Saturday, March 27, 2010
"Me and Mom versus you and Dad." The Squid and The Whale opens with this line as the family gears up for a tennis match, setting up the combative characters and true-to-life narrative about the ramifications of divorce that plays out for 83 minutes. The tennis match is tense and rhythmically-bereft, there are no fluid exchanges of the ball - a metaphor for the fragmentation of this family. These are not the Beavers - the perfect nuclear family - we are introduced to, but a real, authentic, disjointed and insecure family on the brink of dissolution. Noah Baumbach made his directorial debut in 1995 with Kicking and Screaming, a film about college graduates who cannot move on with their lives. The Squid and The Whale strikes the same cord by bringing into focus the complexities of life amidst drastic change.
The film boasts a strong cast, all of whom deliver impressive performances. Jeff Daniels, who has displayed an array of talent in memorable roles (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Pleasantville, Speed, Dumb and Dumber) throughout the years, adds to his resume with this impassioned portrayal of the bitter, ego-centric father Bernard Berkman. Laura Linney (The Truman Show, The Savages) works great opposite Daniels as Joan, and Owen Kline effectively plays the confused, neglected youngest son Frank. However, in the end this is the performance that propelled Jesse Eisenberg into future lead roles in Adventureland, Zombieland, and whatever other "-land" is being made as we speak. He takes the cake as the socially-awkward, pretentious teen Walt, attempting to understand the unanswerable questions all around him. Each of the characters are flawed, immediately choosing sides and assigning blame in the conflict as their relationships crumble. But the film develops and reveals its focus as being not on the conflict itself, but on the change that accompanies it. As soon as the immediate aftershocks of the divorce announcement subside, we witness the long term consequences of the parent's actions on the development of their children; "Don't most of your friends have divorced parents?" asks Bernard, establishing the setting in our modern day, divorce-prevalent society.
Each child copes with change differently. Frank, at the vulnerable age of 12, struggles in searching for his identity in his reflection, attempting to cope with new features he hadn't seen before. Walt, age 16, realizes that his false perceptions of the world were merely illusions grounded in his childlike naivety. There always comes a day, for all of us, in adolescence where the world opens up, and we are forced to face the truths about ourselves and the people around us. This comes for Walt when he realizes that his father is not the unappreciated, all-knowing man he had always admired, and more importantly, that there isn't always an easy fix for the often indiscernible complications of life.
Filled with small, poignant moments of insight, candidness, and raw emotion that personally resonates with the viewer, The Squid and The Whale teaches serious life lessons as it studies the behaviors of real human-beings caught in conflict. A tragicomedy, with comedy more sour than sweet, and an emotional punch that knocks the wind out of you, Baumbach's autobiographical story ultimately proves that everything in life will be fine in the end - it just won't be what was once expected.
Written By John Carney
Friday, March 19, 2010
If you have never seen Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, his epic tribute to the Western, you are doing a disservice to yourself. Made in 1968 and set in the American Old West, the film is as thought-provoking, stylistically-dazzling, and thoroughly entertaining as anything produced today.
The film succeeds in many ways; intriguing characters (VERY intriguing in the outrageously sexy Claudia Cardinale's character's case), a haunting musical score by Enio Morricone, methodical narrative pacing, stylized editing, etc. The opening sequence is foreboding and sort of epitomizes the slow, plodding, patient tone of the whole film. Throughout the film, Leone's signature use of an excessive amount of close shots crafts a ton of claustrophobic scenes and an overall steady environment of tension. Yet at the same time, he uses deep focus long shots, (mimicking John Ford's filming of Monument Valley in such classic Westerns as Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers) to showcase the vast, open space of the western landscape. Most importantly, however, the film forces us to think. Forced to think in the sense that we are never quite sure about the true motivations of the characters, and in the sense that the plot is filled with questions that are mostly resolved near or at the conclusion. But more importantly, Leone's techniques are supremely effective in also making us think about things off of the screen; the bygone traditions of American film and culture.
Not too many years earlier, a large portion of America was still "the West" governed by the "way of the gun." This was basically what most Western films idealized. This established order, along with the western ideals of individualism, were eroded and eventually dissolved by the influx of industry and civilization. In Once Upon a Time in the West, this conflict is capsulated in a conversation on the train with Frank (played by Henry Fonda, father of Jane and Peter Fonda), who derives power from his gun, and Morton, who advocates the more dominant, new form of power, money. The entire film is based around this process of the "new" phasing out the "old." This was a theme in most Western films. Once Upon a Time in the West is a Western film that is certainly about the Old West, but it is more specifically about the Western film genre itself.
Leone refers to many western classics while at the same time introducing his new style to the genre as one of the leaders of the innovative film movement of the late 1960s. Having seen John Ford's classic western masterpiece, The Searchers, several times, it is fairly easy to recognize that Leone had done the same before making Once Upon a Time in the West. Numerous scenes mirror memorable scenes from The Searchers; the McBain family murder scene mirrors the Edwards family murder scene (an ominous silence fills the air, birds flutter away, an unseen enemy, etc.), and Bronson's Harmonica is a mirror image of Wayne's Ethan Edwards as each of them are the anti-hero archetype character of the west, fueled by vengeance, and roaming freely with the wind. Each of these characters cannot exist in the new world that is closing in around them. In The Searchers' infamous ending scene, we witness the tragic end of the "Western Hero," the "John Wayne Man's Man." Ethan wanders back into the wild, blending in along with the dry shrubs and tumbleweeds, unable to live in the civilized world. At the end of Once Upon a Time in the West, Harmonica also wanders back into the wild in a similar shot. The evident difference here is that this threatening new world has already arrived; Harmonica passes through what is essentially a construction site for a city. Only 12 years after Ford's iconic western, the West is dead. Leone thus pays tribute to this landmark genre of films, which influenced him, but the movie itself signals the end of that era. The film makes this point in that it does not feel like or follow the same formula of those films of the past, instead steadfast in ushering in the new era of film-making.
