Monday, August 31, 2009
Three episodes in, it's time to talk Mad Men Season 3. Spoilers, ya hosers.
“My Old Kentucky Home” is a carnival of surprising character vignettes: Roger dons blackface and sings, Joan plays the accordion (!) and sings, Paul gets high and sings, Peggy demands marijuana, Pete and Trudy dance the Charleston, Jane falls down drunk and grabs Don’s belt buckle. Together they sound garishly un-Mad Men. But that’s not new: to date, Season 3 has felt soberingly distant from the past two years of Mad Men with the office dynamic irrevocably changed.
I’m not just talking about the British invasion, although Jared Harris and Moneypenny are excellent additions to the cast, if regular, sad reminders that Bert Cooper is no longer head honcho (though he is thankfully now a series regular). Roger’s position is also in flux as is his formerly rock-solid relationship with Don, and Pete and Ken are competing for the same position. Peggy’s found a happy place finally, but Joan is out of sorts in her final days as office maven. This isn’t the Sterling-Cooper we’ve come to know and love.
Luckily, the shake-up at Sterling-Cooper has only made Mad Men more intense, with a vague sense of unease hanging over every scene at the ad agency. It helps that the historical scope of the series, generally confined to early 20th century America, has been expanded to a global stage and is currently preoccupied with the Roman empire. Between Paul’s obsession with Roman ruins and Price’s suit of armor (not to mention the sex-and-death of Cooper’s latest Hokusai and Gene’s nighttime reading), I think the stage is set for a barbaric downfall, underscored by our knowledge of where the season is heading: Margaret’s wedding is scheduled for the day after Kennedy is shot.
The series is still obsessed with identity. Last night revealed that Paul’s insufferable sophisticate personality is, thankfully, a put-on. Joan is, expectedly, the perfect hostess, but she’s no shrinking violet, and her preparations to become a housewife have compromised her office dynamism. Also adapting to their new roles are Roger, Peggy, Pete, Ken, and Sal, who delivered the performance of the premiere. Speaking of which, the season opens with a shot of Don’s bare feet, purportedly a symbol of his naked self, his true identity, though the imagery leaves something to be desired, no?
If Season 1 launched Jon Hamm into the pop hunkosphere and Season 2 elevated January Jones, so far Season 3 seems to be Elisabeth Moss’ time to shine. That’s not to say Moss’ Peggy Olson hasn’t been an entrancing favorite for years now—she just earned an Emmy nomination—but here she is front and center, the only character who is perfectly comfortable with her status in the world, and the one the audience can safely root for.
Between “I’m Peggy Olson, and I want to smoke some marijuana” and “She’s taken to your tools like a little lesbian,” I feel comfortable saying this season is the funniest yet, although Mad Men has always been pretty funny, a characteristic overlooked amidst the scores of “soap opera” dismissals.
As Matthew Weiner has told anyone who will listen, this year is all about change, and how people respond to change. Fitting for a decade noted for its volatile fracturing of the American dream. Three episodes in, we have some tastes of which characters are headed where, and who will be left behind, but I imagine the heft of the iceberg lies ahead.
By individual pieces, Mad Men Season 3 has been a charming, complicated return to my favorite television drama, but it’s not quite the same. At this point last year, we had just met Bobbie Barrett and hadn’t even touched on the coming Betty Draper awakening, so I have no doubt the season will only tighten its grip on me. But my responses aren’t as enthusiastic as they were after each of the first three episodes in Season 2. There’s much to love, but outside of Sal’s scenes in the premiere, not much substantial has happened yet, certainly nothing on the level of Pete’s father’s death or Don groping Bobbie.
So I’m pleased as punch to have Mad Men back, and I love the little pieces like Joan’s conversation with Moneypenny and Joan playing accordion and Joan being Joan. I just hope these pieces start to resemble a monument more than a ruins.
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Sunday, August 30, 2009
In the Loop, Armando Iannucci’s hysterical satire of the American/British bureaucratic machine, is the funniest film since Superbad, and probably before that. The laughs are so swift and consistent you have trouble keeping up with the byzantine plot, which tracks the fallout from a dim British cabinet minister accidentally implying to the press British support for an American invasion of a Middle Eastern nation.
From there, we meet Peter Capaldi as British press officer and marvelously irascible sarcasm artist Malcolm Tucker, a veritable Cyrano of obscenity whose genius even includes toning down his rhetoric for polite American ears: “Eff star star cunt!” Tucker is a man of no ideology, a powerful force at the will of his prime minister—which is to say he is a slave to his career, and the film’s antihero.
In the Loop is full of people without conviction, portraying London and Washington as worlds of careerism and grudge matches. You can guess the outcome of the buildup to war, despite the best efforts of State Department squawker Mimi Kennedy, “armchair general” James Gandolfini, and a glimmer of conscience elsewhere in the cast. The effect is not unlike that of Syriana, predicated on the corrupt self-interest of government players, and Burn After Reading, illustrating the incompetence of both the Kafkaesque system and its participants, only In the Loop is grounded in a believable, relatable workplace where intimidation can railroad any agenda and relationships unwittingly lubricate escalating crises. In other words, In the Loop feels obscenely plausible.
The best script of the year, which has time between Faulknerian pop epithets and War of 1812 jokes for a slapsticky mouth-bleeding as if in response to the sharpness of the tongues on display, is served by breathless editing and an impressive ensemble that also includes Tom Hollander as the accidental catalyst and Chris Addison as his spineless, green aide. Armando Iannucci’s verite style keeps us in the thick of it, and he wisely limits us to a core cast of middle managers and assistants, so sometimes we have more information than the hapless characters, but we’re not immune to surprises from the higher-ups.
