Friday, September 30, 2011

Movie Review: Take Shelter

Take Shelter ****
Directed by: Jeff Nichols.
Written by: Jeff Nichols.
Starring: Michael Shannon (Curtis LaForche), Jessica Chastain (Samantha LaForche), Ray McKinnon (Kyle), Katy Mixon (Nat), Kathy Baker (Sarah), Shea Whigham (Dewart), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Kendra), Tova Stewart (Hannah LaForche).

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is a paranoid thriller about a man who thinks he is going insane, but cannot help himself. His mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic when she about his age, and now he is starting to think he maybe heading down that same path. He has started to have dreams of a rain storm, where it is essentially oil and not water pouring down. These dreams also include some sort of violent episode – where he or his daughter are attacked by the family dog or a friend or a stranger or even his wife. So convinced is he that a storm is coming that he cleans out the old storm shelter in the backyard – and when he thinks that isn’t enough, he decides to expand it by taking out a home improvement loan his family cannot afford. He has a good job as a construction worker in rural Ohio, but he can’t concentrate on it. His world is collapsing all around him, and while he knows he is being irrational, he is powerless to stop it. Things are spiraling out of control.

The man is named Curtis and he is played in one of the best performances of the year by Michael Shannon – that actor who has quietly built up a hell of a resume playing characters who are not quite right in the head. Remember his fiercely determined office worker in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center or as the mentally deranged man in Bug or in the sick truth teller in
Revolutionary Road
? His work in Take Shelter is just as good as it was in those films, and yet for an actor who seems to always being playing paranoid characters, this simply is a rerun. All of his characters suffer differently, and Shannon plays them differently as well. Here, he is a normal guy whose paranoia is getting the best of him – he is equally convinced that he is becoming mentally ill and that he is completely right in his beliefs. These two sides fight with each other until he’s not sure what’s real anymore.

Writer/director Nichols, who made the wonderful but barely seen Shotgun Stories in 2008, has followed up that film, about two warring sets of sons of the same father (one set hates their old man, the other side adores him), with this view of suburban paranoia that immediately brought to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – and not just because of a few scenes involving actual birds. What both films share is a growing sense of unease, that things as seemingly perfect as they are, are not quite right. Hitchcock’s film was about the poisonous atmosphere in 1960s suburbia, and Nichols film is about the increasing paranoia in the wake of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters – both man made and natural. As the movie goes along, Nichols plays with the sound a little bit, to get us inside of Curtis’ head – and it’s not a pretty place to be.

The tension in the movie grows until it is almost unbearable. Shannon gives the films best performance, but praise too should be given to Jessica Chastain who plays his wife, who loves him and cares about him, but is trying to look out for their future together – and the future of their daughter, who is deaf and needs surgery. Take Shelter is a thriller – and a well made thriller at that – but what makes the film so special is how real and immediate the film feels. This is a story about how we live right now.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Meet John Doe (1941)

Meet John Doe (1941) *** ½

Directed by: Frank Capra.
Written by: Robert Riskin.
Starring: Gary Cooper (Long John Willoughby - 'John Doe'), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Mitchell), Edward Arnold (D.B. Norton), Walter Brennan (The Colonel), Spring Byington (Mrs. Mitchell), James Gleason (Henry Connell), Gene Lockhart (Mayor Lovett), Rod La Rocque (Ted Sheldon -Norton's Nephew), Irving Bacon (Beany).

A lot of serious minded critics look down at Frank Capra. They have come up with the term “Capra-corn” to describe his films. True, even his best films – including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – can be a little bit corny – but that’s part of their charm. His 1941 film, Meet John Doe shares a lot in common with those films mentioned above (especially the first two). It is an inspirational drama about a real guy going up against a corrupt system. Yet, it is not as highly regarded as his other films. True, it isn’t quite as good, but it’s close. And had Capra stuck to his guns and ended the film the way that makes sense, it may well have be regarded as his best. But he copped out at the end because test audiences didn’t like his downer of an ending, no matter how much it made sense.

Meet John Doe stars Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell, essentially stepping in for the role that Jean Arthur played in Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith, as a tough as nails female reporter. She is about to get fired – a corporation has bought the paper and is trimming the fat – but they want one more column out of her before she goes. She her column will be a letter she received from John Doe – bemoaning the evils of the world and his inability to find a job, and threatening to commit suicide by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve. The problem is, she made the letter up. To everyone’s surprise, the letter becomes the talk of the town, and all of a sudden, everyone wants to Meet John Doe. But since he doesn’t exist, this creates a problem. Ann is given her job back, and convinces her new editor to hire a poor slob to pretend to be John Doe until Christmas – at which point they’ll fake his suicide. It will be great for circulation. By this point, a long line of people claiming to be John Doe have lined up at the newspaper – and they essentially interview for the position. They decide on John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), who admits right off he didn’t write the letter, but was looking for a job. He’s tall and handsome, and a former ball player. He’s perfect. Ann starts writing a column, under the guise of John Doe, bemoaning all the evils in the world. He becomes a huge hit – and people want him to speak. Reluctantly, he does, and his speech which calls on people to be nice to their neighbors, makes him an even bigger hit. Soon, John Doe clubs start popping up all across America. Everything seems to be going great. But the owner of the newspaper, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) has other ideas. He wants to be President, and with John Doe’s recommendation, he can be. Never mind that he doesn’t care about all the John Doe’s in America.

A movie like this works for a few reasons. For one, Frank Capra truly seems to believe in every idea he is espousing in this movie. This could quite easily go off the rails and become a condescending film, yet somehow it never does. It is so earnest, that you believe that Capra actually believe what he’s selling, instead of cynically exploiting the audience. This feeling is in all of Capra’s movies. It doesn’t hurt that he gets such good performances from his stars. In many ways, Gary Cooper is playing a very similar role that he did in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – the hayseed come to the city – but Cooper nails it. He is probably better remembered now for his more heroic roles – like his Oscar winning roles in Sergeant York (1941) and High Noon (1952) – but Cooper could do comedy with the best of them, and he does an excellent job here. Barbara Stanwyck feels more like a tough news reporter than Jean Arthur did in Mr. Deeds or Mr. Smith – he’s got more sass and edge to her. But this ends up being a double edged sword, as it works better for her in the early scenes in the movie, where she is a cynic through and through, but makes her transformation (which is underwritten to begin with) feel a little too forced. She is still wonderful, but she needed another scene or two to show her transform into the softy she becomes. Edward Arnold is excellent as the classic Capra villain – the corrupt rich man and politician. And Walter Brennan adds some flavor as only he can as Willoughby’s best friend.

