Thursday, April 30, 2009

Counting Down the Zeroes 2001: Black Hawk Down

Film for the Soul has been counting down the zeroes (or chronicling the noughties as his website informs you) and I'm honored to participate in this wonderful exercise. We're on to 2001, now, so if you haven't seen the 2000 pieces yet, then head on over to this blog, where all of the reviews for 2000 have been archived. Here is my review I'm submitting this week for Ridley Scott's underappreciated action masterpiece Black Hawk Down. Go over and pay a visit to Film for the Soul, you won't be disappointed. I'll be submitting another piece for the project next week, David Mamet's Heist, so be on the lookout for that.

Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down is one of the most meticulous and masterful renditions of the classic war film formula. After about 30 minutes of exposition Scott drops the viewer in the middle of a war zone swirling with dirt, mud, and blood. It’s an intense experience that had many critics in 2001 crying foul. They claimed that Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer turned the Somali soldiers into faceless killers – blurs of black across the screen carrying automatic rifles. I think that’s unfair, though, as the film was pretty much dead on arrival as any war-themed film released post September 11th (Black Hawk Down came out a mere three months after the attacks) was going to be scrutinized unfairly; viewed through a super-serious lens. Somewhere along the way war films got the stigma of having to be message movies – I don’t think Scott or Bruckheimer are going for any big grandiose message, here; however, what they do accomplish is a damn fine action film filled with brilliantly staged action scenes.

Scott wastes no time with exposition as text on the screen informs the viewer of the situation and the time and date. As for the soldiers – we’re introduced to the primary characters thought the usual war film clichés. Perhaps this is where some of the critics take issue with the film: using such a serious subject as a backdrop for what essentially is The Rock or any other number of gung-ho Bruckheimer action films. You have your nerdy tech guy who gets thrown into combat (Ewen McGregor), you have your new recruit who’s eager to see action (Orlando Bloom), the wacky wise-cracking soldier (Jeremy Piven) , the calm superior officer (Tom Sizemore), and the disillusioned realist (Eric Bana). All of these soldiers are led into battle by the man in charge of it all, Garrison (the always grizzled Sam Shepard) who looks upon the battle from a war room full of televisions and telephones like he’s the coach of a football team, watching film, ready to call the next play. Their plan is to drop into Somalia and capture two top lieutenants of a renegade warlord.

Needless to say things don’t go so well with the operation, and on one hellish afternoon a Black Hawk helicopter goes down and the hundred plus soldiers are stranded in the middle of no man’s land. This is where it is upon the viewer, and which lens they choose to don, that decides whether or not this is an unsympathetic look at that horrible 24+ hours in Somalia, or whether or not it’s a finely tuned, and expertly crafted action film. I tend to side with the latter group.

Had Black Hawk Down been released prior to September 11th than I don’t think half of the critics are as harsh on the film as they were. Visually this is a stunning film – as is the case with most of Scott’s work – drenched in the blues that Scott loves to paint with. There’s also that kind of hyper-kinetic warfare footage that seemed fresh at the time. What makes it age well is the meticulous way Scott and his production designer Arthur Max have recreated the logistics of the gun battles. Every action sequence feels legitimate; an authentic way of being “in the moment”, instead of making the viewer sick with the usual herky-jerky camera tricks.

I can see where the detractors come from, though, as the Somali’s are relegated to nothing more than the 'faceless enemy'. However, the American soldiers are made unidentifiable, too, and I think that’s on purpose by Scott. Much like the recent HBO series "Generation Kill", these soldiers are known by last names, but really, when they are draped in camouflage and spout the same clichés they’ve heard from war films, they all become the same person. Perhaps this is what it’s like in a war?

What the film succeeds at is something that Scott has always had a handle on: visual poetry. Scott’s films have always been light on dialogue as a means for conveying emotions and heavy on the visual poetry; Black Hawk Down is no different. In fact, it’s the film that, at the time, I wish he would have been recognized for instead of the so-so and ultimately drab and boring 2000 Gladiator. Black Hawk Down is a more tightly wrought exercise of the action genre and trumps anything that Scott was praised for in Gladiator. It’s just a shame that not many people think of this film when they speak of Scott’s triumphs as a director.

Sure this isn’t the thrilling action film and morally challenging genre piece that David O. Russell’s Three Kings was, but then again not many war films are that good. Ken Nolan, working from the source material of Mark Bowden’s book, inevitably omitted some of the back story of the Somalia troops found in the book. There just isn’t the same space on screen that there is on the printed page to explain things away and fill in the blanks – Scott and Bruckheimer wanted to make an action film, so they axed some of the stuff that made the book so popular, but they created an intense war film that remains one of the truly great crafted action films of the 2000’s.

As a pure action, gung-ho-filmmaking-style type of war film Black Hawk Down is unparalleled: it has the patience, attention to detail, and the nuances -- in addition to the exhilarating and intense action sequences -- rarely found in this particular subgenre. I don’t think Scott or Bruckheimer were trying to win any sociological points, here, but what they do (big action) they do extremely well. It’s not a great film, but it’s an entertaining war film, expertly crafted; and that’s not something that should be looked down upon. I look forward to the day when we can stop thinking of war films as super-serious exercises, and filmmakers can feel comfortable making unapologetic, gung-ho war films like The Dirty Dozen or The Delta Force (this summer’s Inglorious Basterds is going to be in that vein, I have a feeling) without worrying about critics taking it down a peg for not being a politically correct social statement.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Salem Film Festival 2009: Adoration (Atom Egoyan)

Atom Egoyan's first large-scale production, The Sweet Hereafter, is undeniably his masterpiece. That film based on a haunting novel by acclaimed author Russell Banks was about the disintegration of a community after a tragic school bus accident. Egoyan's newest film, Adoration, (set to be released in July or August) is also about disintegration, albeit in the form of a student named Simon and his memories of his deceased parents, and how a community can (for better or worse) shape the memories of the one's we love. There are layers upon layers of memories, just like any good Egoyan film, that are slowly revealed and brought to light. Egoyan explores the truth behind these memories and what that means in a day and age that is all about the quick information of blogs and chat rooms. Egoyan enjoys putting these news mediums under the microscope that show the ease of manipulating facts that perpetuate hate and lies until they reveal the truth about the community we live in.

Egoyan's film begins with a flashback, like most of his films, as we are introduced to the principal characters of the story. There's Simon, a techno-saavy teenager who had an Arab father and White, blond-haired mother. We're introduced to Simon's mother as we see her being asked questions at an airport about her purpose for flying to Israel. We come to find out that she is pregnant with Simon, and apparently is meeting her husband's family in Nazareth, but he did not make the flight. It is suspected that he has planted a bomb in her suitcase so that he could blow up the plane mid-flight.

Back to the characters: Simon is being raised by his uncle Tom (the wonderful Scott Speedman) who now lives in his dead sisters house. He is a man of black and white beliefs; simplicity is his credo. Finally, there is Simon's French teacher Sabine (Egoyan regular, and wife, Arsinée Khanjian) who uses a recent news story about a terrorist plot to blow up a plane mid-flight for a translation assignment. There's also Simon's racist grandfather who is dying, and relays misinformation to Simon about how his father was a killer. This is a common occurrence in Egoyan's films as he loves to bring communities together (The Sweet Hereafter it was a bus crash, Exotica it was a missing child) and show these fragmented bits of information from different sources eventually lead to an epiphianic ending.

Once Simon beings work on his translation assignment for Sabine's class it all starts making sense as she learns of Simon's past, and interest in the story, she encourages him to flub the truth -- placing his parents in the roles of the husband and wife from the news article they are interpreting for class. We come to find that the flashbacks in the beginning of the film are nothing mroe than fabrications from Simon's assignment. His parents actually died in a car accident, but that doesn't stop Simon's Grandfather from telling him "you have to believe me, your father was a killer."

