A big birthday shout out to my son, Phillip, who reaches a quarter century on Sunday, July 26th. Allow me to embarrass him with my annual photo montage:
THIS WEEK IN BASEBALL
As many readers know, I coach American Legion baseball in the summer. This was my 14th year coaching (10th in Legion). For whatever reason, this year provided the worse selection of umpires I have ever seen. We have many fine umpires in our local area but for some reason we were not utilizing them. Let me begin this by saying we probably weren't the best team in the league. When the boys played smart and to their abilities they couldn't be beat. However, when the mental and physical miscues happened, they would often dwell on them, opening the floodgates to a bad inning. This being said, we had many a rally stopped by poor officiating by umpires who, when questioned, really had no grasp of the rules of the game. This all came to a head on Friday evening with my team, the Lansing Cubs, battling in the Zone tournament for a chance to go to the Kansas State Tournament. After a couple of questionable calls by an umpire who appeared to have been planted in the infield behind the mound...he did not move from there no matter the situation...I again began my protest to the head of the tournament. I even told him I was considering pulling my team off the field in protest. As we were speaking the umpire made another horrific call (he called a runner safe, saying our first baseman was off the bag...unfortunately, from where he was standing, he was not in position to make the call). I attempted to appeal to the home plate umpire (who had already taken a personal dislike to my team by comments he kept making to my catcher) who refused to allow me to call time to discuss the play. At that moment I waved my players in, shook the other teams' hands and called it a season. Hard to win win you're outnumbered 11-9. And before you start thinking "sour grapes," many of the other coaches in the league have the same opinion of the officiating this year. However, I'm very fortunate in that I don't have a kid playing in the league who could be subject to retalitory calls (called third strikes, tags on the field) and that I've always been one to speak my mind. This was scheduled to be my last season of coaching but with the encouragement of the players and, more importantly, the leadership of the American Legion Post we represent, I'll be heading into one more year in the sun next summer. Keep tuned in!
Readers also know that I still enjoy playing the game as well. Once again this year I am on my son's mens league team, playing a pretty good first base and actually getting some hits (when you're 48 and everyone else is half your age you worry about embarrasing yourself - happily I haven't yet). This morning while fielding a grounder the ball took a funny hop. In catching it I somehow pulled something in my calf so as I type I do so with a bag of ice around it. It sucks getting old!
Congratulations to Rickey Henderson for his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend. The greatest lead off hitter in the history of the game, he was always great off the field as well. Henderson would often refer to himself in the third person, like the time I approached him in a hotel bar after a game in search of an autograph. "You want Rickey to give you an autograph for free?" Best money I ever spent. He was also fun to watch in the field. Often times we would sit in the left field general admission seats and give him a blast with the "RICKEY......RICKEY!" chant. After a few moments he would turn and smile at us, tipping his cap. But if you looked closely you could see that his middle finger was extended as he tipped his cap.
Natalie Portman is back in the fantasy business. She signed this week to play nurse Jane Foster, first love of the title character in Marvel Films production of "Thor." Chris Hemsworth, who appeared this summer as George Kirk in "Star Trek" is set to play the hammer toting hero. The film, to be directed by Kenneth Brannagh, opens on May 20, 2011. Get in line now!
MORE FROM GREG
One of the pleasures I get from this job is "discovering" new writers. In the past I've been pleased to share this page with many people who find passion in films and enjoy sharing it. In the past decade two writers have garnered me the most positive emails: our own ED Tucker and my friend Greg Van Cott. Both of them, Greg especially, get into their films with an intensity that is enviable. Greg is also a filmmaker and has had the good luck of staying busy this year. That being said, he has finally compiled his BEST OF 2008 list, which I am happy to share. Enjoy:
This is my THIRD list I have written up to what I consider the best technical and creative achievements in film for a single, recent year. This year, I have seen a large number of films in order to fairly justify the ratio between what I’ve picked versus the total. Not that I’ve ever been accused of not seeing enough films, but I think I’ve done an admirable job of seeing 58 films (Yup...), all ‘somewhat’ acclaimed by critics and noteworthy to film aficionados, to get a good handle on what 2008 had to offer. There are a number of obscure movies on this list, and although I did like a number of the Oscar nominated pictures of '08, I preferred a number of films that I think the Academy ignored as usual and are in my opinion superior in quality and originality. This entire body of 58 is below this list for reference.
1) WALL•E | Not since the days of Charlie Chaplin’s early directorial efforts have we ever had a ‘near’-silent film as effective as this. Like Chaplin’s last silent film, Modern Times, we occasionally hear dialogue and even singing, but the main characters mainly stay as silent as mimes. It is their actions that obviously speak louder than any singular word. Director Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life really outdoes himself this time with what can only be a called a true marvel in the world of wondrous animation, science-fiction, and romantic comedy. Yes, you heard me say it… romantic comedy. Looking at literature and films before WALL•E, it’s hard to believe that no one else had come up with the idea of a very emotionally vulnerable robot falling in love with another robot. Sure, we’ve had sci-fi writers from the likes of Issac Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke (the villainous robot of this film is obviously inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Clarke’s HAL-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, not to mention one piece of music used in this film during a fight with said villain) examining the “soul” of the robot. We’ve had comedic interpretations of robots as demonstrated in Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and we’ve even had a robot dabbling with the concept of love and compassion in the Short Circuit films. So it baffles me that such an original concept, which also should have been fairly obvious (is it because we never believe machines can understand love, is that it?), had never been explored before. WALL•E’s adorable personality is largely assisted by sound designer, Ben Burtt, of the Star Wars series. It is actually his voice we hear speaking for the little “kid,” though altered significantly through various sound filters, but it is Burtt’s experience through his toddler-like work on R2-D2 that solidifies WALL•E’s sense of wonder and curiosity. The premise of a robot being curious about the world outside of his own realm, much like a child’s, has been done various times, but having a guide in the form of a “female robot” (voiced by an exquisite Elissa Knight—who was just a member of the crew… wow.) showing the “male robot” the ropes? This is again, a pretty fresh idea. Notice how I just had to put my insinuation of engendering in quotes because of the dilemma in determining whether they really are male and female robots. A scientific mind would probably be thinking about that. However, the brilliant flexibility of the Children’s genre allows us to not question it, simply because a child wouldn’t. The irony is that most children I have met find the romance to be “icky” whereas the adults find it absolutely charming. Undoubtedly, the film’s storytelling abilities bring about interesting issues for any age group to examine. For kids, it is the exploration of any frontier, the joys of collecting (I think any kid understands this), and that intriguing opposite sex that may continue to baffle and fascinate for years to come. For the adult, it is all these things, and the horror of a decaying Earth, the corporate assimilation of all government, and an unsympathetic prediction of the human race’s own uselessness. But like a lot of effective children’s stories (is it really just for children after making that point?), a great lesson and a tremendous sense of hope is awarded to us by the end of the story. Keep in mind, however, that a great story is not all about the issues (which an earlier competing CG animated film, Happy Feet, failed to realize), but about the characters’ journeys through the issues. It’s interesting to think that if robots can unquestionably fight for what is right and learn to love one another—that actually might be great news for the human race.
