Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sequel Excitement

Longtime readers of this blog know that I was quite unimpressed with all the sequels (mostly 3rds) that hit the cineplexes in 2007. So let me share with you my excitement about two upcoming sequels. Both of them are comic book adaptations starring superheroes, which I think means intelligent people are supposed to hate them. If so, intelligent people will be missing out, 'cause these are gonna be two badass movies - on back-to-back weeks. I could hardly be more excited.

1. Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Coming July 11, 2008

The first Hellboy was stellar - if you didn't see it in theaters, kick yourself. The creative cred here is unbelievable - comic creator Mike Mignola is one of the best comics artists of all-time, and director Guillermo Del Toro has made some awesome blockbusters (Blade II, Hellboy) and compelling indie horror flicks (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth). The second installment of this franchise features an original story from del Toro and Mignola, the ugliest man in Hollywood, Ron Perlman, reprising his role as the paranormal investigator, and yes, Arrested Development's unlovable patriarch Jeffrey Tambor as his grouchy boss. Don't miss it.

2.The Dark Knight. July 18th, 2007.

Like del Toro, Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan has had indie darlings (The Following, Memento) and blockbusters (Batman Begins, mostly). He's back for this round, as is most of the cast that led me to suggest that Batman Begins had the greatest cast ever (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Liam Neeson, and Rutger Hauer! Damn). We (probably?) won't have Hauer, Wilkinson (dead?) or Neeson (dead???) for this round, but we've got the final(?) film role of Heath Ledger as consolation. Plus, super-crappy actress Katie Holmes, the first film's only casting oops, is replaced by super-awesome actress Maggie Gyllenhahl. And, there's a batcycle. What more could you want?

For one week in July, the American populace will experience sequel awesomeness. You better enjoy it now.

Monday, January 28, 2008


In a continuation of my zombie apprenticeship, I just watched Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. In the aftermath of that enjoyable splatterfest, I'm left with a question: can a zombie movie really be a zombie movie if it doesn't include a Zombie Apocalypse (Zombocalypse? Zombiepocalypse?)?

For me, this goes back to an essay that I've obsessed about in the past, Rick Altman's treatment of film genres. Altman has what he calls a Syntactic/Semantic approach, and he divides genre elements, like language, into those two categories. The first, broad category is semantics - the building blocks of a genre. For a Western, these building blocks are obvious: cowboys, outlaws, Indians, horses, sheriffs, open plains, six-shooters, shootouts, saloons, etc. Then comes the syntax. With some variation, all Westerns arrange their semantics into some similar patterns: good vs. evil, the good bad man, the other, the alien, the settler vs. the cowboy, man vs. his other, etc. Semantics are broad and obvious; syntax are more specific. Altman's example of the difference is Elvis movies - sure, they have musical numbers, so they seem semantically to be musicals, but they sure don't arrange those musical numbers the way other musicals do.

Filmmakers have all kinds of fun mixing semantics and syntax. Most famous is probably Star Wars - semantically a science fiction film, it contains pretty much everyone of those syntactic features I listed for the Western. Science fiction semantics + Western syntax= billions and billions of dollars.

So, back to Zombies. You see, Dead Alive doesn't feature a Zombiepocalypse, which we can probably describe as a missing semantic feature. But Dead Alive still has zombies in it, so it must be a zombie film, right? Except, when you remove the Zombiepocalypse, you remove most of the zombie movie's syntax (see: Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, etc). Zombie movies, syntactically, are all about dread, the collapse of established authority, survival, the tragedy of loved ones turned into zombies. These syntactic elements make appearances in recent movies like I am Legend and 30 Days of Night, and thus make them feel like zombie movies, even though those movies feature vampires, which typically have their own very different, quite gothic syntactic elements.

It would be foolish of me to declare that Dead Alive isn't a zombie movie - it has zombies in it! It'd be like declaring that an Elvis movie isn't a musical, or that Star Wars isn't a science fiction film*. But I do think it matters that it isn't syntactically a zombie movie. One way I think it matters is that I wouldn't put it in my top 5 or 10 zombie movies - it just doesn't feel like a zombie movies. And if I were teaching a course on zombie movies, I would be willing to include it, but it would certainly be the exception that proves the rule that removing the zombiepocalypse results in a movie that doesn't feel like the rest of its genre brethren. There. Sorry that was boring.

*Disclaimer: It kind of isn't, if science fiction is held to its original standard, which is to say that it has some interest in science. I mean, "science" is in the title of science fiction, and Star Wars has (as near as I can tell) pretty much zero science. I, following others before me, might be more inclined to call it fantasy - all those mystical elements are what really matters, and no one really cares about how or why any of that technology works.. This is what makes it so much less geeky than Star Trek - which actually contains science.

Mini-Review: Cloverfield


Cloverfield's premise is pretty simple: a monster has attacked New York at some point in the recent past, and, on the night of the attack, a bunch of beautiful young people were running around Manhattan, documenting said night with a video camera. The entire movie is thus a faux documentary, Blair Witch style, and features a camera that bobs, spins, weaves, twirls, falls, and scrambles away from danger as our 5 intrepid adventurers make their way through Manhattan to a damsel in distress (Spoilers: It doesn't take long for there to be less than 5 adventurers, etc).

