Wednesday, July 30, 2008

#33: Koyaanisqatsi


Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance
Directed by Godfrey Reggio
Written by Ron Fricke, Michael Hoenig, Godfrey Reggio, Alton Walpole
Released September 14, 1983

How do I put into words my thoughts on a movie that has no words, no plot, no characters, and nothing remotely resembling a typical Hollywood three act script?

Because it contains none of those things, you might think, "So, it's about nothing?" On the contrary; Koyaanisqatsi is about EVERYTHING. Nature. Technology. Humanity. For a movie with no words, it says a lot. It just depends on the viewer and what they want to hear.

Just short of ten years ago, I woke up on the couch at a friend's apartment, hung over and maybe still a bit buzzed from our activities the night before. As is typically the case when you wake up in someone else's home, you spend far too much time trying to figure out how to work their entertainment center. By the time I'd sussed out what channel the TV needed to be on and which remote control belonged to the cable box, I stumbled upon a jaw-droppingly beautiful film called Baraka, which I had never seen before. Soon, my friend's girlfriend joined me on the couch and we sat in awe, our mouths literally hanging open for most of the movie.

I remember at one point, this exchange:

Me: You can change the channel if you want. I just kind of stumbled on this.
Rachel: No, this is fucking awesome.
Me: Good.

Baraka is, without debate, the single most beautiful "movie" I have ever seen. It was the first DVD I ever owned, and the #1 film on my list of Movies I Wish I Could See in a Theater. Like Koyaanisqatsi, there is virtually no dialogue. There is no plot. But somehow, at least in what I take away from it, it encapsulates almost everything good, bad, heartbreaking and profoundly moving about life on planet Earth... and maybe a little bit beyond. I had never seen anything like it.

Of course, I had never heard of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi or its two companion films, 1988's Powwaqatsi: Life in Transformation and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War. (Before people start saying that Baraka is a rip-off of Reggio's work, I must add that director and cinematographer Ron Fricke worked with Reggio, who refers to Fricke as "a genius.") Imagine seeing what would immediately become one of your favorite movies and then learning that you could head to the video store and see three other, similar movies that could help extend that mindblowing experience.

And "experience" is the key word here. This film (and others like it) is not a documentary. What you get out of it is left to your perception. You may feel like the juxtaposition of nature against scenes of of industry as a commentary on man's intrusion on the world. You may see those same images and see them more as synthesis, not dissonance. The important thing Reggio is doing here is showing you images you may never get to see in your everyday life, and trusting you enough to process this imagery as you see fit.

I've always felt like Baraka is a movie about the greatest vacation I will never get to take. It's my only window to the parts of the world I will never see. Honestly, I sometimes feel a profound sadness when watching that movie because I know that I will never have the time or the resources to experience these things in my lifetime.

But if it weren't for that movie, I would never have known most of those images, those places, those people even existed.

Final note: As I had previously written about For All Mankind, I suggest watching this movie with as few distractions as possible, on the largest television you can find.

For more on Koyaanisqatsi:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- The Wikipedia definition of the theory of pure cinema
- Information from Wikipedia on Baraka

Some footage from Koyaanisqatsi, reduced to shitty YouTube resolution:

Someone has divided Baraka into ten segments on YouTube. While again I must stress that this belongs on a TV or a theater screen, it's definitely worth checking out. Here's part 1:

#32: The Hospital


The Hospital
Directed by Arthur Hiller
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
Released December 14, 1971

"We cure NOTHING! We heal NOTHING!"

With an opening sequence that follows an elderly man's admission to the titular hospital to his misdiagnosis to his fatal reaction from mis-prescribed medications, straight through to the pleased look on his inept young doctor's face as he realizes there is now an empty hospital bed on which he can screw a co-worker, The Hospital had a sick grin plastered to my face. Maybe it's because I work in a hospital and therefore have the kind of gallows sense of humor required to survive a job like that, but if you don't at least get a chuckle out the freeze frame moment where the title hits the screen as a sick old man in the foreground sleeps through the young doctor's dalliance in the background, you may as well turn this movie off now.

For a black comedy with more than a hint of satire, you couldn't ask for a better pedigree than combining the writing of Paddy Chayefsky (Network), the direction of Arhtur Hiller (Silver Streak, The Out-of-Towners) and the impeccable acting of the legendary George C. Scott (Patton, Dr. Strangelove).

The movie is 24 hours in the life of Scott's Dr. Bock, whose suicidal impulses keep getting interrupted by an apparent serial murderer roaming through his halls. Scott is nothing short of incredible here, whether stalking the halls tearing angrily into the fabric of the hospital establishment or giving a powerful monologue on the meaning of impotence.

Chayefsky and Hiller both nail the dichotomy of life in the 24-hour living and breathing entity that is the hospital. The day shift moves at a non-stop pace, with directives and drama coming from all angles. Then comes the night shift, where the quietude gives one time to ponder the kind of questions and dilemmas of the soul that most people don't have the desire to ponder.

As if the thoughts of suicide aren't enough, Dr. Bock has his world turned upside down by the appearance of a young idealist played by Diana Rigg.

For the first 2/3rds of The Hospital, I was along for the ride, but I have to admit that after the identity of the murderer had been revealed, the movie took a strange turn and my investment in it was almost nullified. Whether it was too unrealistic or too cynical, the curveball caught me way off gaurd. While I did appreciate the ironies revealed by the killer's methods, some of the characters' motivations were fairly unbelievable, even for a satire.

That said, The Hospital is still miles ahead of the unrealistic garbage spewed on television shows like Grey's Anatomy. In under two hours it manages to say more about the state of hospitals, the healthcare industry, modern medicine and bureaucracy than a show like that could even be bothered to address.

For more on The Hospital:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Get it on DVD at

#31: Freaks


Directed by Tod Browning
Written by Clarence Aaron Robbins, Al Boasberg, Willis Goldbeck, Leon Gordon, Charles MacArthur, Edgar Allan Woolf
Released February 20, 1932

"Their code is a law unto themselves; offend one, and you offend them all."

Carrying over the theme of vampire movies from the other night, director Tod Browning directed in 1931 the quintessential all-time vampire classic, Dracula. An all time classic starring Bela Lugosi, Dracula is definitely in the running for most famous and influential horror movie of all time.

In 1932, Browning upped the creepiness factor a hundred-fold and pretty much blew Dracula out of the water with his unsettling and disturbing Freaks. His reward: his film was hacked from 90 minutes to an hour (the excised footage is, apparently, lost forever) and his career was virtually destroyed.

As the title suggests, Freaks takes place amidst the world of the traveling circus, and, more specifically, the world of the sideshow performer. . . the strongman, the Siamese twins, the human torso and the like. If you've ever been to a county fair and got duped out of your money by the "Freak Show," which (at least when it made its way through Nebraska) was more of a collection of creepy things stored in jars and other fakeries, you might have no idea what a real Freak Show might hold.

Browning pulls no punches. A former circus contortionist himself, he scoured the globe to assemble his cast. When you watch this movie and see the pinheads, half man and human torso, know that these are not special effects or props. While Browning may be accused of exploiting these people for the sake of making a horror movie, it's easy to make the case that, given the plot, he's actually treating them with a humanity that we usually reserve to "regular" people who aren't as deserving of such treatment.

For example, our first introduction to his cast of "freaks" is not in some dimly lit haunted house, but rather a beautiful sunny day by a lake, where they dance with each other until disturbed and sent away by a bystander. Moments later Josephine Joseph, the "half man, half woman" is mocked by some of her fellow circus performers. It doesn't take long to get what Browning is trying to say: "Normal" humans are fucking assholes.

Two "normal" humans in particular are the focus of Freaks, and they show their true colors early. Cleopatra the trapeze artist (Olga Baclanova) , and Hercules (Henry Victor), the circus strongman, mock and belittle everyone around them. The former flirts with Hans (Harry Earles), one of the show's little people, while the latter goes so far as to punch Josephine Joseph in the face. Together, they conspire to have Cleopatra marry Hans before they attempt to murder him and take his money.

Telling you what happens after that would ruin the movie, but suffice to say don't piss off freaks. If they offer you wine, you drink it. That's all you need to know for now.

You may spend most of the moving thinking, "What makes this a horror film?" Just wait for the attack in the rain.

