Monday, December 31, 2007

#2 Living director--Paul Thomas Anderson

Now it’s getting tough. Anderson is without a doubt the most promising American director working in films today and whose There Will Be Blood is one the most eagerly anticipated films for me in years (see earlier post a few days ago). Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love are all films I really loved. Anderson has not made a film that isn’t terrific yet.

What I like about Anderson is you can see his love of Scorsese and Altman but he uses those icons as his guide to create new, highly complex, highly intelligent and quirky films. Anderson’s writing and the performances he gets out of his actors (he’s fond of character actors which further endears me to him) are flawless.

Like four of the final top five of my favorite living directors, Anderson doesn’t make a lot of films, so when something in the vein of There Will Be Blood comes out, I’ll be there near the front row, absorbing every single second.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Two videos from Tsai Ming Liang

I'm going to try to avoid going crazy posting too much video but had to post a couple of things from Tsai Ming Liang (or Tsai Ming-Liang or as I just call him, "Tsai") since I recently posted he was my fourth favorite living director. The videos will give you more of a feel for the quirky uniqueness that is Tsai.

The scene from Goodbye Dragon Inn is typical of a Tsai scene--not a lot seems to be happening, stationary camera, extremely long take. A lot of Asian directors seem to be unafraid of the long take whereas American or Western directors are usually going to cut-cut-cut more. I personally love the long take AND the stationary camera. Enjoy!

The Wayward Cloud trailer is from the "less is more" school of trailers (unlike the vast majority of trailers out there that tell you way too much of whatever movie you are eager to see). It's short, odd and mysterious--what the film is about is anyone's guess judging by the trailer. Those are my favorite trailers. The Wayward Cloud, Tsai's previous film but not his most recent (that would be I Don't Want to Sleep Alone) is one of the stranger films of his. Set in the future where there is little to no water (unlike the early films of Tsai when water was an important element in film after film), people subsist on watermelon juice and watermelons. The film is highly erotic with a lot of kinky business on display. It's not my favorite Tsai film but I really love the trailer.

The Wayward Cloud trailer

Goodbye Dragon Inn scene

Thursday, December 27, 2007

#3 Living director--Julio Medem

The Basque director Julio Medem is the most overt romantic working in films and I’ve loved every single movie he’s made I’ve seen—Cows, The Red Squirrel, Earth, Lovers of the Arctic Circle (watch the trailer below on my first time use of video in CineRobot history!) and Sex & Lucia. Medem seems obsessed with ideas such as fate, coincidence and love. I’ll watch anything relating to destiny/coincidence but Medem tells his stories in such a lively, erotic way he makes me want to move to Spain or Finland or wherever his films are set.

I've really liked all the films of his I've seen but the one with a special place in my heart is Lovers of the Arctic Circle. He’s got a new one coming out in 2008 called Chaotic Ana and I can hardly wait to see it.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle trailer

I have video! I have video! It's a high tech day in the world of CineRobot. Enjoy the trailer for Medem's 1998 film Lovers of the Arctic Circle in its original Spanish.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

#4 Living director--Tsai Ming Liang

Tsai Ming Liang from Taiwan is another original that makes the kind of films you are either going to love or hate. It may take a few of his films before you decide that you are enjoying what you watch but once you do—you are hooked for life.

Tsai's films are slow, utilize very little dialogue, are notorious for extremely long takes where not much action occurs but zero in on all these elements that show up over and over in a Tsai film. His films are some of the most lovingly shot and crafted you will see on screen. His recent films such as What Time Is It There?, Goodbye Dragon Inn and The Wayward Cloud are like color photographs that sometimes move—so buried in their character’s stillness. I’ve waited eagerly for each new Tsai film for well over a decade and even though he’s an acquired taste, he’s easily in my top five favorite living directors.

I would start with the earliest Tsai films you can find (Rebels of the Neon God, Vive L’Amour, The Hole etc etc), as they all star his alter ego Kang Sheng Lee and it’s basically the same character in different phases of his life (sort of). If you start with the recent ones, you can follow the story of the characters but they will be out of order and there is a slight connection to each film (at least to fans of Tsai).

Countdown to There Will Be Blood

Look at that poster and what do you see? Daniel Day-Lewis. Paul Thomas Anderson. A period epic about early days of oil wildcatters set in the west, in the desert. Early word is Day-Lewis gives a blistering performance (that's a shocker!) and that Anderson has made a film that is a stark departure from anything he's done in the past.

Look at that poster again. There Will Be Blood is the most eagerly awaited film for me to see since the latest Malick movie. How much longer do I have to wait until it comes to Tulsa?

Monday, December 24, 2007

#5 Living director--David Lynch

When I was a teenager I discovered the wonderful and weird world of David Lynch through two films: Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. The latter is still one of my favorite films ever. Since then I’ve let Lynch take me down strange roads time and time again. I think he’s one of the most unique voices in American film who refuses to play by Hollywood’s rules—his most recent, the three hour epic Inland Empire, was shot on DV and is as puzzling, exhilarating and interesting as anything Lynch has ever done. I recommend pretty much every release Lynch has made, from Twin Peaks toThe Straight Story to Mulholland Drive, it’s all worth seeing as Lynch pulls the curtains back on the dangerous that lurks just below the layer of innocence. Go to and check out his daily weather reports from this American original.

Kill, Baby...Kill!

The best title for a movie I saw in 2007 deserves a review on CineRobot and that would be this 1966 Italian psycho-horror film from Mario Bava. Originally called Operation Fear, not sure what the over the top title means but it does draw your attention.

The film is a claustrophobic, low-budget tale of a single deadly night in a remote village as a doctor arrives at sunset to perform an autopsy on a woman who has leapt to her death at the start of the film. The village is lost in a paralyzing haze of superstition and believes they are under a powerful and deadly curse. Anyone who sees this se
ven-year-old girl named Melissa will soon die a mysterious and painful death.

As the night goes on the village slips further and further into frenzy as Melissa appears, people die and everyone gets more frantic and paranoid. The doctor, normally a believer in the rationality of science and medicine, will join into the unhinged fray and question his own sanity as the events begin to take a toll on him and another woman who he attempts to protect.

Although Kill, Baby…Kill! is a low budget b-film, it is highly atmospheric; garishly lit with splashes of color everywhere all over the village; ther
e’s a lot going on in Kill, Baby…Kill!, that make it just a standard horror film from the era. Bava uses dramatic extreme zooms that I love to see in films like this—a few times he zooms in and back out in one take in the span of a few seconds. He likes it so much he’ll do it again and again in the film.

Another favorite moment in the film is a shot at the end that is incredible and straight out of the Vertigo guidebook of a spiral staircase (see the below still taken from that shot). Bava doesn’t show just a person fleeing down a spiral staircase—the camera actually spins around and around creating this “maximum” spiral effect that is worth seeing the entire film for. As I saw this shot, I thought, “Whoa!” and rewound the DVD to watch it a second time—something I rarely do.

Bava is a legend in the area of Italian horror films—Black Sabbath, Blood and Black Lace andTwitch of the Death Nerve (more great titles!) are some of the other films he’s known for. I haven’t seen those last two but am planning on watching in the upcoming weeks since I enjoyed Kill, Baby…Kill! as much as I did.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War

How quickly can things change in the span of a generation. In the late 1980s, America and Afghanistan were bonded by the covert battle between the Mujah Hadeen and the Soviet occupiers (they did the fighting, we did the supplying of arms). Without U.S. support, the "freedom fighters" would likely have lost more lives over a much longer fight that may or may not have ended in jubilation. When the Russians pulled out, so did U.S. interest in the region and twenty years later we’ve got the misguided, mismanaged Iraqi War as this generation’s Vietnam War staring us all right in the face.

