Thursday, January 28, 2010

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #1: Footloose

Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I just decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan like last winter). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a weekly (I'm going to try, I swear...) feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.
See? I told you. You're doing it right now. You're looking at the Footloose poster and thinking "she can't be serious, Footloose? Everybody's seen that damn movie!" Let me assure you, though, until last night, the most I'd ever seen of the 1984 Kevin Bacon film were the snippets of television re-airs in between flicking through channels. Here’s the thing, right? I always knew the general idea behind Footloose. Teenagers in a place where they aren’t allowed to dance. Dancing is not allowed. That’s what I knew. That’s also why I never really wanted to see the film. How bland, I thought, a whole movie that’ll be all build up to an underwhelming 80’s dance scene. Turns out I was a little fuzzy on the details. See, for some reason it seems that I’ve confused the plot of Footloose with that of another 80’s film I’ve never seen: Witness. I thought Kevin Bacon’s character was a teenager who, like, swept down and caused chaos in an Amish village. It just made sense to me. I couldn’t conceive of a place where something as simple as dancing wouldn’t be allowed other than in a place of extreme religious conviction. Man, was I disappointed when I found out that the reason dancing wasn’t allowed wasn’t because the whole town wasn’t Amish, it was just because they were stupid and easily susceptible to politico brainwashing. I mean, really? The plot of Footloose is based around the premise that in America whole towns can be swayed to ban loud music and dancing because one time a few kids accidentally drove off a bridge? Right. Because the logical course of action when dealing with a drunk driving incident is to be like kids, guess what, dancing is the devil! No one was dancing while driving. Dancing is not the culprit. Yet, no one questions it. No one’s like ‘let’s stop selling alcohol in the town’ or ‘let’s get some cops out monitoring the bridge’. No, instead they decide that dancing is indeed sinful and that books like Slaughterhouse Five are no good either. If this movie had been a dystopian science fiction picture with large-scale implications, I would have been cool with it. It’s not, though. You know that. You’ve seen it.

This is not Ren's bad boy face. This is the face of a man who's worried about the mess that could result from having a nutjob on the back of his motorbike.

Of course, the preacher who makes these proclamations (John Lithgow) has an unruly, possibly manic daughter named Ariel (Lori Singer) with a figure like Waldo and some serious confusion as to what constitutes simple rebellion and what constitutes insanity. Lovably quirky? No. This girl is a class A nutbag. In our first impression of her, she’s balancing between two moving cars headed straight towards an oncoming semi. The only reason she’s not killed then and there? Well, someone else pulls her into a car and runs off the road. Yeah. Seems like outlawing dancing doesn’t prevent teenage idiocy. The other ten kinds of crazy? Well, I mean, she’s dating a dangerous moron. She provokes a dangerous moron. She nearly allows herself to be hit by a train. Literally, this girl doesn’t know her limits. It’s like if Kevin Bacon and Sarah Jessica Parker weren’t there to pull her out of harm’s way, she’d just let herself get killed. You know, just because. I didn’t know if I was supposed to like her, but I definitely did not. I mean, seriously, the girl is about as dense as they come. Ariel is really close to most unlikeable 80’s heroine ever. I was totally bummed when I realized she was actually supposed to be the love interest for Kevin Bacon's character Ren. I don’t even like Kevin Bacon, but Ren was totally too good for her. I mean, I’m pretty sure that girl was originally written in as a martyr. She was unstable, she was supposed to be the next teenage statistic in that town and the example as to why things needed to turn around in the backwards town, but midway through production, someone decided that the ending just wasn’t going to bring the teens in (or, that it would just be Saturday Night Fever out in the mountains?). Ta da! She’s dancing it up with the Bacon, throwing glitter into the sky and taking down chumps. Speaking of which, throwing glitter into the sky is a bad idea. When you throw glitter into the air it comes back down. Then it gets stuck in your eye. I shouldn't have to tell you that glitter is frequently made of little pieces of glass or plastic. Throwing glitter and then throwing your head back wide-eyed is like asking for a corneal abrasion. Also, how can you prove the merits of dancing if the day you have your dance you decide to beat up like 3 or 4 interfering dudes? Couldn’t you just get some parents to chaperon or keep the cops around to prevent some random acts of terrorism? That way, you know, no one goes home with a black eye and no one’s mom goes running back to the parish yelling about how her darling Chucky got punched out by those rowdy dance punks.
Glitter in the sky is dangerous. Avoid throwing it.

