Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Honoring The 10th Anniversary Of HIGH FIDELITY

Although it didn’t come in at #1 at the box office over its opening weekend, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE is certainly John Cusack’s most notable movie in years. 10 years in fact. For March 31st, 2000 was the US release date of HIGH FIDELITY, a defining film of Cusack’s career, and one of my all-time favorite films. So to honor the film on its 10th birthday here’s a personal look back at the film beginning with the original book:

When I heard, sometime in the late 90’s, that they were going to make a movie version of Nick Hornby’s best selling novel “High Fidelity”, I was very skeptical. This was more than just the usual “the book is always better” argument, I felt like this book was my personal emotional property.

Well, the kind of personal emotional property that one shares in common with a huge group of people, but it’s just that I was, and still am to some extent, one of “those guys” that the book described in excruciating yet hilarious detail. You see, in this case “those guys” are the guys who are rock snob geeks who have lousy love-lives but have amazing record collections.

A friend, another one of “those guys”, recommended me the book shortly after its publication in 1995. At that time I worked in a CD store in a strip mall in Greensboro, North Carolina - I moved to that area earlier in the decade because I wanted to be with my girlfriend of over 6 years. In the days after our painful break-up I toiled behind the counters of this new and used compact disc retail store making lists of favorite songs, joining my co-workers in belittling clueless customers, and trying to get over the piles of baggage I was still carrying from that doomed relationship.

The experience of first reading “High Fidelity” was actually a bit disconcerting – I felt it hit too close to home. I joked to friends that it made me feel like I had been bugged, like somebody had been recording all my conversations about what songs to play at a funeral or what’s the best album opening song ever and mixing in exact statements made in fights between me and my ex and turning in them into clever prose. I grew to love it and laugh with it but I still wondered – who was this Nick Hornby fellow and how did he know so much about me?

So by the time the movie was announced, the book was a pretty hardcore emotional touchstone in my psyche. I knew that it was the same for tons of “those guys” out there who all felt this book was about them – oh, no a movie could ruin our sacred text, making it into another rom com that doesn’t take any of this record store culture seriously! But when I heard John Cusack was starring (and co-writing) and “The Grifters” (a Cusack favorite of mine) director Stephen Frears was attached, some of my cynicism evaporated.

The cynicism that remained was directed at the fact that the book took place in London and was written in what I felt at the time was a very British voice. The book was also named after an Elvis Costello song for Christ sakes! What I didn’t consider was that “those guys” were everywhere and the location didn’t matter. So as protagonist Rob Gordon (his last name was Fleming in the book but ostensibly that would’ve been too British) says: “It’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like”, I had to realize that it’s not where you are, it’s still just what you like.

While the setting of the story moved to Chicago, and it contains lots of great locales (The Double Door, Lincoln Park, The Biograph Theater), people everywhere live their lives through the filter of pop culture so it could have been reasonably set anywhere.

I do believe though, that if it were a British-made movie it would be Elvis Costello, not Bruce Springsteen, in that pivotal plot point cameo role.

I also should’ve considered that Cusack himself is one of “those guys”.

He took the text seriously and worked hard to keep its heart and content largely intact. Viewing it for the first time on the big screen 10 years ago I was delighted at how faithful it was to its source. Hornby agreed: “At times, it appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book” he told the New York Times at the time of the film’s release.

The film got so many things right – the pop culture riffing wasn’t forced, the soundtrack (The Kinks, Stereolab, Bob Dylan, The Beta Band, The Velvet Underground, etc.) was well chosen, and I don’t think any movie has better depicted how it feels to try to get through a day at your workplace when your heart is broken to pieces.

I’ve been in many independent record stores that highly resembled Rob’s shop Championship Vinyl with every surface covered in rock 'n roll posters, promotional stickers, and concert flyers. Between that and Rob’s apartment, there is no end to trying to identify every cool rock signifier in sight – oh, there’s Sonic Youth’s “Goo”! There’s a poster for pre-label Pavement! There’s Brian Eno’s “Before and After Science” on vinyl and then later held up by Rob on CD! This was also pointed out in this blogpost.

In all the times I’ve watched the film over the years its arc never tires me – though the thought of enduring the same stuff in real life does. The boy loses girl, boy goes on a neurotic quest to understand why every relationship he’s had failed while wanting his ex to return arc is so amusing and empowering to watch here as a witty movie, but living through that is Hell. After a more recent break-up than the one I spoke of earlier I drunkenly considered calling my “top 5” exes like Rob does, but thankfully came to my senses with no misguided contact made.

