Saturday, February 26, 2011

Blue Valentine / ***½ (R)

Dean: Ryan Gosling
Cindy: Michelle Williams

The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by Derek Cianfrance. Written by Cianfrance & Cami Delavinge and Joey Curtis. Running time: 112 min. Rated R (for strong graphic sexual content, language, and a beating).

I must admit I come to “Blue Valentine” at a disadvantage. I am a hopeful romantic, and have a wonderful marriage, so I have trouble with the notion of falling out of love. I can imagine it, but I can’t fully understand it. This somber film is a delicate portrait of just such an event, yet it doesn’t make me understand it any better. I don’t know if that’s my fault or the film’s. I tend to think it’s the former, as the film is an excellent piece of artwork that combines beautiful direction, photography, writing and editing, as well as two wonderful performances by the leading actors.

The story starts, innocently enough, with what seems like a typical morning, save for the fact that the family dog has gone missing. We meet Dean and Cindy, and their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladkya). They’re a working middle class family. He’s a house painter. She’s a nurse. There may be a slight hint of a problem upon first impression, as he appears to have spent the night in a lounge chair, while she slept alone in the bed. He coddles their daughter at breakfast, while she tries to enforce a little discipline. Still, there are no major signs of problems.

It is immediately apparent that the performances by Ryan Gosling (“Half Nelson”) and Michelle Williams (“Brokeback Moutain”) are of a caliber actors only dream of achieving. These are not showy roles. Their performances are subtle and sublimely natural both as parents of a young child they care for deeply and as two people who know each other so well they speak to each other in their silences and in their inactivity. A slight glance, a look down conveys passages of exposition between these two people. You can tell they are intimately comfortable with each other, yet something lurks between them, a rift that cannot be explained and cannot be articulated.

Their present story is intercut with flashbacks of the lives that led them to fall in love with each other. He worked for a New York City moving company. She was a student with a steady boyfriend. One day, he moves an old man from the city to a Pennsylvania nursing home. He sees her there, caring for her grandmother. He falls instantly for her. She barely notices him.

Things are not good between Cindy and her beau, and she gets good advice from her grandmother. Dean can’t get Cindy out of his mind, so he travels back to Pennsylvania to find her again. They hit it off. Despite some rocky obstacles in their way, their love is strong enough to see them through, at least, for a little while.

The movie shows things from both characters’ perspectives. In doing so, it also looks at a failing relationship through both genders’ perspectives. As a male, it seemed to me there was a point in the beginning of their relationship that he made a rather large sacrifice for the sake of the relationship. I will not reveal the nature of the sacrifice here, but she was also faced with a sacrifice. One that, perhaps, was too big for anyone to make. She did not make her sacrifice, and I cannot place any blame on her for that, but it makes his sacrifice significant. As a male, I may place more importance on this sacrifice than I should.

The distance in the relationship seems to be brought about mostly by her. Again, this may reflect more about myself than the movie’s intentions. Her issues with their relationship are mostly emotional, although his excessive drinking and some final actions do factor heavily in their final resolution. I wanted solid reasoning from her, as Dean does in the movie. But, there is no definitive answer as to why their love has dissipated. In this way, the movie captures the differences between the genders with the same subtlety and accuracy as it captures the everyday life of the opening passages.

If you are familiar with the title “Blue Valentine”, it may be due to the controversy that surrounded the film upon its initial MPAA rating. Before its release it was slapped with a dreaded NC-17 rating due to the sexual material within it. An NC-17 rating often means death to a movie, as most exhibitors will not screen it. In a rare overturn by the MPAA appeals board, the movie was later awarded an R rating. This brought a good deal of attention to the movie, which may have been good for its distribution. The reality of the material, however, led me to wonder just how on earth the MPAA originally felt an NC-17 was appropriate. While the sexual material is certainly of a very adult nature, the film does not contain an inordinate amount for sex, nor does it seem to break any of the MPAA’s guidelines for an R rated film.

