Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bite This

When I saw Teeth at Cannes, I absolutely adored it. You can read more about it in my Cannes post. For awhile, I heard that nobody bought it and that it wouldn't be released at all. I was devastated. I had been raving about this movie to everyone and couldn't wait to see it again and buy it on DVD. I just loved it. Finally, people wised up. It is definitely being released. Even if this doesn't make a lot at the box office, it's going to be an instant cult phenomenon. It's so entertaining, but it's a rather scathing, intelligent attack on American prudishness, with tons of insightful social commentary. Are you paying attention, Bible Belt? It's supposedly being released, limitedly, on January 11th or 18th, somewhere around there. They always toy with those dates, but I'm hoping we don't have to wait too long. So, thank you, Roadside Attractions, for having the courage to distribute this film. And the lead actress in Teeth, Jess Weixler (pictured here), is phenomenal. Forgive me for saying this, but she really sunk her teeth into this role (come on, I had to!). But mark my words - she's going to be a big star. Don't miss this film, and bon appetit!

The Comedy General

Now let's travel back in time to 1927. Wow, 80 years, that's quite a leap. But that makes Buster Keaton's The General even more brilliant. It's been that long, and it still seems fresh. Buster Keaton is one of the greatest auteurs in the history of cinema. The General is generally (ha ha) considered his masterpiece. That might be true. I haven't seen all of them. I don't think it's my favorite, though. Nonetheless, it's fantastic, and it's certainly one of the most important American films ever.

It's a Civil War story, epic in its scope and attention to period detail. Keaton, stone-faced as usual, plays a southern railroad engineer. His beloved train's name? The General. Not what I expected the title to mean at all when I heard it was about war. He tries to enlist, because his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) really wants him to, but he gets denied. Secretly, the enlisting authorities say he'll be more valuable as an engineer. But they don't tell him that. If they did, it wouldn't be as funny. He just thinks he's physically incompetent. So when his train gets hijacked by Union soldiers, he seizes the opportunity to be heroic by following them. So, it's just him against a bunch of soldiers, although they don't realize they're just being followed by one guy for a long time. Stupid Union soldiers. :)

Anyway, most of the film takes place on the train. And it's a real train, which makes his stunts that much more dangerous and mind-blowing. It's one of the most intricately choreographed chase scenes in film history, and keep in mind that almost the entire film is a chase. What I love so much about Keaton's films (this one included) is the way he portrays women. They're not these annoying, weak, damsels in distress. They fight it out right along with him and get just as dirty. Sometimes, they even save him. It's pretty awesome.

What you see with Buster Keaton is the real deal. He was involved with every aspect of the filmmaking process. The General is just one perfect example of his genius. I love Harold Lloyd, and I like Chaplin, but I think Keaton is the best comedian, well, ever. And he does more than just falling down or enduring physical abuse for the sake of a laugh. He's a great actor, too. His stone face is deceptive. There's a lot of nuance and depth there. He shines equally bright in the quietest, smallest moments as he does in the huge, death-defying stunts. I'm so glad I finally discovered him. Now I know what I had been missing for so long.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Wedding Reception

Since I've been on such a streak of amazing films, why stop now? For your consideration, I give you Susanne Bier's Danish film After the Wedding, yet another masterpiece complicating my finalization of a list of the best of the year. First, let me say that this film has a great trailer. It gives nothing away. The film is nothing like what you expect. Actually, I didn't know what to expect, but I got something wonderful.

I really can't discuss the plot at all, because everything is such a surprise that I don't want to spoil anything. The main character is Jacob, played brilliantly by Mads Mikkelsen, who is Danish but currently living in India doing missionary-type work (of the non-religious variety) at an orphanage. The place needs money, and the rich guy offering them money demands that Jacob come to Denmark and meet him in person. The rich guy is Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), and once Jacob is there, he insists that Jacob stay for his daughter's wedding the next day. They'll talk business later. And then plot twists ensue.

I honestly don't know how to talk about this film without ruining the story, because the story affected me so much. Instead, let me talk about the filmmaking. I love seeing women filmmakers, and Susanne Bier is such a sensitive, intuitive director. She also developed the story. The cinematography is gorgeous. I want to be in Europe, like, right now. And the acting is just amazing. Mikkelsen, Lassgard, and Stine Fischer Christensen (who plays the daughter/bride Anna) deliver powerful, subtle (yes, powerful and subtle), complex performances.

After the Wedding simultaneously touched and broke my heart. That's quite a feat.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Once More, With Feeling

It's a beautiful thing when a film lives up to its hype. But then again, Once is a beautiful film. Wow. About ten minutes after the film ended and I composed myself from my teary emotional outburst (quivery lips and watery eyes occurred intermittently throughout the whole thing), I went on iTunes and downloaded the soundtrack. And I'm listening to it right now. It's hauntingly gorgeous. Man, I've just been immersed in great cinema lately. This has been an awesome year.

The more the film is sinking in, the more amazed I am. It's such a simple premise - two strangers meet and make music together in Dublin - but it's really complex. This is about real people, very fragile and broken people actually, both dealing with bad relationships and trying to heal. It's so true to life. Love is amazing and beautiful, but it's also painful and difficult, and Once recognizes that. Half the credit goes to ultra-compassionate and talented writer/director John Carney.

The other half of the credit for this brilliant little gem goes to the two stars - Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. They play "Guy" and "Girl" respectively, and I love that. It reminds me of one of my favorite films, Sunrise, in which the main characters are only listed as "Man," "Wife," and "Woman." Doing that makes these characters universal. Isn't love the universal language, after all? And for that matter, so is music, and so is film. But back to the genius of Hansard and Irglova - they co-wrote all of the songs for the film (and performed them, of course). And the songs are magical. What's particularly impressive is that Marketa Irglova has never been in anything before, and she's only 19. Hansard has a band, but barely any acting experience.

They convey such remarkable subtlety and humanity in their performances. The musical performances are awesome, but the acting itself is just as good. I don't think any film has ever captured the essence of music like this one does, the power and the passion of it. I fell head over heels in love with this film when the pair sings their first song together in a music store. I could watch that scene over and over. The filmmaking is also phenomenal. There's one shot that follows Irglova's character from a store all the way back to her flat while composing/singing a song. It's just one unbroken shot of her walking, and it's extraordinary.

How this film got overlooked for the Musical/Comedy category of the Golden Globes completely befuddles me. Or I guess it shouldn't, because as much as I love all the awards business and the anticipation and even the hype, I hate it just as much. It's never fair. Once isn't just the best musical of the year - it's the best musical since Chicago five years ago. It might even be better. Putting Chicago aside, you'd have to go back decades to find anything worthy of being in the same league as Once.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Friday, December 28, 2007

What's the Most YOU Ever Lost on a Coin Toss?

I've already talked a little about No Country for Old Men in my Cannes post. I saw it twice there and was simply astonished by it. But it deserves its own review on here. It's hard to begin writing when everything about it is so perfect. It really is flawless. I love the Coen Brothers, but I think it's their best film yet, and that's saying a lot, because they're insanely talented.

So, I'll start briefly with the plot. The film focuses on the intersecting lives of three men: psychopathic serial killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) with the coolest weapon ever (not that I condone violence, but it's pretty bad-ass) and the scariest bowl-cut in history, near-retirement sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), and average, rugged hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). This is very much a modern western and takes place in sprawling, sandy, desolate landscapes. Llewelyn stumbles across a whole lot of money in a suitcase during his hunting, amongst the bodies of a drug deal gone wrong. Chigurh is involved with this deal and wants his money, so Llewelyn inadvertently gets himself involved with a really bad dude. Ed Tom Bell investigates it all and tries to protect Llewelyn.

This is based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, but I've heard the film is way better than the book. I've perused the book - some of the dialogue is taken word for word. But other than that, this script is all Coen. I think their screenwriting skills are grossly underrated. The cinematography by their long-time collaborator Roger Deakins has never been better. It's beautiful, panoramic, and haunting. The sound design, the editing, the production design - everything is exceptional. This is a film I would show to a class as an example of a perfect film that incorporates and exploits every available technique for maximum impact. This is their Citizen Kane.

