Monday, January 30, 2012

25 (plus a few more) Most Anticipated Films of 2012

Most of the following films will hit US cinemas sometime in this calendar year.  Some of them will end up being held until 2013 (or even later) and therefore will pass onto my most anticipated list for next year (as in turn some of the films here have done after not arriving last year).  All of these films are (obviously) ones I am excited about for one reason or another.  Some of them will inevitably not live up to my expectations - hopefully not too many - but judging from last year's list, where two-thirds ending up being films I quite liked and twelve actually made my eventual top twenty list, it should be a pretty good year. So, without further ado, I give you my 25 most anticipated films of 2012.

1) Django Unchained - I don't think anyone who is a regular reader here will be surprised to find a Quentin Tarantino film at the top of this list.  With a cast that keeps growing every day (or so it would seem), this QT-styled Spaghetti Western beast of a motion picture should (I now boldly proclaim) take the top spot on my Best of 2012 list.   Granted, this film may end up going way past schedule (QT has been known to do that) and therefore not make its debut until 2013, but here's hoping the Christmas present that the Weinsteins plan on giving us (ie, the planned December release date) does not delay.

2) The Grandmasters - I sure do hope this Wong Kar-wai film about the man who taught Bruce Lee everything he knows, gets here soon.  It was number one on my anticipated films list last year and I do not want to have to put it on next year's as well.  Then again, WKW is rather notorious for production delays (2046 took four years to complete) so it is really anybody's guess.

3) The Master - Not to be confused with the number two film on this list, the next film from Paul Thomas Anderson is not about the man who taught Bruce Lee everything he knows.  Actually it is ever so loosely based on the rise and fall of L. Ron Hubbard, but don't tell the Scientologists that or they will try to sue again.  Seriously though, PTA has a new film coming - how freakin' cool is that?

4) Like Someone in Love - Like with last year's French/Italian hybrid, the brilliantly twisting Certified Copy, Iranian auteur extraordinaire Abbas Kiarostami (one of the five best director's working today!) has again ventured outside his native land (and its censors) and headed off to Japan for his latest film.  The film, listed under the name The End on IMDb, is in post production right now and is tentatively slated for a Cannes premiere, with a hopeful US release sometime in the fall.

5) Untitled Terrence Malick Project - Though still going nameless as of the compilation of this list, this Malick film, boasting a cast that includes Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdmas, Javier Bardem, Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen and Jessica Chastain, is a strange creature to see on this list so soon after The Tree of Life.  Known for taking years to finish his films, Malick is still probably an iffy bet from whom to see a 2012 release, but here is hoping we do.

6) Cosmopolis - A David Cronenberg that takes place mainly in the back of a limo cruising around NYC, and is given the director's usual treatment of sexual obsession and murder, all based on Don DeLillo's novel.  From everything I have read this also seems to be a film that may delve back into the fringe dwelling the director used to partake in, while simultaneously playing as one of his more recent critical darling works.

7) Post Tenebras Lux - With each successive film, Mexican New Wave provocateur Carlos Reygadas gets better and better.  From Japon to Battle in Heaven to Silent Light.  A modern day Blend of Bresson and Dreyer (Silent Light was a remake of Ordet in many ways), Reygadas is an auteur to watch out for, and if my growing estimation of the director is any indication, then this new film, probably making its debut at Cannes, should be pretty damn good.

8) Inside Llewyn Davis - Based on the life of Dave van Ronk, and featuring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, this new biopic from the brothers' Coen has aspirations of being something akin to Todd Haynes' Dylan deconstruction I'm Not There.  Now granted, I do not think this film will go as far out as that brilliant work, but I still expect a damn good time.

9) Moonrise Kingdom - I can assure you that my lovely wife, a noted Wes Anderson hater (Rushmore notwithstanding) will not be a fan of this film, if I can even get her to watch it, but as I am much more thrilled with the auteur's past work, I am looking forward to this one with great glee.  Oh yeah, and as is to be expected, we get Bill Motherfuckin' Murray too.

10) A Place Beyond the Plains - From Derek Cianfrance, the man who gave us the deafeningly emotional Blue Valentine, comes a movie starring Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle rider who turns to robbing banks to feed his family.  I know, I know, it does bring up shades of Drive, but I am sure that is mere coincidence, and this film will be able to stand on its own.

11) Only God Forgives - The new film from Danish director Nicolas Winding-Refn will be coming to town sometime in late 2012.  After having Drive take the fifth spot in my favourite films of this past year (though I must admit to not having seen any of this volatile director's other films - an oversight that will surely be corrected very soon), and seeing the Gosman cast again (directors must like working with the guy), this could easily become one of my favourites of this coming year.

12) The Great Gatsby - If any classic of 20th Century American literature deserves a brash 3D treatment from an over-the-top director like Baz Luhrmann, it is The Great Gatsby.  Yeah, that was sarcasm.  The thing that  gives this strange strange film such an anticipatory flavour is the fact that it actually is a brash 3D treatment from an over-the-top director like Baz Luhrmann.  Not sure I like the casting of Leo DiCaprio as Gatsby, but with Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey Maguire seemingly perfectly cast as Nick, hopes are rather high.

13) Stoker - Starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode, this is Park Chan-wook's English language debut.  The film may not actually make it to theaters until 2013, but if it is ready for Cannes, it could sneak in as a late 2012 release.  The film seems a departure for the Korean filmmaker so famed for his revenge trilogy of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, but that means nothing really, for this still looks quite intriguing.

14) On the Road - This Walter Sallas directed adaptation of Kerouac's classic was on this very same list last year, but I think it may actually finally arrive this time around.  Being a Beat aficionado from way back, I have been looking forward to this inevitable but always thwarted literary adaptation, through all of its tempting incarnations for years and years and years.  It is about time dammit!

15) Magic Mike - With Steven Soderbergh's claims of early retirement, one supposes that with each of the director's new films, it could very well be his last.  Now of course this talk of retirement has been scoffed at by many, including Soderbergh himself, decrying an upcoming sabbatical as the more likely outcome of cinematic frustrations, so we probably have nothing to worry about with this one being his last.  As for the film itself, it is the story of a young male stripper who is taken under the wing of a mentor.  Oddly enough, the film is based on the early days of Channing Tatum, with Tatum himself playing the mentor.  Sounds fun.

16) Gravity - Now it may be somewhat surprising that I would place a film starring Sandra Bullock on this list, but here it is anyway.  Actually, Bullock aside (though I did like her in the oft-overlooked Murder by Numbers), my main reason for anticipating this 3D sci-fi thriller (yeah, I know, everything is in 3D these days) is that it was written and directed by Alfonso Cauron.  Starring Bullock and George Clooney as the only two surviving astronauts on a semi-demolished space station, the film should have a very high creep factor indeed with Cauron at the helm.

17) Amour - Austrian auteur Michael Haneke can be a bit hit or miss (though never having made an outright bad picture) but the hits certainly outweigh the few misses.  Here is hoping this film about octogenarians in love and the daughter (played of course by the great Isabelle Huppert) who must care for them after one has a stroke, is one of those hits.

18) Nero Fiddled - After turning out the biggest box office hit of his career, Woody Allen is back with a film featuring Jesse Eisenberg as the movie's Woody surrogate (and a perfectly cast one at that), and boasting a cast that includes Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page.  Sure, the prolific auteur is hit or miss in recent decades, but here is hopin'.

19) Cogan's Trade - Directed by Andrew Dominik of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford fame (and we have had to wait five years for a follow-up), and featuring the cinematic outlaw himself, Brad Pitt, as a mob enforcer, this crime thriller promises to be a hell of a lot of fun.  Well, at least we all hope so.

20) Prometheus - Ridley Scott is back, and he is at his probable sci-fi wheelhouse best.  First rumoured to be an Alien prequel but now apparently taking on a life of its own (though still shrouded in mystery), this outer space horror movie starring Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender (fuck yeah!) could bring Scott back from his more recent spate of mediocrity.

21) Anna Karenina - This a hefty movie that Joe Wright has taken upon himself and it is a hefty role that his usual star Keira Knightley has taken upon herself.  There are some questions about Knightley's ability to tackle such a role, but I have faith in the actress - she is a much weightier actor than many give credit for her being.  The film also stars Aaron Johnson (John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) as Count Vronsky, and that may be a damn good casting choice indeed.