This "exercise" leads to Simon making the story personal, and thus starting a firestorm of controversy within the school and within his community of friends. He becomes hounded by his friends in face-to-face chat rooms and wacko nut jobs that frequent political blogs. All of these members collide in Simon's life, frequently pontificating if what his parents "did" was right or wrong or just a case of us not understanding because we live in such a different society.

Simon begins to wonder about things himself; he's having fun doing the exercise (no doubt he feels a certain kind of power conjuring up his own global morality tale), but is it healthy for what little he remembers about his parents, and the kind of father he actually had. He has so many different sources telling him what to believe, that he almost feels more secure in making up his own truths and histories. And this is what makes Egoyan's film so poignant and memorable. Do we allow others to fill in our histories for us, or do we explore the past, no matter how ugly it may be, in order to know the truth? The way Simon tries to piece together the puzzle of his dead parents, and his subsequent decision is one of the more powerful moments I've seen in film this (relatively short) year.

The film is not just about Simon and his questions, though, but it also focuses a lot of attention on Sabine and Tom and their relationship. Tom does not get along with his father who thinks Simon's father killed his wife (Tom's sister) on purpose. There is an event that takes place at a dinner party where the truth is revealed. It's a powerful moment that Egoyan wisely shows us parts of, he never discloses his full hand at first, and it reminded me of the scene in The Sweet Hereafter where we learn the extent of Ian Holm's love for his daughter when he tells a story about what he was willing to do to save his daughters life. This moment in Adoration reminded me of the power and poignancy found in the flashback of Egoyan's 1997 film, because as is the case with a lot of Egoyan's work, if you jump to conclusions about the characters and their intentions or feelings, you are bound to be misguided by the time the whole truth is revealed.

There's another scene that shows the fragmentation or "sectioning off" of cultures that Tom is comfortable with. Tom is confronted one night while putting up a nativity scene by a masked Arab woman. She informs him and Simon, who is helping Tom, that she is fond of their nativity scene and the fact that they so publicly display their faith. She then speaks about something that rubs Tom the wrong way, and this leads to a semi-confrontation where Simon catches a glimpse into what kind of man his uncle is. But it's never that simple, and there is a second moment where the masked woman comes to Tom's door and asks to explain herself. It's a fascinating conversation and Scott Speedman as Tom nails every scene.

Tom and Sabine eventually meet, too, setting off a series of events that can do nothing but allow the truth to bubble up in all of their lives. The way Egoyan links all of these primary characters together is ingenious. And when we find out just why Sabin is interested in explicating Tom's hidden secrets, and why she is interested in pushing Simon to explore the assignment further than the other students, it doesn't seem like a cheat at all. It adds another layer of sadness to a beautifully elegiac and poignant film.

I dare not give away how all of these characters are linked, or the hidden truths that lie beneath all the lies; or the layers upon layers of commentary about a multi-cultured Canada, or how nothing has really changed post September 11th. Egoyan has a lot to say, and it's to his credit that he does it all through such an entertaining jigsaw puzzle. When the truth finally is revealed and all the layers have been unwrapped, it's an emotional roundhouse that knocks you silly.

It's not just the interesting themes -- terrorism as an extension of personal neuroses, the parallel world of the internet, prejudice towards the ‘other’ -- at play that make this film worth seeing. Adoration is a tremendously made, beautiful film to look at and to listen to; it's a film you get lost in. The editing, as it usually is in an Egoyan film, is top notch; keeping the viewer at arms length without ever being to convoluted or needlessly confusing, but always holding my interest so I couldn't wait to see what mystery or family secret would be revealed next. The acting is top notch all across the board as Speedman gives a great performance and young Devon Bostick as Simon more than holds his own as he carries the bulk of the films emotional weight. Also, Arsinée Khanjian rarely gets the public praise she deserves for her work. She is so good as Sabine, a woman who at first seems weird, whose interest in Simon seems a tad unsettling, but as we learn more about her and her intentions, and everything is revealed, it all makes sense and makes Khanjian's performance all the more powerful.

A crucial element to filmmaking that I always appreciate, and that often goes unrecognized and unrequited, is a good musical score. A good score can act as another character and move the viewer along seamlessly from to scene. David Gordon Green and Paul Thomas Anderson both use this in their films to great effect, it almost always heightens the intensity in films that are by no means, conventionally speaking, thrillers -- but I'm always on the edge of my seat during their movies. So too does Egoyan use a great soundtrack. Just as he did with his masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter, here he employs a score that consists of haunting strings.

The ominous score of violins throughout -- itself another character in the film --seems to be pulling you further into the abyss of mistruths and made up stories. There’s a great shot where Simon is sitting on a grassy knoll with his laptop, already engulfed by the cityscape in the background, and Egoyan’s camera continues to pan down, and further down until we feel like we’re being sucked up by the earth; pulled in, too deep, by the lies of the story.

Adoration, at its core, is about how lies -- and the ease of creating and perpetuating those lies -- can mar how you view the truth and the people they are about, how the memories of loved ones can be changed with the click of a button, and how if we let them, the voices of the internet -- the select few who just happen to scream the loudest -- can shape the way major issues are thought of. All of these important and global issues swirl around Egoyan's more personal narrative: Simon wants to know who is parents are; a teacher, perhaps with ulterior motives, offers the opportunity to explore those question; and an on-the-fence uncle comes to terms with how things really are, and the way they are probably going to be from now on. Adoration is easily one of the ten best films of 2009.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Salem Film Festival 2009: Celebration of Cinematography Seminar with Vilmos Zsigmond

One of the highlights of the 2009 Salem Film Festival was the appearance of legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. The Oscar winner was touring with a seminar entitled A Celebration of Cinematography which showed clips from his Award worthy (and winning) films; in addition, the fest held a screening of the documentary No Subtitles Necessary about the volatile and subsequently healed relationship between Vilmos and fellow legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. The seminar was something special – an event I’ll remember for a long time as Mr. Zsigmond answered question after question from the crowd about film, the art of cinematography, the state of films today, and how there is a difference between cinematography and simply ‘shooting’ a film. Sadly he didn’t answer my question about Heaven’s Gate…notes from the event after the jump…

The seminar started out with a stellar collection of clips from Zsigmond’s impressive resume. We were treated to clips from films that ranged from The Sadist and The Hired Hand; to his more famous work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller; and finally more of his recent stuff that included Intersection and The Black Dahlia.

Zsigmond talked about his career beginning in still photography. Coming from a bourgeois family, filmmaking was seen as a step down, and your skills as a photographer is Hungary were to be used for a higher (more political) purpose. He also mentioned how he had to convince the people that his work showed that he was a man of the people. This led to him getting a scholarship and going to school to learn the art of filmmaking; which was a natural transition according to him, as really being a cinematographer is all about knowing how to use and manipulate light.

When asked: What is cinematography? Zsigmond replied: “God is light.” This led to a discussion about lighting in movies, and the cinematographers who can bend this light to recreate reality are the true auteurs; very old school definition of cinematography. Zsigmond said that as a cinematographer you can’t always rely on the writer to guide you through your shots. This led to my question where I asked him if there had ever been a film where he knew the picture was sinking, and wanted to make his photography the lasting impression, not the bad press of the film (I was speaking, of course, about Heaven’s Gate, but I never mentioned the title of the movie…I was also speaking to some of his lesser known failures like Intersection, Sliver, and The Black Dahlia – all movies that were not very good, but were filmed nicely) – of course, Vilmos ever the diplomat, laughed and said “never, you always do what the director tells you to do.”

