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

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Oscar Season, Vol. 1: What to Watch/Early Predictions


If you're anything like me (skinny and atypically handsome), you get excited about Oscar season whether the truly deserving films are recognized or not. Each year I find myself pleased by some of the Academy's choices and baffled by many others. However, I have not missed a ceremony in nearly 20 years.

2008 has not been a terribly great year for American cinema, even if you factor in that I haven't yet seen some of the smaller releases from earlier in the year. Having only moved to a cinephile-friendly part of Texas recently, I am trying my best to catch up on all those missed opportunities via trips to the local video store. As more Oscar hopefuls begin to find their way to the nearby multiplexes, I'll be sure to see most of the front-runners...even though this year has been financially difficult.

So, with little over two months between now and the announcement of the nominations, what films should you try and see before making bets with your friends and co-workers? While I'll be writing more in-depth analyses of the films and their chances as the season progresses, I decided to go ahead and lay out the likely candidates in the major categories. If your favorite film didn't make the cut, don't despair. Rarely do the very best films in a given year nab any major (or even minor) nominations.

Note to Reader: All likely candidates are listed in alphabetical order. Front-runners will not be declared until the next installment of my Oscar Season series. And I realize that some of the categories have many possibilities listed, but keep in mind that I'm not trying to fully predict the winners this early in the game. I'm just giving the reader a decent guide to preparing themselves for upcoming nominations. I'll whittle the choices down considerably in the next installment of this Oscar series.


Best Picture

- Australia
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- The Dark Knight
- Doubt
- Frost/Nixon
- Gran Torino
- Milk
- The Reader
- Revolutionary Road
- Slumdog Millionaire
- The Wrestler


Best Director

- Boyle, Danny (
Slumdog Millionaire)
- Burhman, Baz (
Australia)
- Demme, Jonathan (
Rachel Getting Married)
- Fincher, David (
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
- Howard, Ron (
Frost/Nixon)
- Mendes, Sam (
Revolutionary Road)
- Nolan, Christopher (
The Dark Knight)
- Van Sant, Gus (
Milk)


Best Actor

- Brolin, Josh (W.)
- Del Toro, Benicio (Che)
- DiCaprio, Leonardo (Revolutionary Road)
- Jackman, Hugh (Australia)
- Jenkins, Richard (The Visitor)
- Langella, Frank (Frost/Nixon)
- Patel, Dev (Slumdog Millionaire)
- Penn, Sean (Milk)
- Pitt, Brad (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
- Rourke, Mickey (The Wrestler)


Best Actress


- Blanchett, Cate (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
- Hathaway, Anne (Rachel Getting Married)
- Hawkins, Sally (Happy-Go-Lucky)
- Jolie, Angelina (Changeling)
- Kidman, Nicole (Australia)
- Streep, Meryl (Doubt)
- Thomas, Kristin Scott (I've Loved You So Long)
- Winslet, Kate (The Reader)
- Winslet, Kate (Revolutionary Road)


Best Supporting Actor

- Brolin, Josh (Milk)
- Downey Jr., Robert (Tropic Thunder)
- Hoffman, Phillip Seymour (Doubt)
- Ledger, Heath (The Dark Knight)
- Schreiber, Liev (Defiance)
- Shannon, Michael (Revolutionary Road)
- Sheen, Michael (Frost/Nixon)


Best Supporting Actress

- Abbass, Hiam (The Visitor)
- Cruz, Penelope (Vicky Christina Barcelona)
- Davis, Viola (Doubt)
- DeWitt, Rosemarie (Rachel Getting Married)
- Morton, Samantha (Synecdoche, New York)
- Pinto, Frieda (Slumdog Millionaire)
- Tomei, Marisa (The Wrestler)
- Winger, Debra (Rachel Getting Married)


Best Original Screenplay

- Australia
- Gran Torino
- Happy-Go-Lucky
- Milk
- Rachel Getting Married
- Synecdoche, New York
- Vicky Christina Barcelona
- The Visitor
- The Wrestler


Best Adapted Screenplay

- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Doubt
- Frost/Nixon
- The Reader
- Revolutionary Road
- Slumdog Millionaire


Best Animated Film

- Wall-E (the contest's only current shoo-in)


Well, that's it for now. Keep checking back as I update these choices and add a few more categories (namely Documentary and Foreign Language Film).