Looking to the present, Quentin Tarantino's films seem to be made in the same vain, glorifying his predecessors while creating a final vision of something new and original. A large portion of Kill Bill is essentially one big homage to Once Upon a Time in the West (another reason to see it - you'll probably appreciate Kill Bill a bit more). The nameless Bride is the nameless Harmonica, and the frankly named all-black Bill is the frankly named all-black Frank, and the murders of the Bride's wedding are constructed referentially to the murders of the McBain family (Bill's squad of assassins approach in the same way as Frank and his goons). And then there's the title at the opening of Inglourious Basterds...(see above title of entry)
Once Upon a Time in the West; Harmonica, fueled by revenge
Kill Bill; Bride, fueled by revenge
Sunday, February 21, 2010
“Shutter Island” is Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s fourth and best collaboration yet. Scorsese blends hard-boiled film noir with gothic terror in his most eloquently horrifying work.
The first thing we see in “Shutter Island” is a ferry slowly emerging from a patch of fog, which immediately feels threatening and foreboding. This is just the first of many actions that Scorsese draws out intentionally to summon feelings of anticipation and dread.
The story centers on Teddy Daniels, played by DiCaprio, and Chuck Aule, played by Mark Ruffalo. They are two U.S. Marshals called to investigate the disappearance of patient Rachel Solando on Shutter Island, an island-prison for the mentally insane off the coast of Massachusetts.
When the U.S. Marshals interrogate the institute’s director Dr. Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley, and his supervisor Dr. Naehring, played by Max von Sydow, it is clear something is amiss. You’d expect them to be anxious or worried, but they are confident and tranquil. Their eerie presence — through Sydow and Kingsley’s brilliantly nuanced performances — denotes something sinister hiding beneath the surface. Our protagonists are powerless in handling it.
Scorsese envelops every inch of the island in ominous terror. Rooms are dimly lit and encased in shadow; an old Civil War fort — part of the prison — has labyrinthine dark corridors. Heavy wind and rain hammer tree branches upon the windows and strange menacing figures haunt every corner.
The movie’s ensemble is brilliant. Ruffalo’s Aule feels contained but edgy as Daniels’ partner. Jackie Earle Haley is perfectly besieged as an inmate. Elias Koteas and Patricia Clarkson make their brief appearances memorable.
Scorsese’s films are usually static but “Shutter Island” has a sense for both the meditative and dynamic. In moments of action, “Shutter Island” is riveting. In depictions of trauma, it’s methodically creepy and surreal. Scorsese’s camera also closes in tight on characters, creating unnerving tension and claustrophobia. Some directors would avoid such angles, but Scorsese is an auteur. His unique style absorbs and mystifies the audience.
As the claustrophobic atmosphere weighs on Daniels, his mind beings to deteriorate. He has abstract dreams of his violent experiences in World War II and of his wife who dies tragically. Michelle Williams, as his wife, personifies shock to a numbing extent. As Daniels loses his grip on reality, his manifestations become peculiar to a point that makes it difficult to distinguish the real from the fantasy.
The island is a portal into Daniels’ worst nightmare as it resurrects things he thought he had long forgotten. One moment of severe trauma is extremely disturbing. DiCaprio’s acting is so real and authentic in this scene, it grows difficult to watch.
This film will beckon you to remember trauma in your own life. You’ll internalize the power of “Shutter Island,” as it will be a nightmare you’ll never forget.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The plot of “From Paris With Love” is muddled and confusing. The story is incoherent and foolish, and it has an awkward, anti-climatic ending. However, John Travolta’s portrayal of a renegade spy is refreshingly charming and endlessly entertaining.
His character is like some guy you’d meet at a bar. You would drink all night, do some lines of cocaine to get amped up, go to a brothel and then get chased by a series of random bad guys, only to turn around and start chasing them. As ridiculous as this sounds, this is what actually happens to Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Travolta in “From Paris With Love.” They have a blast doing it, and you will, too.
Rhys-Meyers and Travolta are an odd comedic pairing. Rhys-Meyers is James Reece, a handsome by-the-book-agent, while Travolta plays Charlie Wax, an uninhibited loose cannon and straight-up wild man. This movie is like so many other buddy action comedies, it’s cliché to even mention them in this review. In the beginning, Reece is trying to prove himself as the aide to the U. S. Ambassador in France to take part in secret operations. He gets his chance when he’s chosen to escort Wax. After he spends a few hours with Wax, Reece regrets wanting anything to do with secret operations.
When Wax and Reece meet up there is a sense of immediacy in action, which is the meat and potatoes of this film. Wax steals cocaine in a flower vase and does the occasional line to be intense enough during shootouts. He smuggles a 9mm pistol through customs in a pack of energy drinks, and he screws some prostitute while on a stakeout. These seem like the pedigree activities for an action junkie and spy psychopath. It’s this ridiculousness and Travolta’s dry and sometimes crazy delivery that gives the film spontaneity and something authentic to connect with. This is the kind of film he should have done 10 years ago.
As Wax provokes the action of the story, Reece can barely catch his breath. Reece is flabbergasted and reluctant with Wax’s shenanigans, while Wax is trying to change him. When Reece learns it’s more fun to be Wax, it makes for a more entertaining character dynamic. When Reece becomes separated from Wax, he falls flat on his face. During an emotional scene, one wonders where this guy went to acting school.
