Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Hurt Locker

I've finally gotten around to watching The Hurt Locker today, and must now adjust my top 10 films list accordingly. The Hurt Locker is an amazing movie primarily because it's the sort of movie that we don't make anymore. I have been watching many movies form the WWII era recently and was noticing a tendency for there to be films that focused solely on a company of men doing their job outside of the politics of the war. These were just men at war wanting to get home. Movies like The Story of G.I. Joe, A Walk in the Sun, Sahara, and In Which We Serve really highlighted the humanity of the everyman soldier. Though In Which We Serve is something of a British propaganda piece, on the whole these movies were more concerned with the guys than the situation they were fighting in. And I wondered why we don't make movies like that anymore, movies whose primary focus is on the camaraderie of the men and the horror of war. Saving Private Ryan came close to this, but still felt the need to hang it on a story about Private Ryan. Most Iraq war films have been motivated by "support our troops! They want to be there!" ideals or "What the frak are we doing here?". The Hurt Locker succeeds by focusing on the work of these bomb specialists and forgetting the rest. In fact, this story could be set anywhere, but it is set in Iraq. The themes are universal.

I am not generally a fan of overly "documentarizing" a movie in the shooting. Too much shaky-cam can ruin a film for me. This is the one thing that made me nervous about the movie, but I think Katheryn Bigelow did a very good job of maintaining a style without going overboard (I'm looking at you, Battlestar Galactica!). The camera stays in with the characters, so that we the audience feel a part of it. And yet the zooming or panning never reaches nausea levels. She wisely also doesn't always have a moving camera. The only time I felt the style was coming on too hard was in a night scene toward the end where every shot was a snap-zoom. But the film moved away from that again, which I was glad of. I also appreciated the bare almost nonexistent musical score. There is one, but it's extremely subtle and mostly kept to tones. I'd estimate only about 20 percent of the movie is scored.

So much of this story could become cliche. The soldier so preoccupied with his own mortality that he acts recklessly, or the commanding officer who butts heads with him, or the army psychiatrist trying to do his job could all be played falsely, but they never are here. Often Bigelow says more with a silent image of a man showering the blood off of him than pages of preachy dialogue could say.

I didn't know what to expect going into this movie. And yet very quickly into the opening sequence, it grabbed me. The film's suspense grabbed me, like The Spiral Staircase did recently. Hitchcock once said that suspense is when there's a bomb under a table and the audience knows it, but you never let it go off or the suspense is destroyed. Yet here there is a film literally built on a series of hidden bombs; Bigelow displays an expert ability in knowing when to blow those bombs and when not to. History is sure to look favorably on this movie. For now it is the definitive film of the Iraq conflict, and should stand in the halls of great war films for generations to come. For now, it lingers in my mind; the resonating expression of the phrase "war is a drug".

With The Hurt Locker to add, I must bump a movie from my top ten list. The revised list is now as follows, in no particular order:
1. Coraline
2. Where the Wild Things Are
3. The Hurt Locker
4. A Serious Man
5. District 9
6. Sherlock Holmes
7. Avatar
8. Up in the Air
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox
10. Star Trek

This bumps Watchmen from the list. I oscillated whether to save it or Star Trek, but I think I had too many issues with Watchmen's gore level ultimately. But hey, if I see something else that's better, I might bump something else. For now, Watchmen joins the group of films just under the cut like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Top 5 Most Over-rated "Lost" Episodes

With the premiere of Lost's final season only a week away, I thought I'd look back at the show and rate the episodes. This list is concerned with those episodes that everyone talks about, but just aren't as good as they are cracked up to be. Warning: Spoilers abound!!!

5. The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham -- we waited through an entire season and eight episodes before learning how the guy in the coffin got there. When finally the story was told, it was decent, but left some hanging chronology issues. Most glaring is Jack's timeline. Here it seems that Locke is brought into the hospital, talks to Jack, then very soon after is killed. But the very first flash forward told us that Jack spocke to Locke a month before. A whole month goes by! And it needs to go by for Jack to grow his Grizzly Adams beard and circle the drain. There are good things about this episode. But for all the drawn out build-up, it lets me down some. Oh, and exactly how did getting the Oceanic 6 back help the island?

4. Fire + Water -- Not bad, but this seems to be a major benchmark episode to people from season two. I like Charlie. I like Charlie episodes. But it seems there's a fervor about this one that it doesn't deserve. Heck, an entire documentary featurette was devoted to it on the DVD. It seems to me that even if Charlie went about it the wrong way, he at least had Aaron's interest at heart. Why is that bad? And why is baptism the answer; doesn't that imply Aaron will die? The Aaron thing has really not paid off at all so far, which is worrisome. I also don't understand why Charlie bothered to start a fire and take the baby when he could have just brought a cup of water over and splashed it in the baby's face. I'm further depressed by the lack of scriptural knowledge on display, as Mr. Eko says that John the Baptist cleansed Jesus of his sins, and baptism is reduced to "what gets you into heaven".

