Thursday, January 31, 2008

DVD Shout Out- Loach x 2

Looks and Smiles

Newly released on DVD, Ken Loach's 1981 slice of docudrama life "Looks and Smiles" is a clear-eyed yet lacksidaisical effort to observe the wasting away of the young and unemployed. Following two teenagers, Mick (Graham Greene) and Allen (Tony Pitts), times are not good. While both are on the 'dole', they spend their days drinking and dancing in discos, stealing motorcycles for the occassional joyride, and scowering the newspapers for dead end jobs that never come to fruition. That is until Allen up and joins the army and Mick begins dating a local shopgirl named Karen (Carolyen Nicholson). A majority of the film follows this relationship between Mick and Karen, documenting the various ups and downs of young love stuck amidst poverty, feuding parents and endless hours. While all three amateur leads handle their acting roles with sensitivity and believability, Loach does something else entirely. As he's done for a career now, he says much more about responsibility and life in a specific time and place through casual observances and as little flash as necessary. There are no grand statements here. No one charges the institution or goes on strike. At times, its hard to even understand Mick and Allen through their strong Sheffield accents, muttering conversations and making sense of their simple life, but the rage of poverty and alienation during early 80's England is highly resonant throughout. And just when you feel like something dramatic is going to happen as Mick and Karen go off to find/live with her estranged father after a particulary nasty fight with her mom, Loach keeps the emotion true and the outcome simple. This is very close to the best film Loach has produced. And enough can't be said about longtime cinematographer Chris Menges' shimmering black and white photography.


"Aria"? "Paris, je t'aime"? "Boccacio 70"? "Eros"? If none of these films ring a bell, then you're probably not a fan of the European-financed genre of films esoterically known as the anthology film- one in which a group of filmmakers combine segments to create a (mostly uneven) whole. Call it the auteur project in the finest sense of the word. For "Tickets", the directors on display include Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami, and Ken Loach. While each film exudes the overall sensibilites of each director (Olmi's being the least involving and empty), I bring up this triptych because the final section of the film, helmed by Ken Loach, is a magical 40 minutes of film that could've succeeded as a completely enriching feature length effort on its own. While each segment takes place on a train traveling to Rome (yes, another European touch), Loach introduces us to three young football fans traveling to the Championship game in Italy. When they meet and be-friend a young boy on the train who says he's from Albania, one of the boys names Jamesy (Martin Compston) shows him his wallet and football ticket. When the train inspector calls for tickets later, Jamesy can't find his ticket, and his throttled up partners have him believing the young boy probably stole his ticket. It goes to say, that in Loach's hands, this section of "Tickets" turns into a tense altercation between class and culture. While there's merit in each section, Loach's blue collar imprint can be felt on every inch of his section (and while there's very little fanfare when the sections transition between filmmakers except a hard cut, you know Loach takes command when the first words you hear are "you fucking cunt, hold up"). I'd recommend renting "Tickets" if only for Kiarostami's quietly poised section and Loach's frenetic, charged finale.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Day Late and A Dollar Short

On the Decline of 24

Season 6 of "24" is a shining example of a great series that doesn't quite know when to stop. Allow me to preface all this by saying I've been a fan of the show for many years now, even defending the many episodes where daughter Kim (Elisa Cuthbert) was continually put in peril by kidnappers, demented baby-sitting fathers, and yes even a wild tiger. I mean, honestly, the situations were far-fetched, but she looked so good being caught between a rock and a hardplace that I couldn't help but forgive her (and all that has been erased by loathsome career choices like Captivity.) Bottom line, while the series often took exaggerated detours, Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer and his frenetic chase for American righteousness was always just short of electric. He commanded the screen with authority and the contrast between his tense field exploits and the personal drama of peers at CTU and the White House made for a winning combination of well-edited gunfire and menacing political skulduggery.

But, in Season 6, I felt like I was forcing myself to watch each and every episode. The mechanics felt rote, the personal tension felt awkward and even the timing of the show's trademark counting clock felt stretched to the point of unbelievability. Without giving too much away for those who haven't seen the latest season, Los Angeles finds itself again fighting off the hatred of Islamic extremists carrying suitcase nukes and CTU finds themselves heading the search for the terrorists. There are some new faces, but the show's reliance on Sutherland kicking ass and taking names is mired behind soap opera theatrics (or maybe it was ALWAYS this way and season 6 was bad enough to finally call attention to itself). There are some interesting diversions thrown Jack's way this time and needless to say, the calamity hits very close to home for him. My real problem with season 6 is the lazy way emotions and narrative are strung together. I couldn't count how many times I rolled my eyes or let out an "uggh" when ex-Vice President Logan and his loony tunes wife pop up for a mid-season cameo. Or we're made to suffer ponderous back stabbings inside the underground bunker of President Palmer (yes, that's right.. the OTHER Palmer... his brother who seems to have been elected in 2 years only due to his last name) as power grabs are executed like chess moves. And I haven't even mentioned the entrance of Jacks' brother, father and ex-girlfriend who just happens to be the wife of his brother. I know.. I know.. I'm even confusing myself. If anything, Season 6 feels like a parody of itself. There's very little tension mounted from any of the show's numerous twists and turns and with the introduction of each new face (Ricky Schroeder, Powers Boothe, James Cromwell), I could feel myself being removed further and further from the genuine excitement I used to get from "24". Perhaps the scale has gotten too big, and the consequences too great. The first two seasons (and I could argue for 3 and 4 as well) dealt with huge issues, but they worked through with plausibility. Remember how economical the narrative was in the first few seasons and how much we cared for the characters? Case in point- in season 1 when Jack is asked to assassinate candidate Palmer, I remember thinking how in the hell are they going to write themselves out of this one. And they did. You can name the same thing from many moments throughout the next couple of seasons. In Season 6, the breaks come with a resounding "huh".

