Friday, March 27, 2009

Welcome to the first of ten specials where I cover the best films I've seen in the 2000-2009 decade (technically 2010 is in the next decade). In each year, I will pick three films I loved or was affected by for various reasons. It's a very diverse group. This month's special covers a year from which I have not seen very many films. I have seen my fair few, however, so this is my two cents:


The Cell

Directed by Tarsem

This is a mind-trip if I’ve ever seen one but equally brilliant and, in the end, oddly touching and resonant, as well as the best film that the year had to offer. Tarsem (who made his debut with this film after years of directing music videos and followed up with “The Fall,” which is positively normal by comparison) juggles two different genres to great effect. One is more prevalent and more disturbing, and that is the “Silence of the Lambs”-type procedural drama that takes precedence and ends up being even more nihilistic than the Hannibal Lecter tale. The other is a highly affecting personal drama.

“The Cell” stars Jennifer Lopez as an F.B.I. agent, tasked with entering the mind of a ruthless and sadistic serial killer. What she finds is a diseased mind, ravaged by memories of a molesting father and alcoholic, distant mother. Tarsem visualizes his mind as a music video of the most disturbing kind (Marilyn Manson was apparently forever changed by the visions and used similar color schemes from then on), complete with Vincent D’Onofrio, in a miraculous, career-defining, and devastatingly powerful performance that stands as one of the best of the decade, showing up in every possible physique, from bearing horns while wearing an unimaginably long cape to donning a clown outfit covered in what seems to be human blood; D’Onofrio not only sells the performance but also makes it frighteningly believable. Rumors that the film was nearly given the fearful NC-17 rating are believable as well.


Directed by Ridley Scott

A staggering achievement from Ridley Scott—the first of two of Ridley’s films, the other showing up in 2003’s line-up—“Gladiator” was a war movie of the greatest kind, whose violence is ratcheted up to grim levels while it maintains a life-affirming message about honor and courage. It was the best war film since Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and remains as much today. The performances by Russell Crowe, the late Richard Harris, and an especially on-the-mark Joaquin Phoenix represent what the medieval swashbuckler can do when its actors recite dime-store odes that you can set your watch to and not make them sound that way. “Braveheart,” though perhaps the better film due to more practical effects, did the same exact thing.

“Gladiator” stars Crowe as Maximus, a man whose family is ruthlessly murdered by the egomaniacal ruler of Rome. Maximus has fallen in love with said ruler’s sister, who is victim to an unhealthy relationship with and spawned by her power-hungry brother. The film is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartpumping, a war film that pulsates with a brooding energy and at the same time holds a deep sadness beneath the violence. Technical credits may be strong across the board, but it is ultimately Scott’s direction and the aforementioned acting that stand out.

Requiem for a Dream

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Every once in a while, there is a film that kicks you in the gut and leaves you reeling. Its graphic depictions of violence or sex or drug use or even profanity may shock and appall you, but you are left thinking for a long time after watching it what its implications were and where its humanity lied. “Requiem for a Dream” is a film like that. As a disturbingly honest, disquietingly beautiful look at the underground world of drugs and prostitution, the film is unforgettable.

I’ve seen two films by Darren Aronofsky: this one and the fascinatingly strange “The Fountain,” a film I have long referred to as the most flawed masterpiece ever created. “Requiem for a Dream,” however, isn’t flawed, as far as I can see. Along with “The Cell,” it is a film I have only seen once and plan to keep it that way. Both films are unimaginably grim and, to some, repulsive. It is not a film to sit down and watch one boring Sunday afternoon. What it is, however, is a highly rewarding experience for anyone willing to take a step back from the content and view the film on its own merits. Aronofsky apparently opted to refuse the threatened NC-17 and to go with no rating. Although I can see where the MPAA was coming from, I disagree with the choice they could have made. Although it does have more nudity that any film I have ever seen, it is far from porn. Although it features nearly non-stop sequences of harrowing use of every single drug on the market, it is nowhere near glorification or even exploitation. I would recommend this to drug users, dealers, and suppliers, as well as prostitutes and pimps, and would like to see how drug and prostitution rings are changed after viewing it. My prediction: if everyone involved in those worlds saw it, they would both be businesses no longer.

