Friday, January 30, 2009
I was kind of tickled by Frank Miller's The Spirit. Not the instant classic that I've deemed the 2-dimensional Sin City (2005) to be, what could have been a fun campy tribute to the pulpy comics of yore ala Beatty's Dick Tracy (1990), Losey's Modesty Blaise (1966), or Vadim's Barbarella (1968), turns out to be a colossal misfire of the first order in late 2008, post-Dark Knight. How dare this movie be produced after the comic book hero genre got serious? Of course, if you can manage to not be so fanboy about it, it's really a magnificent piece of eye candy. And Miller has fun expanding on the traditional comic book tropes of duality between hero and villain, identity, etc. The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) and the Octopus (Samuel Jackson) are both ciphers on the page, infused only by whatever personality the actors, their costumes and their surroundings bring to them. The Spirit is the remnant of deceased officer Denny Colt. His various girlfriends are all facets of an idealized woman, and depending on which one he's with, one wonders if Colt has allowed his heroic identity to take over to release him from any ties he once might have had to a fiance played by Sarah Paulson. In the original comic book, the Octopus was never seen outside of a gloved hand at the corner of a page frame. So imagine the fun for Jackson and Miller to craft the character by allowing him to dress in every outfit from Samurai to Nazi officer. But I can't help feeling uncomfortable at the Aryan-ness of the whole enterprise. In addition to the Octopus, every person of color is on the wrong side of the law, including Italian Louis Lombardi as the clones, Spanish Paz Vega as Plaster of Paris, and the Cuban-American Eva Mendes as Sand Saref. And the rest of the denizens of Central City are all lily-white. Even more discomfort do I later feel in light of this little tidbit I discovered.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
One of the Oscar nominated performances now available to watch at home is the one from Best Supporting Actress nominee, Penelope Cruz, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Cruz (Volver) has never really demonstrated the full range of her talent in English-speaking roles like she has when acting in her native tongue. But Woody Allen's latest comedy finally allows her to steal the show. Here, Cruz plays Maria Elena, the volatile ex-wife to Javier Bardem's Juan Antonio. Juan Antonio has approached two young Americans, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), to join him in a threesome while the women summer in Barcelona. Strait-laced Vicky is taken aback while the flighty Cristina jumps at the chance for a summer romance. While things get dicey when Maria Elena returns into her ex's life, eventually a threesome is formed between Cristina and the two Spaniards, leaving Vicky full of regret at the lost opportunity for adventurous romance. Maybe because much of the film allows Cruz to speak in her native tongue often, she is at her least self-conscious. Though her character's manic depression enlivens the film's story, Allen (Match Point) wisely restrains her from overpowering the film. Her presence is always felt, though, as Juan Antonio constantly compares the titular American women to his ex-wife, or more precisely, the spectre of her that still haunts him. In a handful of scenes, we realize the destructive cycle that she and Juan Antonio are locked in, and sympathize with her for putting up with the irresponsible Lothario. Cristina, who's been living with Juan Antonio, is now forced to be gracious to their new houseguest, Maria Elena, who is recovering from a suicide attempt. In an exchange that best sums up Maria Elena, the three of them discuss Cristina's hobby, photography, while on a picnic:
Maria Elena: You take beautiful photographs. Juan Antonio: That's true. She always takes pictures that she hides from me. Cristina: That's... no... that's... that's because they're nothing. How do you know I take pictures? Maria Elena: I found them in your luggage. Cristina: You went through my luggage? Maria Elena: Of course I went through your luggage. The first night I was in the house I didn't trust you. I didn't believe you were who you said you were. I wanted to know who was really sharing the bed of my ex-husband. Cristina: What? Maria Elena: Who knew what I would find there? How could I be sure you were not going to hurt me? After all, I have thoughts of killing you.Allen guides the rest of his cast to some charming and realistic performances, especially Bardem (No Country for Old Men) as the masochistic artist at the center of all the jealous fireworks, and Hall (Frost/Nixon) playing the typical Woody Allen stand-in (usually reserved for male actors), making Vicky one of the most enjoyable works from the director in years. If Woody Allen is a little too high-brow for your taste, then consider this next one for the geek in you. Hulk vs. is a direct-to-video trifle from Marvel Studios. The surprise is how fun and entertaining it actually is. While DC Comics has had more success capturing the feel of their comic books in their home video offerings [Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) and Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)], Marvel's attempts at the same have been hampered by their obvious goal of cashing in on upcoming live-action tie-ins. Hulk vs. is actually two movies in one. One is Hulk vs. Wolverine, and the other is Hulk vs. Thor. And while both may still be trying to lay the foundation for upcoming movies, they are both true to the Marvel books each is based on. Both movies capture the pure child-like excitement young and old fanboys look forward to when their favorite superheros are pitted in hand-to-hand combat against each other. And with little character development to slow things down, this pair of films has room to be creative in the visual arena. While neither will ever be mistaken for theatrical quality animation, the short movies are a cut above the typical Saturday morning fare. Hulk vs. and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are available today on standard DVD and Blu-ray.