Friday, January 12, 2007

Top Ten Films of 2006 - Updated

So here's the updated list. Still watching a lot of films, so I won't finalize it for a couple more weeks.

1. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
2. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)
3. A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)
4. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone)
5. Dave Chappelle's Block Party (Michel Gondry)
6. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles)
7. Little Children (Todd Field)
8. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
9. Brick (Rian Johnson)
10. Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Final Oscar Nomination Predictions

This is old hat by now. Throw out a guess, shot in the dark. It's a crapshoot anyway.

Here they are.

Final Oscar Nomination Predictions – January 9, 2007

Best Picture
The Departed
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Best Director
Bill Condon, Dreamgirls
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Steven Frears, The Queen
Martin Scorsese, The Departed

Best Actor
Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
Peter O’Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Best Actress
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Jack Nicholson, The Departed
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Brad Pitt, Babel

Best Supporting Actress
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Rinko Kuichi, Babel
Adriana Barraza, Babel
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Best Original Screenplay
Little Miss Sunshine
Pan’s Labyrinth
The Queen

Best Adapted Screenplay
Children of Men
The Departed
Little Children
Thank You For Smoking

Best Cinematography
Children of Men
The Departed
Letters from Iwo Jima
Pan’s Labyrinth

Best Animated Feature
Flushed Away
Monster House
Happy Feet
A Scanner Darkly

Best Foreign Language Film
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, The Netherlands)
Lunacy (Jan Svankmajer, Denmark)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Mexico)
Volver (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Water (Deepa Menta, Canada)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Top Ten Films of 2006

(this list is not yet finalized...keep checking back for the next couple of weeks)

Best Films of 2006

To be honest, if I could only have seen the top three films on this list, I would have still been satiesfied. They are nothing less than three directorial milestones in one year. One director (Stallone), against all odds, revived a ruined franchise with a poetic film of grace and beauty. Another (Scorsese) made a return to his roots on the mean streets (although these streets are Irish and not near Scorsese's familiar NY territory), and shocked the world when we realized just how Scorsese's "off" films (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Bringing Out the Dead, Kundun...all of which have their admirers, to be sure, but they aren't his bread and butter) had changed him as a filmmaker...for the good of us all. I honestly still stand by my opinion that The Departed is the best film Scorsese has ever made. Finally, the third (Altman) left behind one of the most distinguished careers in cinema history with a subtle, beautiful swan song (The Prairie Home Companion). All three wonderful milestones. In fact, for me 2006 was one of the great auteur movie years in the past ten years or so. My top ten list generally reflects that (although one of my heroes, Clint Eastwood, is nowhere to be found as I haven't seen EITHER of his films yet). So there are holes, but also some linearity in that navel-gazing cinescape that is auteur criticism. The list is still in flux, probably until the last week or so of January. Then I'll lock it.

  1. The Departed (Scorsese)
  2. A Prairie Home Companion (Altman)
  3. Rocky Balboa (Stallone)
  4. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (Gondry)
  5. Little Children (Field)
  6. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Puiu)
  7. Brick (Johnson)
  8. Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton/Faris)
  9. The Descent (Neil Marshall)
  10. The Proposition (Hillcoat)

runners up (in a weaker year I could have easily made a top ten out of these films): Hostel, Awesome...I Fuckin' Shot That, The Queen, United 93, The Break-Up, Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Superman Returns, Edmond, The Hills Have Eyes, Silent Hill, V for Vendetta, Iraq in Fragments, Happy Feet, Monster House, Thank You For Smoking, Mission Impossible III)

Some random awards (personal)

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, The Departed (duh)

Best Actor: (tie) Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed (Leo moved beyond the Robert DeNiro comparisons and went right into Brando territory in Scorsese's latest)

(tie) Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa (interestingly, Stallone, an actor clearly at a different place than his younger counterpart, somehow pulled off the same career trajectory; his performance in Rocky Balboa is career-defining...great news for Stallone)

Best Actress: Kate Winslet, Little Children (revelatory)

Best Supporting Actor: Ben Affleck, Hollywoodland (shamefully ignored during awards season; Affleck knocked it out of the park in this self-referential confection; the movie's ok, but Affleck dazzles)

Best Supporting Actress: Lily Tomlin, A Prairie Home Companion (why isn't Lily Tomlin in everything?...I don't know either)

Screenplay: Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion (this is not the best film Altman ever made, but I think these may be the finest words he ever directed; Keillor's words are precise, natural, lyrical, moving, modest, and downright hilarious)

Cinematography: For some reason, this award always seems to go to the longest movie of the year (Braveheart, The English Patient, Shakespear in Love, etc.) or the busiest-looking arthouse fare (Se7en, Pan's Labyrinth, etc.). But for me, the wonderful marriage of egotistical pop filmmaker (M. Night Shyamalan) and the greatest cinematographer in the world (Christopher Doyle) in The Lady in the Water gave me the most indelible images of the year.

Foreign-Language Film: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (buy it, experience it, survive it)

Animated Film: Happy Feet (which just barely missed my Top Ten, it's that good)

Nonfiction Film: everyone went gaga over Al Gore and his pesky environment this year, but Iraq in Fragments was the most entrancing nonfiction experience I had in 2006)

Ensemble: without a doubt, A Prairie Home Companion

Debut Film: Brick (Rian Johnson)

Debut Performance: Shareeka Epps, Half Nelson

Notes? Thoughts? Diatribes? Start using that comment function, ya'll.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Rocky Balboa

Some artists become so closely associated with their most archetypal characters that they remain unable to live that shadow down. Sylvester Stallone’s knockout masterpiece Rocky Balboa is nothing less than the summation of a career…and not just that of the titular pugilist. Sylvester Stallone’s career has been a non-stop series of extreme highs (Rocky, First Blood, Copland) and extreme lows (Judge Dredd, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, Rhinestone). He has been embraced and ridiculed, often by the same people for making choices affected more by ego than creative impulse. The supposed swan song for his most revered character, Rocky V, was met mostly with derision by both Stallone’s fans and the critical community at large. Stallone himself has expressed extreme disappointment with the film, and for years was worried that he had perhaps wronged the legacy of the character in some way. With Rocky Balboa, Stallone has set out to right that wrong, and he’s done so with glorious results.

Looking punchy and weathered, Rocky (and Stallone by extension) is long retired, managing a neighborhood restaurant and mourning his years-dead wife and muse Adrian. We meet up with Rocky as he’s going through his yearly ritual of visiting locations throughout Philly of nostalgic and romantic import. Adrian’s brother, the ever-put-upon Paulie, has grown weary of the reverie, as his memories are plagued with the disease of regret. Rocky, always the bleary-eyed dreamer, longs for the fairy tale days of being champion and having the woman of his dreams on his arm. It claws at him from inside and aches to be released, if only for a bit.

