Monday, December 27, 2010

Movie Review: The King's Speech

It must be hard to make a speech to an entire nation, but I imagine it's even more difficult to have to do it with a speech impediment. "The King's Speech" manages to bring history's most insecure king's struggle to life, one oblique angle at a time.

"The King's Speech" does the extraordinary by making British royalty both sympathetic and not at all boring. I guess people are just more interesting when they're facing total ruin from an evil foreign power.

For those who need to brush up on their history (like me), "The King's Speech" is a biography on King George VI (Colin Firth). It begins in the days when he was still Duke of York, to his rise to the throne in the wake of World War II.

George's path to power is blocked by his speech impediment, a problem which prevents him from speaking in public. So, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) hires speech doctor Lionel Lougue (Geoffrey Rush) to help him get rid of his confining stutter. Throughout the years, Louge becomes both a doctor and a life coach to George.

That man playing the king is someone who has hopefully become a household name by now, because his acting ability is too good to ignore. Firth turns a character that might've been cold and unsympathetic into someone who is both warm and funny, a man who under his problems is radiating with personality and life.

Firth is also one of the most emotional actors working today, and Hollywood's best crier. I still remember that first scene in "A Single Man" when he breaks down into silent rage. Nobody knew anything about this character, but still, we wanted to cry with him.

As an actor, Firth does best when given as little to say as possible. Even in a film about the importance of rhetoric, Firth's silence is a dominating factor.

Not only is "The King's Speech" wonderfully acted, it's also wonderfully told. What could have been dated and stale historical nonfiction feels so alive and modern; the characters of the past feel as tangible and relatable as characters in the present would. The fantastic screenplay, written by David Seidler, brings fascinating historical depth and great moments of comic relief when needed.

The man who deserves the biggest praise for the success of "The King's Speech" is director Tom Hopper. The rookie British director directs like an old pro. It is both claustrophobic and emotionally shot. The best example of the superb directing would be that first scene. Everything from the way the camera is slightly tilted to how the frame is slightly blurred represent a nervous tension leading up to the opening speech. You could look at that, or the subtle imagery, like the way the microphone is placed in front of George's mouth to look almost like a muzzle, or a cage. The best directed films are the ones you have to look at with the keenest eye, and find the greatest little details.

"The King's Speech" is even better than the Oscar-begging period piece it appears to be. It will be raking in the Oscar nominations this year because it deserves it, and that is a rare find nowadays.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Movie Review: True Grit

"True Grit" begins like any other Coen Brothers movie: with a pretty image set to mysterious background narration. Is this going to be another typical Coen experience? Not exactly.

"True Grit," the rare western that actually takes place during the days of the wild west, is told in a fittingly traditional fashion. This is quite a radical departure for a pair of directors known for constantly pushing the storytelling envelope. However, that is part of the reason this film feels so interesting. Despite being a remake of an adaptation of a book, it still manages to remain unique.

I may not be the best person to review this movie, as I haven't seen the original version of "True Grit," nor have I read the book. Maybe that won't matter, as those who have seen the original film claims it has little to no resemblance to the latest version.

Regardless of the version, "True Grit" takes place in what looks like somewhere between Colorado and Montana in the late 1800s. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a young girl looking to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who ruthlessly killed her father. To pull this off, she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed, former U.S. Marshall with a reputation for shooting things and chugging whiskey. Accompanying Cogburn for the kill is the often hot-headed, yet wise LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who's name shouldn't be confused with the name of a certain actor from "Even Stevens."

But, I digress. While Cogburn and LaBoeuf set off to find Chaney, they reluctantly let Mattie join. What follows is a long journey through the American West that leads to much danger and self-discovery.

It is very easy to go ahead and dismiss "True Grit," as many others have been doing. Most say the Coen Brothers are capable of much better than this, and that is true. They are capable of making films that become cult classics, and others that go onto win Best Picture. "True Grit" will probably do neither. However, that doesn't stop it from being a solid, highly entertaining movie.

While "True Grit" wasn't as amazing a collaboration between the Coen Brothers and Jeff Bridges can be, it reminded me how much I missed the western genre. The genre hasn't necessarily died, it has just gone in a new direction, often telling tales that take place in the modern day (i.e. "No Country for Old Men," "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada"). There hasn't been a truly great "old" western since "Unforgiven" in 1992. Perhaps the success could spur a much needed rebirth in the genre.

What I found interesting about "True Grit," something one would rarely see in a western outside of the 1960s, was some subtle commentary, or at least cognizance, of racism. There definitely wasn't supposed to be a big point made out of it, but it's good to see every once in a while the acknowledgment of Native Americans, and how poorly they were treated.

Despite how different this film is from other Coen Brothers films, this is unmistakably their film. There is that distinct focus on the landscape, highlighted by Roger Deakins's breathtaking cinematography. There is also that attention to the little details that distinguish them from all other filmmakers. This is one of the few westerns I've seen where the characters actually talk appropriately for the time period. Those accents may be impossible to understand, but a little historical accuracy never hurt anyone.

A great Coen movie is also about its characters. And that, "True Grit" has a lot of. Despite what the commercials will make you think, Rooster Cogburn isn't quite the main character. The film is really about Mattie Ross. Without the right actress, Ross could've just come off as whiny and annoying. But in her debut, Steinfeld nailed it. In a way, she resembles the performance of Hit-Girl in this year's "Kick-Ass": she is smarter and more skilled than her superiors but in a way, overcompensating for her young age. In a world full of illiterate southerners, her knowledge outshines everyone around her. She is this film's Marge Gunderson.