“From Paris with Love” certainly has its low points. It’s hard to decipher what the film’s title has to do with the story, and the plot moves from Reece learning the ropes out in the field to a contrived twist that no one sees coming. The strength of the film is through Rhys-Meyers and Travolta’s dysfunction. When they’re separated, the film has little going for it. Still, Travolta’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.
The original trailer to Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman” presented something ominously dark and full of atmospheric terror. There were shots of a solitary werewolf staggering between barren trees. It felt more like a character study than a plot-driven story. It didn’t show the Wolfman, just small glimpses and shadows. As more trailers came out they exposed the film as more commercial. Images of the film were geared to cause shock rather than awe. They showed more violence, gore and shots of the Wolfman. To my dismay, the film itself is more exploitative than subtle.
Recent reboots of classic films and franchises have delivered a fresh, genuine interpretation to the original story while offering tribute to its inspiration. However, horror remakes usually come up short.
The werewolf myth received its resurgence 30 years ago with “An American Werewolf in London.” Director Jon Landis used unique camera tricks and makeup to create the horrific metamorphosis of man to beast. This recent “Wolfman” uses the same technique, but its silly computer graphics feel artificial and superficial, not authentic and eerie. Landis’ technique of whipping a camera through narrow tunnels in London’s subway system to denote the beast’s movements is more effective than lame CGI. When it’s just lead actor Benicio Del Toro and his wolf makeup, it’s much more authentic and real.
The movie’s production design is impressive. A cobwebbed mansion lurks in shadows as dark as the characters’ secrets. The surrounding forest feels claustrophobic as something sinister lingers in the mist. But the film fails to really connect the characters to its vivid environments. Its weak plot feels rushed and fails to construct intimacy between the viewer and characters.
Del Toro, although his presence is mysterious and intriguing, is lifeless as a Lawrence Talbot but brutal as the beast. He doesn’t mumble for once, but his slow speech and calm manner drag the pace and dynamic of his scenes. It becomes even worse alongside the stoic Anthony Hopkins. Del Toro is also given little to no time to realize his terrifying curse. Audiences don’t feel his pain enough: They just witness the brutality of it. There’s no passion or hint of romanticism here, just a soulless film that failed to realize its full gothic potential.
The lone emotional presence belongs to Emily Blunt as Gwen Conliffe, who is some kind of romantic interest to Del Toro’s character. We’re given little exposition to believe she’d care for other characters throughout the film.
“The Wolfman” is a sad example of how commercialism is ruining inventive filmmaking. This film was victim to re-shoots and was pushed back five months from its original release date. I wish the filmmakers kept it atmospheric and ominous as the original trailer suggested; instead, it’s something that’s little more than a B movie.
Memento (2000) directed by Christopher Nolan
When Memento came out audiences were blown away by it's non-linear narrative and how Guy Pearce's amnesia shaped the story. Nolan constructs a brilliantly formulated puzzle that's as intricate as it is fascinating to see how it's going to unfold. 'Memento' immerses you in its story as you contemplate whether Pearce will put the pieces of the puzzle together or get killed in doing so. What spawned from Memento was a new, brilliantly constructed, fragmented re-imagining of the film-noir genre.
Christopher Nolan’s unique implementation of a non-linear narrative in Memento skewers traditional form and plot structure. Memento is the film that first garnered Nolan attention, and he has since become one of the most impressive, innovative film directors of this generation (Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight and look out for this summer’s Inception). I can’t help but feel that Tarantino’s ground-breaking, fragmented early 90s films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction helped to influence this type of creative film-making almost ten years later. Memento’s dual, contingent sequences of black and white (shown chronologically) and color (shown in reverse) are cleverly mashed up side by side, ultimately converging when the dust settles into one cohesive story. Guy Pearce gives a heart-wrenching performance of a vulnerable, determined amnesiac struggling to piece together his fading memories into some semblance of reality. What are we without our memories? The movie is one big riddle that keeps you guessing. It begs to be watched a second and third time. In my opinion, as well as being memorable, Memento has to be considered one of the top two or three best movies of the decade.
WallE (2008) directed by Andrew Stanton
I wonder if Pixar will ever make a bad movie. After 2009's Up, they're 10 for 10 and showing no signs of slowing down. They seem too perfect...I half expect to hear about some dark secret they're hiding, like they fund a major crime syndicate or their executives vacation in Alaska to club baby seals.
Pixar's WallE is a universally appealing animated science fiction story with all of the emotion and spirit of a classic silent film. In a sense, it is a new age silent film, operating with limited spoken dialogue. It simply doesn't need a whole lot of dialogue; its message is so clear and powerful that it crosses every language barrier.
Not too far into the future, Earth has been decimated, abused, and forgotten as humans have jettisoned themselves into outer space in a spa-like cruise ship. WallE, the last remaining solar powered robot left on Earth, lives a lonely life until he improbably journeys across the universe after he discovers a single tiny, green plant (a symbol of hope for life on Earth) that has grown amongst the rubble. Although a robot, WallE is ironically more human than the actual humans shown in the movie; his eyes convey strong emotions and his voice-like noises give him a sense of expression that the humans all lack (they all waste away in floating chairs, consuming processed food products and staring mindlessly at computer screens). The movie tells us that we have everything we could ever ask for right here on this planet and warns us of the dangers of taking it for granted. At the heart of it all, there is also a great love story, as WallE falls head over wheels in love with EVE, a much more advanced robot.
The film is visually stunning; there is an incredible attention to detail, specifically in the opposing landscapes offered by the gleaming, spotless spaceship Axiom and the dusty, dirty unrecognizable planet Earth. WallE is a movie about transcendent ideas, about human beings and our role in protecting and cherishing our home planet. Among everything great Pixar has produced, WallE might be the best.
