Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's Been a Year...

Yep -- It's been a year since I've started sharing my unorganized, rambling thoughts on movies with this-here blog thingy. I've gone through three incarnations, finally settling on my man Hugo Stiglitz as the name I want associated with my film musings. I've also gotten a chance to write a lot about books, music, and share random thoughts on philosophy and religion (which I've moved to my other blog), and I feel pretty darn lucky to have a forum that I can just jot my crude, mostly unedited thoughts down. I've enjoyed writing on here for a very selfish reason: it got me writing. I've never claimed to be a good writer, and early the year before I started this blog I was so sick of writing from countless Lit papers that I was glad to be done with it. After being mired in the postmodern brilliance of the Rushdie's and Winterson's and their brand of magical realism, and the hilariously black, nihilistic comedy of Martin Amis I was ready for a sabbatical from thinking; finally I was done with a four year journey and I wanted some time to veg. But I've always loved writing about film, something I am very opinionated on, and so I thought what better way to get back into writing than starting a blog. And here we are today...

I had a lot of fun early last year writing about Italian horror films, specifically of the zombie variety. I look forward to moving through all of Argento's films this year in an attempt to catch some of his early stuff I haven't seen, and to revisit some classics of his (I just recently saw Opera this past year). I look forward to continuing to share my arbitrary thoughts on films. I feel pretty lucky that a film buff who used to memorize movie information from reference books can write something and people actually care enough to read it, and sometimes comment on what I wrote. Thanks to those who stop by and read and take the time to comment...

Now, it's been quite the year for movies, too -- proving more difficult than years past to think of an appropriate pecking order for these films. But if you read my top ten last year you know that I always feel like there should be an asterisk next to my list because I'm not a professional film critic, I don't get to see everything, so inevitably there will be (supposed) great films left off my list. For one reason or another I just never got a chance to see these movies:

A Christmas Tale
Synechdoche, New York
The Ruins
Mother of Tears
Slumdog Millionaire
I've Loved You So Long
The Class
My Winnipeg
Encounters at the End of the World
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ghost Town
Flight of the Red Balloon
Still Life

I'm sure there are others that I've onto my favorite movies of 2008...

Links to my original reviews are provided in the title of the film if you're interested in more in-depth thoughts.

I'll begin with this caveat: these were the movies I thought were not just the best, but were my most memorable film experiences, making them my favorite movies. A lot of these movies pass my criteria for a great film: being aesthetically pleasing and having a narrative worth investing in. Even though for the sake of my OCD I'll go ahead and place these films within an arbitrarily numbered order, really I would love to go back and revisit any of these films a second or third time. These lists are always fluid, as look back at some of my choices from last year I think I would order things differently, or at least put a few different films on the list, but that's what I felt about those movies at that particular time, and I think that film should not just be written about, but talked about....extensively. It's a funny business this 'ranking' movies -- I guess it reminds me of something Kramer said on "Seinfeld": 'This is capricious and arbitrary!" Well, yes it is. And with that in mind I give you the 'best', 'top', 'favorite', whatever-films of 2008, beginning with five that I would gladly recommend to anyone, but for whatever reason couldn't crack my top 10; we'll call them 11-15:

15.) Wall-E
Directed by Andrew Stanton

Pixar's magical ode to the silent masterpieces of Keaton and Chaplin and the French whimsy of Tati is one of true surprises of the year. And even though it's kind of cliche to speak of how surprised I was to be moved by an animated film, I just gotta say it: I never would have expected myself to sit down and watch a G-rated kids film by myself and be so emotionally involved. Wall-E and Eve's galactic dance scene is one of the best in any film this year.

14.) Iron Man
Directed by Jon Favreau

The real comic book champion this year, Iron Man is more grounded in the reality it lives in than most comic movies, and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is just as impressive as Heath Ledger as The Joker. It's funny that a movie that grossed nearly 300 million would seem like nothing when July rolled around and The Dark Knight began it's infamous path to the top of the all time box office charts. I think it's more fun, better when it's serious, and just overall a better crafted film that The Dark Knight. Great classic comic book filmmaking by Favreau. One of the real surprises for me this year as I knew nothing about Iron Man the comic and was really watching the movie solely on how highly my friends were extolling the picture.

13.) The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Fascinating stuff here as Aronofsky goes for something completely different aesthetically than his previous films, but stays at home with The Wrestler's theses of addiction. Everyone knows about Mickey Rourke already so lets talk about Marisa Tomei: here's an actress who knew exactly what to do with this role. Her Cassidy is a sweet, warm character, however I didn't find her to be the stripper-with-the-heart-of-gold caricature that she could have been. Aronofsky nicely juxtaposes Cassidy's realism and acceptance that she her time as a performer is coming to an end; there just isn't any demand for her anymore. Rourke's Randy 'The Ram' is not so quick to let go of the 'spotlight' (or what little of the spotlight is left), he's a performer, and it's all he's ever known; it's gotta be weird to ask a professional wrestler to do anything else besides perform for people, which is apparent in wonderfully filmed deli counter scene where Rourke hits every not right as he slowly turns the most mundane of jobs into a performance. I think if you're a fan of wrestling like I am then you're bound to be less surprised by the hardcore matches Randy endures, or the art of 'blading' to make it look like you've been busted open. But that doesn't change the fact that you have a beautifully acted story of two performers, past their prime, trying to connect; Cassidy tries, and she's a little hard on Randy at first, but warms to him and the idea of leaving the strip club and living a normal life, Randy is incapable of such genuine soul searching and connectivity to another person because he's always dealt in staged, scripted performances: he doesn't know what reality looks like. And that's what makes The Wrestler one of the best films of 2008.

