"Killing Them Softly"

(R) ★★★

Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly has a lot going for it; a hot director, a famous actor, an appearance at Cannes, love it/hate it festival buzz and a killer cast. So exactly what happened for it to hit a major bump? Before going into a monday matinee of the film, I had yet to encounter a person that liked the film and critical buzz has been tame to say the least. Suprising given the fact that Dominik's highly underrated The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford was a mesmerizing journey into an American killer's mind. Know what I say? Don't listen to the haters. Sure Killing Them Softly is an imperfect American dream through hell, however if you give it a chance it might just lure you into its sadistic criminal world. With nary a light in sight within its frames the film is heavy on dialogue and gruesome violence. You can tell Dominik's trying to find a groove in the film, he struggles at that, there's very much a European cinema influence in here but there are also shades of 90's Tarantino. It's this confusion in style that limits the potential of the film - yet some of the scenes Dominik creates stick with you.

A heist is done on a poker game, Markie (Ray Liotta) is manager and works under gangsters. He already pulled a heist once before and got away with it but this time around -even with him not involved- he gets eyed upon by his bosses. Not good but exactly what the guys that pulled it off wanted - that is until one of them fucks it up and puts his crew in a lot of heat. That is where Brad Pitt's Jackie comes into the picture, a hit man that is given the task of chasing these heist pullers and killing them (softly as he says). He brings in Mickey - the never better James Gandolfini- a slimy hitman that has turned into a drunk. The action scenes are tensely delivered, with Dominik's handheld camera bringing realism to the surroundings. The flaws come in some of the dialogue driven scenes that get stretched out a bit too long, Dominik is aiming for Tarantino-like slyness but only ends up doing it half well. No worries, his movie pulls you in with its dark humor and even darker violence. He means to tell us that the America these gangsters live in is the same one that inhabits our lives.

The film takes place in 2008 when America's economy was down and out. Dominik -With a soundtrack that includes speeches by then senator Obama and President Bush- hammers on his message that our nation is driven by nothing more than corporate greed. Fair enough and not far from the truth but I could have done without some of these insinuations and more story-based stuff. The actors do deliver, Pitt is a marvel and you believe in his acting (when haven't we) and Gandolfini stretches himself out here and does the best work he's done since the last season of The Sopranos. This isn't a movie that cuddles to its audience or answers all the questions when the credits roll, this is a film that is demanding and can frustrate primitive minded people. That makes it all the better for us. Killing Them Softly is rough around the edges but is a unique piece of work. It takes chances that not many movies these days would, how good is that?

Image Of The Day 12/14/12

Re-watching Martin Campbell's Casino Royale last week was an invigorating reminder of just how good Bond has been these days. None of the artifice of the previous Brosnan pictures is present. This is a modern, flawed James Bond played by a perfectly cast Daniel Craig. Everybody is talking about the dark suspense that Sam Mendes brought forth with last month's Skyfall yet Casino Royal -released in 2006- is just as good, a menacingly playful film that has some intense set pieces. None more intense than the poker game that has our secret agent facing off against Le Chiffre in a battle of -yes- wits. It's the first time in ages that a James Bond film has had to rely on brains instead of action to give us thrills. Well played sir.


This is how 2012 is looking so far and YES there will be very big edits as the holiday movies roll along but always fun to know where we are at right now. An average year to say the least. Notice I have changed my ratings system, no longer out of 4 stars but now 5 stars. I just wanted to switch it up a little.

✭✭✭ 1/2

The Master
Zero Dark Thirty
Holy Motors
Killer Joe
This Is Not A Film
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia
The Dark Knight Rises
Moonrise Kingdom
Beasts Of The Southern Wild


Rust And Bone
The Sessions
21 Jump Street
Seven Psychopaths
Life Of Pi
Jack Reacher
The Kid With A Bike
In Darkness
Premium Rush
Cabin In The Woods
The Woman In Black
Les Intouchables
The Hunger Games
Get The Gringo
Killing Them Softly
Miss Bala
Silver Linings Playbook
Django Unchained
That's My Boy
Take This Waltz

✭✭ 1/2

Safety Not Guaranteed
Project X
The Imposter
The Bourne Legacy
Searching For The Sugar Man


The Grey
Jeff Who Lives At Home
The Queen Of Versailles
The Hobbit

✭ 1/2

Safe House
Being Flynn
Friends With Kids
Casa De Mi Padre
American Reunion
The Five Year Engagement
The Avengers
The Dictator
Your Sister's Sister
Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
Magic Mike
The Amazing Spider-Man
Ruby Sparks
Hope Springs
The Campaign
Pitch Perfect

Act Of Valor
Raid: Redemption
Damsels In Distress
Cloud Atlas
People Like Us
Salmon Fishing In Yemen


Piranha 3DD

Deniro still got it

Contrary to what we might think, Robert Deniro still has great performances left in him. If you want further proof of this statement watch him in "Silver Linings Playbook". The movie might not have met the expectations we had going for it after its Audience Award at TIFF but there are good things to be said about the film's performances. We all know about Jeniffer Lawrence's great performance but the one that really got to me was Deniro as Pat Solitano Sr. - an Eagles/football obsessed father that has never been diagnosed for what clearly is a major case of OCD. Pat Sr. is a man that has issues yet you root for him and Deniro is nothing but brilliant in the role. THIS is the Deniro we knew, an actor that can give out a million emotions with just one simple gesture of the face. It's the kind of playful, artistic performance that the actor was known to give in almost every movie he made in the 80's. Of course we can't forget all the terrible bombs he's given us the past 15 years, movies I'd rather not mention at this very moment, but Deniro still has the fire in him to make us feel alive at the movies again. This "Silver Linings Playbook" performance is of course not the at the level of intensity that he had in films such as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver or The Godfather but instead resembles more the dark playfulness that he showed in The King Of Comedy, Brazil, Wag The Dog and -even- Analyze This. If you want a darker, more intense Deniro you might be pleased to know that he confirmed last week a new collaboration with Martin Scorsese in a gangster film based on the book I Hear You Paint Houses. Al Pacino and Joe Pesci will co-star with him, now that's the stuff that dreams are made of. For the time being we have him doing his best work in years with "Silver Linings Playbook", a film that might just get him his 7th Oscar Nomination.

Sam Mendes' "Skyfall"

(PG-13) ★★★★

What has happened to James Bond !!?? Should we start calling him James Bourne??? The change that has happened with this franchise since Daniel Craig entered the fold with Casino Royale back in 2006 is actually a very good thing  BUT purists, you know those people that are nostalgic and never want change in anything, are pissed off. I've heard everything that needs to be heard about Skyfall -the 24th and newest entry of the series- from it's the best Bond yet to it's a total disgrace. Know what was a total disgrace? Those Pierce Brosnan Bonds. Talk about miscasting. The only good one Brosnan ever made was Golden Eye. With Skyfall we are entering a new era of Bond. That's a good thing. In the film --directed by the great Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road To Perdition) -- our boy James is a drunk, has to deal with the first gay Bond Villain in Franchise history, gets shot and presumably killed, hates on British Intelligence, has NO Bond girl by his side, has a key character of the franchise die in his arms and re-visits his terrible childhood.

That's actually one thing I never thought the Bond movies would do; Go back to his past and reveal his haunted memories as an orphan. So it happens, Bond is one tortured soul. A man with flaws and more than enough glitches to offend the most innocent of fans. Now you see why this bond might not be suitable for everyone? It takes risks and most of these risks pay off big time. Once upon a time I used to think that they should have chosen Clive Owen for the role but after Casino Royale --let us forget the misbegotten Quantum Of Solace-- and Skyfall, the choice of Craig seems to be a real no brainer. Bond is as human a character as he's ever been before, thanks in large part to Craig's acting chops which reveal an extra layer of humanity to Bond. This is an actor that has invested his talent on making the role his own and he sure has done that. Almost everything works in Skyfall. From the trippy, visionary opening credits to the the new theme song sung by the ever-so talented Adele.