We then had someone ask about the infamous scene from The Long Goodbye where Arnie takes his clothes off. Vilmos is a great story teller. He also treated us to some stores about McCabe and Mrs. Miller and how Altman wanted to make the film look like faded photos from the old west. He also mentioned how Altman purposely “destroyed” the soundtrack to the film so that it was almost impossible to understand. This was great stuff, but really if you’ve seen the fantastic documentary Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, then you’ve heard it all before. Still, to hear it in person was fantastic.

Piggybacking off of my question, someone else asked what the role of the cinematographer is. Zsigmond responded that really there is a triangle of filmmakers: on the top is the man making all the decisions, the director; and on the base corners of the triangle are the production designer and the cinematographer – who he called the “right hand of the director.”

He then went on to mention that the Art Direction can have a huge hand in helping out with the cinematography. He mentioned the great Art Director Dante Ferretti whose work on The Black Dahlia made Zsigmond’s job “a joy.”

He mentioned that he is not too keen on the whole digital craze because these DP’s who shoot digital don’t learn the art of lighting, since with DV everything is automatically adjusted, sometimes it looks “too clean...fake.” He then mentioned he likes working with directors who can tell a story in one shot; that movies are all about cutting these days, so what can an editor do with a five minute take? Nothing, rarely can they chop it up. He mentioned that chopped-up films of late like Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight don’t showcase the cinematography well and takes the viewer out of the story; he likes long takes, and he continued by saying that any good cinematographer will make you unaware of their work, they suck you into the story so that you focus more on the film than the filmmaking. One of my favorite quotes of his was this gem: “cutting reminds the audience they’re watching a movie.” It’s an interesting comment, and I think it would be a worthwhile debate: does that matter? I can think of tons of films that are good solely because of how good they look, but it almost seems like Zsigmond is saying that if you recognize the aesthetics immediately, and aren’t paying attention to the story, then you’re not watching a good film…I thought this was fascinating.

We then moved ahead towards his favorite directors to work for, and his relationships with them; also, what his favorite scenes are from movies he shot. He said he loved working with directors who knew a little something about cinematography. He specifically mentioned DePalma’s name, and credited the director for getting him to respect the zoom lens. He likes directors who direct, and don’t let the cinematographers run wild – this correlates with a previous point he made about DP’s who shoot their “own movie” even though they are employed by the director the mentioned how some cinematographers “try to be too pretty” and are concerned with making the film solely about aesthetics – taking away from the narrative –and that’s not what film should be.

He spoke on some of his favorite scenes – the ending of The Deer Hunter: Zsigmond had reservations about the scene thinking it was too verbose and overdramatic, but Cimino told him “when we shoot the scene, you’ll see”, so, he acquiesced and ended up in tears at the end of the scene. He also mentioned how weird it was working with DeNiro as je liked (and preferred) to shoot the rehearsal first, any other way wasn’t natural for an actor. He also mentioned that the death of Christopher Walken was not rehearsed and had everyone on the set in tears. Zsigmond then mentioned that composition (mise-en-scène) is natural when working with such great directors, and that lighting (alluding to his earlier response about what a cinematographer does) is what adds that other element that allows the cinematographer to develop their own style. He then mentioned that the great DP’s all have similar lighting styles.

He then closed the seminar by talking about how Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the hardest film he’s had to shoot. Finally, Zsigmond told the audience that film should be relished and enjoyed, and then you can go back and study it.

It was a tremendous (and brisk) two hours and well worth the price I paid for my weekend pass to the festival. Next up are reviews for the rest of the films I saw at the festival, starting with Atom Egoyan’s masterpiece Adoration.

Salem Film Festival 2009: Once More With Feeling (Jeff Lipsky)

Jeff Lipsky has been a stalwart of independent cinema -- the co-founder of October Films and Lot 47 -- his contributions to the medium are immeasurable as he was able to get indie films like Stranger Than Paradise wide releases that were not common in the 60's or 70's. Once More With Feeling is Lipsky's third film as a director, and with it he shows a great command over material that is pretty familiar and formulaic, and he turn it into something fresh, charming, and gleefully refreshing.

Lipsky's newest film is a charmer. A film about family, living your dreams, and all of the stupid mistakes we make in life; oh, and karaoke. Now, all of those elements sound like your basic ingredients for a pretty standard familial drama, but Lipsky's film exists in an alternate universe where the too-cutesy moments of films of this ilk are omitted, and in their stead are scenes of tremendously executed nuanced humor and warmth.

The plot concerns a psychiatrist named Frank Gregorio(Palminteri)and his family as they prepare for their daughters wedding. Frank once had a passion for singing, and his daughter has asked that he sing at the ceremony (we come to learn that Gregorio family has a history of crooning). As he prepares to sing a song for his daughter’s wedding, his fire is rekindled and the only appropriate outlet is through a karaoke bar located in the local bowling alley. He uses this location to practice, but soon the practice turn to an obsession -- an obsession not shared by his wife -- and he becomes engulfed in the world of karaoke.

This creates problems with the family as they wish they had more of their father around – he sees it as his family not taking an interest in what he’s doing and what he’s passionate about, and thus it inevitably leads to a romantic interest with Lydia (the always wonderful Linda Fiorentino), a quiet lurker in the bowling alley bar who sees talent in Palminteri. There are hidden secrets and truths and something else lurking behind the intentions of Fiorentino, but nothing overtly sexual; the film is too smart for that and doesn’t rely on Hollywood conventions.

The film parallels the relationship between Lydia and Frank (and the will they, won't they aura that surrounds them) with a story about his daughter Lana (the wonderful Drea de Matteo) who is also considering an affair with a local policeman. Lana feels invisible to her husband, so she tosses around the idea of plastic surgery, and in a hilarious scene asks the doctor if he can remove "everything".

There's also a hilarious scene where Lana takes her tow children to an amusement park. One of her kids refuses to come down a slide, so Lana must crawl up the slide to get him -- meanwhile Lana's husband is hitting on a 20-something employee of the park dressed in a mouse costume. As Lana retrieves their son from the slide she wonders where he husband was during this whole 'ordeal' (which probably seems normal for those who have kids), and the punchline to the scene is right on the money.

Also, the two child actors who play Lana's kids are cute without being too sugary sweet, and I am positive had this film been released by a major studio these actors would have been reduced to too-cutesy lines of dialogue. Lipsky does a good job of keeping a balance between how kids actually talk, and getting them to say lines of dialogue without them sounding too written (which is often the curse of having young children spout lines from a script). He reins them in just enough for them to be memorable without seeming phony, and the result is child actors who are actually cute instead of annoying.

The results of the formula are never really what's important in the film -- the karaoke, the affairs, the plastic surgery -- they're all backdrops for a film that has wonderful scene after wonderful scene, full of insight and warmth, and emit a glow from the screen that elates the audience. There's nothing that will blow you away about the aesthetics of this movie, but it's such a pleasant change of pace from the usual family dramas that clog up the cineplex that I didn't mind, and really, how often do we go to films like this expecting the film to be anything more than competently filmed?

What makes the film stand out is that the characters act like real people instead of written characters and that the results of their actions always feel based in reality. There are buried feelings and truths in the film, and Lipsky is wise as he takes his time in explicating them, never rushing for a big dramatic moment. There are moments of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, but unlike most mainstream films that contain those basic dramatic tropes, Lipsky's film is real and adult in the sense that yes, stupid mistakes were made, but (gasp) these characters talk them out in scenes that contain a certain sense of authenticity, instead of melodrama that's forced on the audience.

Lipsky’s film is touching and warm and had me smiling from beginning to end. There are moments that come from real life situational humor, moments that evoke genuine laughter – a kind of been there, done that tone to the punch line; I appreciated Lipsky's tact. Once More With Feeling is a warm, infectious film that is sure to put a smile on your face, and definitely worth a look if it comes to your town.

