Monday, January 25, 2010

The Magic of the Movies

I saw something yesterday that kind of disgusted me and then made me think of a post that I read on one of my favourite movie blogs Kid In the Front Row. The item in question was on the cover of the current issue of US Weekly that I saw at the grocery store. It had a picture of Kate Gosselin from Jon and Kate Plus 8 fame and the headline was about how she doesn't like her new hair and I got to thinking: who the hell really cares if someone who has done absolutely nothing to deserve her celebrity except for squeeze eight kids out of her likes her hair or not? Are we supposed to feel bad for a non-celebrity's haircut? Back in the day celebrities were looked up to because they allowed us to escape our reality and join them in theirs which was admittedly a whole heck of a lot better. Today, Kate and her hair are a constant reminder of how shallow and pathetic it has become.

And then I read Kid's small, humble article in which he looked back over the history of his blog with disbelief over it's success and found hope in that. Kid is the kind of guy who spends a lot of time keeping the memories of great men and woman in the film world alive like Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder and Jimmy Stewart by revisiting their work with intelligence and passion. He remembers a time when film was made by great artists who told great stories that were performed by great actors. A time when art and even entertainment meant more than who celebrity X was shacking up with. He doesn't care, he lays out in his site's subheading, about the grosses of the latest superhero movie, etc because they mean nothing to him. I know exactly what he means. Film is as magical a medium today as it ever was, but the true magicians are getting harder and harder to find as their work becomes buried under a mountain of superficial items like box office, celebrity personal lives, big budget cash-grabs like sequels, remakes and reboots, etc.

And then, when Kid admits that what he is really looking for is the return of Jimmy Stewart (it's John Wayne for me) I got to thinking: what should be cherished most about Kid In the Front Row is right there in the name of the blog. At the end of the day, when all of us out there who love to watch film put pen to page (or finger to keyboard for the literalists) we essentially revert back into that infantile state of infatuation: we're those kids in the front row, loving every image, cherishing every adventure, embracing every punchline and so on. The heart speaking above all other voices in our body. That's why I write criticism. 

The truely great critics; the ones whose opinion we value day in and day out; the one's whose opinion we respect; the one's who we love because of the personality of their writing and not their ability to gauge the worth of a work are not the scholars or degree holders or most technically experienced indviduals but the ones who have sat there in the front row with us. They understand love and aren't afraid to put their mind at rest for a moment to let their heart sing. Robert Warshow once said something to the tune of how a man goes to the movies and the critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.
For the purpose of this post, that Warshow explanation is the single most important reason why I do this blog. I know how to spot and describe different shots, kinds of lighting, different types of lenses and all the artistic implications of these things; I love reading books about how films are made and how the business side of film works and I love thinking about psychology and philosophy as much as the next guy. But at the end of the day, whether or not I'm watching cars speed down streets at high speeds in The Fast and the Furious, seeing Spider-Man swing from building to building or seeing Marcello on that lonely beach at the end of La Dolche Vita, not being able to comprehend what his virginal savior is saying to him, I'm basically that kid in the front row with you, in the dark, having his heart stolen and his imagination expanded, watching as magical images seem to appear out of thin air.

To me, conveying that feeling is the heart of criticism. It's what I like to read and what I want to write about. Some writers have become so smart, their vocabulary so vast, their oratory skills so finely tuned that they forget themselves as being those kids in the front row and that's when love stops and self-indulgence starts.

That's why I disagree with the majority of film theory and have almost totally shied away from it since graduation: because film theory doesn't even begin to take into account those butterflies in the stomach when Sam plays it again; the jolts of terror as Michael Meyers jumps out of the dark; those tears of joy as the Polar Express nears it's destination; that ping of realization as Rosebud burns before our eyes; the unquenchable laughter that erupts as Bluto sets the ladder up outside the female frat house; or the breathlessness from the unspeakable beauty of the landscapes of Pandorum. Just to name a few through the ages.

Those are the reasons we go to the movies in the first place. They are the reasons we write these blogs with little or no money in return and slave over trying to get them noticed by as many people as possible: because we're all just kids in the front row, in love with a toy of never ending possibilities that we can't wait to discover and continue to rediscover until we have lost the facility to do so.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Up In The Air