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Wrapping up this week's Best of 2008 series, I present my top 10 films of the year. While the first half of 2008 was somewhat weak, I managed to find some underrated gems released during that period. And I think that the year in general was not as bad as some other recent ones. It was hard enough to narrow the list down to 10, so I didn't try to rank them in anything but alphabetical order. I also list 10 additional films I feel deserve an honorable mention. You might be surprised at how wide I cast my net in deeming some of these entries as films, but I prefer to be as inclusive as possible. Of course, my list's only requirement is that the film be released in the U.S. (in a festival, at the very least) sometime in 2008. If the title is hyperlinked, you'll also be able to see what I wrote when I first reviewed it which should be interesting as I've only been blogging for about a year. Feel free to post your own list, and agree - or even better - disagree with any of my selections. Che (Roadshow Edition), director Steven Soderbergh - A gutsy attempt to shed light on a polarizing figure, Che is actually two movies that must be seen together. The first part, The Argentine, is surprisingly the more marketable, despite being the one with potential for controversy. Shot like a traditional war movie it depicts Guevara as the hero of Cuba's revolution. The second part, Guerilla, is the more damning and difficult movie. Here, Guevara is a remote and weak character, stubbornly pursuing his lost cause. Together, they give us an understanding of why he is seen as both hero and monster by so many. Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale), dir. Arnaud Desplechin - Desplechin's look at family dynamics is the best film I saw this year. And even though this family shares some disdain for each other, one gets the feeling that they love each other in a way that one can understand only when one is part of such a group. Bitter and warm. Elegy, dir. Isabel Coixet - This is the first time I think I ever saw a sign of the real Ben Kingsley in a performance. And it was truly fascinating to watch. The story of a womanizer and his greatest character flaws - insecurity and possessiveness - was also illuminating. The Fall, dir. Tarsem Singh - Simply the most visually stunning film I've seen since Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Gran Torino, dir. Clint Eastwood - From a response I wrote to a reader's criticism at Some Came Running:
Allow me to reference "The Searchers" in order to make another point, and I preface this by asserting that I am in no way elevating "Gran Torino" to the same class as that classic film. In Ford's film, John Wayne's Ethan Edwards is the protagonist, is a racist, frequently uses epithets against the Native Americans in the film, yet still musters the tolerance to work with Jeff Hunter's Martin - a half-Native American - to pursue his quarry. For about 115 minutes of its running time (and years, in the film), Edwards is committed to killing his own niece (Natalie Wood) simply for being presumably defiled by the Native Americans who kidnapped her. And then in the last few minutes, Martin convinces Edwards to let her live. Happy ending, save for Edwards extricating himself from the life he can't be a part of due to his inherent and unresolved feelings for the Native Americans. The plot remarkably tracks similarly with "Gran Torino". So why can we give Ford a pass for the "bait-and-switch" at the end of "The Searchers"? Or the comic relief that Hank Worden's Mose so jarringly injects into every scene he's in? And why can we be so cavalier towards Ethan Edwards' own racism yet admire his heroism? Is it because the fact that Ford's film is a Western it adds another layer of distance or archetypal reduction to the events in "The Searchers"? Had "Gran Torino" been a Western with Native Americans replacing the Hmong would we even be having this conversation? I found Eastwood to be unusually direct and economical in his storytelling, a relative rarity in his recent films. And I applaud the fact that he trusts us to do the heavy lifting, rather than get anymore on-the-nose than the movie is already accused of being.In Treatment, producer and developer, Rodrigo Garcia - Yeah, I know... it's a TV series. But its curious format is what made it compelling enough to list along with these fine films. Gabriel Byrne plays a psychologist with marital problems. Each weeknight, the show would follow him with a different patient, except for Friday when he would see his own psychologist (Dianne Wiest) to discuss his relationship issues. If you only cared to follow his