Charlie Wilson’s War is the story of the covert effort of a few people in government, a few concerned citizens and a small group of CIA agents who built the framework of economic support and weaponry backbone of the Mujah Hadeen so they could repel the Russians. While the film likely uses a lot of shortcuts and simplifications to tell the story (I have a hard time believing it was this easy), it does it in such a quick witted, pleasing way, it makes a tale about covert war look almost fun (although it omits the sting of the aftermath of the Taliban/Osama Bin Laden/ongoing boondoggle to our own imagination).

Charlie Wilson’s War is the latest film to combine a political element to the current state of influx and war in the Middle East. Where the other films failed because they were too dour, self-serious and preachy (Lions For Lambs anyone?), this one attempts to resist those elements. Charlie Wilson’s War has a message to deliver if you want to think about it for a second or two, it just doesn’t browbeat you over the skull with it, unlike those earlier films in the past year.

Another difference between those earlier releases—Charlie Wilson’s War has got stars like Tom Hanks sipping whiskey with topless strippers in a hot tub, Julia Roberts slowly emerging out of a pool in a bikini and more one liners than you normally expect in a politically centered movie. Those things can’t hurt its entertainment factor.

Everyone knows I’m a huge Philip Seymour Hoffman fan and watching him in this is a must for fans of his. Practically every line he delivers in this is a clipped, blunt one liner that shows evidence of the man’s unbelievable comic timing. If he’s in the scene, he’s taking it away from Hanks/Roberts. While those are two of the most charismatic actors of the last 20 years, Hoffman has as much screen presence as they do. His robust mustache doesn’t hurt (take that Titus Welliver!).

Amy Adams, coming off her star making turn in Enchanted, also is winning as Wilson’s loyal assistant, picking up the pieces of the debris and fallout of his personal life. Wilson has his flaws—women, booze and the possibility of even a little bit of cocaine use (this was the ‘80s after all)—but Adams is the one steadfast person in Wilson’s ultimately lonely life.

Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Mike Nichols, was a bit of a surprise. Its subtle political message, full of barbs and one-liners, was appreciated, as I couldn’t stand the idea of another heavy dose of lecture from filmmakers. Letting the audience draw their own conclusions is always the right tact for a film to take as I like to think I’m smart enough to connect the dots and figure out the message for myself.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Start thinking of your top 5

I'm pondering my updated, newly released 2008 version of the "Top5" so start thinking about yours. Although, mine might have 3 returnees because I have such good taste, ha.

Titus Welliver's mustache

Sorry, long layoff. Blame an ice storm, an illness, the death of a good friend, laziness, being busy—that should cover it.

So I watched Gone Baby Gone recently and thought it was pretty good. I was awestruck by one thing though: Titus Welliver’s mustache! It’s the best film facial hair I’ve seen since Daniel Day-Lewis grew a glorious handlebar as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York in 2002.

Welliver, who also has proved he can grow a great beard in HBO’s Deadwood, worked his mustache to his advantage in scene after scene. I was mesmerized by Welliver’s mustache so whoever decided he should grow it was dead on right as it aided his character in a rough and tumble Boston neighborhood.

I had a hard time finding a photo of Welliver alone with the mustache so this one of him in a group will have to do. Well done, sir, well done!

Friday, November 30, 2007

November movies

I saw some pretty good movies in November--even a couple of rare scores of 5! Of the new films I saw I recommend No Country For Old Men, Hotel Chevalier/The Darjeeling Limited, Control and Lust Caution. I told you I saw some good movies this month! I'm making a mad rush to see 200 films in 2007--18 more in December to make it.

Army of Shadows, 1969, france, *****!
Lovers of the Arctic Circle, 1998, spain, ****1/2
American Gangster, 2007, usa, ***
Starman, 1984, usa, ****
Hotel Chevalier/The Darjeeling Limited, 2007, usa, ****
Control, 2007, england, ****
RV, 2006, usa, *1/2
Out to Sea, 1997, usa, ***
The Creek Runs Red, 2006, usa, ***
Lust, Caution, 2007, china/taiwan, ****
The Mist, 2007, usa, ***
No Country For Old Men, 2007, usa, *****!
A Circle of Small Friends, 1980, usa, ***
Darkon, 2007, usa, ***
Movers & Shakers, 1985, usa, ***1/2
Something New, 2006, usa, ***1/2
Furia, 1999, france, **1/2

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

No Country For Old Men

Perfection. Sheer perfection. Joel and Ethan Coen have made their best film in years and to be perfectly honest, I was a bit surprised at how good No Country For Old Men was as I watched it. For starters, it’s an adaptation of a novel I love by Cormac McCarthy and you know how that usually goes—very poorly. Not this time. This time it’s magic.

The film begins with a grainy assault of various southwestern images and Tommy Lee Jones comforting drawl before settling in to the story. A solitary man is out hunting. While tracking a wounded animal he comes across a crime scene in the middle of nowhere. With dead bodies bloated in the sunlight this far from humanity it’s probably best to turn away and head in the other direction. Llewelyn Moss isn’t that kind of guy though and entering the scene will offer him a temptation that is both risk and reward.

Moss’ part in the story is only one of three that run interconnected in No Country For Old Men. As Moss attempts to get away from the area, a ruthless killer hunts him and a weary sheriff looks for the both of them. Three stories that ebb, flow and criss cross into the path of the other. What makes this a special film is the care and attention given to each story. Even the little branches from these three stories add to the weight of the main story it is an offshoot from. It all matters.

There are a lot of things to praise in No Country For Old Men. The pacing and editing is incredible. The Coen Brothers slowly unwind this story, not afraid to take in unexpected directions. It’s a perfectly controlled story that adheres to their motto of making movies that are so well thought out and planned that the way they propel the story with such effortless smoothness is a thing to behold. It might seem easy but it’s the hardest thing to do in the world to achieve such a quality of naturalness and that exists from beginning to end.

The cast is stellar. Josh Brolin, who plays Moss, is having a hell of a year for an actor who has been off the radar for years and years. Planet Terror, American Gangster and No Country For Old Men. I liked The Goonies as much as anyone but I’m shocked to see what kind of an actor, screen presence Brolin has evolved into. No Country For Old Men also has the aforementioned Jones, Javier Bardem (as one of the best villains in years!), Woody Harrelson and Kelly Macdonald in the major parts. But, the smaller roles has some inspired casting with Barry Corbin, Tess Harper and some non-professional types that reeked of western authenticity.

Loving a book and then loving the movie version of it is a rare breed for me. The Coen Brothers imagined the same film as I did and they nailed it from the cast, the tone, the spare script that is eloquent and wise and intelligent and coursing with a dark humor, the violence, the production, the locations, the philosophical qualities and the rugged beauty of men and women who are struggling just to live without ever knowing the great amount of effort they undertake each day we wake up. No Country For Old Men is the rarest of treasures—a great book and an equally great movie. The Coen Brothers have made a perfect movie ladies and gentleman.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Favorite John Carpenter?

It's a tough call for me: The Thing or Escape From New York. If I had to choose I'd go w/ Escape From New York as it is the ultimate drive-in movie! Anyone else want to impart their favorite Carpenter and why?

Starman, John Carpenter & Karen Allen

I was re-watching the film Starman this weekend when I realized three things, not particularly in this order: I really like Starman, John Carpenter made a big batch of my favorite films in the late 1970s and 1980s and I had a major crush on Karen Allen when I was a teenager.

