Critical Breakdown: Film Grammar, Jim Emerson, and Joseph Kahn

Philip Noyce does indeed outdirect Nolan with Salt.
There's a bit of a back-and-forth going on these days between music video director Joseph Kahn and film critic Jim Emerson.  Before diving into the fray, I offer some context of what exactly is going on.
When The Dark Knight was released in 2008, Jim Emerson was one of the more vocal critics of the film, drawing largely on his assertions that Nolan and his cinematographer and editor (Wally Pfister and Lee Smith, respectively) don't seem to know how to piece together a coherent action sequence.  While this may or may not be true, it's a subjective opinion, and one that Emerson has backed-up.  Repeatedly.  For the record, I think some of his assertions about Nolan's capabilities, and certainly those of Pfister, ring a bit false, but that doesn't stop the fact that I agree that Nolan's films are all about exposition and actually show very little in the way of action, and that little bit is by and large not particularly interesting or dynamic visually, nor coherent upon second look.



When I heard David Fincher was going to be making an American version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, I didn't know what to think.  Here is a well respected and critically acclaimed director known for a wide range of work, and he is looking to return to the doom and gloom of his directorial heyday.  Fair enough.  The novels certainly fit into his element, which has always lain somewhere between grunge and gloss.  But why a remake/reimagining/whatever you want to call it?  I'm still not 100% sure as to why this is happening exactly, other than the assumed (and sadly verifiable) "fact" that American audiences will not watch a movie with subtitles.

In any case, it's here, and it's time to come to terms with it.  Before I go on, please watch the trailer before I go on and on and on about it:


Banning the Human Centipede

In a decision that is truly mind blowing in this day and age, Tom Six's sequel to HUMAN CENTIPEDE: FIRST SEQUENCE (Subtitled FULL SEQUENCE) has been banned by the BBFC, Britain's film censor board.  As reported in various sources, though I first read about it in The Guardian, the reasoning behind the decision is based entirely on the certification that the film breaches the BBFC's Classification Guidelines, and poses "a real, as opposed to a fanciful, risk that harm is likely to be caused to potential viewers."

For those of you who have not yet been scarred by what in the film poses such a risk to viewers of the movie, a little taste of the plot:  A man becomes increasingly obsessed with the first film and starts to act out sexual perversions and recreate the centipede by abducting and surgically altering captors of his own.  Two scenes in particular, involving masturbation with sandpaper while watching the film and a rape scene involving barbed wire and the girl bringing up the rear of the man's creation, are singled out by the board in its justification for the classification, which makes any activity having to do with the film (including possession, distribution, and viewing - much like drugs) illegal.

But as pointed out by a favorite film blog of mine based in Britain, Little White Lies, this essentially tells us nothing about what these fears may be.  Clearly the fears of the board are realized within the film itself, but what of the real world prospects of copy cat amateur surgeons?  The first film has been out for nearly two years and I've yet to read a single report of anyone moved to such lengths by a perverse little diversion.  It also bears to recognize, as again pointed out by LWL, that the board has banned films for similar reasons before, including THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which created an absurd situation that saw one of the defining horror movies of all time, as well as one of the less sanguinary of the last thirty years by comparison, banned in the UK until 1999.

That ban did nothing to stop people from seeing the movie, though, and this one will likely do nothing to stop THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE: FULL SEQUENCE either.  In an era when anything and everything can simply be downloaded via torrent or sold internationally, there's no stopping someone from seeing something if they want to.  It's just absurd to do it with something as fluid and accessible as cinema, no matter how lacking in artistic merit it may be.  And if we start banning things based on that criteria, I say we start with movies starring Rob Schneider.

And then there's the situation brought on by the announcement of the ban itself.  As evidenced by the growing interest in A SEBIAN FILM, a nasty little number from last year's festival circuit which still fails to have U.S. distribution, all the attention about how horrific and immoral it is has only given it free publicity and increased the likelihood that more people will actually see the movie at this point.  Not to mention the fact that adults are allowed to make decisions about what they would like to watch or read because they are adults, hence the very need for a classification system at all.  Tell us what's in the movie, and then let us watch it if we want to.  I know I, for one, can't wait to decide whether or not to watch Tom Six's follow-up to THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE.  That's because I'm an adult, and not a child to be coddled and told what is appropriate.  All that aside, though, there's more seriously fucked up material written in literature these days anyway, but I guess that's okay because the luddites out there who want us to be on the lookout for perversion don't read anything anyway.


4 Performances - Johnny Depp

This weekend we wered treated to the fourth film in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, ON STRANGER TIDES.  In honor of that film's release (which could honestly have one of these columns written about any number of actors in it), and its star attraction Johnny Depp, I want to discuss four of my favorite performances from the prolific, idiosyncratic and extremely talented actor.  I'm also going to forego discussing his terrific (and career changing) turn in Jim Jarmusch's minimalist masterpiece, DEAD MAN because I want to write about that a bit in-depth in the near future.

1)  Sam, BENNY AND JOON (Jeremiah S. Chechick, 1993)

One of Depp's earliest attention-grabbing performances was as Sam, an eccentric man who has apparently modeled himself off Buster Keaton, opposite a terrific Mary Stuart Masterson as Joon, an emotionally distant woman who opens up to be herself in the presence of Sam.  Funny, sweet and just enough oddball to herald the career to come, BENNY AND JOON is remarkable character work by a burgeoning star.

2) George Jung, BLOW (Ted Demme, 2001)

BLOW is one of only two pictures that have ever made me cry in the theater (I don't mind telling you the other is Tim Burton's BIG FISH).  A wholly engaging crime drama as well as character study, BLOW follows George Jung, a big time cocaine dealer who, at one time, was responsible for roughly 70% of the imported coke in the U.S.  Tracking his rise and fall, the film utilizes the considerable acting chops of Depp and Ray Liotta, who plays his father, who gets all the best lines.  Directed by the late Ted Demme (nephew of Jonathan), BLOW is electrifying in its use of rock music, the production design and gorgeous, coked-out set pieces that rival the best of De Palma and Scorsese for 70s/80s period gangster drama.

