Wednesday, December 25, 2013

My Top Ten Christmas Movies

 Not a definitive list by any means - just a personal one.  Six of the ten
titles are from the 1980s so that should tell you enough right there.

10) Home Alone (1990)  The first of three John Hughes films to make my list.  Starring a charismatic Maculay Caulkin as a suburban kid accidentally left behind when his family departs for France.  During the course of the film he learns to value his family, redeem a random old man, and protect his home from two hapless robbers played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.   

9) Charlie Brown Christmas Special (1966)  Everyone gets bummed about the holidays and who better than to channel our rage than through the perpetual sad sack Charlie Brown? With a little help from his friends including  Linus as his conscience and Lucy with her tough love - where can one go wrong? Meanwhile Snoopy's antics add a refreshing anarchy to the proceedings.  Who can go wrong with friends like that?  And the music of Vince Guaraldi.  Charlie Brown Lives!

8) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) Although technically not a Christmas film since it takes place during Thanksgiving, the pairing of John Candy and Steve Martin warrants this one to have "holiday" film classic status.  With Martin as a humorless yuppie and Candy as his earthy, but erstwhile travel companion Del Griffith, both characters become friends and change each other for the better. The honesty in both performances makes the emotional payoff believable at the end. 

7) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)  Emotional coming of age narrative set in turn of the century Brooklyn.  Told mostly from idealistic daughter's perspective, the film follows the an Irish-American family struggle's with poverty and their father's alcoholism.  Although not a Christmas film per se, a significant portion takes place during the holiday.  Elia Kazan's debut film.

6) National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (1989)  The third John Hughes film to make the list.  Chevy Chase returns as the well meaning, but hapless family man, Clark Griswald.  This time around he wants to have the ultimate family Christmas.  Hughes takes common Christmastime rituals like getting a tree, putting up Christmas lights, shopping for family, dealing with pushy in-laws and uninvited guests, and living up to the ghost of past Christmases with the right balance of sarcasm of sentimentality. Randy Quaid's reprisal of "Cousin" Eddie takes the comedy to another level and prevents Chevy Chase from becoming too tiresome.

5) Die Hard (1988)  Set during a Christmas Eve in a L.A. highrise as East German terrorists attempt to steal millions from a wealthy Japanese conglomerate.  Standing in their way is street smart New York cop - John McClane.  With methodical determination he outwits the Eurotrash terrorists at every turn.  All the ingredients are here: a sense of humor, excellent action, a compelling villain, and a new everyman action hero.  

4) Gremlins (1984)  A b-movie homage disguised as a Christmas film.  Something about the 80s zeitgeist makes Gremlins a must see with it's subversive homage to Reagan's America.  Directed by Joe Dante and produced by Stephen Spielberg - every shot has that Spielbergian vibe. Gremlin's is partly creature feature, family drama, and satire all rolled into one.  

3) Scrooged (1989) - As years go by the irreverence and sheer zaniness of Scrooged grows more endearing with me.  Bill Murray plays a bitter TV executive who berates his employees and drives everyone else in his life away.  Then he is visited by three ghosts . . .  you know the rest of the story.  The cameos range from Miles Davis to Jamie Farr.  The screenwriters keep the cynicism coming.  Hard to imagine anyone except Bill Murray pulling this one off - it's like his own twisted version of George Bailey.

2) A Christmas Story (1983) - Once upon time TBS did not air this movie 24/7.  As a result, it's impact has diluted.  Nevertheless, for the first 20 viewings one cannot resist this piece of Americana capturing the Midwest in the 1940s.  The true hero is the narrator Jean Shepard, a legendary radio broadcaster known for his hipster persona on New York's legendary AM station WOR, who for years captivated night owls with his stories about growing up in Indiana.

1) It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra's classic can at turns annoy with its broad sentimentality and blind faith in humanity. It can also inspire viewers with the basic decency of George Bailey.  I'll credit the acting starting with Jimmy Stewart, who's respect and dedication to the story has reverberated through the decades.  That goes for the entire ensemble cast who magically captured a distinct moment in American history. 

That's the list.  See you next year!!!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ender's Game: Love Thy Enemy **1/2

The long awaited adaptation of Orson Scott Card's classic Sci-Fi novel Ender's Game is generally well made, engaging, and consistently grim (in a good way).  The film stars Asa Butterfield (from Hugo Cabaret) as the child prodigy Ender Wiggin; a military genius recruited to defend earth from buglike space invaders. Unlike most alien invasion pictures, which emphasize special effects and action, Ender's Game dwells more on characterization - allowing the film to at least touch upon moral and philosophical issues.

Set possibly a 100 years into the future after Earth has successfully repulsed an alien invasion, the story follows a group of children training to stop the next one.  The world government forces parents to give up their "gifted" children for military training.  Ender's two older siblings, Peter and Valentine (who both play a stronger role in the novel) represent conflicting sides of his personality: intelligent aggression and informed compassion.  Ender's mentor, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), sees Ender as humanity's last hope - exuding a creepy moral ambiguity in his performance.

