Tuesday, December 28, 2010

For Your Consideration

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent out their ballots to members yesterday. They will nominate their fellow actors, directors, writers, and craftspeople for the Oscars.

Who knows if they can be swayed in their decision making? All I know is that I am not the one to sway them. But, I can damn well put my thoughts out into the universe.

I tried to avoid naming films here that I will be talking about for the next several weeks because that would get monotonous for you and for me. However, every one of these films deserves a second look or a first look.

For your consideration:

Best Picture -- I’m Still Here

Much derided upon its release as a deceitful, deplorable gimmick, the film stands as a record of unparalleled dedication to the craft of acting and filmmaking. The reality is not the point. The point is that director Casey Affleck and star Joaquin Phoenix dedicated two years of their real lives to pulling off a magnificent magic trick of a film. This is a truly special achievement that has not been fully appreciated and may not be for a long time.

Best Director -- Tim Heatherington and Sebastian Junger for Restrepo

With a platoon of American troops, they walked into the most dangerous place in the world, filmed it, and brought it back for the world to see. Some have criticized the film for not taking a point of view, but that is precisely the film’s strength. The viewer must decide for himself whether the war that Heatherington and Junger are reporting is good or right or fair. The filmmakers show courage both by embedding themselves with the troops and by trusting their images over any message.

Best Supporting Actress -- Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

As Ramona Flowers, Winstead is called upon to be the dream girl of every geek, nerd, and gamer in the world. She’s smart, sarcastic, cool, and perfect for the hero (us). Except that she is a real person, with real problems and a sad, unfortunate past. What makes Winstead’s performance so great is that she perfectly evokes the been-there-done-that-and-left sadness that makes Flowers such a fully realized foil for Pilgrim. The movie does not work without her.

Cinematography -- Newton Thomas Sigel for Leap Year

This is a slight romantic comedy about which the lead actor stated he only showed up for the pay day. No one could blame the crew for phoning it in as well. It is a credit to Sigel that he did not. So, despite the fluffy plot and “clever misunderstandings,” the countrysides, vistas, and castles look gorgeous on screen. Lit beautifully and shot beautifully, Sigel deserved a better story on which to hang his considerable gifts.

Art Direction/Set Design -- Aline Bonetto for Micmacs

Most will remember Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet for his work on Amelie (also designed by Bonetto). Like most of his films, Micmacs takes place in a world that exists only in imagination; however, that world is so well rendered that it takes on an air of absolute realism because the feelings and the sensations are real. Bonetto’s sense of color and texture brings Jeunet’s world to life.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Coming Up in 2011

I hope everyone had a nice Christmas if you celebrate it, a nice weekend if you don’t. The new year will be upon us soon, and I wanted to let you know some of the things you can expect at Last Cinema Standing in 2011.

As always, Oscar coverage will dominate the first two months of the year. The Academy Awards take place on Feb. 27, and until then, I’ll do my best to provide insights and commentary on the ramp up to the ceremony.

In the first couple weeks of the year, I’ll be doing the year-end wrap up, including my lists of the top ten films of the year, top performances, as well as some other reflections. Nathaniel Ochoa and I will announce our respective top ten lists on our podcast, No Middle Seat. I will follow that with written analyses of the films in question.

Looking forward, I hope to introduce a new weekly or biweekly column to the site. I’ve had a few ideas that I’d like to share here. If you have any other ideas, feel free to mention them in the comments section.

The Great Scenes -- originally, I intended to do a list of the 100 greatest movie scenes, but it seemed like an exercise in futility to narrow down a century of cinema to 100 choice scenes. So, I will highlight one deserving scene a week from films as disparate as possible, the idea being to expose all of us to as great a range of film as possible.

Those Unsung -- as an avid awards watcher every year, I see countless great films, great performances, and great technical achievements go unheralded and unnoticed. I will seek as often as possible to remedy this situation, while also trying to look outside the box when I can.

Modern Classics -- using the last 25 years as a working definition of “modern,” I want to examine the films that have defined and shaped the cinematic landscape in the time that I have been alive, the films that today’s films aspire to be.

Those are just a few ideas for the coming year. When Jan. 1 rolls around, things in the film world will start to move fast and furious, and I will do my best to keep up, while still providing thoughtful, well reasoned arguments and discussion about modern cinema.

Thanks for being here and spending a few minutes of your day with me. I’ll see you in 2011.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New Movie Review: Fair Game

I’m apolitical. A lot of things led me to that life choice, but most significantly, I found that I just couldn’t force myself to care anymore. Politics has a funny way of letting you down. One man can’t make a difference, and any difference a group makes is just a drop at the bottom of the bucket on the floor of the Pacific.

But, let’s just say I’m apolitical, and it takes a lot to make me angry anymore. It takes a lot to get me riled up about anything in the realm of politics. It takes something extraordinary to make me mad.

Fair Game made me mad.

Naomi Watts plays Valerie Plame, a CIA operative outed by an official at the White House in retaliation for her husband’s claim that President Bush lied about the possibility of a nuclear Iraq. Sean Penn plays her husband, Joe Wilson.

Wilson is a man who knows what is right and does it. It takes Plame a little longer. The movie follows the couple as they withstand death threats, cries of liar and un-American, and professional and personal blackballing.

I will not, however, go into the plot any more than that. If you were alive at the time and cared at all, then you know more about the whole affair than I could tell you in a movie synopsis.

So, let me tell you what made me mad.

1) Personally, I do not believe that Iraq ever had weapons nor was the country ever a threat to the United States, least of all an imminent threat that required pre-emptive action. That belief does not matter. We’re in Iraq, and we’re there to stay for the foreseeable future.

2) This movie does not care whether or not President Bush lied or the administration lied or the whole government lied. It is about two government employees who saw the facts and saw what they perceived to be lies. Plame and Wilson are not anti-Americans.

3) If this movie is not about WMDs and is not about the President, then what is it about? It is about a culture in which intelligent public discourse is dead and the talking points that replaced it are pathetic.

I came of age during the time this film is set: 2001-2003. I watched the President address the nation and congress. I watched the bombs fall on Iraq. I watched those who questioned the official stance get dragged through the mud. And, I watched it all on a 19-inch color screen.

You can’t blame the government for wanting to stay the government any more than you can blame a puppy for messing on the rug. It’s what it does. If the government’s best way to stay in power is to promote a war, it will do what it must.

The rest of us should have known better, and some of us are paid to know better. I mean the journalists. I mean those whose jobs rely on truth and information.

A journalist is a watchdog. That’s why the best don’t get invited to parties. People shouldn’t like journalists, and for the most part, they don’t. But, they should damn well trust them. The job of the journalist is not to tow the line but to see where the line leads and report it.

I try to avoid using my personal life when reviewing movies. I love the craft of film and try to review movies that are well made with good stories. If you want to know if this movie is well made, then I can tell you that it is. Watts and Penn are magnificent. Doug Liman’s direction serves the story by staying out of the way. The editing is clear, concise, and breakneck.

Does it tell a good story? You bet. Is it a story that I am happy to see? No. Is it important? Without a doubt. I do my best to leave my heart at home and watch movies with my head, but if a film can penetrate my chest like this one did, it will still find a heart. This movie is personal to me.

On Thursday this week, I will graduate from college with a degree in journalism. What does that degree mean? If we allow the discussion in this country to move away from what matters and toward what is popular, toward what people agree on, then my degree is not worth the paper on which it is printed.

Yeah, that makes me angry.

See it: absolutely.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Giants Win the Pennant: A Flimsy Excuse for a List

Yes, I am an Atlanta Braves fan. Yes, I participate in the Tomahawk Chop. And, yes, it devastated me when the San Francisco Giants knocked the Braves out of the playoffs.

But, I am a Bay Area native, through and through. I grew up watching Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants baseball on television every day of the summer. My father is about as devout as one can be about the black and orange.

So, the Giants winning the world series is a big deal -- for me, for my family, and for Northern California.

When I was about 10 (my dad can probably correct me on the exact timeline), I attended a baseball day camp. The experience was okay, although I did lose a mitt at one point, but never mind that.

One of the main draws of the camp was that we got to have our pictures taken with a professional baseball player toward the end of the camp. I had my picture taken with San Francisco Giants right fielder Glenallen Hill.