So, there is my best estimation of the film quality in 2000. It may be different than yours, and there might be films I'm omitting. The first choice would be because, well, to each his own. The second would be because I either haven't seen everything, or haven't seen a certain film in many, many years.

Coming April 23: The Best Films of 2001. That will be a much easier year to cover.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Special Four-Film Review: Little Manhattan, Akeelah and the Bee, Bridge to Terabithia, Penelope

In 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, some great cinematic family treasures were released, so I thought I would give my views on four of the most overlooked masterpieces to have come out this decade.

In June of 2005, naught but the day after I saw "War of the Worlds," I was browsing the Internet and came upon a trailer for a movie entitled "Little Manhattan" (****), which at first glance seemed to be a charming and funny story about a really big crush a ten-year-old boy had on an eleven-year-old girl. The downside was that it would only be released in New York and Chicago on September 30 of that year, so I would have to wait on DVD. And I did. Boy, am I glad. "Little Manhattan," unlike many "kid's movies" these days, is gloriously enchanting in a way that few romances are. This is not a film about a crush of the superficial or superfluous kind, but a film about true, pure, unadulterated love. Yes, these are kids, and yes, they are immature in most ways. But weren't we all? More than that, these kids are troubled beyond words, with a longing and deep sadness (but undeniably a sense of real, kiddy joy).

The film was transcendent and ended up, for me, as one of 2005's finest achievements, a transcendent, almost angelic experience. And at its center (like "Bridge to Terabithia," to be talked about in a bit) was a revelatory, career-making performance by Josh Hutcherson. Yes, he of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" gave what I thought was easily an Oscar-worthy performance as the film's male equation of the budding relationship, Gabe, an already world-weary soul who gains a wisdom rarely, if ever, seen in a boy of his age. And newcomer Charlie Ray as Rosemary, the apple of Gabe's eye, is equally brilliant.

Then, not a year later, another highly intelligent near-classic was released in the form of "Akeelah and the Bee" (****). This film was clearly one of the best of its kind since the likes of "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and "Spellbound." An inspirational "intellectual sport" movie stripped down to its base elements, "Akeelah and the Bee," like the other four films in this review, was destined for failure. However, through miraculous performances by Laurence Fishburne and spirited newcomer Keke Palmer, as well as intricate direction by Doug Atchison, the film was a startling success.
Unrelenting in its refusal to give in to conventions, even when the plot itself is as conventional as they come, "Akeelah and the Bee" was more than charming and affecting--it was beautiful and effective. The problem with today's kid audience is that a film like this does not connect well with them. Kids get antsy, see, and movies as low-key and independent as "Akeelah and the Bee" don't come out very often. For me, however, this is something to savor and not to criticize. There is a line between kid film and audience-directed insult. Most films of this kind fall splat into the latter category. "Akeelah and the Bee" (as well as the other films in this category) does not, and thank heavens for that.

In 2007, director Gabor Csupo captured--there is no other way to put it--lightning in a bottle, a kind of rarity of the film genre, dealing with issues of mortality and livelihood and friendship and imagination. That film was the majestic and elegiac "Bridge to Terabithia" (****). It was one of '07's best, featuring another grand central performance by the clearly-talented Josh Hutcherson, who is fastly becomed the male Dakota Fanning of this generation. Hutcherson is utterly revelatory, in a low-key dazzler of an electrifying kid performance as Jess Aarons. Jess is a kid like any other has demons in his own way. He is constantly bullied around, and his dad is not the most personable guy. But then he meets Leslie, an imaginative and worldly wise girl who introduces him to the make-believe world of Terabithia.

But it's so much more than that. Do not, whatsoever, pay attention to the advertising campaign for this film. The fantastical sequences involving overgrown badgers, fairy people, and walking trees take up maybe fifteen minutes of screen time and are largely in the kids' heads. The final twenty minutes of this film are devastating, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting like few family films are these days. I think it is safe to say that "Bridge to Terabithia" easily tops the other films in this review on sheer charm and effectiveness (with a strong emphasis on the latter).

And then there's "Penelope" (****). Originally slated for release in October of 2006 after a successful run at Toronto and then inexplicably discarded for a full year and seven months, the film was finally released in the final week of February 2008. I saw it on a complete whim, with no real interest (further tarnished by a scathing review in Entertainment Weekly). I am glad I did. Truly one of the most romantic films to have come out last year, "Penelope" was astounding in its implications above all. Was it predictable? Yes, but only in theory. I found it increasingly difficult to know what would happen ahead of time, perhaps because the actors refused to mug or because the script refused to stick to convention 100% of the time.