A bit of inspired dialogue from the film got me thinking.  Colonel Graff wants to mold Ender into another Julius Caesar or Napoleon.  However, as pointed out to the Colonel, Caesar was killed by his own friends and Napoleon ended up in exile.  Generally, movies portray military heroes as larger than life egotists obsessed with their image in the history books - Patton being the glaring example.  But Ender's Game tries to answer the question of what makes a "great" general?  From my humble amount of reading of history, there a multitude of complex factors and talents appropriate for their time period:

Dwight Eisenhower: First rate conflict resolver and manager. 

Napoleon: Observers described as otherworldly and detached during battle.  

U.S. Grant: Stoic determination

Robert E. Lee: Aristocratic, risk taker, and endeared himself to history despite his less than noble cause.

George Washington: A gentleman who could win friends and influence others.

The list goes on and on. Ender Wiggin, like Grant, is a reluctant warrior.  He's really, really good at combat and strategy, but takes little joy in it.  Barely into adolescence Ender must defeat an enemy no one understands - another important allegory here?

The special effects are exceptional and avoid being too flashy.  As I said, this is a somewhat bleak movie for PG-13 audience, because of the issues it raises.  The adults using the children for their own purposes is another recurring theme in need of more development.  Or is the primary theme about the necessity of preparing for war?  The script tends to meander around those sticky quandaries.

Unfortunately, there's a pacing problem throughout. Some sequences go on too long, while others go by way too fast. The build up to the climax falls a bit flat.

I would recommend this movie as slightly above average Sci-Fi.  If you like it - definitely check out the novel.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) ***

In 1983, Warner Brothers released a much anticipated film version of Rod Serling's classic TV series, The Twilight Zone.  With two successful young directors attached, Steven Spielberg and John Landis, the project looked like box office gold.  However, a tragic accident during the filming that resulted in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors has cast a grim legacy over the production.  Nevertheless TZ: The Movie holds up as a curiosity in 1980s pop culture for its wry nostalgia for classic television.  For many like myself too young to remember the original series, the film served as introduction to the best anthology series of all time.

An amusing "prologue" with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks opens the film.  On the road late at night, two guys play a TV trivia game to relieve the boredom of the road.  They swap stories about how The Twilight Zone influenced their childhood, but unfortunately ends with a cheap piece of schlock horror - not in keeping with Serling's legacy.   

The first segment stars Vic Morrow as an angry middle aged man passed over for a promotion.  In a bar he goes on a racist rant.  Upon leaving, he's transported to Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South for some rough lessons on tolerance.  Landis's attempt at social commentary came off as a clumsy liberal sermon.

Spielberg's segment hasn't aged well either.  A stranger played by Scatman Crothers arrives at a retirement home and offers the residents a chance to return to their youth.  Stereotypes and broad generalizations sink Spielberg's attempt to make a statement on aging.

Joe Dante remade "It's a Good Life."  The TV episode starred Bill Mumy as a kid with telekinetic powers. Dante effectively used some creepy special effects with tinges of dark humor. Arguably, it's the most memorable segment.

The last tale, directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame, "Nightmare at 20,000 feet", has Jon Lithgow (reprising a classic William Shatner performance)  as a neurotic plane passenger who claims a monster is on the wing.  From a teleplay by Richard Matheson, the story plays on the terror of being stuck in claustrophobic space with a crazy person.  As a piece of film making it works because Miller let the audience emphasize with Lithgow who delivered a memorable performance.

Rod Serling's imagination continues to inspire.  TV shows like The X-Files, Lost, and Breaking Bad owed much to his legacy.  Perhaps the time has come for Hollywood to make  their own 21st century version of The Twilight Zone with a new crop of directors.  But as a piece of 1980s pop culture TZ: The Movie remains worth revisiting, albeit with the knowledge it had the potential to be much better.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Gravity ****

Gravity displays the amazing power of cinema.  To fully appreciate Gravity, experiencing the film in 3D is a must. Like any great story, it's one of survival. Humanity versus an inhospitable environment. Watching the film has the effect of reading Jack London at his best.  Director Alfonso Cuaron does an amazing job of depicting the feeling of being in space and capturing the mystical nature of the universe.

Two astronauts, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, an engineer and medical doctor, face catastrophe when a Russian satellite crashes into their space shuttle.  In a gripping 20 minute shot we are carried along in a unique sort of terror evoking both helplessness and awe. Clooney's pitch perfect as the veteran astronaut holding it together during a crisis (channeling Dr. Ross from ER).  Sandra Bullock's performance does something even more special.  She keeps humanity in the story.  Countless films sacrifice the human element for an endless parade of banal special effects.  But not here.  Bullock experiences crisis after crisis in the 93 minutes of Gravity and keeps the audience engaged at every step.