22) Argo - A new film starring Ben Affleck?  Not really a reason to get all hot and bothered.  A film directed by Ben Affleck?  Now we are talking baby.  After the spectacular Gone Baby Gone (one of the best films of the last decade) and the smart and intense The Town (albeit with a rather lackluster ending) this new film, set amidst the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, could and should prove quite intriguing.

23) The Cabin in the Woods - A self-proclaimed "twist" on the usual formula, this Joss Whedon written horror movie is co-written and directed by Drew Goddard, one of the writers of Lost, so we should possibly expect something that perhaps makes no sense at all.  The Joss Whedon connection makes it an interesting-looking movie though.  The film was originally set for an early 2010 release before being shelved indefinitely due to MGM financial woes.  It appeared on this list last year but now there is an actual set release date, so here we go.

24) The Wettest County - Written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, the team that last gave us the new wave revisionist western The Proposition back in 2005, this looks to be a quite rousing film about rural gangsters.  Granted, the casting of Shia LaBeouf gives one pause, but perhaps we can get past that and just have a good old time.

25) The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man & The Avengers - Being a old comic book head, these three films needed to be on this list.  Christopher Nolan's final piece in his Dark Knight trilogy, Mark Webb's retooling of everyone's favourite friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man (and what a perfectly named director for the job) and Joss Whedon's supergroup extravaganza (based on my personal favourite comicbook) all have great possibilities.  Hopefully they all come through.

Some other films to look forward to (in no particular order): Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas); Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer); Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer and the Walchowskis); Take This Waltz (Sarah Polly); Looper (Rian Johnson); Rust and Bone (Daniel Audiard);  Savages (Oliver Stone); The Hunger Games (Gary Ross); Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders); Piranha 3DD (John Gulager); The Hobbit (Peter Jackson); Lincoln (Steven Spielberg); A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson); Skyfall (Sam Mendes); Dark Shadows (Tim Burton); Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov); A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola).

And one final film before we go:

Ted - A live action Seth MacFarlane movie?  This is either going to be the greatest idea ever or it is going to end up being the very worst thing to ever happen.  It really could go either way, but my love of Family Guy and MacFarlane make me willing to give it a chance.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Retro Review: Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 08)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2010 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.


Do you hear that? Those gargantuan footfalls? That hideous belching roar? That grotesquely insidious cackle? That repulsive stench so permeating, so loathsomely pungent that you can actually hear the stank of it? Run, don't walk from...Harry Knowles!?

Did you think I was talking about a monster? Well, I suppose I am - just not the particular monster one might expect to hear about at the beginning of a review of J.J. Abrams new monster mania piece of pop-trash formica. We'll get to that Manhattan-flattening, city-devouring mega monster in a bit, but first, a much more unscrupulous - and much more dangerous - beastie. Harry Knowles, the Larry Flynt of internet movie reviewing, and the red-haired soul-sucking boot-licking studio-bitch quote-whore that he is (and barring any sort of nuke-powered air strike akin to the one near the end of this movie, always will be) was one of the first (I dare not use the term critic, for then it would lose all meaning for the rest of us who rightfully wear that moniker) to hand out his assessment of the movie in question - and by assessment I mean handy-dandy blurb-friendly love song to J.J. Abrams and his army of cinematic sycophants.

Laden with about as much saliva-choked vim and vigor one might expect from a pillow-biting prone newbie on his first night in cell block F with his new "roomie" Bubba, Knowles, in all his monosyllabic one-note fanboy vernacular ain't-it-coolness, proceeds to sing the most ridiculous of praises, hosannas and hallelujahs over Abrams' Godzilla-meets-9/11 box office bugger-to-be, aligning his "review" in such a manner as to leave easy cut-n-paste jobs for the studio poster and ad men he so blatantly works for. My personal favourite is, and I quote: "Like Saving Private Ryan, but instead of Nazis it’s a giant monster". I am not even sure what to say after that! He has managed to glom onto one of the most over-ripe, and overused cliche's in historical allusiondom and at the very same moment managed to insult the memory of millions who died at the hands of those aforementioned Nazis. Bravo Mr. Knowles, brav-fucking-o. 

Sure, I realize Knowles callous insipidity and lack of any cinematic knowledge or recognition of any film history whatsoever is an easy, and oft-aimed at target and that I am far from the first to say it out loud, and most assuredly not the last, and anyone who reads his website is of the same mental stuntedness as the fat man himself anyway and one should probably just leave the lion in his den of inadequacies and move on, but sometimes that orange-maned plague-of-criticism dung-heap studio-scab that calls himself Harry Knowles, cannot be ignored and so one must attack it with all one's got, no matter - as in the movie - how futile one's chances may be. Of course it could also be that I really have nothing at all to say about the movie itself. In fact, that is it. Far from great and far from terrible, not good, but not bad either, TV auteur J.J. Abrams' beat down of Manhattan via a cross between Godzilla, that thing from The Host and a oiled-up hairless, skinless Harry Knowles (I just had to get one more jab in) is painstakingly average in every way imaginable.  Is this better or worse than being a straight up rotten film?

Made as a stunt, über-producer Abrams, through his vessel-for-hire Matt Reeves, whose one lone directorial credit was the abysmally mediocre The Pallbearer, gives us a third-hand look at the destruction of Manhattan by some sort of behemothic amphibimonster that may or may not be from outer space, through the omnipresent handheld camera of one of the movie's many non-descript characters-cum-monster fodder. Lost somewhere in between Independence Day and The Blair Witch Project. It's a gimmick that has already been used more progressively in Brian De Palma's Redacted and the latest, though not the best flesh-eating bon mot from George Romero, Diary of the Dead, but it is still a gimmick that nearly works here, especially amidst the obviously post-9/11-esque sturm und drang that Abrams is so callously (or is that brilliantly) playing upon. I guess after six-and-a-half years we can finally joke and laugh and use September 11th for our latest Hollywood entertainments. And why the hell shouldn't we?  God bless America! 

All YouTube filmmaking tricks and tropes aside though, Abrams' secret little movie, hyped right into the stratosphere upon the blogosphere, finally makes its big bang on the big screen and we must ask ourselves - this is all we get? 84 minutes of a bunch of interchangeable white-bread nitwits running around lower Manhattan trying not to get eaten by the big scary monster that may be worse than the Nazis even!? Trying to be so hip it hurts - so hip that J.J. and his posse want to scream it from the tops of the tallest skyscrapers in New York if they hadn't already levelled them all in their F/X fuck fest - what we get instead is the most banal of anti-archetypes fending for their lives throughout the streets and tunnels of this drudgingly middle-of-the-road anti-spectacle.

Manohla Dargis of the NY Times talked of the characters being so boring she was rooting for the monster and Nathan Lee of the Village Voice exclaimed "death to the shallow, unlikable heroes!". Hell, we never even get that great a look at the monster itself until the very end, which under different circumstances may make for a much more intense form of terror, but here is just waylaid in place of a reality-TV-like take on the modern monster movie. And again, just like reality-TV and all those zombiefied Stepford husbands and wives that keep the shows coming back year after year, season after season, we are left with the most average of motion pictures. Not good enough to be thought a breakthrough and not bad enough to be bellowed at in any fun Mystery Science Theatre 3000 kind of way. Merely mediocre. 

Then again, we could always discuss the inconsistencies of the movie. Like why doesn't Hud put down the damn camera when the girl he has lusted after for so long is being attacked by some sort of mutant alien spider who has apparently mistaken her for Sigourney Weaver or why after semi-devouring one character, the monster suddenly vanishes so as to give the other characters time to swoop in and mourn their friend or how our intrepid heroes manage to travel the number 6 train tunnel from Spring Street to 59th Street in such a speedy fashion (if at all) or why every time the camera is dropped it conveniently falls facing the action and never once breaks or runs out of battery power or tape or how the hell the camera survives the destruction of Manhattan in order to be "shown" as a testimonial of what went down on the fateful day in New York in the first place. 

