Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Top 25 Albums of the Aughts (15-11)

15. Ciara - "Goodies" (2004)
Here's where I become a stereotypical Atlantan (or de-facto Atlanta, as is more accurate). Ciara is just about the most exciting female R&B artist to emerge from the 2000s. Her voice is good enough, but her music is just so melodic and perfectly produced. Jazze Pha's work on this album is stuff legends are made of. Her subsequent efforts, particularly "Ciara: The Evolution," which was just shy of making this list are also worth a listen. But her debut album is her most impressive to date, in a very impressive catalogue.
Best Track: "Oh" featuring Ludacris

14. Erykah Badu - "Mama's Gun" (2000)
I was but a lowly ninth grader when this album came out. I recently and randomly revisited it. It's great to rediscover just how amazing this album is (and I liked Badu already). Badu truly takes her place as the heir to Nina Simone in her follow up to 1997's "Baduizm" (if this countdown included the 90s, surely that album would also be on it). I don't love every song on "Mama's Gun," but when it's good, it's really really good and it's an album I love to revisit every so often.
Best Track: "Didn't Cha Know"

13. John Legend - "Get Lifted" (2004)
So much bad R&B came out of the 2000s (and continues to come out in the aught tens). It's definitely becoming more and more faceless, without true identity or distinction, which makes me sad because R&B is such a huge part of my musical narrative. But I'm at least encouraged by artists like John Legend, who infuses the genre with the old school flair of great vocals and instrumentation. His debut album is a thing of beauty and he continues to be one of the best R&B artists working today (check out his cover of U2's "Pride," not featured on this album, but definitely a great track).
Best Track: "So High"

12. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Fever to Tell" (2003)
Like the Scissor Sisters, I have not really kept up with Yeah Yeah Yeahs beyond their debut album, save Karen O's fabulous work on the Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack. The best music is evocative and takes you back to a time and place. For me, I turn on "Fever to Tell," almost entirely listenable, if a little repetitive, and I'm transported back to my senior year of high school. Karen O's voice acquired taste. I've heard from many a people who liken it to a duet of Fran Drescher and nails on a chalkboard, but I was swept up in it right away. I love the wild, undisciplined feel of these songs and how they all feel as if they were performed in a dive bar.
Best Track: "Maps" (Here's where I get cliche...)

11. Iron & Wine - "Our Endless Numbered Days" (2004)
I love pretty much everything Iron & Wine came out with this past decade. I played around with the idea of placing "Woman King" on this list (mostly because of "Jezebel," which is unequivocally his best song), but with only six tracks it didn't really seem fair. Speaking of evocative music, I feel pulled back to the beautiful south whenever I turn on Iron & Wine, particularly this album. Like Ray LaMontagne, he's as artist who you've probably heard before, even if you don't know it. Featured in many a film and television shows, but used most effectively in Jonathan Caouette's 2003 personal documentary Tarnation.
Best Track: "Naked As We Came"

Top Ten Begins in the Next Post with (10-6)

The Top 25 Albums of the Aughts (20-16)

20. Norah Jones - "Come Away With Me" (2002)
I wasn't crazy about her sophomore effort "Feels Like Home," even though it does contain an awesome duet with Dolly Parton. However, "Come Away With Me," remains utterly listenable more than eight years after I first heard it. Her marriage of jazz, country and folk music, combined with her sweet, whispery voice definitely made an impression.
Best Track: "Nightingale" I didn't even have to think twice.

19. Green Day - "American Idiot" (2004)
That's right, I like Green Day and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Say what you will about them, but they are often imitated (badly I might add...My Chemical Romance, I'm looking in your direction) and quite influential. After a four year hiatus, they returned with what remains their strongest album to date and one of the best of the 2000s.
Best Track: "Are We the Waiting"

18. Feist - "The Reminder" (2007)
A truly unique sound that emerged when her sophomore effort received mainstream commercial success. I loved this album to pieces and listened to it obsessively. "One, Two, Three, Four" was such a great introduction as an amazing first single (and it's not even the best song on the album). I'm happy to include Feist on this list with a little swell of Canadian pride.
Best Track: "Brandy Alexander"

17. Scissor Sisters - "Scissor Sisters" (2004)
A lot of great debuts in this section. Scissor Sisters are sadly a band I haven't been following since their amazing burst onto the scene in 2004 (note to self: must remedy this), but this album got a lot of play from me and I can't imagine this list without it. And I fell in love with it all over again during the third season of "Big Love" when Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) did her crazy dance to this song after her mom died (seriously, are the Scissor Sisters even legal in Utah? Brilliant...)
Best Track: "Take Your Mama"

16. Ray LaMontagne - "Trouble" (2004)
Rounding off this section of the countdown is yet another amazing 2004 debut. Ray LaMontagne will be featured on this list again, rest assured. This album just warms my heart every time I listen to it. And you've probably heard some of it, even if you don't know it. A lot of these tracks were featured on various television shows, movie trailers, etc. Remember that great scene in the second season of "Rescue Me" where Dennis Leary's five-year-old son is killed by the drunk driver? Yep, that's Ray LaMontagne's "All the Wild Horses" playing in the background (incidentally, I know someone who worked on that show and the story behind the decision to kill off the son is a hilarious one involving an annoying child actor and an unruly stage mom). Give it a listen when you have a chance and let LaMontagne's "Trouble" croon you to sleep.
Best Track: "Hold You in My Arms"

Countdown continues with 15-11...

The Top 25 Albums of the Aughts (25-21)

A little break from our regular programming and part of my "Best of the Aughts" series (I thought it foolish to make such lists at the end of 2009 without a little bit of time and distance to let various dust settle). I realized that I rarely talk about music on this blog. The reason being that my taste in music is incredibly unpretentious. For me, these are without question the 25 albums that defined the 2000s for me.

25. Common - "Be" (2005)
So, let me say something first...I don't buy into the myth of Common. I don't fancy his music some sort of intellectual experience as some do. I've said it before and I'll say it again: being light-skinned with facial hair and a hat does not make one intellectual. Not to say that I don't have a great amount of respect for Common as an artist, but don't get it twisted...where was I going with this? It sounds like I don't like him at all. I loved his 2005 release "Be." It goes down incredibly smooth and relaxes you. If only Common's movies were as good as his music...
Best Track: "Be (Intro)" Not one bit ruined by its inclusion in the horrendous It's Kind of a Funny Story.

24. Amos Lee - "Amos Lee" (2005)
One of those artists who seems to perpetually be languishing in that "ones to watch" realm, even though he's been making music for a very long time. What a soulful, arresting debut this album was, reminiscent of the best of Otis Redding, Bobby Caldwell, with a twinge of something personal and unique rolled in. His subsequent releases (particularly "Supply and Demand") definitely offer something to recommend, but this is his best by a wide margin and one of the best of the decade.
Best Track: "Arms of a Woman"

23. Missy Elliott - "Miss E...So Addictive" (2001)
Deciding exactly which Missy Elliott album from the 2000s to include on this list was tough. I'm not a huge fan of "This is Not a Test!" and even less so of "The Cookbook," but it was a pretty tight race between this one and "Under Construction." Ultimately, I feel that "Miss E...So Addictive" is her magnum opus and is (as the title suggests) quite addictive and infectious. Make no mistake. A great lyricist, Missy Elliott is not. Her songs are rarely about anything at all. But for a great producer and assembler of producers, you can't do much better that Missy.
Best: Track: "For My People"

22. Lady Gaga - "The Fame Monster" (2009)
I've already expressed my feelings about Lady Gaga on this very blog. For the record, I don't buy into the Lady Gaga myth (the artifice, the interview comments, etc.) But I'm all about honesty and honestly...I loved this album. Lady Gaga seems to get pop music more than any other artist out there. Her music is incredibly infectious and not cerebral, which is everything that pop music should be. Love her or hate her (I fall somewhere in the middle), you can't discuss music of the 2000s and ignore her impact.
Best Track: "Telephone" featuring Beyonce' (I know a lot of people would say "Bad Romance," but I like what I like. Deal with it).

