Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spotlight: KCRW

When I first moved to Southern California and would catch a flick at a Laemmle (SoCal’s premiere art-house theater chain) or at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard (home to the American Cinematheque) I’d always see these bizarre, eclectic promos for something called KCRW mixed in with the coming attractions. And my Jersey-born brain would always scream WTF!? But, having now lived here for ten plus years, and considering myself somewhat in the know, I am proud to be a card-carrying member. And what those of us Angelenos in the know know is this: that KCRW is the greatest independent radio station on the face of planet Earth. And, thanks to the glories of the Internet, the station's vast array of content is available streaming and archived at for the whole world to enjoy.

“What’s this?” I hear you question. Why am I writing about some radio station on a film blog? Well, dear readers, 89.9 KCRW is no mere radio station. In its online incarnation KCRW is a veritable digital temple of aural greatness. In addition to offering NPR and BBC news coverage and unparalleled music programming (more on that later), the station produces a plethora of original pop culture-oriented series for listeners of every taste. For the film buff there’s (1) The Treatment - an insightful, in-depth, half-hour discussion with actors, directors and film artisans hosted by former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, (2) The Business – a Hollywood insider look at show business hosted by The Hollywood Reporter’s Editor at Large, Kim Masters, (3) Film Reviews – by Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern, (4) Martini Shot – writer/producer Rob Long’s often hysterical blog-style look at life in Hollywierd, and (5) Hollywood Breakdown – a condensed offshoot of The Business hosted by Kim Masters and Los Angeles Times reporter John Horn that efficiently dissects Tinseltown’s top stories. And, for those adventurous enough to journey out of Filmland, there’s also Bookworm (piercing literary conversations and author interviews), Design and Architecture, Good Food, the NPR staple: This American Life, and Le Show (actor/comedian Harry Shearer’s weekly radio circus), among others. Visit the site, peruse, and enjoy.

And about that music programming; if you’re a music buff, but detest being spoon fed by corporate radio, then KCRW is absolutely for you. It plays host to a treasure trove of cutting edge sounds and is a great place to discover new artists. Also, keep in mind that KCRW’s Los Angeles area listenership is filled with entertainment industry insiders. This station helps set the trends. Their flagship broadcast, Morning Becomes Eclectic, is, music wise, probably one of the most influential radio shows in the country. And, oh, what other riches abound! On their website you’ll find (1) Album Preview – where you can stream select new album releases in their entirety, (2) The Guest DJ Project – for which a wide variety of cultural figures, from filmmakers to celebrity chefs, highlight the music that has inspired them, and (3) Eclectic24 – a round the clock streaming music channel, plus all of their DJ-hosted radio programs featuring an incredible selection of hand picked music.

So, if you want to become an honorary Angeleno (outside of being a Lakers/Dodgers fan, though that looks a lot more like posing) without actually going through the trouble of moving to Southern California, not to mention being able to impress all of your friends when you seemingly “discover” every hip new musical act months and months before they’re on anyone else’s radar, becoming a regular KCRW listener is the fastest way to do so. The smorgasbord of free content will blow your mind! Go ahead, you can thank me now. All I would suggest, if you find yourself a fan and a regular listener, is that you make some kind of donation and become a card-carrying member too. As the government tries to rip funds from Public Radio (and I’m one who firmly believes that if an uncontrollable chunk of my tax dollars is going to go to bombs and weapon making and things that I don’t fully agree with, then a tiny chunk of it should go to something I actually benefit from on a daily basis) the least we can do is fork over a sliver of our income to keep this truly unique mecca of cultural diversity alive and flourishing. Yeah, it sounds like a pitch, a shameless plug… whatever. I write this out of deep love for my radio station, baby, nothing more. Power to the people! Please spread the word.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Quick Takes: I Love You Phillip Morris, Fish Tank, Hereafter

Things have been very busy in recent weeks and I haven't been keeping up with my rentals lately. But quality easily trumps quantity as my three most recent viewings in the past two weeks have been nothing short of superb.

Jim Carrey does it again. He throws himself into a larger-than-life role and runs away with it. In his best performance since The Truman Show, Carrey is Steven Russell in I Love You Phillip Morris (2010), an outrageous true-life story about a con man who goes to great lengths to be with his boyfriend Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). Problem is, he always getting himself in trouble with his conning ways. The script by John Requa and Glen Ficarra (who also wrote the brilliant Bad Santa) had me howling with laughter at every turn and, at the same time, incredibly moved by Russell's dedication to Morris. Carrey and McGregor are perfectly cast, utterly convincing in their devotion to one another. Requa and Ficarra, assured in their directorial debut, managed to find just the right comic edgy tone. I Love You Phillip Morris is fresh, brazen and ridiculously entertaining. Easily one of the year's best and most original offerings. 4.5/5

