the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Location: Washington D.C.

Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Lot to Talk About X

At this point in the game, I like everyone so no one’s departure is without pain. I was scared for Zach—his imperilment only goes to show that people vote according to the last film seen, not the totality of a filmmaker’s work. Can I just say, dopes!

So the theme this week was the American car. Thankfully no one tried to remake American Graffiti as I assumed they might.

Adam's Driving Under the Influence was a car chase AND a musical! While it was completely goofy it was also very funny, even if it fell somewhat flat at the end, losing the sort of gargantuan quality of musical number of that sort requires.

Sam's Backseat Driver Test was based on a hilarious, relatable concept but was imperfectly executed, a joke that couldn’t quite hold the attention of the time given it.

Zach did a sequel for to a film he regards as his worst showing — now that takes chutzpah! Did he find redemption? The Bonus Feature II really didn't go anywhere beyond a germ of a story and while it was technically fabulous, it was far from perfect (sword choreography anyone?). So why was I smiling so at the end? Perhaps because his films never take themselves too seriously and always leave with a wink.

The Move was a lot of buildup for next to nothing. While I understood it perfectly, despite the judges confusion, the third act was nothing more than a tag and didn’t justify the length set up.

Will has slowly but methodically shown himself not only a contender but a real threat to Zach. His films are innovative and charming and might just end up winning the race. No filmmaker has grown on me more in this competition. His spirit is infectious. Road Rage 101, about a car getting back at its owner, was easily the best of the night!

It’s interesting that even when they are not required to do so, the filmmakers inevitably turn to comedy. There hasn’t even been a dramatic requirement in the show. I can understand that comedies are crowd pleasers and stick around in voter’s minds, but there is a part of me that regrets the superficiality inherent in blockbuster-skewing light fare. Next week’s logline inspired story will only ensure this continues (a man wakes up in a dress…). Still it will be interesting to see all the filmmakers tackle the same storyline.

The Bourne Ultimatum

“Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” –St. John 8:32, inscribed at CIA headquarters

There is a misconception out there, among those who read film reviews, that those of us who write them do so with utter dispassion and cold, steely resolve. And while it is true that we feel the need to be analytical and methodical with even those films we find praiseworthy, we are not, thankfully, cinematic automatons. Even we have films that set our pulses racing. Even we yelp in pleasure when carried away on the emotion or intensity of something completely exhilarating.

I guess what I’m tying to say is, I walked into The Bourne Ultimatum more excited than for any film this summer. And I walked out with my heart racing and my expectations dazzled and satiated. In a notorious summer of “threequals,” you won’t find better. The Bourne Ultimatum is exactly the rush you’re hoping it will be.

The Bourne Ultimatum picks up precisely where The Bourne Supremacy left off. Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon, arguably one of the finest actors of his generation) is in Moscow where he has come to apologize to the daughter of a couple he killed on his first assignment for the black ops program, Treadstone. She is not the last person to whom Jason must seek forgiveness. Like a participant in a 12-step program seeking out those whom he has injured, Bourne’s next visit is to Paris where the brother of his murdered girlfriend must be given the heartrending news.

Determined to retrieve his ever-splintering memory and discover just who it was who made him into a lethal weapon, Bourne finds his quest fueled by a London journalist (Paddy Considine) who has stumbled on details of Bourne’s career without realizing the conspiratorial enormity of his discovery. The revelation sets in motion a cascading domino of hair-raising sequences that lead from London to Spain to Tangier and ultimately home to the streets of New York City.

There are both familiar and new faces along the way. Although Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) told Bourne he had nothing to fear from her, her boss, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), made no such promise and will kill absolutely anyone to protect the secrets of Treadstone, now given a new lease on life as Operation Blackbriar — the government’s wholly unaccountable anti-terrorism task force. But no matter how sophisticated the CIA’s surveillance equipment or how well trained their assassins, Bourne always seems to be one step ahead of them. It is not that they are bad at their jobs — he is simply better. As hitmen come out of the woodwork to take him down, Bourne must rely once again on his superior training and the help of old allies, namely CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who tantalizingly hints at a past together with the amnesiac spy.

According to 12-step programs, restoration cannot occur until forgiveness is granted. In The Bourne Identity, our hero was a man in search of himself, an existential warrior who distressingly remembered how to butcher but could not recall his own name. In The Bourne Supremacy, he was a man coming to terms with a shadowy past that, while he remembered snatches best left forgotten, the man he wanted to become was more important than the man he once was. In this film, that quest finds its ultimate fulfillment — redemption — but not before the contemporary knight in tarnished armor comes face to face with the evil that made him who he is — himself.

It’s not as if the plots to each of the Bourne films are all that different. In fact, the stories are remarkably similar and revolve around several key set pieces that reappear with each film. What is incredible is how the trilogy takes those, and makes from them something fresh and dynamic, something pulsating with energy, unceasing momentum and an almost unbearable tension.

Director Paul Greengrass (who made the finest film of last year, United 93), has crafted an unbelievable powerhouse of a movie, punctuated by spectacular action sequences. There is the nerve-racking game of cat and mouse through a crowded London train station; an extraordinary chase across the rooftops and through the windows of Medina; a grappling, slashing, lighting-fast, brutal, hand-to-hand mêlée; and finally, an edge-of-your-seat car chase down the streets of Manhattan.

The Bourne Ultimatum moves so fast, there’s barely time to breathe. Bourne is always on the move, sometimes the hunter, sometimes the hunted — often both at the same time. Likewise, Greengrass’ camera roars along, inflicted with a sort of mechanical ADD that never allows it to settle or hover in one spot too long. The effect is a visceral, physiological agitation that mirrors the psychological narrative onscreen. Everything in The Bourne Ultimatum is faster, grittier and more brutal — the fights, the crashes and the truth.

Despite the countless number of films in the spy movie genre, James Bond has always been the unassailable gold standard. Then came Jason Bourne. It’s not just any film that can send one of the most popular film franchises of all time scrambling to reimagine itself for the 21st century (the brilliant Casino Royale anyone?). But this unassuming trilogy based on a series of novels written by the late Robert Ludlum did just that.

