Monday, December 29, 2008

DJG / The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight * * *
Directed by: Christopher Nolan / 2008

Even with a Best Picture Oscar in its hands, which I’m still trying to figure out, I never thought I'd see a movie more overrated than 1998's "Shakespeare in Love." But, congratulations are in store for you, Christopher Nolan, you're latest Batman takes my spoiled cake and I secretly hope that you only gobble up a Best Supporting Actor at the big dance.

With my track record on Nolan films and eternal dislike for "Batman Begins", I have been prepping for "Dark Knight" disappointment for about six months to a year now. But, don't get me wrong...I DID try to like this movie. The past couple of weeks I'd finally worked myself up to seeing "The Dark Knight". I knew that it was going to be a cold calculated and hard boiled machine of a movie, and with a so-called legendary performance from Heath Ledger. Though, just when I was starting to warm up to “The Dark Knight”, it failed me. Most importantly, I've come to realize that one shouldn't speak of their lack of love for the new Batman movies in public as everyone and their grandmother are in love with Nolan’s vision and my childhood love is beaten and lost in the heartless debris chunks of a mediocre movie that is close to sinking the box office ice berg that “Titanic” set back in the late ‘90s.

Heath Ledger's lip-licking, make-up smeared, insanely creepy-cool Joker acting genius is the only reason to even give a hoot for "The Dark Knight". Well, I take that back, because I did find great enjoyment in the opening bank robbery and the well-orchestrated truck and motorcycle chase half-way. Maybe because both scenes have solid action and thrills stolen straight out of a Michael Mann heist movie page? Credit is also due to the dark and cold scenic cityscape of Chicago in providing a wonderful asset for swooping shot backdrops. I understand their cooperation for actual special effects and pyrotechnics to be very applauding. Chicago, you've got Gotham in you!

However, all of the things I actually enjoyed and found to be absolutely worth the hype about "The Dark Knight" only accumulate for about 30 minutes of a bloated blah of a Batman that lost my interest less than halfway through. The rest of "The Dark Knight" is a giant melting pot filler of celluloid. Maybe I'm being too critical and harsh? Maybe it's because I think that Christopher Nolan is just as overrated as his movies and I find his films to lack character and plot development. Movies are filler in their own right, but I love them and how in the world am I missing the boat on Nolan and his Batman franchise? I’ve tried so hard to like them, I even did my homework. And Christian Bale’s hot-shot play boy Bruce Wayne is decent at best, but when he puts the cape and cowl on I just can't take Batman seriously. By the end of the film I didn't care if my boyhood hero lived or died, same with the thousands of Gotham citizens and police officers whose lives were on the line. I could have cared less. Am I the heartless one? So, it’s cemented, I don't like this new Batman stuff. I get that Nolan's Batman is all down to cold cutting, brass knuckled business, but give me Tim Burton’s fun operatic and comic book backdrop “Batman” any day.

Now back to the late Heath Ledger. Academy Awards don't define the movies. They don’t define actors. It's all nice, but ultimately nothing but hardware and looks great on paper for future film fans and the cinema archives. However, as Ledger's family accepts a posthumous Oscar in a couple of months, it will be a cemented reminder of one of our finest young actors passing away at the height of his what-might-have-beens and his Joker is the ONLY element that can't be over-hyped enough when talking about "The Dark Knight”.


Monday, December 22, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday / Man on Wire

Man on Wire * * * * ½
Directed by: James Marsh / 2008

With all due respect to the lives lost, as well as the impact of the tragic event that was the 911 terrorist attacks, one can’t help but be impressed on not only the level of preparation and commitment for devising such a plan, but also actually following thru. However, many men crafting plans to crash planes into buildings, doesn’t hold a mad-genius match to one man walking between them on a wire. “Man on Wire” rewinds nearly thirty years before that black Tuesday in September to a misty day in 1974 when the newborn Twin Towers’ only visible threat in the sky was the determination and passion of a talented French wire walker. After months of thorough planning and commitment Philippe Petit accomplished his dream by doing the unthinkable, crossing between the top of The World Trade Center’s Twin Towers not once, but eight times.

As a youngster, and over a decade after Petit’s death-defying marvel, I remember a certain myth to this hand-me-down tale and responding with a, “Nu-uh…NO way. That didn’t happen!” Back in those days of grade school hear-say and (and my lack of library research care) I just couldn’t believe that a human being was crazy enough to do that and especially without a net or licensing agreement with Barnum & Bailey and/or a Spider-Man costume. Pushing thirty I’m now realizing that the people who actually enjoy slaving away their lives inside of tall buildings are the crazy ones. Philippe Petit may be off the rocker, so to speak, but he’s got a unique and mad blazing fire set to his rocker. OK, so it might be crazy to some but even though I cling for dear life to the banister when I climb to the second story of my home, I still find Petit’s life-on-the-edge story to be extremely inspiring in a Timothy Treadwell live with grizzly bears sort of way. In fact, I’m surprised that Werner Herzog wasn’t right there in ’74 with Petit as the two seem like they’d be right up each other’s mad-genius loving alley.

Sadly, but not shocking, after such a magnificently beautiful and life-time achievement, Petit was hammered by American police and press with cuffs and questions of “Why?” and was even submitted for a full psychiatric exam. Thankfully this quickly passed as his trespassing and disorderly conduct charges were exchanged for community performance service and immediate world-wide fame and recognition. “Man on Wire” shows the insane planning and group effort it took for Petit to cross his dream between the towers by way of interviews, archival footage and startling re-creations. It not only celebrates a one-of-a-kind achievement and living talent, but also pays tribute to the once great World Trade Center skyscrapers, resurrecting their strong-hold that stood, and still stand symbolically, for many a dream and life.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

CTJ/The Cinemaddict's Fix

Divorce Italian Style ****
If divorce were illegal in the U.S., what would people do? Surely they would kill each other. And that is pretty much the point of this Criterion release. The main character wants to ditch his wife so he can pursue his 16-year-old cousin, who is a bright but vacant blonde. It may sound like Jerry Springer, but instead of dirty sensationalism, this film offers dark comedy throughout. Adultery, it turns out, can actually be pretty funny. But only when the people who are involved are fools, and only when their pursuit of romantic freedom at all costs ultimately ends in unforeseen entrapment. This is a winning film that most Americans would enjoy watching, and another gem from Criterion.

Knife in the Water ***1/2

Danny told me this movie was boring and, while I disagree, I see where he was coming from. It's a slow-burner that is billed as a thriller, and thrills rarely happen in slow-motion. This is a beautifully shot and executed Roman Polanski film that, in my opinion, does not reach the same level of mastery that is found in other films of his like Repulsion, The Tenant, and Rosemary's Baby. It is subtle in its suspense, quietly deceptive, momentarily violent, and seemingly as meandering as the sailboat where the majority of the film is set. I admire this film more than I actually like it, and I found it a pleasure to watch even though I walked away saying to myself, "What was the point of this? What are we to take away from this?" It leaves the viewer with more questions than answers and, in this, it may be more like life than other films like it. It is a slice of the nothing that we find from day to day, but with the sorts of momentary exhilarations and frights that occasionally jostle us. See it? If you like Polanski, sure. If you're not familiar with his other films, start with Rosemary's Baby.

Bigger, Faster, Stronger ****1/2

This is probably my pick for best documentary of 2008, and I say that because it manages to breathe life in the stale steroids issue. I once had a student in my public speaking course who gave a speech on why steroids should be permitted in baseball. They would make the games extraordinary, he said. That's pretty much the sort of thing this film explores, but in a very intimate, personal, entertaining way.

It's about 3 brothers, all of whom have sought to "pump up" their physiques over the years, and with mixed results. Two of them used steroids, and the third is directing the film, guiding us through a tour of previously uncharted dimensions of performance enhancement, interviewing the principal voices on the issues, and bringing the camera into his family's home.

The results are intensely personal, at times humorous, at times heartwrenching. Most of all I was taken with his parents, who appear to genuinely care for the well-being of their kids, physically and spiritually. I walked away from this film feeling like I had gotten to know someone, warts and all. It was like a punch in the face and a hug all at the same time, and in the process it really challenged my thoughts about steroid use. All films should aspire for this kind of greatness.

Alone With Her ****

It would be easy to write this film off as yet another voyeuristic venture into the world of cyberspace, a lesser recasting of Peeping Tom. But what is really interesting about this is that it is based on actual activities of stalkers who use hidden cameras and other forms of surveillance to engage in voyeurism. It's not that this is a joy to behold or anything, but it does add an air of realism to the picture. It also makes one think about the accessibility of such gadgets. In essence, how can sort of thing be prevented? And can it at all?

Colin Hanks turns in a convincing performance as the stalker du jour, and he sufficiently creepy in the role. I wonder what his Dad thinks of his son's turn to the dark side. This is not a career-making picture, but it is a worthwhile and often graphic exploration of stalking. One reviewer compared it to the Blair Witch Project, and this is apt. It is predicable in this way too, but all the same it's hard not to connect with the leading actress because she is such a central focal point in the film. Predicable or not, you care what happens to her. It brings the reality of stalking home to the viewer, and with chilling results.

