Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The State of the Best...and the Worst...as the Year Closes

We don't (yet) live in a major population center. We don't (yet) get paid for doing this work we love so much. There have been some great films this year (and, as usual, an unbalanced flood of them in recent weeks), but I never quite feel right making a formal "Best of the Year" list until I've seen all of them...or at least, all but a few.

At this point, I feel that there are four outstanding titles prohibiting the list from being compiled. Those are Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and The Wrestler. In a perfect world, I'd say Che and A Christmas Tale are necessary viewing as well, but those are harder to get a hold of. I am hoping that the list will be completed by the time Oscar nominations are announced on January 22.

It will be easier, however, to quickly complete the vaunted "Worst of 2008" list, always a simultaneously fun and painful experience. Look for our Worst lists in the very near future.

Every year I am reminded that these year-end retrospectives are, ultimately, meaningless in the grand scheme of things. There are, even in the worst years (except 2006, where the quality was potent for about 10 movies, and then the well dried up), more than ten films worthy of consideration, and it usually depends on the subjective views each critic applies on any given day as to which films ultimately receive the honor of landing a spot on THE LIST. But as I always do, I must defend the undeniable fun of looking back over the year that was, and celebrating the greatest (and throwing one last sucker punch at the most dubious) of the year's cinematic achievements. The movies deserve it, one way or the other.

I am a movie guy...have been since I was about 5 years old. The movies have the ability to transport, influence, enrage, horrify, entertain, educate, and enliven. They can make us laugh or make us cry, turn us on or turn us off. Film is, if I may steal a term coined by Dr. Charles Derry, a SuperArt...an all-encompassing synthesis of writing, music, and photography. In choosing to honor these films by making lists, I choose to pay special homage to the medium that has wound my clock, jump-started my heart, enlivened my imagination, and opened my mind so many times. The movies mean the world to me.

And for that reason, perhaps these lists aren't so meaningless after all.

Happy New Year...Happy Cinema.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Awards Season: A Snapshot

Nearly all of the critics groups have spoken. The vast majority of Top Ten lists have been published. Most major awards nominations have been announced. Oscar nomination ballots have been sent out. So...where do we stand?

Wall-E has appeared on the most Top Ten Lists, according to MovieCityNews. Filling out the Top Ten films appearing on Top Tens (yeah, I intended that to be a messy string of words) are, in order, Milk, The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler, Rachel Getting Married, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Happy Go Lucky, Let the Right One In, and A Christmas Tale. From this primary list we can likely predict four out of the five eventual Best Picture nominees by process of elimination. Right One and Christmas Tale are just too odd and foreign. Happy, Wrestler, and Rachel are the kinds of films the Academy will consider "actor-only." That leaves five...and Wall-E is animated. So deserving as it is, the Academy will feel good about themselves for giving it Best Animated Feature. So...four out of ten.

The film outside of the Top Ten with the best shot at the final slot is Frost/Nixon, which seems to have a grasp on the nomination until some other film snatches it away. The two Kate Winslet movies, The Reader and Revolutionary Road, were both nominated for Golden Globes, but that fact may weaken their standing moreso than boost it. Doubt scored some nods from the Screen Actors Guild, but that only underlines the fact that is yet another "actors-only" movie. Of course, there is the outside shot that in a year with no overwhelming frontrunners, a movie like Wall-E could sneak in. But in realm of so-called "unlikely" nominees, Oscar usually only leaves room for one...and Dark Knight is the odds-on favorite to take it.

Looking at Critics Groups, the winner of the overwhelming majority of Best Picture awards has been Slumdog Millionaire. What that usually means is that a fabulous independent film is getting love from critics, which will ensure that it gets the Best Picture Oscar nomination and is guaranteed not to win it. But in this year of change, in this year of hope, in this year of destiny, in this year of Obama...the Academy may align with the Critics.

As for the groups that did not award Best Picture to Slumdog, the only consistent winners (and by "consistent" I mean garnering only a couple awards each, as opposed to one anomaly) were Wall-E, Milk, Benjamin Button, and The Dark Knight. What bearing, if any, does that stat have on Oscar buzz and Oscar voting? Difficult to say.

Crunching the numbers in the acting categories, the only overwhelmingly consistent winner--the most consistent winner in any category, by the way--is Heath Ledger for Supporting Actor. He has won 20 out of 22 major-city critics group awards (winner of the other two, by the way, was Josh Brolin for Milk)

The Supporting Actress category provides the widest, closest contest, with four women all running neck-and-neck. Marisa Tomei has won 6 awards, Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) has 5, Viola Davis (Doubt) has 4, and Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel) has 4. Kate Winslet won only a single award for Supporting Actress in The Reader, but she won a couple more Lead Actress awards for the same movie. The Academy will be putting her in the supporting category for Reader and the lead category for Revolutionary Road. Taraji P. Henson also won a single trophy for Ben Button.

In Best Actress there is another close race. Anne Hathaway in Rachel currently has 6 wins, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky has 5, and Kate Winslet also has 5, but those are split between her two movies. Meryl Streep has 3, as does Melissa Leo (Frozen River).

The Best Actor category is being dominated in much the same way as Supporting Actor, only the awards are nearly evenly split between two behemoths rather than dominated by one. Sean Penn has won 12 awards. Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) has won 11. The one award that separates the two from a deadlock is the one (1) Best Actor award given to Clint Eastwood for Gran Torino (handed out by the National Board of Review...never well-respected and appropriately ignored in most legit circles, but that never kept them from being spoilers).

So what does this all mean? Well...not a whole lot, to be honest. Ledger is in as Supporting Actor and will win, barring a huge backlash against alleged "posthumous glad-handing." The Best Actor race will indeed come down to Penn and Rourke, possibly with an edge for Penn for playing the country's most transformative gay political figure in an Obama-slash-Prop 8 year...or possibly an edge for Rourke, given the matching character-and-actor underdog comeback stories.

What else? Well, Kate Winslet will be double-nominated in the Actress and Supp. Actress categories...and those two will, as always, be the most difficult categories to handicap in the entire Oscar ceremony.

I've sort of overlooked Best Director...not by choice, but out of subconscious omission, because it seems like the only other foregone conclusion. Danny Boyle is the odds-on favorite right now...not much to stop him at the moment.

Watch for some early nomination predictions in all major categories in the coming days. For now, go see the movies and tell me what you think, because between now and Nomination Day on January 22, there's a lot of time for assumptions and predictions...and it's just better to fill the time by actually watching the damn movies.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

I'm trying not to say, "No 'Doubt' About It..."


All ridiculously lame jokes aside...Doubt is small, spare, and utterly spectacular. It is one of the most enthralling movie experiences of the year.

Mark it down as another likely Oscar win for Meryl Streep...but this is no Music of the Heart...it isn't even just another Devil Wears Prada, even though that was quite a fabulous performance. Streep's work here marks what is likely her best performance of the decade.

Also mark it down as another landmark piece of work from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is really the crowned king of actors at the moment. After a mind-bending, earth-shattering role in Charlie Kaufman's widely misunderstood, completely underestimated, arguably revolutionary Synecdoche, New York, Hoffman somehow comes off as simultaneously bullyish and scared, at once smug and humble. The ambiguity of the work is stunning...and will likely not get as much attention as it should, given the push for the equally brilliant Streep.

Viola Davis is getting all kinds of buzz for her 10 minutes of screen time...and it is totally deserved. Amy Adams is getting snubbed all over the place...she brings her typical sunny innocence to the pivotal role of Sister James, the story's moral barometer, but it is not simply a typecast performance; this character is wrought with tension, inner turmoil, and, unsurprisingly, doubt. It is a great performance.

John Patrick Shanley, writer of the original stage version of Doubt, adapted and directed the film version, making his first directorial effort since Joe Versus the Volcano, if you can believe that. His visual skills are not flashy and will not gain much attention, but what is so remarkable about his work is that he--as a stage person would--gets out of the way and allows the actors to simply unleash. They build the tension to such a degree that the dialogue exchanges in Doubt are more palpably intense than most of the year's high-octane action sequences. But Shanley also adds visual touches--subtle but powerful--that communicate the film's subtext with graceful clarity. On the visual storytelling end Shanley has the added help of Dylan Tichenor's masterful editing and Roger Deakins' polished and professional cinematography, and the trio work in tandem to create a seamless, affecting visual experience.

