Saturday, December 31, 2011

The storm is coming.... of NETFLIX REVENGA!!

The Netflix-a-thon is back.... with AVENGEANCE!!!

So let's go... starting tomorrow. 

Friday, December 30, 2011

Faces of Top ELEVEN of 2011 (see what I did there?)

... with honorable mentions at the end (12 to 25)

Now, just a note: there are a few films that could conceivably make my top 10/11 list of the year (i.e. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Iron Lady, though I doubt the latter, or A Separation, which made Ebert's top best-of-the-year pick), and if that happens... well, I'll either come back here and re-edit the list, or, I won't.  Simple as that.  So, just like last year, some faces of 2011 (and this time not all in full close-up, some more 'medium-close' as we say in the industry):

(PS: I DID!) 












Honorable Mentions (that is, movies I thought were awesome, but didn't make the cut):

I Saw the Devil
The Descendants
13 Assassins
Meek's Cutoff
Certified Copy
Into the Abyss
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
X-Men: First Class
Attack the Block
The Tree of Life
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Artist

top 11:  

11) Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
10) The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg)
9) Tabloid (Errol Morris)
8) Rango (Gore Verbinski)
7) Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
6) Carnage (Roman Polanski)
5) Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
4) Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
3) A Separation (Asghar Fahardi)
2) Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
1) Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

So There.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


And while I'm on a Scorsese kick...

Why did Martin Scorsese decide to make a film about George Harrison?  Why did he decide to make a film about the Dalai Lama?  Or The Age of Innocence?  While this is another documentary about a rock-star icon, following along from Scorsese's own The Last Waltz, No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and Shine a Light, it's closest in style and tone to the Dylan doc, as a profile of a man of his time and how he lived through it.

Unlike Dylan, who is a mystery even to the most curious of fans (or just one of the more obnoxious, depends how you look at it), George Harrison seems to be, from accounts and interviews, to be a man of spiritual and artistic integrity who had various concerns and ideas, and he expressed them throughout his life - or, if not in the recording studio or as a producer of films, then with his garden.  One may not be able to find the link between the sarcastic (if 'quiet') kid from A Hard Day's Night with an old man in a garden (or for that matter the old man having to defend his life against a burglar, as he did, in 1999), but it's all here.

I may not have found Harrison quite as enlightening as Bob Dylan, but should he be?  Maybe in his own simple way though Scorsese finds a more direct path or personal link to him through the spiritual side.  Harrison was someone who found through the Maharishi, Indian music, transcendental meditation, some kind of path through the noise of Western civilization.

The clash is what's interesting here, and Scorsese knows it too.  While the director is fascinated with BIG emotions in his films (see anything with De Niro for more on that), he's also fascinated how someone operates with a calm demeanor on the surface burning with emotion underneath.  Harrison was the guitarist for the Beatles and then when the break-up happened, he had to break-off and find another way.  He was still a pop star, and his first solo album, the great 'All Things Must Pass' went into the top ten of the charts.  But how did he reconcile a working class British-Liverpool upbringing with the teachings of Haria Krishna?

Of course, the first hour of this massive three 1/2 hour films are dedicated to him and the Beatles, and it's wonderful to see the footage, hear the songs, find out some details about the songs Harrison wrote for the group (i.e. the first song he ever wrote, 'If I Needed Someone').  Then the second part is about the spiritual search, or what's close to it, mixed with the start of the solo career (and of course some of the famous tales of romantic highs and lows via Patti and Eric Clapton are included).

There's a section for the film-part of his career, where as a man of faith, though not exactly (it's complicated you see) he helped pay "the most ever anyone's paid for a movie ticket" for Monty Python's Life of Brian.  And then about his gardening, his second wife Olivia (and - kind of a shock to me - the candor which Olivia, who was a producer on the film and wrote the book spin-off of the film, talks about Harrison's infidelities in their marriage, something I really admired), and other things like friendships, the burglary in 1999, and his untimely passing from cancer.

It wouldn't be a Scorsese movie without music, and hey, it's George Harrison so there's lots of good stuff here (sadly, for me, no 'I Got My Mind Set on You'), and there's the director via editor David Tedeschi's marvelous way of navigating the story with music.  Watch the opening and how 'All Things Must Pass' goes over the WW2 footage, then mixed in with some of the more traditional music of the 1940's period to see some of the brilliance with which Scorsese does this.  And the interviews are mostly illuminating and nice, once or twice piling on the adulation (perhaps as one might expect) while still giving some moments for the quirks Harrison had - such as a story Tom Petty tells about ukuleles - and some of his flaws as a man and artist.