Let’s start with Starman from 1984, which I hadn’t seen it in a long time. Like most of the best of Carpenter films it is a genre film in the realm of science fiction that crosses over into suspense and romance territories. Carpenter likes to blend genres, which is good, because he usually takes out the best ideas from one genre and sticks in the best from another.

Starman has kind of a slowness to it that combines with an overt romance story that makes it different than other good Carpenter films from his peak period. I can’t recall any Carpenter film I’ve seen with such an up front love story and it’s kind of surprising to see such an element in one of his films. Of course, there are sci-fi, suspense and comic moments, but it is the film’s love story that ultimately propels it forward and makes you care about the characters.

John Carpenter was on a complete roll when Starman
came out. By 1984 he’d already made Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing and Christine—all of which I consider classics from my youth. He’d make two more great films in the ‘80s—Big Trouble In Little China and They Live—but the ‘90s saw him drift away into “bad movie” abyss. I absolutely love the eight films mentioned in this paragraph but Carpenter hasn’t made a film since then I’ve seen and really enjoyed.

A few months ago I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and remembered how fetching and terrific Karen Allen was at this same time. Those freckles! Animal House! So, seeing her in Starman just made me curious why she disappeared into b-movie hell after two high profile roles. There was Scrooged in 1988 and a few small roles here and there but her days as a leading actress in a bigger release was pretty much over. Maybe the idiots in Hollywood have a thing against freckles?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Teens must text!

So, I went to see The Mist last night with a friend. It was Friday night and the theatre was full of teenagers or people who’d just left their teenage days behind. I don’t want to sound like a complete geezer but what a miserable experience it is to sit among a throng of teenagers at a movie as they are, for the most part, a complete bunch of morons!

First off is the endless chatting away that some of them have to do during the film. Who needs the director’s commentary when some nitwit, pimply-faced group of 18 year olds in Tulsa think they can provide it? I remember talking a little bit as a kid but these people talk seemingly the entire film about who knows what. I can assure you it's not interesting or funny unless you are one of the braindead friends sitting with them.

The thing that really irks me is their devotion to the cell phone and reading/responding to text messages. I admit, I do not own a cell phone and have never made a text in my life so don’t see the appeal. These teenagers though, they must be getting very important messages on their phones that MUST be checked over and over even as the film reaches its conclusion, right? Wrong.

One idiot girl in front of me kept checking her phone and got the awe inspiring texts such as “where r u?” and “I’m bored”. She not only had to open her phone but had to respond to them! It forms the opinion that these teens today are nothing but self-absorbed and full of themselves, with attention spans so brief that they can not turn their phones off and watch the film with respect to those around them.

I could see the need if these were med students or someone who needed to be urgently contacted but these are just goofball teens being themselves and what do they do best: text and talk, text and talk, text and talk. I think the next time this happens right in front of me I’m going to lean over the seat and ask in my most gruff, possibly unhinged way: “What do they say? Is it important? You better answer that right away! Hurry! You have one of 134 texts for the day coming to you and don’t you feel loved!”

Going to see this film at this time of night and on this particular day makes me dream of when I was in Finland earlier this year. Ah, the wonderful Finns. No phones. No texts. The Finns are shockingly there for nothing but the movie and the projector and the story. It's a bizarre concept that alludes Americans it seems and I wish I could say the same about American audiences but we’re a culture of “self” interest first. When you add some teens to a movie theatre that means texting, texting, texting.

Friday, November 23, 2007

10-6 living directors

10/ Wong Kar Wai. When WKW is good, I’m deliriously happy watching his films. Lush, romantic, dreamy, incredibly photographed (WKW works a lot with Christopher Doyle as his DP and Doyle is simply the best) stream of conscience works usually set in Hong Kong that take some effort to enjoy. WKW makes you work but the reward is films that exist as works of art as much as they do for the films themselves. Recommended WKW movies: Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, 2046 and Fallen Angels.

9/ Alejendro Gonzalez Inarritu. This Mexican director’s last three films have packed serious punch and all three have made it into my year’s best list: Amores Perres, 21 Grams and Babel. Inarritu (with the help of screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga) is fond of dense, emotional, non-linear tales full of pain, sorrow and multiple characters coming in and out of each other’s lives. It’s the kind of thing you either love it or hate it but I really love it as to me these are visceral films incredibly well made. While some of the ties that bring people together in Babel are suspect—the film itself is an ambitious as hell project with multiple languages, multiple stories, the utilization of various film stocks, lots of non-professional actors and other elements that make it one of the bravest big budget films in years.

8/ Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coen Brothers might have been higher on this list a few years ago but they’ve made a few films that just didn’t feel right to me. Well, thankfully, they’ve got the much lauded No Country For Old Men (which I’ll watch this weekend) coming out so maybe it’s a return to glory for them. All I have to say is: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski and on and on.

7/ Tony Gatlif. I’ve always been into gypsies and thanks to Gatlif, I get to experience that world over and over. Gatlif, who has Rom roots, has dedicated his film life to stories set in the gypsy worlds all over Europe. His films always have lots of great music and are usually populated by non-professional actors (the French actor Romain Duris has been in a couple of them) with tense stories of survival and passion. His films will take you into a world that you are highly unlikely of ever getting the opportunity to see. Gatlif films I highly recommend: Latcho Drom, Mondo, Gadjo Dilo and Swing.

6/ Terrence Malick. Legendary director makes two films in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, disappears for twenty years before returning with The Thin Red Line and A New World. A Malick movie has beautiful photography with natural lights (the man photographs the nature like he’s crafting a PBS documentary). Malick films are meditations on some subject that interests him that may or may not have anything to do with the story. He’s working on a new film called Tree of Life and I don’t care what it’s about or who is in it—I will be there on the first day to bask in the glory of Malick like any self-respecting film geek.

Friday, November 09, 2007

American Gangster

Criminals, cops, criminal cops. The three often exist in the same neighborhood. New York in the early 1970s was rife with organized crime, a bunch of corrupt cops and a few cops who were concerned more about “right” and “wrong” than taking bribes so drug kingpins can build their empire. Ridley Scott’s American Gangster attempts to dig into all three of those elements of the urban landscape from this time and is successful only part of the time.

American Gangster is split evenly in its story in the rise of Frank Lucas, a blossoming Harlem drug overlord who uses his connection of pure heroin to build a narcotics wonderland for making money. On the flipside we get Jersey cop Richie Roberts, his bulldog pursuit of criminals and smashing the drug syndicate. In a lot of crime films, you can’t have one without having the other. Too bad only one of these I found remotely interesting.

First let me get to the cops, the good part of the American Gangster. Russell Crowe plays Roberts, a newly separated father who is so honest he and a partner return one million in unmarked cash to the stunned believe of anyone he comes in contact with. Roberts assembles a motley group of NJ cops who are as dogged as him and don’t care about money as much as they care about making arrests.

One thing that made this the interesting aspect of the film is that Roberts is an actual character, with depth involving both flaws and attributes. Lucas on the other hand, played by Denzel Washington, is such a thinly constructed character that Washington pretty much just gives a performance that he can do in his sleep. Lucas was not interesting to me at all. Not his rise in crime, not the way he procures his drug supply, not the way he dealt with rivals in the Italian mafia, not the way he romances the woman in his life. I was completely surprised at just how bland Washington and this side of the story was.

Every time the film flipped back to the “crime” side versus the “cops” side I felt disappointed, as this was not the aspect in the story I cared about following. I wanted to see the cops in their tiny room as they piece the story together to try to bring down Lucas’ gang while also fending off a group of corrupt NYC cops.