3) Ichabod Crane, SLEEPY HOLLOW (Tim Burton, 1999) / Inspector Frederick Abberline,  FROM HELL (The Hughes Brothers, 2001)

I often conflate these two characters, though I don't rightly know why.  Perhaps its because Depp plays the same character very similarly, though adding or subtracting a bit of aloofness from his performances (respectively).  His Ichabod Crane is a man of science on the hunt for the Headless Horseman, and who is nearly driven mad by the ordeal.

Ditto Inspector Abberline, who is searching for a similar boogeyman in the shadows of London with Jack the Ripper on the prowl and the city gripped with fear.  While neither role is a huge departure from Depp's usual repertoire of weirdos and malcontents, it's refreshing to see him take on characters that are at least grounded in the real world, and who partake in normal movie star activities like solving murders and being hunted by ghouls in the night.

4) John Dillinger, PUBLIC ENEMIES (Michael Mann, 2009)

While the film itself has some problems - chiefly its on-again off-again commitment to a watchable image during its action sequences - Depp's portrayal of John Dillinger, America's favorite antihero, is spot-on perfection.  Dapper, clean and charming, Depp here proves that he can really be an everyman, just as long as that everyman has charisma and is terribly handsome.  In this regard it's a better role for him than other forays into similar territory, like 2004's SECRET WINDOW or last year's THE TOURIST, which gets my vote for best film everyone hated for no good reason in 2010.  It also doesn't hurt that he plays against type by being the flat-out bad guy, and that he gets to go head-to-head with fellow pop-thesp Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the Federal agent given the assignment of taking Dillinger down.


Lars Von Trier, the Cannes Controversy and Talking to Adults.

I usually don't write about super current issues in the filmmaking world, but I'm really interested in the current debacle happening in France.  For the past couple of days, the cinema world has been in an uproar over some comments made by controversial filmmaker Lars Von Trier during a press conference for his new film, MELANCHOLIA.  Apparently, the film was a serious contender for the Palme d'Or until the incident, and remains in competition, even as the festival itself has banned the director from attending any of it, including the awards ceremony on Sunday.

His banning has been greeted with praise from The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendents, who condemned his comments as "repulsive" and went so far as the call his comments an "exploitation of victims' suffering for self-serving promotion and publicity." (Source: Moviefone Blog)  The comments were also taken wildly out of context, as discussed in depth by both Jim Emerson and Ben Kenigsberg at TimeOut Chicago, not reflecting the situation as it happened at all.

So what did really happen?  Von Trier, who has quite the reputation for being a provocateur as much as for his divisive films, and who has a well-documented history of deep depression, seems to be getting at the ways in which he understands hopelessness, discussing Hitler in his bunker, making plans even as Berlin is falling around him.  He also seems to be discussing his relationship with fellow Danish filmmaker Susanne Biehr (who recently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for IN A BETTER WORLD, who is also Jewish), as well as the conflicting sense of identity within himself after he spent much of his life believing that his Jewish step-father was his biological father, and his recent discovery that he is, in fact, of German descent.  

That's a whole lot of context.  Certainly his apology gets at the heart of all of that seeming to be the case - something was blown way out of proportion, and Von Trier couldn't help his own dark impulses to not keep his mouth shut.  (For a really in-depth experience of the play-by-play, you can check out the coverage on Deadline, which has given much more context to the types of questions he was being asked as well as the general mood of the conference and some of his previous acts as European filmmaking's enfant terrible).

In any case, what I find most astonishing is that the entire context of the comments was missed so completely by the press, as well as the parties who would wish him harm or are glad that he is banned from the festival.  Even the official press release from Cannes is laughable, and in the space of one paragraph makes a case for its showcasing of talent without boundaries while condemning one of the world's most prominent directors for conducting himself in the manner they say the festival operates in the spirit of two sentences earlier.  Ridiculous.  

Are we really not allowed to be adults anymore?  Are we not allowed to grapple with difficult subjects and think about what is being said and why before we jump on the bandwagon of calling someone an anti-Semite and smearing his reputation?  Apparently not.  There are already comparisons of Von Trier to Roman Polanski, which is laughable, not because Polanski's past isn't problematic or worthy of some derision, but because Von Trier did not commit the same level of offense, no matter what you may think of him.  

Von Trier was obviously working toward some sort of overarching metaphor about himself in relation to his films and fellow filmmakers, maybe even seriously discussing ethnic background at some level, but he even says in his statements that he doesn't condone what the Nazis did.  But that doesn't matter, because Von Trier had already forgotten that there is no such thing as adult human beings capable of processing reality.  At least, there aren't any out there according to how everyone has reacted to this situation.


So Summer is now in full swing, with the tent pole releases of THOR and BRIDESMAIDS heralding in the official launch of the blockbuster season.  In honor of this, I give you a new entry in my once-frequent series in which I discuss several of my most highly anticipated flicks and their trailers.

Lars Von Trier is probably the one filmmaker furthest from my mind when I think of Summer movies, but the timing of the release of his latest depress-fest is oddly appropriate.  Described as "a beautiful movie about the end of the world," the film takes place as a planet threatens to crash into Earth, which is certainly the plot of many a summer blockbuster even if Von Trier's film is guaranteed to be totally unlike anything we could ever hope for from a Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay.  I was really affected by his previous effort, ANTICHRIST, a rumination on man's relationship with nature, historical and supernatural malevolence, and the many ways we can destroy ourselves, so I'm looking forward to MELANCHOLIA, which looks to share a lot of the same thematics.  A director unafraid of controversy or audience disgust, there is always one guarantee when encountering a new work by Lars Von Trier: there will definitely be something to talk about, one way or the other.