I'm sure though that the reason any devoted Coen Brothers fan saw this movie was for Jeff Bridges, seeing as the last time the directors and the actor collaborated, "The Big Lebowski" was created. "True Grit" lacks the wit and twisty intelligence "Lebowski" offers. Nonetheless, it proves that this is a collaboration that works. The directors have a certain vision in mind, and the actor follows it perfectly.

Bridges shows in "True Grit" that he is one of those actors that has gotten even better with age. In "True Grit," he shows what kind of performance he is most capable of: the outsider who is aware of his isolation from society, but celebrates it while ignoring all of his possible flaws. In his transition from Dude to Rooster, he trades joints for rolled up tobacco, and has no problem doing so.

Really the only performance I had any problem with in "True Grit" was that of Damon. He is usually a fine actor; one who is always watchable. However, it seems like here he was barely trying to pull of an accent. That is a shame, because when he gets into his roles, he can be truly extraordinary (see "The Informant").

I want to celebrate "True Grit" for what it is rather than what it isn't: an extremely solid piece of entertainment that may not outshine the rest of these directors' body of work, but certainly outshines many of its contemporaries. I am not going to forget "True Grit" for a few small things; like that little amazing scene when Mattie bravely crosses the river. It is also hard to forget the weird things, such as the man dressed in full bear costume, or the other man who communicates through farm animal sounds. Why were these things included in the film? Who knows. The best parts of any Coen Brothers film are the parts left unexplained.

Friday, December 24, 2010

How Arcade Fire Changed My Life This Year

"Grab your mother's keys we're leaving."

That is one of the lines from Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" now engraved into my mind. I know this is usually a blog focusing on visual media, but it's impossible to pass up a band as revelatory as Arcade Fire.

Before this year, Arcade Fire was just another indie band. Maybe I was just listening to the hype, or maybe I had just listened to "Wake Up" too many times. Arcade Fire is more than that. They are the indie band that is too cool to be called indie. They are the quintessential alternative band of this era, and a remnant of great music from a time long ago.

Arcade Fire has remained in my mind all year for two reasons mainly. The first was their concert at Madison Square Garden, and the second was their latest album, "The Suburbs."

I have been to very few concerts, but Arcade Fire's will likely remain my favorite for the rest of my life (that is, unless, someone reincarnates Nico and gets her to perform again with The Velvet Underground). During it, the band came off as totally, totally not pretentious, and totally unchanged by their recent transition into mainstream fame. Win Butler even apologized and offered to start a song over after the drummer screwed up a beat.

During the concert, I also couldn't help but be impressed with the huge array of instruments in the band. While most bands will usually consist of a singer, a guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer, Arcade Fire has everything from the violin to the accordion. That is why their sounds is always so unique.

Then, there is their album "The Suburbs." For a while, I was still committed to "Funeral" and was entirely unconvinced that another album could knock it off as their best. After multiple listens, I was proven wrong. Anything that's truly worth it gets better after multiple viewings (same goes for the band's underrated sophomore effort, "Neon Bible").

"The Suburbs" is a marvel of an album for multiple reasons. One reason is simply how great every single song sounds. It's worth endless amounts of listens.

However, "The Suburbs" is better than the simple label of "good." That's because "The Suburbs" brings music back to a better time. While the music of today is focused on the popularity of singles, "The Suburbs" resembles a 1970s concept album. It's a little more like something Pink Floyd, David Bowie, or The Who might've produced rather than something you'd hear from, say, Katy Perry.

The concept album refers to an album that comes together in the end under one common theme or story. "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust"chronicles the rise and fall of a musician from outer space (or something like that). In a more recent example, Radiohead's "OK Computer" comes together to express themes of modern alienation and striving to be different in a world that demands perfection.

"The Suburbs" may be even more than a concept album; it's a rock opera. It tells the story of Win and William Butler's time they spent growing up in suburban Texas. When listened to in order, it tells the story of lost youth aimlessly wasting time, looking to escape, and then appreciating all of their past experiences.

I might have connected so deeply with this album because it has reflected my own experiences wasting time and fighting boredom in American suburbia. Also, in its own unique way, "The Suburbs" is basically a movie. Altogether, it tells a story, and it must be taken in in order for it to be comprehended at the highest level. Sure, you could put it on shuffle, but "Empty Room" is not the same without listening to it seamlessly dissolve into "City With No Children."

Not only was "The Suburbs" the best album released this year (no disrespect, Kanye), but it is one I can site as having a major impact on how I process art. Listening to "The Suburbs" has trained me to listen to albums as a whole rather than in parts. Full, sequential stories can be even better than tiny parts that don't connect. Maybe this is why I've grown up to be a film critic.

Check out my first review of "The Suburbs."

Here are a few of my favorite Arcade Fire Songs:

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Movie Review: The Fighter

When "The Fighter" was first released, the common reaction was likely, "are you kidding? Another boxing movie?" If a director has the chutzpah to make a movie about a topic that has been explored to death, he better make something good. Since it's David O. Russell, the director of "Three Kings," then it must be worth our while.

