Thursday, February 25, 2010

We'll be right back, after Eric's brain is found

My apologies for the lack of posts of late, but my workload has absolutely pulverized me this week. I've been so swamped I can practically catch flies with my tongue.

But before I hop off and join Kermit the Frog,  a quick trip into the past, present and future.

The past: The Informant! came out on DVD Tuesday. I thought it was one of the best films of the year, which means it's better than most people say it is.  Sort of like Shutter Island. Here's my original review.

The present: The fairly well reviewed  horror flick The Crazies is out in theaters today. So is the fairly well slammed Cop Out  by Kevin Smith. I may check out The Crazies at some point and will eventually see Cop Out, but I have to agree that a film directed by Kevin Smith and written by someone else (like Cop Out) sounds less appealing than a film written by Kevin Smith and directed by someone else.

The future: I will be  attending the AMC Best Picture marathon for the third year in a row this weekend. How do they do that now that there are 10 nominees? Split them into two weekends, of course.

This Saturday:

10:30AM: Avatar (3D)
1:45PM: Up in the Air
4:00PM: Precious
6:45PM: The Blind Side
9:15PM: Inglourious Basterds

Next Saturday:

10:30AM: Up
12:45PM: A Serious Man
2:45PM: The Hurt Locker
6:00PM: An Education
8:00PM: District 9 

And yes, I am fully aware - and happy - that I am crazy. So until next time, folks ...

Someday I'll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me
La da-da de, da-da do
La da da-da, la-de-da-doooo ,,,

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Shutter Island - Take 2

Having seen Shutter Island a second time, I now have a better idea of what to make of it. For me, it is most certainly the first great film of 2010.

The  second go-round enriched the experience. This is the Martin Scorsese picture that most richly rewards repeated viewing. More than adding to my understanding of the film, though, the second screening mostly amplified my first impressions.

Even though I knew the key to the film's mystery this time around, that still reinforced the feeling that the story is more of a a mindbender than a heartbreaker. The big emotional wallop that characterizes Scorsese's very best works is just a touch muted here, because the emphasis seems to be more on the puzzle than on the picture the puzzle forms.  Perhaps that's endemic to the way Dennis Lehane structured his novel/Laeta Kalogridis structured his screenplay. We're not told much about Teddy's (DiCaprio's) past, so it's hard to find a frame of reference to relate to how his character changed.

Even so, the film is not truly concerned with that sort of empathy. It's more about the conflicting impulses in Teddy's tortured mind, and DiCaprio makes those very vivid indeed.  This is one of his very best performances, and that the picture has the emotional gravity it does is due mostly to the actor. I hope the Academy is able to overcome it's short-term memory and remember DiCaprio's wonderfully nuanced work  at this time next year.

Also worthy of recognition are two of Scorsese's frequent collaborators, production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Robert Richardson. Ferretti particularly excels at grandiose sets that visualize the past (see Gangs of New York) and his Civil War-era sets are creepily, wonderfully foreboding. Richardson, the greatest American cinematographer, specializes in hypnotic imagery, and his florid colors and flaring of light are hauntingly beautiful.

Their work wonderfully complements the director's  many film homages to Alfred Hitchcock, Val Lewton, Samuel Fuller, et al, but the movie is still uniquely Scorsesian in every frame. Watching how he assembles his images and builds and releases tension is nothing less than thrilling.

Not everyone will agree with me. As a scan of the reviews will reveal, Shutter Island can be a very divisive film. It will not give everyone what they expect, and that will cause some to reject it. Their loss. But those attuned to the labyrinth that is Shutter Island will love getting lost in it.

(Note: After my first viewing, on impulse I picked up a copy of the novel at the grocery. I will start reading it now and will blog about that as the mood strikes me.) 

Final grade: A

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shutter Island - Take 1

After seeing Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island for the first time, I  don't quite know what to make of the film - and in a way, that's a good thing.

If this review seems to have a "stream of consciousness" feel to it, that's very purposeful, because I'm  "thinking out loud" and hashing out my thoughts as they flow from me. And a stream of consciousness" style is actually very fitting for this movie.

As I type this, I'm thinking more about what the film is not, rather than what the film is.  It is not, as I first suspected, a commercial "thrill ride" like Cape Fear was. In that movie, Scorsese was having fun putting his particular visual stamp on Hollywood thriller conventions. Scorsese may be doing that again in form, but as Shutter Island unfolds, the effect is very, very different.

I've read some reviews that describe the movie as this explosion of technique, with Scorsese really going off the wall with visual and aural tricks, to sometimes overbearing effect. But that's not the impression the film made on me at all. Sure, it has its loud and flashy moments, but I was truly struck by how cerebral, how internal and insular the film was. The movie is a trip through the long, strange corridors of the mind. And even more unsettlingly, the mind is playing tricks on both its protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio) and on the viewers.

Much has been made of Shutter Island's confounding plot, but those who say this is Scorsese in M. Night Shyamalan mode are drinking whatever Shyamalan drank when he made Lady in the Water. This is not Martin Scorsese's "twist" movie - far from it. It cuts much deeper than that. This haunting story cuts into the brain.