Doubt is small but huge. It is subtle but explosive. Herein lie themes so loaded with textual and subtextual implications that K wondered if perhaps the film, brilliant as it was, tried to tackle a little too much. But therein lies the film's message--there are so many angles, so many points of view, so many lives being lived simultaneously in this world. It is impossible for any of us to be certain about anything other than what we've seen...and even then we could question ourselves. The collective experience of our lives--our hopes and fears, outward virtues and hidden sins, the thin line between the person we project to the world and the feelings we keep trapped inside--is the unflinching, immovable force of life (a profound common denominator this film shares with Synecdoche, NY, even though empirically the films couldn't be more different). We are all in this together...and we all have no idea.

A Quick Update...

Merry Christmas to you all...three days late. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday...and wish you a joyous New Year ahead.

A quick and hasty update, with more detailed reviews forthcoming (some of which may occur on the ever-exciting, anxiously-awaited [!] Top Ten list)...

See Slumdog Millionaire...it is a revolutionary.

See Doubt...more on that very soon...

See Milk...it is a staggering work of art.

See Seven Pounds...if you engage your mind and open your heart, you will be moved.

See Marley and Me...and expect much more from this alleged "studio family fare" than most are giving it credit for.

Rent Man on Wire...and prepare to be amazed.

If you ever come upon the opportunity to see Synecdoche, New York, take it...you might hate it, but at least you will have a chance to process it, and it will stay in your mind for days.

Even the lesser films can work a little magic. Bedtime Stories is all concept, no execution...but there is a slight fanciful charm that eventually ingratiates itself into your heart. Yes Man at first seems merely pleasant and almost half-assed...but it hits its stride in the second act and keeps on going.

There's a lot out there this holiday season...more than I initially expected, and so much that even K and I haven't seen it all yet. Happy Holiday viewing...more soon...

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Weekend Fit for Oscar


We were able to accomplish exactly what we had hoped to accomplish this weekend, catching four movies over two days, three of which will be under serious "Top Ten" consideration, two of which will be THE MAJOR OSCAR CONTENDERS, and one of which will be anointed the filmic equivalent of Barack Obama.

After probably the best, most exciting and inspiring film-viewing weekend of the year, I have come away convinced that Slumdog Millionaire will win the Best Picture Oscar. Why? Well for one, the film is one of those exciting, lightning-in-a-bottle film experiences that clicks on every level, in every way.

The second reason is: Barack Obama.

This was the year of Change. This was the year of Hope. This was the year of inspirational victory overcoming insurmountable odds. That was the story--and will be the legend--of Barack Obama. That is the tenor of this country at this powerful moment in time. And that describes Slumdog Millionaire in a nutshell.

The power of the film lies in the unabashed inspiration of its story. A young kid who grew up fending for himself in the streets of Bombay sits one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The film poses the central question right from the start: How did he do it? The answers lie in the smallest of moments, in the most unexpected of places. What becomes clear is that knowledge does not come from birthright, and that winning a quiz show has nothing to do with education. Sometimes a life lived is preparation enough. Or, of course, it may just be destiny.

Danny Boyle, forever respected but scarcely awarded, will surely go into this year's Oscar ceremony the prohibitive favorite to win Best Director. After toiling within the British and American film industries for over a decade, and after churning out ambitious film after ambitious film that have been respected but not lovingly embraced, the man has finally found The Film.  Boyle has always been an extraordinary visualist, but his style has always been applied to ambitious-yet-peculiar genre films with sinister twists (Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later). Here, working from a beautifully realized script by Simon Beaufoy (also the prohibitive Oscar favorite at this point), and working with Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan, Boyle has abandoned all elements of unnecessary oddity and arch but let his visual skills take flight in ways they never have before, crafting what is the most strikingly beautiful, gracefully envelope-pushing visual experience of the year. He uses the camera to create senses of joy, risk, pain, fear, tension, anger, and love. And in the power of the film's motion, the vividness of its colors, and the emotional power of its editing (yes, that's possible), the film exposes the the lush beauty and harsh reality of a 'slumdog's' life in India. It should act as a wake-up call to all viewers about the state of India's mean streets, especially in light of the recent attacks in Mumbai. This is the sort of breathless, visionary directorial panache we usually only see from the likes of Scorsese or Mereilles...or a fresh newcomer who comes out of nowhere with his talent fully formed. Indeed, Slumdog Millionaire in many ways represents a rebirth for Boyle, even though he was never in need of one.

From its opening shots of the tattered slums of Bombay to its closing Bollywood-referencing dance sequence, Slumdog Millionaire is captivating magic. It pained me. It overjoyed me. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It made me feel very passionately--one of the great wonders of this beautiful art form, and one of the defining characteristics of this beautiful film.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Synecdoche, New York...


...is extraordinary beyond words.

But I will try to come up with some, and get back to you a little later...

Happy-Go-Lucky


Here is a film that very simply observes everyday life, one that never once stoops to sermonizing in any way. Yet Happy-Go-Lucky is the most powerful message movie about the importance of positivity that I've ever seen. Within the film there are moments so keenly and truthfully observed, characters so effortlessly realized, that it is like watching real life in motion.

That's typical for Mike Leigh, that British director of such beautiful films as Secrets & Lies andVera Drake, who specializes in telling stories which highlight the extraordinary elements of ordinary people and things. Here the focus of his keen eye is Poppy, a primary school teacher who is happy--very simply, very truly happy. There is no hint of pretense nor a wink of cynicism. Poppy simply chooses to stay on the bright side.

If Poppy is a delight as a character, then the performance by Sally Hawkins is a revelation. Hawkins--who has been circulating British TV and film in small roles for most of the past decade--imbues Poppy with such unabashed giddy charm that the character would become caricature if the actress didn't also add a thick layer of level-headed maturity to give Poppy a gleeful elegance, an unshakeable grace. By striking such a balance, it becomes clear that Poppy is more than she appears--much more than the sum of her ridiculous clothes and cutesy name and non-stop giggles. Poppy is, in fact, as weathered and knowledgeable as they come. She is far from one-dimensional; she has ample capacity for anger, sternness, passion, and melancholy. The fact that she has the inner strength to remain above the fray of depression, anxiety, and bitterness doesn't mean she's had it easy or has somehow skated naively by--in truth, her lack of negativity makes her stronger than nearly everyone around her.

What's so surprisingly, delightfully starling about Happy-Go-Lucky is its utter lack of cynicism. The film is an extension of Poppy--it purely and effortlessly celebrates the joy of existence, through good and through bad. Poppy's happiness is not there to mask hidden pain or buried secrets; it is not a front for a deep-seeded depression or lost innocence. Her happiness simplyis. It is not her downfall, it is her triumph. And rather than cause us to look down on her, Leigh chooses to makes us admire her, emulate her, and leave the theater cleansed of our lingering bitterness.

Vomit and Mistletoe


Four Christmases is the feature directorial debut of Seth Gordon, who last year made one of the most entertaining documentaries I've seen in recent years, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. And to be honest, the funniest thing in Four Christmases is the inside-joke casting ofKong's long-suffering hero--and rightful Donkey Kong champion--Steve Wiebe as one of Reese Witherspoon's kooky family members. But this is not one of those relentlessly lame comedies where the stunt casting is the only smirk-worthy element.

It is, however, one of those disingenuous Vince Vaughn comedies that I've come to expect ever since Wedding Crashers became a colossal box-office success. First came The Break-Up, which was mean and cruel and realistic, but also wanted to be jocular and fun and hilarious. Then came Fred Claus, which succeeded in being family-friendly but did not succeed in being funny or genuine, no matter how treacly the emotions became. Now we have Four Christmases, which is probably the most consistently funny of all of Vaughn's recent films--including Wedding Crashers, of which I was absolutely NOT a fan.

