Hallelujah, I’m a Grand, Invisible Immigrant

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

A young girl goes to the grave of her favorite author and reads a chapter from his memoir.  In this excerpt, the author (Tom Wilkinson) recounts a trip he took to the Grand Budapest Hotel in  1968 where he (Jude Law) finds the hotel in a dilapidated condition and meets the owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), to find out what happened to the once luxurious hotel. This prompts Moustafa to tell the story of Monsieur H (Ralph Fiennes) who was accused of murdering a wealthy patron in 1932 after it was discovered she  bequeathed a valuable painting to him.

This Russian nesting doll is a movie about cultural memory. When we hear our parents talking about their childhood or a family story about our great-grandparents, we’re relying on the experiences of others to provide us with context for our lives, and in turn we’re expected to keep the story alive for future generations.

Ralph Fiennes starred as two of the most iconic villains of the past 25 years: Lord Voldemort and Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (1993); He’s good in Quiz Show (1994), The English Patient  (1996), and  In Bruges (2008).  Despite his impressive career, this is his most endearing role. Channeling Groucho Marx in a high energy, fast-talking whirlwind, he carries the movie; the rest of the cast are satellites revolving around his central performance.

Tony Revolori is young Zero Moustafa, Monsier’s H’s protégée and friend. He’s a dimwitted, naive young man, overwhelmed by the pace and breadth of his mentor’s knowledge.  Revolori’s job is to look confused and provide a launching pad for the performance of Fiennes.

Saorise Ronan is enchanting as Zero’s love interest.  Only 20 years old, she’s not quite a household name, but with stellar performances in Atonement (2007) and The Lovely Bones (2009), she’s given every indication she’ll be a force to be reckoned with for a long time.

Wilhelm Dafoe is perfectly cast as a creepy assassin hired to take out H, Adrien Brody gives one of his better performances as the chief antagonist, and, based on his performance here and in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Ed Norton seems to have found a home for his talents in his collaborations with Anderson.

Frequent Wes Anderson players Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton , and Bob Balaban round out the cast.

Since 2001, the sophisticated whimsy Anderson unleashed in Tenebaums has become ubiquitous, co-opted by numerous films and filmmakers looking for an edgy or independent aesthetic. Since audiences have finally caught up with his sensibilities, this film may prove to be a turning point in Anderson’s career pushing him to greater heights and mainstream success, but it’s not his best film.

The Invisible Woman (2013)

Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in this film about Charles Dickens’s affair with Nelly Ternan.

Dickens was 45 when he met 18 year old Ellen Terman and cast her in a performance of a Wilkie Collins play he was producing. Bored with his wife of 22 years, the younger Terman challenged Dickens intellectually and they began a an affair which lasted until his death in 1870.

It’s an intriguing look at the private life of one of literature’s most recognizable names.  Everyone knows Charles Dickens (although I suspect fewer and fewer have actually read his work).  We know him as a standard of great literature akin to a more recent Shakespeare, but we know little about the man.

Fiennes does a good job, but the story is pedestrian.  A famous married man fell in love with a younger woman; this is not necessarily worthy of a big film treatment. When the movie does come close to showing some insight into the mind of the great author it quickly reorients towards the sordid private life of one of Victorian Britain’s most famous individuals. The better story is what motivated him to write, and what he thought, but sadly we get the story of his libido.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933)

This is bizarre paean to left-leaning politics as espoused by the happy bums in Central Park, who live in a carefree world unconcerned about money or the source of their next meal because they’re too busy singing and dancing and laughing.

Al Jolson is Bumper, one of the leaders of this cadre of New York City’s unemployed. His friends include Egghead (silent star Harry Langdon) who foretells of the impending socialist revolution and Acorn (African American actor Edgar Connor). For some unexplained reason, Bumper and pals are on friendly terms with mayor John Hastings (Frank Morgan).

When the mayor’s younger girlfriend, June, attempts suicide by throwing herself off a bridge, she’s rescued by Bumper. When she awakens, she has amnesia and falls in love with her rescuer, who reciprocates her feelings. The plot becomes a tangled web of misdirected love like Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or As You Like It.

Did I mention this is a musical by famed Broadway duo Rodgers and Hart?

Lewis Milestone is rarely named amongst the greatest directors, but in a career spanning nearly 40 years, he won two Oscars and directed such legendary films as The Front Page (1931), Of Mice and Men (1939), Ocean’s 11  (1960) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).  He was one of the first silent film directors to effectively transition to talkies because he understood how synchronized sound allowed more fluid camera movement.

Al Jolson was an early 20th century phenomenon. He was to our great-grandparents what Elvis was to our grandparents and The Beatles were to our parents. Yet today, he’s known almost exclusively as the first person to talk in movies. This movie provides an opportunity to see him outside The Jazz Singer (1927).

It’s fun to see Frank Morgan as something other than the titular Wizard of Oz, although there’s little doubt the latter film is his greatest accomplishment.

Released at the height of Great Depression, this celebratory film suggests the evils of the world would fade away if we abandoned consumerism and would have us believe the titular bums, homeless in Central Park, are better off than those who live comfortable middle class lives in the City. It’s such a bizarre piece of left-leaning propaganda as to render it almost complete ineffective, but it is a curiously entertaining film.

The Immigrant (2013)

In 1921, Polish immigrants Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda come to New York via Ellis Island. When Magda is quarantined due to illness, Ewa is alone and scared of deportation until Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) bribes an officer to let her stay.

Bruno uses her desperation to convince Ewa to join his stable of prostitutes.  Ewa meets illusionist Emil (Jeremy Renner) and when they begin a romanctic relationship, Bruno and Emil fight for her affection. There’s an inadvertent murder, a coverup, a betrayal, a mea culpa, and an escape.