"The Fighter" is the kind of entertainment that has a huge mass audience potential, yet its slow pace is made for those with patience. The film begins as a psuedo-documentary and switches between that and narrative format throughout. This film tells the true story of Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling boxer from a rough neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts. His future career as a boxer is compromised by both his love for a beautiful bartender (Amy Adams) and his dysfunctional family, which includes his abusive mother (Melissa Leo) and his washed up, crack addicted brother, who is a former boxer (Christian Bale).

"The Fighter" is what one might consider a slow burner, for better or worse. It begins slow and at first doesn't seem to know quite which direction to take the story. It takes an extremely dramatic twist less than midway into the story for "The Fighter" to truly pick up steam. It goes from an average underdog story to something very different; something that is much more immediate and important than the typical Hollywood fable.

"The Fighter" also brings a new dimension to the now popular tough-and-from-Boston film. Coming off the heels of this year's "The Town" as well as "The Departed," "Gone Baby Gone," and "Good Will Hunting" of past years, Boston has become less of a city and more of a theme in the eye of the filmmaker. Growing up in Boston means being tied down to societal and familial constraints. The only way to escape these constraints comes through pursuing one's passion, whether that be solving math problems, robbing banks, or boxing.

While this is also one of the more realistic looks at crime and drug problems in the city, there is also a sense of warmth surrounding the characters unseen in most other Boston films. This can be seen mainly in that fantastic first scene, where Mickey and Dicky walk through the streets of Lowell and embrace everyone they see shows that in a way, everyone is looking to escape with Mickey. Everyone feels Mickey's quest is their quest as well.

Looking past a few small flaws, "The Fighter" is an example of how a few good performances can severely impact the course of a film. Wahlberg is a fine choice for Mickey. In fact, this could even be a bit of a personal role for him given his past in Boston as well as his troubles with family and the law. However, he is nothing truly special. He lacks that hilarious, nasty, and committed attitude that made his performance in "The Departed" so unforgettable.

The true strength of the ensemble lies in a few supporting characters. The ladies of the film bring much needed emotional depth to their roles. Adams is proving herself a fine young actress capable of even bigger roles while Leo shows she is always more than capable of playing troubled, lower class mothers.

The real soul, the real strength of the film, lies totally in the performance of Christian Bale. It is weird to think he is even a supporting character, given how much of the story relies on him, and how he dominates every scene he is in and makes you forget the story is really about Mickey Ward. I could tell from the film's very first shot that his performance was going to be something special. Like Natalie Portman in "Black Swan," Bale acts with his entire body. With his googly eyes, shaky arms, and salamander-like body, he is the sad embodiment of drug addiction. Bale makes Dicky fast-talking, funny, and sad. He starts the story as someone we look at and pity, but by the end, he has truly earned his redemption.

What is most interesting about Bale's style of method acting, most similar to De Niro in his glory days, is that he is always acting. A common habit for an actor when they are in a shot where they don't talk is to just sit silently, and stare. Bale however, doesn't end his drug-addled fidgeting. I could probably spend an entire review talking about Bale's acting, but there is actually a whole movie here to still talk about. So let's just say this: Bale has earned this year's Best Supporting Actor statue.

What Bale's performance shows is the potential energy and excitement surrounding the story that "The Fighter" is ultimately able to embody. "The Fighter" is the story of the unlikely coming true. Director David O. Russell, who also made the Gulf War parable "Three Kings" highly plausible (and still relevant), succeeds at this task admirably. Scenes like the one where the characters walk through the streets, as mentioned earlier, show the uplifting potential of such depressing material. Not to mention, the boxing scenes are shot in a televised style, capturing the excitement of watching a match live. It also creates a strange, yet effective, detachment from the actual violence happening onscreen.

"The Fighter" is a film that shows that what is ultimately most important is not what a film is about, but how it is about. There are only so many stories to be told so the same old stories might as well be told in new, innovative ways.

The struggle of the boxer has been captured so many times that it can't possibly be interesting anymore. However, David O. Russell makes the right choice and takes a page out of the "Raging Bull" handbook of how to make a good sports film and barely focuses on the actual sport itself. The sport is less of a sport and more of a means for the characters to express themselves in some way, either to release energy, or overcome adversity. The title of "The Fighter" does not suggest someone fighting for a title, but rather someone fighting merely to stay alive.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tommy Wiseau: Persistence is Everything

Tommy Wiseau is the auteur no one ever asked for, and the one no one ever wants to go away. Not because he actually displays any sort of artistic merit, but because he is just always here.

For those of you unfamiliar, Tommy Wiseau came out of nowhere and released a movie called "The Room." Like any enduring cinematic classic, "The Room" was largely ignored upon initial release. Years later, it gained much popularity and a huge cult following once audiences started to realize it was one of the most awful, laughably implausible movies ever made.

"The Room" looks like it was shot for six dollars, despite having a budget of $6 million, and the dialogue sounds like it was created by someone who does not have any understanding at all of the English language.

Today, "Room" lovers were given another reason to live: Wiseau plans to release "The Room" in 3D. Yes, that means the horrifyingly long sex scenes will be given an extra dimension. Here's an upgrade no one asked for, but we will (somewhat) thankfully be receiving. Wiseau also plans to release the film in Blu-Ray. To that he might say, "oh, hi technology!"

Now, as someone who has openly railed against 3D on various occasions, I am strangely excited for this. As an unapologetic "Room" fan, I am always excited to see what shocking heights of awfulness Wiseau is capable of. We saw another glance of what other possible stories he could produce, when the vampire short film "The House that Drips Blood on Alex" was released online earlier this year.

