Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Top 10 Movies of 2009

In a recent tweet, Roger Ebert proclaimed 2009 as "one of those magic movie years like 1939 or 1976." Some might say that's a bold statement, but I say it's not too far off. Of all the movie years this decade, 2009 ranks second only to 2007 (the year of "There Will Be Blood," "No Country for Old Men," "Michael Clayton," "Knocked Up," etc.).
Yes, there was much trash this year. From toy commercials like "Transformers 2" and "G.I. Joe" to death porn like "The Final Destination" and the ugliness of "The Ugly Truth," 2009 indeed showed just how low Hollywood was willing to go just to make a buck. But beyond much preposterousness, creativity abounded.
There was something many filmmakers this year, both mainstream and independent, showed that set 2009 apart: bravery. Filmmakers were so willing to be bold that the best films were beyond great. Some of the boldest moves included the changing of history, the willingness to not make simple conclusions, and an inclination to show that the world is unfair and sometimes, the hero just can't win. Oh, and add some CGI blue cat monkey people to the mix.
This year gave us some amazing new talents (Marc Webb, Neil Blomkamp) and some old pros doing what they do best (Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, James Cameron).
2009 gave us an eclectic mix of Basterds and aliens and corporate a-holes. Here now, are the ten best films of the year 2009:
1. Inglourious Basterds- It's been almost half a year since "Inglourious Basterds" came out, and I still can't think of a better movie that has come out since. "Basterds" is a World War II movie that only Quentin Tarantino could ever pull off: philosophical, extremely violent, and funnier than you could ever imagine. Tarantino shows off a rare ability to make vast stretches of dialogue as exciting as epic battle sequences. Brad Pitt, Eli Roth and Diane Kruger give career best performances while Melanie Laurent proves herself as a worthy leading woman. The real scene stealer, though, is Christoph Waltz, who portrays a Nazi as calm and casual as he is sadistic. In the end, "Basterds" amazes me in its audacity to both change history and turn such serious subject matter into a fun B-movie. This is a medium for Tarantino to show us both his love of movies and the insane universe in which he inhabits. It's a universe that, in a perfect world, would truly exist. Read Review
2. A Serious Man- Some films just grow on you. "A Serious Man" is one of them. "A Serious Man" is both the most mature and the meanest film Joel & Ethan Coen have made to date. It tells the story of the suffering but well intentioned patriarch of a 1960s middle class Jewish family. "A Serious Man" is the most personal film of the Coen Brothers' career and it shows in the perfection of every little detail of the era and culture. Michael Stuhlbarg is perfect in the role of Larry Gopnik, flawlessly portraying the character's flawed nature and vulnerability to an almost hilarious effect. The Coen Brothers have created a film that offers no easy conclusions and will keep you talking and talking about it. It will one day be looked as the quintessential film about the Jewish American experience. Read Review ; Extra Analysis
3. Up in the Air- "Up in the Air" is one of those rare films that strikes the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. Jason Reitman managed to create a film about a man so far disconnected from other human beings that is both relevant social commentary and a future classic. "Up in the Air" shows the downside of a corporate life, and that even though flying solo can satisfy some people, nothing compares to the feeling of being (and remaining) connected to others. Read Review
up_in_the_air_1.jpg image by The_Playlist
4. (500) Days of Summer- Far and away the best romantic comedy to come out in years. "(500) Days of Summer" is a standout in its genre for its willingness to bend the rules and be unpredictable. It's not necessarily a love story, but a story about love between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel). It's told completely out of order because whichever way the story is told, this relationship will inevitably head toward disaster. "(500) Days of Summer" scores on creativity and on having the best use of a Hall & Oates song you'll ever see. Read Review; Extra Analysis

5. The Hurt Locker- To date, most films about the Iraq War have tried and failed. That is, until "The Hurt Locker" came about, a film that connected quite simply because it offered a truthful, apolitical view of a war nobody quite understands. The film has an eerie documentary feel, and Kathryn Bigelow directs each action sequence with the utmost care and precision missing from most mainstream action films today. "The Hurt Locker" is not so much a film about Iraq, or a film about the hell of war, but rather about why men fight. Read Review
6. Precious- As so many before me have said, "Precious" tells the story of the girl you might walk by on the street and completely ignore. "Precious" is at times one of the toughest films to watch for its raw realism. However, sitting through it is almost a revelation for exactly that reason. Lee Daniels has created a film that will open your eyes to a world you knew existed, but like to pretend it didn't. Amazingly, "Precious" also provides a bright ray of hope in such a dark world. Gabourey Sidibe gives a fine breakout performance as the titular lead. However, Mo'Nique truly steals the show as Precious' abusive mother. She gives off the kind of brutal hatred that is at times too painful to watch, but too powerful to ever look away from.
 GET ON THE BUS Gabourey Sidibe delivers a powerful performance in Precious Precious: Based on the Novel \'Push\' by Sapphire, Gabourey \'Gabby\' Sidibe
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox- What kind of world do we live in where a movie made for kids, but is even more suitable for adults, fairs so poorly at the box office? Forget ticket sales, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a marvel, and proof of Wes Anderson's wide range in directing ability. Anderson opts for old fashion stop-capture animation which quite ironically, makes its animal characters seem even more human. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" shows Anderson as the master of mise-en-scene. While kids won't get the deeply existential questions Mr. Fox poses, make no mistake, this is the perfect movie for every member of the family. Read Review
8. Avatar- James Cameron, the most ambitious director of this generation, created what is quite possibly the most ambitious sci-fi epic to date. What set this film apart is its landmark special effects and use of motion capture technology which turns the Na'vi into creatures with a tangible, human quality. But what amazes me most about "Avatar" is the new world Cameron created for it. Each detail of Pandora is so vividly realized that it might as well be a real place. This is the kind of imagination missing from blockbusters nowadays, and the reason why I hail "Avatar" the "Star Wars" of our time. Read Review
9. District 9- Watch out, because the moderate-sized country at the southernmost tip of Africa has just given birth to a new filmmaking force to be reckoned with. Neil Blomkamp's film is a thrilling and sometimes even funny sci-fi mockumentary about aliens landing in Johannesburg, and then being segregated by frightened humans. It works as both social commentary and awesome sci-fi entertainment. This new classic boldly sets an anti-Apartheid theme in a country scarred by Apartheid and uses its aliens to convey the theme. While "Avatar" is the best sci-fi film of the year, "District 9" is the most original. Read Review
10. The Hangover- I needed one legitimate comedy for my list. After much thinking, I decided I'd go with what was the most hilarious and surprising film of the year. "The Hangover" is a great comedy because nearly every line is funny. The characters are beyond funny, and are enhanced by the believable chemistry between the actors. What makes "The Hangover" worthy of the top 10 is how it manages to be both a gross-out comedy and a mystery at the same time. "The Hangover" at first seems like it's going to be the typical bachelor party in Vegas flick, but in the end, it's a perfectly tuned satire of the idea of Vegas and the reality of it. That and tigers. And babies in sunglasses. Read Review
Other Contenders: Up, Adventureland, Invictus, Bruno, Star Trek, I Love You, Man, Dare, We Live in Public
Worst Movie: The Final Destination (3D)
Still Need to See: In the Loop, An Education, Moon, The Blind Side, Paranormal Activity, Big Fan, A Single Man, Observe and Report
Most Underrated: Adventureland
Most Overrated: 2012
Biggest Disappointments: Public Enemies, Where the Wild Things Are