Monday, December 15, 2008

DJG / Australia

Australia * * * *
Directed by: Baz Luhrmann / 2008

A is for AUSTRALIA. B is for BIG. C is for CLASSIC. D is for DELIGHTFUL. E is for other letters and words, "AUSTRALIA" is a treat and tribute to cinema of old and exactly the film that writer/director Baz Luhrmann set out to make and only a visionary like him could make it. It feels personalized yet fully equipped with his love for the airbrushed titans he grew up on. Critics and film-goers turning their noses at it can simply stop seeing movies because apparently they must not like them. I think it’s a movie for anybody who likes movies and a movie for any age. Calling "Australia" BIG is actually an understatement as it runs nearly three hours with scene after sweeping scene of intoxicatingly gorgeous Australian outback, World War II history and romantic drama. The movie is as BIG as the continent to which it’s named. Every single painstaking detail and placement is there for a reason, making it worth every minute and worth the near decade since Luhrmann’s last movie, “Moulin Rouge!”. I call “Australia” a Lady-Western-War-Epic, and I mean that in the best way. But, there is so much more under the showy surface, computer-generated images and over-the-big-top entertainment. There is not only a classical throw-back stamp, nor a uniquely personalized Luhrmann stamp to this picture, but this is a movie for Australia and for her people affected by years of government-ran racism (to which the people finally were issued an official apology this year…uh, too little too late). And beyond the so-called Sexy man and woman on-screen duo of Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman (who are great, by the way), is a little boy (Brandon Walters) stealing the screen. This is his movie and as he walks into the end credits of the Australian outback you can’t help but think you might never see him again. But, you see in his eyes, enthusiasm and spirit a young Baz Luhrmann playing in his neck of the film sandbox and saying, “Ha, I made the movie that I wanted to make!”, and you can’t wait for him to make another.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

CTJ: Step Brothers ****

I loved Step Brothers as much as I hated Taladega Nights. Convinced that John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell were a toxic comic combination, I only watched Step Brothers because I was in need of something light, cinematically speaking.

I'm glad I did, as it turned out to be a wholly enjoyable experience, and the best comedy I have seen either actor participate in. Granted, it could definitely be considered a "stupid comedy" along the lines of Billy Madison or Tommy Boy or Dumb & Dumber, but inasmuch as you like those movies you are likely to enjoy Step Brothers.

See it if nothing else for the fight sequence that follows Will Ferrell's character putting an artificial pair of testicles on John C. Reilly's character's drum set. And if the oddness of that statement alone does not sell you, you are obviously not for sale in the first place and you should just return to what you're doing and listen to Smash Mouth's "Allstar," the song I despise most in the universe.

Friday, December 12, 2008

DJG / Christmas On Mars

Christmas On Mars * * *
Directed by: Wayne Coyne, Bradley Beesley and George Salisbury / 2008

Oklahomans The Flaming Lips are more than a psychedelic rock band, they're an institution, and not just because their lead singer owns several houses on his block surrounded by a large fence. Bands like The Lips just don't make great and weird records they also make movies, and weird ones at that. They make them either at Wayne Coyne's Oklahoma City ghetto art house compound out of rejected oil tankers, trash, styrofoam and blinking lights or in what appears to be abandoned grain silos and factories. Actually, they've only made one official feature film and one band documentary with director/neighbor/friend Bradley Beesley. The many years practice with "Christmas on Mars" gives me hope that they'll crank out more movies, even if they are weird and kind of hard to follow.

Even if I didn't know what was going on half the time, I still found great entertainment and fun in it and that is one of the reasons to follow the creed of The Flaming Lips. Heck, only they can pull off something like this and get away with it to make a comfortable living. I first heard about “Christmas on Mars” many years ago. And every year it was rumored to be finished and released by Christmas time. Actually, filming wrapped up in 2005 and the last three years have been spent in post-production and scoring. Though, it’s well worth the wait I just wish the film could have been shown in more theaters (I believe it was only officially shown at film and music festivals). I had heard it was coming out this year (as every other year), but I had no idea it had until a friend of mine told me he saw the DVD for sale. Maybe I’m just out of the loop these days?

But, last night I got plugged back into the Lips loop and taken on a strange space trip (no drugs included). I can’t really explain it, but to borrow from the source itself, the delightful Wayne Coyne (Lips singer/writer/director/actor), "The story that unfolds is intended to hint at childlike magic within a tragic and realistic situation." I know what I saw wasn't for children or even most adults and it wasn't exactly a realistic situation, for most people. It's also not going to be an instant Christmas classic, unless you're a mega-fan. But, I know what I did see was magical and weird in a Flaming Lips sort of way and for the most part did direct at finding beauty and hope over life's tragedy, a message the band has been singing about for a while now.

If you don't know what takes place at a live performance by The Flaming Lips, just imagine the greatest New Year's Eve party ever mixed with insane visuals, laser pointers, dancing Santas and aliens, hand puppets, strange instruments and Wayne Coyne rolling over the crowd in a giant hamster ball. Yep, The Flaming Lips are unique and special. They enjoy bringing enjoyment. With "Christmas on Mars", just imagine all of that and more curse words and babies and guest appearances by actors Adam Goldberg and Fred Armisena and then toss in a marching band with female body parts for heads rolled into an 86 minute B-Movie quality Sci-Fi flick. It fits pretty well belong fellow uniquely strange and ambitious movies and directors like "The American Astronaut", "The Forbidden Zone", "Eraser Head", "Alien", Ed Wood and Stanley Kubrick…oh, and Wayne Coyne.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Mister Lonely * * * * 1/2
Directed by: Harmony Korine / 2008

I’d been hearing about the so-called genius of Harmony Korine for over a decade now, but I'd never seen it. His “Gummo” and “Julien Donkey-Boy” didn’t impress me much and I appreciated his daring screenplay for “Kids” more than I actually liked the movie. Seeing him appear as himself on late night talk shows was funny, but also pretty juvenile, uncomfortable and unprofessional. I was beginning to think either he peaked way too young or that he just wasn’t my taste. That is until I saw his third directed movie, which was the charm for me. With “Mister Lonely”, Harmony Korine has finally found how to speak with his voice and ironically has found this in a movie about finding one’s own identity. Though “Mister Lonely” borrows a few tid-bits of dramatic element ideas from movies like “Hud”, “Magnolia” and “Even Dwarfs Started Small” (at least from what I saw), it creates a unique vision and story, unfolding into a fascinating and magical film, one of the most imaginative and hypnotic of 2008. In his film Korine sheds light on finding identity by showcasing a group of impersonators who have come to live together in a castle on a farm. It’s a childlike “Neverland” type of place, filled with a hodge-podge family of Marilyn Manroe, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Sammy Davis , Jr., Shirley Temple, Buckwheat, James Dean, The Queen of England and The Pope (I think that’s all of them). Each one you’ve seen a thousand times before, but you can’t help but look from afar at the person hiding behind. And many times I found myself connecting with them, especially Diego Luna’s Michael Jackson. After a performance on the streets of Paris and the weight of isolation and loneliness mounting, Michael Jackson is the last to join when he is offered the invitation by Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton). While watching all the look-a-likes go about their daily routines and chores, I wondered about how people who strived so hard to maintain somebody else’s identity, a fantasy life, over their own individualism would wish to keep so isolated from the world. They seemed to beg for attention by playing dress-up as some of the most recognizable people in pop-culture. But, then the family revealed their greatest show on earth, a small shack of a theater house that they had been working towards to share their gifts to the world. It’s really something special, until harsh realities shake the foundations of their fantasy world to twist an already twisted perspective on life. In-between scenes with the castle of impersonators, Korine mixes in some breathtaking shots of a team of skydiving nuns who in the film miraculously survive their jumps without parachutes (which is kind of left to viewer interpretation but fits really well in the film). They are lead by a airplane pilot priest played to delight by director Werner Herzog. In many ways I used to see Harmony Korine as a little Herzog in training, but I now feel confident that he’s finally got his own wings. He’s really one to keep watching.


DJG / American Psycho

American Psycho * * * *
Directed by: Mary Harron / 2000

Before Christian Bale was everybody’s Batman (except for me), and soon to be John Connor and Robin Hood, he was Patrick Bateman. No wait, he still is Patrick Bateman, the multi-dimensional 1980s Wall Street socialite whose vices include body cleansing products, fine dining and grooming, business card hierarchy (which will especially have graphic designers busting their ego’s gut), gossip, spewing album reviews at random and doing two chicks at the same time. And killing…Patrick Bateman is a serial killer.