American Gangster has a great cast from the two leads to an assortment of character actor types who have donned ‘70s attire, mustaches and revel in the time period. John Hawkes (Deadwood) and Josh Brolin are two that really stood out from the group.

I have read that Brolin was making a serious comeback this year with a spate of visible, vivid performances (Planet Terror was early in the year and No Country For Old Men is soon) and it was no lie. He’s a corrupt cop in American Gangster and is so full of swagger and bad-ass intensity, I wanted to see him a lot more in this. I haven’t seen him in something I remembered him in since he was licking Patricia Arquette’s armpit in Flirting With Disaster in 1996! He’s a frontrunner for an Android award in the Comeback of the Year category.

American Gangster is a solid film full of good actors and crisp directing but the story is only half interesting to me. The cop stuff was interesting. The crime aspects were just too thin, full of characters with no depth and nuance, and even Washington, one of the great American actors, struggled to give the character any kind of memorable qualities.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Any predictions for #1?

I've already made my list of top 20 living directors so am curious if any of my loyal readers or occasional lurkers expect to find a particular person on the list? I'd even enjoy some predictions for #1!

15-11 living directors

More of my 20 favorite living directors...

15/ Spike Jonze + Michel Gondry. I’m going with twins here with these two one time music video directors who have been fortunate to be touched by the hand of Kaufman (as in Charlie) in their combined best films: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. How much of those films wildly thrilling and interesting work was Jonze/Gondry and how much was the eccentric Kaufman? Jonze has not stepped away from Kaufman-land yet. I really liked The Science of Sleep by Gondry and his next one (Be Kind Rewind) seems like another bizarre romp. Time will tell.

14/ Jim Jarmusch. I’ve been a fan of Jarmusch since I saw Stranger Than Paradise in the mid ‘80s. Like a lot of the directors on this list, you’ll recognize the pattern that most have signature themes or styles they return to, over and over again. Jarmusch is no different. He makes idiocentric films, full of lots of super long takes, non-action, silences, characters that are on the periphery of society and quirky humor. Check out my favorites: Down By Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Ghost Dog and his most recent, Broken Flowers.

13/ Jean Pierre Jeunot. I guess most know Jeunot for his masterpiece of French romanticism Amelie but he’s got more than a one-film man. As soon as you can watch 1995’s The City of Lost Children (co-directed with Marc Caro) and get ready to be blown away. Or Delicatessen from 1991.. I even liked Jeunot’s attempt to revive the Aliens franchise (and his only English speaking film) in Aliens4 (Winona Ryder as a sexy android might have swayed my opinion of this one!). Jeunot doesn’t make a lot of films, nothing in development and A Very Long Engagement in 2004 being his most recent, but when he does, expect wonder and greatness.

12/ David Cronenberg. DC has kind of reinvented himself with his past few films, sort of. For the majority of his career he’s made a living delivering captivating, chilling takes on terror via horror and other genres. Check out Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and The Dead Zone (to name but a few!) to see Cronenberg deliver some genre fun. His most recent two films (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises) would appear to be more mainstream but they are chock full of all the same atmosphere, nuance and blasts of violence that Cronenberg has loved to put in his films since he started making them. Watching a Cronenberg film is to experience a director so in control of the frame and performance it’s almost too technical and cold but I sure love the ride he takes me on when I see his films.

11/ Ang Lee. Here is a director who has done it all and done it well: family drama, dysfunctional coming of age films, Civil War action, Jane Austin adaptations, gay westerns, martial arts films and even Hollywood blockbusters (okay, Hulk sucked but that’s Lee’s only failure so far). Lee seems interested in trying every kind of film but he usually has one thing in all his films—the relationships between people. Those relationships form the core of his stories and make it possible to find the running theme in all his films no matter how different they may appear on the surface.

Friday, November 02, 2007

October movies

My new release recommendation for the month of October is the smart, complicated thriller Michael Clayton. I have read this is considered a bit of a "flop" because it didn't open with a boffo opening weekend--the opening weekend is more important to many Hollywood insiders than the quality of film (must get those teenage asses in the seats!). Too bad Hollywood has become so clueless when good films like Michael Clayton are deemed "mistakes" or "failures" in this messed up film world we all live in.

George Clooney gives another stellar performance as a powerful law firm's mystery man. His role outside the firm isn't that we defined but inside the firm--he's one of the most important people in the company. Clooney gives a detailed, weathered performance as well as the rest of the cast. This a good little film right here.

The rest of the films I saw in October are...remember, I've got a 1-5 star rating system in place, 5 is classic or possible future classic, 3 is an okay film worth watching if you like the genre or actors or director, anything below that is not recommended and 1 is a terrible, terrible movie.

Michael Clayton/2007/usa/****
Out of the Past/1947/usa/****
We Own the Night/2007/usa/***
Deep Water/2007/england/***1/2
The Assassination of Jesse James by the
Coward Robert Ford/2007/usa/***
The Statement/2003/england/**1/2
The White Shiek/1951/italy/****
The Holiday/2006/usa/***1/2
My Bloody Valentine/1981/canada/***
Friday the 13th/1980/usa/***1/2
Blame It On Fidel/2007/france/***1/2
Train Man/2005/japan/**1/2
Woman Is the Future of Man/2004/south korea/***1/2

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

20-16 favorite living directors

I sat down and thought about it for 30 minutes and these are the 20 directors I came up without thinking too much about it. What’s hard about this is there are going to be some long-time favorites of mine left off simply because they’ve stopped making good movies. They’d easily make a list of 20 favorite directors of all-time AND are living but fail to make the cut. I know, it’s complicated but that’s the way it is. Those directors should just start making better films!

20/ Ki Duk Kim. I’m starting off with two wild cards, one from South Korea and the other from Thailand. I’m putting them in because they both made one of my favorite films in years and I am really anxious to see what they do next. Kim’s 3-Iron (2004) is a slow moving, quirky romance that blew me away in its assured directness. His Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter….and Spring (2003) is also a beautiful and well thought out film. Kim’s early films are mostly a collection of intense genre pictures such as The Isle and Bad Guy, which makes what he’s done with his last two films I’ve seen pretty amazing.

19/ Pen Ek Ratanaruang. Ratanaruang is on here for one reason: Last Life in the Universe! I saw this in 2003 and it’s one of my favorite films this decade. Like a lot of my favorite Asian filmmakers, this is a slow, dreamy, beautifully shot (Christopher Doyle, probably the most artful cinematographer working in films today was the DP), romantic as hell and with doses of violence tossed in. I just love this movie enough that if Ratanaruang can come close to this I’ll be a fan for a long time.

18/ Takeshi Kitano. “Beat” (his nickname in Japan) is kind of an interesting guy who has dabbled in yakuza (his most known genre), broad comedy (Getting Any?), tragic drama and even swordplay (Zatoichi). His non-linear, high-art crime film Hana-Bi (Fireworks, from 1997) will make you reconsider what a crime film can be stuffed with as it unfolds and twists in time.

17/ Lukas Moodysson. This Swede is not afraid to tackle harsh subjects that will leave you either depressed or glad you are alive. Moodysson has captured youthful angst, anxiety, sadness and desperation in films such as Show Me Love, Together (a film I really, really love) and Lilya-4-Ever. I haven’t seen anything he’s done since Lilya-4-Ever as I just haven’t been in the mood for something to hurt me like his films do. I think Moodysson is one of those filmmakers you either love or hate—something a lot of my favorites probably share in common as you see the list unfold. I love Moodysson but then again, I’m not afraid of suffering when I watch movies. Movies are supposed to make you feel whether it is happiness, fear or heartache. Moodysson will bruise your heart with his raw films.

