Saturday, December 26, 2009

Favorite Films of the Last (or Lost) Decade

Be warned: This is not a list of the BEST films of the last ten years, but a personal view of my favorites.
10. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, 2002. Wong Kar-Wai's ravishing tribute to unrequited love. Two of the most talented and attractive film actors in the world, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, play sad, longing lovers whose own spouses have betrayed them. Set against lush color pallettes, this is a film to savor.

9. HOTEL RWANDA, 2004. Terry George's gripping fact-based narrative about the Rwandan genocide with powerful imagery and a haunting performance from Don Cheadle, one of our most underrated actors. Unforgettable.

8. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Michel Goundry and Charlie Kaufman co-wrote
and Goundry directed this surreal love story about a woman who has her love affair erased from her memory. In his best role, Jim Carrey is the man who tries to get her back. The blend of sci-fi, longing, and comedy is irresistable.

7. CHILDREN OF MEN, 2006. Alfonso Cuaron's brilliant adaptation of P.D. James' dystopian nightmare novel keeps the core ideas but expands the novel into a thrilling story of redemption and salvation. Clive Owen and Michael Caine give beautifully drawn performances.

6. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, 2000. Ang Lee's epic tale of martial arts, honor and desire tackles a tired genre of Chinese movies and elevates it into both art and entertainment. The use of color, editing, and stunt work enhance an intensely tangled web of love and violence in a mythical China.

5. MEMENTO, 2000. Christopher Nolan's remarkable puzzle in which Guy Pearce plays a man with short term memory who must solve his wife's murder through clues he writes on mirrors, his body, anywhere before they slip away. A tour de force in narrative technique which reminds us of the fun house sequence in Orson Welles' THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI...but better!

4. You can take NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and BARTON FINK to the cleaners after you see the Coen Brothers' uproarious, deliciously clever '30's romp O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU. Who would have guessed you could take Homer's THE ODYSSEY and make it this hilarious without losing the meaning. Whether it's the sirens or the lotus eaters or Polyphemus himself, they are all here in high comic form as Mississippi gospel singers, klan members, and gangsters. The music alone makes this wondrous, but add performances from George Clooney and a great cast and you have a classic comedy.

3. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, 2005, Ang Lee. Perhaps the most heartfelt and personally wrenching movie of the decade. Ang Lee's directing Oscar was more than deserved, but the film and Heath Ledger were sadly overlooked. Beyond the hype and cheap jokes about gay cowboys, this is love story about two people who cannot deny their love for each other, despite their attempts to be apart. Ledger's expressions and voice are remarkabe and haunting.

2. PAN'S LABYRINTH, 2006, Guillermo del Toro. An allegorical tale that combines social realism, myth, and fairy tales, PAN'S LABYRINTH is set in Facist Spain. A highly imaginative girl escapes her brutish step-father by entering a world of fantasy inspired by Lewis Carroll and especially nightmarish mythical characters. Del Toro has created an astonishing world of crafty fauns, insect-like fairies, and one of the ghastliest creatures ever seen--all in the service of an heroic stand against facism and human cruelty.

1. MOULIN ROUGE, 2001, Baz Luhrmann. This movie single-handedly revived the movie musical by plundering Elton John, the Beatles, the Police, and loads of other pop icons and placing them in Paris at the end of the 19th century in the Paris netherworld of Moulin Rouge. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor bring both comic and tragic talents to this wild update of CAMILLE. The sets, photography, choreography, and acting are all amazing and all the genius of Baz Luhrmann.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

AVATAR...It's a whole new world

Some of the main line critics have carped about James Cameron's script and story for his uber-expensive fantasy epic AVATAR. Perhaps they miss several points. First, the film is a technical wonder in 3-D in that the viewer is thrust into the environment and not just assaulted by flaming arrows, rocks, and the like as in earlier 3-D films. Also, the story works on several layers. After all, it is set in the distant future when we have depleted Earth of all its natural resources and now we must import them from other planets. Under military "protection," a huge industrial outfit is determined to export Unobtainium from the planet....The richest vein of this energy is beneath a giant tree which the Nihi hold sacred and where the tribe lives. For the USA military/business complex, this is a no-brainer. Blow up that useless tree. So we have obvious attacks on U.S. policies in the past and the present, from Vietnam on. The visuals and words support this idea. In one scene as the military planes begin bombing the Nihi, we are reminded of the visuals we used to see in the 1970's as Vietnam villages were blown away. We also have environmentalists and humanists (bleeding hearts according to the military leaders) eventually standing with the Nihi in an attempt to save their planet. So the layers continue to unfold.