sessions with Patient A, you'd only have to tune in on Monday nights; Patient B on Tuesday nights, etc. But for the complete picture, and to really get to know the psychologist, you would watch all week, as one session often impacted others during the week. A series that truly demonstrates what the long form is capable of exploring. Shotgun Stories, dir. Jeff Nichols - Nothing much happens in it... externally. But the internal is what's interesting in this one, and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) acutely conveys so much of the devastation that one man can cause by leaving one family to start another. The Strangers, dir. Bryan Bertino - It is a truly terrifying film in which the camera forces you to be an unwilling accomplice. Not innovative per se, but that perspective has been sorely missed in this age of "torture porn". I'm gratified to see such a style make a comeback. Synecdoche, New York, dir. Charlie Kaufman - This mindbending indie pushes the limits of how far imagination can take you on a limited budget when a writer like Kaufman is given the keys to the car. Wall·E, dir. Andrew Stanton - So many of us were touched by this film, an even more amazing feat once one remembers that the characters are computer generated robots. Honorable Mention: Burn After Reading, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Happy-Go-Lucky, Iron Man, Rambo, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, L'Heure d'été (The Summer Hours), Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys), Waltz with Bashir, The Wrestler For more on the Best of 2008: Best of 2008: Animated Features Best of 2008: Performances and Creative Achievements Best of 2008: Oscar Nominations Open Thread
Thursday, January 22, 2009
I would like to hear your thoughts on the Oscar nominations announced this morning. Listed below are the nominees. Please leave your opinion in the comments section. I'll join in with my own once we get the ball rolling. Performance by an actor in a leading role Richard Jenkins in The Visitor Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon Sean Penn in Milk Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler Performance by an actor in a supporting role Josh Brolin in Milk Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road Performance by an actress in a leading role Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married Angelina Jolie in Changeling Melissa Leo in Frozen River Meryl Streep in Doubt Kate Winslet in The Reader Performance by an actress in a supporting role Amy Adams in Doubt Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona Viola Davis in Doubt Taraji P. Henson in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler Best animated feature film of the year Bolt, Chris Williams and Byron Howard Kung Fu Panda, John Stevenson and Mark Osborne WALL-E, Andrew Stanton Achievement in art direction Changeling, Art Direction: James J. Murakami, Set Decoration: Gary Fettis The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt, Set Decoration: Victor J. Zolfo The Dark Knight, Art Direction: Nathan Crowley, Set Decoration: Peter Lando The Duchess, Art Direction: Michael Carlin, Set Decoration: Rebecca Alleway Revolutionary Road, Art Direction: Kristi Zea, Set Decoration: Debra Schutt Achievement in cinematography Changeling, Tom Stern The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Claudio Miranda The Dark Knight, Wally Pfister The Reader, Chris Menges and Roger Deakins Slumdog Millionaire, Anthony Dod Mantle Achievement in costume design Australia, Catherine Martin The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Jacqueline West The Duchess, Michael O’Connor Milk, Danny Glicker Revolutionary Road, Albert Wolsky Achievement in directing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard Milk, Gus Van Sant The Reader, Stephen Daldry Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle Best documentary feature The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog and Henry Kaiser The Garden, Scott Hamilton Kennedy Man on Wire, James Marsh and Simon Chinn Trouble the Water, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal Best documentary short subject The Conscience of Nhem En, Steven Okazaki The Final Inch, Irene Taylor Brodsky and Tom Grant Smile Pinki, Megan Mylan The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306, Adam Pertofsky and Margaret Hyde Achievement in film editing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall The Dark Knight, Lee Smith Frost/Nixon, Mike Hill and Dan Hanley Milk, Elliot Graham Slumdog Millionaire, Chris Dickens Best foreign language film of the year The Baader Meinhof Complex, Germany The Class, France Departures, Japan Revanche, Austria Waltz with Bashir, Israel Achievement in makeup The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Greg Cannom The Dark Knight, John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O’Sullivan Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Alexandre Desplat Defiance, James Newton Howard Milk, Danny Elfman Slumdog Millionaire, A.R. Rahman WALL-E, Thomas Newman Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song) “Down to Earth” from WALL-E, Music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, Lyric by Peter Gabriel “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire, Music by A.R. Rahman, Lyric by Gulzar “O Saya” from Slumdog Millionaire, Music and Lyric by