Friday, February 27, 2009

Phantasm (1977)

He already had a couple of low-budget films under his belt, but Don Cascarelli's real splash came with his 1979 wacked-out trip of a horror film, PHANTASM. Embracing the spirit of DIY ethics, Coscarelli wrote, directed, photographed, edited and co-produced the film, giving audiences not only a new icon of the genre in the wonderfully menacing Tall Man (played by Angus Scrimm), but also a film that is a flag-bearer for originality and creativity on a minuscule budget.

Most people who haven't seen the film (or its numerous sequels, all helmed by Coscarelli) are most likely familiar with its major instrument of carnage: a flying metallic sphere with wicked little blades that burrow into your brain and funnel out the blood at the mental command of the Tall Man. But what is the film actually about? Mike (the young one) and Jody (the older, cooler one) are brothers trying to cope with the death of their parents. If it sounds like it's already treading into the confines of horror cliche, PHANTASM side-steps it by having the deaths already occur before the movie begins and using it instead to strengthen the sibling relationship between Mike and Jody, making it more genuine in the process. Mike begin to notice that things aren't as normal as they appear at the local mortuary: for one thing, the manager of the place is able to carry an full casket by himself (in a nice homage to NOSFERATU) with ease. Events go into Weird Overdrive when evil, hooded dwarfs show up and before you know it Mike, Jody, and their ice-cream truck driving friend Reggie are running for their lives as they become embroiled in a plan to extract the souls of the dead and ship them to an alien world as slavery.

Yes, you read that right. This mutha goes into Outer Space.

PHANTASM does so many things right, it's hard to know where to begin. In Jody and Mike we get protagonists we care about, and who from the outset appear to have fully functioning heads on their shoulders. Jody doesn't immediately believe Mike's assertions about the Tall Man, but when it's time to believe Jody buys in fully, and when he springs into action it's not as a supporting member but as someone fully vested in their survival.

And in Angus Scrimm we have a Tall Man that is both horrible and mysterious. We never really learn why he does what he does or even the extent of his considerable powers. Much of the horror simply comes from his presence, whether it's picking up the aforementioned casket by himself:

Or suddenly appearing behind Mike's bed in a nightmare:

It's this type of thing that makes PHANTASM so fun. The images and ideas are waaay out there, but executed with enthusiasm and care. The fact that it looks a little cheap add to the charm: what Coscarelli lacked in funds he makes up for in imagination and arresting visuals. The set direction is inspired - the interior of the mortuary is a surreal nightmare, all marbled black and white to make the inevitable spilling of blood that much more vibrant. The ending is somewhat twisty, but maybe because we're talking about a movie that's close to 30 years old it feels right considering what it is.

I've often criticized other movies for putting in incredible images that serve no purpose to the story. In PHANTASM the images are of the same caliber, but they serve a story that's just as fantastic. If you haven't seen it, you won't know what to expect going in and, in this day and age, that's a good thing. It's a horror movie perfectly suited for the kid who's too young to get into a horror movie: young heroes, lots of blood, a sprinkling of T&A - pretty much everything you can ask for when you're a 13 year-old who loves staying up late reading Stephen King and watching Twilight Zone re-runs. A perfect midnight movie to see with a bunch of friends.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar Pre-Game, and a Revised Top 10

The awards start in a few hours, Swedish death/punk metal band Entombed is playing in my headphones, and instead of finally sitting down and watching THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON I'm here writing this up. Because, frankly, I'm tired of the catch-up, the drive to sit through BUTTON has pretty much evaporated. I'm sure I'll catch up with it in the next few weeks, but for now I'm content with being a few movies short.

Before getting to my revised list, here are my lame-o predictions, for what they're worth (you can see how I did last year over here):

Best Actor: For weeks the odds have been on either Mickey Rourke or Sean Penn, with the difference being who gets Best Picture. The thinking is if SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE trounces like everything believes, then Penn will get best actor to make up for MILK's losses. I have no idea if this kind of thinking goes into the decisioning, but for my money Rourke was galvanizing in THE WRESTLER, and deserves the award. Will not being nominated for anything else hurt it? Who knows.

Best Supporting Actor: I don't see how anyone has a chance against Heath Ledger this year. They're already re-writing the rule so that his daughter can have the statue held in trust until she's 18. His Joker was without a doubt the highlight of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and I think all the other (supposed) snubs the film's received will make this a shoo-in. All that being said, how frickin' great was Robert Downey jr. in TROPIC THUNDER? And how frickin' cool to be recognized for it? My heart goes out, though, to James Franco who was equally amazing in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, but get no nod here. One day the Academy will wise up to the acting intricacies of comedy. But this year just be glad a comic book character is getting the award.