Throughout the film Cusack addresses the camera directly, another move I wasn't sure I'd be keen on, guiding us through his heartache. It's an effective device because there is no other meta gimmickry or self referential winking going on - the words and his performance stand alone.

There are so many great lines, most of which directly from the Hornby novel, that still hit close to home, but after this long they sting in a good way:

“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

“No woman in the history of the world is having better sex than the sex you are having with Ian…in my head.

“Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many dos and don'ts. First of all you're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.

That last quote, incidentally, I've gotten as a sound sniplet on many mix-tapes then later CDR comps - an obvious choice but a good one.

At this point I must note Jack Black absolutely steals the movie away from Cusack’s lovelorn lamenting with a full throttle performance that brought him to the attention of many. He owns the screen as the loud mouth rock fan with musical aspirations who shouts down anybody who disagrees with him. The way he aggravates Rob constantly saying such things as: “Rob, I'm telling you this for your own good, that's the worst fuckin' sweater I've ever seen, that's a Cosby sweater!” is among the film’s best running jokes.

As much as I love this film I have some reservations.

In a scene set at the now defunct Chicago club, the Lounge Axe, Rob’s just as musically obsessive employees Dick and Barry (Todd Louiso and Jack Black) fantasize about wanting to date a musician. “I want to live with a musician. They’d write songs at home and ask me what I think of them; maybe include one of our private little jokes in the liner notes.”

Uh, no you wouldn’t. As obsessive as these guys are they would be jealously tortured by the nights when their dream musician would be at a late seemingly never ending recording session or out on the road sleeping in hotel or van with their fellow band mates. I’m just saying, because, yes, I dated a musician. Of course, I realize that their tunnel vision delusion may be a crucial point of social satire.

Rob’s ex girlfriend Laura is played by the still little known Iben Hjejle and while she has some chemistry with Cusack she seems a bit off. Likewise Lisa Bonet as the dream musician Rob beds on the side of his heartbroken agony. But, again, the fact that the women in Rob’s life are miscast may be precisely the point as well.

I would never call this film a “rom com” because the only thing our protagonist is truly romantic about is music. Even as it settles into a happy ending grove with Rob adding Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” to a mix-tape for Laura, you get the sense that the just reconciled relationship is still doomed. The film essentially plays on an endless loop as real life on again, off again relationships often do.

So, 10 years later the question isn’t does HIGH FIDELITY still hold up, because of course it does. As Rob puts it: “It would be nice to think that since I was 14, times have changed. Relationships have become more sophisticated. Females less cruel. Skins thicker. Instincts more developed.” But he comes to the pretty much the same conclusion that one of his heroes Elvis Costello did: “History repeats the same defeats, the glib replies, the same defeats.”

So the real question that remains is what Rob posits at the beginning of the film: “What came first, the music or the misery?” I would say the music because when the misery came later we had a soundtrack to it already picked out and waiting.

Of course, I may just be saying all of this just because I’m one of “those guys.”

In the decade since HIGH FIDELITY, Cusack has gone through a run of mostly mediocre movies including RUNAWAY JURY, MARTIAN CHILD, GRACE IS GONE, and 2012. It's amusing that in his first truly funny movie in 10 years, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE of course, has him at one point heartbroken and drunk, sitting on the floor writing break-up poetry. Rob Gordon lives on.

The film itself lives on in a couple of odd adaptations. It was turned into a Broadway musical in 2006 by writer David Lindsay-Abaire, lyricist Amanda Green, and composer Tom Kitt. The production closed after only 14 performances and received only lukewarm reviews, but some of the songs are kinda catchy. Can't really comment on the show itself because I haven't seen it but it strikes me that the material may not be translatable to the stage.

The material works better coming from an unexpected platform: the recently released hip hop disc "Don Cusack In High Fidelity" by Donhill, a member of the rap trio Tanya Morgan. The characters and narrative are recast into a satisfying song cycle. Such lively tracks such as "Championship Vinyl", "Laura' Song", and "Love Junkie" instantly prove that this universally relatable material could really be set anywhere.

More later...

Thursday, March 25, 2010

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Steve Pink, 2010)

A few years ago I wrote about the severe lack of quality John Cusack films over the last decade. Well, I never thought his cinematic redemption would come in the form of something titled HOT TUB TIME MACHINE - which is honestly the funniest comedy I’ve seen since BLACK DYNAMITE and ZOMBIELAND.

Sure, it’s a stupid concept – 4 guys go back in time to the 80’s via a hotel hot tub spiked by a Russian Red Bull beverage called Chernobyly - one that might look like it could be a sci-fi tinged WILD HOGS (which is name checked in the movie) men-will-be-boys comic nightmare of a movie, but it’s seriously a lot of fun.

