Sunday, December 30, 2007


I get increasingly frustrated by visiting sites like AICN where the fanboy dementia just seems to be mutating by the hour. And don't even get me started on the Talkback boards there, which features some of the most sarcastic, vile message-posters I've ever seen. Still, one writer there named Moriarity (whose blog I link on this page and can be found here) still manages to impress and wow me with some of his writing. He's still a fanboy yes, but his reviews are heartfelt and sincere and I enjoy them immensely. His latest is yet another shining example of the movie fever that flows inside him. A great review.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Quick hits


Sweet and virtually inoffensive, "Juno" plays as the modern alternative to other 'teen comedies', i.e. treating adult concerns with adult humor. But, while Ellen Page is getting accolades as the lead character in baby-trouble, her presence is the reason why I didn't fully embrace the film. Diablo Cody's script is extremely artificial. I didn't believe for one second that there exists a 16 year old as whip-smart and sarcastic as Juno (and certainly a 16 year old who appreciates bands as obscure as Mott the Hoople and The Melvins) and her razor-sharp reactions continually removed me from the warmth building from the film's plot. Mildly amusing, at best.

Charlie Wilson's War

Definitely one of the best screenplays of the year, written by TV veteran Aaron Sorkin. I should probably pay more attention to his stuff if everything he writes is this witty and intriguing. Not only do actors such as Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts get to bask in the intelligent delivery of lightning dialogue, but the plot concerning a Texas Congressman's covert dealings to arm the Afghan holy soldiers against invading Soviet forces circa 1981 is probably more pertinent than a majority of the Iraq war films released this year. Director Mike Nichols keeps a light touch on the whole affair, but "Charlie Wilson's War" is still dark, funny and it pulls no punches by indirectly commenting on the screwed-up state of affairs left behind after America wages war in a given country. It's easy to laugh at the film's comedic framework, but there's still a very troubling undertone as stock footage of Afghan warriors shooting down Soviet helicopters plays on the screen; probably alot of the same weapons that are killing American troops over those same mountains today. Hindsight is 20-20.

Lonely Hearts

Todd Robinson's noir pastiche is an up-and-down affair, hitting the nail on the head one moment then splintering the entire wooden board the next. Chock full of A-list stars, "Lonely Hearts" documents the murderous relationship between a couple (Jared Leto, bad hairpiece and all, and sensual and lovely Salma Hayek) as they murder and dispense of wealthy female bodies across the midwest. The cops on the trail, played with earnest by John Travolta, James Gandolfini and Scott Caan, spout the usual lean dialogue and act moody, hardboiled and terse. But, in fact it's the relationship between the cops that works best, especially the heavy cloud of depression that hovers over Travolta's widowed cop persona. "Lonely Hearts" is less believable when it follows the jealous, violent excursions of Leto and Hayek, stirring up some sexual tension (mostly on Hayek's part) but wavering just a bit above camp. This could've been something really good. Still, director Robinson is someone to watch.

Sweeney Todd

In a sold-out theater, you could literally feel the anticipated air sucked out of the place when song burst forth from the lips of Johnny Depp and shipmate Anthony (Jamie Bower). While the film largely succeeds on one's patience with the musical genre, the cast is marvelous and the song's often soar. And the blood is really, really red and director Tim Burton certainly planned alot of mileage out of Sacha Baron Cohen's lower half. It didn't quite live up to the hype for me, though.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Looking Back on the Year That Was

Common Themes From '07

The following is the first in a series of posts recapping the year of 2007.

In an especially strong year for films, there was something else in the air. Old familiar faces made a strong return, some genres were brought back to life and the worldview of our presence in Iraq grew increasingly dissident and overpowering in the media. The few ideas listed below were things that stood out in a solid year for filmmaking:

1. 2007 is the year of Josh Brolin- Sure, we all remember him as the cranky older brother dragged into an adventure in that 80's classic, "The Goonies", but '07 saw Brolin featured in four wildly different films. As a crazed doctor in Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror", this was the first hint of something outstanding for him in 2007. Featured less prominently in Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" as the police superior to detective Charlize Theron, there 1 scene together, nonetheless, crackled with intelligence and unspoken trust and hinted at a relationship much greater than their screen time. Then came the one-two punch of "American Gangster" and "No Country For Old Men", proving that lightning can strike four times in the same spot. While his performance in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster", as a dirty police detective, is certainly more flashy than anything else he did this year, its still a performance that felt electric and menacing and not overcooked And he certainly wins the award for best facial hair in '07.