Not only will "The Room" be treated to two new formats, but Wiseau also plans to release a clothing line. That's right; he's even taking over the garment industry now. I have a good feeling that the 3D won't look so great, the Blu-Ray features will just make the movie even more confusing, and his clothes will likely lack a basic necessity like buttons, or fabric.

Yet, despite the complete lack of talent, it is almost impossible to ever hate this man. Why? Because when the world tells him he's as bad as Ed Wood, he doesn't back down. When people tell him he can't speak English, he just keeps speaking. He will never give up his unique, eccentric personality. There is nothing Tommy Wiseau can't do right, but that doesn't mean he is going to ever stop doing it. And that is why "The Room" is a cinematic masterpiece, and Tommy Wiseau is its auteur. Bring on the 3D.

Tommy Wiseau The Room You are tearing me apart Lisa

For More Information on Wiseau's Latest Developments, Read On

And of course...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Movie Review: Black Swan

There's a good reason that I've shied away from dance recitals my entire life. To a boy growing up in the 2000s, they just seemed cold, dull, and snobbish. Well, anything can seem that way until you literally rip the curtains down and see what happens backstage.

Here comes "Black Swan." This film doesn't just rip open the big red curtains, it tears them down and cuts them into shreds. This is Darren Aronofsky's second attempt to turn an eccentric sporting event into a dark art and in that, he is a success.

"Black Swan," like another recently acclaimed movie, "127 Hours," is a one man show. Actually, let's make that a one woman show. To explain the true plot of "Black Swan" I would probably have to kill you, but it's worth a shot. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a tightly wound, overly perfect ballerina looking to land the leading role in her company's production of "Swan Lake." Her struggles and desires soon turn into a creepy, deadly obsession and a major rivalry between a new dancer (Mila Kunis).

Mere plot summary does no justice in describing the story of "Black Swan." Perhaps the best way to put it is that the whole film feels a little like a documentary filmmaker was sent to cover a production of "Swan Lake," and accidentally released a demon backstage. Yes, this film contains the eerie combo of being both realist and surrealist psychological thriller. The handheld cameras make "Black Swan" the perfect documentary of the mind, putting the audience directly into Nina's point of view. This helps make her delusional state of mind all the more believable.

Aronofsky's talent for psychological thrillers stems from his films "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream," where he explored characters on downward spirals thanks to obsession. Next came "The Wrestler," where he gave audiences a poignant and realistic look at the life of a professional wrestler trying to make a comeback. "Black Swan" can be seen as the culmination of Aronofsky's current career, as it mixes elements from all of those films. What really distinguishes Aronofsky from all other directors working today is no matter how well known his films get, he never lets go of that home grown feeling.

Aronofsky makes ballet not only interesting but also quite morbid. The fascinating process of watching a ballerina break in her dancing shoes brought only foot binding to mind.

If the world was a perfect place, then Portman would become Aronofsky's muse, and they would work together on every movie. Yet, it doesn't seem like Portman truly needed help to achieve the best performance of her career; she had it in her all along. While some might act with their words or their facial expressions, Portman acts with her entire body. She makes her character constantly act like she is in a ballet: using every little movement of the legs or arms to describe joy or pain.

Most importantly, Portman invests so much emotional effort into Nina that we actually care about her trip into utter insanity. She acts uptight when she needs to, and loose when her character finally begins to relax. Even when Nina seems so on top of her game, there is always an underlying layer of fragility and weakness. She makes the repeatedly played "Swan Lake" score all the more haunting during her shocking transformation. She also leaves true intentions and events totally ambiguous.

That is part of the beauty of "Black Swan": ambiguity. "Black Swan" may or may not contain so many hidden meanings. The film partly encompasses a story about how societal pressures and expectations can hold us back and keep us in a child-like state. It is about what happens when we let go of our insecurities and inhibitions and just dance. It also covers ground of deception, manipulation, and the essence of creating a work of art.

The essential part of a film is the feeling it leaves you with in the end. In a good film, you know the feeling. A great film leaves the viewer with so many emotions that one simply can't be chosen. At the end of say, "Chinatown," I felt like I had just watched a small puppy be beaten in front of me. More recently, the conclusion of "127 Hours" made me feel so overwhelmed and newly appreciative at the subtle greatness of living.

Once the credits rolled for "Black Swan," it felt as if a mad scientist had rewired my brain and made every emotion indistinguishable. I walked out angry, I walked out enthralled. A strange, new possibility of alternate reality had just been so convincingly presented.

In the end, "Black Swan" towers above its contemporaries for making an old twist kind of story really unique. This is the rare psychological thriller that doesn't try to be artsy; it just wants to tell a good story. Aronofsky doesn't want "Black Swan" to be some giant cliche, as the film's main goal is to penetrate the true nature of both storytelling, and in effect filmmaking, itself. In the same way Nina turns her life into the life of the Black Swan, so does Aronofsky in turning the story of his film into "Swan Lake." When one is creating a work of art, one must become it.

If You Liked This Movie, You'll Also Like: Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Rosemary's Baby, Carrie, District 9, American Beauty, Mulholland Dr., Eraserhead

Monday, November 29, 2010

Discovery of the Day: Movie-A-Minute

For those of you unfamiliar with all the beauties of the Interweb, it has provided the world with a wonderful invention called StumbleUpon. This site allows you to choose from a set of interests and based on those interests, sifts through the entire web and finds sites that pertain to those interests. Needless to say, its the most interesting and informative procrastination tool currently available online.