How Stallone pulls off Rocky’s return to the ring is best left for the viewers to discover. It’s at once implausible and utterly believable, mostly due to Stallone himself. His direction is crisp, intimate and nearly flawless. The central performance is the best he’s ever delivered, buoyed by what I can only assume is his personal connection to the character. After all, Stallone has as much to prove as his fictional counterpart. Two legacies hang in the balance.

Rocky Balboa is quite nearly the mirror image of the original film. Its early moments are quiet, poignant and poetic. Stallone has a breakdown with Paulie in the meat house that is probably the single greatest moment of acting in his entire career. In this instance, he is channeling all the animal and primal method instincts of the late Marlon Brando, and it’s exciting to behold the aging actor rediscovering the innate power of his acting prowess. The creation of this late-career palooka is a stunning achievement, and Stallone is to be admired and praised for it.

That Rocky Balboa succeeds at all is a surprise. That it is, in fact, a major film, certainly one of the year’s best, may in fact be a miracle.

For Your Consideration

If anything is ripe for parody, it is the yearly Oscar bait season. Under cover of Hollywood’s most prestigious honor, the industry elite fall all over themselves chasing that elusive gold, the standard of which has fallen with all of the hoopla and cheapness of awards chasing.

Master satirist Christopher Guest would seem to be the perfect fit for this high value comedy concept and, for much of For Your Consideration, it seems like Guest and Co. might be on the right track. The problem with Guest’s rather (surprisingly) broad film is that it takes a far too acidic tone in dealing with the industry in which all involved are a part. Guest has never taken this approach before – his films have always had a certain respectful grace about them, even when they are lampooning the ridiculous – and it comes off as a bit mean-spirited, even if Hollywood has earned the venom.

The performances are generally as fine as ever, with Fred Willard the comic standout as a faux-hawked entertainment “reporter” and Eugene Levy as an inept agent (has there ever been any other kind in a Hollywood satire?). But For Your Consideration features a pair of truly fine performances, from Catherine O’Hara as the matriarchal star of Guest’s fake indie drama and Parker Posey as the bright young ingénue; both of whom get caught up in pre-release Oscar buzz (more on this later). Posey has rarely ever been this understated, and O’Hara has never been as nuanced. Ironically enough, O’Hara has generated substantial Oscar buzz for her knowing portrait.

Where For Your Consideration fails the most is in its rather juvenile interpretation of how the entire awards season functions. Oscar buzz never begins when a film is still in production, and studios don’t really have the opportunity to change their production based upon said buzz. While I’m certain that Guest has a more than sharp grasp on how awards season works, it seems that in bringing the concept to the big screen, the process has been watered down and simplified. This is unfortunate, because I think there was a great film to be made here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Early Oscar Predictions

Here are my very early nomination predictions, in the major categories.

Best Picture
The Departed
Flags of Our Fathers
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Best Director
Bill Condon, Dreamgirls
Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers
Steven Frears, The Queen
Martin Scorsese, The Departed
Steven Soderbergh, The Good German

Best Actor
Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
Peter O’Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Best Actress
Annette Bening, Running With Scissors
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Steve Carrell, Little Miss Sunshine
Jack Nicholson, The Departed
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Brad Pitt, Babel

Best Supporting Actress
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Cate Blanchett, Notes of a Scandal
Vera Farmiga, The Departed
Maggie Gyllenhaal, World Trade Center
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Best Original Screenplay
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Departed
The Devil Wears Prada
The Good German
Thank You For Smoking

Best Cinematography
The Departed
Flags of Our Fathers
The Good German
World Trade Center

Best Animated Feature
Flushed Away
Monster House
Over the Hedge
A Scanner Darkly

Best Foreign Language Film
Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, The Netherlands)
Lunacy (Jan Svankmajer, Denmark)
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Mexico)
Volver (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Water (Deepa Menta, Canada)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Departed

Martin Scorsese has spent his life as a filmmaker, spinning yarns of violent men and their violent ways. Deeply religious, as well as spiritual, Scorsese has always found a way of finding the thimbles of humanity in his ruffians. He has shown us his roots (Mean Streets, Gangs of New York), his formative years (Goodfellas), his heroes, anti-heroes and inspirations (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, The Aviator). He has taken us to darkly comic places (After Hours, The King of Comedy), and he has shown us the bowels of hell (Bringing Out the Dead, Cape Fear, Taxi Driver). But he's always managed to find those kernels of the human condition in even his most flawed characters.

The Departed is a uniquely realized vision in the entirety of Scorsese's career. It has, on the surface, some of his most blatantly heroic and absurdly evil characters ever. But layered between the skins of this complex creation are also his most decidedly human characters. This is an extraordinarily complicated narrative, one that only a filmmaker of Scorsese's age and experience could pull off, but frankly, The Departed is much more than that. It's the culmination of a lifelong examination of men and their violent ways. Stunningly rigorous in its execution, The Departed is, in my estimation, possibly the finest film Scorsese has ever made. It's a breathless masterpiece, one that stuns with its ruminations and shocks with its nihilism.

I've never been so moved, sickened and excited by one of Scorsese's films. I was constantly enthralled and always stunned by the depths to which Mr. Scorsese was willing to travel. The Departed is a brilliant, important, moving cinematic expression of the poetry and tragedy in man's heart of darkness.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine looks to shine a little brighter

This past weekend, Fox Searchlight's promising indie upstart Little Miss Sunshine managed to nearly crack the top ten at the domestic U.S. box office, despite only showing on 153 screens. With just over $2.6 million, Sunshine will be expanded to over 600 screens this coming weekend and more than 1,500 by Friday, August 25th.

Little Miss Sunshine has enjoyed nearly across-the-board positive reviews (the Online Film Critics Society, of which I'm a member, has given the film a 96% approval), in the wake of its acquisition at Sundance 2006. It's already tracking financially better than other breakthrough indie hits like Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, and Brokeback Mountain.

In addition to its financial and critical success, awards talk looms as well. David Poland has pegged Steve Carrell, Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin as all having legitimate shots at garnering Oscar nominations next year, as well as Little Miss Sunshine being the likely Independent Spirit powerhouse. Critics group awards will be important for the film, as will a continued success at the box office.

Look for an essay review and possibly a feature article in The Film Journal in the near future.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Fall Movie Preview...sort of

We're in Chicago now and things are finally gearing back up for the next issue of the journal. Until then, a brief fall preview. Everyone knows about, and will hear plenty about, the big fall Oscar-bait pictures. I'm going to go a different route and list the ten films that I think have the biggest potential to surprise...I hope.

1. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell) - After 20-some James Bond offerings, we finally get a proper, revamped 007 original story. Daniel Craig, for my money, looks poised to blow the roof off of expectations. He's exactly what this tired franchise needs.

2. Idiocracy (Mike Judge) - Judge's long-overdue follow up to his 1999 comic powerhouse Office Space has distinctive promise as an absurdist pop satire. I can't wait to see what Judge has been up to these past seven years.

3. Feast (John Gulager) - The third and final product of the Project Greenlight series has the benefit of an extremely talented man behind the camera. Gulager is the son of veteran character actor Clu Gulager. His demo reel for the show was better than most features I saw last year. Feast got lost in the Miramax/Weinstein Co. shakeup and is getting only a cursory limited release this fall before it's put out on DVD in October. A shame, as I believe this film will be fantastic.

4. The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma) - I'm seemingly one of the only remaining critics in America who drools when he hears the name "Brian De Palma". I love the man's oeuvre, and cannot wait to see what he cooks up with a fucking James Ellroy book as his source material. Huzzah!

5. Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola) - This film is only on this list because of its lackluster reception at Cannes. Marie with punk hair and modern sneakers, dancing to Siouxsie and the Banshees? I'm all about it.

6. Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell) - A taboo-shattering sex comedy that isn't bothering to go before the MPAA (kudos). Mitchell promises all kinds of non-simulated sex. Love when filmmakers push the boundaries of "taste" in this overzealous culture of ours.

7. Fur (Steven Shainberg) - The director of Secretary brings the story of photographer Diane Arbus who is inspired by a man named Lionel who is covered in animal fur. I say WTF, but also I can't wait.

8. For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest) - Guest's next improv comedy features his cast of usual suspects, with the addition of comic mastermind Ricky Gervais.

9. Apocalypto (Mel Gibson) - I don't have to like artists to enjoy their work. Gibson's next film looks stunning. I hope his craziness doesn't prevent the film's release.

10. Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) - You read it right. I truly think this film will either be a disaster, or a ten-bester (I'm hoping the latter). The trailers have been promising, appropriately melancholy.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sweet home Chicago

Well, we've secured a place in Chicago, which will be the new home base of operations for The Film Journal. Here it is:

We're very excited to get moved and get the journal back up and running.

We'll continue publishing reviews here on this blog, so keep checking back.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Here we have a film legendary for its central performance. Indeed, Philip Seymour Hoffman's turn as the peculiar author is the stuff of myth, an astonishing, revolutionary bit of acting. But Bennett Miller's film itself deserves some props of its own. Capote is a taut, elegant work of cinematic expression. The film taunts with its suggestions of impending perversion, but surprises with a restrained kind of epic scope that never sinks into tabloid sensationalism. Amazingly, Capote is a quiet film about murder and the obsession of intellect.

New to DVD, Capote arrives with the usual suspects of special features including multiple commentary tracks and several documentaries. But the commentary with Miller and Hoffman stands as one of the most intelligent and enlightening in a very long while. Rather than being merely anecdotal (a lame mainstay of so many DVD commentary tracks), Hoffman and Miller give surprising insight into the processes behind bringing such an ambitious film to the big screen with so little help from the outside.

Capote is a major work.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Pink Panther

There was a time when I think Steve Martin could have pulled off a successful reimagining of the legendary Peter Seller's Inspector Jacques Clousseau. The limber, whipsmart comedian was, at the height of his film career, one of the finest physical humorists the medium had ever seen. He has never possessed the chameleon-like characteristics of Sellers, but the Steve Martin of All of Me, The Jerk, Roxanne and L.A. Story unquestionably had the talent to attempt a revival of the bumbling Frenchman. Unfortunately, Steve Martin 2000 isn't quite up to the task. His performance, while quite often artifically humorous, is decidedly one-note. The film is built almost entirely around Martin's bizarro, uber-affected vocal affectations, as opposed to Sellers' impeccable comic timing and stunning physical presence. Not all the blame can be laid at Martin's feet, however. Director Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel) lacks the ability to reign in the broadness of the material, and the film suffers because of it. Blake Edwards, the master craftsman behind the original series, knew, as he always has, exactly the amount of lucid self-awareness to let creep out. The Pink Panther 2.0 is far too "nudge-nudge" with its humor to bring anything new to the table. As such, we are left with a tepid comedy, full of reluctant laughs and inept filmcraft. Kevin Kline, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer and Clive Owen co-star. 93 minutes. USA. Color. Sony Pictures Releasing/Columbia Pictures.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Bubble is an astonishingly unnerving piece of humanist cinema. Utilizing non-professional local actors and locations, Soderbergh and writer Coleman Hough have crafted another brilliant entry into the American new-guard arthouse cinematic landscape (following films like Gerry, The Brown Bunny, julien donkey-boy, etc.). Bubble concerns a trio of co-workers in a dollmaking factory. Martha and Kyle have been casual friends (perhaps just a notch above simple co-workers) for a while now. Kyle works a great deal and has saved up money for no real reason. Martha is a perfectly content American middle class worker, on the surface. Rose is the newest member at the factory and is immediately drawn to Kyle. They are both young and attractive. They both smoke. They bond quickly and effortlessly. Martha is left babysitting Rose's daughter. In the film's very brief 70 or so minutes, Soderbergh manages to embed an impending sense of dread in nearly every frame. When a very real tragedy takes place, one cannot help but become self-consciously involved in the proceedings. Discomfort turns to dread. Dread turns to horror. Horror turns to revelation. Soderbergh has not been this in command of his singular aesthetic since his masterpiece, 2002's Solaris. You can trace the evolution of his forays into television (K Street, Unscripted) directly to the earthy naturalism of Bubble. Bresson is here. So is Tarr. So is the always vital Soderbergh.

Monday, January 23, 2006


It's a sad moment in American film criticism when the puritanical, pseudo-moralist posturing of the current political establishment has crept into the work of those charged with tempering such overzealous thinking.

Eli Roth's electric Hostel has been met with a groundswell of hatred, from nearly every spectrum of the critical landscape. Roth's film - gory, sadistic and prurient - has been called just about every vile thing possible, for the very grotesque but affecting aesthetic that should be celebrated.

While the majority of America's film critics have been caught up in their moral superiority, they seem to have missed the fact that Roth has crafted a supremely political film, one that lambasts the jocular xenophobia of the typical American, and showing just what the rest of the world probably feels about us all.

