MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: The Film Babble Blog Review

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (Dir. Woody Allen, 2011)

At first glance, Owen Wilson looks like an unlikely Woody Allen surrogate.

Yet in Allen’s best film since VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, it’s an inspired piece of casting that works. Wilson puts real effort into the character of Gil Pender, a Hollywood hack screenwriter who wants to give real writing a try, and finish that difficult novel he’s been tinkering with for months.

On vacation in France, Wilson’s fiancée (Rachel McAdams) accuses him of romanticizing the past – particularly Paris in the ’20s, an era he would most like to live in. Wilson clashes with McAdam’s conservative parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), and her friends including a wonderfully snobby Michael Sheen, so he takes off on a walk around the city taking in the sights.

At the chimes of midnight, an old timey car pulls up him, and the drunk passengers plead with him to get in. After some hesitation, he joins them.

Somehow this takes him back to, you guessed it (or saw the trailer), Paris in the ’20s. It’s a rollicking party of an era where everybody he meets is famous figure of the arts. At a party, with piano accompaniment by Cole Porter (Yves Heck) no less, he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill).

There’s also Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Marcial di Fonzo Bo as Pablo Picasso, and the best one of all: Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali.

Wilson meets a fetching model (Marion Cotillard) who he falls for on the spot. So every night back in the present, he makes the excuse to McAdams that he wants to go out on a walk, and goes back to hobnob with history. The predicament of choosing the past over the present becomes a sticky one, as there’s the possibility of another love in the form of Lea Seydoux as an antiques dealer “in the now.”

There’s a wonderful wit and whimsy to how Allen plays this all out. It’s his warmest film since, uh, I can’t remember when.

In other words, it’s the most satisfying Woody Allen film in ages.

Wilson’s delivery of Allen’s choice one-liners is infectious, and he quotes from the greats, such as Faulkner’s “The past is never dead, It’s not even past.” convincingly enough to make one forget the man-child of “Hall Pass” from earlier this year.

The film is at its most radiant when it’s in those sequences set in the past. In a neat little twist, Cotillard dreams of living in the 1890’s; turns out everybody has their dream era.

One personal thought is that I wish the Woodman would’ve filmed this in black and white. It’s not just because the opening montage of shots of Paris was strongly reminiscent of the opening of MANHATTAN, I feel like B & W would’ve brought out something more in the photography, the depictions of both present and 20’s Paris, and the performances of the people playing historical personalities.

As I said that’s just a personal quibble. I’m just an aficionado of the man’s B & W work so don’t mind me.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS isn’t gonna to make me rearrange my top 10 Woody Allen movies, but it’s a lovely lark that I predict even non-fans would enjoy. I think most people can relate wishing for a simpler more inspiring time to live in, and I think they’ll be greatly amused with this simple and inspiring story.

More later… 

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YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER: The Film Babble Blog Review

YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER (Dir. Woody Allen, 2010)

Another year, another Woody Allen movie. Another one set in London, but hey! No Scarlett Johansson – so that’s saying something.

This ensemble comedy with Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, and Josh Brolin as the principles reminds me of Juliette Lewis in Allen’s 1992 dramedy HUSBANDS AND WIVES telling her professor (played by Allen) her impressions of his long gestating novel:

“You make suffering so funny. All the lost souls running around.”

There’s plenty of lost souls, but suffering though isn’t so funny here – it’s not even that affecting.

To break it down – we start with Gemma Jones as the estranged wife of Hopkins visiting a fortune teller (Pauline Collins) for advice about how to move on. She’s despondent and in need of drink which could define every character on display.

Jones’ daughter, Watts, is in a frustrating marriage to Brolin who is struggling with writing a new novel. Brolin pines for a woman (Frieda Pinto from “Slumdog Millionaire”) he sees through his flat’s adjacent window.

Watts, meanwhile pines for her new boss (Antonio Banderas) at the art gallery where she just got a new job as an assistant.

In one of the most clichéd premises of a mid life crises I’ve ever seen Hopkins introduces his new fiancée (Lucy Punch) to Watts and Brolin over dinner and the extremely unnecessary narrator (Zak Orth) tells us that he’s not telling the whole truth about her.

Punch is a ditzy call girl who Hopkins woos into matrimony with promises of minks and money you see and so, of course, it’s a doomed relationship.

Meanwhile Brolin, jealous of a friend’s manuscript, goes to the dark side after finding out that his friend is dead after an automobile accident. He steals the book and his publisher loves it, but the catch is that is that his friend isn’t dead – he’s in a coma and doctors say there’s a chance he could recover at any time.

Brolin courts Pinto causing her to call off her engagement while Watts finds out her boss is seeing somebody else on the side from his wife and Hopkins is cuck-holded by Punch who also runs up quite a tab on his dime.

Jones, with the help of Collins, seeks spiritual comfort as well as companionship, but might find both in the form of, no, not a tall dark stranger, a short fat one portrayed by Roger Ashton-Griffiths who owns an occult bookshop and pines for his deceased wife.

The same tired themes of spirituality verses common sense are trotted out – it’s a treatise on whatever works to get one through life – like say in Allen’s last film “Whatever Works” – and the emptiness that the characters try to overcome weighs down the film in a wretched way.

Still, Brolin’s dilemma is compelling stuff even if it doesn’t come to a satisfying resolution (or any resolution really).

YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER is a close to middling film with one juicy story thread (Brolin’s literary nightmare) amid warmed over Woody Allen thematic material that he has done to death.