More than anything else, Shutter Island is a mind-fuck, pure and simple. Scorsese employs his virtuoso skills with deliberate precision and effect. It is truly and viscerally unnerving. Some say this is Scorsese's most Hitchcockian film, and there are touches of Hitch, but I found the mood more akin to the films of Val Lewton, a producer who made the most of his low budgets to unsettle audiences in movies like I Walked with a Zombie and the original Cat People. Scorsese obviously has more filmmaking tools in his arsenal,  but Shutter Island strikes the same eerie tones Lewton's movies did.

Still, this is a different Scorsese than I am accustomed to experiencing. His films often rush forward with a sense of nervous energy. His camera is often restless, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker's cuts crash with tension. Shutter Island only felt like that in fleeting moments. I was surprised by how meditative the overall mood was. The pacing is careful and deliberate as the director bends reality in multiple directions, aided by cinematographer Robert Richardson's astonishing tricks of the light.   I shifted in my seat multiple times, never being sure I could trust what I was seeing.

All told, Shutter Island may be the most psychological thriller I've ever seen, and if it has a flaw, it's that it appeals more to the head than to the heart. I was moved by DiCaprio's plight, but most often I was trying to wind my way through this film's cerebral puzzle, making it more emotionally austere than I would have liked.

Even so, seven hours after seeing the movie, I cannot get it out of my head. It has invaded my mind, and it's going to stay there for awhile - especially since I plan to see the film a second time on Sunday. Watch this space as I consider Shutter Island's second impression and write a second review. For the moment, though, it's definitely worth seeing at least once, to experience what may be the most mesmerizing film the director has made.

GRADE: Incomplete

Friday, February 19, 2010

The oeuvre of Marty

There's no need to do Previews before reviews today. There's only one film opening wide this weekend, and even a drunk who reads this blog with one eye closed knows it's Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island.

I would say I've been chomping at the bit to see this movie, but that would be a gross understatement. Let's just say that by this point, my famous impression of the Tasmanian Devil would be harrowingly realistic.

Am I concerned about the mixed-positive reviews? No. This is Marty in his over-the-top, reference a film left, right, center, up down and sideways mode. It's Scorsese in Hitchcock territory, and that's my idea of cinematic bliss. Even if the film is a misfire, it's bound to be a fascinating misfire. Roger Ebert, the critic who vibrates with Scorsese better than anyone else gives the film 3.5 stars. That heartens me.

I will post at least one review of this film over the weekend. For now, in preparation for the big event, I'd like to dive into my old blog archives and pull out my mini-reviews of Scorsese's major works. This is a feature called Ouevres I am inaugurating, in which I will pithily review all the films of a certain director, star or series.

But to start with, Marty:

Who's That Knocking At My Door (1967): Scorsese's feature debut already features many of his hallmarks: tortured souls, gritty locations and references to old movies. It's more than a little rough around the edges and is marred by an intrusive nude scene that was included at the producer's insistence, but it's fascinating viewing. GRADE: B+

Boxcar Bertha (1972): This Bonnie and Clyde knockoff, one of Roger Corman's cheap and dirty productions, works best as a curio; offering a glimpse of Scorsese trying to find his style in a genre setting. Bertha herself (Barbara Hershey) actually gets somewhat lost in the proceedings. GRADE: B-

Mean Streets (1973): With a terse opening narration followed by the propulsive thump of the Ronettes’ "Be My Baby,"  Scorsese finds his feet and makes his first masterpiece, with Harvey Keitel as a tormented soul and a young live wire of an actor named Robert De Niro in a story of gangs of  Little Italy. GRADE: A+

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974): Scorsese proves he knows more than street life by directing Ellen Burstyn to an Oscar-winning performance as a waitress trying to forge a new life. This was the spawn of the TV series Alice. (Vic Tayback reprised his role as Mel in the series) Look for a very young Jodie Foster, playing the tomboy even then. GRADE: A

Taxi Driver (1976): Look for a slightly older Jodie Foster as she provides the counterpoint to this harrowing descent into madness. Everyone remembers "You talkin' to me?" but the image I can't get out of my head is of De Niro "shooting"  himself with his blood-soaked hand. That's  Scorsese playing the almost as insane passenger who's spying on his wife. GRADE: A+ 

 New York, New York (1977): This is the  type of movie that, for better or worse, Scorsese specializes in: the great flawed film. This uneasy medley of old Hollywood-style musical numbers and more modern-style angst never comfortably settles into a groove, mainly because De Niro's rough-and ready Method acting seems so out of place. Thankfully, moments of brilliance shine through, with Liza Minnelli giving her last great (and her greatest) performance, uncannily channeling her mom, Judy Garland. GRADE: B+

The Last Waltz (1978): I was never a particular fan of The Band, but Scorsese's savvy filming of their farewell concert makes me a convert for at least a couple of hours. And remember, this film should be played loud. GRADE: A 

Raging Bull (1980): After barely surviving some rough personal trauma, Scorsese threw everything he had into the making of this movie, and wow, does it show. His incredibly visceral and kinetic style is thrilling in depicting the internal and external battles of middleweight champion boxer Jake La Motta. He may have been a despicable lout, but as portrayed by De Niro, in the single greatest screen performance of the past 30 years, you can't take your eyes off him. One of the 10 best films of all time. GRADE: A+

The King of Comedy (1983): After the workout of Raging Bull, Scorsese and De Niro threw this change-up, which is startlingly insular by comparison. The director's usually active cameras are unnervingly still, as they focus on a man so desperate for fame, he kidnaps the object of his adulation, Jerry Lewis. Fine performances make for a fascinating if not altogether successful experiment. GRADE: B+