Focusing on the superstar of the Marvel Universe, this is the last production before next year's superhero megafilm THE AVENGERS.  Directed by Joe Johnston, who has already made a pretty great alternate-history superhero movie with 1991's THE ROCKETEER, and knows how to craft a rousing adventure film out of period drama (for proof see HIDALGO and his work on the television series THE INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES).  Following the hero, Captain America, from his birth in the super soldier program during World War II, we are guaranteed many a showdown between Cap and his arch nemesis, The Red Skull.  Yes, it's yet another superhero film, but this one is going to be a bit different, and hopefully up to the task of introducing us to a character as important as Captain America is to the Marvel cinematic project of replicating their comic book mythologies.

The new slice of weirdness from Miranda July, the genius artist behind ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW, seems to be told (at least partially) from the viewpoint of an adopted, sickly cat.  Maybe.  And it definitely details the lives of two thirty-somethings who haven't really got a handle on their lives just yet.  July is an artist who I wholeheartedly respect, and this looks and feels a lot more like some of her book of short fiction more than her previous work as a filmmaker.  This is a high profile art house release for the Summer season, and I'll be seeking it out as soon as I possibly can.

I was a big fan of ZOMBIELAND a couple years back, and I'm looking forward to this film which rejoins Jesse Eisenberg with director Ruben Fleischer, and also brings Asiz Ansari into the fold for a movie about a pizza delivery driver who gets tangled up in a bank robbery scheme.  The red band trailer in particular is very strong (and totally NSFW), and gives a good set of laughs to all the main characters, including Danny McBride and Nick Swardson as the two criminals who strap a bomb to Eisenberg's chest so he'll rob the bank for him.

A found footage film about troll hunters in Norway?  I'm there.  No question.  This movie is already available on demand, so I'll probably see it sooner rather than later, but I really think it was meant to see theatrically, which is why I'll be planning a trip to see it when it opens in either Asheville or Atlanta (if I've moved down there by then).  In any case, the special effects and troll designs look amazing, and I'm all about supporting international and low budget genre cinema that seems to actually capture something magical and doesn't look and sound like utter crap.


ActionFest 2011

If there's anyone out there who hasn't read any of it, my ActionFest coverage is being put up all over the place.  Some reviews and thoughts will be here, and the interview with Bail Enforcers/WWE Superstar Trish Stratus will (hopefully) be the feature on the Shadows and Light Movie Podcast next week.  Other stuff is on CA Literary Review.  Still more will find its way to my new joint venture with my friend Eric Plaag, The Split Screen.  What follows is a list of links that I will update as I have more and more come out for reading/listening.

CA Lit Review:
ActionFest 2011 Wrap-up
An Interview with Michael Jai White
An Interview with Writer/Director Julian Gilbey
Review: 13 Assassins

Matt Smith on Film:
Review: Bail Enforcers

Shadows and Light Movie Podcast:

The Split Screen:
Bellflower: A Review
Hobo With A Shotgun: A Review

Review: Bail Enforcers

This movie is just a lot of fun to watch.  Featuring some fantastic little fight sequences and a charismatic set of leads, the film makes it easy to overlook some of its short-comings, which really aren't its fault at all, and are generally shared by most independent films, not just in the action genre.  Seven-time WWE Women's champion Trish Stratus makes her film debut as Jules, a bounty hunter whose team gets drawn into making a deal with a gangster named Hal in order to make a bigger payday by turning over one of their bounties to him instead of taking him to the police.  Along the way they have a run-in with a few goons who work for Hal and have to fight for their lives.  It's not the most complex plot-line ever, but a ton of action films are held together on flimsier premises, and do far less with what they have.

The film opens with a really well done fight between Jules and a weight lifter in a gym as she and her partner try to apprehend him and take him in.  Not only does the fight serve to get the audience involved in the action right off the bat, but it also provides us with a glimpse at Jules' fighting style (sort of a wrestling-modified Krav Maga), which shows her as a no-nonsense go-getter; a woman of action.  This is important because of the contrast it provides between her and her partners, Chase (Boomer Phillips) and Ridley (Frank J. Zupancic), who are much more suited to gun-oriented confrontation.

The group dynamics are typical, but pulled off well: Chase is the goofy one - Phillips has a background in comedy, Ridley is the square-jawed and level-headed leader, and Jules is the heavy-hitter, but also provides the group with a bit of sex appeal and helps to throw her opponents off because, hey, she's a woman!  There's a charisma between the actors that is palpable on screen most of the time, and it makes some of the film's lesser moments (such as a regrettable and unimportant scene in which Ridley utters the words that he "loves" Jules, and an absolutely useless subplot and scene in which Jules works as a waitress at a strip club and must be picked up for a job - two of the few times genre cliches aren't quite so well averted or incorporated.)  Which brings me to what I like most about the film: its ability to recognize its strengths and weaknesses as a B-movie (not a bad thing) and make the best of most of them.

Bail Enforcers has an honest sense of humor about itself that isn't so self-aware that it falls into unwatchable territory, and that's kind of refreshing.  I'm pretty bored with "clever" post-modern parody of action films, and am glad to see there's still a small group of filmmakers eager to make what they have work to the best of their abilities and within a tight budget.  There's not a weak spot considering all of this: the cinematography by Justin J. Dyck is solid, and the direction of Patrick McBrearty is more than capable.

And then there are the fights themselves.  The choreography is quite well done, and the scene-stealer is Andrea James Lui, who plays Ruby, one of the heavies sent to kill the bounty hunters and take their bounty back to her mobster employer.  She has two fights of note, one with Jules in close-quarters combat in the back of an ambulance, and a funny and character-building fight over a set of keys with chase.  The former is thrilling, and the second is comic and endearing.  These scenes are well-shot, too, with much of them being shot at a higher frame rate and then played around with in post.  It's nice to see camerawork that is being done at least partially in-camera and not all on a computer.

Overall, Bail Enforcers is a solid view for a fan of the genre, a fan of Stratus' and anyone interested in supporting independent action movies.  High cinema it's not, but not everything sets out to be.  This is a knock-down fight flick about hard bodies and hard punches that plays like the films made in the heyday for this sort of film.  Which is meant to say nothing bad about it at all.