Somebody not so fluent with the Woodman’s work may get more out of it, but would such a person really be interested in seeing it?

Brolin’s scenerio made me think that’s there’s still enough there for Allen to keep making movies, but maybe not so often as a film a year like his current record.

That’s not gonna happen however. Allen has another project already in the works (MIDNIGHT IN PARIS) so maybe I should be thankful at this late date that at least some shred of quality still remains.

More later…

10 Blink And Miss Them Movie Cameos

Followers of this blog may have noticed that I have a fondness for film cameos. Film Babble Blog has featured lists like 20 Great Modern Movie Cameos, The Cameo Countdown Continues, and more recently Without A Hitch – 10 Definitive Directors’ Cameos In Their Own Movies, but this list is a bit different because many people may not have noticed these cameos at all. They can be difficult to catch as they go by fast but they’re there just waiting for some film geek like me to point them out. So here goes:

1. George Harrison in MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN (Dir. Terry Jones, 1979) Harrison helped finance this film solely because he was a big fan so it stands to reason that they’d throw him a bit part. He can be seen in a crowd scene and although he is uncredited he actually has a character name: Mr. Papadopoulos. He has one word of dialogue (“ullo”) spoken to Brian (Graham Chapman) as he is introduced by Reg (John Cleese) as “the owner of the mount” they are planning to rent. It’s brief but worth looking for – if only so you can point out to your friends: “Look! There’s a Beatle!” Speaking of the Beatles…

2. Phil Collins in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (Dir. Richard Lester, 1964)

This is kind of a cheat because Collins wasn’t a well known celebrity at the time (he was 13), and you can barely see him in the audience shots of the concert climax but I just couldn’t resist listing it. Collins has often bragged about being one of the 350 teenage extras screaming at the Beatles, especially when he hosted You Can’t Do That!: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night” (1995). Though as you can see his visage is impossible to recognize, even when enlarged, he is listed in some movie guides as being one of the stars of the film.

3. Alan Ladd in CITIZEN KANE (Dir. Orson Welles, 1941) This is a pretty infamous one – Ladd is one of the reporters in the screening room after the opening newsreel. It’s a smoke filled shadowy shot but he can be clearly seen, though it took Roger Ebert’s commentary on the DVD for me to identify him. He can also be seen at the end of the film smoking a pipe and even has a few lines.

4. R2D2 in STAR TREK (Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2009)


This cameo/Easter egg was rumored when the film opened last summer (there was even a Paramount sponsored contest centered on finding it) but it was pinpointed by fanboys all over the internets when the film hit DVD/Blu ray last month. It works as a funny little visual joke as well as a shout out from one science fiction franchise to another.

5. Dan Aykroyd in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1984) It may have seemed strange to see the former SNL funnyman hawking Crystal Head Vodka in advertisements that refer to the last INDIANA JONES film, but Aykroyd actually has a legitimate connection to the series. He appears in Indy’s second installment as Weber, a British cohort who arranges a getaway plane for Jones (Harrison Ford), Willie (Kate Capshaw), and Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). It’s easy to miss him as it’s a sweeping long shot and he’s such an incidental character but he still makes the most of his 18 seconds in this film.

6. Dennis Hopper in HEAD (Dir. Bob Rafelson, 1968) This one is priceless because Hopper looks like he can’t wait to get out of the studio, get on the road and shoot EASY RIDER (Monkees money funded EASY RIDER you see). Jack Nicholson, who co-wrote HEAD, is also in this scene which has the movie break down around Peter Tork with many members of the film’s crew coming into the shot including director Rafelson. When he swoops behind Tork to get to Rafelson I’d like to believe he’s asking “hey man, how long is this gonna be? We gotta get going!”

7. Christian Slater in STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (Dir. Nicholas Meyer, 1991)

I know, I know – another STAR TREK cameo but this one baffled me when I first saw this film. When Slater pops up it’s a dark shot and I distinctly remember the murmur in the theater as everybody seemed to collectively wonder “was that Christian Slater?” Credited as “Excelsior Communications Officer” Slater appears in a doorway, has a few lines, and then he’s gone. What was he doing there? In an interview with DVD Playground he answered that question: “My mother cast that film and needed someone to fill in. Yet even so, that was probably the most nervous I had ever been in my entire career.”

8. Richard Dreyfuss in THE GRADUATE (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1967) Again, this might be playing loose with the definition of cameo too, but Dreyfuss’ smart part as “Boarding House Resident” always makes me laugh when I watch this film. Over the shoulder of landlord Norman Fell, Dreyfuss’s delivery is unmistakable on his only line: “Shall I call the cops? I’ll call the cops.”

9. Sigourney Weaver in ANNIE HALL (Dir. Woody Allen, 1977) She only appears in one shot, and it’s a long one, as Alvy Singer’s (Woody Allen) very tall date to yet another showing of THE SORROW AND THE PITY but if you ever see this film on the big screen you can see her features better. It was her first film and I bet nobody involved could predict that only 2 years later she would break through big in ALIEN. From “Alvy’s Date Outside Theatre” with no lines to science fiction icon/feminist heroine Ripley is quite a leap considering.

10. The Clash in THE KING OF COMEDY (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1982) From the IMDb Trivia section for this film: “In the scene where Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernard argue in the street, three of the “street scum” that mock Bernhard are Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, and Paul Simonon, members of the British punk rock band, The Clash.” There are many pictures of Scorsese directing RAGING BULL wearing a Clash t-shirt so there’s obviously a connection between the master film maker and “The Only Band That Matters” (as they were billed at the time).