I'm not really a fan of westerns, but I've never seen a western done in this way. It's fresh and exciting. It's also a suspenseful, thrilling film, even though some of the most terrifying and suspenseful scenes don't involve shooting or violence or even much action. There's a scene with Chigurh and a gas station attendant involving a coin toss. I dare you to try to breathe during that scene. At Cannes, there was applause after the scene ended. It's so chilling.

The acting is what really stands out, though. It's just peerless. Tommy Lee Jones expresses so much emotion while barely even moving his face. His quiet drawl conveys so much pain and confusion. His last scene is just breathtaking. I couldn't take my eyes off him. Josh Brolin is kind of getting ignored in discussions of this film, and that's a shame. He really holds his own. He plays Llewelyn as simple, gruff, and determined. There are times when Llewelyn says just one word to himself, and Brolin's timing is impeccable. He's wonderful. Kelly Macdonald plays his wife Carla Jean Moss, and she's so sweet and loyal that it melts my heart. And for a Scot, she does a killer southern accent. Woody Harrelson also does great work with a smaller role.

But let's be honest - Javier Bardem steals this film. He's so ruthless and evil, and always so cool and calm about it, which makes it even scarier. This is one of the best performances I've ever seen in cinema. Period. He better win a best supporting actor Oscar for this role. He's simply unforgettable. It's pure genius.

No Country for Old Men has already cracked my list of favorite films of all time, and that's a pretty big deal. I take my lists very seriously, after all. If Juno is on top of my list for the year, this is definitely right behind it. And really, it's so hard to compare films that are so different. It's impossible to rank them. It's really not about what's better, at least not in this instance. I mean, filmmaking-wise, yeah, No Country for Old Men wins hands-down. It's technically the best made film of the year. And it had an equally powerful effect on me. I couldn't shut up about it for six months after coming back from Cannes. The ending took my breath away, literally. The overall experience was incomparable. But Juno touched me more emotionally, so I guess that's why it's on top. Ugh, it's so hard to say, so I'm just going to stop talking about it for now. I'll come up with my definitive list for the year later.

But back to No Country for Old Men. It's perfect. If there was a word that meant "better than perfect," it would be that. It's cinema as it was intended to be, and it's sure to be an American classic. Just as we watch Citizen Kane in film classes now, I think they'll be showing No Country for Old Men to film students in 50 years (or sooner) as an example of filmmaking at its finest. What would be this film's "Rosebud," though? "Cattlegun," perhaps?

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Girl Power

As of right now, Juno is my favorite film of the year. This decision is pending, since I still have yet to see There Will Be Blood. But nothing could touch my heart as deeply as this little-film-that-could. It's such a rare, beautiful, quirky film. It's gotten a lot of comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine in its feel-goodiness, but I prefer Juno. The film is directed by Jason Reitman, but the real voice of Juno is first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody. She writes in a way that's so fresh and honest. I have never heard people talk this way in a film, and yet it seems so familiar to me.

The film is about Juno MacGuff, played by Ellen Page. She gets impregnated by Paulie Bleeker (the incomparable Michael Cera - it's been a great year for him), and she has to deal with it. And she deals with it very realistically. Her father and step-mother (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) aren't one-dimensional monsters. They're caring and sympathetic and real. They don't cast her out with stones. They tell her they love her and decide to help her. How novel. It's a refreshing portrayal of parents.

Juno plans to have the baby and give it up for adoption to rich yuppies Vanessa and Mark (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). Nothing happens like you expect it to, and it's a total surprise up until the end. This is a feel-good film with a brain. It never feels corny. It's also one of the greatest romantic comedies ever. I think Preston Sturges would love this film. You're surprised by what happens, but when it does, it seems to make perfect sense. That's great screenwriting. Diablo Cody is going places. It's so awesome to have such an intelligent, insightful female voice out there.

The music is infectious. I can't stop listening to the soundtrack. Michael Cera and Ellen Page do a duet, and it's got to be one of the most romantic things ever. The direction is impeccable - I don't mean to dismiss Jason Reitman. The acting is some of the best I've ever seen. Jennifer Garner is luminous and heartbreaking. J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney make me want to BE their daughter. Jason Bateman thankfully gets to show his talent after lackluster, post-Arrested Development roles. And Michael Cera does awkward like nobody's business. But here, it's different. It's not the same kind of awkward as Superbad. There's a real vulnerability to his character. He's amazing. I think I fell a little bit in love with him watching this film, as I'm sure every guy does with Ellen Page.

Ellen Page is a miracle. Her comic timing is extraordinary. But she's something really special. I don't know if I've ever empathized with a character more, and it's because of Ellen Page (and Cody's writing, of course). Juno's witty, intelligent, and confused about her place in life. She's tough on the outside and totally vulnerable and aching for love on the inside. And aren't we all? She deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance, and I think she might get one. She's going to be a huge star.

I bawled my eyes out for about the last half hour of this film and then for most of the way home. I was just touched so much by its simple, pure beauty. I think I AM Juno in many ways, and it was life-altering to spend an hour and a half with a character I could totally relate to and understand. For that and for bringing real women to the screen, I thank Ellen Page and Diablo Cody.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

All's Fair in Love and War?

I was really excited about seeing Atonement without knowing much about it. I hadn't seen Pride and Prejudice, director Joe Wright's last film (also with Keira Knightley), and I didn't know the plot. All I knew is that critics were raving about this film that seemed to come out of nowhere. And you know what? They're right.

Atonement is a sweeping, swooning love story at its core, but it's also a suspense/thriller at times, as well as a devastating war film. It's so much more than some overwrought melodrama. Don't get me wrong, it is a melodrama, but a brilliant one. The story revolves around Cecilia (Keira Knightley), Robbie (James McAvoy), and Cecilia's younger sister Briony (what a great British name!). Briony is played by three different actresses at different ages, and all three are worthy of a supporting actress nomination. However, the one who got a Golden Globe nomination is 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan, and I think they got that right. She's phenomenal. Basically, Briony sees Cecilia and Robbie (who works for their wealthy family and is even patronized by them for school) being...amorous...and she thinks that he's trying to attack her or something and then wrongly accuses him of raping her young cousin. She knows it's wrong, but she wants to protect her sister.

So, Robbie goes to prison and gets out on the condition that he will serve in World War II. What a choice. While Robbie and Cecilia are not together much throughout the film, their love is so passionate and believable, a testament to the great acting of Knightley (never better - those miserable Pirates movies do her no justice) and especially McAvoy. It's one of the most beautiful love stories I've ever witnessed on film. Throughout the years, Briony must deal with what she's done, hence the title of the film. The war scenes are staggering. There is a breathtaking, seamless, uninterrupted five minute long shot that surveys the headquarters of the army on the beach. This shot swoops around the activity, effortlessly gliding above the action and weaving through it at times. Some people have criticized it for being needlessly excessive or showy. I totally disagree. I don't think I breathed during it. It's so moving, and it captures and summarizes the enormity of war in one shot. It's an astonishing technical and narrative achievement.

Briony is a writer, and composer Dario Marianelli ingeniously incorporates the sound of a typewriter into the score, which is already so exquisite. This is a phenomenal film, unquestionably one of the year's best, and it moved me very deeply. It's amazing for a film to live up to the hype and surpass expectations you didn't even know you had.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Blades, Blood, and Pies

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Tim Burton's best film since Ed Wood, without question, and it might be his best film ever. I know, I know, what about The Nightmare Before Christmas? Even though he didn't technically direct it, no one doubts it isn't wholly his own creation. I think The Nightmare Before Christmas is perfect...cue ominous music...for what it is. I just can't think of it in the same league as something like Ed Wood or Sweeney Todd, his more sophisticated efforts. And I don't think Sweeney Todd is perfect. It's been almost a week since I saw it, and it just hasn't stayed with me like I thought it would. But I didn't think it was perfect then, either. It was damn close, though.

