Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pre-Oscar Grouching

It's all well and good that I have my best-of list up for all to see, but let's talk about something totally unrelated to the best movies of the year: Oscar night!

Tonight is a rarity: films that actually deserve the award! Juno aside, and Atonement unseen, you've got a spate of movies that are right where they ought to be. There may be blood, but there won't be Gladiator or Crash. Thank God for that.

I don't see much in the way of surprises. The acting categories are pretty easy to predict, and it's shaping up to be a No Country For Old Men coronation. You've got a more deserving (There Will Be Blood), and a potential spoiler that could ruin everything like Crash did (Juno), but it sure looks like the Coen Brothers will finally be recognized by the powers that be.

I do, however, have some notes for the Academy:

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly's representation in four measly categories is atrocious. Should've been a BP nominee, and should've thrown a bone to Mathieu Amalric in the Best Actor category. Its absence from Best Foreign Language Film is just stupid, and we have the Academy's rules for foreign language film eligibility to thank. France chose Persepolis as their foreign language entry, and justifiably so when one considers that Julian Schnabel isn't actually French, even though his film was. You can't really blame them. But the end result is that none of the five nominated films, or even Persepolis for that matter, will deserve the award more than Diving Bell. I don't mind forcing diversity on the list of nominees, but I do mind when the rules are set up in such a way that the rightful winner is nowhere to be seen.

There's an equally horrendous omission in the music category: Jonny Greenwood's score for There Will Be Blood. Like Diving Bell, he was never an actual candidate, ineligible for having used large portions of a previously-written score. But that's a case where the disqualification exposes a problem with the rules, not the entrant. No film this year made better use of its score than Blood. (Except, perhaps, the Nick Cave- and Warren Ellis-scored The Assassination Of Jesse James By All The People Who Were Forced To Type Such A Long Goddamn Title... which was also not nominated. Boo this academy!) Disqualified or not, the bottom line (as above) is that the category's best performance isn't represented. And that's a shame.

Which brings me to my ballot for the categories in which I have an opinion. I've listed the rightful winners in red, and the likely winners in blue where necessary. I've also added the unnominated rightful winner for the two categories discussed above.

Atonement: Dario Marianelli
The Kite Runner: Alberto Iglesias
Michael Clayton: James Newton Howard
Ratatouille: Michael Giacchino
3:10 to Yuma: Marco Beltrami
There Will Be Blood: Jonny Greenwood
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis

Giacchino deserved it for The Incredibles, and this would be a well-earned make-up call. Beltrami is deserving as well. But their work doesn't approach what Greenwood and Cave & Ellis accomplished, disqualification be damned.

Falling Slowly” from Once: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
“Happy Working Song” from Enchanted: Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz
“Raise It Up” from August Rush: Jamal Joseph, Charles Mack, Tevin Thomas
“So Close” from Enchanted: Menken, Schwartz
“That's How You Know” from Enchanted: Menken, Schwartz

Yes, the Oscars are ridiculous, politically-motivated popularity contests, and not barometers of quality. But I don't see how anything else can win. The goofy Disney songs will cancel out, and I've never even HEARD of August Rush. But “Falling Slowly” weaves its way into the storytelling in exactly the same manner as “It's Hard Out Here” did in Hustle & Flow. If “Falling Slowly” loses, I give up.

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie in Away from Her
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney in The Savages
Ellen Page in Juno

Having only seen Juno, I'm unqualified to express an opinion in red. But The Savages unseen, I'd give it to Linney. She's a poor-but-not-that-poor man's Meryl Streep who has worked at a high level for too long to have gone unrecognized. So if I'm picking blindly, why the hell not? Besides, Christie's gonna run away with this one, so what does it matter?

Cate Blanchett in I'm Not There
Ruby Dee in American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton

Swinton is definitely deserving, and Blanchett also is from what I hear, but I go with Ryan, who elevated Gone Baby Gone from a Law & Order-level potboiler to a devastating portrait of right not being synonymous with righteous.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to note that Dee was nominated for two minutes of screen time and a slap to Denzel Washington's face. This is precisely why we need more juicy roles for women.

George Clooney in Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises

No question, no doubt, no discussion. He drinks their milkshakes. Sup sup sup sup sup.

Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson's War
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton

Ditto. Affleck gave a hell of a performance, and Wilkinson would be a fair selection as well, but nobody can outdo Anton Chigurh. Just not possible.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: Roger Deakins
Atonement: Seamus McGarvey
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Janusz Kaminski
No Country for Old Men: Roger Deakins
There Will Be Blood: Robert Elswit

I can't speak for Atonement, but I have a hard time believing a single film on this list deserves to lose. Jesse James is the best-looking movie of the five (by a hair) but given that Diving Bell is the film that hinged on its cinematography more than any other, you have to give it to Kaminski.

Beaufort (Israel)
The Counterfeiters (Austria)
Katyn (Poland)
Mongol (Kazakhstan)
12 (Russia)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France)

An absolute joke. There's no point in saying anything; Diving Bell makes it so easy to read the other books by their covers. This ensures that the deserving winner will lose this category two years in a row. (I liked The Lives Of Others a hell of a lot, but it's not Pan's Labyrinth. Not even close.)