We could do all that but then horror movies have always been chock full of such delectable little nuggets of character stupidities. If my house began bleeding and told me to get out, guess what? I am down at the post office filling out a change of address card! Or if there is a noise in the darkened attic and three people have already been murdered, guess who is NOT going in that attic!! Anyway, I digress. For all its inherited stupidities, Abrams attack-on-New York megaplexer is just another piece of slickly-tried pulp nowhere near the heights of its precursor big daddies Godzilla and King Kong (the originals of each mind you) yet also nowhere near the pits of someone like M. Night Shyamalan and his ridiculous dawdles of blasé bullshit. The biggest nagging nuisance being that the film has, or had great potential, and one can see a flair inside of Abrams' work (this is probably more his work than official director-for-hire Reeves) but sadly the film is happenstancely pedestrian in every way. 

Truth be told though, I was actually kind of hoping for this to be a bad movie - a really bad movie. A really really really bad movie. Then I could toss all my acerbic critical wit at the problem and call it a day, feeling every bit the bad boy, as if I were the critical Jesse James or James Dean. But alas, the movie was not bad after all (just run-of-the-mill trying to be thought of as edgy) and all my acid-tongued insults are laid to waste just as Manhattan was in Abrams' "Fuck You" mega monster mediocrity known as Cloverfield. But not to worry for I still have Harry Knowles to lob critical bombs at - and with a target like that how could I miss.

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 01/19/08]

*Addendum - Since first writing this review, J.J. Abrams has released two films as director.  First the Star Trek reboot in 2009 and then the Spielbergian-influenced Super 8 in 2011.  Both films would wind up on their respective year's top tens.  I suppose what I am trying to say is that apparently I have grown quite fond of Abrams' work since first publishing this rather disdainful review oh so many years ago.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed Cloverfield more if Abrams had actually directed it himself.  I now consider Mr. Abrams one of the best big budget moviemakers (possibly the best) working in Hollywood today, and I eagerly await his next film.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Quest To See the 1000 Greatest: #700 Thru #719

Here is a look at the latest batch of twenty films in my Quest to See the 1000 Greatest Films.  A complete look at my quest can be viewed HERE.

#700 - L'Age d'Or (1930) - (#106 on TSPDT)  Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike experimental film?  How about how much disdain I have for most of Surrealism?  Put these facts together with my hit or miss outlook on Buñuel, and you get a film I just could not stand.  Yeah yeah, a great artist and all that, and many other times he is just that, but here - no way in hell.

#701 - Antonio das Mortes - (1969) - (#544 on TSPDT)  I first came across the work of Glauber Rocha because of My Quest.  This is the third of his films I have seen (Black God White Devil and Terra em Transe being the first two) and the third one I loved.  Audacious and full of cinematic chutzpah, Antonio das Mortes, a sequel of sorts to Black God, is one of those pure cinema kind of films.  If one had the need to label the Brazilian auteur-cum-L'enfant terrible, one could easily construe Rocha as being the Godard of Brazil.  And of course I mean the good 1960's Godard, not the ridiculous modern day Godard.

#702 - Ceddo (1977) - (#774 on TSPDT) Western African cinema has a uniquely fairytale like quality to it and Ousmane Sembene, considered the Father of African Cinema, is the best at that fairytale filmmaking.  Influenced by French cinema of course, Sembene brings the ancient traditions and mythologies of his native Senegal into play and creates the most entertaining of modern day fairytales - and Ceddo may well be his best.

#703 - The River (1951) - (#212 on TSPDT)  Damn do I love Jean Renoir!!  Before taking on the quest before me, I had seen just two Renoir films - they of course being Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game.  Both brilliant films (the latter is in my all-time top twenty) but still I was but a novice when it came to the cinema of the man I now would place firmly in my five favourite directors of all-time.  Now having seen Boudu Saved From Drowning, The Crime of Monsieur Lange and others...well, like I said, damn do I love Jean Renoir.   Now comes one of the French auteur's Hollywood mad films, The River.  Scorsese calls it one of the two most beautiful Technicolor films ever made (The Red Shoes of course being the other) and though I would not go quite that far, it is surely a stunning film - simply magnificent to look at.  Have I mentioned that I love Jean Renoir?  Damn!

#704 - Salesman (1970) - (#550 on TSPDT)  I am usually not a fan of documentaries in general but sometimes I find them quite fascinating.  Be it the subject matter or how the director sets the matter forth.  Salesman is definitely one of those films.  Subtly provocative, this simply set black and white doc by the Maysles brothers unexpectedly sucks you in and will not let go.

#705 - Les Maitres fous (1955) and #706 - Chronicle of a Summer (1960) - (#841 and 811 on TSPDT)  These two films, French director Jean Rouch's only films on the list, are thought of, apparently, as intriguing looks into different societies.  I found both of them dreadfully boring, the first was nearly incomprehensible bullshit while the second merely drab and dragging, and I see no appeal in either one.  Maybe that is just me though.   Hey, at least they were short.

#707 - Johnny Got His Gun (1970) - (#776 on TSPDT)  A fascinating, almost experimental (but not in that annoying Stan Brakhage way) look at a WWI soldier who has had most of his body - arms, legs, face, chest cavity etc. - blown away by a bomb and is being kept alive in some sort of mad scientist way by the government.  Macabre and with notions of Grand Guignol, Dalton Trumbo's film (adapted from his own novel) takes us into a warped world of fantasy and tragedy with the most ringing and unforgettable of final shots.

#708 - Eyes Without a Face (1959) - (#358 on TSPDT)  Can a film be both horrifying and beautiful?  Of course it can, and Georges Franju's psychological horror film is just that.  I know the term is cliché and way way way overused, but there is no way I can describe this film without using the term haunting - because that is just what it is.  It is the story of a genius, and very possibly mad surgeon who kidnaps girls and steals their faces in order to heal his daughter's mangled, hideous face.  Incidentally, this film is a direct influence on (no, not Face-Off!) Almodóvar's recent The Skin I Live In.

#709 - Law of Desire (1987) - (#825 on TSPDT)  Speaking of Almodóvar (as I just was in the entry above for those of you not playing along at home), here is one of his earlier works - a typically gay-themed, neo-noirish fractured fairytale.  Definitely not one of the auteur's better works, it still shows many of the ideas that would flavour the director's films for years to come.

#710 - Le Bonheur (1934) - (#879 on TSPDT) A strange little French-Russian hybrid, this is a fun, but far from great little silent film.  Comedies from early Soviet cinema are a lot lesser known than their dramatic counterparts, but still that stern Soviet block filmmaking is intact.  As I said, fun, but not on par with either its Nationalist comrades Eisenstein and Pudovkin nor its silent comedy brethren Chaplin and Keaton.

#711 - Ivan's Childhood (1962) - (#602 on TSPDT)  Early Tarkovsky, this film about war and death and sacrifice and loyalty, is, in my not-so-humble opinion, the director's most stunningly beautiful work of art.  Perhaps it is not the Russian's best film overall (that would be Stalker probably - not a typical choice I know) but the beauty of the images is just masterful, and the final few shots, though predictable, are simply devastating to behold.  Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think that perhaps this is Tarkovsky's best film after all.  Yeah, let's go with that.

#712 - The Mirror (1975) - (#67 on TSPDT)  Tarkovsky's second highest ranked film on the list (after Rublev), but do not colour me impressed quite yet.  As much as I liked (and praised) Ivan's Childhood above, that is how disappointed I was in The Mirror.  Granted, there are some rather gorgeous shots, and certain sequences are enough to put some wiggle in your walk, but overall, the film fell rather flat for me.  I have never been a huge Tarkovsky fan - never hating one of the director's films but never truly loving one either - so I suppose my disappointment was not too shocking, but it was still a somewhat surprising blow considering the double digit ranking of the film.  Oh well.

#713 - The Story of a Cheat (1936) - (#594 on TSPDT)  I had never seen a Sacha Guitry film before, having only heard of the director/writer/actor in the most peripheral of ways, but the list has offered my the opportunity to remedy that.  Purchasing Criterion's Eclipse box set, Presenting Sacha Guitry, I went to town and was suitably impressed by this first of four films in the set.  Sort of Lubitschy in its mannerisms but a bit more Sturgesy in its undertaking, Guitry's first film (after years of disdaining cinema from his perch trodding the boards) is a fun little romp.  Never too deep but always very wry and often witty.  To be honest, I was just as thrilled by the second film in the set, The Pearls of the Crown, but alas, that is not on the list.

