Sunday, December 30, 2007

Referential Reverse, Part I: ANGELS IN AMERICA

As a movie watcher born in the latter part of the second half of what is now over a century's worth of motion pictures - and still only in my twenties, I've had (and still have) a lot of catching up to do when it comes to classic cinema. I'm sure I speak for much of my generation (film buff or otherwise) when I say that in my experience with that catch-up process, I often find myself encountering what I've come to call "referential reverse", in which the older movies end up bringing to mind the more contemporary films that either parody or pay homage to them. And since I saw the newer films first, the way the homage was intended to be experienced happens in reverse order. Confused yet? Well, consider this: I was nine when the Robin Williams comedy Mrs. Doubtfire hit theaters in 1993. I've probably seen it about thirty times since then. Only now, thirteen years later, can I fully appreciate the reference Williams makes to Gloria Swanson's performance in Sunset Boulevard during his transformation sequence, having just seen the seminal film for the first time this past fall. While I was thrilled to have finally witnessed Norma Desmond in all her glory, all I could think about was Euphegenia Doubtfire.

Countless other movies have given nods to Sunset at this point, including one of my all time favorites, Mike Nichols' HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's play Angels in America. Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning prose is very postmodern (if I can still say that), reviving and referencing literature, politics and film that preceded the era it's responding to - the AIDS crisis of the 1980's. In addition to Sunset, Kushner either subtly or blatantly works a handful of other classic cinematic references into his story and dialogue, from Rosemary's Baby to The Wizard of Oz. Many of these are expressed in the words and actions of Angels' main character Prior Walter; like in an early scene where he informs his lover Louis that their cat has still not come home, and likens his morning experience to Shirley Booth's Oscar-winning role as Lola Delaney in Come Back, Little Sheba. While entertaining, the context of that scene meant nothing to me until I watched Sheba last month. Suddenly, it's all there: "floppy slippers, housecoat, curlers, can of Lil' Friskies," only I don't watch Prior Walter and think of Lola Delaney - I watch Lola Delaney and think of Prior Walter.

Later, when Prior is confessing to Louis the details of his affliction with AIDS, he mocks Louis' insights about justice, saying "we who are about to die salute you." Imagine my surprise during my recent screening of 1950's All About Eve, when I hear Bette Davis' Margo Channing say precisely the same thing.

The Sunset reference takes place during one of the film's more notable sequences, wherein Prior channels Swanson in a dream. Seated before a mirror in full drag, he recites the immortal words, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille," which even at my first Angels viewing were culturally commonplace. But now, they register in the way Kushner intended them to...sort of. His character will always be the first variable in my version of that movie equation, even if it's chronologically incorrect.

All of this might seem painfully obvious, but it happens to me all the time. What makes Angels in America stand out is that rather than having one or two instances from my back-viewings return me to it, I've had over five. A lot of that comes from the richness of Kushner's material, as well as from the fact that all of these titles are not only part of American film iconography at large, but gay iconography in particular. Either way, seeing the originals at long last makes them and their tribute-payer that much more rewarding, finally putting a face to a name.

In closing I've provided a clip from one of Angels' quieter moments, in which Prior and Louis (in yet another dream sequence) dance to "Moon River" from the 1961 Audrey Hepburn vehicle Breakfast at Tiffany's (which I've just seen but first learned about from the 1995 Sandra Bullock vehicle The Net). Go figure.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Other Tom Ford Girl

Remember when this March 2006 Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair made headlines for its racy cover? Since America has far more problems with sex than they do violence, it inevitably raised controversy for its depiction of Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson in the buff (even though the magazine opted for a fold out cover that strategically creased just before the big reveal of Scar Jo's bum and wrapped it in plastic so horny readers would have to purchase for gratification).

And then there's...Tom Ford. The renowned fashion designer literally stepped into the picture when planned third model Rachel McAdams stepped out. Reportedly struck with a sudden case of intense modesty, the actress that would have completed Vanity's proposed approach of presenting a trifecta of Hollywood's sexy new actress heavyweigts left the photoshoot with a vacant seat.

All this dirt about the shoot sparked far more controversy within me than a little skin; not only the curious case of McAdams' absence, but also why the magazine would want to invite the girl next door in the first place. While undoubtedly one of the better actresses of her generation, McAdams lacks the eroticism that Knightley and Johansson bring to the table, as she's more of the lovable Julia Roberts type. And not for anything, but if the magazine was interested in profiling to-be-reckoned-with Gen-Y leading ladies, then Natalie Portman should have certainly been the third body on their short list.

The problem is, Portman would have likely hung up the phone. Though loaded with range and unafraid of button-pushing roles (see Closer), the Harvard grad has been known to shun nudity, and in a recent interview, she claimed that her one regret of late was disrobing for Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited tie-in short Hotel Chavalier. But I can't help thinking - given the clout and mass appeal of the annual Vanity Hollywood issue - that Portman's inclusion would have been the perfect capper to the installment (rather than a spontaneous, last-minute, fashion-friendly take), as she, Knightley and Johansson are undoubtedly the three most promising female talents of their age bracket.

