Friday, October 29, 2010

Oscar Updates: 10 Longshots that Deserve Consideration

Let me be clear – I still have so many films to see by the end of this year, that I have no idea whether or not any of these performances, films or one song will still be on my own “Oscar ballot” come the end of the year. But they all deserve at least some consideration in this year’s awards race, and they have yet to really receive any – or received early word that for whatever reason has died. So I’m starting the ball rolling. Besides, let’s face facts – the Oscar race is pretty boring this year – especially since I haven’t seen many of the contenders yet. I am slowly, but surely, catching them as they get released.

1. Carlos (Best Picture, Best Director – Olivier Assayas, Best Actor – Edgar Ramirez)
I have no idea whether or not Carlos, Olivier Assayas’ brilliant three part, five and half hour epic will even be eligible for the Oscars this year (they sometimes have weird rules). However, if it is, than it should be in the race for all the major prizes it can receive – particularly Best Picture, where nominating it would be a bold statement, Best Director, to recognize Assayas’ colossal achievement and Best Actor, for Edgar Ramirez’s complex performance and physical transformation throughout the epic. It should be in all the below the line categories as well. Carlos is a masterpiece – unlike anything else this year, and deserves to be recognized.

2. Kim Hye-Ja for Mother (Best Actress)
Still one of, if not the best, lead performances I have seen this year from an Actress. Mother was Korea’s submission at last year’s Oscars for Foreign film, but since it was not released here, and didn’t get nominated, it is eligible this year. Here work as a fiercely devoted mother, trying to make up for the sins of her past, is riveting, complex and unforgettable. Were this an American film, with say Meryl Streep in this role, an Oscar win would be all but assured. But it isn’t, and no one seems to be talking about Kim Hye-ja anymore, and that’s a shame.

3. Chloe Grace Mortez and Richard Jenkins for Let Me In (Best Actress and Supporting Actor)
It’s a pet peeve of mine that great performances in genre films hardly ever get recognized by the Academy. This year, two of the best performances come from the most unexpected place – a remake of a Swedish vampire film. As the vampire trapped in a young girl’s body, Chloe Grace Mortez gives a simply stunning performance – quiet, subtle, violent and extremely complex. She doesn’t copy the previous performance in the least, and makes the vampire a much more interesting, complete character. The same is true of Richard Jenkins in the role of her “Father”, whose monosylbalic responses are truly creepy, and the looks he gives to his “daughter” are downright disturbing – bringing forth a sexual connotation between these two that was merely hinted at in the previous incarnation. Both of these performances should at least be in the conversation.

4. Ben Mendohlson and Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom (Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress)
Perhaps I shouldn’t put Jacki Weaver here, as the studio is already trying very hard to get her in the race, and doing a fine job of it so far. But a movie as small as this needs all the support it can get, so I will once again say that Jacki Weaver is amazing in her “Mommie Dearest” role as the cold family matriarch, who loves her “boys” a little too much. But while Weaver is firmly planted in the supporting actress race, no one is talking about Ben Mendohlson truly creepy, violent turn as the Uncle who is the head of the family business. Mentally disturbed, paranoid, prone to violence, not quite understanding everything going on around him Mendohlson is every bit Weaver’s equal – and deserves attention in the supporting actor field as well. (And should the Academy add the category - Creepiest Use of a Cheesy 1980s Ballad, this would win hands down - just hearing I'm All Out of Love gives me the chills since I saw this movie).

5. Leonardo DiCaprio and Michelle Williams for Shutter Island (Best Actor and Supporting Actress)
I know I am in the minority on Shutter Island who believe that it is a great film. Yet, I have a hard time believing that no one else sees the great work done by all the actors in this film – particularly DiCaprio, who carries the film on his back with his intense, paranoid performance, and Williams who in a few short scenes shows us mental illness at its absolute worst. DiCaprio probably has a better chance for Inception, which is admittedly the better film, but I really think that his work here is far superior – one of the very best in his career. Williams on the other hand is getting great notices for Blue Valentine, but that films rating trouble could sink her – meaning that they both could have two great performances this year that go completely unrecognized.

6. Robert DeNiro for Stone (Best Actor)
I am in an even smaller minority on Stone than I am on Shutter Island. But while the film has some admitted problems, one of them is definitely not Robert DeNiro’s performance. He is a man who has buried his rage, his lust, basically all of his feelings for so long, and he is now just getting back in touch with them. Yet, instead of exploding in a Travis Bickle like orgy or violence and blood, DeNiro brilliantly implodes here – the muttered swear words under his breath, his barely surpressed rage behind his eyes. DeNiro has essentially taken the last decade off of serious acting – but in Stone the best actor of his generation is back with a vengeance – but for some reason, no one seems to have noticed.

7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Best Foreign Language Film)
I know its probably strange to name the Palme D’Or winner an underdog, but the fact of the matter is that it is. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the type of art film that never gets nominated at the Oscars – hell it’s the type of art film that never wins the Palme either, which is why the Tim Burton led jury at this years Cannes Film Festival made such a daring choice. A nomination for Uncle Boonmee would be a signal that the Academy is open to more than just the typical prestige pictures – and would be a much needed boost to the foreign branch which has proven time and again that they only like the least foreign of foreign films. That is why I think Uncle Boonmee needs to be nominated – and sadly why I think it doesn’t have a chance in hell.

8. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Best Documentary)
After losing the Oscar for his documentary 4 Little Girls, Spike Lee joked that they were up against a Holocaust movie, and so he knew he didn’t have a shot. At the time, in the mid-1990s, he was correct. But even though the Academy has moved away from simply Holocaust docs, they have remained vested in issue oriented documentaries year in year out – last year’s nominees were about illegal immigration (Which Way Home), government whistle blowing (The Most Dangerous Man in America), the environment and animal rights (The Cove), our food system (Food Inc) and foreign politics (Burma VJ). But some of the most interesting docs – like Banksy’s art documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, one of the highest grossing docs of the year, are not issue driven – but personality driven, and question things like art and artists, not serious political concerns. Exit Through the Gift Shop is certainly a high profile doc – and would stand a chance of winning if it got nominated, but it first has to go through the shortlist process – and that could derail it as the conservative members of the doc committee like their docs standard issue, talking heads about important subject matter. But this film deserves to be in competition.

9. Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go (Best Actress)
Never Let Me Go was on a lot of people’s early lists – but the film has disappointed with both critics and the box office, so most are completely writing off its chances. Personally, I loved the film, and the main reason why is because Mulligan carries the movie. She is such a wonderfully sensitive actress, perfectly attuned the film itself – downplaying the role with a wonderful subtlely that most actresses her age would not be able to handle. Even people who don’t much like the movie seem to like her, so I think she should still be in the conversation for Best Actress – but sadly, I don’t think she really is.

10. Ryan Reynolds for Buried (Best Actor)
James Franco is dominating the Best Actor conversation for his performance as the real life Aron Ralston, who literally spends most of the movie trapped between a rock and hard place, before cutting off his arm. It is a harrowing movie, and great performance by Franco, so if he ends up in the Best Actor lineup, I won’t have a problem with it. But for my money, Ryan Reynolds is even better in Buried – where the actor literally spends the entire movie inside a coffin buried in the Iraqi desert. Unlike Franco, Reynolds gets to interact with no one, other than the people on the other end of the cell phone, and we never see glimpses of his normal life. He is just trapped, and trying desperately to get out. 127 Hours seems like an Oscar sure thing, and Buried will likely be forgotten – but for me, Reynolds and the film itself, are both superior.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Year in Review: 1941

I saved 1941 for later in this series for a simple reason – no matter how good the rest of the films on this list are, we all know what the number one film of the year is going to be. I would be rightly mocked and ridiculed mercilessly if I picked anything else.

10. High Sierra (Raoul Walsh)
High Sierra is about as exciting as robbery movies get – with lots of action, but also with a heart. Humphrey Bogart has one of his best early roles as Roy Earle, a just released convict who drives across country to lead a casino robbery. He falls in love with a simple girl with a limp (Joan Leslie) – and even pays for her to have corrective surgery – and she still rejects him. He then falls into the arms of Marie (Ida Lupino), and the two even share a cute little dog. The robbery, of course, goes wrong and Roy heads to the hills mountain with the police in pursuit. And wouldn’t you know it, it was that damn dog who does him in. Directed by Raoul Walsh, the film is an early film noir and helps to establish Bogart’s tough guy screen persona, as well as Lupino’s own persona – much tougher than many women of that era. But it really is Bogart who makes the movie – turning Earle into more than just a stereotype, but a realistic guy who you ever feel sorry for.

9. Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock)
Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion is a thriller that keeps you guessing right up until its final moments. It stars Cary Grant in a typical Grant role – that of the charming, irresponsible and broke man who seduces the somewhat dowdy Joan Fontaine. As Grant’s debts pill up, his business schemes fail, and he loses his job, Fontaine begins to distrust her husband – thinking that he maybe plotting to kill her for the life insurance. Grant is great in his role – and he really does keep us guessing about him, as he seems so suspicious, even if he hasn’t actually done anything. Fontaine is great, slowly cracking up due to her paranoia about her husband – and Hitchcock, as always, knows just how to play the audience. I thought the ending was a little bit of a cop out – the studio mandated happy ending rings a little false – but everything up until then is first rate. No, this isn’t one of Hitchcock’s best films – but it is great just the same.

8. How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is best known as an answer to the trivia question: what film won the best picture Oscar over Citizen Kane than it is as film unto itself. No, this is no Citizen Kane, but that’s not really a fair standard to live up to is it? The film is excellent on its own terms however – it depicts life in a small, Welsh mining town at the turn of the century, and shows their simple way of life dying, and the family unit at the heart of the story falling apart. The film shows the hardship of life in the mines, the pettiness of small town gossip, and the generational divide when a strike threatens to shut down the mines. This is all told through the eyes of a young boy (Roddy McDowell) who watches as his father (Donald Crisp) struggles, and fights with his older brothers, his mother (Sara Allgood) tries to keep everything together, and how his sister (Maureen O’Hara) is forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. For such a dark film, Ford also finds moments of light sneaking through the cracks, and the film as a rather nostalgic feel to it. I have always liked Ford’s Westerns more than his non-Westerns, but the man knew how to direct a movie – and How Green Was My Valley shows that.

7. The 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Japanese film during WWII was apparently not very good, and for understandable reasons, not even all that plentiful. But watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s two part, four hour epic retelling of the classic Japanese story The 47 Ronin is to see storytelling at its finest – even if it is a propaganda film for the Japanese military (American and England surely made their fair share of those as well, including some on this list, so we can’t really fault the Japanese). The film is epic in sweep – contains dozens of majors characters, and dives right into the plot with no attempt to intiate anyone into the background. It took me about an hour of careful observation before I started to piece together the different story threads – the different characters. This is not an action oriented samurai film – it contains remarkably little action at all really – but a political power struggle story, expertly crafted by one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers. True, I think some of Mizoguchi’s later, more personal work, is better, but The 47 Ronin is still an epic masterwork.

6. Sergeant York (Howard Hawks)
If you want to, you can look at Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York as more wartime propaganda. It is the glowing biopic of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), the most decorated American soldier from WWI. York is a pacifist, but before his conversion, he was an excellent marksman. He tries to get out of wartime duty in the Army as a concietious objector – but has his claim denied, and sent to war anyway. But he is won over the to American side, and goes to war determined to do what he has to do. While there, he becomes a hero – but doing so means killing a whole lot of Germans – but he justifies to himself. What he did will ultimately save lives. The film is directed with Hawks usual visual flair – even if the story isn’t quite as anachric as many of his films. Cooper is great in the title role – the man struggling with his own beliefs to do what needs to be done. Yes, the film is perhaps a little too patriotic – but it is still an inspirational film, brought to life by a great cast and an even better director.

5. The Little Foxes (William Wyler)
The Little Foxes is a brilliant, little poison pill of a movie. It stars Bette Davis in one of her great screen roles as Regina Giddens – a Southern matriarch who wants more money and power than her stature of a woman will give her. Her brothers are wealthy, and while her husband also has a lot of money, she wants more. The family is facing financial difficulty, and see the opportunity to open their own cotton mill as a chance to become millionaires. The problem is that Regina has no money of her own – and her husband refuses any part in the deal. Regina is one of the great screen villains of all time – cold, conniving and downright cruel to her sickly husband. She values money above all else – and although she ultimately gets what she wants – she loses everything else in the process. Davis dominated the movie, but the supporting cast includes a great Teresa Wright as her sensitive daughter, Herbert Marshall as her husband, Dan Dureya as her slack jawed nephew and Patricia Coolidge as the dimwitted Aunt. This film is an actors dream, and Wyler’s direction is wonderful – capturing the crumbling, Southern gothic all around him.

4. 49th Parallel (Michael Powell)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 49th Parallel is an epic wartime thriller focusing on a group of Nazi u-boat crew members who find themselves stranded in Canada. Just as they are debarking their sub in Hudson’s Bay to find fuel to make it back to Germany, their submarine in blown up – and it takes a while for the Canadians to realize that no all the crew members were on board. What 49th Parallel really is, despite all its action and suspense, is a film about how no matter what complaints Canadians may have about their country – it sure beats the hell out of being a Nazi. I got a huge kick out of seeing Laurence Olivier as a French Canadian fur trader in this film (complete with a wonderful accent), and Anton Walbrook is equally good as a German immigrant farmer, and founder of a religious community in the praries. The Nazis go into Canada thinking it will be easy to get them to see why Germany is the best – the French Canadians are marginalized by the rest of the Canada, that German immigrant community should still love their motherland – but they continually are shocked by how much Canadians love their country. I have to admit, I got a patriotic little thrill out of watching this film – rarely do we see our country portrayed this way on screen – and the film is also exciting and well made. While it may not be the best Powell/Pressburger movie (although Pressburger was not a credited director, he wrote the screenplay) it still is exciting filmmaking.

3. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges)
Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve is one of the best screwball comedies of all time – and for my money is the best film that the great comedic filmmaker ever made. It stars Barabara Stanwyck in her best performance as a con woman who falls in love with her mark – the sweetly shy and dim witted Henry Fonda. She cannot help herself. He is so sweet, so earnest, so sincere and he trusts her almost immediately. She starts out trying to fleece him, but in the end falls for him. But she has to leave him – he does not trust her, and that hurts, even though she shouldn’t be trusted. So what does she do – she disguises herself as The Lady Eve and shows up at his house. His valet knows immediately it is the same woman – she makes no attempt to alter her physical appearance, but just adds a phony British accent. He immediately falls for her again. You can’t take a screwball comedy plot seriously – they just don’t work that way – but watching The Lady Eve it always amazes me just what Sturges and his cast gets accomplish here – the film is a balancing act between comedy and romance, adds in pratfalls and tremendous sexuality for a film of its era, but never steps wrong. The film is an inversion of the usual gender roles, and the two leads play it perfectly right until the closing lines of the film – that have to rank among the best in cinema history.

2. The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
The Maltese Falcon was far from the first detective movie ever made – hell it was the third version of the novel filmed – but it forever changed the genre when it came out. John Huston, making his directorial debut, crafted a wonderfully dark film world, and captured the dialogue of Dashiell Hammett’s novel exactly – he copied it straight from the book. But it was the performances that really made the movie – especially Humphrey Bogart as the “hero” Sam Spade – who may just be the best detective in cinema history. Bogart had a way of delivering the dialogue, dripping with cynical wit, that no one could ever quite match. Consider one of his last lines in the film, when talking to Mary Astor, the woman he loves, who has just be arrested for murder. ''I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in 20 years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you.'' He is cold and cruel – yet he is also moral, perhaps the only moral person left. The film also benefits from the performances of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre as the bad guys, who worked so effortlessly off each other, and as the bad guys for Bogart. Okay, sure, Mary Astor is miscast, but that’s a minor flaw. Consdier Huston, who is inventing a new film style – the film noir – as he goes along. Consider the magnificent tracking shots in the film. And consider the dialogue. In almost any other year, The Maltese Falcon would easily be the best.

1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
What more really needs to be said about Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which is routinely voted the best film of all time, and has been for decades now? If Welles had only directed this film, he would still be one of the most important filmmakers of all time. Perhaps because Welles was so young when he made this film, perhaps because he had never made a film before or perhaps just because his ego was so huge, Welles really goes for broke here. Along with cinematographer Gregg Tolland, Welles’ helped to reinvent film language – every shot in the film is brilliant. Every edit is precise. The score, by Bernard Hermann, ranks among the best ever. And the performances – especially by Welles himself – rank among the best in cinema history as well. The more I watch Kane, the more in awe of the technical prowess on display I become. But also, interestingly enough, the more involved I get in the story – the more I feel for Charles Foster Kane, who really is a greedy monster, but he didn’t start out that way. Citizen Kane is really an American tragedy – the story of a man who got everything he ever wanted and is still absolutely miserable. If you haven’t seen Citizen Kane yet, what the hell are you waiting for?