Monday, October 20, 2008

The Happening, Or: How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the Lemon Drink


It's hard to believe, but less than five years ago people were positioning M. Night Shyamalan as the next Steven Spielberg. His third feature, The Sixth Sense, had been a massive blockbuster that stunned and pleased audiences the world over. Impressive for a director's first widely-released effort, especially when you throw in its numerous Oscar nominations, including one for the coveted Best Picture award. While I never fully drank the Kool-Aid of the director's breakthrough film, I enjoyed it well enough. Perhaps if so many other better films hadn't been cast aside in that year's Oscar race I would have had a little more affection for it.

While I was never a huge fan of The Sixth Sense, I am to this day a staunch supporter of his fourth and greatest movie, Unbreakable. Perhaps its continuing status as an underrated, overlooked work has kept it even closer to my heart in the eight years since its release. The movie made decent money, but most viewers had gone into it expecting another Sixth Sense, which it obviously was not. If you haven't seen the film, I recommend doing so quickly and with an open mind. It's interesting that the film was released in 2000, at the very beginning of a decade that would soon be known for its splashy superhero franchises. Unbreakable, however, turned the comic book film on its head by showing us what is essentially a prequel to a superhero film that has not yet been made.

In Spider-Man we briefly saw Peter Parker as a goofy kid who chats with his school chums before being bitten by a radioactive spider and transforming into the title character. That's all well and good, and frankly I wouldn't want every superhero film to spend the majority of its running time on exposition. Maybe that is partially why many viewers never fully warmed to Unbreakable's unusual pacing and rhythms. It looks at its protagonist as a real person. Just a dad struggling to help raise his son and live his life, even as he begins noticing a series of increasingly bizarre changes occurring in his life.

Signs, released in 2002, was a bigger financial hit and overall crowd-pleaser than Unbreakable. Its tone most closely resembles Spielberg's work, not to mention its inclusion of alien life. The movie is not terribly brainy, but it's a lot of fun. Despite a slight lack of interest in his second movie, Shyamalan was riding high with three hits in a row. It seemed that Hollywood might very well have found an unlikely candidate to assume Spielberg's throne.

Then along came The Village. This Twilight Zone wannabe found Shyamalan scrambling so frantically for a thrilling twist that he forgot you needed to develop an intriguing story and pack it with memorable characters FIRST, assuming you care to give the twist any real weight or lasting significance. Some people really bought into The Village, but most people I know felt it was the director's first genuine misstep since achieving stardom in 1999. While I never cared enough for The Village to bother seeing it twice, it could not have possibly prepared me for the miscalculated nosedive into mundane fantasy and blatant egotism that is Lady in the Water.

His seventh film provided one of those experiences where you sit slouched in your theater seat wondering incessantly how the hell this thing got made and how no one told him how bad it was at some point during the production. If memory serves, the inspiration for this film came from a bedtime story Shyamalan used to tell his children. A similar scenario between Robert Rodriguez and his kids provided the foundation for The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl. That film isn't quite the cinematic bowel movement that Lady in the Water is, but it should provide a caveat to those directors who consider developing future projects from the stories they discuss offhandedly with their offspring at home.

Lady in the Water wasn't just a low for Shyamalan, but one for pretty much everyone associated with the film. That it cost almost as much as any of his other films, and a mere $2 million less than Signs, is inconceivable to me. Making matters worse is Shyamalan's insistence on giving himself roles in his own movies. This time around he went a step further, progressing from a mere cameo to a full-fledged supporting role. It only adds to the groan-inducing, head-shaking, eye-rolling nature of the movie. Had I not been reviewing the film for a local newspaper at the time, I'm not sure I would have wasted anymore of my vacation time sitting in that sparsely populated theater, its few patrons drowning in eerie silence for an interminable 110 minutes.

So last night my wife, her brother and I sat down to view a Blu-Ray edition of The Happening. I had already heard the stories of how bad it was, how laughable Mark Wahlberg's acting had been, and I had already prepared myself for the worst. Or so I thought...

