05 November 2011

Film may be dead, but should we mourn it?

Roger Ebert (see link below) has announced "the death of film" in the face of the unstoppable digital wave and new movie-watching options, like Netflix or movies-on-demand services on XBox 360 and the like. But how tragic an occasion is this, really? Certainly, film (real celluloid, that is) has always had a particular vibrancy to it that the coldness of digital falls short of matching. It has an ineffable texture to it that exerts a strong appeal on film buffs everywhere. I remember seeing the re-release of Apocalypse Now way back in 2001 (I was way too young and certainly had far too indulgent parents). That was real film. Technicolor. Big IMAX screen. Big IMAX speakers. It was one of the major filmic events of my life. It enveloped you, visually and sonically, like nothing else.

Experiences like that form the backbone of Ebert's lament on the death of film. It is indeed almost primally appealing to sit there in the dark, with a similarly rapt select group of your cinematic compatriots, and let the vivid, near-tangible image and clear, dominating sound wash over you and transport you away to a magical land... for a couple hours, anyways. This is the ideal cinematic experience, and it does happen every once in a while, and it's a rare joy when it does.

But is this the reality of going to the cinema today? Not too often. Often, the movie fails to grab you and that aforementioned alchemy doesn't quite happen. Celluloid or digital wouldn't make much of a difference in improving the overall quality with these middling examples. Sometimes, the "cinematic compatriots" instead become adversaries, distracting with their phones, their mouths, and their bodies by texting, talking, or kicking... or chewing a little too loudly. Rarely, but often enough to be annoying, the projection fails in some way and your experience is viciously interrupted - even if it's set right soon, it's hard to get back into that state of mind.

And when this type of experience becomes too frequent, it's comforting (maybe not as comforting as the ideal cinematic experience, but close enough) to know you can just sit at home and watch a movie at your leisure, albeit on a smaller screen (a wayyy smaller screen if you're me and not rich and don't have a home theatre set-up), albeit on a crappier digital version, albeit without that ethereal communal vibe. For most movies these days, that, unfortunately, does just fine. The option is there, at any rate, whenever you should choose to partake of it.

While Ebert does well to point out the inferiority of digital to celluloid, just as he aptly denigrates 3-D (though to too great an extent sometimes) in favour of 2-D (I'm all for 3-D in the extremely rare instances it's done well and adds something to the finished product), but he misses the other reasons why real film's death has become rapidly apparent. It's not just the convenience factor or the audience's preference to digital, but that the movie-going experience so rarely achieves that special alchemy that would justify its continued existence.

Of course, Ebert has denigrated these kinds of distracting audience behaviours in his previous writings, so he may have just willfully decided to focus on other aspects for this post. And indeed, I'm as baffled as him why digital is winning the battle over film in theatres, not just in terms of home viewing options. But while I love the ideal film experience with such an ardor that it will be hard for even any romantic connections to match it, the ideal doesn't happen nearly as often as it should. And many movies with average production values work just as well on a private small screen as a public big one. Reality is a cold bitch that way.

Digital should hardly be considered a substitute for film w/r/t the best and brightest movies out there, but there's a reason cinema attendance is dwindling. Film may be dying, but to what extent should we mourn it? Or is there anything we can do to resuscitate it (and the experience associated with it) so that it can brighten our cinemas another day?


14 September 2011

A bit of self-promotion and housekeeping

So in keeping up with the latest blogging trends, I've opened up a brand sparkling new blog-type site at Tumblr, which can be visited here. But fret not, dear reader! I still intend to post here. Basically, the Tumblr will be used more as a repository for quotations, photos, lyrics and little snippets of things that strike my fancy (particularly out of books since I'm now fully into the Master of Arts degree in English mode now), and of course reblogged bits of awesomeness. The entries here will be probably longer tracts, i.e. movie reviews, music reviews, book reviews, TV reviews, top-ten lists (speaking of which, I might give you soon an updated top-ten movies of 2010, because since crafting that list way back when some new movies have caught my attention and demanded inclusion... I'm sure you can guess which), and longer rants and miscellany, some of which I may also post over on Tumblr. Especially if I can throw on a visually striking picture or two to go along with it, as I did with my Tree of Life review. While there may be a bit of cross-pollination, I hope to not get too redunant with this two-blog situation.

In other news, I think I may have officially undervalued the Victorian novel, as the first text assigned in my new class on the Victorian novel proved wholly delightful, if not a bit inconsistent and way too long to be suitably read in the span of about two weeks. The work in question? Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, a sterling example of satire that never sacrifices its sense of adventure, romance, emotion, and epic scope despite poking wicked fun at every turn at the genre of which it is supposedly a part.

No, not this... although I'm sure that this is not wholly without merit.

It throws everything about Victorian life -- and much of life in general, as well as the very idea and building blocks of fiction -- up to question: class structure, gender roles, the importance of money and (obviously) vanity to far too many people, literary genres, the role and reliability of the narrator in a novel. Complex w/r/t character (especially the indomitable Becky Sharp, who you love to hate and can never quite get a firm grasp on), story, intellectual intentions, and structure, it may have some inconsistencies with characters showing up and disappearing at random, but it's damn near a masterpiece. And since I'm woefully unfamiliar with a lot of Victorian fiction (except for maybe Dickens and certain adaptations of Sherlock Holmes), considering it, before (probably unfairly), as stodgy and lacking in a certain verve and electrifying sense of psychological depth and ontological contradiction that came later with Modernism and my man Samuel Beckett, it was all the more surprising. Rock on, Thackeray! And thank you, that class, for broadening my horizons.

Next time, I may just discuss Clarissa, the longest novel ever written in English and the main focus on my other class on narrative prose of the 18th century. Sounds intimidating but it's grabbing me pretty hard already, so huzzah!

Like this, but bigger and about a foot thick.

21 August 2011

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Serene, vibrant, candy-coloured, swooping images of verdant nature and the vast cosmos (even including, yup, CGI dinosaurs); vivid portrayals of childhood, brotherhood, family, tragedy, love, fear, death, and the daily minutiae of life in the ’50s in suburban Texas, featuring one of the most intimate, studied performances ever seen from Brad Pitt, and with wonderful, natural support from Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken (and all the child actors comprising this typical yet specific family); and the psychic and eventually real wanderings undertaken by Sean Penn as one of the now-grown boys, a present-day architect wracked with guilt and grief. Indeed, who else but Terrence Malick would even dare attempt such a staggeringly ambitious cinematic attempt to summarize all of life and wax metaphysical on ‘the way of grace’ and ‘the way of nature?’

The Tree of Life is most notable for its attempts to go both perilously near to dizzyingly far in its examination of life, the universe, and everything, going both macro in the swirling, gorgeous CGI sequences populated by planets, galaxies, waves, fire, lava, and sprawling forests and micro in its up-close examination of just one family in one place in one time. And while the sequences with Sean Penn looking lost in both tall, shiny glass buildings and dry deserts are in theory meant to be the connection point, to marry the specific with the universal, they unfortunately served not to broaden or connect but to only make things more vague and abstract. The movie’s segments are all among the most beautiful ever put on film, accompanied, in true Malick fashion, by a sweeping, classical, orchestral score, evoking all the right notes of mood and emotion; but together, they’re three great cinematic tastes that taste… less than stellar together.