The movie progresses about the way you expect it to. When you have a big lie at the heart of your movie, you know at some point, it’s going to be exposed, and people will get angry and turn on poor Willoughby, the sucker in the middle of it all. I said at the beginning of this review that had Capra ended it the way he initially intended, that I thought Meet John Doe may have become his most highly regarded film – at least in film critic circles. And I truly believe that. The only way for this movie to logically end – the way the whole movie is building towards – is that Willoughby will actually commit suicide in just the way he said he would. And yet, audiences don’t want to see a character they love – especially one played by Gary Cooper – come to that sort of end. So, they tried to make the ending happier. Still, this ending is a little more cynical than other Capra endings – there is certainly no guarantee that John and Ann will succeed in their goals, or that Norton will be crushed. And yet, I feel that had Capra had a little bit more courage in making Meet John Doe, it could well have become his masterpiece. As it stands, it is a fine film, but doesn’t quite measure up to his best work.

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994) ****
Directed by:  Wong Kar Wai.
Written by: Wong Kar Wai.
Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro (He Zhiwu, Cop 223), Brigitte Lin (Woman in blonde wig), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Cop 663), Faye Wong (Faye), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Chen Jinquan (Manager of 'Midnight Express').

Despite the fact that it was when I finished watching Chungking Express, I immediately went back and watched part of the film again – I simply did not want the romantic joy of Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film to end. The film is an undeniable stylistic masterpiece – one of Wong’s best looking films, and considering his resume that is saying a lot. But some critics only go that far, and praise Wong’s visuals in this film. To me, the story wrapped me up in its strange, obsessive romantic joy. The people in the movie are wounded, obsessive, slightly off kilter – but also completely in love. I just couldn’t get enough.

The film tells two stories – back to back – that are related only in that the action revolves around the same Hong Kong fast food restaurant, the male protagonists are both cops, and both have just been left by their girlfriends, and want them back, before meeting someone new. The first, and shorter story, is about Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who still calls his ex-girlfriend all the time to share the news of his day with her – even though she comes to the phone less and less often, so instead he speaks to her father, and asks about the family. He has yet to grasp the fact that she no longer wants him, and is hanging on desperately. Then, by chance, he meets a Woman in a Blonde Wig (Brigitte Lin). We know she is a criminal, a drug dealer and a murderer – but to him, she is just beautiful. She sucks him into her world, and he keeps those romantic glasses on through their brief, non-sexual encounter. He never knows anything about her, but it doesn’t matter – he’s in love. The second story involves Cop 663 (Wong regular Tony Leung), who has been living with a stewardess, who has just him. He doesn’t even seem to notice Faye (Faye Wong), who works at the fast food joint he goes to often, and is obsessed with the song “California Dreamin’”. His ex stops by the restaurant to leave his apartment key for him to pick up – but Faye doesn’t return it. Instead, she spends time in the apartment herself, cleaning, listening to music, etc. She is in love with him, but won’t say anything. When the truth comes out – she is too scared to act.

The two sections of the movie both play with genre – the gangster film in the first part, the screwball comedy in the second. The first part is shorter, because the characters are not as complex – Cop 223, as sweet as he is, is also not very bright. When he literally runs into the Woman in the Blonde Wig in the film’s opening scene, he doesn’t realize she’s wearing a disguise, and when “exactly 57 hours later”, he tries to pick her up in a bar, the thought of whether or not she’s a criminal never enters his mind. He’s like a lovesick puppy dog (the password for his answering machine is “Love You for 10,000 Years”), and that clouds everything he does. While Wong has never been the most overtly political of directors, he has often included references to politics beneath the surface. The film was made in 1994, just a few years shy of the British handover of Hong Kong back to China, and this first segment is littered with references to expiration dates – from 223’s ridiculous obsession with buying pineapple with a expiration date of May 1 (which is his 25th birthday, and is also the time he has given his girlfriend to come back to him), to the Woman, who needs to get the drugs her couriers stole back or be killed. Like 2046, his 2005 masterpiece, whose title refers to the year that China has guaranteed not to change anything in Hong Kong until, Chungking Express never mentions politics, but in this first segment, that fear hangs over it anyway.

The second half of the film is funny, and plays with screwball genre types – most notably Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938), wonderfully well. Tony Leung, who has become Wong’s cinematic muse, is the Cary Grant character, forever stuck in his head and oblivious to what is going on around him. Faye Wong is the Katherine Hepburn character, full of life, constantly talking. Wong was a first time actress (she is best known as a singer in Hong Kong, and in addition to her obsession with California Dreamin’, she lip-synchs to her own cover of a Cranberries song in the film). But her comic timing is pitch perfect. She falls in love with Leung the first time she sees him – slowly approaching the camera in one of the most romantic shots in Wong’s filmography. She is smitten – but isn’t quite sure what to do about it, so instead of approaching him, she simply breaks into his apartment again and again, and slowly, subtlety transforms it. He’s so clueless, so caught up in his own thoughts, he doesn’t even seem to notice.

There is an innocence to Chungking Express that some may find old fashioned, but I found endearing. There is no sex at all in the film, yet these characters all love each other in their own way. The final scene of the film – the unexpected meeting between Faye and Leung after a year apart is one of the most sweetly romantic in any film I have seen.

Wong Kar Wai is one of the best directors in the world right now. What is extraordinary about Chungking Express is that he made it while taking a break from his expensive action movie Ashes of Time (which he would later re-edit and re-release, although I have seen neither version). From start to finish, the film took three months. While In the Mood for Love (2000) may be more beautiful, and 2046 (2005) more complex, Chungking Express is so dreamily romantic, that I cannot help but love it to pieces.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

DVD Review: The Time That Remains

The Time That Remains ***
Written by: Elia Suleiman.
Starring: Elia Suleiman (ES), Saleh Bakri (Fuad), Avi Kleinberger (Government Official), Menashe Noy (Taxi Driver), Nati Ravitz (IDF Commander), Baher Agbariya (Iraqi soldier), George Khleifi (Mayor), Amer Hlehel (Anis), Leila Muammar (Thuraya), Ehab Assal (Man With Cell Phone / Tank), Doraid Liddawi (Ramalla IDF officer), Zuhair Abu Hanna (ES Child),  Ayman Espanioli (ES), Isabelle Ramadan (Aunt Olga), Yasmine Haj (Nadia), Ali Suliman (Eliza's Boyfriend).

Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains is a interesting, funny, heartbreaking and not altogether successful look at Palestinian-Israeli relations from 1948 through the present day. Although the film does present the harsh realities of life in the region, it is not for a second heavy handed, nor does one get the impression that it a political polemic. It is a deadpan comedy – in the style of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati – with its politics overlaid a top of its series of comic vignettes. It’s a very strange film indeed.

