Thursday, March 29, 2007

In the Words of Jon Lovitz... "Acting!"

I've been mulling over this topic for a few weeks now and the fact that I've never procrastinated this long about a post (and the fact that I've been absent from this page for a while now), I figured its as good a time as any to roll out 4 nominations for best actor since... ohh the arbitrary year of 1985! Please feel obliged to flood the comments section and list your favorites as well. I'm sure there's a ton of actors I'm missing after this quick reflection.

1. Robert Downey Jr.

Even though this is not a chronological list, placing Downey Jr. at number 1 is a Freudian slip. Since coming out of rehab in late 2001 after a series of drug and weapon arrests, Downey Jr. has proven the best is yet to come and that whatever demons he was facing in the previous years, they weren't the driving force behind his electricity on screen. Downey Jr. is an actor who commands the screen, demanding attention from characters both big and small. One year, he tears up the screen as the main character in 1997's "Two Girls and a Guy", and then retreats into smaller supporting roles in 1998's "Gingerbread Man" and "U.S. Marshalls"- 2 roles that allow him to sink into the background while remaining viable aspects of both film's overall appeal. In recent years, it seems Downey Jr. can do no wrong, balancing a sharp wit and sense of humor in everything he does. From the recent "Zodiac" to 2005's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", his presence in American film is singular. And then there's his performance in "Wonder Boys", probably one of the finest pieces of acting he's ever done.

2. Daniel Day Lewis

Daniel day Lewis- Probably the closest this generation comes to Marlon Brando in comparison to his studied relationship with acting and the scope, Day Lewis simply doesn't work enough! With a little over 16 films since 1980, one only need to check out 2 films- 1993's "In the Name of the Father" and 2003's "Gangs of New York"- to fully understand the graces and power of Daniel Day Lewis as an actor. Throw in his roles in the films of Jim Sheridan ("The Boxer" and "My Left Foot"), "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Last of the Mohicans", and you get a sense of something special. The one thing I really looking forward to this year? His performance in P.T. Anderson's "And There Will Be Blood".

3. Cate Blanchett

Copied from an earlier post of mine which says it all about the beautiful Cate: I first remember seeing Cate Blanchett on the big screen in 1998 after her Oscar winning peformance in "Elizabeth", a film whose character required Blanchett's seething sensuality to shine through layers of thick make-up and extravagant costumes. Next came the moribund Mike Nichols comedy about stressed out air traffic controllers (yea, we all wanted to see that!)called "Pushing Tin" where Cate held her own against the sex pot hurricane that was just beginning to form around Angelina Jolie. Then came the one-two punch of "The Gift" and "Bandits", two films that required Blanchett to embody diametrically opposed characters- the first being a Southern pyschic caught up in murder and intrigue in Sam Raimi's gothic horror story, and the second as a muse towards two low-level criminals in Barry Levinson's humurous "Bandits". From there, Blanchett retreated a little into more personal works, bringint to life on the screen two strong, politically motivated women in "Charlotte Gray" and "Veronica Guerin", the latter an immensely moving performance. She then became the fanboy's dream (hey, nothing wrong with that.. I"m the one writing 1000 words about her) harboring a recurring part in Peter jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy as the ethereal Galadriel. But, her strongest performance (aside from her latest role in "Notes on a Scandal") lies in last year's gritty "Little Fish". As Tracy, a video store clerk desperately trying to keep her head above water from a past full of drug addiction and petty violence, Blanchett boldly carried the film's generic themes into a whole other realm of naturalistic glances and body language. As in "Notes on a Scandal", she proves that beauty can be a little fucked-up, a little intelligent and very scary sometimes.

4. Edward Norton

Edward Norton- Make all the comparisons you want to Robert DeNiro, but the fact is they're hard to ignore. Since breaking out as a skinhead in "American History X" (although he was pehomenal in "Primal Fear" a couple years before that) Norton consistently immerses himself in varied characters that fluctuate in emotion and intelligence. Not to mention his swagger is ultra cool. For the definitive performance, see him in Spike Lee's hugely underrated "25th Hour".