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review: It's Complicated

After I saw "It's Complicated," I pondered one of the greatest questions of all: what makes a solid comedy? The answer is complicated. Though it does contain a few good gags, "It's Complicated" doesn't totally answer the question.
I hope this opening doesn't sound too harsh, because in the end, "It's Complicated" is a decent comedy, but not a great one.
"It's Complicated" is what can be described as nothing more, and nothing less, than a typical romantic comedy. The film centers around the divorced couple of Jake (Alec Baldwin) and Jane (Meryl Streep). Since the divorce ten years earlier, Jake has remarried the much younger Agness (Lake Bell) while Jane remains single. After reuniting at their son's (Hunter Parrish) college graduation, the two inadvertently rekindle their love and embark on a long, troublesome affair.
It's also worth noting that Steve Martin is in it as Jane's love interest. It's important to note this as the actors are truly what make the story work. The actors that make the story work are the trio of Baldwin, Streep, and Martin.
As usual, it's a pleasure to watch Baldwin's relaxed intensity. His sternness always seems to make for the best humor. He shows this skill most on "30 Rock," and it truly carries over here.
Streep, meanwhile, is great as usual. Here she again proves that she is one of those rare actresses who can conquer any genre. It's amazing to think she can be in something as serious as "The Deer Hunter" and something as silly as "It's Complicated." Streep even shows off the acting skills that a great comedian would have. These skills are visible in her body language and line delivery.
At times, the chemistry between Baldwin and Streep is almost magical. When Jake talks to Jane as she soaks in the tub, the two seem so believable as a married couple. It was a rare scene in the film that could've kept going and I wouldn't have minded.
While Baldwin and Streep rarely seem to go wrong, this is probably the best performance Martin has given in years. He proves to audiences why he was once hailed as one of the greatest comedians out there. All he has to do is roll his eyes a certain way and you're already laughing.
While this trio of actors essentially is the movie, they don't totally steal the show. John Krasinski ("The Office") proves himself to be an amazingly promising comedic talent.
I wish I could talk about how great the actors of "It's Complicated" are for the rest of this post. However, I can't ignore the film's weak points. Its main weakness is its writing. While the film certainly has its funny moments, I can't pinpoint one hilarious line that I could repeat for weeks to come. Also, the film doesn't become funny until some way in and there are many long, humorous stretches. A great comedy should be consistently funny throughout. And while the film is only 118 minutes long, it feels much longer than that.
It also goes without saying that the story of "It's Complicated" is something of a cliche and many parts of the plot line are very predictable. Then again, this is likely what the average viewer was expecting when they came into this movie: an entertaining, predictable romantic comedy. But some comedies can be good by being typical; some can be even better when they try to be smart and original. Take this year's "The Hangover" and "Adventureland" for example.
Overall, "It's Complicated" is funny and entertaining at times, but it relies too much on its acting, and too little on its writing. While great acting helps, the best comedies are bolstered by writers, not actors.
Note: While I normally try to keep my hatred toward the MPAA out of my reviews I thought it was important to mention here. "It's Complicated" is rated R. There is no graphic sexuality, violence, or even explicit language. The only thing that got it an R was a very funny scene involving marijuana. Believe me, an intelligent 13-year-old could handle this.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Top 10 TV Shows of the 2000s

Sure, this is a film blog, but I can't forget to mention the forgotten art form: television. Unfortunately, this decade was a breeding ground for the worst form of television imaginable: reality television. Throughout the decade, our TV screens were constantly invaded by trash like "Joe Millionaire," "The Littlest Groom," and "Jersey Shore." However, art wasn't gone forever. HBO, Showtime, FX, and AMC showed that the new television was no longer only on basic cable. However, basic cable didn't totally disappoint. What this decade proved was quite simply, that the best shows had the best writing. Here now, are the best TV shows of the decade. Note that only shows that began during the years of 2000-09 are eligible; so unfortunately "Freaks and Geeks," "The Daily Show," "South Park," and "The Sopranos" just missed the cut:
1. Arrested Development- Not just the best of the decade, but perhaps one of the greatest shows ever made. This mockumentary comedy about Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), a good man simply trying to bring together his dysfunctional family and failing company, scores from a mixture of ingenious writing, brilliant directing, and a pitch-perfect ensemble. One could attribute this show's greatness to its ridiculous ensemble of characters, led by Bateman's straight man. One could also point to its writing, which blends social satire with double entendres. Or one could say it's both factors, as "Arrested" is a rare show where the stars aligned and everything works out perfectly. The fact that this show was cancelled after only three seasons is an atrocity (hey, I guess it was just too smart for America). However, its future influence is worth more than a million "Two and a Half Men"s. What genius could have invented characters who are nevernudes, alcoholics, and cocky magicians, all in one show? Mitch Hurwitz, that's who.
2. 30 Rock- Pure comedic bliss. Tina Fey left "Saturday Night Live" and blessed the world with this brilliant showbiz satire. In "30 Rock," Fey plays the lonely, overworked Liz Lemon, the creator of an NBC sketch comedy show whose world is turned upside down thanks to a pushy new boss (Alec Baldwin). Like "Arrested Development" before it, the show embraces every member of its ensemble (also like "Arrested," it was in serious danger of cancellation). But what really makes the show tick is its writing, headed by Fey which mixes pop culture references with the weird and the avant garde.
3. Mad Men- The 1960s never looked so vividly alive, and gloriously sinful. This AMC drama portrays the advertising industry in the 60s, through the eyes of the well-spoken, philandering ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm). "Mad Men" wows for nailing every detail of the time period, from the clothes to the wallpaper. Mainly, it's incredible that creator Matthew Weiner could spend so much time on style, yet still tell such amazing stories all while keeping the audience attached to such compelling characters.
4. The Colbert Report- It seems rare that an alumni of "The Daily Show" could go off and become just as successful than Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert is that rare exception. Colbert created a Conservative alter ego and put it on a talk show four nights a week--and it worked. Colbert's totally deadpan portrayal of a Bill O'Reilly reincarnation is convincing at every turn, from his segments "The Word" to "The Threat Down." Colbert made America aware of the dangers of bears ("Godless killing machines"), and even saved US Olympic Speed Skating. He even brought his show to the White House, and fooled the president, too. Only someone as brave and brilliant as Colbert could pull this off.
5. Lost- There are two stages of TV drama: before "Lost," and after "Lost." "Lost" changed the rules of how time and space work by eliminating both concepts and exploring the infinite abyss of a world in limbo. "Lost" is a modern day "Twilight Zone" for its creative take on the sci-fi genre. However, what truly sets "Lost" apart is its human story. Despite the chaos of its look between fate and freewill through the context of time travel, "Lost" never loses its central theme of being about the little connections that lie between every member of the human race.
6. Planet Earth- Here it is, the best nature documentary ever filmed. "Planet Earth" consists of 11 episodes, each one exploring a different habitat of the earth. What makes this nature show different from every other nature show is that it uses the latest in groundbreaking HD technology. Each image seems so vividly real, that it feels like the action is happening right in your living room. From a shark devouring a seal in slow motion to the rare mating habits of the birds of New Guinea, you'll never see this planet the same way again.
7. The Office (US)- What we have here is the rare remake that's actually original. "The Office" managed to take on a life of its own rather than just imitate its predecessor. It helped make the mockumentary sitcom style popular ("Parks & Recreation" and "Modern Family" would later follow). What truly made "The Office" come into its own were its characters, whom the writers made so real by giving them real emotions; they were capable of doing horrible, unforgivable acts and then earning believable redemption. Not to mention, a tour de force in some of the most uncomfortable humor you'll ever see.
8. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia- Some have described this show as "'Seinfeld' on crack." That sounds just about right. "Sunny" follows the lives of five losers who run a bar and in their free time, do horrible, misguided acts in attempts to become successful. Some of these deprived acts include faking handicaps, making terrorist videotapes, and operating secret sweatshops. Oh yeah, did I mention this was a comedy?
9. Curb Your Enthusiasm- If you thought the characters of "Seinfeld" were bad, wait until you meet its creator. "Curb" revolutionized the improv comedy by following the life of the selfish, inconsiderate "Seinfeld" creator Larry David. Just to get an idea of who Larry David is, he once told a teenage girl to "shut the f**k up" and another time tried to dig up his mother's body and move her into a Jewish cemetery. There are many, many, more horrible things that Larry David has done. And this is all pretty good. Prettaay, prettaay, pretty good.
10. Summer Heights High- It seems that the leading sitcom style of the 2000s was the mockumentary. This Australian import about the lives of a drama teacher, a troublemaker, and an exchange student, is one of the finest examples. Maybe what is funniest about this show is that creator Chris Lilley plays all three of the main characters, even the girl, and makes them seem ridiculous yet endearing. Also, you might quite simply enjoy its hilarious writing, which turned "Puck you miss!" into a national catchphrase.
Honorable Mentions: How I Met Your Mother, Pushing Daisies, Family Guy (Seasons 1-3), Chappelle's Show, Parks & Recreation, Scrubs, Modern Family