Michael Fassbender first caught my eye in Inglourious Basterds, in which he played Hickox, the Lt. with the suspicious German accent. In his sole scene (Tarantino's bravura basement bar set piece), he made a terrific impression. Apparently, Hollywood agrees since he is slated to appear in 6 major new movies in the next two years, according to his IMDb profile. Meanwhile, he has received positive notices in the new Jane Eyre adaptation and last year's buzzed about indie, Fish Tank (2010). In the latter, Fassbender plays Connor, a friendly, handsome Irishman who changes the lives of three harsh, bitter women. The film focuses on 15-year-old Mia (Kate Jarvis), the older daughter of the woman Connor moves in with. Mia has a bad attitude towards everyone she knows; she spews vitriol and hatred to anyone who crosses her path. Jarvis, in her film debut, took a very difficult role (you just want to slap her during most of the movie) and turned Mia into a complex, compelling individual. Fish Tank is not an easy film to watch, but under the artful eye of writer/director Andrea Arnold and the alluring presence of rising star Fassbender, it deserves to be seen. 4/5

I continue to be amazed at Clint Eastwood's ability to evolve as a filmmaker. Hereafter (2010), a drama in which three disparate tales of loss and afterlife intersect, is his most mature movie yet. The deliberate pace turned off some viewers but the subject matter -- and the sensitivity in which he handles it -- is fascinating, whether if you are a skeptic or a believer. I fall somewhere in the middle and was enthralled by the three stories Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan have crafted. Matt Damon, a terrific actor who continues to stretch year after year, is a lonely man who has the ability to connect with those in the afterlife. Some consider this a gift but for him it's a curse. Cecile De France plays Marie, a successful career woman who has all she wants in life. When she goes through a near-death experience, everything begins to slowly slip away. And Jason and Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren) are twin brothers who do everything together; they even succeed to derail child services from taking them away from their alcoholic mum. When Jason dies in a freak accident, Marcus struggles to be indepedent. He cannot escape from his brother's shadow. These stories do intersect not in a grand, magical way, but rather in small, quiet moments just potent enough to stir some riveting emotions. Hereafter is a sad film, yes, but it's also a sincerely hopeful one. It is beautiful work by a master filmmaker. 4.5/5

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Greats: The Big Lebowski

When I recently watched The Big Lebowski for the first time in many years, I noticed something peculiar. The tone of the film is unwavering from its first frame to its last. It is pitch perfect all the way through. The Coen brothers have always been masters when it comes setting tone and mood in their films and The Big Lebowski, easily their biggest challenge to date, is an unparalleled success.

Everyone in the film is either an idiot or a moron. Our narrator, a perfectly cast Sam Elliott (come to think of it - everyone here is perfectly cast) loses his train of thought during his opening monologue. When he staggers onto the scene midway through the film, he appears drunk or stoned. Even The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is thinking, "What the hell is this guy talking about?" But The Dude abides, goes with the flow. With only a few brain cells left, The Dude knows not to question everything.

The Dude is more concerned about the soiled rug in his foyer - "It tied the room together, man" - than about the fact that two clueless men broke into his apartment. After repeated break-ins, he does not consider a deadbolt but actually installs a piece of plywood on the floor so he can wedge a chair between the wood and the door. He doesn't even consider the fact that maybe the door opens the other way.

His buddy, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), doesn't exactly think things through either. His anger issues override all logical thoughts in his head. Sobchak is a man-child; when things don't go his way, his reaction is immediate and violent. But he is incredibly loyal -- to his friends, to his country and to his guns.

Their friend Donnie (Steve Buscemi) is the sanest person in the entire film, but he's as clueless as they come. He tries so hard to keep up with the antics surrounding him. When it dawns on him that his friends are up to no good, he keels over and dies. The absurd reality was too much for poor Donnie. He should have just shut the fuck up, man.

When The Dude and Walter get embroiled in a complex kidnapping scheme involving a millionaire (also named Jeff Lebowski) and his trophy wife, they are clearly out of their element. Of course, that's the plan all along for the millionaire - he wants the scheme to fall apart so he can keep the money and get rid of Bunny all in one shot. Little does the Big Lebowski know that Bunny was not kidnapped after all. Little does anyone know anything in The Big Lebowski.

There is not one scene that does not feel fresh. Everything in The Big Lebowski is new and completely original. Sure, the dream sequences felt out of place upon first viewing, but once you've inhaled the film's narcotic essence a couple of times, they roll as sweet a bowler's strike. And what wonderful sequences they are! The major one, after porn producer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) knocks The Dude out with a drug, is a mood masterpiece set to the hypnotic tune of Kenny Rogers's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." When the Coen brothers plant a camera inside of a bowling ball as it rolls down a lane, you know you're watching something special.

The truth is, I can't spot a single cliche in the entire film. It moves in directions you can't possibly predict. The plot is a complex maze of misunderstandings; when populated by a bunch of nimwits, of course nothing will go as planned. The Big Lebowski is heavy on plot elements but is completely character-driven. The film moves along based on the characters' actions and inactions. That's what makes it so endearing. That's why there are Lebowski festivals every year. The Dude is an icon in his simplicity; if you can make him a White Russian, he'll go where ever you want him to. Walter wears his emotions on his sleeve. He always goes one step too far. Donnie has a look of devastation on his face when he hits 9 pins instead of 10. The man just wants to bowl a good game. Everything else is inconsequential. Maude (Julianne Moore) is the Big Lebowski's daughter and thinks the whole scheme stinks to high heaven. Inexplicably enough, she'll be happy as long as she gets The Dude's seed. Why The Dude? She doesn't say, and she doesn't really need to. Does the Pope shit in the woods? There's your answer to everything you need to know about The Big Lebowski.

