Seen in January 2004
Submitted by slipkid71 on Tue, 01/13/2004 - 11:57
- Birthday Girl (2002) : I like the premise of this film - a lonely bank manager purchases a Russian mail order bride over the internet, and gets a lot more than he bargained for when two of her "cousins" show up and move in with them. In a year where Nicole Kidman scored big with Moulin Rouge and The Others, Birthday Girl was just about ignored, and not because it's a bad film. It's a film that's not sure what it wants to be; is it a thriller or is it a dark romantic comedy? Kidman really does shine throughout the film (she only speaks Russian for the first half of the film) as the mail order bride who's sexy and dangerous yet extremely tortured and vulnerable. The film is ultimately disappointing because there's too many subplots being built up that really either don't pay off or they're paid off in a hurried, choppy fashion. It's too bad, because Birthday Girl has the makings of a smart, intelligent romantic thriller, but it suffers way too much from bouncing from subplot to subplot without making much sense or engaging the viewer. But it's worth watching for Nicole Kidman.
- Network (1976): Satire. One of the great lost arts of the cinema. If it's done poorly, you're stuck having to sit through tepid time-wasters like Canadian Bacon, but if it's done right, you've then witness a joyous meeting of some of the most savage-witted minds. Fueled along by Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant script like an 18-wheeler with smoking breaks on a mile-long steep decline, Network mercilessly skewers the condescending pandering and bottom-line obsessing of the television industry. How else could a satire get away with a floundering television network greenlighting a weekly program based upon the real-life criminal activity of a left-wing terrorist group, and make it seem completely plausible? And how else could a suicidal evening news anchor suddenly become an on-air prophet who claims he speaks on behalf of God (which gives us the funniest line of the film, when Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, winner of the only posthumously-awarded Best Actor award, asks the angel who visits him why he's being tasked by God, the angel replies, "Because you're on television, dummy!")? The wonderful thing about satire is when you dissect the story apart, the satire isn't really far from the truth after all. In this day and age when Paris Hilton gets her own television show, and giant conglomerations own television networks, Network isn't as much a satire as it really is a behind the scenes look at the mayhem and madness of life as a television network.
- Superfly (1973): Having listened to Curtis Mayfield's stunning soundtrack through the years, I was quite eager to finally watch Superfly, and I came away from it very disappointed. It's not that I was expecting the blaxsploitation version of Cinema Verite, but I was put off by what I saw as the amateurish feel of the whole fim. Granted, it's a gritty, tell-it-like-it-is story, and Ron O'Neal performance as Priest, the drug dealer looking to make one more big score before he retires for good, is magnetic. However, I was disappointed with Gordon Parks, Jr.'s direction - his father, legendary photographer/director Gordon Parks, Sr. helmed Shaft, easily the greatest of the blaxsploitation genre. Parks Jr.'s direction is unwieldly, almost distracting, and it makes you wonder if the younger didn't hang around his father much and absorb any lesson on how to direct a film. It also hurts Superfly that it's not aged very well, and all the hip fashions and street lingo seem almost comical now, since the genre's been mercilessly lampooned throughout the years by black comics.
- Secretary (2002): How can you make a film about a sadomasochistic relationship both funny and engaging? Simple, really. At the very heart of Secretary is a deeply romantic film (yes, really!) about two different people desperately seeking fulfillment of their emotional (and physical) needs. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the secretary, a young woman recently released from a mental hospital with a very disturbing taste for self-inflicting pain. She handles this role with tremendous deadpan humor; you easily and very quickly empathize with her pain. Her personal life is a complete and utter mess, made worse by an overprotective mother, an alcoholic father and a well-meaning but dull-witted boyfriend. As her employer, James Spader is cold, demeaning and condescending, and his performance is equally as funny as Gyllenhaal's. It dawns on both secretary and employer that their opposites are exactly what they've been looking for. Both Gyllenhaal and Spader's characters are riddled with emotional, psychic pain, and their dominant/submissive relationship, however offbeat and disturbing it may seem to the casual viewer, is their only true means for each person to come to grips with their pain. Secretary is an erotic, dark little comedy that reminds us that true love does exist, anywhere and everywhere, even if it does involve spanking and humiliation.
- Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): The image of Slim Pickens as Major Kong, waving his cowboy hat and straddling a falling nuclear missile like a bucking bronco is without question the funniest and most damning indictment of the absurdity of the nuclear arms race from an era not too long ago. Originally intended as a straight serious film, Stanley Kubrick and satirical writer Terry Southern gleefully pervert the very serious novel Red Alert into a twisted, dead-on satire of the notion that peace can only be defended if the two great superpowers of this earth continuously threaten each other with complete and utter nuclear annihilation. Dr. Strangelove isn't a slapstick comedy by any stretch of the imagination, but the humor comes at you with a big wink and an appropriate (for this film, at least) rapid-fire wit. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have the late, great Peter Sellers, at the absolute top of his game, lose himself in three very distinct characters, the funniest being his President Merkin Muffley, a man much too neurotic to act as the leader of the free world. Most memorable is Sellers as Dr. Strangelove himself, a creepy, wheelchair-bound former Nazi who serves as President Muffley's nuclear weapons expert. Strangelove (comically)welcomes the very real spectre of nuclear holocaust, as a way to test his sadistic theories about the repopulation of the human race after it's been blown all to hell. Try not to laugh too hard if you think Dr. Strangelove, the character, bears a physical, and perhaps personal, resemblance to Henry Kissinger. The first of Kubrick's great trilogy of films, he would follow Dr. Strangelove with devasting effect with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange.