But the central problem remains the same: as a producer with a certain amount of sway over his material, Vaughn consistently wants to have his cake and eat it, too--he wants to moralize while still retaining the super-smug persona. In this case, Vaughn and Witherspoon play a committed but unmarried couple ("why ruin this perfection by institutionalizing it?"), both of whom come from divorced, comically deranged families. Every Christmas, the couple escapes the potentially maddening family get-togethers by saying they're "just too busy" to come visit...and then they fly off to an exotic vacation together. The conveniently zany high-concept twist of the premise is that this time, an epic fog storm cancels all flights and the couple are interviewed by a news network. Apparently all four families were watching at the same moment, and voila!--the couple is roped into celebrating four Christmases.

All four sets of families are ridiculous in their own ways--Vaughn's father (Robert Duvall) is a gruff  backwoods manly-man whose two other sons still live with him; his mother (Sissy Spacek) is a new-age wacko who is now dating Vaughn's former best friend; Witherspoon's mother (Mary Steenburgen) is a religious nut who may have a thing for her pastor; and Witherspoon's father (Jon Voight) may be, conveniently, the only voice of reason in either family.

The underlying theme of Four Christmases is that Vaughn and Witherspoon steer clear of their families to suppress lingering skeletons in their personal closets, and by suppressing them from themselves, they have hidden them from each other. It makes sense, but the film is constantly hedging its bets by asking us to buy into the burgeoning trouble in the central relationship, but also root for our protagonists to stay together in the end, and also laugh out loud at gags involving puking babies and body-slamming older brothers. And the thing is, I didlaugh...until the gags became repetitive. And I did buy into the central conflict...until it became clear to me that the filmmakers didn't even believe in it. Essentially, Four Christmases is a mildly enjoyable one-note comedy that Vaughn the Producer has strained to turn into something mildly important. But how important can a movie be when it begins with raunchy PG-13 sex and ends with projectile vomiting?

More Great 2008 Animation


You've got to hand it to the animators at Disney...easy as it may be to take shots at the perennially family-friendly studio, they keep churning quality animated film after quality animated film, both in their co-productions with Pixar and in their own newly-minted computer animation wing. Bolt comes from the latter, and the missing ingredients of those brilliant minds and boundless creativity at Pixar are what dictates that this film cannot really compare to WALL-E, which is undoubtedly the best animated film of the year and will likely go down as the greatest animated film of the decade. However, Bolt is a film that really need not be compared to anything else, positively or negatively...it is a film that stands on its own merits as a wonderful experience.

Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) is the most famous canine television star on the planet...but he doesn't know that his heroic action-adventure world, with his beloved TV owner, Penny (Miley Cyrus), is all part of the show. The movie is Bolt's journey of discovery, as he breaks free from his Hollywood imprisonment and enters the real world, realizing that there is more--and less--to reality than he was expecting.

The film is not, obviously, an intimate personal journey, a la The Truman Show. It is more a clever inside-Hollywood job, with plenty of in-jokes and showbiz revelations. But there is undeniable soul to the story of this unwitting celebrity and his quest to find himself in the real world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Big, Huge, Grand...



Australia is a big, grand epic that is powerful and beautiful...though somehow not quite perfect. The film is a stunningly cinematic feat that truly does feel like the natural progression for Baz Luhrmann, seven years after the overwhelming brilliance of Moulin Rouge!, his visionary musical--the film that set the "Musicals On Film" wave into motion...and still the best, most exuberantly cinematic movie musical of them all.

After such a towering feat, it feels appropriate for Luhrmann to take the artistic license to do something huge--after all, the filmmaking in Rouge made it feel huge, but it was actually much more intimate than the sprawling canvass that is the entire continent of Australia. Like most passion projects, Australia is sometimes a little too close to its maker for it to totally translate to the audience, but it is one of the more effective epic productions in recent years...far surpassing what should be called the recent Ridley Scott epics, to be sure.

The film tells a story of class, identity, and war in Australia, but at its core is the epic love story between the high-society woman who is learning to build a new life (Nicole Kidman) and the brutish, independent, lower-class hunk who doesn't want to be tied down (Hugh Jackman). The set-up is textbook epic material, but Luhrmann's visuals bring new vibrancy to a familiar genre, and the chemistry between the actors sells their romance. Kidman and Jackman are beautiful and talented performers, and they are very strong here, giving their best for the most powerful and respected director of their home country (though Jackman's power as a singer makes me wish Luhrmann would have thrown in one unapologetically pretentious musical number for the Tony winner to belt).

With Australia, it is clear that Luhrmann wanted to redefine the romantic epic in the same way he redefined the movie musical. And as a beautiful exercise in genre redefinition, Australia fulfills his goal. It is clearly an 'A-' movie. But there is that one tiny missing piece, that not-quite-definable magic element that leaves a small gap...the gap between "very good" and "great." You don't come by much more vibrant visuals than Luhrmann's, yet he seems more mannered and less unhindered than he has in the past. The story here is big, powerful, and effective, but it seems to have been manufactured by Luhrmann's keyboard rather than emerging from an innate place of passion. It seems to me that Luhrmann is trying a little too hard this time...that if he allowed himself to relax, either by giving himself room to breathe in the writing stage or taking additional time during the editing stage, that we would see all of what he intended. But if we cannot quite have that perfection, we do have a big, beautiful piece of filmmaking that does rank with the best achievements of the year--especially in a year where greatness is scarce across the board.

Australia is wonderful.  But it could have been an unparalleled masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Back From the Dead...or Florida

Yeah, I'm still alive. So for those of you betting money on whether I was alive or dead, I hope you bet on the bright side.

Truth is, it has just been a busy freakin' month. Was busy with school stuff immediately following the election...the holiday season hit quickly and consumed tons of time, as usual...and then, for the last 10 days, we took the kids to Florida for Disney World, Universal Studios, and other such fun. It was a wonderful time...but I have missed the movies.

Obviously I am way behind on reviews...but if I were to say that I'm up-to-date on the actual screening of films, I would be lying. I am way behind on that front as well.

Awards season is upon us. Slumdog Millionaire has become the critical darling...which, based on history, means it will be Oscar-nominated, but not the Oscar winner. I will see the film this weekend, and will report back. WALL-E, very deservingly, is also being bestowed with many critical honors and is landing on virtually every Top Ten list...but that pesky Best Animated Feature category will likely keep it from landing where is deserves...on the nominee list for Best Picture. Milk is also getting big-time traction, but I remain unconvinced that it has anything locked...except perhaps Best Actor. Early favorites like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Revolutionary Road have done what early frontrunners traditionally do: stalled. But Ben Button is still in the hunt, and will likely stand among Oscar's final five...as for Rev. Road...umm, we'll see.

I am hoping to see Slumdog, Milk,  and Will Smith's Seven Pounds (which has not gotten much in the way of awards traction, but which I refuse to count out simply because Will Smith is not only the world's biggest movie star, but he has now become the savviest actor and script-chooser working today). I am also hoping to sit down for Charlie Kauffman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, later this week.

Some shortened reviews of some recent releases are forthcoming, as is my first Oscar Watch update of the season.

And more than anything, I can't wait to start seeing some of these movies, so the conversation can begin in earnest.

Are you all still out there? What do you have to bring to the conversation? Let's start talking again...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

In 5 days, I can start talking about movies again!

Until then, I will be completely overwhelmed and imprisoned by the lead-up to the presidential election...I have been in such a state for the better part of three months. Soon, it will be over. And there will be relief.

I love movies. Last year in particular highlighted to me exactly why I love movies so much. A great year for film, 2007 was. This year has, for whatever reason--whether it was the WGA strike halting production on many good films (which is basically untrue...the strike affected TV moreso than movies) or, more likely, the election forcing studios to halt their major movies until after November 4--been sort of dead, quality-wise. There have been a few moments of greatness...WALL-E, obviously...The Visitor...In Bruges...The Dark Knight...Hancock...the visual power of Speed Racer.

This weekend is the first in a forthcoming string of exciting weekends. Wannabe Oscar players Changeling and Rachel Getting Married expand. Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno will not be in any awards race, but is an exciting film nonetheless...I always hope for surprises and poignancy in a Kevin Smith film...I always hope he brings his best self to the table for every film.

More major titles will bow after the election. It's almost time to get back to movies. I, for one, can't wait...and I hope there will be several movies to get excited about when the time comes.