Joel and Ethan Coen are master filmmakers, among the very best in the movie business. They are not the type of writers who sell out. They are determined to make fresh, original films, even if they are doing a remake or a book adaptation. None of their films will ever have a sequel. The Big Lebowski, like Fargo, like Barton Fink, like Blood Simple, is a masterpiece in mood cinema. And if you find yourself disagreeing with that sentiment, well then you are about to enter a world of pain, my friend.

Friday, April 15, 2011

100 Reasons Why We Love the Movies

Apparently, there's a trend going on in the movie blogosphere where some film buffs are creating lists of reasons why they love movies. Some are even going all out and listing why they love horror, or comedy, or foreign films! We're not that motivated. But we want to play, too!

So below, you will see a list compiled by Pete and myself. No further explanation necessary.

And ... you're welcome.

1. "Roads? Where we are going, we don't need roads."

2. Aaron Sorkin

3. A.B.C. Always Be Closing

4. "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue."

5. double features on a rainy day

6. the frogs in Magnolia

7. Clooney and Lopez burn celluloid for Soderbergh

8. Pixar

9. "It tied the room together, man."

10. Quentin Tarantino

11. coming attractions

12. "Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?"

13. every frame lensed by Robert Richardson

14. good old fashioned matte paintings, miniatures and latex

15. John Williams's score

16. the 20th Century Fox intro

17. Wahlberg's prosthetic penis

18. tracking shots

19. This man:

20. Lemmon and Matthau

21. "I loved you in Wall Street!"

22. "Get away from her, you bitch!"

23. Best Editing Ever: JFK

24. "Flames, flames, on the side of my face..."

25. Oliver Stone's output '86-'96

26. Jake LaMotta "dancing" to the Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana

27. Daniel Day-Lewis tapping a blade against his glass eye: GONY

28. "crazy" Carrie White goes to prom

29. A man, a boat, a mountain - Fitzcarraldo

30. the first ten minutes - Once Upon a Time In the West

31. You want to get Capone? Here's how you get him. He pulls a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of your to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way. That's how you get Capone."

32. chasing Magua up the mountainside

33. coming of age alongside a group of Almost Famous rockers

34. swish pan to a jazz trio's shadow in The Set-Up

35. the use of available light in The Shining

36. the harmonica montage in One False Move

37. great support: Macy in Fargo and Forester in Jackie Brown

38. Giamatti & Madsen rappin' on wine

39. a handmade chess piece tearing through Raquel Welch

40. "But, Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it."

41. showdown at the Victory Motel: off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush

42. Prof. Grady Tripp in his pink writing robe

43. hanging out "Under The Sea" with Ariel

44. "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in Watchmen

45. "If you build it, he will come."

46. Holden face down in the pool

47. Chapter 5: The House Of Blue Leaves

48. the basement experiments of Herbert West

49. The Living Dead... from Night of to Zombieland and beyond

50. WWII via Spielberg and Kaminski

51. duets: the rhythms of Scorsese/Schoonmaker, Tarantino/Menke, and P.T.A./Tichenor

52. Sean Astin proclaiming "our time" at the bottom of a wishing well

53. "We'll get 'em liquored up and take 'em to the peach tree dance!"

54. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

55. the films of Patrice Leconte

56. Film Noir

57. 70mm

58. "After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."

59. Jake Sully becoming Toruk Makto

60. "To the North - where we do what we bloody want!"

61. "I love the smell of nepalm in the morning!"

62. part I and part II; not so much part III

63. Arnold, back for Judgment Day

64. "O Captain, my Captain."

65. the last 1/2 hour of The Road Warrior

66. Jack Rabbit Slims & Big Kahuna Burger

67. Chris McCandless' journey / Ed Vedder's soundtrack

68. Classics: Rosebud, The Yellow Brick Road, The Burning of Atlanta and Kong atop the Empire State Bldg.

69. Wes Anderson + anamorphic lenses

70. the Millenium Falcon

71. the late, great John Candy

72. bullet holes the size of matzo balls

73. "Major Asshole reporting for duty, sir!"

74. visiting the Past Lives Pavillion

75. Steve Martin gives his daughter away

76. Jennifer Tilly + Gina Gershon = lesbians and straight men rejoice

77. "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was proving the world he didn't exist."

78. Oompa Loompas

79. "Fuck you, fuckball"

80. Camp Tomakwa!

81. Kathy Ireland plays football

82. Douglas + Turner + DeVito x 3

83. "Never let go, Jack!"

84. Heath and Jake make love in a tent

85. This man:

86. Dennis Hopper loses his head

87. "Red light! Green light!"