- The Wages of Fear (1953): This is one of the few thrillers where the drama is more psychological than physical, and it works best that way. And one of my favorite films. In a dirty, corrupt, backwater town somewhere in the jungles of South America (we are never told where, but my guess is Venezuela), a motley assortment of losers congregate around a local tavern, passing the time and their lives away within the depressing humdrum and grim poverty of this remote outpost. Many miles away, an American oil company struggles to stay afloat financially; their struggle is mirrored with the struggle of the town of San Miguel. It is never made clear why this international assortment of losers dwell in San Miguel, but clearly they're escaping from someone or something. The great Yves Montand stars as one of these deadbeats, a gregarious charmer with a razor-like wit and a flair for the local barmaid. The humdrum lifts when a stranger arrives, also on the run (from what, we don't know), and with trouble on his mind. It's no coincidence that his arrival coincides with a devastating explosion at the oil refinery, killing some locals and injuring scores more. Conventional methods won't put out the fire; it must be extinguished with nitroglycerine, but since nitro is extremely volatile, and can't be flown in, it must be transported very carefully by truck. The psychological drama unfolds with surgical precision as the oil company hires four drivers, including Montand and the mysterious sabateur, to transport the nitroglycerine through the most treacherous jungle roads; the slightest bump or mishap will blow them to smithereens. If they make it successfully, each will earn $2,000. Though the story isn't told from his eyes, Montand serves as the emotional, psychological core of the film: his rakish charm can't disguise the fact that he is part of a pant-wetting psychological terror. The fear these men face, knowing they are transporting both a big cash payoff and a certain doom is palpatable and moist. Under the direction of Henri-Georges Clouzot, The Wages of Fear is certainly Hitchcockian, but to compare Clouzot to Hitchcock would prove a disservice to Clouzot; he was always far more interested in psychic fear more than Hitchcock (witnessed with greater effect in his masterpiece Diabolique - the original, not the moronic Sharon Stone remake). It also helps to compare Wages to William Friedkin's well-intentioned but unnecessary remake, Sorceror. Friedkin expands on the drifter's past lives (Roy Scheider plays the Montand role), but since it's more of an action film, it lacks the psychic suspense of the original.
- Scratch (2001): This documentary about the genesis of DJ's and the DJ subculture perhaps wouldn't be of great interest for any casual viewer outside of the DJ/turntablist genre, but Scratch is definitely worth a viewing regardless of any preconceived notions. The DJ, for the uninitiated, is defined within the documentary as the backbone of hip-hop, the backbone which has for long supported MC's and not received their proper due. Scratch is chock-full of insightful interviews, featuring the legendary Afrika Bambaataa and superstar DJ's like Mixmaster Mike (of Beastie Boys fame), Q-Bert and DJ Shadow; it is DJ Shadow who provides the most compelling moments of the documentary, as he demonstrates the art of "digging,", rummaging through the moldy, mildewy basement of his favorite record store to pilfer old thrown-away records he will add to his collection and use in future mixes. You walk away with the impression that all DJ's share one common trait; they're modestly introverted men (and women too) who are monkish in their devotion to perfecting their craft; hours upon countless hours are spent alone scratching records and shifting pitches on their sequencers, searching for that perfect groove and the perfect break to match. The highlight of the DVD is a special feature, a how-to-DJ conducted by DJ Z-Trip. He breaks down a seemingly impossible act and makes it look easy enough for anyone with the notion to try their hand at DJing.
