Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shutter Island

Who doesn’t love the Land of Scorsese? The man knows more about the art of cinema than any living American filmmaker. But I can’t let that cloud my judgment. The fact that two of his masterpieces are in my top five films of all time doesn’t necessarily mean everything Marty puts out is solid gold. Such is the case here.

So… you get a washed up, overworked, emotional wreck of a Boston cop Teddy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new, amiable partner (Mark Ruffalo). They’ve been sent to Shutter Island, which houses a notorious asylum for the criminally insane. A dangerous female “patient” has gone missing; she “evaporates right through the walls,” as the steadfast director of the institution (played with reliable brilliance by Ben Kingsely) tells us.

But that’s not the movie, of course. Once on the island, weird shit starts to happen. Creepy inmates give cold, menacing stares. Teddy starts hallucinating (but why?) A violently convenient storm blankets the island. The power goes out. Prisoners roam around. You get it.

Flashbacks (too many of them) reveal a complicated backstory for Teddy. Not only was he a courageous, albeit murderous, soldier who liberated Nazi death camps, but he also lost his wife in a fire. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to lose patience, asking “so what?” aloud.

Look, here’s the thing. Shutter Island is way more Cape Fear than GoodFellas. It has everything you want in a Scorsese film: flashy cinematography, gripping editing, a pacing score, and so on. But the story just lacks. I’ll admit it: one of the biggest disadvantages of being a massive film fanatic is that it takes a lot to really surprise me. So it’s no exaggeration when I say I called the climax to this movie pretty early on.

As he’s proved with his recent string of Scorsese films, DiCaprio excels here (although for my money his work in The Departed still reigns supreme). As is the case in all Scorsese films, the supporting cast propels the picture, making it essential viewing. In addition to Ruffalo and Kingsely, we’re given great turns by a cold Max von Sydow (Jesus, how old is this guy?), Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, and the way-too-underrated Emily Mortimer (Transsiberian, Redbelt, Lars and the Real Girl), who may very well have the best scene in the film as a found prisoner.

Bottom line: Shutter Island can appeal to a lot of people. Those looking for a high shock-factor adult thriller should be set. But any real diehard Scorsese fan may feel something is missing, (as I did with Gangs of New York and The Aviator). But it’s a good flick. Better than any other shit out there. B+

The Wolfman

“I didn’t know you hunted monsters…”

“Sometimes monsters hunt you.”

So, maybe if I put this quote into context with the film, you’ll understand it better. Not a chance. This complete mashed up, twisted around, fuckup of a monster flick is DOA. Not even the likes of the very very talented Benico Del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving, can save it.

This wasn’t a surprise. As is often the case, Hollywood films that slug through numerous rewrites, reshoots, recasts, reedits, delays, etc, hardly ever turn out good. You gotta love how the big SHOCKER finale is supposed to be a surprise. To who? The stoned dude in the back of the theatre? The couple that had one too many drinks with dinner?

For anyone bothering to pay any shred of attention you’ll find that the surprises don’t surprise, the shocks don’t shock and the fancy makeup certainly can’t cancel this mess of a movie. D-

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The White Ribbon

Seriously, aren’t you tired of the same old crap? The simple three act structure of American whodunit films? We’re introduced to the characters, they’re soon introduced to conflict, the conflict is resolved, the ending is bow-wrapped, the mystery is gone, and we’ve forgotten what we’ve seen before we’re out of the theatre. Wham. Bam. Thank you ma’am.

No, what I’m talking about here is an experience. A film that so delicately evolves right in front of you, it actually makes you feel like you’re there. If done right, you’re given the ultimate fly-on-the-wall approach. Enter The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s masterful new film, up for the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year.

The movie is about a seemingly innocent small German village before the dawn of WWI. The characters are set; the doctor, the strict pastor, the friendly school teacher, the wealthy baron, the strange little kids, and so on. Everything is fine and dandy until the doctor, on horseback, is injured by a hidden wire slung between two trees. More violent acts begin to occur, making the events seem less and less random. “Let me say what we all know,” the baron says to the town one morning in church. “The person committing these acts is in this room.”

And there’s the kicker. Haneke, as he proved with his subtle masterpiece Caché, isn’t as concerned with who did it, as he is with why it is done. The White Ribbon is an evolving mystery. Haneke doesn’t want you to get caught up with grand finales and clear distinctions.

I’ll be honest, there isn’t much to like on the surface. The movie is black and white, two and a half hours, stars no one you’ve ever heard of, and is directed by some German dude you probably don’t know. But allow me to flip that around.

It’s utterly impossible to imagine this film in color. Color would add too much tone, if that makes sense. The children, with their sullen creepiness, would look too human in lush color. Interesting note: the movie was shot in color, then digitally transferred to black and white; which is why it looks so vivid and got its cinematographer nominated for an Oscar. A running time of two and half hours is a blessing for a film like The White Ribbon. I’m not going to lie: the film is slow. But there’s a difference between dragging on and being patiently paced. You have to invest time with these people, if you want to give a damn about the story.