There is no other director like Tim Burton. He is one of the most visionary auteurs working today. Even if he makes a dud, it's still interesting, at least visually. That's how it is with the best directors - you can still take something away from the weakest films. I know it's going to be blasphemous, but I don't like his Batman movies. There, I said it. I loved them at the time, when I was young, and before I had developed distinguishing tastes. But Christopher Nolan has captured Batman, at long last, perfectly. Going back and watching Burton's Batman movies - they just look juvenile. I particularly dislike the first one. The second is much more interesting, visually and mainly because of Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito. But I'm sorry, I digress.

Sweeney Todd, based on the Stephen Sondheim musical, is rough material. It's gritty and violent and terrifying, and I'm so happy Burton didn't downplay any of it. He could have easily cut some of the violence to make it a PG-13, but he didn't. It's a very unsettling story. I have never seen the play; in fact, I really didn't know anything about Sondheim before this. I hear a lot has been cut from the play, which might explain the plot flaws. When we meet Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp), he's already back from prison and back for revenge. His past is really glossed over. The evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) falsely accuses Benjamin Barker (his real name) of a crime in order to get his pretty wife, but we never find out what the crime was or get to know really anything about Todd before his Bride of Frankenstein hair and seething anger. It might have been nice to see a bit more backstory, as well as some of his time spent in prison that shaped who we see on screen today.

So, Sondheim is an odd duck. He's a genius, that's very clear, but I've never heard any musical like this one. His lyrics are more stream of consciousness than melodic. The songs aren't even really catchy. They're off-putting and bizarre. Yet they're also brilliant, even though it took me some time to warm up to the style. Actually, some parts were kind of grating, like an assault on my eardrums, with the chaos of the music and lyrics and the constant shift in moods within one song. Ultimately, it grew on me. And Tim Burton and Sondheim are a match made in heaven.

The world he creates for 1800s London is staggering. It's a Gothic/German Expressionist thing of bleak beauty. Maybe that's why I love Burton so much - he reminds me of one of my favorite filmmakers, F.W. Murnau. I even heard that Burton was drawing on Murnau for this film and wanted to make it like a silent. It could very easily work as a silent film. I guess Murnau isn't technically considered a German Expressionist, but I have no idea why. To me, he's an Expressionist through and through. And so is Burton.

The music doesn't require the best singing voices, and these aren't the best singers in the world, but they're perfect for what the songs and roles require. Playing Mrs. Lovett, Helena Bonham Carter (Burton's wife - what a pair), hair all frizzed out and crazy, has a very sweet voice, and her first song about her horrible pies is brilliantly delivered and choreographed. Alan Rickman just rocks my world. I love him so much. He's like Snape in this film, but so much more sinister. And shockingly, he's kind of sexy. Sacha Baron Cohen plays a rival barber, and he's a riot. Honestly, no actor does accents better than he does.

But I was most impressed with Johnny Depp. His voice is really, really good. And while I still think Ed Wood is his best performance, this comes awfully close. He deserves an Oscar nomination for this. His rage as Todd is so fierce and palpable, and no one's ever made brooding so intense. And there are even some funny moments, especially involving a fantasy sequence of Mrs. Lovett and her plans for their future. It's priceless. I would see it again just for that part.

The film totally shocked me. I was in suspense until the ending credits rolled. The final image still haunts me. What a beautiful, wonderful nightmare of a film.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

Hi, My Name Is Don, and I'm An Alcoholic

I think I'm pretty familiar with Billy Wilder's impressive oeuvre, and so I feel justified in saying that The Lost Weekend (1945) is one of his rare misses, or non-masterpieces. I haven't been in classic Hollywood in awhile, so it actually took me a little bit of adjustment. Odd, really. The film is about Don Birnam, played in an Oscar-winning performance by Ray Milland. He always wanted to be a writer, but instead he's a pitiful, drunk failure. He's supported by his brother and his girlfriend Helen, played by Jane Wyman. As you can probably guess, the film takes place over the course of a weekend. And guess what? It's not a good one. Gasp.

Actually, to be fair, there are some flashbacks, so the time is not restricted to solely that weekend. I don't mean to be so trite - I'm just not too impressed with the film. But when Billy Wilder makes a mediocre film, that means something. He's usually outstanding. For another director, this might be a great film. The subject matter was quite shocking for the time. It deals very explicitly and frankly with alcoholism, which was a real problem for men returning from the war. His alcoholism isn't war-related, but still. And Milland really is fantastic. Apparently, he ate much less during filming to get more immersed in the mindset of an alcoholic, and he also spent a night in Bellevue (this was the only film allowed to shoot there). That's pretty impressive. He's downright devastating in some scenes. His dedication paid off. Jane Wyman is also really good. I just love her.

It's a good film, but it didn't have a big impact on me. For Billy Wilder, it's just okay. It's certainly not bad like Love in the Afternoon. It won Oscars for Milland, screenplay (Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder), director, and best picture. I don't think it quite deserved all that, but okay, whatever.

There is a really great line in there, though. I don't know if it was in the original material or if Brackett and Wilder wrote it. It sounds like Wilder to me. Don passionately and frantically asserts, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation." There's so much truth in that. And I admit there is some personal relevancy, especially now, just graduating and aspiring to be a great film writer. I don't want to live a life of quiet desperation. It's a really scary thought.

Rating: *** (out of 5)


Alfred Hitchcock and Paul Verhoeven. Wow, I don't think I'd ever see those two names together. To be honest, I'd never seen a Paul Verhoeven film before Black Book, and I think that was to my benefit. I was able to approach this film with a clear mind, a blank slate. Well, maybe not totally blank. His reputation preceded him. I knew him as the smutmaster general of such films as Showgirls, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers. Before this, I think Showgirls has been his biggest claim to fame, even if it was more infamy than fame. But, I've heard people I really admire defend Showgirls like you wouldn't believe, so maybe there's something there. Who knows? All I know is that Jessie Spano takes her clothes off in it.

Before Black Book, I think it's safe to say that Verhoeven was a guilty pleasure director, an auteur even (hey, no one says you have to necessarily be good to be called an auteur). To be frank, he's associated with crappy films. But Black Book is something else altogether. I find it really hard to believe that the same guy who made Showgirls and all those other movies made this film. I LOVED Black Book. The obvious difference is that this is in his native language, Dutch. To summarize briefly, since the plot is really complicated, it's about Ellis, a Dutch Jew who goes into hiding during World War II and aids the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis. She's a sexy spy, basically.

This is a very powerful film. Films are made about the Nazis and World War II all the time, but I have never seen one quite like this. It's not ultra-serious like Downfall (which is brilliant, by the way). It's not as touching as Life is Beautiful. It's not a laugh-out-loud satire like The Producers. I think it kind of combines the best of all three types, which is not to say that I think it's the best, but that it is an interesting melting pot of styles. It's definitely flashier than most Nazi films. Or maybe glossy is the right word. And I think that's just Verhoeven's tendency. But I don't think it's flashy at the expense of emotion or substance.

I have heard about how much fun this film is and that it even borders on camp (while not crossing over). I didn't get that impression at all. I don't think Verhoeven compromises the integrity of the material. He treats this really tragic story with so much compassion and respect. I never got any sense of camp. It actually makes me really want to watch it again and even listen to Verhoeven's commentary to hear his intentions. I do agree somewhat with the fun part. I didn't have fun in the sense that I was watching with glee or giggling or something. It was fun in the visceral sense of great storytelling. It was suspenseful and exciting. I was constantly shocked by the plot twists and always on the edge of my figurative seat waiting anxiously for what would happen next. I was really invested in this story and, most importantly, the characters.

It might be a more spectacle-based approach to Nazis and fascism, but why not? Isn't war a spectacle? Yet there are so many quiet, devastating moments. It's not all action. It is definitely a thriller, but there's more than that. This film is anchored by Carice van Houten, the actress who plays Ellis. This is an amazing performance that I think has been overlooked. She is pitch perfect for the role. She gives the film its heart. But the rest of the characters are complex and interesting, as well. The Nazis aren't all just one-dimensional, beard-stroking, finger-steepling, cackling evil-doers. Munzte, played by Sebastian Koch (great in this as well as in The Lives of Others), is a Nazi working with the Resistance and wavering in his beliefs. There is good and evil in people on both sides, which rings so true.