- Road to Perdition (2002): There's been some suggestion that Road to Perdition is the finest gangster film since The Godfather, and while that might indeed be right, Road is an intensly flawed gangster epic. One the one hand, casting Tom Hanks as the stern, emotionally-stingy, morally ambiguous mob hitman Michael Sullivan was a bold risk; on the other hand, it's almost impossible to separate Hanks' normal, expected likability, his Everyman-ness, from the reserved gangster he plays. It's not Tom's fault, and in some respects he succeeds, but he's never given enough room to breathe life into this role fully. Sullivan sets out on a path of vengeance after the cowardly, sociopathic son of mob boss John Rooney (played with aging grace and flair by Paul Newman) attempts to kill Sullivan and his family; he only succeeds in killing Sullivan's wife and youngest child. With his son, Michael Jr. in tow, Sullivan revenge plot involves ripping off banks with connections to Rooney and Rooney's business partners, including Al Capone and Frank Nitti, in order to force Rooney to give up his son. Hot on Sullivan's trail is a hitman, Maguire, and in the few scenes he's involved in, Jude Law steals the film. His Maguire is death rolled over, a pale, hideous man with a creepy nature and a fetish for photographing his victims. Law undergoes a physical transformation to fully immerse himself into Maguire, and the results are breathless and unnerving. What flaws Road is Sam Mendes' overwrought directing. There's too much of an emphasis on Mendes' part to make the darkly-mooded storyline much more stylish than it needs to be. His directing proves to be too distracting, detracting unfairly from the buildup of tension and drama, which also detracted somewhat from his Oscar-winning American Beauty (although Alan Ball's screenplay proved much too towering for Mendes to suffocate). Road to Perdition might be worth another viewing for me because of Hanks' risky performance, and the gentle but taciturn relationship he maintains with his son that's the foundation of the entire film.
- The Kids Are Alright (1979): I have to, first off, admit a bias for the Who. For many there's that one band or musician that, when they heard them for the first time, the world opened up for them and their lives changed. That moment occured for me when I first heard Who's Next when I was twelve years old. Having been weaned on crap Top 40 and the limpness of ELO, Who's Next was a swift kick in the ass. The Kids Are Alright is a repeated, blessed swift kick in the ass from one of Pete Townshend's Doc Marten boots. Opening with their notorious appearance on the Smothers Brothers variety show, where the band lip-synchs My Generation, building up to an anarchic finale where Keith Moon blows up his drumkit, this documentary profiles the volatile nature of the Who and makes the affirmation that the Who were the greatest live act ever. The Beatles may have been the best band ever, and the Rolling Stones may have suggested they were the world's greatest rock and roll band (and for a long while they were right), but the Who easily blew both bands and many others before and after off the stage. The Kids Are Alright shows the band in their finest element, in a collection of concert footage, from their earliest days to their triumphant appearance at Woodstock, and on stage, the band's insistent, willful personality (fueled by four different, willful personalities) mesmerizes; Townshend's frenetic, balletic leaps and furious windmilling, Roger Daltrey's gravel-throated shrieks and microphone swinging, Moon's machine gun-like drumming and on-stage debauchery, and John Entwistle's stoic, muscular bass lines may have nearly doomed the band but when as a whole, together they were a marauding army laying waste to audiences and PA systems all over. The band's wicked sense of humor is much on display throughout the documentary. What starts out as an interview of the band on the Russell Harty Show, a UK interview program turns into a hysterical turn of the tables - Townshend and Moon quickly turn into a riotous comedic act and do what many other interviewees have dreamt of doing, and that is making the interviewer seem uncomfortable. "Can't touch the interviewer, can we?" menaces Moon near the end of the interview. Two scenes filmed primarily for this documentary, filmed at Shepperton Studios in London, are the centerpieces of this film. The filmed concert footage of Baba O'Riley and Won't Get Fooled Again - where after the organ solo and Moon's frantic drum solo segways into Daltrey's earth-shattering scream, you will always remember the image of Townshend leaping from one end of the stage to the other, in slo-mo, landing on his knees - has the band firing on all cylinders, but, sadly, it was the last time they'd share the stage with Keith Moon. The Kids Are Alright is one of the great rock and roll films, showing us that rock and roll, in the hands of the Who, was ugly and volatile and horrible and life-affirming, all at the same time.
