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Monthly Archives: October 2011

My Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2007

Ah, 2007. Here’s a strong candidate for my favorite film year of the 00s. A ridiculously large amount of great films arrived this year, leading to a really wonderful selection on this list. The #10 on this list could beat the crap out of most other #10s of the decade.

I normally don’t do honorable mentions, but I really do need to give a shout-out to Persepolis, a lovely animated autobiographical film about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It was originally on this list, and I had its entry written up and everything. But just last week, I discovered the film that ended up on #9 here, and thus Persepolis got bumped off. Very sad. If you haven’t seen it, you really ought to.

As usual, this is 2007 strictly as listed by IMDB. Also, this is a list of my favorite films of the year, and nothing more.

10 – NOTHING IS PRIVATE (TOWELHEAD, Alan Ball)

“See, the mark of intelligence, Gail, is having the capacity of holding two conflicting ideas in your head at one time.”

This is a film I found great, yet I have little desire to revisit it anytime soon. It’s a rough watch likely to make you squirm, about a young teenage girl who has lived her whole life with her American mother in New York but is now sent to Texas to stay with her Lebanese dad. The culture clash mixes with her sexual awakening to create an uncomfortable (in a good way) story, and director Alan Ball (who wrote American Beauty) wisely sprinkles it with some black humor to make it go down easier. Summer Bishil is effective in the lead, but it’s the supporting turns by Aaron Eckhart, Peter Macdissi and Toni Collette that leave real lasting impressions.

9 – TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (Alex Gibney)

“If you weren’t a terrorist when you came here, you sure would be when you leave.”

A horrifying documentary on the torture and interrogation techniques used by the US during the War on Terror. But it goes beyond mere shock effects and investigates what made people carry them out and why and how they were put in place. Not a pleasant watch, but an important film. Michael Moore wishes he could make me dislike the Bush administration as much as this movie did.

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Posted by on 25 October, 2011 in Lists, Top 10 of a year

 

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Review – Road to Nowhere (2010)

I recently finished reading film critic Roger Ebert‘s memoirs “Life Itself”. In it, he shares a few tips for reviewing movies. Among these, one describes his approach to films he find hard to grasp: just describe what you see.

Well.

Road to Nowhere starts with someone inserting a disc into a laptop. On the disc is scribbled the words “Road to Nowhere”, and a film starts playing on the computer screen. Is it this film? We now see a woman (Shannyn Sossamon) sitting on a bed blow-drying her nails. This shot lasts for quite a while. Cut to an exterior shot of the house. A man arrives by car and enters the house. The camera lingers on the building for a long time, and then a gun shot is heard. Exit the woman and roll intro credits as she gets in the car and drives away. The intro credits include no recognizable names, not even Sossamon’s. The woman stops in a tunnel, gets out of the car and cries. Back in the car for more driving, until she stops again at a lake. Exit car once more and regard the lake, until a plane crashes into the water.

Well!

So begins Road to Nowhere, a dense and intricate neo-noir that always withholds a crucial piece of the puzzle from the viewer. Or maybe half the pieces. It’s a film that seem to demand a rewatch to comprehend, but on second thought, maybe it won’t. The film constantly toys with us, featuring a very meta film-within-a-film plot with characters shifting motivations and intentions from scene to scene. Right from the get-go, we’re forced to question whether what we see is reality or not, and whether the two just might be one and the same.

The plot circles around a crime, or a multifold of them. Insurance fraud, homicide and/or double suicide may be ingredients. Velma Duran and Rafe Tachen were the perpetrators. A film is being made about the case, with one Mitchell Haven (Tygh Runyan) as the director. He casts unknown actress Laurel Graham (Sossamon) in the lead as Velma, sensing that she’s a perfect fit for the part. She seems oddly reluctant to take the job but does so anyway. Mitchell and Lauren instantly fall in love, and their relationship will take its toll on the movie production where people starts grumbling about favoritism. One scene that calls for shot reverse shot on Lauren and the Rafe actor Cary Stewart (Cliff De Young) instead turns into an extended solo shot on Lauren. Pivotal parts without her gets handled quickly to give more time for Lauren scenes, even though Mitchell insists that she’s perfect in every take. Intrigue is added in the form of consultant Bruno (Waylon Payne with a southern drawl) who seems to be working on the side on investigating the crime.

Back to the real real world. Road to Nowhere is the first feature film by director Monte Hellman in over 20 years. If you’re familiar with him, it’s probably due to his most well-known film Two-Lane Blacktop from 1971. It’s unseen by me, as is the rest of his body of work. I wonder what kind of films he had to have made previously in order to concoct Road to Nowhere. Reading up on the director and the production of this film, it seems many elements might have been inspired by reality, adding yet another layer to the film. As if it needed more. I hesitate to call it impenetrable as there are are times where I think I might start seeing some sense, but then Hellman throws me for another loop.