Apparently, a good chunk of this sequence was cut from the original film, which is a real heartbreaker, since it's the best sequence in the entire movie. Despite the fact that Freaks is over 70 years old, the thunderstorm sequence retains a good deal of its shock value. With freaks crawling around in the mud armed with knives and guns, this must have scared the bejesus out of audiences back then.

If you do rent the DVD, be sure to watch the small featurette on the film's alternate endings. It explains what was cut, along with explaining why the "happy" ending was tacked on after the reveal of Cleopatra's fate. Knowing the true ending to the film makes it that much more tragic that Browning's film was essentially ruined by MGM to please a bunch of sasparilla-sipping pussies.

For more on Freaks:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Apparently, you can watch the entire movie on Google Video (I couldn't get it to work)

Since no real "trailer" of the movie exists, here's a brief scene of The Living Torso lighting a cigarette:

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

#30: Inglorious Bastards


Inglorious Bastards
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari
Written by Sandro Continenza, Sergio Grieco, Franco Marotta, Romano Migliorini, Laura Toscano
Released February 8, 1978 (Italy)

While Inglorious Bastards, an Italian World War II action/adventure movie, may have finally reached a DVD release because it celebrates its 30 year anniversary this year, it is just as likely that interest in this cult film has been raised in recent years on the news that Quentin Tarantino has been working on a remake as his next project.

From what I've read of the script that leaked a few weeks ago, Tarantino's film is pretty much as far from a remake as one can get, sharing pretty much two things with the original: the title, and the spirit of bloody mayhem. Both films, however, are as much about the reality of World War II as Spider Man is about spiders.

Inglorious Bastards, in large part a rip-off/homage to films like The Dirty Dozen, is part of that certain breed of war movie that really died off by the time American got involved in the Vietnam war. Heist-like action movies in the vein of Kelly's Heroes and The Great Escape eventually gave way to more serious, gritty films like The Deer Hunter and Platoon. The closest we've come to that old style of adventure war movie in recent years is probably something like Three Kings, but even that film eventually takes on an air of seriousness as the soldiers face a moral dilemma in trying to steal gold from Sadaam Hussein.

Bastards is a Spaghetti-Western (is there a more apt name? Rigatoni-War Movie?) reminder of those old "fun" war movies. Here, a group of American soldiers about to be tried for their crimes, are boarded onto a personnel truck and shipped off to their court martial. On their way to trial, their convoy is attacked by an enemy fighter plane, killing their captors and freeing them to flee to Sweeden.

Lead by Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson, the small group of men nearly fights their way out until a miscommunication results in their attack on a group of covert American soldiers who are on their way to disarming a German bomb. Feeling obligated to make amends for this fatal error, the convicts step in for the squadron and a slow-motion cinematic bloodbath ensues. Grenades explode, bodies are hurled in every direction, and Fred Williamson literally risks life and limb by not using a stuntman.

I mentioned in my review of Suspiria that there was a trend in the 70s to end a movie right after an explosion, and Bastards is no exception. A friend and I used to joke about how when we were kids and we wrote stories, they always ended thusly: "And then a bomb hit and everyone blew up." Save for a few survivors, this is pretty much the deal here.

In the end, Bastards is fairly fun and enjoyable. Nothing great, but maybe worth catching via Netflix or cable if you're into this sort of thing. It's easy to see where there is definite room for improvement in Tarantino's update, especially regarding characterization and dialogue.

For more on Inglorious Bastards:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Check out how many alternate titles this movie had at the grindhouse database
- Buy the newly released DVD boxed set at

The original trailer, which like most 1970s trailers is way too long and gives away far more than you'll want to know:

#29: Lost Boys: The Tribe


Lost Boys: The Tribe
Directed by PJ Pesce
Written by Hans Rodionoff (based on characters by Janice Fischer and James Jeremias)
Released July 29, 2008

Look at the date listed above. You know you're dealing with a real turd when I'm watching a movie, at home, on its date of release. Straight to video, baby!

Back in 1987, when I was 11 years old, my mother took my older brother and me to see the original The Lost Boys, a damn good, scary and fun modern vampire movie starring Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, and of course, Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. In the original, Patric and Haim played brothers who moved with their mother to the fictional town of Santa Clara, CA. They soon discover that Santa Clara is a hotbed for vampires.

The Lost Boys was pretty much a cultural phenomenon: the introduction of "the two Coreys" to preteen girls everywhere, the first name-making performance by Jason Patric (no, Solarbabies does not count) and easily the best movie Joel Schumacher ever directed (dude has made about 27 movies and you can count the halfway decent ones on the fingers of a single hand).

(Side note: Schumacher drove two giant nails into the coffin of the previous series of Batman movies when he made the awful Batman Forever and the fucking terrible Batman & Robin.)

With Lost Boys: The Tribe it's almost as if the Batman-era Schumacher went back to his one really great film and made the most stupid version of it he could possibly make.

The plot is virtually the same. Do you remember when they made Teen Wolf 2, and the "plot" was virtually identical? They just made the wolf a boxer instead of a basketball player. This is just like that, except instead of making the protagonists Jason Patric and Corey Haim, they use Joe and Joanne Fucking Nobody.

The truly creepy Keifer Sutherland is replaced by his boring younger brother Angus, who "acts" like the love child of Ryan Phillipe and Hayden Christensen, and I mean that in the worst way. The bad guy motorcycle gang is replaced by the bad guy extreme sports enthusiasts. Quotable dialogue like "My own brother, a goddamn, shit-sucking vampire. You wait 'till mom finds out!" is replaced with inane insults like, "Stop walkin' like a fag," or, even worse, quotes from other movies or even rehashed entire scenes from the original.

The only element both movies share (beyond the aforementioned purloined dialogue) is Corey Feldman's vampire hunting pseudo Rambo, Edgar Frog. And really, if Feldman is all you've got to hold this whole thing together... you ain't got much, buddy.

Granted, Feldman gives what is easily the best performance in the movie, which is still pretty terrible. Put up against the rest of this cast, that's nothing to brag about. Some of the effects and stunts are decent, but that almost raises a more depressing issue: someone spent money on this.

I have to mention as a severe tangent: there's a scene in the vampire crew's lair where a character is thrown onto a table, and if you blink, you'll miss the fact that he lands on a bag of Baked Lays potato chips. Really, if you're immortal, are you gonna eat a bag of Baked Lays? I mean, aside from the fact that vampires don't need food, what's the fucking point of being immortal if you can't eat all the greasy food you want?

That's how lame these vampires are: they diet.

For those of you who witnessed the Corey Haim meltdown on A&E's The Two Coreys and wondered exactly what footage of him filming his part for this movie was salvageable, apparently none, as he does not appear in the film proper. However, put up with this bullshit sequel long enough to get through the credits and you'll catch a small clip featuring Haim and Feldman that teases a possible second installment.

Yay. Lucky us.

For more on Lost Boys: The Tribe (Really? You want to know more?):
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- The official movie site

The trailer, from YouTube:

This, however, is WAY more interesting:

Saturday, July 26, 2008

#28: Rescue Dawn


Rescue Dawn
Directed by Werner Herzog
Written by Werner Herzog (based on a true story)
Released July 27, 2007

Bale-fest continues, though you must believe me when I say that I hadn't intended on taking in yet another of the actor's movies so early into this 365 movie run. If it hadn't been for the fact that the copy of the George C. Scott dark comedy The Hospital that Netflix sent this week was cracked in half, I was going to save this one for later. At least another week. This flick came to my not by way of the movie rental juggernaut, but through the codes on the lids of bottles of Diet Pepsi that I've been collecting as of late.

Based on information already presented in director Werner Herzog's 1997 documentary, Little Dieter needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn tells the story of German-American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down in Laos during an early (and classified) bombing mission at the beginnings of the Vietnam war. Dengler was only 40 minutes into his first flying mission.

One of the most notable aspects of Dengler's personality -- his unwavering optimism -- comes to the forefront early on, when Dengler refuses to eject from his plane during his crash. This optimism remains in him throughout his ordeal, from his torture to his imprisonment with a small group of hostages in a detainment camp, where he dreams up a potentially deadly plan for escape.

Bale once again delivers an impressive performance, speaking in a more believable American accent than he is usually capable of, while dropping over 30 pounds for the role. Anyone who has ever seen his incredible performance in the ultra-creepy The Machinist surely knows how far this guy will go to physically embody his characters.

