You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2011.

It’s been two months since our first top five post of 2011, and the summer has provided plenty of changes, not to mention quite an eclectic mix of films.

Adam

1. The Guard
2. X-Men: First Class
3. Fast Five
4. Captain America
5. The Help

Jared

1. Paul
2. The Guard
3. The Names of Love
4. Kaboom
5. Super 8

Brian

1. Captain America: The First Avenger
2. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
3. Page One: Inside the New York Times
4. The Adjustment Bureau
5. X-Men: First Class

John

1. Source Code
2. Armadillo
3. The Tree of Life
4. Kung Fu Panda 2
5. Final Destination 5

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Stop staring at me!!

What’s in a name?  When Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon write a movie about going back in time, meeting famous historical dudes, and ultimately learning about yourself in the present, their film makes $40 million at the box office, spawns a sequel and an animated TV series and launched the career of an unlikely star.  When Brian and I write a skit about going back in time, meeting famous historical dudes, and ultimately learning about yourself in the present, we get an A in our Theory of Knowledge class.  At least, that’s how I remember it.

And, of course, when Woody Allen writes a film about going back in time, meeting famous historical figures, and ultimately learning about yourself in the present, Midnight in Paris becomes his highest grosser at the domestic box office, and its handlers are placing it square on the path to a writing nomination and quite possible a best picture one to boot.

Who knew that for Woody Allen to find success again, he just had to be derivative of me and Brian Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?

The film is both accessible and likable, two traits that don’t always describe Allen’s films.  Sure, the film bears several of his hallmarks, most notably the neurotic protagonist/stand-in for Woody Allen (Owen Wilson in a role his schnozz was born to play), who is inevitably entwined with several attractive women (McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux (the best part of Robin Hood), I guess flirting with Carla Bruni, the 1st lady of France) and supported by an outstanding ensemble cast in general.  But here, Allen seems to just have fun, drumming up a lighthearted romantic comedy.

I think writing in the voice of 1920s Parisians stirred something in Allen.  The present-day scenes are unremarkable, seeming to serve mainly as a conduit to get back in time.  There’s nothing particularly subtle about Rachel McAdams’s character, for example, and there’s no apparent reason given why Wilson ever was in a relationship with her to begin with.  I’ll add a caveat that while the joke lasted too long, until all possible humor was drained, I really enjoyed Michael Sheen as the obnoxiously pretentious know-it-all.  The man has incredible range, and if there’s anyone out there who only knows him as Tony Blair and/or David Frost, check him out as an over the top rocker in Laws of Attraction or Brian Clough in The Damned United for starters.

But back to 1920s Paris, where every seemingly every single portryal of a famous writer or artist is outsized exactly to the point where we’d like to imagine each personality being.  From Alison Pill’s fantastic flapper Zelda Fitzgerald to Corey Stoll’s larger than life Hemingway; from Adrien Brody’s suitably ridiculous Dali to Kathy Bates’s yeoman work as the ringleader Gertrude Stein, one imagine’s Allen’s advice to his talented cast as something along the lines of: “Go big or go home.”

And I think this verve shines through in the writing of these historical figures, as Allen seems to be laughing along with us as he tries to figure out which literary icon to shoehorn in next.  Historical accuracy becomes irrelevant as each pairing of titans becomes a new chance to see these great minds in action.

Indeed, I’d argue the love story is the weak thread in all of this.  I mentioned above my problems with Rachel McAdams’s character.  Marion Cotillard is her normal dazzling self, but I think her character is most effective as an entree into the lives of the historical figures.  And least effective when she serves as a way for Allen to slip back into his rut of neuroses.  I’m relatively ambivalent about the final scene, but I’d  hope those who complained that, say, (500) Days of Summer was too cute in that respect would bring up a similar point.

In terms of Oscar, if this film were done by Judy Allen, I don’t think I’m writing this post.  The film has a much lighter tone than your typical Oscar film, the characterization is relatively weak, the message borderline trite.  Which just means it is a fun summer movie that I could (and did) see with my grandmas and that they enjoyed.  Maaaybe a screenwriting nomination, if the rest of the year turns out to be weak.  But I’m skeptical, because I don’t think as many people go see it, and it isn’t like traveling back in time to meet famous people is a particulalr novel device.  As is, nothing is ever in the bag, but a writing nom wouldn’t be surprising in the least.  And it is certainly a candidate for best picture, but that may more depend on how many Oscar-type films fail to pan out.