2) THE DARK KNIGHT | It’s interesting to think that not too long ago, say 20 some years, that comic books and the films that followed them were not considered serious literature/art. It was considered the stuff of pulp, B-film material for early film serials, and in some cases… taboo to parents who disapproved of the kids reading it. Today, it is an entirely different story. However, the story of Batman himself hasn’t changed much in 70 years. The respect to any comic has grown enormously throughout the late 20th Century/turn of the millennium, but the most memorable stories from such universes still remain as strong in print as they can be on film, if done well. After the great success of Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan of Memento fame follows his dynamic take on The Caped Crusader’s origins and unbreakable mission by pummeling it against a theme of uncompromising madness and criminality. Although Nolan himself has admitted that The Dark Knight is not a comic book film (taking inspiration from realistic looking pictures like Heat and maybe Die Hard With A Vengeance), the film does have its formula rooted in Bob Kane’s recognizable designs. Via Christopher Nolan’s interpretation, we truly get to see Gotham City as a living, breathing metropolitan neighborhood and all its inner workings, from the law in town (including the corruptible) to its deeply conniving, troubled lot (including some with redeeming qualities as shown in Eric Roberts’ mob boss character). Christian Bale once again dons the cape and cowl, but in this episode his infamous character is INTRODUCED to a character as theatrical as him. This key first meeting has probably happened only once in any previous interpretation of this universe and that is obviously when Bob Kane introduced the Joker (interesting ‘sacred’ tidbit to consider). Taking notes from Kane’s early interpretation of the character and Alan Moore’s superb story, The Killing Joke, the Joker sets out to show Gotham City the true sense of hopelessness (remedied only by madness) by robbing it of rules, code, and the great figures that strive to keep this sense of law and order. Not to take away anything from the success of The Dark Knight since I admit I am showing its working ingredients already existed in several successful forms before, it is Nolan’s fascinating strife to motivate every detail of this comic book world in a realistic manner that makes it so enjoyable. Even with Bruce Timm’s very intelligently written, animated 1992 Batman series, the Joker’s whims are just a given. However in this film, the Joker and many other characters have to philosophically explain their actions. Every character trait, ala Harvey Dent (played by a fascinatingly, vulnerable Aaron Eckhart)/Two-Face’s flipping of a coin, is motivated by several realistic variables. And of course, no review of this film can go on without acknowledging the late, great Heath Ledger’s stunning Oscar and Golden Globe winning performance as the Joker. His interpretation of the character creates a frighteningly realistic, yet devilishly quirky personality to what might have been considered at one time, a simple clownish image on the page. It is without a doubt fantastic to see a Batman production translate so straightforwardly in live action the Joker’s sick sense of terrorism—yet his constant tomfoolery into making people think he does not know what he is doing, Batman/Bruce Wayne’s sense of selflessness, and Harvey Dent’s fall from grace. It is one of the best live action interpretations of it so far. The elements already were there for Nolan and his writer brother, Jonathan, to pick and choose. Their particular assembly works because they see it as serious art. It can be the answer to the Joker’s “Why so serious?!..:” the reality can be just imaginative as fantasy.