Just Missed The Top 10: Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen), The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle), The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg), That Uncertain Feeling (Ernst Lubitsch), The Wolf Man (George Waggner).

Notable Films Missed: Blossoms In the Dust (Mervyn Leroy), The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding), Hellzapoppin (HC Potter), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Alexander Hall), Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Liesen), Listen to Britain (Humphrey Jennings), One Foot in Heaven (Irving Rapper), They Died With Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh), Tobacco Road (John Ford),

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: How Green Was My Valley (John Ford)
It isn’t the films fault that it beat Citizen Kane for the best picture Oscar. If it hadn’t been this film, it would have been something else, because Welles and his film had pretty much pissed all of Hollywood off, because it inspired the wrath of William Randolph Hearst. They were never going to give that film the Oscar. So, they went with what they knew – an inspirational, nostalgic historical drama that is well made by a great director who they loved. So, no, How Green was My Valley is no Citizen Kane. But what film was?

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Gary Cooper, Sergeant York
I quite like Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. He plays the country bumpkin to perfection, and as the film progresses, he gives dramatic weight to his decisions that weigh heavily on his conscience. Cooper was a movie star who had never won an Oscar before, so they wanted to give him one. Who else were they going to give it to? Welles was out of the question, because they hated him. Bogart was amazing in The Maltese Falcon, but fell victim to genre bias. Walter Huston is delicious fun in The Devil and Daniel Webster – but he’s barely in the film, which isn’t as good as he is. So, Gary Cooper wins by default. Much like How Green Was My Valley, it is easy to pick on this win because of the competition that Cooper beat out to win – but that isn’t the performances fault, which is quite good in its own right.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion
They wanted to give Joan Fontaine an Oscar since she had been so good in a similar role the year before – for the same director no less – in Rebecca. Her performance in Suspicion is quite excellent – she nails the paranoia she feels towards her husband perfectly, and her fear is palpable. But again, her competition bested her – particularly Bette Davis dripping venom in The Little Foxes. Again, not her fault, but again not quite as worthy of a winner as they could have had this year.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Donald Crisp, How Green Was My Valley
Donald Crisp is excellent in How Green Was My Valley – as a father trying futilely to keep his family together. He wants his older sons on his side, but cannot convince them. He wants to protect his daughter, but can’t. Wants to support everyone, but finally can’t do that either. It is a rather heartbreaking role for a great character actor. Personally, I think the great Sydney Greenstreet should have won for his work in The Maltese Falcon (but only because Joseph Cotton was overlooked for Kane), but I don’t have a real problem with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Mary Astor, The Great Lie
I haven’t seen this film – although I have seen all the other nominees, and particularly loved the two Little Foxes performances by Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge. I have never much liked Mary Astor – although she was great in The Palm Beach Story – even thinking her miscast this year in what is undoubtedly her most famous role in The Maltese Falcon. I do want to see the film – how could I not want to see something that has Bette Davis lost in the forest – but the film took so long to come to DVD, that I still haven’t had a chance to rent it. I will correct that some day.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Year in Review: 1959

1959 was a watershed year for movies in many ways. The French New Wave officially arrived changing film forever, and we started to see the birth of the Indie Film Movement in American as well. And yet, the film that I admired the most from this year were Hollywood films – from old masters.


10. The Fugitive Kind (Sidney Lumet)
I know a lot of critics don’t like Sidney Lumet’s version of the Tennessee Williams play, Orpheus Descending, but I can’t help but love the film – with its strange direction, wild performances and its choice to wallow in the type of sexual melodrama that only Williams could write this well. Marlon Brando is wonderful as a drifter who comes to a small town in the South – and becomes the immediate object of desire by the women there. Joanne Woodward is wonderfully over the top as an alcoholic nymphomaniac who lusts after him, Maureen Stapleton quietly touching as a simple housewife and Anna Magnani a firebrand, as the bitter wife of a cruel, sadistic man slowly dying (Victor Jory). Lumet has a way with turning plays into films, and his direction in this film is strange – its long close-ups, it slow pace that allows the characters to slowly build, and the sexual tension to simmer, works wonderfully well. No, it isn’t the best version of a Williams play on film – but it’s great nonetheless.

9. Shadows (John Cassavetes)
With Shadows, John Cassavetes not only started one of the most interesting directorial careers in America cinema, he also pretty much found the Independent Film Movement. Shadows is not, for me anyway, one of Cassavetes very best films – it is a little too rough, too unformed, and doesn’t contain the power of films like Faces or A Woman Under the Influence. Yet, everywhere you look in Shadows, there is Cassavetes breaking new ground in American film – the jazz infused score, the sense of isolation and alienation of the cast, the interracial relationship, which was downright daring in 1959. Yes, watching the film now, it has aged – it has been copied too much over the years – and yet if you put the film into historical perspective, it is one of the most important in American history.


8. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk)
Douglas Sirk was the master at melodrama – no director had a better feel for it than he did. Imitation of Life was his last film – and one of his best. It is the story of an ambitious young widow (Lana Turner) who wants to become a Broadway star, and her relationship with her black servant (Juanita Moore) who starts out acting as a nanny to Turner’s daughter (Sandra Dee). To me though, the most interesting role in the film belongs to Susan Kohner, as Moore’s light skinned daughter. She is so light skinned in fact that she can pass for white – and wants to do this. She hates that she is black, and resents her mother for living the life that she does. The film is a great melodrama about Turner’s ambitions, and her various relationships with men, but it the struggles of Moore and Kohner who truly makes this one of Sirk’s best film – an emotional powerhouse.

7. Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
Robert Bresson was one of the most interesting filmmakers in history. He was a director who hated performances – he wanted his actors to show as little emotion as possible at any given moment, yet at the same time, he like to shot them head on – staring directly into the camera. The combination is eerie, and in a way lets the audience see themselves in the film whatever emotions we think the actors are feeling, are really the ones we supply them with. Pickpocket is one of his best films – a film about a thief who feels that he has the moral right to steal from others – because he is somehow better than they are, and as such, more entitled to their money. But there is also something masochistic about him as well – late in the film, he knows the undercover cop is an undercover cop, but he tries to pick his pocket anyway – in the hope of being caught and being punished. There are great sequences in the film – one on a train that shows a three man team working to pick the pockets of as many people as possible that is a masterpiece of shot selection and editing, that movies fluidly. But overall, Pickpocket is simply a film, like all of Bresson’s best work, that sits back and observes his characters in whatever situation they are in, and asks us to make of them what we will.

6. Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger)
Anatomy of a Murder was a groundbreaking legal thriller when it was released. It was one of the first mainstream movies to talk openly about rape and sex – it also showed a rather cynical view of lawyers, who do pretty much anything they can do to win. James Stewart gives one of his best performances as a Defense Attorney, who takes on the case of an Army officer (Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering the man that his wife (Lee Remnick) says raped her. Stewart lays on his “simple country lawyer” schtick pretty thick in the courtroom (it has been copied and mocked ever since), but he is brilliant in the film – and the film shows just what he’ll do to win. On the other side, George C. Scott is equally as good as the prosecutor from the city who pulls his own tricks. Otto Preminger’s film is big and sprawling – encompassing many characters throughout – and remains one of the best trial movies ever made. It doesn’t quite have the originality that it must have had in 1959, but it is a great film nonetheless.

5. The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut)
The 400 Blows was Francois Truffaut’s first film – and perhaps his best one. It is certainly among his most personal films. It details the life of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young teenager who is essentially abandoned and judged by all the adults in his life. His mother never wanted him, and all these years later he remains merely a distraction for her from what she really wants. She is often cruel and dismissive of him and why she tries to be nice, it comes across as disingenuous. His stepfather is nice to him – but doesn’t really care about him. His teacher hates him. And on and on it goes – he meets many adults in his life, and none of them really seem to care about him – mistreat him, don’t understand him. He runs away, again, at the end of the film and ends up at the ocean with nowhere else to go. This was Truffaut’s life, and it shows, in effect, how cinema saved him – gave him something to love. It is one of the biggest films about children ever made.

4. Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder)
Billy Wilder has made some of the best comedies of all time – and while I think he has made greater comedies than Some Like It Hot, I’m not sure he ever made one that was out and out funnier than this one. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis gives great performances as two musicians who witness a murder – and disguise themselves as women to escape the mob. The film is a classic screwball comedy in the best sense – in that it is utterly hilarious, the plot barely matters, and the acting is superb. Jack Lemmon has never been funnier than he is here – especially when he’s paired up with Joe E. Brown as a millionaire who falls in love with him as a woman (and Lemmon may consider marrying for security). He carries his part of the movie effortlessly, and when teamed up with Curtis, they make one of the best comedy duos in history. For his part, Curtis is great paired up with Marilyn Monroe – who never gets the respect she deserves because most directors just used her as an sexual object. But Wilder uses Monroe’s sexuality to great effect – and teamed up with Curtis, one of the fastest talking actors in history, she more than holds her own. Some Like it Hot has been copied so many times since, but it has never been surpassed for a movie of its type. It remains one of the greatest comedies to ever come out of Hollywood.

3. North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
North by Northwest is perhaps the quintessential Alfred Hitchcock film. It isn’t his best, but it’s the one that takes everything that Hitchcock was doing before and throws it together in one deliriously entertaining thriller. It has a classic Hitchcock setup – Cary Grant plays a man who is pursued by mysterious agents across the country because they think he is someone else. He has no idea why they want him, but his first encounter with James Mason makes him realize he doesn’t want to be caught. He tries to find the man they really want, leading him all over the country. The film is fast paced and exciting – the iconic cornfield sequence is brilliant, as is the finale on the top of Mount Rushmore. Grant was the perfect foil for this movie, and he is supported wonderfully well by the evil Mason, and the cold blond Eva Marie Saint as the woman who helps him. Hitchcock was a master at playing the audience, and he plays them perfectly in this film.

2. Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks)
Rio Bravo is perhaps the best film that Howard Hawks ever directed – and considering his career that is saying something. It is also one of the most influential films ever made – it has been copied repeatedly by just about everyone, and yet no one has quite beat it. It has a simple story – four men – a Sheriff (John Wayne), a drunk (Dean Martin), a gunslinger kid (Ricky Nelson) and a old coot (Walter Brennan) are holed up inside the Sheriff’s office protecting a prisoner that the whole town wants to get at. There is even a romantic interest for Wayne in the form of Angie Dickinson. Yet this movie, that seems so chock full of clichés – works amazingly well. It’s because the characters, and their relationship to each other, feel real and unforced. And because Hawks was an amazing visual director who loads every scene with suspense, a feeling of unease and impending violence. This is one of Wayne’s best performances – he remains silent and authoritative, which is when he was at his best. Hawks would use this same formula himself in two other films starring Wayne – El Dorado and Rio Lobo – and while both are good, Rio Bravo is a masterpiece.

1. Room at the Top (Jack Clayton)
Despite being an Oscar winning film, Room at the Top is not as well remembered today as it should be. It is one of the first gritty, realistic British films – the start of the British New Wave if you will – is daring in its sexual content, and is also one of the strongest indictments of social climbing and corporate culture I can remember. Laurence Harvey gives an excellent performance as Joe, a young man who arrives in the city from his lower class factory town. He sets his sights on Susan (Heather Sears), the daughter of the richest man in the district – who doesn’t approve of their relationship and sends her away. Meanwhile, Joe starts seeing Alice (Simone Signoiret), an unhappily married older woman who falls in love with him. However, when Susan returns, Joe seduces her and gets her pregnant – meaning that he will finally get to married his way up in social standing – even as if makes him, and even more so Alice, miserable. This is not an easy movie – it isn’t one that wraps everything up into a happy ending, but instead is a tragedy because Joe is such a prick, and he uses everyone around him for his own devices. The acting in superb – not only Harvey and Signoiret, who won the Oscar this year, but the entire cast, including Hermione Baddeley – who made such an impression in just over two minutes of screen time as Alice’s friend, that she got nominated for an Oscar herself. Room at the Top deserves to be ranked among the best British films of all time – and considering the films on this list which I think this is better then, the best films from anywhere.

Just Missed The Top 10: Ben-Hur (William Wyler), Compulsion (Richard Fleischer), Floating Weeds (Yashujiro Ozu), Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais), On the Beach (Stanley Kramer), Shadows (John Cassavetes), Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi).

Notable Films Missed: Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus) , The Diary of Anne Frank (George Stevens), Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa), The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang), Kaagaz Ke Phool (Guru Dutt), The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinneman), Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher), The Sign of Leo (Erich Rohmer), Le Trou (Jacques Becker), The World of Apu (Satyajit Ray).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Ben-Hur (William Wyler)
What can one say about Ben-Hur. It is the type of HUGE epic that Hollywood has forgotten how to make these days – for better and for worse. The film is exciting, and has some interesting homoerotic subtext in it that seems obvious today, even though apparently went over most people’s head in 1959 (including Heston’s, who insists there was no subtext in the film, just like when he would portray Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ectasy, he would insist that he did a lot of research and that Michelangelo was assuredly not gay). The film has many great moments in it. But for me, as entertaining and well made as it is, it also drags in places as almost any movie that is three and half hours long undoubtedly would. It is still a motion picture spectacle of the highest order – but it isn’t one I want to revisit any time soon.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur
Charlton Heston was nowhere near the best actor in the world – but he was good in roles like this, that required little more of him than to be square jawed and stoic. His performance as Ben-Hur certainly carries the film – and is also an intensely physical performance – but he remains one of the least interesting characters in the film for me. In a way, that is necessary – with so much going on around him, the film needs a rock at the center, and Heston perfectly embodied said rock. Yet it doesn’t particularly make it the best performance of the year. At least three of other nominees – Laurence Harvey, Jack Lemmon, and James Stewart – were better than Heston, who certainly benefited from the Ben-Hur sweep.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Simone Signoret, A Room at the Top
Simone Signoiret embodied tragedy better than almost any other actress I can think of. Remember her great performances after A Room at the Top – her work in the over bloated Ship of Fools seems tragically real, her performance as the doomed resistance fight in Army of Shadows is heartbreaking. She was one of those rare actresses who got sexier as she got older – and in Room at the Top she is at the peak of her acting ability. Watch the film and try to not let her break your heart – you will fail.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Hugh Griffth, Ben-Hur
This win has always somewhat mystified me. Yes, Hugh Griffth is great fun (if you can get over the inherent racism of the role) as a Sheik slave trader. But in nearly three and half hours of movie, he’s barely in the damn thing. Much better would have been Stephen Boyd, who is far and away the best in the film, as Ben-Hur’s rival (and according to screenwriter Gore Vidal, former lover as well. He let Boyd in on the secret, but not Heston, giving their scenes together an odd, but wonderful, feel to them). Of the nominees, I easily would have gone with George C. Scott as the prosecutor in Anatomy of a Murder.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank
I really don’t have an excuse for not watching The Diary of Anne Frank – other than the fact that I have seen so many Holocaust films that there are often times when I don’t think I could watching another one – especially a long one. I have faith that Shelley Winters is great in her role – she always was great, even if the Academy wouldn’t nominate her for her best work in Night of the Hunter or Lolita. Personally, I think it would have been great for the Academy to give the Oscar to Susan Kohner’s groundbreaking work, or even Juanita Moore’s heartbreaking work, in Imitation of Life – but how can melodrama really compete with the Holocaust at the Oscars?

Movie Review: South of the Border

South of the Border ***
Directed By:
Oliver Stone.

Subtlety has never been one of the words anyone would associate with Oliver Stone. His brash, in your face style is one of those things admirers like myself like about him, and what drives his many detractors absolutely nuts. As a narrative filmmaker, Stone is responsible for some of the best films of the 1980s and ‘90s, although he has struggled a little bit in the past decade or so. When Stone decides to make a documentary – which he on the subjects of Fidel Castro and Israel – the directorial pyrotechnics may not be there, but they are undeniably the work of the same filmmaker. Stone’s documentaries make no effort to be fair or balanced or neutral – he has a point of view, and you’re going to find out what it is.

His latest documentary is South of the Border, which looks at the socialist revolution in Latin America – started by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela a decade ago, and spreading through countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. Stone travels to all of these countries and meets their leaders – and then stops off in Cuba on his way to talk to new President Raul Castro as well. Stone fawns over them, painting them as socialist revolutionaries, proper descendents of the Cuban revolution (which hurts his case, because unlike the other leaders, Castro has never been elected – it truly is a dictatorship).

Stone fawns over the leaders, which can wear thin at times. I really didn’t need to see him play soccer with Bolivian President Eco Morales. He also never really pushes any of the leaders – doesn’t question anything that they have done, and quickly dismisses against arguments against them without proper support or backup.

