Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Film Faves: 2006

Welcome to another edition of Film Faves, a feature wherein I count down my 12 favorite films from each year.  Remember, Film Faves is not to be taken as an end-all, unbiased, objective list of the best films of each year.  It is a fun editorial about the movies I enjoyed most from a given year.  Instead of a top 10 list with honorable mentions tacked on, I decided to cut down on all of that and list a dozen films I recommend most.

The year 2006 was an interesting year for movies.  Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was the highest-grossing film of the year.  Meanwhile, the decade's greatest film, United 93 was also released.  Documentaries continued their popularity by getting environmental with An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed The Electric Car?.  They also examined politics (Why We Fight), entertainment (This Film is Not Yet Rated), and religion (Jesus Camp).  The year brought us Slither, Pan's Labyrinth, Mission: Impossible III, Dreamgirls, Over the Hedge, The Descent, Monster House, Talledega Nights, Cars, and The Queen.  It also brought us Open Season, X-Men: The Last Stand, Barnyard, Lady in the Water, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, Basic Instinct 2, Ice Age: The Meltdown, Doogal, and Hoodwinked.  The following are my favorites:


12. Shut Up & Sing

This slot had a few contenders, but I ultimately chose to give it to a documentary.  This documentary slipped under the radar for most people; audiences understandably preferred to see Saw III or Borat than a movie seemingly about the Dixie Chicks fiasco.  Yes, Shut Up focuses on the Dixie Chicks and Natalie Maines’s dismissive comment in 2003 regarding George W. Bush.  But it quickly becomes less about defending the Chicks and more about the shushing of dissent during times of war.  We bear witness to red-hot furor over a Red-State musical act commenting against a president starting a war.  The reactions vary from radio censorship and CD-smashing to threats of violence against the front-woman herself.  It’s a film that looks like it requires a love of the band, but actually offers something for every American.  Shut Up & Sing is an interesting document of a period in the decade where blind patriotism ruled… a period in which hindsight tends to favor the voice of dissent.

11. Crank

Insane is the only way to describe this Jason Statham roller-coaster ride.  The first moments feature an 8-bit graphic and a hung-over first person perspective, at which point you know two things: 1) this is not something to take seriously and 2) this is going to be unlike anything else in recent memory.  Statham’s Chev Chelios has been injected with some sort of poison that is slowed by adrenaline.  Basically, if the action stalls our attention won’t be the only thing that will expire.  This is a brilliant concept that is executed with an infectious enthusiasm and energy.  Crank is wild, outrageous, hard-R fun!

10. Stranger Than Fiction

To some this is nothing more than a wannabe Kauffman film. I think the performances in Stranger Than Fiction elevate it above 2nd-rate copycatting.  Sure, comparisons to Charlie Kauffman’s style (see Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) are impossible to ignore.  However, Fiction remains an interesting fable about creativity, monotony, and the idea that we are all just characters in someone else’s story. Will Ferrell gets mopish and sincere here.  While he may not reach the heights of Jim Carrey’s Spotless Mind, it is very refreshing to witness; after all, Ferrell’s man-child oafishness has run its course.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is sidelined to a love interest that seems like an afterthought, a studio note.  But even she can raise the material to something likable.  Regardless, Stranger Than Fiction has a very juicy idea that is played out comically and dramatically in a very satisfying way.

9. Borat

This is probably the most irreverent, inspired, and ingenious comedy of the decade. Sacha Baron Cohen took a sketch comedy character and created an innocently offensive, yet likable observer (if not antagonizing) of our society’s less-than-desirable prejudices – and he did so to hilarious effect.  Borat is a film that demands mention in any discussion about movies from the aughts.  It may even be one of the greatest comedies ever put to film.

8. The Departed

What a solid crime-thriller! I’ve yet to see Infernal Affairs - the Hong Kong film that The Departed Americanized - but the story of a cop infiltrating a mob while the mob simultaneously infiltrates the police force is extremely taut and gripping! This is a stellar piece of work by Martin Scorsese, who brought out all the big guns: Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, and Ray Winstone!  I may not agree The Departed is the best film of 2006, but it’s close.