Almost more impressive than Bale are his cohorts in the imprisonment camp, especially the always off kilter Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan, Spanking the Monkey) and Steve Zahn, who has been squandering his significant talents for years in shitty movies like Strange Wilderness, Bandidas and Sahara. Zahn's performance as Duane Martin is the true center of the picture, balancing Dengler's overwhelming optimism with his fight to keep from deteriorating and giving up. Dengler's arrival in the camp comes just at the right time, giving him a newfound determination to escape, or at the very least, persevere.

Rescue Dawn is Herzog's most financially successful film, which was probably helped by the fact that it is also the consummate director's most accessible and hopeful. Of course, given the subject matter, the movie and its ending are more aptly described as "bittersweet" instead of "happy." I will say that I never thought that the sight of one man giving another man a Butterfinger candy bar was an image that would bring a tear to my eye.

For more on Rescue Dawn:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- The IMDB page for Little Dieter Needs to Fly
- An interview with Herzog on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross
- The official move site

The trailer, from YouTube:

Friday, July 25, 2008

#27: Overnight


Directed by Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith
First screened June 12, 2003

Here's something that should start more controversy than anything I'll probably have to say on this blog:

I fucking hate The Boondock Saints. If you've never heard of it, it's a movie about two religious brothers who decide to fight the mob, and less specifically, evil. They are pursued by an FBI agent, who secretly believes they're doing a good thing. Insert fart noise anywhere in there.

The Boondock Saints was written and directed by a lunkheaded prick by the name of Troy Duffy, who was living life as a bartender until he somehow fooled the gods and scored a deal with Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Pictures to direct his pet project.

Overnight is the documentary that was supposed to show his rise to fame, but instead documents his almost immediate decline and fall from the face of the Earth. If you're a fan of schadenfreude (German for "taking pleasure in the misfortune of others"), Overnight might be the greatest embodiment of that word. Really though, there must be another term for it, because Murray is such an unbelievable asshole that a more odd phenomenon would be to root for his success.

Honestly, other than The Dark Knight, I haven't been more excited to watch a movie in months.

As the movie begins, Duffy has just sold his script for $300,000, with Weinstein granting him a $15 million budget and final cut (pretty much unheard of in Hollywood) to make his debut film. In addition, his band The Brood gets to record a soundtrack for the film.

We're not even 5 minutes out the gate and Duffy is declaring himself and his crew of buddies (they dub their new "company" The Syndicate) the greatest thing since sliced bread. Some choice quotes from Murray include references to his "log pile of creativity," his "deep cesspool of creativity," and the classic, "I'm Hollywood's new hard-on." It's important to note that all of these statements come before he has even scouted locations for his film, and before his band has recorded a single note.

Clearly, Duffy becomes far too comfortable with the ever present camera. If you made a drinking game where you had to take a shot every time he said something that could end his career, you'd be dead of alcohol poisoning before the movie was half over. Watch in amazement as Duffy refers to Kenneth Branagh a cunt because he has to leave a message on his machine. Sit in slack jawed awe as he grows more and more impatient with Weinstein, saying, "He wants to be me," or later adding that he and his friends are going to be "pulling some thug shit" on the movie mogul. Try not to shake your head as Duffy screws over his friends and relatives, treating them like shit and telling them in one meeting, "You have to keep your mouths shut, and do your fuckin' jobs."

The humanity just keeps on coming, and none of it ever humbles Duffy. Not the fact that he loses his deal with Miramax, not the fact that The Boondock Saints gets bought by no one at the Cannes Film Festival and opens on 5 theater screens over the course of the sole week of its theatrical run. . . not even the fact that his shitty band sells 690 copies of their debut CD before losing their recording contract.

Just. Awesome.

If you want to see a movie about a total asshole getting the comeuppance he deserves, Overnight is for you. Beyond that, there isn't really a lot to recommend about the film beyond it making you feel really, really good.

For more on Overnight:
- Some info at IMDB, including a bunch of hilarious user reviews.
- The IMDB page for The Boondock Saints

An interview with the directors, along with choice clips from the film:

#26 The Prestige


The Prestige
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan (based on the novel by Christopher Priest)
Released October 20, 2006

Okay, I admit it: I'm on an insane Batman/Christian Bale/Christopher Nolan kick right now. I got up at 8 in the morning today to take in a second showing of The Dark Knight, this time in Imax (worth every penny for the exploding building scene alone). I'm tearing my apartment apart looking for my copies of Empire of the Sun on DVD and The Killing Joke and Batman: Year One graphic novels.

Luckily, when I was sorting through my Netflix que a couple of weeks back, I had anticipated this, adding The Prestige to my list of movies. I figured I'd want another dose of Michael Caine and Christian Bale in a dark, strange Nolan picture, made after the release of Batman Begins.

At the risk of sounding like almost every review that came out at the time of the release of The Prestige, I have only two pieces of advice; first, note that the entire film is constructed like the 3 act magic trick Michael Caine describes at the beginning, and second, watch closely.

I'm afraid I can't say much more, at least regarding the story, without somehow spoiling some aspect of the movie. All you really need to know going in is that it's a Victorian-era tale about two rival magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, who go to lengths you can't even imagine to try and top each other.

The look of the film is impeccable, from the period-perfect sets and costumes to the eerie and creepy use of elements like light, fog and shadow. The acting is great, and the roster of performers includes a couple of small but effective appearances by David Bowie and real life magician Ricky Jay.

Overall, I liked The Prestige, though I felt the run time could have been trimmed by about 15 minutes to bring it just under the 2 hour mark. Still, even though I didn't love it, I'm of the opinion that Christopher Nolan has yet to make a bad flick.

You probably won't see the ending coming, but you may or may not accept it when it is presented to you. In a way, it's like finding out the truth behind your favorite magic trick: seeing behind the curtain, so to speak, may make you resent the person for revealing everything.

For more on The Prestige:
- More on the movie at and Wikipedia. Definitely check out the trivia section at IMDB after watching the movie, as there are a few very interesting facts and clues.
- All kinds of fun to be had over at the official movie/DVD site, including a link to buy

The official movie trailer, from YouTube:

#25: La Vie En Rose


La Vie En Rose
Directed by Olivier Dahan
Written by Olivier Dahan and Isabelle Sobelman
Released October 14, 2005

When it comes to biopics, the success of the movie as a whole is secondary to the performance on which the film revolves. Regardless of whether all the other pieces are in place, if there's no performance there, the rest won't matter. Other movies can get away with having a shit acting job here or there; in the biopic, if your lead drops the ball, the film is in ruins.

La Vie En Rose, which details the rise and demise of legendary French singer/actress Edith Piaf, could have been shot with cardboard props and a handheld video camera, recorded to VHS tape, with a lobotomized editor, and it still would have been virtually bullet proof. That's because Marion Cotillard gives one of the most absolutely mesmerizing, unbelievable and transformative performances in the history of cinema.

I know there's going to be a good deal of hyperbole on this site over the next year, but mark my words: Cotillard's is hands down a performance for the ages. It should be pored over and taught in acting schools. She makes the work of portraying a woman whose physical decay (at the hands of a brutal car accident at a young age, heroin addiction and cancer) came so quickly look easy. While Piaf died young, she left behind a body that looked and behaved like one twice its age. Cotillard will make you think that they've switched actresses on you.

Come to think of it, this movie should also be taught in... well, whatever school where make-up artists learn their trade. So often in these biopics that span decades of a person's life, the make-up as that character ages becomes more and more comical. I almost feel that the credit for Cotillard's amazing work should be shared equally with her make-up artists, Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald (all three earned Oscars for their work).

The rest of the movie is good, but not great. I had problems with the way the story jumps constantly between the years of Piaf's life, because knowing her fate in a way numbed the effect of presentation of the highs and lows, tragedies and accomplishments. A little goes a long way with that type of storytelling, so the timeline jumping is unnecessarily confusing.

There are a number of beautifully filmed scenes, and an especially emotional and technically impressive 5 minute single camera tracking shot where Cotillard and director Olivier Dahan collaborate to essentially deliver every human emotion in the matter of one scene.

But, like I said, the filmmaking is secondary to the performance. Everything else is just the sugar on top. You don't even need to be a fan of Piaf, or have even heard her music, to care about this "character." By the time the credits roll, you will be hunting for the soundtrack.

