Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End of year roundup

The new year promises to be a busy one for me, and unfortunately there's several films I've seen recently that I won't have time to do justice with a thoughtful review. So... to hell with thoughtfulness! Here's some absurdly incomplete mini-reviews:

Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942, USA)
It's all too easy living here in America to turn our heads and ignore the world's misery. But was it possible during WWII? Bogey tried, and might have succeeded had the tragically beautiful Ingrid Bergman not stepped in. We all know that war brings out the worst in humanity; Casablanca reminds us that in some cases, it also brings out the best in us.

Pride & Prejudice (dir. Joe Wright, 2005, UK)
Yes, I watch "normal" film too. This stellar adaptation, though not necessarily critically underrated, sadly failed to step out of the long shadow cast by the wildly popular BBC miniseries version of 10 years prior (starring Colin Firth). It's all the more tragic, as the performances in this film are impeccable, and though I've yet to see much range from Keira Knightley, her proud and outspoken attitude feels perfectly suited for her character, Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen was the greatest social satirist of her day, and this film is one of the few that does her justice.

Ugetsu Monogatari (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953, Japan)
Everyone knows the Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa, but how many have seen the films of his contemporary Kenzi Mizoguchi? His films didn't receive the international attention that Kurosawa's did, and only recently have western audiences gained access to them. Ugetsu Monogatari is based on an old Japanese morality tale from the 1700's; it depicts the folly of war profiteering, and in a way could be construed as a warning to the peasantry not to try to rise above their station. Ugetsu is aesthetically stunning, with a photographic prowess surpassing Kurosawa's films made around the same time. The story kept me mildly entertained, even if the philosophical thrust found little resonance.

Oldboy (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2003, South Korea)
A twisted tale of revenge that vacillates between psychological thriller and bilious gore. Many find in this film the philosophical antithesis of the conventional good guy / bad guy revenge flick; for me, the entire premise is so outlandish and twisted that I think it's overreaching to attempt to extrapolate any grand statements about life or the human existence. But who cares? It's an engaging story, well-told, cleverly photographed.

Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, USA)
This might be #2 on TSPDT's 1000 greatest films list, but it's not even close on my list. Kim Novak's performance was frighteningly lackluster, and the film itself showed none of the narrative innovation or audacious brilliance of Hitchcock's superior "Rear Window." The only intriguing relationship in the film, that between Jimmy Stewart's character and his friend and one-time lover "Midge", played by Barbara Bel Geddes, seems to have been all but forgotten on the cutting room floor.

Once Upon a Time in the West (dir. Sergio Leone, 1968, Italy)
You might think from reading this blog that I have nothing to do but watch film, but truthfully, I value my time, and if a film doesn't grab me within the first, say, 20 minutes, then I'll find something better to do. Once Upon a Time in the West is just such a film; since I haven't seen it all the way through, I'll withhold judgment, and only say that in terms of my present taste in film, this one isn't for me. Of course, I'm probably in the minority on this; a lot of people regard this the greatest western ever made.

Also, to recap the films I have reviewed in the first two months of my blog:


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Sunday, December 28, 2008


#348 in the TSPDT's list of the 1000 greatest films

I've heard great things about Pier Paolo Pasolini, the iconoclastic Italian film-maker, novelist, and philosopher that repeatedly dazzled the world in the 60s and 70s with his shocking films. He's probably best remembered for his last movie Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom, a decadent depiction of the twilight of Italian fascism. It's still banned in several countries around the world for its unparalleled depictions of sadistic violence and sexuality. Unable to temper my impetuosity, I would normally have skipped all of his preceding films and cut straight to the chase, but until very recently, Salo was out of print, and the rare copy went for upwards of $1,000. My art-film hookup burned a copy of Pasolini's first film, Accattone (The Scrounger) for me for Christmas, and since the holidays have left my wallet so empty that even the new $40 Criterion Salo is still too pricey, I decided to give Accattone a shot.

From the start, it was apparent that Pasolini's reputation was not based on his first film. The title character is a one-whore pimp. He and his friends lead the care-free lifestyle of moochers, lay-abouts, and thieves. In the beginning, one of them bets Accattone that he would drown if he tried to swim back and forth across the river after stuffing himself with food. Accattone either doesn't believe in the old wives tale, or doesn't care. Perhaps he just wants the fame; the entire community turns out for the spectacle.