It is too early for me to say if the film, writing, or performances would make my ballot.  I’m fairly doubtful, though I did enjoy the movie so that means I’m bullish on this year’s Oscar prospects.  I’m sure I’ll revisit later on.

I’ve long been fascinated by actors and actresses who decide to record music, possibly stemming from a present I received at a 5th grade birthday party, Shaq Fu: Da Return.  Everyone has heard William Shatner’s recordings, but every so often I’ll share a lesser known foray into music.

Now up: John Corbett

John Corbett is best known for his roles in two iconic televison series: Northern Exposure and Sex in the City, receiving a Golden Globe nomination apiece.  On the small screen he also was in the recently-cancelled United States of Tara and starred in the shortlived (but Emmy and TCA-nominated) Lucky, along with Craig Robinson.  But he’s also found steady work in (admittedly generally uninteresting) movies, highlighted by his turns in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Raising Helen.  And he’s really fantastic in a personal favorite of mine, Wonderland.

On screen, Corbett tends to exude a laid-back, chill persona.  I make no claims to knowing the man, but given that his music could be described similarly, perhaps Corbett really is John Q. Public, at least how we’d like to see ourselves: capable, easygoing, always in control without needing or appearing to be so.  Erlewine, at AMG, calls these traits “naturalistic.”  Perhaps.  My theory, based on the day I recently spent in Wheeling, Corbett’s hometown, is that’s just how people from Wheeling are.

It follows, then, that Corbett’s self-titled country album wouldn’t resort to any celebrity music gimmickry.  There aren’t any famous guest artists and there’s no apparent work by producers to hide or alter Corbett’s voice.  It is pretty straightforward country music.  No exaggerated twang or crossover potential, just the stuff you listen to while sitting on your front porch, beer in hand, maybe shooting the breeze with your friends.

Released in 2006, the album reached #45 on the country music charts and #21 on the independent chart.  It somehow figures that Corbett wouldn’t sign with a label.  That could be the reason I haven’t seen the album on Rhapsody or Spotify.  But don’t worry, I own the CD, which features a cover photo (pictured left) by Bo Derek, Corbett’s longtime girlfriend.  Oddly, I may actually remember buying it.  If I recall correctly, Brian and I were rooming together in Virginia and had ventured out to Total Wine, likely to pick up some beers for a taste test.  There was a music store going out of business in the same strip mall.  Most of the stuff had been picked clean, but we found a couple of good things in there, I won’t embarrass Brian by naming what he bought.

There was one single from the album, “Good to Go”, which reached #43 on the Country Singles chart.  They made a generally disappointing music video:

Or, if you prefer, you watch his performance of the song on The Tony Danza Show.  I think my favorite song from the album, though, is “Revival”:

Brilliant, Banal, or Bizarre – I probably need another category here, but banal, unfortunately.  Part of that is on me.  I tend to like my country either really poppy or heartbreakingly sad.  For me, a lot of stuff in the middle, especially those without big hooks, sounds a little bland.  I did kinda like the album, but I’ve never had any John Corbett tunes stuck in my head.

I really enjoy a great movie title. Most titles are functional and appropriate. Maybe they refer to a main character or a plot element. But sometimes they poetically encapsulate a movie’s themes. It’s great to reflect on a title after seeing a movie and find a deeper meaning.

I was initially going to include a quick blurb on my favorite titles of the year in my Top Ten post, but the blurb quickly spun out of control so it needed its own post. Apparently two words is the sweet spot for title length.

3. Fair Game. The provenance of this title is straight-forward as it is a real-life description a Bush political operative gave to Valerie Plame as reason for destroying her career. Her husband was publicly refuting the evidence of WMDs in Iraq so his wife’s work for the CIA was fair game in order undermine him – and, in the process, revealing the classified name of a CIA operative.

So in that regard it’s a good if fairly normal title. I think what makes it special is its pithiness. Plame’s entire career is reduced to a political bargaining chip. The Bush administration is so callously dismissive about someone’s life on its march to war. It really emphasises the immense injustice of the situation.

