Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review: Blood Simple.

Blood Simple. (1984) is the very first film by the prolific and talented filmmaking entity known as the Coen Brothers. It sets the framework for just about every film they have made hence, both cinematically and story-wise. 
The story is the sort that has become the Coens' trademark; it is a simple tale that becomes complicated by misunderstanding and the inherent stupidity of the central characters. Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand, the quiet, sane center of the picture) are lovers, but Abby is married to Marty (Dan Hedaya, menacing and slightly Nixonesque), Ray's boss, who wants them dead, and hires a private eye (M. Emmett Walsh, in a role that would define his career) to off them. Some hesitation and panicking later, the wrong people are dead and things begin to spin gloriously off the rails.
Though made on a small budget by new filmmakers, Blood Simple. is masterfully shot and cut. The Coens show us only what needs be seen to tell the story. This is narrative filmmaking in it's purest form. The screen is dripping with dynamically lit close ups and insert shots. The virtuosity and economy of the cinematography and editing should be studied by any filmmaker, both aspirant and veteran.  
Blood Simple. is like a Tom Waits song. It bases it's universe around the down and out, the muling, simple creature of the American West, just trying to make sense of a very confusing world. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Not about movies, but important

Neko Case is very concerned about animals. The critically acclaimed singer and songwriter, whose last album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood has sold more than 200,000 copies in the U.S., informed us that she and her record label, ANTI-,would donate $5 for every blog that posts the song and $1 for every time a user of iLike adds the song to his or her profile. 
Her new album (pictured) comes out in March.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) is the thinking man's Forrest Gump (indeed, the two films were penned by the same screenwriter, Eric Roth). It is a quietly tragic tale of one man's very unique journey through the 20th Century. 
Directed to near perfection by David Fincher, the film is not only a well crafted fairy tale, but also a meditation on age and the unrelenting passage of time. Based upon a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Button follows the titular character from his birth as an elderly infant on through to his death in a similar state. This breadth of material explains the film's near 3-hour running time, and causes things to become a bit unwieldy now and then. There is a framing gimmick involving Daisy (Benjamin's love interest, played by Cate Blanchett with her usual elfin grace) upon her death bed, recounting to her daughter the tale of Benjamin Button. This element wouldn't be so bothersome if it didn't cut into the proper film so much; each time it does, it's like cold water dowsing a soothing flame. Apart from this, the film is nearly flawless.
Conjured with the same meticulous beauty as most other Fincher films, Button crafts a golden vision of the 20th century that is both nostalgic and authentically real. The camera lingers on just the right detail at just the right time; a character's expression or the cresting sunrise. The cinematography is immaculate and delicious. 
Paramount among the films qualities, however, is the acting. Taraji P. Henson brings just the right amount of tenderness and wisdom to the role of Queenie, Benjamin's surrogate mother, to keep it from lapsing into caricature. Tilda Swinton is watchable as always as a British aristocrat who carries on a short affair with Benjamin. 
On parallel double duty are Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt as fated lovers Daisy and Benjamin. This is their film; all other players, while skillful, are here only to shepherd these two through the story.
This film displays some of the finest age work in the history of cinema. The practical make up is subtle and convincing, but more importantly the performances are spot on. Blanchett especially manages to capture decrepit old age surprisingly well for a woman of only 39; her eyes take on just the right kind of weariness, her voice is wise and aching to just the right degree. She takes Daisy on a bittersweet journey from young adulthood to middle age right on through to death's door. 
Similarly, Brad Pitt gives maybe his greatest (definitely his subtlest) performance. He is tasked with first giving a digital performance for the film's initial third. Much akin to the method that brought Gollum to life in The Lord of the Rings, Pitt had his face recorded by a computer and then pasted onto older and shorter actors to realize Benjamin as an elderly looking child. This might be the finest example yet of this very new technique, and it is very much the focus of first part of the film. But once Pitt takes on full acting responsibilities, providing not only his face but this whole, real body, Benjamin becomes the quiet little center that the noisy universe of the film revolves around. Pitt's work in this film confirms what I've suspected for awhile - that he is in fact a character actor in a leading man's body. 
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is cinematically melodic. It is not only the thinking man's Forrest Gump, it is the anti-Gump. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Review: "3:10 to Yuma" (2007)

