Tuesday, September 27, 2011

the Directors: Michael Mann

Best to get things clear right away: Michael Mann is the premiere filmmaker of contemporary American crime stories.  It’s simply inarguable.  In accepting that, I can safely assert that I am a Mann fanatic, which means I stand alone concerning several of his films.  

Although he doesn’t make many films, Michael Mann does something that many mainstream American filmmakers shy away from: he challenges us with every passing picture.  Never one to spell it all out or offer up tireless expository dialogue, Mann trusts his audience in ways few filmmakers do.  He assumes we have a brain, and also that catching up (and paying attention) are not lost commodities in the cinematic art form.

Thief (1981)
Stuck snuggly between the veracity of the ‘70s and the cocaine-fueled, techno luster of the ’80s, lies Michael Mann’s extraordinary debut film Thief.  There’s a common maxim among thieves, that getting away with a crime is far more difficult than committing it.  That’s the focus of career crook, Frank (James Cann) and his merry gang of bandits.  They plot (curiously), they steal (fascinatingly), and then they fight for their lives (devastatingly). 

Caan, in a career-best role equal to his Sonny Corleone, is wholly convincing as the titular character.  He moves slow, stands in the corner, and talks purposefully, void of any contractions.  He’s clear, imposing, and, at a moment’s notice, brutal. 

The music by Tangerine Dream, is offputtingly synthesized, until you realize how well it not only fits the setting, but helps motivate the action as well.  Thief is a startling debut, a perfect promise a near-flawless career.  A-

The Keep (1983)
Here’s what I remember from The Keep, Mann’s second, utterly incomprehensible feature:  Foreboding Nazis, a dark cave, Ian McKellen screaming, an indecipherable Scott Glenn, a hidden spirit that kills people, angry Nazis, extreme close ups, awful music, fog, a lost Gabriel Byrne, dead Nazis.

If this review seems hazy, it isn’t for lack of trying.  When I watched The Keep, I paid attention.  When the movie quickly began to make no sense, I paid even closer attention.  I figured Mann was playing some lucid dream trick and would tie it up sufficiently with an epic resolution.  Nope.  The Keep is simply a bloody disaster. 

There’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of this movie.  It’d be best if we all just pretended like this never happened. D-

Manhunter (1986)
Before Jonathan Demme nabbed the Big Five Oscars, before Ridley Scott ripped guts out and ate brains, and before Brett Ratner made his only really worthy film, Michael Mann introduced us to the mind of Hannibal Lector. 

Manhunter is often forgotten as the inaugural adaptation of Thomas Harris’ infamous serial killer.  And, in comparison to The Silence of the Lambs, which followed five years later, this line of thinking is mostly fair.  Brian Cox isn’t as notable a Lector as Anthony Hopkins, William Peterson isn’t as innocent a cop as Jodie Foster, and Tom Noonan’s Dollarhyde isn’t as deranged a killer as Ted Levine’s Buffalo Bill.

But it’s fruitless to compare.  If you simply focus on what Manhunter is, without taking Demme’s film into context, then Manhunter succeeds thrillingly. Its pacing is smooth, its editing is gripping, its acting is flawless; all amounting to a great psycho thriller.  Diehard fans of Harris’ Lector novels often say that Manhunter is the best, most honest, depiction of his book.  Me?  I’m on the fence.  You be the judge.  A-

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Of all of Michael Mann’s films (again, excluding The Keep), The Last of the Mohicans feels the least like his.  The dialogue pops, and there are equally strong male and female leads, but other than that, this French and Indian War flick doesn’t have that signature Mann stamp.

But this, mind you, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Daniel Day-Lewis, as he so often does, completely embodies his character, making his Hawkeye a sensual, intelligent, ferocious beast of a man.  This film is filled with a slew of solid scenes – both in action and dialogue – but ultimately, those sequences are more memorable than the movie as a whole.

The waterfall scene deserves particular attention.  If handled in lesser hands, it could come off as horribly laughable.  But because of Day-Lewis and a career-best Madeleine Stowe, the scene works flawlessly.  Hawkeye’s speech is one of the finest, most convincing proclamations of love seen in recent American cinema.  It’s a masterful scene, one of the most moving of Mann’s career.  I can’t say the same for the movie itself.  B

Heat (1995)
How does one summarize Heat, the best non-mafia crime film of the past 20 years, maybe ever, in a few short paragraphs?   Heat is 170 minutes long and not one spoken word or frame of film is wasted.  Every shot, every musical queue, every subtle twitch is fully necessary.  This is a complicated film with a very simple plot, executed to utter greatness.

Veteran police detective, Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino, flamboyant, confident, a little bit insane) makes it his duty to take down career criminal, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro, reserved, confident, a little bit insane).  McCauley is planning an epic bank heist that will catapult him into immediate retirement, while Hanna is trying to keep his two consecutive marriages – to his wife and his job – afloat.

What Heat does – slowly, methodically and viciously – is make the audience root for both sides evenly.  We want the thieves to succeed, but at the same time, we would like to witness their demise.  This quality is achieved no better than in the film’s bombastic centerpiece, in which a successful bank robbery erupts into a hellacious battle of bullets in downtown LA.  During the scene, inarguably the very best shootout in film history, the action cuts back between the two crews.  When we’re on De Niro, we pray that he gets away with it.  When the camera focuses on Pacino, we pray that he gets his man.  This same mentality (wanting both men to win) can be said for the classic diner sequence, which pits to acting legends in the same frame, to wondrous results.

I could talk at length, ad nauseam in fact, about this film, but like all great movies, Heat is better experienced on screen than on paper.  I do want pay mention to a character that gets very little attention in reviews.  About 40 minutes into the film, we meet an ex con (played with reserved regret by Dennis Haysbert) who is starting a new job at a diner.  Occasionally, the film cuts back to his story, keeping us informed about his steadfast wife, and his legitimate desire to improve himself.  This subplot has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the film… until it does.  That’s Michael Mann for you, slowly narrowing in on the broad scope he lays out. 