I was unfamiliar with everyone involved in this production, with the exception of producer JJ Abrams, and I came away impressed with 3 of them. First the writer, Drew Goddard or, rather, whoever came up with this high concept setup, because it works beautifully. Secondly, none of the actors particularly distinguish themselves (the girls are generally better than the super-bland guys) except, ironically, T.J. Miller who as the cameraman Hud provides a steady stream of commentary while obtaining probably less than a minute of total screen time. Miller comes off as a low-rent version of whoever your favorite witty but fratty comedian is (Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen, etc) and made the whole thing watchable. Finally, working with what must not have been a great deal of money, Phil Tippett created a pretty terrifying monster - something that can't have been easy, given our decades of not being frightened of Godzilla-style giant monsters.

Amid all of the Oscar hoopla, it was nice just to watch unknown actors run around scared while shit blew up. I do hope that they resist the urge for a sequel, because the camera gimmick has no chance of working twice, and making a conventional movie set after the initial attack will just bog down in all of the origin mystery and how-do-we-kill-it scenarios that this film so skillfully avoided. Also, I should note that zombies get to try their luck in a similar handheld camera horror picture coming soon - Diary of the Dead, directed by zombie-master George Romero.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


My wife and I watched Notorious last night, which is supposed to be one of the greatest Hitchcock films. I actually wasn't that impressed (disclaimer: I'm not that big of a fan of the ole H-cock) but its inexplicable love story got me thinking about love in the movies. I'm going to try and run through all the different ways the movies show us romantic love developing (not disintegrating or strengthening or anything that implies it was always there. just how it starts) from lamest to least lame. I'd love to hear what you think about this, and if there are some you think I've missed. Use the comment button, damn it!

1.Duh. The internal logic for this one goes something like this: they're the leading man and leading lady, of course they're in love! Featured in Notorious and, most egregiously, in The Maltese Falcon. In the latter (and I don't recall the actual dialogue) Bogey has just discovered that the dame in question has double-crossed him, double-crossed her partners, and is now in desperate straits, and he should justifiably cover his ass. Instead, he gets her out of the predicament. Why? Well, he says it's because he loves her. Why does he love her? The movie provides no reasons for this. Your guess is as good as mine.
2.Oh Mr. Darcy I hate, er, love you! You know this one as well. He's insufferable! She's stuck up! That beast! That prude! (insert face-sucking here). As the lovable T-Rex has told us, this one seems to be on the rocks a bit, but it's a classic. Our lad and lady can't stand each other - then can't get enough of each other. Usually in the same scene.
3. I'm A Believer. He (and it's usually he) sees her, and that's it. The filmmakers usually try to let us in on the developing love; she's usually shot in a high angle shot, wearing something to accentuate her figure, the lens goes to soft-focus, and some music that's supposed to indicate desire plays. This one shows up big time in American Graffiti, even if he never gets the girl (or even speaks to her face to face).
4.Zing! Sometimes indistinguishable from #2, love here is at least the product of a conversation. Because of the Hays Production code, sex was taboo, so in screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, our participants had to do all of their thrusting verbally. And yeah, sometimes they're at each other throats, but it's a more sophisticated back and forth, often good-natured and always fun to listen to (#2 often has super annoying tantrums). And eventually, in the course of this, they open to each other, and voila. It Happened One Night pretty much invented this on film; see also The Awful Truth and (my favorite) The Lady Eve.
5.Love. Boy meets girl. They talk. They both have insecurities, histories, uncertainties, likes and dislikes. Nevertheless, they keep seeing each other, talking to each other, getting to know each other, changing and developing each other, possibly having sex, depending on whether or not the Production Code is in effect. At some point, their shared knowledge of each other develops into something more. It's called love. It's never been done better than in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Wes Anderson knows something about it, as does Wong-Kar Wai, as does Woody Allen in some of his finer moments.This year, Once has it, as does Waitress. Waitress has it beautifully - Waitress does 1,2,3 and maybe even 4 before finally making it clear that those are just stages at best, and some point you've got to reach 5. And it does.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heath Ledger

I haven't offended anyone yet that I know of with this blog, so I think it's about time to start. Heath Ledger died yesterday. Here are my thoughts.

1. Yes, it is sad. But, you know, not really anymore sad than anyone else dying (you didn't know Heath Ledger) unless you were deeply invested in Heath Ledger. If Owen Wilson had died, it would have meant a great deal to me. Heath Ledger, not so much. Which is not to say that Heath Ledger is less important than anyone else - but people die everyday and I don't worry about it too much. The fact that I knew of this particular man doesn't make his death anymore important to me than the death of others I was unfamiliar with, especially since, for the most part, I disliked his work.
2.Heath Ledger was not a very good actor. Yes, he was absolutely magnificent in Brokeback Mountain. I call this the Val Kilmer in Tombstone rule: If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, and then turns in one academy award caliber performance, it's still a duck. Just because Heath was great in one movie doesn't undo his otherwise general badness.