Jeff Lipsky was in attendance at the showing of this film. He informed the audience that all of the actors do indeed sing themselves. This is impressive as Linda Fiorentino has a tremendous voice, and Palminteri aint bad, either.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Another Quiz is Due at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule...

One of the greatest of blogs that exists in the blogosphere is Dennis Cozzalio's Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Every now and then he hands out tests to his faithful readers. I'm looking forward to this one. You can see a previous example here. All of you should give it a go. None of these answers, of course, are definitive, but they're the best I could come up with at the present time. And once again I omit some of the questions because I have no idea how to answer them...

Favorite Biopic?

This is a difficult one since it is far and away my favorite subgenre of film -- I'll go with Quiz Show...even though I'm sure they took liberties with the actual story for dramatic purposes, but hey, what biopic doesn't?

Best example of science fiction futurism rendered silly by the event of time catching up to the prediction?

Gotta go with Blade Runner on this one.

Favorite Raoul Walsh movie?

Because I'm a big cheater I'll go with a tie: The Roaring Twenties and Colorado Territory.

Sophomore film which represents greatest improvement over the director’s debut?

well, the easy pick would be Pulp Fiction (Tarantino) or Boogie Nights (PT Anderson), but I'll go with Ridley Scott as his second feature was one of the most influential sci-fi/horror films ever made. Alien came after his so-so debut film The Duellists.

Ice Cube or Mos Def?

Mos Def. Have you ever seen that guy on Bill Maher's show? He's crazy. Also, his performance, even though it exists in an average action film, from 16 Blocks is an amazing piece of acting.

Favorite movie about the music industry?

Well I was thinking I would go with movies more about the art of making music, like Hustle and Flow or something along those lines (sorry most of my picks lean towards modern films), but then I though I thought about the brief scenes in Boogie Nights that are about the music industry and I just couldn't resist this:

Click here to view video

In addition that amazing scene I love when Dirk and Reed try to get the master tapes back from the record studio and they can't seem to grasp the idea that they signed them over to the studio when they signed their contracts. "YP, MP, I don't know your record lingo...all I know is, granted you own the tapes, but the magic, the magic that is on there...that is ours!" Such a great scene. "I know karate."

Director most deserving of respect or upwardly mobile critical reassessment?

Oh boy I'll get killed for this one...but I have to say Tony Scott. I think Quentin Tarantino said it best on the commentary track for the True Romance DVD that Scott is a director who makes films where you as the viewer know what you're getting; not only that he has a distinct look that is solely his -- aped by many other directors, but it is uniquely and unquestionably his look (I'm speaking of the rooms drenched in blue and the thickest cloud of smoke you've ever scene). The man can film people smoking like no one else and make it look arty as hell. I remember being the only one in the theater thinking Domino and Man on Fire were any good. The élan of those films are exactly what I mean by films that actually succeed in being entertaining that solely rely on style over substance. Sure, his films aren't groundbreaking or even necessarily memorable, but they are always entertaining and they are always a feast for the senses -- even if sometimes his visuals dizzy you into closing your eyes and rubbing your temples. The man can direct, people! It's time we all gave him his due.

Best filmed adaptation of a play?

I really should see more plays...but I'll go with Mike Nichols' adaptation of Wit, a play I read in high school and absolutely loved. The film was an amazing adaptation and just as powerful and moving as the play.

Favorite Jean Renoir movie?

The Lower Depths . Maybe not his best, but my favorite.

Favorite one-word movie title, and why?

Gummo. The title basically dares you to
not watch it. You don't think...oooh Gummo! That sounds like fun.

Summer movies—your highest and lowest expectations?

I don't know if this means in general or this year...I don't follow summer movies as closely as I used to, but I would say high expectations is definitely Michael Mann's Public Enemies (on a campier not it's hands down G.I. Joe). Lowest expectations: Terminator 4. "McG...McG!!!"

Whether or not you’re a parent, what would be your ideal pick as first movie to see with your own child (or niece/nephew)? Why?

Anything by Chaplin. The pantomime is a universal language, and I think kids, since they haven't been turned into cynics yet, can appreciate those films the way they are meant to be appreciated. You can throw Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd in there, too. This is why Wall-E works as such a great kids movie, too. It's essentially about getting across the emotion through pantomime the way Chaplin did.

Movie most recently seen in theaters? On DVD/Blu-ray?

Saw a lot at the Salem Film Festival. So I'll go with the best of that bunch, Atom Egoyan's Adoration.

Do you see more movies theatrically or at home? Why?

At home. Thanks to Brandon's set up it's more fun to watch a movie in the setting of a home theater than a regular theater with all of the usual distractions.

Name an award-worthy comic performance that was completely ignored by Oscar and his pals.

Cameron Diaz in two totally different kinds of comedies: There's Something About Mary and Being John Malkovich.

Name a great (or merely very good) movie that is too painful to watch a second time (Thanks to The Onion A.V. Club)

Tim Roth's The War Zone.

Beyonce Knowles or Jennifer Hudson?

Beyonce. Not even close.

Favorite Robert Mitchum movie?

It's predictable, conventional (my choice that is, not the movie), but hey, it's the best of the bunch : The Night of the Hunter.

Favorite Vincent Price movie?

Not a movie, but I have fond memories of him as Egghead from the old Batman show.

Name a movie currently flying under the radar that is deserving of rabid cult status.

I don't know that it's officially 'out' yet, but I just saw Jeffrey Goodman's brilliant neo noir The Last Lullaby at the Salem Film Festival. If people get out to see it, it will turn the man into a go-to director for these kinds of thrillers. It's really a brilliant film.

Single line from a movie that never fails to make your laugh or otherwise cheer you up. (This may be obvious, but the line does not have to come from a comedy.)

"We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired."

Sorry, I know that you only asked for one line, but that first line makes me think about the rest that follow, and well, they all make me smile.

Elliot Gould or Donald Sutherland?

Donald Sutherland. Especially for his role as X in JFK.

Best performance by a director in an acting role

Eric von Stroheim in Sunset Blvd. as Max von Mayerling

Outside of reading film criticism or other literature about the movies, what subject do you enjoy reading about or studying which you would say best enriches or illuminates your understanding and appreciation of life, a life that includes the movies?

I have an affinity for postmodern literature...authors like Rushdie, McEwan, Amis, Coetzee, Swift, Winterson, and the like. Since I went to school to study literature I usually find myself reading a lot of literary theory like Lyotard and Baudrillard; Umberto Eco's book On Literature is one of the best ever written on the topics of semiotics and why we interpret things the way we do. I also am intrigued by world cultures and their religions. So I read a lot of stuff that varies from Joseph Campbell to Thomas Merton. All of the above help me better understand myself and life, and allow me to view life through a variety of lenses.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Salem Film Festival: An Overview of Opening Weekend

The opening weekend for the 4th annual Salem Film Festival has come and gone, and I was there for six of the events. First things first: the new Salem Cinema is beautiful. It pleases me to no end to have an art house cinema like that about five minutes from where I live. About the films: every film I saw was either good or great, something that isn’t always bound to happen with festival films. Overall I’m glad I shelled out the money for a weekend pass; it was one of the best film experiences I’ve had, and that’s all thanks to the beautiful new Salem Cinema and the wonderful array of films and filmmakers at the festival. Some brief thoughts on specific films after the jump…

Throughout the week I’ll post more detailed and traditional reviews of the films I saw this weekend. For now, however, here are some highlights from my weekend:

