Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reviews of "TRUE GRIT" and "SOMEWHERE"

Two Holiday releases reviewed.

There are times when those gifts under the tree look a lot more exciting than they turn out to be once unwrapped. This season, we have two films that looked amazing in their gift paper, and once viewed became varying degrees of disappointment. I’ll start with the film that was like getting a Mexican Strat when you thought it was going to be a Les Paul. Then I’ll follow with the cashmere sweater that turned out to be socks.

“TRUE GRIT”

As my friend Michael said, “even mediocre Coen Brothers is 10 times better than the other garbage getting released.” This is the case for “True Grit”, a film I couldn’t wait to see. It IS better than most of the films I have seen in the theaters lately, but it’s really not going to be considered one of the Coen’s greatest.

At the center of the film is unknown Hailee Steinfeld, who is in every scene of the film. Her charcter, Maddie Ross is expertly drawn, and her performance is at times wholly engrossing and believeable, and at other times straight out amateurish. There are scenes in which Maddie’s obstinacy and determination are perfectly captured, and then moments when Ms. Steinfeld rushes the dialogue so that it sounds like a high school drama production. The other performances are all letter perfect, including a drawling Jeff Bridges’ very different take on Rooster Cogburn, Josh Brolin’s dunce of a bad guy in Tom Cheney, and particularly effective is Matt Damon’s foppish but somewhat heroic Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf.

Roger Deakins’ camera is again the main star of this film; landscapes change, but the picture remains exquisite regardless—he is Edward Weston with an Arriflex. The Coen’s have also taken great pains to recreate the florid dialogue and speech mannerisms of the era. Pacing, sets, costumes and cutting are all flawless. The brothers’ attention to detail is something we are all spoiled by and accustomed to.

Yet the film itself is a good old-fashioned oater, melodramatic and linear. Whereas “No Country for Old Men” reinvented the “drug deal gone wrong” sub-genre, with an unforgettable villain, and violence that decreases in graphic representation as the film evolves, “True Grit” stays unerringly true to the Western, with the simple twist that the toughest guy out there is a 14 year old girl.

“SOMEWHERE”

I am a big fan of “Lost In Translation”, writer/director Sofia Coppola’s second feature, a film that had an original tone, and treated the “outsider” theme with a gentle yet comic treatment. The strength of the movie was in Bill Murray’s rare, understated performance, and Ms. Coppola’s juxtaposition of Murray’s calm persona and the hyper world of modern day Tokyo. Unfortunately everything that was so successful in that film, fails miserably in her newest release, “Somewhere”.

The opening alone is worth discussing. A static camera watches about 1/8th of a deserted racing car loop, as a black Ferrari tears around, time and again. You hear the sound, but you only see a small part of the racing. This goes on for what seems like the better part of 10 minutes. It’s surely much shorter than that, but it FEELS much longer. This is the overall story-telling method employed for the entire film. Scenes that you are used to taking a certain time to run, take about twice as long. Ms. Coppola is telling the audience, “This is my chosen form of communication today. Deal with it.”

The story is of an actor (Stephen Dorff) at the height of his fame, who lives at a hotel for the rich and famous, drinks, screws and does drugs, virtually wasting his gifts and money in an aimless life-style. His estranged wife dumps their daughter into his life, and he must re-examine his way of being. THERE. That’s it. There is no funny dialogue, no clever plot device to help the two meld, basically nothing but the two characters doing nothing of interest. Oh yes, and tons of footage that should have ended up on the cutting room floor, rendering the film about 25 minutes long. If she had used this method while making “Lost In Translation”, the karaoke scene would have had each song performed in it’s entirety, lasting about an hour.

In one particularly enraging scene, the static camera focuses on our “hero”, Johnny Marco, sitting on a couch, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. Nothing happens but that. 5 minutes of that. If you were in the room, you might have broken up the tedium with, “Hey Johnny, how about those Dodgers?” It’s like Ms. Coppola saw a bunch of Ozu films, and said, “I’d like to make a movie like that, only with uninteresting characters”. When Marco and his daughter, Cleo (played realistically by Elle Fanning) fly to Milan for a promotional appearance, MY daughter turned to me and whispered, “I’m surprised they didn’t just show them sitting on the plane for 5 minutes”.

There are occasional paeans to great filmmakers; a strange woman removes her bikini top for Johnny from a nearby terrace, looking more grotesque than appealing—it is an unmistakable Fellini reference. The “nothing happens” of Antonioni is also part of the film’s fabric. If this is neo-neo-realism, I want no part of it.