Kevin Bacon, too, is just so lame. He can dance well enough, but I can honestly say I appreciated the absurdity of Zac Efron’s copycat dance sequence in HSM3 far more. I mean, have you seen Kevin Bacon? Maybe its me, but he has one of those faces that’s just plain irritating. Here he’s got feathered hair and a John Travolta strut. He’s peacocking around doing gymnastics and getting himself into trouble. Bricks are being thrown into his window and he still doesn’t know when to quit. Hooligan. It’s too bad the remake of this film got canceled. If you iron out a few of the logical kinks this film could have been guiltless fun. Instead, though, like Dirty Dancing, I think it takes itself too seriously (yes, I have seen Dirty Dancing. Yes, I really do hate it) and stars an unattractive man who looks far older than he's supposed to be. Remember that line in the LFO bad pop anthem "Summer Girls" that goes "I like Kevin Bacon but I hate Footloose"? That's not how I feel. I think I feel more like "I feel sort of comfortably ambivalent about Footloose but I generally find Kevin Bacon to be the equivalent of a piece of scenery". Honestly, an intense scene devoted to searching the scriptures for instances of dancing?

Flight of the Conchords angry dance. Complete with montage flashbacks.

High School Musical angry dance. So much angst.

Avril Lavigne Does "Alice": One of These Things Just Doesn't Belong Here

Avril Lavigne, Canadian skater gurrl, divorcee, and pop songstress is making her comeback with a new album. The first track "Alice" is, you guessed it, set to be the main theme song for Tim Burton's upcoming Alice in Wonderland. While this is not what I envision for Alice, especially an Alice done Burton style (and perhaps Burton's isn't what I had in mind either) it's hard not to see this as an attempt to nurture the interest of the Twilight audience machine (and doing it much worse I might add), just as in this post Avatar world, everything suddenly needs a 3D treatment. That, or I'm just having flashbacks to my high school days when Avril was the quintessential billboard pop representation of fake teen alterna girl, all bark with artfully mismatched Chucks and pink dyed hair.

Wilde.Dash and I were thinking the same thing, and writing it at about the same time. While I thought we were just talking Avril, over at Pop Candy Arcade, she uncovers the other horrifying choices (and not in the good Burtony way) some music editor made, in addition to giving you some better suggestions for your own mix.

Late Night Trailers: Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps

While the little title addition ("Money Never Sleeps") for Oliver Stone's sequel is melodramatic in the worst of ways, I'm more excited than I thought I'd be to witness the return of Gordon Gecko, particularly the little cell phone humor there at the end. And Shia? Although looking like a recent high school graduate, has he conquered the subtle voice lowering, angry brooding stare necessary to pull this off?


R.I.P. Miramax

Smack in the middle of the Sundance Festival, the one time indie-mainstay Miramax is being closed up by its parent company Disney for good. Founded by Bob and Harvey Weinstein (who left in recent years to start up The Weinstein Company), Miramax in many ways gave birth to what we consider the contemporary indie scene. The company built and furthered the careers of many directors who are now household names: Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, and Kevin Smith among them. I'm sort of sad, but in reality, the sadness may not last long. With Disney's release of Miramax, the Weinstein brothers may be able to recapture the name, do away with TWC, and continue business as usual. [Source]

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Late Night Trailers: The Eclipse

I come from and Irish family and can assure you that, yes, the Irish are some of the best ghost storytellers around; my grandma would say it's the alcohol, the damp, and the rocky soil. While I'm not instantly convinced based on this trailer, I do know that this is a stellar cast with the proper setting, the proper Irish background, and a somewhat unconventional story. Let's hope that's true.

Reel Round-Up: Ritchie, Worthington, Sundance, and the casting of two Conans

Guy Ritchie leaves/halts DC comics Lobo for second Sherlock Holmes. Sadly, I could have been down with a manic Ritchie retelling of this somewhat strange character.

Sam Worthington continues round of epic leading man roles, this time as Vlad Dracula in Dracula: Year Zero. My mind cannot reconcile its current Worthington crush with what may be disastrous, gravelly voiced Australian miscasting.

IMDB gives you a the lowdown on all that's happening in Park City. Rotten Tomatoes has one too.

The makers of the last two Harry Potter films are feeling inadequate and beginning to see Avatar dollar signs. Clash of the Titans is being used as a 3D transfer experiment to pave the way. *sigh*

Another pretty glimpse at Tron Legacy. It's not much, but I'll take it.

The Killer Inside Me, directed by Michael Winterbottom, is getting major flack due to the graphic violence depicted. The tabloids are claiming star Jessica Alba had to walk out, which my or may not be true. Jezebel has something to say about the whole debacle and gives a nice rundown of the facts. Have you seen it? Comment and tell us what you think.

Meet your new Conan the Barbarian. Twilight fans, try not to send too much hate mail to the lover of Lisa Bonet who beat out sparkley vampire Kellan Lutz for the role.

Speaking of sparkley vampires...Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Sean Penn are signing on for the screen retelling of Sara Gruen's best-selling NaNoWriMo novel, Water for Elephants.