Opening night I went and saw the film Once More with Feeling starring Chaz Palminteri and Linda Fiorentino. The film, directed by indie stalwart Jeff Lipski, is about a psychiatrist named Frank Gregorio(Palminteri) who once had a passion for singing. As he prepares to sing a song for his daughter’s wedding, his fire is rekindled and the only appropriate outlet is through a karaoke bar located in the local bowling alley. This creates problems with the family as they wish they had more of their father around – he sees it as his family not taking an interest in what he’s doing and what he’s passionate about, and thus it inevitably leads to a romantic interest with Fiorentino, a quiet lurker in the bowling alley bar who sees talent in Palminteri. There are hidden secrets and truths and something else lurking behind the intentions of Fiorentino, but nothing every overtly sexual; the film is too smart for that and doesn’t rely on Hollywood conventions. The film parallels the story of the father with a story about his daughter (the wonderful Drea de Matteo) who is also considering an affair with a local policeman. Lipsky’s film is touching and warm and had me smiling from beginning to end. There are moments that come from real life situational humor, moments that evoke genuine laughter – a kind of been there, done that tone to the punch line. The film also (wisely) sidesteps the siren song of sitcom humor or drama – there are no false moments of mistaken intentions, there are no wacky moments of sexual advances, and most importantly, the characters don’t act like their actions don’t have consequences. It’s irrelevant whether or not the main characters do or do not have affairs, but what is important is that Lipsky’s film actually shows them weighing the pros and cons of said affairs. Rarely do you get a film or a filmmaker that has the patience to show that. The only minus for the film was the way it was filmed; filmed in digital some of the film was a little murky and in some scenes I definitely noticed the digital photography more than the story, but those are nitpicks. Lipsky was in attendance for a Q and A afterwards and mentioned that filming on digital was something that he didn’t want to do, and it’s something he’ll never do again.

The following day I attended the Celebration of Cinematography seminar with Vilmos Zsigmond in attendance. He was accompanied by fellow cinematographer James Chressanthis who directed the recent documentary about the careers of Vilmos and Laszlo Kovacs. They both showed clips from their films and answered questions about the art of cinematography. I will follow-up with a more detailed account of the event tomorrow or Wednesday, but I just want to point out that there were some great quotes about the film industry and filmmaking today. Also, I asked a question about Heaven’s Gate without mentioning the title of the film, Vilmos, ever the diplomat, kindly sidestepped my question and answered it in a way without ever addressing what I was getting. Oh well, it was worth a shot.

After the seminar I had a few minutes to prepare for the one film I was most looking forward to, Atom Egoyan’s Adoration. This is a powerful film about the thin line between truth and reality and how we remember things. Like any good Egoyan film, Adoration begins in flashback and then works its way towards a conclusion via more flash backs, until finally the major epiphany happens and Egoyan unravels the final layer. I admit I am a huge fan of his films and probably an apologetic one at that, but this is a film of tremendous power that ranks right up there with Egoyan’s own masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter. I felt lucky to see the movie as we were informed before the film began that it probably won’t be released until July or August.

Later that night I watched the Japanese film Kabei: Our Mother which is a deliberate and poignant WWII melodrama. There is a shot at the end of the film that shows post war Japan in a small rural village, it’s an unexpected punch to the gut as most of the film is quite tame aesthetically. This is your typical Japanese film, slow, methodical in its melodrama, and wonderfully acted. The director Yoji Yamada has apparently been around a long time as I researched him prior to seeing the film and found that this was the man’s 80th film (!). At certain points I felt the films length, but then to the films credit I was sucked right back in for another 45 or 50 minutes. A really nice film.

The final film of the night was the real surprise, and I think ultimate winner, of the festival. Jeffery Goodman: The Last Lullaby. Tom Sizemore stars as a “retired” and weary hitman who can’t sleep, stumbles upon an opportunity to make some money which dominoes into events that get him more and more involved with someone he is supposed to kill. The film is a highly affective small town neo-noir in the vein of Blood Simple, Red Rock West, and 2007’s The Lookout. There's also a nice homage to John Boorman's noir classic Point Blank. Sizemore still has the chops to act, and the look of the film is gorgeous as we were treated to a pristine 35mm print made solely for the Salem Film Festival. The film doesn’t rely on the clichés of the thriller; rather, it has fun with the conventions and motifs of noir: the weary protagonist, the man who gets in too deep, ambiguity, etc. There’s a great shootout scene that is intelligent and relies on silence and smarts, rather than guns blazing. It’s films like this that get me excited about the fact there are still filmmakers out there who realize that, when making a film like this, subdued and classical film techniques are always going to trump the “in-the-moment” action style found in most movies containing shootouts. The violence in The Last Lullaby is shocking, not because it’s ultra violent, but because the loudness of gun bursts always breaks the comforts of silence. It's an amazing film that succeeds in existing in that kind of no man's land found in sorta-commerical, sorta-indie films like In Bruges and the aforementioned The Lookout.

I wrapped my weekend by seeing a touching Chinese/American film called Children of Invention. The film was made before the market crashed and millions of people lost their jobs, but it has come at an appropriate time. The film concerns a mother who is trying to make ends meet after her husband has left her to go back to Hong Kong. Elaine Chang and her two young kids live just outside of Boston in an abandon new construction condo (the owner is out of town for five months, so their friend allows them to stay there). Elaine is constantly looking for the next “get rich quick” idea as she spends most of her day replying to ads in the newspaper. Eventually she is conned into a pyramid scheme and the bad goes to worse as events unfold that leave her kids vying for themselves. There are moments of real joy that are cut with moments of intense anxiety as Elaine struggles to figure out how she will get food on the table. The title comes into play at the end, something I dare not spoil, but I will say this: when the kids’ moment of reverie is interrupted by the harsh realities of the world they have to live it, well, it was one of the most poignant moments of any film I saw at the festival. The film is doubly remarkable by the fact that the two young young actors carry the film, and kudos to writer/director Tze Chun for not making the kids sugary-sweet and going the conventional route where the audience’s emotions are manipulated; which is usually the case with films concerning small children.

Overall it was a great weekend and the films are still fresh in my mind. I’ll post some more thorough reviews throughout the week. Until then…

Monday, April 13, 2009

Revisiting 1999: When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

This is another in a series of remembrances of the year 1999, a year I feel is greatest year of film I have experienced (keep in mind I'm only 27, so I wasn't able to experience the glory years of innovative cinema in the 60's and 70's). So far I've discussed the sorta-forgettable films and the films that just don't hold up. Also, here's me waxing nostalgic about 1999.

The term bad, as it will be used here, is a relative term. I’m thinking more of the kind of bad movie that were it directed by a lesser auteur (lesser compared to some of the names you'll see on this list) would be a good movie . For example: when I go to a movie and I see that Sydney Pollack has directed it, I expect the film to be decent enough; inevitably (and probably unfairly) the cinephile is bound to thrust a certain set of expectations onto the film they are about to watch. So, take this list for what it’s worth – I know I am bound to ruffle a few feathers with some of these titles – in no way, though, am I saying that all of these titles are dogs…just some of them. More thoughts after the ellipses…

Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone):

This film is Oliver Stone’s failed attempts to bring the gridiron to the big screen. He wanted to make it flashy and gritty all at once – grabbing your attention by putting you in the moment as if the viewer were “in the trenches” with the “big uglies” (see that’s football speak). However, what Stone does is make a mess of a film filled with glutinous scene after glutinous scene, which seems to exist solely to bludgeon the senses. The fake football teams don’t help (it’s no surprise either that the NFL would not want to be associated with this movie) and neither do the fake football moments; leaving the film feeling more like the The Program. Al Pacino is at his over-the-top best, and the film almost succeeds as camp; however, you cannot help but feel that Stone was going for something serious here, a love song to his favorite sport perhaps? I don’t know, but it goes to show that unless you are doing a retelling of a famous football event, football films never work because they can never match the drama associated with the actual sport, no matter how in-the-moment the director thinks he’s placing the audience. The obvious evidence here that Any Given Sunday is just a sad attempt at one-upping real football is when Stone has a players eye pop out on the field, and we get a nice close-up of the goriness. Uhhh yeeaaaahhh. What is this a Fulci film? Also, the less said about Lawrence Taylor’s performance the better.