Even the timeline of Season 6 is sketchy. For the first time in the show's history, I question the amount of time taken with so many plot points. Perhaps watching the season back to back on DVD, eliminating the week long hibernation and memory loss between episodes, opens one up to the illegitimate flow of time more evenly (although I've watched all of them since season 2 this same way, and the implausibilities were not this glaring). One episode ends and the next starts (seemingly within 1-3 seconds of its timeline), and they've already swept the entire crime scene, downloaded any incriminating evidence off a computer hard drive and ran background checks one 101 known business associates? This occurred continually throughout season 6, and when you don't buy into something after the first minute, its hard to regain your acceptance of everything that follows. Season 6 tackles world war, international crisis and nuclear explosions, but as the show's story grows exponentially, it loses the vitality and originality of its predecessors. Season 6 does redeem itself, slightly, in the last few episodes when it unleashes Jack Bauer into a frenzy of gunfire and personal vendettas. But, everything up until that point, remains a ghost of itself.

Having said all of this, I'll still tune into Season 7 if there is one. Part of the magnetic draw with shows like 24, besides the feeling that 'I-was-there-when-nobody-cared-about-this-show' way back in 2001, is the strong fan base they've established over the past 6 years. It wasn't long ago when I remembered how great this show was. Perhaps, with a new season, Sutherland fresh off his jail stint, and an end to a lengthy writer's strike, "24" will find some of the magic of season's past and toss off a truly energetic and fresh premise for its prime-time rebirth. If nothing else, maybe bring Kim back to get lost in the valley or something in one of these tight-fitting shirts?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Return of Ghost Children

While American film studios are wasting money and intelligence on remaking Asian horror movies instead of nurturing any proprietary creativity, a small group of Spanish filmmakers have quietly taken the horror genre into sensitive and atmospheric places. Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others", the various fantasy-horrors of Guillermo Del Toro such as "The Devil's Backbone" and even "Pan's Labyrinth" and now Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage"- all subtle and highly creative efforts that have found a small cult following and even mainstream distribution. "The Orphanage" is the latest and perhaps the best of this group. Not only is it an increasingly creepy haunted house tale full of mood and delicately balanced scares, but like del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" it strikes a genuinely emotional tone as the harsh realities of modern life intersect with the mysterious affairs of the afterlife.

Starring Belen Reuda as Laura, she returns to the orphanage where she lived as a young girl before adoption to set up a school for mentally challenged children with her husband (Fernando Cayo ) and young son, Simone (Roger Princep). Its not long before Simone is talking of invisible friends which may or may not be the reason for his sudden disappearance one sunny afternoon. As the frustration and inability to turn up any clues mounts with Laura after nine months, she turns to a local team of paranormal investigators (led by Geraldine Chaplin) who uncover a dark secret about the orphanage. Unable to leave the orphanage, Laura gives herself two days alone to figure out the secrets of the sprawling property.

There are two scenes in "The Orphanage" that rank with some of the best moments of on-screen dread since the psychological horrors of Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The first, dealing with the appearance of a young boy with a straw sack over his head (who may or may not be the ghost of a deformed child) plays out in a surreal manner as he slowly walks down the hallway towards Laura and eventually lashes out in violent ways. The second, dealing with the paranormal investigation on the property, exhibit mood and fear through perfect camera placement and sound editing. The silences are almost as frightening as the unnerving sounds that eventually come through the audio devices planted strategically around the orphanage. It's to the credit of director Bayona that he's able to sustain such an involving narrative throughout, especially since the genre relies so faithfully on jumps and scares. Directors like Bayona and the others mentioned here create intimate stories first, then carefully construct the thrills later to support the story. Horror films often fail when they contrive the scare first and emotional involvement later. Why do we care who lives and who dies? With "The Orphanage", we certainly care about who's alive and who's dead, and the lines of mortality are blurred. Not to mention the fact that the main character, Laura, is suffering from an illness and emotional strain (the loss of her son) that's certainly clouding her judgement. Director Bayone modulates everything with intensity and pulls off something special. Don't let this one get lost in the post-Holiday shuffle. It's best seen in a movie theater with the sound up and the lights way, way down.

The following review and others can be read at Talking Moviezzz.

Friday, January 18, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #13

It's been awhile since I've posted one of these. Blame it on the mad rush of the holidays and my incessant re-arranging of my queue at the end of the year to see as many '07 flicks as possible.