Heat is Mann’s masterpiece.  Essential viewing for the remotest fans of the cinematic medium.  A+

The Insider (1999)
The best part about prepping for this post was refreshing myself on The Insider.  I’ve seen it several times, but it’s one of those movies that you take more away from everytime you watch it.  I don’t just mean story wise (which we’ll discuss later), but experience wise as well. 

For example, I haven’t watched The Insider since receiving my degree in journalism and spending a few years working at newspapers.  I now understand all the jargon, the back alley deals between the TV bigwigs and print media maestros, the difficulty in achieving a reliable source, and the importance of keeping that source comfortable.  Like all great films, The Insider gets better with age; it reveals itself to you while you impose what you’ve learned on it.

The Insider tells the story of Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe, never better), a Big Tobacco whistle blower who entrusted 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino, who hasn’t been better since) to handle his story with care.  Although they were eventually successful, their success was not without obstacles.  Lawsuits were imposed, (alleged) death threats were issued, people were fired, guns were shed, and so on.

Basically, The Insider is a compilation of scenes in which middle aged white guys sit around and talk, and occasionally scream, about the problems surrounding Wigand’s case.  It shouldn’t work, but it does, masterfully, which is why I have no problem labeling The Insider as Mann’s most technically proficient film.

Rarely is sitting in a hotel lobby, or driving golf balls, made to be so enthralling.  Credit the great Dante Spinotti, whose cinematography here is unparalleled, the seamless editing, the subtle, pulsating score, the sleek production design, and so much more. Mann is commonly known as a master of details, a characteristic exercised no better than in this film.

Now, I believe I’ve seen The Insider seven times, and upon watching it last weekend, I noticed something I never picked up on before.  There’s a scene that takes place at a payphone in the hallway of a high school.  Russell Crowe talks into the phone in close up, arguing with Al Pacino on the other end.  Crowe’s voice becomes so loud, that passing students start to take notice.  Watch the faces that temporarily lock on to Crowe.  Blink and you’ll miss it.  Exactly. A

Ali (2001)
The most polarizing film of Mann’s career is also, for my money, one of his very best.  Ali was released to favorable critical reaction, little commercial attention, and a pair of Oscar nominations.  Google the movie now and you’ll find that people either love it or absolutely despise it.

I’m proud to be in the former for a multitude of reasons.  Putting aside my unabashed love for the sport of boxing, Ali has everything fans of Mann have come to appreciate.  A layered story, dynamic acting, an eye for detail, miraculously staged action sequences, a sharp look, and so on. 

The boxing scenes (namely the recreation of The Rumble in the Jungle) are, bar none, the most accurate ever put on film. I love Raging Bull and I love Million Dollar Baby, but Ali puts you in the ring better than any film ever has, thanks much in part to Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork and Will Smith’s impressive physical transformation.

I’ve heard criticism that Will Smith brought no humor to one of the most wildly charismatic figures in sports history.  I’ll agree with that to a point. Ali isn’t about the best of times, it’s about the major hardships The Champ faced during the most influential decade of his life. I simply don’t understand why humor has to factor into it. 

My favorite moment of this film occurs as the ref calls the count after Ali knocks George Foreman down.  The camera shifts between real time and slow motion, tracking crowd shots, focusing on Ali’s face, capturing the ref issuing the count, and so on.  But suddenly the camera jerks sharply to Ali’s corner.  It pulls focus and frames Angelo Dundee, Ali’s lifelong trainer.  Ron Silver, playing Dundee, has his eyes open wide, slowly moving his head up and down, counting along with the ref.  He wants it just as bad as Ali does.  It’s the briefest of moments, but one that I find inexplicably moving.  A

Collateral (2004)
I once got into a productive argument with a friend about his hatred for Tom Cruise.  Like many of us, this friend of mine finds Tom Cruise annoying and talentless.  For reasons I can’t fully explain, I began defending Mr. Cruise, listing roles that I thought were more than worthy. 

Me: Born on the Fourth of July.
Friend: Too whiny.
Me: Risky Business.
Friend: Who gives a shit.
Me: Jerry Maguire.
Friend: Pussy.
Me: Magnolia.
Friend: (pause)
Me: That’s one. Eyes Wide Shut.
Friend: Be better without him.
Me: Collateral.
Friend: He isn’t in Collateral.
Me: He’s the star of Collateral.
Friend: (pause)

And this is precisely what I’m talking about.  This is the brilliance of Michael Mann. He can turn Russell Crowe into an overweight shlub, or the Fresh Prince into The Champ.  He can give Val Kilmer a blonde ponytail without it being ridiculous.  And he can turn one of the biggest, most loathed superstars into a cool, calculating, badass psycho killer.

Cruise isn’t all to thank for Collateral’s success.  Jamie Foxx is right there with him, chewing on every word of Stuart Beattie’s fabulous screenplay.  The HD camerawork, a staple among Mann’s films, serves the material perfectly, as does most every technical aspect. Like Heat, Collateral is a simple concept, amped up supremely in its delivery.  A-

Miami Vice (2006)
If you cut me a break on Ali, you’ll probably rip me to shreds here.  Miami Vice, by most all accounts, is a pretty poor action film.  Its few sequences of action are remarkable, but they are too quick and too far apart.  Solution is, I simply don’t view it as an action film. 

Like most of Mann’s movies, Miami Vice is a series of sequences in which experts talk at great lengths about things that the common audience member may not necessarily understand.  Those conversations culminate to an action sequence, but that isn’t what drives the movie.

There’s really not much more I can say; this film simply works for me.  I love how it opens right in the middle of a scene, and we have to scramble to catch up.  I love how a majority of the scenes are played out with little to no context.  I love Jamie Foxx’s layered performance and Colin Farrell’s domineering bravado. And I especially love how the film takes a dark, solemn turn after one of the main cops is seriously injured. 