I will admit, I have not seen all of his movies. Here's what I have seen/not seen.
Not seen: Ned Kelly, Monster's Ball, Candy, Ned Kelly, The Order, The Brothers Grimm, Lords of Dogtown, The Four Feathers, I'm not There. I've heard good things about him in Ball, otherwise, nothing there interests me.
Seen (rating him, not the movie):
10 Things I hate About You: Bleck
The Patriot: Double-bleck
A Knight's Tale: Bleck
Casanova: Are Triple-blecks allowed?
Brokeback Mountain: nearly flawless.

So that's it. In 5 movies, a total of 4 (or 7) blecks and one really good performance.
3.The Dark Knight proviso. All word and trailers so far have pointed towards Ledger being amazing in the upcoming Batman sequel. If indeed he is excellent, I will consider amending my evaluation of him from "even a broken clock is right twice a day" to "many truly excellent actors start off crappy and hone their craft." We'll never be able to tell if he would have indeed made a Paul Newman-like development, but a great job as The Joker would at least suggest it. Stay tuned.

4.A.O. Scott missed this one. Check out this link: for "An Actor Whose Work Will Outlast the Frenzy," Scott's piece about how great Heath Ledger was, even if he didn't have time to live up to his potential. Scott does note that: "It seems inevitable that he will now be inscribed in the cult of the beautiful stars who died too young, alongside James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe." I agree with this. I haven't seen quite enough of Clift and Dean to be sure, but although those three were all beautiful, my initial thought is that none of them were actually that great at acting. Like those three, I think Ledger's critical reputation will be burnished over time by his death. We'll find out eventually

Sunday, January 20, 2008

PT vs. Wes (vs. the Coens?)

First, I should confess that this is a bit of false advertising. It is simply not fair to compare PT or Wes to the Coen brothers. Even if you believe, as I do, that both PT and Wes have hit on every film that they have made, you can't compare them to the most successful filmmakers of the last 25 years, anymore than we can compare the Coens to, say, Hitchcock until some more results are in. But I do want to talk about PT's new film vs. the Coen's new film, and I'll get to that soon, so consider this a teaser for that post. I know you're excited.

But, for starters, the Andersons. If you haven't been paying attention, we've got some pretty serious similarities here: they're both named Anderson, they were born only 13 months apart, they each had their feature film debut in 1996, they each released their fifth film this year, and they've each brought a distinct style with a dedicated troupe of actors while working within the Hollywood system. That's pretty stunning. So, in honor of this congruence, and their dual fifth films, I want to take stock of each of them, where they've been, where they're going, and (of course) what I've decided about them.

First, my rankings: Wes: 1. The Royal Tenenbaums 2. Rushmore 3.The Darjeeling Limited 4.Bottle Rocket 5. The Life Aquatic (which I liked!)
PT: 1. Magnolia 2. There Will be Blood 3. Hard Eight 4.Punch-drunk Love 5. Boogie Nights
It's hard for me to decide which of these filmographies I admire more. I would take Royal Tenenbaums over any PT film and, yes, most any other film ever made. But I'd probably take Magnolia over any other Wes film, and, yes again, over most of the other films ever made. Integrated, my rankings would probably look like this.: 1. Tenenbaums 2. Magnolia 3.Blood 4. Rushmore 5. Hard Eight 6. Darjeeling 7. Bottle Rocket 8. Life Aquatic 9. Punch-drunk 10. Boogie Nights

So, there's more PT in the top 5, but he also owns the bottom two spots. I just have to call it a push. If you were going to make me choose (desert-island, at gun point, etc), I'd take Wes, because if I were stuck on a desert island with only one film to watch, I'd probably take Tenenbaums, but I'm in charge of this blog, so it's a tie.

This next part breaks my heart, though. I've only recently joined the PT fan club - been in it for about two weeks. I've loved Wes for about 6 years now, and I've been a true cinema lover for also roughly 6 years, so you can do that math. But I think it's PT who has the future, unless something changes. You see, Wes has this brilliant style, this gift for making things feel fantastic and realistic simultaneously, for stylizing comedy until it becomes tragedy and vice versa. He makes people who are real and fantastic, broken and nearly superheroic, and achingly hilarious and achingly tragic at the same times. For this, I admire him as much as any filmmaker. But he also keeps making the same damn movie, with not only the same themes (see Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini for filmmakers obsessed with the same themes over and over again) but with the same stylistic tricks, same color palette, same mix of samey comedy-tragedy over and over again. And he's doing it at a high level (see Darjeeling and Aquatic) but at a lower level than he once was (see Tenenbaums, Rushmore) and with no sign of breaking out of it. Ever. As far as I can tell, he's just going to keep making these brillaint but mediocre compared to Tenenbaums movies, even if the next one is going to be animated.

PT, on the other hand, is certainly less flashy with the color and the camera placement, although his cinematography is superior to Wes' (just less flashy). He's mostly a stranger to irony (generally a requirement for me) and, yes, often seems to work the same themes, especially as they relate to fathers, families, and Problems in the Past. But PT's filmography is a rollercoaster of highs and higher highs. He proved with Punch-Drunk he doesn't have to just get bigger and expand his running time; he proved with Blood that he doesn't need lots of characters to fill that running time, and that he could make a movie set anytime, any place. In other words, PT has got me excited for the future because I don't know what's coming, and I trust that, whatever he tries, it's going to work. Wes, on the other hand, is just going to keep trying the same thing, and it'll probably always work too - but never spectacularly. Looking to the past, I can't pick between them, but in the future, it's a no-brainer.

