Review: Inception

Christopher Nolan seems to be a fascinated filmmaker.  Fascinating, too, but he absolutely has some key themes and ideas that he wants to explore in his films.  The most prominent, at least at this point in his career, seems to be order.  The notion that people can impose order on their world figures strongly in Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight as subtextual themes, but it’s essentially the text of Inception.  Perhaps not the result of applying order to chaos, but of applying the logic of design to the inherent illogical state of dreaming.

Inception is, fundamentally, a heist film with a strong emotional core.  The layers that Nolan adds are in many ways literal layers, and it’s to his credit as a writer that the film never becomes so obsessed with the gee-whiz novelty of it’s concept that it gets in the way of telling that story.  Yes, confusion can set in, but for a movie that takes place largely within the subconscious, it’s layered in about as straight-forward and logical a way as possible.

Does this make sense?  It seems like a paradox for a dream to be easily understood, navigated and even manipulated.  Yet these aren’t random subconscious dreams; they’re painstakingly designed.  By an architect, no less.

Still, even in a logically structured dream, the chaos of the subconscious can’t be controlled.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb appears to be intent on preventing that, much like Leonard in Memento or Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight, but it appears as though Nolan doesn’t think order can be imposed where it isn’t already present.

Story aside, however, Inception is engrossing and astounding.  The cinematography is absolutely beautiful, taking pleanty of time with it’s shots; when they’re composed with such detail and purpose, there’s no sense at all in quick-cut editing.  The action scenes are unlike anything seen since The Matrix, and the visual effects are state-of-the-art.  It’s difficult to really overstate how great Inception looks.  It was shot and edited with purpose, and holds your attention like few films can.

But all that aside, Inception does need to be more than just an intriguing story and spectacular visuals.  In science fiction, your concept is only as good as the characters who have to navigate it; at the end of the day, the audience needs a reason to give a shit about what happens.

Performances are, in general, solid.  There’s really no glaring errors in casting or performances, save some occasional overacting by Ken Watanabe and perhaps too much exposition required by Ellen Page.  But the core of the story, Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard, excels.  Both deliver stirring performances, and give the film the weight it needs.

So with all this working for it, what more can be said about Inception?  It’s a rare film; one that looks like it cost the $200 million that Nolan required to see his vision come to life.  It’s surprisingly ambitious, and surprisingly ambiguous.  There’s a lot for the audience to wrestle with, and it practically demands repeat viewings.

Review: The Lookout

The Lookout – 2007 (Dir. Scott Frank)

The Lookout is an easy movie to really like, but not quite love. For one thing, it’s a really smart film; no, it’s not really breaking any ground in it’s story (it’s about a bank robbery in a small town), but how it tells the story is very sharp. It also boasts some great performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jeff Daniels. Having a solid script, nice visuals and great actors is one thing; but making them all elevate the material is another. And that’s where the intelligence of the film comes into play.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character is disabled. Gordon-Levitt’s character suffers from brain damage caused by a car accident in the years before the action of the film; he has amnesia. In the hands of a less tactful writer and director, this could be a recipe for disaster. In the hands of a less capable actor, too, this could come across as embarrassingly patronizing. Instead, it serves to make the film better. Gordon-Levitt’s performance is sympathetic, but never pathetic. The audience feels his frustration, but he’s never given a free ride because of his handicap. If anything, his disability makes the film’s antagonist (Watchmen‘s Matthew Goode) seem more cruel, rather than Gordon-Levitt more innocent.

The film also takes it’s time, and allows us to get to know the characters. Scenes run, if anything, a little too long, rather than a little too short. The film feels longer than it’s 99-minute runtime, but that’s an asset more than a burden. The camera isn’t afraid to linger on a shot. Bu it’s the strength of the acting, even smaller parts, that does the heavy lifting here. Gordon-Levitt, Daniels and Goode all turn in stellar performances. Deputy Ted doesn’t have much screen time, but Sergio Di Zio turns makes them work. Likewise, Greg Dunham’s brief performance as Bone is menacing without being over the top.

The Lookout, the first feature written and directed by Scott Frank, does wear it’s influences on it’s sleeve. The snowy small town setting and menacing henchman recall elements of Fargo, and the amnesia angle reminded me of Memento, but the film stands on it’s own merit. And frankly, if you’re going to borrow liberally from anyone, it may as well be Christopher Nolan and the Coen Brothers. Regardless, it’s a very strong film and a worthy entry in the canon of contemporary crime films.


Review: The Hurt Locker

My godfather is a chaplain with the Army. A few years ago, he visited my family after a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He said two things that stuck with me: sand will get in places you didn’t think sand could get, and daily life for soldiers is like Groundhog Day meets Black Hawk Down.

So several years later, I’m finding that this is perhaps the best way to describe Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. It seems like an unlikely marriage between concepts, but it’s apt; the film gives the impression that time in a war zone is frustratingly cyclical and incredibly dangerous. But the film also goes deeper than this. The Hurt Locker opens with the words “War is a drug”. From there, it unpacks what that might mean.

