Saturday, December 27, 2008
2008 was a great year for the cinema and a momentous year for my family. I only make mention of my life’s personal events to emphasize that after having our first baby, a college graduation, a move across the country and working one and a half new jobs, I’ve only been able to see 101 of this year’s films (in contrast to my 176 reviews in 2007). And unfortunately, many films that are receiving the most critical acclaim are, as of yet, unseen by me.* (see list below)
So again, the following 11 films are only some of the best films of 2008.
1.) The Dark Knight (PG-13)
Some people have said “Iron Man” is a superhero movie for those who don’t like superhero movies. OK, maybe, but it’s still a superhero movie, an excellent one. But “The Dark Knight” transcends the genre. And not to be technical, but Batman never really was a superhero in the truest sense: He’s just a rich guy with the means to have slick, crime-fighting gadgets. But let me be clear here: Yes, Christopher Nolan is a superb director whose contributions cannot be diminished; Christian Bale successfully pulls off the bat man with a straight face; in fact, all the film’s actors have become their characters. Yet it is Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker that makes “The Dark Knight” so lofty. Ledger deserves the Oscar — and not as a consolation prize for being deceased. A good villain is just as important as having a good hero. Among the films I’ve seen in 2008, “The Dark Knight” is the best of the year.
2.) The Orphanage (R)
“The Orphanage” is a truly creepy film and perhaps more impressive, one of the few effective haunted house movies. Filmed in Spanish with English subtitles, this non-slasher, spine-tingler is rated R but not for the usual reasons: Its rating is solely due to “disturbing content.” I might have termed it “troubling” content.
3.) Cloverfield (PG-13)
Everybody plays the “what if” game. And because of that, “Cloverfield” is pure cinematic delight because it allows the “what if” game to unfold before our eyes. What if a real monster attacked New York City? This is no King Kong or Godzilla monster mash; “Cloverfield” endeavors, as realistically as possible, to portray such a horrific event. Best of all, the movie pulls us up onto the screen, into the action, because we identify with a character videographer’s subjective point of view through his camera lens, a trick that “Quarantine” later attempted in October but with much less success.
4.) Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (PG)
Highly controversial and arguably slanted unfairly, “Expelled” is a documentary for “the believers,” meaning, those who believe “Genesis” over “The Origin of the Species.” Ben Stein is the gadfly of the scientific community as he observes that it seems to have closed its mind to ideas like Creationism and wholly accepted Evolution. “Expelled” is a showdown that is much more engaging than it sounds.
5.) Snow Angels (R)
Some films can carefully portray with lifelike verisimilitude the sad dramas that play out in the lives of regular, everyday people. “Snow Angels” is one such film, and its magnificence is matched only by its pensiveness.
6.) Run Fatboy Run (PG-13)
Because its director is David Schwimmer and its title is “Run Fatboy Run,” you may doubt my judgment on this surprising comedy. But Schwimmer shows considerable promise as a director, and the movie’s title is likely a marketing design, even though it is somewhat fitting. “Run Fatboy Run” is funny, but it’s also inspiring. This movie is a banner and a beacon for anyone who’s tired of being a loser and wants to stop sucking.
7.) Rambo (R)
I know. Sy Stallone is like 62 years old and “Rambo,” like most of the “Rocky” movies, is a thing of the ‘80s. But who goes to see a “Rambo” movie? Someone expecting a Merchant Ivory Production? No. Someone who wants to see “Rambo” blow everybody away. Done. But that’s not what makes this movie excellent: Reportedly, in this time of war, Stallone wanted to try to depict the true horrors of warfare, and it appears he has succeeded with a film that approaches the graphic violence of “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). And though it’s difficult to make a war film that doesn’t ultimately glorify war (which I suppose “Rambo” still does), it still paints a vividly grotesque picture.
8.) Iron Man (PG-13)
As mentioned above, “Iron Man” is a fine example of a comic book movie. It’s a well made, summer-fun, big-budget, popcorn blockbuster that is wonderfully entertaining. But as Heath Ledger is to “The Dark Knight,” so is Robert Downey Jr. to “Iron Man.” He makes the movie worth seeing on the merits of his humorous performance alone.
9.) Tropic Thunder (R)
Speaking of Robert Downey Jr., when an actor can convincingly perform in layers, piling character upon character within a role, then you know he or she has a remarkable gift. I don’t care if this is a comedy, he still should be nominated for his performance. Not only is “Tropic Thunder” hilarious, it savagely cannibalizes and ridicules the Hollywood from whence it sprang. It has an updated variation of the “Three Amigos!” (1986) plot that’s both smarter and funnier.
10.) The Ruins (R)
Many people will disagree with my ranking “The Ruins” among this list, but I don’t care. This is an excellent horror movie, which is nearly an oxymoron. While watching this film, imagine that you have fallen into this scenario. Yes, the vines (which are not the point) are ridiculous, but this is no “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986). Setting the vines aside, which are merely a plot device, the true horrors of “The Ruins” could happen. What is scarier than being marooned in another country and watching those who are with you — the only people you thought you could trust — make dreadful decisions out of fear? It is what the characters do to one another (and it’s typically not meant to be mean-spirited) in this midst of their crisis that makes “The Ruins” an effective horror movie.
11.) U2 3D (G)
I’m not even a U2 fan, per se. But I like their music, and besides, who doesn’t enjoy concerts? “U2 3D” is comprised of incredible footage from several U2 concerts that puts the viewer up on the stage with the performers. And even without the 3-D glasses, this would still be an enjoyable experience for any music lover — especially a true U2 fan.
Honorable Mention of 2008:
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Horton Hears a Who!
The Incredible Hulk
The Other Boleyn Girl
Pride and Glory
Quantum of Solace
Under the Same Moon
* These are the films from 2008 that I haven’t seen yet that are supposed to be exceptional:
The Band’s Visit
A Christmas Tale
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Duchess of Langeais
The Edge of Heaven
Encounters at the End of the World
A Girl Cut in Two
I’ve Loved You So Long
The Last Mistress
Let the Right One In
Man on Wire
Rachel Getting Married
Standard Operating Procedure
Synecdoche, New York
Tell No One
Trouble the Water
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
And for what it’s worth (which isn’t much), these are the 10 worst movies of 2008, with the absolute most terrible one listed at the bottom.
Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay
How She Move
One Missed Call
Meet the Spartans
Monday, December 22, 2008
So the scene where Billy is dancing in pure frustration after his family has had the fight with his teacher to the song Town Called Malice by The Jam is not only pure brilliance but absolutely perfect when you read the lyrics to that song and understand that when it came out in the early 80's it shot to number 1 within a week partly, I think, because of it's lyrics and it's commentary on the times.
Prior to suggesting this movie to this group I had some friends watch it and some them thought it had a hidden gay agenda (hence Andy and my discussion) but I didn't think so. To me the theme was purely - be who are, and find what you love doing and do that for a living. That message is driven home so strongly at the end when the strike is over and you see Billy's dad and brother heading back down into the mine on the elevator; and the look on their faces says it all. I can relate to that look - it's same look I have as I'm driving to my current job. It's not in a mine - but it's just as dark :)
The only part of the movie I didn't think was accurate (and I may be wrong) was all of the cursing (F bombs in particular) that was depicted among the family. I'm from working class Northern Ireland and so is my mother and father. I've never heard my family speak that way and according to my mother it wasn't that way when she was growing up. And even now when I ask members of my family that are still in England and N. Ireland they say that it's not how movies portray it. Maybe there are working class areas of England that conversation is continually laced with profanity but I've never heard of or seen it. To me it actually just becomes distracting.
I think we all hope to be Billy Elliott some day (if we're not already there)... finding what makes us jump out of bed every morning and excited to keep moving forward.
It's interesting to see Jamie Bell grown up now... recently in the King Kong remake and also in the new movie coming out soon called Defiance with Daniel Craig. I think he's got a bright future.
Ever since the gangster pictures of the 1930s, there has been considerable debate about the portrayal of violence in film — is it exploitative? — or does it serve a meaningful purpose? It’s such an age-old controversy, many people are altogether weary of the discussion. But I have a different question, though it is related to this topic.
In 1967, Richard Brooks released a film called “In Cold Blood” that is an adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel by the same name. Both tell the grim but true tale of two zeros who planned to rob a Kansas farm family and slaughtered them all in the process. The phrase “senseless deaths” has never been more fitting.
(Interestingly, the film stars Robert Blake as one of the killers; you might remember that around 2002, Blake was arrested for the murder of his second wife but was later acquitted in 2005.)
Relative to the explicit and graphic nature of present-day movies, “In Cold Blood” is tame, perhaps even mild enough for a PG rating — minus the profanity.
But here’s the issue: The film is shot in the actual home of the murdered family. This begs an obvious moral question. What was the merit in shooting the film in their home? The reasons must have pertained to authenticity and perhaps because it’s somewhat intriguing, but are these reasons justified? I suspect that it had less to do with artistic motives and more to do with cashing in on a fascinated nation’s curiosity.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder if the same heinous event befell my family — heaven forbid — how would I feel if Hollywood wanted to tell the story within the walls of our sacred home, where the horrific acts occurred?