#714 - Two For the Road (1967) - (#958 on TSPDT) A few weeks after watching this surprisingly delightful (and I mean that in the most subversive manner) film from Stanley Donan, the list had its annual update and the film was (gasp!) knocked off the list.  Well dammit, I don't care, I am including it here anyway (after the update, my count stays then same anyway).  A very witty, dare I say brilliantly conceived film that plays mind games with any sense of linear structure.  Predating Annie Hall, a film with obvious influence taken (though with more bite), Donan's film is an acerbic, daring movie way ahead of its time - and a film that should not have been kicked of the list dammit!  I think I would count it in my top 200, so a list of 1000 should be enough to contain such a film.

#715 - Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) - (#647 on TSPDT)  I like opening the year with a strong start, and watching this early Bergman on New Year's Day is definitely the way to do such a thing.  Quickly skyrocketing into the number two spot of my ranking of Bergman's films (Seventh Seal is still number one) this crisply shot circus film is a remarkably powerful film - both visually and emotionally.  Part of that more humanistic, less religious early Bergman style, Sawdust and Tinsel is a film that rarely gets mentioned in talks of the Swedish auteur, but its recent restoration and DVD/BD release over at the house of Criterion, should remedy that.  At least I would hope it does.

#716 - Hour of the Wolf (1968) - (#749 on TSPDT)  Back-to-back Bergmans in just a few day span, I cannot say I was as pleased with this one as I was with the previous.  As with many of the great Swede's late sixties work (Shame and Persona) this is a rather pretentious work, filled with unrequited bravado (a thing the other two aforementioned films, especially the quite brilliantly conceived Persona, manage to overcome much easier than this) and even though it is far from a bad movie, it is a lesser Bergman indeed.

#717 - Salvatore Giuliano (1961) - (#318 on TSPDT)  For a film so high up on the list, I thought this was a pretty drab affair.  Then again, it is not alone in that respect. - just check out the even higher placed first entry in this segment.  Seeming like the kind of film I would normally enjoy, this subtly disarming gangster movie ends up being nothing more than a dragging experience interspersed with flashes of cinematic bravura.  Unfortunately these moments of intensity are not enough to keep the film going for its entirety.  And this is coming from someone who actually enjoys slow moving cinema.

#718 - Triumph of the Will (1935) -  (#315 on TSPDT)  We can put aside all the stories of Leni Riefenstahl's supposed Nazi sympathies (okay, even with her undying denial, these are probably more than supposed stories) because this film transcends any of the ugliness that is associated with Nazi Germany.  Friends with Hitler (and supposedly enemies with Goebbels - she would not listen to his cultural demands) Riefenstahl was asked to film the 1934 National Socialist rallies.  Using groundbreaking techniques, Riefenstahl, who had been favourably compared to the likes of Welles and Hitchcock in her day (Pauline Kael called this and her epic-length Olympia, the two greatest films ever directed by a woman), created a gorgeous work of cinematic art.  We watch as Nazi soldiers goosestep, Hitler youth romp around in the most homoerotic manner and parades and speeches are glorified.  If one can forget the atrocities that would come in the next few years, this is a beautiful film full of classic romantic cadence.  As pure cinema, this is a great film - even with its rather sinister leanings. 

#719 - Murder By Contract (1958) -  (#873 on TSPDT)   This is a fun movie.  A giddy movie about a hired gun who runs into trouble with his latest target.  Even though it is not technically in the genre, this film plays out in the same frame of mind, and has many of the same tropes as the more famed heist movies of the time like Rififi and The Killing.  Perhaps it is not up to those film's levels, but it is quite fun indeed.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Film Review: Another Earth

One would think, and rightfully so I believe, that a film about an alternate Earth orbiting around the sky would involve some sort of science-fiction element in its storytelling.  When one is considering Mike Cahill's feature debut, Another Earth, one would surely be wrong.  About as far from a sci-fi film as one can get (other than the peripheral planet X hovering above of course), Another Earth, much like its contemporaneously released brethren from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, Melancholia, is more a look at the psychology of depression and guilt and how we get along with our fellow humans.  Sure, as is the case with both films, there is that initial element of fantasy, but both films, Cahill's moreso considering von Trier's penchant for the absurd, are about as down to Earth as one could imaginably get.  This is a film not about other planets but about human interaction and the effects even the smallest things have on our lives.

Another Earth is the story of a young woman named Rhoda.  In the beginning it seems like a fairy tale as everything is lain out in front of her.  With a scholarship to MIT awaiting her graduation, Rhoda fatefully decides to drive home after an alcohol-infused celebration.  As the radio squawks on about another planet being discovered, Rhoda hits a car stopped at a traffic light, killing the woman, pregnant at that, and her toddler son.  We find out later, after Rhoda has spent four years in prison, that the husband and father had survived the wreck and has just recently come out of a coma.  Now working as a school janitor, Rhoda seeks the man out to tell him what she had done, but instead infiltrates his life and tries to do whatever she can to help him get through his pain.  This is both Rhoda's penance, and her way to her own salvation in a way.

With a more Earthbound sense of dread than the aforementioned Melancholia (Cahill does not hurtle his planet at ours like von Trier does in the Dane's destructive nature) Rhoda seems to ease not only this man's pain but her own as well.  In a way, Cahill's film is about hope (in a way von Trier's could never be) and the goodness that comes from guilt.  With shades of Tarkovsky's Solaris - all of Tarkovsky really - Cahill builds his film up with moments of quiet self-fortitude and a cathartic cadence that drives the film with a methodical beauty hidden below the surface pain and anguish.  Much of this selfless, disarming beauty comes from not only Cahill's subtle direction (again, like Tarkovsky but without the overall bravado) but also from the sleek, workmanlike performance of Brit Marling as the tragic Rhoda.  Perhaps it lacks the cinematic chutzpah of the similarly themed, but ultimately dissimilar von Trier work, but what Cahill's film has going for it is its undying sense of humanity.  It is in this humanity, and not in any perceived science fiction, that Another Earth works so well.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Oscar Nominations Are Here!!

So, after getting 89% of my predictions right two years ago and dipping slightly to 87% last year, I stumble down to a mere 82% with this morning's announcement.  Ouch.  Overall though, I suppose that isn't terrible - or is it?  Anyway, the categories break down as such: Best Picture I went 8 for 9.  Since we had no idea how many nods there were going to be, I just listed ten in order of probability.  My first eight choices, in order of probability, The Artist, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Hugo, The Help, Moneyball, The Tree of Life and War Horse were all nominated. My number nine choice, The Ides of March was replaced with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  Which is an extra bane upon my existence since I was hoping to avoid having to see the damned film, but now, due to my having to see all the nominees each year, will have to endure the beast sometime between now and February 26th.  I guess you can sense my high hopes about the whole thing.  Anyway, I digress.

I actually aced Best Director and am very glad to see some Malick love slip in there (in picture AND director).  I ended up going 4 for 5 in all four acting categories.  My Best Actor prediction of Michael Fassbender was replaced with the (somewhat) surprising nod for A Better Life's Demián Bichir ( a film I still need to see).  Perhaps the Academy was scared off by the size of his.....anyway, I digress once again.  Best Actress was marred by my choice of Charlize Theron (which was more than a bit scratchy anyway) but she was replaced by Rooney Mara for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which was a welcome surprise.  Her performance is my personal favourite of the five nominees, so her (somewhat) surprise nomination was a welcome announcement indeed.

In the supporting categories, my prediction of Shailene Woodley was replaced by Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs.  This was not really a surprise since McTeer had been a likely dark horse.  I did predict Melissa McCarthy's nod correctly - even though I absolutely loathed Bridesmaids (easily one of the worst films of last year).  In Supporting Actor I did not predict Max von Sydow's nod.  I figured he might sneak in but I figured he would replace my choice of Nick Nolte (how many predicted that one correctly!?) not Albert Brooks.  Seriously, Brooks' performance in the criminally overlooked Drive was the frontrunner back in December and even after he lost frontrunner status to Christopher Plummer, he was still considered, pretty much across the board, as a lock for a nomination.  Egad!