Of course, with all this in depth talk of what is essentially a popcorn picture one must say that the action is relentlessly thrilling. There are around 4 action set pieces here that will take your breath away and the villain -played by the ever so great Javier Bardem- is excellently evil. Bardem seems to revel in playing these fucked-up villains with bad haircuts, whatever gets him turned on I guess -- but mad props to him for another great performance. In fact I'm gonna stop right there because the film is too good to reveal in its entirety but to say that everything you thought you knew about the franchise is thrown out of the window with this one. Mendes, working with a tightly woven script, does visual miracles here. Smart move hiring the great Roger Deakins as his cinematographer. It wouldn't be out of place to call this the best looking Bond film I have ever seen.  At 143 minutes the film rarely drags even with a few minor bumps here and there + an overtly dragged on/predictable finale. It is then no surprise that reading all the rave reviews of late, many people have claimed this a renewal of the franchise. For the purists out there it will take some getting used to, because this Bond is here to stay.

Spielberg's "Lincoln"

(PG-13) ★★★★

At first it isn't easy to succumb to Steven Spielberg's Lincoln - its darkly lit, talkative scenes aren't what we are used to getting in a Spielberg movie. The political talk is in every frame, this is a move that is more about dialogue than it is about action. A real shock given that this is a filmmaker known for popcorn entertainments raised to the level of art (Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, War Of The Worlds). Lincoln is no such beast. It is quietly meditative with no rousing bombast or grand set pieces. The screenplay written by Tony Kushner brings us to 1865 a few weeks before the vote for a 13th amendment - this one would abolish slavery and free African American slaves. President Lincoln tries his damnest to convince Democratic delegates to vote for the amendment. It doesn't help that he is in the middle of a bloody civil war that has taken the lives of close to 600,000 Americans. We only see a glimpse of this war at film's opening, Spielberg is more interested in the war of words than in war itself. If you think this is a biopic of the President think again, this is a film about how the famous 13th amendment got passed.

Abraham Lincoln is slyly played by Daniel Day Lewis in another performance that will be remembered for the ages. His Lincoln is a man of many flaws but with enough heart, soul and drive to push the amendment forward. It has almost come to be a predictable thing to have a great Daniel Day Lewis performance but it is always highly welcome. Day-Lewis uses gestures and physical traits that are astonishing for his performance, the intensity that rages in his eyes is that of a man that is not playing Lincoln but IS Abraham Lincoln. He will surely be eyeing a third Best Actor Oscar come early next year. The film is full of great performances; James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson play lobbysists aiding the president in  trying to turn democrats to their sides, Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Thaddeus Stevens is phenomenal and will likely be an Oscar contender as well. Stevens fought his entire life for an 13th amendment to happen and the sheer look on his eyes when it happens is triumphant stuff. Jones nails the role and brings about verbal fireworks to his juicy role that are too good to reveal - plus wait until you see his one BIG scene that takes place in the senate.

Verbal Fireworks. That is essentially the come-on for Spielberg's Lincoln. Don't expect visual stimulation in this picture, it is all about words and tactics uttered by these famous politicians. Some scenes might be a bit draggy but Spielberg tells the story in such an un-Spielberg kind of way. With an abundance of restraint and silence. Who'd a thunk it possible for the Hollywood director to have this kind of film in him. The first time I saw Lincoln I was taken aback, expecting something else and ultimately leaving the theatre a bit puzzled. The second time I saw the film -knowing exactly what to expect- I was wooed by the great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's camerawork and by how the film simply told the story in such an intimate and un-bombastic way. That is essentially Lincoln, a quiet beast of a film that is never too showy and never too self-aware of its grandiose story. An important, interesting one in fact, that everyone should know about.

(M) For Masterpiece

List will continually get updated over the next while ...

Sunrise (1927)
The General (1927)
The Rules of the Game (1939)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
The Searchers (1956)
Vertigo (1958)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Touch of Evil (1958)
Rear Window (1954)
Breathless (1959)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
8½ (1963)
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Lolita (1962)
Persona (1960)
The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The Conversation (1974)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Chinatown (1974)
Mean Streets (1973)
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Taxi Driver (1976)
The Conformist (1970)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Do The Right Thing (1989)
The Fly (1986)
Platoon (1986)
Brazil (1985)
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Raging Bull (1980)
Back to the Future (1985)
Blow Out (1981)
The Elephant Man (1980)
Schindler's List (1993)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Unforgiven (1992)
Fargo (1996)
Breaking the Waves (1996)
The Truman Show (1998)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Goodfellas (1990)
The Player (1992)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return Of The King (2003)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Y Tu Mamá También (2002)
Caché (2005)
Memento (2001)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
A History of Violence (2005)
Children of Men (2006)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Black Swan (2010)
The Tree of Life (2011)

"Marley" gets the legend right

Bob Marley's life is very well known inside and out but Oscar winning Documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald's "Marley" thinks otherwise and has enough surprises in it filled with haunting revelations to make it a real stunner.  It helps that Macdonald uses breathtaking concert footage, archival treasures and interviews with almost everyone that has had an impact or was a friend to the legend. As far as Marley documentaries go, this is as full fledged a portrait of the man as we are likely to see in our lifetime.

"Marley" is a one beautifully crafted piece of work that can be enjoyed by fans and non-fans alike.
From his upbringing with a single mother in Kingston Jamaica to the identity of his dad, Norval Marley, a white marine that was very much absent in the singer's life. Some of the most fascinating parts of the doc have to do with Marley's dedication to his Rastafarian religion. "White people have Jesus, we have Rhasta Fari" he says in an interview. This belief entitles the Rastafarian to smoke a ridiculous amount of weed each day. Rastas such as Marley used it to get closer to their inner spiritual self and believe in the wisdom that came with smoking it.

The stories found in Macdonald's doc are highly fascinating. How Marley founded reggae through a single, unintentional chord. His roller coaster journey from Jamaica to America in search of a larger fan base. How he begged to revive Jamaica's government torn gang war, bringing a country together through his music and one landmark concert that resulted in two sworn enemies shaking hands on stage in front of of hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans. His fight with cancer and how he continued performing on stage despite his fluctuating health. However, most memorable is Rita Marley, his first and last love, with whom he had 3 children and how she stuck with him until the end despite his well known infidelity. The film states that Marley had 8 more children with several different mistresses, a total of 11 children that all agreed for this film to be made. Yet, despite all these facts, Rita Marley's memories of her partner are surprisingly beautifully remembered with compassion and -yes- a sense of true love.

The doc has a riches of archival footage including some magnificent concert footage of Marley and The Wailers performing in various different cities. We all know how it ends but Macdonald has ambition to burn, his documentary runs for a long 144 minutes yet the running time feels needed for it would  have probably been impossible to truly depict a life this grandiose and impressive in a shorter amount of time. Macdonald, a Scottish born filmmaker, who's been mixing it up lately with feature films ("The Last King Of Scotland", "State Of Play") and documentaries ("One Day In September", "Touching The Void") has already won one Oscar, he is almost -at least- guaranteed a nomination for Best Documentary with this one and judging by the contenders, his biggest comptetion will be well received films such as "The Central Park Five" and "The Queen Of Versailles".


(R) ★★★★

One thing you first notice in Rian Johnson's Looper is how it builds up its sense of dread with each successive, tension-filled scene. Nobody is safe here. The plot only builds up as layer after layer is revealed until the film's final shot. It's a hell of a ride and easily one of the best films of the year. Then why no mention of a possible Oscar Nomination for Johnson's visionary picture? You see, Science Fiction isn't something the academy has warmed up to in its 83 year history. Sure it rewarded Peter Jackson's The Return Of The King but what else did it reward before or after that? Looper is the kind of movie that can sometimes trip on its own ambitions but its originality is contagious, creating a new world we've never seen before. Credit must go to writer/director Johnson who after showing capable signs of competence in his first two films (Brick and The Brothers Bloom) finally hits one out of the park.

The film tells the story of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a hit-man for an organized crime syndicate tasked with assassinating targets sent from the future.  They arrive from the future and bang with one shot they are dead. That is his job. Not complicated at all. That is until Joe's mob boss Abe (slimily played by Jeff Daniels) hints that the Rainmaker, a criminal mastermind from 2074, is closing the loops. That means he's sending Loopers back from the future to be killed by their younger selves. Just to hide evidence of the bloodshed. Joe's good buddy and fellow Looper Seth (an incredibly paranoid Paul Dano) is first in line to encounter his old self. He chokes, let's his future self go and is now being chased by Abe's gang with dire consequences. Joe is next and accidentally lets old Joe (a never better Bruce Willis) slip away. You see, Old Joe has a plan in mind. Find the rainmaker as a kid, kill him and set his future right.