In his 1968 review of “In Cold Blood,” Roger Ebert wrote this:
“And every detail of the film, from the physical appearance of the actors to the use of actual locations like the Clutter farmhouse, was chosen to make the film a literal copy of those events. I do not object to this. Men have always learned about themselves by studying the things their fellows do. If mass murders of this sort are possible in American society (and many have been), then perhaps it is useful to see a thoughtful film about one of them.”
I’ve heard this argument before, but I don’t buy it. I think it’s imperative for us to realize that monsters exist and such dangers are possible, but to me “In Cold Blood” crosses the line with its shooting location. When I watched “Breakdown” (1997), for example, I thought it a valuable cautionary tale, but it was fictitious; whereas, “In Cold Blood” unfortunately happened. (And regarding violence in film, most people think it’s fun to be scared. Fine. So fictitious horror is one thing, but when we watch the “Saw” movies for their “entertainment value?!,” I think that’s sociologically problematic.)
Please feel free to post comments and discuss this question.
[ Note: I might mention, as a mere afterthought, that we’re probably more familiar with the more recent Philip Seymour Hoffman film, “Capote” (2005), about the journalist and author who followed the story and conducted extensive interviews with one of the killers. ]
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Jason here. I have an idea: We soon will be entering our third wave of movie picks (by those who are still giving movie suggestions). What if, this third time around, we have a competition to see who can pick "the worst movie ever made" (which, I realize, is an impossible determination, much like "the all-time best film").
Why subject ourselves to this exercise?
Well, it's one thing to write interestingly about good films, but it's a whole other matter to try to write something useful about terrible films. And Barrett Hilton, the great filmmaker apologist, has often cautioned me in the past not to be too critical of another person's art.
Thanks to Barrett, I've spent more time trying to find redeeming traits in movies I dislike, and I've found it beneficial, primarily because I can enjoy more about more films.
And beyond that, I've been studying the film criticism of Stanley Kauffmann, who never gets angry, personal or vicious during his critiques; he simply describes what went wrong.
And at the end of this painful, third wave, we can all vote for the worst movie. I already have my pick in mind, and it's not that old. The only rule is that it can't be your cousin's homemade film; it has to be something that was actually released, meaning, we could all rent it somewhere.
Let me know who's in. E-mail your picks to me at ConsideringTheCinema@gmail.com.
Perhaps the movie’s brief reference to Gene Kelly reinforced the notion, but “Billy Elliot” continually reminded me of the “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) number where Kelly repeatedly sings, “Gotta dance!”
It’s evident throughout this film that Billy Elliot’s gotta dance.
I love people like that — people who are implacably determined to do what they love. One thinks of the Chris Smith documentary, “American Movie” (1999), where the persistent, aspiring filmmaker, Mark Borchardt, absolutely has to make movies, at all costs, no matter what. I fancy myself as that kind of a person, too, but a movie critic sort. Passion often gives way to obsession.
Now, I wasn’t privy to Andy and Karl’s inside joke about this film’s “arguably homosexual agenda,” but I’ll proceed notwithstanding.
Above all, the grand theme of “Billy Elliot” (which dwarfs any homosexual agenda) is acceptance.
Acceptance is the electrical current that moves the film’s characters (and is perhaps what Billy feels when he’s dancing). His whole family still struggles to accept the loss of the mom, Jenny Elliot, particularly Billy and his father, Jackie.
Tony, the brother, has trouble accepting pretty much everything, from the scabs crossing the picket lines to his brother’s general existence. But Tony’s turning point regarding acceptance occurs when he can at least appreciate his father’s loss of conviction to maintain the strike. He embraces his father, and later, Tony figuratively embraces his brother’s ambitions.
Naturally, the movie’s glaring neon-sign issue of acceptance is Billy’s desire to become a danseur (or male ballet dancer). But there are also acceptance themes prevalent with Billy’s friend Michael, and his inclination toward cross-dressing and presumably homosexuality.
All this isn’t to say that homosexuality isn’t important to the film, or, at least, to its director. Stephen Daldry’s film that followed “Billy Elliot,” in 2002, was “The Hours,” starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and a nearly unrecognizable Nicole Kidman. That film was adapted from a Michael Cunningham novel based on writer Virginia Woolf and her book, “Mrs. Dalloway.” It’s an intriguing and unusual film, but it’s even more replete with undertones of homosexuality than “Billy Elliot.”
A little, informal research suggests that even though Daldry has a wife and a child, he is also quoted as admitting he’s gay. What can be definitively concluded from all of this? Nothing — except maybe that “Billy Elliot” has an “arguably homosexual agenda.”
Note: If you appreciate Stephen Daldry’s work (as I do), watch for his current film, “The Reader,” starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
First things first - I quite enjoy using the word "poof" now. It's so much less vulgar, and way more in line with my feelings towards others and my political persuasion.
If you haven't seen the movie, I recommend watching with subtitles. The far-north English accents were very difficult to understand, even for my Irish friend.
I guess the movie doesn't have any major plot arcs, and it seems satisfyingly predictable; but I don't think that detracts from the movie's brilliance. Frankly, I like a good straight-forward, know-it's-going-to-be-ok, happily-ever-after movie. Yes, we all know that Billy's dad will eventually come around, but it's fun to see it happen.
The kid who played Billy was fantastic too; probably a performance worthy of some acclaim.
Anyway, if "F" words don't bother you (and they don't me), this movie should leave you feeling pretty good.
I'm a huge fan of pretty much anything with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 3rd Rock included. All that said, I did really like "Brick," notwithstanding it's almost nonsensical prose and ridiculously overly-dramatic characters.
Why did I like it? Two reasons, I guess. I always like a good murder mystery, and this one doesn't disappoint. We don't find out until the very end what happened to the dead girl. I felt it unraveled at a fairly even pace, and I thought Joseph's character did an excellent job of persevering in his investigation.
Second, I happened to love the confusing dialog. Maybe it's because I am a criminal defense lawyer and I'm secretly put-off by how stupid my clients are, even in their confusing lingo. I enjoyed the almost code-like language the kids in the move used. BTW, it's not language that is used in Provo, Utah, even in the most sophisticated drug scene.
All that said, yes, I realize it is not a good example of either drug culture or high school. The characters are far too serious to be drug addicts or high school students, and life is way too depressing in their little town. But I don't think we can blame all of that on the director or writer; it is after all a murder mystery. Such movies are rarely full of fun and happiness.
Jason - I miss you buddy. I wish you were here in Utah to watch these movies with.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
He may look like that sloppy band nerd who, like me, still rode the bus to school in 11th grade, but Brendan Frye is one scrappy dude — a kid who’s all heart. I love how he casually folds up his glasses, places them in their hard, protective case, and proceeds to throw down — with anybody who provokes him. At one point, “The Pin” even suggests that Brendan may be a little nuts, and in fact, he just might be. There are certain people out there whose intensity and determination are nothing less than frightening.
Brendan is one such character, a good character. And since “Brick” is often considered a modern film noir, I can concede that Brendan follows suit with many film noir protagonists: His stamina and rugged ability to take a beating during his pursuit fits the description. Like other noir personalities, his endurance is remarkable.
Both of my viewings of “Brick” have come at the recommendation of Mr. Andy Howell. He’s fond of this film, as I’m sure you’ll read in his post. I appreciated and enjoyed this film more this second time around, but my initial reservation still stands: These kids’ lingo is inaccessible to me; the movie has too much slang for its own good. I suspect that the writer and director, Rian Johnson, was going for authenticity, but it’s so extreme, Johnson crosses over authenticity right into artificiality. It’s the difference between eating marshmallows and eating Marshmallow Peeps.
But during this second viewing, something else gnawed at me even more: These kids take themselves way too seriously. This may sound like a condescending judgment statement, but allow me to explain. Yes, it’s true that teenagers generally have heightened emotions and overly dramatic reactions to their day-to-day issues (not that drug wars, teen pregnancy and murder are trivial problems). But in “Brick” the teens are unbelievably serious all the time. These kids are like zombies because they hardly ever lose their sober, gloomy tone. Nearly every minute of their lives is deadly serious. Contrast the down-time versus the intense moments in Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek” (2004) or “Stand By Me” (1986).
The most brilliant aspect of “Brick” occurs at “The Pin’s” house. Most of the film gives us an eerily “adultless” world. But at the lofty crime boss’s house, we see Brendan, The Pin and Tugger politely responding to The Pin’s sweet mother’s hospitality. Hilarious — but more importantly, these brief moments illustrate how the teens in this movie are in their own little world that, again, they take far more seriously than the few surrounding grown-ups do.
P.S. Oh, and what’s with all the fixating about where they eat their lunches?