All the talk of the environment and global warming aside, this is a film about love in the absence of it. Johnny is right that at the heart of it all is a great love story. Wall E and EvE share an endearing devotion to each other that is unselfish and pure. 'Wall-E' is practically a silent picture, as the robots unspoken language still renders powerfully stirring moments. However when they do speak, there's something real and powerful inherit in Wall-E or EvE's acknowledgments to each other. When they're forced to speak you understand how much they love and are devoted to one another and it's just so sweet and moving when those moments come.
Million Dollar Baby (2004) directed by Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood may be the director of the decade. Million Dollar Baby is his most tragic and powerful film. Eastwood meditatively paces the film with grace and intimacy. It’s so patiently rendered that its pathos leaves you haunted and shaken.
Eastwood plays Frankie Dunn, a tough as leather wearying boxing trainer who reluctantly decides to coach Maggie Fitzgerald, played by Hillary Swank, a 30 year old female boxer who wants a shot at her dreams. The two central characters are connected by Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris, a retired boxer played by Morgan Freeman who acts as the soft-spoken witness to the film’s story.
Million Dollar Baby is doused with this grayish pastel upon its frames which ingrain it with this bittersweet poignancy. Eastwood’s films are enveloped with dark cinematography; it acts as a constant reminder of past melancholy and it also foreshadows upcoming tragedy. Million Dollar Baby is the inkling of catharsis, even through profound tragedy there is some sign of redemption and hope. Million Dollar Baby shows us the power of second chances and how things we come to lose or long for come back to us different forms.
I’m not the biggest fan of Clint Eastwood; I feel as though his films are always solid, but they never really stray far from conventions or leave me wanting more. Regardless, he consistently ushers out good films one after the other, so it’s hard to deny that grumpy old man his place at the top. Million Dollar Baby is probably his best of the decade (Unforgiven is clearly his best overall), and although Eastwood tends to dive into the tragic in most of his films, he perhaps goes the farthest here. This isn’t a feel good story; it bathes in sorrow and sadness. I could understand it being too depressing to enjoy, but the film does offer Morgan Freeman’s voice. I could listen to that man talk about algebraic equations and enjoy every second.
The Wrestler (2008) directed by Darren Aronofsky
The Wrestler highlights the real nature of professional wrestling, emphasizing the consequences and sacrifices of its dedicated performers below the surface entertainment. The movie is essentially a one man show; Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson is a perfect match as he exposes a powerful level of vulnerability beneath the facade of a wrestling hero. Randy "The Ram" Robinson exists dually as Randy and his "Ram" wrestling persona, which consumes his identity, well-being, and life outside of the ring. Years past his prime, all that exists are the mangled remains of a deteriorated man who has nothing to show for his past success; no family, no money, no happiness. All of the tendencies he has learned through his "Ram" identity destroy his prospects for a life as a responsible human being; a wrestler is all that he knows how to be. The camera fixed on him the entire length of the film, Rourke is sensational in this highly touted, emotionally-overwhelming comeback performance. And Darren Aronofsky's agile hand held directing style takes us to places we might not want to be; under the lights right alongside "The Ram" in the ring, as well as in the lonely every day life of Randy Robinson.
Mickey Rourke’s performance personifies the weary and tired man in us all. Rourke carries the film with tender endearing moments that he goes far in trying to capture with amazing results. Aronofsky shapes the film into an intimate character study in which Rourke deserved an Oscar for. What's really interesting about this film though is the underworld of the wrestlers that you never see. This is a raw and sometimes unsettling journey through a wrestler and the hardships that the job entails.
Lost in Translation (2003) directed by Sofia Coppola
[after a long, expressive speech in Japanese from the director]
Ms. Kawasaki: “He want you to turn and look in camera. Okay?”
Bob: “Is that all he said?“
This movie is quite possibly the most real film in decades. What I mean by that is that it gets you to think about yourself and your place in the world. Lost in Translation is a study of emotional and physical displacement, about human connection, and about how easy it is to lose your self amidst unfamiliar surroundings. Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) are both living temporarily in an upscale hotel in downtown Tokyo, Japan. Bob is currently halted in a stagnant 25 year marriage, while Charlotte is a young, neglected wife finding herself reconsidering her life and uncertain future. As an American celebrity comedian, Bob has been hardened to life's disappointments; he understands the limitations of the rewards for fame and success as he has not achieved true happiness. His inner turmoil reads through the subtle, expressionless face of Murray. Murray is funny without trying too hard; few can do this while also providing a deep vulnerability and complexity to their character, but Murray's on the top of his game in this one. The two share an unspoken connection before ever meeting, and their relationship eventually blossoms as they venture out together into the strange world around them; two lost souls roaming a dream world in pursuit of happiness and the meaning of life.
Sofia Coppola's second feature film (Virgin Suicides) proves that she is a highly skilled director here to stay. Long silences fill the air of the film creating a more honest feel to it; there is no meaningless, forced dialogue. Instead, the characters express themselves through nuanced, non verbal expression and body language, and the film is all about the tone and mood of each moment. Much of the comedy is derived from the mistranslations of our culture into Japan's, and the character's (primarily Murray's) interactions with the Japanese. Lost in Translation welcomes and breeds introspection, daring you to examine yourself, your place amongst the world around you, and what it all means to you.
Through being separated and isolated in a foreign country and lost within the clutter of their own lives two strangers find each other and forge a strong bond. Mystery writer Raymond Chandler once said “To say goodbye is to die a little.” When Bob and Charlotte say goodbye, they share a parting whisper and a soothing embrace that few people come to experience in their lives. Lost in Translation harks upon the fleeting bonds that last a lifetime.
