Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cinema Obscura: Expect the Unexpected

Patrick Yau's late nineties action thriller, "Expect the Unexpected", certainly lives up to its title. Executive produced by everyone's favorite Asian director Johnny To, Yau's film bears a close resemblance to some of To's work, especially the crime-ridden urban environment of "Breaking News" in which violence seems to be seeping through every crevice of its downtown locations. In "Expect the Unexpected", the plot again concerns the abrupt clash of cops and crooks. As the film opens, a jewelry store robbery goes horribly awry, forcing the criminals to escape into a high rise apartment building with the cops in tow. Three different criminals watch all of this with anticipation from a cafe across the street since the very same apartment building seems to be their captivity grounds for kidnapped and assaulted women. While conducting a search from apartment to apartment, the cops discover this and find themselves hunting two separate groups of criminals. In the mix are two police sergeants played by Simon Lam and Ching Wang Lau (both staples of Johnny To films) who both fall for the cafe owner (Yo Yo Mung). If one can get through some of the very lame attempts at humor and some awful subtitles, there's a great little masterpiece within "Expect the Unexpected".

Formally, Yau is a great director of action films. Remember, this film was released in 1998 which means the shaky-cam has (thankfully) not yet entered the visual language of cinema. Instead, we're treated to long steadicam shots and carefully composed medium shots which neatly construct the logistics of space and placement during several shoot out scenes- especially the final one. But the real joy of "Expect the Unexpected" (as I alluded to earlier) is the sneaky translation of the film's title. If one thinks they know how this will turn out, think again. Yau doesn't ruin anything with a soapy twist ending, but he does play our expectations into a stunning reversal that will leave you breathless.

"Expect the Unexpected" is available on DVD.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Moments of 2008

In conjunction with my favorite films of the year list, I offer up some moments out of 2008 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. Possible spoilers so beware!

1. The performance of Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" and his many reaction shots.
2. In Christophe Honore's "Love Songs", the dreamlike image of a man hovering towards the camera down a rainy French street.
3. In You Le's "Summer Palace", the shot of a man and woman silently walking in silhouette against a sun-drenched river.
4. Richard Jenkins finally letting out his emotions on a man behind glass in an immigration center. "The Visitor".
5. In an internet cafe, cut to a dog, back to a man waiting for an internet connection to connect, back to the dog outside... timed to a U2 song. "Tell No One".
6. No finer performances this year than Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti in HBO's great, epic "John Adams".
7. The slow zoom into a blank TV screen and the reflection of a man (Sam Rockwell) waiting silently in a chair with a shotgun draped across his lap in David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels".
8. The ice-cold evil image of the Joker (Heath Ledger) hanging his head outside the back window of a police car, hair blowing wildly in the wind, completely at peace with the chaos he just created in "The Dark Knight".
9. The performance of Winona Ryder as Death Nell in "Sex and Love 101"- one scene with her in a diner is worth suffering through the whole movie.
10. Medium length shot down a blood splattered hallway as Beatrice Dalle ferociously tries to kick down a door separating her from her pregnant prey in the French horror movie "Inside".
11. The dream like home movie images that open "Paranoid Park" as skaters rumble across concrete ramps.
12. The POV shot from inside a closet- Brad Pitt looks at the door, to the bathroom where George Clooney is taking a shower, across the bed, to a window... and then back to a purple pillow laying on the bed. More visual brilliance from the Coen Brothers in "Burn After Reading".
13. Mickey Rourke, emerging from his slumber in the back of his van to playfully wrestle with some kids outside... a giant with a heart of gold in "The Wrestler".