Hostel is, without question, extreme. But satire is never really effective if it's too in line with reality. With the distance that Hostel provides with its rabidly violent overkill and graphic sexual content, it becomes quite evident that Roth is having a wickedly fun time, but is also very aware that he's made a hot-button film.

Perhaps it's good that the film has had so much negative press. The old saying and all. But sometimes, when you champion a film, you just wish that everyone else "got it". Or maybe you're just crazy yourself.

Grade: A-

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Land of College Prophets

The world of independent underground filmmaking is a tricky business. Apart even from the acquisition-obsessed world of the festival circuit, underground filmmakers often have to deal with self-distribution, lack of PR, inadequate marketing funds, etc. This leaves a great many of worthwhile films treading water in obscurity.

The Hale Manor Collective (including Mike Aransky, Philip Guerette and Thomas Edward Seymour) has unleashed a wildly creative and ambitious independent feature, The Land of College Prophets, which may suffer that very fate. With whip-smart writing, quirky characters (and actors) and a propulsive, addictingly playful aesthetic, The Land of College Prophets has the potential to be a sleeper cult film in the future. It's the greatest Alex Cox film that Alex Cox never made.

The diabolically obtuse plot involves a cast of vivid characters, including "Irish" Jonah Joe, Third Reich Jones and Rye (among many others). The Well That Ate Children is poisoning the townspeople and making them insane, including some of the College Prophets. The remaining Prophets must join forces to battle the Well and save the world with might, muscle, brain and magic.

While the plot synopsis may read like something out of a bad B-movie pitch, The Land of College Prophets is filled with comedy, wit and an undying dedication to a dynamic narrative. It has goofy fight scenes that, while they shouldn't, work like gangbusters. Even the bits of dialogue that are a tad goofy (and there isn't much of it; this is an expertly written film) are given terse, affecting line readings. The cast of nonprofessional (or, at least, unknown) actors are among the best I've ever seen in an underground cult hit wannabe.

I have no idea what kind of distribution is in place for the film (I viewed it on a review screener), but I hope something picks up steam soon. It will never be a box office hit (there's no money in the underground), but The Land of College Prophets could easily become the first genuine cult hit of the DV era.

It may even end up being one of the better independent genre films of 2006.

Grade: B

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Fourth Annual Central Ohio Film Critics Association Awards

Here are the results of this year's awards. A few surprises here and there, and a pretty good list overall. Fellow COFCA member Mark Pfeiffer will be posting some comments about the awards in the near future. Check him out.



(Columbus, January 12, 2006) Now in its fourth year, the Central Ohio Film Critics Association has released its list of year-end awards, honoring the best and most unique accomplishments in filmmaking during 2005.

David Cronenberg’s edgy rumination on the nature and effects of violence, A History of Violence, took the group’s top prize as the Best Film of the year. Cronenberg himself was awarded a citation for Best Direction.

For his lauded performance in Ang Lee’s acclaimed Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger was named the best Lead Performance. Maria Bello was cited for her Supporting Performance in A History of Violence.

Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana won the Best Screenplay award for their adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain.

Actor of the Year, awarded to a singularly impressive body of work, was also awarded to Heath Ledger, for his performances in Brokeback Mountain, Casanova, Lords of Dogtown and The Brothers Grimm.

The Central Ohio Film Critics Association was created in 2002 by leading print, broadcast and Internet film critics for the purpose of enriching the Columbus area’s burgeoning film viewing community.

Complete list of awards:

Best Film: A History of Violence
(Runner up: Brokeback Mountain)

Best Direction: David Cronenberg, A History of Violence
(Runner up: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain)

Best Lead Performance: Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
(Runner up: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line)

Best Supporting Performance: Maria Bello, A History of Violence
(Runner up: Amy Adams, Junebug)

Actor of the Year (for an exemplary body of work): Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain, Casanova, Lords of Dogtown, The Brothers Grimm)
(Runner up: Terrence Howard)

Best Ensemble: The cast of Munich
(Runner up: The cast of Brokeback Mountain)Best Screenplay: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain
(Runner up: George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Good Night, and Good Luck)

Best Formal Design (for exceptional visual aesthetic): Frank Miller’s Sin City
(Runner up: Brokeback Mountain)

Best Sound Design (for exceptional aural aesthetic): War of the Worlds
(Runner up: Walk the Line)

Breakthrough Film Artist: Amy Adams, for her performance in Junebug
(Runner up: Joe Wright, for directing Pride & Prejudice)

Top Ten Films:

A History of Violence
Brokeback Mountain
Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Good Night, and Good Luck
Frank Miller’s Sin City
Pride & Prejudice
Batman Begins

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Year in Review - Updated/Revised

The New Year is here, and everyone and their mother is making out their year-end wrap up lists: music, tv, et al. Things aren't any different here, I guess.

Unlike many of my critic brethren, I happen to think that 2005 was a truly great year for film. For once, the Hollywood studios kept pace (and often surpassed) with the indies and international distributors. 2005 was especially rich with solid genre films.

What I have below is a list of the best films I saw in 2005, as it stands today, having not seen a few of the "prestige" pictures (Munich, most notably). I will, of course, change and repost the list if it is altered in any way.

So, without further ado:
  1. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)
  2. Match Point (Woody Allen)
  3. Munich (Steven Spielberg)
  4. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)
  5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black)
  6. The World (Jia Zhangke)
  7. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin)
  8. The Devil's Rejects (Rob Zombie)
  9. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)
  10. Last Days (Gus Van Sant)
  11. Murder-Set-Pieces (Nick Palumbo)
  12. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow)
  13. Land of the Dead (George A. Romero)

The others, all films I'm extremely postive on; some of which could easily switch places with films from the above list with time:

  • 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami)
  • 2046 (Wong Kar-Wai)
  • 3-Iron (Kim Ki-duk)
  • The Ballad of Jack and Rose (Rebecca Miller)
  • Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)
  • The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles)
  • Fever Pitch (Peter & Bobby Farrelly)
  • Frank Miller's Sin City (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller)
  • In Her Shoes (Curtis Hanson)
  • Junebug (Phil Morrison)
  • Keane (Lodge Kerrigan)
  • King Kong (Peter Jackson)
  • Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow)
  • Match Point (Woody Allen)
  • MirrorMask (Dave McKean)
  • Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki)
  • Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  • Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright)
  • Star Wars Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas)
  • Syriana (Stephen Gaghan)
  • Unleashed (Louis Leterrier)
  • Walk the Line (James Mangold)
  • Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park and Steve Box)
  • War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg)

Best short film of the year: Cigarette Burns (John Carpenter) (runner up: Joe Dante's Homecoming; I debated this for quite a while and, though I love the ballsy politics of Dante's brilliantly comic film, the Carpenter/McWeeny/Swan creation was simply the most breathtakingly cinematic short of, not only the "Masters of Horror" series, but the entire year; in fact, Cigarette Burns is easily as good as half the films in my top 13)