It’s funny, the most common criticism against this film is its ending.  People thought the movie cut to black and left out any form of resolve.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Point in fact, the ending to this film, scored perfectly to Mogwai’s “Auto Rock,” is one of my all time favorite movie endings.  Life rarely offers firm resolutions.  You finish your shit and you go on with your day.  The final shot of Miami Vice is brilliant in its simplicity, and, much like Ron Silver’s eyes in Ali, moves me beyond words.  A-

Public Enemies (2009)
In telling the story of John Dillinger’s rise and ultimate demise, Michael Mann didn’t just recreate an infamous crime story, he recreated an era.  Technical proficiency, a keen eye for detail and virtuoso acting is something we’ve come to expect of Mann, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to see it implemented so harmoniously.

The acting in Public Enemies, by participants both big (Johnny Depp, Christian Bale) and minor (Stephen Dorff, Billy Crudup, Stephen Graham, Stephen Lang) is effortlessly top notch. But the real scene stealer here is Marion Cotillard, who plays the criminal’s girlfriend bit in a way I’ve never seen.  She’s giving, determined, and loving to a fault.

And this brings me to my final point of Mann’s films.  Much attention is often paid to Mann’s male characters, which is obvious, given that Mann is a, well, man’s director. But in most every one of his movies, Mann proves the old proverb that behind every great man, there is a great woman.

Heat isn’t just about cops and robbers, it’s about how the women effect, and react to, the actions of their male lovers lead.  The Last of the Mohicans is empty without Madeleine Stowe’s resolute gaze.  Where’s the tension in Jeffrey Wigand’s story if not for his wife and little girls?  Say what you will about their relationship, but rarely has Mann delivered something as devastating as Colin Farrell starting into Gong Li’s eyes for the final time.

And now we get Marion Cotillard, an actress who can do more with the shifting of her eyes than most actors can do with every facility available to them.

Mann always knows when to cut out of his story.  He resolves what needs resolving and allows the viewer to fill in what needs filling.  Whether it’s Al Pacino staring off into an empty field, or Will Smith raising his arms triumphantly, or slowing down a shot of revolving doors, or tracking Colin Farrell walking into a hospital, or yes, watching Marion Cotillard cry in a prison visiting room, Michael Mann is a master of the denouement.  You may not always like his films, but make no mistake about it: you don’t just watch a Michael Mann film, you experience it. A-

In summation:
Masterful
Heat
The Insider

Great
Thief
Manhunter
Ali
Collateral
Miami Vice
Public Enemies

Good
The Last of the Mohicans

Just Plain Bad
The Keep

Monday, September 26, 2011

And So it Begins…Four Years Strong

Four years ago yesterday, I started And So it Begins, an act initially committed out of equal parts desperation and laziness.  Since Jan. 1, 2000, I had been handwriting reviews of every single film I watched.  After several years, I realized two important things: I no longer enjoyed the art of dictation and I had an urgent need to communicate my thoughts about film in a more public domain.

Film, you see, is my life.  It challenges me, defines me, educates me; it is who I am and what I do.  Many are to thank for this, chief among them are my parents, who very early on realized that the words, “No, you can’t watch what,” did not factor into their stubborn little son’s thought process.
When my friends were joking about The Simpsons on the playground, I was taking a walk, reflecting on The Deer Hunter.  When my sixth grade history teacher finished her four day lesson on slavery, she was unequipped to answer my questions on how slavery directly influenced contemporary gentrification, something I had studied incessantly since watching Boyz n the Hood.  I was told to leave my post-War World II class in high school, simply for asking more specific questions concerning the Holocaust, which I’d become fascinated with thanks to Schindler’s List and The Pianist.

I spoke in great length with my principal about the meaning of 21 Grams.  I told my soccer coach that if he liked Saving Private Ryan, he’d love The Thin Red Line.  My History of the Documentary professor asked if he could keep my essay on Werner Herzog, as a reference paper for future students.

Film has directly impacted nearly everything I’ve done and everything I do.  It’s all relative. And that’s why And So it Begins was formed.  I knew I had something to say, I didn't know, however, that so many people would care.
Immediately, And So it Begins amassed a loyal readership of about nine people.  But the low hit count didn’t matter.  I needed to write.  I had found, I soon realized, my ultimate niche.  That of combining my two deepest passions (film and writing) into one form. 

When I reached my 400th post, I thanked every single person who takes time from their day to read what I have to write, a sentiment I will continue to repeat as long as this blog is active.  I appreciate every comment, every tweet, every Facebook like, every e-mail; I’m grateful for it all. I write, in part, for my own self edification, but that’s not nearly the half of it.  I write because for some strange reason, people (friends and strangers alike) are interested in what I have to say.  I can think of nothing more humbling than that. 

In the midst of my reflection, I’ve put together a few blog superlatives.  Personal highlights from the last four years:

First review: In the Valley of Elah (Sept. 25, 2007)
Most popular post (based on unique hits): Nine Worthy, non-animated, G-rated films (May 6, 2011)
Personal favorite post: A Great War Debate (June 3, 2011)
Favorite thrashing: Sex and the City 2 (May 30, 2010), and Remember Me (March 23, 2010)
Review most likely to be changed after posting: I’m Not Here (Sept. 13, 2010)
Movie people still don't believe I actually love: Point Break (July 12, 2011)

People in Need of Thanks
It’s no coincidence that my readership has more than doubled since this summer.  In July, I officially became a part of The Large Association of Movie Blogs. Since that time, I’ve gotten tight with a handful of bloggers who, aside from being genuinely nice people, all run fantastic movie blogs.  Among them:
Andy Buckle’s Film Emporium
I swear to God, Andy Buckle is my Australian doppelgänger.  When I came across his excellent blog, I was stunned by how much we agree. Just look at his list of the Best Films by Year, it’s damn-near exactly what mine are.