Finally there is the personal story of a tough marine who has lost the use of his legs but is able to find action in his avatar form (blue, ten feet tall, macho yet sensitive). As he learns the way of the Nihis and falls in love with their princess, his loyalties change and we are bombarded with references to earlier films from POCAHONTAS to NEW WORLD. Of course, director Cameron has no hesitation in quoting himself. James Horner's lush score reeks of TITANIC. Some of the military hardware comes from the TERMINATOR films and ALIENS, as do the tough, no-nonsense females. Sigourney Weaver even makes her entrance stepping out of her avatar pod and demanding a cigarette. The battles are impressive, but the world that Cameron creates is the show-stopper. There has simply not been a movie this ground-breaking in technique and freshness since the original STAR WARS. The motion-capture process that seemed so clunky in BEOWULF and THE POLAR EXPRESS has raised the bar for any such techniques in the future. AVATAR may have a few familiar cliches and characters, but its vision is truly visionary.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Vampires, Werewolves, and Ninjas. O, My!

Everybody has his or her guilty pleasures, and my guiltiest are obviously movies I shouldn't have on my radar. TWILIGHT: NEW MOON and NINJA ASSASSIN cover the span of teen exploitation. For swooning adolescents (and that age range has no cap), we have a moody child of divorced parents who has fallen for an ashen, undernourished vampire with lipstick and who glitters as he walks. In this second episode, Edward leaves Bella to protect her, and you should leave logic behind at this point, because Bella immediately falls in with werewolves, an avenging female vampire, and deep depression. Like most movies about women in trouble, this one shows Bella wandering off into the Washington woods for days at a time, riding motorcycles, and jumping off cliffs into the Pacific. Why? Because adrenaline rushes raise wispy images of Edward saying, "No, don't do it." Bella is saved more than once by Native American Jacob, who seems immune to Washington weather. He is always shirtless. Meanwhile Edward believes that Bela is dead and plans to expose himself as a vampire to humanity, an act which will cause his death. Naturally, she hops a plane to Verona, Italy, to face the Voltori, a sort of high council of the undead. I told you about abandoning logic. Needless to say, Edward, Bella, and Jacob will be back in episode three next year.

And for the guys, we have NINJA ASSASSIN, which stars the Korean pop singer Rain (yes, Rain) as a Ninja raised in the world's worst boarding school. High above the clouds in the Himalayas, our future ninja endures bloody battles with other students and steels himself to be the top killer assassin. Cut to the present and Rain has betrayed the clan and discovered he has a heart. That means countless bloody battles with chains, feet, swords, and those cool metal star things that slice your jugular. The finale features an endless duel where Rain meets his old master. No one could live through what these guys do to each other. In fact, no human has that much blood in him. NINJA ASSASSIN makes no sense, but it will please the action lovers. In fact, NEW MOON could have used a little Ninja kick.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On this Thanksgiving afternoon, I am happily trapped in front of a huge tv with non-stop football and a crowd of avid family. How this happened to one who is so historically averse to football is easily explained. My sons-in-law are fans, my 7 and 9 year old grandsons are fanatics, my daughter's partner is a big football follower. So, Betsy and I are in a tiny minority. But I know that soon the tv will be turned off and we will share Thanksgiving dinner with my brother and his family. Since we don't all see each other for long periods of time, this week has been precious to all of us. We have been to see the ducks at the Peabody (twice!), we've had Memphis barbeque (none better), we posed the kids in front of Sun Studio, drove down to Oxford to see the Grove at Ole Miss and Faulkner's home, and lavished attention on the grandkids. So, sitting through football is not too much of a sacrifice for all these gifts. I am truly thankful.
In a world full of conflict and uncertainty, we have much to be thankful for: the gifts of family, the beauty of nature that surrounds us from grand canyons to tiny leaves of intense color, music that lifts our spirits and calms them as well, and loved ones living and gone. For all these and much more, we give thanks.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mad Men, from Don Draper to Scrooge

The last episode of Season 3 of MAD MEN proved to be one of its best, tying together strands from all three seasons. The writers have continued to illuminate Don Draper's mysteriously cold character through flashbacks and affairs and his strange behaviors towards the women in his life. All these entanglements begin to clear as Don's business life and marital life are on the brink. What is the future for Stirling Cooper? And for Betty Draper and all the characters we have grown to love/hate/tolerate in this complex story? And what of the Draper kids? Will they turn out to be cold animatrons like Mom and Dad and have to pay enormous psychiatric bills? We will just have to wait until next summer to find out.