88. Mary Steenburgen gives Steve Martin a blow job

89. the late, great JT Walsh

90. Frank Darabont adapts Stephen King

91. "You'll shoot your eye out!"

92. Best. Presidents. Ever.

93. Tobey Maguire and Joan Allen go from black and white to color

94. Tobey Maguire and Joan Allen come of age in 70s suburbia

95. "There's no crying in baseball!"

96. Quint, Brody, and Hooper - gone fishin'

97. Rodents of Unusual Size

98. Jack Black as Dewey Finn

99. Martin Sheen gets thrown off a building

100. "Good morning! And if I don't see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night!"

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The 5 Best: TV Series Finales

Unless it's The Simpsons or a daytime soap opera, your favorite show will have to end sometime. Maybe the ending will come too late in its run (Roseanne, The X-Files), too soon (Quantum Leap, My So-Called Life) or hopefully just at the right time (Lost, The Wire). Regardless of where you are in that show's emotional journey, you're still invested with the characters and their stories. You want to see where they will all end up. You want closure.

I was too young to experience the ground-breaking finales of M*A*S*H, The Fugitive, Newhart, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, St. Elsewhere, to name a few. I loved their ideas of how a series should end, especially Newhart. Waking up in bed with his wife from a previous show? Genius!

Alas, my memories of growing up to series finales are a bit newer in the television landscape. I remember misting up when Alex Keaton came back into the kitchen to hug his family on Family Ties. I smiled when Sam Malone turned off the lights, straightened up Geronimo in a nod to Coach, and sent a customer away in the end of Cheers. How about Cliff and Claire dancing their way off the set of The Cosby Show? Or when Kevin Arnold let it slip that his dad dies in two years on The Wonder Years? All potent stuff. These moments shaped up my television childhood.

As I got older, these events became a little less special. Maybe I've become more jaded, more cynical. There's no such thing as a perfect ending, is there? I've been let down so many times as my favorite shows fumbled the final call. The X-Files and Alias both bombed thanks to their over-extended, convoluted mythologies. Those shows ended long before their last episodes, and their meager attempts at tying loose ends just came too late.

Quantum Leap was extremely disappointing only because it wasn't intended as a series finale. It was filmed as a season ender and when it was learned that a new season was not imminent, they added an excruciating, thoughtless subtitle: "Dr. Sam Becket never returned home." Blasphemy! And they spelled his last name wrong! Gah!

Roseanne, my favorite sitcom of all time, burned out well before the finale. The atrocious final seasons could not be forgiven, not even Rosie's attempt to pretend it all never happened. Meh. No matter what they did to that show, seasons 1-6 are the best six seasons of any sitcom on television. But that's the subject of another post for another day.

Seinfeld's capper was humorous and had its moments, but the show is so much smarter than what essentially added up to be a clip reel. Seinfeld's legacy, and its legion of fans, deserved better than that.

From a critical standpoint, I applauded David Chase's ending for The Sopranos. It was unforgettable and that's exactly what Chase wanted it to be. We can all theorize endlessly about Tony's fate and that's the beauty of it. However, as an audience member who enjoys emotional closure, it left me feeling just a little bit empty.

I know there are more to dissect but dammit, Chloe, I can't fit them all here! This is a 5 Best post!

That being said, below are the finales that rocked my socks. These endings worked on all levels -- emotionally, intellectually -- and lived up to every single one of my expectations.

If you haven't seen these shows, then for the love of all things holy, do not read the synopsis! Trust me when I say: *Spoiler alert!*

Six Feet Under - aired on August 21, 2005
This is the best of the best. This is how you do an ending. Six Feet Under had a rocky run. It started off as quirky in the first season, then as the tone grew darker, it became almost insufferable. But midway into season 3, things were clicking and the characters were finally growing on me. The last half of the show's run became appointment television and when the finale came, I just lost it. Nate had already died (and what an incredible arc that was), while David, Keith, Brenda and Ruth were finally settling into a happy groove. Claire, who always had problems fitting in, realized that it was in her best interest to leave. Leave the funeral home, leave her tormented family, her sad love life, her stalled career. So, set to the wistful tune of Sia's "Breathe Me," she takes off. The open road is hers to travel. The show then gives us glimpses of how each of the characters would eventually meet their maker. What an emotional cathartic release that was. Closure in every sense of the word. Six Feet Under was, above all, a show about death. This beautifully executed ending could not have been more fitting.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - aired on May 20, 2003
In a word: kick-ass. Joss Whedon didn't let me down with the conclusion of one of the most audacious, entertaining and heartfelt thrillers in the history of television. Despite the last season feeling a bit lackluster, Whedon jolted us right back into the Buffyverse we all knew and loved with this heart-stopping and dramatic finale. The season's big-bad (Nathan Fillion) was properly dispensed of in thrilling fashion and not without consequences. The casualties hit us hard: Spike sacrificed himself (well, sorta) and Anya died heroically putting up a good fight. One of the episode's many smile-inducing highlights: huddled in a circle in the hallway of Sunnydale High, the core Scooby gang is shooting the breeze. This is exactly how we remember them from way back in the pilot. Full circle, folks. Beautiful. And the last shot -- Buffy standing over the crater of the town formerly known as Sunnydale -- is a parting image that I will never soon forget.