The film is bereft of graphic violence, nudity, and sex; the tone of the film, did, however, shock me. Accattone is an entirely despicable human being, but Franco Citti plays him with a pouty affability. The women in the story are portrayed as helpless fawns, subservient to their men. In one of the early scenes, some young thieves lament that Accattone had not joined them the preceding night. Laughingly, they recall picking up a hooker, taking her to a field, and pummeling her. Later, some of Accattone's rivals pick up his sole whore, Maddalena, drive her out beyond the city's lights, and wallop her after one of their crew has sex with her. The intercourse is only alluded too, and the violence is filmed in a distanced, detached manner.

I don't think that Pasolini sympathized with the misogynistic, exploitative lifestyles of the characters, just like Kubrick obviously didn't endorse the ultra-violent lifestyles of his droogs in A Clockwork Orange. But unlike A Clockwork Orange, which ends on an extremely cynical note where Alex is ultimately rewarded for his criminal lifestyle, Pasolini's film inhabits a universe with at least some sense of cosmic justice. At the end of the film, the police catch Accattone and his friends stealing several large sausages from a meat truck (a presumably minor offense); Accattone dies in a motorcycle crash while attempting to escape.

I think that in depicting these characters as mildly likable fellows, Pasolini is only attempting to point out their wasted potential. And in the end, there's no joy in Accattone's death; it's a meaningless, chance death. We miss the catharsis that we've all come to expect, raised on Hollywood's unending tale of good's triumph over evil.

Aesthetically, Accattone has all the marks of a low-budget debut. Aside from Franco Citti, the acting is mediocre at best. I felt like Pasolini was not yet comfortable with utilizing space in his film; the pacing feels rushed, and every frame seems filled to the brim with incessantly realistic dialogue - in fact, the entire film could have benefited from some suspension of disbelief.

Despite these foibles, Accattone is still a cohesive work of art; flawed, certainly, but indicative of potential greatness. Pasolini obviously has something to say, and I only hope that as I discover his following films, I'll find a film-making prowess commensurate with his thoughtful themes.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)

#34 in the list of the 1000 greatest films of all time

Ordet (directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer) seems to pop up on a lot of people's "greatest films" lists. I'm not exactly sure where I'd first seen it promoted; it may have been Jonathan Rosenbaum's Top 100 or TSPDT's 1000 greatest films. By the time I saw it top Art and Faith's list of 100 most "spiritually significant" films (a list whose definition of "spirituality" is broad enough to encompass the works of David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson), my curiosity was piqued. I added it to my NYPL leopac queue a couple of days ago, picked it up from the 96th St. Branch this morning and watched it this afternoon.

The film is set in the religiously austere Danish countryside of the mid 1920's. The Borgen family farm has seen better days, and grandfather Borgen's three sons have each incurred his orthodox wrath. Johannes has lost his mind and believes himself to be Jesus Christ. His glazed look and ghost-like figure constantly haunts the film, tying scenes together with his eerily intoned blasphemies. Borgen's oldest son, Mikkel, has rejected faith altogether, while his youngest has set his sites on marrying Peter the tailor's daughter. Peter just happens to be Borgen's arch nemesis; both Borgen and Peter refuse to recognize each others religious sect. Even Mikkel's wife, Inger, has failed old Borgen, having born only daughters.

The film proceeds at a snail's pace; the dialogue, though at times intriguing, pales in comparison to the unflinching spiritual examinations of Dreyer's contemporary Ingmar Bergman. The camera work is slow and steady; there is only one principle closeup in the film, and it comes at the film's climax. The film, based on a play, also embraces the play's aesthetics; the Borgen home set has the three-wall feel of a stage, not unlike a modern-day sitcom. What distinguishes Ordet from filmed plays and sitcoms is the camera's incessant wandering, swiveling, and panning throughout the space. It all adds up to a slow, challenging experience, and it certainly sowed plenty of doubts in my mind that the payoff would be worth the wait. My wife couldn't take it, and left just minutes before the climax.