The director himself shows up early and late in The Time That Remains – first as a man getting into a taxi at the beginning of the film, the prodigal son returns as it were, and late in the film as the same man walking through the places where his childhood took place. But most of the film is about Suleiman’s father, whose life is seemingly just one damn thing after another. Some of the scenes are tragic, some of them are comic, and some of them are seemingly both at the same time. There are jarring scenes of violence, next to humorous scenes, as when a young Elia is taken out in to the hallway and yelled at for making anti-American remarks in class.

Through each one of these vignettes, there is either Saleh Bakri as Suleiman’s father Fuad, or the various actors who play Suleiman at various ages, taking whatever happens in stride, with their great stone faces betraying little emotions. Bakri is wonderful as Fuad, a man who is trying to raise his family, and be Palestinian in an area where he knows he isn’t wanted, but he does what he can.

For me, not all of The Time That Remains was effective. The film is by its very nature, rather scattershot. There is no momentum pulling the film from one scene to the next, but rather, the film at times feels like one of those omnibus films by various directors working on a theme. Some of these vignettes work, other don’t. But taken as a whole, I think the sum is greater than its parts. It is a portrait of an area we often see in movies, but hardly ever with this type of humor and humanity. It isn’t a great film, but it’s an interesting one.

DVD Review: The Trip

The Trip ***
Directed by: Michael Winterbottom.
Starring: Steve Coogan (Steve), Rob Brydon (Rob), Claire Keelan (Emma), Margo Stilley (Mischa), Rebecca Johnson (Sally), Dolya Gavanski (Magda).

You’ll notice that The Trip has no credited writers, and that is because the film is largely improvised. Michael Winterbottom got Steven Coogan and Rob Brydon back together, following their comic triumph of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and essentially just let the two of them loose. They are stuck together for a weeklong trip through Northern England, going from one fancy restaurant to another in order to review it for The Observer. Coogan was supposed to go with his girlfriend, but she backed out at the last minute, and after phoning around, the only person he could get to come along was Brydon, who he has a love-hate relationship with. The two playoff of each other brilliantly, but they are also competitors. And while Brydon seems completely comfortable being “just a comedian”, Coogan dreams of bigger things. He wants the Coens to build a movie around him. But that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. So now, he’s stuck in a car with Brydon, fighting with his girlfriend on the telephone, and wondering how the hell he got here. And Brydon is just having fun doing impressions.

I’m sure in real life, Coogan and Brydon are better friends then this movie makes them out to be. And I’m also sure that Coogan isn’t quite as petty as he plays himself to be in this movie. But yet, the movie still feels relaxed and realistic. Not being British, I never saw Coogan as Alan Patridge, but apparently it was huge over there, and as a result, it has typecast Coogan as a comic actor. He views himself as more than that, and is bitter than he doesn’t get better roles, and bitter still that Brydon doesn’t seem bitter at all at being labeled a comedian. Much of the movie is taken up with the two doing dueling impressions – Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Woody Allen, Roger Moore, etc – and although Brydon is quite clearly the more of the two mimics, Coogan won’t admit it, and continues on trying to top him. If he’s going to be just a comedian, than damn it, he’s going to be better than Brydon at it.

There is no story to speak of in The Trip. The movie is essentially a series of conversations between these two men – in the car, in various restaurants, at local tourist spots, or wherever they happen to be. The movie does take brief interludes to see the two men separate – talking to their significant others or children, and contrasting the way Coogan seems distant from his girlfriend and his son, and how easily Brydon and his wife get along. Coogan also has a lot of luck with barmaids and waitresses and hotel clerks and photographers, but then Brydon isn’t even trying.

The movie is about fame more than anything else, and in that way, it reminded me of Ricky Gervais’ brilliant show Extras. Maybe it’s a British thing, but both Extras and The Trip are really about how these two men get what they want, and are still not happy with it. Gervais’ character in Extras was pissed that his comedy became a hit with him in a silly wig, when he wanted to work with Scorsese. Coogan is pissed that he isn’t seen as a serious actor. And then there’s Brydon, just happy to go along for the ride. Perhaps the films best scene has Coogan trying to talk an old woman into letting them into a museum, even though it’s 5 after 5, and getting nowhere, and then seeing her light up when he’s meets Brydon. The look on Coogan’s face is funnier than anything I’ve seen in a long time.

The film was directed by Michael Winterbottom, who seemingly has worked in every genre known to man. He has made some brilliant films like The Claim and Jude, and some awful films like The Road to Guantanamo and Nine Songs, but the biggest thing is keeps working. Science fiction, Westerns, noir, documentary, neo-realism, comedies even movies with real sex, he just keeps churning them out, and even when they’re failures, they’re at least interesting ones. Through two movies with these two actors, he has made relaxed and hilarious comedies about fame. I have no idea how accurate or inaccurate the portraits in Tristram Shandy and The Trip are to Coogan and Brydon, and there is not doubt both are terrific sports at poking fun of themselves, but that doesn’t much matter. They work well together, even when, as in The Trip, there is absolutely no plot to work with. I hope this isn’t the last time these three get together.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

Moneyball ****
Directed by: Bennett Miller.
Written by: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin based on the book by Michael Lewis.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe), Robin Wright (Sharon), Chris Pratt (Scott Hatteberg), Stephen Bishop (David Justice), Brent Jennings (Ron Washington), Ken Medlock (Grady Fuson), Tammy Blanchard (Elizabeth Hatteberg), Jack McGee (John Poloni), Vyto Ruginis (Pittaro), Nick Searcy (Matt Keough), Glenn Morshower (Ron Hopkins), Casey Bond (Chad Bradford), Nick Porrazzo (Jeremy Giambi), Kerris Dorsey (Casey Beane).

How do you compete in Major League Baseball when you’re a GM whose owner has set your player salary budget below $40 million per season, and the New York Yankees are spending well over $100 million? You can’t possibly outspend the Yankees or the Red Sox or any of the other major teams, and as Billy Beane finds out, there’s no loyalty in baseball. It’s a business, and players will go where they can make the most money. After a terrific 2011 season, that saw the Oakland A’s make it to the playoffs (hard to do in baseball), their three best players leave for greener pastures, and there’s nothing he can do about it. While trying to replace these players, he meets Peter Brand, who has a new way of looking at players – a way that flies in the face of everything other teams are doing. He wants to ignore all the stats that GMs normally look at, ignore their fielding, ignore their physicality and off field behavior and look at just one state – on base percentage. The more people get on base, the more runs you score. The more runs you score, the more you win. By looking at players in this dispassionate, scientific way, Brand believes that the A’s can actually build a winning team. And Beane, who has nothing to lose, decides to trust him.