Frasier - aired on May 13, 2004
A class act all the way. Frasier's quality may not have been consistent during all of its eleven (!) season run, but one thing is for sure - the gang went out with dignity. I went into this finale refreshingly without expectations, without that dread and fear of them screwing it up and letting me down. Will Martin re-marry? Will Niles and Daphne have a boy or girl? Will Frasier be happy with Charlotte? None of that stuff was relevant, really. I only had one hope for this finale: that it would be funny. And it was. In fact, it was riotously funny. One of the great strengths of Frasier is its ability to create situations that make it impossible for our characters to come out without looking like fools. This ending was no different, a simple series capper that produced as many laughs as it did during its peak seasons. A classy, drama-free swan song.

The Shield - aired on November 25, 2008
In the previous year, we wondered what Tony Soprano's fate would be. Death? Jail? Both? Of course, we never found out thanks to Chase's genius (or cruelty?), but we do know that Vic Mackey got his due. The gut-wrenching final season (well-anchored by Walton Goggins, David Snell, CCH Pounder et al) concluded with a firecracker of an ending. The noose tightened so much on Mackey and Shane and their scheming ways, the suspense became unbearable. When we discovered Shane's wife and kid, dead, on the bed, before hearing Shane's self-inflicted gunshot, I was floored. Speechless. And Vic's comeuppance is ingenious. Worse than prison (where he'd fit right in) and death (he doesn't deserve to get off that easy) - Vic Mackey is put in a corner and metaphorically handcuffed. He's a desk lackey. He cannot do a god-damned thing. And it kills him. How's that for punishment?

Lost - aired on May 23, 2010
This one had a lot to live up to. Six years of dramatic cliffhangers, unsolved mysteries, puzzling developments, heavy symbolism and all around brilliant storytelling, Lost was either going to go down in flames or be embraced as one of the best finales of all-time. For many, it was a kick in the balls and right uppercut to the jaw, but for others, it was a cathartic, life-affirming release. Those who demanded "answers" got none, but if you wanted emotional closure and a well-crafted final adventure with our time-traveling Losties, Lindelof and Cuse delivered that in spades. When Vincent cuddled up with Jack in the show's final shot, I was a blubbering fool. After delivering his season 1 "Live Together/Die Alone" mantra, we got to see that neither Shepard nor his friends, in the end, died alone.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hidden Treasures: Running on Empty, Night Falls on Manhattan

We lost a Hollywood legend last weekend. Sidney Lumet, 86, left us a legacy of smart dramas and lean thrillers. The tributes were pouring out following the days of his death and we learned that his resume is one of unparalleled success. Any filmmaker would kill to have at least one of these titles under their belts:

The Verdict
Dog Day Afternoon
Murder on the Orient Express
12 Angry Men

Rightfully so, the blogosphere heralded Lumet as a master class filmmaker, listing these half-dozen classics in every piece. My personal favorite Lumet film is Dog Day Afternoon which, among other things, delivered us Al Pacino's finest performance. Runner up: the nail biter that was 12 Angry Men. His last film, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, is a movie of considerable tension and expert craftsmanship. You'd be hard-pressed to believe it was made by an 82-year-old.

There are a few I have yet seen. Prince and the City. Q & A. Long Day's Journey Into Night. The Pawnbroker. My queue is filled with rich treasures from a grade-A movie-maker I cannot wait to continue discovering.

However, I noticed some Lumet titles missing from the obituaries circulating the web. These two movies may not be hard-core classics like ones listed above but are clearly worth mentioning as strong, emotional projects. For those who appreciate quality filmmaking and good old-fashioned storytelling should dig a little deeper and queue up these Lumet gems.

Running on Empty (1988)
Possibly the most over-looked film in Lumet's resume, a movie of great power and emotion. River Phoenix, who earned an Oscar nomination, gave us his best performance here as a teen whose childhood consisted of running away with his hippie underground parents and little brother. They would settle into a new town, get comfortable and then be forced to leave once the fuzz got too close. One day, Phoenix has had enough. He met a girl he liked (Martha Plimpton), his musical skills are becoming refined and he wants to build a life. How could his parents prevent him from growing roots? Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch are extraordinary as the criminals who eventually realize that they need to let their son go.

Night Falls on Manhattan (1996)
Lumet assembled a phenomenal cast, one of his best, in this crackling courtroom thriller about a newly appointed district attorney (Andy Garcia) who is thrown into the spotlight when a case involving a major police shooting is handed over to him. His father, a cop (Ian Holm), was a victim of the shooting, and he soon learns that he may have been involved in some shady dealings. Garcia is torn between his new career as a hotshot lawyer and his family. James Gandolfini is Holm's partner, who is clearly hiding something. Colm Feore is the lawyer who got pushed aside to make way for Garcia's star to rise. Richard Dreyfuss is smarmy and great as the defense attorney trying to uncover the lies. And in the best performance of the film, Ron Liebman plays Garcia's boss, Chief Morganstern, a hot-tempered attorney with the election in his sights. Lena Olin, Paul Guilfoyle and Dominic Chianese (as the judge) round out the cast. Night Falls on Manhattan is a feast for those who love juicy, firecracker performances, and a fine example of why Sidney Lumet, who also wrote the screenplay, will long be remembered as an actor's director.