After Hours (1985): This coal-black comedy is not one of Scorsese's better-known films, but it's his funniest. And it's  also the movie that turned me on to the director. He follows Griffin Dunne on an NYC journey through hell that would made the creator of Murphy's law shake his head in amazement. GRADE: A

The Color of Money (1986): This is the one Scorsese film I can't  recommend. It's got a great cast, with an Oscar-winning performance by Paul Newman (acting alongside some kid named Cruise) and as usual, the director's  visuals are exciting. Unfortunately, the muddled story never takes hold. Maybe I should have watched The Hustler first. GRADE: C+

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988): This labor of love caught all kinds of hell, mostly from people who hadn't  actually, you know  - SEEN the movie. It happens to celebrate rather than denigrate Jesus, and the passion Scorsese gives the project helps negate overlength and some miscasting. GRADE: A-

Life Lessons (1989) Scorsese's typically moody and fascinating portion of the omnibus film New York Stories has Nick Nolte giving an intense performance as an artist who finds it hard to love others. (Woody Allen's  comedy segment is very funny, but the less said about Francis Ford Coppola's puffball contribution, the better.) GRADE: A-

Goodfellas (1990): Simply put, the best mob movie ever made. Yes, I like it even better than The Godfather.  What's funny about that? GRADE: A+

Cape Fear (1991): Some took Scorsese to task for going commercial with this remake of a 1962 thriller, but the way he enriched the story by making no one entirely innocent, then applied a slick Hollywood sheen, was actually rather subversive. I prefer this version to the very fine original, which is more black and white, literally and figuratively. GRADE: A

The Age of Innocence (1993): Scorsese stays in New York but leaves the mean streets, straying into Merchant Ivory period piece territory. Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer pine for what they cannot have: each other, while Winona Ryder provides the seemingly innocent counterpoint. It's a little too emotionally chilly to be fully effective, but it's  never less than fascinating, and the performances are superb. GRADE: A-

Casino (1995): The great movie many claim this to be is lurking in here somewhere. There are some fantastic sequences and performances, including Sharon Stone's best. However, Scorsese drowns this overextended movie in throwaway details and excessive voice-overs that show just how much better he handled similar material in Goodfellas. It remains quite watchable, but a fast-forward or chapter skip button really helps. GRADE: B-

Kundun (1997): Scorsese makes probably his least commercial film as he explores the life of the Dalai Lama. The fact that it's so far removed from Scorsese's milieu helps and hurts the movie. On the one hand, it's mesmerizing; on the other hand, it's  emotionally distant. The former holds sway, with Scorsese and cinematographer Roger Deakins creating some haunting imagery. GRADE: A-

Bringing Out the Dead (1999): Scorsese reunited with his Taxi Driver/Raging Bull/Last Temptation of Christ scribe Paul Schrader to make this criminally underrated drama about a paramedic (Nicolas Cage) haunted by the ghosts of the patients he failed to save. It gets a little theologically preachy at times, but Scorsese fills the movie with hallucinatory scenes, making it feel like a fever dream - or nightmare. GRADE: A

Gangs of New York (2002): Like Casino, this film  tries to cover too much ground in too little time, but the narrative holds together better than in the Vegas film, and Daniel Day-Lewis' downright terrifying performance as Bill the Butcher gives the movie a major boost. The look of the film, including the massive outdoor sets by Dante Ferretti, is astounding. That this lost the art direction Oscar to Chicago is a crock. GRADE: A-

The Aviator (2004): Classic Hollywood movies have long fueled Scorsese's talent, so it's a kick to see him recreating golden age Hollywood with such fervor in this Howard Hughes biopic. Hugely entertaining and engrossing, the film sports great turns by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes, and the great Cate Blanchett as the great Kate Hepburn. GRADE: A

The Departed (2006): So this is the film that won Scorsese his Oscar. Does that mean it's his very best work? Hardly. Is it still a tense drama with superb performances and thrilling camerawork? Absolutely. GRADE:  A+

Shine a Light (2008):  Scorsese uses the Rolling Stones so often in his soundtracks that it's disappointing this concert documentary isn't as good as it ought to be. Some of the sequences are overedited, and there are too many cutaways to archival interviews, but when the director settles down and simply captures the band playing, the results can be nothing but electrifying. GRADE: B+ 

Watch for my Shutter Island review(s) this weekend. 


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Best Songs fade out at the Oscars

On Tuesday the Oscarcast producers revealed that the Best Song nominees will NOT be performed at the Oscars this year. Instead, clips of the songs will be played with scenes from the movies. 

Perhaps it's the scale-balancing Libra in me, but I can see both the pro and the con of this decision. On the pro side, the performances of the Best Song nominees do tend to slow the pace of the already overextended show down. And this year's crop of nominees is not exactly a hit parade. Two of the nominees, "Take It All" from Nine and  "“Loin de Paname” from Paris 36 are filler at best. Few would argue that the two nominees from The Princess and the Frog rank with Disney's best. And the worst thing you can say about the front runner, the theme from Crazy Heart, is that Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett are relatively unknown.

However ....

Just because I can understand the reasoning being axing the Best Song nominees does NOT mean I agree with the reasoning. This is the wrong decision.