What shows might you include as the best of the decade?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The 2000s: A Decade in Movie Quotes

Sometimes, we remember movies best by small snippets of dialogue. Some of the best quotes are funny, insightful, or just plain catchy. Over the past few weeks, I've been wondering which will be the classic movie quotes of the decade. What lines are as memorable as "I'll be back," "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," and "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse?" So, I decided to look back a little and reveal the movie quotes the '00s will be remembered by. The next few lines will be presented commentary-free; the words will speak for themselves. [Note: These are presented in no particular order]:

Are you not entertained?
-Gladiator

With great power, comes great responsibility.
-Spider Man

You and I have unfinished business.
-Kill Bill

Why so serious?
-The Dark Knight


That's the last time you put a knife in me! Y'hear me?
-The Royal Tenenbaums

But it is not this day! This day we fight!
-Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King


What business is it of yours where I come from, friendo?
-No Country for Old Men

I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!
-There Will Be Blood

Okay, well maybe we should tell that to Rain Man, because he practically bankrupt the casino, and he was a ruh-tard.
-The Hangover

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe f**k yourself.
-The Departed


This guy is either gonna think 'Here's another kid with a fake ID' or 'Here's McLovin, a 25 year-old Hawaiian organ donor'.
-Superbad

What is this? A center for ants? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read... if they can't even fit inside the building?
-Zoolander


Ahh Kelly Clarkson!
-The 40-Year-Old Virgin

We're goin' streaking!
-Old School

Get off my lawn.
-Gran Torino

Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps. And all y'all will git me one hundred Nazi scalps, taken from the heads of one hundred dead Nazis.
-Inglourious Basterds

I didn't sign up for this s**t!
-Avatar

What other quotes might you add to this list?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Movie Review: Up in the Air

I won't go as far as to say that "Up in the Air" is the best film of our time. However, should a future alien life form want to learn about our time and culture through film, they should look no further.
"Up in the Air" is the kind of film we need right now; it's one that allows the life of one man to mirror our very own existence.
"Up in the Air" is based on a 2002 novel of the same name. The film version is given a 2009 financial crisis twist. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a corporate downsizer, going from city to city firing people for corporations too afraid to confront their own employees. While some might face a guilty conscious doing this job, Bingham has developed an addiction to his life on the open road. In fact, he's spent 322 days of the past year flying from city to city.
Bingham's air-bound life leaves him isolated from the rest of humanity, but he wouldn't have it any other way. Soon enough, Bingham's livelihood is at stake as his company moves toward computerized communication. Only another frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga) and a new employee (Anna Kendrick) could possibly help him get used to a life on the ground.
"Up in the Air" is a rarity; it's a film that takes a delicate subject and brings both drama and humor into it while keeping neither emotion from becoming overbearing. The film is led with a commanding performance by George Clooney, who shows a whole range of emotion with just one mournful stare. This works well as he portrays a character who must fire people without remorse, and therefore every emotion he might ever have is trapped inside of him.
While Clooney's acting is nothing short of fantastic here (as are the rest of the ensemble's), this is really director Jason Reitman's show. This is Reitman's third feature. After "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno," and now "Up in the Air," Reitman has gone three for three and proves himself as something of a force to be reckoned with. He is probably Hollywood's most versatile young director, as he can pull off a dark social satire in just about any setting. Whether that be the halls of Congress, a suburban high school, or the corporate world, Reitman just seems to know where and when to point a camera.
Like "Thank you for Smoking" and "Juno" before it, "Up in the Air" provides the in-and-out narrator bringing the audience through the painful processes of their lives. However, "Up in the Air" lacks much of the snark of his first two films and is by far his most serious one to date.
In addition, this film shows off Reitman's talent not only as a director, but as a writer as well. No situation feels contrived, and no dialogue goes to waste. Every line feels insightful into either the experience of Bingham, or life as a whole. The ability to be both a great writer and director ultimately shapes you into a great storyteller. Nowhere is that more apparent than in this film, especially in one of the film's final, game-changing twists which you'll just have to see for yourself.
Quite possibly part of the reason why I think "Up in the Air" is so great is because I viewed it as a throwback to the greatest era in American cinema: the 1970s. Like a film out of the 70s, "Up in the Air" sets its story in a socially aware context, without hammering the viewer with politicized themes.
Of everything from the 70s I can think of, "Up in the Air" feels most like a film by Hal Ashby ("The Last Detail," "Harold & Maude"), as it contains many scenes that one could find extraneous, but which do so much to develop character. One instance I can't get out of my head is Bingham taking pictures of a cardboard cutout of his sister and her fiance in front of famous American monuments. This serves as one of the film's funniest running jokes, and Reitman's ability to utilize quirky characters.
"Up in the Air" also immediately made me think of "Taxi Driver," mainly in how similar Ryan Bingham is to Travis Bickle. One might think both characters are forced into isolation by society, but it is instead their very nature to remain isolated. Clooney does the impossible in nearly channeling De Niro's performance, minus the murderous rampages.
What could best make "Up in the Air" perfect 70s cinema is its open-ended ending. While some just want films to give them an answer, the best ones, the ones we never forget, are those that let the viewer do the thinking. This is why we go to the movies: not just to be entertained, but to be challenged. Some movies are an escape from reality, while others mirror it. "Up in the Air" certainly falls into that latter category. Its a cinematic gem; the kind of film that brings you to terms with reality but manages to impress with impeccably good writing, directing, music, camerawork, and acting. "Up in the Air" works so well because its so satisfying in basically everything it sets out to do.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