So...5 days to go. I am asking readers to give me a buffer no matter what the final outcome next Tuesday. If Obama wins, give me a couple days to bask in the glory...and then I will gleefully jump back into the movies. If McCain wins, I might need longer...and it will surely be a slower, more melancholy transition back into film. I, of course, am hoping to refocus on movies as soon as possible...if you know what I mean.

In the meantime, here's a great film to watch...


Monday, October 13, 2008

Which is Sadder...?

...the fact that a movie about a talking chihuahua may end up being the first film to hit $100 million at the box office during the fall movie season...

...or the fact that there is a big opening for a talking chihuahua movie because there is such a depressing disparity of quality filmmaking so far this fall?

Discuss...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It's important that "Religulous" is in wide release...


....because Fireproof and An American Carol are also in wide release.

And even though the quantity is 2 versus 1, let's be honest--one competent, substantial documentary that dares to question the status quo of all organized religions, thereby challenging the status quo of the last eight years of political leadership in this country is, at the very least, a strong match for two lazy, incompetent, fictional forays into cinematic right-wingery.

Fireproof is a Kirk Cameron film, which should set off signals to anyone looking for quality cinema. It is also a film that relentlessly peddles the religious fundamentalism that Religulous analyzes in detail.

An American Carol comes straight out of the Zucker cess pool--which once brought us inventive and unexpectedly hilarious spoofs like Airplane! and The Naked Gun, but which has degraded over the years until now, when the genre has become so bankrupt that it is resorting to right-wing propaganda.

And I'll be honest--that's fine. These films are allowed to be made. What's more, they should be made (okay, maybe I'm going too far on that point). If the left can go to the theater and bask in the joys of Michael Moore and Bill Maher, the right is allowed to have their views espoused by the likes of....uh...Kirk Cameron and David Zucker. No problem there.

But in this most important of election years, when we will surely see unprecedented voter turnout and decide whether we want to change our country's direction or continue down the same path, there needs to be a solid cinematic point-counterpoint. And if the right's points are "Jesus saves marriages" and "Democrats are softies," then the left-wing counterpoint should surely be "religious fundamentalism is not only crazy, it's dangerous."

Bill Maher is a polarizing figure. His views are clearly Democratic and he makes no bones about discussing them openly--first on ABC's Politically Incorrect and now on his even-better HBO program, Real Time. He is not everyone's cup of tea--and even K and myself have taken issue with some of his views. But his boldness is unparalleled as both a comedian and as a member of the media.

That boldness is the crux of what makes Religulous such a fabulous, enlightening, entertaining, and powerful film experience. Time and again, Maher steps into the fire--daring to question the basis for the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Scientologists, and even, oddly, a religion of pot-smokers--and refuses to blink. The point is not to simply debunk religious tenants that so many people hold so dear, but to level the blind piety with reasonable questioning, thereby allowing the notion of "faith" to be put under a microscope and analyzed for its underlying structure.

What becomes fascinating is how nearly every religion in the known world is based on the same story, the same mythology, makes the same basic predictions, and espouses the same basic lessons/requirements/traditions/demands. With that irrefutable fact in mind, it becomes inherently necessary to question the validity of any one religion--and certainly to question the notion that "MY" beliefs are somehow absolute and true above and beyond "YOUR" beliefs. How can everyone claim to be right when so many of us believe different things? Of course, maybe we all can be right, since most religions base their stories on the same mythological starting point--and with that knowledge, can religion really be true, or, like stories passed down by each culture and each generation, is "religion" really a set of wonderful myths that people have clung to over time?

These are the questions Bill Maher poses in Religulous, and the off-shoots of those questions probe even deeper. Is religion a powerful truth or a convenient crutch? Are people divinely inspired or psychologically deluded? Do we cling to our religion to get us through the day, or is there more to faith than simply worshipping thin air? Finally, regardless of the answers to these ultimately unanswerable questions, what road does our passion for belief in *anything* lead us down? Are we happy and motivated, or are we waiting to be taken away? Are we inspired for good, or insighted to do evil? Are we encouraged to care, or does the idea that we are "going to a better place" contribute to our ultimate misanthropy, laziness, and apathy?

It we are militant and motivated, is that why events like 9/11 and Oklahoma City happen? Or, if we are apathetic, will we ever actually be willing to do anything to fight against such atrocities?
We each must figure these issues out for ourselves. Bill Maher provides his own journey of questions and doubt as an example. As a film, Religulous stands to pose all-important dissent to what so many see as literally gospel, a gospel that speaks not only to the personal beliefs of many, but the current political trajectory of our entire country.

We need to question. We need to engage in and pay attention to active dissent. And more than any other reason, that is why Religulous is so important.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

CINEMA SQUARED IS NOT DEAD...

...and as such, perhaps it is not the best place to be airing what I intend to be an ONSLAUGHT of political posts. The cinema is important to me--it deserves its own space. But even more important is the future of our country. As that hangs in the balance, I may not be writing quite as much about movies and such...for the time being, I know what kind of work I need to be doing.

With that in mind, I am taking my dog and pony show over to the iKonoclast, run by the Magnificent K. I am stepping in as a contributor not because she needs my help (as evidenced by here latest, stellar post, Obama/Biden: The Ticket of "Us", featuring an incredible video that everyone in the country needs to see), but because she was gracious enough to have me. I have a lot to say about this Most Important Election in Our History--I want to make sure it is in the most appropriate venue. the iKonoclast is that venue.

Do not abandon Cinema Squared. There will always be reviews, box office and business info, and stimulating film discussion herein. But never fail to stop by the iKonoclast, which will continue to be the home of K McKiernan's brilliant political analysis....and now J McKiernan's...hopefully equally brilliant ranting.

So, in getting back to the typical Cinema Squared topic of conversation--powerful moments captured on film or video--check this video out...


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Yikes

The Republican party is the party of fear and smears. The Republican party is the party of "we don't give a shit." The Republican party is the party of smug, nasty insults, shit-sling politics, and shit-eating grins. This has been the case for years now, but especially so in the last eight years, when Karl Rove high-jacked the party and turned nearly all its members into raving, ranting, out-of-touch lunatics.

During last night's convention speech, Sarah Palin confirmed that she fits the neo-conservative mold like a glove.

The current Governor of Alaska, she of the most conservative record in Alaskan history, she of the worst environmental record of any sitting Governor, went on for 45 long, often boring minutes that rose to occasional crescendos of fear, hate, and distortion. Went she wasn't putting me to sleep with her lame, rehashed rhetoric of John McCain's heroism and "reaching across the aisle" independence, she was offending me by resorting to the same nasty Republican boilerplate that Rovian politicians have been peddling for three successive elections now. She made no mention of any pertinent issues, didn't say word one about anything that matters to voters during this election cycle. She just attacked Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and the Democrats with the same reckless vigor, the same nasty vitriol that any common right-wing news pundit would. She was an extremist attack dog--exactly what she needed to "electrify," to borrow a commonly-used word by the MSM, the Republican base, but exactly the kind of empty, biased, horseshit rhetoric that the intelligent masses--independent voters among them--should be rejecting on its face. Her message was repugnant, her mud-slinging revolting.

Most amazing of all was that her speech was divided into two seemingly warring halves--a fact that was shrewdly pointed out by a few post-debate analysts. The first half was intended to reach out to the common man--and especially the common woman--to let them know she was "one of them." She told her story and relayed it with all the "aww-shucks" realism of an everyday person. Fair enough--that's supposedly why McCain picked her. I get it. But about halfway through her speech made a stark diversion from the populist message of its beginning, and took a headfirst dive into Republican thuggery ("Rethuggery," if you will). Palin spewed the most smug and hateful distortions of Barack Obama's experience, record, and plans for our country since...well, Rudy Giuliani's babbling nonsense just minutes before Palin took the stage.

One thing Palin was careful to do was completely sideswipe any legitimate issue during her nasty performance. People care about the economy during this election...while Barack Obama has outlined his comprehensive plan for widespread economic relief, Palin only spoke seven words on the subject, words that did not detail John McCain's plans for our economy, but words that fit in with typical Republican smear tactics: "our opponent wants to take your money." I hate to resort to online-speak during what I intend to be a scholarly essay, but WTF?!?! Nothing but a complete distortion and false simplification intended to dupe the masses into hating Obama.