You got that? I hope you do. It's a tremendously thrilling story that leads to Young Joe taking shelter at a family farm with a single mother (a tremendous Emily Blunt) and a kid that -you guessed it- might just be the Rainmaker. Joe is waiting for his future self to show up at this farm so he can shoot him, kill him and continue on with his work as Looper. The imaginative thought that went into the screenplay is a breath of fresh air that puts any other recent Science Fiction film to shame and Joseph Gordon Levitt -as good an actor as any around at the moment- does wonders with his role.  Don't expect a mind numbingly hammering experience such a the one experienced in Christopher Nolan's Inception, if you do pay attention to Johnson's linear story it can be followed and  make a lot of sense. No review should ruin the film's many surprises but suffice to say Looper's many twists are already being analyzed and debated by film fans. A sure sign that you've made a movie that is here to stay.

Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi"

(PG-13) ★★★½

"Life Of Pi" is a top notch visual achievement because director Ang lee infuses it with enough poetic imagery that even haters of the book will not help but appreciate the artistry at hand. Lee who's already been nominated 3 times and won once for "Brokeback Mountain" will surely get his fourth nomination for "Life Of Pi" which will only enhance his reputation as one of the most gifted filmmakers around. However I wouldn't put "Pi" in the same league as Lee classics such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "The Ice Storm" - the story's fairytale like familiarity almost sugar coats the impeccable 3D visuals. It is not just Lee that must be given credit for the visuals but also his cinematographer Cloudio Miranda. Remember that name, he might just get called up to the stage come Oscar time early next year. In fact, I'm predicting right here that Miranda wins it all on February 24th. He already performed visual miracles by making "Tron: Legacy" and "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" amazing looking pictures and with Ang Lee's new opus (out November 27th) he outdoes himself in terms of visual miracles. I mean really, this is just a stunning looking movie filled with images that are too good to be true..

The way Lee and Miranda shoot India in the film's setup is nothing short of gorgeous, focusing on every beautiful color and visual that comes their way. In this half hour we are introduced to our main hero Piscine -aka Pi- and the zoo that his parents have built up as a business. The religions that surround Pi confuse him, he sees himself as a believer in everything he sees. His dad -an atheist- is angered in the contradictions that surround his son's beliefs. The setup is slow but nevertheless complimentary for what's to come next. When the family has to leave India because of hard times, the film takes a dramatic turn. They hitch a ride with their zoo animals on a big ship to Canada where they will start a new life. Things -however- don't quite turn out that way. A magnificently horrific shipwreck happens that leaves Pi stranded on a tiny boat with a tiger he calls Richard Parker for 227 days. The way he must adapt to life with this dangerous animal is incredibly interesting to watch and no review should spoil that for you.

"Life Of Pi" flies high because of its amazing visuals and incredible use of 3D. None more apparent than in the film's middle section which lasts close to 75 minutes and involves -for the most part- just Pi and Richard Parker. That is when the film hits its peak and becomes a jaw dropping stunner. Lee and Miranda know that the way to grab an audience is not just by telling a story but by creating ravishing images that stick with you. The book had parts that you knew would translate very well from page to screen and had the potential to be true visual delights. Take for example the frightening scene where a storm of flying fish just suddenly appears out of nowhere and into Pi and Richard Parker's direction, or another scene where a slew of luminous jellyfish set the nighttime sea aglow with incredibly ravishing colors. Lee and Miranda handle Yann Martel's novel with the best possible care imaginable.

Martel's book had its hardcore fans but it sometimes struck me as too full of itself and with one too many ideas on its ambitious plate. Which is why the film's final third didn't necessarily work out the way I wanted it to. This is after all a movie that is a bit too facile in the way it plays with our emotions. I felt that at times it wanted to force tears out of me but alas that didn't work. Instead what I got was a film almost too prestigely wrapped-up for Awards season. No matter this is Lee's show as he brings us another visually sumptuous epic that does his name right. This is a crowd pleaser through and through and Oscar will be calling soon for both his and Miranda's triumph.

"The Sessions" The best and sweetest sex scenes of the year

(R) ★★★★

It doesn't take much to give in and enjoy Ben Lewin's fascinating "The Sessions". Based on the true story of California based poet and writer Mark O'Brien, the film deals with O'Brien's struggle with Polio and being forced to use an iron lung the rest of his life. It's not as grim a subject matter as you may think. O'Brien is played by John Hawkes, a man we will certainly see at next year's Oscar ceremony, in a performance that may recall Daniel Day Lewis' in My Left Foot but with more humor and playfulness. Having learned to twist his body, learn to breathe carefully and use a mouth stick to dial a phone and type, Hawkes gets all the mannerisms right and makes us believe that he truly is in this sort of state. It's no easy feat to act in a lying down position with an iron lung for an entire movie but if done well, this sort of showy performance usually spells awards for you.

O'Brien has been a virgin his entire life and decides to hire a sex surrogate to "de-virginize" him. That surrogate is Cheryl as played by Helen Hunt, in a supporting performance that will also be rewarded with a nomination. Hunt is spectacular bringing a sexy, fierce vibe that has been lacking ever since her "As Good As It Gets" triumph in 1997. The aforementioned sessions involving Hunt's Cheryl and Hawkes' Mark are the heart and soul of the picture. Cheryl has a 6 session limit with every disabled client she visits. The sex scenes are incredibly well handled and -dare I say it- the best and sweetest sex scenes I've seen all year in any picture. This is in fact the first movie I've seen where premature ejaculation is actually dealt with in a sweet, non joking way.  Hunt and Hawkes have chemistry to burn in those scenes. Which reveal secrets about both characters that we might not see coming. The screenplay is at its peak in these scenes, where every word counts and every gesture by these characters brings new depth to the story.

Mark is a believer. Visiting church every Sunday and getting the blessing of his priest -playfully played by William H Macy- to go on this journey to lose his virginity. One cannot understand why Mark would still believe in God given his physical state but he jokingly says there must be a god given the fact that someone must have had a sense of humor the day they created him. The playfulness that comes with this movie is a real treat. It's a small indie gem that gets all the details right. It's a testament to the way the movie is handled that the vibe is never menacing and that Mark's situation is never really handled in a way to manipulate your emotions or force you into tears. The film threatens to collapse in "TV movie cliches" and is shot like one too but the performances are just so strong and the story just so good that they elevate the movie into a true contender. "The Sessions" is an undeniably fascinating true story, one that makes you reevaluate your own life in ways you never thought you would. That's the sign of a great movie.

Pixar's newest treat

Sure, it might not be as good as past Pixar fare and sure, it follows a more traditional narrative structure and yes, it just didn't meet critical expectations BUT don't -and I repeat- DON'T discount Pixar's "Brave" as nothing but filler in the same category as "Cars 2" or "A Bug's Life". The film is too good to be shunned off and relegated to that low-leveled category. Let me explain why. Expectations can really kill the way you view a film. Before "Brave" even came out, the thought of another Pixar film coming to theatres gave critics and movie buffs a reason to smile in what would likely be another dull summer loaded with movie escapism and not too much food for thought. I mean, this is the same company that gave us some of the great animated films of the last decade and single handily brought us into -my opinion of course- the golden age of animation. Just look at the treasure trove of brilliant films this company has released since 1999; Toy Story 2", "Monsters Inc.", "Finding Nemo", "The Incredibles", "Ratatouille", "WALL-E", "Up" and "Toy Story 3".  An impressive list that is practically impossible to match by anyone else, safe maybe Hayao Miyazaki's brilliant filmography of the past three decades or Disney's brilliant run of films from 1989-1994.