Since her Oscar winning role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007) brought her to the attention of English audiences, Cotilliard has had high profile roles in Inception (2010), Midnight in Paris (2011) and Dark Knight Rises (2012), but her best work is her least seen: Rust and Bone (2012), a bleak film in which she plays a paraplegic whale trainer.

Joaquin Phoenix is an incredibly versatile actor, but his public persona was fixed when he played a fictionalized version of himself in the mockumentary / elaborate prank I’m Still Here (2010) directed by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck. The movie was horrendous and his appearance on Late Show with David Letterman as part of the stunt became a public relations disaster. Now he’s seen as a troubled man who struggles with his personal demons. In a conscientious attempt to change his image, he’s been extremely choosy about his roles since.

Jeremy Renner is a fine actor when challenged in films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), The Hurt Locker (2008), and The Town (2010), but since he was cast as Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, his career has focused on action oriented blockbusters. This has provided him with a comfortable income, but he doesn’t stand out in them.

This is a good film about the struggles which accompany opportunity. Ewa’s difficulties mirror those of millions of other immigrants to America in the first part of the twentieth century, but this film cynically suggests turn of the century New York welcomed those immigrants with corruption and evil at every turn.

The Layers of Bergerac

Layer Cake (2004)

XXXX (Daniel Craig) is a mid level gangster specializing in cocaine. His story is a twisted and convoluted demonstration proving criminals cannot be trusted.

It’s like a grittier Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) or Snatch (2000). This makes perfect sense when you learn Mathew Vaughn, the director of this film, was a producer of the two earlier films.

Life often refuses to conform to the best of plans. For the majority of us this means you’re occasionally ten minutes late to work, but for violent criminals, it means you’re dead.

Daniel Craig is a modern day Lee Marvin, capable of being aloof, inscrutable, and charming. These qualities have served him well as the 21st century James Bond.

I’m a Colm Meaney fan, primarily because I loved his work as Miles O’Brien in the Star Trek universe.  This is his best non-Trek role.

The first line in Michael Gambon’s obituary will be all about Albus Dumbledore and Harry Potter. This is not a bad thing, but it will overshadow excellent work in this film, The Singing Detective (1986), The Cook,the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover (1989), and Gosford Park (2001). Gambon has a distinct, drawn out delivery, which always makes you think he’s making fun of the person he’s talking to, even if no one else is aware of the joke.

It’s a decent British crime caper, but there are too many twists and double crosses. If it were a comedy, the exaggerated characters and outlandish situations would work a better, but played straight it’s too much.

Cyrano de Begerac (1990)

An unattractive man with a huge nose helps a dimwitted friend woo Roxanne. This unattractive man, Cyrano de Bergerac, is secretly in love with Roxanne himself and uses his friend, Christian, to say the things he doesn’t have the courage to say.

When Christian is mortally wounded in battle, Cyrano comforts him by telling him Roxanne really loved him, and out of respect keeps their secret from Roxanne until just prior to his own death.

This movie brought French actor Gerard Depardieu to the attention of American audiences. Jose Ferrer won an Oscar for playing Cyrano in 1950; Steve Martin memorably played the role in Roxanne (1987), but Depardieu transforms Cyrano into a complex, almost Shakespearean character.

The movie is just okay until the final twenty minutes when Depardieu’s transcendent performance  elevates what should have been weepy, self-indulgent claptrap into something poignant and sublime.  It’s worth watching for Depardieu’s performance.

I am not the Angel on the True Moon

Moon (2009)

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is on a three-year mission to the moon where he and a robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) will mine helium-3 for use in fusion energy production.

After an unexpected accident, Sam discovers he’s a clone used by Lunar Industries to save labor costs.  At the end of his  three-year “contract” he’ll be “sedated” for the journey home.

The feature-length debut of Duncan Jones (the son of rocker David Bowie) is an exploration of ethical issues surrounding ownership of genetic material.  Are clone versions of Sam entitled to the same rights and protections of other people?   As far-fetched as it appears, the issue has already been the subject of a Supreme Court case, Diamond v. Chakrabarty.

As the only actor onscreen for the vast majority of the film, Sam Rockwell has a difficult task; fortunately he’s up for the challenge and his restrained performance as Sam Bell keeps the film from being too theoretical or preposterous. Between this and The Way, Way Back (2013), Rockwell is becoming one of my favorite actors.

House of Cards proves Kevin Spacey is great at straddling the line between menacing and benign.  His nuanced performance as the onboard computer GERTY keeps the character from devolving into a parody of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Similar to Never Let Me Go (2010) this is a thought experiment about the consequences of medical advancement in cloning, but unlike the pessimistic view of the later film, this film finds hope in humanity’s ability to make the correct choices in an increasingly cold, rational world.

True Romance (1993)

After Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) impulsively marries prostitute Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette), he visits her pimp, the drug dealer Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman) to negotiate her release from his employ. This meeting does not go well. When Drexl is murdered during their negotiation, Clarence steals a large amount of cocaine.

The rest of the movie is a series of violent encounters between factions seeking to gain control of the drugs.

Written by Quentin Tarantino before he directed Reservoir Dogs (1992), this is a laboratory for the ingredients he would unleash in Pulp Fiction (1994): copious stylized violence, fast and breezy dialogue, obscure pop culture references, one or two racially charged scenes, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Tarantino has called the infamous “Sicilian scene” featuring Hopper and Christopher Walken as a gangster looking for the stolen cocaine one of his proudest moments.

This film came at the tail end of Christian Slater’s early success, following Heathers (1989), Pump up the Volume (1990) and Young Guns II (1990).  Unfortunately, a series of legal matters derailed his career and he hasn’t been able to fulfill the promise of those early roles.