A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam Best motion picture of the year The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Ceán Chaffin, Producers Frost/Nixon, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Eric Fellner, Producers Milk, A Groundswell and Jinks/Cohen Company Production, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, Producers The Reader, Nominees to be determined Slumdog Millionaire, Christian Colson, Producer Best animated short film La Maison en Petits Cubes, Kunio Kato Lavatory - Lovestory, Konstantin Bronzit Oktapodi, Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand Presto, Doug Sweetland This Way Up, Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes Best live action short film Auf der Strecke (On the Line), Reto Caffi Manon on the Asphalt, Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont New Boy, Steph Green and Tamara Anghie The Pig, Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh Spielzeugland (Toyland), Jochen Alexander Freydank Achievement in sound editing The Dark Knight, Richard King Iron Man, Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes Slumdog Millionaire, Tom Sayers WALL-E, Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood Wanted, Wylie Stateman Achievement in sound mixing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten The Dark Knight, Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick Slumdog Millionaire, Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty WALL-E, Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt Wanted, Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño and Petr Forejt Achievement in visual effects The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron The Dark Knight, Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber and Paul Franklin Iron Man, John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick and Shane Mahan Adapted screenplay The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Screenplay by Eric Roth, Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord Doubt, Written by John Patrick Shanley Frost/Nixon, Screenplay by Peter Morgan The Reader, Screenplay by David Hare Slumdog Millionaire, Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy Original screenplay Frozen River, Written by Courtney Hunt Happy-Go-Lucky, Written by Mike Leigh In Bruges, Written by Martin McDonagh Milk, Written by Dustin Lance Black WALL-E, Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter For more on the Best of 2008: Best of 2008: Animated Features Best of 2008: Performances and Creative Achievements Best of 2008: The 10 Best Films of the Year
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
As I continue reviewing the best that cinema had to offer in 2008, I'd like to pause before listing the 10 best movies of the year this Friday, and reflect on some individual achievements today. Best Actor: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler - It is a bravura performance that reveals enough about Rourke to dispel any questions about the limitations of his expressiveness due to the punishment his face has taken over the years. Best Actress: Meryl Streep, Doubt - Streep is so convincing that she convinced her writer/director to rethink the point of his Iraq war parable. Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight - Some wonder whether this performance would be awarded the amount of recognition it has received if Ledger hadn't died. But even if the spectre of his death did not haunt the film at its edges, it would still be the spookiest submergence of an actor's personality in a role that I've seen all year. Best Supporting Actress: Chiara Mastroianni, Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) - Mastroianni charms the viewer with her portrayal of Sylvia, the beguiling daughter-in-law that discovers her life might have been different had she known earlier that two of her husband's relatives competed amongst themselves to win her heart. Even resignation to being a housewife is not enough to mask her incandescence, not an easy achievement when sharing the screen with her legendary mother - the great Catherine Deneuve. Best Ensemble Cast: The cast of Rachel Getting Married - Whatever my problems with its phony setting, Anne Hathaway's tour-de-force performance is still not enough to steal the spotlight from the rest of this film's supporting players. Bill Irwin and Debra Winger - playing her divorced parents - and Rosemarie DeWitt as the titular older sister Rachel give raw improvisatory performances that illustrate the love and recriminations that bind a family. And even the minor players in the film seem to have a life beyond the confines of the movie. Best Newcomer: Laura Ramsey, The Ruins - In what could have been the thankless role of whining victim that seems to always be the center of attention during the early parts of a horror film, Ramsey instead gets sympathy for refusing to play the character as weak. With more spunk than any of her fellow monster fodder, Ramsey's character manages to be the one that the viewer can most identify with in this surprisingly effective, underrated thriller. Best Comeback: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler - My own review for the film points out how it's not really a comeback if you haven't gone anywhere. And Rourke has been very present and engaged in his career for quite a few years, now. But let's just say that Hollywood has finally let