The film centres around Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) and his two EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teammates. Essentially, they’re the US Army’s bomb squad. The film follows them from mission to mission on Renner’s final month of duty in Iraq, documentary style. Though the film’s subject lends itself more towards a gung-ho action film, it winds up using mood as it’s primary method of storytelling. While Bigelow is known for her action films like Point Break, The Hurt Locker is a suspense film that actually lives up to that title.

Much has been said about how intense the film is. It’s justified. Because the film is shot in a hand-held documentary style, the “you are here” effect is amplified, but even so, the level of tension in The Hurt Locker is remarkable. It’s a film that, in it’s most intense scenes, draws you in like no other war film I’ve seen. In particular, there’s an intense showdown between Renner’s squad and (mostly) unseen snipers that draws on for roughly ten minutes, but there’s a sense of unpredictability present that keeps a scene where very little happens intense. It’s an action film without action; the film has suspense scenes in place of action scenes, and it’s difficult to overstate how legitimate the suspense actually is.

It’s almost a deconstruction of the modern action film. The cocky, rule-breaking hero has no place here, and attempts to become one don’t last. Even when Renner is at his most reckless, it’s hardly heroic in the traditional sense. He acts more like an addict than a cowboy. It takes a toll on his sanity and on his team.

Kathryn Bigelow’s direction, it needs to be said, is phenomenal. The film’s intensity is coming from more than just the pacing and performances (Jeremy Renner absolutely earns his Best Actor nomination), but nearly every aspect. The film’s score ups the tension with less music than noises, and the way it uses silence in particular is effective. Bigelow sought realism, shooting in Jordan (sometimes within sight of the Iraq border) and with the cast living in close quarters, and it feels very real as a result. The frayed nerves of Renner and his teammates never appear forced, and they’re never overplayed.

So with all that said, the question that needs to be answered is this: Is it truly the best film of 2009? I will say this: I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it’s incredibly effective. It’s certainly among the best films I’ve seen, and well worth seeing. This is one example where a film is capable of backing up it’s hype.

Review: A Serious Man

Originally printed in Mayday Magazine, March 2010

Before I review A Serious Man, I feel that I should disclose two important personal facts.  The first is that I’m a huge fan of the Coen brothers.  That’s not too extraordinary; it’s hard not to at least respect the Coens for the quality and originality of the bulk of their work. I’ve encountered few people who don’t love at least one of their films.  I’d certainly argue they’ve made no less than three modern classics (Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men), and even if they haven’t, their reputation is, at least in my opinion, deserved.

The second is that I’m not Jewish and have had very little interactions with Jewish culture. And while seeing A Serious Man may not necessarily require a working knowledge of contemporary Jewish culture, it certainly helps if you do.

A Serious Man is a dark comedy about the existential crisis of Professor Larry Gopnik (he is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, a veteran stage actor making his first major onscreen appearance).  Larry’s wife wants to leave him.  His son has started smoking pot.  His daughter is apathetic towards him at best.  He’s facing a serious moral dilemma at work.  When he seeks religious guidance, he winds up with less comfort than he started with.  All in all, the early 1970’s are a pretty bad time to be Larry.

And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.  The film piles on misery after misery in what should be one of the best weeks of Larry’s life; his son is about to have his Bar Mitzvah and Larry appears to be in good position to gain tenure at his university.  From there, however, a number of mild inconveniences escalate and escalate.  Some of this might be Larry’s fault, but we’re never given quite enough information to know for sure.

Is a rebellious child the fault of a parent? Is divorce the fault of an emotionally absentee partner? A Serious Man doesn’t show enough for the viewer to move beyond basic assumptions. Then there are events where Larry could not possibly be at fault; these, too, add to his plight.  Larry just has a lot of terrible things happen to him with no particular explanation why.

This is a common theme in the Coen’s work, but it’s presented differently here.  In their most beloved film, The Big Lebowski, few pleasant things happen to The Dude; yet this never seems too apparent because The Dude and his friends are engaging and likeable characters and the film leans quite heavily on the ridiculous.

While objectively A Serious Man never really stretches plausibility, only a few characters seem truly amiable.  Larry, though certainly not a cruel man, is a far cry from the likeable everyman.  He has a few scenes where he’s a doormat to a frustrating degree.  Still, I found myself growing sympathetic toward his fruitless search and ever-growing list of questions without answers.

That said, I don’t think the film blindsides it’s audience with misery. When you know what sort of darkness to expect, it comes as less of a surprise.  I wasn’t taken aback by the degree of suffering Larry endured during the film. At the same time, I was taken aback by the overall tone of the film: A Serious Man never revels in Larry’s pain, it simply presents it.  While the Coen brothers have made films that make a few laughs at the expense of it’s characters, I don’t think A Serious Man is one of them.

Ultimately, the Coen brothers have constructed a well-made film. They know their craft, and their writing is generally very sharp and the film is technically very good; they know how to get great performances out of their actors and the film is well-shot and well edited.  In particular, the film boasts a very strong performance by Michael Stuhlbarg, who to my surprise actually did not earn a Best Actor nomination for his work.