Atonement: Christopher Hampton
Away from Her: Sarah Polley
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Ronald Harwood
No Country for Old Men: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood: Paul Thomas Anderson

The screenplay categories can often be consolation gifts given to the wide nominees that don't end up winning anything... unless the Best Picture is nominated. So I'm guessing No Country. But as is true almost everywhere else, Diving Bell deserves it.

Juno: Diablo Cody
Lars and the Real Girl: Nancy Oliver
Michael Clayton: Tony Gilroy
Ratatouille: Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco
The Savages: Tamara Jenkins

Lars, Ratatouille and Michael Clayton are all written masterfully, and I've been a fan of Jenkins since the criminally unseen Slums of Beverly Hills. A win for any of them would be good news. A win for Cody would be an insult to what good screenwriting is about. I just hope and pray that the stripper-turned-screenwriter doesn't use her backstory and her charisma to dupe the Academy into an Oscar. (Although a win would give that pompous prick Robert McKee a heart attack. So I suppose it's not a total loss.)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Julian Schnabel
Juno: Jason Reitman
Michael Clayton: Tony Gilroy
No Country for Old Men: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
There Will Be Blood: Paul Thomas Anderson

This is where my sympathies for the front-runners start to cloud things up. I'm toeing the line of giving Diving Bell all the awards that I can out of protest. But neither the Coens nor Anderson would deserve to win for Picture and then lose for director.

Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

I'm a Blood man. I'd be pleased if it won. But not that pleased. This is the Coens' best chance yet, and Anderson will have plenty of other chances to win an Oscar before he croaks.

So now that I'm on the record, I'm off to do something important. (Read: anything besides worrying about the damn Oscars, preferably located outdoors.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My New Favorite Web Site

Instant Rim Shot.

Long have I desired a little portable audio box that would allow me to pepper real-life conversations with morning-show sound effects... rim shots, boioioioings, Curly-esque wwww-whuwhuwhuwhuwhus, that kind of thing. This isn't a bad consolation prize. It makes me wish I worked in an office, so I could drop this on an unsuspecting coworker.

(hat tip)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Best Movies Of 2007

Just in at the pre-Oscar buzzer! I also have a shorter Oscar cheat sheet in the works for the end of the week, but I think it's high time I speak up on this.

So yeah, the year's been over for a couple months. The wrinkle of aiming quality films at January/February runs (though released in single theaters on December 31st, only in NY and LA, to qualify for Oscar) means that it isn't even possible for me to make a list until it's "too late." I guess internet piracy hasn't yet done for film criticism what it's done for music criticism. (Although to be fair, music criticism has been Amateur Night for a long, long time.)

Anyway, what also happened is the absolute bumper crop of excellent movies. The list of capital-F Films from 2007 would look far more impressive than last year's list. There will be no repeat of last year's Martin Scorcese Oscar make-up call, awarded to the pulpy, capital-M Movie The Departed. I've spent the last month pounding the local theaters, and I still think I missed an awful lot. The upper echelon was just too good.

As were all the other echelons, for that matter. From Gone Baby Gone to Superbad to Michael Clayton to Shoot 'Em Up, a lot of movies that could have been dismissed for one reason or another turned out to be not just successful but triumphantly so. Even crap like 300, Transformers (begrudgingly), and Live Free Or Die Hard were better than they had to be. Summer blockbusters (namely each of the "threequels" besides Bourne) were the only bunch that got its ass kicked in the quality department.

Apart from quality, the other common thread I've noticed is controversial endings. Walk through the top ten (the top twenty, really) and you'll find a lot of movies with difficult, puzzling, anticlimactic, and above all else hotly-contested endings. On the flip side, walk through the sections of so-so movies and you'll find a lot of so-so endings. You're more likely to stick by a memorable head-scratcher (the #1 entry on the list being Exhibit A) than a tepid ending you've seen before, no matter how well it was executed. It's damn near impossible to come up with a great, unique ending; it's yet another testament to the filmmakers in question that so many of them did so.

Since I can't convey the kick-ass-ness of my list without discussing a few surprises, consider yourself mild-spoiler-warned. I will also mark any paragraph with HIDEOUSLY-COLORED TEXT if anything truly revelatory is coming along, and show you some MORE SOOTHING when I'm done.


Rescue Dawn
American Gangster
Charlie Wilson's War
The Darjeeling Limited
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Southland Tales (I didn't say how the list would be affected)


The Bourne Ultimatum
Harry Potter And The Whatever It Was This Time
Hot Rod
The Lookout
Ocean's Thirteen
The Simpsons Movie


Balls of Fury

No matter how stupid a movie is, it must take its own structure seriously, and handle itself consistently in that regard from start to finish. Not negotiable. Dodgeball had a coherent story to tell. Nihilistic spoofs like Airplane and Blazing Saddles respect their own structures.

