IS MOVIE-GOING DEAD? Notes from #TheBigMovieSneak

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on March 2nd, 2014 by Jim Delaney

Tw11:4

This is the time of year when movie bloggers have finished chiming in on our Top 10 films of the previous year, and we’re knee deep in Awards season prognostication, or pronouncing our own personal award categories. I’ve done that before and I’m sure I’ll do it again next year, but right now something else is weighing on me: in short — Is movie-going dead? Is all that was good about sitting in a darkened cinema with a crowd of strangers simply vanishing?

Here’s what put this all-in stack of chips on my shoulder: I’ve been sneaking into movies for years. Not sneaking through the door without paying, but sneaking into a second movie when the first one leaves me hungry. I fancied myself so adept at theater hopping that I must have perfected the ninja secrets of invisibility. The truth from my years of working in movie theaters is this: on my first day my new coworkers taught me that unless a theater-hopper is being disruptive, minimum wage isn’t enough to risk potentially picking a fight. I have carefully heeded that advice ever since. I plan when one movie stops and the next starts, so that I could see the entire show without disrupting the paying audience, and because any proper nerd wants to see the whole movie! Recently I have pondered whether a significant portion of paying audiences have become complacent with a theatrical experience compromised by fellow patrons who are incapable of (or unwilling to) differentiate between our cinema and their living room.TwLeadIn

Last November I set out to break my personal sneak record by seeing 6 movies in 1 day. I tweeted weeks in advance that I would be attempting this, and tagged several theater chains, daring them to catch me. In hindsight that was probably a stupid idea — God forbid anything terrible should happen in one of the tagged chain’s venues, my Tweet might have been investigated as a threat! I also decided to live-tweet throughout the day, a choice that I was conflicted about, given my hatred of cellphones in movie theaters. I sat in the back row of each screen I visited to minimize my light-casting distraction to others. This had two unexpected benefits: first, several screens had electrical outlets on the back wall where I was able to charge my phone. The second benefit stems from my habit of usually sitting in the front few rows; by sitting in back, I was better able to see how moviegoers conduct themselves.

That back row perspective put an exclamation point on my recently pondered questions. For example … Has the effort it takes to read a movie’s reviews, become aware of its pedigree, and the skill to parse its marketing to arrive at a reasonable expectation of quality been lost? Have informed viewers become outnumbered by patrons who buy a ticket to ONLY GOD FORGIVES because they thought Ryan Gosling was so sweet in THE NOTEBOOK, or Kristin Scott Thomas was so tragic in THE ENGLISH PATIENT? You’ve seen these folks, they’re the ones who walk out and demand their money back after 45 minutes of good ol’ Refn-esque sleaze and soft-spoken rage leaves them feeling liked victims of false advertizing. Never mind how little attention they paid to advertizing, reviews, and other readily available information.

The first two TwBadGpa films I saw provided perfect examples of this. Jackass Presents: BAD GRANDPA featured Johnnie Knoxville using impressive Oscar-nominated make-up to disguise himself as a cranky geezer on a roadtrip with his pre-teen grandson. Knoxville had done the dirty old man schtick before in skits for the JACKASS films, but this was the first time we see him carrying a whole story with unsuspecting real-world victims of his vulgar pranks. Sure enough about 20 minutes into the film, an elderly man sitting a few rows ahead of me got up and mumbled “This is fuckin’ sick” as he walked out. It is very likely he was unfamiliar with the Jackass show on MTV, and instead expected raunchy but comparatively safe entertainment,Bad-Grandpa like BAD SANTA or BAD TEACHER. Never mind that there have been three Jackass films in the past decade. The information was out there, if he cared too look, as it was for the audience with whom I saw the first movie I sneaked into.

THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB tells the true story of Ron Woodruff, a straight man who contracted AIDS in the early 1980′s and became a sort of drug runner. Woodruff transported AZT across the border from Mexico when the American Food & Drug Administration was slow to approve the medication he needed, and he did so in distribution level quantities, to subsidize his own treatment.TwDallas Matthew McConaughey delivers a career highlight performance as Woodruff, but some younger women in the audience seemed to have bought a ticket for the likable and charming McConaughey of romantic comedies. They didn’t want to see an emaciated redneck McConaughey forging a reluctant friendship with a transgender man played by Jared Leto. I can’t make this up: shortly after Woodruff began losing weight and looking gaunt, I heard these girls wondering if McConaughey’s muscular definition in MAGIC MIKE was CGI. matthew_mcconaugheyOthers in the theater asked them to be quiet numerous times, especially when they responded with homophobic slurs and giggles to Leto’s poignant character. One girl wanted to walk out within the first act; thankfully she got her way eventually, and took her friends with her.

Another chip in my stack: Have we as an audience also lost the awareness to find a theater where we are comfortable? Has it been replaced by people who hate seeing a movie in a theater full of children,TwLeadin3 and yet choose a Saturday matinee in a shopping mall theater, right between Toys-R-Us and Chuck E. Cheese? Have audiences lost the openness to live in the moment long enough to give ourselves over to the movie for 112 minutes? Are we so enthralled with the 4 inch screen in our pocket that we couldn’t conceive ignoring it for the duration of a movie? Yes, I’m aware of my hypocrisy on this particular day; more on that imminently.

The next film on my agenda was Gavin Hood‘s adaptation of Orson Scott Card‘s cold-war era sci-fi classic ENDER’S GAME. This is the story of an adolescent young man named Ender Wiggin, played by Asa Butterfield, whose unique intellectual skills are dismissed and ignored by all around him. Harrison Ford plays Colonel Graff, a military recruiter who recognizes Ender’s thought process as perfectly suited to organizing battle strategies. We follow Ender through a science fiction version of FULL METAL JACKET, first surviving his training for war, and then then discovering that he is prepared to take action that the first-act version of himself would never have imagined possible.Enders-Game-10 ENDER’S GAME is a stunning looking movie that both embraces and up-ends cliches of the sci-fi and war movie genres … and yet that was not interesting enough for the guy across the aisle from me. Here I am making an effort to sit in back so the light of my tweeting phone doesn’t annoy anyone … and this guy literally takes a friggin’ iPad out of his backpack and plays a videogame anytime an action sequence ends!! Was I distracted? Hell yes! Did I say anything to him? …Thought about it, chose not to. I’m 3 movies in, I already got my $7 worth, this was experiment time. I wanted to see how long he’d actually do it. And he didn’t stop; anytime a dialogue sequence with exposition and character and nuance and story and whatnot distracted from the fiery explosions and thundering booms, out came BackpackBoy’s Game. TwEnder

The distraction of his iPad accentuated how distracted I was by my own Tweeting. Y’see my phone isn’t quite 100% — it has these annoying glitches with the U-I-O region of the keyboard. I don’t know what the problem is, but it hampered in my ability to Tweet without occasionally turning off and restarting my phone. So I’m distracted from ENDER’S GAME by BackpackBoy’s Game, and by my wanting to Tweet, and by my phone’s inability to Tweet, and next thing you know I’ve lost more screen time than I would have missed if I’d left the theater for a soda refill. I enjoyed ENDER’S GAME, though I knew that I was reaching a threshold with not only allowing myself to be distracted from movies, but with willfully contributing to my own distraction.

I recognize that I am pointing out a few bad apples and describing the whole barrel as rotten, as I’m aware that lacking audience civility exists anywhere there are audiences, but that should not excuse these same apples from souring the sauce. I’ve seen and heard it in a London stage production of Conor McPherson’s THE WEIR, where multiple patrons implored two oblivious people to stop debating which flavor went with which wrapper in their crinkly candy bag, and a Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s THE RIDE DOWN MOUNT MORGAN where three elderly women swooned relentlessly over Patrick Stewart’s legs in a hospital gown. I’ve heard it in symphony halls, jazz clubs, poetry slams, and gallery performances. In my estimation it has gotten worse in direct proportion to the rise of cellphones.

The next film I went to was Steve McQueen‘s 12 YEARS A SLAVE, adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir by John Ridley. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as New York composer and musician Solomon Northup, who was abducted twenty years before the Civil War, and whose memoir of Louisiana slavery helped fuel the northern abolitionist movement. As I Tweeted during the movie, I’ve been a big fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, ever since his flawless lead performance anchored the equally flawless DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. I was extra sensitive to anyone not giving 12 YEARS A SLAVE due focus, this being the most serious movie in my lineup; it became the most distracting experience of the day.

It’s almost difficult to decide where to begin — but let’s go with the red herring. DF_03069.tifAs the trailers were on, a group of roughly a dozen teenaged students came in together, with a woman who I’d guess was their teacher. My immediate reaction was that these kids would talk through most of the movie, but I was only semi-right; their singular nemesis spoke more than all of them combined. And here’s where this becomes really unexpected. Remember our elderly “fuckin’ sick” gent who walked out of BAD GRANDPA? He must have been rivaling me for hopping because he showed up about 15 minutes after 12 YEARS began. Lateness, by the way, is an egregious violation of my personal code of hopper etiquette! An equally egregious violation was his frequent mumbling and “Shoosh”-ing of these kids more loudly than any noise they made. He may have well used a shotgun to silence a housefly. I was aware of their conversation, but in fairness they were whispering, and what I could hear from them were reasonable questions that related to the movie. Sure I’d prefer those questions wait until after the movie, but at least they were engaged. Bad Grandpa was paying more attention to the students than to the movie; after about 45 minutes of Solomon’s ordeal, the old fella gave up shooshing and walked out. I’d be willing to bet this guy saw 20 to 45 minutes of every movie in this theater!

Tw12yrsFrom my usual front row vantage point, this would have been the only interruption to 12 YEARS OF SLAVE, and I’d be ready to discuss my next film. But shortly after Bad Grandpa showed up, a couple came upstairs and sat a few seats away from me in the back row. They watched about 15 minutes of the film before she decided there was something else she’d rather see. Thankfully these two were not as joined at the hip as the gaggle of homophobic girls in THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. They fairly quickly agreed that she was going to another movie, and that they would meet afterwards in yet another movie. Between this couple and Bad Grandpa, I’m beginning to realize that there is nothing special about me wandering from screen to screen. It seems more people do it here than in any theater where I’ve ever worked. But wait, there’s more… right after Bad Grandpa and half of the back row couple left … a woman showed up and sat directly in front of me, I guess because none of the other 200+ available seats were just right?

That in itself was fine … until she unwrapped a full-on picnic that smelled like Chinatown via McDonalds. Yes, movie theaters hijack patrons for far more than concessions actually cost to produce. I’m well versed in the mark-up in popcorn & soda after working for three different chains, in three different markets, one of which I rose to a management level. I’m all for sneaking in a little something, but grazing from multiple smelly and noisy packages creates a multi-sensory obstacle from which no one could remain focused on any film. This perfect storm of distractions reenforced my affection for the front row. Anytime my back row neighbor or I shifted in our seats, buffet lady would shoot us a glaring stink-eye; how dare we disturb her feast?!

But I had not yet learned my lesson, because I went directly to the back row for J.C. Chandor‘s ALL IS LOST. I am a lifelong fan of Robert Redford. AlLost The first movie I ever saw more than once was THE STING; Redford taught me that, when you see a film the second time, it’s still the same story! Johnny Hooker in THE STING did not remember from my previous viewing that Lieutenant Snyder was waiting around that corner for him. Through Robert Redford I learned to dive deep into repeat viewings of movies and search for elements that I may have overlooked on first viewing. During the first half of ALL IS LOST, a story of a lone yachtsman adrift in a storm, I was not as emotionally moved as I hoped. Around the mid-point though, it revealed itself as more of an existential metaphor than a character driven story, and then I began to thoroughly dig it.

Still another chip: Has the communal experience of sharing a movie with a room full of like-minded (and even not-so-like-minded) strangers, and letting that movie resonate deeply enough that you ponder it for the rest of the weekend, TwAllLost and devise some original thought of your own to drop on your coworkers come Monday morning — is that all gone? Toward the end of ALL IS LOST I fell in love with going to the movies again. If I allowed this day to do its worst, I could walk away bitter with the theatrical experience, and finally join Netflix. Instead it actually became amusing to listen to this audience vociferously scratch their head and wonder when some tired voice-over or overwrought flashback device would provide us the context to weep for Redford. Some movies rely on how much of your own mind and soul you bring to the experience; some audiences deserve to be bewildered if they arrive ill-prepared. A few at a time they walked out, and toward the end all I heard was the rusty creaking of another person’s seat, which married very well with the sound design of Redford’s slowly disintegrating vessel. Yes there were distractions in ALL IS LOST, though not as loud as in the earlier films; eventually my communal experience here whittled down to just me and the person with the creaking chair and a couple who took turns falling asleep and loudly snoring. The snoring couple, by the way, had also been in my earlier screening of THE DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB. I might have become so saturated with distraction that they barely registered.

I seriously weighed whether or not I had a sixth movie in me, given that my train might stop running before I get out of a late show … but THE COUNSELOR was right there, right when I needed it to be! And here’s where the tables turn: there were virtually no audience distractions in Cormac McCarthy‘s tale of wealthy and connected backstabbing drug dealers and partying hangers-on. There was just Javier Bardem doing his level best to keep a muddy story interesting,TwCounselor plus Cameron Diaz with the most auto-erotic moment since Cronenberg‘s CRASH, but they were not enough to counteract Ridley Scott‘s stylish looking, derivatively written, and ultimately dull film. I almost longed for a true master of audience participation to toss out some one liners to make THE COUNSELOR more interesting.