Comparisons can be drawn to another enigmatic thriller about an actress: David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive. They both feature this conflict between reality and fiction to a great degree, and both defy full understanding. Lynch however seems intent that people take something away from Mulholland Drive (why else include a list of clues with one of the DVD releases?). That film has a mystery that we’re meant to solve, to some extent. Road to Nowhere is less clear about its intentions. A more immediately noticeable difference between the two movies lies in what the stories present. Mulholland Drive concerns itself with Hollywood romanticism. The following aren’t words I’d normally apply to Lynch, but that film is glossy and glamorous, not in tone but in its content. Road to Nowhere is its more grounded indie sibling. Here there are no boogymen hiding behind diners, no madly grinning pensioneers and no mysterious blue boxes. There’s crime, a movie production and an intangible sense of lurking danger.

And then there’s Shannyn Sossamon. I’ve always been very fond of her since I first saw her. Admittedly for mostly superficial reasons (she has my favorite smile in Hollywood), but she showed talent in the tricky and underrated Rules of Attraction. For the last few years she’s been relegated to TV shows and shitty horror films, but hopefully Road to Nowhere will be a turning point. The dual role of Lauren and Velma is her most challenging work to date, and her best too. It’s not an extravagant performance but an internal one, constantly churning and finding little ways of showing when it’s Sossamon acting and when it’s Lauren acting. If there is a key to unravelling the movie (or at least individual parts), Sossamon might very well be it. The rest of the cast all do their roles effectively, with Cliff De Young in particular impressing me with a similar if smaller double part.

Should you see this film? Yes, if it sounds like it’s your thing. Critics have mostly responded favorably, while public reception has been more of a mixed bag. I know I liked it. Its mysterious nature is one that fascinates and engages, even though the payoff might not fully deliver. The title might thus seem apt, but a road to nowhere still involves a journey, and what a journey it is. I have no idea what Hellman and writer Steven Gaydos were trying to say with this film, but I find myself wanting another crack at it in the future.

Score: 3/5

 
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Posted by on 20 October, 2011 in Reviews

 

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The dangers of watching trailers and why I try not to

A week ago or so, the trailer for Jason Reitman‘s latest film Young Adult hit the internet. Everyone on my Twitter feed and all the movie blogs I follow had something to say about it, most of it positive. Me? I didn’t watch it. Not because I don’t care about the film. Au contraire, I’m absolutely psyched for it as I’ve loved the director’s first three films. No, the reason why I’m not watching it is because there’s absolutely no reason for me to do so. I already know I want to see the film badly, so it doesn’t need to hook me. I don’t know what the film is really about, but I don’t have to. The people involved have a good track record with me, so why not let the plot be a surprise? And having some funny moments from the film spoiled for me in advance is not anything I desire either.

That’s not to say I have a complete hatred for trailers. I understand that they serve an important purpose in getting people interested in seeing the films they represent. Not everyone keeps up on movie news to the degree that I (and most other movie bloggers I assume) do, so they can be a handy form of publicity. And when I sit down to watch a DVD, I don’t instantly skip past the trailers shown before the film. Sometimes I’ll get alerted to films I hadn’t heard of before, or am made to change my mind on a film I hadn’t been planning on watching. I’ve discovered a fair share of films I ended up loving by watching these random trailers (the great documentary Murderball being but one example that springs to mind). Likewise, if I see a blog post about a film I haven’t heard of where the trailer is posted, I might well give it a look. But it doesn’t happen too often.

So why not watch trailers? There are two main reasons that make me wary of them. The first is the spoiler factor I already alluded to. I abhor spoilers of all kinds. It’s bad enough when it’s just a comedy trailer that gives away all the good jokes, but then there are really scary examples where the plot of an entire movie is given away. Sometimes including the ending! The Cast Away trailer is a perfect example of this.

WARNING! This trailer gives away the ending of Cast Away!

Cast Away is an extreme example, but even in cases where the ending is left unspoilt, knowing too much about what’s going to happen in a film can have a detrimental effect on how we enjoy it. There is great joy to be had by going into a movie not knowing anything but the very base premise.

The second danger of trailers is that they can be misleading. They might show a tone or atmosphere that is not in line with what the film itself has to offer. For a taught and tense thriller, the trailer might emphasize action even if there’s only one or two such scenes in the film (hello, The American). For an intelligent drama, it might make a romance the centerpiece even if that’s just a small portion of the movie. For a musical, they might try to hide the genre completely, such as with the trailer for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. And if you see a trailer for a film you haven’t heard of where oddly enough there’s no spoken dialogue, odds are it’s actually a foreign film.