Also, has anyone noticed that PT mostly works with people with 3 names, or at least an initial? Philip Baker Hall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Daniel Day-Lewis, William H. Macy. Is this like a conspiracy or something?

Mini-Review: There Will be Blood

While puzzling over the nature of instincts in Principles of Psychology, William James asks the rhetorical question: "Why do men always lie down, when they can, on soft beds rather than hard floors?" His answer is that this question is rhetorical - there's no answer. This is just what men do: "Nothing can be said more than that these are human ways, and every creature likes its own ways."

Nothing I can say about There Will be Blood is more revelatory than this: we see its protagonist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) sleep on hard floors. He's a wealthy man, who could have any of his desires satisfied, and yes, does at times have a bed or at least a blanket, but we see him sleep on wooden floors. In other words, this is a creature who does not like the same ways as the other creatures we call humans. As Plainview would say: "these people." He's a man apart, a man with his own drives and his own (possibly inexplicable) desires, and his ways will never be clear to us, anymore than the ways of the squirrels will be clear to us. He is, at some point, simply not one of us "creatures" or "people," but something different. Something uber, perhaps? That's further than I can go right now.

Otherwise, I have little to add to the volumes that have already been written about the film. The cinematography is impressive. The dialogue is sharp, cutting, and practically tangible. The dissonant, nerve-wracking score, by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, may be the best I've ever heard (I've been trying to think of better scores. I like Hans Zimmer's for Gladiator and Vangelis' for Blade Runner. I might just like Ridley Scott). Plainview is played by Daniel Day-Lewis as a sort of oil tycoon version of Bill the Butcher, who does more of his violence to those around him emotionally, rather than physically, and yes, has probably given the best performance of anyone this year. And Paul Dano, the mute Nietzschean of Little Miss Sunshine, proves, as the preacher who Plainview takes a particular dislike to, to be a worthy foil to Day-Lewis' driven oil-driller. The movie's 2 hours and 40 minutes long, however, so you better go in prepared to spend 3 hours of your life staring at Daniel Day-Lewis, continually filthy, running roughshod over every human being around him, interspersed with stunning but bleak extra-long shots of Texas (standing in for California) wastelands and driven by an eerie, piercing score. If that doesn't sound like a good Friday night to you, I don't know what would.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dawn of the Dead [2004]

I just saw Dawn of the Dead and now I'm pondering if it's the best zombie movie I've ever seen. My zombie knowledge is sadly a little limited; I wasn't interested in them at all until I saw 28 Days Later. If the 2004 version of Dawn is in fact the best zombie movie I've ever seen, it's because it balances its high production values with the sort of excellent dialogue and acting that I haven't seen from Romero, while keeping all of the tension you'd see from 28 Days and 28 Weeks while having the coherent and fully fleshed out plot that both of those films lacked. Here's the top 5 zombie movies that I've seen.

1.Shaun of the Dead - It might be just the tiniest bit less tense and exciting than the 2004 Dawn, but has the production values and gorefest to match any zombie movie - and that stuff's just icing on top of the comedy cake.
2.Dawn of the Dead [2004] - Like I said, this one is the total package. Great acting, dialogue, plot, story, gore - some people you like die and it's sad, some people you dislike die and it's great, some people you used to dislike but now you like die and its saddest of all because you've seen their "growth."
3.28 Days Later - The first half, if it were a standalone movie, would top everything else on this list. Brendan Gleeson + Cillian Murphy= fucking awesome. And Christopher Eccleston is pretty awesome too, but the whole second half with the soldiers just doesn't quite ring right. Danny Boyle rarely makes a complete movie.
4.Dawn of the Dead [1978] - Comedy, Marxist commentary, lots of (semi-believable) gore, and one exhilarating bout of wheelbarrow based zombie shooting. The classic.
5. Night of the Living Dead - The one that started it all. Unspeakably bad acting and low production values, but still satisfying.

Not making the cut: 28 Weeks Later, I am Legend (zombie/vampire hybrids), probably some other stuff I'm forgetting. But I haven't seen that many zombie movies.

Here's the list of zombie stuff I still need to watch. Please, recommend anything not on here, and suggest which of these I should watch first, if you've got an opinion:
Day of the Dead
Land of the Dead
Dead Alive
Cemetery Man

Monday, January 14, 2008

Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

American director Julian Schabel's third film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is an adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir of locked-in syndrome of the same name. Bauby experiences a stroke and awakens able to only blink one eye. He describes his condition as a binary - the diving bell of his body weighs him to the bottom of the ocean, the butterfly of his mind allows his imagination free reign. The composing of his memoir becomes the ultimate triumph of the butterfly over the diving bell.