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Movie Watching Over the Weekend

The gauntlet has been firmly thrown into the ground. Korean cinema is not only making better monster movies right now, but they're also making better police thrillers (in the form of Bong Joo-Ho's "Memories of Murder"), better psychological horror films (any K-Horror, but especially Park Ki Hyung's "Whispering Corridors), and even better romantic comedies (witness the dynamic films of Hong Sang-Soo). But, to the film at hand, Bong Joon-Ho's "The Host" is a monster movie with heart, brains and imbued with the sheer ecstasy of movie-making. Everything about "The Host" is near perfect- from the first image of the monster rising from the lake in full daylight followed in one long steadicam take as it wrecks havoc on the population, to the finale that continually surprises and shocks the viewer, ultimately bending the monster genre into something new and heartfelt. And even though this is a monster movie, Joon-Ho finds time to laugh and care about the 3 generations of family who come together to fight the mutated Han River thing. There's even room for some heady political commentary. I can see "The Host" being a favorite for a long time to come, enjoying a critical success at midnight movie festivals and finding a much appreciated audience on home video. But, if this thing is playing anywhere near you on the big screen, go see it now. It's one of the year's very best.

The other film event over the weekend included seeing Zach Snyder's "300", a film with neither brains, nor heart, nor any respect for filmmaking in general since the film's actors are required to act against blue screens and CGI monsters rather than flesh and blood ACTORS. I guess that loss of reality is why every character SHOUTS HIS LINES INCESSANTLY and the film plods along violently without ever mustering an iota of care towards anyone. I admit, the graphic novel adaptation to film has yet to win me over (I enjoyed parts of "Sin City") and Frank Miller and Zach Snyder have probably alienated me even further from any future enjoyment of this phenomenom. It just goes to show that since both films use CGI to startling effect, the most basic ingredient (for me) lies in the humanity of a film's characters. "The Host" exemplifies the creation of people we care for while "300" serves up hollow mouthpieces that exist only as fodder for on-screen mayhem and video game stylistics. It's like the difference between night and day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

What's In the Netflix Queue #3

Gee, it feels like it's taken 3 weeks to get through 10 films in my Netflix queue. Maybe that's because its actually taken 3 weeks to get through 10 films in my Netflix queue. But it's not without warrant. I had the opportunity to spend 3 days last week in the cold, blustery city of Minneapolis (and I loved it!). Not only did I get to see more snow in the 3 days I was there then in all 30 years of my Texan life, but I spent a good hour on the light rail train exposing myself to all the beautiful and ugly portions of the city. And like Kim Morgan and her melancholy musings about her experience on a train, my journey doesn't compare to her cross-country trip, but I certainly feel her affinity for the experiences one can discover on a moving train.

So here's what will finally make it my humble abode:

1. The Wire Season 2 disc 2- So begins season 2 of one of my new favorite shows on TV.
2. Graveyard of Honor- More Fukasaka.... if you love balls-out yakuza films, check out his 5 disc "Yakuza Papers" series. I'm hoping this lurid title carries on with his Japanese excess.
3. The Seven Ups- 70's Roy Scheider cop flick.
4. Murder Inc.- Classic mobster film from the 60's. I've caught pieces on TCM before, but never the whole thing.
5. Emperor of the North- Long lost Robert Aldrich that finally made it's way to DVD earlier this year. Now if they'll just release "Ulzana's Raid", we'll be a little closer to appreciating the grittiness that's inherent in all of Aldrich's films.
6. Under the Flag of the Rising Sun- I'e heard great things about Fukasaka's anti-war film.
7. The Wire Season 2 disc 3
8. Forty Shades of Blue- I know Sam at the Listening Ear blog thought highly of this Ira Sachs indie release last year. I didn't care for "The Delta" (Sachs' previous film) but I'm up giving this one a shot.
9. Too Late the Hero- Aldrich directing Micahel Caine about a group of British troops trying to disable a Japanese transmittor tower. I'm there.
10. The Wire Season 2 disc 4

Friday, March 09, 2007

Thoughts On Zodiac

Is there anything more thrilling than the police procedural movie? I'm sure that, based on opening weekend totals and word of mouth, there are plenty of people saying, "um yes, there is when we're expecting another kick-ass David Fincher movie along the lines of Seven!"

