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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ROOM 666 (1982)

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 July 31st, 2011 by Jim Delaney

From Wednesday January 24, 2008

Directed by Wim Winders, featuring Steven Spielberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Susan Seidelman, Monte Hellman & Michaelangelo Antonioni.

During the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, Wim Wenders rented out a hotel room and set up a camera inside. He invited a crowd of directors to go into the room one at a time and ponder the question “What is the future of cinema?” For each guest, one reel of film was in the camera, giving them about 8 minutes to answer. It was a neat idea in 1982, and it’s more fun now a generation later, to see who came closest to reality.

Wenders is as well known for documentaries (BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, LIGHTNING OVER WATER) as he is for narrative films (WINGS OF DESIRE, UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD). Not much “film making” going on here, but the idea to do this experiment almost in the manner of a Confessional booth is pretty cool.

It’ll finish Friday,
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 7.31.11

As intriguing as this film continues to be, watching the 2006 Anchor Bay DVD affords the benefit of Wenders’ own commentary, which itself has already become something of a look into past expectations of the future. The term “visionary” gets tossed around by any critic who admires a director’s pretty compositions. Wenders’ brief list of questions becomes a litmus test for artists truly worthy of “visionary” praise, versus those who have made themselves a perfectly respectable career, but who have not yet reflected on that career and their place in the film medium.

We see for ourselves why certain directors who visit Room 666 do not fall into the visionary category through their limited stumbling answers; in a few cases Wenders corroborates that assessment by expressing his own disappointment on the DVD commentary track. There are directors whom he had clearly hoped would offer greater insight, though in fairness to those less eloquent, Wenders acknowledges difficulty sitting alone in a room pondering the questions he himself posed.

Wenders comments on his calculated design for the experiment, not only in his sheet of questions, but his preparation of the room. He left the TV on in case its presence might spur conversation, and provided a chair and table, yet set the camera far enough back to allow one to pace the room should they choose. The more interesting directors react with at least one aspect of Wenders preparations.

Jean-Luc Godard opens the conversation with a philosophical bang. He almost immediately notes the television in the room, on which a tennis match is being played, and pouts that the position of his chair impedes his ability to watch the match. He does not bemoan this issue, but rather quickly launches into a matter of fact comparison of the film aesthetic versus the television aesthetic, without ever again acknowledging the TV. Wenders notes with awe and some affection that as stream of conscious as Godard’s thoughts seemed to be, he was instinctually cognizant of how much time he had to answer. Godard ties his spider web of an answer up with enough time to light a cigar, rise, and limp on an injured left leg out of the frame.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder gives a similar but far more succinct answer compared to Godard’s. On a personal note, I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the original enfant terrible of 70’s European cinema answering questions posed by a fellow German, while the goofy Filmation animated TARZAN Saturday morning cartoon plays on TV behind him. Fassbinder’s answer does not expand much beyond Godard’s, however being as this was among Fassbinder’s final interviews before his untimely death by overdose, Wenders reveals a hint of soul within this intellectual exercise by including all of Fassbinder’s comments. We continue to hear Fassbinder’s voice and read his subtitles as Wenders fades to a Lebanon cedar tree near the Paris airport and then back to room 666. That tree, which also opens and closes the film, is presented to us as a reminder of humanity’s existence long before and hopefully long after film’s relevance as an artistic medium. Wenders’ treatment of Fassbinder’s answer, including his commentary on the relentless and reckless pace under which Fassbinder worked, suggest that an artist purely giving their absolute best for as long as they are physically capable may prove a detriment to the artist and the medium if that artist burns out before his or her time.

Werner Herzog’s interview is a personal delight for me. Before responding to Wenders’ list, Herzog says that one must take their shoes off to answer these sort of questions. He not only takes off his shoes, but his socks, and also is the only director to turn off the TV. Before Herzog even begins to answer, he alters factors of the experiment to suit himself.
This is a visionary. If making himself comfortable regarding his shoes and socks are not enough evidence of his uniqueness, Herzog’s observations take two transcending steps, one of which was too far sighted to even be acknowledged by Wenders in 2006. Herzog presages the rise of the internet, which Wenders addresses by commenting to the effect that Herzog in ’82 would be impressed by how far technology had advanced by 2006. But here’s where Herzog’s vision goes a step beyond: he even suggests that we will be shopping for vegetables with our phones. Herzog foresaw 4G smartphones in 1982, which as recently as 2006 was not yet assumed to be the next phase beyond the internet. Herzog also ruminates on how film itself as a medium may soon come to pass, but he regards the tools of filmmaking as vital to whichever of these new media will drive the final nail in film’s coffin. If you know Herzog, you know this is about as close as he comes to being optimistic.

