Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Potter & Co. Near Their End in Darkest Chapter

The day has finally arrived. After a decade, the final chapter of the Harry Potter film series is here… well, almost. The final book of the beloved and seminal fantasy series is split into two movies, so the fate of the wizarding world first introduced to theaters by Chris Columbus nine years ago is delayed for another eight months, at which point readers will already have known the outcome for exactly two years.

Regardless, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 suggests no one will be disappointed when the screen goes black and the credits roll after the final moments of the series.

As per the last film, The Half-Blood Prince, The Death Eaters, led by Sirius Snape, stormed Hogwarts and assassinated Professor Dumbledore, after which our teenage trio flee the school. As Harry, Hermione, and Ron are absent from class, so is the school from The Deathly Hallows, Part 1. The three young adult heroes are on the hunt for horcruxes, which help make Voldemort immortal, while also being hunted themselves. Hermione takes her fated friend and boyfriend Ron from barren landscape to barren landscape, casting protection charms so no one can find them while they sort out where to go next.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Magic is destroyed and usurped by Voldemort’s army, securing power over wizard-kind. And Harry’s scarring connection to his archenemy inflicts flashes of Voldemort’s latest pursuits upon him, allowing us to see more peripheral characters meet their end.

I remember a big hullabaloo was made over the death of a single character way back in The Goblet of Fire. In The Deathly Hallows, Part 1, a character dies within the first ten minutes – and many more follow.

Since the Death Eaters are taking over, a dark cloud is cast over every aspect of this movie from its color palette and tone to moments scary enough to make Middle Earth’s Eye of Sauron have nightmares. This is the darkest of the series and of the entire family-friendly fantasy genre. Also, mature themes and dialogue are stretched throughout nearly every scene spent with our young heroes in hiding, which make up over half the movie. Older audiences will be engaged - which fits perfectly with how much our heroes have grown up - but the younger crowd will long for the days of magical mischief and Quiddich matches.

This is not a film for Muggles aged six and under.

Speaking of the past, fans and faithful audiences will delight in all the characters, objects, potions, and places from previous installments that The Deathly Hallows recalls. This is one of the film’s most thrilling successes as it made me anxious to see if certain characters that have yet to return will be seen in Part 2. Part 1 is very focused on the effects of recent events on Harry and his friends. Hopefully, Part 2 will look out and widen its gaze to how the new Ministry and its half-blood hunting Seekers Snatchers affect the rest of the magical landscape. After all, this may be the richest world ever put to film and the more The Deathly Hallows recalls past installments, the more this is proven.

Does the film stand on its own with artistic or thematic merit? Please, if those are the questions you’re asking at this point then you really need to get over yourself. Not only is this only one-half of a complete movie, but it is a part of what is essentially a seven-part theatrical mini-series. Besides, the series has consistently proven itself to be of superior quality to most movies targeted at youth, fantasy or otherwise. That said, if you’ve never seen a Harry Potter film, do not begin with this one, because it relies greatly on the rest of the series, especially Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince (both happen to be directed by this chapter’s David Yates).

Furthermore, say what you will about Chris Columbus’s Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets (the latter is also heavily referenced in Deathly Hallows), but the colorful, brightly lit, and tonally whimsical and innocent elements of those films effectively contrast with every aspect of the final chapter, giving a tremendous sense of progression and growth. Even the young actors’ talents have evolved greatly throughout the series.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is a film all about character (figurative and literal), emotional suffering, trust, betrayal, and death, which becomes a constant presence here. The stakes are high and the strength of our trio’s solidarity is tested as we near the end of the saga. As in every penultimate chapter, we are left with the villain gaining the upper hand and our heroes narrowly escaping death (most of them, anyway). This is heavy stuff for The Boy Who Lived to endure. And after all that, he still has to conquer The Dark Lord.

I couldn’t be more excited for Part 2.


Should you see it? Buy tickets

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is now in theaters in 2D and IMAX.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Film Faves: The Digital Age - Directors

Here we are at the final part of this special three-part edition of Film Faves.  If you haven't already, please start with parts one and two of this series before reading on.

Here we are at the visionaries behind the camera, those who actually choose to shoot digitally or with film, the directors.  Here are my six favorite directors to debut or break out during the Digital Age of film.