Now comes The Other Boleyn Girl, which is likely the closest my dream of joining these actresses together will come to being fulfilled unless someone decides to remake The Witches of Eastwick. The film, adapted from the novel by Philippa Gregory of the same name, casts Portman and Johansson as sisters Anne and Mary Boleyn, respectively, who compete for the love of of King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) in 16th century England. The poster, though not as direct in its sexuality as the Vanity mag but filled with perhaps even more innuendo, swaps Bana for Ford, Portman for Knightley, and, I suppose, green for Johansson's derrier:

The ironic thing is that Knightley would have been the best choice out of the three to take part in this period piece from across the pond, she being the only one with an authentic Brit accent. I suppose the semi-passable dialects of the other two (see Girl with a Pearl Earring and V for Vendetta) will keep her there in spirit; and while this trailer doesn't really bode well for the movie (making it appear more episodic than epic), I'll be seeing it just for who's involved. Perhaps Tom Ford will make a cameo appearance.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Year in Review

Fall is my favorite season for a number of reasons, a big one being that most of the year's finest movies are held for release until the arrival of the colder months. 2007 was a rarity, in that half of the films that made my list of favorites saw theatrical distribution before September. It was refreshing to have a cinematic year that was evenly sprinkled with great things to see, and even more refreshing to compile a final group this diverse.
I'm not going to pretend that I'm some high profile movie expert (hell, I'm not even getting paid for this), nor was I able to see everything that established critics have already taken in at snowy hill-top festivals with free swag. I'm just an aspiring entertainment writer with good taste and lots of opinions, seeking an outlet to share them with others. Read on and check out what was great, okay and loathsome in '07, so that the next time you hit the multiplex, Blockbuster, or your Netflix queue, you won't be wasting precious money and time. 'Cause after all, I'm Your Buddy.
*As in previous years, this list is subject to change over time and with subsequent viewings.

Thanks to this one-two summer punch, courtesy of new King of Funny Judd Apatow, 2007 saw the emergence of brilliant, hilarious comedy that needn’t resort to senseless folly or unimaginative parody to elicit laughs. Knocked Up sported the bigger heart - with growing up as much a theme as goofing off, while Superbad became the Dazed and Confused for a new generation. Comedy is perhaps the hardest genre to successfully pull off, and Apatow and co. have officially made going to the movies to laugh ‘til you cry cool again.

In the year’s most romantic offering, directors from around the world and an array of recognizable and unrecognizable stars take part in a series of short vignettes celebrating love in the City of Lights. Whether between a couple, a father and a daughter, a mother and a son, an addict and a drug, or a lone woman and Paris itself, that love takes many forms, each expressed in an individual vision and style. Widely unseen and grossly underrated, Paris Je T’aime creatively and collaboratively shows slices of vibrant life, with one of the world’s most beautiful locations as their stage.

American auteur Todd Haynes pays tribute to legendary American poet Bob Dylan by shattering all conventions of the bio-pic and presenting a picture that suggests, of all his adoring and bewildered public, Dylan himself may have known the man behind the music least of all. Six actors play the enigmatic musician in six "phases" of his life, led by Cate Blanchett who falls so comfortably into Dylan’s skin (circa his 1960's transition to electric sound) that it inspires giddy, awestruck laughter. It’s one of the finest performances of the year, and the centerpiece to one of the year’s most original movies.

With an average shot duration of 2.5 seconds, this hyper-kinetic trip around the world is the best of the Bourne franchise and the best, most intelligent action movie of the year. Rather than induce headaches and confusion, the lightning-pace editing - along with director Paul Greengrass' masterful handheld style - allows you to run with Bourne. Matt Damon returns to play him as a ceaseless machine who has no soul because he is constantly, desperately searching for it. The character’s every action is executed with a bravura finesse that mirrors the quality of the film.

More of a world-creator than a filmmaker, the legendary Ridley Scott brings the same meticulously designed life he instilled in classics like Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down to his depiction of the ‘70's Harlem drug trade. You don’t just watch this man’s movies, you feel them through and through, and this classic cop versus crook saga has him joining the titan-like talents of Denzel Washington and Russel Crowe as real-life warriors at odds. The storytelling is first-rate, with the audience often torn with which side to root for, and the film is an engrossing rush from its start to its (albeit shaky) finish.


Rolling out gradually and revealing key plot elements only when necessary, this breakout hit from director Tony Gilroy (who also penned the Bourne films) is an involving thriller of the best kind - in which every moment demands every inch of your attention. In a career-best role as the title character, George Clooney continues to cement himself as one of the most reputable pretty faces in the business; while Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton both turn in tour-de-force supporting work. Brimming with intrigue and stellar performances, this is the year’s smartest film.