I'm not sure if for fans the film will shine a whole lot of new light, though for newcomers it should provide the bulk of know-how.  What's great about the film ultimately is the thread of the story, and how the filmmaker is not afraid to jump around, or jump ahead, and expect the audience to keep up.  It's not as straight-thru as, say, The Beatles Anthology.  We're seeing a life in various dimensions, time-spans, and it's as if not more post-modern than the Dylan doc.  It's joyous, meditative, somber, happy, funny, a little daft and a little less than perfect.  I can't wait to revisit the life and work.

Martin Scorsese's HUGO (on 1st viewing)

I note above in the title that this is a reaction to my first viewing of Martin Scorsese's latest masterpiece Hugo.  This is because, frankly, I want and need to see the film again.  Unlike Pauline Kael, for example, I can't really base all my film experiences on the initial (knee-jerk) reaction.  While images and scenes keep permeating my brain, however, and I keep admiring it as a Scorsese fan, here are some of my thoughts and impressions on the film, which may perhaps not be as articulate as I'd like, but a review nonetheless:

Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Brian Selznick's inspired novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which itself was like a pop-up-graphic-regular-novel hybrid, which is the first clue as to why 3D was appropriate) is in just one word: wonderful. It has a lot of drama to it, and not just because it deals with deceased fathers, or supposed deceased father figures, and yet the film also carries the wonder of invention, for things seemingly fantastical (an 'automaton' that is kind of like a robot only with a specific task to be carried out), and overtly fantastical as cinema and the process of invention itself. It ostensibly follows its young hero, Hugo Cabret (a very talented young actor Asa Butterfield), as he hides in the clock-tower of a train station in Paris circa 1933, and how he slowly bonds with a crotchety old shopkeeper (Ben Kingsley) via his much younger relative (Chloe Moretz), and a discovery is made about who this 'Papa Georges' really is. 

Nothing less than beautiful as a "kids" movie (in quotes since it can be for anyone that just happens to have two kids as its main characters) and as an ode to film- how precious is it, how important artists are, and what the medium is possible for. In fact, this is what makes the 3D not only impressive - it is essential to the craft of the film; where usually 3D is a gimmick used for cheap effect, or when filmmakers don't understand proper visual spacial relations or what depth of field is, Scorsese and the superlative DP Robert Richardson does. Remarkably as well in scenes that showcase what 'Papa Georges' did with his film sets as the director Georges Melies created fantasy realms. 

Scorsese is one of the only filmmakers - maybe, arguably, the ONLY filmmaker - to understand how to use 3D to his advantage with the space he has. As the man who coined the phrase "Cinema is about what's in the frame and what's out", he takes this gimmick - and it still is a gimmick - and gives it a kick in the ass. And yet it's not just the technique that's impressive here, it serves as the tool for the story, which is about something precious and dear: the old and the new, and being able to make room for both equally. 

There are other factors that come into play as well, for why Georges Melies wasn't celebrated throughout time and space (and of course sound in cinema and WW1 did a lot for that), but it's really about how to find wonderment in art and life, how the two are more than compatible, they compliment each other. Art feeds life. And ultimately a filmmaker in his 60's like Scorsese connects strongly with the young hero, a figure who finds some comfort in the world of fantasy of the automaton and cinema, and in Papa Georges (not to mention the Michael Stuhlbarg character, who is a film preservationist in the days when film nitrate was the used to make women's shoes).

I also neglect to mention some other things in the film, such as Sacha Baron Cohen playing a quasi-bumbling police officer at the train station who with his big dog has a penchant for carting off stray kids to the orphanage. His parts are the stuff of the "B-plotline", but it's still entertaining stuff, and gives a little time to spare between the tragedy that is Hugo's early life (the death of his father played by Jude Law) and the tragedy of Papa Georges' life (when Stuhlbarg shows the surviving film reels to Hugo and others, it's a bittersweet, touching moment, so rare in films these days in general). 

Overall, it turns into a magical *cinematic* experience, and a deeply emotional one - for kids, since the story is primarily told through them, and for adults as it addresses universal concerns (as a filmmaker of the 'Movie Brats' by the way, Scorsese still makes the film for himself - and in this case, maybe his young 12 year old daughter, who knows). Thankfully amid the clock-towers and sweeping crane shots and the (swoon) dream-within-dream sequences, there's heart and human beings, and one of Ben Kingsley's most affecting performances in years. There's spectacle in the vision, grace in the action set-pieces (few but significant as they are), and the colors rich and textured in grades of blue, green, red, gold and white. Go see this one.


