Monday, February 27, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (2/19/12 - 2/25/12)

A Touch of Zen (King Hu) ***1/2 - When a high ranking public official was tortured to death unjustly for a crime he didn't commit, an evil eunuch puts out a death warrant on the rest of his family and they go on the run. This is a pretty good older entry in the wuxia genre of martial arts films. It's over three hours long and the action and plot takes a long while to unfold but when it does, it both figuratively and literally kicks ass. It may not be as slick as today's wuxia films but it still manages to wow.

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz) ***1/2 - This is my first Raoul Ruiz film and I believe this is one of, if not THE last film of his and I have to say it is perfectly crafted swan song. After a boy is conked on the head, his mother, a countess visits him and soon a tale unfolds with all sorts of different characters and storylines going off on various directions. This film reminds me a bit of The Saragossa Manuscript in its numerous flashbacks and tangential plot lines. Its 4.5 hour running time and the various directions make this film a little tough to sit through occasionally but it's such an impeccably crafted, beautiful film that it's definitely well worth it. The twist/ambiguous ending may piss a few people off.

P.S. I got 18 out of 24 correct.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Final Oscar Winners Predictions

Happy Oscar Weekend, everyone! It's a big day for us film geeks and cinephiles as we watch sometimes with pleasure, more often with frustration the annual, gaudy schlock-fest that is the Oscars. Despite all its flaws, I still do love watching and predicting the Oscars. Here are my predictions of what I think will win, I personally feel good about them and it should help you guys in your Oscar pool.

The Artist

Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Viola Davis, The Help

Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Octavia Spencer, The Help

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants


A Separation, Iran

Dante Ferretti (art direction) & Francesca LoSchiavo (set decoration), Hugo

Robert Richardson, Hugo

Michel Hazanavicius and Anne-Sophie Bion, The Artist

Ludovic Bource, The Artist

"Man or Muppet", The Muppets. Bret McKenzie (music & lyrics)

Sandy Powell, Hugo

Tom Fleischman and John Midgely, Hugo

Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom, War Horse

Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White and Daniel Berrett, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Amanda Knight, Nick Dudman and Lisa Tomblin, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


Saving Face

The Shore

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

You're welcome! (if you win) I'm sorry! (if you lose)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Listology # 7: Top 10 Films of 1995

Quite a number of key films are missing from this list but I assure you: I did not forget them.

10. Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld)
John Travolta very wisely builds on his comeback during the 1990's with this very funny adaptation of an Elmore Lenoard novel. A loan shark named Chili Palmer decides to get into the movie business and what follows is probably one of the best satires and send-ups of the Hollywood movie industry made by Hollywood. Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito and Dennis Farina are all very funny in their supporting roles.

09. Babe (Chris Noonan)
This movie turned some people into vegetarians. Not me. I still like bacon...and ham....and pork chops. I mean, it's not a freakin' documentary, people! LOL. What it is is a beautifully made charming fable about a little young pig who wishes to break the mold and prove his self-worth. This is the message of the movie and a lovely message even for unrepentant carnivores.

08. Safe (Todd Haynes)
Julianne Moore gives one of her career-best performances as a suburban housewife who finds herself severely and deathly allergic to the many, many poisonous chemicals that are commonplace in everyday suburban life. This is a compelling one-of-a-kind drama which some interpret as filmmaker Todd Haynes' take on the AIDS crisis. It's a fascinating and very thought-provoking film nonetheless.

07. Se7en (David Fincher)
Pun absolutely intended that coming in at #7 would be Se7en. It's a police procedural, in essence as a young cop (Brad Pitt) and a cop about to retire (Morgan Freeman) investigate a series of grisly murders by a sadistic, methodical serial killer (Kevin Spacey) based around the Seven Deadly Sins. I recently revisited this film and what I realized after watching it is that there's actually very little on-screen violence in the film but the tense, grim atmosphere and the grisly depictions of the murders made the film feel more violent than it really was. This is the film which David Fincher showed that he is a cinematic force to be reckoned with. 

06. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch)
This film is a Western but it's one of the strangest, most surreal Westerns you'll ever see (not THE most surreal, that belongs to El Topo). Johnny Depp plays a meek accountant who goes into a new town for a job only to find really strange things happening to him. This is well worth watching just to see Robert Mitchum in one of his final film roles. 