1. The Devil- I've yet to see any films from Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, and this one sounds fascinating. From Netlfix, "Banned from director Andrzej Zulawski's native Poland for 15 years, The Devil is part horror fest, part political allegory in its treatment of the tale of an imprisoned 18th-century nobleman who buys his freedom by selling out his co-conspirators. Curious about the stranger who extracted such a payment, the newly released Jakub follows him on a cross-country journey and becomes despondent over the brutality and corruption he witnesses." You may remember that Zulawski directed the weird horror movie called Possession, which starred Isabelle Adjani as a woman who elopes with a fungus which eventually morphs into her husband (Sam Neill). I'm only going off a plot synopsis as the film is on DVD, but I've yet found a website that has one in stock.
2. Pitfall- Criterion recently released 3 films from postwar Japanese new wave filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara's and this one of them. "Teshigahara's crime drama mixes murder, the supernatural and postwar commentary into an eerie tale about a Japanese miner (Hisashi Igawa) who's stalked by a ghostly man in white (Kunie Tanaka) with one intent: to imprison the down-and-out laborer in a ghost town. The plot moves deeper into sociopolitical realms as rival union leaders try to solve a mystery surrounding the miner."
3. Woman In the Dunes- Probably the most well-known Teshigahara.
4. A Stranger Among Us- One of the few Lumet films I've yet to see. I'm kinda scared, but I'll give it a shot. This is the one where Melanie Griffith goes undercover in an Amish community (!) to catch a killer. Lumet has made some turkeys, and this very well could be another.
5. The Bridesmaid- French master Claude Chabrol directed this a few years back. I'm sure it'll feature more than a few tips of the hat to Hitchcock.
6. Scene of the Crime- Mid 80's psychological thriller from Andre Techine, a hugely under-appreciated French director.
7. Rikyu- Third and final film from Teshigahara, this one a period piece about the cultural and spiritual differences between a Buddhist monk and a monarch. War erupts. Sounds like a nice Kurosawa imitation.
8. The Killing Kind- 70's exploitation film from director Curtis Harrington about "a man who returns home from prison -- where he was incarcerated after friends forced him to take part in a gang-rape -- and he moves into his mother's boarding home. Soon he's peeping on a pretty tenant (Cindy Williams), and his enemies start dying horrific deaths. Meanwhile, a creepy neighbor (Luana Anders) has an unhealthy fascination with Terry in this classic spine-chiller."
9. On the Silver Globe- Another Zulawski oddity. This time the film is about the following- "When a spaceflight crashes on the moon, the survivors establish a new society. Shortly afterward, all but one of the adults die, leaving the children to create their own civilization. When a visitor from Earth lands in this bizarre place, the children immediately welcome him as a messiah. Filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski labored for years to complete this chilling vision of the future after the original negatives were seized by Polish authorities." Could be total trash or an interesting find.
10. Carved: The Slit Mouth Killer- J-horror film about a murdering ghost.. what else would a j-horror film be about? Another Tartan release, and I give this studio all the kudos in the world.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Regional Review: Chalk

Mike Akel's Chalk aims to do for public schools what Christopher Guest did with small town pageantry.... and folk music.... and dog shows. But where Guest's comedies often veer into exaggerated territory, most of Chalk keeps its humor close to the vest, creating an affectionate and warmly humorous mockumentary. Following the school year of 4 teachers at Harrison High (actually Austin's own Travis County High school), Chalk received a cinematic push when it cleaned up awards at the 2006 Austin Film Festival, went onto strong word-of-mouth at the AFI fest here in Dallas in early '07, and gained Morgan Spurlock as its central spokesperson and executive producer. But I imagine Chalk would've succeeded without it grass-roots exposure because it feels so genuine. And it can also be interpreted as an eerie companion piece to Season 4 of David Simon's blisteringly authentic HBO series The Wire, in which they spent close to 9-10 episodes focused solely on Baltimore's stumbling educational system and its malcontent students. Taken together, both artistic visions represent a scathing yet redemptive portrait of our modern school districts. The Wire does it through harsh political commentary and young kids falling down the rabbit hole while Chalk gives us teachers who care more about winning the "Teacher of the Year" award rather than actually teaching his class anything. But remember, Chalk is a comedy.

There are five main characters we follow in the film. The new guy on the block is Mr. Lowery (Troy Schremmer), a recent engineer-turned-teacher getting his comeuppance by awkwardly stuttering through his lesson plans, dealing with cell phones in his class and an overall confidence problem. Someone not timid and awkward is Mr. Stroope (co-writer Chris Mass), a thirty-something guy who thinks he's got his classes all figured out. Be their friend, win the Teacher of the Year award and float through the semester. And while Mass could've embodied Stroop as a genuine asshole, there's something very casual and laugh out loud funny about his performance, full of improvisation between the actual students and himself. There's a rapport built up between him and the students that's hard to shake. We're also introduced to Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), petite and short-haired who prefers to teach yoga in her gym class rather than volleyball and basketball. She develops a crush on Mr. Lowery. As real life husband and wife, a small but unacknowledged flirtation erupts between the two on film and director Akel adequately exploits the sexual tension just under the surface between these two. It's to his credit that we're given so much with so less. Finally, there's Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan), a music teacher promoted to assistant principal and struggling to find the balance between old friendships (with Coach Webb) and carrying out her administrative duties.