Okay! There goes another patented Film Babble Blog list. If you have any other blink and miss them movie cameos please drop me a line.

More later…

New DVD Reviews: THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE & TYSON

Here are some reviews of a few new release DVDs if you please (or even if you don’t):

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE
(Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2009)

As most film buffs know there are 2 Steven Soderberghs – not literally, of course, just hear me out. One makes well crafted commercial movies like ERIN BROCKOVICH, the OCEANS series, and the recent well received THE INFORMANT!, while the other makes on-the-fly experimental works such as SCHIZOPOLIS and FULL FRONTAL (not exactly sure where CHE or SOLARIS fits in this). THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is definitely in the second category; it was shot on digital video with a miniscule budget in less than 3 weeks and it shows.

This is not to say it doesn’t look good – it has a slick lush look and it’s sharply edited, but the material is fairly weak and the acting is sorely lacking. It concerns a high price Manhattan call girl (Sasha Grey) who offers a special service: “the girlfriend experience” of the title. That is she’ll stay with a client for a longer time than usual, converse, and go out on an actual date to dinner/the theater/whatever in addition to intercourse.

Grey’s performance is bland and un-involving so it was hard to care about her and her just as bland boyfriend (Chris Santos) suffering on the side. It was filmed in 2008 shortly before the stock market crash so there is a lot of talk from Grey’s corporate clients about the economy. None of it adds up to anything though. A journalist (Mark Jacobson) asks Grey: “Do you ever get bored ever, just talking to rich people?” She replies: “It can get tedious.” It sure does in this movie.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is pretty but pointless and even at its 77 minute running time it feels extremely padded out. Woody Allen once joked about the idea of sex without love being an empty experience: “As empty experiences go though, it’s one of the best!” was his punch line. Sadly “empty experience” at its worst sums up this tossed off throwaway film.

TYSON (Dir. James Toback, 2008)

“Mike Tyson In His Own Words” could be an accurate alternate title for this film. Though there is news footage and archival interviews, this is primarily Tyson telling his story in a series of sit down interviews. Toback splices together a mosaic out of split screen and moving images with his subject overlapping on his own recollections.

From his struggling beginnings in Brooklyn to becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world on to a sexual assault conviction resulting in 3 years behind bars, we get an unnerving sense of a confused but determined kid best evidenced in his account of his prison term:

“I know that I’m going insane and I’m crazy for being here, but it’s the only sanity that I know. It’s the insanity that’s the sanity that I know. I know that sounds so contradicting but it’s the life I know.”

Tyson admitted contradiction is one of many so Toback’s abstract methods of capturing his ongoing conflict make more sense as the movie goes on. Although I’m not a boxing fan, Tyson is a powerful figure that’s impossible to ignore and this breakdown of his battered background held my interest from start to finish.

A 16 minute featurette on the DVD (“A Day With James Toback”) is also worthwhile for it gives insight into Toback’s motivation and drive to present Tyson’s tale as he maneuvers through press junkets on the way to a premiere screening.To one interviewer he says this about Tyson: “I believe everything he says, that at least he believes everything he says.” This belief is intensely felt in every absorbing frame.

More later…

WHATEVER WORKS: The Film Babble Blog Review

WHATEVER WORKS (Dir. Woody Allen, 2009)


Allen’s follow-up to last year’s return to form, the luscious VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, is being dismissed by a number of critics as a flimsy throwaway but I found it to be a funny, touching and overall winning, uh, throwaway. The pairing of loud ornery curmudgeon Larry David with the quiet whimpering wit of Woody Allen works here as well as it does on paper; David’s persona perfectly fits into Allen’s familiar fastidious world. Sure, many well worn clichés abound – many used by Allen before like the old cranky genius mentoring a young beautiful woman (see Max Von Sydow and Barbara Hershey in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) and the round table of wise cracking chums that the story is relayed to (see BROADWAY DANNY ROSE and MELINDA AND MELINDA) – but as David says at one point: “Sometimes a cliché is the best way to make your point.”

In Allen’s first New York set film in 5 years, David plays a divorced suicidal almost Nobel Prize nominee named Boris Yellnikoff who spends his days teaching chess to children that he calls “inch worms”. Despite confusion from his friends (Michael McKean, Adam Brooks, and Lyle Kanouse) and other passerbys he addresses the camera much like Allen did in ANNIE HALL to tell us things like “this is not the feel good movie of the year” and “I’m not a likable guy – charm is not a priority with me.” In the alley near his apartment (an impossibly spacious loft space like most NYC dwellings in the movies) he meets a runaway Southern girl (Evan Rachel Wood) who before long becomes his room mate and then, it’s no spolier to say, his wife.

The May/December romance is, of course, another patented Allen narrative but, hey – you write what you know! The premise of back woods folks having their horizons broadened by the mixing pot culture of New York is furthered with the appearance of Wood’s parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.) who come separately searching for their daughter. Clarkson, who does the Southern belle bit much better than Wood, is particularly repulsed by David so she schemes to break up the monumentally mis-matched couple. The folks from the sticks have their Christianity threatened by the spoils of the big city, giving Allen another comic atheist platform for lines like: “Why do all the religous psychotics wind up praying at my doorstep?”

WHATEVER WORKS is likely to wind up on the sidelines of classic Woody Allen with the passable likes of MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY and SMALL TIME CROOKS; fine fluffy films that have just enough laughs and memorable moments to get by. It’s telling that it began life as a screenplay in the 70’s written for Zero Mostel. The film if produced then would’ve probably come in the pivotal period between his early funny movies and the more thoughtful relationship films that redefined his style.

