Friday, August 30, 2013

Top 20 Road Movies

Who doesn’t love a good road movie? The meditation, the self-discovery, the journey for truth – there’s power on that road. Below, I’ve mixed it up between movies of the road in which characters seek introspection, and road movies in which characters are on the run from the law. Believe me, I am well aware that there are many, many, many films that constitute as a road movie. These are my personal favorites, which doesn’t mean I forgot any of yours. So here, in their own words, are my favorite films that tackle the open road.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In Character: Joan Allen

There’s a popular critique that many women share about the American film industry. Females play characters whose only purpose is to enhance the lead actor’s motivations. Female characters exist as exaggerated background, act as aimless creatures unequipped without original thoughts or intentions. And while that certainly isn’t true of all films, it’s an argument we hear often.

So then I look at Joan Allen. Joan Allen, a woman who, on the surface, has made a career out of playing such women. Women who exist to propel whatever narrative their husbands are offering. Wives who sit in the corner, saying little. But look closer. Watch what Allen does. With a sharp stare, convincing line delivery and a trademark look of utter devastation, Allen has managed to make all the women she plays matter. She makes every character essential, and every role greater.

Monday, August 26, 2013

the Directors: Gus Van Sant

One of the best parts about watching a Gus Van Sant movie is being aware that you’re watching a Gus Van Sant movie. His best films are so distinctly spawned from the same man, that they remain a joy to rediscover time and again. Whether it’s through subtle humor, stark photography, bold material or raw execution, American independent cinema is seldom more accomplished than Gus Van Sant at his best.

Another distinguishing factor of a Van Sant film: he often chooses to shoot his characters from behind, following them on their journey. This is a very purposeful shot (one that I absolutely love in films), and lends a different perspective than if the camera acted as the character’s eye. Gus Van Sant doesn’t want us seeing his films through his characters’ worlds. He wants us to see it through his. Which, for better or worse, I will always welcome.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

You're Next

I’m not at all sure what kind of movie You’re Next is. Which is fine, it can often take a while to definitively label a film. But the problem with this new horror/comedy/torture porn/romp/satire/whatever is that I’m not sure it knows what kind of movie it is either. And therein lies the problem.

You’re Next opens with a pretty groovy and rather freaky double murder that has (unfairly and lazily) drawn comparisons to Drew Barrymore’s introduction in Scream. (In fact, scanning some early reviews, it seems like many people are jumping at the opportunity to label You’re Next as the next Scream. That’s reaching. Way too far. Scream, my friends, this is not.) Anyway, from there, we meet a married couple spending their wedding anniversary in their massive vacation home secluded deep in the woods. Joined for their celebration are their children and their children’s lovers. A few days of festive merriment, with those they love.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Top 10 Directors Who Released Two Great Films in One Year

In today’s cinematic landscape, I think we’re lucky if we get one truly great film a year. So it speaks rather well of the filmmakers below that, at least once in their careers, they managed to release two great films only a few months apart. A prolific work ethic paired with incomparable skill. Not that’s saying something.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

In Character: James Cromwell

If you’ve turned a television on and flipped through the channels at any point during the past 30 some odd years, there’s a chance you came across a show or movie featuring James Cromwell. Seriously, this guy has been in everything. From mainstream television series to blockbuster action films to Oscar-winning indies. Thing is, he’s always good. In everything. Despite (or because of) the material he’s working with, James Cromwell always delivers a performance of sheer power. He’s one of the most recognizable characters actors we have. A sturdy presence of confidence.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Spectacular Now

There’s a common tale people like to tell. It’s a stereotype, but one that fits this review appropriately. The tale goes like this: the jocks peak in high school. If they’re not jocks, then they’re the most popular guys in the school. The guys who party hard, get laid often and enjoy proclaiming that these are the best years of their lives. But the tale continues. When you jump ahead five to 10 years, the tale dictates that those once popular guys never left their hometown. They stayed, clinging to the glory days.

Now, whether you believe in that tale or not, it perfectly describes who Sutter Keely is going to be. When Sutter is all grown, tending bar with his old man, wondering where all his buddies went. Wondering what happened to that one girl he used to love. This is utter speculation on my part, as The Spectacular Now only captures Sutter (Miles Teller) for a few months of his life as a high school senior, but that is certainly where he’s headed. A pathetic drunk, clinging to the best of times, wondering What If.