One of the things they teach you when studying human resources is that if firing someone ever gets easy, you should maybe consider re-evaluating your career path. Like almost everything learned in the classroom setting, I took this advice at face value and logged it in the proper annals of my brain without ever considering the elegiac implications of such a statement: the very thing that Up In the Air, as subtle and biting an overturning of contemporary North American corporate culture as there has ever been, is all about. The hero of the story is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) who acts as the guy who is called in when big companies outsource work to downsize their staff because they don’t want to deal with the mess themselves. It’s his job to fly into town, inform the recipient of the bad news, console them, alert them to their options and bid them adieu, never to see them again. This is Bingham’s life for all but a handful of days of the year: always flying, never stagnant enough to ever become attached to anything of worth or value to him except his job. He essentially has no home, no past, no future and no definition: a man adrift in a world whose only loyal inhabitant is himself. Consider him a merge between William Hurt’s Macon Leary from the Accidental Tourist and, maybe more accurately, Marcello from Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolche Vita. He's always drifting from one encounter to the next, never staying put, never feeling anything, never being anything to anyone. Life is essentially getting from one necessary banality to the next on the way to either retirement or death, which, to men like Bingham, may be about the same thing. Bingham is the typical archetype for the North American corporate success story. He’s married to nothing but his work, which his does with cold, unaffected precision. In between he hosts informational seminars in which he tries to convince people that life is essentially carrying a backpack: you must fill it only with the most necessary items in order to travel lightly and without strain. Pictures are only for those with bad memories, Bingham advises, so throw them out and make room for something you need. The heaviest object that can be carried in the backpack is personal relationships. Not only do they weigh you down and slow you up, but they require extra baggage costs. And sure enough, when Bingham meets a similar minded girl Alex (Vera Farmiga) in a hotel lounge their flirtation involves debating which rental car service is superior, their attraction revolves around their collections of VIP cards and their eventual sex seems more out of a need to pass the time between firings than any sort of lustful desire. There is, however, one thing of meaning that propels Bingham. Because of his constant travelling he wants to be the seventh man in history to accumulate over 10 million Frequent Flier Miles. Such an achievement would provide the only kind of elite status he has to prove he is anything more than nothing. Then something happens. After the young, aptly named, Natalie Keener (Twlight’s Anna Kendrick) is hired, she brings with her plans to save the company money by setting up Internet connections with clients in order to do their work without the constantly high travel expenses. Bingham is quick to reject this proposition and for good reason. Not only is the sole human connection he ever makes going to be taken away from him and automated, but the chance to achieve his goal would be ripped out from under him. Bingham is soon assigned to take Natalie out on the road with him to teach her the ropes of the business. The two initially clash. He can’t understand her naivety and optimism: looking for perfect love, thinking she can change the world, etc, and she can’t understand how his life has become so simple and meaningless, and all the while we are reminded of that virginal young girl in the cafĂ© across from Marcello in La Dolche Vita. Along the way Bingham subverts his course in order to take pictures of a cardboard cut-out of his sister and her fiancĂ© (ala the dwarf in Amelie) against famous American backdrops for their wedding. Bingham is estranged from his family, has never met his brother-in-law to be, and can’t understand why anyone would want pictures of themselves in places they have never been before. The answer to Bingham’s ignorance comes during the wedding (the film's center and best section) in which it is revealed that the reason for the gimmick was because the couple could not afford a honeymoon, but still wanted something symbolic in it’s place, and the power of the symbol is both salient and enlightening: the pictures are fake but meaningful, while Bingham’s life is real but empty. It’s the turning point of the film. Up In the Air thus becomes a gentle meditation of the importance upon which North American culture places on career-mindedness and high salary living. The film is only the third from Canadian director Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman after Thank You For Smoking and Juno, who by now should be considered within the upper pantheons of great contemporary directors and here strikes an even balance between what was most rewarding about those two films. It both satirises corporate culture to great humorous effect but also delves deep into the personal psyche in order to examine the toll that such a life takes on the very fundamentals of living. The American Dream, it is shown, has failed us again. Thus, Bingham, through his relationship with the two woman and his life and from his time at home with family, slowly grows to realize that life is nothing without, not only things to be proud of, but people to share the pride along with. Like Marcello, he’s seen too many things and been around too long to even break out of the mould he’s set for himself. Yet his story is not one of tragedy but one of hope. It’s too late for him, but there’s still life beyond the flight schedule board for the rest of us.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Golden Globes 2010

So I just finished watching the Golden Globes. It was the first time I've ever watched the entire show because, quite frankly, I don't care much about television and the Golden Globes always seemed to me to be the poor man's Oscars. They aren't as funny, as shamelessly glamours, and their comedy categories give a certain credibility to films that would otherwise be thrown on the scrap heap to be forgotten about as history moves on without them. I'm talking about stuff like The Proposal, It's Complicated, Sherlock Holmes, Julie and Julia, and Nine. I'm not going to talk about the winners and whether or not they were truly the best in their category (okay I'll do it once: 500 Days of Summer was clearly a better film than The Hangover, and really, Robert Downey Jr.?) because, unlike other years, I haven't seen all the nominees and therefore don't have the adequate information to pass informed judgements. What I want to do is make an observation. The other day I was reading Matt Singer's brief review of An Education over at Termite Art and he made the comment that TV is getting so good that it is beginning to overshadow the cinema. This comes as absolute horror to me as someone who has lived and breathed cinema and kept TV at even greater than an arms length away. But as I was watching the Golden Globes and seeing all the TV nominees for shows I've never seen like Big Love, Dexter, True Blood, Glee, and so on, I realized that Singer was maybe on to something, especially when compared to those above listed nominated films like Julie and Julia and It's Complicated.