14. In "My Blueberry Nights" alcoholic bar patron David Straithern explaining the symbolism behind the colored poker chips in his wallet.
15. The way Christine Collin's (Angelina Jolie) first phone call to the police registers sadness and confusion... and the way her voice cracks when she first tries to explain her name- either a marvelous stretch of method acting or serendipitous coincidence that loans her performance a gut wrenching sense of loneliness. "Changeling".
16. A little girl covering her ears and standing motionless in silhouette as doctor's restrain her storytelling friend in "The Fall".
17. Col von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) looking down trying to follow which briefcase is his in Bryan Singer's impressive, taut thriller "Valkyrie". One of the many moments that gets the viewer's pulse racing and brow sweating with tension.
18. Ed Norton's face dropping with sadness the first time he sees Betty (Liv Tyler) on a park bench. "The Incredible Hulk".
19. A car passing a woman on the street... and two lovers not reuniting in "Summer Palace".
20. "My tooth really hurts" "I can fix that for you." the final lines of dialogue spoken in "Ghost Town", ending on the right note of connection and tenderness.
21. A young boy sitting on a train, tapping the top of a trunk... and a final scene that reverberates with chilling connotations. "Let the Right One In"
22. In "Rachel Getting Married", the rehearsal dinner scene that runs on for far too long yet creates a palpable sense of community.... until Kym (Anne Hathaway) stands up and gives her speech. I could feel the tension in the theater rise with every word, waiting for the breakdown.
23. In "The Visitor", the way Richard Jenkins slowly turns his head to give a mother her moment while reading a letter from her son.
24. The way that Heath Ledger curls out the response "yes" after being asked "you think you can just come in and here steal from us!?" The Dark Knight.
25. The non-chalant and robotic way that a shirtless Asian man picks up a gun and walks into a room to kill someone just because he's told to do so in Oliver Assyas' abstract thriller "Boarding Gate".
26. The long take of a woman trying to get comfortable on a hotel room bed while a man unrolls his black bag of knives and utensils on a table in the corner of the room in Christi Mungui's agonizingly brilliant "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days".
27. A foot chase across a busy French highway in "Tell No One" and pretty much the exact way a foot chase across a busy highway would end.
28. The first phone call to Cox (John Malkovich) and Brad Pitt's reading of "the security... of your shit." "Burn After Reading"
29. A smoke outside a cafe on a cold night with an ex-girlfriend and the uncomfortable, all-too-real conversation that follows in Wong Kar Wai's much maligned and overlooked gem "My Blueberry Nights".

30. "Damn, I don't know why that smelled like bologna." Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder".
31. A seance captured in night vision, full of hidden corners and ominous sounds that had the hair on the back of my neck standing straight up. "The Orphanage".
32. The contest of putting dishes into the dishwasher. "Rachel Getting Married".
33. The quick zoom as Randy the Ram (Rourke) looks up to the second floor and sees Marisa Tomei gone, and his jump into the oblivion. "The Wrestler"
34. In Neil LaBute's nice return to suburban-malaise-form "Lakeview Terrace", the way Samuel Jackson quietly turns a dinner party into an aggressive attack on inter-racial marriage.
35. I'd like one mocha coffee, black." "Can't you see we're havin' a conversation here... white." Craig Robinson in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno"
36. A penguin making a break and wandering off into the white abyss by itself in Werner Herzog's overly pretentious but visually sumptuous documentary "Encounters at the End of the World".
37. What happens if you don't invite a vampire in... and the explosive hug that Oskar gives Eli after seeing it. "Let the Right One In"
38. The slow motion way that Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) puts his hands up in a vain attempt to stop the bullets in "Milk".
39. The first sounds of Etta James' voice (Beyonce Knowles) partially obscured by a bathroom door, and the mournful voice that overtakes the film. "Cadillac Records".
40. A cell phone ringing... and ringing... "Slumdog Millionaire"

Monday, January 19, 2009

My Favs of 2008

As a continuation of other "year's end" wrap up posts on this blog, I humbly submit my twenty favorite films of 2008. I can proudly say that I watched more films this year than any previous year (163 total new) and I hope that carries forward into 2009. I've still got my annual "Moments of 2008" post upcoming, and then I'll be ready to venture into the vastness (aka dumping grounds) of the January and February release schedule. These 20 favorites may be someone else's twenty worst, but isn't that what makes watching movies so much fun?