21. Kanye West - "College Dropout" (2004)
This is Kanye's first appearance on this list, but it will not be his last. An album that took nearly four years to make, it was well worth the wait. Kanye West remains the most interesting thing in hip-hop to emerge from the 2000s. This album resonated greatly with me as I was just entering university when it was released. I know he's hated by many (hallmark of a great artist, by the way). Even I think he's kind of a douche...okay, a complete douche, but this was one of the most audacious, well-produced debuts I've seen from a musician.
Best Track: to even choose? If pressed, "School Spirit"

Continued in the next post with 20-16...

Friday, December 17, 2010

2010 in Film (part 4)

It's Kind of a Funny Story (dirs. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)
Ryan Fleck is credited as the sole director of 2006's Half Nelson, but apparently Anna Boden co-directed. What a wonderful, naturalistic, film it was. The actors hit the right notes. Every line of dialogue spoken seemed birth from meticulous human observation. It sits on my list of one of the 100 best films of the 2000s (I promise that list is coming soon). And their sophomore effort, Sugar? Sure, it falls short of the brilliance of their debut film, but Boden and Fleck crafted another realistic portrayal of (wait for it) human beings. I bring this up before I discuss their third feature, It's Kind of a Funny Story because I wanted to explain my bias towards these filmmakers up front, and it's always good to find something nice to say. From here on out, I will sound like Oscar the Grouch. It's Kind of a Funny Story, based on the novel of the same name, depicts a slice of life (less than two weeks, if I'm not mistaken) inside of a psychiatric hospital as told through the eyes of a teenage boy named Craig (played by Keir Gilchrist). The result is an incredibly and offensively facile look at mental illness, a very complicated issue. Craig is feeling suicidal, though (as stated plainly by the film) he has no real reason to, nor has he ever attempted suicide. While at the hospital, he meets a host of characters who all show him that his cushy, magnet school, New York life isn't all that bad. It all feels syrupy, patently false and packed to the rafters with paint-by-numbers quirk. I'm kind of floored that the people behind Half Nelson had anything to do with it. In my write-up of The Greatest, I spoke of the incredible liability that is Zoe Kravitz. I get the urge, at least on paper, to cast her in films. She's the daughter of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz, arguably two of the most beautiful people on the planet (and arguably artistic in their own right). But Zoe has a complete non-presence as a performer. Her eyes are dead, her line readings are cringe-worthy and she seems to be working against any given scene. Granted, she has the burden of playing characters that are the complete creation of male fantasy in both films, but is there any excuse for this when there was at least one female writer/director at the helm in both cases? The rest of the story is predictable. Craig falls for a fellow teenage psych patient (Emma Roberts) who's pretty, but damaged. Their courtship is played against a soundtrack of what I like to call "hey, it's that band!" That is, a particular brand of scruffy-boy rock by a bunch of Thom Yorke fetishists. These bands are also notable for their small, devoted pockets of fans who will inevitably abandon said band once the lure of obscurity is lost by having one of their songs played in a film like this or on an episode of "Grey's Anatomy." It's all incredibly trite and (I'm sorry to go here) incredibly white. Between this film and Up in the Air, I've completely lost patience for films that set their ordinary, retread narratives (in both cases, boy meets girl) against the backdrop of a larger issue (ie, unemployment or mental illness) in a transparent attempt at emotional gravitas (incidentally, I rated Up in the Air a "B" when I first saw it, but the longer I sit with it and one subsequent viewing has shown me that I can no longer stand by that).
Grade: D

The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)
Any praises I offer up are going to seem redundant at this point. The Social Network is sweeping the year end critics awards and is poised to be one of the most honored films of 2010. Everything seems to be working in perfect synergy in this wildly exaggerated (to its benefit) account of Mark Zuckerberg's (a wonderful Jesse Eisenberg) creation of Facebook at Harvard and the legal and social drama that ensued.
Aaron Sorkin's justifiably lauded, razor-sharp script has an amazing rhythm to it, sustaining a subject that could have easily ran out of steam in the wrong hands. And what is there to say at this point about Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's outstanding and unique score. After 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, (whose pedestrian leanings and meandering pace gall and bewilder upon subsequent viewings almost as much as the acclaim it received), David Fincher seems once again justified in his title of visionary director. His direction here elevates what could have been an average film into something singular, specific and richly engrossing. Almost every actor here seems to hit the right notes. There's Jesse Eisenberg, who I've admittedly not been a huge fan of in the past (though I did finally watch Zombieland, which I found immensely enjoyable). Here, he plays an embellished cinematic version of Mark Zuckerberg, forging his own creation (apart from similar curly mops, Eisenberg's Zuckerberg and the real Zuckerberg don't seem to be all that behaviorally similar). He plays him with a consistent, even tone of equal parts coldness, obliviousness and befuddlement at how off-putting people find him to be. It's a great turn that may read as effortless in some circles, but luckily seems to be getting a lot of year end accolades. I loved the performance when I saw the film, but awards season could have reacted either way (completely ignoring or fully embracing) and I would not have been surprised. More surprised am I by the myriad of nominations for Andrew Garfield, who plays co-founder Eduardo Saverin (though that SAG snub is telling). I much preferred him in Never Let Me Go, which is admittedly a much baitier performance in a film that I'll finally concede has totally bottomed out, both commercially and critically. This is in no way to imply that Garfield's work in The Social Network doesn't impress. The script gives him few actorly moments to sink his teeth into, but I do like a lot of the choices Garfield makes as an actor. His awards clip will probably be the now famous laptop smashing scene, but for my money, Garfield hits it out of the park in the quieter moments--the luau mixer, his initial reactions to Sean Parker at the restaurant. Reacting is such an important aspect of convincing acting and Garfield seems adept at being very communicative in this way. But it's rather low key and in no way the type of supporting turn that would ever be swept into awards season if it wasn't on the coattails of an inevitable best picture nominee. I would have much sooner expected Justin Timberlake, who plays Sean Parker of Napster fame, to be in the mix, though his is the weakest performance of the film. It is, however, a showy and in a lot of ways fun supporting turn. But it would seem that all the actors tried to dig deeper except Timberlake, who doesn't turn in a bad performance persay, but one that reeks of taking script and direction at face value without looking for subtext--the hallmark of an untrained actor. It's so heartening that such an amazing film seems to be the frontrunner going into awards season (and it's not even my favorite of the year).
Grade: A (after 2 viewings)

Catfish (dirs. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)
How appropriate that I saw this film mere minutes after walking out of The Social Network. They serve as very interesting companion pieces. In many ways Catfish actually says more about the virtual social networking culture than David Fincher's film, though both are certainly arresting and resonant pieces of filmmaking. The documentary (though many inquests have been made into the film's legitimacy as a piece of bonafide nonfiction) follows Nev Schulman (director Ariel Schulman's younger brother), a New York photographer who strikes up an online friendship with who he thinks is an attractive girl. When he goes to meet her, things are not as they seem, to say the least. I went into the film virtually (no pun intended) with nothing except people's urging not to let it be "spoiled." Walking out, I was surprised by those admonishments for this was not a "spoiler" movie, at least not from where I was sitting. Despite its documentary format, it unfolds very much like a character study in a traditional narrative. When Nev, his brother and their friend (Henry Joost, the other director) go to see this family, the interactions, the situations all feel incredibly heartwrenching and fascinating in a way that was very akin to 2005's Junebug (one of the best films of the past ten years). No, the woman was not who she said she was. And yes, she lied to them every step of the way, even after being found out. But I was surprised by the conflicting emotions drummed up inside of me. Nev Schulman has the benefit of point of view and arguable physical attraction (at least in some circles) that cloud how he may not be so morally superior to this woman who conned him. He did worm his way into this family under false pretenses and he certainly dropped little white lies here and there. Perhaps if the documentary had been told from the point of view of the other family, we might have seen the Schulmans as interlopers, out on a campaign of gotcha journalism against an already down and out clan. My point is, this movie was incredibly provocative and deeply emotional, regardless of whether it's true documentary filmmaking or not. I took it at face value because most documentaries are scripted and choreographed to a certain extent and I feel this standard is being put on Catfish in a way that it's not being put on movies like Man on Wire, which was filled with unreliable reenactments (just my two cents).
Grade: B+

Sunday, November 7, 2010

First Oscar Predictions of the Season - Best Picture

The Oscar race this year will be a relaxed one, at least where I am concerned. I just came back from a screening of Blue Valentine, which I'll talk about later (knock on wood) and at greater length, but it ranks up there with Winter's Bone, Dogtooth, Never Let Me Go and The Social Network as indelible cinema experiences of 2010 that just won't let go (no pun intended). I suppose you could put 127 Hours in that category as well, although I can almost tell a film that's going to recede in my memory, even it if is one that I love.