John Cusack, Craig Robinson (The Office, PINEAPPLE EXPRESS), and Rob Corddry (The Daily Show) are old friends whose lives haven’t turned out the way they wanted. Cusack, in a role that has more than a little of Rob Gordon from HIGH FIDELITY in it, is a control freak insurance agent who has just been left by his live-in girlfriend, Robinson left his musical aspirations aside to work in a upscale pet store and fears his wife is cheating on him, and Corddry, a party boy gone to seed, just tried to commit suicide.

So along with Cusack’s video game obsessed nephew played by Clark Duke (the web series Clark and Michael) they travel to a ski resort they frequented back in the day to give their lives a kick-start, but much like them, the resort and the surrounding town has seen better days. In a great shout out to a much loved 80’s time travel classic (BACK TO THE FUTURE) Crispin Glover appears as a one armed bellhop with a very bad attitude.

Their crazy alcohol fueled first night results in them waking up back in 1986. “Is there some kind of retro thing going on this weekend?” Clark asks as they start to notice the 80’s aesthetics coming at them from every direction. Robinson: “Dude is rocking a cassette player.” He frantically points out more outdated oddities: “Leg warmers! Jheri curl!” Robinson also owns one of the best moments of the film when he and the others figure what happened; his look right at the camera after coming to the conclusion “must be some kind of hot tub time machine” is priceless.

Chevy Chase shows up as a mysterious hot tub repairman who says things that hint that he knows what’s going on then disappears. Clarke determines that they must do everything the exact same way they did it back in ’86 - in the mirror they look like they did as teenagers (played by other actors) – except for Duke himself who hasn’t been born yet. The fact that his future mother (Collette Wolf) is there immediately sparks the most predictable scenario in the film yet it still works.

In fact just about everybody’s arc is predictable but it all still works. What makes it work is the easy going improv nature of the dialogue which I believe will make it one of the most quotable comedies ever. It’s literally overflowing with laughs. There are times that everybody’s yelling something and it’s all funny so you miss stuff when laughing. Supreme re-watch-ability is written all over it.

It’s easily Cusack’s best movie in 10 years (exactly 10 years – HIGH FIDELITY was released in late March of 2000) and it works as a homage to his 80’s work – among other familiar references, somebody yells: “I want my two dollars!” a nod to his 1985 film BETTER OFF DEAD. That’s another large part of its charm – it’s a riff on a John Cusack 80’s movie that is actually better than some actual John Cusack 80’s movies (sorry, was never a fan of BETTER OFF DEAD and ONE CRAZY SUMMER).

Cusack’s co-stars, Robinson, Corddry, and Duke all have plenty of highly amusing moments and good natural chemistry together. Chevy Chase isn’t really given anything funny to do, but his cryptic creepiness fits in succinctly. There’s a great running gag involving just when and how Glover will lose his arm, and how much the can't be contained party animal Corddry wants to see it happen, that stands out in all the over the top silliness.

It’s a gross out comedy, it’s a male bonding comedy, it’s an 80’s themed comedy with a kicking soundtrack (any soundtrack that can balance Mötley Crüe, The Talking Heads, Echo & The Bunnymen, Public Enemy, and The Replacements is fine by me), and it’s a rowdy sex comedy. It’s all of those things but what matters most is that it’s all a riot.

I know it looks and sounds stupid, and, yes, it is stupid. But this is a movie that is hilariously smart about its stupidity. And you should be too and go see it.

More later...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Blu Ray Review: RED CLIFF (Theatrical Version)

(Dir. John Woo, 2009)
Although historical war epics are far from my favorite genre, John Woo's ginormous production of RED CLIFF is quite an enjoyable experience - especially on Blu ray. It's full of impressive sweeping panoramic landscapes, bustling with brilliantly choreographed battle scenes, and crammed with immaculately crafted CGI; all of which immediately makes sense to why it was a huge hit in Asia (according to Wikipedia it broke the box office record held by TITANIC in mainland China).

Set in 208 A.D., Prime Minster Cao Cao (Fengyi Zhang) of the Eastern Han Dynasty declares war on
on the kingdoms of Wu and Xu, whose armies are led by Sun Quan (Chen Chang) and Liu Bei (Yong You) respectively. Tony Leung Chiu Wai (IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, INFERNAL AFFAIRS, ASHES OF TIME) plays Naval Commander Zhou Yu, whose military strategies unite the 2 factions against the attacks of Cao Cao's invading army.