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): Modern acting on the silver screen begins here. Marlon Brando isn't just acting the role of Stanley Kowalski; he is Stanley Kowalski. It's as if director Elia Kazan merely hired the salt of the earth off the streets and told that man to just be himself. It is absolutely impossible to break down Brando's smoldering, menacingly sexual performance as Stanley Kowalski and suggest that he's reading his lines and acting very well. To suggest he's acting would be an affront to Brando's innate, uncanny ability to become the character and not just read the lines very well. A Streetcar Named Desire is an erotic masterpiece, and not because of Brando. Taking the unmistakable brilliance of Tennesse Williams' masterwork of a play, Elia Kazan smartly allows the actors to spur the story along, not allowing his directing to obtrude or detract, and what you get is a gripping story of sexual tension and jealousy. As the mercurial, emotionally-crippled Blanche DuBois, Vivian Leigh loses herself in the traumatic aftermath that has become Blanche's life. The pampered Southern belle is somewhat of a cliche, but Leigh manages to parlay her insistence on the good (and expensive) things in life and her dependence "on the kindness of strangers" as Blanche's singular strength, one that she clings to in a perfume-soaked desperation. Her descent into madness is the focal point of the inevitable, immediate clash between herself and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, and to a large extent, her sister Stella. Blanche has a hideous secret she is desperately hiding, Stanley, one way or another, in his brutish fashion, is going to get it out of her, despite his wife Stella's (played keenly with great sympathy and strength by Kim Hunter) opposition. It's not, however, a clash of egos; Blanche and Stanley are fighting over control of Stella's soul, the emotional rock of Streetcar. On the one hand, she is fiercely devoted to Stanley, despite his "commoner" status, but she cannot bear to watch her sister slide into madness. This is the struggle that is played out before Stella's eyes. In perhaps the most memorable scene, the "Stella!" scene, Stanley's fury at Blanche's unrelenting pretensiveness causes him to erupt violently against a radio the sisters have been playing during one of his poker games, and Stella's anger at his loss of temper causes him to beat her. Blanche thinks she's beaten Stanley and won Stella's soul, but as a contrite, devastated Stanley shrieks Stella's name out in the pouring rain, outside of the apartment where Stella and Blanche have taken shelter with the Kowalski's neighbors, the erotic impulses of Stanley and Stella prove Blanche otherwise. In this scene of great erotic play, Stella saunters down the flight of stairs, eyes fixed longly on Stanley and his beaten, muscular body, and Stanley receives her both gently and with great animalism. It's a scene where the tension can't be cut whatsoever. While Streetcar is the first example of the modern acting that would someday introduce us to Brando's heirs, including Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, to name a few, Elia Kazan's film is a tremendous display of ensemble acting, where Brando overwhelms the viewer with his menacing, soulful impression of Stanley, and Vivian Leigh physically and emotionally metamorphosizes into Blanche DuBois. Great acting from Kim Hunter and especially Karl Malden, as Mitch, a good-hearted mama's boy and card-playing buddy of Stanley's and Blanche's suitor, who will soon learn what horrible secrets Blanche has been holding inside her.
- Lost in Translation (2003): I'm always curious, when watching a film for the second time, if I'm going to enjoy the film in its' second viewing. While I thoroughly enjoyed Lost in Translation the first time around, it shook me deep into my soul the second time around. This film moved me like no other film for such a long time (trust me, I hate sounding like a cliche, but I'm dead-on sincere about this). This is one of those rare opportunities where you're not bombarded with cheap sentimentality, oh-so-clever one-liners written by recent graduates from film school, or over-the-top theatres (not to mention car chases and things blowing up); Lost is a quiet film that slowly unwraps the human drama of its' main protagonists, the film star Bob Harris (Bill Murray, in the performance of his career), and the young bride Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson, in what will be the first of many great performances to come), and the quietly desperate relationship they share during a few days alone together in Tokyo. Bob Harris is a film star who's suffering more than just a mid-life crisis; he's suffering a complete life crisis. He's an actor in the twilight of his film career, stuck in a loveless, unfulfilling marriage, and now he's forced to film a commercial and shoot promos for Suntory, a Japanese whisky (a clever put-down of famous Hollywood stars who sneak away to Japan to pimp Japanese products for cool millions). Bob's humiliation is embarrasingly evident, what with having to pose for the camera and don a tux for a whisky commercial, all the while struggling with the language and cultural barriers, makes his pained crisis all the more compelling. It's to Murray's credit as an actor that he plays Harris as a man trying to maintain some semblance of decency and self-respect, and not resort to pathetic histrionics during his stay in Tokyo. His nights are spent wasting away in a cold, lifeless luxury hotel, where, despite his every need catered to, reminds him more and more of the alienation that traps him - in one extremely funny scene, the language barrier proves a huge laugh as the suits from Suntory send him a call girl who is eager to please but her attempts to communicate with Bob, even seduce him, prove much too awkward for Bob to bear. Charlotte, a recent college grad and a guest of that very same hotel, realizes she's stuck in a meaningless marriage with her hot-shot photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi, in a supporting role) who exhibits more passion for his jet-setting work than for his wife. Stuck alone in a country much too foreign and inpenetrable, Charlotte and Bob inadvertantly find solace and connection with each other. At first feeling each other out, running into each other at the hotel bar and at various points within the hotel, Bob and Charlotte make their break and venture out into the dynamic of Tokyo at night. Memorably, Murray channels the ghost of one of his most enduring characters on Saturday Night Live, the Lounge Lizard, as he busts out, karaoke-style, a horribly funny version of What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?. Moments later, still in the throes of karaoke, he belts out Roxy Music's More Than This, and while longingly gazing into Charlotte's eyes, realizes suddenly the lyrics have a new meaning for him. The pace of this film is like a treasured, expensive gift, peeled slowly and rewarding in its revelations; under Sofia Coppola's gifted direction and script, the characters of Bob and Charlotte reveal themselves slowly, assured of their acceptance within each other but carefully guarded as well. It's great to see Coppola come through with a winning script and sublime directing, something she hinted at in the flawed The Virgin Suicides. And as she did in The Virgin Suicides, Coppola shows a tremendous knack for placing a good song within each scene. Most importantly, her stylish but non-invasive directing introduces a third, most crucial character, and that's Tokyo itself. Its' overwhelming, sensory-assaultive nightlife, its' chaotic, adrenalized streets mesh perfectly with the serene, calming influence of its traditions, making it the one thing, however distracting and distressing, that connects Bob and Charlotte. Tokyo is a great city full of contradictions, the contradictions which serve to heighten Bob and Charlotte's purely platonic relationship. It should be said, no, shouted, that Scarlett Johannson is truly magnificent as Charlotte. Already an actress of great maturity, despite her 18 years of age, she handles the emotional complexity of a young woman not knowing what she wants with intelligence, humor and, above all, sympathy. And Bill Murray, oh dear...You just didn't know he had it in him, did you? Here he delivers a performance of such quiet intensity, such careful grace that you celebrate him and his discovery, however brief, of the simplest joys of life. Oscars should, no, must, be awarded to Murray and Johannson for giving us two memorable characters, two characters that we can relate to; their longing for a connection, a psychic, emotional connection, in this world, Tokyo and otherwise, that is completely foreign to them.