Best Actress: I think they give it to Kate Winslet, even though my worship of her beauty didn't blind me to the fact that THE READER was merely an okay movie that didn't offer anything special in its execution. In a perfect world? Michelle Williams would have been nominated for the incredible WENDY AND LUCY, and we'd be seeing either her or Anne Hathaway up at the podium tonight. Nice to see Melissa Leo get a nod for FROZEN RIVER, but who are we fooling with the Angelina Jolie nomination? The old fashioned acting apparent in CHANGELING doesn't hold up with the rest of the nominated company.

Best Supporting Actress: Always a hard category, and I'd be happy with Viola Davis or Penelope Cruz - both are so draw-dropping you can't take your eyes off of them in their all-too-brief performances in DOUBT and VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, respectively. I did love Marisa Tomei in THE WRESTLER, but I think her role as Pam/Cassidy didn't turn the movie on its head the way the other two performances did.

Best Director: Is this where the SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE train starts a-rollin'? I don't have nearly the ill will for this movie that a lot of others seem to. And Danny Boyle may have a flashy, LCD visual style in many of his films, but I think he uses every trick to propel the story forward. Not having seen BUTTON I can't comment on David Fincher's further (wonderful) Kubrickain spiral, but he and Gus Van Sant seem to be the only other contenders here. This may be the rare year where we see a different Director and Best Picture win.

Best Picture: The money seems to be on SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, and I'd be hard pressed to go against it. Out of the nominated films, I was most affected by MILK, and I would love to see that get the win. But I wouldn't be overly upset at a SLUMDOG win: to be honest I'm more upset at a film like THE READER taking a slot where (IMHO) a more deserving film like DOUBT or IN BRUGES could have been placed. FROST / NIXON was really good, but over time seems to have faded as more and more better movies kept jumping up in its place. And although I had plenty of reservations about THE DARK KNIGHT as a "perfect" film, it's record numbers (not something I'd normally consider as indicative of quality) and generally high praise does seem conspicuously absent this year.

A few others, sans the pithy comments:

  • Best Screenplay (Original): WALL-E or MILK, although I wish it would go to IN BRUGES
  • Best Screenplay (Adapted): DOUBT, though it will probably go to either MILK or SLUMDOG
  • Best Music - Original Song: "O Saya" By A.R. Rahman and M.I.A., although I think there was a real snub in not nominating either "Dracula's Lament" or "Inside Of You" from FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
  • Best Music - Original Score: WALL-E

And now, without any comments (hooray) after watching about another 20 films from 2008 after the initial was made (you can see that here), here is my new Top 10 for 2008, in no real discernible order:

  1. MILK
  2. IN BRUGES
  3. DOUBT
  4. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
  5. WALL-E
  6. THE WRESTLER
  7. IRON MAN
  8. THE FALL
  9. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
  10. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS/FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL

Friday, February 20, 2009

Movie #21: The Wrestler (2008)

Getting to the end of the mad dash to catch as many Oscar nominated films as possible, and it feels nice. There's an odd feeling that accompanies it, though: THE WRESTLER was one of my most anticipated films of 2008, and when it came time to watch it I held off and watched other things, did other things, simply because I was getting tired of having to watch the films.

But THE WRESTLER deserves better than that. The talk for the past couple rightfully centers on Mickey Rourke, who is able to completely dissolve into the role of Randy the Ram. For all the talk of Rourke essentially mirroring his life, I think the audience brings that to the film more than Rourke does, and it's a brilliant move. For two hours he is Randy, and it's only after the credits roll and you hear Bruce Springsteen's mournful title song that you begin to realize how much of Rourke is in the role. It's a difficult balancing act, but he pulls if off and I think that's why the nomination is so well deserved.

But this wasn't only the film Rourke needed to make; this was the film Darren Aronofsky needed to cleanse his palette after the lengthy trials and tribulations that came with realizing THE FOUNTAIN. Aronofsky looks like a different director in the WRESTLER, opting for a very grainy, low-budget documentary look. But you can't get away from the camera, which weaves in and follows the action in a way that sets it apart from a more novice filmmaker. There's a great instance where we watch Randy walk through a series of corridors before stepping out into the crowd, which is mirrored later by a very similar walk that only leads to the deli counter where he's picked up a couple of extra hours. When it comes to the actual wrestling scenes the Aronofsky makes sure that everything is so brutal it's almost too painful to watch. One of the things THE WRESTLER excels at is really showing you the life of what these guys have to go through before, during, and just after the matches. Anyone still raging over the fact that wrestling is fake isn't seeing the point. Aronofsky makes sure that you do.