05. The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer)
This is a twisty intriguing thriller about a heist gone awry and the police detective trying to piece together a crime that involves a group of crooks and a mysterious figure named Keyser Soze. This is one of those films which had film fans and audiences talking for months and months with a twist ending that's now very much iconic. Kevin Spacey won his first and more deserved Oscar for this role. 

04. Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater)
A young American man and a young French woman find themselves talking in a train then find themselves connecting with each other and they spend an entire day together. You'll be amazed by how wonderfully entertaining and how much you get swept up by this film which is essentially just consists of two people talking. Yet it's very cinematic. Not mention also very romantic. This is one romantic drama even macho straight guys would want to watch again and again. Followed by an even better sequel in 2004.

03. Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee)
Having subsequently read the book, I can definitely say that this film adaptation of the Jane Austen classic novel is impeccable. Emma Thompson stars and writes the screenplay where she adds some great lines and a sense of fun to the proceedings which could have been way too stuffy and highfalutin in less capable hands. Director Ang Lee translates that great script into a beautifully realized film.

02. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai)
I know that this is technically a 1994 film but it wasn't released in the U.S. until 1995 so I'm putting it here. Whatevs. They're my lists. Anyway, for those of you not in the know, the screen shot that I use as a logo for my blog came from this film. It's about two lovelorn cops and the women they encounter in two separate but complimentary storylines in one really, really awesome film. It features a great soundtrack, beautiful cinematography and breathtaking editing. 

01. Toy Story (John Lasseter)
PIXAR Animation Studios' string of masterpieces and near-masterpieces started with this film and continued for two whole decades. Toy Story is the first fully CGI animated feature film but more than that, it's a damn good film in and of itself. It's also the first animated film to get a screenplay Oscar nomination. Set in a world where toys come to life when humans aren't looking, the film was an instant classic which still endures today despite all the advancements in the technology. Great voice work too.

Runners-Up: Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins); Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis); 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam); Nixon (Oliver Stone); A Little Princess (Alfonso Cuaron). 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Great Scenes # 24: Cache (2005)

Directed by Michael Haneke

WARNING: Do not watch this clip if you're interested in seeing this film. It's much better if you watch without knowing what, how and when it's going to happen. Anyway, for those of you who don't know, this film is an extraordinarily made thriller about a couple who start to receive mysterious packages of videotapes consisting of hours upon hours of footage of their house from across the street. It starts to screw up and unravel their lives. The film is slow and methodical  and really doesn't play like a conventional thriller which is why this particular scene made me jump. The entire film itself is such a thrilling puzzle of a mystery that will make you want to talk about it for hours upon hours.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (2/13/12 - 2/19/12)

The Descendants (Alexander Payne) ***1/2 - Alexander Payne, for me at least, is a mixed bag of a filmmaker. I thought his early work, Citizen Ruth and Election are a lot stronger as a whole, from his latter works, About Schmidt and Sideways. This is like the latter two, an imperfect film, far from a masterpiece but the strong ensemble of actors especially George Clooney in the central role rises above the flaws and give this film a whole lot of depth and emotional heft without being too saccharine or cliched. It's overall a very, very good film.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese) **** - I love film. I'm passionate about film. Director Martin Scorsese through this magnificent film managed to take that love, that passion and put it magically on the screen through a coming-of-age story of sorts of an orphan boy in the train station. The film is unsurprisingly visually dazzling but more than that, it's also a deeply personal work that obviously comes from the heart and it shows. As someone who likes Martin Scorsese, this is definitely in his top five best films. It's one of the best films of the year and any film which captures why the art of cinema is so wonderful is great in my book.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Listology # 6: Top 10 Films of 1994

And the lists continue.....

10. The Last Seduction (John Dahl)
This pulpy neo-noir made headlines in 1994 when its star Linda Fiorentino earned rave reviews and critics awards for her fierce, darkly humorous and deliciously devious performance of an amoral femme fatale but was disqualified from Oscar consideration due to it airing in pay cable first. It's really too bad. She probably would've won otherwise. Apart from that, this is a shining example of contemporary neo-noir that's seldom made these days.