Fight Club (David Fincher):

Here we go: I am sure to get some comments about this one, but allow me to explain myself the best I can. I remember going to see this in the theater and being blown away by the opening half of the film: the IKEA catalog scene, the self-help group hoping, Meat Loaf (!), and the irreverence of it all; it felt so fresh and new like a slap across the comatose face that the film industry needed. Yes, Fight Club’s first half fit with all of the other films of 1999 I associated with those same adjectives (Three Kings, Bringing Out the Dead, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich). However, once the film goes into Militia mode I began to lose interest: the constant fighting, the dilapidated house scenes, the ending with the split personality ending; it all felt so stale compares to the opening of the film. That stuff never much interested me as a 17 year old (maybe it was above me), so I thought I would give the film another chance.

Upon further review I still feel like the beginning of the movie is an unquestionable masterpiece, but like most of my feelings towards Palahniuk’s work I felt the stories message was too smug and self-aware (those are my 27 year old thoughts). The performances are good here (Pitt at the genesis of his great performance run, and Norton had yet to become stale and one-note – or as like to call him the American Anthony Hopkins) and Fincher’s camera finds the right note. This is a perfect example of what I mean by a movie that is not criminally bad; I just don’t think it’s as great as everyone claims it is. Maybe I need to rage against the machine more, I don’t know, but the end of the film and its core philosophies just don’t jive with me. But man, that opening 45 minutes is something else. This film is only considered bad because of how brilliant it started. I never thought much of Fincher’s prior work (Seven is a gruesome, but affective and absorbing thriller; The Game and Panic Room are nothing more than glossy garbage) but his visual eye was undeniably one of the best (and freshest) working within the Hollywood machine. Fincher of course would make his masterpiece with 2007’s Zodiac.

The Loss of Sexual Innocence (Mike Figgis):

Mike Figgis is a director is wild-card. You never know what you’re going to get with is eclectic mix of avant garde and mainstream Hollywood style of filmmaking. His Leaving Las Vegas is a masterpiece, and not just because of the performances by Nic Cage and Elisabeth Shue; no the film works so well because of the nuances and the way he juxtaposes pain and love scene after scene – in the hands of a lesser filmmaker (or perhaps a more mainstream filmmaker) Leaving Las Vegas would most likely have been a mess. Sandwiched in between some Hollywood clunkers (Mr. Jones, Cold Creek Manor) and some indie darlings (Mrs. Julie, Leaving Las Vegas, Time Code) is the peculiar, experimental film The Loss of Sexual Innocence.

The film is such a bizarre experience: on one hand you want to praise the film for the way it intercuts the exploratory sexual moments of Adam and Even in the Garden with a retelling of the sexual misadventures of a film director; however, on the other hand you are always aware that you’re watching nothing more than an exercise, and that the filmmaker storyline only exists so that the more experimental, and better, Adam and Eve scenes can “make sense”. The Garden scenes are beautifully shot and have an odd aura, or pull, to them – you simply can’t take your eyes off it. The non-linear storyline is a bit odd and like most of Figgis’ experiments they either succeed (Time Code) or fail (this film), but they are always interesting. It’s worth seeing if haven’t yet, but don’t expect it to be a great experience.

The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski):

Before Johnny Depp became a poster on the wall of every emo/goth girl he made this clunker of a film directed by the great Roman Polanski. Depp is a rare book dealer who is recruited to find a book about 17th century occult happenings. Well, crazy evil-doings ensue and what follows is a plodding exercise in the horror genre. It’s not nearly as good as the film it wants to be, Angel Heart, and not as much fun, either. Depp is good enough, and Polanski does some decent stuff with the camera, but really it’s so sad to see this throw-away film added to his resume; especially since he is the man that gave us such fantastic thrillers as Knife in the Water, The Tenant, and of course Rosemary’s Baby. Of course we all know about the history of Polanski and his eviction from La La Land, but his string of films were pretty mediocre before this film came out, so there was a lot of buzz about his return to the thriller/horror genre (although I should point out that Frantic is one of the unsung classics of the thriller genre, and one of Harrison Ford’s most forgotten films), but apparently the bad tastes left by the likes of Pirates, Bitter Moon, and Death and Maiden were not forgotten by the time this film came out in 1999. Of course, Polanski would bounce back in a big way with his Holocaust film The Pianist, which earned him a much deserved Academy Award for Best Director, which sadly, he wasn’t allowed to receive. Skip this mess and just cherry pick his good films; this one is a real stinker.

Random Hearts (Sydney Pollack):

Oh boy, could there be a more boring movie in all of 1999? This romantic flop starred Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas as two people who, as the tagline informs us, would have never met in a perfect world. Which is disturbing, because the film is about how two people find out their loved ones died in a plane crash, and while investigating the deaths they find that their respective spouses where cheating on them. The contrivances abound in this mopey, dopey romance that is devoid of any kind of sexual tension. It also lacks the ability to evoke any kind of sympathy from the viewer because these two characters are so poorly written and so boring, that by the time the inevitable does occur, we could care less. The film meanders and takes full advantage of its 133 minute running time using every last second to alienate the audience with tedium and minutia.

Pollack is an old-fashioned filmmaker, that’s for sure; his films meander and wander, and sometime over stay there welcome, but I’ve always kind of liked that about his films – there’s something classical about that. I really liked his Sabrina even though it was too long; but I liked the characters and didn’t mind sticking out the overly long running time because the film was nice looking and the actors were charming. The Firm, too, is another of Pollack’s films that had a great ensemble cast and some wonderfully tense moments that otherwise would have been lost in the 150+ minute running time had it not been for those likable Pollack qualities. That’s what Random Hearts is completely without: charm. I didn’t care one iota about these characters. Pollack of course directed much better films, and that’s what makes this one so bad (and disappointing) is because the talent is there for him to make a great tragic love story, but a lot of the film feels like great workers of their craft simply phoning it in. Pollack would have better projects associated with his name in 1999 as he produced a much better film (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and acted in a flawed, albeit much better film than Random Hearts (Eyes Wide Shut); so, perhaps it was a case of Pollack having too much on his plate at once. I’d like to think so. The man was a genius and made a habit out of playing cynical, amoral older characters years after this film was made (his run of great performances includes, but are not limited to: Eyes Wide Shut, Changing Lanes, and Michael Clayton). It was a sad, sad day when he passed way too early in his life, and I prefer to remember for work much better than Random Hearts.

Ride With the Devil (Ang Lee):

Hot off the heels of one of the best films of 1997 (Gene Siskel called it the best) The Ice Storm, there was much anticipation for what Ang Lee would direct next. Unfortunately what we got was murky and ultimately failing Civil War picture starring Johnny Depp look-a-like Skeet Ulrich and folk star Jewel. All of the elements of a great Ang Lee film are here: well defined characters, non-judging from the filmmakers, the ambiguity found in Lee’s better movies, and on paper – some great actors. However, the film is a mess, edited horribly and surprisingly poorly acted by the likes of Tobey Maguire and Jeffrey Wright and Mark Ruffalo. I don’t know what went wrong, but Lee’s story of the Bushwacker’s during the Civil War seems dry and despondent, and quite frankly a bit pedantic. Lee has always been one to take a popular subject and throw it under a microscope, hoping to get the opposite effect of what similar films get (think about how he plays with the suburban family drama in The Ice Storm, the comic book/superhero film with Hulk, and homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain), but for some reason his microscopic look at semi-unknown events from the Civil War left me wanting more. Like I said, coming off the heels of The Ice Storm, which I thought was a masterpiece, this was a big misfire.

