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Now in our eleventh calendar year!

PCR #550 (Vol. 11, No. 41). This edition is for the week of October 4--10, 2010.
Mike's RantMike's Bust
Hello gang! Special guest makes it a long one this week. Shall we begin?

"Life As We Know It"  by Mike Smith
The Works of John Randal McDonald, Part Three -- Long Overdue Recognition  by William Moriaty
Friday the 13th: 30th Anniversary  by ED Tucker
Sisters of Gion (1936)  by Jason Fetters
Passing On .... Greg's Back .... .... .... .... .... .... .... Mike's Record Shelf  by Mike Smith


Solomon Burke, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and author of such classics as "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love," died today (Sunday) shortly after arriving at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. No cause of death was released. Mr. Burke was scheduled to appear in Amsterdam this coming Tuesday night.

In what is probably the most ironic death since Jim Fixx, author of the book that inspired the jogging craze "The Joy Of Running," dropped dead from a heart attack....while jogging...James Heselden, the man who invented the Segway scooter died last week when he plunged over a cliff...while riding a Segway! Mr. Heselden was 62.

Sally Menke, Quentin Tarantino's film editor for all of his feature films, was found dead after going hiking in extreme heat. She was 56. Though she also worked with directors Oliver Stone, David Lynch and Billy Bob Thornton, it was her collaboration with Tarantino that brought her acclaim. She edited "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown" "Kill Bill - Volumes I and II," the "Deathproof" section of "Grindhouse" and last years' "Inglorious Basterds." She was Oscar nominated for her work on "Pulp Fiction" and "Inglorious Basterds."

If you've watched television over the last 40 years you cannot have been touched by the work of Stephen J. Cannell. One of the mediums most prolific writers, with over 1000 shows written, Mr. Cannell died at the age of 69 after complications associated with melanoma. Mr. Cannell began his writing career working on the series "Ironside." He then moved on to "Adam 12," where he wrote fifteen episodes of the popular cop show. In the mid 1970s he created three popular shows: "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (later "Black Sheep Squadron"), "Baretta," which starred Robert Blake and the still beloved "The Rockford Files." The 1980s brought "Hardcastle and McCormick," "Tenspeed and Brownshoe," "Wiseguy," "The Greatest American Hero" and "The A Team." In the middle of season one of "The Greatest American Hero," Cannell changed William Kaat's character name from Roy Hinkley to Roy Hanley due to the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinkley. The orignal name returned for season two, though Kaat was often just referred to as "Mr. H." The 1990s brought viewers shows like "21 Jump Street," "The Commish," "Renegade," "Silk Stalkings" and a series of "Rockford Files" television movies. Mr. Cannell also co-starred as a police lieutenant in many episodes of "Renegade." Despite his prolific career, Mr. Cannell was only nominated for five Emmy Awards, winning only one in 1979 as a producer of "The Rockford Files."


Sometime Rant contributor Greg Van Cott has returned with an indepth look at his favorite films from 2009. Greg is always a great read so spend some time on his list. Like Bill Cosby used to say on "Fat Albert": If you're not careful you might learn something!

My Picks for the Top 2009 Films
by Greg Van Cott

This is my fourth 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 have picked versus the total. From 2009, I have seen a total of 742 films, mostly recommended by critics and apparently noteworthy to film aficionados, to get a good handle on what 2009 had to offer. There are a few obscure movies on this list, and although I did like a number of the Oscar nominated pictures (a total of 10 films this time), I try to look at a broader range. This entire body of 74 is below this list for reference.

1) Taking Chance | This film evoked one of the most touching and emotional experiences I have had in recent memory. It is a sad thought that this picture never received a theatrical release, but fortunately HBO Films picked it up for a release on television. Based on a true story and adapted to the screen by the actual man who was there, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl is a Marine who volunteered for escort duty to accompany the body of Pfc. (Private, First Class) Chance Phelps. Strobl is played by Kevin Bacon in what may be one of his greatest performances next to Apollo 13 and Mystic River. Bacon plays Strobl as a very reserved person. He seems to keep to himself, and yet we get a sense that he is constantly looking for something. Out of some sort of unknown, but deeply personal frustration, he decides to accompany Phelps’ casket across an entire country. Like any funeral, it is a time for reflection and sorrow, so it is very commendable that this film’s attitudes toward war and politics remain absolutely neutral. Strobl never met Phelps before his passing, but this does not seem to matter to him. What does matter is his duty to his country by returning the 19 year old Marine back to his family. Director Ross Katz, usually a producer (In the Bedroom, Lost in Translation) makes an outstanding directorial debut by giving his picture an extraordinary sense of honor and respect. The simplicity of the story is what keeps us drawn in. The filmmaking is very concise and retains honesty and a strong sense of dignity. The audience has complete focus on all the people that Strobl meets along his journey, all the passerby citizens who pay their respects to him and Phelps, and all the fascinatingly delicate procedures that lead up to a Military funeral. I am very pleased that a film like this was made due to the fact that no matter what the war is or how a person has come to pass away—loved ones as well as complete strangers, in Strobl’s case, are willing to put the time and effort to say a proper goodbye and give a well deserved thank you. The Lt. Col.’s accounts were put into a journal, and it was simply remarkable and praiseworthy that someone had the courage to get a film like this made.