What's most impressive about Chalk is the way it eschews so many 'school drama' cliches and pulls gentle laughs out of its talented and amateur cast. One of the more exhilarating and profound examples of this generosity lies in the "slang bee" that the teachers take part in. Apparently a tradition at Harrison High, the teachers are put on stage by the students and have to spell out slang terms the students use throughout the year. What could have come off as mawkish and stunted turns into a moving vignette of teachers and students bonding over generational gaps and ethnic backgrounds. Everyone sells this moment in the film as believable, and perhaps, what we need more of in this intellectually stunted world are more selfless moments like the slang bee and less self-righteous divisions between educator and student. Chalk is still, after all, just a well intentioned comedy, but it ends up saying a lot more than so many well intentioned films. Director Mike Akel is one to watch.

Monday, January 14, 2008

My Dinner With...

So, the first meme of the year, courtesy of Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre asks a very simple question. The rules are as follows:

1. Pick a single person past or present who works in the film industry you would like to have dinner with. And tell us why you chose this person.

2. Set the table for your dinner. What would you eat? Would it be in a home or at a restaurant? And what would you wear? Feel free to elaborate on the details.

3. List five thoughtful questions you would ask this person during dinner.

4. When all is said and done, select six bloggers to pass this Meme along to.

5. Link back to Lazy Eye Theatre, so people know the mastermind behind this Meme.

I urge everyone to check out his own entry which is worthy of an Eli Roth torture porn adaptation.

So, I've given this lots of thought. I could go several ways. I could go fanboy and envision myself sitting down with Martin Scorsese or Terence Malick or Jean Luc Godard, but hell you only live once so I opted for the purely carnal.

My dinner would be with....

Yes.... Salma Hayek. Now I'm talking about the recent Salma Hayek and not the vampira/goth/rattlesnake-shape-shifting-Salma that Tarantino brought into cult status back with From Dusk Till Dawn (though I'm aware that there are those fetishists who hold this Salma as the only Salma... and that's cool I'm just not into that scene). But then you go back and, wow, you have the Salma from her Antonio-Banderas-swashbuckingly-hot-kickass-chick years with Once Upon a Time in Mexico and I'd be very ok with that kinda girl as well. What is it that makes a python around a girl's neck seem intimidating and yet the same girl can fire guns, swing swords and jump out of buildings tied to a sheet and it makes my heart flutter? But I digress.... I'm rambling here.

Back to the dinner. And I believe my entire last paragraph thoroughly explained in some warped way why I chose Salma, right? We'd have dinner at a restaurant reserved only for us. Yes, money would not be an option. Personal waitstaff, all that jazz. Since my meals consist mainly of things known as combo meals and big macs, I'd have to order one of those cheezy specials that the waiter offers.... "minced lamb chops covered in a tart mushroom sauce, sauteed in 3/4 ounce marinated lemon juice, artichoke salad and California honey dew grass slivers". Sounds good, serve it up. Let's skip over what I'd be wearing because does anyone really care? What is Salma wearing. Well I can't explain it because I don't know a lick about fashion, but she looks fucking incredible.

I'd ask her, what's it like to be the most beautiful woman on the plant, yet manage to keep yourself free from the shitty tabloids that desecrate so many other actresses of lesser talent and lesser beauty? Is Tarantino the ass I suspect he really is? Is George Clooney gay? How would you cure world peace? Do I have a chance in hell of sleeping with you... or following you to your home and peeping in your window? Ok.. I've officially entered into the Salma Hayek stalker club. I take back that last comment. I'm perfectly adjusted. But, honestly, who am I kidding? I should've just selected Woody Allen for this meme and been done with it.

Chris at Ojo's blog
Lucas at 100 Films
Moviezzz at Talking Moviezzz
Neal at The Bleeding Tree
Evan at Club Parnassus

You've been tagged.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Trailers I Love

Ok, so it's not an actual movie trailer, but this is still a great collection of scenes from some pretty great 2007 films. Pieced together by Matt Shapiro, it reminds me of those old Chuck Workman collages, framed with patience and attentive editing to musical beats. Nice stuff.

Moments of '07

In conjunction with my favorite films of the year list, I offer up some moments out of 2007 films that made an indelible impression on me. Older online buddies will recognize this as a recurring event. This list is a collection of film dialogue, gestures, camera movements, moods or looks and ideas within a given scene. This list is inspired by Roger Ebert's list of movie moments as well as the once great (now dead) yearly wrap up in Film Comment.