That being said, here are my slapped together, haphazard predictions.

Best Picture

++Who Knows?

1. The Social Network*
2. The King's Speech*
3. 127 Hours**
4. Toy Story 3**
5. Inception+

6. Winter's Bone+
7. The Kids Are All Right+
8. The Way Back++
9. Never Let Me Go++
10. Black Swan++

Alternate: True Grit, The Fighter, Another Year, How to Train Your Dragon, Get Low

Okay. Several things to address. I think a lot of guns are being jumped at this point. In my mind, the only two true locks in this category are The King's Speech and The Social Network. 127 Hours is nearing lock status, but we have to see how people respond to it (God forbid). Toy Story 3...everyone is calling it a lock. I've yet to see it (I know, I know), but I don't think we can assume that Pixar is going to have a horse in the race every year just because there are now ten best picture nominees. Beyond those four very likely candidates, it's really anyone's game from where I'm sitting. Inception seems like a distant memory, doesn't it? And the reasoning that they'll nominate it as penance for snubbing The Dark Knight doesn't compute for me. First of all, Nolan already has an Oscar nod for writing, so it's not like they've ignored him completely. And if they loved The Dark Knight so freaking much, they would have nominated it. Fact. The Kids Are All Right read as very slight to me, but even ignoring my own feelings, there are plenty of ways (Bening aside) for them to screw up an Oscar campaign for this film. Ditto for Winter's Bone, which is in a better position than The Kids Are All Right. That film will be championed come year's end and I personally think that the people predicting Jennifer Lawrence to miss a best actress nod are crazy (I'm not naming names). My reasoning on Never Let Me Go, The Way Back and Black Swan. I can see each of these films having intense pockets of love. Never Let Me Go already does. The people who love that film (moi, for instance) really really love it. And we know Aronofsky is going to have his partisans. Basically, I had to fill ten slots and I don't feel comfortable predicting True Grit, which everyone seems high on for some reason even though no one has seen it. Exactly three of the Coen Bros' many films have been nominated for best picture. Three. Plus, are we forgetting that the original True Grit didn't even get a best picture nomination? Am I missing something here? I know I said the same thing about Avatar last year, but I don't see why people are automatically labeling True Grit a best picture contender. I will admit that the film looks spectacular, but the Coens are not overdue at this point, the Academy is not really hot on Westerns these days, shall I go on?

Monday, November 1, 2010

All I Ask...

I'm usually very demanding and discriminating when it comes to evaluating movies...

Nevertheless, I will go see Burlesque when it opens later this month. Lord knows I've enjoyed a lot of films, even of late. This is not about enjoying and respecting a film. I can't for the life of me remember the last time I had fun at the movies. I'm talking me as an eight-year-old, watching Timon and Pumba sing "Hakuna Matata," honest-to-goodness fun. So for Burlesque, I have only one request. And it's a small one. I hope the filmmakers have obliged.

If (if?) Burlesque absolutely must be least have the good taste to make it very very bad. I'm talking Showgirls bad. I need this.

That is all.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

2010 in Film (part 3)

Never Let Me Go (dir. Mark Romanek)
None of the criticisms of this film feel off-base, except for maybe the widespread belief that the film is overscored (I'm happy to firmly plant my flag on the other side of the fence and say that Rachel Portman's score, while a little overzealous at times, is beautiful and quite complementary to the narrative). The adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of the same name was, for my money, an incredibly effective and emotionally devastating film (take note of the word "devastating," a much harder and more lingering emotion to evoke than "depressing"). I was impressed up and down with this film, while recognizing its inherent flaws. The talks of over narration have been exhausted to death, but it's a fair criticism and one I agree with, particularly in the film's final moments. The film is bookended with a shot of Kathy (Carey Mulligan in a fantastic and understated turn that's more than what it seems) staring crestfallen at Tommy (Andrew Garfield). To open with the shot is unnecessary and sucks some of the emotional weight out of the final scene, though this is by no means a "spoiler" movie. Yes, there is a conceit at the core of this story that hangs over the narrative, but the film is more concerned about matters of the heart than the soft sci-fi elements. Every actor hits the right tone, particularly Keira Knightley as Ruth, who would have a shot at a supporting actress nomination had the film been better received. Andrew Garfield handles his role so deftly. The performance may seem easy--he has the actorly advantage that is his eyes, which seem determined to absolutely break your heart in this film. I can't think of anything more wrenching this year than watching Garfield's Tommy as his eyes register earth-shattering news and realities. Of his two trumpeted turns this year, I much preferred Garfield here (and for the record, I thought he was very good in The Social Network). I'm going to talk lastly about the film's awards prospects, which many people seem to believe are nonexistent at this point. They could be (read: probably are) correct. However, I'm not sure it's over. If I'm recalling correctly, Babel came out of its earliest festivals with similarly split response. The Reader was not without its very loud, vocal detractors who cried foul at its inclusion in the best picture roster, most likely at the expense of The Dark Knight. Never Let Me Go is not this year's The Lovely Bones--a rather easy and frankly lazy comparison I've heard more than once. Firstly, it's not based on source material whose literary merit was constantly in question, even before the release of the film. Never Let Me Go is prestige and (if you ask me) prestige done very well. There are people who are sticking by it. Roger Ebert's beautifully written rave review underline a possible generational divide. Could the older members of the Academy respond to this film in a way that could surprise? I'm not trying to break a story and I could be wrong, but again, I'm not sure that it's over for Never Let Me Go and for that I'm thrilled.
Grade: B+ (A-? I really feel like it's going to end up being the latter...I literally have thought about this film in some capacity every day since I've seen it)

The Town (dir. Ben Affleck)
In a completely schizophrenic moviegoing experience, I viewed The Town mere minutes within viewing Never Let Me Go. I should probably revisit it at some point, but right now it's being judged rather unfairly. It's a very well-crafted piece of work that marries commercial and artistic sensibilities very well. It's not a great leap forward stylistically from Affleck's freshman effort Gone Baby Gone, which has something new to behold upon each subsequent viewing and ranks among my favorite films of the 2000s. However, while I can think of about a dozen moments from Never Let Me Go that are burned into my memory, I'm finding it hard to latch on to any singular moments in The Town. It's impressive, but definitely a fast fade. Ben Affleck turns in a fine performance, though I've never subscribed to the belief that he's a terrible actor, despite the terrible projects that often seem to find him. He's fine, but ultimately a bit miscast and I wonder if sideman Jeremy Renner wouldn't have been a more interesting choice for the lead. Blake Lively...what can I say? Full disclosure: she was one of the driving influences behind my desire to see this film. It was probably one part morbid curiosity (who doesn't enjoy a hot ghetto mess of a performance?) and one part optimistic curiosity (can she carve out another Amy Ryan, scene-stealing characterization of a female Bostonian ne'er do well?) The result was kind of neither. Lively is not in the film nearly enough to make a real impression, and when she's on screen she kind of seems in over her head and really out of place with everything that's going on. Ditto, I'm sorry to say, for Jon Hamm, who's not nearly as hair-raisingly atonal as Lively, yet manages to radiate a certain air of standard-issue--not a good fit for such a prominent role in a major motion picture. Like I said, I appreciated it very much when I was watching it and Ben Affleck is mostly in very deft control as a director. I'm curious to see what he does next, especially if he moves away from the gritty white Boston crime milieu. But "forgettable" definitely is a word that comes to mind after some distance.
Grade: B