So far, I've stumbled upon sites that tell you the psychological aspects of color, and other sites that generate random facts at the click of a button. Strangely, I've been most impressed at a site that combines two categories I've subscribed for: Movies and Humor. The site is titled Movie-A-Minute.

Movie-A-Minute doesn't look like it's out there to impress anyone. It's format is free of modern day graphics. It might as well have been started in 1997. However, Movie-A-Minute is a triumph of substance over style.

The basic premise of Movie-A-Minute is that it rounds up various movies, good and bad, and condenses their entire plots into a dialogue that lasts under a minute. Here is a sample one from "Die Hard":

Alan Rickman
Har har har.
Bruce Willis
Grunt sigh moan grunt holler yell sigh wince groan cringe grunt.
(A chair BLOWS UP. Then the elevator BLOWS UP. Then a room BLOWS UP. Then the building BLOWS UP. Then the entire universe BLOWS UP. But the badguy STILL ISN'T DEAD YET. Then the badguy dies.)

The above sample doesn't just encapsulate the movie's story in two sentences, it also encapsulates just about any action movie that has been popular during the last 25 years, as does the entry for "Armageddon."

Some of the other highlights from this site include the "Lost in Translation" entry, which mocks the fact that that whole film has come to be defined by about five seconds of footage, and the David Lynch films entry, showing the typical inexplicable insanity of his mind in such a hilarious way.
While some of these entries are pretty mocking, others just seem to be having good fun. I mean how could anyone actually hate on "The Godfather" or "The Lion King?"

Movie-A-Minute seems like a hilarious online trend I'd have expected to reach the masses a long time ago. Yet, this site seems both too obscure, and way more intelligent than anyone could ever give it credit for.

In fact, this site seems perfect for a generation who's attention span is supposedly shrinking more and more thanks to the multi-tasking provided by the Internet age. With no one seeming to have anytime to sit down and watch a full movie these days, Movie-A-Minute is there to both hastily fill us in on a movie, make fun of a movie, and then make fun of us for not actually sitting down to watch the whole thing.

Side Note: In order to stay relevant, I would like to announce that today Anne Hathaway and James Franco were announced as co-hosts for the next Academy Awards. I can't say anything too bad about the decision, seeing as Franco is hilarious (and will hopefully get an Oscar nomination this year) and Hathaway is a skilled entertainer. However, can the Academy please just get an actual comedian back onstage again? It's time for the Hollywood elite to learn that everyone needs to get made fun of every once in a while.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Movie Review: 127 Hours

Once again, a Danny Boyle film begins with the simple act of running. This time, it is not one person running, or even anyone running for some sort of purpose. It is just people running. Running because they can. Rushing because they want to.

Why open the movie this way, when the hero isn't even present? It's because understanding the adrenaline rush all humans search for is the only way to make sense of the strange, infuriating, and painful journey the hero of "127 Hours" will endure.

"127 Hours," takes the idea of Realism to an almost unseen level. It is based on the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a mountain climber with a reckless need for adventure. One day, Ralston leaves his comfy Los Angeles apartment for a trip into the American desert, and ends up at the bottom of a canyon with his arm stuck under a rock. And this all happens while he is completely alone.

"127 Hours" is basically a one man show. That doesn't mean there are no other good performances, it just means that Franco's performance is the only one that really matters. Had he failed in his role, "127 Hours" also would've failed. However, Franco is better than that. I've usually found Franco's best performances to be in comedy, but with "127 Hours," he proved he is just as good (if even better) in drama.

What is so perfect about Franco's performance is that it doesn't even feel like he's acting; he's reacting. He does exactly what anyone would actually do if stuck in Aron's situation. What is eventually so haunting and memorable is how much he acts through facial expressions rather than words. It's a rare talent to show such emotions as desperation and intensity without saying anything. Usually, it's the filmmaker, not the actor, who is told to show, not tell. Franco proves that actors should begin to take on this burden as well.

Everyone else who worked on this film is as meticulous in their field as Franco is. Those quick, narrow cuts so perfectly serve the claustrophobia of the location. The cinematography also captures the dramatic American landscape so flawlessly.

Most of all, Boyle has impressed me more and more with each film he makes. Boyle could be accused of being one of the worst offenders of over filmmaking. "127 Hours" randomly contains shots ranging from the inside of a water bottle to the inside of a bone in someone's arm. Usually, these would just be detours in a film. But in "127 Hours," they are the tiny details that truly emphasize this man's incredible quest for survival.

It is funny with all of the over filming how much at times "127 Hours" doesn't even feel like a movie. At times, it doesn't even feel like a pseudo-documentary. It feels just like a slice of reality.

Boyle's most amazing talent is his ability to see that it's not just about what's being filmed, but how it's being filmed. "127 Hours" might have been a preachy, cliche story in another's director's hands. With Boyle, it is a nail-biting adventure, even if the ending is already known. One of the best examples of this is during the rain scene. There is nothing interesting about a rain storm. However, there is a lot interesting about it if you slow it down and turn it into a frightening, unstoppable force of nature.

Boyle also has such a way of connecting with the locations he shoots in, inhabiting them as if he had lived there his whole life. He can connect places with a variety of emotions. The film nails suburban American sprawl in the first five minutes by connecting Los Angeles to various icons of consumerism. He makes this place seem as empty as he made the slums of Mumbai beautiful in "Slumdog Millionare" and the streets of Edinburgh exhilarating in "Trainspotting."