The final shot of The Bourne Ultimatum leaves Bourne precisely as we first found him six years ago. The film answers a lot of our questions, even as it creates new ones, leaving room for our imagination to fill in the gaps…or a sequel. But when the lights go up, you won’t be thinking about a sequel — you’ll be thinking of the best way back into the theater to see this one for a second time.

Antonioni: When it Rains it Pours

Yesterday the world learned that the superb Ingmar Bergman passed away. Today, the great Michelangelo Antonioni is dead. He was 94.

The celebrated Italian director whose modernist style heavily influenced film aesthetics, was responsible for such classics as L'Avventura, in which Antonioni explored the emotional sterility of modern society, Blowup, in which a photographer inadvertently captures a murder on film (and captured "swinging 60s" London) and The Passenger with Jack Nicholson.

Antonioni was awarded a special Oscar in 1995 for his lifetime achievements. Though his films, known for their long, lingering shots, were not always crowd pleasers, he was something of a cult figure for filmmakers and moviegoers.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman is Gone

Ingmar Bergman has died. One of the towering masters of modern cinema and easily one of my favorites, Bergman died on his secluded island retreat Monday at the age of 89.

Using the severe, claustrophobic gloom of his native Sweden’s unremitting winter nights as well as its soft summer evenings as a cinematic backdrop, Bergman confronted horrendous subjects such as marital disintegration, mortality, and the fear of nuclear holocaust through stories of plague and madness.

The auteur behind such films as Secrets of Women, Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, Persona, Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage , and Fannie and Alexander, he is perhaps best known for 1957’s The Seventh Seal with Max von Sydow, an allegorical tale of a medieval knight playing chess with the shrouded figure of Death.

Adjö och tack själv för alla bion

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Superhero Becomes a Space Cadet

It's official! Check out the video here.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Comp Completed

That’s it. I’m done. I finished my MA Comprehensive Examination on Friday (after pulling my first ever all-nighter), and now I have nothing more hanging over my head but the usual ins and outs of my final semester, just a month away. The test felt like a final’s week and I chose to address questions dealing with genre hybridity (Firefly anyone) and temporality within Groundhog Day. Hey, if you’re going to be going over a couple of films/TV shows for an entire week, you might as well make sure they’re ones you like!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Rough clip from Moxie documentary from Dan and Vimeo.

This is a rough cut of the first few minutes from David Lowery's documentary about the Moxie, a small independent theater in Springfield, Missouri where one of my best friends works. The sound has yet to be mixed, the compression is low, the title is temporary, and there's still a long way to go, but this will give you an idea of how amazing the finished product will be.

A Lot to Talk About IX

Kenny. Is. Gone! It's the first time I've actually stood up and cheered at a filmmaker's departure.

I didn't see Mateen going. Although, I complained last week that Shalini didn't deserve to go home based, not on her one stumble but on the body of her work. Logically, you could say the same for Mateen. If you are going by his body of work, then he was ripe to go. Now the entire "cast" of filmmakers are young, white guys. Shame.

I enjoyed all of the films last night though I can't get gushingly excited about any of them. Which hurts, especially when it comes to Zach.

There is nothing I need to say about Zach's Bonus Feature that the judges didn't already say. Yes, the movie was more ride than film, a danger for all effects laden fare. And yes, while the film homage was fun, it was...skewed, shall we say, toward Speilberg and Lucus' oeuvre. I love the fact that Zach wants to make modern day fantasy films, but as incredible as this film was visually, it is perhaps my least favorite of his work. It simply didn't stick with me as his other films have done.

Adam's Girl Trouble (with more homages!) was funny, with a great pop at the end, but, like Zach's film, it didn't stick with me once the lights went up.

I thought Will's Unplugged was charming and darling. Hey, if a hopping lamp is good enough to launch Pixar, it's good enough for Will.

Andrew's Keep off Grass was hilarious and well written, but needed to be bigger and more varied. Funny as the dialogue was, there was just too much of it--or at least not enough going on while the words flew. Still, it was a fantastic original idea.

Sam's American Hoe was funny and eerily spot on for how little things in a relationship tend to spiral out of control. While I didn't adore the film, I didn't dislike it like the judges seemed to.

Jason's Old Home Boyz was well acted and ridiculous, but Jason's love of his work and his persistently positive attitude is always infectious, winning you over.

It's so hard at this point to predict who will go home next week, especially when none of the films sucked. Still, my bet's on Adam and Sam.

Next week's topic is America's love affair with the automobile. Gee, do you think Ford could have something to do with that?

Mr. Spock I Presume?

There's some Star Trek casting news to share.

Apparently J.J. Abrams wants someone younger than Matt Damon to play young Capt. Kirk, despite the fact that Damon has indicated he might be interested. Things are a bit more solid on the First Officer front--Heroes star Zachary Quinto (Sylar) is reported to be the new Spock. Story is he's been pushing himself hard for the role. Fascinating.

So far as the original actors are concerned, apparently Leonard Nimoy has been contacted to make a cameo in the new film though William Shatner has not.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

No Reservations

If you’re a foodie, then this has been your summer. First Waitress served up a delectable confection of sugary delight, then Ratatouille arrived with an explosion of gastronomic enchantment, and now No Reservations appears to whet your appetite yet again. Although No Reservations serves up a menu of Franco-American fusion cuisine, the film actually has more in common with the well-known joke about Chinese fare — it satisfies while you’re sitting down at the table, but the moment you get up, you’re hungry again.

No Reservations is based on (some would say blatantly rips off) the much-loved 2001 German film Mostly Martha, the story of a highly respected but temperamental chef whose well-ordered life is turned upside down in ways she cannot possibly anticipate. Catherine Zeta-Jones is Kate, a chef who runs her kitchen with military precision and lives her life like a recipe from one of her cookbooks — precise, ordered, without deviation or variation. A perfectionist of the highest order, she is known more for what she won’t allow herself to do than for what she will. Sure, her cooking is the talk of Manhattan, but Kate is anything but a people person — she doesn’t take criticism well, whether it comes from her boss, Paula (Patricia Clarkson) or the occasional unsatisfied customer. It’s sad when the person who knows you the best and is closer to you than anyone else in the world is your shrink.