Not so with Balls of Fury, which has an obvious surface-level contempt for its own storytelling... a contempt that I share. This stupid, insipid mess wastes only two or three decent laughs on an absolutely embarrassing finished product. A funny movie can forgive errors in craftsmanship, which in this case number in the thousands after the twenty-five minute mark. But with so many jokes falling flat, there's no saving this turkey.

Why am I so livid about a movie that clearly isn't worth the time I've spent on it? BECAUSE IT COULD HAVE WORKED! They achieved a very difficult thing: they proved that you can assemble a decent movie premise about ping-pong. I watched the trailer and laughed my ass off! But they screwed it all up, worse than anyone could have imagined.

Hey, at least George Lopez got a paycheck.


Knocked Up

For reasons mentioned ad nauseum elsewhere. At least my opinion appears to be how the film will be remembered: funny, with reservations. There was talk of a screenplay Oscar nomination... thank GOD they didn't do that. Oscar has been tainted enough in recent years. It's a hilarious movie, but let's stop sucking each others' dicks for a minute and ask ourselves WHAT THE FUCK THOSE TWO PEOPLE ARE DOING IN THE SAME PICTURE!!!!!

Day Watch

The follow-up to 2005's sublime Night Watch is decent, but a major disappointment. The first was indulgent and kinetic; this is just indulgent. It throws all sorts of gimmicks at us that violate the guidelines and spirit of its predecessor in its attempt to outdo said predecessor. Except it doesn't outdo Night Watch's genius as much as undo it.

3:10 To Yuma

I'm not as vitriolic in my hatred of the ending as some. Westerns are, first and foremost, morality plays. The ridiculous-ass climax of this otherwise excellent movie fits in nicely with that. Within the context of the genre, I'm OK with the climax.

My objection is to everything that transpires leading up to said climax. The adapters wrote themselves into a corner, and their escape from the hole just doesn't ring true. You can't have a conclusion like that without telegraphing it, in no uncertain terms. There's a little half-assed foreshadowing, but not enough to keep me from going "whaaaaaaaaAAAT?"

The filmmakers also switched back and forth from "Ben Wade is evil and principled" to "Ben Wade is entirely evil and selfish" pretty randomly, basically making him one or the other when it suited their expositional needs. You really don't know what the hell is motivating Wade to not just run off at every point. Maybe that's the fault of Russell Crowe, maybe it's James Mangold. I don't know. But I know it's an inconsistent portrait, one way or another, even if it's gripping as hell.

It's a real shame that the third act was so casual, because the conception was otherwise excellent. The acting, photography and set design were all top-notch. Yuma's world is harder, gritter, more dark and hateful than we're used to seeing in westerns, even in the post-Unforgiven universe. And the extent to which the climax comes out of nowhere is really frustrating.

(Note: here's where the year's depth of quality really becomes evident. The next ten movies are an absolute murderer's row of must-see movies... but CLEARLY are not up to snuff. Which is amazing, because I'd have no problems voting for any of them on any previous year's list. Shit, my #10 last year was The Devil Wears Prada... good movie, but I'll take any of these over that.)


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This is an awfully well-made movie, as good as they come in a lot of respects. But also a deeply flawed one. If the title alone makes you impatient, just you wait.

Good news first. The acting is superb. The music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is as good as it gets, up there with Jonny Greenwood's work on There Will Be Blood as the best of the year. The Oscar-nominated photography by frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins is outstanding, and by far the best thing about this film. The pacing and the minor-key mood suit the story nicely.

It reminds me (and rightly so, apparently) of Terence Malick's The New World in that it demystifies what we expect to see from a story in its period. When I think of colonial times, I don't first imagine the unbelievably lush wilderness of The New World... I think of Plimoth Plantation, red-coats, Benjamin Franklin, Thanksgiving, that sort of thing. And yet the lush Virginia swamps are probably more true to life. Likewise, watching Assassination, you get the feeling that they've created a more faithful vision of the 1880s than most Westerns would have. Andrew Dominik was explicitly going for Malick while making this film, and it would seem that he achieved it.

Except for one thing: the lack of purpose behind its languorous, Malickian pace. There's no reason for dragging things out to this length besides to assert that you can. It's epic for the sake of being epic. It's a well-meaning attempt at the kind of fanciful poetry that Malick can draw from so little. But it falls short.

More importantly, the tale hinges on things that the audience can't really accept. One of the guiding principles of the story is that Jesse James, legend, is absolutely as godlike and special as he's made out to be... and Bob Ford is absolutely not. Ford, in fact, is shown to fail at each of his attempts at ingratiation. And yet there he is, tagging along all the way through to the end. Given that Jesse James is severely untrusting and paranoid, that he has no qualms about disposing of those he sees as traitorous, and that there's nothing (whatsoever) likable about Bob Ford, what exactly does Jesse James see in him? We never find out.

I guess Dominik expects us to just take it as fact. Sure, the story as it unfolds is kinda-sorta-basically true is irrelevant. And life isn't always logical, and this is kinda-sorta what really happened. Sure. But that doesn't matter when it isn't demonstrated. True or not, it must be shown. The film's title alone is not reason enough to accept its contents.