Aziza’s Picks
Aziza is relatively new to the game, but I’m seriously liking what she’s writing.  Encouragement is like bread to us bloggers, especially when we’re starting out.  Keep it going, Aziza!

blah blah blah gay – a movie review blog
This fella Toby is a madman.  The amount of insanely good content he cranks out is somewhat stupefying.  He’s currently on a noir fix, which I have enjoyed immensely. 

Dan the Man’s Movie Reviews
Dan O. posts frequently and thoroughly, none better than his laborious thrashing of Miami Vice, a film I absolutely love.

Defiant Success
Anna’s blog was a great find.  I loved her write up on Fashion Trends in Film.  Her actor, director and film lists are damn fine as well.

Duke and the Movies
Sam Fragoso is a machine.  He continually churns out review after excellent review, as well as several dedicated columns, my favorite of which are his Director Match Ups.  Also, he’s not afraid to bash a classic.
 
Movie Reviews by Tom Clift
According to Movieline, Tom Clift wrote one of the nine most scathing reviews of Abduction. Need I say more?

Southern Vision
T.J. Atkinson recently posted an epic list of The 100 Essential Foreign Films.  It’s detailed, engaging and wildly necessary.  It’s the type of list that kicks bloggers into the mainstream.

And on and on
Great recent finds that I’m continuing to explore include:  Castor’s work on Anomalous Material, CS’ Big Thoughts From a Small Mind, and Colin’s pick ‘n’ mix flix.

There are so many more, and I apologize if I didn’t give you the proper credit you deserve.  I love all your work, and I'm so grateful for the support many of you have given me.  I'm gonna keep rockin’ and rollin’ and I sincerely hope you do the same.


From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank all of you.
Alex

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Moneyball

I’m not entirely sure why I had it out for Moneyball.  Could’ve been the clichéd rags-to-glory narrative that sports movies are so accustomed to following.  Could’ve been Michael Lewis, who, in addition to authoring the source novel for the film, also wrote the book that The Blind Side was based on (which, in any state of mind, could never been construed as a good thing.) Could’ve been that Moneyball’s second lead is Jonah Hill, a tremendously annoying actor who has found monumental success playing the same character in a variety of films. 

Could’ve been any of those things, but luckily my preconceived notions, I happily admit, proved utterly fruitless.

In telling the story of how the Oakland A’s went from being one of the worst teams in professional baseball to one of the most respected in a single season, director Bennett Miller has crafted a quiet sensation.  What he has done is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the genre.  Miller doesn’t focus on the players or what happens on the field, his primary concern are the behind the scenes tactics. The skill and finesse it takes to assemble and implement a successful team. There are very few scripted scenes of baseball in this film (most is actual archive footage), a risky move for a sports flick. But believe you me, we couldn’t benefit more from Miller’s narrative choices.

There are several people to thank for Moneyball’s success, most notably Brad Pitt, who plays A’s general manager Billy Beane.  To put it quickly and bluntly, Pitt is nothing short of miraculous.  As Beane, he is quick, sarcastic, ruthless, giving, and, most importantly, wholly convincing. More so than The Tree of Life and Inglourious Basterds, Moneyball relies on Pitt to carry it.  Minus the baseball sequences, Pitt is in every scene of Moneyball, firmly cementing, I sincerely hope, that he is far more than a pretty face.  The man has genuine talent, and I assume a very busy next few months of sitting front and center at several awards ceremonies.

Aside from Pitt, Moneyball is propelled by a virtuoso script that incorporates the best traits of of its writers.  It knows when rev up (via Aaron Sorkin, Oscar winner for The Social Network) and when to slow down (via Steve Zaillian, Oscar winner for Schindler’s List) in ways few films can pull off.
The cast, from the bit players to the major cast, are all gracefully on point as well.  Everyone from Philip Seymour Hoffman (who Miller directed to an Oscar for Capote), to Robin Wright, to Chris Pratt, and even yes, Jonah Hill, who has temporarily proven that he is far more capable of delivering what his cruise controlled career has thus far promised.

Die hard sports movie fans will be hit hard by Moneyball. Initially, I believe, they’ll be dismayed by the film’s lack of field time.  Eventually, I’m convinced, they’ll come around and appreciate that they’re in the midst of greatness.  Most sports flicks end directly after the seminal game that changes, for better or worse, the paths of all the participants involved. Moneyball is far more subtle. Point in fact, when the credits rolled, there were no applause or audible tears. No seat backs slamming into place.  There was silence.  Awestruck silence.  That’s about as rare a quality as you can find in a sports movie. A-

Friday, September 23, 2011

2011 Fall Movie Preview

Some people have football, some people have prime time television. Me?  I've got Oscar.

We’re into it now, the most wonderful time of the year.  As we roll into the precious Oscar-bait season, here are the films I’m most looking forward to, and a few that I hope will simply pass the time pleasantly.

Here’s to hoping a glorified Movie of the Week with really good acting (i.e. The King’s Speech) doesn’t nab the top prize again.  Trailers will be added as they become available.

Drive – Sept. 16
Best film of the year...?  You tell me.  Click here for my review.

Straw Dogs – Sept. 16
A perfectly worthy remake of Sam Peckinpah's mediocre original. My review.

Moneyball – Sept. 23
If it wasn’t for Brad Pitt and its coveted director, I’d have no interest in seeing Moneyball.  Hopefully this will do for baseball what Warrior did for MMA. 

50/50 – Sept. 30
The title says it all: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the reason you should see this, and Seth Rogen is the reason you shouldn’t.  Not banking too much on this.

Margaret – Sept. 30
Made in 2005 and delayed until now (so that’s why Matt Damon looks so skinny), Margaret will either be as good as director Kenneth Lonergan says it is, or a complete dud.

Take Shelter – Sept 30
Because it stars two of the most talented people in the business, and it’s the second feature by a guy who blew me away the first time around.

The Ides of March – Oct. 7
Have you seen this cast?  Seriously.