16/ James Cameron. This might be the weirdest and most surprising director on here but I love seeing a James Cameron movie! His films are just pure adrenalin and spectacle. Early films such as The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss and Terminator 2 are some of my favorites over a 7 year span from 1984-91. Since then he’s made two not as good (you know, some film called Titanic) but he’s got this out there sci-fi 3D movie he’s filming now called Avatar that I’m dreaming of watching. His best films are in the science fiction realm and this one another step into the future with cutting edge technology. I can hardly wait.

Numbers 15-11 soon…

Sunday, October 28, 2007

We Own the Night

There are some filmmakers who love the 1970s and there are some who worship the ‘70s. Put James Gray firmly in the category of falling to his knees in reverence. We Own the Night is Gray in vintage ‘70s flavored cinema and I must confess, I’m right there with him with his passion for that era in films. Why not—it was an incredible decade of telling stories before the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s crushed the spirit of those times. Damn Spielberg and Lucas!

Back to We Own the Night. Gray’s third feature stars Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg as two very different brothers in 1980s Brooklyn. One’s a cop with a rising star (just like their dad played by Robert Duvall) and the other is a club manager who is getting involved with people up to no good. The wayward son will have to make a choice in which direction to go in his life—toward the straight and narrow or the illegal of the Russian mob.

This is the second feature of Gray’s that had Phoenix/Wahlberg in the leads. The Yards (2000) was the first. The story of We Own the Night, it’s meditation on family, crime and choices, are all the themes he keeps returning too. His first film, Little Odessa (1994) had some of the same elements as well.

I got to see Little Odessa with Gray in attendance in 1995 in Seattle and he was extremely energetic in his appreciation of the tone, atmosphere and attitude of films from the ‘70s. I remember him saying that it was the biggest inspiration for him as a filmmaker. With each of his films I think of that night and am kind of comforted by Gray’s inability to move on from that terrific decade. He stubbornly hangs onto the same themes, the same style and keeps trying to make films that feel more like 1976 than 2006.

We Own the Night is no different in that regard. Although set in the 1980s—this is a 1970s kind of film. Unfortunately, the film is lessoned by some plot holes and some behavior of the characters that is highly unbelievable. Criminals do things in We Own the Night I don’t think they would ever dream of doing—all in the guise of moving the plot forward. For a filmmaker who prides himself on a level of ‘70s “authenticity”, not being genuine with the actions of characters is a serious affront to my absorbing the story.

We Own the Night is full of some slow boiling acting (Phoenix gives an intense, full throttle performance), it’s chock full of ‘70s goodness but the plot construction annoyed me to no end! It’s a shame because there’s a good movie here but the unbelievable aspects nearly ruined all the good things. Maybe Gray’s fourth film in his tribute to the ‘70s will be the one where he puts it all together?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Have stars lost their magic?

If you happen to find yourself perusing a magazine aisle or a stand and come across the October 22 issue of The New Yorker, I suggest picking it up for a couple of great articles on film/TV. David Denby writes an interesting essay on the nature of the star making machine, the stars of the '30s-'50s versus the stars of today and just how different the media and public obsession with popular culture is from the "olden" days.

There is also a terrific profile of David Simon and his HBO television show The Wire. This show is one of the smartest, most complex, riveting, thought provoking and entertaining shows to EVER exist in the medium and will air its fifth and last season in January. The first four seasons are on DVD and it will take over your life. It's that good and deserves to be seen by anyone who wants something unbelievably good to watch!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Out of the Past

It’s autumn and a great genre for fall is the film noir (translated from the French as “black cinema”). Sometimes I really get in the mood to watch a noir. There are rules that must be followed. Of course, a noir should only be watched at night—late at night is even better than when the sun just goes down. Out of the Past (1947) is classic noir and is a wonderful example of what makes these films such fun.

Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Bailey, a small town mechanic who gets recognized by some big city tough and is forced to face his past as a private detective. Bailey gets embroiled in a series of events that has multiple people out to get him—this is a noir so you know going in that it’s not gonna be pretty for him to get out of the predicament.

For me, good noir has to have some key elements and Out of the Past has a bunch of them: beautiful black and white photography, lots of shadows and darkness in the frame, murder, manipulative dames, double crosses, trench coats, people shot in the back, hats askew on heads with cigarettes dangling from lips, seedy joints, elicit affairs, no nonsense guys who take zero guff from anyone or they will punch you in the face, following people in a cab, blackmail, double crosses on the double cross, hard boiled dialogue, frame ups, dirty cops, women getting slapped on the cheek and they usually have wonderful, lurid posters with lots of colorful details from the movie (check Out of the Past’s poster out for proof of that).

I’m of the opinion a noir movie has to be in black and white. Some films in recent years have been called noirs—Body Heat, The Last Seduction, and even the 1984 remake of this Against All Odds—but to me those aren’t “true” noirs because of two reasons: they were shot in color and they were made many years after the post WW2 epicenter of the noir heyday.

You wouldn’t call a just released boundary pushing film from France a member of the “French New Wave” or a gritty Italian film about despair and struggle “neo-realist” would you? Well, you might but you’d be wrong. The point is, those film moments happened and were great but they are over. The same should be said of a classic “noir”. A new film might be “noir-like” to me but it will never be real noir because that was the 1940s and early 1950s and those days, just like the French New Wave, Spaghetti Westerns, Italian Neo-Realism and other film movements, are done and gone.

I still enjoy the good films that come out now that ape some of the elements of classics like Out of the Past but they aren’t as good. They don’t capture the authentic, seamy behavior and love stories ripe with danger the way a taut, tense little film like Out of the Past does so effortlessly. When autumn hits and it’s late at night, I’ll veer for the 1940s when I want my dose of noir.

Slow start

I'm still in kind of a hiatus on CineRobot and in the "real" world. It's October 12 and I've only seen two movies this month! The just out Michael Clayton and Out of the Past (1947). Michael Clayton was really good. I doubt I review it (the hiatus after all!) but it's another smart, well-made George Clooney vehicle. Out of the Past was also very good and a review is coming in a few minutes on that film and noir in general. Even if I'm not seeing many films this month--I'm batting two for two in terms of high quality.

Monday, October 01, 2007

September movies

Night Passage/1966/USA/2
Grave of the Fireflies/1988/Japan/3
King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters/2007/USA/4
Gregory's Girl/1980/Scotland/3.5
Soccer Days/2003/Spain/3.5
The Grand Role/2005/France/2.5
The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice/2007/USA/3
10 Items Or Less/2006/USA/1!!!
Doc Hollywood/1991/USA/3.5
3:10 to Yuma/2007/USA/3.5
Eastern Promises/2007/Canada/4
The Lives of Others/2006/Germany/4
Trust the Man/2005/USA/3
Raising Arizona/1987/USA/5!!!
A Love Song For Bobby Long/2004/USA/3.5
Legend (Director's Cut)/1985/USA/3

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Eastern Promises

Now this is more like it after watching the woeful 10 Items or Less over the weekend. Eastern Promises is a lean, mean, tense, taut, bleak, brooding film with nothing but terrific performances from the cast to cinematographer (lots of hazy, grey tones) set in the Russian crime world via London. Eastern Promises is another wonderful film from Cronenberg that sees him firmly entrenched as one of the best directors making movies at the moment.

A 14-year-old girl shows up in a pharmacy, bleeding all over her legs, dress and the concrete floor. She’s giving birth and has dark secrets of miserable Ukrainian woe written in Russian in a diary a midwife takes from her bag that night in the hospital. Naomi Watts plays Anna, the midwife who has Russian blood in her veins. Anna is drawn to this world to figure out A/ What does the diary say? and B/ Who wants the baby to this departed teenage girl?