Based on Bret Easton Ellis’s novel (which, I’m still dying to read, no pun intended), “American Psycho” is wickedly comedic and well executed (again, no pun intended). What makes watching a madman killing people so entertaining and not in a “Horror Porn” way? I’m not really sure, but I believe the credit is owed to Bale’s performance as he puts on his best awesome-dude and demands attention with the appearance of a fine acting Matthew McConaughey. Twenty-six-year-old Patrick Bateman leads life from the top perches and with the wealth, attitude, fiancée, and all the right things to say to keep him in a position of power for years to come. But, underneath he is filled with rage, jealously, hate and materialism and it’s a real treat to see him unravel to the tune of his favorite Robert Palmer, Huey Lewis, Phil Collins or Whitney Houston song. It’s also a strange treat to see him chase a girl with a chainsaw. Oddly enough I watched the film eight years ago and I remember it being much more graphic and controversial. I don’t know what’s more disturbing, enjoying madmen murdering on screen, or the fact that I’m so desensitized to senseless violence?

Christian Bale is now a household name, but he will always be Patrick Bateman to me and I will gladly house him in “American Psycho”, in my library between fellow enjoyable rides on life, “American Graffiti” and “American Splendor”. With the exception of “The Machinist”, Bales recent performances feel to me like he’s willing to give so much more but there seems to be something or somebody holding him back. Maybe it’s Patrick Bateman waiting to come out and play again?


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

CTJ/Cruising ****

I heard about "Cruising" sometime last year and couldn't imagine Al Pacino playing an undercover cop whose job was to infiltrate the "leather-daddy" gay club community in the underground. Thanks to Netflix online I was able to see good old Al complete with a curly Al-fro that could have only been fashionable in 1980. Lucky for him, that's when this film was made.

"Cruising" is essentially a thriller, a who-'dun-it murder mystery about a serial killer who is stabbing members of the gay community to death. And no, the killer is not a fundamentalist Christian, just to get that out of the way. Like all good thrillers it manages to keep the audience on edge, and not just because the prospect of murder lurks around the corner. The community it depicts is so strange, so surreal - or at least it was to me - that walking through the leather clad underbelly of gay urban life with Al Pacino feels downright dangerous and deviant. It is a frightening world inhabited by people who are there solely for sex, and personhood never enters the picture.

Is the film accurate? According to the gay community, not exactly. But the film, which was directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist), is not necessarily about accuracy. It's about a serial killer who disposes of gay men. The strangest element of all was that, during Al Pacino's time in the underground he professes to his superior officer that "something's happening" to him and he cannot take much more of it. Are we to believe that he is becoming gay? He has a girlfriend, and the film seems to want to convince us that by spending enough time amongst members of the gay community, same-sex attraction suddenly sets in. It's a strange thought, and one that may be symptomatic of thought about homosexuality at the time of the film's creation.

"Cruising" is a worthwhile thriller, and Pacino is stone-cold strange in it. It's a film that has become a cult-classic and, upon viewing it, it is evident why. It is not for the faint of heart, the homophobic, etc. There is no graphic gay sex in it (for which I was grateful), but there are times where I found myself cringing a bit. It's a lot to handle, but it is a document of an underground world that you might never see otherwise, and it is one that you might never want to see again after the credits roll.

CTJ: Encounters at the End of the World ****1/2

The fact that Werner Herzog can shoot a continent-sized block of ice for two hours and actually make it seem utterly compelling is proof of his genius. Of course, I have always loved Antarctica, so I admittedly came to this film with a bias. But bias aside, it is a wonderful film, something like watching a sci-fi documentary from another planet.

The film isn't just about the landscape though, or the watery world beneath it, although it is about those things too. It is also about the people who populate this frozen continent, whose dreams take flight in the blustery whiteouts of semi-permanent Antarctic daylight. They are an unusual cast of characters, not unlike Herzog himself, and he is clearly drawn to them as a person is drawn to his own reflection in a mirror.

At the end of the film I found myself wanting to see more of the strange Antarctic landscape, and I wanted to dive below the surface again and survey the amorphous creatures who called this underwater netherworld their home. I was spellbound by what I saw, and I didn't want to leave.

The film only falters where Antarctica falters. In the midst of this strange world, even Herzog is disappointed to find that the one civilized place he visits is something like a mining town, mundane in every way, including all of the trappings of civilization. There is an ATM. There is a bowling alley. Even at the end of the world we cannot escape our need to drag clunky claptrap along with us. We are a people who establish ourselves wherever we go, and in the most awkward of ways.

While Herzog has made films that I can hardly sit through, this is not one of those. This is every bit as good as "Grizzly Man" or "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" as far as his documentaries go. Dress up in neoprene and dive into Herzog's beautiful Antarctic wasteland. It is a wonderful, otherworldly experience.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

DJG / Synecdoche, NY

Synecdoche, NY * * * *
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman / 2008

Groundbreaking and celebrated, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich”, “Adaptation”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) has crafted some of the most uniquely entertaining and creatively challenging movies to roar out of the past decade. One thing is for certain, I would not enjoy being Charlie’s brain as he must hit it hard like a game of racket ball. However, tackling at the art of directing his brain may have hurt him with his latest, “Synecdoche, NY”, a very ambitiously intricate and involved epic affair that I need to see again to make complete sense of. Kaufman very well may have created his masterwork, if I could just figure out what the heck he was exactly saying to me. It wasn’t a completely complicated cluster like Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales” train wreck. Nor was it art house at random, which I think Kaufman would be the first to make fun of something that was random and confusing and "arty" for the sake of. It was self-indulgent and pretentious and ridiculous and bizarre, like a Charlie Kaufman fan would now come to expect as the norm. But, I couldn’t agree more with acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert when he states, “…it’s a film that should never be seen unless you've already seen it at least once.” Really, that’s all there needs to be said for a review and/or poster for “Synecdoche, NY”, or any Kaufman movie for that matter.

“Synecdoche, NY” gives us the powerhouse reliable acting of Philip Seymour Hoffman as fledging, middle-aged playwright Caden Cotard who wants to leave behind something of importance before he dies except he keeps stumbling over the day-to-day of life’s road blocks. Caden’s enjoyments in life seem to range from sleeping in; to mumbling things with his wife; to reading the obituaries of notable talents in the local paper; to spending small bits of quality time with his daughter Olive and being over-involved in his current take on the classic play “Death of a Salesman”. He is also constantly reminded of death by either those around him or his own ailing health that he begins to see everywhere in television cartoons and commercials to people in his life. Caden also has a better relationship with every woman in his life but his wife. His wife is Adele (Catherine Keener), an up and coming painter of portraits so tiny that their name plates are larger and one needs a magnifying glass to even see and study them (a nice parallel to Caden’s own microscopic detailing of everything in his life and under the sun). Adele decides to attend her current gallery show in Berlin, thus deciding, as she feels the marriage is dwindling, to move extensively and uproot daughter Olive from Caden’s life. Soon after being devastated by life, Caden receives a special artistic grant of a large sum of money due to high praise for his current play. He’s encouraged to do something great with it, and embarks on his life project. It ends up advancing time rather quickly (don't flinch while watching as the passing of time goes extra fast in this film), all the while not realizing that years have gone by as he works to get not only his life back but also his life’s work. Soon the lines between life and work merge and Caden’s own life becomes nothing more than a product of his own play and his play becomes nothing but a product of his life…and so forth. It’s really something, trust me…but extremely hard to pen-down, even while watching it. It's a strange mess and I'm not even beginning to nail the explanation of it nor all the other little things and characters. It's ultimately a story about life. See it for yourself. See yourself for it.

I feel that previous movies scripted by Kaufman, directed either by equaled creative visionaries Spike Jonze (who was actually the first choice to direct “Synecdoche, NY”) or Michel Gondry, aid to multiple-multiple viewings due to their balancing act of supreme freshness, studies on life and human relationship, enjoyment, creativity, commentary, drama and comedy and with the added bonus of overall watch-ability. It’s not that it didn’t come housed with these stats, but I definitely don’t just want, but rather NEED to spend a second time with “Synecdoche, NY” and only a second time to make more sense of it. And for those who seemed to leave frustrated, one-third or even over three-fourths (!) through the showing that I was at, shame on you because you’ve really cheated yourselves and you’ve cheated Charlie Kaufman and a Charlie Kaufman movie.

Just like Charlie must do every day of his life, I’ve been racking my own brain for a couple of days now…and I find this to be a pretty good thing. I know that I saw something masterful, and there are a few things that are making more and more sense 36 hours later, but I feel that a second look would reveal more under the many layers of Charlie’s brain with this one and I look forward to this. After the wide-release opening and awards season dies down, please take it easy on yourself for just a little bit, Mr. Kaufman. However, I hope you get back to work ASAP because I will gladly see anything that you beat around in your own racket court whether it’s just writing or passing back between the daunting task of writing and directing.


Monday, December 8, 2008

CTJ: Mister Lonely *****

I turned off "Gummo" after 10 minutes, and I barely made it through "Julien Donkey-Boy," so how is it possible that I absolutely loved "Mister Lonely," Harmony Korine's third film? It's a good question, and one I will probably ponder the answer to for some time.

Primarily I have to attribute my love of this film to two things: 1) My growing appreciation for Werner Herzog's body of work (Surely it is no coincidence that he is in "Mister Lonely"), and 2) An essay I read in film school about the "Cinema of Attractions."