In"Brave" what we have is Pixar's best animation to date. Its eye popping colors bring about dazzling visuals that would make any true film buff water in the mouth. The animation is so well drawn out and compared to earlier Pixar films, "Brave" blows them out of the water in terms of sheer technical achievements -Time's Richard Corliss has echoed my sentiments in saying it is "the most ravishing and complex pixar movie to date". However its narrative is safer, bringing about memories of some of Disney's so called "princess stories" yet infusing it with post 21st century material. This is Pixar's first film featuring a female heroine and not just any heroine; a redhead that has a killer talent for bow and arrow. Merida is her name and she is a headstrong free spirit that wants to "change her fate" (of being betrothed against her will) at nearly any cost. Merida will not be held back. The story comes with twists and turns that I didn't see coming, outstanding visuals and wait until you see Merida's three younger brothers,  redheaded baby triplets that just want to cause chaos everytime they're on screen.

This film doesn't have the dark, underlying adult themes of "Up" but it sure is a great time at the movies. Its scenes go from wacky, to dramatic to downright scary. Will it win the Best Animated Feature Oscar? It's too hard to tell but something tells me we shouldn't discount its chances. I mean, after all a "good" rather than "great" Pixar movie is still better than 99% of animated movies released in any given year. This is just a case of high expectations not being met. "Brave" isn't a film that vies for greatness - instead it is a lovely film that is intentionally Pixar's first foray into the "Fairytale" genre. However, It doesn't necessarily follow the rules of the genre; Merida would rather use her bow and arrow than chase boys or find her prince charming. The movie isn't about being in love or living happily ever after. It is more about one girl's quest to find self-fulfillment and identity in a world empowered by men. Don't listen to the naysayers or those who's expectations were too high to reach, let yourself get swept up into "Brave" and its magnificent colors.

When looking at the Best Animated Feature of 2012, one cannot discount Tim Burton's imaginative "Frankenweenie" which has enough critics backing it up and will likely get a well-deserved nomination. Burton's Gothic treat is his animated follow-up to "The Corpse Bride", which still is his ONLY Oscar nomination to date. Yes, it's very hard to believe especially with a filmography that includes "Ed Wood", "Sweeney Todd" and "Edward Scissorhands". "Frankenweenie" is Burton being Burton (You could see that as a good thing or a bad thing). Based on his 1984 short about a young boy named victor that loses his dog, Sparky, and uses the power of science to resurrect it "Frankenweenie" is a labor of love for Burton through and through. Shot in beautiful Black and White and laced with enough dark Gothic humor to satisfy his many legions of fans, the film will likely garner Burton a well deserved second nomination and maybe -just maybe- his first ever win.  Other contenders this year include well received fare such as "Paranorman", "Pirates: Bands Of Misfits" and the recently released "Wreck It Ralph".


Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix and "The Master"

(R) ★★★★½

If you're ready to encounter a ticking time bomb on-screen then get ready for Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson's flawed but brilliant The Master. No review can prepare you for what Phoenix does on screen in this movie. It is not only the best acting you will see all year but also a performance that will be talked about for ages. Not to take anything away from Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Ron L Hubbard-like biblical propagandist, Hoffman is brilliant too and will likely get his fourth Oscar nomination as Dodd. Anderson doesn't just direct The Master, he infuses it with so much cinematic juice that your eyes will likely explode in sheer delight of its colors and shots. Sure some critics are already bitching that Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love) has made a film with no meaning and no direction but these same people are missing the point. The Master is episodic in nature, a shuffling of numerous, powerfully deliberate sequences -practically all taking place in Freddie Quell's head- that hit you hard when taken in as a whole. I came out of it both confused and affected.

Contrary to what many people are saying, this is not a film about Scientology. Even though Scientology does serve as a background, Anderson has slyly set up for us a character study involving Phoenix's Freddie Quell and his psychotic journey through hell. Every time Freddie is on screen you feel uncomfortable, an unpredictable character, a ticking time bomb waiting to explode at any moment. The anger and frustration that resides inside Quell is not healthy and severe medical attention is what he needs. He thinks he's found it in a man that is preaching a new gospel. Hoffman's Dodd is a well known scientists that has come up with his own religion, one that very much mirrors Scientology founder Ron L Hubbard's vision. Dodd sees in Quell a potential follower, a man knocked out by life and in need of a resurgence. A friendship develops and that is in fact the heart and soul of the film. Dodd and Quell need each other more than we are led to believe. They are first and foremost friends that are blatantly divided by their own beliefs. In one scene after the next we are only given glimpses of the bond that is developed between the two men.

Freddie's quirky mannerisms are memorable - a hunched posture, one eye widely opened more so than the other, a slurred speech from too much drinking and a broken walk. Freddie's alcoholism is severe. He has a drink almost every time we see him. Phoenix has created a character that will resonate with fans of cinema for years to come. The first 20 minutes of The Master focus on Freddie's failed attempts at life. His memorably preposterous stint with the navy is highlighted by a humping session with a sandwoman which leads to a jerk off session next to the beach. His job as family photographer at a retail store, which ends with him attacking a client nonsensically and losing his job. As a runaway in an undisclosed location filled with Asian workers which eventually leads to his own homemade moonshine poisoning a local old man and possibly killing him. Freddie being chased by the Asian workers, somehow getting away from them and eventually sneaking into a boat party that is populated by Dodd and his followers. The way I'm describing these events is the way Anderson presents them to us, in fragments - just like in There Will Be Blood's opening scenes, we are set up for a character study like no other and a man that is truly aggressive in nature.

The episodic nature of the film gives it the feel of a dream and much credit must go to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who will likely deserve every award that will come his way at year's end. Anderson loses track of his film once his vision shifts to England but no matter that section still remains a thoughtful, enigmatic piece of his deliberately dreamy puzzle. We are left with enough question sto wet our appetites for a second viewing. The Master's many powerful moments combine to make it a masterful whole. It is a testament to Anderson's brilliance as writer/ director that you forgive the flaws that come with his work. He is truly the best American director working today because there is so much going on in every frame and such carefully planned out thought to his shots.  So much happens in the film's 138 minutes that the mind can't grasp everything at once. The relationship formed between Quell and Dodd is one that will be dissected for years to come. They form an unlikely duo that is the heart and soul of the picture. What's truly remarkable about the therapy Dodd uses on Quell -such as questioning, feeling walls/windows, controlling anger- is that it actually works for a glimmering moment, much more than any of the army's tactics.

Phoenix has shown signs of brilliance in past roles -most notably in 2009's underrated Two Lovers- but here he really outdoes himself. If Daniel Day-Lewis' towering performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood left a shattering mark on cinema for decades to come, Phoenix's Freddie Quell will likely have the same lasting effect. Before The Master collapses in its final 10 minutes, there hasn't been anything better released in 2012. When it finishes there still hasn't been anything better in 2012. Its resonant images stay with you like a neverending wave at shore,  long after the lights have come up and the dust has settled. Here is an example of director and actor both at the peak of their powers making such powerful, relentless, united art that transcends anything that's come before it. Anderson's last 4 films have each been released 5 years apart, here's hoping we don't have to wait another 5 years for the master to release another one.

Oscar Watch; Richard Gere

Richard Gere, with his slick silver hair and squinty blue eyes, just turned 63 this past August. A stinging reminder that not only does time go by in the blink of an eye but also that this underrated American actor has never won an Oscar, let alone gotten nominated for one. Yes, that’s right. No nomination for his killer good role as lawyer Billy Flynn in “Chicago”, nada for his portrayal of Zack Mayo in “An Officer And A Gentleman”, the cheated-on husband in “Unfaithful”, Julian Kaye in “American Gigolo” or even as Clifford Irving in the underseen 2007 picture “The Hoax”. That might just change this year as Gere gives the performance of his career in Andrew Jarecki’s “Arbitrage”. In fact, Gere is so good as nasty hedge fund magnate Robert Miller that you still root for him to get out of his situation in one piece. Given that Miller is cheating on his wife with a french mistress, scamming his clients of millions of dollars and using his friend Jimmy as bait for the police, we shouldn’t be feeling that way about this corporate son of a gun.

Gere is magnetic, bringing ever ounce of nuance to his role and delivering a performance that’s nothing short of revelatory. No wonder critics have been screaming Oscar since “Arbitrage” got released way back in August. Does Gere have a chance at winning Best Actor? Of course not, especially with Daniel Day Lewis, Joaquin Pheonix and Denzel Washington vying for the top prize but Gere deserves to at least get nominated. In fact, a nomination would be more than welcome by many cinephiles, especially those that know just how good Gere can be when given the right script. “Arbitrage” is that script.

