Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter: The Bill Hicks Version


I don't listen to a lot of stand-up comedy, simply because I've never really liked a lot of what I've heard. Or maybe everyone just pales in comparison to my favorite comedian of all time - Bill Hicks. Sadly, Hicks never achieved the success and fame he deserved during his short lifetime. He died of pancreatic cancer at the tender age of 32.

Given that it's Easter Sunday I thought I'd share with you a brief bit he did on Easter. Bear in mind that it contains some profanity. Enjoy!


Bill Hicks on Easter



If you'd like to learn more about Bill Hicks, here are a few useful links:

Official Page

Wikipedia Entry

Notable Quotes

Video Excerpts

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The 400 Blows


Fifty years ago a French film critic named Francois Truffaut decided to try his hand at directing a full-length feature film. The result was Les Quatre Cents Coups, better known as The 400 Blows. Along with the release of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Truffaut's debut effort helped usher in the French New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague. While the unofficial movement and the people and films involved with it are well worth exploring, I've chosen to simply review The 400 Blows, which has been one of my all-time favorite films since first seeing it during my senior year of high school.

The 400 Blows was inspired largely by Truffaut's own troubled childhood, which, along with its revolutionary style, helps create a very realistic portrait of a young boy's struggles at home, school, and with society as a whole. Antoine Doinel (played brilliantly by a young Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a middle school boy with semi-neglectful parents who don't quite know how to deal with their only child. He has one true friend at school, but that boy also comes from a dysfunctional (albeit far more affluent) family. Antoine is an intelligent and curious boy, but even his best intentions seem to get lost in translation. As the adults in his life continue to disappoint and disapprove of him, he retreats further into his own world of playing hooky, going to the movies, and eventually resorting to petty criminal activities.

The "plot" of the film is so simple that it almost seems non-existent. What makes this film great is a combination of many elements. Few young actors have delivered a performance as true and remarkable as Leaud did here, and the rest of the cast provides admirable support. The cinematography is breathtaking today, and must have seemed rather startling at the time. It just does not feel like you're watching a film from the late 1950s, even though it is in black and white. The music by Jean Constantin is equally transcendent. If I ever get the chance to walk the streets of Paris that is the music that will be playing in my head. Julian Schnabel's recent film The Diving Bell and Butterfly paid tribute to the opening scene and opening music of The 400 Blows. With all these stellar attributes and an eternally affecting, ambiguous ending, this film is the very definition of a must-see.

Fans of the movie or first-time viewers will be glad to learn that Truffaut's classic was recently released on Blu-Ray via the Criterion Collection. Those unfamiliar with the Criterion label need only know that they offer high quality editions of a variety of significant films, and typically flesh out their releases with a bevy of extras sure to please casual moviegoers and hardcore cinephiles. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this timeless classic.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

BREAKING BAD



I had never heard of Breaking Bad until the night of the Emmys broadcast, when Bryan Cranston's name was announced as winner of the coveted award for Best Actor in a TV Drama. When I realized that that name belonged to the man who had played the wacky dad in the equally wacky family sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, I was doubly surprised. Most of the audience members seemed to share a similar reaction. What the hell was this show, where did it come from, and why the hell was the dad from Malcolm in the Middle suddenly being hailed for his dramatic chops?

My wife and I watch a lot of great TV and had even been fans of AMC's critically acclaimed original series Mad Men when Cranston and his new series made that unexpected splash on Emmy night. We had had no idea that the same network responsible for one of last year's biggest TV crazes was also harboring one of its best-kept secrets. Season 1 of Breaking Bad was released recently on DVD, and within minutes of the pilot episode I became hooked on this phenomenal new show.

Despite the Emmy nod, most people still have not heard of this show (even though Stephen King regularly praises it in his column for Entertainment Weekly). For the uninitiated, here's a brief, spoiler-free synopsis...