9. Quiz Show (Robert Redford)
During the 1950's, a scandal broke out that a popular game show of the time, 21, is actually rigged causing widespread disgrace to everyone involved. This film is a fascinating dramatization of the scandal which is not simply a TV-is-bad polemic but rather an all-too human story of the seduction of wealth and fame

8. Bullets Over Broadway (Woody Allen)
After the gigantic scandal that threatened his film career, Woody Allen bounced back with this delightfully funny tale about a wannabe playwright trying to get his hacky play on, what else, Broadway with the help of mobsters. The great ensemble have a great time with their showy roles especially Dianne Wiest who won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress for this.

7. Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson)
Before he wowed the world with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, director Peter Jackson and his team disturbed and shocked the cineaste community with this film, shockingly based on a true story, about two teenage girls whose obsessive, unhealthy friendship would lead to them murdering one of their mothers. The film introduced the world to Kate Winslet who pretty shot to superstardom within a year of this film. Apart from the disturbing storyline, it's also erotic and visually dazzling. 

6. Wild Reeds (Andre Techine)
This film is a wonderful, happy discovery of mine. It's a coming-of-age tale between three older teens, two boys and a girl. Two boys experiment sexually one night and makes one of them realize his homosexuality. But then a girl comes in and the other boy falls in love with her not knowing that the other boy is in love with him. It's lovingly made with fine performances by the three leads. 

5. Ed Wood (Tim Burton)

This is a biopic on who many critics and film historians call the "worst director ever", Edward D. Wood Jr. who made some outrageously bad films in his infamous career. So bad, they have earned a strong cult following among genre fans and film fans in general. Director Tim Burton is one of them. He crafted this funny, biting and yet loving film about a man who just loves to make films. Johnny Depp gives one of his career-best performances here but Martin Landau won an Oscar for his great performance as Bela Lugosi. 

4. The Lion King (Rob Minkoff & Roger Allers)
 From the incredible "Circle of Life" sequence which frankly gave me goosebumps when I first saw it in a theater, and all throughout this Hamlet-esque tale set in the animal kingdom of the African Savannah, this is one of my favorites. It features some great songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. It is one of the highlights of Disney's second Golden Age during the late '80s, early '90s. 

3. Hoop Dreams (Steve James)

I hate sports. It's the reason why I kept hesitating watching this film for a while. The sound of it didn't at all sound that appealing to me. It's a three-hour documentary about two boys from the 'hood trying to realize their dream of playing in the NBA. But it's not about basketball at all. It's an emotionally engaging film full of heart about two boys struggling to find their place in the world and trying to make their dreams come true. You need not be a jock to be able to relate to it. It's a documentary, yes, but it pretty much outdoes most other sports films in terms of heart and inspiration.

2. Red (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
The third and final film on co-writer and director Krzysztof Kieslowki's masterful Three Colors trilogy. This one is about a fashion model who befriends an old man who listens into his neighbor's conversations. The film is actually far more emotionally and intellectually engaging than it sounds. This one is widely regarded as the best. I personally like Blue a little more but this one's a great film no less. The Three Colors trilogy as a whole are one great big work from one of the world cinema's masters.

1. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)

Duh. I love a lot of films in my lifetime but few I would describe as "life-changing" and this is one of them. When I saw this as a 14 year old boy in a theater, I walked out of it just knowing I wanted to be involved in film for the rest of my life. This is due to writer-director Quentin Tarantino's violent, darkly funny multi-storied tale of the underground criminal world of L.A. which heavily combines elements from American B-movies and blaxploitation films and the French New Wave into a sick, wonderful piece of cinema which would turn a lot of teenage boys at the time into the cineastes they are today. I'm proudly one of them.

Runners-Up: Speed (Jan DeBont); White (Krzysztof Kieslowski); Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell); True Lies (James Cameron); The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont).

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (2/5/12 - 2/11/12)

The Grey (Joe Carnahan) *** - A plane carrying a group of oil drillers in Alaska crashes and a small group of survivors must survive the elements and a pack of killer wolves. What seems like a typical action-adventure survival story is actually a very interesting, complex meditation on deeper spiritual and religious issues surrounding life, death and the brutality of nature. Liam Neeson delivers one of his best performances in a long, long time in this one after seemingly put on autopilot kicking people's asses in B-action movies the last couple of years. It's not a perfect film but one of the more interesting films so far this season.