Still from The Counsellor, the new film from director Ridley ScottMy first real experience with audience participation on the level of stand-up comedy was when my Dad took my brother & me to see CONAN THE BARBARIAN at the long-gone Rivoli Theater in Times Square. I’m not opposed to all audience interruption; if you’ve got something hilarious to contribute, then please by all means let it rip, and loudly enough to share with the entire class. But no one in any of today’s agenda had anything hilarious or interesting to say, nothing on the level of the two weed-infused gents behind me in 1982.

This leads me to my final conundrum: have movies become so accessible on so many platforms that we now regard the theatrical experience as disposably as a daytime talkshow or a SuperBowl commercial? Some students in one of the top 10 film schools in the country regard attending free movie screenings as a burden. [Full disclosure: Emerson College is both my alma mater, class of '91, and my current employer] If even those who want to be tomorrow’s filmmakers can’t be bothered with ol’ fashioned movie-going, what does that say for tomorrow’s audience?

Given that movie-going audiences are often as bland as the marketing plan driven tent-pole event movies they turn into hits, the future of the theater-going experience may be as homogenized as Hollywood and the increasingly formulaic “independent” film scene. Sadly this situation endures while one of the most ambitious and impressive American movies of 2014 barely limps from the red into the black. When I first began working with my podcast compadre Craig Jamison, he granted me carte blanche to write a guest article for his film site The GullCottage / Sandlot. I opted to examine 4 movies that were simultaneously available in theaters in via Video OnDemand after seeing all 4 both in local theaters and at home. I thoroughly expected to prefer the theatrical option, and was somewhat surprised by the results.

Happily, pockets of hope do exist, balcony though you may have to go to the fringe of the theatrical spectrum to find them. Recently I attended the 39th Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, the oldest running genre festival in the US, which concludes each year with a 24 hour marathon over Presidents’ Day weekend. The festival itself is always a pleasure, as are the dozen or so other fests I’ve attended around the country. But the ‘Thon is a horse of a different color. This is the ultimate communal experience: 500 or more nerds filling up the orchestra and balcony of the Somerville Theater for a dozen science fiction films, some classics and others yet to be discovered. I’ve seen this show a few times now, and it is always a bargain at twice the price; only about half of those who arrive at noon on Sunday make it all the way to noon on Presidents’ Day. Those who do make it are united by shared thrills and jolts and laughs and beer on tap and bottomless coffee and New England winter outside and audience participation that borders on call-and-response symbiosis with the screen. Yeah, downstairs gets to smelling a little like coffee farts, Dunkin Donuts, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but you can escape the con-funk in the chilly balcony.

It is likely that I am part of the problem. My early question about theater location may simply be something I need to accept when I go to a mainstream cinema. Aside from the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon and the Somerville Theater, I can think of several film festivals and revival and independent theaters that consistently give me hope for movie-going kind. can Any theater that still promotes a film as being presented in 35mm (or even 70mm!), and any audience who actually responds to that as a positive thing, that’s where I find my happy place. For folks who live in an area where these options are in short supply, it makes perfect sense that they would embrace home video over a movie theater; movie nerds go where other movie nerds go, where we can all respect the film and each other. Sometimes that’s in an all-night balcony, some days its on your couch with a DVR loaded with your own personal festival.

Between my initial pondering for the GullCottage/Sandlot and these recent experiences, I think it’s safe to say that I prefer the big screen theatrical experience, albeit from my semi-solitary front rows. Movie-going may not be dead, but like Our Man in ALL IS LOST, it thrives best under very particular circumstances. Now that I’ve actually tested whether or not I like dividing my attention between a movie screen and my phone, I have no intention of repeating that … unless I try to break my record and go for 7!

Share
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Father’s Day: 3 Cinematic Dads Who Changed My Life & My Father Who Introduced Me To Them

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on June 16th, 2013 by Jim Delaney

One of the great gifts given to me by my dad, Robert Vernon Delaney aka The Fats, was a love of all kinds of movies. When I was between the ages of 4 and 14, The Fats probably took my brother Ed & I to the movies every other Saturday afternoon, or every Saturday if it wasn’t baseball season. He often took us to movies that my classmates’ folks would never take them too, either because the subject matter was too risque or violent, or else they just assumed kids would be bored by something without fart jokes or laser fights. He used movies to show us how life works, or fails to work; conversations during the ride home and at the dinner table laid the foundation for my need to lose myself in a movie and find my way back out of it.

Through Fats’ and my love of movies, I have encountered three cinematic dads who have resonated with me above all others. First and foremost of those is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, in Robert Mulligan‘s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, adapted from Harper Lee‘s novel by Horton Foote. This may seem an easy choice for one of the great movie dad, but I’ve had this awestruck feeling for the widower Atticus since long before he topped AFI’s list of Heroes & Villains. The most obvious reason that Atticus is an exemplary father is they way he treats his 10 year old son Jem and his 6 year old daughter Scout. He never speaks to them as children who would not understand the ways of adults; he speaks to them as young people who can understand anything he cares to explain to them, and Atticus is a master of explanation. Atticus-Finch In one of the signature scenes of the film, Atticus makes a gift of a rifle to young Jem, and repeats to him the same instruction that his own father had given him: that it was acceptable to kill blue jays but never a mockingbird. He offers to Jem the sense that “Mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.” Atticus uses a simple instruction to expand his childrens’ appreciation of simple pleasures, but does so in way that leaves them time to figure that out for themselves.

Atticus Finch is more than a great dad within his own home. He is a pillar of his community, in a sense that puts him a position to be that master of explanation to his entire town, a shepherd to a sometimes resistant flock. For a story set in the dawning days of the 20th century, Atticus leads by example, in a manner that is sadly still ahead of his time now. He is a country lawyer who defends a black man against a charge of raping a white woman. I could tell you more about that, but if you have already seen the film you know how that turns out; if you have not seen it I would never deprive you of the lessons in basic human decency that I learned from Atticus Finch one humid summer night that the Fats allowed me to sit up way past my bedtime to watch TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with him.

A movie dad whom I found on my own, in a place that I wasn’t even looking for him, was a man named Jason “Furious” Styles. Furious, played by Laurence Fishburn, lives, works and raises his son in South Central Los Angeles in BOYZ N THE HOOD. This film was the feature debut of writer & director John Singleton, who took from his own family the inspiration to make Furious determined to see his own son Trey go to college. My affection for Furious emerged early in the film, when he is driving Trey through their neighborhood, and “Ooh Child” by The Five Stairsteps comes on the radio. furiousIn this brief moment Furious sings and shares with his son a song that he had loved since Trey was a toddler. Trey does what most kids would do: he reacts as if his old man is sentimental, embarrassing, and patently uncool. This scene shows us Furious educating Trey in the difference between temporary cool, the things that Trey thinks are stylish and important this week, versus time-tested cool that will always be impressive long after fads fade.

As with Atticus Finch, we also see Furious Styles emerge as a pillar of his community, although in a less official capacity. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film Furious, who works as a real estate agent, stands at a crossroad and shows Trey and his friends what comprises their neighborhood. He observes mostly gun stores, convenience stores, and liquor stores, and ground zero for a misguided war on drugs. At the conclusion of Furious’ thoughts, one of Trey’s friends remarks how Trey’s dad “can preach.” Furious is not an important man in his community because of an office he holds or a job he does; he is important because he is a man who raises his son, when all around him he sees other men not taking that responsibility. Furious even manages to instill his values into Trey when it seems he has failed. Both an early and a late incident in the film concern guns; though I have not actually seen BOYS N THE HOOD in several years, I can still hear Furious’s advice to Trey as if I’d just seen the film yesterday. If you believe Trey Styles’ mother and Furious’ ex wife, he is not a perfect man, but his dedication to his son and his resistance in the face of the decline of his neighborhood make him a powerful force to be reckoned with. This is also my personal favorite performance by Laurence Fishburn, who is one of that rare breed of actors who elevate every project they take on, making good films special and the excellent films unforgettable.

The final movie dad who has left an indelible impression on me is Seibei Iguchi, played by Hiroyuki Sanada in THE TWILIGHT SAMURAI. Seibei is fascinating in that he is downright flawless in his job, but he has very little opportunity to show that, given that the film takes in the late 19th century place toward the end of the Samurai era. Seibei is nicknamed Twilight Samurai by his coworkers, his Samurai clan; what they do not realize as well as Seibei does is that their centuries-old way of life is drawing to a close. Twilight SamuraiThe story opens with Seibei attending the funeral of his wife, and then returning home to care for his two young daughters and his increasingly senile mother. He does not have the aloof pride of most movie Samurai; he regards his job as little more than a way to make ends meet, and really only comes alive for his family at the end of each working day.

Seibei is not a pillar of his community. No one around him looks up to him. At the end of the day, Seibei is that unsung father who does the best he can, and more, with little acknowledgment from anyone but those closest to him. This is at the core of being a great dad, a great parent, a great mentor; you exemplify excellence when no one else is watching. Even when Seibei is put to the test, both as a family man and as a Samurai, these tests is met with no witnesses. I saw TWILIGHT SAMURAI one week after my father passed away. I knew the my dad provided me a more comfortable life than most of my peers because he worked hard, and he worked smart; I never properly thanked him or acknowledged that I understood this. It is perhaps due to this realization that the unassuming grace of Seibei Iguchi resonated so deeply. Nonetheless, this character has stayed with me, and shown me the true measure of a man.

Hollywood has given us many good dads, and more than a few good moms as well, but the great ones are few and far between. International cinema may be a different story, but I am still learning my way around that arena. If you have a favorite Movie Dad or Movie Mom, please feel free to comment below; I love it when fellow movie aficionados hip me to something new. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on Atticus, Furious, and Seibei if you have met any of them. Happy Father’s Day.

Share
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

10 or so FAVORITES OF 2012

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on January 31st, 2013 by Jim Delaney

Would you prefer to have another year with a few outstanding films adrift in a sea of mediocrity, or a year where a rising tide of passion and skill lifted many filmmakers to high watermarks in their careers? Only one film truly blew me away this year; some may find that reason to complain, but I am reminded of Crash Davis’ advice to Nuke LaLoosh in BULL DURHAM: “Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic.” 2012 was not a great year for movies, but it was a very good year.

Skyfall-Big-Ben1

darkknight
10. Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises

We’ve had 50 years of James Bond films, and numerous incarnations of Batman, but both of these films are unique in their series in that they each complete a trilogy. SKYFALL and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES arrived with heavy expectations, and were greeted with commercial and mostly critical success; both also had every lose thread tugged at by detractors during the inevitable backlash. Despite the flaws, or sometimes in complete rejection of them, I enjoyed both finales. The thing about Bond and Batman is that fans from multiple generations can claim to have grown up with them. But who may lay claim to their interpretation of each hero being the one true version? I’ve heard it said that SKYFALL diminishes 007 by giving him too much back story; aficionados Ian Fleming’s novels know that Bond comes with enough history to be explored by no less than Kingsley Amis. As technology and gadgets became more of a staple of Bond’s arsenal, the films lost sight of his three close-quarter combat skills from the novels: pistol shot, boxer, and knife thrower. I’m probably making too much of this moment, but one of my biggest smiles in the movies this year came when Daniel Craig vanquishes one key opponent with a thrown knife, a skill that I’m pretty sure we have not seen since Roger Moore in OCTOPUSSY. The Bond films starring Daniel Craig have served a purpose similar to D.C. Comics Crisis on Infinite Earths: they smoothly reconcile all those stray threads and different generational interpretations of Bond in one handshake. All that has past is prologue; Bond now belongs to the ages, as much as King Arthur or Sherlock Holmes.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is one of those films that could have been shorter, but I’m glad I wasn’t the guy who had to make the decision what to cut, because so much of it resonates exactly because of its operatic grandiosity. Even moreso than in Christopher Nolan‘s first two Bat films, I loved the elevation of Gotham City to a battleground as epic in scale as Middle Earth, and as American as a litany of road movies. I saw Yvonne Craig (Batgirl in the 1960′s BATMAN TV series) at a comicbook convention shortly after Tim Burton’s BATMAN opened in 1989. She remarked that she had trouble buying Burton’s Gotham as a place in America. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and New York, and I know my way around London, Pittsburgh, and Newark. I loved that chases through Gotham in 2012 would begin in one city, turn a corner into another, and collide in yet another. Gotham in Nolan’s hands became like an expertly mixed DJ mash-up: a cohesive location comprising other cities. Nolan’s singularly desperate image, right before all hell breaks lose, of two stained and frayed American flags hanging over the Gotham Stock Exchange may be the most powerful political image I’ve seen all year. Batman and company hail from a divided America where both sides are beaten and battered and neither is the better for it. The full immersion into this world is what makes THE DARK KNIGHT RISES a fitting conclusion to Nolan’s Bat trilogy, and also makes this trilogy the 2nd most ambitious achievement in comicbook adaptation we have yet seen.