Moneyball is a different type of sports movie – one where the emphasis is not on the games being played on the field, but on all the talk that is happening off the field. I can’t think of another movie where the GM is the star of the show, but that is precisely what makes Moneyball seem so fresh and original. Never has so much talk about statistics seem so exciting.

Billy Beane was a failed big league player – a kid who right out of high school looked to be the next great player – he could field, he could throw, he could run, he could hit and he could hit for power, and those are the five tools every scout looks for. But for whatever reason, Beane never really made it as a major leaguer. That is key in determining why Beane does what he does as the GM of the A’s – he knows all the smoke being blown up his ass by his scouts is just that. Every one of them would have loved to have a young Billy Beane on their team, and every one of them would have been wrong. When he asked Brand if he would taken him Beane in the first round, Brand tells him he would have taken him in the 9th round, offered no signing bonus, and expected the kid to accept his scholarship to Stanford. That easily could have been the better thing for Beane in the long run, but dollar signs flashed in his eyes, and he took the easy way – and he failed as a result.

Brad Pitt is perfectly cast as Beane. He is funny and charming, and for much of the running time you think that Pitt is simply putting on another one of his movie star performances – something he can do better than just about anyone else right now. But Pitt’s performance is sneaky, much more subtle than the thousand watt smile and easy charm lead you to believe. He is fiercely determined, hates losing and under all that exterior charm, lies a stats nerd, not unlike Brand himself. Pitt wins you over, and then goes deeper than you expect him to. The other major performance in the movie is by Jonah Hill as Brand, who doesn’t have the charm that Beane has, but has the intelligence. He knows the stats inside out, and he knows what they mean, and how to use them. He needs someone like Beane to trust him, and get the deals done that need to get done. The two help each other out, learning for each other. As for Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the A’s manager, what can you say? He’s grouchy and pissed off in every one of his scenes, and while it’s not a deep performance, he does what is required of him.

The screenplay is one of the best of the year. Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin are two Hollywood heavyweights of screenwriting, and together they have crafted a movie that doesn’t skimp on the details of what they are doing, but still has dialogue that sings. Moneyball almost plays like a heist movie, where the plan is set in motion, and then carried forward. Like something like Martin Scorsese’s Casino, you see the inner workings behind something we all know, but never really thought about.

For director Bennett Miller, Moneyball is a triumph, just like his breakthrough film Capote was. That film was deeper and darker than Moneyball, but this one is more purely entertaining. He keeps the movie humming along at its brisk pace, never getting lost in details or letting all the talk bog the film down. This is a step forward for him, even if they movie does run a scene or two too long in the end.

For the most part, I have grown tired of sports movies – especially underdog stories of teams that shouldn’t have been able to compete, who somehow defy the odds. But while Moneyball is one of those stories, it is different, because it’s about how they built this underdog team, and how they did not consider themselves underdogs. True, the Oakland A’s have not won the World Series under Billy Beane – there is still a point where having a hell of lot of money trumps sound strategy – but he still changed the way the game was played, if not on the field, then in the boardrooms.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Z (1969)

Z (1969) ****
Directed by: Costa-Gavras.
Written by: Jorge Semprún based on the book by Vasilis Vasilikos.
Starring: Yves Montand (The Deputy), Irene Papas (Helene, the Deputy's wife), Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Examining Magistrate), Jacques Perrin (Photojournalist), Charles Denner (Manuel), François Périer (Public Prosecutor), Pierre Dux (The General), Georges Géret (Nick), Bernard Fresson (Matt), Marcel Bozzuffi (Vago), Julien Guiomar (The Colonel), Magali Noël (Nick's Sister), Renato Salvatori (Yago), Clotilde Joanno (Shoula).

Costa-Gravas’ brilliant 1969 paranoid, political assassination thriller Z is somewhat of a rarity. It is that rare film that made for its moment in time, and yet has not aged. Compare to another 1969 film that perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the times it was made in, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, and see how Hopper’s film has become dated, while Costa-Gravas’ film no seems almost timeless. Yes, it is directly about the 1963 assassination of a progressive political leader in Greece, but it captures the era’s paranoia of the public towards politicians in the wake of the Vietnam war, and the anger that seethed under the surface in America over their own string of political assassinations. Now, 40 years later, Z remains a perfect time capsule of its time, but one that also feels surprisingly modern. It is a truly remarkable film.

The film tells its story in three parts. The first part of the film involves a rally to be held where The Deputy (Yves Montand), the leader of the opposition, is to come and give a speech. The organizers have a location picked out, and a contract signed, but at the last minute the owner of the venue cancels – and gives them no reason. They try and find another location, but everywhere they turn, the are either turned away, or else the government won’t allow them to have it there for issues of “safety” - eventually suggesting that they hold it at a venue that is far too small for the number of people who are going to show up. The rally becomes chaotic – with loud speakers broadcasting the speech to the throngs of people outside – which includes the Deputy’s supporters and his detractors, and the clashes become more violent. This part of the film climaxes when the Deputy is leaving the rally, and a three wheeler comes by and crashes into the Deputy, dropping him to the ground, and leaving him dead. The second part of the film involves the immediate aftermath of the Deputy’s death – his supporters, and his widow (Irene Papas) try to pick up and continue his work, while the government tries to sweep everything under the rug, dismissing it all as simply a tragic accident – but one that wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the opposition in the first damn place. The third act is about the government prosecutor (Jean-Louis Trinignant) who is assigned the case, and finds it’s not as simple as he was told. For one thing, the autopsy has found that it was murder (which we already knew) and not an accident. As he digs deeper, layer upon layer of deception, corruption and cover-ups are uncovered, more people are threatened, including the Prosecutor himself. He is portrayed as a man without politics, but one who cannot stand to see injustice done. It doesn’t matter who was killed, or why, he’s going to get to the bottom of it.

The success that Z had in 1969 cannot be overstated. It won two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, was the first Foreign Language film to ever win the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture, won the Foreign Language Oscar, and was the first Foreign Language nominee for Best Picture since 1938’s Grand Illusion, and was a sizable box office hit. Though the film was rooted in the political quagmire that is Greece, it feels universal – the conspiracy theory and the paranoia at the center applied worldwide at the time. It has in many ways become the “prototypical” Best Foreign Language Oscar winner – that is a film that uses Hollywood style filmmaking, but in a different language. We see this in recent Oscar winners like The Lives of Others, The Secret in Their Eyes and In a Better World. The secret to the success of Z is that Costa-Gavras marries a thriller aesthetic to a much more political film. While the film wears its politics on its sleeve – much like Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, to which this film is often compared – and yet it is still breathless, exciting and fast paced. We still see echoes of this film in many made today.