The question with A Serious Man isn’t “is this good?”, but “is this worth seeing?”  That’s a vital distinction to make, and I’m actually not sure what side of the fence I fall on.  Philosophically, there’s a fair bit to grapple with.  The film’s central question is “why do bad things happen to good people?” and the film never really tries to answer the question.  Or rather, if they do, they give such vague responses as “it’s all about perspective” or “just because, and who are we to question it?”.

Perhaps the journey the viewer takes is meant to mirror Larry’s, but ultimately, it’s a film that’s easy to admire but hard to love.


Review: Up In The Air

Originally printed in Mayday Magazine, February 2010
Jason Reitman’s third effort, Up in the Air is a deceptively complex film. And that’s really no mean feat, all things considered. The film’s declared subject matter is fairly weighty on it’s own; it touches on themes of isolation, rebirth and change, while providing timely insight on the current economic state of North America.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a professional downsizer who spends over 300 days of the year on the road essentially firing people from companies that lacked the courage to do it themselves. He quite literally lives out of his suitcase, in hotels and on airplanes. And he likes it this way; it means he can sidestep the burdens of adulthood like car payments, home ownership, a committed relationship and most social obligations.

As he approaches his goal of 10 million miles with American Airlines, his company throws him a curve; new recruit Natalie (Anna Kendrick, who I’m told was in Twilight) has a plan that would allow the company to save the company nearly all of their (presumably astronomical) travel expenses. Ryan’s personal life has also thrown him a curve in the form of Alex, a woman who appears to be his perfect match (played by Vera Farmiga). When Ryan takes Natalie under his wing, he’s forced to re-examine his philosophy.

The story, as Reitman tells it, is character-centric. This is one of Reitman’s greatest strengths as a director, and he’s cast the film accordingly. Clooney, Kendrick, and Farmiga all deliver terrific performances. Much has already been said about how strong the chemistry between the three leads is, and I’m not sure enough can be. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from the theatre world where cast chemistry is really all you have to work with, but I really was impressed with the performances in the film.

Reitman’s two previous works — 2006’s Thank You For Smoking and 2007’s Juno — are both solid and character-driven. However, both these films tended to treat their characters as punchlines, whereas Up in the Air takes its characters more seriously.

The economical production design and script keeps the focus on the characters. Reitman never oversells a big moment, but never undersells the small ones, balancing darker themes with lighter comic elements quite well. All in all, it’s a solid, performance-driven movie.

But what about this deceptive complexity? While the film is very much straight-forward in terms of how it’s shot, paced and written, it’s underlying themes run deep. Ryan is forced to reassess his entire identity when his lifestyle is challenged. He’s forced to examine his philosophy of relationships. The film even goes as far as to suggest that he might be a lost cause; a victim of his chosen comforts. The film presents itself as the “George Clooney being charming yet vulnerable show”, but it’s at it’s best when it takes that form and steers it away from it’s assumed course.

It’s probably not a perfect movie, but I’m not sure that’s all that important. I suppose it’s not necessarily a risky or ambitious movie; Reitman doesn’t use the film as a basis for experimentation. But it is entertaining, engaging and perhaps most importantly, one that I wanted to talk about after I saw. And in our world of movies about giant fighting robots (from outer space!), it’s hard to not give a strong recommendation to an imperfect movie that’s still worth talking about.


Scott Picks Five: Things Hollywood Believes About Romance

I’m not really a regular viewer of romantic movies as a genre (for arguments sake, a movie that sells itself as a love story, be it dramatic or comic); I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in theatres alone (which is typically how I see movies) and I don’t think I’ve seen more than maybe four or five in theatres in my life.  I do, however, somehow wind up seeing a lot of them at home.  Draw your own conclusions about why that is, but I generally find that they do have a certain escapist appeal.  When they’re done right, you’ll witness clever dialogue and exceptional on-screen chemistry.  When done wrong, however, you’ll realize how little Hollywood appears to know about romance.  And when you spend a good amount of time mulling it over, it becomes clear that these tropes seem to be sending out some rather bizarre (and maybe even alarming) messages about true love.

1. Not being killed by bad guys gets you chicks
One thing about action movies that’s always bugged me is the way they try to tack on a love story.  I’m not really an expert on counter-terrorism, and while I’m sure it’s impressive to a lot of women, but it seems like most people involved in fighting off bad guys of any stripe should really only be concerned with the task at hand.  Logistically and realistically, there’s a lot about “save the day, get the girl” that doesn’t really work, make sense or even seem practical.  But in the world of action movies, suspension of disbelief is key.  What annoys me about this one is that it’s usually just bad writing; sometimes distractingly bad.  In Speed, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock fall in love by facing and surviving danger and little else.  It’s a fairly ridiculous (but enjoyable) action movie that probably deserves some credit for both making Reeves and Bullock’s eventual romance somewhat believable (when not talking about how awful it is to be on a bus with a bomb, they do banter and flirt a fair bit), but for addressing this issue head-on by declaring that “relationships based on intense experiences never work” many times.