Spoiler alert: I'm about to discuss the ending. I realize I haven't given this film much of an enticing description so far, but nevertheless, I highly recommend you experience Ordet on your own before reading any further.

The entire film up to the climax is entirely devoid of the miraculous. Their world appears as our world appears: unrelentingly ordinary. Grandfather Borgen's existence is petty at best; his son Anders becomes little more than a pawn in his spiritual war against Peter the tailor. Mikkel and Inger's existence is simple, but happy, and Anders's and Anne's love, despite the Romeo and Juliet overtones, is actually entirely prosaic. Johannes's insanity is tragic, but explainable.

Inger goes into labor in the second half of the film, and for many reasons, we expect the worst. In the middle of it all, Johannes tells Inger's daughter that he will let her mother die so that he can bring her back to life. After Inger died, I kept thinking to myself, "How hokie would it be if Johannes actually raised her from the dead." I hoped that the film would continue its rejection of the miraculous and end on a brutally realistic note, or that any miracle would simply be the miracle of the ordinary.

And so I was surprised that when Inger rose from her open casket, hugged Mikkel, and wept, I wept too. I learned something about myself. It was exactly what I didn't want, and it was shattering! Even I, an unrepentant atheist, desperately crave a world where miracles are possible. Perhaps we all do. I guess that's what gives religion its seductive power.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008 version of the "1000 greatest films of all time"

R.I.P. Willy Wonka
R.I.P. Willy Wonka
They Shoot Pictures, Don't They just released their 2008 version of the "1000 greatest films of all time." Let me preface my complaints by stating that I think these guys rock, and I'm glad they do this thankless work. My bitches aren't aimed at them; they're aimed at the critics who helped create these lists.

The 2008 version is at best a mixed bag. There were some welcome departures from the list: I'm a Herzog fan, but I feel no sadness that Signs of Life was knocked from the list. Nor was I saddened by the loss of Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-din; it's the only Kurosawa film I couldn't finish. On the lamentable flip-side, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Gene Wilder version) was inexplicably axed, as was the Coen Brothers' debut, Blood Simple. Woody Allen's Love and Death vanished, while George Roy Hill's inferior The World According to Garp somehow managed to climb from #998 all the way to #844! The horror!

As far as what remained on the list, there were some disturbing trends. Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin unseated what I consider to be the second greatest film of all time, Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, taking its place at #8. Bresson's Au Hazard Balthazar and all 4 of Bergman's films in the top 100 continued their downward progression. (Although the fact that Bergman's "Persona" ranks higher than "The Seventh Seal", or that his masterpieces "Scenes from a Marriage" and "The Virgin Spring" both languish in the 750+ bracket makes me question the wisdom of the list altogether.)

Some silver linings: Blade Runner up 9 slots to #46 (!), Taxi Driver up 10 to #28 with Raging Bull holding strong at #18, and several contemporary classics made their debut, including Donnie Darko, Lost in Translation, and Old Boy. Also, M*A*S*H finally made the cut (how this masterpiece was left out in the first place I can't fathom).

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Monday, December 22, 2008

My favorite Christmas movies

Just for fun, I wanted to share with you my favorite Christmas movies. It's a very short list, since 99.99% of all holiday films are unmitigated bantha poodoo.
5. Bad Santa - I never knew a film could be so beautifully wrong.
4. Trading Places - "I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful Negro."
3. Die Hard - Now I have a machine gun. Ho, Ho, Ho.
2. It's a Wonderful Life - there's a reason they play this film every year. It's simply magic.
1. Elf - Ring... Ring... - "Buddy Elf, what's your favorite color?"


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Friday, December 19, 2008

Harry Potter Countdown: Sorcerer's Stone (#4)

OK, now that I've got the crapterpiece "Chamber of Secrets" out of the way, the hard work begins. The remaining Harry Potter films are all not only watchable, but enjoyable. I feel no shame in admitting that I, a perfectly grown-up adult, have seen them all several times.