The Woman in Black (James Watkins) **1/2 - This is a British ghost story produced by Hammer Films and it's very much reminiscent of creepy haunted house films like The Haunted (the original one) and The Innocents. The film is nowhere near as great as those aforementioned films but is a passable enough entry to the genre with a few good atmospheric scares. Daniel Radcliffe acquits himself well in his first role playing an adult although I did have a bit of trouble buying him as a widowed lawyer even with the stubble. All in all, far from horrible but also far from the best of the genre.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Listology # 5: Top 10 Films of 1993

Ah yes. I thought this would be a cool idea to build up to my finalized Top 10 of 2011 list. I thought I'd save and finalize my top 10 lists of the past years, about one a week and work my way up to 2011. Why start at 1993? Because 1993 is the year where I started to actually really take films very seriously and I really started to follow the comings and goings of the film world enough that could legitimately create a Top 10 list based on the films I've seen that were first released that year. Let's start.

10. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg)
Can you imagine my 13 year old self watching this film for the very first time? Oh, boy. My heart was pounding and my jaw was agape with wonder at the sight of dinosaurs coming to life. It is one of the films where I was first very much made aware by the role of the director. He also made the audience that I was with SCREAM which I've never experienced before. For all its flaws Jurassic Park still holds up remarkably well.

9. The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese)
Director Martin Scorsese once referred to The Age of Innocence as his most violent film, though unlike a lot of his previous films, no one gets shot or stabbed. The violence of course is referring to the inner turmoil and heartbreak this film depicts. A highly unusual project from the director known for his violent crime dramas, he nevertheless succeeds in similarly gripping the audience with this emotionally devastating love triangle based on the classic novel by Edith Wharton.

8. Searching for Bobby Fischer (Steven Zaillian)
This is a truly remarkable film based on the true story of a real life chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin. You need not be a chess fan to be fascinated by this well-acted and extremely well-crafted family-friendly drama that manages to be inspiring without being overtly cliched and sappy.

7. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick)
Tim Burton produced this now classic stop-motion animated film about Jack Skellington, the ruler of Halloween discovering the joy of Christmas and decides he wants it for himself resulting in scary, funny chaos and complications. It's one of those films I just love revisiting again and again during either Halloween or Christmas. Great score too by Danny Elfman.

6. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis)
I guess I first started realizing Bill Murray was not only a great comedic actor but a great actor full-stop while I was watching this film. It's about a cynical local news weatherman who is forced to repeat the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over until he gets it right. An ingenious concept of a film and so brilliantly executed. Bill Murray and the talented supporting cast never makes it boring and it's infinitely rewatchable.
5. The Piano (Jane Campion)
This is probably one of the first, like, real arthouse cinema I've ever seen. This is a pure, visionary piece of work from writer-director Jane Campion about a voluntarily mute woman who pours her emotions on the titular musical instrument. It's erotic, emotional and occasionally shockingly violent even.  Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin both deservedly won Oscars for their work here and so did Campion's beautifully written screenplay.
4. Farewell, My Concubine (Chen Kaige)
This is a visual feast for the senses as director Chen Kaige takes the audience into the lives of two Chinese opera actors. It's a gay man-straight-man-straight woman love triangle and at the same time a heartbreaking tale of unrequited love. Great performances by the cast and I do believe this is where I first saw the brilliant actress that is Gong Li.

3. Short Cuts (Robert Altman)
Director Robert Altman juggles multiple characters and multiple storylines into one, big tapestry of a film. Based on the works by Raymond Carver, this film contains stories that are tragic, some are funny, some are absurd and some have a little bit of all three. They're brought to life by a large ensemble of actors. It's three hours long but it's never boring.

2. Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
This is the first film in Polish writer-director Krzysztof Kieslowki's Three Colors trilogy and personally, I think it's the best. Juliette Binoche delivers one of her career-best performances (interesting trivia: She turned down a role in Jurassic Park to do this film) as a woman who loses her daughter and husband in a car crash. Add to all that drop dead gorgeous cinematography and musical score and it truly makes this one a real must-see for anyone who gives a damn about film.

1. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)
Yes, I'm bookending this list with Spielberg films because 1993 was really one of his big years. I actually first learned about the horrors of the Holocaust through this film. I knew Hitler was a bad guy but I never thought he was *this* bad. The film may not even be my favorite film on the subject but it's definitely up there. Steven Spielberg has delivered some visceral and emotional thrills before this but he puts his directorial talents to good use to depict a horrific, violent, unflinching yet also emotional and heartbreaking look into the most tragic chapters in human history.

Runners-up: The Fugitive (Andrew Davis), The Remains of the Day (James Ivory), In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen), The Secret Garden (Agnieszka Holland), True Romance (Tony Scott).

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Great Scenes # 23: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

It still amazes me to this day that this film, a serial killer horror film released in February, swept the major categories at the Academy Awards which tend to favor sweeping, feel-good epics over contemporary genre flicks. The Silence of the Lambs is such a great film that it still shocks and thrills people to this day. Perhaps one of the most chilling scenes in the film is not a scene of violence or gore but this scene when Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter drills and psychoanalyzes Agent Clarice Starling to reveal deep, personal information about herself. My mentor once told me that this scene illustrates that Hannibal Lecter is not only a literal cannibal but he's also an emotional cannibal as well. This is a cannibalistic scene in which Hannibal is eating Clarice Starling's psyche to satisfy his sick perverted pleasure. This is probably the scene which sealed the Oscar wins for both Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Weekly Round-Up (1/29/12 - 2/4/12)

Haywire (Steven Soderbergh) **1/2 - This is an interesting piece of work. What it is, it's essentially a pure B-movie plot done in the distinctive Soderbergh-style, almost arthouse in its look and pacing. It sort of/kind of works but it would have been better if Gina Carano was a slightly better actress. She kicks ass extremely well but she's a barely adequate actress. The supporting cast (except for Channing Tatum, who's slightly BELOW adequate) give interesting performances. All in all, a nice try.

Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini) **** - A married couple from England travel to Italy to sell off the house inherited to them by a dead relative and soon they realize how fragile their marriage really is. Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders are terrific as the couple and director Roberto Rossellini's use of the sights and sounds of Italy to juxtapose and reflect on the couple's relationship lends a lot of complexity and layers to the film. It's a fantastic piece of filmmaking.

 Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards) **** - I saw this as doing my part to commemorate my friend, Damien Bona (see post below) since this is his favorite film of all time. Though I don't rate it as highly as he does, I do think it is one of the best romantic comedies ever made. Mickey Rooney's offensive yellow-face performance as an offensive Japanese stereotype should NOT tarnish its reputation.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher) *** - Having already read the book and seen the original Swedish adaptation, this English-language version of the same story holds very little surprises. Apart from the terrific opening titles sequence, David Fincher's filmmaking style actually does not do all that much to make this any more than just a solid thriller. Overall, i think the Swedish original film was better as an adaptation. I do however think that Rooney Mara made a better Lisabeth Salandar than Noomi Rapace. She is EXACTLY how I imagined the character to be when I read the book. It's not one of Fincher's best works.

Chronicle (Josh Trank) ***1/2 - I was very wary of the "found footage" format of this film. But I was surprised by how much it actually worked, at least for the most part. This film manages to combine two genres that are starting to show signs of fatigue and twisted it enough to make it new and fresh. It is a terrifically entertaining, above-average superhero movie (or should I say, an anti-superhero movie). It helps that the actors lend an air of credibility. Dane DeHaan in particular was terrific and he's an actor to watch out for, I believe.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Great Scenes # 22: Skin Deep (1989)


Directed by Blake Edwards

As indicated in the post below, I lost one of my film mentors this week. So my "Great Scenes" entry is also a tribute to him. He has listed this as one of his 100 favorite films of all time. Although I don't rank or regard quite as high, I do agree that it's one of the most underrated comedies out there since it was critically dismissed at the time. It's Skin Deep and it's a sex comedy about an alcoholic serial womanizer played by the late John Ritter who gets into a ton of trouble because of his propensity for cheating and hurting his lovers. The most famous (or infamous) scene in this film is the glow-in-the-dark condoms scene which is one of the earliest use of CGI on film. However, I think the funniest scene in the film (and one of the funniest scenes EVER) is this one. After trying to make amends with one of his many girlfriends, John Ritter's character subjects himself to an "electro-stimulation" with hilarious results. It's a combination of John Ritter's talent for physical comedy and Blake Edwards' eye for comedy.