So this has been a known ridiculous plot device for over 15 years, yet it persists.  In Transformers (sort of my go-to example for most types of silliness in film), by virtue of not being killed by giant fighting robots (from outer space!), Shia LeBeouf is transformed from the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox tolerates to the kind-hearted geek that Megan Fox loves without much happening in between aside from the aforementioned averted death-by-robot.  My understanding of the fairer sex is by no means encyclopedic, but if not dying from explosions was all it took to have women fall in love with you, I would have had a very different social life in college.

2. Men never have to settle
Actors and actresses are, at least as far as Hollywood goes, a pretty good-looking bunch.  So naturally, complaints about “only pretty people fall in love in the movies!” are a little misguided.  However, there’s a fairly high number of “everyman” actors, such as Tom Hanks, Jack Black, Seth Rogen and Vince Vaughn.  While these men are by no means “ugly”, they aren’t, to the best of my knowledge, sex symbols.  And when they appear in romantic roles, they’re generally romancing women who could be considered as such.  An obvious example of this is Knocked Up, where Rogen romances the statuesque Katherine Heigl despite it being against the odds.  Couples Retreat features this in spades; Jason Bateman, Vince Vaughn, Faizon Love and Jon Favreau are all married or attached to women significantly younger and more attractive than they are.

Since most filmmakers are male and not conventionally attractive, I suppose there’s a certain degree of wish fulfillment going on, but there’s virtually no female equivalent to this.  I had difficulty naming unconventionally attractive actresses who appear in romantic roles, and I honestly can’t think of any movie where a woman romances a man who is clearly out of her league.  I suppose Bridget Jones would qualify (thanks to the normally attractive Renee Zelwegger gaining weight for the part), but that’s one example against the countless examples of chubby guys with inexplicably attractive spouses.  So with those numbers in mind, and if Hollywood is to be believed, men can always land the perfect ten if they’re lucky and play their cards right, but women really only have the option of slumming it.

3. Lonely people need extraordinary partners to make them believe in love again
Nathan Rabin of the AV Club famously coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe the sort of woman who appears as the leading lady in romantic films with a male protagonist.  She’s impulsive, quirky, probably a little unstable, quirky, intellectual, quirky, and just what the lovelorn male lead needs to believe in love (or anything at all) again.  While it seems like only yesterday that Natalie Portman stole our hearts with her vintage motorcycles and Shins mixtapes in Garden State, in film, this is almost as old as technicolor.  Remember when an impulsive Austrian nun stole the heart of a widowed father with assorted types of song and dance?  The problem called Maria would later be diagnosed as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

I feel that there’s a male equivalent, but I’m having a hard time putting my finger on a name.  The Sensitive Cowboy Dream Boy?  The Heartfelt Rebel Dream Boy?  The Matthew McConaughey?  In any case, if your protagonist is a woman, odds are, it’s not a sensible man with sterling character and a nice wardrobe who wins the day.  It’s an unshaven rogue with abs of steel who consistently rubs you the wrong way but is inexplicably charming and worth falling in love with.  He’s usually played by Matthew McConaughey, but he showed up in The Ugly Truth, Leap Year, and countless others just in the last year played by someone else.  Since again most writers and filmmakers are male (and probably look more like me than Gerard Butler), this might not be wish fulfillment and might just be lazy writing (or a complete misunderstanding of the opposite sex).  But I digress…

In both the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and (until a better name comes to me) the Matthew McConaughey archetype, the message is clear: you don’t need someone who shares your views and values or provides mutual support and affection, you need someone who is unpredictable and zany to show you how to feel again by driving you crazy by virtue of being obnoxious (though oddly charming) or acting out domestic fantasies in Ikea because life is too short not to, gosh darn it.

It seems like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl at least is now ripe for deconstruction, however.  (500) Days of Summer took a perverse pleasure in pinpointing both the potential downfalls of romance with the charmingly impulsive and the lack of emotional maturity that plagues the men who stop thinking rationally once they realize that Zooey Deschanel loves The Smiths as much as they do.

4. Fate excuses anything
A common theme in romantic movies is the seemingly insurmountable obstacle.  Be it a career, an ocean or two between them, a language barrier, or most commonly, a pre-existing relationship, there’s always something stopping our hero and heroine from living happily ever after.  Sometimes this is portrayed as a test of the strength of their bond.  Sometimes it’s a means of proving how truly in love they are.  And sometimes it’s a test of character that they fail miserably.  And when it is, the movie won’t recognize that.

This is most common when the obstacle is a pre-existing relationship.  In the world of the romantic comedy, true love is true love and following your heart means you’re always right.  It’s a little odd that nobody in romantic comedies ever thinks that someone willing to drop everything, cancel a wedding or two, break the heart of their current partner and potentially alienate friends and family might not be entirely trustworthy.  Sure, these films might show characters agonizing over the decisions, but they always choose the path of most destruction and it never raises a red flag.