Sure, there's nudity and violence here, but it's not exploitative. It's all totally justified. And I don't think it's glorified. Some of the nudity is downright horrific in its context. I never got anything other than a serious vibe from this film. There's dark comedy, and there's definitely a lot of action (sexual and otherwise). There's also a lot of depth and feeling, and the subject matter is always treated seriously. Verhoeven does it justice, and that's hard to do with such heavy material. Yes, it is fun in the sense that it's a blast to watch. It's wonderful to witness great cinema. To me, it's flawless. The characters are engaging, and the story is so suspenseful, hence my initial reference to Hitchcock. I think Hitchcock would adore Black Blook. It warrants one my favorite adjectives to give a film: delicious.

So, I'm not sure if this makes me want to watch every other Paul Verhoeven movie. I am intrigued, though. Maybe he is some sort of genius. But I think if I never see another Verhoeven film besides Black Book, that'll be enough for me. I don't think he can make anything better. This is his masterpiece. He's 70 years old now, so that's not bad at all. Maybe it's better to quit while you're ahead.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Thursday, December 27, 2007


I can't believe I watched The Simpsons Movie before La Vie en Rose. Now I have the impossible task of trying to retrieve those feelings and memories. Sheesh. I'll do my best.

I didn't see this movie in theaters, and I didn't let my hopes get too high. They were really promoting the movie big-time, and everyone I know who saw it has raved about it. I mean, 20 years in the making - that's a tall order to fill. The Simpsons is one of my favorite shows ever. How could it not be? So I was both wary and excited when I put the DVD in tonight. And I hate to say it, but I was disappointed with the movie. There's just a reason it works best as a 22-minute episode. But the movie did outdo the TV show in one respect - the plot is excellent. I think the show has gotten kind of gimmicky and random in the recent years, and very hit or miss at that. (And for my money, no matter how much I love The Simpsons, no show does gimmicky and random better than Family Guy). The plot jumps all over the place on the show. There's more of a focus on the little gags and moments than the plot as a whole. There was definitely something tangible here in the movie. But it's sort of a catch-22. The plot is really phenomenal, but I think it's good at the expense of those random moments or slices of color.

I guess it's weird to both praise and criticize it for being random. The movie is really touching (something The Simpsons has always been better at than Family Guy - actually, Family Guy doesn't even try to be touching). The story is so solid, but I missed the little things. It's just not that funny. I wanted to laugh. And let me tell you, Spider Pig is just played out. I'm so sick of hearing that freaking Spider Pig song. There were some good parts, and the animation is just stellar. Maybe I'm being too hard on it. I did really like it, but I wanted to love it. After 20 years, can you blame me? And the fact that it took, like, 10 writers to come up with this is a bit cringe-inducing. I know it's a labor of love, and it shows. Also, it's impressive that virtually the entire film is voiced by the principle cast. I give them and everyone else involved an "A" for effort, for sure.

I just wanted more, not time-wise (it's plenty long), but more quality. I wish I was feeling yellow, but I just feel blue.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

And the Oscar Goes To...

I'm absolutely stunned, almost too stunned to write or form thoughts. I just finished watching La Vie en Rose, and to say Marion Cotillard blew me away would be the understatement of the millennium. I have never seen a performance like that, and I've seen a hell of a lot of films. She's a revelation. Who is she? Where did she come from? Where has she been hiding this talent? Why didn't I know about her before? Oh my god, she's unbelievable as beloved French singer/icon Edith Piaf. The film as a film almost doesn't matter to me. It's inconsequential.

It's strange that I would watch an actual biopic just after seeing Walk Hard. Certainly all the biopic tropes and clichés are there. The film really is excellent, but it's not perfect. There are structural issues, and it gets a bit confusing with the constant time-jumping. It looks good, but I don't think it's anything particularly special aesthetically. By the end of the film, I still had no idea who some of the main characters were, and as much as I tried to ignore it or rationalize it away, I really was bothered by the seemingly snobby lack of subtitles for the songs. I was tempted to give the film a perfect rating simply because of Marion Cotillard, but these flaws are just too fundamental for me to do that. I'm not saying that she isn't good enough to make them go away. Of course she is. She's so perfect that she could bring about world peace with her transcendent performance. However, it's not that simple. I have to analyze the film as its own entity, totally separate from Cotillard. When I do that, the problems just aren't minor enough to gloss over. They might be in another film, but not here. In this case, the flaws need to be addressed and evaluated for what they are.

But like I said, it hardly matters. She IS the film. The film clocks in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, but I would have gladly watched Marion Cotillard for 10 hours if that's how long it took to tell Piaf's story. She is mesmerizing. The transformation she goes through during the course of the film is astounding. She's equally convincing as a teenager as she is as an old woman. Make-up alone can't do that. That's acting.

But it's so much more than physical. Her performance is so deep and poignant. I just want to weep because her performance is that beautiful. I don't know what else to say. I'm going to run out of adjectives soon. You just need to see it for yourself. I could gush forever. She's just a miracle. The Oscar race is over. If she doesn't win, there's no justice in the world. Her performance made me forget other actresses even made films this year. I don't know if I've ever seen someone more deserving. I know the Oscars really mean nothing, but she needs to be honored by the Academy for this achievement. This is one of the best performances ever captured on film and one of the most extraordinary I've ever seen in my whole life. Simply breathtaking.

I didn't know a thing about Edith Piaf before watching this film. In one scene, when she's on top of the world, someone tells Cotillard as Piaf that she can't do something, and she counters, "I can't? Then what's the point of being Edith Piaf?" At this moment, I felt like I really knew and understood Edith Piaf, like she was an old friend. This is just one scene. Cotillard does this for the entire film, and she's in it for about 90% of it, in every scene, maybe even more (there's another actress playing her as a young girl). On another note, I'm not sure I've ever seen better lip-synching. Cotillard makes the music come alive. I need to get all of Piaf's music now - it's exquisite. What a voice.

Marion Cotillard is a star. She IS Edith Piaf, and she makes you believe it and feel it with every fiber of your being. How exciting to witness such a performance. Marion Cotillard, merci beaucoup for this experience from the bottom of my heart. I can't wait to hear your acceptance speech.

Film Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)
Marion Cotillard: ***** (There aren't enough stars to count that high.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Cannes Capsule

I went to the Cannes Film Festival this year (May 2007), and it was the experience of a lifetime. There was a lot of good, but also some bad (long story, e-mail me if you want details). I wish I had lived more in the moment while I was there. It just flew by so fast. Ultimately, I cherish my memories. I would go again in a heartbeat. Anyway, I went through Columbia, and we maintained a blog, so I just wanted to post the parts that actually deal with discussing the films. Enjoy!

The first day of the festival, all of my anxiety just dissolved, or at least took a vacation. The excitement is totally palpable. I’m madly in love with film as art, but I’m not going to lie – I want to see some celebrities. I know that’s extremely shallow, but so be it. I was in a film last night and missed the premiere of Zodiac, so I didn’t get to loiter around the red carpet and drool over Jake Gyllenhaal. Ah well, c’est la vie. There’s always Ocean’s 13, which I really don’t care about as a film, but that sure is a beautiful cast. Besides, how can I leave Cannes without seeing Brangelina? Wow, I didn’t think I would ever use that term…

So let’s talk about films now, because that is what I’m here for, after all. I’m not a partier like a lot of people here. I randomly got into this screening for a Japanese film called The Native Duck, the Foreign Duck, and God in a Lock Box. Actually, I might have switched it around a little bit, but yes, it’s seriously that long. It was really, really wonderful. It’s a very moving and funny coming-of-age film. I also got extremely lucky and got a ticket to the premiere of My Blueberry Nights, the opening-night film. Sadly, it was for the 11:30 p.m. showing, not the main one where the famous people were. Still, it was an experience to get dressed up and sit and watch a movie. Basically, the theater is huge and awesome, but the seats are really uncomfortable. Discomfort is intensified by formal wear, so I felt pretty lousy. Plus, the movie was terrible. Honestly, why does Wong Kar Wai think that using slow motion every other minute is interesting or effective? And I’m totally a fan of melodrama, but this is too melodramatic even for melodrama. Rachel Weisz is tragically misused as a trashy Southern sexpot, but David Strathairn is pretty wonderful in spite of the miserable material. He’s just incomparable, and his performance is really sympathetic. Jude Law and Natalie Portman are good enough, but it’s not anything special. And Norah Jones should stick to singing. She’s somewhat tolerable in a naïve, doe-eyed, clueless way, which sort of fits her character, but she’s just so flat. It makes me wonder why Natalie Portman wasn’t cast as the lead. Overall, it was a really big disappointment.