2. The return of the western- Five different films this year place their characters in genuine "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" territory. What's even more impressive is their range of storytelling within the genre. There was the more workmanlike, mainstream efforts of James Mangold's "3:10 To Yuma" and David Von Acknen's "Seraphim Falls" coupled with the dreamy aesthetic of Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" that gave audiences several visual sides to the genre. Then, the Coen Brothers ripped apart the beautiful vistas of West Texas to create a bloody, allegorical tale about good, evil and the progressively shifting landscape of the old west in "No Country For Old Men". It's western roots certainly can't be denied, though its a film that tries its best to hide the cowboy aesthetic. Upcoming is Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood", focusing on the land-grabbing exploits of oil man Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) later this month. The western has been trying (unsuccessfully) to make a grand return to modern movies (remember Kevin Costner's many efforts as well as head-scratching efforts such as "The Quick and the Dead"?) and for the first time, these 5films make a concerted effort to bring back the revisionist heyday of the 1970's.

3. Tommy Lee Jones- Any movie fan knows that Tommy Lee Jones will produce unfaltering performances, but there was something very special about 2007. First, in September his lead role in Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" took what could've been a routine examination of the violence inflicted at home by a disturbed Iraq war vet and turned it into an honest feeling, penetrating character study of a father relentlessly searching for the truth. There's not an ounce of vanity in his performance, not a single moment when he feels like he's grandstanding, and its a wonderful film by a filmmaker who has the tendency to go overboard with maudlin sentiments. Jones kept everything in check. Then, just over a month later, his supporting role that soon turns into the defining personality of the whole movie, Jones embodied the world-weary sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the Coen Brothers' "No Country For Old Men". Again, his presence feels so natural and unpretentious that its probably sad he'll be overlooked for any major awards this year because he does it so well. Here's hoping Jones has many more roles both behind and in front of the camera.

4. Iraq on Film- The political and cultural outcry has been deafening since early '06, and filmmakers responded with an array of suggestions on film about the Iraq war. From solid documentaries to feature length fiction films, there were certain months when every week saw an influx of war-themed films. Audiences certainly didn't respond, even to well intentioned films such as "No End In Sight", and the market became flooded with 'downer' films about a war that no one cared to see outside of CNN. Still, the idea that a polarizing event such as this can elicit the passion of so many artists is heartening, whether the films themselves were any good or not.

5. The "R" rated comedy- Perhaps the cinematic baby of one group of men (the Apatow crew), the "r" rated comedy made a hearty resurgence. We saw this coming in 2005 after films such as "The Wedding Crashers" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin" created box office gold, and it took a little longer than expected to come full circle, but films such as "Knocked Up", "Superbad", "Walk Hard", and "Hott Fuzz" broke onto the American screen with ferocity in 2007. And the positive side to all of this- the Apatow gang has apparently gotten a greenlight to create several more films in '08. Let's just hope they don't wear out their welcome.

6. Bad Distribution Tales- This may be more of a local issue than anything, but one discomforting fact about '07 was the limited release of great films that deserved more of a commercial push. Typically, Dallas is a market that sees a great majority of films released in a given year. They start out small, one 1-4 local arthouse screens then open on larger screens as word of mouth grows. In '07, I noticed a decrease in the amount of screens given to independent arthouse fare. Films such as "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford", "Reservation Road", "Southland Tales", "The King of Kong", "Lust Caution", "Lake of Fire", "Control" and "Rescue Dawn" played on 1-2 screens in deep downtown, failing to make it into larger theaters. I managed to catch a couple of these films, but very few opened outside of limited availability. Add to that fact, all of these films were given prominent trailers and even cardboard standouts in larger multiplex theaters around the Dallas area. Theater chain Cinemark, which dominates the market here in Dallas-Fort Worth with their luxurious, 24 screen megaplexes, often denotes 4 screens per theater to what the call 'CineArts'. While smaller films such as the ones listed above languished on 1 screen in lower Dallas, the 'CineArts' section featured films such as "No Country For Old Men" and "Enchanted"!!!. Even after good word of mouth, these films still went no where. This is the first time I've noticed this and hopefully, it's not a trend that'll continue in the new year.