The 15 Best Feature Films I Saw from 2010

So, I know it is nearing the end of March, 2011, but I wanted to see as much as I possibly could before finalizing my list.  In any case, narrowing it down as much as I did was already too difficult to go much further with it.  Of course this means that many films I loved are missing from the list, notably TRUE GRIT, THE OTHER GUYS, LET ME IN, THE CRAZIES, and WINTER'S BONE.  I also wanted to focus on my main interest, which is narrative feature films, and though I saw a good many documentary and experimental films in the past year, I just don't feel versed enough in those worlds to really rank and qualify them, especially among the features that share a special place in my heart.  Anyway, these aren't really in any order, though BLACK SWAN most definitely was my favorite film of 2010.

1. BLACK SWAN (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
I'm not finished with this film, and it's definitely not finished with me.  I haven't felt as strongly toward a film in years.  Aronofsky's masterpiece, no matter your feelings toward it, has a way of getting into your brain and noodling around (or tunneling, if the metaphor is to lack subtlety in the same manner) for days and weeks afterward.  I don't believe anyone who says they haven't thought about it since they saw it.  Natalie Portman's performance as Nina, a ballet starlet striving for perfection, is admittedly one-note innocence, until the final forty minutes, when she really starts unraveling and there's enough sturm and drang and outward physical expression of her inner turmoil that even Fritz Lang would rise from the grave and take notice.  Surrounded by a more-than-capable cast (a terrific Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder), Portman's interpretation is breathless, filled with the kind of bravura that most actors shy away from (though there are hints of Daniel Day-Lewis' comic-grotesque employed in THERE WILL BE BLOOD and GANGS OF NEW YORK to be found here and there).  The Grand Guignol of the whole affair is something refreshing and exhilarating in the landscape of American cinema, not merely rehashing and blending older genres like many of our most capable filmmakers, but re-appropriating entire filmmaking styles to make something bold, fresh, daring and ultimately as divisive as BLACK SWAN turns out to be.  By the time the final notes of SWAN LAKE play, and the screen turns into a bright, searing white, it never fails to send genuine shivers down my spine.

2. SALT (dir. Phillip Noyce)
A master of the political thriller, having directed two Jack Ryan films with Harrison Ford and the subtler but no less break-neck THE QUIET AMERICAN, Phillip Noyce has returned with a more action-oriented take on the genre within which he seems most comfortable, and turns in the first Movie Star movie in quite some time.  Angelina Jolie is in full-on movie star mode (helped along with the gorgeous cinematography of Robert Elswit) as Evelyn Salt, a U.S. CIA operative who may or may not be an insider for the defunct Soviet regime in Russia.  The film is pretty breezy, and packs enough of a wallop that the Blu-Ray release features three different cuts of the movie, all overseen by Noyce, and all of which are worth a look.  It's a shame this is an action film, though, since it automatically excludes it from any serious awards consideration.  Except for from me, of course.

3. THE KILLER INSIDE ME (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
A literal and figurative sucker-punch, this bleak, utterly hopeless adaptation of Jim Thompson's rowdiest novel sticks very close to the first-person narrative of the novel, with closet psychopath/sheriff's deputy Lou Ford expounding his every horrible thought.  Directed by the chameleon-like Michael Winterbottom, who shows a seemingly innate ability to work within any and every genre, THE KILLER INSIDE ME wears its nihilism on its sleeve, and features two of the most realistic, brutal and physically sickening murders many audiences have likely ever seen.  What is so profound and disturbing about the film (and what makes it stick with me) is that Lou's descent into his suppressed dark side only comes about by what he sees is a necessity for his survival.  Essentially, he's happy to murder people, in fact he seems to actually feel nothing about the act other than its status as an action that must be undertaken, but never once does he even care that his own fate may be sealed before he's even found out.  Lou Ford is a monster, and THE KILLER INSIDE ME is a horror film that is more terrifying than any two or three genre films released in any given year.

4. DESPICABLE ME (dir. Pierre Coffin, dir. Chris Renaud)
A refreshing change of pace for an animated film glutted by pop-cultural references and the morass of an industry that views its child audience as mere money-generating morons.  And while the last part of that statement may apply to parts of DESPICABLE ME (especially the marketing surrounding the Minion characters), the film itself is generally devoid of everything that makes one loathe the current climate of children's entertainment: it is a sweet, funny and poignant film that earns its laughs through situation, dialogue and universal truths rather than forced imitations of other, usually much better products.  The plot, which concerns a super-villain named Gru, who seeks world domination (also the plot of MEGAMIND, another film of note this year, though lacking in some respects as regards the praise I have for DESPICABLE ME), is wrapped in the story of his changing focus when he takes in three young girls from an orphanage as pawns for one of his schemes.  The animation is exaggerated and smooth, with a very welcome cartoonish slant, and it finally puts to rest the debate about whether or not Pixar holds a monopoly on the quality of mainstream animated features.

5. SPLICE (dir. Vincenzo Natali)
An early surprise for 2010, the brilliant sci-fi freakout SPLICE was the perfect antidote to a slate of genre releases that featured heavy on the remakes (some of them being very good notwithstanding), and with diminishing returns in original content.  A biomedical / body horror / ethics meditation worthy of the distinction of being Cronenbergian, Vincenzo Natali's little film about a superstar team of geneticists who design what they think could be the perfect creature is one of the more disturbing films to receive a major release.  Seriously, the Adrien Brody / Sarah Polley / Dren triangle is beyond bizarre (and beyond intriguing material for a film), and I can't honestly say that I've experienced as big a sucker-punch to my mind since.