Perhaps someday there will be a film following Bill Pullman, Dermott Mulroney, Dylan McDermott and all the other straw-fiances from the last 20 years of romantic comedies as they commiserate about being left with the burden of telling 300+ wedding guests that their brides to be left them for Matthew McConaughey at the last minute, slowly pay off the non-refundable deposits made at those exclusive reception halls, and play wingman to each other, slowly rebuilding their collective self confidence one depressing night on the town at a time.  But until then, it seems as though true love means never having to say you’re sorry.

5. Opposites attract.  Always.

They don’t.  I’ve tried.  Too many times.

I will concede that a certain degree of tension and spark can be healthy in a relationship, but the usual song and dance is that the protagonists in a romantic comedy are often adversaries who treat the other with ambivalence more than affection.  This is not the behaviour of adults who seek companionship, it’s the behaviour of an eight-year old boy who thinks Sally has cute pigtails but doesn’t quite understand why.

At worst, this cliche is dumb but harmless.  And honestly, with the right pairing of actors, it can be a lot of fun to watch.  But all the same, I keep hoping a background character will call them out on this and tell them that if they have to cover their feelings this way, they’re probably not ready for a relationship with smooching and other grown-up things like mutual funds and deciding to get a tankless water heater.

Or better yet, the recognition that sometimes people act like they don’t like each other because they actually don’t like each other.

Scott Picks Five: Baffling Original Songs

Music can make or break a scene.  A scene can shift from comedy to satire to tragedy depending entirely on the music used.  As films grew more ambitious and the entertainment world constricted to being branches of the same companies, popular musicians began to intermingle with popular movies.  In some cases, musicians would be commissioned for original songs for a soundtrack.  In some cases, the artist will go all in and write a song from scratch for the movie; Tom Petty wound up writing a full album of music for the 1997 drama She’s The One.  Other times, they’ll simply take an outtake from previous recording sessions and re-purpose it for a film.  While this can often have great results, it can also have terrible ones.  My favourite results, however, are when the pairings just makes no sense at all.

The Song: Goo Goo Dolls – Before It’s Too Late
The Movie: Transformers – 2007, dir. Michael Bay

I secretly like the Goo Goo Dolls.  They’re not my favourite band by any stretch, but they write solid pop songs with huge hooks and seem to actually know how to use epic strings for epic effect.  They’re also no strangers to soundtracks; “Iris” from the City of Angels soundtrack is actually an example of a song that surpasses the movie in terms of popularity (I don’t know anyone who’s seen City of Angels, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know “Iris”).  Their power ballads are their bread and butter, so they’re a bankable band to call up for a love song for your epic romance flick, right?  Right.
So why are they writing songs for Transformers?  The film’s romantic subplot is pretty thin, but he still ponied up for the Goo Goo Dolls for their love song.  It’s a fine song to be sure, and it would have had great effect as the love song for any full-fledged romantic drama.  But instead, the song bears the distinction of being the love song from a movie about giant fighting robots.  At least it has company; The Fray contributed a weepy piano ballad to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

The Song: R. Kelly – Gotham City
The Movie: Batman and Robin – 1997, dir. Joel Schumacher

Batman and Robin did an awful lot wrong.  When I was 12 years old, I loved it.  But I was 12, and that’s a valid excuse.  No writer, director, or producer on that movie was 12.  So much has been written about what they did wrong, so I won’t go into that, but upon further reflection, the strongest nail in the coffin is a slow hip-hop/R&B tune about staring down poverty from R. Kelly.  Maybe because Kelly paired images and lyrics of urban decay with scantily clad dancers, lots of glossy shiny things, and glamour shots of the Batmobile in the music video, or maybe it’s because it appears that Kelly just tacked really vague Batman references (and wildly inaccurate ones at that; Gotham City is neither particularly loving nor peaceful) onto an existing song to get it on the soundtrack, but the track comes across as pretty insincere.  The closest the movie comes to commenting on poverty is a biker gang who were only can only afford to decorate their lair with blacklight paint.  What’s curious here is that the Batman and Robin soundtrack contains about the only original element of the entire production that seemed to understand the Batman mythology at all; leave it to a tortured soul with a flair for the theatrical like Billy Corgan to understand the caped crusader, but the Smashing Pumpkins two songs written for the soundtrack could have just as easily been written for Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and been a better fit.

The Song: A320 by the Foo Fighters
The Movie: Godzilla – 1998, dir. Roland Emmerich

“A320″ is one of the stronger Foo Fighters songs that didn’t get properly released as a single (“MIA” being another).  At first blush, it’s about flying in an airplane.  Upon closer inspection, it’s more likely about either leaving a loved one or being scared of flying.  I assure you that it’s not at all about a giant mutant lizard, no matter how far-fetched your interpretation of the lyrics are.  And it’s not the only entry on the soundtrack that’ll raise an eyebrow. The Godzilla soundtrack would, on it’s own, be a nice time capsule of alternative rock from the late 1990’s, but as a companion piece to the movie, it’s superfluous at best.  The soundtrack’s only notable mention of the monster comes from Rage Against The Machine, who refer to the beast as “pure motherfucking filler”.  Draw your own conclusions on that one, folks.