3. Flashes Before Your Eyes -- Was this actual time travel or not? I'm truly befuddled as to what actually happened for Desmond before the island as opposed to how it happened in this episode. The course-correcting universe theme seems ripped off from Final Destination. I also do not quite understand how traveling to one's past equals having visions of the future. Don't get me wrong, I like this one. I like the drunking singing around the fire. And it does push the season in a new direction. But I'm amazed that when a lot of craziness flashes before an audience, they will hail it as great because they were confused.

2. Through the Looking Glass -- Damon Lindelof keeps referring to this one as one of the best season finales. I just don't see it. I know that the sudden leap to flash forwards was a big deal. It was shocking, and we talked about it. But on the whole, there's not much to this episode. It's two hours of people walking uphill! Most of the big "reveals" were predicted (the fact that Sayid and company didn't die for example). And of course, all the stuff in the Looking Glass station was a joke. Mikhail has more lives than Jason Voorhees. The situation we see is not what Desmond described, as there was no switch for Charlie to flip (it was a keypad), and no helicopter ever took Claire and Aaron away. Furthermore, for all the talk of how heroic Charlie's death was, there was clearly time and ability for him to escape. Oh, and his "not Penny's boat" message didn't really help anything, did it? All this adds up to a lot of frustration. The good bits do not come close to "Exodus" or even "The Incident" for great finales.

1.The Constant -- I like this one. I do. But over and over again I hear people talk about how it is the best episode of Lost and it just plain isn't. I'm glad Des got back with Penny. I'm glad we saw some of his time in the service. But I'm still confused about Desmond's timeline regarding Penny (they weren't together, but she still wrote him love letters while he was in prison?). And as good as the episode is, most of it's credit goes to its lofty concept. The logic also confuses the audience; many of those I hear from think that a constant HAS to be a person, which is not what the episode said at all. Finally, it's primary focus is on Desmond to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Lost has been much more effective on a number of occasions. For me, as good as "The Constant" is, it surely doesn't even approach the Pilot, let alone best episode ever.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Spiral Staircase

I love it when I discover great movies that I've never heard of. After years of thinking, "I have to see this movie! I have to see that movie!" I put together a list of things to see. For a long time, I was just concentrating on Oscar nominees. Sadly, a number of the early ones are impossible to get on home video, and a few are lost forever. But then a book came out; an awesome monstrosity called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. And at first I thought I'd see how many I had seen. It wasn't many. So I put the entire list in my computer, combined it with the Oscar list, as well as the most recent version of the New York Times' 1000 Best Movies Ever Made and had me a monster list of films to see. I've been working my way through it chronologically for the past six years and am up to 1946 (hey, I watch other things too!). The list is full of movies everyone knows of, but every now and then a title comes up that I have never heard of and have no reference for. One such movie was The Spiral Staircase.

I put this movie on and expected a passable black and white thriller. But from the opening sequence, I was hooked. The plot involves a young mute servant girl who is being stalked by a serial killer who preys on women with deformities or imperfections. What could come across as cheesy never does; it maintains a tone and atmosphere of suspense that rivals Hitchcock. Silence of the Lambs for me is a film that always gives me an immediate sense of tension no matter what part I come into it or how many times I've seen it; it just exudes a tone. This movie does the same thing for me.

The opening sequence is brilliant. First, we see the protagonist at a silent movie screening. The choice to set this movie early in the 20th Century in the era of silent films was spot on; the world of the silent is the world of our protagonist. The whole first sequence in fact is relatively wordless. We are shown the killer's eye, but nothing else. The voyeurism here is strong, and yet the killer is otherwise kept off-camera to maintain the mystery of his identity. So many thrillers and horror films may owe their technique to this movie. Each killing also includes a point of view shot of the killer where we first zoom into his eye, and then see things as he sees it. This is effective. Modern films that try similar techniques tend to relish in making the audience the killer; taking more joy in the kill than in survival. What I liked about Spiral Staircase is that nowhere did I lose sympathy for the victims.