Sunday, November 30, 2008
So...Gates of Heaven. I guess it fit our goal, but as for considering it a masterpiece? No. Let me explain what Gates of Heaven was like to me. At the Museum of Art at BYU, there is currently a showing of Modern Art, and a theme throughout questioning whether the pieces are, in fact, art. In particular, the most expensive piece in the showing is of four- foursided cubes painted white on the outside and a purplish-blue on the inside. They are about 4 feet high. They cost 11 million dollars. I literally could reproduce them in a matter of days (mostly for the paint to dry) and for a cost of less than $1000; easily. There is no particular fashion in their arrangement. But they are worth $11 million. I asked my buddy Matt, who works there, and he let me put out a sign that I would be willing to make life-size replicas for 1/1000 of the cost. Nobody has yet called me. Gates of Heaven was kind of like that to me.
In fairness I did watch the movie with my two cats, a dog, and a small child, but I thought the documentary didn't have a very good running theme. On the one hand, it seemed to be about the different reactions people have towards the death of pets, but on the other it seemed to be about people's interactions with other people. The last half of the movie didn't have as much to do about the pet cemetary as it did with a washed up insurance salesmen (and veritable douchebag) understanding his third place in the pet cemetary venture behind his younger potsmoking guitar-playing brother (who had weed growing in the background).
All that said, the show reminded me of my visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu. It's the most fun I've had being bored out of my mind.
Friday, November 28, 2008
The film ends and we the viewers — and all the characters (save one) are still waiting for Mort Guffman. If nothing else, the movie is aptly named.
“Waiting for Guffman” is the only film I can recall that refers to Dairy Queen. Blaine, Missouri reminds me of Grinnell, Iowa. If you’re ever traveling along Interstate 80, be sure to stop at Grinnell’s Dairy Queen. When I was moving to Utah in 2002, like a siren or the mistaken Blaine Fabin, Grinnell almost abbreviated my trek west and convinced me to settle permanently in the Midwest.
In case you’re wondering, a place called Blaine, Missouri seems to exist, according to various Internet sources. But the movie was filmed in Texas and California.
Released in 1997, “Waiting for Guffman” has to be among the first few mockumentaries, as we know them today. “The Office,” particularly Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, is recognizable in some of these characters. Perhaps this film was one of the inspirations for both “Office” series.
But if I had to guess (and digress), I’d say the very first mockumentary was probably “Nanook of the North” (1922), where documentarian Robert Flaherty filmed an Inuit (Eskimo) man called “Nanook,” or Allakariallak. Flaherty intended to portray this man and his supposed family’s arctic lifestyle, but many of the shots are said to have been staged by the filmmaker.
Now this is where the nature of documentaries can be argued: Even though Flaherty wasn’t necessarily trying to be funny in his attempt to document these people, his overt influence of the documentary film doesn’t differ much from planning a fake documentary like “Guffman,” a mockumentary. Indeed, a filmmaker’s mere decision concerning where to position the camera can distill meaning, which is an argument that could be made about any documentary. (By the way, according to movie critic Pauline Kael, “Nanook of the North” was filmed in 1920 and 1921, and its subject, Nanook died of starvation two years later.)
This has little to do with “Waiting for Guffman,” which is a film that was obviously designed to be a comedy. It’s built well: “Guffman” begins with introducing us to the characters while simultaneously filling us in on the history of the town — facts that will enhance the humor and enjoyment of watching the musical.
But the film’s magnetic core is Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest), who also directed and co-wrote the film. Like the heavy kid on a trampoline, St. Clair pulls all the characters toward him into the middle. And we can see and feel his paramount presence when he temporarily quits the production.
I love any movie that gives us actors who are playing characters who are acting. In this way, we get complicated layers — a feat that requires significant concentration on the actor’s part. Christopher Guest did this well: He continued to give us his effeminate Corky St. Clair while filling in for the dropout Johnny Savage. (Other great examples of roles within a role are Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus in this year’s “Tropic Thunder,” and Ed Norton’s Aaron Stampler in “Primal Fear” (1996).
Bill Barnes chose “Waiting for Guffman.” I initially wondered why, but then I realized when I heard a woodblock making the clickety-clop of horses’ hooves and the musical performance at the nursing home. Bill thought Billy Joel used some sophisticated machinery to recreate the sound of a horse walking, but I always told him that Mr. Joel was doing it with his mouth, and when we saw him “Kohept,” indeed he was.
And Bill and I played not a few concerts for the shut-ins at Moundview Nursing Home in Moundsville, W.Va. I’m confident those poor people would have preferred to see a production of “Red, White and Blaine.”
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Delicatessen was fantastic. I was really sad about the professor when I found out he was an orangutan. I'm a terrible person in that sometimes I feel more for an animal's death than a human's. My favorite scene in the movie was the date where the butcher's daughter removes her glasses to try to be more appealing. The scene was comedic just for that reason, but also because the new tenant did not seem that appealing, and he had already seen her in glasses, so it begged the question of what was her point in losing the glasses to begin with.... By the way, what happens now? It's not as if the post-apocalyptic France will be any better once the butcher is gone. Right?
As for Guffman, I've liked everything that comedy troupe has done. "A Mighty Wind" is my favorite, although it's probably the least popular. I'm drawn to mockumentaries I guess (see also my love of "The Office"). I had not previously seen "Waiting for Guffman," so I experienced all of the funny moments for the first time for this week's assignment. I don't have much else to add, other than Eugene Levy is brilliant, and we had a look-a-like in our ward, right Jason? (a "ward" is a local LDS congregation, usually consisting of 200-500 members, for those who don't know).
As a side note, I love movies but I'm not a great writer. I hope my comments aren't "lame-ing" out the blog.... But thanks for suggesting such great movies everyone.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
by Jason Pyles
How often do I disagree with Roger Ebert? Not very often.
But in Ebert’s Oct. 23 Answer Man column, he said that recommending a movie as a rental (as opposed to seeing it in the theater) is terrible advice. Ebert said when someone tells you to “wait for the video,” that usually means don’t see it, but he thinks it should mean see the movie. After all, Ebert reasons, two hours of a person’s life are the same whether they’re spent in the theater or at home.
I submit that the deal-breaker between recommending a theater viewing and a video rental is whether a film is worth paying $8 to see, or is it only worth $3? (Yeah, yeah, I know, when considering matinee prices versus evening shows, exorbitant Blockbuster video prices, reasonable Netflix prices, etc., it all depends. Indeed, the cost of watching movies can vary wildly, but generally speaking, I hope we can agree that renting a movie is typically less expensive than seeing it in the theater, all things considered.)
Many people I know only make it out to the theater on special occasions, meaning, a few times a year. So if I encourage them to go to the theater and sit among texting, talking, seat-kicking strangers, instead of watching it in the comfort of their own homes, which also have surround sound and big-screen TVs, then it had better be worth it. My friend Andy Howell immediately comes to mind.
There are four reasons to see a film in the theater:
1.) The audio-visual experience and being part of that week’s big, pop-culture event
2.) For a date
3.) If it’s truly excellent or has big surprises that could be spoiled by overhearing too much buzz
4.) Simply because you like going to the theater
And if you’re a movie critic, 5.) Because you have to review the movie asap.
Of course, there are some films that should be seen in theaters first: The six “Star Wars” episodes are good examples, because of the spectacle, the event itself, and the monster speakers. (When I heard Jango Fett’s “depth charges” (or whatever those explosive devices were called) that he unleashed while being pursued by Obi-Wan in Episode II, it was unforgettable. In fact, I saw “Attack of the Clones” a second time in the theater, just to be enveloped again in those two overwhelming sounds.)
But there was no reason to catch “Dan in Real Life” in the theater (even though it’s a good movie), when it was cheaper and more comfortable to snuggle up with my sweetheart and watch it at home.
However, whenever going out to the theater is part of a date-night itinerary, then the theater’s a fine (albeit unsociable) choice.
I realize that box-office figures send production companies “messages” from the public, which means avoiding the theater could potentially hurt the making of future, similarly good films. But DVD rentals and sales also send a message.
And as a movie critic (or a friend giving an opinion about a movie to another friend), it seems like it’s my duty to be an advocate for my trusting inquirer’s “movie allowance.” After all, we only have so much money we can spend on seeing movies. In addition, I also realize that movie critics should also be advocates for great films, which brings me to my final point.
Besides experiencing an audio-visual extravaganza or seeing a fine flick on a date, the only other reason to invest in theater prices is because the movie is so good, you shouldn’t wait for it to hit video. A good example of this would be “The Sixth Sense,” which also has a big secret that you wouldn’t want to risk being spoiled for you in the passing months until it hits DVD.
And don’t forget the people who see movies at the theater just for the experience of going out to the movies. That’s OK, too, of course.
In my rating system — Masterpiece, Excellent, Good, OK, Mediocre, Avoid — oftentimes there’s a fine line between Excellent and Good, and Good and OK. But to be clear, when I say a film is Excellent, that means it’s worth seeing in the theater and will always be a good rental choice. But when I say a movie is a rental, that means it’s good — but not $8 good.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
I guess I would liken it somewhat to "The Count of Monte Cristo" (book, not the movie) in that you know there will be revenge, but you don't know how terrible it will be until the very end. For all who were pissed off at the old Soubeyran uncle, all I can say is he gets his comeupins, and then some.
