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