On a totally different note, I saw Teeth last night, and I loved it. If you haven’t heard anything about the premise of Teeth, I don’t want to ruin it for you. I went into the screening totally blind, and it was exhilarating to discover it as I went along. It’s a horror/comedy, and it’s simply brilliant. Basically, there’s this girl named Dawn who’s super religious and saving herself for marriage, but she has a physical defect, to say the least. Or maybe after seeing it, you might want to consider it a gift or a superpower of sorts, because her ability to come to terms with it and control it by the end of the film is actually inspirational. I was totally rooting for her. It’s so funny and absurd, but there is definitely social commentary there about the way our country views sex. I don’t want to get into it too much, because I saw it with Therese (a fellow Columbia student) and know she is planning on writing a review of it, which I’m so eager to read. We just had a blast watching it. The audience was so fantastic, and it was exciting to feel that kind of energy, when everyone is totally on the same wavelength and experiencing it together viscerally in waves of disgust and delight. I want to talk about the plot, but it should be a surprise for you. I hope this movie gets released, because I’d love to see it again and buy it on DVD. Trust me, this film is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and it’s more than worth your time. Also, the main actress, Jess Weixler, was perfect. She is really talented, beyond what the part might seem to require, and was able to portray the character’s rather significant transformation. She is funny and sweetly, strangely touching.

I went to two red carpet premieres the other night, which were really exciting because they were the actual premieres with the filmmakers and cast present, unlike the My Blueberry Nights screening I saw. The first was a Russian film that translates to The Banishment. The cinematography is beautiful, the acting is strong (especially by Maria Bonnevie, who looked even more gorgeous in person), and the sound blew me away. Unfortunately, it’s really long, and I was so bored by the actual story. Immediately after that, I saw Boarding Gate, starring Asia Argento and a really fat Michael Madsen. Boarding Gate is perhaps the worst film I’ve ever seen in my life. If not the worst, it’s definitely in the top three. For awhile, it was amusingly bad, but it was just torture by the end. The plot is muddled, the lighting is terrible and inconsistent, and the acting is miserable. These characters are the most unsympathetic people ever. There were these painfully long dialogue sequences between Madsen and Argento that seem like preschool imitations of Mamet or Tarantino. The sex and fight scenes (sometimes one in the same) were awkwardly choreographed, and I’ve never seen two more uninspired performances. Michael Madsen has really let himself go. I know it’s cruel, but he looks like he ate Orson Welles in A Touch of Evil. And Asia Argento strapping a belt around his neck in some sort of bizarre foreplay is an image I’ll be seeing in my nightmares for a long time. Speaking of Michael Madsen...

Yes, I actually got to take a picture with Michael Madsen.
That's me on the left.
It was surreal, to say the least. :)

Thankfully, I cleansed my film palate today with the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. It is a brilliant, possibly even perfect, film (P.S. It IS perfect.). I’m so happy that the Coen Brothers are back in top form, because I was really disappointed with The Ladykillers. Actually, I hated The Ladykillers so much that I walked out of it. No Country for Old Men is very slow, deliberate, and sprawling – quiet and contemplative, but also violent, visceral, and intense. This is what cinema should be. It devastates me that I still managed to fall asleep during it (very minimally, at least). There is nothing boring about it, and I was loving it, so it kills me. That proves how exhausted I am. I’m not doing myself or these films justice.

The cinematography and the sound (including a wonderful use of silence as an important element of sound) are mind-blowing. And the acting is unbelievable. Tommy Lee Jones has definitely found his niche in these sorts of wise sheriff roles, but here he does it with much more depth and sensitivity. Josh Brolin, who I absolutely adored in Planet Terror, is sympathetic and commanding, Kelly Macdonald is sweet and heartbreaking, and Woody Harrelson is wonderful as always. But Javier Bardem delivers the most astounding and powerful performance of all. He is mesmerizing as a homicidal sociopath. He’s charming and smooth, which makes his violence even more frightening. He’s really quite terrifying. Bardem is genius in this role, and it is an Oscar-worthy performance. I really want to see it again when they repeat all of the films at the end of the festival. This time, I won’t fall asleep. I think No Country for Old Men will win the Palme d’Or. From what I’ve seen, it deserves it. Bravo, Joel and Ethan. (Addendum: No Country for Old Men did NOT win the Palme d'Or. Tsk, tsk.) Another update: I did see No Country for Old Men again at the end of the festival. I have seen it again since it was released. It's still perfect. I'll save that for a special review, though.

So, that's all. It was really hard to find time to write there. But I did see a lot of films - I think 17 was my final count - some awesome, and some were Boarding Gate. But I had a blast. :)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Love and Hate in the Afternoon

As I was watching Love in the Afternoon, a miserable 1957 movie shockingly directed by Billy Wilder, I wanted to scream. My blood was just boiling. I absolutely hated this film. I have so many problems with it that I do not know where to begin. First of all, it is way too long. Two hours and ten minutes for that story? And Gary Cooper is horribly miscast. He is so wrong for that part. For one thing, he is far too old, not even just in relation to Hepburn, but he just looks old and haggard and decrepit. I found it really hard to accept that Audrey Hepburn would be in love with him, but I give her credit. To be able to convince me that Ariane loves him – that takes talent. Plus, he is just about the most unsexy person ever in this film. I never really found him attractive as a younger actor, but he was tolerable. In this film, I find it hard to believe that he breaks hearts all over the world, but I guess money does wonders for a person’s appeal. He is not suave or dashing or even particularly nice. I also wondered why the character of Michel was even in the film. I desperately wanted her to end up with him instead, but of course, Hollywood would not have it that way. Also, her father had investigated Frank’s seedy affairs for years and knew he was a huge scumbag. All of a sudden, he condones Frank’s relationship with his daughter? What decent father would do that?

This film is so disgusting, misogynistic, and just plain awful. Usually, I am not too sensitive about these older films that tend to put women down, but this one seriously offended me. As a woman, I want to puke. I just wanted to punch Ariane in the face for how she was acting. Being attracted to the “bad boy” is one thing, but it is something else entirely when you have to pretend you are a whore just to get his attention. That is just nauseating. She manipulates him into caring about her by telling him about all of the men she has been with. There have been so many of them, after all, that a girl simply loses count. Ariane completely degrades herself by sinking to that level and proves that she has no pride whatsoever. If I cannot get a man to love me, naturally the only solution is to say, “Hey, honey, I’m a whore. Ask me how.” How are jealousy and deception the foundation for a solid relationship? Ariane is such a weak, pathetic character. Why would she want a man like that? First, he is a huge male slut. Second, he only pays attention to her after she talks about what a big slut she is. No self-respecting woman would want to get a man that way. The worst part is the ending. As the train starts to pull away, she runs after it, tears in her eyes, STILL talking about all of her various conquests and the men who are waiting for her. Then he pulls her up onto the train, and they live happily ever after. For crying out loud, Ariane, go be with the sweet and faithful Michel! He loves you the way you are. With Frank, she is constantly pretending to be someone she is not. This film is a personal insult to all women. That being said, I think Hepburn does a great job and is very cute. Even during that horrible scene at the train, she looks so heartbroken and desperate that I want to cry for her, even while loathing the character. But even she cannot save this travesty of a film. In fact, I just want to forget I ever saw it.

Rating: * (out of 5)


I did a bunch of quick reviews/blurbs on Facebook awhile ago, so I thought I'd include them on here. They're mainly films I love, actually some of my all-time favorites (hence all the 5-star ratings), but they're also ones I probably won't review in depth on here. I just want to prove that I can stop babbling sometimes and write succinctly. :) All my ratings are out of 5 stars.