The past few years have seen a spate of half-baked political arguments couched in melodrama, but nothing has come close to the timeless trenchancy of In the Loop. Now if only I can spin some Oscar buzz.
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Saturday, August 29, 2009
I can’t stop thinking about Inglourious Basterds, which is probably my favorite Tarantino film. Get thee to a cinema, and then drop in. Spoilers abound.
A running theme in Tarantino’s work is the interconnectedness of man. His inciting incidents without fail cause butterfly effects that tie together, say, a French-Japanese translator and a Texas strip club owner. Almost every movie connects two or more characters, but what distinguishes Tarantino is his penchant for constantly throwing surprising and disparate parties into the mix until the plot is fit to burst. In Inglourious Basterds, we have one event—the theater massacre of Hitler and his senior staff—that unites Jewish-American vigilantes, a French dairy farmer, a Nazi war hero, a British film critic, a Jewish theater owner, and more.
Titling the film Inglourious Basterds has the curious effect of labeling each of these characters as such, not just the self-described Basterds in the chapter of the same name. It’s whimsically pidgin, and pleasantly appropriate considering the film prepares us for some truly glorious events but leaves each of its characters bereft of any meaningful praise. Perhaps most importantly, the title orthographically represents the film’s European western style: “Inglourious” adheres to the King’s English, and “Basterds” is a Western (American) dialect.
The trailer reel put me in an eye-rolling mood, but as soon as the feature started, as soon as I tasted Tarantino’s western flavors—in Nazi-occupied France, no less—I was tearing with joy. The chapter title, the Morricone-with-a-classical-twist score, the landscape shots, and of course the plot of the opening chapter firmly establish Inglourious Basterds’ western fetish, and this Leone-lover was in heaven. The rest of the film introduces us to a violent band of Apaches who find themselves in a Mexican standoff at a saloon with a bartender cautiously fingering the trigger.
While the film retains its western feel throughout, this war flick is actually something of a movie flick, which is to say that Inglourious Basterds is a flamboyant pastiche. You probably noticed the climactic effect from The Wizard of Oz, the darkened window from The Empire Strikes Back, the doorway shot from The Searchers, not to mention the explicit namechecks of Pabst, Linder, Riefenstahl, and Le Corbeau, on top of countless other homages like the Academy-ratio Nation's Pride which incorporates Eisensteinian montage. And, of course, the Wilhelm scream. As others have noted, Inglourious Basterds is a film about a disastrous movie premiere orchestrated by a war hero turned actor, his theater-owner love interest, her projectionist boyfriend, and a German actress double agent in attendance, with nitrate film as the A-bomb that ends The War. A badass film critic figures in too, but the entire film is a string of behind-enemy-lines play-acting, from the opening where a French farmer pretends to assist his guest while secretly, desperately trying to protect the Jews he’s hiding and a Nazi detective toys with his prey before revealing he knows exactly where his quarry is kept to the ill-fated Italian masquerade at the film premiere of Nation’s Pride.
Oh, and all things Shosanna, the self-appointed resistance agent played by Melanie Laurent, with not only the film’s most compelling story but one of Tarantino’s most moving performances. While Christoph Waltz steals all the well-deserved awards buzz for his high-cartoon portrayal of Colonel Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds boasts an engrossing cast—outside of the glaringly out-of-tune Eli Roth—including, shockingly, Diane Kruger, looking fresh off the set of A Foreign Affair. Brad Pitt chews and dominates, and only Tarantino would pair 2008’s Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards (Michael Fassbender for Hunger) and Worst Actor at the Razzies (Mike Myers for The Love Guru) to great effect.
But back to that title phrase: we enter the world of Inglourious Basterds aware of its interest in linguistics, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Much of the film revolves around which characters speak which languages, including several deft shocks (the Gestapo agent’s English is disarming, ditto Landa’s Italian). The center of the film is the lunch meeting between the hyperGerman Goebbels, the French-and-English-only Shosanna, and the multilingual Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruehl) and translator (Julie Dreyfus). Goebbels blows a casket when his party speak French for too long (which is about three lines), altering the dynamic and injecting suspense into the narrative almost as adeptly as the pulse-pounding soundtrack that accompanies the arrival of Landa at Shosanna’s shoulder. Later, Archie Hicox’ German accent is suspicious, and Aldo Raine’s Tennessee Eye-talian adds to the mountain of evidence at Landa’s disposal as the hawk plays with his rats.
There are widespread rumors of audiences walking out of Inglourious Basterds due to its talky nature and dependence on subtitles, which seems to prove Tarantino’s point. Don’t you Americans speak any languages other than English? You can’t expect to spend time with Nazis and French Jews and hear them all speaking English like it’s To Be or Not to Be. Language aside, I adored how the film slowly builds its war, introducing the French, then the Germans, then the Americans, then an Austrian, then the British—throw in some Italian and a reference to the Prague ghetto, and you got yourself a war goin’, baby!
Inglourious Basterds is most fascinating for how much is going on at any one time, from the ostensible surface narrative, the characters’ hidden agendas, and Tarantino’s thematic interests to the cinematic orgasm in all the details. I can’t wait to see it again—with such a suspenseful film, I hope repeated viewings deliver the same thrill during the escalation of Chapter 4 or the strudel interrogation—but at the moment, I’m inclined to agree with Tarantino. This may well be his masterpiece.