Somewhere, I may even still have the picture, but the point is that I remember it happening. And, that is the clearest memory I have of camp (that and the first time I had mayonnaise).

To be up front about this, I was thinking about camp this weekend because I went through the whole Sleepaway Camp series, a trilogy of very 80s-style teen-slasher flicks.

I just wanted a way to tie everything in with the World Series. What I really want to talk about are famous, or not-so-famous, movie camps.

Here are five movie camps I wouldn’t want to attend.

Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th

Anyone familiar with 80s horror should be familiar with this camp -- the first final resting place of Jason Voorhees, and the camp where his mother went on a kill-crazy rampage that was somehow about revenge and teen sex. It’s certainly not a summer camp I’d ever want to attend, but it would also be quite difficult as all of the counselors died before they could even open the camp.

Camp Chippewa from Addams Family Values

This is one of my favorite movies. Chippewa is the antithesis of what the Addams family stands for -- it’s all perkiness and pep and spirit and joy. In fact, there is so much perkiness that a subtle creepiness begins to seep into the framework of the camp. It’s as good as a brainwashing facility, except that it panders to the already converted. Luckily, Wednesday and Pugsly, in their own way, are able to bring a fresh perspective to the world of the camp.

Any of the camps from the Sleepaway Camp series

It’s not so much the camps themselves, which seem normal enough aside from some extensive bullying, but the fact so many people tend to die. And, they all tend to die at the hands of the same woman, a charming if puritanical camper/counselor with some serious identity issues. The movies aren’t great, though I enjoy them well enough, but the camps are the kinds of place I could never enjoy -- you know, for fear of dying.

The Camp from Piranha

It’s a summer camp that seems only okay. The fun is mostly limited to swimming in the lake and learning to swim in the lake and various other lake-centric activities. I suppose this wouldn’t be so bad if the camp hadn’t been built so near an army testing facility with a pool of killer mutant piranha that drains directly into the lake. Unfortunately, it has.

Kids on Fire from Jesus Camp

I’m on the record as stating that I find Jesus Camp to be the most terrifying movie ever made, mostly for the fact that it’s all true and that these are real people with real beliefs who really think I’m going to Hell and they’re going to Heaven and that those places exist. The message promoted at this camp is so far beyond anything I could agree with that there is already nothing there for me. However, I would also have to come to terms with the fact that I’d probably be burned as a heretic outright. So, there’s that, too.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Minor Regret

Let me start with this: I am a fan of the Saw movies. Okay, they’re deplorable. We can probably agree on that. They’re unnecessarily convoluted, and the stories are rarely more than an excuse to watch a lot of people die gruesomely.

Nevertheless, I count myself among the fans of the franchise. However, I have never seen one the films in theatres, and I never will. The “final” film in the series comes out this Friday -- in 3D no less. But, I will not be there.

However much I enjoy the Saw movies, which I confess is more than I probably should though some are obviously more entertaining than others, I can not condone that style of filmmaking, nor do I think the films are particularly well made.

The franchise does not represent the kind of cinema I wish to encourage with my movie-going dollars. I made a conscious decision several years ago that I would not pay one dime to see a Saw movie in theatres nor encourage anyone else to do so.

Since Election Day is eight days away, I’ll relate it to that. A movie ticket is as good as a vote, and you cast your vote every time you go to the movies. If you want to see good films and want good films to continue to be made, you should pay to see good movies.

A movie ticket is expensive, which is all the more reason to cast your vote wisely because you most likely have a limited number of votes. See the movies you want to see, of course, but remember that you invite more of the same with every dollar you spend.

This is all a long way of bringing me around to my point. Last night, I saw Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. I did not enjoy the film, but I would encourage Eastwood’s brand of filmmaking any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I have never regretted paying to see an Eastwood film.

I paid my $9 and made my way to the theatre listed on the ticket -- Theatre 12. But, Hereafter was playing in Theatre 2. Something didn’t stack up. Then, I noticed what happened. The cashier, surely unaware of my movie-going moral standards, inadvertently pressed the wrong button and issued me a ticket to Life As We Know It, a film I would never pay to see.

The new Katherine Heigl romance would die a quick death if I had my say, but when the cashier pushed the wrong button, he registered my vote for the exact kind of feature I hate.

But, rather than demand a refund and the proper ticket, I sat in my fourth-row seat, dead center, and watched the movie I didn’t pay for. I should have gone back. I should still go back. I may do just that, but until then, it’s a minor regret.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

No Middle Seat: Episode 01

I apologize for the delays in putting the podcast up online. I am as minimally tech-savvy as it is possible to be, so I wanted to take some time and try to do this right before I put it up. And, I can't promise that the format won't change a little in the future.

For our inaugural edition, Nate and I discuss David Fincher's The Social Network in some depth with discussion on the careers of Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin.

We diverge from topic here and there, including talk about The Squid and the Whale and the new Spider-Man film.

The podcast is fairly long but hopefully entertaining.

The music, by the way, is from James L. Brooks' Broadcast News.

Thanks for tuning in.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Podcast Coming Soon

As a new venture here at Last Cinema Standing, I have joined forced with my friend Nat Ochoa who writes over at Nate the Great Boy Genius (the link is in the sidebar) to record a podcast.

I would like for this to be a regular (perhaps, weekly) feature on the site.

We recorded our first podcast this evening, and I will spend some time tonight editing the audio for listening pleasure.

I will have the podcast up by tomorrow morning. And, I hope you enjoy.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

In Memoriam: Sally Menke

Menke with her two children and husband, Dean Parisot

I’m not sure why, but the death of Sally Menke has hit me harder than I would have thought. Of course, I didn’t know her and never met her. That’s not the point.

However, I find myself almost obsessed with the details surrounding her death, not out of morbid curiosity but out of genuine concern and care for those she left behind.

It’s been a rough week for Hollywood deaths: Tony Curtis, today, and Arthur Penn and Gloria Stuart earlier in the week -- these among others.

But, I feel personally affected by Menke’s death.

If you hadn’t heard, authorities found Menke’s body near a hiking trail in Los Angeles on Tuesday. A victim of the record heat, her faithful dog never left her side, and it appears that this was simply an unfortunate accident.

Menke was an editor most famous for her collaborations with Quentin Tarantino. Her biggest break came in working on Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s first feature. They worked together on every film he did after that.

I was quite young when I first saw Reservoir Dogs, probably too young. It was the first film I had ever seen to feature a fractured narrative -- the timeline jumps back and forth to various points surrounding a diamond robbery.

Non-sequential storytelling is a bit of a cliché now, but that is largely thanks to Reservoir Dogs. And, as great as Tarantino’s script and direction are on that film, it is Menke’s deft cutting together of the story that makes the film work.

Without her, Tarantino’s story would have been a fine read but an impenetrable film. It is her style as much as his that makes their collaborations classics.

I can’t quite process what I am feeling right now. I’m not sure that one is meant to fully understand his feelings about another’s death.

What I do know, however, is that a cinematic future without Sally Menke is just a little bit bleaker.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day

It’s Father’s Day. If you’re reading this, Dad, I hope you’re having a good one.

Without my father, I would not be the person I am. I mean that for many reasons, of course, but since I write about movies, let’s talk about movies.

When I was around four or five years old, my dad and I moved into a new apartment. The first day in the new apartment, after things had been unpacked and a period of settling in had taken place, he asked me if I wanted to go to the Warehouse.

I couldn’t understand why he sounded excited about it or why he thought I would want to do something like that. At four years old, I had yet to make the distinction between the Warehouse Video Store and the Men’s Warehouse. I thought he wanted to take me suit shopping. He didn’t.

I don’t remember what the first movie we rented was, but the specifics don’t really matter. As far back as I can trace, that’s where my love of movies started-- jay-walking across a busy, dangerous street to that wonderful old building, all full of movies waiting to be watched. I can’t say that I always chose the best movies (sorry about all the Leprechaun movies, Dad), but the important thing was the watching, taking in movie after movie.

There is no way my dad could have known what it would lead to-- a love of film, bordering on obsession-- but there is no doubt in my mind that he is responsible. We amassed a collection of VHS tapes, unrivaled by anyone I knew at the time. Some 300 tapes, all bought while blissfully unaware that developing technology would render them near-obsolete (thanks, a lot, DVD).