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a brilliant man who won a Nobel Prize early in his scientific career, but now, at the age of 50, finds himself teaching high school chemistry to vaguely disinterested kids. His wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), is still in her 30s and currently pregnant with their unplanned second child. Their first child, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), is a teenager with cerebral palsy. Walter Sr. spends his afternoons working an extra job at a local carwash, trying desperately to provide for his growing family. If these initial circumstances weren't painful enough, he learns in the pilot episode that he has inoperable lung cancer.

If this already sounds like too much of a downer, it isn't. The series was created by Vince Gilligan, the former X-Files scribe responsible for some of that series' most eccentric and memorable episodes. Gilligan is well-versed in infusing bizarre subject matter with appropriate levels of humor. In addition to creating and producing Breaking Bad, Gilligan also wrote the bulk of its first season, which helped keep the narrative focused and the tone and style consistent.

After learning of his cancer and realizing the harsh financial predicament this could leave his family in, Walt begins to brainstorm ways to make lots of money in a hurry. His brother-in-law, who happens to work for the Drug Enforcement Agency, unknowningly provides Walt a new career path when he takes him on a ridealong to show him a meth lab seizure. Once Walt realizes that his profound knowledge of chemistry could be applied to the drug trade for a substantial profit, all that's missing is a way into that world. Cue the arrival of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a former student of Walt's who now spends his free time cooking mediocre meth and snorting what he can't sell. Walt decides with eerie immediacy that he must partner up with ex-pupil and generate some major cash while he's still well enough to do so.

Fans of Showtime's comedy series Weeds may claim that this show is a mere variation on that show's premise of a recently-widowed housewife deciding to deal pot in order to provide for her family. While Breaking Bad also examines the effects of an average citizen suddenly plunging into the drug subculture, it is done in a much more realistic fashion. Granted, this show still requires a suspension of disbelief, but it's not so eager for laughs that it bypasses logic altogether. It's also extremely addictive, whereas I could easily go several weeks in between Weeds episodes.

Season 1 was originally going to be 9 episodes, but was ultimately cut to 7 due to the writer's strike. This makes it a bit difficult to justify buying Season 1 on DVD, but with places like Wal-Mart occasionally selling it for $19.99 or less, it's well worth it. Luckily, Season 2, which began airing several weeks ago, will contain 13 episodes. After having already seen the first 4 episodes of the second season, I can confidently state that the show has not lost its edge. In fact, I'm glad to see that the series has been willing to delve deeper into the Jesse Pinkman character. Most drug dealers or junkies on TV shows are cliched and one-dimensional, but Jesse's lifestyle and home life have already been explored in painful detail. Despite the mistakes made by Walt and Jesse, we can't help but hope that they survive each episode and somehow turn their battered lives around. This is not always easy or pleasant viewing, but it is definitely essential viewing. Many great shows have ended recently (The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, etc.), but hopefully more programs as intriguing, uncompromising, and well-crafted as this one will start surfacing. Give this one a chance and keep your fingers crossed that it doesn't get cancelled before its time, like so many other great shows before it.

Breaking Bad airs on AMC, Sundays at 10pm Eastern / 9pm Central.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Sorry For the Hiatus

I know that all two of you reading this have been worried sick by my sudden and lengthy departure that began several months ago. I have no official excuse, though several are currently being concocted. The top three choices will appear as poll options that you can vote for in the near future. Meanwhile, I'd just like to state that I'm glad to be back doing as little as possible for as few readers as possible. I'd like to conclude by mentioning that a more "blogworthy" post is forthcoming. But with the recent advent of Twitter and the world being asked to give a shit about Ashton Kutcher's hourly activities, it seems the term "blogworthy" no longer has any meaning.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Oscar Season, Vol. 2: National Board of Review



The National Board of review, always eager to be the first big prize-givers of the year, have announced their winners for the 2008 awards season. Here is a list of the awards, followed by some brief commentary by yours truly.