Pitt is absolutely gob-smackingly intense and vital as a severely tough, severely loving father to a group of boys and husband to the radiant Jessica Chastain. It will undoubtedly wind up one of the performances of the year, maybe multiple years, and might just be Pitt’s best work to date. The scenes of family life here in this pin-pointable time and place are scenes to linger about it, to surround yourself in, and are undoubtedly the heart of the picture. Or, at least, they probably should be. Certainly Malick generously pours all his filmmaking gifts onto this part of the story, in all the best ways, resulting in a sense of intimacy and piercing emotion (it would be too simplistic just to call it ’50s-era nostalgia… there’s a striving for something even more timeless here, almost mythic) matched only by its detailed, painstaking realism and visual and aural splendour. There’s little fault to find here in these vivid scenes of family life, love, fear, and loss, and abundant wonders to be explored by those who care to venture forth.

Malick also wants, however, to go back, and forward, and all around in both time and space to chronicle the beginning and end of time, and as striking as his mostly computer-generated visuals are here (of planets and stars and galaxies and violent weather, crashing seas, molten lava, and general upheaval… and, oh yes, dinosaurs) and as soothingly lovely the musical accompaniment, it’s all just a bit too much. His ambition is almost too great for any filmmaking to ever quite catch up to it, as truly admirable as this all is. I’m not going to call it all completely self-indulgent, because that would discount the very real visceral tug I felt during a lot of this; but it may verge on egregious, patience-testing. And one would think here that these scenes replete with nature in all her glory would be Malick’s testament to ‘the way of nature’ and would save the ‘way of grace’ stuff for later. But he does stumble in shoehorning in a rather unconvincing bit about a carnivorous dino taking pity on a fellow great lizard who is in pain, choosing not to eat it and moving on, grace infusing even the most wholly natural of encounters.

Which leaves us, of course, with Sean Penn. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Malick using the actor as sort of a figurehead, an allegory for psychic and spiritual and existential wandering and the whole Human quest for understanding rather than a complete, individual, really human character (such that Pitt so resoundingly embodies… although he too is not without allegorical significance, he transcends being merely allegorical). The thing is, the star seems just too huge to have such a limited, quiet, dare I say flat role and his intensity, having no outlet, just sort of transforms into an overwhelming blankness that makes the viewer lost and disconnected from latching onto these synthesis scenes (between the thesis of the all-natural world of dinos and cosmos and the antithesis of Brad Pitt and discipline and religion), which of course throws the whole equation kind of off-kilter. It’s just hard to reconcile the image of movie-star-Penn with the existential wanderer-type Penn that Malick wishes to convey, as good as that might sound on paper.

While this is hardly the full treatment such a dense and ambitious movie quite deserves, and hardly the last word on it, as I’m sure The Tree of Life will provoke endless academic discussions among loftier professorial types than myself, these have been my major thoughts on this riveting and maddening, stunningly beautiful yet excessive cinematic experience. It’s completely true that I’ve never seen anything like it, and undoubtedly the very real effort Malick put into it makes it perhaps the truest, most Malickian Malick film (un vrai film de Malick, as the auteurist theorists might say) ever, and an extraordinary thing to behold despite my misgivings. Malick has a lot to say here, and if my theory holds, the man seems to favour the ‘way of grace’ over the ‘way of nature,’ if only when it comes to cross-dino relations. And while I’m all for viewpoints that differ from my own, rather atheistic ones, I’m not sure he said it as well as he could have, despite saying plenty and trying to say even more. Composed of stunning parts, it’s just a bit too inconsistent as a whole. B-

10 April 2011

The Wire: television-as-novel or television-as-video-game?

The Wire, as a select few of you may know, sits at the very tippy-top of the list of my favourite television programs -- hell, my favourite anythings -- of all time. I, alongside the creator of the show, David Simon, would usually say that it transcends pretty much anything else attempted on serial television to be more like an epic novel in its structure. It is so densely packed with well-rounded characters and situations that compound and build towards exhilarating climaxes, and it takes place on a huge canvas, trying to get at nothing less than the hum and flow of an entire city -- the gritty, real-life port metropolis of Baltimore, MD. Perfectly acted, written, paced, directed, with a cynical, biting sense of humour that deepens its serious, often violent portrayals of urban life, The Wire is especially novelistic in the way its episodes resemble chapters of a book, and the seasons are like books in a larger epic novel.

But in his unconventional yet illuminating and spot-on essay, Jason Mittell argues that The Wire can just as easily, if not better, be compared to the video game genre. He uses a comparison that even further illuminates why I responded so well to The Wire, likening it to an amalgam of Will Wright's simulation computer games Sim City and The Sims -- big-time favourite time-passers of mine from childhood. The attempt to capture all the little things that make a city tick particularly link it to the former game, and the focus on characters and their decisions with regard to the institutions in which they find themselves (the drug trade, police, dock workers, school teachers, city councilpersons) connect it to the latter. Furthermore, the seasons are like "replays" of a game, in that there are certain similarities in plot but with little twists that alter the game. The characters also frequently mention games (especially with regard to their different lines of work) in the show's dialogue.

At any rate, it's certainly an interesting way of viewing the show, and is a seemingly out-there comparison that has surprising merit. The essay is definitely worth a read if you've seen, or are even thinking about seeing, The Wire.

07 March 2011

This newfangled music: Are the Grammys better at being hip than the Oscars?

Now, if you know me, then you already know this. If you don't, let me lay out a few things on the table: I'm not much of a hip music lover who is down with all the latest trends on the underground or the mainstream music scene. I'm more a movie guy, or even a TV guy, than a music guy. I don't own an iPod or an MP3 player of any sort. I don't even have a portable CD or tape player. All my music listening is done right here on my laptop, or in my car, or on whatever radio station happens to be playing at work. What few CDs I own are primarily greatest hits compilations from classic rock legends from the '60s, '70s, and (to some extent) the '80s... and the Smashing Pumpkins (they didn't really fit into those other headings, but I love 'em). Oh, and Muse. My most elaborate collections come from the oeuvres of the Beatles and Rush, and I own a couple CDs here and there from Barenaked Ladies. All of which is to say: I'm vaguely aware that more contemporary artists/musicians/pre-programmed Auto-tuned pop robots like Ke$ha, Willow Smith, Justin Bieber, John Mayer, Drake, and the Black Eyed Peas; however, most of the time, I'll have a hell of a time pointing out whether a song is the product of one of these or differentiate between them.

Every once in a while, however, I'll try to at least make an effort to understand what most people my age listen to, at which point I will head down to my local music store (nothing too niche; generally HMV) and procure some of this newfangled music. I went on a bit of a spree to that end of late, purchasing Brothers from the Black Keys, The Suburbs from Arcade Fire, and Fantasies from Metric -- mainly on the strength of one overplayed single on the radio that did a particularly good job of not making my ears bleed or making me launch for the "seek" button. All of which is to say, I do like some music out there right now.

The Black Keys album has a groovy, hard beat to it that's infectious even if some of the songs pick up more steam than others. ("Tighten Up" was an apt choice for a single, but I rather enjoy "Everlasting Light" and "Howlin' for You.") In addition, for those who like to judge books (and CDs) by their covers, the Brothers cover is one of the best covers I've come across for its witty bluntness.

Go ahead. Try and not chuckle.

Metric is just as toe-tappingly good, if not more so. I freaking loved "Stadium Love" so much that after buying Fantasies primarily because of it, I discovered it also contained songs that had flittered onto the radio previously that I had actually quite enjoyed, and now enjoy even more in their proper context. The lead singer's voice is downright lovely; try and not be a little captivated by it. And the songs maintain a boppy, pulse-pounding rhythm while amazingly not sacrificing the wit of the lyrics, which remain thoughtful and playful in equal measure. Apparently, their previous work was even better, as some have suggested Metric have sold out with Fantasies. If this is the case, I'd be OK with some more artists selling out, since it actually gets me to pay attention to them and discover what others have already known.