Boyle has always been a highly stylized director, and "127 Hours" is certainly a highly stylized film. Boyle has the rare gift of turning style into substance. Not only does he make such an interesting adventure, he also makes such an interesting character. Aron reminds me of a modern day Christopher McCandless, but with more knowledge of how to survive in nature. Like McCandless, Aron is a people person who doesn't act like one. He seems to only be able to connect to the world by foolishly isolating himself from the people he loves.

This could also be because he defines the McCandless mentality: one has to prove themselves worthy by doing it alone. Maybe it's because men feel they have a special one-on-one connection with nature or they feel nature must be tamed. The lesson Hollywood seems to be teaching us is if you're trying to go on a dangerous trek through nature alone: always leave a note.

In the end, "127 Hours" shows a new Boyle who is more emotionally effected by tragedy. It contains an ending that could've bordered on base sentimentality but is instead truly moving and deserving of a good tear or two. Aron Ralston, despite being selfish and aloof of reality, really deserves a hero's welcome simply for his amazing will to survive and thrive.

One more note before I leave will be of the scene everyone is talking about. If you know the true story or have read the articles, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Yes, it's shocking, gruesome, and hard to watch. However, don't let those few very negative reactions of one scene shape your entire opinion of the film. "127 Hours" is a film too big, and too meaningful, to be judged on one scene alone.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Watching Movies in College

If you're someone who occasionally snoops around this blog, you might have noticed something recently: new posts aren't coming. No, I haven't died. No, I haven't suddenly lost my interest in movies. And no, The Reel Deal is not reaching its end anytime soon. It may just be reaching a new stage in its short yet sweet life.

Let me just warn you that this following post has nothing to do with any particular movie. I also don't want to justify my "laziness." I would just like to explain, and make it loud and clear that The Reel Deal isn't going anywhere.

What has happened to me? Well, I went to college. For those of you who don't know, college works a bit differently from high school. Time functions differently. Sleep happens sporadically, and even rarely. Worst of all, time really does fly. One day is never enough time to accomplish something. Even with so much free time, there is always something happening, something else to be doing.

In this time, I unfortunately lost sight of my defining source. Those days when enlightenment seemed to come from the cinema and discovery came from writing about it somehow got muddled. I began to forget that feeling, that so-called ecstasy of cinema.

I didn't try to lose this on purpose. The last time I remember feeling this was the last time I walked into a theater to see "The Social Network." That was a movie that was just about so perfect in every way that it made me wish every movie I saw could be just as good.

So maybe in that respect I can blame Hollywood. They've released few movies so far this season that seem worth taking that forty minute bus ride to the mall. Oh yeah, finding a movie theater in upstate New York can become even more of an adventure than an actual movie itself.

Just because I haven't been to the movies in so long, doesn't mean I'm out of touch. I'll go see "127 Hours." I'll go see "True Grit." Hell, I might even see the new "Harry Potter." I so dearly long to feel the ecstasy of cinema in theaters again. I can't wait to walk out of a movie again and feel the same way I did after seeing the likes of "There Will Be Blood," "Inglourious Basterds," and "Inception."

But while there is nothing like a good movie, I've found those pleasures of the best cinema can even be found in real life. What is that feeling? It's the feeling of finding something amazingly unusual in such a normal situation, such as a beautiful spring day in the middle of the gloom of November.

At this point, you probably wished I would stop writing this piece. What is the point of this if I'm not analyzing a movie or complaining about how much I hate Michael Bay? Because I want to reassure you that The Reel Deal is not dead and never will be. It's simply heading in a new, uncharted direction. I don't know what direction this blog is headed in, just as I don't know what direction my film major will take me. Then again, life is more fun that way.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mad Men: Dissertation on the Best Season Yet

Warning: Spoilers for the fourth season ahead. Proceed with caution.
When the epic finale of the third season of "Mad Men" ended with the image of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) walking into his hotel, unsure of the future that lay head, I was unsure of one thing: how could the makers of "Mad Men" possibly make an episode of television this good ever again?

Well, Matthew Weiner did it again, for every single episode of the nearly flawless fourth season of "Mad Men." "Mad Men" took the cautiously optimistic tone of "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" to a whole new level.

Uneasiness seemed to be the theme of this season. Season three ended with the assassination of JFK and season four was set to the backdrop of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement. This is no longer the 1960s that "Mad Men" first began in where big men in big suits could sit comfortably behind their desks and ignore the problems of the world. This was a time when reality was leaking into office life.

With this, we also got a changed Don Draper, for better or worse. At one point, we see him trading in whiskey for wine and even questioning his own smoking addiction and incessant love affairs.

Much of this season was really about change, and how people respond to it. In addition to that, the show gave us many welcome changes. A scenery change is always good, and the new office of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce allowed for even more pressing problems. Another welcome change was the show's change in attitude. Despite the constantly serious subject matter, the show found a subtle, witty sense of humor this season. Much of this came through the show's dialogue, mainly banter between the main characters. A lot of this humor also came from small, charming moments which seem inconsequential. One of the best that is easy to forget is Don and Lane (Jared Harris) sharing a bottle of whiskey in a crowded movie theater.

A few of the show's principle actors also showed a few welcome changes. Mainly young Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper. This season, she dropped the lisp and whininess and became one of the show's darker and more interesting characters.