David, who has actually appeared in a Woody Allen film before (a bit part in Allen’s short film “Oedipus Wrecks” in NEW YORK STORIES), is a wonderfully inspired choice here despite that he is clearly not an actor. His panic attacks are incredibly unconvincing and some of his line readings are stiff, yet he still works as this sneering character who declares ours to be a “failed species”.

There are no new lessons to be learned or insights to be gleaned from this film – its sensibility is simply that we are all doomed, life is short, and you’ve got to get and give happiness wherever you can. Over almost 40 films as director, Allen has relayed these messages many times and maybe here they just form a clothesline on which to hang a bunch of jokes, but for this long-time fan * WHATEVER works, as implausible and predictable as it is. But be warned, if you are not a fan, I highly suspect “Whatever” won’t work.

* I must stress that I haven’t been very fond of much of Allen’s work in this last decade. See “What’s Up With Woody? Case In Point: CASSANDRA’S DREAM” (June 1st, 2008) for example.

More later…

Classic Films On The Big Screen In The Triangle Area

Prenote: This post is extremely localized about theaters in my area that show old movies so it might not appeal to some of my readers. However, I think it’s possible that out-of-towners will find some interest and may be inspired to comment about revival showings at theaters near them.

The summer season is overflowing with movie choices, but many in the Triangle may not know that there is a welcome antidote to the mind numbing “event movies” arriving weekly at the multiplexes. Favorite films from years past, both classic and cult, are being shown at a number of theaters and venues in the area alongside current releases. These screenings give moviegoers a chance to see on the big screen films they’ve loved before on television or DVD, or heard about but never seen, in all their 35 millimeter glory. Plus, they’re typically not as expensive as first run films.


Built in 1926, The Carolina Theater in Durham has a great reputation for revival shows with their popular weekend series of horror movies: “Retrofantasma” and a summer series that this year includes double features of Robert De Niro (“Taxi Driver”, “The Untouchables”), Alfred Hitchcock (“Rear Window” and “Vertigo”, Steven Spielberg (“Jaws and “Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom”)and John Belushi (“Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”) features. “Retrofantasma”, billed as “a joyful jolt of terror and nostalgia”, has a dedicated audience for a roster ranging from “Silent Night, Bloody Night” to the tongue in cheek “Clue”. They may be scratchy old prints for the most part, but there’s no denying the thrill of seeing famous film history writ large.


Located in North Raleigh, The Colony Theater caters to the cult crowd; the kids who grew up on Lucas and Spielberg but leaned towards Tarentino and Lynch as they matured. “Cool Classics @ The Colony” has showcased a multitude of films with fanatic followings such as “Purple Rain”, “Eraserhead”, “Pulp Fiction” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. After 3 successful years they are starting a new series: “Cinema Overdrive” which will feature far out and obscure oddities like “Death Race 2000” (starring the recently deceased David Carradine) and Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels”.

Colony Theater General Manager Denver Hill, a film buff and 35 MM film collector, said that the “Cool Classics” often “do a lot better than the usual films” as it’s been “slow for indie films lately.” Hill, who has worked for the theater since 2002, also remarked that he expected the June 16th and 17th showings of the late 90’s Coen Brothers cult classic “The Big Lebowski” to make more money than the current well reviewed Broadway documentary “Every Little Step.” “Lebowski”, is a repeat performance as Hill explains: “90% of the films have been customer requests.”


The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh offerings may be a bit more highbrow, but they are just as crowd pleasing. Over the fast few decades there have been many film festival of such icons as Woody Allen and such noted genres as “film noir”. It should be noted that they could benefit from having more than one screening in the winter when movies are shown in their auditorium; multiple times when I tried to attend showings they were sold out or only single seats remained. This is a non-issue in the summer season as they have outdoor screenings that can accommodate more people (of course, those can get rained out). This year the highlights will be a Watergate revisited weekend with “All The President’s Men” and “Frost/Nixon”, a tribute to Paul Newman with a showing of “The Sting”, and at the end of August a 70th anniversary showing of “Gone With The Wind” with an accompanying documentary “The Making Of A Legend.”


The Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, in their “Movies By Mooonlight” Summer series shows mostly movies from the last year (“Twilight”, “Kug Fu Panda”, “Iron Man”, etc.) but does offer a few older titles: “Moonstruck” and “Wait Until Dark” are showing this Summer. Be forewarned: Koka booth rarely shows 35 MM prints (the last one was 3 years ago: the legendary “The Creature From The Black Lagoon”) – the films are projected from a DVD. Still, it’s a beautiful venue and a fine evening be had with the right companion, lawn-chairs and beverages.


The Galaxy Theater in Cary often screens older films, in the last year they’ve presented an overlooked beautifully restored Charlie Chaplin film – “Monsieur Verdoux” as well as “Lawrence Of Arabia” and “Double Indemnity.” The theater, which is something of an art-house multiplex, has several popular series such as the “Undiscovered Gem Series”, the “Silver Screen Spring Series”, and like a number of local theaters, a “Kids Summer Movie Series” that runs on weekday mornings.


And for almost 20 years there’s been the Friday midnight showing of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” * at The Rialto. Via email, Ambassador Entertainment owner Bill Peeples said that “attendance is high and consistent” for the long running late show that has played “every Friday at midnight since December, 1989.” Peeples, who with the Rialto owns the Colony, Six Forks, and Mission Valley Theaters hosts “Cinema, Inc”, billed as Raleigh’s oldest and finest non-profit film society offering classic film presentations once a month on Sunday night.