Yes, it's a far cry from 25 years ago when most every nominated song was a radio hit. But what does this move say to this year's nominees? "Sorry, folks, you're not popular enough, so you're not performing?" How would you like to be thrilled to have a nomination, then have the rug pulled out from under you when it's your time to shine?

Another troubling aspect of this is, one of the producers is Adam Shankman, a choreographer, the director of the musical version of Hairspray, and a judge of So You Think You Can Dance. If he ditches the Best Song nominees but stages cheesy dance numbers instead, I call shenanigans.

The other thing that rankles me is I think the show's producers are trying too hard to appeal to "Joe and Jane Sixpack," who have never heard of the nominees who aren't A-listers. One thing I like about the Oscars is that they may turn people on to movies and performers they may have otherwise missed.

I don't want the Oscars to turn into something vacuous and pointless like The People's Choice Awards. Besides, "the people" DO get a choice. They make theirs at the box office.

The producers already erred once by kicking the honorary awards off the show. If the Oscar producers continue to cater to the rank and file, I just may join the rank and file - and care less about the Oscars.

So the producers are worried about the botttom line? One commenter on Entertainment Weekly's Oscar blog bulls-eyed  the bottom line by writing: "If the songs aren’t interesting enough to air during the telecast, then they shouldn’t have been nominated in the first place."

What do you say? Should the Best Song performances stay or go?

DVDs/What Are You Watching?

This week's DVD selection is pretty paltry. so I'm going to bolster this post by reviewing titles I've seen on the small screen.


Black Dynamite: This spoof of blaxploitation films got some positive notice when it came out, 

Clint Eastwood: 35 years, 35 Films at Warner Bros: This massive box covers every movie the former mayor of Carmel, California released under the WB - although that leads to the odd split of Flags of Our Fathers (A DreamWorks title) not being included, while its companion piece, Letters from Iwo Jima, is. Much as I admire Eastwood, I already own many of his films I want, and besides all that, I don't know if I really want to say I have his orangutan films in my collection.

Coco Before Chanel: I like Audrey Tatou, but am not much of a fashion maven and reviews of this film about the fashion designer were never high enough to spark my interest.

Law-Abiding Citizen: You know, Gerard Bulter is a very talented guy, but his choice of scripts (also including the regrettable The Ugly Truth) makes him look like a reverse barometer of quality lately. And yes, that means I can't honestly say I'm looking forward to The Bounty Hunter with Jennifer Aniston.

What I'm Watching

Baby Doll: This 1956 Elia Kazan film hasn't worn quite as well as some of his other picture, primarily because it was tearing the envelope of the Production Code - and the movie knows it. So what might have seemed shocking back in the day seems a touch self-conscious and overheated today. Still, it's well worth seeing for its powerful performances, especially by Carrol Baker in the title role. GRADE: B+

Cleopatra (1934) Good 'ol Cecil B. DeMille has a high old time vamping it up with the story of the ancient Egyptian queen, and Claudette Colbert's performance in the title role is strong enough to keep the enterprise from seeming too silly. I still haven't watched the notorious 1963 version with Taylor and Burton, but I'm willing to bet its not as entertaining as this. My favorite moment - a sex scene cover-up that turns into something akin to a Busby Berkeley number. GRADE: B+

Deception: Made by the same stars (Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid) and director (Irving Rapper) behind  Now, Voyager, this strangely unheralded melodrama is almost as good as that more famous movie. Davis stars as a woman torn between two men: her long lost cellist lover (Henreid) and a fiery temperamental 
composer. Rains is particularly outstanding, and his performance here is a potent reminder he was one of the best character actors of the Golden Age. GRADE: A-

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: I watched this as a double feature with Baby Doll,  I suppose because I was in the mood for overheated melodrama by way of Tennessee Williams. On the whole, it's an excellent film with Paul Newman and Liz Taylor exerting a riveting push/pull dynamic - and that helps overcome the fact the story was slightly neutered from its original intentions. GRADE: A-

In the Loop: As the chant at football games goes: O-VER-RATED. This film clearly means to be kind of the board room version of Dr. Strangelove, but it's more like the bored room version of Dr. Strangelove. There are some good performances and a few good dialogue exchanges, but it's turgidly paced and fatally self-satisfied. It's a movie made by and for the "hipper than thou" crowd. GRADE: C-

The Paradine Case: Quite possibly the most disappointing Hitchcock picture I have yet seen. It boats a decent story and strong performances, but courtroom dramatics are not Hitch's strong suit, because they rely too heavily on dialogue and not heavily enough on visuals. This movie tells much more than it shows, and that doesn't suit the best director of pure cinema. GRADE: C+

A friendly reminder: Whenever I post my list of movies I've been watching, readers are always welcome to tell me  what movies you've been watching, on the big or small screens. Tell us what you've seen

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Previews before reviews - in theaters 2/12/10

I'm afraid calling this post "Previews Before Reviews" is a bit of a misnomer. Even though we have three high-profile movies coming out Friday, I can't confess to an interest in any of them. So I may nor review any of them.

(Remember: Titles link to Metacritic pages if you want to see what other critics besides me are saying.)

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief: This is a pretty blatant attempt to create a new fantasy franchise now that Mr. Potter and friends (said in best Alan Rickman voice) are winding down. I wouldn't mind that so much if the movie looked appealing, but it really doesn't. Director Chris Columbus deserves more credit than he gets for shaping the Potter franchise, but his track record since then has been uneven, to put it kindly. (I Love You Beth Cooper, anyone?)  I don't see this as any kind of salvation for him. The corners of my mouth didn't turn down while watching the trailer, but they didn't turn up either. Total flatline.

