Monday, May 31, 2010

Movie Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time **
Directed by:
Mike Newell.
Written By: Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard based on the video game by Jordan Mechner.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Dastan), Gemma Arterton (Tamina), Ben Kingsley (Nizam), Alfred Molina (Sheik Amar), Steve Toussaint (Seso), Toby Kebbell (Garsiv), Richard Coyle (Tus), Ronald Pickup (King Sharaman), Reece Ritchie (Bis), Gísli Örn Garðarsson (Hassansin Leader).

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a movie that is impossible to take seriously on any level. I suspect the filmmakers understand that, and decided to simply try and make an entertaining thrill ride of a movie for two hours. Yet, the movie cannot sustain that. The characters are all cardboard cutouts completely defined by their roles. When movies like this work, like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Pirates of the Caribbean, they do so because the action is good, the special effects great, and we care about the characters. All that is really missing from this movie is that third one.

The Persian empire pretty much controls the world. Ruled by a benevolent king (Ronald Pickup), they have power, but do not really feel the need to exercise it because they do not have to. The King has two sons, and has adopted a third when he sees a young boy at the market display incredible bravery. 15 years later, the King is growing old, and looking to pass on his empire to the oldest son Tus (Richard Coyle). Everyone has adopted Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the adopted son, as part of the family. Everyone except the King are returning from one battle when they receive intelligence that the city of Alamut is supplying weapons to the enemy. The decision falls upon Tus as to whether they should invade. Dastan argues against it, but their uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) convinces Tus to invade. They do, and although Dastan was against it, he becomes the battle’s hero. When the King arrives, her is furious, but tries to make the best of the situation. That is until he is murdered, and Dastan is blamed. Dastan goes on the run with the beautiful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) of Alamut, who is interested in a dagger that Dastan has won in the battle. She explains its magical powers, and they two form an uneasy partnership so that Dastan can clear his name, and Tamina can regain her Kingdom and people.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a talented actor, but an action hero he isn’t. He is even less convincing as a Persian. Someone needs to tell Hollywood that making white actors get a tan and covering them in oil doesn’t make them look Arab. And why everyone is speaking with a British accent, I don’t have the slightest clue. Having said that, Gyllenhaal does what he can in a bad situation – which isn’t much. He tries to be clever and funny, but he is let down by the screenplay which doesn’t give him anything interesting to say. For the second time this year (following Clash of the Titans), Gemma Arterton looks gorgeous in her period dress, and is given nothing to really do except look gorgeous. She does that well, but if she has any acting talent, I have yet to see it. Ben Kingsley is given a thankless role as the bad guy – and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that as he lurks in to the background shadows so much in this movie that you know he’s up to no good well before it actually becomes clear. The only one in the movie who is really good is Alfred Molina, as a lowlife criminal. He seems to understand the ridiculousness of the plot, and simply dives in headlong, and ends up stealing every scene he is in. I particularly love the pride he shows in his ostriches, and the pain he feels when he only has one left. Had everyone followed his lead, the movie may have been more entertaining.

As gamers know, Prince of Persia is based on a popular video game series. I have never played the game – most of my gaming these days is playing hockey games – but I have no doubt that as a video game, this probably worked fine. You don’t need stories that make sense, or characters to care about, in a video game. The main purpose is to hack and slash your way through hundreds of enemies. That would probably be entertaining to play – but to watch, it becomes a little dull after a while.

Director Mike Newell started off with character based movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco before getting into these special effects laden action films. He made what is probably the best Harry Potter movie – the fourth one The Goblet of Fire. In Prince of Persia he handles the action and the special effects well, but he is undone by the screenplay. When the characters are not the least bit interesting, all the special effects in the world cannot make a movie entertaining.

Movie Review: Sex and the City 2

Sex and the City 2 *
Directed by:
Michael Patrick King.
Written By: Michael Patrick King based on the book by Candace Bushnell & television show by Darren Star.
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie Bradshaw), Kristin Davis (Charlotte York), Cynthia Nixon (Miranda Hobbes), Kim Cattrall (Samantha Jones), Chris Noth (Mr. Big), David Eigenberg (Steve Brady), Evan Handler (Harry Goldenblatt), Mario Cantone (Anthony Marantino), Willie Garson (Stanford Blatch), Liza Minnelli (Herself), Alice Eve (Erin), Lynn Cohen (Magda), Penélope Cruz (Carmen Garcia Carrion), Omid Djalili (Mr. Safir), Raza Jaffrey (Butler Guarau), John Corbett (Aidan Shaw), Max Ryan (Rikard Spirit).

I was never a big fan of the show, and thought that the first movie was merely average and way too long. But I have seen enough Sex and the City to know that at its best, it is capable of being both smart and funny. It started out as a show about four financially and sexually independent women in New York who had a lot of money, and enjoyed spending it on the finer things in life, but also dealt with issues that women – no matter what their economic background – could relate to. The show was daring in showing women who were happy being by themselves, even as they searched for a husband. You got the impression that if they never did find anyone, they would be okay with that. Of course, over the course of the series run, they felt the need to match all the women – except for Kim Cattrall’s Samantha – up with someone, but still, again at its best, the show dealt with things intelligently.

Unfortunately Sex and the City 2 is nowhere near the best that the show that the show is capable of. Instead, it gives into the shows worst tendencies – and simply shows four whiny women complaining about their lives, which are so much better than most peoples, then heading off to Abu Dhabi to try and offend the Muslim world. I know some people have complained that the film is anti-Muslim, but I think that’s giving the movie far too much credit. In order to be truly offensive, some thought would have had to go into the movie, and there is no evidence that any did.

The movie starts out with a huge gay wedding – between Carrie’s best gay friend and Charlotte’s best gay friend – perhaps because they felt they didn’t want to add in any other characters. The wedding is a huge production, with Liza Minelli performing the ceremony, and then getting up with two back up Liza’s to sing Beyonce’s Single Ladies (which as horrific as it sounds, is actually one of the comic highlights of the film).

From there the movie starts out kind of promising – as it brings up issues for each of the four women which, if dealt with intelligently, could be both comic and insightful. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is going into menopause, and is trying to trick her body with creams, vitamins and hormones. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is having trouble with her new boss – a sexist, and feels that she has hit the glass ceiling which is still all too real for many women. Charlotte (Kristen Davis) is struggling with being a mother, and all the stress that comes along with it, and worries that her Irish nanny (Alice Eve) maybe too attractive, and too braless, for her husband to resist. And finally Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is struggling in her marriage to Mr. Big (Chris Noth), who wants to stay at home in their brand new apartment and watch old movies on TV, instead of taking her out to a fancy restaurant every night. The horror of being her.

The problem with the movie is that as soon as these issues are introduced, they are jettisoned until the finale of the movie where we are assured that everything worked out fine. Instead, we get the four ladies heading to Abu Dhabi, to stay in a $22,000 a night suit courtesy of the hotel owner who wants Samantha to represent the hotel from a PR stand point to convince Americans that Abu Dhabi is even better than Dubai. What we get for the rest of the movie is lame jokes about falling off camels, women in Burkas and the restrictions on sexuality that are part of being in a Muslim country. Oh yeah, and Carrie just happens to run into Aidan (John Corbett) in the marketplace over there, and old feelings start to creep back in.