The Skin I Live In – Oct. 14
Because it’s Almadovar, baby.  All About My Mother…? Talk to Her…? Broken Embraces… ?  Need I say more…?

Martha Marcy May Marlene – Oct. 21
Because it got raves coming out of Sundance.  And because being moved from a summer release date to the fall is never a bad sign.  Also, John Hawkes.

Paranormal Activity 3 – Oct. 21
Because, yes, even though it’s turning into another Saw-like franchise, and will in no way be as scary as the first, I still liked to be freaked out every now and again.  

The Rum Diary – Oct. 28
Because the last time Johnny Depp played Hunter S. Thompson, I absolutely hated it.  Then I watched it again.  And again.  And again.  What’s the score here?  What’s next?

My Week with Marilyn – Nov. 4
Because if anyone can convincingly pull off playing Marilyn Monroe, it’s Michelle Williams.

J. Edgar – Nov. 9
Eastwood.  DiCaprio. Watts.  Oscar. Here. We. Come.


Melancholia – Nov. 11
Because despite the fact that Lars Von Trier may indeed be a Nazi-sympathizing asshole, he often does wonder with the cinematic medium.  And Kristen Dunst, Best Actress and Cannes?  Say what?


The Descendants – Nov. 23
Because I’m one of the few people who didn’t really care for Alexander Payne’s last film (Sideways), but I’m also one of the few people who thought his actual last film was a mini masterpiece (the final segment of Paris, Je T’Aime).

Hugo – Nov. 23
Because despite the fact that the trailer looks rubbish, it’s Scorsese.  Which will always be enough for me.

The Artist – Nov. 23
Because this will be the first silent film in decades that will be nominated for Best Picture.

A Dangerous Method – Nov. 23
Because this looks like pure Cronenbergian bliss.  Also, Michael Fassbender.

Piranha 3DD – Nov. 23
Because, come on, we gotta have a little fun.

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Dec. 2
Because it looks heavy, sad, depressing, and finely acted.  Pure Oscar season joy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Dec. 9
Because it looks old school spy thriller good.  Not cheap gimmicks, but patient intelligence.

Young Adult – Dec. 16
Because when Charlize Theron is good, she’s great. The writer/director Juno combo is risky (I wasn’t really a fan), but I’m confident Jason Reitman will pull it off.

Carnage – Dec. 16
Four characters. One set.  Roman Polanski.  Yes please.

The Iron Lady – Dec. 16
Because it’s Meryl Streep… as Margaret Thatcher.  She should probably dust off her acceptance speech.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – Dec. 16
Because of its badass trailer.  And because Jeremy Renner is in talks to take over this franchise, which can possibly mean: Tom Cruise = dead.  Rock ‘n’ roll.

Albert Nobbs – TDB
Because it’s Glenn Close… as a dude.  She should probably dust off her acceptance speech.
Shame - TBD
Because the last time director Steve McQueen and star Michael Fassbender teamed up, I didn't breathe for 96 minutes (yeah, Hunger is that good).  Also, this production still:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Dec. 23
I really shouldn’t have to explain myself here.

We Bought a Zoo – Dec. 23
To be honest, I don’t know about this. I like Cameron Crowe and his rock ‘n’ roll sentimentality, and I’m willing to forget Elizabethtown, but this trailer is pretty weak.  

The Adventures of Tintin – Dec. 23
Much like Hugo, Tintin is a flick that doesn’t interest me nearly as much as its director.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Dec. 25
Acclaimed book, proven stars, American tragedy; expect this to be a serious awards contender.

War Horse – Dec. 28
The second Spielberg flick this season that I’m not really looking forward to.  I do, however, have a sneaking suspicion that he’ll deliver here.

Not in the mood for heavy-handy marvel?  No problem, Hollywood’s got your back with Footloose (Oct. 14), Tower Heist (Oct. 4), Jack and Jill (Nov. 11), Twilight: Eclipse Part 1 (Nov. 18), Sherlock Holmes 2 (Dec. 16), and New Year’s Eve (Dec. 9).

Monday, September 19, 2011

Drive

I’m often criticized for not being more open about my movie tastes.  According to the sentiments of many acquaintances, I can’t enjoy a film unless I’m being tested.  A movie has to make me think, it has to be based in truth, it has to be subtitled and made under X amount of money.  I’m unable, they say, to appreciate the characteristic that films are specifically designed to do: entertain.

All of this, I often defend, is completely untrue, but their claims are not without merit.  Yes, I do prefer that a movie test me, both emotionally and mentally.  No, I do not think films are primarily made to entertain.  Yes, if you asked me to create my top 100 films of all time, 60 percent of them would not be in English.  But that doesn’t mean I’m not open to whatever is being projected.  When I sit down in a theater, regardless if the screen will soon be filled with The Tree of Life or Transformers 3, I sit with an open mind.  Every film is given a clean slate; no judgments are made prematurely.

It’s quite simple, really.  For me to enjoy a film, it needs to be one of two things: something I’ve never seen before, or something I’ve seen dozens of times, only done distinctively.

That laborious preamble is made to draw attention to a new film that falls into the former category, but is inexplicably entertaining.  The film is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.  It is unlike everything I’ve ever seen, and it is utterly flawless.

Drive begins with an extended pre-credit sequence that rivals any opening scene from any film made in the last decade (or the one before, or the one before that).  It’s quick, smart, impossibly suspenseful, grandly conceived and ingeniously executed.  And did I mention that it’s accomplished with its star, Ryan Gosling, not uttering a single word?

To crudely summarize the film’s plot, Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt car driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for thieves in need.  Shortly into the film, two important things happen: he befriends his timid, disarming neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and gets involved with a few low-level criminals who will do anything, and hurt anyone, to make a buck.

Like all great films, issuing a two sentence plot description in no way does the movie justice.  Also like all great films, to divulge details any further would be criminal.