Despite its overly long running time, David Fincher’s account of the infamous (and still unsolved) case of the titular killer who terrorized San Francisco in the ‘60's and ‘70's is a head-to-toe atmospheric masterpiece. Crafted in the cinematic style of the era it depicts, and told from the perspective of the journalists and policemen engaged in a decade-spanning hunt, the film plays like All the President’s Men with blood. This is indeed Fincher’s finest work to date (he being the man behind Seven, Fight Club, and Panic Room), infused with a detail as obsessive as its subject matter. Smart and uncompromising, Zodiac may just join the ranks of The Silence of the Lambs in the lineage of great serial killer movies.

With this debut feature, indie fave Sarah Polley makes one of the more dignified actor-to-director transitions of recent memory, putting her in the company of Sofia Coppola as an exciting female filmmaker of her generation. Her film glows, thanks to the luminous Julie Christie (still stunning at 66) and the soft, white light of winter that spills into every frame. Gracefully adapted by Polley from the short story "The Bear Came over the Mountain" by Alice Munro, Away From Her is a testament to selfless love, which can sometimes only come from the weather-worn wisdom of age. This movie breaks your heart in all the right ways.

Sweeping and utterly gorgeous, this period drama is 2007’s sweetest gift to the senses, with a first act alone to which nearly all of the year’s other films pale in comparison. Every field of cinematic artistry is engaged to its fullest and most beautiful potential, notably Dario Marianelli’s unforgettable score and Seamus McGarvey’s lush cinematography. Director Joe Wright re-teams with his Pride & Prejudice star Keira Knightley to even greater effect, but the standouts are the actresses tapped to play the girl whose wrongful actions set the plot in motion. More epic than anything else offered in the past twelve months, Atonement is a monumental achievement.


Structured atop the skeleton of a classic story of the evil that men do, Joel and Ethan Coen’s miraculous No Country for Old Men will likely last the ages as a veritable work of genius. The brothers capture the desolate beauty of the vistas of West Texas with immaculate composition, and fill them with riveting drama but no musical soundtrack. In its place is the click-click-boom of guns, locks, trucks and broken bones, the ominous blow of a desert wind, and the weighty dialogue and breath of well-drawn characters. No other film in 2007 inspired such an immediate need for a second viewing at its close, and no other stood so flawless a model of literary adaptation and craft.


Featuring fiery turns from Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and especially the uber-intense Philip Seymour Hoffman (who was everywhere this year), this air-tight heist drama is constructed by veteran director Sidney Lumet with the zeal of a fresh up-and-comer.

Imbued with the soulful music and sticky heat of the South, Craig Brewer’s follow-up to Hustle and Flow is sexy and daringly unique, taking an idea that looks poisonous on paper and executing it with killer style.

Feeling as American as the true story it depicts and as director Sean Penn himself, this project is bursting with passion and heart. As the doomed Christopher McCandless, Emile Hirsch gives one of the year's most moving performances.

Bearing a whip-smart script, the language of which may have a lasting effect similar to Clueless, this very right-now heart warmer is being compared to last year’s Little Miss Sunshine. It’s better, and it’s impossible not to love.

Technically not a musical, yet entirely musically driven, this little Irish import sweeps you up in its beautiful love story and even more beautiful soundtrack, which are in many ways one and the same.

Robert Rodriguez’s first and far superior half of the GrindHouse flicks is a bloody, wonderfully over-the-top valentine to the medium itself and one of the most fun times to be had at the movies this year.

The year’s best animated feature is also arguably one of the most sophisticated ever, made for those who appreciate the finer things in life and the children who love them.




Any film that assembles a cast boasting Meryl Streep, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson, Glenn Close and Eileen Atkins had better give such a remarkable lineup of actresses some rich material with which to work. Evening doesn’t, and seeing that much talent stuck in a film this flat is remarkably depressing.

Whereas Rodriguez’s Planet Terror embraces the cigarette-burn-filled, missing-reel-highlighted, throwback allure of the GrindHouse project, Quentin Tarantino’s comparatively lackluster contribution is little more than an outlet for the director to plug his past work. Entirely too self-aware and existing on some real planet of terror where everyone talks and thinks like QT, this disappointment should be permanently erased from the otherwise brilliant artist’s filmography.

Studded with one of the most beautifully ridiculous casts ever put together, this awkward apocalyptic satire is the visual definition of when the child at play within a filmmaker bests the artist at work. Intermittent moments make evident director Richard Kelly’s inherent talent and stylish eye, but the collective result plays like the fever dream of a scatter-brained fanboy. When the most entertaining part of your movie is Buffy as a philosophical, bone-headed porn star, you’ve got trouble.

In one of the biggest cinematic let-downs in years, director Sam Raimi closes the best superhero franchise in movie history not with a bang, but with a loud, messy, over-stuffed thunderclap. Even in the world of comic book adaptations, less is still more, and with three villains, two love interests, way too many special effects and way too long a running time, anything less would have been appreciated.