Having said that though, South of the Border is a fascinating movie, if for no other reason than it paints an entirely different view of these leaders than the American media has used – they have been called drug addicts, brutal dictators (although all of them, with the exception of Castro as noted above, were democratically elected), enemies of America, compared to Hitler and worse. Stone paints them as men from humble beginnings – which in almost all cases, they are, who want to throw off the yoke of American imperialism, and fight against the International Monetary Fund (IMF) who impose restrictions on them. They want to be treated as equals by America – not as their subordinates.

These are legitimate aims, and as long as the people in these countries elect them as their leaders, they should be able to do as they see fit. When Chavez was ousted – for all of a day – many in America praised the overthrow, before having to take a step back when he was reinstated, and admit that the military should not really be overthrowing the democratically elected leaders of their countries – no matter how they may be behaving.

Stone begins his movie with snippets of the Western media – mostly from Fox News – criticizing Chavez and the rest of the leaders – he also liberally sprinkles in their thoughts throughout. And that is why I think that South of the Border, despite its obvious flaws, is a valuable film. It may not offer a proper corrective of the news media – it swings far too wide the other way for that to be true – but it gives the leaders a chance to speak unencumbered by the commentary supplied by Fox News and the rest of the American media. Whether you believe what they say or not, isn’t really the point – the point is that they are given the opportunity at all. I think that a great documentary can be made about these leaders, and the changing political landscape in South America. In order to be that documentary, the filmmakers would have to look at both the positives and negatives of all of these countries. If Fox News paints them as evil supervillians and Oliver Stone paints them pretty much as saints, I can guarantee you that the truth, as always, lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Movie Review: Boxing Gym

Boxing Gym ***
Directed By:
Frederick Wiseman

Frederick Wiseman is a legendary documentary filmmaker – one of the most well regarded directors that the genre has ever had. He has been making films since the 1960s, and according to IMDB has 39 director credits, has won Emmys and Peabody award, and is generally considered a master at the form. So it is somewhat embarrassing to admit that before I saw Boxing Gym at the Toronto Film Festival, I had never seen a film by him. Mind you, the fact that most of his films rarely get a wide distribution, and mainly play on PBS, may have made them harder to see, so I’ll use that as my excuse.

I think Boxing Gym was a good way to introduce myself to this filmmaker. Many of his documentaries are epic in length – three hours or more – and walking into a film that long without a real idea of what to expect could have been a daunting task. But Boxing Gym clocks in at a lean 91 minutes.

The film is an observational documentary – meaning that unlike most documentaries we see, this isn’t a film full of talking heads and archival footage, but instead a film where Wiseman simply sets up his camera in a location and lets the people there act the way they normally do. In the past he has done this with hospitals, welfare offices, housing projects, state legislature, boot camps and ballet companies. In Boxing Gym, it is a small gym in Austin, Texas, run by Robert Lords. Through the action we see people from all walks of life, all different skill levels come in a train to become boxers. We see the pros trying to gear themselves up for real fights, children just learning the art, housewives trying to stay in shape, and older men who always wanted to become boxers, but never did anything about it until now. They are all different, yet share something as well – the passion for the sport, and the willingness to learn.

The movie has a wonderful rhythm to it, established by Wiseman in his editing. There is no artificial music in the film, but the sounds of the gym – the punching of the speed bags, people pounding on the heavy bags, trainers barking out orders, the constant beeping letting you know a set has finished – establish the rhythm of the movie better than any score could have. There are stretches of time where we do little else but watch as one guy trains by himself, and the result is almost hypnotic, as we fall into his same rhythm.

Wiseman has said he has always been fascinated by violence, particularly institutionalized violence, and here he finds a way to examine the same subject from a different point of view. It is impossible not to watch these guys train, and not think what they are training to do – beat someone else up. Wiseman established connections to other forms of violence subtlety in the opening and closing montages – showing us the Texas University football stadium, and other images. And he reaches beyond the boxing gym when some of the members there discuss the Virginia Tech shooting, which happened while Wiseman was filming, amongst themselves. Wiseman, unlike many documentarians today, never insets himself into the action, or into the conversations, but rather shapes his documentaries by what he shows us – not what he tells us.

Boxing Gym was an interesting experience for me. I don’t think it is a great documentary, but I do think it is one made with great skill and precision. It makes me want to delve into the documentaries of Wiseman’s past to see what else he has come up with. I can’t think of any other higher praise than that.

Movie Review: Freakonomics

Freakonomics ***
Directed by:
Seth Gordon (Introduction and Interludes), Morgan Spurlock (A Roshanda by Any Other Name), Alex Gibney (Pure Corruption), Eugene Jarecki (It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life), Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed).
Written By: Seth Gordon and Jeremy Chilnick & Morgan Spurlock and Peter Bull & Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki and Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady based on the book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

The omnibus film has been around for decades. While the idea of gathering a group of highly respected filmmakers together to make short films, all based around a single theme, seems like a good idea, the result is rarely very satisfying. The new film, Freakonomics, applies the formula to the documentary genre – taking the best selling book by Steven Levit and Stephen Dubner as its model. And while the film is not great, it is entertaining, involving and fascinating. In this instance, it actually worked.

The film assembles documentaries Seth Gordon (The King of Kong), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) and Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), all of whom, except for Gordon who provides the introduction, and various other interludes between the other longer segments, take a section from the book and make a documentary out of it. While all the films are different, I think they are about equal in terms of quality.

Spurlock’s A Roshanda By Any Other Name, is the first segment. As a filmmaker, I find Spurlock increasingly annoying and smug, but his segment has an undeniably fascinating subject matter, that although Spurlock sticks his nose into a little too much, he cannot ruin. The film looks at the effect something as simple as a name can have on a person. For instance, one social scientist did a study where he sent out the exact same resume to the exact same companies – half with the typically white name Greg, and the other half with the typically black name Tyrone – and discovered that Greg got called for an interview more often than Tyrone did. The film also looks at what effect a name can have on your personality, and what it says about your socio-economic background. The result is a fascinating, amusing documentary about identity.

The next segment is Alex Gibney’s Pure Corruption, which is probably the best of the four docs on display. It looks at a very strange issue – cheating in the world of sumo wrestling, which is supposed to be a very pure sport. The result of analysis of the data suggests that cheating runs through sumo from top to bottom – and most people overlook it because they consider the system pure. Each sumo tournament has a wrestler go through 15 bouts – if you win 8 or more battles, you get more money and more prestige, and if you lose 8 or more, you are shamed. The study finds that almost every time a wrestler with a record of 7-7 goes against a wreslter with a record of 8-6 in the final round, that the 7-7 wrestler almost always wins, yet the next time these two wrestlers meet, the 8-6 wrestler wins. The system is so ingrained in their sport, that violence and even murder have been perpetuated to keep people silent about it. Gibney is on shakier ground when he tries to extrapolate this to the larger, political and economic system in America (if he had more time perhaps he could have done this part properly and more thoroughly – but the result is a fascinating little doc nonetheless.

Eugene Jarecki’s It’s Not Always A Wonderful Life is the most innovative, and controversial, of the shorts. Intercutting scenes of the Frank Capra classic, with animation and statistics, the documentary tries to explain the decrease in violent crime of the early 1990s with the Roe vs. Wade decision. The documentary claims that all the factors given as to why there was such a dramatic decrease in violent crime represented only about 50% of the reason – the other 50% is because a generation of unwanted children – those being the most likely to turn to crime – were not born. It’s a controversial theory, one that cannot wholly be backed up – but offers much food for thought – especially when it shows that those states where abortion was legal before Roe vs. Wade experienced a drop in crime ahead of the rest of the country, and in those states where abortions are more widely available, the crime rate dropped even more. This film is undoubtedly controversial, but like the best documentaries, offers you something interesting to think about.

Finally Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s segement, about a test where they tried to get 9th graders to do better in school by bribing them. Each student who maintained a C or better in every one of their classes, received $50 a month, and a chance to win an additional $500. The results of this test were disappointing – seemingly many kids simply don’t care about getting an education – but the process of the testing itself – and why it worked for some and not for others, was fascinating in and of itself.

Freakonomics is not a great documentary. For one thing, because of its format, none of these issues, which could probably each be a feature doc, were given quite as much time as perhaps they deserved. But the film does offer a lot to think about, and puts it all in an entertaining package. The result may not be great – but it sure is interesting.