But if THE WRESTLER was just about life in the ring, it wouldn't have the emotional impact it does. The movie follows Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a once great wrestler beaten down physically by his time in the ring. His body's a mass of injuries that takes dozens of pills to continue to function. He's broke, partially deaf, and living in a small trailer when he can afford to pay his rent. During the week he unloads trucks for a grocery store, and at night he pines away at the local strip club for Cassidy, the beautiful stripper who reminds him of the glory times of the 80s when Quiet Riot was on the radio and wrestling was on every weekend. His daughter hates him for never being there, and all of this sits like a boulder on his shoulders. But even though every nerve in his body tells him he can't continue, his mind and soul still crave the roar of the crowds and the thrill that comes with being in the spotlight, even though it can kill him.

THE WRESTLER shows Randy's life in all of these circumstances, and doesn't shy away from the sadness of being out the spotlight, of having a meet-and-greet at the local Kiwanas Club and having no one show up to you table, where you have a stack of old VHS tapes and a Polaroid camera for pictures. But that sadness is always tempered by Randy's optimism, whether it's connecting with Cassidy during a shopping expedition or sweetly complimenting his opponents before a match. He can't help being the showman; even at the deli counter he son falls into the familiar patterns of making jokes and passing could cuts out like a football game.

THE WRESTLER takes all of these pieces and combines them into an emotional portrait of a man who refuses to cave in or change on anything other than his terms. By throwing away all the fancy editing and effects that were a staple of his previous films, Darren Aronofsky has crafted his most delicate and personal film. And by not holding anything back as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Mickey Rourke has given a performance that will stand long after awards are won or lost.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Movie #20: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Could a modern film get away with introducing its two main characters by their shoes? That was the question that stuck in my mind as I re-watched Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. For me it embodies everything that's considered "classic" Hitchcock. There's the wrongfully accused man, the exotic climax, the powerful attraction between characters.

But the main draw of any Hitchcock film is the camera - watching it move as if it's a character in the film. Guessing where it will go and what it will show is for me one of the biggest draws to Hitchcock, and the opening of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a beautiful example of this. The camera sits low and follows in alternating cuts the shoes of two men as they leave their respective cars, board a train and finally meet in a passenger car when one shoes inadvertently brushes up against the other.

The camera finally rises to show us Farley Granger as tennis pro Guy Haines and Robert Walker in his iconic role as Bruno Antony, the sick, rich socialite who takes a shine to Haines and proposes a swap of murders with the famous words, "Criss-cross!"

Although Farley is ostensibly the lead, as the man who is wrongly accused of murdering his wife and has to elude the police and clear his name, the film belongs to Robert Walker, who infuses his Bruno with a chilling sexuality that focuses squarely on Granger, making it a forerunner to Granger's later, more overtly homosexual role in Hitchcock's ROPE. But unlike that film, Walker uses that sexuality as just one tool to fully realize Bruno as a person. And Hitchcock plays on Walker's choices, nowhere better than the iconic tennis sequence, where Guy looks in the stands ans sees a sea of turning heads - all except for the solitary figure in the middle of the frame, whose gaze is intent not on the game, but on Guy:

Bruno's swoons and violent streaks when in the presence of Barbara Morton, the kid sister of Guy's love interest is another great touch - her face, framed in a pair of thick glasses remind him of Guy's wife, the woman he murdered in supposed exchange for Guy murdering Bruno's overbearing father.

The movie plays with a lot with implied and suppressed feelings. Guy makes it clear that he's sick of his wife, and would welcome the opportunity to have her out of his life. But does he ever take Bruno's proposal seriously? There seems to be a moment where, although he's disgusted by Bruno's action and has no intention he will ever follow through with his end of the deal. Granger plays the suffering hero well, and his moments of decision, as when he purchases and hides a gun, and breaks into Bruno's house are filled with moments of tension and fear.

But with all that, it still wouldn't make much of an impact as a Hitchcock if it didn't have a slam-bang finish. And the climax on an out-of-control carousel is fantastic. As Guy and Bruno battle it out, the horses look as if they're coming off the poles, echoing the insane rage inside Bruno. Hitchcock is a master of setting up climaxes, and though it doesn't have the exoticism of later films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST or TO CATCH A THIEF, the surrealism in the image of a carousel spinning out of control as the two leads battle to the death captures exactly what's being talked about when people refer, in the best of ways, to something being "Hitchcockian".

Friday, February 13, 2009

Movie #19: Midnight Meat Train (2009)

Clive Barker rarely gets a fair shake in Hollywood.

Horror writers usually don't; too often the scales seem to tip toward low-budget, poorly written adaptations - sometimes by the authors themselves. Barker had a triumph with his directorial/screenwriting debut of HELLRAISER, but NIGHTBREED (based on the excellent novella Cabal) was a bit of a let down and LORD OF ILLUSION (based on another excellent novella, The Last Illusion) was a major disappointment. Part of the reason lies squarely with the content of his fiction - dark, laced with sexuality and fantasy, most of it is hard to peg in one particular genre. Which is great for the writing, but not typically so hot for the movies.

