Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 3: Zodiac

“He offed a few citizens and faded into a footnote“

Zodiac is many things. A startling meditation about the nature of memory, time and evil. The way the first fades thanks to the second washing the third away, leaving only the scars. This is the movie that proved David Fincher a stylist par excellence by focusing him, after the empty flailing of Panic Room. This is a movie that turned the dumbest hippy song ever written into a bone chilling reminder of mortality and harbinger of evil. As a cinematic achievement (if not capturer of the cultural zeitgeist) it’s superior to Fight Club.

The film plays like nothing you would expect, particularly when you consider Se7en, which I think is just about as good of a serial killer movie as you can make (a dubious honor to be sure but I do consider it superior even to Silence Of The Lambs). The thing about Zodiac is its not a serial killer movie. Oh there’s a serial killer in it, and he certainly murder’s people. But its not his presence that’s frightening but his absense. He’s like a little tear in the fabric of the universe that every once in awhile opens up and swallows people whole.

The genius of the film is the way it doesn’t allow you to be sure of the validity of anything. The Zodiac basically disapear’s a half hour into the movie. And the one time he does maybe show up again “for sure” (And there’s no film in which those two words have less meaning) the movie goes out of its way to cast doubt on the validity of his appearance. It doesn’t matter if you objectively see him threaten to throw a baby out the window. We can be sure of nothing, least of all what we see.
What Zodiac really does though is capture the merciless passing of time. The way today’s tragedy becomes tomorrow’s curiosity for nutty obsessives and the next day’s blockbuster. Odd that a movie in which several brutal murders are shown in graphic detail, the most disturbing shot is a time lapse view of a skyscraper being built.

Fincher’s style really is at a career best here. By laying off the “fancy shots” that he’s built his career on (aside for some highly appropriate God’s Eye View bits that can induce vertigo), he emerges as an unlikely formalist master with beautifully composed shots that manage to not be about themselves.

With mesmerizing performances by Jake Gyllenhall, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. (In a role that coupled with his performances in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Scanner Darkly really brought him back) As Men who are murdered by the Zodiac Killer to one degree or another, even if they aren’t killed (Also of note Brian Cox in a note perfect cameo, Dan Heyeda, and Chloe Sevingy in a rare role that doesn’t make me want to take out my eyes with knitting needles).

The discussion with Clea Duvall, providing so many answers while obscuring so many others proves the heart of the movie. Showing the very human wreckage Paired with the sequence where the we catch up with the victim from the first sequence of the film. Old worn, with dark circles around his eyes. The film’s message becomes clear. By vaguely hinting at it, Fincher showcases the damage the Zodiac left behind much more thoroughly then he ever could with a case by case basis. We realize that even with how thorough the movie was (and at this point Fincher is down right Kubrickian in his compulsion to Catch. Every. Detail.) the film can never can never even begin to encompass the damage the man has done. The murders where the least of it, it’s the way, to quote Joe Hill, “that the dead drag the living down.” Miring the rest of their lives in tragedy, doomed with the knowledge that a safe and happy life is a fragile thing, and with the knowledge that its all too easy for others to move past it.

Oh and sweet Jesus those where some terrifying squirrels.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 4: The Prestige

As much as I love it. The Dark Knight is not on my top ten of the decade list. I know. I feel like a fraud. I love The Dark Knight the way fat people love chocolate. And it more or less epitomizes the type of movie I started this blog to write about, and the type of movie I’m desperate for Hollywood to continue to make. Of all the films that failed to make the cut it was only The Dark Knight, Ghost World and No Country For Old Men that really broke my heart to keep off.

But in The Dark Knight’s case the fault lies squarely with this movie. Because there was no fucking way it wasn’t making the list.

Christopher Nolan has one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood right now. There’s no one I can even compare him to.

I think with his first three American movies it was fair to term him an above average Hollywood stylist, a Ridley Scott type (though I don’t know if Scott ever made a movie quite as wounded and soulful as Memento). I certainly liked Nolan a whole lot with those three films (I plan to write about what makes Insomnia such an underrated film sometime in January) but I didn’t really love him. This movie changed that.

The thing about Nolan is there’s no one else LIKE him. David Fincher maybe, but Fincher’s more mannered, more dedicatedly a stylist. The Wackowski’s share his penachet for blending heady idea’s with genre entertainment, but the Wackowski’s are at their core fanboys and will always play by the strict rules of genre even when they're breaking them down (They never for example would have had the stroke of genius to turn The Dark Knight into an epic CRIME film rather then a superhero movie). The only filmmaker that comes close to him in his ability to mix ideas, genres, and artistry is Coppala in his prime. And so far anyway Nolan seems to have missed Coppola’s self destructive “crazy as a shit house rat” gene which caused him to go ape shit in the jungle, and spend an unprecedented fuck ton of money on what basically amounted to allowing himself to edit on a VCR. And now that he can officially do whatever the fuck he wants Nolan is just fascinating.

And it all began with this dark little fable. An example of someone stepping up their game an unprecedented degree.

The Prestige’s opening, is possibly my favorite of The Decade. What makes Nolan’s film so rewarding to return to is to see just how carefully Nolan has woven the central mystery of his film into its fabric.

Its all right there in that opening ten minutes. Nolan even has Michael Caine (I love the bizarre but perfect latter day partnership that Caine and Nolan have apparently formed, its resulted in some of Caine’s best work) tell you its alright there in the opening ten minutes. But you don’t see it, not yet, because as Caine also informs us, “You don’t really want to.” The bracing non linear opening of the film, is the equivalent of a great magician’s warm up, everything is in plain view but its all misdirection (By the way how much would Orson Welles have fucking loved this movie?) Inter cutting seemingly random bits of information, with a wondrously staged magic act, it’s the work of a master craftsman in full command of his art.

Let’s take a moment to talk about Nolan’s strength’s as a visual artist. Since he’s not especially showy about it he’s not often talked in such terms, But Nolan has one of my favorite looks of a director working today. The entire film is deep and rich looking, caked in beautiful shadow, illuminated with stark flashes of blue white light. From the opening images of those top hats blowing in the Autumn leaves, and the lightning reflecting off the cataracted eyes of the stagehands, The Prestige establishes a hypnotic, slightly surreal look and feel to it.

But its Nolan’s ability to marry this elegance to a moving story that truly makes the film great. Telling the tale of two magician’s who make it there lives work to destroy each other (and telling it in a bold non linear fashion) the story is so captivating, that you nearly forget that there’s a stiletto waiting at the end for you as promised. Another of Nolan’s great gifts is an impeccable eye for casting. His choice of Hugh Jackman (A better actor then he is usually given credit for. Or opportunity to show for that matter) was a perfect one. Allowing the actor’s natural callowness to curdle gradually into obsession and mania. By the time we (and he) realize he’s gone too far its too late. Christian Bale is often accused of just doing Christian Bale, but that ignores that what Christian Bale does is pretty damn good. He might have his tricks, but few actors dedicate themselves to a role the way he does. And he makes some brave choices as Jackman’s foil, never allowing the audience to warm up to him even as he becomes the nominal hero. Even David Bowie, Michael Caine, and Andy Serkis three enjoyable actors known to showboat, restrain themselves turning in tight controlled performances that turn the psychological screws perfectly.

But in away, this deliriously well crafted and enjoyable story that Nolan has laid out for us is also misdirection. While we’re not watching he turns The Prestige into a startling meditation on art in general, and film in the specific.

If Ratatouille was about the joy of creation, The Prestige is about its darkside. The mania and tunnel vision that can come as a result of allowing yourself to be gripped by what you do. The genius thing about it is the way Jackman gradually loses sight of even his desire for revenge, it becomes about the act, the pride of being the best, the prestige. And though Bale might be the better magician, he’s too analytic to understand just what makes his skills worth while.