Schnabel's adaptation is in many ways highly faithful. The first half of the film is more diving bell than butterfly, and takes place mostly from Bauby's perspective - a relentless series of POV shots in which Bauby's doctors, therapists, relatives, and friends flit in and out of his field of vision. In this portion, the film belongs most strongly to Bauby's innovative speech therapist, whose mixture of sympathy and excitement at the challenge of teaching Bauby to communicate are portrayed beautifully by Marie Josee-Croze. In the second half of the film, as Bauby's butterfly begins to emerge, we are finally rewarded with the blissful escape denied to "Jean-Do" - the camera begins to move about freely, and we get our first good looks at our subject. In this portion, it's Mathieu Almaric who shines as Bauby; strapped down and locked in, Almaric nevertheless conveys a full range of emotions simply by blinking one eyelid and moving one eye.

All of that said, the film, despite Janusz Kaminski's excellent cinematography and an excellent and moving soundtrack (U2, Tom Waits, the Velvet Underground), left me far less emotionally engaged than Bauby's memoir. Perhaps this is because the memoir allowed me to see Bauby's mind working in a way that, as he acknowledges, doesn't actually occur. The film, in which we see that a single sentence of the memoir can take hours to painstakingly blink out, is perhaps not in the position to convey the triumph of the butterfly without shortchanging the diving bell in a way that would have been disingenuous.

One final note: after just observing that I was less moved by the film than the book, I need to say that Max von Sydow's two-scene portrayal of Bauby's shut-in father is perhaps the most moving work of acting I have ever seen. Both of those scenes, the first a flashback when the hale son visits the ailing father, the second a one-sided speaker phone conversation in which the shut-in father calls the locked-in son, left me in tears as Sydow leaped from senile confusion to grief to tenderness, back to confusion. If for no other reason, you should go see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly for the 78 year old Sydow, free from a stupid villain role in 2002's Minority Report and a stupider villain role in last year's Rush Hour 3, putting his entire being into an all too brief role.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

My Favorite Films of All Time

Since Blade Runner is coming to the triangle next week, and I'm super-psyched about seeing one of my favorite films of all time, I'm going to take this time to just ruminate on my favorite films of all time. It used to be, when I was asked what my favorite movie was, I was never able to give a single film but had a pretty stable list of 5 or more films that I would answer consistently. Here's Graham's top 6 or so films, circa 2003, let's say:
Blade Runner
Apocalypse Now
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Wings of Desire
Reservoir Dogs

Ok, so, that's pretty close. A quick analysis:
Epic: 5/7 (exceptions: Wings and Dogs)
Violent: 6/7 (exception: Wings)
Long: 6/7 (exception: Dogs)
Sausagefest: 5.5/7 (exceptions: Wings and kinda Blade Runner)

Here's what I'm getting at. Besides the fact that Wings of Desire stands out, I think we've learned that, roughly five years ago, my favorite films were generally long, epic, violent, and lacking in major roles for chicks. Also, as I've said, it was a pretty consistent and pretty short list.

I guess this is it what it means to grow old. Nowadays, my favorite films span more continents, have entered the 21st century (the old list barely made it to the 90s) and gone back to the beginning of the 20th, and, yes, occasionally involve women (seriously, occasionally only). How does one construct a top 5 or 10 or even 20 list when faced with this sort of breadth and depth? Should there be a 1 or 3 or 5-year waiting period before a film can make the list? Would a waiting period apply only to films made within that time (no Departed, for example) or also to films that I've just seen recently, even if they're older (8 1/2, Magnolia, etc)? In a limited way, it makes sense to list the 10 ten films of the preceding year even if they otherwise have nothing in common with each other, but does it make any sense make some sort of giant list and stick The Philadelphia Story next to Blade Runner next to The Seventh Seal? Finally, should I just say fuck it, elevate myself to the same level as the AFI, and make a hundred film list?

I've decided to provisionally answer these questions by making a list that will be the logical extension of the 2003 list, and I'll try to represent my film geek side on it - all the stuff i've rented, hunted down, and loved, from any time except the last couple of years, over the years, even if I've just seen it. The, my various top 10 lists from the past few years can become the staging areas for the bigger list, but none of these more recent films are allowed on it right away. Also, for now, I'll try to keep it under 30 films, and I'm not going to order it. Finally, at the end, just to see what's happened, we'll get the same analysis as we got on the other list. Also, if anyone actually read this far, I'm sorry.

Graham's Favorite Films of All Time, for Now
Blade Runner
Apocalypse Now
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Wings of Desire
Reservoir Dogs
Nights of Cabiria
The Seventh Seal
Modern Times
The Philadelphia Story
The Lady Eve
The Wild Bunch
Meet John Doe
The Big Lebowski
The Matrix
The Big Sleep
The Royal Tenebaums
The Third Man
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Lone Star
Sunset Blvd

Epic: 12/29
Long: 10/29
Violent: 11/29
Sausage Fest: 7.5/27

Hmm, well, that's what I thought. My tastes in film have, in the past 5 years or so, gotten much less epic, violent, long, and dudetacular (I still love Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, though). I might starting rating all films based on those 4 factors, as well. That'll be fun.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Review: Sweeney Todd

I just saw Sweeney Todd, Tim Burton's movie musical based on Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical of the same name. Like all Tim Burton movies, Sweeney Todd is, despite its nearly monochromatic color palette, bursting with vibrant visuals, especially when the monochrome is broken by blood. Like most Tim Burton movies, Sweeney Todd stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Like relatively few Tim Burton movies, Sweeney Todd is as affecting and passionate as it is visually striking.