I must see this. Please make it happen. Tilda Swinton says, "Yes, yes, yes, absolutely," to playing jilted NBC host Conan O'Brien at his suggestion if they ever make a Leno/Letterman film about him.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Love: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

(Better late than never?)
There are few minds, and few men that like Terry Gilliam can unabashedly expose a viewer of their art to something new and uniquely their own. And while the The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus has its flaws, it is a beautiful trip into Terry Gilliam's own Imaginarium, a reflection of who he is, a fact that in some ways, negates those flaws altogether.

Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an immortal man of special gifts both with and without the help of the Devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits in the perfect role for him), able to unlock the secrets of the universe, and open the imaginations of anyone willing to enter through the mirror at the center of his sideshow, which he unsuccessfully runs with the help of an old friend (Verne Troyer) and his daughter (Lily Cole, perhaps the most beautiful woman that ever lived). After making a deal with Mr. Nick that promises to take his daughter from him once she reaches the age of 16, Parnassus loses hope, until crossing paths with an unlikely stranger, amnesiac Tony (Heath Ledger's final role) who the group finds hung to death under a bridge. He revitalizes the show and brings the deal with the Devil to the ultimate climax.

The imagery in the film, in pure Gilliam style, is absolutely stunning, lush, and visceral, as are the ideas that come forth about the power of imagination, storytelling, family, and morality, all favorite fascinations of Gilliams' that here proves him the master. Like the experience of the Imaginarium, no one person will leave this film with the same impression or insight as another, although most will certainly be enchanted by it. All the performances (down to the most minor) are equally engaging and impressive, helping to solidify the feeling of the story and the imagery, which is otherwise perfectly abstract and elusive, as the best of imagination and storytelling often is. The cast feels as if they've been working together for ages, a special benefit guaranteed on almost all Gilliam films. The connection between father and daughter team Plummer and Cole is undeniably real and draws the viewer in, while Ledger replacements Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell fade into their roles and never feel like cheap stand-ins. Even Troyer who has never really been given much of a chance as an actor, slide seamlessly into the narrative without causing his usual comedic distraction.

While Parnassus is the facilitator of the trips through the mirror, he is not the commander of it, allowing the one that enters the Imaginarium to control the final outcome and tone of their trip. But herein lies my only problem with the film, a criticism that Gilliam would surely not give a damn about. Until the end of the film, each trip and imagination is very similar, cartoonish in a style instantly recognizable as Gilliam's, sometimes bordering near his early work with Monty Python. While it may be a fine representation of Gilliam's own imagination, it doesn't feel right in the film, as one would assume that each person would have unique, and entirely different experiences and ideas within. A particularly painful example occurs when a rich woman enters to find variety of large high heeled shoes in bright, girly colors. Somehow, I was expecting more from Gilliam who is usually better able (even in the rest of the film) to provide more complex, unique imagery. The trips are also sometimes hindered by unrealistic CGI that makes them feel more cartoony and sometimes a bit cheap in certain places, a stark contrast to the world he worked so hard and with great success, to build when the group is outside of the Imaginarium.

It would be nice to see Gilliam put at least a toe or fingertip out of his own mind and instead reach out to viewer, but like other great filmmakers, that doesn't really matter, at least not to him. Regardless, the film is a unique work, with a depth and breadth that will be further revealed after multiple viewings. While critics panned it this year, look for this latest from Gilliam to pop-up on multiple "Best Of", "Cult", and "Misunderstood" lists in the years to come.