Dogtooth (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
One of two films I've seen this year that's truly unlike anything I've ever experienced, cinematically (Enter the Void also shares that distinction, though I've yet to wholly decide if it's to that film's credit or detriment). Greek director Lanthimos paints a horrifying, bare bones and often sickly humorous portrayal of a patriarch who keeps his three adult children (two daughters and a son, all non-actors), under strict lock and key. They never leave the large grounds of their house, which includes a pool and a tennis court, but is still confining and stifling. The children are completely arrested. They speak with a very basic intelligence that would, at first glance, betray how truly warped they are. But the first glimpses are startling. They have been taught the wrong words for things (they are told the word "pussy" means a "big light," which...not so much). An employee of the father is brought to the house blindfolded, presumably for money, so that she can fulfill the simple biological function of servicing the son's burgeoning sexual needs. That is all the plot that one needs (this is not a "plot" piece of cinema, at least not in the traditional sense). I likened it very much to Passolini's
Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, with the notable exception being that it widely strips away any artifice. Dogtooth presents more of a blank, unintellectualized portrayal of sadism, rather than a heavy-handed comment on sadism, to its credit. The most arresting scene in the film is not a violent one. It involves a dance performed by the daughters for their parents anniversary party. It's so interesting to watch the audience reaction to this moment--it's met with shocked silence, followed by uproarious laughter, and then more shocked silence. That is the film's lure. And love it or hate it, it's definitely one that stays with you long after the last frame.
Grade: A-

Monday, September 27, 2010

2010 in Film (part 2)

Winter's Bone (dir. Debra Granik)
The critical narrative tethered to this title in its initial release had me entering fully prepared for a Frozen River or even an An Education experience. That is, a story containing an exceptional, star-making female lead performance practically crying out for a film deserving of such actorly talent. What I got was an engrossing, arresting movie-going experience that completely blindsided me. I can't really put my finger on all of the elements that I look for in a film I'm going to recommend. It's a personal and often nebulous thing, trying to saliently communicate one's cinematic sensibilities. I can say (don't worry, I'm going somewhere with this) that I have never enjoyed a film that felt dishonest. Winter's Bone is so lived-in and observant in terms of the world it occupies, and I'm not just talking about the Ozark mountain setting, about which I admittedly know little. I'm talking about the lives of these characters, which is established very clearly in the beginning, with every word uttered and every action taken speaking to that in a compelling way. Not to call Frozen River dishonest, but there was this lingering air of "let's evoke audience guilt" that hung heavy. Winter's Bone is stark and frank in a completely organic way. Much praise and ballyhoo has been heaped upon Jennifer Lawrence and (to a lesser extent) Dale Dickey, both turning in fabulous turns worthy of high accolade. The entire cast is in top form, as are the sound department (so atmospheric, yet not showily so), and Debra Granik's sure directorial hand. People seem to be cooling considerably, not on their reaction to the film, but about its award prospects (not to imply that a great film isn't its own reward, regardless of awards citation). I could be wrong, but I think the critics will take care of Winter's Bone come year's end. Look for Jennifer Lawrence to get a best actress nomination. Her name will be on the lips, (who is she even competing with for breakthrough citations at this point?). I wouldn't be surprised, especially in a field of ten, if Winter's Bone lands on the best picture list, though obviously it's not a slam dunk.
Grade: A

I Am Love (dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Here is a film about which my initial effusiveness is cooling. I enjoyed it slightly less on a second viewing, though Tilda Swinton's work is still searing, convincing, peculiar and specific (as always). It's almost epic in its scale and splendor. However, a scene can be largely without dialogue and still overstate many of its greater ideas. It's very easy to get swept up in I Am Love that one almost overlooks how many of the visual cues verge on the obtuse--for instance, the first time Emma (Swinton) tastes food made by Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). This is not to say that it's not a lovely and in many ways accomplished film. It's very evocative, mostly when it's not trying so hard to be. The overwrought conclusion and the even more overwrought score (seriously, people are praising this score, but calling Never Let Me Go overscored? Both composers are a little wand-happy, but the latter, considerably less so...) keep this film from an A.
Grade: B+

The Kids Are All Right (dir. Lisa Cholodenko)
The ingredients for a great film (rather than the quite good, if far too tentative and easy result) are present. Great cast? Check. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore seem perfectly in their element here, as does Mark Ruffalo. The kids are great too. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are the unsung assets to The Kids Are All Right, gifting the film with aching, believable uncertainty and mortification at the behavior of the "adults" in their lives. Humor? Check. I laughed. I laughed quite a lot, actually. So, why does it seem like I like The Kids Are All Right slightly less than everyone seems to love it? Firstly, it's clear that screenwriters Cholodenko and Stuart Bloomberg love each of the characters they've created. That's evidenced by their need to protect them and their inability to put them into situations where they are required to make hard choices. Annette Bening navigates around the film's pussy-footing nature with aplomb. She will eke out a full-realized characterization and performance, even if it's not necessarily given to her on the page. Julianne Moore is given quieter notes to play, as is Ruffalo. Great performances often seem effortless and no one is phoning it in here. I'm always glad to see Moore breaking away from her impressive, yet morose "woman on the verge..." thesp-ing that often pigeonholes her and prevents her true versatility from shining through. However, the film's wispy keeps it from rising to true greatness or even memorability. Here is a story crying out for just a bit more shading, complexity and hardness than what is given.
Grade: B

Prodigal Sons (dir. Kimberly Reed)
Proof that I need to make more of a concerted effort to watch documentaries, and not just those that manage to creep into the larger consciousness, some based on merit and others based on accessible and timely (read: facile) subject matter. An aside: I've yet to watch Waiting for Superman, so I can't comment. However, the trailer, combined with reactions from those I trust, as well as Guggenheim's previous documentary (An Inconvenient Truth), which smugly masqueraded common knowledge as incendiary samizdat which "the man" doesn't want you to know about all have my expectations cold as ice (rant over). Prodigal Sons, a documentary about director Kimberly Reed's return to Montana for a high school reunion marries the piercing emotionality of Tarnation with the polished, formal elements of Steve James or even Errol Morris. It's a wonderful combination. We watch as she attempts to reconcile her relationship with her very troubled adopted brother Marc. I almost want to hold my feelings about this film close to my chest, as its such an arresting experience to watch the story unfold before you and become something completely different than what is promised, yet no less satisfying. It's strange...I tend to be repelled, at least on principle, by the prospect of personal documentaries. And yet, when done well, they are the most affecting.
Grade: A-

Machete (dir. Robert Rodriguez)
Whether being viewed simply as an exercise in B-movie cinematic excess, or as a mindless action film (or both), Machete fails to turn either trope on its head in a way that is memorable or interesting.
Grade: C+

Friday, September 24, 2010

2010 in far (Part 1)

I will be seeing Animal Kingdom sometime this weekend, along with Catfish. Looking at the sidebar of 2010 releases which I have viewed and graded, it might seem that I'm a little behind the 8-ball. And yet...I don't see it that way. Yes, I'm aware that there are still many films I need to see from the former part of they year. But looking at the films that popular sentiment seems to be telling me that I "missed," I feel no great need to rush out and see them. Nick Davis over at Nick's Flick Picks described it perfectly in a recent article where he described his grading system. He gives a letter grade, then a VOR (Values, Originality, and Risk) rating from 1-5. Brilliant. This is exactly why I'm not particularly compelled to rush out and see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Based on secondhand reports and my reaction to the trailers, I'm sure that it's a film I'm going to at the very least enjoy on the most basic level, no matter how underwhelmed I am. Why the hesitation? Well, what is a movie like Scott Pilgrim, How to Train Your Dragon or even Toy Story 3 really going to tell me about the current cinematic landscape that I don't already know? Michael Cera seems frozen in time with his shtick? Non-Pixar animated releases can still rake 'em in? Pixar's the cornerstone of animated cinema? These respective nuggets are not enough to make me rush out to see these films in theater, rather than waiting to catch them on DVD, even if I am sure to like the films. It may sound pompous or pretentious, but with my limited time, I need a little something more.