What emerges as much more important than the sexual details of the story is this notion of falling in and out of love. By juxtaposing flashback scenes of the couple learning to love each other with present day scenes of their realization that their love has evaporated, the filmmakers have created a unique study of a love story. It isn’t a happily ever after love story, but one with a distinct beginning and a profound end. I may not be able to conceive of ever falling out of love myself, but now I know what it looks like.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Feb. 18-24

The Gold Rush (1925) ***½
Director/Writer: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Henry Bergman, Malcolm Waite, Georgia Hale

So, we sat down on a full moon Friday evening with three sick kids and watched one of the classics of American cinema, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush”. I don’t think they would’ve sat for if they hadn’t been so miserable. But, since they did, they loved it. They were entranced by the Little Tramp’s antics. They loved the wind blowing the men trough one cabin door and out the other. They chuckled at the dance with the forks and rolls. They whooped and hollered as the cabin teetered on the cliff’s edge. They noticed immediately that it was a “really old” movie because it was “in black & white.” But, only in the final moments did one of them say, “Is this one of those no talking movies?” “Silent!” Jack corrected. “Yeah, that’s how you know it’s one of the first movies ever made,” Jude said with the utmost confidence of his expertise. It was a great experience for both my kids and me. We talked a little movie history after our screening, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Twelve O’Clock High (1949) ***
Director: Henry King
Writers: Sy Bartlett (also novel), Bernie Lay Jr. (also novel)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Millard Mitchell, Dean Jagger, Robert Arthur, Paul Stewart, John Kellogg, Bob Patten

This Gregory Peck vehicle is not what you would get out of a war movie today. It is a talky film without much in terms of war sequences. Although several bombing runs are flown in the film, only one is actually depicted on screen. That one is remarkable, however, as it uses actual World War II footage taken by both Allied Forces and the German Luftwaffe. The rest of the movie gives you a side of war that isn’t really seen much and is surprisingly fascinating. It centers on the morale of one air squadron and the tactics taken by two different commanders to get the men to perform their duties.

One commander is close with his men and sympathizes with their reasons for not wanting to perform their missions. The missions are extremely dangerous and many men don’t come back. Since the squadron is underperforming, he is replaced by the hardnosed Gregory Peck, who treats the men more as strategic pieces in the greater war, rather than as men. His methods prove effective because they bring success to the mission, but the longer he’s with the squadron the more he sympathizes with the individual men.

The first half hour or so of the movie, I had the distinct impression that the filmmakers were almost too in love with the film’s dialogue. The director would linger too long on conversations. It’s not surprising that the same two men who wrote the book upon which it is based penned the screenplay. But, once Peck takes over command, the screenplay does a better job of involving the audience in the process of what makes both the individual men and the squadron as a whole tick.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) ***½
Director: George Lucas
Writers: George Lucas, Jonathan Hale
Starring: Hayden Christiansen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Temuera Morrison

Upon this viewing of the poorly titled “Attack of the Clones”, I guess I can see, beyond the lack of acting on Hayden Christiansen’s part, what puts people off about this one. For all its action and CGI and explosions, this is really a rather slow movie until the Geonosian arena scene when said clones finally attack. I still like it quite a bit, however, for what is has that other “Star Wars” films don’t really dabble much in—mystery. Just who is behind these clones? Who is behind the attack against Amidala? Even the people who are behind those things don’t seem to know. Count Dooku is just as blind to Darth Sidious’s real plans as everyone else. Or maybe not. I really don’t know whether he knows everything or not. I prefer to think not. Either way, the mystery is dense, perhaps too dense to please most viewers or even fans. But, it’s what I like about Episode II. So there!

Secretariat (2010) ***½
Director: Randal Wallace
Writers: Mike Rich, William Nack (book “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion”)
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, Dylan Baker, Drew Roy, Kevin Connolly, Eric Lang, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn

I often hear people say about sports pictures like “Secretariat” that they don’t want to see them because they know how it turns out. Yes, we all know that Secretariat not only won the race, but won three races in a row. Yet, the filmmakers have still made an incredibly compelling sports movie. That’s because it’s not really about the races. It’s more about growing a family outside of your family. Now, Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery, already had a family of her own. I think the film probably plays a little loose with the depth of the problems her family might’ve actually gone through when they essentially lost their mother to horseracing. But, often the details of real life stories are changed to strengthen a message the filmmakers wish to convey. Chenery’s determination and will to do something nobody thought was possible also drives the story and is paralleled by the horse’s own unlikely chance of achieving what he did. The characters Chenery surrounds herself with make for an immensely enjoyable landscape of personality to support both Chenery and her horse and help to make this movie even more enjoyable than it seems it should be.

Carlos (2010) ***
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writers: Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck, Daniel Laconte
Starring: Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Sheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Fadi Abi Samra, Ahmad Kaabour, Talal El-Jordi, Nora von Waldstätten, Christoph Bach, Rodney El Haddad, Julia Hummer

“Carlos” originally aired as a mini-series in Europe that chronicled two decades in the life of Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Although it was briefly released theatrically in the U.S. with a truncated running time, the 5 plus hour original version supplies an in depth portrait of one of Europe’s most terrifying figures in the 70s. Many of the events are developed in an oblique manner, and it may benefit audience members to have some knowledge of Carlos prior to screening the film. Surely, his actions are more common knowledge in Europe than they are here in the states.