People also care about health care this year. Did Palin mention anything about the McCain plan? No.


People care about getting out of Iraq as soon as possible. Did Palin discuss a timetable? No--she proudly exploited the fact that her son is being deployed to Iraq next week (on September 11, of all dates).

People care about individual rights during this election. But Palin would never think about mentioning anything about that--if she did, she would expose herself for being a radical right-winger who wants to take away individual rights, most especially rights for her own gender.


The only resal issue Palin spent any significant time discussing--which obviously became one of the sub-themes of the entire convention--was "energy independence" by way of off-shore drilling. But she didn't discuss the dangers of such an action--she didn't even pull a Dubya and say "the jury's out." No, Palin--and by extension, the entire Republican convention--stated clearly that the solution is to drill and drill now. "Drill, baby, drill," the crowds roared, in their giant-sized bubble of isolationism and arrogance.

The Republicans have always been arrogant, always been rude, always been cheating, conniving pigs who consistently hit below the belt. But this convention moved them even further down the spiral. They've now become complete narcissists.

It's time to take them out.

Friday, August 29, 2008

THE TIME IS NOW!



We have endured eight long years of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a right-wing stranglehold. Eight years of failed policies, failed posturing, and failed peace-keeping. Eight years of corrupt partisanship, enacted to serve only those in power. Tax cuts for the rich and zero relief for the poor. Tax breaks for companies that outsource American jobs and zero reward for companies that stay at home. A healthcare system that shuts people out, plays by a shifting set of rules, and discriminates against those who need good care the most. A self-serving foreign policy that has completely abandoned vital American diplomacy and strong strategic intelligence. A unilateral occupation entered under false pretenses that has alienated the United States from nearly all of its once-strong partners and allies. A stubborn, greed-fueled reliance on foreign oil that has ushered in the arrival of $4 gas prices...and even higher than that in certain areas. An environmental policy that has ignored the environment and thus worsened our global climate. Eight years of neo-conservative leadership...and we have indelibly worsened the state of our country and its citizens.

It's been a long way down during these eight long years. But finally we are transitioning into a new era of American history. We are nearing the time when the atrocities of Bush 43 will be considered past-tense. We are leaving "then" and entering "now." The primary season we all experienced--some would say endured--in the past months was pristinely indicative of the move toward "now." As grueling and difficult as the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was, there we all stood, at the doorstep of the future, the gateway to progress, the precipice of history. After years of white male dominance, the two top contenders for a major presidential nomination were a woman and a black man.The uprising began, and after months of hard-fought struggle, a winner was finally declared. Three days ago, the woman who didn't quite make it stood up and spoke out to the masses, all of those whose passion was ignited by this exciting moment in American history. She stood up to say that we must not forget where we are and where we need to be. She told us to put any shred of enmity behind us and to unite behind the tidal wave of change. She exhorted us all to fight for this moment--our moment, our NOW--and never look back, not even when we think the job is "done," for it never truly is.

In this moment, as we stand on the brink of taking back our world, it is more important than ever to do every single thing we can to usher change into Washington, into the White House, into Congress, and into our lives. There is not a moment to spare. This is our Now.

Of course, if this was an easy task, there would be no reason to fight. But the resurgence of pride, the revolution of humanity, and yes, the audacity of hope, are movements that will chafe against the brick wall of apathy, the barricade of the status quo, the all-consuming evil of regression. There are enemies in this battle to take back our country, and they will not let up until their antiquated ideas for an evolving world become even more widespread than they already have.

John McCain is running on the image of a "straight-talker," a "Maverick" politician who understands the wisdom of bipartisanship. But McCain's image, much like his policies, are rooted firmly in the past. After falling victim to the upstart insurgency of Rovian political machinations in the 2000 Republican primary, McCain opted not to work at beating the sinister forces of neo-conservative fear and smears, but to join them. For the last eight years, the Senator from Arizona has made it his mission to pander so completely to the far reaches of the right-wing that his reliable "Maverick" moniker was no longer appropriate. Indeed, it was no longer recognizable. Stating broadly that McCain has voted with the Bush administration 90% of the time is damning, but it is vaguely damning. Stating more clearly that McCain not only voted for the Iraq war, but continues to support it to this day is more specifically what our people need to hear. Stating clearly that McCain does not support a woman's right to choose and does not believe that women should get equal pay for equal work is what our people need to hear. Stating clearly that McCain thinks the economy is moving in the right direction, that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans need to be made permanent, and that the working class poor are not suffering under the current system is what our people need to hear. Stating clearly that McCain's solution to solving the issue of sky-rocketing gas prices is to drill off-shore, kill the environment, and hope for the best is what our people need to hear. Stating clearly that McCain wants to privatize Social Security, thereby demolishing the longest-standing and most effective and celebrated social program in our nation's history, is what our people need to hear. Stating clearly that McCain does not wish to reform a health care system that has left the sick, injured, and dying without proper care and with no way out is what our people need to hear.

These are not the policies of an independent soul. These are not the plans of one who wants to work with the opposition. These are not the promises of a Straight-Talking Maverick. No--these are the wrong-headed and dangerous ideologies of a brainwashed, power-hungry politician. He is pandering to the innocent people who were duped by Karl Rove and George W. Bush, and now he wants to dupe us, too.

Now, after a four-day celebration at the Democratic National Convention where those with the passion to change this country united to nominate Barack Obama and Joe Biden as the candidates who will lead us into the future, the enemy has countered with their own news: John McCain has selected a running mate, and that running mate is Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska.

When word came that Palin was McCain's selection, I was wary of what it meant. It seemed like a savvy move, one that would work in McCain's favor moreso than in Obama's. For months now, there has been speculation--mild though it may have been--that Palin was a strong dark horse candidate, one who could sway some of Hillary Clinton's former supporters by virtue of the fact that, aside from seeing a woman on a major ticket, they would also respond to Palin's alleged independent record. I was worried.

But I am not worried anymore.

Now, instead of worried, I am engaged in this election in a way I hadn't been heretofore. My passion has been ignited in a way it hasn't been since the heart of the primary season.

We have a real opportunity here. The selection of Sarah Palin is very revealing, indeed: it was orchestrated to reinforce the Illusion of the Maverick, since in the lead-up to this announcement, everyone from Republican strategists to CNN anchors were touting her "dedication to fighting corruption" and "record of bucking the system."

But that just underscores simultaneously the sneaky tactics of the neo-cons and the fact that no one knows ANYTHING about who Sarah Palin really is. In point of fact, Palin is far from centrist--she embodies the heart of hardcore conservatism.

McCain and Co. want us to believe--and want independents to believe, and certainly want former Hillary Clinton supporters to believe--that Sarah Palin is the voice of common Americans, the voice of bipartisan judgment. But when your VP candidate is anti-choice, anti-women's rights, anti-environment and, alternatively, is pro-gun, pro-war, pro-tax cuts for the rich...she is following in lock-step with the far right base of religious conservatives. She is helping DEFINE the far right base of religious conservatives.

You can't be a system-bucking maverick and a staunch social conservative at the same time. This idea of Palin as Independent was completely and utterly manufactured out of thin air. The idea of McCain as Maverick may have turned into a fantasy the last eight years, but the idea of Palin as Maverick is worse than a fantasy--it's an outright fabrication.

This is the contradiction that Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and all loyal Democrats, liberals, and progressives should be pouncing on in the days, weeks, and months to come. Hell, they should be pouncing on it in the seconds, minutes, and hours to come. There is not a moment to spare. The time is NOW.

The time is NOW to put an end to the corruption in our government. The time is NOW to reverse these policies and programs that have set our country so far behind in every area, from the economy to foreign relations to health care to women's rights to gay rights to education. The time is NOW to speak out against those who want to continue derailing the potential of our government and the hard work of our citizens, and to speak out for those who want to help us set this nation right once again. The time is NOW to get out there and knock on every door, make every phone call, and donate any penny of spare change we may be lucky enough to have and afford--no matter how little that may be. The time is NOW to do what we can to help this country fulfill the greatness of its promise.