Sadly, this practice makes perfect sense from a business point of view. Making a movie isn’t cheap, so the production company will want to make sure that they get as much money back as they can. As such, the movie needs to appeal to as many people as possible publicity-wise. But in trying to go for the lowest common denominator, the film might be made to look bland and cookie-cutter. People who want something different and would enjoy the film for what it is can be turned off from it. Here’s a shining example: the Bridge to Terabithia trailer.

WARNING! This trailer completely misrepresents Bridge to Terabithia!

Based on this trailer, you’d think Bridge to Terabithia would be your standard CGI-filled Narnia-esque fantasy about kids who discover a magical world filled with wonders. However, the key word here is “fantasy”. Parts of the movie does contain what the trailer shows, but in the film, it’s made clear that this is just the children playing and imagining. It’s make-believe. And it’s just a fraction of what the movie is really about. Most of Bridge to Terabithia takes place in the real world and deals with all manners of things childhood-related: friendship, bullying, family troubles, crushes on school teachers and so on. It’s not just a great children’s film; it’s a great film period, because it refuses to dumb itself down for its audience. Heartfelt and true, with plenty of recognizable situations. The trailer might well have scared off plenty of people who might have loved the movie. And that’s terrible.

Ironically enough, the crappiness of the Bridge to Terabithia trailer is actually what led me to the film. The movie itself isn’t one I see talked about a whole lot, but it kept popping up in forum discussions on misleading trailers. People kept saying how lame the trailer was compared to the wonderful movie. So I became curious and decided to add the film to my rental queue since everyone who had seen it seemed to love it so. I’m glad I did. So the trailer served its purpose I suppose, even if it was in the most backwards way possible.

Seeing an underwhelming film is nowhere near as bad as letting a great one slip you by. So never let a trailer convince you to not see a movie. They are not to be trusted.

For further reading on “bad” trailers, I recommend TV Tropes. Specifically, the pages for Trailers Always Spoil and Never Trust A Trailer. Both obviously contain various degrees of spoilers, so read at your own peril.

Have you had any particularly bad trailer experiences? Please leave a comment.

 
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Posted by on 17 October, 2011 in Misc.

 

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My Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2008

2008 saw The Dark Knight crush everything at the box office, with Iron Man picking up what super hero crumbs were left over. WALL-E charmed the pants off of everyone, becoming both a critical darling and a major crowd-pleaser. Standard procedure for Pixar, of course. Teenage girls packed theaters for the first Twilight film, while their mothers came out in droves for Sex and the City and Mamma Mia. Slumdog Millionaire hit the film festivals and began one of the least-threatened journeys to the Best Picture Oscar in recent memory. Mickey Rourke had his career resurrected through The Wrestler, Titanic co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunited in Revolutionary Road and Harrison Ford donned the iconic hat once more in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. More saddening, 2008 also had the deaths of Heath Ledger, Sydney Pollack, Bernie Mac, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, trailer voice-over guy Don LaFontaine and others.

This was an important year for me as a movie-watcher, since it was in 2008 that I went from very casually interested to becoming the movie-nut I am today. And what a good year it was for cinema, with plenty of wonderful films arriving from all corners of the world. Culling these films into a mere 10 was not the easiest task.

As usual, this is 2008 strictly as listed on IMDB. And do note it’s a list of my favorite films, and nothing else.

10 – IN BRUGES (Martin McDonagh)

“Of course you can’t see! I just a shot a blank in your fucking eye!”

Who’d have though a film about two assassins on vacation in a quiet Belgian town could be so great? Director/writer Martin McDonagh crafts a tale filled with black humor, sadness, guilt and violence, helmed by two great performances by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. One of the funniest films of the year, only strangely enhanced by the thick melancholic atmosphere.

9 – LAKEVIEW TERRACE (Neil LaBute)

“I am the police! You have to do what I say!”

This choice is sure to raise a few eyebrows, but I really dug this film. It might not have anything revelatory to say about racism (“Did you know that black people can be racist too?”), but it walks the fine line between mumbling and top-of-the-lungs screaming regardless. It also works really well as pure entertainment. There’s lots of fun to be had watching Samuel L. Jackson‘s bigot LAPD cop character troll his new neighbors, an interracial couple played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington. Many disagree with me and say this movie is nothing special. I found it surprisingly great.

