Tuesday, August 31, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: Best Western Films...

10) True Grit – This is the Western that is most well known for getting John Wayne his one and only Oscar for best actor. It is also going to grow increasingly more popular as we approach December and the remake of the film by the Brothers Coen. Wayne plays Rooster Cogburn, a broken-down drunk, an aging U.S. Marshal who helps a stubborn girl track down her father’s killer. The adventure takes them to Indian territory – as it routinely would back in the earlier days of the western – and the strength of the film is the relationships between Cogburn, hard-headed Mattie (Kim Darby), and La Boeuf (Glen Campbell). Sure, it isn’t perfect, not by any means, but True Grit is iconic; especially Wayne’s one-eyed look.

9) Tombstone – I am sure there will be some people out there who want Tombstone at the top of the list, or at least close to the top. There is no question that Tombstone is probably the “coolest” Western picture out there, full of catchy one-liners and well-choreographed shootouts that are intriguing and get the adrenaline going. But as much as these things work in the film’s favor, they work against it from time to time. Some things are just too polished or cleaned up for Hollywood. I know Westerns are like this sometimes, and Tombstone is still exciting and fun. It just could be grittier. But the picture is elevated first and foremost by the performance of Val Kilmer, channeling great theatrics as Doc Holliday, the poetic outlaw cursed by tuberculosis, alcoholism, and gambling. Kilmer is a revelation.

8) High Noon – Short, simple, black and white in both color and thematic resonance, High Noon is another iconic Western that is more well known for its hero than its story. The great Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, the law in a small town. On his wedding day to Amy – the lovely Grace Kelly – Will learns that a man he sent to prison is coming back to exact his revenge on Will. When he tries to get the townspeople to help him, they turn their back on him, leaving him to face the murderer on his own. High Noon is a story about good versus bad, and the simplicity of the plot is elevated by the cast that includes Cooper, Kelly, Lloyd Bridges as a Deputy, and even a rare non-horror appearance from Lon Chaney Jr.

7) The Magnificent Seven – Most Western stories have been told before, some remade, others retooled for a different time and place. The Magnificent Seven, however, is still a rarity. It is a film remade from a pure classic that is a classic of its own. The source material of The Magnificent Seven, Akira Kurosawa’s masterful Seven Samurai, is a wonderful bit of cinematic history, so it is hard ot imagine any sort of remake coming close. The Magnificent Seven takes these Samurai and makes them gunfighters, defending a Mexican village from a ruthless band of criminals. What makes TMS so special is the assembly of the seven gunfighters. Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and a young Charles Bronson make up the all star cast of vigilantes. A firecracker of a Western.

6) The Wild Bunch – Director Sam Peckinpah’s nihilistic Western adventure took audiences by surprise when it was released in 1969. The violence and the climactic bloody shootout – coming off the heels of something similar in Bonnie and Clyde – was a sign pointing toward the new direction of Hollywood. Starring William Holden as the leader of a band of outlaws looking to get one last big score (sound familiar?) before they ride off into the sunset. The score happens at the beginning of the film, and they spend the rest of the time trying to outrun the law. The whole notion exists in The Wild Bunch too that the Wild West is dying around them and law and order are becoming the way of things. Their way of life is dying off, and so there can be only one fate for these characters. Peckinpah was never one to shy away from controversy or conflict in his working style or in his finished product, and The Wild Bunch was no exception.

5) The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – This is where the list becomes interchangeable. Well, 5 through 2 become interchangeable; one deserves its spot. This most iconic Clint Eastwood Western, spanning nearly three hours, is rich in texture and mood, sound and delivery. Three different men search for a missing treasure, leading them to a cemetery in the desert where the finest of all cinematic standoffs takes place. The standoff lasts what seems to be an hour, but the great tension is ample payoff for being patient. Director Sergio Leone took great chances with this film, a film that has practically an entire other movie in the middle revolving around Civil War soldiers destroying a bridge. What is so fantastic about Leone’s picture, outside of the morality tale and the entire production, is the unforgettable score by Ennio Morricone. The music is perhaps as iconic as Eastwood’s character, The Man with No Name.

4) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – Far and away the most lighthearted Western on this list, Butch and Sundance succeeds on the magnetism and the chemistry of the two leads, Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Newman and Redford play Butch and Sundance, respectively, and are a couple of wisecracking bank robbers from the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. When the law begins to bear down on them they decide to flee to Bloivia. While the fate of these two outlaws is not necessarily comedic, Butch and Sundance has much more of a fun, adventurous flair than most Westerns. Newman and Redford of course play off each other marvelously. And from the death-defying jump from a cliff into a river below, to the iconic final shot of them blasting their way out of an impossible situation, Butch and Sundance has more than enough life and vitality for one Western classic.

3) The Proposition – Many of you might be scratching your head here. Not because The Proposition doesn’t deserve the spot – it most certainly does – but because many of you may have never even seen or heard of it. This Australian Western, directed by John Hillcoat (who would go on to direct The Road last year) stars Guy Pearce as one of three murderous brothers. He is captured by a British lawman (Ray Winstone) and given the chance to turn over his older brother, the truly wicked leader of the gang, in order to save his younger simple-minded brother. The Proposition is one of the rare Westerns that develops a more complicated plot, rich with themes of morality and forgiveness and the nature of violence in us all. This is sometimes a shockingly violent picture, other times the beauty of the imagery is almost overwhelming. And the score from Nick Cave is as haunting as the events that unfold.

2) The Searchers – This is the consensus best Western picture from the film community as a whole, John Ford’s biggest and best collaboration with John Wayne. It deserves the praise, but for my money cannot beat out number one here. Even if you haven’t seen The Searchers, you have seen the influence the picture had on the rest of cinema. John Ford’s adventure, about a man searching for his young niece, trying to save her although she may not even want to be saved, is one of the films that influenced Martin Scorsese the most. And you can see the similarities between The Searchers – out of touch man trying to save woman who isn’t asking to be saved – and Scorsese’s brilliant Taxi Driver. While there is overt racism and Wayne’s character Ethan is despicable at times, there is no denying the power and the scope of Ford’s work.

