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.