Best Film
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

Best Director
DAVID FINCHER, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Actor
CLINT EASTWOOD, Gran Torino

Best Actress
ANNE HATHAWAY, Rachel Getting Married

Best Supporting Actor
JOSH BROLIN, Milk

Best Supporting Actress
PENELOPE CRUZ, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Foreign Language Film
MONGOL

Best Documentary
MAN ON WIRE

Best Animated Feature
WALL-E

Best Ensemble Cast

DOUBT

Breakthrough Performance by an Actor
DEV PATEL, Slumdog Millionaire

Breakthrough Performance by an Actress
VIOLA DAVIS, Doubt

Best Directorial Debut
COURTNEY HUNT, Frozen River

Best Original Screenplay
NICK SCHENK, Gran Torino

Best Adapted Screenplay
SIMON BEAUFOY, Slumdog Millionaire and ERIC ROTH, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Spotlight Award
MELISSA LEO, Frozen River and RICHARD JENKINS, The Visitor

The BVLGARI Award for NBR Freedom of Expression
TRUMBO

Top Ten Films
(In alphabetical order)
BURN AFTER READING
CHANGELING
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
THE DARK KNIGHT
DEFIANCE
FROST/NIXON
GRAN TORINO
MILK
WALL-E
THE WRESTLER

Top Five Foreign Language Films
(In alphabetical order)
EDGE OF HEAVEN
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
ROMAN DE GUERRE
A SECRET
WALTZ WITH BASHIR

Top Five Documentary Films
(In alphabetical order)
AMERICAN TEEN
THE BETRAYAL (NERAKHOON)
DEAR ZACHARY
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
ROMAN POLANSKI WANTED AND DESIRED

William K. Everson Film History Award
MOLLY HASKELL and ANDREW SARRIS

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Right off the bat, we see that festival favorite Slumdog Millionaire continues to wow and delight critics as well as the average moviegoer. No real surprise there, though the choice could help curtail a mild Slumdog backlash that has recently begun percolating. While many highbrow critics don't consider the NBR the most reputable awards group, their position as first out the gate does give them a certain level of significance. Earning the NBR's top prize is a good sign for Fox Searchlight, making it all the more likely that they should have multiple chances to reach the podium in February.

David Fincher, whose film Zodiac was my pick for best film of 2007, finally seems to be earning the recognition he deserves. And all he had to do was combine Brad Pitt, stellar CGI, and the screenwriter of Forrest Gump. The film itself also made the group's Top 10 and shared the Best Adapted Screenplay award with the writer of Slumdog.

A big surprise came in the Best Actor category, with the prize being given to NBR favorite Clint Eastwood for his performance as a racist veteran in the relatively unseen Gran Torino. Eastwood's good fortunes continued as his two directorial efforts of 2008 (Changeling and Gran Torino) made the Top 10. Although I found Changeling to be a fascinating film, many critics seemed to dismiss it for reasons I still can't quite fathom. Personally, I think Eastwood's recent hot streak and impressive work ethic actually made some people wary of his latest effort. And the less-than-enthusiastic response from some critics at Cannes may have set the wheels of negativity in motion. It will be interesting to see if Gran Torino truly is good enough to have swooped in at the eleventh hour and made the group's Top 10. I certainly hope so, though the trailer didn't exactly have me expecting great things. And no matter how good the picture is, I can't imagine that Clint delivered the best male performance of the year. Then again, at age 78, he continues to surprise us.

On the flipside, Wall-E's victory in the Best Animated Film category was anything but startling. As one of the best films of the year, animated or otherwise, it should easily take home another Oscar for the unstoppable Pixar.

Man on Wire remains one of the best reviewed films of the year, and it's a documentary I cannot wait to see for myself. It made the controversial Oscar shortlist late last month, and its victory here should help its chances with the ever-clueless Academy doc voters. The NBR also recognized three films in their Top 5 Documentary list that did not make the Academy shortlist (American Teen, Dear Zachary, and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired).