Like Herzog's films, this one takes the long route to get from point A to point B, and when I say this I do not mean that it is slow. They just follow a certain idiosyncratic logic that one might expect to find in a Herzog film. The narratives it contains are linear, but they are filtered through a cinematic kaleidoscope of color and sound and beautifully strange sights that could easily stand alone as short-films.

And this is where the Cinema of Attractions comes in. This film really is something like going to the circus and seeing one attraction after another, and each exhibit holds the attention of the audience precisely because it is so strange. Above all, this aspect of the film recalled nothing so much as the introductory sequences of Federico Fellini's "Satyricon." While these vignettes could exist independent of one another, they work together to form two separate narratives that never really overlap. The results somehow feel right, but it's hard to say why. There is some genius in that, I think.

The main narrative focuses on a Michael Jackson impersonator and his experiences as he discovers other impersonators who channel Marilyn Monroe, Abe "F------" Lincoln, Charlie Chaplin, and James Dean, among others. This cast of characters lives together in circus of strangeness, and the results are magnetic. The other narrative focuses on a priest (Herzog) and a group of nuns who experience a miracle when one of them falls out of a plane and lands on the ground unharmed.

Overall, the film struck me much as a very abstract painting might: I didn't know what I was looking at, but I knew I liked it. Most films are not brave enough to attempt this, and most films that attempt this manage to lose cohesion along the way or never find a way to make the audience invest in what they are watching. "Mister Lonely" works where other films of its kind do not (although it is really difficult to say exactly what kind of film this is). I cannot explain how difficult it is for a film like this to hold a person's attention for an hour, let alone almost two. But "Mister Lonely" was wildly successful in this for me, and for that reason I shall have to own it.

DJG / Wanted

Wanted * * * ½
Directed by: Timu Bekmambetov / 2008

I’ve wanted to see “Wanted” ever since I saw its Super Bowl commercial spots from earlier this year. On top of the sheer awesomeness in film perspective that the clips gave me, I also thought about how awesome the marketing was to secure Super Bowl advertising time for the millions of violence loving football guys watching (Oh, and most guys love Angelina Jolie too). I know that the day after The Super Bowl, I was one of many young men You Tubing the trailer, passing it to their buddies and posting fan-boy blogs about it. Unfortunately, I somehow missed the film when it finally came to theaters six months later. With the exception of maybe an advanced screening or opening night, I doubt that the film packed out theatres, but I would have loved to see this one with a wound-up crowd fist pumping and laughing hysterically. OK…Imagine a two thousand-year-old elite group of assassins generically called “The Fraternity” given secret killing assignments based on microscopic binary code-like letters deciphered by boss man Morgan Freeman on a tapestry created by a giant ancient loom. Mix this original screenplay writing genius with the typical cliché plot route feature of a “Rouge” assassin hunting all the other assassins down and then throw in a totally hot assassin babe mentoring a young new guy discovering that he too possesses his recently departed father’s assassin skills and destiny to kill instead of working in an office cubicle and in a matter of a days he beefs up and becomes the greatest assassin to ever live and you’ve got a movie called “Wanted”. What the heck am I doing working in my own office cubicle job when I could be writing Hollywood action fantasy flick genius like this? Oh and don’t forget a garbage truck full of peanut buttered rats and a key board that gets smacked against some jerk’s face with letters flying to the camera spelling out “F#*K YOU”. Yep…do I need to say more? Oh, and of course there is a message about how you’ve got to take hold of your life and make what you want of it. Heck yeah! I’m not making this stuff up. If films could produce babies, “Wanted” would be the offspring of a three-way between “Shoot ‘em Up”, “The Matrix” and “Fight Club”. It’s not as great of a film as those (the last two being groundbreaking masterpieces), but every bit ridiculous and over-the-top-awesome in scope and merge of action and technology. If my enthusiasm in writing this review adds up to cinema treasure for you as easily as a Super Bowl commercial teaser did for me, then put “Wanted” on your list. I think I’ll now stop writing reviews and get to writing action movies.


Thursday, December 4, 2008


The Wrestler * * * * *
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky / 2008

You know the advertisements that quote and claim their motion picture as “Special”, a “Triumph”, a “Mini Masterpiece” or even a “Resurrection in Acting Talent”? Well, “The Wrestler” stands-up to these statements and some. It’s on the top rope of the year’s best films for me and demands to be seen, multiple times. It demands to be cherished and followed like the living, breathing champions of the sport that it showcases. Director Darren Aronofsky has created a darling little gem of motion picture and it’s his best and makes me even more excited to see what his next move will be. And I can’t recommend his latest move enough as he has matured from an already mature filmmaking state. For the past two weeks I can’t stop thinking about Randy "Ram" Robinson’s bitter-sweet climb to the top rope.

This time last year I was boiling over with anxiety and anticipation to see P.T. Anderson’s genius on the big screen with “There Will Be Blood”. It seemed that everybody in the world had seen it six months prior to it finally opening in Kansas City, MO. After all the worry and all the emails by my fellow crazed P.T. fan Chad and I to Paramount and area theater chains, we finally got to plop down in plush cushions in the dark on a cold day just 11 months ago to finally witness the hype. After hearing about “The Wrestler” hitting the 2008 crop earlier this year, and picking up just as many arresting accolades and awards and feedback as “There Will Be Blood”, I felt that I had another one of my own private movie wrestles in waiting. The anticipation swelled even more when I heard that not only was visionary director Darren Aronofsky (“Pi”, “Requiem For A Dream”, “The Fountain”) behind the camera, but it was also about pro wrestling and then capped with a brand new track from Bruce Springsteen!

Now, I’m thankful to even have the resources and technology and freedom to even SEE film and it’s even more silly to curse and complain the Hollywood stone ponies and marketing gurus and all of those things beyond my reach, but I honestly just can’t wait sometimes on certain films. And “The Wrestler” is one of those films for me. But, the film giants must have been looking out for me two weeks ago, allowing me to cash in on last year’s P.T. Anxiety. I was in Dallas, TX for an extended Thanksgiving holiday and my friend Christian exclaimed one morning that if we wanted to get in line at 5pm or so that night, there would be a free advanced screening of the new film by Darren Aronofsky starting at 8pm…and with director in attendance for a Q & A! You can’t believe how fast my eyebrows perked up-and-out of my weary and stressed, travel-beaten brow. I was already there…and sitting on a firm spot in line with book in hands and BossPod in ears.

Without sounding silly to most people, it’s hard to say that “The Wrestler” saved me from the dumps on the stressful start of my Texas trip, but it honestly did. And I was about to tell Darren Aronofsky that right before a pack of much more enhanced than I geeks camera flashed their way past and usurped my chance at the moment’s hard simplicity of “THANK YOU” . Since the very second the hand-held cameras followed Mickey Rourke’s molded-to-perfection Randy "Ram" Robinson out of the local town hall locker room and out the opened doors and arms of his world, I’ve had the bitter-sweet taste of life’s goose bumps inside and out. In fact, I’ve carried them many times before but, this is a different feeling that sunk into me and it has affected me pretty deep. There is so much life in this picture and in Rourke’s performance that I felt I was watching a real story on screen and I still see that life living on, beyond the screen. It will be unfortunate if he doesn’t come home with a statue come Oscar night or if Aronofsky doesn’t at least get a nomination, it’s that breathtaking. All power-house acting aside, “The Wrestler” tells a real and relatable story, one that probably many former and current wrestlers as well as many every day people can tell.

Ram once recognized a gift, and that gift was wrestling superstardom. He was the go-to guy for selling out noisy arenas bursting at the seams with fist-clinched fans waiting and responding with glee to his signature moves and championship matches. Twenty years later finds him struggling and scraping life’s pot to make ends meet working week days on a loading dock and reliving his glory days on the weekends in town halls and small-time venues, wrestling for a few dollars for the few remaining fans caring enough to come watch younger wrestlers take it easy on Ram’s aging body. He wakes up every morning in either his trailer or van, pending on when rent is due. He wakes up either sore or hung-over, pending on the day of the week or outcome of occupational hazard.

The rest of the story? Well, I won’t spoil anymore for you, as it breathes far better life than I can type and is something that has to be experienced. I’ll end on…life hasn’t been good on Ram and neither has Ram on occasion. And you can see that in his beaten teary eyes and weathered face. But, there is a spirit to Ram that surpasses many heaps and piles of even the most spiritually powered of humans. He has both perspective from the top and bottom ropes and that makes the sometimes painful search and climb to redemption, life, family, gifts and hope all the more bitter-sweet, powerful and enduring. As the screen goes black and Bruce starts strumming and singing Ram’s theme, well let’s just say that you’ll be pretty darn pinned and hard to get out of that plush cushion. You’ll have just witnessed something truly “Special”…and some. Thank you Darren Aronofsky. THANK YOU.