9. Excision

excision-1I dropped the ball earlier this year. In the past few years, I have written summations of two of my favorite local film festivals, but this year I allowed myself to be distracted. For me the biggest surprise of the 2012 Boston Underground Film Festival was Richard Bates Jr‘s EXCISION. This film is the sort of unsettling, deviant, macabre trip that makes me look forward to BUFF. AnnaLynne McCord plays a geeky high school outcast who fantasizes herself a mad doctor, and who endeavors to use her fantasy life to rescue her little sister from Cystic Fibrosis. The film pulls off a potentially ridiculous story largely because it is grounded by a strong cast, including camp veterans John Waters, Traci Lords, and Malcolm McDowell, all playing their roles completely straight. Keeping hipster irony in check, they manage to tease layers of sorrow and fear that would have been smothered had they gone more tongue in cheek. I spoke briefly with Traci Lords (you get to meet a lot of cool people at comic shows!); she is very proud of this film, and feels it is her best work yet. I have to agree. Her collaborations with Waters and Kevin Smith revealed her to be an under-rated comic actress; here she shows equal dramatic range. This film never made me jump from my seat, but it got under my skin more than any other horror film in recent memory.

killing-them-softlyDjango

8. Killing Them Softly and Django Unchained

Late 2012 gave me two very cool flashbacks to films of the 1970′s, though technically they recalled genres that I did not become familiar with until the ’80′s. Andrew Dominik‘s KILLING THEM SOFTLY reminds me of badass 70′s crime movies like THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE; both films were adapted from novels by Boston crime writer George V. Higgins. KILLING THEM SOFTLY also recalls Cassavetes films like THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE and GLORIA. The characters of this film often have the same flaws that doomed Eddie Coyle’s crew, while Dominik invokes Cassavetes’ exploration of downtime amongst the underworld to further flesh out his characters. You are told a little, but shown everything you will need to know, about how and why each of these men kills and dies. My inclusion of this film amongst my favorites of the year is something of an investment; much as I enjoyed it when I first saw it, I expect it will grow on me over the next decade.

My awareness of the films Quentin Tarantino channeled in DJANGO UNCHAINED began with the another great film born from westerns and blaxploitation films, BLAZING SADDLES. This is Tarantino’s second opus wherein audiences and critics mistake it for a revision of revisionist history. As with the fantastic historical inaccuracies of Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, his DJANGO succeeds when you consider it a revision of cinema history. It’s as if he’s toying with our acceptance of cinema legend rather than genuine history, and taunting us to accept an even more slanted expression, one with no pretense of telling you “how it really was” through a veil of the studio development process. Tarantino unapologeticly and proudly makes fiction with a capital F. Mel Brooks challenged generations of American myth building with BLAZING SADDLES by shattering the fourth wall with Marx Bros style slapstick. Tarantino has taken some heat for presenting a film that seems less comedic and more dramatic than BLAZING SADDLES, though I could argue that it is only the violence quotient that makes anyone regard this film any more seriously than Mel’s.

7. Lincoln
lincoln
Steven Spielberg‘s examination of the final season of the life of Abraham Lincoln is not without its flaws. Some have gone as far as to hate it for the fact that it blows a perfect ending by continuing for another 3 or 4 scenes. To them I must respond “don’t let perfect be the enemy of pretty damn close!” This is not a movie for people who want to hear Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches read by Daniel Day-Lewis. This is a behind closed doors story of a common man, where in his closed doors happen to be the office of the President, and the bedroom of a husband and father trying to hold his family together following the recent loss of a son. This is not a biopic full of all the major moments we’ve all heard about since elementary school. This is a political nailbiter for anyone who sees the drama in Sunday morning news shows, for people who understand the difference between common language and the letter of the law, for policy wonks who thrill to a well reasoned and well stated argument. And yes, it is thrilling the hear Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader, and Hal Holbrook whisper and thunder in these divergent halls of power.

6. Life of Pi
life_of_pi
Your average movie fan acknowledges AVATAR as the first masterpiece of the most recent wave of 3-D films. Cinefiles gave hesitant respect to 3-D as a legitimate tool for serious filmmakers after it was used by Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders. For my money, Ang Lee‘s THE LIFE OF PI is the most significant advance in special effects since the motion capture work in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and it is the first modern movie that absolutely had to be in 3-D. This is such an internalized story that it had to feel like you could reach out and touch it, and such a challenging tightrope of perspective that it needed to be this explosively vivid to make us believe, doubt, and believe again in all the possible interpretations. We go to the movies to see something we have never seen before, something we’ve never imagined and didn’t even know we hungered to witness; in achieving this THE LIFE OF PI elevates 3-D to its own art form.

5. Les Miserables
les-miserables
I have never seen the stage musical of this story. I read the book in high school, but we had to read it too quickly for it to impact a slow reader like me. I loved this movie because it is a timeless example of what big studios with big budgets can do when they hire big talents to express big ideas and emotions. At first glance the immenseness of this production may seem to drown out any trace of subtlety. Closer inspection reveals it to be one incisive subtlety after another. Much has been written about the live singing on set with live accompaniment, and the unpolished immediacy that lent to the performances. Anne Hathaway‘s singing in her heartbreaking rendition of the staple “I Dreamed A Dream” is only half the reason this scene is one of the signature moments in musical history. Watch carefully: this was shot in one take. We never cut away from her face. If Hathway moved a few inches to her left or right, or made any of the grand gestures that this song might engender, she could slip out of the frame and the artifice would become obvious. In the medium of live theater musical this would have looked underplayed; in the film musical medium she is explosive. Expand this minute attention to physical detail and emotional authenticity to Tom Hooper‘s entire film, and you will understand why this story that had never mattered much to me before managed to blow me away this year.

4. Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope
comiccon_fans_hope
At first glance you may think “there goes the nerd, naming the Comic Con doc as one of his favorites.” And that may be true, but Morgan Spurlock‘s film reminds me of a phenomenal and underrated graffiti doc called Next, plus some of the better hip-hop docs. Spurlock laughs more with people than at them. His are films made by a searching soul seeking to connect, which is why he examines each issue from multiple angles. Here he meets aspiring comicbook artists, costume cosplayers, collectors, vendors and fans. Any of these groups could be the subject of an entire movie, but like hip-hop docs that touch on DJing, MCing, dance, and graffiti, I think Spurlock explored the humanity of each group without going so far into the minutia as to lose those not within this culture. I literally heard an audience burst into action movie-level applause for one aspiring artist in the film when they receive a job offer from their dream employer. Don’t discount how special an experience it is for a nonfiction film to capture that moment.

3. Headhunters
headhhd
We get a couple of these per decade, if we’re lucky. Like The Square and A Simple Plan, this is a tight as a drum thriller with delicious twists of fate punctuated by believable but shocking character moments. Like CABIN IN THE WOODS, the less you know, the better. I love how many buttons this movie pushes in its first act. Half way through the second act when you think you might know where it’s heading, you’ll be reminded of another wrinkle established at the opening. I’m already telling you too much! Just bring a strong stomach, and be ready to see a absorbing mystery, before it’s diluted by a Hollywood remake.

BURNdetropia

2. Burn and Detropia
I’ve already mentioned dropping the ball earlier this year on summarizing my experience with the Boston Underground Festival. I also failed to discuss the Independent Film Festival of Boston, where I saw these two fantastic films, both focused on Detroit. BURN was produced by Denis Leary, no stranger himself to stories about firefighters. The unprecedented stylistic choice this film makes is the use of the same cameras attached to the helmets of NFL players to follow Detroit firefighters straight into infernos we can only imagine from Backdraft. Going deeper still, the film illuminates the lives of firefighters from several ladder companies, as they face city politics and community needs over the course of one year.

DETROPIA makes Detroit into a microcosm for the country, possibly the whole world, for the financial downturn of 2008 and 2009. It briefly addresses challenges faced by police and BURN’s firefighters, as well as a local symphony facing the drying up of benefactor resources. As much as Spurlock’s Comic-Con film could have focused diligently on one aspect as BURN did, DETROPIA benefits from a similarly wide-cast net. For all the loss of the Detroit that was, equal time is given to the stalwarts who will not be moved, though they are the last house on their block not foreclosed upon. With hesitant enthusiasm, the IFFB audience embraced the artists and bohemians (and heralds if gentrification) who migrated from New York and other art hubs where rents have out-priced the artists who create the next wave of design and perception. As much as DETROPIA gives us hope for the Detroit of tomorrow, BURN puts us in touch with those in immediate need to build that future.

1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beast+Southern+Wild
I can’t say much more about this than I already have written. This film has become like a prayer for hope. I can barely speak the title of this film without a lump emerging on my throat. 10,000 years from now, scientists in the future will find filmed evidence of HushPuppy who lived in the Bathtub, but you can see her now, before she’s gone.

PLUS A FEW OTHER FAVORITES:

Argo – This movie reminded me so much of Cold War-era thrillers like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and GORKY PARK that it made me feel nostalgic for something that I couldn’t have possibly know about, because it was classified!


Cabin In The Woods
– Way to turn that title on its head and inside out. I won’t say more, because if you’re among the few nerds who hasn’t seen this yet, I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure!

End of Watch – beat cops wresting with a criminal conspiracy worthy of a James Ellroy novel are given unexpected intimacy by some creatively used first-person camera.

The Impossible – Nevermind the flawless performances and emotionally wrenching story; the sound design on the sequence where Naomi Watts is swept nearly drowning through a tsunami is why movies matter.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Because it reminds you what it was like to be 19, and raises your appreciation and hope for those experiencing that period right now.

The Raid: Redemption – I gotta go back to THE ROAD WARRIOR for the last time a film made on a modest budget without big studio support redefined how we film and edit action sequences.

Rust & Bone – Love comes at times we are not prepared for and in forms we do not anticipate. Not so often that movies reflect that, and never as well acted or excruciatingly written as this.

Silver Lining Playbook – David O. Russell has a knack for slipping in extra dimensions into any genre he plays with. “The Fighter” could have been just a boxing movie, instead of one of the better movies in the past generation about dysfunctional families and addiction. This could have been just another romantic comedy, instead of a smart movie about emotional and mentally damaged folks that skillfully avoids most cliches and RAIN MAN cuteness.


Whore’s Glory
– The final film in Michael Glawogger‘s trilogy on globalization focuses on the sort of underground economy examined in books like Eric Schlosser’s “Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market,” but too rarely in films. I love this movie for making people walk out of the screening I attended. This movie pulls no punches, and it shouldn’t; it will hurt you, and it should.


Zero Dark Thirty
– Truth? I expected a movie about the final weeks or months before the raid that assassinated Osama Bin Laden. I did not expect an espionage epic (such an overused word, “epic,” but thematically it fits here) about the decade-long search leading up to that mission. I do not mean to diminish this film by comparing it to a Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner cartoon, but that is what it is at it’s core. Rather than the immovable object, the unstoppable force so voraciously confronts such an ever-moving target that the film feels like you are trapped inside an atom smasher.

Share

My Favorite Movies of the Year … Special “30 Years Ago” Edition!

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them, MOVIES TO REMEMBER: The ol' favorites that The Lunch Movie kids might have watched had the tradition continued... on December 31st, 2012 by Jim Delaney

Everywhere movie fans turn this week, they will find a Best of 2012 article. With several of the Oscar-contender crop yet to open in Boston, it feels premature for me to discuss my favorites; after all what if Zero Dark Thirty turns out to be my favorite movie of the year? I could go ahead and close the book 2012 regardless, or I could do nothing, but I’ve written too much nothing for the past few months. Or I could write about something unique and personal.

A debate has raged for years amongst cinephiles regarding whether 1939 or 1962 was the greatest year in cinema history. If you’re a nerd, there is only one answer to this question: 1982. This being the 30th Anniversary of the greatest year in movie-nerd history, it feels like a good time to review a portion of the films that made me glad to have lived through that era. When I say it was a great year for movie nerds, you may assume that I’m thinking solely of genre movies. 1982 offered great genre and non-genre movies, but it was in the area of genre movies that ’82 shaped the generation that would follow. Let’s consider not one or two but five essential sci-fi films: E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Blade Runner.