Best of the Year: 2003

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Finding Nemo
More Pixar perfection from the guys who brought us Toy Story and Monster’s Inc, and like the others, this one never ceases to amaze and enthrall. Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres are so sweet and true as Marlin and Dory, two small fish in search for Marlin’s weak-finned son, Nemo. The animation is stunning, but what really makes the Pixar movies click are the original and witty screenplays, and Finding Nemo is no exception. These movies aren’t just “cute.” They are as smart and genuine as they come.

Ang Lee reaches new heights in his prolific career by creating one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking comic book movie in recent years. The film truly feels like a comic book with its ingenious use of wipes and cuts, using the split screen to great, thrilling effect. Danny Elfman’s score keeps things moving along merrily and the cast gives skilled performances as what could have easily been caricatures and cardboard cutouts, staples of most effects-driven movies. Call it a sensitive, touchy-feely Hollywood action blockbuster, a refreshing contradiction if there ever was one. Hulk should serve as a blueprint for all action films – story comes first, then characters, then effects. The formula may not always be successful, but Hulk is three for three and the results are extraordinary.

Kill Bill, Volume 1
I absolutely loved Kill Bill, every hypnotic and creative frame of it. The idea of splitting the film in half is questionable, but they pull it off. It was cut at the right spot and, as I left the theatre, I felt closure and was still salivating at the mouth for more. The final showdown with Cottonmouth and the Bride is gorgeously photographed and the colors are unbelievably vivid. That sky, that snow. How orgasmic! And speaking of beautiful, Uma Thurman radiates something magical here. The only flaw she had is that she's so striking to watch that I couldn't fully observe Tarantino's vision around her. It was impossible to take my eyes off her. She gives the best performance of any actress I’ve seen in years. Aurally, visually, and imaginatively, Kill Bill is a cinematic achievement.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Phenomenal. It all ends here, and what an ending! Watching this final piece of Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s) puzzle unfold with grace and perfection, I kept saying to myself, “Movie-going doesn’t get better than this.” Peter Jackson had the advantage of filming the entire trilogy simultaneously and these three films, as a result, feel completely whole. The Lord of the Rings is one long 12 hour story (extended versions, the only way to view this) and its structure is so sturdy and unwavering. If you sat and watched them all back to back to back, you’d be hard-pressed to tell where the movies connect together. This is superb storytelling, wonderfully cast and brilliantly designed. The battle scenes are pure adrenaline, wired with emotion and a strong sense of urgency. Everything is so big and magical in these movies, and I felt like a child, filled with an incredible sense of awe and wonder. And so it’s true – it really doesn’t get any better than this.

Lost in Translation
Bill Murray is exquisite as an aging actor who is stuck in Japan doing a small job for the money when he’d much rather be doing a play. He meets Scarlett Johansson, an introspective young newlywed who is questioning her marriage to Giovanni Ribisi. Both are lost souls in a strange land, and Sofia Coppola creates such a winning pair in these two characters. They connect in a human, most profound way, and this meaningful relationship is a joy to observe and experience. I’ve had my eye Johansson since Manny and Lo and The Horse Whisperer, and it was a pleasure to see her soar from here. And watching Murray react to Japan’s mannerisms proves to be some of the funniest material captured on screen this year.

The Magdalene Sisters
The great Scottish actor Peter Mullan directed this powerful and absorbing drama about young women servants suffering for their sins in an Irish monastery run by masochistic nuns and ignorant priests. These women are hardly sinful enough to be punished this brutally – some are beaten, sexually abused, overworked and greatly humiliated. It is dark, heavy stuff, but what makes it so watchable are the wonderful actresses that embody these desperate, yet hopeful, characters. The movie is not so much about the horrors of that place, but about these particular women’s journeys from the beginning to the end of their devastating imprisonment.

I'm not a fan of French films, so imagine my delight when I watched the 90-minute The Man on the Train, a brisk, thoroughly absorbing drama about two very different men who admire each other’s lifestyles. It’s a peculiar film, filled with rich details, a catchy score, subtle humor and gorgeous photography. It didn’t feel like a movie with a story, but it works very well as a study of two men, past their prime, who appreciate one another in a way no one else ever has. Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort are so effortlessly wonderful. The best thing about this movie is that it haunts you for the longest time.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Ahoy Matey! This rousing, fascinating epic drama on sea is another remarkable achievement for director Peter Weir and star Russell Crowe. These two towering figures of show business helped create a masterpiece of the genre – a fun, absorbing, emotionally complex adventure about friendship, loyalty, and surprisingly enough, the rewards of labor. The dialogue is so easy to savor (“the lesser of two weevils!”) and the performances are on target. Paul Bettany fares very well as Crowe’s best friend and shipmate, while the lesser-known cast makes big strides and memorable punches. And Crowe? Think what you may of him, but damn it, he’s a true out and out movie star.