2) (500) Days of Summer | Incredibly fun and entertaining film that isn't a love story, but a story ABOUT LOVE. This might be one of the best romantic comedies I have seen in a long while, and I'd have to say I wish there were more with this film's sense of humor. There's something very funny about opening up your film with a character going through a nasty breakup and for some reason he has gotten stuck into 'break plates like a robot' mode and it takes his Yoda-like 10 year old sister to stop him. When he finally stops and drinks some Vodka made by aforementioned child, he goes on a "what just happened?" string of thought that even flabbergasts his friends. Thus begins an inventive exercise on selective memory for this main character. This film's non-linear story features specific moments and specific days from a random selection of 500 days. They are the 500 Days that Tom spent with a girl named Summer. I have compared this film to The Girlfriend Experience which is like a twisted dark sister by comparison. This film is the happy-go-lucky, almost neurotic sibling. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives one of his best performances I have ever seen him give. There is a slight indication in the character of Tom that has some resemblance to his child actor roles, so this might have added to Tom’s childlike temper tantrums that we see. Zooey Deschanel was born to play this part, or perhaps it was the other way around, where the part was written specifically for her. Either way, she is unforgettable as Tom’s subject of affection. The two leads in this are pretty fresh to the eyes and ears and, because of that, it feels a lot more authentic than most romantic comedies that almost always star well known celebrities. The film's satirical approach works very well, especially if you're into movies and music. The soundtrack is extremely eclectic and is a little distracting at times, but every song serves a purpose to echo their situations. Almost all of the film's charm is in this kind of humor: Gordon-Levitt looks into a mirror and instead sees Harrison Ford as Han Solo winking back, a Disney-animated bird (Mary Poppins inspired) lands on his finger at one point, the two characters compare themselves to Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, and we even see hilarious reenactments of scenes from French director Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal made to parallel moments in their relationship. Director Marc Webb has created a moving photo album that makes us recall all the positives and negatives of any relationship. He even suggests that, like Romeo and Juliet, one relationship provides experience and preparation for the real one. Hilariously cute film!

3) Coraline | The visual feast of 2009 comes in the form of Coraline, helmed by Henry Selick—the director of 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and 1996’s James and the Giant Peach. Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, it is a gothic adventure that is piloted by a rebellious young girl with dyed blue hair that fits her not-so-sunny complexion. Designed for the solemnly, seldom seen medium of stop-motion animation, Coraline is one of Selick’s most vibrant, character-driven pieces. Even though many of his earlier works had intriguing characters, this story is built around the interesting personalities and their many opposites. Our lead heroine is not your average girl as the hair would suggest. She is fairly irritable, somewhat needy, and constantly putting down others if they do not impress her. This doesn’t make her a bad kid, just one who isn’t quite sure how she relates to the world as of yet. Her concept of the world begins to change when extraordinarily odd things begin to make occasional appearances at the rickety old countryside house. Her recently moved-in family has inadvertently changed it into a domain for busy work; putting Coraline down as a supposed second priority. At first, the oddities reveal themselves as odd neighbors, but there is another side to all of this. Coraline falls into a magical world that is the complete opposite of hers where her parents are cooler than cool, the neighbors are useful and entertaining, and the garden is full of wondrous delights. With her boredom quenched by the rewards, the “Other Mom” who rules this domain wants a couple sacrifices to be made as well. It is a great lesson for all kinds of kids, which says that asking for a whole lot more can be a little too much to handle and that one should be grateful for what they already have. Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, and Ian McShane lend their great voices to both worlds, worldly and otherworldly. I also have to applaud Selick for casting Keith David as The Cat, the story’s voice of reason, which fits David like a furry glove. The experience is also heightened by a hauntingly, original score by Bruno Coulais, reminiscent of a cross between composer Danny Elfman and nature mix artist/musician Philip Kent Bimstein. Put it altogether and you get a magical treat for any adventurer at any age.