And that's... just fucking cool!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Charlie Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH

In this tale of the "Lone Prospector" (aka the Little Tramp) coming in to the world of mid 19th century gold miners and trying to stake his claim, win the heart of the sweet (though not always nice) girl Georgia, and just survive in general, Chaplin gets loads of memorable moments out of his perfect comedy (and sometimes just dramatic, bittersweet) timing. I'm not sure if it really marks it as a "deep" film the way that City Lights, Modern Times or Great Dictator are. And you know what? Who cares? It's one of his most sheerly entertaining films, meant to manipulate the audience like puppets. I say, it's so much fun being at the fingers of a master-manipulator-artist like Chaplin.

And where's Fitzcarraldo when you really need him!?
 In this film we at first see how the Trampspector has to deal with Big Jim McKay and Black Larsen, big bears of men (though not bears themselves, one of those comes in from time to time), and the fact that there's very little food to be had - at one point he's viewed as a chicken, more than figuratively! Then he goes into town, meets Georgia (and her jerk of a man), and has a lovely dance one night that leads to possibly New Years Eve plans - also leading into one of the most adorable of all scenes where he does a smashing musical number with two dinner rolls. The heartbreak of this section (and to me it felt that way, a lot) leads into the final section of the film wherein the Tramp and Big Jim may finally get some of that gold and become millionaires... if they can survive an honest-to-goodness cliffhanger in their cabin!

Fun/scary trivia: Chaplin ate so much shoe (licorice) over three days and 63 takes he was rushed to the hospital with insulin shock

Chaplin as a performer is fearless with whatever stunts need to be doen (albeit he's no Buster Keaton, we'll get that straight now), but his comic timing was just impeccable. I loved seeing how he would move in a room, or how he would react to others in an awkward moment. He's THE lovable outsider, and as such he can also be a character who we might see ourselves in. There's a moment when he first comes into the salloon and is mistaken for thinking Georgia (Georgia Hale) sees him but rather it's the brutish Jack. But that's not the part that really works in that whole set-piece; it's following this, when he's at the bar and he tries ever so desperately (though not too over the top) to be noticed by her. Among this crowd he's a) not too special enough, and b) is just a little too odd to make it with them... except as a dance partner to get someone else's goad.

Colonel Sanders approved

But aside from the romance stuff, which feels honest and true and helps give the film an emotional backbone, watch the film today and see how the comic set-pieces hold up. And not just Chaplin, but also how good Mack Swain as Big Jim gets into the swing of things. As he chases Chaplin around the room as a chicken it's a riot - when they're hanging on for dear life in the cabin on the precipice it goes from at first delirious slapstick to genuine suspense and then back again. But even the smaller bits, like when the Tramp shovels the snow from one place and builds it up to the next business place, is inspired.

"You were just a face in the crowd..."

See The Gold Rush for the big sequences, for how good Chaplin handles crowds and sets and (fake-studio-done) weather, and for how wonderful he takes his character to again, and also for the little touches he puts in there, how impressionable the townspeople are, and how awesome the ending is on that ocean-liner.

And as an aside: when I saw the film in the theater, a couple of kids were brought by their parents, and young ones at that. Specifically one five year old Asian kid and his parents sat in front of me (the kid was as well behaved as one could hope for in a five year old), and the kid loved the hell out of the movie - laughed hysterically at the slapstick, was awed by the big set-pieces, perhaps perplexed/bored by the romance bits, and sometimes bounced up and down when something excited him. It's a very fun movie on its own - seeing that, however, gave me a little hope for the future of humanity.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Roman Polanski's CARNAGE

When you hear the title Carnage, you might think something else, something really bloody and gooey and full of teeth and maybe that character from Marvel too (technically he's part of Spider-Man, don't ask me if he's in the new Marc Webb film in 2012).  But here, Carnage is what it is - a one act play adaptation.  But hey, if anyone's gonna do Carnage, give it to Polanski....

Roman Polanski's film of Yasmin Reza's play 'God of Carnage' would be just a simple (though uniformly strong) showcase for BIG acting talents doing BIG set-pieces, if not for the fact that the director has assembled some of the best and sharpest actors on the planet who speak English, and that for this material this director is not the correct choice, he's the only one (maybe Mike Nichols also comes to mind, thouguh that may be only because the story/characters resemble on the outside 'Virginia Woolf 2.0').  Polanski got his start making these kind of films - by this I refer to Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and Cul-de-sac, these "bottle" films that primarily take place in a confined location, only a few characters and some real mounting, dreadful, nail-biting inducing suspense as the audience is privy to the stripping away of not so much humanity but the facade of it, it's rules.