Then I got to thinking back over what were the most popular films of 2009: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, New Moon, Night at the Museum 2, Terminator: Salvation, and the absolute stinkiest of them all, Transformers: Rise of the Fallen. It was a depressing realization: Hollywood really was in the crapper this year. It's 2009 and instead of producing our own contemporary classics the best we can do is honour a hack musical remake of one of Fellini's most invaluable masterpieces? Then Martin Scrosese took the stage to accept the Cecil B. Demille Award and things got worse for me. Sitting through a montage of one of America's most value directors' work, I was left thinking: There were more essential, classic, absolutely unforgettable moments in those few minutes of montage then there have been in all of 2009. I considered myself definitely depressed. And then, with the TV awards behind and the major awards just over the horizon, I was reminded that, even if 2009 looked and felt like a total wash, amid all the meaningless wreckage, were films made out of the very stuff that make us fall in love again and again with the cinema every day of our lives. Film's like Inglourious Basterds, 500 Days of Summer, Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker and Avatar. Then Jeff Bridges, one of America's true acting treasures, won best actor for Crazy Heart (a film I have yet to see) and was given a standing ovation. "Yes," I thought, "these moments are the reason why we film lovers stick it out even through the worst of years." It was a reminder of what is still, after over 100 years of history, the most unchanged fundamental necessities of film: good actors, playing strong characters, immersed in good stories. Then, as Avatar began winning all the big awards, I was indeed satisfied in my realization that the most popular film of the year was also the best. It wasn't the one about mutant super heroes, vampire lovers, living museum displays, intergalactic robots or any other such gimmick. It wasn't based on a theme part ride, a video game or a toy chain. It wasn't a sequel, a remake, a reboot, or any other such quick money making scheme. It was a bold, beautiful, original piece of art and a glorious entertainment to boot. And it is a film that I hope Hollywood has learned a valuable lesson from: that people essentially crave and are drawn to new concepts and new ideas that are presented in classical film conventions (stories told with pictures). In 20, 10, even 5 years Twilight and Transformers will simply be the bad aftertaste of an era in filmmaking in which big studios thought they could get away with phoning it in. So, in spite of everything, I must hold my head up high and look forward to tomorrow because, no matter how bleak it may look right now, as history has proven and as Brandon Lee so truthfully said in The Crow: "It can't rain all the time." A complete list of Golden Globe winners can be found here, and probably just about everywhere else too.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Avatar Backlash Continued...

Yesterday I posted about how Italian parent groups were speaking out against Avatar opening in Italy today with a G rating, meaning any kid off the street could get in to see it. My reaction: So?