DJG / The Go-Getter

The Go-Getter * *
Directed by: Martin Hynes / 2007

All puns intended, “The Go-Getter” gets GONE from the GET-GO and doesn’t GET ‘ER DONE for me. If anything this indie cliché in the “random road trip category” makes me really want to over-turn my rule of not turning off a movie early in hopes that it will be redeeming or rewarding in the end. “The Go-Getter” is ripe with mindless, random indie movie flub…and not even in a good way as its tricks were way too much of the trade. So, what IS “indie” anymore? THIS is it folks. Speaking of folks, I was originally intrigued by the film because not only can one count on Jena Malone and Zooey Deschanel for the doubling of solid performance and enjoyable film, but also because darling “it” boy guitar hero M. Ward was boasted to play a small role (yeah, like 3 seconds!) and put the musical backing to the road trip. Which, he did, but I had high hopes for an original score, and I now see why I couldn’t locate one to purchase as it was nothing more than random cut and pastes of previously released M. Ward tunes, as well as an assortment of songs by artists like Elliott Smith and a few random others. Yeah, the film gets some cool points musically, but boy did it stink as a story and even the music couldn’t save this one. I won’t go into details because if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all and I was muttering to myself the entire time about how “stupid” and “random” and it was that I now don’t wish to revisit the reasons why. The only good thing to come out of “The Go-Getter” is the pairing of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward as they went on to make lovely country-folk music under the identity “She & Him”. Let’s shoot for more volumes of their fresh and lovely musical work instead of trite indie films. I just wish I could GO GET my time back and watching something more rewarding.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

DJG / Kung Fu Panda

Kung Fu Panda * * 1/2
Directed by: John Stevenson and Mark Osborne / 2008

Jack Black’s latest vehicle to let us all know that he really is a bankable box office marquee name to stay, whether in human flesh or Panda Bear, was pretty much what I gathered from the “samey-so-so” trailers and TV spots, yet it also had a couple of pleasant surprises. One such surprise was that Black’s involvement in this fast-paced cliché animated adventure initially had me groaning from just hearing about it but as it turns out he scales back his “a little goes a long way” status with me and stayed well behind character. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t see him behind a couple hundred more pounds of Panda? I love Black’s characters in a couple of movies (“High Fidelity” and “Be Kind Rewind” come to mind), but for the most part he annoys the heck out of me (It’s hard not to hold a personal preference with reviews, isn’t it, but I’ll do my best?). Another surprise, though it might be more of a “Good Lord”, was that the film clocks in at under an hour and a half. Though hinting at 30 and claiming to possess a healthy dose of eternal “man-child”, I’m finding it more and more difficult to sit through more than an hour of cartoons. That is, unless it’s directed by Brad Bird or a Pixar feature or a pile of oldie-goldie cartoons from my youth (And let me tell you, they just don’t make cartoons like they used to!). Actually, I’m going to blame my antsy-pants on today’s computer animation. It seems that Michael Bay’s beefy and bloaty and dizzyingly action orchestration and edits have sizzled their way into influencing the bulk of Hollywood filmmaking, including the animation departments. Now, Bay didn’t have anything to do with “Kung Fu Panda”, that I know of, but I found the movie to suffer from an over-grown Panda Bear stomach of way too much going on and hard to keep up with. Or, am I just really slow? In fact, I tend to come away from many computer animated movies either confused or really tired. As an artist and a “man-child” you’d think I’d be gushing from the visual fruit tree on my tube, and I think that I do just a little bit as it can be pretty darn impressive. But, I think as a very hands-on and old-fashioned type of guy, I appreciate new computer animation more than I actually love it. The times I did find a gush with “Kung Fu Panda” came from the splices of traditional animation used in flashback scenes and I couldn’t help but think about how much more I’d like the movie if it was all rendered in this way. Is this what we now think of traditional animation, as old-timey yesterday stuff like black and white photography? Clever, the use was…but, it has me worried just a little bit as children and even most adults today have to have everything super-awesome looking. I think that my eyes and brain work so hard at enjoying a split second of the majority of today’s animation (majority: remember, I love Brad Bird and Pixar stuff) that by the time I come back to the plot, the film has advanced twelve scenes and I’m totally in the dark as the “know-what’s-happening” small children and baby boomers laugh it up and I pretend-laugh that I “get” it too. How do children and adults older than me keep up with this stuff? It’s just like watching high-octane action and heist movies and/or Michael Bay flicks. Though, with “Kung Fu Panda”, the story was so cliché and Jack Black didn’t annoy me enough to keep a heated and disgusted gaze that I didn’t really need to pay attention. By the credits’ turn I don’t think I really missed anything.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sequels Gone Bad: CTJ

Look For These Horrible Excuses for Film in a Theater Near You

By Chad T. Johnston
“Schindler’s List 2” – This time Oscar Schindler is going grocery shopping, and he left his list at home. Will he buy whole milk, or 2%? He cannot remember. As the remnants of the Nazi regime are being punished at the Nuremberg Trials, Schindler is plagued by forgetfulness, and his only salvation is the Jews he saved, who begin to show up with one item after the other: First asparagus, then Zwieback, then haggis. It’s a reunion that knocks the ball right out of the ballpark. Meryl Streep reprises her role from Sophie’s Choice, and this time she chooses canned yams over fresh ones.

"Lord of the Rings IV: Hollaback Frodo" – In the wake of Peter Jackson’s success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Dre and Snoop decided to make a fourth film in the series, a lush, epic offering set in scenic Miami. This time, Frodo (a.k.a. Frizzle-b-dizzle, played by Ghostface Killa) has an evil ringtone on his cellphone, and he must throw it into the radiation-disposal vault at Yucca Mountain if he is to protect the world from it. Meanwhile, Dre and Snoop ride in their hoopties to knock the cellphone towers “outtie commih-SHUN, y’all BOOOOOYAH!”

“Trudy” – This sequel to feel-good football film Rudy is the feminist equivalent of its predecessor, with the leading role of Trudy played Keira Knightley. Despite the fact that she is so bony and birdlike, she is admitted to the Notre Dame football team because, to quote her Coach, “She could probably throw some ferocious elbow jabs with those sharp, pointy elbows of hers, which are as wiry as coat hangers and strong as steel pylons.” Knightley must overcome objections to her gender, and she must also overcome obstacles like doors, turnstyles, coffeetables, and rugs, all of which are difficult for her fragile, frail frame to encounter. In the final scene in the film, just after Knightley is brutally killed when a pair of cotton slippers fall off of an overhead shelf and onto her fragile, not-yet-fully-formed fontanels, the team celebrates the power of scarily thin women who make baklava seem like it is reinforced with concrete rebar.

"Ordinary People Again” – Mary Tyler Moore is back! This time she’s no cold-hearted Mama. She’s a detective who’s on the trail of a pet theft in Waukegan, MI. Between the original film directed by Robert Redford in 1980 and this sequel, directed by Michael Bay, Moore’s character’s son Buck threw himself into a wheat compactor and her husband, played by then-young Donald Sutherland, became an electronics salesman at Fek-Mart. Abe Vigoda costars as Lampy, a mop-topped comedic character who is Moore’s father.

“The Big Chill VI” – Kevin Costner is still laying dead in that coffin, only this time the director had to pay him $17,000,000. When the friends gather together again – for the 6th time for the funeral of a friend – they get understandably despondent and commit suicide en masse, drinking Gatorade that has been laced with ant-killer.

“Tron 2” – Those 80s computer graphics are BACK! This time when Jeff Bridges gets sucked into the computer he brings a bag of Doritos with him. Not content to compete in the LightCycle arena, Bridges’ character instead opts to exchange existential banter with a RAM chip and the Mario Bros., who have given up plumbing in favor of becoming celebrity trout fishermen. Commenting on the film, George Lucas says, “Geez, man. I think they actually made this sequel on the same computer as the original. My sense of innovation and progress has been violated. I am now going to feed myself to the nearest Bantha.”

“Star Wars VII: Lookee Go Bye-Bye” – As Lucas’ scriptwriting abilities become increasingly elementary, Luke, Leia, Han, and friends also become increasingly two-dimensional. As Han Solo says in one scene, “Me gots dookie in bafroom. Da da googie?” When primary-colored building blocks begin to attack the merry band of interstellar friends, they are saved by a baby and a troop of kittens and puppies who are armed with musicboxes, Lunchables, and construction-paper origami swans. Shot on location in a blue-screen room in Deluth, ND, the whole production has all the warmth of an industrial freezer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

DJG / Sex & The City (Series and Movie)

Sex & The City (The Complete Series) * * * * *
Sex & The City (The Movie) * * * *

It happened to me…something I never dreamed would. This something involved something that since the late '90s I'd rolled my eyes and cringed my brain towards, and the same to those who rode along with it or those who personified and glorified it. I was wrong and I now admit it. A year ago I fell for something on syndicated television and it was love at first bite. It was one of those after-work experiences that had me feeling vulnerable from the blows of the exhausting work day. I couch-plopped down and caught "Sex & The City" after the opening titles had splashed and it took me only fifteen seconds to figure out what I was watching and yet I was hooked out of water. I fell hard and on down a slippery slope. I gave into everything that had held me back before from such a show. I think I even made sure all the blinds were closed and the T.V. volume was low just to make sure word wouldn't get out. It was everything that I was not and against, yet it felt so right. In some ways, I was liberated and the next night I did it again. This may sound like a first-time testimonial for a topic on the popular HBO show (as my old minister would call it, "Hell's Box Office"!), but it's true. And couldn’t be more true as I finished up six seasons and a movie, “Sex & The City” is now sitting near the top of my favorite all-time, fully-realized shows.