1. After a lengthy explanation of where she believes babies comes from, the reaction of a mother (Leslie Mann) to her daughter's story with an affirmative, "that's exactly right." Knocked Up
2. Sitting under a tree together, the quiet desperation in the voice of Constance (Marina Hands) as she asks her gamekeeper lover if he will come for her once he gets settled, and then a cut to black in Pascale Feran's Lady Chatterley.
3. Looking through a surveillance camera, its viewer gets distracted by a familiar face as a young girl is knifed by a group of kids in the lower right hand corner.... Red Road
3. The slow-motion run directly towards the camera as a man is surrounded by a village of old enemies.. and then they recognize him in The Hunting Party.
4. The first appearance of the creature and a long tracking shot as it rampages along the concrete banks of the Han river. The Host
5. Where to begin in one of the most sublime film in years.... a man rides ahead of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) in the dark as James slowly falls out of view and the shot lingers in deafening quiet for what feels like minutes.. then a gunshot pierces the silence. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
6. Probably the most uncomfortable scene of the year- a young man is forced to sing in front of a roomful of drunk/high men because they think he's someone else- Superbad
7. A whisper in the ear of a female agent (Jennifer Garner) that comes full circle in surprising and emotional ways in Peter Berg's The Kingdom.
8. Those long legs of Christina Ricci- Black Snake Moan
9. The long tracking shot as Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) runs, holding his injured boy covered in oil, and the completely enveloping soundtrack of Jonny Greenwood. There Will Be Blood.
10. The sounds and texture of a crummy New York apartment where people are working in silence, carefully mixing drugs... and the sweat that glistens on the forehead of Joaquin Phoenix in James Gray's We Own the Night.
11. A man (Mathieu Amalric) catches a reflection of himself in a glass window next to a multi-colored lamp of the Virgin Mary as Ultra Orange and Emmanuelle's "Don't Kiss Me Goodbye" plays. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
12. The almost unbearable tension that builds up between Gadget (Andrew Ellis) and Combo (Stephen Graham) as racial hatred boils to the surface as they smoke pot together in Shane Meadows masterpiece, This Is England.
13. A figure standing against a cold winter sky, echoing the final images in 30 Days of Night
14. The quick flashes of youth as two soldiers are torn apart by bullets Lions For Lambs
15. The shot of the year- a five minute tracking shot that observes the absurdity of war when there's no one left to kill- a soldier wanders around a beach as men fight, drink, sing, shoot horses and hang their heads- Atonement
16. The reaction of Benecio Del Toro when his best friend (David Duchovney) leaves behind a sack of groceries. Things We Lost In the Fire
17. The sound of spitballs- Paris Je Atme
18. The scene that made me gasp with anticipation- a young girl with a bomb strapped to her back finally settles on a crowded Times Square corner with the detonator in her hand... and the film grows silent for several minutes observing the small quirks of everyone else's hands around her.. then the sound is brought back in full audio. Day Night Day Night
19. The way Chris (Emile Hirsch) politely turns down the advances of Tracey (Kristen Stewart) as she lies on her bed. Into the Wild
20. Coupled with its chromatic black and white cinematography, the dream-like quality that a 6 minute long stationary shot weaves as it slowly pans back and forth, observing the actions of a group of protesters behind a wall of smoke and flames in Phillip Garrel's Regular Lovers
21. The different shades of sky that take on an otherworldly feel- The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
22. The only real moment that I remember from David Lynch's preposterous 3 hour experiment Inland Empire- a woman's face morphing into something nightmarish as it comes into focus head long into the camera.
23. The tracking shot from the passenger side of a slow moving vehicle as it keeps the houses, fireworks and depth in perfect focus- Zodiac
24. The frenetic chase through a grass field in 28 Weeks Later.
25. Flames catching fire inside an enclosed garden, and the tortured screams of Michelle Yeoh watching her paradise blacken- Sunshine
27. "Look at those assholes!" and then the signature whip pan of Wes Anderson in The Darjeeling Limited
28. The wrinkles on Tommy Lee Jones' face on prominent display, full of.... something...... "and then I woke up" No Country For Old Men
29. As a music technician sits with his feet up on the desk, reading a magazine, the interested glance he gives towards a group of rag-tag musicians in the recording booth in front of him as they start to play... the power of music to transform- Once
30. The handheld camera shots of Keira Knightley as she fixes herself up in a large mirror, a white feather perched just on the edge of the frame. Atonement
31. In I'm Not There, A visual metaphor worthy of Godard when Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) unleashes electricity on the crowd at the Newport Jazz Festival, expressed as her band shooting machine guns into the crowd.
32. The anguished long take as a group of Irish men are lined up against a barn wall, questioned by intruders... and one of them doesn't speak English as a cacophony of friendly voices tries to explain what's happening.... then he's lead into the barn- The Wind That Shakes the Barley
33. The slow dissolve from one scene to the next that feels almost revolutionary in its classicism as Mark Whalburg walks to his car... violence waiting to erupt in We Own the Night
34. The long medium shot as a woman stands, head down, in front of a masked man, as he repetitively quizzes her on a name, address, birthday, social security number from a fake drivers license he's holding.... one of the most stark examples of brainwashing ever presented on film in Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night.
35. In No Country For Old Men, the inflection in the voice of a young boy as he looks over the damaged body of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) with, "look at that fuckin' bone..."
36. George Clooney's face filling the left side of the screen in silence as the end credits roll.... Michael Clayton.
37. The body of Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead- reason enough to pay to see the movie.
38. "By the power of Grayskull". Hott Fuzz
39. Those eyes of Imogen Poots in 28 Weeks Later.
40. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the shot of a woman's brown hair blowing violently in the wind as the crisp blue sky looms around the edges.
41. There could probably be a hundred moments of Philip Seymour Hoffman on this list, but his entire performance in Charlie Wilson's War and they way he murmurs out humorous line after line in that monotone voice and the way he directs Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) to open the bottle of wine elsewhere.
42. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) directing a British reporter (Paddy Considine) through a train station full of technology. The Bourne Ultimatum
43. A female police officer (Charlize Theron) recognizing that under the yellow light where a car may have been parked, the witness could've easily mistaken a green car for blue... just one of the many smart observations in a very smart film- In the Valley of Elah
44. The vampires in 30 Days of Night... a nightmarish bastard child of Nosferatu and everything unholy.
45. A baby reaching up to grab the moustache of the man holding him, and the way Daniel Day Lewis slumps to accept the infant's touch- one of the very few moments of tenderness in There Will Be Blood.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Favs of 2007

The following are my 20 favorite films of 2007. These 20 favorites may be someone else's 20 worst, but here's hoping we can meet in a compromise and enjoy 2008.