So by what method shall I rank these four remaining films from worst to best? Since I have no sorting hat, I'll have to rely on my own cinematic sensibilities. Which makes "Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone" the next obvious choice. Chris Columbus, easily the worst director of the series, was thankfully saved in this first outing by the novelty of the story and by Harry's process of discovery. Magic is made real, and it's pure delight as we discover with Harry that there is a hidden world of wands, witches, and wizards just beyond our perception.

Although all of the child actors in this film yield delightful performances, Daniel Radcliffe's acting has that rare gift of authenticity. He plays Harry with an effortlessness that most actors only dream of - a characteristic that has thankfully lasted throughout the series. Emma Watson's performance, though not quite so effortless, successfully captures Hermione's haughty willfulness. As we watch Hermione's character in the later films descend into a stereotypically sexist portrayal of a worried, weepy, indecisive girl, my wife and I often find ourselves wishing that Emma would go back and watch this film again.

So since I have so many great things to say about this film, why is it obviously the 4th best of the series? Firstly, because Chris Columbus developed an overall tone more fitting of an ABC Family original than a J.K. Rowling adaptation. Scenes fall together in only the most obvious ways, and the end effect falls on the cartoonish side of the child-film spectrum (contrast this with the magical world of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films whose ambiguous characters and mystical imagery always unsettle).

And beyond this, the newness of the story leaves little chance that even a master director could have managed the emotional impact of the later films. We're left with a delightful, fun story, that, like the book, hints of greater things to come.

5. Chamber of Secrets
4. Sorcerer's Stone
3. Goblet of Fire


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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beyonce Followup (Top Five music videos of 2008)

In my blog post about Kevin B. Lee's choice of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" as the sixth best music video of 2008, I remarked "If that's #6, I can't wait to see the rest." Now that I've seen the top five, I'm a little perplexed. Check 'em out. Here was my comment about the picks along with Kevin's reply:

# Matthew Kane Parker said 8 hours ago

Interesting picks. I doubt I would have given the crown to “Time to Pretend.” It’s an interesting concept, but damn, couldn’t they have stuck with an idea for more than 2 seconds? And frankly I found nothing of worth in Killer Mike’s presentation, that draws from Malcolm’s crazy pre-Mecca days in the Nation of Islam and that at several points juxtaposes scenes of black oppression followed by scenes of black on white violence with the lyrics “keep the pressure on” blaring out. It’s balls-out opportunistic demagoguery.

# Kevin said 1 hour ago

“It’s an interesting concept, but damn, couldn’t they have stuck with an idea for more than 2 seconds?”
Hmm, I sort of see what you’re getting at. I’m not sure if any of their ideas is worth more than two seconds - but cram it together in 5 minutes and it plays like the trailer for the greatest movie never made.

but yeah, in terms of fully developing a concept, “Wait for the Summer” is probably the most elegantly accomplished. It’s breathtaking how one moment blossoms or decays into another. But “Time to Pretend” is the one that replays in my mind the most, perhaps because it is, as you suggest, underdeveloped. More room for me to fill in the blanks.

“balls-out opportunistic demagoguery.” - that’s what they said about Stone’s JFK. And in a perverse way, one could say the same of the Beyonce video. God Bless America!


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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Barry Lyndon (plus Kubrick's films ranked best to worst)

#90 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

I wasn't surprised to find that of Stanley Kubrick's 11 major works, 4 were in the top 100. I was, however, surprised to see "Barry Lyndon" listed among them (#90), coming in ahead of his masterpieces "A Clockwork Orange" (#93), "Paths of Glory" (#181), and "The Shining" (#141). The only Kubrick films ranked higher were "2001: A Space Odyssey" (#4), and "Dr. Strangelove" (#39).

Since I had not yet seen the film, you may rightfully wonder at the cause of my suspicions. Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen were my first exposures to masterful film-making; I owe my love of film to them. Over time, I'd seen all of Kubrick's other works and read books and essays about them, but I'd never been terribly interested by "Barry Lyndon." Victorian epics have been so thoroughly exploited by Hollywood, and so often to such bilious effect, that I'd been turned off by the descriptions of "Barry Lyndon", despite all that I knew and loved about Kubrick.