Matchstick Men
Nicolas Cage is a delight as a neurotic con artist in Ridley Scott’s most intimate film of his action-oriented career. Scott’s rare nimble touch and Cage’s trademark quirky intensity make for such a unique and thoroughly absorbing combination. The story of Cage’s character fumbling through life succeeding only in his con artistry with his partner (Sam Rockwell) is an engaging one. Especially once his character meets the 14-year-old daughter (the terrific Alison Lohman) he never knew he had. All of Cage’s scenes, whether with his partner or his daughter or his shrink, are suffused with genuine emotion and electricity, which makes the climax all the more surprising and rewarding.

Raising Victor Vargas
Oh what a sweet little gem. This is the story of three young Puerto Rican teens, blooming fully into their pubescent years, who live with their stubborn and old-school grandmother in the Lower East Side. That’s it – no guns, no deaths, no melodrama. These are first time actors who look incredibly natural on screen, and there isn’t a single weak link among them. Raising Victor Vargas is a sincere, quiet drama with life-affirming touches on romance, friendship and family. Movies of this kind and caliber are always a pleasure to discover.

The Secret Lives of Dentists
Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play a happily married couple with three adorable kids who live in a beautiful house in the suburbs and own a summer house on the lake. Then one day, he catches her sharing an intimate moment with another man. Immediately afterwards, his mind begins to unravel; paranoia settles and his sense of security and comfort begin to fade away. The rest of the film focuses on his questions – Should I confront her? Should I do the same with another woman? Why does she do this? Is it me? Is it the kids? It’s a beautifully detailed and thoughtful film, sort of like the cerebral version of Unfaithful – this time, instead of the husband murdering his wife’s lover, he deals with it intellectually and uncovers some surprising revelations.

Shattered Glass
Hayden Christensen is amazing as Stephen Glass, a mousy reporter for The New Republic magazine who is popular for his entertaining articles and ego-less personality. Once it is discovered that most of his news reports were fabricated, Glass’s relationship with his respected colleagues begin to unravel and his world falls apart. There are great office politics on display and well-crafted moments of sheer suspense and tension. It’s an incredible story, elevated by a magnificently thoughtful and tight script, acted with extraordinary panache by a cast of pros. Standing out are Steve Zahn as a reporter who uncovers the truth, Hank Azaria as Glass’s previous, well-liked editor, Chloe Sevigny (who looks marvelous) and Melanie Lynskey as his closest friends, and Peter Sarsgaard as the new, unpopular editor who eventually brings Glass down. Great, taut stuff.

After a year dark and depressing documentaries (Bowling for Columbine, Capturing the Friedmans), it was such a pleasure to see a heartfelt non-fictional film dealing with the growing values of today’s children. The filmmakers showcase eight 14-year-olds who have won local and regional spelling bees and we watch as they compete with 240 other students nationwide for the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. This is nerve-wracking stuff. But it’s not just about the contest; it’s about the process, what the kids do to learn, how their parents support (or push) them, what drives them, and how they can use this experience and these obstacles to build a life based on a strong work ethics and values.

Stuck On You
In the Farrelly Brothers’ best film since the classic Kingpin, Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear are well-matched as conjoined brothers who optimistically pursue their lifelong dreams. As all of the Farrellys’ films do, Stuck on You has got a big, silly heart, but this one stands out thanks to Kinnear and especially Damon. Damon is perfectly suited in any genre and I cannot recall seeing him having so much fun on screen as I do here. Stuck on You isn’t laugh-a-minute, but it does squeeze out a dozen good ones and manages to tug your heartstrings at the same time.

Honorable Mentions
All The Real Girls; Better Luck Tomorrow; Bruce Almighty; Capturing the Friedmans; Casa de los Babys; City of God; Confidence; Freaky Friday; Holes; House of Sand and Fog; The Human Stain; In America; The Italian Job; The Last Samurai; Mystic River; Oldboy; Open Range; Pieces of April; The School of Rock; Secondhand Lions; The Station Agent; 28 Days Later

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The 5 Best: Shootouts

In 1903, staring in the Edison production of Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, Justus Barnes raised a six-shooter at audiences and fired the shot that began America’s love affair with the movie shootout. From that moment on, from Stagecoach to the Coens’ True Grit, from Hawks’ Scarface to De Palma’s Scarface; we just couldn’t get enough breathless, gun-blazing action. There were so many classic sequences to consider for this column: Travis Bickle’s rampage (Taxi Driver), Tony Montana and his little friend, last stand at the Victory Motel (L.A. Confidential), the motel suite Mexican standoff (True Romance), and on and on – The International, The Magnificent Seven, Children of Men, etc. If I’d allowed myself to cheat and split slot number five into a 2-way tie then I’d have included the heart-pounding showdown that culminates Leone’s magnum opus, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. But alas, I ruthlessly held it to five! If ever, dear readers, there was a list to debate; this is it. So please, chime in with your comments and tell me what I’ve overlooked.