20. Atonement- Joe Wright's tale of star-crossed lovers is the stuff of Lifetime Movie channel upon first viewing. Beautiful people (Keira Knightly and James McAvoy) are torn apart by war and the deception of a child, and upon my initial viewing, Atonement registered as a very well done drama and nothing more. But the film lingered in my mind for days (something that only happens with my true favorites) and I gave it a second chance. The devastation and emotion of the narrative were there even greater the second time and it won me over.

19. The Bourne Ultimatum- I could've done with a little less hand-held camerawork, but this is still a terrific finale to a terrific spy trilogy. After watching this film twice on DVD, its clear that Greengrass has a subversive feel for editing and bodies in motion. Plus it features 2-3 of the greatest set pieces all year. Damon pulverizes through everything and everyone like a missile and we finally get some answers solved. I have the feeling that in 5-10 years, this will be for me what the Bond Franchise (minus 25 or so films) was to my father.

18. This Is England- Shane Meadows slightly autobiographical glimpse of youth in 1980's England as they flirt with rebellion, grow teenage crushes and deal with sobering reality. Oh, this is still a film that allows for its skinhead character (Stephen Graham) to elicit some unwarranted violence, but it's the way Meadows charts the impressionable journey of young Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) that resonates soundly. It would be easy to file Meadows' effort alongside previous 'skinhead flicks' of Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke, but This Is England is about so much more. He cares about his teen characters greatly and shows that their rebellious nature and nationalist zeal, when confronted with true evil, are merely excuses for hanging out and partying.

17. Red Road- Andrea Arnold has created a modernized version of Hitchock's Rear Window. A woman (Kate Dickie) is confined in a surveillance booth watching over the denizens of Glasgow through a wall of TV monitors. And then she recognizes a male face on one of the camera images. She puts a plan in motion and we're relegated to hapless observers, left wondering and watching as she puts her plan into action and we slowly gain answers to her mystery. Created out of the Dogma faction, Arnold's film looks better than a majority of those von-Trier inspired movies, and it packs quite a moral wallop as well.

16. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead- Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is one of three films this fall to feature the rising real estate of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here he gets to act sleazy, trade dialogue punches with Etahn Hawke... and he gets to screw Marisa Tomei. Things are certainly looking up for him. But in light of that, Lumet's latest is an intense chamber piece that observes the slow dissolution of a family through a heinous act. There's no redemption here and while Ethan Hawke churns out a frenetic, high-wire performance, it's the sad eyes of father Albert Finney that will stay with you longer than anything.

15. In the Valley of Elah- Not only has director Paul Haggis slightly redeemed himself for Crash, but In the Valley of Elah makes me look forward to his next film. Tommy Lee Jones is achingly poignant as a father searching for the answer to his son's death after he returned home on leave from the Iraq war. Charlize Theron plays the marginalized female police detective who helps with the case. Slowly, and with very little sledgehammer tactics (save for the final shot), Haggis weaves a smart and touching story that tackles some pretty heavy themes- all with great success.

14. Hott Fuzz- While I'm a fan of Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright and writer Simon Pegg exceeded any average ambitions with that film and delivered a truly great comedy with Hott Fuzz. Essentially a lovingly recreated spoof on pretty much everything cinema-wise, Hott Fuzz has more heart in its sound effects than most comedies do over their entire 95 minute running time.

13. The Host- Korean director Bong Joon Ho directed one of the most underrated police procedurals in recent years (Memories of Murder, 2005) so it's no surprise he would helm one of the more criminally under appreciated monster movies in recent memory. And that's even after showing the monster in the first 25 minutes. Humor, pathos and action are all magically intertwined as the genre conventions are constantly twisted. A great film.

12. We Own the Night- I've long been a fan of director James Gray, and with We Own the Night, he continues to examine the fragility of a family cast against an urban canvas of crime. The moral stakes are higher in this one, as the film pits cop brother (Wahlburg) against fringe criminal brother (Joaquin Phoenix) during the Russian mafia days of early 80's New York. Featuring a few stellar set-pieces, a majority of the film's power is derived from the detailed texture and nuances that Gray infuses into the story. Whole stretches of this film feel so classical in style that it doesn't seem like a film in 2007. And no current director uses light and shadow quite as magnificently as Gray.

11. The Hunting Party- This is the best kind of movie experience one can have. You go see a movie based on limited word of mouth, minimal critical acceptance and low expectations and get steam rolled by a moving and charismatic genre picture, full of nouvelle vague camera homages, strong acting from Richard Gere and Terence Howard and an overall confident story. When this hits DVD, catch up with it.