A must to avoid for Jim Carrey fans especially, this beyond-ludicrous exercise in the terror of numerical coincidences places the once-funny man in situations in which he was never meant to be seen (note: body-length vine tattoos and rough, carnal sex). The criminally misplaced Virginia Madsen phones in her scenes, and box-office poison Joel Schumacher is so busy trying to be smarter than his audience that he misses the fact he’s insulted them.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Top Ten's: A 5-Year Retrospective

It was 2001 when my interest in movies officially evolved from a mere obsession to a bona-fide passion, thanks to two films that were released that year. I was away at college when I first saw bits and pieces of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. While the only connection I had to the series was reading The Hobbit in grade school, one viewing assured me that this was something really special, something that would forever change the way I and the rest of the world look at movies. My encounter with Mulholland Drive was one of chance - I rented it with leftover cash one night having been attracted to the cover design. Had I known it was going to limit the night's sleep to less than one hour, I might have left it on the shelf.

So began my nose-dive into a more mature and refined pool of cinematic tastes, with the deep end looking far more attractive than the shallow. For me, LOTR exemplified the wonderment of impeccable craft - displaying eye-popping spectacle without losing substance, and Mulholland introduced film's ability to haunt and enthrall through mystery and beauty. The two landmarks of my viewing history ripped the art form wide open, and I've never looked back. They remain two of my top favorites to this day. From that point on, movies went from favorite hobby to primary interest, and I began listening carefully and watching as much as possbile. In 2002, the lists and reviews started.

I've come to find that with each passing year, the films that appeal to me most become more and more regognizable, and as I grow my opinions and tastes become more and more my own. To pave the way for my forthcoming Top Ten List of 2007, here are my top picks of the last 5 years - the time between 2001 and now, the time in which my filmic palate was considerably sharpened.

10. Children of Men
09. The Devil Wears Prada
08. Babel
07. The Queen
06. Notes on a Scandal
05. Volver
04. Little Children
03. United 93
02. Shortbus
01. The Departed

10. Nine Lives
09. Sin City
08. The Constant Gardener
07. Munich
06. Walk the Line
05. Good Night, and Good Luck.
04. King Kong
03. Syriana
02. Crash
01. Brokeback Mountain

10. Fahrenheit 9/11
09. Ray
08. Dawn of the Dead
07. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
06. Million Dollar Baby
05. Bad Education
04. Closer
03. Kill Bill Vol. 2
02. Sideways
01. The Aviator

10. City of God
09. Kill Bill Vol. 1
08. Finding Nemo
07. Mystic River
06. Lost in Translation
05. Monster
04. The Barbarian Invasions
03. 21 Grams
02. Angels in America
01. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

10. Panic Room
09. Far From Heaven
08. The Ring
07. Spider-Man
06. Chicago
05. Igby Goes Down
04. Adaptation
03. Talk to Her
02. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
01. The Hours

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Dark Knight Cometh

Speaking of posters, I've already got my early favorite for 2008, and this trailer has brought my inner child screaming to life. From what I can see, Heath Ledger seems to have disappeared into his role as The Joker, as the best hope for a strong superhero franchise presses on. Presenting my most anticipated film of next year:

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Film Is Not Enough

Posters of the Year
The skill, taste, beauty, intelligence and wit that goes (or doesn't go) into a movie’s poster design can (and should) have a strong effect on how I feel about the coming film. For instance: a massive image of Jim Carrey’s face with 2's and 3's scrawled all over it is not a good sign, especially when it conjures up memories of a comedy about liars ("The g---amned pen IS blue!"). As a viewer and enthusiast of film and all other art, design is so important. The following are my favorite posters of the year, the films of 2007 with the most beautiful faces:

Across the Universe
"All You Need is Love" - and, apparently, a big splatter-ific strawberry amidst the stars. The poster for Julie Taymor’s love song to a bunch of Beatles love songs is a perfect representation of her style as a director: strange and beautiful.

The Bourne Ultimatum
You know you’ve made it big when simply the back of your head will suffice. Matt Damon’s third outing as Bourne is arguably the best of the series, and this image has a subdued allure that reeled me in.

Charlie Wilson’s War
This one’s here for breaking the mold. It’s too perfect and glossy to be a still from the film, yet it seems candid enough to be; and it manages to establish setting, tone and its three main characters in one shot. Oh, and did I mention Julia’s hair?

Michael Clayton
I would have loved to have been in the board room for this one, when the idea was pitched to blur the MAJOR star’s face and then cover it with text. It worked tremendously well, evoking the film’s themes of digging through corruption... Who am I kidding - people still went to see Clooney.

Black Snake Moan
To illustrate Craig Brewer’s bold, sweat-soaked tale of down-home redemption, the studio opted for a bold, tattered, comic book approach. It’s perfect, it’s hilariously gratuitous, and it probably lured hordes of horny teens who were confused to find that the movie’s actually got brains.

Lust, Caution
This is simple, sexy, and the year’s best use of shadow. The high contrast says mystery, and the Chinese character betwixt the two words says exotic. I haven’t seen this film yet, but I’m sold on this poster.

Margot at the Wedding
Margot gets the prize for best use of negative space and one of the better implementations of color this year. Like they say over at iPod, white is dramatically simple, and that pink lid - matched with the name in the title - immediately cements the star of the show. Don’t you wanna hang this one in your living room or something?