12.) Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Was there a funnier film all year? Maybe Pineapple Express or In Bruges, but those were different kinds of funny, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is another homerun for Judd Apatow, and another member of his troupe (Jason Segel) has made himself a star. Segel's script is a pointed and hilarious look at what inactivity will get you when you have a beautiful girlfriend, it doesn't matter how awesome your Dracula rock opera is going to be! I loved Segel's performance here and the way his script never vilifies Sarah (his ex-girlfriend) or her new boyfriend Aldous Snow (hilariously played by Russell Brand), a pretentious, narcissistic musician who is more impressed with his body than Sarah's. The film makes fun of him and his awful music videos, but surprisingly throughout the film Peter (Segel) and Aldous almost come to be friends and realize what a manipulator Sarah is. Like any good Apatow film there's a real sweetness buried beneath the gross-out humor. Hey and Bill Heder, one of my favorites, has a great role. Also, William Baldwin has an amazing cameo doing his best David Caruso on a CSI rip-off. The funny thing is, if they made another CSI show (and really what's stopping them) Baldwin's agent should turn in this footage in order to get him the job.

11.) Snow Angels
Directed by David Gordon Green

You have to go back to last April to remember the less popular David Gordon Green film of 2008, but Snow Angels is a film filled with great power. Green uses the beginnings of a sweet high school romance and juxtaposes it with the harsh, cold, and slow breakdown of a divorced husband (the always great Sam Rockwell) and wife (the surprisingly good Kate Beckinsale). Green usually deals with outcast kids with a rural backdrop who talk and act like people from those particular areas of America would talk. His brutal honesty and ability to make dialogue sound genuine instead of heavy handed and overly wrought, not to mention the relationship him and his DP Tim Orr have, make Green one of the premier filmmakers of my generation. Here he attempts the domestic drama with similar results: honest dialogue and beautiful cinematography. His camera isn’t as flashy as it was in Undertow, here Green seems more interested in filming the way Bergman would, allowing the camera to simply sit on moments, no matter how brutally honest or awkward, and allow the audience to get inside of the characters minds. The camera acts more as an onlooker than something to be played around with, whereas Green used the camera to great effect for the chase elements of Undertow, here he it's more understated, an onlooker or a passer by, there are even moments when a tracking shot will continue long after the characters have stopped walking; we hear the dialogue, but we continue moving forward. The effect is minimal, but the affect that it has on the viewer, although easy to miss, is profound.

Other films I enjoyed this year: Speed Racer, Happy Go Lucky, Recount, The Dark Knight, Burn After Reading, Gran Torino, Milk, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Indy 4, Tell No One, Man on Wire, Standard Operating Procedure, Tropic Thunder, and half of Step Brothers.

Onto the top 10...

10.) Pineapple Express
Directed by David Gordon Green

I loved this stoner masterpiece (even if I didn't get all the weed references) and not for the obvious reasons (Franco and Rogen are great, it has some great physical comedy) but for the more films more nuanced moments -- and for a film filled with explosions, eff bombs, weed, bromance, and a hyper-kinetic energy throughout, you have to look pretty hard for those nuances. The ending is an 80's/90's action film buffs wet dream with references to every buddy action film from Lethal Weapon (guy gets shot, falls over railing, chain snags his foot on the way down, he is dead swinging back and forth) to Tango and Cash (overly long fight scenes and lots and lots of fire). One scene in particular sealed the deal that this was one of my favorite films of the year: the ending where Franco and Rogen have just escaped from their 'holding cell' and are looking around only for the camera to pan just a tad to the right and reveal a wall of guns, to which Rogen says "nice". That and the fact that Franco's stoner has a 'footprints in the sand' poster in his apartment. If you understand why those two jokes are so funny, then you 'get' the movie.

9.) Redbelt
Directed by David Mamet

One of Mamet's most simplistic cons (which not to say that the film is simplistic) Redbelt reminded me of the lesser heralded Mamet pictures like Homicide and Spartan where Mamet takes a bit of a break from his usual smoke and mirrors, con game script and focuses more on a (somewhat) linear journey of the films hero. Redbelt's hero is the teacher and owner of Jujitsu school and one nigfht when a women walks in out of the rain (typical noir premise) things begin to fall apart, thus brinigng the film into clearer focus. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the hero of the film and the man taken down a path he is reluctant to see to its end. He is a force on screen and turns in one of the years best, and most underrated, performances.

8.) The Fall
Directed by Tarsem Singh

Director Tarsem's visual masterpiece is one of the most ambitious undertakings in quite some time. Many critics called the film nothing more than a "vast sugar-frosted folly" (Xan Brooks of The Guardian), and yes, it is somewhat of a folly, but it's a masterful folly. Despite some flaws with the film, it's a tribute to its style that this film appears in the top ten. Tarsem loves his long shots, an exercise in vanity perhaps (so he can show off how cool his sets are and how vast his scope is), but they showcase the amazing (non-CGI) sets and locations. There are some semi-powerful moments between main characters Roy (who is suicidal and only tells the story to manipulate Alexandria) and Alexandria, especially at the end, but it's the visuals and the way each visual just kind of jumps and pops off the screen scene after scene. The music that accompany these scenes is beautiful, too; sweeping the viewer through scene after amazing scene. It reminded me of a film like Baraka. Yes, the film is almost all style over substance, but so what? It's not a truly great film, for that to be true it would have to excel in both narrative and visuals, but it is a masterful exercise in avant garde cinema. If this were made in the 1960's during the glory years of art-house cinema and the foreign film craze, then critics and viewers alike would be hailing this thing as a masterpiece; it would be studied in every film class today, but because it's made in 2008 it seems that people aren't as impressed with this type of filmmaking. Are you seriously telling me that every avant garde filmmaker of the 1960's weren't making films that were nothing more than "sugar-frosted" follies? I think The Fall is great