The film is fascinating in depicting how Carlos insinuates himself into the world of international terrorism, his objectifying and use of women, and the sometimes improvisational manner with which he executes his missions. Following the infamous 1975 attack on an OPEC meeting in Austria, Carlos’s organization enters a downward spiral from which it never recovers. Driven by his runaway ego and libido, his decline is not as compelling as his earlier activities, but it all creates an intimate portrait of a terrorist like none other seen on film.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) ***½
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel
Starring: Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil

According to a friend of mine “Un Chien Andalou” is David Lynch’s favorite film. I haven’t been able to confirm this anywhere, but this would be no surprise as just about every strange image Lynch has placed in his films could probably be traced back to this impenetrably odd short film by then first time director Luis Buñuel and whacked out artist Salvador Dali. I won’t attempt to try to dissect this movie. Such a task might lead to insanity. But, for a 1929 movie, it’s innovation and prowess cannot be denied. It contains shocking images, like the slicing open of an eyeball, which might make it hard for some to stomach. Yet, holding in your lunch would be much easier for the average viewer than trying to figure out just what these filmmakers are trying to say with this movie. It is not for beginning cineastes.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Roommate / * (PG-13)

Sara Matthews: Minka Kelly
Rebecca: Leighton Meester
Steve: Cam Gigandet
Irene: Danneel Harris
Tracy: Alyson Michalka
Professor Roberts: Billy Zane

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Christian E. Christiansen. Written by Sonny Mallhi. Running time: 91 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence and menace, sexual content, some language, and teen partying).

Watching the new thriller “The Roommate”, I was brought back to my college days as if it were yesterday. I remember the special bond held between my roommate and me. In fact, it wasn’t a far cry from what is depicted in this movie. I remember the day that I received my roomie’s contact information in the mail a few weeks before our first semester began. If it had been left up to me, we probably never would’ve contacted each other ahead of time; but like any great Hollywood “Fatal Attraction” story, Mikey P.’s obsession with me began that summer with an innocent introductory phone call and would only end with the death of a cherished pet or a loved one or both.

It’s amazing to me just how well-cast this film is because if I were to describe Mike and myself our freshman year, I would definitely be Minka Kelly from “Friday Night Lights” and Mike would most certainly be Leighton Meester from “Gossip Girl”. We both shared that same high-registered voice that made it almost impossible to listen to a conversation between the two of us without the desire to shoot yourself.  It also allowed Mike to pretend to be me while doing creepy things with my ex on the phone.

Now, this is kind of a horror movie, but what’s really scary about it is how it mirrors my own college freshman experience. Of course, I wasn’t a fashion major like Kelly is here, but I was a little fashion maven, wearing all the best designers and telling people I found my clothes in second hand stores, because that’s the really cool thing to do. My friends and I would go clubbing at night and pull the whole “watch me seduce this chick” trick, ‘cause nothing’s hotter than watching your friends score, right?!

I had this totally hot girlfriend. We’ll just call her Cam Gigandet, because, really, that’s just about the cutest name I can think of. Who cares if that’s the name of an actor from “The O.C.” who happens to play the heroine’s boyfriend in this movie? He should have it in his contract that he never has to play a character with a name as boring as “Steve”. Only his full name, Cam Gigandet, can possibly convey how totally cute he is. As in the movie, my Cam introduced herself to me with the most lecherous move I’ve ever seen as a pickup line, but hey, she was as cute as whatever a Cam Gigandet is, so how could I hold it against her?

Now, Mike could’ve just been jealous of everything I had—good looks (despite the fact that he shared them), incredible fashion sense, a hottie for a girlfriend—or maybe he just wanted me all for himself. But, it went deeper than that. Mike was sick. Not just perverse sick, although he was that, but he actually needed medication. Turns out in high school he obsessed over a guy who looked just like me. Not only that, but all three of that guy’s other friends looked exactly like my three other friends, whose names I never learned because they didn’t have enough lines in my story. Weirds, huh?

You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Mike had spent all his time watching movies like “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct”, because he really seemed to fall into all the same behavioral patterns as the antagonists in those films. Come to think of it, he did keep a copy of “Single White Female” under his pillow at night, right next to the picture he had of me with my girlfriend’s head cut out and his pasted in its place. Despite all the Hollywood clichés that seemed to define our freshman year you’d think that at some point Mike and I would’ve at least made out a little. The film didn’t get that wrong either. None of the gratuitous lesbianism involved my character, thank God.