Kate’s perfectly delineated life is torn into tatters when her sister is killed in a car crash and her niece, Zoe (Abigail Breslin) comes to live with her. Unable to take care of herself much less a child, Kate discovers that children are the ultimate disorder. Frozen in grief, Zoe sleeps hiding beneath her bed and turns her nose up at Kate’s cooking. Try as she might to make her feel welcome, everything Kate does seems to push Zoe further and further away.

During Kate’s absence, Paula hires Nick (Aaron Echhart), a freewheeling Italian sous-chef. Nick is everything Kate is not — flamboyant, friendly, unpredictable, light on his emotional feet and devilishly charming. Despite the fact that everyone else is in love with him, Kate sees the guileless upstart as making inroads on her job and does everything she can to drive him away. Ying to her yang, Nick is exactly what Kate needs, if she’s willing to bend her rules that keep her lonely and distanced from everyone around her. Slowly but surely, the French chef falls in love over Puccini and spaghetti. Nick’s presence in Kate’s life will serve not only to melt her well-ordered heart, but also bring shy Zoe out of her traumatized shell. The film’s resolution, while emotionally satisfying, arrives far too quickly and tidily.

Director Scott Hicks’ (the Oscar nominated Shine, and the intoxicating exquisite Snow Falling on Cedars) latest film is a fusion somewhere between a standard romantic comedy and something desperately, but unsuccessfully trying to be deeper. Brighter and far less nuanced than anything Hicks has ever done, No Reservations is full of the genre’s customary obstacles and resolutions. However, an otherwise standard storyline is rescued by some terrific performances by the leads and Hick’s more than capable, if uninspired, direction.

No Reservations is so confident in the chemistry of its leads that it doesn’t even mix them together until more than a half hour into the film. Zeta-Jones, who has been hiding from the camera of late, reminds everyone why we feel in love with her in the first place, Eckhart brings his usual high-spirited, roguish charm to the part of Nick, and Breslin, who continues to grow right before our eyes, shows us why she is one of the finest actors of her young generation.

No Reservations is like a love letter to Manhattan’s West Village and Greenwich, an area not unfamiliar with food and fine dining. If the sumptuous Danish film Babette’s Feast used food redemptivly, No Reservations uses it to seduce. Food is a metaphor for that which we feed ourselves physically and emotionally, and the film urges us to slow down, let life in, and truly taste what it has to offer. Even disorder can be delicious.

Neither bland nor delectable, the heartfelt No Reservations won’t disappoint your pocketbook or send you over the moon, but for two hours it will make you forget about the insipid summer blockbusters whose repetitive detonations you can hear through the theater walls next door. That has to stand for something.

Bourne, Jason Bourne

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

For decades, James Bond was the unassailable gold standard for the spy movie genre. Then, in 2001, came a remake of a TV movie based on a decades old novel, The Bourne Identity. And nothing was ever the same again.

It’s not just any film that can claim to have made such an impact in Hollywood that it sent one of the most popular film franchises of all time scrambling to discover if imitation was indeed the sincerest form of flattery (Casino Royale anyone?). Yet that is exactly what the Bourne films did, forcing James Bond to come back down to earth and refashion himself in a more realistic mold for a new millennium.

Reimaginings (as opposed to remakes) are all the rage these days. From Batman to Battlestar Galactica, Hollywood is breathing fresh, new life into old ideas by retooling familiar stories at a cellular level rather than simply slapping on a contemporary coat of paint. The Bourne films are the best spycraft entries in decades, using a tried and true Robert Ludlum core to radiate distinctly post 9/11 anxieties.

Jason Bourne wakes up one day, half dead and without any memory of who he is or why three bullets are embedded in his back. Over three films (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum), he faces overwhelming odds in a fight to stay alive and discover the secrets of his past. Is he a hero or a villain? Why does the U.S. government want him dead? Haunted by snatches of memory he cannot reconcile and tormented by the never-ending blood on his hands — even the blood of redemptive innocents he loved — Bourne is a contemporary knight in tarnished armor played by one of the finest actors of this generation, Matt Damon.

Combining edge-of-your-seat car chases, lightning fast fight scenes with a brutally creative use of improvised weaponry, exotic locales with European sensibilities, and retro-American conspiratorial intrigue at the highest levels of our democracy, the Bourne films juggle realism and escapism with an unnatural ease that has made Bond, James Bond blush in shame.

To read the full review, click here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

From Cyberspace to Paper

Christianity Today rarely runs movie reviews in the magazine unless it is for something along the lines of The Passion of the Christ. Instead, the reviews run on their online movie page. Occasionally, film reviews make it on paper for a special arts section. Such is this August's edition, and a condensed version of my review for Into Great Silence, a film which Rotten Tomatoes recently put forth as one of its best-reviewed films of the year. Click on the above picture to enlarge.

Friday, July 20, 2007

This Blog is Temporarily Out of Service

OK, so maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but don't expect too much over the next week or so.

This morning marked the beginning of my MA Comprehensive Examination--NYU's alternative to the master's thesis. It is a series of essay questions that we have one week to research and answer in the form of multiple essays.

So that is where I'll be until I turn the Comp in next Friday.

Until then, wish me luck...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Reports of My Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated!

Several of you have been enquiring as to my safety after last night’s steam pipe explosion here in New York City. As many of you know, I work only three blocks from where the explosion occurred and use the subway at Grand Central Terminal to get to and from my office.

I am fine. In fact, I passed right by the spot where the explosion occurred on my way into Grand Central mere minutes before the incident. When I got home and turned on the nightly news, I watched incredulously as the street on which I had just been was reduced to something eerily reminiscent of 9/11.

For those people in the surrounding buildings, including my own office building, it was a terrifying experience. Not knowing what was going on, people were told to flee the area. Entire blocks were evacuated. My co-workers say there was panic in the streets as people, covered in dust and debris, fled for, what they thought might be their lives.