If you grew up watching Steven Spielberg‘s E.T. on video, you may not recognize what a juggernaut it was for theatrical audiences. Not only did it usurp the #1 box office champ spot held for 5 years by Star Wars, it took 11 years before E.T. was knocked from his perch. No one was prepared for how popular a simple film about a boy helping a stranded alien find his way home could be. One might expect that after the runaway success of Kenner’s Star Wars toys that E.T. dolls would be in toy stores a month before the movie opened. This did not happen, and when the first doll finally arrived, it was proportionately all wrong. E.T.’s stubby legs were made as lanky as his elongated arms, and his face was more pudgy and cute. When my Mom and I saw that inaccurate doll at Macy’s in Manhattan, a sales lady told us they were flying off the shelves. Kids embraced a substandard toy because it was the only option available. 15 years before throngs of high school girls saw Titanic multiple times to cry together, kids from 8 to 80 cried together with E.T., keeping it in theaters for a year. That was not a typo. Once upon a time when a good movie could last 3 or 4 months in theaters, E.T. played on some screens for an entire year. There was even an ad campaign in spring 1983: “After one year, E.T. is going home!” How does a movie last that long? We needed it. The Gordon Gekko ’80′s were years away, we were still trapped in the Patrick Hale ’80′s. We needed something new and different. We want to believe in magic and care about someone pure and innocent. This “poor bastid who looks like he crawled outta the sea and forget to go back in,” as my Grandma Delaney described him, fit that bill perfectly. I saw E.T. several times with friends, but my strongest memory is seeing it on two consecutive nights with my dad, The Fats. We had taken a road trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. There wasn’t much to do after dinner, especially in a hotel where the only TV was in the lobby, so both nights we went to see E.T. in the one movie theater in town. The first night was like any other movie night. The second night, The Fats had a few extra drinks with dinner, and introduced this pastoral small town bijou to the Times Square tradition of audience participation. No one told him to shut up or complained to management. They were too busy laughing. A few other folks even joined in, with everyone falling silent during the finale. When it was over, a few dozen emotionally exhausted people stood under the marquee with tear-stained eyes and laughing smiles, taking in a magical summer night that would have made Ray Bradbury feel right at home. Show me another movie that folks could laugh with, and then laugh at, and bond with strangers after sharing.

If you’ve seen Nicholas Meyer‘s Star Trek II then you don’t need me to tell you that it is one of the most meticulously crafted genre movies ever made. This was an all too seldom case of the big studio development system doing its job properly, by finding the right people for the movie, and trusting them to do their jobs. Personally I was a fan of the first Star Trek movie in 1979, but many found it too cerebral, or just plain boring. Star Trek II was produced for less than one third of the first movie’s budget, and was a bigger hit, because the story appealed to both core and passive fans. Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise crew do battle with a villain from their past who hijacks a scientific experiment with the intention of using it as a weapon. There was a more compelling tie to the original series than the first film offered to the core fans, and there were themes of family and aging (and ol’ fashioned revenge) that proved more accessible for passive fans than the 2001-esque existential quandary of the first film. I saw it on a rainy opening weekend with my brother Ed and my Mom. The theater was so full that we had trouble finding three seats together. Ed and Mom sat toward the back and I joined some classmates way up front. This may be the hardest I ever heard Ed cheer for a movie, and I was on the opposite end of the theater from him! He wasn’t alone; a moment during the ship battle in the Mutara Nebula is to this day the loudest I’ve ever heard an audience erupt in applause. Was there anything groundbreaking here? Not so much. It was just a conspiracy of cool the likeness of which no other sequel had ever aspired let alone achieved. There is not one thing you can change that would make Star Trek II a better movie; for the film they were making, this was as good as it gets.

Steven Lisberger‘s Tron was only a modest success at the time, perhaps partly due to its being considerably ahead of its time. Science fiction films had given us tales of people shrunken to Gulliver proportions, and further, but Tron was a distinctly ’80′s vision of this story. Jeff Bridges plays a videogame designer whose crowning achievement is stolen from him. When he tries to recover his game, he becomes sucked inside the world of his own creation. A few years after the arcade game Space Invaders ignited the competitive spirit of legions of kids, in the summer that Pac Man and Donkey Kong battled for gamer supremacy, Tron took us more deeply into that world than we’d imagined. The impact of this film is felt more with each passing blockbuster videogame; we have not be able to journey inside a computer as Tron suggested, but we have figured out how to surround a gamer with the game. Comparing contemporary video games to watching Tron in the summer of ’82 is an experience similar to considering your smartphone while watching Mr. Spock use a tricorder on a classic Star Trek episode. In what was a first for me, I read the script for Tron (purchased for $10 at a Star Trek convention) before seeing the movie. When you read Steven Lisberger’s script, you realize the immense imagination that went into the production. As a kid familiar with Atari 2600 and arcade games, I drew from a narrow visual reference as I read the script. The story is all in the writing, but the film’s scope needed to be conjured by people truly capable of seeing the future. This was my first experience reading a script by a director, where you can see that they had the full film in their head, even if it is not all on the page. The perfect creative storm of the uniquely qualified production designer Syd Mead and electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos pulling out all stops on Lisberger’s story created a world with no precedent, a world every kid wanted to visit. None of us actually thought we could be zapped inside a video game, but damn if we didn’t spend that entire summer in the local arcade, hoping that it could happen. OK, not the entire summer; we needed some time for the movies!

George Miller‘s The Road Warrior was originally released in Australia as Mad Max 2 in 1981. While Miller’s original Mad Max had been successful in Australia and elsewhere around the world, it was mostly relegated to drive-ins and grindhouse dives in the U.S. and Canada. The Road Warrior featured Mel Gibson as an ex-highway cop who becomes a guardian to an outpost of survivors of a nuclear war. The retitling distanced The Road Warrior enough from its source that it seemed especially refreshing to American critics, who embraced the action and gritty tone of this film above just about any other adventure that year. There was even a re-release in January ’83 to give it an extra push during awards season. That push resulted in The Road Warrior winning Best Foreign Film from the L.A. Film Critics Association. From the opening montage sequence, I realized I was in a different world with The Road Warrior. I had seen montage in other films, and recognized some of the images of war and socio-political unrest here, but I had never seen montage so precisely evocative. As my movie education progressed, I understood that this sequence could be traced back to Eisenstein, but this was all new to me. By juxtaposing those famous images with scenes from the first Mad Max film, we see both how the world at large and Max Rockatansky himself came to such a desolate existence. I like Mad Max, but I remain in awe of the opening sequence in The Road Warrior; it is some of the finest editing in a trilogy known for its kinetic editing style. Max helped me define my idea of heroism and bravery. I grew up with Batman and Superman, but Max was something different. Rocky Balboa was my closest comparison, refusing to stay down even as his coach Mickey implores him to let Apollo Creed win their exhibition bout. In later years I learned this was a staple of spaghetti westerns, but Max was one of my earliest experiences with an anti-hero. I had never seen a hero get his ass kicked like Max, and had never seen one keep coming back, more for the benefit of others than himself.

The science fiction film from 1982 that has had the most extensive path from obscurity to quintessence would have to be Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner. Harrison Ford plays a burned out detective tasked with hunting down 5 cyborgs in 2019 Los Angeles. It barely broke even at the box office, and was largely overlooked by all but the nerdiest of movie goers, but among those nerds it resonated deeply and quickly. Blade Runner is likely the film about which more has been written, studied, and derived from than any other, sci-fi or otherwise, from this year. The impact was seen most clearly in the production design of movies that followed, from Brazil and Batman to Dark City and The Matrix, plus a litany of anime films. Blade Runner‘s grungy and rain-slicked production design, by the way, was created by the same man who made Tron glow in the dark. There is more to this film though; artificial intelligence with this sort of character complexity existed in novels, but never on screen before Blade Runner. Before Bishop and Lt. Cmdr. Data, before Andrew Martin and David, Blade Runner introduced us to the full spectrum of the notion of a robot becoming sentient. The Replicants were fearsome and fearful, vengeful and noble, in short: they had soul. A few days after I first saw Blade Runner, I met up with the friends I saw it with at my school’s football field, waiting for or town’s 4th of July fireworks. I recall being stunned that I was alone in loving this movie. Everyone else liked it, but like most of the nation at the time, they were more focused on E.T. This was my first experience with being certain that I had witnessed something amazing and transformative, even if no one else around me recognized it. I had just seen the first movie that ever made me cry for a villain.

When you look back at what critics dismissed as Big Dumb Summer Fun, you might be surprised by how it stacks up to contemporary Big Dumb Summer Fun. We definitely had some crap, every generation gets their fair share, but most of ’82′s Big Dumb Summer Fun was comparatively impressive. Sequels were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are now. Among that handful of sequels were the aforementioned Star Trek II and Road Warrior, and the aforementioned Rocky Balboa battling for his title against Mr. T in Rocky III. Mr. T’s electrifying debut made him an overnight star, and a hero to kids, which is all the more impressive given that he played the antagonist. Later in the fall, Sylvester Stallone would introduce us to the beginning of his other notorious franchise with the tight as a drum action thriller First Blood. We also had Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th 3-D, one of the most successful ventures of the brief 3-D revival of the early ’80′s, and William Shatner showing his comedic chops in Airplane II: The Sequel.

Aside from sequels, movies adapted from comicbooks have also become inevitable, but 1982 only gave us two: Wes Craven‘s Swamp Thing and John MiliusConan The Barbarian. George A. Romero and Stephen King also gave us their homage to Max & William Gaines’ EC Comics in Creepshow. If you’re only going to have three comicbook related films, this is a strong collection: all three were dismissed as lurid and violent goofiness, but all were deceptively well made. Roger Ebert not only fawned over Swamp Thing during is initial review with Gene Siskel on their PBS show Sneak Previews, he revisited it later that year during a special episode focused on hidden gems that audiences might have let slip by. Conan the Barbarian kept comicbook fans happy, though it was occasionally derided by devotees of the Robert E. Howard pulp novels that inspired both the comics and the movies. A film aficionado’s reaction might be that Conan’s Hyborian Age is also a perfect canvas for Milius to explore his warrior poet ethos. A movie nerd’s reaction is that Conan the Barbarian is a perfect movie to blaze up a joint and have a few laughs. The Fats took Ed & I to see Conan at the long gone Rivoli Theater on Broadway. Aside from loving the movie, this was also my first encounter with the grindhouse audience participation that made my dad so popular during E.T. in Cooperstown. Much as I loved Conan, it still cracks me up at inappropriate moments, anytime I recall the disciples of Cheech & Chong who sat behind us in the Rivoli. Creepshow, which Ed & I saw with The Fats rather than spending Thanksgiving at the kids’ table with my Mom’s family, is that rare movie that absolutely lives up to its tagline: The Most Fun You’ll Ever Have Being Scared!

Horror was as well represented in 1982 as comicbook films, though two of the finest were remakes. Paul Schrader remade Jacques Tourneur‘s 1942 Cat People with Nastassja Kinski and John Carpenter remade Howard Hawks‘ 1951 The Thing with Kurt Russell. Considering these films together could trigger an interesting debate about sexuality in horror films. Schrader’s Cat People does not amp up the sexiness of the earlier film simply by showing more skin, he blurs the line between human and animal sexuality when his characters encounter their transformations. Tawdry sexy marketing? Maybe, but this also helped this were-cat movie stand apart from a crop of pretty good were-wolf movies in the preceding year. In his adaptation of The Thing, Carpenter chose to do away with the love interest of Hawks’ film, adhering more closely to the original John W. Campbell pulp story. To this day, Carpenter cites this as a mistake, which he feels hurt The Thing at the box office. Success is guaranteed neither by making a film chastened like Carpenter’s nor steamy like Schrader’s. Though I dig both immensely, both barely covered their production cost. The most successful horror film of 1982 is probably also the scariest PG-rated film ever made: Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist. Watch Poltergeist again, and you will find it like a book you can’t put down; its pace entices you with what could have been a standard family drama. By the time the supernatural element is introduced, you are already as engaged in the well being of this family as you would have been with the Jarretts or the Kramers.

A few films featuring military characters were amongst the year’s memorable dramas. The other surprising success story of the year besides E.T. was An Officer & A Gentleman. This love story between Navy aviator Richard Gere and smalltown girl Debra Winger took several weeks of word of mouth promotion before it hit #1 in its 6th week of release. Most movies are headed for second run theaters by then, but An Officer & A Gentleman spent most of Fall ’82 vying with E.T. for the #1 spot. I can’t speak for what drew everyone else to it, but I’ll tell you why it hit me like lightning: until then, every movie I’d seen that included nudity or sex made me eager to grow up so I could experience that for myself. This was the first movie I’d ever seen that showed me the responsibility that comes with, and the damage that can come from, relationships if they are not properly cared for. Wolfgang Petersen‘s Das Boot was monumental to filmgoers in general and to me personally. This intense submarine drama achieved what would have previously seemed impossible: it made us despair for WW2 German sailors, and recognize their positions as pawns to a Fuehrer they come to reject. It also made me grow up and start giving subtitled movies a chance. Clint Eastwood took a rare turn away from westerns and cop movies to play an Air Force pilot in Firefox. This cold war espionage thriller was based on the first of four novels. Had it been more successful, it would have been cool to see Clint reprise this shell-shocked character, but Firefox got lost in the same flood that swept up Blade Runner and The Thing.

Aside from stories of men in uniform, 1982 was a helluva year for drama in general. The most game changing, generation defining performances in the acting profession since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire came via Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and Ben Kinglsey in Gandhi. Before these two performances an actor could get away with playing another nationality or ethnicity as long as they were charismatic. No longer; after Streep and Kingsley in ’82, an actor will be taken to task if they cannot pull off a convincing accent as well as an emotionally compelling performance. Traditionally outstanding performances in exceptional films, like Jessica Lange in Frances, Paul Newman in The Verdict, or Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek in Missing, or the ensemble from That Championship Season were not enough to be rewarded by Oscar voters that year. Not that this would make them any less compelling, and worthy of your attention, if you have not yet seen them. A comedy-drama for which I have a soft spot, and which seems to have been utterly forgotten, was David S. Ward‘s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It was not the most faithful adaptation; it is more an adaptation of Steinbeck’s sequel Sweet Thursday, using Cannery Row as backstory. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, just different from its source, and still more faithful than many novel adaptations. The perennially cool Nick Nolte plays an over the hill baseball pitcher who becomes smitten with Debra Winger, the new lady in town, who takes up living and working in a brothel in Depression era Monterey, CA.