Space itself is the other major character.  While experiencing the film, it's easy to to just look on with wonder at the amazing visuals and forget the story.  Cuaron includes several shots of the astronauts looking minuscule between the earth and space reminding us of two things: our smallness in comparison to the universe and the beauty of being part of something so mysterious.  Films like Tree of Life and 2001: A Space Odyssey create a similar sense of wonder. Gravity avoids trying to answer the big philosophical questions, but brings them up in a more natural way.  A sudden threat to our existence quickly makes philosophers out of us all!

Comparisons with Kubrick and Cuaron's conceptions of space are inevitable.  In 2001, Kubrick portrays the universe as indifferent while suggesting other intelligent life may exist.  Cuaron also forces the audience to ponder the indifference of space. In the final 20 minutes he makes us believe humanity can transcend its limitations.   Both films end with moving images recalling our own past and future.  Cuaron's the humanist; Kubrick the existentialist. 

Another irony is that America's current space program faces it's own uncertain future.  NASA's glory days of Apollo are long gone and many wonder whether space travel is worth the investment. In 1970, a mission to Mars appeared within easy grasp.  Now space missions seem to exist outside of my lifetime.  Maybe, we'll see.

As a follow up to Cuaron's Children of Men, Gravity will stand as one of the best films of this decade.  All the elements are present for a great film: acting, special effects, sound, music, and all around immersive experience.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cosmopolis: Welcome to Delillo's World ***

Cosmopolis is the first Don Delillo novel to get a proper adaptation from Hollywood.  Delillo stands as one of the great American novelists of the past fifty years with classics looking deep into the fringes of America's troubled soul.  His canvas ranges between the epic to the small scale story:  Underworld covered the entire Cold War, while Libra focused on the JFK assassination.  Cosmopilis, one of his shorter novels, takes place over the course of one day.  Directed by David Cronenberg, watching Cosmopolis at times feels like a long piece of drone music heading towards an inevitable anti-climax

The film follows Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), an ultra rich Wall Street "Master of the Universe" type as he controls his shrinking world from the confines of a high tech limousine.  From the beginning it's clear he's facing a crisis.  As the day unfolds he consults with tech experts, post-modern gurus, a rapper, meets his wife, mistress, and a call girl.  Cronenberg imagines a much angrier version of Occupy Wall Street with protesters launching violent assaults on Wall Street traders.  Like the characters in Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, who live in decadence as a plague decimates the population, Eric cannot escape a confrontation with the have-nots.  And he does not avoid them, in fact he seeks a confrontation.  When a guru calls the protesters "unoriginal" he replies,"What's Original?"  While history repeats itself, or at least the pattern returns, what else can the elite do but sit back and reflect on how the peasants will react this time around.

Pattinson's quite effective.  He's like Louis XIV riding around town making philosophical statements about random topics.  He reminds me of the Delillo's protagonist from his debut novel Americana, a young TV executive who has everything decides to leave it all behind for a vanity project.  There's a self-destructive element to Eric in his quest to experience desire, fear, and violence.  The climax of the film comes right out of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground with Paul Giamatti (Benno Levin) personifying alienation   The scene plays as if Eric as represents the 1% versus Benno as the 99 percent's avatar.  Both characters have an obsession with the decay of the body and its philosophical implications.  Most film goers will not like their confrontation, but I've seen few with more intensity.

I liked Cosmopolis because of its great juxtaposition and attempt to make sense of the modern world through the eyes of some truly flawed characters searching for some meaning amid all the sound of fury of the 21st century.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Evil Dead - The Remake

Once again, a beloved cult classic gets the full Hollywood treatment.  Back in 1981, Sam Raimi made the original Evil Dead with college friends on a shoestring budget.  Horror fanatics adored the over the top effects featuring killer trees.  The original combined elements of Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The reboot takes itself way too seriously and despite its willingness to push the envelope in terms of gore, there's little else to enjoy.

The plot's pretty basic.  Five twenty-somethings unknowingly unleash evil spirits who possess them and gory mayhem ensues.  Nobody in the cast distinguishes themselves in the mundane opening scenes.  The friends are gathered to guide Mia (Jane Levy) through her detox - adding a more somber tone to the proceedings.  In fact, the whole film can be read as an allegory of addiction and the terror of recovery.

Once the demons are unleashed things literally go to hell.  I cringed a few times at the creative use of sharp objects and a trusty nail gun - those old cabins always have an exotic knife collections and rusty farm utensils predating the steel plow. Once the spirits are unleashed the film relies solely on shock value.  Director Fede Alvarez makes a promising debut with the material at hand (he has facility with the gross out factor) - minus the campy fun of Raimi's b-horror.