Mr. Dorff’s performance is one-note, but that is not his fault. Ms. Coppola dominates this film as if she were training the camera on herself throughout. The desired effect of the slug-like pacing is to force the audience to go inside the heads of the characters. This never happens. Most of the time you are thinking to yourself, “when will this scene/movie be over so I can have something stimulating happen, or listen to someone say something of interest”, none of which goes on in this movie.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rickie Lee Jones, Live at the Birchmere in Arlington, VA

12/7/10

On a frigid night in early December, one of the great singer/songwriters of American music played a show featuring the entire contents of her first 2 LP’s. For people of a certain age, recordings are meant to be heard this way; in their entirety. Actually, I had these records on cassette, and mostly listened to them on my Walkman while on tour. The second LP, “Pirates” holds a particular place in my personal pantheon. It was one of the few pop records of which I never grew tired. Every listen seemed to offer a new revelation.

Ms. Jones’ influence on pop culture should not be understated. Her look, her drawly singing style, her edgy lyrics and soulful grooves permeated hipster society in the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s. Street urchin chic, is how I classified it. Musically, she is the offspring of Laura Nyro and Bruce Springsteen, but she is nonetheless her own creation.

The show began with her biggest hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love”, a clever turn on the grown up tom-boy who hangs with the guys but never gets one. Ms. Jones’ vocals still have the cutting high belt that is her signature, and in this song her unintelligible diction was at it’s most cryptic. The band was nice and groovy right from the start. Remarkable too was the restrained sound level; no earplugs were needed. The material on Rickie Lee’s first LP is much less challenging than “Pirates”, and the band seemed to have an easier time with it. Missing however, were the amazing high harmony parts mostly sung by Ms. Jones on the recordings. Probably not in the financial cards, but a couple of female backup singers would have really helped.

Some of the highlights from the first half of the show were “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963”, “Coolsville”, which featured the unmistakable cat wail of guitar and vocals, “Danny’s All-Star Joint” on which the band really glowed, and “Company”, a great jazz ballad. Ms. Jones preceded the performance of this song with a disclaimer, mostly about her inability to play along with it. Curiously , she seemed to struggle much more with the vocals on this complex piece. Throughout the show she spent a lot of energy on tempo changing, much to the band’s chagrin. It seemed like someone who has spent a lot of time touring solo, and expecting the band to follow her every whim. During the rubato bridge of “Weasel and The White Boys Cool”, you could tell the band was at sea trying to follow her quixotic phrasing.

As she embarked on “Pirates”, it seemed she was getting a little crabby. After a moving rendition of “We Belong Together”, her most Springsteen-ish work, Ms. Jones berated the audience for being unresponsive, which was far from the truth. “Lackadaisical” was the term used, and it worked, the crowd ratcheted up their response from thereon out. The weakest performance of the night was “Living it Up”, and with good reason. It is a very difficult piece, with multiple groove changes. The original recording is miraculous, I doubt if any live version could be its equal. Rickie Lee grew somewhat angered at the band at this point. I believe “cranky” was the word that sprung to mind. Before a stirring version of what she referred to as the saddest of all songs, "Skeletons", Ms. Jones admitted that she got a bit testy at the piano, blaming it on acid flashbacks and indiscretions of her youth. It seemed a bit like an apology. After "Skeletons", she adjusted the song order to make it more show-like; rather than end with downers like the jazzy but dark "Traces of the Western Slopes" and the quietly reflective "The Returns", Ms. Jones omitted the latter altogether, placing the crowd-pleasing "Woody and Dutch" at the end of the show, and smartly so. The song that launched a hundred Pepsi and McDonald's ads, worked it's magic with the audience, and their rousing response elicited what Ms. Jones said was their first encore of the tour, which turned out to be "Satellites" from the album Flying Cowboys.

The fear that the years, which have been so unkind to many of her generation, would have undone Rickie Lee Jones' sound, style and ability to evoke powerful emotions were quite unfounded. This 2-sider show was immensely moving and entertaining, and Ms. Jones proves why she is still a unique talent, and a treasure of American music.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Top 20 Films of the 00's

My heroes at Filmspotting are doing this, so I figured I'd chip in with my own personal list. My requirements were; a) They had to be a movie I would want to see again, b) They were movies I didn't stop thinking about, c) They were enetertaining and meaningul, d) They were highly original in concept and/or execution.