And this is where it really comes together. Its been their all along, the themes of staging and illusion. Half the film is set in Vaudeville houses, the precursor to the movie theater, even Film’s Inventor, Edison himself, hangs over the movie like a dark specter just off screen. Even the name of the highly contested illusion, what does it promise to do but “transport” you. Its all there in that last monoluge by Jackman. Which I find to be one of the most moving defenses of cinema since the climax of Sullivan’s Travels.

You never understood, why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you... then you got to see something really special. You really don't know? It was the look on their faces...

I don’t know about you but I that’s what I find moving about the cinema, about all art really. It sounds melodramatic but isn’t it nice every once in a while to turn our backs on the yawning specter of death?

And that’s when I really started to pay attention to Nolan, in this he promised (and in The Dark Knight he payed off) that he was a man, who oxymoron that it might be, takes entertainment seriously. Someone who will never condescend, check his swing, or sign up just for a paycheck. Because while most would argue that the show isn’t an important thing, Nolan knows the truth. It’s the only important thing.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 5: The Royal Tenenbaum's

-“Died tragically rescuing his family from a sinking battleship.”-

Anderson’s films to one extent or another are all about people desperate to be better. Think of Herman Blume surveying the ruins of his life from the top of his diving board, Think Steve Zissou staring up at the Leopard Shark, and Owen Wilson’s “Accidently On Purpose” motorcycle crash. Even Good ole Mr. Fox must spend his film dealing with the fact he’s doomed nearly everyone he knows through his selfishness. In The Royal Tenenbaum’s it’s the entire cast that’s slouching towards redemption. Searching for some way to be kinder.

Phrasing it like this makes him sound corny and trite, perhaps that’s why he’s so dedicated to making his films play at the remove of a dedicated modelist. But the key word in that sentence is desperate. Thats what gives Anderson’s films the sadness and emotion that makes all the whimsy and wonder go down.

Its this mix of muted emotion and melancholy sentiment, his ability to capture life played at the tone of Vince Guaraldi, above all Anderson’s other (brilliant) gifts of composition, music and dialogue that make Anderson so invaluable. If taken as the central theme of his work, then The Royal Tenembaums is without a doubt his greatest statement on the subject, and his greatest film. It is in fact one of the wisest, funniest, forgiving films about what it means to be human that I have ever seen.

The Tenenbaum’s, like so many other Anderson characters, are all walking punchlines when first we see them. Richie behind his beard and glasses. Chas with his track suits, shock of black hair, and ever quivering sense of rage, Margo with her ever present mink stole and cigarettes and southern gothic wooden finger. What Anderson does brilliantly is strip down the joke, the look of pain and vulnerability when Richie finally shaves his beard and uncovers his eyes, the sorrow behind Richie’s Anger, the loneliness behind Margo’s affectations. It’s not enough for Anderson to show us people as caricatures; he’s enough of an artist to tell us why someone would turn themselves into one.

The visual element of Anderson’s work is also at a never better state. Every detail the game room, the boar’s head, the Dalmatian mice, Eli’s buckskin jacket, Sherman’s bowtie, Raliegh’s book covers. Everything feels tactile, perfect, and right.

Maybe part of what sells Anderson’s sentiment is how unabashedly his characters are themselves. Of the directors working today only Tarantino and PT Anderson rival Anderson’s ability to instantly lock a character in your mind. Anderson’s characters are so uniquely themselves that you never even forget their names. Max Fischer, Steve Zissou, Margret Yang, Dignan, Herman Blume, Ned Plympton, Margo Tenenbaum, Dr. Nelson Guggenheim, Rosemary Cross, Eleanor Zissou, Pagoda. You didn’t even have to think about them did you? When an Anderson character changes for the better, and they all almost invariably do, its not because of the dictates of Hollywood morality, or to make the audience feel good, often as in the case of Royal, the Anderson character improves because they are in themselves so delightful that they cannot imagine depriving others of their company because of the small matter of their short comings. They will simply have to move themselves past such minor difficulties.

The justifiably famous long pan after the climax finds all the characters wiser and happier then we found them. Not because of any false epiphanies, or easy outs, or reclaimed glories, but because damnit they’ve earned it. Because Royal’s absurd epitath is true in its own beautiful way.

To say The Royal Tenenbaums is a film of moments sounds like a dismissal even though its not. Because it is a film of moments in the same way Jules and Jim is a film of moments and the way Night Of The Hunter and Clockwork Orange are films of moments. Not because the rest of the film around them is bad, but because there are moments and sequences and shots so perfect in and of themselves that they instantly become part of who you are as a filmgoer. The whirling montage through Margo’s life spinning through all two minutes of Judy Is A Punk, The Hey Jude set opening that perfectly establishes the tone and characters before the film has even begun. Richie regarding himself in the mirror face shorn, years of pain in his eyes ready to die, Elliot Smith serenading him back through the years. Chad and Royal’s argument in the games closet. Ethel reaction to Royal’s revelation infront of that grand old house on Archer. “I’ve had a rough year Dad.” Henry Sherman’s halting marriage proposal. “Yeah but its not your fault.” The sloppy, desperate kiss between Richie and Margo. The profound look of sadness pain and betrayl Margo has on her face as she looks down at Richie’s hospital bed. She Smiles Sweetly morphing into Ruby Tuesday. Royal’s day with his grandchildren. “How can I help.” And that lovely quintessentially Anderson shot of Margo stepping off the Greenline Bus, Richie beholding her while a string of white uniformed Ships Captains march behind, while These Days plays. Absurd, and arch and beautiful to behold, and wonderful to feel.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 6: Children Of Men

The thing that makes Children Of Men a great film is how thoroughly it portrays a world without hope. What makes it a terrifying one is how thoroughly that world resembles our own.

Great Sci Fi is of course always truly about the now rather then the future. What Cuaron captures in Children Of Men is the terrifying feeling of the entropy, that I and I know many other’s feel everyday. The feeling that as one piece of Grafitti so succinctly puts it, “The Future Is A Thing Of The Past.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent the last decade or so feeling like we’re on the verge of a cataclysm. Global Warming, Peak Oil, NWO, pick your poison but they’re all resonating with us for the same reason, there’s a real feeling of paranoia in the air on both the left and the right. The feeling that things are coming to an end. The feeling that as Michael Chabon put it, "We’re living on the last paragraph of the last page in some absurd story." The idea that we’re either going to be wiped out, or that what we come up with to save us will change us in some fundamental way. Either way it feels as though humanity is about to go through a huge shift.

Call it paranoia, call it millennial tension, call it being part of the first generation raised in the shadow of 9/11, no matter how you label it. There’s no denying that things are shifting.

Most apocalyptic movies take place in a world that’s about to end, the genius of Children Of Men is it takes place in one that is in the process of ending. Everyone in Children Of Men knows they are going to die, and when they do humanity will be one step closer to ending. In a very literal way nothing they do matters, whether its saving Michelangelo’s David, getting stoned off your ass in a forest, or taking one of those suicide pills they advertise on every street corner. Children Of Men explores what happens to humanity when the phrase “Nothing You Do Has Meaning.” Is no longer a matter of philosophical discourse, but is a demonstrable fact.

But what makes Cuaron’s film so utterly moving is the way he provides the answer, that we try anyway. As dark as a film Children Of Men is its about as far from Nihlism as you can get. At its core it argues that perseverance is as completely at the core of humanity as the xenophobia and cruelty that is displayed out there.