The bottom line: the two most critically important moments in a story are the provocation, which sets the story's action in motion, and the climax, which halts it. Here, the provocation (Jesse's acceptance of Bob) and the climax (the film's title) are the two most unconvincing moments in the entire movie. That, my friends, is a problem.

Malick can certainly be proud that Dominik is following his lead. But I'd like to see what Dominik does when his aesthetic doesn't dilute his message.

Runners Up


Fun for the whole family.* I eagerly await the arrivals of Machete, Don't, and of course Thanksgiving, the film that could either redeem Eli Roth as a human being or seal his fate. Especially if he fleshes out (so to speak) the trampoline scene.

* if your whole family is 18-to-35-year-old males

The Host

Allegorical and ultimately poignant monster movie from Korea. The take-home message of constant vigilance is hard to miss.

Hot Fuzz

As someone whose entire life was affected, for the better, by spoofs like Blazing Saddles, Airplane!, Hot Shots!, and The Naked Gun, it's infuriating that uncreative, lazy, stupid, and above all else unfunny hogshit like Epic Movie is allowed to exist. It is the worst kind of hackery.

Movie spoofs, like any satirical art, are meant to work not just as parodies but also as the thing that they parodize. And comedy is one of the many things that should not be attempted if you have no intention of making it work.

So it's nice to know that the Pegg/Frost/Winter team behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are out there, fighting the good fight and actually knowing what they're doing. Fuzz does what it's supposed to do: it sends up action movies (with major insight), it works as an action movie, and it's flat-out hilarious.

Eastern Promises

Intelligent, lingering thriller about the Russian mafia. I personally find David Cronenberg's unnaturally slow delivery of dialogue to be a distraction. However, the slow, get-on-with-it pacing of this story builds all kinds of suspense. That, and Viggo Mortensen kicks all kinds of fucking ass.


There are so many things I like, and so many more that I really despise.

Much has been said about the script and the dialogue, but Diablo Cody's cleverness doesn't always suit the material. (I sound like all my old English teachers.) The great stuff is great, but even in a fantasy universe like this, lines like "silencio, old man" that might have seemed clever in print just slam into the ground and die. The first ten minutes is chock full of lines just like that... spoken in an attempt to impress a style upon us, but it doesn't quite fit. All it really does is take us off the rails. Given that the first scene of the movie is so amazingly tender and sweet, why are we then subjected to that barrage of "honest to blog" crapola? It undermines so many great things.

That said, Juno finds its legs once the story gets rolling, and once we have something other than Witty Banter to hold onto. At that point, it takes off into space. We start seeing things other than bravado from Juno. Her vocabulary becomes a defense mechanism more than a lovable trait. As many things as are wrong with it, they managed to capture something really magical and adorable that forgives it.

(Not the music though. Juno herself may be a little too cute and clever, but we eventually warm to her once we see that she's way more full of shit than she sounds. Not so much with the written-on-a-bar-napkin music. Its preciousness reflects and multiplies the preciousness of the movie... and that's a bad thing.)

I also wanted to mention Jennifer Garner here, since by the end she's the one holding the movie together. As the grown-up killjoy, she has the toughest job in the movie, and she manages to be both hardened (for a reason) and ultimately sympathetic. Anyone who can make a Vitamin Water-drinking yuppie bitch likable has done a hell of a job. Outstanding.

The Lives Of Others

Far from the depressing, in-your-face moralism that you'd suspect, this is a taut character study of a cog in the East German bureaucratic machine who begins to let the subjects of his surveillance campaign get the better of him. Last year's foreign language Oscar winner, and deservedly so.


This very, very good movie irritated me in a lot of ways once (ha) it was over, primarily because the story structure is so haphazard. Not the film itself; obviously it is a guerrilla film, and will therefore have rough edges. In keeping with my theme, I am bothered tremendously by the ending.

An ending has to reinforce everything that preceded it, either by confirming what we suspected or inverting those suspicions and revealing the true nature of the story. Once's climax does neither. It plays against the grain with our suspicions and our understanding of the characters, and sends a message neither consistent with the themes of the film nor consistent with our knowledge of the characters and their respective love lives. The last note is cute, but no matter how cute it is, you still have to set it up. It felt too much like a left turn, and not enough like the "awwwww" that a movie like this needs in order to be a home run.

I certainly don't begrudge anyone who feels differently. Flawed or not, it's a terribly romantic and stirring movie. You'd have to be a real curmudgeon to be unmoved by the heartfelt and believable performances of both Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. And for an el-cheapo hand-held guerilla film, it's fantastic. But in the final analysis, it just doesn't feel right. It feels half-baked and thrown together instead of conceived. It's the little movie that almost did.



What a great, great movie. Funny, lovable, creative, and exciting, but never perilous or black. While every other fantasy movie is taking pages from The Lord of the Rings, this one rips off fantasy movies from the 80's: Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, Ladyhawke, that sort of thing.