1) Unforgiven – Clint Eastwood spent so many years playing the gunfighter, the hired assassin, the man looking for revenge, the man with no name and no place; so it is only fitting that his most accomplished work, and the best Western film of all time, would be the antithesis of everything he once was in the West. This time, Eastwood plays the ghost of a former killer, Willilam Munny. Munny is coaxed back into killing for cash, traveling to Wyoming to kill two men who cut up a woman. Less concerned with plot devices and more concerned with notion of the sun setting on lawlessness in society, Unforgiven takes the time to consider what killing another man might do to the man who pulled the trigger. It exists in a grey area, where the heroes have been villains and the villains have a reason for their actions that may make them not so evil. This is out of the ordinary for the genre, and it is what sets Unforgiven apart from the rest.

Monday, August 30, 2010

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: A Resurgance of the Notoriously Reclusive Master, Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick has directed six films in his career. A meager six films since 1969. After directing two in the seventies, the second one being in 1978, Malick took an unprecedented break from Holywood, twenty years before directing his next film in 1998. And then, another break until 2005. So what has gotten Malick, a truly amazing director, so active in recent years? After his 2005 feature, Malick is now working on two projects at various levels of pre and post production. This is new territory for Malick, a director whose low-key persona and almost legendary reclusive attitude makes him all the more intriguing. Although hard to spot most of the time, the beauty and magnitude of the images Malick captures on film are powerful, some of the most magnificent images ever captured on film, images that enhance some excellent features.

Terrence Malick will be 67 this year, and may be hitting a stride of sorts. Although he was born in Illinois he went to high school in Austin, Texas where he still lives. Malick spent time in Oklahoma and Texas working in his father’s oil fields before attending college. After receiving an MFA from the American Film Institute he attended Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar. His first picture was the short film Lanton Mills in 1969, a little known film that was more of a tool for Malick to direct his next film, Badlands in 1973. Starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a couple of wayward youths who go on a killing spree in South Dakota, Badlands is a meditative character study and a beautiful film. The patience of Malick’s eye and his appreciation of the natural world counterbalance the violence at the heart of their characters. This is a theme that will permeate throughout Malick’s work.

Five years later Malick released Days of Heaven. Starring Richard Gere, Sam Shepherd, and Brooke Adams, Days of Heaven was another introspective look at the nature of violence, jealousy, and love juxtaposed to the beauty of the natural world. Days of Heaven is a patient picture, another quiet masterpiece for Malick, and a film that indicated the power of Malick’s eye. He won the top directing prize at Cannes, and the picture won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. It was 1978, and Malick was a rising star as a director. But he would disappear from Hollywood for twenty years, off to France to teach philosophy from 1979 to 1994. His next feature was four years later, when he would tell a sprawling, epic tale of World War II in the South Pacific.

The Thin Red Line was somewhat overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic that same year, Saving Private Ryan. But I would argue that Malick’s film is superior in many ways (although both may very well be two of the best of all time). With an expansive cast including the likes of Sean Penn, Jim Caveizel, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, and so many more, The Thin Red Line continues where Malick left off in Days of Heaven, only on a much grander scale. While the battle sequences and firefights in the picture are incredibly tense and pivotal to the momentum of the film, Malick manages to showcase the beauty of the world that exists around these horrible things. There are themes of the damage we inflict on nature and the beauty amid destruction that should be able to quell the need for war. But while there are some characters in Malick’s film who understand this, there are others – Nolte’s prideful, militant General for example – who take pride in war and destruction. The Thin Red Line was nominated for several awards, as was Malick for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. But he would lose to Spielberg, because this is Hollywood.

Another seven years would pass before Malick would direct his next picture. This time, Malick would explore the beginning of this country and the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. The New World was distributed without much fanfare, but is yet another beautiful picture, full of wonderful cinematography and patience and the inherent nature of man to destroy the world around them while thinking that they are moving society forward. Colin Farrell plays John Smith, and I feel like this may be his finest acting. The beauty of the world of Pocahontas is enticing to Smith, whose native men and women are building a society of pollution and bringing illness and violence to this world of peace. The New World is consistently beautiful, sometimes exciting, and often times a heartbreaking and frustrating tale of society’s forward momentum.

This year, Malick is already back. Aside from the five-year gap between Badlands and Days of Heaven, this is out of the ordinary for the notoriously reclusive director. He stipulated in his contract for The Thin Red Line that there would be no media coverage of the filming, no interviews from him, and no photos of production. Malick has routinely turned down interviews and photos of him are rare – which makes his cameo in Badlands all the more intriguing. Hopefully, by the end of the year we will get Malick’s newest film, a family drama set in the middle of the twentieth century and veiled in secrecy. Tree of Life stars both Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and with the pedigree of Malick and these two stars, that is all I need to be interested in the end result. But Malick is also working on another film, circling Ben Affleck among others to star in the film. Two films in production of some level? This is an unhearalded time for Malick. But who knows if it will stick? Malick could always travel for a decade and then come back to create another masterpiece.

Friday, August 27, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Vanished Actors Edition...

* What ever happened to Wes Bentley, the kid Ricky from American Beauty? He was excellent in that movie, and then he disappeared. After American Beauty he has starred in the worst collection of movies I have ever seen on one filmography.

* Val Kilmer is such an intriguing actor. He has vanished as well. Outside of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang I can’t think of one movie worth a damn he has been in in a decade. Wonderland was awful.

* You know who never seemed to stick as a leading man? Tom Selleck.

* Remember how everyone thought Haley Joel Osment would be the rare child star who would grow into a prominent actor and never fade like the rest of them? How’s that turning out?

* Eric Stoltz? Anyone?

* Two brunettes who have vanished: Madeline Stowe and Andie MacDowell. Stowe was excellent in dramatic films like 12 Monkeys and Last of the Mohicans. MacDowell was the go-to girl for female leads in comedies during the nineties. Now she just does commercials for Loreal or whatever.