7.) Frozen River
Directed by Courtney Hunt

Melissa Leo is the heart and soul behind this film and one of the main reasons for it being one of the years best films. The film never manipulates you or tells you how you are supposed to feel about these characters (even those have accused it for stating the obvious: that poor people have it hard) and Leo and fellow co-star Mist Upham who plays Lila, a Mohegan woman who steals Rae's (Leo) car and when she is caught, tells Rae that she knows someone who will pay good money for the car. Rae needs the money so they set off across the border, over a frozen river, to Canada to meet the person who will pay for the vehicle. What follows are poor choices, a reluctance to continue breaking the law due to the need of money, and a relationship that feels formed out of reality, rather than Hollywood contrivances. Rae and Lila are no Thelma and Louise, and I like that they talk about things that people like them would talk about; this isn't a lovey-dovey story where the two women, complete opposites, find that they are more similar than they thought. This is a story about two women who operate out of necessity and due what they do because they have no other choice. The film could have spiraled into lame Mystery/Thriller cliches, but it sidesteps them all to tell a compelling story with one great, great performance by Leo.

6.) Let the Right One In
Directed by Thomas Alfredson

The amazing thing about Thomas Alfredson's film is that somehow, someway it doesn't flub the premise with what could be an eye-rolling horror/love story; instead he treats the horror genre not as a convention, but as just another element to add into a wonderful story about a lonely, misunderstood boy who just wants someone his own age to relate to. There's also deeper themes of androgyny here as you can give the film a queer reading (which apparently is made clearer in the book). There's also the haunting final image of Oskar tapping the box, cementing his place in Eli's future as a carer (or slave if you want to give it a darker meaning) for Eli much like the old man in the beginning of the film, that makes this unlike any modern horror film I've seen. Oh, and the ending scene in the pool is pretty great, too.

5.) The Edge of Heaven
Directed by Faith Akin

A re-post from my original thoughts on the film: It's impossible for me to champion Faith Akin's film enough, but thanks have to go to my friend Brandon for making me aware of this beautiful, poignant film. Certainly one of the best films of 2008. It’s so much more fulfilling than the slew of hyper-link films that came out during the post-Crash era. I never felt like these coincidental occurrences or happenstance moments were me being jerked around by a filmmaker who was just trying to use smoke and mirrors to mask a flimsy parable about humanity and forgiveness. Akin is wise to not for the grandiose and to let some of the most simple moments and facial expressions speak for the multitude of emotional currents running through the film. That last image is as poetic as it gets. Just the sound of the waves was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and the image of the son waiting for his father was enough to make me smile wider than I’ve smiled in a long, long time at the movies.

4.) Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme

I really hope Anne Hathaway gets an Oscar for this film. Please, don't let the recent release of Bride Wars fool you, she can act. This is not just her film either, this is everyone's film: Debra Winger, Bill Irwin, Rosmarie Dewitt, Anna Deavere Smith, and Tunde Adebimpe all compile one of the great encore ensembles since the wonderful Gosford Park. Jonathan Demme does his best Altman here as he follows around the goings-on of a family preparing for a wedding while their on-leave from rehab daughter Kym (Hathaway) truies to pretend like nothings changed. It's a weekend filled with awkwardness, fights, truths, and best of all love. Here is a family that despite the tragedy that haunts the family and lurks in the corner throughout the film, really loves each other. And boy do they know how to throw a party. Demme's camera follows every little minute thing through till end, when you just have to finally submit and say: alright I'd like to attend a party like that. The image above is a perfect encapsulation of why the film warms my heart.

3.) Wendy and Lucy
Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Minimalist cinema at its finest with amazing performance by Michelle Williams at its center. I'm not a dog owner and I've never owned a dog, but I found myself incredibly sympathetic to Wendy's (Williams) need to find Lucy (her dog) after series of unfortunate happenings. The film follows Wendy through the process of trying to find her dog, trying to get her car repaired, and trying to find her way through the harsh and un-romanticized realities of leaving your home and traveling the road for a better a place. The film is a powerful metaphor for the state of our economy today and the hard sacrifices one must make in order to get to where they need to go in order to be successful -- which is not just defined as monetary success in this film. There is a moment were money exchanges hands, pure and true are the intentions, and it matters not how little amount is, it's in the act that matters. A powerful film that came out of nowhere and blindsided me. I love it when movies I've heard nothing about do that.

2.) In Bruges
Directed by Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh's debut film In Bruges is a masterpiece. After seeing it three times now I am convinced that one of the years best surprises will also go down as one of the most superbly written films of this decade. It has all of the bite of a Coen brothers film or hilarious vulgarity of a Tarantino script, but it has a heart and some poignancy that is rarely found in films of their ilk. Collin Ferrel is simply amazing here, comfortable in his own language it seems to me that he hasn't turned in a better performance since Minority Report or even his debut The War Zone. Brenden Gleeson is the wiser, older hitman Ken who is ordered to take Ray (Ferrel) to the medieval city of Bruges (who is the real star of the film) so that they may lay low after a horrible occurrence of collateral damage shakes Ferrel to the point where he can't do his job anymore. The film is almost completely derailed by a drug induced rant by an actor they meet while in Bruges (his diatribe on little people and other races is less and less irritating the more I watch the movie), but multiple viewings have lessened my disdain for the scene. The film comes to an amazing climax when Ken and Ray's boss Harry (the always great Ralph Fiennes) shows up to finish the job Gleeson couldn't do. The final conversation in a cafe outside of the clock tower (one of the important, and beautiful set pieces) between the two is brilliant. When I initially saw the trailer for the film I thought it was going to be awful, another Things To Do In Denver While You're Dead type hip-hitman genre film. I love being wrong. Obviously the studio didn't know how to market the film, and the fact the film is gaining more and more of an audience; the fact that it doesn't fall back on the cliches of the genre like the aforementioned film is a tribute to the smart dialogue and non-contrived dramatic moments found within In Bruges.