I'd be curious as to what other trends you movie fans have noticed this year. Be on the lookout for upcoming posts such as performances of the year, my favorites of the year and the annual presentation of my Moments of '07 article, now going strong in its tenth edition.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Wish List

A new Christmas trend has been started thanks to the keen imagination of Burbanked as well as Piper at his blog, who includes some scrumptuous screengrabs of Jennifer Connelly just bursting at the seams! It's a novel idea... a Christmas wish list. A few of mine would include:

1. I wish that my Netflix queue would get below 150 titles.
2. I wish that Terrence Malick eventually moves out of theory territory and gets to film his latest.
3. I hope the blog world continually progresses, morphs and develops into something even cooler.
4. I wish there to be less sequels, remakes and dumb parodies in 2008 (which seems even less likely than my queue being below 150 titles).
5. I wish that the next-gen format war will be decided so I'll know if my purchase of an HD-DVD was as wise as Mark Cuban investing in Google twelve years ago or fool-hearted.
6. I wish that baseball would somehow rise out of its muck and heal itself, endure and re-emerge as America's pastime, not its black eye.
7. I wish I get to play more golf next year.
8. I hope '07 produces just as many quality films as '08.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Slow Post Stop-Gap

My apologies for slow posting as of late. I've been here in lovely, balmy Minneapolis since Sunday, so my movie-watching has taken a sharp decline. But, after I'm back in DFW on Thursday evening, I look forward to a loooong Christmas holiday weekend and perhaps some much needed food, family and films.

I did sneak away last weekend to see Joe Wright's "Atonement" and I have to say... while my initial response was something only a little more than average, the film has been growing in my mind ever since (especially the virtuoso five minute tracking shot that almost trumps Cuaron's in last year's "Children Of Men"). And Keira Knightley looks so, so good as the left-behind lover to war ravaged James MacAvoy. Still, while the plot is something out of a Lifetime movie, "Atonement" managed to sneak into my subconscience and linger there, creating a feeling that the film deserves more credit than I initially gave it. While it'll certainly score with the 30+ female crowd (which isn't bad for us guys who love for a film to stir up the romantic juices!) it's also very well acted, elegantly photographed and ingeniously structured.

This weekend I'm hoping to make it out to see "Juno", "Sweeney Todd" and several others. Of course, "There Will Be Blood" is on the horizon and I'm still waiting for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" which seems to be a few weeks overdue.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The End of the World As We Know It

The Mist

Frank Darabont's "The Mist", based on the Stephen King story of the same name, is their best collaboration since Darabont's humanistic treatment of "The Shawshank Redemption". "The Mist" is good, old fashioned gory fun. It definitely takes some smarts to keep the tension going when a horror film is confined to one central location (a supermarket) for over 95% of its running time, and Darabont's eye continually finds ways to open up the setting and keep us involved with the array of characters. In a nutshell, the population of the film serve as a microcosm of the world at large. Not only are races, ages, gender and financial backgrounds addressed, but the story pays particular attention to the vicissitudes that arise when religion enters the frame. And not only does "The Mist" get plenty of mileage out of its religion-mongering, but it acutely paints a convincing portrait of the apocalypse coming to town.

As for the story itself, Thomas Jane plays the New England American male to the hilt, starring as David Drayton. We get brief glimpses of his perfect life on the New England coast as he deals with the after-effects of a violent storm. Drayton and his young son (Nathan Gamble) give neighbor Brent Norton (intellectual New York lawyer played by Andre Brougher) a ride into town. The film kicks into action barely ten minutes in as a mysterious fog envelops the town and someone runs into the supermarket with a bleeding nose describing creatures from the mist picking people apart. From then on, the supermarket becomes the battle ground as all stratus of life defend themselves from the impending other-worldly creatures. Among the stand-outs of the large ensemble cast include Laurie Holden as the virtual stand-in for Thomas Jane's missing wife to give him comfort and loving crush-like glances, Toby Jones (yes, that other "Capote" guy), William Sadler and someone almost as terrifying as the unknown things in the mist, Marcia Gay Harden as the eventual proposed "vessel for God".