6. Darren Aronofsky
Favorite films:
Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler

You may say Darren Aronofsky is a pretentious visionary, who takes himself too seriously, but I find Aronofsky’s work to be some of the most powerful and expertly-handled films I’ve ever seen. I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of his debut, Pi, or his existential fantasia, The Fountain. But I am looking forward to next month’s The Black Swan and his much-courted crack at geek culture (he’s been interested in Batman and RoboCop before), 2012’s The Wolverine. Why? Because Aronofsky always has something interesting to say in interesting visual ways and no two films of his are alike. He’s really good at stripping a story or character down to the basics. If his work on The Wrestler isn’t evidence enough, go look up his pitch for Batman: Year One from prior to when Nolan made the franchise what it is. His work may seem pretentious to some, but it’s rarely boring.

5. Judd Apatow
Favorite films:
The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up

A lot of comedic directors will focus primarily on humor that is broad or gross. As a result, the characters will often come across as one-dimensional cartoons. Judd Apatow is a director who is hilarious, but always puts the jokes second to the story or characters. As a result, he’s become the top comedic director and producer of the digital age. His films are interestingly in contrast with a period that is defined by its technology, effects, and sleekness. Apatow’s work, humor aside, could’ve been filmed in almost any era because there aren’t any flashy effects or costly production values (two out of three of his films cost no more than $30 million). They’re just people dealing with situations life throws their way, be it a socially-impaired 40 year-old or a lazy man-child whose life forces him to grow up. Judd Apatow is also responsible for nurturing countless writers, directors, and actors over the past decade, including Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, James Franco, Nick Stoller, Seth Rogen, Greg Mottola, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd, Jay Baruchel, and many others. This guy knows comedy.

4. Jason Reitman
Favorite films:
Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air

Jason Reitman is an intriguing director, one whose style and themes may not yet be clear. I think if one were to take a look at his three films, they’d see that Reitman enjoys movies that refuse to play to the lowest common denominator, which is to say his sense of comedy is intelligent, dialogue-driven and maybe situational at times. But if one were to look at his biggest successes, Juno and Up in the Air, what’s most important to him is character and story – and he’s good at both. Thank You for Smoking had some good character moments, but was mostly about the satire. Juno stepped up the character elements to the primary focus (What kind of character is Juno? What would she do in her situation? How do others respond to her?). Up in the Air dialed down the comedy, played up the drama, and added layers to character and story. It is his best film so far. Reitman is a talent that we’ve witnessed become a better director with each film. I can’t wait to see what he does with his next film.

3. Edgar Wright
Favorite films:
Shaun of the Dead,
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Is there a contemporary British comedic director superior to Edgar Wright? Wright is one of the preeminent filmmakers of a specific culture and generation, one that grew up on video games and balls-out action flicks. Having grown up in the eighties and nineties, he is able to perfectly tap into those pop cultural touchstones that informed many of us during that time. There are very few films that can speak directly to his generation and the next generation as entertainingly or meaningfully. Wright walked hand-in-hand with his buddy Simon Pegg virtually out of nowhere with the brilliant comedy Shaun of the Dead. British audiences were already familiar with them for their TV series Spaced. But none of us Stateside were familiar with their brand of geek humor. Wright and Pegg recently took a break from each other for other projects, which in Wright’s case was this year’s brilliant adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. His next project may continue his love of geek culture in an adaptation of Marvel’s scientist Avenger, Ant-Man.

2. Zack Snyder
Favorite films:
Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen

Zack Snyder may be the best stylized action director of the digital age. He’s also consistently proved himself a great adapter of other works, be it a remake of a classic zombie film, mature graphic novels, or children’s adventure stories. Some may criticize Snyder for failing to use his slow/fast stylized action talents for something wholly original. We may get a fantastic reply to that criticism with next spring’s Sucker Punch. But after that, Snyder will direct a Superman film (Superman: Man of Steel) and a sequel to his sophomore effort 300 – both of which keep him heavily steeped in geek culture. His most recent effort was a CG-animated children’s film Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. I have yet to see this, but judging by trailers and comments I’ve heard it is a visually fantastic film – especially in 3D. Zack Snyder, while a filmmaker of action films that aren’t for everybody, must be given credit for consistently pursuing material that few would consider – and doing so with a great deal of success. He is a visual master, able to make brutal violence look just as beautiful as a bird flying in the wind. I’m not waxing poetic here; just compare scenes of 300 with the trailer to Legend of the Guardians. Whether or not his stories appeal to you, there isn’t an action director in the digital age as visually interesting as Zack Snyder. On a side note, I personally nominate this guy to direct the BioShock film.

