Monday, November 30, 2009

Six Movies Every Guy Should See at Age 17

Or eighteen. Basically, second-half of high school. At least, that's when I saw these movies, and they made an indelible impression on my life.

There are a few factors at work here - first, all of these movies are totally accessible to anyone who's grown up watching movies. Nothing too eclectic, nothing too off-the-beaten path. Second, all of these have valuable life lessons for anyone making the transition from young punk to adult (and trust me, not everyone makes this transition). Everything from girls to school to's all here. And lessons aside, they're damn slick, enjoyable movies to watch.

Eyes Wide Shut - Okay, this is pushing the "mainstream" requirement a little (it is a pretty good thriller for a bit there...and there are a LOT of boobs), but if you're willing to roll with it, the film is here for you. Basically, when I saw this the summer before my Senior year of high school, it blew my head apart. I had no idea women thought this much about sex and had the same desires and fantasies my Catholic-raised ass was struggling with. Of course, the next year I would go to college and find out (alas, not through direct experience) that girls are even more obsessed with sex than guys (some, anyway), but for the time being, this was...very valuable.

Oh, and anyone who says this is "lesser Kubrick" can shove it. This and Barry Lyndon for the win.

A Clockwork Orange - Hey, two Kubrick movies! Hey, boobs aside, they really couldn't be any more different. Another movie that, when I saw it the first time (in a theater, what what)...well, it was one of those movies I saw and couldn't believe it existed. I had a vague notion that something like this could exist, The lesson here is basically to question authority. That's something no respectable 17-year-old has ANY problem with, but I'll also say that for the most part, guys enjoy this movie a lot more when they're younger than when they're older. I mean, I'm only 23, and I still think it's a fine film, but I don't think half as well of it now as I did then.

Chasing Amy - Near and dear for a lot of men, for a reason. Young men, take notice - the girl you're crazy about was around before you, and there's a good chance there'll be an "after you" too. Don't get hung up on it. Try to trust her, especially if she says she loves you. If you get burned, you get burned, that's life. But don't get all jealous about stuff that has no bearing on you. I'm still learning the damn lesson Holden learned in this film, but I'm glad as hell that I had a few years' head start on it.

Fight Club - YeeeeAAAAHHHH. Like A Clockwork Orange, I don't like it half as well as I did when I was 17, but I fucking LOVED this movie when I was 17. Sure, I didn't catch onto the biting social commentary that was underneath the surface (that is to say, don't get caught up in ANY cult, be it mainstream corporate environment or anti-establishment underground), but everything that's on the surface (that is, everything that Tyler spouts in the pre-terrorism section of the film) is stuff genuinely worth considering whether or not you end up agreeing with it. Again, like A Clockwork Orange, it gets you thinking about stuff you might not have before, and is damned entertaining while it does it.

Clerks - More Kevin Smith! A little repetitive, maybe, but Kevin Smith is a guy who appeals pretty directly to young men. Certainly did to me. Anyway, two major things here: a) recognize a good lady when you land one, and don't keep chasing after what you think is your dream girl, because she probably isn't, and b) work a job you don't mind working. It doesn't have to be your dream job or your career, but really look around and find something you're comfortable with. It's not worth minimum wage to hate your life for up to eight hours a day (unless that's REALLY all you can find).

Dazed and Confused - And dude, just enjoy it. It's high school. Even if they don't end up being the best years of your life, there are so many opportunities to have so much fun. Soak it up. It's the last years you'll be given a roof over your head and food on your plate. Don't worry about the future, just do the best you can and find things you enjoy doing.

Bonus Religious Pick: The Last Temptation of Christ - Okay, if you're any denomination of Christian, get your ass out and see this movie. First, it's a good barometer to determine if you understand the concept of art, and second, it forces you to reconsider your idea of Jesus. I was raised non-denominational Christian and went to Catholic school for all of my formative years, and this was really powerful stuff. Don't let anyone tell you The Passion of the Christ is a better portrait, either.

My girlfriend has some thoughts on movies to recommend to high school age girls. Blog tie-in...ACTIVATE!