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Tuesday, August 25, 2009
When I reached 50 westerns, I made a top 10 list, so I wanted to do something to commemorate my landmark documentary count. I really have no place ranking the best documentaries without beholding Errol Morris, Frederick Wiseman, or Leni Riefenstahl. Instead I’d like to draw your attention to the extraordinary year we had for documentaries in 2008.
In alphabetical order, here are my five favorite documentaries from last year, one of which was nominated for an Oscar. Indirectly, all five films were bested by Man on Wire, which is interesting and slickly executed, but not nearly as dazzling, distinguished, or challenging as any of these films. Without further ado, let’s take a quick tour of Mobile, Antarctica, Liverpool, Winnipeg, and Lebanon.
Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog
Once you embrace Herzog’s pseudoscholastic approach, Encounters at the End of the World becomes a fascinating journey to the intersection of the world’s most unstuck crazies and an extreme landscape that is as much physical as psychological, a dimension where mental spelunking propels us to the farthest reaches of the universe. The unifying thread among Herzog’s motley collection of Antarctican subjects is the sheer insignificance of man, but the effect is not one of depression but uplift. Thanks to his penchant for indulging in spectacle, Herzog has that rare ability to spin apocalypticism into inspiration, and Encounters is the best of his ‘00s docs.
My Winnipeg by Guy Maddin
Like Encounters at the End of the World, My Winnipeg illustrates the personal is universal, and like the next two films on my list, My Winnipeg is a portrait of a city, but this is not some dry press tour. No, the words in the title are equally important--Maddin’s Winnipeg is a black-and-white expressionistic carousel of remembrances, some of it flying by so fast and sounding so strange you can’t believe your ears. Like Winnipeg’s two taxi services, one of which sticks to the main streets and one to the backalleys. Interweaved with Maddin’s investigation into his own childhood via a thorough recreation of his family life, My Winnipeg is, like two other films on my list, a uniquely imaginative rebellion against the rules of documentary filmmaking.
Of Time and the City by Terence Davies
An intricately woven tapestry of poetry, music, anecdote, and exceptionally choreographed stock footage, Of Time and the City realizes Liverpool as, above all, the home of Terence Davies, an offputingly trenchant gaytheist whose childhood of sexual and spiritual guilt has hardened but not decimated his abiding love for his city. Shelly’s "Ozymandias" sarcastically welcomes us to the town whose claim to fame, still, is the British pop music invasion of the ‘60s, and right off the bat you know Davies has an unexpected take on the town. We later discover he prefers classical music to the electric guitar—like another biting iconoclast, Bunuel—and I won’t ruin his take on the Queen’s coronation, which is simply delicious. Of Time and the City is like spending an hour and a half with a marvelous storytelling pedant; Davies’ unassailable tone can be frustrating, but you can’t help but fall under his spell.
The Order of Myths by Margaret Brown
The best of the documentaries I hadn’t seen in time for my best-of list last year, The Order of Myths is a tender, intimate film that nevertheless lives up to the grandeur of its title. As one of the characters reveals, Mardi Gras is the last bastion of segregation, at least in Mobile, Alabama, the evocative setting for a nuanced, poetic look at race relations in modern America. You see, Mobile has three Mardi Gras parades nowadays: one all-white (MCA), one all-black (MAMGA), and one that was recently founded as an integrationist parade. The latter has one white member. But this is no incendiary polemic. Only one scene got my dander up: since the MCA owns the floats and rents them to the other organizations, we are treated to an infuriating scene of half-joking ribbing on MAMGA's leader by his white masters, and his smiling submission is a demonstration of tremendous grace. Still, the film is surprisingly hopeful, as inroads are made among the youth, and Brown ties it all together with a biting monologue about the significance of Mobile’s trees set to shots of said trees destroying the town’s foundation. The metaphor resonates, but Brown devises a brilliant, audacious conclusion that truly distinguishes The Order of Myths.
Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman
I had never seen an animated documentary, and with an opening dream sequence I was questioning the film’s genre classification. But Waltz with Bashir must be animated not only out of practicality—an early subject only allows sketching; no filming—but art. You see, this film is primarily about memory, specifically a repressed memory of atrocities during the Lebanon War, so animation after the fact is the only appropriate style. As the film follows Folman’s quest to piece together events that seemingly nobody remembers entirely—including an intense survival story that involves swimming down the coast—we behold stunning animation that adeptly conveys the film’s eerie, ominous atmosphere. Taking its name from a centerpiece absurdity, Waltz with Bashir is more than a clever conceit; it’s a confession.
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Thursday, August 20, 2009
The film style I miss most nowadays, particularly amidst the slow-and-steady resurgence of the western and musical, is film noir. Sure we’ve had the occasional detective story or insurance scam (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; The Man Who Wasn’t There), not to mention a healthy amount of noir-influenced works, but straight noir is ever more scarce. Cue The Man from London by Béla Tarr, whose high-contrast existentialism forges a fitting marriage to noir's psychological expressionism.
Set at a slatternly portside railyard in France, the opening is perfectly at home in the pantheon of Tarr’s tracking shots, only the bleak lamentation of Sátántangó and the plaintive wonder of Werckmeister Harmonies is replaced by a seedy, unwittingly thrilling voyeurism as our protagonist Maloin, a nightwatchman alone in his tower, witnesses a low-rent smuggling operation. Soon enough, the smugglers are fighting in the distance, and the one with the contraband suitcase falls into the ocean as the other reluctantly escapes without his cargo. Naturally Maloin takes a jaunt down to the pier to investigate—Tarr’s camera fluidly following his descent into this moral gray—and while he doesn’t find a body, he manages to recover the briefcase, a financial buoy to this struggling worker.