Did Wilde.Dash and I agree? Get her review here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Love (meh): Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges is collecting a windfall of awards for his performance in Crazy Heart. Last night he picked up the SAG, last week he scored a Golden Globe. There's little doubt, with this track record, that he's leading the Oscar race. The question is: should he be? I'm not so sure. Bridges plays Bad Blake, a down and out country singer who (while fictional) falls into an archetype film audiences should be quite familiar with. Bad's an alcoholic, wandering son of a gun. He's a man on the road, traveling in isolation 300 miles with a milk jug full of piss and counting the minutes between gulps of whiskey. In the pantheon of films about musicians and middle-aged men with addictive personalities that cloud the other aspects of their life, Crazy Heart is not especially unique. Here it is, Crazy Heart, an optimistic cross between The Wrestler and Walk the Line, a completely ordinary film that you have seen dozens of times before. My thought? If Mickey Rourke got shafted for the depth of emotional redemption in The Wrestler, Bridges doesn't deserve an Oscar.
There. I said it. Crazy Heart is a good enough movie and Jeff Bridges (as per usual) plays Bad Blake close to the belt. It's a good performance. A solid performance. Bridges makes you believe his hard luck more than you might be inclined to believe Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash. Ultimately, though, the film wrongs the actor and denies him the opportunity to transform the character into something truly extraordinary. The film opens at the brink of a turn around in Blake's career. He used to be somebody, now, he's stuck playing small crowds at bowling alleys. See, he's been wronged. Much like Hedwig was shut down by protege Tommy Gnosis (yes, I did just compare Crazy Heart to Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Bad Blake sits bitter and ruined by being left in the dust by his own protege, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). Sweet's an arena country star with a half dozen tour buses. Blake's got a 1978 Suburban and a rotating back-up band. He plays a bar, he stays in a motel, he drives, he plays another bar. But wait, here's the expected twist: at this bar, he meets an aspiring music journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who he takes a shine to. She's got a kid, she seems to get him, things are looking good. At the same time: Sweet miraculously gets caught up in a fog of nostalgia and regret and calls up Bad Blake to get him some exposure. With all the positive developments, you can probably guess where the only real sources of drama and tension come from, right? Glug glug.
The way I see it, Crazy Heart is like a well-done country song. It's got some heartache and a good story, but it's still an old, familiar tune and, well, I'm not a country girl. Jeff Bridges will win his first Oscar (after four nominations) not necessarily because this is the best performance of the year, but because it's his time. I hate to sound so cynical and negative about this, because in all reality it is an entertaining, nice film and (again) Bridges does do his usual good job. This year, though, I feel there are other performances that really went deeper than the expected. I looked at Bad Blake and I couldn't quite escape Jeff Bridges with some shades of a worn down Dude. There's just not enough energy or propulsion in the story to transform it into anything past 'good'. It'll meet your expectations. You'll like it well enough because it's got a little bit of silver lining and a charmer of a booze hound. Maybe I'm jaded. Maybe my graduate education forces me to look too much for the pieces of the story that leave an impact. Maybe I just didn't feel like this character ever hit a point low enough to make me feel the need for absolution. For whatever reason, I couldn't love Crazy Heart. I can only say it did everything right, I liked it well enough while I was watching it, but when I left, it was just sort of over. There was no afterglow. Just a feeling of 'meh'.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

R.I.P. Jean Simmons

For the first ten years of my walking life, I would dance around my house singing Guys and Dolls tunes, pretending I was Ms. Sarah Brown, as performed by British actress Jean Simmons. She would always be the only Sarah Brown to me, and as I grew older, she remained one of my favorite old Hollywood actresses in roles like Black Narcissus, Hamlet, The Big Country, Spartacus, Roman Holiday, and even recently in Howl's Moving Castle. She will be sadly missed.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wilde.Dash's 15 Best of 2009

This started off as a list of the 10 best films of 2009. That was, of course, at the dawn of 2010. Then, you know, I started trying to narrow things down. Instead of narrowing, however, I kept coming up with more and more worthwhile movies. It turns out that 2009 was actually a pretty good year for cinema. There was a whole lot going on in genres disparate enough not to compete with one another too heavily. So, you know, I started looking around and wondering why I felt this pressure to make a 'top 10' list. Turns out, a whole lot of folks eschewed the 10 this year. There's a whole lot of 20's, 30's, and 50 best of lists to be found out there. Since there's no consistency, I've decided that it's definitely alright to throw down a random number and call it a day. So, 15! 15 best of 2009! Plus a few runners up. I should mention, too, that while The White Ribbon may or may not belong on this list, I have yet to see it and have decided that its mid-January theatrical release may qualify it for the 2010 list.

15. The Hurt Locker : Let's get one thing straight: Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a really solid film. It's got an unconventional structure and plays on your nerves and expectations big time. The acting, at times, feels almost like watching a documentary and it's stressful and realistic enough to make you never want to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare again. In a year filled with works of lesser imagination, it would be higher on the list. But, again, there was something in the water this past year, and for me putting the straightforward military expose at the top just wouldn't feel right.
14. Avatar : It's all those things you've heard (positive and negative) and more. Yes, Avatar makes you the sort of deranged excitement that a 5-year old feels after seeing Star Wars. Yes, it's beautiful and emotional and revolutionary. Yes, it's also Princess Mononoke/Fern Gully/Pocahontas in brilliant 3D. Still, you know, it's good.
13. Up : More traumatizing than the wildebeest stampede in the Lion King, Pixar's latest starts with an opening sequence that will test your emotional limits. If you step out unscathed...congratulations! You're a replicant! No, really, all joking aside, Up is a beautiful film that's loaded with as many small joys as brightly colored tragedies.
12. Moon : Duncan Jones takes your sci-fi expectations and adjusts them ever so slightly. The result is a Sam Rockwell one-man-space odyssey of isolation. If you step back you may be able to see what's coming, but it isn't about plot twists. It's about being human. In all its definitions.
11. Where the Wild Things Are : At the beginning of 2009, Where the Wild Things Are was something of a lock when it came to making it onto the best of year lists. Then, it came out. The film was buried beneath the yelps of parents complaining the film was psychologically too deep for their kids to watch, and casual viewers pissing and moaning about their own boredom. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to respectfully dismiss all the negative feedback. Spike Jonze's adaptation got Maurice Sendak's approval for a reason, and I'm on the same page as them. It may not be the twee, sweet rumpus you want it to be, but this film is one of the best representations of the loneliness of childhood that I have ever seen (as well as a truly beautiful film). Being a kid is hard, and I think it's too easy to forget that. 10. Star Trek : JJ Abrams revitalized a dying franchise in a way that opened it up to all audiences while still maintaining the camp heart of the original. Let's face it, Star Trek is slick. Thoroughly entertaining, edge of your seat involving, clever, and damn cool. If for no other reason, it deserves a spot on this list if only because it made Star Trek something cool to teenagers and my mother. That, my friends, is quite a feat.