1.) Shotgun Stories
Directed by Jeff Nichols

It's not a shock that this film, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is produced by David Gordon Green. It has the feel, the dialogue, the way it takes you to a rural part of America completely unfamiliar to me, of a Green film. Nichols' script is light on dialogue as the camera kind of just wanders through the daily lives of Son, Kid, and Boy; named by an alcoholic father who left after the third child was born, remarried and in the process became a born-again christian. The other side of the family thinks he's a good man, Son and his brother knew a different man; but it's not just a simple case of one families right and the other is wrong. Nichols draws the viewer into this blood feud that has a certain authenticity to it: this is how it would be for these people living in this place. Michael Shannon plays Son, the oldest of three, and he when he learns of their father death he asks his mom for some more info, she replies: "you can read about it in the paper." It's exchanges like that that make Shotgun Stories such a sad, powerful story. Nichols never lets the big moments get the best of him, never going for the easy tug-at-the-heart-string moment -- especially when Son goes to his mother to inform her of a tragedy in the family, she's gardening and when she's told, she just keeps gardening; there are no false moments of reconciliation or forgiveness, there can be no reconciling this broken family. But Son has a wife and son of his own and there his brother Boy who sees beyond the pettiness of the feud and that they owe it to others to squash it all and live their lives.

Shannon turns in the performance of the year and in a perfect world he would be nominated for, and win, Best Actor this year at the Oscar's. He gets an array of feelings across to the viewer with just the simplest wrinkle in his brow, and Nichols is wise to let the camera stay on him and let the audience read his eyes. Shannon is a powerful force running through a powerful film, and he could have easily gone for some over-the-top emoting, but instead of hamming it up for the screen, he underplays it all perfectly and lets the sadness of the moment speak for itself. I love it when movies let me figure things out and I love it when movies take me to a place I've never been to before, and I especially love it when movies surprise me at every turn for not taking the conventional way out of things. With or without all my previous caveats about ranking movies, Shotgun Stories was easily my favorite film of the year.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Film Snapshot: Wendy and Lucy

With the minimalist components of a Dardenne Brothers film, Kelly Reichardt's latest film Wendy and Lucy is a lovely, poignant tale about humanity. It's apt that a film shot on location in Portland, OR (yay Oregon!) should also be compared to something like a Raymond Carver short story; minimal effects that have big emotional payoffs. It's not just the emotional pay offs that make this story rewarding (they're subtle, but they're there), but in how the film makes you think and feel and contemplate throughout; much like Carver did with his stark, sometimes patchwork stories; he left it to the reader to scribble in the margins the rest of the story. And so it is with Reichardt's film -- minimalist beauty that rivals Rosetta, Stranger Than Paradise, or other films of that ilk.

The story is simple enough: a woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams) has some car trouble, gets busted for shoplifting in order to feed her dog Lucy, and in the process has to go to the local jail, leaving Lucy tied outside of the store. When she comes back later that night her dog is gone. This isn't merely a journey to find a lost dog, this is the journey to find something deeper that is lost: her identity. We can infer from Wendy's phone call home later in the movie that she has tried to break free from the mundane Indiana lifestyle she was surrounded by and is now trying to make her way to Alaska because "they need people." Here is someone who seems to have been lured by the siren song of the road trip and instead has found that life is tough.

The metaphor is clear for the times we live in now, and there is a moment of true humanity and beauty where a security guard who has kind of befriended Wendy gives her a small amount of money; nothing more than ten dollars of wadded up ones and a five, but it's in the act of giving, not in the amount he gives her that we see a person who would do whatever is feasible, financially speaking, to help a stranger. It's only appropriate that I watched this film on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration speech where he so eloquently spoke of sacrifice and humanity as a nation; the act of reaching out a hand to a stranger in need. For Wendy it's not even a monetary need (as is evident by her pretty-full money belt and diligent record keeping), but it's the fact that she is so far away from home, and although she is not physically lost, just stalled, she is existentially lost, and it is in that exchange of money and humanity that she realizes what she must do.

Her epiphany is a sad one, a decision I dare not reveal, but it drives home the message of sacrifice and not letting things, however big of a fixture they may be, be dragged down with. It reminds me of a great Bright Eyes lyric: "if you love something give it away".

As mentioned above the minimalist effects only make the film better; there are no Hollywood contrivances here, no 'gotcha!' moments -- just truth, seeping out of every aching frame. The lack of soundtrack (aside from Williams humming to herself) works well, and there some shots (like the pic at the beginning of the post) that say it all in a subtle, Dardenne-esque (or Carver-esque) way; making Wendy and Lucy an emotional,non-manipulative film-going experience.

At the center of it all is Michelle Williams with an amazing, heartbreaking performance that will certainly earn her some much deserved Oscar attention. What makes Wendy so appealing is that this is someone we may know ourselves, or someone we may have come across; a normal person who suffers the consequences of fate, but also plays role in how things turn out because of some her actions. Again, this is like Carver in that everything exists in the gray -- the middle ground. I like films that aren't afraid to dwell in that gray area, that allow the audience to come to their own conclusions and elicit their own metaphors throughout the film and long after -- because any good film has a lasting effect, a hangover that will have you thinking about it days afterward.