(I should also recommend, if you have the time, watching the film a second time with the subtitles turned off, as I did. Once you've read all the dialogue and know the essence of what is going on in all of the scenes, you owe it to yourself and Cotillard to watch it again, unencumbered by the need to constantly glance down at the bottom of your screen. I know it might sound silly, but you will really appreciate all of the nuances to this performance on that second viewing.)

For more on La Vie En Rose:
- More on the movie at
- More information about Edith Piaf at Wikipedia. Plus, more history here and here.

Here's a 1954 Piaf performance of "La Vie En Rose":

... and a side-by-side comparison of Piaf and Cotillard:

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

#24: Brick


Directed by Rian Johnson
Written by Rian Johnson
Released April 7, 2006

"You're gonna make me curious, being so curious."

Imagine a sort of alternate universe, very much like ours, where high school plays out like The Maltese Falcon or a pulpy Dashiell Hammett novel (note: a wise reader pointed out/caught me with my pants down: Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon; he also pointed out my incorrect use of the word pulpy, and I agree with him, but damn me if I'm gonna change it). Where kids speak in a mixture of slang and staccato that makes them sound like they stepped right out of Casablanca and onto the football field.

Brick takes place in that universe, combining the drama of teen life (drugs, popularity, manipulation) with the twists and turns of classic film noir (doublecrossings, femme fatales). Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns in a star making performance as an outcast student named Brendan Frye who turns private eye after discovering the body of his murdered ex-girlfriend.

(It's here that I must mention, as a side note, my proposal that Joseph Gordon-Levitt take on the role of The Joker if a third Batman sequel calls for a return of the character. Levitt looks similar to Ledger, and proves in this movie that he has the chops to take on the challenge of continuing in Ledger's footsteps.)

Moving and speaking like a modern day Sam Spade, Frye wastes no time digging deep into the "case," pissing off all the right underworld figures to get to the bottom of this murder mystery. Be sure the volume on your television is up, because the dialogue comes so fast that you'll barely have time to decipher what is being said in most of the scenes. This challenge can be somewhat frustrating at times, but just be calm and don't be afraid to hit that Rewind button if needed. (Or, use the link provided below to download your own copy of the script.)

Shot for under $500,000 in 20 days, Brick is bursting at the seams with style and substance, with some great unexpected performances from Lucas Haas and even Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft). The soundtrack is exceptional, calling to mind not only classic film noir music but also the sounds of Sergio Leoni-style Spaghetti Westerns.

For a first film, writer/director Rian Johnson does something extraordinary here, putting a new twist on a genre movie. I can't wait to see where this guy goes next.

Here's looking at you, kid.

For more on Brick:
- More information at IMDB
- The official movie site
- Check out downloadable PDFs of the script, the original novella, and more. You will probably need to consult this after, or even during, your viewing, just to make sure you've got the details straight.
- Buy the DVD at DVD PriceSearch

The trailer, at YouTube:

Monday, July 21, 2008

#23: The Rutles: All You Need is Cash


The Rutles: All You Need is Cash
Directed by Eric Idle and Gary Weis
Written by Eric Idle
Released March 22, 1978

Try as I might, there are just some movies I'm not going to have a lot to discuss about on this site. There's no sense in trying to bust my ass selling someone on The Rutles, a made for television mock-rockumentary. It's one of those things that you're just going to like or not.

Do you like Eric Idle and Michael Palin, or by extension, the style of absurd British comedy at which they and their friends in Monty Python excelled? Do you love The Beatles (or, do you hate The Beatles so much that you've been dying to see them mocked nonstop)? Do song parodies make you pee your pants with glee?

If so, you're probably gonna love The Rutles. If you answered "No," or even "Maybe" to any of those questions, don't bother.

I'm still a little ambivalent about my feelings for the movie. There were some hilarious moments, mostly regarding Idle's documentary "host" and his dealings with the camera and some of his interview subjects (his abusive dealings with a combative Gilda Radner come to mind). The musical spoofs, largely composed by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's Neil Innes (who also does a spot-on job impersonating John Lennon), are extremely well crafted and often very amusing. One of the stand-out musical bits is a recreation of The Beatles Yellow Submarine cartoon, featured here as a segment from Yellow Submarine Sandwich. There are a number of guest appearances from Saturday Night Live castmembers like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Al Franken and Bill Murray.

Aside from an appearance by Beatle George Harrison as an interviewer, the other guest appearances by famous musicians are absolutely worthless. Mick Jagger seems to be having a good time anticipating the moment where he gets to give a funny answer, but its almost as if the opportunity never presents itself. Paul Simon offers even less.

All You Need is Cash is fun, for the most part, and especially worth a viewing for those who are predetermined to enjoy this sort of thing. The music sounds deceptively like the real deal, and Idle's recreations of some of the most famous points in Beatle history are perfect satire. It just seems to go on a little long. With a low budget and a narrow focus aimed singularly at the Fab Four, eventually the jokes wear a little thin.

For more on The Rutles:
- The Rutles Tragical History Tour
- More information at IMDB

George Harrison's appearance in the movie:

#21: The Dark Knight, #22: Batman: Gotham Knight


The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (based on a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, and characters created by Bob Kane)
Released July 18, 2008

Batman: Gotham Knight
Segments directed by Yasuhiro Aoki ("In Darkness Dwells"), Futoshi Higashide ("Crossfire"), Toshiyuki Kubooka, ("Working Through Pain"), Hiroshi Morioka ("Field Test"), Jong-Sik Nam ("Deadshot"), Shoujirou Nishimi ("Have I Got a Story For You")
Segments written by Josh Olson ("Have I Got a Story For You"), Greg Rucka ("Crossfire"), Jordan Goldberg ("Field Test"), Brian Azzarello ("Working Through Pain"), Alan Burnett ("Deadshot"), David S. Goyer ("In Darkness Dwells")
Released to video/DVD July 8, 2008

Believe the hype: The Dark Knight is, indeed, the best "superhero" movie ever made, and Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker will deservedly be nominated for a Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

The unfortunate thing is that Academy voters probably won't give the film itself its due. They'll see it as a popcorn movie, a typical blockbuster, when in reality it's actually not a "superhero" movie at all, but an insanely great crime film and a darkly disturbing drama. Writer/director Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) already elevated the comic book movie format with his Batman Begins. The Dark Knight blows that movie right out of the water. Watching the 2005 Batman reboot earlier tonight, I could see firsthand how far he had taken the sequel, grounding it in a realism he had only hinted at before now.

Batman Begins was still a superhero movie at heart, and it almost had to be to tell the usual origin story that a first movie in a franchise must tell. Plus, it had more of the comic book flavors, like a Ninja cult, a nefarious and fantastical plot to destroy Gotham City with neurotoxins in the city's water supply, and as "happy" an ending as one could make amidst the rubble that remained after the big finale battle.

In The Dark Knight, there's less of everything: less gadgetry, less sunlight, less hope. To me, this is a great development. I have read reviews that have criticized the movie, saying that this kind of blockbuster movie is supposed to be escapist fun, not the kind of engrossing, morally ambivalent seriousness presented by Nolan and Company. Fuck that. You want a stupid bag of cliched tricks? Go watch the Fantastic Four movies. Batman, as created by Bob Kane, is supposed to be dark. Forget the campy Adam West TV show. More importantly, forget those horrible Joel Schumacher abominations, where each actor portraying each subsequent villain tried to out-over-act their predecessor. Christ, remember how bad Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones were? Remember Arnold as Mr. Freeze? Remember nipples on the Bat-suit? What utter garbage.

You know what? Forget the Tim Burton movies while you're at it. Show those to your kids when they ask to see this new Batman movie, because you definitely shouldn't be taking them to The Dark Knight.

It's a movie that will chill you to the bone. Ledger's take on the Joker, as a sociopathic terrorist, a self-professed "agent of chaos," is unsettling and unforgettable. From his introductory bank robbery scene to his pencil disappearing act to his work in the hospital visiting a certain disfigured character, he is completely believable and 100% frightening. He's not seeking money or revenge, like Nicholson's Joker; he simply wants to turn Gotham City upside down, and Batman inside out. He does, repeatedly.

