Monday, February 23, 2009

Dresses at the Oscars

Hi Guys: I hope you're all doing well. I'm so busy with school and Oona that I don't get here much, but when I do, you guys have always posted quality things that I enjoy reading. You guys really ARE the best discussion buddies. So insightful. . . .

Anyway, you wanted my take on the Oscar dresses, right? You knew I'd come through.

First of all, wasn't the show GOOD?? I loved Hugh Jackman (is there anything that man can't do? Talk about a triple threat.), and I also really loved the way they gave out the lead and supporting roles, with an actor for each nominee talking about them. What I really wonder though, is if it was their own words. Most were so heartfelt. One that was really wooden and empty was Halle Berry--does she feel for others? I thought it was an excellent show, and I really enjoyed it. Loved the musical numbers, except Beyonce. She's not that talented, and she's freekin' everywhere. Can't someone else sing?

So, about the dresses. My pick? Peneolope Cruz, no one even close. She looked like a dream come true in vintage Balmain. A Spanish queen. She was simply lovely, lovely. So elegant. I have always found her to be stunningly beautiful and vastly talented. I am very happy for her win. Second place was Marisa Tomei in her origami Versace. That is a work of art walking, and she wore it well. Honestly, everyone else paled in comparision to these two. The few awful ones were Beyonce (she has to stop wearing her mother's clothes, even if this wasn't one of her mother's clothes) and Sophia Loren. Sophia Loren just made you cringe, it was so sad to see her looking so bad. Her stylist should be fired immediately. Everything was wrong. Everything.

For the men, honestly, I feel sorry for them having to wear the same damned thing like a bunch of penguins. I wish they'd get a little risky and put a little color or something into their tuxes. Oh, well.

This show was so good, I can't wait for next year.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Who Can Explain This?

I should probably leave this alone - EW's 25 Greatest Active Film Directors. (The Obenson Report, for instance, provides a handy list version; Anne Thompson annotates, for some reason.)

I can't exactly say I'm offended by their choices. It's different. It's like - they are using words I recognize ("greatest" - "film" - "directors"), but they are using them in ways that are completely alien to me. It's not even just that they're just talking about Hollywood, or American, or whatever it is - because they have Almodovar on the list (and Del Toro, and Ang Lee, who split time...) So foreign languages are allowed... so - what? I can't imagine any definition of greatest, film, or director that involves Zach Snyder in any capacity. Judd Apatow? he's a director? Even "active" is a bit dubious when you look for James Cameron's last film... All of them ahead of Clint Eastwood! who at least made the list, which gives him the ups on David Lynch or Woody Allen or Spike Lee. I'm not going to pretend they're supposed to care about Godard or Wong Kar-wei or Manoel de Oliveira, aged 100 and going strong, or even Werner Herzog, who has became a fairly mainstream documentary director these days...

So I don't know. I can't do anything with it but marvel. I'd have to add that I don't think I could muster a very good version of the list for myself - because it's harder than it looks to find ways to combine "greatest" and "active" in a meaningful way - how do you balance lifetime achievement, recent achievement, etc? Not to mention, how do you balance influence, maybe success, with the quality of the films (over the career or now.) All very difficult, unless you pile on the qualifiers....

The list, in case anyone wonders:

1. Steven Spielberg
2. Peter Jackson
3. Martin Scorsese
4. Christopher Nolan
5. Steven Soderbergh
6. Ridley Scott
7. Quentin Tarantino
8. Michael Mann
9. James Cameron
10. Joel and Ethan Coen
11. Guillermo del Toro
12. David Fincher
13. Tim Burton
14. Judd Apatow
15. Sam Raimi
16. Zack Snyder
17. Darren Aronofsky
18. Danny Boyle
19. Clint Eastwood
20. Ron Howard
21. Ang Lee
22. Paul Thomas Anderson
23. Paul Greengrass
24. Pedro Almodóvar
25. Jon Favreau

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Random Movie Report: The Call of Cthulhu

The movies have not been kind to H.P. Lovecraft; though he’s considered one of the most important horror writers of the last century (at least in English), there has yet to be a significant film adaptation of his work. The closest we’ve gotten so far is the psychedelic 60s version of THE DUNWICH HORROR and Stuart Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR. The rest is direct to video trash, mostly, taking advantage of the dubious copyright status of Lovecraft’s work and paying little attention to what he was actually writing about. THE CALL OF CTHULHU is an interesting attempt to do right by the author, and a neat conceptual experiment overall; it’s a silent film, shot in the style of something from the late twenties, when the short story of the same name was published. Running at a mere 47 minutes, this not-quite-a-feature is surprisingly effective and atmospheric, though the retro filter does soften some of the impact.