him out of the doghouse. Be glad that he is now more marketable than ever, and he can start playing some leads again. Best Animated Film: Wall·E - I talked about this film in Monday's post, but I'll reiterate. This one is strong enough to be counted alongside some strong competition for best movie of the year. Best Documentary: Waltz with Bashir - A documentary that is totally justified in its animated presentation. The truth being revealed here is not about the Israeli director's involvement in a disturbing attack on Lebanese. It is about how his mind fails to reconcile his participation in the attack with his own opinion of the violence he's capable of. Best Foreign Language Film: Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) - Desplechin captures everything that drives this traditionally American genre, the family reunion film; adapts it with an eye to French sensibilities; remembers to give it visual and aural flourishes; and does it in a completely realistic way. Aside from its performances, Demme's Rachel Getting Married compares pretty poorly to this film. Best Cinematography: Colin Watkinson, The Fall - A stunning visual achievement that eschews CGI marvels for actual in-camera artistry. Best Original Score: Grégoire Hetzel, Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale) - The lush score serves as a warm counterpoint to the sharp squabbling that pervades this film. Best Original Song: Bruce Springsteen, The Wrestler - The devastatingly tragic Randy "The Ram" Robinson is captured by this simple lyric, "...Then you've seen me, I always leave with less than I had before..." Best Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Truly supporting the story, the effects are marvelously picaresque when depicting Button's travels, and unusually subtle when illustrating his gradual decline into youth. Best Adapted Screenplay: Nicholas Meyer, Elegy - Best known for his Star Trek films, Meyer succeeds at adapting Philip Roth, an author whose sensibility has been notoriously difficult to capture. Based on The Dying Animal, the film is an example of Meyer's theory on the central appeal of a movie, "A good story to me is one that, after I’ve told it to you, you understand why I wanted to tell it.” Best Original Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York - Kaufman's creations are always wildly original. But this movie consistently inverts expectations in a way that would both impress and confound screenwriting teacher Robert McKee (the real-life one, not the Brian Cox character from Adaptation). A downbeat look at one artist's impulse to make a mark in life that celebrates the mundane and condemns the obsessive pursuit of creative accomplishment. Best Director: Steven Soderbergh, Che (Roadshow Version) - Soderbergh takes pains to present an objective film about a controversial historical figure in the most unexpected way possible. He makes two movies about him. The first part, The Argentine, builds Guevara up to be a revolutionary hero. The second part, Guerilla, tears him down by demonstrating his arrogance and remoteness towards his comrades. Together, they form a well-rounded look at why Guevara is both glorified and demonized. On Friday, I'll post my top 10 films of the year. But because I don't want to address the following in that post, here are the worst films I saw this year, in alphabetical order: A Corte do Norte (The Northern Land), dir. João Botelho - Visually sumptuous, but pretentious to the extreme, this Portuguese film was stultifyingly boring. Flawless, dir. Michael Radford - Demi Moore should never play a Brit again, but especially not in a period drama opposite Michael Caine. Hounddog, dir. Deborah Kampmeier - Dakota Fanning should never be raped in a film again, but especially not in a period drama that pretends it has something important to say about exploiting children. Pineapple Express, dir. David Gordon Green - I admire David Gordon Green's films. Judd Apatow's films make me howl with laughter. But David Gordon Green directing a Judd Apatow film? Not so much. Slumdog Millionaire, dir. Danny Boyle - That Gran Torino is being accused of racism for wearing its controversy on its sleeve while Boyle's celebrated film is practically drowning in white ethnocentric prejudice is the real crime. For more on the Best of 2008: Best of 2008: Animated Features Best of 2008: Oscar Nominations Open Thread Best of 2008: The 10 Best Films of the Year
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.) Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-- Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above. (It never was America to me.) O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe. (There's never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.") Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-- And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak. I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one's own greed! I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-- Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years. Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That's made America the land it has become. O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home-- For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore, And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa's strand I came To build a "homeland of the free." The free? Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we've dreamed And all the songs we've sung And all the hopes we've held And all the flags we've hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay-- Except the dream that's almost dead today. O, let America be America again-- The land that never has been yet-- And yet must be--the land where every man is free. The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME-- Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again. Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-- The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people's lives, We must take back our land again, America! O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath-- America will be! Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain-- All, all the stretch of these great green states-- And make America again! -Langston Hughes, "Let America Be America Again" Photo Credit: Bryan Snyder/Reuters
Monday, January 19, 2009
This week I'll review the best that cinema in 2008 had to offer. On Wednesday, I'll highlight specific performances and creative achievements. Thursday shall bring an announcement of the Oscar nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which I'll cover here. I hope to get some reaction from you readers. And Friday, I'll wrap up the series with my own list of top 10 films of the year, many of which will not be acknowledged by Oscar, I'm sure. Today's first entry will address a film genre I only barely reviewed this year despite having seen and enjoyed most of them - animated features. I find it difficult to write critiques on films that have very little to criticize. Simply putting these films in some historical context seems to be an injustice to how amazingly far they've come. So it is no surprise that many of these films were among the most satisfying of the year. Waltz with Bashir, dir. Ari Folman - The most intriguing of this year's animated films, Bashir is innovative for being a documentary that is presented through the use of animation. I happened to catch it at the New York Film Festival in October, where director Folman explained how only animation could capture the horrors he and his fellow soldiers discuss in their recollections of their involvement as young Israeli soldiers in the first Lebanon war of the 1980s. This because their recollections were now manifesting themselves in horrific surreal dreams. An important film, its only problem is that, like many innovative films, it could get lost in the shuffle come awards time. Neither fish nor fowl, does it get nominated in the animation, the documentary, or the foreign language film category? The Tale of Despereaux, dir. Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhagen - Though largely overlooked at the time of its release, Universal Pictures finally produces an animated film that is strong enough to become a classic. Yes, the movie is a pastiche of many familiar fairy tales. But it is so beautifully drawn, and compellingly voiced by its illustrious cast - Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Emma Watson, Sigourney Weaver - that one is reminded that even the Disney classics of yore were forgiven for hardly being original. Horton Hears a Who!, dir. Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino - The only animated film I reviewed this year, not because I thought it was the best - although it was undoubtedly enjoyable - but because I had an easy angle on the piece as it was the first movie I ever took my son to see. The primary showcase here is the onscreen chemistry between its stars - Carol Burnett, Steve Carell, and Jim Carrey - and its fantastic interpretation of Dr. Seuss' spectacularly unique world. This film is a good example of how Pixar's reach will have a significant influence on future animated films. As people leave Pixar to branch out into new endeavors - like co-director Jimmy Hayward (an animator on Finding Nemo) did - Horton demonstrates how other animation companies (in this case, Fox's Blue Sky Studios) will benefit from their experience. Kung Fu Panda, dir. Mark Osborne and John Stevenson - Ah, the joy of seeing beautiful and expressive cinematography and mise-en-scene in a children's animated film. Ignore Jack Black's vocal antics (although it may be hard to), and instead enjoy the lush colors and dynamic framing that makes this film so hard to take your eyes off of. Co-directors Osborne and Stevenson bring their extensive experience in traditional paint-and-ink cartoons to the computer-modeled world of contemporary animation. Wall·E, dir. Andrew Stanton - One of the best films of the year simply for being bold enough to have a near wordless 45-minute opening sequence. From the opening sounds of Michael Crawford belting "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from Gene Kelly's Hello, Dolly!, to the Rod Serling-like spookiness of seeing a lone robot roaming a dead Earth with the Sisyphusian task of collecting its unrecyclables, this film's opening is haunting enough to overcome its much more conventional morality lesson played out later in its second half. Stanton's ability to express romance between a goggle-eyed robot and his LED-oculared paramour could put many actors to shame. For more on the Best of 2008: Best of 2008: Performances and Creative Achievements Best of 2008: Oscar Nominations Open Thread Best of 2008: The 10 Best Films of the Year
Friday, January 16, 2009