But, the tapes, the rentals, that was only the tip of the iceberg. My dad not only took me to the movie theatre, but he taught me how to do it right. A movie is not a movie without popcorn and a soda. Occasionally, he reminds me of this and kids me if I don’t get anything at theatre. Believe me, when I go back, I get my popcorn and soda.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with trivia of all kinds. Personal trivia, for instance, intrigues me to no end. But, one piece of trivia eludes me, and it’s a big one. If there’s anyone who might know the answer, it would be my father. I can not recall the first movie I saw in a theatre. I couldn’t even begin to place a time frame on it. Perhaps it’s one of those things lost to history. I guess it’s not that important.

For my father, here are some movies that remind me of him.


My dad likes war movies, and this may be the greatest war movie ever made.

The Departed

The first time my dad and his wife came to visit me at school, this was the movie we saw. The bad guy’s on the left; the good guy’s on the right, Dad.

Reservoir Dogs

Introduced to me by my father, this is one of the first movies I recall seeing and thinking, ‘That was an amazing movie.’

My Cousin Vinny
Because I’ve only named ultra-violent movies so far, it’s important to know that my dad has a pretty good sense of humor.

As a side note, my father and I still go to the old Warehouse Video building. It’s a BevMo! now. There’s wine where the horror movies used to be, whiskey in the action section, and refrigerators in place of the racks of used movies for sale. Oh, well. Not everything can stay the same.

Happy Father’s Day.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Baseball Season

It’s June 7. I have been absent from this space for some time now. Quite a bit of the reason has been the start of the 2010 Major League Baseball season. My Atlanta Braves have surged in the last couple of weeks and currently hold a two-game lead over the reining National League Champion Phillies.

Additionally, I’ve been immersed in reading a wonderful volume by Robert Gorman and David Weeks, “Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities 1862-2007.” It’s morbid but fascinating material-- a hundred and forty-five years of baseball deaths.

Mercifully, professional basketball is coming to a close for the season. Hockey is soon to finish, and football won’t begin for some time now. Of course, I realize that this is a World Cup year, but living in America, that tends not to interfere with my sports watching. Soccer just doesn’t cut it.

What I’m getting at is that the next several months are a baseball fan’s dream. The season is well under way, division races are starting to take shape, and there are no other pesky sports battling for air time.

But, this is a film blog, the goal of which is to promote a love of cinema. Luckily, the movies have a rich tradition of depicting sports and the trials of athletes. Some might say the sports film sub-genre has turned into a cliché-ridden mess.

Looking at some of the muck that come packaged as sports films, I might be inclined to agree. If, however, we are being honest, most genres these days are paper-mâché cutouts of time worn plots and characters.

As with any genre, though, the sports film can rise above the dregs and prove great. One need look no further than Raging Bull for proof that the sports genre can produce a masterpiece just as easily as (or with as much difficulty as) the western, the romance, or the noir.

So, in the spirit of the baseball season, I thought I’d share with you some of the baseball films that I cherish. These may not be “classic” films in the canonical sense of the word, but they are movies that are dear to me. They are movies that in one way or another made me who I am today, and that is the spirit in which I recommend these films.

Eight Men Out

Featuring a dream ensemble cast, the movie lays out plainly (albeit with a flare for the dramatic detail here and there) the case of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, more commonly known as the Black Sox. It is a story of average men put in an extraordinary situation that they hadn’t the faculties to handle.

No one is soft sold-- the players, the gamblers, the management, the owners-- and while it’s tempting to sympathize with the players as victims of circumstance, overwhelming evidence suggests the contrary. They knew what they were doing, though that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their reasons.

Everything is made all the more sad because of the tragic inevitability of the proceedings. As you watch, it’s hard not to hope for a different outcome, but the pieces all fall into place for the worst scandal in baseball up to the steroid era.

The 1919 World Series may be one of the only professional sports championships wherein more people are familiar with who lost rather than who won (the Cincinnati Reds, if you were curious). But, as this film makes clear, it was more than just the White Sox who lost. It was the fans, it was the league, and it was the sport, itself. But, in a more natural fashion, history forgot those others who lost.

For the Love of the Game

Kevin Costner has starred in a number of baseball-themed movies, most notably the best picture-nominated Field of Dreams. That’s a movie I like, but Sam Raimi’s romance about a washed-up pitcher playing in the last game of his career is the one that always stuck with me.

Admittedly, the story is largely sensational and the plot device of the perfect game is a little too predictable, but it honestly doesn’t matter. The love story is the driving element of this movie, but when I watch, it’s not the love story between Costner’s over-the-hill ballplayer and Kelly Preston’s career woman. It’s the love story between the player and the game.

In a morbid aside, this is the kind of movie that explains the high suicide rates among retired athletes. Their lives are dedicated to the game. They play seven months out of the year and train the other five. When it’s over, what do they do? Sadly, some don’t know the answer to that question. The game was life; without it, there is nothing.

In a sometimes saccharine (not a word I ever thought I’d use to describe a Sam “Evil Dead” Raimi film) and overtly sentimental way, For the Love of the Game explores that connection that a player has to the game, and in a deeper way, it explores the connection a man has to his work, be he a professional athlete or a professional carpenter.

The Sandlot

It’s basically canon for any kid who grew up playing little league baseball in the 90s, a demographic in which I can be included. The movie features great supporting work from Karen Allen, James Earl Jones, and Dennis Leary, but it mostly belongs to the kids.

The plot, such as it is, centers around a bunch of young friends who get together and play baseball during the long, hot summer days. Mostly episodic in nature, the only story point that really carries all the way through the movie is that of “The Beast,” a neighborhood guard dog feared by all who have heard the stories.

If we’re being honest, the movie, which is set in 1962, sidesteps a few of the more pressing social issues of the time (for example: racial and gender equality) and opts instead for grudging political correctness. But, it’s a children’s movie from the Clinton era. People were feeling too good to want to feel bad.

And, ultimately, this is a feel good movie. It’s about remembering that baseball is game and the pure joy that playing the game can bring.

The Babe

No, not the movie about the pig. Though, depending on your viewing of the film, this Babe Ruth biopic makes a good case the Great Bambino as swine. It is an unflattering look at the greatest hitter to ever play the game, a statement which may be among the most inarguable in sports.

Yet, while the film portrays Ruth as an uncouth, loutish oaf, John Goodman, in one of his early starring film roles, finds humanity in the slugger. The shame is that the movie was not a greater success with the public because Goodman deserved more opportunities like this one to show what he can do. His underrated performance in the title role is one of great depth and sadness.

Ruth was a man abandoned by his father at an early age, raised by borderline-abusive Catholic priests, and nearly saved by his great talent. Unfortunately, with his great talent came the hangers-on who sought to exploit Ruth for their own gain.

The film does a wonderful job of showing how his success was undermined at every turn by business men, scam artists, and tragically, all too often himself. His ultimate downfall came from the fact that he could not distinguish between those who cared about him and those who cared about themselves.

The Scout

This isn’t one of Albert Brooks’ best films. Those would be Real Life and Lost in America. But, it is his best (read: only) sports film. Brooks plays a scout for the New York Yankees who finds a dream pitching prospect on the day he is fired. It’s an irony from which Alanis Morissette could learn a thing or two.

Brooks brings the pitcher, who has no family and who had been living in Mexico, back to America to live with him. The pitcher is played by a lovably dim-witted Brendan Fraser in a role that seems like a warm-up for George of the Jungle. As the back of the DVD box might say, things go comically awry when Brooks gets more than he bargained for from their living arrangement.

In all seriousness, the movie goes some dark places with the Fraser character, certainly darker than you would expect to find in a traditional sports comedy.

Though the ending falls into certain genre traps, the majority of the film is full of Brooks’ trademark dry wit and sardonic humor, which make it well worth a viewing. There are also a couple of really funny moments featuring Tony Bennett, so it’s got that, too.

A League of Their Own

A baseball movie by women, about women, and for everyone, A League of Their Own contains what may be the greatest line ever spoken in a sports movie.