20. Ghost Town- Besides being side splitting funny, watching Ricky Gervais act as a cantankerous dentist with a disdain for all other people doesn't sound like the formula for an endearing romance- yet it is. Tea Leoni is absolutely great as well. Don't let the unoriginal premise scare- man begins to see ghosts and they harp on him to right all the wrongs so they can move on- scare you away. Underneath the laborious plot, there's a genuinely moving and sweet undertone. And the final scene between Gervias and Leoni is terrific.

19. The Orphanage- The first new '08 film I saw way back in January, and it's stuck with me since then. Spanish filmmakers are creating some magically deviant scary movies right now, and Juan Bayona's film is no exception. Part psychological horror and part childhood fairy-tale, there are two or three scenes in "The Orphanage" that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

18. Tropic Thunder- Ben Stiller's parody of the war film understands comedic timing, eliciting most of its laughs out of its sharply conceived script. While most other comedies fail due to their reverence to improvisational comedy which does little more than allow scenes to run on much longer than necessary, "Tropic Thunder" succeeds in delivery and reaction shots. I could make an entire list of Robert Downey Jr's witty lines in this film, and its clearly the performance of a man (and a cast) having genuine fun.

17. Changeling- Clint Eastwood's "noble failure" by some, left in the dust from his other prestige picture this year, deserves more credit than its gotten. Angelina Jolie gives an incredibly visceral performance, and the look and texture of 1920's Los Angeles pops off the screen. While many have decried Eastwood's multi-faceted storyline that abruptly shifts gears and takes control during the second half of the film, I found the path to be an uncompromising and interesting attack on the mores of good and evil- a theme he's been working on for decades.

16. Valkyrie- Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie" is a film that understands the slow-burn pacing that marks the great thrillers, building up the evolving plot to kill Hitler through backroom conversations, hushed tones, and small almost throwaway moments of eye contact or body posture that fit perfectly in the vein of good conspiracy thrillers. Devoid of CGI effects, this is the exact type of film that John Frankenheimer might have tackled in the 70's. A true breath of fresh air in the over-hyped, overworked action thrillers of today. See Film Comment's excellent write-up on the film as well.

15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days- Cristi Mungiu's Romanian film about 2 college students working arduously to seek an abortion is terrifying to watch. Not only does Mungui's camera capture so much of the action in unwavering long takes, but the oppression and collapsing social order of 1980's Romania are captured with an equal gaze. This is a great film that will only rise in stature over time.

14. The Visitor- Not only does Richard Jenkins deserve a Best Actor nomination for his performance in Tom McCarthy's vibrant, humane little drama, but I wouldn't mind seeing other noms for anyone else in this film. Topics such as immigration and varying cultures clashing together due to sitcom-style antics (in this case a confusing manner of apartment leasing) have been well tread indie subjects for years now, yet "The Visitor" wrangles this oft-used story to magnificent heights.

13. The Rape of Europa- On one level, this is a documentary about the plundering of art across Europe during World War 2 for vain and selfish reasons. On another level, this is a sobering account of cruelty and inhuman destruction that, by now, should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington or watched any documentary on Hitler and his cronies' expansion across Russia, France, Poland and Italy. But instead of wallowing in the desperation, the film takes a redemptive turn towards the end and shows us the groups of Allied men and women who spent the last year of the war (and lifetimes afterward) searching for most of the missing art and desperately trying to regain a small part of a culture that was ripped apart. Infinitely moving and educational.