6. GET HIM TO THE GREEK (dir. Nicholas Stoller)
This semi-sequal to FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL features Russel Brand's character Aldous Snow returning in his full rock-god glory, anchored by Jonah Hill's record company errand boy trying to get him to an anniversary show while avoiding all kinds of disturbances and distractions.  The script is smart and funny and I kind of love the idea of serializing characters through multiple films and in different situations (something uber producer / director Judd Apatow is looking to do with his next movie).  In addition, the soundtrack is absolutely hilarious, with spot-on pop and rock tracks by Aldous Snow's band Infant Sorrow as well as Rose Byrne's pop-star, Jackie Q.  Seriously, "Ring Around the Rosie" was robbed of Best Original Song awards left and right.

7. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (dir. Niels Arden Oplev)
I don't think there's any doubt that 2010 was the year of Lisbeth Salander.  There wasn't a single place you could turn where there wasn't a copy of one of the books or without talk of Noomi Rapace's absolutely bewitching (and star-making) turn in the film versions of the novels.  Oplev's first film is still the strongest because the first book's story could be effectively trimmed down into a lean thriller without losing too much of the enchanting nature of all the side characters littered throughout the periphery of the story.  Following an punk computer hacker with Asperger's, Lisbeth Salander, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is a dark and gritty Swedish thriller that unearths corruption on many levels both corporate and private in almost all of its characters.  And though the film may focus more on journalist Mikael Blomquist, there is no forgetting Rapace's interpretation and dedication to the role that took the entire world by storm.

8. THE TOWN (dir. Ben Affleck)
The second feature from Affleck may be 2010's overlooked gem, telling a complex story about the failings of human nature and the ineffable nature of our actions with the veneer of a crime drama and heist film.  Affleck also stars in the film as Doug McCray, a professional thief who runs a crew in Charlestown, an area of Boston that, statistically speaking, has spawned the most armored car thieves in the U.S.  After a bank robbery that gets a bit out of hand, and from which they abduct a hostage (a wonderful Rebecca Hall), the crew must protect themselves as an FBI team led by Jon Hamm (MAD MEN) starts looking into the members and putting the pressure on them as they cook up their next scheme.  Of course, McCray takes to making sure the former hostage doesn't know who he is, and he ends up falling in love with her.  This may seem very silly, but trust me it's not.  Based on Chuck Hogan's supremely enthralling novel, the film flies by, even though it clocks in at over two hours.  Trust me on this, THE TOWN is a must-see, slow burn crime film that is all about human interaction.

9. SHUTTER ISLAND (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Yet another collaboration between the greatest living American director and his current muse Leonardo DiCaprio, SHUTTER ISLAND is a psychological thriller that is all about film aesthetics, film history and paying homage to the old Hollywood masters while providing an engaging old-school entertainment with shades of Hitchcock and Samuel Fuller.  I remember sitting in the Denny's with my podcast co-hosts Woody and Pierce for over an hour afterward just picking apart the imagery and sound design, and it was one of the most thrilling academic exercises in aesthetics I was exposed to by a mainstream film all year.

10. THE RUNAWAYS (dir. Floria Sigismondi)
I'm a big fan of Joan Jett, and when I heard a biopic was being developed for The Runaways, I was a bit apprehensive, but I have to say the end result completely knocked my socks off.  The performances by Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as Jett and Cherie Currie are electric, erotic and moving.  And that's not even factoring in how brilliant Michael Shannon is as sonic mastermind and band manager Kim Fowley.  Director Floria Sigismondi perfectly captures the youthful urgency of the music and the spirit of the band while also exploring the growing chasm between the hodgepodge group of musicians that form the band, particularly the desire and distrust surrounding Jett and Currie.  I wrote at length about this film last year when I saw it, and have revisited it a few times since then, and each time I feel the same way.  I don't really care how anyone else feels about it, THE RUNAWAYS is an amazing piece of filmmaking.

11. THE ILLUSIONIST (dir. Sylvain Chomet)
Based on an un-produced screenplay by the French master Jaques Tati, THE ILLUSIONIST follows an aging magician who plays variety shows throughout the world, but is slowly being edged out by the mainstream entertainment of hot, new rock and roll acts.  As with his previous film, THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, Chomet uses very little real dialogue to tell his story, focusing instead on his magical hand-drawn animation and the development of strong, sympathetic characters.  The film's best moment also features a cameo from the deceased Tati, and it's quite brilliantly done, and not forced at all.  THE ILLUSIONIST is a film that is heartfelt, beautiful and urgent.  A masterpiece by one of the most intriguing animators in the world.

12. OUTSIDE THE LAW (dir. Rachid Bouchareb)
Telling the story of four brothers who dabble in organized crime in Algeria and France during the Algerian revolutionary period, Rachid Bouchareb's film allows a glimpse into an oft-neglected chapter of world history, and provides us with a classic gangster picture at the same time.  Featuring the same cast of his previous, Academy award-winning film, DAYS OF GLORY, all playing characters who are unrelated but have the same first names as the characters they played in that film, Bouchareb weaves the stories of the brothers into the history of the Algerian resistance.  I particularly appreciated Jamel Debbouze (AMELIE, ANGEL A) as Said, who is trying to distance himself from the political and criminal lives of his brothers and make it as a legitimate boxing promoter and trainer, but is seen as an outcast and traitor by his own family for respecting the French oppressors in any way.

13. THE FIGHTER (dir. David O. Russell)
The only real difference between any boxing film is the milieu within which it attempts to tell its story.  With ROCKY it was an underdog picture, with RAGING BULL we had a tale of masculine self-destruction, and with MILLION DOLLAR BABY it was a message picture.  THE FIGHTER takes place firmly within the family melodrama genre, following Micky Ward's rise from stepping stone to world champ, and also his brother Dicky Ecklund, a former contender whose one famous moment was knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, as he overcomes a crippling addiction to crack.  Directed by David O. Russell, THE FIGHTER is a film that is worth seeing just for the performances, with Oscar winner Melissa Leo as Micky and Dicky's overbearing witch of a mother tearing up every scene she's in, and a love interest played by Amy Adams that brings a bit of heart to a film that might otherwise be too depressing to seriously contemplate as reality.