Aaron Eckhart does great work as the doomed Harvey Dent, and Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are back in supporting roles that would barely register in the hands of lesser actors. Christian Bale tops his work in the previous film, and Maggie Gyllenhaal turns Katie Holmes' wet blanket role as Gotham D.A. Rachel Dawes into something more meaty and meaningful. I should also single out Gary Oldman, who is promoted to a bigger role here and whose impressive work as Jim Gordon is bound to be overshadowed by all the larger-than-life characters that surround him. The story itself is also much deeper and more layered, earning the 2 and 1/2 hours it takes to tell. This isn't a popcorn movie, it's a massive meal that will leave you stuffed but wishing you could have taken home a bag of leftovers.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a bag of leftovers to tide me over until my inevitable second viewing: Batman: Gotham Knight, an animated collection of 6 short stories that bridges the one year gap between the stories told in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Episodic and easy to digest (it clocks in at about 75 minutes), this may be the more ideal alternative to those nagging kids who can't understand why you won't take them to see the new Batman movie. Still, be forewarned that just because these are cartoons, they don't skimp on the violence (especially "Working Through Pain") and some harsh language. This is anime, not your typical Saturday morning cartoon.

As for how Gotham Knight fulfills its intended purpose, I am unsold. While it's great for fans to get a more adult animated "movie" to nosh on, it feels like the story is being propelled sideways rather than forward. The exception is "In Darkness Dwells," which gives more backstory on Batman Begins villain The Scarecrow. It's no surprise that this story feels more linked to the Nolan movies, as it was written by David S. Goyer, who helped write both Begins and Dark Knight.

Still, you're not missing much in the way of story development if you skip this DVD. If you're a superfan, chances are you've already decided whether you need to see Gotham Knight.

For more on The Dark Knight:
- More information at Wikipedia (warning: the entire plot is revealed there) and IMDB
- The official movie site
- I Believe in Harvey Dent
- Explore all manner of craziness at Why So Serious?

For more on Batman: Gotham Knight:
- Info at Wikipedia and IMDB
- The official site
- Check out a a 10 minute preview of the DVD

One of many Dark Knight trailers, at YouTube:


Thursday, July 17, 2008

#20: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Written by Andrew Dominik (based on the novel by Ron Hansen)
Released October 10, 2007

"I can't figure it out. Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"

Not that I put a lot of value into the annual Academy Awards, but when Into the Wild was denied an Oscar nomination for Best Picture last year, I was a little furious. Don't get me wrong: I love the Coen brothers, and really did enjoy No Country for Old Men. No doubt it was one of the best movies of the year... it just wasn't the best, in my opinion. It wasn't even their best movie (AHEM Miller's Crossing AHEM).

Now I've found a second movie to be robbed of that Best Picture Oscar: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a masterfully crafted, deliberately paced Western about celebrity and infamy.

Be forewarned, movie lovers: when I say deliberately paced, you can read between the lines and assume I mean "Slow." I love a good, slow movie; Solaris and Unbreakable immediately spring to mind. If you have a problem with films that aren't afraid to take their time and linger on the moment, this ain't the movie for you.

If, however, you're still with me, Assassination is pretty incredible. Shot by director of photography Roger Deakins (whom, among many beautiful shot movies, photographed No Country for Old Men) defines the importance of the role of a director of photography. The movie is full of gorgeous visuals, from creeping clouds to warm rays of sunlight on worn wooden floorboards to the dark violet blood spilling out of a dead man's head. Even typically unheralded film making roles like lighting, provided by Martin Keough, will become (pardon the pun) illuminated.

Of course, the movie simply wouldn't work without great acting. Brad Pitt, who for me can be hit or miss, knocks it out of the park as the increasingly frightening, menacing and paranoid Jesse James. The real revelation is Casey Affleck, arguably the actor who was truly robbed in the Supporting Actor category by an impressive Javier Bardem in No Country. Affleck (who, as I previously mentioned, was magnetic in Gone Baby Gone) is pretty miraculous here, making his Robert Ford alternately creepy, pathetic and ultimately sympathetic as his character overcomes his admiration for James and comes to envy and despise him as he slowly realizes the unsavory human being that exists behind the media-manipulated facade of his idol.

The supporting cast includes Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Michael Parks, Ted Levine and the always impressive Sam Rockwell as Ford's dimwitted and mournful brother Charlie. There is not a weak link among them, and even political consultant James Carville makes the most of a brief cameo as the man who arranges for the murder of James.

At first, The Assassination of Jesse James seems to be an elegy to James and the loss of a legend; the real revelation is that it becomes a poetic and sad sort of tribute to the man who was vilified for shooting a villain in the back. The real tragedy winds up not being the assassination mentioned in the title, but the aftermath of the murder and its effect on Ford's life.

My only complaint with the movie is a somewhat significant one. I have previously alluded to my dislike of narration in films if not handled carefully. The narration here is pretty ridiculous, making the most egregious of errors when it comes to storytelling: SHOW, DON'T TELL. I lost count of how many times the voiceover was literally describing the exact actions that character on screen was performing. "He drank from a glass on the nightstand," as the actor drinks from a glass on the nightstand. I actually found myself yelling, "No shit, Sherlock" at the screen at one point. When you're making a slow paced movie 2 hours and 40 minutes in length, I think the least you can do is trust that the viewer who is willingly along for this kind of slow ride will have the mental capacity to put some of this shit together on their own.

For more on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford:
- More information at Wikipedia and IMDB
- A Wikipedia entry on Jesse James, and one on Robert Ford
- Buy it at the official site.

The trailer, at YouTube:


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

#19: The Blob


The Blob
Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. and Russell S. Doughten Jr.
Written by Kay Linaker, Irvine Millgate, and Theodore Simonson
Released September 12, 1958

I needed something dumb and fun after the sad punishment of The Panic in Needle Park, and I got that in spades in the original 1958 The Blob, starring cinema god and all around coolest-motherfucker-ever Steve McQueen.

The movie opens with a completely ridiculous "Tequila"-esque theme song by Burt Bacharach that is so silly it threatens to undermine the entire point of making a horror movie. The song warns, "Be careful of the blob!" How about "Run the fuck away from the blob"?

The Blob, put simply (there's really no other way to put it) is the story of a meteor crashing to Earth and releasing a pile of space jism that threatens to destroy the world by growing exponentially every time it consumes a victim. Steve McQueen is making out with his girlfriend when they witness the crash, and they must come to their town's rescue.

My first thought: did it really take three writers to come up with this thing? What, one to hold the pencil and the other two to move the paper? There's virtually no exposition when the movie opens. . . just some making out and then a crash. One of the movie's longest scenes involves McQueen trying to explain to a cop why he was driving backwards.

What I'm saying is this kind of movie basically writes itself. When I was a kid, I made a knock-off comic book based on The Blob called The Slop. I hadn't even seen the movie; I just thought the idea of a giant pile of goo eating people, like Jaws set loose in your plumbing, was a damn good idea. The Slop contained just about as much plot.

Don't get me wrong: The Blob is a damn good time, a well made B-grade horror/sci-fi oldie with a high body count, some good -- even intentional -- laughs, and a few decent tricks up its sleeve. Honestly, I expected a lot worse from a film that turns 50 years old this year, especially considering how much McQueen hated this movie as he matured as an actor. He certainly doesn't let his disdain show in his performance.

In an era full of torture porn like Hostel and Saw, utter garbage that is nothing short of serial killer training videos, it's quaint and somewhat refreshing to watch a "scary" movie that isn't trying to disgust you with the kind of sadism that has overrun the genre. Hell, you could watch The Blob with your younger children without doing them irreparable psychic damage.

Yeah, it's silly. Yeah, it's campy. But what's wrong with having a little fun?

For more on The Blob:
- More information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Wes Shank is the man who owns The Blob
- Buy the Criterion edition of The Blob.

The trailer, at YouTube:

#18: The Panic in Needle Park


The Panic in Needle Park
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg
Written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (from the book by James Mills)
Released July 13, 1971

Junkie: You know what the best high of all is?
Helen: What is it?
Junkie: Death.

Two days and thirty seven years ago, a young actor was making his debut as a lead in a motion picture. The movie, a dark film about heroin addicts in New York City, would be the first stepping stone in a massive career. That actor was Al Pacino, and that film was The Panic in Needle Park.

While Pacino had actually made his film debut two years prior in a 1969 Patty Duke movie called Me, Natalie, that movie bombed and he was still a somewhat struggling actor with a Tony win to his name. It was Pacino's work as Bobby in Panic that caught the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, and ultimately won him the coveted role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather in 1972. Three films under his belt and he was essentially a legend in the making.