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Posted by on 12 October, 2011 in Lists, Top 10 of a year

 

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Self-plug

I recently contributed my first blog post to the Flickchart blog. It’s about how I came to realize that I had a new all-time favorite movie, and also takes a look at how one’s opinion on a film can change drastically as one’s taste in film evolves. Some of it might be too Flickchart-centric to make it have universal appeal, but I hope some of you will enjoy reading it regardless.

Lost in Stagnation: or How I Realized I Had A New #1 Movie

I’ve actually been meaning to write a post about Flickchart for a while. It’s a fun time-waster that boils the process of ranking films down to an endless series of individual choices. More importantly, it has gotten me in touch with a number of cool fellow movie-lovers, for which I am very glad. Someday that post will happen, I’m sure.

 
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Posted by on 11 October, 2011 in Misc.

 

Review – The Fisher King (1991)

The Fisher King is an interesting case in some ways. It’s a good film, but one that could have been great if it had managed to be more focused on the parts that work. But said parts might not be the ones you’d expect from its director Terry Gilliam. In most of his other films, it’s his sense for either absurd humor (anything Monty Python-related), wild imagination (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) or the blurring between reality and delusion (Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) that stand out as something special. In The Fisher King, I find myself wishing he’d scale back on all those things and instead allow the relationships between the characters to take more room.

As the film opens, we’re acquainted with radio shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a sccuseful man ready to take the next step in his career and start pursuing acting. He’s at the top of his world when disaster strikes: after giving particularly insensitive advice to a caller on his show, said caller snaps and goes on a shooting spree in a restaurant. Many people die and Jack’s career comes to a screeching halt. Flash forward three years and Jack is now a suicidal depressive stuck working at a video rental store, plagued with guilt over his part in the shooting. A chance late-night encounter with the bum Parry (Robin Williams) offers what might be a chance at redemption. Parry is clearly crazy, conversing with imaginary little people and on a quest to find the holy grail somewhere in New York. At first Jack wants nothing to do with the nut-case, but when Jack realizes that Parry’s wife was one of the people killed in the restaurant, he begins feeling responsible. He needs to help Parry in any way he can. The quest for the grail is not the only thing Parry needs aid with, though. He has also fallen in love with an accountant named Lydia (Amanda Plummer), whom he observes from afar but never dares to approach. This too Jack needs to do something about.

The Parry character is what drags the film down. It’s not that he’s dull (because he isn’t) or that Robin Williams isn’t good in the part (because he is), but he takes upp too much space. He takes his clothes off and watches the stars in Central Park. He’s chased by a monstrous red knight of his delusions. He conducts fellow homeless in singing songs. Not to mention the ever-present search for the grail, supposedly to be found in a rich man’s home on Upper West Side. All these things feel like distractions, only indirectly connected to Jack’s problems and, worse yet, not even fun. Whenever the film indulges in them, it slows down and loses my interest. This makes in particular the first half of the film drag a bit.

But when the film takes a step away from these things and focuses on the relationships present, it really shines. The Lydia of Parry’s desires is in the film described as mousy, and that seems accurate. She has her own hang-ups and quirks and appears a better match for Parry than what he’s probably aware of himself. The best part of their courtship is a quite touching scene in which Parry, after an arranged double-date at a Chinese restaurant, professes his love for her (capped off by a really funny closing line by Williams). Very sweet. Even better is what’s going on between Jack and his boss/flatmate/girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), the other half of said double-date. Their relationship is a complex one, based as much on need as on affection. The Fisher King is never better than when it pairs off these two characters alone to have them talk about what’s going on between them. It works because they have believable issues and we can sympathise with both of them fully. This kind of thing has never really been Gilliam’s forte, so it’s a pleasant surprise that these scenes are as good as they are. No, not good. Great. Credit to both Gilliam, the actors (Ruehl in particular) and writer Richard LaGravenese for making these scenes so special and heartfelt.

But for every scene of such greatness, there’s another sidetrack to Parry’s craziness and I find myself gritting my teeth and trying to invest myself in the going-ons of his delusions. At one part, right after Parry makes a breakthrough with Lydia and they part ways, the red knight shows up to haunt him again. Having for once broken out of his craziness and behaved mostly normal for some time, he now falls to his knees on the street and cries out “Please, let me have this!”. I share the same sentiment. Let him be normal!

Despite the missteps this film makes, I have to call it a satisfying experience overall, if also a frustrating one. The parts that work really work and are truly top-notch stuff, among the best Gilliam has ever directed. There is a sardonic humor running throughout the script that I quite enjoy, and not all of the crazy Parry episodes are bad (there’s one whimsical scene where people start dancing in Grand Central Station that is both out-of-place and quite beautiful in a way). The performances are also good/great, with Bridges and Ruehl carrying the dramatic load and a memorable Michael Jeter providing solid comic relief as a homeless drag queen. So yes, as I said in the opening paragraph: The Fisher King is a good movie. But it could have been great, and it’s a real shame that it isn’t.