So what a huge surprise at how satisfying MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN is. Based on the short story of the same name, the film is a short, solid stab to the heart that laces its dread with some striking visuals, plenty of gore, and an ending that is apologetically dismal. Bradley Cooper, forever for me the lovesick puppy in the television show Alias shows he can control the screen as a lead. He plays Leon, a photographer trying and failing to capture the true image of the city he lives in. One night he captures on film and thwarts a gang attempting to rob a fashion model. He leaves her as she get on board the subway, the door held open by a large, well-dressed man with a strange ring on his finger. When the papers explain that she's gone missing, Leon is drawn both by his curiosity and his compuslion to capture the city into a deeper mystery that not only encompasses the stranger on the train, but perhaps the entire city. Needless to say his discovery of the true face of the city is a face in retrospect no one should have to see.

The set-up is fairly straightforward, but part of what makes it work is the marriage between Barker's tone - his relentless drive to push you into the viscera, force you to wipe the blood from your face and see what he wants to show you, and the visual style of director Ryƻhei Kitamura. After a string of low-budget but highly stylized Asian films Kitamura's first American offering moves at a nice pasce, not resorting to flashy, MTV cutting but rather holding frames and drawing tension from the circumstances of the plot.

Supposedly MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN has had a lot of trouble with the studios (lost in the shuffle as THE STRANGERS took the limelight instead), and that's a shame, because this is a small but effective horror that's plays very differently than the lukewarm offerings Hollywood's been putting in front of audiences for the past couple of years. The plan is to continue to use the same production company to film at least 4 more stories from Barker's Books of Blood series (where MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN came from). Here's hoping they're all given the same care.

Movie #18: Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008)

There's something about NICK AND NORAH'S INFINITE PLAYLIST that feels like the anti-JUNO to me. Whereas Diablo Cody's overrated dialog and attempts at youthful sentiment in JUNO struck me as smug and often downright patronizing to its intended audience, NICK AND NORAH feels more sincere in its picture of two people fumbling towards first love in the prime of their youth. It may not perfectly match your first time, or my first time, but director Peter Sollet, working off a script by Lorene Scafaria based on the popular novel, seems more intent on conveying the small gestures, the quiet moments where things come together, and wrap it up in a loving tribute to a New York City that glows with music and lights and coffee.

The story isn't really about anything; it's just enough of a scenario to allow us the fun of watching Nick and Norah explore their relationship. Michael Cera plays Nick, recently heartbroken bass player player for The Jerk-Offs, begrudginly heading into the city to play a gig and hopefully catch a secret performance by Where's Fluffy, an almost mythical band that Nick (and Norah, as we come to discover) adore that acts as the MacGuffin of the picture. Through a series of coincidence he meets up with Norah at the club he's playing at. She's trying to keep her friend Caroline from getting utterly wasted (something she fails to do) and just enjoy the music, but the hurdles set up by the film demand that she engages in a "meet cute" with Nick and propel the film to its satisfying conclusion.

It's refreshing to see Cera make some small but noticeable adjustments to the character he's been playing in a number of his past films. His Nick is still the essential shy good boy, but there's a new-found sense of confidence and grace in his movements, his delivery. He doesn't come across as eternally lost to the circumstances of what's going on around him. As Norah, Kat Dennings knows exactly when to play the giggling schoolgirl, and when to play the wounded, older girl who's a little tired of simply being her age. It's a great part, and that smile instantly draws you in. Their conversations fall over the place at first: when two people are just beginning to feel each other out, the conversation necessarily starts off broad. But as the movie progresses and they begin to connect, the talk becomes intimate, and the language becomes shared. It's one of the many points of the film that feel true, even if it isn't all that factual.

The rest of the cast beautifully supports the leads, especially Ari Graynor as the good-natured but way too intoxicated Caroline. She another plot device to draw Nick and Norah together, but she's a wonderful plot device all the same. Same for indie rock scene in New York, which comes alive under the direction of Peter Sollet to become a character in its own right. This the New York I had the fortune to see when going out with my much-younger friends, and it's captured perfectly. NICK AND NORAH'S PLAYLIST is that rare, sweet film that yearns to impress without resorting to imitate.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Movie #17: Encounters at the End of the World (2008)

Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who isn't content to simply place his stamp on each of his films, he has to grind it in with the heel of his boot, making sure there is no mistake that what we're about to see, whether fictional narrative or documentary, is his vision, his unique take on the subject matter.

His latest endeavor, the documentary ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD is no different. The narration in the first few minutes makes clear Herzog has little interest in "another fucking penguin picture." His interest lies as much in the days and dreams of the people living there as it does the beautiful scenery. At first he's troubled by relatively benign weather; it's only when the winds start to come up that he truly feels it's time to explore the continent.