Written by Nicholas Jarecki, director Andrew’s half brother, “Arbitrage” is loaded with enough juicy scenes for Gere to show off his acting chops. That’s a good thing. Gere is going to need those scenes to carry him into awards season if there is any chance at even getting a nomination. Playing a money making scumbag that you really feel for isn’t the easiest thing to pull off in this day and age but Gere does it effortlessely, using his charismatic presence and brooding good looks to fully flesh out his character. Critics have been pretty unanimous in saying it’s one of his best performances, now it’s time for the academy to follow suit and honor this great actor.


Desplat and Original Score

Four time Oscar nominee and French film composer Alexandre Desplat isn't one to take it easy and have some rest. Some of his more masterful compositions reside in films such as The Tree Of Life, The Fantastic Mr Fox and The Queen. In 2012, Desplat is on a roll, composing for close to seven feature films (same number of scores he composed in 2011). Contenders such as Argo, Moonrise Kingdom, Rise Of The Guardians, Rust & Bone and Zero Dark Thirty will be stamped by Desplat's incredibly nuanced and visionary musical head.

What would Mr.Desplat be doing if he hadn't made it big in Hollywood you ask? "I'd look at the blue sky, eat cheese, tomatoes and figs, and at the end of the day, walk down for a swim in the sea. And then, I'd sleep," the composer was quoted as saying to the Wall Street Journal. Not far off to the sombre, sometimes melancholic mood Desplat creates with his compositions. Although as we speak his schedule will be much lighter in 2013 as he is due to compose only one film so far (Zulu).

It is then no surprise, given the amount of work and the reputation he has established over the course of just a decade, that Desplat is now a prime Oscar Contender in the Original Score category this year. In fact, the man can make Oscar History by getting nominated 3 times in the same category. An unprecedented feat that has the capable chance of happening if all the cards get played right.

His score to Ben Affleck's Argo brings you back to a time and place when the middle east was just starting to self destruct, his precariously whimsical notes in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom got critics and audiences all giddy with a tremendous high this summer and his upcoming score for Kathryn Bigelow's much anticipated Zero Dark Thirty promises to be just as good as the latter films if not better. Bigelow's highly anticpated film on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is her followup to her Hurt Locker triumph in 2009.

The category will be loaded with contenders this year. With the already mentioned Desplat films vying for the big prize, Danny Elfman scored three films this year (Silver Linings Playbook, Frankenweenie, Hitchcock), John Williams -an Oscar favorite- is an almost certain nominee for Lincoln and Mychal Danna's exhilirating score for Life Of Pi looks like a top 3 contender. Be warned, the best score of the year doesn't always get nominated. Trent Reznor's incendiary work in last year's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" did not get nominated. It was the best and most profusely thrilling score of the year yet got snubbed for lighter fare.


An Image "The Quiet Man"

Given all of its hodge podge, traditional glory, director John Ford's The Quiet Man -starring a charismatic John Wayne- is actually deeper than its looks might suggest. With its bright technicolor colors and wackily conceived plotting, you'd think Ford's film would be devoid of any actual substance. Well I'm sure your mind will get changed when you hear that The Quiet Man is a much studied film in feminist film classes. I kid you not. The 1952 film is a staple. If you want to know how female depiction in movies has changed over the years, this is a good example. That's what keeps me coming back for more whenever I see Ford's film on Television or have the oppurtunity to sneak in a screening. Listen, it's not like some of his classics including his masterful work in The Searchers - if you haven't seen it, watch it now ! The Quiet Man does the job done because of how the film interprets the relationship between ex-American Boxer Sean Thornton and the Irish lass played by Maureen O'Hara whom he meets in a remote village in the outskirts of Ireland. The Love/Hate relationship they build is the stuff of in depth feminine studies and freudian parallels, hell talk about deep.

Buster Keaton's lost gem

Keaton or Chaplin? This question, common among film enthusiasts, refers less to the cinematic values of the two and more to just personal preference: Not who is better, but who do you like more. Buster Keaton was always a man that had to compete against Charlie Chaplin. I mean how could he not? They were both silent movie stars that had an uncanny ability to take some of the simplest moments and turn them into comedy heaven. The critics championed Keaton and even placed The General -Keaton's masterpiece of the industrial age-on a number of all-time best lists ahead of Modern Times -also Chaplin's masterpiece of the industrial age. Audiences however put their hearts on their sleeves for Chaplin, an American movie star if there ever was one. Guy Crucianelli from Pop Matters states that Keaton was "the inventor" and Chaplin "the conjurer".

It's no surprise then that I find it very hard to choose between the two. The General is an astounding technical achievement, even more so now 90 years after its release. So it was pure melancholic joy to find out about The Navigator, a delightful Keaton feature from 1924 that has aged magnificently well. In fact THERE is one of the reasons why Keaton might just surpass Chaplin in my books. His movies have aged incredibly well. The set pieces in his films are just so brilliant and -dare I say it- too complicated to achieve in this day and age, even with the technological abilities we have. Which is not say that Chaplin's films have rusted, there is still -to this day- a stinging satirical punch to films such as Modern Times and City Of Lights.

In The Navigator Keaton's inventiveness is contagious. The story of a helpless, spoiled rich boy set adrift upon a giant ship with his equally helpless girlfriend has a clever story line and a series of excellent gags. The Navigator is actually the name of a ship and it mostly takes place on board this abandoned vessel (which Keaton bought outright when it was being scrapped). The reason it is abandoned (in the movie) and set adrift seems like it might matter at first as a kind of political plot but this all ends up not really being part of the larger movie. It's just an excuse to have the two on a big ship alone, with all the likely things that might happen as a result.

The gags are relentless -sometimes too much so- but those that work are lethal. The car ride proposal across the street, the pulley seesaw; the faint co-star in the collapsing deck chair (a precursor of his undressing scene in SPITE MARRIAGE); Donald Crisp's painting swinging back and forth outside the port hole; the pulleys and inventions for the organized breakfast (stemming from a similar sequence in his short THE SCARECROW); the underwater swordfish fight; the toy cannon attached to Buster's foot and of course the surprise rescue at the end.

Don't expect the political commentary of The General or the Brilliance of Sherlock Jr. but do expect Keaton being Keaton, which is enough to salivate the appetite of any true silent film junkie. The Navigator can be considered a lost gem in the Keaton canon - I had never heard of it until just recently- but its innocence and relentless pursuit to make its audience gasp and laugh at the same time is enough to make you think of a time when all the details mattered in comedy.

"Contempt", Godard and the decline of a relationship

You gotta love Jean-Luc Godard. He doesn't make it easy for a viewer to fully feel comfortable while watching any of his movies. He means to bring a sense of uneasiness and -sometimes- pure unadulterated frustration. His film Contempt is no exception. It explores many ideas that have been obsessed by Godard over the course of his illustrious career. In 1963,  Godard was permitted a big budget financed by an international production, the use of a CinemaScope camera, Technicolor, a pair of icons (Brigitte Bardot and Fritz Lang as himself) to star in the film, and almost total creative autonomy. It was known as his first -and last- foray into "mainstream" filmmaking, even though I wouldn't qualify it as a full on mainstream picture. However its intentions were unlike any popular movies in that Godard didn't play it safe at all and kept hitting his audience with more questions than answers.

What has fascinated me most over the years is how Contempt -Le Mepris in French- dealt with the end of a relationship. Brigitte Bardot's magnificent performance as Camille Javal -she was so good that her character's name was later believed to be her real name!- wife of the aspiring screenwriter Paul (nicely played by a young Michel Piccoli) merely confirmed the fact that Contempt was a personal film for Godard. The director hadn't had the greatest success with the women in his life and decided to portray the crumbling of a relationship on screen. To great effect might I add. The centerpiece here is the near-infamous twenty-minute long sequence that takes place between the writer and his girlfriend in their vast, open-plan apartment, in which jealousies, bitterness and petty arguments blow up and cool off amidst a series of seemingly mundane, everyday-like activities. There is clearly something wrong with Camille yet whenever Paul tries to ask why she shrugs it off and says "nothing" but we the audience know that Camille's love for him has faded and that she is only clinging at this point. Albeit by the way her answers to Paul are structured or by the way her mood changes - there is something very wrong here.