Then today a story popped up on Scanners: Blog written by Jim Emerson, who quotes attacks on Avatar from both Vatican newspapers and radio stations. The criticism states that the church is worried that Avatar preaches that nature is something to be worshipped, making it into a new sort of religion separate from God. This gets me for several reasons. The first is the most obvious: when will the Vatican learn that their public outrages usually do nothing but promote the very works they cry out against? And really, having taken the top Box Office spot for 4 weeks in a row in North America, and slowly inching it's way to breaking the worldwide Box Office record set by Titanic in 1997, does the Vatican really think they are going to stop this lumbering beast? And why should they? At the very least, Avatar is glorious entertainment and is a masterpiece on that level alone. Now the theoretical problems with this criticism. Not surprisingly, none of the church criticism makes it explicitly clear why nature is not something to be worshipped. Taken from the Catholic perspective, Genises outlines the six days in which God slaved to create nature and everything that it is comprised of: trees, water, animals, etc. He then took the seventh day to rest and admire his work. Why then, if nature is one of God's most precious creations, should it not be worshipped? In a sense, if nature is a creation of God, then nature is in some way a form of God and therefore to worship nature is to worship God, no? If ever you are looking for a symbolic representation of God in the movies, the Na'vi Tree of Voices, which knows all and contains all of the history of the Na'vi race, is one such instance. If you believe this, then is Avatar not a fable about a war in which to protect God's creation (or, on a more fundamental level, religion) from being destroyed under the greed and injustice of contemporary capitalism? If anything, Avatar instructs us away from the all consuming influence of the man-made city and back into the woods where he can once again become one with nature and thus one with God. To see the destruction of nature would mean the destruction of religion. If anything, Pandorum stands in as a surrogate Garden of Eden. To take it another way, the Na'vi are presented as Natives of the land. Anyone who knows anything about Native American religion, knows that it revolves around nature. The scene in which Sully asks an indigenous creature for its permission to kill it is right out of Native belief. The soul is that of the animal and it must offer it to you, for you have no right to just take it. Taken this way the film has nothing to do with Catholicism and the Vatican should just butt out completely. To disown a film that mimics the practices and ideologies of Native spiritually is simply a way for the Vatican to put itself at the center of attention and, as it always does so well, hold Catholicism above all other religions. Maybe the Vatican could rest easier it night were it to realize that for a work to present one form of spiritual belief does not signal attack against all others. The Vatican is like the big bully on the playground who won't let anyone else but it's friends play on the jungle gym. For me, as I stated in my Avatar review, the meaning of the film exists not on the level of the physical, but on both a symbolic and a poetic level. Religion doesn't even factor into the equation. The message is not to replace God with nature because belief in one is better than the other, but that it is easy to be corrupted by the greed of civilization and that, to find oneself, we need to be reacquainted with the tranquillity and simplicity of nature (i.e. our own personal history) where time slips away and one is truly free to be oneself in what is essentially a society-less society. It's a lesson that's been at the heart of Western literature since the dawn of Manifest Destiny where the West invaded the South, tamed the savages and built a society from which capitalism and consumerism could prevail. To be one with nature is thus not about shunning God, but about reorganizing your life and your personal priorities in order to find the essence of what is most meaningful to you. If anything, such a life would bring one closer to God, whatever a person's belief or conception of Him may be. Is this not exactly what happens to Sully once assimilated into Na'vi life? The Vatican doesn't acknowledge this though because, in reality, their one-sided protesters probably haven't bothered to see the movie anyway.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Leap Year Review

Leap Year, the new romantic comedy with Amy Adams and Matthew Goode provided many many things that I expected it to: silly comedy, an improbable plot, a contrived story, an all around forgettable experience and so on. And then it did one thing I never expected: It involved, as mainstream romantic comedies so rarely do, real people with real dimensions and not just broad generalizations of comic caricatures. Not the leads, not the support, and not even the old Irish bed and breakfast owners and their Italian borders. The film may go for easy laughs, but it avoids all the potential for cheap, lazy ones. That’s a quality both refreshing and unexpected in this kind of film. The story itself may be pure fairytale, but it still somehow manages to exist in a real world. These characters are not just the creation of some scriptwriter who needs a laugh or a way to connect plot points as romantic comedy characters so often are. This lends an air of authenticity to the whole project up to the point where, against all reasonable and logical odds, you actually care what will happen to these people as they travel the Irish countryside because they seem to grow together on their own terms. What more could one ask for? The story involves Anna (Adams) who has etched out a career in decorating houses with furniture and other such nick-knacks so that they look nice to potential buyers, until the deal is made at which point she packs up her stuff and moves on to the next project. She’s essentially a highly paid con artist.
After being given a pair of earrings over dinner by her surgeon boyfriend of four years when she was expecting a ring and a proposal, Anna is crushed. Jeremy, the doctor, then flies off to Dublin for a medical convention leaving Anna back home to be reminded of an old Irish tradition that states, on the eve of a leap year, a woman can propose to a man. I don’t know. It seems to me that if you need to chase a man around the globe for his love, maybe he isn’t worth the effort in the first place. Regardless, as Anna’s luck would have it, the leap year just so happens to be coming up in a few days. However, as these things must, bad weather forces Anna’s plane to land in a small Irish town situated hours from Dublin. She seeks out a taxi driver named Declan (Goode) who also doubles as the pub and hotel owner. It’s the kind of place where the same two or three customers haunt the stools every day like the ghosts of lives gone by. Declan initially rejects Anna’s need for a ride, until the possibility of losing the pub leaves him needing cash and without options. Predictably, the journey is not a nice one as Anna and Declan have a clash of personalities. She’s prim and proper and used to being in complete control of herself and he’s rough, unshaven, thinks the whole leap year legend is a bunch of bollocks and decides she must be crazy for naming her bag Louis (apparently Louis Vuitton isn’t big around the Irish countryside). This is a plot almost as old as the cinema itself, or at least since Spender Tracy and Katherine Hepburn made it popular so many decades ago. The story of a man and a woman of completely different backgrounds being forced together under unlikely circumstances, hating each other and then slowly growing to love each other as they talk like civilized people and begin to accept the others’ company. The film then must rely heavily on the presence of its stars, as half the fun of films like this is in seeing how new actors drop themselves into familiar material and transform it to suit their own personality. It’s also the ultimate testament to great acting in seeing a star being able to turn virtually nothing into something that even mildly shows signs of life. It’s no surprise that Amy Adams can pull a feat like that. She’s so unapologetically lovely, so chipper and yet so classy that she’s always a pleasure to be in the company of. Here is a woman who makes even the worst of films seem better than they have any right to be. Then there is Matthew Goode who is a real discovery. He’s starred in dramatic and intelligent fare in the past such as Brideshead Revisited and Watchmen but here he proves to have a real comic presence. He is as rugged and handsome as fellow U.K. star Gerard Butler, but has a lot more charm, depth and a better ear for comedy as he steals most of the films funniest lines. And then there’s the inevitable ending, which is as contrived as it is unlikely, and raises many logical questions that it has no intention of addressing. But by that point Adams and Goode have worked their charm and we can buy them as a legitimate couple, which we actually hope they will become. In my review for last year’s The Proposal I gave a positive rating but made sure to imply that it was simply out of desperation: the world has been subjected to so many horrible mainstream romantic comedies that sometimes feel strained to even fly by on autopilot that it was inspiring to see one with even the faintest sings of life. Now here is Leap Year, which follows the same kind of story headfirst into the same kinds of directions and I recommend it open-heartedly for all the same reasons but also because it is nicer, sweeter and more human.