Anna meets Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a tattooed driver who seems so in control of all that is around him that every move he makes is calculated by the extreme life hinted at by his persona. Nikolai develops a soft spot for Anna. It may be the way she looks in a pair of tight jeans as she rides a vintage motorcycle (she looks damn good) or maybe he’s warmed by the events that have led her to this spot in London. She’s obviously in over her head and Nikolai is either someone looking out for her or someone who will cause her and her family grave harm.

One thing that I’m always just blown away with when I’m watching a recent Cronenberg film is the patience and the control he has in storytelling, pacing and performance. From the very first second Eastern Promises begins, we see a director in complete control of what he is filming. Love him or hate him—Cronenberg is a stylish and interesting director who delivers powerful films that are about as well crafted a movie you will see.

Eastern Promises is so full of tension and atmosphere you can cut the apprehension with a knife—literally! A word of warning to the faint of heart, like many Cronenberg films, he is not afraid of delivering some serious doses of violence. This is both a subtle film of nuance and a film with blasts of complete brutality and that’s one thing that makes it so interesting. Anything can happen at any moment. Mortensen is involved in one of the more savage and memorable fight scenes I’ve seen in years. I don’t want to spoil it but it involves knives and nudity. My respect for him grows with each smart and challenging role he takes on.

The rest of the cast is perfect as well from Watts as the midwife, Sinead Cusack as her mom, Jerzy Skolimowski as her droll, opinionated uncle and Vincent Cassel/Armin Mueller-Stahl as the Russian bad guys. I particularly enjoyed the small role of character actor Mina E. Mina with his shaved head, trimmed mustache and stone faced demeanor. I love it when a small role like his, with only a few lines of dialogue is used in such a way that it makes it just as memorable to me as a major character.

I can’t think of one thing about Eastern Promises that I would change. Nothing. In some ways, this film is connected with his 2005 film A History of Violence. Both have many similar themes, a closely related style and Mortensen as a lead character. I’m hoping his next film will make it a trilogy because if it is as good as those two we will be in for a treat in a couple of years. Eastern Promises is highly recommended.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Hiatus/10 Items or Less

As you can see or may have noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus. Of course I’m still watching films but just too busy to sit down and write reviews. Even a short, 500 word review is too taxing (late summer sunlight depression has zapped my will to be creative) for me recently. So, here’s a gigantic 323 word review for probably the worst film I’ve seen all year.

10 Items or Less is terrible. It is a phony, undeveloped, humorless and highly unbelievable story of a supposedly famous actor (Morgan Freeman) spending a day with a regular person (Paz Vega) and the bond the pair have despite their differences. Okay, not all that original but I rented it from Netflix so I’ll give it a try.

The film ends up being only 70 minutes long! If I was in NY or LA or some large metropolis that charges $10 for movies and the film ends after 70 minutes I’d be extremely angry. Especially since the film is complete garbage that has no chemistry, a terrible script with all kinds of silly full-of-itself scenes and bad dialogue. Actually, the 70 minute length might have been the filmmakers treating us to a gift: so we don’t have to sit through any more of their dreck!

One thing that really irritated me about this that I couldn’t stop thinking about was the fact Freeman’s character is supposed to be a hotshot, big time actor who wears $100 designer t-shirts and is wowed by an afternoon trip to Target. He can’t imagine the amazing quality buys the store has for the consumer (how much Target paid for this two minute advertisement we’ll never know). I find the fact he’s agog over Target kind of shocking since he’s wearing Wrangler jeans. Come on, anyone wearing Wrangler jeans can’t be so awed by a friggin’ Target store. Absurd. Maybe I’m nitpicking but I could not stop thinking about his Wranglers and how phony the film was because of it.

There is nothing redeeming or worthwhile about 10 Items or Less. It takes two fine actors—Freeman and Vega—and puts them into a going nowhere scenario and then just lets them flounder in a bad idea/bad script world for 70 minutes. At least it wasn’t a whopping 90 minutes so we saved ourselves 20 minutes of misery.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

This was a no-brainer for me to enjoy: early video game footage + quirky subculture with lots of obsessed nerds + bad guy v. good guy storyline = great documentary! King of Kong takes its place among the last few years of oddball docs that digs into some little niche and uncovers a gem of a story. King of Kong is suspenseful, funny and will have you on the edge of your seat as Donkey Kong records are attempted and debated. Seriously.

Billy Mitchell is the man when it comes to video game legend. He’s held the Donkey Kong (and Donkey Kong, Jr.!) record since 1982. It’s considered unassailable in the classic video game universe—yes, such a world exists out there. Mitchell is still living off his ’82 glory and has spun it into a hot sauce business and influences a group of kiss-ups who help him maintain his status as “The Greatest Donkey Kong” player EVER.

Enter Steve Wiebe; an ex-Boeing employee in Redmond, Washington. Wiebe, who for some unexplainable reason after he was laid off, buys an old machine and attempts to climb the Mt. Everest of classic arcade gaming: to not only break Mitchell’s 25 year old record but to break 1,000,000 points in Donkey Kong!

I love the old games of my youth. King of Kong references or shows many games in this—Q-Bert, Tempest, Donkey Kong, Joust, Robotron, Pac-Man, Centipede, Moon Patrol, Space Invaders, Dig Dug, Gorf, Defender, Tron, Missile Command, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, Asteroids, Paperboy and probably a few others. If this is your sort of thing, I’m right there with you as I love seeing the simple, whimsical, charming as all get out video games from that era.

This is such a great little film that is successful because it enters a previously unseen world—classic arcade game hard-core types who LIVE for these games—but creates real suspense in what will happen to the likeable Wiebe as he attempts his quest for the record. Mitchell, with his silly beard and hair, is an incredible egomaniac that will have you slack jawed at his arrogance. Mitchell is a complete and utter ass so it’s easy to get caught up in rooting against him. It’s a classic battle of good vs. evil via Donkey Kong. Recommended!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

August movies

I've been watching a lot of westerns recently. I count three in August; one of which got a very rare score of "5!". I also rewatched Once with a couple of friends in Seattle over the labor day weekend. We all loved it. Rescue Dawn, Talk to Me and Superbad are my favorite new films this past month--kind of a motley list with those three. Most frustrating was Sunshine. It was going so so well until it all fell apart with a TERRIBLE last 15 minutes. Why Danny Boyle destroyed his film like that certainly has me baffled. Anyone else pissed off at that ending?

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006, USA)----2
Casey's Shadow (1978, USA)----2.5
Rescue Dawn (2007, USA/Germany?)----4
Ride the High Country (1962, USA)----4
Talk To Me (2007, USA)----4
Eagle Vs. Shark (2006, New Zealand)----3
Steamboy (2004, Japan)----3.5
Carson City (1952, USA)----3
Sunshine (2007, England)----3
Oklahoma Heisman (2006, USA)----3
The Greatest Game of All (2006, USA)----3.5
Jonestown (2006, USA)----4.5
Apocalypto (2006, USA)----3.5
El Dorado (1967, USA)----5!
No Reservations (2007, USA)----3
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007, USA)----4
The Sand Pebbles (1966, USA)----3
Superbad (2007, USA)----4
Bon Voyage (2005, France)----3
Once (2007, Ireland)----4.5

Monday, August 20, 2007


If we know one thing about Mel Gibson from the films he directs—he is not a fan of subtlety. Gibson likes to hammer the point home—literally. It doesn’t matter if the subject is 13th century Scots battling for independence, Jesus being crucified for two straight hours or Mayan villagers running through the jungles—you can count on Gibson to go the extra mile so you get the point, or at the least see some brutal violence.