Drive, according to its director, who’s best known for his romper stomper action flick Bronson, was inspired by original fairy tale stories (you know, the ones where Cinderella’s step sisters slice their ankles off to fit their foot in a glass slipper), and electronica music.  Drive has both, but not without every frame being firmly cemented in reality.  This is a highly stylized picture.  Colors are heightened, slow motion is often utilized, music (both the songs by various electronica bands and an original score by the great Cliff Martinez) swells, then fades, then swells again; all lending itself to a wholly original work of art.

Ryan Gosling, matching the career high he set last year with Blue Valentine, is mesmerizing as The Driver.  He moves slowly, speaks purposefully, and always appears to be three moves ahead.  He’s a calculating bruiser of a man.  The kind of guy who says very little, but is constantly speaking volumes.  His Driver is the best acting performance seen on screen so far this year.
Additionally, each supporting player fits into Refn’s world seamlessly.  Carey Mulligan delivers the caliber of performance we’ve grown to expect from her, and then some.  The fact that her character was scripted as a Latin woman, which was quickly amended once Refn met Mulligan, says a lot about what this incredible young talent brings to a film.  Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks and especially Albert Brooks (in a career-best performance) all dive head first into the material.  Chopping at the bit and loving it.

In May, I made a bold prediction that you’d be lucky to find a better American-made film this year than The Tree of Life (a statement I again backed up a few weeks ago).  I’ll speak to that now by simply declaring that luck has befallen us.  Drive is a colossal achievement of the medium.  It’s a thinker, a mover and damn fine entertainer.  Enjoy the ride. A

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Straw Dogs

Every remake carries with it the same bottom line: is the new one better than the first?  Few are, so perhaps a fairer question is to ask if Rod Lurie’s slice of white trash Americana remake is worthy of Sam Peckinpah’s original slice of classical cult? 

Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs featured a familiar plot, considerably weak acting, and some of the most infamous consecutive eight minutes ever put on film.  Rod Lurie’s rehashing carries with it the flaws of the original, while boasting its strengths as well.

For Lurie’s film, notable screenwriter David Sumner (James Marsden) and his actress wife, Amy (Kate Boseworth) return to her hometown for a little R and R, and soon find themselves victim of some genuinely terrifying Southern charm.

Shortly after hiring Amy’s high school flame, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård) to repair their barn roof, David finds himself annoyingly distracted by the construction, while his wife endures a playful bit of sexual harassment.  But don’t worry, as Charlie informs just about every character in the film at least once, “We take care of our own around here.”  So really, there’s nothing to worry about. Right.

Chaos soon ensues; advantage is taken, identities are mistaken, felines are rested, tempers are flared, blood is shed, all in the name of camp cinema.

Lurie, as demonstrated in his fantastic (and fantastically overlooked) The Contender, has a serious eye for cinema. His camera is sharp, purposefully focused, and hued just right.  His dialogue is witty and inviting (Lurie has wisely removed a great deal of ham from the original’s script). And his work with actors almost always lends itself to determined results.

Marsden and Bosworth (mostly off the radar as of late) fit well into the roles generated by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, with Marsden (mostly) well cast as the dweeb out of his element, and Bosworth slinking convincibly into the not-so-damsel in distress bit. And then there’s Alexander Skarsgård, whose popularity seems to be gaining by the week, delivering a cunning performance of subtle evil.  It’s a meaty role, and Skarsgård sinks his teeth right into it.

While Lurie’s flick has a good amount going for it, his Straw Dogs, like Peckinpah’s, is not without its flaws.  Time hasn’t done well for the story, which now feels dated and done, lacking all originality.  Marsden gets a little too medieval on some redneck asses, to the point of displaying the powers of a would-be superhero. Hoffman was a frail, scared shitless dork, which is why the performance worked.  Marsden is a buff, take-no-prisoners snob, which doesn’t make his initial fear all to compelling.

Was it necessary for Rod Lurie to remake an already mediocre film?  Sure, why not. For better or worse, it does the original justice by sticking closely to its source material. But that bear trap, I must say, is used far better this time around.  B-  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tyler Perry, Top Gun 3D, Point Break Remake and other recent disasters

So, here's where we're at this week.  An absurdly corny and endlessly overpraised ‘80s flick will soon make even more money, one of the best action films of all time is pointlessly being remade, and oh yeah, Tyler Perry is the highest paid man working in the entertainment industry.  The entire entertainment industry. 

Tyler Perry – Highest Paid Male Entertainer
According to Forbes’ annual list of the highest paid entertainers per year, Tyler Perry killed the competition, netting $130 million from May 2010-May 2011, far surpassing second place Jerry Bruckheimer’s $113 million take.

How this was done isn’t of issue.  Perry makes a lot of movies.  They cost next to nothing and make shitloads.  The fact that his films are horrible matters little to the demographic they target.  Essentially, he’s tapping an untapped market, which he’ll continue to do with the movie he just wrapped and the two TV shows he created. 

Perry has a flawless work ethic, no question.  I just wish his work was based more on quality than quantity.  I’ve never seen anything good with his name attached to it (with the exception of Precious, of course, a film Perry invested no creative input into.)  But the fact that a far more prominent black director can’t even get a sequel to his most successful film financed, and Perry can release crap like this, well, it’s just damn disheartening.

Ride Into the Danger Zone (in 3D!)
I don’t like Top Gun. Never have, never will.  I’d probably enjoy it if most males ages 18-45 didn’t consider it the greatest movie of all time, and quote it incessantly, night after night, beer after beer.  (I do, however, appreciate the fact that director Tony Scott was able to make fun of the film, via a brilliant tirade in another one of his movies).

Regardless of how you feel about Maverick and Co., Top Gun has aged badly.  The music, the acting, the clothes, the hair – it’s all so… ‘80s. (Bad ‘80s, not good ‘80s.)  But guys desperately attempting to clutch onto any homoerotic nostalgia leftover from their youth will surely fork out $14+ to see Top Gun in 3D.  At least that’s what Paramount is banking on, as Top Gun 3D will flying by theaters early next year. 