9. Adventureland : A sweet little nostalgia comedy with John Hughes and Noah Baumbach's fingerprints all over it. This simple coming-of-age tale traced one post-collegiate summer spent working at an amusement park. It's a sharp, comfortable addition to the teen genre and one that has 'instant classic' stamped all over it. I may have been a toddler in the 80's, but I could relate. Hard core. 8. Julia : If you didn't get the memo before, allow me to again suggest that you find a way to watch Julia. Go rent it, add it to your queue, check it out from the library, just find it. Somehow, this film was marginalized and blocked out of wide-release, which is unfortunate, as it could have easily climbed the ranks of awesome, crowd drawing thrillers. Tilda Swinton is magnificent. Again, yes, I'm here for like the third time this week to remind you of that.

7. Thirst: Are you getting tired of me harping on the same movies over and over again? Cause, I mean, I'm getting tired of telling you to go watch them. Chan-Wook Park saved the vampire from its pop cultural suicide and gave us this entrancing, darkly humorous, violently erotic bloodsucker tale. It's time someone did.
6. A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers tackle suburban life and give us a magnum opus of Americana of biblical proportions. Filled with sly humor and rich characters, this is (as I said before) a seriously good movie. Seriously.

5. Watchmen: Before I had Antichrist to defend, I was busying myself speaking the gospel of Zack Snyder. I'm really too exhausted to play this game again. I mean, really, it's been almost a year. I'll put it out there, though, and say that I honestly don't understand how this could end up on a worst of the year list. I mean, really? It might not have a beating heart or an uplifting message, but jesus, otherwise it's a remarkable feat.
4. Antichrist: I feel like all I've done since October is re-state and argue about exactly how good Lars Von Trier's controversial, scissor-wielding psychological drama really is. I mean, do I really need to repeat myself now? No. Basic rundown? This movie is insane. It's horrifying, gorgeous, remarkably acted and once it start it will either grab you or send you running for the nearest exit. I thought long and hard about putting this at the top of the list. It almost made it. As an influential piece of art, it does. But, I'll admit, there are some flaws and taste issues that make this questionable in certain areas.

3. A Single Man: As evidenced by my last review, I loved this film. The photography, the art direction, the acting, the costumes, all came together perfectly to become something saturated in its own tragic beauty and just a little bit heart breaking.

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox: All of my doubts were washed away within minutes of sitting down in the theater to view Wes Anderson's first animated feature. Its wistful nostalgia sent me spiraling into giddiness and I sat like an enthralled child eagerly anticipating each turn of the storybook page for the entire 90-some odd minutes. Here's a movie that's easy to's just too absurdly joyous to do otherwise. And yes, in the animation wars, I will champion Anderson's effort over this year's (also excellent)Disney/Pixar offerings.

1. Inglourious Basterds: The New Yorker may have panned it, but they were never known for their great taste in cinema (they also earmarked Duplicity as an honorable mention, say what now?). Inglourious Basterds, for me, is the WWII film to end all WWII films. It puts an end to the soggy re-tellings of tragic affairs, twists the story around, and finally grants the underdogs the adrenaline-soaked day that only a fictional revision could supply. Spotted with film references and playfully arranging decades worth of genre conceits, Quentin Tarantino makes a movie that's as satisfying as it is artful.