We cannot let our country down. This is our time. This is our Now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona....and Javier, and Penelope, and That Damned Narrator...


Vicky Cristina Barcelona is certainly Woody Allen's weightiest film since Match Point, and may be his best since...well...

The film possesses many small virtues, but foremost among them is one undeniable fact: Allen delivers, unequivocally, his most complex and engaging screenplay in years--even better, really, than his work on the very powerful Match Point. His script ebbs and flows with the characters, lingering on lovely moments and carefully truncating others. It wanders with curiosity, yet embodies the very succinct nature of a Woody Allen screenplay: it simultaneously moves with a brisk efficiency and yet feels like we are soaking in its characters for hours.

The set-up is fairly simple. Vicky (Rebecca Hall), uptight, buttoned-down, and full aware of what she wants in life, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), open, wandering, and completely unsure of her ultimate desires, are close friends who take a small vacation to Barcelona. Their divergent personalities come to a head when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a very free-spirited painter whose passion for nearly all of life's pleasures leads Vicky and Cristina down a strange, halted, complex love triangle, one that goes off on so many interesting tangents that it barely registers as a love triangle at all. A more traditional triad develops when Juan Antonio's equally passionate (to the point of being mentally imbalanced) ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), re-enters the picture, and ignites a journey of passion and self-discovery for Cristina, who begins to fall in love with both artists. Vicky, meanwhile, does all she can to force the passion and uncertainty out of her life, and does so by (ironically) marrying her boring fiancee (Chris Messina) in Spain, on a whim.

How these characters' lives casually flow in and out of each other's is one of the subtle charms of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the very talented cast allows the path of the characters to unfold with a quiet grace. These characters feel real, and they flirt with the challenge of drastically altering their emotions and ideologies in ways that feel completely unforced.  Rebecca Hall, new to American eyes, has been getting a lot of pub for this film, and rightfully so--her role as the wary and conservative Vicky is unexpectedly complex, and the fact that Hall plays the character with such outward calm and subtle inner turmoil makes her all the more intriguing. Conversely, the world is fully aware of the enormous talents of Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz, but they are all at the very top of their games here. For Johansson, this feels like an acting renewal after several lackluster projects; Bardem, coming off his No Country Oscar, is completely the opposite of Anton Chigurgh, charming and sexy and effortlessly charismatic, though perhaps dangerous for the same reasons; and Penelope Cruz is absolutely brilliant, crafting a character that is passionate and volatile and absolutely riveting at every turn. With Almodovar's Volver and now this film, the once undervalued Cruz has risen to the highest level of current acting talent, and in Maria Elena creates one of the most iconic characters in all of Woody Allen's films.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona does suffer from a couple of its director's more nagging vices, namely the use of an obligatory narration track that distracts from the on-screen drama more than enhances it. Allen doesn't always employ narration in his films, but when he does it becomes this glaring device that is literary for the sake of being literary. Such is the case here, and the problem is made all the more distracting by the narrator himself, character actor Christopher Evan Welch, whose voice has no gravitas and who sounds geeky and over-excited, like he's trying too hard to get all the words out. Perhaps that was the point; I hope it wasn't. And maybe with a stronger, more believable voice delivering the words, the narration wouldn't be such an issue. As it currently stands, though, it is the only sizable flaw in a very sumptuous film.

The film's ever-intriguing screenplay, too, eventually stumbles ever-so-slightly in the third act; Allen has a thing for characters who decide abruptly what they want/don't want, or how their lives should change, and in this movie it feels like that particular writing peccadillo is merely used to keep the film's brisk running time on track. Of course, the shift is signaled by the lame narrator and comes so far out of left field that it nearly interrupts the genuine, sensuous stimulant of watching these wonderful actors intertwine. But by the end, Allen's penchant for quick shifts almost works better here than in many of his past films, because Vicky Cristina Barcelona is essentially a walkabout of a film, a motion picture where the characters wander in and out of beautiful locales and in and out of each other's lives, beds, and hearts. It is about characters clearly defining what they don't want and shouldn't have, but hedging on the ever-important matters of what they do want...what they need.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hey...I updated the freakin' box office chart!

...that's about as much initiative as I've put forward in a while. I owe you loyal readers much more than that. Forgive my recent business-slash-laziness-slash-saddled with the flu-ness.

Will try to get back into the swing of things soon. For now, some brief nuggets...

There are oh-so-many films to discuss, both good and bad....I need to impart the joys of Pineapple Express and the horrors--oh the horrors!--of Mamma Mia! And there are, of course, many more, some more compelling than others...Tropic Thunder, Step Brothers, The Wackness, Hellboy II...the list goes on...

K and I are seeing Woody Allen's latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, tonight...I hope to report back great things.

We will most likely see The Rocker, for which I also have my fingers crossed, tomorrow.

Interesting side note: isn't it strange how the release and success of Superbad last August has then led this August to be the Month of Comedy? Nearly every major comedy release of the summer is landing this month...Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder are the most obvious and high-profile of the bunch, but also... The Rocker, The House Bunny, Hamlet 2, and even the lamest of the lame, like College and Disaster Movie. It's nuts. The only major summer comedy to be released before August was Step Brothers, and even that one only missed it by one week. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues next summer...or if each film will so severely dip into the others' grosses that studios will have to go back to the drawing board.

Such a shame to lose Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes in no less than a two-day span. They will be missed.

I will also be missing--happily and deliberately missing--films like The Mummy 3 and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The kids will have to drug me and drag me if I am ever to see one of those things...

We are now, finally, coming to the end of the summer season, which means two things. One is an end-of-summer retrospective of sorts, hopefully delivered by both K and myself. And more importantly, it means autumn--aka, the beginning of Good Movie Season--is nearly upon us. Plenty of wonderful stuff to look forward to...

...except not Harry Potter 6, which is now being moved to Summer 2009, even though Warner Bros. reports that all post production is completed and the film is completely ready...hmmm...

Tough times at Warner Bros. these days. First they announce the Potter move, which raised a lot of speculation, mostly negative...then Entertainment Weekly--which WB owns, no less--releases their annual Fall Preview edition with Harry Potter on the freakin' cover!...they had to apologize and clean up that mess...and now the trades are reporting that 20th Century Fox is suing Warner Bros. over the rights for WB's spring tentpole release, Watchmen. We'll have to see how that one unfolds.

Any thoughts on your end? What have you been watching while I've been gone...

Monday, July 21, 2008

155,000,000 is the lucky number

The Dark Knight completed history over the weekend--though not by much at all. Box Office Mojo's "actuals" place DK at $155.3 million for the weekend frame, enough to eclipse Spider-Man 3's previous record by a little over $4 million. Estimates over at Movie City News are, as usual, a little lower--DK comes in at $153m over there, still enough for the record, but by an even slimmer margin.

Once the actual Actuals drop sometime today or tomorrow, we will have a better idea of precisely how much history was made this weekend...but no matter what the number and no matter how slim the margin, history was made.

On a much more minor scale, Mamma Mia! set a record this weekend as well--highest opening weekend for a musical film. The ABBA musical's $27.6m beats out Hairspray by the slimmest of margins. This has to be seen as a coup for the marketers over at Universal for two very obvious reasons:

1) Opening as Dark Knight counter-programming was a bold move that paid off in spades, and
2) The film sucks like a Hoover...but more on that soon enough...

In other box office news...

Hancock's legs are longer than anyone could have predicted going in, thereby completely stifling the film's thoroughly undeserved critical bashing and further solidifying the power of Will Smith as an American Movie Star Icon. There are still no easy predictions of how much the film will make...three weeks on the chart and it still comes in at a strong #3 with $14m...a $191m cume thus far means that it will most likely end up with somewhere between $205 and $215 by the end of next weekend, and could possibly angle for $250m by the end of its run.

WALL-E will have to fight hard to overcome Kung Fu Panda's current status as "highest-grossing animated film of the summer." Panda is winding down mightily, but will end up with around $210m once all is said and done. After 4 weeks in release, WALL-E has raked in $182m and is still chugging along relatively strong. That combined with the fact that it is still the highest quality film out there right now should make for some decent legs in the coming weeks. It will certainly break $190m by the end of next weekend. Then it will have to turn on the after burners to try and glide just a bit past the Panda, somewhere in the next 3 or so weeks.