Can’t you think of 10 far more worthy 3D conversion treatments?  Me, I’d like to see Jake LaMotta throwing seven left hooks in the third dimension, or John McClane jumping off a building, out of the screen, into my popcorn.  For better or worse, if Top Gun 3D is successful, you can expect much more of this behavior.

That Would Be… a Waste of Time
When news broke that Alcon was considering remaking Point Break, I wasn’t mad, I wasn’t upset, I was goddamn offended.  Loyal readers may be familiar with my admiration for Point Break.  It’s the perfect action film, one that you can have just as much fun laughing with as you can laughing at.  I simply do not understand what a Point Break remake can lend to… anything.  Footloose will soon be butchered and The Thing looks utterly dismal, so why spend time and money making something that fans and Bodhi newbies alike will undoubtedly detest?

It won’t be surfing, it’ll be extreme water sports.  It won’t be two FBI agents, it’ll be guys in suits standing in darkly-lit war rooms, studying information on a lot of very large monitors.  And it won’t be The Swayz, it’ll be some cheap knock off doing his best Swayz impression, which will just be insulting. 

I’m not a religious man, but I pray this remake gets cast out into the vast Australian sea, never to come back again.

The Good News
Dustin Hoffman is set to direct his first flick.  Cameron Crowe’s new movie looks better than his previous feature (although, most movies do).  And our favorite Bad Motherfucker just got cast in a role that will undoubtedly reaffirm is status as America’s most sincerely badass actor.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Warrior

There’s just something about this Gavin O’Connor guy.  His first widely released feature, Miracle, was a Disney-produced recreation of the legendary 1980 Winter Olympics hockey game, when the youthful men’s US team miraculously beat the unbeatable Russians.  Now, while I acknowledge that the real event was as iconic as American sports moments get, hockey itself is a sport I could care less about.  Mix my indifference with a cast of unknowns and a burnt-out lead, and I’m all but lost.  Miracle, however, did its title justice by being a great addition to the camaraderie-conquers-all sports genre.  It’s quite a good film, one that was well-received critically, but barely seen commercially.
Next was Pride and Glory, a very R-rated spin on a very familiar, good cops vs. bad cops plot.  So again, O’Connor is working with tired, used-up material but somehow delivering distinction.
Now we’ve got Warrior, a (mostly) family-friendly battle of brothers, who after years of estrangement, find themselves toe to toe in an all-or-nothing mixed martial arts tournament.  Barf.  Seriously, did you see this trailer?  With its eardrum-shattering horn music, its conveniently clichéd dialogue and horribly staged plot execution?  Warrior, in my eyes, promised nothing, which makes the final outcome that much more awe inspiring.
Warrior, to speak frankly, is nothing short of excellent.  Its scenes are long, with plentiful accurate dialogue, but there isn’t a wasted minute in its nearly two and a half hour running time.  Its MMA fights are fast, ferocious and supremely badass.  And its acting, dare I say, ranks among the finest ensemble we’ve seen from any movie so far this year. 
Tom Hardy (spectacular in Bronson, better known for Inception and the upcoming Dark Knight Rises) plays Tommy, a reserved loner who resurfaces after years of being absent.  He soon begins training, eyeing the $5 million purse promised by the epic tournament.  His motives – what he plans to do with the money, why he resurfaced now – aren’t initially clear.
Joel Edgerton (Baz from the brilliant Animal Kingdom) plays Tommy’s older brother, Brendan, a loving husband, devoted father, and hip high school teacher, moonlighting as an MMA fighter to save his home from foreclosure. 
In the middle is their father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic who both brothers appear to hate equally.  Paddy drove his wife and youngest son out years ago, and made a lasting enemy out of Brendan.  Nolte, in his best performance since The Thin Red Line, does absolute wonders with Paddy.  He takes him far beyond overused sports clichés, instead making him a real, complicated, fleshed out, washed up bruiser of an old man.  It’s the best performance in a movie filled with many, including bit parts by Noah Emmerich (an O’Connor regular, playing a take-it-or-leave-it bank loaner), Frank Grillo (as Brendan’s trainer), Kevin Dunn (as a high school principal), Jennifer Morrison (as Brendan’s wife), and O’Connor himself, who briefly plays the millionaire organizer of the tournament. 
Warrior can best be summed up by its opening and closing scenes.  The former is a 20 minute conversation – slow, deliberate, character revealing, the latter is a 10 minute fight – quick, raw, character revealing.  Both are paced perfectly and use no flashy gimmicks to make their point clear.  The scenes are bookends to a film you shouldn’t be expected to like, but will find yourself exceptionally surprised in doing so. A-

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Contagion

Much like he’s used the influence of movies like Klute, Solaris and The Parallax View to create some of the best works of his impeccable career, Steven Soderbergh is seriously having a throwback blast with Contagion, a pandemic genre flick that shows the world plagued with the suspicion of a globally fatal disease.

In Contagion, Soderbergh casts a plethora of heavy-hitters (almost every major player has been nominated for an Oscar; most have won), and throws them into a world in which a mysterious, incurable disease is wiping out millions, with no clear end in sight.

There’s the successful businesswoman (Gwyenth Paltrow) who may or may not have been the first person to contract the disease, her soon-to-be widowed husband (Matt Damon), the cool calm and collected head of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne), the educated scientist (Kate Winslet), the educated problem solver (Marion Cotillard), the hysterical conspiracy theorist (Jude Law), the quiet janitor (John Hawkes), the determined General (Bryan Cranston) and on and on.

Soderbergh is a true actor’s director. No matter your status or number of awards, no matter how much money you make or how distinguished your filmography is; if you’re right for the part, you’re right for the part. 

Contagion has some serious A-listers, but it also has quite a few little-known actors in very significant roles.  And everyone, most thankfully, is given equal screen time. There are no grandstanding moments of epic catharsis, no Oscar-baiting, music swelling scenes of remorse. As a film, Contagion depends most on its actors, and it’s very rewarding to see everyone putting in such solid work.