The Kingdom

I love when a genre movie aims higher than it needs to, and succeeds. The set pieces, as fresh and original as you can get, are exactly as terrifying as you would expect them to be in real life. But it isn't just a typical political actioner. It actually has something more insightful and resonant to say than "America: FUCK YEAHHHHH!"

On the surface, it's a "catch the Arabs, blow stuff up, try not to be too racist" thriller. There have been plenty of those, each demonstrating that peppering a basic "we're the good guys" military operation with some "yeah, but..." thoughts doesn't really work unless the action itself fits into all the philosophizing.

But just when you think The Kingdom is going to fit that description to a tee, right at the very end, the closing line drops, flipping the film's entire morality structure inside out. The exhilaration of success comes with a sobering take-home message. It may lack the reassuring humanism of Three Kings, but it hits a lot harder.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...


Shoot 'Em Up

Oh boy. Bugs Bunny as hard-boiled action hero... and as you can see, he's even got the carrot. Admittedly, you have to be in the right mood for a movie like this. It's too surreal and over-the-top to be believable; the silliness takes away any shot at an emotional punch; its underlying plot is rendered pointless at every possible moment. But I don't care whether it's a Complete Moving Picture Experience. Every time you think they won't top what you just saw, they do. It's exactly what overtly over-the-top movies have to be: ingenious.


10. Zodiac

Don't expect a cop movie. When you realize how David Fincher decided to attack this story, the police procedural about an unsolved crime, it will all make perfect sense. Much like No Country For Old Men, this is a film about futile obsession, about knowing when to fold, first, second and third. There's this Zodiac killer guy or something too, but he's beside the point.

9. Lars and the Real Girl

What a pleasant surprise. You think "lonely guy with no social skills buys a sex doll," and you'd think it'd be a dumb gross-out comedy, or at the very least unseemly. But it plays out as a big, wholesome joke on those of us with our minds in the gutter. How unexpected it was when the lights come up and you realize how utterly wholesome and sexless it was.

To say nothing of optimistic; it's one of the more sweetly positive movies you'll ever see. Much has been made of the recent trend towards antagonist-free comedies (Judd Apatow productions like The 40-Year Old Virgin), and Lars does them all one better by showing a world absent of conflict. Everyone cares SO much about Lars, and wants SO badly for him to grow up and be happy, that they cast themselves, and their entire worlds, into an absolutely ridiculous proposition... for Lars' benefit, and for no other reason.

I'm not all that excited about Ryan Gosling's endearing but unnatural portrayal. I was more impressed by Paul Schneider as Lars' brother, a refreshing inversion of the typical resistant, wet-blanket character. Even when he fights Lars' "relationship," he does so with only the best of intentions. Despite being the lone voice of reason, he gives in to insanity rather than act the killjoy. And as goofy shit just explodes all around him, he slowly suspends his disbelief. As do we. Well done.

8. Superbad

A perfect, joyous, sophisticated film about cartoon dicks. [NSFW]

7. Ratatouille

A perfect, joyous, sophisticated film about cartoon rats.

I really can't recommend this enough. It's not for kids in any way. Strictly for adults... and sophisticated adults at that.

(Again, for those keeping score, this is the point at which every movie from here on down is better than The Departed, a.k.a. The De Facto.)

6. Sweeney Todd

The first GREAT movie musical I've seen since the revival of the genre. Others have been uneven at best (Dreamgirls, Chicago), atrocious at worst (Rent, The Producers), and a little too Broadway for my liking in the middle (Hairspray... good movie, but ceeee-hrist). You have gonzo stuff like Moulin Rouge! and cartoons and stuff, or a satire like South Park, but the actual serious Broadway adaptations haven't really work across the board.

And Sweeney does. Everything seems just right. You never feel like you're watching a Mu-si-cal Num-be-e-e-e-e-er!!! The songs always plays as the story, not the song alone. Not that the music and conception aren't fantastic; they just serve their purpose first and wow us second.

But still, in typical Tim Burton fashion, it kinda fizzles (gurgles?) at the end. The revelations of the finale don't shake you or move you as they should... possibly because the devastation is drowned in explosive geysers of blood. And even though Johnny Depp is the only actor alive who could have pulled off that role, he nevertheless missed an opportunity to knock the conclusion out of the park, Daniel Day-Lewis-style. ("I... eat... your... MEATPIES!")

Still, that's nit-picking. Totally awesome.

5. Michael Clayton

A master's class in genre writing. Tony Gilroy breathes life into a tired, washed-up legal drama plot (corporation poisons the poor, oh noes!) by ignoring the victims and concentrating solely on the moral quandaries encountered by the lawyers in each level of the case: the head of the firm; the lead defense attorney; the defendants' private legal counsel; and the "janitor," Clayton. The acting, of course, is excellent. George Clooney is the rock, but Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton are perfect and thorough in their portrayals.