The lack of humor isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Horror remakes are smart marketing and give young directors a chance to deliver a unique spin on a classic film.  Many remakes are improvements on the originals like David Cronenberg's The Fly or Phillip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  But those that stay too close the source material are forgettable.

Watching The Evil Dead I kept thinking of the Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods, which took the same premise in a totally different direction.  In a word, Cabin in the Woods, for myself, made Evil Dead feel like a retread of cliches.  Without the gore, there's little to offer except banality.  I suppose that's enough for hardcore horror fans.  Stephen King once wrote the "gross-out" marks the lowest common denominator when it comes to shocking audiences. I agree.       

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

With Star Trek: Into Darkness J.J. Abrams treads a fine line between honoring the history of the franchise and moving things in a new direction.  The results are merely satisfactory.  Once again the film is centered around the Kirk/Spock relationship.  Kirk is coming into his own as a Captain of the Enterprise, while Spock acts as his trusted first officer. Zachary Quinto is growing nicely into the role of Spock. Abrams brings the right combination of a jokey script with solid action scenes bordering on overkill at times. Unlike most sequels, which usually take chances, the writers played it safe and stuck with the winning formula of the first one: an emphasis on action and character development - in this case another Kirk/Spock bromance.  New characters are introduced: Dr. Marcus (Alice Eve) as a possible love interest for Kirk, her scheming father Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller), and Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch).  All trekkers cannot forget Ricardo Montalban in the original series episode "Space Seed" and the the 1982 film, Wrath of Khan as the genetic superhuman.  As a villain, Khan's cunning flamboyance proved a match for Kirk.  Cumberbatch, known for portraying a 21st century Sherlock Holmes, turns Khan into a colder, and even a sympathetic antagonist at times.  Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek envisioned a future with humanity overcoming conflict, racism, economic equality, and most importantly - man's warlike nature. But, ironically, nearly every episode involved violence (usually against an "other" alien civilization).  But everybody's kicking ass in Abram's Trek universe.  In the new version it looks like the Federation will act more like a scared superpower instead of Roddenberry's multinational utopia.

Movie Review of Lincoln: The Mystic Chords of Memory

About halfway through Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln discusses the principles of Euclid with two young officers manning the telegraph room while on a late night jaunt. Before leaving he gives both a kindly pat on the shoulder; a simple gesture displaying Lincoln's compassion and world weariness - therein lying the heart of the film.  We see Lincoln thinking, rationalizing, cajoling, joking, and bearing the world on his shoulders as the Civil War ends. Spielberg's Lincoln succeeds what all the best historical films often fail: it balances individual moments while capturing the grand sweep of history.

Tony Kushner's screenplay covers the final four months of Lincoln's presidency. Lincoln stood at the height of his powers.  By 1865, with the defeat of the Confederacy inevitable, Lincoln was determined to define the war's legacy as one of freedom and emancipation, ideas enunciated in the Gettysburg Address.  Other crucial questions lingered: What would be the legal status of freed slaves?  How to incorporate the southern states back into the union?  There's something endlessly compelling about the course of wars and how leaders and peoples react to them.  Nothing is more dramatic.  But when it comes to the aftermath  things get messier and often less interesting.  Americans pride themselves on remembering the Civil War and the endless list of bloody battles.  That's fine.  Reconstruction is another story.  The years after the war were replete with complicated politics, missed opportunities, tragedy, and few triumphs.  Overall, politics took on a more corrupt and ignoble course.  In that vein, the film has a strong undercurrent of tragedy.

Daniel Day Lewis once again carries the film in a way few actors do these days.  Lewis conveys Lincoln's wisdom, whimsical, and tragic nature.  As a reader of Lincoln biographies, I've always had a fascination with Lincoln's mystical power to connect with individuals and people on a personal basis, and at the same time appear distant, otherworldly.  In Janusz Kaminski's cinematography Lincoln appears ghostly with a gentle, white light trailing him symbolizing in Lincoln's words the "mystic cords of memory."

Although surrounded by an all star cast, the film tends to lag when Daniel Day Lewis is absent.  Sally Field as Mary Todd is sympathetic as a much maligned first lady.  At times, Lincoln has a Hall of presidents type feel, with bombastic debates in the congress with actors in their 19th century garb.  Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens combines grouchiness with idealism.  Prominent actors appear in many roles, but one gets the sense they were just happy to be part of the project.