Not much happens in that scene, yet everything happens. It is then that we realize exactly what Contempt is about. Godard wants us to feel the pain that Camille feels, she is stuck in a relationship she no longer is excited for. Paul isn't into it either, his gestures and sentences show a kind of by the numbers feeling for his partner. Yet you feel for him when Camille finally blurts out that she no longer loves him. The daring ambition Godard gives out is palpable. He disses the film industry as well. Fritz Lang -playing himself of course- directs an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, staying true to the spirit of the original. Producer Jeremy Prokosch -a hoot and a half- unhappy with the results, hires Javal to rewrite the script. Javal compromises the original's world of ideals with modern-day sensibilities. In essence, he parallels his own life to Ulysses'. Ulysses fights in the Trojan war because he is estranged from his wife Penelope, he delays coming back because of that. Penelope (estranged from him because of his behavior) is being unfaithful.

This is all part of the absurd joke that Godard plays on his audience and Contempt has been known as just that for many years - but I see much more in it than just a one joke pony. I see a Godard that was pained by unsatisfying relationships in his life and delved into their significances through his own art. His film captivates the viewer at unexpected times. It seems -from the outside- like a pompous piece of work with a thinly layered plot but it is much more than that. Contempt is fresh air. Contempt is about characters -whether it's the film director, the pompous American producer or the shot down couple- stuck in a world where there is communication breakdown. And there's no easy way out of it.

"Breaking Bad" and "Homeland" breaks barriers on the idiot tube

Truthfully. Is there anything out there right now in theaters as gripping as Walter White's absurd chemistry teacher gone bad story in Breaking Bad? Or Clair Danes' paranoid/bipolar CIA agent gone psycho in Homeland? I didn't think so. Homeland and Breaking Bad are doing at the moment what The Sopranos started 10 years ago; bringing the quality between the big screen and the small screen closer and closer together. There is no longer as big a gap as there used to be. It's not stretch to say that the two show mentioned are better than 90% of the stuff I see on a yearly basis in theaters. Is it the state of film that's crumbling? Or is it just that we are just  in the midst of the golden age of Television? I think it's both. Name me one great Hollywood movie you saw this year? (and NO foreign films don't count) .. Yea .. I didn't think so. Unless you -of course- consider The Hunger Games a masterful piece of cinema or better yet the cash grabbing violence in the Avengers as grippingly real as Walter and Gus' epic duel of wits.

In Breaking Bad Walter White's transition from loser/ high school chemistry teacher to Scarface-level insanity is almost too preposterous to believe. Here's a man that had nothing really exciting going for him in life and then came a medical diagnosis that put him in the ultimate of all mid life crisis's. A panic so severe that takes him on a meth-cooking journey to hell. Walt grows before our eyes in the series' 5 thrilling seasons and it is a testament to Bryan Cranston's acting chops that we believe his journey every step of the way. If you notice the quality and tension of the show only grows as each season goes along.  It's no wonder that Cranston - a veteran actor of more than 3 decades- won 3 straight Emmy's for his legendary portrayal of a monsterish anti-hero. Creator Vince Gilligan has consistently said that Walter's story is that of "Mr.Chips turning into Scarface" - he's not at all exaggerating. Walter White's story is one of those "you gotta see it to believe it" TV phenomenons that don't come on the tube that often. The direction is also better than anything I've seen in American movies, in fact Gilligan has persuaded quite a few film directors to make the jump to the small screen and direct his show. The list includes film noir expert John Dahl (The Last Seduction) and Rian Johnson (Looper).  Kudos must also go to Aaron Paul as Jesse, Walt's cooking partner and confident. Their friendship is that of highs and lows, fights and hugs and -ultimately- hidden betrayals. In fact, the entire cast is top notch from Dean Norris' Hank to Johnathan Banks' Mike the hitman. There's not telling what will happen in the series' final 8 episodes -which are set to air next summer- but one thing's for sure; the surprises have surely only started.

On the other hand Homeland is the rookie on the block. A show that only started its run in 2011 yet left such a lasting impression that it just won Emmys for Best Drama Series Best Actor and Best Actress, beating such stalwarts like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. In fact the show's surprising win left many "baddies" with a feeling of anger that their beloved show didn't get top prize. Know what? I bet they haven't seen a single episode of  the gripping Homeland, because if they did they'd realize just how good the show really is. With its mix of family issues and terrorist plots the series is a tightly knit puzzle that has irresistible tension. Claire Danes' Carrie - a bipolar CIA operative with enough obsessive thoughts to drive a therapist mad- is the heart and soul of the show. She reveals with each ongoing episode the hidden truths that hide in her deeply scarred soul. Carrie is keeping a close eye on Sergeant Brody -played by Damian Lewis- an AWOL prisoner of war that is finally found in Iraq and has Carrie second guessing his legitimacy and whether he might be a possible terrorist threat. It's a juicy plot that doesn't take the easy way out, everything you think is coming isn't. Twists are abound in Homeland but more importantly it's the way those twists are revealed -with such professional realism- that makes this show a keeper. Danes and Lewis -both respective Emmy winners- raise Homeland to the level of art with performances so good they make you forget these actors are just playing a game called "acting". If you've seen that happen in a Hollywood movie of late please mention that movie because my list is pretty empty.

Barton Fink's brilliance

Full confession; I’m nuts for the Coen Brothers. I mean, who isn’t right? Their kooky and dark style is the stuff of legend in American cinema of the last three decades. Joel and Ethan Coen are –pure and simply- American treasures. Then why did their rivetingly original work in “Barton Fink” not get nominated for Best Picture of 1991? Don’t get me wrong, the nominees were top notch; Jonathan Demme’s masterful “The Silence Of The Lambs”, Oliver Stone’s fictitious but gripping “JFK”, the landmark in animation that was “Beauty And The Beast” and Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy”. Did we forget the fifth nominee? .. Oh right ! This was also the year that Barbara Streisand’s middling “The Prince Of Tides” –starring a never worse Nick Nolte as a man that falls in love with his psychiatrist- got a questionable Best Picture nomination. Yikes, talk about missing the boat.

Oscar could have gone for riskier more memorable fare. I can name at least ten movies that were a hundred times more deserving than Streisand’s sap fest; John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood”, Martha Coolidge’s “Rambling Rose”, James Cameron’s “Terminator 2”, Ridley Scott’s “Thelma And Louise”, Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King”, Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” or, hell, even “What About Bob” starring a hilarious Bill Murray. King of them all, Joel Coen’s “Barton Fink” which resonates as deeply as any movie from 1991.

Coming off a surprising Palme D’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival, Joel Coen’s movie satirized the 1940’s film business. Playing the titular character John Turturro was magnificent as Barton Fink, a writer with values of not selling out his art - yet he gets offered a big time Hollywood contract to write a “wrestling picture” and can’t decline the money. He is an artist out of touch with reality, trapped in a city out of touch with reality. Ouch, no wonder Hollywood didn’t nominate this incendiary masterpiece. “Barton Fink” bites the hand that feeds it and then some. Turturro’s Fink cannot connect with wrestling whatsoever and gets a bad case of writer’s block in the process. We follow Fink wherever he goes and wherever he takes us; is it all happening in his subconscious?

This is a film that admirably –and confusingly- mixes reality and fiction into one solid blend. However the film is a hard sell; For all the things that do happen in this movie, nothing really happens: John Turtutto's Fink is thrust into one bizarre situation after another, confusing us in the process. To call this movie a mindfuck would truly be an understatement and I do however mean that as a big, fat compliment. It’s like the surrealism of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” mixed with the trippy writer’s block of Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation”, two movies that were clearly inspired by “Barton Fink”.

This is a sly, nifty little film; taking something as drab and unspectacular as a run down hotel room and turning it into a cave full of tiny, distracting wonders. The hotel Fink stays in to write his “wrestling picture” is an important part of the Coen puzzle. Whether it’s the well chosen items on the wall, the maddeningly metaphorical paintings, the buzzingly annoying flies, the slurpy noise of peeling wallpaper or John Goodman’s insane next door neighbor, the Coens choose every small little detail for a reason – which is why multiple viewings of “Barton Fink” are a must and can in fact enhance your appreciation of the maddeningly intricate script.