12. Shotgun Stories- I'm convinced that when actor Michael Shannon blows up to mainstream audiences in the next year or two, this will be the defining performance that people flock to. Jeff Nichols' debut film is a thunderbolt of restrained violence and anger that simply melts off the screen. Unfairly compared to the works of David Gordon Greene (which even I used in my initial review), Nichols completely understands the poignant grace and sublime textures of small town America, milking Southern ennui for everything its worth. The film, which charts the escalating violence between two sets of brothers, takes the viewer down a very dark path, but its Shannon's performance that gives the film its weight. See this film at all costs.

11. My Blueberry Nights- Marginalized and forgotten upon release, Wong Kar Wai's first American film maintains the dreamy, vibrant atmosphere of his Chinese films and manages to be sensual without doing a whole lot. Wong understands how to film body language, silences, and his camera is there to encapsulate these mute feelings in swooning slow motion and patient lateral pans. There's a single scene, between cafe owner Jude Law and an old girlfriend that speaks volumes about our fragile connections with old flames, and how devastating it can be when they swoop in and out of our lives. Norah Jones, too, swoops in and out of Law's life (and all around the country) meeting various vagrants of the American landscape including Rachel Wiesz, David Straithern- who deserves a supporting actor nomination work for his turn as a tormented alcoholic in Memphis- and Natalie Portman. This is basically a road movie as only Wong Kar Wai could make... full of speed up landscapes, fluorescent subway trains and life observed from the outside looking in through glass windows.

10. Burn After Reading- Just like the Coen Brothers to keep us guessing after the brooding masterpiece that was "No Country For Old Men". I suspect that with time, "Burn After Reading" will take its place next to "The Big Lebowski" as one of their most treasured (i.e. cultish) works. I was laughing through every frame of this film. The cast is perfectly delirious, the narrative is bonkers (yet makes perfect sense when watched again) and the ending is just as unexpected as the contemplative final scenes of their previous Oscar winner.

9. Summer Palace- Lou Ye has long been a favorite of mine, and with "Summer Palace" he's created a dizzying ode to youth and love during the seismic changes of China in the late 80's. Following four students (two couples) as they maneuver through various beliefs and movements, "Summer Palace" is an extension of Ye's affection for grand romances pitted against the politics and cultural shifts of history.

8. Tell No One- Guillame Canet's superbly paced, intricately plotted (so much so that you've got to pay attention early or very small details may pass you by and leave you in the dark when the conclusion rolls around) thriller is exciting as hell. There are two scenes here- a rush to an Internet cafe tuned to a song by U2 and a chase across a busy French beltway- that are some of the most exciting moments I've seen on screen all year. This is the type of film where the lone image of a computer screen trying to connect to its server makes one hold their breath- it's that flawlessly executed. I look forward to whatever Canet does next- and the inevitable Hollywood remake?

7. Boarding Gate- Olivier Assayas' abstract thriller that breaks apart the genre and strips it down to its barest essence. Asia Argento stars as the heroine running from something or somebody.. maybe because of her relationship with shady businessman Michael Madsen or maybe not. The film does explain a lot if one pays attention in the final scene, but everything up until that point is a refraction of the usual tropes and filmed in Assayas' usual reliance on whip pans and handheld camera that provides fragments of faces and information. "Boarding Gate" is yet another brilliant entry into the career of a French filmmaker who manages to hop from genre to genre with style and intellect.

6. Slumdog Millionaire- The backlash has already begun on Danny Boyle's heart warming tale of star-crossed lovers, game shows and Mumbian thugs. Spliced together like a music video at times, the film's real verve comes in the final act when it builds to a crescendo that had me gripping the arms of my chair in anticipation.

5. Let the Right One In- Descriptions of Thomas Alfredson's "Let the Right One In" could encompass so many genres- horror film, suburban teen angst (albeit in a very cold, nontraditional setting), awkward adolescent love story, coming-of-age melodrama... everything fits and evokes a specific reaction. So many ideas and emotions are crammed into the film that choosing any one of these would be sufficient. But what resonates most is the tender relationship that forms between a bullied boy and a vampire trapped in a 12 year old girl's body. Austere, tender and framed with a precise sense of camera placement, this is a new benchmark for the vampire film- one that dares to wrap a beating heart around the age old myth.