The movie is essentially a series of set pieces weaving in and out of elaborate war sequences that build to the climax - the battle at Red Cliff. Thousands of arrows, flaming projectiles, and bombs are fired with a nice light on the stylized blood approach (unlike lesser war movies like MONGOL and 300).

War movies can be as baffling as sports to me - I never quite understand all of the plays. Not to say there isn't plenty of exposition - many tactics are discussed and maneuvers laid out, but I must admit that I got a bit lost in all the action. But it's such a mighty and gorgeous package of visual splendor that in the end I didn't care.

This review is based on the Blu ray theatrical version which takes the original 2 parts (over 4 hours in length) and edits them together into one 148 minute cut. That's pretty long itself but even though the truncation shows at times it's a thoroughly satisfying watch. The other parts are available on Blu ray if you absolutely need more, but I think this version will suffice. When it comes to the audio, go for the Mandarin with English subtitles over the dubbed option. In the dubbed version the subtitles often don't match (which is annoying) and the phoniness of the voices makes the dialogue sound more cornball than it is.

More later...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

THE GHOST WRITER: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Roman Polanski, 2010)

It's not easy to bypass the tangle of legal matters surrounding legendary director Roman Polanski and view his work on its own merits, but THE GHOST WRITER is such a fine film that it is possible to do so. Most of the time. Every now and then I would remind myself that he edited it in confinement, but that only enhanced the tone of pure tension in which the film revels.

Ewan McGregor, whose character's name is never revealed - he's only credited as "The Ghost", takes on the job of rewriting the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (a gruff very un-Bondian Pierce Brosnan), reportedly a thinly veiled characterization of Tony Blair. It's a daunting task - he has a month to get the lengthy manuscript in shape, Brosnan is being accused of war crimes by his former Foreign Secretary (Robert Pugh), and there's the troubling matter that the former ghost writer was found dead washed up on the beach of Brosnan's
lavish oceanfront compound in Massachusetts.

Goaded by his smarmy agent (beautifully played by Jon Bernthal), McGregor flies to that same compound and is greeted by one of Brosnan's handlers (Sex And The City's Kim Catrall) and Brosnan's frazzled wife (Olivia Williams). McGregor attempts to have a sense of humor about the situation, but is a bit unnerved when after drafting a statement for Brosnan to the press is told by a smug Catrall: "That makes you an accomplice."

After obliviously tipping off an odd man at his hotel's bar of Brosnan's whereabouts, McGregor wakes up to a media circus. Brosnan's conversations with his lawyers (including a demure Timothy Hutton) and handlers about where he should relocate in order to stay out of the hands of the law is undeniably a moment in which Polanski's real life predicament pulsates through the screen.

In a masterfully shot sequence, McGregor drives his deceased predecessor's car following the stored GPS directions and ends up at the house of Tom Wilkinson as a retired Harvard professor with possible CIA connections who denies any connection to Brosnan. McGregor has pictures that suggest otherwise, but Wilkinson insists. Wilkinson's edgy presence evokes good memories of MICHAEL CLAYTON - another polished and pleasing thriller in the same class as THE GHOST WRITER.

Despite a few scenes that drag slightly, this is a powerful and intensely satisfying film. It's the definition of a slow burner with an ending that is absolutely on fire. I was seriously blown away by the construction and impact of the final shots. That Polanski can still make such a vital piece of cinema - one that I believe will stand in his canon comfortably along ROSEMARY'S BABY, CHINATOWN, FRANTIC, and THE PIANIST - at this complicated point in his career is no less than exhilarating.

So whether or not you can separate the art from the artist, this is a must see. It's a great story; it has great performances (even Jim Belushi as a publishing CEO puts in solid work!), a great gripping score by Alexandre Desplat, and, most importantly great direction. Just shy of a masterpiece, and I know it may be to early to say this, but it's already one of the best films of the year.

More later...

Thursday, March 18, 2010


WE LIVE IN PUBLIC (Dir. Ondi Timoner, 2009)

“This is the story of the greatest internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” So say the opening titles, aptly presented as white on black computer text, of WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, a frenetic and fascinating documentary that's very concerned with how modern media affects all of our lives. The so called internet pioneer in the spotlight is Josh Harris, a researcher / developer who thrived in the early days of the World Wide Web, became a dot com multi-millionaire then…well, you know what happened to those guys.

Oh, but there’s so much more to the story than that. Harris wanted to go beyond capitalizing on the daily uses of technology; he wanted to perform experiments on a huge interactive level to prove his theories of how this new exciting technology was going to take us over as a society.

Not take us over in a TERMINATOR sense, mind you – though I bet Harris wouldn’t completely rule that out.