I suppose I cannot really blame the movie for not getting serious into the real lives of these people. Although Mr. Big is some Wall Street hotshot, the recession is never mentioned, and everyone still seems to have a hell of a lot of money. The filmmakers obviously decided to try and make some sort of escapist comic fantasy of a movie for people to forget their problems (for 2 hours and 24 minutes by the way – at least 45 minutes too long for this type of thing).

But the movie doesn’t even work on that level for a simple reason. None of it is funny. There is not a line of dialogue that causes a genuine laugh (although a few are so horribly bad that you laugh because you cannot believe anyone wrote them, and the actress did refuse to utter it). The situations are not funny, and the actors all seem bored. They have spent so long playing these characters that I have a feeling that they simply want to move on.

Worse yet, you don’t even like the characters any more. Especially Carrie who comes across as such a spoiled whiner that you cannot imagine why even Big (who has always been a bore) would want to put up with her any longer let alone anyone else. I wanted to grab her and scream that not everyone eats out every night, or gets hugely expensive jewelry all the time, when they already have more than enough. Big wasn’t even asking her to cook – he either did it himself, or brought back take out – and not Pizza and burgers, but stuff from Sabu! Get over yourself damn it! Charlotte is almost as bad complaining about how hard it is to be a mother of two, when she has a full time nanny. Most mothers have to put up with a hell of a lot more than she does, and do so without so much whining. And if you’re stupid enough to wear designer clothing to make cupcakes with a five year old, you deserve what’s coming to you.

I believe it’s time to retire Sex and the City. It will be remembered as a groundbreaking television show, beloved by women the world over. But I cannot believe there are too many women out there right now who would enjoy this movie. It represents the worst the series was capable of and then some. It is one of the very worst films of the year so far.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Year in Review: 1973

1973 is one of those years that I simply have trouble making up my mind. There are so many great films from this year, that 10 hardly seems enough to contain them all – and I have still missed a few films that I wish I had seen. Ask me on another day, and you may get another list – I have certainly gone back and forth between the top four films on this list as to which one is truly the best, and still I am not sure I got it right.

10. Amarcord (Federico Fellini)
Federico Fellini’s Amarcord is perhaps his last masterpiece – a loving, nostalgic look back at his childhood, which he has, of course, heavily romanticized – as many people do when thinking back to those carefree days when they were children. There is no real plot to speak of in the film – it is simply a constant flow of memory, spanning a year in the life of a strange family, in an even stranger town in Italy, during the rise of fascism. This isn’t portrayed as a great tragedy, but almost as a farce – the fascists were not dangerous yet, but looked ridiculous, and the people take pleasure in mocking them. The film is about the dawning of adolescence, the thrill and guilt that comes along with discovering masturbation, the craziness of the young boy’s family life and the seemingly never ending days of childhood. This is Fellini at his most nostalgic, his most wondrous. He has made greater films, but somehow I feel he probably liked Amarcord more than most of them. Like all his films, he’s putting himself on the screen with this one – and he created another masterwork.

9. Day for Night (Francois Truffaut)
Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night is about the joys, and pain, of filmmaking. It follows a director (Truffaut himself) making a movie that sounds utterly terrible, yet to the people making it, it seems so important at the time. The film has an aging star (Jean-Pierre Aumont), a diva (Valentina Cortese), a British actress on loan (Jacqueline Bissett) and a rising heartthrob (Jean-Pierre Leaud) all working for Truffaut to make a movie that they know will suck. Why do they do it? Because they are in love with the process of making a movie. The film is about those days on set when a family is formed, and the outside world seems to crazy to everyone on set – while everyone on the outside doesn’t understand what’s going on in the inside. This is a film for, by and about people who love movies – for people, who as Pauline Kael wrote in her review “would rather see a movie than do anything else”. You know who you are.

8. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is one of the most beautiful films about death ever made. Set in a mansion in the late 19th Century, two sisters watch their other sister as she lies on her deathbed, slowly giving into the inevitably of her fate. The healthy sisters are scared of her dying, but also want her to as well – so the suffering will be over. Harriett Anderson is wonderful as the dying sister and she is matched by Liv Ullman and Ingrid Thulin as the healthy ones. The film, like much of Bergman’s work, is about the scars of family life, the past coming back to haunt the present and religion and fate. Highlighted by the absolutely brilliant cinematography by Sven Nykvist, Cries and Whispers is a powerful, emotionally draining film for the master.

7. Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg)
A married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) are reeling from the death of their daughter, and decide to head to Venice for a “working vacation”. While there, the meet a pair of odd sisters – one of whom says that she is clairvoyant and shares a connection with their dead daughter. Meanwhile, a serial killer is haunting the city, and Sutherland is constantly drawn to a strange, small childlike figure in red, who looks like his daughter, although he can never catch up with her. The film is famous for its graphic sex scene between the two – which frank and erotic – and for its twist ending. But the film, to me anyway, isn’t really about solving the mystery. Brilliantly shot by Roeg, the film is a visual marvel from beginning to end. The performances are strong, and the whole movie is really about its wonderful atmosphere than the resolution of the plot. Like many great thrillers and horror films, this one plays well even after you know its secrets.

6. Badlands (Terence Malick)
The first film of Malick’s career marked him immediately as one of the most interesting directors anywhere. Loosely based on the crime spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Martin Sheen gives an excellent performance as Kit – a drifter who picks up Holly (Sissy Spacek) and takes her along for the ride as he kills a lot of people. The most interesting thing about the movie is the difference between the narration by Holly, who talks about how loving Kit is and is filled with the musing of a teenage girl – and the stark violence committed by Kit that we actually see. Although Badlands is about a cross country killing spree, it isn’t a brutally graphic film like Bonnie and Clyde or Natural Born Killers, but like all of Malick’s films more meditative. This at times almost seems like a fairy tale or children’s tale, which makes the action all the more shocking. Malick would go on to make even greater films in his career, but Badlands remains a masterful debut.

5. The Exorcist (William Friedkin)
The Exorcist shocked audiences in 1973 and was proclaimed at the time “the scariest movie ever made”, a title it still holds on several lists. I’m not sure about that, but The Exorcist is a great horror movie – and not just because it is grizzly and gruesome and shocking, but also because it is intelligent, well acted and directed. Ellen Burstyn is great as the harried mother of a little girl (Linda Blair, also great) who seems to be possessed by the devil. Jason Miller is the friendly priest who she calls on for help – and who will eventually turn to the more experienced Max von Sydow to do the exorcism itself. The film is full of great iconic moments of horror – the masturbation with a crucifix, the vomit, the head spinning – but when I think of The Exorcist, I think of a film about good vs. evil – how faith will win out in the end. While that may not be my world view, it is brilliantly realized in this film, that yes, still has the power to shock and scare you.

4. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)
If you were so inclined you could argue that although Martin Scorsese has made greater films than Mean Streets, that he has never made a more influential one. Every time we see a movie about two childhood friends who get involved in petty crime, where one tries to pull away, and the other gets in deeper – and there are seemingly many of these every year, the film owes a debt to this film. Starring Harvey Keitel as Charlie – who works for his uncle collecting money and Robert DeNiro as Johnny Boy, his hot headed friend always in debt, Scorsese was in a way putting what he saw on the streets growing up on screen. Keitel is the centre of the movie – falling in love with Johnny Boy’s cousin and going to church to confess his sins, whereas Johnny wants to become an even bigger thug. Never mind that he has seemingly pissed everyone off. Keitel is great, but DeNiro is brilliant – it was this role that got him the part in The Godfather Part II (or his audition for The Godfather which got him this role depending on how you look at it) and he delivers an amazing performance. The film is a little rough around the edges – and yet that only adds to the authenticity of the movie. This is the movie where Scorsese went from a director with potential, to a genuinely great talent.

3. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates)
For years, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was unavailable for viewing on DVD or even VHS. Luckily, Criterion changed that last year, and gave us one of the best crime films of the 1970s. Robert Mitchum gives a great performance as Eddie Coyle, a low level gunrunner with a crime outfit in Boston. Facing yet another prison term, he is given an option to get out jail free – turn snitch. He agrees – up to a point – but things do not go as planned. The title of the movie is meant ironically – as none of the people in the movie are really Eddie’s friends. The ATF agent (Richard Jordan) lies to him to get what he wants and the seemingly friendly bartender, who is also a crime associate (Peter Boyle) is the man who will set Coyle up to take the fall – and later do much worse to him. The direction by Peter Yates is superb – capturing Boston wonderfully well, and giving the entire film a feel like violence could erupt at any moment. But the movie belongs to Mitchum as this man who has been beat down by life, but continues on somehow anyway. His tragic final scenes – especially at a Bruins game – break your heart while watching them. Mitchum always one of the best actors in the world – and The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of his best performances.

2. Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Last Tango in Paris is one of the most infamous movies of the 1970s because of its graphic depiction of sex caused controversy when the film was made. But looking back at the film all these years later, with the controversy pretty much forgotten, what stands out about the film is how powerful it is in its depiction of inner turmoil and sexuality. Marlon Brando gives one of the best performances of his career as a recent widower haunted by his wife’s suicide. In Paris, he meets Maria Schneider, in an apartment they both want to rent. They begin an anonymous sexual affair, until he just up and leaves one day. Meeting again, he wants to start the affair all over again – but this time, he wants emotions involved as well – he wants to know her. Yes, the sex in the movie is graphic, and offers sights that have never really been put into a mainstream film since (anal sex, featuring butter as a lubricant is probably the most infamous example, but at least he used more than spit a la Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain). And yet, Bertolucci’s film is about much more than simply sex. Last Tango in Paris was supposed to be the big breakthrough movie for exploring sexuality, ushering in a new era of movies. That didn’t happen. But Last Tango in Paris is an utterly fascinating film from beginning to end. Yes, Marlon Brando is amazing in the film – it is one of the best performances of all time – but Maria Schneider’s role has always been unappreciated. With almost no acting experience, having to play the role naked throughout much of the running time, she holds her own against Brando at his peak. Brando’s role is better because it is more defined, but Schneider daringly keeps her character an enigma. Last Tango in Paris is the best film ever made by Bernardo Bertolucci, who has been trying, in one way or another, to match it ever since. He can’t do it, because this film is so raw, so brilliant.

1. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye may not the best movie to feature Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow – but it certainly is the strangest. From the casting of Elliot Gould in the lead role, to the decision to set the movie in the 1970s instead of when the novel is set, The Long Goodbye plays like a reluctant film noir. Gould is younger, and shaggier, than we picture Marlow but he is essentially the same guy from the novel – its everything around that has changed. He is a 1950s character, who wants to play by the rules and have others do the same, but stuck in the ‘70s which is awash with hippies, sex, drugs, crooks and liars none of whom seem to have any honor left. Gould is excellent in the lead role, and you could have filled the Supporting Actor category with the performances here – Sterling Hayden as the drunken writer, Mary Rydell as the fast talking Jewish gangster (who Roger Ebert correctly points out sounds a lot like Martin Scorsese, which if true, would be an inside joke since hardly anyone knew Scorsese at the time) and Henry Gibson as a corrupt doctor are all excellent in their roles. And Nina Van Pallandt is the personification of a type of woman – the young, trophy wife of an older, domineering male who is sick of her husband, but stuck because he has all the money. Altman makes the film in his trademark style – overlapping dialogue and all – and the film plays at times like a black comedy. But when the violence starts in – in one of the more shocking, out of nowhere violent acts I can remember in a movie – the film becomes darker, and more somber. The Long Goodbye works as a detective movie if you want it to – although I don’t think in resolution of the mystery was really important to Altman. Rather, The Long Goodbye is an excellent portrait of L.A. in the excess of the 1970s, with Gould’s Marlow perhaps the last sane man. He doesn’t seem to realize, at least until the end of the movie, that he is the only one still playing by the rules, the only one that cares about something larger than himself. In that regard, The Long Goodbye, despite all its humor, approaches something much more somber and complex.

Just Missed The Top 10: American Graffitti (George Lucas), The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinneman), High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood), Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison), The Last Detail (Hal Ashby), Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah) Save the Tiger (John G. Avilden), Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg), Serpico (Sidney Lumet),Sisters (Brian DePalma), Sleeper (Woody Allen), The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Eric), The Sting (George Roy Hill), The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy), The Yakuza Papers (Kinki Fukasaku).

Notable Films Missed: A Touch of Class, The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache), Ludwig (Luchino Visconti), O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson), Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty), The Night Porter (Liliana Calvani).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Sting (George Roy Hill)
The Sting is a highly enjoyable little crime caper. Robert Redford and Paul Newman are excellent as the con men, and Robert Shaw is great as the one being conned. It is enjoyable fluff, with excellent period detail – it is also a hell of a lot of fun. Obviously, I did not find any room on my top ten list for it – but this was an excellent year. Out of the nominees, I would have preferred The Exorcist or Cries and Whispers, but this isn’t a bad choice at all.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
1973 contained some excellent performances by lead actors – and the Academy did well to nominate some of them – Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino (in Serpico, another excellent film there was no room for on this list), even Robert Redford were all better than Lemmon – as were non-nominees Robert Mitchum, Elliot Gould and James Coburn. On the other hand, Save the Tiger is an all but forgotten film – notable pretty much only because Lemmon won the Oscar. Having said all of that, I feel the need to defend Lemmon’s win here. Surely, the Academy wasn’t going to give this to the truly best performance nominated – Marlon Brando’s because of all the sex in the movie, and the fact that the previous year he made an ass out of them all by letting a porn actress posing as a Native American to chastise them when accepting his award for The Godfather. And Lemmon is excellent in this movie as an executive who longs to give up his complex life for the simplicity of his childhood. No, he didn’t deserve this award – but Lemmon does deserve at least the two Oscars – which he did win for his career. So no complaints.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class
I have to admit that I never did see this film. I like Glenda Jackson well enough, as well as her co-star George Segal, but something has always prevented me from renting this one. So no comment on whether she actually deserved it or not – but this was a weak year for this category – at least you would think so by looking at the nominees, of which Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist is my favorite.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: John Houseman, The Paper Chase
To me, when I hear the name John Houseman, I think of his work with Orson Welles helping to get Citizen Kane made, as well as his stage productions. A fine producer in his own right, he didn’t really come to the attention of anyone as actor until this movie where he was quite good as the stuffy law professor putting his students through hell – a roll he would reprise on TV later this decade. Houseman is fine in the role, but like the character a little dull. Considering however that none of my choices were nominated – DeNiro, Hayden, Rydell, Boyle and Von Sydow – it’s hard to get too mad about it.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Tatum O’Neil, Paper Moon
Tatum O’Neal surely benefitted from the unwritten Hollywood rule that kids are always put in the supporting category. Good god, she is in practically every frame of the movie! Yet her performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s film is absolutely wonderful – she carries the film much more than her father Ryan does. It is too bad that she couldn’t maintain this much talent and charisma in later year, but this is a performance for the ages.