Avatar Controversy

Let the backlash begin. Variety is reporting that Avatar, which opens tomorrow in Italy, has got Italian parent groups up in arms over the film's G rating. Unlike the U.S. Italy, like Canada, has no PG-13 rating, just under 14 not admitted or under 18 not admitted. The groups are crying out that the G rating doesn't protect their children from the intense war violence and smoking seen in the film.

Let's be real. Of all the things in the world to protest against, is kids being allowed to see Avatar really that big of a deal? There is nothing personally in the film that I would object to a child seeing, and I'd rather my kids (if I had them) seeing something with a positive message than most of the loud, empty-headed junk that passes for family films these days.

I understand when the Italians were upset when Mel Gibson's violence-ridden Apocalypto was released with a G rating in 2007 but as far as film-related backlashes go, this one is pretty weak.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Celebrities Behaving Badly: Quentin Tarantino

There's no news or editorializing here. I just wanted to express how much I love it when celebrities are caught behaving badly. I loved Christian Bale's freak out on the set of Terminator Salvation, I loved David O. Russell throwing a spazz at Lilly Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees or headbutting George Clooney on the set of Three Kings and Bill O'Riley losing it while filming Inside Edition still makes me laugh out loud every time. However, there may be none more apologetic in their public displays of childish behaviour than Quentin Tarantino. From flipping off a booer at Cannes while accepting the Palm D'Or for Pulp Fiction, to insulting a reporter on TV who called Kill Bill senselessly violent and misogynistic, to spitting on someone on the Oscar red carpet in the 90s, Tarantino never seems to lose his class. Here is one of my favourite videos of him, slapping a paparazzi in a Starbucks parking lot. This officially cements Tarantino as the hippest Hollywood bad boy to beat. I know it's an oldy, but it's still a goody.

Filmic Measures: The Chocolate Bar Movie

Hollywood, more often then not, has a constant tendency to churn out the same thing under a different name, with different actors with such determined regularity that it is sometimes hard to discern the decent stuff from the junk. It is therefore, I have found, somewhat fruitful to employ certain critical standards in which to place all like-minded films against in order to accurately evaluate their worth. I now coin for you the term: The Chocolate Bar Movie.
The logic and inspiration behind the phrase come form two separate sources. The term itself comes from a conversation I once had, while the actual theoretical logic behind it comes from Plato. In his dialogue Gorgias, Socrates has a debate with the title character over the profession of oratory. In trying to argue that oratory is not a skill of worth, Socrates outlines two categories under which all professions fall: crafts and knacks. A craft, Socrates explains, is something which produces a product that helps to better society: carpentry, medicine, etc.
A knack however is something, which provides simple pleasures that are enjoyable in the moment in which they are used or consumed. This pleasure however, only lasts in that moment and once it is gone so is any joy it provided. Socrates gives the examples of pastry baking and cosmetics as knacks. As George Carlin once answered when asked how he felt after taking drugs: "I feel like taking more drugs."
The other story involves me and a friend sitting in a car at a drive-in during intermission. My friend was asking me what I thought about some romantic comedy that she had recently seen and, as far as my memory serves me, enjoyed to quite some degree. "I enjoyed it," I said, "and then forgot about it." She tried to persuade me into thinking the film in question was more than forgettable. That's when the analogy dawned on me. "Movies like that," I said, Plato firmly in mind, "are like chocolate bars. You enjoy them while you are eating them, but once they are gone there is nothing memorable about the experience because you know there will always be another one exactly as good as that one waiting for you whenever you desire it." Has anyone, after all, ever eaten a chocolate bar that has changed their lives? I certainly have no experiences so singular that they stick out in my mind as being better than all the rest. It just doesn't happen.
A lot of mainstream films are like that too. You can enjoy them while they are playing, but they leave no lasting impression that exceeds the moment when the lights go up or the DVD is ejected because, well, there will probably be something almost exactly the same to be seen next week or next month.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Eric Rohmer: R.I.P