M. Night Shyamalan has officially gone off the deep end. I don't know if the guy is doing drugs or batting around his ideas with a paid hooker, but he needs to be stopped immediately. It's true that Wahlberg's performance is ludicrous, and I'm sure he'll be rewarded handsomely come time for this year's Razzie Awards. But anyone who knows anything about filmmaking should realize that one of the director's primary responsibilities is to help his or her actors give the best performances possible. How could ANYONE sit through dailies of Wahlberg veering manically between wide-eyed and dopey and not bother to sit down with him and talk it out, do some reshoots, etc. And Wahlberg isn't the only one delivering a dramatic abortion. Zooey Deschanel, so likeable in films like Almost Famous and Elf, had me reaching for my revolver after a mere five seconds on screen. Her first scene in which she struggles to not answer a call on her cell phone is something straight out of high school Theater Arts class. Unfortunately, this time people are not getting graded for sitting through it. In fact, we're being asked to pay to witness these atrocities.

I could have stomached these Ed Wood-caliber turns if the story had been remotely intriguing. I can't believe I'm saying this, but the story made Lady in the Water look like Chinatown. NOTHING happens in this movie, despite its vague title...which, by the way, had to have been uttered at least half a dozen times throughout the course of the film. No real explanation is given for the stupid crap that happens in this movie, and it's not because it's supposed to be mysterious or up for our interpretation. It's because Shyamalan has become a lazy hack that's rapidly running out of ideas and logic. If I am going to watch Dirk Diggler being "chased" by the wind for half an hour I expect some thrills, spills, and chills along the way. Instead, I'm treated to one of the least scary "thrillers" ever to grace the silver screen. What makes it even more annoying is that I've seen multiple interviews that feature Shyamalan giddily talking about how scary the film is, and how he wanted to put some truly horrific moments on film, etc. He even had the gall to mention The Exorcist during one of these Q & As. Frankly, I'd rather watch a girl vomit pea soup for 90 minutes than sit through The Crappening ever again.

By the final act of the film we were just laughing at the TV, especially during the completely randome segment featuring the wacky old lady who allows the weary travelers into her home. When she suddenly looks up at Wahlberg's dimwitted Science teacher character and barks, "Why you eyeing my lemon drink?!" I realized it was well beyond time to keep taking Shyamalan seriously.

Hopefully by now he has read the increasingly widespread hostile reactions to his films and will take some of these words to heart. I'm not saying that a filmmaker should always react to public opinion, but when you're obviously making popcorn flicks for a wide audience you might want to take some time to reconnect with the humans paying to see your work. Shyamalan is reportedly working on pre-production for a live-action version of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Although he has been commissioned to write as well as direct, I'm hoping that adapting from someone else's source material will help keep the gun barrel away from his foot this time. While I rarely hope filmmakers fail, I will say that I am no longer expecting anything impressive from this gifted yet deeply lost auteur. Should his next film be an intelligent, invigorating piece of work I'll be the first to sing its praises. But until that day, I'll just sit back and quietly wish for another Unbreakable.



M. Night Shyamalan's Widely-Released Filmography :

Title..................... Est. Budget..... Domestic Gross

The Sixth Sense.......... $40 million........ $293
,506,292
Unbreakable............. $75 million......... $95,011,339
Signs.......................$72 million......... $227,966,634
The Village................$60 million........ $114,197,520
Lady in the Water......$70million......... $42,285,169
The Happening.........$48 million........ $64,506,874

Monday, October 6, 2008

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story


Don't let the title and subject matter fool you. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story is one of the finest short films I've ever seen. Whether you loved or hated the syrupy duo's music is beside the point. Todd Haynes, the superbly gifted filmmaker responsible for challenging fare like Safe (1995) and last year's schizophrenic ode to Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, first displayed tremendous promise with this experimental short from 1987.

Superstar begins with an eerie re-staging of Karen's mother finding her daughter dead from an overdose of Ipecac. It then flashes back to the mid-1960s, shortly before the picture-perfect siblings were discovered by the music biz. All of this may seem fairly Movie-of-the-Week, except for one thing: Haynes chose to tell the story of Karen's rise and fall using Barbie dolls. Such a concept may seem cruel on the surface, but as you watch the film it becomes clear that the filmmaker feels for his subject's plight. What could have been a crude mockery instead becomes a uniquely effective look at how societal, media, and even familial pressures can turn even the girl next door into a shell of her former self.