Honorable mentions (so close, yet so far): The Hangover, Away we Go, Up in the Air, Zombieland, Hunger

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Love: A Single Man

When it comes to film, I tend to be something of an aesthete. Give me a convoluted plot with impeccable art direction and (though there are exceptions) I will likely have fallen deeply in love by the time the credits roll. Yes, I'm a sucker for beautiful cinematography. If it's pretty enough, I will retreat inward, not speak in full sentences and watch a film with only two snips of dialogue for hours. I'll admit, too, I was already half in love with fashion designer Tom Ford's cinematic debut A Single Man the first time I saw the trailer. It was a glorious two minutes filled with 60's styles, symmetry, and frame after frame of wall-worthy stills. I waited for two agonizing months to see this film, all the while thinking my disappointment was nearly inevitable. Amazingly, or perhaps miraculously, the film is, scene by scene, shot by shot, just as I wished it would be.
Based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel of the same title, Colin Firth does what's easily the best acting of his career as George, a middle-aged professor living a closeted existence in early 60's Los Angeles. We learn, immediately, that his long-term lover (Matthew Goode) has been killed in a car accident. After the haunting imagery of the opening scenes, we become privy to watching the despondent existence of a man who is terminally broken hearted. The film follows George on the day he has chosen to end it all. Yet, he's an organized man and in his final hours he executes every action, every pleasantry and piece of his routine to perfection. He drifts from home to campus, campus to liquor store, awkward dinner party to memory-laden bar. The film is laced with allusions and social codes. George is the invisible man who everyone sees, he teaches Huxley and lectures above the unfocused cigarette puffing of his students, who seem to all have crushes on him. His neighbors are preternaturally aware of his every footfall, his closest friend (Julianne Moore) boozily attempts to throw herself at him, yet for the most part, no one knows him. His plight, his pain, the entire truth of his existence is ignored rather than acknowledged. Firth is a far cry from his more familiar romantic comedy typecasting. Immaculately costumed (in a Tom Ford film, could there be any other way?) in black-framed glasses and a fitted suit, his performance is one that's saturated with as much grief as hope. We see his life in snippets interspersed with flashbacks and past joys. Every new encounter becomes a chance at sudden redemption as we grow to know and care for the well being of this character, hoping that he will accidentally trip on the one thing that will reverse the path he's stumbling down.
The risk, of course, with something dependent on so much emotion and so wrapped up in its own stylistic importance, is that it can become a laughable, over-the-top exercise in poetic pretension. Indeed, Ford is trying quite hard. Each scene is immaculate down to the slightest detail. Every object has been placed purposefully, every gesture executed to convey exactly what it should. It makes Mad Men look like a finger paint portrait of the period.
When we watch Firth and Moore dance, drunk, twisting to Booker T., we suddenly understand their arrangement and the level of strain that exists between them in their supposed proximity. It's a painfully awkward, ultimately tragic moment, but not at all laughable. Instead, Ford makes it beautiful. He makes, too, the slick, sparkling-eyed seduction of our hero by an almost absurd young man (Nicholas Hoult) something that feels more like you're reading it out of some lovely Bloomsbury novel as opposed to watching it play out like a cliche fantasy. This is Ford's gift, it would seem. He has the ability, through artful arrangement and careful casting, to take a very simple story of very standard substance and make it feel fantastically fresh, new, and alive. I could live in it. Pack up my bags and jump through the screen.
Ford's first directorial effort is an impressive debut by anyone's standards. It's a sophisticated drama that manages to nail the style as well as the substance and put forth a brilliant, sparkling tale of alienation that ranks amongst the gentlest of tragedies. Have no doubts or illusions to the contrary, A Single Man is indeed a tragedy. The level of devastation George experiences is heartbreaking, the way in which he's forced to internalize it is perhaps even more so. Yet, the film, as a beautiful object, is a joy to behold. A bittersweet joy, but a joy nonetheless. There's a pent up energy running throughout the film that's palpable. It surges through the characters just below the surface, building up menace, frustration and sexual tension to propel you through the film's meager running time.
Certainly, there will be those who disagree. When films become art pieces in their own right, there are always those who will suggest the film is weighed down by its own accoutrement and lofty ideals. A Single Man is a remarkably smooth piece of work, carefully constructed, evenly balanced, and destined for several melancholy revisits.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Love & Squalor's 100 Most Influential of the Decade pt. 10, 93-100