The story was inspired by Joel and Ethan’s own bout of writer’s block. While trying to pen their gangster film “Miller’s Crossing”, the brothers suffered such severe writer's block that they took a break from writing. During the break they wrote “Barton Fink”. “Barton Fink” one upped their gangster classic by being the gutsiest, most artistically realized movie of their career. Later would come such classics as “Fargo” and “No Country For Old Men” but the Coen brothers have not made anything as narratively complicated or risky as “Barton Fink”. Oscar be damned, the film speaks for itself.

"The Grifters" and Academy awards nonsense

Let us not kid ourselves - 1990 was the year the academy got it wrong, very wrong. This was the year that an instant classic by one our greatest living directors got stripped of the big prize by a fairly well made western directed by a well respected 80's actor. Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" with its ambitious tracking shots, -now constantly ripped off- narrative structure and incredible performances lost to Kevin Costner's earnest, well meaning, sincerely decent "Dances With Wolves". We all know which film stood the test of time, in fact Scorsese's classic is still consistently revisited in film schools and is one of the most ripped-off films of the 1990's and Aughts. Whereas it turns out that Costner's film -which does have its fair share of fans- is nothing more than a well made western that seemed to come out in the right place and at the right time. To make matters worse, just look at some of the other best picture nominees; "Ghost"?, "The Godfather, Part III"?  And as much as I liked Penny Marshall's "Awakenings" I'd substitute it all 4 of the above mentioned films -including "Dances With Wolves"- to give a Best Picture Nomination to Stephen Frears' "The Grifters". In fact "The Grifters" is the one 1990 film that comes closest to achieving the greatness of  "Goodfellas". Honorable mentions would include Barbet Schroder's "Reversal Of Fortune", Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands", Joel Coen's "Miller's Crossing", Charles Burnett's underrated "To Sleep With Anger" and even David Lynch's kinky, twisted "Wild At Heart". ALL of these films were better and more lasting than 4 of the 5 nominated films.

Frears' film -which includes the best performances of Anjelica Huston and Annette Benning's careers- is a neo-noir served black. Lots of references to film noirs of the 40's and plenty of shadows cast from venetian blinds (a noir staple). In Frears' Los Angeles we look at three tortured, miserable souls that would do anything for the green. It's money that makes the world go round in Frears' film. He shows us greed and a pitch black portrayal of the human heart. This kind of subject matter was rather well dissected by the Coen Brothers in "No Country  For Old Men" yet "The Grifters" feels just as dark and complicated a movie with Oliver Stapleton's stark cinematography and source material based on author Jim Thompson's novel  (which he gets a screenplay credit for). The movie provides an unflinching and relentless window into a dark world most of us would rather pretend doesn't exist - but it does. The characters are subtle and believable; wicked little souls that carry no redeeming value or morals- no conscience. Most of it is so beautifully photographed that it looks like a series of postcards at times YET the feeling you get when watching the film isn't a pleasant one, this is a movie that means to brutally shake you and that it does.

As much as I loved how Annette Benning brought a sexy, dangerous vibe to the film, the artistic success of "The Grifters" would not come close to the high art it achieves without Anjelica Huston's career capping performance as Lilly Dillon. Dressed up in  blood-red or plain white tight dresses, and with a white perm that looks hair sprayed to a tee,  Lilly is a small time crook that fears she has passed over her grifting gift to her son - brilliantly played by John Cusack. I wouldn't reccomend being caught up in Lilly's toxic world, but watching it unfurl from afar is a cinematic thrill. Huston’s brilliant performance makes sure were there with her every step of the way. Her goal is to cash in as much as possible, that is more important to her than anything else, including her own son's life. In fact when things get rough Lilly tries to seduce him in a scene that cannot be described in words and brings a whole new layer to the film's already constantly peeling onion-like structure. It's there and then that "The Grifters" turns into an unlikely original. The film's constant twists and turns cannot prepare you for the seduction or the backstabbingly delicious climax that caps off a truly great film, in fact repeat viewings are a must for the black world Frears' shapes and molds. After every viewing you come out learning something new about these con artists; their motivations seem more real and their actions even more repugnant. "The Grifters" pulls out a rabbit from the hat and plays with its audiences heads, what more can you ask for in a movie?

How To Survive A Plague

How to Survive a Plague: A new documentary of the AIDS epidemic

By Jordan Ruimy

Here’s a movie that matters. David France’s "How To Survive A Plague" has a heavy topic surrounding it; the AIDS epidemic in 1987. Just 6 years after its sudden appearance, the virus had run rampant into the lives of many and something had to be done. After all, there was Institutional indifference, sluggishness and outright hostility towards gay people and the only real way to fight this was through demonstration.
Focusing mostly on the group ACT-UP (Aids coalition to unleash power) and its landmark fights for answers, the documentary aims to make you feel a time and place when confusion, anger, and sadness were at their peaks in the AIDS ravaged gay communities of New York City. President Reagan hadn’t even uttered the word AIDS until 1987 – even with deaths at an all time high - and no medical treatment even existed.

ACT-UP, to put it simply, acted up and with furious energy protested through the streets of New York City on a daily basis. These protests were meant to rile people, an in your face assault of the anger and punishment they felt about governmental isolation. They were loud and sent their messages through the streets at a time when AIDS was still a very taboo and risky subject to even mention. They woke up a nation of millions to the subject and helped deliver an euphoria of acclaim for their cause.

Some members of ACT-UP even went as far as delving into medical and scientific research in order to find some sort of cure, and others tried aggressively to change many pharmaceutical companies’ minds and policies. By 1996 new drugs came into fruition and ACT-UP’s efforts paid off admirably - but not before millions of deaths beforehand and countless corrupt policies by well “respected” public authorities.
It’s a documentary that will shock, touch and, most of all, anger its audience. Using mostly archival footage to tell its story, "How To Survive A Plague" talks about a time often forgotten in the public’s memory. ACT-UP’s efforts to change the game also ended up changing the world. David France knows that and with his endless years as a journalist, reporting on the epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s, and constant 3 decade research, he tries to bring as vivid and important a portrayal as any out there. It’s a documentary that shows the power a movement can have on society, social change and policy.

"Do The Right Thing"

"My people, my people, what can I say, say what I can. I saw it but didn't believe it, I didn't believe what I saw. Are we gonna live together, together are we gonna live?"

Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing celebrates its 23rd anniversary this summer and it still packs a wallop. Lee's examination of the racial divide in America is as relevant today as its ever been before. The first time I saw it I felt something I hadn't felt in years, a movie of such relevance, poignancy and incendiary truth- I was stunned, scared, shaken. Radio Raheem still lingers in my head, so does Mookie throwing a garbage can at Sal's Pizzeria, Buggin Out with his infamous boycott and Pino's in your face racism. When it first came out people were expecting riots and anarchy but instead we got conversation and reasoning- the essence of what art can do. I got the criterion edition a few years ago but the new Blu-Ray edition supposedly blows that one out of the ball park- the image is crisper and the sound is top notch. It's still -along with David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull- a landmark movie of the 1980's.

So after all this praise on my part, it is still a real shock to realize that Do The Right Thing – a movie of unequivocal importance then and now- did not get nominated for Best Picture of 1989. Instead we got a safe, predictable portrait of Racism in “Driving Miss Daisy” winning Best Picture. The four other nominees were better; Peter Weir’s involving ”Dead Poets Society”, Oliver Stone’s “Born On The Fourth Of July”, Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” and the corny “Field Of Dreams”. I’d replace the Costner movie with Woody Allen’s daring “Crimes And Misdemeanors” and of course the artificial “Driving Miss Daisy” with “Do The Right Thing”. Lee’s movie not only aged better than any of the above mentioned but created conversation in the public eye. Hell, even President Obama and First Lady Michelle went to see “Do The Right Thing” on their first date !

Lee’s film opens with Public Enemy's “Fight The Power” playing as Rosie Perez's Tina breakdances through the credits. Once that is done we enter a neighborhood like no other. The story is told on one hot summer day, the hottest of the year in fact, in a New York City alive with racism, confusion and corrupt cops. Radio Raheem- one of the film's many colorful characters- has one hand tattooed with the word Love and the other with the word Hate, a perfect description of the film. Lee knew very well of the struggle that America was going through-and still does- with racism and bigotry. He explored it through characters that had resentment in their blood.