10. Knocked Up- This is a film for any 30-something still feeling their way through life, unsure if they've made the right decisions and dealing with their mistakes the best way they know how. It's not only a magnificent comedy, but a pretty damn good representation of MY age group as well. And like I've been screaming lately, Leslie Mann deserves a supporting actress nomination. I don't know if Judd Apatow and his crew have another comedy with this much warmth up their sleeve (Superbad just missed the mark somehow) but here's hoping they do.

9. The Wind That Shakes The Barley- Ken Loach's Cannes 2006 Plame d'Or winner is his best film in years. Tracing the root beginnings of the IRA, Cillian Murphy turns in a wonderful performance as a young man who's drawn back into the nationalist fervor just as he's about to head off and become a doctor. From there, Loach draws out the dividing opinions of those involved with detail as different factions of the IRA want peaceful, political resolve and those that want violence. There are some gorgeous shots of the Irish countryside and don't be mistaken- this is a film of raw, primal power as scenes of violence and speech play out. Loach has always worked best as a fly-on-the-wall, observing the political and emotional explosions that go off, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley may be the most involving expression of this style yet.

8. After the Wedding- Susanne Bier's early year drama features Mads Mikklelson (yes, that lazy-eye guy in the latest Bond movie) being invited to a wedding. From that simple invitation, After the Wedding spirals into a complex family drama and blindsides you with devastating revelation after revelation. These aren't cheap plot twists either. The narrative earns its various twists and turns and Bier's handheld camera work is piercing.

7. Sunshine- The best science fiction film in the last few years? At least since Soderbergh's Solaris, anyway. While Sunshine borrows alot from previous cinematic forays into the genre, it also distinguishes itself from its predecessors by tripping in and out of genres with courage. What begins as a typical space thriller (featuring the ubiquitous repairing the outer ship panels and computer malfunction) soon evolves into a nightmarish collision of slasher flick and psychological thriller. Cillian Murphy heads an international cast and with the inclusion of two films on this list, he had a blockbuster year. Too bad enough people didn't see either film.

6. No Country For Old Men- What further praise can be heaped onto the Coen Brothers blood-spattered, suspenseful adaptation? Not much.

5. Once- A "musical" in the leanest sense, John Carney's independent film follows an Irish guitarist and immigrant female singer as they bond over the course of a dew days. There are so many magical little moments in this film, that it never takes a wrong step. It manages to be warm and heartbreaking at the same time, eschewing any false emotions as it follows their relationship in completely rewarding and unexpected ways.

4. Day Night Day Night- The debut feature of director Julia Loktev, Day Night Day Night is an oblique observation about a young female suicide bomber (Luisa Williams) in Times Square waiting to carry out her mission. The film is unrelenting in its penetrating handheld camera and the central performance of Williams. We're given long glimpses into the "brainwashing" process of the unnamed female by masked men, the hours spent alone in a hotel room and then her interaction with the crowds of Times Square. Loktev is a talent to watch.

3. Zodiac- Released almost ten months ago, David Fincher's obsessive procedural about the equally obsessive pursuit of the Zodiac killer by various outfits (the media and the police, specifically) has only grown in stature. Repeat viewings only deepen the rewards of the film- from the perfect blocking of the camera, to the restrained performances and especially its dark heart of unfulfillment.

2. There Will Be Blood- In There Will Be Blood, filmmaker/screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson has created a riveting portrait of a terrifying, larger-than-life oil magnate played to dizzying perfection by Daniel Day Lewis. There are moments of stark originality and brutal images that rank with the best of Anderson's films. And the score, by Jonny Greenwood, conjures up tense and uncomfortable feelings. This is a work of daunting ambition and dare I say it, but with this film and Magnolia, Anderson has certainly established himself as the new great American filmmaker, unafraid to produce challenging and cathartic works on epic scales.

1. The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford- Dreamy, elegant, and a downright masterpiece- Andrew Dominik's two and a half hour tone poem about the myth of the Old West, celebrity status and the paranoia that infects even the closest allies, this is a remarkable film on every level. From Roger Deakins' other wordly cinematography to the luscious score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is transfixing from start to finish. This spot could've easily gone to There Will Be Blood, but Dominik's film is just as equally ambitious and successful in taking an old genre and simmering beauty, darkness and texture from the remains.

Runner Ups: American Gangster, I'm Not There, No End In Sight, The Lives of Others, Eastern Promises

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Without These Guys, Who Would We Stare At?

Whether its pretentious or not, I've always loved the characters at the fringes of a movie. Leading actors get all the acclaim, and quite honestly, its been quite some time since the Academy got it right when it comes to supporting roles (as character actors like Richard Jenkins, Paddy Considine and Ray Winstone are continually left out in the cold while delivering outstanding performance after outstanding performance). As mentioned in a previous post, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones both turned in stellar work this year, so leaving their names off the following list seems adequate. They've already gotten their shout-outs here (and PLENTY of other places). What's left are mentions of a few actors and actresses who grabbed the limelight in mostly star-populated efforts. For whatever reason, these guys acted their hearts out in films that were either DOA at the box office, hardly seen or under appreciated. There's always Netflix.