7. Little Children

When I think about the year 2006 in film, two movies immediately come to mind: #3 and Little ChildrenLittle Children is another great work of domestic and suburban struggle by Todd Field (In the Bedroom). His previous film’s focus was on a tragedy - an external violence’s effect on the emotions of those closest to it, which manifests back to outward violence.  Little Children also has an unpleasant presence in an amiable suburban community, but is primarily focused on a more internal conflict, that of an affair between two married people.  Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson (Watchmen) play the unfaithful couple who fall in love.  Jackie Earl Haley returns to the screen as a registered sex offender who comes to live with his mother in the community.  His unwelcome presence turns the neighborhood into something just as objectionable as his reputation.  It’s interesting to watch as both stories have an effect on the members of the community and how sympathetic they become – especially Haley during a swimming pool scene that becomes a question of intentions and perspective.  Simply a great film.

6. Thank You for Smoking

Director Jason Reitman popped onto the indie circuit with this satirical gem.  Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brockovich, The Dark Knight) stars as Big Tobacco’s chief spokesman, a man who can turn a cancer patient into a potential customer.  He’s the Great Debater – in fact, I can’t think of a character over the past 20 years as talented at persuasive arguments as Eckhart’s Nick Naylor. “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong,” he tells his intrigued son.  Smoking is a hilarious film that dares you to care about the “Yuppie Mephistopheles”, yet also is more concerned with the subjectivity of what is morally right than delivering a message about Big Tobacco itself.  Jason Reitman went on to direct Juno and Up in the Air, two Best Picture contenders of their respective years.  As a result, I named him one of the best directors of the decade and look forward to seeing what else he has up his sleeve.

5. District B13

Almost as relentless as Crank, but not as outrageous is the French film District B13 (in French the ‘B’ is redundant). The opening foot-chase scene will make your jaw drop in how’d-they-do-that astonishment (it blows the similar chase scene in Casino Royale out of the water) as what you are seeing stuntman-turned-actor (and inventor of Parkour) David Belle do is actually happening; no camera tricks, CGI, or stunt doubles. The story: in a near-future Paris, an undercover cop and ex-thug must team-up to stop a gang from setting off a neutron bomb.  Little-seen by us stateside folks, but highly recommended.

4. V for Vendetta

This was perhaps the best theater experience of 2006 for me.  Having started collecting comics over a year beforehand, I’d become familiar with Alan Moore’s work, including the V for Vendetta graphic novel. I was excited for what sounded like a good adaptation of the source material - and I got one. Sure, the filmmakers went a tad further with the relationship between V and Evie than they should’ve, but this was no LEXG-redux. McTiegue hit every subversive and explosive note from Moore’s work and added some exciting action in the mix. This is a film by one establishment against another establishment and for that it should be appreciated, because Hollywood rarely has the balls to make a film like it. Like Watchmen after it (another work by Alan Moore), V for Vendetta shows that superhero films can be more than web-slinging popcorn flicks.

3. Little Miss Sunshine

What could’ve been quirk for quirk’s sake turned out to be the sweetest, most beautiful comedy of the year.  Instead of giving us caricatures that exist only for their one-note quirkiness like that of Napoleon Dynamite, this film gives us real characters with real dreams and aspirations and real flaws who happen to be left-of-center. The film opens by introducing the characters so beautifully with that wonderful score by the Denver band DeVotchka; I’m reminded of the opening to Magnolia as I watch it. Each character has a dream or aspiration and is faced with one form or another of failure because of their idiosyncrasies or differences from the norm. Nobody in this family is a star to anybody outside the home (or VW Microbus, as the case may be). Little Miss Sunshine is not about the tragedy within failure, it’s about the beauty within those quirks that makes some of us fail by society's standards.