I was only planning on doing one post today but sadly I am forced to write a second for Eric Rohmer, one of the cinema's greatest treasures, has died at the age of 89. Rohmer was one of the central filmmakers who went from writing about film in the immortal Cahiers du Cinema in Paris to spearheading the French New Wave during the 1960s into international acclaim. Often overlooked in favour of the two most famous showboats of the New Wave: Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Rohmer was always my favourite. There was something so utterly calm and yet so hopelessly romantic about almost all of his work. They were the kind of films that had the breezy Romanticism of a classic French poem, the lightness and tranquillity of a fairy tale, but also had a human love of people and the details of their behaviour. No one but Rohmer could make you appreciate the unmistakable pleasures of wind blowing through your hair or the sound of pebbles shifting under your feet. However Rohmer was also the great philosopher of the human heart. His characters knew love and heartbreak, passion, desire, flirtation, affection, and so on and weren't afraid to lay themselves bare in order to analyze it. Not only did they act out their romances, but they talked about them. Long passages of many Rohmer films are dedicated simply to characters talking about feelings and desires, urges and impulses. That's what fascinated Rohmer and what was to be most cherished about him: he loved the thoughts and actions that occur in the margins of life. Because of it he was one of the most unapologetically romantic filmmakers there ever was, with many of the films playing like a valentine to their characters. Of course Rohmer was not for everyone. Gene Hackman spoke a famous line in Arther Penn's 1975 film Night Movies: "I once saw a Rohmer film. It was like watching paint dry." Fair enough, but that was also one of Rohmer's most endearing qualities: that his characters were intelligent and literate and were allowed to simply talk until they had run out of things to say. Rohmer never reduced his films to characters following the conventions of a redundant plot. Rather, all one needed to know about the plot of the films was in the title. Everything else was human drama.

Werner Herzog

During my down time over the Christmas break I managed to catch up on a few of the movies over the last couple years that have eluded me for one reason or another. One such film was Zak Penn's slightly amusing Christopher Guest-like mockumentary The Grand about a Las Vegas poker tournament and all the colourful characters who participate in it. What inspired me though is that one of the film's stars was German madman director Werner Herzog, who steals the show and also starred in Penn's slightly amusing debut mockumentary The Incident at Loch Ness.

What strikes me about Herzog, whose work I admire very much, is how, despite his reputation and his self-parodying appearances in films like The Grand, these things never undermine his reputation as a unique and original voice in filmmaking. It is testament to the true talent of his craft that, despite his personal exploits, which would overshadow the whole of a lesser talent's entire career, his own films always manage to be grander and more extravagant experiences in and of themselves tham his headlines manage to be.

This is, after all, a man whose actions have, by now, became the stuff of myth and legend: stories that, if they didn't involve Herzog, you probably wouldn't believe them. True or not (and in most cases I believe they probably are), here are some of the best:
  • Herzog threatens to murder actor Klaus Kinski if he walked off the set of Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1972. This would be the first of many such incidents. For a nice look deeper into the Herzog/Kinski relationship, his 1999 tribute documentary My Best Fiend is worth a look.
  • Herzog promises that he will eat his shoe if Errol Morris ever completes work of his debut documentary Gates of Heaven. The event was captured in Les Blank's short documentary, aptly titled Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe. The short can be found as an extra on the Criterion DVD version of Blank's insightful documentary on Herzog and the making of Fitzcarraldo, Burden of Dreams. You can also see it free here.
  • Herzog is shot in the stomach by a sniper while conducting an interview outside in L.A. See the video here.
  • Herzog contracts malaria after being put in an African jail for being mistaken as a German mercenary.
  • In order to reward his dwarf cast for completing Even Dwarfs Started Small in 1970, Herzog jumps into a cactus patch.
  • Hearing that his film historian friend Lotte Eisner was ill and probably going to die, Herzog, deciding that she was far too influential to German cinema to die, set out on foot from Munich to Paris, believing that completing the walk would save her life. His journals during the adventure were published under the title Of Walking In Ice and also inspired a fan to do something similar in the 2006 documentary Walking to Werner.
  • After Joaquin Phoenix is in a car accident in Beverly Hills, Herzog mysteriously appears, saves Phoenix and disappears.
And yet, in spite of all this fodder (certainly more interesting than what passes for celebrity gossip these days) Werner Herzog's films and documentaries stand as bold, original works by an artist who dances only to his own beat. If you haven't seen a single work by Herzog now is the time to start.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Avatar Review