There Will Be Blood
One of the few posters brave enough to opt for just text, it's disguised as a book cover and dressed up in an Olde English font. Then there's that one, thin red line down the center...just in case you were confused after reading the title.

3:10 to Yuma
Composed of scattered, haphazard-ish Old Texas typeface, and putting an anonymous gun-slinger front and center, this poster stylishly screams Western. Fitting, since many declared 3:10 as the return of it.

Honorable Mention:
Planet Terror
This one did an amazing job of expressing the tone of the ‘70's flicks it celebrates, while simultaneously becoming instantly iconic. No one will ever forget Rose McGowan and her fully automatic leg, but it’s SO recognizable at this point, that I left it out of the Top 9 for reasons of obviousness.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Thunder and Wind

No Country for Old Men (5 stars out of 5)

No Country for Old Men is a film you want to see again the second it’s over, if only to retrace its last few moments. I don’t want to give the ending away, but let’s just say it involves words both prophetic and reflexive; words quietly spoken just to make sure you’ve been listening. It's surprising how easy they are to miss - I’ll need another viewing to get their full meaning - because this movie is all about listening.

In the opening monologue, the character played by Tommy Lee Jones (who also utters the last lines of the finale) muses over his career as a Texas sheriff and observes, "You can't help but compare yourself against the old timers. Can't help but wonder how they would've operated these times" (I wrote that one down). If Fritz Lang could operate in these times, it would probably be in a similar fashion to that of Joel and Ethan Coen. Their approach to adapting Cormac McCarthy’s No Country novel is easily comparable to Lang’s approach in creating his most memorable masterpiece, 1932's M. Both films center around and are motivated by a search, or rather, a hunt (though in the Coens’ film there are more than one); but more importantly, both are devoid of any musical soundtrack. Despite some subtle stylistic enhancements, everything you hear in this film is generated by the characters (their words, their guns, their breath) and the environment they inhabit. Such a bold choice is a difficult one to attempt in a film, let alone succed, given the emphasis it and we put on the importance of music for dramatic effect. The attempt pays off with filmmakers of this caliber at the helm, and watching this movie is a reminder of how dramatically successful silence can be. How that silence, whenever and however interrupted by the slightest sound, gives that sound a heavy potency. One of the more powerful examples is when a character, while driving across a steel bridge, fires a gunshot at a bird perched on one of the side rails. The bullet misses, but it sends the bird flying off and emits a ringing echo that reverberates throughout the frame of the bridge and the shot. Its resonance is palpably greater than if it were scored.

Thunder and wind serve as the soundtrack for No Country, an often riveting thriller set against the expansive vistas of Texas and captured by the Coens’ impeccable compositional eye. The hunts taking place are set into motion when Llewelyn Moss, a retired welder played by Josh Brolin, stumbles across a briefcase packed with two million dollars of drug money in the middle of the desert. Aware of the fact that people who’ve misplaced a dollar amount that high will stop at nothing to retrieve it, Moss sends his naive wife (an excellent Kelly McDonald) to stay with her mother, and begins a seemingly destination-less quest to conceal himself and the cash. Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) is the man who is after him, wielding an air-powered stun gun, a silenced shotgun, and an empty space where remorse and emotion should be, and Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is the man after him. Both Moss and Chigurgh are highly resourceful men, and as one evades the other’s relentless advances, the film’s unique sound design flexes its muscles most wonderfully. As Moss continues to find ways to remain hidden and Chigurgh does search-and-destroy with a surgeon’s precision, we experience their actions more through what we hear than what we see. Consider when Moss pulls some bills from the briefcase for pocket money - you may not see how many hundreds he removes, but you hear how many times he counts with his fingers. Bell is the less resourceful one, who despite his best intentions, is way out of his league and knows it.

Both Brolin and Jones are experiencing career-highs this year, with Brolin turning in fine work here and as a corrupt cop in American Gangster and Jones earning raves for his role as Bell and as a mourning father in In the Valley of Elah. But Bardem is the one receiving most of the accolades, mainly because his Chigurgh will become one of the iconic screen villains of our time. Quirks like unconventional weaponry, a trademark admiration for coins, a bob haircut suggestive of a demonic, Scream-era Drew Barrymore, and skin and eyes as soulless as the killer behind them make the character recognizable. Bardem makes him unforgettable. This will be remembered as his crossover project - the film in which American audiences were exposed to what those who embrace international cinema already knew: Bardem is a dynamite performer, capable of bringing life to even the most lifeless of roles.