DVD Review: Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Casino Jack and the United States of Money *** ½
Directed By:
Alex Gibney.
Written By: Alex Gibney.

Jack Abramoff represents American politics at its worst and most corrupt. He was never elected to public office – never even had his name on a ballot – and yet he controlled much of what happened in Congress and the Senate. He was a lobbyist, who for a hefty fee, would represent your special interest group, and bend the ear of notable politicians. Because he was so close with Tom Delay, who at the time was the leader of the Republican party in Congress, he had a great deal of influence. He would take money from special interests, and then funnel it to politicians – after taking a healthy cut of the money himself. He became rich and powerful, and yet he kept pushing things further and further to the point where he was using his clients money to get politicians do things that were favorable only to Jack Abramoff. His clients, including numerous Native tribes who hired Abramoff to try and either get permission to open a casino, or to shut down a rival one, were billed millions upon millions of dollars, and got nothing back in return. Eventually, when the whole scheme became known, it caused one of the biggest political scandals in Washington since Watergate.

Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side) is one of the best documentary filmmakers in the world right now. His films have a way of taking an incredibly complicated issue – and one that you would think would make for a horribly boring movie – and making it easy to understand, and even entertaining. Casino Jack and the United States of Money won’t really tell you anything about Jack Abramoff or the scandal he was involved in than you already know if you followed the case closely when it erupted into a scandal during the Bush years, but still offers a valuable service – it gathers and distills everything that happened into one two hour, entertaining documentary package. Watching the film, you may be shocked at home deep the corruption really went – Jack Abramoff may have been the worst apple in the barrel, but he was hardly the only rotten one.

The movie paints a picture of Abramoff as a man who never did anything unless it benefitted himself. He got his start in politics with the College Republicans in the early 1980s, where he was around many of the people who would make up the Neo-Conversative movement, and he would exploit these contacts in future years when they rose to power. Abramoff tried his hand at movie producing – thinking that an action movie like Red Scorpion could reach more people with its anti-Communist rhetoric than anything else he could do. But that quickly failed, and Abramoff was in Washington remaking himself as a lobbyist.

The movie displays the tangled web that Abramoff wove – how he exploited Native tribes and their casinos, to fill his own pockets, how he became involved in buying a group of floating casinos, and did so using connections he had that themselves were related to the mob. Also how he exploited a group of small islands, technically under US control, but not subject to their labor laws, to allow a system of forced servitude and prostitution. It’s a ugly picture.

When the scandal finally came to light – helped along by other lobbyists who reported Abramoff to the Washington Post, perhaps because they were really disgusted with what he was doing, or perhaps only because he was better at it, everyone was quick to jump on Abramoff and distance themselves from him. The hearings, run by John McCain, who had his own reasons to hate Abramoff (he had backed Bush in 2000, and funneled all his clients money to him, and not McCain) offered up a scapegoat in Congressman Bob Ney (who deserved it, but was far from the only one involved), forced the resignation of Tom DeLay, but was really just a bunch of sabre rattling. McCain, gearing up for his next Presidential run, didn’t want to upset Republicans too much, so he didn’t.

But what Casino Jack and the United States of Money makes clear is that the whole system is corrupt. It costs a lot of money to run for any public office, and if you cannot get people like Jack Abramoff to steer their clients to you, you cannot get the money you need. If you want to advance in your party, you had better be able to fundraise, and to do that, again you need people like Jack Abramoff. Abramoff essentially was the lobbyist who got his hand caught in the cookie jar – he was stupid enough to put everything he was doing in writing in e-mails to his partner Mike Scanlon, but he is hardly the only corrupt lobbyist in Washington. Although this scandal involves Republicans, there are Democrats who do the same thing. And the system is not likely to change – since the people with the power to change it, are the same ones that benefit most from the system being corrupt. I suspect that in the future, we will see more Jack Abramoff’s – the system as it currently is requires there to be.

Note: In December, George Hickenlooper’s Casino Jack, a dramatic film with Kevin Spacey as Abramoff will open in the hope of an Oscar run. I saw that film at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and it as well is a highly entertaining look at Abramoff. The two films would make an interesting double bill – this one being an up close examination of what Abramoff actually did, and Hickenlooper’s being a dramatic representation of the man himself, who for obvious reasons barely appears in the documentary except in the form of video clips. The two films enhance each other.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Movie Review: Jackass 3-D

Jackass 3-D * ½
Directed by:
Jeff Tremaine.
Written By: Preston Lacy.
Starring: Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Steve-O, Jason Acuña, Preston Lacy, Chris Pontius, Ehren McGhehey, Dave England, Loomis Fall.

I had planned on skipping Jackass 3-D, seeing as how I wasn’t really a fan of the show or either of the movie before it. But then it went ahead and set box office records its first weekend, so I decided that I should actually see it and review it (something similar may happen since I missed Paranormal Activity 2 this weekend). Watching the film feels pretty much like watching the first two films. I’m not sure that any of them really even qualify as a movie – there is no plot, no characters, not even an attempt at any. Instead what we get is a series of stunts – some clever and funny some just gross – pulled off by a group of men, who now must be in their mid 30s but to say they have the maturity of teenagers would be insulting to teens. Everyone seems to like it when they get hurt, but miraculously no one ever seems to be seriously injured.

The only new addition to this film that the previous did not have is 3-D. I am on record as thinking that 3-D really doesn’t add anything to most movies – really only Avatar benefitted from the technology, and that’s because James Cameron took the time, energy and money necessary to actually make the technology work for his movie, and not against it. On that level, I have to say that I don’t really know if 3-D added anything to Jackass, but unlike films like The Last Airbender, Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, it didn’t take anything away from it either. It places you more in the middle of the action than any of the previous films – but I’m not sure I really wanted to be there.

There are, I suppose, a number of ways you can look at Jackass. I know that some critics have placed these movies in the tradition of the surrealists – filmmakers like Luis Bunuel, whose early films like Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or also didn’t feature things like plot or character, but used a series of shocking images to stun the audience. I have never really followed that logic, because after all, I do think Bunuel had a larger purpose in mind – especially in L’Age D’or, whereas I have to think that the folks behind Jackass just think it is really, really find it funny to see people doing stupid things and getting hurt, or covered in shit, or vomiting, etc. That is the second way to look at Jackass – just as a bunch of idiots delighting in hurting themselves and each other, and grossing out an audience while they do it. Jackass 3-D is the first film this year that really did make me want to vomit (although to be fair, I have not seen The Human Centipede yet, and at this point, I am doubting whether I ever will). But while to most movies, saying that it made me want to vomit would be an insult, I don’t think the people behind this movie would mind – it would probably bring them some sort of warped satisfaction.

I don’t really feel the need to go into what happens in the movie – because after all, if you are going to see the film, then half the fun is waiting to see what stupid crap they will pull next, and reading about it would simply ruin it. I will say I found some of the stunts clever – and I liked it more when the boys were pulling jokes not just on each other, but on unsuspecting members of the public as well (there is a degree of overlap between films like Jackass and the work of Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat and Bruno).

Jackass 3-D is one of those rare movies that is critic proof. It doesn’t matter what I say, anyone who wants to see it already will, or already has and anyone who doesn’t, couldn’t be dragged there. It is also one of those movies that makes it almost impossible to assign a star rating to. On one hand, the film is sick and disgusting, and serves no real purpose, and can hardly be classified as a movie at all, except for the fact that it is playing at a movie theater. On the other hand, Jackass 3-D is one of only a handful of films this year that is 100% the film its makers wanted it to be. There are no compromises – they set out to make the exact film you see on the screen. So I was torn – do I give the film zero stars, because it’s so disgusting, or three stars because despite how disgusting it is, it achieves what it sets out to do. I decided to split the difference. The odd thing is no matter what star rating I gave the film, I don’t think I’d have to change a word of this review.

Movie Review: Carlos

Carlos ****
Directed by:
Olivier Assayas.
Written By: Olivier Assayas & Dan Franck.
Starring: Édgar Ramírez (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez), Alexander Scheer (Johannes Weinrich), Nora von Waldstätten (Magdalena Kopp), Ahmad Kaabour (Wadie Haddad), Talal El-Jordi (Kamal al-Issawi 'Ali'), Alejandro Arroyo (Dr. Valentín Hernández), Christoph Bach (Hans-Joachim Klein 'Angie’), Rodney El Haddad (Anis Naccache 'Khalid'), Julia Hummer (Gabriele Kröcher-Tiedemann 'Nada'), Antoine Balabane (Général al-Khouly), Rami Farah ('Joseph’), Zeid Hamdan ('Youssef), Badih Abou Chakra (Cheikh Yamani).