Poor little Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram, of Monk fame), the Peaches’ petite right fielder, runs off the field after her throwing error allowed the opposing team to score the tying run. Her manager, Jimmy Dugan (a wonderful Tom Hanks), greets her at the top step of the dugout. After a chewing out for the ages, the player breaks down in tears, at which point her coach informs her of a simple fact: “There’s no crying in baseball.”

But, then, you probably already knew that.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Doc Brown to the Future

I am watching Back to the Future as I write this. You may remember that at the end of the film, Doctor Emmett Brown, in a role that could not have been better suited for Christopher Lloyd, travels 30 years into the future.

However, at the beginning of the 1985 film, before the complications with the Libyans, Doc Brown plans to travel only 25 years into the future. Upon doing the math, one realizes that he planned to travel to the futuristic-sounding year 2010-- or, as we affectionately call it, this year.

So, I suppose, we are here in the future. Dr. Brown intended on bringing his own supply of cotton underwear, fearing his allergy to synthetic fibers would be an issue. Had he made the journey, he would have been pleased to find cotton briefs in abundance.

He muses about learning who will win the next 25 World Series. Though unless Dr. Brown is a New York Yankees fan, I feel he may find nothing but disappointment.

He would likely be pleased to find that those Libyan terrorists are now the least of his worries. To tell the truth, he should probably be more afraid of the American government.

A wild-haired old man claiming to be a time traveler would almost certainly be jailed and forgotten. Once the feds realized his technology actually works, the damage they could do is uncertain and unimaginable.

What is certain, however, is that Dr. Brown would receive no credit for his discovery and would more likely receive a lifetime committal to Bellevue.

Come to think of it, it is probably best that the good doctor was shot dead by the Libyans before he could make his journey. We’re all better off.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Live-blogging the Show

9:04 pm

Well that's the show. Thanks for hanging out here at Last Cinema Standing. Apologies for disappearing for the last half hour, but the show always enthralls me at the end. Check back tomorrow for a few more reactions and analyses.

8:37 pm

An interesting, eccentric speech by the Dude himself. A highlight of the night along with Michael Giachinno's statement that "It's not a waste of time."

8:22 pm

I'd like to take this opportunity to respond to commenter Michael Leydon, who asks about the lack luster effort by advertisers on the Academy Awards to create any memorable campaign.

There are a lot of answers. In the marketing world, the Oscars are referred to as "the Super Bowl for women." The ads tend to skew that direction and research shows that men respond to humor better than women in ads. Hence, not as many attempts at humor.

Also, in the last several years, ratings for the awards show have gone down precipitously. It is not as good of an investment at this point for advertisers. Until that trend reverses, it is likely to be a dumping ground for second-rate ad campaigns.

8:20 pm

Once again, the Academy ignores the challenging and innovative foreign films (A Prophet and The White Ribbon) and goes for the middle of the road, safe pick. It's a broken process.

7:47 pm

I am utterly speechless...wait...I've found the words: It's a travesty. Really. They've done away with the talented writers and performers who wrote the nominated original songs and replaced them with nameless dancers who have nothing to do with the films. Honestly-- an interpretive dance to a film about the uncertainties of war. I think I've found another word: disrespect. Disrespect all around.

7:33 pm

Commenter Sugar asks a wonderful question about why many of these Oscar-nominated movies never play in theatres near anyone.

The argument is that it is about money. The kind of art movies that win awards don't make money-- or, at least, that's the line. But, that's a catch-22. The movies don't make money so we don't put them in enough theatres to make any money? It doesn't make sense.

The sad truth is that producers don't believe audiences want to see these movies, so they fail before they have a chance to succeed. It's a cycle that is tough to break until a little indie film makes good on its promise.

More on this later...

7:29 pm

The Hurt Locker is three for three tonight. It's well on its way to victory.

7:19 pm

To paraphrase my friend Ryan, the reason horror movies don't get the rspect they deserve is because of people like Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart.

7:01 pm

For those confused about Mo'Nique's statement about the politics ("...showing that the award is about the performance and not the politics."), allow me to explain. Mo'Nique has taken flack all season for refusing to go out and campaign for an Academy Award. Others, who were campaigning, tried to use it against her. She is right, in this instace, that the performance was so strong it could not be ignored. However, in many cases, the politics win out, and it is a crime and a shame. The poignancy of Mo'Nique's statement will hopefully resonate with those in the Academy. It's about movies, not motives, performances, not politics, and talent, not talk.

6:55 pm

That was a nice moment for Roger Corman and Lauren Bacall. Also, a wonderful speech by Geoffrey Fletcher, a surprise winner for Precious.

6:37 pm

Surprise, surprise, they cut off the short filmmakers for an unfunny bit by Ben Stiller. For shame.

6:33 pm

Logorama really is an amazing film. If you haven't seen, seek it out.

6:25 pm

Samuel L. Jackson said that Up is the second film to be nominated for best picture and best animated film. That's not technically accurate. It is the first. In 1991, Beauty and the Beast was nominated for best picture, but the best animated feature category did not exist. Just to stop any misinformation from being spread.

6:19 pm

Does John Hughes really deserve his own tribute at the Oscars? He's been dead for months. He was never nominated for Academy Award. Far more interesting and talented people have passed in the last year. If the producers really wanted to shorten the show, this is what they should have cut. If you've seen the movies, you don't need the montage. If you haven't, then you don't care.

6:17 pm

A win in screenplay for The Hurt Locker-- look out for a sweep.

6:09 pm

I'm sitting here wondering who will be the first person to have a speech cut off. The producers this year promised to be Draconian about speech length and stop anyone, regardless of status, if the speech went over 45 seconds. We'll see if they stick to that.

6:05 pm

Promoted as "Oscars like you've never seen them" everything is pretty standard issue so far. I'm not complaining; I'm just saying.

5:50 pm

It's like that whole atrocious opening song was a justification for there being two hosts. Steve Matin was pretty damn funny though. Alec Baldwin, not so much.

And, Christoph Waltz's win, maybe the most predictable thing all night (until Avatar wins Visual effects). But, it was a sweet, humble, endearing speech. A fitting end to his awards run.

Live Blogging the Pre-Show

5:26 pm

Pre-show over-- thank god. Enough of these people.

5:21 pm

I'm pretty sure she just said Miley Cyrus has "mastered comedy." Now, that's funny.

5:11 pm

Christopher Plummer says, "You can still have fun after age 14." I hope next year's Oscar producers remember that and do away with presenters like Taylor Lautner and Miley Cyrus.

5:09 pm

Well, that was an anti-climactic end to the design competition.

5:02 pm

It's raining on the Oscars. And, they're starting with the supporting actress interviews. They've all gotten to know each other pretty well over the course of the season, and it shows.

Oscars Tonight

Oscars tonight, friends. If you know me, which sure as you are reading this blog, you probably do, then you know tonight is the culmination of six months of non-stop movie watching and following of every twist and turn in the Oscar race.

As with last year, I will be live-blogging the event from my friend Ryan’s living room where we will be eating lasagna and drinking home-made beer in celebration of nothing in particular. So, check back here every so often throughout the night for my thoughts.

An afternoon of re-watching Inglourious Basterds has me pulling for an upset for that film (though, if I had my druthers, the Coens would take the award for A Serious Man). If you don’t follow the race closely, I could tell you what to look for, but where would the fun be in that? It is much more fun to hope that what we like will, against all odds and logic, prevail.

In that spirit, the following are the awards as I would like to see them turn out, despite the unlikelihood. Keep in mind, these are not predictions.

Best Picture: A Serious Man

Best Director: James Cameron for Avatar, his dedication to bringing the planet of Pandora to life for the planet Earth is among the greatest achievements by a single individual in the history of filmmaking

Best Actor: Colin Firth for A Single Man, the most nuanced and affecting turn by any of the year’s lead actor nominees

Best Actress: Carey Mulligan for An Education, though the story lets her down in the end, Mulligan gives the most fully realized performance of the group and shows that her future is a bright one indeed

Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds, “That’s a bingo!”

Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique for Precious, another character derailed by flaws in the story, the actress gives everything she has to the role and it comes out in the performance

The rest:

Original Screenplay: A Serious Man
Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
Cinematography: The White Ribbon
Editing: The Hurt Locker
Art-Direction: Avatar
Sound Editing: Avatar
Sound Mixing: Avatar
Original Score: Sherlock Holmes
Original Song: “The Weary Kind,” from Crazy Heart
Make-up: Star Trek
Costume Design: Coco Before Chanel
Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon
Documentary: The Cove
Animated Feature: Up
Visual Effects: Avatar
Animated Short: Logorama
Documentary Short: China’s Unnatural Disaster
Live-Action Short: The Door

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Good Day for Some Music

Over the weekend, the International Film Music Critics Association announced its choices for the best in film music of the last year.

Michael Giacchino, the composer of Up, was the big winner. However, one of my favorites of the year took home two awards. Christopher Young, whom I mentioned briefly last month when he was nominated for Drag Me to Hell, won for best horror film score (no surprise there) and, in a bit of an upset, also won for best film music composition.

I couldn’t agree more. Check out this link to go to my previous post on Young with a link to his winning composition, “Concerto to Hell.”

This all got me thinking about the original songs from last year’s films. Often, the most egregious snubs at the Academy Awards take place in the original song category. This year was no different, and the producers of the awards show have announced that the nominated songs will not even be performed during the show, which is an astounding break from tradition.

But, I figured I would take this opportunity to link to some of the best songs to come out of the cinema landscape of 2009. Each song title is a link to youtube.com where you can listen to the songs.

Help Yourself,” by Sad Brad Smith from Up in the Air

This song accompanied my favorite sequence in any film from last year, the wedding in Up in the Air. That one scene alone is reason enough to see the film, and Smith’s song is the perfect compliment to the bittersweet montage. It is a folksy, semi-ballad that brilliantly evokes the core of George Clooney’s lonely traveler.

Hideaway,” by Karen O from Where the Wild Things Are

A beautiful, tender, sad song from a beautiful, tender, sad movie, this track stands a cut above the rest on a soundtrack where every song is endlessly listenable. Karen O’s voice is heartbreaking.

Petey’s Song,” by Jarvis Cocker from The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Jaunty and irreverent, this song is the epitome of music written for a film, and with its twangy banjos and call-and-response lyrics, it wonderfully evokes the wacky fun of Wes Anderson’s latest effort.

The Weary Kind,” by Ryan Bingham from Crazy Heart

Even if you don’t like country, you can still appreciate this soul-searching ballad from up-and-comer Bingham. Essentially, the whole film is about the writing of this song. It is the only song mentioned here that is nominated for the Oscar.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Roland Emmerich Is the Shakespeare of Our Time

Hear me out on this, and I will stand by this statement: Roland Emmerich, director of Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and most recently 2012, is the William Shakespeare of the modern age.

This is on my mind for a couple reasons. 2012 comes out on DVD on Tuesday, and if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so. And, in recent news, it was announced that Mr. Emmerich will soon be directing a thriller about the theory that Shakespeare did not write his plays-- set in the time of Shakespeare. So, it’s probably safe to assume that the world won’t be ending in this one.

2012 is a movie I liked-- a lot. It’s ridiculous and goofy and sentimental, but it is all of those things in the name of entertainment.

Now, take Shakespeare’s “The Twelfth Night.” If you’re familiar with it at all, you know that it is ridiculous and goofy and sentimental but also that it is damn entertaining.

And, there’s the thread. They are entertainers. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his time. We know this because he is the most popular playwright of our time. His plays have survived hundreds of years, not because they advanced the medium of the theatre and of the written word, but because they were massive hits. Everyone wanted to see them, and mass audiences still want to see his plays.

It is a joke among writers that if there is an original idea to be conceived, Shakespeare already did it. Commonly ignored is the fact that anything Shakespeare did the Greeks did first. But, the point remains that if all ideas can be boiled down to 400-year-old plays, then those plays must have been comprised of key facets of the human experience.

Shakespeare then took the human experience and multiplied it to the nth degree and invented pop culture. Scholars have spent years and will continue to spend years looking for the deeper meaning in “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Richard III,” and so on down the line, but the truth is that the meaning is right there on the surface.

The plays are fantastic entertainments that one need not think too deeply about to have a good time. Anyone who pretends that the plays of William Shakespeare are anything more than mere melodrama ratcheted up for visceral thrill and emotional response is doing a disservice to himself and to the pure joy that is Shakespearian farce.

And, for melodramatic farce, look no further than Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum traveling to outer space to infect an alien mother ship with a computer virus. Strike that, look further back, and you may find that Shakespeare already did it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Avatar 2

It’s been a week since the Academy Awards nominations were announced, and there is very little to report on the Oscar front.

So, let’s talk sequels. A recent viewing of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day has revealed to me what most already knew: Cameron knows how to write and direct a sequel. He does not use sequels simply to cash in on popular films.

With Aliens, he expanded the universe presented in Ridley Scott’s original. He took the horror and claustrophobia of Alien and blew it up into a massive action-adventure film that tells a cohesive story.

Similarly, he used T2 to expand on the lore of the first film and filled out a story of which audiences wanted more. His sequels are bigger, bolder, and often better than their predecessors. All of this brings me to Avatar, which has recently become the highest grossing film of all time.

Cameron has already stated that he has enough material for two sequels to the best-picture-nominated 3D spectacle. But, one thing at a time-- what can we expect from Avatar 2? How could he possibly top the biggest movie of all time?

In thinking about it, I decided, “Why think about it?” Let’s just be happy with what we have: the best film-going experience in a generation. So, see it. See it again. See it a third time. It’s a big screen movie and must be seen that way.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Academy Awards Wish List: Nominations Tomorrow

Tomorrow morning, in the early hours before the sun comes up, Academy Awards nominations will be announced. There are any number of places on the Internet, beginning with the sidebar of this page, where you can look up predictions for who and what will be nominated.

I do not predict anything, and I presume to know nothing. Full disclosure, I do have a list of predictions, but I’m not crazy enough to publish them. Rather, in keeping with tradition, I will posit my ideas for what should have been nominated in this category or that. It’s like a wish list. So, here is my wish list for tomorrow morning in the top six categories.

All listings alphabetical


Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker-- a deliberately paced, wonderfully controlled film that rewards the viewer with something new every time

James Cameron for Avatar-- a singularly great vision from a singularly great visionary, Avatar is a film that could never have been made by anybody but Cameron

Joel and Ethan Coen for A Serious Man-- you can’t make the best picture of the year and not be among the best directors

Spike Jonze for Where the Wild Things Are-- he made childhood real, and that is a feet unmatched in recent cinema

Lars Von Trier for Antichrist-- this is a dangerous, provocative, and difficult movie, which proves Von Trier’s boast that he is the “greatest filmmaker in the world”


Four of these actors ended up on my top ten performances of the year list. The last, Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker gives such a subtle, nuanced performance that it can not be ignored.

Colin Firth for A Single Man; Jeremy Renner for The Hurt Locker; Sam Rockwell for Moon; Peter Saarsgard for An Education; Michael Stuhlbarg for A Serious Man


Each of these performances is so different, and each actress plays a woman at a different stage in her life. One is deciding what her life is (Mulligan); one is deciding what her life is worth (Gainsbourg); what her body is worth (Grey); what her love is worth (Cruz); whether or not she has enough love to give (Rudolph). They are all great.

Penelope Cruz for Broken Embraces; Charlotte Gainsbourg for Antichrist; Sasha Grey for The Girlfriend Experience; Carey Mulligan for An Education; Maya Rudolph for Away We Go


Among these, there are a Jew hunter and a Jew, a monster and a tyrant, and a soldier whose life is in upheaval as his life is in peril.

James Gandolfini for Where the Wild Things Are; Anthony Mackie for The Hurt Locker; Christian McKay for Me and Orson Welles; Fred Melamed for A Serious Man; Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds


Two of these women (Portillo and Lothor) appeared in little seen foreign dramas as support for the primary men in their lives. In a way, they are both subservient, but one relationship is built on love and mutual respect, the other on hatred and degradation. I urge you to see both films.

Lauren Ambrose for Where the Wild Things Are; Melanie Laurent for Inglourious Basterds; Susanne Lothor for The White Ribbon; Julianne Moore for A Single Man; Blanca Portillo for Broken Embraces


This year, the Academy expanded the best picture race to include ten films. As such, my wish list for best picture nominees mirrors exactly my top ten films of the year. Here, they appear in alphabetical order.