The rental on Room 666 wraps up with Michelangelo Antonioni. We hear from the tone of Wenders’ commentary that he has as great affection of Antonioni as he does Godard. It is easy to see why. Antonioni is equally as profound as Godard, but focused in an entirely different direction; where Godard’s concern is the evolution of his chosen means of expression, Antonioni considers his responsibility to an audience to be of primary concern. Antonioni was also among the few who did not feel threated by TV and video, even suggesting the rise of “high definition video,” a foresight so ahead of its time yet so casually delivered that it barely registers in 1982. Antonioni is such a warm and intelligent gent that watching him here makes me want to re-watch all of his films immediately.

ROOM 666 concludes with Wenders reading a prepared statement from Yilmaz Güney. Güney was a Turkish writer/director whose film YOL won the Cannes Film Festival that year, but who remained in hiding outside of Cannes throughout the festival, as he was wanted in Turkey as an escaped political prisoner. This vital conclusion reminds us that even as film changes to video, and then to hi-def internet, the true visionaries of the form will always find a way to get into trouble with their stories. That’s a lot to pack a 46 minute running time, huh?

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THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS (2009)

Posted in MOVIES TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Coming Soon or Now Playing In A Theater Near You... on December 13th, 2009 by Jim Delaney


Friday December 4, 2009 at the Landmark Kendall Sq. Cinema, Cambridge, MA

Directed by Werner Herzog, starring Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Xzibit, Brad Dourif, Fairuza Balk and Vondie Curtis Hall.

I experienced some trepidation before seeing Werner Herzog’s … what shall we call it? Definitely not a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s BAD LIEUTENANT (1992), nor by Herzog’s account is it a remake, if only because he has never seen the earlier film. The term “re-imagining” has been batted around too often in the last decade, but that is what I was expected, possibly what I feared. What I was hoping for, and very nearly got, was a pure Herzog film.

The IMDB message boards for both Herzog’s and Ferrara’s versions offer multiple explanations of how this current film came to have the phrase “Bad Lieutenant” in the title. Most are probably false, and all are irrelevant. Had Herzog released his film as “Port of Call – New Orleans,” critics still would have mentioned Ferrara’s “Lieutenant” in their reviews, if only because both concern detectives addicted to drugs and gambling. Beyond that, they have little in common. Ferrara’s film ponders the Catholic doctrine of Forgiveness by challenging the audience with reprehensible characters on both sides of the law. It is vulgar and gritty and it makes you want to shower with bleach after you’ve seen it.

Herzog’s “Lieutenant” works more as a lampoon of the sort of film I was afraid this might turn out to be, with Nicholas Cage and the rest of a solid cast very much in on the gag. While investigating the murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, the police come up with a list of suspects including a gangster named “G.” My eyes almost rolled out of my head when I heard this cliche, until Cage seemed to mirror my reaction as he briefed fellow officers. Was Lt. Terry McDonagh mocking G’s unoriginal nickname, or were Cage and Herzog mocking the conventions of a tired genre? I suspected the latter when McDonagh interrogates and elderly woman in a hilariously political incorrect riff on that traditional scene, but the ending really confirmed it for me. *** Spoiler Alert *** skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want part of the end ruined: the last time we see the police station, the scene is staged like a blatant parody of cop shows, with all the loose strands happily tied up with everything but a freeze-framed high 5.

Entertaining though this may be, it does not make for a pure Herzog movie. What does make it a pure Herzog movie, and what seems to have alienated many who prefer their cop movies from the “Lethal Weapon 4” mold, is his signature use of animals to reflect the randomness of nature and living. From a snake swimming through a flooded prison and a traffic accident caused by an alligator to a pair of iguanas whom only McDonagh can see, animals once again become symbols to be pondered and debated by nerds who love Herzog, or ignored and derided by those who prefer their movies literal and their morality messages spoon fed.

Maybe BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS should not have been called BAD LIEUTENANT, it’s mystery being so different from the earlier film. Maybe it should have been, since whether you love or hate either, both films turn the standard police drama inside out. But contrary to my initial reservations, there is no mistaking that this is a Werner Herzog movie.

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