4) In the Loop | A colorful comedy that might go down in history as one of the best political satires of the last decade. It can be very difficult making a comedy focused on the issues of a looming war considering how unfunny that is generally, but somehow the makers of In the Loop have achieved this with a hilarious ferocity and an effective dose of commentary. Of course, one of the most famous films tackling this very subject, with stunning effectiveness, is Stanley Kubrick's 1964 tour-de-force, Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. One might notice that both Strangelove and In the Loop feature a remarkable consistency in realistic settings. This may be one of the best ways to sell a war comedy: by making the audience think, at first, that this could be the God honest truth. These normal surroundings become a great balance to the constant onslaught of colorful metaphors that these political figures begin slinging at each other. Again, if it weren't for the fact that these actors are working in real functioning offices, conference rooms, and in front of the actual White House and 10 Downing St., none of this dialogue could seem believable. The whole screenplay is based around various political figures working only a couple steps under the Prime Minister of the UK and the President of the US. All do not see eye to eye on the current case for war (obviously a reference to the events preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq). These generals, ministers, aides, senators, secretaries, and even interns make very logical cases for war and against war, but the humor of the matter comes from the aforementioned wave of insults everyone throws at each other. Some are so descriptive that it makes me wonder how long the writer took to think it up. Peter Capaldi has the honor of giving the film's best insults, and nearly steals the entire film as an obscene image consultant. James Gandolfini also makes a memorable appearance as an overly cynical, but honorable general that stands firm on his positions, whether they may be relevant or not. In the end, their names will all be ‘Mud’ by the time the blame game is over. In the Loop’s script written by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Ian Martin, Tony Roche, and by its director Armando Iannucci deserved its Oscar nomination for Best Screenwriting.

5) Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country | To call this film a simple documentary would be an understatement, it is a film by several documentarians rolled into one solid piece of journalism. It is an engrossing experience into the eyes of a courageous Burmese citizen doing the right thing for his people. It is also a heartbreaking experience for any spectator. Designed by the Democratic Voices of Burma, the film is a collage of several tapes from hidden cameras capturing the incredible events that swept the Burma (also known as Myanmar) capital of Rangoon and the entire nation in late 2007. The narrator is known only as Joseph to protect his identity from the brutal junta that has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than 40 years now. With cameras tucked away in bags and backpacks, these guerilla cameramen shoot everything they possibly can. Unfortunately, the government also has civilian-dressed government agents constantly roaming the streets looking for, quite ironically, spies. After a few unsuccessful but peaceful strikes made by ordinary citizens, a band of Buddhist monks decided to make a nationwide protest against the junta. In a dazzling display of orange draped individuals swarming the streets like a bright flag, their appearance alone made millions of Burmese citizens take notice and feel hope in the Stalinistic enforced nation. What followed is a horrifying series of events accounted by Joseph and his terrified reporters. It is incredible to see this kind of footage since a certain number of other dictatorships have completely closed off their borders to the outside world in order to prevent exposure. Like some of the best episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, there is an eerie element to some of Joseph’s reenactment scenes where he hears everyone’s voices. The voices and viewpoints are as real as anyone living and breathing. The extraordinary people who were a part of these events will never forget these unspeakable acts. A film like this reminds Burmese everywhere that hope will never fade. It is a dazzling compilation by the Norwegian filmmakers who serve as the Burmese reporters’ main channel to the outside world.