Patricia Arquette is most famous for her television work as Allison Dubois in Medium, but her film career has been impressively eclectic: from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (1987) to  Ed Wood (1994) to Lost Highway (1997) to Boyhood (2014).  She’s worked with Tim Burton, Martin Scorcese, Richard Linklater and David Lynch.  She’s great as the impetuous and off-kilter Alabama.

Bronson Pinchot is best known for his comedic work in Perfect Strangers and the Beverly Hills Cop series.  This is a change of pace from his usual roles, but he manages to hold his own.

James Gandolfini’s low-level gangster who meets an early demise in a violent confrontation with Alabama was, in retrospect, an audition for his future life as Tony Soprano.

Before he was beloved Jim Gordon or Sirius Black, Gary Oldman was playing so many villainous characters he was labelled as psycho deluxe.  The man excels at playing sociopaths and his brief scene as Drexl is a highlight of the film.

The film also features a young Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Sizemore, and Chris Penn.

Tony Scott is a capable action director and does an admirable  job maintaining balance with the chaotic screenplay, but there are so many characters in this film, it’s difficult to keep track.

It’s a watered down version of Tarantino’s original vision, but the success of this film proved his vision could workWithout this film, Pulp Fiction (1994) might not have been made.

I’m No Angel (1933)

It’s an excuse to let Mae West make pithy, somewhat sexual jokes.

West’s quotes are very funny, but in the context of the film they lose their spontaneity.  She has an odd and peculiar delivery, always speaking with exactly the same rhythm.

A young Cary Grant plays one of her numerous love interests. Grant and West also feature in She Done Him Wrong from earlier in the same year.

It’s worth watching to get a feel for who Mae West was and a glimpse of what Cary Grant would become, but if you’ve seen West in one film, you’ve seen every one of them: a lot of risqué, dated jokes.

Best of the 2000s

215px-Memento_posterMemento (2000)

Leonard was viciously attacked and now suffers from anterograde amnesia.   Deprived of the ability to make new memories, every day he has to start over while the world around him changes.   He can’t develop new relationships, he can’t get a job; the only thing he can do is obsess and despair over his unfortunate predicament.

Leonard finds purpose in pursuing vengeance.  Every day, he leaves clues for himself to discover the next morning so he can continue to hunt his attackers.

After he finds the culprit and extracts revenge, Leonard is unable to cope without the goal of finding his attacker; the burden of a life with no memories is unbearable.

Realizing he won’t remember he found his attackers, he tricks himself into thinking they’re still on the loose.  He creates an unsolvable puzzle, continuing to leave clues day after day, knowing when he wakes up, he’ll once again be comforted by his obsession.

After achieving success in Australia, Guy Pearce rose to prominence in the US with LA Confidential (1997).  As Leonard, he creates a likable and accessible character, while maintaining a degree of danger and mystery.  We like Leonard, but never completely trust him.

Carrie Ann-Moss is best known as Trinity from the massively successful Matrix trilogy.  She’s excellent as Natalie, a woman with a murky past who uses Leonard’s condition to manipulate him for her own purposes.

Joe Pantoliano‘s career has mostly consisted of supporting roles (often as a violent criminal like Ralph Cifaretto), but his performance as Teddy is the lynchpin to making this movie work.  We have to believe he could be a bad guy and simultaneously believe Leonard could trust him.  It’s a difficult tightrope, which Pantoliano pulls off.

Of course, any movie with Stephen Toblowsky, is on its way to being a good movie.

This was Christopher Nolan’s first major success and may be his best movie.  He doesn’t tell a story, but instead forces his audience to create a story with him.  There’s a plot, but it’s so layered it’s virtually inaccessible.  Much like his later film, Inception (2013), the point of the movie is to figure out the puzzle he’s created.

The movie is even structured like a puzzle: events are shown out-of-order, murdered characters show up a few scenes later.  The effect is dizzying, and approximates Leonard’s condition, making the audience unsure of the reality of any moment.

This is an excellent fusion of film noir techniques and experiential storytelling.  To describe what happens is simple, but watching it is a complex, rewarding experience.

220px-The_TenenbaumsThe Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

A perfect portrait of a dysfunctional family told in a loving, almost worshipful way, this film proves the Frat Pack are capable dramatic performers.

Eli Cash, the adopted Tennebaum and Margot’s secret lover, is the most fully realized character of Owen Wilson’s career.

By most reasonable standards, Luke Wilson has had a successful career, but he’s been overshadowed by his brother Owen’s success.  This is his best film, and eccentric former tennis player Richie Tennebaum is his best role.

Her work as Margot Tennenbaum reminds me there was a time when Gwyneth Paltrow was a great actress and not prima donna tabloid fodder.

Danny Glover gives one of his better performances as Henry Sherman.

Alec Baldwin is a perfect choice as the narrator.  His rich baritone makes the movie feel like a bad idea for a bed time story.

Everyone assumes Anjelica Huston was given her spot because of her famous father and grandfather.  She’s not a typical Hollywood beauty and doesn’t always come to mind when thinking of the great actors of her generation, but her resumé: This is Spinal Tap (1984), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), The Dead (1987), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), The Grifters (1990), and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) should place her in the discussion.  Fortunately, since her performance as Etheline, the Tennebaum matriarch, she’s experienced a late career Renaissance.

Many commentators credit Wes Anderson with reinvigorating Bill Murray’s career, but he did more than revive it, he created it.  Murray was a popular middlebrow comedian whose career stalled as he aged like fellow SNL alumni Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin, but starting with the Anderson directed Rushmore (1998), he transitioned into a laconic, super cool trend setter / Internet legend.  His later work has been so good, it’s forced us to view his earlier work through a different prism.  We see Peter Venkman and Phil Connors differently because of Herman Blume and Bob Harris.