Roman Holiday: Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar for her first major starring role, and it's easy to see why. She's heartbreaking. And I think every woman falls a little bit in love with Gregory Peck upon watching it. Fabulous. *****

Holiday (1938): Grant and Hepburn are a perfect team. Cukor was great with actors, and it shows. Marvelous and tragically forgotten. *****

Stage Door: Quite shocking subtext for those who look deep enough. Rogers and Hepburn are phenomenal. *****

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?: Oh, how I love Tony Randall. Mansfield is also wonderful. A rather scathing, brilliantly self-reflexive satire. And hilarious. Tashlin is comedic gold. *****

Auntie Mame: Rosalind Russell is exquisite. One of the great performances of all time. The pitiful musical 1970s version with Lucille Ball should have taken notes. One of my favorite films of all time - a true classic. *****

Some Like It Hot: This film is considered by AFI to be the funniest film of all time, and after finally seeing it, I totally get it. Lemmon is hilarious, a total ham, but Curtis brings real pathos to his performance. By far, Monroe at her best and most beautiful. Anyone who says she can't act is insane. Wilder does it again! *****

The Heiress: Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar for her performance, and justly so. This is one of my favorite performances in cinema history. She's simply brilliant - a chameleon. Clift at his most dashing. Another astonishing achievement by the great William Wyler. *****

Sunset Boulevard: One of the best film noirs there is. Wilder can do anything. Swanson delivers a towering, iconic performance, and this is William Holden at his best. Haunting. *****

The Apartment: I was apprehensive about seeing this film, because I inherently resented the film that stole the Best Picture Oscar away from Psycho. But after seeing it, I think it deserved it. Wilder is one of the greatest of all the masters. Lemmon is painfully and endearingly human, and MacLaine is adorable. *****

Batman Begins: Finally! They got it absolutely right. Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan, and all those other phenomenal actors. The performances are terrific - like the Harry Potter films, they never condescend to the material. I saw this at a midnight screening, and the energy was infectiously palpable, more so than any other screening I've ever attended. *****

Shoot 'Em Up: I loved it! It's not supposed to be realistic - that's the genius of it. People need to lay off. I happen to think it's a brilliant parody of the genre. Giamatti is hilarious, and Owen is such a badass! ****1/2

Garden State: Zach Braff is a genius. Wonderfully written, acted, and directed. I bawled like a baby. It touched me deeply. *****

Lost in Translation: A lot of people hate this film, but I love it. I think Sofia Coppola is a national treasure. It's so nice to see a quality feminine touch in contemporary cinema. The ending is perfect. Murray should have won the Oscar. Johansson complements him wonderfully. *****

His Girl Friday: The fastest-talking film in the history of cinema. Rosalind Russell is a force to be reckoned with, and Grant is the best leading man Hollywood ever saw - period. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. *****

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Jim Carrey's best performance, and Winslet proves she can do anything. A great love story - poignant and so daring. Gondry and Kaufman make a formidable pair. *****

The Philadelphia Story: For my money, it doesn't get any better than Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart in one film. Very sophisticated and funny - quite daring for the time. Hepburn's triumphant return to Hollywood's good graces. *****

All About Eve: In my opinion, Davis' best performance - honest and unflinchingly human. Mankiewicz is a genius - the writing is impeccable. This is such a bitchy, delicious film. *****

It Happened One Night: This is what Gable should have been like in Gone with the Wind. The prototype for all romantic comedies. Genius. *****

Gone with the Wind: I'm a sucker for the grandeur of GWTW. Its production was ludicrous, but to me, it was worth it. Gable doesn't quite do it for me, but Leigh and de Havilland shine. *****

Two for the Road: Audrey Hepburn's best, most mature, and most human peformance. A hilarious, moving gem that anyone who's been in a relationship can relate to.

Requiem for a Dream: Powerful, devastating, and unforgettable. An unparalelled work of cinematic art. *****

Office Space: One of the funniest and most quotable movies ever. I can't get enough of it. *****

Brokeback Mountain: Who knew Heath Ledger could act like this?? He's amazing, the true heart of the film. A love story for the ages. It touched me more than I can say. *****

Sunrise: Everyone who loves film should see Sunrise. It is a masterpiece - truly revolutionary. The visuals still astound. What Murnau achieves with the most minimal use of intertitles is mind-boggling. It is so fresh and modern today. One of the greatest love stories of all time. Its esteemed place in film history is totally justified. *****

Children of Men: Alfonso Cuaron can truly do no wrong. The cinematography is seriously astounding - should have won the Oscar. Owen is a compelling hero, and Caine is a blast to watch. Terrifying and hopeful at the same time. *****

Pan's Labyrinth: Moving and beautiful. I was speechless after seeing it. It just blew me away. The music still haunts me. Fantastic all the way around. *****

Notorious: One of Hitchcock's best. Grant and Bergman sizzle - in fact, this is one of Grant's best performances. Claude Rains is one of Hitchcock's most sympathetic and complex villains. Great story, great acting, great everything. *****

Magnolia: This used to be my favorite PTA film, but Punch-Drunk Love is fighting hard for that title. I can't make that call. Still, Magnolia is brilliant, and one of the reasons I came to film school in the first place. The first time I saw it, I broke down into sobs, because it was so beautiful. *****

Strangers on a Train: Hitchcock at his most entertaining and suspenseful. Possibly my favorite film of all time - at least in the top three. It's still technically mindblowing today. Robert Walker is fantastic beyond words - one of Hitchcock's best villains, second maybe only to Norman Bates. Fun and deep - very rare indeed. *****

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: I've seen it three times so far, and I've liked it more each time. Yates and his DP bring a unique visual flair to the series. The acting is superb. Rupert Grint has finally mastered subtlety, and Daniel Radcliffe is exquisitely angst-ridden. Staunton should get an Oscar nomination for her unforgettable Umbridge. Gambon is a commanding Dumblebore, Fiennes is having the time of his life, Isaacs is icy perfection, Watson is wonderful as always, Oldman is heartbreakingly nuanced, and Bonham Carter is delicious. However, my favorite is Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood - she IS Luna. It's a wonderful film, and it's phenomenal in 3D. What more can I say? *****

A Mighty Heart: The movie gets bogged down in politics. There's not enough story, which is a shame since it's such a compelling and inspiring one. Jolie is adequate, but not as good as everyone seems to think. *1/2

Ratatouille: This is Pixar's most sophisticated effort, maybe too much so for kids. I own two rats, and they're the cutest things you'll ever see, so maybe I'm biased. But people need to get over the rat thing. They get a raw deal. The animation is breathtaking, and there's a lot of smart commentary on the field of criticism. *****

Evan Almighty: Better than most people say, and I'm as cynical as they come. Carell is by far one of the most talented and funniest actors working today. Predictable, but very sweet. **1/2

Punch-Drunk Love: This film is more rewarding with each viewing. Possibly my favorite PTA film, and that's saying a lot. Sandler is brilliant - never better. One of the most oddly romantic movies I've ever seen. It's a masterpiece - the acting, story, music, colors scheme, cinematography, sound design - perfection. *****

Superbad: The perfect blend of raunch and emotion - hilarious and true to life. Cera is the king of awkward, Hill proves he can hold his own, and Mintz-Plasse is a revelation. *****

Chained Melody

In Jean Negulesco’s late-50s estrogen-fest The Best of Everything, Gregg (Suzy Parker) stalks Louis Jourdan’s chronic womanizer and eventually gets her heel stuck in his fire escape grating. This illogically catapults her over the edge to her death. In the same film, April (Diane Baker) falls for a loathsome playboy (played by the equally loathsome Robert Evans) and gets pregnant with his child. Unwilling to compromise his bachelorhood, he concocts the cruelest plan ever and tricks her into believing that he is taking her to get married. She gets all dolled up, and he even brings the flowers and a ring. On the way, he informs her that, in fact, they aren’t getting married. He’s actually taking her to get an abortion. Surprise! Justifiably aghast, April somehow manages to tumble out of the moving car, causing a miscarriage. She then proceeds to fall in love with her doctor. This is the type of subtlety that Black Snake Moan lacks.