6) The Hurt Locker | An intense and captivating film by now Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, and the Best Picture winner of 2009. It has been a long time since I have seen a film that gave me nightmares after watching it. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It means the film had provoked a certain reaction from me that obviously was psychologically disturbing. The film's premise works very well for a suspense formula. A bomb disposal unit has to go around Iraq to defuse anything that can kill Americans and fellow Iraqis. It is a shame that Hitchcock never made a film about an anti-explosive specialist because he probably would have had a ball making it. He especially would have liked Bigelow’s creepy editorial cutaways to people watching the main characters from afar. The story follows a rather crazed, adrenaline-hungry sergeant played by a similarly crazed Jeremy Renner who likes to do everything pretty much on his own, without the protective gloves. He wants things on his terms in spite of his practical second-in-command being of the same rank. That means that Hitchcock's "ticking time clock" formula also applies to the men as well. As a spectator, you do not know when things are going to start to get out of hand between the three of them (including their young specialist who believes he is going to die at any minute). Renner, for the most part, reminds me a lot of Sean Penn here. He is a kind of nutty, unhinged, confusing man you wouldn't want anywhere near you. The film also sports fascinating cameos from Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, and Guy Pearce. Since they are well known actors, the audience can almost find recognition to these acquaintances. By comparison, our heroes are strangers, and we almost feel more comfortable staying with the comfortably familiar faces. Renner's character also has an interesting sensitive side that motivates his need to do things away from the others. When he THINKS a young Iraqi boy has become a victim to someone in the area, he leaves the base, like Fiennes’ secret agent, to get retribution. But what kind of retribution is he looking for and why is he a consistent antithesis to everything the training tells him? Paranoia is total awareness...? Kathryn Bigelow fills the screen with haunting visuals and intense high-speed photography; creating some of the most seething slow-motion I have seen. Like Taking Chance, this film takes a neutral approach to war, once again proving it is the only approach to war without alienating your audience with politics. War is alienating enough.

7) Me and Orson Welles | Elegant and wonderful, this is the story of Orson Welles' first big Broadway production (his notable Nazi Germany/Mussolini Italy influenced take on Julius Caesar) and the people surrounding its development. One of these people is a young man named Richard Samuels who stumbles upon Welles' fledgling Mercury Theatre, and within a few seconds, won the coveted role of Lucius just because he entertained Welles for less than 5 minutes outside the door. I can not seem to find any information on a Richard Samuels on Wikipedia or Welles related websites, so I am not sure if this was a fictional character created as a "tour guide" through the Mercury Theatre in 1937 or an actual person who spent one eventful week with the historical director. Whether he is fictional or not, Samuels is an interesting enough guy to follow. Zac Efron does a good enough job in the role that he did keep me intrigued for a good enough length of time, and I thought this was impressive for a very young actor that most would label as just another pretty boy. Claire Danes seems to get better and better as an actress as time goes on as she proves in this piece. I was thoroughly impressed with the casting of Eddie Marsan as actor/producer John Houseman and especially James Tupper as Welles’ long time acting collaborator and friend Joseph Cotten who looked and sounded just the leading man. Of course, the real show stealer is Christian McKay as Mr. Welles. He captures the bravado, depth, energy, and perfectionism of the late artist to a tee. I think Welles himself would have found the tyrannical take on him a little unnerving, but likely would have been tickled by the fact that people were even listening to him at AGE 23! I think this film is further proof that one film can not encompass all that was Orson Welles since other films have detailed his specific projects ala RKO 281 about the making of Citizen Kane and a few detailing The War of the Worlds radio phenomenon. Christian McKay offers, in the opinion of this Orson Welles fan, the closest depiction of the icon. No one else could or can be Orson Welles, but I still have to applaud the actor and the filmmakers of this little number. Any film about Welles’ life is bound to be an interesting one.

8) Moon | It is very rare these days to see a science-fiction film that reminds us of the old speculative concepts that gave birth to the genre in the first place. Audiences have grown accustom to space opera and the fantasy-based Hero’s Journeys spawned from the Star Wars series, so a film like, Moon, is a four leaf clover among a lot of the three leaf kind. By extension, it is also pleasant to see a film that is not afraid to go above and beyond in its exploration of its themes. Like some of the best original Star Trek episodes, Moon knows what it wants to say and delves deep into the happily comedic as well as the ironic frightening aspects of its questions. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an average guy of an astronaut who is about to complete his 3-year stint on a moonbase that mines for a special material found on the lunar surface. His only companion is GERTY, a computer that only has emoticons for a face. Put those cartoon expressions onto Kevin Spacey’s voice and you get a very cute machine that is a nice follow-up to HAL 9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey), minus the crazy errors. However, there seems to be someone else on the moon. It isn’t alien, but it might as well be alien to Sam. Without divulging too much more, I was satisfied that director Duncan Jones’ film might be one of the first, really successful attempts at exploring ‘this particular alienating’ theme. To make it all work for an apparently low-budget feature, it was a stroke of great luck that Jones’ team was able to score opportunities to work with some great visual effects artists due to a lack of greenlit productions during one of the last Hollywood strikes. There have been many earlier attempts at exploring this concept, but they tend to fall into a histrionic pattern after a while. Without Sam Rockwell’s great talents at work here, this premise would have fallen completely flat. The aforementioned amusing aspect to this concept is evident throughout the satirical examinations of boredom for Sam Bell. When you are not mining or taking care of the base, what do you do in your spare time? Having a dialogue with someone other than “you” on a space station is also reminiscent of 1972’s Solaris with a more amusing twist. So what then? Talk to the computer, talk to your plants, or talk to yourself?