For all its similarity to my own freshman experience in college, “The Roommate” has made me realize that perhaps my college experience wasn’t as cool as I remember. I mean shouldn’t the school have informed me that my roommate was taking some sort of anti-psychotic medication? And if Mike wanted to hurt me with the disappearance of the precious stray kitty I brought home one night, why did he have to tumble it around in a dryer? Couldn’t he have just “accidentally” let it out like he said he did? Ah well, I guess you can’t really question the actions of your psychotic roommate who wants to kill everyone you love just so he can have you all to himself, but it’s too bad “The Roommate” didn’t try to answer some of these inconsistencies. Also, in seeing this film, I’m surprised at how dull and uninspired that tumultuous year seems when dramatized. The cat might beg to differ.

Note: Obviously this review has been written in jest. Mike was actually the best roommate a kid from the coast of Maine moving to a university just outside New York City could’ve asked for. The only factual point in this anecdote created to highlight the absurdity of this movie is that Mike is the one who contacted me before our semester started. I was too scared to call him, but that was my issue, not his.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Feb. 11-17

Doctor Zhivago (1965) ***
Director: David Lean
Writers: Robert Bolt, Boris Pasternak (novel)
Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guiness, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson

“Doctor Zhivago” is long. It feels long. That’s not all bad, but I felt its length much more so than during director David Lean’s other epics. It seems more relaxed than the others as well. Perhaps that’s because it’s more of a romance than his other work. Perhaps it’s just Russia. It’s as beautiful a film as Lean has ever made. I dunno. I enjoyed it, but I think the unrequited love thing is just a hard sell for me. I liked it, but it was no “Bridge on the River Kwai” or “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999) ***
Director/Writer: George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Ian McDiarmid, Oliver Ford Davis, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Blessed, Terrence Stamp

The first movie I ever reviewed was “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”. Unfortunately, that review has long since disappeared. It was sent out to about 24 friends, and half of them probably didn’t read it. That could be a good thing, because I think I really reviewed how psyched I was that “Star Wars” was back more so than I reviewed the actual movie.

At the time, I was unwilling to admit what a disappointment the movie was. In the intervening years, despite my initial disappointment, the movie has grown on me a little. Just a little. It is not the simple good vs. evil storyline that originally grabbed the attention of the world in 1977in the original “Star Wars”. It’s filled with political ambiguity, back stabbing and deception. Those aspects are the ones that have grown on me.

It still clunks along with Lucas’s insistence that it’s a family franchise. Jar Jar Binks takes the brunt of the criticism for being a schlocky, obviously goofy character that exists to amuse without much other purpose. But he is the least of the film’s clunky elements.

What Lucas lost touch with since the original trilogy was purpose. The space slug sequence in “The Empire Strikes Back” comes to mind when I watch the journey through the planet core in this one. The space slug didn’t exist simply as a scary element in “Empire” but rather gave the filmmakers an excuse to pause from the action to perform some important exposition on the relationship between Captain Solo and Princess Leia. The space slug itself was just a bonus surprise the filmmakers got out of the need to slow down the plot and work on the characters. The planet core on the other hand obviously exists only to provide a special effects and action sequence at a point in the plot when they couldn’t come up with any other way to keep the audiences head above the complexity of the politics they had introduced. “Lets just throw some monsters at them so they’ve got something cool to look at while we continue to establish the plot.”

The pod race on the other hand, while still being an excuse for special effects and action, at least serves other purposes. It does move the plot forward and provides important character development for both Qui Gon and Anakin.

Despite the unnecessary distractions in the film committed by filmmakers trying to show off their technique above artistry, there is enough worthwhile material here for me to just barely get behind. I think the disparity in quality makes it difficult for fans to accept “The Phantom Menace” as a worthwhile entry into the “Star Wars” canon, but it isn’t all bad.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) ***½
Directors: Michael Curtiz, William Keighly
Writers: Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, Una O’Conner, Herbert Mundin, Montagu Love, Ian Hunter

I don’t know if it’s because when growing up the tale of Robin Hood was always presented to me as a fairly light-hearted one, or perhaps that is the way the myth was originally conceived of in England, but it seems to me Errol Flynn’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is really the way Robin Hood is meant to be. Versions like Ridley Scott’s recent “Robin Hood” might have great battle scenes and emotional turmoil, but they lack joy. This very early color film is vibrant in both its costumes and spirit. While the Kevin Costner version retained the light spirit of this one’s, its more realistic depiction of the time period fights against the schlock of the script. “The Adventures or Robin Hood” might not have the gritty environment and temperament modern audiences have come to expect from a period piece set during the Crusades, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. And, it never professes to be anything but fun, with Flynn’s swashbuckling charm and its trio of smarmy villains.