Even though I celebrate most all forms of "vegging out" when it comes to television and movies, “Sex & The City” is still not me at all, but yet it kind of is. It’s hard to find an explanation and I don’t really think it needs one. If anything, my tastes, tolerations, moral boundaries and beliefs are the exact opposite of the show. Nor, am I for the character's self-centered consumerism of all things of-the-moment fashion, parties and night-caps, debaucheries and at times no-rules/no-nonsense way of living. But, I've officially somehow found maturity through "Sex & The City", trading in my once love for Woody Allen's tales of existential anxiety and neurosis in NYC for a blend of girl power that feels more lived-in and free-forming.

There is a jungle of tall buildings, long legs, and voluminous cosmopolitans in "Sex & The City". It's a land where every other successful lawyer, banker, stock broker, fashionista, bar tender, successful writer or artist or actor succeeds in getting into the beds of a tag team of four Uptown Girls. It's the Olympic games of sex and quarterbacking the home team (like a slightly better looking Terry Bradshaw), is Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her gal gang of “of-the-moment-will-I-score-again” worry. And these girls worry about everything to the point of exhaustion. But, I love it and can relate to it (at least the worry part!). The plays are observed, made and marked in Carrie’s trusty Macintosh lap-top (I saw it on display in the Smithsonian in 2007!) for a weekly column on sex. Sex is her work. Research is the bedroom and pork-you-pine concubines and every day observation. Every episode serves up a question for Carrie's column where the girls help do the answering as they prey hostess at trying on the guys of New York City. Her comrades in girl power, promiscuality, one night stands, raunchy verbage, over-priced meals, bad art, obnoxious parties, thousand dollar bed sheets, ex-boyfriend run-ins, half-thousand-dollar shoe obsessions and terrible with a capital "T" wardrobes of a designer's dozen outfit changes per each episode shoot through my roof of toleration extravagance. But, I can't stop spending time with these gals.

Other than just pure enjoyment, what makes a show like "Sex & The City" truly work for me is that under all the sheets the show feels very lived-in and exposes that there is more to life than what one might pull from the title. It's a testament to friendship through the thick and thin, and all the men. There is also growth in the characters’ journeys. The show is smart, clever, charming and laugh-out-loud funny. It has extremely tight characters and plot arcs that are well-played and thoroughly detailed. Casting for shows similar is typically disastrous, but "Sex & The City" pulls it off to perfection. Each and every character couldn't work without the other, even those who are one-night stands. Simply put, the television series is genius.

And the movie…well, it’s bloated worse than some women who are "with child"…and I still love it. In what would take an entire television season to introduce and develop, the movie packs a year's span of time into two hours. Nothing-new plots are boiled over and then new ones are introduced as I'm still left with old ones nearly 6 years old mysteriously extinguished from the screen version. Brand new characters are even thrown in that feel like unrealized filler for market research fulfillment. Undoubtedly, every "Sex & The City" cliche is exhausted and everybody cries and spills their purses and then hugs and laughs it off. Heck, there is even some bathroom humor. But, I absolutely LOVE it. "Sex & The City: The Movie" is two fabulous hours of pure delight, and not just in a Mary J. Blige’s music pumpin’ feminine hygienic product commercial. Beneath all the ruffles of ridiculously hideous outfits (even more wardrobe changes than the entire series!), extra terrible corny music, sexually-explicit cheese, girl power, girl worry, gays and queens, backstabbing men, and a closet so big it could house a pair of Buicks on steroids and a trailer home, these four restless 40-somethings bind together with the power of love and laughter to overpower heartbreak as they run over the hill towards their golden girl years. I want another please…preferably someday, "Sex & The City: The Nursing Home".

The Fab Four are a hair highlight film of ridiculous, the type of group you'd hate to brunch next to as every other word is a four letter one and with icing on cake that most adults wouldn't find very sweet. But, there is something to heart buried beneath…it is something that IS wonderfully sweet. There is a comraderie here with these ladies that everyone should have with friends and loved ones. And again, I can't take my eyes and ears off the sex-capades of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha and I'm not ashamed to say it. I used to keep items similar to "Sex & The City" in the back of my pop-culture closet, labeling them in the "Guilty Pleasure" department and not wearing them out for anybody else but my own secure runway. But, ever since a year ago's early evening of syndicated television and recently spending a month devouring every episode in order on DVD (and even a movie!), with every bruise and laugh with the gals, I cut-off the term "Guilty Pleasure" from my vocabulary. I have come out of the closet and have given into the pleasures of quality programming. Even if that means unrobing my morals and letting my hair down, as I sit and type at my Carrie Bradshaw-like, late '90s Macintosh lap-top.


DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer * *
Directed by: John McNaughton / 1986

Some bits of entertainment and art are born breaking new ground in their respective field(s) and/or making major splashes in the pool halls of popularity and culture. However, few rarely keep their cool and crisp freshness after their immediate impact, at least to me. I respect the classics and I honor those that tread new water and open new doors, and some things do indeed remain masterpieces decades later. However, I can’t help but think that some things need to halt from the hype after their 15 minutes of fame (or is it seconds now?) is up. An example is to paraphrase critical praise from 1986 of the movie I watched yesterday morning, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a masterpiece of modern horror…” Even though I usually know better, especially when it comes to movies or culture that I’ve never even heard a mention of before (and I tend to think that I’m fairly in-the-geeky-know?), I was lured into this simplistic marketing trick quickly and thus resulted in school boy expectations turn disappointment even quicker. I can’t help but think that “Henry…” might have opened some doors for wowing people for its disturbing ideas and imagery over 20 years ago, but it’s no more disturbing as films before it, nor did I find it to be a masterpiece. I did find that it’s use of technology of incorporating film within the film may have been pretty groundbreaking in its ideas for such use in horror topics at the time. For the most part, “Henry…” felt very dated and was nothing more than a dud of movie making cheese for me with bumbled acting that went over and under the bar and a plot that could have really been something as a device for tinkering into the mind and actions of a serial killer. In the end it fell short for me, or do I not get it? Maybe it’s better in tune to that of Cult Classic than Masterpiece? I don’t know, but I just trust my gut. Although, I do give it credit for making me feel disturbed and it was rather humorous at times. Mostly, I am left with curiosity (well, other than the knowledge of marketing gimmicks) as to why it is still honored to be a “masterpiece of modern horror”, unless the word “modern” expands to the last 20-some years or more? Even still, I would find it scraping the bottom of the pool as dead weight.


Monday, November 10, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Election * * * * 1/2
Directed by: Alexander Payne / 1999

Movie lovers and critics tend to agree that 1999 was a banner year at the movies, a changing of the tide, if you will. If you keep up, a few titles such as “Magnolia”, “Being John Malkovich”, “Fight Club”, “Three Kings”, “The Sixth Sense”, “American Beauty” and “The Matrix” stick out as rattling the halls of film and they still do in the way we experience film nearly a decade later. These films also cemented the arrivals of a new crop of creative pants wearing generation in Hollywood, gifted and smart young directing rebels who fought for the rights to make the art that they wanted to make. However, one such director and movie tends to disappear from the talk of 1999. That being, Alexander Payne and his darling little high school story on ethics and morals (and original comedy) titled, “Election”. It wasn’t the powerhouse like the aforementioned, but this gem has aged well and in many ways is more watchable and a heck of a lot more grounded in reality.

The ability to nail in his every-man characters the up and down gains and pains of life must be found in Payne’s mid-western background. He’s proven and even perfected his skills several times over from full-length to short films, even earning an Academy Award for his writing. For his first feature film, “Election”, Payne chose to stick to his hometown of Omaha, NE. This donated to the film a very real texture from the people to the clothing, dialogue, vehicles, locations, weather and scenery. I feel that because of his sensitivity to the details, that when Payne’s characters and situations do lean a bit off of center, they still feel a sense of grounded and very lived-in. Payne handles his first film masterfully and he lets his actors have their cupcakes and eat them too. Taking a role reversal to the one that made him every high schooler’s idol in “Ferris Buller’s Day Off”, Matthew Broderick stars as Mr. McAllister a role model teacher trying to make ends meet at home, but finding his feet in the classroom and in helping his students succeed. That is, until an over-achieving student named Tracy Flick (my favorite Reese Witherspoon role) shakes his ethical and moral foundation in the midst of an electrified, and at times bitter and sweet, student body election campaign.

Nearly ten years later, “Election” still has a fresh immediacy, depth and urgency to it that most movies about high school seem to lose by the end of their first semester. It’s the type of movie that after five times viewing, I can still find new little things, bitter and sweet, beneath its many layers. Layers that come surprisingly behind the mature hands and head of a first-time director tackling the immaturities and vulnerabilities of not only high school students, but human beings and life in general. Alexander Payne has yet to miss a mark on my ballot and he announces that he is here to stay…and play…with his wonderful “Election”.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Somebody Up There Likes Me * * * *
Directed by: Robert Wise / 1956

You can't beat a great boxer. You can't beat a great boxer's story without the boxer beating himself. The sport of boxing is a topic that Hollywood never seems to run out of steam or stories with. For such a senseless, tough-guy sport, a lot of boxers on screen come across as the biggest drama queens…and I can't get enough of it. I believe it definitely takes a certain kind of character to want to be a human punching bag. Great boxers tend to be born out of rags-or-ruffians to riches stories and even when they come across as just another slice of meathead idiocy there is a startling complexity and vulnerability underneath the silly putty of gnarled faces, cuts and bruises.