2. Another Year. To me, the key word here is “another.” The “year” is fairly clear as time time period the film covers. One section per season, the film follows its characters through the ups and downs of a year. “Another” has the perfect connotation: it’s not just a year or any year, but yet another year piled atop all the others. Many years have come before and more are still to come; this one is just a slice of the many that make up a life. It’s perfect for a film about the not-always-pleasant passage of time. It just sounds wary.

1. Lovely, Still. The winner due to punctuation. Jared put this Independent Spirit first screenplay nominee in his top ten. I didn’t like it nearly as much, but it has its moments. I did really enjoy its title. As a tale of burgeoning love between two elderly people, “still lovely” is a nice sentiment that, despite their age, these people and their love are still beautiful. But it’s the comma that packs the punch.

This isn’t a mere platitude. The comma puts a pause between the words and suggests contemplation, as if the speaker thoughtfully adds the “still.” That reflection, that despite the passage of time “lovely” still applies, makes it all the more sincere. Lovely, indeed.

I’ve long been fascinated by actors and actresses who decide to record music, possibly stemming from a present I received at a 5th grade birthday party, Shaq Fu: Da Return.  Everyone has heard William Shatner’s recordings, but every so often I’ll share a lesser known foray into music.

First up: Emmy Rossum

You probably at least know Ms. Rossum from her turns in The Day After Tomorrow (where she plays opposite Jake Gyllenhaal) or The Phantom of the Opera (don’t forget, that was Gerard Butler as the Phantom).  She’s currently starring in Shameless, airing on Showtime, in a performance that several critics felt deserved Emmy consideration.  As did I, for three main reasons:

  1. She really is fantastic in the role.
  2. Come on.  Emmy nominated for an Emmy?  Can you even begin to imagine someone like Bruce Vilanch taking a crack at that for awards show banter? 
  3. I’m madly in love with her.

Rossum actually has had a long relationship with music.  Along with Phantom, she’s sung on the soundtracks to her films Nola and Songcatcher.  And at a young age she joined the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus.  She apparently has perfect pitch and can sing in a dozen different keys.  Which I can totally relate to, having a singing voice that caused my copy of Rock Band to pop out of the console and slap me in the face.

Rossum released her album, Inside Out, in 2007, where it reached #199 on the Billboard 200 and #2 on the New Age charts.  AMG’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes:

 “In its gently swaying melodies and cool textures, Inside Out resembles nothing so much as a teeny version of Watermark, lacking the spooky Celtic overtones of Enya‘s 1988 masterwork but retaining the same dreamy, shimmering qualities of her music, then marrying that wet, glistening sound to a relatively updated production (mainly heard via skittering electronic rhythms) and lovelorn pop tunes. Naturally, this makes for a much lighter record than Enya‘s, one that’s closer in spirit to an old-fashioned teen-pop record because it’s all about love, sweetness, and dreams, and the remarkable thing is that all this earnest adolescence doesn’t jar with the ethereal music.”

Which I copy because he does a much better job than I was going to do of describing what I thought of the album.  Unsurprisingly, given that description, I’m a pretty big fan and I’ve listened to it a number of times over the years.  And I’d definitely agree with Erlewine, the album sounds like it comes from a world where the pop music that reigned supreme sprang from Enya (rather than Madonna).  Impressively, she co-wrote all one but one of the songs on the album (her cover of “Rainy Days and Mondays” is perhaps my second favorite song on the album).  She also recorded an EP of Christmas songs, but I have a fairly low tolerance for holiday music.

I’m especially a fan of the single “Slow Me Down”.  Her sort of choral a cappella arrangements are particularly effective, serving to heighten the tension in the song, matching well with the lyrics.  The music video is below, and I think you’ll see why I’m madly in love with Emmy Rossum, as she’s crazy talented and the camera just adores her.

 

Brilliant, Banal, or Bizarre – Definitely brilliant.  Sure, she’s got a bit of the breathy celebrity singing voice, but that’s a conscious decision here.  She can certainly carry a tune and her stuff is interesting and original.