5. Inglourious Basterds (2009) – La Louisianne Tavern
“Well, you don't got to be Stonewall Jackson to know you don't want to fight in a basement.” Tarantino’s tavern shootout is audaciously, unapologetically brief - albeit breathtaking – and it stands as the final reveal (punchline?) to the greatest magic trick the maestro Quentin has yet displayed on film. Make no mistake, the La Louisianne sequences stands, thus far, as the directorial high water mark of Mr. Tarantino’s illustrious career. The less than one-minute barrage of bullets that closes it out is so impactful because it relieves the almost unbearable tension of the previous twenty minutes’ white-knuckle verbal sparring. “Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's.” Bravo! Bravo!

4. Hard Boiled (1992) – Hospital Siege
Before he was embraced by the Hollywood machine, given bigger budgets – i.e. studio oversight, thus forced to tone down his style (Hard Target, Broken Arrow) - Hong Kong action maestro John Woo, aided by leading man Chow Yun-Fat, burst onto the international cinema scene with his gun-in-each-hand, Peckinpah-inspired, slow-mo centric bullet ballets: A Better Tomorrow 1&2, The Killer, and the crème de la crème, Hard Boiled. The Killer is likely more cherished by die-hard Woo fans, and I myself prefer the high sheen opulence of the “Over the Rainbow” sequence in Face/Off, but as shootouts go, for sheer over-the-top bravado, nothing in Woo’s oeuvre comes close to the climactic hospital showdown that comprises the last 20 or 30 minutes of Hard Boiled. It verges on action-scene overload, with a seemingly endless onslaught of faceless armed villains attacking the heroes, like Rice Krispies pouring forth from an oversized cereal box, but Woo manages to skirt the fine line between laughable, unbelievable absurdity and jaw-dropping theatrical grandeur. It’s a high-wire act of the highest order.

3. Heat (1995) – Dow
ntown L.A. Showdown
No matter your opinion of the film as a whole, either bloated, overblown cops & robbers soap opera or precision genre masterpiece – I tend towards the latter – there’s no denying that Michael Mann’s bank-robbery-gone-wrong Downtown L.A. shootout is a stunner; a tense, terse, shattering piece of pure cinema. I remember seeing the film upon its initial release and all anyone could talk about exiting the theater was the nail-biting velocity of that sequence. Al Pacino’s Lt. Hanna and his Robbery/Homicide crew close in fast as De Niro, Kilmer, and Sizemore pile into their getaway car. Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis spots the fuzz and lets loose the first high powered, fully automatic rounds in a set-piece that leaves Downtown L.A. in bullet-riddled, Swiss cheese tatters. Mann’s adherence to impeccably high standards, when it comes to conveying the impression of absolute realism, lends the scene an undeniable power. He captures both the pure adrenaline and pure fear of the moment. The danger of the situation and the ferocity of the violence on display is rendered gut-wrenchingly palpable.

2. The Untouchables (1987) – Odessa Steps, The Chicago Way
Homage? Tribute? Tip of the hat? Blatant rip-off? Call it what you will, but Brian De Palma - with the aid of ace cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, editors Bill Pankow and Gerald Greenberg, and Ennio Morricone’s score - takes his inspiration from the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potempkin and then proceeds to up the ante in every way possible to craft the most dazzling slow-motion action/suspense set-piece of all time! Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone has just been perforated with lead from Capone enforcer Frank Nitti’s (Billy Drago) Tommy Gun. With his dying breath he tells Kevin Coster’s Elliot Ness what train Capone’s bookkeeper is skipping town on. Ness and his remaining untouchable, George Stone (Andy Garcia), hightail it to Chicago’s Union Station to lie in wait. It’s a midnight rendezvous! Throw in a concerned mother making her way upstairs with luggage and a baby carriage, her crying infant, white-clad sailors on leave, and Capone goons galore – lock, load, and release… very slowly! I dare you to breathe.

1. The Wild Bunch (1969) – The Battle of Bloody Porch
It is, without question, the great, great grandfather of the modern action set-piece. In a sense, every shootout from the summer of ’69 on pays homage to The Battle of Bloody Porch, and resides forever in its shadow. Can you think of a single more influential sequence in the history of modern cinema? Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch simultaneously put the nail in the coffin of traditional western movie mythology and ushered in the post-Hays Code, a.k.a. The Motion Picture Production Code, era of Hollywood filmmaking. The rapid cutting style, courtesy of Lou Lombardo, combined with a revolutionary use of slow-motion photography to protract/accentuate the on-screen carnage, changed the way audiences related to cinematic violence by creating a new esthetic, a sort of hyper-reality. Peckinpah, who abhorred real life violence, and whose intentions were to disturb and disgust, gravely miscalculated the impact his new style would have. Instead of looking away in horror, audiences were mesmerized. The film's techniques rendered its violence hypnotically titillating. To this day we can’t get enough spewing, splattering, spraying gore. For better or worse, Bloody Sam, you left bloodstains on celluloid that will never be washed out.


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