Prince Avalanche

“Is David Gordon Green back?” That was my reoccurring thought while watching his latest film, the cheaply shot but not cheap looking, expertly acted, well paced indie dramedy, Prince Avalanche. But perhaps “back” isn’t fair. Green’s first four films were tiny but masterful slices of American independent cinema. I love George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels to no end. But, do I understand Green’s desire to reach a broader audience and, as a result, make more money? Of course I do. His first four films netted less than $1.4 million at the box office. His first mainstream movie, Pineapple Express, made $23.2 million. In its first three days of release.

So, yeah, I get it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Top 5 Brian De Palma Films

Brian De Palma is one of those rare directors who I would call one of my all time favorites, despite the fact that he hasn’t released a truly great film in a number of years. His most recent effort, the well-intentioned but overly stylized Passion, didn’t fully work for me. But it was close. So damn close. If De Palma had left two or three twists out of the last 10 minutes of Passion (and scaled back on the De Palma-isms) it could’ve been his best film in a long time. No matter, here are the Brian De Palma films that prove the man’s indelible worth.

Friday, August 16, 2013

My Top 15 Documentaries of All Time

Few things can inspire, sadden, madden or enrage me more than a well-made documentary. I’d dare argue that a masterful documentary is superior to even the best narrative films. The films on this list vary drastically in terms of content. Some are about love, others are about protection; some are about finding oneself, others are about lost innocence. The only connecting factor is that every film here is chiefly concerned with documenting the behaviors of people. Why we do what we do, and, on occasion, what we can do to alter ourselves for the better.

There are many more that could’ve easily made it on this list, but here are the 15 documentaries that have affected me most.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Passion

Alain Corneau’s Love Crime has everything Brian De Palma could ask for: sex, death, jealousy and greed, with healthy doses of drugs and deception thrown in for good measure. Hell, in watching Corneau’s erotic French thriller, one could say it plays as rather… De Palma-esque. Noting that, it’s not at all surprising that just three years after the release of Love Crime, De Palma has remade it for American audiences. The result is a film that fits warmly into De Palma’s overall body of work, which, sadly, at this point, means it hits about as much as it misses.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

In Character: J.T. Walsh

When most people think of J.T. Walsh, they recall the numerous menacing sons of bitches he played. The murders, the thieves, the liars and the assholes – no one could play mean quite like Walsh. But upon digging deeper, it’s clear that Walsh was capable of so much more than depicting scumbags. He had compassion, charm, wit and panache. He was an actor’s actor, a working man, an invaluable day player who we lost far too soon to a heart attack in 1998.

Perhaps Walsh’s good friend and collaborator, Billy Bob Thornton said it best: “A real actor doesn’t try to make yourself look good all the time. Because the job of an actor is to portray the character that’s written, and portray it with all your might. J.T. did that everytime he did anything. If J.T. was in a movie that just plain sucked, he never did. He was always perfect.”

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station opens with a literal bang. We watch grainy cell phone footage of several young, black men being detained by police officers at a transit station. After a minor struggle, an officer removes his gun and fires it inexplicably. The film sharply cuts to black, and we’re thankful we have a moment to catch our breath.

From there, we meet Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old living in Hayward, California. A title card tells us that it is the last day of 2008, and a brief exchange between Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) and his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz) makes it clear that Oscar plans to go into the New Year a changed man. He’s going to stop selling weed, he’s going to stop sleeping around, and he’s going to be a better, more stable father for his and Sophia’s daughter. And, essentially, it is the notion of Oscar’s resolutions that fulfill the entirely of Fruitvale Station.

Bret Easton Ellis Adaptations: Novels vs. Films

Bret Easton Ellis is my favorite author. I’ve learned so much from the mechanics of his writing, and am continually inspired by his often disregard of conventional storytelling. And while I have enjoyed all of his novels (yes, all of them, even “Lunar Park”), the adaptations of his films vary from masterful to disastrous. Here’s a look at Ellis’ novels and the film’s they inspired, with some potential future projects mixed in for good measure.