I recently wrote about how I wished Revolutionary Road would have benefited from being less heavy-handed with its metaphors; well here is Kelly Reichardt doing just what I was hoping Sam Mendes would have done by creating an understated drama that doesn't spell everything out for you in Oscar-bait moment after Oscar-bait moment. This is quite the film.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Film Snapshots: The Edge of Heaven, Revolutionary Road, Let the Right One In

Yup -- still haven't posted that 2008 year-end list, yet....but I swear it's coming. I'm just going to admit defeat on a few films and wait to see them when they are released on DVD. As for now, here are three films I recently saw:

The Edge of Heaven

It's impossible for me to champion this film enough, but thanks have to go to my friend Brandon for making me aware of this beautiful, poignant film. Certainly one of the best films of 2008. It’s so much more fulfilling than the slew of hyper-link films that came out during the post-Crash era. I never felt like these coincidental occurrences or happenstance moments were me being jerked around by a filmmaker who was just trying to use smoke and mirrors to mask a flimsy parable about humanity and forgiveness. Akin is wise to not for the grandiose and to let some of the most simple moments and facial expressions speak for the multitude of emotional currents running through the film.

That last image is as poetic as it gets. Just the sound of the waves was enough to bring tears to my eyes, and the image of the son waiting for his father was enough to make me smile wider than I’ve smiled in a long, long time at the movies.

Let the Right One In

Sad, pitiful Oskar (a preteen Swedish boy) is getting picked on at school, lucky for him there's a vampire living next door to him in the form of a 12 year old girl named Eli. The amazing thing about Thomas Alfredson's film is that somehow, someway it doesn't flub the premise with what could be an eye-rolling horror/love story; instead he treats the horror genre not as a convention, but as just another element to add into a wonderful story about a lonely, misunderstood boy who just wants someone his own age to relate to.

Certainly there are bigger themes at work here, as the androgynous Eli brings up themes that seem too big for a story about pre-teens. This is certainly a film Hollywood would never have green-lighted. What I liked about the film was how despite its predictability, the film rushed headlong into BIG themes for a horror picture, themes of anxiety and longing, and the need to be rescued. All of this plays out in a final scene that is as predictable as anything else in a vampire movie, but the way Alfredson stages it, and the investment I had in Oskar and his need to be rescued, allowed me to set aside my qualms about the sheer ordinariness of the films final moments.

Revolutionary Road

Sam Mendes once again tackles the themes of suburban discomfort with Revolutionary Road, a film that contains two of the finest acting performances in film this year, specifically Kate Winslet. However, if it weren't for these two actors and a performance by Michael Shannon (that cuts to the heart of the films central themes) you wouldn't think twice about such an ordinary film. As the film begins we jump right into the struggling marriage of April and Frank Wheeler; five minutes in and we have the films first Oscar-bait shouting match, ugh. The film actually evolves from there as surprisingly the Wheeler's look to pick up the pieces and formulate a plan to get them to actually "feel" something again. This is what I liked about the film, the way Mendes has his characters saying what the audience already knows: that they are hollow shells of their former selves, they don't like their assigned suburban roles, and that they are just acting a part. Well, duh. So I was glad the obvious was out in the open within the first 30 minutes of the film, and there is a moment within that first 30 minutes where Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes home on his birthday after an afternoon of infidelity; the performance in this scene by DiCaprio is heartbreaking.

The problems I have with the script is that too often Winselt and DiCaprio are left saying outlandish things that seem too written and like no normal person would ever say. There are Oscar bait scenes all over the film, and even though the actors more than do their share, they aren't really helped any by the bland direction of Mendes. I recommend the film because of some tremendous acting and a couple of scenes that elevate the picture from so-so to pretty good. I mentioned one of those scenes above, the other is when the Wheeler's invite their friends over for dinner and they bring their son John (Shannon) who's on leave from a mental institution. John is a person who can only speak the truth, and the observations he makes and the way he cuts through the Wheeler's facade like a scythe is one of the films most memorable scenes. It's just too bad that after Shannon and Winslet do their part, DiCaprio is left to yell and scream some more, since we haven't seen that before. The character of John is kind of a catch-22 for me because here the metaphor is clear: the "crazy" person is the only one who can speak the truth and pinpoint what's wrong with this 1950's suburban lifestyle. He is the voice of the beatniks before they made their impact on the domed world of 1950 American suburbs.

Winslet, DiCaprio, and Shannon are all superb here, it's just I didn't feel like the film offered anything new or worthwhile to subject matter that seemed all too familiar and predictable as I was watching it unfold. I appreciated the fact that Mendes didn't derail this film with sitcomy humor in this take on suburbia like he did with his first film American Beauty; I commend him for going all-serious all the way with Revolutionary Road, but he needed to omit the words and allow the viewer to watch and study the behaviors and facial expressions of these fine actors. This was supposed to be short, so I will quickly say two final thoughts: the cinematography by the great Roger Deakins is one of the highlights of an otherwise blandly directed film. And for a better take on this type of unsure-adult-dysfunctional-suburban family-drama (how's that for a genre!?) I recommend Ang Lee's excellent 1997 film The Ice Storm starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Sigourney Weaver.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Kevin's 10 Most Desirable Film Adaptations

I was looking at some of books today, and started thinking about how there are thousands of great novels yet to be made into movies. Names like Rushdie, Amis, McEwan, and Coetzee really haven't had their best work translated to celluloid, just their most accessible. I'm still holding out hope that the failed (and altogether scraped) Cronenberg adaptation of Martin Amis' hilarious and brilliant London Fields will come to fruition. It was then that I realized once upon a time I started a list of novels I would love to see made into adaptations. One can dream right? So it's with that very thought that I indulge myself and post the list with comments, whether or not the film is in production or in talks of being made, and who I would consider for the job of making the film (if it's not ever set to be released). If you feel the urge to trek through these indulgences of jumbled thoughts and murky sentence fragments, then please post your desired adaptations in the comments section. And away we go...