A Serious Man (2009) : After years of snowballing up through bigger and better classes of celebrity, the Coen Brothers backtrack towards something that feels like a return to their earlier work. A more mature return to their earlier work. A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers at their best. It blends dark comedy with a stark intellect and a touch of the mysterious. Yet, where the Coen Brothers stand-by formula has been to toss in an exclamation point of brutal, sudden, cynical violence, A Serious Man plays with a different variety of cruelty and takes its existential blows in stride. The Coens have already released so many films with staying power (Fargo, Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men) that it seems almost absurd to suggest that A Serious Man is the film that finally gets it right, but oddly, it is. This is the Coen Bros at their absolute best; it's sardonic calamity that never ceases to entertain even as it makes you feel the crushing claustrophobia of Larry's (Michael Stuhlbarg) predicaments. (WD)
Star Trek (2009) : Revamps, remakes, reboots, whatever your term, often turn out to be disappointing. Either the source material wasn't strong to begin with, or the new version just doesn't do the real thing any justice. But somehow, J.J. Abrams and his team of super nerds were up to the task, taking on one of the most beloved franchises and hitting all the right nostalgia points while creating something new. His Star Trek is great on a multitude of levels, the first and most obvious being that it's a beautifully, impeccably made film done by someone who knows how to milk tension, drama, and action while looking pretty and cinematically stunning. Shockingly, Abrams was able to credibly and cleverly give his characters some breathing room by changing the timeline (his favorite ace up the sleeve) and for the first time in memory, the hardcore fans don't feel cheated but excited. But what really makes the reboot work is Abrams ability to resuscitate the emotion and interest in the characters, arguably in a way only seen in the films that Leonard Nimoy directed (Wrath of Khan and the Search for Spock), and even then not to the same degree. At it's heart, Star Trek captures generation after generation because its about the people on the ship, characters you get to know and love, who have had decades to develop in our imaginations, even if the writers never gave them the same amount of depth. By letting Spock have his heart, J.J. gave the franchise one too. (M)

Thirst (2009) : At the twilight of the decade (I know...groan), the vampire was the gender neutral ruler of all media. Young adult fiction, television, and cinemas the world round have cashed in on the romanticized carnage of the vamp. Yet, for whatever reason, American vampires are a weak breed. They're uninspired representations of human lust and passion used to shill eroticism to teenage girls. Luckily, overseas, the vampire mythos has not been so thoroughly corrupted. In 2008, Let the Right One In proved that there was still interesting work to be done with the monsters, in 2009, Park Chan-Wook glamored us with the vamp parable Thirst. The Korean director drags the bloodsucker back to its roots; giving us violence and sensuality framed within a push pull crisis of faith and an inability to control one's own compulsions. The film is dazzling, a hypnotic, deftly navigated narrative that successfully melds our expectations with Park's predilections for blood and dark humor. (WD)

Watchmen (2009) : Everyone seems to hate this film. The hardcore Alan Moore fans cry foul over the exclusions of various things including the cutting of the giant squid (aided in their argument by Moore's own unwillingness to be attached to the project), while outsiders like to say that the film is a cold, overly correct rendering of the source work, too close to make it original (the New Yorker even had the audacity to call it "boring!"). THEY ARE ALL WRONG. First things first. Zack Synder's film is gorgeous to watch, a perfect rendering of the graphic novel that reflects Moore's world with a depth that can be noted as one of the best, most creative visual experiences out there. Secondly, using the work itself as the storyboards doesn't take the originality away from Synder. Any person that's read the novel knows that Watchmen is not to be meddled with. It's not something like Batman or Spider-man that can be made darker or lighter, or purple, or spotted, or anything else you'd like to interpret it as. It just is, and doing any less would have been like making a film version of Slaughterhouse Five and setting it during an alien invasion, taking away the specific experiences that make the characters who they are. But Synder doesn't entirely abandon himself to Moore's original. Instead he slims it down and makes it more accessible, and no, that's not a bad thing. As much as I love the novel, there are certain things that just don't work outside the imagination, or just don't need to be included. And while some might appreciate a 7 hour movie, it's just not feasible. I admit it; It's not for snooty fanboys who hate just to hate, and it's also not for the people looking for an easily digestible movie. It's for the thinking movie goer, who understands subtle satire, philosophy, science, love, politics, and history and how a story about war and superheroes can fully examine all of those subjects and remain artistically innovative. Despite the critical disinterest in this film, after a few years, when the world's had time to sit down and concentrate on Snyder's love letter to Alan Moore, you can bet it's suddenly going to pop up on everyone's list. (M)

Moore vs. Moore

You might be wondering why we didn't include the Wachowski's more critically acclaimed go at Alan Moore, V for Vendetta. Both Wilde.Dash and I appreciate this film while we're watching it. You sit there as Hugo Weaving expertly tortures Natalie Portman and think, "wow, this is exactly like the graphic novel, this captures something interesting and great!" But then the movie ends, and you forget about it, and therein lies the rub. Alan Moore's work tends to be cold and runs the risk of disconnecting the audience, a danger that any filmmaker must walk a fine line with. And while Zack Synder expertly pulls the different and subtle emotions from his characters in Watchmen, aided by his remarkable visuals, director James McTeigue can't quite manage to make V or Evey resonate when all is said and done. So while it may be a solid, enjoyable retelling of Moore, it's not on the level of Synder's groundbreaking epic in it's ability to work with the difficult source material. (M)