2. Children of Men

Children of Men, directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), is perhaps the greatest science fiction film of the decade – and one of the least seen, only earning half its budget. This is tragic in a way, because it is already considered a classic of the genre. Clive Owen stars as a loner in a near-future where all women are infertile and the last-born human, an 18 year-old, is killed.  Owen finds himself in a situation where he must escort what may be the key to humanity’s survival to a safe-haven. The film is a work of ingenious craftsmanship.  It contains mind-blowingly long single-cut action scenes, virtually no special effects, and a dingy reality not far removed from our own. There is no sleek whiz-bang technology, no aliens, and no gun-toting heroes. This kind of science fiction is typically relegated to hardbacks. Children of Men centers on great acting (Julianne Moore and Michael Caine join Owen) and great writing and is managed by a great filmmaker.

1. Casino Royale

Before 2006, the James Bond series had lost the spark that GoldenEye brought to the franchise ten years before. At that time, Pierce Brosnan seemed fresh and invigorating to the series. After only four films, it had quickly become high-tech buffoonery comparable to the Roger Moore films of the ‘80s. Before 2006, there were laser beams, invisible cars, and Christmas Jones. I admit I was a bit nervous about a possible prequel to the Bond mythology (wasn't M originally a man?). But Casino Royale turned out to be not a prequel but a re-boot – a smarter and more interesting decision, as it turned out. Martin Campbell (who coincidentally directed GoldenEye also) disposed of fantastical villainy and plopped Bond into a real-world environment. The result was perhaps the most exciting Bond film to this day (the follow-up, Quantum of Solace, was a bore by comparison). Bond became rawer than ever – and fell in love for the first time in over 35 years! It would be no less tragic than before, but so much sexier and more fun!

Those are my favorite films of 2006.  If I listed a movie you're unfamiliar with or have yet to see I highly recommend giving them a look.  Let me know what you think!  What are your favorite movies of 2006?  Leave a comment below.  Next time on Film Faves, dark knights and dark forces return... 2005!  See you next time.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kick-Ass Lives Up to Its Name

It’s been ten years since Hollywood discovered the full potential of comic book adaptations, specifically the superhero genre. We’ve since seen mutants unite, webs slung thrice, a man without fear, a dark knight get serious, an iron man soar, a vigilante obsess over the letter v, and a group of superheroes watch as a world-peace-via-nuclear-holocaust conspiracy unfolds. During this time, the superhero genre has touched on darker moods, become more violent and has edged closer to realism. This is part of what made The Dark Knight a phenomenon in 2008. And what earned Watchmen, the most violent and solemn of all, its necessary R-rating in 2009.

This is nothing new to comics; the medium has been serving up mostly adult fare for over 20 years as adults gradually became its primary readership. One could say that films like The Dark Knight and Watchmen (as well as non-superhero stories like Sin City and Road to Perdition) represent an inevitable step in the genre’s filmic evolution; Hollywood finally caught up to the medium it was adapting.

This year brings us Kick-Ass, a film that was independently financed and produced outside the studio system. That’s not for lack of trying: as the story goes, Mark Millar (executive producer and author of the source comic series) shopped the story of Kick-Ass around to Hollywood studios. Each one gave the same notes (“You can’t have a 12 year-old assassin in a movie!”) and ultimately passed. Over ten producers later (including artist John Romita, Jr. and Brad Pitt), enough money was put up for Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust) to direct one of the most violent superhero films to date.

To be fair, Kick-Ass isn’t any different than most R-rated action films Hollywood churned out in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Limbs get cut, bodies get impaled, and people get shot in various different ways, but there isn’t a single kill that compares to what one will find in any recent horror movie. Some have carped that what makes Kick-Ass different and most troubling is that all the violence is committed by teenagers. I must first ask if those who toss their hands at this film have no long-term memory. I feel compelled to recall Gogo Yubari, O-Ren Ishii’s 17 year-old bodyguard in Kill Bill, who was capable of acts far more gruesome than the 12 year-old Hit Girl of Kick-Ass. Or what about Battle Royale or for that matter dozens of other Japanese films with young females brandishing blades or barrels? Hit Girl (who seems to be garnering most of this film’s attention) is no more shocking in her unmerciful brutality than any of these characters or even Jodie Foster’s 14 year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver.