In alphabetical order with who I think could direct, and possibly star:

The Book of Evidence, by John Banville - I find it odd that this title is on my list because I really didn't get into the book all that much, but it's a hell of a story; one that could, cinematically speaking, be on par with "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer". The everyday, nonchalant attitude of the books main character Freddie Montgomery is something that a great actor could make a career off of (think Hopkins as Hannibal). It's not that Montgomery is evil -- he is as startled by his own amorality as the reader -- but it's that he is someone we could picture knowing: neatly dressed, well educated, likable. Through the testimony of Montgomery we see not an excuse or reason to why he murdered the girl, but the story of a mans life, that surprisingly we come to find some form of sympathy in. I felt Banville's writing to be a little too matter-of-fact at times, as I mentioned I thought it was a little difficult to get through, but the overall experience is memorable, and if we're talking movie adaptations here -- well The Book of Evidence would make for an interesting film experience. Director: Mike Hodges. Lead role: I could see someone like Ray Winstone (too easy?) or if you want to make it real paradoxical I guess you could cast someone like Clive Owen.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley - Universally beloved and known by millions, this story of a future Utopia is often connected to the similar, and just as popular Orwell masterpiece 1984. Even though Brave New World has been adapted into a few poor;y made television movies, I think we could all use an adaptation that has a budget and a cast that is worthy of the material. The themes of the novel are timeless, and although Michael Bay sorta did an adaptation of the novel with his film "The Island", I think we could use something that is fully committed to the idea. I think a perfect director would be Steven Spielberg. Not only can the man balance a large budget and effect and still make an the audience care about the story (see "Minority Report") he has the vision to pull this off beyond the conventional 'futuristic drama' realm. I'd imagine if Spielberg did the film then we'd have one of the Tom's as Bernard, the lead character.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Okay so I was already to write about this, but a simple search on imdb shows that there is already a pretty big film adaptation of the famous Russian novel. But I keep it in here in hopes that you'll click on the link to see who played Alexi....brilliant, just brilliant. But hey, they should still remake it today.

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee - Professor David Lurie's journey throughout the post-colonial masterpiece Disgrace is the best thing I've in a long, long time. I came late to the party in regards to Coetzee's work, but boy am I glad I finally found my. One of the most brilliantly paradoxical novels written it's at once: beautiful and ugly, dark and optimistic, poignant and repugnant. And through all of that, more than anything it's a celebration of life; one of those rare books that the moment you put it down you immediately thumb through it again to glance over some of your favorite passages. The novel has been made into a movie starring John Malkovich as Lurie (great choice) and directed by Steve Jacobs. Set to be released in 2009. I'm officially excited.
Jack Maggs, by Peter Carey - This re-imaginig of the Dickens character Magwitch (from Great Expectations) is one of the most enjoyable readings I've ever had. A page turner in the truest sense of the phrase, the novel is rich with memorable characters and distinct locations. Carey is one of the best novelists working today. I actually wouldn't mind seeing someone like Jim Broadbent try his hand at this character, but he seems to be much too old for the role. Now that I think about it, Daniel Day Lewis would be awesome in this role. I can see any number of competent directors taking on this pretty straight-forward novel.
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie - pshaw! I know, I know....but like I said, this is a dream list. This is probably the most impossible novel to screen adaptation there is. Although, it would be fun to see someone try, as it would most likely result in a Francis Coppola-like breakdown....and if you don't know what that means, then you need to watch "Heart of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse". The only person I could see making this movie is Rushdie himself.

Money, by Marin Amis - The most important novel of the 80's as it pertains to postmodernism (as well as Reagen's America and Thatcher's England), Money is so darkly comic and perverse that it's wishful thinking to ever hope for a film adaptation. Sure, there have been films that have pushed the envelope, but none that make you laugh out loud like Amis' novel does comparable to a film like "Man Bites Dog", Money is just as ruthless in using the seedy elements of life (violence, drugs, and pornography) to try and get a laugh. Hell, even suicide is a means for a punch line. John Self is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. I could see Ian McShane trying his hand at the character with Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges") directing. I did notice on IMDB that they are making a film version of Night Train, Amis' attempt at the American detective novel, you can see my thoughts on the novel here. I think Sigourney Weaver as Detective 'Mike' Hoolihan is a great, great casting choice; plus the fact that Nicholas Roeg is directing rules...."Don't Look Now" is one of my favorite movies.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro - This fantastic novel has all the makings of a compelling art house/sorta sci-fi film ala "Children of Men". As a reader, every vague observation, every unsure sentence by its unreliable narrator keeps you guessing as to what the whole mystery of the novel is. It's amazing how Ishiguro's simple, yet elegant and nuanced, prose keeps you absorbed throughout, when really there isn't a whole lot happening. It took me awhile to warm to this novel, but after the 100 page mark, it flies. Rumors are that the film is in production, and that the writer of "28 Days Later" is at the helm of the adaptation. Ishiguro's prose reads so smoothly it's like a knife going through warm butter (hey, there's a metaphor lifted straight from the Arnie classic "Commando"!), and I don't see why it wouldn't transfer well to screen. His most famous novel The Remains of the Day was a pretty decent film (not as good as the book of course). I would love to Keira Knightley as Kathy H., the novels narrator. But then again, of course I would like to Knightley in that role. Looking forward to this film, if the rumors of its production are true.

The Powerbook, by Jeanette Winterson - Winterson's steamy celebration of storytelling and simulacra could probably never be produced (at least not with an 'R' rating) and would probably fair well in the hands of someone like Bertolucci, who at least some experience with mature and adult love stories that are about more than the sex that occupies them. Winterson's stop-and-go and repetitive style of writing mirrors the way we may live our lives and what we may or may not remember about love, sex, passion, loss, and just life in general. Her work seems like it would be extremely hard to transfer to the screen since so much of it is about the art of storytelling (read: the process of writing) and the act of inserting ourselves within those stories. See the adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement for a perfect example about how a novel about letters and the how we manipulate narrative is almost impossible to translate to the screen.