Birth (2004) : Here come the out-of-chronological-order stragglers. There were just a couple spots left open as M. and I revisited (or visited for the first time) certain acclaimed works and debated the merits of other considerations. It came down to about 3 options, of them, Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis biopic Control wound up on the cutting room floor. Control, perfect biopic though it may be, was shirked to make room for the bold, controversial, and oft-debated Birth. Yes. We went there. For those caught unawares, Jonathan Glazer's film deals with the relationship that arises between a widow (Nicole Kidman) and the 10-year old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her deceased husband. Yet, Birth is not your average supernatural thriller. It doesn't rely on shock tactics or absurd suspension of disbelief, but instead runs through its own checklist of cynicism, questioning its own logic as it moves further and further away from common sense and towards the unthinkable. Birth is an eerie film, but a beautiful one urged on by a swelling score (by Alexandre Desplat), the dreamlike quality of the cinematography, and restrained performances by its actors. As a film that never stops to doubt the intelligence of its audience, we at Love & Squalor predict that it's the sort of movie that will continue to resurface time and time again as a small, atmospheric treasure.(WD)
The Fall (2006, released 2008) : It took 4 years to film The Fall. 4 years in 18 separate countries to complete the visually stunning, CGI-less, epic fantasy of Tarsem Singh's vision. His first film, The Cell, was a remarkable thriller, but The Fall is an indulgent passion project of staggering proportions. It's hard not to suspect that during production every whim Tarsem had was followed by a flurry of costume design and swift execution. Yet, for all its great heights, The Fall is at heart a quiet, story book drama that is served up as a treat to the viewer's imagination that inspires instead of bombards. In a decade of tremendous advancements in cinematic special effects, The Fall is a quiet surprise that relies on old school trompe l'oeil and the beauty of its surprising amalgamation of cultures and colors. If Alejandro Jodorowsky had a baby with Guillermo del Toro, and that baby was a cinema-pumped Scheherazade influenced by Matthew Barney & Melies, The Fall would be the film that child grew up to produce. In short: it's well-crafted story telling that splits its consciousness between childhood and adulthood, and injects the images created by a lifetime of global exposure and cross-cultural fascination. Every student film maker wishes they had the resources to make this movie.(WD)

The Clint Eastwood Films (2003-2009) : M. and I talked this through. For awhile, it seemed decided that the only Eastwood directed film to appear on this list would be last year's Gran Torino. Why? Well, there's no easy reason. Put bluntly, it's simply because we both liked it the most. It's a complex drama that also functions as a brilliant, often quite comedic, character study. Yet, when contrasted against Eastwood's other works this decade, it is perhaps not the best example of the construction and muscular storytelling Eastwood is recognized for. That honor is divided between Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, and, well, I'll be honest with you...I don't particularly enjoy either of those movies. I like Gran Torino. Yet, it's no fault of the other films. All of the aforementioned films, compounded by The Changeling, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Invictus are near impeccable examples of straightforward American filmmaking. In his 70's, Eastwood has proven to be something of an unexpected auteur. He's been directing films for four decades now, but I would argue that it was in this one he truly turned the rough-edged sensibilities of his background in Westerns away from the high plains and inward to bring us some of the strongest examples of dramatic filmmaking in recent memory. The reason why I don't enjoy Million Dollar Baby or Mystic River is not because they're bad films. No, they're quite well done. Trimmed lean and well-edited to pack the perfect emotional punch. It's that punch that I'd like to dodge. I saw them once, and I'm glad I did, but going back for seconds would be something that I wouldn't want to deal with. So, in a way, this entry is cheating. While M. and I would perhaps prefer to ignore the strength of Eastwood's films, and the impact something like Mystic River had, we realize that while the films lack some of creativity we like to champion, there's no way in hell we can ignore Clint as the backbone for nearly a decade of Academy Awards shows.

The Pixar Oeuvre : Admit it, you were wondering where these movies were. Never fear: we're on the case. We did, however, encounter a problem in the creation of this list. The problem was that in the first and second drafts, five of our spots were dedicated to films coming from Pixar Studios (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up). Admittedly, at first glance, this may not seem like much of a conundrum. Trust me, though, for people obsessively arguing the merits of some of the smaller picks on this ridiculous project, it's a major issue. Don't get us wrong. M. & I believed the films deserved their own places. We were quite ready seal the deal. Yet, as we discussed the movies further it became a conversation based less on the individual works and more on what they represent. We decided, then, that this decade has been Pixar's renaissance and that the animation company deserved recognition as an influential entity in and of itself. From the shorts to the feature length (even Cars is a better kids flick than most), Pixar has essentially revolutionized mainstream animation and demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to quality that's amazingly consistent. Each new film only seems to improve upon the last, and the combination of visual artistry and sophisticated, multi-faceted storylines has brought about a return to family films that don't cater solely to the most juvenile of intellects. Thus, while you may think it's cheating to list a whole oeuvre an a list of the most influential films of the decade, here at Love & Squalor we're pretty sure that it would be absurd to consider doing anything else.

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