Looking at film years from a high level always interests me and 2010 provided an interesting contrast to 2009. The latter had a good number of movies I loved but was light in quality beyond the very top films. By November I was talking about how 2010 was already better than 2009. I actually pondered making this a top 15 list since the quality was so high in my mind… until it came time to actually make the list. It turns out there was a lot I liked but not an especially large amount that I was passionate about. So kind of the exact opposite of 2009.

In the end, there are two films I loved and a good number I really liked.

1. Inception. Clever, entertaining, and bad-ass. I suppose I sound like every other internet nerd when I slobber all over this film, but Christopher Nolan is the master at mixing traditional blockbuster elements with thought-provoking topics. Part of what’s so great about Inception is how brashly original it is. It’s pretty much like nothing that’s been done, which makes it all the more astonishing. A year later, it still feels so complete. How is a plot so clever, original, and complex so airtight? I feel like we’ll be talking about this one for years.

2. The Social Network. This has just about everything you could ask for in a film. It has a compelling plot, it’s technically brilliant from the camerawork and score to the acting, and it’s wonderfully atmospheric and thematically resonant. The second time I saw it the ending snuck up on me and I was very sad that it was over. I think too many people want it to be a movie about a generation since it’s about a technology that defines a generation. But it’s not. It’s about relationships and ambition and how they can be at odds – and it’s damn good at it.

3. Get Low. This is just a delightful film. To some extent it’s hard to explain the joy I felt watching this. It’s a mix of an interesting premise, terrific characters, and some wonderful acting. Robert Duvall stars as a hermit in the 1940s who decides to return to public life by throwing himself his own funeral. Bill Murray is fantastic as the funeral director that Duvall hires. Sissy Spacek plays an old flame of Duvall’s. It’s a film about regret, but doesn’t overtly dwell on it. Its lack of awards season traction is the disappointment of the year for me.

4. Carlos. Here is a film that can succeed because of its length. At about six hours long – it has also been released as a TV miniseries – it really has time to make a deep dive into its subject. Carlos is “The Jackal,” the famed terrorist from the 1960 and 70s. At the beginning of the film, Carlos is a fit, idealistic young man that turns to violence for his conception of revolution. By the end, he’s a chubby has-been living off the generosity of unsavory friends. The journey from one to the other is all the fun. And, best of all, we spend enough time with Carlos that we understand the whys behind it all. Despite its six hour runtime it almost never drags and includes some long, involved action scenes of Carlos’s plots.

5. Exit Through the Gift Shop. This is the second documentary on my top ten lists about the natures of art and nonfiction film (see 2007’s My Kid Could Paint That). These are certainly themes that resonate with me. This is a film about the anarchic world of street art, just to have the camera turned back on the original director to question his role and what makes something “art” and not mere derivative. While leaving you with plenty to ponder (including “what just happened??”), it’s also terrifically entertaining.

6. Restrepo. Co-director Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya this year. This guy was the real deal and the film he shot is as well. He and collaborator Sebastian Junger have incredible access while embedded with an infantry unit stationed at an isolated outpost in Afghanistan. If there’s any film that shows you what it’s like to be in the war in Afghanistan, this is it. The battle scenes are chaotic and immersive, but it also gives insight to the human experience of fighting this war: the emotional toll, the adrenaline rush, the camaraderie, the grief of losing a friend. It also gives a sense of the futility of the mission and the mistakes made earlier in the war that we’re still paying for.

7. Green Zone. To me, this is a great mix of action and political thriller. I like my shootout sequences balanced with compelling intrigue. While it’s certainly preaching to the choir with me, the politics got me appropriately angered and I liked that it included real-life events from the occupation of Iraq, such as the disastrous debaathification of the Iraqi government. I don’t deny it has a few issues (see my earlier post for more) but I found this a thrilling ride.

8. Catfish. Forget The Social Network. This is the film that takes a microscope to what it means to be alive in today’s electronically connected world. Two friends turn their cameras on another friend as he embarks on a relationship with a girl he met online. Things don’t develop according to plan. It’s interesting to me that a story ostensibly about online romance reveals so much about true human emotion and imperfection. If you caught the marketing campaign for it and came away thinking it was some sort of horror documentary, forget you ever saw that. It has several taut moments but it’s more likely to leave you heartbroken than saddened.