All right, I might be exaggerating just a bit, but that is exactly the sort of grand declaration a character in Black Snake Moan would shout with the utmost conviction. In the tradition of great melodramas like The Best of Everything, these characters do not speak in any humanly recognizable way, and each scene is more unbelievable and absurd than the previous one. There’s only one problem – Black Snake Moan is neither a melodrama nor great.

The story, written and directed by Craig Brewer of Hustle and Flow fame, finds Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a blues musician hardened by life, still reeling from learning about his wife’s affair with his brother. In another part of the sleepy southern town, Rae (Christina Ricci) bids farewell to her military-bound boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). As soon as he drives away, she falls to the ground and writhes around in agony, consumed by nymphomania. One male would even later describe her as being “in heat.” She proceeds to get hussied up and prowls the town for any man she can find. Unfortunately, she runs into the wrong man, Ronnie’s friend Gill (Michael Raymond-James), who inexplicably beats her to a bloody pulp and leaves her for dead on the side of the road. The next morning, Lazarus finds her and takes it upon himself to rehabilitate her.

If this sounds like it has the potential to be a sweet, quiet tale about a man and a young woman, both chewed up and spit out by society, who find redemption through each other’s friendship, don’t be fooled. This is an exploitation film on every level. Let’s start with the fact that Christina Ricci is practically naked for the entire film. Her main costume, if it can be called that, consists of white cotton panties and a ridiculously cropped shirt that falls off her shoulders and barely covers the bottom of her breasts. The film takes an insanely sadomasochistic turn when Lazarus decides to chain Rae up to his radiator in order to “cure” her of her demons and her sluttiness. Lazarus believes finding Rae was some sort of sign, a call to spiritual action, and taking care of her becomes his primary concern, even if his methods are questionable.

Rae is understandably horrified when she regains consciousness and discovers the massive industrial-strength chain around her waist. After a lot of shrieking and fighting, she surrenders. There is a particularly upsetting scene soon after in which Lazarus pulls her along by the chain in his fields like a dog, insisting that she needs her exercise. Later, he makes the mistake of leaving her alone in the house, where she becomes possessed by one of her fits. A young, unsuspecting virgin named Lincoln (Neimus K. Williams) comes to collect some beans, and he lingers for an impossibly long time when it is clear that Lazarus isn’t home. He finally decides to go in the house, and Rae immediately rips off her shirt and attacks him like a mad animal. Lazarus comes home and erupts, and the mood is so awkward and unsure that I half-expected to hear a laugh track. He then takes Lincoln to the barn and basically congratulates him on his first time. In a totally random monologue, Lazarus describes losing his virginity to his second cousin. As we have seen before, logic is not one of the film’s strong points.

There are some feeble attempts at subplots, including one about Ronnie and his anxiety. The military apparently discharges him after only a week, which seems rather hasty even for the United States. He explains to Gill somberly that they told him he had “severe anxiety.” I think I may have to consult the DSM-IV on this one, but “severe anxiety” is not a real psychiatric illness. In fact, the asinine oversimplification of anxiety in this film is insulting to anyone who has ever suffered from it.

None of the characters’ motivations are too convincing. We know that Lazarus was betrayed, but it just doesn’t seem like enough to warrant what basically amounts to a kidnapping and hostage situation. For all of her histrionics, I can at least empathize with Rae a bit more. We learn the cause of her nymphomania and meet her cruel mother, and her issues suddenly seem to make some sense. But why are we asked to focus so much on Ronnie’s problem, and why would anyone think we’d care? The answer is simple – this is a man’s world, baby. Rae is an object, beaten down into submission and asked to like it. She is expected to cater to his needs, forever chained to her femininity.

But nothing is more infuriating than the blatant misogyny plaguing Black Snake Moan. The woman is the one who must pay for her sins. The woman has to be chained up like a feral beast. The woman has to parade around nearly nude the whole film. Lazarus’ first order of business should have been to get the poor girl some clothes, but he doesn’t get around to it for days. Even then, the clothes he picks are not the most modest. The chain is the ultimate symbol of oppression, and it makes an appearance in another form near the end of the film, in a gesture so horrifically demeaning that it obliterates about a hundred years of women’s progress.

The blues music in the film is phenomenal, and the acting is solid for the most part. Timberlake proves that he’s more than just a pretty face by bringing some raw emotion to a pretty useless character. As the kind pharmacist interested in Lazarus, S. Epatha Merkerson’s gentle, pure presence is a constant joy to watch. Jackson, a rather good blues singer, successfully blends grittiness and tenderness. Ricci contrasts her very grown-up body and blatant sexuality with a childlike vulnerability that is almost touching when she is not twisting and writhing around. She screams a lot and is quite overdramatic, but she does have a few quiet moments that are very sweet and moving, like when she listens to Lazarus sing during a storm and when she tries playing the guitar and singing herself. It’s nice to see her smile.

This film is distasteful and pretty much an affront to women and humanity in general. It also resorts to the sort of moralizing prevalent in many movies today that I find so insulting. And the imposed religiosity is condescending. I mean, Lazarus? Come on. While I was watching Black Snake Moan, my face was frozen in a look of what can only be called appalled disbelief. That being said, I had a blast watching this film. That look of bewilderment was topped off by a faint, goofy grin that was plastered on my face the whole time. I have never laughed harder at a subject matter that is so painfully unfunny. I haven’t had this much fun in the theater since I saw Borat, a film equally ludicrous, but actually intelligent and self-aware. When it was over and the credits were rolling over scenes from the film that were apparently supposed to remind us fondly of the good times we had, I burst out laughing. Oh yeah! I remember him pulling her through the field by the chain like a donkey. That was absolutely hilarious!

I’m incredibly conflicted about this film. Every fiber of my being is telling me that, as a woman, I should go burn my bra or something. But I enjoyed myself so much that it’s kind of frightening. It is a beautiful, uproarious mess. It’s not great or even good, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun in its sheer audacity. Ultimately, I can’t ignore the fact that it is a failure, and the entertainment is only a result of that. Sure, there are some intentionally funny moments, but mostly, it is misfire after misfire. And when something sort of works accidentally, I’m reluctant to give the filmmakers too much credit. But I do respect a filmmaker for trying to make something different and ambitious and failing rather than playing it ridiculously safe and making, say, Norbit. For that, I do give Craig Brewer credit. He is, to say the least, very earnest. Yet I’m reminded of a kid at a recital who gives a terrible performance, but the audience is afraid to hurt his feelings and humors him, praising his efforts, but meanwhile just gritting their teeth and praying for it to end.

Still, if you go see this film, I promise that you will never be bored. I’m offended by its message, and I don’t think it’s done very well, but I enjoyed watching it. Confused yet? So am I. Ultimately, does all this mean that I like it? Hell no. I might still burn my bra. I had a good, fun time because it was so absurdly offensive and awful that I couldn't fathom what I was seeing. All I could do was as not to weep for humanity, I suppose. This is, without question, a funny-bad movie, meaning it's so bad that it's funny. But all chuckles aside, it doesn't make the misogyny acceptable, forgettable, or any less potent.

There is a disturbing trend in films of recent years – the endorsement of female victimization. In 2006’s The Dead Girl, all of the women are destroyed or controlled by the male world around them. Without a doubt, writer-director Karen Moncrieff cares about these women and certainly does not propose that it is acceptable to abuse women, but they are solely defined by their victimization. There is really no hope, and I got the sense that they were doomed to repeat the same patterns. That sort of bleak, reductionist thinking allows the sexist system to persist and thrive. Similarly, in Black Snake Moan, Rae is damaged and victimized. Instead of allowing her the opportunity to find her own way in life, the film takes the easy way out and promotes co-dependency. It is humiliating and pathetic that Rae’s only hope lies in her relationship with Ronnie. Sure, people in relationships are supposed to support each other, but if you literally cannot exist independently, then it may be time to reevaluate things. Even worse, she has to be “saved” by a man in the first place. Lazarus adopts her like some sort of Jezebel charity case. She is completely incapable of doing anything without the assistance of men.