9) Up | Confirming one critic’s viewpoint, as well as mine, that we have entered the era of the geriatric hero, Up is one of the very first animated films that allows its main character to be over 60 years old and manages to keep him cool and relevant. The geriatric hero, with all that experience and baggage, first made its biggest and most effective appearance on film in 1969’s True Grit featuring an overweight, alcoholic version of John Wayne, a part that won him an Oscar. It has taken years for True Grit’s influence to take hold on an audience, and with the return of heroes hitting their later years like Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa, John McClane, and even Rambo, it didn’t take long for Pixar to get an idea themselves. However, senior citizen Carl Fredricksen (voiced by the great Ed Asner) is not a hero, at least not at first. We first meet him as a child dreaming of adventure. Of course, his real adventure would be meeting his other half, a girl named Ellie, who will stick with him for life. In what is probably one of the most beautiful montages with the saddest of endings, Carl is once again alone in his life. Carl and Ellie’s house they built together has become all the memories Carl has ever had of her, and as far as themes are concerned—the house represents Ellie. In order to save himself from a retirement home, Carl sets himself toward his wife’s childhood dream to consummate a promise. To animation fans, Carl’s floating house is a nod to animation wizard Winsor McKay’s flying house cartoons, and like McKay’s material, Up is a superb trip into the imagination. The accidental tourist in this equation is a young boyscout, Russell, who is a great contrast to Carl. The adult has forgotten what it is like to enjoy himself, held back by the weight of his past, which comes literally in the form of a house towed behind him like a ball and chain. For a cartoon, this is not a light topic. It is extremely difficult to tell anyone to let go of something that is pulling at them. Finalizing the main characters is a more seriously lost figure, Carl’s childhood hero named Charles Muntz (voiced by legendary Christopher Plummer), caught up in a quest for a rare bird that has taken his whole life to hunt down (and even forced him to create devices to talk to his dogs and perhaps devices to prolong his life). Up’s script does not make this apparent. In fact, these ideologies will probably go unnoticed in the first viewing. Up has a wacky sense of humor, a little less compared to The Emperor’s New Groove, and little more than most Pixar films. It comes together as a wildly spirited and literally uplifting comedy that can appeal to every age with its light take on heavy questions. Is life about staying put or moving along?

10) A Serious Man | This is one of the more successful attempts at making a film about a character going through a spiritual crisis. Most films that delve into this subject make a fatal error where the main character(s), in response to his/her crisis, decides to make stupid and irresponsible decisions (ala The Arrangement, American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) that seems to just complicate the situation. This can insult the intelligence of a competent, responsible audience. Arguably, there is some truth to people deliberately rebelling in some vain attempt at escaping responsibility, but when this occurs at the expense of other people—it is hard to watch for entertainment or educational purposes (especially multiple films about similarly stupid people). HOWEVER, A Serious Man is a film where a character maintains some sort of smart, God-given optimism in spite of an ordeal. He is not blind to his issues, but simultaneously does not allow them to overwhelm him. He dreams about rebelling, but the same dreams offer humorously morbid moral lessons and conclusions. Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen cleverly surround the character Larry Gopnik (played by natural and rather obscure actor Michael Stuhlbarg) with far more dysfunctional people than him. This is where A Serious Man succeeds more than Beauty and Arrangement, in the opinion of this reviewer, because it is far more effective to satirize a person’s inner struggles (and do a ‘compare & contrast’ exercise to other characters in the same story) than it is to spell out a sour breakdown of events. There are many parallels made to the Book of Job containing a similar series of painful (but in Gopnik’s case, also comical) trials to see if his faith in any way diminishes. Probably the most bizarrely silly scene is the film’s prologue. It is yet another comparison made (more understandable with a second viewing) to trump the hero’s crises as depicted later in the story. Striving to stay serious (and Gopnik is not the only character purported as intently serious), he could be far worse. The story, as well as this review, is full of so many parenthetical sonnets that they could inspire feature length stories themselves. This is probably the Coen Brothers’ most metaphorical film since O Brother, Where Art Thou? Like that film, its period setting and historical context puts things into perspective, even in a humorous way. A storm is always coming, so LIVE with it.