Matt Foyer is the protagonist, a nameless man telling a nameless listener (John Bolen) about the discoveries he pieced together based on papers left by his deceased uncle (Ralph Lucas.) His story is divided into three acts. First we see his uncle’s contact with an artist suffering feverish dreams of an ancient city inhabited by an indescribably horrific being. These dreams, which inspire mad carvings, take place over the month of March 1925, when by coincidence a great earthquake is detected at sea. The second piece of the puzzle revolves around the uncle’s chance meeting with a police inspector who, decades ago, disrupted a mad human sacrifice ritual in the Louisiana bayou, perpetrated by cultists of the Great Old Ones, deities from the stars, and in particular the octopus-headed Cthulhu, who is said to wait slumbering in the lost city of R’lyeh. When the stars are right, he will rise, and humanity will be doomed. The third act tells of a ship lost at sea after a storm, and its crew attacked by cultists and stumbling upon a mysterious and uncharted island.

My major concern going into this movie was that the silent movie approach was a pretty big gimmick, and it seemed like it had a chance of overwhelming the proceedings and not doing justice to the material as a result. Usually, horror works because it makes us believe in the horrible things it’s showing us, but the silent film inherently has an air of the unreal and artificial (for those of us who can hear, anyway.) Of course, silent films don’t get made much anymore and it’s hard to revive a lost art. On top of it all, this is a fan project, made by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, so there’s a high risk of kitsch and in-jokiness (there are a couple in the unskippable copyright warnings, but I'll let that slide.)

Fortunately, the filmmakers insist on playing it straight and trying to make the film as good as it can be, given a low budget. It helps that they’re going for an Expressionist look similar to what was popular at the time; the sets are obviously sets and just a little plywoody, but it doesn’t matter because what they stand for is so clear. The only places where this approach falls down are in some overly stiff and pantomimed action sequences, and what we see of Cthulhu himself; the film takes care not to give us clear prolonged shots of the beast, which is a good approach seeing how much effort Lovecraft went to in describing the indescribable, but the stop-motion model we do see is a little spindly and roughly textured, not quite conveying the bulk or power of the beast.

This is a pretty faithful adaptation, and the short length means they don’t feel compelled to pad out the story. There’s a good amount of dialogue and narrative text, but somehow the captions don’t feel like an intrusion as they often did in over-written silent films. The performers do a good job of emulating the heightened emotional style of silent acting without going over the top. All in all it’s a very well-balanced picture, and so succeeds at what must have been its primary goal of being really goddamn creepy. Perhaps a truly great Lovecraft adaptation is still yet to come, but this is defiinitely a film worth seeing.

Based on the short story by H. P. Lovecraft
Screenplay by Sean Branney
Directed by Andrew Leman

Grade: A-

Monday, February 9, 2009

Top 10 of 2008 and Assorted Miscellany

Speed Racer image found at
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's the top 10 list that you may have been interested in a month ago. I like to take my time, but I've either seen or waited too long to see all the films I wanted to last year, so let's do this thing.

As film years go, 2008 was, well, decent. Not bad, by any stretch, and with some interesting highs, just with some dry patches. It was, for whatever reason, a year when the blockbusters aimed for artistic glory and occasionally achieved it, but the holiday season was kind of anticlimactic and short on cheer. This was also a year in which we got two well-made dark comedies, which may tragically be a record. So here's how things shook out for me in the year of change, crisis, and I’ll try to think of something else starting with “C”:

1. WALL-E. Let’s stack this all up, shall we? Brilliant evocation of character through minimal dialogue and faces with limited expression, expert animation loaded with detail, a decidedly chipper take on dystopian sci-fi, an environmental message that isn’t the least bit judgemental or scolding, an affirmation of willingness to change, all topped with ultracute robots. Also, Fred Willard. We have a winner.

2. THE DARK KNIGHT. A well-oiled engine of a crime thriller with the framing of the superhero genre and the spectacle of an action movie, managing to be a great example of all three. Heath Ledger reinterprets the Joker as a ragged genius who won’t be happy until everyone is as savage and destructive as he is, creating one of the most weirdly compelling villains seen in a long while. The story moves in unpredictable ways and defies obvious structures, the characters are never sure of themselves, the visuals are pristine, and the action isn’t nearly as confusing as it’s been made out to be. A triumph.

3. SPEED RACER. Okay, show of hands, who anticipated this being half as good as it was? The Wachowskis take on a vintage Japanese cartoon known mostly for inspiring parodies on every animated show known to man, and create a visually dazzling and surprisingly heartfelt story of a family fighting the system. This is one of those fantasy films that wraps you in an inviting and tantalizing world which promises more awesome things than you can pick up at once, eschewing any kind of restraint in favor of ninja fighting and random appearances by Shaft. On top of that, it’s a nice reminder to modern filmmakers that it’s okay to have multiple colors on screen at one time.