Like Bardem’s performance, the miracle of No Country for Old Men is how Joel and Ethan Coen make so much of very little. As they did with Fargo over a decade ago, the brothers have imbued simplicity with great skill, taste and restraint. McCarthy’s story is fascinating, but brilliantly basic, at most having something eloquent to say about the evil that men do. The Coens’ saw something else in that story, something that could be lifted and transcended into the language of cinema. The heights they’ve lifted it to make it a model of both literary adaptation and first-class movie making. What they’ve crafted could (and very well may) be used in film schools to teach future makers how it’s done. This is the best movie I’ve seen all year, and I can’t wait to see it again.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Critics Weigh In

Some of the major critics groups from across the nation have announced their pics for the best in film in 2007. Big shout-out to Nathaniel from for being the one source for all things LIST. Another big shout-out to virtually every association for heeding my advice in the stylish support of Ms. Amy Ryan (but, seriously, are they all crazy?!? I mean, Ryan was pretty good, but did they even see Cate in I'm Not There?!?). I'm not understanding, but here are some of the most noteworthy results, which collectively can be big Oscar indicators:

The National Board of Review:
Best Picture: No Country For Old Men
The rest of their top ten: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Atonement, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Bucket List, Into the Wild, Juno, The Kite Runner, Lars and the Real Girl, Michael Clayton and Sweeney Todd.

Boston Society of Film Critics:
Picture: No Country For Old Men
Director: Julian Schnabel The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Actor: Frank Langella, Starting Out in the Evening
Actress: Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose
Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Screenplay: Brad Bird, Ratatouille
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski, The Diving Bell and Butterfly
Documentary: Crazy Love
Ensemble: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
New Filmmaker: Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone

Los Angeles Film Critics Association:
Picture: There Will Be Blood
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Actress: Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose)
Supporting Actor: Vlad Ivanov (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)
Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead)
Animated (tie): Ratatouille and Persepolis
Screenplay: Tamara Jenkins (The Savages)
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski (The Diving Bell and Butterfly)
Production Design: Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood)
Documentary: No End in Sight
New Generation: Sarah Polley (Away From Her)
Legacy Award: Milestone Film & Video and Outfest Legacy Project
Douglas Edward Indie Award: Pedro Costa (Collossal Youth)
Music: Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova (Once)
Career: Sidney Lumet

New York Film Critics Circle
Picture: No Country For Old Men
Director: The Coen Bros, No Country For Old Men
Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Actress: Julie Christie, Away From Her
Supp Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
Supp Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Screenplay: The Coen Bros, No Country For Old Men
Cinematography: Robert Elswit, There Will be Blood
Foreign Film: The Lives of Others
Animated Feature: Persepolis
First Film: Sarah Polley, Away From Her
Documentary: No End in Sight

San Francisco Film Critics Circle:
Picture: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Director: The Coen Bros, No Country For Old Men
Actor: George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Actress: Julie Christie Away From Her
Foreign Language: The Diving Bell and Butterfly
Documentary: No End in Sight
Screenplay: Tamara Jenkins, The Savages
Adapted Screenplay: Sarah Polley, Away From Her
Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Broadcast Film Critics Association:
PICTURE: (10 Nominees) American Gangster, Atonement, The Diving Bell and Butterfly, Into the Wild, Juno, The Kite Runner, Michael Clayton, No Country For Old Men, Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood

DIRECTOR: Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd), The Coen Bros (No Country For Old Men), Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), Sean Penn (Into the Wild), Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and Butterfly), Joe Wright (Atonement)

ACTOR: George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl), Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), Viggo Mortenson (Eastern Promises)

ACTRESS: Amy Adams (Enchanted), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth the Golden Age), Julie Christie (Away From Her), Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose), Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart), Ellen Page (Juno)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilsons War), Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild), Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There), Catherine Keener (Into the Wild), Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement), Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone), Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)

The Big Winners (so far):





And, of course:

*Catch my original Oscar Nomination Predictions here:
Kurtis - Oscar '07

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Cinema Cool

Ten style must-haves courtesy of the year's best films.

10. Cheap Food: The titular dish from Ratatouille and the clever confections in Waitress made for decadent dining without breaking the bank. And if rodents and down-home diner servers can make it look good, anyone can.

9. Stolen Little Miss Sunshine Property: Rendition director Gavin Hood tapped Alan Arkin to add to his Oscar alum cast, P.T. Anderson nabbed Paul Dano to play a priest in his drama There Will Be Blood, and even Sean Penn lifted the broken-down bus for the melodramatic finale of Into the Wild. If Tim Burton puts Sweeney Todd extras in little girls’ tutus, then last year's surpise hit will indisputably be the new Gucci.

8. White Jeans: Heath Ledger rocked a pair in I’m Not There, and August Rush's Jonathan Rhys Meyers sported them in his pre-umpteenth-booze-bust photo shoot for Details magazine. Winter schminter - be bold and match the flakes in ivory denim.

7. Amy Ryan: If ever you’re feeling like you’re not up to par, wrap up this New York stage-born actress and carry her around in your purse or man bag. In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and especially in her much buzzed-about turn in Gone Baby Gone, Ryan plays window-dressing like a pro.

6. Unconventional Weapons: Javier Bardem wields a bovine stun-gun in No Country for Old Men and Johnny Depp carries a straight razor in Sweeney Todd, proving the more creative the instrument of death, the better. So start raiding your grandfather’s medicine cabinet and your uncle’s barn, because guns are so last season.