1) Adaptation: I am a man who loves movies about movies. This is my favorite in how it tricks you into succumbing to formula while ridiculing the process. Brilliant!
2) Capote: The best single performance of the 00's doesn't overshadow the handling of the subject matter, which is beautifully paced and artfully shot. The subject of art and morality is as deep as it gets.
3) Sideways: This film spoke to me about people and relationships in a highly personal way. I can't think of any film that has done it better.
4) No Country For Old Men: Simply put, the reason I love the movies. Memorable scenes, relentless tension.
5) Let The Right One In: The best monster movie I have ever seen.
6) Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind: Inventive, entertaining, heartfelt.
7) Brick: I wasn't expecting this genre-twister, and it completely dazzled me. You don't need to empty Fort Knox to make a great film.
8) Man On Wire: Probably my favorite documentary. Well maybe 2nd to Thin Blue Line.
9) Memento: What an amazing job of reverse story-telling and suspense. Truly one-of-a-kind.
10) Cache: I still can't stop thinking about this film and what it means, or at least what I THINK it means. The only other film that has done that to me I can recall was "2001".
11) A Serious Man: Very personal for me. This is my people they are talking about. I think it will be considered a classic someday.
12) Inglourious Basterds: A couple of flawed scenes prevent this from being number 1. But, damn, it is GOOD.
13) Knocked Up: Just great filmmaking- one of the best rom-coms in memory.
14) Zodiac: So much better than Button or Fight Club, I think it is Fincher's masterpiece.
15) 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days: Not higher on the list because it is excruciating. Amazing, moving, brilliant, but also excruciating.
16) Almost Famous: A bit light-weight for me, but still some of the best scenes in movie history. Plus I have a big problem deifying mediocre rock and roll.
17) City of God: See what I said about "4 Months". Probably the best paced movie I have ever seen.
18) The Lives of Others: A movie that shows the difficulties encountered when one person tries to dehumanize another. Powerful across the board: subject matter, performances, direction.
19) Juno: I hate that this movie's era-specificity now makes it much maligned. It's fun, funny, moving, extremely well-acted and directed.
20) Ghost World: : Unforgettably funny and poignant, it is a treatise on the role of misfits and how they cope.

Honorable Mentions: Synechdoche, NY; The Brothers Bloom, The Visitor, 25th Hour, Talk To Her, 40 Year Old Virgin, Goodbye Solo, Pan's Labyrinth, Mulholland Drive, There Will Be Blood, High Fidelity, Up, About Schmidt, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up In The Air, Milk, A History of Violence, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, The Departed, The Hurt Locker, The Station Agent.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wayne's Top 10 Movies of 2009

That I've seen, of course!

2009 was a great year for movies. I don't think there was anything that will crack my top 50 all time, but there might be some intruders into the 100.

1) Inglourious Basterds

Are you a film fanatic? Guess what? I am. Same with Tarantino. It shows in his devotion to the B Movie genre, and his love for film referencing in just about everything he writes, directs and acts. Nothing he has made shows more fondness for the cinema than "Basterds". It is a love letter to the medium, a phenomenal pastiche of different influences combining to make an entirely new sub-genre. Riffing on Films, I think I'll call it. It's like listening to Bud Powell, and hearing touches of Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, Chopin and Duke Ellington all blending to make a new style of bop piano. You've got; classic WWII melodrama, Hitchcock-ian suspense and bad guys, blaxploitation narration, a revenge plot as over-the-top as "Old Boy". All the performances are brilliant, and the cutting and pacing are expertly handled. Even the presence of Brad Pitt as a comic book platoon leader lends some real toughness and comedy to the proceedings. He does not bring the film down as he did in "Benjamin Button". Melanie Laurent is a find, she is both beautiful and very moving. However, the real star of the film is Christoph Walz, His name seems to be missing some letters, but never mind. His portrayal of the "Jew Hunter" Col. Landa is probably the most complex and interesting evil-doer you will ever see on screen. Hitchcock's bad guys from "Saboteur" and "The 39 Steps" come to mind, but neither are played to the extent that they overtake the good guys in audience fascination. This can only be said for maybe Walz's Landa, and Heath Ledger's Joker from "The Dark Knight".

2) Up In The Air

The parts may be slightly greater than the sum in this very courant movie. There are some scenes that are bound to become classics, and nothing falls short, except that there really is no message. Well, yes, there is that little thing about how easy the modern world has made it to be happily disconnected from everything, including your loved ones. We are all quite aware of this point, but like global warming, we probably need to be reminded of it from time to time, and to realize just how damaging it has become. Like global warming, this film doesn't offer a solution that is realistic, but that in itself is realism. One of the scenes destined for immortality is the Bogey/Bacall homage in the hotel bar, where the two corporate travelers compare their mileage status with less than subtle sexual overtones. The referenced scene is from Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep", wherein the metaphorical matter is horse-racing. As for the cast, Anna Kendrick is pitch perfect, and was probably cast due to her tour-de-force role in the vastly underrated and under-viewed "Rocket Science". But truly the performance of Vera Farmiga is the central stunner in this movie. She more than GETS the character; she creates a deep, subtle and credible presence in a part that could have been something far less. George Clooney is perfectly cast. His chops are improving, and his looks don't get in the way as they did in "Michael Clayton". Jason Reitman is developing into a first-rate actor's director, and his subject matter is beginning to show the signs of an auteur.