Director Ondi Timoner (DiG), who narrates in a nice conversational manner, tells us that like many folks in New York of the 90’s: “I had no idea who Josh Harris was, until I happened into one of his legendary parties.” Cue crazy raw video footage of naked and semi-naked 24 hour party people illuminated by flashing strobe lights while rave music pounds.

Although Harris, dubbed “the Warhol of Web TV” by New York Magazine spent a good chunk of the 90’s advancing webcasting with a company he founded,, his heart was more into the art of it all.

After leaving Pseudo in late 1999 with his share of the stock, those legendary parties morphed into a large video project called “Quiet: We Live In Public” in which he built a sizable bunker including a Japanese-style capsule hotel under New York City and invited 100 partying artists to live there. Web cams were installed in every room so that every action and utterance could be followed by anybody who had online access.

"Everything's free except your image. That we own." Harris proudly declares in the only line that is repeated in the documentary. As you might imagine, this bizarre experiment got way out of hands. People brought in guns, there was a lot of physical conflict, and the police thought it was a “doom cult” (it wasn’t long after the Heaven’s Gate tragedy) so Mayor Guliani finally shuts the whole thing down.

So Harris moves on to his next project. He outfits a New York apartment with webcams in every room and, with his new girlfriend Tanya Corrin, lived there for 6 months. People online could watch them eat (there was a camera in the fridge) have sex, go to the bathroom (yep, a cam in the toilet), bathe, and towards the end – violently argue with tons of people in chat rooms commenting on every detail. Later, after the experiment and their relationship was long over, Harris says that Corrin was a “fake girlfriend...I knew it was going to end in public.” Her disbelieving response to that is a cutting moment.

The dot com bust of 2000 writes the next chapter of Harris’s story. He literally buys the farm – an apple farm in upstate New York and he turns his back on a world where the internet is going to explode exactly in all the ways he predicted. When he tries to get back into that world he finds he isn’t the famous pioneer he thought he was. No matter – he lives in Ethiopia now and says he is plotting his next big art project.

Of all the sharp interview clips throughout, some of the best remarks come from Jason Calacanis - an internet mogul/blogger (and sometime actor) who definitely deserves to get his own career sweeping bio-doc some day.

What’s best about this never tedious half bio-doc/half cultural phenomenon exploration is that Timoner creates a structured and thoughtful piece of art out of the fractured remains of the pile of projects, theories, conceptual conceits of a messy yet stunningly prophetic life. Harris was definitely ahead of his time, but we’ve caught up with him with every “look at me” tweet, profile tweak, and especially every blog posting (wink!), so now that we’re here – what next?

This film won’t, and can’t, answer that, but its insightful intricacies of how we got here, and how we may be in danger of getting lost in cyberspace from one click too many, are among the most deeply penetrating of any social concern documentary out there.

Extra Features: The bonus stuff is fairly typical, but there's worthwhile separate commentaries by Timoner and Harris. Both are worthwhile, but if you're going to listen to just one of them - go with Harris's. He's watching the film for the first time ("I haven't even seen the trailer") so he says some pretty funny things: "I'm between fortunes", "they say a lot of things about me but no one's ever accused me of throwing a bad party",
and, my personal favorite: "Andy Warhol - I'm his wet dream."

More later...

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Wrong Alice Indeed

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Dir. Tim Burton, 2010)

I had forgotten that in my review of SWEENEY TODD (January 13th, 2008) I had joked that I was only going to see Burton/Depp productions at Movies At Timberlyne in Chapel Hill. Since I now live in Raleigh, I'm so glad that wasn't a strict vow because this really wouldn't have been worth the 40 minute drive.

This is exactly what I thought it was going to be - another CGI fueled fantasy fest with Depp dancing around like a maniac as dark yet ostensibly beautiful imagery bombards the viewer.

We all know the basic story here so I'll try and keep it brief. A 19 year old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) in Victorian times escapes from her oppressive family and the unwanted marriage proposal from a chinless Bourgeois doofus of a suiter (Leo Bill) into a magical land. She encounters, you know, a White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), a Blue Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman), a Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), and twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both voice
d by Matt Lucas).

For villainy's sake there is the Red Queen - Helena Bonhma Carter (you knew she'd have to be here somewhere) with a disturbingly huge head, who has stolen the reign of the land from her sister, the blindingly White Queen (Anne Hathaway) - who strangely has little presence. Also there's Crispin Glover, who doesn't look like he likes working in ginormous budget world, plays Stayne Knave of Hearts, the ominous head of the Red Queen's army.