Cuaron wraps all of these ideas in a moving human drama. It’s the fact that Clive Owen makes such a recognizably human and fragile hero that makes his eventual triumph so compelling. Everyone from Michael Caine, to Julianne Moore, to Danny Huston, to Chitwel Ejifor give unshowy pitch perfect performances, they inhabit they world.

And what a world it is, perhaps Cuaron’s smartest move in a movie that’s full of smart moves, is the way in which Cuaron lets you catch all the sumptuous detail he’s put into the movie out of the corner of your eye. While another less confident director couldn’t resist sitting you down so you could take a good long look at his set design, Cuaron with his engrossing long takes just walks you through it, letting you catch only snatches of the newspaper articles, graffiti, sects, and conflicts, that are serving as humanity’s woefully inadequate epitaph.

The result is that Cuaron creates one of the few films where there is genuinely something new to see every time you watch it, and by the time the first ten minutes are over he’s created a sense of continuity that’s nearly panic attack inducing. There’s no escaping Cuaron’s world, no place you can look for the edge of the set or miniature. Your mind just subliminally accepts it as a real place.

Children Of Men, is simply put my favorite kind of movie. A deeply felt, richly imagined work of art, containing one of the most detailed senses of place I’ve seen in a film (not to mention a few of the most exciting set pieces) all brought to being by a master filmmaker in full control of his craft. It’s a work whose power always catches me by surprise, one where scenes even on the dozenth repeat viewing make me catch my breath in astonishment (How anyone could fail to be moved by that first walk with the baby down the stairs is beyond me).

It’s a film that sears itself into your brain.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

I Feel Bad For Hating Avatar

I feel bad for not liking Avatar. There’s a certain amount of irony here. Part of the reason I started this site was that I had gotten tired of watching big populist movies being dismissed without due consideration for the sin of being big and populist. And I now find myself in the uncomfortable position of dismissing the biggest most populist movie released since I started this blog. You can see the dilemma. I figured I’d kind of chicken out on writing about it. I mean I have already covered the movie in my BNAT column, its not like anyone is demanding my opinion on the matter. But wanting to be in on the discussion of film now means discussing Avatar. No matter what my problems with it are, I can’t deny that it truly is a watershed film.

And I want to be clear about something I don’t like James Cameron. I love him. I think Aliens is one of the finest pieces of action or scifi cinema ever produced (Its also one of the most misguided director cuts ever made but that’s another article). That movie's a machine and my admiration for it grows with each viewing. Then there’s The Terminator, which as someone whose worked on ultra low budget films before, absolutely blows my mind. Just how much Cameron got out of so little on that film astounds me. He made some rinky dink Corman like budget look like about a bajillion dollars. People don’t understand that Terminator is one of the greatest smoke and mirrors movies ever made. Cameron created that one out of pure editing, there’s hardly anything there.

Its no coicedence that Cameron is one of the great editor/directors. He’s one of the great cinematic innovators (Do you realize he only had six Alien suits on Aliens? Six! And two of them where just head pieces and black leotards). Maybe that’s the problem, when you’ve got 400 million there’s not a whole lot you need to innovate.

But you have to understand, I was excited about Avatar, really excited. I figured that if Cameron could legitimize 3D the way he legitimized CGI in Terminator 2, it could really be something special. Something spectacular. When the movie started I was straight up grinning. And the grin slowly died as I realized what I was watching was the most egregious misplacing of faith in a director I have committed since Lady In The Water.

The fact is the more I think about it the more I realize, that I’m not neutral about Avatar, I’m not muddled, I don’t think its pretty good, as I seem to suggest in my earlier review. No the more I think about it, the more I realize I fucking hate Avatar.

But lets take a step back, I’m going to talk about one of the primary building blocks of my cinematic philosophy. To some of you this might sound as soulless and disgusting as Gordon Gecko, but friends I’m here to tell you that Spectacle for lack of a better word is Good.

Spectacle is an integral part of the cinema. And anyone who says different doesn’t understand it. Its spectacle that gives film its greatest power, that to take you outside of your experience. To smack you upside the head and knock you tumbling out of your own headspace for awhile. Its no coincidence that Melies or DeMille was one of the first great filmmakers, no coincidence that Intolerance and Metropolis remain astounding works of art. My favorite filmmakers, Gilliam, Del Toro, Raimi, Hitchcock, De Palma, Coppola, The Coen’s, Herzog, Kubick, Burton, Bava, Carpenter, Powell, Leone, Ford, Peckinpah, Fuller, Huston, Lynch, Keaton, and of course Spielberg are all great masters of spectacle. All promise to show me things I’ve never seen before. And I believe them. To show me things I’ve never dreamed of, or to put it more accurately things I’ve always dreamed of and have never been able to draw with me into the waking world.

But a lot of people who profess to love the cinema don’t like spectacle. What’s more they distrust it. Because Spectacle like all grand gestures, leaves you open, can leave you feeling and looking very foolish. All you have to do is watch something like Australia to see how off the rails things can get, when you play with your heart on your sleeve and you're playing big and crazy. Spectacle gets people very nervous.

It doesn’t help that a lot of what passes for spectacle out of the Hollywood Studio system falls neatly within Sturgeon’s law. Most movies are Teflon. But I’ll take a film that really swings for the fences over some dreary bit of middlebrow miserablism any day.

And it has its moments it really does, where Avatar does just that, takes it to another level, plays it big and wonderful, and awe inspiring, but those moments are so few and far between in its gargantuan run time.

But dear sweet God Avatar did not work for me on the whole. And I’m tired of people telling me I was thinking about it too much. Yes that’s what you do when you don’t like something, you think about why. I’m tired of being told that it doesn’t matter that all Avatar is is a warmed over 400 million dollar version of Dances With Wolves because the story isn’t important and its all about sensation.

No God Damn it the story is important. Its not like Cameron is making Days Of Heaven. Its not like this is some daring non narrative tone poem. It’s a played out didactic fable, with all the pacing and complexity of a glacier, pieced together with warmed over bits of mythology borrowed from Fern Gully; and I never once bought into it. It reminds me of some of the pre Matrix 90’s Sci Fi movies. Feels like it should be playing on a triple bill with The Fifth Element and Phantom Menace (And yeah I know that some people will think that dropping the Ph-Bomb is like calling on Hitler. Invalidating any argument, but to my mind that's a movie just as groundbreaking and just as hollow), and yeah that’s not a compliment. Don’t tell me that just because it looks great it's OK that its empty.

A lot of people have been making the claim that its OK that the characters are all ciphers and the story is clumsy because Cameron was always a bad writer. BULLSHIT. Lets go back to Aliens for a second, the way it takes Cameron all of two minutes to introduce you to an entire squadron of Marines and fix them all firmly in your mind. He’s playing broad sure. Dealing with stock characters and archetypes, but by before the movie has even ramped up its first act you’ve got an entire cast (Not to mention a boatload of exposition) fixed firmly in your mind with a real narrative economy. Look how smoothly he explained the high concept of Terminator. None of this Bullshit about Unobtanium (And Jesus Cameron really?). This bloated clumsy film populated by mannequins has nothing in common with Cameron’s earlier work. I was fortunate enough not to see Terminator Salvation, so I missed that whole debacle, but I now believe every bad thing I’ve ever heard about Sam Worthington. He’s Paul Walker bad in this. He’s a blank void in the center of the film, sending off waves of indifference whenever Passion, Rage, Love, or whatever is his supposed emotion. When the only person that makes any impression on you is the villain you know you have problems. There weren't characters in this movie just people who've been in more interesting movies. It was like oh there's Ram Ghas! And then my eyes would glaze over.