1. Christopher Nolan
Favorite films:
Memento, Batman Begins,
The Dark Knight, Inception

I believe last December I named Christopher Nolan one of the best directors of the decade. He is also my favorite director of the digital age. He hit it big with the “film noir in reverse” indie Memento and eventually moved on to take the superhero genre to the highest level of storytelling. Watchmen may be the greatest superhero story ever written, but The Dark Knight is the greatest superhero story ever filmed and it’s thanks to Christopher Nolan. Nolan knows how to make popcorn films with intelligence and depth. His recent film Inception was the year’s most highly-anticipated live-action film, mostly because, like Memento before, of its original premise and execution. It also happened to be the first wholly original film to be released in a year full of adaptations, sequels, and remakes – very few of which were any good. It was one of the only original films to treat its audience as intelligent beings. That’s a consistent element in Nolan’s films that is unfortunately atypical of most American movies. Nolan’s ability to make serious films out of commercially-successful crowd-pleasing entertainment such as the Batman franchise and Inception makes him the best talent to come out of the digital age.

There you have it!  That about wraps up this special edition of Film Faves.  Who are your favorite actors, actresses, or directors of the Digital Age?  Please feel free to comment below or on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or via email if you have a lot to say.  I welcome your thoughts.

Thanks so much for reading.  Film Faves will take a month off, but will return hopefully in January to start a new decade with the year 1999, quite possibly the greatest year of '90s film.  See you then!

Film Faves: The Digital Age - Actresses

Welcome back to a special edition of Film Faves.  This is part two of my look at the talents that emerged during the Digital Age.  If you haven't already, I strongly encourage you go back to part one, where introduce the topic and countdown my favorite actors from this period. 

This time, I'll be counting down my favorite actresses of the Digital Age.  While my previous list was only six actors long, there were so many actresses worthy of mention that I couldn't pare it down to the same amount.  Besides, men also make up the entirety of part three's list of directors, as well, so it's only fitting for the actresses to make up half of this entire edition of Film Faves.  So, here are my twelve favorite actresses.


12. Anne Hathaway
Favorite performances:
Brokeback Mountain, Rachel Getting Married

Like her princess alter ego in the misguided, yet popular, Princess Diaries films, Hathaway has really blossomed over the past decade. She left the family-friendly fairy tales behind for more mature roles in movies like those in Brokeback Mountain and Rachel Getting Married. She also proved effective at the less broadly comedic The Devil Wears Prada. But it’s her dramatic work that proves this gal isn’t just letting that sunny smile coast her through Kate Hudson rom-com land. I look forward to seeing what more she can bring to the table.

11. Anna Faris
Favorite performances:
Scary Movie, Lost in Translation, The House Bunny

I must first admit that I really don’t much like the comedies in which Anna Faris stars as the lead. But I do love what she’s doing in them. A comedienne all her own, this former Washington State resident perfected the good-natured and/or shallow dim bulb, playing different versions of this type in nearly every movie. While she’s established herself as one of the leading comedic actresses of the digital age, I’d like to see her branch out to more challenging and substantial work. However, since her slate is dominated by kids movies (Yogi Bear) and romantic comedies (What’s Your Number), I may need to be content with her current niche for a little while longer.

10. Evan Rachel Wood
Favorite performances:
Once and Again, Thirteen, The Wrestler

While Evan Rachel Wood may not garner the attention the likes of Dakota Fanning, she is without question one of the most compelling young talents of the digital age. Wood started out on ABC’s Once & Again as Billy Campbell’s tween daughter who eventually suffers from bulimia. For such a young age (12) her performances surprisingly felt real and less like performances, fitting in to the fabric of the series. Since then, Wood has avoided crowd-pleasing treacle typical of actors her age and dove into more challenging dramatic work, most notably 2003’s Thirteen and 2008’s The Wrestler. Just look at her filmography and you won’t find a single girl-gets-guy chick flick or low-brow comedy. Underappreciated by many, Wood is a powerhouse in the making.

9. Naomi Watts
Favorite performances:
The Ring, King Kong

I have to admit that despite her being one of the period’s most talented dramatic actresses, I’m only a fan of two films starring the radiant Naomi Watts, both of which are genre films atypical of her career. That said, Watts has a career filled with electricity and gravitas, one that is steeped in so much awards-baiting dramatic work that it’s hard to believe she has yet to win a single award outside the festival or critics circles. Rare is it that she takes a one-dimensional or light-weight role, always playing strong or challenging characters that require an actress of considerable daring and courage. What better example than her breakout role in 2000’s Mulholland Dr.? As an aspiring actress in David Lynch’s head-scratcher, Watts was simultaneously captivating, sexy, and twisty-turny enough to make your head spin and eyes cross. I look forward to catching Watts as wronged agent Valerie Plame in Fair Game, along with whatever else she chooses to challenge us with next.