Front and center in the film's emotional success is Sondheim's music. Sweeney Todd is a true musical, with characters breaking into song, accompanied by a full but non-diagetic orchestra, to limn their inner feelings. Sondheim's songs are touching and hilarious by turns, and sometimes simultaneously, and although neither Depp nor Carter have been hiding powerful vocals, they both sing effectively and comfortably.

The cast is a mixture of veterans and mostly nondescript newcomers clearly chosen for their singing abilities. Depp plays the eponymous Sweeney Todd, a barber wrongly convicted and imprisoned by malevolent Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who covets Todd's wife. Todd has escaped and returned to London, to find his wife dead, his daughter Joanna Judge Turpin's ward, and his skills as a barber still unmatched, even as compared to the city's current finest - the Italian charlatan Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen in an all-too brief but viciously comic role). In London, Todd immediately starts scheming for a way to get Judge Turpin into his deadly barber's chair, and begins by impressing the judge's evil sidekick Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall) with his tonsorial ability. He's joined in his quest by Mrs. Lovett (Carter), the meat pie baker who recognizes the barber and whose pies are the worst in London. The barber finda another ally, in a slightly underdeveloped side plot which never strays too far from the main action, in the sailor who rescued him who has since caught a glimpse of Joanna in Judge Turpin's window and wants to rescue her from his clutches. Joanna, the sailor, and Pirelli's young assistant are all played by actors unknown to me, although they can all sing.

Sweeney Todd is not perfect. Mrs. Lovett urges Todd to be patient in taking his revenge, and at times the film's pace was too measured for my taste - some of that early time could have been reserved for its slightly rushed climax. But, in addition to its well-blended visuals, music, and acting, the movie provides a dark combination of comedy and tragedy. The central tale is pure tragedy, and eventually unwinds several plot twists that heighten the pathos of the barber's plight. But, although always dark, it is often funny, particularly in two scenes. In the first, Todd and Mrs. Lovett sing a witty back and forth about the relative flaws and virtues of meat drawn from priests, vicars, poets, fops, and other 19th century London types. In the second, Mrs. Lovett fantasizes about a financially secure future in which she and Todd can live blissfully at the beach. The barber and the baker, whose dark-lidded pallor is perfect for Burton's murky London, look comically out of place at various beach locales, and Depp maintains his vengeful glower even as his character is put into a variety of beach appropriate outfits. Underlying all of this is the certain sense that, whatever the future holds, it is not a life of bliss for these two.

Sweeney Todd is not, like most of the musicals (Moulin Rouge, Dreamgirls, Once, etc) periodically hyped to save the film version of that genre, a post-musical, a post-modern musical, or a real-life musical. What it is is a standard, although dark and darkly comic, Broadway musical lovingly translated into a film, with the perfect director and cast to capture its somber, manic, and comic moods. In other words, it's a Tim Burton film, propelled by Sondheim's music into emotional realms that the intellectual Burton sometimes cannot reach.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Update: Women and Movie Stars

This just in: the Quigley Poll, which I don't entirely understand, just had its numbers released: The Quigley Poll seems to be a strange beast: it is supposed to tell us the top 10 most successful movie stars of the previous year, but it does so by polling the exhibitors, not by simply adding up the box office grosses of the stars in question. In some ways this makes sense - if you go to box office mojo and look at career box office earnings, Christopher "Count Dookruman the White" Lee will be pretty high, since he happened to be in 2 Star Wars movies and 3 Lord of the Rings Movies, even though no one knows who he is. So, instead of mathematically trying to work out how important each star is to a film's success, they just poll the people who should know: movie theater owners. Here's the list of most bankable stars of 2007:
1. Johnny Depp
2. Will Smith
3. George Clooney
4. Matt Damon
5. Denzel Washington
6. Russell Crowe
7. Tom Cruise
8. Nicholas Cage
9. Will Ferrell
10. Tom Hanks

Here's what MSNBC and every other media outlet noted: "
For the first year in 24 years, a female actress was not included on the top 10 list." Damn. If the era of the movie star really is over (note: George Clooney is supposed to be case-in-point that the movie star is dead, but he's number 3 for 2007), the era of the female movie star seems to be deader than the era of the male movie star. At this point, I have no thoughts on why this might be. I'm sure I'll suggest something eventually.