Maybe everyone else saw both movies; it wasn't clear to me. I actually fell asleep in "Jean," but I was wide awake for "Manon." They made me a believer in French filmmaking. I'm hesitant to say anymore in case you haven't seen "Manon." It's too good and dark to spoil. The two films could quite possibly be the best "prequel and sequel" ever (and yes, I know that's probably not a correct phrase).
I agree with Jason that "Once" sort of brings out the aspiring musician in all of us. I'm an ok pianist, and a beginning guitarist, so the show obviously spoke to me musically. The brilliance of the film, I thought, was that we knew it was going to be a love story, and yet we were pleasantly surprised that the main characters never actually "hooked up." It would have been easy for the two to go out, even after she admits to being married to a guy she doesn't have a ton of interaction with, and I would have forgiven both of them for their indiscretion. But they don't; they stay very close, but never cross the boundary of propriety. He ends up chasing after his first love, which I thought was a mistake, although what else was he supposed to do. She apparently stays happily married.
But wow, wasn't the music brilliant? Here's my personal anecdote - my ward is putting on a talent show on Friday. I tried, albeit half-heartedly, to learn either "Falling Slowly" or "If You Want Me" (until I learned the lyrics on the latter), even to the point of having a professional show me how to play a couple of the cords (Collin Botts for those who know him) so I could perform at the talent show. It was a bust given some other stuff I have going on, but maybe next year... So yeah, I liked the film. I listened to the dialog on low volume on the tv, but blasted the songs on the theater when they started so my wife could hear.
Posted by Andy
Sunday, November 2, 2008
I chose this week’s film, “Delicatessen,” and I’m somewhat proud to report that I selected it without having ever seen it before. Risky, I know, but who else in our film discussion group can say that? And I am prouder still that I have not picked amiss.
“Delicatessen” (1991) is an unusual blend of about 50 percent “Amélie” (2001) and 40 percent “The City of Lost Children” (1995), though it preceded both of those movies. (Perhaps the other 10 percent belongs to “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”)
Notably, all three of the French films were more or less influenced by the same men: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro and Gilles Adrien served in various capacities as directors and writers for “Delicatessen,” “Amélie” and “The City of Lost Children.”
Films like these are the stuff of circus workers’ bad dreams. “Delicatessen’s” post-apocalyptic, nowhere city’s setting looks like Tim Burton’s Gotham City (a la 1989) — after a fire — in the daytime. Indeed, the visual experience of “Delicatessen” is one of its greatest strengths. We immediately sense the uneasiness that accompanies this creepy world whose starving society has deteriorated to a moral complacency that accommodates cannibalism.
What intrigues me most about "Delicatessen" is its subtle theme of vampirism. In the daylight, danger lurks beneath the surface, but everyone is basically safe. Most of the "butcherings" typically happen in the stairwell at night, when a lone straggler wanders off to unwittingly meet his or her demise in the darkness, only to be consumed by hungry, formerly friendly feeders, who crave the victim's flesh for survival.
The beastly butcher unavoidably reminds us of Sweeney Todd — and yet he’s not the most troubling character. Perhaps it’s the frog man whose swampy dwelling yields many mini meals of escargot. Or scarier still, what about the cruel tenant who ruthlessly and relentlessly torments Aurore Interligator, the most creative and simultaneously least successful suicidal character I can think of. Anyone capable of that kind of psychological torture is nothing less than a monster.
“Delicatessen” has some memorably rhythmic scenes, most of which revolve around squeaky mattress springs. And speaking of music, any film that features a musical duet with a cello and a saw is a film for me.
Perhaps the most striking consideration of “Delicatessen,” to me, is the assignment of guilt and innocence among the characters: I found myself trying to attribute one or the other to each person. … I wonder why. Without a doubt, next to the late Dr. Livingstone (the monkey), Louison is probably the most innocent. Julie is not as innocent as she might seem, but she tries to atone and save Louison from her butchering father (though it is for her own selfish reasons).
Unfortunately, for delicate, good-hearted circus performers like Dr. Livingstone and Louison, they live in a world where the lions roam free and clowns are delicacies.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Forgive this semi-personal indulgence, but I was also a swooning and brooding singer-songwriter … once. And I guess I still am. This was my second viewing of “Once,” and once again it stirred those feelings within me.
When I experience Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who are simply cast as “Guy” and “Girl” in the credits, even though I swear I can hear him call her “Irseth”) putting together their duet of “Falling Slowly” in the music store, I cry every time. It literally moves me to tears.
Sorry, but “Once” not only hits all the right notes, it also strikes a chord — and is, therefore, required viewing for musicians, particularly songwriters.
With its documentary-like veracity, “Once” captures the world of aspiring musicians, a claim I can make for having lived in said world.
From the way the film illustrates the initial awkwardness and uncomfortable business aspects of the studio; to the way musicians have to compliment other musicians’ songs graciously but credibly; to the way a musician has to play that transparent game of false modesty and require mild begging before performing a song — which is exactly what the musician wants all along, more than anything; “Once” accurately captures these peculiarities associated with musicianship.
Also, when Glen writes “Lies” while drawing inspiration from old home-video footage of his ex-girlfriend, I could relate: I once wrote a song conjuring my muse with that same method.
And how about this oddly familiar exchange:
Street musician referring to Glen’s music: Is it any good?
Markéta: It’s great!
Glen: … Is it?
Yep, that’s exactly how we musicians are — in constant need of reassurance and validation.
Oh, and best of all, when she sneaks away in the studio and plays piano in the dark for Glen, Markéta performs a song she wrote called “The Hill,” a song written for her husband that he didn’t like. Glen dismisses him as an idiot. Indeed. But I can top her story:
Once I wrote a song for my girlfriend (not my wife) who had a terrible family life at home. It was a tender, “I’ll save you”-type song. When I finished playing it for her, she asked in a whiny, frustrated voice, “Why don’t you ever write any songs about how pretty I am?”
The opening sequence of “Once” could stand alone as an award-winning short film. Yes, award-winning. Those brief moments reveal to us just about everything we need to know about Glen: He’s a “streetlife serenader” who’s not only a passionate musician, he’s also a good guy.
And the scene where Markéta wanders the streets with the portable DVD player, “writing” the lyrics to “If You Want Me,” has an unmistakable music-video flavor a la Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.”
“Once” is so good, it almost makes me want to return to that struggle of trying to make it as a professional musician — almost. Even so, I’m sure part of me loves this film so much because it makes me grateful I tried. Nothing would be worse than always wondering what would have happened had I not given it a shot.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Apparently, I've become a one-man band when it comes to writing on this blog. Oh well. I'll keep the torch lit in case anybody wants to jump back on in the future. And no, that wasn't written in a martyr's tone.
What I love most about "Jean de Florette" is its capacity to illustrate through the medium of cinema the insatiable tendency toward selfishness that humans possess. In fact, I can't think of any other film that is so effectively and potently relentless in demonstrating that despicable, shameful human characteristic that seduces us all.
To me, that was the film's greatest feat. Wow, what a movie!
by Jason Pyles
I have an unofficial recommendation for the documentary filmmakers that contribute to this blog: You should watch “My Kid Could Paint That” (2007), if you haven’t already seen it.
You’ve no doubt heard about it. “My Kid Could Paint That” is about a 4-year-old girl named Marla who begins to receive international recognition and acclaim in the art world for her contemporary, abstract oil paintings … but seeds of doubt are soon sewn as to the little artist’s authenticity and abilities.
I suggest checking out this movie because it qualifies as an unusual film in the documentary genre. Amir Bar-Lev, the filmmaker, shows up in the film a lot more than just as a “camera-placer.” He can be heard speaking to his subjects, speaking directly to us — giving his opinions. He can also be seen in the film, and consequently, he appears in the cast credits.
Perhaps that’s not too unusual, considering that documentaries have come to be defined with vast leeway, though there are many purists that would vehemently disagree.
But what makes this film interesting — especially to Andrew and Josh, the co-directors of the untitled CleanFlicks documentary — is how a “situation” luckily unfolds while the camera is running. Indeed, the best documentaries capture this kind of serendipity.
In “This Divided State” (2005), Steven Greenstreet told my Cinema Studies class that he decided to start filming Michael Moore’s visit to Utah Valley State College and a much bigger controversy erupted than he expected. Greenstreet said Kay Anderson made the film a real story. (I know some of you also worked on that film, part of this background is for those who haven’t heard about it.)
Then, with the CleanFlicks documentary, it appeared that the battle between Hollywood and CleanFlicks was the whole story, but ironically, when Daniel Thompson (a prominent champion of edited films) was said to be using his edited movies store, “Flix Club,” as a front for “a pornography studio” — and he and his business partner, Isaac Lifferth, were convicted this past summer (with varying sentences) of having sexual relations with two 14-year-old girls, well, another story burst open before the filmmakers’ cameras.