A Town Called Panic (2009) ***½
Directors/Writers: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar
Starring: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Jeanne Balibar, Nicolas Buysse, Véronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Frédéric Jannin, Bouli Lanners, Benoît Poelvoorde

“A Town Called Panic” is one of the most unique stop-motion animations you will ever see. Made with a fairly arbitrary collection of children’s toys, it tells the story of how Cowboy’s and Indian’s birthday present for their roommate Horse goes terribly wrong. The character names are quite literal translations of the toys they are. No notation is made of the fact that Horse talks and lives with two typically mortal enemies, however. It’s put together in much the same way a child’s imagination might actually have him playing with these toys, except that child’s mind is occupied with some more adult themes than a child usually plays at. It all works out into a wildly zany and entertaining bit of wackiness that proves once and for all that the French are a little strange. Well, the French filmmakers who made this movie are anyway.

Devil (2010) **
Directors: John Erick Dowdle
Writers: Brian Nelson, M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jacob Vargas, Matt Craven

“Devil” could’ve been a good movie. It has real scares that it earns. What it doesn’t earn is its ending, and there’s a whole lot of movie making sloppiness on its way there. Like so many of M. Night Shyamalan’s projects, the rules of the story are specifically and clearly laid out for the audience as they watch. This one involves five passengers trapped on an elevator. They are all sinners, and the Devil has come to claim their souls. A good example of the sloppiness of the filmmaking can be found in the voice over of one character as he points out that the devil will claim innocent victims that get in his way. Then, instead of claiming one of those innocent victims as soon as he makes the claim, the filmmakers wait another half hour before they bother to follow up on that claim. Now, if the rule is a loophole, like the one that ends to film, its important to point it out early instead of waiting till the last minute and making the audience feel cheated.

Some very minor changes to the screenplay could’ve made this movie an effective shocker. The mistakes are sloppy details, the kind that Shyamalan doesn’t tend to make when he writes his own screenplay. If only he’d bothered with this one, his name might not be continuing to diminish his own reputation as a great filmmaker.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Best Albums of 2010

Last year I published my first ever Best Albums list, although music has played an important role in my life since high school. This year I feel I’ve compiled a list much more representative of the music I generally listen to a great deal. Dark doom and stoner albums dominated last year’s list, while this year is more spread out in terms of genre. I’ve included no less than four soundtrack albums in this year’s list, which is explained by the main topic of this blog, a grand obsession with movies. You won’t see a lot of mainstream music here, but hopefully I can point you toward something you might not have considered before. I’ve also included links to my five favorite websites to visit over the past year, because I don’t really have any other place to make those public. You can preview or purchase any of these albums by clicking on the "Dropped" date link under each title.

1. Crazy Heart Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Various Artists

2. Club Jazz Digs Lupin the Third
Various Artists

3. Free Blank Shots
Wallace Vanborn

4. Restored to One
Sabbath Assembly

5. Brothers
The Black Keys

6. The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night
The Besnard Lakes

7. The Wild Hunt
The Tallest Man on Earth

8. My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

9. Inception Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Hans Zimmer

10. Metallic Spheres
The Orb featuring David Gilmour

11. The Fear is Excruciating. But Therein Lies the Answer.
Red Sparowes

12. Wilderness Heart
Black Mountain

13. The Social Network
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

14. Éscailles de lune

15. Tron Legacy Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Daft Punk

16. Run Thick in the Night
U.S. Christmas

17. Absolute Dissent
Killing Joke

18. The Threshingfloor

19. Diamond Eyes

20. Black Rock
Joe Bonamassa

Special Jury Prize
I’ve chosen to give out two special jury prizes this year. The first is not a full-length album but contains my favorite single track of the year, “Teeth and Claws”. The second was released in a digital only format at the very end of 2009. I did not get a good chance to listen to it before my Best Albums of 2009 list was published, but it certainly would’ve been included on that list had I heard it. Since it wasn’t released on CD and Vinyl formats until 2010, I took that as an excuse to include it on this year’s list. It’s one of the best cover albums I’ve heard.

Boris & Ian Astbury

The Dark Side of the Moon
The Flaming Lips &Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches

Favorite five websites of the year:
Hyperbole and a Half