The performances matched those of the great recent romances. James McAvoy in particular, doing much better work here than in the wildly overrated "Atonement," was affecting and unexpectedly powerful as Max, the only man for Penelope, a woman whose physical appearance (a snout for a nose) means nothing to Max. Ricci is vulnerable and beautiful onscreen. Her snout-nose is surprisingly not as ugly as others think; perhaps the idea of the nose is more repulsive than the nose itself, something I have always thought was the point the filmmakers were making.

These four films are just simply wonderful examples of the genre. If this article seemed random, it is because I'd been meaning to this all along. Watch these films. They're completely worth it.

A Change is Gonna Come

Tweaking the blog layout a WHOLE lot, hopefully adding a banner, and some other stuff.

Also got my first volume (of ten of them) for the Best Films of the Decade. The first section will be on March 27, covering my Top Three films of 2000. After that, more for the rest of the decades 2001-2009 will be covered on the last Friday of each month. On Jan. 1, it should be complete, the day after my Top Ten of 2009.

On April 24 I shall have a Summer Introspective for films I plan to see (for May through August); on August 28 a Fall Introspective (for September and October); and on October 30 a Winter Introspective. Likewise, on July 3, I will have my Best of the 2009--Halfway There special.

Keep watch! Lotsa good stuff a-comin'.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Review: Race to Witch Mountain (***)

Directed by Andy Fickman
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Carla Gugino, Alexander Ludwig, Tom Everett Scott, Ciaran Hinds, Billy Brown, Christopher Marquette, Cheech Marin, Garry Marshall, Iake Eisenmann, Kim Richards, Meredith Salenger, Tom Woodruff Jr., Christine Lakin.
2008--99 minutes
Rated PG (violence, frightening situations, thematic elements)

Like his 2006 gender-crossing Amanda Bynes-starrer "She's the Man," Andy Fickman's "Race to Witch Mountain" is undeniable fun. Oddly enough it is a much better sci-fi adventure than December's "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Perhaps that says more about that clunky bore of an alien invasion pic than it does about this film, but there you have it. Whereas "The Day the Earth Stood Still" walked and talked like a serious movie but ended up being much sillier than anticipated, "Race to Witch Mountain" knows what it is and embraces its silliness. This doesn't always work, and in fact it is quite uneven in its aspirations and subsequent execution, but hey, who says you can't have fun with trifles. That is as it was with "She's the Man" and it is such here.

Jack Bruno is a down-on-his-luck cabbie in Sin City. Being an ex-con and former auto racer, Jack has seen his share of weird things, but a UFO convention being held in Vegas does it. Jack just cannot believe in something that seems so, well, unbelievable. That is, until he meets Seth and Sara, two 14-year-old kids with some amazing diction and almost emotionless faces. They claim to be from another planet, but naturally Jack thinks that is just baloney. His feelings about this do not stay true for long, as shortly after the kids are involved in a duel with a seemingly indestructible robot. On their tail (and unbeknownst to them) are a group of FBI agents involved in possibly the greatest cover-up in human history.

"Race to Witch Mountain" is pure silliness, to be sure, but there is a sense of zeal that was missing in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which has a surprisingly similar plot. That film was a chore to sit through and, while both share practically the same length, moved at a much slower pace than this. The action scenes put those in the earlier film to shame, as the special effects are not so glaringly obvious, and the pacing is much zippier. This film is also not as thematically confused as the earlier film; there is no environmental or political agenda here, instead just one entertaining scene after another.

The performances are fitting for the material at hand, with two exceptions. At the forefront of the picture is an unusually terrific Dwayne Johnson. He's possibly never been better, even as his dramatic bits are a tad forced. His comedic timing, specifically, is right on the ball, as Jack Bruno becomes as likeable a character as he's ever played. AnnaSophia Robb is always good in her roles, whether they be in affecting fluff like "Because of Winn-Dixie" or 2007's masterpiece "Bridge to Terabithia." She has a way of commanding her scenes with an unforced, wide-eyed sense of naturalism. That is no different in the role of Sara. Ciaran Hinds is fittingly sniveling as the FBI agent in charge and the major villain of the film. Not as impressive are Carla Gugino, as Alex, a doctor who believes in only science, and Alexander Ludwig as Seth. Gugino was much more impressive in a particularly smaller role in last week's "Watchmen;" here, she annoys and is obviously so bored that she gives the role everything she's got. Sadly, it doesn't work in the slightest. Ludwig, such a robot in "The Seeker: The Dark is Rising," is just as bad here; his work as Seth is some of the most monotone acting I've ever seen. He emotes not once.