Valentine's Day: Yes, I like many of the cast members. Heck, this movie probably could have used the tagline "More stars than there are in the heavens had MGM not used it eons ago. But if we critics are to be believed, this movie is all-star, but little quality. Ebert offers this lovely closer: "Valentine's Day is being marketed as a Date Movie. I think it's more of a First-Date Movie. If your date likes it, do NOT date that person again. And if you like it, there may not be a second date."

The Wolfman: I wish I could be more interested in this. I really do. I think Joe Johnston is underrated as a director (he outdid Spielberg's The Lost World when Johnston made Jurassic Park III), and casting Benicio Del Toro as the Wolfman seems like a great idea. Even so, the advance buzz bears all the stink of "Troubled Produciton." Sadly, the reviews bear that out.

Oh well. I'm make up for it next week by seeing Shutter Island more than once.

Buy the book AND the movie at the same time!

Strolling through a Barnes & Noble Wednesday, I came across a neat display of these new packages that allow you to buy a classic book and a DVD of the movie made from it, all in one box. Here's a link to the complete set.

The titles available were:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott/1994 film by Gillian Armstrong - The best film version of Little Women is the 1933 version with Kate Hepburn, but that's a Warner Bros. title and all the films in these packages are controlled by Sony. No matter. The 1994 film is also outstanding, with a terrific cast, fronted by Winona Ryder.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen/1995 film by Ang Lee - Normally I don't care for what a friend of mine once called "tea party" movies, but this film was an exception, with great work by Emma Thompson (who wrote the fine screenplay) and Kate Winslet.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton/1993 film by Martin Scorsese: With Marty at the helm, it's better than most any Merchant/Ivory movie. It has great visuals and fine performances, particularly by Winona Ryder (again). However, it has one very distracting flaw: voice-over narration by Joanne Woodward that I think is mean to capture details of the book but instead drains the movie's energy by seeming too emotionally detached.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley/Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - Ideally this would be packaged with the great 1931 James Whale film with Boris Karloff, but instead we get Kenneth Branagh's 1994 version, which I really don't remember too well, except to say it was decent, if a bit overwrought.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle/1939 film by Sidney Lanfield: If I were to buy any of the collections, it would be this one. I've never seen that film, nor have I read that book. (In fact, I rather shame-facedly admit I haven't read any of the books in question - though I hasten to add I've read other works by Austen and Doyle). I would hesitate buying any of the others because I'm not sure what I'm getting with the DVDs - I'd hate to find out they were "fullscreen" versions. With the Holmes movie, that wouldn't matter, with the other titles, it would.

All in all, though, I thought this was a great concept. It can introduce movie-lovers to the books, and it can allow book lovers to take a closer look at how and why movies adapt books the way they do.

What I notice, though, is that all of these two-fers are classic literature combined with mostly well-regarded movies. I doubt anyone would have the gumption to do it, but I would love to see pairings of contemporary movies where the book and the film don't quite match in reputation.

For instance, I've never read The Bridges of Madison County, but a lot of critics said that for all its popularity, the book really wasn't all that great. I did see Clint Eastwood's film, which is quite good, and some say it greatly improves upon the book. I'd love to find out.

On the other side of the dust jacket, you could take a great book like The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe - and then package it with the 1990 Brian De Palma film to realize JUST how badly that movie blew up in everyone's faces. And as an added bonus, you could package it with Jule Salamon's The Devil's Candy, the outstanding nonfiction chronicle of the (un)making of that movie. (THAT I've read. In fact, I own copies of both Wolfe's and Salamon's books, but feel no great need to add De Palma's film to my collection.)

What other book/film collections would you like to see? Besides Holmes, which of the Barnes & Nobles sets would you recommend to me?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Quentin on Marty

I found this terrific YouTube clip of Quentin Tarantino at a director's forum talking about when Brian De Palma told QT about making Blow Out - and then seeing Raging Bull. Watch the clip - it speaks for itself and is absolutely priceless. (Language slightly NSFW).

"No matter how good you think you are ...."

Our Favorite Movies: Anonymous picks

Returning to the ongoing Our Favorite Movies project, next on the list is a reader who chose not to identify himself/herself. Not sure why - it's certainly not because of the quality of their choices.

1. Jaws - Fine AND fun choice. This is still the only movie that ever made me scream out loud (during the chumming scene) and this past summer I had a great time seeing this in a beautiful print, playing on a double bill with District 9 at the Holiday Auto Theatre drive-in in Hamilton.
2-10 (in some order)
Hoosiers - Never been a big basketball fan, but this probably is the best basketball movie
The Shawshank Redemption: You know, I'm going to surprise some people by saying this, but I've never quite been able to count this among my favorites - or bests. It's a very fine film for which I have a great deal of respect, and I understand why a lot of people love it, but I can't honestly say I love it - and I really don't know why. There's nothing "wrong" with it, certainly, and it's very well crafted on all fronts, but for reasons I can't define, it doesn't grab me emotionally the way it grabs many people. It lacks that intangible extra something that would push it on any list of mine. Regardless, a very defendable choice.