James Cameron only makes a movie every 10 or so years. But every time he does, he seems to rewrite the rules of filmmaking. With "Avatar," James Cameron not only rewrote the rules, but opened a whole new book.
"Avatar" is one of those films that's not just a film, but a vision beyond anyone's wildest dreams; it's daring in ways one couldn't even imagine.
Cameron's strange yet fascinating sci-fi epic takes a few steps to break down, it's a premise that mixes contemporary society with ancient faiths. "Avatar" takes place around the year 2154. At this point, the earth has been totally ravished by humans (and, not mentioned in the movie, run out of oil), so the human race heads toward a distant moon called Pandora. Pandora contains a race of creatures called the Na'vi, a tall, blue species with a cat-like face and human tendencies. More important to humans, the moon also contains a valuable, energy-rich rock called Unobtanium. In order to get the Unobtanium, humans infiltrate and then hope to destroy the Na'vi by slipping into their bodies in Na'vi form. These bodies are called Avatars.
War veteran Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), paralyzed from the waist down, takes his brother's place on Pandora after he dies. He is sent to become part of the Na'vi, but in the process, he becomes a powerful member of the tribe, and falls in love with a Na'vi woman (Zoe Saldana).
In some ways, in different hands "Avatar" could have been a disaster, or maybe just an action film like any other action film ever made. But in the hands of a man with a real vision, "Avatar" is something totally different. "Avatar" is shot with a new form of Motion Capture technology that Cameron himself invented. This form looks stunningly real, from the monsters that live on Pandora, to the Na'vi themselves. While some forms of Motion Capture come out as uncannily unrealistic, there is something about the Na'vi that is incredibly human.
The film is shown in 3-D, a usually wasteful tool to add to feature length films. It is something I usually associate with the Muppet ride at Disney World. When used in most films, the only thing it is used for is to shoot raindrops or bullets out at the audience. "Avatar," however, uses its 3-D to make its images more stunning. It seems like more of a way to put the viewer into the film than create some means of shock value. While I hope 3-D doesn't become a regular feature in filmmaking, if it is used for this purpose alone, then I really wouldn't mind.
The storyline of "Avatar" has many elements derived from both contemporary issues and religions. This helps turn the film into a pretty effective parable of human nature in both the past and the present. For example, Avatar comes from the Hindu faith and is the manifestation of a deity from heaven to earth. That makes sense, as Avatars are humans in Na'vi form. Also, the entire film itself seems based off the Hindu belief of reincarnation, as the wheel-chaired Jake wants so desperately to be reborn into something else.
The film also seems to take on the totally unrelated ideology of Shinto, in which it is thought that people have a spiritual connection with the natural world, a connection the Na'vi share with their own planet.
When looking at "Avatar" from a contemporary perspective, one could quite obviously point out that it is a highly critical look at man's depletion of his own home. Some might even try and politicize the film for this reason, though politics should be left out of it.
Looking deeper into the film, one could see that it is about the horrors of imperialism. The war between the humans and the Na'vi often mirrors the destruction of the Native Americans of the United States or the Aztecs in Central America. It is also about the human instinct to act as pillagers: destroying one land, and then moving on to the next.
Moving beyond the themes, the greatest part about "Avatar" is its incredible CGI. Pandora becomes a planet that seems almost tangible. Every aspect of it, from the animals to the plants to the water, is something that could never have been thought of by anyone. In this light, one could almost say "Avatar" is the "Star Wars" of this generation that we've all been waiting for.
Alas, "Avatar" doesn't go without its minor flaws. At times, some of the dialogue is a little clunky. Also, the basic storyline is one that has been done before in one way or another. However, the context it is put into is totally original.
Quite simply "Avatar" is such a great filmgoing experience because its audacious, and its exciting. The end battle sequence is one that could rival the ones from "The Return of the King" and "Lawrence of Arabia."
The very first line of "Avatar" is, "You're not in Kansas anymore!" This shows that in "Avatar," you're being swept out of your comfort zone and being taken to a place beyond the imagination. It could also be nothing less than a shout out to "The Wizard of Oz," a film that led the way to a new dimension of filmmaking with its bold use of color. Cameron is the kind of filmmaker with the vision to accomplish this.
Cameron always manages to defy our expectations. People doubted him before "Titanic" came out and they did the same with "Avatar." Both times he totally changed the game. As Pandora was the beginning of a new frontier for humans, "Avatar" is the beginning of a new frontier for filmmakers worldwide.
Note: Earlier, I accidentally wrote that Pandora was a planet, when it is in fact, a moon. We all make mistakes sometimes, and for this one, I apologize. Thanks to Cameron Bruce for catching this mistake.

The Top 10 Movies of the 2000s

In just a few weeks, one decade will end, and a new one will begin. Some people call this decade the '00s, while other have labeled it the 2000s. Just as this decade has no definite name, it also has no definite filmmaking form. Rather, it was a jumble of different styles and different visions, some very good, and some very bad.
Some might want to be pessimistic, and say that this decade showed the decline of quality film. Sure, there were two hour toy commercials like "Transformers" and death porn like the "Saw" and "Final Destination" series. Then there were the horrible comedies like "Gigli" and "Norbit."
But forget the bad for now, because this is the time to look at the good stuff. And yes, there was a lot of good stuff. A new brand of comedy was released that mixed raunchy with sweet. There were thrillers that matched the brilliant, taut suspense of a film from the 70s. The directing pioneers of the decade mastered the new form of digital film, and made epics more alive than ever. This was the decade sometimes defined as the "Me Generation" and the decade that kicks off an entire century. And yes, it showed promise for the next 90 years to come. Here now, are the 10 best films made from 2000-09:
1. There Will Be Blood (2007)- Epic films come and go, but this is one that truly stays. What’s often best remembered about the film is Daniel Day-Lewis’ towering performance that emanates the loneliness and devilish insanity of the character. One can’t forget Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, which made two and a half hours feel like one, and the past feel just like the present. Here’s a film that shows the moral as immoral, and the immoral as evil beyond any form imaginable. Here’s a film that provides 18 dialogue-free minutes and still manages to be exciting. Most importantly, here’s a film that deserves to be called a work of genius, the absolute best film of the decade, and a model of good filmmaking for years to follow.
2. Kill Bill (Vol. 1&2) (2003/04)- After years off the job, Quentin Tarantino returned to the big screen with this brilliant love letter to B-movie cinema. This two-part film is one-part over-the-top violence, one-part philosophical conversation. Mainly, “Kill Bill” is a perfect piece of Tarantino’s fantasy world, a uniting of the cultures of the east and west. It is an imagined land where samurais wander the west and cowboys are trained by kung fu masters. Moviegoers are lucky Tarantino opened this piece of his world to us.
3. Children of Men (2006)- Rarely has the future seemed so present. Alfonso Cuaron brings to life the story of a hopeless future that finds hope in the world’s last pregnant woman. Despite a tepid response upon its original release, “Children of Men” is a cult classic in the making. Its meaning goes beyond the surface, and its shocking violence and daring use of long shots are nothing short of groundbreaking. Simply put, it deserves to be ranked with “A Clockwork Orange” and “Blade Runner” as one of the bleakest, most convincing dystopias ever created.


4. No Country for Old Men (2007)- The Coen Brothers’ dead serious, existential look at fate and old age is a crime thriller like few have ever made. Despite the fact that the script is taken nearly verbatim from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the always reliable Coen Brothers still managed to incorporate their own trademark style into every single frame, from their quirky characters to their dry wit. For long, intense silences, and the audacity to leave the viewer with no easy answers, “No Country” simply can’t be beat.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)- This very dark comedy about the rise and fall of a dysfunctional family manages to be funny and sad at the same time. It incites the kind of laughter that stays with you for days through witty dialogue and quirky characters. “Tenenbaums” shows off director Wes Anderson’s brilliant mind, who was able to not let the overshadowing set pieces distract from the story and instead use them, in every tiny, precise detail, to show a family too obsessed with material items and the past to move forward and forgive themselves.
6. American Psycho (2000)- This twisted, brilliant film about a seemingly flawless 1980s Wall Street banker (Christian Bale) who moonlights as a serial killer is a Kubrickian outlook on man’s dark side. Its ironic glorification of violence turns it into a wicked parody of the glorification of violence in American pop culture. There are scenes that are downright creepy, while others make you laugh when you probably shouldn’t be. This film established Bale as one of the best actors working today, and his utterly convincing performance has already put the name Patrick Bateman in the ranks of great movie psychos like Norman Bates and Travis Bickle.