James Cameron waited 12 years to follow up his mega blockbuster Titanic but, at the end of 2009, he couldn’t have chosen a better time to return to his thrown as the king of big budget cinema. Cameron’s newest film Avatar is a revelation; a godsend: proof that there are still people in Hollywood who know how to make something meaningful and coherent with $250 million (or however much it cost). Like Steven Speilberg and David Lean before them, Cameron knows how to wrap his head around epic stories and turn them into something spectacular. And even though Avatar is an event of endless special effects and adrenaline fueled excitement, Cameron also knows that special effects are best served when they are enhancing a films reality not substituting it. In 2009 where one film after another off the Hollywood dream factory assembly line has been a noisy, hollow, brain-dead exercise in special effects crashing head on into other special effects, Cameron manages to tell a real story around the spectacle with a real purpose that involves real characters that, despite being mostly animated, an audience can get wrapped up in. It’s also one of those rare films that shows that special effects are more than hyper speed flashes of colour and noise. They can have depth and gravity, be quiet and tranquil and yet are, at times, so hauntingly beautiful, that we wish, more than anything, for them to go on forever. Avatar is not just an event or an extravaganza then (although it is both), but a modern American masterpiece: a reminder of all the reasons we go to the movies in the first place: to laugh and cry, to be exhilarated, to be dazzled with unimaginable sights and, most of all, to have our hearts and minds stolen away for a brief time in the process. The story begins with a crippled marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Sully finds himself on the planet Pandorum which has been invaded by humans after the crumbling of Earth. On Pandorum is a special unit of scientists who have created avatars: lifelike replicas of the local native race Na’vi that are genetically modified to fit the body of those who will occupy them. The purpose of this experiment is to instill trust in the Na’vi in order for the humans to better understand them and their world. Sully is selected to be part of the Avatar team because, not only does his disability render him useless to the marines but because originally on the project was his twin brother before his death, meaning that his Avatar matches Sully’s DNA perfectly. In charge of the operation is Dr. Grace Augustine (played with a typical hard edge by Sigourney Weaver) who is not impressed to have an inexperienced fighter on her team when what she needs is a scientist. Unbeknownst to her, the top humans see this opportunity as an easy in and order Sully to report back to them with any information he uncovers from the Na’vi as their home just so happens to sit atop a valuable mineral that would be worth millions to the Americans. If Sully can’t convince them to vacate peacefully, they’ll simply bulldoze the place. Upon making contact with the Na’vi through Neytiri, the daughter of the tribe leaders, the Na’vi accept Sully to the dismay of her warrior brother who is adamant in his belief that Sully can never be a true Na’vi. Slowly but surely, as Sully learns about the Na’vi and their way of life he falls in love with Neytiri, admitting this to her in one of the film’s most wonderfully romantic scenes. What is particularly remarkable here is how, even though the Na’vi and their environment is completely computer generated, Cameron manages to provide his characters with discernible physical characteristics and human personalities that allow an audience to connect with them and their story on a individual level. Although none of them are real, their characters are so well defined, their relationships so human and their story so meaningful that they begin to take on a certain human dimension until the illusion of watching animation has completely evaporated and there is no disorientation present as the film cuts between animation and its human actors. What Sully learns is that the Na’vi has a specific psychological connection to nature and their surroundings through their ponytails. With them they can connect mentally with animals that they can then control for hunting purposes and with their sacred tree which holds all of their heritage and memories. This of course touches Sully deeply and he begins to turn against the Americans who desire personal gain even at the expense of obliterating a species. This story is the stuff of classic American folklore and Western storytelling: of the civilized man who enters back into the wild in order to tame it and introduce it to progress. Only this time that man is consumed by the purity and tranquility of the wilderness and finds himself reborn into the true, uncomplicated utopia of Na’vi existence. The film thus stops being an evolved special effects blockbuster and instead reveals itself as social commentary. The parallels to Iraq and the ingrained anti-war statements are clear, but even more meaningful is the inherent contradiction of this message within the medium of this film: as if Cameron is taking us both forwards and backwards at the same time. It’s evolution through devolution. That the message of returning and being reborn into nature, occurs in such a technically evolved film, packed to the brim with state-of-the-art special effects and exhilarating action sequences, is very heartening. Cameron knows, as all great storytellers must, that the best, most meaningful stories or parables are born from the lessons of the past. That’s how they derive their meaning. That’s why people relate to them. In a world consumed by technology, all we really yearn for is to be reintroduced to the simplicity of nature. That’s why almost every big budget, special effects driven Hollywood film in 2009 failed: they neglected to tell meaningful stories at the expense of the spectacle. That Cameron manages to tell one, especially one as powerful and socially relevant as this one, is a breathtaking reminder of what films used to and still can be. So then, in the third act, when war breaks out between the Na’vi and the humans, resulting in an unending action sequence of such visual mastery that it must be seen to be believed (none of this shaky, incomprehensible stuff that passes for action sequences these days), this outcome is justified as the story has earned it by investing our personal interests in the results of the war. I’m reminded then, of a great Christopher Walken scene in Poolhall Junkies in which he leans over to the hero and asks him if he ever watches the animal channel. He tells the kid how the lion, king of the jungle, sits around all day while the other animals go around, giving him flack until one day he gets up and tears into all of them. Why does he do it? To show them who he is. With Titanic, and now Avatar, James Cameron has shown himself to be that lion. In 2009, while Hollywood drowns its credibility in a sea of meaningless special effects spectacles, Cameron returns from hibernation to show us what great films can achieve. This isn’t just a film: it’s film history being written.