But there’s another reason you may enjoy Contagion as much as I did, and that is the simple pleasure of watching a master at work. 

Steven Soderbergh, I’d argue more so than any living filmmaker, is a true master of his craft.  His technique, simply put, is deliberate and flawless.  Acting again as his own cinematographer, he knows when to focus pull his camera, when to use steadicam or hand held, what filter to use, and, most importantly, when to leave the camera the hell alone on a tripod.  In addition, the music (by Cliff Martinez), is always pitch perfect, the editing (here by Stephen Mirrione, an Oscar winner for Traffic) is always seamless and evolving; everything involved is the result of a true auteur of the medium.

Minutes after Contagion ended, I tweeted that if you were a Soderbergh fan, you’d love this film, but I cautioned that if you were unfamiliar with Steven Soderbergh, Contagion may not be for you. But seriously, who’s unfamiliar with Steven Soderbergh? A-


Thursday, September 8, 2011

A 2011 Pre-Oscar Season Summation

Before I unleash the movies I’m most excited about this Oscar season, let’s take a look at what we’ve seen so far.  As has been the case for the past few years, American movie theaters have mostly (and most popularly) been polarizing audiences with thankless, big budget nonsense.  But, also like most every year, there have been a few hidden gems begging to be exposed.

For the record, the best film I’ve seen so far this year, which also contains the two best female acting performances, is Incendies.  But since it was nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar last year, thereby making it ineligible for competition this year, I’m not counting it in this wrap up.

There’s a lot of repetition in these categories, but that’s simply because we haven’t been offered anything else truly worthy.  Yet. 

Titles link to my original reviews.

In the kicker of my original review, I warned readers that they’ll be hard pressed to find a better American movie this year than Terrence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it work of art.  Months later, I’m sticking by that statement.  For now.

Honorable Mention: The Double Hour, a twisty, turny, little-seen, quasi masterpiece that left theaters as quickly as it entered them.  The little attention this movie received is heartbreaking. The fact that it still doesn’t have a DVD release date is devastating.

Best Director
Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life
Quite simply, I just don’t know how he did it.

Honorable Mention: Michael Winterbottom – The Trip

Best Actor
Brad Pitt – The Tree of Life
By year’s end, my pick for Best Actor will undoubtedly change, but damn if Pitt didn’t nail it.

Honorable Mention: Demián Bichir – A Better Life

Best Actress
Kseniya Rappoport – The Double Hour

Honorable Mention: Jessica Chastain – The Tree of Life

Best Supporting Actor
Hunter McCracken – The Tree of Life
Yeah, I liked this flick… a lot.

Honorable Mention: Christopher Plummer – Beginners, John Boyega – Attack the Block

Best Supporting Actress
Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids
One of the best comedic performances I've seen in years.  McCarthy, however, took it beyond mere comedy; she gave her character a heart.

Honorable Mention: I have seen none better than McCarthy.

Best Screenplay
The Double Hour - Alessandro Fabbri, Ludovica Rampoldi, and Stefano Sardo

Honorable Mention: The Tree of Life - Terrence Malick

Best Documentary
Cave of Forgotten Dreams – Werner Herzog

Honorable Mention: Tabloid – Errol Morris

Best Everything Technical
The Tree of Life
If Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t win Best Cinematography for this movie, there is something seriously wrong with the Oscars (other than the eye rolling choice of host).
  
Top 10 of 2011 So Far

Stay tuned for my Fall Movie Preview.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Attack the Block

Let me tell you a little about Attack the Block, the odd, hilarious, all-together fascinating new British film from first time director Joe Cornish. The movie begins with a clumsy mugging that is hastily interrupted by the crash landing of an alien in the middle of the street.  Five teenage hoods (who, in terms of thuggishness rank somewhere between the twerps that follow them around, and the hardcore killer that they emulate) chase the foreign being down and beat it to death with knives, fists and fireworks.

Moments later, their neighborhood is completely overrun with bear-like black beasts, who seem to want nothing more than teenage blood.

So what I’ve just described is a flick about troublesome teenagers, angry aliens, and drab apartments.  Attack the Block should in no way work.  But boy does it ever.

When I left the theater, I was contemplating the difficulty of penning a screenplay like Attack the Block’s.  At face value, it isn’t really anything special (it has, however, been wrongly dubbed the British Cloverfield), and the dialogue isn’t intensely game-changing.  In short, this movie would fail, badly, if it didn’t have a handful of perfectly cast young actors fleshing out its characters.  The most prominent of which is John Boyega, who makes a startling acting debut as Moses, the gang’s leader. Boyega looks like a 15-year-old Denzel Washington, which is fitting, given the depth of range he squeezes into this 88 minute film.  This kid, mark my words, is going to be a massive star.

Jodie Whiteaker (best known for her role in Venus, the 2006 film starring Peter O’Toole) is also quite good, given the various emotional peaks her character has to hit and cascaded down from.  And all the supporting characters, every single snot-nosed punk involved, make Cornish’s words fly off the screen.  Much like Alex DeLarge, I wasn’t entirely sure what they were always saying, but you can bet your ass I was constantly amused.

Attack the Block is equal parts comedy, action and horror (three genres I don’t particularly care for), the result of which is a movie that is funny, freaky and ferociously brilliant. The camera zips along gracefully, and slow-mo’s appropriately, the techno-heavy score is loud, but fitting, and the direction is bold and seamless.

This is a small film; it’s played well overseas, but is struggling to find an audience here.  Shame.  If it finds steady footing, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Attack the Block considered for a few Oscars.  Screenplay and Score, most prominently; but my hope of hopes would put Boyega in the running for Supporting Actor.

A test of a great film, I often say, is one that you wish wouldn’t end.  Considering that Attack the Block takes place in real time, that’s about as grand a compliment as I can offer.  "Allow it," as Moses would say. A-