1982 was also a strong year for comedy. Despite Jessica Lange losing her Oscar nomination for her dramatic leading role in Frances, her supporting role in Tootsie provided her first Oscar win, and made her the sixth (currently of thirteen) actors to be nominated twice in the same year. Tootsie was loved by most, but reviled by a few, who were upset by Dustin Hoffman‘s character cross-dressing. This was not the only comedy of the year to address gender identity issues, or as some in my homophobic adolescent circle called them, movies that make you gay. Deathtrap gave us Michael Caine wondering aloud if Christopher Reeve was gay, as well as a magnificently underplayed answer delivered later in the film. This answer came as no surprise; I had already seen the Ira Levin’s play of Deathtrap on Broadway with my family. Victor Victoria was a surprise. Blake Edwards‘ masterful farce featured Julie Andrews as a woman pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman, and James Garner as her suitor, who can’t tell if his affection for her means he is gay. Everything about this movie was so rambunctiously playful and positive that it made me begin to question whether I should be taking my queues about gay people from family and friends who don’t actually know any gay people. John Lithgow’s former football player going through a sex change in The World According To Garp was another well drawn character and fully realized performance that introduced me a larger world than I’d see in standard drama. One of the most successful comedies of ’82 was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, featuring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds in an adaptation of the Broadway musical. If I had any doubt that the information I was receiving about gay people, cross-dressers, prostitutes or anyone else not on the straight-n-narrow, I need look no further than Porky’s. My male peers were as ignorant about women as the chumps in this guilty pleasure skin-fest, which put their advice in proper perspective, and made me begin reading between the lines on movies a lot more closely.

One of my favorite comedic actors, Richard Pryor, had a great year in ’82. He released best performance film, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, which also remains the best stand-up comedy film I’ve ever seen. He also delivered one of his finest performances hitting both comedic and tragic notes, as a Vietnam veteran trying to rejoin society after being held for 5 years as a prisoner of war, in the underrated Some Kind of Hero. Anyone who thinks of Lois Lane when they think of Margot Kidder will be impressed by the understated range she shows opposite Pryor as well. Personally I’m not a fan of The Toy, but I’m in the minority; this was one of the most successful films in Pryor’s career.

This was also a year for breakout comedic performances. Eddie Murphy single-handedly turned 48 Hrs from a violent crime drama to an action comedy. Ron Howard shed his apple pie image by directing the year’s third bordello-set comedy Night Shift, featuring his Happy Days partner Henry Winkler and an energetic new lad named Michael Keaton. Though he’d already delivered dramatically the year before with Taps, Sean Penn proved that he was equally adept at comedy with one of the iconic performances of the decade in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A cast of actors with supporting credits in TV movies-of-the-week (raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember M.O.W.’s!) was turned by Barry Levinson into the most memorable ensemble of the year in the prototype for his Baltimore films, Diner. Making her feature debut in John Huston‘s extravagantly budgeted Annie, Aileen Quinn was hyped as a rising star in celeb magazines, but she chose a different path with her education.

In anything but a breakout performance, Peter O’Toole earned his 7th Oscar nomination for My Favorite Year. In my favorite performance of his career, and my favorite comedy of 1982, Steve Martin cracked wise with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney and romanced Barbara Stanwyck and Better Davis in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. This deliciously conceived story, and impeccably edited and designed production, is the ultimate valentine to anyone who loves film noir mysteries and gangster movies.

As I mentioned earlier, 1982 was not without its fair share of crap, like the blight on the resume of the underrated Charles Bronson that was Death Wish 2. Somehow, even the crap then was more fun than the crap now. We had vulgar medieval fun like the blades-n-boobs fest The Sword & The Sorcerer and Don Coscarelli’s blatant rip-off of Excalibur, Conan, and the Dungeons & Dragons Handbook The Beastmaster. There was also Larry Cohen‘s Q: The Winged Serpent, which is memorable if for no other reason than that they fired live rounds from an automatic rifle on top of New York’s Chrysler Building. I guess they were counting on the bullets landing safely in the East River. The wacky part is they were firing at nothing; the monster was stop-motion animated in during post-production. Q took the term “guerilla filmmaking” to an absurd extreme. Garry Marshall‘s parody of daytime TV soaps Young Doctors In Love was an even guiltier pleasure comedy than Porky’s,i.e. it is just as vulgar, and even more dumb. Hands down the biggest pile of crap in ’82 has to be MegaForce. If you ever want to see how little you can buy for $20M, or what a movie about elite commandos by way of disco-land would resemble, check out MegaForce.

High art, low art, and no art aside, 1982 also gave us two of the most genre defying oddities ever produced by a major studio: Pink Floyd: The Wall and The Dark Crystal. If you can figure out which paragraph above either of these films would have belonged in, you’re a more decisive fan than I am. In a year full of surprises, a year full of movies that have inspired a myriad of imitators, Pink Floyd’s descent into paranoia and Jim Henson‘s philosophical adventure were such singular experiences that no one has attempted to copy them. There were also movies that I was too young to see at the time, but came to appreciate later: István Szabó‘s Faust-themed Nazi drama Mephisto and Jean-Jacques Beineix‘s wonderfully unpredictable thriller Diva opened in 1981, in German and France respectively, but opened in the U.S. in 1982. It take until just a few months ago before I finally saw Jack Nicholson in one of his lesser known performances in Tony Richardson‘s initially X-rated police thriller The Border. Jack plays a Texas border officer surrounded by corruption and racism, and conflicted by gnawing compassion for those he arrests. Two things immediately struck me about The Border. First if it were released today, times and tastes have changed enough that it would be rated R, and second that it would probably be even more controversial. It didn’t cause much of a stir when it was released, because the X-rating limited the theaters that would show it, and thus greatly limited its audience. With illegal immigration no less a hot-button issue today than it was thirty years ago, this film reaching a wider R-rated audience would elicit some entertaining and frustrating polarized debate. Three decades later, I am still engaged by and learning from the films of 1982.

I used to think that if I ever wrote an autobiography, it would be titled Godzilla Eats Junior Mints, following a gullible moment when The Fats took Ed & I to see Midway when I was 6. After taking a glance at these films, I think an equally viable title might be All I Really Need To Know I Learned In The Movies When I Was Twelve.

Share
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

An OBITUARY for the HARVARD SQ. THEATER, Cambridge, MA (1926 – 2012)

Posted in PALACES, ONE AND ALL: A Valentine to screens in small towns, big cities and odd corners of the country where I have received salvation at 24 frames per second. on September 19th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

Freshman students moving into Harvard and other Boston area schools this fall, and wandering through Harvard Square, witnessed something no freshman student has seen in this neighborhood for over 80 years: a blank marquee on the Harvard Sq. Theater. In 1925, construction began on the 1,800 seat palace, with doors opening in 1926 on Massachusetts Avenue as The University Theater. In the 1960′s it was stripped down, modernized and rechristened the Harvard Sq. Theatre. The entrance moved around the corner onto Church Street in 1982, a change that heralded a succession of theater chain ownerships. When I first visited it had become part of the USA Cinemas chain. In the summer of 1992, when I worked here as an assistant manager, it was The Loews Harvard Square Theater. The final incarnation since 2006 is the AMC Loews Theater in Harvard Square.

Its programming has been as varied as the theater’s name, from major Hollywood studio productions to European films to independent groundbreakers, plus an impressive slate of milestone concerts. Photographs featuring the marquee in Mo Lotman’s fascinating and fun book “Harvard Square: An Illustrated History Since 1950″ will remind anyone of the classic movies of their youth: the 1950′s featured Halls of Montezuma screening with a March of Time documentary short, and later the odd pairing of the medieval The Black Knight with the noirish potboiler Turn The Key Softly. The 1960′s saw David Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago, as well as another odd pairing: Shenandoah with Bedtime Story. One shot of the multiplex in 1987 offers Raising Arizona, Swimming To Cambodia, Platoon, Tin Men and a Ken Russell retrospective.

In the 1970′s, films continued to show here, but so did some significant live events. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, David Bowie and Bonnie Raitt have each performed on this stage. Bonnie Raitt’s opening act was christened “the future of rock & roll” following his performance that night. On January 15, 1974, when the Harvard Lampoon awarded John Wayne their first Brass Balls Award, Wayne entered Harvard Square on a tank riding up Mass Ave, arriving at the Harvard Square Theater to receive the award. From 1984 thru the theater’s final night this summer, the ’70′s continued to reign every Saturday with midnight screenings of the iconic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

When I moved to Boston in 1988, the first theater I went to was the USA’s Harvard Sq. Cinema. Mom & I saw Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War. The building was a pastiche of different eras of movie theater architecture. The single-screen palace had been divided into 3 screens in the early 80′s, and subdivided into 5 by my first visit. The round concession stand in the middle of the lobby seemed like a holdover from the ’60′s refit. Where there had been a balcony, two smaller cinemas with seats at an awkward angle to the screen had been created. Two more small rooms were added where the backstage area stood from back when the theater could support live shows. Despite these modern updates, remnants of the gilded origins remained in the main theater, most notably in the ornamental moldings on either side of the screen.

My brother Ed was honorably discharged for the Army the week before Batman opened in 1989. To Ed, there could be no better homecoming than seeing one of the most anticipated films of the decade on this large screen. We waited in line for 3 hours with 500 other nerds to see the opening Thursday midnight show. Ed still laughs when he recalls the usher who corralled the line, yelling “I don’t care who you are, I don’t care who your friends are, if your ass ain’t in line, you’re not seeing Batman tonight!” I fell in fleeting lust the night I saw Tequila Sunrise in one of those awkwardly angled balcony theaters. I fell in lasting love the night I saw, believe it or not, Total Recall on my first date with Maria. And I was here on the final night for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Between 1990 and 1994 I worked for 5 different movie theaters in Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles. I had been promoted to assistant manager in the Loews Copley Theater before being transferred to Harvard Square in ’92. Copley was Loews’ flashship in New England; it had was a very corporate vibe, due mostly to our District Manager’s office being right across the hall from the Manager’s Office. Harvard Square by contrast felt like a small town theater that coexisted with its neighborhood. One of the other assistant managers was instrumental in finding work for a few people who the more corporate types might hesitate to hire in their theaters, including an autistic usher and an elderly doorman who was very friendly as long as he took his meds. I think I liked that manager a little more than she liked me; I suspect she saw me as one more suit from Copley. I thought her shaved head, tattoos, multiple piercings and punk jacket with flowing hippy skirts were emblematic of what made this theater like no other in the Loews chain.

I didn’t need to work in the Harvard Sq. Theatre very long before I found my own connection to the neighborhood. There was a middle aged couple who would come by once or twice a month who we would let in for free. I’m not certain of how down on their luck they were, whether they were homeless and living in shelters, or just damn close to it. They were sweet and friendly, had shared their first date in this theater in the late ’60′s, and all these years later still had the genuine affection of a couple you knew could survive anything as long as they were together. They made a point of coming earlier in the week when they knew we wouldn’t be sold out; they didn’t want us to give away weekend seats that others might buy, they just hoped we could spare seats that would otherwise go empty. Movies made them happy and gave them a few hours a month to not have to worry about what tomorrow might hold. Sappy as that may sound, make no mistake, these two were the kind of movie nerds who delivered my nerd education at a very impressionable age. Among the movies I let them into were Howards End and The Player; they engaged the ushers and I in an enlightening debate on Merchant / Ivory and period English films following the former, and Altman films and movies about movie-making following the latter. In short, we benefited as much from their company as they did from ours.

On the most memorable of those quiet summer days early in the week, one of the ushers and I shared an adventure that made us feel like The Goonies. Our projectionist had warned us that he suspected one of the projector bulbs would burn out very soon. Replacements had been ordered, but they were delayed in shipping. The projectionist thought there was a stash of spare bulbs, but couldn’t remember for the life of him where he’d seen them. So this usher and I went hunting, and before we knew it, we’d wandered into corners of the theater that neither of us ever would have imagined still existed. We went under the stage, where former dressing rooms were covered with a layer of dust that would choke a vacuum cleaner. The only other sensation I can compare to the decayed look, the moldy smell, and the ambient dull echo under the stage are the cells in the solitary wing of Alcatraz. As deep as we wandered, so high we climbed. We wandered up into what we suspected was the stage rigging; it was so broiling in the dry summer heat that it felt like the area could burst into flames. And we found our way to the roof. From up there I realized my ultimate Boston dream would be to own this theater and live on the roof. To show the movies I want to show all day, and retire each night to a perch with a nearly 360 degree view of Cambridge, Boston and Somerville, hell I couldn’t think of a better way to blow a winning lottery ticket. We even managed to find one spare projector bulb.