Now that I've seen it, I feel an odd mix of shame and vindication in my hesitation. Lyndon isn't just another trite Hollywood Jane Austin adaptation or predictable royal character piece. It's a Kubrick film through and through. Its cinematography, pacing, scoring, and performances (not to mention its underlying philosophy) all bear his directorial stamp. Lyndon is masterful storytelling.

And yet the film didn't fully captivate, startle, or mesmerize me as many of his other films did. Don't get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and recommend this film to anyone, no matter your taste. It's 3 hours and 3 minutes long, yet you'll never know it. It's filmed using entirely natural lighting (candles and sunlight); unlike Hollywood's Victorian pieces, Lyndon's cinematography yields a much more authentic and honest air to the decadent fashions and attitudes of the times.

Perhaps my only real complaint is that the film contained too few surprises or tension. Its narration - spoken with a humorous and cynical detachment that only a distinguished British accent can accomplish - foreshadows nearly all the twists and turns that Barry Lyndon's life takes, making much of the action slightly anti-climactic. This intentional approach reinforces the underlying message of the film, best summed up in the written epilogue: "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now." Personally, I have no problem with a pessimistic philosophy that questions the point of our lives, the meaninglessness of our existence in this indifferent, godless universe. It's only that the film, while refined, is actually quite blunt in this regard.

Now that I've seen all of his major works, I can't help but create my own ranking of his films:

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (From the first frame to the last, this is the most amazing work of art ever made - or at least that I've seen)
2) Paths of Glory (the last scene is the most authentically moving in any film I've ever seen)
3) Dr. Strangelove (I experienced a profound loss of essence ;-)
4) A Clockwork Orange (I viddied well)
5) The Shining (Jack was never better)
6) The Killing (the money blowing away on the tarmac left me as speechless as it did Sterling Hayden)
7) Lolita (a failed masterpiece, but a beautiful and captivating failure. I love it when a film makes me uncomfortable without resorting to cheap tricks)
8) Barry Lyndon
9) Full Metal Jacket (overrated by many, but still unceasingly quotable)
10) Eyes Wide Shut (Nicole .... Kidman.... couldn't... speak.... her ..... lines...... any ......slower.)
11) Spartacus (I found little to like until the very last scene).


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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)

#31 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

I watched this last night with friends over some Chinese take-out; I was a little hesitant to view it in such a casual setting, given its ranking, but it turned out to be the perfect environment for "Sunset Blvd." This isn't a philosophical tome or an experimental masterwork; it's a circular noir, sometimes funny, sometimes overwrought, but always engaging. It's about a struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) who reluctantly becomes the boy-toy of the one-time star of the silent era, Norma Desmond. On a higher level, it's probably the first jab at Hollywood's glossy facade.

Nancy Olson and William Holden in Sunset Blvd.

My favorite moments of the film involved the subplot between Joe and another aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer (played by the beautiful and underrated Nancy Olson). Near the end of the film, Joe begins sneaking away from Norma's mansion/prison to co-write a screenplay with Betty; the two are hopelessly perfect for each other, and their dialogue is some of the most witty and wonderful in all of the golden age of cinema. I found myself wanting more and more of this story and less and less of the primary plot. These scenes are bittersweet; the film begins with a flash-forward to Joe's death, so we know that this romance will never fully blossom. Credit to writer/director Billy Wilder for finding a way to subvert our expectations about their affair's demise.

I don't know that I would place this film so high in my own top 100 list, but I recommend it to anyone looking for a great flick to watch with friends.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best Music Videos of 2008: #6 - Beyonce! Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)

Kevin B. Lee chose Beyonce's "Single Ladies" as the 6th best music video of 2008. If that's #6, I can't wait to see the rest. The video's brilliant! It's simple, stark, and mesmerizing, and the dance (though arguably plagiarized) is one of the first music video dances that I've seen that actually commits to the art of dance. It's not just something happening around some contrived circumstance - it's the centerpiece.

My only complaint: what about the SNL parody?

The original:

The SNL parody:


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Friday, December 12, 2008


#45 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

This marks the 4th film I've seen by Jean Luc Godard. Many of my friends swear by him, but frankly I'd never understood why. I'd appreciated "Le Petit Soldat." It was filmed in a hand-held documentary style, and the piano score was appropriately minimalist. "Breathless," on the other hand, certainly didn't leave me breathless, and I could barely sit through "La Chinoise."