Z is an extraordinary film in many ways. It is the film that built Costa-Garvras’ reputation, even if he has never really achieved the same level of greatness since (not even in his Palme D’Or winning film Missing in 1982). It is a film that proves that not every film about politics needs to be dry or boring. It is a film full of good and evil, but the line is blurred, evil doesn’t always get punished, and good doesn’t always triumph. It is a truly great film.

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Major Dundee (1965)

Major Dundee (1965) *** ½  
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah.
Written by: Harry Julian Fink & Oscar Saul and Sam Peckinpah.
Starring: Charlton Heston (Major Amos Charles Dundee), Richard Harris (Captain Benjamin Tyreen), Jim Hutton (Lieutenant Graham), James Coburn (Samuel Potts), Michael Anderson Jr. (Trooper Tim Ryan), Senta Berger (Teresa Santiago), Mario Adorf (Sergeant Gomez), Brock Peters (Aesop), Warren Oates (O.W. Hadley), Ben Johnson (Sergeant Chillum), R.G. Armstrong (Reverend Dahlstrom), L.Q. Jones (Arthur Hadley), Slim Pickens (Wiley), Karl Swenson (Captain Waller), Michael Pate (Sierra Charriba).

Sam Peckinpah’s films are filled with violence, and complex ideas about the conflict between values and ideals. They have a very definite idea of what it means to be a man, and his films may be the most misogynistic of any great director. His female characters are most often prostitutes, or sluts, and they almost all drag the male “heroes” of his movies down – getting them into trouble. Major Dundee was his third film as a director – and at that point his most expensive. He started to shoot the movie before a script had been finished, and he ended up going over schedule and budget on the shoot. He edited the film together, and the studio didn’t like it. They took it away from him, cut it down, added a score Peckinpah hates, and released it – to bad reviews and poor box office. It would take Peckinpah four years to make his next film – The Wild Bunch – which would make him a legend. After the success of that film, the studio offered Peckinpah a chance to re-edit Major Dundee, but he declined. He had the idea in his head that Major Dundee was his lost masterpiece, and didn’t want to go back and simply rediscover a failure. In 2005, years after his dead, someone did it for him – adding 12 minutes of footage (bringing it up to 136) and advertising it as only 7 minutes shorter than Peckinpah’s original version. But if Film Comment is to be believed (and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be), than Peckinpah’s cut was actually more like 161 minutes – and he thought that he had taken too much out, and wanted to go back and add another 20 minutes or so. None of that really matters though – the 136 minute version is the closest we will ever get to Peckinpah’s original. What emerges is certainly a flawed film, and yet one that I have a feeling could have been a masterpiece had the film had more time to flush out its themes and characters. So perhaps the original version really was the masterpiece Peckinpah had in his head.

The movie stars Charlton Heston in the title role. He is a Union Officer, who has been sent to oversee a jail in New Mexico, because he has a tough time following orders. The jail contains common criminals, and Confederate POWs, including Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris), who went to West Point alongside Dundee, but ended up fighting for the Confederates. The film opens with a massacre of a small village at the hands of the ruthless Apache leader Sierra Charriba, who kills everyone in the village except for three young boys. Despite the fact that they know Charriba will be headed for Mexico, Dundee is determined to go after him, rescue the kids and kill Charriba. But he cannot take his whole Garrison – that would irresponsible – so he asks for volunteers from the prisoners. Eventually, Tyreen and his men agree to participate – but “Only until Carriba is killed or captured” – then Tyreen plans to kill Dundee.

The film is a odyssey in many ways – much more about the journey itself rather than the destination. Peckinpah initially didn’t want to show Charriba in the film at all, and end the film without a conflict between the two sides, which may well have made for a more complex film, but it isn’t quite what he ended up making. Dundee is not unlike Captain Ahab, going after his white whale long after everyone else thinks he has gone insane, or perhaps like Conrad’s Marlow, who is drawn ever deeper into the darkness by his search for Kurtz. Like Heart of Darkness, Major Dundee is more complex than it initially appears to be – giving a complex portrait of it’s major characters, including Carriba and the Apaches, instead of making them into savages, and also including the few African Americans soldiers who also come along with Dundee. They are tired of sitting on the sidelines waiting to fight.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Major Dundee is the two main performances. Charlton Heston could be effective when he played his straight forward, square jawed protagonists in films like Touch of Evil, Ben-Hur and Planet of the Apes, but Major Dundee is a complex role – and one I’m not sure he was up for. Dundee is supposed to be on the edge of madness for much of the movie – especially when he gets injured and has to spend time recuperating – but Heston doesn’t quite get to the level he needs to. Richard Harris was a better actor than Heston, but I had a hard time believing him as a Southern officer. Yes, near the end of the movie they mentioned that he was an Irish immigrant, but his accent was distracting (like Michael Caine, Harris seems to be an actor who doesn’t bother to change his accent no matter where his character is supposed to be from). Dundee and Tyreen are both terrific roles, and some of that complexity comes through, but it’s almost in spite of the performances.

As a Western, Major Dundee seems to be caught between two worlds – the classic, John Ford type Western, and the more modern Western, that Peckinpah mastered in The Wild Bunch. There are moments that deliberately echo John Ford films (and he did cast Ford regular Ben Johnson as one of the Confederate soldiers) – in particular a funeral scene where the men sing “We Shall Gather at the River”. Of course, to a certain extent, the plot outline even resembles Ford’s The Searchers – with his conflicted hero pursuing a Native tribe to try and get back white children before they are corrupted. But just as Ford’s Westerns got more complex as they went along (and he tried to make his Native apology in Cheyenne Autumn), Peckinpah’s ideas about race and Native relations is more complex than the classic Western. When an old Apache is asked why he hunts with Carriba, he answers “Why not? All this land is ours”. There are so major Native characters – like James Coburn’s half breed tracker, and their scout who they distrust right up until they have definitive proof that he is loyal to them (and of course, by then its too late). Yet all of the connective tissue of the movie – whether it be between Dundee and Tyreen, or the ideas about Native identity or racism, even European colonialism (they clash with a band of French soldiers in Mexico) – seem to be somewhat strained, or under developed. Perhaps had Peckinpah been able to make his film 3 hours long like he wanted to, they would have come off better.