Special Notice for Promotion of the Director as Auteur: Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series

Best Director: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain

Best Actor: Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain

Best Actress: Emmanuelle Devos, Kings and Queen

Best Supporting Actor: Val Kilmer, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Best Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, Junebug

Best Screenplay: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black)

Top Ten Television:

  1. Arrested Development
  2. Gilmore Girls
  3. Lost
  4. The Shield
  5. My Name is Earl
  6. The Office (U.S.)
  7. Project Runway
  8. Extras
  9. Wonder Showzen
  10. Stella

Best Film on Television: No Direction Home (Martin Scorsese)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Brokeback Mountain

It's interesting to see how Ang Lee continually has such a grasp on American iconology: the Civil War (Ride With the Devil); the 70s (The Ice Storm); Golden Era comic books (the underrated Hulk). With his latest (and best) film, Brokeback Mountain, he has mastered yet another iconic American genre: the Western. Brokeback Mountain is a grand, romantic, staggeringly great epic that spans two decades in the doomed romance of a pair of rugged cowboys, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger).

After meeting and while working together tending sheep over a summer, Jack and Ennis slowly become close friends then fall in love, keeping their confusing and inconvenient (Ennis is engaged to be married) love affair a secret. Four years later, Ennis is married and has two children. Jack is married and has one. They reconnect and a 20-year love affair is rekindled and lasts through the trials and tribulations of both men.

It's a story told dozens of times. Two people are married to spouses they are not truly in love with, longing for one another, but unable to be together because of societal prejudices. Sirk tackled it with All That Heaven Allows; Haynes with Far From Heaven; it's a time-honored (and weathered, perhaps) tradition.

But Ang Lee plants this story dead set in the middle of the Western genre, a tactic that (thanks to the terrific source material by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx) pays off tremendously. Jack and Ennis must escape to Brokeback whenever they decide to get together. Lee dwarfs them in these moments by the bigness of their surroundings. It could be seen as pretty pictures just for pretty's sake, if not for the viewers' knowledge that only in such a remote place as this vast wilderness could Jack and Ennis live out their life together, something Jack has difficulty with almost from the beginning.

In the rest of the film, for the most part, Lee sticks with medium and close shots, keeping things closed in and intimate, even when they grow uncomfortable (especially with Ennis' troubling home life, and Jack's clashes with his father-in-law).

Brokeback Mountain devastates in its moments of quiet solitude and poetic beauty, culiminating in a wondrous denouement, a kind of reverse-mirror-image reflection of the closing moments of John Ford's The Searchers. Because, after all is said and done, Lee has crafted one of the best Westerns I've ever seen, as well as one of the most subtley crafted love stories.

This is the best film of the year.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Walk the Line

James Mangold opens his sensational biopic about the life of Johnny Cash amidst the stirring atmosphere of Cash's groundbreaking At Folsom Prison album. Prison guards keep watch as inmated stomp their feet, clap their hands and wait in anticipation for the return from "backstage" of their working-class, rough-talking hero. In the wood shop, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix, in a career performance) rubs his fingers across a table saw as his wife, June Carter Cash (Reese Witherspoon, ditto) waits in the background.

Mangold then takes us back to the beginning, to tell the story of how a sensitive young boy who listened to gospel from his momma and on the radio became one of the early-adopters of rockabilly, the voice of a time period, and an inspiration for generations to come.

Walk the Line follows Cash's career from his beginnings with Sun Records (the Cash sound is born out of necessity in an inpromptu audition for Sam Phillips) through his marriage to June Carter after a decade of pursuing her, with a failed marriage and kids on the side.

Like last year's Ray, Walk the Line delves into more than just the man's public persona. Dirt and all, we see Cash's spiral into drug addiction, his abandonment of his first wife (though it's quite obvious he's in love with June from the moment he sees her), his ascension to prima donna, his cathartic relationship with his father, a tough man who blames him for the death of his brother at a very young age.

Phoenix and Witherspoon are positively piercing as the central couple, their chemistry undeniable, their bond powerful and unique. Mangold plays to this strength and his film is all the more affecting for it.

Performances aside, Walk the Line is a powerful piece of work, a modern-day Rebel Without a Cause. Though it appears as a typical awards-baiting picture, Walk the Line manages to transcend its "pedigree" and emerge as a potent bit of filmmaking, the kind of classic Hollywood picture that isn't made enough these days.

Broken Flowers

As a long time fan of Jim Jarmusch's spare, minimalist approach to cinema, I thought that the ever droll Bill Murray would be a perfect match up for this particular material. Though bits of this plodding film work pretty well (everything with Jeffrey Wright and Frances Conroy), Broken Flowers is a mixed bag of vignettes.

Murray plays, with his typical deadpan comportment, Don Johnston (yes, that is played to death for "laughs"), a former Don Juan who receives a mysterious letter that claims he has a son who may be seeking him out. His next-door neighbor, Winston (the terrific Wright) helps him compile a list of potential mothers from Don's past flames. Winston puts together an itinerary and Don heads off to try to solve the mystery of who his son's mother might be.

What follows is a series of brief interludes with former lovers, played by a collection of terrific actresses (Sharon Stone, Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton) that give us know inclination as to why any of them would have been with Don in the first place (he's extraordinarily uninteresting...the whole "Don Juan" thing is utterly unbelievable).

Still, there are moments of greatness. Jeffrey Wright's Winston is a typically obscure Jarmusch creation, realized by a perfectly attuned actor. And Frances Conroy is haunting as the real estate agent who abandoned a "hippie" lifestyle for a pedestrian: it's cliched, but delicately performed.

The remainder of the film descends into pointless melancholy, and Jarmusch relies far too heavily on a type that Bill Murray has now overplayed.

Jarmusch is unquestionably an American original. He's certainly allowed a minor misstep like
Broken Flowers.

Awards season

Well, reviews have been absent for a while again. I've been working on some stuff outside of film reviewing, but with awards season upon us, I'll be catching up on a ton of 2005 releases.

So stay tuned.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Lost...and sort of found

I was trying to send a link of my review of The Devil's Rejects to Lion's Gate and, somehow, it has disappeared. So I'm posting some brief notes that I made on some message boards.


So, in many ways, The Devil's Rejects is the film that QuentinTarantino originally intended Kill Bill to be: a true grindhouse retromish-mash. Less slick and far more streamlined than Tarantino's(admittedly great) film, TDR is an astonishing, eye-opening work.Zombie has given us the most audaciously gruesome work of mainstreamAmerican cinema since Stone's Natural Born Killers.