The last two categories I predicted, the screenplays, was where my weakest spot showed itself.  Granted I pulled off a 4 out of 5 in Adapted Screenplay - my choice of The Help was (thankfully) replaced by The Ides of March - but in Original I went just 3 for 5 - my picks of Win Win and Young Adult were replaced with Margin Call and my dark horse candidate, A Separation.  As far as the technical stuff goes, I did not post any of my predictions for these but judging from what I thought would be nominated, these would have kept by lackluster 82% winning percentage pretty much intact.  Ah well.  Anyway, now we can go on with other things in the cinematic world and ignore these things until the end of February when, as is tradition I suppose, I will make my final Oscar Predictions the night before the ceremony.  A full list of the nominees can be found here.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Oscar Nomination Predictions

Predicting the Oscars is not really that difficult of a task to do each year.  So many of the spots in each category are shoo-ins, with usually only the last spot up for grabs - even if that one.  The problem with predicting this year's Oscar race comes in the form of predicting just how many Best Pictures nominees will be announced on Tuesday morning.  After upping the BP category to ten nominees a couple of years ago (from the previous amount of five - which in my not-so-humble opinion is the perfect amount) the Academy has announced that this year there will be between five and ten nominees for the top prize.  There is a whole set of convoluted rules that go with this decision, reading like one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, but I will not bother you with trying to explain them.  This of course makes it a bit more difficult, but who am I to complain.  Anyway, on with the show.  Below are my nomination predictions, with each category ordered in probability of nomination.

Best Picture
  • The Artist
  • The Descendants
  • Midnight in Paris
  • Hugo
  • The Help
If it goes further (my guess is seven nominees)
  • Moneyball
  • The Tree of Life
And if it goes even further (still in order of probability)
  • War Horse
  • The Ides of March
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Dark Horses: Bridesmaids and/or Harry Potter 7.5 

The first three are shoo-ins.  As for the next two, either one could be bumped for the two after that.  It would give me such delight to see The Tree of Life get in there.  Some little guy in the back of my head wants me to place the films in that top five, but that is just wishful thinking.  Hell, placing it in the seventh spot may be a bit of wishful thinking as well.  As for those last three, I do not think it will go that far, though number eight could replace The Tree of Life (egads no!!), but just in case, there they are. As for the dark horse choices, they may seem a bit silly, but it would not surprise me to hear either's name called on Tuesday morning.  I guess there is always the possibility of something like The Girl With the Dragon TattooDrive (I would love that), My Week With Marilyn, J. Edgar or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close sneaking in there as well, (the latter of which had plenty of Oscar buzz early on but not so much these days) but these are unlikely.

Best Director
  • Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
  • Martin Scorsese for Hugo
  • Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
  • Alexander Payne for The Descendants
  • Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life
Dark Horse: David Fincher for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I think the top four are pretty much locks for the nomination.  The number five spot is a killer though.  Again, this may just be wishful thinking on my part, but I believe that even if his film is left out of the eventual nominees, Malick will get that fifth spot.  Of course there is always the possibility of Tate Taylor or Bennett Miller grabbing that spot for either The Help or Moneyball respectively.  These, especially Miller, are more likely scenarios but I must go with my heart here.  Then again, we could always see Spielberg's name pop in there, even if he was snubbed (rightfully so, his film is typical Oscar dreck) by the DGA.  They also snubbed (unrightfully if you ask me) Malick but let's just ignore that.  As for the dark horse choice, a second possibility, though less likely (but more desirous) is Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive.  Yeah, right.

Best Actor
  • George Clooney in The Descendants
  • Jean Dujardin in The Artist
  • Brad Pitt in Moneyball
  • Michael Fassbender in Shame
  • Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Dark Horse: Michael Shannon in Take Shelter

The first three are locks (with Clooney a near lock for the actual Oscar - for now) and I think the number four spot is close to a lock, as long as the AMPAS voters can get past the NC-17 rating (and possible jealousy over the rather enormous size of the actor's schlong).   The number five spot is a bit trickier.  Leo DiCaprio was a seeming lock when the awards season first kicked off, but after such mediocre reviews for his film, his Oscar buzz has dropped significantly.  Still though, he is Leo DiCaprio and therefore is a possibility.  Dropping Leo and adding Oldman as the fifth spot may not be a sure thing though.  Oldman, who strangely enough has never been nominated before, gives a solid performance in the retro spy thriller, but it is one of those strong quiet performances that tend not to get noticed.  But then the Academy does like to correct past errors and Oldman's lack of nominations could help him get that notice.  Then again, Michael Shannon (the dark horse choice) has been the critical darling so him getting that fifth spot is quite possible.  Of course I would love to see Ryan Gosling get nominated.  Preferably for Drive, but more likely for The Ides of March.  Perhaps the Gosman should be my dark horse.

Best Actress
  • Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady
  • Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn
  • Viola Davis in The Help
  • Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs
  • Charlize Theron in Young Adult
Dark Horse: Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin

The first three are locks, and I believe they are also the three that will battle for the win.  Davis won the Critic's Choice Award while Streep and Williams split the Golden Globes (Drama and Comedy respectively).  Personally I think with Octavia Spencer being the frontrunner for Supporting Actress (voters like spreading the wealth in the acting categories) and the less-than luke warm response that The Iron Lady has received (everything about the film sans La Streep's performances has been much criticized) that Williams' portrayal of Marilyn Monroe (the Academy loves actors playing other actors) could pull off a relatively shocking surprise come Oscar night.  But that is speculation for another time.  Right now I am just predicting the nominees, and all three of these ladies are going to be among them.  I think the number four spot is pretty much a forgone conclusion as well.  Not many people out in Peoria have seen the film yet but Glenn Close is highly respected and should be able to procure a nomination.  Then (like in most categories) you have that fifth spot.  This spot is pretty much a battle between Theron and the dark horse Swinton.  It could pretty much go either way really.  One other possibility (though not a strong one) is Elizabeth Olsen for her turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene.  Earlier on she seemed like a shoo-in, but all that buzz has long gone away.  Even Kiera Knightley or Rooney Mara could surprise but that is highly unlikely.

Best Supporting Actor
  • Christopher Plummer in Beginners
  • Albert Brooks in Drive
  • Kenneth Branagh in My Week With Marilyn
  • Jonah Hill in Moneyball
  • Nick Nolte in Warrior
Dark Horse: Patton Oswalt in Young Adult

The first three are locks, with Plummer as the frontrunner to win it all.  Number four will sneak in there as long as Moneyball grabs enough attention - which I think it will (obviously).  As for the fifth spot - as has been the case pretty much every time around - it is a veritable free-for-all.  Early on it looked like Viggo Mortensen's performance as Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method would be a shoo-in, but pretty much all the buzz from that film has died.  Patton Oswalt, our humble dark horse, had some buzz going for a while, but that has tapered off a bit.  Ben Kingsley has a shot, especially with Hugo being so big in the awards world right now, and I almost went with him, but ended up going with Nolte for his role in the otherwise maligned Warrior.  This culd end up being a mistake but there you have it anyway.  One last possibility is Max von Sydow for Extremely Close or Loud or whatever that movie is called.

Best Supporting Actress
  • Octavia Spencer in The Help
  • Bérénice Bejo in The Artist
  • Shailene Woodley in The Descendants
  • Jessica Chastain in The Help
  • Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids
Dark Horse: Carey Mulligan in Shame

The first three are locks and I suppose number four is close to a lock as well.  After all, since Chastain was in pretty much every movie made this past year, she should get a nomination for something, right?  Of course this supersaturation could split any votes she gets and end up putting her on the proverbial cutting room floor.  That fifth spot however (here we go again) is another free-for-all.  Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs, the great Vanessa Redgrave for Coriolanus or Carey Mulligan in Shame (our dark horse) could all take that spot, but with the campaign for Bridesmaids, it looks as if McCarthy will nab that spot after all.  One last note: I would love to see Marion Cotillard sneak in here for her role in Midnight in Paris.  Unlikely though.