The footage was spectacular. The plume of steam engulfed midtown and rose higher than the nearby Chrysler Building. At its base, it was like something volcanic, sending torrents of putrid water gushing from a crater that had engulfed vehicles and opened a massive sinkhole in the street.

This morning there is a frozen zone — a quarantined area — encompassing that section of midtown. Nearby subways have been shut down. Turns out my office is mere feet outside the zone so I’ll be heading to work shortly, though, with no subway service in the immediate vicinity, I’ve got some walking ahead of me.

Thanks for your e-mails of concern.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Lives of Others

NOTE: A few months back, I had a chance to see one of the best films of last year (I will update my Best Of 2006 list accordingly) though I am just now finding the time to write about it. While the film is no longer in theaters, it should arrive on DVD shortly and I highly encourage everyone to see it.

Meta•mor•pho•sis, noun, from the Greek. 1a: change of physical form, structure, or substance; 1b: a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances. 2: a typically marked and more or less abrupt developmental change in the form or structure of an animal.

The Lives of Others — winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film — is cast in gray, swaddled in shadows, set in drab, spartan rooms, positioned beneath an overcast, dreary sky, and populated with mostly unsmiling automatons.

This is East Germany, circa the mid-1980s and the Communist German Democratic Republic’s secret police, or Stasi keeps a malevolent eye on the population, watching icily for any aberration of behavior or philosophy. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is one of the Stasi’s best, an unwavering believer in his country’s way of life and the need for absolute vigilance to enforce it. He is the perfect company tool, emotionless and utterly colorless, a robot who never questions orders and carries them out without sentiment or passion.

Wiesler prides himself on being able to detect even the minutest anomaly in the lives of those he watches. When a colleague invites him to a play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful, model “nonsubversive” writer with a sizable following in the West, Wiesler is convinced something is off. His colleague, an ambitious career climber, encourages Wiesler to bug Dreyman’s apartment, knowing full well that Dreyman’s lead actress and lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) is the favorite pet of a powerful government minister.

And so Wiesler sets up a listening post and begins to eavesdrop on every aspect of Dreyman’s life, recording in intimate detail everything he hears. In this world, every word is scrutinized and even the tiniest slip can unravel a man. Wiesler listens as Dreyman’s pen scratches out plot ideas and he listens as the typewriter bangs them into dialogue. He listens as Dreyman and Christa-Maria fight and he listens as they make love.

Wiesler is able to spy on the lives of others because he does not have one himself. His apartment resembles a cell, his best friend would crush him under heel at the slightest whiff of a promotion, and the only physical contact he has with women he must pay for. But on this assignment, something happens that we are pretty sure has never happened before. Wiesler begins living life for the first time, even if it is vicariously through those he has been tasked to watch. He cannot stop listening. His bugs become the thinnest of lifelines to that which is vibrant, soft, warm and alive.

The Lives of Others is a mesmerizing film with a villain who is anything but. It would have been easy to make Wiesler a nefarious stereotype, but instead Mühe plays him with substance and fast moving, deeply buried torrents of emotion. We learn, by degrees, that Wiesler is not as consistent or predictable as he would have us believe.

It is extraordinary what 33-year-old writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has done with his feature debut. The Lives of Others throbs with coiled tension, much of it knotting in our stomachs during scenes as unremarkable as a character watching through a peephole or listening through headphones. The film’s pacing is so meticulous, the control of story so faultless, the script so literate, that The Lives of Others feels less like a film and more like a horrifying reality taking place in real time while we watch, unobserved but hardly impassive.

The Lives of Others is a story of paranoia and privation, of cowardice and heroism, of persuasion and resolve, of scrutiny and freedom, and of the secrets we keep even from ourselves. Some critics have indicated that they find the film’s denouncement to be far-fetched and unbelievable. Rubbish. It may skew upward, but it is hardly implausible, nor does it jump the tracks of film’s composite narrative. It inserts just the perfect dash of whimsy into a world of steely gray — not unlike that which occurs in Wiesler’s tightly regimented life.

Not since Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful The Conversation has there been a thriller quite like this.

A Lot to Talk About VIII

Yep, as predicted, both ladies went home. While they did have the least successful films last week, I am struck by how fickly the public votes on a week to week basis. No thought seems to go into the filmmaker’s overall body of work, only the last thing seen. It should, perhaps, come as no surprise to me that America has the attention span of a gnat.

Sam’s Key Witness was a sloppy mess. When you have to say, “Ug, I got shot in the leg!” instead of just showing it, you’re in trouble. The bit with the dumpster was funny, but came on the heels of way too much gunplay. I liked the “looks like you missed a spot” moment, but overall, this was one short that went on for far too long.

I’m no sure how action-packed Jason’s Sweet was, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the most pleasing and enjoyable films of the night. I still say he needs to cut back on his over-stylized elements, though.

Andrew’s ZERO2SIXTY desperately needed some tighter editing, and I could have done without another Ford commercial, but I’ll certainly give him kudos for doing it in such a way that made it both comedically organic and genuinely funny.

Kenny, the loser…er, excuse me…Kenny’s The Losers was just that. An action movie with a kid on a skateboard who’s largest stunt was falling into a portable swimming pool of suds (oh wait, excuse me, there was that much maligned jump over the car door…how could I forget that!?) — come on! While the line, “That's alright son, I know physics” was great, that was about the only thing.

If Mateen hadn’t pulled one off this week, he would have been going home. But pull one off he did with Catch, quite possibly my favorite he’s done in fact. Extremely well edited (contrast his car-into-pedestrian collision with Jason’s), and with a nice twist, the film’s premise may not have had enough weight to support its action, but it worked in spite of it.