Then there's Betty Draper (January Jones). It is easy to hate on January Jones because, well, she's sometimes something of a terrible actress. However, it's hard playing a character that the audience is forced to hate, so she deserves some credit for that. In the last few moments, after all the horrible things she had just done (mainly, trying to ruin the happiness of everyone around her), she somehow came off as sympathetic. It's easy to forget that her paranoia and hatred towards all things that breath comes from years of being cheated on by Don. Perhaps the best quote to define Betty this season is this: "Just because you're sad doesn't mean everyone else has to be."

This season also managed to solve its Don and Betty plotline quite well through an unspoken midseason reconciliation between the two that was both revelatory and moving. Then there was those final moments as the two stood in there empty Westchester house, remembering their past and looking into the future. This announced the end of an era for "Mad Men."

Season four of "Mad Men" brought the show to new levels both story wise and thematically. The characters reached new lows of desperation, whether it had to do with searching for clients or searching for lovers. In this we could find characters constantly falling back into old habits or falling into the habits of others. Every character in this mad mad world is always trying to be someone other than themselves.

And at the center of this of course is Donald Draper, played as strikingly and mysteriously as ever by Jon Hamm. Like the company he helped start, Draper went on a bumpy and confusing course this season. He oscillated between redemption and past troubles. The more his secrets unraveled, the more he felt he had to beef up his fake identity. By marrying the much younger secretary over Faye, he proves to continuously try to slip back into youth rather than move forward.
The greatest moments of "Mad Men" always lie in mystery and intrigue, just like with Draper himself. It's not just mysteries like "who is Donald Draper?" it's more like the mystery behind his true emotions and intentions. Am I the only one more interested in what Don was looking at out that window in the final shot than why Joan decided to keep Roger's baby?

Overall, the reason season four proved "Mad Men" to be the truly amazing show everyone thinks it is is because this season really proved the show's real ambitions. It is attempting to use the past, settings, and people to re-create the idea of America. Few shows have dared try to achieve something this big since "The Sopranos" and have gotten this close to being right. This season showed us the constant rising and falling of the American Dream. As from episode one, Draper has both exemplified and put down the myth of the self made man. What category he ultimately falls into still remains a mystery.

"Mad Men" has always remained fascinating because of the endless intrigue. What I love best is hard to say. It could be the fact that missing one facial expression can impact one's perception of an episode. Or it could be how carefully every little detail is put on screen. Most importantly, I like it for a reason different from every other show I've ever enjoyed. While I enjoy most shows for having a sort of cinematic value, I enjoy "Mad Men" because its ambitions and overall contributions to the world are too grand to fit into one two hour time frame. The 1960s may be over, but the era of "Mad Men" will always continue.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Movie Review: The Social Network

Every time any of us log into Facebook (which is most likely every .02 seconds), I don't think any of us have ever thought of why Facebook even exists. Is it because someone wanted to find a way for people to better connect with friends and family? Or did some asshole just want his ex-girlfriend to notice him? These are both of the answers provided in "The Social Network." Neither of these answers are necessarily right or wrong.

"The Social Network," like any good movie trying to understand a mysterious reality, doesn't strive to tell the whole truth but rather come as close to the truth as humanly possible.

This is all fitting, as most of the movie takes place in a context where one must swear the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In the almost present day, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) finds himself being sued by two former classmates, the Winklevoss twins (Josh Pence and Armie Hammer), for apparently stealing their idea. At the same time, he is also being sued by his disgruntled former CFO (and best friend) Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).

During the cases, the film provides a series of very important flashbacks. They track Facebook's conception during Zuckerberg's sophomore year at Harvard along with the site's rise to popularity under the watch of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), and Zuckerberg's fall into further pain and loneliness.

If I had known "The Social Network" would have been this good when I saw "Inception," I would have saved my "generation defining" praise for a few months. "The Social Network" has no idea where this generation is headed, but it does understand where it is right now. All of the paranoia, angst, and frustration garnered from wondering what status your friend is going to post next and how that leaks out into the real world is shown in full form here.

"The Social Network" says a lot about this generation, a lot of things that should've been saved for a long time down the road. Yet, maybe these are the things we need to hear right now. If the internet is the future of civilization as one character puts it, than Facebook is likely the end of mankind.

What I thought was greatest about "The Social Network" is that it isn't all its message. It takes a subject that probably would've been really dull and makes it so endlessly interesting and engaging. This could be partly from the brilliantly written dialogue by Aaron Sorkin, which is mainly a series of observations about life.

Along with Sorkin, much credit belongs to director David Fincher. This is a return to form for him, now that he's done begging for an Oscar (that's what happens when you make a film like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"). The film reminded me of some of the surrealist structure of "Fight Club" mixed with the more realistic style of "Zodiac." In every location, there is a feeling of actually being there. Fincher fills the campus of Harvard with random people walking. And in a club scene, it's so loud that it's impossible to even hear what the characters are saying. Some directors strive so hard to make their characters the center of attention that they forget that there's an actual world around them. Not Fincher though. The most interestingly shot scene of the year, a scene that involves a rowing race, is in this film.

"The Social Network" is graced with at least three of the year's best performances. After his tenure as a pop singer ended, Timberlake showed he could do comedy. Now, he shows he can do drama. He is the film's most engaging and enthusiastic character. Then, there's Garfield (star of the upcoming "Spider-Man" film) who shows so much potential for a great future career. He is the film's most emotional and possibly sympathetic character, even though it's possible to not feel sympathy for him.