14. GREEN ZONE (dir. Paul Greengrass)
An action film that takes all the best parts of Greengrass's masterful work with his historical/political drama period pieces and the Bourne flicks, GREEN ZONE is the adrenaline rush the Iraq-war subgenre needed, and it delivers on all fronts.  I personally think this is Greengrass's masterpiece as an action filmmaker.  Matt Damon once again proves why he's one of the most interesting movie stars in ages and co-star Amy Ryan proves that she needs much more work than she has been getting.

15. DEEP IN THE WOODS (dir. Benoit Jacquot)
This film hasn't seen a release here in the U.S. yet, but when it finally does come out, I will see it again and again.  Isild Le Besco pairs with Jacquot yet again for the story of a girl who follows a stranger wanderer into the countryside in 1865.  Timothee, who may or may not have the gift of hypnotism and bewitchment, is smitten with Josephine, who is from a well-to-do family, and he wills her to go with him into the woods and live outside of civilization.  The big question throughout the film, of course, is whether or not their relationship is consensual, or if she is in fact being raped and Timothee really does have these powers she claims he has.  The characters in the film come to a conclusion, but director Benoit Jacquot allows the story to linger and settle with the audience.  The film also has a brilliant score, with baroque chamber tendencies.  Loved this.

"The Other's a Fish": THE LINCOLN LAWYER

This faithful adaptation of Michael Connelly's best-selling legal thriller, THE LINCOLN LAWYER, is a throwback to breezier, slightly funkier courtroom procedurals.  A smart performance by Matthew McConaughey that imbues the character of Mickey Haller with a knowing swagger anchors this approach, and the film's loose sensibilities serve as a counterpoint to the efficient clockwork plot.  The latter quality of the film may in fact be its lone weakness, as it has trimmed much of the juicy fat away from the story, leaving bits and pieces hanging here and there, and not quite giving us enough character information in a few instances.  Still, THE LINCOLN LAWYER is a wonderful film that kept me enthralled even though I was familiar with the many twists and turns beforehand.

The film follows Mickey Haller, a criminal defense attorney who will defend anyone who can pay his price.  As the film opens, he stalls a case from going to court because a client of his, a member of a bike gang, hasn't paid the bill to date.  In the following scene we meet the rest of the bikers, who have brought payment to Haller, and are given a sense that he is a man unafraid to take risks, but who has an ethical code even though he's willing to take a razor to the prosecution and bleed even the most guilty clients' charges down to an empty shell.  A bit later, when Haller meets with repeat-client Gloria, a hooker who he never charges for his services.  The relationship is a bit murky in the film, but in the book, it's really a sweet motive on his part, because he sees the good in Gloria, and wants her to get straight and stay that way.  In any case, it serves to show his golden ideals held deep within the hard exterior of a money-driven defense lawyer.

As mentioned earlier, McConaughey's turn as  Haller is a major reason this film works as well as it does.  Haller has just enough sleazy wit and smart-ass charm to keep the audience alert to the plot, but the trick of casting someone as instantly likable and recognizable as McConaughey also serves to make us root for him and know that, no matter what twists get thrown at him, Haller is a good guy who will do the right thing in the end.  Haller doesn't care what others think of him, and when cops come at him with jabs about his job and his culpability in keeping scum on the streets (Bryan Cranston is fun in a bit part), he brings it right back to them, knocking on crooked cops and how easy it is to do his job when the D.A. and the police are so inept at prosecution.  Haller is a fun character, one that is challenging and emotional and downright engaging.  He's a real, honest human being, and for once he's on screen in front of us.

McConaughey isn't alone, though, and is supported by a strong supporting cast, including Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife and prosecutor Maggie, William H. Macy as his private investigator, and Ryan Phillipe as Louis Roulet, the client he's been hired to get off an attempted murder charge.  Phillipe's character in particular is worthy of notice because of his many faces, all of which are played expertly.  Phillipe isn't an actor we've seen much of lately, and that's a shame, because I've always enjoyed his work.  I'm sure audiences will be intrigued to see him here first as the story's underdog, and then as its villain.  Josh Lucas is also enjoyable as prosecutor Ted Minton, and the courtroom scenes hinge a lot on his reactions to Haller's defense tactics.  It's a shame there's not more of the court proceedings in the film, though, because Minton has some fantastic scenes in the book that would have likely been explosive between the two actors on screen.

While defending Roulet, Haller stumbles upon information that leads him to believe Roulet is not only guilty of the crime he is now accused, but also of the murder of another woman that got pinned on a previous client of Haller's, and who pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty.  Of course, not giving too much away, the attorney-client privilege is given a lot of play in how everything turns out, and it's really quite intriguing and plausible.  Let's just say there aren't any surprises, no matter how dark the film gets, as to how everything ends.

Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin, who also provided us with the most memorable and pleasing part of recent plotless disaster BATTLE: LOS ANGELES, turns in some really fantastic late-Sixties exploitation style "slick" cinematography, balancing just enough edge and flatness that really feels like that period, but in a completely good way.  There are plenty of gorgeous close-ups of the stars, as well as some stark, matter-of-fact exposures we're not used to seeing in a Hollywood film, including an emotional drink with Haller after a close friend's murder which really doesn't make McConaughey seem like the pretty boy we all think of when his name gets mentioned.

I think what will stick with me the most, though, is McConaughey.  Finally the man has returned to actual acting.  I'm content with him popping up in small but memorable roles while cashing major paychecks for rom-coms, but it's nice to see him headlining something that requires him to actually show up to work.  Maybe we're entering a new period for him, one that will see him really come into his own. Or, maybe we'll just get hints of true brilliance here and there.  Honestly, I get the feeling that, much like Mickey Haller, he doesn't care all that much come to think of it.



A feel-good movie if there ever was one, Nigel Cole's MADE IN DAGENHAM tells the story of the 1968 strike by the women workers of Ford's plant in Dagenham that ultimately resulted in the passage of equal pay legislation in Britain.  While it's a little too frothy, and the return to our current cultural climate outside the darkened theatre is something of a downer afterward, it's a solid film to spend a couple of hours with, and features the always fantastic Sally Hawkins as Rita O'Grady, a composite of several real-life women who lead the movement.

