Archive for February, 2009

Fat Tuesday

Normally I don’t do Lent; that is to say, I don’t think I ever have before. The idea is a good one – at least, it could be. It is sortof a mini fast, but instead of giving up all food for days on end, you choose something that you know holds you back from being close to God, and you use the idea of collective abstaining as support to forego your own bad habits. Hopefully, Lent will help you develop better habits, and you will also use that time to get closer to God. 

There must be some deep irony then, that even after Mardi Gras weekend, people use today to get full-on, pass-out drunk. Most of these people a) probably aren’t taking part in Lent, and b) aren’t giving up alcohol for Lent. Lent is about getting closer to God, and it has also become about general self-improvement. I would argue that the former implies the latter. Yet, for my Lent, I am setting goals that are in both camps. My goal is 4-fold – 

1. No Fast Food – “Fast Food” for my purposes is defined as any Restaurant which contains a drive-through. The exception is Starbucks. It is not a Restaurant, but a coffeeshop. But. Sadly for me, many of my favorite Chinese places are drive-through, and so they are out. My goal is to save money and eat healthier food by preparing it at home.

2. No Chocolate – I don’t really see myself as a Chocoholic, but when I buy a bag of Reese’s Pieces or Peanut M&Ms, the bag is gone in 2 days. That’s a lot of excess junk I don’t need. I want to eat better snacks – fruits, vegetables, crackers (this can be a slippery slope as well). I heard drinking two glasses of water before snacking will curb the drive, and I’m going to try that.  

3. Writing – No, I’m not giving up writing. I know of people who’ve given up movies for Lent or things like that, and I know it can be good to go on a fast from movies for a month or so (I’ve done it twice), but the point of Lent is to give up those things that keep you from God, not those things that bring you closer to him. For me, I might as well give up going to church, then. No, I am giving up NOT writing. I keep a journal, but I have been lax. It’s separate from my fiction and screenplays and separate from this blog. And I’ve neglected it a bit, and I want to change that pattern. At least 1 jounraled page a day is the goal. Mornings are a great time to do it. I’m writing this in the morning, in fact.

4. Prayer – I’m giving up making excuses for why I don’t pray as often as I need to. Many churches emphasize prayer, and I know why, but they do so in a way that makes it impersonal. Telling people to pray 10 or 15 minutes a day, or any time amount is wrong-headed. I need to just pray, and if it doesn’t take long, it doesn’t take long, and if it does, it does. Both #3 and #4 are designed to establish new, better habits for my mornings.

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#1 – The Dark Knight

Head's, I win; Tail's, you lose. 

 

Head's, I win; Tail's, you lose.

Let me be clear. This movie is not perfect. There are some writing flaws, and some of the story could be a bit tighter. Yes, it is true. But to suggest that any of its flaws is cause to discredit the film is simply madness. They are peccadillos, and every film has them. It is a real shame that the Academy did not recognize “The Dark Knight” with many more nominations this year. This is the most complex comic book movie to date. It deals with themes and characters and subject matter that are far darker and delve far deeper than any other of its kind. Very few movies present a hero who is almost always wrong. Few movies depict evil in a way so illusive and frightening. Few movies offer this much action. Nearly every major character has an interesting story arc. For Bruce Wayne, he must wrestle with the consequences of the choices he’s made. If Gotham is Baghdad, then Batman is George W. Bush. And Joker is Al Qaeda. And maybe Harvey Dent is Obama (though let’s keep our new president away from any accidents like this, if you please). Batman must come to terms with the idea that in some ways, he should be hated. He’s brought Joker on Gotham, and he didn’t take him seriously. And yes, Heath Ledger IS every bit as good as everyone is giving him credit for. This performance ranks right up there with the depictions of evil from last year’s two Oscar Heavyweight’s – No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. He is truly a force of nature. To suggest that Joker is just crazy and wacky is to miss the innumerable layers and subtleties within Ledger’s performance. Watch how he responds when a goon tells him he’s insane early on in the film. Watch the things that trigger his laughter. It isn’t simply jokes. Ledger uses laughing to propel himself toward anarchy. It is a lovely, specific, humungous performance.

Would this face lie to you?

Would this face lie to you?

The scenes between Joker and Batman, and Joker and Harvey Dent are the best in the film. The way the paradoxes function – the way he meticulously plans and controls the chaos he introduces, the way he schemes about the evil of schemers – and the relationship he sees between himself and Batman is jarring and haunting. “The Dark Knight” is about the never-ending struggle between good and evil, and about the ugly choices that both of them make. Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the 21st century’s greatest story-tellers now with  films like “Memento,” “The Prestige” and now the Batman franchise. He challenges himself as a filmmaker, the actors in terms of their talents, and the audience in terms of how much they are willing to think while they are being entertained.