The photography is breathtaking. I understand the accolades heaped upon films like PLANET EARTH, but there's a immediacy to the HD video in ENCOUNTERS that causes you to reach out, straining to feel the cold emanating from the screen. The most gorgeous moments come under the ice, as divers bring the cameras for a look at the alien architecture made possible by the movement of the water and the ice, and the strange life that calls this environment home.

When he's not lingering over the vistas and the indigenous life, Herzog is probing the people who have, for dozens of different reasons, followed a singular call to come to the most inhospitable section of the globe. From a plumber who boasts royal Incan heritage to a group of scientists who put their ears to the ice in order to hear the psychedelic, inorganic sounds of the seals,each person parts with a small portion of the dream that led them to the ice and snow. Herzog's voice, sometimes probing, sometimes backing off, always seems to be in command, and as an invisible guide he makes a compelling voice through the course of the film.

Of course, he eventually does (as one must when in Antarctica) come across penguins, and what started in the beginning of the film as a casual joke about another penguin movie becomes a heartbreaking scene as the question of madness in animals is addressed. It's one of many beautiful moments that make ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD a treasured film.

*Quick Note: Herzog states his fascination with Antarctica came after seeing some of the dazzling underwater photography by Henry Kaiser while Kasier was scoring Herzog's previous GRIZZLY MAN. It took a couple moments to sink in: the guy doing the music for Herzog's film also shot underwater footage in Antarctica? Apparently so, and the guy in question, Henry Kaiser, is a fantastic guitar player who's records are a treat of jazz, rock, and more avant-garde material. It's his picture in the above screencap.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Movie #16: Death Race (2008)

I think we've gotten to the point in Jason Statham's career where it's no longer necessary to give a reason for why he's such a badass. He just is. In DEATH RACE he plays Jensen Ames, a former racing champion who at the start of the film is getting his walking papers from some industrial factory that's being closed down.

So far no reason to suspect he's capable of his next action: beating the hell out of a group of riot police who comes to quell the uproar over the closing of the plant.

No explanation needed: the dude is just badass.

Soon after Ames returns home to his wife and daughter, is knocked out, and is framed for the murder of his wife. He's sent to Terminal Island Prison, where he's forced to participate in the infamous Death Race, a three-stage no holds barred car race that is the most popular televised event in the country. The evil warden (played by Joan Allen of all people) is holding his baby daughter hostage, so you know Ames is gonna have to not only win the race, but escape, get his daughter back, and engineer an especially brutal demise for all the baddies as well.

Does this come to fruition? Well, of course it does...what kind of movie did you think this was? DEATH RACE seems perfectly content to wallow in its B-movie mechanics, and for once writer/director Paul WS Anderson doesn't get in the way of that. The entire film is loud, fast, and tweaked to emphasize (or de-emphasize) colors and tones accordingly. The editing is the same old 100mph flashy cuts and slow-motion lingering, especially when the female prisoners who act as the race navigators are bussed into the prison. In another film it would be tired, and maybe it is here, too, but I get the sense that this is exactly what DEATH RACE is aspiring to, and that kind of makes it okay. The cast seems to be having fun: Allen in particular, because I guess I just never pictured her doing a film like this. Ian McShane is the obligatory old guy who acts as chief of Statham's pit crew and quasi-mentor, and he's gleeful in the few choice moments he has.

The race itself is probably the best thing in the film: chances are you won't see another race this year that has this much car flipping, machine guns, spouts of flame or blood. This is where Anderson does some of his best work - say what you want about the guy (and man, after ALIEN VS. PREDATOR you have every right to), but the racing in this movie is spectacular. In a bloody, flame and bullets kind of way.

Ultimately, DEATH RACE rests on the shoulders of one tiny, ridiculously ripped bald dude, and Statham rises above whatever silliness the script requires of him. There's no denying he has an easy charm and charisma, but it's a shame that for every great role he gets (SNATCH, THE BANK JOB) he has to do a couple lesser pictures. This is a guy screaming to be used correctly; hopefully there'll be a few more meaty roles to stretch his range a bit.

Long story short: DEATH RACE is by no means a good movie, but it certainly is a fun movie, and probably worth the price of a rental, a couple of six packs and a group of friends to sit around and watch it.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Movie #15: Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008)

For all her fame, Scarlett Johansson doesn't really appear in a lot of popular movies. And when she does (NANNY DIARIES, HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU), they're typically pretty bad.

Use her correctly, though, and she's a charming presence who can more than hold her own in a scene. Woody Allen seems to know this, and also knows that having Johnasson as his Muse seems to have reinvigorated him. VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA is his best film in years, a return to the comedic drama that he did best in films like HANNAH AND HER SISTERS.