The Song: How Do I Live? by Trisha Yearwood
The Movie: Con Air – 1997, Dir. Simon West

Con Air is just a fun movie.  There’s a lot of scenery chewing from John Malkovich and Ving Rhames, over-the-top stunts, a complete disregard for the laws of physics, and a particularly spectacular combination of bizarre wig/bizarre accent for Nicolas Cage to play with.  The action scenes are abundant and exciting, and while it’s not a great movie, it never really aspires to be; criticizing it for that would be like criticizing a skateboard for not being a BMW.  It’s escapist entertainment.
So why is there a pop-country ballad about loss and longing attached to it?  The film’s romantic subplot is a particularly token one, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer thought it important enough to call on a major recording star to sing.  And I suppose this serves as a case where being wrong and strong pays off for everyone involved; the song received an Oscar nomination for Best Original song despite having nothing to do with prisoners, airplanes, or explosions.

The Song: I Need to Wake Up by Melissa Etheridge
The Movie: An Inconvenient Truth – 2005, dir. Davis Guggenheim

Not because it’s a particularly bad song (it’s not) or because it’s a particularly bad movie (it’s not), or because they don’t match well (they do), but because of the unfortunate wording required when the song won the Oscar for best song: Repeat after me:

“I need to wake up from An Inconvenient Truth“.

Neither title is bad or even misleading, but paired together, it’s statement about the movie is one that nobody involved really wanted to be making.  And one that the documentary industry as a whole was probably content to do without.

Scott Picks Ten: My Favourite Films of the 00s

I have enormous difficulty ranking movies.  Partly because I love as many of them as I do, but partly because I just can’t compartmentalize them like I want to.  I also seldom see ten that I really love because I’m lucky if I see ten total in any given year.

That said, I’m pretty quick to be able to name a movie that sticks with me from any given year.  Here’s ten of those, plus some honorable mentions

2000 – Memento (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
Memento, in my opinion, will long be considered the strongest debut film of any filmmaker in the 21st century.  It’s a hyperbolic claim, sure, but it’s kind of hard to overstate how good Memento is.  It’s ambitious premise and plotting are more than just gimmicks; the power of the film is essentially embedded in them.  It speaks volumes about Nolan’s chosen form that nobody has really tried to replicate it; Charlie Kaufman even considered abandoning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind once he saw Memento because he felt it could never measure up.
But that aside, it’s still an incredibly strong film in nearly all regards; the performances are excellent, and there’s no significant missteps in pacing or tone.  It’s a very dark film to be sure, but the ending knocked me flat on my ass when I first saw it.  I’m not sure any twist ending since comes close, and neither does any movie released in 2000.
Honorable mentions? Almost Famous, Gladiator, Amelie

2001 – Monsters Inc. (dirs. Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, David Silverman)
Monsters Inc. is a movie that will probably forever make me smile.  The voice cast is perfect, comic timing flawless, and it’s sense of imagination never falls back on taking the easy way out like too many animated movies do today.  Monsters Inc. sticks out because I’ll never miss a chance to watch it, which isn’t something I can really say for other movies released in 2001.  And thanks to Pixar’s refusal to rely on soon-to-be-dated pop-culture jokes, it’s still as fresh now as it was back then.  It’s not a big “prestige” movie by any means, but it’s entertaining from start to finish and it was my constant choice for Pixar’s best until recently.
Honorable mentions?
Moulin Rouge!, AI: Artificial Intelligence, The Royal Tennenbaums

2002 – Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze)

Adaptation is something of a kindred spirit with Memento; both work against the traditional filmmaking formula, and both have their story strengthened by breaking with tradition.  But Adaptation has a lighter side and when one breaks through the meta-film elements, it has a lot of heart.  Nicolas Cage’s performance is especially noteworthy, as it defies his oft-mocked over-the-top hamming reputation by being simultaneously understated and ridiculous; he even manages to get a few heartbreaking scenes in there.  By being equal parts.. well, equal parts nearly everything, but never abandoning the idea that the characters make or break the story, it works.
Honorable mentions?
28 Days Later, Gangs of New York, Panic Room, Catch Me If You Can.

2003 – American Splendor (dirs. Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini)
Finding an entry from 2003 was a tricky one until I saw this one on my DVD shelf.  It’s actually not my copy, but it’s been there so long it may as well be.  A trend I’m noticing is that my favourites of this decade seem to play with traditional cinematic structure, or at least work against genre conventions.  American Splendor is part documentary, part biopic, and part comic book adaptation.  And it’s a hidden gem.  I originally planned on going with Kill Bill as my 2003 pick, but while Kill Bill celebrates genre films, American Splendor occupies a fairly unique place.  Paul Giamatti’s performance is terrific, and it balances the documentary and dramatic better than any film I’ve seen before by drawing attention to a character – and I mean that in every sense of the word – with stories worth telling.
Honorable mentions? Kill Bill, Finding Nemo