I hate to admit it, but since returning to Boston in 2009, I (and other fairweather fans) may have been part of the problem that resulted in AMC Theaters’ decision to shutter Harvard Square. AMC had not committed any noticeable resources to this theater since taking it over. When 3D projection was added, it was not put in the biggest theater, it was cautiously rolled out first in one of the upstairs balcony theaters. I saw Avatar on opening weekend in the theater where they would normally open movies not befitting any spectacle. Sure, 3D eventually worked its way downstairs, but by then I had already embraced other options. I saw most of my big Hollywood films in AMC’s sparkly new theater on Boston Common. I went to Coolidge Corner or Landmark’s Kendall Square theater for independent films. If I wanted a dose of the Harvard Square that I missed, I went to The Brattle.

I may have not have shown my old workplace the proper affection these last few years, though I did make it here for Where The Wild Things Are, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Public Enemies, and two of the precious few movies Maria has joined me for since our return to the area, Julie & Julia and Captain America. I also made it a point to be here for its final night. Earlier in the week had been the July 4th fireworks, which if you’ve never seen in Boston, are a big friggin’ deal. Sometimes Neil Diamond even shows up — that’s how big a deal! But that didn’t resonate with me as heavily as the hourly countdown to the Harvard Sq. Theatre going dark. It had been 10 years since I’d seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and 17 years since I’d seen it here. This evening’s performance was like a jazz funeral. This cast and crew had performed dozens of times, possibly hundreds of times in this theater. There were no tears; there were laughs and hugs and the most go for broke, balls to the wall, rambunctiously deviant and meticulously staged Rocky performance I’ve ever seen. With so many cast members all wanting to share in the final curtain, the principle characters were all played by multiple performers, making for an electrifying mash-up of the skills that each performer brought to each scene. I never dared hope I’d witness the seduction of Rocky & Janet played by two women, and yet there they were. Sorry, I don’t have any photos of that; everyone else was too busy digging the scene to take pictures, and I didn’t want to be the one guy ejected for that transgression. Suffice it to say: woman as Janet + woman in gold lame’ swimsuit as Rocky = a bargain for the price of admission! Another fun and impossible to ignore facet of this evening’s performance was the evidence via the jokes of just how long I’d been away! Between the audience at large, and once very animated gent right behind me, I heard jokes about Osama bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld, Mormons, Scientologists, Mel Gibson, Bank of America and who can count how many other subjects that were not cultural sticking points during my last visit to Dr. Frank’s lab & slab. I thought I would take so many more photos, and maybe even video, bu I confess I was quickly overtaken by the spirit of the room, in a way that I have never been at any other Rocky screening in this theater or anywhere else. I made a conscious decision not to document the performance in photos, to only say that I wish you had been there with me to celebrate the defiling of the virgins.

The morning after: I’m hearing that the investment group who bought this theater from AMC did so within 4 days of the closing, for a sum in the neighborhood of $6.5 million. Please allow me to publicly state here that if I win my aforementioned rooftop perch lottery, I will offer these folks an immediate 20% return on their investment to walk away. I have no idea what they intend for this space, but I’ll tell you what should go here: an East Coast version of the Alamo Draft House. In my Hollywood ending dreams, the Harvard Square Theater would have 2 dozen beers on tap, wine shipped in from my small market compadres in Santa Barbara County, and the best L.A. street vendor style bacon wrapped sausage sandwiches with caramelized onions and peppers, beef and black bean chili, eggplant lasagna and thick bacon-gasmic clam chowder in town. I’d lose a significant amount of seating in order to allow patrons maximum foot room and comfort; a little trick that makes The Vista Theater on Sunset Blvd one of movie-nerd-nation’s premiere destinations. And while I would never presume to compete with my beloved Brattle, I would go out of my way to keep the Lunch Movie ethos that defined my old agency conference room screenings alive for the next generation of movie nerds. I’d dig out the old and seek out the new with a diversity of titles such as we’ve already discussed, plus others I saw here, like Stormy Monday, Aria, Indiana Jones, Zentropa, and Wonder Boys. Until that day comes, I’ll happily remember the Harvard Square Theater this way, with hundreds lined up and eager to visit:

Share
Tags: , , , , , , ,

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (2012)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on September 3rd, 2012 by Jim Delaney


Directed by Benh Zeitlin, adapted by Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin from Alibar’s 1-act play JUICY & DELICIOUS, starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana and Levy Easterly.

It’s always both a thrilling and disappointing experience when you see a nearly perfect movie in the first half of the year. Thrilling because you’ve experienced something transformative, but disappointing because you expect nothing else that year will measure up. I have seen BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD twice in screenings sponsored by the Independent Film Festival of Boston, first at The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, and next at The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. I saw it a third time a month into its general release. I can’t tell you the last time I saw a movie three times in a theater; it was probably over a decade ago. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have composed my thoughts and posted this article last month, or earlier. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is, however, anything but ordinary circumstances. As I walked home from the Brattle after that first viewing, my mother called. I could barely tell her the title without my voice cracking. When was the last time you saw a grown man walking down the street blithering with a quivering lip and a lump in his throat to his mother? That is what this movie can do to you.

Without getting overtly social or political about it, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD tells the story of those who will be America’s frontline casualties in the escalation of climate change. Quvenzhané Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a young girl who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), in a collection of bayou islands south of New Orleans, herein known as The Bathtub. Hushpuppy and Wink live in a neighborhood where folks are born, live, and die mostly off the grid. They cook by outdoor grill, there isn’t a TV in site; the only traces of electricity are the refrigerators that keep the beer cold.

If there is a social message at play, it is obscured by the sort of layers of subtext and metaphor found in some of your better science fiction films. Hushpuppy learns in school about ancient cave paintings depicting humans hunting aurochs bulls, a lesson creatively delivered via a tattoo. She doesn’t need school to teach her about global climate change; she sees it in the water level rising against the levy that protects New Orleans, the levy that leaves the Bathtub to sink. In Hushpuppy’s imagination she sees a family of aurochs frozen in the arctic ice. She also sees the aurochs released when their berg cracks free, floats south, and melts. The Q&A sessions in the screenings I attended drew multiple interpretations of what the aurochs stood for. Far be it from me, or the film, to make the meaning of these giant beasts abundantly clear for you. Part of what makes this story so compelling is its ability to incite viewers to insert their own ideology, however accurately, into the lives of these characters.

The Bathtub’s folks are both the original 99%, and the original Tea Party. You won’t have to look too far on the IMDB message boards to find kneejerk reactions of one political extreme or another. There are liberals who feel that the Bathtub’s population needs to be rescued and given access to the suburban dream of Target and Starbucks. There are conservatives who see them as abusers of the welfare system. Both are mistaken: the Bathtub doesn’t want to be rescued, it wants to be left the hell alone, as we see the day FEMA comes knocking on their doors. This is a group that fends for itself; we never see them cashing a welfare check, we see them raising their own produce and livestock. We also see them pouring out large enough nets of seafood that it is more reasonable to assume that they make their living on a boat rather than off the dole.

Some see this is a film about African Americans, but this ignores other facets. Hushpuppy & Wink are African American, as are several supporting characters, but there are a roughly equal number of white characters living in The Bathtub. This place reminds me of stories my dad, The Fats, told me of growing up in Passaic, NJ during the Depression. He lived within the same neighborhood as Italian Catholics, Irish Protestants, African Americans, Jews, Cubans, Asians, Central Americans, and a family who ran a Halal meat market. Passaic in the 1930′s and the Bathtub now, and this film, transcend race or gender or generation. These characters and this story are sewn together by the same thread that tied my dad’s neighborhood. In the best of times and the worst of times, this is one city.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is more akin to the character driven films of 1970′s American cinema, and the sensual location experiences of the past few decades of European films, than a contemporary boardroom generated studio product. There is a story here, but it is so thoroughly seen through Hushpuppy’s eyes that the audience needs to give it the same latitude we would give any child attempting to tell a complex story. The reward for your patience is the poetry of Huspuppy’s perception, and Quvenzhané Wallis’ relentless ability to convince us that this is simply the way she sees the world. That innocent and enlightened perception is never more evident than in a flashback sequence whereHushpuppy tells us about her missing mother. The entire journey of this film is Hushpuppy confronting mortality: her mother’s, her father’s, the planet’s, and her place in all three.

Benh Zeitlin avoids most of the saccharine pitfalls that a coming of age story could have fallen into. He often shoots from Hushpuppy’s eye level, making Dwight Henry’s Wink as imposing as the imaginary aurochs. This film is also a feat of low budget sound design like we haven’t heard since THE HURT LOCKER. Movies with one hundred times Zeitlin’s budget are too often tales full of sound and fury signifying nothing. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD features a hurricane sequence as violent as any of the weather sequences in TWISTER, but here the intensity is achieved almost entirely through sound. Hushpuppy’s metaphysical quest in search of her mother is a stirring use of silence and Felliniesque exaggeration of sound and music.

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD takes you to a corner of the United States that few have ever seen, and explores what is strongest in our national character, to expose our shared humanity. That is mighty ambitious for any film crew, but especially so for a cast and crew of which many were making their first feature length film. I don’t know yet if this is my favorite movie of the year, but it is the most emotionally exhausting and hauntingly expressive movie I’ve seen in a long long time.

Share
Tags: , , , , , ,

OUTLAND (1981)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on March 26th, 2012 by Jim Delaney


From Tuesday, January 8, 2008.

Written & Directed by Peter Hyams, starring Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle and James B. Sikking, and featuring a score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Connery is Marshal William T. O’Niel, the “one good space-cop” protecting a mining colony on a moon orbiting Jupiter. Previous marshals had accepted bribes to ignore crime and corruption (and a nasty drug ring), but we wouldn’t have much of a story if O’Niel continued the status quo. It’s essentially HIGH NOON in space, but if yer gonna steal, steal from the good stuff!

It’ll finish Thursday,
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 3.26.2012

OUTLAND is, in short, one of those movies that makes me an old fashioned nerd. It is flawed, and dated, and yet I have great affection for it. If you want to focus more on the science part than the fiction in “science fiction” you could fault OUTLAND for inaccuracies of physics, like the depressurization conditions required for a human body to explode inside a space suit, or what direction blood would flow in zero gravity. If you are one of those ironic hipster nerds who think Ray Harryhausen’s work looks cheap, and the CGI Yoda trumps Frank Oz’s muppet Yoda, you might fault OUTLAND for its model and matte work. If however you’re an old fashioned nerd, a nerd who values precedent as well as innovation, you can see this movie for its unique and exciting strengths.

I suspect the same poindexters who have a problem with the liberties OUTLAND takes with gravity would also take issue with Buster Crabbe’s flame-sparking, chainsaw-sounding rocket in the 1930′s FLASH GORDON serials. “Bursts of flame could not occur in space where there is no oxygen for the fire to consume,” the disciples of THE SIMPSONS’ Comic Book Guy would declare, “nor would we hear that buzzing exhaust in a vacuum.” This is where I need to break with some of my nerd counterparts; if it makes for a more exciting story then I don’t care about that other stuff. Flash Gordon’s rocket looks and sounds cool, and when I was in 6th grade, blood floating upwards from OUTLAND’s dead body in a zero-gravity prison cell was one of the most disturbing murders I had ever seen in a movie. OUTLAND opened two years after ALIEN defined what grunt labor in space would look like, and a mere six weeks after the first mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia reignited a generation’s collective interest in space exploration. This movie may have not nailed every technical aspect, but it should be credited with imagining functions of working in space that few movies had done before, and even fewer as vividly.

#IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp, but I suspect that no genre in film is subject to as precise scrutiny as science fiction. In romances we accept the rarity of mutual orgasm in love scenes because hell, who doesn’t aspire to that, even if it’s about as likely as the pressure conditions required to crush a body in a space suit. Cop movies and legal thrillers rarely get called out for authentic police or courtroom procedures. Word to the wise: if you’ve ever cheered for the “surprise witness” in a court movie, then you need to relinquish your credentials to criticize an imaginative movie like OUTLAND over a few technical indiscretions.

As long as I’m showing my age stripes, I need to go on record about something more expansive than model and matte work. I like any art that shows evidence of human contact: little flaws that bespeak individual experience. Some folks like seeing crystal clear digital projection of CGI generated images. Me, I just saw a print of Bela Tarr’s DAMNATION at the Harvard Film Archive. It was loaded with the kind of smudges, sound pops and platter scratches that Tarantino and Rodriguez faked to lend authenticity to GRINDHOUSE. I love that stuff, just as I love being able to spot finger imprints in the fur of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion model for the 1933 KING KONG. I love OUTLAND’s opening sequence where we first learn about the mining operation on Io. Of course that model work will never fool anyone into thinking that Hyams & Co. actually went on location in space, but that model perfectly orients the audience for the finale.

Oops, I’ve mentioned the finale, and without making a ***Spolier Alert***! Well nevermind finale spoilers; I’m not going to tell you what happens, I’m more focused on how it happens. There is an amazing chase sequence that occurs midway through OUTLAND. Marshal O’Niel runs down one of his suspects through a multi-leveled industrial labyrinth. The editing in this chase is so intense, and the set is such a feat of production design, that some have said it undercuts the finale. I can see that point of view, but I think the finale takes a bold reversal of expectation by going in a thoroughly different direction than that chase in the middle. Rather than going bigger and bolder, they went eerier and quieter, and yes they even adhered to a few laws of gravity.