- Shallow Grave (1994): I recall seeing this about six or seven years ago and being impressed with it. Having seen it again, it still remains an impressive film. It's an engaging update of the classic crime thriller genre, where greed and self-absorption threaten to destroy a friendship. What struck me most viewing Shallow Grave the second time around was sense of humor. The premise boils around three flatmates, Alex (a brilliant, energized Ewan MacGregor), a free-spirited journalist, Julie (Kerry Fox), a pragmatic, flirty doctor, and David (Christopher Eccleston, whose role segways between quiet caution and disturbing creepiness). The three flatmates are a study in self-absorption; imagine Jerry Seinfeld, Elaine Benes and George Costanza living in the same apartment. With an extra room to rent, they dispatch one potential new roommate after another (their cruel dismissals is a shockingly funny scene) until they decide on Hugo (Keith Allen), who seems just as self-absorbed as they are. Little do David, Alex and Julie realize Hugo is a criminal on the run (his various brutal crime capers are told in flashback). Hugo is found dead in his room a few days later, and to their surprise, the flatmates discover a suitcase filled with money, more money than they've ever seen. The logical thing to do would be to call the police, but Alex disarmingly (and purposefully) suggests they bury Hugo and take the money for themselves. While Julie heartily agrees, David is tormented by the consequences he forsees - his roommates fail to account for either the police or the criminal element Hugo is hiding from wanting to locating Hugo and his stolen stash. While Alex and Julie grow more and more greedy, and independently conspire against one another, David's obsessiveness turns into paranoia. With every passing frame, Shallow Grave keeps you guessing. How far will Alex go to keep their secret? Whose side is Julie on, and how far will she keep playing Alex and David against each other? To what levels will David's paranoia take him? Shallow Grave is a compact, energetic dark comedy that's both a spoof and a loving homage to the crime thriller. It poses the question of how far greed can pervert and how far greed can push people to betray one another.
- Analyze That (2002): The biggest problem with sequels most of the time is when you stick to the same formula that worked in the first film, that same formula the second time around implodes with every passing frame. Analyze That is essentially a rehash of 1999's Analyze This, made worse by Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro listlessly reading the same lines and jokes from the last film. It's also pretty hard to watch at times; early in the film, mobster Paul Vitti (DeNiro), plotting an early prison release, fakes insanity by feigning catatonia, then miraculously comes to life once he's released into the care of his shrink, Ben Sobel (Crystal). He perpetuates his recovery by singing, or rather, croaking, show tunes. This undoubtedly has to be one of the lowest points of DeNiro's career, and, distressingly, his career lately has been a share of low points. Whereas he was having a blast poking fun at his mobster tough guy self in Analyze This (and had even more fun skewering himself in the unwatchable Meet the Parents), DeNiro resorts to gruesome self-parody - every third or fourth word out of his mouth is followed by f**k this or go f**k yourself, emphasized by some of the most horrid grinning and facial scrunching ever committed to film. Crystal doesn't fare much better either. A subplot involving Sobel's father's death turns Crystal's character into a whinning, obnoxious crybaby, especially at the most inopportune of moments. What chemistry DeNiro and Crystal had in the first film is nothing more than endless shouting matches and stupid facial expressions that give desperate notice to a lack of a quality script. Analyze That also doesn't work because of what I call the Sopranos theory. The first film came out within weeks of The Sopranos premiering on HBO (similar premises: a mob boss seeks psychiatric help). And because of the immense popularity of The Sopranos, what seemed somewhat fresh and original within Analyze This comes across as contrived and derivate within Analyze That. Save your time and watch an episode of The Sopranos instead.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): What more can be said about the final film of this groundbreaking, earth-shattering trilogy that hasn't already been said? the Lord of the Rings isn't merely escapist fantasy, it is the cinematic landmark by which all future epics will be judged upon. is the final, exhilarating film of this gigantic trilogy, never letting down its' predecessors, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and in many respects it completely supercedes the first two films' grand achievement in flawlessly blending fantasy, romance and sheer humanity and the eternal tale of good versus evil. Return of the King matches the high stakes raised by parts one and two and wipes the table clean with a glorious, winning hand. The story, which by now everyone probably knows, is the epic quest of Frodo Baggins (once again played with baby-blue-eyed drama by Elijah Wood), the bearer of a ring with terrible power, and his quest to destroy the ring which will in turn destroy the threat of the evil lord Sauron's