REVIEW: Bronson

Movies like this...really should get wider audiences. Totally audacious, always compelling, ridiculous, over-the-top, and all the words used to describe this movie in its trailer (except maybe "Beethoven"). Yeah, there's little mystery to why a pull-quote on Bronson's poster compared it to A Clockwork Orange - if A Clockwork Orange didn't exist, there'd be nothing out there remotely like Bronson, and it's not even THAT similar to Kubrick's most dangerous film.

Ostensibly the story of Britain's most violent prisoner, born Michael Peterson, incarcerated Charles Bronson, the film has all the shock value and fearless entertainment to draw in the punk-rock crowd (if only such a crowd still existed), and all the political commentary and just-scraping-the-surface character study to leave them stunned and utterly fascinated.

As much as you have to commend director Nicolas Winding Refn for daring to take this approach on a story based on fact, it's his total harmonious collaboration with his lead actor, Tom Hardy, that defines the film. True, Refn clearly sought an actor capable of what Hardy is willing and able to do, but Hardy is so forceful in this role it feels at time like he's committing mutiny within the film itself; as though Hardy is the Bronson to the film's prison.

This absolutely is Hardy's film. He's the one anyone will be talking about, whether they think about directing style or not. It's a shame that the Academy would never dare touch work this dangerous, because I think it's just as deep a performance as it is sheerly entertaining. Once you settle into the rhythm of his performance, he never totally surprises you, but there are unmistakable layers to his showboating - ramped up when he needs to get the authority's attention, balled up and contained when he's not in control of his environment. To watch him out in the real world is at once heartbreaking and unbelievably tense. There aren't any big scenes where he cries about not being able to adjust to life outside of prison or anything like that, but watch his eyes and you just know.

Refn, wisely, doesn't try to keep up with Hardy in the prison scenes, when the actor is absolutely out-of-his-mind dynamic. For such an energetic film, Refn's aesthetic is remarkably restrained, yet assured. He knows the right way to shoot a scene, sticks to it, and just unleashes Hardy within his frame. He never tries to keep up with him by accelerating his visuals. The result is this uncontainable man constantly contained.

I'm not sure it's great film; like I said, I really have no basis for how to process this thing, but that's a pretty exceptional thing to say about a film. I do know it absolutely has to be seen.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

REVIEW: Fantastic Mr. Fox

I complain about this a lot, but it's really hard writing reviews of movies I love after only seeing them once. I can write pages about the ones I've seen over and over again, but when a new movie comes along that I totally fall for, it can be a little tricky.

Wes Anderson is a big reason I'm as into film as I am. The Royal Tenenbaums was a movie I heard about in the A&E section of the newspaper when I was fifteen, and after a summer that brought me Zoolander, I was absolutely ready for anything with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. It didn't need to be as good as it was to satisfy me, but at the time, it was better than anything I'd ever seen. It felt real and fresh and, even though I didn't have the words for it at the time, artistically vital. When you're fifteen, you see a lot of movies that anyone could have made - nobody else could have made The Royal Tenenbaums. That's powerful stuff when you're fifteen and came off a summer that included Rat Race, Evolution, and America's Sweethearts.

My unbridled joy at discovering this whole other...THING out there in this world was matched only by my disappointment that Anderson was unable to reclaim that magic with The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, two films I've come to appreciate and even like quite a bit, but which always seemed to lack that certain...something. Had I just gotten my fill of Anderson's vision, or were they really lacking the touch that made Tenenbaums, and later Rushmore, mean the world to me?

Fantastic Mr. Fox, an indescribable work of unbridled genius, suggests the latter. Anderson's overflowing aesthetic inventiveness is right at home is a world built literally from scratch, but this isn't as simple as a diorama in motion, though it'd still be pretty wonderful for that. No, like other memorable Anderson creations Royal Tenenbaum and Steve Zissou, Mr. Fox is a showboat well past his prime, dependent on his ability to maintain a version of himself that probably never actually existed, who must come face to face with the reality of who he is. There are few dramatic scenarios more sympathetic than watching someone realize they aren't half the man they thought they were. Even when acted out with puppets.