But of course most folks won't care about any of that stuff - they care about Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

For some reason his make-up with his green eyes and fiery orange hair made him look like Madonna at times. His patently wacky performance will surely please hardcore Depp fans, but his take on the character, much like his turns in previous Burton work as Willy Wonka and Sweeney Todd, has that not so fresh feeling.

I personally feel that Depp and Burton should be separated for a decade. If they want to come back then and make another Disney re-imagining of something that's been done to death in the past, so be it. But give us, or at least me, a break for a bit!

The film builds to a big battle climax which too greatly resembles the terrain and aesthetics of the STAR WARS prequels. The humorless execution and the distinct lack of charm made the third act particularly hard going.

Still, I can't completely slag it off. On the whole it's a well made and reasonably entertaining movie that I think a lot of people will enjoy. There are inspired flights of animated fancy and some close to great Gilliam-esque visual splendor.

I just felt overall that as played by
Wasikowska, Alice was too much of a blank slate, Depp was too weird, Glover not weird enough, Bonham Carter not as amusing as she's supposed to be, and the whole remake enterprise ambiance was a bit off.

All through the first half of the film, seemingly every character says that Alice is the "wrong Alice." I'm not going to spoil why it is they say that, but of the dozens of adaptations out there in which to experience Lewis Carroll's immortal story, it's an apt statement because this sure isn't the right one.

More later...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

GREEN ZONE: The Film Babble Blog Review

GREEN ZONE (Dir. Paul Greengrass, 2010)

Going in to this movie I knew precious little about it. I hadn't seen a trailer or even given the movie poster more than a passing glance. I only knew it was a Matt Damon/Paul Greengrass/war movie. But in the first five minutes I knew exactly where it was going to go.

In those five minutes, Damon, as a US Chief Warrant Officer in 2003 war torn Iraq, pulls up with his crew to a location that Intel tells them houses Weapons of Mass Destruction. They find the rotting remains of a toilet factory instead. He goes back to his superiors and tells them that the WMDs weren't there (or any of the other locations they've been to) and the Intel is bad. They sternly tell him to stand down.

From that description, do you see where this is going? Do you see shoot-outs, shady informers, sleazy politicians, and compromised journalists? Do you see a climax involving Damon, aggressively and a tad bit violently, confronting the sleazy politician (played by Greg Kinnear) over the government conspiracy spreading lies in a public place/photo op? That's what I call that "THE FUGITIVE ending" and it, like everything else in this less than thrilling thriller, you've seen before. Many many times before.

This is a standard issue liberal-minded political action drama that made me wish Damon and Greengrass had just made another BOURNE movie. In last year's THE INFORMANT! (one of last year's best films and a role he should've been nominated for IMHO) Damon really pulled off something different; a fully realized character that was almost unrecognizable. In this and play it safe parts like INVICTUS, he's just plain old Matt Damon going through the motions.

We never get any sense of who the character Damon is beyond his military conviction. There is no phone call from back home or any line that tells us who he is outside of this plot.

The lack of such insights makes one really appreciate the newly Oscar Best Picture approved THE HURT LOCKER so much more. The compelling drive of that vital Iraq war film really reduces such a lackluster work as GREEN ZONE to the soulless shaky cam rubble it is.

I could be wrong but I swear Matt Damon did not smile once in the entirity of that movie. That might sound like a minor quibble but when he flashes that sharp glaring grin it can be quite stinging. Since I didn't smile once either I can't really blame him.

More later...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscar Postpartum 2010

In the happiest moment of the evening, the Dude finally abided.

Well, my biggest prediction this year was that I was going to get more wrong than the last few years and I was right about that. I got 13 of 24 which is pretty poor although I did get all the major categories correct (BEST PICTURE, BEST DIRECTOR, BEST ACTOR, BEST ACTRESS, and both of the SUPPORTING ones). I was way off in all the tech awards but hey it was fun throwing those darts just the same. The ones I got wrong:

AVATAR. What I predicted: SHERLOCK HOLMES. I really thought they'd throw HOLMES a bone. Just one.

COSTUME DESIGN:THE YOUNG VICTORIA. I said COCO BEFORE CHANEL because it seemed like the most costumey. I haven't seen either movie actually.


ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: PRECIOUS. I said UP IN THE AIR. Seems like a no brainer now.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: MUSIC BY PRUDENCE. I had picked CHINA'S UNNATURAL DISASTER: THE TEARS OF SICHUAN PROVINCE. This resulted in one of the only surprising moments on the entire telecast: Elinor Burkett pulled what many are calling a "Kanye" Oscar moment mash-up.

MAKEUP: STAR TREK. I thought STAR TREK was going to win one of the 4 awards it was nominated for just not this one. Still it seems deserved.