8. Elizabeth Banks
Favorite performances:
Slither, W., Zack and Miri Make a Porno

The only comedic actress more worthy of praise than Anna Faris is Elizabeth Banks. Though labeling Banks a “comedic” actress might be slightly objectionable since she has successfully handled nearly every genre from horror to superhero. Banks started out with bit parts in the Spider-Man movies, Catch Me If You Can, and Apatow comedies until she combined her comedic timing and all-American good looks to play the leading lady opposite the charming Nathan Fillion in the horror comedy Slither. But what surprised most was her one-two punch in 2008 as the raunchy romantic lead in Kevin Smith’s underappreciated Zack and Miri Make a Porno and her rock-solid performance as Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s W. Banks has proven herself to be one of the most versatile actresses of the digital age. I welcome her in any quality comedy, but am eager to see her show off those dramatic chops even more in her upcoming thrillers The Next Three Days and Man on a Ledge.

7. Keira Knightley
Favorite performances:
Bend It Like Beckham, Love Actually, Atonement

Often considered as Portman-lite, upon closer inspection of the beautiful and similar-looking actress’s filmography, there’s actually very little merit to such impressions. With work in such films as Pride & Prejudice, The Dutchess, Atonement, and Never Let Me Go, Knightley is hardly worthy of dismissal. She’s proven she has range from accessible romantic lead to action heroine to respectable dramatic actress. She has the chops and potential for excellence. We’ll just see how the rest of the period treats her.

6. Chloe Moretz
Favorite performances:
Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Kick-Ass, Let Me In

While many tripped over the precocious talents of Dakota Fanning – and rightly so – I’ve been more impressed with the choices and talent of another rising ingénue, Chloe Grace Moretz. We’ve seen a dozen times child actors who impress with a performance or two and then flame out with a series of bombs, make personal choices that ruin their careers, or simply fail to capture audiences after they hit their teens. That remains to be seen with Moretz, however what’s helped give her future promise is, like Evan Rachel Wood, her preference toward adult-oriented material. So far, that’s served her well since she’s yet to appear in any crap for the sake of exposure or under the guise of being edgy (I’m looking at you, Dakota!). This year alone, Chloe has starred in three movies, only one of which targeted her age group. When she’s on screen, the camera absolutely adores her. She knows how to perform for the camera as when launching into brutal acrobatics with a sneer in Kick-Ass, as well as adding nuance and depth to a role as she does in Let Me In. Having that chemistry with the audience and bringing weight to a performance is what makes a star. Chloe Moretz is certainly a rising star in the vein of Jodie Foster or Natalie Portman. That is, as long as she doesn’t go Lohan on us.

5. Scarlett Johansson
Favorite performances:
Ghost World, Lost in Translation,
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Scarlett started her career very young by playing “the daughter” in a handful of movies. Her breakout role was in Ghost World as the best friend who wants to move on from teenage antics into young adult responsibilities. Scarlett quickly became the cinephile’s siren, starring in such character-driven pieces as Lost in Translation and Girl with the Pearl Earring. She’s since dabbled in the more popcorn-friendly spectacles, but balanced those with low-key productions, including being Woody Allen’s leading lady for three films. Scarlett has a classical beauty about her that contrasts sharply with today’s more titillating sexiness. But what’s important is she really has the A-game to back it up. She is one of young Hollywood’s best talents. Say what you will, but there is nothing vacuous about Scarlett and, action spectacles aside, I am almost always intrigued by the roles she chooses to play.

4. Maggie Gyllenhaal
Favorite performances:
Stranger Than Fiction, The Dark Knight, Crazy Heart

Last November, I named Maggie the best actress of the decade, barely trumping the heavyweight talent that is Kate Winslet. While she may not be as big a star, the proof is in the pudding. It’s tough picking out favorite performances by Gyllenhaal because she consistently gives her all, which is always more than enough. Maggie broke onto the scene with the indie comedy Secretary, an offbeat romantic comedy for those bored by the typical studio rom-coms. From there, Maggie played a variety of roles – none of which could be described as average or lazy – most impressive of which is in Sherrybaby, in which she plays a former druggie mom trying for a better life and failing at every turn, and Crazy Heart, in which she plays a different sort of single mother who happens to fall for a drunken country musician played by Jeff Bridges. Gyllenhaal has proven that no matter the film, her presence will bring authenticity, nuance, and a courage few others can claim. She’s an underrated talent of the digital age who hopefully will gain the respect she deserves before long.