The Natural: I like the film but find it a bit overrated and overstated. Roger Ebert put it very well when he wrote "At about the 130-minute mark, I got the idea that God's only begotten son was playing right field for the New York team." As far as baseball movies go, Pride of the Yankees is my favorite. 
The Bad News Bears (the original): Lots of fun. I like it better than The Natural. And it's really fun to witness Jackie Earle Haley's career renaissance of late, in Little Children and Watchmen.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: My favorite of Spielberg's "popcorn" pictures.
Dead Poets' Society: Very solid film, and I love Peter Weir as a director, but I grew weary of Robin Williams' shtick in this movie, and the writing is a bit ham-fisted sometimes. My favorite "teacher" film is probably Stand and Deliver, with Edward James Olmos.
Rear Window: Probably my second-favorite Hitchcock, after Vertigo.
Superman The Movie: Wonderful fun, and I love John Williams' score. but I actually like the second one better, even though it didn't turn out as originally envisioned. 
The Hangover: I was surprised at how much I liked this movie, considering most of the alcohol I've ever had was ingested by accident.

I'm still taking submissions, dear readers. Feel free to submit more lists!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

DVDs - A Serious Man a MUST-see

This week's DVDs are, on the whole, pretty underwhelming, but one particular title redeems the whole lot of 'em.

Bronson: Actually, no, this title isn't it. but this film, about a man regarded as "Britian's most dangerous prisoner"  garnered enough acclaim in some circles that I'm curious to check it out. And yes, he was named for the actor.

Couples Retreat: No, this wasn't it either. I like a lot of the players in this movie, but it just never generated enough buzz to make me want to see it.

A Serious Man - Yes, THIS is that one particular title. The Coens latest was one of 2009's very best films, and this DVD is SO mine. And it prompted (so I was told) one of my best pieces of writing.

The Stepfather: Ho-hum. Another horror remake that made nary a tremor.

Whups! Forgot two!

It was pointed out to me that I overlooked a couple of the movie Super Bowl ads - the one for The Last Airbender. (I guess that's what I get for not actually WATCHING the game)

The Crazies

I'm hearing this horror entry has some good buzz, but honestly, this ad doesn't really tell me why. It's a teaser that doesn't tease enough.

The Last Airbender

Lady and the Water and The Happening notwithstanding, I have not yet given up on M. Night Shyamalan, and this ad actually gives me hope. The look is certainly there. Let's just hope the story is. My anticipation for this film is helped by the fact that I plan to see it with some of my favorite people.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Super Bowl movie ads 2010

Anyone who knows me knows I don't care too much about sports - and that extends to the Super Bowl. And I even had family/friends in both New Orleans and Indianapolis this year.

Yes, yes, I know, there are the commercials, but by and large, even those have not been that memorable of late. So were the movie spots able to fix that this year? Let's take a look (In no particular order):

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

THIS is Disney's big Memorial Day release? Erm. Gets a big, fat "meh" from me. Looks like a slightly less stupid variation of the Mummy franchise.

Robin Hood

I have similar "been there, done that" feelings about this film too, but Ridley Scott is certainly better at this kind of spectacle than Mike Newell, who directed Persia.

The Wolf Man

I really want to like this one, but this just smells like a troubled film all the way around to me. The hype was been very underwhelming to me, and this ad tells me practically nothing.

The Crazies

I'm hearing this horror entry has some good buzz, but honestly, this ad doesn't really tell me why. It's a teaser that doesn't tease enough.

The Last Airbender

Lady and the Water and The Happening notwithstanding, I have not yet given up on M. Night Shyamalan, and this ad actually gives me hope. The look is certainly there. Let's just hope the story is. My anticipation for this film is helped by the fact that I plan to see it with some of my favorite people.
Alice in Wonderland 

I was sold on this one already. Outside of Shutter Island, this is the pre-summer release I'm most anticipating.

Oh, and speaking of Shutter Island ...

February 19 cannot get here soon enough for me. 

All in all, it was a rather underwhelming crop of movie ads this year. What do you say?

Friday, February 05, 2010

Best movie vs. Favorite movie - what's the difference?

When I commented on reader Rob's list he submitted to the favorite movies project, he pointed out "First off, I'll say my list is very much a 'favorites' list and not a 'best' list. It's very much about what films have really grabbed me and less about the technical merits of the film."

I understood him perfectly well. After all, I myself titled the project FAVORITE movies. And like Rob, I will always favor emotional impact over technical merit. But thinking back on my own list, it seemed to be more of a "Best-Of" ranking than a favorites list.

What's the difference? Honestly, I'm not entirely sure. The most common delineation seems to be that best = prestigious and favorites = fun, but that seems simplistic. My list blurs the line between the best films and my favorites.

For example, A Hard Day's Night falls into both camps for me. I believe it to be the best rock film ever made. And it's also the most fun for me because well - it's a Beatle movie, dammit. With Beatlemania like mine, it would be unnatural if it didn't make the list.  

Then there's Citizen Kane. Many people cite it in best-of lists because of its technical and narrative innovations, as well they should. But there's much more to the film than that. I also think it's a lot of fun. Sure, it has weighty themes and its moments of melancholy, but every time I watch it, I can feel the glee with which Orson Welles made the film, knowing he was breaking all the rules. Kane is both a best film and a favorite film for me.