Movie Review: George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead

George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead ** ½
Directed By:
George A. Romero.
Written By: George A. Romero.
Starring: Alan Van Sprang (Crocket), Kenneth Welsh (Patrick O’Flynn), Devon Bostick (Kid), Richard Fitzpatrick (Seamus Muldoon), Kathleen Munroe (Jane O’Flynn)

In the past 41 years, George A. Romero has made six zombie movies. The first four – Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2004) represent a series unto themselves, about a world that descends into complete chaos when the dead come back to life. The films got increasingly bleak as they went along. In these four movies, Romero not only invented the modern zombie movie, but he also perfected it.

In 2007, Romero reset his zombie apocalypse with Diary of the Dead, a low budget zombie movie, shot with handheld cameras, and told from the point of view of a group of young film students struggling to stay alive as the zombie outbreaks begins. Romero’s movie was undeniably a brilliant take on the Iraq war, and the internet generation, and proved that although he was getting older, Romero was not done with his zombies quite yet.

Now, he returns with Survival of the Dead, and while I think it is undeniably the weakest of the six zombie movies that Romero has made, it is still much better than most American horror movies we get. The film is well made and intelligently written. If Romero may lay his symbolism on a little thick this time, we forgive him his excesses, because at least he’s trying to say something in his horror films, unlike most filmmakers.

The film picks up shortly after Diary of the Dead left off. The film students are abandoned (probably because Romero left little hope of any of them getting out alive at the end of that movie), and instead focuses on a minor character from that movie – Crocket (Alan Van Sprang). Crocket was in the army, but he and three of his friends saw an opportunity to get out, and in a memorable sequence in Diary (recounted here), he and his compatriots, rob the students of their supplies and take off. Because it was captured on video, Crocket became a YouTube sensation. He and his three fellow AWOL soldiers continue on with their lives much like they did in the previous movie. That is, until the come across a kid (Devon Bostick from Egoyan’s Adoration last year), who shows them another internet video. This one has Patrick O’Flynn (Kenneth Welsh), inviting everyone to come to Plum Island, off the coast of Delaware that he promises will be a zombie free paradise. We know different, since in the films opening scene, we saw O’Flynn put on a boat and thrown off the island by Seamus Muldoon (Richard Fitzpatrick), his arch nemesis, because they disagree on how to deal with the zombies. O’Flynn wants to kill them all, and let God sort it out, but Muldoon wants to see if they can train the zombies to be human again – or at least keep them alive until a “cure” can be found. When the Soldiers, the Kid and O’Flynn go back to Plum Island, all hell breaks loose.

Survival of the Dead is Romero’s take on the Western genre, specifically; it’s his version of William Wyler’s The Big Country. In that film, two feuding ranchers are too busy fighting each other, to realize there are more pressing concerns that affect them both. It’s the same in this film. Kenneth Welsh, in the Burl Ives role, sees the world one way, and Richard Fitzpatrick, in the Charles Bickford role, sees it the completely opposite way. Instead of working out their differences, and finding common ground, they fight each other – a fight that will eventually destroy everything that both of them hold dear..

His commentary on war – which is subdued for most of the movie, until it becomes overt in the film frames of the film – is less effective though. He grafts it on unnaturally to the rest of the story, and it never really fits in with what is going on around him. With the exception of Welsh, he really is not aided by the performances either. Van Spark tries for Clint Eastwood type emoting and growling, but cannot pull it off. Fitzpatrick is more successful as the cocky, arrogant Muldoon, but the performance is not quite good enough. Bostick is pretty good as the Kid, but I never really figured out why he was there in the first place. The rest of the cast is not very good at all.

But even with these weaknesses, Survival of the Dead is a decent little horror movie. After 40 years and five previous movies, you would think that Romero would have run out ways to kill zombies, but he hasn’t. The films violence is brutal and bloody, but mostly over the top in a fun horror movie kind of way, which works, because when he really wants to disturb you with violence, he is still capable of doing it. A new Romero zombie film is always a reason to celebrate – I just wish that Survival of the Dead was just a little bit better.

Stanley Cup Final Prediction

I think it is time for me to admit that I suck at making predictions about the playoffs. For the Conference Finals I went 1 for 2 in my predictions, bringing me up to 6 for 14 over the course of the playoffs – meaning even if I get this last one right, I still will be below 50%. However, I’ll leave it to you to decide if I predicted Montreal in the Conference Finals in an effort to jinx my most hated team.

Anyway, the Stanley Cup Finals are set – The Chicago Blackhawks and the Philidelphia Flyers. At the beginning of the year, this wouldn’t have seen very far fetched – but the way the Flyers played in the regular season, needing a shootout victory on the last day to even make the Playoffs, I doubt anyone thought it would happen when the Playoffs began.

The Flyers were an underachieving team all season, plagued by inconsistent goaltending, in part because of injuries (7 different goalies suited up for the Flyers this season). But they got hot at the right time, rolling over the New Jersey Devils in Round 1, making their historic comeback from 3-0 in Round 2 against the Bruins in Round 2, then Roling over the giant killers – the Montreal Canadians – in Round 3. They have depth up front – with four strong lines of forwards, all of whom seem to be healthy now. Mike Richards has had a great playoffs, but so has Daniel Briere, Ville Lieno, Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux. Now that Jeff Carter is back, that makes for one of the strongest line-ups of forward of any team in the league. On defense, they have a solid core of four – led by Chris Pronger, and including Timmonen, Carle and Coburn, their other two defensemen barely play – which could hurt the Flyers in the finals if these guys begin to wear down. In net, Michael Leighton has got to be seen as one of the best stories in the league this year, being claimed off waivers, and only getting into the Playoffs when Brian Boucher got hurt – at which point he has stepped up huge – including 3 shutouts in the series against the Canadians.