3. Ellen Page
Favorite performances:
Hard Candy, Juno, Inception

Another of the digital age’s teen ingénues. If you’ve seen the 2005 thriller Hard Candy and considered the fact Ellen Page was around the age of sixteen at that time then her inclusion on this list should come as no surprise. Of course, Page is best known as the smart-alecky teenager with a bun in the oven from Juno. Page could’ve kept playing wry-witted teenage girls, but she didn’t, mostly preferring roles in mature films (we’ll ignore the X-Men 3 debacle) over surefire hits. And most of her movies aren’t hits, but that’s no fault of Ellen’s acting. She is a natural, intelligent actress whose reputation is just left of center enough that her name was even thrown in the ring for the lead part in the U.S. version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Page didn’t win that role, but that only opened her up to a possibly more interesting film. Regardless, I have no doubt Page has plenty more interesting performances left in her.

2. Rachel McAdams
Favorite performances:
Mean Girls, The Notebook, Wedding Crashers, Red Eye

McAdams may yet be able to hold her own alongside the best of today’s talents, but she’s definitely on her way and I have no doubt that in time she’ll join their ranks. While she’s not immune to disappointing performances (State of Play, Sherlock Holmes) or mediocre films (The Lucky Ones, The Time Traveler’s Wife), Rachel McAdams never ceases to hold my attention; I’m always willing to go along with her on whatever journey she wants me to take. She also has demonstrated a fair amount of range and is rarely unconvincing – not to mention she’s utterly gorgeous! Her filmography includes work with such great talents as Wes Craven, Harrison Ford, Robert Downey Jr., and Russell Crowe, which is a lot to learn from. Given more time (it’s only been six years since her breakout films Mean Girls and The Notebook), Rachel McAdams will certainly prove herself worthy of earning mention on anybody’s best-of list.

1. Zooey Deschanel
Favorite performances:
Almost Famous, Elf,
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,
(500) Days of Summer

My favorite actress of the digital age (big sighs!). Zooey Deschanel is someone who has given such consistently satisfying performances and choices that when she shows up in something as atrocious as The Happening, the pain is about as bad as being strung up and whipped with a devil’s club plant (it really stings!). Zooey started with noteworthy supporting roles in films like Almost Famous and The Good Girl. With blue saucer eyes and a fair complexion, Zooey was unmistakable even before becoming a known name. Her performance in David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls broke her in the art house and critical communities while that same year’s role as Buddy Elf’s “most beautiful thing in the world” in Elf gained her wider attention with general audiences. Since then, she’s become indie film’s leading lady while also occasionally starring in better known films like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Yes Man. Last year, she starred in one of the best romance films of the past decade, (500) Days of Summer, as the incredibly desirable Summer Finn. Her filmography may not be dominated by as many good or high-profile choices as some of the other actresses on this list, but Zooey does make many interesting choices and she’s always irresistible. Whatever the case, as long as she stays away from that Shyamalan fellow, I’ll place her above all others in the Digital Age.

What are your favorite actresses to emerge since 2000?

We're two-thirds of the way there! Please read on as I round out this look at the Digital Age with my favorite directors of the period.

Film Faves: The Digital Age - Actors

Welcome to another edition of Film Faves. Just to remind folks, every edition features an undeniably biased countdown of my favorites in film. Instead of a run-of-the-mill top ten list, the inevitable honorable mentions are avoided and instead a list of twelve of my favorites of any given topic is counted down. This is not a serious "best-of" list as much as an insight into what it is I really love.

Film has gone through many different periods throughout its history, starting with the silent era, which ran from the inception of the art form through the twenties.  I thought it'd be a good idea to occasionally look at each era, going as far back as the Golden Age of film (1930s through the '50s).  Since Film Faves just completed its run through the past decade now would be the time to focus on the most recent - and current - era, the Digital Age.  So, here is a special three-part post on my favorite talents who made their debuts or big breaks during this period.
What exactly defines the Digital Age of film and when did it begin?  It's widely considered this all began circa the year 2000.  The invention and widespread application of digital cinema over film is a significant aspect.  Since then, a majority of movies are edited on PCs or laptops and commercial theaters employ digital projectors.  Another aspect of this period is the massive amounts of information that is exchanged electronically.  By the end of the next decade, streaming will become part of the new business model and the norm for consumers of movies and television.
What talents have emerged both in front and behind the camera during this time?  I shall share with you twenty-four of my favorite actors, actresses, and directors of the Digital Age.
6. James Franco
Favorite performances:
Freaks & Geeks, Spider-Man trilogy

James Franco is an actor who clearly aspires to greatness. It’s just outside of his grasp, as is world-wide fame. He’s clearly capable of achieving both some day. Why hasn’t he already? While he’s an actor that knows what kind of roles he’s interested in and has made very deliberate choices throughout his career, he just happens to end up in a lot of poorly-received projects. However, my eye is always on the look-out for him. Franco first impressed many as James Dean in a TV movie and got more attention in ABC’s infamously short-lived series Freaks & Geeks. After that show ended, he moved on to the Spider-Man trilogy as best friend Harry Osborn. Those blockbusters allowed him to pursue smaller projects of more interest to him, including a supporting role in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Most recently, he’s appeared as a young Allen Ginsberg, experimented as a melodramatic psycho in daytime TV, and played Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. The latter has garnered praise in the critical community and may finally earn Franco some major award nods. I am confident we’ve yet to see what this guy is capable of and will very soon.