cruel dominion over all life in Middle Earth. It is also the story of the tormented but courageous warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen, all smoldering bravery and wisdom, enough to make believers of men and women weak-kneed), who must accept his fate as the would-be king and all the responsibilites that go along with rulership. But most importantly, Return of the King is really the story of Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), the loyal Hobbit who follows Frodo on his terrible quest. It is Samwise who is the emotional core of the entire trilogy, to be honest; it is the lessons of fidelity and bravery that he must and will learn, and his unyielding optimism and unexpected bravado are a microcosm of the struggles all living things in Middle Earth will face. Astin does a fantastic job of parlaying Sam's big little heart in every one of his scenes. LOTR may, in its essence, be the time-honored legend of good versus evil, and while the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn, the humanity of a character like Samwise Gamgee (and the subtle, robust performance of Sean Astin) is what makes the trilogy an undisputed masterpiece, the likes we hadn't seen in a very long time. Honestly, a film like this, widescale and grandiose but impressively human, hasn't been made successfully since Lawrence of Arabia. Peter Jackson's skilled, tenacious direction, his vision of the trilogy unmistakable, has catapulted him into the small circle of elite filmmakers. His directing never leaves a detail unnoticed, and his uncanny ability to wring out gut-wrenching performances from his stellar cast demonstrates that all the most high-tech of special effects can't detract from the muscular power and strength of every performance in the film. Return of the King further solidifies the greatness of the ensemble acting displayed in the first two films. Mortensen, as Aragorn, for example, wears the pain of exile and the will to survive in his eyes and his actions; Viggo's acting is absolutely first-rate, and his superb acting ability helps him to know when a line should be delivered silently, and when it should be read with everything he can give. Ian McKellen's willful performance as the wise wizard Gandalf the White is towering, gentle and dominating. His portrayal of Gandalf is the lead this brilliant ensemble cast has taken. And it is Jackson's insistence on accuracy of emotion, and not just line-reading, that emboldens every actor to leave everything on the table; there isn't a single performance that registers flat. Return of the King is a fitting end to the labor of love that is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's said they don't make films like they used to. Well, Peter Jackson and his ensemble cast have done the impossible, making Tolkien's books come to life in beautiful, bold colors, and have reminded us that films that dare to think big and act big and look big are not relics from a different era. The gauntlet's been thrown down, and quite frankly, we'll never see another epic like this for a very very long time.
- Fahrenheit 451 (1966): Loosely adapted from Ray Bradbury's classic 1951 novel about a future society where the written word is banned and firefighters are employed to burn books, Francois Truffaut's first (and only) English language film bears very few resemblances to his earlier work that put him within the upper pantheon of the greatest of directors. On the one hand, Truffaut employs the stylish approach one finds in his earlier masterpieces, The 400 Blows and Jules et Jim, but that stylized approach doesn't work well in translating a story about a repressive government. One never gets the sense of true repression, despite the government's attempts to mind-control its' citizens through the television airwaves, lulling viewers into submission and complacency. The citizens of Fahrenheit 451's world seem to have a grand old time engaging in cocktail parties and never questioning what comes out of their television screens. To his credit, Truffaut does try hard to project his philosophies on literature and art, and in some respects he does succeed. But the curious casting of German actor Oskar Werner (whom Truffaut directed in Jules and Jim) is perhaps the biggest failure of this film; Werner's droning, lifeless interpretation of fireman and future rebel Guy Montag is insanely distracting and hard to accept. Plus, he's having to deliver his lines in some pretty goofy headwear. As the dutiful, unquestioning fireman, Werner's acting reminds you of the company-store speak of former Nazis and Fascists, and perhaps Truffaut sought that lifelessness from a German actor (silly as it seems). We're supposed to believe that a man loyal to his job and his government suddenly begins to question his government and take up reading (his reading begs this question: if books have been banned, how does Montag then know how to read? How does anyone, then, know how to read?). The always luminous Julie Christie is cast in a dual role, as the complacent wife of Montag and his neighbor, a rebellious book lover. This dual casting does work, as it presents Montag the stark contrast of a submissive wife he doesn't want and a literate woman he can't have. Fahrenheit 451 seems to work on paper (no pun intended), but it's ultimately the one failure in Francois Truffaut's impressive resume.