Most importantly, Kick-Ass is not to be taken seriously. Anyone who bemoans the future of cinema and our youth while watching Kick-Ass is somehow blinding themselves to the excitement this movie wants you to feel. Everything about his this movie screams “FUN!” - from its dialogue to the exuberant and oft-satirical soundtrack. Kick-Ass is a perfect mix of John Woo action, Spider-Man geekery, Mystery Men satire, and gangster brutality. It takes every superhero trope and turns them on their heads with a dose of reality. If someone wants to don a costume and fight a couple street thugs without any training then that person is going to get badly hurt. It never strains credibility beyond the world it creates.

Kick-Ass winks at the superhero film genre while also becoming a part of it. As a result, the film has been criticized for wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. But to see Kick-Ass in that way is an error, albeit an understandable one. Kick-Ass very consistently plays with the genre and its audience’s expectations, pays homage to specific movies (note Nicolas Cage’s Adam West impression, Red Mist’s slick Schumacher-influenced costume, and the rooftop jump scene similar to that in Spider-Man), and contains frequent henchmen fight scenes. The villain even goes out in an appropriately over-the-top manner. Kick-Ass doesn’t distance itself from the superhero movies of yore; it embraces them and wants to be included among them.

I would be remiss to not take a moment to spotlight Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). They are presented as supporting characters (especially in the trailers), but are every bit as important to the story as the title character. Their story is a well-told tale of revenge infused with a sweet father/daughter dynamic. I can’t stress enough how refreshing it is to finally enjoy a Nicolas Cage performance after ten years of crap (World Trade Center notwithstanding)! His father character is sweet, loving, deranged, dopey, and bad-ass.

I made special mention of Chloe Moretz as a rising star in a previous review. Kick-Ass is the movie that official transforms her from That Girl to a Name on par with Dakota Fanning; surely, Chloe’s talent is just as impressive. Hit Girl is the one thing the film asks the audience to suspend disbelief over (a girl who’s been trained for seven years to be a murderous vigilante) and Moretz convincingly sells the audience on the character. She’s also the source of many of the film’s thrills.

Kick-Ass is that rare movie that makes you fall in love with its characters to the extent that you’re anxious to see more of them. It leaves open the opportunity for a sequel, but is worthy of treasuring on its own. If you're looking for a fun action movie then look no further. This is one of the best times you’ll have at the theater this year. If only Hollywood would get a clue and cease passing up such brilliant and edgy films like this one, there’d be more movies like Kick-Ass and less ‘80s remakes.

Should you see it? Buy tickets


Kick-Ass is in theaters now.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

An Education & Crazy Heart: A Double Review

I thought since An Education was just released on video two weeks ago and Crazy Heart is about to be released soon, I’d review these two quieter, more under-the-radar Oscar nominees. What struck me as I watched these films this past week is that while they have their distinct differences (one about a present-day drunken country music has-been, the other about an early ‘60s wide-eyed English academic teenager) the main characters of these films also have their similarities.

An Education is written by author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy), adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir. Its central character is Jenny, a 16 year-old intellectual with dreams of going to university, gaining vast amounts of knowledge, and earning a career among the bourgeoisie. She meets David, a young (but significantly older) man who is charming, sweet, and exposes Jenny to the culture, high art, and intellectual discourse she dreams her future will center around. Jenny becomes seduced intellectually by David and they fall in love. Once this love begins to affect her education, Jenny must decide between a life of love and culture or one of studies and reputable academia.