Sometimes "favorite" also tends to mean "most compulsively watchable." If I followed that definition, my list would look decidedly different. It would be a lot less democratic. It might contain a whole bunch of Hitchcock films, (like Rear Window) Scorsese pictures (Goodfellas) or Disney movies (Beauty and the Beast). Diversity would go out the window.

But I get also a charge out of the movies that are either emotionally punishing (Raging Bull) or fascinating enigmas (2001) because I love the craft on display. And I was the nut who saw Schindler's List five times in the theater, trying to approach it analytically -  and failing every time when the tears started to flow.

When I start a blog with a query, I often end up answering my own question, but I really don't think I have this time. For me, the distinction between "best" and "favorite" will never be concrete. There will always be overlap.

So let me ask you  - what, for you, is the difference between a favorite movie and a "best" movie? Is there a difference?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Previews before reviews - in theaters 2/5/10

Theatrical movies turn tepid this week and that's no surprise. That's typically the case when some kinda big football game is on Sunday.

Dear John: The latest Nicholas Sparks soaper has a good director in Lasse Hallestrom (The Cider House Rules, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, etc) and an appealing pair of leads in Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum.  But most critics are shrugging their shoulders. Roger Ebert writes:  "Dear John" tells the heartbreaking story of two lovely young people who fail to find happiness together because they're trapped in an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel." Burn!

From Paris with Love: This is quite obviously a blatant attempt to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle success of Taken by the same filmmakers. However, all indications are this movie is nothing more than a goofy action romp. I think Taken was a hit not so much because of the action, but because it had Liam Neeson giving a real performance  that gave the movie emotional pull.  I so no evidence of anything like that here.

Locally, the Neon Movies opens A Single Man, but I'm not enduring that again unless I want to sleep somewhere besides my bed. 

Our Favorite Movies: Rob's picks

Just in case anyone forgot (or thought I forgot), yes, we ARE still doing the favorite movies project, and yes, I am still taking submissions! There are still some people out there from whom I would love to see a list.

Those pesky Oscar nominations got in the way these past few days, but it's time to pick the gauntlet back up with reader Rob's choices. His list, and my comments, follow.

1. Casablanca (1942) - Can anyone rightly argue with this one, even if it's not on their own list? I mean, really.

2. Amelie (2001) - Wouldn't put it as high as number two of all time, but it was certainly one of the best films of that year.

3. Garden State (2004) - Still another movie I quite liked, although I could never place it this high.

4. Roman Holiday (1953) - The film that gave the world Audrey Hepburn. Lovely.

5. Vanilla Sky (2001) - Wow. I thought the film was underrated myself, but among Cameron Crowe pics, the highest for me would be Almost Famous.

6. Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) - People are two hard on this film, but the BEST of the original trilogy? Really? I favor the 1977 original meself.

7. Punch Drunk Love (2002) - Gutsy choice, my friend. I must admit I got a giant kick out of Adam Sandler's fans (and most other people) give this movie a giant WTF? But Paul Thomas Anderson is surely used to it by now.

8. Spirited Away (2001) - Might just be my very favorite non Disney hand-drawn animated film, outside of Yellow Submarine.

9. Mulholland Dr. (2001) - An often spellbinding film, but a bit overrated in my book. The more it gets away from Naomi Watts, the less interesting it is.

10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - My favorite romance of the past decade. Just might be my favorite movie of the past decade.

11. Sabrina (1954) - An easy film to love, but I love the other Wilder/Hepburn pic Love in the Afternoon, even more.

12. Magnolia (1999) - Ribbit.

13. Fight Club (1999) I always thought this one was overpraised. Some mesmerizing ideas and visuals to be sure, but even now, I still don't quite buy the reveal at the end.

14. Spider-Man II (2004) - The best of the series. Easy.

15. Office Space (1999) I can understand why a lot of people love this movie, but maybe because I've rarely worked in a conventional office environment, I don't laugh at this comedy as much as other people do.

16. Pulp Fiction (1994) - That was fuckin' trippy.

17. The Princess Bride (1987) - Everybody quotes the Inigo Montoya line. I was always rather fond of the rodents of unusual size.

18. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) - Over Raiders? Really?

19. The Matrix (1999) - Still great fun to watch, despite the increasingly labored sequels.

And no, I didn't lop off Number 20 - Rob did.

Keep em coming, folks!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

My reaction to the Oscar nominations/early predix

“The Blind Side”
“District 9”
“An Education”
“The Hurt Locker”
“Inglourious Basterds”
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
“A Serious Man”
“Up in the Air”

Overall, I'm very pleased with the list, quality- and variety-wise. All of the pictures are, at the least, very good. I'm delighted that "A Serious Man" made the cut - I know it doesn't have a chance in hell of winning, but now more people might check it out and say "What the heck was THAT?" just like I did - in a good way. I'm also very pleased I went 9 for 10 in the first new year of 10 nominees. I had "Invictus" instead of "Blind Side," but I thought there was a strong chance that beloved hit could slip in.

Early predix: It's a three-way race between "Avatar," "Hurt Locker" and "Up in the Air." "Locker" has the momentum lately and could well take the prize, but I'm not completely sure yet. Avatar has vocal naysayers, but when you're the number 2 (and almost number 1) box office earner of all time, there's a lot of love out there too. And "Up in the Air" could still win for tapping into the nation's nervous pulse so well.