*** SPOILER ***

But again, it's all about the ending. What's nice about it is that it doesn't trumpet Clayton's decisive action as a win or a loss. There are tastes of common redemption themes (revenge, morality, loyalty to one's mentor, denying a sell-out opportunity, etc.) that come into play, but none of them dominate. Clayton had simply had enough. "Fuck you" that the conclusive act was, it was less a "fuck you" than a truly grand "I quit." A resignation, as opposed to a victory. Legal dramas aren't supposed to end ambiguously... but the taxi ride, devoid of reaction, says it all. No judgment, no celebration, no concern... it's just something that I did today.


4. Gone Baby Gone

Mystic River, eat Ben Affleck's shit. He and Casey deserve TONS of credit not just for executing Dennis Lehane's source material so well, but also for bringing so much extra to it. A gritty potboiler mystery with, ahem, one of the great endings you'll ever see... an absolute head-scratcher that not only inverts everything you thought you knew about the story's key participants, but leaves you legitimately speechless as to what you would have done. And gosh, did they nail the neighborhoods. Bravo.

3. No Country For Old Men

A bleak, dark, and violent fable about the nature of evil. But unlike most morality plays, it's not about choosing sides. The unavoidable nature of death (Chigurh as reaper), the unstoppable nature of evil (Chigurh as epitome), and the complicity with which the average person enables evil to thrive (Chigurh as, um, houseplant) are all covered, but No Country is primarily about where we draw the line in fighting against the things we can't control. The train isn't stopping... so where do we get off?

*** SPOILER ***

There's been controversy over the ending (or, for that matter, what the ending actually was) but the anti-climactic, minor-key decompression was just about perfect, mirroring Tommy Lee Jones' throwing in of the towel. Evil, death, crime, greed, etc. are inexorable. They never stop. But your participation, your decision to be involved, does. The conclusion is merely where you choose to exit. Tommy Lee Jones has very little screen time, but effectively acts as our conduit; he says, this is my stop, time to head home, and that's where the telling of the story ends... or, at least, where our part ends.


Anyway, it's a great film. Probably the Coens' best ever, if not their most ingenious. Flannery O'Connor would be proud.

2. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

Wow. It's impossible to do justice to how good this is. The main casualty of this year's bumper crop of Oscar-worthy films. I'm glad that Julian Schnabel nabbed a Best Director nod, but the film itself deserves to be acknowledged for the masterpiece it is.

I had to spend a lot of time reflecting on the climax, which at first didn't work for me. But I maintain my objections. It fails in the slightest, simplest way, but for me it's important.

On the one hand, my reaction of "wait, that was IT?!?" is a testament to how engrossing the previous two hours had been. And once I got the narrative pattern down, I saw that the story made a great deal of sense. It's the tale of a man who learns to confront and accept his fate rather than fixating on what he's lost. And the suddenness of it all mirrors life itself, and whatnot.

On the other... it's not really a climax if you don't realize it until later, is it?

*** SPOILER ***

Watching Jean-Do suffer his stroke, knowing full well that he'd been unable (or unwilling) to remember the event for the length of the flim, was no doubt a significant moment. And in retrospect, yes, it makes sense that recollection would be the moment in which he fully comes to terms with what his life is. But then it's BOOM, dead, credits. What the fuck? This isn't a Hitchcock movie. Where'd that come from?!?

That problem stems from my impression that the pneuomnia wasn't obviously going to kill him. Bauby himself sets his pneumonia against his singing/grunting progress... as if to say, "as soon as you take a step forward, you take a step backward." It was NOT made out to be "just when I turned the corner, I get a fatal disease. Oh well. Release the doves!" If you DO assume it's fatal, the rest of it makes sense. But I had to retrace my steps all afternoon to connect the dots and figure out why the hell it all made sense.

Perhaps I'm being too hard. Maybe the jolting ending says something about life, and that was Schnabel's point. I suppose that part of the message of Diving Bell is that life can indeed be whisked away suddenly, just like that. I suppose it's nice that our notification of Jean-Do's death was the lack of movement in his eye... as if to say "yes, there was indeed an indication life despite it coming just from that one eye." I suppose that for a film that purports to tell the story of a life, such an underwhelming and undramatic death is fair game.

But it's not the note I wanted to hold onto as I walked home. I wasn't ready to go, and the film didn't prepare me for my departure. Maybe that says something about life! (You can't play that game forever. Which says something about life!) The bottom line is that "what a perfect ending... gosh, I'm just so floored by meaning and philosophy right now" is not how I left the theater. I left grumbling like I'd been kicked out.

Of course, it could also just be that I missed something by watching the film using only my left eye.


I guess I'm still not totally decided, am I?

At least there's one thing I can say with certainty: if Janusz Kaminski isn't given the Oscar for cinematography, it will go down as one of the biggest jokes in the Oscars' already laughable history. No DP has EVER deserved an Oscar as much as Kaminski does here. The creativity behind this film's conception is astonishing. Only a master could use the kind of attention-drawing camera flourishes on which the first-person storytelling is built without coming off as a style-before-substance hack. The style never draws our attention without having a very good reason. And even then, what starts out as look-at-me camerawork soon folds into Bauby's vision of the world. Great stuff.