Even the much fabled imagery let me down. Sure the floating mountains where beautiful, and the aerial and Zero G scenes where cool. The 3D looked good, though I’m going to go ahead and maintain that Disney Digital beats it hands down. But after awhile I started having this reverse Uncanny Valley thing happen where instead of the Computerized Characters looking real the Real Human Beings Just started looking fake. Its an achievement I respect but don’t like.

To be quite frank reading most of what’s been written on Avatar has frankly depressed me. A lot of people I admire have been raving about it. Which is fine. Lord knows I don’t demand everyone agrees with me. The problem is that they all seem to acknowledge these basic ground levels flaws that the piece has, and they don’t seem to care. (Not that the con has made a much better use of it, either dismissing it on vague charges of racism and imperialsm [natch] or deciding it unworthy of engagement both views annoy the piss out of me.)

I rewatched District 9 the other day (and for the record I have no idea how I forgot that one when I was making up my year end list, Mea Culpa). This is a movie just as didactic and occasionally obvious and clumsy as Avatar, and you know what? It burns with something to prove in away that keeps me pinned to my seat. For all the work that obviously went into it Avatar is sure a lazy movie.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew. "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

Merry Christmas I hope you and yours are doing well.

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 7: There Will Be Blood

In the short two years that its been out I’ve already watched There Will Be Blood more then I have any of the other Anderson movies, possibly combined. As I love me some PT Anderson, that’s saying quite a bit. There Will Be Blood is hypnotic filmmaking on a literal level. Like Brazil, The Red Shoes, Goodfellas, Strangers On A Train, or The Big Lebowksi its one of those films that is impossible for me to pull away from once I’m stuck in its orbit. If I chance upon There Will Be Blood, no matter the circumstances I’m watching it until Plainview bellows he’s finished and finally gives me permission to leave.

But I can’t help but wonder why.

It’s not like There Will Be Blood carries the giddy surprise that Boogie Nights had, nor though I’m in awe of its filmmaking it doesn’t delight me with its dexterity the way Nights does. Nor does it reduce me to a twitchy ball of exposed nerves the way Magnolia does. It is a film that I in fact have one pretty big issue with. But that all seems beside the point somehow, the film is simply immutable.

I know that I’ve felt this way since I first saw it. When I stumbled out of the theater for the first time, dazed two old ladies walked out next to me and I heard the following exchange.

“I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t that.”

“Dreadful film.”

“We should have gone to see The Bucket List.

“Oh The Bucket List is such a wonderful film.

Now I’m proud to say that I have never punched an old woman in the face, but I came close oh Lord I came close.

Part of what makes Anderson such an affecting filmmaker is his extraordinary humanism. Not since Hal Ashby has there been a director as merciful as he, washing away his characters sins time and time again with pop music (is there a montage that feels more like a breath of fresh air then the God Only Knows one that ends Boogie Nights). So to be delivered with a film as cold and unforgiving as There Will Be Blood from him was a great shock, like being punched by someone you trust absolutely, you just don’t see it coming. It’s a bone hard film.

Its all there from the opening sequence with Johnny Greenwood’s score buzzing like the screams of the damned. A hard man mining a completely unforgiving land. Huddled against a small fire against the howling winds, before clawing out of a grave and dragging himself on his back across the vast desert (The pan that shows just how expansive the area is is one of the most stunning shots in the film). The opening with its wordless images of the wilderness, death, children, blood, and oil, is as utterly primal of a scene as I’ve seen in film. It taps into something deep and reactive playing almost like the cinematic version of the test in The Parallex View. It’s a wordless sequence because there are no words for what Anderson is conveying. He’s reaching that rarified cosmic level that only Herzog and Malick hold dominion over.

And when the words do come into it they’re very harsh ones indeed. In the justly famous opening monologue Plainview is like an old testament God. Laying out to the towns folk just what they have to gain by following him, what they have to lose for disobeying him. Finally throwing up his hands in disgust at their small minded bickering before punishing them terribly (Interesting too that he offers up his son as proof of his love). It’s a brauva sequence for Lewis showing Plainview at his smoothest and then how quickly the mask will fall.

While we’re on the subject of theology, I should point out that its here in where the rub lies with me. The central conflict in There Will Be Blood (at least if you ask most critics) is between God and Business. Represented in their respective corners by Plainview and the snaky Eli Sunday in the other. The problem is that I don’t believe that Sunday makes that good of a representative.

Now when I say that I’m not saying I’m annoyed that Eli isn’t a “Good Christian” or that the film shows Christian’s as backwards easily lead. That’s not problematic for me. What is problematic is I think to a certain extent Eli always comes off as faking it. He’s manipulating the beliefs of his followers for his own personal gain as surely as Plainview suspects he is. It’s the same problem I have with Breaking The Waves, with Von Trier making God a literal big scary voice, and turning Bess’s struggle into one of madness rather then faith. If Eli with all his flaws and vices intact had been a true believer rather then a transparent charlatan I feel the central battle of the film would have been a lot stronger (This isn’t to say that the Paul Dano’s performance isn’t strong because he. He was in fact that only actor I had trouble excepting in Where The Wild Things Are given the strong impression he made.) It also takes a great deal of the punch out of what should be the film’s thematic conclusion, the possibility of union between the two symbolized by the union of HW and Mary Sunday.

It’s a shame because a lot of the scenes dealing with the theme are the films strongest particularly the one where Eli comes to the jobsite and starts pulling away laborers literally taking souls from one camp to the other.

Still it’s ultimately a minor issue when your watching the movie itself. Which unfold mesmerizing. If there is such a thing as an intimate epic Anderson has surely made it. The rhythms of the film, the dialogue, abstract score, editing, and golden though thoroughly ominous cinematography combine to create an experience quite unlike any other. There are sequences in There Will Be Blood, The opening, the well disaster, Eli’s Beating, the Kubrickian ending, that inspire awe no matter how many times they are viewed.

In the end it all comes down to Daniel Plainview and the enigma that he represents. Plainview remains one of the few modern movie characters who is truly inscrutable. In an age when “realism” demand we know the inspiring instant between each psychological quirk, Plainview remains almost defiantly unfathomable. We’re never quite sure what he’s thinking. Particularly in his final sequence, I’m still not sure whether he really is just getting in one last bit of curdled cruelty, or if he’s performing some perverse act of fatherly kindness giving HW the last bit of ammunition he will need to break from his Father forever. Though given what proceeds afterwards I consider the latter to be more and more likely with each passing viewing.

The way most movies are made we would know exactly what drives Daniel Plainview. That his ambitions are a reaction to his feelings of powerless stemming from the time his mother spanked him when he was three. I don’t know where it comes from, but movies feel the need to explain everything about people nowadays. They forget that we are fundamentally unknowable to eachother, that as Cather said in one of her finer moments, “The heart of another is a dark forest, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.” Anderson has no trouble about this truth, perhaps because his movies are all fundamentally about people who are alone.

Think of Frank TJ Mackey illuminated on the stage isolated in the light from the crowds of venial men he preaches to. Think of Barry outside, alone, listening to his sisters tear him apart his rage finally boiling over isolating him even further. Think Julianne Moore and Heather Grahamn trying to forge a desperate familial bond out of pure will between lines. Phillip Baker Hall lonely life spent skulking in the backs of casino’s.

The tragedy of There Will Be Blood, is that there’s no one to save these people. No Beach Boys to blow away the damage, no John C. Reilly to draw out that final redemptive smile, or Emily Watson to give them “the love that makes them strong”. The characters in There Will Be Blood are doomed by their own natures their own very special hell. Its all the more a shame because of how nakedly Plainview enjoys such connections, their are moments with his "son" and "brother" where he is truly happy, and when both disappoint him in different ways he falls further and further into himself sealing his fate.