However, the other side is the Chicago Blackhawks, and they are better then any team the Flyers have faced this year in the playoffs. Jonathan Toews has been the best forward in the playoffs, and coming off his performance at the Olympics, where he won the Best Forward Award, he has become one of the best players in the entire league. He has been unstoppable all playoffs. His line mates Patrick Kane and Dustin Byufflin (I’m sure I’m misspelling that one) have also been great. When you add in Sharp, Hossa, Bowland, Madden et al, you have one of the only teams who are as deep up front as the Flyers are. On defense, the Blackhawks are even stronger. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are undoubtedly the best defense pairing in the NHL – and although they get all the attention, Brian Campbell, Brent Sopel and Hlamerston (again, misspelling is assured) are not slotches either. They have a distinct advantage in that area. In net, Antti Niemi has stepped up big in the playoffs – seemingly getting better and better with each passing round. Unlike the Flyers though, they do have a more reliable backup in Huet if Niemi goes down with injury.

In short, I think this is going to be a great series. Yes, Chicago ranked Second in the West – which was far and away the stronger conference this season – and were actually only a point away from claiming first. The Flyers were ranked seventh in the weak Eastern conference – with their point total, they wouldn’t have even been close had they been a Western Conference team. Yet, both teams have shown determination and talent to get to this point in the playoffs. Both teams have big forward who are going to punish the defense, and get in the goalies face. Both teams have strong defensemen who will make it harder for the Forwards, and can make long, accurate breakout passes. Both teams have previously untested goalies who have proven themselves to be capable of greatness. Both teams are healthy, and both will have adequate rest to prepare for the finals.

I have to give the edge to the Blackhawks though. They faced tougher opponents in the Nashville Predators, Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks that Philly did with the Devils, Bruins and Canadians. In a way, Philly got lucky that there were so many upsets in the East. Could they have beaten Washington and Pittsburgh like the Canadians did? I don’t know. The Blackhawks however beat the best of the best, and looked convincing doing so. That’s why I give them a slight edge.

Prediction: Chicago in 7.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Movie Review: Leslie, My Name is Evil

Leslie, My Name is Evil *** ½
Directed by:
Reginald Harkema.
Written By: Reginald Harkema.
Starring: Kristen Hager (Leslie), Gregory Smith (Perry), Ryan Robbins (Charlie), Kaniehtiio Horn (Katie), Don McKellar (Prosecuter), Peter Keleghan (Walter), Kristin Adams (Dorothy), Peter MacNeill (Judge), Tom Barnett (Defense Attorney), Travis Milne (Bobby), Anjelica Scannura (Sadie), Tracy Wright (Leslie's Mom).

The Manson Family murders shocked America in the summer of 1969, and have since entered history as one of the worst cases of mass murder in history. The fact that the killers were a bunch of drugged out hippies signaled the end of flower power, and the case has gone down as the dark side of the 1960s. In the years since, the fascination with Manson has never dwindled, and he is still looked at as one of the most evil people in history. Most of his followers who were convicted alongside him remain in jail after almost 40 years. Reginald Harkema’s Leslie, My Name is Evil focuses on one of those followers - Leslie Van Houten - who was convicted of murder in the same trial that convicted Manson. While she wasn’t along on the night of the Tate murders, she was on the following night, when the family killed the LiBianca’s.

Yet Leslie, My Name is Evil is far from a straight biopic. In fact, it’s not really a biopic at all, and ignores as many facts of the case as it sticks to. The film is a melodrama, a satire, a dark comedy and a film about moral relativism. It contrasts Leslie’s fall into sin with what happens to Perry - a member of Nixon’s “silent majority” who became a jury member at the Manson trial who falls in love with Van Houten. It also compares the Manson family murders with the My Lai massacre which happened at just about the same time. The film is a like a time capsule of the period. It plays like a Jean Luc Godard 1960s film that has been commissioned by Roger Corman.

When the movie opens, Leslie (Kristen Hager) is an innocent teenage girl, a homecoming princess and a cheerleader who is devastated by her parents divorce. When she gets pregnant, her mother “takes care of it”, which drives Leslie further away. She is looking for a “higher sense of purpose” - which she finds when she meets Katie (Kaniehitto Horn) who introduces her to Charlie (Ryan Robbins). Charlie sees through Leslie’s problems right away, knows she has father issues, and exploits it. When Katie comes home on the night of the Tate murders, and describes what happens, she wants to be involved as well. That night, she heads out to the LiBianca’s, and although she at first hesitates, she is soon stabbing with orgasmic glee.

While all this is happening, Perry (Gregory Smith) is in University studying chemistry and trying to remain a good Christian. She meets Dorothy (Kristin Adams), a gorgeous blonde who loves him but every time she tries to have sex with her she tells him “I love you, but I love Jesus more”. His father (Peter Keleghan), talks about the “gooks” and how it is Perry’s patriotic duty to go to Vietnam if his drafted.

The two stories merge when Leslie is put on trial alongside Charlie, Katie and Sadie (Anjelica Sannura), and Perry is put on the jury. Perry is immediately drawn to Leslie, wondering how this gorgeous girl fell so low.

No attempt at realism is made at all in the movie. Instead, writer/director Reginald Harkema films the movie as a melodrama, a satire, an acid trip and many other genres. The courtroom scenes in particular make it clear that there is no realism here. Where the gallery full of onlookers is supposed to, there is a giant American flag. The prosecutor (Don McKellar) seems completely clueless as to the time period, and the judge is offended by the foul language used by the witnesses.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the films of Jean Luc Godard - at least the ones he made in the 1960s before he entered his “Maoist” period. His films there were political statements about the time period, which pointed out the hypocrisy of the time period. Harkema does the same thing here, by pointing out the similarities between the Manson murders, committed by a bunch of long, haired hippie freaks, and the My Lai massacre, perpetuated by the clean shaved military boys. Harkema points out the absurdity of both sides with his matter of fact dialogue - brilliantly delivered by the cast with a straight face no matter how absurd it really sounded like. If the cast had winked at the camera, then the whole movie would become a meaningless comedy - but they get it. Yet, Leslie, My Name is Evil is not just a satire about the 1960s - it is relevant today in times of war again. Leslie, My Name is Evil is a wonderful satire - a daring innovative film that looks both backwards and forwards.

Movie Review: MacGruber

MacGruber **
Directed by:
Jorma Taccone.
Written By: Will Forte & John Solomon & Jorma Taccone.
Starring: Will Forte (MacGruber), Kristen Wiig (Vicki St. Elmo), Ryan Phillippe (Lt. Dixon Piper), Val Kilmer (Dieter Von Cunth), Powers Boothe (Col. James Faith), Maya Rudolph (Casey), Rhys Coiro (Yerik Novikov), Andy Mackenzie (Hoss Bender), Jasper Cole (Zeke Pleshette), Timothy V. Murphy (Constantine), Kevin Skousen (Senator Garver).

If you have seen the previews of MacGruber, or at least the recurring sketches on Saturday Night Live, then you don’t need me to tell you that the movie is stupid. But I don’t necessarily think that being stupid is a bad thing for a movie comedy. There is a difference between smart stupid comedy, and just plain stupid. At its best, MacGruber is the former - an occasionally hilarious satire and spoof on the cheesy MacGyver TV series, and action movies of the 1980s in general. The film has its share of inspired moments, but more often than not, it resorts to the just plain stupid. So while I wouldn’t say I hated MacGruber, I cannot really say I liked it either.