Crazy Heart stars Jeff Bridges as country singer Bad Blake, an aging drunkard, who’s pissed his career down to the toilets of bowling alleys and small-town bars. He’s lost all meaningful connections in his life: wives, fellow country stars, music, his audiences, and a son. The only thing that means anything to him is booze; he just plays the music of his glory days for the money to get more booze. Then Bad meets a young small-town journalist who gives him his first interview in years. In Jean, Bad finds someone who actually cares about the man behind the guitar and possesses the intelligence his one-night-only flings lack. As they fall in love, a former protégé named Tommy, now at the top of the charts, courts Bad back to the spotlight and asks his mentor to write new songs for him. Bad is given an opportunity by both Jean and Tommy at a life beyond the next small town and bottle of whisky.

While these two characters exist decades and oceans apart, it’s interesting how they are both seduced by something not necessarily in their best interests. For Bad it’s alcohol; for Jenny it’s a life with David. There are a couple things about David that Jenny discovers that I won’t spoil here; needless to say, they go beyond an age difference in complicating a future together. Both Bad and Jenny are presented with difficult choices in their lives that will significantly alter them for better or worse.

Jenny is a teenager who thinks she knows everything yet knows nothing and is tempted to potentially throw everything away in order to impulsively follow her heart. Bad is an old man who’s lived a long life dictated by his impulses, and is left with little to show for it. These two seem to tell us that life is full of these opportunities for success and destruction; that a 58 year-old can be every bit as foolish about life as a 16 year-old.

Both films offer superb performances from their leads.

Jeff Bridges as Bad is perpetually drunk, disheveled, with his belt almost always loose. It seems his belt is his one concession toward a public image. Some people wear nicer clothes, or apply make-up before putting on a show or being seen by the public; Bad buckles his belt. You get a clear understanding that, years ago when he had the Cash, he was a lot less Haggard. It is one of the actor’s least glamorous roles – and he’s an actor whose most memorable characters are anything but sophisticated! His endless drinking habit is presented casually rather than heavily and didactically. It truly is one of the best performances of its year.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean is a magnet for bad relationships, which is why she’s not married to her son’s father. Perhaps this is one reason why she so easily falls for someone named Bad. Yet, the movie is one of those rare stories that clearly demonstrate her reluctance over being with Bad. She knows he’s a drunk and decades older than her. Her gut tells her this may not end well. But she sees him anyway. It’s important to note that, unlike in other films, Jean does not enable Bad’s drinking. “Just do me one favor… don’t drink in front of Buddy,” she says. In fact, Jean’s involvement in Bad’s life leads to an event that triggers a huge development of his character.

Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan’s Jenny is one of the most quietly complex female characters in recent memory; there is no bombastic “Look at me! I’m multidimensional!” showboating in her performance. Mulligan perfectly portrays the line between intelligent young woman and naïve schoolgirl that her character embodies. She also possesses strength and independence at a time when society was months away from allowing women to stand strong without a rich man or academic degree.

Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina are excellent as the two men who want the best for Jenny and try guiding her future in one direction or another. Molina, as Jenny’s father, perfectly balances between an arrogant and classist father-knows-best and a befuddled, yet likeable oaf. Sarsgaard should be unlikable as an older man seducing jailbait, but he’s charming, sweet, and appears almost as foolish as Jenny. That’s quite an achievement.

Aside from the characters, what’s interesting about An Education is everyone thinks they have it all figured out, but their perspective is equally as flawed as the others. There is no one example that is more righteous than the others. This refusal to moralize - as well as its fine performance by Carey Mulligan - helps make An Education something different than anything we’ve seen before and worth seeking out.

As for Crazy Heart, its songs, produced by T Bone Burnett, are really good and seem to speak to the character or the story. Also worthy of mention is a certain Irish actor (whose identity I’ll leave to others to spoil since the director intended it to be a surprise) who plays Tommy, Bad Blake’s former protégé. It’s a great part that differs from the norm in that it’s completely devoid of arrogance and full of reverence of his mentor.

Crazy Heart is a very fine film that’s not about major events in its character’s life, but about the character itself. Its strong performances and excellently written script and songs make it one of last year’s best films.