3) A Serious Man

AKA "No Country for Jews". Huh? Besides the minds behind them, what possibly can these two films have in common? How about the central message of the random cruelty and the meaninglessness of existence? Obviously the Coens have developed a true auteur's (that word again) visual and editing style. Their films all contain similar acting and dialogue. Yet now the message is becoming part of the ouvre. With their last 4 pictures, the Coens are hitting us hard with 2 central topics;
1) Life sucks, and
2) People are incompetent.
There is a 3rd message emerging; God is not going to help you out. In fact, he might be out to get you, too. That message is pounded home in "A Serious Man", and quite effectively. The movie is very personal for me; I was bar-mitzvahed the same year as Danny Gopnik, 1968. He is listening to the same music I listened to, is obsessed with the show "F Troop" as was I, and his friends remind me of mine. His locale is quite different than mine, I was raised in New York City. My parents had long broken up, whereas his are fragmenting while the story develops. Those differences being noted, he seems blithely indifferent to the central issues, as I am sure was I. In a way, I am both Danny, and his father Larry, in that now, I fully identify with Larry's sense of hopless abandonment, and with the Coen's 2, no 3 major messages. You can't count on people, you can't count on God, you can't really count on anything. So stop counting on stuff. What good is it doing you? I couldn't stop thinking about this movie for a week after seeing it. When the police come for Larry's brother, he yells "But I didn't DO anything!" Ohhhhh, how I identify, Uncle Arthur.
Did I mention how hysterically funny it was? I feel that this is one of those Coen films like "The Big Lebowski", that will go from well-liked up to cult status, and eventually become a classic of modern cinema.
One word about the performances; stellar, from the top down, and Michael Stuhlbarg absolutely nails his role.

4) The Brothers Bloom

I seem to be alone in my reverence for this film, but at least I know my daughter Dana, with whom I saw Bloom, agrees that Rian Johnson has continued with as strong a film as his debut, "Brick". Johnson is a genre deconstruction artist it seems. "Brick" was '40's Film Noir stuck in a contemporary High School, with all the usual characters and dialogue much more at home in the genre than the locus or period. "Bloom" is a con-artist story, but re-imagined and placed inside a contemporary indie/quirky shell. Usually, that shell is many film's undoing. Progenitors of the style, like Wes Anderson, have seen efforts fall flat, "The Royal Tennenbaums" coming to mind. There's got to be laughs and true unpredictability for it to work. Johnson accomplishes both with "Bloom", plus he manages to add suspense and romance to the package. Performances by Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo are fine, but wholly overshadowed by the two main women, Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi. Weisz fully masters a very difficult part; she must be innocent, brainy, sexy, plucky and comic all at the same time. It is, I feel, Oscar-worthy. Kikuchi is given an impish Harpo Marx-like character, challenging enough, but she plays it for laughs perfectly. The cons themselves are well thought out, but if the film has a flaw, it is in the rather soupy ending.

5) The Hurt Locker

Director Kathryn Bigelow seems to understand men on a level that no other female director has. She gets men the way John Sayles gets women, with truth, reverence and perspective. This is her finest film by far. Not only are the pacing and suspense on the very highest level, but also the hand-held camera is used to it's utmost. When the soldiers are looking around to see if there are insurgents lurking, you (the camera, I mean) are also swinging around quickly to scan. It is immensely effective, and makes you feel like you are as much in danger as the soldiers themselves. She doesn't get bogged down in the details of bomb-defusing, in the politics of the war, or even in the inherent goodness or badness of the characters. It's all about courageous men in dangerous situations, the adrenaline rush of it, the pain of loss, the immediate gratification, the competitive urge. Jeremy Renner is amazing in the lead role of bomb-defuser. His performance could have been one-dimensional, and the film would still have been very good. Instead, he is remarkably nuanced, and it elevates the movie to brilliance.