The Story of Us (Rob Reiner):

Some would argue that this film shouldn’t even be on here because Rob Reiner isn’t a good director. Pshaw, I say. The man was a part of the Spinal Tap brain trust and his early films (The Sure Thing is a forgotten gem, Stand by Me) aren’t bad. Plus he created the blue print for the modern romantic comedy (I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s an impressive thing) with his wonderful When Harry Met Sally. The man can bring the funny as is evident in the wonderful Aaron Sorkin penned The American President. The man has his flaws, though, and really if it weren’t for The American President he’d have a run of truly awful and forgettable films: North, The Ghosts of Mississippi, Alex and Emma, and The Bucket List. However, it’s apparent that Reiner doesn’t mind phoning it in – in fact I’m sure he thought he was making a good to great movie with Ghosts of Mississippi, but that movie was a dramatic failure – because in between every two or three bad films the man makes a good one (2007’s Rumor Has It was a charmer of a movie), but his worst offense may have come in 1999 with the sappy, overwrought, drivel that was The Story of Us.

The film is an insult to those who have had to truly work at their marriage or long-term relationship, as Reiner and co. make light of the hardships involved with such a commitment. Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis play a married couple who are going through some rocky times, and possibly a divorce; so, we’re treated to their history as they meet cute and love each other. We also see the ugly times when love isn’t simply enough to sustain a relationship. The formula is there for Reiner to make an interesting movie, but he seemed determined to implement the snarky and cutesy romantic comedy formula he made so popular with When Harry Met Sally, and it just doesn’t work here. There are too many scenes where it’s obvious that all that was asked of the actors was to yell and throw things. Why? Because they are in a bad relationship, and that’s what husbands and wives who are having problems do. Terrible. I will say this for the film: Pfeiffer gives it a good go. She has a scene at the end of the movie that seems like the only honest and genuine moment in the entire film. Every line, every shouted piece of dialogue, every plate thrown…it’s all so contrived. Not a good movie at all.

True Crime (Clint Eastwood):

This one was a lot harder to put on here…there’s some stuff in this movie that I really like. But after I watched it again recently, just like in Fight Club, the good stuff is there as a reminder of just how good this movie could have been. I liked the way Eastwood, a local small town newspaper writer, has this smug way of dealing with his boss (the always wonderful James Woods). I also liked the way Eastwood as a director shows us the inner workings of a smaller newspaper and the types of people and stories they follow. I really liked the interactions between Dennis Leary, Woods, and Eastwood as they have this fast talking dialogue that reminded me of the Noir films based around journalism. What I didn’t like was the way Eastwood relies so heavily on the conventions of the race-against-time plot when it comes to trying to save a man from death row. I also thought the stuff with Eastwood and his young daughter (who of course he never has time for and makes promises he can’t keep) were a bit contrived and heavy handed.

The film is a lot like Eastwood’s work of the era, he made it and released it and moved on to the next project. He had a run of middling projects like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Bridges of Madison County, Absolute Power, Space Cowboys, and Blood Work; all of these films were post Unforgiven (and A Perfect World, which I think is a masterpiece) and pre Mystic River, which is a tad overrated, but kick started his recent fame as a master director (even though he’s always been good). I’ve always thought of Eastwood the director like a musician: they record something and move on, good or bad the musician just wants to get it out there for people to hear. Such is the case with Eastwood as he pumps out films at an impressive rate, and even if this so-so bunch of films is nothing to write home about, you can always count on Eastwood coming out with something the next year that may impress you. At least that explains things like The Rookie, right? So, True Crime is harmless Eastwood fare, and if you haven’t seen the film yet, it won’t kill you, but he’s made far better films; this is one of his most banal.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Films That Just Don't Hold Up

I’m back with my retrospective on film from 1999. For previous thoughts on why I consider this particular so important you can read this. For thoughts on the more forgettable films of 1999 click here.

When looking back at 1999 I had to ask myself whether or not I could write about most of these without watching them again -- I mean after all it’s been nearly ten years since I’ve seen some of these. But I figured I would roll out the film by film analysis for the Forgotten Gems (because I actually want to take a look at those again) and maybe some of the more famous Bad Movies Made by Good Directors. This list is a collection of titles that I used to think were good to great movies (some even masterpieces), but have soured on since I’ve grown older, and of course, wiser. Don’t forget to leave some comments as to your initial thoughts on these films when they came out, and how think of them today.

My hope is that with these snapshot-like “reviews” (They’re more like rememberings) I can save some time (I seriously can’t watch all of these over again) that can be focused more on the really good or really bad films of 1999 that I do want to re-watch. I undoubtedly have more thoughts about these films, and I hope that the comments section will turn into a place for more detailed discussion about these films and why I don’t think they hold up.
Let’s get on with it…

American Beauty:

Do you want to see the most beautiful thing ever filmed? Nope. Neither do I. Well we start with the biggest title on the list, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. This was definitely the crown prince of 1999, the sorta-indie, sorta-mainstream wry take on suburban lifestyle. However, years removed from my initial love of the film (I was 17 when I thought it was so great, and I saw it four times in the theater) I began to sour on it. Just why did I think this movie was so great? Well, for one it plays to the immature musings and pseudo-philosophical message that a 17 year old would connect to (especially fresh off a reading of Catcher in the Rye). It’s about mild-mannered people rising up and raging against the machine of conformity – plus it has AMAZING visual poetry…right…right? Nah, the movie just kind of works for me now, as I have seen films that tackle the same ideas with a less glossy sheen. Mendes focused so much on the visual aspect of the film (shot by the legendary Conrad Hall) that it’s only now, years later that I realize how paper thin the ideas of this film are. The performances are good (not great, in fact Kevin Spacey’s Lester really annoys me now, I wish he’d just grow up) and the cinematography top notch. I think what makes this a film that doesn’t hold up is all of the praise and accolades the film received; it was the most revered and lauded film of 1999 among mainstream critics, no doubt about that, but it really doesn’t hold up over time. And maybe that’s unfair to penalize a film just because a lot of people liked it, but really, I was one of those people, and I just don’t like it anymore. The metaphors, the false symbolism, the failed attempts at satire and irony (holy crap the slutty girl has never had sex! The homophobic military dad is gay! Get out!), and I don’t care how beautiful you think that damn paper bag is…you’re 17 just shut up already! The film just seems very sitcomy to me now.

American Pie:

I think this seminal (no pun intended) gross out teen sex comedy is more remembered for its influence on the comedy film, than actually working as a comedy. This film is only ten years old, but is so incredibly dated. I used to love this movie, and really it was more a product of me being in high school and relating to some of the characters (or caricatures) portrayed in the film. It created a star out of Sean William Scott and really, everyone else just kind of went away (where is Chris Klein? I need more Rollerball!) never to really be heard of today. I guess there’s nothing really harmful about this movie, it’s a step above the usual comedy drek playing at the theaters, and it’s just that it feels sooo 1999 with its soundtrack full of Harvey Danger and Blink-182 anthems. I’ll still watch parts of it whenever it’s on TV, but really comedies today have either outdone the jokes found in American Pie, or tweaked them to make them funnier; so, really it’s just a nostalgic trip if I catch it on the tube. Good enough, but not the laugh-out-loud comedy I thought it was 10 years ago.