It’s a shame lesser films stole the award recognition Crazy Heart so greatly deserved, but at least Jeff Bridges got his. And, while I’m not sure An Education deserved its Best Picture nod, it certainly is more deserving than others. Both films offer uniquely complex leads that are equally believable and true (it helps that both are based on real people). Their choices mirror the fragility of our own and how one choice can either ruin or reward our lives.

Should you see them? Rent both

An Education: 7/10  Crazy Heart: 8/10

Crazy Heart will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on 4/20/10.

An Education is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Remember That Movie: Magnolia

Phillip Baker Hall, Tom Cruise, Henry Gibson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Melora Walters, Melinda Dillon, Luis Guzman, and Ricky Jay.

Take another look at that cast listed above. I thought I’d begin by listing the cast, because I felt it was worth pointing out how many people star in this slice-of-life tapestry set in the San Fernando Valley.  It’s very Altman-esque in that way, as well as its naturalistic dialogue.  Magnolia is very similar to Robert Altman’s early nineties film Short Cuts in that it also follows a couple of days of the lives of average people in a southern California region.  They both also end with a sudden, bizarre event.  However, Magnolia is a cut above Altman's film.

Magnolia is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and was his follow-up to 1997's Boogie Nights. While Boogie Nights was very clearly about people involved in the porn industry during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Magnolia is not so focused with its set-up. That’s not a bad thing; it just means that Magnolia is more complicated than its predecessor. Yet, I’ll quickly point out that it’s more complicated, but no less comprehensible. In fact, one of the great things about Magnolia is its ability to follow so many characters with such clarity while also avoiding getting lost in the maze or leaving any characters behind. That’s no easy task.

The film begins with a brilliant prologue narrated by Ricky Jay about coincidental happenstances in life that just so happen to merge. This is a prologue that opens with silent-era black and white that transition in flames to another story of accidental death and suicide – all of which are related.

“This is not just ‘something that happens.’ This cannot be just ‘one of those things’,” the narrator tells us, “These things happen all of the time.”

This narration not only segues neatly into the following introductory montage (more on that in a second), but also relates thematically to the film’s finale.

After this prologue, we’re treated to the opening notes of Aimee Mann’s cover of ‘One’ by Three Dog Night. The camera then zooms in to follow each principle character of the following three hour story. With a mix of steady cams, quick pans, zooms in and out, and medical charts, the audience is given everything they need to know about each character within the song’s duration. The prologue and montage make for a brilliant nine minutes of film that is alone worth giving Magnolia a watch.

Unfortunately, what follows is almost a completely different movie that fails to be as tightly cut or cleverly presented as those nine minutes. As a result, Magnolia goes from a “really great movie” to a “really good movie.”

Magnolia truly is a really good movie. Its story is about the things we do to those closest to us; how we take love for granted when we have it and when we don’t, how desperate we are to get love and appreciate it much more. This is primarily filtered through parents and their children and is handled in a subtle, non-didactic manner. A run-time of 188 minutes may seem daunting for such a story, but Magnolia manages to never wear out its welcome. When you think about it, that is quite an achievement and incredibly uncommon in movies. I think the filmmaking is the real reason why this is the case.

Magnolia is a film where characters move in and out of long tracking shots. A firing turns into a debate over whether a character should get braces. Two completely flawed, plain-looking people go on a date: an inadequate man of the law and a coke addict. During a montage, the principle characters sing the song playing in the background. One scene seems to occur at night until a sheet is incidentally pulled from a window in the background to reveal it is daytime. Oh, and then there’s the magical realism.

This is not an average slice-of-life melodrama about relationships with bland characters and conventional editing.

Magnolia is a film made by an extraordinary filmmaker. P. T. Anderson manages to take material that would be dull in anybody else’s hands and make something interesting and unique out of it. The performances by the cast are just as strong as the director’s handling of the material. It’s just a shame it’s not as solid as the first few minutes.


Should you see it? Rent

Magnolia is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.