Well "Zodiac" is certainly not another "Seven" as much as the film's producers would LOVE to sell it as (especially since that 1995 film has been the only Fincher film to gross over $100 million). But "Zodiac" is something more altogether- its smart, well paced, well acted and certainly well researched. It also falls right into the genre of film that I love- one I affectionately call the 'journalistic procedural' genre- the grand daddy of them all being 1976's "All the President's Men". And while in recent times the emphasis has shifted from a journalistic stance to illuminate the same type of dogged determinism inherent in police work, the main point is still the same- show the audience all the frustrations, the dead ends, the paperwork and especially the elation when all that hard work pays off. "Zodiac" does that masterfully.

Using the zodiac killings that took place during the Bay area in the late 60's, Fincher's film focuses on the cops (a wonderful Mark Ruffalo, who did this type of thing so intelligently also in Michael Mann's "Collateral" and a rejuvenated Anthony Edwards) and the reporters (Robery Downey Jr, need I say more! and Jake Gylenhaall) who spend their careers and their sanity searching for the one clue that may break the case wide open. Characters float in and out of the twenty year time span as the case grows and wanes, time is reflected patiently in clothes and style and, perhaps, the biggest injustice that the film exposes is the lack of law enforcement cooperation that existed between four separate California counties during the killings. The damnation of "Zodiac" lies not on one person, but the bureaucratic breakdown of our judicial system.

Filling the screen with the hunt of the prey based solely on intelligence and research has been done to great lengths in the past, and "Zodiac" deserves to join that list. As previously mentioned with Alan J. Pakula's film, there is also Bertrand Tavernier's "L.627" from 1992- a film whose entire 2 hour and 30 minute running time concerns itself with mundane daily details of a French police unit as they fight the war against drugs and prostitution. As exciting as it sounds, Tavernier elicits great sympathy out of his main character, and I feel for him when he has to sit and type out a long report (often filled in real time as he interrogates his handcuffed criminal) and especially during the film's muted final moment as he drives away in the back of police van, looking out onto the street he's trying to make safe. Also from France this year (why are the French so good at nailing the vagaries of professional life?) was Xavier Beauvois' "La Petit Lieutenant". While this film saddled the police procedural around a somewhat strong framework of plot, it still conveyed the maddening doldrums of city police work. Here at home, the most stunning and recent example lies in David Simon's first season of his HBO drama "The Wire". Just watch that show over its first 13 episodes and I dare anyone not to be intrigued and wholly caught up in its portrayal of a police task force slowly ripping its way into the organized drug trade of inner city Baltimore. That shows breadth and scope, alternating between the street level drug dealers and carrying itself up to the corridors of City Hall, fascinated me more than any movie in the last few years.

Now back to this little movie called "Zodiac". Clocking in at almost 3 hours (and using about 5% of its screen time dedicated to the killings themselves), it can be frustrating at times and lends itself to information overload- I'm still trying to piece together how one section about a murder in Riverside and a piece of wood found with writings on it fits with the rest of the film. But the greatness of Fincher's film lies in its resolve to not be another "Seven". "Zodiac" is a refreshing attempt to reconstruct a process of thinking through a crime rather than exploiting the crime itself. The ultimate example of this is during an interrogation scene with a character who the film (based on Graysmith's book) pretty much vilifies as the true killer- the tension and observation during that scene strikes more points than any action sequence could ever amass. It's all about body language and intuition between the cops and their subject. You can feel their wits literally doing battle on the screen. And that's a battle I'd watch any day.

So, I'm curious to other procedural films that have sparked everyone's interest. List away in the comments section!