OTHER SURPRISES

In what has to be the biggest shocker of the bunch, Burn After Reading made the Top 10 list despite the overwhelming indifference it seemed to provoke from most critics and viewers. Even a lifelong Coen Brothers fan such as myself found the film amusing yet somewhat bland, not to mention a retread of the themes and humor that have peppered previous better works by the delirious duo.

Another Top 10 entry that will have most pundits scratching their heads in the inclusion of Edward Zwick's Defiance. Then again, should we ever really be surprised that a Zwick film gains some awards attention?


NOTABLE OMISSIONS

Despite it taking home the prize for Best Ensemble Cast, Oscar hopeful Doubt failed to crack the Top 10. Other likely candidates that went virtually ignored include Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Australia, and The Visitor (though the latter did earn a Spotlight Award (whatever the hell that is) for its lead actor Richard Jenkins. The cryptically-marketed and essentially unseen Seven Pounds was understandably absent, while Soderbergh's epic, Che, continues its uphill struggle.

Well, there you have it. The awards season is now officially underway. I for one am glad that popcorn fare like Wall-E and The Dark Knight gained admission into the Top 10. I would have been even more pleased to see some love for Gus Van Sant's criminally overlooked Paranoid Park, though I'm not at all surprised by its lack of attention.

Reactions?

Monday, December 1, 2008

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (R) - 120 min.



Danny Boyle made a minor splash on the festival circuit back in 1994, with his debut film Shallow Grave. Two years later he released his second (and still greatest) effort, Trainspotting. He has only made one genuinely bad film since (remember The Beach?), but despite some setbacks he continues to tackle a variety of genres utilizing a vast array of inspired methods.

His latest offering, Slumdog Millionaire, was a big hit with the festival crowd a little earlier in the year. Audiences and critics didn't know what to expect from this strangely titled film with a primarily Indian cast, and that's probably why it was so well-received. But now that the air of mystery has dissipated and the accolades have been hurled its way, I feel many people will start paying closer attention to the film itself, rather than the hoopla that has preceded its wide release.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is an 18-year-old from India who has found himself on that country's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? On the verge of winning 20 million rupees he is arrested and tortured by police forces who assume he has cheated his way to the final question. Eager to clear his name and go back on the show, he begins telling his interrogators how he happened to know the answers to each of the questions. We see him as a young boy trying to survive on the harsh streets of India. While he encounters many difficult experiences growing up, they inevitably offer him the answers to those questions he will one day get the chance to answer. It's a wonderful script, adapted for the screen by Simon Beaufoy from the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup. Boyle's direction is indeed a marvel, but it is no more impressive than the amazing techniques he employed 12 years earlier in Trainspotting.

The three actors who play Jamal throughout his younger years do a great job, though Oscar buzz for Dev Patel should be quietly brushed aside. I will say that it was nice to see a film chronicle a single character with multiple actors who actually look like they could be the same person. And all without resorting to CGI trickery. The real special FX in this movie are the bird's-eye view of life in the midst of a horrendously packed city like Mumbai. Jamal's various chases through the populated region is nothing short of exhilarating, and the smart editing and invigorating soundtrack can't help but make the viewer feel like they're on a rollercoaster. In fact, the film's exuberant style subtly works against it in the long run, if only because it somewhat sugarcoats the hardships that these children are being forced to endure.

Nevertheless, that is a minor flaw in an otherwise enjoyable tale. Bringing the Indian tale closer to the hearts of American mainstream audiences is the story's romantic aspect. As we watch Jamal grow up we witness his budding affections for the young girl Latika, whose life takes as many unexpected twists as his own. The three actresses who make up Latika aren't quite as convincing, but her final incarnation, portrayed by Indian model Freida Pinto is the most affecting. If none of the performers in this movie go on to do much else, you can count on seeing Miss Pinto's face on the cover of various magazines for years to come.
Slumdog Millionaire is a lovely movie that hits all the right notes, though I don't expect any Juno-like box office success. Fox Searchlight has done a decent online campaign for the movie, but my parents, who would probably enjoy it, had never even heard of it. That's not a good sign this deep into Oscar season. With a slew of awards-friendly films on the horizon, it may be difficult for a movie like this, however touching, to find a wide audience. And it will probably need to gross at least $50 million domestically to have a real shot at Best Picture in February. Of course, with many Oscar hopefuls still relatively unseen, it's possible that this could still become the little indie that could. And despite its formulaic tendencies it is still less saccharine and contrived than previous indie darlings like Life is Beautiful and...well, Juno.