Pacino plays a charismatic drug dealer, junkie and petty thief who falls for Helen (played by Kitty Winn) the ex-lover of one of his customers (the late, great Raul Julia), a relatively innocent woman and free spirit who finds herself in a rough patch in her personal life. Intrigued by this new man in her life, Helen easily falls into Bobby's habits, including his drug of choice. I'll give you one guess what the "needle" in Needle Park means. The "panic" referred to in the title is the drought of heroin that strikes Bobby and his community of junkies.

The scenes of heroin use are graphic, and the movie gradually becomes more unsettling as the drought carries on. One of the strangest and most interesting features of Panic is the fact that there is no soundtrack music whatsoever, giving it an almost documentary level feeling of realism. Think about it: these aren't the kind of people who don't listen to music or watch TV; they sold those items at the pawn shop long ago.

I saw Panic late one night when I was in college, on some random television station's Late Night Movie feature, and was blown away that I had never heard of the movie. Little did I know that the VHS tape was long out of print, so it would be years before I could recommend the movie to anyone I knew. To be honest. I watched it tonight for the first time since college, just to be sure that the movie I liked so much was as good as I had remembered.

It is. . . and it isn't. What I mean to say is that the movie still holds up, but it's not exactly something I'd recommend. Like any decent movie about drug abuse, there's no pulling of punches. Bobby ODs in front of a baby, and then is thrown out of the apartment so that the baby's mother can turn a trick to buy more drugs.

As times get more desperate, the betrayals begin to mount. Soon, what started out as a twisted love story gets much, much worse. The all consuming habit, as it inevitably does, consumes all.

The Panic in Needle Park is worth checking out as an introduction to one of our finest actors (Kitty Winn is no slouch, either). As a movie, it's harsh, unforgiving and sad. Unfortunately given the subject matter, anything less would be a lie.

For more on The Panic in Needle Park:
- More information at IMDB
- Buy The Panic in Needle Park at Amazon.

The trailer, at YouTube:

Monday, July 14, 2008

#17: The Hidden Fortress


The Hidden Fortress
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni
Released October 6, 1960 (U.S.)

Director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune are like the cinematic combination equivalent to chocolate and peanut butter: so tasty that anyone denying their inherent goodness is suspect in my book. Their collaborations resulted in some of the finest movies to ever come from Japan, including The Seven Samurai, Rashoman, and tonight's film, The Hidden Fortress.

The story of Hidden Fortress is essentially the basis for George Lucas's Star Wars. Two bumbling fools, one short and one tall (think C3PO and R2D2) must help a noble warrior transport a stoic, stubborn princess (and her gold) across enemy lines to a safe spot where she can rebuild her lost empire.

Aside from a few stylistic touches (like the use of horizontal wipe cuts to transition between scenes), the similarities end there. Unlike the droid protagonists of Star Wars, the two bumbling servants are generally greedy and useless, endangering the mission as often as they are helping. Although, it would be pretty hilarious to hear dialogue like "Your smell makes me want to puke," or, "You're a shitworm!" coming out of the mouth of C3PO.

Authenticity was always one of Kurosawa's strong points; oftentimes the worlds he created within his films were so believable, and the actors so engrossed in their roles, that the viewer might entirely forget that these movies were made in modern times. The Hidden Fortress is no exception. The director's keen eye for detail and realism stretches to the scenery, ensuring that at no point (at least to these eyes) do you feel like you're watching something filmed on a studio lot or indoor set.

Mifune, as the fiery eyed general, is unsurprisingly great here. The two peasants, played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara, provide much needed comic relief, while Misa Uehara does a fine job as the obstinate princess. Her voice, however, may feel like nails on a chalkboard.

Let's face it: the Japanese language is not one of the more beautiful/soft-on-the-ears languages spoken in the world. Uehara's voice as she barks out commands can be so incredibly grating that you'll find yourself thanking God when one of the characters asks her to play mute while they travel across the dangerous territory.

For more on Hidden Fortress:
- More information at IMDB
- Buy The Hidden Fortress at the official Criterion site.

An extended trailer, featuring a little footage of Kurosawa directing:

Here's a YouTube clip featuring a number of sources/inspiration for Star Wars:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

#15: Hellboy II - The Golden Army, and #16: WALL-E


Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Mike Mignola
Released July 11, 2008

Directed by Andrew Stanton
Written by Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter
Released June 27, 2008

After spending so many days cooped up in my apartment, I decided to take my show on the road and catch a couple of movies in their natural habitat: the theater. There's a giant 24-screen multiplex in Omaha where I typically go, and the plan is usually to pay for one movie and then see two.

Today, the plan was for three movies: Hellboy II, WALL-E and Hancock. By buying my ticket before 11 a.m., the plan was to catch 3 movies for $4.

By the time WALL-E had ended, I had been so assaulted by Summer Movie Mania that I had broken into a cold sweat and had taken my shoes off multiple times to release the tension. I'm crapping you negative. After working four nights in a row of 13 hour shifts, I was in entertainment overload.

Quite frankly, I'm still exhausted. That's why I'm going to be keeping things short tonight.

Hellboy II, from visionary director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone), sees the titular "monster" and his friends at the the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense battling to save the human race from an army of the underworld. Ron Perlman reprises his role as Hellboy, a role the classically trained and completely odd looking actor was born to play.

Let's cut the shit: if you loved the first movie, this one blows it right out of the water. If you're not a fan of fantasy or "comic book movies," this could very well drive you insane. Hellboy II seems almost overstuffed with characters and gadgets from del Toro's warped imagination: flesh munching fairies, mountainous rock creatures, indestructible robots and more come bursting out of every inch of the screen. Del Toro used fantasy sparingly in his masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth; here, he is completely unleashed.

Nerds will cheer. Anyone not into this sort of thing will scratch their eyes out.

WALL-E is a little more inclusive, slowly ratcheting up the action while adding heavy doses of cuteness, sweetness and humanity. Visually, it's nothing short of mindblowing.

The movie opens 800 years in the future, on a desolate, uninhabited and trash-strewn Earth. The only sign of "life" is a single cockroach and a robot whose sole purpose on the planet is to stack cubes of compacted trash higher than the abandoned skyscrapers that the humans have left behind.

Speaking of the humans, where are they? Bloated and lethargic from their lazy reliance on increasingly intelligent technology, they've been whisked into space by the monolithic corporation that virtually destroyed the planet in the first place.

The first half of the movie is virtually dialogue free, and is oddly riveting because of this fact. It's a brave directorial choice by director Andrew Stanton, and one that I wasn't sure would pay off with the kiddoes surrounding me in the theater. Amazingly, it works, and the kids and adults were both eating it up.

Eventually, WALL-E is visited by another robot, falls in love and follows "her" back to one of the corporate ships that has become the new home for the slovenly remnants of mankind. Wackiness ensues. So much wackiness, in fact, that I began to feel like I was having a bad acid trip. Again, I think this was the fault of my poor sleep schedule and not the movie itself. I left the theater incredibly pleased with WALL-E (heed the hype, it really is one of the best movies of the year), impressed and overwhelmed by Hellboy, and glad as hell to be getting a breath of fresh air as I stepped back into the sunlight.

In the end, I spared myself the Hancock and headed home to pass out.

For more on Hellboy II: The Golden Army and WALL-E:
- IMDB links for the former and the latter
- Official sites for the former (check out Guillermo del Toro's film scrapbook), and the latter. Both have links to trailers, clips and other fun stuff.


Friday, July 11, 2008

#14: Suspiria

Image by We Buy Your Kids

Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi (from the book "Suspiria de Profundis" by Thomas de Quincey)
Released August 12, 1977

Dario Argento does not care about your mental health.

If he did, the famed horror director's Suspiria would not be the relentless assault on your senses -- or your sanity -- that it is. It's like being shaken violently for almost 2 hours; even the DVD menu screen was freaking me out. My biggest regret in watching this movie today was not saving it for Halloween.

Suspiria is a twisted tale of witchcraft and murder in a creepy ballet academy. Jessica Harper plays the lead, an American girl who travels to Germany to be a part of the prestigious dance school. Upon her arrival on a stormy night, she is denied entry to the school as she witnesses one of the students running terrified from the building.