SOUND MIXING and SOUND EDITING: THE HURT LOCKER won both of these which I really didn't expect. Last year I also chose wrong but made the statement that I should've have known not to vote for the same movie in both sound editing and mixing. Since that's what happened here I guess I really learned nothing.


BEST FOREIGN FILM: THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (Argentina) Another I haven't seen. I'm brobably going to see THE WHITE RIBBON, which I wrongly predicted, this week since it just came to my area.

As for the show itself, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin had their moments. I agree with Jon Stewart that Martin had the best line of the evening:

"Anyone who has ever worked with Meryl Streep always ends up saying the exact same thing: 'Can that woman act? And, 'What's up with all the Hitler memorabilia?"

Some other highlights included a tribute to John Hughes by way of a snazzy montage and a bevy of the actors who came of age in his films: Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Macaulay Culkin, Anthony Michael Hall, Jon Cryer, Ally Sheedy, and Matthew Broderick.

Shouldn't she be wearing pink?

Ben Stiller had a great deadpan presenter bit - he was made up like one of the Na'vis from AVATAR. Pretty funny stuff.

"This seemed like a better idea in rehearsal."

Okay so I'm pretty Oscar-ed out. Stay tuned for more new movie reviews - a slew of DVD reviews and some major new releases (HOT TUB TIME MACHINE!) that are coming your way.

More later...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Hey Kids - Funtime Oscar Picks 2010!

This is an incredibly obvious statement, but when it comes to Oscar predictions there are 2 paths to take – what one thinks will win and what one wants to win. Sometimes a gut feeling is difficult to differentiate from a personal preference so on a few I’ve decided to denote the ones I’m the most up in the air about (no BEST PICTURE pun there – really).



My gut has been sayng, no, shouting AVATAR, but I just have to go with my personal preference *. Many critics have been saying that it's a coin toss between the 2, while others say that the vote will be split and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS will pull a SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and shock everybody with its dark horse win. Despite recent controversy, I intensely hope the modestly budgeted, little seen THE HURT LOCKER gets the gold Sunday night.

* Of those 2 front contenders that is - my favorite film of the year -
A SERIOUS MAN - was nominated, but in this particular race it's by far a long shot.

2. BEST DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow - Roger Ebert said of Bigelow on Oprah Tuesday: "If you vote against her , you'll be going against years of precedent that say the winner of the Director's Guild Award will win the Oscar." So there's that, but since even her ex-husband James Cameron thinks she should win she really is a shoo-in.

3. BEST ACTOR: Jeff Bridges

Everybody I see online seem to be calling it for Bridges - consider me among them. It would be so nice for the 5 time nominee to abide this time.

4. BEST ACTRESS: Sandra Bullock - THE BLIND SIDE was the only one of the 10 BEST PICTURE nominees that I didn't see so I admit I'm jumping on the bandwagon here of all the folks who say its Bullock's year. It does really feel like she's got the momentum and support so like Bridges it'll really be surprising if she doesn't get it.


A personal preference AND a gut feeling. Although he had relatively little screen time, Waltz's cold blooded yet sophisticated Nazi was as cutting and memorable as a supporting part can possibly be.

6. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Mo’Nique - Walking out of PRECIOUS last year, my first thought was that Mo’Nique was definitely going to get an Oscar. That thought has never waivered.

And the rest:






16. ORIGINAL SONG: “The Weary Kind” from CRAZY HEART


It would be easy to just go with Wallace and Gromit sight unseen, but after viewing all the animated shorts last night at the Carolina Theater in Durham it's impossible to deny that it's infinitely the most superior offering. LOGORAMA is kinda cool too though.

18. LIVE ACTION SHORT: THE NEW TENANTS - My gut feeling is the Cheronobyl tragedy THE DOOR, but I'm pulling for the dark comic THE NEW TENANTS. It has a great absurd edge to it and great turns by its spare cast including David Rakoff, Jamie Harrold, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Kevin Corrigan.







By the way, I don't consider myself any kind of expert - I'm just a guy who loves movies and loves to write about them. My biggest prediction this year is that I'm going to get more wrong than usual. Tune in Monday to find out how many.

More later...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ongoing Adventures In Altman Appraisal

Seeing all of the films that iconic director Robert Altman made in his half century career can be quite a task these days.

Several titles have never been released on DVD (including BREWSTER McCLOUD, HealH, and COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN) and one of his first features, COUNTDOWN, is only available as part of Warner Archives Collection’s “Burn On Demand” series so you can’t get it from Netflix.

