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.

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RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on August 13th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


Saturday August 6, 2011 at the AMC Boston Common.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt, starring Andy Serkis, James Franco, Freida Pinto, David Oyelowo, Tom Felton, John Lithgow & Brian Cox. My favorite living film composer Patrick Doyle provides the score.

The gateway to wildly imaginative movies for most nerds in my demographic was STAR WARS. I would never deny the profound influence George Lucas’ 1977 spectacle had on my childhood, but my indoctrination into nerd-dom came in 1973, by a double feature of CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. The Apes had been to my early childhood development what Sesame Street was to most other kids. Roddy McDowall played two of my earliest heroes, Dr. Cornelius in the first three Apes films, and his son Caesar in my double feature. I never missed an opportunity to see the Apes films on TV; a live action PLANET OF THE APES CBS TV show continued new stories through 1974, with NBC’s animated RETURN TO THE PLANET OF THE APES concluding the Apes saga in 1975. STAR WARS came along right when I needed it, though the Apes remained integral to my sense of wonder.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the happiest surprise this summer. This story is essentially a bridge between ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, which ended with Caesar’s birth, and CONQUEST updated to the 21st century.
Opening on a jungle hunt wherein Caesar’s mother is captured for lab use, RISE moves to the Gen Sys laboratory in San Francisco, where Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) attempts to develop DNA altering treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Will’s big-pharma supervisor Jacobs (David Oyelowo) sees Will’s lab as a potential gold mine, but Will has a more personal stake in his research: his father Charles (John Lithgow) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Caesar’s mother undergoes Will’s latest attempt at a cure shortly before Caesar is born. The therapy alters Caesar’s DNA; since Caesar does not suffer Alzheimer’s debilitating effect on the brain, the therapy enhances his healthy brain. We follow Caesar’s formative years, raised away from the lab in the Rodman’s home, as he learns to communicate via sign language. Will’s veterinarian girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto) helps the two generations of Rodmans raise Caesar. Another father and son (Brian Cox and Tom Felton) who run a primate sanctuary round out the major human characters. Humans play an important part in RISE, but Caesar is front and center in this story, as he was in CONQUEST and BATTLE. Caesar’s quest takes him from birth in captivity, through education in the Rodman home, to incarceration in the primate sanctuary following a series of misfortunes. His advanced mind perceives both injustice at the abuse of his fellow primate inmates and a plan to end their suffering.

Most critics unhappy with this film cite a common (and increasingly tedious) complaint that has been aimed at genre films in general, and Apes films in particular, any time these films expand an area of special effects. Say it with me: “The human characters are not as well developed as the ape characters!” It shows a disappointing lack of imagination, and understanding of what the film medium is capable of, to assume that human characters must be the best developed for a story to succeed. Submitted for your approval, two magnificent films by Jean-Jacques Annaud: THE BEAR (1988) and TWO BROTHERS (2004). I don’t know about you, but when I went to a LASSIE or BENJI movie as a kid, I went to see the puppy not the humans.

Annaud’s films and the dog adventures show us what can be done with well trained animals, but two advances in the film medium further the notion that human actors can play powerfully evocative non-human characters. The first of these advances is motion capture technology, which allows a human actor to be filmed, and then a digital character of anything imaginable to be animated onto that human’s performance. The second, and I would suggest equally important, is an English actor named Andy Serkis. Genre fans recognize Serkis as the man who, working with motion capture technology, was able to perform the 3 foot tall emaciated Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy as well as the 60 foot ape Kong in the 2005 remake of KING KONG. When you see rage of fear or sorrow or valor on Caesar’s face, that is not simply clever CGI, that is Andy Serkis emoting and the technology making him appear simian. Serkis is either at the forefront of something very new in acting or something very ancient. Either way he will soon be as recognized for changing the face of film acting as significantly as Meryl Streep did a generation ago and Marlon Brando did two generations ago. When I see an Apes movie, I am only passingly interested in human characters, I want more apes! Andy Serkis delivers a charismatic and intelligent Caesar that quite possibly surpasses even Roddy McDowall for creating an eager suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. This alone is worth the price of a ticket.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES tampers somewhat with the chronology of the Apes canon, most noticeably in how Caesar acquired his increased intelligence, and the circumstances of his interaction with humans. Nonetheless the story embraces the entire previous saga, with bold gestures obvious to most viewers, as well as subtler references apparent only to core fans. Tom Felton gets to deliver a few cutely placed quotes from Charlton Heston’s Taylor in the 1968 film that will be caught by anyone familiar with pop culture. Devoted fans are treated to the fulfillment of a legend, recounted by Cornelius (McDowall) in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, to explain how apes rose to the top of the food chain. I am resisting like hell to share a Spoiler; suffice it to say that we actually see Cornelius’ parable played out, and it is even more intense than I imagined all those years ago. I nearly jumped out of my seat. With the possible exception of HARRY POTTER the normally stoic 10 a.m. Boston crowd cheered this scene like nothing I’ve heard for another film this year.

Among the recent litany of remakes (or reimagined reboots) RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is most similar to Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN. These films begin with a story with which we are already familiar, but distill the focus to a single character, treating the new film as a true biography of a fictional character. Zombie’s HALLOWEEN expands the first ten minutes of John Carpenter’s 1978 original to nearly a full hour, focusing entirely on how Michael Meyers came to be a serial killer, before condensing the bulk of Carpenter’s story into the action filled third act. The first two acts of RISE explores Caesar’s previously unseen life between the third (ESCAPE) and fourth (CONQUEST) Apes films of the 70’s, with the final act taking story liberties with the whole of CONQUEST. Inasmuch as this film alters the Apes timeline, it maintains the APES film tradition of social and political commentary. Eric Greene’s excellent 1996 book “Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture” examines reflections of 1960’s and 70’s unrest and upheaval in each chapter in the Apes saga. RISE offers insights into the science vs. commerce equation in medicine, the marginalization of the infirm, and even prison reform via the ape sanctuary. As a lifelong fan of the earlier films I wholeheartedly enjoyed this new vision of The Planet Of The Apes. I anxiously await the next battle in Caesar’s revolution.

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