To anyone who believes that films released during the Golden Age of Hollywood are sexist, I challenge you to find a film more degrading to women than Black Snake Moan. Of course, the Production Code and the religious fanatics (yes, they were around then, too) demanded that women pay much more harshly for their transgressions than men. And yes, the woman almost always ends up with the man at the end. But there is no way that Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, or Barbara Stanwyck would have been as complacently submissive as Rae in Black Snake Moan. Their characters were witty, vibrant, and strong. They never would have allowed a man to chain them. They had too much self-respect for that. So say what you will about “archaic” notions in older movies, but those women, both the characters and the actresses themselves, possess a class and dignity that is utterly obsolete in today’s society.

But despite my amusement, which I can only assume is shock that it wasn’t just some crazy dream, Black Snake Moan suffers from its total lack of consistency. Is it a romantic comedy? Is it a pure exploitation film? Is it a melodrama, after all? If it fully committed to one path, maybe it could have worked. In a film totally obsessed with sex, nothing is ever consummated, and I was left feeling unsatisfied. Ironic, isn’t it?

Rating: * (out of 5)

Evan Alrighty

I love blogging! I have so many recent movies/films I need to review on here, but first, I have a couple really random ones that I did during the year. The first is Evan Almighty. Yes, I actually paid money to see it in a theater. I love Steve Carell and wanted to contribute my valuable money to a worthy recipient. Also, I had time to kill while waiting for a midnight screening of Ratatouille. It's a bit long and impassioned for a pretty silly movie, but that's just me and how I write. :)

I love Steve Carell. For my money, he’s the funniest, most talented person working on television. He effortlessly combines exaggerated, wildly hilarious physical shtick (think Jim Carrey before he started seeking Oscars) with heartbreaking subtlety and emotional depth weekly on The Office. That being said, perhaps I was already biased when approaching Evan Almighty. I certainly went into it with an open mind, despite the scathing criticism hitherto heaped upon the movie. But my enjoyment of the movie extends way beyond bias.

In Evan Almighty, directed by Tom Shadyac, Carell is Evan Baxter, a reprisal of his scene-stealing role in 2003’s Jim Carrey-helmed Bruce Almighty. Carell is a natural choice to fill Carrey’s hammy shoes. The sequel finds Evan, somewhat inexplicably, as a newly-elected Congressman. His new career, of course, leaves him no time for family, specifically his wife Joan (the ever-luminous Lauren Graham of TV’s Gilmore Girls) and three sons. Immediately, he is presented with the opportunity to align himself politically with the powerful and obviously shady Congressman Long, played with snarling, squinty glee by John Goodman. Long needs support on a bill that will allow development on national parks. Let me guess – Long is a Republican, right?

Evan’s political agenda is simple – he wants to change the world. If that means signing off on Long’s plans, so be it. But will Evan really sell out his principles like that? Of course not, this is a family film! And before he has a chance to get his hands dirty, God (a white-clad, beaming, charming, as-noble-as-can-be Morgan Freeman) appears to Evan and tells him to build an ark for the impending flood. Naturally, Evan totally dismisses it at first, until he begins seeing “Gen 6:14” everywhere (I’ll let you look up that Bible verse). Pairs of animals start following him around. He starts sporting a beard that grows right back when he tries to shave. Rita (Wanda Sykes), a member of his staff, asks him, “Why do you sound like Evan but look like a Bee Gee?” He eventually ends up with long, white flowing hair and the most biblical of beards. As evidenced by his cringingly hysterical waxing scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, no one does hair comedy better than Carell.

Evan’s antics seem crazy, he is ostracized and ridiculed, and Joan and the boys move out after he makes a fool out of himself on television during an important Congressional hearing. All he has left is himself, and he valiantly pushes on with the ark, assisted by some animals. Prodded by God, Joan returns with the boys to stand by Evan. And, wouldn't you know it, there IS a flood. I promise that’s not spoiling anything. The real surprise is the source of the flood, a rather clever plot twist. But enough of the plot. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve basically seen the whole movie anyway. And besides, the plot isn’t the point of this movie.

Before I get all philosophical, let me get some other thoughts out of the way (this in no way diminishes their significance). All of the animals on the ark are real, which ballooned the budget but provides a real sense of awe-inspiring authenticity, like being at the world’s biggest zoo. Plus, it must have made for one hell of an entertaining set. The special effects are pretty stellar, contrary to the opinion of the movie’s naysayers. The flood was believable to me, and the fact that they actually built that ark is beyond impressive. The performances are surprisingly good. John Michael Higgins and Wanda Sykes, despite the one-dimensionality of their characters, deliver consistent laughs. Jonah Hill, the sycophantic junior staff member who worships Evan, is a riot and steals every scene he’s in, which is a huge compliment considering the talented cast. And Lauren Graham, critically-acclaimed for her brilliant work on Gilmore Girls for seven seasons (and deservedly so), is sweet, funny, and sincere as his wife. Lauren Graham is a special actress who always shines, regardless of the material she’s given. Steve Carell is, forgive the pun, a revelation as Evan Baxter. A lesser actor would have overdone the theatricality of the part and scoffed at the emotional content. Carell never condescends to the material, and he is earnest and genuine every second. Bruce Almighty didn’t really have an emotional center, but Carell is the heart of this movie. You would be hard-pressed to find a more likeable actor and human being.

All right, it's not a great movie, or even very good, but it's good. I liked it. It made me feel happy. It certainly doesn't break any new ground in cinema. I know it's pretty standard, cliché family filmmaking. But it entertained me, and sometimes that's enough to make it work. I guess I feel the need to rationalize, and I'm not sure why.

At its core, Evan Almighty is about family, self-discovery, and finding your place in the world. And yes, it is heavily religious, but in a totally inoffensive way. Tom Shadyac has been making inoffensive comedies, some more overtly religious than others, for years, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a market for it. I admit that I’m very cynical, and I admire a movie that can melt my jaded and decidedly unreligious heart like this one did. Granted, Evan Almighty is sappy, but I never felt insulted by the depiction of religion, unlike the outrage I experienced watching Black Snake Moan. Just a few days before seeing Evan Almighty, I watched a mind-blowing documentary entitled Hell House, about a group of Pentecostal Christians who run a haunted house every Halloween season. But this is not just any ordinary haunted house. In their warped version, visitors witness poorly-acted scenes of what they consider mortal sins that will doom you to Hell should you choose not to accept Jesus. Apparently, if you’re a homosexual serial killer, all you have to do is repent at the very last second before death and invite Jesus into your life. Then it’s all water under the bridge.

Some of the gravest offenses, according to the Pentecostals operating Hell House, include: domestic violence, homosexuality, rape, suicide, and abortion. Oh, and going to raves. One appalling scene takes place in a hospital with a gay man dying of AIDS and a girl who took RU-486 to give herself an abortion. She is wheeled in on a gurney, moaning, her legs spread wide, with blood soaking her clothed genital region. It’s bloodier than a Sam Peckinpah film. It is ridiculously graphic and utterly inexcusable. She repents, but of course, the homosexual person forsakes God. This is the most upsetting film I have ever seen, even more so because this actually happens. These monsters who perpetuate lies and force their misguided and idiotic viewpoints down the throats of every “heathen” they meet actually exist. They absurdly and wrongly claim they are not employing guilt trips or trying to instill fear. Their religion is based on hate. If there is a God, I’m positive that this is not what he or she had in mind.

Evan Almighty doesn’t try to convert anyone. It doesn’t pressure you or guilt trip you. Sure, it has a religious foundation, but so do most stories out there in some respect. It is not about the corruption of organized religion. It is about being a decent human being. In fact, it celebrates what religion is supposed to be – community, peace, respect (for the earth and every living thing on it), and compassion. I think there’s something beautiful about that. While I am still ultimately a cynic, especially concerning religion, I am not ashamed to embrace Evan’s warm message. Compare the unflinching optimism in Evan Almighty with the bleak reality presented in Hell House or Jesus Camp. I dare you to find something wrong with Evan on a spiritual or moral level.

Rating: **1/2 (out of 5) - I still recommend it, even though I guess I don't feel as strongly about the actual movie as a movie in retrospect as I do about the people involved and its intentions and message.