6) Goodbye Solo

I have a friend who found the relationships and motivations in this film unbelievable. The truth is, if you don't buy into the characters, then this is a waste of time. I, on the other hand, found the two lead roles and the performers wholly realistic. Ramin Bahrani is truly an auteur ala the great Rohmer. His subject matter and style are very uniform. The subject matter is the lives of recent American immigrants, the style is hyper-realism. In "Solo", you've got a man nearing the end of his life, filled with hopelessness, and another man at the crucial juncture of his life, still hopeful and trying not to give in to the crush of reality. Solo feels that if he can give this old man a reason to continue on, then he himself will be bolstered in his fight to make it. His motivation is to save his own dreams, which are slowly being eroded. Both lead actors, Souleymane Sy Savane and Red West do a convincing job of turning a unique situation into something that seems very probable. Basically, my friend is an idiot.

7) Moon

I miss this kind of sci-fi. Films and books like "Moon" are what got me interested in the genre. What had recently killed it for me are the huge blockbusters and comic book movies that seem to permeate the medium nowadays. Even when a sci-fi doesn't lean heavily on effects, it feels like there has to be some kind of extra nonsense, like Danny Boyle's "Sunshine", with it's monster movie climax. Suspense, apparently, is not enough to carry a modern space flick. I beg to differ. "Moon" is an example of how to beautifully control pace and tension without bombarding the viewer with big time and big money effects. It works the way Tarkovsky's "Solaris" worked, the way "Alien" worked, the way the original "Day The Earth Stood Still" worked.
Tour de Force acting by Sam Rockwell and a very simple but original plot give a huge boost to this taut effort.Duncan Jones is a major new talent, I am looking forward to future works by him.

8 ) 500 Days of Summer

Here’s the pitch; It’s a romantic comedy, a chick flick, but from the guy’s point of view. He’s got quirky friends, she’s beautiful with a fun sense of humor and style. He’s kind of goofy, but has his good points. Oh yeah, it’s told all out of order, so that things they did that were fun at the beginning of the affair are juxtaposed with the same moments falling flat as the relationship deteriorates. Yes, I am talking about “500 Days of Summer”, but I could also be pitching “Annie Hall”. There are so many similarities between the two films that I stopped counting. I found it curious that neither host Jeff Goldsmith nor Screenwriter Scott Neustatder mentioned the Woody Allen masterwork when discussing “500 Days” on the Creative Screenwriting podcast. There are some great original moments; springing to mind are the Hall and Oates musical scene, and the fantasy vs. reality party scene. It’s stylish, touching, funny and altogether a charming bit of filmmaking. Just like "Annie Hall".

9) Sugar

Here's the pitch....knuckle curveball and a beauty. This may be the finest baseball movie since Bull Durham. It certainly gets so many things right that most baseball flicks miss. It's almost as if Ron Shelton and Ramin Bahrani co-directed. Shelton understood the Minors and the combination of desire and talent that a player needs to make the Bigs. Bahrani understands the lure of capitalism- the promise of success and it's appeal to the 3rd world. There is no get rich quick scheme more appealing than pro sports, and no poorer place that develops pros better than the DR. Sugar (the character) is the embodiment of so many young players in Latin America and the Caribbean. He has talent, but his desire is not tantamount. He bails on his career at the first obstacle, and with good reason. He is not driven, not compelled. Sugar (the film) is at it's best in the camps of the Dominican Republic. The language classes and the scouting combines have an honesty you'd never find on the MLB Network. Can I also mention the fact that these guys really look like they are playing ball. Is that too much to ask? Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the same team that brought us "Half Nelson", "Sugar" is sure to join "Half Nelson" in gaining popularity as it gets showings on cable.

10) Up

For me, it's absolutely the best Pixar. The first 20 minutes are beautifully constructed and told, and the action sequences aren't as stupid and slapsticky as the worst parts of "Wall-E" and "Ratatouille" (both of which I loved, incidentally). The plot of hero worship, and what it means, and how it really isn't that big a deal if you find out that your heroes are actually less than you thought they were, is very appropriate for today's times. As long as there is inspiration, a hero's job is worthwhile. It's only important what YOU do with YOUR life. So if worshipping Tiger Woods makes you a better golfer, then does it really matter if he's got a problem keeping it in his pants? This is by no means a kid's movie, especially considering that last sentence I just wrote. However, what nobody told me is that it IS a dog-lover's movie. The talking dog comedy bits are laugh out loud funny, and the dinner sequence had my sides hurting.

Honorable Mentions;
"Zombieland"
"In The Loop"
"Paper Heart"
"Anvil: The Story of Anvil"
"Adventureland"
"Humpday"

2009 Disappointments;
"Taking Woodstock"
"Star Trek"

I still have yet to see: "Avatar", "Nine" and "Antichrist", all possibilities to crack the Top 10.