This was the last great role for Gene Hackman who epitomized the 1970s in films like The French Connection (1971), The Poseidon Adventure (1972) The Conversation (1974), and Young Frankenstein (1974).  Sadly, in 2003 he decided to spend his twilight years engaged in other pursuits, ending his fifty year Hollywood career.  Luckily, Royal Tennenbaum, the enigmatic, selfish father is a glorious farewell.

Bottle Rocket  (1996) has moments of what would become Wes Anderson’s trademark style, Rushmore (1998) brought him mainstream success, but The Royal Tenebaums (2001) cemented his reputation.  Despite the success of Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), this remains the quintessential Wes Anderson film.

220px-Adaptation._filmAdaptation. (2002)

It’s a loose adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a non-fiction account of the arrest of John Laroche for poaching rare plants in Florida.

Calling it an adaptation is a sleight of hand by Jonze and frequent collaborator, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.  It’s more like an interpretation; freely adding fictional elements to Orlean’s non-fiction work.

Kaufmann is a consistently inventive screenwriter.  From Being John Malkovich (1999), to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), to Synecdoche, New York (2008), his films are hyper post-modern examinations of the fractured reality of 21st century existence.

Kaufmann was hired to adapt The Orchid Thief and could not do it.  Suffering from writer’s block, he wrote a screenplay about his struggle, creating a fictional identical twin brother in the process.  As a joke, he gave his make-believe brother a co-screenwriting credit; Donald Kaufmann is the first (and only) fictional character to earn an Academy Award nomination.

In an insightful parody of the Hollywood process, Charlie attends a screenwriting seminar led by controversial Hollywood guru, Robert McKee.

Donald suspects Orlean (Meryl Streep) is hiding something, so the brothers follow her to Florida and discover she’s having an affair with Laroche (Chris Cooper).  The reason he stole the orchid was because the plant can be used to create a drug which causes fascination.  Laroche gave this drug to Orlean and she subsequently developed an obsession with him.

The end is a pastiche of action movie clichés as Orlean and Laroche try to kill the Kaufmanns to protect their secret.

Chris Cooper was a late bloomer with Lone Star (1996),  but afterwards he exploded with roles in American Beauty (1998), The Patriot (2000), the Bourne movies, Capote (2005), The Town (2010), The Muppets (2011) and Norman Obsorn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).  He deservedly won an Oscar for his work as John Laroche.

Nicolas Cage’s career has inspired a lot of debate.  He’ s very talented, but often chooses movies not worthy of his talent and claimed in 2011 to have developed his own style of acting, “Noveau Shamanic.”  Most people already have strong opinions about his work; his dual role as Charlie and Donald Kaufmann, while not likely to change those opinions, is one of his best performances.

Streep turns in another solid performance, helping ground the bizarre story as the obsessed author.

Despite only directing four feature films, Spike Jonze has developed a reputation for experiential narrative: a secret door provides access to John Malkovich’s head, a man falls in love with his phone’s operating system.

The more you pursue the seeming loose ends in this twisted, funny movie, the more you realize Kaufmann and Jonze anticipated your questions and answered them.  It’s a perfect film to begin a new millennium, deconstructing the practice of adapting works of art to different mediums.

220px-Mystic_River_posterMystic River (2003)

Three boys are playing in the streets of Boston in 1975.  One of them is kidnapped and sexually assaulted, escaping after four days in captivity.

Thirty years later, the three of them still live in the Boston area, but are no longer friends.  Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who runs a store.  Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a detective with the state police.  Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) is leading a normal blue-collar life.

When Jimmy’s daughter Katie is murdered, Sean is assigned the case.  Circumstantial evidence and suspicious behavior suggests Dave was the murderer.

The movie slowly builds suspense until the heartbreaking twist ending, which, in retrospect, was inevitable; the only path the three boys could have taken.  Their lives were spent playing the roles they were given when those kidnappers picked Dave.

Sean Penn has never been better than as Jimmy Markum, who turns to a life of crime because it’s the only life he knows.

Tim Robbins is masterful as the pitiful Dave Boyle.  Destroyed as a young child, Dave will never be anything but a scared, broken boy.

Kevin Bacon is not in the same league as Penn and Robbins, but he’s good as Sean Devine, torn between his job as a policeman and his old loyalties to Jimmy and Dave.  Thirty years later, he still feels guilty about not protecting his friend.

Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney do yeoman’s work as the wives of Jimmy and Dave.  Linney has become one of my favorite actresses; when she’s in a movie, I’ll have strong feelings about it.  I loved Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), The Truman Show (1998), You Can Count on Me (2000), Love Actually (2003), and The Savages (2007).  I hated Primal Fear (1996) and Kinsey (2004).

Laurence Fishburne has had a fascinating career. His debut was Apocalypse Now (1979).  He played Cowboy Curtis in Pee Wee’s Playhouse.  He’s been in The Matrix (1999), starred in CSI, played Perry White, and fought Hannibal Lecter.  He’s decent as Sean’s partner, Whitey Powers, but the role is just background.

Despite his iconic status, succeeding John Wayne as a symbol of masculinity, Clint Eastwood is a better director than actor.  As an actor, his range is limited.  As a director, he’s unbelievably versatile; he can handle westerns, war pictures, foreign language films, and musicals.  He won his second Best Director Oscar the next year for Million Dollar Baby, but this is his best movie.

I love Dennis Lehane’s novel.  It’s a hypnotic story about coincidence, fate,  jumping to conclusions, and inadvertent consequences, asking how much of our lives are under our own control.  This is a near perfect adaptation of a near perfect novel.

220px-Before_Sunset_posterBefore Sunset (2004)

Richard Linklater’s series of films chronicling the romance of Jesse and Celine is one of the most honest and complete looks at a relationship captured on film.