Score: 3/5

 
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Posted by on 10 October, 2011 in Reviews

 

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Rewatch Review – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

This was a film that I absolutely owed a rewatch. The first time I saw Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was a few years ago, and the circumstances were less than ideal. I was with two friends who didn’t like it at all and found it boring, and they wouldn’t shut up about it. Eventually, I just gave up on trying to focus on the film and we just started babbling about other things. I gave the film a low mark as a result, justifying it with “it failed to hold my attention”. While this is true, this is obviously not something that should be placed on the movie’s shoulders. When I thought about it a while ago, I realized I didn’t remember anything about the film itself other than the circumstances around seeing it. People seem to have a lot of love for it though, so it went onto my rental list. I’m glad I gave it another shot.

Told in a non-chronological order, the film uses a botched robbery as its real kick-off point. A masked guy threatens the elderly shopkeeper (Rosemary Harris) with a gun, but the end result is both of them shooting each other. At this point in the film, we are not aware of who these people are. It’s soon revealed that the robbery was the brainchild of a corporate accountant named Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who soon enlisted his weak-willed brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help him do the deed. Both are in urgent need of money: Andy to cover up his embezzling at work, Hank just to pay the rent and provide good living for his daughter. It was meant to be nice and simple: no guns, no bloodshed, no victims (the diamonds were all insured). As we now know, this is not how things turned out.

This is a wise crime film in that it deals with ordinary people who are forced to deal with the fallout of a heist gone awry. They’re plagued by guilt over the people who died, they have to look after their distressed father (Albert Finney) who had ties to the store, and all the problems the robbery was supposed to take care of still remain. Andy was planning a vacation to Rio de Janeiro to liven up his strained marriage to Gina (Marisa Tomei), but now that’s out the window and the auditors at work are fast closing in on him. He also has a heroin addiction that needs feeding. Meanwhile, Hank is struggling to just get through the day financially, something not alleviated by him now being blackmailed by a man (Michael Shannon) who seems to know about his involvement in the robbery.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is made by Sidney Lumet, highly acclaimed director of films such as 12 Angry Men, Network and Dog Day Afternoon. It was to be the last film he directed before he died in April this year. It’s a strong note to end a career on, even if not everything in the movie fully works. Perhaps my chief complaint is how little is done with the non-chronological structure. The opening robbery where we’re not sure what’s going on is effective, but apart from that, the constant back-and-forth jumping in time adds little to the film. This is a story that could have been told more straight-forwardly and still accomplish everything it needs to. The shifts in time and perspective are accompanied by flashing cuts and noise that distracts from the characters’ lives. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is many things, but seamless is not one of them. But it’s a fun story to behold no matter how it’s presented. It’s clear to see how one event leads to another and how the situation slowly but surely spirals out of control. This is a character-driven film free from contrived plot developments, and debuting screenwriter Kelly Masterson deserves a lot of praise for his work here.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors working today, and he doesn’t disappoint here. His character Andy feels the most fleshed out of the main players, swaying from jovial smooth-talker to stressed-out volcano with ease. As he inches closer to the deep end, we’re with him every step of the way. Ethan Hawke also does a fine job as the easily manipulated Hank, more overtly nervous than his brother. It’s a role that doesn’t necessarily play to his strengths (to me Hawke shines in roles that put him in more ordinary situations like Before Sunset/Sunrise, Reality Bites and Fast Food Nation), but he pulls off a solid performance here. Albert Finney brings a weighty presence to the role as the father, really bursting with energy in a couple of choice scenes. And then there’s Marisa Tomei, constantly getting better with each passing year, here doing the most of what limited screentime she has and nailing every second of it.

So yeah, I liked this movie. More than on my first watch, understandably, almost to the point where I wonder how any of us could have been bored with it. While there’s little extraordinary about the film, it’s a tight story where we’re clearly aware of the characters’ motives and reasonings throughout even when they’re not spelled out explicitly. I do wish the film could have provided a stronger sense of urgency at times. It feels a bit too methodical and distant at times, and some more tension would have been welcome. Regardless, it’s a well-acted film with a compelling story. Others have liked it more than me, so if it sounds appealing to you, don’t hesitate to check it out.

Score: 3/5

 
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Posted by on 6 October, 2011 in Reviews, Rewatch Reviews

 

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