* William Zabka was the best bad dude in the 80s (The Karate Kid, Just One of the Guys). Then he was nowhere. Ever. He did show up in Hot Tub Time Machine but does that really count?

* Cuba Gooding Jr. Oh, Cuba.

* Lucky for everyone it seems that Orlando Bloom has disappeared, if only for a little while.

* Josh Hartnett seems to have disappeared too. Praise the lord. Maybe Hollywood put two and two together and realized that he is a terminal case in every film he touches.

* Was Emilio Estevez the more talented of the brothers? I can’t tell.

* I know Joe Pesci is in Love Ranch with Helen Mirren, but that doesn’t really count does it? Outside of that debacle and a bit role in DeNiro’s CIA film that I can’t even remember the name of right now, that dude has done a phenomenal vanishing act.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: True Romance

True Romance is a pulpy bit of trash, a disposable cliché machine concerned with filling only the most absurdly violent and sexual fantasies of young men. It is brutal, fast, unforgiving. It is indisputably implausible. It just so happens to be, at the same time, a magnificent piece of filmmaking from top to bottom and one of the most fascinating and thrilling action-adventure pictures of the nineties. So how does it pull off such a feat? On a surface level there is nothing fresh or original or redeeming about the story arc or the events that transpire. But look a little closer. Then you will see richness, texture, enthusiasm, creativity, pure frenetic energy and an attitude of swinging for the fences that makes True Romance a living and breathing thing, a most powerful film.

Clarence (Christian Slater) is a lonely twenty something who works at a comic-book store, lives behind a billboard in downtown Detroit, and loves Elvis. Clarence is so lonely in fact that he spends his birthday watching a kung fu triple feature by himself, a practice that feels familiar in Clarence’s lonely world. So imagine his surprise when Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a busty blonde bimbo with a heart of gold, stumbles across him in the theater and winds up sleeping with him that night. You see, Alabama is a call girl, sent there by Clarence’s boss to “show him a good time.” Of course she is. But over the course of three kung fu movies, coffee and pie, and a look into Clarence’s world, Alabama becomes smitten with him. Smitten beyond plausibility. Alabama isn’t very good at this call girl thing, she’s only been one for a few days, and she knows after one night that she loves him fully. This can’t be real. It isn’t; it’s fantasy.

Even though Alabama hasn’t been a call girl long, it was long enough to get caught up with a nasty pimp named Drexel, a scar-faced killer with dreadlocks and a bad attitude. Gary Oldman plays Drexel with fiendish intensity and menace, and disappears beneath the façade of the vicious pimp. The idea that Drexel, this pimp, this lowlife, is out there drives him mad. He decides to kill him. But not on his own does he decide this. He is talked into killing Drexel by the ghost of Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer), a reassuring voice of inspiration. Ridiculous? Maybe most of the time, but not here.

After killing Drexel in an intense scene, Clarence makes off mistakenly with a suitcase full of cocaine that Drexel was planning on selling to a gangster named “Blue” Lou Boyle, who never appears. So what to do with their new fortune? Clarence has a struggling-actor friend out in Hollywood; maybe he has some connections to some big shots that could use a suitcase full of coke. So they hit the road with nothing but each other and head for Hollywood. Of course the mob is after him, and they track him to California as well, and a standoff ensues that somewhat mirrors the one at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs a year before. That is because young Quentin wrote True Romance as well, and the dialogue drips with the unique intensity of Tarantino’s words and worlds.

Along the journey a lot of things happen to a lot of people, and a massive collection of talented actors embody the characters. There is Dennis Hopper playing Clarence’s father, a broken down security guard who is confronted by Vincent, a spokesperson on behalf of Mr. Boyle played by Christopher Walken. The scene they share, a pivotal moment in the middle of the film, is classic Tarantino dialogue. Hopper’s character realizes his fate, so before he goes he must work in one of the most detailed insults in movie history. The layers of their conversation are quite marvelous.

And there is Floyd. Clarence’s friend, Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport) lives with Floyd, a spaced-out stoner with greasy hair and a mumble played so well and so very convincingly by Brad Pitt. Floyd is looked over most of the time, sleeping on the couch watching tv smoking pot out of a honey bear and draining Dick’s life. Floyd really seems like a secondary character, a background comic relief that could come or go without the movie really missing a beat. But Floyd is quite pivotal actually. Clarence, Alabama, and Dick all come and go from his house a number of times, leaving Floyd behind. In those moments where it is only Floyd, the mob comes calling. Floyd, thinking nothing of it, gives away their whereabouts, setting up the two biggest moments in the film. One of those is the climax, the other is scene where one of the gangsters, played by a young James Gandolfini, surprises Alabama in a motel room.

The scene between Alabama and Gandolfini’s character is a brutally violent scene, made even worse by the fact that Alabama is beaten within an inch of her life. Refusing to give up the cocaine, and with Clarence away getting food, Alabama’s staunch refusal enrages Gandolfini’s character more and more. He punches her, kicks her, and throws her though the glass shower door, but she will not give up without a fight. Violence against women is a tricky subject in film, and this scene’s brutality is unmatched. But what redeems this scene is the fact that Clarence does not save Alabama, she saves herself. She may need help, or the element of surprise, to make the vicious beating stop, but she is not waiting around to be saved. After driving a corkscrew through his foot, Alabama evens the playing field until she is able to win the day.

Tony Scott directed True Romance, and his fascination with male pride seems a perfect fit here and a magnificent mesh of brawn with Tarantino’s brains. There are smaller roles from the once-great Tom Sizemore, the late Chris Penn, and Bronson Pinchot, all of which add layers to the story. This is not a story that is told in reality, but an alternate sort of reality where the guy gets the girl and lives happily ever after. It embellishes in its ludicrous existence and is told with such fervor and energy that it elevates above any Tarantino rip-offs. Brad Pitt originally passed on the part of Floyd, citing that the movie “seemed like a teenage boy’s wet dream.” But then, I suppose, he figured out that that was the idea all along.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

TUESDAY TOP 10: The Worst FIlms from the Best Actors...