MacGruber (Will Forte) is a former military special ops officer who has spent the last decade hiding out in Peru after the evil Dieter Von Cunth (Val Kilmer) murdered his wife on their wedding day. But now Von Cunth is back - having acquired a nuclear weapon from the former Soviet Union and smuggled it into America in some sort of evil, diabolical scheme for world domination. It is up to MacGruber to stop him. He assembles a team that quickly gets killed, and ends up being stuck with his old friend Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and young military man Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe). MacGruber makes ever mistake possible in the investigation, but still somehow gets closer and closer to Von Cunth.

Forte is good at playing MacGruber as a completely delusional alpha male. He delivers his lines completely seriously, and it’s only because they are just slightly more ridiculous than normal than they seem funny. Wiig is good as MacGruber’s old friend who is actually in love with him, and two play the game of flirting without committing until later. Phillippe is essentially the straight man setting these two veteran comedians up well. And Kilmer is having a hell of a lot of fun as Von Cunth.

As I mentioned, there are several inspired moments in the movie. In fact, there are hardly any extended segments in the movie that where I didn’t at least smile. But too often, the movie resorts to cheap humor. Dick jokes, sex jokes, scenes where put celery up their ass and moments that just don’t work. Too many jokes simply fall flat.
Like most SNL movies, MacGruber ultimately fails because what works in a five minute sketch (and in the case of MacGruber, five minutes is longer than any one sketch) doesn’t work when extended into feature length. As such, the filmmakers have to put in a lot of filler to make the film work. MacGruber isn’t a horrible movie. There are laughs in it. But there just doesn’t seem to be any real reason for the movie to exist.

Movie Review: Shrek Forever After

Shrek Forever After ***
Directed by:
Mike Mitchell.
Written By: Josh Klausner & Darren Lemke.
Starring: Mike Myers (Shrek), Eddie Murphy (Donkey), Cameron Diaz (Princess Fiona), Antonio Banderas (Puss in Boots), Walt Dohrn (Rumpelstiltskin / Priest / Krekraw Ogre), Julie Andrews (Queen), Jon Hamm (Brogan), John Cleese (King Harold), Craig Robinson (Cookie), Jane Lynch (Gretched), Conrad Vernon (Gingerbread Man).

The first Shrek movie worked as well as it did because it was original, clever and funny in the way it skewered fairy tales and Disney animated movies with an irreverent style that worked on one level for kids and another for adults. The second film was more of the same - still fun and clever - but rather forgettable after you left the theater. The third film was simply lazy - it felt like they rushed it into production to capitalize on the series popularity, and didn’t care if the film was good at all. The less said about the forgettable Christmas special the better. Before watching Shrek Forever After, I thought that the filmmakers had gone as far as they could with these characters, and it was time to put them behind them and move on. But I am happy to report that Shrek Forever After is the best of the series since the first film. It seems that this time, the filmmakers actually cared about the story and the characters, and came up with a fine film for the whole family. Yes, the originality of the first film has worn off, but this film is as good as a fourth in a series can be expected to be.

When the film opens, Shrek is getting worn down by family life. He has no time for himself, is tired of the same routine day after day, and is sick of being looked on as a hero. He is an ogre, and wishes that he could go back and be treated like that again - feared and hated, and most of all left alone. After a fight with Fiona, he meets Rumpelstiltskin, who is angry at Shrek because when he rescued Fiona from that tower, he screwed up his plan to take over the kingdom of Far, Far Away. Shrek doesn’t know this, so he allows himself to be talked into signing a contract where Shrek can spend a day like he used to before he got married and had kids. The only catch is he has to give up a day from his past in exchange. He agrees, but finds out the day that Rumpelstiltskin took was the day Shrek was born. So now, everything has been completely changed - Shrek never met Donkey, never rescued Fiona, never did anything, because he never existed. If he cannot put things right in 24 hours, he will disappear forever. In effect, this is a version of It’s a Wonderful Life, with Shrek looking at the mess the world becomes when he was never born.

The film is clever and fun pretty much beginning to end. The voice actors have always been good in this series - even in the third installment - and the slip into their roles like slipping into an old shoe. Myers is always amusing as Shrek - even if he isn’t in most of his other roles. Murphy has made Donkey into one of his definitive characters. Diaz is fine, if the least of the three main characters as always. Banderas does his best work of the series as Puss in Boots - who has become fat and lazy. The main new addition is Walt Dorhan as Rumpelstiltskin, who is wonderful doing a Jack Black impression (I was convinced it was Black until I saw the credits).

As with seemingly all animated films these days, Shrek Forever After is in 3-D. The effects are fine, but I’m starting to get a little tired of having to wear the glasses, especially since they don’t really add much to the visual look. The effects here are seamless - which is much better than something like Clash of the Titans where the effects were a distraction - but doesn’t add anything either. If I didn’t get in for free, I’m not sure I would pay extra for the privilege of seeing these effects.

Shrek Forever After is far from groundbreaking, but what it does it does well. The movie is fun pretty much from beginning to end. If you liked Shrek, but like me started to believe that the series had lost all its steam, then I think you’ll enjoy Shrek Forever After. That doesn’t mean I hope there is a fifth installment however. They have advertised this as the final Shrek adventure - and I think it is time to give up while they are ahead.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Year in Review: 1998

1998 was a very good year for movies. I remember this year very well, because it was the first time I ever really made a concentrated effort to see everything that was nominated at the Oscars – although I still did miss some acting nominees, the last time this would ever happen. When I look at the top 10 list, I cannot help but this that this was one of the last years dominated by the veterans – directors who debuted at some point from the 1960s-1980s, although there are a few newbies here as well. 1998 is a transition year, but the films in it were excellent.

10. A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi)
Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan is a wonderfully tense crime drama that for once isn’t about criminals – but regular people caught in way over their heads. Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are brothers who discover a downed plan, with a suitcase full of cash in it. At first, they think they’ve hit the jackpot, but things soon get more complicated. Paxton is the more intelligent of the two brothers – he is thinking everything through the best he can, and Bridget Fonda is excellent as his pregnant, Lady MacBeth-esque wife who at first seems just happy to be where they are, but gradually gets more and greedier. But the best performances belongs to Thornton, as an overgrown man child who is smart enough to know that he isn’t smart enough to pull this all off. Sam Raimi’s direction is assured, making the snow covered setting seem ominous, and Scott Smith’s adaptation of his own novel is masterful (even if I do prefer the original ending of the book over the new ending of the book – although it should be said that he doesn’t soften the ending for mass consumption, just changes it). Raimi usually goes over the top in his direction of movies, but here he sticks with a more straight forward style, which is perfect for the film. Perhaps the best film of his career.

9. Primary Colors (Mike Nichols)
It took guts to make a film about Bill Clinton while he was still in office – even if the names were changed, we knew who the film was about. Mike Nichols movie about Clinton’s run for President in 1992 is an intelligent, extremely well written, acted and directed movie about what happened. John Travolta doesn’t merely do an impersonation of Clinton, but gets under his skin – the charm, the rationalizations, the ambition are all there. Emma Thompson is his equal as his wife, who is horribly angry at her husband, but sticks by him just the same – her ambition even outreaches him. The supporting cast is all excellent – Adrian Lester as a black George Stephanopolous, Billy Bob Thornton as a crash, good old version of James Carville and best of all Kathy Bates in the most work of her career as the ever loyal campaign worker who is heartbroken by the revelations that come out. Nichols has had a spotty career, but when he is on his game – as he is here – he is one of the best at crafted intelligent, adult dramas. One of the best movies about politics of the 1990s.