Best of all was The Suburbs from Arcade Fire, which I bought after overhearing how it (rather surprisingly) won Album of the Year at the Grammys and having previously enjoyed the odd song from the Montreal-based group. The Suburbs is a real album, in the sense it once meant (or maybe I'm just projecting my idea of what it should be): a group of songs linked tightly together thematically and sonically but that are all strong enough to stand on their own. The album starts off with an exhilarating bang and never really lets up, although it does shift sound styles from more snappily acoustic to the soaringly orchestral to the percolatingly (is that a word? it should be) wondrous electronic. It is a bona fide masterpiece, fresh and eclectic and serious and fun. I'm not overly familiar with who else was nominated at the Grammys and their particular strengths and weaknesses, but this seems like a dynamite choice to win the biggest music award of the year.

Which brings me to the other point of this post: the relative merits of awards ceremonies to accurately express and capture the atmosphere of their respective media (music or films) that particular year. People say negative things both about the Grammys (the biggest and flashiest of the music awards) and the Oscars (the biggest and flashiest of the movie awards). The Grammys have far too many categories to the point where some of the awards are basically useless; I'm reminded of the Simpsons episode wherein Elton John meets Homer Simpson and generously gives him one of his Grammys, which Homer considers a backhanded compliment and promptly throws it in the trash. The Oscars are by now considered stuffy and out of touch with the youth and the cinematic trends of today; for Pete's sake, it took them until 2001 to have a category for animated films?! And they're egregiously overstuffed, with the worst-offending ceremonies taking almost four-and-a-half hours to fully unspool.

I didn't watch the Grammys this year, nor any year to my recollection. But the awarding of The Suburbs of the biggest award seems like a far wiser and simpler way of connecting with the current musical atmosphere while simultaneously valuing real quality than the similar attempts of the Oscars this year to appear fresh and in touch to movie lovers. As much as I liked The King's Speech, which took home the biggest Oscars of the night, it hardly wowed me in doing its particular thing to the extent that The Suburbs did. It was well put-together in most measurable aspects, particularly in the fields of acting and general art direction and technical competence. But while it can be admired and even stir some emotions, it never surprises or thrills. The Suburbs really does. The Social Network, the main competition to The King's Speech, really did, and had it won, we might not even be making this comparison right now. And while this last Oscar ceremony was shorter than some of the recent behemoths, its hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, sometimes looked good but never really connected with the audience. In addition, only a few of the acceptance speeches really went anywhere interesting, and some of them went interesting places that left a nasty aftertaste in the mouth (see Melissa Leo).

This has been a lot of completely tangential, apples-to-oranges comparison. I really don't know whether the Grammys as a whole can be considered fresher than the Oscars, but both awards ceremonies certainly seem to be trying in that direction, to varying degrees of success, and with the once-mocked Grammys coming out, for now, on top -- according to my narrow view. While there is great music out there right now (as I have lately discovered), as well as great movies, awards shows only rarely tend to accurately honour them, being designed, by necessity, by committee. I guess we'll just have to wait and see whether my completely slipshod theory holds true in the coming years. For now: good work, Grammys.

20 February 2011

Oscar predictions ahoy!

It's that time of year, folks. One week left until the Oscars! And while I'm sure few in the general populace really care about that fact at all, and certainly don't care enough to get invested in making actual predictions about who is/should win the awards, I somehow still hold onto my traditional obsession despite all logic suggesting it's not such a big deal. At any rate, below I will take a look at the eight major categories, point out who I think will win (highlighted in green), who I think should win (highlighted in red), and if I think the winner is deserved, then I will highlight it in blue. (Hopefully, this jives with my layout. We'll see, I suppose.) I will also give reasons for my choices and say who I thought was brutally robbed of a nomination if I have particularly strong feelings about it. Cool? Cool. Let's get this train a-rollin'!

Best Picture

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter

The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

should have been nominated: This is actually pretty good. Maybe A Prophet? This ten nominees thing so far has meant that most of my favourites actually get in there, as my top four movies from last year are all among the nominees. So... cool.

Like I said, my four favourite movies of last year (Toy Story 3, The Social Network, The Kids Are All Right, and Winter's Bone) all scored a nomination, and 127 Hours and Inception was pretty darn stellar as well. The best of these was Toy Story 3, however, a timeless classic that proves indelibly the merits of animation, three-quels, and bright, beautiful multi-leveled big-budget entertainments that speak to folks of all generations. If I had my way, it would take down the formidable competition next Sunday. (As it is, it's certainly going to win Best Animated Feature.) Unfortunately, the odds are against it, as the Academy seems to like real people rather than 3-D playthings in their movies. Almost everyone has suggested this will be a race between the brainy Social Network and the heart-warming King's Speech. While I would be thrilled if The Social Network won, The King's Speech has just built up far too much momentum in all the other awards ceremonies so far for it to be derailed at this point. If you're into betting, you should be thinking, "Long live the king!" at this point.

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O. Russell, The Fighter

should have been nominated: Christopher Nolan, Inception; Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3; Danny Boyle, 127 Hours; Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right... seriously, screw this category! I'd be OK with everyone except Fincher and maybe the Coens not being there.

David Fincher is so clearly the winner in this category that it's a good time to get your consolation cards to the other nominees in the mail, if you haven't already. While I do expect Tom Hooper's The King's Speech will take home the biggest award of the evening, I suspect the film's director will be seen as a bit too inexperienced to take this particular prize. And, really, I'm pretty OK with it, since The King's Speech succeeded almost entirely on the actorly strengths of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush... not so much on the competent but unexciting direction of Hooper. Fincher's film was perhaps the most lively, endlessly engrossing, timely, and smoothly directed of last year. Every touch, from the colour palette to the angles at which it was shot to the quietly unnerving musical score to the bravura showcase of rapid-fire dialogue, added to the overall effect. Fincher was economical and cunning in bringing off the zingy wonder of The Social Network with such little fat left on it to trim off. He will almost certainly win, and I'll be grinning like a schoolgirl when he does.

Best Actor

Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

should have been nominated: Leonardo DiCaprio in either Shutter Island or Inception

Another no-brainer of a category, at least in terms of who will win. Colin Firth is so handily going to take this that it's almost unfair to everyone else. I mean, really. It's almost harsh even having the other guys there. Firth's portrayal of the uneasy would-be king is truly towering work, effortless but never unimpressive. I thought Jesse Eisenberg certainly did comparably amazing work in The Social Network, with James Franco falling not too far behind. But it's Firth's night -- all the factors, especially that his film is a period piece about royalty, are so completely Oscar catnip -- and the man certainly deserves it.