Even the best of all time have been in their fair share of stinkers along the way. Nobody is perfect. This list can be split down the middle when considering rankings. You could stick with the actors and rank based on their quality, or you could rank the films from bad to worse. Being that this list is focusing on these bad films and not necessarily the actors, I chose the latter...

10) Leonardo Dicaprio: Body of Lies – America’s greatest modern leading man has had a few pictures you could consider here. Some may site The Quick and the Dead (oddly, also starring Russell Crowe) but I enjoy the camp quality. Others may point to The Beach, his Titanic follow up, but I have a soft spot for that film. Even though it is uneven, there are redeeming aspects. But Body of Lies, on the other hand, has nothing really. Ridley Scott’s spy thriller has all the weight of NCIS set in Afghanistan. Right in the midst of Dicaprio’s recent run of successful pictures, he teams up with Crowe and Ridley Scott (who appears to really be struggling lately) and makes a movie that nobody really cares about. I couldn’t even begin to explain the plot back to you even though I’ve seen it. Dicaprio is clearly just killing time here.

9) Tom Cruise: Lions for Lambs – Say what you will about Cruise, he is one of the finest American movie stars who has also managed to make some seriously great pictures along the way. A few people may call the strange mid-80s fantasy film Legend his worst, but I think we should give Ridley Scott a break for now. Besides, Legend at least was entertaining. Lions for Lambs, on the other hand, was like watching famous people teach a college course on ethics. No matter who is teaching it, it’s pretty dull for the most part. Cruise plays part of a larger ensemble, a smarmy Republican senator with his eye on the presidency and an excuse for every argument against the war in the Middle East thrown at him by a journalist (Meryl Streep). This is one part where Cruise could not shed his star persona, and I don’t think it helped that his character was so despicable.

8) Tom Hanks: The Da Vinci Code – Stay away from Joe vs. The Volcano. Keep your hands off The ‘Burbs (seriously, I love The ‘Burbs). Let’s consider ambition and expectations here too. The Da Vinci Code was one of the biggest potboiler novels of all time, and was written with the soul intention of becoming a movie. So Ron Howard attaches himself to the movie, then goes out and gets Tom Hanks, the infallible (at the time) Tom Hanks, to play the hero Robert Langdon. Everything seems to be in place to make a superior thriller. But, alas, what comes out is a boring chase film. You see, in Dan Brown’s book he had the ability to explain things in long expository passages in between the action. In the film, these long passages still happened but the actors explained them and the result was long and tedious. And the action was repetitive. And the whole thing was too long and too dull to care about. I think maybe Angels & Demons was worse, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch it.

7) Denzel Washington: John Q – Denzel has had a fairly solid career for the most part. I know most would point to maybe Ricochet as his worst film, but come on. That movie is so bad it’s actually good. And Denzel had a few cop-on-the-run pictures there in the early 2000s that were mostly forgettable. But his worst film has to be John Q., a poor attempt at dramatic social commentary full of characters so idiotic they must only exist in cinema. Denzel plays a factory worker whose son suddenly collapses and needs a heart transplant, only Denzel’s character can’t afford the operation and after exhausting every option takes hostages at the hospital. This tired story is complete with sympathetic cop, grandstanding trigger-happy cop, evil doctor, and social mash up of hostages. Nothing more than the poor man’s version of Dog Day Afternoon.

6) Jack Nicholson: Man Trouble – Jack, like Denzel, has been fairly consistent over his career. It’s tough to find his worst film. There was Wolf, which was pretty terrible, and there was The Bucket List, but my grandmother liked it and I think that’s the idea. But does anyone remember Man Trouble? Yeah, didn’t think so. This sleazy pulp novel comedy is such a disaster it’s almost quite funny. Nicholson stars alongside Ellen Barkin as a guard dog trainer blackmailed into stealing a manuscript for a tell-all book for… oh it doesn’t matter. Why is it in these Elmore Leonard rip-offs the characters always have to have some quirky job? And Jack Nicholson with a moustache is not a good indicator either. What is even more surprising is the film is directed by Bob Rafelson, the star behind the camera of films like Five Easy Pieces and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

5) Paul Newman: Twilight – No, no. Pick your jaw up off the floor. Newman was never in the shitty vampire franchise before passing away. This is the original Twilight, a forgettable noir about double crosses and adulteresses and… other stuff. It was really hard to spot a bad picture in Newman’s filmography, which is why Twilight caught my eye so easily. The whole plot revolves around Newman’s ex-cop character living with a dying man (Gene Hackman) and getting entangled into a 20-year old murder case and blackmail and… other stuff. Nothing is memorable here, not even Newman who looks quite bored throughout the proceedings. And again, this is from talented director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Nobody’s Fool, Places in the Heart) who, unfortunately, is responsible for this next disaster as well.

4) Dustin Hoffman: Billy Bathgate – Hoffman is another actor with a pretty spotless career, but in the early nineties he signed on to play gangster Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate. I know a lot of you are saying “Um… wtf is Billy Bathgate?” Well it’s a gangster picture told in the same arc narrative as Goodfellas, only without anything near as interesting as Scorsese’s masterpiece. Young gopher for the mob in the 20s makes his way up to a foot soldier, and so on and so forth. But what is missing here is any interesting characters or plotline. Hoffman’s Dutch Schultz is supposed to be this big time gangster, but he never seems threatening or powerful or overly wealthy or really very interested in being in this movie. This is the dullest, drabbest gangster picture I have ever seen, and Hoffman acts like he is slumming, or like he knows he is in a crappy movie.