So, my predictions for the next two going home are Sam and Kenny (please let it be Kenny — I don’t know what is worse, seeing him again week after week, or realizing that he’s there week after week because someone…a lot of someones…out there actually think he can direct.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

You know a movie is going to be bad when Rob Schneider shows up dressed as a Chinese wedding chapel minister. No, come to think of it, you know of movie is going to be bad when Rob Schneider shows up at all.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is the story of Chuck Levine (Adam Sandler) and Larry Valentine (Kevin James), some of New York City’s finest firefighters and best friends since their days at the academy. But the two men couldn’t be more different. While Chuck was Mr. February in the annual firefighter calendar and lives the sort of swinging life that would make Austin Powers blush, Larry is a grieving widower trying his best to raise his two kids alone. When Larry begins having trouble making ends meet, he concocts a wild idea to convince Chuck to pretend to be his gay lover in order to secure domestic partner benefits. Chuck is obviously rabidly against the idea from the start but is eventually won over because Larry assures him privacy laws are so such that no one will possibly be able to find out. Famous last words.

Obviously the secret must out. When the city sends inspector Clinton Fitzer (Steve Buscemi) to sniff around and make sure the men are not attempting fraud, Chuck and Larry must go to great lengths to make their relationship look convincing. That’s hard enough when you’re a Neanderthal like Chuck, but even more so when Alex, the lawyer you’ve hired to handle your side of the case looks like Jessica Biel. As the investigation draw closer and closer to the truth, both men are ostracized by their uber-masculine community and Chuck finds himself head over heels in love with Alex but unable to act on his feelings.

The surprisingly charming Hitch revealed that Kevin James could steal the show even from the likes of such a charismatic actor as Will Smith and that when James finished his TV work (“King of Queens” just concluded after nine seasons), Hollywood would be waiting with open arms. While James doesn’t pull the carpet out from beneath funnyman Adam Sandler’s feet, he more than holds his own. Too bad it couldn’t have been in a better movie.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry depends on implausible situational comedy, broad stereotypical humor, homosexual parodies, and cheap jokes to amuse its audience. The laughs are rarely organic to the story, but are the sort of ridiculous, over-the-top gags that guarantee fast laughs but not long ones. Worse still, despite the film’s snowballing support of alternative lifestyles, there are moments that some gay viewers may find offensive.

Like so many films with political messages at their core, Chuck and Larry can’t quite walk the fine line of soapbox oratory without slipping off the edge. Occasionally abandoning the sort of subtlety required to keep the film from feeling like an after-school special with a moral axe to grind, Chuck and Larry gets preachy once too often. From a Fred Phelps-like confrontation on a street corner to speech making in a courtroom, the film simply takes itself too seriously.

It is also troubling that nearly all of the film’s touching, sentimental and life-affirming instances occur exactly at those moments when the friends are proactively doing everything within their power to deceive those around them. Their lies tarnish their good deeds, even though, in the end, no one seems to care in the least.

Several of Sandler’s old SNL pals drop by for cameos including Schneider, David Spade, Rachel Dratch and Dan Aykroyd. Recently out actor Richard Chamberlain and singer Lance Bass also drop by. But it is Ving Rhames who elicits the most guffaws as a gay firefighter who plucks every stereotype in the book and then some.

Perhaps the most shocking moment of the entire film occurs during the closing credits. One of the three credited screenwriters is none other than Alexander Payne, writer/director of such subtle masterpieces as Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways. That he was involved at all explains the film’s sporadic and intermittent moments of true, genuine hilarity (there are some great give and takes between Sandler and James) as well as a scene that lovingly rips off one of the greatest moments in cinematic history from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. But it does not lessen the shock of seeing his name attached to a project that ultimately cannot rise above its banal, clichéd and pedestrian roots.

I kept waiting for someone to ask if anyone knew of any reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, but alas, no one ever did.

Oh Danny Boy

I recently attended a screening of Sunshine at a small Tribeca theater for which director Danny Boyle had flown in from London to sit down with MTV’s Kurt Loder and answer questions of the press. He answered a barrage of querrys, both about Sunshine, his past and future projects, and his philosophy of filmmaking.

I was particularly interested in the spirituality that resonates within all of his films. Dreadfully dark at times, there always comes a point where hope, however small, breaks through. Usually this hope springs in the final moments of his movies, causing some to accuse him of adopting “Hollywood endings.”

Boyle told me that he was unnerved that so many of his films turned out so dark and foreboding.

“I’m not cynical. I don't set out to make scary movies. I’m an optimistic person by nature, so I’m actually frightened that I make so many frightening films. If anything I’m a sucker for up-endings, for Hollywood endings. I need hope.”

He acknowledged that his films had a weighty spiritual side, though he dismissed calling his films “Christian.”

“There is something out there bigger, wider than we can accommodate at the moment.”

On the production side of things, Boyle said that he likes financial restrictions and functions better in an oppressive fiscal environment that forces creativity to emerge rather than gives way to an anything-your-heart-desires mentality.

“I made Sunshine for only $40 million but it doesn’t look like $40 million. Shame on $150 million dollar films for looking like shit!”

He admitted that science fiction is very hard to make because the standard of visual excellence is so high. He went into Sunshine with very definite ideas about how he planned on doing things only to discover that even the conceits he wanted to avoid at all costs were absolutely necessary for the dramatic integrity of the narrative.

“I hate star fields flying by. I was absolutely adamant that my movie would have no starfield as that deep in space all one would see would be pitch black. But the first special effect I was shown with the Icarus shot my plans to hell. Without the migration of stars, the human eye can’t perceive movement. Some of the most infuriating things about the genre were absolutely necessary.”

For Boyle, who shot 28 Days Later entirely on digital, “digital filmmaking tears apart established elitism” and makes film storytelling accessible to anyone worthy enough.

He said he is always heavily involved with the production of his films’ scores.

“I love music more than anything. If I could play something, I do that instead of make films.”

Boyle said he rarely ever storyboards, preferring to get to the set each day early and decide on the day where he will place the camera. It seems to be an infuriatingly irresponsible way of filmmaking, but one that he has obviously mastered.

Fans of Trainspotting take heart, a sequel is in the works! Though the script is still being polished, it follows the same gang from the first film only now looks at their lives after the ravages of substance abuse have been coupled with that of time and age.

I’m very excited about it,” he admitted.

Currently working on Slumdog Millionare, a comedy set in India, Boyle said that what he’d really love to direct is a musical.