From there, it’s all midnight intimidation, formidable investigators, and eavesdropping on clandestine tavern rendezvous. Tarr may not be especially interested in backalley plot machinations—he takes over two hours to navigate a story that seems fit to burst halfway through—but his epic tracking shots establish the grim atmosphere and deftly engage our senses. He’s transforming us from innocent bystanders into unwilling participants, and when the smuggler stares up at Maloin threateningly, we feel nervous. It doesn’t help that the camera watches the inciting crime from a sealed port tower. After ten minutes of tracking inexorably around the room whose only escape is down the ladder to the docks, when the murderer heads our way, we feel caged.
I counted 28 shots, but even if I’m off by a couple, Tarr easily bests his Werckmeister virtuosity in this arena. But while many reviewers find his style here soulless—technically accomplished but empty of feeling—I was utterly rapt. Tarr’s tracking shots don’t merely place us in the action but weave us into a web of salty seaside scheming as waves crash against the pier like nagging reminders that Maloin’s moral debt must inevitably be paid.
The Man from London stumbles when it comes to Maloin's unidimensional family life, but even if it took the time to flesh out his screechy wife, wearily played by the luminous Tilda Swinton, or his meek daughter, it doesn’t aspire to the comprehensive commentary of Werckmeister Harmonies. Tarr is content to settle into his noir trappings with an evocative mood that ambles between creepy, exhilarating, and meditative, imbuing his surface plot with the gravity of a man grappling with morality.
By the time the plot is said and done, the existential burden remains, and like the characters, you feel used and dirty. Tarr has crafted a film noir unconcerned with manmade legal ramifications but rather nature’s moral accounting. By spinning the web around us, The Man from London has a sneaky power to seep into our very souls. It’s a wonder I yearn for more.
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Tuesday, August 18, 2009
I would highly recommend Jody Hill's Observe and Report, but the ending is frustratingly toothless. Spoilers to follow.
Observe and Report made waves earlier in the year thanks to its attempt at a humorous date rape scene, but it’s the ending that really diminishes the film, which until that point is a disturbingly funny portrait of a deranged man whose associates are Lynchian oddballs and social misfits and whose playground is the Romero hellscape of a flickering fluorescent mall, a prison of creepily cheerful primary colors that is gleefully immoveable against its employees' ambitions. Seth Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is not the picture’s only sociopath, but he’s the one given the benefit of full exposure, revealing a somewhat honorable moral code and a sweet naivete, thanks, of course, to his poorly exercised mental faculties.
The greatest success of the film is the masterfully controlled mood, a ‘70s undercurrent of dark anarchy running through even the cheeriest department store escapade. Much as we sympathize with our bipolar mall cop hero, we never excuse him, and in fact anticipate the trauma of his confrontation with the real world like parents deliberating over a necessary punishment.
The climactic chase sequence begins to deliver the perfect ending for this subversive comedy. As Ronnie mechanically races after the flasher who has been inadvertently taunting him like an elusive housefly, taking a moment to punch another of his lengthy list of nemeses, scored to the Pixies’ eerie phantasmagoria “Where is My Mind?” the stage is set for a horrific awakening—at last, even a world so absurd as to maintain his employment through the rest of the picture will no longer be able to tolerate Ronnie’s derangement. Just as the flasher reaches Ronnie’s lust object Brandi, Ronnie surprises us by stepping into frame behind her, brandishing his pistol, and shooting the flasher in the chest. The next shot does not spares us the consequences of Ronnie’s actions: the stars’ faces are speckled with blood, and the ground is a scene of nauseating authenticity with a pool of dark blood exploding behind a chubby man covered only in a trenchcoat and glasses. For once, the simmering delusions are brought to the fray with no attempt to disguise them with humor.
But Ronnie is not made to assimilate into our world. Unless you read everything after the Taxi Driver finale as occurring in our protagonist’s mind, a natural response to his presumed heroism, Observe and Report either lost the audacity that made the date rape scene so controversial or never had as tight a grip on its subversion as I thought. Ronnie needs discipline, or at least treatment—remember, he is not a mall cop at this point in the story, and even so, shooting a man is the last line of negotiation—but instead he gets to publicly chastise Brandi, take the pervert to the police station on his own, tell off Ray Liotta’s rival cop, interview with the local news station (a big victory for someone whose universe is so small), and get the girl that actually has feelings for him.
Listing the absurdities of the ending almost has me convinced the post-shooting scenes are a dream, but with absolutely no textual evidence, I can’t give Jody Hill the credit. Observe and Report comes dangerously close to bravery with a look at the startling reality beneath film obsession and violence subversively played as a goofy mainstream comedy, but its impotent climax fails to achieve its potential.
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Sunday, August 16, 2009
All right, already! So I was majorly wrong when I prematurely made overtures to dismiss the Fall film season. And Entertainment Weekly heard. And they read me the riot act with an issue devoted to that very subject. To repent, I have the updated list of movies I most anticipate.