For a few minutes, we follow that student as she flees to an apartment and then is brutally (and I'm not using this word lightly. . . at one point, there is a close up of a knife plunging right into her heart) murdered. I won't go into any more detail, since the elaborate Wile E. Coyote style death is one of the most shocking parts of the entire movie.

Nothing, however, adds as much to the freakyness factor as the movie's score, written and performed by Argento and Italian prog-rock band Goblin (probably most famous in America for their music in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead). This shit is just otherworldly; if you're one of those people who likes to scare the little Trick-or-Treaters, crank this up when the lights go down on October 31st. It's grating, invasive, and chilling. You could have a blank screen and just play the soundtrack to Suspiria and you'd have crowds pissing in their seats.

Adding to the ambiance is, of course, Argento's direction, along with his use of vibrant mood-building color. When you see the color red in this movie, get ready for the shit to hit the fan. Even Argento's choices for the architecture and decorations add to the unsettling vibe.

The only things I found lacking were some of the overdubbed voices, and a somewhat thin story (which didn't really bother me, since this is definitely more of a mood movie than a 3 act Hollywood script).

There was a trend in the 1970's for movies to come to a crashing end (think about something like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, where an explosive tragedy is simply followed by rolling credits, with no real denouement), and Suspiria is no exception. That kind of ending is perfect for a movie like this, where even the finale is met with an abrupt and violent crash.

For more on Suspiria:
- More information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the 3 Disc version which features a CD of the Goblin soundtrack (and now out of print) at Amazon..

The international trailer, from YouTube:

Here's that totally gruesome murder scene from the beginning of the movie:

Thursday, July 10, 2008

#13: The Day the Earth Stood Still


The Day the Earth Stood Still
Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Edmund H. North (based on the short story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates)
Released September 28, 1951

Sometimes it's the ones you least expect that surprise you the most.

When I got home from work at 8 in the morning after being awake for exactly 24 hours, I had no plan to watch a movie. I was just going to check my email, drink a glass of anything (it's hot, so I don't care) and go to bed. As my computer booted up, I figured I'd check the weather for the day to see what kind of heat I would be trying to sleep through. When the TV clicked on, The Day the Earth Stood Still had just begun literally at that moment.

At first I thought, "Cool, I'll tape this for later." Within minutes, I was hooked. The Day the Earth Stood Still has always been heralded as a classic Sci-Fi movie, most recently by the American Film Institute, which named it #5 in their Top 10 Science Fiction movies. I'm pretty sure I remember thinking, "Really?"

It's that good. Directed by Robert Wise (whose ridiculous resume includes other all-time classics like The Andromeda Strain, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and The Haunting), Day is much, much better and more relevant than any movie over 57 years old has any right to be.

Since it is such an old movie, I expected the acting to be hamfisted and overwrought (like Jimmy Stewart in a good majority of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). In actuality, the acting is pretty damn great, especially from English actor Michael Rennie in the role of Klaatu, the alien visitor who has come to Earth on a mission of peace. Rennie doesn't have a bunch of make-up or special effects to hide behind; his reactions to the oddities of human behavior are all he has to help get across the idea that he comes from millions of miles away.

Naturally, this thing wouldn't hold up without a script worth a damn, and Day has a great one by Edmund North, adapted from a short story by Harry Bates (who sold the rights to the story for a mere $500). Check out one of my favorite exchanges from the movie, which occurs after Klaatu has been hospitalized after being shot by a paranoid solider:

Surgeon: I removed a bullet from that man's arm yesterday.
Government official: Well, what about it?
Surgeon: I just examined the wound and it's completely healed.
Official: What does he say about it?
Surgeon: Said he put some salve on it, some stuff he had with him.
Doctor #2: What are you gonna do with it?
Surgeon: Take it downstairs and have it analyzed. Then I don't know whether to just get drunk or give up the practice of medicine.

Another fantastic exchange occurs between Klaatu and a government official:

Klaatu: I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.
Official: I'm afraid my people haven't.

Other than a few minor plot quibbles -- for example, why are there only two guards watching over a UFO that has landed in Washington D.C., especially when you have a worldwide manhunt going for the alien pilot -- the script, dialogue and story are exceptional.

Throw in an eerie, theremin-based soundtrack by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver) and some truly impressive special effects (remember, this is 1951) and you've got yourself a near work of art.

It's so good, it doesn't need a remake. Of course, Hollywood has decided otherwise and is set to release a new CGI disaster movie (I mean that literally and figuratively) version in December of this year. How do I know it's probably not going to work? First of all, Keanu Reeves has been cast as Klaatu. Then, there's this little blurb from the studio:

"The Day the Earth Stood Still is a 2008 science fiction film, a remake of the 1951 film of the same name. Directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, the film updates the Cold War themes of man against man, to the more contemporary concerns of man against nature."

Really? The theme of man-against-man is no longer contemporary? While the 1951 original may have been aimed at the planet in the midst of the Cold War, it's pretty hard to say that the message that Klaatu brings to Earth is dated.

To paraphrase heavily:

"You all had better peace the fuck out, or you're going to get your asses burned. Every last one of you."

For more on The Day the Earth Stood Still:
- More information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Check out the final draft of Edmund H. North's script
- Buy The Day the Earth Stood Still at

The official trailer on YouTube:

Here's pretty much the first 7 minutes of the film:

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

#12: Gone Baby Gone


Gone Baby Gone
Directed by Ben Affleck
Written by Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard (based on a novel by Dennis Lehane)
Released October 19, 2007

Wow. Touche, Ben Affleck, touche.

I remember first reading that he was directing a movie called Gone Baby Gone and thinking, "Christ, he's making a shitty romantic comedy with a title taken from a Violent Femmes song. What a douche."

I was wrong about every single word of that thought.

Gone Baby Gone is a top tier representation of its kind: a suspenseful, intriguing and ultimately touching crime drama/mystery. Expertly made with believable performances from the entire cast, including Casey Affleck, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman, who for the first time in a long time is playing a much different character. Throw in great music and intelligent editing (watch the extended opening scene in the DVD bonus material... it takes an editor with a special kind of attention to pacing to know when to cut that much of an introduction to your two protagonists). Just a quality piece of work, all around.

The writing is top notch as well, based on a novel by the same guy who wrote Mystic River and three episodes of HBO's masterpiece The Wire. (Wire fans note: Michael K. Williams, aka Omar Little, had a nice little role here.) Baby deals with virtually the same subject matter as Mystic River, but this movie is so much more subtle and effective (my apologies to Clint Eastwood, the guy who practically wrote the book on actors directing fantastic movies).

I highly recommend this one. But then again, I have to admit to a little bias: I've been madly in love with Michelle Monaghan ever since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Damn her husband.

For more on Gone Baby Gone:
- More information at IMDB.
- Buy Gone Baby Gone at at Pick up a copy of Dennis Lehane's book.

The official trailer on YouTube:

#11: Super High Me


Super High Me
Directed by Michael Blieden
Released April 20, 2008

Super High Me is comedian Doug Benson's tribute to Morgan Spurlock's indictment on McDonalds and fast food, Super Size Me. Benson's focus, however, is not fast food.

Here, I'll just let one of his stand-up monologues speak for him:

"If eating McDonalds for 30 days is a movie and people are willing to pay to see it, I've got a movie. I'm gonna smoke pot every day for 30 days, try to remember to film it, and my movie's gonna be called Super High Me. Or, Business As Usual, I haven't decided yet."

Thus begins Super High Me, which began as a joke until Benson actually decided to go through with his idea. For this part parody/part stoner comedy, Benson performed two 30 day trials: first going 30 days without smoking pot (Benson was named "High Time Magazine's #2 pot comic of the year"), then 30 days where he smoked all day every day like it could cure all disease (it can't). During these two periods, he took a series of tests -- sperm count, IQ, lung capacity, physicals, even a test of his psychic powers -- and interviewed everyone from other comedians to his physician to the owners of pot dispensaries in the Los Angeles area.

Surprisingly, the first portion of the movie where Benson must abstain from his daily weed regimen was the far more entertaining half. I guess it stands to reason that the second half isn't as funny; just like watching anyone who is too drunk or too stoned, Benson at times becomes a chore to watch. Everything in the second half suffers, from his stand-up act (which, while funny, bogs down both halves of the movie) to his interactions with the camera, the viewers and his interview subjects. Contrasted with his relative sharpness in the first half of the movie, he can be a little embarassingly high.