4. The Dark Knight- Christopher Nolan's film is not only a good entry into the caped crusader chronicles but its a terrific crime film, echoing the vibrancy of Michael Mann with its opening heist and sweeping helicopter pans through urban downtown. Refusing to let off the accelerator as Batman and The Joker use Gotham as one giant sprawling playground of excess from the very beginning, "The Dark Knight" is a breathless exercise in continual climax. And those eyes of Heath Ledger.... spilling out with evil and hatred will never be forgotten.

3. Inside- Julien Maury and Alexander Bustillo's "Inside" is terrifying. After so many of the recent wave of French horror films missed the mark, Bustillo and Maury take a simple premise- a pregnant woman home alone on Christmas Eve, ready to give birth the next day, and the emergence of a sadistic other woman (simple billed as "the woman" and played to feverish perfection by Beatrice Dalle) trying to get to the unborn baby- and wrench every bit of tension and disturbing psychology out of it. But this isn't just a gore-fest. Bustillo and Maury's attention to editing and camera placement are first rate and the film deserves a long life in Midnight movie circles.

2. The Wrestler- Darren Aronofsky's double edged sword tribute to a fictional character and real-life Mickey Rourke are only the stepping stones to this beautifully realized film that tosses a scruffy, hand held aesthetic at the viewer and then makes us completely forget we're watching a fictional story. Mickey Rourke is incredible, yes, but what really makes this film tick are the supporting performances by Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei as women fighting away the same demons of self-destruction as Randy The Ram. And for a film that looks and feels so simple, its a deceptively complex study of connection and growing old made all the more poignant (and open ended) by its closing shot.

1. Rachel Getting Married- Armed with a witty, biting script from Jenny Lumet, Jonathan Demme's chamber piece is a brilliant evocation of the type of film John Cassavetes used to shoot on the fly. As Kym, the drug-addled sister left out of rehab to visit her sister on the weekend she's getting married, Anne Hathaway is a revelation. Demme immerses the viewer in a sea of characters over the course of the weekend, dwelling on the rehearsal dinner and the post wedding bash. "Rachel Getting Married" feels like one long unedited take from a cousin's home video camera, capturing overlapping dialogue, a dance party that shifts from belly dancers to hip hop with ebullience, and long speeches by the family members that radiate warmth and knowledge. "Rachel Getting Married" earns every second of its running time, brimming with life and affection.

Honorable mentions and near misses- Doubt, The Bank Job, Surfwise, The Counterfeiters, Transsiberian, American Teen, Milk, Boy A, Young @ Heart, Lakeview Terrace, Baghead, A Christmas Tale

Saturday, January 17, 2009


What does 13-3 mean in the postseason for the past couple of years? That you'll lose in the first game you play. Ask the Giants, or the Panthers, or the Cowboys last year how a 12-4 or 13-3 record feels right now. Worthless. Watching the Titans lose to the Ravens last weekend didn't hurt as much as it used to when I was younger. There's so much more to worry about these days then the wins or losses of a football team. But it still stings when the team performs well all year, only to come out and be in the red zone 7 times and only come away with two scores. With running back Chris Johnson on the sidelines, Baltimore exposed what I feared all season- that Tennessee is definitely an offensively challenged team.