“Avatar” James Cameron
“The Hurt Locker” Kathryn Bigelow
“Inglourious Basterds” Quentin Tarantino
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” Lee Daniels
“Up in the Air” Jason Reitman

Aced this. I think Bigelow's got this one, since Cameron already has his statues. And the Academy does like to be a history-maker.

Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”
George Clooney in “Up in the Air”
Colin Firth in “A Single Man”
Morgan Freeman in “Invictus”
Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”

Aced again. Bridges all the way. Take it to the bank. Bet the ranch. Sell your soul.

Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side”
Helen Mirren in “The Last Station”
Carey Mulligan in “An Education”
Gabourey Sidibe in “Precious”
Meryl Streep in “Julie & Julia”

And still another Ace. I had thought this was Streep's to lose, but with "Blind Side" getting a Best Picture nod, and "Julie & Julia" getting no other nominations, I have to think Bullock just took the lead. Yes, Streep is overdue for a win (she hasn't won since "Sophie's Choice" way back in 1983), but Streep has so many recent nominations, I'm guessing voters will lean toward the very well-liked Bullock, who has never had her glory until now.

Matt Damon in “Invictus”
Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger”
Christopher Plummer in “The Last Station”
Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones”
Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds”

5-for-5. Waltz can't lose. Put him in the bank and the ranch with Bridges - and write him into the contract for your soul. 

Penélope Cruz in “Nine”
Vera Farmiga in “Up in the Air”
Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Crazy Heart”
Anna Kendrick in “Up in the Air”
Mo’Nique in “Precious”

I went three for five here, tapping Julianne Moore and Diane Kruger instead of Cruz and Gyllenhaal. Cruz's work was fine but nothing special. However, I'm delighted to see Gyllenhaal make the cut for her moving work in "Crazy Heart." I wish there were a way for my favorite, Kendrick to get it, but the applause for Mo'Nique at prior awards shows is just too deafening.

Other categories after the jump.

DVDs, Oscar pics and a TCM viewing tip


Adam : Quirky indie romance never seemed to catch fire but looked fairly charming in its trailers.

Amelia: - So this was supposed to be a big Oscar contender, huh? Oops.

House of the Devil:  I can see why some people liked this low-rent throwback to 80s-style horror, and for a good long while it does build suspense nicely. But I think some people's nostalgia for that era blinds them so they don't notice or care that the ending, as the Hollywood reporter rightly put it, "borrows literally from a well-known horror film made by a guy (who was recently) in a Swiss jail." I do like the idea that it's being released on VHS - in this case, Blu-Ray must seem an anachronism, no? GRADE: C

Love Happens: Seemed nobody cared what happened between Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart is allowed a slip, but Aniston really needs to start picking better material. The Bounty Hunter does not give me much hope.

New York, I Love You: This omnibus film tries to do for the Big Apple what Paris Je'Taime did for the City of Lights - and apparently does it with much less success. At least New York Stories went two-for-three.

The Time Traveler's Wife: This adaptation of the best-seller gets by largely on the charm of its two stars, Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams, who save the movie from occasionally muddled storytelling. I get the sense something was lost in the translation from page to screen. Full review. GRADE: B

Zombieland: Terrifically inventive and hilarious horror spoof, aided by a cameo everyone must know about by now. (Hint - Today's his day.) I didn't like it enough to buy it, but I did feel oddly compelled to buy a box of Twinkies this week. Full review: GRADE: B+


Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges absolutely deserves every bit of praise he's received  for his performance as a burned-out country star, but the movie doesn't succeed solely because of him. Maggie Gyllenhaal is also excellent as the woman who prompts him to better himself, and the film as a whole is sharply observed. Every time it threatens to go into Lifetime movie territory, it goes off the beaten path and surprises. Well worth seeing, even if country music is not your favorite. GRADE: A-

Edge of Darkness: Mel Gibson's return to starring roles has been underrated by critics; I think the movie succeeds largely because Gibson still holds the screen as well as he ever did. People expecting an action-packed ride may be disappointed, as this movie is more of a police procedural than a thriller, but it's a story well told. Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), who once again proves himself to be one of the sturdiest craftsmen in the business. He may not be a visionary, but I think Campbell warrants comparisons to a classic Hollywood warhorse like Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood), who was never visually showy but was always a strong storyteller. GRADE: B+

A Single Man: ZZZZZZZZ. Oh, I'm sorry. I was just reminded of watching this film, which is this year's The Reader:  a piece of stiflingly pretentious twaddle about piteous bores who really need to get over themselves. Colin Firth works hard to provide some emotional connection, but he can't escape the film's overbearing sense of self-importance.  GRADE: D

TCM Viewing tip

The Oscar nominations  come out today. My predictions are here, and I will write a reaction piece tonight. However, while we're on the subject of the Academy Awards, I'd like to alert you to Turner Classic Movies' 31 Days of Oscar, which is under way.

As before, every single movie TCM plays this month was at least nominated for one Oscar. But the channel's brilliant programmers have created a unique connecting thread for the films. Each movie in the lineup is connected by one actor to the next film in the lineup. For instance:

Tonight at 8 p.m. is The Thin Man, staring Myrna Loy, who was also in ....

The Best Years of Our Lives, the peerless post World War II drama playing at 10 p.m. The movie also starred Fredrich March, who was in ...

Inherit the Wind, playing at 1 a.m.

... and so on. It's really fun to try and guess the connections between the films - and it's even more fun to watch them. I'll be doing that even more than usual this month. You should too.