“There’s nothing harder,” he said with a certain amount of wistful masochism.

Monday, July 16, 2007


Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) is something utterly unique in the movie business — a director who makes horror movies without ever intending to; a director who skirts the line of “the Hollywood ending” without ever crossing it; a director who creates fables of relentless despair and then, when all seems completely lost, inevitably infuses a flicker of hope.

The year is 2057 and our sun is dying billions of years before scientists predicted it would. The Earth is blanketed in a perpetual winter and unless something is done, everything on Earth will freeze to death in the matter of a generation. Humankind launches the fatefully named Icarus II, a long-range spacecraft whose immense bulk is made up of a massive thermonuclear bomb to jumpstart the sun’s core, and a colossal, spherical shield to reflect the sun’s rays and keep the tiny habitat core and its eight member crew on the dark side of the sun’s devastating radiance and heat.

Nearing the end of their voyage and out of radio contact with Earth, the crew receives a distress signal from Icarus I, their sister ship which disappeared on the same mission seven years earlier. A decision, deeply unpopular with some, is made to change course in order to retrieve the other bomb (there is no chance that the crew survived), just in case a second try is necessary. But in doing so, a minor miscalculation leads to a major calamity and soon the entire mission is in jeopardy. The crew members fight not only for the fate of mankind, but for their very lives as they battle equipment, sabotage, an alien presence and each other. What begins as a sci fi action film morphs into a survival adventure story and finally reveals itself as a monster film of sorts.

The plot of Sunshine would seem utterly ridiculous (I was reminded of one of the most ludicrous lines of film dialogue ever written from Highlander II in which one scientist mutters to another, “They will forever remember this as the day we saved the earth from the sun.”) were it not for the fact that Danny Boyle rests comfortably at the helm. Sunshine is not a space opera like Star Wars. It belongs to that select group of science fiction films that care more about the science than the fiction. One cannot watch Sunshine and not be reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork 2001, Peter Hyams’ 2010, Tarkovsky’s Solaris and even Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Icarus II is a world of Das Boot claustrophobia with labyrinthine submarine-like corridors. The cramped, confined passageways (which contrast jarringly with the star encrusted expanse of space outside) are amplified by cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler's exquisite camerawork — uncomfortably tight close ups and a dazzling use of light. This is a film in which characters are enveloped by light, bathe in it, look upon it almost like primordial man when he first encountered fire. One character is so hypnotized by the luminous orb of the Sun that he stares at it for hours on end until his skin begins to burn away. The stunningly realized production design, with its functional quarters and spacesuits shaped like Mayan idol-gods, is matched only by the equally stunning and innovative special effects — while no one will actually believe a trip into the sun is possible, the vessel is so well conceived and executed that we come very close.

Sunshine is not a slow film, though it is methodically paced with well-timed dramatic beats. If the first half of the film feels like the set up of a nerve-wracking space adventure, the second half feels like a sequence of loosely connected set-pieces. Still, the tension never abates even in the final act of the film, where the internal threats do not give way to external threats so much as they become personified in order that they may gain motion and animation. If there are any complaints to be had with Sunshine, they will surface here, where a tonal shift throws the film’s dramatic inertia off kilter.

Sunshine forces audiences to recognize just how puny the individual is in contrast to the eternal vastness of space and God. It asks us to examine our place in the universe, decide how far we should go to change the natural course of human evolution, and if we willing to pay the cost required. It forces us to ponder our enslavement to technology and scientific rationale; to ask if any human being is ever expendable; to scrutinize what happens when man looks into the face of God and finds only madness; to come face to face with humanity’s propensity to de-evolve in the face of hopeless futility; and to wrestle with whether humanity is intrinsically good or evil. Sunshine is less about a space voyage and more about a psychological voyage. Here, space is not dark and cold, but bright and scorching — that which we need to survive will just as soon destroy us.

Boyle makes beautiful, transcendent films about horrific subjects. Yet, there’s always a sliver of hope amidst a sea of darkness. No matter how wretched the situation, there is always beauty and an intense spiritual quality. You can’t comprehend light, Boyle argues here, until you first perceive the darkness. If self-sacrifice for those whom we love or better yet, have never even met, is truly what it means to be human, then the film is worthy of the literal seed of hope we are given in the end.

Sunshine is a visually arresting film from a director with a purity of vision unlike almost anyone else working in film today. Spooky and sensual, Sunshine is both similar and different than anything else in Boyle’s pantheon. It is almost as if, with each new film, Boyle takes an established genre and, by adding his moody direction and enigmatic soundtrack, makes it his own. Sunshine is not a science fiction film for science fiction’s sake but merely because it alone contains the canvas large enough to tell a spiritual and philosophically story of these dimensions. It is a vision both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Spielberg on Spielberg

A few days ago, Turner Classic Movies ran “Spielberg on Spielberg,” an hour and a half long retrospective on the work of one of cinema’s greatest masters with no narration or back story — just Spielberg’s voiceover and interviews. I finally got the chance to watch it thanks to the generosity of a friend who burned me a copy after I discovered TCM was not part of my basic cable package.

What a joy it was to spend such intimate time with the guy who’s made not just some of the most profound films of our time, but also the most enjoyable.

The program highlighted his earliest amateur stuff, from the WWII films he made with his junior high buddies, to his first color film about an alien attack in which he remarks, not without some irony, how odd it is that he became known as the man with goodwill toward extraterrestrials when he began his career with something more akin to War of the Worlds than E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

It follows him through Columbia studios where, as a teenager, he snuck off from a tour group by hiding out in the bathroom and wandered the lot for a day before finally getting caught. So impressed by his chutzpah, they gave him a week’s pass to sit in and watch the various productions. When the week was up, he simply kept coming back every day, betting that the guard, who had seen him come and go everyday, wouldn’t think twice about it. It worked, and he spent his entire summer vacation there, learning by osmosis. And, of course, the exposure landed him his first job.

He talked about how the mechanical shark in Jaws malfunctioned, forcing him to shoot most of the film without it — all we see is the mayhem the shark caused but rarely the beast itself. Of course the building anticipation is what made the film a hit classic and Spielberg is rightly convinced that the film would not be what it is today had he not had a “problem” with his most important prop.