And now, maybe most importantly, the brilliant cast. The actors involved make the movie. When we see a character get hurt in the first scene of a film, we’re trained to sympathize with that character, as we initially do with the doctor. When we hear a man say he is going to beat his children early in a film, we’re trained to hate that character, as we do with the pastor. And here again lies the beauty of this picture: we soon learn that the doctor is a complete monster, and that the pastor, while very stern, is by no means an awful man.

There is a great benefit to casting unknowns. As long as George Clooney is on screen, you’re never going to believe that his character molests his daughter. I like Morgan Freeman, but you’re never going to see the dude beat his kids with a stick. By casting unknowns, the audience eliminates their judgments of that particular actor. We’ve never seen them, so we have no idea what they are capable of. Casting a Dakota Fanning or Taylor Lautner as one of the eerily children would completely take away from the film’s ultimate mystery.

Some critics have said the movie is designed to explain the genesis of Nazism. Relax already. Don’t play too much into it. Besides, I have to get you to see the damn thing first. If you do, I promise you won’t be sorry. In fact, you’ll be debating it in your head for days. Wham. Bam. Thank you ma’am. A+

Friday, February 5, 2010

Top 10 of the 2000s

Ladies and gentlemen, I have traveled over ten years to be with you tonight. I couldn’t get here sooner because I had films to see all over the country. Those films cost me thousands of dollars and are paying me an income of knowledge as art. So, ladies and gentlemen… when I say I’m a film fanatic, you will agree. You have a great chance here, but bear in mind, my choices are not facts, simply choices. I’m fixed like no other film buff in this field. I can attend nearly half dozen films at one time and have the reviews written in a week. And this why I can guarantee that my top 10 films of the decade are met with great feeling and much deliberation.

I assure you, whatever the others may list as their favorites, when it comes to the showdown, they haven’t seen as much as me.

10. The New World
2005, Terrence Malick
The poetic, philosophical genius behind one of the best war films ever made (The Thin Red Line) presents his own version of Pocahontas. Sound lame? You bet. That’s why this film is such a knockout. With its limited dialogue and extended shots of nature-as-life, you’re in for something different, albeit tragically brilliant.
Favorite Scene: The dazzling climax, scored perfectly to Wagner’s "Das Rheingold: Vorspiel".

9. Million Dollar Baby
2004, Clint Eastwood
The only Best Picture winner on my list, and the best boxing film since Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby is a subtle work of art with a gut punch of a third act. Hilary Swank (who’s only been good in two films), excels in the lead. Note the crafty art direction; you can actually smell that rusty old gym. This movie proves that tough ain’t enough, you need a heart as well.
Favorite Scene: Maggie goes down, in a way no one saw coming.

8. Brokeback Mountain
2005, Ang LeeFind me a film that better details the bliss and hell of love, and I’ll eat my words. Heath Ledger’s flawless performance as Ennis Del Mar will be talked about and studied for decades. Just watching him is heartbreaking. His face, his gestures; there’s pain behind every facet of Ennis. This film is so subtle that it may pass you by after an initial viewing. But if you have any lasting interest, explore it again. It’s the best, most tragic love story of our time.
Favorite Scene: The affecting conclusion as Ennis tearfully accepts his lover’s fate. More on this scene here.

7. Memento
2001, Christopher NolanI typically don’t like films that rely on a gimmick to fill the seats, but when it’s this good, it’s impossible to overlook. Like Pulp Fiction, Memento’s narrative structure has been picked and pulled and copied dozens of times by lesser filmmakers. Go back to the source for a real psychological wallop. Guy Pearce extends his genius as an actor in a role that’s built around a gimmick, but soon becomes so much more.
Favorite Scene: With the simple jotting down of a license plate, the ending all clicks into place. Or is it the beginning? “You can be my John G.” Indeed.

6. Babel
2006, Alejandro González IñárrituThere are a lot of people out there that will disagree with me, but Babel is easily one of the most gut wrenching emotional experiences of the decade. Each story may not seem necessary, but they soon become essential to the development of the characters' conflicts. The highlight: Rinko Kikuchi as a sexually frusterated, borderline suicidal, deaf mute teenager. Like Heath Ledger in Brokeback, Kikuchi embodies the pain of her character in a way rarely seen. I currently have my iTunes playlist on random and while I was writing this paragraph the closing song of the film, "Bibo no Aozora" by Ryuichi Sakamoto, began to play. Everything is connected.
Favorite Scene: Brad Pitt offering money to the man that has helped him more than he could’ve possibly fathomed. In rejecting the money we witness the true capacity of kindness. More on this scene here.

5. Antwone Fisher
2002, Denzel WashingtonSurely this won’t be on any other critic’s list, which is completely understandable. For me, Antwone Fisher falls into a very limited category of films: those that have quite literally changed my life. Is it the best shot, best scored, best developed film of the decade? God no. But it has importance, it has purpose, it has a life.
Favorite Scene: Antwone screaming for help in front of his therapist. The delivery of the line “I don’t know what to do,” should’ve gotten debut actor Derek Luke nominated for an Oscar.