Then there's Eisenberg, who took a great leap forward with his career in this performance. Recently, people were carrying the same complaints about him that they did with Michael Cera: that he plays the same awkward character in every movie. Yes, Zuckerberg is pretty awkward, but he's even deeper than that. Zuckerberg is portrayed here as someone who is too socially inept to be a sociopath. He believes his genius computer hacking abilities should excuse all his other flaws, which usually includes wearing a hoodie and sandals to important business meetings.

It is both Eisenberg's portrayal of the character and Sorkin's writing of him that turns Zuckerberg into such an interesting and amusing character. He is not made out to be some sort of god for the way he revolutionized the world through his invention. He may be a genius, but he's also a twisted and haunted genius.

A lot of people have had the audacity to compare "The Social Network" to "Citizen Kane." "The Social Network" will probably never be as good a movie as "Citizen Kane," but it might just be the answer to "Citizen Kane" that all film fanatics have been looking for for almost 70 years. It is "Kane" in spirit. "The Social Network" could be considered the modern day "Kane" because it is also about the difficulty to find the truth amongst modern forms of communication. While no one could break down the Charles Foster Kane behind the newspapers, few people can break down the Mark Zuckerberg behind the computer screen.

Like Kane (who is based on William Randolph Hearst), Zuckerberg is portrayed here as someone who surrounds himself with millions of "friends" but doesn't truly have one. That final shot (which I won't give away), is just about as powerful as the utterance of "Rosebud," but without a single word spoken.

"Citizen Kane" tested the ability of a movie to lie to its audience. "The Social Network" does just about the same. While characters in the film can't trust anything Zuckerberg says, there has also been doubt in reality that many details in the film are totally true. This helps turn "The Social Network" into the year's most entertaining practice in self-reflexivity. Much of the movie may not be true, but the greatest movies are supposed to convince us that its lies are real, even if the film doesn't know whether or not it's actually lying to us.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Movie Review: The Town

Hollywood makes a lot of movies about cops and robbers and elaborate heists. There are few though that truly break down a good heist, and a good criminal mind as well. Luckily, "The Town" has come to theaters. It proves that an actor who once showed little promise in front of the camera knows exactly what he's doing in the director's chair.

"The Town" is the sophomore effort from Ben Affleck. His debut, "Gone Baby Gone," was promising but flawed. "The Town" on the other hand is sleek and wildly entertaining. I can't call it a masterpiece, but I can say it has pretty much anything a good heist movie should have.

"The Town" is the latest in a long line of recent movies exploring Boston's criminal underworld. "The Town" refers to the Charlestown section of Boston, the bank robbery capitol of America.

One of the most infamous Charlestown gangs is led by Doug MacRay (Affleck) and includes the hot-headed James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) who have known nothing but crime their whole life. After one robbery, Doug falls in love with a witness, Claire (Rebecca Hall) and must find a way to balance his career with his new love. At the same time, FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) tries to bring Doug's crew down.

I wouldn't quite call "The Town" a love/hate letter to the city of Boston; it's more of a long note of tough love. Despite the pretty corrupt and negative spin on the city, parts of "The Town" made me realize that only someone who has lived in and really loves this city could ever make this film. Between the screaming and random gun fire there is also the occasional beautiful image of someone walking barefoot on a rocky beach and stepping into the calm surf. Affleck also captures everything from the accents to the mannerisms like only a true Bostonian could.

With "The Town," Affleck proved himself a skilled director for many reasons. Besides incorporating his own Bostonian knowledge, he also directs like a pro. The action sequences are some of the best I've seen all year. Some of the car chase scenes are as enthralling and suspenseful as anything you could ever see at the movies.

What's most interesting about Affleck's directing style is that he directs like an actor. There is a subtle, underlying humor throughout and a general sense of affection and understanding for every character no matter what side of the crime scene they're on.

Unlike say, "The Departed" (which this film is clearly trying to emulate), "The Town" is told almost entirely from the perspective of the criminal, and not the cop. It's an interesting spin, and it helps create an uneasiness of who to root for in the film. True, the feds may be trying to stop future crimes from happening, but haven't we stuck with the main character for long enough that it'd be nice to see him get away?

Affleck has begun to show more promise as a director than an actor. However, that is not to say his acting skills haven't improved. In the role he's convincing as being both tough and tender, funny and at other times dead serious. He's come a long way since "Gigli."

Also continuing to impress are Hamm and Renner. Hamm proves he can play characters beyond the Don Draper mentality (not to insult his role on "Mad Men" in anyway). Meanwhile, Renner shows that his Oscar nomination for "The Hurt Locker" wasn't for nothing. He has talent for playing men who constantly stick their middle finger out at society, and always want to be fighting someone.

During a time when studios are dumping their worst films into theaters, "The Town" feels like a classic piece of summer entertainment placed into the September doldrums. It's no groundbreaking masterpiece, but it's mixture of careful character observation, intricate plot detailing, and extremely well constructed action set pieces that's hard to come by nowadays. Affleck has found his calling on the opposite end of the camera. I guess there was some true meaning in the film's often repeated line: "See you on the other side."

If You Liked this Movie, You'll also Like: The Departed, Inside Man, Good Will Hunting, Dog Day Afternoon, Trainspotting