In the first film, Before Sunrise (1995), Jesse, an idealistic American fresh out of college meets Celine, an opinionated French girl, while traveling through Europe. They spend the night talking about their worldviews and personal philosophies and eventually make love.  When the movie ends, they promise to meet again in six months.

This sequel takes place nine years later.  Jesse returned to Vienna as agreed; Celine did not.  Jesse, now married with a son, has written a novel based on their encounter and is at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris to promote it.  Celine comes to explain why she didn’t meet him as planned: her grandmother died and she had to attend the funeral.

As they catch up on their lives and how they’ve changed since their first encounter, their feelings for each other are rekindled. The movie ends ambiguously as Celine sings to Jesse and reminds him he has to catch a plane.

Despite his Texas roots, Linklater’s films are closer to European cinema: dialogue and idea driven; what happens is not as important as the ideas explored.

Ethan Hawke is an underrated actor who rarely makes a bad movie, with the recent exceptions of The Purge (2013) and The Getaway (2013).  His work with fellow Texan Linklater is the best stuff he’s done.

Julie Delpy is great as Celine and plays a Celine-like character in 2 Days in Paris (2007), and its sequel 2 Days in New York (2012), however the character becomes annoying without Ethan Hawke to support her.  Adam Goldberg and Chris Rock are funny, but they’re not as capable of elevating her performance.    Her best work outside of the Before … series is Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy.

This is a great film about the petty squabbles, quiet moments of intimacy, and meandering conversations which are the hallmark of a good relationship.

220px-BrickmovieposterBrick (2005)

This hard detective story in the mold of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe set in a contemporary California high school, is a sort of spiritual cousin to the pseudo noir TV show, Veronica Mars. But while Mars is a tongue in cheek  homage, this film is a serious update to the genre.

Outcast Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives a mysterious note which leads to a payphone where he hears a cryptic, frantic message from Emily (Emilie de Ravin), his ex-girlfriend.  When he tracks her down through her stoner friends, she denies there’s anything to worry about, but within days, he discovers her dead body.

Feeling responsible for her fate, Brendan is determined to discover what happened.  His investigation untangles a wicked plot of deception and places him in the middle of a power struggle between The Pin (a local drug dealer) and Tug (his enforcer).

Lukas Haas gives a fine supporting performance as The Pin and Emilie de Ravin does her best work outside of Lost, but the reason to watch is Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Already famous for his work in 3rd Rock from the Sun, his performance as Brendan Frye catapulted him into the upper echelon of young actors.

Rian Johnson’s impressive directorial debut originated in his obsession with Dashiell Hammet.  After seven years trying to get Hollywood backing, he financed the film himself.  Since, he’s directed the time travel thriller Looper (2012) which also starred Gordon-Levitt, and the series defining “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad’s stellar fifth season.

In the tradition of the best noirs, the plot borders on ridiculous; many will find it difficult to keep up with who’s betraying whom, but like those noirs of yesteryear, the point of the film is to entrance us with the characters and dialogue.  In the best noirs, the question, “What’s it about?” is as ridiculous as asking what a Jackson Pollock painting is about.  The story is secondary  to the dangerous, paranoid atmosphere.

225px-Leben_der_anderenThe Lives of Others (2006)

Gerd Wiesler is tasked to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman, who the Minister of Culture is convinced is a security threat despite his communist sympathies.   But the Minister has a hidden agenda: he fancies Dreyman’s girlfriend, actress Christa-Marie Sieland, and uses the information supplied by Wiesler to blackmail her into a sexual relationship.

During his surveillance, Wiesler grows sympathetic to Dreyman and Sieland and eventually, must make a decision between the country he loves and the friends who are unaware he exists.

The final scenes of the movie are a beautiful illustration of how powerful the actions of an individual can be, even against the full apparatus of the  state.

There’s a sublime scene when the Stasi workers assigned to intercept mail learn the Berlin Wall has fallen.  Without a word, they stop their work and leave their cramped office; they know without being told their world has ended.  We think of history as a slow march towards progress, but it often leaps forward: one day you’re spying for the East German communists, the next you’re living in a democratic, unified Germany.

The first film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has been hailed as a conservative masterpiece, but the movie transcends politics.  People and ideologies only become evil when corrupted by an insatiable desire for more power.

A German language film about the oppressive tactics of East German intelligence during the Cold War doesn’t sound like a celebratory movie, but this is a hopeful film.  It explores mankind’s capacity for evil and how immoral regimes rely on ordinary people following orders to commit their crimes, but it shows a way forward through such evil.

Gerd Wiesler was a part of the apparatus of evil, but in the film’s final act, he transcends and atones for his mistakes.  If the last ten minutes don’t stir something inside you, there’s little chance any film will.

215px-Gone_baby_gone_posterGone Baby Gone (2007)

Private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) see a local news report about Helene McCready (Amy Ryan) whose daughter has been kidnapped.  Smelling a profit, they reach out to Helene and her family to help find the missing girl.

It appears Amanda was abducted because Helene and her boyfriend “Skinny Ray” stole money from a drug lord, but uncovering the truth of her abduction reveals a complicated web of deception.

Casey Affleck is mesmerizing as Patrick.  He begins the film as a cynical private detective, but ends with a resolute idea of right and wrong.  Sadly, Casey’s career has been overshadowed by his brother Ben’s, and while the abysmal failure of I’m Still Here (2010) did not help, his work here and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) prove he’s a more than capable actor.

Amy Ryan’s an incredibly versatile performer: believable as Holly Flax, Michael Scott’s nerdy love interest in The Office, and as the competent, but shy Beadie Russell in The Wire, but her performance as Helene McCready is a career highlight.  Ryan’s Helene is a feral animal: trapped by her limited education, her family, her child, and her drug addiction, who sees the attention from her daughter’s kidnapping as a way out of her miserable life.  We recognize Helene has no business being a mother, but because of Ryan’s amazing work we still empathize with her.  Affleck is the moral center of film, but Ryan is its emotional core.