Overall, I'm skeptical of this "poll." First of all, the Clooney factor. Sure Ocean's 13 did great business, but that was a sequel with tons of stars that people actually wanted to see. Michael Clayton was 10 times better - no dice. What about Nic Cage? If being a movie star means, as this article suggests ( , option 3) that you can bring people into a movie that no one wants to see just by being in it, Nic Cage certainly doesn't count. He had a great run with National Treasure 2, a sequel with an inexplicably established fan base and the Bruckheimer name on it, but completely bombed with Next. Next, which you may not have heard of, co-starred Julianne Moore and Jessica Biel, one of Hollywood's current "It" girls, and was a semi-supernatural adventure yarn with a metacritic rating of 42. National Treasure 2 has a lower-wattage cast, outside of Cage himself (in the Quigley poll, I'm sure Biel would be higher than Ed Harris and Harvey Keitel combined), and only has a 48 on metacritic - it's not a better movie. But people had no interest in Next, just because it had Nicholas Cage in it. Or maybe they just thought it was an adaptation of the MTV show.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

10 Down

1. Women. Women have had a bad year in Hollywood - such a bad year that it could be its own post. Waitress started the year off great, and Juno closed it, but in between nothing but bad stuff happened to women. First of all Adrienne Shelly, the writer-director-co-star of Waitress, was murdered. Then you've got the infamous, possibly apocryphal statement by WB exec Jeff Robinov that "We are no longer doing movies with women in the lead." Enter Judd Apatow sausage-fests like Knocked Up and Superbad; in the former, the women are well-treated but get way less screen time and fun, while in the latter women are at best sexual objects and at worst the coming catastrophe that destroys young male homosociality. As A.O. Scott said about Juno, in response to the Apatow films: "Despite what most products of the Hollywood comedy boys’ club would have you believe, it is possible to possess both a uterus and a sense of humor." Every female actress of note in the entire world was packed into Evening (Claire Danes, Vanessa Redgrave, Toni Collette, Eileen Atkins, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Natasha Richardson) but it sucked so no one went to see it. So, we've still got Juno. I guess that's about it.
2.Sequels. I hated the first two Spider-man movies, but the critics liked them. I liked the first two Shrek movies and the first two Rush Hour movies. Nobody liked Fantastic Four, and the people liked National Treasure, but not the critics. All of those franchises were in different places, and all of them had different levels of financial success in their 2007 offerings, but all the 2007 offerings had one thing in common: they all sucked, to differing degrees. Most of them alot.
3.The War on Terror. In the Valley of Elah was pretty good, and I've heard good things about Charlie Wilson's War and The Kingdom. That's the best that can be said: 3 ok movies that got ok reviews and made ok money. Then, of course, there's Lions for Lambs, Rendition, Redacted, and probably some other crap I'm forgetting that no critics liked and no one saw. Oh well. Just rent Three Kings.
4.Biopics. Last year, a mediocre biopic, Walk the Line, had Oscar success, and a couple years back an even worse film, Ray, also had inexplicable success. This year, two French biopics (Moliere and La Vie en Rose) were mostly ignored while Todd Haynes' I'm Not There made biopics look pathetically conservative (which they are) and Judd Apatow's Walk Hard made them look stupid (they are). No more biopics, ever.
5.John C. Reilly. Everything Judd Apatow touches turns to gold. So when he elevated perpetual fourth fiddle John C. Reilly to lead in his spoof of Hollywood's worst genre, Reilly's road to stardom seemed paved to success - hell, it even got good reviews. This one time out, though, Apatow turned some lead to more lead, and the only possible explanation I can come up with is that people just aren't interested in Reilly. Maybe there'll be a Talladega Nights sequel starring him or something, but don't count on it.
6.The Lives of Others. This German film took a double whammy this year. First, us pathetic non-Manhattanites got our first look at it this year, but it won last year's Oscar for best foreign picture. Some critics put it on top 10 lists this year, some not. Frankly, I don't know what to do with it on my own list, and this annoys me. More importantly, although Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film's overly-named debut director, is still alive, we lost its 54-year old star, Ulrich Muhe, to cancer before he had a chance to bring us more of his captivating underplaying. God, people keep dying on this list.
7.The Independent Film Channel. The IFC has a great new plan for releasing movies: release them simultaneously on demand on cable, the internet, and in one pretentious theater somewhere in Manhattan. So that means the renowned This is England will never come near me in theaters, so I have to watch it on my laptop screen. I've wanted to watch it for months, but I don't like watching movies on my laptop screen. Couldn't we just keep seeing movies, you know, in movie theaters - without moving to Manhattan?
8.Rich white people who think their lives suck so much that they have to go off to Alaska and die for no reason, so that another rich white person can write a book about it for rich white people to read in bookclubs, and then have other rich white people make a movie about it for rich white people to go see in independent movie theaters while drinking halfcalf double foam vanilla lattes and oohing and ahhing about the plight of unhappy rich white people.
9. Star Power. In addition to the Rubinov quote, it was a rough year for stars. Put simply, no one will go see a movie just because a star is in it, ever again. They have to want to see the movie itself. This means brilliant fare such as Michael Clayton goes unnoticed because George Clooney can't sell a movie all by himself, but it also probably means no more Julia Roberts vehicles forever. At least an even trade.
10.Manohla Dargis. She's a good critic. But every time I see that she reviewed a movie I wanted to hear about from A.O, my soul shriveled a little.

10 Up

I work at the Chelsea Movie Theater in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and generally we hold, when making our lists of the Top 10 films of the year, that the movie year is from one Oscars telecast to the next, not Jan-Dec. We don't have A.O. Scott's luxury of living in New York and being paid to see all the movies that come out months before the Oscars telecast in Manhattan - we have to wait for the movies if we get them at all. Thus, I can't do a top 10 list, because Atonement, The Savages, Diving Bell and the Butterfly, There Will be Blood, and pretty much an entire second half of a top ten list haven't showed up here. But, in honor of the new year, and a new blog, I will post here a list of the 10 entities I see as having had the best and worst year, so far. Let's start with 10 up.