For the past few years, Championship Sunday has offered a couple intriguing match-ups. This year... I won't be watching either game. I could care less about Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore or especially the Arizona Cardinals (they still have a football team??). And what hurts the worst, as it always does this time of year, is the lack of worthwhile sports on TV. I suppose now that I've got the Golf Channel in HD, that will bring some life to my sports watching, but unless I want to break down the shots on goal through power plays or suffer through an NBA season, my movie watching will certainly increase! All that's left now is to close my eyes, cross my fingers and dream about spring training in two months.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Great World of Sound: My Fav Music of '08

Part 2

5. DeVotchKa- "A Mad and Faithful Telling"

As written about in an earlier post, Denver band DeVotchKa are certainly an acquired taste. Blending horns, polka, orchestral rock and pretty much everything else imaginable, their sound is unlike any other band. On first listen, they sound like a really cheesy lounge band that belongs in the dark backrooms of Reno (yes, not even Las Vegas). But damn if their sound didn't grow on me. I've since gone back and purchased their earlier stuff and they're truly mad geniuses.

4. The Gutter Twins- "Saturnalia"

As a fan of The Afghan Whigs since the mid nineties, I'll pretty much follow front man and lyricist Greg Dulli anywhere. His vocals are ear shatteringly off-key sometimes, but one can't deny the power and dark hurt in many of his lyrics. After bouncing around with his superior and under appreciated band The Twilight Singers, '08 saw him team up with former Screaming Trees guitarist Mark Lanegan and release this collaboration on Sub Pop! Not only does it encompass the morbidity of Dulli's lyrics, but the album reaches some pretty damn nice heights of music.

3. M83- "Saturdays=Youth"

Absolutely stunning collection of songs ripped from the 80's and stylized into moody, atmospheric synthesizer rock. Eerily reminiscent of every groundbreaking eighties band from Vangelis to My Bloody Valentine, M83 is really the brainchild of mix maestro Anthony Gonzales. Not only has he created one of the best albums of the year, but an album that would fit right at home on top of the charts in 1988. The tracks "Coleurs" and "We Own the Sky" are especially great. I urge any fan of electronica 80's music to give this a spin.

2. Kings Of Leon- "Only By the Night"

I can remember when these guys were considered alt-country (a genre I just never can get into), so I guess it was time for an image shift. Well they did a fantastic job with reinventing themselves. Taking their cue from the late 70's FM rock (made popular again by My Morning Jacket), this is a stellar album without a single bad track. While "Sex On Fire" is the single of the year, there are hidden gems on this album such as "Use Somebody", "Revelry" and "Manhatten" that are jaw droppers as well. Lead man Caleb Followill's voice is crisp and soulful which lends a credibility to their raw sound. A perfect album all around.

1. Sigur Ros- "Med Sud i eyrum vid spilum endelaust"

Translated as With A Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly. I know... I know.... it all sounds very pretentious, but Sigur Ros generates the exact type of music that gets me soaring. For their fifth album, they do lean a bit to the mainstream, even singing some lyrics in English! Simply put, their sound coalesces into a momentous explosion of strings, guitar and sobbing vocals that puts you in a melancholic mood. Fresh, beautiful and startling from first track to last.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Great World of Sound: My Fav Music of '08

Part 1

I find myself being more and more selective about the music I buy. It's not for lack of good music- in fact, my acquisition of XM radio last year opened up the vessels of available music in ways too many to count- but I find myself sticking more closely to the tried and true artists before branching out to new ones. Granted, the mosaic YouTube is probably one of the most fascinating avenues for research of music than anything before (if only most of the clips weren't crappy live performances from a handheld phone), and for this music lovers should rejoice. Still, I purchased about 15 new cd's this year, and I can say that half of them were pretty great. In order of preference, here are my fav albums of the year:

10. The Black Crowes- "Warpaint"

Either you like the laid back southern-rock blues of The Black Crowes or you find it a passive sound in a world that's moved on. "Warpaint" is by no means a re-invention of their sound, but it accomplishes so much in its simplicity. I can remember the thunderbolt that "Shake Your Money Maker" and "Southern Harmony Musical Companion" brought to me. In fact, I believe I bought the latter twice because I wore out the first copy in one of those first generation in-dash cd players that skipped with every tiny bump. "Warpaint" is stripped down, bare bones blues rock like only the Robinson brothers can pull off.