More than ever, it is apparent to me that this summer is becoming the Summer of Inches. Dark Knight secured the opening weekend record--by mere inches. Mamma Mia! now owns the musical record--by a hair. WALL-E will likely end up taking the animated box-office crown--but only by a tiny bit. Indiana Jones may even end up filling the spot most thought it would easily fill--as a higher grosser than Iron Man--but if it does, it will be by a fraction of an inch. In what is the most amusing news--and certainly the most disheartening for the studios involved--is that The Incredible Hulk, which currently has $131m in the bank at the end of this weekend frame, will most likely accomplish its goal--out-grossing Ang Lee's Hulk--by next weekend. But it will likely accomplish it by grossing less than one million more...and by that time it will be dead. In a Summer of Inches, this new Hulk movie will have to use centimeters to accomplish a goal they arrogantly figured they'd easily secure by a mile.

At this point, however, it would seem like The Dark Knight has "highest-grosser of the summer" locked up...and not just by a few million. So go figure.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Single-Day Record for 'The Dark Knight'

Movie City News estimates $64.8m. Box Office Mojo estimates $66.8m. Somewhere in there lies the record for highest one-day gross in box office history.

This is not, by the way, meant to distract from the real discussion on The Dark Knight...our two reviews are below...

She Said: The Dark Knight


We waited (in the front) of a long snaking line for an hour and a half just to procure a "prime" seat to view the latest Batman film, and then we sat in the darkness  for nearly 3 hours, sandwiched between people in a completely packed house. Was it worth it?

 You bet your ass it was.

If you have limited gas, snack, or ticket funds and have to decide where to throw down your cinematic dollars, well folks, go spend it on the epic that is The Dark Knight. You get no better Batman flick, or "superhero" tale than this one. The film unfolds with enrapturing yet methodical pacing. It strives (and achieves) to weave a more complex saga, one that allows a full arc of character development and nuanced themes. Typically, when a character goes 180 degrees into the light or into the dark (whichever the case),  audiences are left scratching their heads or wondering why the "bait and switch." The Dark Knight, in the more than capable hands of Memento director Christopher Nolan (and his co-writer brother, Jonathan), spins enough breadth and depth to make you believe every dark, visually stunning moment and to feel invested in the moral complexity of its tale.

The Dark Knight achieves what Spider-man 3 could not. Both films have their fair share of "villains" and of story arcs, but  Spidey 3 reminds me of a kid who couldn't decide between the snacks offered and gorges until on the verge of bawling and vomiting. On the other hand,  The Dark Knight crafts the story lines until we have the next great crime saga. This film is not just for those who like the caped crusader, its for any person who enjoys crime drama and elegantly mosaic expensive film shooting.

The only negative for me is that with such ample and well played  screen time and depth doled out to Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent, Gary Oldman's Lt. James Gordon, and Heath Ledger's The Joker, there is very little time left for the title character, Batman himself. Christian Bale, arguably the best actor of our time, gets only a few brooding moments (albeit beautiful), a few raspy utterances, and far too few intimate moments. The title really is misleading, for this film does not belong to him but to the entire gi-normous ensemble cast. In a way, that was a pity, for I cannot get enough of Christian Bale.  

Even Maggie Gyllenhaal's, Rachel Dawes, slices off room to stand out in a film which, like all other "hero" movies, relegates its women to the sidelines. Does she shine like the men, of course not; what male director takes the time to ever really develop women in such a manner? Answer: none, but the point here is, under either Gyllenhaal's presence or the writing for Rachel, this male love interest is allowed to have depth and to exist as important to the tale's structure and message of sacrifice.

Stealing the screen from Bale (a feat I never knew could be accomplished) is the indescribably incredible Heath Ledger with his clever, cunning, merciless Joker. Never have we had such a delightfully creepy villain as we do with Ledger's Joker. He reduces Nicholson's version to, well, a  cute "joke." Rarely do we get a glimpse of ruthless genius behind villainous schemes, but with this Joker, we get a sense that his brilliance is his motivation. Many critics have argued that he has no motivation, that his sinister, "lack of a reason" is what is scary about this Joker. I disagree. Everyone has a story, and for Ledger's Joker he is chillingly smarter than every single person alive, can relate to no one, and wants to matter to the Universe... even in if a decidedly chaotic, destructive way. 

I have heard others say the film tries to accomplish too much, its plot is muddled, and/or it fails to deliver what it could have, but I completely disagree. This mesmerizingly grand narrative kept me riveted and embraced in tension and beautifully moody tones for the full 2 1/2+ hours. Some critics have falsely called this movie, "loud," and it could not be further from the truth. Nolan knows when to steep the film in silence and he does so brilliantly and often. Finally,  The Dark Knight solidified what I have always thought true heroism to be even as every other "superhero" movie pretends it knows: selflessness and sacrifice.

If you go see no other film this summer, The Dark Knight is the one to see!



He Said: THE DARK KNIGHT


Upon a single viewing of The Dark Knight, I will say this much: it is great and grand. Just how great and grand, I'm not quite sure yet. As big and powerful and expensive and stunt-laden as the film obviously is, it is still a brooding, interior experience; I am still chewing on it...still thinking it over. Make no mistake, this is massively effective picture. It is grandiose. It is beautiful. It is more ambitious than any film released this year (and it will likely be the highest-grossing film of the year as well). But it is a giant film with giant themes, one that is deliberately muddy in its storytelling and character portrayals. Stuff this complex just can't be fully digested in one viewing.

Not everything crystallized for me at last night's 10:00pm screening. Unlike the two other great films (and let's be clear: this is a great film) of summer 2008, WALL-E and Hancock, The Dark Knight is not as clear-cut in its screenplay. Whereas the former two films were perfect and near-perfect journeys into the heart, films that felt very complete and wholly satisfying in a single viewing, The Dark Knight is a relentlessly complex journey into the soul by way of the psyche, and it is not such a complete experience. While the wonders of WALL-E and Hancock invite subsequent viewings to get a fuller grasp of the films' subtleties and to bask in their greatness more and more, The Dark Knight is a film that outright demands to be seen at least twice before it can be fully processed. In the coming days I will return to the film, and perhaps bring more of my thoughts to the table once they form in greater detail. But for now, I have plenty to stew over...

The Dark Knight is, as K referenced in her review, the film that Spider-Man 3 wishes it could've come close to being. Both films attempted to be more serious, more intimate, and more expansive in themes, in action, and in storytelling than any previous cinematic incarnation of their respective comic book characters. But whereas Spidey was a bloated, increasingly-ridiculous, teary-eyed mess, The Dark Knight is like an addendum to the catalog of great American epic crime sagas. It is Heat. It is Scarface. It is The Godfather. This is no longer a comic book series...it is a 70s-inspired epic of moral ambiguity that happens to feature a guy in a batsuit.

The filmmakers' intentions are very clear, and the result of their vision is very dark, muddy, and very intentionally, very beautifully messy. Christopher Nolan, his brother and writing partner Jonathan, and co-writer David S. Goyer place The Dark Knight in a completely different filmmaking pantheon than a comic book adaptation has ever been placed before. There are no standard acts of heroism, no easily-solved conflicts, and not a single element of flash--this is not a film that comic lovers can go laugh, holler, and clap for. There are obviously clear-cut villains, but the notion of a 'hero' is the messiest, most complex theme in the film. The Dark Knight features no easy rooting interests. This is a long, sprawling ensemble piece, at the center of which are four men who inhabit very different, very contradictory molds of "hero" and "villain," "innocent" and "guilty."

The four men in question are Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham police Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and the scary, anarchic Joker (the late, great Heath Ledger). In a year of films featuring superheroes whose deeds are not viewed with prototypical hero worship by the public they serve (a la Hancock and Hellboy), Batman is perhaps the most feared and hated of them all. One of the film's most effective themes is the dual role of Batman: is he a hero or a villain? Bruce Wayne himself isn't so sure, and he's also not sure he cares. Moreso than ever before, this cinematic Batman is not one whose primary protocol is to defend the common good; it is, rather, to exorcise his psychological and emotional demons. The more public, more accepted, more traditional hero in Gotham City is Eckhart's Dent, who has not only become a more effective crime-fighter than the Caped Crusader, but has also wooed the affections of Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over for Batman Begins' Katie Holmes), Bruce Wayne's eternal love interest. Dent reluctantly begins working with the Bat through Lieutenant Gordon, who has come to have as intimate a relationship as one can with the mysterious hero. Together they work to stop the stunningly indestructible Joker, who infiltrates the city's leading mafia clan to become the ruthless, soulless, archvillain of Gotham.