The Devil's Rejects (even better than Natural Born Killers) manages to be both nostalgic and visionary. I'm known to laythe hyperbole on a bit thick sometimes, true. But I've not been thisinvigorated by American cinema since Van Sant's Gerry. And, although Ithink that film is probably, ultimately, a better one, I can't helpbut feel like The Devil's Rejects is a landmark movie, our generation's Bonnie & Clyde.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Horror in the palm of your hand...some capsules

Up until a few days ago, my Sony PSP was pretty much just the thing I play Hot Shots Golf and MLB Baseball 2006 on. Thanks to the folks at Anchor Bay, I now have a handful of terrific horror titles to watch in the wee hours of the night.

Hellraiser - Cliver Barker's kinky, bloody chamber piece has always been one of my favorite horror films. A mixture of comedy, drama and high Grand Guignol theatre, Hellraiser is bent and beautiful, mysterious and macabre.

Evil Dead - Before chronicling the adventures of everyone's favorite webslinger, director Sam Raimi delivered this nasty little beaut, his breakthrough film about a group of friends besieged by an evil force in a cabin in the woods. Later followed by a sequel/remake, Evil Dead II and a third film, Army of Darkness.

Halloween - The ultimate in moodmaking horror. John Carpenter's masterpiece is a supreme study in terror, both subtle and outlandish. Michael Myers is a horrifying embodiment of quiet, murderous normality. A brilliant film.

Children of the Corn - An extremely underrated film. While certainly lacking in the panache and craftsmanship of other films from the same era, Children of the Corn nevertheless manages to capture a kind of Stepford Wives/Village of the Damned creepy fascist vibe. There are few things more frightening than murderous children.

I also received Dead and Breakfast, but I'll be reviewing that film separately via DVD in an upcoming post.


The first caveat of reviewing a film adaptation of a video game seems to be: does it capture the essence of the game? Fans of video games, even more than fans of adapted novels at times, are ravenous when it comes to dissecting (or, rather, obliterating) the bastardizations of their beloved shooters, RPGs, brawlers, etc.

The fallacy, of course, is that it's quite literally impossible for any video game adaptation to live up to that level of expectation. Moreso than a novel or play (which, at the very least, have fixed narratives), a video game is ever-changing. Even the most pedestrian of video games (the "on-the-rails" shooter House of the Dead 3, for example) is different every single time it is played. Gamers DEFINE their gaming experiences. Developers merely provide them the necessary tools to do so.

An expansive shooter like the various Doom titles is impossible to replicate. Especially in terms of the most recent incarnation, Doom 3, the interactive cinematic possibilities are endless. Missions can be accomplished using different paths, weaponry, etc. How can a film, which, even at the pinnacle of inventiveness, is always the same, hope to live up to the hype of a salivating gaming world? The answer, of course, is: it can't.

Doom arrives with all of that baggage, and then some. The first Doom revolutionized gaming. In fact, despite the rather late appearance of the title (in the 1990s), many would argue it shaped the contemporary world of gaming as much of, or perhaps more than, any other title in the history of gaming. It invented a genre. It launched a wave of interactivity. It created a community. It created a zeitgeist. ID Software did it again this past year with the marvelously reinvigorated Doom 3. And here awaits fandom, claws at the ready. Most have already begun their gnashing of teeth. So have critics.

For my money, Doom is the best of the video game adaptations (quite possibly the weakest status label I've ever given a film). Despite its presence as, essentially, a big, dumb action movie, Doom manages to be a quite amusing, muscular picture which, at the very least, earns its R rating, something that cannot be said of the increasingly spineless, neutered "horror" films that continue to plague American cineplexes.

It is very much set in the Aliens mode. Team of badasses go to Mars, fight baddies, some die, hero escapes with loved one in tow. It's a formula that has been used time and time again (even to be recycled twice, at least in part, in the Alien franchise itself, with Alien: Resurrection and Alien vs. Predator). But it works, for the most part, with the fun (if not groundbreaking in the slightest) Doom.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Red Eye

With Wes Craven, it seems to come down quite often to an inability to execute a promising conceptual piece. Red Eye follows this tradition, but it also fails on a deeper level, even though it manages to be Craven's most interesting film since Scream. Formally, Red Eye is rather exhilarating, at least for the first half. Confined mostly to the interior of a passenger jet (and, to a more specific degree, two side-by-side seats), Craven's camera captures each and every moment as if it were a living, breathing being. It's a stunning beginning, which makes the film's final act that much more disappointing.

The film concerns a typically strong-willed Craven female protagonist. Heather Langenkamp, Neve Campbell, Maren Jensen, Linda Blair, Loryn Locklin, Susan Lanier, Angela Bassett and Christina Ricci have all played different riffs of this victim/hero archetype. Craven has had varying degrees of success with it, but it is a model that he typically excels at. In a quite troubling move, he betrays that ideal with Red Eye's denouement. His powerful female character fights and toils through every predicament thrown her way, then, in a fit of maddeningly inept plotting, must be saved by her Daddy.

This kind of artistic betrayal is extraordinarily frustrating coming from a filmmaker who, although often not always a level-A player, is usually aesthetically at the top of his game. Once Red Eye leaves the confines of the plane cabin and attempts to open up into a more standard thriller, it loses steam...and intrigue...a shame since for nearly an hour I was convinced I was seeing one of the best films of the year.

An utter letdown.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Tropical Malady

Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's haunting masterpiece, Tropical Malady, is nearly impossible to describe. An existential love story. A moody, poetic thriller. An exploration of the spirituality of sexual and emotional attraction. The Thai master has pushed himself quickly to the forefront of international cinema by embracing the purest language of cinematic form. He is one of the most expressive, important contemporary directors; his abilities as a master formalist are a large reason for this. Tropical Malady is the latest in Joe's canon and, for me, his best. The oblique romanticism of the film's first half is only enhanced by the brooding spiritualism of the second half. Despite being a relatively new filmmaker, Joe is beyond one to watch...he is one to embrace.

Grade: A+

Belated home video releases - Cursed and Hostage

Cursed - Wes Craven has slipped and stumbled since his groovy meta-horror movie Scream. He's directed two lackluster sequels to Scream; a horrific, treacly "feel-gooder" starring Meryl Streep (Music of the Heart) and now this, perhaps the most inept werewolf film in a decade (yes, even Underworld was better). Cursed, somehow, manages to not be scary, not be funny and not be involving, all of which Craven & Co. are so painfully reaching to attain. It's a disappointing failure from a filmmaker who can do much better (and hopefully will with his next film, the promising-looking Red-Eye).