I don't mean for this brief plot synopsis to sound glib. It's hard to give "The Mist" justice from a narrative standpoint. Somehow, Darabont makes the "b" movie generics work and you actually feel for the characters. Unlike other recent horror films, they aren't just pieces of meat thrown into cringe-inducing circumstances with little more than a beautiful aesthetic to drive any feelings about them. Darabont's visuals and King's content care about their backgrounds and their intelligent reasoning. Not only that, but there are some genuine surprises here that push "The Mist" above the average horror film. Why it's failed with critics and audiences alike, I'm not sure. I understand the film is relatively faithful to King's original concept (right up to the very dark and supremely depressing ending that I applaud), so it's not a matter of Hollywood screwing up the adaptation. Perhaps the real culprit is a tough schedule. How many people really care to see a gory film on Thanksgiving (which was its original release date)? Either way, "The Mist" is an entertaining experience whether its Halloween or turkey day.

Margot At the Wedding

The second film, Noah Baumbach's "Margot At the Wedding", describes the apocalypse in smaller, more intimate ways. It comes in the guise of Nicole Kidman as Margot, returning home for a wedding for her sister, Pauline (a radiant Jennifer Jason Leigh). In tow is Margot's son, Claude (Zane Pais), and its not initially made clear the reasons for Margot's sudden departure from her husband and other son in New York, even though elliptical cell phone calls to home reveal unpleasant feelings. Margot's urban malaise soon spreads to her sister and fiance (Jack Black) as the wedding date draws near. Margot is a woman who continually divulges secrets to others, quietly spreads her judgemental attitude of Pauline's choice for marriage, and cannot face her own shortcomings, which includes an affair with local writer Dick Koosman (Ciaren Hinds). To make matters worse, Koosman lives a mile from Pauline, slowly surfacing the idea that Margot re-united with her sister not out of familial harmony but selfish sexual attraction.

Baumbach's fifth feature is ugly in every way. Cinematographer Harris Savides' natural light usage came off as splotchy and under lit on the print I watched. Nicole Kidman is an insufferable woman (to use a quote from the film itself) and while some vicious chamber drams can be penetrating, "Margot At the Wedding" comes off as inept. Young Claude seems to be the most damaged persona from the waves of Margot's bad vibes. One moment his mother is telling him to wear the shades she bought him because "they look cool" and the later, immediately after smiling and putting them on, she comments that "they make your face look wide". As a study in child abuse, "Margot At the Wedding" is spot-on... as anything else it's often trite and artless. Baumbach's previous feature, "The Squid and the Whale" also dealt with the progressive dissolution of a marriage and the effects on two young boys. In that film, Baumbach seemed to be throwing darts and hitting the mark, expressing adolescent feelings of confusion and frustration with precise understanding. In "Margot At the Wedding", the themes come off simply as confusing and frustrating.

Both reviews can be read at Talking Moviezzz.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What's In the Netflix Queue #12

Another few weeks, another queue tally, or i.e. I really have nothing to post until after I see "Margot At the Wedding" tomorrow.

1. Private Fears In Public Places- new Alain Resnais film.
2. Exterminating Angels- No, this list won't be full of complex French New Wave films as already suggested by these 2 titles, but this one finally hit DVD and I've heard pretty incredible things about it. Directed by Jean Claude Brisseau, the film follows François (Frédéric van den Driessche) as he embarks on a film exploring female sexuality. He quickly finds himself in over his head as a cast of beautiful women are quick to unleash their inhibitions before the camera. Oohh, I love arty Euro porn...
3. Pigs- From Netflix, "Ex-KGB agent Franz Mauer (Boguslaw Linda) is having a tough time adjusting to work life in post-communist Poland. Once part of a privileged, elite squad, Franz now finds himself on the regular police force, assigned with infiltrating an illegal drug cartel. But the cop soon discovers many of his former colleagues have joined the ring he's trying to bring down. W. Pasikowski directs this crisp thriller that pits old loyalties against a new order." Never heard of it, but I'm willing to give it a try.
4. La Jetee/Sans Soleil- While I love Chris Marker's "La Jetee", I've never seen his "Sans Soleil". Ok, so maybe this list WILL be full of complex French New Wave flicks.
5. Ma Mere- All the critical rage right now seems to be French filmmaker Christophe Honore, and this film features Isabella Huppert seducing a younger man.
6. Waiting For the Messiah- I've seen 2 Daniel Burman films now- "Lost Embrace" and "All Stewardesses Go To Heaven". He's a supremely gifted Argentinian filmmaker who makes small, personal films. Not far removed from the star-crossed lover narratives of say, Julio Medem, Burman had a nice write-up in "Film Comment" last year which caused me to seek out his stuff.
7. Ivan's Childhood- Tarkovsky's debut film. I'm sure I've seen this somewhere down the line, but it needs a second viewing.
8. The Devil Came On Horseback- '07 documentary on the genocide in Darfur. Honestly, I've given the Iraq war documentaries a break but its time to check this one out.
9. Power- Sidney Lumet political drama. Richard Gere stars. That's all I need to know.
10. Sweet House of Horrors- No itsamadmadblog list would be complete without a cheesy exploitation flick from Lucio Fulci in the mix!