Best Actress

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

should have been nominated: Kim Hye-Ja, Mother

Keep in mind I've only seen three of these five films, so please take my opinions with a grain of salt here. While Jennifer Lawrence was stunning in Winter's Bone, she's certainly too new, and a tiny bit outclassed, here to take home the trophy. Natalie Portman will pretty much certainly take home the statuette, and while I found her work to be basically the piercing, subtle, graceful, and compelling saving grace of the somewhat overbearing and cheesy Black Swan, she didn't quite (by like an inch) dominate her movie as thoroughly and winningly as did Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right. Her Nic was the most fully formed female character (possibly the best character period) from last year, and this was due not only to the sparkling writing and loose-but-serious direction of Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg, but by the whip-smart, committed, easy-going but emotionally complex work done by seasoned veteran Bening. While Portman certainly put on a great, flashier show in Black Swan, and I reckon the Academy will honour this, and was a worthy competitor, I liked the subtle and more grounded and more instantly identifiable, equally brilliant work done by Bening just a little bit more.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

should have been nominated: Andrew Garfield, The Social Network; maybe Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Inception

This category is a bit tougher... thankfully. I do hate when it's a complete blow-out of a race. While my personal favourite is Mark Ruffalo from The Kids Are All Right -- a great, subtly surprising match of an actor's personality to a character's -- I'm not sure the Academy will quite agree with my reasoning... especially when he was surrounded by equally wonderful performers giving equally, and more, great performances. I'm thinking a horse race between Geoffrey Rush and Christian Bale, and since Rush has (unduly, in my view) been overshadowed by talk of Colin Firth in all the chatter about King's Speech, I think Christian Bale will pull a win here for his Method-complex work in The Fighter... and that will sit pretty darn well with me.

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Another tough category, although it might just be because I haven't put much thought so far into this particular race. But it's undoubtedly a solid line-up here: you may have noticed the lack of a "should have been nominated" section here. I'm at least somewhat of a fan of all of these choices, but I predict it will be a race between Melissa Leo and Hailee Steinfeld, both unbelievably vibrant in their particular roles in their particular movies. Since this is a category fairly well-known for its wild-card wins, (which begs the question of how I can even predict it at all, but shush) I think young Hailee Steinfeld might just have the chutzpah as well as the sincerity to pull off a win here. To be sure, she was the heart and soul of the Coens' rollickingly entertaining but occasionally detached Western revival. And I would be all for Steinfeld, until I saw Animal Kingdom and thrilled to the way Jacki Weaver slipped so casually between lovey-dovey mother and cruel, conniving jungle cat. It was downright electrifying, but unfortunately too few people saw this movie, ultimately, for it to register as much more than a blip on the Academy's radar.

Best Adapted Screenplay
127 Hours, Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin
Toy Story 3, Michael Arndt; story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich
True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen
Winter's Bone, Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

should have been nominated: The Ghost Writer

Pretty OK with all these nominees, once again. Awesome! But c'mon... as much as I liked all of these movies script-wise, particularly The Social Network and Toy Story 3, Aaron Sorkin has this one in the figurative bag. His script was a thing of beauty, unspooling streams of stylized, fully modern patter without ever letting his tightly knit story go off the rails. He will win, and by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, so he should.

Best Original Screenplay

Another Year, Mike Leigh
The Fighter, Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson; story by Keith Dorrington, Tamasy, and Johnson
Inception, Christopher Nolan
The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
The King's Speech, David Seidler

should have been nominated: Fish Tank

I direly wished I could have seen Another Year before this. Ah well, life is a bitch. Frankly, this could very well be another chance for the Academy to shower its gold upon The King's Speech, but I predict they will take this as their opportunity to honour Inception and its mind-boggling chutzpah. I, too, was pretty darn impressed that anyone could even write something like this in a filmable fashion, so undoubtedly Inception would be a shrewd choice to win, and it probably will win here. However, The Kids Are All Right was not only smartly written, but full of the type of heart and well-rounded characters that, for all its invigorating mind games, Inception didn't quite pull off. I think Cholodenko and Blumberg's achievement was just a tad more towering than the formidable Nolan's. I want to stress that I'd be OK with a Nolan win, though, quite OK; a bit less OK with a King's Speech win, though that is a definite possibility.

Other categories? I think it would be a hoot and a most deserving win if Exit Through the Gift Shop took Best Documentary Feature, though the sobering, intellectual, and dazzlingly put-together Inside Job will probably pull ahead, not without merit. Toy Story 3 will undoubtedly win Best Animated Feature, as it damn well should. I would be thrilled if The Social Network track by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won Best Original Score, but it's facing stiff, strong competition from the likes of Alexandre Desplat, the likely winner, Hans Zimmer, and John Powell's soaring work on How to Train Your Dragon. And on a rather anticlimactic note, I hope Inception wins the two sound awards because, well, it sounded fucking amazing in theatres.

Agree? Disagree? Want to talk and ramble on? Feel free now to do just that. Happy Oscars, and I'll see you on the other side! (Unless I decide to do a live blog of them again like last year... Hmm...)

25 January 2011

Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1978); Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)

I recently watched some truly "heavenly" films, if you catch my drift (and my ridiculously obvious pun). It seems my Netflix viewing has become oddly patterned. First off, I watched Gattaca and then Dark City, a pair of dark, serious, almost convoluted sci-fi movies. Then, I watched two great (albeit for completely different reasons) French movies, The 400 Blows (which earned an immediate spot on the best-of-all-time list) and Caché (which thrilled me even more the second time around -- I had seen it before, a while ago). And now, two movies in the same day with "heaven" in the title. And not only that, but both were released in 1978. My mind works in mysterious ways, sometimes, my friends.

Gates of Heaven was a quirky documentary from Errol Morris about the owners and customers of a pet cemetery. Despite this completely not-promising-at-all set-up, the movie is profoundly philosophical and moving, with plenty of points to make about life and death, companionship, the relationship of pets and their owners. Strangely captivating stuff that could have been played for laughs, yet remains sincere throughout. Roger Ebert famously went nuts over this movie, at times including it in his ever-changing lists of the 10 best movies of all time. While I think Hoop Dreams has this one beat over all, Gates of Heaven is still one of the best documentaries I've seen in quite some time. A

Days of Heaven is pure Terrence Malick, and probably the finest, loveliest, simplest distillation of his trademark style (reliant on poetic narration and eye-popping, nature-oriented cinematography) out there. It's an easygoing story about pioneer/farm life and a particularly strange yet strangely beautiful love triangle. I loved the crap out of The New World and The Thin Red Line, with a few reservations, and if you did, then I have no hesitation in recommending this. Richard Gere, who often strikes me as a bit too smarmy, has rarely if ever been more effectively used than he is here; dare I say, he has a lighthearted charm here that is downright infectious.

I found the film oddly distracting, though, for a couple of silly and personal and esoteric reasons. (Hey, I told you up there that this blog could be esoteric sometimes.) It was filmed right around where I live, and throughout much of the film, I was taken out of the narrative, through no fault of the director's, by seeing things and landscapes with which I was intimately familiar. Particularly distracting were the final scenes, featuring the High Level train bridge in Lethbridge which I drive past everyday on my way to work, and Heritage Park in Calgary, which obviously negated some of the historical impact of it for me. I mean, I know it's supposed to be set in 1910s-era Texas, but gosh-darn-it, I know it's not really there because I know these places too well. (I mean, look at that still up there. Seriously. Those are the god-damned Foothills in Alberta with the god-damned Rocky Mountains off in the distance.) It ruined some of the otherwise magnificent flow of the film and, especially, the temporal and geographic reality it tried so hard to create.

But this is really an odd problem for someone to have with a film, and I fully admit my bias here. This is still a wonderful film, probably the best introduction someone could want to the particular cinematic genius of Malick. A-

24 January 2011

The 3-D debate rages on...

A particularly interesting post from Roger Ebert, a man, in my opinion, of many interesting posts.