I don’t really have a problem with that as I think Gibson is a talented man (who I admit might have problems with booze or Jews etc that I’m not going into here) and makes entertaining movies. I just wish sometimes he’d pull back just a little and not feel the need to pummel his audiences over and over and over. I am sophisticated enough to not need a jolt repeatedly to get the message. There’s always so much brutality that it becomes numbing at some point in his films.

That said, I really liked Apocalypto and am quite surprised to write that sentence. At its heart it is a survival tale, a family survival tale about a group of Mayan jungle dwellers attacked by a ferocious horde of city dwelling Mayans to be enslaved or Lord knows what once they get to where they will be taken to. They want to stay where they are that’s for sure. Gibson spends the early part of the film establishing the village life and the attack from outsiders but it is the last hour of the film that is truly special.

The extended chase through the jungle as Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) attempts to get back to his village is an exhilarating rush of suspense, thrills and violence (and a little hard to believe but hey, it's a movie). The thick green jungle is both gorgeously lush and filled with danger as Jaguar Paw uses his hunting skills to attempt to get away from this band who chase after him.

Gibson can claim this is a film about the dying Mayan culture and whatnot but that’s just bollocks. Apocalypto is what it is, a very rousing action adventure, survival tale that is both gruesome and suspenseful. There’s nothing wrong with that as it’s a visceral ride that he takes us on but the film has little to do with larger scale Mayan culture as I was led to believe when the film came out. Had I known it was just a straight up action adventure and survival tale I’d likely gone to see it in the theatre.

Apocalypto was a pleasant surprise to me, as I liked it much more than I thought despite Gibson’s urges to go full bore with grisly violence. I’d like to see him try a romantic comedy or something but I’m guessing he’d weaken at some point and have one of the characters get their skull bashed in or toss in a lovely torture scene. I’m not sure Gibson can resist no matter what the film.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Of all the genres out there, action films are by far the least interesting to me. The problem I find with most action films made since Die Hard is the fact they have gotten progressively bigger, badder, flashier, loaded down with CGI and ultimately, dumber. There’s no real suspense in most of them—it’s just stuff blowing up “Bay” style. I find that dull, dull, dull.

The Bourne series is a completely different concept and they are bar none the best mainstream action films that have come out in the past few years. In a way, these films are higher-tech versions of action films from the 1960s and 1970s. They eschew any element of fat and exist in stories so lean and mean, there is only time for the chase, the hunt and the escape. It’s less explosion and more real stuntmen performing REAL stunts!

I’m not going into the plot of The Bourne Ultimatum as you likely know it—Jason Bourne is running from the government all over the globe as they try to kill him. He can’t remember who he is or what he was trained to do. All he knows is he’s a killing machine who has the innate ability to take out anyone coming after him. He’s on a mission to find out who did this to him and deliver some payback.

One trademark of the Bourne films (directed by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass) is the amount of hand held camerawork in the films. While it can be a bit dizzying to watch, it also creates an intimacy in the chaos and mayhem, and acts as a gritty agent to pull you into the action a lot more than a static, immobile, traditional camera might.

You won’t see me recommending a lot of full-on action films on CineRobot but The Bourne Ultimatum is a really tense, well made movie that had me keyed up from the very start. Great supporting cast as well with David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Julia Stiles and Paddy Considine helping or hindering Bourne in his quest for truth. The Bourne Ultimatum is one action film I don’t mind ruling the box office roost, as it deserves it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jonestown: Life and Death of Peoples Temple

Cults fascinate me. It doesn’t matter if it is Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate, Branch Davidians or Scientologists. I particularly am fascinated by the doomsday cults for some strange reason. Maybe it was some of the fire and brimstone of my Southern Baptist upbringing rubbing off on me? The mother of all cults in the U.S. has to be Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. This is a riveting documentary that traces the history of Jones and Peoples Temple that ultimately led to the death of over 900 members in Jonestown, Guyana in an infamous mass suicide in 1978.

Jonestown starts out with Jones’ youth as an outsider in Indiana obsessed with religion, death and equality. In time he will combine all those elements but it took him over two decades to reach that point in Guyana. Jones was in the Pentacostal church early on and his sermons are very charismatic with lots of singing, dancing in the aisles and healings. His message of equality between the races attracted a lot of people who wanted to escape the binds of racism, included a huge number of African-Americans.

In the mid ‘60s the church moved to Ukiah, California and it is here that the church really blossomed as an agrarian, utopian collective. Bus trips across the country in the summer created growth and they also become more politically active in the Bay Area, which gave Jones a lot of clout. When they move to San Francisco in the early ‘70s the church becomes its largest, most powerful and rapidly develops a dark undercurrent thanks to Jones and his use of sex, God and control over the congregation. By the time the Peoples Temple uproots itself to settle in the jungles of Guyana they have fully embraced the brainwashed idea that Jones is their leader, their savior and that the government and the world is out to get them. It’s unbelievably captivating to me.

There are two main elements to the documentary that make this such a powerful look into the Peoples Temple: the open and honest interviews with survivors and the use of photographs, film and sound clips taken by Temple members.

The stories these people tell cover the entire gamut of their experiences —early joy and sense of “home” to horror as their loved ones die in their arms after taking the cyanide laced Kool-Aid. These people look the most painful and ghastly moment in their lives in the mirror and they do not blink or make excuses. Some of these people lost multiple loved ones on that day in 1978 and their directness makes what they say more believable and powerful.

On top of the stories and first hand accounts is an array of footage of images and sounds from the Peoples Temple. The sermons of Jones were interesting to listen to and watch. There is no doubt the man had a charisma in the pulpit and its easy to understand how he built up such a large, devoted church—although I’ll never grasp fully how they (or any cult member) would follow their leader to such dark places. The footage and sounds from the mass suicide is obviously the most chilling thing in the documentary. There are lots of great extras as well if you rent this on DVD.

Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple is a gripping and captivating look at the path some people take on the way to giving up everything they own, including their children’s lives, their loved ones lives, their own lives—all because of one man led them on this path. As someone who is interested in the history and psychology of a cult, this is likely one of the best and most interesting docs I’ll watch all year.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

July movies

Waitress (2006, USA)---3
You, Me and Dupree (2006, USA)---2
The Science of Sleep (2006, France)---3.5
The Girl In A Cafe (2006, England)---3.5
American Dreamz (2006, USA)---2.5
Once (2007, Ireland)---4.5
Merrily We Live (1938, USA)---4
There Goes My Heart (1938, USA)---3
Meatballs (1979, USA)---3.5
The Swindle (1955, Italy)---4
A Trip to Bountiful (1985, USA)---3.5
The Golden Door (2007, Italy)---3
Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill! (1965, USA)---3
Cactus Flower (1969, USA)---3
The Survivors (1983, USA)---2.5
Breaking and Entering (2006, England)---3

Friday, July 27, 2007

I Heart Steve Zahn

One of the films I'm eagerly waiting to see this summer is Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn. The film is a harrowing tale of Vietnam War era jungle survival that has the leads Christian Bale and Steve Zahn going to extreme measures of method acting to "get into" the part. Bale has done this before and shown he can do a variety of things onscreen but what excites me most about this film is getting to see Zahn step outside the confines of what he usually does.

Zahn has specialized in comedies for the most part. Broken down even further he's been mostly in "buddy" comedies where he's the comic foil for other characters, usually a part bigger than his. I've been a big fan of Zahn's since 1994 when he was in the romantic comedy Reality Bites. Doing comedy suits Zahn as he's got incredible timing and can deliver sardonic one-liners with the best of anyone working in film today. While I've loved Zahn's ability to get laughs and play a series of goofy characters, I'm ready to see if he can do more serious work.