Will you see a better film this year? Chances are you already have. I'd still put summer smashes Wall-E and The Dark Knight ahead of this one. But if you can try and cast aside the hyperbole that has been heaped on the film, you should emerge from the theater with a smile on your face and a tingle in your chest. And hey...you'll know a little more trivia than when you stepped up to the box office two hours earlier.

Rating: B+

Review by Keil Shults

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Blu-Ray Wish List



With the ludicrous format war long behind us and PS3's helping convince a larger share of the public to try Blu-Rays, it's time to move past being wowed by the quality. Instead, the time is ripe for whining about what films are not yet available in the latest high-def format of choice in America.

Here are some films that I would buy in a heartbeat on Blu. It's not just that they're great films, but most if not all of them are visually interesting pictures that would actually be worth the asking price (especially since most of them I already own in standard format). It should also be noted that some of these films may be rumored to be hitting shelves in the near future, but if there's no definite date set then I'm keeping them on the list.

And finally...

Feel free to post some of your own BD wishes in the Comments section. Perhaps you will mention something I have forgotten.

LIVE ACTION

- 400 Blows, The (1959, dir. Francois Truffaut)
- 8 1/2
(1963, dir. Federico Fellini)
- Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
- Aliens
(1986, dir. James Cameron)
- Amelie
(2001, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
- Apocalypse Now (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
- Batman (1989, dir. Tim Burton)
- Big Lebowski, The
(1998, dir. Joel Coen)
- Boogie Nights
(1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
- Chinatown
(1974, dir. Roman Polanski)
- Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles)
- Conspirators of Pleasure (1996, dir. Jan Svankmajer)
- Do the Right Thing
(1989, dir. Spike Lee)
- E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
(1982, dir. Steven Spielberg) - the original version, please
- Fallen Angels (1995, dir. Wong Kar-Wai)
- Fight Club (1999, dir. David Fincher)
- Graduate, The (1967, dir. Mike Nichols)
- Heavenly Creatures
(1994, dir. Peter Jackson)
- In the Mood for Love
(2000, dir. Wong Kar-Wai)
- Jaws (1975, dir. Steven Spielberg)
- Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The
(2001-2003, dir. Peter Jackson)
- Manhattan
(1979, dir. Woody Allen)
- McCabe & Mrs. Miller
(1971, dir. Robert Altman)
- Microcosmos
(1996)
- Midnight Cowboy (1969, dir. John Schlesinger)
- Miller's Crossing
(1990, dir. Joel Coen)
- Mulholland Dr.
(2001, dir. David Lynch)
- Pulp Fiction
(1994, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
- Raising Arizona
(1987, dir. Joel Coen)
- Requiem for a Dream
(2000, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
- Rosemary's Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski)
- Silence of the Lambs, The
(1991, dir. Jonathan Demme)
- Star Wars Trilogy
(1977-1983)
- Titanic
(1997, dir. James Cameron)
- Trainspotting
(1996, dir. Danny Boyle)


ANIMATED


- Bambi
- Fantasia
- PIXAR (every film they've made)
- Princess Mononoke
(1997, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
- Spirited Away
(2001, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)


TELEVISION
- Preferably every season available of the show listed.

- Lost
- Sopranos, The

- Wire, The
(I'm not even sure how much better this show will look, but it's probably the greatest TV show ever made and a personal favorite of mine)