And yet, despite all of Major Dundee’s flaws, I couldn’t help but be drawn into it – couldn’t help but be fascinated by it. It is quite clearly the work of Peckinpah, and seeing where this themes explored here are expanded and perfected in films like The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), simply makes Major Dundee all the more fascinating. We will never know just what Peckinpah’s version of this movie would have looked like. Studio interference and his own stubbornness have made that impossible. But what we are left with is a fascinating artifact by a great director.

DVD Review: The People vs. George Lucas

The People vs. George Lucas ***
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe.

Han Solo shot first. Greedo came to get him, and before he could shoot or capture him, Han Solo gunned him down in cold blood. That was what happened in the original 1977 version of Star Wars. When George Lucas did the special additions, he added more than just special effects – he added a different plot point when he has Greedo shoot first, miss, and than have Han Solo gun him gun. That turns what Han Solo did from an act of cold blooded murder to an act of justifiable self defense. And you know what? I don’t give a shit.

Unlike most of the fanboys (and girls) who make up the talking heads in the entertaining documentary The People vs. George Lucas, I was not a child of the 1970s. I can’t remember watching Star Wars for the first time in 1977 and being blown away by it – mainly because I wasn’t born until 1981. By then not only Star Wars, but also The Empire Strikes Back, had been released. Sure, I watched the movies when I was a kid, and loved them (we had all sorts of Star Wars toys), but I can’t say that Star Wars was the definitive moment of my childhood. Which perhaps explains why, unlike so many in the film, I can never honestly say that George Lucas raped my childhood by making changes to the original trilogy, and then having the gall to make the “prequels”. I’ll admit – I actually like all three prequel films. Sure, other than Revenge of the Sith, none of them even come close to the original or The Empire Strikes Back or The Return of the Jedi, but all three are entertaining space operas – which is what the first three films were. But yes, I will agree, that Jar Jar Binks never should have happened.

The People vs. George Lucas is a fascinating look at fandom – at just how far some people will go with their love and obsession with something – and how quickly that love can turn to hate. It’s suggested in the movie that the way you prove that you truly love Star Wars is to hate Star Wars. And I think that makes perfect sense.

When George Lucas started his film career, he was frustrated by the fact that the film industry was run by corporations. He liked making tiny, non-narrative films and worked alongside Francis Ford Coppola. He made two other films before Star Wars – THX 1138 and American Graffitti, and although both are excellent films, he was frustrated that corporations stuck their noses into his art. He was determined not to let that happen again – and he didn’t. The Star Wars films, for better or for worse, are all George Lucas. He has complete control over every aspect of every film and it seems like he will never be done tinkering with them. And then, most frustrating of all, he’ll make the previous additions unavailable to all who want them. Star Wars is his, goddamn it, and people will see only what Lucas wants them to see.

And yet, George Lucas has also given much back to the fans. There are thousands of fan films featuring Star Wars characters and themes, and Lucas not only doesn’t sue anyone for infringing on his copyright, he encourages it. He holds contests for the best ones, he makes special audio and visual effects available to anyone who wants to use them in their films. You can essentially do whatever you want to Star Wars, and George Lucas doesn’t care. But those six films are his, and he’ll do to them whatever the hell he wants.

Yes, there are arguments about preserving film history to be made – and I agree with them. There should be the original versions of the films made available. These are the films that people fell so much in love with, and these are the films that won so many Oscars. The Special Additions are not the same film. And the originals should be preserved.

But in all honesty, does it really matter THAT much? Are the changes Lucas made to the original trilogy really THAT awful that anyone can honestly say that they go from loving them to hating them? Will future generations watching Star Wars really care? Are the prequel movies really that much awful?

What I would interesting is to show all six Star Wars films to a 30 year old who had never heard of Star Wars before (impossible I know) and see what they think of them. I would argue that the people who hate the special additions and the prequels as much as they do are doing so more because of nostalgia for their childhood then any logical reason. Just don’t tell them that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Ten Most Anticipated Films for the Rest of 2011

We are approaching the home stretch of the movie year – the final three months, when studios release all of their “prestige” movies. Many times, the year’s best come out during the final three months (for example, last year 6 of my top 10 were released from October-December). And while there are a lot of films I want to see from this period – including The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodvoar), Anonymous (Roland Emmerich), In Time (Andrew Niccol), Young Adult (Jason Reitman), The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry), Corilanus (Ralph Fiennes), Carnage (Roman Polanski), We Bought a Zoo (Cameron Crowe) – these are the 10 films I’m most looking forward to in that time. I should note that Alexander Payne’s The Descendants would have been very high on this list, had I not seen it at TIFF this year.

Anyway, these are the 10 films I’m looking forward to most.

10. The Ides of March (George Clooney)
As an actor, George Clooney has proven to be one of the most consistent movie stars around. He always picks interesting roles for himself, in good movies. In his three directorial efforts – Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck and Leatherheads – he has shown a real skill behind the camera (ok, Leatherheads wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful). For The Ides of March, based on a hit play, he has assembled a great cast including Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright and of course Clooney himself for this political thriller, revolving around Clooney as a Presidential candidate, and Ryan Gosling as his political fixer. The reviews have been solid – not spectacular – but I’d watch that cast in practically anything.

9. War Horse (Steven Spielberg)
Because Steven Spielberg is perhaps the biggest and most successful filmmaker in history in terms of money, he has a lot of fans, and a lot of haters. I’ve always been a fan, and in fact I think the period between 1998’s Saving Private Ryan and 2005’s Munich is Spielberg’s most interesting of his career. Then he made Indiana Jones 4 and ruined it. For me, the hope with War Horse – about a friendship between a boy and his horse who gets sold to Calvary to fight WWI – is that it is a return to form for Spielberg. The trailer doesn’t tell us much, and I haven’t read the book (or seen the play that was also based on the book), but anything with Spielberg remains of high interest to me (yes, even Tintin).

8. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
I’ll be honest – if Hugo were not directed by Martin Scorsese, it would not be on this list. But Scorsese is my favorite filmmaker of all time (I named my freaking dog after him for God’s sake!), so I’m going to let the childish trailer for this one slide (besides, trailers often don’t represent the movie very well). The film is based on a wonderful graphic novel about a young boy who lives in a train station in France in the 1920s, who spends his days winding the clocks, and avoiding capture, before he develops an unlikely friendship. True, this sounds about as far away from Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and GoodFellas as it could get, but it’s still a Scorsese movie, so you know it will at least be interesting to watch. The cast – including Ben Kingsley, Chloe Mortez, Jude Law, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Michael Pitt, Ray Winstone and newcomer Asa Butterfield also has me excited.

7. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
The Artist has been an audience favorite ever since winning the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May. It is a French film, that is apparently a love letter to the movies – set during the time as Hollywood was converting from silent films to talkies. The trailer, in glorious black and white, looks irresistible and I am a sucker for these types of movies. People are already saying that Jean Dujardin, will be an Oscar nominee this year.

6. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
Lionel Shriver’s bestselling book We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the best books I have read in years. It is told from the point of view of a mother (Tilda Swinton) whose son went on a high school killing spree who is writing her estranged husband (John C. Reilly) about everything that has happened – from the time Kevin was born, to the present day. The novel was deeply disturbing – was Kevin just a bad seed, or was his emotionally cold mother a contributing factor – but also incredibly well written. Director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Movern Callar) is talented beyond belief, and while the film has received mixed reviews, some absolutely love it. Plus, I’ll watch anything with Tilda Swinton, perhaps the most daring actress in the world right now.

5. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
At the Cannes Film Festival this year, Lars von Trier overshadowed his own movie by proclaiming he had sympathy for Hitler – and getting himself banned from the festival. It was a joke gone horribly awry, but what else can you expect from von Trier, who almost always says something stupid when he opens his mouth. His films though are usually excellent, and the reviewers who ignored and his comments, and concentrated on his end of the world film, with Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsborug – were deeply impressed. I love von Trier’s film, so I’m there.

4. J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood)
Last year’s Hereafter was quite simply, the worst film Clint Eastwood has ever directed. But having said that, Eastwood is usually a very reliable director, and for this film he tells the story of the infamous FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his power struggles through the years, and his secret homosexual relationship (with Armie Hamer, better known as the Winklevii). The story is right up Eastwood’s alley, and the supporting cast includes Naomi Watts and Judi Dench among many others, so here’s hoping this is Eastwood’s redemption movie for the horrible Hereafter.

3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher)
Following Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, I think it’s fair to say that David Fincher is one of the best directors in the world right now. His obsessive planning, meticulous filmmaking and attention to detail are already legendary, and his films are intelligent and extremely well made. They are also well acted by all involved. Here, he is taking the bestselling Stieg Larsson novel and making an American film out of it (a year after we saw the original Swedish version) and he has cast Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the two leads – and Stellan Skarsgaard, Robin Wright and Christopher Plummer in support. The original Swedish films were all excellent – but they lacked the directorial control of a Fincher, so I hope this one is even better.

2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Tomas Alfredson’s last film was the wonderful Swedish vampire saga Let the Right One In. Now, he returns with this adaptation of John LeCarre’s famous spy novel, starring Gary Oldman as LeCarre’s most famous creation, George Smiley. The cast also features Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarin Hinds and Mark Strong in the story of double agents and double crosses. LeCarre’s novel was more subdued and realistic than most spy stories – something I am hearing about the movie as well. I cannot wait for this one.

1. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg is easily the best director to ever come out of Canada – and I think his recent twin crime films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, are two of his very best. Here, he does a period piece about Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) who worked with Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson) and was both a patient and a lover to Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). The reviews have been mixed – with some turned off by Cronenberg’s typical coldness of style, but that just makes me want to see it even more. I will watch anything Cronenberg does with great fascinating.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Movie Review: Drive

Drive ****
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written by: Hossein Amini based on the book by James Sallis.
Starring: Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino), Kaden Leos (Benicio).

There is a scene near the end of Drive which is, quite simply put, the best scene I’ve seen in any movie this year. Ryan Gosling’s near silent driver gets onto an elevator with Irene (Cary Mulligan), because he knows the other man in there is going to try and kill them both. In a wordless, effortlessly fluid scene, Gosling moves Mulligan behind him, and as an ‘80s pop song plays, turns around and gives one of the most memorable kisses in recent memory. He then beats the other man in the elevator to a pulp – leaving him a dead, bloody, mess on the floor, and as the elevator door closes – with Irene now on the outside, the two share a wounded, sad look of disappointment, longing and regret. Without a single line of dialogue, this is a scene that will haunt me for years.

But it is just one of many great scenes in Drive, the new films by Nicolas Winding Refn, which very justly won him the Best Director prize at this years Cannes Film Festival. I wasn’t a fan of Winding Refn’s last film, Valhalla Rising, which was also bloody, but ponderous, slow and confusing, even as it was visually astonishing. Here, working with a screenplay by Hossein Amini, and a great cast, he has created one of the best crime movies in recent years.

Ryan Gosling is superb as The Driver – a man of few words, and seemingly few emotions. Many critics have drawn comparisons to his character here with actors like Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen – and the comparison is apt. Gosling’s Driver is an existensial hero, a man whose meaning is based solely on his actions, because he never gives you a hint as to what he is really thinking or feeling. Far from being a boring or flawed performance, it is actually rather thrilling to see Gosling, who can be so good with dialogue, sit back and let everyone around him talk and talk and talk. The Driver doesn’t talk much. He drives – whether it’s on the racetrack, doing stunts for the movies, or being a getaway driver for criminals, he is the best there is. He lives a solitary life, basically just interacting with his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who unlike Driver, cannot shut up. But then he meets his new neightbor – Irene, and her young son Benicio. Her husband is in jail, and he takes a shine to this small family, so beaten down by the husband’s absence. When he does get out of jail, he owes money to some bad people – who tell him that he can pay it off by robbing a pawn shop. But he needs a driver, so guess who volunteers?

The robbery, of course, is not what it seems. People end up dead, and instead of the $40,000 they expected, it turns out that they have $1 million. This isn’t good. Shannon makes inquires as to who the money belongs to – and it’s Nino (Ron Perelman), a violent gangster, who is partners with Bernie (Albert Brooks). They need the money back – and soon – or they’ll wind up dead.

The plot is pretty standard for a crime film. And yet the handling of the plot is anything but standard. The film is highly stylized from its opening sequence – a thrilling “car chase” sequence that really isn’t a car chase at all, but an expertly choreographed dance sequence using Gosling and his car as the dancer. The movie is stylized, but this isn’t an example of style trumping substance, but rather and example of style matching substance. The movie is flashy and violent from beginning to end, but also rather thrillingly romantic and grandiose. I loved every second of it.

The cast is perfect as well. Gosling is the still center of the movie, who lets the crazies around him go wild. Bryan Cranston is excellent as his sleazy buddy and Ron Perelman good as the heavy. Carey Mulligan exudes wounded beauty with the best of them as the girl he loves. And the casting of Albert Brooks was nothing short of genius. I’ve always thought of Brooks as an actor like Woody Allen – only capable of playing the same role in every film. But here, although some of his speeches are as hilarious as something he has written himself, he is also downright scary. His intensity builds as the movie goes along – at first being little more than the Albert Brooks we know and love, and then turning into some sort of monster. It is a brilliant performance – one that should land Brooks an Oscar nomination.