Grade: D+


Hostage - The always reliable Bruce Willis is unable to save this laffer from director Florent Emilio Siri (a videogame director!). Willis is the man at the center of a ludicrously contrived hostage situation, wherein some bungled robbers commit a home invasion. More and more "plot" points are piled on, and the whole thing creeps toward the end under the weight of an overbearing narrative. Who comes up with these things? The writer of Bad Boys, Money Train and Welcome to Mooseport, that's who. It's becoming increasingly difficult to muster the words to tackle these awful films.

Grade: D

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Fantastic Four

There's not much to say about Tim Story's inept adaptation of the legendary Marvel Comic. It is with not much surprise that I came out of the theater underwhelmed and wondering at what might, and could, have been. Though certainly not my favorite comic book, the Fantastic Four always had a great sense of camaraderie and fun about it. This new adaptation is sorely lacking in nearly everything that made FF such a blast. It's poorly acted, written and directed. It's, essentially, an unmitigated disaster. I have nothing more to say about it. Avoid it.

Grade: D-

Land of the Dead

George A. Romero is perhaps the most underappreciated filmmaker of his generation. Sure, he is beloved amongst the horror fan community, but academics have all but ignored his cinema, and his lesser known works (Bruiser, The Dark Half, Two Evil Eyes) have been pushed aside. Only his Dead films (Night, Dawn and Day) have garnered much critical attention. To read an interview I did with Mr. Romero that attempts to reverse that trend, please read this.

His latest entry into the Dead franchise, Land of the Dead, continues the tradition Romero has kept going of gritty gore, concise social commentary and biting humor. Land follows Day of the Dead in the chronology of Romero's zombie universe. In it, human's have confined themselves in protected cities. The zombies appear to be nearly the dominant species. Living humans are the minority, but in the world of Romero, social castes still govern and separate the haves from the have-nots.

Land of the Dead is probably the best-directed film in Romero's canon. It is a stunningly crafted genre work, a film of potent political import. By breaking a whittled down group of surviving humans into social classes, Romero seems to have lost all faith in mankind's ability to withstand its own innate cruelty. Land of the Dead posits the zombie population as the put-upons of the film. They seldom venture near the human cities, content to live out their (admittedly inane) existence in peace. It's only when the humans venture out into zombie territory for provisions that their evolution becomes apparent. One zombie, Big Daddy, becomes a kind of revolutionary, leading the zombie population to the walled-in city to seek vengeance upon the humans who have encroached upon his land and his people. It's a sweeping indictment of contemporary American colonialism and the inability of Americans to deal with their current political problems at the true source: their own xenophobia.

And, hey, it's also a hell of a lot of fun, with plenty of blood and guts for the everyday horror movie nut. But it sure is nice to have such a potent expression of politics from genre cinema's most accomplished and brilliant artisan.

Grade: A

Dark Water

I've never been a fan of Walter Salles' cinema. I find it meandering and uninterestingly ponderous. And the current trend of J-horror remakes has become the most annoying Hollywood trend since the "independent" movement of the 90s.

So it was with great surprise that I found myself sucked in early on by Salles' remake of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water. The story of a newly-divorced, mentally unstable woman (Jennifer Connelly, remarkable), who is forced to move into a squalid apartment across the river from Manhattan. A victim of abandonment and childhood trauma, Dahlia (Connelly) and her daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) soon find themselves at the center of a mysterious ghost story, and a riveting tale of loss and parenthood.

And then everything fell apart. To the detriment of everything that has come before, Salles' Dark Water abandoned what was an intriguing dramatic narrative and wasted it on what seemed like four climaxes, none of them in service of what came before. Salles' patient style was perfectly suited to telling the first three-quarters of the film; the last quarter couldn't have been saved by anyone but the most talented of auteurs.

Grade: C-

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Updated Top Ten list

Well, this year's list has been in a pretty constant state of flux. The exhilarating Batman Begins goes to number 2 and Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 drops off. For the first time that I can remember, 2 blockbusters (I'm assuming Batman will do quite well) are at the top. Next week comes Land of the Dead and I'll be watching a screener of Dave McKean's Mirrormask this week as well, both of which could figure here. I'll also be watching The Night Watch, 3-Iron and some current releases that I'm behind on.
  1. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas)
  2. Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)
  3. All the Ships at Sea (Dan Sallitt)
  4. The Ballad of Jack and Rose (Rebecca Miller)
  5. Murder-Set-Pieces (Nick Palumbo)
  6. Unleashed (Louis Leterrier)
  7. Fever Pitch (Peter & Bobby Farrelly)
  8. 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami)
  9. Dallas 362 (Scott Caan)
  10. Sin City (Robert Rodriguez)

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Two genre releases from BVHE

Hellraiser: Deader - Actually, the latest entry in the Hellraiser saga (of which I've only liked the first two) is a vast improvement over the last hundred or so. Though none of the subsequent films have captured the sexual potency of the first film or the fantastic allegory of the second, Deader returns, at least in spirit, to the more organic tones of the earlier installments. Which is funny because it seems this was originally intended as a STV standalone horror film called Deaders, which ultimately had some Hellraiser writing injected into it and voila! Hellraiser 7. A solid, if underwhelming, genre effort. Grade B-

The Prophecy: Uprising - On the other hand, not much to write home about here. It has very little, if anything, to do with the other Prophecy films. And, Christopher Walken is nowhere to be found, which seems like a Hellraiser film without Pinhead. The plot has something to do with an ancient book called the Lexicon. The whole thing is convoluted and contrived, essentially another Dimension cashing in project. Grade: D-

Monday, June 13, 2005

Catching up: High Tension, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Sharkboy and Lava Girl

Haute Tension (note: I have not seen the domestically released version of this film. I viewed the original, uncut film via an imported DVD) - Haute Tension is the epitome of manufactured terror. A 90-minute genre experiment, Haute Tension succeeds greatly in its first two-thirds, but the contrived, implausible climax leaves much to be desired. I'm not sure why so many genre directors feel the need to deliver "twist" endings, but they rarely work. As I don't like to offer up spoilers, I won't reveal the surprise ending of Haute Tension, but I will say that it didn't surprise me all that much. In fact, I guessed the ending when I saw the 30-second domestic theatrical trailer. Tension has style in spades, and I wish Alexandre Aja had followed through with a more gutsy denouement. Grade: C