5. Seth Rogen
Favorite performances:
Superbad, Knocked Up,
Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Seth Rogen is probably the Digital Age’s most lovable loser. Rogen’s biggest hit was Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, playing a man-child who learns to mature and become responsible. Similarly, in Zack & Miri Make a Porno, Rogen played a schlub who, through a ridiculous scheme to pay the bills, learns to man-up and take his friendship with his roommate to the next level. He’s even lent that grainy voice to animated projects and hasn’t been afraid of taking comedy to the furthest reaches of comfortability in Observe & Report where he dared audiences to like him. While Rogen’s no-frills style belies the era, he is definitely an essential part of it.

4. Simon Pegg
Favorite performances:
Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Star Trek

Simon Pegg came out of nowhere for U.S. audiences to star in the greatest horror comedy in years, Shaun of the Dead. The weight of that film was on his shoulders and he carried it very well, alternating between slacker vidiot and hopelessly inert romantic. I count Simon Pegg among the geek squad (which includes Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, Nathan Fillion, Jason Segel, and Jesse Eisenberg) that helped define the aughts and the first half of the Digital Age. He’s befuddled, clueless, put-upon, and relatable in the best ways possible. He’s also quite hilarious.

3. Nathan Fillion
Favorite performances:
Serenity, Slither, Waitress,
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Speaking of likable, it’s hard to get more likable than Nathan Fillion. It seems everything this guy touches turns to gold. Fillion was another bit-part player in the nineties in such films as Saving Private Ryan. He hit it big with Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly (also infamously short-lived), which ironically endeared him to geeks in a way comparable to William Shatner after the original Star Trek series was cancelled. In fact, it could be said that Captain Mal is a Captain Kirk for the digital age. Fillion didn’t rest there; he participated in the show’s capper feature film Serenity and the cult horror comedy Slither with Elizabeth Banks, furthering his geek cred. Nathan Fillion is one of geek culture’s leading talents, but he doesn’t restrict himself to a comfortable niche. He starred in the atypical romance Waitress opposite Keri Russell, establishing himself as a charismatic leading man capable of appealing to non-geeks. Fillion has yet to dabble in the repulsive or unsavory, or subvert his persona by getting suddenly killed off in a story. While any of those would be interesting, I’m content with what Nathan Fillion gives us, because there is a scarce few actors as likable, charming, and modest as him.

2. Jake Gyllenhaal
Favorite performances:
Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, Brothers

Jake Gyllenhaal gained modest attention with 1998’s October Sky. But it was with 2001’s incredible word-of-mouth success Donnie Darko that he really exploded. Gyllenhaal became known as an actor who can carry dark, dramatic material while also maintaining likability. While he’s experimented with action spectacles like The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Gyllenhaal has stuck closely by drama, working with Ang Lee, David Fincher, and Jim Sheridan. His career highs thus far have been Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac, both incredible films. The former gets mentioned mostly for Heath Ledger’s performance, but Gyllenhaal is no slouch either, being the character that drives forward the story and Ledger’s closeted passion. He’s a generous actor who compliments his co-stars and lets them shine. Jake has proven himself to be one of the digital age’s most interesting actors.

1. Mark Ruffalo
Favorite performances:
You Can Count on Me, The Brothers Bloom, The Kids Are All Right

My favorite actor of the digital age is Mark Ruffalo. Interestingly, I didn’t realize this until I started hammering out this list, but it is certainly a claim I can comfortably stand behind. Here’s a guy who could be your brother, your best friend, your drinking buddy, or even the guy that women don’t realize until later would make a great boyfriend. He’s never perfect, but you like him anyway and can see yourself or someone you know in him. Mark Ruffalo is a great actor with a nice balance between studio and indie films (although I’d argue the latter are always better). I haven’t seen every film Ruffalo has starred in, but out of every actor on this list, he’s the one with the most movies or performances I enjoy.