(Another fun thing: the washed-out, shaky-cam stuff at the beginning is eerily reminiscent of Kaminski's work during the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. There is a sense of order to the shaking that both scenes seem to have, though obviously to different effects.)

1. There Will Be Blood

This was a tough decision, made tougher by finally seeing Diving Bell.

Blood is hardly perfect. Sitting in the theater, watching its second half unfold, I was torn. No movie this year is more memorable, and no actor is more mesmerizing than Daniel-Day Lewis, despite his liberal theft of John Huston. (Watch Chinatown and tell me that's not the older Plainview.) And no film, with the exception of Diving Bell, is as fertile with insight and hidden ideas.

The divergence of opinion seems to hinge on whether you've stuck with Anderson after Plainview's rails come off. The story's focus shifts from being a grand American epic to a value-based character study, which seems to throw people off... but it's a reflection of Plainview's focus, which also shifts. As the Standard Oil executives point out to him, he's set for life... now what? But as Plainview unsettles us with his reaction, so is he unsettled by the question itself; our confusion and sense of loss mirrors his. He then spends the remainder of the film flailing around

The shift's mild clumsiness doesn't work as universally as it would need to for Blood to vault into the pantheon of great American films. A timeless film in general will not require you to sit there and think about it in order for you to get why it, in fact, makes sense. In this case, the story Blood resembles most is Citizen Kane, which tells its tale very clearly. With that story in mind, even though Blood has so many things in its favor, we're left wondering what P.T. Anderson is on about.

And yet that's just it. Look how high Anderson has raised the bar! We're talking about the difference between "great but difficult" and "all-time classic." Blood may not be as great as Kane, but its failures sure aren't due to missteps. There are even a few ways in which Blood and Plainview (blasphemy!) compare favorably to their counterparts in Kane. (Plainview's rise, for example, is more hard-earned, relatable, and quintessentially American than Kane's, which was basically inherited.) Blood is nowhere near the filmmakers' bible that Kane is, but the fact that it can stand up to the comparison at all is heavy praise.

And then there's the drainage, the milkshakes, and what's now the second-most famous slurp (behind this) in Oscar history. Anderson gets bonus credit for making his terribly serious work so damned iconic and hilarious at the same time.

In summation, Anderson has taken on the gods of cinema, and lives to tell the tale. That's enough for me.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Apatow FTW Part II: Pineapple Express Trailer

The red-band trailer here is NSFW, unless you work in a profane, weed-filled office.

HOLY HELL YES. Are we all going to enjoy the shit out of that or what? They had me at "thatisgoodweeeeeed!"

(Also, programming note... since Mr. Apatow is producing like 12-14 movies for the upcoming summer alone, I expect there will be plenty more Apatow FTW posts to come.)

Recent Musical Adventures

Everyone Else Said Something, Now It's My Turn

...and we're not taking it out of the tree until you come up with a better point of comparison than Graceland

Vampire Weekend has kinda exploded, in the way that I love to rail against. Which I will do here: the next lazy motherfucker who drops Paul Simon's fucking name, as if HE had invented Afro-pop, gets diamonds cut into the soles of his shoes. (Or hers.) That shit is weak. The guitar sounds are very much like those found on Graceland. But that's a matter of timbre, and mixing, not songwriting. The music is nothing like it. Please stop.

But that's where the anger ends. Because their album's awfully good.

I'm puzzled (well, not really) by the need to wrap them up into one package, because the album all but begs us not to. The Afro-Pop correlation does indeed stand up on their strongest tracks, notably "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," "Walcott" and "The Kids Don't Stand A Chance." But there are just as many songs where they seem as obsessed with faux-harpsichords and string sections ("M79") or paint-by-numbers indie rock (the tired-before-it-broke "A-Punk") as they do with African rhythms.

In fact, on an album so rife with unique musical influences, the track you are most likely to find on Hype Machine et al is... "A-Punk." Setting aside the disservice that song's popularity does their work, that's proof positive that they need to be described in less digestible terms.

And not for nothing, but if you want to draw an analogy to an album we've already heard of, please use Naked by Talking Heads. Again, very little in common on the songwriting front, but at least there's a conceptual similarity between the two bands. Naked actually fuses sounds; Graceland, good as it is, was a commandeering and repurposing more than a melting pot.

(Just to be clear, that was a recommendation. I've been enjoying them, and so should you... with tempered expectations.)

Is This The Five O'Clock Free Track Giveaway?

Druuuuuugs... and a-ca-hol... have ruined my life!!!

A new song from Tapes 'n Tapes started bouncing around the tubes today. It's a good song, but what really has me amped is how great it sounds. It's the same basic formula as found on The Loon: frenetic rhythm guitar, hyperactive bass line, random brass or woodwind, pounding drums. But "Hang Them All" sounds crisper, cleaner... more professional.

Based on this one song, it would seem they've taken a huge step upward in quality, without changing anything else about themselves. That's a good thing. It's no guarantee that the rest of Walk It Off will be this good, but it's encouraging to say the least.