Dorothy McGuire does a great job portraying the mute Helen. Rather than overly exaggerated pantomime like one would see in a silent film, she gives an honest portrayal of one whose daily routine is a series of gestures and small nods. She exists in her own world, despite being surrounded by others. When she becomes frantic, she doesn't have to run around like a lunatic; she is just restrained enough to be believable and never silly. She actually made me begin to think about how nice a relationship with a sweet, quiet woman could be. One of the most interesting digressions for her character is when the film takes us inside HER mind. She imagines dating and ultimately wedding the man of her dreams, but this becomes a nightmare when the minister at the altar asks her to say, "I do," but she cannot.

I don't want to spoil this movie for anyone who has not seen it. I also am aware there is a 1975 remake which I have not seen, but have a feeling it would be lacking. If anyone reading has not seen this movie, it was a real gem and I'm glad to have discovered it. The little mysteries, the side characters, the unique protagonist, even the crazy old bed-ridden woman who seems to have a kind of second sight add up to a forgotten masterpiece. I've compared it to Hitchcock earlier. Honestly, this is better than some Hitchcock of this period. Shadow of a Doubt is great, but some of his other '40s films suffer. Notorious was released the same years as this film, and I would easily take The Spiral Staircase over Notorious any day.

Oh, but don't worry too much about the staircase of the title. It has almost nothing to do with the movie. It just sounds good.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

review of Caprica

for anyone interested, I have posted my thoughts and reflections on the Caprica premiere over on my Frack Galactica blog. You can read it here if you so desire. It was decent for what it was. I thought it delivered pretty well as a prequel that stands without prior knowledge of BSG. At least it was better than the BSG minseries, which I hated so much.

There will likely be weekly reviews of "Caprica" episodes posted over at Frack Galactica as they air.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

best films of 2009

Okay, so since this is the time of year that everyone makes "top 10" lists for some strange reason, I thought I'd make one of my own. Now, be advised this only covers films that I have seen to date. Therefore, supposedly good films like The Hurt Locker or Precious are not included as I haven't seen them yet. It is likely that this list would change were some of these films seen. But for now in no particular order, here are what I think are the best films of 2009...

Coraline -- Because it was released early in the year, I worry that this movie will be overshadowed come Oscar time. Yet for me, it was my favorite animated film of the year, and easily the best use of 3D from all the other 3D cartoons this year. Dakota Fanning's voice acting was surprisingly effective, even down to her annoying Michigan accent. The faces were so expressive. Henry Selick is a man who hasn't gotten the credit he deserves over the past ten years. His hand in Nightmare Before Christmas has long been overlooked, and I hope that Coraline finally gets him more recognition. The story of a little girl who discovers another universe where her parents are better but all have button eyes was just creepy enough as well as entrancing. The film nicely adapts Neil Gaiman's book, even if some bits are lost and the Wybie character added. I like the portrayal of Coraline who was not some feminist ideal or a pretty princess, but a REAL girl. Some critics found her bratty or unlikable, but these qualities are what I found most likable about her. She reminded me of girls I know and love. So much so that I was put in the uncomfortable position of wondering whether I was developing amorous feelings for a 14-year-old girl who was also a puppet. The stop-motion is top of the line. The other element that cannot be ignored is the magnificent and haunting musical score. It's rare that a movie makes me want to immediately go out and buy the CD, but this one did. The score is beautiful, yet menacing at times. I consider it the best score of the year and if the Academy doesn't show it some love I will be very upset.

Watchmen -- This is one of those love it or hate it movies. Yes, there are elements that don't work about it. Yes, it is either too long or too short (and sometimes both). And yet the care that went into crafting it cannot be ignored. Zack Snyder adapted the comic book almost perfectly; there are so many moments that are frames straight out of the pages. The cut released in theaters did feel a bit choppy in places, which the DVD helps. Elements of the film have been derided since it came out. There are some weak performances; Malin Ackerman's Silk Spectre sticks out, though this is as much a flaw in the writing as in the portrayal. The character was much feistier in the book, and with a better haircut. It also seemed odd to me that all of the smoking was cut out of the movie, which left moments like Laurie accidentally pushing the flame-thrower button hang unmotivated. Snyder does ratchet up the violence to his 300 level, and this does sometimes feel gratuitous. But despite that, Watchmen was always for adults, and the film is a film for adults. Some of the nuances that I never expected to make the film were there in loving detail. The effects work was phenomenal, especially seemingly invisible effects like Rorshach's mask. Jackie Earl Haley gives a scene-stealing performance. That alone demands that this film be seen. Maybe Watchmen will always have a cult audience. Warner Bros. certainly marketed the crap out of it in March, but now nobody says anything about it. They don't seem to be submitting it for Academy consideration in any category (even the technical ones) and I think that's a shame. Maybe the film doesn't completely work. But what of the glorious title sequence set to Bob Dylan? Or the other uses of music straight from the comic? My Chemical Romance's version of "Desolation Row" which may just be the best Dylan cover ever? The film might fall short of perfection, but any movie this audacious deserves praise. It is one of the few films from early in the year that really stands out in memory. It was unlike anything I've seen in many ways, and it's a shame that in the year of Avatar, Watchmen may be destined to be the red-headed stepchild.