I picked up "Contempt" several months ago on a friend's suggestion, but it was almost immediately buried by the incessantly growing pile of acquisitions from the New York Public Library. I'd nearly forgotten about it when it unexpectedly floated to the top one evening this week. It was already too late to practice my drums, and my mind was tired from studying. It was in this dubious state that I began "Contempt."

From the opening credits, I knew that I had entered an entirely different world from that which I'd come to expect from Godard. The film begins with a long static shot of a crew filming a tracking shot of a woman slowly walking through what appears to be an abandoned film lot. Our perspective situates us at the end of the track, and while we watch the crew and actress inch towards us, a narrator speaks the opening credits (the credits never appear on the screen in print). It's a deliberate, thoughtful, and layered scene that lets us savor its novelty while contemplating its meta-film ironies.

At the end of the credits, the narrator tells us that Andre Bezin once said that "The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires." The scene then shifts to a slow tracking shot of a naked Briggit Bardot laying face down on her bed, bathed in a New Orleans red haze, sequentially asking her lover if he likes her various body parts (from the toes up). At this point, anyone attracted to the female form will hastily attempt to extrapolate the content of the film after juxtaposing the sumptuous view with Bezin's quote.

It wasn't long before I realized that this was not some magical world where all of my dreams came true. The world of "Contempt" is a hopeless and tragic world. This pessimistic philosophy, that contends that deep down we desire suffering and misery, has cropped up in a number of films since this, from Bergman's intimately epic "Scenes from a Marriage" and "Saraband" to the Wachowski brother's pop-culture phenomenon "The Matrix:"

"Contempt's" score consists of one single piece of music, replayed intermittently (and often unexpectedly) throughout the film. It's an unabashedly tragic piece, something you would expect during a sappy scene of a Hollywood romance. Its incessant repetition, however, transforms the unoriginal theme into a meditative mantra. It really drives home the film's philosophical bent.

The considered, deliberate pacing, Tarkovian cinematography, and layered narrative convinced me that behind the camera lay one of film's rare geniuses. I'll say nothing more about the plot; it's simply something you'll have to experience on your own. As for the many more beautifully composed shots in the film, I'll save them for my coming video essay.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still: Critics Roundup

Looks like my prediction was on the mark (though it's not like it takes a rocket scientist to predict that a bloated cgi-driven remake of a thoughtful sci-fi classic will suck). Check out the critics roundup below. I still intend to watch this (sci-fi is my weakness), but I imagine my review will just be another nail in the coffin. You know your film's in trouble when E! Online can't even find something good to say about it.


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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Rounding out the top 100

Although at my pace it will take me a lifetime to watch the 1000 greatest films of all time, I'm actually pretty close to having seen the top 100. There were, however, some glaring omissions, and a couple I have to revisit. Here's some I've already added to my "socialist netflix" queue (i.e., the New York Public Library online service). Feel free your add your own recommendations from the list.


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Best music videos of 2008

Kevin B. Lee, film critic and fellow blogger, is counting down the ten best music videos of 2008. Yours truly helped secure the #10 spot for Scottish art student James Houston and his brilliant (and tragically belated) remix of Radiohead's "Nude":

Also, check out Kevin's reviews and video essays of the 1000 greatest films of all time (as compiled by "They Shoot Pictures, Don't They").

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The countdown to the Half-Blood Prince begins! Over the next few weeks, I'll review the first five movies in the Harry Potter series, from worst to best. First-up: the Chamber of Secrets (hopefully that came as no surprise).

Frankly, this film is garbage. It's easily the worst of the bunch, and Chris Columbus's lazy direction nearly wrecked the whole series. "Chamber" had the potential to take a dark, serious turn; the book's plot is a clever take on the serial-killer progression first laid down in Ridley Scott's "Alien." Columbus didn't even have to be original! A formulaic reproduction of the familiar themes would have been better than this tripe!