Sure, you can come on it, have some cobbler, fuck my wife... oh wait, last one was the wrong movie...

 Carnage is the Polanski I know and love from that period (and a smaller extent Death and the Maiden), tackling a 21st century domestic story of two sets of parents - one middle class (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), the other upper-middle (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet, all ideally cast, though Waltz at first a slight surprise following so many villainous roles) - they meet to discuss an altercation between their two songs in a park.  More to the point (which we see in a swiftly brutal prologue as the opening shot of the film, one of only two exteriors in the film), one swung at the other with a club.

Why exactly did it happen?  Were they just kids being kids getting in a fight?  There is a little getting-to-the-bottom-of-this conversation about it, but not quite at the start.  At first, as civilized homo sapiens would, they're polite and cordial, and Reilly even asks Winslet and Waltz for coffee and apple cobbler (with some pears in it) as they're about ready to leave.  It's revealed one son wouldn't want the other in his gang (the word 'snitch' is used), and just watching this conversation part, where Waltz and Reilly talk about how much fun it was to be part of a gang or to be the leader when they were kids ("Like Ivanhoe!" Waltz exclaims) it's clear, not just from the womens' reactions but in general: this will not go well.  At all.

You said WHAT about Michel Gondry?  We both don't approve..

The underlying current of Carnage, made more than clear in the second half of the film, is that beneath the mask of human decency, of the 'thank yous' and 'sorrys' and 'please' and so on, people are vicious bastards, and class just makes up for part of the facade (another inspiration may-hap in terms of vicious social satire - Bunuel, specifically The Exterminating Angel where people arrive, and no one leaves).  How much have we come to as a species where swinging a stick at one another like the apes in 2001 was common practice?  Polanski and Reza seem to say, 'Not much, we're (kind of) afraid.'

It's a current through almost all of Polanski's films, even the seemingly sweet Knife in the Water where carnal lust is brimming at the surface and spills over in the third act.  Here, Polanski, via Reza, takes this into cringe-worthy comedy.  Dark comedy really, like 'Are they going to go THERE!' levels.  Indeed, while not as hilarious, if I was told Larry David wrote this as an unused bottle episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I'd believe you.


And though Polanski as director, in terms of style, keeps things moving well and gets coverage that amps things up psychologically past its static setting (watch as Waltz is smaller in frame as Reilly is more in close-up across the room and when the latter accuses the former of something about his job, Waltz comes into frame, menacingly), not to mention the switch from steady tri-pod to uneasy hand-held in the 2nd hald, the cast is King (and Queen) here.

Good GOD, do they get to go at these characters!  I'm sure they would say it's all on the page, but I'm not so sure the could or would have played it this way on the stage (albeit occasionally Winslet does play 'to the balcony' as the saying goes, but this is part of the outrageous delight in the performance).  Waltz is less an intimidating Nazi here than just a prime example of 21st century doltishness, who can't be pulled away from his Blackberry and has a very particular (and all-too-common really) view of women.

Yeah, put me anywhere near Inglorious Basterds 2 and I'll punch you in the metaphorical uterus

Reilly gets to play it mostly straight as, at first, he seems to be the 'nicest' ion the room, until he snaps "I'm a short tempered SON ON A BITCH!" and rushes to the scotch - a performance like this from him shows his range from 1 to 10.  Ditto for Winslet, who is scabrously funny, even as she at one point has to vomit due to 'nerves' (and was it that cobbler?), and balances off Foster who gets to play the uber-liberal "with no sense of humor".  Then these women break down and go off - baby, watch out!

The film may piss off/rub-off the wrong way on some viewers.  This is the stuff of lets-make-em-squirm entertainemt where words, the tone of how things are said, and how one person just takes things too far when the argument seems to be over and people can move on, not to mention other bodily functions, come out in a fury.  I don't know how people will react, though the audience I was with let out gasps of laughter throughout.

To anarchy!
To me, it's a perverse joy seeing this director at the top of his game within a limited milieu: it makes no bones it's based off a play, and except for closing/opening shots it wouldn't have it any other way.  Urban comfort, the battle of the sexes, brutality in Africa, even a poor little hamster are not spared.  Carnage, through spectacularly good acting and existential horror, says 'You're ALL sons of bitches, the lot of you, but you have your moments, if you try.  Maybe.'