Saturday, by Ian McEwan - It does look like there has been an informal announcement about the prospects of McEwan's brilliant novel about terror and post-September 11th livelihood being made into a film. Hooray! I'll cling to anything I can at this point. I so badly want to see this done right after the so-so effort (content-wise) of the film version of "Atonement" (it did look gorgeous). Easily a top three novel for me, Ian McEwan is a god, and if you haven't read anything by him than you are really depriving yourself of great literature. I always envisioned the main character of Perowne to played by someone like Jeremy Irons, but upon second reading I think it could work with an equally capable actor who is, here in the states, lesser known: Bill Nighy. Nighy was most recently in "Valkyrie" and "Hot Fuzz", but his last 'significant' role was in the 2006 thriller "Notes on a Scandal", which I quite liked. Interesting note, the writer of that film, Patrick Marber, is (apparently) adapting Saturday for the screen. Looking forward to this....if it's true.

Well that does it here. I'm excited that some on this list have been made into movies or are in the process of being made, and if you haven't read any of these novels than consider this a good list to begin compiling for some Summer reading. Be back shortly with my best films of 2008.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Grading 2008: Reflections on Movies I've Seen, and Why the Hell Did I Watch "Vantage Point"?

Above is a quick glimpse of the checklist of movies I kept this year. Obviously non-graded movies have yet to be seen. 29 isn't all that bad considering there was a stretch of about three months of no movie watching whatsoever. click the picture to enlarge it....sorry that's as big as I could get it. Some interesting things of note:

- In Bruges is far and away the most surprising film experience I had all year. I really was expecting that thing to suck. Boy I love being wrong sometimes.

- There may not be a more misguided, ultra-violent, vomit inducing film all decade than Stallone's Rambo. Just when you want to enjoy the film for its over-the-top violence and gore, Stallone gets all preachy on us and for some reason splices in all-too-real footage of Burmese villagers being massacred. I think Stallone thought he was making something valid and not exploitative. The movie was supposed to be a fun time at the movies; a call back to the glorious, ridiculously violent action films of the 1980's and 90's, and instead it ended up just being a big downer.

- Ladies and Gentleman the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture goes to...

Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married.


This doesn't make up for the fact that while she's accepting the award, her newest movie Bride Wars will be in theaters....but still a damn fine performance.

- Ugh....yes I did waste two hours of my life watching Vantage Point. I was hoping it would be so bad it was good....but it was just bad. At least Matthew Fox wasn't a complete cinematic waste this year, he was in Speed Racer, a film that is probably the most visually entertaining movie (read: crap story) since Dick Tracy.

- Missed out on W. and Quantum of Solace even though I was really looking forward to them. Bond still may be seen as it continues to play in local theaters, but W. came and went, sadly, quicker than his time in office (I couldn't resist the all too easy George Bush bashing, I should rise above it, but meh).

- The Strangers sucked and American horror films needs Wes Craven more than ever.

- I actually saw my fair share of docs this year. I am proud of myself.

- Comedies were very hit and miss. Consider the amazingly funny Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express and contrast them with the painfully mediocre Tropic Thunder and Step Brothers. Luckily I didn't watch anything with Mike Myers or Adam Sandler.

- Despite what some may say The Dark Knight is not as serious and thought provoking as they may think, and despite what the other side may think, the film isn't edited poorly and is still one of the most entertaining films of the year. But it's all moot because Iron Man was far superior.

- I missed Argento's newest film Mother of Tears. Sad because I love Argento and Italian horror, but maybe it's a blessing because the reviews for the thing were awful.

- Despite the well deserved kudos Mickey Rourke and Clint Eastwood are getting this year from the award circuit, it's Michael Shannon of Shotgun Stories that turned in the years best performance.

- Finally I have to state that this was a great year for movies....and not because I was thinking it was going to be a crap year for movies, but because any year that can provide me with 20+ reasons to write on this here blog....well then I'm happy to be alive and to be a film buff. I think every year is a good year for film. You won't find any caveats here.

And a year at the movies wouldn't be complete without feeding my unhealthy infatuation with Keira Knightley who starred in The Duchess this year....sadly I never saw it, but I always have this to motivate me to rent it on DVD:

Now the fun part....making the obligatory (and arbitrary, albeit fun) year-end list. I'll shoot for next Friday (I have a test to take this weekend for grad school) to get the list up here; hopefully by then I'll have seen all of the movies without grades assigned to them....but I don't think that'll happen as some just aren't making their way to Portland in time. Be back shortly with some more quickie reviews.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Film Snapshots: Redbelt, The Wrestler, Shotgun Stories

I've knocked three more films off my year-end to-do list (all three were wonderful movie experiences), but sadly I just don't have the time to give them proper full length reviews. I'll make sure I give the good ones justice in my 2008 best of list at the end of this month. Next on the list I'm going all foreign with the following films: The Edge of Heaven, Tell No One, and Let the Right One In. Onto the movies!


David Mamet's most simplistic con to date; which is not to say the film is simplistic or dull. Redbelt is easily the most accessible Mamet film, and really it's nothing more than a art house version of a Rocky type film. But, I was completely sucked into the story, and I love it when a movie shows me a world I know nothing about. Unlike The Wrestler (which is great, but I'll get to that in a moment), where nothing really surprised me because I am such a fan of professional wrestling, Redbelt shows me a world of martial arts, the philosophies within that discipline, and the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). All of the acting is great here as the actors show they are more than up to the task in handling Mamet's rapid stop-start dialogue, but it's really the performance of lead man Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry, the man who gets deep into it when all of the noir trappings come into play (mysterious woman walks into business, over-friendly strangers, etc.); his performance makes you care about it all. It's why I loved the film so much. Sure the ending is a little 'meh', but I was glad Mamet stripped away some of the more confusing elements to his con films (like say The Spanish Prisoner) and made this film more in the vein of his previous work Spartan, which I also loved. I think it's one of the most entertaining movies of the year.