I've enjoyed the 3-D technique from time to time, finding it particularly effective in Avatar, Coraline, and a couple other animated movies, off the top of my head. It can be done well, if incorporated into the original story and vision of the movie, but do the pros outweigh the cons? Is it really worth the extra cost to see something like Green Hornet in an extra dimension, even if that dimension often tends to blur out the other two? Especially odious are films where the technique has obviously been slapped on in haste: for example, Clash of the Titans.

Walter Murch, an incredibly esteemed film editor and sound designer, who worked on some of my favourite movies, notably Apocalypse Now, goes further, and suggests in the above-cited article that the 3-D technique is at odds with science in terms of our visual perception. We have simply not evolved as humans to percieve images in this way, with our eyes focusing at one point and converging on another. It's just weird and difficult, like, to use Murch's example, patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. It can be done, sure, but it's challenging and frustrating.

It's merely one opinion among many, but Murch is certainly an expert in this field, and would have to deeply understand how people watch movies in order to have achieved the level of success he has in his career. So, it's worth some serious consideration. Then again, people have been known to make some scientifically baffling decisions now and then, so the 3-D trend might just rage on.

20 January 2011

The best films of 2010

2010 might have signalled the start of a new decade, but as for the year in cinema, it was hardly anything fresh or revelatory. There were certainly fewer movies last year than in 2009, or even the two years before that, over which I was absolutely gaga. I know, call me crazy, but I, unlike apparently everyone else on the planet, thought 2009 was absolutely crackerjack. As for the previous year, there were plenty of good films, plenty to admire, but only a few which I would have no hesitation in calling great. This year's list only goes to ten, therefore, unlike last year's, but with ample honourable mentions. Hopefully, it will provide a ray of cinematic sunshine in a year marked, in the news, by a dismal variety of environmental and economic tragedy.

Of course, it's entirely possible that I missed out on quite a few of the year's gems. In the interests of full disclosure, here are some of the films I direly wished I could have seen before diving into this list, but, in the interests of not keeping everyone waiting until about March, had to fall by the wayside: Another Year, Blue Valentine, Carlos, Inside Job, The Illusionist, and Last Train Home. This saddens me as I'm sure some of them would have made the list had I been able to see them in a timely fashion. Sometimes, these lists can be cruel mistresses.

Close calls...

Maybe it's not such a bad year after all if movies as dazzling and enjoyable and otherwise remarkable as these next few don't even make the proper list.

Ajami (Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani), an intense and heart-wrenching exploration of religious and cultural conflict in Tel Aviv, from an intimate perspective.

Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud), the year's best, most charming exploration of the lighter side of super-villainy, with a great voice performance from Steve Carell and a lovely, textured, almost Gaelic style of animation to boot.

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold), the year's most startling coming-of-age story, with a gritty realism in direction and writing that expertly evokes its blue-collar English setting and a revelatory, assured lead performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis.

The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski), an elegant, stylish, richly characterized, almost effortlessly gripping thriller from a master of tension, who proves he's still more than got it. Of course, the stunning cast, from a deviously smarmy Pierce Brosnan to a quietly intense Ewan McGregor, doesn't hurt either.

I'm Still Here
(Casey Affleck) One of this year's crop of possibly fake documentaries. Viewed from the perspective most had of it when it was released, this portrait of the nearly surreal downfall of Joaquin Phoenix into drugs and dissolution was a dark, bizarrely captivating portrait of Hollywood hubris. Now that it has been revealed as a hoax, it's become a cunning bit of insider satire of the ridiculousness of celebrity.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright), an exuberantly entertaining movie that deftly interweaves the media of film and of graphic novels far more successfully than something like Sin City. Endlessly clever and dazzling, and wickedly well-acted from (who else?) Michael Cera, Jason Schwartzman, Anna Kendrick, Kieran Culkin, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead... although its energy peters out towards the end.

(Vincenzo Natali), the year's most unfairly overlooked bit of lurid, darkly comedic B-movie fun mixed with smart, serious, high-concept sci-fi. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley make an incredibly winning team.

True Grit
(Joel and Ethan Coen). While not the year's grittiest or most emotionally involving Western (you'll see), it is a resplendently beautiful and satisfying entertainment, with marvellous performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and, most astonishingly of all, Hailee Steinfeld, and snappy writing -- largely based on Charles Portis's novel -- that just about pops off the screen.

The list!

10. Mother (Bong Joon-Ho)
Mother can be called downright Hitchcokian in its suspense, but Bong Joon-Ho's finished product is startlingly new, defying such simplistic descriptions. A mother sets out of a mission of discovery, then maternal protection and crazed revenge, when her mentally challenged son is accused of murder. The cinematography here is gorgeous, and Bong's assured shifts in mood and tone, from the darkly funny to the seriously disturbing, prove mesmerizing. Most amazing of all is the performance of Kim Hye-Ja as the mother, a breathtaking study in maternal affection and delirious obsession. Until Mother, I hadn't seen any of Korean director Bong's previous efforts. On the strength of this dizzying and ever-surprising horror gem, I may have to remedy that.

9. Inception (Christopher Nolan)
So maybe it isn't that great. Does it really all fit together in the end? Do dreams really work that way, with architecture and structure? It may not be the most psychologically probing thriller out there, nor is it quite Christopher Nolan's masterpiece, but Inception is still far more ambitious, imaginative, and engrossing than nearly any big-budget Hollywood feature this year. Rigorously structured and invigorating, Nolan's sure directorial hand keeps us riveted from beginning to end while somehow wrangling all of his numerous Big Ideas into a form that is not only manageable but downright brilliant. As the dream-explorers, Nolan has also wrangled himself a uniformly excellent cast, from Leonardo DiCaprio as the tormented leader of the dream heist, Marion Cotillard, furiously strong-willed as the imagined figments of his wife, Ken Watanabe as the smooth-as-silk corporate backer for the project, and the radiant Ellen Page and the dashing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as DiCaprio's assistants. In terms of emotionally engaging storytelling, Inception is better than such a determinedly heady project as any right to be. In terms of pure style and brainy exhilaration, Inception is downright masterful.

8. 127 Hours (Danny Boyle)
While the eclectic Danny Boyle is hardly a slouch in delievering quality films of wildly varying genres (although Slumdog Millionaire, while initially impressive, seems less remarkable the more I think about it), 127 Hours is his most resonant effort since Trainspotting. Boyle's bursts of cinematic theatrics are well-suited to the true-life story of Aron Ralston, a hiker of boundless energy whose lifestyle gets him trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon, who then uses this tragedy as a wake-up call and, in his resourcefulness, cuts through his own arm to free himself. James Franco gives a virtuoso performance as Ralston, making us feel his reckless enthusiasm as vividly as his inner demons. Boyle makes the mostly stationary action (after all, the guy is forcibly trapped in one place for nearly the entire duration of the film) thrilling, evoking Ralston's sensory experience (his hunger, thirst, etc.) and his gradual mental deterioration (flashbacks and hallucinations come to dominate his mind), and his eventual capability for grisly, violent determination with mesmerizing style. 127 Hours shows a triumph of the human spirit in the most electrifying sense possible.