The plot is not airtight and plotholes abound, but "Race to Witch Mountain" is sure to leave a smile on your face. This also happened in the aforementioned "She's the Man," an equally uneven comedy that worked only because Amanda Bynes was so wild and untamed that her performance became the sole reason for the movie's terrifically high comedic value. Everything else seemed to pale in comparison to Bynes' sheer presence. Likewise, the Bynes factor in "Race to Witch Mountain" is the near-atmospheric sense of joy.

When compared to other Disney-produced live-action flicks of the last four years, the rundown looks something like this. "Race to Witch Mountain" is not as unabashedly fun or clever as "Sky High" (far and away the best of the group) or "Enchanted," just about equals December's "Bedtime Stories," and is veritably the Second Coming compared to "Zoom." With comparisons like that, it's easy to see why the movie has been released for the children in the audience. But what is invaluable to the film's success, as reserved as it is, is that adults might dig it as well.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Review: Watchmen (****)

Directed by Zack Snyder
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matt Frewer, Carla Gugino, Laura Mennell, Stephen McHattie, Rob LaBelle, Stephanie Belding, James Michael Connor, Gary Houston, John Shaw, Mary Ann Burger, Robert Wisden.
2009--163 minutes
Rated R (graphic violence, sexuality, nudity, language)

In 1986, novelist Alan Moore wrote lightning. His 12-part series, entitled "The Watchmen," revolutionized and reformed the ideas behind the comic book superhero. More graphic, both in its violence and sexual themes, and more adult than any other of its kind, "The Watchmen" influenced the coinage of the term "graphic novel" as we know it. If there's one thing that cannot be denied, it is that Moore's work is a masterpiece, epic without losing sight of the very flawed characters, as well as psychologically disturbing and emotionally draining without losing the inherent excitement of the genre it is undoubtedly in. Moore also influenced with his books, in a major way, fellow graphic novelist Frank Miller, responsible for such works as "The Dark Knight Returns" (whose depiction of The Joker in turn influenced Heath Ledger in his historic portrayal), "Sin City," and "300."

It was thought, understandably, that the series was unfilmable, too much for one director to handle. Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, David Lynch, Paul Greengrass, even Steven Spielberg--all took their own shots at adapting the series and found it too difficult. Thus, it is surprising to say that 33-year-old director Zack Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have masterfully consolidated all twelve parts into one film. Despite mildly changing the ending for audience-pleasing purposes, all three new talents have remained truthful, uncompromisingly so, to the psychedelic and paranoid tone and Cold War-themed story of Moore's work.

Much has been made of the muddled plotting and slow-moving nature of the proceedings. Ignore them. Set in a completely alternate version of 1985 where Richard Nixon has been elected for a fifth term, "Watchmen" deals with themes never dealt with before in the superhero genre. The United States is in deep with Russia-based plots of nuclear war, pushing President Nixon to give free rein to the Watchmen to run amok, fighting crime (and come to think of it, everyone else, as well). The Watchmen is a group of anti-superheroes, flawed and ruthless Joker-type good guys who are hated by the public and needed by them at the same time. Rorshach is a masked vigilante--a more brutal version of Batman with an even darker past--whose mask changes shape, constantly and enigmatically. Dr. Manhattan was a scientist, given extraordinary powers and a blue electroskeleton instead of a body. Silk Spectre II is a woman borne of her mother's (and predecessor's) rape by fellow Watchman, The Comedian. Speaking of, The Comedian is seen through flashbacks after his brutal murder at the start of the film. He is seen as a "hero" who is as bad as Nazis. Nite Owl is really a lonely man whose only human connection seemingly is his affair with Silk Spectre II. Finally, Ozymandias is the smartest man in the world; that's all I'll say.