The Pianist (2002) directed by Roman Polanski
The Pianist is a story of survival during the Holocaust, following Adrian Brody as Jewish pianist Szpilman, providing us with one of the finest performances of the decade. The film is detached from the issue in a good way; Polanski doesn't offer a documentary-style perspective on the atrocities of the historical event (avoiding the conventional story telling or a Hollywood resolution), rather he simply shows us a portrait of survival realistic to what was actually experienced. Witnessing the on screen deterioration of Szpilman is difficult to watch; he nearly loses his identity as he is reduced to little more than a skeleton. As a musician, he seems to perceive the world differently than others; there is a certain hopefulness within him that those around him do not have, even after being stripped of all strength and filled with fear. Perseverance, the resiliency of the human spirit, and a lot of luck are the only things that keep him alive as the world falls apart all around him. Haunting, emotional, and horrific, The Pianist is a must see.
Kill Bill (2003, 2004) directed by Quentin Tarantino
As a joint film composite I’d call Kill Bill the film achievement of the decade. Tarantino blends Eastern and Western film styles into an operatic revenge fantasy for the ages. Kill Bill not only is a homage of sorts: it’s an exploration into the genres that Tarantino loves to refine and reinvigorate into contemporary cinema. Volume One is brutal, sardonic, surreal, gratuitous, and exploitive, as Volume Two is slow, methodical, allegorical, and infused with calm noir touches. What’s so great and unique about Kill Bill is its lead character. The Bride roars with passionate fury and accelerates to a thundering finale of absolute revenge.
“Silly Caucasian girl likes to play with Samurai swords.” –O-Ren Ishii
I don’t know what else to say about Tarantino’s epic blend of old school revenge, martial arts, and spaghetti western flicks that Kyle didn’t already touch on above. I agree that Kill Bill, as a double volume set, is a film achievement that has been unfairly ridiculed for being an overly stylized celebration of violence. That’s the point! Kill Bill is so much fun, watching it is like being on a sugar rush until the end credits; you can practically feel Tarantino giggling with enthusiasm over every frame. It’s hyper, hip, relentless, and ultimately the coolest slice of cinema, dripping with pop culture references in true Tarantino fashion, you could ask for.
There Will Be Blood (2007) directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Through our own desire for power and wealth comes selfishness and greed. There Will Be Blood explores how greed makes false prophets of us all, how an oil baron poses as a family man, and a young man posing as a messenger from God are corrupt. There Will Be Blood is an unsettling allegory of our times. It captures how capitalistic society can dissociate one from morality and delude those who get fooled into what humanity and morality really is.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has been described as a master-piece, and I can’t disagree. It’s an awe-inspiring character study of a soul-less man consumed by greed, control, and himself, but as briefly discussed above, it’s about much more than that. It really is hard to pinpoint the greatness of this film; There Will Be Blood is one epic display of pure cinema perfection. Ultimately, it is just fun to watch Daniel Day-Lewis go to work inside the skin of this passionate character with a god-complex, Daniel Plainview. Its sweeping, gorgeous cinematography of boundless, empty landscapes frame Plainview perfectly to show his loneliness in the world, and its haunting musical score punctuates the raw emotion of every scene. This movie will linger with you for awhile. “There will be blood…indeed.”
In Bruges (2008) directed by Martin McDonagh
Ken: “Ray, you are about the worst tourist in the whole world.”
Ray: “Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't.”
In Bruges is a movie that seemed to get overlooked by a lot of people, however, those who saw and understood it all seemed to love it. The first time I saw it, I wanted to watch it again. A dark comedy about real human issues, In Bruges follows two hit men as they are told to wait in Bruges for instructions from their less than jovial boss. Brendan Gleeson's Ken sees Bruges as a calm, rejuvenating heaven, while Colin Farrell's Ray views Bruges as a dull, dreary hell. It seems more likely that Bruges is neither, rather it’s an inescapable, middle ground place of purgatory where Ray must find redemption and salvation before moving on in life. The calm backdrop of Bruges seems surreal and works as the perfect place for the development of the two complex characters as they eventually share a connection and reach a higher ground of understanding on the true meaning of their lives.
A brilliantly hilarious screenplay, In Bruges contains ridiculous conversational dialogue (about dwarves, the interpretation of art, the word 'alcove', under what conditions of self defense it is suitable for a man to hit a woman) and situational humor that, at times, pushes the limits of what is appropriate. I laughed throughout its entirety. But there is more to it than comedy; in Bruges, the characters develop and deal with deep ethical and moral dilemmas. There are also random bursts of violence that keep the suspense going, as well as times of intense sadness that balance out the humor. The best part of all is that you can never guess what is going to happen next.
Most screenwriter's try to write stories that suggest fate or irony, however to make 'everything fit' while making it ambiguous can lead to contrived and forced plots. However Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is deeply ironic and powerful as its moments all come together in a beautiful, tragic, and perfectly realized construction. As pointed out above, it's hilarious as well.
Casino Royale (2006) directed by Martin Campbell
Vesper Lynd: “If the only thing left of you was your smile and your little finger, you'd still be more of a man than anyone I've ever known.”
James Bond: “That's because you know what I can do with my little finger...”
During a time when everything is remade, rebooted, and rehashed by the money-grubbing fingers of studio producers, Casino Royale is a revelation. In my opinion, one of the greatest Bond's of all time, this franchise reboot was the greatest of all this past decade, introducing a new, more muscular yet more vulnerable James Bond played superbly by Daniel Craig. Less cheesy and gadgety, this Bond trades in cheeky one-liners for more relatable human qualities, giving birth to a Bond with a greater emotional depth than ever before.