As Karen's condition worsens Haynes uses increasingly emaciated dolls to show how dangerous living up to the Barbie image can be for so many women in these image-obsessed times. While some of the montage clips and on-screen text are hard to see, it is the scenes with the dolls that are the most revelatory. Haynes' attention to detail is evident even in this early work, with the doll clothing and furniture being "of the period." During one party scene, we see a male doll in the background leaning against a wall, towering suggestively over a female doll that he's obviously trying to woo. It's touches like that which make this such a compulsively watchable short.

Unfortunately, it wasn't so easy to see this mini-masterpiece for many years. Richard Carpenter has made it his mission to keep this film off video store shelves, claiming that the songs were used without permission. While this is technically true, viewers of the film can probably assume that Richard didn't like the way he was portrayed in it. To date, the the short was only allowed to be screened in film schools and medical centers that deal with weight issues. Of course, as time went on, bootleg copies turned up in independent video stores and finally the Internet. Haynes' work often polarizes viewers, because his films are not passive experiences. However, it's nice to see a director working today who is willing to stay true to his vision, even if it means appealing to a limited audience.

But enough yapping. Here's the film itself:

Superstar (download)
Superstar (streaming)

Here's also a link to a Todd Haynes fansite.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Payne's World


I wrote the above article years ago, shortly following the release of Alexander Payne's outstanding comedy Sideways. The real highlight, however, was my wife's wonderful artwork that accompanied the piece. If you like the illustration, it's available on a variety of well-made items (shirts, mugs, etc.) at this website. Be sure to click on the article for an enlarged version.

Astral Weeks: 40 Years Later





More than 40 years after emerging from Ireland to become one of pop music's most influential troubadours, Van Morrison still seems to have two kinds of fans: those who will forever associate him with the still-catchy "Brown-Eyed Girl" and those who are die hard fans of his seminal 1968 album, Astral Weeks. It would be an understatement to declare that I belong to the latter category, though I enjoy his lighter, more mainstream fare as well.

There's no need to go into details about the album, because either you're already well aware of its power and influence or you simply haven't heard it at all. It wouldn't be surprising, given that despite its consistent ranking near the top of countless "Best Albums" lists, it has only sold about a half million copies in the past four decades. All I will say to those who might not yet have heard it, is that "hearing it" simply isn't enough. You need to go buy yourself a copy (or download a high-quality rip, if that's your thing) and take it home with you. Crawl into bed with your best pair of headphones, dim the lights, and let it wash over you. Such a suggestion sounds cheesy in today's iTunes universe, but it's also because music that truly demands and deserves your undivided attention is rarely made anymore.

The album's rapidly-aproaching 40th anniversary (I believe it was released Nov. 1, 1968) is not the only reason I wanted to post about it today. It was brought to my attention a couple of days ago that Van Morrison will actually be performing the album live, from start to finish, at the Hollywood Bowl next month. As a relatively poor Texan I won't be able to make the commute, but luckily a live DVD of the event should be released in the near future. And to be honest, I'm just not sure seeing him perform it now, in a live setting, could come close to packing the emotional wallop delivered to me by the album so many times over the years since I first heard it in 1997. At any rate, tickets should be available starting Oct. 5th.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration (Blu-Ray)


If you've read my profile, you probably noticed that my two favorite all-time films are The Godfather, Parts I and II. Luckily for me and the many other fans of the Corleone family saga, the trilogy was released Sept. 23 on Blu-Ray and standard DVD in beautifully restored editions.

If you haven't seen these films, make it your mission this coming week to see at least the first two installments. While Part III is not as bad as people remember, it can't come close to capturing the magic of the initial chapters. Then again, few films can hope to achieve such status, so why punish for being merely...good?