Antichrist; Avatar; Drag Me to Hell; The Girlfriend Experience; The Hurt Locker; Inglourious Basterds; Moon; A Serious Man; A Single Man; Where the Wild Things Are

Friday, January 29, 2010

Congratulations to Christopher Young

A week-and-a-half ago, I put up a list of films, performances, and technical achievements of which to take note. That post can be found here.

Among those I mentioned was Christopher Young, the composer for Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. As it is unlikely that Young will receive any notice at the Academy Awards, I wanted to draw your attention to somewhere he has received notice.

The International Film Music Critics Association has released its nominees for the best in film composition from 2009.

Christopher Young received four nominations, including Film Score of the Year, Film Composer of the Year, Best Score for a Horror/Thriller, and Film Music Composition of the Year.

You can find the rest of the nominees and a press release at this link.

So, congratulations to Christopher Young. Here is a link to his nominated Film Music Composition, “Concerto to Hell.” It's worth a listen.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Top Performances of 2009

The Screen Actors Guild Awards are tonight, where actors will honor actors for the best performances of the year (2009). I thought I’d take the opportunity to chime in with my list of the best performances of the year. Not wanting to separate the men from the women or the leads from the supporting, it’s a simple list.

As with last year’s list, eight of the top ten performances highlighted here appear in films that are also among the top films of the year. Movies are not made in a vacuum, and great words hold no meaning when badly spoken. Performances are integral in making a picture work. The following performances make their films work.

10. Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus in Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds has been described as a Jewish revenge fantasy with Brad Pitt and his band of Jews hacking their way through the Third Reich. These are all visceral thrills. The heart of the story is a movie house proprietress whose family has been killed by the Nazis. Laurent plays Shosanna Dreyfus with a wisdom and dignity that the Basterds lack. Her revenge is poetic, and Laurent’s performance is poetry. She belongs instantly in the canon of great Tarantino women: the Bride, Jackie Brown, the Death Proof girls, and Shosanna Dreyfus.

9. Peter Sarsgaard as David in An Education

David is a smooth talker, and he is the quintessential snake in the grass. The magic trick that Peter Sarsgaard performs in this film is showing the charm, always the charm, while hinting at the fangs, which lay in wait to strike. He really is the most likeable character put to celluloid all year, and in the same way he convinces her parents, he is able to convince us that there is nothing untoward about a middle-aged man courting a 16-year-old girl. Like I said, it’s a magic trick.

8. Anthony Mackie as Sgt. JT Sanborn in The Hurt Locker

Anthony Mackie’s Sgt. JT Sanborn is the polar opposite of Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. William James. While James has the family and the job back home and needs the war to escape, Sanborn needs the war to prove to himself how much he wants the family and the job and the civilian life. Mackie is all anger and fear and confusion as a man whose spiritual and literal existences are threatened by the appearance of the renegade Sgt. James. He must respect the superior officer, but he is free to feel whatever he wishes, which is anything but respect. Mackie lives this dichotomy brilliantly.

7. Sasha Grey as Christine Brown/Chelsea in The Girlfriend Experience

“If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn’t be paying you,” Chelsea says of her profession, providing a high-priced escort service. Sasha Grey plays a character who must always be someone else and someone different. At the same time, however, she must be able to show us the woman who plays those different parts in life. Grey is aloof and businesslike as her job requires but observant and engaged as necessary. Grey, quite famous in the adult film industry, proves her ability to play a real three-dimensional character. She has a future, but in this film, she is also the now.

6. Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell in Moon

This success of this film is based on the ability of the audience to stay interested in the Sam Bell character who is on screen alone, for all intents and purposes, for nearly the whole film. More than that, the audience must care about him. Sam Rockwell makes them care. There aren’t many actors I would want to watch perform an hour-and-a-half monologue, but Rockwell is one of them. Duncan Jones’ script is filled with a thousand different notes, and Rockwell hits every one with the precision and grace of which few other actors are even capable.

5. Christian McKay as Orson Welles in Me and Orson Welles

Christian McKay portrays Orson Welles as less a man than a myth. That is the right way to go. Welles is too big of a character to fit into one film, and maybe only Welles himself could have attempted it. McKay shows Welles as the walking ego that he most likely was but gives us glimpses into the genius that was always there. He gives the kind of performance that you wonder where he is when he is not on screen. In an otherwise average film, McKay is a big, bright, shining light that illuminates everything around him.

4. Colin Firth as George Falconer in A Single Man

George Falconer is a stiff, repressed man, forced to hide his sexuality from the world. His entire life is inside his mind. Colin Firth brings that inner world to the surface and somehow instills emotion and humanity into the character, while never betraying the fact that he leads a life built on secrecy. Director Tom Ford gives Firth no margin of error in portraying this character, and Firth never steps wrong. Every subtle gesture and studied mannerism is a mark of the actor diving into a character and bringing out a person.

3. Charlotte Gainsbourg as She in Antichrist

Gainsbourg’s character does not have a name. In the credits, she is referred to simply as She. Why? Because it does not matter who she is so much as what she represents. She represents women and the treatise that women are inherently evil. It is a tall order, but Gainsbourg is up to the task. This is a cruel, brutal movie, and she gives a brave, fully committed performance. She is put through all manner of physical and psychological torture, and while the character may not endure, Gainsbourg weathers the storm admirably.

2. James Gandolfini as Carol in Where the Wild Things Are

In this role, Gandolfini has given up the primary tool of any actor: his face. Best known as the head of a crime family on “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini completely reinvents himself in the most emotive, vulnerable, and affecting performance of the year. As sometimes-gentle giant Carol, he is the wild thing who leads Max through his strange adventure. But, he is a reflection of who Max was in the real world. He is the driving force of Max’s transformation. It is a lot of responsibility, and Gandolfini valiantly carries the load on his enormous shoulders. When he is angry, fear is the only appropriate response; but when he is hurt, the tears can not be stopped.

1. Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers’ script is so full of small details and careful observations that it makes sense that the lead performance would be built on those same details and observations. Stuhlbarg is a well known theatre actor, and his theatre training is his greatest asset in this role. His voice has so many distinct levels to it, and he uses every one to convey the fear, anxiety, and anger over the utter incomprehensibility of what his character experiences. And, his face, my god, his face-- it is so wonderfully expressive. His furrowed brow, his wrinkled nose, his pursed lips, every emotion that can be felt lurks just below the surface, waiting to be given form. Stuhlbarg gives them form and oh so much more. Every viewing of this film reveals new depths to the performance. They are all worth cherishing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

For Your Consideration

If you read any industry trade paper or any film websites, you are inundated with “For Your Consideration” advertisements meant to remind you what the best movies of the year were. For those who haven’t seen one, they look like this:

The nominating process for the Academy Awards ends this Saturday. As such, studios are ramping up their efforts to remind voters of what they should have liked and may have forgotten. I would like to take this opportunity to do the same.

Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that 99 to 100% of my readers are not members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That’s not a problem. For those without a vote, consider this a helpful guide for some worthwhile viewing somewhere along the way.

So, for your consideration:

Best Picture: Broken Embraces

Pedro Almodovar’s latest is a staggering film. It must be seen more than once in order to appreciate all of its layers. That which is on screen is beautiful and vibrant and luscious, and the story underneath is as richly textured as anything Almodovar has done in the past.

Best Director: Oren Peli for Paranormal Activity

For doing so much with so little, Peli’s achievement just screams out to be recognized. It is genuinely scary without resorting to mindless or easy tricks (with one notable exception). The success of this film is heartening for those fans of true horror, and that success is because of Peli.

Best Supporting Actor: Zach Galifianakis for The Hangover

The humor in this movie is certainly not for all tastes but trust me that the humor does not work without Zach Galifianakis. A playful, bear-like man child, Galifianakis plays his part with such cock-eyed innocence that it is impossible not to love him.

Best Art Direction/Production Design: Hideki Arichi and Tony Noble for Moon

There are two worlds in this movie: the barren, dusty wasteland that is the titular moon and the cold, sterile inside of the lunar station where Sam Bell is housed. Both are perfectly rendered and perfectly match the tone of this gritty, sad story. Arichi and Noble are the guys to thank for that.