Instead of pointless action sequences and predictable plot developments, Casino Royale features incredible stunt work (less overdone special effects) and well staged, mind blowing choreographed fight sequences. This Bond installment (by avoiding the conventional, shallow, stereotypical Bond characters) also contains an actual love story (in fact, THIS James Bond rejects the opportunity for a one night stand with a random hotty) with Eva Green as the jaw droppingly gorgeous Vesper Lynd (more than a "Bond girl"), and Bond himself is a densely layered, deeply haunted personality unrecognizable to some of the hollow, cliche Bonds of old. At the film's start, we are introduced to this new Bond, willing to get his hands dirty, with an intensely physical fight sequence set in black and white. By starting in this fashion, Casino Royale immediately tells us that the factory produced, formulaic, gleaming Bonds of yesterday are no more; this Bond exists in the real world and he kicks serious ass.
Finally we get a Bond that’s not stoic but has some emotional stake in his life. This is a more emotionally tortured Bond, as he meets a girl that finally knows how to challenge his charms. The elongated poker scene is stagnant but relentlessly thrilling, and it's action scenes are fluid and sophisticated. This is not only the best Bond film in recent memory, it's the best action movie in years.
Almost Famous (2000) directed by Cameron Crowe
Almost Famous might be the feel good film of the decade. It rips along with a great soundtrack, including original songs by Peter Frampton, and a medley of classic hits by Led Zeppelin, Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, and YES. Cameron Crowe’s brilliant song choices complement and heighten the film’s moving moments, especially the famous ‘Tiny Dancer,’ scene on the bus after a tough moment between the band mates. Almost Famous is the celebration of music, how it brings people together and calls on us to reflect on the one’s we love and lost but will never forget. Like the decade the film chronicles, Crowe brings back the history and music of the 60s and 70s so we’ll never forget how meaningful it was to our culture.
Definitely the feel good film of the decade. Definitely rips along with a great soundtrack. The film is like one big party, a celebration of an era of groupies, drugs, and music but more importantly idealism, freedom, and family. It’s hard not to get caught up in the emotion of certain scenes, specifically the iconic ‘Tiny Dancer’ scene previously mentioned. Crowe takes you to a place in history that you will never want to leave. You know that indescribable sensation you get when you hear a song and can’t help but feel it inside of you? Almost Famous captures that feeling and simply makes it feel good to be alive. And what a great, complete ensemble cast! No one with a heart beat could not like this movie.
Mulholland Drive (2001) directed by David Lynch
Unspeakably hypnotic, bizarre, mystifying and transporting, Mulholland Drive makes little sense. The story follows two actresses, one’s naive and innocent, the other has lost her memory of her identity, but things in Lynch films are never what they seem. What it lacks in story or plot, is heightened through abstract vignettes and shrill moments. From a little man behind a glass, to a man stealing a black book, to a fucked-up opera, to a random scene between two men about a nightmare, Mulholland Drive works as a series of abstract puzzle pieces that have dark and profound connotations. Mulholland Drive is unlike any film this past decade with its surrealism. This film is a mad dream that never ends or lets up.
Surrealism is definitely the word as David Lynch blends elements of film noir and horror into a wondrous film experience that is art in its truest sense. Watching this movie definitely feels like putting together a puzzle, only you’re not exactly sure where to start. The whole thing is a total mind trip; it’s like waking up from a nightmare and trying to derive meaning from all of the fragmented, blurred imagery. It’s very long, tedious, and mentally draining; it bends your mind almost to the point of disjunction. All in a good way. One sour note is that Mulholland Drive is definitely not very accessible to the casual, mainstream movie fan. Rather it is a film that is meant to be studied carefully with repeated viewings. Either way, it’s easy to get lost in Lynch’s distinct, magical vision of Hollywood and the human psyche.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) directed by Michael Gondry
This one is one of my all time favorites as well as, in my opinion, one of the top five best films of the decade. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind envisions the possibility of a memory removal process akin to plastic surgery or a haircut. 'Just uh, take a little bit off the top.' Jim Carrey shows his acting chops by pulling a 180 degree turn as the shy, reserved Joel; Carrey must feel like he's in a straight jacket playing this character. Kate Winslet essentially plays Jim Carrey's typical part as the offbeat, spontaneous Clementine who deems it necessary to literally forget the love they shared to rid herself of heartache. When Joel tries to have the same procedure, he's forced to relive, in a constantly changing dimension of shifting definitions and borders, the bad moments of their time spent together, along with the good. The film magnifies the significance of it all.
Another genius, neo-realistic creation pulled from the mind of Charlie Kaufman (whose Adaptation. is also on this list), it requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate. (Note: Clementine's constantly changing hair color is a brilliant mechanism of time management as we witness many stages of their relationship in non-chronological order). By the film's conclusion, corny as it sounds, we realize that love will persevere through anything and that our memories define our identities. Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, and Elijah Wood also have significant roles in the whole scheme of things.
The great thing about Eternal Sunshine is how subtly romantic and endearing it is. I love the way Joel moves through his memories of Clementine as they deteriorate, and how his own subconscious is urging him to save something that doesn’t have to be lost. Through Gondry’s abstract vision of memory to Kaufman’s authentically grounded illustration of plagued lovers; this is one of the most powerfully realistic romances ever.
Adaptation. (2002) directed by Spike Jonze
Charlie Kaufman: “The script I'm starting, it's about flowers. Nobody's ever done a movie about flowers before. So, so there are no guidelines...”
Donald Kaufman: “What about ‘Flowers for Algernon?’”
Charlie Kaufman: “Well, that's not about flowers. And it's not a movie.”
Donald Kaufman: “Ok, I'm sorry, I never saw it.”