Spielberg mentioned that George Lucas stopped by the Close Encounters of the Third Kind set and was so impressed by what he saw that he predicted Encounters would blow the film he was currently working on — a little thing called Star Wars — out of the water. In fact, Lucas was so confident that Encounters would do better than Star Wars, that he and Spielberg swapped 2 1/2 percent points on the residual profits! Spielberg said he is still getting checks to this day!

It’s not often that a filmmaker of his status would admit to the sort of wildly out of control ego that produced the debacle, 1941 but Spielberg was very forthcoming about the film that almost undid him. That he followed it up with Raiders of the Lost Ark of course means that all was forgiven and forgotten.

I was delighted to see John Williams receive so much praise, the beautiful Empire of the Sun given lots of time (though one of my personal favorites, Always, got nary a mention), and was surprised to learn how much of the beach landing in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan was improvised on the spot.

I was fascinated to learn that the little girl with the red dress whom we see running through the ghetto during the massacre in Shindler’s List was not a figment of the filmmaker’s imagination, but something that actually struck the real Shindler when he viewed the ghetto liquidation from a hillside as depicted in the film — red dress and all. Take that all you people who hate that segment of the film and think it a cheap, sentimental shot…yeah, you know who you are. I was equally amazed when Spielberg admitted that he learned how to count from the tattoos of Holocaust victims who spent time in his house when he was a very young boy.

Spielberg spoke of his Kubrickian phase, though he never admitted to trying to be Kubrick, though it is obvious to anyone who bothers to look. It was a maddening and uneven time in his career that I think he has now properly abandoned, even if it did produce some unique work (A.I., Minority Report, etc.). Their voices, while at times harmonious, are not at all analogous.

The persistent thread of the entire piece and indeed of all his films is humanity’s need to communicate with each other, to always keep talking to each other no matter how bad it gets. I know his films speak to me and I am always excited to hear what he has to say.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Greatest Films About America

Last week a friend told me of a recent encounter in Europe with a gentleman who has based his perceptions about the United States entirely on the films he’s watched. When she asked him for examples, he listed off what she considered to be a horrifyingly distorted and misrepresentative sampling. When he asked her which movies he should be watching in order to get a more accurate feel for American sensibilities, she came to me for suggestions.

I’ve compiled a list below, in no particular order whatsoever, of what I think might be a good jumping off point. It is certainly not an exhaustive list and I know I’ve left off films for which I will blanch afterwards. I tried to pick films spanning well over half a century and avoided those that might be considered overly jingoistic or propagandistic — no point trying to give him a more truthful glimpse of our country by making it a falsely buoyant one. Still, I wanted the majority of these films to embody the best of our country, or at the very least, its best ambitions.

1. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
A poor Oklahoma family is forced off their land during the dustbowl and migrates with thousands of dispossessed farmers westward to California, suffering the misfortunes of the homeless during the Great Depression. Representing one of this nation’s most trying chapters, The Grapes of Wrath, based on the novel by John Steinbeck, is a poignant glimpse into the American class system and the everyman’s resolve to never buckle to external pressure.

2. All The President's Men (1976)
During the run-up to the 1972 presidential elections, a minor break-in at the Democratic Party National headquarters spirals into a Republican conspiracy at the highest levels, perhaps even the White House itself. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein struggle to uncover the truth in this magnificent film crystallizing the power and necessity of the press.

3. 12 Angry Men (1957)
12 Angry Men takes place almost entirely in a courthouse deliberation room as a jury mediates over the fate of a young Spanish-American accused of murdering his father. As the jurors’ prejudices and preconceptions about the trial, the accused, and each other begin to surface, the open and shut case becomes anything but. The film is a luminous look into our criminal justice system and the maxim of presumed innocence.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg pays homage to The Greatest Generation in this stunning film focusing on an Army unit’s search for a single soldier after World War II’s horrific Normandy invasion. The soldiers are a patchwork who’s who of American youth, and their quest rife with the heroics and fears common to us all.

5. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s seminal film about a single scorching day in New York City and the tempers that summer day ignites is a profoundly difficult film to watch. It is also profoundly important. It is a reminder that no matter how far we have come — and we have come far — race relations in this country still have a long way yet to go.

6. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
This adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved classic novel is awash in Americana without ever once stooping to cliché or cheep sentimentality. It is a gorgeous intersection of so many important facets of the American experience — life in the South, children growing up, fatherhood, the criminal justice system, and racism just to name a few. It also contains what just may be the most complete and perfect portrayal of manhood ever captured on celluloid.

7. In America (2002)
While the immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of those who passed through the doors of Ellis Island over a century ago is critical to understanding this county, we often forget that immigration is a constant and continues unabated today. When an aspiring Irish actor and his family illegally immigrate to the United States, they struggle with impoverished conditions and letting go of the ghosts of their past.

8. Glory (1989)
The Civil War quite literally tore this country in two. Glory is the story of the U.S.’s first all-black volunteer company, and their fight against the Confederates and the prejudices of their own Union army. One of the best war films ever made.

9. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
When a naive and idealistic young man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, his policies immediately collide with rampant political corruption. The film may be dated, but the themes sure aren’t. Frank Capra’s examination of the political machine and the shady deals that fuel it is as disturbing now as Jefferson Smith’s filibustering stand will forever be inspirational.

10. The Right Stuff (1983)
Tom Wolfe's book on the history of the U.S. space program is turned into a mesmerizing, hilarious, seat-of-your-pants thrill ride of a film. Covering everything from the breaking of the sound barrier to the Mercury space flights, The Right Stuff is a flat-out astonishing saga about America’s heroic race into space.

11. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
This film observes the social re-adjustment of three World War II servicemen, each from a different stratum of society. One returns to an influential banking position, but finds it difficult to reconcile his past loyalties with new commercial realities. An ordinary working man can’t seem to hold down a job or pick up where his marriage left off. Having lost both his hands in battle, a naval veteran is unsure if his fiancée's feelings are those of love or pity. Each veteran's crisis is a microcosm of the experiences America’s warriors have faced and continue to face when returning to an alien world once called home.