Those are my favorite actors of the Digital Age.  Who are your favorites?  I hope you read on because up next are my favorite actresses of this era where geeks ruled and everybody became plugged in to technology.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Remember That Movie: Boogie Nights

Everyone is blessed with one special thing.

That’s the thesis of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 breakout film Boogie Nights, a movie set within the porn film industry of the late seventies and early eighties. It features a giant-sized cast of character-driven actors that’s enough incentive to see this film: Philip Baker Hall, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Luis Guzmán, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Thomas Jane, Ricky Jay, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Burt Reynolds, and Mark Wahlberg.

In case you don’t remember, Wahlberg stars as Eddie Adams, a martial arts-loving teenager who works at a club far from home and does sexual favors for extra money. Eddie catches the eye of Jack Horner (Reynolds), a porn director with dreams of making films that’ll grab men’s hearts and minds long after they’re done grabbing themselves. Jack asks Eddie to audition for him, which the wide-eyed and amiable young man is only too happy to do. Soon after, Eddie is leaving behind his unpleasant home life to glad-hand and shake hips with Jack’s motley crew and cast. Before you can say “shake your booty” Eddie, rechristened Dirk Diggler, is the biggest name in porn. Everybody’s riding high on disco, money, notoriety, and coke (oh, the coke…) - and then the decade ends with a bang and along with it the good times.

If there’s one thing I keep looking for in movies its good characters and writing. Boogie Nights has that and much, much more. It is also really funny and a lot of fun. Yes, I just used the ‘F’ words to describe a movie by the guy who brought you There Will Be Blood.

There are some greatly hilarious moments, as when Eddie and Reed Rothchild (Reilly) meet for the first time or when the cast first sees Diggler’s jiggler during the first take of his first shoot or even the Brock Landers scenes – really great stuff that is organic to the story and the characters.

But, yes, the characters are really great, each one is so well-defined. What’s even better is each character has more than one dimension. We see early on how, after the party’s over, each character returns home to their failed existences. Amber Waves (Moore) is a coke addict who is unable to see her little boy. Buck Swope (Cheadle) is a shoddy electronics salesman who suffers from a poor self-image. Rollergirl (Graham) is a high-schooler who fails to excel at anything other than her extra curricular activities. And, worst of all, Little Bill (Macy) is a man who has become such an emasculated doormat that his wife freely and openly cheats on him. Those situations of Little Bill and Amber Waves touch on the pitfalls inherent in the nature of the business: it can destroy the chance at meaningful and fulfilling relationships.

Boogie Nights was a break-out film for many of those involved. Heather Graham was best known beforehand as the girl in the red dress in Swingers. She then exploded with a series of modest-to-mega hits that ended with 2001’s From Hell. Her star has since faded, highlighted only by an appearance in last year’s The Hangover.

Cheadle, now one of the most respected actors of our time, was best known as Mouse in the little-seen and nearly forgotten mystery Devil in a Blue Dress. After Boogie Nights, Cheadle was everywhere, even landing the role of Sammy Davis, Jr. in the HBO movie The Rat Pack.

Julianne Moore starred in mostly small supporting roles until 1997. She starred in both Boogie Nights and Lost World, the Jurassic Park sequel. Though she’d shown dramatic chops in Vanya on 42nd Street two years before, these movies gave her greater exposure and, in the case of Boogie Nights, award nominations. Since then she’s slowly grown into the role of one of today’s finest dramatic actresses, consistently bringing credibility to her roles in even the worst films.

Burt Reynolds, whose career had cooled, gave us what seems to be a last hurrah as the crew’s patriarch. Unfortunately, Boogie Nights would not equal a career revival for Reynolds as he would go on to such films as Universal Soldier III, remakes of The Longest Yard and The Dukes of Hazzard, and the Toby Keith vehicle Broken Bridges.

Star Mark Wahlberg, however, broke out in his second leading role, proving himself to be much more than nice abs and white boy rap. He since went on to such ensemble films as Three Kings, The Perfect Storm, and The Departed and leading roles in the Planet of the Apes remake, Rock Star, and Invincible.

Boogie Nights was the second full-length feature by director Paul Thomas Anderson and may be his best. It introduced him to major audiences as an exciting new ensemble craftsman, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Tarantino made his big splash five years before.

When I reviewed Magnolia, Anderson’s follow-up to Boogie Nights, seven months ago I praised the film for its direction. Boogie Nights is sure to please anyone who thought Anderson’s brilliance burned out too quickly in Magnolia. He remains much more consistent throughout Boogie Nights with his balancing acts between camera tricks and performance-centered static shots, drama and humor, and even the rise and fall of his story’s plotting.