Lincoln's been a subject of American cinema since its inception.  From D.W. Griffith's civil war epic, Birth of a Nation to Ken Burn's documentary, The Civil War, he's a presence.  My personal favorites are Young Mr. Lincoln starring Henry Fonda (1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940).  Henry Fonda played Lincoln like as a Christlike folk hero, while Raymond Massey played him as a prophetic statesman.  Elements of these Lincolns appear in Lewis's interpretation.  What separates Spielberg's film is its fascination with political process, namely, passing the 13th amendment to abolish slavery.  The decision to focus on the machinations of politics place Lincoln in the company of thoughtful historical epics in the vein of A Man for all Seasons, which in I think will serve the film well in the long term because both ennoble their subjects without the hero worship.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Master (2012)

The Master is a poignant expression on American themes such as loneliness, faith, charlatans, pop culture mythology and much more.  Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman have a master/protege relationship rife with ambiguous tension.  Both performances are appropriately masterful: Phoenix is sympathetic as misfit Freddie Quell, while Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, mysterious leader of "the cause." Amy Adams plays the master's young wife who has her own unique charisma.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson blurs realism and surrealism at some crucial points, uses flashbacks, and beautiful cinematography to fashion a unique cinematic universe.

The film opens on a Pacific beach as the Second World War winds down.  Freddie Quell is a sailor prone to violent, alcohol fueled outbursts. Other sailors are freaked out by his behavior.  When they return home the men are addressed by an officer who assures them an easy transition to civilian life, as the camera pans a row of terrified faces.  Most of them will go on and live meaningful lives.  But Freddie has limited prospects in a post-war America of seemingly endless possibilities.  He's unable to hold a job or have a meaningful relationship.  In the middle of a drunken stupor he comes upon Lancaster Dodd's yacht and finds a safe haven.

Anderson's cinema is a throwback to the 1970s auteurs who upheld anti-heroes as reflections of a society growing increasingly alienated with itself.  Anti-heroes serve as avatars for a large segment of society who, in the words of Lancaster Dodd, "have fallen off the proper path."  Historians write histories of the postwar with the word "anxiety" inevitably appearing on the titles of their monographs.  And for good reason.  The state of the world in 1945 with a horrible war ending and onset of the atomic age changed civilization in ways we are just beginning to understand.  Today, those years are awash in nostalgia and look "simpler," because they are the past.  No one can escape the time period they born into, yet must find their own meaning.

While The Master drew criticism for its fictional portrayal of Scientology, it's more of a story about the desperate search (or even need) for a belief system outside the confines of organized religion or conventional psychology.   In Freddie Quell, Dodd sees an opportunity to put his own philosophy to the test.  Through "processing" sessions (and other experimental treatments) he forces Freddie to confront past trauma so he can function in society.  Their relationship forms the crux of the film.  A father-son dynamic develops between them.  Their initial processing scene is a tour de force fraught with tension and brilliant acting.  From the very start they are alter egos drawn to each other out of a shared recklessness.  

Phoenix carries an awkward posture and a muttering speaking style in his sympathetic characterization of Freddie.  There's something moving about anyone making an effort to be a better person.  Few films have handled isolation with such care.  The narrative of World War II remains static in the popular mind: men came back, went to school, got married, raised families, and moved on.  But others didn't fare so well.  Flashbacks reveal Freddie's innocent relationship with a High School girl he promised to marry are handled with a surprising tenderness. Later he learns she married someone else in a scene of heartbreaking dignity.

Anderson, in two of his previous films, looks at American history: the 1970s porn-industry in Boogie Nights (1997) and capitalism in There Will Be Blood (2007), are character driven, unromantic accounts of the past.  So many historical films are just that - too historical. Characters in Anderson's world react to history instead of acting like pawns on a predictable trajectory.  There's a number of ways to interpret The Master.  It will stand as one of the best films of the decade.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tree of Life: Film as Poetry

 "the rising world of waters dark and deep/won from the void and formless infinite."
                                -Book 3 Paradise Lost

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life glows with every frame. Malick's film stands along side Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of scope and ambition.  Profound questions are raised: What is the purpose of life?  How do human beings reckon with being part of a universe far beyond their imagination?  Is there a mysterious power behind existence?  Kubrick's 2001 focused on the relationship between humanity and technology and its dual nature - to both build and destroy - as well as our growing dependence on it for survival and to venture "to infinity and beyond."  Malick is concerned with the struggle to find meaning within existence.

Tree of Life is poetry in motion.  Every shot conveys deep thought and emotion.  The film opens with some fragments from the major narrative centered on a family in 1950s Texas.  The father, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), is stern and keeps a firm grip on his three sons in contrast to the mother Mrs O"Brien, who is calm, playful, patient.  Before going into the main story, there's an artful sequence depicting the creation of the universe. Animations of the sun coming to life, the primordial soup of life, the movement of life from water unto land, and the rise and collapse of dinosaurs are sublime.  To cynics, these sequences may call to mind a Discovery channel documentary.  But they are handled with a beauty most films never approach (special effects designed by Douglas Trumbull who worked with Kubrick).  Then the film shifts millions of years ahead into the future for the birth of the O'Brien's first son, Jack.