Morgan Freeman uses his public image and credibility as misdirection in his performance as Captain Jack Doyle.  We believe Doyle more than we should because we believe Freeman.

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is a triumphant achievement.  He would direct the Best Picture winning Argo five years later, but this is, so far, his best film.  His directorial style is similar to another actor turned director: Clint Eastwood.  Both are technically proficient directors who don’t rely on trickery or special effects and strive to stay out of the way of the story as much as possible.  They understand what an actor needs and use this knowledge to get the most from their cast.

Author Dennis Lehane’s worldview is dark, but he maintains a glimmer of hope in humanity’s capacity to improve its lot.  To illustrate this, he tells intimate stories of ordinary people forced to confront the evil in the world.

This is a great movie, which asks uncomfortable questions: if a wrong thing can save a girl’s future, is it wrong?  Is it okay to cheat the system to get the desired result?

Deapartues (2008)

When Daigo Kobayahsi loses his job as cellist, he moves back into his childhood home with his wife.  Looking for work, he sees an advertisement for someone to “assist with departures.”  He assumes the job is with a travel agency, but soon learns it’s a mortuary.

In Japan, dealing with the deceased is “unclean” and being a mortician is humiliating.

Kobayashi is repulsed and ashamed of his accidental career.  His wife leaves him; his friend, Yamashita, disowns him.

When Yamashita’s mother dies, Kobayashi is asked to handle the encoffinment. He finds fulfillment in his duty, while his wife and friend realize the importance of his work.

Despite the numerous masterpieces from Kuroswa and Ozi, this was the first Japanese winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

There are several breathtakingly beautiful scenes as Kobayashi washes and cares for the recently deceased. It’s hard to watch these scenes and not imagine your own deceased loved ones.

It’s a tad too sentimental in places, but this is inevitable in a film about the rituals of death. The movie demonstrates the common humanity we discover when we realize all paths lead to the same end.

Mr. Nobody (2009)

In 2092, science has evolved to render death obsolete; 118 year old Nemo Nobody is the last mortal on earth. A reporter tries to document Nemo’s life before he dies, but his life story is a series of seemingly impossible contradictions.

Nemo, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five exists outside of time.  However, while Pilgrim could only move backwards and forwards in his own timeline, Nemo is able to travel through multiple timelines; he’s lived several lives and has memories of each.  In one timeline, he married Elsie (who’s in love with someone else).  In another, he fell in love with Anna (his step-sister from his mother’s second marriage).  In a third, he married Jeanne and had a family.

This film asks us to ponder the importance of the decisions in our lives and argues “there are no good or bad choices. It’s simply that each choice will create another life for you.”

Via a series of educational vignettes, it explains scientific concepts such as the Big Bang, the Big Crunch, chaos theory, the butterfly effect, and pigeon superstition, then explores the real world ramifications.

Jared Leto is one of my favorite actors.  From Requiem for a Dream (2000) to Dallas Buyers Club (2013), he’s always riveting, but it’s difficult to believe he’ll ever be better than in this movie.

Sarah Polley is great as Nemo’s emotionally disturbed wife, Elsie.  A fine actress, she’s an even better director: Away from Her (2006) is a devastating portrait of Alzheimer’s; Take this Waltz (2011) is a bittersweet movie about a dying relationship; Stories We Tell (2012) is a searing look at the lies families tell to function and survive.

Part Slaughterhouse Five, part Run, Lola Run (1998), part Amelie (2001), part The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), part Cloud Atlas (2012), part advanced science lesson, part love story, part philosophical discussion: this a great movie I hope to watch many more times.

I Want My Shakespeare!

Romeo + JulietRomeo + Juliet (1996)

Baz Lurhmann’s film is Shakespeare filtered through MTV.

The reason this works while other adaptations of Shakespeare have failed is because they left the Shakespearean dialogue alone, while modernizing the presentation.  By making it like a new MTV video with Shakespearean language, this adaptation highlights the language and forces us to pay even more attention to it.

Released one year before Titanic, this is the beginning of Leonardo DiCapprio’s ascent to superstardom.

The role of Juliet was originally offered to Natalie Portman, but producers were uncomfortable with how young she seemed in her scenes with DiCapprio.  Fortunately, Claire Danes is exactly how I would have imagined Juliet.

The fantastic supporting cast includes Paul Sorvino, M. Emmet Walsh, Paul Rudd, John Leguizamo, Miriam Margoyles, and Pete Postlethwaite.

Watch this just to be reminded how great Shakespeare can be when done well.

24 hour intervals in Paradise

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick’s second major film, Days of Heaven contains many of what would become his defining characteristics: it’s slow and plodding, beautifully composed, and filled with Biblical allusions (in this case the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt).

Richard Gere has never been more understated.

The plot is simple, but has one major hole: why do Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister?.

While the story is easy to describe, the movie manages to create a good deal of suspense.

The film is composed like a series of paintings; the plot is an excuse to move towards the next set piece.

This is a beautiful film, maybe the most beautiful Malick film which makes it a must see.

The Scary Old Man Labored to Getaway

Labor Day (2013)

Escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), takes refuge in the home of single mom Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet). Chambers holds Adele and her son Henry hostage as he recovers from injuries sustained during his escape.

Frank is caught, but not before falling in love with Adele and teaching Henry how to cook.  When he’s finally released, Adele is there to meet him outside the prison.

Adele is a horrible mother who values her own desire for romance and adventure over the well-being of her son.

Winslet specializes in playing women who struggle with societal expectations regarding their love lives: Rose in Titanic (1997), Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Sarah Pierce in Little Children (2006), and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road (2008). I don’t think I’ve seen a movie where WInslet is in a healthy, loving relationship. Her characters invariably suffer lonely existential crises emanating from their powerlessness in their most important relationships.