3) Gene Hackman: Heartbreakers – Again, Gene Hackman has been fairly solid over the span of his long and storied career. He is one of the best in my humble opinion. Sure, there as The Package or Loose Cannons, two mediocre action films, but nothing comes close to Heartbreakers. This story about a pair of grafters conning an older gentleman is a forgettable, idiotic mess of a picture. The first indication of poor quality is the fact that Jennifer Love Hewitt stars alongside Hackman and Sigourney Weaver, who is also better than this. This is one of those dumpy comedies that gets run on a loop on TBS some Saturday afternoon in February, a film that is annoying from the get go and never gets any better. Hackman must have been bored when he signed on to this one.

2) Marlon Brando: The Island of Dr. Moreau – These last two films are so utterly terrible they could be interchanged depending on your mood at the time. Most good actors work their way through some bad films early in their career before they find their groove. Brando, on the other hand, worked in reverse. One of the weirdest guys to ever come out of Hollywood and one of the biggest assholes in film history, Brando hit the ground running and starred in some of the best films of all time. But then, after some personal tragedies and a lot of extra weight, things got weird for Brando. But no matter how weird they got, they all seemed normal after he starred in The Island of Dr. Moreau. Brando plays Dr. Moreau as the weirdest of weird cats, appearing covered in white powder because of a sun allergy. This incomprehensible disaster of a film, made even more confusing every time Brando appears, is so confusing and idiotic it is physically impossible for me to understand who thought it was a good idea.

1) Sean Penn: U-Turn – Sean Penn is the most “recent” great actor. He starred in his fair share of mediocrity in the 80s, but they were harmless pictures with decent performances and stories nonetheless. These days, it seems that everything he touches turns to gold, in regards to his performance anyway. But in the late 90s Penn would star in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. Now, if you want to have a contest to see which of these last two films is more incomprehensible, U-Turn will win nine times out of ten. Penn stars as a drifter trapped in an off-kilter Arizona town where everyone wants him to kill someone else. The cast and the director and the story actually indicate a chance for a quality genre picture, and I do enjoy these types of films. But there is nothing redeeming about U-Turn, and poor Sean Penn tries and tries but cannot save this unmitigated disaster.

Monday, August 23, 2010

DVD Review: Greenberg

Roger Greenberg is what we might call “socially awkward.” Just recently out of a mental hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown, Roger travels to California to stay at his brother’s home while they are out of town and begins a weird clumsy relationship with their assistant, Florence. This is the blueprint for Greenberg, director Noah Baumbach’s latest exploration into social outcasts and their attempt to function within a set society. Baumbach succeeded in breaking down these types of characters and situations in his fantastic feature debut, The Squid and the Whale, and his passable follow up, Margot at the Wedding. Here, however, Baumbach falters, and falters greatly.

Ben Stiller plays Greenberg, a bottled-up mess of neurosis and discomfort that spends his days writing letters to places like Starbucks and American Airlines. He was once a member of a band on the verge of stardom with a record deal, but Greenberg left in protest and the band fell apart and the three members were left wandering aimlessly. While house-sitting, Greenberg is also in charge of the family dog and in charge of building him a dog house. You would expect a humorous, sometimes touching relationship to unfold between Greenberg and the dog – especially when the dog falls ill – but there is nothing like that here. There are no real relationships you would find in the world it seems.

Florence, played by Greta Gerwig, is a lonely soul but a great assistant to the Greenberg family. She wanders around in an awkward existence; she has a one-night stand, she sings at some bar, she builds a romance with Greenberg that can only be described as awkward. But Greenberg treats her like shit, but not on purpose? Why exactly? There isn’t really an explanation or any kind of display of his psyche that warrants his strange treatment of Florence. He had a nervous breakdown that put him in the hospital, but we never get an explanation as to what happened. He seems bitter at times, angry at others, never smiling or optimistic. His best friend is Ivan, a former band mate played by Rhys Ifans who, frankly, seems bored. I never buy their relationship or much care about it.

Greenberg slogs along at a snail’s pace, which is ok or acceptable sometimes when the characters are people you want to spend time with. When characters are sitting at a table or looking out a window or writing a letter for extended periods of time, you had better be invested in their facial features and their reactions and thoughts. Not here. These characters are not people I care to spend any time with. Greenberg is too manic without any charm, and there is no redemption right around the corner. Florence is too scatter-brained and too weak of a person to really root for, especially when she lets Greenberg walk all over her.

Nothing happens in Greenberg worth noting. These characters don’t have any arcs. Aside from a few moments of humor that are few and far between, there is nothing learned by the end of the picture that was not understood at the beginning. Character studies rely on characters. This does not bode well for a picture that has no forward momentum in its writing or in the development of the people involved. I finished Greenberg and felt cold, but perhaps the coldness was the direction Baumbach was going for. Especially since the characters he draws together are cold and lifeless themselves.

D+

Friday, August 20, 2010

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Remakes, Sequels, Spacey, OH MY!

* Hayden Christensen wants to do Jumper 2. And the winner for most unnecessary sequel to a piece of shit movie goes to…

* I cannot watch Hayden Christensen in anything. He ruined Star Wars (thanks to George Lucas’ casting) and is just a terrible, terrible actor. I try not to be overly critical or aggressively scathing towards actors, but he is one exception. Him and Josh Hartnett.

* I still don’t see the point in doing another Spider Man with another cast this soon.

* The founders of Google are now moving forward on their own biopic. Is this really happening? How long before we get the true dramatic story behind askjeeves? “Coming this fall: Bing, the Movie.”

* Piranha 3D really looks like a lot of fun. Camp horror can be quite good if done right.

* I think it is cool that a team is working on a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Those characters deserve a new live action film. Regardless, it will never be as good as TMNT 2: The Secret of the Ooze. Any movie with a Vanilla Ice cameo will never be outdone by a remake.

* Continuing on the remake train… Tim Burton is moving forward on an Addams Family film. I am conflicted about this. Burton is in severe remake mode lately. The original was truly a fantastic TV adaptation, and I don’t think I can take Johnny Depp as Gomez Addams. You know it’s going to happen.

* Kevin Spacey has agreed to do an HBO series. Does anyone remember the last good movie Spacey did? Was it American Beauty? He has really fallen off recently. I think he was poorly cast in Superman Returns as Lex Luthor. But there was a lot wrong with that movie.