Lee created more than a dozen memorable characters for “Do The Right Thing”, all well sketched out and imperfect in their actions and thoughts. There isn’t really a single heroic figure in the bunch. Mookie, the character that we think is heroic, ends up starting the riot in the film’s blistering finale by throwing a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria. Did he do the right thing? It’s left for discussion and after close to 2 decades there are still mixed thoughts Mookie’s actions. What I do know is that Lee did it on purpose, he wanted to create conversation and make a film that would impact our lives. Job well done.

Not everyone took it that way. Reviewers feared that Lee’s film would incite black audiences to riot. No such riots occurred and Lee criticized “white reviewers for implying that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional motion picture.” He had a point. The fact that Americans thought black people would riot is the exact reason why Lee made the film in the first place, to show the divide and confusion that reigned in America at the time.

To call Lee’s film a game changer wouldn’t do it much justice It brought impact to a society that needed to be shaken and got audiences asking questions that not only had to do with the movie but had to do with their own ideals. We live in a time when most movies don’t have the balls to create such ambitious, daring work. Lee’s film reminds us of the power that art can have on society as a whole and the whiplash that comes with watching such a visionary creation. He never made a better movie than "Do The Right Thing", only his second film, not many have since.

"Die Hard" and its Yipee-Ki-Yay legacy

Continuing on with my weekly column, we arrive at 1988. The nominees for best picture were "RAIN MAN", "The Accidental Tourist", "Dangerous Liaisons", "Mississippi Burning" and "Working Girl" – 5 excellent, well deserved choices. I’d –however- substitute “Working Girl” and “Dangerous Liaisons” for darker, more memorable fare such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation Of Christ”, Pedro Almodovar’s tasty “Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown”, Charles Chrichton’s “A Fish Called Wanda”, Robert Zemeckis’ groundbreaking “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” or even Penny Marshall’s “Big”, featuring Tom Hanks at his playful, irresistible best.

However, and this might be a bit of a controversial pick, my top choice would be John McTiernan’s Die Hard. Just like last week’s 1987 pick –“The Princess Bride”- McTiernan’s movie already had one bad thing going for it; Its genre. The action genre isn’t exactly something the academy has warmed up to in the past. One can think of such non-nominated classics such as “The Terminator”, “The Killer”, “The Matrix”, “Speed”, “The Bourne Identity”, “Aliens”, “the Dark Knight”, “Enter The Dragon”, “Face-Off” and “Kill Bill”. All of these have aged wonderfully well and were more than deserving of a shot at best picture. The only exceptions that actually did get nominated are “The Fugitive” and Ang Lee’s artful take on the action picture “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

McTiernan’s “Die Hard” isn’t high art but it got the job done in high octane fashion and set the standard for what an action film should be like in the 21st century. It spawned numerous rip-offs in the 90’s and still does today, none of which have attained the excitement of McTiernan’s original. It is in fact not overblown to say that “Die Hard” is the perfect modern action movie, a film with well sketched characters and a script that just doesn’t let up. It might not make you think much but it does make you feel as excited and pumped up as any movie can. Bruce Willis’ John McClane is the film’s heroic action figure, yet at the same time Willis doesn’t play the role too seriously as if winking at his audience by saying “hey, this is just a movie”. It’s a snarky, perfect performance that eventually sent Willis into superstardom mode and spawned a slew of sequels afterwards.

Willis’ McClane is the average man caught in a non-average situation. We tend to recognize ourselves in his character; whatever he does we understand why he does it. He gets shot, he bleeds. He panics, he cries. He’s not a perfect man, he’s flawed and we look up to his flaws as being part our own. This sort of identity to the main hero is what lacks in many of today’s action movies (“The Expendables” anybody?) where we can’t identify with anyone, the heroes are cardboard and the viewer is isolated and ultimately disappointed by the experience.

For an action movie to be great its hero has got to be likeable and humane -Willis does that job very well here- but a great action movie has got to also have a great villain and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is just that. Gruber is not a one dimensional terrorist; he is a manipulating, well versed and educated man that knows exactly what he wants to do. Gruber is methodical and is patient with his intentions. His charm and intelligence make him seem like someone who wouldn’t cause harm but he can. He is in fact very scary because he is very real. Rickman, with his well trimmed goatee, gives us a grueling, intense portrayal of evil.

The film is a great example of what happens when all the pieces of a film fall together in the right place. There are no flaws, no plot holes and no letdowns. Its 131 epic minutes are not wasted and don’t let up right up until its very last shot. In short, “Die Hard” puts you on the highest of highs and McTiernan reaches a peak he has since never attained again. His film redefines the “action movie” and the “action star”, presenting a new language to the genre and re-inventing the game with an incredible balance of character development and action. Of course Oscar didn’t come knocking, why would it anyways? Action movies are not the Academy’s thing and for good reason. They are –most of the time- loud, abrasive, dumbed down and ultimately artless films (‘The Expendables” anybody?) but sometimes a movie like “Die Hard” goes beyond genre and achieves something special through sheer perfection of the craft. Yipee-ki-yay indeed.

NOT Best Picture nominee 1987 "The Princess Bride"

1987 wasn’t a great year for movies, what with these 5 nominees in the running for Best Picture – THE LAST EMPEROR", "Broadcast News", "Fatal Attraction", "Hope and Glory", "Moonstruck". Not a bad bunch of films but none of which really stood the test of time, although I would still call Broadcast News a minor classic and far and away the best picture out of the bunch. However what the Academy failed to do then, and are still guilty of doing now, was not nominate a fantasy movie that ultimately became a classic (“Edward Scissorhands”? “The Holy Grail”? “King Kong”? “Pan’s Labyrinth”?) Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride starts off what will be a weekly column for me as I will go through a film a week from 1987-2011 that never got nominated for Best Picture but should have had a shot at the big prize. There are plenty of contenders for every year and I encourage you to give your own choice in the comments section below.

One can understand why Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride was such an enigma when it first came out in the fall of 1987. Here was a film that was supposed to be primarily aimed at a younger audience but ended up pleasing all ages with its deadpan, Monty Python-esque humor and a bold, satirical narrative that never took itself too seriously. That is not to say that we don’t fully invest ourselves in its fairy-tale like storytelling and genuinely good natured morals. In fact one is touched by the love story deftly told by a grandfather to his ill grandson about a beautiful princess called buttercup who gets kidnapped and needs to be rescued by her brave, young fiancée Prince Humperdinck.

What works in Reiner’s tale is that every character is a delight to watch, there isn’t a dull one in the bunch. From Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini –“Inconceivable !”- to Andre The Giant’s gentle Fezzik all the way to Billy Crystal’s hilarious cameo as Miracle Max, an old, Jewish wizard that disapproves of his wife (played by Carol Kane) and refuses to help Humperdinck in his voyage to save Buttercup. But most of all, the true heart of the story is Mandy Patinkin’s Inigo Montoya a heroic swordsman with a secret –"Hello My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."It’s an undeniably powerful line that brings real, humane feeling to Reiner’s screenplay and, with the depth Reiner brings to Montoya’s story, packs a wallop on the viewer’s emotions.

It’s not easy making a children’s tale these days and allowing adults to be as enchanted by it as the kids. Pixar has made it a habit year by year with its original tales and it is no surprise that their latest, “Brave”, had shades of Reiner’s film in some of its colorful, imaginative frames ditto “Shrek’s” fairy tale, satirical edge and –of course- the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” movies which didn’t have half the imagination of Reiner’s classic yet made 10 times the money by rehashing some of its ideas. “The Princess Bride” ran on an overdone, age old concept but brought freshness to its edges. It is a cliché to say that a movie, from start to finish, was a magical, transcendent experience but that is truly what this movie is. The laughs come with a sting and the world that we enter is so rich and mesmerizing that it is hard to have explanation of its surreal, dreamy impact.  The fact that this wasn’t nominated for Best Picture only makes it a better movie, it was a mistake not giving it its due in 1987 but it has stood the test of time and beyond. Inconceivable !