[Full Disclosure Note: Interestingly, for those who don’t know, I was the in-house movie critic for Flix Club, the very store, and I wrote movie reviews about the edited movies. ( Here is the address: http://www.flixclub.blogspot.com/. Oh, and the name of the last film I reviewed there is somewhat humorous.) I didn’t know about those other "dealings," bien sur, but I still — and always will — consider Daniel to be a friend of mine. Everybody makes mistakes; some are just worse than others.]
Anyway, much like Andrew and Josh, filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev grew to know and like the family that he had been shooting for so long, and when the controversy starts to unravel, he lets us know that he’s torn over it. So what is so noteworthy about “My Kid Could Paint That” is how the filmmaker must begrudgingly ride the train and let it take him where it’s going, even though he’s reluctant about what his camera will discover.
But also much like Andrew and Josh, Bar-Lev bravely proceeds forward, as a good documentarist should. Props to Andrew, Josh and Amir.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
At the risk of seeming indecisive, I think we’ll go back to the two-weeks-per-film schedule. It appears that everyone is extremely busy (including me), so I’m hoping this might enable more people to watch the bi-weekly films, add posts and perhaps leave comments. I’ve also decided to make my posts shorter, in hopes that someone might read them.
“Jean de Florette” (1986) is an exceptional example of drama. Like most young males, I typically don’t love dramas, but this French film could convert even the shallowest action-flick junkie. On the Internet Movie Database, a Canadian named Jerome Morrow commented on “Jean de Florette” by writing, “Many producers spend a lifetime trying to make one of these … and never really come close.”
I couldn’t have said it better. Is it a masterpiece? Maybe, but I’d say not, since it’s a film I’ll probably only watch once, despite its greatness. In short, if the film’s cover photo, title and premise made you decide to pass on watching this movie, I strongly encourage you to reconsider.
Though “Jean de Florette” is a drama that tells a simplistic story, it has unsettling, simultaneous undertones of humor and horror. Without question, it’s an unpredictable movie with some alarming surprises.
I had no doubt that Mr. Torben Bernhard would dazzle me with his film choice, but in selecting this one, I think he’s outdone himself.
As a point of interest, “Jean de Florette” is the movie Torben chose, but it has a sequel called “Manon of the Spring” (also 1986), that I suspect is usually considered inseparable and part of the whole. In fact, the Netflix version includes the latter on the flipside of the DVD, probably because it’s technically Part II. The first was released in the U.S. in August 1987, and the sequel was released that December.
Yes, “Jean de Florette” ends most intriguingly in and of itself, but anybody who watches the first movie will insist on seeing what happens next. And though Part II is the lesser of the two films, overall, they’re both worth the nearly four hours of your time. Oh, and the first film’s MPAA rating would be PG, but the second film has one instance of female nudity, which I guess would clock in at PG-13 these days.
I’m going to conclude this post here, without discussing much of the film(s) directly, in hopes that this serves as motivation for you to check it out. I will probably write more later, but I’d like to see if anyone else has anything to say about it this week. You’ll be a better film lover for watching it.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
There are some things you only have to do once:
a.) touch fire
b.) drink V8
c.) eat Grape Nuts
d.) go to Disneyworld
e.) watch “Rashomon”
I enjoyed “Rashomon” the first two times I saw it, but the third time wasn’t a charm for me. To be fair, I had to break it up and watch it in four sittings because of late-night weariness; I didn’t want to sleep through any of it. I still took notes as carefully as I ever have while watching a movie. But I’m probably OK with not watching “Rashomon” again for at least several years.
At the risk of opening an old can of worms, I invite somebody — anybody — to explain to me exactly why “Rashomon” is widely considered one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces. I mean, it’s good — maybe even very good, but I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece. That classification is so controversial and subjective among those in this group, you can just explain why it’s so revered and forget the term masterpiece.
Maybe the point is that we’re all liars (at some point and to some degree), and we can’t even be honest with ourselves. The latter half of the preceding sentence is a recurring theme in “Rashomon.” And really, it’s profoundly true. For the most part, we really can’t be honest with ourselves, so that’s a great assertion for the film to make, because it’s an accurate observation about one peculiar aspect of the human condition.
Also prevalent is the priest’s inner crisis about losing faith in humanity. This is a popular, almost cliché sentiment that we hear weekly, if not daily. People say things like, “Well, with the way the world is today, you never can tell. Nothing surprises me anymore.” And yet, we are surrounded by imperfect, dagger-stealing but ultimately good-hearted baby-adopting people like the wood cutter. A minority of the population is sociopathic, so their colorfulness gets all the attention, eclipsing the goodness of the majority. Think about it, our two presidential candidates have, no doubt, accomplished a number of great things, but if there were 10 proud moments in their careers, we hear about the one where they stumbled, the one where they voted the wrong way and supported the wrong bill at the wrong time.
And I suppose “Rashomon” does justice to the mystery that is perception. We all have a slightly different perspective from one another. Looking into the subjectivity of individual perception is an interest topic for the cinema to explore. You know how it is … ask 10 witnesses about what happened in a traffic accident and get 10 varying versions. There’s an assistant prosecuting attorney in Ohio County, W.Va. named Joseph Barki. When he gives his closing arguments to the jury, he’ll often suggest that the slight variation in the testimonies of his witnesses is actually much more credible than if all the witnesses’ stories were identical. He tells them, we’d have to be suspicious if all their stories matched perfectly. And I think, for the most part, that’s true, because it just doesn’t happen.
There are more observations about human tendencies illustrated in “Rashomon,” and perhaps the effective demonstration of all these phenomena is what earns the film its high praise. Having acknowledged such noteworthy portrayals in the three preceding paragraphs, I will proceed with my critique.
It is brilliant for Kurosawa to clearly differentiate the flashback, testimonial scenes from the present baffled discussion through the use of the torrential downpour at the Rashomon temple. Nice. But how can such filmmaking insight yield and crumble to the over-dramatic, confused anguish of the men having the discussion? “I just don’t understand. I just don’t understand,” the wood cutter laments. And then there’s the priest whose faith in humanity hangs by a thread. They delude themselves into near hysteria right before our eyes with each time we come back to them. But then, I guess people actually do that in real life. I would have just preferred if the men discussed the event because it was interesting, and not because it was ruining their entire lives.
Next, let’s look at each of the accounts briefly:
Tajomaru, the notorious bandit: He saw the girl. He tricked the husband and bound him. He rapes the girl, then he tries to win her heart, asking her to follow him. She says one of the men must die. The bandit cuts the husband free. They fight. The bandit kills the man. The girl runs away.
The woman: The woman’s story starts with the bound husband. She says she was raped. The bandit departs. The husband is angry at her. She has a dagger pointed toward her husband. She faints, and then I’ve never been clear on what she suggested happened next? Did she faint and fall into her husband’s chest, killing him with the knife? That’s what I understood her to say. She claims she also tried to kill herself.
The dead man speaks through a medium: He said he was suffering in a dark hell because after the bandit raped his wife and won her heart, she wanted to go with Tajomaru under one condition: The bandit had to kill her husband. The bandit saw she was a psycho and asked the husband if he wanted her killed. She runs away and the bandit chases her. He returns hours later and sets the man free. The bandit departs. The husband kills himself.
The wood cutter’s account: He saw the husband tied up. He saw the rape then the bandit begging and pleading with her to marry him — or else. She wanted the two men to fight it out to decide which one she would follow. The husband didn’t want her any longer and told his wife to kill herself. The bandit was walking away when the two men got into an argument. The woman turned completely nuts and ridiculed both men, instigating their duel. The bandit kills the man.
Now, if you look at their accounts, while trying to account for their motivation to lie or tell the truth, it really doesn’t make sense. The bandit admitted to raping the woman and killing the man. What else did he have to lie about? Why would the woman admit to accidentally stabbing her husband? The dead man/medium story is not believable for more than the obvious reasons: The bandit doesn’t scratch himself as he is wont to do in the other accounts, and that idiot bandit would never be responsible enough to return after several hours to cut the man free.
Interestingly, one could pick out a story where each person’s actions didn’t add up, but the woman’s actions don’t make sense in any of their stories. Maybe she was hooking up with the wood cutter? But seriously, we never learn what really happened. The point is, the actual truth is probably somewhere intermingled between all the accounts. That’s probably what Kurosawa was trying to show us. Even so, we can’t make sense out of the characters’ motivations.
And, there again, maybe Kurosawa was depicting that we can’t explain or account for human motivation. No, we can’t understand what people do and why they do it. Maybe “Rashomon” is a masterpiece after all … and when comparing it to a paltry modern-day variation of the same idea, like “Vantage Point,” it definitely qualifies as such.
On Sept. 4, I submitted a quick little post suggesting that Sarah Palin reminded me of Frances McDormand's character Marge Gunderson from "Fargo" (1996), a film we've previoulsy discussed at length, including the passive-aggressive phenomenon that is "Minnesota Nice."