* One Kevin Spacey movie that I always enjoy also stars Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri, and Garry Shandling. Hurlyburly.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Michael Mann's Crime Epic, Heat.

Released in December of 1995, Heat, Michael Mann’s sprawling Los Angeles crime saga was middling to critics and audiences. The three-hour epic made only $67 million in its theatrical release, and was sent to the video shelves. And, like many films do, Heat then found its audience. Nowadays the film is, and should be, recognized as one of the best of all crime dramas, a heavy and magnetic picture full of stellar performances, great detail, a web of intriguing characters and storylines, and one of the best of all shootouts in cinema history.

The premise to Heat is simple enough: a crew of high-end bank robbers draws the attention of a crew of detectives that develops into a cat-and-mouse game on the streets of LA. But that is where the simplicity of the story ends. Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) is the leader of the crew of robbers, a serious man heading a serious team of true professionals. His crew includes Tom Sizemore, Val Kilmer, and Danny Trejo, and the quartet operates primarily with each other, taking down “scores” with surgeon-like precision. But it is when they need an extra man that things go south during an armored-car heist. The new guy, Waingro, (Kevin Gage) is a loose cannon. He kills a guard, drawing the attention of the robbery homicide unit of the force. More importantly, drawing the attention of Vincent Hanna.

Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is a seriously dedicated police detective, a man so driven by his career it has ruined two marriages and is in danger of destroying his third to Justine (Diane Venora). When Hanna is assigned to find the men responsible for the robbery homicide at the armored-truck scene, he is from then on obsessed with locating McCauley and his crew. He uses his leads, his informants, all of his resources in an exhausting fashion until something sticks. There is a lead, a lead that turns into a tail, and into a pursuit, and things ratchet up from there on out.
Most crime dramas are decidedly plot driven, but not here. Heat does have a plot, an intricately conceived plot surrounding two crews, one on the right side of the law and the other on the wrong side, that mirror each other significantly. Once the heat is on McCauley and his men, they must decide on whether or not to take down a big score at a bank downtown. You can guess what they choose to do. But as I was saying, the more fascinating aspects of Heat are the moments where we get to know and understand these central characters. These moments, the glimpses into their lives, plant the seeds of interest for the audience. We root for Hanna, but we also root for McCauley and his crew because we have seen them not as villains, but as professionals who just so happened to pick the wrong career.

Neil is an isolated man. He tells his crew, namely Chris (Kilmer), a troubled family man, that connections are bad for their line of work. "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." This is his creed, something he lives his lonely existence by, but when he meets Eady (Amy Brenneman) one night at a coffee shop, his feelings begin to change. Everyone needs someone, even the bad guys. DeNiro, in what seems like his last brilliant dramatic role, is pitch perfect as Neil.

Vincent has let his career corrupt his personal life. As good as he is at being a detective, he is equally as poor at being a husband. Justine is at her wits end with him, and her young daughter (Natalie Portman) is a whole other can of worms. Her emotional distress of not having her father around is something Vincent notices more than Justine, and will come to a head later on in the film. Vincent works with his team in the same way Neil does with his own, and the role is perfect for Pacino. On occasion, the boisterous over the top shouting and fiery persona that Pacino has mastered over the years really feels forced. Not here. Pacino plays Hanna as a tired solider of the force, but also as a man prone to explode into microcosms of rage and ferocity, sometimes with funny results.

In its three-hour running time, Heat is rife with moments upon moments that layer the story, the performances, and the action. Mann is at his very best directing here. But through it all, there are two scenes in Heat that anchor the entire film and shift the tone more than any others. The first is the initial meeting between Neil and Vincent. After tracking Neil down on the freeway and pulling him over, Vincent invited him to coffee. Once in the coffee shop, the two men share a civil conversation where they realize, without saying as much, that they are one in the same. They are two sides of the same coin, and a mutual respect blossoms from the meeting. This is, surprisingly, the first time ever that DeNiro and Pacino, two actors who have always been linked throughout their careers (even starring in the same film, The Godfather Part II), share the screen together.

The second scene is the shootout on the streets of LA. An anonymous tip leads Hanna and his men to the scene of the bank robbery that Neil and his men have been planning. As they are walking out, Chris spots the police across the busy city street and just as they are making their getaway, Chris fires on the police and the scene erupts into nerve-rattling gunfire. Civilians are caught in their cars, police work methodically down the street, all the while taking heavy fire from the robbers who are armed with assault rifles. For my money, this shootout is the finest of all movie shootouts. The bullets sound real as they echo off the surrounding buildings, and in all of the chaos you can see a method to both sides. Going well over seven minutes, an eternity in cinematic time, the gunfight is the key set piece in the film. Mann, always a technically masterful director, flexes his muscle here.

Everyone in Heat has their moment to develop as a character. From Kilmer to Sizemore to Ashley Judd (playing Kilmer’s wife) all the way down to Natalie Portman and to a truly chilling turn from Kevin Gage as the creepy Waingro, Heat adds layers upon layers of textured performances and technical mastery. Some films don’t get their due praise when they are first released, it takes time for them to become special. Heat is one of those films, a picture so fully epic and firmly set atop Hollywood’s crime-drama history that it took a few years to sink in for everyone.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

WHERE THEY STAND: Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore is an actress who, now that she has been established and is quite recognizable, will surprise you by showing up in older films. Nowadays, if you watch The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or The Fugitive, or maybe Benny & Joon, you will spot her in a smaller supporting role. “Hey, that’s Julianne Moore!” After establishing herself as an actress, Moore has appeared in over forty pictures, some big, some small, some great, some not so much. But is Julianne Moore a leading lady? I can’t say right now that she is, as most of her better work – and it is out there in spades – comes in the supporting role. Moore is a fearless actress, and a versatile performer, but that versatility sometimes works negatively as she has made some curious moves along the way in her career.