The Wrestler

Where Mamet's Redbelt showed me the behind the scenes of a world I didn't really know much about, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler seems old hat to me. However, I'm not saying that the movie isn't extremely entertaining, involving, and boasts one of the years finest performances. The story has been told a million times, but here we get it in the arena of professional wrestling. I can see where some people, who know nothing about the faux sport, would be a little shocked that some of the 'bumps' are real or that these performers know their roles (heels or faces) and the outcome of their matches (scripted pre-bout and all) before they even step into the ring. I can also see where some people will think it shocking that these guys really do hurt and bleed. There is a wonderful moment in the movie where Randy "The Ram" (Mickey Rourke) is preparing a razor blade and taping it to his wrist so that when he gets his in the head, he can do what is called "blading", where the wrestlers make it look like they really did get busted open, but in reality it's more of a 'controlled' cut designed to be busted open further by the ensuing punches to the head. I liked all this insider stuff, but I already knew a lot about so I was really relying on the characters to be interesting and sympathetic.

Marisa Tomei plays a stripper named 'Cassidy', she never reveals her first name and the I liked the relationship between her and Randy; two performers who are past their prime and only performing for a niche audience. In Randy's case it's the school gyms and dance halls for older fans still holding onto that bit of nostalgia, the wrestling of yesteryear that makes them feel young again. And for Cassidy, well there is an early scene that establishes she is really on there to perform for Randy, and men of his ilk. I like the correlation Arronofsky draws between these two performers and the fact that Tomei's character is a little more at peace with where her life is leading her. She's ready to move on (she has a kid) and live a real life, Randy still wants to perform. Even when Randy 'retires' (which is what most of these wrestlers do, they retire only to be sucked back into this profession of pain because they need the money so badly) he still performs as a wrestler would when he takes on a job at the local deli counter. In a great scene that mirrors his entrance to the wrestling ring, Arronfsky's camera follows Randy through the halls and stock rooms of the grocery store until he parts the rubber curtains to the deli counter and begins his new persona.

I had some problems with what seemed like a tacked on sub plot with Randy trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), but I guess it was needed because so many of these guys do abandon their family because if they are any good at what they do, the promoters want them on the road 360 days a year. It's a ridiculous commitment and sacrifice that these guys make, and it's no wonder that most of them can't have a family and stay off of pain pills or stay away from performance enhancing drugs, because so much is asked of them. The familial metaphor is strong in the film as Aronofsky seems as surprised as anyone that these guys who beat each other up in front of the camera, are the only real family any of them have when they get back stage.

Randy makes a crucial choice at the end of the picture, and it wasn't all that surprising to me, but I could see where those who know little to nothing about the men of professional wrestling (and how shallow most of them are) might see Randy's final decision as some sort of surprise. It's dramatic, but it's far from surprising, and I think that's what soured me on it just a tad. However, with all of that said, I really loved this film. Nothing would make me happier than to see Micky Rourke up there winning an Oscar for the role of his career.

Shotgun Stories

Writer/Director Jeff Nichols has created a Southern Gothic, family tragedy on par with David Gordon Green or his master, Terrence Mallick. Shotgun Stories has the same feel, the same look, and the same ear for the nuances that make these stories about "dead ass towns" so appealing; stories that David Gordon Green has used to make some of the most beautiful visual poetry I've ever seen in movies. Nichols doesn't quite capture the visual poetry part down (although there are many beautiful shots in the film) but he does have the distinct locations and all-too-real dialogue down. The film plays like a revenge picture throughout, but it has unpredictable and unconventional outcomes. The story is about three brothers Son, Kid, and Boy (named by an alcoholic father) who learn of their fathers death. They show up at the funeral, Son says some unkind words, and a fight almost breaks out at the funeral; a fight that has something deep to it, something underneath the surface that finds its way into every scene. It's amazing the amount of tension in the film where convention says there isn't really anything 'happening' on screen (again reminding me of Green).

When their father died he became a born-again Christian and started a new family. That set of brothers have always hated Son, Kid, and Boy, and the feeling is mutual. This is the basic premise for Shotgun Stories which is anything but a basic film. It's astonishing that this is Nichols' first film, and even more astonishing is how close it comes to falling into overblown melodrama, but his characters act as real people would act, not as if they were the design of a conventional movie script. Consider the exchange when Son's mother comes to his door to tell him about his fathers death, when asked when the funeral is she flippantly states: "you can find out in the newspaper." There is something so deep and bruised with that relationship I am so thankful that Nichols doesn't explore it in some awful, conventional, manipulative Hollywood manner. When tragedy strikes the family again, Son goes to visit his mother this time to tell her the news, she just turns and stares at him and goes back to her gardening. If this were in the hands of a mainstream studio there either would have been major over emoting going on, or a schmaltzy reconciliation scene; instead the viewer is dealt with the cold truths of reality.

I stated earlier that I like when I am invited to a place I've never been to before in the movies. Shotgun Stories supplies that place. A place where button up shirts are fancy, taking your girlfriend to the buffet is a big deal, and where blood feuds are serious business. There are choices made at the end of the film that make the whole tense ordeal worth while, and I'm glad because I cared about these brothers so much that when tragedy seemed imminent, I was glad to be proven wrong.

I want to say one more thing about actor Michael Shannon (he was in one of my favorite movies last year, Bug): his portrayal of Son is one of the best of the year. Here's an actor who is a unique dramatic force and presence on screen, and I can't wait to see what his future in film holds because he looks to be one of the best young actors working today. Kudos to him on a phenomenal performance that relied heavily on the viewer being able to come to conclusions by reading his face.