8. The Truman Show (Peter Weir)
The Truman Show showed up just before the reality TV craze really hit American screens, and in the decade since it has only looked more and more relevant. Jim Carrey gives a great performance as Truman Burbank, a child who was adopted by a TV station who broadcasts every minute of every day of his existence on round the clock television. The “show” is directed by Ed Harris as a benevolent God character who observes Truman. The audiences loves him – he is a part of their daily lives, and he is a comforting presence on the screen at all hours of the day. But he starts to feel as if something isn’t quite right about his world. Strange things start happening – a studio light falling at his feet, a rain storm that starts off just focused on him, etc. Although his TV world has everything he could ever possibly want – he wants more. He wants the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants to do, even if that means failure. The Truman Show is an excellent film – intelligent, well written, well directed, well acted and a film that is also an unflinching portrait of our modern lives.

7. Rushmore (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson had already proven that he was a budding young talent with his first film – Bottle Rocket – but it was Rushmore that proved just how good he actually was. His film about Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) a high school student in love with his private school – Rushmore, as well as growing increasingly infatuated with his teacher (Olivia Williams) is at once hilarious and heartfelt. Bill Murray gives a tremendous performance as the slightly pathetic rich guy who at first takes Schwartzman under his wing, and then ends up competing with him for Williams’ affection. The film is hilarious at points – a definite highlight is the plays that the Max Fischer players put on – but it is also at times a rather painfully accurate portrait of high school. All the performances are terrific – that Murray wasn’t even nominated for Best Supporting Actor still fills me with bitterness – and the screenplay by Anderson and Owen Wilson is one of the best of the year. A terrific high school comedy that you do not have to be in high school to love.

6. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh)
For a long time, no one seemed to be able to adapt the novels of Elmore Leonard to the screen properly. But just a year after Tarantino’s excellent Jackie Brown, Steven Soderbergh directed another great movie based on the work of Leonard. Out of Sight is one of Soderbergh’s best films – a clever, funny, sexy crime drama with an intricate flashback structure and terrific performances. George Clooney gives one of his best performances as a bank robber, out of jail after an escape which literally locks him in a trunk of a car with a government agent (Jennifer Lopez, proving that she did in fact have the talent to be a great actress, even if she never again really tried). The two cannot stop thinking about each other even though they know that she will arrest him if she has the chance. The excellent supporting cast includes Ving Rhames as Clooney’s buddy, Don Cheadle as a psychopathic ex-con, Albert Brooks as a blue collar criminal who everyone wants to rip off, and Michael Keaton reprising his Jackie Brown role with a memorable cameo here. The filmmaking here is wonderful – the best Soderbergh had done in quite some time – and the movie, while clever, doesn’t fall into the trap of many of Soderbergh’s later efforts where they were clever only for the sake of being clever. A terrifically entertaining movie.

5. Dark City (Alex Proyas)
In the little more than a decade since this film was released, it has become increasingly clear that director Alex Proyas may never make a film of this caliber ever again. He hasn’t even come close since. But Dark City is still one of the very best science fiction films of the 1990s – and one of the best ever if I’m being honest. The movie takes place in a dark, film noir inspired world, where everything happens at night. A mysterious group of Strangers move the residents of the city around every night – wiping their memories clean and giving them a new identity. Then something goes wrong – Rufus Sewell wakes up and starts to unravel the plot. The film is a masterpiece of style – with amazing cinematography, art direction and costume design that contribute to making the film one of the most distinctive environments in screen history. Sewell’s performance is solid, but workmanlike, but the supporting cast – including Kiefer Sutherland as the doctor who helps the strangers, William Hurt as a cop and Jennifer Connelly as a gorgeous woman (a stretch for her I know), is great. Proyas may never reach these heights again – but with this film, inspired by Fritz Lang’s brilliant Metropolis, he has created a film that will be remembered.

4. Happiness (Todd Solondz)
Todd Solondz’s Happiness contains the strangest, most perverted cast of characters that I can recall seeing in a movie. A pedophile psychologist (Dylan Baker) who uses his son’s sleepovers to rape his friends. His wife (Cynthia Nixon) who believes that she has the perfect life. A phone sex addict (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who wants to rape his beautiful neighbor (Lara Flynn Boyle) who is into the idea, and is Nixon’s sister. The third sister (Jane Adams), who dumps her current boyfriend (Jon Lovitz), which sends her on a shame spiral, and ends with her sleeping with one of English as a Second Students (Jared Harris), who takes advantage of her. Their parents (Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser) who are getting a divorce for seemingly no reason. A woman who chops up her doorman who she says raped her (Camryn Manheim). Yet with all the perversion on display, Solondz has still managed to craft an excellent dark comedy that finds humor in even the blackest of moments. He doesn’t exploit his characters, but loves them despite their imperfections, and presents them honestly. Perhaps the truest scene in the film comes near the end when Boyle tells Adams that “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you”, and Adams replies “But I’m not laughing”. Solondz, one of the most daring directors of his generation, has crafted a movie that plays like a moral test, where it may just be impossible for you to pass. No matter what you think of the movie, you won’t be able to forget it.

3. The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen brothers The Big Lebowski is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. No matter how many times I watch it, I cannot help but laugh pretty much from the beginning to the end of the film. Jeff Bridges gives the best performance of his career as The Dude, who is mistaken for another Lebowski, has his rug peed on by a “Chinaman”, and spends the rest of the movie trying to get restitution for his ruined rug because “it really tied the room together”. He unknowingly becomes involves in a kidnapping and in a mystery plot that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Philip Marlowe movie, but he is so clueless that he continually makes the wrong decisions. But he always finds the time to go bowling. Bridges carries the movie, but the entire supporting cast is brilliant – John Goodman as his Vietnam veteran buddy who is even more insane than Goodman was in Barton Fink, Julianne Moore as the woman who wants The Dude to impregnate her, Steve Buscemi who is always a few steps behind the conversation, David Huddleston as the real Lebowski in a wheelchair, Philip Seymour Hoffman as his constantly smiling assistant and John Turturro as the pedophile bowler named Jesus, who correctly informs The Dude that “You don’t fuck with the Jesus”. The Big Lebowski is the Coens at their most insane – as well as at their funniest and most inspired.

2. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg)
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is one of the most intense war movies ever made. A lot has already been said about the opening battle sequence – which ranks among the bloodiest battles in cinema history, and is pretty much unmatched in terms of pure visceral impact – but the rest of the movie is quite good as well. Tom Hanks gives one of his best performances as the leader of a group of men who are sent deep into the war zone to pull out one Private (Matt Damon) who has had all of his brothers killed. The group argue, but are basically all for one and one for all. Hanks is the most visible face, but gradually the cynical Edward Burns, the scared Jeremy Davies and the gung ho Tim Sizemore all emerge as real character as well. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, full of dark, overcast skies, dark browns, and an overall gray scale is marvelous. The final battle cannot match the first one for pure cinematic intensity, but it is even more moving, as now we have come to know the different people and feel for them. This is one of the best movies of Spielberg’s career – and considering his body of work, that is saying something.