7. Inglourious Basterds (2009)- Only someone as well-respected as Quentin Tarantino would be allowed to revise the history of World War II by way of a man named the Bear Jew. This unorthodox war flick feels more like a Spaghetti Western than “Saving Private Ryan,” guided more by Mexican standoffs and revenge stories than meditations on the horrors of war. “Basterds” not only represents Tarantino’s love of movies, but also his ability to make long stretches of dialogue seem just as tense and exciting as any action sequence.
8. City of God (2002)- Call it the original “Slumdog Millionaire,” minus the uplifting endnote. This brutally realistic look at gang life in a slum of Rio de Janeiro rightfully earns its place as one of the greatest crime films. “City of God” isn’t just remembered for its bleak social commentary, but rather its unforgettable imagery. Whether it is a gunfight or a chicken running through the streets, each frame is teeming with heart-racing energy. Even in a world constantly shattered by violence, life goes on.
9. Almost Famous (2000)- Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical coming of age story about an aspiring rock journalist following an up-and-coming rock band is just one of those rare films that hits no false notes. Its characters are complex, emotional human beings, and the film perfectly replicates both the sights and sounds of the 1970s. Only someone who knows this much about music could make a film like this. In the process, Crowe truly reminds the viewer of the amazing effect just a little bit of music can have.
10. Superbad (2007)- This decade, the Apatow gang would change comedy forever. While Apatow himself doesn’t direct here, his brand of humor is felt throughout. “Superbad” defines this teen generation like no other film before it, creating a coming-of-age story that is sometimes too funny to handle and at other times uncomfortably realistic. It wasn’t raunchy for the sake of being raunchy, but rather raunchy for the sake of being real. Plus, its dialogue is free of Hollywood conventions and rather smart and free flowing, like everyday conversation.

Honorable Mentions: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, The Lord of the Rings, Mulholland Dr., Donnie Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Room

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Movie Review: Invictus

After seeing "Invictus," I thought of a scene in "Barton Fink" where a greedy studio executive informs Fink his wrestling picture won't work because the real drama takes place in the ring, not outside of it.
Somehow, "Invictus" manages to strike a rare balance of both; making the action in the story as intense on the action on the field. Then again, I expect nothing less from Clint Eastwood.
"Invictus" comes entirely from a true story. It is slightly a biopic on Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). However, it's not a rise and fall story of his entire life. Instead, it tells of the years when he became president of a post-Apartheid South Africa. Once Apartheid ended, all of the country's racial tensions had not ended. To reunite the torn country, he looks for help in the most unlikely place: South Africa's rugby team. In order to reunite the country, he befriends the team's white captain (Matt Damon) and inspires the team to win the World Cup. Here is where sports and social conflict collide.
You could call "Invictus" a mix of two very different genres: inspiring biopic, and inspiring sports flick. It manages to be unconventional, but not necessarily groundbreaking in both. As a biopic, it manages to show its subject as an amazing person without necessarily deifying it. As a sports flick, it manages to be uplifting without being schmaltzy. Of course, this shouldn't come as a surprise, as the film is directed by Eastwood.
Even at the age of 79, Eastwood remains as alive and energetic as he was at 29. Here, he shows off his talent for amazing, simple human interactions. Some philosophical life conversations that take place in the movie feel similar to those in say, "Million Dollar Baby." Meanwhile, the brilliantly shot rugby sequences feel as engrossing and brutal as a real game of rugby. Eastwood puts in the same energy of mastering the technique of a rugby game as he did with a battle sequence in "Letters from Iwo Jima," a boxing match in "Baby," and a shootout between gunslingers in "Unforgiven." Simply, this man can do anything.
Another man who can do (or in the case, play) just about anything is Freeman. He's the first person that comes to mind when I think of a good candidate for Mandela, and here he proves why. He doesn't just play Mandela, he is Mandela. Any person who doesn't know a thing about Mandela will walk out of this movie understanding why this man deserves a movie. He underlines his amazing quality of forgiveness, but also his outgoing, always humorous personality. His performance goes along with the screenplay, as he plays Mandela as not just an inspiring public figure, but also a man could faint from too much work, and a man who could also have family problems.
The film's other star, Damon, gives something of a mixed performance. While he gave a career best performance earlier this year in "The Informant!" this performance is a slightly bigger challenge, as the South African accent is a hard one to nail. Sometimes, he gets it right. Other times, it leans towards Australian with a mix of American. Damon is a talented actor, and I admire him for trying. However, his imperfect accent didn't serve as a distraction from the film's higher points.
"Invictus" might just be the perfect sports movie for this day and age. It's one of those films that provides both makes you face reality, and allows you to escape it. It engrosses you in the power of the game, but it also uses the game as a way to represent South Africa's social problems. It represents the power of something as seemingly insignificant as a sporting event as being one of the greatest uniters of all. It is also a great sports flick for the way the game is shot. Eastwood puts you inside the huddles, forcing you immediately inside the action. Meanwhile, each kickoff is incredibly suspenseful. Even if you know the outcome, you can't help but feel like you don't.
Only someone like Clint Eastwood could get away with showing one of the most significant turning points in modern human history through sports. Here, he has also shown his new world view, which is leaning away from the depravity of mankind and leaning toward the idea of how even one life can inspire so many. The title "Invictus" comes from a poem that Mandela read during his years in prison about man triumphing over his soul and his destiny and in the end, conquering great obstacles. "Invictus," like Mandela himself, will inspire many, and leave no audience member unmoved. This is one of the year's best films.
Below is a picture of the real Nelson Mandela with the real Francois Pienaar

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Room: When Bad Movie Means Great Cinema