4. The Pianist
2002, Roman PolanskiAdrien Brody, in the Oscar-winning role of a lifetime, excelled as real life Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. Directing his best movie since Chinatown, Roman Polanski gave his deeply personal film a pulse. While that pulse may seem faint at times, it’s pumping in the film’s many emotional sequences. Unflinching, honest, and poignantly captured.
Favorite Scene: Szpilman playing for his life, as ordered by an imposing Nazi officer.

3. 25th Hour
2002, Spike Lee

Over time, people will forget this, but when this film came out, other directors were avoiding 9/11. Films were re-edited, delayed, dumbed down and so on to skirt the topic. But Spike Lee, America’s most prominent New York filmmaker, actually embraced our country’s new state of terror with awesome vengeance. In the best role of his career, Edward Norton becomes Monty Brogan. We may not like Monty at first, with his pompous attitude and do-no-good frills, but by the end, we hate to see him go.
Favorite Scene: This is tough. The ‘Fuck You’ mirror speech, the ‘make me ugly' bit. But for me it’s the introduction of my favorite character, Francis Xavier Slaughtery as played to perfection by Barry Pepper. As he sits red-eyed and Red-Bull fueled, we almost pass out with him from the pressure of his stock market job. That’s bravado filmmaking.

2. There Will Be Blood
2007, Paul Thomas AndersonThis movie will have influence on future cinema, more than any other film this decade. Daniel Day-Lewis, in the best performance of the decade, let’s you see what true greed actually is. There isn’t a forced moment or unnecessary scene in the film’s 160 minutes. A throwback to 1940s cinema, There Will Be Blood is a movie to be analyzed by any film enthusiast. Each scene could stand as its own short film; it is that well-defined. To quote Mr. Plainview himself: “that was one goddman hell of a show.”
Favorite Scene: Another tough one. I’ll pick the first 15 nearly wordless minutes as the film’s highlight. How the hell does Plainview not only get out of that hole, but make it to a town? Money. To him, it’s more powerful a force than living.

2000, Steven SoderberghI’m surprised I haven’t seen this on any other best of the decade lists. No matter, Traffic is the most searing work of the 2000s. I’ve seen this dozens of times and it simply gets better and more evolved with each viewing. With his shaky, off-hued camera, Soderbergh captures the drug world in a way we’ve never seen (note: The Wire began in 2002). Better than any film this decade, Traffic took a series of stories and entwined them in a way that made them essential to one another. Because of its heart rendering final moments, this film matters to me more than most. “We’re here to listen.” We could all learn something from that.
Favorite Scene: The end baseball game, with a perfect Benicio Del Toro cast under the glow of his warm lights. More on this scene here.

An Alternative Ten
Quite frankly, this is a far more interesting list. Each of these is either indie, foreign or a documentary. They aren’t better or worse than the first 10, they’re just the next in line.
Amores Perros (2000), will shock you and rock you, everytime you watch it.
Dancer in the Dark (2000), is a brilliant, patient art-as-life experiment.
Mulholland Dr. (2001), is a total mind fuck that never gets old.
Irreversible (2002), contains one of cinema’s most violent scenes, which makes its ending that much more endearing.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003), is the decades best detailed, most terrifying documentary.
A History of Violence (2005), snuck up on you with its subtle story, then blew you away with its ferocious power.
United 93 (2006), is the most suspenseful, realistic film of the decade.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), makes you sweat with its patient, evolving dialogue.
The Edge of Heaven (2007), takes a familiar narrative and makes it unique, nearly as well as Babel.
Precious (2009), made you understand and care about a world that you never knew (or wanted to know) existed.
Note: Obviously, all of these films are available on DVD. But for easier access: Memento, Brokeback Mountain, Capturing the Friedmans, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and The Edge of Heaven all are available on Netflix InstantPlay.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Edge of Darkness

A question I get asked all the time: “How can you watch so many foreign and independent films? Don’t you get tired of reading the screen? Isn’t it too challenging?”

Edge of Darkness is the perfect answer. Mel Gibson’s first film in eight years has EXACTLY what most foreign and indie films don’t: tireless minutes of boring, explain-every-detail-to-the-audience exposition.

It’s a “trick” that these lame ass Hollywood movies repeat constantly. So many times during this film, I thought the actors were going to look into the camera and go, “Do you get it? Have we explained it well enough?”

Edge of Darkness, and films of the like, treat their audience like morons, explaining everything, leaving nothing to chance or question.

Don’t get me wrong. Every country occasionally delivers bad cinema, and not every independent film is perfect, but seldom do foreign language films treat its viewers like such idiots.

Oh the movie? Gibson is a seasoned Boston detective (with a God-awful accent) whose daughter is shotgunned down in front of him. He smells something funny, digs deeper and uncovers some ridiculous eco-political nuclear corporate bullshit whistle blowing garbage. Yes, interest dies fast.

There are two action scenes - when the daughter gets shot and when a person gets hit by a car - that pop, but the rest, from Casino Royale director Martin Campbell, is dead in the water (ha. ha. ha.)

Eight years and one anti-semitic rant later, Gibson chooses this as his first flick? Too bad. But really, the main message of the film is this, you had better decide whether you’re hangin’ on the cross or bangin’ in the nails. Give me a break. D-