4. MILK. The energy, the dedication, and the urgency of the Seventies pro-gay movement all course through this film, placing the viewer at the center of a civil rights struggle that’s rarely given its proper place in history. Sean Penn captures Harvey Milk’s charisma and political acumen, while a splendid supporting cast help bring his world to life. Not quite up to THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, but another take on the material is welcome.

5. THE WRESTLER. This one has grown in my estimation since I first saw it, a sign of just how subtly effective the movie is. Mickey Rourke is a powerhouse, Marisa Tomei is beautifully conflicted, and the world of small ticket pro wrestling is rendered with brutal honesty and admiration. The more conventional parts of the story are made believable by Darren Aronofsky’s deliberate eschewing of obvious movie trickery and slow development of emotional intensity.

6. IN BRUGES. Part black comedy, part morality play, part throwback to Hieronymous Bosch; this unique crime picture defies categorization but never ceases to entertain. It’s got a story that’s better constructed than it looks, actors who are putting in more effort than they seem to, and characters who may or may not be as damned as they think they are. Moving and hilarious in equal parts.

7. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. The grimiest and most stylish of heartwarming indie crowd-pleasers; part of me wanted to declare the whole thing overrated and overhyped, but it’s simply too well-made to dismiss. The story may be simplistic, its portrayal of India inaccurate, and some of its elements underdeveloped, but it is the story being told and the filmmakers do a damn fine job telling it. And I really hope more films start doing closing dance numbers.

8. BURN AFTER READING. The Coens follow up Oscar-winning respectable bleakness with an almost deliberately offputting farce that’s just as nihilistic, but has the courtesy to have a sense of humor about it. Like FARGO it focuses on people’s ability to let short term compulsions and a lack of critical thinking foil their ambition and make things very messy very quickly. As comedy it’s an unusual taste, but I couldn’t but laugh.

9. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. As overexploited as the “dumb white guys face the long-delayed onset of maturity” subgenre of comedy is becoming, I can’t help but appreciate the blending of this material with nostalgic callbacks to stoner comedies and 80s buddy pictures, complete with excessive gunplay and a theme song by Huey Lewis. The revelation that James Franco is a great comic performer helps catapult this onto higher ground, no pun intended.

10. TROPIC THUNDER. Feels weird to put these two movies right next to each other, but there you go. A fun satire of the Hollywood movie machine and the actors caught in its gears, not pointing in any one direction but still funny and possessed of a manic energy. Inspired and strangely uplifting.

Films I missed: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Waltz With Bashir, Doubt, Let The Right One In

Most Underrated Film of the Year: SPEED RACER. There’s really no contest here; the Wachowskis labored to bring us a bouquet of sheer Technicolor joy, and it was tossed to the ground because... I don’t know. The dialogue scenes are kind of longish. The editing style takes some getting used to. Um, it’s based on an old cartoon. In the end it amounts to looking at Michaelangelo’s David and bitching about imperfections in the marble. You’d expect either the critics or the public to miss the point but both at once requires some spectacular bad fortune.

Slight runner up though this one actually made some money and wasn’t slated that badly at first but Internet flaming reached really annoying proportions: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. I realize that suspension of disbelief has its limits but if your major point of contention with this film is that silly and implausible things happen in it, I wonder what genre you thought this picture was. (Also: CGI is not your enemy.)

Saul Bass Honorary Award for Best Opening Credits Sequence: QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Thank God for the Bond series, otherwise I may not have bothered to give this out. (THE WRESTLER had a nice one too, though.)

Worst Title of the Year: NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST. I know that was what the book was called, but seriously guys.

Performances that impressed me (a forever incomplete list):

Elissa Knight, WALL-E
Macintalk, WALL-E
Aaron Eckhart, THE DARK KNIGHT
Michael Caine, THE DARK KNIGHT
John Goodman, SPEED RACER
Sean Penn, MILK
Emile Hirsch, MILK
James Franco, MILK
Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER
Marissa Tomei, THE WRESTLER
Colin Farrell, IN BRUGES
Brendan Gleeson, IN BRUGES
Ralph Fiennes, IN BRUGES
Robert Downey, Jr., IRON MAN
Gwyneth Paltrow, IRON MAN
Jeff Bridges, IRON MAN (in a cave with a box of scraps)
Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON
Michael Sheen, FROST/NIXON
Amy Poehler, BABY MAMA
Robert Downey, Jr., TROPIC THUNDER

... “crashes!” That’s it!

What was I trying to do that for again?