Vicky and Christina are best friends who have the opportunity to spend the summer with Vicky's aunt and uncle in Barcelona. Vicky (Rebbecca Hall, in what kind of passes for the Woody Allen role) is the logical, sound type, engaged to be married to a man she says is stable and successful. Christina is the passionate risk taker, and Johansson embodies her with a free spirit that is instantly alluring without being sleazy. Allen takes the Spanish city and films it with an intimacy that marks all of his New York films, and it becomes as much as character as the people who inhabit it. They go out to dinner and meet Javier Bardem, a painter who truthfully tells them he would like them to fly away with his for a weekend of food, art, and sex. Vicky is disgusted, Christina intrigued, and they go. What happens over the course of the weekend is surprising and just the beginning of two months of discovery about what its is each other believes they want and what they actually need.

All this and we don't even physically get to see Penelope Cruz until halfway through the picture. She is a constant presence, Bardem's ex-wife, who perhaps tried to kill her husband and has a history of mental illness. When she finally appears she is a whirlwind of emotion, and her influence on the lives of everyone take the film in some unexpected directions, least of all the much talked-about 3-way between Cruz, Bardem and Johnasson.

Woody Allen has been making great films for so many years, it shouldn't be a surprise that he can still pull it off so late in the game. But it is, and VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA is a wonderful film that shouldn't be missed.

Movie #14: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

I'm a little baffled by the critical backlash SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE seems to be getting. Roger Ebert, in his review of the movie and elsewhere has stated that, "it's now what a movie's about, but how it's about it." That statement defines the appeal of a movie like SLUMDOG. The story may be conventional in its subject matter (rags to riches, boy meets girl, loses girl, gets her back), but Danny Boyle's frenetic execution makes SLUMDOG a breathtaking experience.

By now the story has pretty much been told from every trailer, TV spot, and word of mouth since its opening: Jamal Malik, a poor tea server at a giant call center in Mumbai, India, appears on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and, in a stunning display quickly rises to 10,000,000 rupees. It's believed he somehow cheated, and is taken into custody where he undergoes torture and interrogation by the police. Over the course of this interrogation, Jamal takes us through his entire life and shows how the events that shaped it helped to answer the questions.

It's all more than a bit coincidental, but Boyle's not interested in reality per se, as least when it comes to the logic of the plot. What he is interested in is the visceral experiences of Jamal, his brother Salim, and the object of Jamal's heart, the beautiful and delicate Latika, set against a Mumbai never before presented in a mainstream film. His fills the screen with lush colors, his signature flashy editing and a pulsing, thunderous score that finds its soul in equal parts traditional Indian melodies and modern industrial noise. Their performances are all good, but Dev Patel as the modern day Jamal is a huge presence, and commands the screen whenever he's on.

Danny Boyle's look moves from picture to picture, and it's incredible that he can choose so many disparate genres (horror, sci-fi, family, drama) and make that style work for the film. If you don't like the pacing and digital flash of his films, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE might not change your mind. But the way it goes about presenting its subjects is a welcome diversion from the slow, uninspiring dramas that usually tackle this type of material.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Movie #13: Kung Fu Panda (2008)

The Great Catch-up of 2008 continues, this time with another DreamWorks' latest entry in an attempt to usurp the stranglehold Pixar has over animated features: KUNG FU PANDA. Far more modest in its ambittions than WALL-E, the drive of KUNG FU PANDA is to simply entertain; what message there is (essentially, "the answer is within you" or something to that effect) isn't exactly earth-shattering, but that means KUNG FU PANDA is free to focus on making things fast and fun, which it manages to accomplish in spades.

Jack Black plays Po, a rather large and dumpy panda bear (which is how all panda are, but there's something about Black's performance that accentuates this rather "roundness") who dreams of being a kung fu warrior, a master of the various disciplines like his idols, the Furious Five, each technique mirrored in the animal who wields it. Alas, in reality Po is merely a waiter in his father's (a stork, which is never explained, thereby making it even funnier) noodle shop, destined or doomed to learn his father's secret ingredient for noodle soup and eventually manage the restaurant. Trouble's a-brewin' though - evil Tai-Lung (a white tiger) has escaped imprisonment, and the time has come to select the Dragon Warrior, the one who is destined to be the greatest martial artist in the Valley. Against all probability, PO is chosen, and it's up to Master Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman with surprising depth) and the Furious Five to train and prepare Po for what's to come.

Brief aside: what the hell kind of animal was Dustin Hoffman?

The movie's pretty standard - no one like him at first, and tries to get him to quit. But Po's so likable and upbeat (this is Black's most winning performance since SCHOOL OF ROCK) that of course they eventually come around, and Shifu bonds with Po, and he learns that the power of the Dragon Warrior has always resided within himself. You can pretty much see where every beat in KUNG FU PANDA is going, but Hoffman and Black are so good in their roles that they carry the movie along with them. The animation isn't WALL-E quality, but it looks damn fine just the same, especially the drop-dead gorgeous 2-D animation that bookends the film. Slow-motion is also used to great comedic effect; I just finished Roger Ebert's book about Martin Scorsese, and he talks about how ground-breaking Scorsese's use of slow-motion has been to film. I wouldn't say the effect in PANDA is on the same level, but I do feel comfortable saying that whenever slow motion's applied in the movie, it made me laugh.