This is the best film of 2008.

#2 – Wall*E

The "W" is for Wonder 

 

The "W" is for Wonder

 

I said it right after I saw it, and I will say it again now: the best love story in recent memory takes place between two robots, and it is “Wall*E.” How can Pixar be this perfect?  The first half is a great silent comedy, the second half a stirring, sweeping, beautiful romance. And there is excitement and adventure and science fiction!!! And it’s funny. The scope of the world that writer/director Andrew Stanton and the Pixar Team creates is so far beyond any expectation – the vast towers of finely compacted trash, the spacial elements aboard the spaceship. And for all this, the film’s focus remains where it should, on the heart of its character Wall*E, who we see in his daily routine of loneliness, yearning for love, for that spark. I cried even more the second time I saw it, it is just so beautiful. He meets the sleek and orbulescent Eve, and he falls in love. And from then on, he can think of nothing but being near her. He is swept away. It is rare – too rare – to see this kind of love play out on screen. It is deliberately hopeful and whimsical and happy. And I loved it. 

With so many computer animated family movies coming out one after another, sequel after sequel, it is positively daring that Pixar refuses to cower to what other studios view as the writing on the wall. Their motto is to combine half-baked characters and mediocre storylines with enough pop-culture references to be cool and sly jokes for the parents to make it worth their time to endure a cuteness-fest. Not Pixar. Writer/Director Andrew Stanton abandons the pop references and goes deeper, with allusions to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a blatant homage to classic Hollywood musicals. Pixar films don’t have time to waste on cheap jokes, because they are building an ensemble of compelling characters, many of whom are hilarious in their own right, and they are putting together a visual look that can only be described as breath-taking. The animation is a wonder to behold, from character detail to the two totally separate, distinct, opposite worlds it creates – one decayed, one sterilized. How many movies can make you cry just by showing you a planet?

:)

🙂

To end, I want to talk about my favorite scene. It’s the one with the two of them out in space, dancing together, she flying, he with the help of a fire extinguisher; zooming together around the ship and space and each other. There is something epic and eternal about it, and it is one of the most romantic cinematic moments in recent memory. The scene combines the film’s massive visual scope with its emotional core. In the midst of all time and space and the big “out there,” it is a scene between two people, as they fall completely in love. And by people I mean robots. This is the most delightful move of all time.

#3 – Slumdog Millionaire

Here is another unique experience. I first saw “Slumdog Millionaire” in Toronto, loved it, wept my eyes out. Director Danny Boyle was there, as was the writer, as were the stars. They talked about the film both before and after. It was my favorite film from the festival, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. No one I talked to there thought it would ever have a chance come Oscar season. Yet here it is. It is a simple story, Dickensian in its plot and theme and characters. There are good people and bad people, there are children in danger, there is true love at stake. It is about two brothers growing up in India. They are orphaned, they meet a girl, they try to stay alive. In the future, one of them is on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The plot sounds cheesy. It sounds tired. How can it work at all? Having seen it again, I will tell you. Most movies that have those familiar  elements aren’t made as well. They dwell on the familiar and they do nothing with them. They use stock elements out of pure convenience. Whereas, Danny Boyle infuses them with the rapid fire pace of a Danny Boyle movie, a soundtrack and visual style that propel you ever forward, and the landscape and people and culture of India. The movie is completely authentic in the ways it was shot and the places it was shot – it is the first film ever to be shot INSIDE the actual Bombay slums. They got unprecedented access and cooperation. It shows. The movie builds in ways you can probably expect and should reasonably predict, and yet your investment in the characters is so powerful that you stay with them. Your hope becomes their hope. I am telling you, go see this movie. You will not regret it.

It is Written.

It is Written.

#4 – Synecdoche, New York

Perhaps the most divisive film of the year among serious and intelligent movie-lovers, here is a film about themes no less lofty than: the meaning of life; the meaning of art; the tangled relationship between the two, and the point at which those two entities become indistinguishable from each other. Also, the fear of death and its relation to the aforementioned themes. Also, narcissism and particularly how it afflicts the artist and the tangled relationship between it and every other word in this description so far.