"3:10 to Yuma" (2007) might be the first real 21st-century Western. The performances are complex and pathological, the production design is gritty and realistic, and the cinematography is artistically kinetic. Granted, it is not the first Western to be made this century, but it feels like the first of it's ilk that is indicative of 00's film making. 
It should be noted that I have never seen the original "3:10 to Yuma" (1957), so if you are looking for a comparison of the two films, this is not the place. The modern film is based not only on the 1957 screenplay, but also upon the 1953 short story. 
Dan Evans (Christian Bale), is a wounded Civil War veteran living on the frontier with his wive and two kids. They owe more money than they have, and the current drought is worsening matters. Evans sets off into town to settle his debts when he crosses paths with Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a middle aged gang leader who's looking to get out of the thug life. This is the second time the two of them encounter each other in as many hours, as Evans had stumbled upon Wade's latest stagecoach heist in progress earlier that day. Wade is arrested, and Evans volunteers to escort him to the prison train, the titular 3:10 to Yuma. And so the film becomes a road picture. 
Among its many stellar qualities, the acting is far and away the best element of "3:10 to Yuma". Leading the pack is Crowe's reflective posse leader, a portrayal that is perhaps the most quietly naturalistic in any western that this reviewer has seen (I have not seen many). This is not a good guy; he shoots a member of his own crew to keep the rest in line, and he repeatedly tries to escape from captivity on the road to the train station. He is not, however, the villain of the piece (that role is filled insanely by Ben Foster [pictured]). Wade might have been a good man had life dealt him a different hand. There is a gentleness to him under all those years of crime in the wild west, and he is beginning to embrace it. 
Playing exact opposites of the morality spectrum are Bale and Foster, the latter of whom dives into the role of Wade's fanatical right hand man with firebrand precision. His Charlie Prince is the very definition of loyalty taken over the edge of sanity into the chasm of deranged, single-minded evil. He wantonly shoots civilians, burns people alive, all in the name of freeing his beloved Ben Wade. Bale's Dan Evans, on the other hand, is a good man just trying provide for this family. His performance is gritty and real, as always, but he is only here to act as mirror for Crowe's Ben Wade. 
Rounding out the main cast are Alan Tudyk as the town doctor, Logan Lerman as Evans' eldest son, and an unrecognizable Peter Fonda as a grizzled veteran bounty hunter. Like Bale, but to perhaps even more of an extent, they are only here to help tell Ben Wade's story. This really is Russell Crowe's film, and he rides off into the sunset with it. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Review: "Encounters at the End of the World"

Antarctica. The last continent to be discovered by man is a strange and beautiful place, as "Encounters at the End of the World" (2007) shows so exceptionally. Directed by master documentarian Werner Herzog, this film continues his career long fascination with nature. The plot is simple: Herzog boards a giant military plane bound for Antarctica, and, upon arrival at it's largest settlement (which is not even a square mile in area), goes about capturing the day to day lives of some of the 1000 people who live there. These most southerly of travelers originate all over the place - America, Russia, Chile. One of them explains their presence this way: these people are not tied down, so they end up dropping to the bottom of the world - Antarctica.
Guided by Herzog's omnipresent, Bavarian-accented narration, the film quickly moves out of the camp and into the interior of the continent. We are first treated to a hilarious safety exercise involving white buckets as headgear, but then things start to soar. First we meet seal researchers, living and working in a tiny cabin upon a frozen lake. It is here the audience is treated to one of the most hauntingly beautiful sounds in all the natural world. Then it is off to visit some daring vulcanologists, and finally an introverted penguin researcher. 
The cinematography is the definition of gorgeous (especially the underwater footage), and the multicultural soundtrack is serene and perfectly complimentary to the images. 
"Encounters at the End of the World" is failed by mere words. It must be seen to be fully understood. In many of Werner Herzog's films, there is an underlying sense that the filmmaker is searching for something. I don't know if he found it with this film, but he comes closer than ever before. 

Monday, January 12, 2009

TV Review: "24 - four hour premiere: part 1"

Holy shit!!! Ok, ok, ok. Alright. So, the opening scene, I mean the very first thing we see in the premiere episode of the long awaited 7th season of "24", is this shluby looking guy driving young daughter somewhere, I don't know where. But they're just having innocent father-daughter time when (cut to an angle out the side window) they get freakin' t-boned by some big, black van! And the guy is like "oh my god, my innocent little daughter! Are you okay?!" and she's like "AHHHH!!! DADDY!!!". And then another big, black van hits them from behind! At, like, 50 mph! and the girl is like "OMG, how am I still alive?!" And then these terrorist-y looking dudes jump out of the vans and snatch the dad, and he's like "oh snap, I'm being fuckin' kidnapped! This must be because I am the only person on the planet who knows how to reprogram some gadget that protects the entire power grid, air traffic control grid, and defense grid for the United States!!" 
While this is going down, Jack Bauer (who is Jesus wrapped in Batman couched within ten thousand Supermans) is at the capitol taking some shit from some jack-off senator (who is probably a liberal. Fucking liberals.) So this guy is like "Mr. Bauer, you tortured this one terrorst, like, a million years ago. Don't feel bad about this?" And Jack just looks at him and says "No. I saved people by torturing that towelhead." And pinko senator is like "but you hurt that guy real good." But then Agent Renee Walker (pictured), the greatest human female every created, comes in and is like "I need Jack Bauer", and Jack is like "thank Me, an excuse to leave." So he books it with Agent Super Fox. "Suck it, Congress!"
So they go back to the FBI office, which is basically a stand in for the defunct CTU, and Agent Goddess Face says to Jack "your old buddy Tony Almeida, who you thought was dead, is not only alive but also a terrorist." And Jack is like "I don't believe any part of what you just said." But then Agent Fire Freckles is like, "Ya, rly. See, here's a picture of him." And Jack looks at he's like "No way! He even has the menacing terrorist face and everything." And Agent Thunder Thighs is like "You help us catch him now?" and he's like "Sure. My life is pretty empty anyways." 
Meanwhile at the White House, the new lady president is meeting with her peeps, and she's like "Oh shit, there's this crazy dictator in some fake African country the writers made up, and he's genociding all these people. We gotta stop him." And everyone is like "Okay", except for this one guy, but then the president is like "Agree with me or you fired," and then he says okay, too. Also, there's the obligatory presidential family drama that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. What. Ever. 
So Jack and Agent Sunset Eyes go to talk (just talk) to this guy that might be supplying Terrorist Tony (Jack still can't quite fucking believe it). I don't want to spoil anything else from this point on, but there is terror in the skies, federal agent infighting (the best kind of infighting), and Jack Bauer running around shooting at things with Agent Amber Hair Hot Stuff. 
Only two episodes in, and this is already way better than that shitty season 6. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: "Chaplin"