The Joker, as conceived and written by the Nolans and as played, in one of the great, otherwordly, already-legendary performances by Ledger, is not simply the most evil character in The Dark Knight, he's also the smartest and the most magnetic. He bursts onto the Gotham City crime scene without any introduction, any motive, or any identity; he is a being who, it seems, exists solely to enact cold-blooded evil. But he is also the most unfettered and unconflicted character in the film, which, as I'm sure Nolan and Co. intended, is what makes him so damn effective in the face of such brooding, conflicted "heroism." Bruce Wayne comes to respect Harvey Dent for his heroic dedication to the city but resent him for his perceived stealing of Rachel's affection. At the same time, Wayne starts to wonder if the role of "hero" is even one he should atempt to play anymore. Dent's noble passion plays directly against Wayne's/Batman's sheltered insecurity, leaving Oldman's Lieutenant Gordon in the middle of their personal and professional push-and-pull. It becomes Gordon's mission to provide the city with the hero it "needs" rather than the one it may "deserve," a theme which becomes more prominent as the film unfolds.

The Dark Knight is clearly the best of the seven big-budget Batman films, and it is also clearly the most realistic version ever put to screen--even moreso than this film's predecessor, 2005's Batman Begins. This Batman exists in a real world with real crime and real intrigue even among the "good guys." The screenplay harkens clearly to the work of 70s giants like Coppola, and the filmmaking, singular as it is, also comes from the work of Coppola, of Michael Mann, and as most crime sagas do, from the work of Scorsese. But even as it attempts to be one of the grand crime sagas of our time, this film is touched with the intimacy and the subtlety of Christopher Nolan's direction. Apart from the intrigue of the story and the deep psychology of the characters, it is the quiet, poetic, and powerful visual moments that truly revealed The Dark Knight's greatness to me. Moments that cannot be adequately described...Batman standing atop a skyscraper roof, contemplating his place in the world with the dark, brooding sky in the background; the Joker riding in a police car, his body handing out the window, basking the glee of his evil anarchy; Bruce Wayne standing in his underground lair, staring back at the iconic black suit that both defines him and tortures him. That kind of potency can be inspired--and surely it is--but it cannot be faked or imitated.

It has taken writing this review to help me grapple with my thoughts coming out of the theater late last night. And the verdict is, this is an immensely powerful piece of filmmaking on every level. But it is still one that lingers in my mind as a very intricate, very layered, very deliberately complicated experience, one that won't adequately settle until I see the film again. I do look forward to seeing it again. And once I do, maybe it will become a little clearer as to where this film stands among the great films of the summer, the great films of the year, and where it truly wants to be ranked, among the great crime epics of all time.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

THE CINEMA SQUARED JUKEBOX

This is a site where readers can expect many up-to-date reviews of films currently in theaters. These reviews range from the dumbest summer blockbuster to the most intelligent art house film. I always intended this site to be a variety of things, but one of its main purposes is to be an outlet for strong criticism and analysis of current film.

But there is a vast, endless vault of films out there...classics, cult classics, ignored masterpieces, and overpraised stinkers. We do not just watch current film...there is too much wonderful cinema out there to simply zero in on the here and now (though the 'here and now' is still very important).

As a result, I vow to do two things. One is to try my best to continue the 'Video Picks' posts I started a few weeks back but have never continued. The other is a new invention:

The Cinema Squared Jukebox.

Here is how it will work: Once each week, I will put up a new post labeled "Jukebox" and the week in question (for example, next week could be "Jukebox: Week of 7/14"). There will be pretty much nothing written by me...it will be an open forum for any of you wonderful readers to select what films you want to see reviewed, for whatever reason...kind of like a jukebox. You pick the title, and we spit the review back out for you. 

Maybe you haven't seen a film but want to know what we think. Maybe there is a personal anecdote behind your selection. Maybe it's just a film you really love (or really hate) and want to hear a few words on it. Whatever the case, and whatever the film, let the selections fly...pick as many as you want, but realize that we can only do so much in one week's time (so maybe hold some of your requests back for subsequent weeks).

As the selections roll in, we will try to get some thoughts out there in a timely fashion. Hopefully it will go week-to-week: you make some suggestions, and then by the time the next week's Jukebox rolls around, there will be some reviews of the previous week's selections.

There is pretty much nothing else to say. You now know what to do. Think about what you want to see reviewed on this site. Some of you won't have to think too hard...others will. But whatever the case, let your requests fly...the Jukebox is now operational.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Slick and Shiny...and that's about all


There is true punk rock and then there is poser punk rock. Wanted is a souped-up poser; it knows the attitude but not the music. There is lots of cursing, plenty of bloodshed, and a lot of ironic voice-over to lull the audience (and apparently many major film critics) into buying the film’s cheap brand of iron-archy. But to probe even one inch into the film’s content, one will find a lot of empty hatred aimed simultaneously at everything and nothing; it’s like the filmmakers just like the idea of being hipster assholes.

Wanted is actually pretty audacious: never have I seen one film so blatantly lift from both Fight Club and The Matrix while posing smugly as if it created something fresh and new. Credit for that should go, I suppose, to director Timur Bekmambetov, a Russian-Kazakh import who specializes in hyper-violent gore-fests and slick gratuity. Perhaps we can be thankful that he didn’t completely humiliate the participants in the film’s few energetic sex scenes, but on the other hand, sex doesn’t seem to be Bekmambetov’s preferred brand of porn…ultra cool slashings, gunfights, and beat-downs are.

Atonement golden boy James McAvoy stars in the Keanu-Norton role, playing Wesley, who suffers from frequent panic attacks, hates his Office Space-esque desk job, has no money in the bank, has a girlfriend who is cheating on him with his best friend, and who can barely stand to get up in the morning. Wesley narrates the film with a heightened sense of irony, as if he is fully aware the audience is listening. I prefer the cold detachment of Edward Norton’s Fight Club narration, which this film is clearly chasing in the wind, but while Wanted can muster the same four-letter words, it can’t come close to matching the meaning behind them.

Wesley is mysteriously recruited by a secret society of assassins called The Fraternity, which is led—as all secret assassin societies should be—by a grizzled Morgan Freeman, who stands on the sidelines—or more to the point, in the shadowy corners—and lets his elite team do the dirty work. The elite team is headed—as all elite teams should be—by Angelina Jolie, but she is not in Lara Croft/Mrs. Smith mode here; she is instead so emaciated that it seems one kick in the gut would break her in half (lucky that never happens to her during the film). Strangely, Jolie is relegated to a pretty small supporting role in favor of McAvoy, whose Wesley whines and screams his way through the film’s first few action sequences before undergoing the inevitable Transformation Into Gun-Slinging God. The training sequences go on forever and get bloodier as they go—this section also starts the film on its more serious “hero origin story” path, which does not coalesce with the smug jokiness of the film’s first half and which only serves to prolong the boring hyper-violence of the film’s last half.

McAvoy is a good actor and he is pretty good here, almost in spite of his mildly annoying character. Freeman has some fun spinning his usual gravitas with some barbed toughness…and he doesn’t chew as much scenery as one might imagine (though that might have been pretty fun, too). Jolie is basically wasted—I think she speaks about 20 words throughout the entire film. I’m not sure what drew these actors to this particular material, other than the fact that slick comic book adaptations (Wanted is based on a series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones) are currently en vogue, and maybe the arrogance of the film’s winking irony appeared half-way intelligent on the page. And Bekmambetov was probably seen as a pretty hot commodity in Hollywood, after his Night Watch and Day Watch films became cult sensations for their kinetic action and remarkably gratuitous gore. But I have news for them, and for you: Night Watch wasn’t all that great, and Wanted plays on the screen like boring action-porn.