1. The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick)
I think at the time, many thought of Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line as a disappointment. After all, it was the famed director’s first film in 20 years, and audiences fresh off that summer’s Saving Private Ryan essentially wanted to see that film again – not Malick’s slow, meditative study of the men at war in Africa during WWII. While Malick’s film cannot match Spielberg’s in terms of raw, visceral power, I think his meditative study of these men makes for the stronger movie. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, contrasting the beauty of the surroundings with the brutality on the battlefield itself. The performances are all good – especially Nick Nolte as a hard driving commanding officer, and Sean Penn as the more relaxed one – but the cast is full of top name talent, all of whom do a great job no matter how large or small their role is. My hope is that one day Malick will let someone like Criterion release his original cut of the film – all 6 hours of it – and we can see the film in its entirety (Adrien Brody insists the best work of his career wound up on the cutting room floor for this film). But the film we have now is a masterpiece – the best film of Malick’s wonderful career.

Just Missed The Top 10: Affliction (Paul Schrader), American History X (Tony Kaye), Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller), Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo), Bulworth (Warren Beatty), The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordon), The Celebration (Tomas Vinterberg), Elizabeth (Shakur Kapur),Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam), Fireworks (Takahasi Kitano), The General (John Boorman), Gods and Monsters (Bill Condon), He Got Game (Spike Lee), Love and Death on Long Island (Richard Kwientski), Men with Guns (John Sayles), Pi (Darren Aronofsky), Pleasantville (Gary Ross), Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson),Your Friends and Neighbors (Neil LaBute).

Notable Films Missed: Beau Travail (Claire Denis), Central Station (Walter Salles), Eternity and a Day (Theo Angelpoulous), Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-Hsien).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love is an undeniably charming, intelligent, handsomely mounted period comedy. Joseph Fiennes is a little bland in the lead role – but Gwyneth Paltrow is wonderful as his leading lady and the supporting cast including Ben Affleck, Geoffrey Rush and Judi Dench provide stellar support. Having said all of that, after watching the film once upon it initial release, I have never felt even the slightest urge to revisit the film. Yes, it is fun, but it never really transcends its genre to become a truly great film. I find it somewhat disappointing that the Academy so often overlooks great comedies in favor of mediocre dramas for its big prize, which makes this win all the more disappointing – since they did the exact opposite. I think it is fairly clear that Saving Private Ryan was both the more critically acclaimed and audience friendly film – and in the decade since its release it has gone onto become a genuine classic. But it came out in July, and I think that Academy was sick of hearing about the film – sick of hearing about Spielberg – and most importantly sick of everyone telling them what film was going to win the Oscar – since from its first screening, everyone assumed Saving Private Ryan was going to win. I commend the Academy for thinking for themselves, but did they have to pick this year to do it?

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan
Shakespeare in Love may have come out of nowhere and surprising Saving Private Ryan in the big race, but Spielberg’s Director win was never really in any doubt. The opening 20 minute beach scene ranks among the most intense, bloody and brilliant war sequences ever put to film, and the rest of the film is an emotional tour de force. By this time, Spielberg had long since established himself as the most popular director in the world – and that rare director who is able to provide a cross between art and commerce. Yes, I think Terence Malick made the better war film in 1998 – and I would have voted for him. But I also understand that The Thin Red Line is a more cerebral, meditative film, whereas Saving Private Ryan is more audience friendly and visceral – meaning I know exactly why the Academy voted for him, and really do not have a problem with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful
Despite how much this film has become practically despised since its release (something I didn’t hear much of at the time), I still enjoy Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust comedy, that I think is a fitting tribute to his hero Charles Chaplin, who also infused many of his classic comedies with elements of tragic reality. And Benigni is charming in the first half of the film, and even better in the second half as he tries to shield his son from the horrors around him (and I choose not to think of the very valid criticism that his son is going to be screwed now that he’s dead). But do I in anyway think that the film is Oscar worthy, or that this performance is deserved to win? No. They voted with their hearts this year, and when they do that they often come up with an unworthy winner. Compare this performance to the searing performance of Edward Norton in American History X, the slow implosion of Nick Nolte in Affliction, the grandness of Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters or the tragic everyman of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (to name just the other nominees, and not even touching on the best performance of the year – Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski), and Benigni comes in short to every one of them. Yes, I still think the film and the performance are fine. No, I do not think he deserved an Oscar – let alone two (he also won for Foreign Language Film) for it.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Gwyneth Paltorw, Shakespeare in Love
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gwyneth Paltrow sparkle as much as she does in this film. She accomplishes that rare, but absolutely essential for this type of movie, feat of making the audience fall in love with her right alongside its hero. If you don’t fall for Paltrow – believe that Shakespeare could feel that passion for her, then the whole movie becomes little more than an amusing diversion, and certainly not an Oscar winning movie. However, I still have to admit that although I admire the performance a great deal, I really don’t think it deserved to win an Oscar. The clear best performance in this category was Cate Blanchatt who ripped into her role as Queen Elizabeth with a sheer vengeance, without going over the top as she would in its much maligned (deservedly so in my opinion) sequel a decade later. Yes Paltrow is delightful in Shakespeare in Love – but that doesn’t mean I think she should have won.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: James Coburn, Affliction
James Coburn was one of the last surviving members of an acting generation when men were men – screw sensitivity, these guys – of which I would argue Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum were the clear masters – didn’t give a shit. Coburn won this award for a multitude of reasons – his competition had already won (Rush, Thornton, Duvall in A Civil Action), didn’t have that big Oscar moment to build a campaign out of (Harris) and because he was an old time actor who had never won before – hell he had never even been nominated. But unlike many of these so called sympathy awards, I don’t mind Coburn winning this one at all. As Nolte’s aging father, Coburn is harsh and cruel to his children – calling them “Jesus freaks and candy asses”. Coburn didn’t abandon his screen image to win an Oscar, but instead he played with it a little bit, showing us the mean underbelly of being a man who doesn’t give a shit. Out of the nominees, I think Thornton gave the best performance – and would have loved to have seen Bill Murray get nominated (and win!) for Rushmore, but that doesn’t change the fact that this was a worthy winner.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love
Judi Dench had been doing great work on stage and TV in England for decades before she truly started to get great roles in movies – starting with 1997’s Mrs. Brown, for which many people thought she deserved to win the Best Actress Oscar for. So, when she reteamed with the same director the following year – playing yet another English Queen, the Academy pretty much gave in and gave her the Oscar, despite her limited screen time in the film. Her few brief scenes are admittedly a highlight of the film (she is wonderfully, bitterly comic) but when you compare her work to that of Kathy Bates, as the political operative in Primary Colors or Lynn Redgrave as the comic maid in Gods and Monsters, I think she comes up a bit short. Dench has gone onto become an Oscar favorite – getting nominations for such unworthy films as Chocolat, Iris and Mrs. Henderson Presents, alongside her best work in Notes on a Scandal. I don’t mind this win too much – if for no other reason, it prevented her from winning for something even more unworthy.