But first, let me warn you. Avatar's not on my list. Sure, now there's a still making the rounds, which you can see above with Sam Worthington's pretty face. But to go crazy about this would be to do so on blind faith--which James Cameron has not earned from me yet. Peter Jackson has, and The Lovely Bones didn't make my cut either. I'm underwhelmed by the trailer outside of Saiorse Ronan and Susan Sarandon. I also cut Wes Anderson's latest and Ricky Gervais' directorial debut, both of which look pretty good, but, no room at the inn.
Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order:
The Box by Richard Kelly - November 6
Frank Langella presents married couple James Marsden and Cameron Diaz with a box containing a button. Press it, and someone you don't know dies, and you get a million dollars. Horror ensues. I wasn't convinced until seeing the trailer, which proves Kelly is barely attempting to conceal his stylistic debt to Polanski and Argento. Which is fine by me.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by John Krasinski - September 25
Okay, so Cameron doesn't make the cut but Krasinski does? I know I haven't seen the trailer, but I have immense faith in the source material (David Foster Wallace's novel of the same name) and epic cast, including Josh Charles, Will Arnett, Will Forte, Rashida Jones, and Chris Messina.
Precious by Lee Daniels - November 6
The Sundance winner is about an obese teen pregnant with her second child and dealing with an abusive mother played to raves by Mo'Nique. The trailer looks like a Sundance indie depressathon, but a fresh one. I hope.
The Princess and the Frog by Ron Clements & Jon Musker - November 25
Disney's return to 2-D animation and princess stories! It looks like they've captured New Orleans magically, and while I'm anxious about the sure-to-be-there racist and misogynist overtones and conventional story design, none of those concerns have diminished my anticipation in the slightest.
Zombieland by Ruben Fleischer - October 9
By far the most fun trailer I've seen since Up. Woody Harrelson battling zombies with Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone, at a carnival, no less--well, that's just right up my alley.
With that out of the way, I present my Top 10 Most Anticipated Films for Fall 2009:
10. Nine by Rob Marshall - November 25
I know. I was hesitant to see a musical adaptation of Fellini's 8 1/2 starring Daniel Day-Lewis and a bunch of famous women too. But that trailer just looks spectacular. Sure, it looks slick and unsurprising and, well, Rob Marshall-esque, but I bet Nine is at least a fun time (on top of being supremely unapologetic Oscar Bait).
9. Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese - October 2
I can't believe it's been three years since our last Scorsese-Dicaprio crimefest. This one looks gorgeous, with Scorsese capitalizing on the paranoid atmosphere. As with Nine, I'm not sure there's much substance there, but when you're having this much fun, who cares?
8. Antichrist by Lars von Trier - October 23
The first scene of the Danish sadist's latest: married couple Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are having such crazy sex that they miss the fact that their child falls out the window to his death. Somehow, there are even darker places to go! Antichrist debuted with a splash at Cannes, as many critics vehemently hating the film as loving it. I can't wait.
7. The Informant! by Steven Soderbergh - September 18
Matt Damon takes his job as agribusiness whistle-blower way too seriously in Soderbergh's latest. All I need to know.
6. 35 Shots of Rum by Claire Denis - September 16 &
A Serious Man by the Coen brothers - October 2
I paired these two because I anticipate them solely based on their directors. I enjoyed the trailers and the casts look interesting, but the biggest reason I can't wait for either film is because I have loved their siblings (namely Beau travail and, if I must pick one, The Big Lebowski).
5. Broken Embraces by Pedro Almodovar - November 20
Film noir seemed to be on an upswing a few years back, but now that Almodovar's ventured into love triangles and betrayal amongst a film's cast and crew (including Penelope Cruz as a starlet), I realize how starved I am. The trailer displays Almodovar's usual compositional elegance and vibrant colors, only something's different. The passions of the characters are more dangerous than usual, and the atmosphere is grim. Sounds terrific.
4. Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino - August 21
Mixed reviews can't stop this train. I love every frame of the trailer, and the alternate history strikes me less as morally questionable than totally awesome. Is it next week, yet?
3. Where the Wild Things Are by Spike Jonze - October 16
This is the best trailer I've seen all year, and I have complete faith in Jonze and company to capture the imagination of the source material.
2. The Road by John Hillcoat - October 16
Maybe I'll wait to see Where the Wild Things Are as a pick-me-up after this, because if all goes well, this will be one glorious nightmare. Apparently the reason it got pushed back from last year is because they needed the time to make the postapocalyptic landscape more hellish. The Proposition's cynicism and Mortensen's honing of the noble warrior role over the past decade have given me very high hopes for The Road.
1. The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick - December 25
I can't find any corroborating evidence online, but EW claims Malick is back this Christmas. If so, it's sure to be a glorious finale to the decade. Nobody quite knows what's going on in The Tree of Life, just that it stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, spans generations in the Plains, touches on guilt and forgiveness, and may involve dinosaurs. And no, I'm not joking. Regardless, a Terrence Malick feature ought to be well worth the wait.
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Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Tsai Ming-Liang's nostalgic elegy for movie-going, culminates in this understated, lonely departure. It's a perfect shot from a film full of them. But wait till you see what the movie poster wizards do with it!
That's better. Wong Kar-Wai's Goodbye, Dragon Inn. I keed, and besides, I can't get enough of his soft filters and brightly speckled nights. But Goodbye, Dragon Inn is not a vibrant, energetic film. It's a pensive lamentation. It's haunting and inexorably alone. This poster, for all its urban fervor (point Nowalk!), fails to express the film's mood.