Best Original Screenplay
  • Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
  • Michael Hazanavicius for The Artist
  • Diablo Cody for Young Adult
  • Annie Mumalo and Kristen Wiig for Bridesmaids
  • Tom McCarthy for Win Win
Dark Horse: Asghar Farhadi for A Separation

The first two are definites.  Woody is bound to get his sixteenth writing nomination (and third win).  The Woodman already broke Billy Wilder's record with his fifteenth nod.  As for number two, The Artist did not grab a coveted WGA nomination and may have limitations due to it being a silent film, but the sweep that is likely to happen on Tuesday morning (my predix - 10 nods for The Artist) will surely include this category.  The third is highly probable - she is already an Oscar winner.  The fourth is pretty likely as well.  The fifth spot will go to either Win Win or 50/50 (both WGA nominees).  I could easily switch the fifth choice between either of these, but I think Win Win has the slightest of edges.  Of course our dark horse could just as easily sweep in grab the last minute nod.  Then again, we should not count out J.C. Chandor for Margin Call.

Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian for Moneyball
  • Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash for The Descendants
  • Tate Taylor for The Help
  • John Logan for Hugo
  • Bridget O'Conner and Peter Straughan for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Dark Horse: Steve Zaillian for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The first three are pretty much locks, with number one being a screenplay (the likely winner I think) written by the two best damn writers in Hollywood.  Meanwhile number four is a rather sure bet as well, and number five is a fairly respectable choice as well, but since it did not receive a WGA nod it could easily be replaced by our dark horse, which incidentally did receive a WGA nod.  I think the thing that will put TTSS in over TGWTDT is the fact that voters will most likely choose one or the other Steve Zaillian scripts, but probably not both.  Then again, what the hell do I know.  We could also see War Horse surprise, but I think only if it grabs a lot of nominations, which I do not think it will do.

Well, I think I will stop here.  Sure, I could go on and say how The Tree of Life and The Artist are shoo-ins for Best Cinematography, Hugo and Harry Potter are locks for Art Direction, Moneyball and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will get Film Editing nods and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes will most likely win the Best Visual Effects Oscar - but I will not.  I am just going to leave it at the big eight categories.  Anyway, it helps my eventual winning percentage if I do.  And speaking of winning percentages - I had an 87% accuracy rate last year, dipping down slightly from the 89% I scored in 2009.  Here's hoping I can break into the ninety percentage range come Tuesday morning.

These predictions can also be found over at Anomalous Material, where I have a regular feature writer gig.  It is pretty much just a copy and paste job (with some of the images altered a bit) but just thought I would let you know and perhaps help promote the fine folks over at AM in the meantime.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Retro Review: I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 07)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2010 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.


In the opening salvo of his near-Proustian length critique par excellence in the Village Voice, J. Hoberman called I'm Not There the movie of the year - and he may very well be right. In fact he could ostensibly exchange the word year for the word decade and still be very much within his rights. Easily the most daring experimentation in filmmaking (read: a bite in the ass of cinema) since Lars von Trier's Dogville in 2003.

Half casting stunt, half cinematic experimentation, Todd Haynes, the former Brown University semiotics major turned cinematic manipulator extraordinaire, and the man who gave us Far From Heaven, an impressionistic and socially rupturous homage to Douglas Sirk and a scathing indictment of American sexual mores, Velvet Goldmine, a kinky Citizen Kane structured ode to glam rock, [Safe], his diabolic take on the insecurities of humanity and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an absurdist Barbie-dolled super-8 mockery of everything America holds dear (sort of), now hands us his by-far fullest plate yet - a deconstruction not only of the enigmatic Bob Dylan, a man who playing his own game of propagandism, already sliced and diced himself into a multitude of ideas and ideals, but of the very concept of cinema itself. Taking the typically one-man (or one-woman) ultra-polished horse and pony show that is the biopic genre, Haynes flips it on its already much beleaguered head and shows us not one man, but six (or really seven) different aspects of one man, here personified by six different actors, all of different ages, races and even genders. Six actors, but in search of what?

With influences ranging from Fellini and Godard to Laurence Sterne and James Joyce, with a bit of Rashomonian Chaucer thrown in and an undercurrent of Marshall McLuhan to boot, Todd Haynes has created not only a film "about" Bob Dylan, but also a film that plays at times as being from Dylan, to Dylan, by Dylan and even on occasion, becoming Dylan. Breathed of the same cubist air in which Dylan created his own self-imitating (and oft-maligned and highly underrated) opus Renaldo & Clara back in 1978, and possibly with many of the same box office blockades (as far as the common moviegoer is concerned - length, unwarranted philosophizing, a dibilitatingly obscure linear structure et al), Haynes' film is a stroke of mad genius mixed with an air of semi-satiric superiority and blended with the mystique of frustrated stardom - all rolled into some sort of postmodern concoction of deconstructive catharsis.

First up (and I say that with an air of trepidation since the film is only superficially linear and Haynes cuts back and forth at the slightest provocation and/or whim) is Ben Whishaw as the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the personification of Dylan's poetic aspirations. In the midst of an interrogation being held by an off-stage voice, Whishaw is both mouthpiece for Dylan and his very own Joan of Arc, his face as blaise here as Dreyer's Maria Falconetti's was tormented. He is the voice of dissident, and diffident, reason.

Next comes Marcus Carl Franklin as a ten year old train-hopping black runaway in 1959 who goes by the name Woody Guthrie. Rather appropriately played by a black child actor, considering Dylan's youthful exuberance for Guthrie and his being led to the origin of blues music through this exuberance, this is the boy the man would become. Obsessed to the point of believing his own lies, Woody is Dylan as Dylan perhaps dreamt himself as a child. Tremulous at times, yet full of verve and desire. Replete with likely apocryphal tales of being a serial runaway, Dylan's childhood fantasies of becoming his one-time idol - fantasies which have many times over either been surpassed or missed altogether - play as both prelude and omen to what is to come. Where Rimbaud is his mind, Woody is the heart of Bob Dylan.

After the child prodigy incarnation of Woody vanishes from the screen (for now), we are given Christian Bale as the finger-pointing, political singing-songwriting-harmonica-playing troubadour Jack Rollins, here accompanied by Julianne Moore doing her best Joan Baez in full VH1 Where Are They Now? mode, giving us the early acoustic-strung world shattering aspirations of a still quite green Dylan. We watch wide-eyed naivety turn to jaded indignance in Bale's superbly bitter (and typically tortured Bale-ian) performance. This is Dylan turning his back on what people "expected" him to be. This is Dylan refusing to be the left-wing lap-dog they wanted. This is Dylan turning toward a different left. The left of the counterculture. The left of his Beat idols like Ginsberg and Kerouac and McClure. This is the soul of Dylan, aching to be alive.

This turning away from the "established" folk-centered left and turning toward the beat aesthetic is perfectly played in what is surely the centerpiece of Haynes' cubist masterwork (as well as the film's most sincere shot at Oscar gold) - Cate Blanchett as Jude Quinn, wild-eyed speed-freak electric rock & roll rebel at the apex of his (or her - does it even matter at this point?) circus cannonball blast to stardom. Shot in black and white and layered after both D.A. Pennebaker's 1965 Dylan doc Don't Look Back and Fellini's 1963 masterpiece of misinterpretation and misdirection 8 1/2, this section is rife with allegorical slaps at modern-day mass-hysteroid media and the often stampeding effect it has on celebrity, complete with a queer little helium-voiced "cameo" by four mop-topped lads from Liverpool, playing A Hard Day's Night/Help!-like with a similarly frolicking Jude/Dylan/Blanchett.

And if Dylan truly is the hero of our story then Bruce Greenwood as a quite nasty little Brit TV talk show host amalgamation known as Mr. Jones (who incidentally provocates a spectacular rendition of The Ballad of The Thin Man) is the villain. Snidely mocking Dylan's pretentiousness while snarkily being counter-attacked by Dylan/Quinn/Blanchett's sharp-tongued back quips, these Pennebaker-inspired sparring matches are the epitome of Dylan's jadedness toward the media. Meanwhile, amidst this Felliniesque circustry, we get David Cross as a pitch-perfect Allen Ginsberg making his entrance a la golf cart and Michelle Williams as part Edie Sedgewick, part personification of Dylan's fading muse. It was shortly after this time period - the Blonde on Blonde era and what many call the apogee of Dylan's songwriting career - that Dylan crashed his motorcycle and became a backwoods recluse for several years.