Blair Witch Project:

This horror phenomenon didn’t even hold up on second viewing. And so it goes with a film like this, hyped beyond belief thanks to a tremendously ingenious marketing campaign (you could say this is the film that gave all indies hope for box office success), once you’ve seen what the film is and the surprises that are in store, then really there’s very little to look forward to upon second viewing. I still maintain that the very idea of the film is genius, and that it really is one of those films that define what made 1999 such a memorable year. Much like its surprise filled counterpart, The Sixth Sense, this is one of those films where second viewings are not its friend.


I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other night about Kevin Smith. I felt like a lot of his films fail to endure the test of time, while he found that most of Smith’s movies are tolerable, if not great. This all stemmed from the fact that I haven’t seen his latest effort Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and I think that lack of urgency to see it is based on a recent re-viewing of Dogma. I remember loving this movie, but when I sat down to watch it again the jokes felt so dated. Smith’s humor is love it, or leave it, and I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt because a lot of the time I think he’s a decent storyteller. But Dogma is a dog of a movie. I don’t much care for the religious controversy surrounding the movie; you can’t take the movie seriously because it contains a giant poop monster, but that’s just it: it has a giant poop monster…I just don’t think that’s funny anymore. I’ve always swept aside Smith’s penchant for bawdy, middle-school humor because his stories are usually about a lot more once you peel away filthy layer after filthy layer; but the recent flurry of Judd Apatow hits (and his protégés) show how to really make a film that is part gross-out comedy and part drama. I guess I’ve evolved as a nerd, moving from the more pre-teen Smith humor to a more refined, post-college type of humor. Alan Rickman is really good in this, and so is anything involving Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, but the other stuff with Chris Rock and Selma Hayek and Jason Lee and Jay and Silent Bob…meh. It doesn’t age well.

Eyes Wide Shut:

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oh sorry. I’ll always remember this as a film that was more memorable for the experience than the film actually being any good. The first, and sadly, only Kubrick film I saw in the theater, I thought it was really cool how I got to see a film of his on opening weekend – not a reprint or re-release, but a premiere of one of his films. The film itself is excruciating to get through, and really, the eeriness subsides after the 120 minute mark. The late Sydney Pollack is wonderful, atoning for his sins for directing an even bigger yawner Random Hearts the same year. Eyes Wide Shut is a must see if you’ve never seen it, but really it should be appreciated for its aesthetics and nothing more – the narrative is about as banal and throwaway as it gets. I know I may be in the minority on this one, especially since it was the last film Kubrick left us, but seen now, ten years later, it’s not that good of a film. Admittedly I am not much a Kubrick fan, I think his Barry Lyndon and Paths of Glory are two of the finest films I’ll ever see, and of course there’s no denying the importance and visual brilliance of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that’s about it for me in regards to Kubrick’s oeuvre. And maybe that’s why I don’t feel that weird thinking that this is a film that just doesn’t hold up. This is probably his most uninteresting film aside from Full Metal Jacket.

The Green Mile:

I love love love Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, but man was this attempt at another Stephen King penned prison film a chore to get through. Darabont loves to wander through his films (The Majestic is the same way, but I liked those characters a lot, and the feel of the film was warm and genuine, so I didn’t mind the stay) and he never seems to be in too big of a hurry to wrap things up. In The Shawshank Redemption it’s fitting, because the viewer is supposed to feel that sense of never ending entrapment; but with The Green Mile it felt unnecessary and redundant. Too often it felt like Darabont was trying to re-coax the magic found within his previous film, but really The Green Mile gets bogged down in murky religious metaphors and long, laborious scene after long, laborious scene of sweaty men with bad southern accents. I think I remembered liking this movie more based on the fact that Darabont was a favorite director of mine, so I let him off the hook for this one. This is one of those rare dramatic Stephen King stories that doesn’t hold up too well. I prefer the aforementioned The Shawshank Redemption and Scott Hicks’ adaptation of Hearts in Atlantis. Nope, this one doesn’t hold up well at all.

Man on the Moon:

Jim Carrey’s performance almost saves this Milos Foreman directed film from the list. It’s an amazing performance filled with nuances and over the top emoting and all the crazy and unidentifiable madness that everyone associated with Andy Kaufman. The problem is, as much as I am huge fan of bio pics, all this film made me want to do was watch documentaries about Kaufman. There are some fine performances and some stabs at insight into how Kaufman really was when he wasn’t doing a bit (although you could argue that his whole life was a bit), but again, there’s nothing new here and all of the specials that aired on TV while this movie was being promoted are a lot more interesting. The film bombed, and that’s really too bad because it’s a great performance (Paul Giamati is great, too), but it’s no surprise that audiences weren’t willing to shell out money to see something they could have gotten for free on TV.

The Muse:

I love Albert Brooks. He’s one of the funniest, wittiest comedians in the biz. I really liked the satire found in The Muse, but really this film is like most of his recent endeavors: they just kind of exist. Brooks is a writer/director who always brings something to the table; even his bad films are a notch above other comedies, but with The Muse the whimsy wears thin half way through the film. When I watched it again recently I didn’t really mind that I was watching it, but it’s not as good as I remember, and that’s more due to the fact since I was 17 I hadn’t really seen many of Brooks’ films apart from Lost in America. Now I’ve seen them all, and I can say that The Muse ranks somewhere near the bottom and doesn’t really hold up when you compare it to your other options from Brooks.

The Sixth Sense:

This was the beginning of the end for M. Night Shyamalan and his wacky swerve endings. It worked here because it was so new to American audiences (although I have to be one of those guys and say: I kind of guessed the ending when I first saw this) and it was such an understated ghost story. There’s a lot to like here: good atmosphere, strong performances (annoying kid aside), and some creepy ghost moments, but really the film is like Blair Witch in that once you’ve seen it, you don’t need to see it again. I liked what Shyamalan did in Unbreakable and Signs, but boy did his string of goodness end there: The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening; all giant pieces of crap, and really they sour second viewings of his earlier films because you realize what a one trick pony he is, and that trick just isn’t very exciting if you’ve already seen the movie. One of the worst of this bunch when you consider it under the terms we’re playing by here.

Stir of Echoes:

Here’s a case of how I would see anything as long as it was a horror flick. I remember thinking this was really original when it came out, but now, not so much. When put in context, however, the film is quite original – this was released prior to the flurry of “other side” or “medium” films. The acting is good, and some of the more suspenseful scenes string you along pretty nicely, but again, does it hold up? Not really. This is a classic case of thinking something is really cool when you’re in high school, but watching it again, years later, you realize just how lame the movie is. Writer/Director David Koepp gets some things right, but really this felt stale upon its release due to the surprising success of the other ghost story movie The Sixth Sense, which came out a month prior to this one. One made hundreds of millions of dollars, the other one was forgotten after its opening weekend, but both fail to hold up 10 years later.

Summer of Sam:

Here’s a case of being 17 and thinking anything playful with editing and music is cool. Spike Lee is hit or miss with me, and I remember thinking that this was a great film filled with manic performances, manic editing, and manic music all perfectly encapsulating a manic time in New York City. I watched this on HD movies the other night, and wow was it boring. This is gratuity run amok, and Lee is obviously covering for his lack of a story with his kitchen sink approach to filmmaking. This is defiantly one of his less subdued films, and really, I think the only Spike Lee films that endure are the ones that are more nuanced. Adrien Brody, in one of his first roles, is really good here, but other than that. And WHAT was that orgy scene all about…

Other films I thought of, but are in kind of a gray area: Boys Don’t Cry, Notting Hill, The Straight Story, Tango, Ten Things I Hate About You, Twin Falls Idaho, The Winslow Boy.

I’ll be back later in the month with a look at some bad movies made by good directors, and just to whet the appetite these films will include the following: Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone), Fight Club (David Fincher), The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski), and Random Hearts (Sydney Pollack). Until then…