Friday, December 07, 2007

HD-DVD Reviews: Mel Gibson in Hi Def (Twice)

Whether by subconscious motivations or just sheer coincidence, the latest two HD DVD movies I watched both star the artist formerly known as 'Mel Gibson'. It's a jolt to the system to see Mel in full glory on my small screen "acting" and not caught up in the recesses of whatever madness is driving him to create pseudo-crap like "Apocalypto" or making an appearance on TMZ due to outlandish, drunken racial slurs.

The Road Warrior

Outstanding film in every aspect and probably my favorite of the post-apocalyptic genre film (even more so than "Mad Max"). With oil prices rising over $100 a barrel recently, its not hard to imagine this film's manic sense of desperation coming true in the future. And while the narrative is pressingly contemporary (leather-clad scavengers dueling it out in a sun-scorched desert for any traces of gasoline or weapons), the visual aspect of George Miller's "The Road Warrior" are, quite simply, beautiful. Thinking back on the "Mad Max" series, it's hard to visualize noticeable amounts of color in the series besides desert brown and yellows, but in HD DVD, the images are impressive and the wide-open landscapes become even more frightening. And the climactic chase scene (running close to 17 minutes and logistically superlative for the DIY production of Miller's work ethic) stands out as a remarkable feat due to this version's attention to color, image definition and lack of pan-and-scan deterioration. This is the best HD DVD I've seen yet.


Actually, now titled "Payback: Straight Up; The Director's Cut", this 1999 film has been re-edited and re-scored by writer-director Brian Helgeland after the studio (and stand in director Mel Gibson) conducted a fairly thorough hatchet job of the film upon initial release. Far meaner and more linear than the original, Helgeland has done a good job with shuffling the picture back into something more in line with his original intentions. I liked the film on first release, and found it even more enjoyable on a second viewing. The odes to Boorman's "Point Blank" are still rife, and with name-drops courtesy of genre films such as John Flynn's "The Outfit" and Mike Hodges' "Get Carter", Helgeland's revenge drama plays out like a sinister doppelganger of those earlier crime classics. But, its Helgeland's style (washed out and faded with blue tint) that doesn't come across well in the Hi-Def format. This is actually only a notch above standard definition and certainly not worth the effort for sheer visual quality. Part of this may be because Helgeland was forced to re-edit the picture based on old film instead of the digital masters, but this is definitely not a showcase for the vast improvements that HD-DVD can bring to the average viewer's living room.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Curtain Call for '07?

Wow. December. Where did the year go? And not only are we fast approaching the holidays, but you know things are gearing up when you start to see "Best Of" lists pop up, such as here and here.

So what does all this mean? Not much in the real world, but I love lists as much as the next guy and I thoroughly enjoy creating them each year. Typically, December is my catch-up month. By my notations, I've already seen 114 theatrical releases this year (either in the theater or on DVD) and it's been 2 films a day for the past week or so. I'm catching up with '07 releases such as Jafar Panahi's "Offside", Johnny To's "Exiled" (which I'm super psyched about, being the To devotee I am), Charles Burnett's re-release of "Killer of Sheep", Gregory Wilson's "The Girl Next Door", Tsai Ming-Ling's "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone", Rolf de Heers' "Ten Canoes" and whatever other new releases pop up on the home video radar soon. This'll go on until the first or second week in January as I gorge myself on all possible '07 releases, which makes me feel somewhat comfortable that I've seen a fair retrospective of this year's notable features. I don't know why I do it... it's an obsession and it makes me feel better, ok. You guys in the film blog world understand my pain.

Add to that, we still have some pretty incredible films on the horizon in theaters. This week Dallas gets "Juno", "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", "Margot At the Wedding" and "Atonement". Upcoming is "There Will Be Blood", "Sweeney Todd" and a few others I'm sure I'm forgetting. In my opinion, '07 has been a pretty rich year for filmmaking and I hope it continues.