Star Trek -- It's been seven months, and I still can't decide whether I love or hate this movie. But as a lifelong Trekkie, I will err on the side of love. There was a fun and exuberance to the movie that Trekkies have always known was part of Star Trek, but which seemed to be lost to others until now. Trek has been limping along for the past ten years, and it was great to finally get other people excited about it again. Zachary Quinto does an amazing job as Spock; the real Spock from the series who had emotions he tried to control, not the stoic Spock we all think we remember. Chris Pine was a very good Kirk. Karl Urban fantastically embodied McCoy. When DeForest Kelley became the first original cast member to die, it was often wondered if the role could ever be recast. Fan rumor loved to throw Gary Sinise's name around. Would Sinise have been good? Absolutely. But Karl Urban really captured the character in a subtle and wonderful way. I also loved Bruce Greenwood's Captain Pike (and was pleased that the character was in the movie). I have a number of reservations about this film. It is yet ANOTHER time travel story, and there's still the question of whether it's an alternate universe or an altered timeline. I dislike some of the direction. Sometimes it went too far on the Star Wars end (at times there were obvious shot homages, and there's even an R2-D2 cameo). I hate the redesign of the Enterprise, which was a design that really didn't need to be messed with. The story took major liberties and drastic measures that rub me the wrong way (you can't blow up Vulcan!). And yet, despite all of my reservations, it is still Star Trek. The Kobayashi Maru sequence was a joy to watch. Star Trek may be different, but it's a movie that we are still talking about, and any time Trek gets people talking I am happy.

District 9 -- It's not hard to see why Peter Jackson got behind this movie, since it contains his two movie passions: great effects, and gross-out stuff. District 9 is a lovely, nuanced piece that works on its own terms and as social commentary. Despite being a tad reminiscent of odd movies I've seen before (like Project A-Ko, strangely enough), it remains really quite original. The story of the everyman who comes to identify with the alien by becoming one is actually an old story. But it's never been told like this. The kind of transgressive attack on the body that we see here is reminscent of David Cronenberg. Make no mistake, this film is gory. I was surprised at how R-rated it was. The alien weapons just rip people apart leaving trails of splatter. I haven't seen people explode like that since RoboCop's melting man was hit by the car. My only real issue with the film is that it isn't consistent. At times, it's shot in a documentary style and presented as one complete with talking heads to the camera. But there are other sequences that couldn't possibly be documentary. So I wish they had either completely stuck with one style or somehow more clearly delineated that we were watching two different films edited together. Or something like that. Hopefully that's something that can be improved upon with the inevitable release of District 10. I can't wait.

Where the Wild Things Are -- Yes, there are deviations from the book. Would I have preferred something more jungle than forest in a desert? Yes. Would it have been nice to see some logic behind the seemingly random names of the Wild Things? Yes. But the book is very short and has almost no story. So here we have a film that not only tells the basic story of the movie (Boy causes trouble, boy sent to room, boy flees to "imaginary" world where he becomes king, boy leaves scary beasts and goes back home where his supper is waiting), but enhances it. I am rarely moved to tears by a movie, but this one had me very close. For anyone who has ever wondered what it is like to be a boy, it is captured perfectly by this film. I wish the Academy still gave juvenile Oscars, because Max Records deserves recognition. There's so much to say about this film that one blurb here can't do it justice. Suffice to say, I was genuinely moved and can't wait to see this again. I do wish that the "We'll eat you up, we love you so" line was done better. The proper sentiment is expressed throughout the film, but seems odd the way it comes in the scene itself. And the Bull really doesn't have anything to do. But on the whole it is a triumph and a masterpiece of children's films. Sometimes I wonder why Americans can't make movies with/for kids like they do in Europe. Well, they just did.

A Serious Man -- I'm surprised that the buzz has started to die for this movie. A Serious Man is one of the best movies I saw all year. The Coen Brothers never make boring pictures. Sure, this one is bleak, but it's also very funny and in its own odd way has a lot to say about faith and the human condition. I especially like the little nod to the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba where the guy sees his neighbor sunbathing from his roof, and soon begins an affair. The 1960s sentiment is there, and yet the movie feels modern. I like the references to F Troop and Jefferson Airplane. When I walk out of a movie and immediately consider it one of the best I've seen that year, that says something. And it was better than Avatar.