9. The House of Branching Love. I’m not sure this Finnish film really counts because it never got a U.S. release. I saw it at the 2010 Film Fest DC and it’s managed to hang around in my head. It’s too bad I can’t figure out how to watch it again as it never got a DVD release here in the U.S.

The madcap plot is centered around a middle aged couple who decides to break up but remain living in the same house. They agree not to bring dates home, but that rule is quickly broken. Plus there are gangsters, goofy cops, misunderstandings galore, and plenty of hijinks. It’s just very funny and a lot of fun with a few delightfully dark touches.

9.1. Fair Game. This is my replacement number nine while considering only films released  in the U.S. in 2010. A telling of the Valerie Plame affair, Fair Game is a nice mix of political and domestic dramas. Naomi Watts and particularly Sean Penn give very good performances. It’s an engrossing film that really does a good job bringing home the outrage of the whole situation without getting too preachy.

10. Kick-Ass. I saw this appear on several year-end top ten lists… and a lot of worst ten lists. I can understand how some people found a film featuring a foul-mouthed pre-teen girl massacring dozens of people morally reprehensible. But to me it’s a stylish and original film that was quite enjoyable to watch. It doesn’t have anything special to say, but it feels fresh and entertained me greatly.

As for some other films that were in contention for this list: The Secret in Their Eyes is an entertaining police melodrama where Argentina and its recent history is a central character. The Foreign Language Oscar winner has interesting characters and a stylish look… A film it beat out for the Oscar, France’s A Prophet, is an intense crime drama with the ability to leave a lasting, if sometimes disturbing, impression… The intensity of Black Swan is quite the head trip.

I think this site is the world’s biggest proponent of She’s Out of My League, a comedy with good jokes and entertaining characters… Daddy Longlegs was the Independent Spirit surprise of the year for me. It’s a very small budget drama about a father who means well, but is really not a good father. Ronald Bornstein is great in the lead role. To his – and the film’s – credit, it is quite watchable despite its stable of unlikeable characters… Unstoppable is simply a great time as Denzel does his thing. It’s also interesting to see an action film without any real bad guys (except physics).

Four Lions is the terrorism comedy of the year, following four inept Brits as they attempt to wage jihad. The climax as they try to put their plan into action is hilarious and memorable… The Special Relationship takes what could be a dry topic (the friendship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton) and turns it into an enjoyable romp through recent history, skipping around to important events.

Some other prizes:

Worst Film of the Year: Life During Wartime. I kind of can’t believe this movie exists. If you feel like your movie experiences have been lacking in boring and ridiculous ruminations on molestation and suicide, then this is the film for you. My runners-up are also Independent Spirit nominees: Greenberg and Jack Goes Boating. What was the deal with the Spirits?

Shots of the Year: I choose two similar shots as my shots of the year, one starting wide and zooming into its subject and the other doing the opposite. In The Secret in Their Eyes, a shot begins from above a soccer stadium. It swoops into the stadium, over the field, and into the stands where the two policemen are looking for a suspect. As they push their way through the crowd, their suspect runs and the police and camera follow. The shot continues for five and a half unbroken minutes and its audacity is a delight. Check out the scene here (caution: auto-play) along with the techniques behind how they pulled it off.

In The Illusionist, our shot begins tight on the magician and his rabbit on a hill. The shot swirls upwards, first revealing a hill covered with rabbits before panning through and over the cityscape of Edinburgh. It’s already an incredibly gorgeous film and that shot literally made me flinch. Its effect was better than anything I’ve seen in a 3D animated film.

Surprises of the Year (Good): Tron: Legacy is bad ass. Sort of incoherent, sure, but a bit better treatment of the terrific Tron premise than the original and with an awesome look. The score is also wonderful… I couldn’t have been less excited about Conviction but it’s surprisingly effective featuring a very good performance from Hillary Swank… I mocked The King’s Speech in our first season preview for what seemed to be a boring premise, but hell if it isn’t entertaining and moving.

Whoops

Surprises of the Year (Bad): I thought a political comedy featuring the talents of Kevin Spacey would appeal to me if no one else, but Casino Jack turned out to be a complete mess tonally… Megamind had been on my radar for ages as a premise of a supervillain looking for meaning in his life after vanquishing his superhero foe. Too bad it doesn’t live up to that clever premise and it has a serious lack of humor.

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