As much as I love film, I'm not much of a technical buff. However, since buying a PS3 last November (mainly to witness the pristine glory of Pixar's Ratatouille), I have paid a bit more attention to the overall visual quality of the films I watch/own. As someone who has seen the Godfather films numerous times throughout the years, I noticed a difference in the new editions almost instantly. Then again, most die-hard fans of the saga are going to shell out the money for the new discs, regardless of what some brilliant guy on the internet says about them. I picked up my copy at Best Buy for $69.99, which was the same as Wal-Mart's in-store price. However, Best Buy was also giving away a free bonus book of quotes from the film. Nothing earth-shattering, but it did the trick.

Some have worried that the notoriously dark scenes in the film would be shamelessly brightened to show off the possibilities of Blu-Ray. Having already watched a few specific scenes (the opening one, for example), I can state that it seems neither artificial or disrespectful toward Gordon Willis's landmark cinematography. In fact, Willis himself was heavily involved in the restoration process, as one of the many extra features explains. The external daytime scenes look glorious, especially the wedding party and Michael's temporary stay in Sicily. Some will argue that it still looks a bit grainy or that people in the background still seem a tad blurry. This is simply because of how it was shot and what film stock they used back in the early 1970s.

I personally can't stand people who whine all day about technical aspects of movies, especially when the film is a wonderful story that should transcend such petty arguments. However, I'm also leery of older films being artificially improved for the sake of making extra money. I'm eager to see the upcoming Blu-Ray edition of Taxi Driver, which is another of my all-time favorites. However, that film is meant to look gritty and seamy. If they can maintain the grime while still presenting an honest representation of the film's original look, I'll probably break down and buy yet a third copy of the film. It is in situations like these that the inclusion of Extra Features play such a big part in people's decisions to re-purchase films, and I hope studios are getting wise to this.

Again, I won't normally write at length about technical issues, but I was just really thrilled to slip Disc 1 into my player, kick back and watch the epic unfold in all its restored glory. Now if only Coppola & Co. would begin working on a Blu-Ray edition of Apocalypse Now, which I have intentionally refused to buy until a hi-def version becomes available.

Are there any classic films that you're aching to see make their way to Blu-Ray?

The Proposition / The Road

The Road, a post-apocalyptic novel by renowned author Cormac McCarthy, is less than a few years old, but is already considered one of the greatest novels of the past 25 years. If you don't believe me, ask America's leading trendsetter, Oprah Winfrey. Anyway, the book is a great read, unless you're illiterate. It's also being made into a major Hollywood movie, positioned for a November release, smack dab in the heart of Oscar season.

A few stills from the film, featuring the weary father played by Viggo Mortensen, have made their way onto the web in recent months, but an official trailer is still yet to be seen. While I'm not quite sure how Hollywood intends to adapt a highly descriptive, thinly-plotted tale consisting primarily of two characters that rarely speak, I have faith in the film for one simple reason: John Hillcoat.

If you don't know his name, it's because you suck. Or you simply haven't seen his previous stroke of genius, a gothic Australian western entitled The Proposition. I had only caught a few random scenes of the film on TV, but they were enough to convince me it might be worth picking up on Blu-Ray following its release in late August. Better still, the company producing the Blu-Ray chose to offer it at a retail of $19.99, with many stores offering it for $15.99 or less. I only wish more studios would follow in their footsteps. Luckily, the price was highly disproportionate to the product itself. The film was great, and the stunning cinematography was brought to startling life in the gorgeous Blu-Ray transfer. With some additional extras thrown in, including Director Commentary, which is always the first feature I look for, this was a helluva bargain.

I have neither time nor desire to go into details about the film itself, but let's just say that it is also a somewhat thinly-plotted piece set against an integral landscape. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Hillcoat would be considered for The Road. I can't imagine the film being as memorable or haunting as the novel, but I'm anxious to see Hillcoat's attempt in action. And with Viggo as the lead, fresh off his tremendous work in the last two David Cronenberg films, I'm sure the final result will be well worth watching.


UPDATE:

For those of you who are as eager to see The Road as I am, there has been recent talk blowing in the wind that the film may not be ready in time for this year's Oscar season. Because the studio obviously wants the film to be a serious candidate for awards, I'm worried they may push until late NEXT year. Such a move would not be unheard of, but I hope it won't be the case with this particular film. Still, I don't want Hillcoat feeling pressured to rush his film simply to meet some arbitrary deadline. I'll keep you posted as this unfortunate story develops.