A few minor complaints - the Furious Five are really under-used. David Cross's Crane and Seth Rogan's Mantis get the most mileage. But it's a sin that Jackie Chan as the Monkey is barely utilized in the film. How do you have the guy who basically set the modern standard for martial arts comedy in your film and barely give him any moments?

Despite that, the fight scenes are very well done, and if you're looking for some flashy fun that doesn't require a lot of thinking, or you just want to remember how charming Jack Black can be, KUNG FU PANDA fits the bill.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Filling in the Blind Spots

We've all got 'em: those skeletons in the the cinephile's closet (and using the term cinephile makes me feel more than a little unsavory), those teeny little films we keep meaning to get to, but never do.

Things like GONE WITH THE WIND, which I didn't see until just a few years ago. You know, the obscure films.

I was thinking about that after reading Drew McWeeny's ruminations concerning the purpose of his blog over at Motion / Captured at HitFlix (for those not in the know, Drew was the great Moriarty over at Ain't It Cool News until he left for brighter waters). A couple of his thoughts seemed to dove-tail nicely into my own thoughts about how I want this blog to evolve. I mentioned in my first post that I had two over-arching goals:
  1. Improve my overall writing with regards to film criticism.
  2. Expand the breadth and scope of the films I see. I made a promise that for 2009 I would make every attempt to see as broad a range of films as possible, and try my damnedest to erase the enormous stockpile of DVDs I have lying around the house.
Embedded in the second item is catching up on those movies that seem to be required viewing for anyone who wants to claim to be a "cinephile" or even a "film buff" in like company. The problem is I've always been pretty resistant to people pushing stuff on me, especially when it comes with the tag of:

"You're not a real ________ unless you've seen ________."
(fill in your preferred term/film)

Time to "Man up" and admit it: There's a gaping hole in my film vocabulary that can't be completely explained away by things like scarcity or disinterest. I've been plugging those holes a few at a time, usually late at night so as to not cause a stir in the hen house that is my circle of friends/acquaintances I can discuss movies with. But in the interest of full disclosure I think I'll turn my education process into a monthly (to start) feature here at Celluloid Moon. Every month I'll take one movie and go into a little more detail than the general reviews that are posted, and talk about the film's impact both on the world of cinema and me personally.

Which, all things considered, is probably what every review should be like.

Looking back in January I think Jean-Luc Godard's BREATHLESS certainly fits the bill if not the overall format. I've already picked this month's choice, and I just wanted to add before you pass out at the fact that it's positively outrageous that I've never seen this, that if you have any suggestions or recommendations you'd like to see on this blog, whether it's a film to review or a discussion related however tangentially to film, let me know.

Okay. Enough procrastinating. This month's film: RAGING BULL

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Re-Evaluating 2008

Before I officially started this blog, I was posting all of my film-related items over on Geek Monkey, my general purpose little corner of the Interwebs. I posted two articles near the end of the year: my (Almost) and (Actual) Top 10 Movies of 2008. Now, I realize I don't yet have the cultivation or experience of many of the online critics (you probably won't hear me bemoan the lack of MY WINNIPEG on lists, because I haven't seen it, and that's not even considered much of an obscure film), but I feel pretty happy about what I pick, and won't back down on liking something because the critical consensus is against it.

However, the past month I've been trying to catch up on all films I've missed (a substantial amount), and it looks like the Top 10 list is going to have to be revised. For the record, here are my lists as they stood back at the end of the year.

The (Almost) Top Ten (crossed off films have subsequently been watched)
  1. THE WRESTLER
  2. DOUBT SHOTGUN STORIES
  3. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
  4. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN GRAN TORINO
  5. JCVD
  6. VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA
  7. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
  8. MAN ON WIRE ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
  9. SYNECDOCHE, NY
  10. A CHRISTMAS TALE
I have BENJAMIN BUTTON, SLUMDOG, and VICKY CHRISTINA at the house queued up and ready to go, which means that more films will hopefully be scratched out and replaced before the Independent Spirit Awards and the Oscars rear their head at month's end.