Though I always liked Paul Thomas Anderson a whole lot, I always thought of him as a magpie that put Tarantino to shame. I couldn’t look past the fact that he was “doing” Scorsese in Hard Eight, or Altman in Magnolia and Boogie Nights, or Ashby in Punch Drunk Love, ignoring the fact that the ability to speak in all those voices would be quite a feat on its own. But There Will Be Blood is just such a stunningly singular vision that there was no possible way to ignore the fact that Anderson is perhaps the greatest filmmaker of his era and this is his crowning achievement.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid

So if you haven't been paying close attention to Agitation Of The Mind's Peckinpahfest you've been missing out on some truly excellent and insightful film criticism. Go catch up now if you haven't got a chance to yet. I contributed two pieces earlier in the blogathon, and the great Neil Fulwood gave his usually excellent taste a rest and asked me for a third, which I couldn't help but oblige.

The first time I heard about Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid, it was described to me as a Western by Antonioni. This didn’t exactly compel me to see the film, as Antonioni’s ennui powered cinematic slogs have never been my favorite flavor of filmmaking (with the notable exception of Eclipse). I was really only familiar with The Wild Bunch and The Getaway at that point, and I didn’t see Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid until much later when I really started to devour Peckinpah, instigated by the one two punch of Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia (Which I was inspired to seek out by Ebert’s brilliant essay) and Ride The High Country.

But when I finally did see the film I had to admit the term was just right. Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid is a slow, existential, muted, dreamy film, which chronicles the death of a personality as much as it does the end of an era (No coincidence that the movie was originally written for Monte Helleman. Undisputed King of muted, existential, dreamy slow paced films). Like Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, Pat Garrett is a strangely subjective movie (Why hasn't The Acidemic reviewed it yet?), symbol heavy and nearly stream of conscienceness in the way that everything external in the movie seems to be just a twisted reflection of Garrett’s internal strife (Part of what makes The Getaway so frustrating despite its pleasures is the fact that in this and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia Peckinpah proved that he was more or less the only person in the world who COULD have shot El Ray) It’s a surreal film sans surrealism, a mere naked midget and rain of blood away from being a Jodorowsky film.

Though I think it’s a flawed film, some of the fault coming from the notorious Studio interference the movie endured some of it not (but we’ll get to that later) it is also one of my favorite Peckinpah films, behind only The Wild Bunch and Ride The High Country and in isolated moments of grace remains unmatched in Peckinpah’s oeuvre.

As I mentioned before the movie is impressively abstract. The film opens with Garrett’s own death intercutting with the raucous party Billy is throwing that ends up starting the rest of the film. It’s a ballsy way to open the film, with the foreknowledge that we’re basically going to spend the movie watching a dead man kill someone. It highlights the absurdity of the whole situation. In Billy, Garrett basically seeks to execute a younger version of himself. The entire film is just one long journey towards death (when Garrett finally reaches his destination who does he meet but a coffin maker.) It’s a mission of self negation done at the beck and call of men that Garrett can’t stand. The flashback structure is also significant given that just about everyone we take the time to meet in the film ends up dead. For most of the runtime Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid is a movie populated strictly by Ghosts.

If Wild Bunch is about death’s horror and brutality(the normal term when used to talk about Peckinpah is violence but what is violence but death’s ambassador?) Ride The High Country is about its tragedy, and The Ballad Of Cabal Hogue is about its necessity, then Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid is about its absurdity.

Unlike in The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, or hell just about every Peckinpah movie in which someone dies, nobody in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid WANTS to kill each other. But they somehow manage just the same. Most of the people fighting know each other, and their gun battles are punctuated with them talking about old times. Even in the film’s most Gruesome (And kind of Glorious) death scene the infamous “Shot Gun Full of Dimes” bit the prison guard just happens to be in the way, albeit his sadism does make his grisly end a bit satisfying (For an interesting bit of autuerist study check out the way Arthur Penn that other great cinematic poet of violence directed the same sequence in The Left Handed Gun). This is of course highlighted in The Raft sequence in which Garrett and a family floating by on a raft start shooting at each other, and keep doing it until they both gradually realize they have no reason to. The violence is so literally pointless that its comical.

Unfortunately a few other things are comical in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid as well, unintentionally so. Particularly in the disastrous stunt casting of Bob Dylan as Billy’s gibbering knife throwing sidekick. Playing at his most mumbling and twitchy, as though somebody told him his character was a Gremlin, Dylan’s jaw droppingly bad. Which leads to the other elephant in the room, Dylan’s score is also jaw droppingly bad.

This is obscured by the fact that the moment when Knocking On Heaven’s Door plays over Slim Picken’s Death is one of the finest that Peckinpah ever committed to celluloid. Infact just for truth in criticism here it is.

The problem is the rest of it. Its lyric heavy, distracting, and laughably bad. Don’t believe me? It contains the line “Drinkin Margaritas/ With the Senoritas.” That line gets repeated. Dylan actually sings with a straight face “Oh Billy They Don’t Want You To Be So Free.” It’s mind blowing.

As for Billy himself, I’ve always found him a bit problematic as well. Kristopherson is a fine if limited actor. When he plays Billy as the center of his own universe, like when he calmly saunters out of the town after executing the two deputies charged with guarding him, mocking the cowed townsfolk, who seconds before where yowling to watch him die, he’s perfect. Unfortunately the film has him spending so much time being beautific (something I’d attribute to Wurletzer over Peckinpah) that he remains a cipher through most of the runtime, and not a particularly interesting one. When he assumes a cruciform right before his death I was only shocked to be reminded that he hadn’t been standing that way for the entire film.

One could argue that given the fact that I’ve argued that the film is a movie of abstracts its fitting that Billy be purely symbolic. But there’s too much life around the edges of the film for me to fully except the way he’s portrayed.

I feel like I’m being too rough on the film though. Its one I truly do love, and I should point out that the only reason I’m able to articulate what bugs me about it is that I’ve seen the film a couple dozen times. Pat Garrett remains a stunning and unique cinematic vision. Its a rich movie. One of the few films that actually earns that stock hack critic phrase, “A meditation…”

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Christmas Carol

Elwood over at From The Depths Of DVD Hell has asked some bloggers for their ultimate Christmas Movie. I’m going to be kind of uncreative here and say A Christmas Carol.

The very name might make you roll your eyes, A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that keeps getting retold and retold, it seems like every other Christmas there’s another version of the story. There’s a reason for this though. I don’t want to get controversial here but that Dickens guy was a pretty good writer. Carol is one of those rare pieces of work with a story so strong and themes so primal that you have to be a literal moron to fuck it up.

I just saw the Zememkis version of the new story, one which has caused quite a few people to assign the dunce cap to Zemekis. I for one liked it. Say what you will about Jim Carrey but if ever there was an actor designed for motion capture it was he. He does strong work as Scrooge and the three ghosts, bringing each to life with solid body work. Gary Oldman also does strong work as Marley and Cratchet (Tiny Tim as well though he barely amounts to a cameo) Colin Firth on the other hand still seems a bit stiff. The Three Christmas Ghosts are all very well animated, the idea of making The Ghost Of Christmas Future Scrooge’s literal Shadow works quite well. And the whole movie has a shockingly eerie tone, extending even to a surprisingly unjolly Ghost Of Christmas Present (Whose demise pushes the needle into gruesome)

I also have to give credit to Zemekis for fearlessly tackling the tougher parts of the book, that filmmakers are usually loathe to touch with a ten foot pole. The Ignorance and Want scene is here in all its didactic glory, as is the scene of the ghostly cavern over London, hell Zemekis even puts in the weird little rant the Ghost Of Christmas Present, has about the church closing down community kitchens on Sunday. Surely a hot button issue.