11) The Secret in Their Eyes | This is the second mystery to end up on this list, and it is unmistakably a well made film regardless of being a comedy or a thriller. This also happens to be the winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2009 (from Argentina). This film has sparked a certain amount of aggravation from certain viewers who like to compare it to other foreign films from completely different countries and cultures. Every culture has their unique approach to taking on a story even if every conceivable story contains similarities in design. The design is what storytellers have learned as an effective schematic throughout the years, but the eyes that focus the story can always differ. With The Secret in Their Eyes, the film tackles the subject of intuition. It is not just a look in the eyes, but the feeling that something is amiss. Ergo, there is no better way to handle this concept other than through the lives of detectives. Set at two different periods in Argentina’s troubled history, a cynical, but tireless detective named Esposito (his name is a sly reference to the word, exposition) attempts to recount the events that occurred during one of his most brutal homicide cases. He writes down all his thoughts and memories into his new novel, and this process has its own story paralleling his flashes into the past. Along for the ride is his offbeat, alcoholic partner, Sandoval, and their sassy boss, Irene, a woman that constantly impresses Esposito to the point that he begins to secretly fall in love with her. Facing such heavy opposition from corrupt judges and bitter policial rivals, Esposito is constantly asking himself what went wrong during these investigations. One of the most intriguing things about this story is that it is continually motivated by the hidden emotions within their characters, hence the title. Esposito always feels like there is something wrong and something else occurring in the mix. His partner, though inebriated often, comes up with marvelous revelations that come just in the nick of time. And Irene is not sure what to make of Esposito and his case. Is she beginning to get too close to her employee for comfort? The handheld photography in this is also worth noting. It is not dizzying, nor is it distracting. It gives the film a realistic quality, but is subtle enough to give the film a degree of intimacy. The mystery makes several twists and turns, as well as leaving us some unanswered questions (just like in real police cases), but it turns out that all people involved in this type of profession keep more things to themselves than is healthy.

12) The Hangover | A surprisingly effective comedy that may be one of the more accurate depictions of Las Vegas I have seen. Most films about this city depict it as a glamorous, hip, sexy, overly shiny mountain of wealth. When you go beyond the Strip, you can also clearly see the cheap, tacky, awkward, overtly fake side of things as well. Of course, I can also find that on the Strip. The Hangover presents a combination of both, but leans more toward the latter thankfully. Unlike most big Hollywood comedies, this film features no big stars, say for Heather Graham and Mike Tyson in an amusing cameo, so there are no big names to distract the audience from the story. This allows the comedy to seem a lot more authentic and less forced (a bit problem these days), and it works especially well since these fresh actors (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis) seem to be bringing their own style of humor to the table. There are two other elements that really impressed me about this film. One, the format of these guys constantly falling into worse and worse situations as the story moves along is very reminiscent of a Saturday matinee serial. Most comedies stay in one location even if it is a car on the move, but here we constantly visit various locations in LV creating an illustrious journey for these three hungover guys. Two, the story is actually a pretty solid mystery. What happened to the groom? How did these guys get so messed up? Why in God's name is there a tiger in the bathroom (a nice nod to the leopard in the bathroom in 1938's Bringing Up Baby)? And why is Mike Tyson suddenly showing up in their hotel room?! Amazingly, all the questions are actually answered quite logically and the answer to the missing groom is not only clever, but stupidly and uproariously obvious. The film's complimentary edge can be credited to its director Todd Phillips (Old School) who effectively does not back away from even the crudest of humor, and yet, somehow does not make it feel over-the-top. Every character’s story arc is given a satisfying beginning, middle, and conclusion, and the film’s witty writing does not push the audience’s patience. Unquestionably, The Hangover is one of the best comedies of the year.

Honorable Mention:
Wallander: One Step Behind | Nicely constructed and engaging TV movie mystery starring the great Kenneth Branagh who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in this episode. Wallander is actually based on an earlier Swedish TV series, which in turn was based on a Swedish series of mystery novels. The BBC took a crack at the character themselves, and unlike American versions of international shows-- the original author supervised these TV movies. In comparison to most mystery shows and movies out there ala Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Monk, and even Psych, the character of Wallander is not about the eccentricities of his personality. Because of that, Branagh plays him mostly straight and shockingly vulnerable. Most literary and cinematic interpretations of detectives are impenetrable and confident, but Wallander is a normal guy caught in an eccentric world instead of vice versa. In this mystery, Wallander tries to find the connection between his murdered partner of several years on the force and a series of odd random murders happening all over Sweden. Kurt Wallander finds himself retracing his partner's steps to discover the killer's identity, while at the same time, finding out things about himself. The author of this series made it very clear that he wanted his hero to change over time as the series went on, so Wallander grows increasingly exhausted as the case ensues. His lack of sleep and inability to take care of himself leads to frustrating medical news as well as the discovery that one of the people of interest on the case knew his daughter; she once overheard her describing Wallander as a "crap dad." Like Monk, it's not all about the mystery. It's half ‘about Wallander’ and half-mystery. In the end, we realize that this whole case was intended for a detective to examine it. Just as the killer is pulling off a Se7en-eseque crime, we as an audience are examining Wallander, and Branagh is definitely up to the task of bringing Wallander to life.