I can also add that I feel particularly enthused about my movie-watching this year. Not only did I meet or exceed alot of my pre-ordained goals, but my posting on this particular blog increased dramatically as well as my contributions to Talking Moviezzz. And I owe so much of that to you, my blog community friends. The idea of posting about a certain idea or film spurred my writing interests and gave me something to accomplish. For example, all the talk about "No Country For Old Men" that kicked up (and is still kicking heavily) got me to the theater probably a week or so earlier than I usually might have. The idea of writing about a film and seeing it whirlwind around the net with intelligent discussions is a pretty liberating feeling. There was something like this on old movie boards, but not with the zest, visual flare and authenticity that exists on blogs today. I just count myself as a lucky person who heard a friend talking about "blogs" back in '04 and finally hurled myself into gear in late '05. I've enjoyed every bit of this experience and look forward to next year.

So, enough treacle and with that I'm off to watch "Exiled". Thanks everyone.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Music Alert

One of the undisputed joyous by-products of movie watching is the exposure to new music and artists. It happened to me with a band called The Broken Social Scene last year after hearing their exceptionally well-crafted music for the film "Half Nelson". I just finished So Yong Kim's "In Between Days", an involving film about the relationship between a transplanted Korean teenager and her male friend. Pitched somewhere between the quiet, observational films of Japanese directors such as Riyuchi Kiroki and the fly-on-the-wall camera skills of the Dardennes Brothers (since the camera hardly ever leaves the face of the film's female lead) "In Between Days" manages to be an effective study in teen alienation. Even better is the film's soundtrack, featuring songs by New York band Asobi Seksu (i.e. playful sex). Not only is their sound eerily reminscient of 'sound bands' like My Bloody Valentine and the aforementioned Broken Social Scene, but female lead singer Yuki Chikudate has a voice that spills out sexuality. There's something very special when a female singer hits that perfect sound, and this band certainly does that. I'm becoming a fan. Check out the above clip and see if you don't as well.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Light and Dark Side of A Star

It's dirty business being a "star" these days, and times never seemed to change. Whether it was drug and alcohol addiction (Edith Piaf) or the incessant badgering of a community of fans displeased with their icon's choice of musical styles, political nonchalance and word games (Bob Dylan), the tides of popular attention can shift dramatically and unexpectedly. Two films examine these different artists in non-traditional ways, and if one is more successful than the other, it's not for a lack of artistic integrity (of the "star" in question or of the actual director) but only because I'm more familiar with one presence over the other.

Olivier Dahan's "La Vie En Rose" charts the rise and fall of "the soul of France" singer Edith Piaf. From her lowly, poverty-stricken childhood and nurturing years in a bordello to her faded-out and sickly self in the 60's, no emotion or biopic trope is left unturned. That's by no means a slap-in-the-face to the film. In fact, the performance of Marion Cotillard, deservedly, has received magnanimous praise from all four corners of the critical world and an Oscar nomination is most likely pending. "La Vie En Rose" just falls short of arousing the imagination and shaking the dust off its representation of France from 1918 to the late 50's. By contrast, director Todd Haynes has chosen as his subject a musical figure just as great and imposing in his own time and place as Edith Piaf was in her time; and Haynes dares to blow up the traditional biopic narrative in favor of an avantgarde pummeling of the eyes and ears. It's not a coincidence that neither film would be quite as impressive without their centerpiece performer being smoldering, explosive personalities of their own. And both Dahan and Haynes fervently re-produce the pleasure and the pain experienced by Piaf and Bob Dylan (even though Dylan is only actually glimpsed once in the film as his music permeates the entire affair). While "I'm Not There" is my personal favorite of the two, "La Vie En Rose" and "I'm Not There" add immense characteristics to the biopic that felt (already) overexposed after "Ray" tailed the heels of "Walk the Line". And that is certainly a good thing.

Technically, Dahan and Haynes' films couldn't look or sound any more different. While Dahan profits in the blacks and browns of France, Haynes prefers a more colorful and manic schematic. "La Vie En Rose" fills itself with dark interiors so much, that about halfway through, I begin to wonder if each scene wasn't initially constructed in the dark and they just kept adding candles and lighted corners to round out the visual aura of the scene. Comparatively, "I'm Not There" jumps from fuzzy black and white to ethereal natural greens and blues with the audacity of a musical DJ, creating a separate look and feel for each persona inhabiting the world around 'Bob Dylan. It's no surprise that one of the films producers is Steven Soderbergh, an artist whose made a lifetime out of specific color tints for each strand of his multi-narrative efforts.

