. It ties into the real-life-soap-opera atmosphere of the story and place. it was this obvious soap opera style that, at first, turned Dan off to this show. After a few episodes, when the mystery starts to become deliciously complicated, he became as hooked as I was.

This show is addicting. And now that I've seen every episode and watched the movie, I'm experiencing the crash after the entertainment high. I'm sad because I know as hard as I try, I won't experience anything quite like it ever again. I am also extremely disappointed that the show had to leave off where it did. It was cancelled, so the last episode is not a series finale. It leaves off where the creators intended the third season to begin. Only there was no third season. The movie answered a few of the questions, but there's still a lingering feeling of dissatisfaction. On the other hand, the many mysteries of the show, in a way, are better when left a mystery. We are left to question, to draw our conclusions, to invent explanations, and to interpret them in any way we wish.
The last episode was, by far, one of the scariest things I've ever seen. No one knows how to capture the look and feeling of a dream like David Lynch.

The movie Fire Walk With Me is a whole different animal. This is a David Lynch joint. It is surreal, disturbing, and the perfect end note to the series. It's not as soft and charming as the show, but that's a good thing. It allows us to glimpse at the dark underbelly that was only hinted at in the show. When I say dark, I mean ten times as dark as the show ever was. Plus, David Bowie is in it! So, you know it's worthwhile and the best kind of bizarre.

The only things I suppose I will truly miss about Twin Peaks, besides the high level of entertainment it provided, are the characters. Each and every one was so alive, so unique. Being from a small town myself, it somehow reminded me that all small towns have their characters, their mysteries and their indisputable charm.

Pass the coffee and pie.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kicking and screaming

It's very hard to make a good super hero movie. It's even harder to make a good superhero movie about regular people trying to be superheroes. Plus, it's been done before, so you can't even rely on the novelty factor.

Kick Ass is a valiant effort to make a super hero movie about real people. It falls a little short because it relies too much on flashy action sequences that defy the whole "real people" concept.
I really loved director Matthew Vaughn's prior work, Stardust and Layer Cake. And the problem here unfortunately is the direction. The script isn't all bad. The characters are believable. Satisfactory development and "real life only a little better" dialogue. But the look of this film, and the action sequences, are so stylistic and cartoony that they overpower the charming characters completely. The colors are bright and garish, the movements and explosions exaggerated and often defy physics.
This wouldn't be so disappointing if the characters weren't so likable. They have good motives, sad backgrounds and are constantly reminding you that this is supposed to be the real world. They seem totally out of place in this bright, Hollywood world. I wouldn't have been so bothered by it if the characters weren't frequently mentioning that "this isn't a movie", then something explodes or the bad guys burst in, and you see that it is a movie. So don't piss on my leg and tell me it's raining, Matthew Vaughn. Don't tell me "this is real life" then show a foul-mouthed little girl whirling through the air with two guns blazing. You can do one or the other, but not both at the same time. It's annoying and distracting.

Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong, Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse- all the actors are very good. They did what they could with what they were given. I think I would have liked Big Daddy and Hit Girl to have the movie all to themselves, as they were the only two characters who seemed to walk the line between reality/movie well. It was also a shame that Mark Strong didn't have more to do. He's fantastic when you give him a role he can sink his teeth into (See Sherlock Holmes and RocknRolla)

And it's a pity that the action sequences don't match the concept of the plot, because they're awesome. I mean pure awesome. I mean you could easily watch this movie and just skip the parts between the action sequences and be really, really entertained. I just wish the stuff between the action sequences and the action sequences could have happily co-existed somehow, but with a script like that, Vaughn should have known better. I would have even preferred if everything that happened outside the costumes was differed visually than the in-costume parts.

So, I was left wanting more, but not in a good way. On one hand I wanted more action superhero flick, on the other I wanted more "real people try to be superheroes and this is what happens"-type of movie. The balance between the two can be found, see Batman Begins, Shaun of the Dead (not super hero, but supernatural at least) or Boondock Saints. Zombieland had similar issues.

Can we please quit making these "I'm a regular dorky white guy who fights zombies/bad guys/vampires/the mafia" movies? At this point we're beating a dead horse and playing into the very cliches these movies first sought to spoof.

I'm not entirely sure if I can recommend you watch this movie. I'd advise you wait until it plays on some basic cable channel and watch the action sequences. Or just read the comic books, because this looks much better than the movie:


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Thank you Mr. Murray

Ever since I watched Zombieland, I've had an insatiable craving for Bill Murray movies, so the Roman Polanski posts have been put on the back burner for the time being.