With the possible closing of the Varsity and Chelsea Theaters in Chapel Hill, one might wonder if more revival screenings might have changed their fate. This spring at the Chelsea, a retrospective of director Mark Rydell (including “On Golden Pond” and “The Rose”) drew respectable crowds so it shows that there is definitely an audience for vintage cinema in this area. If the historic Varsity and Chelsea theaters are to continue operation I hope they embrace the past as they look to the future.


Post note: For more information like show-times and directions and please click on the theater’s names in the article.


* I just blogged about seeing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for the first time – read the post here.

More Later…

CHE: PART TWO: The Film Babble Blog Review

CHE: PART TWO (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008)

It would be easy, if too simplistic, to label CHE: PART ONE as “The Rise” and CHE: PART TWO as “The Fall” of the infamous Cuban Guerilla leader. The arc established between these two halves is, of course, much more layered and densely imposed to support such Ziggy Stardust-style titling. PART ONE concerned itself with Che – the man, in its Oliver Stone-ish news footage framing of his successful revolution in Havana. Not to say that it was merely set-up; it told a sound story satisfyingly ending on a resounding note of triumph. PART TWO (subtitled “The Guerrilla”) sets a decidedly different spookier tone from beginning with a SCARFACE-ean scroll telling us that Che (Benicio del Toro) has gone into hiding.

It is 1966 and Che is first shown in a remarkably unrecognizable get-up as a Uruguayan businessman with thick glasses, a shaved head, and a stiff suit – an image nobody would ever put on a T-shirt. This disguise gets him through customs into Boliva and he sets about meeting his men – fellow Guerillas in the mountains. Unfortunately there is trouble in Guerilla city (sorry) and the ragged fighters find they may be no match for the Bolivian Army. As Che assimilates into the groups of scrappy soliders, Soderbergh shoots del Toro mainly from behind reminding me of Aronofsky’s presentation of Rourke in THE WRESTLER but focusing more on Che being engulfed by his surroundings rather than that of a personal POV.

Another film that came to mind was Woody Allen’s BANANAS during the many jungle warfare scenes. In that 1971 classic comedy, New York loser schlub Allen becomes a revolutionary when on vacation in the fictional Central American country of San Marcos to impress his activist girlfriend (Louise Lasser). Since it was closer to the actual time period it had the grainy home movie look that Soderbergh was going for so maybe that’s not such a silly satirical reference point. Maybe it is though – I’ve been on a diet of Woody Allen movies since before I could walk so of course my mind would go there. This is not exactly to say, of course, that CHE: PART TWO is BANANAS without the laughs but I couldn’t resist the comparison.

That comical footnote aside, CHE: PART TWO is strongly involving and possibly superior to its other half. The deaths are more piercing and the pace is like a rapid heartbeat leading to one of Che’s asthma attacks. Even when shown sparringly, del Toro owns the screen again making my head shake at the failure of award recognition. A solid troop of actors fights fiercely alongside del Toro including Damián Bechir (again dead on as Castro), Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, and Joaquim De Almeida. For some unknown reason the theater I work at part time is showing CHE: PART TWO nightly at 7:00 with CHE: PART ONE following at 9:30. While that may not be the ideal order to see them, it won’t hurt because they have distinctly separate feels despite being one long movie split in two. Whatever the order I implore folks to see them both; they are major movies that deserve a much bigger audience – especially on the big screen.

More Later…

TWO LOVERS And 2 New DVD Reviews

TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray, 2008)

Joaquin Phonenix‘s Leonard Kraditor is the latest in a long line of New York lovelorn schlubs that includes Ernest Borgnine’s comical Marty Piletti and to a darker extreme – Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Phoenix brings a disturbed pathos to the character that, as reports indicate, may extend into Phoenix’s real life. We are introduced to the troubled character in an opening scene suicide attempt off a bridge in Brooklyn (not the Brooklyn Bridge, mind you). He doesn’t go through with it; he surfaces and is helped out of the water by passing pedestrians.

Soaking wet, Phoenix returns home to the disapproving looks of his parents (Moni Moshonov and Issabella Rossellini) and a small cluttered bedroom. That night his parents are having a dinner party and intend to set up their son with the daughter of Moshonov’s business partner played by Vanessa Shaw. They hit it off but Phoenix’s eyes wander to neighbor Gynneth Paltrow, an outgoing free-spirited beauty that he is instantly attracted to. Unfortunately she is involved with a married man (an asshole lawyer portrayed perfectly by Elias Koteas) so their budding relationship is unlikely to bloom.

Phoenix has palpable, if at times awkward, chemistry with both Shaw and Paltrow. An audience will surely pull for him to wind up with Shaw (who’s just as attractive) over Paltrow for more than just “good brunette” over “bad blonde” reasons, but the emotional discord within that Phoenix displays can’t be easily dismissed. We still feel for the guy even when he is being deceptive and come to care deeply whether or not he makes the right choice. Possible Spoiler!: In the end it’s not his choice to make and there is an edge to his actions that come more from fear than true love. As my girlfriend said as we were leaving the theater: “How romantic it is to be someone’s choice over death or being alone.” Good point for sure, but this little spare drama should be commended for its non-contrived storyline and unpretentious tone regardless of its uneasy aftertaste. Resembling a Woody Allen relationship movie without the one-liners, TWO LOVERS is an engaging experience that is sure to be remembered long after tales of Phoenix’s odd off-screen behavior have faded away.