Best Score: Christopher Young for Drag Me to Hell

Christopher Young has done the music for countless horror films over the years and also wrote the music for Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 3. His music for Drag Me to Hell is a perfect blend of classical intricacies and comic flourishes. It is creepy and brooding and appropriate.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Carter Burwell Interview

A few weeks back, I published a post concerning my admiration for composer Carter Burwell (you can read my thoughts here).

Today, I came across an interview with Burwell at Moving Image Source. In it, he explains some of the challenges and triumphs of his recent career, with a particular focus on Where the Wild Things Are and his collaborations with the Coen Brothers, inclusing A Serious Man.

It's an interesting read if you enjoy film music or the composition process. You can read the full interview here.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Top 10 Movies of 2009

It’s been an interesting year for movies. There has been no shortage of good movies, but there have not been many great movies. To find the year’s best required some thinking outside the box. Included in my top ten this year are two science-fiction films, two horror films, and a fantasy picture. It’s not the usual prestige fair, but I think it speaks well for the filmmakers who rise above the confines of genre and still produce transcendent works of art.

The top ten films of 2009:

10. Avatar

In a few weeks’ time, James Cameron’s Avatar could become the second highest grossing movie of all time. It will sit just behind James Cameron’s Titanic. It’s not a coincidence that Cameron is on his way to having the two biggest movies of all time. He makes the kind of pictures that reminds audiences why they go to movies in the first place.

Avatar is just such a film. The visuals speak for themselves and must be allowed to because I was speechless after seeing the movie. On an IMAX screen and in 3D, the images are enough to make your jaw drop. Mine did, literally. The words do not exist to adequately express the grandeur and majesty of Cameron’s film.

There have been complaints about the script, and if you have seen Aliens or Titanic, then you know the type of complaints. Such arguments hold no water when held against the technical achievements of this film. So the story is well worn territory-- what in Hollywood isn’t? So the dialogue is on the nose-- try creating an entire alternate universe without exposition. So the political parable is only vaguely hidden-- Crash won best picture.

But, it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. If you want well written drama, then I’m sure you know where to find it, but don’t go into Avatar looking for the next Chinatown. As they say, this is not that. This is this. This is an unabashed epic that is like a locomotive at full steam. As an audience member, you can choose to get on or stay off, but there is no in between.

9. A Single Man

This is the first of two directorial debuts to appear on this year’s top ten list, but it feels nothing like a debut. On the contrary, fashion designer Tom Ford’s first feature feels as sure handed as if it were directed by a forty-year veteran. Like a great designer, Ford labors over every detail of this film, and the final result reflects that care and love.

There is a sequence in A Single Man that is full of so much beauty and irony that the audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Colin Firth plays George Falconer, a university English teacher. In the scene, Falconer sits on the toilet and reads, preparing for that day’s lesson on Aldous Huxley. As he sits, he looks out the window and across the street to his neighbors. The children play in the yard. The mother watches over them. The husband heads to work. It is painfully normal, and Ford lets the action play out in gorgeous slow motion.

It is the life that Falconer could have had, or so it is believed. If he hadn’t been such a “puff,” he could have had a family with Charley, his best friend, played by Julianne Moore. At least, that’s what Charley thinks, but nothing is ever that simple. They slept together in the past, but as George says, it meant more to her than to him.

But, as sorrowful as this film is, there are moments of pure joy, like when George and Charley reminisce about the old times back in London. She wants to go back. He knows that he can not. Firth is pitch-perfect in this role and lives in the skin of this character, a gay man who is neither closeted nor out. The film is not about homosexuality. Ford’s film speaks to the loss and regret and anguish that all people experience. It knows of what it speaks.

8. The Girlfriend Experience

A cold splash of water in the face, The Girlfriend Experience is a short but not-so-sweet movie about the economy. It is about facets of the economy the average person does not understand and facets of the economy the average person does not even consider. Sasha Grey plays Chelsea, a high-priced call girl ($2000 an hour is the going rate), and the story picks up just as the economic downfall begins taking its toll on the nation.

Much has been made of the fact that when she is not appearing in incisive little indies Grey is performing in hardcore pornography. Never mind any of it. Grey is the perfect actress for this part. The point of this movie is not the sex. There is less sex here than in the average episode of “Desperate Housewives.” The point of the movie is commoditization.

Everybody wants to get ahead. Everybody wants the next big score. Success is everything. In the worlds of high finance and high-end prostitution, if you don’t have a product anyone wants, then you are nothing. Chelsea understands this, and much of the plot revolves around her struggle to remain relevant in a world where depersonalization has even crept into the world of pay-to-play sex.

She offers a service that is beyond prostitution. The titular girlfriend experience is exactly what it sounds like-- she will listen to you, care about you, and laugh at your jokes, all for a set price. The men in the movie are successes. They have the jobs, they have the money, and they have the toys. All they need is the woman. Luckily, they can buy her. Everything needed to make them whole is just a fistful of cash away. This is the movie for our time.

7. Moon

The other science-fiction film on my list, Duncan Jones’ debut feature is 180 degrees from Avatar, and that is its charm. It is a throwback to the classic space-travel movies of the 50s and 60s. Scale models and practical effects are the draw. The set design on this movie is a wonder to behold. As director, Jones does his audience the favor of establishing the world of the story before diving straight away into it.

A never-better Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut stationed on the moon. His contract is for three lonely years with only his ship’s HAL 9000-like computer for company. His mission is to extract a precious mineral from the Earth satellite. Supposedly, the mineral provides a clean fuel with an almost limitless supply. Though, for reasons discovered through the course of the film, I’m not sure I would trust the company making the claims.

As the story moves along, it is impossible to tell where it is going to go next. Jones does not rely on twists and gimmicks, though. It is an honestly engrossing, unpredictable story in which each plot point follows logically from the next. It is refreshing to see a film where the ending isn’t written on the walls from the beginning.

The film is built on the mood established by Jones from the beginning and maintained throughout. It is not, however, the mood you might expect. At its core, deep behind the melancholy, confusion, and despair, Moon is darkly comic. At first, the story may seem absurd; it is science-fiction, after all. But, the tale Jones tells is not that far fetched, and that is what makes this film so affecting and scary.

6. The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is a war thriller directed by a woman. However, more than a woman, Kathryn Bigelow is a first-rate director. The gender of the director is of no import once the cameras start rolling. What is important is that she delivered the definitive film about the Iraq war. All of the politicking has been thrown out the window. This is not about right and wrong. It is about war and warriors.

We are told at the outset that war is a drug. Screenwriter Mark Boal’s story is about an addict. Jeremy Renner plays William James, a sergeant in an elite bomb disposal unit. He is the kind of guy who is a hero precisely because he does not want to be. He’s good at his job, and he likes his work. The problem is that his gung-ho attitude endangers the lives of those around him.

Among those is Sgt. JT Sanborn, a seasoned veteran whose rule is caution always. James’ recklessness gets under his skin. However, it is just as likely that James’ lack of fear is what bothers Sanborn as opposed to the danger. Most soldiers live with fear in the backs of their minds. Sgt. James is the definition of a cowboy. He undermines the reality of what the rank-and-file soldiers do to get by, but that is how James gets by.

The fact that James thrives on war is scary because the rest of the soldiers we see just want to go home. Sgt. James is evidence that there is no telling what is waiting for them apart from the war. The trick that Boal and Bigelow play is showing the story of this inner conflict in the fighters while still telling the heart-pounding story of the fight.

5. Drag Me to Hell

If you’ve followed my blog over the years, then you know my affinity for B-movie horror. Well, Sam Raimi elevates the B movie to an art form. Raimi, made famous by his Evil Dead series, achieved A-list success with the Spiderman franchise. This was billed as the master’s return to horror. What a return.

Years from now, critics will remember Paranormal Activity as the 2009 movie about a girl possessed by a demon. Something about that movie tapped into the zeitgeist. It was a little movie that you could root for-- a $20,000 picture that made $100 million. And, that’s fine. It’s good to know that a low budget movie, which by all rights should be a midnight feature, can still succeed.

But, there is something to be said for production value, and make no mistake-- Drag Me to Hell feels like a real film. Raimi successfully melds big-budget panache and low-budget instinct and gives audiences the kind of horror film they deserve. It is well written (co-written by Raimi with his brother Ivan Raimi), well acted (led by Allison Lohman in a career-best performance), and just plain well made.