3) JCVD | Along with my #1 pick on this list, this film contains a very refreshing premise and a unique outlook on an unlikely figure. Practically 10 years after Legionnaire, his last best cinematic vehicle that at least had the fortunate luck of getting off the ground despite its inability in securing a wide theatrical release, martial arts superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme still proves that he has a far greater acting ability than many of his action star counterparts. As in the case of Legionnaire, the film JCVD does not need to cloud its contents full of martial artistry to prove its points. Van Damme has had mixed success in his career, as he seems to acknowledge publicly from time to time, from drug use on and off the screen to marital problems, from strong accomplishments as an actor in well written film such as 1993’s Nowhere to Run and the aforementioned Legionnaire from 1998, to odd/inconsistent (supposedly drug induced) ‘phoning in of performances’ as seen in flops like 1994’s Street Fighter and 1998’s Knock/Off. With an intent to start anew through Legionnaire, Van Damme has done some admirable work as an actor (he did have formal training in France along with infamous formal training in Karate in his home country of Belgium) in intriguing, but cinematically flawed pictures such as 2003’s In Hell and 2007’s Until Death. However, there is no denying that this film is his comeback. Director Malbrouk El Machri invents a funny situation any celebrity can supposedly get entangled into any day, anywhere. Supposedly like Van Damme, if you were an actor who was having difficulty in his career, had trouble keeping trustworthy contacts, and more importantly—had a child that you wanted to regain custody, it seems plausible that anyone would mistake you for robbing a bank in some sheer moment of desperation. The real robbers tip this illusion to their advantage, and then this begins a subtle form of hilarity. El Machri paints a wonderfully postmodern tale of failure, regret, and redemption through a type of Orson Welles-F For Fake inspired ‘mock’-u-drama (as opposed to docudrama) combined with a Jean-Luc Godard inspired sense of freeform cinema. Although Jean-Claude maybe playing himself, he is certainly exposing his soul like no other—allowing himself to be mocked by the story and characters, welcoming very funny improvisational things to happen to Mr. JCVD, and opening every door to the man’s anguish, sadness, and even embarrassments. However, his seething portrait of himself is not without his fans and even enemies. One of the robbers admits to being one of his biggest fans while his leader does not care about anybody or anything but winning. The most impressive scene in the whole film comes when JCVD literally floats into the set’s overhead stage lights and lets out a 6 minute monologue about everything he wishes to say before he may die in this bank/post office. The fact that the film is willing to dish to the audience the possibility that this Hollywood figure may not even survive as if it were really happening is deliciously satirical. For all that JCVD accomplishes, it’s great to see people who didn’t think that Van Damme could act proven completely wrong. The surprise must have been so great that Time Magazine listed Van Damme’s performance in JCVD as #2 of the Top 5 great performances by Male Actors of 2008 after Heath Ledger.
4) MAN ON WIRE | Accomplishing one of the most outstanding feats of courage and daredevilry, tightrope artist Philippe Petit shares to the world his experiences (and lack of pitfalls) in one of the most outstanding documentaries made in recent years. What sets director James Marsh’s film apart from most documentaries is the methods he uses to play with his audience. As if both Petit and Marsh were both shameless exhibitionists, the film holds no punches when it comes keeping the audience on the edge of their seat in the same manner Petit can walk above a city on the edge of death. It is obvious that when you watch the film that Petit survived multiple stunts, but it is still very remarkable how the filmmakers trick you into thinking that this “artistic crime of the century” could go wrong at any time. This is because Marsh designs this as a heist film. It is more than a simple chronicling of the event. It is exactly how Petit trained for it is in his mind—breaking into a bank and dancing all over them. Edited into a non-linear fashion, the film starts with tense black & white dramatizations of the men sneaking into the Twin Towers while crosscutting to interviews (back in normal color digital video) of Petit and all of his merry men. This of course was not the first time Philippe Petit made headlines. He tightrope-walked between the two extending towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge a couple years earlier. Both are obviously overshadowed by his 1974 tightrope act that, unlike his two previous illegal stunts which created mostly unrest for the city’s officials, brought an entire city into the clouds with him. You will hear everything from the madcap stories of how they constantly prepared, all the ingenious ways of disguising their research whenever they visited the location, the strange collaborations they all had to make in order to get pass securities, and bizarre methods they had to implement to set up a tightrope (did I mention they had to use a bow and arrow to fire one end of the tightrope to the other building?... oops… just had to let that one out to give a taste for those who have not seen the film yet). One of the most interesting arguments against the “merry men’s” efforts is that no one actually brought a movie camera to the top (it was left with Petit’s girlfriend who filmed the performance from below), but in the opinion of this reviewer, I felt it was enough for me to see stills of the actual walk because my imagination (based on the reality of it) can fill in the rest of the gaps (literally) without any trouble. It can be quite understandable that none of Petit’s French and American cohorts had the stomach to constantly hide behind a camera in the event that something could go very wrong at any time, but it is riveting to know that nothing went amiss (according to them). When several interviewers questioned Marsh as to why the Twin Towers’ destruction 27 years was not mentioned anywhere in the film, Marsh appropriately explains that Petit’s act was “incredibly beautiful” and that it “would be unfair and wrong to infect his story with any mention, discussion, or imagery of the Towers being destroyed.” I totally agree.
5) GRAN TORINO | With a title like Gran Torino, this film could be about anything. When Clint Eastwood is in the director’s chair and driver’s seat of this vehicle, the story will undeniably have a focus. This is Mr. Eastwood’s 29th directorial effort and one of many performances where he directs himself, but his quantity never outweighs the quality. The script by Nick Schenk was originally developed in the 1990’s when he discovered the people and culture of the Hmong and how their lives were devastated by the Vietnam War, the refugee camps that followed, and the difficult moves to other nations, like the US. I had the great serendipity of catching a documentary about several Hmong families' trips from Laos to Illinois recorded for the 1986 masterpiece, Blue Collar & Buddha. I can't be sure if Schenk or Eastwood took inspiration from this film, but Gran Torino certainly contains some great points in cultural relativism. One of the things that many immigrants have to face, but are seldom warned about are gangs that feed on the vulnerabilities of those new to different societies. This may be one of the reasons why Eastwood took this project on due to its intensive analysis of figures from different cultures, our and their tensions that can exist between different ways of living, and an eventual unification toward a common goal to live happily and righteously. The young Hmong cast includes Bee Vang, Ahney Her, and Choua Kue who all do admirable jobs keeping up with their director. Eastwood himself has a lot of fun within the character of Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran, who takes it upon himself to keep his new neighbor’s teenage boy away from the gangs while teaching him a lesson or two along the way. Kowalski keeps to himself, but knows how to stand up for someone when it counts. Kowalski hates indecision and cowardice in the face of danger, but most of the time prefers to keep out of the situation if he can help it. Most of all, Walt Kowalski does not have any reason to like you or me until you give him a reason to do so. The character is obviously an ode to many previous characters Eastwood has played over the years; notably The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry Callaghan. Unlike these two icons, Kowalski does not need to carry a shotgun, a Colt .45, or a .44 Magnum on his person at all times. His way of getting people’s attention is to simply threaten them with his finger as if it were a gun. The character of Walt Kowalski also recalls a time where men solved situations by duke-ing it out—much to the surprise of a few hoodlums who attempt to teach Kowalski their own lesson. But it is obvious that this aging cowboy, in his own right, is the only one who should be giving lessons. Film buffs might find some parallels in Gran Torino to Don Siegel’s The Shootist with John Wayne about an aging cowboy (literally) who plans one last climatic battle to tie up loose ends. Don Siegel directed Eastwood in five films himself, and I have a suspicion that Eastwood picked this project because of the many things Siegel might have found intriguing in it. One of these intriguing elements the film shows us involves details into the Hmong culture and how Kowalski eventually takes a more flexible attitude to it. Who says you can't teach an old dog (just like Kowalski's dog) new tricks? As for what the film teaches us, I know from my experience that it takes a good teacher to make a good student and certainly vice versa. No one should inherit a gift. They should always earn it.
6) SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE | This is the first Best Picture Oscar winning film to have made it on any of my recommendation lists. The reason for this is probably because Slumdog Millionaire is one of the few Picture winners in a number of years to have such a creative and electric filmmaking style—in both visuals and storytelling devices. It could be argued that the film is simply another way to do an innovative non-linear narrative as Citizen Kane did nearly 70 years ago or a flashy docudrama-type approach into a society’s dangerous region as done in 2002’s City of God, but what sets Slumdog Millionaire in its own place in filmmaking history is its epic story of uncompromising love between two little, imaginative kids: a boy who never gives up on doing the right thing and a girl who always seems to show up at the right time in his life. British director Peter Boyle and his co-director from India, Loveleen Tandan (why was she never mentioned in the Oscar nominations for Best Director?—Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise both won the directing Oscars for 1961’s West Side Story after all), paint a very colorful tale of how a boy’s life seems to have been deliberately shaped by a higher power in order to provide all the answers to the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,” and that if he wins, it may secure a future with the girl that he has sought all his life. No epic story, however, is without its ups and downs. The boy named Jamal finds himself always pitted against his older brother, Salim. One example shows him in a fierce competition in who can get an autograph from the infamous Indian actor, Amitabh Bachchan, who happens to land his private helicopter near Jamal’s family’s public toilets, and it is this event that allows Jamal to answer a Millionaire question related to Bachchan because of his personal experience. Salim eventually grows up to be something less than savory due to his dark outlook on life while Jamal continues his personal mission in finding Latika, the young girl he rescued from a downpour, but was unable to rescue from a group of pimps and thugs LITERALLY later down the road. Even the cops, using brutal interrogation methods, have trouble totally believing Jamal as if all of his life’s troubles were designed to allow him a better future. Of course, anyone can write this off as a writer giving his character too many coincidences in his favor, BUT the thing to remember here is that Jamal has no guarantee that he will win everything on this game show. Many people (cops, fellow employees…, even the show’s host!) do not want him to win. Despite the film’s optimistic overtones in an atmosphere of utter futility, which is solidified by India’s horrific poverty and indignant class system (apparently, a big problem according to many social critics over there), Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan do not trick you too much into thinking Jamal’s life is full of guarantees. Life is full of possibilities and opportunities, but no guarantees. Oscar-winning Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle gives Jamal, Salim, and Latika’s world the vibrancy of a child’s imagination and freedom while Oscar winning music composer A.R. Rahman (very famous songwriter/composer in India) legitimizes their world with an authentic Bollywood beat. Although the film is not a Bollywood film or a Bollywood musical, it still captures much of that allure. For a film that is meant to be very Indian as seen through a Brit’s eyes, the endearing spirit of Jamal seems to parallel the hope and strength of many American movie characters such as Jefferson Smith, Atticus Finch, and Rocky Balboa. A big statement from me, no doubt, but my overall point is that there is something great in all men who do not give up.
7) LET THE RIGHT ONE IN | In my opinion, there are only a few really good vampire movies out there: Nosferatu (1922), Dracula starring the immortal Bela Lugosi (1931), Martin (1977), and the Vampire Hunter D films of 1985 and 2001, but Let the Right One In may be one of the few others that can be included on this list. Most other horror films about vampires or ones that at least feature vampires tend to get caught up in the gore or the simple saber-toothed image of the vampire, sexy or grotesque, but all of the best vampire films focus on the human-inhuman conflict within the vampire. One might also add that there are not too many films that center on a female vampire, and this film not only does that but with a child vampire. The idea of seeing a young 12-year old girl hunting people down and pouncing on them for their blood is quite disturbing. An even more disturbing idea comes when 12-year old human boy Oskar starts taking a liking to his strange next door neighbor. Another interesting thematic element inspired probably from George A. Romero’s Martin is the inclusion of the serial killer. In Martin, most townspeople think they are simply dealing with a serial killer. In order for young Eli to survive without attacking a person herself, she employs the help of a human man who goes out and slashes people’s throats to fill bottles with blood. The question later becomes: what is the relationship between this man and Eli, and why has she not attacked him all this time? In comparison to other vampire movies, Eli does not behave like the traditional vampire in the sense that she does not have superiority complex, have any noticeable fangs, or has grandiose intelligence beyond her years. She was attacked when she was quite young, so her mindset is still young even though she has probably lived for more than 100 years. A clue to her age comes when we as an audience are introduced to a Faberge-type egg that she believes is worth a lot of money, and THAT is all the knowledge she has on the trinket. Most kids do not really care to know about the history of certain things till they get to a certain age and all Eli cares about is trying to live the life of a normal kid despite her limitations. She can not go outside in the sunlight and she can not enter anyone’s household unless she is given permission to do so. Without it, she spontaneously starts bleeding to death. This extra myth is apparently a common myth in vampire lore, but has not been included in any other cinematic interpretation of vampire lore that I have seen so far. Director Tomas Alfredson does a great job of keeping most things centered on Oskar and Eli’s cute little romance that we know is not meant to last forever. But like most kids, they only worry about the present. Oskar finds himself tormented by bullies and feels the best way to handle them is by causing them great harm; practicing with a knife on occasion. This is a situation that Oskar can easily grow out of, but this is just another example of how Oskar and Eli’s relationship is totally based on the fact that they appear to be the same age and in the same mindset. She finds camaraderie in his predicament and they proceed to help each other. Young actors Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson do a great job carrying the entire film even when most of the film is filled with adults. Just one of many things that makes Let the Right One In remarkable for what can almost be considered a sick movie designed for kids. Find it hard to believe? The film does take on certain fairy tale elements including ignorant adults, magical treasures, terrifying bully-types, and the young journeyman protecting the princess. But is Eli really a princess?