It doesn't hurt when that puppet is voiced by George Clooney, who has the good fortune to possess one of the most compelling voices in modern cinema. Plus, Wes Anderson films benefit tremendously from a main actor bringing an outside sensibility to the project. A big part of the reason The Royal Tenenbaums works so well is due to Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller; Owen and Luke Wilson, Angelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Bill Murray are all totally on Wes Anderson's wavelength, which is tremendous, but a big reason The Darjeeling Limited is so, well, limited, is that all three leads are totally keyed into what Anderson wanted. It's clear that Clooney made some choices Anderson wouldn't have suggested, and the character, and thus the film, benefit.

For that matter, I really think Anderson stepped up his game here. In his last two films, he ached to create moments as spontaneously brilliant and deeply moving as the moment when Margot steps off the bus, Richie releases Mordecai to the swelling moment of "Hey Jude," or Max flying his kite as he dictates a list of guests to Dirk. As inspired by the music Anderson curates as those moments are, they were truly earned by the dramatic momentum up to that point, the particular rhythm delicately crafted not just in terms of narrative structure, but all the way down to the rhythm of the dialogue and the particular cadence of Anderson's populace, never mind his impeccable aesthetic. In Aquatic and Darjeeling, Anderson made the mistake of most audience members in assuming the right song could totally define such moments.

The film doesn't have nearly as many musical interludes as his previous work, and amazingly there are quite a few original songs in here (one of which leads to the funniest moment in the whole film), and every emotional moment is brought about purely through the characters and Anderson's mise-en-scene. Nothing is forced or goes unearned. There's a scene between Mr. Fox's son, Ash, and his nephew, Kristofferson, in the bedroom they're sharing, that's played out entirely in one shot and contains a world of emotion due entirely to the lighting, framing, and pace of the scene, and a few choice words of dialogue.

Like all of Anderson's movies, it feels much longer than it is. Not because it's slow or ever boring, but because in a mere 87 minutes, he's somehow able to create a world that is totally realized, artistically developed, and completely lived in. The past is a tangible presence in the Anderson universe, the agony of regret and ache for new opportunities permeates every scene.

I should mention that it's a lot of fun to watch, too, certainly more comedic than any of Anderson's films to date, but no less moving. It's a true joy, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Accept the Mystery"

There are two types of people in the world, artists and scientists. Both are fascinated by the mysteries of the world; things that seem inexplicable. Scientists will seek to find an answer, discover why things are the way they are. Artists revel in the mystery.

In the fifth grade I had a teacher who was more than a bit of a science fiction fan, and spent an inordinate amount of time on stuff like the Bermuda Triangle (why would any fifth-grader need to know about it at all?) and the theory that aliens built the pyramids (we actually spent class time watching a video on this). What I came away learning from this is as much as we understand some parts of the way things are, we really don't have a God damn clue.

Call me lazy if you like, but I'll gladly revel in the mystery.

The thing is that there's very little that's "ambiguous" about these things. There's a lot that isn't explicated, but you always end up knowing everything you need to know. Anything left out is not only unessential, but made more tantalizing by its omission.

I once got into a heated debate about these sorts of endings, specifically as relates to Martin Scorsese. A friend claimed his movies didn't have endings, that "they just stop." I always wonder what one would have to gain by finding out whether or not Mark Wahlberg pays for what he did at the end of The Departed, or what happens after the screen goes to black at the end of Raging Bull and The Aviator (did we need to follow these people until they died?). And what's up with the ending of Taxi Driver?

In his commentary track for L'Avventura, Gene Youngblood mentions that he's amazed at the number of films that tout themselves as mysteries when they end up simply revealing everything, and he's right - I'm far more thrilled by the questions swirling around in my head as the final shot of L'Avventura plays out than I am by hearing the psychiatrist's explanation of Norman Bates' condition at the end of Psycho. As thrilling as that film otherwise is, that brings all momentum to a complete hault - how much more satisfying would it have been to simply cut to the final sequence of Norman sitting in the chair?

Art leaves us asking questions, or at least it should. Leave the answers to the sciences, but only when we absolutely must have them.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Beyond the Infinite

"I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience ans is able to cut directly through to areas of emotional comprehension...