Departures | Despite the fact that this film is the Academy’s winner for Best Foreign Film from 2008 (from Japan), it did not achieve a theatrical distribution in the United States till May of 2009. Therefore, I am counting it as one of the best Honorable Mentions of 2009. This film, in spite of its subject matter, is a surprisingly fun, spiritual journey. For some reason, humans find humor in ironic situations, no matter how morbid. In some ways, it is our only way to cope with some of the bleakest issues. Here, we are introduced to a cello player named Daigo who has recently lost his job. He has always envisioned his place in an orchestra his entire life, so this news comes as quite a shock to him. In order to make ends meat, he and his wife move back to his hometown and stay at his late mother’s former coffee shop. The best job in the classifieds is for Departures, which Daigo assumes has to do with a travel agency. The man who put the ad in the paper quickly exclaims, “That’s a typo. It’s supposed to say The Departed.” What follows is a very humorous series of events. Daigo is not sure if he wants to continue this job despite the good pay, and he is worried his wife might find out that he has become the town’s new assistant mortician. On the other hand as another part to this equation, there is a strange accomplishment that Daigo feels when preparing the dead for their final resting places whilst giving families that crucial closure they need. Departures reminds me of two famous earlier Japanese filmmakers’ work: Akira Kurosawa and Seijun Suzuki. The humor of a trainee mortician is very akin to Suzuki’s work where absurd notions emerge from tense situations. Suzuki was well known for thriving on these types of experiences throughout his films, but the cultural beauty and personal anguish all the characters face is also akin to Akira Kurosawa. Like Ikiru and Red Beard, there is a great delicateness toward the treatment of death. They may be dead, but they are still people. For this cellist, there is also music to be seen in this practice.

The Girlfriend Experience | A really fascinating hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated moments inside the lives of an expensive call-girl and her businessman boyfriend. I noticed a number of people who state in their 'user reviews' that they do not understand or inevitably like this movie, but I found it to be one of Steven Soderbergh's best works he has made in a while. Oddly enough, it is very similar to (500) Days of Summer in which both movies tell their stories through glimpses and vignettes into the main character's life. If (500) Days of Summer represented a happy day, then The Girlfriend Experience is the grim night. Sasha Grey, known for her 'blue movies,' seems to be an unusual choice for this role, but considering what she has to talk about and do with her clients-- it seems logical that she would be one of a few women entertainers willing to go there without it looking uncomfortable or rehearsed. Her personality on screen is very cold and calculating most of the time, but as the film goes on, I got a sense of her shield slowly peeling away. When there is little left to hide, her vulnerability really comes through with surprising results. The film takes its time delving into the life of a successful prostitute and how some are paid millions of dollars in order to make rich people feel like they have a real girlfriend for a few hours. Ergo, the title apparently makes reference to an ideal where these women act like they've known these men for years. It is very interesting that this film is set during the presidential 2008 election because many of these men are constantly discussing how the economy is starting to crumble, but that is just one part of the much bigger pie. The woman's relationship to her boyfriend, who is well aware of her profession, is starting to let the unpleasantries of the world’s oldest profession bother him. The film reveals vignettes of his world, as well as hers, and how it might be time for them to move on. The film's non-linear style of storytelling really felt authentic and it is that kind of offbeat way of looking at things that appealed to me.