Well, I always feel good about myself when I'm in alignment with Roger Ebert (notwithstanding his views on "The Village"). He has a blog called "Roger Ebert's Journal," and on his Oct. 3 post he wrote the following after her debate with Biden:
When [Palin] was on familiar ground, she perked up, winked at the audience two or three times, and settled with relief into the folksiness that reminds me strangely of the characters in "Fargo."
Palin is best in that persona. You want to smile with her and wink back. But who did she resemble more? Marge Gunderson, whose peppy pleasantries masked a remorseless policewoman's logic? Or Jerry Lundegaard, who knew he didn't have the car on his lot, but smiled when he said, "M'am, I been cooperatin' with ya here."
Monday, October 6, 2008
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
I'll gladly be the first to stick up for the movie. First of all, you should understand that to me to compare a movie to The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now is very high praise. I guess the issue of how "exciting" these films are depends on one's definition of excitement. For me, it's thrilling and extremely entertaining to watch the friction and tension between Plainview and Sunday unfold such as when Plainview denies Sunday the chance to bless the well at the ceremony. It's a small thing I guess, but I loved it, I think I laughed out loud, not because it was funny but because I could feel incredible tension brewing. Actually it begins before that when Plainview first eats with the Sundays, and Eli isn’t fooled by the quail hunting front Plainview poses, and you can really see the blood boiling under the mustache.
Jason described wishing the film’s tension and characters had escalated as the film progressed. I don’t know why our experiences were so different watching, but that’s exactly what I felt happened. The thing is, Plainview isn’t just a one dimensional character, he has many aspects to his bizarre personality and he goes back and forth between the man who sees nothing to love in humanity to the man who really seems to want a meaningful relationship with his son and fake brother. The most telling moment in the film is his celebratory dance when they discover the ocean of oil under their feet at the same time little H.W. is going deaf in the arms of strangers. He’s made his choice already but even in his twisted view of the world, he knows this isn’t right which causes him real guilt when facing accusations either real or imagined that he is a neglectful father.
One day, I’m going to come to you in the middle of the night and cut your throat!
As for the ending, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s full of resolution. We see the conclusion of two very important relationships in his life. It’s not a very pleasant resolution, but why would it be? This isn’t A Christmas Carol, this man didn’t learn anything. He embraced the “competition” in him and clung to his view of other human beings as not worth loving. He chose a very isolated life looking for gold and oil all apparently to prove something to others--to gain advantage over them or whatever. Along the way he stumbled into fatherhood which should have proved to be very gratifying in the long run. But raising the boy always took a backseat to that original pursuit and at the film’s end when he’s achieved that success and now has nothing to pursue, he looks around and finds his son no longer wants to be associated with him. So he throws him out and disowns him. That’s how he treats family. Unfortunately for Eli Sunday, his enemies don’t get such kind treatment. In addition to Plainview getting his fortune and success, he ultimately also gets his revenge. He humiliates then kills Eli. We are left feeling very empty and dissatisfied emotionally which is exactly how we should feel. This character devolves into essentially and animal--worse actually because animals don’t kill for revenge or fun. He lets evil overtake him. It’s a powerful message that doesn’t give a happy feeling, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have resolution and dramatic power. I for one was very happy to be in Paul Anderson’s hands for 2 ½ hours watching this wonderfully rich psychological movie unfold in completely surprising and unexpected ways. I had a nearly identical experience the first time I saw his masterpiece Magnolia.
On a side note, didn’t you all find it odd that when Robert Elswit accepted his Oscar for best cinematography he said they were all just standing on the shoulders of Lewis’s performance. It’s an amazing performance no question, but I felt like all the attention on Lewis overshadowed P.T. Anderson’s incredible direction.
Also, I will write a comment on Badlands soon, which, spoiler alert, I also love.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
“Yes, the devil is in your hands, and I will suck it out.
Now, I will not cast this ghost out with a fever, for the new spirit inside me has shown me I have a new way to communicate: It is a gentle whisper …
Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here, ghost. Get out. Get out of here, ghost.
Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here, ghost. Get out of here.
Don’t you dare turn around and come back — for if you do, all of the armies of my boot will kick you in the teeth, and you will be cast up and thrown in the dark and thrashed back to perdition.
And as long as I have teeth, I will bite you. And if I have no teeth, I will gum you. And as long as I have fists, I will bash you — now get out of here, ghost. Get out!” --- Eli Sunday
I love watching loose-cannon characters in the cinema. You just never know what they’ll do next — and when they do it, we’re always shocked, but not surprised. Daniel Plainview is one such example. A better example of a true loose cannon, however, is Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas” (1990).
I acknowledge the well-known fact that “There Will Be Blood” is an adaption of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 “Oil!” novel, but Plainview should have been a “looser cannon,” more like Pesci.
I know, I know — review the movie they made, not the one they didn’t make — but this observation correlates directly with the film’s foremost flaw. Here is the problem:
Plainview is a character who is overcome by his passion and obsession of being “an oil man.” Indeed, his preoccupation with his career leads him to madness by a flaxen cord. As we watch this man quickly slip off the deep end, we get the sinking feeling that his acts will escalate. And they do. But Plainview’s insanity should have been physically manifested exponentially, because he becomes exponentially crazier than when the movie begins in 1898.
In other words, he should have really gotten nuts, like Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito character in “Goodfellas” does. If the character would have blown himself up (figuratively not literally), then the movie would have actually gone somewhere and we wouldn’t be left with this unsatisfying ending.
Yes, one could argue, that the ending reflects the empty, miserable dissatisfaction that Plainview had with his own life. Perhaps. But the concluding line “I am finished,” then a black screen just doesn’t do it. “No Country for Old Men” (2007) does a similar thing. Both films are adaptations. Both films were nominated for Best Picture last year. The latter won.
This sans-closure ending is a novel trend (double entendre), hip to the 2000s. I guess, of late, we tend to regard the tidy, convenient happily-ever-after endings as a decades-old, clichéd convention, which they are. No, life usually doesn’t unfold that way. And that’s fine, but “There Will Be Blood” begins with such promise, it needs to keep that promise. I was enthralled by the painful and dangerous depictions of the first 20 minutes. I was hooked. But then the movie meanders out of focus into insignificance. It doesn’t escalate as it should; instead, it peters out.
But still, I very much admire “There Will Be Blood.” In fact, I am often impressed with Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. His “Punch Drunk Love” (2002) was just about perfect, almost a pure masterpiece. Unfortunately, I find myself at a loss for words on how to accurately describe why I admire Anderson’s movies, such as “Punch Drunk Love” and “There Will Be Blood.”
Call it simple-minded, but I am a sucker for a movie that convinces me that its world is real. If a movie is realistic, it’s already half won me over. And high praise belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano for their performances. I appreciated those two counterpoint characters. I love how, on the surface, they seemed to represent clear-cut, black-and-white, good and evil. But neither was a likable or admirable or good character. In fact, I found the zealot preacher Eli Sunday pretty much despicable. Usually, I was rooting for the oil man. Also, I loved the ominous, uneasy soundtrack. It heightens the dread of the loose cannon.
It’s a well made film, no doubt, but “There Will Be Blood” is like an unfinished railroad track: It doesn’t go anywhere.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
I hated this movie. All the boredom of a drama where nobody dies, all of the distaste of a film that glorifies the bad guy who you hate. The only solace I have in the film is that the oil baron will ultimately get his comeupins when the authorities look into the preacher's murder, and that the preacher himself got the ax.
It was a beautiful film, and I'm not surprised it earned best picture, but it had about as much entertaining value as "The Deer Hunter" or "Apocalypse Now." Sorry to all those of you who loved it. I'm not a worse person for having seen it, but I didn't see anything profound or interesting about the film, or at least nothing that comes to mind about which to comment. The acting was great, I guess.
I do really like movies, and I don't consider myself one of those people who feel like they have to hate all movies to have valuable opinions about them....
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
What would Juliet have done if Romeo had taken out a few more Capulets and an assortment of others who just annoyed him along the way? That was one of the questions to run through my mind as I watched Badlands, in which two crazy kids get into some misadventures outside of the backseat of a car.
But what sets Kit and Holly apart from other couples (Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde, Syd and Nancy, etc.) is that they just don’t seem to be that fond of one another. Sure, Kit’s rampage starts because he wants and cannot have Holly, but their chemistry is minimal onscreen. She comes across shy, awkward, inexperienced, and wanting to be nothing more than the naïve girl she is. And Kit…well, the closest he comes to offering a dove of peace is handing a white chicken over to a friend he later shoots (Cato).
My theory? Holly’s involved far more than the film ever lets on, but since the dead can’t talk, Holly’s the one to get the voiceover and the power to guide our gaze.