The film does manage to cram a bit of information between the stoner jokes, especially regarding California's legalization of pot and the Federal Government's refusal to see the legitimacy of those laws. Still, you really have to be Straightlaced Joe Public to not already have heard or read about most of the information presented here. Plus, as a sort of variation on the ideas behind Super Size Me, it fails somewhat at present a compelling argument for either side of the coin.

I guess when the credits say "Based on a joke by. . . ," I'm probably setting my expectations a little high.

(Ooh, see what I did there? That's a pun!)

I have to add: is it any coincidence that when Benson does finally kick off his 30 days of smoking, half of Jane's Addiction wind up in his dressing room to get him high? You can almost see the devil horns sticking out of Dave Navarro's forehead.

I suppose I could say watching Super High Me is kind of like what smoking marijuana is like: at first, everything seems more funny than it probably really is, and then gradually you feel tired, a little anxious and ready to either go do something else or rewind to the start, where again, everything seemed so much funnier.

For more on Super High Me:
- More information at IMDB
- Buy Super High Me at the movie's official site. There you'll also find deleted scenes not even available on the DVD.

2 minute "teaser" video from YouTube:

Monday, July 7, 2008

#10: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Directed by John Ford
Written by James Warner Bellah & Willis Goldbeck (based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson)
Released April 22, 1962

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact. . . print the legend."

Let's get the Not Exactly A Spoiler Warning out of the way immediately: Lee Marvin plays the titular Liberty Valance, and he does in fact get shot. The real question presented in the movie, and one I won't spoil for you, is, "Who shot him?"

The film stars Marvin, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and was directed by the legendary John Ford -- whose resume stretches into the triple digits and dates as far back as 1917, including Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Rio Bravo, and possibly my favorite Western, The Searchers.

Valance is, in a way, a film about the death of the "wild" West. Ford deconstructs the genre he was most known for by, within the framework of his own movie, building up a legend and tearing it down before our very eyes.

The story is told in a long flashback, from the mouth of Stewart's Senator Ransom Stoddard, a grey haired windbag politician who has returned to the town where his career began for the funeral of an old friend. From the way the townspeople behave upon his arrival, you can tell Stoddard is a politician with a fair amount of legend to his name.

Seeing the casket of his old friend seemingly brings Stoddard back down to Earth, and he agrees to an interview with a local editor and reporter for the city paper. In a scene that will make any reporter laugh out loud, Stoddard waffles on whether or not he wants to talk. The reporter responds, "I have a right to have a story." Stoddard pauses, then replies, "I guess maybe you have." I'd like to suggest any reporter out there try that line on their next tight-lipped subject. I'll give my right hand to anyone who gets that kind of reply.

Stewart gives them their story, but probably not the one they wanted to hear.

The remainder of the movie, save for a few final scenes, is Stewart's tale, and it's here that we meet Marvin's ruthless, menacing Liberty Valance. Marvin pretty much steals the show, throwing through the windows and doors any scenery that he doesn't wind up chewing every time he walks onscreen. He's your classic Western baddie, but he amps the violence up by using a riding crop to whip the shit out of anyone standing in his way, including Stewart.

Valance pretty much fears only one man: Tom Doniphon (as played by John Wayne, in full cocky swagger), the town's one true above-the-law cowboy. Wayne is good here, especially in the second half of the movie as he begins to unravel. Reportedly, this film was the birth of the Wayne stereotype that he constantly called people "pilgrim" (he constantly calls Stewart by the name). In actuality, he only used the term in one other film, and spoke it only once.

Jimmy Stewart begins the film with his typical "aw shucks" good guy routine, which frankly put me off at first. He seemed totally miscast as the young lawyer (especially since he and the word "young" parted was long before this movie), but his performance gradually grows on you. The scene that turned it around for me was when Stoddard, angered by a trick played on him by Doniphon, knocks the larger than life Wayne on his ass. It's here that Stoddard learns that civility and law and order are foreign concepts in the American West.

While I was initially hesitant to like it, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance grew on me, especially once things took a darker turn. There are a few moments of comic relief that were, to me at least, somewhat unwelcome in that they seemed to disrupt the mood or interfere with the real story. I also found it odd that Valance, while made in 1962, seemed like an older film than Ford's incredible The Searchers, also starring Wayne, which came out the previous decade. Where that film felt epic in scope, this felt somewhat stagy and theatrical. Perhaps it was the black and white film stock, or the fact that this film features very little of what you typically found in Westerns: epic landscapes, chases, shootouts.

If you wind up watching it, keep your eyes peeled for my favorite scene, where Wayne delivers a hilariously timed kick to the face to one of Valance's henchmen in a restaurant. It's a very brief moment, but it's a blast to see Wayne delivering an effortless bit of Van Damme-age with a perfect mix of comic timing and machismo.

For more on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:
- More information at IMDB. Or, check out the Wikipedia entry, which contains a fantastic quote from Sergio Leone about why Valance was his favorite Ford film: "It was the only film where he learned about something called pessimism."
- Buy it at Amazon.

Lee Marvin on Valance, John Ford and John Wayne:

Saturday, July 5, 2008

#9: Darkon


Written and Directed by Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel
Produced 2006

Take the nerdiest thing you've ever seen, then multiply it by 1,000.

When I was in high school, there was a small group of students that, seemingly out of nowhere, began to meet up in city parks or even outside school grounds and stage pseudo-epic battles with homemade foam swords, axes and shields.

They were not who you'd call "the cool kids."

Darkon is a documentary about the kind of fantasy roleplaying I witnessed in high school run completely amok. The world of Darkon (located in Baltimore, MD) is a surprisingly large community of people who have created maps, languages, characters and histories in a sort of walking and breathing version Dungeons & Dragons. They meet on weekends to act out these fantasies and progress their fictional story.

There's a general sense among the interviewed subjects of Darkon that their disturbingly deep involvement in this "game" is a response to their perceived lack of control in their real lives. They describe the soul crushing nature of their jobs, or the pressures of bills and work, and create these fictional selves to sublimate those feelings and become -- at least in the fictional sense -- powerful.

If that sounds kind of sad, you don't know the half of it. It's like if Hoop Dreams crash landed on a Star Trek convention.

I believe Danny, a side character who seems to not even be able to make friends in this alternative land of nerds, says it best:

"I like Danny but sometimes Danny doesn't have the balls to do what Danny needs to," says Danny. "You can see why. I'm more or less a nerd."

Almost everyone in the movie, when discussing their real self and their fictional "character," refers to themself in the third person. Dylan thinks this is creepy.

While managing to maintain objectivity throughout the film, directors Meyer and Neel seem to almost become too immersed in the fictional world of Darkon, focusing a large part of their story on a fictional power struggle. What is truly fascinating, and somewhat unsettling, are the moments where the subjects are outside of their game and yet seemingly still entrenched in the thing they claim is an escape. I'm thinking most of a particular scene in a Denny's where two friends argue loyalty while blurring the line between game and life. "I don't think there is an 'out of character' when it comes to this," says one of the men as you witness the crumbling of their friendship.

Obviously, making fun of nerds is like shooting fish in a barrel. I like nerds. I consider myself a nerd. Darkon comes from a whole other place. It exists on the level of the people playing the game, not judging them or mocking them (which, as I just said, would be too easy). The battle scenes are shot like actual Hollywood combat productions. The tension is presented in a dramatic way.

Don't get me wrong: I found myself shaking my head so much that I had to take Advil to stop the pain afterwards. It's just a credit to the directors that they let the action speak for itself. As lame this role playing sillyness might seem to me, I couldn't help but feel that a lot of the time, their hearts were in the right place. "Everything that was once noble and good in this world is gone," says "protagonist" Skip Lipman. "And it's been replaced with Wal-Mart."

Overall, I was impressed with the craft put into Darkon, and was generally amused. It made me think of one of my favorite movies, American Movie the story of independent filmmaker -- in the loosest sense of the term -- Mark Borchardt and the friends and family who help him make his dreams as a writer/director come true. The twist of American Movie is that while you might laugh at Borchardt and the insanely silly things he says and does, he still, in the end, has made a movie, essentially saying, "Laugh at me all you want. I made a movie. What have you done?"

Darkon does not inspire that same sense of missed opportunity.

For more on Darkon:
- More information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- The official site, which includes the official trailer and a link to buy the DVD.

A segment on both the movie and the game of Darkon from a Baltimore news station: