Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Prodigal Son.

Months ago I mentioned that I was also planning on two other projects besides the long countdown of a hundred films from the 2000s, one which will be my views and rankings on the wonderfully imaginative movies of Hayao Miyazaki, the other a similar list from the godfather of the psychological horror film, producer Val Lewton. However, with these three projects I also wanted to periodically post about a wide variety of movies that the only connection between them will be that they have just been recently watched and that I would like to give a few words and thoughts on them. So without further delay I will give a small taste. Folks, this is Recently Viewed.

Batman: Under the Red Hood
(Brandon Vietti, 2010)
Recently Viewed

Considering this was just released a few days ago this Tuesday I thought it would be as good a time as ever to mention Batman: Under the Red Hood in my new Recently Viewed segment.

First off, a brief summary of the movie. The story begins with the death of the second person to wear the mantel of Batman's sidekick and partner, Jason Todd as Robin, at the hands of the joker. Years later a new vigilante, The Red Hood, appears in Gotham willing to not only fight crime, but to exterminate it. Batman has a new rival, one that goes against his moral code which is that under no circumstances, he doesn't kill. The more that's revealed about this Red Hood the closer his connection to Wayne and perhaps the more dangerous he is to Batman.

First off, I want to say that I don't think this movie is as good as any of the feature length films involved with the story line that directly connects to Batman the Animated Series from the early 1990s, Batman Mask of the Phantasm (1993) especially, though it is most likely better than most of the recent animated outings from DC. The animation is alright, the style isn't anything new though, but it is certainly a polished visual presentation of what Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010) and Green Lantern First Flight (2009) had to offer.

The plot unfolds reasonably well, though those who aren't as familiar with Batman's history throughout the comic series may be slightly lost with a number of the names and significance of the characters, enough information is given that they can follow along without large problems or ignorance of the events in the movie. My main problem with the movie is while the pacing is very fast, it's actually too quick. Plus there isn't enough story involved with its rapid pacing. Rather than giving much needed time to develop the relationship Batman has with his wards it races to the next action sequence. Though admittedly they are well choreographed, they don't add a lot of substance to the story and I found them somewhat tedious by the time Batman and Red Hood were disposing of mercenaries in super suits. Though rapid pacing is something that's become a staple in modern day movie making that has disappointed me greatly. Movie producers seem to think that an audience always needs actions happening in rapid succession for their films to be appreciated or even good and I would disagree. Just because a story's plot is always advancing doesn't necessarily mean it's developing, and without meaning behind a film I tend to lose interest rather quickly. This is also the main fault I would have with The Dark Knight (2008), an overall fine movie, is that the pacing is so quick that rarely are we able to comprehend exactly what's occurring in the film and become fully engaged in it, at least not more than on a base level excitement.

The voice acting is passable for the most part, though I don't entirely like what DiMaggio attempts with his Joker. I am also aware I've been spoiled by the great voice actors from the animated series. Neil Patrick Harris stands out as a fine choice for Nightwing, though the character feels so disposable in the movie, only as a comic relief rather than further developing Batman's relationships with those close to him, that it's a shame and a missed opportunity.

However, with all the criticism I have for the movie it's still worth checking out, especially for any fans of the character or comic superheros in general. Though some of the dialogue isn't as polished as it could be, the movie is still a darker and more adult oriented presentation than any of the recent DC animated films as of late and that should especially make a number of Batman fans happy. Plus the final act is pretty impressive and exciting. It really is where the movie really takes shape, as an action movie where the action adds to the dynamic of the film and where the drama is its most potent.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Another World Upon Our Own.

85. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog, 2008)
100 Films of the 2000s

The second documentary I have for this list is Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. Encounters at the End of the World is not what you would initially expect from a film about the people that live and work in one of the most unforgiving locations on our planet. Though it does do a fine job documenting their work studying Antarctica, Herzog uses his film, in his general fashion, to attain much loftier and philosophical goals. Herzog even has a pleasant jab early on in the movie's narration stating that "this isn't a film about fluffy penguins."

Amazingly the entire film crew for Encounters at the End of the World consisted only of Werner Herzog himself and his photographer Peter Zeitlinger. Due to a grant received from The National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program Herzog had more freedom than filmmakers would generally have filming in Antarctica though he had less than two months to shoot the movie. Daunting tasks and a short period of time to complete them is nothing new for Herzog. For Grizzly Man (2005) he edited his film from over 85 hours of recorded footage. For Fitzcarraldo (1982) he famously hauled a 320 ton steamship up the side of a hill and over. Plus the man has been close friends with the infamous and volatile Klaus Kinski and worked with him regularly for decades. Antarctica may appear to be harsh, unforgiving, and deadly but it is no Klaus Kinski.

Werner Herzog's film is marvelous in it's depiction of a place on our planet that is still mysterious and even seemingly alien. The people that live and work there can sometimes appear as unique as the environment and the lives they lead in this frozen wilderness are certainly extraordinary. Zeitlinger's photography is a wonder as well, capturing creatures and shots of Antarctica's frozen landscape and underwater locations in a way that exudes curiosity and awe. Herzog not only films this intriguing place and its people in a captivating fashion, he is able to use Encounters at the End of the World to explore the nature of our place on this planet, and our future. He ponders on our existence and how we live, and more specifically how we live in relation to our environment and our planet. It's an important film not only because of how much there is to still discover about the planet Earth but how much there is to discover about ourselves and to perhaps change for the better.

10 Films of 2008:

8. Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
9. Paranoid Park
(Gus Van Sant)
10. Redbelt (David Mamet)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Lightness of Being.

86. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)
Modified from a post on March 2nd, 2010.

I find Up in the Air to be one of the most surprising and unexpected triumphs of 2009. The film comes from director Jason Reitman, the director of Thank You for Smoking (2005) and the Oscar nominated Juno (2007). Also, if you were wondering and didn't already know, he is indeed the son of Ivan Reitman, the director of Ghost Busters (1984) and Stripes (1981). At the beginning of the Oscar season I even guessed that Up in the Air had a big chance to take best picture. It had a number of magazine article campaigns, had great reviews, and it's principle cast were hitting their mark promoting the film but sadly the buzz died down considerably. Plus the campaign for The Hurt Locker went into full force which of course ended with it nabbing a number of the top awards.

The movie follows George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a career hatchetman hired out from a company to handle the dirty work of firing employees from businesses that are unwilling to do the job personally. Bingham is a man of finely tuned people skills, his success is driven by how well he understands the way in which people tick. His job is thrown on its head when an up-and-coming employee, Natalie Keener (Played by Anna Kendrick), proposes a new more efficient and economically sound way of laying people off, by computer interface. What follows is Natalie accompanying Bingham on a few of his rounds to fully get a grasp on the way he works, a first hand experience in his working world, and to compare and contrast their techniques.

The film is mainly a commentary on the impersonal impression of the global information age. Luckily this focus is able to deter the movie from feeling like a dated piece on the current economic state of the country. Bingham himself is a product of the era in which he lives, always surrounded by people yet never truly connecting with them. They're his colleagues, business associates, fellow passengers, or service attendants but never his close personal loved ones. He has no connections grounding him, not his family and not even a place he can really call home, except for the sky. His business is also a product of the times. Like I mentioned before, the workers he lays off are from other businesses, ones that have to hire someone outside to do the uncomfortable job for them, starting the film's level of disconnection. The integration of Natalie's new business proposal is likely to further this divide. The difference between Bingham and his company is that Bingham is at heart a good guy, he just isn't able, or perhaps meant to connect with other human beings. It's just not in his nature.

Clooney is in top form. I remember reading an article I believe from roughly two years ago about the actor that stated he was one of the few actors today comparable to the likes of Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and so forth and Clooney holds up to the claim exceptionally well in Up in the Air. It's an admirable accomplishment to take a character responsible for delivering terrible news to other individuals on a daily basis and make the man extremely likable and few actors could pull that task off as well as he does.

Now while the movie is essentially a drama that doesn't mean it's an outright downer. Reitman's dramas have been pocketed with many great comedic moments and Up in the Air is no different. In fact I would claim this to be his best movie yet. While Thank You for Smoking is indeed very clever, it's a bit of a caricature, especially in comparison to the more realistically grounded (Intentional, forgive me) Up in the Air and while Juno has a lot of emotional weight behind it I find that somewhat deflated by its characters and dialogue which occasionally ring false. However, Up in the Air's shortcoming's are minor in comparison and is not something to be missed. It's powerful and effective in a way that isn't overbearing and it's able to put a silver lining of optimism in even the darkest of clouds.

10 Films of 2009:

9. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
10. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Werner Herzog)

Monday, July 19, 2010

About an Artist Growing Old.

87. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)

Where to start with a character such as the indie rock legend Daniel Johnston. Individual stories and pieces of information about the man sound fictitious at best, compounded altogether, which this rock documentary does, sound like grand Rock and Roll myth. The Devil and Daniel Johnston is the first of a few documentaries on this list (though I hope to post a couple more when I give honorable mentions for movies not on the list soon enough). Johnston was born in Sacramento, California and grew up in West Virginia. At an early age his creative talents were evident but his family, which happened to be based in conservative religious values, was concerned with where he was going in life.

At a young age Johnston began taping home-made cassette recordings of music inspired by The Beatles that he would write and perform on his own. His musical career hit a jumping point when he lived in Austin, Texas after handing out his cassette recordings to nearly anyone he met connected with professional music. Attention skyrocketed when Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing a t-shirt with the image from Johnston's album Hi, How Are You? This caused record companies to begin competing for the artist even though Johnston currently resided in a mental institution after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

To begin work on his studio album in a mental institution is only one of the few seemingly outlandish stories behind Johnston's life. Others include suffering an episode in New York while the band Sonic Youth searched the city for him and throwing the keys of an airplane out the window while it was still airborne. Though his chaotic escapades brought on by his mental disorder built his infamy as an extreme rock eccentric his deeply heartfelt music built his notoriety as an artist. Admittedly Johnston was and is not a technically gifted musician in that he can't play particularly well, and now given the medication he has to take this is even more evident, but as a true artist, as a musician able to use his craft to capture the love, hurt, desire, and other emotions within himself, he is a master artist with few equals. With music about unrequited love and personal identification Johnston boldly projects his humanity to be identified by the rest of the world, a gift from a tormented musical poet, to be cherished.

10 Films of 2005:

The Devil and Daniel Johnston just slightly misses the list for 2005 by one spot.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The New Orleans Bedlam Police Department.

88. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)

Inspired by the 1992 film Bad Lieutenant starring Harvey Keitel, Herzog's film is said to neither be a sequel nor a straight remake. Nicolas Cage stars as Terrence McDonagh, a police officer working in post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. During the flooding of a prison block he severely injures his back attempting to help one of the prisoners out of their flooding jail cell. Upon recovering he is told that he'll experience back pain indefinitely and is prescribed for medication to alleviate the injury. This is where McDonagh's spiral into corruption first begins.

From the point that he injures his back in the flooding taking place during Hurricane Katrina Terrence McDonagh transforms into the quintessential antihero. Spiraling into his own corruption and self preservation he becomes wrapped into a life of drug use, bribed sexual favors, and eventually joins forces with the primary crime boss in the city. Nicolas Cage's performance as the corrupt, almost pitiful, detective is a remarkable oddity. Herzog's control of the actor seems less like strict direction and more like he released a raving madman from an asylum and let him run rampant throughout the film, nudging him in certain directions, shifting his performance though not controlling it. Thus Nicolas Cage is at his most unrestrained and while his performance may seem a little unorthodox, he even changes accents at times throughout the movie, it fits the character and the picture like a glove, giving a more than memorable portrayal of an unhinged police officer on the edge of his own well being and own sanity.

Another primary interesting aspect of the film is its time period and setting. The place and time are of course New Orleans following Katrina's destruction of the city. Crime has risen and authoritative justice has been tarnished and corrupted. The fact that McDonagh injures himself during the storm, which serves as the catalyst to his downfall into depravity is an important moment to note. McDonagh's only selfless act, saving a man from drowning, takes place before the after effects of the storm. The hurricane washes the filth from the cracks and rather than carrying them away brings them to the surface. We see the faults and imperfections of a part of the governing body, a section of the state designed to serve and protect doing the opposite, and these problems are naturally human imperfections with the men in a position of power.

10 Films of 2009:

10. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Werner Herzog)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Love, Love Will Tear Us Apart Again.

89. Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)

Control is a biographical film chronicling the rise of the hugely influential rock band Joy Division, primarily focusing on their lead singer Ian Curtis up until his untimely death. There are a number of things that need to be mentioned when talking about the film, primarily three things, the film's dedicated director and well known photographer Anton Corbijn, the irreplaceable Ian Curtis, and the band itself. Corbijn worked as a well known photographer and has also over the years directed many music videos for bands such as Nirvana, Echo & the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, and of course, Joy Division. Corbijn himself claims to have a personal connection with the film, living in England at the time, working with the band for photo shoots, and experiencing the way Joy Division's music defined his time there. His talent as a photographer is evident in the construction of the look of the film, presented in black and white to "reflect the atmosphere of Joy Division and the mood of the era" (Control: The Ian Curtis film). Corbijn also financed a large percentage of the production of the film personally.

Next, the band itself, Joy Division began using energy and influence of the seventies punk revolution and developed it into a sound that became the definitive representation of the post-punk genre that naturally followed punk rock. Unfortunately their rise was short lived with the death of their front man Ian Curtis, and continuing without Curtis as the newly formed New Order. Curtis himself is one of the most interesting individuals in the history of Rock and Roll and his sudden death ranks up there as a tragedy comparable to the deaths of Buddy Holly and John Lennon, musicians who died far too young and too soon. A passionate performer and a complex and introspective lyricist Curtis defined Joy Division's image and sound with his unique stage presence and his deeply personal expression through his song writing.

Virtual unknown Sam Riley portrays the tragic Curtis near flawlessly. Like I said in an earlier post, it's a rare thing when an actor can inhabit a character such as Curtis, such an iconic character in rock history and come off not as a parody of the individual but a genuine believable recreation. Corbijn's film not only captures the turmoil and depression in the mind of Curtis, suffering from epilepsy, it also captures the time period and state of rock music. With music finding the beauty in Curtis' suffering, the film and music serve as remarkable capsules of the expression of an individual that left an impact on generations to follow.

10 Films of 2007:

8. Control (
Anton Corbijn)
9. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton)
10. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Truly Inseparable Siblings.

90. A Tale of Two Sisters (Ji-woon Kim, 2003)

Another foreign film from 2003 to land on my 100 movies list is Ji-woon Kim's psychological horror film A Tale of Two Sisters. After a while someone just may notice the large number of Asian films that are to appear on this list, and even more specifically, films from Korea. There are at least four Korean directors to have work that appears on my list and Ji-woon Kim joins Chan-wook Park (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002) and Joon-ho Bong (The Host, 2006) among ones I've already mentioned. Unfortunately A Tale of Two Sisters is the only film I've yet to see from Kim but it leaves me eagerly anticipating more.

In the movie a pair of sisters with a strong bond between them clash with their stepmother's apparent cruelty as well as experience a series of seemingly paranormal hauntings within their home. I will refrain from saying more because there are a handful of things that are better left to the first viewing of the movie. The film relies on an in depth psychological twist that is the bulk of its emotional strength. But unlike the psychological twist in something like the end of 2003's French horror film High Tension, A Tale of Two Sister's revelation feels not only appropriate, it's one of the major strengths of the picture.

There are a handful of aspects of A Tale of Two Sisters that remind me of the godfather of psychological horror films, producer Val Lewton. The first and most obvious one is the way the movie centers on the turmoil churning within it's protagonist and how it uses these typical horror film elements to accentuate certain internal conflicts within the young girl. The other is the wonderful atmosphere of the picture. Accompanying and driving its sense of fear and tension is a score that is nearly as nerve wrecking as that from Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). It's a wonderfully frightening picture on many levels, both internally and atmospherically, and stakes its claim as one of the very best horror films of the decade.

10 Films of 2003:

Again, A Tale of Two Sisters is another film that just barely misses my list of favorite films from 2003. I think it's plain to see that this is one of my favorite years of the decade for movies.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Detours on the Road Leading Towards the End of Days.

91. Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, 2003)

Time of the Wolf is a dystopian post-apocalyptic film from controversial director Michael Haneke and is the first of a handful of his films that are to appear on this list. The movie follows a family during a world shattering crisis and gives vague details about the state of the planet. We discover much of the water found is now contaminated by an unknown agent and that the death of livestock needs to be disposed of by burning the remains. It's a bleak existence as the family attempts to find shelter and food, as they try and find a way to continue their very survival. They ultimately end up in a small collective society living out of a train station building and Haneke's often critical eye on humanity is displayed with the interpretation of how order, subjugation, and villainy play a roll in mankind's social and power hierarchy.

Haneke, to put it lightly, is not the most accessible filmmaker today. His movies are often times distressing and even at times intentionally combative. He is a filmmaker that always has a point to address and is not ashamed to hide what he has to say, neither is he willing to deliver his pitches underhand. Films from such a director are sure to create conflicting camps. Some who applaud his views or at least his strength and dedication in presenting them (of which I'm in the latter) and those who derive no pleasure in his work at all. Though I am a reasonable fan of his films, though admirer would be a better term, I don't think I would call any of his movies enjoyable, not at least in the sense that people generally view entertainment. His movies do not seem to be produced to give what people would call enjoyment but they do make one think, and I find a lot of value in that in particular.

In Haneke's apocalyptic setting the only monsters man must face are the ones that reside in his own heart. Pettiness, greed, selfishness, and hatred are the horrors that man must overcome for their own survival, not mutated monsters or radioactive beasts. A far fiercer foe given how embedded these are into the very being of human history. Demons that could take millenniums to exorcise, ones that could perhaps never be fully destroyed. Like much of Haneke's work Time of the Wolf delves into the inner workings of the heart of humanity, and much like most of his work he's interested in the darker half of this heart. Though ironically enough Time of the Wolf, in the person of the young boy of the family in the film, displays a more hopeful glimmer from Haneke's often times cynical cinematic eye. That is if the few good men are able to cast off fear and embrace their own selflessness and sacrifice for the good of others.

10 Films of 2003:

Though it appears on my list of 100 films of the 2000s, Time of the Wolf does not however make it onto my list of ten favorite films from 2003 so look for more from that year in the posts to come.