So there you have it: OUTLAND — cool cop story, thrillingly imaginative space opera, state of the art film experience of a bygone era. If you’re the moviegoer who does not fault PLANET OF THE APES for dated make-up (which was itself state of the art, once upon a time) or METROPOLIS for damn near literally wearing its heart on its sleeve (what with all that chest-clutching) then you might also be the fan who can recognize OUTLAND for its place in the nerd canon.

Share
Tags: , , , , , ,

How To Use TRIVIA To Handicap Your OSCAR BETS: 2012 Edition REDUX, with Answers to Last Week’s 25 Trivia Questions…

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on February 26th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

The 2012 Oscars will begin in a few hours. Lets pause for a moment to consider the Kodak Theater. This will likely be the last time we will see The Oscars presented in a theater named for one of the core elements of filmmaking. Kodak’s current bankruptcy woes are expected to force them to end their lease with this beautiful theater. The doors only opened in 2001, but despite it being such a damn cool theater, it struggled against other venues to find its footing. The Pantages and Ahmanson theaters were the choice venues for big musicals and plays. The Chandler Pavillion and Disney Hall were the venues for opera, classical music and ballet. Concerts tours had multiple options all over town. In 2003 I saw Prince play a phenomenal 3 hour show in the Kodak, and then go upstairs to The Highlands to play a 2 hour after party. Legendary nights like that were too few and far between though; very often this outstanding theater with great acoustics and sight lines sat dark. In the past year, The Kodak has been given a new lease on life. I urge you to check it out if you ever have the opportunity.

One week ago I placed my bets, made my personal picks, and issued a trivia challenge. Below are the answers to the 25 trivia questions.

1. Which Best Picture winner had the shortest running time?
“Marty” (1955) 91mins
2. What was the first color film to win Best Picture?
“Gone With The Wind” (1939)
3. What was the only animated feature nominated for Best Picture before the inclusion of a separate category for Best Animated Feature?
“Beauty & The Beast” (1991)
4. On 3 occasions The Oscars have been postponed by at least 1 day. In which years did this occur?
1938, 1 week for flooding in L.A.; 1968, 2 days for the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.; 1981, 1 day for attempted assassination of President Reagan.
5. In which year were the awards first televised?
The 25th Awards in 1952 on NBC.
6. Name the youngest nominee for Best Director.
John Singleton, “Boyz N The Hood” (1991)
7. For which film did Alfred Hitchcock win Best Director?
Trick question, he didn’t. He won the honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968.
8. Name the only Oscar winner who also held a Nobel Prize.
George Bernard Shaw, Best Screenplay “Pygmalion” (1938), won Nobel Prize for literature in 1925.
9. Who went off-script while presenting an award in 1990 to decry the lack of a Best Picture nomination for “Do The Right Thing?”
Kim Basinger
10. “Churchill’s Island” (1941) has the distinction of winning the first award in which category?
Best Documentary
11. Who has hosted the most Academy Awards ceremonies?
Bob Hope, 19 times.
12. How long are winners currently given for their acceptance speeches?
45 seconds.
13. Who sang the show-stopping comical duet “It’s Great Not To Be Nominated” in 1958?
Burt Lancaster & Kirk Douglas
14. How tall is Oscar?
13.5 inches, and weighs 8.5lbs
15. Who was at the podium when the awards were notoriously “streaked” by a naked man running across the stage?
David Niven (1974)
16. Who is the only person to ever refuse an Oscar?
George C. Scott, Best Actor “Patton” (1970). Marlon Brando boycotted attending the ceremony when he won Best Actor for “The Godfather,”(1972) but he still sent Sacheen Littlefeather to receive the award and make a prepared statement.
17. Name the two actors who won Best Director and Best Picture for their directorial debuts.
Robert Redford, “Ordinary People” (1980); Kevin Costner, “Dances With Wolves” (1990), beating out Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” respectively.
18. Which two families have three generations of Oscar winners?
First, the Huston’s: Walter, Best Supporting Actor “Treasure of Sierra Madre” (1948) and John, Best Director, same; Angelica, Best Supporting Actress “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985). Second, the Coppola’s: Frances Ford Coppola and his father Carmine won Best Director and Composer for “The Godfather: Part 2” (1974) and Francis’ daughter Sofia won Best Original Screenplay for “Lost In Translation” (2004).
19. Who has received the most nominations for Best Actress?
Meryl Streep, 16.
20. To whom did Marlon Brando lose his first nomination for Best Actor for his performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire?”
Humphrey Bogart, “The African Queen” (1951)
21. Name the only character that two different performers in different films have won acting awards for playing.
Don Vito Corleone. Marlon Brando, Best Actor “The Godfather” (1972). Robert DeNiro, Best Supporting Actor “The Godfather Part 2” (1974)
22. What was the most recent film to win every award for which it was nominated?
“Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King” (2003) 11 noms/11wins
23. What was the first non-English language film nominated for Best Picture?
“Grand Illusion,” France (1938)
24. Which composer has won the most Oscars for Best Original Score?
Alfred Newman, 9 wins.
25. What was the first animated film to win the Oscar for Best Original Song?
“Pinocchio” (1940) “When You Wish Upon A Star”

If you want to read more fun trivia, check out the American Movie Classics site. What follows is my earlier post from February 19, 2012…

One week from tonight, the 84th Academy Awards will be handed out at the Kodak Theater. As with 2011, I have not made any bets on this year’s ceremony.We have a pretty interesting field this year, and by interesting I mean I still don’t know what to make of it, a dilemma for anyone looking for a safe office pool bet. Though THE ARTIST has shown some steam recently with the BAFTAs, the critics’ awards in previous weeks were anybody’s game. Critical awards in some cities heavily favored THE ARTIST or HUGO or THE DESCENDANTS, while others spread the love more evenly. It is also notable that many of those critics observed in their top 10 lists that 2011 was a particularly weak year for movies. I’m not certain I agree with that. I think every year is a great year for movies; the problem is that so many strong movies never find an audience. I don’t love this years list of Oscar nominees.

Hell, even if I cobbled together a personal list from the 2012 nominees for Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards, I would still have a few favorite films that were snubbed across the board. Among those, the best movie I saw last year was China’s CITY OF LIFE & DEATH. The only appreciation from an American body it received was last year from the L.A. Film Critics Association. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH premiered in China in 2009, played the American festical circuit in 2010, and received limited general release in 2011. Who’s to say what year it even belongs in for American awards?! Similarly, Ralph Fiennes’ outstanding directorial debut CORIOLANUS was made in 2010, is listed on IMDb as 2011, and is only being released outside of New York and Los Angeles this month! I understand that Academy rules focus on the NY and LA releases, which would put it in the running for the 84th Oscars, but among U.S. awards it went roundly ignored (except for a few awards for Jessica Chastain, which were more for her collective films in 2011 than CORIOLANUS in particular). And why is DRIVE only up for Sound Editing?!

Enough about what wasn’t nominated. Lets focus on where we’re going to place out bets! It helps me to make two lists — the list that I really want to see win needs to be gotten out of the way first. Once it’s down, I can ignore it and guesstimate how I think the consensus will vote. Never bet on the movies you love, unless you know everyone else loved it as much as you did.

CATEGORY – – WHO I’D BET ON – – WHO I’D VOTE FOR
Best Picture — The Artist — Drive (not nominated)
Director – – Michel Hazanavicius – – Terrence Malick
Actress — Michelle Williams — Glenn Close
Actor – – George Clooney – – Demian Bichir
Supporting Actress — Jessica Chastain — Janet McTeer
Supporting Actor – – Christopher Plummer – – Kenneth Branagh
Documentary Feature — Hell & Back Again — Paradise Lost 3
Animated Feature – – Rango – – Chico & Rita
Foreign Feature — A Separation — City of Life & Death (not nominated)
Adapted Screenplay – – The Descendants – – Moneyball
Original Screenplay — The Artist — Midnight in Paris

It helps me to examine the history of the awards when choosing my Oscar picks. It is fun to know who won and when, but it is often fascinating to learn who lost, and to consider why the Academy voted the way they did. Here are a few trivia questions, some just for fun, others to lend an eye toward the past. You have one week to debate with your friends or Google by yourself; I will post the answers on February 26, a few hours before the Oscar telecast begins on ABC.


1. Which Best Picture winner had the shortest running time?
2. What was the first color film to win Best Picture?
3. What was the only animated feature nominated for Best Picture before the inclusion of a separate category for Best Animated Feature?
4. On 3 occasions The Oscars have been postponed by at least 1 day. In which years did this occur?
5. In which year were the awards first televised?
6. Name the youngest nominee for Best Director.
7. For which film did Alfred Hitchcock win Best Director?
8. Name the only Oscar winner who also held a Nobel Prize.
9. Who went off-script while presenting an award in 1990 to decry the lack of a Best Picture nomination for “Do The Right Thing?”
10. “Churchill’s Island” (1941) has the distinction of winning the first award in which category?
11. Who has hosted the most Academy Awards ceremonies?
12. How long are winners currently given for their acceptance speeches?
13. Who sang the show-stopping comical duet “It’s Great Not To Be Nominated” in 1958?
14. How tall is Oscar?
15. Who was at the podium when the awards were notoriously “streaked” by a naked man running across the stage?
16. Who is the only person to ever refuse an Oscar?
17. Name the two actors who won Best Director and Best Picture for their directorial debuts.
18. Which two families have three generations of Oscar winners?
19. Who has received the most nominations for Best Actress?
20. To whom did Marlon Brando lose his first nomination for Best Actor for his performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire?”
21. Name the only character that two different performers in different films have won acting awards for playing.
22. What was the most recent film to win every award for which it was nominated?
23. What was the first non-English language film nominated for Best Picture?
24. Which composer has won the most Oscars for Best Original Score?
25. What was the first animated film to win the Oscar for Best Original Song?

Share

How To Use TRIVIA To Handicap Your OSCAR BETS: 2012 Edition

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on February 19th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

One week from tonight, the 84th Academy Awards will be handed out at the Kodak Theater. As with 2011, I have not made any bets on this year’s ceremony.We have a pretty interesting field this year, and by interesting I mean I still don’t know what to make of it, a dilemma for anyone looking for a safe office pool bet. Though THE ARTIST has shown some steam recently with the BAFTAs, the critics’ awards in previous weeks were anybody’s game. Critical awards in some cities heavily favored THE ARTIST or HUGO or THE DESCENDANTS, while others spread the love more evenly. It is also notable that many of those critics observed in their top 10 lists that 2011 was a particularly weak year for movies. I’m not certain I agree with that. I think every year is a great year for movies; the problem is that so many strong movies never find an audience. I don’t love this years list of Oscar nominees.

Hell, even if I cobbled together a personal list from the 2012 nominees for Oscars, BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards, I would still have a few favorite films that were snubbed across the board. Among those, the best movie I saw last year was China’s CITY OF LIFE & DEATH. The only appreciation from an American body it received was last year from the L.A. Film Critics Association. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH premiered in China in 2009, played the American festical circuit in 2010, and received limited general release in 2011. Who’s to say what year it even belongs in for American awards?! Similarly, Ralph Fiennes’ outstanding directorial debut CORIOLANUS was made in 2010, is listed on IMDb as 2011, and is only being released outside of New York and Los Angeles this month! I understand that Academy rules focus on the NY and LA releases, which would put it in the running for the 84th Oscars, but among U.S. awards it went roundly ignored (except for a few awards for Jessica Chastain, which were more for her collective films in 2011 than CORIOLANUS in particular). And why is DRIVE only up for Sound Editing?!

Enough about what wasn’t nominated. Lets focus on where we’re going to place out bets! It helps me to make two lists — the list that I really want to see win needs to be gotten out of the way first. Once it’s down, I can ignore it and guesstimate how I think the consensus will vote. Never bet on the movies you love, unless you know everyone else loved it as much as you did.

CATEGORY – – WHO I’D BET ON – – WHO I’D VOTE FOR
Best Picture — The Artist — Drive (not nominated)
Director – – Michel Hazanavicius – – Terrence Malick
Actress — Michelle Williams — Glenn Close
Actor – – George Clooney – – Demian Bichir
Supporting Actress — Jessica Chastain — Janet McTeer
Supporting Actor – – Christopher Plummer – – Kenneth Branagh
Documentary Feature — Hell & Back Again — Paradise Lost 3
Animated Feature – – Rango – – Chico & Rita
Foreign Feature — A Separation — City of Life & Death (not nominated)
Adapted Screenplay – – The Descendants – – Moneyball
Original Screenplay — The Artist — Midnight in Paris

It helps me to examine the history of the awards when choosing my Oscar picks. It is fun to know who won and when, but it is often fascinating to learn who lost, and to consider why the Academy voted the way they did. Here are a few trivia questions, some just for fun, others to lend an eye toward the past. You have one week to debate with your friends or Google by yourself; I will post the answers on February 26, a few hours before the Oscar telecast begins on ABC.