I know, I too often gripe about bad films, and how they are relentlessly tearing apart the fabric of good, intelligent, filmmaking.
Having said that, "The Room," a disaster of a film, might just be one of the most rewarding film watching experiences you'll ever have. Why is it that I'm recommending such a bad film? Quite simply, it achieves the rare feat of being so bad that its actually good.
Before delving into details, it helps to have some background on the making of the film. It was the first (and to date, only) feature made by Tommy Wiseau, who also wrote and stars in the film. "The Room" had a $6 million dollar budget. Apparently, Wiseau raised most of that money selling leather jackets. It also looks like more money was put into the opening credits than in the entire story itself. In reality, much of the budget was spent on a ridiculous billboard campaign.
I can't say this for a fact, but it seems almost evident that the film's editor was asleep throughout production and the studio executives who let it be made were likely on crack. Among its many problems, "The Room" contains so many scenes that have absolutely no value to the film. There are characters and important situations that are brought up and then never mentioned again. The dialogue is cliche and incredibly straightforward. In fact, Wiseau can't even figure out how to use cliches properly (for instance, the placing of "love is blind"). The acting is emotionless and artificial. The camera is usually shaky and there are way too many unnecessary cuts to stock images of the San Francisco skyline.
I should be listing all these criticisms in a very angry tone. However, I feel a delighted one makes much more sense. That's because "The Room" is the midnight movie of our generation to remember. The 1950s might've had Ed Wood and "Plan 9 From Outer Space," but we have Tommy Wiseau and "The Room."
There is no doubt you'll enjoy the film so much because you'll be laughing at it. Sometimes, that's what can make an extremely bad drama an extremely bad thing. Usually, a film is bad because it turns out to be the opposite of what it intended. For example, "Gigli" was supposed to be a dark comedy. Instead, it turned out to be a dark drama. "The Room" is meant to be a tragedy "with the passion of Tennessee Williams." Instead, its a passionless laughfest.
Still, what truly makes the room a cult classic is the eccentricity behind the auteur himself, Tommy Wiseau. In one scene, he tries to emulate James Dean by proclaiming "You're tearing me apart Lisa!" In a later scene he destroys his bedroom bit by bit, a scene that is so clearly inspired by the destruction of Susan Alexander Kane's bedroom during the climax of "Citizen Kane." Of course, Wiseau's thick, French accent sounds nothing like Dean, and the destruction of the bedroom scene is nowhere near as heartbreaking as the way Orson Welles filmed it. In both instances, they are flat out hilarious.
Could this be why in a way "The Room" is more than just a flat out bad movie. Despite how horribly made it is, it's so hard to hate because it feels inspired. You can sense the filmmaker was striving to show his unique vision but ultimately failed at it, much to the delight of audiences across America. All of this is more than can be said for a film like, say, "New Moon," which is thrown together in too quick a time for the sole purpose of commercial success.
I don't think this post can really do "The Room" justice. You're just going to have to rent it yourself or better yet, get to a midnight screening.
Here are a few great sample clips:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Who thought that Wes Anderson, who's still early on in a career of mastering the human frontier, could suddenly switch to the world of animated animals so perfectly? "Fantastic Mr. Fox," for lack of a better word, is fantastic.
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" is based off the book by the wildly imaginative Roald Dahl. Dahl's source material often makes for classic cinema (mainly, the original "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory"). The imaginative mind of Dahl is in good hands with the equally imaginative mind of Anderson.
For those not familiar with the book, the titular Mr. Fox (George Clooney) was a former chicken thief who retired his old profession after marrying Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) and having their child, Ash (Jason Schwartzman).
After going through what could be described as a mid-life crisis, Mr. Fox gets back into his old stealing habits and incites the wrath of the three wicked farmers Bogus, Bunce, and Bean. After they threaten his home and family, Mr. Fox prepares to fight back.
As pointed out, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" comes from the brilliant mind of Wes Anderson. Anderson is well known for directing films such as "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "The Life Aquatic." For a film that follows around the lives of foxes, rats, and badgers, it is still completely Andersonesque. He accounts for every tiny detail. The cozy tree the foxes inhabit is alive with color, their furniture and their walls adorned with the most intricate decorations. You might also marvel at how a computer in the background is covered with post it notes, or how the walls of the deepest parts of the earth have fossils imprinted into them.
Anderson also leaves his mark with the music, which is a mixture of original score and rock music. What other director would use a Rolling Stones song in a family movie? The original score often perfectly matches the pleasant, agrarian landscape and during more suspenseful moments, takes on a spaghetti western feel.
The characters themselves also feel ripped out of previous Anderson films. Mr. Fox's mischievous behavior over family values can feel something like those of Royal Tenenbaum, and his struggle to find a real identity for himself can at times, make him seem like Max Fisher.
What's most important about Anderson's direction is that every frame seems filled with absolute love. Rather than record the voices and sound in a studio, Anderson instead decided to record out in a farm in Connecticut. This no doubt gives the film a much more natural feeling, rather than just feeling like another artificial studio product churned out in too short an amount of time.
Perhaps that's what makes this better than the typical, how real it feels; even the animals feel human. Also, the film manages to be so adult in both theme and humor despite being a children's film. The fact that the word "existentialism" is mentioned in it might give you an indication of it.
In this light, Anderson's adaptation of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" manages to turn this fairytale into an allegory of the human existence. At one point, Mr. Fox realizes that his days as a thief proved him to be a wild beast, and that he must settle down. The fact that he goes back to his old ways shows the wild, untamed beast that is the basis of our existence. Here, is the key to existentialism.
But I don't want to get into philosophy. After all, this is meant to be a fun story for the family, and at that it succeeds admirably.
For some reason, as I watched this film, I couldn't stop thinking of the other children's film made by a mature filmmaker this year: "Where the Wild Things Are." Both were experiments of whether their directors could reach to new audiences. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" wins in this experiment not just because its well filmed, not just because it has depth, but for one small reason alone: it's an amazingly fun time at the movies.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Movie Review: 2012

I picture Roland Emmerich, director of "2012," being something like Woody Harrelson's character in the film: standing on top of a mountain, and cheering as the world came to an end.
Yes, "2012" is what some might describe as "death porn" or "destructo-porn." It's a disaster film based on an old conspiracy that goes where so many disaster films before it have gone. It's a marvel of special effects, but an absolute disaster in story telling.
"2012" is based off the popular conspiracy that on December 21, 2012 the world will end because it's the very day the Mayan calendar ends. Hours of unnecessary footage on the History Channel have tried to take everything from history and put it together to convince us that it will happen.
Now, I'm not saying I didn't like "2012" because I don't subscribe to this whole theory. Let's take a look at the story to see what is actually wrong with it.
The film has multiple story lines. One involves the President of the United States (Danny Glover) and two scientists: one with good intentions (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and another with shadier intentions (Oliver Platt).
The most important story involves Jackson Curtis (John Cusack). Jackson is a divorced writer who must get his two kids, his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), and her annoying new husband (Tom McCarthy) to safety as the world crumbles. That seems nice, until you realize that it's the exact same plot of Spielberg's "War of the Worlds."
The rest of "2012" basically involves the audience watching the world get destroyed. The Los Angeles freeway collapses. The Vatican crushes an entire crowd. The White House is crushed by a giant tsunami. Yellowstone National Park turns into a giant volcano. This then goes on for another two-and-a-half hours. It's entertaining, and even a little enthralling at first. But after a while, you're just waiting for it all to end.
Don't get me wrong, I love a good, special-effects laden blockbuster. If done well, it can make for great cinema, and even greater entertainment. However, what prevents "2012" from the possibility of being good is Roland Emmerich. Emmerich you could say is obsessed with destruction, as he also directed "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow." It's a testament to how lazy "2012" is when you see that it has literally the exact same closing shot that "The Day After Tomorrow" had. That's right, Emmerich ripped off himself.
Anyway, Emmerich's problem is that he cares more about the spectacle, than the humanity. As a giant earthquake splits the earth in two, splitting streets and causing buildings to collapse, thousands of innocent people crash to their deaths. They are not seen as humans, but merely as small specs in the distance. Even when main characters die, nobody seems phased by it in the slightest bit. Perhaps most tastelessly, is when an entire office building filled with people collapses, but the only thing we're supposed to be paying attention to is that the family got away safely in a jet. How can we cheer for one person, when everyone else around them is dying? Quite ironic for a film that preaches to remain humane in dire times.
For films like this, one should leave the idea of reality at the door. Good movies can suspend your disbelief from reality, but bad movies make you wish they had a little reality injected into them. How is it that Jackson and his family can narrowly escape death that easily? Not to mention, most of what is passed off as sound science in this film is completely wrong.
Possibly the one redeeming aspect of "2012" is Woody Harrelson's hilarious performance as an apocalypse-loving DJ. Seriously, this man can make eating a pickle seem funny. Most importantly, Harrelson looked like he was having a good time. Too bad no one else in the cast was.
Emmerich not only directed the film, he also co-wrote it. And what an awfully written screenplay it is. It's filled with so many inconsistencies and gigantic plot holes. Not to mention, it also makes the main character incredibly unlikable. I know that some people in life are bad people, but shouldn't the guy we're rooting for be at least a little bit nice. He can't even obey a clear "No Trespassing" sign.
I'd like to say that despite the flaws "2012" is nonetheless a good, entertaining time at the movies. It is, for about an hour and a half. The rest is dull and often laughable. The viewer can never really enjoy any of the film's thrill's because of how much is happening at once. Emmerich can't decide which way the world should end and therefore decides to gives us every possibility. "2012" might've been more enjoyable if it paced itself better.
Maybe the worst part of "2012" is the sense of smug superiority that it gives off; it believes itself to be much more intelligent that it actually is. At one point, the last survivors on earth board a life-saving ship known as the Ark. There's also a character named Noah on it. Coincidence?
I hate to call a film sadistic, but "2012" truly is, as it is not a celebration of life and survival, but rather a film that enjoys at the destruction of a planet and the loss of life. You're bound to have a more entertaining time looking at the crazy 2012 theories online, then spending $10 on this film.
Better Apocalyptic/Disaster Thrillers: Children of Men, War of the Worlds, Zombieland, Jaws, Akira, 12 Monkeys, Wall-E, Planet of the Apes, Titanic