I can’t fail to mention the opening shot. Boogie Nights opens with a long tracking shot that begins with a title marquee and then follows a car to a nearby club, which is where we meet each of our characters. But the camera doesn’t cut there! It goes from the street into the club, following Jack Horner and Amber Waves, shifting attention briefly to an exchange between Maurice “TT” Rodriguez (Guzmán) and Buck, and soon after landing on Eddie, who’s bussing a table while watching Horner and his crew. Magnolia took the same concept to the next level but in Boogie Nights it seems to intimate the smooth, naturalistic ride you’re about to take. It is the opening salvo of a brilliant talent.

Boogie Nights is remembered as an artsy film about porn stars. But it’s equally about the talents hidden in each of us. This is the heart of the movie that allows us to care about people we might otherwise judge or feel uncomfortable watching. When put in the context of a man’s large penis, it’s also a wink to the audience that talent can come from even the most ridiculous forms. This should indicate to the uninitiated that this film isn’t pretentious self-seriousness; it has heart and a sense of humor. Furthermore, Anderson keeps the soundtrack rolling scene after scene after scene, never letting the film drag during its two and a half hour run time.

Boogie Nights was overshadowed by the behemoth that was Titanic. That unsinkable beast was justly touted as one of its year’s best films, but when mentioned today is met largely with a series of groans rather than awes. Looking over the year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture (which astoundingly excludes Boogie Nights), it’s tough to say which had a bigger impact on film. Surely, Anderson’s film should now be included in that conversation. It treats its subject matter with just as much humanity as Pulp Fiction, Brokeback Mountain, and Fargo and contains some of the decade’s best direction and performances.

Do yourself a favor and refresh your memory on this great film.


Should you see it? Rent

Boogie Nights is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dragon Tattoo Sequel ‘Fire’ Is No Typical Whodunit

The second installment of The Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was released on DVD recently. The first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was a crackling mystery the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a long time. Its sequel proves this mystery series is unlike any we’ve seen before.

A newbie named Dag joins the Millennium magazine team, that group of writers who fight for that noble, yet nearly extinct, pursuit of investigative journalism, headed by Mikael Blomkvist (played again by Michael Nyqvist). Dag comes to the team with a story he’s researching about sex trafficking. When Dag calls Blomkvist about a possible gangster connection Blomkvist heads over to meet with him. When Blomkvist arrives at Dag’s apartment, he finds Dag and his girlfriend murdered. Found near one of the bodies is a gun that happens to belong to Lisbeth Salander’s guardian, that creepy individual who gave Salander another reason to be wary of men. The plot thickens when Salander’s prints are found on the gun. Salander (played again by the incomparable Noomi Rapace) is further implicated when her guardian also turns up dead. Now, while some are trying to locate Lisbeth’s whereabouts, Blomkvist, one of her only friends who believe in her innocence, is trying to find the men who set our tattooed heroine up.

The Girl Who Played with Fire is aptly named as it refers to an event from Salander’s past. As is the case with most tortured heroes or heroines, the past comes back in this chapter to haunt her. It is because of this that The Millennium Trilogy may well be the only mystery series that is actually a character-driven saga rather than simply a series of episodic whodunits. And Fire is most certainly the middle chapter of a three part story, complete with a cliffhanger ending. The only downside is it doesn’t stand on its own as well as its predecessor, which served as an engaging mystery with equally engaging characters. It is absolutely necessary to see …Dragon Tattoo before …Played with Fire. This movie, while balanced with a fine mystery, is primarily about its lead characters; Blomkvist’s unwavering loyalty to Salander and what events made her the complicated cyber punk she is.

Part three, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, appears to mainly be about the consequences of this entry’s events (will Salander’s name be cleared?) and tying up the mystery’s loose ends. As a result, I fear the trilogy may not live up to the promise its first chapter made, thus leaving us wishing we’d learned more about mystery’s most enigmatic heroine. But surely Mikael’s current affair will run aground and we’ll at least have closure on his relationship with Lisbeth, whatever it may be.

You typically only hear concern of this kind over bestselling page-turners. It’s no wonder the source novels are such a sensation. However, the fact that the focus of these movies is more about the characters solving the mystery than the mystery itself should not go unnoticed as it is new ground for this genre of film. It is as though the moniker “The Millennium Trilogy” is not only referring to the journalist magazine, but also that it is a mystery series for a new era.

Regardless, it’s refreshing to eagerly anticipate the next film the way one would with the new installment of a hot series of novels. Chapter three hit art houses the same week chapter two hit DVD queues. I’ll be keeping an eye out for that Girl wherever she may show up next.


Should you see it? Rent (after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

The Girl Who Played with Fire is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.