This segues nicely into Dylan's recluse days (the first version of them that is) and into the "family" life of Dylan personified here by Heath Ledger, doing his best James Dean (yet another Dylan idol). Ledger plays Robbie Clark, half rising half fading star of the silver screen and the incarnation of Dylan as Dylan himself showed in parts of Renaldo & Clara. Failing actor, failing husband and failing father. The "macho" antithesis of Blanchett's foppish Jude, Ledger's Robbie is a man at constant odds with himself and all those around him. Playing Robbie's wife (and stand-in for Sara Dylan, Suze Rotolo and other Dylan loves and muses - as well as Haynes own personal Anna Karina) is French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, appropriately (and surely uncoincidentally) cast in the role of spotlight mother, herself coming from the womb of a fashion model and the loins of a pop star. This is Dylan as false God. This is Dylan as faker. This is Dylan's lost soul.

And what would a lost soul be without someone to find - and save - it. This is exactly what happened to Dylan in the late seventies when he "found" Jesus and this is just what we get from Christian (aptly named?) Bale in redux. Former musical instigator Jack Rollins is now evangelical minister Paster John in what plays as a brief interlude from the rest of the story - which may just be what Dylan's own "rebirth" was.   If Ledger's Robbie was his false God, then this could very well be Dylan as false Man.

Then comes the final act. The reclusive hermetic Dylan. The fantasy Dylan. The dream Dylan. He comes in the package of a frazzled greying Richard Gere known as Mr. B, or as we later find out, Billy the Kid. Running from the law, running from his music, running from his fans and running from himself perhaps, Gere's Billy the Kid appears in what could very well be a dream world, full of surreal imagery and replete with masked men, women and children. Everyone, even in his dreams, are hiding - and Dylan is no different. With the sudden (re)appearance of Bruce Greenwood, this time behind his own mask as an aging Pat Garrett, Gere's "Kid" goes on the run and finds himself hopping back on the trains of his youth - and in doing so, we are taken right back to the beginning again. Structured in many ways upon Joyce's Finnigan's Wake, it is Billy's temporally implausible discovery of Woody's guitar aboard an empty boxcar that brings Haynes' film river running itself right back to where we started from.

And still, while much of the film takes on a Joycean life of its own, and it is, of course, based on the life of (if not the ruminations of) Bob Dylan, not to mention the melange of influences cited earlier, there is yet another must-see influence weighing heavy upon the auteuristic stylings of Mr. Haynes (could it be that Haynes has as many sides as Dylan himself?), and that influence is Jean-Luc Godard. Beginning and ending (as useless as those relative terms are in this case) in much the same gunshot fashion as Godard's Masculine/Feminine - not coincidentally the only one of Godard's seemingly endless oeuvre to openly reference Dylan - Haynes, at his most Godardian (and really, what current filmmaker is any more Godardian than Haynes right now?), lock stocks and barrels his way through the life of Bob Dylan with the stream-of-consciousness rhythms of a deconstructionive mad scientist. Haynes as the all-knowing, all-seeing (all that can be known and/or seen that is) doctor, and the many ideas of who or what or where or when Bob Dylan is, as his somewhat flawed yet genius monster - all the while never kow-towing to what one expects from the genre of biopic. After all, as Haynes recently more than alludes to in an interview in Cineaste, there are lies in all biography, but at least here we are let in on the joke.

I have a good friend who is, and I don't think he would be the slightest bit offended by the choice of adjective, obsessed with all things Dylan. Having seen him in concert about 953 times or so and owning just about every recorded piece of music, bootlegs and all, and much of it on vinyl, and referring to Dylan as The P.I. (for those of us in the know, that stands for Prophet Incarnate), and being a true Dylanologist of the highest order, I am sure he would get many more of the referential moments than even I did. Which may very well beg for a precursive crash course in Dylanology for those out there not so inclined toward The P.I., and though the recurring tarantula should be quite obvious to even the novice Dylan acolyte, I'm sure a primer in watching Scorsese's expounding doc No Direction Home (a great film even outside of the predications of I'm Not There) wouldn't hurt anyone.

In sum, there are not many people who have been able to successfully metamorphose into so many different creatures (possibly John Lennon or Miles Davis or the aforementioned Godard), but still this film is not just about Dylan. Never uttering the name throughout, this film is as much about Bob Dylan as it is not about Bob Dylan. Taking Proust's idea of a "succession of selves" and running with it - as Dylan has done to himself throughout his career (we are still not sure of many of the facts) - Haynes shows us not just another life (or another movie), but life (or Cinema) itself.   

[Originally published  at The Cinematheque on 12/16/07] 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Film Review: Carnage

With obvious comparisons to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (though with more sobriety amongst the characters), this play turned movie, featuring just four characters and set inside one Brooklyn apartment, is a concise, acerbic, beast of a movie.  Starring Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as a couple whose son is beaten up by another boy, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as the parents of the alleged offender, director Roman Polanski gives his actors just enough room (literally and figuratively) to do their interweaving diatribes of ferocity toward one another, but not enough room to be able to escape the vitriolic barbs of their close-quartered enemies.  Sharply written and sharply acted, especially by Winslet and Waltz, Carnage, based on the play Le Dieu du carnage by Yasmina Reza, is a verbally caustic, attack-ready take on the ideas of societal civility and just how far one will go to either keep the facade up or viciously tear it down - and each character has his or her turn at both sides of the gun

At a very brisk 79 minutes (shot in real time), Polanski never lingers on anything for too long, his subtly constantly moving camera doing physically what his characters do emotionally, but as the niceties of the early scenes devolve into the vicious realities of each character's own psyches (Waltz is the one character that never really tries to hold back his barbarism) the film becomes more and more harrowing and the viewer more and more apprehensive about what will come next, or more aptly, who will come apart next.  The characters begin to unravel - Winslet's indifference turning to open anger, Reilly's affable nature taken over by his inability to have control, Foster's faux liberalism taken to the breaking point of absurdity, Waltz's pomposity beaten down by the loss of his cell phone life line (we see his arrogance curled up on the floor like a reprimanded child) - and with each successive scene they fall apart more and more.  With each passing moment they act worse and worse toward each other - far more childish than either of their children had acted in the first place.

Granted, the film never goes much deeper than a few figurative skin abrasions, and the barbed verbal attacks are nothing when compared to the monstrous goings-on in the aforementioned Virginia Woolf (the added tension of Taylor and Burton's real life relationship added to that as well) but nonetheless, Polanski gets some great, if not exactly powerful (all four have been harder hitting in other roles) performances out of his claustrophobic quartet, and the acid-tongued breaking down of civility is great fun to watch.  Perhaps this is just this critic's own rather warped sense of societal rules.  One could even say it is a giddy treat to see these four supposedly civilized people go from decorum to destruction in less than 79 minutes.  I just wished there had been more - if not more time, at least more viciousness.  Then again, perhaps that is just me.  But really, it is quite fun to watch.

Anomalous Material Weekly Feature: 10 Most Heinous Oscar Snubs

Here we are again true believers, with my latest weekly 10 best feature for the fine folks over at Anomalous Material.  For those of you not in the know, those same said fine folks have given me a (possibly foolish on their behalf) regular gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on various cinematic subjects - and anyone who knows me can attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor (yes I am a  list nerd).  This week's feature, my twenty-first such feature, is all about the Oscars.  The worst of the Oscars.  With the Oscar nominations being announced this coming week, I thought I would take a look at the most unworthy Oscar winners in the award's history.  The worst of the worst.  It took a lot of whittling down since the Oscars are well known for some pretty bad atrocities of taste, but here they are - just one click away.

This list is so full of horrendous Oscar blunders, the worst of the worst as I said, that the jackass screaming "I'm king of the world" in the picture below is not even included.  Just imagine how bad the ten on the list must be.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Best of 2011

I have been busy busy busy this past holiday season, but that does not mean that I forgot about that staple of the year's end.  Another year over and a new one just begun, and that means it's time for the film critic's most anticipated (and sometimes dreaded) annual obligation - the top ten list. A yearly look back at the hundreds of films seen throughout the year and a frenzied shuffling around to narrow your list down to just ten films (or in some cases, trying to find as many as ten films deemed worthy enough). I for one love this annual ritual and wait with giddy baited breath for it to come around, so without further ado, especially since I am kind of late in bringing this to you (but fashionably late dammit!!), I give you my choices for the best films 2011. 