After getting on in those aforementioned smaller roles, Moore shared the screen with Hugh Grant in the solid romantic comedy Nine Months. Still relatively unknown, the role opened a few doors for Moore, and her next role in the action thriller Assassins showed her penchant for diversity. It also showed her shaky decision making. Assassins, starring Sly Stallone and Antonio Banderas (never a good sign), is a ridiculous movie. Nevertheless, Moore would continue to stay diverse. Her next role was in Steven Spielberg’s big-budget sequel, The Lost World. While it was a solid sequel, The Lost World had nowhere near the impact of the original Jurassic Park, and wasn’t really a vehicle for actors like Moore to show their dramatic prowess. That, however, would change with her next role.

Moore’s breakout role was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, a brilliant ensemble film about the 70s porn industry. Moore played Amber Waves, wife to Burt Reynolds’ director Jack Horner and the seasoned, motherly figure of the porn industry. Moore gave an edgy, sometimes heartbreaking performance as Amber, and this is where her shocking “cry face” was revealed. For all of Moore’s talents, it is almost impossible to watch her cry. Moore took the success from Boogie Nights, her first supporting actress nomination, and turned it into a career of starring in smaller independent features, all the while showing up in bigger films. But the bigger films were never as good as the smaller ones. She flexed some comedic muscle as Maude Lebowski in The Big Lebowski, earned another Oscar nomination for The End of the Affair in 1999, meanwhile starring in poor films like the awful Gus Van Sant remake of Psycho.

Aside from her nomination in 199 for The End of the Affair, Moore would again be a piece of a PT Anderson puzzle, this time playing Linda Partridge, wife to a dying man in Magnolia. As Linda, Moore played a tortured adulteress who realizes too late that she does love her older dying husband, Earl, played by the late Jason Robards. For my money, this was Moore’s finest role as the destructive personality, and her conflicted soul is one of many in one of the best films of the decade. Not long after Magnolia, Moore would take the reins from Jodie Foster, playing agent Clarice Starling in Ridley Scott’s sequel to Silence of the Lambs. While exciting and more mainstream, Hannibal was nothing more than a marginal sequel to a spectacular picture, and Moore was again struggling with bigger films. Luckily, she stayed true to her indie roots and in 2002 would earn a double nomination.

Moore starred as one part of a trio of damaged women in The Hours. In the film, which earned Nicole Kidman her Oscar, Moore played Laura, a fifties housewife contemplating suicide, a role that would get her a supporting actress nomination (her third overall). That same year, Moore would earn her fourth nomination, as another fifties housewife in Far From Heaven. Here, Moore played Cathy, a woman whose husband (Dennis Quaid) is struggling with his sexuality. While the roles were similar in time and place, the situations were diverse and Moore shines in both. Although she didn’t win either time, 2002 would show everyone that Moore was one of the better actresses of this new generation. If only she could find consistency.

Over the next years, Moore would succeed in independent fare like I’m Not There, and would shine in Children of Men as the leader of a resistance organization and the former wife of Clive Owen’s character. Last year, Moore flirted with another Oscar nomination in A Single Man, designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut. Moore, again playing a character in the mid 20th century, was excellent in support of Colin Firth’s heartbroken college professor. Meanwhile, Moore struggled as the lead in films like Freedomland, The Forgotten, and Blindness. Nothing can stick for Moore as the lead, but seemingly everything works for Moore in a supporting role. However, more recently, Moore stars alongside Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right and is getting excellent reviews.

Always the bridesmaid at the Academy Awards, Julianne Moore has found her footing in that same role in her career. She is a fine actress, one of the best, in smaller films as either part of an ensemble or a supporting character. It is when she decides to go mainstream, or she makes a stab at leading lady that she falters. Moore can be melodramatic when she needs to be, and she can be cold when it is asked of her, and she can also be genuinely soulful, happy, and often times emotionally devastating. She deserves a spot in GENERAL ADMISSION.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

TRAILER BULLETIN: Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky is back at it again, delving into the darkest depths of the human psyche with Black Swan. The story, focusing on competing ballerinas, takes on dark and seemingly supernatural tones if this new trailer is any indication.

While I did enjoy The Wrestler, I feel like Aronofsky is better served telling unsettling psychological drama rather than straight stories. This reminds me of Pi more than any of his other films, about obsession that can unravel the fragile mind. Then again, most of his films deal with that very subject. I can safely say, without question, that Black Swan deserved its spot on my top ten list earlier today. Waiting until December will be tough.



TUESDAY TOP 10: My Most Anticipated of the Rest of 2010.

As thin as this summer season was at the theater, the upcoming fall releases – especially those just around the corner in September and October – are equally as promising. There are so many established stars, so many up and coming stars, and so many stars behind the camera this fall. Sure, everyone is anticipating Due Date, most are waiting for the next Harry Potter, but there are several smaller films out there that have caught my eye. Some of these anticipated films are driven by curiosity. Most, however, are driven by pure, unabashed excitement…

10) Devil (September 17) – If you have seen the trailer for this one, surely you are anticipating the overwhelming tension. If that is your thing. The premise is basic: five strangers wind up stuck in an elevator, but one of them isn’t exactly, well, human? At least that is the vibe I am getting from the previews so far. The cast consists of people you have seen many times, but perhaps you cannot name them. Their ambiguity seems like a good move on the behalf of the director. And then there is the production behind Devil. M. Night Shyamalan conceived the idea, but alas his brain grew three sizes and he decided to hand over the directing to someone else, Drew and John Dowdle (Quarantine) in this case. This looks thrilling from this distance, and claustrophobia is always a welcome addition to a horror picture.

9) Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (September 24) – Even typing the subtitle to Oliver Stone’s sequel makes me cringe. Just call it Wall Street 2. The added title makes the whole thing feel cheaper. Anyway… Most of the time, twenty three years between sequels is a bad thing. Any time there has been such a gap – fifteen years or more – the sequel always feels like a money grab and seems forced (see: Indiana Jones). But this time around, Stone revisiting lower Manhattan more than two decades later is right on target. Back in 1987, Stone’s first movie was an indictment of greed and corruption in the epicenter of the financial world. After the meltdown in 2008, a revisiting is beyond valid; it feels necessary. Back is Stone, as well as Michael Douglas as the great screen presence Gordon Gekko. And this time he is surrounded by young Hollywood talent like Shia LeBeouf, Carey Mulligan, and the resurgent Josh Brolin. It looks fun, if anything else.

8) Buried (October 8) – The hit of the Sundance Film Festival this last winter stars Ryan Reynolds as a United States contractor working in Iraq who wakes up one morning to discover he has been buried alive. With only a cell phone and a lighter, he must find a way out of the coffin before he runs out of air. Now I mentioned claustrophobia as a good addition to any horror film, and this is the most extreme example. While it is not a horror per se, a suspense film with an element as unsettling as this will undoubtedly create consistent tension. My curiosity here is whether or not the nerve-rattling experience can sustain an hour and a half running time. Reynolds, who seems to be coming into his own as a fine actor (finally), should be able to carry the drama, and after the rave reviews from Sundance, my hopes are high.

7) True Grit (December 25) – The Coen Brothers typically are not ones for remakes. As a matter of fact, while they have done certain homages to The Wizard of Oz and The Odyssey in abstract ways with their original films, and have adapted novels (No Country for Old Men) over the years, Joel and Ethan have never done a straight remake of a classic film. True Grit, the picture that garnered John Wayne his elusive Oscar for Best Actor in 1969, tells the story of an aging U.S. Marshal helping a woman track her father’s killer. The remake will follow the same path, and with an all-star cast including Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper, and the great Jeff Bridges – starring in his next film after his Oscar-winning role in Crazy Heart – as Rooster Cogburn, the pure pedigree of this Western is enough for the price of admission. I feel like this is a “can’t miss.”

6) The Social Network (October 1) – The thought of a movie surrounding Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of facebook, does not interest me at first glance. I never imagined there was much drama around the creation of the largest social network in existence, a company that is rivaling google these days. But alas, there apparently was. The fact that the great David Fincher is the director is the first bit of interest for me. He must have seen something intriguing in this story, which is enough for me to be on board. Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg, and the rest of the cast includes Justin Timberlake, Andrew Garfield, and Rooney Mara (keep an eye out for her) as those who orbit Zuckerberg and his rise to fame. The trailer is fascinating, thanks in no small part to the choir singing Radiohead’s Creep in the background, and the look of the picture is decidedly “Fincher-esque.”

5) The Company Men (October 22) – Another Sundance crowd pleaser from this past winter is another timely story revolving around the current economic malaise of the country. This ensemble piece stars Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Kevin Costner as three men affected in different ways by the downsizing of a major company. While struggling to keep their jobs, they must also fight to keep their lives in order. The cast includes not only these three leads, but Maria Bello, Chris Cooper, Craig T. Nelson, and Rosemarie DeWitt. Affleck, when given the right material, is a fine actor, and we know the power Jones can have, but the most fascinating lead to me is Kevin Costner. Costner feels the most out of place here, and I wonder if he can pull himself out of the rut he has been in for nearly a decade. I believe he can.

4) The Town (September 10) – Ben Affleck is on this list again, this time as a star and director. In 2007, Affleck directed his brother Casey in Gone Baby Gone, one of the best of the year and one of the finest thrillers of the decade. He returns to his beloved Boston neighborhoods for The Town, a familiar story about bank robbers and a woman caught in the middle. Despite the familiarity of the story – a definite genre piece – the cast elevates the story even in the intense trailer. Jeremy Renner stars alongside Affleck as a fellow robber, Jon Hamm sinks his teeth into a role as an FBI agent, and Chris Cooper plays Affleck’s father (I believe) behind bars. With the conventional idea of brotherhood, forbidden love, and nonstop action in place, it is up to Affleck to keep us interested.

3) The American (September 1) – George Clooney has found a groove lately, playing men without ties struggling to do the right thing even though their job and their way of life suggests the contrary. From Syriana to Michael Clayton to Up in the Air, Clooney plays the tortured loner better than anyone. In The American, he plays a hired assassin doing the “one last job” bit in Italy, but falls into a ring of double crosses and deception. Again, the story has been done over and over again, so what matters here is the way in which it is executed. The look and the feel of the picture is one of nostalgia for the paranoia-driven spy thrillers of the seventies, and I can only imagine that the countryside of Italy will be a big player in the look of the film. The trailer is more than promising, and I trust Clooney in whatever he decides to do these days.

2) Tree of Life (November TBA) – There has been no set date for Terrance Malick’s sprawling family drama. Taking place in the 1950s, and dealing with the loss of innocence and its impact on a family, the film stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and – more importantly – is Terrence Malick’s follow up to The New World in 2005. The fact that Malick has already directed another feature so soon is news in and of itself. Before The New World in 2005, Malick’s last film was The Thin Red Line in 1998. Before that, the elusive Malick had not directed a film since Days of Heaven in 1978. Malick’s resume includes only six features, so any time he releases a film it is definitely an event. He is a filmmaker who appreciates beauty in everything, and Tree of Life feels like a return to his films about unconventional families and familial tensions, a la Days of Heaven and Badlands.

1) Black Swan (December 1) – Darren Aronofsky’s next project, opening this year at the Toronto Film Festival, sounds quite bizarre. The story focuses on a talented ballerina (Natalie Portman) who is technically masterful. But when a rival ballerina (Mila Kunis), one who is fluid and sizzles with sex appeal, makes her mark in the ballet next to Portman, Portman’s character is driven by obsession. The idea of a thriller revolving around ballet is such a contradictory notion, but Aronofsky can pull it off. Ever since this project was announced it has been moving steadily up my list of the most anticipated, regardless of the release date. Aronofsky can handle the bizarre with the best of them. And I must be honest, the much talked about romantic interlude between Portman and Kunis has caught my attention. Hey, I’m only human.