Adaptation is a film that twists and turns; the viewer is never quite sure where it is going, as though it is being written on the spot...because in a way, it is. Confusing, yes. But a lot of fun.
Written by Charlie Kaufman, the story follows a successful screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman...(pause for effect) as he is caught in a severe episode of writer's block when assigned to adapt a book about wild orchids. Played by Nicholas Cage, Charlie Kaufman begins to lose his mind while trying to construct an inspired story out of nothing, reflecting on how the beautiful wild orchids blossom amongst their murky swampland natural environment. Cage also plays Charlie's twin brother, Donald, in parallel performances of opposing personalities (woah look at all those p's I just used); you can always identify one from the other on screen despite them looking exactly the same. Donald, an aspiring screenwriter, is unintelligent, strictly adheres to formulaic screenwriting guidelines, and subsequently strikes a nerve with Charlie. Cage has never been so good; it's hilarious to watch him interact with himself.
Spike Jones' bold and original directing style produces an engaging, confounding, and refreshingly unconventional movie that blends fiction and nonfiction together. The cast is great across the board (Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Catherine Keener), too. Looking back on the decade of movies, I think this one was definitely the most unique.
Charlie Kaufman is the best screenwriter of the decade. Adaptation takes us through the mind of a tortured, neurotic writer with insane moments of writer’s block. His creation of another identity, (his brother Donald) turns the movie completely on its back and gives moments we never saw coming.
The Departed (2006) directed by Martin Scorsese
This is a collection of movies that defined the decade, and The Departed makes that short list. Scorsese’s kinetic fluidity of his camera between takes and scenes mark the story with potent energy. The Departed is full of colorful and vulgar characters and never loosens its thrilling grip. Leonardo DiCaprio carries the film with anxiety and paranoia as Nicholson gives one of his most wild and brutal performances ever. The Departed is a testosterone super value meal as it roars and soars beyond all contemporary crime dramas of the decade.
Scorsese seems to make one great movie per decade, with a mixed bag in between. The Departed is his jewel of the 2000s, to be placed up on the mantle alongside Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas (although I would say that it would sit on a shelf beneath those three). The Departed is about identity, morality, and the inner conflict between good and evil. Scorsese takes us into the blackened heart of the criminal underworld of Boston, and each actor in the film (Nicholson, DiCaprio, Damon, Sheen, Wahlberg, Baldwin, Farmiga) adopts their own stiff accent for the time and place. Everyone looks like they are having a ton of fun with their character. The editing is deliberately swift, the soundtrack bursts with rock and roll energy, and the violence and f-bombs are unyielding. Although a remake of 2002 Hong Kong crime-thriller Internal Affairs, Scorsese makes the story his own with his stylized direction resulting in undeniable entertainment. I will add, however, that the overtly obvious symbolism at the end was a buzz kill if there ever was one.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Guillermo del Toro
The film about a child’s fantasy breaking into the hellish realm of the real is a surrealist, dream like adventure that no other fantasy film comes close to. Guillermo del Toro rehashes the strains of Fascist Spain under civil war as it’s ripping the country apart, and how through the a child’s imagination it finds catharsis.
When I first heard about Pan’s Labyrinth, my repressed memories of seeing Jim Henson’s Labyrinth at a young age reemerged; I was haunted by Henson’s horrifying puppet creatures and Bowie’s bizarre, homo-erotic singing Goblin King. While not linked to Henson’s fantasy flick, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth also successfully brings to life a nightmarish fairy tale using advanced animatronics that make Henson’s look cute and cuddly in comparison…and no Bowie (thank god). You have to respect Del Toro’s detailed artistry and dedication to a craft in an age of computer generated effects. But the film is so much more than that. Its messages of dealing with fear and the inescapable horrors of reality permeate clearly in all languages.
Superbad (2007) directed by Greg Mottola
Uproariously funny and raunchy while still delivering endearing characters and moments; Superbad is a genuine look at transitioning teenagers. Superbad is a fantasia of humor as it’s sprinkled with unique characters and situations. The vulgar Jonah Hill and the shy Michael Cera are also a great comedic balancing act.
I think the great thing about Superbad is that you can relate to its characters. I could identify ten Jonah Hill’s and Michael Cera’s among my friends growing up. Superbad brings together the awkwardness, innocence, and naiveté of high school. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an authentic look into how I really felt about high school, drinking, friendships, and girls during that time in my life.
Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg began writing the script for Superbad when they were in middle school. After watching the movie, I’m not sure if that is surprising or appropriate. Superbad is another in a long line of comedy gems (Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) delivered to us by the comedy guru of the decade, Judd Apatow. His first big success, the cult classic TV show Freaks and Geeks, charmingly captured teenage geeky awkwardness, which is the foundation for this tale of two horny teenagers looking to get laid. Cera and Hill work perfectly off of one another in a bro-mance sort of way, as they remind you of what social anxiety was like in high school. No one wants to sit and eat their dessert alone like fuckin Steven Glandsberg. Its jokes never get stale and it pushes the limits of profane, inappropriate humor. Superbad is probably the funniest film of the decade.
No Country for Old Men (2007) directed by The Coen Brothers
"The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it..I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "OK, I'll be part of this world."
No Country for Old Men opens with a narration by Sheriff Tom Bell, delivered perfectly in a matter of fact manner by Tommy Lee Jones, bluntly describing the incomprehensible evil he will try to keep up with throughout the film. There is a certain hopelessness to his voice, setting up the unsettling tone and nervous atmosphere that will persist through the film's entirety.