2004 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
A lot has already been said about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and it’s a complex movie that can be examined from philosophical, aesthetic, and even scholarly perspectives, but what keeps it from just being an intellectual exercise is how grounded it is in it’s characters.  Yes, the screenplay goes into places that folks like Terry Gilliam or Philip K. Dick would be familiar in, and Michel Gondry offers some fairly bizarre images to match.  But then you also have an incredibly understated performance from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in her best work to date.  It also has some pleasant surprises in Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst.  And like Memento, it’s never content to just be an exercise in non-traditional filmmaking; Gondry and the cast deliver when it really counts.
Honorable mentions? Collateral, The Aviator, Sideways, Shaun of the Dead

2005 – Match Point (dir. Woody Allen)
Match Point is one of those movies that has managed to stick with me despite only seeing it once.  It’s economical, tense, and relies a lot on mood and music.  And to my great surprise, it’s a Woody Allen movie.  I’m someone who hasn’t seen a great deal of Allen’s films or even feel compelled to, but probably wouldn’t want to be stuck in a world where Woody Allen never decided to make a movie.   Woody Allen’s best-loved films generally aren’t thrillers, and they’re also generally not about upper-class Brits and the terrible things they’ll do in the name of reputation, but Match Point is.  I still find that Scarlett Johannson is a fairly inconsistent actress, but she’s excellent in this one, and the film looks fantastic.  Is it one of Woody Allen’s best?  That’s a matter of debate to be sure, but it manages to be an incredibly involving film in it’s own right, even if it’s not a kindred spirit with Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters.
Honorable mentions? Brick, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The 40-Year-Old Virgin

2006 – Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
2006 was a hard year to narrow down to just one.  Even just within my own tastes, I found that there was a great heist flick (Inside Man), one of Scorsese’s best mob movies (The Departed), and a terrific Christopher Nolan character study/thriller (The Prestige).  So why Children of Men?  A few reasons.  The first is the overarching story: the film drops you into a devastated world with no real explanation as far as how that happened; the hook (women are inexplicably infertile and mankind is at most 50 years from extinction) is strong enough alone to be intriguing, but by asking questions and giving no answers, it becomes captivating.  There’s an enormous problem facing the world, but they’re damned if they can solve it.  Second is how effectively it narrows a plot that’s on a global scale down to just one character.  And the third is how well it tells his story.  The film’s guerilla-style handheld shots and long takes make it hard to not get involved, and the performances keep the film grounded in human drama, ensuring the film’s plot never veers too far into science fiction to keep from being taken seriously.  It’s fundamentally rooted in it’s characters and performances rather than the sheer volume of despair in it’s world, and that makes it great rather than simply bleak and technically impressive.
Honorable mentions? Inside Man, The Departed, The Prestige

2007 – Zodiac (dir. David Fincher)
I feel as though all David Fincher’s award nominations and Oscar buzz for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were essentially consolation prizes for how little buzz and recognition Zodiac received.  Because Zodiac is easily a better movie in nearly all regards.  It has help; the Zodiac killer story is among the most fascinating true crime stories in American history.  But even with some assistance from reality, it takes a special talent to make scenes about handwriting analysis interesting and engaging.  But the real treat is when the film shifts into thriller territory.  While the scenes of the murders are often tense, the most intense scenes are the ones where the tension and fear felt by Jake Gyllenhaal’s character are dictated not by onscreen violence, but by careful editing and well-chosen camera angles.  It sounds boring, but the results speak for themselves; the film is incredibly tense, even if you can’t figure out why until after the fact.  While Panic Room is the most purely entertaining film Fincher has made, Zodiac remains his best.
Honorable mentions? Once, Sunshine, No Country for Old Men, Juno

2008 – The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Noticing another trend?  I like movies with strong characters and performances.  And why not?  Objectively complex special effects alone don’t make movies interesting beyond the initial viewing experience and the behind-the-scenes DVD features.  I love movies where the special effects are in the service of characters, but The Wrestler had no special effects to speak of.  Just a character.  It’s essentially the Mickey Rourke show, but his performance was justly rewarded.  Darren Aronofsky slips in some truly beautiful moments and some achingly broken ones.  It’s not the only performance-driven, low-fidelity movie of 2008 – it has a kindred spirit in Rachel Getting Married – but it resonates most.  It’s a movie that I can’t shake from memory and though it’s flawed, flawed movies are often the most memorable.
Honorable mentions? The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, Wall-E

2009 – Up (dir. Pete Docter)
It speaks great volumes about Pixar that their biggest screw-up was Cars.  While Wall-E accomplished the unenviable task of making a love story about robots warm and resonant, Up takes the ambition and heart of Wall-E and applies it to a deeply human story.  As firmly planted in fantasy and adventure serials as Up is, it’s an incredibly smart movie in how it handles that.  It never overplays it’s emotional hand, despite having a stacked deck.  It’s the strongest argument against the “animation can’t compete with the real thing” made to date.  When I saw the movie, the film’s most heart-wrenching scene (a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together) was narrated by a loud woman sitting near me, and the scene still managed to be as powerful as every film critic had said.
Honorable Mentions? Adventureland, Coraline, Zombieland, District 9