- Igby Goes Down (2002): In this wonderfully dark and edgy comedy, Igby Slocumb is the youngest son of one of the most dysfunctional upper-class families you will ever see on film. His mother Mimi is a pill-popping drama queen. His father Jason has completely lost his mind. His older brother Oliver is a conniving Young Republican whose behavior borders on fascism. Igby's only father figure is his godfather, D.H., who more than often imparts his advice with an air of ultra-authoritariansim and misplaced morality. No wonder Igby rebels and plots his escape from his family. As the young hero Igby, Kieran Culkin smartly avoids pulling sympathy or sorrow from the audience; his Igby, played with furious cynicism and cool indifference, is the younger cousin of Holden Caufield, the anti-hero of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. In fact, Igby Goes Down draws the inevitable comparisons to Salinger's novel. Both Igby and Holden are repulsed by the hypocrisy they perceive all around them. They take refuge from their stiffling upbringings with a motely crew of friends and enemies. Despite the comparisons to The Catcher in the Rye, Igby Goes Down stands on its own, mainly on the strength of Culkin's performance. It's easy for young actors to play upto the false angst that teenagers seem to live for these days, but Culkin understands all too well that Igby Slocumb is much too smart and cynical for his age, which doesn't wear well with his family, or the several boarding schools and the military academy he is shuttled off to (and subsequently escapes from). Poor Igby even gets the crap beat out of him on several occasions. Igby Goes Down also works because the supporting cast warmly and wonderfully embraces the hypocrisy that shapes Igby's cynical, dire outlook on life. Susan Sarandon is deliciously icy as his speed-popping mother Mimi. She's not quite the Medea Igby makes her out to be, but she's pretty monstrous none the less. As Oliver, Ryan Phillippe doesn't detract too far from the roles he's played in the past (he's really a one-dimensional actor), but in this case his cold stilted delivery is an advantage. Jeff Goldblum plays D.H. with an irresistible air of authority. Most importantly, Amanda Peet and Claire Danes shine as the two female influences who help, in their own dysfunctional manner, shape a more positive outlook on Igby's life. Peet's Rachel is D.H.'s mistress, a heroin addict with whom Igby shacks up with when he's escaped from another boarding school. Rachel's hard-edged exterior hides a wounded, highly-vulnerable woman, which Peet plays to perfection. As Sookie, the ultra-hipster chick who falls in love with Igby, and later betrays him, Danes captures the false hipsterdom of a priviledged undergrad with uncanny accuracy. Igby Goes Down isn't pretty at times, and there are moments when Igby's behavior makes you hold nothing but contempt for him. But Kieran Culkin's peformance is absolutely first-rate, and well worth a viewing.
- Psycho (1960): Repeat after me: EEK-EEK-EEK-EEK-EEK, EEK-EEK-EEK,EEK. Unless you've lived on a small island for the past 40-odd years, then you know the premise of Psycho, so I'm not going to waste time with a synopsis. For those of you who insist on spoilers, get lost; we all know Janet Leigh, as Marion Crane, gets stabbed to death in the shower, and Tony Perkins as Norman Bates, posing as his mother, is the creepy killer of the film, so there you go. Psycho isn't Alfred Hitchcock's best film (that would be Vertigo), nor his most visually creative (again, Vertigo, but it's easily his most controversial, and, considering Gus Van Sant's useless, unnecessary 1998 remake, his most copied and influential film (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the most obvious of films influenced by Psycho). The infamous shower scene, memorable as it is, has unfortunately lost most of its ability to shock due to it being replayed and mimicked relentlessly throughout the years, but that's not to say that Psycho doesn't maintain any less tension throughout the film. It most certainly does, and it does so with a tremendous sense of dark humor and a then-groundbreaking willingness to break the rules of conventional filmmaking - after all, how many films have you seen where the lead actor or actress is killed off halfway through the film? Imagine doing that to Julia Roberts 45 minutes into a film and you get the idea here. No, in truth the best scene of Psycho comes after Janet Leigh's bloody, brutal dispatching, when Tony Perkins, so damned memorable as one of cinema's most chilling psychopaths, the amiable but disturbed mama's boy named Norman Bates, discovers his "mother's" senseless act of violence and makes every attempt to cover it up. In a scene that runs on a single edit for more than ten minutes, not a word is said, but Bates' meticulous attention to every sordid detail, from cleaning up the blood to disposing Marion Crane's body to dumping her vehicle in a nearby swamp, is a masterful moment of insight into the mind of a psychopath, done with absolute surgical precision. And it's to Perkins' credit that he shows great restraint and subtlety in his signature role (one that perhaps typecast him in the future). Psycho is the last of Hitchcock's great masterpieces of psychological suspense, unless you want to count his follow-up, 1962's The Birds, which ends up more flawed than riveting. Clearly, Hitchcock was at the top of his game, and his directing of the shower scene is a monumental example of implication and creativity; since real blood proved too light for black and white, Hitchcock substituted chocolate syrup to retain the sense of blood oozing from Janet Leigh's wounds. And the following scene, where Hitchcock pans outward from a single focus from a dialated pupil to the image of her dead body; how the hell does he do that?