And now, a few new release DVD reviews:

I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Dir. Phillippe Claudel, 2008)

Kristen Scott Thomas as a woman recently released from 15 years in prison affects a somber trance as she suffers societal scorn in this drawn out drama. That makes it sound as though this movie is a trial to endure which is not the case. It’s a carefully paced character study with very subtle appeal that lingers for days after viewing. Thomas, going through the motions of reassembling, comes off like an ashamed ghost in the presence of her sister (Elsa Zylberstein) who offers her a place to stay while she gets back on her feet. Zylberstein‘s husband (Serge Hazanavicius) is sceptical of having Thomas around the children because, after all, she went to jail for the murder of her own 6 year old son.

We follow Thomas through these day to day unpleasantries, feeling for her even when we are unsure where our sympathies should really lie. She befriends a few empathetic souls – her probation officer played with aplomb by Frédéric Pierrot and Laurent Grévill as a kindly colleague of her sister’s. I’ll definitely say no further because the film’s biggest asset is in the unwrapping of its intriquing layers. Thomas deserved greater recognition in the now concluded award season for this performance; her work is immaculately measured and nobly nuanced. The film surrounding her is much the same except for some embellished misteps like the inappropriate acoustic guitar flourishes and some abrupt editing. These are minor beefs though, for I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG is one of 2008’s finest films that just barely missed making my top ten.

ELEGY (Dir. Isabel Coixet, 2008) The track record for movie adaptations of the works of noted novelist Philip Roth is pretty poor. His 1969 bestseller PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT was made into a critically derided forgotten film in 1972 (Ebert labeled it “a true fiasco”) so it wasn’t until 30 years later that Hollywood tried again. The result: THE HUMAN STAIN (Dir. Robert Benton, 2003) which was one of the worst films of the last decade if not ever. Not to be discouraged, 5 years later, Spanish director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, yo!), dive head first into Roth’s “The Dying Animal” – the third book in his fictional professor David Kapesh series (if you can call it that).

In this ambitious adaptation, renamed ELEGY (meaning “a mournful poem”) presumably because the original title wasn’t very accessble (sic), Ben Kingsley plays Kapesh as a eloquent man of the arts. We are told how much a celebrated cultural warrior he is from the first shot of him pontificating on the The Charlie Rose Show. His voice-over narration, or commentary, sets up his falling for one of his students with such pithy asides such as: “How is it possible for me to be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy?” The student in question, a shy for once Penelope Cruz, 30 years younger than Kingsley is seemingly just as smitten. Kingsley confides in best friend Dennis Hopper as a Pulilzer Prize winning poet who offers: “Stop worrying about growing old, start worrying about growing up.”

Devised as half a mediation on growing old, half erotic obsession study, ELEGY delights in flowery exposition and artfully shadowed sex scenes. Kingley lies to his long time lover Patricia Clarkson about his affair but like everything else it hardly registers. “When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life” Kingsley detachedly remarks at one point and I was like, uh, I never thought of it like that before and you know what? I never will again. Beneath all his sophistication and culture lies a pretty despicable dude that I could never care about, I just cringed at his every labored turn.

Hopper finds a little poetry in his part particularly in a spiel about how women are invisible because men are blinded by their beauty and their soul can’t be truly seen, which is as pretentious as it sounds, especially with the ever present piano tinkling and lush presentation, but still more affecting than the bulk of material here. So disinterested was I that at one point I found myself thinking nothing more than how Kingsley and Cruz have such curiously shaped noses. As “a work of art that reminds you of who you are now” (professor Kapesh’s words) ELEGY just reminded me that I’d rather be washing the dishes.

More later…
 

The Film Babble Blog Top Ten Worst Movies Of 2008

2008 was definitely not as strong a year in film as 2007 as it had many more clunkers and mediocre movies that crammed theaters weekend after weekend. I mean this was a year in which respected icons Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (together again for the very first time!) appeared in a movie nobody cared about while Mike Myers and Adam Sandler competed over who could make the least appealing former SNL player vehicle ever (THE LOVE GURU and YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN respectively). I avoided those movies but I saw more than my share of absolutely awful films. Here’s the worst of the worst:

1. WANTED (Dir. Timur Bekmambetov) This ginormous train wreck of a movie actually featured a ginormous train wreck in a central sequence that was certainly its most memorable moment. That, for way obvious reasons, is fitting because the awful premise that attempts to flesh out a FIGHT CLUB-ish dis-satisfied working cog scenerio into a Swartzennegerian high octane comic book extravaganza just ends up a CGI suckfest. I felt sorry for James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie (who make one of the most unconvincing screen couple action duos ever) along with Morgan Freeman, Terrance Stamp, and even the damn fake train for having to take part in this high octane tripe. I literally got sick seeing this last Summer, that may have been the food at the Raleighwood Cinema Grill, but this sure didn’t help!

2. AN AMERICAN CAROL (Dir. David Zucker)

Michael Moore responded to a question from Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss about this movie that mocks him with “[Cyber-silence].” Not dignifying it with an answer was beautiful on Moore’s part because a film that treats Bill O’Reilly like he’s a hero and treats the audience like idiots ready to lap up faux patriotism presented as cheap shots at a popular liberal documentarian should be (and was) roundly ignored. Chris Farley’s brother Kevin was in the lead role as the ersatz Michael Moore – enough said?

3. CHAPTER 27 (Dir. J.P. Shaefer) Infamous John Lennon murderer Mark David Chapman is no deranged Travis Bickle poetically stalking the mean streets, and this is no TAXI DRIVER. Jared Leto gained weight but no cred for this disgusting nothing. Fun fact: Lindsay Lohans only screen appearance of 2008 was in this as a Beatle groupie named Jude. Oh, actually thats not really much of a fun fact. Nothing about this is. Read my review of the detested DVD here.