Like most films based on political movements/activists like this, there's a certain trajectory that's expected to play out on screen: person has injustice, person takes action against their adversary, person overcomes injustice.  And to be sure, MADE IN DAGENHAM follows this precisely, never really wavering from its path, though it has some nice surprises here and there, mostly in the ways it deals with the interpersonal and familial relationships at stake.  Rita and her husband Eddie have a pretty healthy relationship, and while there are trying moments that would likely hit any family going through an income crisis as they have (especially once the strike by the women causes a plant-wide shutdown), it really comes through that they love and care about one another, and there are plenty of apologies to go around.

As the film tracks the encounters with management and their spineless self-serving union leaders, and the disappointments experienced by the women at their hands, the film moves along at a fairly quick pace, finding its footing in the swift dialogue and the pleasure of watching such skilled actors at work.  It doesn't really matter that the story itself is predictable - they'll never really make the kind of movie that ends with the decimation of unions' bargaining rights - because the film's charms are its quiet moments and often boisterous interactions.  And the actors are more than capable of buoying a film like this.

Sally Hawkins, who I've already mentioned, and who most audiences may know from her lead role in Mike Leigh's HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, is once again a charming on-screen presence and proves that she really should be in many many more movies (a quick check of her IMDB tells me she'll be in at least two films in the coming year, which I'll happily check out just because.)  She's helped along by some strong supporting work from the two prominent male cast members: Daniel Mays as her husband, and the incomparable Bob Hoskins as a low-level union rep that actually has the balls to get the job done as it needs to be, bypassing politics and getting right to the heart of the problem.  But the film's biggest jaw-dropper is the sheer amount of female acting chops on display, with all of its major moments revolving around women and the stifling feelings they have when they are spoken down to and about by males running everything without ever being asked what they might actually feel best suits their interests.

Underneath its light surface is a darker commentary about the ways in which male-centric societal discriminations shade even our own thoughts about who is important and should be important in not just everyday interactions, but even in the simple act of watching a film - even one such as this that really puts the voices of women right out in front.  Hoskins and Mays aside, the major characters that drive the film are all the friends of Rita who stand behind her and support her giving voice to their concerns as women.  Miranda Richardson is a hoot as Barbara Castle, who is still the only woman ever to have held the office of First Secretary of State in Britain, and Rosamund Pike turns in a really tight performance as Lisa Hopkins, a highly educated woman kept underneath the power structure in both Britain and her own household by her husband, who is the labor relations director for the Ford company in the U.K.

The real heart and soul for, and the most conflict when sticking up for her sisters for Rita, comes from her best friend, Connie, played by the wonderful Geraldine James.  Connie's husband, George, is a former soldier who is experiencing what we now know is PTSD, and some days are obviously better than others.  Their relationship as husband and wife, which may be a shadow of its former self, is powered by pure love, and ultimately, George sees his wife as someone who deserves everything she has been fighting for.  The denouement of this particular section is very sad and poignant, but it provides the story with just enough oomph and impetus to get over the hump of making sure Rita's friendships really do see her through to the end.  Really, it's a touching moment when Connie, who was once the spokeswoman for the girls, and Rita both enter the labor union's conference together.

It's not really a surprise to see such good acting in a British film.  Half of their acclaimed talent currently fills U.S. productions anyway.  But it is a surprise to see a film that really attempts to get to the heart of its female characters, and provide a realistic view of their relationships with one another and their families, and with society-at-large.  MADE IN DAGENHAM may be a rather light-hearted affair, but there's enough going on beneath the surface concerning sexism and its inherent role in every facet of Western culture that it really is worth a second look beyond the cursory first glance.  Even if it is just for the sheer amount of wonderful performances, which given such great work in smaller roles by the likes of Andrea Riseborough and Jaime Winstone, et al, I really haven't even tipped the bucket on.


Blurbs: Special Edition 2

I know, I know, where did I disappear to?  I'm back, this time with a vengeance.  I'm going to have some 2010 wrap-ups and polish off a few articles I didn't get around to posting.  First up, a super-long edition of Blurbs (really long this time out).  Without further ado:

THE KING'S SPEECH (Tom Hooper, 2010)
A movie that really hinges on the performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and completely delivers on both counts.  The story's plot is nothing spectacular: the King of England has a stammer and seeks speech therapy so he can lead the nation in proper royal capacity, but the screenplay has some of the best dialogue in recent memory (along with THE SOCIAL NETWORK it holds a place with me for making an uninteresting subject interesting just because of the ways in which people communicate and find importance in communication) and Tom Hooper's direction is refreshingly restrained and classical in style.  I enjoyed the off-center shots of the two leads, and it's nice to see something that's not quite so flashy.  Even the fog-shrouded exteriors seem subdued and refreshing in their simplicity.  One of the smaller cinematic pleasures I had this year is watching the bickering back and forth between Rush and Firth, two fine actors in a fine film that may not be the best, but which is still deserving of one's time.

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (John Sturges, 1955)
One of my favorite films of all time, I recently watched this after having not seen it in about six years and was re-enamored with it.  Spencer Tracy's portrayal of hard-as-nails Macreedy, the one-armed veteran come to Black Rock with a mysterious purpose.  Met with a town hiding a dark secret and the determination to do whatever to make sure it never comes to light, Macreedy faces this opposition head on.  In an iconic performance, Tracy takes on the whole town, populated by a superb cast playing the townspeople: Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan and the inimitable Lee Marvin.  A social tirade against racism and igorance, A BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK manages to hit all of its intended notes and rattle some nerves in a meager 81 minute run-time, which is more than most other films could ever dream of.