1. Which Best Picture winner had the shortest running time?
2. What was the first color film to win Best Picture?
3. What was the only animated feature nominated for Best Picture before the inclusion of a separate category for Best Animated Feature?
4. On 3 occasions The Oscars have been postponed by at least 1 day. In which years did this occur?
5. In which year were the awards first televised?
6. Name the youngest nominee for Best Director.
7. For which film did Alfred Hitchcock win Best Director?
8. Name the only Oscar winner who also held a Nobel Prize.
9. Who went off-script while presenting an award in 1990 to decry the lack of a Best Picture nomination for “Do The Right Thing?”
10. “Churchill’s Island” (1941) has the distinction of winning the first award in which category?
11. Who has hosted the most Academy Awards ceremonies?
12. How long are winners currently given for their acceptance speeches?
13. Who sang the show-stopping comical duet “It’s Great Not To Be Nominated” in 1958?
14. How tall is Oscar?
15. Who was at the podium when the awards were notoriously “streaked” by a naked man running across the stage?
16. Who is the only person to ever refuse an Oscar?
17. Name the two actors who won Best Director and Best Picture for their directorial debuts.
18. Which two families have three generations of Oscar winners?
19. Who has received the most nominations for Best Actress?
20. To whom did Marlon Brando lose his first nomination for Best Actor for his performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire?”
21. Name the only character that two different performers in different films have won acting awards for playing.
22. What was the most recent film to win every award for which it was nominated?
23. What was the first non-English language film nominated for Best Picture?
24. Which composer has won the most Oscars for Best Original Score?
25. What was the first animated film to win the Oscar for Best Original Song?

Share

10 or so FAVORITES OF 2011

Posted in JIMMY ON MOVIES: Thoughts on Films, The Folks Who Make Them, & Those Who Love Them on January 28th, 2012 by Jim Delaney

2011 was a peculiarly reminiscent year for my favorite movies. Maybe it’s because my age is rapidly approaching the Hitchhiker’s answer to The Big Question. Maybe we are at the cusp of a generational shift, wherein a perfect storm of technology, distribution platforms, and expanding thematic material have led us back to a cultural wild wild west like we have not seen since the Corman generation. Some films hearkened back to the tone of the 1970′s & 80′s films on which I was raised, films created by that film school educated Corman generation: Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, Spielberg et al. Some featured staple characters of the era: bands of felt and fur, buddy cops, and fringe-dwelling loners. Other films were created by luminaries whose 70′s and 80′s films aided in my nerd evolution: Woody Allen, Werner Herzog, and Pedro Almadovar all hit career highlights in 2011.

10. THE GUARD, written & directed by John Michael McDonagh. McDonagh’s brother Martin wrote and directed IN BRUGES, another stand out film for Brendan Gleeson, which makes me wonder what growing up in their house must have been like?! Gleeson plays County Galway police sergeant Gerry Boyle, a drunken whoring embarrassment of a cop, who realizes he is the one cop in his precinct who is not on take from local drug smugglers. Don Cheadle plays the Felix to Gleeson’s Oscar, FBI agent Wendell Everett. The interplay between these two powerful actors, so natural at their craft that they make delivering award-worthy performances seem easy, reminded me how long it’s been since we’ve had a really good buddy cop movie. Gleefully politically incorrect dialogue, some very unexpected dramatic twists, and a perfectly balanced tone of raunchiness and danger make THE GUARD a more enjoyable experience than a summer full of franchises.

9. THE MUPPETS, directed by James Bobin & RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, directed by Rupert Wyatt. The Muppets and the Apes were as much a part of my upbringing as STAR WARS. It is a great personal joy for me to see both return this year in a style befitting their positions in the nerd pantheon. The Muppets continue to load a cannon full of chickens and fire it at the fourth wall, and the Apes allegorically respond once again to the social and political climate in which they find themselves. It is an entirely different joy to see both return in a manner that hands the baton to a new generation, a direction that will hopefully lead to continued adventures. I’ve heard plenty of fans complain that these films are not up to their predecessors, that our 70′s and 80′s childhoods are somehow being tainted and capitalized upon; I couldn’t disagree more. The movies with Roddy McDowell in Ape make-up and Jim Henson operating Kermit have not gone anywhere. Our childhood is intact. It’s someone elses turn; if you grew up loving these characters, love them enough to let them go. Lose your cargo shorts and Metallica t-shirt, put on some long pants and a shirt with a collar, and take your kids to see the elder statesmen (statesmuppets? statesmonkeys?) of American fantasy films.

8. MONEYBALL, directed by Bennett Miller. written by Stan Chervin, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. I expected MONEYBALL to be good, but not that it would be a singular story within baseball films, and sports films in general. Miller shows the same sure-handed direction that he did with CAPOTE, similar to Eastwood at his best, allowing each moment to resonate without dragging. Miller’s style is a perfect match for for Zailian’s pace and Sorkin’s dialogue. Though Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) observes the tendency to romanticize baseball, there is very little thrill-of-the-grass here. This movie lives and breathes in the florescent lit cinderblock offices and conference rooms beneath the stadium. MONEYBALL has more in common with the verbal brinksmanship of THIRTEEN DAYS than it does with other sports movies. By the time the story turns to the action on the field, we have become so familiar with the head aches and heart attacks it took to get there, that the loses sting more deeply and the wins are joyous but nonetheless emotionally draining.

7. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, written & directed by Werner Herzog. I have been a devout fan of Werner Herzog since a revival screening of NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE (which I attended for extra credit in my high school German class) set me on a path of following him to corners of the world and the mind where most filmmakers fear to tread. In the past decade or so I’ve come to appreciate Herzog’s documentaries even more than his narrative films. His blatantly honest and provocatively insightful presence as interviewer and commentator makes his docs a unique experience in the field of nonfiction film. Here he has chosen to use the 3-D format to render one of those remote corners that most of us will never ever get to see, and in greater detail than we ever could have hoped for. The titular caves are in rural France, and contain probably the earliest known examples of cave drawings by prehistoric man. Leave it to Herzog to take an art form so untested that many still see it more as a commercial ploy than a tool of a “serious artist” and use it to explore the most ancient form of human storytelling.

6. 13 ASSASSINS, directed by Takashi Miike. Being a fan of Takashi Miike can be as frustrating an experience as being a Prince fan. These are two such relentlessly creative forces that their output frequently tasks our ability to process all of it. Their work is usually very good, but occasionally mediocre; often when they do something amazing, they’re already two or three projects further down the road by the time we realize it! 13 ASSASSINS is as impressive as Miike’s manic ICHI THE KILLER, but it also contains the gnawing reservedness of AUDITION. When samurai ultra violence erupts, bodies fly and blood spatters like a hurricane. In between those battles though, we are treated to vividly drawn character moments worthy of Kihachi Okamoto. Of course Miike had already completed two features and a television pilot, and was shooting another feature and in pre-production on yet another, by the time 13 ASSASSINS opened in the U.S.

5. THE TREE OF LIFE, written & directed by Terrence Malick. A movie theater in Connecticut reportedly taped a sign inside their box office informing patrons that there would be no refunds for people who do not understand THE TREE OF LIFE. I love Terrence Malick for maintaining the same elegiac vision that frustrated a legion of moviegoers who expected a Pacific Theater companion to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN from the trailers for THE THIN RED LINE. This movie really is nowhere near as challenging as some make it out to be. It is simply the story of the O’Briens, an average family in an average Texas town, with three average children growing up in the 1950′s. What sets it aside from a litany of other coming of age films is that Malick chooses to focus on quiet moments of genuine personal epiphany rather than the same tired big family gathering events that stereotypically drive these stories. We are told very little, but we are shown everything, if we pay attention. My favorite example of this is a sublime moment after Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt, having a damn good year!) threatens his family and evicts his sons from the dinner table. The dinner table has been a standard symbol of the family in so many films. When Mr. O’Brien sits back down to his dinner following the uproar, he does not scoot his chair to the table, he yanks to entire table to his chair. If you cannot understand the significance of the gesture in that image, I wouldn’t give you a refund either!

4. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, written & directed by Woody Allen. It is so great to see Woody Allen back to form. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS contains so much of what has marked his most endearing and enduring comedies: the fantasy of PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, the literacy of LOVE & DEATH, the cultural hero worship of PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, the cinematic visual acuity of SHADOWS & FOG, the free spirited romance of VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, and the colorfully drawn characters and vivid use of locations from a dozen New York stories. Not content to simply repeat what he is so good at, Woody uses the framework of a standard time travel fantasy to reflect on reconciling oneself with the past, and deliver a little hope to hopeless romantics everywhere.

3. THE SKIN I LIVE IN, written & directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Holy $#!+ Almodóvar is a mad genius?!? Aside from his own impressive resume, I dig him for rescuing my hero Guillermo del Toro from the Hollywood system, by bringing Guillermo to Spain and producing some of his best films. Now Almodóvar raises the bar for intelligent horror so far that even Guillermo must be awe struck. THE SKIN I LIVE IN has elements of EYES WITHOUT A FACE and the nervous energy of early Cronenberg, but the psyche-bending sexual politics and tragic performances are pure Almodóvar. Many Americans, and perhaps many in the international audience, were first introduced to Antonio Banderas by several Almodóvar films in the 1980′s. Happily, Almodóvar’s best film in years also affords him the opportunity to present Banderas with his most challenging role in years. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is that rare kinky quirky celebration of unsettling oddity and plain otherness that I could only recommend to a select type of movie fan; if you have an open mind and indelicate sensibilities, you’ll be in for a helluva ride.

2. DRIVE, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn has batted it out of the park yet again. Whether stalking the earth through the eyes of a Danish drug pusher, a one-eyed Viking crusader, a frequent customer of the British penal system, or a Hollywood stunt driver, Refn has an acute ability to explore the inner life of violent men. His judicious delivery of only the information we absolutely need allows DRIVE to sidestep most standard “action movie” cliches, focusing instead on the soul of a man who is comfortable driving 100mph on surface streets, but who is out of his element trying to hold a simple conversation. We don’t need to know why the Driver (Ryan Gosling, also having a damn good year!) is so capable of unleashing skull crushing fury, only that he can, and will. Something in his life has led him excel at driving and close-quarter hand to hand killing. The vast majority of disposable crime movies would give him PTSD military flashbacks, or a reluctant monologue detailing past personal experience with abuse. Instead DRIVE gives us a man who for whatever reason has these abilities, and finds himself tasked with conflicting options to use them, as well as the question of whether that use will make him a villain or a hero. I’ve heard that James Sallis, on whose novel DRIVE is based, has written a sequel that picks up with Driver six years later. Here’s hoping for another movie; Gosling as Driver just might be the coolest antihero since Kurt Russell wore an eyepatch.

1. CITY OF LIFE & DEATH, written & directed by Chuan Lu. I am cheating here to a degree, but also reiterating my 13 ASSASSINS point about international release dates. This movie opened in China in 2009, and played in many other countries and international film festivals throughout 2009 and 2010. The U.S. limited theatrical release did not happen until this year. Scheduling doesn’t matter, CITY OF LIFE & DEATH is one for the ages. The only thing that kept the story from crushing me was the awe that I felt for Chuan Lu’s filmmaking skill. The film follows civilian of Nanjing and Japanese soldiers who invaded in 1937. Masterful black and white cinematography simultaneously recalls Movietone news reels, rule defining textbook films like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and rule smashing cinéma vérité luminaries like BATTLE OF ALGIERS. The sound design is every bit as ambitious and unnerving. This is not simply one of the most intense war movies I can think of, it is one of the most flawlessly realized films in any genre that I have ever seen.

PLUS A FEW OTHER FAVORITES:


THE ADJUSTMENT
BUREAU Love is God, God is Love, and you can experience both if you have the right hat.
THE ARTIST I’m so happy that this large an audience and critical mass has embraced a silent film. This should send a message to The Powers That Be that audiences will accept something out of left field as long as it’s good … and has a puppy in it!
ATTACK THE BLOCK makes SUPER 8 look like THE GOONIES.
COLOMBIANA Yes Luc Besson has taken us here before, but Zoe Saldana just might be the bad@$$ love child of Pam Grier and Charles Bronson.
CRAZY STUPID LOVE Like I say, Gosling having a helluva year!
THE DEBT Raise your hand if you knew this was a remake.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK Hey, someone still has to champion Hammer style horror films, and I’m just the nerd to do it!
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO See, not all remakes suck, give ‘em a chance.
THE HEDGEHOG This is the love story that ONE DAY and LIKE CRAZY advertised themselves as being.
THE MAN NOBODY KNEW To me the hallmark of a good liberal is one who questions his own ideology as vigorously has he does those with whom he disagrees. Carl Colby is my kind of liberal.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE This is why we have film festivals. Hollywood does what they do, sometimes they even do it well, but it’s very reassuring to see that a movie like this can find an audience.
MELANCHOLIA I know you’re not really a Nazi, Lars, and I’ll always love you for stirring the $#!+storm.
RANGO the Man With No Name wanders into CHINATOWN, disguised as a lizard. What’s not to love?!
WAR HORSE I was totally unprepared for Spielberg to use this story to send a valentine to John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille.
WARRIOR God bless Nick Nolte. I doubt he’ll win his Oscar nomination, but I’m so glad they at least acknowledged him.

Share
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,