The sheer length of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, 330 minutes or five and half hours, will probably intimidate most viewers from ever seeing this masterpiece. But it shouldn’t. Carlos is a propulsive, energetic film – one that flies along for its entire length. Although this is undoubtedly the longest film of the year, it doesn’t feel that long at all. I am reminded of what Roger Ebert said about the length of films – no great film is too long, and no bad film is short enough. And this is a great film.

Illich Ramirez Sanchez will forever be known by his code name – Carlos (or perhaps Carlos the Jackal, a code name that Assayas refuses to name once during the running time). He was a Venezuelan born terrorists who came to Europe in the early 1970s, and soon rose in the ranks of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to be second in command of the European operations. He became a media star in France when he killed three police officers and went on the run – he became internationally well known when he lead a daring raid on a OPEC Summit, where he kidnapped all the oil ministers, and got the Austrian government to give him a plane, and then took the ministers on a journey back and forth across Europe. He wasn’t arrested for either of these crimes, and while his higher ups in the PFLP hated the attention he got, he reveled in it. When he was thrown out of the group, he went into business for himself – taking contracts from pretty much whoever would pay him. The 1980s and 90s were a long, slow period of decline for him – with fewer and fewer people willing to contract his services, fewer governments willing to let him into their countries, and yet fewer intelligence agencies who actually care where he was. Like many a celebrity, he started from nowhere, become a star, and then slowly slipped into being a nobody again. When he was finally arrested, he was most likely relieved – at least it showed that someone still cared about him.

Assayas’ film documents Carlos’ actions from about 1970 until the time he is arrested in the mid-1990s. This is not one of the biopics who tries to trace Carlos’ psychological makeup – no scenes of him as a child being warped by his parents, no real insight into the man at all, but rather focuses on his actions. And to me, that makes the film all the more fascinating. Carlos was a man who fancied himself a revolutionary – fighting for the underclass – but unlike someone like Che Guerrva, jungle warfare didn’t interest him much. He had too much of a taste for the finer things in life – fast cars, nice clothes, nice cigars and women. The number of women he takes to bed in this movie is perhaps greater than the number of people he killed. He apparently never sees a contradiction between his fight for the underclass, and his own media celebrity – something he positively reveled in. It is fascinating to see Carlos transform in this film – the break seemingly coming half way through the second part, when he agrees to let the oil ministers go against the direct orders of his boss, in exchange for money. Although he would still claim to be fighting for the cause for the rest of his life, it becomes clear that to Carlos, his own wealth and fame have taken priority over everything else. He also undergoes a fascinating physical transformation – something Assayas shows us in multiple scenes throughout the movie of Carlos’s naked body, which goes from tight and toned at the beginning of the movie, and ending up bloated to excess by the end.

Assayas’ filmmaking here is impeccable, and puts to shame most action filmmakers in America. The film may seem more like the work of a filmmaker like Michael Mann than the same director whose last film was the highly acclaimed, French drama Summer Hours – about a family drifting apart after the death of the mother. And yet, the two films are undeniably of the same maker. Assayas’ obsession in his career has been about globalization – from films like demonlover to Boarding Gate to Clean to Summer Hours, this has been a constant theme. And nowhere is this more prevalent than here – a film that takes places all across Europe (England, France, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Russia, Algiers), the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon) and finally into Africa (Sudan), Carlos represented a global terrorist threat, long before we started talking about Al Qaeda. Assyas’s attention to detail – in the cinematography, art direction and costume design – is marvelous.

Perhaps the key to the success of the movie is Edgar Ramirez’s performance as Carlos. He is at the heart of pretty much every scene, and it’s fascinating to watch his performance evolve. Carlos was always a charming man – with his dealing with women (especially in one sequence involving a woman and hand grenade), and with everyone else. He was someone capable of talking anyone into pretty much anything. He was also capable of great violence without feeling, and of course self aggrandizement (some critics have complained that some of the dialogue in the film is a little too on the nose, but I think it fits in with Carlos, and the self mythologizing he does throughout his life). Ramirez is surrounded by a great cast – all of which hit the right notes – but it is undeniably his film, and the actor gives the performance of a lifetime.

Coming to end of this review, I am at a loss as to what to say to get people to see the movie. True, it is five and half hours, meaning that you pretty much have to give your whole day over to seeing the film. And yet, this is a film that is so well made, so fascinating, and at the same time so exciting that it demands to be seen in its entirety. I know that Assayas has cut a two and half hour version of this film for release in some markets, and I suspect because he did it himself, that it is a fine film. But Assayas has made a grand epic here – why would anyone watch to watch a trailer, when the whole thing is available. This is one of the year’s best. Miss it at your own peril.

Movie Review: Hereafter

Hereafter **
Directed by:
Clint Eastwood.
Written By: Peter Morgan.
Starring: Matt Damon (George Lonegan), Cécile De France (Marie LeLay), Frankie & George McLaren (Marcus / Jason), Bryce Dallas Howard (Melanie), Thierry Neuvic (Didier), Jay Mohr (Billy), Richard Kind (Christos), Rebekah Staton (Social Worker), Declan Conlon (Social Worker), Derek Jacobi (Himself).

Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter is a movie that seems to be building to something for its entire running time. But then the end of the film comes, and we realize that the film ultimately built to nothing at all. The film isn’t boring, because while I was watching it, I kept waiting for it to break out, to somehow make sense of all the material that it had presented us with, and give us a reason why we were ultimately watching the film in the first place. So when the end credits come, it’s surprising, because Eastwood, and his writer Peter Morgan, are both talented guys – but with Hereafter, what they missed was the reason they were making the film. Walking out of the theater, I had no idea what Eastwood was trying to say with this movie – which is the same thing as saying he says nothing.

The movie opens with a scene completely unlike what we have come to expect from Eastwood – a special effects laden sequence of a tsunami striking the shores of some seemingly tropical paradise (if they said where, I missed it). We have just met Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) and her boyfriend Didier (Thierry Neuvic) a few minutes before, and then we thrust into Marie’s fight for survival on the streets, as she gets swept into the water. As sequences like this go, this is actually fairly well handled by the usually minimalist Eastwood – but it started the film off on a strange note, one more suited for the work of Roland Emmerich than Eastwood. Marie will hugely effected by her near death experience – making it impossible to continue doing her job as a news reporter, as she is more interested in exploring the strange vision she had while dying – the standard issue white light and voices.

Next we meet George Lonegan (Matt Damon), a man who used to be a psychic, and is still living in his home town of San Francisco – was actually quite famous at it – but now makes his living as a factory worker. He hasn’t lost his “gift”; he just sees it as a curse, and wants to live a normal life. He is seemingly getting along okay, until his brother (Jay Mohr) shows up on his door with an important client that really wants a reading. George does it, but again wants to put it all behind him – and is seemingly taking a few tentative steps towards normalcy with a new woman (Bryce Dallas Howard), who soon finds out what he used to do, and once again George’s gift feels more like a curse.

Then there are twins Marcus and Jason (played by real life twins Frankie and George McLaren) living in London. They are around 10, but regularly have to take care of themselves, as their mother is a drug addict. Social workers want to take them away, and with good cause, but when the more assertive of the two brothers is killed in an accident, Marcus is left by himself with nothing but questions about the afterlife.

Eastwood intercuts between these three stories throughout the movie, and they all hold out interest to varying degrees (I found the story of the twins the most fascinating, and Marie’s least, with George somewhere in between). But we know, because we’ve seen movies like this before that the characters are on a collision course – which eventually the three storylines will intersect in one way or another. It is almost inevitability. And of course, they do intersect, but when that comes, it is a huge letdown, because nothing much happens.

I am all for ambiguity in movies – even endings that leave what happens up to the audience (hell I defended John Sayles’ ending to Limbo, which leaves us nothing), but I wouldn’t describe Hereafter’s ending – or anything else for that matter – as ambigious, just anti-climatic. For example, Matt Damon’s character is quite clearly portrayed as being able to communicate with the dead – he never gets anything wrong, and he is far more specific than the type of psychics who do what is known as “cold readings”, where the read the reactions of the people they are reading, and tell them what they want to hear (Eastwood even gives us an example of this in the film). So once we know Damon really does have this gift – and that the film is accepting it on face value – his character becomes far less interesting. The same goes for Marie, who again the movie simply accepts her story at face value, and then moves on. In fact, I would say the only one of the major characters who goes on anything close to approaching a real spiritual journey is Marcus – the surviving twin – who really does try to learn and explore what happens after we die. Both George and Marie don’t really go on journeys – George is simply running away from who he is (an idea the movie seems to embrace) and Marie simply compiling research (which is somewhat infuriating, since we don’t ever actually hear what her damn book is about). Marcus is the only major character who is really all that complex or interesting. I will say that I wish Bryce Dallas Howard had a larger role – she has but a few scenes – as she breathes much needed life into this movie obsessed with death, but the film sees her as just another pawn to move around for its own purposes, and not a real character.