Remember the Once fiasco? How the would-be lovers were made more appealing for the movie poster and more romantic for the DVD cover? You'd think arthouse films would be free from such populist pandering, but apparently not.
In similar news, does anyone else hate it when movies especially or trailers themselves edit songs for incorporation as scores? Compare the two trailers for Where the Wild Things Are, both of which are set to Arcade Fire's "Wake Up." The first has a couple cuts, and the lyrics begin with the fourth verse. The song is nevertheless somewhat intact. But the most recent trailer positively cannibalizes the song. Why use it at all? It pains me to say this, but the infamous "Tiny Dancer" scene from Almost Famous cuts up the track a few times as well, a rare but significant misstep for a film that otherwise worships music and its artists.
Anyway. Carry on.
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Are there nightclubs that don't feel like they're infested with alcoholic ex-PIs and femmes fatales on the prowl for a take?
Methinks not. I, for one, wish for more noir in my life.
I find much delight in puddle-reflected neon, especially when it's obscured by slanty rain.
It's the little things.
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Monday, August 10, 2009
A while back I lamented my sparse history with female directors. The list of women who have directed films I love is expanding, as I’ve recently fallen for Kathryn Bigelow’s spellbinding The Hurt Locker and all of Lucrecia Martel's stimulating features. Well, friends, you can add Jenna Fischer to that list for her 2004 mockumentary LolliLove.
I stumbled onto the DVD in search of another, and, having relentlessly wikipediaed everyone associated with every television series I’ve ever seen, I immediately recognized it as the impossible-to-find, hyper-lo-fi directorial debut of Jenna Fischer.
As should be clear, I am biased toward Fischer, but it had the opposite effect you might expect: pre-show jitters. After all, LolliLove only has a 6.6 on IMDb, it’s only an hour long, and it’s likely you can’t find it because it’s not any good. I had to watch it, but I was prepared for the worst.
LolliLove is a satire about the fashionability of charity among Hollywood types. Specifically, wealthy couple Jenna Fischer and James Gunn want to help the less fortunate, and after culling a list that includes “gays in the military” and “AIDS babies,” they settled on the homeless, whom they would inspire by handing out lollipops whose wrappers have been hand-painted with inspirational slogans like “You matter.” There’s also a health component, as Fischer demands they use lollipops with gum in the center: “We’re trying to help brush their teeth.”
Multi-hyphenate Jenna Fischer kills in every arena, and her performance as an aloof social climber (she desperately wants to angle her charity work into friendship with, among others, Jason Priestly) earned her a SAG Emerging Actor Award. The standout, though, is the script, a freight train of oblivious celebrity naivete and Guestian non sequiturs (“Shit, my pen is running out. Why does the world keep fucking me?!”). It’s also remarkably fearless, with jokes about Auschwitz, rape, and September 11th, all at the expense of the protagonists, of course, but still dangerous in these touchy times. There are only a few lags, and almost every joke dismounts beautifully. Since the film's process was inspired by Mike Leigh and the dialogue mostly improvised, Lollilove's unflagging hilarity owes mostly to its snappy editing. On the other hand, I wish the film were longer.
Complementing the self-absorbed concept, the mockumentary format allows for hilarious earnestness: still photographs of Fischer and Gunn, melodramatic music accompanying black-and-white footage, interviews of the couple proudly smiling that they are such good people. Fischer’s not the only familiar face, either. Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini show up for a lunch meeting, and later Judy Greer joins the LolliLove team because she wants to help the homeless, and because she’s an actress and heard there would be cameras.
As expected, it’s not perfect. There’s an occasional voiceover that is weird, and thus a little funny but ultimately unnecessary and not elegantly married to the material. The same goes for an out-of-place flashback scene and the occasional directorial misstep (say, a long shot when I desperately wanted to see their facial expressions). But LolliLove is absolutely hysterical, expertly eliciting laughs for most of the hour. While Hollywood’s an easy target, it’s hard to recall another film that so concisely eviscerates the culture of philanthropy competition among America’s upper class.
As I understand it, LolliLove is currently available for streaming via Netflix, so I’ll leave you with some wise words. “Spielberg never would have won an Academy Award without the Holocaust. So everything works out in the end.”
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Sunday, August 9, 2009
One more Top 5, because you're looking especially dapper today. Since I'd like to have a list of my favorite movies of the decade by year's end, I've been periodically trying to check off some of my most egregious film oversights this year. With that in mind, I present an epilogue to my Summer Top 5s.
The 5 movies I'm happiest to have caught up with for my intensive Best of the 2000s list:
5. Amores perros by Alenjandro Gonzales Iñarritu - 2000
The film that heralded the latest Mexican New Wave (in a way--such honors are impossible to delineate), Amores perros made waves on its gritty visuals and quasi-hyperlink structure. Noting its massive debt to Tarantino, Amores perros succeeds as a look a the seedy underbelly of Mexico City. It's mostly compelling as a surface crime story (with a telenovela in the middle), but a film so lauded for originality is riddled with cliches--two love triangles dominate the first and second segments, for instance, and the point seems to be that bad things happen when you violate the almighty moral laws. Amores perros reminds me heavily of Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in that both are metaphysical explorations of three groups of people affected by a single tragedy, though only Bridge succeeds in that respect. Tarantino and Wilder have a lot more on their minds than Iñarritu, who seems content with conveying physical and emotional devastation. Having now seen each of Iñarritu's films, Babel is clearly the director's most confident, ambitious, and interesting work, and Babel's no masterpiece itself. But at least Iñarritu is maturing as a director.