Drive is without question one of the best movies of the year. Expertly written and acted, and amazingly well directed by a filmmaking who I thought had the talent to pull something like this off for a few years now. A truly great film.

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Thoughts on my 6 TIFF Movies

If you read my entry a few weeks ago about my TIFF experience this year, you know that instead of seeing around 30 films, I only got to six over two days, because of my new baby. Full reviews of each of the movies will come when they open, but for now, here are my quick thoughts on the films I saw.

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols) - Nichols’ follow up film to the incredibly underseen Shotgun Stories is this wonderful paranoid, thriller with Michael Shannon give one of the best performances of the year. He plays a regular, middle class, construction worker in rural Ohio - happily married (to Jessica Chastain, in yet another movie this year), with one daughter, who becomes increasingly paranoid about an oncoming storm he sees in his dreams. This makes him do all sort of strange things - not least of which is to fully stock and expand a storm cellar in his backyard. The film has echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds - both obvious and subtle - as the movie slowly ratchets up the suspense, and plays with its visuals and sound to get the audience as paranoid as Shannon. Shannon is an actor who is best at playing men who are at least slightly unhinged (Bug, World Trade Center, Revolutionary Road), and yet this does not feel like a repeat performance from him - his character’s madness in this film is all his own. As great as Shotgun Stories was, Take Shelter marks a great leap forward for Nichols

Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine) - Writer/director Considine, best known as an actor, warned the audience in his introduction that many have said his film Tyrannosaur is one to be endured instead of enjoyed - and to prove his point, he opens the film with Peter Mullan’s violent, drunk kicking his dog to death (and that’s nothing compared to another dog in the film). And for the first little while of Tyrannosaur, you start to wonder if it is just going to best a non-stop parade of misery - as Mullan swears at everyone, and lashes out violently at nearly everyone, including the sweet shopkeeper of a Christain store, played by Olivia Colman. At first we think she’s just being nice to Mullan because she’s trying to do God’s work - and then we meet her husband (Eddie Marsan), and know she knows what it’s like to be abused. The film is certainly a tough sit - violent, bloody, disturbing. But it’s also an unflinching look at domestic abuse, in its different forms, and a study in just how long it takes before an abused animal - or person - lashes out. Mullan and Colman are brilliant in the film, who embrace their character, with all their flaws. Eddie Marsan is fine - but he’s playing the Eddie Marsan character - that of a crazy, violent sociopath, in such a pathetic little shell. Considine’s writing and directing are top - if he chooses to, he has a real career ahead of him of a director. A difficult film, and far from perfect, Tyrannosaur is still unforgettable.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky) - It’s not often that you can actually claim that a film literally saved someone’s life. But the Paradise Lost trilogy can claim that. When documentary fillmakers JoeBerlinger and Bruce Sinofsky first went to West Memphis, Arkansas in 1994, they thought they were going to make a documentary about three teenagers who murdered three 8 year old boys in a Satanic ritual. What they found instead is the story of three teenagers who were railroaded by a police force who had no evidence, and convicted in the media before the trial even started. The end result was that 18 year old Damien Echols was convicted and sentenced to death, and the mildly retarded Jessie Misskelly was sentenced to life in prison, and the 16 year old Jason Baldwin was also sentenced to life in jail. When the film came out, it generated controversy, and the so called West Memphis Three found many supporters who donated money for appeals lawyers. When the filmmakers went back in 2000 for Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, they found still more questions, and yet the 3 boys were still in jail. Now, a decade later, they return again. This story is sad beyond belief - sad that three 8 year olds were brutally murdered, and sad that three boys in their teens have sacrificed half their lives for a crime no one really believes they committed. The movie brings up even more questions, but is really just a sad statement on the justice system - for people who remember the first two films will be shocked to see what the three men, now in their 30s, look like today. Apparently, the version I saw was not the final one - they completed it on August 15, and then out of the blue on August 19, the West Memphis 3 were released. I will certainly be checking out the expanded edition - because this is one of the best documentaries of the year.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne) - It has taken Alexander Payne 7 long years to follow up his critically adored, Oscar nominated Sideways. But it was well worth the wait. While The Descendants does not have the simple perfection of that film, it is a heartfelt, poignant and hilarious film. It stars George Clooney in one of his best performances as a man whose wife ends up in a coma because of an accident, and before they take her off life support, he decides to find the man with whom she was having an affair to let him know. The beautiful Hawaii locations give the film a nice backdrop, but it is the performance by Clooney, as a man struggling with the decisions he has to make that give the film it’s soul. The supporting cast - Shailane Woodley as his oldest daughter, Matthew Lillard as the other man, Judy Greer as the other man’s wife, Robert Forrester as the gruff father in law, Beau Bridges as a stoned out cousin and Nick Krause as a surfer dude who may not be as shallow as he seems, are all wonderful. As with all of Payne’s films, the film mixes drama and comedy effortlessly, and the film makes you laugh and breaks your heart at the same time, right up it’s simple, perfect final shot. Another triumph for Payne.

Dark Horse (Todd Solondz) - I have been a longtime supporting of Todd Solondz - even after many critics abandoned him starting with Storytelling, and going through Palindromes and Life During Wartime. But his most recent film, Dark Horse, is a major disappointment. It stars Jordan Gelbar as Abe, a Jewish man, still living at home with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow, both in incredibly stupid wigs, which is supposed to be funny I guess), who meets a girl (Selma Blair, perhaps reviving her role from Storytelling, perhaps not) and thinks he is in love. Solondz’s film are often made in response to another film, or films, and it seems to be that Solondz maybe poking fun at the recent spat of films about grown manchildren (particularly the films of Judd Apatow). But while that provide a lot of material from a great film, the film isn’t particularly funny to begin with, going through the motions of poking fun of men who spend their lives obsessed with comic books, and then goes off the rails with fantasy sequences to end. I think this is Solondz trying to tone down his provactive filmmaking for mass consumption - and he has faied.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin) - Elizabeth Olson, younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashey, proves she is one hell of an actress in this film about a young woman recruited into a cult not unlike the Manson family, and then escapes and moves in with her long lost sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy). She doesn’t tell them why she disappeared, or where she was, and her ways are confusing, and scary to them. The present is offset with flashbacks to her life inside the cult, led by John Hawkes in a magnetic performance, and Brady Corbet who is wonderful as well. Martha Marcy May Marlene is the feature debut of writer/director Sean Durkin, and it’s quite simply wonderfully well made, shot, written and acted. A fascinating, disturbing movie.