In 1956 Paul Newman was still in training to be the next acting heavy weight as he was opted at the last minute for the part of middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano in what became one of his first major performances on screen. Newman definitely captures something with Graziano by way of a James Dean-meets-Marlon Brando look and persona (coincidentally he studied acting with both). There is also an odd pinch of Hannah-Barbara cartoon character found in his Brooklyn accent. I wouldn’t say that Newman completely disappears into character, but it was a bold move to hide his looks and charm under early-on, and a solid start to a career of playing likeable rebels.

At times Graziano’s colorful story is translated to the screen in a little too much black and white. Though, one has to keep in mind that for a film made in 1956, there was still a lot of ribbon cutting made by director Robert Wise's film. He might be better known as editor of “Citizen Kane” and captain of musical darlings like “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”, but Wise still comes out ahead for his “Somebody Up There Likes Me” directing and choice of Oscar winning cinematography. In fact, you can sense the influences this older brother movie played on boxing stories to follow. Something I noticed was that Rocky Graziano’s real name, Rocky Barbella, is very similar to the hero’s name that Sylvester Stallone made a household name with on a boxer’s dozen films. But, the film most notable is Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”, another artful boxing story, and one of the finest films crafted, about a hardheaded champ with emotional scar tissue on full exposure. It’s no coincidence that Scorsese offers his own hand and head at commentary on the DVD. However, with all the boxing stories treading similar ring-side seating, it’s a wonder how these films don’t serve as constructive commentary for the continual line of troublesome boxers who continue to come around, punching their own clocks in and out of the ring. I guess it just means that Hollywood will never run out of great boxing stories.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

The Hustler * * * * ½
Directed by: Robert Rossen / 1961

Several years ago I watched Paul Newman teach a young Tom Cruise how to strut his cool-pool stuff in Martin Scorsese’s so-so film “The Color of Money.” I didn’t know it until afterwards, but Newman had reprised his “Fast Eddie Felson” from another film, a role that finally rewarded him with a "Color of Gold" Oscar prize that he should have received 25 years before. I don’t think that Newman chose to emerge back into pool shark character just for the chance to finally get a well-deserved golden statue. But, I think it helped the Academy to finally open up their eyes to the aging legend as he should have had four or five Oscars by then. Hollywood politics aside, you can’t really begin to understand Newman’s elder “Fast Eddy” without watching him come to age in Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler”.

Within the first 20 minutes of “The Hustler” I was beginning to think the film was one that I would “watch” rather than “follow”. It was interesting yet seemed to be kicking into climactic-like high-gear rather rapidly as it stayed put at the high-dollar pool duel of Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason’s great character who inspired an actual pool shark to adopt the film moniker). It felt more “Wide World of Sports” than film classic to me. Oddly, with the same quickness it kicks into, the film slows down after Fast Eddie losses liquor and then his dignity and dough (18,000+…a TON of money for the early ‘60s) to his 25 hour match with Fats while Bert Gordon (George C. Scott’s slick pool shark con) looks on with everybody else in the town. That night Eddie ditches his long-time cross-country con partner Charlie (Myron McCormick) and sharks a girl at the local bus stop. They don’t call Eddie “Fast” for nothing as within hours he puts the moves and literally moves into the manic-depressive Sarah Packard’s apartment (played intoxicatingly well by Piper Laurie) and she immediately becomes “his girl”. Geesh, that Eddie, he’s a fast one. He’s also a cold-hearted one when Charlie pleads with love and care to get him back and Eddie says, “You go lie down and die alone”. Only in the movies do people say things this harsh, but it feels sadly genuine coming out of Fast Eddie.

The thing with Fast Eddie is that his 1st place talent plays second to a lack of character and cockiness. He’s too cool for pool school. This flaw causes him to lose his cool when sharking and after beating an “Ordinary Joe” opponent, Eddie gets beat-up and left with broken thumbs. Healing and hiding back at complicated Sarah’s place he reexamines his character and soul a bit and eventually seals a deal with a new pool partner in the aforementioned Bert Gordon, a man with “cool” outside and just plain "cold" within. In the third act Eddie, Bert and Sarah travel to Louisville, KY for some high-stakes pool shooting that eventually ends up costing them more than their pockets and then back to where they began, high-rolling with Minnesota Fats.

Fast Eddie Felson isn’t my favorite role by Paul Newman, but it’s one of many challenging, in-depth characters in the legend’s film resume of likable loser-winners that I enjoy. They are characters worth watching and following, even when they come back 25 years later in 1980s taverns and pool halls decked in beer labels and bikini-clad babes on walls that once didn't need dressed up to be cool. All-in-all, Fast Eddie is a character that feels lived-in, and one that Newman really sharked a score of gold with.


Monday, October 13, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Hud * * * * *
Directed by: Martin Ritt / 1963

“Little by little the country changes because of the men we admire.” –Homer Bannon / Hud’s Father.

It’s ironic to me that the name HUD spelled backwards is a word/sound that I use to define men just like Paul Newman’s outstanding character Hud Bannon in the American masterpiece “Hud”. Guys like HUD have a head so dense with ignorance and bull that they release DUH into the air and it’s astonishing why people find it and flock to it as some sort of charm or confidence radiated from their arrogance and ignorance. Yet, people love the idea of the outsider or the tough guy, and in general all people can be pretty ignorant. I particularly don’t try to flock to such people in real life, but at time I’ve had them flock to me and walk on me. However, I do volunteer to dive into such portrayals at the movies and I can say that I was charmed by what I feel is the late Paul Newman’s greatest performance. Men like Hud lie, cheat, steal, sloth, drink, fight and womanize through a life lived for them and them only, getting away with the easy shots out, the unprincipled and unethical way. They are the block heads that won’t budge, casting the guys that are truly fighting and working for something onto the chopping block, even if it’s their own blood and block chips. Though I try to find the good in people and try to give a lot of grace, it’s still hard to deal with the Huds in real life without letting them walk all over. However, the older I get I do find benefits of doubt in the fact that people are more complex and bruised than I sometimes have given them credit for. Hud’s cattle rancher father gave up on him a long time ago, never missing an opportunity to do his own walk of disappointment on him. Even if it does feel justified and Hud seems to thick-skin-it, he still feels burned from it. I imagine that burning is from love, or lack of it from his father. But, I see his father as having a lot of love for saying what he says to his son, maybe it’s just not distributed in the right manner at times. During one such moment, Hud says, “Well, at least my dead Mama loved me.” Sometimes Huds are the way they are because of their upbringing or the fact that they just had never had anybody stick with them from the get-go, even in the tough-stuff, or in many cases they’ve never had anybody knock sense into them. In Hud’s case at the age of 34, it’s too much too late. This doesn’t make it right or excusable for guys like Hud to walk all over everyone, but it doesn’t mean that we should assume that there isn’t any good or change left in them to help mold them or push them, instead of pushing them farther away or being a push-over towards them. It’s certainly a tough balance that we all can relate with in some way or another. Most of the time a hard exterior is swapped for a past of tarnish, disappointment and hurt and this is the case with Hud Bannon. And sadly I feel that a hard exterior can even be the result of a hard interior, and sometimes people simply find acceptance and admiration in the dark side. I feel that Paul Newman shines with a wide array of added complexity branded to the insides and out of Hud, putting on a Hell’s Angel skin so full of depth, power and life that sticks beyond the last movie frame as he closes the door on his world. I gather that many film-goers have been disappointed in unanswered questions and in the bleak outcome of the screen lives and messages in “Hud”. But, I think it is played and ends to perfection and in many ways would make a great “Southwestern Moody Meditation on Man” double bill with 2007’s “No Country For Old Men”. Movies like these need to be watched and digested and need to rattle us because they ring truths in our inner and outer landscape, things we don’t really like to face sometimes. And I know for a fact that we all have known or dealt with a Hud before, some of us might even be wearing one now. Perhaps even this country has changed because of the men and actions we have come to admire and accept?