I'm of two minds when it comes to Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married. On the one hand, seeing 'Sister Carol' East (Something Wild, Married to the Mob) as part of the wedding guests/performers seems to signal that this film is a return to form for Demme, who hasn't fashioned one of his signature quirky movies since 1988. On the other hand, mashing up his quirky music-lover sensibilities with the dour family drama at the heart of Rachel doesn't make for the best fit. Maybe he's still drunk on all the Oscar accolades from the terrific Silence of the Lambs (1991) because every movie since then has had a a little of the bloat of self-importance about it. You can't fault the performances, which are right on the money. Not only is Anne Hathaway (The Devil Wears Prada) repellent as the twelve-stepper Kym, she is obnoxious in her self examination, par for the course as the younger sister in the family. The titular Rachel is given wonderful life by Rosemarie DeWitt (Mad Men), who is able to hold her own quite well with the scene-stealing Hathaway never far from screen. Particular praise goes to Bill Irwin (Sesame Street) and Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment) as the two women's divorced parents. In fact, the whole cast is probably one of the best ensembles in a film in 2008. So why does the movie feel so phony? Perhaps it is all the unnecessary accoutrements that Demme uses to dress the film up. Since the prospective groom is a musician, Demme thinks he has free rein to bring in every oddball bohemian cliche in to enliven the wedding, and it just doesn't ring true. I don't believe Rachel and her fiance would get married wearing saris in a Hindu (?) ceremony. Or their cake would be in the form of Ganesha. All of the set dressing, in fact, serves to dissipate the power of the story of Kym's recovering addict. So this film may be a bit of a transitional one for Demme - still a little self-important with a touch of the quirk we're familiar with - before he comes full circle. I hope so, because it is nice to see Sister Carol sing again in a Demme flick.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Notoriously difficult but ultimately rewarding as an actor, Patrick McGoohan didn't just perform in front of the lens, he ferociously confronted it. One always got the sense that he was haunted by some powerful demons that only his oft-hooded eyes kept at bay. But they would rear their head from time to time in explosive and dynamic bursts that would pepper most of his performances. Most famous for his cult TV series, The Prisoner, McGoohan had a bit of the auteur streak in him, not just producing the series, but often writing and directing some of its episodes under various pseudonyms. A devoted Catholic, he was also famously demanding of his bosses, strictly forbidding his Danger Man/Secret Agent character John Drake from carrying a gun or getting involved with women casually. In his career he was surprisingly eccentric, turning down roles that could have brought him greater acclaim such as James Bond of the 007 series, Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings series, and Dumbledore of the Harry Potter series. But as a frequent villain on his friend Peter Falk's series, Columbo, and onscreen in Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), he could energize the film in even the briefest of appearances. A particularly noteworthy performance is his role as drummer Johnnie Cousin in Basil Dearden's All Night Long (1962). Unavailable in the U.S., the film occasionally plays on Encore and TCM, and is worth looking out for. A variation on Shakespeare's Othello set in the jazz world, McGoohan plays its Iago, trying to seduce his friend Rex's wife Delia into joining a rival band he is setting up. The film also features such jazz notables as Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus giving some great performances as themselves. Patrick McGoohan died Tuesday at the age of 80. Be seeing you. Recommended Films - All Night Long, Ice Station Zebra, Escape from Alcatraz, Scanners, Braveheart Ricardo Montalbán was somebody I personally looked up to. As a Latino, I was proud to see him appear in a wide variety of roles. Whether it was a cop (John Sturges' Mystery Street), an Indian chief (John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn), or caretaker of life's ambitions (Fantasy Island), Montalbán was always flamboyantly mesmerizing. As a huge fan of Star Trek - a genre show that served as my original portal into my fascination with science fiction, and ultimately film - it was even more gratifying to see him return for a second round as Khan Noonian Singh in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), the most well-regarded of the film series. His scenery chewing theatricality made him a formidable enemy for the larger-than-life crew of the starship Enterprise. Director Nick Meyer utilized this to great effect, allowing Montalbán to grandstand, knowing this would make up for the fact that Khan never interacts face-to-face with Kirk and Spock, often overlooked by even the most stalwart of Trekkies. This classical form of acting lent itself to sci-fi rather well, and he would later appear in Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids series. But earlier, perhaps another significant role was as Armando in both Don Taylor's Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and J. Lee Thompson's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). As the humane circus owner who protects the future ape king, Caesar (Roddy McDowall), he imparts wisdom tempered with tenderness to the simian progenitor of the titular monkeys. Ricardo Montalbán died yesterday at the age of 88. Recommended Films - Mystery Street, Battleground, Sayonara, Cheyenne Autumn, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