A common criticism of Tree of Life is the disconnect between the Cosmos like portion of the film and its connection to the family (by all accounts autobiographical).  There's something moving by juxtaposing the vastness of universe with the the life of one family residing on an obscure planet orbiting a star on the fringes of the Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers have a clear picture of the size of the universe our own place in it seems insignificant and barely a ripple in the tapestry of living.  By realizing we are part of something bigger, and accepting the mystery surrounding all aspects of existence is an idea easy for modern mind to scoff at.  Malick unabashedly expresses his own belief through the language of cinema with some Miltonic flourishes.

The style is pure expressionism.  The innocence and frivolity of childhood are captured as the camera seems to glide through the house.   Dialogue is kept to a minimum. The images tell the story.  All the actors did a fantastic job of capturing emotion without dialogue.  Brad Pitt brings a strength and vulnerability as the father, while Jessica Chastain is grace personified.  Sean Penn's section of the film feels undeveloped.

Malick is unique among directors for making two masterpieces in the 1970s , Badlands and Days of Heaven.  Then he went on a 20 year hiatus. In 1997 he returned with the meandering World War II film, The Thin Red Line. His recent 2013 film, To the Wonder is in limited release and he has two other projects in post-production so thankfully for us he is making up for lost time.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Social Network (2010) ****

The Social Network opens with an intense conversation between two people.  There's no mediator- its just two people talking.  Mark Zuckerberg's (Jesse Eisenberg)  obsession with getting into the Porcellian Club at Harvard prevents him from connecting with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara).  Angry after she breaks us with him, he writes an mean spirited blog entry to humiliate her.  And the rest is history . . .

A greenish, yellow hue with a dark background permeates almost every scene in the film.  A lurking darkness recalling to Gordon Willis's cinematography in Coppola's Godfather films.  At times, it seems Fincher is putting a subtle (or secondary) screen between the viewer and what's happening on the screen.  Are we witnessing history or fiction?  The strange color visuals hint at an artificiality of movies in contrast to the factual tone of the script.

A young cast carries the Social Network through its sophisticated script.  Perhaps no youth oriented film youth film has had better casting since American Graffiti.  Zuckerberg as played by Jesse Eisenberg is lonely, childish, and cunning.  Has Eisenberg made a bad film?  His work in The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland, and Adventureland make him one of the most promising actors of his generation.  Rooney Mara only appears in a few scenes, but manages to convey a compassionate beauty and a righteous anger.  No one doubted Mara would make a fierce Lisbeth Salamander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Justin Timberlake  as Napster founder Sean Smith steals the second half of the film. And the film has two traditional villains in the Winklevoss twins (who in a great moment compare themselves to Cobra Kai dudes in the Karate Kid).

David Fincher splits his output between calculated potboilers (Se7en, Girl With Dragon Tattoo) and serious attempts at social commentary (Fight Club, Zodiac).  The Social Network succeeds on both levels.  Aaron Sorkin's smart script meshes nicely with Fincher's darker sensibility.

Zuckerberg is alone at the end much like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.  He stares sadly into his own creation as "Baby You're Rich Man" plays.  Also, like Charles Foster Kane or Orson Welles for that matter, Zuckerberg,  moved media into a new age.  Personally, I'm not a big fan of facebook.  But does anyone really love facebook?  The Social Network is American movie making at its best with its uncertainty towards class, technology, ambition, and character.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Munich: Spielberg's Critique of post 9/11 America Disguised as a Spy Thriller

Steven Spielberg's Munich is a blend of quiet, thoughtful moments punctuated by intense action sequences.  Munich's a haunting film with a brave message about history, war, and politics.  

Munich opens with the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Games.  Palestinian terrorists saw the potential for using the Olympics as a means to draw the world's attention to the plight of their people.  In response, according to the George Jonas book Vengeance, the Israeli government assembled a secret team to track down and kill all those responsible for the killings.   Politics aside, Munich is one of the best espionage films ever to depict the heady international situation of the 1970s.  Recently, (after the bombings in Boston), I've heard the word Munich turned into a verb as in, "time to go all Munich on these guys."  If you're in the mood for harsh reprisals, you will enjoy the revenge scenes.  If you're concerned about meeting violence with violence, Munich will make you consider alternatives.  Like any good historical film, it made me want to learn more about the era, namely, the labyrinth of 20th century politics.

Avner (Eric Bana) is an Israeli commando leader assigned to lead the team of assassins. The film suggests he was handpicked by Prime Minister Golda Meir.  In a meeting of the Israeli cabinet she concedes every civilization must compromise with its values in order to survive.  While the film never answers the questions posed by Ms. Meir, it does show the personal consequences of doing so.  Bana is well cast as the team leader - exuding compassion and righteous strength.  His team includes a forger, explosives expert, strong man, and clean up artist.  The team calls to mind The Seven Samurai and  the The Dirty Dozen.  In their mission to kill the terrorists they find themselves caught in an unholy web of collateral damage and paranoia.  Gradually, members began to question the motives behind their mission.