Still the movie’s not perfect, It rushes through things, particularly in the rather key Ghost Of Christmas Past, and features long interminable tech demos, that try to show you how awesome 3D looks with long frantic sequences of the camera following Scrooge as he rushes around. Its tough for me to describe how painfully uninteresting these scenes where. And will undoubtably become even more so once it reaches home video. Though in all fairness, Disney 3D has the best system right now. And on the whole I’d argue that A Christmas Carol makes a much better argument for the potential of Motion Capture and 3D then Avatar did.

But for me the ultimate version has to be A Muppet Christmas Carol. One of the few Christmas traditions my family actually manages to keep is the watching The Muppet Christmas Carol. And its still my favorite version of the story.

When stripped to its bare essentials A Christmas Carol is basically the story of someone’s personality having a complete meltdown by himself in its room. The sentiment that gets ladled on at the end comes after a surprisingly dark core. And for all the wise cracks A Muppet Christmas Carol remembers this, anchored by a surprisingly grave performance by Michael Caine. He never once winks at the material or his “actors”. Always more of a consummate pro then showboat in many ways Caine is the ideal actor to perform opposite Puppets with cut in half ping pong balls for eyes. A Muppet Christmas Carol was the first Muppet Movie Made after the death of Jim Henson, and it remains their most successful work without him. The work that retains the most of the beloved virtuoso’s spirit and style. It stands as a loving tribute to a master craftsman through the retelling of one of the most beloved stories of all time

One of the reasons A Christmas Carol continues to resonate is the way it avoids all the baggage that comes with the season. The message of A Christmas Carol has nothing to do with religion, its just asks “Wouldn’t it be nice if we all took one day when we weren’t such total bastards to each other?” Its one of those rare works of art that challenges you to be a better person without beating you over the head with sentiment and very special lessons.

I hope you have a Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Someone Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something Part 2: Underworld USA

As you might remember from last month, thanks to my work as a print critic someone has inexplicably asked me to program the front half of a film noir retrospective. In response to this baffling turn of events, last month I played Out Of The Past. Today I'm doing Underworld USA, one of Sam Fuller's most overlooked films. Once again apologies for syntax it was written for speech yadayadayada hope you enjoy.

Of Sam Fuller, Martin Scorsese once said, “It’s been said that if you don’t like The Rolling Stones then you just don’t like Rock and Roll. By the same token, I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you don’t like the cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.” I happen to agree.

Sam Fuller is one of the most important and least well known directors in American film. His influence can be felt in innumerable filmmakers work, including unsurprisingly the likes of Scorsese and Jim Jaramusch… and even less surprisingly Quentin Tarintino. He has also ended up an influence over seas, he was one of the first directors that the French wrote about as an Auteur; and has been cited as an influence by Goddard and Bertolucci. There’s another well known Rock axiom that states, “Though only a thousand people bought The Velvet Underground’s first album, all of them started bands of their own.”

By that token, comparatively few people have seen Sam Fuller films, but he left his mark on everyone who has. But Fuller still maintains a style that is distinctly his own, perhaps summed up best when he said, speaking about phoniness in Hollywood War movies when compared to his own “ I don't cry because that guy over there got hit. I cry because I'm gonna get hit next. All that phony heroism is a bunch of baloney when they're shooting at you.” Despite all his influence, there remains something truly unique about the Fuller style. There are countless imitators but not a single duplicator.

Fuller wasn’t just a movie man, he was a pioneer journalist in the early decades of the twentieth century, and then fought across Europe serving in The Big Red One, before eventually turning to movie making. This coincidently makes his Autobiography one of the most entertaining I have ever read.

Once he started making films, he started making every kind he could In his career he made Westerns, Gangster films, Noirs, War films, and a few ones so strange they can’t really be labeled by any genre. After finding the studio system too constricting Fuller became one of the first independent American Filmmakers.

So after so much big talk about Fuller, just what is it that makes him so special? Many things set Fuller apart from the filmmakers of the time, his bold style, his utter lack of sentimentality, and his fearless nature in tackling subject matter that the production code and mores of the day normally considered taboo. He was truly ahead of his time in just about every way possible.

Fuller wrote about his harshness in his own inimitable style in The Third Face. “I’m not dealing her with kings, ravishing princesses, charming princes who ar born with castles, jewels, and juicy legacies. Ever since my characters where born, their lives have been harsh and unfar. They have to fight to survive. They are anarchists turned against a system that betrayed them.”

But to me its his energy, some would argue his vulgarity, that really makes him special.

And that’s why I chose to show Underworld USA today. Its not one of his most well known films, nor is it one of his most respected. Its almost something of a curiosity, a B Side. Naked Kiss better showcases how ahead of the time he was in subject matter, it takes him 80 minutes to accomplish what it takes Von Trier two hours and forty minutes to not accomplish in Dogville. Shock Corridor portrays his radical techniques. Pick Up On South Street is a showcase for his hard bitten style and unsentimental treatment of his material, as well as being for my money one of the best Noir films ever made, and arguably the best film the fifties produced. But I think its because it doesn’t have those distracting elements that Underworld acts as such a supreme showcase for all the talents that made Fuller such a special filmmaker.

The story of the film you’re going to see today really isn’t anything that special or original. It’s the average revenge story something you’ve probably seen a dozen times before. but the way its told, the stark images, the lean story, the way it flies at you off the screen is really something incredible.

The things that do set Underworld USA apart is the way it shows Organized crime as something truly institutional. It really wasn’t until Coppola’s Godfather that most movies began to look at Organized Crime as something intertwined in American life. As Fuller put it, “Not Thugs, but tax paying executives.” The old school gangsters of the thirties boom where always individualists who burned out as they tried to one up society, think Cagney bursting into flames as he yowled, “Made it Ma, Top Of The World.” By Underworld USA the paradigm has shifted as one of the gangsters says in the film…

“There’ll always be people like us. But as long as we don’t have any records on paper, as long as we run National Projects with legitimate business operations and pay our taxes on legitimate income and donate to charities and run church bazaars we’ll win the war. We Always have.”

In Fuller’s world crime and corruption are not the aberrations they’re the norm. It’s a thoroughly noir world view. There is no way to escape the darkness because there is no alternative to it. Its all dark.

The dark unmistakably noir heart of the movie though is its revenge, and the way Tolly’s utter single minded pursuit of it drives off or destroys everything else in his life. Robertson, best known today for his portrayal as the kindly Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films, radiates a kind of menace and driven obsessions shocking to anyone not familiar with his earlier career. Robertson captures the mania perfectly. Fuller reports that a real life Mob Boss upon viewing the film said to Fuller, “If only my Son had that kind of affection for me.”

Friday, December 18, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 8: Kill Bill Volume 2

“Could you do what you did? Of course you could. But, I never thought you would or could do that to me.”

“I'm really sorry, Kiddo. But you thought wrong.”

Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a bloody valentine. A Valentine from a director to his muse, A Valentine to an icon given one last time to show the talent he never got a full chance to use, A Valentine to the pleasures of cinema itself, and finally in it’s final sequence one of the best and truest movies ever made about love.

Ebert observed of Inglorious Basterds that Tarantino is a director of “Quixotic delights” an expression that I could never improve on. Kill Bill 2 offers I believe the zenith oft his style, so full of the tactile pleasures of movie going. Filled with the electricity of someone knowing creatively exactly what to do in every single shot. So much of the effect comes from the way that Tarantino exploits the tangible pleasure of watching movies.