Thursday, October 9, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control * * * *
Directed by: Errol Morris / 1997

Replace “Cheap” with “Expensive” and “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” would sound like a title for a movie that might relate to politics or something in today’s ‘Merica. Then again, keeping the title as is, it could be a documentary on the G. W. Bush administration's “cheap” position on human life when it comes to wars like the one we’re currently messing our foreign relations in (shoot, I just gave away my opinion) or, it could simply be a study on prostitution or something like that. Actually, “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” is about the unique obsessions of four individuals, whose passions and lives are revealed, interviewed in-between a dizzying frantic array of old movie/stock imagery, cartoons and startling musical score all engineered under the direction of Errol Morris’ own uniquely obsession, original documentary filmmaking. Morris isn’t too far off the map of his fellow filmmaking friend Werner Herzog with this meditation on the question of mad men or geniuses, though I do think that Herzog makes better to do with such a subject and subjects. The title doesn’t really make sense when you first get a glimpse of the four subjects, who range from a Naked Mole Rat expert, a lion trainer, a garden sculptor and a robot scientist. However, it’s the robotic scientist’s research paper about sending a large amount of robots into space that the film’s title is borrowed from. “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” is an enjoyable little ride into the minds and worlds of other people. If you think you’ve got some strangeness in your life, you might either want to think again or find yourself in like-minded company snuggled up with this peculiar gem.


DJG / Brother's Keeper

Brother’s Keeper * * * * *
Directed by: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky / 1992

“And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”

-GENESIS / 4 : 8, 9

Driving the back roads of central and northwestern New York state had me sensing a connection to my rural Missouri roots. The blacktop slicing and winding the ridges of small towns, dilapidated shacks and farm equipment strewn across a green and rolly landscape dotted with cattle and sheep gave me the feeling of my boyhood home and farm community. “Brother’s Keeper” is a story about the Ward Brothers of Munnsville, NY, just off the map from the roads I traveled last summer. The brothers look and interact with an environment as if they and it are torn from a page of my family history. Wooly Mammoth-bearded and cloaked as if they haven’t changed clothes in six months, as if they’d looked that way since birth, Adelbert (aka: just Delbert), Lyman, Roscoe and the late William Ward are like early cave dwelling nomads (what I envision the characters crawling out of Cormac McCarthy’s outstanding post-apocalyptic book “The Road” will look like on the silver screen this winter). With layers of flannel, denim and tattered coats clinging to weathered and crackled bodies, educations and I.Q.s that aren’t necessarily at the mentally retarded level but at their own country-bumpkin-mumble-social-deprivation one, the elderly brothers are-what-they-are and there is nothing wrong with that. They butcher hogs in the front lawn (who doesn’t!?), leave their old farm machinery and vehicles where they die (why not?), keep their poultry in an old school bus (seen it-love it), live in the trashy shack they grew-up in (I know people like this), stack working televisions on top of old ones (yep), keep the same fly paper strip tacked up for 20 years (for sure), sleep in the same bed (well, maybe not for me but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for some people who don’t know any different) and till and milk a long family line of dirt and cows (for sure). Though the brothers can barely read, write or tell time they know their chores and family farm duties by heart and hand. In a community of farmers and folk who barely extend beyond what they know of their small town radius, the Ward brothers are indeed on the outside of the world, even their own. They are the type of people who are always together and ride into town on a tractor, barely communicating more than “Alright”, “Yep”, “Good” and “Uh-huh”. They are more than just genuine “Good Ol’ Boys”, and as one neighbor/friend puts-it and right in front of them, “They’re good boys. Actually they are like little boys with old faces.” In many ways I can relate to the Ward brothers, not only in my youthful blood and implanted observations, but also in my sometimes want for a simpler life, maybe not exactly similar to a Ward life, but you get my drift. But why a movie about them, what makes their story so fascinating and not simply the exploitation of an “eccentric” or “outsider” life, a life that they and many people choose or simply know how to live? What directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (both behind “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” and many other documentaries) present with their excellent “Brother’s Keeper” is what became the controversial aftermath of the 1991 death of the eldest Ward brother, William. It’s a story that received a wide-range of media attention for the reclusive and shy Ward brothers and the small town of Munnsville, NY, attention that says something for itself and our lust for cheap entertainment and taking a glimpse of things that seem “different”. Hardly anybody had stepped foot in the Ward’s home in decades, people had barely gotten in touch with the boys other than small talk and now many people were knocking on their door…even Connie Chung. Could behind the thick layers, beards and piercing, naïve childlike eyes lay a cold-blooded killer in Delbert Ward? William had been ailing for years, so could his brother commit an act of “Mercy Killing” that his other brothers knew about, no different an act they would commit for a sick tom cat or an old cow? And if so, does this open up new legal concern as can Delbert and his brothers decipher from true wrong and right in such a scenario of judgment? And did Delbert naively say and sign a testimony he could not read or understand or was he tricked into it by bullying police officials who saw him as a joke? Or, was William’s death a crime of incest/sexual-murder, as prosecuting attorneys claim they have proof of. Finally, was this a case that extended further into the politics of sprawling suburbia hoping to devour up the small town farms and families? The answers are buried at the end of the film in a real life nail-biting court room drama. And perhaps your own conclusions, answers or assumptions might even be revealed from behind those Ward beards and the supporting cast of a loving community that stuck with Delbert and his brothers. It’s such a peculiar, unique and fascinating story that at times rings the popular tune of “Big Shots vs. Under Dogs” revealing harsh glimpses of our judicial and social system that I feel in this story is every bit as disturbing and important as the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial. On a lighter note (good or a bit iffy about it?), I think the attention for the Ward brothers has caused them to crack out of their weathered shells a little bit, by way of becoming more involved with the world's workings and even more open to their community. Also, be sure to watch the DVD extras for a wonderfully sweet short film titled “The Wards Take Manhattan”. Originally intended to be the film’s closing scene (later traded for a traditional Munnsville ending), it charmingly shows the Wards' visit to New York City for the first time, a worldly city that is only a short drive away from their isolated one just down the back roads.


Monday, October 6, 2008

DJG's Weekend Watcher

The Foot Fist Way * * 1/2
Directed by: Jody Hill / 2008

Though he’s not in it, Will Ferrell’s name is attached to this low-budget, harshly paced B-comedy on the ooohs and ouches of white trash Kung-Fu and love. Actually, I’m not quite sure what brand of martial arts is “demo’d” in this underwhelming movie other than lots of punching and kicking and yelling and cursing. From what I understand Ferrell claimed to have seen this movie a comedian’s dozen times and then won the distribution rights, hoping for a “Napoleon Dynamite”-like success (uh, not even CLOSE). But, it wasn’t Ferrell who attracted or hyped the movie for me, it was another comedic-random-wonder by the name of Danny McBride (who I think is better than Ferrell and could be just as huge). You may have been laughing at his goof-balling-gut-delivery the past year in the stupid-awesome chart topers “Hot Rod”, “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder”. I consider McBride on the heels of A(patow)-List talent and certainly the only reason to watch “The Fist Foot Way”. Well, scratch that idea and just watch McBride in the aforementioned movies or just wait for the next samey-so-so Will Ferrell buddy comedy because I’m sure that he’ll be substituting for John C. Reilly by the end of the year.


Martian Child * * * ½
Directed by: Menno Meyjes / 2007

The best John Cusack moments find me relating with down-on-luck, pine-riding characters honing outsider traits and loner dips into the pools of bedroom pop-culture and creativity. “Martian Child” Cusack has him playing “David”, an older extension of classic characters who plays father to one that he probably could have once played. David is a successful stay-at-home science fiction book writer who decides to adopt a young boy named “Dennis”, as it was his late-wife’s long wish to do so. I find some relation to Cusack’s David, but it is little Dennis who fits more to my bill, as he opens up a world of artistic seclusion, inability to relate to others and most importantly, Lucky Charm loving that is quite inviting to me. Though Dennis might be a loner his bags are packed even deeper as he thinks, rather knows, he is visiting from Mars. He can’t seem to relate to anything or anyone, clumping life into an experiment of trying to come to terms with his abandonment. David is first taken with Dennis at the group home where he sits secluded and shielded from the sun’s harmful rays and the Earth’s harsh people in an over-sized cardboard box. He and his Amazon box have weathered many shuffles across the asphalt and wood chips, until David, seeing something of himself in the boy, coaxes him out with sun lotion and a soccer ball, not too unlike “E.T.” Soon enough, David has won Dennis over, amongst a wide-range of wrecked emotional ships and strange behavior as the two learn a little bit about life from one another and friends and family around them. Along the way Dennis is expelled from school for stealing (though, simply an extension of his documentation on human life and the deterioration of stuff), weighs himself down from gravitation pull with battery belts, reveals special Martian wishes and with 100% accuracy can nail the color of M&M’s by eating them blindfolded (except for the blue ones which have no taste). In the film Dennis is jokingly referred to as “Mini Warhol”, which is a fitting title and in fact his youthful lenses and knowledge on the world crank out more ideas and inspiration than the actual Warhol Factory. Childlike lenses are ones that we all need to watch the world from behind. Watching the DVD extras had me find that Dennis is actually inspired by true people and events, and related with pop-culture’s time line in every bit as universal as Andy Warhol. You see, the real story started when science fiction author David Gerrold (best known for the very popular and awesome original “Star Trek” episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”) decided to adopt a boy in the early '90s and the rest became pop-culture history by way of an award-winning short story and a lovely little movie. “Martian Child” as a movie isn’t perfect, but has heart, messages and inspiration that make up for that as they reach to the end of the galaxy and beyond. It's a movie for the whole family and you might just find an extension of your own self to reach out to.