5. Straight Westerns: 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford may have given the cowboy epic back to heterosexuals, but they still kept pretty gents like Christian Bale and Brad Pitt in the saddles. The re-return of cowboy chic may be soon to follow.

4. Cancer Sticks: If Keira Knightley and James McAvoy’s chain-smoking couple in Atonement and Cate Blanchett’s perpetually puffing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There are any indication, cigarettes are officially cool again. Extra points if you’re under interview or wrongfully accused stress.

3. Blonde Coifs: Michelle Pfeiffer and Queen Latifah both sported them to great effect in Hairspray, and Julia’s platinum ‘do from Charlie Wilson’s War was such a hit it made the cover of Vanity Fair. Highlights are a thing of the past - reach for the whole bottle.

2. Naked Brawls: 2006 saw Borat’s lurid, car-accident analogous rumble in the buff, but 2007 made nude sparring sexy. Viggo Mortensen’s bathhouse romp in Eastern Promises, Ray Winstone’s impossible body-double’s monster mash in Beowulf, and a war waged by 300 loincloth-clad soldiers confirmed that if you wanna fight like a man, it’s best to do it sans clothing.

1. Baby Bumps: Thanks to Juno and Knocked Up, two of the year’s best comedies, it’s never been more hip to be pregnant, and extra points if it’s covered in figure-flattering stripes. Ellen Page will likely be up for an Oscar, and Kate Heigl got to gab with Babs as one of the year’s “Most Fascinating.” So ladies, if you wanna be center stage, better ditch that morning-after pill.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Note - (almost) Perfect

Atonement (4.5 stars out of 5)

As I begin this review, it's impossible not to hear Dario Marianelli's instantly classic score ticking away in the background. Cleverly infused with the keystrokes of a typewriter, the music is but one of the many elements that make Atonement this year's sweetest gift to the senses. Directed by Joe Wright (2005's Pride & Prejudice) and adapted by Christopher Hampton from Ian McEwan's best-selling novel, the film, from all technical and cinematic standpoints, is a stunning work of art. The first act alone, in which an unspoken desire is consummated and a confused witness sets the plot in motion, is Best Picture material. Had the flow not been interrupted by a crucial, yet semi-obtrusive middle chapter, I'd be calling this the best movie of 2007.

Atonement is being sold as a sweeping romance between the characters portrayed by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy (both fine in their roles, with the latter showing promise miles away from Narnia). That it is, indeed, but the kicker is that the story is really about the young girl who tears their love apart. The title refers to her own quest to make amends, shown eating away at her in three stages of her life. The three actresses that embody these stages give the film's standout performances, most notably newcomer Saorsie Ronan as the youngest incarnation. Her bright blue eyes and what they see (or don't see) act as a catalyst toward the road the film will follow, and in a dual-perspective approach, we get to view the action both through them and as it truly occurs. Paired with Marianelli's composition, Paul Tothill's editing makes such instances not gimmicky, but slick and vital; and in lesser scenes as simple as a character dressing for a dinner party, the cuts are as crisp as the suit being donned. This is classy filmmaking, with every aspect of cinematic production utilized to its utmost, beautiful potential.

The girl's actions ultimately send one lover to war and leave the other to wait, and within this unwelcome shift in tone lies the film's only weakness. All the events that build up to said point take place on a well-to-do estate in 1930's England, and are captured with the soft glow of Seamus McGarvey's lush cinematography. While the separation and the invasion of a very real World War II are key components to the story, their part in the film (save for one ambitious and expansively long take) feels like an invasion in itself. When night falls on an estranged and war-ravaged McAvoy, there is a deep and almost painful longing for the exquisite style that reeled us in. It does return, and while one could argue such longing is precisely the point, a movie with this much elegance and vivacity deserved a smoother transition. When the final twist (which favors shock value over a hefty emotional pull) ties a neat little bow on the journey we've taken and sails us through picturesque scenery, my only wish was that it could have done so throughout.

*Oscar Alert: I mentioned more behind-the-scenes names here than I normally ever do in a critique. That's because I want to familiarize myself with them. Come January, it's likely all of them will be announced for Academy Awards competition, along with a few others. Nominations for Picture, Director, Cinematography, Original Score, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Art Direction, Editing, and Sound all seem sure bets for Atonement, the lavish epic I've been waiting for.

Haynes' Dylan Dream

I’m Not There (4 stars out of 5)

It’s hard for me to write a valid critique of I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’ visionary meditation on the varied identities of Bob Dylan, because I’m not a devout fan of the man and his music, nor do I know a great deal about his life... er, lives. Since I’ve been awake and breathing since 1984, I do know that he’s one of America’s greatest and most influential poets, and that the extent of his celebrity as an artist is vast enough to warrant an event picture in which six different actors play him. I went to see this film with a friend who is a Dylan fan - a big one, and when asked what his overall reaction to the movie was, he replied saying he felt that Haynes captured the enigma of Dylan just right. As my friend tells it, nobody’s ever really known who Dylan is; and if the film is accurate, then throughout his career, Dylan appears to have known least of all. He’s depicted here as being many people - quite literally. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Ben Whishaw, Richard Gere and young Marcus Carl Franklin are his eclectic faces, each of which it seems he wore and tossed away like an old hat. Dylan’s indecision (or perhaps, inability) to stick with a single persona has no doubt made his allure that much stronger, and it suggests that he’s been a puzzle not only to his public, but also to himself. And it makes for a hell of an interesting film.