Which was exactly what the amazing in its own way Volume 1 was about. The beauty of the perfect split screen, the perfect black and white flashback, the perfect gore shot. The fact that he would make a film about such elements, is something that gets Tarantino labeled a shallow filmmaker, both by the his detractors like John “You’re Worse Then Hitler” Rosenbaum, but also by his defenders like Jim Emerson, who in his otherwise great analysis of Inglorious Basterds scoffed at the very idea that anyone would have an emotional reaction to Tarantino films.

But isn’t that emotional reaction arguably the greatest physical pleasure of movie going? Because that’s the thing; while Volume 1 is about the surface pleasures of cinema (though Volume 2 certainly has its share of that, particularly in the Kung Fu sequence with its filters and silhouettes, and the buried alive sequence with its horrifying aspect ratios, the great nod to Once Upon A Time In The West with Beatrix doing the Henry Fonda out of the desert) Volume 2 is unabashedly about Beatrix Kiddo.

Tarantino is not often talked about in terms of humanism, but that’s his greatest gift. Beyond all the clever boy dialogue, behind all the style behind all the ultra violence. Its The fact that Tarantino takes these absurd people and makes them real. Because he believes in them we also believe in them. Tarantino often smiles but he never winks. When his characters hearts are concerned he never jokes. When Bill and The Bride have their final talk about their relationship. Its not in quotes its real, we're fully invested in what will happen to them as people.

But lets back up for a moment and consider what leads us up to that final battle. While slower then its jacked up on sugary cereal predecessor, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is still one of Tarantino’s most purely entertaining movies. Its got set pieces that are just perfect, from the horrific Italian horror influenced Live Burial and the brutal Kung Fu training sequence facilitated by the magnificently cruel Gordon Liu to the brutal trailer fight which cannily tops the hand to hand house demolition that opened Volume 1.

The dialogue is some of Tarantino’s best (Not to mention Tarantino's other point of Pride the soundtrack, is also a career best with choice cuts of Ennio Morricone, Johnny Cash, Charlie Feathers, capped by Malcolm McLaren's haunting version of "About Her") from Madsen (in a career best performance) explaining to The Bride why its in her best interests to allow herself to be buried alive. To Daryl Hannah (Ditto) lolling her tongue around the word “Gargantuan” Tarantino even manages to coax an entertaining performance out of the loathsome Larry Bishop as an ultimate Asshole unaware that his shit talking might seriously endanger his life.

But really it all comes down to the two extended conversations that Kill Bill Vol. 2 begins and ends with. They take up nearly a third of the films runtime and are the keys to the film. In both the Bill and The Bride talk in lieu of fighting, the first time both are playing a game of concealment and the second time under the influence of The Absolute Truth. Both times slicing each other to shreds as surely as if they where using Hanzo steel.

Though I would never think of replacing Carradine I consider the almost casting of Warren Beatty as Bill to be one of the great cinematic what ifs. Not least of all because it’d be nice to have what is increasingly looking to be Beatty’s last film not be Town and Country. The difference I think is that Beatty would have been smoother, more cordial, better to mask his pain. Which is something Carradine simply cannot do. He’s charming here, but its painfully obvious its all a cover, he's charming because if he wasn't he'd be snarling. He’s a raw nerve here obviously trying with all his might not to put his hands around her throat there and then. And look at The Bride, nervous but not scared.

The scene is DePalma like in the way that it uses the cinema itself to generate suspense. We know more then both the characters in the scene. It’s a flashback for us, The Bride has no idea what Bill will and can do to her in a few moments, but we have full disclosure. Bill has no idea that he’s about to risk his unborn daughters life, and set in motion the chain of events that will eventually destroy him. But even if he did I doubt he would care. He’s hurting too much.

And that’s what Kill Bill Vol. 2 is really about the infinite ways that the one’s we love tear us apart. Its in every relationship in the movie, the way the love between Bill and Budd (“The only man I’ve ever loved.") has festered. The rage in Elle that comes from the knowledge that she is doomed to always be his “rebound girl”, never loved half as much as the woman who betrayed him. The love of a child that hit both The Bride and Bill at their most, possibly only, vulnerable spots. And finally the love between Bill and The Bride, which can only be expressed by ripping each other to shreds.

And isn’t that the appeal of the end of the movie? How many of us have dreamed of the ability to ask the question “Why?” knowing that we’d get a truthful answer. To say “I never thought you could do that to me.” And know that the other person will hear you. Our capacity to be hurt by and to hurt the ones we love always comes as a fresh surprise. We never quite develop the tolerance to that pain that we would like to have. Or grow the mercy we feel we should.

It ends as it must inevitably, from death brought on by a broken heart (of course). The tale of bloody revenge brought to its quite end in one of the most oddly moving scenes of the decade. Tarantino famously cheekily ended Inglorius Basterds with the line “I think this might be my masterpiece.” Almost Quentin, but you were too late, you made it five years ago.

Pouring One On The Curb For Dan O'Bannon

That's a pretty good day's work by anyone's standards. Good on you Dan. Sorry to see you go.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 9: Ratatouille

If someone where ever God Forbid to make a Bergman style movie about me, involving the fractured pieces of my personality turned into living embodiments, it might look a whole hell of a lot like Ratatouille.

Trust me I know that’s a pretty ridiculous statement, but work with me for a minute here. I also know that this is a pretty personal reason for naming a film one of the best movies of the decade. But as time goes on I find I have less and less use for objective film criticism, and if ever there was a stage for the personal it’s the blog. And that’s the thing about Ratatouille I take it so ridiculously personal.

But lets take a moment and look at the larger picture Pixar is as far as I’m concerned the only true constant working in film today, and Brad Bird’s their best filmmaker. Sure Stanton’s the poet, and Doctor is the storyteller, Lassester is the craftsman that makes it all work, but Bird? Prickly, self certain, fearlessly auteuristic Bird? He’s the total package, if there was any fairness in the world of American Animation (Hint there’s not) Bird would have already helmed a Miyaziki level of films by now. His is one of the most fully formed voices in American cinema period. Even when he’s making something from the shambles of someone else’s product, he cannot help but make something that is glorioulsly himself. It’s a voice that bugs a lot of people. Fucking Good. Objectivism is about as far as you can get from my own personal philosophy without actually being Scientology. But having a personality, one strong enough to annoy people in a medium that’s as purposefully antiseptic as American Animation is a feat.

But Bird isn’t some mere demagogue he’s also a true artist with a poet’s eye. There where sequence’s in The Incredibles particularly near the beginning that where worthy of Tati. Iron Giant’s lovingly 2D animation was a complete labor of love. But Ratatouille out does both of them, with its warm tones and free camera scurrying through the streets of a romantic’s dream of Paris, making food made entirely out of ones and zeroes look mouthwatering.

It’s a film of comic wit, witness Ego’s exquisitely designed study, and the way after checking the vintage he declines the spit take, or the perfect timing on the near domestic murder that Remy witnesses on his trek across Paris, or the simple comic perfection of a raised thumb. Like Day For Night, my other favorite valentine to France and Art, it delivers its message not in ennui filled monologues about the struggles of creation, but with a simple comic grace.

But really it’s the… well heart sounds too cheesy, but emotion of Bird’s piece that makes it fly. Anchored by Patton Oswalt’s lovely bristly performance, perfectly matched by O’Toole’s droll dogmatist (The film on the whole has one of Pixar’s great supporting casts, the names aren’t really big, but Brad Garrett, Brian Dennehy, Jeneane Garofolo, Will Arnett, and Ian Holm all do note perfect unshowy work) , Ratatouille is my favorite movie about art, about that simple wonderful act of creation that I’ve ever seen.