4. EXPELLED: NO INTELLIGENCE ALLOWED (Dir. Nathan Frankowski)

The most aptly titled film on the list by far. Ben Stein used to be likable despite being a former Nixon speechwriter because he was like ironic, you know, as the game show host on Comedy Central’s Win Ben Stein’s Money and that classic cameo in FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (“Bueller? Bueller?”). Now he’s destroying that charming ironic image by trying to debunk the theory of evolution and equate those scientists who supposedely repress the study of Intelligent Design to Nazis. This poorly made, poorly written, and just plain poor non doc is even stupider than it sounds. I was too appalled to write a review when I watched the DVD a few months back but I highly recommend Roger Eberts blog-piece (not an official review mind you but still brilliant) Win Ben Stein’s Mind (Dec. 3rd, 2008).

5. THE HAPPENING (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan) The only thing that happened here was we were given the undeniable sign that Shyamalan should be stopped at all costs. Donnie Wahlberg, so good in THE DEPARTED, regressed into a placid persona that will be SNL impression fodder forever. It wasn’t his fault though, some actors are only as good as their material and he was given a formless piece of high concept crap in which to run around aimlessly in. Again, how can we stop Shyamalan such a Hitchcockian hack from offending again? Any ideas?

6. THE ONION MOVIE (Dirs. Tom Kuntz & Mike Maguire) In Britain this was renamed NEWS MOVIE which makes it appear to be in the series of putrid non satires including EPIC MOVIE, DISASTER MOVIE, MEET THE SPARTANS, etc. and though thats not really accurate it’s still right as rain to add it to that bunch of bullshit. Read how I believe it killed off the tiny sub genre – the sketch comedy film – here.

7. QUANTUM OF SOLACE (Dir. Marc Forster)

Bad Bond – bad! Read how bad here.

8. WAR INC. (Dir. Joshua Seftel) A while back I wrote about how much I craved a new good John Cusack film (A Cry For Quality Cusack – Oct. 6th, 2007) and while he did make a close to decent film this last year (GRACE IS GONE) he took a huge step backwards with this quasi sequel to GROSS POINT BLANK which is just grossly unwatchable. Glib with not a plausible frame or laughable line, WAR INC. wastes not just Cusack but Dan Aykroyd, Marisa Tomei, Ben Kingsley, and even the voice of Montel Williams (that’s right) as well in this toothless political parody. Even John’s usually reliable sister Joan comes off as unbearably obnoxious. I never wrote a review of it but the Onion A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin’s hilarious appraisal (No Blood For Oil Stridently Political Case File #129: War, Inc.) in which he labels it a “Fiasco” is well worth checking out.

9. THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE (Dir. Chris Carter) Way to kill off a possible franchise, Mr. Carter! Make a movie that contains none of the original supernatural charm of the seminal series or the previous film and make it excruciatingly dull too, why doncha? Read more of my bitching here.

10. CASSANDRA’S DREAM (Dir. Woody Allen) Hey – The Woodman has a film on both my Best Of and Worst Of 2008 lists! The luscious VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA luckily erased memories of Ewan Macgregor and Colin Farrell as brothers who scheme to…uh, like I said I don’t remember. I just remember being bored and wondering if Woody would ever make a good movie again. Thankfully he did. Read more about my darkness before the dawn (I know –sounds appealing doesn’t it?) here.

Okay! I skipped so many movies that probably would’ve made the list had I seen them – 88 MINUTES, SPEED RACER, FUNNY GAMES (I did see the original if that means anything since it was a frame by frame remake), BANGKOK DANGEROUS (more crappy Nicholas Cage!), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, MAMA MIA!…the list goes on and on. Well, for now at least, it stops.

More later…

The Film Babble Blog Top Ten Movies Of 2008

Like last year, I held off making this post earlier because there were several contenders I hadn’t seen yet. It seems my area is the last to get certain movies in current circulation. Also, I still haven’t seen a number of movies I see making other ‘Top Ten’ lists including WALTZ FOR BASHIR, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and FROZEN RIVER among many others that are filling my NetFlix queue right now. Of course, nobody could see every movie in the running so now is as good a time as any to list my favorites. So here’s my Top Ten:


1. SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (Dir. Charlie Kaufman)


st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } It got snubbed by the Academy and many critics dissed on Kaufman’s epic tragicomic (as Wikipedia calls it) but I loved every sad sordid symbolic second. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the literally crumbing playwright Cayden Cotard builds sets inside of sets inside a ginormous warehouse recreating New York with New Yorkers and the actors that play them – including him. Joining him is maybe the best female ensemble cast ever assembled for such a movie – Catherine Keener, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Michelle Williams, and the great Diane Wiest. Maybe it was just too cerebral and complex to catch on but I believe time will lay waste to much of the competition while this beyond meta-masterpiece will still stand strong. My original review is right here.

2. WALL-E (Dir. Andrew Stanton)


Such a dark dystopian premise for such a cute heartwarming movie that plays beautifully like sci-fi Chaplin. Wall-E (I’m sure you well know but I’ll tell you again anyway) is a garbage compacting robot left behind on Earth hundreds of years from now who falls in love with a search probe (who by design looks like a large iPod) sent by the Buy N Large Corporation. It doesn’t sound like the sort of stuff that would make one swoon but Pixar yet again proves they can do anything from making rats lovable (and here that extends to cockroaches) to making us believe robots can love. An animated instant classic as my original review proclaimed.

3. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } (Dir. Danny Boyle)


There’s been an odd mini comment war on my original review of this delightful yet edgy Mumbai success story, which goes to show that this was one of the most talked about and vital movies of the year. It’s an amazing spectacle from start to finish with protagonist taking us through his hard knock life by way of a glittery game show – the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. As the comments on my post suggest, some folks couldnt get past the violence or what they thought was an inaccurate cultural depiction but dammit, I thought it was a stone cold blast! I’ll bet (again literally) it’ll win Best Picture at the Oscars.

4. FROST/NIXON (Dir. Ron Howard) Nice to see Opie Cunningham take a break from the dumb DaVinci Codage and revisit his old 70’s stomping ground to take on everybody’s favorite nemesis – Nixon. These were definitely not Happy Days though for the impeached President (played magnificently by Frank Langella) making a $huge$ deal for a series of TV interviews with the slickly ambitious David Frost (Michael Sheen) while in self-imposed exile in California. As riveting as a round in the ring with “The Ram” (see next entry) this showdown scores on every front with ace casting (in addition to the leads – Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall,and Oliver Platt mull about entertainingly), a great screenplay by Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN), and Howard’s best direction in ages. My original review? Oh yeah, it’s here.


5. THE WRESTLER (Dir. Darren Aronofsky) Yeah, it’s true – Mickey Rourke is back and I’ll be surprised as Hell if he doesn’t take

home the gold come February because nobody else literally went to the mat like this! Call it a comeback for Randy “The Ram” Robinson who may be washed up and working at a supermarket estranged from his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) while pinning for a stripper (Marisa Tomei) but he’s overdue for redemption even if it means he’s going down for the count. This character is going down in cinema history for sure – read my original review for more gushing about this gritty gutsy grabber of a movie.


6. THE FALL (Dir. Tarsem Singh)


This fantastical visually splendorific film is all the more impressive because it contains no CGI. It’s a colorful joyful ride through fairy tale conventions which, crazily enough, orginates from a tale told in the 1930’s by a injured stuntman (Lee Pace) as a bargaining tool to get a young girl (Catinca Untaru) to break in to their hospital’s sanctuary to steal morphine for him. It’s vivid and emotional in all the right places with folks appearing WIZARD OF OZ style both in real life and the fantasy scenerios. Again you can read my praising review here.


7. THE DARK KNIGHT (Dir. Chris Nolan)


The more you think about it, the more flawed this film is. Batman’s (Christian Bale) exaggerated gravelly voice, ersatz plot elements like ‘hey, what happened to the folks at the skyscraper party after Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhall) was rescued by the caped crusader?’, and the unnecessary Hong Kong subplot (ThePlaylist jabbed some of these complaints funnily enough here). All may rub movie logical minds wrong but what did work here is arguably as good as movies can get. Heath Ledger’s amazing performance as the demented Joker was precision defined while the Gotham grandeur frighteningly filled every frame. Read me clumsily reach for more operatic poetry here.

8. IRON MAN (Dir. Jon Favreau)


Another superhero movie sure, but with Robert Downey Jr. in the metallic title role, Gwyneth Paltrow as the love interest, and Jeff Bridges as his adversary, it’s one Hell of a superhero movie! Downey Jr. is both intense and funny as Tony Stark and the streamlined shiny production surrounding him is perfectly provided by Favreau. Yep, a class action movie as I reported last summer here.


9. THE VISITOR (Dir. Thomas McCarthy) I was elated that Richard Jenkins was nominated for a best actor award for this fine understated Indie movie that many ignored late last Spring (Mind you – I dont think hell win). As a displaced professor who finds 2 illegal immigrants (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira) living in his New York apartment and forms an unfortunately brief friendship, Jenkins finds a graceful ingratiating tone and a note that will resonate long after a single viewing. Yep, more here.


10. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (Dir. Woody Allen)

More than just a fine return to form, the Woodman gives us a lush and lavish look at the loony intertwined coupling that the ladies of the title encounter on their trip abroad. Javier Bardem woos Scarlet Johansen, Rebecca Hall, and what Allen has before called a “Kamikaze woman” – wife Penélope Cruz (she may yet woo the Academy). Were all woo-ed in the end – well, at least I was. Read all about it here.

Spillover:


Again, the ones that didn’t quite make the Top Ten grade but were still good, sometimes great flicks – click on the title for my original review.


PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (Dir. David Gordon Green) A great Apatow-appoved comedy that like the next few titles got the Spillover shaft by my silly blog.


FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (Dir. Nicholas Stoller)


TROPIC THUNDER (Dir. Ben Stiller)


MAN ON WIRE (Dir. James Marsh) Great intense doc in which even the re-creations make for great cinema.


4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS


GRAN TORINO (Dir. Clint Eastwood) It got strangely shut out come award season (which is strange because the Academy loves Clint) but its a strong addition to the Eastwood canon.


SHINE A LIGHT (Dir. Martin Scorsese)


One of the worlds greatest directors filming one of the world’s greatest bands – maybe Im just biased because I was blown away by the movie at an IMAX theater last Spring but I still think itll hold up as one of the best concert films ever in years to come.


W. (Dir. Oliver Stone)

BURN AFTER READING (Dirs. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2008) Trivial throw-away Coen Brothers fare still makes for great movie-time in my book – or on my blog that is.


MILK (Dir. Gus Vant Sant) Biopicalicious!


More later…