Perhaps the political turbulence associated with Munich overshadowed the film's close ties with the spy genre.  Some of Spielberg's darkest, and most exciting sequences appear in Munich.  The recreation of the actual Munich debacle are handled with a gritty realism.  But the dialogue scenes written by Tony Kushner are just as intense.  In another sequence they plant a bomb in the phone of a suspected terrorist, but must call it off when the man's daughter arrives.  Another exciting scene is raid on terrorist compound anticipates Zero Dark Thirty.  As an espionage thriller, Munich ranks among the best (and further proof Spielberg could make an awesome James Bond film).

The moral clarity question is simple: Should violence be met with more violence?  When civilizations are facing an existential threat - how far should they go?  Throughout its entire existence, Israel has faced hostility and has gone to extreme measures to protect their country.  Meanwhile, the United States after the 9/11 attacks engaged in long-term wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Did America's more aggressive foreign policy create more potential enemies than ever before?  

Munich is not saying responding with force is wrong.  It's a plea to at least consider the consequences. The final scene, a confrontation between Avner and his handler with the World Trade Center prominent in the background, reminds us actions have consequences. Decisions made by individuals do influence the course of history.

Since 9/11, Spielberg has engaged more directly with history and politics.  Munich is his boldest and most under appreciated film because it challenged the ethos of post-9/11 America in an unflinching and heroic matter. 


Friday, May 10, 2013

Dawn of the Dead **** (1978)

For horror movie aficionados George Romero's Dawn of the Dead has a permanent slot in their handful of must sees ( the Citizen Kane of zombie cinema).  Released in 1978, the film set a new standard for onscreen gore with grisly affects courtesy of the splatter master, Tom Savani. Besides being a gross out fest, the film also serves as a time capsule of the 1970s with its not so subtle commentary on consumerism.  In fact the film helped launch the zombie genre of films, comics, and a precursor to The Walking Dead. Upon first viewing, I remember being really frightened by the sense of doom throughout the film.  If the 1968 version tapped into  anxiety over social change, the 1978 incarnation looks at the more long-term threats to civilization i.e. energy supply.

 At their best, scary movies are a window into collective cultural anxiety.  I'm sure Dawn of the Dead has inspired a few monographs on 1970s malaise.  Horror is the least respected film genre for few good reasons.  Sometimes for good reason due to their unrelenting misogyny and exploitative nature. For a time in the 1970s, auteur directors like Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg used the genre to great effect.  Modern incarnations of the genre inclines toward pure shock.

The grainy black and white of Night of the Living Dead had a realistic, documentary like feel. Dawn of the Dead is more cinematic, yet still claustrophobic  Set mostly in a shopping mall, the wide open spaces allow for more adventurous cinematography, while still making the viewer feel confined.  Also, the banal earth tones of indoor malls provide a disturbing counterpoint to the horror.

The film begins with survivors of an ongoing zombie apocalypse seal themselves off in a shopping center.  The first 20 minutes are extremely violent as a TV crew films a raid on a ghetto as troops are clearing out a minority neighborhood. It looks like a reenactment of the Vietnam War. From the first sequence, its clear the zombies are not the most dangerous villain.  One character cynically observes that the rednecks will probably survive with their endless supply of guns.  The zombies are creepy, but the humans are capable of far more monstrous acts.

Romero shot the movie in Pittsburgh and used a cast of unknowns to great effect.  The four major characters are all flawed in their own way.  But they also show courage and intelligence.  As they set up their consumer's paradise, the mall becomes a character unto itself.  My favorite sequence is when the survivors indulge themselves with food, clothes, guns - in a moment of pure consumerist utopia (its the film equivalent to Don Delillo's mall as paradise sequence in his 1985 novel White Noise).  Has anyone not fantasized about a unlimited shopping spree?  Then again, how do you feel after making that grand purchase?  It's fleeting.

And the film's entertainment factor is a bit fleeting by the end.  There's really no where to go with the story.  The final 20 minutes feature an outburst of zombie on biker violence.  Well, it just gross.  By today's standards a bit tame, but still potent.  The soundtrack by Dario Argento is creepy - an unsettling collage of synthesizers, elevator and carnival music.

Romero went on to direct four more zombie flicks, including three made in the last decade.  Dawn of the Dead still works because it's not really a zombie film at all.  It's about humanity.  We root for the rational side in all of us to survive when those ghouls are outside patiently waiting.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My Own Love Song ***1/2 (2010)

My Own Love Song is full of pleasant surprises.  Rene Zellweger delivers one of her best performances as a woman coming to terms with the past.  Her co-star, the always brilliant Forrest Whitaker, matches her at every step.  The soundtrack, written by no other than Bob Dylan, fits in perfectly with film's wistful, but hopeful mood.  My Own Love Song brings to mind Faulkner, Guthrie, and American mythology. 

Jane Wyatt's (Zellweger) once promising singing career came to a halt after injuries from a car accident confined her to a wheelchair.  Several years after the accident she lives alone and her only friend is a local named Joey (Forrest Whitaker) who is also scarred by a past trauma.  Both performances evoke melancholy and resilience   Their unlikely friendship also recalls 1970s movies with people from different ages, genders, and class came together.  Joey convinces her accompany him to New Orleans to meet a man who claims be in communication with angels. Along the way they meet Nora, who's husband has disappeared, and Caldwell (Nick Nolte) a former musician struggling with post-traumatic stress after Hurricane Katrina.

Music plays a central role in the film.  Like Robert Altman's Nashville, Dahan includes scenes where the characters perform songs.  In those moments they achieve a true transcendence adding so much to their characters and the story.  Bob Dylan's soundtrack, mostly from his his 2009 album Together Through Life, a collection of tunes evoking loss and rebirth, setting the right tone for the film.

My Own Love Song never saw a general release in America. It is now available on Tubi.  After Hurricane Katrina, America never got a Grapes of Wrath or even a film to put the tragedy into a historical context (Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke is an exception) and its own small way My Own Love Song is a reckoning with American tragedy - and hope.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Liberal Arts ***

Any young person who decides to major in the humanities, especially in this economy, does so at their own peril.  Or that's what society says.  Dedicating one's time these days to a "life of the mind" or towards creative endeavors faces the prospect of being told "to live in the real world" or "just be a teacher" (not knocking teaching in anyway here).  Meanwhile, book culture has underwent its share of knocks in recent years.  Book store chains are closing and placing all their hopes in electronic reading gadgets.  Alternative reading cultures have merged online with sites like goodreads and Amazon.  Readers are out there.  We're not in Fahrenheit 451 territory yet.

Starring Josh Radner (who also wrote and directed) as a hyper bookworm living in New York City where he works as a college admissions counselor.  The film opens with him giving lame pitch lines to prospective students. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he is invited back to attend an old professor's retirement party in Ohio (filmed at Kenyon College).  Jesse is the type of person who wishes college never ended with the all night chats on Delillo and Roth (although we never learn about his ambitions in college). While visiting his former professor Jesse meets a kindred spirit in Zibby (Elizabeth Olson) a drama student wise beyond her years.

Liberal Arts is not necessarily a romantic comedy, but a film about maturity.  So, it asks some mature questions:  What does it mean to be an adult?  Why is there so much anxiety about the passing of time?  All the characters in the film are very mature - maybe the most mature film I've seen in some time.  Thankfully, the film avoids an onslaught of quirky characters, but actual adults who are engaging with the world and doing the best they can.

Jesse is a bit flaky at times, but never annoying.  When an old professor accuses him of acting like an "effete, man-boy" he decides to make a change.  He grows up.

Of course, the title "Liberal Arts" screams independent film.  The editing is sharp and all the performances ring true.  And as a liberal arts guy myself, the film has an encouraging message.  One can still build a life and stay true to their passions and still live as a functional person in the real world.  Someday, anyway.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mud ***

Mud combines elements of Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, family melodrama, and Southern epic.  There's quite a bit going on in this one.  Matthew McConaughey stars as Mud who lives in self-exposed exile on an island on the Mississippi River.  Two boys, the central figures in the film, befriend him in the midst of their own family struggles.

Setting is a strong character in an environment divided between townies and the fisherman. It's a rough country in an economically stagnant region.  Water is a used as a metaphor throughout as a life giving force, but one also showing the unpredictability of life - something both beautiful and terrifying.

Mud is also a study of masculinity in the South.  Mud, whom the boys (Ellis and Kyle) come to idolize, is like a folk- hero in an old ballad, the non-conformist.  He claims he's staying on the island for the woman he loves (Reese Witherspoon), but as they learn Mud has complex motives behind all his decisions.  Ellis's father (Ray McKinoon) is simple and hardworking, and a believer in tough love who carries himself with quiet dignity. Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), a mysterious neighbor, is yet another loner with a mysterious past ( hard not not think of Chuck Yeagar).  Ellis's friend Kyle is being raised by an uncle in arrested development.

My description may sound like Mud is a character study, and on some level it is, yet it's also heavy on plot and melodrama.

The female roles in Mud are less defined.  Juniper is never quite defined and Witherspoon is underused.  Mud stays committed to her, despite the turbulent nature of their relationship.  Ellis's mother leaves his father and he resents her for it.  His crush, a local townie, leaves him in the cold.  As I mentioned above, Mud is about men and how they react to crisis.

Matthew McConaughey performance is pitch perfect as the outsider with his own sense of honor.  Jeff Nichols, the director, has set his two previous films in the South as well, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011) which also place family and loyalty front and center.  There's a mix of melancholy hope running throughout the film, although the ending feels inevitable and forced.  Overall, Mud is a crowd pleaser  amidst the usual run of summer blockbusters.