9. Coldplay- Viva La Vida

Go ahead... toss every "40 Year Old Virgin" reference you want at me. I like Coldplay. Have since their debut. Again, nothing revolutionary here, but some nice show stopping sounds that mixes choirs, synthesizers and melodic Brit-rock. Radiohead knock off, yes, but a damn fine one.

8. And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead- "Festival Thyme" (EP)
If Austin, Texas can lay claim to one style of music, that would be the explosive 'wall of sound' exemplified in pioneering purveyors such as Explosions In the Sky and the above mentioned band- and I guess they all have a four letter minimum for their names. And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead released this EP in late October as a stop-gap for their upcoming album in '09 and I can't wait.

7. The Mars Volta- "Bedlam In Goliath"
To call this album a disappointment is selling it extremely short, but typically a Mars Volta album ends up as the one I cherish most upon release. No where near the masterpieces of "Deloused in the Crematorium" or "Frances the Mute", "Bedlam In Goliath" took a couple of listens before I warmed up to it. Their heavy, free-from prog-rock is not everyone's cup of tea, and "Bedlam" sounds a little choppy compared to the maddening flow of music that often streams through their work. Still, anything these guys do ranks head and shoulders above what ANY other artist is doing.

6. Mogwai- "The Hawk Is Howling"
Seeing this band in person was going to be a high point for me this year, but mother nature and the nasty after effects of something called a hurricane earlier this year foiled those plans. Mogwai is a band that hardly changes their sound (moody instrumental rock that Michael Mann favors for many of his films) and "The Hawk Is Howling" is full of more head bobbing tunes that puts one in a reflective mood. Come to think of it, I couldn't imagine a better band to listen to during a hurricane. And who doesn't love songs titled "The Sun Smells Too Loud" and "I'm Jim Morison, I'm Dead"?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Cinematic Round Up


Typically, when a film is pushed back and reloaded as many times as "Valkyrie" has been, there's definitely trouble on the horizon. To my surprise, Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie" is not only a watchable film, but a highly entertaining and taut thriller that grips the viewer from beginning to end. Bottom line,"Valkyrie" exceeded every expectation. The first thing I noticed was a complete lack of CGI- or at least it's gotten so good that it fools the eye of an observer such as myself ready to scoff at the first green screen effect. Then I did some research and learned that this was a conscious decision by Singer and producer Cruise to minimize the special effects. What we get instead are real explosions, real tanks and planes, and real extras that fill the screen with natural looking movement. In this day and age of CGI overkill, that's worth the price of admission alone. Yet director Singer carries this old fashioned sense of movie making one step further and creates almost unbearable tension in certain scenes through keen camera placement and sharp editing. Instead of abrasive hand held cinematography, DP Thomas Newton Sigel creates ambiance out of slow lateral pans that gives more weight to the shadows cast off by the actors then anything else. "Valkyrie" is a film that understands the slow-burn pacing that marks the great thrillers, building up the evolving plot to kill Hitler through backroom conversations, hushed tones, and small almost throwaway moments of eye contact or body posture that fit perfectly in the vein of good conspiracy thrillers. A lot of this credit must got to screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie as well. And, even though Cruise hits a false note here or there as the Col Stauffenberg, the leader of the plot, the supporting cast of Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branaugh and the immensely beautiful Carice van Houten (from Verhoeven's "Black Book") will instantly remove any bad taste. In the modern wasteland of bigger, faster and stronger action movies, "Valkyrie" turns back the clock and proves that stylish, patient thrillers can still be made viable in today's market. "Valkyrie" deserves more word of mouth, both personally and virtually.