Friday, November 6, 2009

Movie Review: Gangs of New York

Of all of the stunning images from "Gangs of New York," one that sticks out is a shot that starts off on street level, and continues to go higher and higher until the 19th Century style buildings become the shape of the island of Manhattan. Here is a city that, over the years, I've grown to know and love. Here it is, in a form like we've never seen before.
"Gangs of New York" is Martin Scorsese's latest vision of the mean streets of his beloved New York. However, it takes place 100 years before the days of "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," during Civil War ravished America.
The film starts off during a vicious gang war in 1848. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the son of respected Irish immigrant Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). On the opposite side is Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Bill is the glass-eyed son of a Revolutionary War soldier who gushes with patriotism. He's known as The Butcher not just for his day job, but for his weapon of choice.
As tensions rise between the Irish and the so-called 'Natives,' Bill murders Priest. Many years later, Amsterdam returns to a corrupt, Boss Tweed ruled Five Points and seeks revenge.
"Gangs of New York" shows Scorsese's recent fascination with American culture wars, as this film can be seen as something of a counterpart to his recent "The Departed." However, this film explores the roots of American diversity. It's about the earliest days of bigotry, much of it rising from immigration. In a way, much of the situations and dialogue sound frighteningly similar to the current national conversation on immigration.
Adding on to this is the near accurate version of history portrayed. While Hollywood will often portray history through a myopic lens of clean precision, Scorsese takes no shame in showing the filth, the blood, and the anger that shaped this era. Extra special attention is paid to the stunning sets. At times, it can distract from actual plot depth, but it definitely helps raise the story's level of believability.
Of course Scorsese's direction is excellent, but what stands out most is Day-Lewis' performance as Bill the Butcher. He is truly the best actor of this generation, and the carrier of the method torch. He steps into the character and makes him both a blood-thirsty savage and a patriot feeling betrayed by a country he helped defend. He may be racist, but his feelings can be understood. Not to mention, all he has to do is sharpen a knife, or just squint his eyes to become the most intimidating presence in the film. He basically steals all chance for any other actor in the film to shine.
Now, back to Scorsese. What makes Scorsese one of the great directors of cinema is that he knows how to handle violence better than any other director. Of all of his films, "Gangs of New York" may be his bloodiest. While most directors might show someone being stabbed and barely show the consequences, Scorsese slows things down and allows us to see the horrible, dehumanizing consequences of each kill. Later, after another major battle, the cobblestone streets turn into a red river. To Scorsese, violence isn't something to cheer on or admire, but rather something to be sickened by. Meanwhile, the aerial shots of the war dead are reminiscent of the sprawling images of the dead in "Gone with the Wind."
Upon its release, "Gangs of New York" divided audiences right down the middle. I believe it is a minor masterpiece; it doesn't reach "Goodfellas" or "Raging Bull" heights, but its certainly no sign of a Scorsese downfall either. The film runs over two and a half hours yet races by as Scorsese explores his favorite themes of honor, religion, and family. Like in any Scorsese film, the backdrop, cinematography, editing, and score of "Gangs of New York" is extremely well detailed and masterful. They portray the chaos of the era in the same way that each room in "Goodfellas" distinguished when exactly Henry was doing well or doing poorly. And while some have criticized that too much is covered at once, it all serves to cover the chaos.
Part of the problem could be in the story itself. While Scorsese at first creates the interesting idea that while Bill hated Priest, he had a deep respect for him. Once the conflict between Bill and Amsterdam arises that inexplicably seems to disappear from the film together with little explanation. Many scenes also seem pulled right out of the revenge film playbook. For example, the scene where Amsterdam saves Bill's life so he can later murder Bill himself is pulled straight from "Once Upon a Time in the West." A little clarification is never a bad thing.
But, these are just minor flaws. Overall, "Gangs of New York" exceeds its epic counterparts (mainly "300") in creating a vision of the past that's exciting and fascinating without actually losing a grip on the history part. It's a beautifully made history lesson about the birth of a nation and a bitter love letter to a city that spawned one of the greatest directors of all time.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Movie Review: Zombieland

There is a little, important secret of horror filmmaking I've been picking up on lately. That little secret is that less is more, that what we don't see is scarier than what we actually do see. Even though much blood and guts is spilled in "Zombieland," much is still left up to the imagination. This helps keep the film from being wannabe shlock to a totally satisfying horror satire.
"Zombieland" takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, long after a virus has turned most humans into cannibalistic zombies. The world has now become a Darwinian society, where all you need are a few basic skills to get by. One of those people lucky enough are Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg). Columbus is a scrawny, awkward college student who manages to get by unscathed because he's so used to loneliness.
While trying to reach his parents in Ohio, Columbus meets the tough, potty-mouthed, yet ultimately tender Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). As they head east, they meet two con women: Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The rest of the plot mainly consists of them traveling cross country, searching for safe haven as Columbus begins to fall for Wichita.
As you'll notice, each character is named after a different city. They each name themselves after the destination they are headed to, whether it still exists or not out of confidentiality reasons. It seems kind of ironic that they want their names to be secret though, as they end up becoming something of a family in the end.
In my introduction, I made the film seem like too much of a pure horror film. That, it isn't. I only felt frightened at a few moments in the film, but then again, "Zombieland" was meant to be a satire, and not a horror film. That doesn't mean it's not directed like a good horror film though. Take the convenience store scene. The most brutal death involves Tallahassee, a zombie, and a pair of hedge trimmers. We don't see what exactly the trimmers do, but we do see them slide across the floor, covered in blood. It's inferring what happened, rather than actually seeing what happened, that challenges the viewer, builds suspense, and just makes it even creepier to ponder. However, "Zombieland" does show us a good amount of graphic blood and guts. However it's much more sparse than you might imagine, and it mainly happens at the way beginning. It's almost like director Rubin Fleischer's way of saying "there's the gore. Happy now? Can we just move on?"
I can't forget that "Zombieland" is first and foremost a satire. Unfortunately, I'm not well-versed enough in the zombie genre to say whether or not "Zombieland" effectively both pokes fun and pays tribute to the popular genre. However, the film may also be a satire of the horror genre in general (I picked up a reference to the banjo scene in "Deliverance"). I could spot even smaller possible satirical spots. Some of them could even be the more predictable moments of the film, possibly mocking how formulaic the genre has become.
The humor of "Zombieland" is buoyed by its two central performances. While it might be cool at this point to bash Eisenberg for playing the same character he played in "The Squid and the Whale" and "Adventureland" I'm going to go against the tide and say he gave a good performance because I like him and well, if someone is good at playing a certain personality, why shouldn't they be allowed to keep playing it?
Mainly, Harrelson's performance as Tallahassee steals the show. The writers give him a few great lines ("That'll do, pig"), and he does such a great job at delivering each one. Harrelson plays Tallahassee slightly like Mickey from "Natural Born Killers," if Mickey had a soft spot and a love for Twinkies.
Stone doesn't bring a huge amount to the table, but she doesn't really detract from the story at all either. Breslin, however, does a great job with the material. After this and "Little Miss Sunshine," she proves that she can handle more adult material better than most girls under 18 [Editor's Note: Let's say for example, Hannah Montana, who'd I'd love to see be eaten by zombies]. The film also includes an extremely random, yet hilariously and even refreshing cameo. I dare not give it away here; I don't want to ruin the fun for you.
"Zombieland" isn't perfect. It's short and it isn't the first zombie satire ever made (there's also "Shaun of the Dead" which, for the record, I still haven't seen). But why did I like it so much? Mainly, its 81 minutes of pure, blissful, escapism. It's the kind of escapism that will draw you out of reality and further and further into the world of movies. This isn't a Seltzer-Friedberg satire, it's the kind that has a deep knowledge, and even a deep respect, for the subject its consistently mocking. Not only that, but it stands as a comedy in its own right, with its own, original jokes, as well.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On A Second Viewing: A Serious Man