Working Miracles | A gem of a film and a triumphant comeback for director Bradford May (Mortal Sins, Ice, Darkman II: The Return of Durant). At first glance, this could be seen as another fluff Hollywood piece. However in May’s best films, the script is not the only thing that is telling a story. As the film begins, the audience is bombarded with scene after scene of tremendously happy people telling each other tremendously happy things. The instant a supporting character mentions he is ill—reality finally sets in. There is no indication in the script that these people are inadvertently living in Pleasantville, so it is one of May’s interesting tone shifts he accomplishes through his actors’ performances. This back-and-forth design between extreme happiness and truthful reality repeats throughout the entire film and becomes a theme: 'people telling each other what they want to hear to be happy' vs. 'the cold, sobering truth.' And this is not even the premise of the story! This is where it might sound a bit Hollywood. A not-too-smart, but good looking janitor (meek faced Eddie Cibrian of CSI: Miami fame) discovers after a near-fatal accident that he has acquired powers that can physically heal others. In what first sounds like a reconfiguration of John Travolta’s Premonition character, there is a nice twist to this blessing/curse. It takes a toll on the lead character’s own health in order to heal someone. The doctor here implies that it functions like an immune system that can work on other people, but to make it work comes at too high a cost for the janitor. The film is built on so many ironies that it is intriguing where it goes. Main character wants to heal, but it hurts him, his sick uncle does not want to be healed, and just when the town thinks they have a hero—he quickly becomes the villain in their eyes when a couple healing attempts go awry. Despite this being promoted as some possible religious film, Bradford May provides another irony by intentionally adding sexual innuendo to one of the “miracles” when man heals fiancé. Bradford May’s past work as a Director of Photography is still apparent with its dark, moody, but pleasing beautiful lighting. As seen in a number of his films, his analyses on neurotic figures still continue into this film. The truth is that we can’t help everyone. As indicated by his underrated status in the world of cinema, I don’t think everyone can enjoy a Bradford May film (and some may be put off by this film’s overwhelming use of pop songs like in the case of my #2 pick [see above]), but I have to recommend this for its fascinating thematic and directorial choices made by a unique filmmaker.

Picked from a viewing of 74 movies:

(500) Days of Summer | 9 | Anvil: The Story of Anvil | Avatar | Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans | Black Dynamite | The Blind Side | Broken Embraces |Bronson | Brothers | Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country | Coraline | The Cove | Crazy Heart | Dakota Skye | Departures | District 9 | Drag Me to Hell | Drool | Easy Virtue | An Education | Fantastic Mr. Fox | Flame and Citron | The Girlfriend Experience | Green Lantern: First Flight | The Hangover | Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince | The Hurt Locker | I Can Do Bad All by Myself | The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus | In the Loop | Inglourious Basterds | Invictus | Jennifer's Body | Julie & Julia | The Last Station | Lo | The Lovely Bones | Me and Orson Welles | The Messenger | Moon | Paranormal Activity | Paris 36 | Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire | The Princess and the Frog | A Prophet | The Road | The Secret in Their Eyes | A Serious Man | Sherlock Holmes | A Single Man | Sin Nombre | Star Trek | Sugar | Surrogates | Taking Chance | Terminator Salvation | This Is It | Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen | Trucker | The Twilight Saga: New Moon | Tyson | Up | Up in the Air | Wallander: One Step Behind | Watchmen | Where the Wild Things Are | Whip It | The White Ribbon | Wonder Woman | Working Miracles | World's Greatest Dad | The Young Victoria | Zombieland

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Elton John

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - Original Music from the Television Series - Music by Hugo Montenegro

It's hard to believe that it's been 40 years since "Your Song" made Elton John a star. With lyrics written by a 17 year old Bernie Taupin at the breakfast table one morning, and music that took John 20 minutes to compose, the song was originally recorded by Three Dog Night, whom John had opened for on their 1969 tour. Only when the band learned that John planned to release it as a single did they drop their plans to do the same. Thanks, guys.

Released in October 1973, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" is, almost four decades later, John's masterpiece. Full of classic hits (four songs hit the charts, including the #1 "Bennie and the Jets." The twin song "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," at eleven minutes long, was too long to release as a single but has been a staple on album rock radio since the album was released)the album spent almost three months at the top of the chart (replacing another album featured recently, the Rolling Stones' "Goats Head Soup"). Here's a listen to the title tune:


Bum bum bum bum bum bum bum. OK, that's actually, in my mind's ears, the opening riff to one of the coolest television shows ever: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." Timed to catch on with the James Bond crowd, the show featured Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, who, led by their boss, Mr. Waverly (the late, great Leo G. Carroll) the show is still one of my favorites. I can't recall how many times I would pull a pen out of my pocket and say "Open Channel D" into the top of it. I used to have the sweetest collection of "Man from U.N.C.L.E." toys, most of them long gone. :-)
Still, the theme still ranks as one of television's best ever!


Well, that's all for now. Have a great week. See ya!

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