4. The Shape of Things by Neil Labute - 2003
The Shape of Things is a frustrating experience not because of the staggering cruelty on display but because a really great film is couched in artificial, stagey dialogue and capped with an unnecessary explication of the film we just saw. Performed by the entire original stage cast (Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Mol, Fred Weller), the acting is sometimes a delicious treat, but more often than not, the performers are unable to naturally realize the theatrical dialogue. A stylized voice is certainly not an unequivocal flaw, but when Weisz's art student is discussing the eminence of truth, the mannered conversation feels like a contradiction. On the whole, however, I would gladly recommend the film, because Labute, despite overconfidence in the surprise behind his plot machinations, all of which you will see coming five minutes in, has developed an intriguing, provocative concept for the film that demands explication. It's a shame he doesn't trust us to figure out the implications for ourselves, and instead has one of the characters analyze the film's conceit for a lengthy (albeit captivating) monologue. The scene is the perfect microcosm of the film: savory performances discuss big ideas, but Labute can't resist the cheap chance for one character to stop, look at the camera, and say, "Fuck you."
3. Looney Tunes: Back in Action by Joe Dante - 2003
I never thought I'd say this, but Looney Tunes: Back in Action is one of the best films of 2003. Granted, 2003 is by far the most uninteresting film year of the decade, but Dante's film is positively rabbit. The jokes are constant and mostly adult--which is not to say they're crass or sexual, but that they are squarely aimed at the laughably profit-based corporatism of America today, especially Hollywood but also Las Vegas, Nascar, Wal-Mart, etc. Then there's the incessant iconoclasm: Daffy's a hero, Bugs is consistently revealed to be loveable despite doing nothing to earn such acclaim, and in one memorable scene, the Batmobile destroys the WB water tower. The centerpiece of the film is a chase through the paintings in the Louvre which rewards a knowledge of basic European art history. Seeing Bugs and Daffy in "The Scream" is pure manic, Looney Tunes delight. Still, the film's madcap plot takes us to Vegas, Africa, space, the Southwest, and more, all happily populated by not only Looney Tunes but the other Warner Brothers properties like Scooby Doo and Robby the Robot. Looney Tunes: Back in Action is by far the greatest surprise of my 2000s catch-up, and I can't imagine anyone not having a great time with it.
2. The Swamp by Lucrecia Martel - 2001
Martel's films are among the most smartly crafted of the day. Each of them feel like essays where the formal elements simultaneously carry us along a surface story and convey thematic elements like the carelessness that attends money. Martel has a penchant for subtly unsettling us, and none of her films are as quietly disturbing as The Swamp, with its murky color palette, odd reactions, familial intimacy, lonely tragedies, and ultimate washing of hands. The final scene reminds me of the ending of The Headless Woman, which I found perfectly Lynchian, appropriate yet bizarre. Unlike that masterpiece, The Swamp is a tapestry following the members of two large Argentine families facing a thick heat wave. The plot is almost beside the point, since there's not one narrative but a collection of little strands that serve more to illuminate character and reveal the disquieting atmosphere. Martel is certainly one of the decade's great directors, and I expect to find room for one of her features in my best films of the decade.
1. In the City of Sylvia by José Luis Guerín - 2007
If Neil Labute wants to make movies about art and truth, he could learn a thing or two about subtlety from In the City of Sylvia, an almost wordless, plotless tiny, little feature that sees a man on the hunt for a woman that might be the woman he saw there seven years prior. As with Martel, the lush soundscape of the film is one of its highlights, although her ambient natural creaks are replaced by street musicians, sparse traffic, and back-alley detritus including one memorable rolling glass bottle. Here is a film about art, a meta meditation on the act of watching, following, observing. We the audience unwittingly (but is it really unwitting?) follow the subject following his object, with no dialogue or plot to interrupt the thoughts the film inspires. Guerín's camera tracks behind the quarry, it leads our hunter, it sits stationed on an alley until and after the characters pass it by. That's another thing--In the City of Sylvia is unmatched as a representation of a visit to a foreign European city; one early frame is filled with a map by a hapless traveler and the rest of the film becomes an endless navigation of side streets and cut-throughs as our artist searches for the obscure object of his desire. Strasbourg makes a grand and confrontational backdrop to the action, such as it is, speckled with periodic graffiti from another scorned lover: "Laure, je t'aime," the city cries out silently. José Luis Guerín is a filmmaker whose work is nigh impossible to find, but In the City of Sylvia is one of the most rewarding films I've seen all year, and I hope you manage to track her down.
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Saturday, August 8, 2009
I've been putting this off for far too long, and now that I have at last gained entry to The Internet, it's time. If you were here last year, you know what I'm talking about. A look at the summer/the year/my goings-on through the filter of top 5 lists. As many as I can come up with. Ready?
Top 5 shows of the summer:
5. My Life on the D-list - Not as consistently riotous as years past, but fun, funny comfort food.
4. The Daily Show/The Colbert Report - Also not especially notable this year, perhaps thanks to the tremendously boring world of American politics right now. But if anyone can bring the funny (birther outrage) and the trenchant (Fox & Friends' invented news), it's Stewart and Colbert.
3. Hung - HBO's newest is perhaps our first piece of Great Recession art. This look at a world of commodification and a dying working class is neither preachy nor melodramatic, but rather heartfelt and hysterical. And Tom Jane and Jane Adams are giving the best performances on television right now.