The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl - Robert Rodriguez continues his tradition of charming children's films with this new potential franchise. It's essentially a retread of the Spy Kids films, though with fewer gadgets and more fantasy. The performances are iffy in spots, but perfectly suitable to the material. Most of the film's charm comes from the delightfully imaginative story, which was conceived by Rodriguez's son. I hope Rodriguez lays off the 3D soon, and, though I appreciate his cost-cutting approach to filmmaking, I'd love to see him invest the kind of passion he displayed in Sin City into one of these children's films. He's got a classic in him somewhere. Grade: C

The Ballad of Jack and Rose - Rebecca Miller comes out the other side of this astonishing films as one of the few contemporary directors with a truly distinctive individual aesthetic. What makes her films (I've only seen this one and Personal Velocity) so breathtaking AND confounding is that her rigorous formalism calls nothing to mind. She's a writer/director who does each from seemingly different personalities. Her films are stunningly crafted, yet there is no discernable trickery or posturing. Indeed, The Ballad of Jack and Rose bears a haunting economy of style that appears as near-minimalist. Yet, volumes could be written (and hopefully will be) on her graceful and intelligent image-making. Jack and Rose's narrative is densely written, and Miller realizes her own screenplay with a stunning lack of self-consciousness. It helps that her husband happens to be, quite possibly, the greatest actor alive right now (she's married to Jack and Rose's star, Daniel Day-Lewis). But this is, quite clearly, the Rebecca Miller Show, a film that will grow and evolve in my memory. Grade: A

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The future of animation... not anywhere on display in Madagascar. The film is an only very sporadically funny, but brings to light something that my friend, Mark Pfeiffer, said the other night: essentially that CGI films will very soon no longer be a novelty because of their animation style. They will begin doing poorly and will have to be held to the same standards of style and quality that all other films are. Right now, they seem to be given a pass (as Madagascar's $60 million opening shows). They ALL are filled with pop culture references. They ALL feature the same type of stunt celebrity voice casting (none of Madagascar's leads are suited to the form).

Now that traditionally animated films are yesterday's news, I find myself missing them a bit.

Your kids will love Madagascar.

I wish I had more to say about it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Falling to "Pieces"

Very soon, I believe, there will be a national fallout regarding violence in the media. As a part of the growing lack of accountability (thanks to the no-nonsense apathy of our current administration, the pinnacle of "it's my fault, but it's not my problem" politics), America has become a nation of lazy busybodies (sounds like an isn't). We're caught up in each other's business, but not in our own.

It's very easy to blame violence on portrayals of violence. It's also easy to forget that for every brainless kid with obsolete parents who shoots up a high school then blames it on a video game, there are the 20 million other kids who DIDN'T kill anyone after playing the same game. This is a tiresome argument, one I've made over and over.

Along comes Nick Palumbo's exploitive, brilliant Murder-Set-Pieces, a film primed to become a lightning rod for controversy and misdirected rage by the pious right and the spineless left. Pieces is the story of a sociopathic Nazi who takes photographs of beautiful women by day (he has a notion that photographs last longer than those who are in them, a notion that is displayed by the photograph of Hitler that rests on his bedroom dresser), then rapes and slaughters them by night. He also obsesses over adolescent girls, ultimately turning them into victims as well.

Murder-Set-Pieces is a truly pure cinematic expression of violent sexual rage. Palumbo goes to great lengths to set up his killer as an extreme case of this type of antisocial behavior. He weeps and rages and Hulks out, slicing and dicing up blonde beauty, the self-loathing Nazi as rapist brute.

The set pieces of the film's title are expertly staged, as horrific as anything I've ever seen, yet also pulsing with the excitement of the killer. Palumbo has somehow managed to take his viewers into two separate places: the mind of the victim and the mind of the killer...both at the same time. Critical response to the film has been misguided at best, dangerously naive at worst. Most have deemed the film and its creator as sadistic exhibitionists. Unfortunately, that displays a bankrupt ability to separate art from its creator. The same type of ludicrous thinking that causes impressionable, abandoned youth to blame the media for their sickness and depravity.

Murder-Set-Pieces, perhaps the greatest serial killer film ever made, manages to be one thing, while also commenting on that one thing, at the same time. It is a revolutionary, important, haunting work that deserves a wider audience than it is likely to get. Check it out if you get the chance. You will be uncomfortable, but you will also be moved.

My friend, director Andrew Repasky McElhinney (A Chronicle of Corpses, Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye) has an interview with Palumbo in the next issue of TFJ.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Very brief thoughts on "Sith"

I'm working on a piece for TFJ on the Star Wars saga, so I'll be brief: Revenge of the Sith is a masterpiece. It shows Lucas as a filmmaker ferociously at the top of his game. Sith is, perhaps, the greatest bridging film in the medium's history. Never has a single film so decidedly wrapped up an entire mythology in one swoop. It is a heartbreaking, poetic, haunting, beautiful, powerful film. The political strategizing of the first two prequels which Lucas was so harassed for come together in such a gosh-wow explosion of sociological precision, the prescience of the director's vision is startling.

The Old Hollywood narrative conceits (theatrical dialogue, grandiose staging) are ever-present, but they've never been more charming. Nor has a Star Wars film ever featured better acting. Christensen and Portman make the doomed romance of their leads palpable and tragic. McGregor is extraordinary in one of the most heartbreaking of all the Star Wars trajectories: the man who must destroy his best friend...his brother.

As Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious), Ian McDiarmid is astonishing, giving a showboating, grandly affecting portrayal of political and ideological power run amuck (he comes off as a supernatural Karl Rove/Dick Cheney hybrid). It's certainly an award-calibar performance, but, you know...yeah right.

Lucas may forever remain a whipping boy...for always doing it his way. He's the most successful independent filmmaker of all time. Perhaps it's why he's so resented. He's also one of the most skilled formalists in the world, and Revenge of the Sith is his great Star Wars swan song. It is, and will likely remain, the best film of the year... a true masterpiece.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Notes on Assault on Precinct 2.0

Ethan Hawke may be the best actor of his generation. From the loopy, undercover drug addict of the opening scene to the drunken, manic-depressive louse of the film's second act, to the rousing, manned-up hero of the denouement...Hawke is a marvel to behold.

This update, muscular and surprising, captures Carpenter's spirit, if not his pared-down, Hawksian formalism. Major characters die at the drop of a hat and the action unfolds at a non-stop, breathless pace.

The disaster is lived-in. It's a flawed film, but an affecting one.

Alone in the Dark

It's tepid cinema, truncated, abbreviated. It panders to the kind of aesthetic that says loose cutting and sloppy formalism is not only ok, it's the way studio films should be done. Alone in the Dark is a genre film with no direction. It's Aliens without the brains. Pitch Black without the dense geography. It grasps at focus, only to slip constantly into chaos. It is, quite literally, a film that is everything to no one at all.

The worst film of the year.