OK, Fine, Even The Sky Looks Like Wine

...the fucking MANIAC!

Dan Bejar's new Destroyer album, Trouble in Dreams is pretty good too. I haven't got as much to say about it, except to mention that it's worthwhile. First impressions are that it's a little less lilting and energetic than Destroyer's Rubies, placing it more along the lines of Your Blues (but without the synthesizers). Centerpiece "Shooting Rockets" is particularly compelling... for all his weird idiosyncracies, Bejar does an excellent job of keeping your attention on long tracks like this.

What Is The Sound Of Five Casiotones Clapping?

Hot Chip will break your legs

I'm gonna have to chew on Hot Chip's new one a little more. There are some really worthwhile songs on Made In The Dark ("Shake A Fist" and "Ready For The Floor" stand out right away) but on the whole, it's kind of a lot to process. The Warning took a while to drill its way into my head too, though, so I don't expect this to be any different.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Ballad of Ricky Bauby

In the days since seeing The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (which EVERYONE should see) I've thought about little else. The tale is harrowing, but the execution brims with so much life and humor that it avoids all the usual pitfalls of bio-tragedies. Every true-to-life tale of woe claims to be life-affirming; here's one that actually is.

The reason it feels so genuine is the droll, very black sense of humor at the core of Jean-Do Bauby. It's absolutely true that people in these situations don't necessarily stop being themselves, or suddenly epitomize the tragedies that have befallen them. That's a dramatic trope more than a celebration of an actual life. So the guy had a stroke and was paralyzed... suddenly nothing's funny anymore?

Look at the telephone installers' joke. The therapist on duty chides them for having a laugh at Bauby's expense, but Bauby is in fact laughing (on the inside of course) at the cheap shot he's absorbed. Because it's funny!

It is to the great credit of Ronald Harwood, Julian Schnabel, Bauby himself, and their collective observational abilities that their movie courses with the most ironic and biting of humors, when it could have so easily devolved into a maudlin exercise in self-seriousness. I have a great deal of respect for their handling of the source material.

Anyway, Diving Bell can't be more highly recomended. I'll have more honors to bestow on it later, but until then I implore you to go see it... if for no other reason than because you'll then know what the hell I'm about to talk about.

You see, since seeing the film, I've been working on an impression of Jean-Do. This is largely out of appreciation, mind you; recall that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But it's also to amuse myself, much as I had the habit of growling the word DRAIIIIINAGE to myself to pass the time as recently as... ten seconds ago. [Ed. note: SUP SUP SUP SUP SUP SUP SUP... I DRRRRRRINK IT UP!]

Anyway, I haven't done impressions in God knows how long, so I'm really excited about getting this one down. Even while writing this, I've managed to achieve a workable drool. I've nearly got the grunt under control too, but I'm not too worried about that.

The problem is that my eye and face just doesn't look right. I can't sculpt my face into the right pose. It's really hard! If you think you've read one review too many that lauds Mathieu Amalric's ocular acting skills, think again, because that eye of his deserves all the attention it's gotten. Amalric channels the concerned/horrified stare of the drama marmot perfectly. Check out this still:

Look how placid and folded-up the face is... but the eye alone bulges with fear, almost bursting out of its socket? That's hard! I have the strength of reaction down, but it makes its way out onto the rest of the face, so I end up looking like this guy:

Bitter Locked-In Syndrome Face!

I'm a little better when I use the right side of my face, since I'm able to raise my right eyebrow independent of all my other facial muscles... but Bauby's left eye was the good one. And to raise my left eyebrow, I have to squint my right eye into closed position, which of course is ridiculous since Jean-Do was paralyzed, and thus unable to squint like that. I really have to do something about that.

But persist I shall. You'll know when I get really good at it, because I'll have been struck down by lightning and sent straight to hell. That amateurish Photoshop up top is the ticket; doing a good Jean-Do will be my boarding pass.

Monday, February 11, 2008

They've Fixed A Huge Mistake

Hello, God? It's me, Jeff.

I don't ask for much. I expect a lot, sure, but I'll be damned if I'm going to ask for all that. I shouldn't have to! You can read minds, so you already know what I want. Yeah, like that. And that. See? Easy. Point is, I reserve questions for the things that are really important.

So with that in mind, here goes.

O God in Heaven... playing Scrabulous with Jesus and his pals in all their glory... please take a little time out of your busy schedule, pick up a phone, and MAKE THIS HAPPEN GODDAMMIT!!!

If you don't intervene, and this opportunity slips through your fingers... then God, you've made a huge mistake.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Apatow FTW: Forgetting Sarah Marshall Trailer

I'm not cheered up just yet, but this helps:

The proverbial universe of Hollywood hasn't removed its proverbial lips from Judd Apatow's non-proverbial dong just yet. And rightly not, because Apatow and his cabal of miscreants continue to churn out funny shit, as is proved by this faaaaantastic (and NSFW) red-band trailer for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I'm sold!