Gran Torino

I suppose the string of Eastwood slam dunks had to come to an end sooner or later. And it does with a loud thud in "Gran Torino". Awkwardly piecing together racist tirades and cringe-worthy humor in the first half, and then shifting gears into a martyr piece in the second half, everything about "Gran Torino" feels strained. Where "Mystic River" twists into an unbearably devastating attack on love and loss, and "Changeling" ends on an ambivalent and challenging note, "Gran Torino" strives for this same type of weepy-eyed catharsis but comes up woefully short. This is the first Eastwood film in a while that feels clunky and unsure of itself. As Eastwood the Grumpy Old Man bonds with his Asian immigrant neighbors, Nick Schenk's script tosses out nuggets of supposed humor (barber shop banter, racial slurs that pass as humorous and 'cute' because Clint's an old man and needs forgiveness) that straddles a very crass line. By the time the grand finale rolled around, I couldn't care less about anyone. Major disappointment.

American Teen

Nanette Burstein's Sundance crowd pleaser took its time getting to mainstream American audiences. And then, when it did, it was amassed by controversy. Personally, I couldn't care less whether "American Teen" is manufactured docudrama or straight forward fiction. The characters are what matter, and the five kids who give carte blanche permission to film their senior year of high school- full of depressions, fights, text message break-ups and pains of loneliness- more than push "American Teen" head and shoulders above other teen movies. If it's a documentary, then Burstein was gifted with divine intervention to have such involving subjects. If it's fiction, then Burstein is certainly attuned to a generation much younger. But the real stand out in "American Teen", for me, was the intelligent and delicate Hannah Bailey. Teaming with invention and saddled with the ever-increasing longing to leave her small Indiana town and go to California, her story resonates more than the somewhat superficial narratives of the others. Even though there are brilliant little moments such as Megan receiving a letter from Notre Dame or Jake's incessant search for the 'right girl', Hannah is the really developed soul in this wonderful film.

The Reader

Stephen Daldry's "The Reader" is one of those tough films to classify. It's so middle of the road, it doesn't lend itself to an interesting review process. All the acting is uniformly fine and Daldry cross-cuts every scene like a madman accentuating a grand opera, yet there's a resounding "meh" when one exits the theater. I suppose if heavy, doom-laden Holocaust romance dramas with lots of nude Kate Winslet is your thing, then "The Reader" is perfect fare.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Hidden Treasures On the Boob Tube

Some days I can flip through the 150+ channels I've got and scream. One hundred and fifty channels and nothing on. How is that possible? But, I suppose if that's the worst of my troubles, I should be one thankful SOB.

But.... with the addition of an HD package I acquired recently, that's all changed. I'm talking about three little channels known as MGMHD, Universal HD and HD Net. Talk about an eclectic line-up. Over the past month, I've stumbled across movies as diverse as the following:

Ghost Warrior (1984)- B movie about a samurai warrior who is frozen for 400 years and then brought back to life in early 80's Los Angeles. Cheesy, but violent fun. Part of their Ninja New Year's celebration!

Between the Lines (1977)- Little seen indie film about the dissolution of a small Boston newspaper starring John Heard, Jeff Goldblum and Lindsay Crouse. Film Comment wrote about this movie last year and its especially prescient outlook on modern day newspapers.

The Delinquents (1957)- Robert Altman's debut film... more of an after school special, really, that documents the demise of a clean cut all American boy when he becomes entangled with local hoods.

In addition to those rarely seen, home video distribution-less films, these three channels provide showings of others- Bob Rafelson's "The Postman Always Rings Twice", a Jeff Bridges double feature with "The Big Lebowski" and "Cutter's Way", the under appreciated war movie "The Siege of Firebase Gloria", Lindsay Anderson's experimental 1968 film "The White Bus", and for those interested, a day full of Steven Seagal films. In addition to this list of impressive features, Universal often shows obscure TV shows. I'm currently in the middle of David Milch's "The Big Apple", which was his venture after "Homicide" and way before "Deadwood". All in high definition glory. If you have the opportunity and your local cable/satellite provider offers these channels, jump on the chance. You won't regret it.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year...

Enjoy a stirring collection of images from the year in film, 2008, via Matt Shapiro.