Last night we went to see Robert Zemeckis' new 3-D version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL in his sometimes painful animation process where the more normal humans look less real than the grotesques. Marley's ghost and the three spirtis are less scary than Tiny Tim. Somehow that problem needs solving, although the process is much improved over the robotic looks of BEOWULF. Nevertheless, this version is far closer to the original Dickens' version than any I can remember in a long time. The grimy soot of London is everywhere, the candlelight as the only source of light is perfectly real, and the story develops with most of Dickens's original dialogue intact. "Are there no prisons?" growls a Jim Carrey-voiced Scrooge. One caveat: this one may be too dark and scary for small kids who must sit through the early exposition and then have their socks scared off by those apparitions. But, as a Holiday entertainment or just one of the great stories, this A CHRISTMAS CAROL delivers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How wonderful to be WILD

Spike Jonze, who imaginatively gave us ADAPTATION and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, has paid an amazingly creative and emotional version of Maurice Sendak's classic tale WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. How to expand a short, practically perfect children's book with indelibly unique illustrations and very few words? Jonze has expanded the story particularly at the start of the film. Max's wildness is established through a screaming dog chase caught by hand-held camera. Later Max attacks his older sister's boy friends with snow balls. In turn, they destroy his precious snow fort. Later in another rage he bites his single mother. It's obvious this child is out of control, or is he? Jonze has the uncanny knack of remembering what a boy's childhood is often like, particularly if his parents are recently divorced.
Max runs into the night all the way to a shore where he takes a small sailboat into unknown stormy seas and eventually finds the island of the Wild Things. The huge, furry creatures make Max their king. And the wild rumpus begins. Fun and free and just a bit violent, the games quickly develop into fights, jealousies, and petty bickering. The action and dialogue subtly matches Max's conflicts in real life, as do the characters and their voices. Eventually Max must leave the island and confront those contests at home.
Jonze' s directorial

Friday, October 16, 2009

Some worthwhile TV at last.

This is my second attempt to get this out, so I created a new blog to do it. This fall has brought welcome cool weather and cool tv. Let me recommend a few worthy entries, old and new.

1. THE GOOD WIFE is yet another law show but without the smarminess of THE PRACTICE and its off-shoot BOSTON LEGAL. Its contemporary catch is a cheating, lying public official facing the press with his long-suffering wife (think Elliot Spitzer), but there the similarity ends. Juliana Margules, who steamed up ER 20 years ago with the original Dr. McDreamy George Clooney, is now a mature woman with two teens who must go back to her law firm after being a homemaker for many years. She faces the hidden sneers of her younger co-workers, her mother, and the press, but she hangs tough and makes her case each week. Margules has the grit and lived-in quality of woman betrayed but ready to do battle.

2. Even if you hate musicals or teen emotional crises, give GLEE several chances. In this fantasy high school dramedy, kids in musical rehearsal suddenly expand to the football field or a Broadway stage as they purvey their personal problems (oh so many problems)into show-stopping numbers. The cast is nigh-perfect, and Jane Lynch as the obsessed cheerleader coach determined to crush the nerdy glee clubers is worth all your reservations. And Broadway veteran Matthew Morrison, a fine actor and singer/dancer, shines as the glee club sponsor and Spanish teacher. All the classic stereotypes are here: nerds, feckless principal and teachers, jocks, etc. But in this new wrapper, they do rock.

3. MODERN FAMILY throws together some delightful clashes for its new take on an old format. We have dad with his new Latino hottie wife and her child, dad's son who is married to an over-achiever wife who doesn't want her teen daughter to be the high school slut she was, and dad's other son who is gay and has just adopted an Asian baby with his partner. These people love each other, but each is very touchy, which makes for some great comedy.