8) THE WRESTLER | For director Darren Aronofsky, this is a real watershed for him in that it is the most direct, to-the-point, dramatic piece he has done so far. Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and The Fountain (2006) [my number #6 pick for 2006] have been very visually striking, surrealist pictures so far, so for him to do a simple drama about a simple wrestler is quite fascinating. After starring in various unheard of, subpar films for the last 10 years since his notable performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker, actor Mickey Rourke gives one of the best performances—not only of his career, but of this year as well. Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a professional wrestler who once was big in his youth, but now in middle age is something of an echo of a previous life. The parallels between Rourke and Robinson’s career paths couldn’t be any more similar, and that is probably one of Rourke’s great strengths to making a picture like this. As Van Damme does in JCVD (my #3 pick for this year), we have an actor here who is very aware of the mistakes he has made in his life, so every bit of that experience, loss, and personal disappoint are all channeled into the performance. It proves that we are all human, prone to mistakes, and very vulnerable to any valid argument made to us because it reflects a certain amount of truth. We can all learn from a person who is aware of this fact and is trying his best to right the wrongs in his life. When the wrestler realizes he is facing a serious health problem, he tries to give up his career in spite of everything he is trying to accomplish again. Comforting him along the way is a stripper called Cassidy (played by a vivacious Marissa Tomei), she appears to be a typical stereotype of a ‘prostitute with a heart of gold,’ but is as conflicted and as inconsistent as Randy himself. Even though this film centers around this wrestler, the people Randy interacts with all seem to have the same social problems as him. Randy’s daughter, Stephanie (played by Evan Rachel Wood in one of her best performances), tends to run away from her problems and shuts out her father whenever he fouls up. Randy seems to be more comfortable in his skin than those closest to him, and there is something quite admirable in a man who is willing to work in a supermarket; just so he can make a living. Most Hollywood stories show the dishonor and almost vulgarity in being part of a working class lifestyle if you have talent, but Randy the Entertainer turns any day into a great day for his customers by tossing containers of potato salad toward them like footballs and offering a good story or two. When life gets him down, he, like most people reacts angrily and even violently, but does not take his anger out on people—which is quite remarkable. Darren Aronofsky is aware of these hopeful traits within Randy and does a fantastic job emphasizing them. When Randy is having a good day and a very good time, in the ring and outside of the ring, the lighting and warmth of the location gives a glow of optimism. When Randy is struggling, the lighting becomes a lot more stark and cold; becoming almost devoid of light at times. The simple, dirty reality of all of it is what makes it so believable and truthful. In spite of it being dirty, we still see the glimmer of hope. Up to the final moments of the film, we get a sense that Randy has really figured it all out in a way only a wise man can. He will live to the fullest no matter what.
9) PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA | is the newest film by prolific filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, the brilliant visionary of such animated masterpieces as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds, and Lupin the 3rd: The Castle of Cagliostro. Four years after his last film, Howl’s Moving Castle (considered widely to be one of his most unusual films), Miyazaki takes us back to the concept of play among adult horrors. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, which is the literal title of the film translated from Japanese to English, is about a small fish-like creature named Ponyo who dreams of being human. Animation fans will obviously see the similarity between this premise and The Little Mermaid, but Ponyo is not 16 years old like Ariel; she is only 5 years old. Given that she is this young in human years might actually be more telling in certain lifetimes of fish, Ponyo however has got a lot to learn when it comes to the surface world. She is fiercely protected by Fujimoto, a bizarre wizard who hides from the rest of mankind in a submarine that is probably both magical and quite advanced in technology. As she evades her apparent father’s formless creatures, she is literally hooked by the likes of a young boy named Sosuke who discovers her appetite for human things including fresh water, sliced ham, and human boys (not so much for human girls as she tends to give them the cold shoulder). Ponyo’s defection to the city by the sea is not without its consequences though. The sea starts to get very angry and causes destructive weather, horrific tsunamis, and flooding of homes. These events in turn transform Ponyo into a human after drinking the blood of Sosuke in one instance. The disasters send the adult characters, especially Sosuke’s mother, Lisa, into action to help the other cliff residents as Ponyo and Sosuke stay behind to conduct their own plan. The character of Lisa is interesting because she is constantly on edge over a husband who is never around when he needs to be, she helps run a retirement home filled with imaginative old ladies (and one total curmudgeon of course), and yet at the same time she does a tireless job raising Sosuke. In classic kids’ movie sense, the kids see all of this as an adventure whereas the adults see it as unspeakable horror. The most unusual part of this story is when we realize Fujimoto had an almost mythological/Beowulf relationship to an ocean goddess who gave birth to Ponyo, and she enters the scene when things become desperate for the survival of the cliff community and the ocean itself. Apparently, this story might be modified quite a bit in the English version (shortened now to just "Ponyo") coming out this summer. I had the fortunate luck of seeing this film online from an illegal taping of a screen somewhere in Japan. Subtitles were thankfully added and the viewing of the film in this matter was adequate, but I’m not reviewing the video quality, nor am I here to question the morality of the taping. I’m critiquing this very beautiful 2008 movie, and I’m fortunate that I did. If I hadn’t seen it, it probably would have ended up on a 2009 list of mine later. Of course, it almost goes without saying that the hand-drawn animation is utterly fantastic. The scope, the depth, and the perfectionism of every conceivable detail is monumental, but this is not a surprise since the artistry of Miyazaki’s animators at Studio Ghibli is always top notch. The film, I know, will not be for everyone since some of its mythos is obviously derived from Japanese culture, but the experience alone should be fun, especially for kids.