Monday, August 12, 2013

From One Second to the Next

Last month, AT&T released a subtle, gut wrenching 30-second PSA about the dangers of texting while driving. In the clip, a mother tearfully recalls how her young son, Xzavier, was hit by a car while crossing the street. And although I had seen PSAs of this kind, this specific one resonated for reasons I couldn’t fully explain. Maybe it was the stark, simple set-up of the woman’s interview. Maybe it was the clip’s use of silence to evoke thought. When I noticed that Werner Herzog, my favorite living filmmaker, had directed the clip, everything made sense. A master storyteller spent 30 seconds knocking the wind out of me, in a way I’ve come to expect from him.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Blue Jasmine

When I look back at the career of Woody Allen – the success of his films can be credited to two things: acting and story. Although he often goes to great lengths to ensure that his films look good and are cut seamlessly, a great Woody Allen film amounts to the strength of story and how well the actors sell it.

One could argue that those two things are the basis for any good film. Fair point. But for Allen, the strengths of these traits make or break him. Nearly all of his films are exceptionally cast, yet without a good story, we watch extremely talented actors flounder through Allen’s distinct world. Think To Rome with Love and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, to name a few recent ones.

Lovelace

Moments into Lovelace, the audience is presented with a title card that establishes the setting. 1970 – Davie, Florida. Three scenes later (which is to say, two days later in the movie), Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) and Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) are sitting on a beach, talking about how good the film The French Connection was. So here’s the thing: William Friedkin’s The French Connection didn’t come out in theaters until Oct. 1971. That film was a sensation. It was controversial, grossed a shit load of money, and won a handful of Oscars, including Best Picture. It was a big film, and anyone with access to Google can quickly deduce that it did not come out in 1970.

This lack of exploration is evident throughout Lovelace. And while I didn’t catch any other blatant chronological errors in the film, I can certainly attest to the fact that Lovelace is a dull, needlessly complex, laughably misguided mess.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Top 5 Mickey Rourke Cameos

During Mickey Rourke’s hazy years of self-imposed cinematic banishment – after his monumental ‘80s streak, but before his short-lived Sin City/The Wrestler comeback – we rarely saw the actor in anything remotely good. Below are a handful of exceptions in which Rourke briefly popped up in memorable roles during that time. These performances range from scene-stealing single sequences, to glorified cameos. Because really, no one chews a scene like Mickey Rourke.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Where is Anton Chigurh?

I love No Country For Old Men. It’s one of my favorite films from the past decade, one of the best flicks of the Coen brothers’ filmography, and genuinely one of the finest, most tightly realized crime thrillers ever made. But like most all things I love, there are profound complexities about the film that I cannot explain. Well, not complexities, exactly. More like a complexity.

Note: Before we go further, know that I am going to spoil essential elements to the thickly layered plot of this film. In short, if you haven’t seen No Country For Old Men, skip this post and Go. Watch. It. Now.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Top 10 Films that Won Oscars for Best Director but Not Best Picture

Of the 85 films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, 62 have also nabbed Best Director. Those are damn good odds, but often, when the Academy awards two different films in these categories, it is widely considered a major fault, especially with the benefit of hindsight. The list below represents the 10 best films that won Best Director but failed to ultimately win Best Picture.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Canyons

I’ve been rooting for The Canyons from the beginning. The moment it was announced that Paul Schrader would be directing a script by Bret Easton Ellis, I was sold. The fact that the film was going to be about elitist loners (a group that, collectively, Schrader and Ellis have spent their careers chronicling) was an added bonus. The two filmmakers, along with their producer, Braxton Pope, took to Kickstarter to help fund their project. They each invested $30,000 of their own money, and asked the world for $100,000 more, ultimately netting a production budget of $260,000. With their film, they promised something new. Something fully independent from the studio system, shot for cheap, but not cheap looking. Something dark and immoral. Something that would make Schrader and Ellis fans proud.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Blackfish

The new documentary, Blackfish, is an indictment. A condemnation against SeaWorld and organizations like it to know better. An accusation of cruelty, greed, and cowardice. The film is, in no uncertain terms, a depiction of hell on Earth. Hell for innocent creatures who have no choice; inarguably wise mammals who live in fear and die too young because of it.

The thing is, Blackfish isn’t an agenda film. Not really. It doesn’t tell us, the audience, or them, the perpetrators, what to do. There are no pleas for how to “fix this.” No title card telling us what organization to follow as a means of support. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has been upfront about the fact that she isn’t an activist, but rather an observer. And that’s what Blackfish asks us to do: observe. Which works as much in its favor as it does to its determent.