Smarter people than me have belabored the point, but Josh Brolin is a younger version of Tommy Lee Jones, gruff and humorless with a subtle twinkle to let us know he’s in on the joke.

Tobey Maguire has a small role as the older version of Henry Wheeler.  Maguire made a lot of money as Spider-man, but he’s never lived up to the promise of those films.

It’s fun to see James Van Der Beek show up in a small role, but it doesn’t add to the movie.  If anything, his appearance is a distracting reminder of the glory of Dawson’s Creek.

Clark Gregg is always a solid background player and JK Simmons demonstrates once again why he’s in the unheralded supporting actor Hall of Fame.

Jason Reitman, son of successful director Ivan Reitman, is a capable director.  Juno (2007), Up in the Air (2009), and Young Adult (2011) are very good movies; this is not.

The problem is not Reitman’s direction or the cast, but the concept.  It’s a dull story about boring characters which ends predictably.

Scary Movie 5 (2013)

Calling this a parody speaks volumes about the state of contemporary American comedy.  It’s more like a pastiche of references to popular culture landmarks in an attempt to leech off more deserving films.

I feel bad for the people involved, many of whom are talented performers who deserve better.

This is a low point in the career of Molly Shannon, Darrell Hammond, Heath Locklear, and Jerry O’Connell.

Remember when Charlie Sheen was an actor and not a punch line?

Remember when Lindsay Lohan was not the poster child for the corrupting power of Hollywood?

I’m embarrassed to admit I watch the MTV show Teen Wolf starring Tyler Posey as Scott McCall.  I do so because the original films were treasured parts of my childhood.  His work in Teen Wolf is more enjoyable and sophisticated than anything he does here.

Even though I watched the movie, I’m not sure what Snoop Dogg and Usher were doing.

Mike Tyson struck gold with The Hangover series.  I’m sure he was hoping to replicate his success; he did not.

I suppose if you liked the first four entries in this series, you’d be inclined to watch this as well.  I’d advise against such torture, but to each their own.

Getaway (2013)

This is very bad spiritual successor to Speed (1994).

Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is a former racecar driver who comes home to find his wife missing. His phone rings, and a mysterious Voice (Jon Voight) demands Magna participate in a series of robberies or his wife will die.

For some never really explained reason, Magna winds up with a sidekick in The Kid (Selena Gomez).

I like Ethan Hawke.  He’s been in some of my favorite films, including Dead Poets Society (1989), Dad (1989), Before Sunrise (1995), Training Day (2001), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013).  But this is a serious misstep.

If Selena Gomez has designs on a respectable acting career, she might want to attach herself to respectable projects. The Wizards of Waverly Place doesn’t count.

Jon Voight won an Oscar in 1978 for Coming Home.  Sadly, Oscars don’t come with guarantees for quality future roles.  This is not the worst film of Voight’s late career (I’m looking at you Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2), but it’s in the running.

This is a waste of time and a frustrating waste of talent.

The Old Man and the Sea (1958)

I enjoyed Hemingway’s short novel about manhood; John Sturges is a competent director of machismo classics: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963); I’m a huge fan of Spencer Tracy’s work.

All of this should have translated into a wonderful film about a man’s stubborn manliness: a paean to perseverance.

Sadly, the movie never manages to reach those heights.  Hampered by technical challenges, the difficulty of filming a movie about a man stuck on a boat by himself for days proved insurmountable.

It’s a noble attempt, but only a mediocre film and a disservice to a fantastic piece of literature.

The King was born in a Manger sans the alluring cross

Allures (1961)

This experimental film by Jordan Belson, is a trippy, combination of sounds and images, and was preserved in the National Film Registry in 2011.

It reminds me of the final sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey
(1968).

Most people will never see it, and their lives will be no less fulfilling.

Sans Soleil (1983)

This avante garde documentary by Chris Marker is an attempt to document how cultural memory is created and maintained. He narrates an essay about time and memory set against such diverse footage as a volcano in Iceland, the San Francisco scenes from Vertigo (1958), and the slaughtering of a cow in Guineau-Bissau.

It’s an interesting experiment and worth watching once, but I don’t think it was successful, and I won’t watch it again.

From the Manger to the Cross (1912)

One of the earliest feature films to deal with Christ, this was placed in the National Film Registry in 1998.  It’s important from a historical standpoint, but there are better films about the life of Christ.

It’s not a film I will think of very often.

A King in New York (1957)

After a revolution in his country, King Igor Shadhov (Charlie Chaplin) discovers he’s bankrupt and comes to America looking for opportunities.  He attends what he thinks is a private dinner party, but the event is televised; his antics make him a popular commercial pitchman.

Igor meets and befriends a young anarchist student Rupert (played by Chaplin’s son Michael). Because Rupert’s parents are incarcerated for their communist activities everyone assumes his new friend is also a communist. When the king is called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he flees to Paris; Rupert is forced to identify other communists in exchange for his parent’s freedom.

The film ends with the king presciently reassuring Rupert anti-communist fervor will pass and inviting the child to stay with him in Europe until it does.

This film has been largely forgotten. Typical of Chaplin’s later films, it’s a bit uneven.  Emboldened by his early successes, his later films were not as focused, as if he was so enamored with his own genius he assumed the public would be as well.

Despite its flaws, I’m a fan of this deeply personal and biting satire about American tolerance for different political opinions, consumerism, and commercialism. Chaplin’s left-leaning political views had led to his exile from America in 1952. This was made in 1957 during his exile and is an attempt to do to the HUAC and communist witch hunts what he had previously done to Hitler with The Great Dictator (1940). Like the earlier film, history has proven him right. By the time the film received an American release in 1973, the Joseph McCarthy led search for communists in the American government in the 1950s was widely seen as an embarrassing episode in American history.