10) IRON MAN | was probably the biggest surprise of this summer. I’m saying that because most of the other films of this year including WALL•E, The Dark Knight, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had their anticipation built on the high regard for their filmmakers and their previous successes. Iron Man is different because its director Jon Favreau was untested when it came to comic book-based films; let alone action thrillers. Favreau’s filmography included Elf (2003), Made (2001), and a couple of made for TV films, but it was probably his previous film, Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005) that led him to the helm of Iron Man. Yet let’s not forget the other great surprise of this film. Seasoned actor Robert Downey Jr. was given the role of the playboy turned 'different kind' of man of action, Tony Stark, much to the surprise of many who were expecting a much younger actor. This has got to go down as probably the best leading man work Downey Jr. has had the great blessing to take part in since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). Also quite surprising to see in this kind of film are Gwyneth Paltrow in probably the most unique project she has done since Se7en (1995), Terrence Howard who is mostly know for gritty dramas, and Jeff Bridges taking a fascinating turn as an unusual Devil’s advocate to Downey Jr.’s character. The comic was created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck in 1963 for Marvel Comics, and has had several different contexts for his many battles from Vietnam to the Gulf War. This newest film adaptation takes Iron Man to the fronts of Afghanistan. The film traces the steps of Howard Hughes-inspired Tony Stark who is very obviously taking all his riches, possessions, talents, and lest-he-forgets… life for granted. All of us his friends and cohorts are simply waiters and butlers in his eye including his late father’s lifelong friend and partner, Obadiah Stane, currently Stark’s partner in his weapons manufacturing company. That is, until his convoy is attacked by the enemy, leaving Stark to run outside an armored vehicle in a desperate attempt to save himself. Unfortunately, a shell from one of his own weapons falls beside him and critically wounds him. Just like the comic, our main character is taken hostage and hidden deep within enemy territory where the U.S. military can not find him. There, Stark meets Afghan scientist Yinsen played by an excellent Shaun Toub of 2007’s The Kite Runner (my #1 pick for 2007). Stark and Yinsen quickly start working together at finding a way of escaping the clutches of terrorist leader Raza played by Faran Tahir. It is highly worth nothing that Middle Eastern actors Shaun Toub and Faran Tahir showed no second-guessing in giving outstanding performances to wartorn Arabs. They are incredibly intelligent, multi-dimensional characters. Even though Raza’s image is obviously derived from an al-Queda and Taliban influence in that region, he can not be written off as a mere stereotypical terrorist/extremist. He compares his ambitions to Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great (his Ten Rings organization also seems somewhat SPECTRE-influenced [from the Bond series] since it is filled with members from all over the world) while Yinsen is a great figure in the international community of science; with some medical expertise to aid Stark, no doubt. Upon his escape, Stark makes it his unspoken mission to destroy any and all of the weapons he let fall into the wrong hands by a creating titanium-based, knight’s type armor filled with more weapons than James Bond could possibly hold in one car. Things are complicated though by Stane’s jealousy of Stark’s secrets and his apparent selfishness to not share, which also creates rifts within Stark’s friendships with Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Howard’s Colonel Jim Rhodes. The most interesting element to look for is Stark’s deep hatred for himself. He drinks constantly, keeps his anger to himself, and breaks mirrors carrying his own reflection. In this case, saying more seems to hurt the film’s sheer surprise value. Please see it if you have not.
11) HAPPY-GO-LUCKY | Sally Hawkins gives a Golden Globe winning performance as Poppy, the most optimistic character to appear on screen since probably Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers’ original character of Inspector Jacques Clouseau. I say this because Clouseau and Poppy are both characters where no matter how ridiculous and awkward a shenanigan may occur... they get right back up and act as if nothing is going wrong. The simple fact that both characters hardly realize that their perseverance and energy is pretty absurd is completely beside the point. As just said, literally bouncing back from any conflict is commendable enough. Unlike Clouseau though, Poppy is a lot less naïve about the world and more in tune with friends despite the fact that many are disgusted or numb to her sunny disposition. In one example, Poppy decides to seriously (but not too seriously) partake in driving lessons. Problem is that her instructor, Scott, is a complete mess (played to a wonderfully abrasive beat and rhythm by Eddie Marsan) and perceives Poppy as horrendously overconfident and strangely compelling at the same time. The only reason Poppy is doing this is because she lost her bicycle, but for her this is just another adventure with a great villain being the backseat driver. Poppy also joins one of her basic school cohorts (this is in England by the way) in Flamenco dancing, which is taught by a bombastic and melodramatic Spanish woman (hilariously played by Karina Fernandez) who likes to reference her daily woes in her instruction. Since Poppy is a schoolteacher, it is interesting to see that two of her antagonists so far are also teachers with a far darker disposition than her. Poppy is not without those who understand her, which include Zoe, her roommate and partner, and a school associate, Tim (played with alarming normalcy by Samuel Roukin). Alongside Poppy, his behavior is very obviously the norm, but yet he somehow relates to Poppy’s glee much like Clouseau’s love-of-his-life Maria Gambrelli (in 1964’s A Shot in the Dark) relates to his limitless compassion. Poppy’s life is not without its downs though, which is the point to the film ultimately. Sometimes the most optimistic of us gets a little sadden from time to time, and when you see it happen to Poppy—oh boy, the emphasis of it is absolutely startling even at its most subtle level. When she sees one of her students beating up another boy, her smile slowly turns upside down and she quickly sends Tim to investigate the boy’s constant anger. Probably the most unusual of moments occurs when Poppy encounters a strange, half-crazed homeless man. Poppy is obviously looking for an answer to something and the man ALMOST spells one out, but at the same time, we as an audience, are wondering if this vagrant has any ulterior motives. We start to fear for Poppy whenever this happens, and it certainly leads to an unforgettable climax in the drama. However, Poppy still remains as the brightest thing in the entire movie, always wearing bizarre loud colors, while still maintaining an innocence and sexuality at the same time. Poppy’s bleaker sister is eventually introduced in the film and the differences in personalities are actually surprising since most siblings tend to exhibit similar behaviors if they are close. It is very apparent that Poppy wants to be close with everyone, but not everyone is willing to open up. Their loss though as Poppy may be one of the most effective teachers there is. There’s wisdom in choosing to be happy.