Eastwood is a great director – one of the best currently working in America today. And because he is getting older (he has to be almost 80 at this point), I understand why a movie about death would fascinate him so much. But what drew him to Hereafter? Here is a movie that really does have nothing to say about death, or by extension life. It is one that simply sits there on the screen waiting desperately for something to happen.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oscar Update: Directing and Writing

Best Director
I am interested to see if a lone director can still get nominated even if their film does not. Instinct would tell you know, but the directors have been known to branch out in the past and give nominations to films that didn’t stand a chance in the Best Picture lineup. But my guess is that all five director nominees this year will be for Best Picture nominees.

1. David Fincher for The Social Network – Your frontrunner for the moment, although this could easily change. Since the finally nominated him for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he should find it easier to be nominated now – and with an all but guaranteed nomination for Picture, he gets in easily.
2. Danny Boyle for 127 Hours – He won for his last film, Slumdog Millionaire, so he has become an Oscar favorite. I have a hard time believing that they’ll nominate the film without him – since it is the kind of direction that gets noticed.
3. Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech – His film has been proclaimed a frontrunner, but this still may be a battle for him – as he is not a name director, and this is the type of film that can nominated without a director. Still, I think he can get in.
4. Christopher Nolan for Inception – He was snubbed, along with his film, for The Dark Knight so that could mean the Academy feels like they owe him a nomination. Or it could mean they don’t really like him. Still, this is an unquestionable directorial achievement.
5. Peter Weir for The Way Back – A hugely respected, Oscar veteran who has never won the big prize. Word on the film is good, so if they put together a good campaign on his behalf, he could wind up your frontrunner.
6. Mike Leigh for Another Year – He has squeezed into this category a few times, and given that Another Year in looking like a Picture nominee, it could easily happen again.
7. Joel & Ethan Coen for True Grit – The Academy has finally full on embraced the Coens – yet will they be able to get in for a Western remake, no matter how good it turns out to be.
8. Darren Aronofsky for Black Swan – Has been knocking on the door for a while now trying to get in. Word on the film is great, although it has a struggle to get into the Picture line-up. Your most likely lone director nominee.
9. Clint Eastwood for Hereafter – I never count out Clint, who the Academy simply loves, no matter what the critics have to say. Still, this will be an uphill battle for him.
10. Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right – The film is looking secure for Picture, acting and screenplay, so it could push her into the lineup as well. Being a woman is no longer a strike against you – but the type of film this is may be.

Plus: David O. Russell for The Fighter needs the film to get in, and to overcome the feeling in Hollywood that he is a complete jerk. Ben Affleck for The Town still needs to find respect from his peers as a director. Lee Unkrich for Toy Story 3 will get a campaign, but since no one has ever been nominated for a animated film, it’s a tough get. John Cameron Mitchell for Rabbit Hole has some respect, and indie cred, but I think he’ll have a tough time cracking the line-up no matter what noms the film gets. Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone did a masterful job with this film, but it may be too small, too chilly for Oscar tastes. Nigel Cole for Made in Dagenham has made an undeniable audience pleaser, but even when they do get in, the directors often don’t. Aaron Schedeider for Get Low will need the film to squeeze into the line-up – a tough get – to even be consider. Sofia Coppola for Somewhere is a past nominee, but her film may be too slight to edge in. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu for Biutiful is a director like Boyle who always makes his presence known – but the film could be too dark for the Academy.

Best Original Screenplay
This is probably the weaker of the two categories – but also the harder of the two for their to be much movement. You can pretty much count on the top 3, perhaps 4, to get in.

1. The King’s Speech (David Speidler) – A much easier get than director, since people come out raving about the dialogue, which is said to be hilarious. Your frontrunner so far.
2. Another Year (Mike Leigh) – Leigh has got in many times, despite his improversational style of shooting, even when the film doesn’t crack the lineup. This one looks like it will, so he’s all but guaranteed.
3. The Kids Are All Right (Stuart Blumberg & Lisa Cholodenko) – Is more of a writer’s movie than a directors one. Hard to imagine the film missing this nomination which should be easy.
4. Inception (Christopher Nolan) – The direction is superb, but it all started with a tightly constructed screenplay. Tougher to get, because the film is all plot, but should sneak in.
5. Black Swan (Mary Heyman & Andres Heinz & John J. McLaughlin) – Easier than Picture or Director, the writers often embrace somewhat strange films but this one could easily fall to something else.
6. Made in Dagenham (Bill Ivory) – An audience pleasing hit, that seems witty through and through. Is it perhaps too lightweight for the writers?
7. How Do You Know (James L. Brooks) – They love James L. Brooks, so until I hear otherwise, I will keep him in mind.
8. The Fighter (Paul Attanasio & Lewis Colich & Eric Johnson & Scott Silver & Paul Tamsay) – Screenplays by committee are harder to get into the lineup. But the presence of Paul Attanasio should help to offset that. Still don’t know the quality of the movie though.
9. Somewhere (Sofia Coppola) – She won this prize in the past, so if others contenders drop out, she could move up.
10. Get Low (Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell, Scott Seeke) – More of an actors film, but they had to have good material to work with – this could move up as well.

Plus: Biutiful (Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone, Alejandro González Iñárritu) is perhaps too dark and too foreign, but the writers don’t mind that as much. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, Cami Delavigne) is going to struggle if it keeps its NC-17 rating. Hereafter (Peter Morgan) is by a writer they like, but there are questions about the quality. Conviction (Pamela Gray) is perhaps too by the numbers for the writers. All Good Things (Marcus Hunchey, Marc Smerling) is a film I still don’t know much about. Due Date (Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel) could sneak in if it’s as funny as The Hangover. Morning Glory (Aline Brosh McKenna) could sneak in, but needs to seen as more than a romcom. Stone (Angus MacLachlan) has some supporters, but also many detractors. The Company Men (John Wells) is staying fairly quiet right now, but that could change.

Best Adapted Screenplay
A competitive category this year, which is only going to get more crowded.

1. The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin) – I really don’t see anyone challenging him for the win come February – now matter how the film does in the nominating round.
2. Toy Story 3 (Micharl Arndt) – Should be an easy get, as they often embrace Pixar – just not often in this category.
3. Rabbit Hole (David Lindsay-Abaire) – Features a playwrite adapting his own Pultizer winning play, but expanding it wonderfully. A writers dream.
4. True Grit (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen) – They have embraced the brothers more than any other group – and if this one is as good as it looks, should be easy.
5. 127 Hours (Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy) – May face a harder battle than people think – all the attention goes to the directing and Franco, but could well sneak in
6. Winters Bone (Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini & Daniel Woodrell) . – Took a sparse novel and turned into a great film. They are really hoping to get the Frozen River nod this year.
7. The Way Back (Peter Weir) – Perhaps more of a directors film, but if it becomes a major player, can easily move up.
8. The Town (Ben Affleck & Peter Craig & Aaron Stockard) – Needs to get more support in the big categories to make a move.
9. Barney’s Version (Michael Konyves) – Just like The Town, needs support in other categories to move up.
10. Never Let Me Go (Alex Garland) – The respect for the source material is unquestionable, but the film maybe too chilly.

Plus: How to Train Your Dragon (William Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders) is getting a real push, but two animated film in the same category? For Colored Girls (Nzingha Stewart) was a hugely popular play, but questions of quality are still out there. Tamara Drewe (Moira Buffini) is probably not classy enough to squeeze in. Fair Game (Jez Butterworth, John Butterworth) needs to make some noise in the other categories. The Next Three Days (Paul Haggis) looks like a regular thriller, but I’ve learned not to underestimate Haggis’ appeal. Love & Other Drugs (Marshall Herskovitz & Charles Randolph & Edward Zwick) needs to be more than just a romcom. The Ghost Writer (Robert Harris & Roman Polanski) is a directors film more than writing, but it does have some passionate supporters.