12. The Godfather I and II (1972, 1974)
From Ellis Island ports of entry to subterranean crime to souls desperate for legitimacy to the death of the Old World and the dawn of the new, no films better capture the duality of the American spirit clutching at both the future and the past than these. Don Vito’s gradual handover of his criminal empire to his reluctant son and what that son will do to keep his families (biological and criminal) together is constantly compelling, frequently tragic and disturbingly capable of eliciting our sympathies and best hopes.

13. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
George Bailey has spent his entire life living for the people of Bedford Falls at the expense of his own dreams. When a situation beyond his control drives him to contemplate suicide, his guardian angel shows George what the world would have looked like had he not been in it. The nightmare vision shows George just how many lives he’s touched and that his own life, despite its setbacks, has truly been a wonderful one. This Dickensonian tale is both a Christmas and an American classic.

14. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick didn’t think that an accidental thermonuclear attack that led to the total annihilation of the human race was a laughing matter — but his film is. When a demented Air Force general looses his B-52 bomber squadron on the Soviet Union, the President of the United States and his advisors must do everything in their power to prevent mutually assured destruction. Will they succeed in time? Even while staring down an apocalypse, Americans prove they have an unquenchable ability to laugh at themselves in this Cold War dark comedy.

15. The Searchers (1956)
The Wild Wild West is that most quintessential of American touchstones. When an ex-Confederate soldier comes home from the Indian Wars to find that his family has been massacred and his young niece captured by the Comanches, he vows to get her back and kill every last Indian in the process. He searches for years, only to discover that his niece has been fully assimilated. Will his hatred for the Indians win out? Will he rescue his niece or kill her?

16. Rudy (1993)
Rudy grew up in a deprived Pennsylvania steel mill town where his destiny was decided the moment he was born. But Rudy had dreams of playing football for Notre Dame — not an easy goal when you have bad grades, poor athletic skills, and are only half the size of the other players. But Rudy has something no one else has — the drive and spirit of ten men, plus two. The sports film is characteristically American, as is the grit and determination exemplified by the main character. Truly, it’s not about winning, it’s about how you played the game.

17. Manhattan (1979)
The plot of Woody Allen’s marvelous comedy about love, sex, adultery, homosexuality, divorce, career dissatisfaction, and statutory rape (!) is secondary to its primary triumph — being perhaps the most beautiful cinematic love letter to an American city and its vibrant pulse of life ever made. Gershwin has never sound better.

18. Fight Club (2004)
You're young and fit. You have an easy, lucrative job. You have a large condo, Swedish furniture, hip art, electronic gadgets galore and a fridge full of condiments. Why then do you feel nothing? Why then are you emotionally and spiritually bereft? Fight Club is about so much more than bloodied faces and last minute twists. It is a modern day morality play warning of societal and personal decay. It is a profound postmodern tirade against our American consumer culture and the anarchic angst it generates.

19. On the Waterfront (1954)
As the government prepares to hold public hearings on union crime and underworld infiltration, a working-class longshoreman with a crisis of conscience reassesses his past and begins to reassert responsibility for his actions by standing up to the criminal organizations in control of the docks. Class, crime, religion, romance, misplaced allegiances and the titanic demigod that is Barlon Brando collide in this masterpiece by Elia Kazan.

20. Good Night, and Good Luck (2006)
It is the early 1950s, and the threat of Communism has created paranoia in the United States. Exploiting those fears, Senator Joseph McCarthy goes on a witch hunt to root out supposed infiltrators within the government. However, CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow decides to take a stand, exposing McCarthy’s fear mongering for what it really is, at a great personal toll to himself. Good Night, and Good Luck is a powerful look at the need to speak truth to power, even at the highest levels of government.

21. American Beauty (1998)
On the outside, the perfect couple and the perfect daughter live in the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood. But festering beneath it all is boredom, discontentment, hopelessness, and depression. From crisis to overcompensation and then placid acceptance, the meaninglessness of contemporary life is examined, superimposed utop a stark suburban canvas.

22. Forrest Gump (1994)
Encompassing the sweep of latter 20th century history with a twinkling innocence, Forrest Gump is the story of a man who, while not intelligent, has accidentally found himself a participant in numerous historic moments, even while his most fundamental desires elude him. Forrest Gump is proof that determination, courage, and love are more important than ability or intellect.

23. Stand and Deliver (1988)
Education in America is examined through a struggling school in a Hispanic neighborhood. A mathematics teacher, convinced that his students have potential, adopts unconventional teaching methods in an attempt to turn gang-bangers and students everyone else has given up on into some of the country's top scholars.

24. Documentary Tie: The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Errol Morris' groundbreaking documentary dramatically re-enacts the crime and later investigation of a police officer's murder in Dallas, Texas. Part purveyor of the Roshoman effect, part circumstantial indictment, part condemnation of scapegoat economics, The Thin Blue Line was actually responsible for setting an innocent man free from prison. Bowling for Columbine (2002) With his signature sense of angry humor, activist filmmaker Michael Moore sets out to explore the roots of America’s astronomical number of firearm deaths. He determines that the easy availability of guns, our violent national history, our sadistic entertainment and even poverty inadequately explain the carnage. He confronts America's culture of fear, bigotry and aggression and holds partially responsible the powerful political and corporate interests fanning this culture for their own unscrupulous gain.

25. The Apostle (1997)
Actor/director Robert DuVall examines religion in America through the life of a southern Pentecostal preacher whose stable world crumbles when he discovers his wife is having an affair and nearly beats her lover to death. Fleeing the law, he starts to preach on the lam, and along the way this unlikable hypocrite finds redemption for his life and soul. It is a story of crime and punishment, action and consequence, sin and forgiveness — as it should be.

What do you think of the list? What films am I forgetting? What films don’t deserve to be included? I've already been pondering several "Honorable Mentions," among them the political films: The Candidate, Bullworth and Dave. Let me know what you think...