This may change with the two high profile dramatic roles Zahn will be seen in this year. Besides Rescue Dawn, he's also in the TV miniseries Comanche Moon, the latest adaptation from Larry McMurtry's beloved "Lonesome Dove" western novels. Zahn is playing Gus McCrae, so his work is cut out for him since Robert Duvall crafted the original McCrae in the legendary earlier adaptation in 1989.

Aside from 2007's Rescue Dawn and Comanche Moon, here are a few other films you should watch to see Zahn at his best: Reality Bites, the 1950s set comedy That Thing You Do! (1996), the gritty crime film Out of Sight (1998), the silly fish out of water caper comedy with Zahn sporting a giant mustache in Happy Texas (1999) and the teens in L.A. wasteland drama Suburbia (1996).

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


***I was looking at some older reviews I wrote when I was writing things for a couple of papers and came across this humorous review for Sahara. I was writing for the University of Oklahoma school paper as a lark for a semester and after turning this review in, was told by the main editor to change it, to decrease my anti-MM stance. I refused and was "fired". Enjoy the review that got me canned!***

When faced with a film like Sahara I attempt to tell myself after I’ve seen it: just accept this movie for what it is—action fluff and explosions made to satisfy people who aren’t asking for a lot in return.

I can’t do it. I try hard but fail. I’ve seen too many movies to let something as awful as Sahara slide by unpunished. I’ve seen too many “good” bad movies to let Sahara get grouped into that category. Sahara is just “bad” bad with virtually nothing at all that makes it worth your time and money.

Sahara is based on a Clive Cussler novel and stars famed bongo player and annoying Longhorn fan Matthew McConaughey as Cussler’s heroic Dirk Pitt. Even his name is cheesy. And believe me, McConaughey is one actor who can live up to the low bar set by everyone in this movie and Cussler’s fiction as a whole.

McConaughey is beyond a shadow of a doubt the worst actor alive who is getting high profile roles in Hollywood movies. How he gets leading role after leading role vexes me. Is he really that good looking to get these roles? I know his body is “ripped”, but unfortunately, his six-pack of abs are not doing the acting.

McConaughey’s entire career is littered with embarrassing performances in bad movies (go look him up on if you disagree and behold the sewer that is his list of films), so to see him saunter and swagger around in Sahara thinking he is channeling Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones is laughable.

I’m personally putting out a plea to every casting director in the land: please spare us the suffering of having to watch McConaughey “act” in another movie. Please. You’ll be doing yourself, the film you are casting, the director of that film, the people who financed it and the audience all a tremendous favor. Please, I’m begging you here.

Let me address the plot to Sahara and you'll need to try and stay with me here. A Civil War era Ironclad supposedly makes its way across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa with a single rare coin minted by the Confederacy in it. Pitt has to get onto this ship. He’s obsessed and coin crazy! Now, anyone who thinks that a Civil War Ironclad could make it to Africa with no sails, very little food on it is taking a big leap of faith I’m not willing to take.

Chasing after mysterious lost Ironclads isn’t enough to keep us entertained, so, let’s add in a plot about a deadly plague spreading across Mali to get Dirk Pitt a love interest (Penelope Cruz). A dose about rebels fighting their own civil war would be nice, “Done!” says the screenwriters. Still not enough of a plot, so let’s put in the possibility for a global catastrophe connected to the dumping of toxic waste. Now we’re getting somewhere. The writers of Sahara (and maybe Cussler, since I haven't read his books I don't know) take the more is more approach when it comes to story and they have the huge plot holes to prove it.

Sahara has a treasure hunt for a ship, deadly plagues, rebel fighters fighting nasty warlords, deadly toxins that could wipe out the planet and keeping it all together is the acting of Matthew McConaughey doing his usual butcher job on the entire concept of talent.

The only good things Sahara has to offer are Steve Zahn and the desert setting. Zahn is a funny guy and Morocco is a stunning, beautiful place with huge, gorgeous vistas of sand. Unfortunately, McConaughey is in scenes with Zahn and is in scenes with Morocco, so even those two things are ruined for me.

Of course, Sahara will make loads of money and people will drool over McConaughey’s dimples or abs and think the story is full of adventure, high quality explosions and good action scenes. Who am I? I’m just a guy who can’t stand underwhelming silly movies and who thinks Matthew McConaughey is horrible. Take a stand. You are either with me or against me.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Guilty pleasure confession time

Let me know the movie you've seen recently that proves you aren't a film snob. I re-watched Meatballs over the weekend and liked it! Come on, I know you've had a guilty pleasure recently that needs a confession of enjoying.

Say no to film snobbery

I watched a Federico Fellini film this weekend. It was the 1955 downer called Il Bidone (aka The Swindle). But I watched two films over the weekend and for proof that I’m not what you might call a “film snob” I will let out the other film I watched: Meatballs. Yes, the silly 1979 juvenile summer camp film with Bill Murray riffing scene after scene. In my CineRobot world why not follow up a “classic” like Meatballs with another like The Swindle? Makes sense to me as if there is one thing I can’t stand is a film snob or elitist who won’t watch something fun or goofy or absurd once in awhile. Just as narrow minded is the movie lover who won’t watch a documentary or foreign movie. I want to see it all…as long as it’s good. To me, Meatballs AND The Swindle fit that category.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Now, this is a charming little movie. I’d been eagerly waiting to see this smart and romantic Irish film from director John Carney and it finally came to a Tulsa theatre. I loved every second of it and it’s one of my favorite films of the year. Once is full of low-key performances, great songs and real screen chemistry from two performers who aren’t really actors but who deliver a level of honesty that I’m not sure “real” actors could.

Made on a shoestring budget, Once begins with a busker (never named but played by Glen Hansard) singing his heart out on the streets of Dublin and having to deal with all the annoying people who distract or want to rip him off. It’s not an ideal audience to sing your personal songs with a tattered acoustic guitar.

Enter the girl (also never named, played by Marketa Irglova), a direct yet wide eyed, hard working Czech immigrant. The girl and the guy connect and are soon thinking of playing songs with each other and maybe, just maybe, falling in love. There are complications. In movies and in real life, there are often complications.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the way it uses whole songs to reveal the character’s personality and inner feelings. Hansard and Irglova actually wrote and perform all the songs in the film, which furthers the intimacy on screen. Hansard, from the Irish rock band The Frames (Carney used to also be in the Frames for what it is worth), definitely has a heart-on-fire as it aches kind of style which Irglova nicely tempers his passionate singing with low-key harmonies and lovely piano. I thought the amount of songs might get repetitive but it’s in the songs that these two people truly belong to each other whether they can be when the songs end is another question to be answered.

The lack of money involved in this was a bit distracting at first—Carney uses long zooms for some of the street busking scenes so Hansard would act natural, as would the people around him as he performed, but it produces some shaky camera and focus issues when he does this. The interiors were also severely lighting challenged a time or two. I got used to this though and it actually worked in the film’s favor by the end. It gives Once a hint of realness that a glossy, too pretty film might not have had.

Once is highly recommended and will certainly be in my top ten for 2007. Great songs by Hansard and Irglova and a sweet, understated romance between two people who meet on the Dublin street, use music as a catalyst to their relationship and then…I’ll stop as I don’t want to reveal too much of the story—this is a good one here people, I sure hope people get a chance to see it in a theatre this summer to combat the gluttony of action films and sequels the studios shove upon us as Once is the perfect antidote.