- Throne of Blood (1957): Shakespeare's Macbeth reimagined by Akira Kurosawa in feudal Japan. In a long line of samurai epics directed by perhaps the most influential director ever, Throne of Blood is easily Kurosawa's best of the genre, and that's saying a lot considering how monumentally influential Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo are (which have been remade as, respectively, The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars and A Fistful of Dollars, not mention countless other films). Shakespeare's plays have always retained a sense of malleability, easily allowing translation and adaptation towards differing historical eras, and Throne of Blood succeeds as both a unique intepretation of Macbeth and an insightful look into the hierarchy of feudal Japan, when samurais ruled the land. Kurosawa's highly impressive directing lends an eerie sense to the proceedings; his innovative use of shadows, fog, wind and rain create a palpatable sense of doom and foreboding that parallels and accentuates the greed and guilt that pervades the psyche of the samurai warlord Washizu, played memorably by Toshiro Mifune. Washizu and his colleague in arms Miki (Minoru Chiaki) encounter a female spirit while lost in the forest, on their way to their feudal home, the Spider's Web Castle. The spirit, reminiscent of the three witches that foretell Macbeth's doom, predicts predicts Washizu's ascendancy to the throne, which Washizu at first refuses to believe, but having been shaken to his soul by the spirit's prophecy, he decides the prophecy must come true. With the help of his scheming wife Asaji, Washizu's ascendancy is swift, having murdered the current warlord and assumed complete power. But, needless to say, his guilt and paranoia overcome the best of him, and signal his eventual downfall. Mifune handles his role with great physicality and muscle, creating indelible images of both strength and weakness. Mifune's blistering intensity burns through the screen. Memorable as Asaji, the plotting wife, is Isuzu Yamada, decked in ghostly-white makeup and traditional garb, eeriely dispensing murderous advise to her warlord husband with little or no emotion. Asaji is clearly the corrupt alter ego of the prideful, honorable Washizu, who is to blame for his (and their) downfall. A terrific ending, complete with a terrific flurry of arrows, demonstrates Mifune's gift for physical acting. Kurosawa's skillful directing places his actors and his story in a confining world, where the protagonists' greed and ambition spell a psychological prison from which there is only one tragic escape. It's evident from Throne of Blood, and so many other of his films, that Akira Kurosawa is perhaps the most imfluential director of all time.
- Scarecrow (1973): An interesting, offbeat buddy/road film, Scarecrow is a forgetten treasure of the early '70's, which successfully takes two great actors, Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, out of the elements they've subsequently been known for. There's not much in terms of action, and the plotline is essentially a linear road film of sorts, but it's a fascinating character study of two drifters who find each other on the road and learn something about themselves in the meantime. Ex-con Max (Hackman) is an insular, distrusting ex-con harboring a dream about opening up a car wash in Pittsburgh. Though he's initially distrusting, he opens up and accepts' Francis' (Pacino) friendship, and includes Francis in his scheme. Francis, whom Max dubs "Lion," is an ex-sailor heading to Detroit to reconcile with the wife and child he left behind five years earlier. Though he comes across as guillible and naive, Francis possesses an interesting worldliness and an innate ability to defuse potentially volatile situations. Scarecrow is a fantastic credit to the abilities of Hackman and Pacino, as two of the most influential actors of the last half of the 20th century; they easily demonstrate sides of acting sorely lacking in subsequent, more popular roles. Hackman has never been more vulnerable, as Max, the ex-con who learns to live with himself despite the violent demons he too often feels the need to unleash. Pacino's role as Francis is more subdued, restrained; none of the self-parodic histrionics he's been sadly known for lately are on display. His Francis is a wounded but perhaps fatally optimistic soul who cannot help but believe that everyone harbors goodness in their hearts, despite the contrary. Even with its' tacked-on, forced ending, Scarecrow is an immensely satisfying little film that concentrates on character study, something we don't normally see nowadays.
- Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002): There's really not much I can add to what accolades this great film has gotten. All I can say about Y Tu Mama Tambien is that it's the most accurate, unflinchingly honest depiction of two teenage boys coming of age. Alfonso Cuaron's filmmaking style is highly stylized in its approach yet almost guerilla in its result, and because of it, the realism of Diego (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), oversexed and indulging in cheap drugs shines through without seeming shocking or contrived. And completing the erotic tension that manifests throughout the film is Luisa (Maribel Verdu); grieving over the breakup of her marriage, she agrees to join the boys on a road trip to a non-existent beach. She's the conundrum of the story; she obviously knows Diego and Tenoch are full of shit, and they're looking for a good time and to possibly get laid. Luisa is both their den mother, maternalistically looking out for them, and the temptress whose wanton sexual ways with both boys lead to an inevitable betrayal. But forget about what I say; just see it for yourself, and you'll understand why this is one of the best films of the decade so far, and it's the ushering of Alfonso Cuaron as a major directing talent to be reckoned with.