Acting is another story. The shifting perspectives of 'Bob Dylan' are given weight through six different actors portraying a critical point in Dylan's busy life. Ben Whishaw is the confessional Dylan, spending the entirety of his section answering questions directly to the camera as if locked before an inquisition. Marcus Carl Franklin is the young Dylan, discovering his roots by train-hopping and evolving his musical style based on blues records and Woody Guthrie. Christian Bale is Jack/John, the Dylan who reached cult folksinger fame and later rejected all his fame and fortune by converting to Christianity in the late 70's. Heath Ledger is Jack Rollins, the Dylan lost in movie-fame status and the persona who receives the greatest emotional arch in the film through his failing marriage to a composite wife played by Charlotte Gainesbourge. Perhaps the most praised section of the film belongs to Cate Blanchett (having another monster year as a fearless actor who sees no boundaries in the range of her acting choices) as Jude. Here is the Dylan who went electric and shocked the musical paradigms, embarked on a disastrous England tour and eventually got mixed up in the fast and furious heyday of the 60's pop phenomenon. The most challenging and cryptic section of "I'm Not There" belongs to Richard Gere as Dylan-as-Billy The Kid, dressed up in full western wear and rambling around in Riddle, Missouri where's he caught up in the land-grabbing scheme of Governor Garrett played by Bruce Greenwood, who also locks horns with Blanchett's Jude as a BBC news correspondent. While each section conjures up varying degrees of success, the overall mood and energy of "I'm Not There" lapses into a wild and spirited pastiche of 60's pop and avant garde filmmaking. There are more than a few winks to Bergman, Fellini, Pennebaker (naturally), Godard, Warhol and Peckinpah. While there's alot going on inside the various heady trips of "I'm Not There", Marion Cotillard has it a little easier. She's only required to portray one person, although the mood shifts and drug addictions that populate within Edith once she hits it big requires Cotillard to wear several faces. And that's the overwhelming pleasure of both films- the void that ordinary people fall into and the shifting faces that society forces them to hide behind. Piaf coped through addiction and temper flares whereas Dylan retreated from the world.

Both "La Vie En Rose" and "I'm Not There" taught me something about their respective artists. Granted, going into Piaf's life, I never very little (ashamedly) about her. In fact, I wonder if alot of the world didn't learn about her through Tom Hank's soliloquy about her in that calm scene in "Saving Private Ryan" before all hells breaks loose. It's Piaf's voice that gives the American soldiers comfort before their impending doom. I did know alot about Dylan and his music before going into "I'm Not There" which, perhaps, allowed me more fun in the chaotic experimental scrambling of his life, words and sounds. While Piaf's voice is mesmerizing, it's not the driving force behind "La Vie En Rose". Her destructive fall from soulful grace is the overriding theme of the film and even though Dahan does his best to modernize the film through the ubiquitous use of a time-shifting narrative (1918 one minute, 1963 on her deathbed in the next, back to the heyday of glitz in 1936 etc.) it sours the film with a been-there-done-that attitude. "I'm Not There" on the other hand, gives us a dazzling and imaginative treatise on Dylan that exceeds any expectations. Confusing one minute, euphoric the next, "I'm Not There" rattles along like a fever dream and it features some of the most exquisite images flowing against the music of Bob Dylan you'll ever see. While it can be overloading at times (and any film that requires a "Official Guide to the Movie" handed out by the movie theater elicits a what-the-hell feeling), the glory is in Haynes' brilliant re-visualization of the many lives of Dylan. One scene in particular, building up to Jude's (Blanchett) entrance at the now infamous Newport Jazz Festival, displays the film's articulate visual and audible design as Jude/Dylan goes electric. It inserts a quick imaginative cut of what it must've felt like to be in the audience that day. And that's only one example of Todd Haynes' magical outlook on life and art throughout "I'm Not There". There are a dozen others I could mention. While "La Vie En Rose" traffics in a musical life just as polarizing as "I'm Not There", its results are dramatically less. I wonder what Todd Haynes could do with Edith Piaf? Barbies dolls again perhaps?