"I think one of the areas where 2001 succeeds is in stimulating thoughts about man's destiny and role in the universe in the minds of people who in the normal course of their lives would never have considered such matters. Here again, you've got the resemblance to music; an Alabama truck driver, whose views in every other respect would be extremely narrow, is able to listen to a Beatles record on the same level of appreciation and perception as a young Cambridge intellectual, because their emotions and subconscious are far more similar than their intellects. The common bond is their subconscious emotional reaction; and I think that a film which can communicate on this level can have a more profound spectrum of impact than any form of traditional verbal communication."
-Stanley Kubrick (The Film Director as Superstar, 1970, reprinted in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews)

I picked that book up today at the library on a whim, months after listening to a thoroughly fascinating interview with Kubrick from the early 1960s (I can't locate the link at the moment, but will post it when I can). Needless to say, only a few interviews in, it's a fascinating read.

Kubrick is one of the few guys who can get away with saying a) that 2001 is exactly as important and profound as he claims, and b) that an Alabama truck driver and a young Cambridge intellectual would have the same level of appreciation about anything. He's not wrong, that's not what I'm saying; rather that, because he never went to college, and learned everything entirely on his own or through direct interactions with other people, he has a foundation for believing a truck driver and a Cambridge intellectual could think the same way about anything. Not that one's reaction is more valid than the other's, but because of life experiences, the odds that they would approach any sort of art the same way are extremely thin.

BUT...Kubrick's also smart enough to know that when film is at its absolute best, it has the capacity to reach anybody, regardless of background. That film, when it's working purely within its own terms (that is, visually and non-verbal auditory), requires no intellectual background, only an open mind. Anybody can understand 2001: A Space Odyssey, because even though it's bolstered by a background in philosophy, theology, and computer science, it is absolutely capable of delivering on a visceral level, and stir the same areas of thought in anyone of any given background. Assuming you come to it with an open mind, you can't help but walk away from 2001 thinking about the universe and man's place in it and a billion other things, even if you can't fully form those thoughts.

I'm working on some best-of-the-decade stuff, and looking through it now, it made me realize just how unique Kubrick was. Because nobody will ever make a movie like 2001 again, never mind making it a movie many people would bother to see. The Fountain drew a lot of comparisons, but much as I love that movie, it's not nearly as BIG as 2001 is, and comparatively addresses a rather narrow area of thought. Really, how many films speak to such fundamental concerns the way 2001 does? This isn't to say "things were better back then," because they were as shitty just as often as they are now, but more to illustrate how wonderfully singular Kubrick was.

Needless to say, if you haven't seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, for God's sake, do it. Inspired by all this, I'll be watching it again shortly, probably this weekend, as my girlfriend has yet to see it. And she must.

(Although, all things considered, Barry Lyndon is still my favorite of his films)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

REVIEW: Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio is one half of a good movie. When it's about a crew of DJs hanging out on a boat off the coast of London broadcasting the only rock-n-roll available to Brits, it's gold. When it's about the clash of ideologies between popular music and the establishment, it's gold. When it's trying to tell a coming-of-age story about a totally bland central character, it's absolutely dead.

In its best moments, it captures the fleeting experience once-in-a-lifetime experiences bring about, and in its worst, it's almost impossible to sit through. It, like so many others (including The Men Who Stare at Goats, which I might find the energy to review), suffers from the awful desire to introduce us to this world via a totally bland, completely uninteresting and devoid of any trait that would ever make him human, central character.

Luckily, those don't stick as hard as the joy of rebellion and the freedom of pop music; the total expression of the feeling evoked by The Beach Boys, The Kinks, The Supremes, or Dusty Springfield. Or it could just be that the music itself is unbelievable. There's such an onslaught, it can be difficult to decipher exactly where one ends and another begins.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

REVIEW: The Damned United

As I've said many times before, I believe firmly that a film is not about what it's about; it's about how it's about it.

The problem is that what The Damned United is about is absolutely fascinating stuff. The main character, Brian Clough, would be an absolutely ridiculous creation if he weren't based on a real person. His story of an otherwise ambitious soccer ("football" to the film and its native England) manager who gets caught up in outdoing another manager because of a relatively minor slight when they first met is...well, it's wild stuff. And the transformation Brian goes through over the course of six years is stunning, and aptly portrayed by Michael Sheen, in what is surely his more exciting performance to date.