Recently, inspired by reading the excellent “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography” by Mitchell Zuckoff, I’ve been catching up with the handful of movies of Altman’s movies that I haven’t yet seen. These 3 films are easily available but still fairly obscure - here are my thoughts:


The opening titles of this - one of the very first bio-docs ever - declare that this is “a different kind of motion picture.” They go on to explain: “The presence of the leading character in this film has been made possible by the use of existing motion picture material, tape recordings of his voice, and by means of a new technique – dynamic exploration of the still photograph.”

If that sounds pretentious well you haven't heard anything yet. Orson Welles-ish sounding narrator Martin Gabel reads from a script over the hundreds of photos and footage such overwrought lines as:

“He looked at the ocean, and was envious of its power.”

“He kept a revolver - which made him feel safe... but they found it and took it away.” (No more explanation is given to this)

“He tried to believe it when they said they liked him.”

“Success was nothing more than the concealing leaf which covered the tree of his loneliness, and after every job the tree was bare.”

If you can get past such irritating pretension, and the fact that this was an exploitation film rushed into production after Dean's tragic death, there is much here to enjoy. Such a wealth of black and white photographs, whether they are dynamically explored or not, is displayed - many of which I'd not seen before. I'm sure there is most likely some coffee table book out there that contains them, but this is a well edited collage worth seeking out. Perhaps one should just turn the sound down and put on some music while watching.

Another notable aspect is that Altman re-created Dean's fatal car accident for the documentary. Producer George W. George described the incident in Zuckoff's book as "pure Bob." He elaborates:

"Well, son of a bitch, he goes and figures it out by lashing a camera onto the end of a long piece of wood and putting it on the bumper of his car. And driving down the road that Jimmy Dean had taken that day! It looked like Bob was going to have a crash, but son of a bitch; he missed crashing by about two feet. He was driving the car!"

By no means an essential piece of Altman's canon, THE JAMES DEAN STORY is still an interesting curio.

QUINTET (1979) I purchased this film as part of an odd Altman boxset - the other films were M*A*S*H, A WEDDING, and A PERFECT COUPLE which I had all seen before. QUINTET is a real oddity in his filmography: a sci fi tale set in a future ice age. Paul Newman, in his second starring role for Altman (the first was BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS) plays a stoic seal hunter named Essex who finds himself in the middle of the deadly game of the title.

The movie drags quite a bit with sequences that just sit there. If tightened up considerably it could make for a gripping short film, but you really have to be an Altman fanboy to get through it as it is. I had the close captioning on when I watched it and was amused at how many times the word "groans" was used in the descriptions of sound effects i.e. "the water groans", "the ice groans", "the wind groans", etc. At one point I joked: "the audience groans". I know I did.

O.C. AND STIGGS (1985) Although this is considered Altman's "least successful film" I was looking forward to watching it mainly because of Nathan Rabin's "My Year Of Flops Case File #54" entry at the A.V. Club in which he concluded that it was a "secret success". That's much more favorable a response than what I experienced. The premise of a 80's teen comedy with a "slobs versus the snobs" scenario isn't a good match for Altman even if he claims it was supposed to be a satire of the genre.

Very little satire is actually present in this tale of 2 hipsters (Daniel Jenkins and Neill Barry) who come off as a poor man's pair of Ferris Buellers. They torment a insurance mogul (Altman regular Paul Dooley) who lives in a garish house with destructive shenanigans, none of which is even remotely amusing. Altman's patented style can still be identified - overlapping dialogue and slow panning long shots - but no unity to this material can be sensed.

It's also sad to see cheap shots such as riffs on "The Pink Panther Theme" and the Doors "The End" intro when Dennis Hopper, who appears in his APOCALYPSE NOW get up, enters a scene. Of the supporting cast which includes Jane Curtin, Jon Cryer, Cynthia Nixon, and Ray Walston, only Martin Mull appears to be having a good time, but, even then, he looks like he's just bidding time until the wrap party after shooting is finished.

The only bonus feature on the DVD is an 8 minute interview entitled "Altman On O.C. And Stiggs" that should've been called "Altman Defends O.C. And Stiggs". Altman: "There was a time when these teenage films were kind of in mode. And I hated them...I just hated them. And I thought here's a chance to do satire on something I feel strongly about." The problem is that his strong hatred of the genre shows in every frame of this film more than any notion of satire. Still, as much as I disliked it, it's not my least favorite Altman film - that would be DR. T AND THE WOMEN (2000).

Okay! That's enough Altman for now. Just a few more titles to go to finish his canon - and then there's his television work (episodes of Combat!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Bonanza, and many others) to consider so look forward to more adventures in Altman appraisal somewhere down the line.

More later...