Date Night (dir. Shawn Levy)
Often funny, but memorably so. I'm flirting with the idea of being done with Steve Carrell and this film certainly didn't help matters much. Tina Fey is delightful, as always, and I was immediately led to think about how much I'd really love to see her in a better movie. Now that Sandra Bullock is no longer attached to The Abstinence Teacher...maybe Fey? It's been so long since I've seen this film and there are singular elements that stick out in my memory. I do specifically remember thinking Date Night was overlong, which is not exactly to the credit of a film with an 87 minute running time. I also remember being baffled both by Taraji P. Henson's suggestion of a character/performance/purpose and her Veronica Cartwright circa Alien haircut. Completely missable.
Grade at the time of viewing: B-
Now downgraded to a C+

The Greatest (dir. Shana Feste)
One of the most odious movie-watching experiences in recent memory, which is kind of shocking, given the film's tentative nature and modest goals. It features Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon as bereaved parents and Carey Mulligan as the young woman their son knocked up the night he died. These three actors turn in uneven, yet not completely disastrous turns that clearly suffered from a nebulous direction and an even murkier script. The rest of the cast, particularly Johnny Simmons who plays the left-behind younger brother, is less capable. Zoe Kravitz is also featured and is limited, certainly, but the least of this film's problems. (I'll talk more about her when I'm talking about It's Kind of a Funny Story). Narrative storytelling has to allow for suspension of disbelief and most audiences accept that. But there are plot contrivances in this film so glaring, so nonsensical, so completely asinine that even the most casual, twice-a-year movie watcher (the kind who thought that Saw was clever and Crash was poignant) would scoff that neither a parse of the script nor a snip in post-production prohibited these flubs from worming their way into the final cut. It's simply grief-porn--cinematic suffering for its own sake without a shred of emotional motivation or honesty.
Grade: C-/D+

Mother and Child (dir. Rodrigo Garcia)
Flawed, but poignant piece of moviemaking. It is a broken ensemble piece that examines adoption and its effect on three different women. It's experiencing somewhat of a fade in my memory, but I remember being moved by its very believable character specificity that's not merely paint-by-numbers quirk. The three stars are all very much within their element here and doing excellent work, particularly Annette Bening and Kerry Washington (Naomi Watts suffers from an unknowable and inconsistent character whose real emotions Garcia seems reluctant to mine).

Iron Man 2 (dir. Jon Favreau)
I think I was in a bad mood the day I saw this movie. Favreau brought it to my school and even did a lecture afterwards. Perhaps it was my disposition, but after watching Iron Man 2, I slipped out of the auditorium quietly before Favreau arrived on stage. I have still yet to see Iron Man (should I?), so maybe I'm not the target audience for this film. I just felt myself underwhelmed, deflated, verging on annoyance at the film's smug, smarmy tone (and I do actually enjoy Robert Downey Jr. quite a bit). No, my impatience was not with Downey, but more with Favreau--his presence in his own film, which particularly self-indulgent in this case. I'm sure Favreau is a perfectly nice guy, but when I look at his directorial filmography (Elf, Zathura and the Iron Man films, to name a few) I can't abide nor can I justify sitting down for a couple of hours and listening to him speak.
Grade: C+

More reviews to come...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer -- Update

So, an impromptu interruption (nearly two months worth) in my blogging. But, alas, it is not without reason. Without getting too personal, living in a residence for the past month and a half without a reliable internet connection threw a bit of a wrench into the Big Pretentious Movie summer. However, I'm in swanky new accommodations, with new internet service and a brand new school year in which the AFI library is open week round with decent hours. But, I cannot make up for the time I lost. Thus, I am extending my deadline to watch the remaining films on my list until November (or whenever I finish). The project has been renamed The Big Pretentious Movie Project (as it has extended past its initial summer projections). I've decided to take the pressure off...watching films has never been a chore for me and I've discovered many great films this in this wonderful process that I somehow missed or had forgotten over the years. I'm picking things up this week again by diving headlong into the Coen Brothers, starting with Blood Simple. I cannot wait.

Other programming notes: As promised, I will be listing my 100 favorite films of the 2000s sometime before year's end. No, this isn't me being a year behind the trend. I purposely waited until well into 2010 to make this list because I don't want to leave any gems from 2009 off said list and these things sometimes need a couple of months to marinate. It is an eclectic list of films on the list, ranging from big blockbusters, to mainstream hits to more obscure fare and in true Pretentious Know it All fashion, the film at the top of my list is one that will likely garner scoffs, head scratches and eye rolls. However, I'm a firm believer in honesty when compiling my "best-of" lists and no film resonated more than this one (ah, the suspense).

Happy to be back at it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's to Come

So...The Big Pretentious Movie Summer is in full swing. I've added eleven films to the list. They are:

Leaving Las Vegas
- Mike Figgis (1995)*
Autumn Sonata - Ingmar Bergman (1978)
Before Sunrise - Richard Linklater (1995)*
Before Sunset - Richard Linklater (2004)
Birth - Jonathan Glazer (2004)+
Trouble the Water - Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (2008/2009)
The Class - Laurent Cantet (2008)
Toy Story 2 - John Lasseter (1999)
Blade Runner - Ridley Scott (1982)
Morvern Callar - Lynne Ramsay (2002)*
You Can Count on Me - Kenneth Lonergan (2000)

*Films I've already viewed, though they haven't been added to the official list.
+Films I need to re-watch

I've also omitted some films from the list, some for complicated reasons, others for logistical reasons, all of which will be viewed at some point. They are:

Life is Sweet - Mike Leigh (1993)*
Topsy Turvy - Mike Leigh (1999)*
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice - Paul Mazursky
The Last Detail - Hal Ashby (1973)
Deconstructing Harry - Woody Allen (1997)
Dangerous Liaisons - Stephen Frears (1988)
American Graffiti - George Lucas (1973)+
The Mission - Roland Joffé (1986)
Harvey - Henry Koster (1951)
Wonder Boys - Curtis Hanson (2000)

*I need to find copies of these films somewhere. I still have yet to find a copy of Safe - Todd Haynes (1995), but I think I'll purchase that one.

+One of the whitest people I've ever met with very middlebrow tastes in film and culture in general described this movie as "Kind of overly-nostalgic, dated and a bit too cute." I'll watch it someday, but the clock is ticking and that comment took my already tepid expectations and submerged them in a liquid nitrogen tank.

So, with the new total (adding 11, subtracting 10), that means the total is 156, rather than 155.

Also, towards the end of the year, sometime before the Third Annual Pretentious Movie Awards, I'll be completing my list of best 100 favorite films of the 2000s. I know it was the in-vogue thing to do it last year, when the aughts actually ended, but doing it at the end of 2010 has its advantages. Firstly, I have enough distance from 2009 that I know which films from that list will be in the best of the decade. I will also be doing a list of the top 20 performances in the four acting categories (leading/supporting for male and female) as well as my top five directors of the decade and (just because I can't avoid schaudenfraude) the top 10 overrated films of the decade.

Peace, Love and Pretension.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Inception

I interrupt the regular scheduled programming to give you a few brief thoughts about Inception, because it seems like this week, the world isn't allowed to talk about anything else.