Fantastic Mr. Fox -- Another animated film, and another in stop-motion. I did enjoy other animated films too. Up was pretty good, though not as good as Pixar's last few. And I wish there was space on this list to include Miyazaki's Ponyo (aka Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea). Where Coraline was slick and used some specialty effects to its advantage, Mr. Fox is intentionally flat and traditional. Still, everything about it works in a contemporary way. Wes Anderson's sensibilities translate surprisingly well to animation. Everything you expect from a Wes Anderson film is here: Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, yellow title cards, camera pans of cutaway sets, the stark compositon. Honestly, from the trailer's first few shots I was asking, "Is this a Wes Anderson movie?" After Henry Selick's stop-motion work in The Life Aquatic, it's interesting to see Anderson go fully animated. And as with James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl seems to work very well in stop-motion. Of all the George Clooney pictures this year, this is my favorite performance of his. Oh, and for animation buffs, there are also several sly references to Disney's Robin Hood, which of course also featured foxes as the leads.

Avatar -- Of course this was going to make the list. As a movie experience, it was a must-see. In many ways, Avatar is a kind of culmination and summation of all Cameron's previous films. Is it perfect? No. Like a modern George Lucas, Cameron has put a lot of time and effort into the development and design of both the technology and the worlds in this film, almost to an absurd degree. But you can tell that the artists must have had fun. The story plays pretty safe and hits a number of familiar themes, though a few of the means to those themes are new and interesting. I wish that the last hour was less preachy, though. To me, if the macguffin of the movie was the unobtainium ore, why was that ignored completely at the end? Titanic suffers a bit similarly as the necklace becomes less and less important. But the politics and familiar feel of the story can't overshadow the achievement. It isn't Cameron's best work. That honor goes to The Abyss or maybe Aliens. But it's a solid work that holds up. And it's better than Titanic. Here's hoping he doesn't win an Oscar and proclaim himself King of Pandora.
Most Unintentional After-effect of Avatar's Release: M. Night Shyamalan's live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender could not market itself under the name Avatar.

Sherlock Holmes -- Really, you may ask, Sherlock Holmes? Yes. When the trailer debuted, I said to myself, "This movie is either going to be fantastic, or the worst thing ever." Thankfully, it is the former. Now, the plot may not be the best and is a little Scooby-Doo-ish. It may even seem reminiscent of The X-Files. But what's wrong with that? Fox Mulder, with his seeming leaps of logic is very much like a Sherlock Holmes! It was great to look at these characters and actually not see them overly-modernized. Arthur Conan Doyle's work still holds up. Sure, the story is a complete fabrication, but the characterization is more Doyle than some may think. I'm glad they didn't make Holmes stodgy. Here we have one of the most eccentric Holmes movies since The Seven-per-cent Solution. Jude Law is a fantastic Dr. Watson, reminding us that Watson was not a rotund bumbler; he was a military man! Why NOT let him do some fighting in a film? And Holmes too was a skilled boxer. There are a number of little nods to some of the stories. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Holmes with great relish; he is brilliant, funny, off-putting, and a drug addict (only slyly referenced). The film gets a little action heavy, and does unfortunately feature one of those odd cliches where the action suddenly jumps to a location that is quite far from the previous one, simply to have a cool climax. Even so, I rarely have so much fun at a movie. I hope that all who dismissed this one will give it a chance. And congrats to RDJ for his Golden Globe award!

Up in the Air -- If you see one George Clooney film from this year, see Fantastic Mr. Fox. But if you see two, see Up in the Air, a film with a charm and surprising pathos. I've only seen it recently and am not sure I can process all that's good about it. It may well be that it's been overhyped. But unlike the similarly lauded Little Miss Sunshine, this doesn't feel false or abrupt at the end. I like how the film spends a lot of time trying to break this character out of who he is, only to have it lead to... well, I shouldn't really spoil anything. This movie should have a certain staying power; a resonance for coming years. I don't necessarily think it's Jason Reitman's best film. In a way, Juno holds up a bit better and Thank You For Smoking was funnier. However, even if it is the lesser of three, Up in the Air far surpasses a lot of what we are offered in cinemas these days. It is a small film. It has an independent vibe about it. It may even be that, like Lost in Translation, it doesn't end up playing well on home video. Since I see this as a possibility, I highly recommend seeing it in a theater while you can. And be sure to sit through the credits; the experience is truly not complete until you've heard the home-made sounds of the song "Up in the Air" which perfectly compliment all that came before.

EDIT: I have since seen The Hurt Locker and added it to my list. Read that review for more details.