1. The Tree of Life - When I first saw this stunning film up on the big screen (the first of three such visits to the cinema in order to behold this spectacle of light) I knew there would be no competition for the top spot on my eventual best of the year list - and boy was I right.  Resting the proverbial head and shoulders above all other takes, Terrence Malick's brilliant new film is not only the best film of 2011, but also an early candidate for the best film of the decade.  My review can be read here.

2. Hugo - An adventure-filled fantasy film about the birth of cinema, using the most modern of technological moviemaking advances, this 3D motion picture experience from Martin Scorsese is a thing of such cinematic romanticism, with such an audacious love of film and its inherent history (a paean to film preservation if you will) that I defy any true cinephile to either condemn or ignore it.  My review can be read here.

3. Melancholia - In all his hate him or love him glory (or should that be infamy?), Lars von Trier's latest film, taking on the subject of depression hidden in plain and brutal sight, smack dab in the middle of an end-of-the-world scenario, is a nerve-wrangling, twisting, turning, vituosic work of audacious, bullying cinema - and who could ask for anything more.  My review can be read here.

4. Super 8 - Evoking the type of cinema that Steven Spielberg was putting out in the late seventies and early eighties (back when Mr. Spielberg still know how to make us believe) yet still full of the post-millennial chutzpah that is J.J. Abrams, this quaintest of monster movies, replete with those Abramsesque blue lens flares and a camera that seems to never stay put, is the best Summer blockbustery movie that Hollywood has put out in many a year.  My review can be read here.

5. Drive - Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver for hire is one of the best genre pieces Hollywood has put out in a long long time.  Cool and aloof, this film by Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn, is a work of sheer subversive beauty.  Toss in Carey Mulligan as the Driver's only possible salvation and Albert Brooks as an against type small time mob boss (he should win an Oscar) and you have the makings of one damn fine motion picture.  My review can be read here.

6. The Skin I Live In - Creepy and exotic, this psychological thriller from Almodovar is the Spanish auteur at his most dangerously Hitchcockian.  A loose adaptation of Franju's Eyes Without A Face (though based on the French novel Tarantula), this strange creature of a movie is at times hilarious and at times harrowing.  I dare even call it a brilliant psychosexual game of smoke and mirrors.  My review can be read here.

7. Certified Copy - Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has made his first film outside of his native country.  It is a twisting, turning, whirling dervish of cinematic bravura and storytelling audacity.  As we watch Juliette Binoche and William Shimmel make their way through the winding streets of Tuscany, Kiarostami takes us deeper and deeper into his meta-manipulative world of filmmaking, where nothing is ever as it seems.  My review can be read here.

8. Meek's Cutoff - Trudgingly beautiful, this film by the methodically melodic filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, and featuring the director's Wendy and Lucy heroine Michelle Williams in the central role, pissed a hell of a lot of moviegoers off this past year (though perhaps not as many as the number one spot on this list) but what they could not get behind, what they could not understand, was the inherent understated beauty of such a seemingly difficult film (it wasn't really difficult people) as Meek's Cutoff.  My review can be read here.

9. Moneyball - The best damn sports movie ever made.  Yeah, I know that is a pretty bold statement but there you have it - and I am sticking to it.  Looking at the game of baseball from both a statistical mindset (the nerd in me loves that) and a romantic viewpoint (the sentimentalist in me loves that), Moneyball is, and I am going to boldly say it again, the best damn sports movie ever made.  My review can be read here.

10. Attack the Block - Take John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and replace the never-ending onslaught of nonspeaking L.A. gang members with equally non-speaking (though not non-growling) creatures from outer space and you pretty much get the gist of Attack the Block.  This hit genre piece from the UK is a deliriously fun cinematic ride.  My review can be read here.

11. The Artist - There are some quite remarkable shots in this film, many of them done as homage to either specific classic Hollywood works or a generalized silent era style, and it is in these shots that director Michel Hazanavicius brings such vibrant life to his black and white silent film.  The current frontrunner to win the Best Picture Oscar, The Artist definitely has the visual audacity to pull off such a unique victory. My review can be read here.

12. A Dangerous Method - David Cronenberg somehow manages to take the already strange relationship between Jung and Freud and makes it even stranger.  Of course this is what Cronenberg does best, so one should not be surprised.  A psychosexual (that is at least the second time that term has been used on this list) mindfuck of a movie, hiding behind a supposed analytical period piece - and we get Michael Fassbender to boot.  My review can be read here.

13. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives - Many say Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an acquired taste, but when the director makes a film that involves ghost monkeys, ghosts of dead wives and a talking catfish who goes down on an ugly princess, how can you not fall in love?  Seriously though, I have always been a fan of Joe (the long-named director's choice of nicknames) but this may very well be the auteur's best work yet.  My review can be read here.

14. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - I must admit to not being much of a fan of the original Swedish films, finding them to be at times thrilling but mostly middle-of-the-road, but put David Fincher behind the wheel and you get a whole other thing entirely.  With the director's more in your face style of moviemaking, this US remake does something not many other remakes have done, and that is improve the product.  My review can be read here.

15. Midnight in Paris - This is Woody Allen as we have not seen Woody Allen in decades. Perhaps his latest film does not quite match up with many of the films from the director's Golden Age (1977-1992) but with its often biting dialogue and obvious nostalgic set pieces (showing a love for a lost Paris that nearly matches his love of the New York of his childhood) it comes closer than anything he has done since.  My review can be read here.

16. Source Code - With more than an air of Hitchcock in it, Duncan Jones' deceptively brilliant Source Code (the director's more visceral, less moody followup to the equally impressive Moon), loosely based on Chris Marker's La Jetee, is one of those rare mainstream Hollywood movies that forces its viewers to stop being mindless automatons, and to think things out.  My review can be read here.

17. Hanna - With Joe Wright's weaving, obtrusive camera, Saoirse Ronan's killer-diller, cold-blooded performance and a visual and aural in-your-face middle finger to the conventions of cinema, this calculating, visceral man-eating movie starts off slowly but once it gets going it does not stop until the abrupt bang bang credits roll.  My review can be read here.

18. Shame - The harrowing story of one man obsessed with sex.  From hard drives stuffed full of porn to old school girlie mags, from paid escorts to random sexual encounters with strangers, from constant masturbatory trips to the rest room during work to desperate and seedy club hopping, Michael Fassbender's sex addict is one of the finest performances of the year, in one of the most dangerously obsessive movies of the year.  My review can be read here.

19. Kaboom - Gregg Araki's sci-fi/thriller/sex farce/comedy hybrid thingee from another seeming planet is a refreshing and unique look at the genre film - several genres at that.  A mysterious movie that combines elements of David Lynch with moments of balls-out sex romp lunacy, this nearly uncategorizable film was one of the surprise highlights of the year.  My review can be read here.

20. The Arbor - Half documentary, half experimental film, have self-referential stage play (yeah yeah I know - math has never been my strong suit), this quite subversive, quite harrowing biopic about late playwright Andrea Dunbar, is probably the most unique film of the year in its use of real life people (Dunbar's actual friends and family) blended with actors lipsynching the actual words of witnesses.  A play within a play within a MacGuffin.  My review can be read here.

21. Beginners - A sobering yet romantic look at one man's journey through the long and laborious death of his newly uncloseted elderly gay father.  And as coolly written and directed as this film is by first timer Mike Mills (no, not the R.E.M. bassist), it is Christopher Plummer's spectacular performance in the film (one that may win the veteran actor his first Oscar) that puts it on this list.  My review can be read here.

22. Rango - Take one animated lizard, give him the voice of Johnny Depp, the wardrobe of Hunter S. Thompson and the demeanor of Don Knotts, and place him smack dab in the middle of a Spaghetti Western styled remake of Chinatown, throw in a wild menagerie of supporting mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, and you have the best animated film of 2011 - hands down.  My review can be read here.

I suppose some runners-up would be appropriate right now, so here they are, in no particular order: The Guard, Take Shelter, Rubber, Hobo With A Shotgun, The Ides of March, Le Havre, Cracks, Drive Angry, Troll Hunter, Super, Horrible Bosses, Weekend, Higher Ground, Tuesday After Christmas, Another Earth, The Future, Terri, We Are What We Are, Cold Weather, I Saw the Devil, The Muppets, Tabloid, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, Footloose, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: First Class.

Well that is it for 2011.  Coming soon will be my most anticipated films of 2012 list, so stay tuned.