First of all, I liked it, as I have most of Christopher Nolan's films. But I liked it with huge reservation. For better or for worse, I enter a film through the acting and the writing (in that order). The fact that more than half of the cast can boast the title "Academy Award nominee" and more than half of those people are actually deserving of the honor, there's no reason to expect phoned-in thesp-ing. And for the most part, the acting here is quite serviceable, with a few notable exceptions. Any accusations of thin performances are not solely the fault of the actors here, who do what they can to compensate for the fact that they are not playing characters, but rather ideas "projections of Christopher Nolan's subconscious," if you will. For a film that is all about the subconscious and levels thereof, it certainly states its ideas rather obtusely, and repeatedly.

This is especially true of the two women, one of whom (Marion Cotillard's "Mal") actually is a projection of the subconscious. Christopher Nolan has demonstrated that he cannot write female characters, from Natalie, Rachel Dawes, Olivia Wenscombe, to now Mal and Ariadne (Ellen Page). I know that Nolan's fanbase skews male, so I'll tread lightly here because they seem to think he's a great writer, director, producer, singer, dancer, impressionist painter, et. al. Actually, I won't tread lightly. A great writer is a keen observer of the world in which they live. Women are kind of everywhere. Why then the thin, flimsy characterizations? I love the choices that some of his actresses make, certainly. Carrie-Ann Moss, especially. The fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal improved tenfold upon Katie Holmes's Rachel Dawes while still sleepwalking (sorry, Maggie. I love you, but let's not rewrite history) through The Dark Knight is a testament to his ability to at least cast capable actresses. I'm sure you have it in you, Nolan. Ellen Page's Ariadne could have been replaced by some kind of talking computer and it wouldn't have made a difference. Her character is given no backstory, no motivation, no frame of reference, which would be fine if she weren't risking her mental dexterity through dream espionage (call me old fashioned, but I'd kind of like to know why).

Visually, I've heard a lot of arguments that the dreams in this film are not "dreamlike" enough. Joe Reid over at Low Resolution beat me to the punch by pointing out that the dreams in Inception are specifically designed by architects. Of the problems in this film (and there are several), wanting for a believable dreamscape was not one of them. A lot of the dream sequences were pretty damn breathtaking, actually. For the record, I found the falling van to be an incredible plot device. The film is not perfect, but let's give credit where its due, shall we? I (for the record) hate The Matrix with ever fiber of my being, but you can never say that movie lacks

Here's the bottom line (and feel free to disagree), but the people who are calling Inception a masterpiece AND the people calling it an utter disaster are two sides of the same coin. They're both wrong. They both need to get a grip. And they both (for the most part) are guilty of steeling themselves prior to viewing the film for how incredible or shitty they thought it was going to be. We can't pretend that we're immune to hype and advertising when it comes to new releases. Inception was already in the IMDb top 250 of all time before it even officially came out (sidebar: at any given time, the IMDb top 250 list looks like it was mostly devised by an afternoon tribunal featuring a five-year-old boy, a thirteen-year-old boy, an Octogenarian of any gender, Mel Gibson and one graduate film student with crowd anxiety). We can't pretend that hearing those kind of effusive reviews weren't tipping people in one direction or the other, whether they're susceptible to group think or contrarianism for its own sake (another form of group think). The Dark Knight was too fresh in people's memory as either an overblown fanboy annoyance, or the second coming for the reaction to Nolan's latest flick to be pure (if there is ever a pure reaction to any film). That's why I found so heartening about the reaction to a movie like Avatar. Love it or hate it (I liked it a whole lot), but you had people from all levels of tiers of film criticism (from the lowbrow to middle to high) having varied reactions to the film. You never got a sense from the Avatar fans that it wasn't okay to disagree, whereas the Inception fans are ready to make virginal sacrifices to Christopher Nolan.

Despite all of my misgivings, I did enjoy Inception. Hey, if you were in LA or New York that week, I would have recommended seeing The Kids Are All Right instead (another imperfect film, but a more satisfying one), but there are worse ways to wile away the summer hours. And before all the talk of "overrated, doesn't deserve it, blah blah blah" begins, I'm going to say now that I'm for Inception's best picture nomination, which everyone seems to think is inevitable (I have my doubts). I'm for it for several reasons. Firstly, it's a solid B-, which means it will almost assuredly not appear on my personal year-end top ten list. But that same grade also means that it will likely be preferable to at least 20% of the viable contenders gunning for a spot on the ten-wide list. Also, it can't hurt the Academy to expand its mind a little. The more years we have in a row where the best picture list embraces films like Avatar, District 9 and Inception (none of which are films I passionately love), the more likely it is that they'll continue to be adventurous when the rules revert the best picture list back to five nominees. Lastly, I want Inception to get nominated for best picture because I can remember the grousing and griping that went on when The Dark Knight got overlooked and...I just don't want to have to listen to it again.

Grade: B-

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer (31-35)

The Aviator dir. Martin Scorsese (2004)
A fine film, entertaining, epic in scope and enthralling. Its technical splendor and immersion into period make it hard to attack any of the formal mechanics. It's spectacularly well-made, though it is difficult to get really passionate about it six years after my initial viewing. I'm really glad that Martin Scorsese didn't win his long awaited Oscar for this film, and not only because Million Dollar Baby is a superb and superior film that has aged surprisingly well (know that getting me to admit this about a Clint Eastwood movie is no easy feat). It doesn't feel like a Scorsese film, and I'm not just saying that simply because of the generic departure (The Age of Innocence is certainly an anomaly for Scorsese on paper, but I could still see him in it very much). The Aviator lacks a certain intimacy and character familiarity that have come to be the hallmark of even Scorsese's grandest expeditions. Screenwriter John Logan (the man who brought us more wanting fare such as Gladiator and The Last Samurai) surely shares the blame for that. Although the performances here are good (and Scorsese's direction certainly elevates Logan's paint-by-numbers approach to Howard Hughes's life), I never felt like I learned much more about these characters other than what's pertinent to events in any given scene. Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is technically accomplished, if a little obvious in certain places. While he doesn't layer back story very interestingly, he sells the accent and the externalities very convincingly. He was physically much too green and baby-faced at the time to play Howard Hughes (I'd be curious to see how today's more hardened and grizzled DiCaprio would handle the role). Cate Blanchett is superb, knowing that she's much to distinctive looking to physically sell Katharine Hepburn and instead playing her own version of the screen icon. It's a polished, unfussy turn worthy of the many accolades thrown its way. Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner is serviceable (it seems like that's the best she can ever claim), though I can't help but wonder what a more seasoned performer could have brought to the admittedly thin role. I don't even categorically dislike Beckinsale, but she's an actress whose consistent employability over the last decade or so continues to confuse me, both commercially (has she ever headlined a true "hit"?) and artistically (she's in a competitive enough age bracket for Hollywood actresses that with each role she lands, I wonder why it didn't go to one of the other dozen or so working actresses who physically fit the bill and are more skilled). I've heard several people carry on about the length, which was not a problem for me during either of my two viewings. The structure of the story seems impeccable and Scorsese's stylistic choices (the big one being the use of color and how it changes as the film progresses) seem to complement it well. I just wish there had been more feeling and less grandeur, though I suppose Hughes would have approved of the rather cold and antiseptic treatment his life is given here.
Grade: B