Now if only they'd given it to us straight. This is where the "how it's about it" comes into play, and in a bad way. Sometimes there's a use for telling your story out of order - in this case, cutting back and forth between two otherwise chronological stories, one taking place in 1974 after Brian Clough has taken over as manager for Leeds United, the other taking place between 1968 and 1974 as we see everything it has taken for Clough to get to where he is in the parallel story - but there is absolutely no reason to do it here. All it feels like is a cheap attempt to be clever, one of those notes you get about "keeping the audience interested," as though we're a pack of four-year-olds who need something shiny dangled in front of us every five minutes, rather than a storytelling technique that felt integral to the story.

The extent of your appreciation with thus hinge on the extent to which this bothers you, because everything else in the film is top-notch. Even the overactive camera, mixed with too many cuts and not enough tripods, is often quite striking (especially in director Tom Hooper's use of the camera's focus). As previously noted, the basic narrative, and every performance, is genuinely great, but it's all servicing a tragic misfire of a screenplay.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

REVIEW: An Education

What does it say about a movie when you have to restrain yourself from applauding as the main character blows out her birthday candles?

There are several levels of artistic engagement, but the worst and the most immediately rewarding is emotional engagement. This is one of the most wonderful things about talking about movies with people who don't really know movies that well; they'll tend to talk mostly about the things they love. For those of us who know what we're talking about and take it (that is, cinema) very seriously, we tend towards conversations around the essay-ready movie, films with myriad themes and allusions, films that open themselves up to interpretation and which defy easy categorization.

This gets to the problem of emotional engagement, which is that discussing those films becomes very, very difficult. And God help the person who disagrees with you. Some of the worst fights I've had in my life have been over Crash (a truly contemptible film) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which, don't get me wrong, is a fine film, but many a man has claimed it the best film of all time and met with much contention on my part).

This is all to say that I loved Lone Scherfig's An Education deeply (until the last couple of minutes, a true tuck-and-roll ending that is thoroughly unsatisfying in every possible way). Jenny is exactly the kind of character I clamor for in movies, and Carey Mulligan's performance is as revelatory as I'd been hearing for the past ten months since the film's premiere at Sundance. Absolutely admirable in her ambition, interests, and clear knowledge of the sort of life she wants, yet totally unsure of the precise form that life will take, open to the possibility of the result, and firmly clueless in how to go about any of it, Jenny is the kind of precise creation that comes along very rarely.

So, too, is the world she lives in. What could be more predictable than, upon entering into a relationship with a man nearly twice her age, have parents absolutely, firmly against the whole affair? But that wouldn't be in keeping with the times, and her parents' desire to see her attend Oxford ends up being less about carving an exceptional future for herself than it is about the closest option to a totally secure future, financially. If another option comes along, like a husband, why not go for that?

What continues to fascinate me since seeing the film are the many things the title comes to mean. Without running off a list of them, the one that I love it for the most, than I love Jenny for the most, is the fact that the very education she's turning her back on is what made her the person she is. Without an education, she would have never had the desire to invest in French culture; read their books, listen to their music, see their films. She would never have even know these things existed. Who but an educated person would sit in a cafe and discuss Camus?

I don't blame Jenny for these faults - I love her for them, because, I'll admit it, she reminds me so much of myself (even at 23, I have some hindsight and self-awareness), contemptible of my own rather privileged education, yet constantly, unknowingly drawing from it. They say youth is wasted on the young, and without a doubt they're correct in this assessment, but in a time when young people are so often portrayed as totally uncaring in even an indirect way of the benefits of education, I cannot overstate how refreshing it is to see a character as intellectually curious as Jenny. This is the kind of person schools should be aiming to create; not an army of overly-ambitious salary-seekers, but people deeply invested in what they're learning, and eager to continue their education in whatever form that may take.

And I've barely even touched the wealth of material in a relatively short film, especially the romance that's theoretically at the center of the thing. This is part of the reason I felt so short-changed by the ending; the film had clearly decided it was primarily about the romance, so once that story was more or less concluded it had no use for truly finishing the character's arc. It's a frustrating, all-too-common side effect of the cinema of the situation rather than the cinema of the story, but although it undermines its ambition, it doesn't take away an ounce of its accomplishment.