But instead of a dark or suspenseful mystery, all we remember are the annoyingly cartoonish characters (Gilderoy Lockhart, Dobby, the eccentric car) and deflated action sequences. I felt like slapping Riddle when he sneers, "You may have blinded the basilisk, but it can still hear you!" Thanks, we couldn't have figured that one out.

5. Chamber of Secrets
4. Sorcerer's Stone
3. Goblet of Fire


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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rebel Without A Cause

#360 in the 1000 greatest films of all time.

Now that I've started to establish some regular readership on my blog, I'm going to recklessly risk losing it all by coming clean with you: there are a few very embarrassing gaps in my film education. Some "essentials" that every responsible film-buff should experience before diving into less charted territory.

In this particular case, I worked my way backwards. Director Nicolas Ray is most famous for "Rebel Without A Cause," yet I first watched and reviewed his lesser known and hard-to-find "Johnny Guitar." Then I suffered through his debut, the archetypal "Love on the Run," after reading about its pioneering cinematography. (Some critics have played up the fact that it was the first film to shoot ground scenes from above on a helicopter. There were seriously about five seconds of helicopter footage in the entire film. I could barely stomach the trite romance that filled up the other 1 hour and 57 minutes.)

My childlike impetuosity is only partly to blame for my incomplete education. The AFI Top 100, Leonard Maltin, and other corporate tools have instilled in me a deep and abiding distrust of any widely touted (and popularly known) film.

"Rebel Without A Cause," however, deserves every last bit of credit it's received. 1950's America may have been a vacuous bore, but this is one of the real gems of cinema. The film opens with a long, unbroken closeup of a drunk James Dean lying on the street, amusing himself with a toy. This static shot lasts for the entirety of the opening credits; in fact, I imagine that the only way the studio would spare such an un-hollywood dead moment from the cutting room floor is if Ray placed the opening credits over it.

The historically caprice themes turn the 1950s "Leave it to Beaver" family image on its head. James Dean's character Jim, a hip trouble-magnet, continually berates and even assaults his father for not being a man and wishes that he would punch his mother, just once. Jim's girlfriend Judy (played by the beautiful Natalie Wood) has a strong, sexually confused attachment to her own father and a jealous hatred of her mother; in Judy's opening monologue at the police station she tearfully describes a dramatic confrontation with her father that could have been lifted from a Lifetime incest special. And in one of the inexplicably creepy moments in the film, Jim and Judy play house to an emotionally disturbed classmate. Judy even hums a lullabye to put him to sleep.

The film has a decidedly blasphemous subtext. The junior and senior classes of Jim's new high school take a field trip to a planetarium, where the ancient operator spins an existential yarn about the insignificant birth and death of the planet earth in a cold and indifferent universe. The film's tragic ending only reinforces the generally godless tone of the whole enterprise.

James Dean also deserved his reputation. We'll never know if Dean had the range of a Johnny Depp or the staying power of a Nicholson, but this film alone is enough to prove that he had a singularly magnetic presence in the history of cinema.

Certainly I had problems with the film. The score was maddeningly overwrought, and too many scenes felt like the editors were playing hot potato with the camera angles. But a film's not a masterpiece because it lives up to everyone's personal tastes; it's a masterpiece because it transcends them. An audacious script, Ray's clever direction, and above all Dean's hypnotic performance delivered onto us a minor miracle.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Film-critics: A dying breed?

Roger Ebert just posted a thought-provoking piece on his blog about the death of serious film criticism (and respectable newspaper journalism in general) and the rise of the Celebrity Cult. One of the more disturbing manifestations of this trend: the AP recently restricted all entertainment writers to 500 words or less, whether it's an interview, film review, think piece, etc. There goes "The Sacrifice" :-)

Of course, it's ironic that the man who reduced film reviews to the orientation of his opposable digits is lamenting the death of thoughtful criticism.

Frankly, I couldn't care less what newspapers do. They're the real dying breed, and these desperate actions are their death throws. Serious film criticism, on the other hand, isn't dying. It's just that its venues have changed with the times. And I also couldn't care less about celebrity culture. In this world, there's room for both. Most people just occasionally dabble in media-driven obsessions. But if you want to spend your life neck-deep in all of the celeb-sewage oozing out of Hollywood, I won't stop you.

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