Rosemary's Baby dir. Roman Polanski (1968)
This write-up is sure to border on effusive, but yes! Yes! Yes! This is my second viewing of this film and it is hasn't lost an ounce of its creepiness and evocative nature. It's always refreshing to see a genre film made into high art simply by how well-made it is--a seemingly simple notion, but maybe not when you consider how many genre films seem to forget. I wonder if Mia Farrow, in her prime, was regarded much in the same way present-day movie-going consciousness regards Tilda Swinton: talented, distantly and unconventionally lovely, shrewdly selective when it comes to projects, hard to place and radiating other-worldly class and intelligence. It seems like an apt comparison. Farrow is amazing here, never too shrill or mannered. The now iconic look of shock and horror on her face in the film's chilling final scene is a communicative screen acting at its best. Ruth Gordon is fun and memorable (though admittedly that Oscar was a bit of a stretch) in her turn as the creepy neighbor, playing on the universal often unspoken fear that our neighbors aren't what they seem and commit strange and unspeakable acts behind closed doors. An intelligent and often frightening film that wisely never once shows us what it is we're dreading, an oft repeated technique in horror films since with varying degrees of effectiveness ranging from smart appropriation (The Blair Witch Project) to massive miscalculation (Paranormal Activity).
Grade: A-

Naked dir. Mike Leigh (1993)
Very appropriately titled, as Mike Leigh has never made more outwardly shocking a film. It very daringly digs into the ethos of a man named Johnny (an excellent David Thewlis), whose journey we follow. That the film opens with Johnny committing a rape in Manchester and then follows his journey to London as he encounters ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharpe) and espouses his nihilistic world views for anyone who will listen. Even by Mike Leigh's standards, Naked isn't large with the external plot. The film is very character-based, but it's also rather heavy (necessarily so). Like all Mike Leigh films, improvisational dialogue is clearly employed. The verisimilitude achieved through this method, married with the frank, violent and often lengthy scenes of sexual assault make for an arresting experience. I love that the film only suggests that Johnny's proclivities may be the result of some unknown ailment(s) or disorder(s), be it mental or physical, without absolving him of guilt for his actions. The way Johnny is juxtaposed with Louise and Sophie's sexual sadist of a landlord could have also served to engender misplaced feelings of admiration for Johnny by comparison, but Mike Leigh never works in simple extremes. I appreciate that Dick Pope's cinematography doesn't keep a stark distance between the viewer and Johnny's crime at the beginning of the film, forcing us to confront what he has done. However, the film refuses to fall into gradient-free notions of "Johnny is bad because of this," "These characters are good because of this." Mike Leigh characters are always fascinating creatures. They're so rarely ever just one thing at any given time, and they are so complexly principled. Louise is weary of Johnny, but she still cares for him. Her muted reaction to Johnny seducing her flatmate Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge) is preferable to what could have been a bigger moment (outwardly). This behavior doesn't shock Louise. Mike Leigh and his actors seem to know that being dismayed is different and much worse than being shocked and dismayed, for it means that you never expected anything better in the first place. And what of their principles? They have them, certainly. But I don't think there's more telling a moment in this film than the conversation Louise and Sophie have about abortion. There are no false notes, no missteps. You believe everything these people say and do. I was supposed to watch Life is Sweet and Topsy-Turvy, both unavailable on Netflix and at the AFI library (isn't that sad?). I instead grabbed the Criterion Collection version of Naked and I'm intensely glad I did. What a fortuitous turn of events.
Grade: A-

L'Avventura dir. Michelangelo Antonioni (1960)
I found myself intrigued, rather than truly engaged, feeling deep admiration, rather than true swept-up passion. Monica Vitti, who plays Claudia (here's a deep comment for you) has one of those otherworldly faces that seems adept at expressing the director's ideas without being obtuse or overly fussy. She immediately brings to mind what I love so much about actresses like Tilda Swinton, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Morton and Cate Blanchett. Though of my two Antonioni forays, I much more enjoyed L'Eclisse (in which Vitti also stars), I prefer Vitti's performance here. She's conflicted about the scenario--how subsequently takes up with her friend Anna's (Lea Massari) lover Sandro (Gabriel Ferzetti) mere days after Anna disappears without a trace (that's the loose plot, though to say that this is what the film is "about" would be reductive). Vitti's eyes suggest that she's a very cerebral actress, and yet we never see the wheels turning. I never caught her telegraphing Claudia's next move. As stated earlier, I was conceptually intrigued by the film. Not only does Antonioni not solve the issue of Anna's disappearance, but he makes a point of making it a non-issue in the latter half of the film. Outside of the singular elements of Vitti's performance, I can't say that L'Avventura is truly lingering in my mind as more than a collection of incredibly lovely, often arresting images. Aldo Scavarda's cinematography captures the grandeur of the vacation spot where Anna disappears and contrasts it well with Claudia's more mundane home life. I just wish there had been more here. Like Claudia, I found myself tentatively experiencing the events in this film. It was often pleasurable, often exciting, but ultimately not totally satisfying.
Grade: B

Leaving Las Vegas dir. Mike Figgis (1995)
And so we end this post much as we did the last one--with a film containing a 1995 best actress nominee (the other being Casino). Both take place largely in Las Vegas. Both contain male antiheroes who are met with feminized versions of what they need (or think they need). And...the comparisons between Leaving Las Vegas and Casino pretty much end there, even if you're being overly harsh and overly generous, respectively. Something about coming right off of Casino and watching this after listening to a classmate discuss the virtues of Crazy Heart had me steeling myself for how unremarkable I thought this film was going to be (an aside: seriously?! She called it the best film of 2009. If you think Crazy Heart is the best film of 2009, tell me what are the other six films you watched last year). I couldn't have been more wrong about Leaving Las Vegas. What a beautiful, strange film this is, with its own visual language. It tells the story of an alcoholic Hollywood agent named Ben (Nicolas Cage) who hit rock bottom about five exits back. His drunken tailspin lands him in Las Vegas where he meets a prostitute named Sera (a radiant Elisabeth Shue). A connection is formed. Very little is said. This isn't about how Sera teaches Ben to overcome the perils of alcohol, nor does he help her to discover the beauty of her commodified, male-projected womanly self-worth (was that cynical? It felt cynical). They happen to meet, while he's on his way down and while she's remaining relatively lateral. A brief exchange between Ben and Sera contains the two most important lines of dialogue. The first is Ben's: "You can never, never ask me to stop drinking. Do you understand?" The second is Sera's: "I do. I really do." Stories like this often lend themselves to the most trite, ordinary of filmmaking, both narratively and stylistically. In both cases, director Mike Figgis avoids the path of least resistance. There are a lot of playful cinematic experiments here: the cutaways to interviews where the characters divulge large pieces of information), the use of 16mm film to shoot the film (incidentally, how fucking awesome was Declan Quinn's cinematography here? Between this and Rachel Getting Married I kind of want to rent everything he's ever shot). And the two leading performances are absolutely searing. Elisabeth Shue gifts the film with a stripped-down, bare bones and natural performance. She avoids the cliches, both of the archetype (hooker with a heart of gold) and of the "big moments" in her scenes. The infamous shower scene, for instance, immediately comes to mind as an example of Shue exercising restraint where another actress (I'm not naming any names) would have chewed the scenery. I fought tears throughout this movie and it has just refused to let go.
Grade: A-

35 films down, 120 to go

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Big Pretentious Movie Summer (26-30)

Talk to Her dir. Pedro Almodóvar (2002)
Is it predictable to sing the praises of Talk to Her at this point? Sometimes critical consensus does get it right. The film for which Almodóvar received the most critical acclaim might just be his greatest. It brought him his Academy Award nomination for Best Director as well as a miraculously earned (miraculous because of the Academy's hopelessly middlebrow aesthetics) win for Best Original Screenplay. Almodóvar continues to take our general notions of traditional ideals (in this case, love, or rather, what it means to be in love) and turn them on their ear. Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti) are two men who couldn't be more different, but find themselves in variations of the same situation. Both are in hopelessly and heartbreakingly in love with comatose women. Benigno has never had any real romantic relationship with his love. Marco had a torrid and passionate romance with his. Benigno is almost stupidly optimistic. Marco holds little hope. What ensues is one of the most beautiful meditations on love, communication and friendship (and also Almodóvar's best film). So much here begs to just...not work. The line readings could (and the lines themselves) should be maudlin where they are penetrating and poignant. The narrative should be soap-operatic where it is deeply felt and moving. This is the third time I've seen this film (with good spacing in between each viewing) and it never ceases to surprise me the new things I discover on each outing. The best films often reward repeat viewings. It's strange how I never cry until the end when the credits role, the haunting guitar swelling and the dancers swaying. And when it rains, it pours.
Grade: A-