I must make it known from the outset that I have a weakness for films about film making. "Chaplin" (1992)is one of these. As the title suggests, it is the life story of Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the most famous star of the silent film era. 
We begin, naturally, at the beginning. Chaplin is a small child living in London's East End in the 1890's, enduring quite the Dickensian existence. His single mother just barely supports him and his older brother with vaudeville work, although it quickly becomes clear that young Charlie is far more talented in this arena than his she. Fast forward several years, and Charlie is making a name for himself on the London vaudeville stage after a painful episode wherein he must commit his mother to an insane asylum. Chaplin is quickly noticed by a producer from Hollywood, and he is invited to California. It is at a small movie studio where he discovers the fledgling form of magic that is film making. 
Far and away the best aspect of "Chaplin" is Robert Downey Jr.'s immersive and charismatic performance as the title character. His cockney accent is spot on (as far as this American can tell), and he perfectly captures Chaplin's onscreen persona. He is truly The Tramp incarnate. 
The film is competently, if not inspirationally, directed by Lord Richard Attenborough, who was also responsible for the biopic "Gandhi, but most people will know him as the Dinosaur entrepreneur in "Jurassic Park". Lord Attenborough's real strength as a director seems to be coaxing authentic yet entertaining performances from his actors, a talent that is on full display here. 
As with many biopics, especially those that cover the entire breadth of a person's life, "Chaplin" lacks a real clean focus, other than, of course, Chaplin's life. There are certain threads that weave throughout the picture, such as his affairs with and marriages to much younger women, and J. Edgar Hoover's quest to prove Chaplin to be a communist. The film is made up of a number of quite insightful and entertaining moments (not the least of which involve Chaplin on the sets of his films), but it never really adds up to anything in the end. I speak of the cinematic sense of an end, in that the conclusion of the film deposits us somewhere we were not when the thing began. 
There is a framing gimmick that all these scenes are couched within, which takes the form of an elderly Charlie Chaplin revising his memoirs with his editor. This only serves to take us out of the film, but it endeared me to the director somewhat when I discovered that this gimmick and the related ending were foisted upon him at the last minute by the backers. 
I recommend "Chaplin" to fan's of: biopics, Robert Downey Jr., period pieces, or anyone with an interest in film making and/or film history. Perhaps the reason I have a special affinity for films about film making, especially those concerned with the start of the industry, is that they have as their subject the very thing to which they owe their existence. 

Friday, January 2, 2009

Review: "Bound for Glory"

"Bound for Glory" (1976) follows Woody Guthrie (an uncanny and beautifully understated David Carradine) as he rides the rails, from his home in Texas, to California in 1936. He has left his wife and children behind in search of better fortunes out west, but, while he manages to escape the Dust Bowl, he cannot elude the Great Depression.
Rewinding just a bit, our story starts out in northern Texas, in a very small, dust ravaged town. Woody spends his days picking at his guitar, writing songs, and occasionally making a few dollars here and there painting signs. This first section of the film floats by quietly, and serves to show a small town boy who will soon transform into the voice of the working man. He is friendly and helpful to everyone he meets, simply by his nature. This, and the music that just drips out of him like a leaky fosset, are the first two ingredients that help turn Woody Guthrie the man into Woody Guthrie the folk hero. 
The film, directed by Hal Ashby, feels like a documentary, what with the handheld, under lit camerawork and no evident makeup upon the actors' faces. It is in fact quite a tome for Steadicam enthusiasts, as it contains some brilliant examples of the technology when it was still in it's fetal stages. There are sustained tracking shots following Woody thro
ugh shanty towns, that lend themselves to the documentarian aesthetic of the picture. Some of the most exhilarating single shots depict our hero jumping onto and off of moving trains, where it is also clear that Carradine did his own stunt work. 
Shot on location in San Fernando Valley, California, "Bound for Glory" is perhaps one of the most realistic and authentic films about the Great Depression, or any era. It is certainly about this period in American history just as much as, if not more than, the formation of a famous musician. Indeed, we are taken on a tour of the era, with Woody Guthrie as our surrogate. Yes, some of the standard music biopic drama does crop up, but the film merely glides over these scenes, acknowledging them, while making clear that this man's life is not the focus, it is instead what he saw. 
This film would make a good double bill with "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004), as both tell the story of how a 20th century icon was shaped by bearing witn
ess to the suffering of his people.