12) SPECIAL | is probably one of the most bizarre, but effectively satirical superhero films ever made. Although finished in 2006, this independent film did not reach its theatrical release (though limited) till 2008. Not based on any comic or previous source material, the film has a demented premise: a lonely, solemn metermaid (one who issues parking tickets) takes part in a survey to test an experimental anti-depressant whose unexpected side-effect causes our mild-mannered lead to believe he has superpowers. Along with many other films on my list that celebrate optimism, Special may have the most telling of messages. Unquestionably, the film would not work nearly as well if it were not for its incredibly strong lead actor, Michael Rapaport, in the role of Les. What makes Les so interesting is that not only is he a comic book fan, but he is already a public servant whereas most superheroes do not begin as such. Les tells us at the very beginning, with some clear but not tiresome narration, that at one point in his life he believed he could fly if he just willed it. Giving him some encouragement (though his own organic drugs don’t help his own encouragement) is fellow comic book fan, Joey, played with excellent range by Josh Peck. Jack Kehler plays pharmaceutical tester, Dr. Dobson, with superb efficiency and works as an excellent foil to Michael Rapaport’s unstoppable force of personality. Rapaport has an effective image as a superhero. At 6’3, he looks very good when decked in his odd, somewhat reflective costume. He is also an average looking guy, so anyone can relate to him (especially since Les wears no mask), which is a very good directorial decision by directors Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore who make their feature film debut here. The ultimate question to this film is whether Les actually has any superpowers. Everyone in the film tells him, “no,” but Les keeps on trekking and even brandishes a new moniker: Special. Les rips off the logo off of his free T-shirt used to market the drug and is inspired by the name’s purity. It is there where the film truly finds its charming cuteness. The man has never really thought of himself as a special human being and has now reached a level of enthusiasm and hope where it is ok to be Special. A hero though is not without his villains, and this film delivers them with great flare. Paul Blackthorne portrays the slimy and sleezy Jonas Exiler who wants Les to stop wearing his logo and giving his drug a bad name, and he’ll do it with any means necessary whether it’s bribes, kidnapping, and using force fields and 2x4s to do it. Special’s greatest ability as a hero and as a film is the fun ambiguity of whether the powers are actually there or not. If you watch the film for the first time, there is probably a rational explanation for every advantage Les gets out of his “powers”, but a second time can also prove he is quite invulnerable to almost anything. Les’ version of Kryptonite comes in the form of a female cashier, played with sweet affection by Alexandra Holden, who has some limitations and shining abilities of her own. When Les gets to the end of a very bitter battle, the adorable Maggie comes to assist Special despite Les’ own difficulty in communicating with her. Even though the film may seem skewed for some, Special has a very effective goal in mind: he’ll never stop and perhaps he has always had these superpowers. He just needed to have the will.
Redbelt | by playwright-director David Mamet is a dynamic character study of those with integrity and without it in the world of talent. Mamet who is famous for his rhythmic dialogue and in-your-face performances from his actors creates one of his most philosophically absorbing films since Heist (2001) where this time he analyzes the disciplines of a martial arts instructor. Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays jujitsu master, Mike Terry, with startling power and charisma. He has a lot of lessons to give, but everyone may not be listening. Among his students is a restless Emily Mortimer playing a terrified lawyer who gradually learns to trust Terry, a vulnerable Tim Allen playing an abused movie star, and Max Martini playing a concerned cop with a lot of weight on his shoulders. Terry even has an innovative idea for teaching his studies, but a number of events lead his ideas and concepts into the hands of greedy producers, shady fight promoters, and even slippery magicians. For a man who is not willing to fight for money, Terry will have to find some reason within himself to fight for his ideas and to regain his honor in the midst of suspicious mishaps. Robert Elswit’s beautiful, glossy cinematography aids Mamet’s intense tale of deception and deceit. Mamet alumni Ricky Jay co-stars along with Joe Mantegna and a great Alice Braga from 2002's City of God.
Elegy | A romantic comedy and drama, most notable for its incredibly intelligent screenplay adaptation by Nicholas Meyer (the talented writer of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), should be watched for its striking visual design created by its female director, Isabel Coixet. Ben Kingsley gives one of his best performances and stars in one of his best films since Sexy Beast (2000) playing a university professor who may look like he knows what he is doing on the outside, but is very unsure of really anything (in spite of his great intelligence and apparent wisdom) on the inside. Kingsley’s character of David Kepesh in his later years feels it is a forgone conclusion that long lasting relationships don’t work and that nothing will change his hypothesis. That is, till he meets enchanting student Consuela Castillo, played by Penelope Cruz in one of her best performances I’ve seen. The film is primarily about the difference between lust and love. Kepesh thinks he can quench his thirst for lust until realizing that he can not stop feeling a certain way around Consuela, and when she is not there, he feels an opposite feeling. Still think emotions can be intellectually filed away? Dennis Hopper makes an interesting appearance as a muse-like advisor who, though over-the-top at times (which may be the point since you start to doubt what Kepesh is actually seeing and what’s his imagination), like the film makes you think.