I guess because of the fact that I found myself uninvolved in the viewing of Revolutionary Road, my thoughts instead were focused on inferences I was making outside the margins of the film, so I thought I'd share. The film is a return to suburbia by Sam Mendes who directed the once overrated, and now underrated American Beauty (1999). Like that movie, Road examines the inner workings of a marriage and the effects of conformity on the couple, here played by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio - forever associated with their previous coupling in Titanic (1997). I'm not sure it exposes any kind of revelations on the complex relationship that forms a marriage. Now I've never read the Yates novel on which it is based, so forgive me if I read into it from the cinematic side more so than the literary. Road seems a little derivative, the obvious comparison being TV's Mad Men which I've heard bandied about elsewhere. But not having seen Mad Men, it actually reminds me of a much older cult classic I've been viewing for another project, Michael Mann's Crime Story (1986-88). That show was set in the early sixties, and like its descendant, Heat (1995), looked not only at the cops and robbers, but their relationships with their wives and families against the nascent idea of women's liberation. And there's the rub, because the luxury of time afforded even a TV series with a brief run allows one to pick apart both the good things and the bad about a marriage slowly. Even Heat did not have the time nor inclination to successfully flesh out the workings of a marriage in relationship to its principal story like Crime Story did. But this film takes so much time to cover the downside of the Wheelers' crumbling relationship that one wonders what Frank and April ever saw in each other. And brief flashbacks to their first dates are not convincing enough to lay the foundation. So could Mendes have been depending on moviewatchers' own history with these two actors to fill in the blanks? Does anybody else out there find it kind of funny that from a meta-perspective, this movie's Frank and April Wheeler are the hardened, grown-up, cynical versions of Winslet's social misfit Rose, and DiCaprio's freespirited Jack from their previous onscreen match-up?
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Okay, the meme I feared has finally reared its ugly head thanks to filmicability's Dean Treadway (thanks, Dean). And now I get why Self-Styled Siren call these things homework. This comes right in the middle of my coverage of the remaining 2008 films I'm racing to watch so I can get my "Best of 2008" lists up. But this meme was a challenging one, to be sure (as you can see I cheated). And I want to press on with it so I can still tag some of my favorite writers before someone else gets to them. Here's a list of who I'm tagging since I'm very interested in seeing their lists: Campaspe at Self-Styled Siren (sorry, but I love your lists) Lissette Decos at her eponymous blog James Hansen or Brandon Colvin at Out 1 (hope you see this because you guys didn't catch my tag last time around) Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter T.S. at Screen Savour Like in the previous meme, these actors are my favorite for simply one reason. In their own way, they are all, no matter the caliber of the film they are in, compulsively watchable. As is evident, after hours of paring down my list, I still had to cheat, including 10 more than I was allowed. So here are my favorite thirty actors (in my respective favorite roles for each), in alphabetical order: Marlon Brando in Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris) (1972) Jeff Bridges in Cutter's Way (1981) James Caan in Thief (1981) Sean Connery in Goldfinger (1964) Kevin Costner in Mr. Brooks (2007) Tom Cruise in Collateral (2004) Robert De Niro in Heat (1995) Benicio Del Toro in Traffic (2000) Alain Delon in Plein soleil (Purple Noon) (1960) Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove (1989) Laurence Fishburne in Othello (1995) Gene Hackman in The French Connection (1971) Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) William Hurt in Altered States (1980) Burt Lancaster in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1963) Josh Lucas in The Deep End (2001) Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Paul Newman in Hud (1963) Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980) Gary Oldman in Immortal Beloved (1994) Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part II (1974) Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp (1994) Robert Redford in The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) Oliver Reed in The Devils (1971) Burt Reynolds in Sharky's Machine (1981) Mickey Rourke in Johnny Handsome (1989) Mark Ruffalo in You Can Count on Me (2000) Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land (1997) Terence Stamp in The Limey (1999) UPDATE: As I start getting responses to my tags I'll post links to their lists here: Screen Savour's list Self-Styled Siren's list Out 1
Labels: Film Review