Like I said, as crazy and borderline soliphistic as it sound I see pieces of myself in all the central Ratatouille characters, The finicky difficult creator, the unsure and uneasy kid, and the demanding exacting connoisseur. All so disparate but all united by the common theme that what they do, despite all evidence to the contrary somehow matters.

Why write an indepth essay for a blog, which I’m happy neigh estactic for when it gets forty hits a day. Why write weekly for a column that I’m halfway sure that literally no one reads. Why toil away on screenplays and manuscripts and film that will probably never come to fruition even if I am able to drag them kicking and screaming into “Complete” (Whatever that means) status. Why can’t I learn from Sissyphus and when the boulder rolls over me for the forty thousandth time just go “Fuck this.” Or on the other end of the brow spectrum get it through my head that The Acme Catalogue is never going to be all its cracked out to be. Why the utter masochism of hard work for little recognition or satisfaction?

Because I can’t even begin to imagine doing anything else.

As Ego says in his noble final speech the new does indeed need friends. Whether its my destiny to actually ever create something new, or just spend my life as an ardent appreciator of it (and its friend the old, often equally endangered by the ever present foe the banal) I do not know. But I accept either.

And that’s what Ratatouille captures, that bit of benevolent mania that is at the core of anyone narcissistic enough to consider themselves creators. Success or fail “It is wonderful to create.” As Akira Kurosawa put it. It might be nigh impossible to please people, and even harder to please yourself, but those moments when it does come together, and that plate of Ratatouille takes someone back to the base component of what they love, or leaves them stumbling out into the Jacaranda haze after the main credits roll, it’s a special kind of bliss. Just like this movie.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 10: This Is England

Take a minute to watch the opening montage of This Is England, it’ll put us on better terms to talk about who I think is pound for pound the greatest filmmaker to start his work in this decade.

Now that’s a fucking montage. I’ve never been to England, and my only knowledge of its history in the eighties comes from the frenzied rants of David Peace (Whose books have more or less convinced me to never visit your lovely country. No offence but if he’s correct you’re all terrible terrible people) and Alan Moore, where from what I can glean you guys actually elected your Sarah Palin and went and stomped the shit out of Argentina just to show you could (If any of my readers in the UK wish to correct me please do so. Actually please comment anyway, I’ve been wanting to get the thoughts of a real life British person on this movie for quite awhile). But from the opening frames I can feel the place in my bones, That montage tells you nothing at all. But at the same time it tells you everything.

Shane Meadows is the new Martin Scorsese. That’s not something I say lightly, as Scorsese is the filmmaker I hold dearest above all others.For some, saying that would be a complement, maybe even a boast. For me it’s damn near a canonization. To say I’m Scorsese super freak would be an understatement, if you’ve ever seen the movie Ratatouille that really should give you the best idea of the one sided mentorship I have with him. There’s basically a tiny Scorsese floating above my shoulder at any given moment. There is also the possibility that I’m utterly insane but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

The point is when I say Meadows has captured the vitality, style, feel, and ferocity of Scorsese in his prime with This Is England (And Dead Man’s Shoes, and Once Upon A Time In The Midlands, and well you get my point), you know I’m not saying it idly. This Is England follows a young boy, named Shaun who falls in with a group of skinheads, he’s young, troubled, has recently lost his father, and the acceptance and comradery they give young Shane is like Manna from heaven. At the time the groups not a bad influence on him, The Skin Heads had yet to become affiliated with Neo Nazism and were no different from any rowdy group that adolescent boys usually fall in with for a time. But when former members start getting out of prison, hardened and with a gleam of zealotry start talking about The National Front, things very quickly go to shit. This Is England shares many things in common with Meadows early films (and as I said before Scorsese), the environments aren’t merely passive backgrounds but come on so strong that they are practically tactile, the tone and dialogue have a kind of jocular menace to them, anything can happen at anytime especially when the players are at there most relaxed. Most of Meadows films have been about this, the way that good natured male ball busting, and piss taking can erupt into violence over something as meaningless as inflection. But this time he’s doing all these things on a greater scale, This Is England is the same kind of leap that Taxi Driver was from Mean Streets, the announcement that talent may have cured into genius.

Meadows has Scorsese’s gift for capturing the feeling of a particular time and place utterly in the small details of his mileu, he shares Scorsese’s gift for encapsulating how working class groups interact and as I said, how good natured ball busting can shift to violence at the drop of the hat, and he shares Scorsese’s fascination with violence and maturity and where the two intersect. Though few Scorsese heroes have passed that terrible test quite as well as Meadow's young hero, despite the terrible price Shaun has to pay.

Once Upon A Time In The Midlands and Dead Man’s Shoes were both interesting films, but unmistakably warm-ups, This Is England shows Meadow’s in full command of his gifts, making for my money the best film about the transition from Childhood to Adolescence since The 400 Blows.

Its Meadow’s knack with character, that makes his work so powerful. He works in quick broad sketches that none the less ring true, setting up Shaun and his loneliness, isolation, and almost perfect pliability in the first short scenes. Meadow’s ability with characters serves him well again allowing him to create a sense of community in the first scene they appear in (Again quite Scorsese Like).

Anchored by a charismatic performance by Joe Gilgun and Vicky McClure as Woody and Jo a Skinhead power couple, unable to fight off the influences in their ranks. Meadows smartly makes them very human characters, small moments (Scorsese like moments OK I promise I’ll stop) that another filmmaker would gloss over an ignore, like when the character who would normally be summed up as “The fat one” gets a moment to express his anxieties and doubts, or when the group reverts back to a bunch of nervous little kids when faced with a scolding from Shaun’s mother. From the word go you understand why Shaun wants to be like them, they’re funny, cool, and they actually seem to like him. Meadow’s is equally adept at portraying the nearly narcotic bliss of belonging that Shaun experiences with the skinheads. A misfit getting to belong for the first time.

Why wouldn’t he devote himself to them? Why wouldn’t he make excuses? Why wouldn’t he turn a blind eye when everything starts to go to shit? The opening half of the movie is so purely pleasurable, that we’d almost like to believe that This Is England can remain such, a gentle Linklaterian observation of a time and place. But of course its not to be.

If you weere to tell me that one of my favorite characters actors of the decade would end up being that Goofy Guy from Snatch whose defining characteristic was that he wasn’t Jason Statham, I would have probably told you that you where fucking insane. But Stephen Graham is so good in this that I didn’t even realize who he was until I recognized him in Public Enemies and looked him up.

He’s terrifying in this. The ultra alpha, the dark clump at the heart of the movement that metastases and ignites a wave of terrible violence that’ll happen whenever you can convince people that they’re poor, fucked and its all someone else’s fault. Graham walks a tightrope in this roll, he’s enough of an Alpha dog to be able to convincingly take over the group, but he’s got enough charisma and genuine intelligence to make it work. Its not like he’s some mustache twiller that comes and strong arms the gang. He just comes in, and lays down his propaganda with such skill that poor kind hearted Woody has no chance of holding on to control.

Everyday that Graham runs the gang, everyday things get a little darker and more out of control. Everyday Shaun has a chance to step away, to wake up. But of course he never does, few of us ever do. Shaun pays a terrible price for his complacency, or more accurately he has it paid for him and is at least cognoscente enough to realize this. The ending of This Is England is as terrible as it is inevitable. But its tinged with a hard earned hopefulness, Shaun finally finds the strength to reject the dream that has long since curdled. It takes a lot to walk away from the things that have protected you, the things that have made you feel like a person even when they’re obviously corrupt, but its something we all have to do at one time or another. Meadow’s captures the moment with the command of a virtuoso. And the thing that excites me most about This Is England, is I think he's still just getting warmed up.