Review: Zombieland

(note: this post is roughly a month overdue due to a misplaced password.  This has been rectified)

Can I really give an objective assessment of a movie that was targeted as clearly and pointedly to a demographic I so neatly fit into?  Zombieland is targeted very precisely towards the 20-something geek demographic, and rightly so: we’re the primary consumers of zombie-related media.  But for whatever reason, Zombieland‘s pandering to my particular tastes (if you can call it pandering) rise above just being just geek escapist fantasy.  I have a few theories, and they are as follows:

First, Zombieland has a strong sense of humour.  This may have been amplified by the trailers shown before Zombieland; I cannot fathom five consecutive trailers that took themselves more seriously than Saw VI, 2012, Michael Bay’s Nightmare on Elm Street remake, Legion, and Wolfman.  All presented ridiculous movies with straight faces.  Zombieland, on the other hand, opens with a giant smirk that never leaves.  It’s charming in how unabashedly it proclaims itself as escapist entertainment, not an exploration of the depth of human depravity or the power of the human spirit bla bla bla.. It’s about killin’ zombies with banjos.

And second, Zombieland is really, really well made.  Is it ambitious?  Definitely not.  It’s scope is narrow; only four characters appear for more than 5 minutes.  But the movie is tightly directed, well-acted, and boasts some great comic timing.  It’s occasional scenes of drama are well-executed and don’t feel out of place in a movie as funny as it is.

In short, I had a smile on my face the whole time.  In some ways, it’s a kindred spirit with Scream; lots of nods to classic zombie films, genre-savvy characters, a higher than average dose of self-awareness, but also being well-crafted genre films in their own right that never stray too far into pure parody at the expense of the film.  But Zombieland never devolves into a by-the-numbers zombie flick, whereas Scream (and especially it’s sequels) devolves into a fairly standard slasher flick as it winds down.  It never decides that it’s been clever enough and can just coast through the rest of the movie with zombie gore.  In a lot of ways, it’s a love letter to zombie fans; Columbus’ list consists largely of things we all shout at the screen during other zombie films.  The geek gets the girl.  The badass anti-hero is ridiculously over the top… It’s geek wish fulfillment on the big screen.

But maybe most impressively is how confidently it balances being entertaining for both the core zombie movie audience (said 20-something geeks) and the secondary zombie movie audiences (the girlfriends/boyfriends they drag along).  It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do well, and Zombieland winds up being on par with Shaun of the Dead as being both excellent comedies and worthy entries in the Zombie movie canon.

So is that objective?  Probably not.  Maybe when I’m 40 I’ll pull this little movie off my DVD shelf and hate it for this that and the other reason.  But for now?  I’m still smiling thinking about this movie.


Review: District 9

Sometimes great things can come from failure.  After the success of the Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson set his sights on adapting the Halo videogame series to the big screen with an unknown director by the name of Neill Blomkamp at the helm.  After a few years in development hell, the project officially fell apart.  Jackson, however, was determined to let the world see what this Blomkamp fellow was capable of.  Given a relatively minor budget of $30 million (compared to the intended $185 million for the Halo adaptation and the usual $150-200 million for your typical sci-fi flick these days), Blomkamp put together District 9 in his native South Africa.

By now, you know the story.  A private Military contracting company is tasked with relocating a slum full of aliens who were abandoned on earth when their mothership parked over metropolitan Johannesburg.  A low-level bureaucrat (played by first-timer Sharlto Copley) finds himself in the heat of the action.  Beyond that, it’s better for you to see it unfold for yourself.

District 9 plays out like a distillation of the best sci-fi elements into a complex and ambitious story.  The characters are painted in shades of gray, and it explores some heavy philosophical and political subtexts (inescapable when you set a film in South Africa, it seems), and boasts one of the best performances by a non-actor that I can remember.  And most importantly, it looks a lot like Blomkamp really genuinely wanted to tell this story and make this film.  Creativity flourishes under limitation, and having a modest budget seems to have paid off in a stronger focus on characters and story than gee-whiz special effects (though District 9 boasts some very impressive effects) and bombastic action scenes.  As a result, it’s incredibly difficult to not get emotionally invested in the (still pretty bombastic) action scenes that follow.  It just makes for more effective storytelling.  Using an inexperienced actor as a character who is wholly out of his depth aids in this immensely, and frankly couldn’t be faked.  It also helps that Copley is said to have improvised all of his dialogue, which if true, means that Copley is an impressive talent to keep an eye on over the next few years.

It’s still a flawed film.  There’s some old action/sci-fi movie tropes that stick out; the sadistic villain earns a particularly messy end (we’ve seen this countless times before), the final act plays out like the vast majority of action movies always do, and while some of the film’s gore is presented as squirm-inducingly realistic, other elements of it look fairly unrealistic and cartoonish in comparison.  To the credit of all involved, however, I couldn’t find any fault in the technical areas of the film; it was shot exclusively on digital video for a small sum, but it looks fantastic.  And any creative or conceptual flaws can be overlooked by the steady execution of probably the best sci-fi film to come along in far too long.