Choose your own adventure

Choose your own adventure

To say the movie operates in the realm of circular logic is to assume that the film has a logic and a basic understanding of shapes, as they relate to logic. More tangled relationships. Have I made you want to see this movie yet? If the answer is yes, then chances are you will not only enjoy it, but you will get something out of it. If the answer is no, then this simply may not be your cup of tea. But either way, what this movie should not be confused with or mischaracterized as is a bad movie. It is not. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his second film on my top ten list. I didn’t plan it, and in many ways, it doesn’t seem like he’s on here twice because he so completely disappears into his roles. PSH (as his friends call him) certainly has his actor’s tricks, and he loves to play “Intense…Intense-ER!!” sometimes, but he is also one of the best working actors today. Here, he is a man who creates a play about his own life and eventually casts actors to play himself, and then actors to play actors playing himself. The film has been in rehearsal for over 20 years. The warehouse in which this production is to take place acquires a second warehouse inside the first warehouse in order to play the first warehouse in the play. There is a house which is perpetually on fire. It is not explained. Things get weirder, too, but we’ll leave that for you to see for yourself. This film is not simply absurd, it is absurdist. It is a film that would make Samuel Becket scratch his head. But at the same time, I disagree with the notion that the movie is toying with us, that it is  looking down on us or mocking us. It doesn’t trick us or deceive us or manipulate us. Seeing the movie again, I felt even more that there is a sincerity amid the confusion; that Kaufman is attempting to make an honest movie about all the dishonesties we engage in on a daily basis. You are not a bad person if you do not like the movie. But neither should you blame the movie if you should find out it doesn’t like you either.

#5 – CHE

Man...? Myth...?

Man...? Myth...?

This is one of my personal favorite movie going experiences. I was in Toronto, in September and saw all 4 1/2 hours of this two-part film with 1500 other people at 9am in the morning. And it held my attention. If the film has a shortcoming, it is that Soderbergh may have needed to give slightly more context to the 2nd half of his film; into the circumstances that led to it. Finding out more about it, it is very pertinent. But then we might have another 45 minutes of movie, and boy that’s a lot of watching. But it is worth it! Benicio Del Toro plays Ernesto “Che” Guevera, and if you thought he was a saint, you are wrong. And if you thought he was the devil, you are wrong. What he was, in the opinion of this film, is the embodiment of a soldier. He is most at home DOING, not saying. He explains himself only that he might convince others to come join him. It is telling, then, that other than Del Toro as CHE, the names of every other character are nearly unimportant, both to the film and to Che. The first film shows the overthrowing of the Cuban government, as Che and his revolutionaries stage a coup.

...Legend...? Martyr...?

...Legend...? Martyr...?

The 2nd film concerns his efforts in Bolivia. The first film is a victory, the second a defeat. And Soderbergh is so smart in how he compares and contrasts them. He shoots his films himself, and he used the brand new “Red” camera, and this film may as well be a 4 1/2 hour commercial for it, because everything looks amazing. So much time is spent in jungles and forests and in the thick of the revolution. The film intentionally keeps its distance, and an argument can be made that it is completely devoid of emotional payoffs. When Che dies, he dies. I do not recall any weeping in the large crowd I saw it with. But that is not to say it is uneffective. It is one of the most dense pieces of film I’ve seen. The craft is brilliant, the subject matter and performance compelling, and, more than anything, it makes you want to learn more about this man called Che.

#6 – Rachel Getting Married

She puts the FUN in Dysfunctional Family

She puts the FUN in Dysfunctional Family

I really love everything about this movie. I love that Anne Hathaway proves that she isn’t just Princess Diaries (also I have a proper sexual crush on her, just in general), and can handle a complex character. She plays Kym , out of rehab for the weekend to attend her sisters wedding. The film is about this wedding with this family, with their history. It has all of the ingredients of a stuffy melodrama, but writer Jenny Lumet and director Jonathan Demme find their way around some potential pitfalls. Instead of making a claustrophobic picture where we’re trapped with 5 or 6 characters in a house talking about the tragedies of their lives,, the film is incredibly free. To say that Demme’s camera meanders would be incorrect. The cinematography feels organic, it is interested in everyone it sees, and it follows them for a while, leaving behind just the main family. There is an extended sequence at the rehearsal dinner, where character after character stand up and talk for a moment. Probably 15 or so of them. Most of these characters never speak again. But this is not wasted time. The movie is about the largeness of family and a wedding and about the dynamic of all these people being gathered at one time. There are musicians constantly playing in the background, and they provide the film’s score. There are absolutely emotional moments, and dramatic payoffs, but they aren’t where you would expect them. They sneak up on you, and the film earns them. This movie just feels true.


It Has Come to This

February 2009
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