Secrets & Lies dir. Mike Leigh (1996)
I am so unbelievably heartened that someone with Leigh's unconventional take on narrative filmmaking continues to work so consistently. He employs story, yes. But his famous method of improvisation over months of rehearsal to help his actors find the characters first continues to reward. Stephen King (of all people) said it's better to imagine your characters first, rather than to imagine a rigid Point A, Point B plot structure to which thin characters are chained. Not good if you're trying to sell your first screenplay (as I have learned), but the method often births the most interesting films. Here, we have Hortense Cumberbatch played with sharp aplomb by Marianne Jean-Baptiste whose adoptive mother has recently passed away. She searches for her birth mother and is shocked to discover that she is an uncouth, gritty woman named Cynthia Rose Purley (Brenda Blethyn). That is the plot. But it is not the film. The film is more about matters of interaction and interchange that inform our very being. It's about the way Hortense plays her cards so close to her vest, whether she's talking to the woman at the adoption agency, her best friend, or meeting Cynthia for the first time. She does so, even when it might serve her (even in the name of emotional catharsis) to let go just a little bit. Jean-Baptiste (and Leigh) never forget these little details (whether its Hortense refusing a Rolo candy or tentatively taking butter for her potatoes). Brenda Blethyn is amazing as well in her role. Cynthia is not always well-meaning, but her stupidity and short-sightedness make her believe that she is. Why does Cynthia really invite Hortense to a birthday party that leads to the films beautiful, nail-biting and often funny final act? Is she trying to make Hortense feel welcome? By "befriending" a black woman, is she trying to appear cosmopolitan to her family, who thinks so little of her? Is she trying to make her brother's wife uncomfortable? The answer is probably some combination of the above, with a few more reasons thrown in to boot. I love that the characters in this film (like flesh and blood humans in real life) never have only one reason for any given action taken or word spoken. This is a beautiful, honest and important film.
Grade: A

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days dir. Cristian Mungiu (2007)
Pregnancy seemed to be the cinematic topic d'année in 2007. You had Juno, Knocked Up and Waitress (superb--better than you remember, entertaining if ultimately overlong and wanting and horrid to the point of near-unwatchability, respectively). Romania's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days tops the heap, and by a pretty wide margin. It's so schizophrenic to have watched this in the same week as any Almodóvar film, which is so much about cinematic aesthetic and style. Though Mungiu's tale of a young woman in 198os Romania helping to procure an illegal abortion for her best friend can hardly be described as anti-cinema cinema, it's so bare in comparison. I watched it twice to make sure I was correct in my observation that the scenes are all one-ers (containing no cuts), though I could have apparently read Roger Ebert's astute review to confirm this (Ebert often fires on all cylinders, especially of late). The film is stark, gritty and almost unbearably suspenseful. I also love that it manages not to be loudly political, nor does it avoid the simple, undeniable fact that abortion is an incredibly political issue (though it really shouldn't be). The conversation between protagonist Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and her boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean) in which she divulges what she's doing for her friend never feels soap-boxy or ham-handedly inserted into the narrative. There's a rather infamous shot in this film that had many people cringing (I didn't know what I was seeing at first, then gasped loudly when I realized). It reminded me of what a spectacular failure Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones was. There's a shot at the end of that film, which overexplains and underwrites any positive elements the film had managed to salvage at that point. In Mungiu's film, however, it's disturbing and necessary, adding so much heft. At every turn, there is a feeling of impending doom, right up until the last frame. Though the film ultimately (and effectively) avoids said doom (I read where some find it anti-climatic--I get that), it doesn't take any weight away from the last shot. The women agree to never discuss what has transpired, but one doesn't doubt that there will be deeply felt consequences, be they outward or internal. This is one of the best films of the past ten years.
Grade: A-

Lust, Caution dir. Ang Lee (2007)

I don't really know exactly what it was that made me wait this long to watch this film, but I'm ashamed I waited. It's a beautiful, nearly tonally perfect, well-acted and misjudged films that is remembered and discussed for all the wrong reasons. Tang Wei is Wong chia-chi/Mrs. Mak, a spy for a resistance movement in 1940s China. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is Mr. Yee, the man she has been employed to seduce, though the lines are blurred and it becomes unclear exactly what point she begins to fall in love with him (if she does in fact fall truly in love with him). Both are excellent. The most taxing roles are often those that require a performance within the performance. Tang Wei handles the task superbly, never forgetting to react. She manages to be communicative, in face, gesture and tone of voice while still not obviously telegraphing her character's next move. The film is talked about in terms of its frank sexuality (which led to it being banned in several countries). The sex scenes are intensely graphic, yes, but not unnecessarily so. It can be said that Lust, Caution is about the way information was gathered and shared during this time. You can pick up useful nuggets during a game of mahjong, where it is understood that very little of what is said is to be taken at face value. Sex too was a way to barter and trade for information and achieve ends (it always has been). Ang Lee demonstrates here what a truly versatile filmmaker he is, moving seamlessly between Sense and Sensibility, The Hulk (again, better than you remember) Brokeback Mountain and this gem of the aughts. I can't imagine myself not returning to this film.
Grade: A-

Casino dir. Martin Scorsese (1995)

Well, I was right about Joe Pesci. He's simply not for me (doesn't he look positively vile in that Love Ranch trailer?) While not the near disaster that many people led me to believe, make no mistake. Casino definitely ranks in the middle to lower tier of the Scorsese achievements I've managed to see. I wasn't so much turned off by its cumbersome length (at nearly 3 hours), but it feels very uneven and unfocused. I will now dedicate the remainder of this write-up to Sharon Stone's best actress Oscar-nominated turn since (let's not even try to pretend otherwise) the film clearly wants me to. What can I even say about Ms. Stone in this film? I'm of about five different minds when it comes to her performance. First of all, she's only the second woman to ever land a best actress nomination in a Scorsese film (Ellen Burstyn won for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore). I find this interesting because Stone makes a relatively late arrival in the narrative for a best actress nomination and her subsequent screen time screams "supporting." In fact, I contend that had this role been played by any other actress (like say, Madonna who was in talks to play Ginger McKenna), she would have been nominated and quite possibly won in supporting (which would have made Mira Sorvino not an Oscar winner and me very happy, but that's another story for another day). Never before have I seen a performance hinge so much on public perception of the thespian playing the role before. Sharon Stone is generally perceived to exude "hot ghetto mess" much in the same way that Ginger does (as an aside, I guess many people often consider Madonna to be a hot mess, though I can't really understand how a woman with her discipline, work-ethic and control over her own public image ever garnered such a misjudged reputation). I understand why Stone was Oscar-nominated. I even support it in certain scenes. And even in the scenes where she hits the wrong notes, she's hitting them...loudly. It's a very prominent performance and everything in the film seems to be tilted in her, um...focus("favor" seems like entirely the wrong word to use in this case). I can understand Robert De Niro bowing down to her and letting her steal scenes. I love the guy and I have never thought he was as hammy and overly mannered as some people seem to perceive him. Pesci on the other hand fights valiantly against Stone, trying to out-shrill her at every turn. And he loses! That is quite the achievement and is preferable, since Scorsese's films are so often male-focused and would normally allow an actor of Joe Pesci's...presence to take over. Stone's turn here is so unrelenting and "you think that's the awards clip? Watch this!" at nearly every moment that I can't really call it a "good" performance in the traditional sense, but it's certainly interesting and a display of thesping I'm not sure any other actress could have achieved.
Grade: C+...for Sharon Stone? (um...A or B- or D, depending on the scene)

30 films down, 125 to go