If you’ll indulge me for a second, I’d like to talk about the sound mix in this movie. The success of this film rests on the tension created by what we hear but can not see. The scratching, the pounding, the hissing-- none of it is extraneous or gratuitous. This movie is built on sound, and I wanted to mention it here because it will probably not get mentioned elsewhere.

4. Inglourious Basterds

Speaking of films that feel like films, no one delivers a big, brash, Hollywood-style, movie spectacle like Quentin Tarantino, and this is his biggest and brashest film yet. Much has been made of Tarantino’s pop culture sensibility and his penchant for homage, but these are just the tools Tarantino uses to execute his wholly original vision.

A war movie in the least traditional sense, Inglourious Basterds amounts to a highly stylized revenge fantasy, but oh, my, what style. Give Tarantino credit. He has steadfastly and militantly refused to make the switch to digital like so many of his contemporaries. The beautiful, classical look of this film is a direct result of the 24-frames-per-second film stock on which Tarantino shoots.

But, enough about the director. If you’ve followed the film industry for the last 20 years, you know Tarantino knows what he’s doing. The real story here is the acting, particularly the performances of the two leads: Mélanie Laurent as a Nazi killer and Christoph Waltz as the Nazi who killed her family. The scene where these two meet is the definition of suspense, what Hitchcock would call the bomb under the table that does not explode.

Waltz, the Jew Hunter, plays his cards close to his chest, but Laurent, as Shosanna, plays hers even closer, which is why she will win in the end. But, the tête-à-tête on display is the crux of this film, and both actors rise to the occasion. As for Brad Pitt and the Basterds, they are what you would expect, and this film is you would expect from a master filmmaker at the height of his powers.

3. Antichrist

Lars Von Trier has called himself the greatest filmmaker in the world. Maybe he is. If he is not, then he certainly poured every ounce of that self-assurance into Antichrist, a gothic horror film about the inadequacy of love in a world born of evil. If it sounds pretentious, just see Von Trier’s boast about his filmmaking prowess. He is all pretentiousness. But, damned if he doesn’t earn it.

Antichrist may be the darkest, most incisive, most horrifying film ever made-- hands down. The jumping off point-- the death of a child-- is an over-tread path in film. At first, Von Trier appears content to lead his audience down that same path. But, he is too smart for that, and Antichrist veers off into the deepest, blackest woods, literally and figuratively.

Rather than exploring the grief of two parents, Von Trier explores the hatred welling deep within two people. Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play He and She, a couple whose son dies while they make love. She can not forgive herself, and he buries his grief within the need to help her recover from hers. But, to say more about plot would be a disservice to the deliberately paced story. Von Trier revels in revealing only what an audience needs to know and only when they need to know it.

The execution is flawless. The prologue of this film is one of the most artful pieces of cinema ever rendered. Shot in black and white and in super-slow motion, the beauty of the sequence belies the pain it will incite. It is the happiest any of the characters will ever be, and the slow motion only delays the inevitable downfall because, in a world of evil, happiness can not last and pain can not be avoided.

2. Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze’s third feature is the most simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking film-going experience I have ever had. When I saw it, I thought there was no way I would see a better film this year, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The fact remains that Where the Wild Things Are is the most accurate rendering of childhood ever put to celluloid.

Hollywood likes to produce films about children who act like Hollywood children but are not reminiscent of real children. From a business standpoint, this is fine. Children, like adults, want to see people on screen who are like them but who are not them. Where the Wild Things Are does not give kids, or adults for that matter, such a luxury. Such luxuries do not exist in the real world, and as fantastical as this film is, it portrays the real world with more honesty than a thousand hours of reality television.

This movie exists in two realities: the real world and the land of the wild things. The real world is presented as harsh and unfeeling, at least from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy. But, his fantasy world is not much better. It is a world of fighting and hurt feelings, anger and resentment. Somehow, though, out of all of this, Jonze squeezes every available ounce of joy out of the story. “Let the wild rumpus start!”

The most beautiful scene of the year is the artful imagining a traumatic childhood moment. Max is running from a wild thing who wants to eat him and hides in the stomach of another wild thing. While he is inside, the two monsters argue over Max, as two parents arguing over a child in the womb. It is sad and tender and heartfelt when these creatures of his fantasy life reenact something very close to his childhood reality.

The performances of all of the wild things are amazing. A lot has been made of the motion capture in James Cameron’s Avatar getting the full performances out of the actors. This is better. Spike Jonze and his special effects crew get the wild things to emote better than could have been hoped for or expected.

I would like to take this opportunity to point out the performances of James Ganolfini and Lauren Ambrose, the primary wild things featured in the film. With almost just their voices, they create fully realized characters who are just as real as anything in Max’s real life. They are Max’s substitute parents in his fantasy. As much as he loves them both, they are flawed and just as real as his mother (Catherine Keener). Ambrose and Gandolfini bring this reality to life.

This is a beautiful and perfect film. It is Spike Jonze’s masterpiece. It’s just a masterpiece.

1. A Serious Man

A week ago, I called A Serious Man the third-best film of the decade. I explained some of what I think of the film then (you can read it here). It belongs nowhere if not at the top of my list of the best films of 2009. I felt at the end of A Serious Man the way I felt at the end of Taxi Driver and Annie Hall. I knew I had seen a great film, but more than that, I knew that my life had changed.

This is latest film from the Coen brothers. It is about the trials of Larry Gopnik, a modern-day Job. He suffers all of the pain and indignity that the universe can dole out. He questions why. He gets his answer over and over. There is no reason. Life is a series of experiences over which we have no control and for which there is no cause. Gopnik, a pious Jew, can not accept this. His life is built on faith, and the fact that God does not have the answers (as represented by the three rabbis who know less than Gopnik himself) is devastating to him.

After I walked out of A Serious Man the first time, I was speechless. Those with whom I went can attest to that. I did not know what I was experiencing or what to make of it, but I knew I could not see the world in the same way. The feeling has dulled a bit since then, but no great feeling lasts forever (see Antichrist). But, that I felt something in me change speaks volumes about the effectiveness of this film.

I could spend all day discussing the writing, the cinematography, the art direction, the score (Carter Burwell), and everything in this film is dead on, but that’s not what is important. This is one of those times when the visceral experience of seeing a great film triumphs over any technical or cerebral interpretation. This is the one. See this movie. Experience this movie. I’m serious.

The List:

10. Avatar
9. A Single Man
8. The Girlfriend Experience
7. Moon
6. The Hurt Locker
5. Drag Me to Hell
4. Inglourious Basterds
3. Antichrist
2. Where the Wild Things Are
1. A Serious Man

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Film Review: Nine

I have not been this divided on a film in quite a while. On the one hand, it is a magnificent technical achievement, and the performances are superb down the line. On the other hand, Nine is based on a musical based on Federico Fellini’s . It is not a good musical. As such, it does not feel like a very good film.

With one exception (“Be Italian”), the songs are forgettable messes, and the story is a betrayal of everything that made the source material great. But, here’s the thing: director Rob Marshall (of Chicago fame) knows how to stage a big production number. The choreography, the editing, the overall energy of each musical sequence-- they all come together like perfectly matched puzzle pieces. The problem remains, however, that the whole puzzle just isn’t that interesting.

The story revolves around Guido Contini, the eternally misanthropic Daniel Day Lewis, and the pressures placed on him by the women in his life. He is a movie director with no movie to direct, and he seeks inspiration from his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his confidant (Judi Dench), his muse (Nicole Kidman), and the women from his past (Sophia Loren and Fergie). All are great in one way or another, though Cotillard is a cut above the rest.

In a part that is either underwritten or unnecessary, Kate Hudson plays a reporter who tells Guido that “style is the new substance.” This could be the mantra for the whole movie. The beautifully layered story in Fellini’s masterpiece is cut to ribbons, pretty ribbons and nicely presented, but ribbons none the less. So, as much as I hate to say it, I can’t recommend this movie. Instead, spend your money and your two hours renting the original Fellini film.

See it: No


Have a good day of the year, a day of recovery for some. Here's to another year of movies.