One of The Coen Brother's greatest achievements, No County for Old Men follows three characters; Sheriff Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is a kind, law-abiding, decent human being, juxtaposed with the wholly evil Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), with Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) as the man in the middle, standing on the border between a righteous and unlawful life. Chigurh is a pure embodiment of evil, reminiscent of the 'lone biker of the apocalypse' from Raising Arizona, on the hunt for Moss, a replication of Raising Arizona's "H.I.". His calm temperament and deep, emotionless voice raises the hairs on the back of your neck; he is less of a human and more of a force who sadistically kills those in his path as though they are cattle (literally).
The greatest scenes of the film are those where these three characters sense that another is nearby. For example, as Sheriff Bell approaches a motel room, he pauses before entering sensing Chigurh is inside; he feels his presence deep in the shadows of the room. For him to enter that room, he'd have to "put his soul at hazard."
The Coen's flawless directing techniques are on full display here; there is crafty camera work yet nothing too flashy, excellent pacing of mood and tension, and seamless editing. They are masters of bringing a time and place to an audience, fashioning a dense environment of unnerving moments that take your breath away. After a viewing you will feel familiar with the whispering, empty, dusty landscape of West Texas in 1980. The film also features the signature Coen brother's black humor ironically present within the horror of the situation.
No Country for Old Men is mainly an examination of a world where individuals must coexist with an unrelenting, unflinching evil.
No Country for Old Men is naturalistic, realistic, and raw. The Coen’s nearly capture the essence of McCarthy’s novel, however they fail to really provoke Bell’s nihilistic reflections as well as the book. With that said, this film will draw you into its characters and make you question the way evil provokes us all and how important it is to “carry the fire.”
Zodiac (2007) directed by David Fincher
Zodiac is an encompassing history to the Zodiac killer and its impact in San Francisco in the 60s, 70s and 80s. The brilliance of the real Zodiac killer is his illusiveness, and his absolute ability to evade capture from the police. Investigators will never know who the Zodiac killer is however the film based upon Robert Graysmith’s (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) book is an authentic and shocking glimpse into a believable possibility of who that person might be. Zodiac however is a story of communal obsession, in how the story plagued the minds of a police officer, journalist, and cartoonist in San Francisco. It consumed their lives and destroyed their families and livelihood.
Despite a bit long at well over two and a half hours, David Fincher’s slowly-paced Zodiac still manages to keep your butt on the edge of your seat the entire time. His steady hand guides your attention to the details as close as the character’s as they obsess over finding a seemingly untraceable murderer. The whole film feels like the laborious police investigation it follows; its dull tone is reflective of the meticulous, pain-staking detective work central to the plot. A constant air of anxiety and frustration looms overhead, and the way Fincher builds suspense out of this persistent pursuit for a resolution is what makes the film so great. Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal also provide fantastic performances.
Children of Men (2006) directed by Alfonso Cuaron
“As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd, what happens in a world without children's voices.”
Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men is one of the most pulse pounding, engaging movies I have ever seen. Cuaron brings to the screen an unsettling vision of a not-too-distant future where mankind has lost the ability to reproduce. Mass panic over an uncertain future and a widespread loss of faith has plummeted the world into disarray. The film's opening sets up the chaotic landscape appropriately. Theo, a low-level government bureaucrat, watches a television broadcast about the death of the world's youngest person, aged 18, amongst a crowd of onlookers in a small shop. An uninterrupted take follows Theo, played by Clive Owen, outside into the streets of London, where suddenly an explosion rocks the building he had been in; this establishes the nervous atmosphere that persists throughout the film's entirety. Cuaron frequently utilizes the long take, creating intense, visual scenes (specifically during an ambush scene) that knock the air out of you; the fluid camera work makes it seem as though everything is happening all around you. These long takes require an impressive amount of timing and choreography to execute, but the end result is spectacular, immersive (blood and dirt fly onto the lens!) scenes that take your breath away.
The film has a powerful theme of faith as it follows Theo, who is chosen to guide a miraculously pregnant girl away from danger and exploitation. His physical journey leads to his own internal self discovery about his place in the world, leading to a stronger commitment to his beliefs and a renewed understanding of what it feels to believe in something. Michael Caine is also very memorable as Jasper, Theo's "Lennon-like" pot smoking, political cartoonist friend.
Let’s have more films with long takes. This film is so raw and realistic it’s maybe the most thrilling movie of the past 10 years.
That's our list...Any other films come to mind as memorable or decade defining for the 2000s? Comment, we want to hear your thoughts!
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
When the lights flicker and credits roll I forge the most powerful and intimate connection with a film; because I’m left there completely absorbed, transcended, intoxicated, dazzled, and manipulated. I’m moved somehow, something struck a deep nerve. I’m still lost in a story that wasn’t real, but it was the most real thing I’ve ever felt. I was made to believe this world I was immersed in still exists somewhere intangible, and this realization is both poignant and bitter sweet.
When I think of a transcendental ending I think of Rushmore. When all problems and tensions have subsided and everyone busts out in a communal dance to The Faces “Ooh la la,” Wes Anderson breaks the action into slow motion and you’re left there believing: even though the film is over, this photograph or snap shot of these character’s bliss and happiness will linger on forever after the credits roll. Only a great film can produce such a message. Like Jake Scully putting his mind out of his paralyzed body into a body that can walk again, movies relay a similar power and magic for me: you could say movies are my avatars.
I did my majority of film viewing this decade, and I don’t think there will be a better one for me this lifetime. This was probably my most tender, innocent decade of my life, and so many films had a profound effect on me, either it be good or bad, proactive or detrimental. As you age you learn that movies reflect life: some stray from reality, as others are acute reminders of what life really is. I’ve learned that it’s important to tell the difference while considering a good film from a bad one. I’m going to hold this decade and this year in my heart forever as there were many great moments that came across the silver screen.
(Warning: Contains spoilers in memorable scene sections)