I'll save my final list for when I've satisfied myself that I've seen everything I can to make a proper evaluation, but for the record, here's the list as it stood back in December (nothing reviewed on this site had been seen at the time of the list). Explanations are in the original post:

The (Actual) Top Ten (in alphabetical order excepting the top)
  1. WALL-E and MILK (tie)
  2. THE DARK KNIGHT
  3. THE FALL
  4. FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL
  5. FROST / NIXON
  6. IN BRUGES
  7. IRON MAN
  8. THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES
  9. THE VISITOR
I'm backlogged three movies right now (only one of which is nominated for anything), but hope to have at least a dozen more films up and ready to go by the time we hit the awards. I realize this may appear slightly incongruous coming shortly on the heels of my remarks concerning Oscar Ennui, but if the various lists and award shows are good for anything, they're certainly great chances to become more exposed to films and experiences I otherwise wouldn't.

Your Homework: Watch one film from anyone's Best Of List you normally wouldn't have seen. What did you think?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Movie #12: The Mindscape of Alan Moore (2003)

Is it better to know the mechanics of the trick, or to simply be enthralled by what's in front of you?

I asked myself that because the question of magic comes up quite a bit in THE MINDSCAPE OF ALAN MOORE, a quasi-documentary that touches upon Moore's early years and rise as one of the most respected and gifted creators in the field of comics, but largely concerns itself with his personal beliefs and ideas about the nature of magic, art, and writing. His milestones are touched upon, and we even get a few glimpses of his own filmic envisions of Watchmen, V For Vendetta, and even a brief glimpse of John Constantine from Hellblazer (he originated the character in Swamp Thing, although never actually wrote an issue of Hellblazer). But the vast majority of his work isn't mentioned at all (Tom Strong, Top Ten, Promethea) or, if it is (Lost Girls, From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), it's only in passing reference.

All in all it's a pretty poor documentary - Moore seems to have had a very large hand in the shaping of the film, and as a result it feels manipulative in a way that none of his comic work does. I hesitate to recommend this to even die-hard fans (of which I consider myself a member) because of the question I asked myself at the beginning of this review. I came away knowing a lot more about the man who crafted some of my favorite stories, but felt the poorer for it. Maybe this is an isolated instance, but I suddenly feel very glad that Moore has nothing to do with his filmic adaptations, and that he's as reclusive as he is. All the better to simply soak up the wonderful words and not pay heed to the bearded man behind them.

Movie #11: Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (2008)

I love it when the title of a movie tells you all you need to know about it. So, the short version: it's about this guy Jack Brooks. He slays monsters. The end.

Okay. Let's move into the (slightly) longer version.

JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER wants to get at the heart of the mid 80s horror movies - specifically, EVIL DEAD 2. I don't think JACK BROOKS makes any bones about this - this is an old-fashioned practical effects monster movie, complete with bladders, hidden pockets of blood, and Robert Englund. It's also fairly well-acted, genuinely funny in parts, and sincere in what it wants to accomplish. There's none of the winking, self-indulgent "look at how cool we are" moments that plague other films' attempts (I'm looking at you, HATCHET and BEHIND THE MASK) to replicate the feel of those movies while trying to rise above it in a smug, self satisfied way.

The movie opens on a bunch of African natives being terrorized by a gigantic cyclops monster (yeah, already I'm into this movie). The survivors run to their village, where everyone generally panics and makes their way to a lone hut where, inside, we see a dread locked white guy calmly wrapping his scarred arm in preparation for battle.

But wait: how did this hero get here? The movie jumps back in time and shows us Jack as a child, out on a lovely camping trip with his parents when they're suddenly brutally murdered by a demon in the woods. No explanation: a crazy troll leaps out and kills both his parents. He runs away, and his shame and anger at not being to do anything to save his parents manifests itself in adulthood in sudden bursts of violence. Jack's trying, but life in a small town as a plumber and taking night courses with his obnoxious girlfriend isn't making things any easier for him. Fortunately for him, he'll have the chance to redeem himself when his college professor (Englund) accidentally digs up and ingests (yup, you read that right) the heart of a long buried demon, which transforms him into an enormous, tentacled monster capable of transforming his classmates into bloodthirsty devils.

A ton of credit goes to Trevor Matthews, who stars as Jack, had a hand in the writing, and also plays the troll. He makes the most of every scene, whether it's bashing the head of a devil in with a chemistry set or looking sheepish and unable to get a word in when his girlfriend berates him. And Robert Englund, so often relegated to bad cameos (he was the best thing about HATCHET, though) has the opportunity to have a blast with his role as the hapless professor and he makes full use of it, doling out the charm and the humor, getting the chance to perform a lot of physical comedy once he becomes "possessed" by the evil heart.

Director John Knautz does a lot with the little he's given (Africa looks suspiciously like Canada), making the most of an abandoned school for
much of the movie and shooting everything - monsters and drama alike - with an obvious fun. I wouldn't go out and say JACK BROOKS: MONSTER SLAYER is a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it does what few films have been able to accomplish in recent years: emulate what was good about horror movies back in the day without having to stab it in the back at the same time. Definitely worth a look if you're in the mood for some laughs.