The Best Films of the Decade: 2000-2009

Note- Because of a contractual agreement with Suite101 that nothing I publish for them will appear anywhere else on the internet for up to a year after the publication I can't post my actual list in this space. But because of the word count regulations and mandate that everything be written in the third person (ugh!), I couldn't post my introduction or honourable mentions. Therefore, I am posting those things here and then linking to the list itself.

I went back and forth in my mind on how to present the decade’s best films. Would I provide a numbered list with a few important honourable mentions or simply just list all films considered in alphabetical order and be done with it? My conclusion was that, either way, it didn’t much matter. To contradict Marshall McLuhan, in this case, the medium is not the message. Does one, after all, get any further insight into the worth of a film in knowing that it is say the fifth best of the decade as opposed to simply being one of ten out of over a thousand potential candidates?

I’ve decided I will provide a numbered list because people like such methods: it makes them feel safe and organized, knowing that things have natural places. But know this: the numbers, except for the first, are completely arbitrary. The number one film has earned its position not because I think it to be of higher aesthetic value, it’s acting, direction, writing to exceed that of the rest, but because it holds the most meaning to me personally. Numbers two through 10 (there are actually 12 picks because I’ve doubled up works by the same director) and all the honourable mentions, could have just as well be number two for all I care. With that said, here are the 10 best films to come out between 2000 and 2009 with some honourable mentions to start.
13 Conversations About One Thing for being an intelligent and philosophical look at how we are connected through both happiness and sadness.

Lost in Translation for being a modern day reinterpretation of La Dolce Vita

Russian Ark for, at over 90 minutes, being the longest tracking shot in the history of cinema (without the aid of computers I might add).

The Dark Knight for being a dark, smart, thought provoking, exhilarating experience; proving that ideas and thrills can in fact work together after all.

Everything Pixar animation studios has released this decade.

Kill Bill for being one of the most oddball entertainments to have come out this decade.

Saraband for being Ingmar Bergman’s last masterpiece.

Everything Pedro Almodovar has made this decade (including Talk to Her, Bad Education, Volver and Broken Embraces)

Northfork for being the saddest and most uplifting film of the decade.

Sin City for creating an entirely new film genre while reviving an old one in the process.

Click for the Best Movies of the Decade


I've arrived, at long last, into the blog world. I've been reluctant to do so over the years, despite much encouragement from those around me. Being a traditionalist it took me a little time to embrace this type of forum as the future of distributing ones work and making ones name for themselves.
So here I am to do just that. When I went into university five years ago, I entered with a dream of being Canada's next great film critic. By the time I exited four years later, such a dream was no longer feasible. Newspapers were on the decline and anyone with an Internet connection could now write publicly about film or anything else they desired. The art of writing and developing a personality became a standardized commodity.

However, the reason I started the blog is the same reason I decided to major in film studies: I love movies. LOVE THEM!. Love them to death really. It's actually borderline obsession. My head is a library of dates and names and terms. I see close to 500 movies a year; I read any book I can get my hands on; I'll speak at length to anyone who is willing to listen, etc. A day where I don't see a movie feels like a day not quite lived to the fullest.

This blog then represents the expression of that love and the desire to share it with anyone who will have it. It's a place where film lovers of all types, tastes and backgrounds will find a roof to converge under. A place free of pretension, elitism, condescending, etc. It will be a collection of reviews, editorials, rants, recommendations, gossip, observations; anything I feel like writing about at the time that relates to film of any sort.

There's a quote in the final moments of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 in which a character (a critic of course) tells the filmmaker that it is better to destroy if one is not creating those precious few necessary things in life. I carry that thought in my back pocket wherever I go and it will certainly be hanging over this space constantly. The idea is to introduce people to the most wonderful films and throw out the trash: to create a form in which intelligent criticism and film talk can exist in a place where intelligent film conversation can be fostered. That's my desire. That's my hope. Enjoy it.