1.Josh Brolin. If you'd asked me who Josh Brolin was a year ago, I would have said "who?" You could have even told me he was in Mimic, which I saw, and I would have had no idea who he was. But, in 2007, he made up part of a stellar cast of In the Valley of Elah, scared the hell out of me as a Zombie doctor in Grindhouse, anchored the sublime No Country for Old Men between sociopath Javier Bardem and world-weary Tommy Lee Jones, and stole every goddamn scene he was in in American Gangster. I think I can safely say he had the best year of anyone.
2.Seth Rogen. So far, my favorite movie of the year has been Judd Apatow's testosterone-fueled maternity epic Knocked Up, and that movie rested on the shoulders of Rogen, everyone's favorite lovable slacker. Throw in the fact that he co-wrote another Apatow hit, Superbad, and contributed to that film's brilliant cast, and you've got a year that only a Brolin could top.
3.Tommy Lee Jones. Tommy Lee Jones sure is a tracker/hunter/sheriff, isn't he? Do yourself a favor and see No Country for Old Men and In the Valley of Elah for two absolutely beautiful portraits of a lawman trying to solve a crime that threatens to rend his sanity in two. Then do yourself another favor and see the same thing happen in his excellent directorial debut from last year, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Then watch The Fugitive just to see stuff blow-up. Finally, rent 2003's The Hunted and tell me why I thought it was good when no one else did. Also, more stuff blows up, at least at the beginning
4.Tony Gilroy. In terms of good movies, actually good movies, not just campfests or Sean Connery romps, I think the Bourne series now beats the Bond series 3-1 (Casino Royale*). Gilroy, who you might not have heard of, wrote all three of the Bourne movies, and each was better than the last, culminating in this year's amazing Bourne Ultimatum. But Gilroy also wrote and made his directorial debut with Michael Clayton, which was even better than any of the Bourne movies and made legal thrillers thrilling again. Take that, John Grisham.
5.Judd Apatow. Judd would probably have been number two, behind only the mustachioed Brolin, but Walk Hard bombed. I'm sure the hundreds of millions of dollars he made this year with Superbad and Knocked Up will console him for this fall from grace on my first annual 10 Up feature.
6.Russell Crowe. God I love Russell Crowe. And this year he accomplished the impossible: prior to out-acting the excellent Denzel Washington in American Gangster, his flashy outlaw in 3:10 to Yuma showed up Christian Bale, the man Werner Herzog proclaimed the best actor of his generation. If you're better than Christian Bale at anything, you had a good year. Also, I'd like to see them have a push-up contest (shirtless, of course).
7.Christian Bale. God I love Christian Bale.
8.Werner Herzog. I know Herzog hasn't been gone, but it's felt like he has - I like documentaries very much, but I miss his fiction features. We got the first one in years in Rescue Dawn, which showcased Steve Zahn, the lush environment of Thailand (standing in for Vietnam), Christian Bale's astonishing ability to lose weight, Christian Bale's slack jaw, and Christian Bale. Awesome.
9.The Princess Bride. Hollywood fairy tales have gone the Shrek route since, well, Shrek, and it was good to see Disney revive the tongue-in-cheek but considerably lighter touch of Princess Bride in Enchanted. Even more Princess Bride-ish is Stardust, the likewise excellent and likewise lightly condescending but ultimately satisfying take on fairy tales.
10.Wes Anderson. The Life Aquatic was good but disappointing, and Darjeeling Limited proved that, while we don't know what the future holds, ol' Wes has still got it, whatever it is. Plus, as every critic and "blogger" never ceases to point out, without Wes, you wouldn't have seen Juno, Rocket Science, Margot at the Wedding, or any other movie about charming and quirky hipsters who try to make their lives work while battling quirkily crippling social disorders and having cool music play in the background. And I like those movies.

*What, you want to argue Goldfinger? Dr. No? Thunderball? Go back and watch them first - I love them, but they're not good. That's why I love them.

A Note on Blogging

So first of all, god, I have a blog. I find this pretty inappropriate, as I am against blogs in general. My wife has one, and my friend Russ has one, and presumably other people that I know that walk around like normal people are also secretly, in a different life, "bloggers." So it seems like I should follow suit. I actually have another one that I made for a class I was in, but since I was in charge of my own project I decided not to update it. It has one post.

This blog, as you might be able to guess from the title, will be mostly about movies, although I'm sure I'll also hold forth on comics, literature, music, and politics, in roughly that order of frequency. I will do my best to never mention any sandwiches that I have eaten, or my cats, or when I'm having a bad day. In other words, I shall try to keep the "blogging" to a minimum.

Finally, I should start with the one tenet that guides this blog: A.O. Scott is always right. If I ever disagree with him, I will reserve the right to do so on this blog, but I will also bring shame to myself for disagreeing with him and thus being wrong. Best I can do, folks.