7. Animal Kingdom (David Michôd)
A searing Australian crime drama and family saga so brash, meaty, and assured it warrants comparison to Scorsese. Newcomer writer-director David Michôd works with uncommon style and urgency, while at the same time deftly showcasing the balance between family and justice, punishment and loyalty that come to dominate the central Cody family, a pack of wild thugs (none more malicious than its outwardly cheery, inwardly cut-throat matriarch) from Melbourne. Better than Ben Affleck's The Town, Animal Kingdom is evocative of its particular gritty neighbourhood as well as achieving a smart balance between violent criminal outbursts and twisted displays of family bonding. And it features sizzling performances from Ben Mendelsohn, as the most screw-loose, rage-prone member of the family; Guy Pearce, as a gruff and determined cop trying to bring justice to his beat and, perhaps, save some of the more innocent members of the Cody clan from their violent fate; Jacki Weaver, stuning as the wicked den mother; and James Frecheville as 'J,' the young, fresh-faced cub trying to balance his loyalties, exact vengeance of his own, and emerge as a strong survivor.

6. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
The shrewdest and funniest of the year's potentially "fake" documentaries, an unintended indictment of the art world, and a pointed commentary on the deceptive, malleable powers of cinema in general. Initially purporting to be Thierry Guetta's never-ending chronicle of the world of street art (or is it just graffitti?), to which the affable, perhaps a bit dim Frenchman was introduced by his cousin, the movie quickly becomes Banksy's chronicle of the rise to (improbable) fame of Guetta. His endless hours of footage prove too much for Guetta, and so Banksy, one of the most legendary of the world's street artists (creator of a Guantanamo-themed blow-up doll at Disneyland and a bent-and-smashed London-style telephone booth), takes control and turns the tables on the supposed director, becoming the story of how Guetta became "Mr. Brainwash," and even got his own well-attended exhibition in swanky digs in L.A. Exit Through the Gift Shop provides irresistible fun and energy while tantalizing us with the question of who is the real subject and who is pulling the strings. It's absurdly hilarious, with some genuinely thought-provoking points to make about art, filmmaking, commodity, integrity, and subjectivity. And thankfully, it's all organized around the tantalizing, cool, anonymous figure of famed, controversial street artist Banksy and his groupie/partner in crime/screw-loose student Guetta. Dizzying, deep entertainment from the most unexpected of sources.

5. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
It seems 2010 was the year of riveting, epic crime drama. This is a note-perfect French film about Malik, a young criminal who gets sent away to prison, only to rise through the ranks and re-define himself, painstakingly, as a new breed of crime boss. Targeted initially for his half-Arab roots by César, the Corsican leader of the prison pack, a mafia boss, Malik sneaks his way into César's inner circle and becomes his right-hand man, before his own ambitions rise above the mob boss. Jacques Audiard lets the story speak largely for itself, trading showiness for the real, shocking violence of prison life. (Suffice it to say, if you weren't already wary of accepting oral sex in prison, you certainly will be now.) Audiard takes his time and gives his characters dimensions and motivations that lend uncommon intensity to the story. Tahar Rahim is mesmerizing as Malik, and Niels Arestrup is downright throat-gripping as César, one of the great villains of the year. A Prophet is grounded, meticulous filmmaking, representing a new breed of prison drama that is all the more lively for its calm naturalism.

4. Winter's Bone (Debra Granik)
Debra Granik also uses calm naturalism to intense effect in Winter's Bone. There's no fakery to this tale of poverty and desperation: Ree is a frightfully determined teenage girl facing seemingly insurmountable problems. Her family -- a younger brother and sister and their mentally ill mother -- will lose their home if Ree doesn't track down her father, a fugitive meth dealer who has seemingly skipped town after promising the house as collateral on a bail bond. Jennifer Lawrence is the big discovery here, imbuing Ree with uncommon intelligence, heart, and determination. It's a fierce, radiant performance that haunts the memory long after the lights come up. But director and co-writer Granik's most remarkable achievement is using her realistic approach to create a magnificent sense of hard-scrabble community, using real settings and real locals to tell her uniquely Ozark story. John Hawkes is also mesmerizing as Teardrop, a scary-druggie relative who pushes Ree away only to come to her aid. Winter's Bone is an unflinching, achingly moving, strangely beautiful all-American story.

3. The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
A funny, bright, heart-warming, sexy film that's also one of the most perceptive films about family (gay or straight) to come around in a long while -- The Kids Are All Right hits all the right notes. Lisa Cholodenko's film could easily have wound up as excessively colourful or indie-clichéd, but the energy and humour she brings to the proceedings is infectious. Annette Bening is Nic, a harried doctor with a quick wit and a habit of hitting the bottle a little too hard to soften her hard edges. She's married to Jules (Julianne Moore), a flighty woman wandering between jobs (her current project is as a landscape designer). Their children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), a bright student crumbling under the weight of expectations, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a curious teenager, become fascinated with meeting their birth father. Their search leads them to Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a hip, almost improbably easygoing restaurateur.

This sunny film marches along with confidence, erasing the blunt quirkiness of its subject matter (a gay couple! with a dysfunctional, patched-together family! oh my!) and letting its characters breathe and the story unfold naturally. Cholodenko's direction is so assured here that it makes the movie's wise observations about family life and its snappy humour seem practically effortless. The screenplay, from Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, is smart and detailed, allowing the cast room to bring their characters to life. And that cast is downright sublime. Bening is marvelous as Nic, making her a woman in tune with her faults and complexities, and with a strong will and confidence that is downright inspiring -- it's a wonderful match of star to character. Moore is equally confident and sexy, with an easygoing aura and a sharp comedic timing. Ruffalo gives some of his best work to date as Paul (his scruffy charm has never fit this well), and Wasikowska, barely notable at all in Alice in Wonderland, is downright radiant here. The Kids Are All Right is more than alright -- it's damn near perfect.

2. The Social Network (David Fincher)
David Fincher's latest (his most accomplished work to date) is a timely drama about the genesis of Facebook full of such technical, brainy dazzle that it practically rewires your senses. It's therefore a shrewd match of form to content: after all, Facebook has rewritten not only the rules of the internet, but changed the very way we interact with each other. From first frame to last, The Social Network is a film simply brimming with zesty talk and twisty human interaction -- it's a complex thriller that's also a bold statement on the way we live now. And it's such a layered drama that it may take more than one viewing to truly absorb its nuances. Indeed, it's easy to take Fincher's casual genius for granted here, as I did, to some extent, before watching it again. But genius it is, and a particularly spiky and durable form of genius, at that.

Jesse Eisenberg gives an electrifying performance, easily one of the best of the year, as Mark Zuckerberg, the anti-social jerk-genius who founded Facebook -- or did he have some (uncredited) help? Certainly that is what his Harvard colleagues Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (identical twins both played with a hilarious air of smarmy entitlement by Armie Hammer) claim. Zuckerberg's best friend Eduardo Saverin (a wonderfully sincere Andrew Garfield) is also suing him for bilking him out of his share of stock in Facebook. A final key player is Sean Parker (a -- and I never thought I'd type these words -- gripping and entertaining Justin Timberlake), the founder of Napster who sallies his way into Zuckerberg's inner circle and wrests some control of the project for himself. The dramatic question is whether or not Zuckerberg screwed over his friends, ironically, in producing a website designed for connecting with friends, and, of course, what led him to this idea.

Fincher stages bravura scenes here that add up to more than the sum of the parts -- at times, it might almost be a Citizen Kane for the digital age, albeit with a disgruntled ex-girlfriend instead of a sled. The performances are endlessly surprising and layered, delivering Aaron Sorkin's rich, whip-smart dialogue at breathless pace. The score, from Trent Reznor (of all people) and Atticus Ross, subtly but noticably underlines the proceedings with similar briskness. The technical elements work together brilliantly, but more importantly, they highlight and deepen the story. The Social Network is grand entertainment, a magnificent triumph of form and content that may come to define the new generation and set a tone for a new brand of filmmaking.

1. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
If The Social Network is the timeliest film of the year, Toy Story 3 may just prove the most timeless. If I were voting with my brian, and maybe my gut, I might have easily put The Social Network at the very tip-top of this list. But I went with my heart, and my heart loved Toy Story 3 without bounds. And even amidst massive amounts of anticipation -- Toy Story and Toy Story 2 are such enduring classics that their legacy is all but untouchable -- and even more massive amounts of doubt -- Pixar may be able to pull off a sequel, but a three-quel? And not only that, but a three-quel to some of the most perfect (read: self-contained and self-sufficient) films of this generation? -- Toy Story 3 stands tall. No movie this year drew more knowing laughs, rollicking excitement, and meaningul tears than this wonderful finale of the Pixar saga about the secret lives of a child's playthings. No movie this year featured characters as identifiable in situations so intense, heart-warming, and imaginative.

Andy has grown up and is about to leave for college. The toys, who have long been relegated to an old treasure chest, will wind up either with Andy, in the attic, in the trash, or at a day care centre. After some close calls, the gang wind up at Sunnyside, seemingly a dream come true, as they will be played with day in and day out by dozens of eager new children. But there's a dark side: Lotso (a delightful Ned Beatty), a purple teddy bear with a charming Southern drawl masking his fascist tendencies, the leader of the Sunnyside toys (which also include Ken [a hilarious Michael Keaton], who has a fateful run-in with Barbie), keeps Woody and the gang in the room with the younger, more violent and destructive children, and keeps the place locked down at night. Toy Story 3 then becomes a daring escape adventure as thrilling as anything in The Great Escape, as the gang must struggle to break free of the prison-like day care and return to Andy, even if it means life in the attic.

Toy Story 3 is delightful and antically original in the early at-home scenes and the Sunnyside scenes, with old favourites like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen gamely providing the voices for Woody and Buzz once again. As it reaches its dazzling conclusion, however, it becomes almost elegiac, as the toys must face their own obsolescence. A final scene *obvious spoiler alerts ahead* featuring Andy giving the toys over to a much younger neighbourhood girl is a joyous and wonderfully touching moment of passing the torch -- of saying goodbye to the glory of old and greeting a new era full of promise. And it works like clockwork both from Andy's perspective and from the toys. Toy Story 3 is funny, thoughtful, adventurous, exciting, imaginative, visually eye-popping, and vividly touching entertainment -- so layered with real-life meaning (rife with wisdom about growing old, reaching out, living up to expectations, staying loyal and saying goodbye) that it may captivate adults even more than children. In cinematic terms, it really does go to infinity and beyond.

The worst films of the year

And now for something completely different: These are the worst films I had the displeasure of seeing from last year. Now, once again, I'm the type of guy who goes out of his way to avoid the true stinkers, and I've got a rather good nose for them at this point, so there are probably worse movies out there than these (well, not worse than #1, which was downright abominable... but we'll get to that). And I'm only doing four this year, because, well, I don't feel like wasting space on more than four of these lemons. With that out of the way, these are the films from last year that most made me want to throw up my hands in frustration...

4. Legion (Scott Charles Stewart)
A dead-in-the-water January release that is an insult to the month of January with its sheer dreary laziness. The apocalypse has rarely felt less urgent than it did here, and despite an enjoyably blasphemous premise of angels descending to earth to wipe out humanity, which has apparently fallen out of God's favour, the movie never really takes off and ends in the most muddled way possible. Paul Bettany and Dennis Quaid somehow got suckered into appearing in this, and while Quaid is quite pointless, Bettany isn't too terrible, so that's... something?

3. Robin Hood (Ridley Scott)
Well, it's safe to say that Errol Flynn, the dashing star of The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of the most lovely movies of all time, has never been so thoroughly crapped upon as he has by this movie. It's a long way from the joyous and charming merry-making of the '30s Technicolor era, folks. Scott's historical epic aimed to be a truer portrait of the legendary outlaw Robin Hood, but simply wound up being a duller, greyer affair (literally, that's pretty much the only colour they seemed to have used in shooting the movie) that saps the figure of both his mythos and his appeal. Russell Crowe slogs his way grumpily through this mess like a fly trapped in molasses.

2. Cop Out (Kevin Smith)
Kevin Smith, a filmmaker widely renowned as a better writer than a director, directs someone else's hackneyed script (Robb and Mark Cullen). The result, as expected, is a visually bland and tiresomely written affair that manages to deflate even the resiliently energetic, bug-eyed comedian Tracy Morgan and leaves Bruce Willis floating in the wind. Also, it's oddly long for such a small concept, adding excess to injury.

1. The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan)
It's finally happened. The Last Airbender is the absolute nadir of M. Night Shyamalan's decline in status as a director, a master class in wrong-headed, incompetent filmmaking. All sense of pacing, intelligent, unmechanical writing, consistency, exciting action, visual splendour, and even racial sensitivity (some of the characters from the original Nickelodeon series, upon which this bombastic misfire is based, have somehow arbitrarily changed races) falls by the wayside in Shyamalan's quest to find the perfect storm of cinematic awfulness. On its own, its a towering achievement in incompetence. After viewing some of the quite solidly constucted series upon which it is based, this abomination is downright insulting and mystifying.

17 January 2011

Blasts from the past!

For a slice of perspective in anticipation of my forthcoming best films of 2010 list (don't worry, it'll be here soon, my pets), I decided to drudge up some of my old "best-of-the-year" lists from my old haunts at Rotten Tomatoes, posted now here for your enjoyment. Some caveats: As the lists get older, they probably reflect my current feelings less and less (meaning it's possible that I could thoroughly disagree with my 2003 list if I were to watch them all again). A recent viewing of Caché has also shifted around my 2005 list from what it originally was. But if you're in the mood for some intriguing curios from my movie-going past and enjoy a good list, press on...

Best films of 2008

10. The Class (Laurent Cantet)
9. Still Life (Zhang Ke Jia)
8. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
7. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
6. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman)
5. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
4. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
3. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)
2. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
1. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)

Best films of 2007

10. No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson)
9. Zodiac (David Fincher)
8. 4 Weeks, 3 Months & 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
6. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes)
5. Juno (Jason Reitman)
4. Once (John Carney)
3. Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi)
2. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Best films of 2006

10. Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt)
9. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
8. United 93 (Paul Greengrass)
7. Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck)
6. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell)
5. The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
4. Borat (Larry Charles)
3. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón)
2. Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro)
1. Letters From Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)

Best films of 2005

10. Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Koreeda)
9. 2046 (Kar Wai Wong)
8. Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July)
7. Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch)
6. Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro)
5. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)
4. King Kong (Peter Jackson)
3. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)
2. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana)
1. Caché (Michael Haneke)

Best films of 2004

10. Osama (Siddiq Barmak)
9. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembene)
8. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater)
7. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese)
6. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)
5. Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston)
4. The Incredibles (Brad Bird)
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
2. Kill Bill - Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino)
1. Sideways (Alexander Payne)

Best films of 2003

10. All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green)
9. The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki)
8. The Fog of War (Errol Morris)
7. Kill Bill - Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
6. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir)
5. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich)
4. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)
3. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
2. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)

I hope that will sate your list hunger until I post last year's list, hopefully by the end of this week, almost definitely by the end of the month.

Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

is a quietly unsettling, almost unbearably intense "thriller," made with a subtlety so finely controlled that it bears almost no similarity to most thrillers the average, or even the above-average, audience would usually be exposed to. Michael Haneke, known now, after his 2008 Funny Games and 2009's The White Ribbon, as a director of ruthless -- some might say downright chilly -- efficiency, perfectly matches his directorial style to the subject matter here. Having seen Caché for the second time recently, it is more apparent than ever that this is his masterpiece, and a masterful piece of work in any sense, especially since my reception to The White Ribbon was lukewarm, admiring its craftsmanship but never really being drawn into the story, and my reception to Funny Games was as one downright revolted and insulted. But here the subject is honesty, trust, deception, internalized emotions, uncertainty, and as such, Haneke's cold and measured approach is tonic.

Daniel Auteuil brilliantly plays Georges, the host of a literary talk show. His wife, Anne, played with magnificent poise and quietly simmering indignation and fear by Juliette Binoche, and son, Pierrot, live in an affluent suburban home. The opening shot is a prolonged shot of this house from the point of view of a nearby alleyway, so still and uneventful that it might as well be a photograph, but eventually it is revealed to be a videotape, which the family has received in the mail anonymously, with a disturbing childish drawing accompanying it. The gradual appearance of more such tapes and drawings shakes the family from its outwardly calm foundation. Who is sending these tapes? How can they be doing this (especially since several of the tapes show Auteuil walking right by the camera without noticing anything amiss)?

A dream awakens Georges to a hunch of who could be responsible, while also unearthing a shameful secret from his childhood past. It involves a little Algerian boy whom his family had adopted long ago after the deaths of his parents; Georges spread lies about him that led to his being taken away to... some kind of home, or perhaps a hospital, and he hasn't seen the boy, now a man, since. He acts on this hunch without letting his wife in on his knowledge, for fear it might reveal a dark side in her husband. After receiving a tape showing a tracking shot of a street, leading into an apartment, down a hallway, and finally ending in front of a door to one of the flats, Georges decides to find out who lives there. His hunch is confirmed as to the occupant, but does little to reveal the sender of the tapes. Majid, the Algerian boy from the hazy recesses of Georges's past, lives there, but says he has no idea how the tapes were made or who is behind their recording. Despite Georges later receiving a tape, clearly shot in Majid's apartment, showing his conversation with Majid, we believe that Majid was not behind them, in part because of how he reacts on the tape and thanks in large part to the convincing, utterly sincere acting of Maurice Bénichou.

Majid also has a son, we learn, and surely he must be the one behind the tapes. Shortly after Georges and Majid's first encounter, Pierrot goes missing. Surely, the father and son must be behind his unexplained absence. But no, they deny even knowing of Pierrot or the tapes, and the former matter resolves itself without implicating them.

The film plants subtle clues as to who could really be the sender of the tapes. Pay particularly close attention to a scene exactly 20 minutes in, *potential spoiler alerts!* showing a dark hallway leading up to a child crouching by a window, coughing up blood. The view from this window seems ever so slightly similar to the view we see in the first tape Georges and Anne receive. And the final shot, a densely populated tableau outside of Pierrot's school, shows two characters meeting who shouldn't even be aware of each other. And yet, they go their separate ways, with no menacing resolution to speak of. Haneke controls his shots and keeps them as objective as possible, keeping us as uncertain, even paranoid, most of the time as Georges and Anne become.

But the who-done-it question at the heart of Caché, as tantalizing as it is and as much as it often drives our interest in the film, is almost beside the point as the movie winds towards its conclusion. It's less about who sends the tapes than what they reveal in Georges, his family, his past. His evasion and untrustworthy nature, as well as his refusal to take responsibility and instead force his views on everyone else, blaming and threatening, comes ever more to the forefront even as the list of possible suspects dwindles away and thwarts all rational conclusions. Georges's sly deception is echoed in Haneke's directorial choices, expertly engineered to deceive us and make us question the events in the film and even in our own lives. The tapes that the family receives and their varied reactions to them become a metaphor for cinema, its threatening but also provoking power, and an audience's reaction to a film.

Caché has been directed with laser precision, with such control over each facet as to render each scene completely noteworthy and resonant on multiple levels. Along with the dedicated performances of his cast, Haneke has masterfully created a tight thriller that both subverts our usual ideas of what a thriller should be while elevating the form into the realm of social and meta-cinematic commentary, with an urgency that speaks directly and forcefully to its audience, indicting us all in the often tragic events of the film (but without ever becoming muddled in this attempt or insulting our intelligence, as did Funny Games). Especially after this second viewing, Caché is a striking, clear-eyed masterpiece, quite possibly now my favourite film from 2005. (The Best of Youth and A History of Violence can now duke it out for #2.) A

13 January 2011

Don DeLillo, William Shakespeare, and Kazuo Ishiguro walk into a bar...

Yes, kiddies, it's time for another thrilling episode of my literary adventures. Our top story: I have actually finished one of the novels mentioned in the previous entry from, oh, some time last summer. I'll give you a hint: it's neither of the ones measuring over 900 pages. Sorry, James Joyce, I'm sure one day I'll be able to slog through Ulysses, and I have a faint desire way in the back of my mind to do so. (Somewhere just beyond the cobwebs and memories of Smash Mouth lyrics.) And Ayn Rand, I have yet to hear much of a convincing argument from anyone why I should peruse all 1200+ small print pages of your Atlas Shrugged.

I did finally finish Don DeLillo's Falling Man. Needless to say, it was less overtly funny than the other novel I've read of his -- White Noise -- and with less of a slippery post-modern sheen to it. Yet it contains much of the brilliant experimentation, slipping between one episode and one consciousness to another character in a completely different place and mindset. The language DeLillo uses evokes the disorientation and the ineffable, ungraspable core of life overturned; appropriate, considering his subject is something as lofty, broad, terrifying, and inexplicable as 9/11. The characters -- a professional poker player, a copy editor -- often can't explain their choices and emotions over the course of a story. They fall into routines, like exercise or religion, without quite knowing why, and react to seemingly mundane occurences with startling bursts of emotion. DeLillo writes with sparse, well-chosen words that seem simple and to the point but evoke a larger reality that his characters can never quite grasp even when they're smack dab in the middle of it. It's quite a fascinating, brisk read that takes a surprisingly successful, delicate approach to something truly indescribable.

I've also been boning up on my Shakespeare, as is only appropriate for a bloke planning on pursuing grad studies in English. I've recently read Twelfth Night and Othello, and am currently making a dent in The Tempest. While I still stand by my view of As You Like It as the premier comedy in the Shakespeare canon, Twelfth Night came rather close with its similar switcheroos and its ironically quick-witted fool. Othello strikes me as one of the better tragedies, truly starting off with a bang compared to other of the bard's plays, although it can lay the whole jealousy theme on a bit thick at times. Better than King Lear perhaps (which also has a smart fool but, I would argue, a rather misplaced one); certainly a ways off from the magnificence of Hamlet. Food for thought: the terms "green-eyed monster" and "the beast with two backs" famously appear in Othello, perhaps for the first time.

Finally, now that I'm all wrapped up with Falling Man, I've decided to delve into Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, purchased, along with Albert Camus's The Myth of Sissyphus, with a Chapters gift card received from a rather thoughtful Secret Santa (it can happen!). I've heard nothing but amazing things about Ishiguro from the literary-minded folk I sometimes frequent, so I have high hopes for Never Let Me Go. I also want to see the movie with the ravishing Carey Mulligan, but that's another story.

Happy reading!