There are plenty of examples of unreliable narration. Holly has a tendency to go on and on in flowery terms about her relationship with Kit, but the most we ever see of their intimacy is some uncomfortable kissing. Most of the time we get a mismatch of purple prose overlapping the stark setting and all the waste depicted: garbage, littering, Kit’s tendency to eat a piece of fruit and then toss the rest of it. She cries a bit when her lover shoots her father, but otherwise she acts like a curious child around other victims. She doesn’t run, doesn’t intervene. But we’re supposed to assume her innocence.
Perhaps one of the most telling sequences is the one in which the film fades to sepia tones like a newsreel. Holly regales us with the news back home of their infamy, their reputation, even how her old teacher talks about her while the National Guard is being called out on the manhunt. Her manipulation of what we see is echoed toward the end when she says she doubts Kit really had a flat tire. Voila, we see him shoot out his tire, check his hair, put on a hat, check his pulse, and stack some rocks so he can have a landmark where he was captured.
What we see is Kit’s guilt. What’s suspicious is Holly’s utter lack, even if she asks if her dead father is going to be dead. Oh, and poking the likewise dead Cato with a stick? Creepy.
There has to be more to this dull teen than her Southern belle vacancy. The sheer implausibility of the characters, as discussed by Jason, can in part be due to the fact that we have flawed narration. As the saying goes, history is written by the winners. If marrying your lawyer’s son can be considered a victory of any sort.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Also, happy birthday to Oliver Stone, Tommy Lee Jones and it would have been Fay Wray's birthday, too.
Enjoy "There Will Be Blood" this week, everybody.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Jason - your comments were great. And I appreciate your emails giving me ideas about what to say about the film. I get your point, and it's well taken.
My problem with the film is that the characters, in my opinion, are completely unrealistic. Here's my perspective. My youngest three brothers are adopted, and each of them have severe fetal alcohol syndrome. They have all suffered from impulse control problems, and one of them has had a difficult time understanding consequences of his actions. Also, as a criminal defense attorney, I see lots of adults who have failed to figure out life.
Sheen's character, although almost amusing, was completely unrealistic. So was Spacek's. Both kids were far too removed from reality and consciousness to functioning at any level. Spacek's character had no history of trouble, and although her father was extreme, nothing leads me to believe that she didn't love her father.
I'm not saying that kids don't act without thinking, but we are to believe that some great period of time went by as the characters create a "Swiss Family Robinson" type living situation by the riverbed, and I don't buy it. The story on which this (and other similar sprees) film is based occurred in a comparatively short period of time. This makes sense because even irrational and impulsive kids come to grips with their actions after a period of time.
I also didn't buy that Sheen's character would shoot his tire at so he could get caught. I didn't see his character as enjoying the lime light. He just wasn't daring enough.
I hope I haven't stepped on anyone's toes, but I just didn't like the film at all. I saw "Bonnie and Clyde" about four weeks ago, so admittedly I'm comparing the two films. In fairness though, I didn't really care for "Bonnie and Clyde" either, although the character development made more sense to me.
Friday, September 12, 2008
by Jason Pyles
I love movies that could actually happen but shouldn’t. Life’s full of things like that. Freak accidents and weirdoes abound. Take the spelling of “weirdoes,” for example. It just doesn’t seem right, does it?
And so is the saga of Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargus, two kids that appear to be dumber than a hoe handle.
The opening shots of “Badlands” are telling. We see Holly sharing her bed with an animal, a big dog. Foreshadowing. After she meets Kit and is discussing the encounter with her father, we see her sitting to the left of the screen with a huge sign pointing in her direction that reads “BAIT.”
What makes the movie for me, right off the bat, is the dialogue, particularly Kit’s verbal oddities, such as “I’ll give you a dollar [if] y’eat this collie.”
Or his hilarious grasp for the obvious: “Somebody dropped a bag on the sidewalk.” Then, a second later: “You’re a redhead!” We quickly get the impression that Kit doesn’t think too much; no, whatever pops into his head falls out of his mouth immediately. Not only does he think out loud, he behaves out loud, too — like when he shot his buddy Cato and regretted it soon thereafter.
This character development lends credibility to Kit’s nature. He’s obviously a zero, so we’re not all that surprised when he starts shooting people and burning down Holly’s home. And we only wince a little when Kit dreams up brilliant ideas like this one:
“You know what I think? We should crunch our hands with this stone. That way we’d never forget what happened today.”
This guy is an idea giant.
“Badlands” pays attention, though. It has some echoes of justice, like when Holly’s father mercilessly shoots her dog as punishment, then the same thing befalls him. The only thing I didn’t “buy” about this movie was Holly’s reaction (or lack thereof) to her father’s murder, but it turns out, that element was apparently true to the events that inspired this story. As I said, “ … things that could actually happen but shouldn’t.” (I guess the other hard-to-swallow- element of “Badlands” is the elaborate jungle-home that rivals the Ewok village. I don’t think so.)
It’s undeniable, though, that “Badlands” closely mirrors the story of Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, “Badlands” was released just six years after Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Indeed, “Badlands” was actually quite tame after the groundbreaking violence (for U.S. film) depicted in “Bonnie and Clyde.”
And again, in 1994, we have “Natural Born Killers,” Oliver Stone’s critique on how the American media glamorizes and “celebritizes” notorious menaces to society, like serial killers. We get a little bit of that, too, at the end of “Badlands.” Perhaps this movie influenced Stone.
We also get other neat touches that show us that Terrence Malick, the writer, producer and director of this film, cared about this project: For instance, how many movies have a stereopticon? Or a Dictaphone? Or a message-carrying balloon? Or the burying of a time capsule — as well as a serial killer?
No, there’s really no point to this movie, other than the dramatization of the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree of the late ‘50s, upon which “Badlands” is based.
For those who are interested, according to the Lincoln City Libraries Web site, Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate are still, to this day, considered Nebraska's most notorious mass murderers. Their horror story began when Starkweather, 19, killed a gas station worker in December of 1957. In January 1958, Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Fugate began an eight-day murdering spree that started with the murder of her family, and eventually led to 10 deaths before they were captured outside of Douglas, Wyoming. Starkweather was convicted of murder and executed at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 1959. Fugate was also convicted and her initial life sentence was commuted to a 30- to 50-year sentence in 1973. But in 1976, after serving 18 years, Fugate was paroled and eventually resettled in Michigan.
Truth is stranger than fiction. But you see what I mean? This kind of stuff — and worse — could happen, and does happen. (Someday we should discuss the merit, if you believe there is any, in depicting such atrocities of humanity in film. I believe there can be merit in such depictions.)
But if I had to identify a point to “Badlands,” and what makes it intriguing, is the shocking nature and unexpected turn of events associated with their adventure. It’s like Holly says in her voice-over narration, “It all goes to show how you can know a person and not know ‘em at the same time.”
Or, like Floyd "Mac" McClure of "Gates of Heaven" said: "When I turn my back, I don't know you, not truly. But I can turn my back on my little dog, and I know that he's not going to jump on me or bite me. But human beings can't be that way."
I suppose that's true to some extent. I always expect the end of "CSI" to reveal some monster, but the murderer is always just a regular-looking human being. Maybe the only difference between us and a criminal is at least one really bad decision. Yes, we unpredictable humans will surely supply the cinema with an everlasting source of subject matter ... and the justice system with never-ending clients.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Thursday, September 4, 2008
I don't intend to spark a political conversation, despite my death penalty comment in the previous post and what follows here:
Of those who watched Rep. VP candidate Sarah Palin's speech Wednesday night, were any of you reminded of "Fargo's" Margie Gunderson and "Minnesota Nice"? That's what her accent and delivery reminded me of.
"He's still my guy."
Sunday, August 31, 2008
By Jason Pyles
After watching a movie like this, it’s nearly impossible to resist the temptation to discuss its target, which in this case, is the American justice system. Indeed, the object of movies like this is to antagonize us into some heated debate with one another or ourselves. We are supposed to be emotionally stirred, as well as entertained.
In this way, “And Justice for All” works, though it’s not without its problems. I liked its “day in the life” approach to showing us defense attorney Arthur Kirkland’s challenges. It’s great when a movie can enable us to step outside our lives and see what another person’s problems are.
But because it’s a movie, with limited time to tell its stories, the cases we see are covered with relative brevity and most of them are fantastical. I know it’s not impossibility, but come on, a judge who’s a rapist — and he happens to be our hero’s arch enemy. Movies “swing for the fence” to ensure that we’re sufficiently entertained, but for me this often detracts from my willingness to become emotionally involved because it’s so unlikely. Also, the insufficient coverage of each of his defendants made it more difficult for us to really become emotionally invested in each person’s plight. Consider how much more perverse it all would have seemed had we gotten to know the rape victim better.
I think what is a little unusual about this film is its peculiar tangents, such as the wacky helicopter ride, and Jeffrey Tambor’s plate-chucking extravaganza, and the suicidal judge in general. Now, before anyone writes me, I realize that these two characters’ mental break-downs were supposed to depict the madness that comes from being submerged in such a flawed system. I get it, but it is still a weird depiction.