2. Michael and Michael Have Issues - I like my sketch comedy absurdist and as meta as possible, both areas the Michaels have perfected over the years. This week's episode was the best yet, and the Michaels are quickly becoming a less political Bob and David.
1. Better Off Ted - As ABC burns off the rest of the first season, I'm reminded weekly (or biweekly, or whatever this weird intermingling of new eps and reruns is called) that Better Off Ted was the season's best new show and already one of the best comedies on the air. Medieval fight club, Lem's disastrous date, Veronica's confessions, and the glorious office cohabitation of Ted and Linda have kept me laughing all summer long, and we still have two more episodes debuting Tuesday!
5 Emmy snubs:
5. Portia de Rossi for Best Supporting Comedy Actress - She probably should have won, but a nomination is the least they could do.
4. January Jones for Best Lead Drama Actress - Among my favorite performances (television or otherwise) of the year.
3. Amy Ryan for Best Guest Comedy Actress - Duh. At least now Tina Fey's Sarah Palin has less competition.
2. Walton Goggins for Best Supporting Drama Actor. Not that The Shield had a real chance, despite having won Best Lead Actor in its freshman year, but Walton Goggins should have been nominated for several years now, and in the final season, gave a performance worthy of the win.
1. Mary McDonnell for Best Lead Drama Actress - Battlestar Galactica as a whole deserves real Emmy love (for series, actors, writing, direction, etc.), and Mary McDonnell has been not only its star, but television's best drama actress for five years now. An Emmy would be nice.
Last week's Entertainment Weekly listed Robert Pattinson's Edward Cullen as western civilization's fourth best vampire of all time. Um, no.
Top 5 vampires:
5. Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows - Scared the hell out of me as a child.
4. Count Chocula - Delicious.
3. Carl the bartender from How I Met Your Mother - It's never been disproven.
2. Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu - More tragic than scary, but nevertheless disturbing.
1. Max Schreck's Nosferatu - The defining cinematic vampire.
Top 5 songs of 2009 so far:
5. "Big Black Nothing" by Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band
4. "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" by U2
3. "Country Disappeared" by Wilco
2. "The Trapeze Swinger" by Iron & Wine
1. "Tenuousness" by Andrew Bird - Noble Beast is easily my favorite album of the year, but it's hard to choose a favorite song. For now, "Tenuousness," though the entire album is as musically fascinating and linguistically provocative.
Top 5 pre-2009 songs to resurrect this summer:
5. "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" by Journey - 1979
4. "I Want You" by Bob Dylan - 1966
3. "I'll Be Your Man" by the Black Keys - 2002
2. "I'm Waiting for the Man" by the Velvet Underground - 1967
1. "Friday's Child" by Them - 1975
It turns out people in the cinephile community think Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action is not only a blistering attack on corporatism and greed but one of the decade's best films. I haven't seen it, but...
Top 5 Looney Tunes characters:
5. Tasmanian Devil
4. Yosemite Sam
3. Wile E. Coyote
2. Bugs Bunny
1. Marvin the Martian
Top 5 movies of the year so far:
5. The Hangover
4. Funny People
2. The Hurt Locker
Top 5 movies I missed so far:
5. (500) Days of Summer
4. The Limits of Control
1. The Brothers Bloom
Top 5 performances of the year so far:
5. Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover - The breakout of the film.
4. Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go - It may not be difficult to play such a batty New Age earth mother, but Gyllenhaal nevertheless knocks it out of the park.
3. Michael Gambon in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - The star of the film, Gambon is finally allowed to convey a full character.
2. Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker - At this point, I'm hoping he has an outside shot at an Oscar nomination. Renner's physicality expresses more than most, and he subtly conveys his psychopathologies whether confidently commanding his men or picking out groceries.
1. Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland - There's no question he'll be overlooked, but there's not a false moment in Eisenberg's performance. I'd also like to point out that Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, is remarkably authentic as well.
Top 5 movies I'm looking forward to this year:
5. Shutter Island - Martin Scorsese's latest is a star-studded psychodrama thriller (or whatever).
4. Antichrist - Lars von Trier's controversial emotional torture porn.
3. Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino returns with this hopefully fun B-picture.
2. Where the Wild Things Are - The trailers make it look like one of the year's best American films, and I don't have a hard time believing Spike Jonze can fulfill expectations.
1. The Road - I have extremely high hopes for this one based on Cormac McCarthy, John Hillcoat, and Viggo Mortensen.
I think The Lovely Bones looks good, but not particularly impressive, which is a bad thing for the director of Heavenly Creatures. And Avatar sounds, well, like it has a hell of a lot of unearned buzz. I hope it's great, but until Comicon, nobody had seen a single frame, and yet the hype abides. I'm rarely wowed by Cameron, so I'm cautiously optimistic about Avatar. A trailer would be nice. Aside from those, the Fall looks rather unexciting. Is it always like this? Surely some indies will crawl out of the woodwork between now and then.
Fortunately, 2009 affords us with an opportunity to dismiss our annual year-end rankings in favor of much grander decade-end celebrations, lollapalloozi, and pop culturegasms jubilee. As a prelude, I give you...
...the top 5 years of the decade for cinema:
If you'd like to contribute, I'd love a top 5 (or whatever) of movies you think I should not overlook when compiling my top 50 jillion films from the 2000s (or whatever). Off the top of my head, I came up with 30 contenders for the top slot, which comes with some big shoes indeed. What are your favorite films of the decade? Also, feel free to contribute categories like the best openings, best musical scenes, etc.
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