In Bruges | is one of those films that comes along every once in a while and delights us with its complete whimsicality and silliness while still maintaining a really classy form of artistry. Films that come to mind like 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, 1977’s Annie Hall, and 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit all have this type of FOCUSED randomness that In Bruges seems to replicate. These films all have rather bleak themes while still playing a lot with the audience and seem to have characters that possibly realize they have an audience or higher power watching them. A ridiculously hyper Colin Farrell and an inconceivably complacent Brendan Gleeson play two assassins running from a hit gone wrong who are then ordered to stay in Bruges, Belgium by their tightly wound-up boss played feverishly by Ralph Fiennes. While there though, boredom and other more pressing issues start to get to Farrell’s mind causing well-placed distractions and eventual chaos to ensue. The setting is filled with constant visual allegories to Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings and several metaphors to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (specifically his writings on Purgatory). Dante did not intend for Divine Comedy to be necessarily funny, but in director Martin McDonagh’s feature film debut the context can be. Along the way, Farrell’s bumps into the beautiful Clémence Poésy who has a couple surprises of her own as well as Jordan Prentice who seems to play a grand role in all its oddities; some obvious, some not. Set to a mostly sedate, then at times, shocking score, the film is great fun.
Wendy and Lucy | There hasn’t been a film in the last 10 years or so that probably feels as authentically ‘old school’ in its filmmaking style as this one. When I say that, I’m referring to a time when modern computer technology didn’t seem to play a huge part in the filmmaking style, its storyline, or its technical achievements. This very low-budget, independent film, starring a fabulously simple Michelle Williams of Brokeback Mountain (2005) fame and a memorable little appearance by Will Patton of Dillinger (1991) fame, recalls the days of filmmaking from the late 1960’s to early 1980’s. That is a long period of time, but I believe my statement makes sense when one experiences the film. The music sounds like a cross between Simon & Garfunkel and early John Carpenter synthesized scores. The lighting is very limited and is obviously made up of whatever lights were nearby during the night; say for probably an occasional stage light. Lastly, the film follows the journeys of a young woman who is simply wandering through town, and life, with very few personal items. Even though films about drifters of said period like Easy Rider (1968), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Breezy (1973), and even The Fog (1980) are little more elaborate than Wendy and Lucy, the film still significantly makes you think a far simpler time. Plus, the film’s overall plot requires a simple perception of life to understand the basic, but heavy grievances of its female lead. It may be slow for some people, but Williams’ performance is of the classic kind. She never lets anything interfere with survival.
As picked from a viewing of 58 movies:
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days | Appaloosa | Batman: Gotham Knight | Bangkok Dangerous | The Bank Job | Burn After Reading | Changeling | The Curious Case of Benjamin Button | The Dark Knight | Diary of the Dead | Doubt | Elegy | The Fall | The Family That Preys | The Flight of the Red Balloon | Frost/Nixon | Frozen River | Get Smart | Gran Torino | Happy-Go-Lucky | Hellboy II: The Golden Army | I’ve Loved You So Long | In Bruges | Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull | Iron Man | JCVD | Justice League: The New Frontier | Leatherheads | Let the Right One In | Man on Wire | Marley & Me | Milk | Mongol | Phoebe in Wonderland | Pineapple Express | Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea | Quantum of Solace | Rachel Getting Married | The Reader | Redbelt | Revolutionary Road | Slumdog Millionaire | Son of Rambow | Special | Star Trek: Of Gods and Men | Synecdoche, New York | Tell No One | Transsiberian | Tropic Thunder | Twilight | Valkyrie | Vicky Cristina Barcelona | The Visitor | WALL-E | Waltz with Bashir | Wendy and Lucy | The Wrestler | Young @ Heart
Only a few recently (Thank God):
In the early 90s I was hooked on an English series that ran on PBS called "Are You Being Served?," which took place in an upper scale department store (which I also think was the setting for "The Drew Carey" show...anyone?). The cast, as in most British ensemble shows, was impeccable. Sadly, two cast members have passed away recently. Mollie Sudgen, who played salesclerk Betty Slocombe, died earlie this month at the age of 86. No cause of death was given. An acclaimed commedienne, she was often referred to as the Lucille Ball of British comedy. In reading of Ms. Sudgen's death, I also learned of the death of Wendy Richard, her co-star in the show, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 65 after a decade long battle with breast cancer. As a young actress Richard appeared with the Beatles in "HELP!." Unfortunately her scene was cut from the film. However, she does appear on the DVD commentary, explaining the events of filming over still shots of the scene.
Gordon Waller, half of the popular vocal duo Peter and Gordon, died this week at the age of 64. Cause of death was cardiac arrest. Waller and his partner, Peter Asher, had several hits in the 1960s, including "A World Without Love" (written by Paul McCartney, who was dating Asher's sister Jane) and "Lady Godiva." The group most recently performed at the Buddy Holly Tribute Concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
MY FAVORITE FILMS, PART II. THE YEAR WAS ...
Eddie and the Cruisers/John Carpenter's The Thing|
Starring: Michael Pare' / Kurt Russell
Directed by: Martin Davidson / John Carpenter
Due to the lateness of the Rant, I will make next week's issue a very unusual double feature. Be sure to tune in!
Well, that's all for now. Have a great week. See ya!
"Mike's Rant" is ©2009 by Michael A. Smith. Webpage design and all graphics herein are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2009 by Nolan B. Canova.