I’m Not There is unlike any movie about a person I’ve ever seen before. I’m intentionally avoiding the term "bio-pic," because that’s not what Haynes has done. There is no rise and fall here, no obligatory headlines flashing at the screen, not even a conventional narrative (the segments are shown in semi-chronological order, but with an almost emotion-driven inconsistency). And while Dylan tunes play throughout and stage acts are featured, there’s not a show piece to be found (a la Walk the Line); for it’s not so much about the music as it is about the curious facets of the man underneath. What Haynes has created is an interpretive portrait of one elusive artist from another. There’s a romanticism present that illuminates a great admiration that the director must have for his subject - and no doubt a kinship, as Haynes too remains an enigmatic figure. If you’ve never looked into him, you’ve likely never seen his face, and his resume as an American auteur is as diverse as the actors he’s assembled for this project.

Apparently Haynes was going for attitudes more than likenesses when dreaming up the casting for his brain-child, as Franklin is black and Gere (aging and scruffy or no) is nowhere near a ringer for the folk-rock legend. The most avant-garde of choices was Blanchett as Dylan when he first went electric in 1965, but it pays off so incredibly well that it’s safe to call Haynes a genius for it alone. Anyone who’s seen D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back will be floored by Blanchett’s segment. She is that Bob, complete with the swagger, the smoking, the somewhat falsified disdain for anything "important," and the insistence of brushing off reporters’ probing questions with the arrogance of a stubborn teenager. If there was ever any doubt that Blanchett is the heir to Meryl Streep’s throne as the greatest living American actress, it’s confirmed with this performance, one that is so layered it will be talked about for years. It’s less a portrayal than a full-on embodiment, and even that doesn’t sound like the proper acclaim. Her own Oscar-winning turn as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator feels like mimicry in comparison, and she and Haynes play with the gender aspect with just the right amount of "we get it" irony. She is the centerpiece of this uniformly well-acted biographical fantasy, with Bale taking second place as Bob, the lifelong tortured artist.

Blanchett’s contribution is so good that the other portions start to pale in contrast once she’s made her drumroll-preceded debut. By the time Gere takes his bow as an older Dylan trapped within the quasi-imaginative realm of his lyrics (or at least, that’s how I read it), I was deep in Cate-land; and I’m Not There begins to wane as it runs on too long after each of the six Dylan songs have reached their crescendo. That doesn’t stop it from being one of the most original films of the year, in which a vanguard of one medium pays tribute to a pioneer of another.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

First Post: Favorite Films

For the first posting on my first ever, very under-construction blog, I thought I'd get right to the point and answer that pesky question that every film enthusiast gets asked sooner or later. The favorite movie inquiry is something I myself am extremely guilty of; in fact, it's often my ice breaker when meeting new people. I actually think this is a terrible question, because at this point in cinema's history, with all the wonderful films out there to see, who could possibly settle on one? As an avid viewer, I could see something tomorrow that could become one of my favorites - striking me in some unexpected emotional way and changing me forever (it's happened before). For now, I'll settle on six. Six of my own personal favorites that have all had a lasting effect on me and my passion for motion pictures.

6. "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928)
A stylistic masterpiece that transcends time. Renee Maria Falconetti gives one of the greatest performances I've ever seen in a film - and it's a silent picture.

5. "Pulp Fiction" (1995)
This may seem like a stock choice, but I truly believe Tarantino's "Pulp" script is one of the greatest in cinema's history. It twists, it crackles, and it ushered in the movie geek-as-auteur generation of directors.

4. "The Hours" (2001)
Someone recently asked me what types of films I like most, and I replied: "Stylish, artistic pictures and well-written, well-acted intimate dramas." For me, this just might currently be the epitome of both. Oh, and um, the cast...

3. "Mulholland Drive" (2001)
Still the most mysterious and elusive movie I've ever seen. I own what is now nearly 500 DVD's, and this is by far the closest to being worn out. If it were possible to film a dream, it would probably look somethin like "Mulholland."

2. HBO's "Angels in America" (2003)
Aside from this being an epic masterpiece of an adaptation featuring talent to burn, "AIA" got me through a highly difficult and emotional time in my life. I just might know Tony Kushner's
brilliant prose verbatim.

1. "The Lord of the Rings" (2001 - 2003)
Again, perhaps an obvious choice, but I don't care. I like to consider these films as one, and that one is the single most astonishing thing I've ever seen committed to film. I feel priveleged to have been alive when this trilogy was created, and I doubt I'll ever see its equal.