Warning: May contain some brief, spoiler-ish details. Proceed with caution.
After I first saw "A Serious Man," I knew I liked it. I mean, how could I not like a film by the Coen Brothers?
However, there were a few things still bothering me. Well, mainly, it was that ending. Abrupt endings can be annoying, but I never hate them. All they involve is mulling over, and extra viewings. This was the case for "A History of Violence" and "No Country for Old Men." It was also the case for "A Serious Man."
But let me backtrack, so you can see the ending for yourself. I'm going to backtrack all the way to the beginning, to the mystery of the dybbuk. The Coen Brothers have repeatedly said that this story has no meaning, but I believe that there is something in there. There are three possible theories to this scene:
1) The couple were Larry's ancestors. Stabbing the dybbuk unleashed a centuries long family curse.
2) The man was not really a dybbuk. His unfortunate death mirrors Larry's struggle of how bad things always seem to happen to those who just try and commit mitzvahs.
3) It's both. Or neither.
It could be any of those answers. But the more I think about it, the more I believe it is the last one. That's the one that breaks the lock, and provides that any answer be correct. In the end, the dybbuk walks out into the snow. The Coen Brothers never show us whether or not he died or just kept on into the night, getting ready to haunt more unsuspecting citizens. What this scene truly does is act as a mini movie in preparing us on what is to come. "A Serious Man" will not be like the typical film that provides you with answers. Here's one where you'll have to come up with the answers on your own. And it won't be easy.
A technique the Coen Brothers use constantly throughout their films is repetition. One line repeated in this film is Larry's insistence, "I haven't done anything!" And this here, is the point of the film. Why is Larry suffering? True, he hasn't done anything wrong, but he hasn't done anything right.
One of the many things I got out of the film a second time around is just how deeply funny it is. The humor doesn't always lie in one-liners, it lies mainly within the situations. There are many instances where you shouldn't be laughing, but you do anyways. Will you feel bad for laughing at some of Larry's ridiculous misfortunes? Then again, the film does tell us in the very first shot to take every minute with "utmost simplicity."
In my first review, I gave praise to the film's three leading men, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, and Fred Melamed, but not as much praise as they deserve. While Kind was cast as the annoying relative he always plays, he manages to still make him as atypical as possible. Meanwhile, Melamed seems like a lock for best supporting actor as Sy Ableman. He is (if I'm reading the film right) the serious man of the title. And he plays Sy that way, portraying him with utmost scrutiny. He commands every shot he is in, taking it over, moving around characters by his own wishes and just carrying this feeling that he knows everything.
Then of course, there's the other Oscar lock, of Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnick. This is Stuhlbarg's first big leading role, but he takes it like a pro. In the scene where Larry's wife discusses a divorce, his pitch goes up to a high, whiny voice; giving Larry an almost lovable childlike ignorance.
The Coen Brothers are famous for emphasizing their characters' quirks. Stuhlbarg basically does that for them, as he gives Larry a sort of chicken walk, especially in the scene where he waddles across his look, getting a peak at the forbidden temptation that lies just over a small white picket fence.
While that serious man in the title could refer to either Sy or Larry, there is yet another important (soon to be) man in the mix: Danny Gopnick (Aaron Wolff). He lives a life opposite of his father, only caring about smoking joints and watching "F-Troop" rather than trying to be a mature, serious man. However, he, like every character, eventually faces just consequences for their poor actions.
A large controversy I've discussed with many people about this film is what kind of audience it was meant for. The idea that only a Jew could appreciate it is one I am beginning to find quite unfair. Just because I wasn't raised Catholic, does that mean I can't be stunned by the christening scene in "The Godfather?" Just because I'm not Italian, does that not mean I can't be entertained by the wedding in "Goodfellas?" While maybe only those who were born Jewish will understand the anxiety of preparing to have a Bar Mitzvah, the Coen Brothers opened up a door to the Jewish culture. They are inviting you to stay and look around.
Now, there's one point from my last review I'd like to correct. In my previous review, I seemed to stick to the theory that Larry's story was a reflection of the story of Job. Well, it's only half that. The other half is the possibility that Larry's story reflects existentialism, rather than the existence of God. Larry's miseries could be a test from God. Or they could just simply be life's plan for him, and there's nothing he can do about it (this scene reflects this idea).
Also in the mix, you could see Larry as a 1960s Jewish version of Hamlet; a man spending too much time overthinking life and trying to avoid a situation that simply cannot be avoided. He could even be a figure straight out of a Kafka* story: a good man who is so overburdened by a world that demands too much responsibility out of him.
It's simply possible that "A Serious Man" is every single one of these ideas. Or none of them. This makes the film a sort of "choose your own adventure" like story but this time, you have to choose your own theme. The Coen Brothers have thus constructed the rare film that's a totally different experience to each and every member. Yep, the way a film should be.
But maybe the Coen Brothers, who are the absolute masters of trickery, are just leading us into a giant trap. They awaited as critics and audience members alike overanalyzed every aspect of the film to death when they were missing the film's real point: the danger of overanalysis. In the film, we learn in the end that the mystery of the goy's teeth is solved once the dentist forgets about it. Perhaps Larry's problems would have been nothing to him if he just, took a deep breath and forgot about them for a while.
So for now, I'm not going to fall for the trick. I leave the rest of the interpretations up to you.
*Tip for Aspiring Writers: A Kafka namedrop always makes you look smarter.
For further reference, here are a few great articles about the film:
I know I've written a lot here, but I still didn't even get to touch on Larry's neighbors, physics, respecting privacy, the wisdom of youth, and the film's representation of connections within the Jewish community. Oh well, it doesn't look like this is the last time you'll be hearing about "A Serious Man." Until then, I want you all to take a few minutes and enjoy one of the most meaningful parts of the film: the power of "Somebody to Love":