SEASON OF THE WITCH (Dominic Sena, 2011)
While not a total waste of time, the film's improbable (and horribly computer-generated) final twenty minutes almost dismantle the enjoyment I had of watching a mostly-reliable B genre picture starring Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman as two Knights on the lam escorting a witch to her trial at an abbey several days away.  Honestly, I think this film falls apart based on the direction alone, making choice after choice, from the overall tone, which waffles between camp and seriousness, to the aforementioned CGI-laden debacle of the finale.  Dominic Sena has made exactly one film worth a real look (KALIFORNIA) and as bad as I wanted it to, SEASON OF THE WITCH does nothing to further a sub-genre of horror/fantasy I feel is due for a comeback.  I guess TRUE BLOOD's upcoming witch-filled storyline will have to keep my hopes up for the time being.

Producer/Creator/Writer Shawn Ryan has already seen one of his best creations cancelled by FX (the best show of last Fall, TERRIERS), but he's giving it another go with the so-far-so-good cop show THE CHICAGO CODE.  Following a group of officers and detectives banding together to take down a corrupt politician, there are shades of THE WIRE at play, though things are starting to widen a bit, growing to show a more subjective view of various characters through voice-over narration and small throwaway moments that might be trimmed from a show not on a network production scale (though this season will feature only 14, there are normally 22 episodes a season as opposed to half that number).  Aside from surface level comparisons, though, the feel of the show is much more in tune with Ryan's work on TERRIERS and THE SHIELD, albeit a little less gritty and featuring a police department actually fighting for justice, which is a welcome change to the current television procedural climate.  Fantastic performances from Jennifer Beals as the department's superintendent and Jason Clarke as a detective determined to make the case buoy the show and really propel it into the must-watch realm few shows reach for me.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (Chris Weitz, 2007)
I didn't mind this film, though I could tell as someone who hasn't read any of Philip Pullman's trilogy that it glosses over a WHOLE lot of stuff.  But, I think as a non-fan audience member it worked for what it was: an epic start to a trilogy that there's no way to condense into a single set of three films in the first place.  That, in a nutshell, is the problem of adaptation in general for the fantasy genre.  The very nature of the beast requires a fair amount of condensing from an often bloated, world-creating novel that spares not a single chance to describe small and seemingly inconsequential scenes in oft-excruciating detail.  Fans of the books do hate this movie, and probably with justified reasoning.  But, it is what it is, and if you want to see how bad film adaptations of really good and highly revered works of children's lit can turn out, you might want to try THE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING from the same year.  Yeesh.

DOGHOUSE (Jake West, 2009)
I have a soft spot for any sort of British horror-comedy.  This offering, following a group of men who attempt to cheer up their friend following a devastating break-up with his girlfriend by taking a holiday to a small town that boasts a ton of single women per capita, is a lighter affair that features some imaginative takes on zombification and some fun kills.  The should-be-more-popular fan favorite Danny Dyer and Stephen Graham headline as two of the guys up against a town in which all of the women have become the subjects of a secret military experiment that makes them aggressively pursue and kill all men in the area.  This one's fun for fans, and may even win a few converts.  Worth checking out.

Oh my word, this is brilliant television.  I've loved listening to Karl Pilkington on the Ricky Gervais Show podcast for the past few years, but I never imagined something like this would ever happen.  For those of you not familiar with him, his friend Ricky Gervais describes Karl as a "round-headed, ape-like moron," and while that may seem mean-spirited, it's not completely wrong as a description of the television personality we're given.  He's actually just an average man, uncomfortable around anything he's never been exposed to or has no previous notion of, and this leads to absolutely hilarious observations, non-sequitirs, odd-ball analogies and brilliant unscripted physical comedy.  This may be the best thing I've seen on TV since November, and it's definitely the best reality-based show to come along in a long, long time.

TRUE GRIT (The Coen Bros., 2010)
There's a lot to admire in this re-adaptation of Charles Portis' classic Western, but far and away the best aspect is the discovery of Hailee Steinfeld, the fifteen year-old actress who more than holds her own with some of the best actors ever to appear on celluloid.  As Mattie Ross, the plucky and determined daughter out to track down her father's murderer, Tom Chaney, she displays the same wisdom of an older soul her character has as well, and she really is amazingly talented.  And while it doesn't pack the same punch as their recent few films for me, this is another home run for the Coens, and again marks their place as one of the best filmmaking duos working today.

BLUE VELVET (David Lynch, 1986)
Upon multiple viewings, BLUE VELVET only becomes increasingly more disturbing and creepy.  Eventually I stopped paying attention to the thin plotting (and the intricate workings of the dream-like logic employed in the film) and began focusing on the nightmarish nature of every single thing in this film, from opening credits to the very end.  Seriously, even Laura Dern's character gives me the willies.  Another recent discovery: Dean Stockwell as Ben is an even more disturbing person than Frank Booth.  In just that one scene in which he lip-synchs Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" he walks away with the movie, and the whole vibe of the apartment, the retro-decor and fashions, the casual nature of the abusive relationships...it's almost too much to take.  I watched this a couple of times around my obsession with Aronofsky's BLACK SWAN and it was an illuminating experience for me.  The nature of dreams, nightmares, and mental breakdown swirling around us at all times, and the simple act of watching a movie in effect being similar - well, let's say I may still be a little too close to it all.  In any case, this is Lynch's masterpiece, and deserves to be thought about constantly by anyone who can stand to.

An amazing show about the problems facing adaptations of award-winning British comedies for American audiences.  Featuring a really hilarious Matt LeBlanc, and some razor-sharp writing, the story of Sean and Beverly, the creators of BAFTA-winning show "Lyman's Boys" watch in horror as their show is picked up for a pilot by network executive Merc and becomes the opposite of what made their show a critical favorite overseas.  After replacing the show's star with Matt LeBlanc, the show's entire story changes, becoming a sitcom about a hockey coach and being retitled "Pucks!"  It may hit a little too close to home for those of us who have seen this exact thing happen in reality, but it's still a fantastic show that pays off by building upon its previously introduced jokes and satisfying us with an appropriately awkward and bittersweet finale.