Jeanne Dielman Rising

Scorpio Rising (1964)

Kenneth Anger is hailed as one of America’s preeminent independent filmmakers.

He may very well be, but this film is little more than an elaborate home movie with a nifty soundtrack, including songs from Ricky Nelson, Elvis, Ray Charles, and Bobby Vinton.

With no dialogue, it’s a plotless, meandering look at Scoprio as he tinkers with his motorcycle.

The best thing about this movie: it’s only thirty minutes.

The film was the subject of a Supreme Court case because of brief images of graphic nudity, which I suppose makes it noteworthy.

Some might argue it has artistic merit, and their arguments are not invalid, but this is art too; artistic merit does not make a good movie.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1018 Brusselles (1975)

Chantal Ackerman’s film chronicles three days in the life of single mother Jeanne Dielman, highlighting the monotonous nature of the traditional feminine existence.

Jeanne’s days are filled with the same chores: she goes to the market, she cooks for her son. While her son is at school, she works as a prostitute (presumably to make ends meet).  Sex has become another chore in her life.

The movie is a series of static long shots of Jeanne going about her daily activities, meant to demonstrate how boring a domestic life is, bereft of intellectual and emotional fulfillment.

On the third day of our observation, Jeanne has an orgasm during a sexual encounter with her client.  Overwhelmed by the experience, she kills him with a pair of scissors.

This was a groundbreaking, daring film in 1975, but forty years later, it seems trite.  We’ve heard the same story many times already: from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, through Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, to Thelma and Louise (1991) and Erin Brockovich (2000).   The problem with this film: it’s so invested in making a political statement, it fails to create an interesting movie.

The Counselor should be ashamed of what he did in Vegas

The Counselor (2013)

Michael Fassbender plays a lawyer (the eponymous Counselor) who gets involved in a drug deal only to find he’s taken on more than he can handle.

Penelope Cruz is The Counselor’s girlfriend / fiancée.

Javier Bardem is Reiner, a drug dealer who convinces The Counselor to get involved in his business.

Cameron Diaz is Reiner’s girlfriend, herself a master criminal planning to double cross him.

Brad Pitt is Westray, a business associate of Reiner’s who warns The Counselor of the dangers of the drug business.

Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy (his first original screenplay), this should have been awesome, but it wasn’t.

McCarthy is the author of such classic modern novels as Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road, but he has a hard time working in the confines of a script.  This might have made a fantastic novel, but it doesn’t work as a movie.

The dialogue is occasionally poetic and lyrical, especially when The Counselor seeks the advice of drug kingpin, El Jeffe, but the story is uninspired and a pedestrian fait accompli.  When The Counselor gets involved in his first drug deal, we know it will end in death and misery.

Ridley Scott’s an accomplished director.  I love Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000), and Matchstick Men (2003), but I did not like this.

If you’re interested in a gripping story about a man’s descent into hell following his entry into the drug trade: watch Breaking Bad.  Walter White’s journey was fascinating because White was an indelible character, but The Counselor is not that interesting.

Shame (2011)

Because he’s addicted to sex in all of its forms (homosexual, pornography, prostitution), Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is incapable of having a healthy relationship.  His addiction is so severe, he goes to the bathroom to masturbate while at work.  Sex is an act designed to make him feel good, not an expression of the love in a relationship.  Because he has so divorced the two, when he does meet someone he likes, he cannot perform sexually.

While Brandon has separated sex from a healthy relationship, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has fused the two and sees sex as the only way to express interest, throwing herself at men to validate her self-worth.

Brandon and Sissy Sullivan are flip sides to the same coin.  He’s a sexual predator who needs sex to feel like a man.  She enjoys being desired and will do anything to encourage a suitor.

Much has been written about Fassbender’s willingness to do the graphic nude scenes in the film, but his willingness to plumb such depths of depravity is more impressive than showing his private parts.

Carrie Mulligan is great as Sissy Sullivan.  In her relatively brief Hollywood career she’s turned in a string of phenomenal performances in An Education (2009), Never Let Me Go (2010), Drive (2011), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), and the Doctor Who episode, “Blink”.  The scene where Brendan goes to see her performance as a nightclub singer and she sings “New York, New York” is searing.

Despite only directing three feature films, Steve McQueen has shown a rare willingness to make personal films about taboo subjects.  I applaud the film for tackling sexual addiction and the dangers of oversexualization.  Sexual urges are a part of our existence, to deny them is to deny a part of ourselves, but to indulge them completely is to create a world of people like Brandon and Sissy, people who define themselves by their sexuality.

My only complaint: it’s too careful to not take sides and be objective; some issues cannot be merely observed.

White, Blue and White (2014)

After Argentina won the 1978 World Cup, two of the team’s star players: Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa joined the English soccer club, Tottenham Hotspur.  With Tottenham, they won the 1981 FA Cup and became very popular players.

Ardiles and Villa were the two highest profile Argentines in Britain during the Falkland Wars.  This film documents the conflict between the land of their birth and their adopted home.

Sporting events provide a welcome distraction to the frustrations of our lives, but as this story demonstrates sometimes, sports allegiances create tension and uncertainty.

Viva Las Vegas(1964)

Lucky Jackson (Elvis) goes to Vegas to participate in a car race.  When he needs money to fix his car, he enters a talent contest where he meets Rusty Martin (Ann-Margaret); they fall in love.

All of this is irrelevant.  The movie is an excuse to watch Elvis in action.

It’s not earth shattering cinema, but it’s one of my favorite Elvis films.  The music is fun, the dancing is great, and Ann-Margaret is good (there are persistent rumors, Elvis thought she was pretty good off-screen as well).

Cool fact: Speed Racer was modeled on Elvis look during his auto race in this film.