In no order:

Sienna Miller

Ok, so beauty before age. But don't let this woman's looks alter your perception of her. She can throw down with the best of them, and in the Steve Buscemi directed Interview, she proves she can also hold a film for 90 minutes through dialogue and intelligence. More like a 3 act play with 2 settings, Miller plays a young pop icon who agrees to an interview by journalist Steve Buscemi. What begins as a meeting of two wildly varying personalities soon morphs into a bitter, psychological war. The film holds together pretty well, and whether Miller is seducing Buscemi or throwing him out, one believes every ounce of her portrayal.

Imogen Poots

As the teenage sister left to fend for her brother and herself in 28 Weeks Later, she manages a fierce performance in a role that could've gone south in a hurry. How many chances does an actress get to make her mark in the movie-going world when her on-screen com padres are brain-eating zombies? Not much, but British actress Poots makes it work. And she has some of the most haunting eyes I've seen on film on year.

Luisa Williams

As the unnamed female with a bomb strapped to her back in Julia Loktev's brilliant debut feature, Day Night Day Night, Williams is in virtually every scene of the film. And its her conviction that sells the plot. There are scenes of such tension in this film, that certain noises in the soundtrack will make you gasp. And as an actress in Times Square, playing a role when no one around you except the director carrying the camera knows you're making a movie, her performance is even more stunning for its naturalism and subtlety. This is a commanding performance, brave and raw.

Leslie Mann

Comedy is hard enough to do, especially when its a comedy made by a group of guys about, basically, a guy finally growing up. Leslie Mann (right) certainly carves out a smart, humorous place in Judd Apatow's mostly male affair Knocked Up, and her comedic timing is perfect. If you saw her cameo as the drunk girl who gives Steve Carell a ride home in The 40 Year Old Virgin, then her wry gig in this latest film should come as a surprise. Still, she gives a performance that upstages just about everyone else in the film and establishes her as an actress who not only can score the laughs, but just might sting you a little when things get serious.

Terence Howard

While Richard Gere certainly had a remarkable year, Terence Howard didn't do too bad either. As the cameraman and friend to Gere's muckracking journalist in Richard Shepherd's criminally under appreciated The Hunting Party, Howard continues his tear of creating electric on-screen personas. Able to veer from lazy to frenetic with panache, Howard's performance in this comedy-drama-political satire is spot-on.

Carice Van Houten

Even after being covered by a vat of human shit, stripped naked several times and one scene of pubic hair dying, actress Carice Van Houten manages to pull out of Paul Verhoeven's World War 2 thriller Black Book with finesse and grace. Not only does she carry herself like a true classic screen actress, but Houten has the emotional temperance to make her role as a German double agent highly accessible and believable.

Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider

In Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, the screen time goes to Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, but it's this trio of supporting actors that lends the film its elegant, expansive mood. As the film continually breaks away from the main storyline to document their various longueurs and subsidiary narratives, each actor brings an authentic view of outlaw life into clarity. And its their shoot-out in an upstairs room that gives the film one of its most jarring and shocking gun fights that feels highly authentic in how messy and quick the whole things ends.

Alicia Keyes

Yes, you read that right. While director Joe Carnahan's amphetamine-fueled shoot em up Smokin Aces is crass, vulgar, bottom-feeder action fare, singer Alicia Keyes actually made me a care a little about someone in the carnage, and that's always a good thing. Here's to hoping we see more of her in films.

Stephen Graham

As a skinhead in Shane Meadows' This Is England, Graham touches on something very realistic and frightening. Sure, its easy to make a skinhead terrifying and frightening (ask Edward Norton, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth), but in This Is England, actor Graham actually gives meaning to the motives and anger beneath the surface. He keeps it just below the surface for a majority of the movie, until it comes lashing out in violent ways, but up until that point, its a performance that revels in genuine interaction between the film's younger characters. One could easily see how this skinhead promoted from point A to B in his beliefs, which is all the more terrifying.

Zineb Oukach

While a majority of Gavin Hood's Rendition deals with the bland predicament of a cute American family dealing with secret imprisonment due to the father's mistaken Islamic nationality, the real juice of the film was given short shrift. As the female daughter of the police inspector investigating a terrorist bombing, Zineb Oukach added an increasingly interesting storyline that melded with the main narrative in unsuspecting ways. Too bad she was given so little screen-time. I could've done with more of her and less of Jake Gyleenhaal confronting his nationalist fears.

Charlize Theron

Ok, so allow me one big time name, ok? She deserves it. As the small-town police detective fighting female prejudices in Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, Theron turns in another remarkable performance where she shrinks into character and obliterates all vain outward appearances. This is a strong performance and yet another example of Theron shedding her vanity for a role that doesn't play up her beauty, instead showcasing her brains and intuition. Just watch how her body language plays during a scene as fellow male detectives make fun of her. She doesn't react in any predictable manner, instead letting her presence do the actingfor her.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Trailers I Love

With this film and "The Pineapple Express" later in the year, here's hoping local boy David Gordon Green gets the credit he finally deserves in '08. Not only does this film look great, but it stars Sam Rockwell, who's becoming one of my favs.