Caddyshack is easily one of the most quotable movies ever. It's also a sports movie that doesn't require you be the least bit knowledgeable or interested in the sport. All you have to do is enjoy the unbridled goofy awesome-ness that is Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Rodney Dangerfield.

Danny is a blue collar kid from a huge family who's working at the local country club trying to scrape together enough money to pay for college. Chevy Chase is the resident eccentric golf ace, Bill Murray the eccentric groundskeeper, and Rodney Dangerfield plays a visiting rich, eccentric developer whose money has bought him the ability to do whatever the hell he pleases.

In fact, Chase and Murray's characters also seem to do whatever the hell they please and that's what makes them so funny. Yeah, there's a plot, but it's of little consequence. The real point of this movie is to bask in the comedic genius of these three performers. I feel it's Dangerfield's best performance in a movie. This is mostly because he's not required to act, he's only required to deliver lines in his signature style. His scenes are so delightfully absurd that they never fail to make me laugh out loud, even though I've seen this movie about 100 times.

The visual style is classic Lampoon. Bright colors, and the camera is always playing into every sight gag.

If you haven't seen this movie, you're missing out on an important cultural touchstone. It's almost always available on TV, so the next time it's on, just sit and watch it. Although I heavily recommend you see it unedited for time and content.

Murray's character doesn't have a lot of screen-time, but he steals this movie.

Ghostbusters is such a well-written movie that it puts most modern comedies to shame. Also just as quotable as Caddyshack. The characters and plot are so well-developed and truly unique that it's no wonder that it was so wildly successful. Visually, it's a little dated, but for a comedy as old as I am, it's jokes are still just as fresh.

Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who also star, bring us the story of three scientists who start a ghost extermination business just as New York City begins to experience bizarre supernatural events.

This is my favorite Bill Murray movie. He plays the (comparably) straight man to the goofy science nerds played by Ramis and Aykroyd. He comes off as so suave and clever, it's just incredibly. He's a magnetic charmer, and it's impossible to not like his character.

The entire cast is very strong. Ramis and Aykroyd's mix of genius and geek is spot-on. Rick Morranis is able to give us a super-dork without going over-the-top. Sigourney Weaver is amazing as well. She shifts from damsel in distress to possessed temptress effortlessly and the transformation is amazing. Her entire body moves differently. Her chemistry with Murray is very good, and that's an important part of the movie.

The effects look cheesy now, but they were pretty cutting-edge at the time. Still, I wouldn't trade those claymation demon dogs for all the CGI in the world. They are an integral part of the movie's charm.

The theme song to end all theme songs. Whenever anyone anywhere says "Who you gonna call?" there is only one answer.

And to top it all off, this is an excellent family movie. The kids will like the more obvious jokes and the action, adults love the clever dialogue and nostalgia.

Then came Ghostbusters II. With a bigger budget and the entire cast returning and Ramis and Aykroyd writing the script, the sequel does not disappoint. We pick up with our poltergeist poaching heroes a few years after the events of the first movie. The paranormal activity has plummeted and their legal expenses soaring, they're forced to play at kids' parties and work other jobs for cash. Except for Venkman (Murray) who hosts an unpopular TV show about psychics. That is until poor Dana Barrett (Weaver) again begins having spooky experiences, this time centered mysteriously around her infant son, Oscar.

Hilarity and sci-fi ensues. Watching Venkman, Egon and Ray interact with the slime, and the city straights, is simply priceless. The climax, involving a famous NYC landmark, gets me every time. It's just such a fantastic concept that I don't care if it's plausible. I'm having such a good time that my disbelief is completely suspended.

Visually, this film is more sophisticated than the first and the effects are much better. Few sequels can live up to the potential of the first movie, but this one does.

This one's a little scarier, so kids might cover their eyes or shy away from parts. Adults being possessed and a killer marshmallow are less terrifying than evil slime and a demonic sorcerer trapped in a painting that wants to kidnap a baby.

I could go on and write about all Bill Murray's wonderful movies, but three's the magic number, so I'll stop here and cover the rest after I finish what I started with Polanksi.

So thank you, Mr. Murray. Thank you for being you.

I just watched Kick-Ass last night, so I'll be writing about that in a day or two.