At times, this movie is unmistakably trying to be funny, which I thought was bizarre. Perhaps the following comment isn’t too unusual, but I’m always surprised when a serious “message movie” like this takes the time to be goofy.
Let me tell you a story that’s not directly related to this movie:
I am a reporter for my local newspaper, and I cover the criminal courts. Recently I covered a high-profile murder case where two young men got in a fight over a woman and one was shot. It was a remarkably ambiguous case with no smoking gun, and to prove that assertion concisely, I heard more than one lawyer say it was the hardest case they’d ever worked on.
After sitting in on the proceedings, taking careful notes, I concluded that the kid was innocent. It was an unfortunate situation of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I think it was ultimately an accident or self defense. I personally believe the kid who got shot was the aggressor and the one who brought the gun (which by the way, was never found). But in the end, the jury found the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which carries a potential sentence of three to 15 years in prison.
When the defendant heard the verdict, his reaction was one I’ll never forget: He was visibly shocked, and it is my opinion that his horrified weeping and utter astonishment was that of an innocent man.
During the trial, it was more or less established that he was a pretty good kid, insomuch that the judge let him go home with his family on probation to await his sentencing. (How often have you heard of someone convicted of murder permitted to stay at home with his family for two months?) I’ll also be covering his sentencing which is set for September.
Anyway, I was appalled, during the trial, to notice members of the jury sleeping in the courtroom during the defense attorney’s remarks. I believe they had already made up their minds or simply didn’t care too much about this young man’s life that was hanging in the balance.
This experience was enough to convince me, as this movie suggested, that our legal system isn’t perfect (which is reason enough to seriously reconsider the death penalty). But as the movie depicted with Pacino’s character, there are still good people who try their best to get it right, like Andy Howell, for instance.
All that being said, though I’m not completely at peace with the way things work in the American legal system, I haven’t been able to come up with a better idea yet, and I believe we typically try our best to give people a fair trial, so I guess it will have to do for now.
See? The movie worked. It got me ranting. Good selection, Karl.
Note: We've got one more week for this movie, then we'll be doing Barrett Hilton's recommendation, which is "Badlands," starting Sunday. And next week, I think we'll probably go back to weekly movies, instead of biweekly.
Friday, August 29, 2008
And now I shall bore thee!
This was the first movie I ever went to in the theater by myself! I was 16 years old (pushing 17) and already being a staunch idealist and an American loving Irish immigrant (I'd been in America 6 years at this point) - I was hoping for a Jimmy Stewart ala Mr. Smith Goes To Washington experience even though I hadn't seen that movie yet and didn't know it existed until I took a film class in college. But my favorite characters and historical heroes have always been those whose stand up for what is right even if they have to stand alone. So from that perspective Al did not disappoint.
This was also the first movie I had ever seen where I learned and realized that an actor alone - can carry a story and in fact make the story. Most of you who've watched this flick for the first time now - will probably not be able to see the "big deal" of what I'm describing because you had to see in the theater with an audience.
The final courtroom scene is now famous and because of the many great performances that have graced the screen since this film by other equally great actors - it may seem quaint at this point in time. But Al's monologue when he finally gets up to deliver his opening statement had me on the edge of my seat. Because up until that point - you truly don't know what he's going to do. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater.
He literally has you hanging by a thread until you see him getting a little emotional and his voice gets a little quieter - he leans into the jury just slightly, and with his eyes watering a bit and an ever so slight quiver in his voice - he delivers that magical line that only Al could - "Because - she's not lyin'!"
At that moment the entire audience - including me - gasped audibly and your gut instinct about him is confirmed; and then, again as only Al could, he finishes what is arguably one of the most famous and rousing monologues in movie history. When he is being dragged out of the courtroom the entire theater was on its feet cheering. And for a few hours afterward you absolutely love and have faith in the American justice system.
I've seen it a dozens times at least and I still get choked up watching it - because (as Andy pointed out) you realize that he gave up his career to do the right thing. I actually delivered that monologue once myself for an acting class in college and it was very easy to feel that emotion.
I'm sure most of you are thinking - "Uh ...what movie did he see?". As I mentioned, by today's standard, it seems a little dated . And I remembering asking a friend of my step-father's at the time who was a recent law school graduate what he thought of the movie; he responded that while it was fairly accurate, he said the odds of a single lawyer going through all that with the different clients would be almost impossible.
Another thing I learned watching this was how great actors can really draw you in. The scene where Author's partner and friend pull him into the bathroom to tell him why Flemming has been arrested - you find yourself laughing as hard as they are not because what they are saying is that funny but because the sincerity of their laughter is completely contagious.
Oddly enough one of the few critics that really liked this movie when it came out was Roger Ebert. A lot of critics thought it was over the top. And they may be right - but for a 16 year old boy in love with truth, justice and the American way - it was bang -on!
Thursday, August 21, 2008
I hate lawyer movies, but it's not just because they don't get it right. Here's my background: I am an attorney. I am a career public defender. I love it, I have no apologies, and I don't want to do anything else. I do get weary from answering "how do you defend someone you know to be guilty," but I smile and give an answer that I hope will reeducate the inquisitor of our fundamental system of government and justice (that he or she should have learned in 8th grade US History). Yes, I'm a little bit of an elitist when it comes to the subject, and if you ask me, I'll tell you that Jesus was the ultimate public defender.
So here's my problem with lawyer movies: the movies either seem to glorify the defense attorney who fights through the stigma of defending someone he/she knows to be innocent but whom the general public believes to be the worst of all criminals; or, the movies vilify the attorney who practices unethically and gets or attempts to get his client acquitted of criminal charges to which the client is unquestionably guilty. The movies never seem to address the attorney who fights hard, but ethically, for a client who may be guilty but where the evidence is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I'm not sure that it would make a good Hollywood story, but I've got several clients/cases with varying outcomes that would accurately depict the one impossibility in our system of justice: determining the truth. In most case that actually go to trial, the truth is impossible to know. As a defense attorney, it is my responsibility and duty to bring to light any and all facts that might present a defense to a charge, or that might cast doubt on the guilt of my client.
Oh that's right....I was writing about a movie. "And Justice for All" really tries to show the many facets of a law practice. He has an innocent client for whom he is desperately trying to exonerate. He's got a client who has participated in a crime, but for whom a level of culpability was not certain (the tranny). And then he's got the unrealistic high-profile bad man who wants him to cheat and be unethical. The latter, in my experience, doesn't generally exist. I and my fellow defense attorneys do not and would not fabricate evidence or allow its introduction, nor would we knowingly allow our client to perpetrate a fraud on the court. We just wouldn't do it. As much as we believe in the constitution and in protecting people charged with crimes, we believe in law and order. I like cops and prosecutors, and as a citizen, I want them to do a great job and properly prosecute those charged with crimes.
So what really bugs me about this movie is that the story ends with Pacino deciding between continuing with his career (and in so doing cheating through a rape trial) or divulging that his client is guilty and the scum of the earth (and in so doing violating his client's confidentiality and causing his disbarment from the legal profession). It's ridiculous. It never has to be that way, but I grow weary of attorney movies that suppose the dilemma. By the way, the resolve in "The Firm" is a perfect example of how it should work (though I am not ready to comment further on that film).
I also didn't care for the arc of the friend who loses it when a guy he gets off of a murder charge "because of a technicality (or as I like to call it the "constitution")" turns around and kills a couple of kids. Preposterous, but without the underlying facts it's too difficult to make an appropriate comment.
Beyond those small little complaints that nobody else will care about, the movie was fascinating. I loved the many arcs that the movie carried, and I thought Pacino was masterful. The movie was delightfully uncomplicated despite its many twists and turns.
Nice pick Karl. Great movie- especially if you are almost legally insane and feel the urge to chuck plates down a corridor at various government officials.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
I've been busy, but my delay in writing a comment about "Sunrise" was mostly due to failing to come up with something interesting to say. Obviously it's a brilliant film. I thought it was daring of the film team to write a story about a man wishing to kill his wife and get away with the murder so he could live with his paramour. It all seemed too 21st century to me, and my wife. Who hasn't thought about murdering their spouse for the insurance money? I mean, it would be so easy, right? Yeah, the cops always suspect the spouse, but if you just planned well enough...and got a little lucky....and were patient and appropriately bereaved...
The brilliance, for me, of "Sunrise," was that I started watching the film believing the wife would be killed and the story would be about whether husband got away with the crime, and I was pleasantly surprised the story went in the opposite direction. In its silent glory, the cast was able to convey a sense of innocent beauty on the initially unsuspecting wife, who, although sensed there was difficulty in her marriage, loved her husband and was almost immediately willing to forgive and trust her husband. I'm not sure that kind of relationship exists today, but it was heart warming, if not dangerously ridiculous.
So there you have it. My brilliant comment. I do enjoy silent films, and although I concede a silent film would never make it with today's viewership, I do think several silent films are among the best films I will ever see (if you have any doubt, watch some Charlie Chaplin and/or "The General").