"Watchmen" is a revelatory motion picture experience, monumentally innovative on a visual level, profoundly moving at times, and exceptionally fascinating in its procedural aspects. What people may mistake this for--a preconceived notion proved incorrect upon viewing it--is that, as a superhero movie, the film must be fast-paced, brisk, and exciting. Otherwise the impatient ones in the audience may get bored. This is an ignorance that most undeniably hold (and that is not an insult). The truth is that "Watchmen" is most definitely not a superhero movie, at least in the normal sense. Like last year's "The Dark Knight," which was an Scorsesean crime drama that just so happened to have a bat as its hero and a clown as its villain, Snyder's masterpiece is a brooding murder mystery and a psychological character study with superheroes at its center. But, as I've already said, even the superheroes are not normal. They are ugly, flawed, cold-blooded sociopaths that you can't help but care about. They are doing good, after all.

In this day and age of empty action and cardboard caricatures, "Watchmen" (and "The Dark Knight" and "Spider-Man 2" before it) is a complex, emotionally resounding, abnormally innovative war cry to the cinematic heavens. Have no fear that what you see you will never forget. Is the film bloody? Yes, extremely. The R-rating is warranted and the film not for the kids. One scene pits Rorshach against a man who murdered and chopped up a small girl. This scene is exceptionally disturbing, the darkest in a very dark film, but it's also one of the most starkly and accurately portrayed visions of how cruel (yet undoubtedly fair) so-called heroes can be. It also asks the audience how they would respond to the beggings of a man who did something as awful as what he did. So, "Watchmen" is thinking-man's cinema as well.

The performances are all solid (though the film has no Heath Ledger, that is, a standout performance that is Oscarworthy), but there are two I want to discuss. About the others (Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, and Patrick Wilson), let's just say that they sell their roles and play them very well. The real performances, though, are by Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup.

Rorshach is not the most likeable of characters, but what Haley does with this role is just astonishing. He gives Rorshach a compassion while never compromising the character. Haley's growling voice works wonders (as well or even better than Christian Bale's did last year), and he narrates with a fascinating, matter-of-fact tone. Crudup meanwhile gives the film's best performance as Dr. Manhattan. Even while under a blanket of CGI, Dr. Manhattan's soul is bare for all to see. He barely emotes throughout the film, but it's plainly obvious that he is a tortured soul without a substantial body. It's a brilliant performance, low-key and reserved.

I've mentioned the style many times already. The visual effects, the digital cinematography, the slow-mo filmmaking--all are brilliantly incorporated into the story instead of the other way around. The effects are practically flawless, especially in the scene where Dr. Manhattan travels to Mars and thinks back on his life. The cinematography is beguiling, capturing perfectly well both Mars's barren landscape, the nighttime wonders of the deep underbelly of the city, the arctic desert of the film's final act. The slow motion that Snyder incorporates works wonders for the proceedings, especially the fight scenes, whose pacing matches that of "The Dark Knight."

Despite my one quibble (that the two sequences involving President Richard Nixon himself are marred even further by hideously distracting makeup), "Watchmen" is impressive through and through, both exactly what fans want--I should know, as I'm one of them--and what might get non-fans interested in reading the series, which is now available as one large copy. Slow-boiling but never meandering, fascinatingly textural in its plotting while never once seeming muddled, "Watchmen" lives up to the hype surrounding its masterfully executed trailers and then some. Oh, and did I mentioned the brilliant soundtrack, consisting of songs by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan (most memorably used in what is quite possibly the greatest opening credits montage ever made), and Nena? No? Well, it's just as effective as everything else. What a knockout "Watchmen" was.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


"Watchmen."  The masterful, epic graphic novel, brought to (hopefully) brilliant life by Zack Snyder.  Seeing it Friday at 7:30 with a friend.  Anticipation overtakes me.

Apparently the extended edition (a la Lord of the Rings) will be a whopping, staggering 220 minutes.  What...the...heck.

This is simply my most anticipated of the year.  Just unbeatable.

Oh and also:  I'm not seeing it for adaptation purposes.  With Harry Potter being eviscerated for "murdering" the books (I don't think they do, at all), I've learned to stop looking at films as adaptations, even if they are.  Liberties simply HAVE to be taken.  For me, "Watchmen" will be viewed as a landmark in the superhero genre.

A actual, full-length review (remember those?) will be published sometime over the weekend.

And then...nothing, really, until summer.